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Chapter 8
 Docchi slumped in the chair, looking the place over with some satisfaction. The medical inventory was proceeding quite well; one by one each preparation was being identified and the local source checked. It wasn't nearly as bad as he had assumed at first; they were nearly self-sufficient.
One of the checkers came in. Docchi recognized her vaguely; he'd seen her around but that was all. He didn't know who she was nor what she did. Unless he was mistaken her arms and legs were her own, a trifle heavy but shapely enough. If there was anything about her that was camouflaged with plastic tissue it was her face—the sullen glamour was an exaggeration of nature and moreover her expression didn't change at all as she came nearer. There must be something with her face that couldn't be corrected surgically and so she'd overcompensated.
"We've got it all done," she said in a flat throaty voice. Glamour there too, in about the same degree.
"What?" he said. "Oh yes, the check of the biologicals. All identified?" He recalled her name, Maureen something or other.
"Everything that people claimed. There was some that no one knew what it was. Useless I suppose, or worse. It ought to be destroyed."
That was a logical assumption any time save now. Medicine was precious and had to be hoarded even if they didn't know what it was. "Save it, Maureen. Sooner or later someone will be in for it."
"They've all been in. You don't know how they rushed here when they learned the dispensary had been ransacked by the guards." She smiled with faint disdain.
He was beginning to doubt whether her expression came out of the cosmetic kit; it was applied with extraordinary skill if it had, flexible enough to allow her to smile without seeming strained. But if it actually was her face it was monotonous. How long could she keep up the glamour? "Don't be condescending, Maureen. Of course they were concerned. There are people who need those preparations to live comfortably, some in order to live at all."
"I know," she said. "I've personally contacted all the regular deficients."
She seemed to know more about it than he did. There was a fraternity of the ailing and degrees of confraternity. Within the accidentals there were special groups, allied by the common nature of their infirmity. It was possible she belonged to some such group or knew someone who did. The latter probably; there seemed to be nothing seriously wrong with her. "What do you suppose happened? Why is there some left?" said Docchi. "If everyone's been here all of it ought to be accounted for."
"They're always experimenting," said Maureen.
"Who?"
"Doctors," she said. "They try the latest ideas out on us and if we survive they use it on normal people."
There was some truth in it—not much, but the bitterness was there though Earth and all it stood for was far behind. "Don't blame them. They've got to make improvements," he said in mild reproof.
"You don't know," said Maureen. "Anyway, what I was saying is that there is some stuff we can't place. In each case it substitutes for one or more substances that have been in use up to now. We don't know who it's for."
It was more serious than he thought, if only in a negative sense. He straightened up. "How many are missing biologicals?"
"I didn't keep track accurately. Thirty or forty."
A small number compared to the total. But thirty or forty invalids? And some would be affected seriously, depending on the nature of the preparation that couldn't be traced to the person who should have it. The man whose unaided body couldn't utilize calcium would certainly be in for trouble but not as soon as he who couldn't make use of, say, iron. "We'll find out," he said with a confidence he didn't altogether feel. "There are records around and we'll look into them." There were records but it was uncertain how complete they were after the guards had scattered them. "Do you know where they're kept?"
She shook her head, the sullen glamorous smile transfixing her face. "I wish I did," she said.
He was struck by the intensity. "Why?" he asked. He wanted to know too but it wasn't an emotional thing.
"Don't you know? I'm one of them."
One of what, he was about to ask before he realized she meant she was a deficient whose salvaged body lacked certain physiological elements. More, she was one whose preparation couldn't be identified. "Don't worry. It'll take us a little while to trace everything but we'll have it straightened out in a matter of days."
"You'd better," she said, and it was not exactly a threat. There were overtones he couldn't account for.
Before he could stop her she began loosening her dress and for the first time he saw that she wasn't breathing, that she never did. Her dress fluttered as the air went in and out, sleeping or waking, without volition, responding mechanically to the needs of her bloodstream. The breathing mechanism was hidden in her body, replacing her lungs. Moreover it was probably connected to her speech centers in such a way to release a certain amount to her throat when the nervous system demanded. Perhaps it accounted for the peculiar vibrant quality of her voice.
She pointed to the tube that was showing. "It's not just lungs I lack," she said. "Everyone, man or woman, manufactures both male and female hormones, in different proportions of course. Except me. I don't produce a single male hormone." She stared at him intently.
"Do you know what that means?" Her voice was rising, terror mingled with something else. "Without injections in a few months I'll be completely female. One hundred per cent woman and nothing else."
He thought he saw her grow more feminine before his eyes; reluctantly he turned away. Theoretically the completely female person should be repulsive, yet she wasn't. If anything, pathetic features dominated.
Pure feminity could destroy her, but how long would it take? He could discount her own estimate as arbitrary. She had decided on it in an attempt at self dramatization.
"You're fortunate," he said, and he couldn't keep his eyes from straying back to her. "There are plenty of people around, both men and women, who can be donors. There must be some way to extract the hormones you need from the bloodstream. Our medical techniques may be crude but we'll manage. Keep that in mind."
"I will—will you?" she asked, her lips parted, and it wasn't to breathe because she couldn't.
He had the uncomfortable feeling that he knew exactly what she meant and it didn't have anything to do with what he'd said. Had she even been listening? Probably she hadn't. A pure male or female creature didn't exist but if one should come into being it would scarcely be human. To a human life mattered or death did but to the pure abstract creature there was only one thing of importance.
He looked up to see her coming toward him. "I'm afraid," she said, clasping him to her, carefully keeping the tube free and open. And she was afraid—it was not dramatization. The studied glamour slipped from her face. "I don't want to be like this," she whispered. "But if it happens—help me, please." Her nearness was overpowering, and deadly.
At length she drew away. Terror left her eyes—and it had been there, real though with other factors. Even in fear, and he was conscious of that and her deeper design, she had planned ahead against the time she might not be wholely human. It was something like to death to change drastically from a thinking reasoning person to someone who could react only to one stimulus.
"We'll see that nothing happens to you," he said with weak assurance. "There may be a delay but it won't be long. We'll work it out."
She was regarding him fixedly and he could see she was reverting. What he said wasn't penetrating. He cleared his throat. "You're as familiar with the place as any of us. Look around and see if you can find duplicate records. There may be a clue in them as to what the new preparations are for." Clarity returned to her face as he spoke. It would leave again and come back at decreasing intervals unless or until the hormone deficiency was corrected. How far she could descend and remain mentally unscathed he didn't know, nor did he want to find out. "Don't leave until I come back. Do you understand?"
She smiled invitingly to show that perhaps she did understand what he said. He knew now that the sullen glamour was real, and terrifying. She couldn't help any of her responses. Docchi hurried out; so little time had elapsed she must be nearly normal.
He thought of locking the door but there was no way to do that. The essence of a hospital was free access at all times, and so it was built. Besides, it wasn't a good idea to try to keep her in. Constraint might produce violent reaction.
Docchi slanted the louvers so that the place looked vacant and let it go at that. The best he could hope for was that Maureen wouldn't think of leaving.
He walked away. There were villages. Planned or otherwise, over the years dwellings and dormitories had gradually grown around three main centers. Externally there was not much to distinguish one village from the other except the distance from the hospital. The buildings nearest were little more than very large machines which fed, bathed, and tried to anticipate the intellectual stimulation of the almost helpless tenants. The houses in the farthest village, except for certain peculiarities, were much like any comfortable dwelling on Earth.
At the third village he found the house, glancing at the tiny light on the door. It was glowing; the occupant was at home. The numbered positions flashed on, indicating further that the person was awake and in bed. This information was necessary on the asteroid where many people suffered from some disability which might strike suddenly, leaving them helpless and unattended. Docchi leaned against the button and the light blinked him in.
Jeriann was sitting up in the middle of the bed; she seemed healthy and alert. "How do you feel?" he asked as he caught a chair with his foot and slid it near her.
She made a wry face and smiled. "Fine."
"No polite answers, please. Do you feel like work?"
"Now that you're here, no." She laughed outright at his discomfiture. "Maybe now you'll believe me when I say I'm all right. Do you?"
She didn't wait for his answer but smoothed the covers around her. "You're the one who found me, aren't you?"
"Jordan really. I was there."
She didn't attempt to thank him; help was expected. No one knew when his turn would come. "I guess you're wondering what I was doing there without my capsules."
He wasn't but he'd listen if she felt she had to talk. "It seemed strange you'd forget something like that. But everyone was confused then."
"Not me. I knew exactly what I was doing. I was running from some big lunk who kept chasing me all over the dome. He knew I wasn't Nona because I yelled for him to leave me alone. He didn't pay any attention and I guess I lost the absorbics just before he caught me."
"You don't have to talk about it if it's painful," he said impassively.
"What do you think?" she said scornfully. "You think I'd let him bother me? I told him to go away or I'd slip my face off. He got sick right there and let go."
He smiled at her vigor. "It's a good thing he didn't take you at your word and let you remove the disguise."
"Thank you, kind sir. Now I know I'm pretty too." Her manner overcame the apparent sharpness. "Anyway there I was. I'd used up more energy than usual and I had nothing to take. I didn't make it to the hospital."
"I didn't know the details but I imagined something like that. You're lucky we found you and even more so that we were able to discover your particular absorbics in the dispensary mess."
"Right both times—but you didn't find my absorption capsules. They weren't there. Never are. I have to go directly to the lab to get them. Of course I couldn't expect you to know that."
"Then what are you doing here, alive?" he asked, frowning. "The wrong thing should have killed you."
"I'm not a true deficient, you know. It's not that my body fails to produce glandular substances. What I lack is food and water and anything that's composed mostly of that will do, providing it's in a form I can assimilate. When you slapped me and held me up I saw someone else's capsule but I knew it would do. That person has trouble with a number of blood sugars and several fluids—not what I require for a complete diet—but it brought me out of the hunger shock."
It was not ordinary hunger which had caused her to stumble and be unable to get up; this was acute, a trauma which affected her whole organism. And because it was such a constant threat, unconsciously or not, she had prepared for it. Deficients knew each other better than any other group. They were aware which prescription could in an emergency be substituted for their own. It was unlikely to be used—but that knowledge had paid off for Jeriann.
The house ticked on as he sat watching her. That was another peculiarity of the place, aside from the lack of kitchen or any room wherein she could eat. She didn't need it and so it hadn't been built. She didn't feel hunger except negatively; it would be easy to die if she should decide to do so. And so, to reinforce her will to live, a comprehensive schedule had been imposed from above. But the most rigid personal schedule meant nothing without time. Time took the place of hunger, of the need for food, of all the savour in it.
There were clocks on the wall, inconspicuous dials or larger ones, integrated in pictures and summed up in designs. There was a huge circular chronograph on the ceiling; hourglasses and sundials were contrived in the motif on the floor—and they all seemed actually to function. And when she slept or whether she didn't, there were arrangements for that too. The house vibrated, ever so softly, but the attuned senses could hear it, feel it, in sickness and in health.
"Damn," muttered Jeriann as the vibration momentarily grew louder. She tried to say something to Docchi but her thoughts were confused and she couldn't concentrate. "Don't mind me," she said, smiling ruefully. "I was conditioned to this sort of thing. They seem to think I've got to be ready on the dot."
She could see that it wasn't very clear. "There's a clock in my head too. Everybody has one naturally but mine has been trained. Any natural beat will regulate the self alarm, even the pounding of my heart, even if I don't think about it—but the house is more effective. They said I had to have it if I expected to live."
It was obvious who they were, the psychotechnicians who had attended her after her original accident. They were right but Docchi could see that it might become annoying.
The ticking grew in volume and the house shook and though Jeriann tried to ignore it, it would not let her be. "Time," tolled the house, though the word was unspoken, "time time time." To Docchi it was subdued and soft but it had a different effect on Jeriann.
"All right," she shouted to the tormenter, scrambling out of bed. She dashed into the next room, scooping up hurriedly an absorbic capsule that lay unnoticed on a shelf near the door. She was gone for some time, so long that Docchi was beginning to worry before she came out.
In the interim, she had changed into street clothing and the tension that had marked her departure was gone. "I feel better," she said cheerfully. "Breakfast, such as it was, and a shower."
She sat opposite him. "I can see you're trying to figure out how I took a shower when you couldn't hear water running. Special shower. Don't ask about it."
Docchi had no intention, though he was wondering. He had his own gadgets to help him get dressed and no one was curious about them.
"You came here for something," said Jeriann. "Thanks for being polite and talking to the patient but now you can tell me what it is."
He was considering whether he should ask someone else. It was complex, too difficult to explain to Nona. Anti, who would have been best, was confined to the tank. And Jordan wouldn't do at all. That left only Jeriann, who was capable enough, if she was fully recovered. "Do you know Maureen?" he asked.
"I do. Can I guess what she's done now?" said Jeriann dryly.
"Your guess is probably right, except that she hasn't done it yet. I want to make certain she doesn't." He thought over Jeriann's reply. "This isn't the first time this has happened to her?"
"Of course it isn't. She's always looking for excuses. Long ago, before you came, I think, she managed to throw the stuff away and pretend she'd taken it. She concealed what she'd done for three weeks, until the doctor discovered it."
He hadn't heard this, even as a whispered legend. He'd been too busy trying to achieve new status for the accidentals to bother with gossip. He didn't know the people here as well as Jeriann did; he'd have to draw on her for detailed information. "This time it's not an excuse. The deficiency prescription isn't there for her to take."
"Nonsense," said Jeriann sharply. "I remember thinking in that split second in the dispensary: If I were only Maureen now, the worst that could happen to me is that I'd attract attention."
He glanced at her. She hadn't thought that at all, though it was a reflection of another sort of bitterness. The girl didn't know how lucky she was in comparison to others who were seriously handicapped. "Could you go and take a look?" he asked. "Maureen said it isn't there. I understand that they do experiment occasionally. The new consignment might have got shoved aside in the excitement we had a while back—or it might be there under a different formula that Maureen can't identify." If what Jeriann said was correct, Maureen liked the idea of becoming an all female woman. To her it might seem an anodyne, surcease from disappointment and things that hadn't gone right.
"Sure, I'll go," said Jeriann. Her cheerfulness had diminished while he spoke. Until now she hadn't actually realized there was no longer Earth to signal to in event of an emergency. "It's true they experiment. And maybe they didn't send the last shipment during our mixup." She tossed her head, recovering her buoyancy rapidly. "Oh well, I'll go and take a look. I know the hospital pretty well."
"Good." Docchi got up.
"Wait for me," said Jeriann, going to a drawer and taking things out. She slipped a watch on her arm; there was another in the rather wide belt she wore. She selected a series of absorption capsules and dropped them into pouches on the belt that appeared to be merely ornamental until he saw what went into it. "Lunch, a drink, and an extra one for emergency," she explained laconically.
"I should think you'd require more fluid."
She looked at him disturbingly. "I would, if I had normal metabolism. But remember I don't need fluid for the digestive process. And then to further reduce the intake they've included an antiperspirant in what I do get."
He followed her to the door, where she turned around and looked back at the place she lived in. It was a small, curious house, completely arranged for the kind of person she was.
"Are you going to the hospital with me?" she asked.
"No, there's some work I've got to do near here."
"Well, then, thanks for saving my life." She slipped her arms around him and kissed him, quickly but satisfactorily. Her lips were cool and dry. Very smooth but dry; her touch was like silk. That was because of her skin.
She smiled and opened the door. "See you," she said as they parted. She never once looked back though he did. He was glad, because she might have waved and it would have been impossible to return it.
Twice, now, within an hour, he thought as he went along. Maureen of course he could dismiss since she would respond to anything that was remotely male. It was not at all the same reaction from Jeriann, and it pleased him that it wasn't.
Their environment had changed. Life on the asteroid had undergone a not so subtle transformation now that there were no longer any normals around to be compared with, to make the disastrous self-comparison to. They could begin to behave healthily and sensibly. It was nice that Jeriann had kissed him and liked it. It was the first installment of freedom.
The second installment was going to be harder—to keep that freedom at a level that meant something. He frowned heavily as he thought of what had to be done.
He was late. Except for Anti, who was absent and always would be, everyone he knew was there. In addition there were many others who hardly ever attended. It was a good sign that they were coming out and mingling; before they had seldom left their houses. Docchi spotted Jeriann but there wasn't a vacant seat near her. He sat down toward the rear.
Jordan rapped for silence. "Are there any questions?"
At the front a man stood up. Docchi remembered him from months ago, a Jack or Jed Webber. Jed it was, a quiet fellow with pale blue eyes and almost colorless blond hair. Docchi had never heard him say anything but he was speaking now, emerging from his self-imposed shell. "Yes," said Webber. "I want to know where we're going."
Jordan rapped again. "Out of order. Not on the subject. Anyway the question's not important."
"I think it is," said the man, shuffling his body awkwardly. He was not exact in his movements because he'd been sliced very nearly down the middle. Except for his head he was half man and half machine. Unlike others who'd been injured past regeneration, he could use his composite body with some degree of skill because there was one arm and one leg to which the motion of his mechanical limbs could be coordinated. His skill wasn't as great as it could have been because he hadn't practiced. The spectre of the ideal human body had hindered him greatly—in the past. "You don't know where we're going," insisted the man in a high voice. "We're just moving but you don't know where."
Docchi got up. "I can answer that question. It should be answered. We're going to Centauri, either Alpha or Proxima, whichever is most suitable. Is there some place else you wanted to go?"
The reply was drowned for a few seconds by an appreciative rumble but Webber was stubborn and waited until the noise died down. He swayed on his feet and pointed at Nona. "I suppose you asked her," he said. Nona smiled dreamily as attention turned to her.
"No. It would be a joke if we did and we're not interested in playing tricks on ourselves. You've forgotten one thing, that we do have a telescope."
"A small one, built as a hobby," Webber said. His voice was uncertain, as wobbly as his body was.
"True, but it's better than Gallileo had." He hoped Webber wouldn't point out that Gallileo hadn't tried to plot a voyage across space with his instrument.
Actually there was something strange about the few observations he'd made. He had reconstructed their path to the best of his ability—not a bad guess since no records had been kept. At the time they had left Sol they hadn't been heading directly toward the Centauris. Nona must have used their tangential motion to take them out of the system as fast as she could and later had looped back toward their present destination. The sketchy charts Docchi had, indicated the Centauris by plus or minus a few degrees, all the accuracy he could expect from the telescope. It was in the stars themselves that he had detected changes he couldn't account for.
At the far side a woman stood. Jordan nodded to her. "I wasn't asked for my opinion about all this," she said defiantly. "I don't like it. I want to go back."
Jordan cocked his head humorously. "You should have told the guards this while they were here. They'd have been glad to take you with them."
"I certainly wouldn't leave with them," she said in surprise. "Look how they acted while they were here."
"I'm afraid you're out of luck. We can't turn back because of you."
"Don't tell me we're marooned here," said the woman vehemently. "The guards left a couple of scout ships, didn't they? Why can't we take those back to Earth?"
"For the same reason they didn't," said Jordan patiently. "The range of the scouts is limited, it wouldn't reach then and it won't do it now."
"Pshaw," said the woman. "You're just arguing. Docchi said the gravity generator in each ship could be changed to a drive without much work—something about adding a little star encyclopedia unit. I think that's what he said."
Docchi started. Had he said that? He must have for the woman to have remembered it. He shouldn't have made such a statement, first because it wasn't so. He had made the possibility of return to Earth seem too easy.
There was another reason he regretted his rash explanation and it was the opposite of the first: inadvertently he might have blurted out the secret of the drive. It was possible to talk too much.
"I'm not the only one," the woman was insisting. She'd found a point and wouldn't let go. "There are plenty of others who feel as I do and they'll say so if they're not afraid. Who wants to go on for years and years, never reaching any place?"
"Look at the stars." A voice ahead of Docchi answered her. It was Webber again, the meek little man who never spoke.
"I don't want to look at the stars," she said violently. "I never want to see anything but the sun. Our sun. It was good enough for mankind and I certainly don't care to change it."
"That's because you don't know," said Webber confidently. "You're afraid and you don't need to be. When I said look at the stars I meant that those ahead of us are brighter than the ones behind. Do you know what that means?"
Docchi nodded exultantly to himself; they'd found their astronomer. He himself had noticed the first part of what Webber remarked on; he hadn't thought to turn the telescope in the opposite direction because he wasn't interested in where they'd been. The apparent brightness of the Centauri system was much greater than it should have been—that's what he hadn't been able to account for. He could now. It was surprising how much power the gravity drive could deliver.
"We're approaching the speed of light," went on Webber. "It won't take decades to reach a star. We'll be there in a few years."
The woman turned and glared at him but could find nothing to say. She wasn't convinced but she sat down to cover her confusion. Around her people began to whisper to each other, their voices rising with excitement. They'd lived long enough at the rim of the system to know what stellar distances meant and how much speed could affect their voyage.
Jordan rapped them into silence. "I've tried to get you to talk on the subject but you've resolutely refrained. Therefore you'll have to vote on it without discussion."
The vote took place, whatever it was. Docchi was unable to discover what and so he didn't participate. When the count was over Jordan gavelled sharply. "Motion carried. That's all. Meeting adjourned."
Before Docchi could protest, people were leaving, carrying him part of the way with them. He reached the wall and stood there until traffic subsided, afterwards making his way to Jordan who was talking happily to Jeriann.
"We did it," said Jordan, grinning as he came up.
"Did what? All I heard were people complaining. We had to depend on someone from the floor to smack them down. Seems to me there were a lot of important things to discuss."
"Seem to me we covered everything, which you would have known if you had got here on time," said Jordan, still grinning. "This is Jeriann's idea. It was what we were voting on."
Twisting his head Docchi read the sheet Jordan laid in front of him. It was a resolution of some sort, that he gathered from the usual whereases. He scanned it once and was halfway through again before he caught the import.
"The wages aren't high," remarked Jordan. "Survival if we do our job well, grousing if we don't. Otherwise we can keep on doing just what we have been." He picked up the sheet and read from it. "Whereas we are bound together by a common condition and destination—ain't that nice?—and have a common plan——" Jordan looked up. "Since you're the one they're talking about when they refer to the head of the planning committee, just what the hell is our plan?"
There were innumerable small goals that had to be reached before they could consider themselves self-sufficient, and to some extent Docchi was capable of summarizing them. But when it came to a final statement of aims he could only feel his way. Docchi didn't know either.


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