I asked her what the public news was, then? She maintained that she had been too busy lately to look at a 'cast. So I asked to have a stereo box moved into my room, so I could catch a newscast. She said I would have to ask the doctor about that; I was on the 'quiet' list. I asked when in the deuce I was going to see this so-called doctor? She said she didn't know; the doctor had been very busy lately. I asked how many other patients there were in the infirmary anyway? She said she really didn't remember. About then her call bell sounded and she left, presumably to see another patient.
I fixed her. While she was gone, I cold-decked the next deal, so that she got a pat hand-then I wouldn't bet against her.
I got to sleep later on and was awakened by Miss Briggs slapping me in the face with a cold, wet washcloth. She got me ready for breakfast, then Doris relieved her and brought it to me. This time I fed myself and while I was chomping I tackled her for news, with the same perfect score I had made with Miss Briggs. Nurses run a hospital as if it were a nursery for backward children.
Davidson came around to see me after breakfast. "Heard you were here," he said. He was wearing shorts and nothing else, except that his left arm was covered by a dressing.
"More than I've heard," I complained. "What happened to you?"
"Bee stung me."
I dropped that subject; if he didn't want to tell how he had gotten burned, that was his business. I went on, "The Old Man was in here yesterday, getting my report, when he left very suddenly. Seen him since?"
"Well?" I answered.
"Well, how about you. Are you straightened out? Have the psych boys cleared you for classified matters, or not?"
"Is there any doubt about it?"
"You're darn tootin' there's doubt. Poor old Jarvis never did pull out of it."
"Huh?" I hadn't thought about Jarvis. "How is he now?"
"He isn't. Never did get right in his head. Dropped into a coma and died the next day-the day after you left. I mean the day after you were captured. No apparent reason-just died." Davidson looked me over. "You must be tough."
I did not feel tough. I felt tears of weakness welling up again and I blinked them back. Davidson pretended not to see and went on conversationally, "You should have seen the ruckus after you gave us the slip. The Old Man took out after you wearing nothing but a gun and a look of grim determination. He would have caught you, too, my money says-but the civil police picked him up and we had to get him out of hock." Davidson grinned.
I grinned feebly myself. There was something both gallant and silly about the Old Man charging out to save the world single-handed dressed in his birthday suit. "Sorry I missed it. But what else has happened– lately?"
Davidson looked me over carefully, then said, "Wait a minute." He stepped out of the room and was gone a short time. When he came back, he said, "The Old Man says it's all right. What do you want to know?"
"Everything! What happened yesterday?"
"I was in on that one," he answered, "That's how I got this." He waved his damaged wing at me, "I was lucky," he added, "three agents were killed. Quite a fracas."
"But how did it come out? How about the President? Was he-"
Doris hustled into the room. "Oh, there you are!" she said to Davidson. "I told you to stay in bed. You're due in prosthetics at Mercy Hospital right now. The ambulance has been waiting for ten minutes."
He stood up, grinned at her, and pinched her cheek with his good hand. "The party can't start until I get there."
"Coming." He started out the door with her.
I called out, "Hey! How about the President?"
Davidson paused and looked back over his shoulder. "Oh, him? He's all right-not a scratch on him." He went on.
Doris came back a few minutes later, fuming. "Patients!" she said, like a swear word. "Do you know why they call them 'patients'? Because it's patience you have to have to put up with them. I should have had at least twenty minutes for his injection to take hold; as it was I gave it to him when he got into the ambulance."
"Injection for what?"
"Didn't he tell you?"
"Well . . . no reason not to tell you. Amputation and graft, lower left arm."
"Oh." Well, I thought, I won't hear the end of the story from Davidson; grafting on a new limb is a shock. They usually keep the patient hopped up for at least ten days. I wondered about the Old Man: had he come out of it alive? Of course he had, I reminded myself; Davidson checked with him before he talked.
But that didn't mean he hadn't been wounded. I tackled Doris again. "How about the Old Man? Is he on the sick list? Or would it be a violation of your sacred run-around rules to tell me?"
"You talk too much," she answered. "It's time for your morning nourishment and your nap." She produced a glass of milky slop, magician fashion.
"Speak up, wench, or I'll spit it back in your face."
"The Old Man? You mean the Chief of Section?"
"He's not on the sick list, at least not here." She shivered and made a face. "I wouldn't want him as a patient."
I was inclined to agree with her.
For two or three more days I was kept wrapped in swaddling clothing and treated like a child. I did not care; it was the first real rest I had had in years. Probably they were slipping me sedatives; I noticed that I was always ready to sleep each time after they fed me. The sores got much better and presently I was encouraged-"required" I should say-by Doris to take light exercise around the room.
The Old Man called on me. "Well," he said, "still malingering, I see."
I flushed. "Damn your black, flabby heart," I told him. "Get me a pair of pants and I'll show you who is malingering."
"Slow down, slow down." He took my chart from the foot of my bed and looked it over. "Nurse," he said, "get this man a pair of shorts. I'm restoring him to duty."
Doris faced up to him like a banty hen. "Now see here," she said, "you may be the big boss, but you can't give orders here. The doctor will-"
"Stow it!" he said, "and get those drawers. When the doctor comes in, send him to me."
He picked her up, swung her around, paddled her behind, and said, "Git!"
She went out, squawking and sputtering, and came back shortly, not with clothes for me, but with the doctor. The Old Man looked around and said mildly, "Doc, I sent for pants, not for you."
The medico said stiffly, "I'll thank you not to interfere with my patients."
"He's not your patient. I need him, so I am restoring him to duty."
"Yes? Sir, if you do not like the way I run my department, you may have my resignation at once."
The Old Man is stubborn but not bull-headed. He answered, "I beg your pardon, sir. Sometimes I become too preoccupied with other problems to remember to follow correct procedure. Will you do me the favor of examining this patient? I need him; if he can possibly be restored to duty, it would help me to have his services at once."
The doctor's jaw muscles were jumping, but all he said was, "Certainly, sir!" He went through a show of studying my chart, then had me sit on the bed while he tested my reflexes. Personally, I thought they were mushy. He peeled back my eyelids, flashed a light in my eye, and said, "He needs more recuperation time-but you may have him. Nurse-fetch clothing for this man."
Clothing consisted of shorts and shoes; I had been better dressed in a hospital gown. But everybody else was dressed the same way, and it was downright comforting to see all those bare shoulders with no masters clinging to them. I told the Old Man so. "Best defense we've got," he growled, "even if it does make the joint look like a ruddy summer colony. If we don't win this set-to before winter weather, we're licked."
The Old Man stopped at a door with a freshly lettered sign: BIOLOGICAL LABORATORY-STAY OUT! He dilated the door.
I hung back. "Where are we going?"
"Going to take a look at your twin brother, the ape with your parasite."
"That's what I thought. Not for me-no point in it. No, thanks!" I could feel myself begin to tremble.
The Old Man paused. "Now, look, son," he said patiently, "you've got to get over your panic. The best way is to face up to it. I know it's hard-I've spent a good many hours in here myself, just staring at the thing, getting used to it."
"You don't know-you can't know!" I had the shakes so badly now that I had to steady myself by the doorframe.
He looked at me. "I suppose it's different," he said slowly, "when you've actually had it. Jarvis-" He broke off.
"You're darn right it's different! You're not going to get me in there]"
"No, I guess not. Well, the doctor was right. Go on back, son, and turn yourself in at the infirmary." His tones were regretful rather than angry. He turned and started into the laboratory.
He had gotten three or four steps away before I called out, "Boss!"
He stopped and turned, his face expressionless. "Wait," I added, "I'm coming."
"You don't have to."
"I know. I'll do it. It-It just takes . . . a while-to get your nerve back."
He did not answer but, as I came alongside him, he grasped my upper arm, warmly and affectionately, and continued to hold it as we walked, as if I were a girl. We went on in, through another locked door and into a room that was conditioned warm and moist. The ape was there, caged.
He sat facing us, his torso supported and restrained by a strap-metal framework. His arms and legs hung limply, as if he had no control over them-which he did not have, as I learned.
As we came in he looked up and at us. For an instant his eyes were malevolent and intelligent; then the fire died out and they were merely the eyes of a dumb brute, a brute in pain.
"Around to the side," the Old Man said softly. I would have hung back but he still had me by the arm. We moved around; the ape followed us with his eyes, but his body was held by the frame. From the new position I could see-it.
My master. The thing that had ridden my back for an endless time, spoken with my mouth-thought with my brain. My master.
"Steady," the Old Man said softly. "Steady. You'll get used to it." He shook my arm. "Look away for a bit. It helps."
I did so and it did help. Not much, but some. I took a couple of deep breaths, then held it and managed to slow my heart down a little. I made myself stare at it.
It is not the appearance of a parasite which arouses horror. True, they are disgustingly ugly, but not more so than slime in a pond-not as much so as maggots in garbage.
Nor was the horror entirely from knowing what they could do-for I felt the horror the first time I saw one, before I really knew what one was. I tried to tell the Old Man about it, letting the talk steady me. He nodded, his eyes still on the parasite. "It's the same with everybody," he said. "Unreasoned fear, like a bird with a snake. Probably its prime weapon." He let his own eyes drift away, as if too long a sight of it were too much even for his rawhide nerves.
I stuck with him, trying to get used to it and gulping at my breakfast but not losing it. I kept telling myself that I was safe from it, that it couldn't harm me.
I looked away again and found the Old Man's eyes on me. "How about it?" he said. "Getting hardened to it?"
I looked back at it. "A little." I went on savagely, "All I want to do is to kill it! I want to kill all of them-I could spend my whole life killing them and killing them." I began to shake again.
The Old Man continued to study me. "Here," he said, and handed me his gun.
It startled me. I was unarmed myself, having come straight from bed. I took it but looked back at him questioningly. "Huh? What for?"
"You want to kill it, don't you? If you feel that you have to, go ahead. Kill it. Right now."
"Huh? But-Look here, boss, you told me you needed this one for study."
"I do. But if you need to kill it, if you feel that you have to kill it, do so. I figure this particular one is your baby; you're entitled to it. If you need to kill it, to make you a whole man again, go ahead."
" 'To make me a whole man again-' " The thought rang through my head. The Old Man knew, better than I knew, what was wrong with me, what medicine it would take to cure me. I was no longer trembling; I stood there, the gun cradled in my hand, ready to spit and kill. My master . . .
If I killed this one I would be a free man again-but I would never be free as long as it lived. Surely, I wanted to kill them, every one of them, search them out, burn them, kill them-but this one above all.
My master . . . still my master unless I killed it. I had a dark and certain thought that if I were alone with it, I would be able to do nothing, that I would freeze and wait while it crawled up me and settled again between my shoulder blades, searched out my spinal column, took possession of my brain and my very inner self.
But now I could kill it!
No longer frightened but fiercely exultant I raised the gun, ready to squeeze the trigger.
The Old Man watched me.
I lowered the gun a little and said uncertainly, "Boss, suppose I do kill it. You've got others?"
"But you need it."
"Well, but-For the love o' God, why did you give me the gun?"
"You know why. This one is yours; you've got first claim. If you have to kill it, go ahead. If you can pass it up, then the Section will use it."
I had to kill it. Even if we killed all the others, while this one was still alive I would still crouch and tremble in the dark. As for the others, for study-why, we could capture a dozen any time at the Constitution Club. With this one dead I'd lead the raid myself. Breathing rapidly, I raised the gun again.
Then I turned and chucked the gun to the Old Man; he plucked it out of the air and put it away. "What happened?" he asked. "You were all set."
"Uh? I don't know. When it got right down to it, it was enough to know that I could."
"I figured that it would be."
I felt warm and relaxed, as if I had just killed a man or had a woman-as if I had just killed it. I was able to turn my back on it and face the Old Man. I was not even angry with him for what he had done; instead I felt warm toward him, even affectionate. "I know you did, damn you. How does it feel to be a puppet master?"
He did not take the jibe as a joke. Instead he answered soberly, "Not me. The most I ever do is to lead a man on the path he wants to follow. There is the puppet master." He hooked a thumb at the parasite.
I looked around at it. "Yes," I agreed softly, " 'the puppet master'. You think you know what you mean by that-but you don't. And boss . . . I hope you never do."
"I hope so, too," he answered seriously.
I could look now without trembling. I even started to put my hands in my pockets, but the shorts had no pockets. Still staring at it, I went on, "Boss, when you are through with it, if there is anything left, then I'll kill it."
"That's a promise."
We were interrupted by a man bustling into the cage room. He was dressed in shorts and a lab coat; it made him look silly. I did not recognize him-it was not Graves; I never saw Graves again; I imagine the Old Man ate him for lunch.
"Chief," he said, trotting up, "I did not know you were in here. I-"