Name Your Symptom

by Jim Harmon

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Anybody who shunned a Cure needed his head examined--assuming he had one left!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Henry Infield placed the insulated circlet on his head gently. The gleaming rod extended above his head about a foot, the wires from it leading down into his collar, along his spine and finally out his pants leg to a short metallic strap that dragged on the floor.

Clyde Morgan regarded his partner. “Suppose--just suppose--you were serious about this, why not just the shoes?”

Infield turned his soft blue eyes to the black and tan oxfords with the very thick rubber soles. “They might get soaked through.”

Morgan took his foot off the chair behind the desk and sat down. “Suppose they were soaked through and you were standing on a metal plate--steps or a manhole cover--what good would your lightning rod do you then?”

Infield shrugged slightly. “I suppose a man must take some chances.”

Morgan said, “You can’t do it, Henry. You’re crossing the line. The people we treat are on one side of the line and we’re on the other. If you cross that line, you won’t be able to treat people again.”

The small man looked out the large window, blinking myopically at the brassy sunlight. “That’s just it, Clyde. There is a line between us, a wall. How can we really understand the people who come to us, if we hide on our side of the wall?”

Morgan shook his thick head, ruffling his thinning red hair. “I dunno, Henry, but staying on our side is a pretty good way to keep sane and that’s quite an accomplishment these days.”

Infield whirled and stalked to the desk. “That’s the answer! The whole world is going mad and we are just sitting back watching it hike along. Do you know that what we are doing is really the most primitive medicine in the world? We are treating the symptoms and not the disease. One cannibal walking another with sleeping sickness doesn’t cure anything. Eventually the savage dies--just as all those sick savages out in the street will die unless we can cure the disease, not only the indications.”

Morgan shifted his ponderous weight uneasily. “Now, Henry, it’s no good to talk like that. We psychiatrists can’t turn back the clock. There just aren’t enough of us or enough time to give that old-fashioned therapy to all the sick people.”

Infield leaned on the desk and glared. “I called myself a psychiatrist once. But now I know we’re semi-mechanics, semi-engineers, semi-inventors, semi lots of other things, but certainly not even semi-psychiatrists. A psychiatrist wouldn’t give a foetic gyro to a man with claustrophobia.”

His mind went back to the first gyro ball he had ever issued; the remembrance of his pride in the thing sickened him. Floating before him in memory was the vertical hoop and the horizontal hoop, both of shining steel-impervium alloy. Transfixed in the twin circles was the face of the patient, slack with smiles and sweat. But his memory was exaggerating the human element. The gyro actually passed over a man’s shoulder, through his legs, under his arms. Any time he felt the walls creeping in to crush him, he could withdraw his head and limbs into the circle and feel safe. Steel-impervium alloy could resist even a nuclear explosion. The foetic gyro ball was worn day and night, for life.

The sickness overcame him. He sat down on Morgan’s desk. “That’s just one thing, the gyro ball. There are so many others, so many.”

Morgan smiled. “You know, Henry, not all of our Cures are so--so--not all are like that. Those Cures for mother complexes aren’t even obvious. If anybody does see that button in a patient’s ear, it looks like a hearing aid. Yet for a nominal sum, the patient is equipped to hear the soothing recorded voice of his mother saying, ‘It’s all right, everything’s all right, Mommy loves you, it’s all right... ‘“

“But is everything all right?” Infield asked intensely. “Suppose the patient is driving over one hundred on an icy road. He thinks about slowing down, but there’s the voice in his ear. Or suppose he’s walking down a railroad track and hears a train whistle--if he can hear anything over that verbal pablum gushing in his ear.”

Morgan’s face stiffened. “You know as well as I do that those voices are nearly subsonic. They don’t cut a sense efficiency more than 23 per cent.”

“At first, Clyde--only at first. But what about the severe case where we have to burn a three-dimensional smiling mother-image on the eyes of the patient with radiation? With that image over everything he sees and with that insidious voice drumming in his head night and day, do you mean to say that man’s senses will only be impaired 23 per cent? Why, he’ll turn violently schizophrenic sooner or later--and you know it. The only cure we have for that is still a strait jacket, a padded cell or one of those inhuman lobotomies.”

Morgan shrugged helplessly. “You’re an idealist.”

“You’re damned right!” Infield slammed the door behind him.

The cool air of the street was a relief. Infield stepped into the main stream of human traffic and tried to adjust to the second change in the air. People didn’t bathe very often these days.

He walked along, buffeted by the crowd, carried along in this direction, shoved back in that direction. Most people in the crowd seemed to be Normals, but you couldn’t tell. Many “Cures” were not readily apparent.

A young man with black glasses and a radar headset (a photophobe) was unable to keep from being pushed against Infield. He sounded out the lightning rod, his face changing when he realized it must be some kind of Cure. “Pardon me,” he said warmly.

“Quite all right.”

It was the first time in years that anyone had apologized to Infield for anything. He had been one of those condemned Normals, more to be scorned than pitied. Perhaps he could really get to understand these people, now that he had taken down the wall.

Suddenly something else was pushing against Infield, forcing the air from his lungs. He stared down at the magnetic suction dart clinging leechlike to his chest. Model Acrophobe 101-X, he catalogued immediately. Description: safety belt. But his emotions didn’t behave so well. He was thoroughly terrified, heart racing, sweat glands pumping. The impervium cable undulated vulgarly. Some primitive fear of snake symbols? his mind wondered while panic crushed him.

“Uncouple that cable!” the shout rang out. It was not his own.

A clean-cut young man with mouse-colored hair was moving toward the stubble-chinned, heavy-shouldered man quivering in the center of a web of impervium cables stuck secure to the walls and windows of buildings facing the street, the sidewalk, a mailbox, the lamp post and Infield.

Mouse-hair yelled hoarsely, “Uncouple it, Davies! Can’t you see the guy’s got a lightning rod? You’re grounding him!

“I can’t,” Davies groaned. “I’m scared!”

Halfway down the twenty feet of cable, Mouse-hair grabbed on. “I’m holding it. Release it, you hear?”

Davies fumbled for the broad belt around his thickening middle. He jabbed the button that sent a negative current through the cable. The magnetic suction dart dropped away from Infield like a thing that had been alive and now was killed. He felt an overwhelming sense of relief.

After breathing deeply for a few moments, he looked up to see Davies releasing and drawing all his darts into his belt, making it resemble a Hydra-sized spiked dog collar. Mouse-hair stood by tensely as the crowd disassembled.

“This isn’t the first time you’ve pulled something like this, Davies,” he said. “You weren’t too scared to release that cable. You just don’t care about other people’s feelings. This is official.”

Mouse-hair drove a fast, hard right into the soft blue flesh of Davies’ chin. The big man fell silently.

The other turned to Infield. “He was unconscious on his feet,” he explained. “He never knew he fell.”

“What did you mean by that punch being official?” Infield asked while trying to arrange his feelings into the comfortable, familiar patterns.

The young man’s eyes almost seemed to narrow, although his face didn’t move; he merely radiated narrowed eyes. “How long have you been Cured?”

“Not--not long,” Infield evaded.

The other glanced around the street. He moistened his lips and spoke slowly. “Do you think you might be interested in joining a fraternal organization of the Cured?”

Infield’s pulse raced, trying to get ahead of his thoughts, and losing out. A chance to study a pseudo-culture of the “Cured” developed in isolation! “Yes, I think I might. I owe you a drink for helping me out. How about it?”

The man’s face paled so fast, Infield thought for an instant that he was going to faint. “All right. I’ll risk it.” He touched the side of his face away from the psychiatrist.

Infield shifted around, trying to see that side of his benefactor, but couldn’t manage it in good grace. He wondered if the fellow was sporting a Mom-voice hearing aid and was afraid of raising her ire. He cleared his throat, noticing the affectation of it. “My name’s Infield.”

“Price,” the other answered absently. “George Price. I suppose they have liquor at the Club. We can have a drink there, I guess.”

Price set the direction and Infield fell in at his side. “Look, if you don’t drink, I’ll buy you a cup of coffee. It was just a suggestion.”

Under the mousy hair, Price’s strong features were beginning to gleam moistly. “You are lucky in one way, Mr. Infield. People take one look at your Cure and don’t ask you to go walking in the rain. But even after seeing this, some people still ask me to have a drink.” This was revealed, as he turned his head, to be a small metal cube above his left ear.

Infield supposed it was a Cure, although he had never issued one like it. He didn’t know if it would be good form to inquire what kind it was.

“It’s a cure for alcoholism,” Price told him. “It runs a constant blood check to see that the alcohol level doesn’t go over the sobriety limit.”

“What happens if you take one too many?”

Price looked off as if at something not particularly interesting, but more interesting than what he was saying. “It drives a needle into my temple and kills me.”

The psychiatrist felt cold fury rising in him. The Cures were supposed to save lives, not endanger them.

“What kind of irresponsible idiot could have issued such a device?” he demanded angrily.

“I did,” Price said. “I used to be a psychiatrist. I was always good in shop. This is a pretty effective mechanism, if I say so myself. It can’t be removed without causing my death and it’s indestructible. Impervium-shielded, you see.”

Price probably would never get crazed enough for liquor to kill himself, Infield knew. The threat of death would keep him constantly shocked sane. Men hide in the comforts of insanity, but when faced with death, they are often forced back to reality. A man can’t move his legs; in a fire, though, he may run. His legs were definitely paralyzed before and may be again, but for one moment he would forget the moral defeat of his life and his withdrawal from life and live an enforced sanity. But sometimes the withdrawal was--or could become--too complete.

“We’re here.”

Infield looked up self-consciously and noticed that they had crossed two streets from his building and were standing in front of what appeared to be a small, dingy cafe. He followed Price through the screeching screen door.

They seated themselves at a small table with a red-checked cloth. Infield wondered why cheap bars and restaurants always used red-checked cloths. Then he looked closer and discovered the reason. They did a remarkably good job of camouflaging the spots of grease and alcohol.

A fat man who smelled of the grease and alcohol of the tablecloths shuffled up to them with a towel on his arm, staring ahead of him at some point in time rather than space.

Price lit a cigarette with unsteady hands. “Reggie is studying biblical text. Cute gadget. His contact lenses are made up of a lot of layers of polarized glass. Every time he blinks, the amount of polarization changes and a new page appears. His father once told him that if he didn’t study his Bible and pray for him, his old dad would die.”

The psychiatrist knew the threat on the father’s part couldn’t create such a fixation by itself. His eyebrows faintly inquired.

Price nodded jerkily. “Twenty years ago, at least.”

“What’ll you have, Georgie?” Reggie asked.

The young man snubbed out his cigarette viciously. “Bourbon. Straight.”

Reggie smiled--a toothy, vacant, comedy-relief smile. “Fine. The Good Book says a little wine is good for a man, or something like that. I don’t remember exactly.”

Of course he didn’t, Infield knew. Why should he? It was useless to learn his Bible lessons to save his father, because it was obvious his father was dead. He would never succeed because there was no reason to succeed. But he had to try, didn’t he, for his father’s sake? He didn’t hate his father for making him study. He didn’t want him to die. He had to prove that.

Infield sighed. At least this device kept the man on his feet, doing some kind of useful work instead of rotting in a padded cell with a probably imaginary Bible. A man could cut his wrists with the edge of a sheet of paper if he tried long enough, so of course the Bible would be imaginary.

“But, Georgie,” the waiter complained, “you know you won’t drink it. You ask me to bring you drinks and then you just look at them. Boy, do you look funny when you’re looking at drinks. Honest, Georgie, I want to laugh when I think of the way you look at a glass with a drink in it.” He did laugh.

Price fumbled with the cigarette stub in the black iron ashtray, examining it with the skill of scientific observation. “Mr. Infield is buying me the drink and that makes it different.”

Reggie went away. Price kept dissecting the tobacco and paper. Infield cleared his throat and again reminded himself against such obvious affectations. “You were telling me about some organization of the Cured,” he said as a reminder.

Price looked up, no longer interested in the relic of a cigarette. He was suddenly intensely interested and intensely observant of the rest of the cafe. “Was I? I was? Well, suppose you tell me something. What do you really think of the Incompletes?”

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