The X-Ray Robots

During my lunch hour today, I took the bus up to Northwestern Memorial to get an x-ray. My knee is all kinds of messed up because apparently I turned 70 without noticing. Lately I’ll be walking along when I find myself crunching through gravel–except no, that is just the sound of my joints trying to grind out another step or two before giving up entirely. So physical therapy, x-ray, etc. Anyway, I gravelled my way over to the fancy Streeterville building and immediately stepped into another world.

The whole experience was just like all the science-fiction movie ships/office buildings I’ve seen coming together in one place–unnaturally quiet, antiseptically clean, strangely devoid of other people. Possibly filled with robots. Two receptionists sat at a long counter; one took my x-ray order while the other did something on her computer that caused an alarm to go off several times, the kind you hear when someone has broken into the vault–an insistent, metallic sound. No one seemed concerned. There was a juice bar in the corner, unattended except for a cleaning woman wiping down its counter over and over. I started to worry these robots would sense my suspicions, raise their heads slowly, their laser beam eyes zeroed in on me, and advance in a menacing matter. I was relieved when a man popped out from behind a wall and said, “Lisa?”

But was he an x-ray technician? No, he was a client services robot, his settings on “rakish smile” and “European accent,” clearly intended to lower the defenses of patients passing through the muted gray doors of this place. I maintained a healthy sense of wariness, however, especially when he led me down a corridor of slatted brown doors and opened one near the end. “Please remove your jeans and put on a gown, and leave all your belongings in this locker,” he said, giving me a key and gesturing into the airless room. “Then you will wait over here,” he pointed to an antechamber next door. I did as I was instructed and shuffled out to the antechamber, which had a huge bank of windows looking onto a busy street just one floor below, and another woman in a hospital gown watching the soap opera blaring from the TV. Sure, that’s not a super exposed situation to find oneself in.

As I sat and waited, I went through possible procedures in my head. DNA testing like in Gattaca? Damn, I’d already touched a million things for them to swab and see how inadequately prepared I was for space travel. Immediate cloning like in that Doctor Who episode? No, that didn’t require the removal of clothes. Maybe I was going to be tested for precog abilities like in Minority Report? Doubtful, those precogs were noticeably weirder than me on even my most sleep-deprived day.

Eventually a woman came in and called my name, and after having me sign off on paying for the procedure, she led me down another hall to a large room containing the x-ray machine. She had me lie down on my back and she positioned my leg just the way she wanted it for the picture. She pressed some buttons and the table I was lying on moved smoothly back, forth, side to side. She went behind the glass to take the picture, and I looked up at the various ducts and wires of the machine, all gleaming white and doing nothing to lessen my sense that I’d accidentally stepped into a Philip K. Dick story or a Star Trek episode.

A few minutes later, the technician informed me I was all done. I changed back into my clothes in the airless room and walked through the gray doors into the lobby. It was transformed. A line of people formed behind the long reception desk, no alarms were sounding, a couple kids were playing tag. There was even a ray of sunshine breaking through the fluorescent gloom. Maybe all the robots were on break. Maybe they knew I was on to them and took their operation elsewhere. Maybe I was lightheaded and it was time for lunch.

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