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Chapter 1
 Light flickered. It was uncomfortably bright.
Doctor Cameron gazed intently at the top of the desk. It wasn't easy to be diplomatic. "The request was turned over to the Medicouncil," he said. "I assure you it was studied thoroughly before it was reported back to the Solar Committee."
Docchi edged forward, his face alight with anticipation.
The doctor kept his eyes averted. The man was damnably disconcerting—had no right to be alive. In the depths of the sea there were certain creatures like him and on a warm summer evening there was still another parallel, but never any human with such an infirmity. "I'm afraid you know what the answer is. A flat no for the present."
Docchi sagged and his arms hung limp. "That's the answer?"
"It's not as hopeless as you think. Decisions can be changed. It won't be the first time."
"Sure," said Docchi. "We'll wait and wait until it's finally changed. We've got centuries, haven't we?" His face was blazing. It had slipped out of control though he wasn't aware of it. Beneath the skin certain cells had been modified, there were substances in his body that the ordinary individual didn't have. And when there was an extreme flow of nervous energy the response was—light. His metabolism was akin to that of a firefly.
Cameron meddled with buttons. It was impossible to keep the lighting at a decent level. Docchi was a nuisance.
"Why?" questioned Docchi. "We're capable, you know that. How could they refuse?"
That was something he didn't want asked because there was no answer both of them would accept. Sometimes a blunt reply was the best evasion. "Do you think they'd take you? Or Nona, Jordan, or Anti?"
Docchi winced, his arms quivering uselessly. "Maybe not. But we told you we're willing to let experts decide. There's nearly a thousand of us. They should be able to get one qualified crew."
"Perhaps. I'm not going to say." Cameron abandoned the light as beyond his control. "Most of you are biocompensators. I concede it's a factor in your favor. But you must realize there are many things against you." He squinted at the desk top. Below the solid surface there was a drawer and in the drawer there was—that was what he was trying to see or determine. The more he looked the less clear anything seemed to be. He tried to make his voice crisp and professional. "You're wasting time discussing this with me. I've merely passed the decision on. I'm not responsible for it and I can't do anything for you."
Docchi stood up, his face colorless and bright. But the inner illumination was no indication of hope.
Doctor Cameron looked at him directly for the first time. It wasn't as bad as he expected. "I suggest you calm down. Be patient and wait. You'll be surprised how often you get what you want."
"You'd be surprised how we get what we want," said Docchi. He turned away, lurching toward the door which opened automatically and closed behind him.
Again Cameron concentrated on the desk, trying to look through it. He wrote down the sequence he expected to find, lingering over it to make sure he didn't force the pictures that came into his mind. He opened the drawer and compared the Rhine cards with what he'd written, frowning in disappointment. No matter how he tried he never got better than average results. Perhaps there was something to telepathy but he'd never found it. Anyway it was clear he wasn't one of the gifted few.
He shut the drawer. It was a private game, a method to keep from becoming involved in Docchi's problems, to avoid emotional entanglement with people he had nothing in common with. He didn't enjoy depriving weak and helpless men and women of what little hope they had. It was their lack of strength that made them so difficult to handle.
He reached for the telecom. "Get Medicouncilor Thorton," he told the operator. "Direct if you can; indirect if you have to. I'll hold on."
Approximate mean diameter thirty miles, the asteroid was listed on the charts as Handicap Haven with a mark that indicated except in emergency no one not authorized was to land there. Those who were confined to it were willing to admit they were handicapped but they didn't call it haven. They used other terms, none suggesting sanctuary.
It was a hospital, of course, but even more it was a convalescent home—the permanent kind. Healthy and vigorous humanity had reserved the remote planetoid, a whirling bleak rock of no other value, and built large installations there for less fortunate people. It was a noble gesture but like many gestures the reality fell short of the intentions. And not many people outside the Haven itself realized wherein it was a failure.
The robot operator broke into his thoughts. "Medicouncilor Thorton has been located."
An older man looked out of the screen, competent, forceful. "I'm on my way to the satellites of Jupiter. I'll be in direct range for the next half hour." At such distances transmission and reception were practically instantaneous. Cameron was assured of uninterrupted conversation. "It's a good thing you called. Have you got the Solar Committee reply?"
"This morning. I saw no reason to hold it up. I just finished giving Docchi the news."
"Dispatch. I like that. Get the disagreeable job done with." The medicouncilor searched through the desk in front of him without success. "Never mind. I'll find the information later. Now. How did Docchi react?"
"He didn't like it. He was mad clear through."
"That speaks well for his bounce."
"They all have spirit. Nothing to use it on," said Dr. Cameron. "I confess I didn't look at him often though he was quite presentable, even handsome in a startling sort of way."
Thorton nodded brusquely. "Presentable. Does that mean he had arms?"
"Today he did. Is it important?"
"I think so. He expected a favorable reply and wanted to look his best, as nearly normal as possible. In view of that I'm surprised he didn't threaten you."
Cameron tried to recall the incident. "I think he did, mildly. He said something to the effect that I'd be surprised how they got what they wanted."
"So you anticipate trouble. That's why you called?"
"I don't know. I want your opinion."
"You're on the scene, doctor. You get the important nuances," said the medicouncilor hastily. "However it's my considered judgment they won't start anything immediately. It takes time to get over the shock of refusal. They can't do anything. Individually they're helpless and collectively there aren't parts for a dozen sound bodies on the asteroid."
"I'll have to agree," said Dr. Cameron. "But there's something that bothers me. I've looked over the records. No accidental has ever liked being here, and that covers quite a few years."
"Nobody appreciates the hospital until he's sick, doctor."
"I know. That's partly what's wrong. They're no longer ill and yet they have to stay here. What worries me is that there's never been such open discontent as now."
"I hope I don't have to point out that someone's stirring them up. Find out who and keep a close watch. As a doctor you can find pretexts, a different diet, a series of tests. You can keep the person coming to you every day."
"I've found out. There's a self-elected group of four, Docchi, Nona, Anti and Jordan. I believe they're supposed to be the local recreation committee."
The medicouncilor smiled. "An apt camouflage. It keeps them amused."
"I thought so too but now I'm convinced they're no longer harmless. I'd like permission to break up the group. Humanely of course."
"I always welcome new ideas."
In spite of what he'd said the medicouncilor probably did have an open mind. "Start with those it's possible to do the most with. Docchi, for instance. With prosthetic arms, he appears normal except for that uncanny fluorescence. Granted that the last is repulsive to the average person. We can't correct the condition medically but we can make it into an asset."
"An asset? Very neat, if it can be done." The medicouncilor's expression said it couldn't be.
"Gland opera," said Cameron, hurrying on. "The most popular program in the solar system, telepaths, teleports, pyrotics and so forth the heroes. Fake of course, makeup and trick camera shots.
"But Docchi can be made into a real star. The death-ray man, say. When his face shines men fall dead or paralyzed. He'd have a tremendous following of kids."
"Children," mused the medicouncilor. "Are you serious about exposing them to his influence? Do you really want them to see him?"
"He'd have a chance to return to society in a way that would be acceptable to him," said Cameron defensively. He shouldn't have specifically mentioned kids.
"To him, perhaps," reflected the medicouncilor. "It's an ingenious idea, doctor, one which does credit to your humanitarianism. But I'm afraid of the public's reception. Have you gone into Docchi's medical history?"
"I glanced at it before I called him in." The man was unusual, even in a place that specialized in the abnormal. Docchi had been an electrochemical engineer with a degree in cold lighting. On his way to a brilliant career, he had been the victim of a particularly messy accident. The details hadn't been described but Cameron could supplement them with his imagination. He'd been badly mangled and tossed into a tank of the basic cold lighting fluid.
There was life left in the body; it flickered but never went entirely out. His arms were gone and his ribs were crushed into his spinal column. Regeneration wasn't easy; a partial rib cage could be built up, but no more than that. He had no shoulder muscles and only a minimum in his back and now, much later, that was why he tired easily and why the prosthetic arms with which he'd been fitted were merely ornamental, there was nothing which could move them.
And then there was the cold lighting fluid. To begin with it was semi-organic which, perhaps, was the reason he had remained alive so long when he should have died. It had preserved him, had in part replaced his blood, permeating every tissue. By the time Docchi had been found his body had adapted to the cold lighting substance. And the adaptation couldn't be reversed and it was self-perpetuating. Life was hardier than most men realized but occasionally it was also perverse.
"Then you know what he's like," said the medicouncilor, shaking his head. "Our profession can't sponsor such a freakish display of his misfortune. No doubt he'd be successful on the program you mention. But there's more to life than financial achievement or the rather peculiar admiration that would be certain to follow him. As an actor he'd have a niche. But can you imagine, doctor, the dead silence that would occur when he walks into a social gathering of normal people?"
"I see," said Cameron, though he didn't—not eye to eye. He didn't agree with Thorton but there wasn't much he could do to alter the other's conviction at the moment. There was a long fight ahead of him. "I'll forget about Docchi. But there's another way to break up the group."
The medicouncilor interrupted. "Nona?"
"Yes. I'm not sure she really belongs here."
"Every young doctor thinks the same," said the medicouncilor kindly. "Usually they wait until their term is nearly up before they suggest that she'd respond better if she were returned to normal society. I think I know what response they have in mind." Thorton smiled in a fatherly fashion. "No offense, doctor, but it happens so often I'm thinking of inserting a note in our briefing program. Something to the effect that the new medical director should avoid the beautiful and self-possessed moron."
"Is she stupid?" asked Cameron stubbornly. "It's my impression that she's not."
"Clever with her hands," agreed the medicouncilor. "People in her mental classification, which is very low, sometimes are. But don't confuse manual dexterity with intelligence. For one thing she doesn't have the brain structure for the real article.
"She's definitely not normal. She can't talk or hear, and never will. Her larynx is missing and though we could replace it, it wouldn't help if we did. We'd have to change her entire brain structure to accommodate it and we're not that good at the present."
"I was thinking about the nerve dissimilarities," began Cameron.
"A superior mutation, is that what you were going to say? You can forget that. It's much more of an anomaly, in the nature of cleft palates, which were once common—poor pre-natal nutrition or traumas. These we can correct rather easily but Nona is surgically beyond us. There always is something beyond us, you know." The medicouncilor glanced at the chronometer beside him.
Cameron saw the time too but continued. It ought to be settled. It would do no good to bring up Helen Keller; the medicouncilor would use that evidence against him. The Keller techniques had been studied and reinterpreted for Nona's benefit. That much was in her medical record. They had been tried on Nona, and they hadn't worked. It made no difference that he, Cameron, thought there were certain flaws in the way the old techniques had been applied. Thorton would not allow that the previous practitioners could have been wrong. "I've been wondering if we haven't tried to force her to conform. She can be intelligent without understanding what we say or knowing how to read and write."
"How?" demanded the medicouncilor. "The most important tool humans have is language. Through this we pass along all knowledge." Thorton paused, reflecting. "Unless you're referring to this Gland Opera stuff you mentioned. I believe you are, though personally I prefer to call it Rhine Opera."
"I've been thinking of that," admitted Cameron. "Maybe if there was someone else like her she wouldn't need to talk the way we do. Anyway I'd like to make some tests, with your permission. I'll need some new equipment."
The medicouncilor found the sheet he'd been looking for from time to time. He creased it absently. "Go ahead with those tests if it will make you feel better. I'll personally approve the requisition. It doesn't mean you'll get everything you want. Others have to sign too. However you ought to know you're not the first to think she's telepathic or something related to that phenomena."
"I've seen that in the record too. But I think I can be the first one to prove it."
"I'm glad you're enthusiastic. But don't lose sight of the main objective. Even if she is telepathic, and so far as we're concerned she's not, would she be better suited to life outside?"
He had one answer—but the medicouncilor believed in another. "Perhaps you're right. She'll have to stay here no matter what happens."
"She will. It would solve your problems if you could break up the group, but don't count on it. You'll have to learn to manage them as they are."
"I'll see that they don't cause any trouble," said Cameron.
"I'm sure you will." The medicouncilor's manner didn't ooze confidence. "If you need help we can send in reinforcements."
"I don't anticipate that much difficulty," said Cameron hastily. "I'll keep them running around in circles."
"Confusion is the best policy," agreed the medicouncilor. He unfolded the sheet and looked down at it. "Oh yes, before it's too late I'd better tell you I'm sending details of new treatments for a number of deficients——"
The picture collapsed into meaningless swirls of color. For an instant the voice was distinguishable again before it too was drowned by noise. "Did you understand what I said, doctor? If it isn't clear contact me. Deviation can be fatal."
"I can't keep the ship in focus," said the robot. "If you wish to continue the conversation it will have to be relayed through the nearest main station. At present that's Mars."
It was inconvenient to wait several minutes for each reply. Besides the medicouncilor couldn't or wouldn't help him. He wanted the status quo maintained; nothing else would satisfy him. It was the function of the medical director to see that it was. "We're through," said Cameron.
He sat there after the telecom clicked off. What were the deficients the medicouncilor had talked about? A subdivision of the accidentals of course, but it wasn't a medical term he was familiar with. Probably a semi-slang description. The medicouncilor had been associated with accidentals so long that he assumed every doctor would know at once what he meant.
Deficients. Mentally Cameron turned the word over. If it was used accurately it could indicate only one thing. He'd see when the medicouncilor's report came in. He could always ask for more information if it wasn't clear.
The doctor got heavily to his feet—and he actually was heavier. It wasn't a psychological reaction. He made a mental note of it. He'd have to investigate the gravity surge.
In a way accidentals were pathetic, patchwork humans, half or quarter men and women, fractional organisms which masqueraded as people. The illusion died hard for them, harder than that which remained of their bodies, and those bodies were unbelievably tough. Medicine and surgery were partly to blame. Techniques were too good or not good enough, depending on the viewpoint—doctor or patient.
Too good in that the most horribly injured person, if he were found alive, could be kept alive. Not good enough because a certain per cent of the injured couldn't be returned to society completely sound and whole. The miracles of healing were incomplete.
There weren't many humans who were broken beyond repair, but though the details varied in every respect, the results were monotonously the same. For the most part disease had been eliminated. Everyone was healthy—except those who'd been hurt in accidents and who couldn't be resurgeried and regenerated into the beautiful mold characteristic of the entire population. And those few were sent to the asteroid.
They didn't like it. They didn't like being confined to Handicap Haven. They were sensitive and they didn't want to go back. They knew how conspicuous they'd be, hobbling and crawling among the multitudes of beautiful men and women who inhabited the planets. The accidentals didn't want to return.
What they did want was ridiculous. They had talked about, hoped, and finally embodied it in a petition. They had requested rockets to make the first long hard journey to Alpha and Proxima Centauri. Man was restricted to the solar system and had no way of getting to even the nearest stars. They thought they could break through the barrier. Some accidentals would go and some would remain behind, lonelier except for their share in the dangerous enterprise.
It was a particularly uncontrollable form of self-deception. They were the broken people, without a face they could call their own, who wore their hearts not on their sleeves but in a blood-pumping chamber, those without limbs or organs—or too many. The categories were endless. No accidental was like any other.
The self-deception was vicious precisely because the accidentals were qualified. Of all the billions of solar citizens they alone could make the long journey there and return. But there were other factors that ruled them out. It was never safe to discuss the first reason with them because the second would have to be explained. Cameron himself wasn't sadistic and no one else was interested enough to inform them.
 


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