So many stories tell us that once we go out into the cosmos, there will be space for everyone. There will be a second chance for those who have done wrong. Too many assumptions, perhaps? You’ll take the space you’re given, and like it. And who knows? You might just make a grand success out of it.
In my defense, I was never a criminal. I was a victim, accused of cheating a system designed to cheat me. Shackled by a globalized medical structure with egregiously low reimbursement, I had no choice but to become someone—something—I never imagined possible.
It was all worth it.
Life would have been different—perhaps easier—if I’d studied Politico-business or Venture-colonization, with their government-funded tuitions and starting salaries exceeding my expected lifetime net worth as a physician. Instead, I sought to change the world one foot at a time, a Doctor of Podiatric Medicine ridding humanity from the plight of ingrown toenails, bunions, and hammertoes.
Med-school nights spent providing under-the-table foot rubs at the local burlesque club were far more lucrative than the pittance paid by the Intercontinental Medical Commission. Even before my degree, I was “Doctor Lola” to my clients, offering relief amid flashing strobes and the pulse of bad Techno. Wads of singles filled my tuition tip jar, supplementing the kidney and the ovary I’d promised the University as collateral.
It took a decade, but eventually, I earned licensure. Yet, the harder I worked, the poorer I became, my debt a dangling noose. I strove to ‘do no harm,’ despite a system that drained me.
Until a mistake changed everything.
One innocuous billing error became two, and over time, a strategy—my manipulation of J-codes so deft the Global Conglomerative reimbursed me for hair follicle reassignments, intranasal angioplasty, and brain transplants.
Not bad for a foot doctor.
If not for my shoes, I would have gotten away with it. Mrs. Mollo had commented on my Mucci flats as I poked at her infected plantar wart—‘much nicer than those scuffed purple Roccs, dear. But on a doctor’s salary?’ I fought flaming guilt as I dug my curette into her skin, my long-protected lie oozing out.
Three patients later, Global Conglomerative goons arrived, dragging me from my clinic into the back of an unmarked van. I sat in semi-darkness with a meowing man in a chicken suit, the self-proclaimed GC President, and a squiggly-tailed Rottweiler that whimpered at its own bark. Frauds, all of us, headed to hell.
Or someplace worse.
“You’ve got two options—jail or community service.” Trevor Taylor, my attorney, tapped his leather folio. We sat outside the chambers of the Global Court of Fakes, Frauds, and Impostors. “If you do service, they’ll eventually restore your medical license. Choose prison, and you’ll be lucky to get a job mopping bodily fluids in the hospital once you’re out.”
“Bet that pays better,” I said.
“Irrelevant,” he said. “Physicians Without Limits offers a Mars mission…”
“It’s a haul to get there, but only a six-week assignment.” He pulled a pamphlet from his folder, titled ‘Interplanetary Penal Penance.’
“There’s nothing closer? Here, on Eart—” I caught myself. The “E” word had been stricken from the lexicon amid intra-galactic colonization. “Err… the Global Conglomerative?”
“Not unless you want to spend forty years on an Antarctic glacier clipping penguin toenails, or in some wasteland scraping dung from elephant feet. By the time they reinstate you, you’ll be too old to practice.”
He was right. GC bureaucracy moved as fast as a sloth in running shoes, unless it came to politico-business endeavors.
Mars seemed too easy. “What’s the catch?”
Trevor’s gaze skimmed the floor; I shuffled my inmate-booties self-consciously. “Occasionally, volunteers on Mars… don’t return.”
I swallowed a giggle. “Do the Martians eat them or something?”
Trevor chuckled freely. “Or something.”
The wind whipped as I stood on the platform before a massive spaceship. A patient who’d vacationed on the Moon had described her transport as the Noah’s Ark of spacecraft, but I wasn’t prepared for the shuttle awaiting me. Shaped like a goose on a death-dose of steroids, its metallic shell gleamed like a sterile scalpel.
With a cadaver’s grasp, I gripped the clipboard offered by a pinch-faced Global Conglomerative attendant, and perused their questionnaire:
Circle your medical specialty: Chiropractor, Hypnotherapist, Nutritionist
“Excuse me!” I yelled into the breeze. “None of these apply for me. My specialty is—”
“You’re a doctor, does it matter?” The attendant grabbed the clipboard and scanned the options. “We need chiropractors.”
“You are.” With one swift, red loop, she drew me a new identity. “And a damn good one!” She nudged me up the ramp. “Time to go to Mars, Doc!”
I tasted the bitterness of the word that settled on my tongue: Fraud.
Crossing the shuttle’s threshold, I ceased to be a podiatrist. In that moment, I became a practitioner of Martian Chiropractic Care.
Whatever that meant.
My crewmates plugged in for an extended hypersleep during the six-month journey to Mars, selections of literature or language or porn filling their brains as we pushed into space. I stayed awake, tapped into the onboard library of medical journals to learn as much as I could about the nuances of Martian spines.
I attempted to scale the first three steps of the Scientific Method: Question, Research, Hypothesize. Instead, I face-planted—Depression, Paranoia, Exhaustion—my three-step descent toward failure, all while struggling to ignore what I could only view as a demotion. Fifteen years of study and clinical practice incinerated with the blast of a rocket ship—the climb interminable, the fall instantaneous.
Aboard ship, I tried to thread my medical expertise into the elusive needle of my new profession, failing to entwine scientific concepts that simply would not connect. A foot was not, and could never be, a spine.
Deigning me a chiropractor was as logical as fitting orthotics on a fish. My onboard research was an exercise in futility: no peer-reviewed articles or trial data existed on Martian medical practice, not even a Tsk-Tsk video or GC-authorized Flitter propaganda. Anything related to Mars required corporate or government clearance, which I didn’t have.
So, I did what any ethical doctor would. I studied the art and science of human spinal manipulation in the texts and practiced it on my slumbering fellow passengers. A forceful nudge before each adjustment was enough to provide an open-mouthed, lolling head-nod of consent.
I could only hope the Martian anatomy remotely resembled that of humans. Enough for me to fake it, anyway.
Turned out, it wasn’t even close.
Martians were amorphous, gelatinous blobs, the height of an average human woman and ten times the girth. A halo of orange eyes encircled the tops of their gumdrop-shaped bodies. They lacked a nose. A mouth rippled across their red, slimy skin, opening with icepick-sharp teeth in random places and at haphazard intervals. Tiny, jointless, bulbous hands jutted from their sides. It was impossible to differentiate between the front of the Martian and its back. The spine itself, thin as a chicken bone and covered in thorns, lay buried deep within layers of goo; adjustment entailed plunging one’s hand through the blob and applying digital pressure to the bone itself.
Talk about an occupational hazard of Martian proportions.
To further my disappointment, the Martians were devoid of feet. Instead, they simply slid about, trailing gunky discharge in their wake.
“Lola! Focus!” Fingers snapped in my face. “Life and death stuff here.” I sat with Ellen, a nutritionist, in the Martian-GC Outpost. She was doing time on Mars for grand larceny. Rumor had it she robbed a doughnut shop of its French crullers in a fit of weakness; I dared not ask.
She pointed toward a holographic video display. The feed depicted a human chiropractor administering treatment to a Martian in a red-splattered room. The practitioner dripped in crimson.
“Forego the ketchup, and you’ll find yourself in a real pickle.” Ellen smirked. “A crunchy human one!”
“You’ve said.” Inwardly, I groaned. “If I slather myself with ketchup, like that guy—”
“Head to toe,” she interrupted.
“—it impacts the Martians’ olfactory function, which—”
“Makes you a less desirable snack.”
I wrestled a sigh, vowing to have words with Trevor. Leave it to a lawyer to gloss over the aliens’ carnivorous tendencies.
“What if I forget? Or don’t get—ketchupy—enough?”
Ellen leaned in. Her levity fell, heavy as the artificial gravity anchoring us to the planet. “Why do you think there’s a dearth of chiropractors on Mars?”
I gaped a response. She smacked my back, her guffaws sputtering.
“You doctors are nothing more than a side salad to whet the Martian appetite. Still, you must take the proper precautions.” Ellen patted my hand. “Martians hunger for actual power. With one unprotected whiff of any of our venture-colonists, their whole bodies salivate.”
I envisioned the garlic-roasted heads of Intercontinental Medical Commission politico-executives arranged for the Martians on golden platters. The image made me smile even as the thick bile of resentment rose in my throat. I missed my planet, my podiatry practice, and my Mucci shoes.
“Why do Martians need chiropractors, anyway?” I failed to see the benefit that spinal treatments offered to something that looked like one of my grandma’s old Jell-O molds.
“Only dignitaries receive adjustments. It’s a peace offering,” Ellen said. “Besides, negotiations are more—palatable—when the aliens aren’t hangry.”
She handed me a super-sized squeeze-bottle of ketchup and a set of scrubs emblazoned with the company logo: RindZ—The official politico-corporate sponsor of the Mars Chiropractic Mission.
“Tame the savage, and you secure the galaxy.”
“Now?” A lump lingered like a small moon in my pharynx.
I took tentative steps into the dimly lit room, the Martian Prime Minister jiggling on the examination table in time to the pumped-in Electronica music. With one hand on the ketchup bottle and another on the wall, I smeared my way inside, 57 varieties of tomato pasted to my skin. The stench of old vinegar stung my nose, and through condiment-laden eyes, I peered at the human venture-colonist in the corner, the GC Intergalactic Emissary. He nodded, his beard a red hairball—as if regurgitated by a cat with a bleeding ulcer.
“Hello,” I whispered, approaching the table. “I’m Dr. Lola Bartholomew.” I rested the ketchup bottle at the Martian’s side and stared into his back—what I thought was his back—attempting to avoid the ring of eyes peering at me. His backbone shone, faint as a dying glow stick, through his translucent flesh.
“I’m going to begin your adjustment.” Slowly, I lowered a hand toward his body, fighting the mental gravity threatening to paralyze me. Back home, I didn’t flinch at the nastiest old-lady toe jam, or at foot fungus that flaked like dandruff. But this… I gripped the table to steady myself.
“Relax, Doctor.” The Emissary leaned forward. I jolted at his voice. “This process takes time. Start just below the eyes. Squeeze his spine between your fingertips, and work your way down as far as you can.”
“Work my way… Okay, sure.” Straightening, I feigned a smile at the politician instructing me how to practice medicine. Reaching toward the alien with both hands, I pressed my fingertips into his flesh, applying gradual pressure until his skin gave. He emitted a soft moan from… somewhere. I pushed further until my hands were enveloped, then my wrists; by the time I grazed his spine, I was forearms-deep into his back. His flesh encased mine like a vat of warm oatmeal, his odor sweet as a cherry lollipop.
“Doctor, you are to ignore everything you hear in this room,” the Emissary warned as he secured a Martian-English translation collar around his neck.
I nodded. Beads of corporate-sponsored ketchup rolled over my cheeks as I clamped my fingers down. A thorny spark zapped my skin. I startled. The Martian barked like a walrus. Waves rippled through him and I jerked my arms back, leaving only my hands inside.
“Careful!” the Emissary bellowed.
The alien groaned, a wide and shapeless gap opening on his body below my wrists. Massive fangs sprouted from the cavity, the mouth smiling, sneering, as I shrieked and released my hands from inside him. Slick with Martian mucus, I grabbed the ketchup bottle with both hands. Screaming, I squeezed with all my might, a rush of tomato saturating the walls, the ceiling, the Emissary, the creature, and myself.
The last thing I saw before I fainted was the Emissary’s glare—wide and wild.
Days passed before they allowed me another opportunity to treat the Martian Prime Minister. Yet, despite the Great Ketchup Fiasco, he and the Emissary admired my measured chiropractic approach and ability to follow directions, so my sentence on Mars resumed.
As time progressed and our sessions lengthened, I gradually adapted my technique. The Prime Minister’s breathing steadied if I pushed my hands into his body in time with the pulsing music. He preferred the pressure of my thumbs over that of my forefingers, and if I angled my hands in such a way, the sizzle of current off his spine stung less. I also learned that his traveling mouth might lick, but wouldn’t bite hard unless I placed my hands directly inside it. Even then, my ketchup shield engaged the alien’s gag reflex.
As the Emissary advised that first day, each time we met, I endeavored to move lower down the Prime Minister’s back, his tension releasing little by little, like a pent-up breath expiring. Through the translation machine, I heard talk of nuclear proliferation, the GC’s desire to drill for rich Martian ore and colonize sacred Martian lands. I felt the strain of the Prime Minister’s resistance as I rubbed and crackled the anxiety from his spine, my heart filled with his absorbed stress.
Just when I thought they’d reached an impasse, I discovered the font of the Prime Minister’s bliss, and the undoing of the Martian world.
Digging my toes into the red Martian sand blanketing the domed garden outside my mansion, I marveled at my new life—RayMann shades perched on my head, new Mucci sandals kicked off to my side. The rhythmic cadence of drilling echoed in the distance; the spires of skyscrapers and casinos pierced once-dormant crimson skies.
Thanks to my discovery of the Martian Rubicon Synapse on the Prime Minister’s spine, the GC had acquired the sacred Martian lands. The GC was right—I was a damn good chiropractor. By applying pressure in just the right spot on the now-exiled Prime Minister’s spine, he’d sprouted a tiny pair of T-shaped feet, which, as a former podiatrist, I found fascinating and irresistible. They were as squishy as a stress ball and squeaked with each squeeze. The deeper I pressed them, the more he acquiesced to the Emissary, opening Mars to uninhibited Global Conglomerative colonization.
My Treatise on Proper Martian Chiropractic Manipulation changed the galaxy. Demand for chiropractors and podiatrists multiplied exponentially, as did their salaries and stipends for free tuition.
I learned it best from the politico-businessmen. Criminals could be victims and victims, criminals. And fraud, it was nothing but a state of mind.