Stranger in a Strange Land, Page 2Robert A. Heinlein
The patient floated in the flexible skin of the hydraulic bed. He appeared to be dead. Thaddeus snapped, “Get Doctor Noel-son!”
Meechum said, “Yessir!” and added, “How about shock gear, Doc?”
“Get Doctor Nelson!”
The nurse rushed out. The interne examined the patient, did not touch him. An older doctor came in, walking with labored awkwardness of a man long in space and not readjusted to high gravity. “Well, Doctor?”
“Patient’s respiration, temperature, and pulse dropped suddenly about two minutes ago, sir.”
“What have you done?”
“Nothing, sir. Your instructions—”
“Good.” Nelson looked Smith over, studied instruments back of the bed, twins of those in the watch room. “Let me know if there is any change.” He started to leave.
Thaddeus looked startled. “But, Doctor—”
Nelson said, “Yes, Doctor? What is your diagnosis?”
“Uh, I don’t wish to sound off about your patient, sir.”
“I asked for your diagnosis.”
“Very well, sir. Shock—atypical, perhaps,” he hedged, “but shock, leading to termination.”
Nelson nodded. “Reasonable. But this isn’t a reasonable case. I’ve seen this patient in this condition a dozen times. Watch.” Nelson lifted the patient’s arm, let it go. It stayed where he left it.
“Catalepsy?” asked Thaddeus.
“Call it that if you like. Just keep him from being bothered and call me if there is any change.” He replaced Smith’s arm.
Nelson left. Thaddeus looked at the patient, shook his head and returned to the watch room. Meechum picked up his cards. “Crib?”
Meechum added, “Doc, if you ask me, that one is a case for the basket before morning.”
“No one asked you. Go have a cigarette with the guards. I want to think.”
Meechum shrugged and joined the guards in the corridor; they straightened up, then saw who it was and relaxed. The taller marine said, “What was the excitement?”
“The patient had quintuplets and we were arguing about what to name them. Which one of you monkeys has a butt? And a light?”
The other marine dug out a pack of cigarettes. “How’re you fixed for suction?”
“Just middlin’.” Meechum stuck the cigarette in his face. “Honest to God, gentlemen, I don’t know anything about this patient.”
“What’s the idea of these orders about ‘Absolutely No Women’? Is he a sex maniac?”
“All I know is they brought him in from the Champion and said he was to have absolute quiet.”
“ ‘The Champion!’ ” the first marine said. “That accounts for it.”
“Accounts for what?”
“It stands to reason. He ain’t had any, he ain’t seen any, he ain’t touched any—for months. And he’s sick, see? If he was to lay hands on any, they’re afraid he’d kill hisself.” He blinked. “I’ll bet I would.”
Smith had been aware of the doctors but had grokked that their intentions were benign; it was not necessary for the major part of him to be jerked back.
At the morning hour when human nurses slap patients’ faces with cold, wet cloths Smith returned. He speeded up his heart, increased his respiration, and took note of his surroundings, viewing them with serenity. He looked the room over, noting with praise all details. He was seeing it for the first time, as he had been incapable of enfolding it when he had been brought there. This room was not commonplace to him; there was nothing like it on all Mars, nor did it resemble the wedge-shaped, metal compartments of the Champion. Having relived the events linking his nest to this place, he was now prepared to accept it, commend it, and in some degree to cherish it.
He became aware of another living creature. A granddaddy longlegs was making a journey down from the ceiling, spinning as it went. Smith watched with delight and wondered if it were a nestling man.
Doctor Archer Frame, the interne who had relieved Thaddeus, walked in at that moment. “Good morning,” he said. “How do you feel?”
Smith examined the question. The first phrase he recognized as a formal sound, requiring no answer. The second was listed in his mind with several translations. If Doctor Nelson used it, it meant one thing; if Captain van Tromp used it, it was a formal sound.
He felt that dismay which so often overtook him in trying to communicate with these creatures. But he forced his body to remain calm and risked an answer. “Feel good.”
“Good!” the creature echoed. “Doctor Nelson will be along in a minute. Feel like breakfast?”
All symbols were in Smith’s vocabulary but he had trouble believing that he had heard rightly. He knew that he was food, but he did not “feel like” food. Nor had he any warning that he might be selected for such honor. He had not known that the food supply was such that it was necessary to reduce the corporate group. He was filled with mild regret, since there was still so much to grok of new events, but no reluctance.
But he was excused from the effort of translating an answer by the entrance of Dr. Nelson. The ship’s doctor inspected Smith and the array of dials, then turned to Smith. “Bowels move?”
Smith understood this; Nelson always asked it. “No.”
“We’ll take care of that. But first you eat. Orderly, fetch that tray.”
Nelson fed him three bites, then required him to hold the spoon and feed himself. It was tiring but gave him a feeling of gay triumph for it was his first unassisted action since reaching this oddly distorted space. He cleaned the bowl and remembered to ask, “Who is this?” so that he could praise his benefactor.
“What is this, you mean,” Nelson answered. “It’s a synthetic food jelly—and now you know as much as you did before. Finished? All right, climb out of that bed.”
“Beg pardon?” It was an attention symbol which was useful when communication failed.
“I said get out of there. Stand up. Walk around. Sure, you’re weak as a kitten but you’ll never put on muscle floating in that bed.” Nelson opened a valve, water drained out. Smith restrained a feeling of insecurity, knowing that Nelson cherished him. Shortly he lay on the floor of the bed with the watertight cover wrinkled around him. Nelson added, “Doctor Frame, take his other elbow.”
With Nelson to encourage and both to help Smith stumbled over the rim of the bed. “Steady. Now stand up,” Nelson directed. “Don’t be afraid. We’ll catch you if necessary.”
He made the effort and stood alone—a slender young man with underdeveloped muscles and overdeveloped chest. His hair had been cut in the Champion and his whiskers removed and inhibited. His most marked feature was his bland, babyish face—set with eyes which would have seemed at home in a man of ninety.
He stood alone, trembling slightly, then tried to walk. He managed three shuffling steps and broke into a sunny, childlike smile. “Good boy!” Nelson applauded.
He tried another step, began to tremble and suddenly collapsed. They barely managed to break his fall. “Damn!” Nelson fumed. “He’s gone into another one. Here, help me lift him into bed. No—fill it first.”
Frame cut off the flow when the skin floated six inches from the top. They lugged him into it, awkwardly because he had frozen into foetal position. “Get a collar pillow under his neck,” instructed Nelson, “and call me if you need me. We’ll walk him again this afternoon. In three months he’ll be swinging through the trees like a monkey. There’s nothing really wrong with him.”
“Yes, Doctor,” Frame answered doubtfully.
“Oh, yes, when he comes out of it, teach him to use the bathroom. Have the nurse help you; I don’t want him to fall.”
“Yes, sir. Uh, any particular method—I mean, how—”
“Eh? Show him! He won’t understand much that you say, but he’s bright as a whip.”
Smith ate lunch without help. Presently an orderly came in to remove his tray. The man leaned over. “Listen,” he said in a low voice, “I’v
e got a fat proposition for you.”
“A deal, a way for you to make money fast and easy.”
“‘Money?’ What is ‘money’?”
“Never mind the philosophy; everybody needs money. I’ll talk fast because I can’t stay long—it’s taken a lot of fixing to get me here. I represent Peerless Features. We’ll pay sixty thousand for your story and it won’t be a bit of trouble to you—we’ve got the best ghost writers in the business. You just answer questions; they put it together.” He whipped out a paper. “Just sign this.”
Smith accepted the paper, stared at it, upside down. The man muffled an exclamation. “Lordy! Don’t you read English?”
Smith understood this enough to answer. “No.”
“Well—Here, I’ll read it, then you put your thumb print in the square and I’ll witness it. ‘I, the undersigned, Valentine Michael Smith, sometimes known as the Man from Mars, do grant and assign to Peerless Features, Limited, all and exclusive rights in my true-fact story to be titled I was a Prisoner on Mars in exchange for—”
Dr. Frame was in the door; the paper disappeared into the man’s clothes. “Coming, sir. I was getting this tray.”
“What were you reading?”
“I saw you. This patient is not to be disturbed.” They left; Dr. Frame closed the door behind them. Smith lay motionless for an hour, but try as he might he could not grok it at all.
GILLIAN BOARDMAN was a competent nurse and her hobby was men. She went on duty that day as supervisor of the floor where Smith was. When the grapevine said that the patient in suite K-12 had never seen a woman in his life, she did not believe it. She went to pay a call on the strange patient.
She knew of the “No Female Visitors” rule and, while she did not consider herself to be a visitor, she sailed past without attempting to use the guarded door—marines had a stuffy habit of construing orders literally. Instead she went into the adjacent watch room.
Dr. Thaddeus looked up. “Well, if it ain’t ‘Dimples!’ Hi, honey, what brings you here?”
“This is part of my rounds. What about your patient?”
“Don’t worry your head, honey chile; he’s not your responsibility. See your order book.”
“I read it. I want to look at him.”
“In one word—no.”
“Oh, Tad, don’t go regulation.”
He gazed at his nails. “If I let you put your foot inside that door, I’d wind up in Antarctica. I wouldn’t want Dr. Nelson even to catch you in this watch room.”
She stood up. “Is Doctor Nelson likely to pop in?”
“Not unless I send for him. He’s sleeping off low-gee fatigue.”
“Then what’s the idea of being so duty struck?”
“That’s all, Nurse.”
“Very well, Doctor!” She added, “Stinker.”
“A stuffed shirt, too.”
He sighed. “Still okay for Saturday night?”
She shrugged. “I suppose. A girl can’t be fussy these days.” She went back to her station, picked up the pass key. She was balked but not beaten, as suite K-12 had a door joining it to the room beyond, a room used as a sitting room when the suite was occupied by a high official. The room was not then in use. She let herself into it. The guards paid no attention, unaware that they had been flanked.
She hesitated at the door between the two rooms, feeling the excitement she used to feel when sneaking out of student nurses’ quarters. She unlocked it and looked in.
The patient was in bed, he looked at her as the door opened. Her first impression was that here was a patient too far gone to care. His lack of expression seemed to show the apathy of the desperately ill. Then she saw that his eyes were alive with interest; she wondered if his face was paralyzed?
She assumed her professional manner. “Well, how are we today? Feeling better?”
Smith translated the questions. The inclusion of both of them in the query was confusing; he decided that it might symbolize a wish to cherish and grow close. The second part matched Nelson’s speech forms. “Yes,” he answered.
“Good!” Aside from his odd lack of expression she saw nothing strange about him—and if women were unknown to him, he was managing to conceal it. “Is there anything I can do?” She noted that there was no glass on the bedside shelf. “May I get you water?”
Smith spotted at once that this creature was different from the others. He compared what he was seeing with pictures Nelson had shown him on the trip from home to his place—pictures intended to explain a puzzling configuration of this people group. This, then, was “woman.”
He felt both oddly excited and disappointed. He suppressed both in order that he might grok deeply, with such success that Dr. Thaddeus noticed no change in the dials next door.
But when he translated the last query he felt such surge of emotion that he almost let his heartbeat increase. He caught it and chided himself for an undisciplined nestling. Then he checked his translation.
No, he was not mistaken. This woman creature had offered him water. It wished to grow closer.
With great effort, scrambling for adequate meanings, he attempted to answer with due ceremoniousness. “I thank you for water. May you always drink deep.”
Nurse Boardman looked startled. “Why, how sweet!” She found a glass, filled it, and handed it to him.
He said, “You drink.”
Wonder if he thinks I’m trying to poison him? she asked herself—but there was a compelling quality to his request. She took a sip, whereupon he took one also, after which he seemed content to sink back, as if he had accomplished something important.
Jill told herself that, as an adventure, this was a fizzle. She said, “Well, if you don’t need anything, I must get on with my work.”
She started for the door. He called out, “No!”
She stopped. “Eh?”
“Don’t go away.”
“Well . . . I’ll have to go, pretty quickly.” She came back. “Is there anything you want?”
He looked her up and down. “You are . . . ‘woman’?”
The question startled Jill Boardman. Her impulse was to answer flippantly. But Smith’s grave face and oddly disturbing eyes checked her. She became aware emotionally that the impossible fact about this patient was true; he did not know what a woman was. She answered carefully, “Yes, I am a woman.”
Smith continued to stare. Jill began to be embarrassed. To be looked at by a male she expected, but this was like being examined under a microscope. She stirred. “Well? I look like a woman, don’t I?”
“I do not know,” Smith answered slowly. “How does woman look? What makes you woman?”
“Well, for pity’s sake!” This conversation was further out of hand than any she had had with a male since her twelfth birthday. “You don’t expect me to take off my clothes and show you!”
Smith took time to examine these symbols and try to translate them. The first group he could not grok at all. It might be one of those formal sounds these people used . . . yet it had been spoken with force, as if it might be a last communication before withdrawal. Perhaps he had so deeply mistaken right conduct in dealing with a woman creature that it might be ready to discorporate.
He did not want the woman to die at that moment, even though it was its right and possibly its obligation. The abrupt change from rapport of water ritual to a situation in which a newly won water brother might be considering withdrawal or discorporation would have thrown him into panic had he not been consciously suppressing such disturbance. But he decided that if it died now he must die at once also—he could not grok it any other wise, not after giving of water.
The second half contained symbols he had encountered before. He grokked imperfectly the intention but there seemed to be a way to avoid this crisis—by acceding to the suggested wish. Perhaps if the woman took its
clothes off neither of them need discorporate. He smiled happily. “Please.”
Jill opened her mouth, closed it. She opened it again. “Well, I’ll be darned!”
Smith could grok emotional violence and knew that he had offered a wrong reply. He began to compose his mind for discorporation, savoring and cherishing all that he had been and seen, with especial attention to this woman creature. Then he became aware that the woman was bending over him and he knew somehow that it was not about to die. It looked into his face. “Correct me if I am wrong,” it said, “but were you asking me to take my clothes off?”
The inversions and abstractions required careful translation but Smith managed it. “Yes,” he answered, hoping that it would not stir up a new crisis.
“That’s what I thought you said. Brother, you aren’t ill.”
The word “brother” he considered first—the woman was reminding him that they had been joined in water. He asked the help of his nestlings that he might measure up to whatever this new brother wanted. “I am not ill,” he agreed.
“Though I’m darned if I know what is wrong with you. I won’t peel down. And I’ve got to leave.” It straightened up and turned toward the side door—then stopped and looked back with a quizzical smile. “You might ask me again, real prettily, under other circumstances. I’m curious to see what I might do.”
The woman was gone. Smith relaxed and let the room fade away. He felt sober triumph that he had somehow comported himself so that it was not necessary for them to die . . . but there was much to grok. The woman’s last speech had contained symbols new to him and those which were not new had been arranged in fashions not easily understood. But he was happy that the flavor had been suitable for communication between water brothers—although touched with something disturbing and terrifyingly pleasant. He thought about his new brother, the woman creature, and felt odd tingles. The feeling reminded him of the first time he had been allowed to be present at a discorporation and he felt happy without knowing why.
He wished that his brother Doctor Mahmoud were here. There was so much to grok, so little to grok from.