Pouring sweat and breathing shallow, I burned east on U.S. Twenty at ninety miles an hour, wishing I could suck into my lungs some of the wind that howled across the windshield.
I heard the siren in my phones. I glanced out the left side of my helmet to find a blue-clad figure on a motorcycle looming up beside me, waving me toward the shoulder. A law-abider to the last gasp of asphyxia, I braked my little green beast over to the berm. The state cop angled his bike across my left headlamp and stalked back to where I sat, tugging a fat book of traffic-tickets out of his hip pocket.
“Unscrew that space-helmet, Sonny,” he said. “You’ve just been grounded.”
“Grounded, I’ll grant,” I said, my voice wheezing from the speaker on the chest of my suit; “but I can’t take off the fishbowl, officer.”
“Then maybe you’d better climb out of your flying saucer,” the policeman suggested. “And if you’re toting pearl-handled ray-guns, just leave ‘em hang.”
I got out of the car, keeping my hands in view, feeling like the fugitive from a space-opera this cop evidently took me for. He examined me the way a zoologist might examine the first live specimen of a new species of carnivore; very interested, very cautious. After observing the cut of my wash-and-wear plastic sterility-suit--known to us who wear them as a chastity-suit--the policeman walked around me to examine my reserve-air tank, which is cunningly curved and cushioned against my spine so that I can lean back without courting lordosis. He inspected the bubble of plastic that fit over my head like the belljar over a museum specimen, and stared at the little valve on the left shoulder of my suit, where used air was wheezing out asthmatically. “I guess fallout has got you bugged,” he said.
“Not fallout, bacteria,” I explained. “I’m one of the Lapins from Central University.”
“That’s nice,” the policeman said. “And I’m one of the Bjornsons, from Indiana State Police Post 1-A. What were you trying to do just now, break Mach One on wheels? Or do you maybe come from one of these foreign planets that don’t know the American rules of the road?”
I breathed deep, trying to find myself some oxygen. “I was born right here in Indiana,” I said. “The reason I’m wearing this suit and helmet is that I’m bacteriologically sterile.”
“So maybe you could adopt a kid,” Officer Bjornson suggested.
“Sterile like germ-free,” I said. “Gnotobiotic. I grew up in the Big Tank at Central University.”
“You’ll spend the night in the big tank at South Bend if you’re snowing me, Sonny,” he said. “Let’s see your driver’s license.” I got my billfold out of the glove-compartment--a chastity-suit doesn’t have any pockets--and handed my license to Bjornson. “John Bogardus, M.D.,” he read. “You’re a doctor, eh? This says you live at BICUSPID, Central University, South Bend. What’s that BICUSPID, Doc? Means your practice is limited to certain teeth?”
“I’m a resident in pathology, and I’m damned near out of air,” I said, annoyed at the prospect of suffocating while acting straight-man to a state cop. “BICUSPID is the acronym for Bacteriological Institute, Central University Special Projects in Infectious Disease. I’m a Lapin, which is a human guinea-pig. I’m sorry, officer, that I broke the Indiana speed-limit but my air-filter is clogged with condensation. If I don’t get back to the Big Tank at the University within the next few minutes, I’ll run out of air. And you’ll have to spend the rest of the evening testifying before St. Joseph’s County Coroner.”
“So what happens if you crack open your space-helmet and breathe the air us peons use?” he asked.
“Pretty quick, I’d die,” I said. “I’ve got no antibodies, no physiological mechanism to combat inspired or ingested bacteria.”
“That’s the sort of answer that makes my job the joy it is,” Bjornson said. “Next thing you know, I’ll be chasing drunken drivers from Mars.”
“There’s no intelligent native life on Mars,” I said.
“You think maybe there are intelligent natives on U.S. Twenty?” he asked, returning my license. “Okay, Doctor Bogardus, I’ve bought your story. You leadfoot your bomb along after me, and we’ll hit the Central campus like we’re crossing the payoff line at the Mille Miglia.” Bjornson cowboyed into the saddle of his bike, spurred it off and cut siren-screaming down the concrete toward South Bend and Central U. I jumped back into my sports-car and tailed him, the wind soaring past my ‘phones like rocket exhaust. We cut through the field of Sunday drivers in a horizontal power-dive. I was half-blinded by the sweat condensed on my air-cooled face-plate. Formaldehyde bath or no, I’d have to cut in my reserve-air pretty soon.
We made it while I was still breathing. I braked in front of the BICUSPID entrance and walked as fast as I dared, dizzy and panting with the concentration of CO_ bottled up with me in my chastity-suit. Outside the door to the contaminated labs, I shook Bjornson’s hand and told him that I considered the expense of my Gross Income Tax justified by his employment. I went inside then, climbed the steel steps to the glass-walled shower. I cut in my suit-radio and announced my arrival. “Bogardus here. I’m nearly out of wind; my filter’s soaked. I’m cutting in reserve-air. Anybody around to see that I scrub behind my ears?”
Dr. Roy McQueen, Director of BICUSPID, came out of his office, where he’d monitored my announcement from the loudspeaker set above his desk, and faced the glass door of the shower room. He waved to me and cut on his microphone. “Okay, Johnny,” he said.
I sealed off my air-filter and cut in the reserve-air. That canned wind felt to my lungs like cold beer to the throat on a July day. I felt the oxygen percolating through me to my toes and finger-tips, tingling them back to life. Turning on the detergent shower, I sloshed around beneath it, washing the outside dust off my chastity-suit.
“You’re dry by the tank,” Dr. McQueen said into his hand microphone.
I picked up the long-handled shower brush and scrubbed back there. I showered the suit’s armpits, the folds behind the knees, the soles of the suit’s boots, scrubbing hard with the brush. “You’re all wet, Johnny,” the Chief said. “Got enough air for half an hour in the bathtub?”
“Yes, sir,” I said, checking the gage of my reserve-air tank. Having scrubbed off most of the flora I’d picked up in the great wild world of Indiana, I climbed down through the manhole into the bathtub, a sump of formaldehyde solution eight feet deep. I sat on the iron bench at the bottom to soak. “How about switching on some music, Chief? I didn’t think to bring anything waterproof to read.”
“You’ll hear music from me,” Dr. McQueen said. “This is a big day for BICUSPID, Johnny. It’s the first time one of you kids ever came home from a date with a police escort. What happened? Anne’s old man decide he didn’t want a plastic-wrapped son-in-law? He call the law to throw you off his front porch?”
“My air-filter got bolixed,” I explained into the microphone, “so I leaned on the gas pedal pretty heavy on the way home. A friendly gendarme named Bjornson turned up.”
“You should be more careful, Johnny. I’d hate to have to post you.” Like the rest of us, Dr. McQueen did post-mortems on the germ-free animals who died of old age or stir-fever in the Big Tank, or had to be sacrificed as routine sterility controls. Last winter, for the first time, the Chief had had to autopsy one of us Lapins.
Poor Mike Bohrman had gone off his rocker and stripped off his sterility-suit in the snow. All we wear underneath is a pair of shorts. That’s the way Mike had run around, almost naked in a northern Indiana February. It was hours before he’d been missed.
He went to the hospital with severe frostbite, but he died two days later of pneumonia complicated by streptococcal septicemia. “Stick around down there, Johnny,” the Chief said. “I’m coming down to join you.”
I heard him turning the monitor microphone over to one of the technicians out in the contaminated labs. Oh hell, I thought. Here comes a chewing-out that would leave me raw up to the duodenum.
The worst thing about being told off when you’ve done something dumb is the futility of being told about it. Nobody knew better than I that it was stupid to stay outside the Big Tank for eight solid hours. Hydraulic pressure aside, a chastity-suit isn’t designed to hold a man more than about four.
It took Dr. McQueen a quarter hour to get suited up and scrubbed. Then he came down the ladder to join me in the pale green soup, his air-hose snaking along behind him like strayed umbilical cord. He sat on the bench beside me. Before he cut in his suit radio, he leaned close and touched his helmet to mine. “Damn it, Johnny! If you don’t stop chasing after that dame in Valpo, I’ll toss mothballs in the gas-tank of your silly little car.” Then he toggled his radio. “Testing,” he said, for the benefit of the monitoring technician listening out in the contaminated labs. “This is McQueen. Someone suited up?”
“Safety man is suited and scrubbing, Chief,” the monitor said. “I read you loud and clear. Now, let’s hear from you, Brother Bogardus.”
“This is John Bogardus, the Voice of Purity,” I said, “broadcasting from the bottom of Central University’s lovely BICUSPID pool. You want I should dedicate my next record to the gang at the brewery?”
“Happy to hear you testify, canned-goods,” the technician said. “The I.U. game is on the radio now. You want me to pipe it to the phones so you can hear our team smear ‘em?”
“I’ll take your word for it that they’ll do that,” I said. “My sport is balk-line billiards.” Eighty years ago, Central University’s gate receipts from football had made possible the first BICUSPID program in gnotobiotics, using mice and roaches and hamsters. Despite this historical tie between me and football, I felt no special affinity for the game.
“Trouble with you, canned-goods, is you’ve got no school spirit,” the monitor complained. “If you or the Chief feel your feet getting wet, just whistle. I’ll be here.”
“Will do.” For all the thousands of times I’d been through this antiseptic drill, I was happy to know that a lifeguard was suited up above our poisonous bathtub, ready to fish either of us out should our suits spring a leak. If formaldehyde-methanol started seeping into my chastity-suit, I knew I’d have an overwhelming desire to undress.
Dr. McQueen cleared his throat, a sound which broadcast very like a growl. “Okay, Johnny. Let’s have a synopsis of your Sunday outing.”
“It’s springtime, Chief,” I said. “You know what the month of May does to a young man’s fancy, and reticuloendothelial system, and all.”
“I wish you’d stop seeing her,” the Chief said. “You’ve got fifteen of the most nubile girls in the Midwest living in the Big Tank with you. Sweet, intelligent--available. So why did you have to get the hots for an outsider?”
“It’s that ol’ debbil incest-taboo, Chief,” I said. “I’ve slept amongst those fifteen canned peaches for the last twenty-three years. The result is that my warmest feeling toward any of them is brotherly love. Who itches to shack with a sibling?”
“Your only alternative seems to be a lifetime of cold showers,” McQueen said. “Speaking of canned peaches, have you seen Mary deWitte today?”
“Mary has extramural interests, too,” he said. “Her intended is a basketball player in pre-Law. A fellow roughly fifteen feet tall. Mary has been gone all day. I presume that she’s been visiting this legal obelisk; and I’m beginning to feel the twinges of fatherly anxiety. But tell me about Anne, Johnny.”
“I met her at a concert last fall,” I said, not giving a damn about the safety man and the monitor kibitzing. “Anne didn’t bug at my chastity-suit the way most of the hens on campus do. This impressed me. She liked the way I talked, even though she could hear my voice only from the speaker on the chest of my suit. I liked fine the way she listened. So we had a date. Lots of dates. Said goodnight by shaking hands--Please Excuse My Glove.
“One evening we drove down to the beach at Hudson Lake. As we lay there on the sand, I pointed out for Anne the red disk of Mars. I told her about the men up there, at New Caanan and Bing City and Bitterwater, working to uncover one world while they built a new one. I told her about the mystery of the Immermann skull, and what it might mean. I pointed to the stars and named them for her. All the time, Chief, I knew that I could touch Betelgeuse or Phobos as easily as I could touch Anne.
“Anyway, we went swimming together, just like we were in Technicolor and Vista Vision. I screwed the cap on my air-filter and breathed from the reserve tank. Anne wore a bikini. I might as well have been aboard a midget submarine. After that evening, we decided not to go swimming any more; and Anne started wearing strict and conservative clothes.”
“What happened today, Johnny?” McQueen asked me.
“What could happen?” I demanded. “We broke up. She’s contaminated, poor girl. She’s been aswarm with bacteria and yeasts and molds and miscellaneous protista ever since the obstetrician slapped her on the rump, while I’m Boy Galahad, fifty-six one-hundredths percent purer than Ivory Soap. My strength is as the strength of ten, so I told Anne at noon today that she’ll have to find herself a new boy friend. She needs a guy who can eat the other half of the pizza with her, someone who can lend her his comb and breathe the air she breathes. It took me weeks to steel my soul to the prospect of kissing Anne off--there’s an ironic metaphor for you, Chief--but I did it.”
“I’m sorry, Johnny,” McQueen said.
“I’m afraid I’ve diluted the antiseptic with my tears,” I said. “Just singing those old formaldehyde blues.”
I’d soaked for the regulation half-hour now, and the gage of my reserve tank was on red, so I got up to go. “I can see myself at ninety-five,” I said. “I’ll be patriarch of the Big Tank. The oldest male virgin on campus. See you inside, Chief.”
I climbed up the ladder through the second manhole over the formaldehyde sump and stepped out into the sterile precincts of the Big Tank. Home.
I stepped into a shower-booth, let the water blast the formaldehyde off my chastity-suit, popped off my helmet and stripped. Air against sweat-steamed skin felt good. I showered again, naked. I blotted myself dry and dressed in fresh shorts, all the clothing a man needed in the air-conditioned Elysium of the Big Tank. I carried my suit into the locker room to refit it for my next trip outside. Snapping its collar to the bushing of the compressed-air supply and turning on the pressure, I inflated my suit so that it stood on its headless shoulders, ready for inspection.
The wet air-filter that had almost asphyxiated me had been caused, I discovered, by a break in the moisture-trap of the unit. Careful checking assured me that the filter had failed-safe bacteriologically. No outside bugs were in my suit. I might have suffocated, but my corpse would have remained uncorrupted. Such a comfort.
I replaced the trap and filter with a fresh unit and fit a charged bottle of air onto the back of the suit. Then I gave every inch of my chastity-suit an inspection for worn spots, for bubbles forming on its moist surface--an inspection as painstaking and as sure as a window washer’s check of his working harness, or an exhibition jumper’s folding of his parachute. Satisfied that the suit was all set for my next adventure into the world of normal, septic human beings, I racked it and the helmet in my locker and walked out into the garden.
There I stretched out on the grass under the ultra-violets, refreshing my tan while I waited for Dr. McQueen to come up from the sump.
The garden was my favorite room in the Big Tank. It was in establishing the garden that I’d discovered that my Machiavellian mind is articulated to a pair of green thumbs. The crafty bit came over coffee in the cafeteria. I, of course, just sat there to listen and talk; not even C.U. Cafeteria coffee is aseptic enough for a Lapin to drink, even if there were some way to get a cup of the stuff inside the helmet of a sterility-suit. Anyway, I chided these two graduate students from the botany department about the research possibilities they were missing by not growing any gnotobiotic green stuff. I gave them the Boom-Food pitch. Would cabbages, grown in an environment free of bacteria, grow large as king farouks? I hit them with the Advance the Frontiers of the Biological Science line: could soil-nitrates be utilized by legumes in the absolute absence of Nitrobacteriaceae?
The two botanists leaped to my vegetable bait like a brace of starving aphids. A couple days after I’d commenced my con, three tons of quartz sand were shipped through the Big Tank’s main autoclave. The lifeless stuff was poured over a grill of perforated pipes. The pipes were connected to a brew-tank of hydroponic juices, and the wet sand was planted with germ-free seeds of grass, tomatoes, carrots, and other useful herbs. We Lapins had a ball, planting the aseptic seeds in the dirtless dirt eagerly as a band of ribbon-hungry 4-H’ers. What had been our sun-room blossomed, after a decent period of germination, into our lawn and garden.
For some reason, the garden of our Eden never got an apple-tree. But we did have lettuce on our sterile sandwiches now, and fresh tomatoes, infinitely superior in texture and taste to the “radared” fruit--almost pureed by the high-energy beams that made it germ-free--that we’d grown up on.
The lesser mammals with whom we twenty-nine Lapins shared the Big Tank, the rabbits and guinea-pigs and hamsters and like small fowl, didn’t go much for fresh vegetables, having developed a palate for an autoclaved diet. The monkeys, though, proved to be real competitors for carrots and raw sweet corn. They had to be locked out of the garden, rather as certain of their disobedient relatives had been.
I reached out from my supine, sun-drenched position to pull a turnip. I shook off the moist sand and wiped the hydroponic wetness off my shorts, to munch grittily while I waited for the Chief to join me.
As soon as he’d soaked in the formaldehyde mixture for half an hour, Dr. McQueen came up through the manhole. Under the shower he squirted the chemical B.O. off his modified sterility-unit, then came out into the garden to join me, dragging his air-hose. We sat side by side on the park bench I’d built beside the onion-patch. (I was fond of my onions. They were the only living things in the Big Tank with the honest stink of life to them). “Where did you plant the marijuana, Johnny?” the Chief asked me. His voice was muffled by the wetness of his suit-speaker.
“Now, there’s a pregnant idea,” I said. “We won’t plant muggles, Chief. We’ll plant tobacco. All we Lapins need to keep us happy is a good solid vice like smoking.” I looked at the Chief. “Why’d you follow me here, Dr. McQueen? I know I’ve been naughty.”
“Self-pity doesn’t become a man, Johnny,” he said.
“And why the hell not?” I demanded, my blood-pressure ready to challenge any manometer in sight. “If I can feel compassion for some poor joker on TV, why can’t I hurt a little for myself--for John Bogardus, swaddled from his darling by a damned plastic diving-suit? I was--I am--in love with Anne, Doctor.”
“Your marriage-night would kill you, John,” he said.
I jumped up with ready-made fists, then flopped down onto the grass, laughing at the picture I saw. Battle of the Century. In this corner, wearing helmet, chastity-suit, and thirty-five feet of air-hose Roy McQueen, Ph. D. In the far corner, clad only in brown trunks (grass-stained on the seat, folks), John Bogardus, M.D. “It makes a grand old dirty joke, doesn’t it?”
“It makes a painful reality,” Dr. McQueen said. “I know how you must lie awake nights, thinking about gradually acclimatizing yourself to the contaminated world in which Anne lives. You know, though, that the death-rate with the lower animals who’ve tried this acclimatization is steep. Even the survivors don’t survive very long, because of their low gut-tone and their tardy antibody response. I suppose, though, that the imminence of death is as helpless before love as the locksmith.” Dr. McQueen sighed. “If it’s what you want, Johnny, I’ll ignore everything we both know about the probable consequences and help you break out of here ... Think how embarrassed you’d feel, though, if you died of a B. subtilis septicemia or a fulminant chicken-pox the day before the wedding.”
“I could have married Anne, and made her either an unkissed bride or an early widow,” I said. “Neither of these alternatives struck me as an attractive career for the woman I love, so I left her. It’s so logical it’s practically simple arithmetic. Anne put up a fight to keep me, Chief; it was most warming to my amour-propre. Women aren’t logical like us men of science. What a stinking situation!”
“It is,” Dr. McQueen said. “But remember, John, lovers outside the Big Tank often get just as star-crossed as you and Anne.”
“And they have dental caries to contend with, which we don’t,” I said. “Somehow, Chief, we’ll get this experiment into its second generation, past the miseries of the gnotobiotic first-born, we Adams and Eves who were delivered into purity by aseptic Caesarian section. Maybe we’ll have to toss coins or draw cards to pair up for parent-hood. But any kids we raise will be spared that indignity. Know how I’ve got it figured, Chief? We’ve got to make provision for exogamous matings, right? Novelty, in other words, is essential to romance. Here’s the way we’ll work it. We’ll set half the babies, boys and girls together, on one side of a wall, half on the other side. We’ll have established two tribes of kids, each growing up in ignorance of the other; and we’ll keep them strictly apart till they’re in their middle teens. Then, maybe the night of the Junior Prom, we’ll cut a door-way in that wall and introduce them to each other.”
Dr. McQueen smiled. “That will be a splendid evening, John. And a situation to make an anthropologist’s mouth water. You may have found the answer to one of your children’s major problems. I only wish we had as simple a solution to the current troubles of John Bogardus.”
“Don’t blame yourself for what’s happened to me,” I said. “I’ve carried on pretty bad today, but that doesn’t mean that I or any of the other Lapins blame you for causing us to be birthed into the Big Tank. It had to be done. Once Dr. Reyniers had made gnotobiotics possible, a colony of germ-free humans became available. You did a good and honest job of bringing us colonists up, Chief. As good a job as anyone could do.”
“Thank you, John,” he said. “I often wonder, though, whether the Nuremberg Principles really gave us the right to build and populate this germless microcosm. We told your mothers when they volunteered that the results of raising humans gnotobiotically would be important. They have indeed. Thousands of lives have been saved by what we’ve learned here. We saw to it, as we’d also promised your mothers, that your health hasn’t suffered by reason of experiments, that you’ve been given the education you need to earn a good living, and especially that your dignity as human beings has always been respected. The core question is, did we have the right to involve fellow humans, not yet born, in a process the end of which we couldn’t entirely predict? Enough of this, though. My conscience is my own problem. For your immediate relief I can offer only: keep busy.”
“Work is dandy, but liquor’s quicker,” I said. “A wound of the heart calls for a therapeutic drunk.”
“I’ll honor your prescription, Doctor,” the Chief said. “The moment I get outside, I’ll Seitz you some of my own Scotch.” He stood up and caught hold of his air-hose. “Forgive me for behaving so like Pollyanna, John,” he said. “I wish I could offer you relief more potent than Scotch and sympathy.”
“Such spiritual Band-aids are all the help there is, Chief. Thank you for them.”
He slapped me on the shoulder with his gloved right hand, then walked through the shower-room, trailing his black air-hose, and dropped down the manhole into the formaldehyde sump on his way back out into the world.
I sat on my bench in my artificial garden in the middle of the great steel womb I’d been delivered into, and I thought about my Anne.
“If I had a chisel and about four tons of Carrara marble,” the girl standing behind me said, “I’d hack me out a statue on your model, and call it The Thinker.” Dorothy--the Firebird--Damien plumped her little backside onto the bench beside me and scintillated eagerness to converse.
I didn’t want to talk to anyone at the moment, certainly not to the Firebird. To employ a metaphor from an appetite less exalted than love, seeing the Firebird after losing Anne was too much like being offered hamburger after having had a filet mignon snatched from under nose.
Still, as my peripheral vision took in the Firebird’s brilliantly distributed five-foot-three, I realized that my metaphor was false. That flame-colored hair and impish, freckled face; that halter taut as a double-barreled ballista cocked to fire twin rounds; I turned my attention to the girlscape beside me, quite innocent of covetousness, my interest purely aesthetic. No hamburger, this. Firebird Damien was filet mignon.
But she wasn’t Anne.
Suddenly I was contrite toward my fellow captive. “You’re looking splendid, Miss Damien,” I said.
“And you got a face peeled off the iodine bottle. Tell mamma where it hurts.”
“Don’t delve, doll.”
“Woman-trouble?” she asked.
“The term is tautological,” I said. “Woman and trouble are synonyms. If the language had any logic the words would rhyme.”
The Firebird put a freckled arm across my shoulder and squeezed my deltoid with her resting hand. I shrugged. “Don’t try to shake me loose, Johnny,” she said. “I’m trying to find out what sort of people you are. Whether you’re a Shrinker or a Flesh-Presser.”
“Obviously, you’re of the Shrinker persuasion,” I said.
“Hoo-hah! Shrinkers are the other race from me,” the Firebird said. “They’re the people who quail at shaking hands, who never slap a back nor playfully pinch. They hate to be crowded, don’t like to be touched. My sort of people, though, tend to cuddle like puppies, or like cattle in a thunderstorm; we take comfort in the closeness of other humans. We’re not erotic about this, Johnny. Not necessarily erotic, I mean. We have our moments, too, or the Shrinkers would long since have taken over the world in spite of their dreadful handicap. We’re the people who make brilliant barbers. The kind who say hello to you with a Roman handshake and a clasp on the shoulder. We’re the doctors with the healing touch, the most tender nurses. We’re the Flesh-Pressers.” She gently squeezed my shoulder-muscle again to demonstrate. “Tell me what’s the matter, Johnny. Maybe I can help.”
“No magic touch will cure my trouble,” I said. “Anne and I are through. It was hopeless. I was like the goldfish in love with the cat. So I called our romance to a halt today and drove home in my little green sports-car, feeling a little green and hardly sporty at all. Please don’t mention this again, Firebird; not till I’m old and bald and my wound has healed to a thin white scar.”
“Can I say one thing?”
“You will, so do.”
“I’m really sorry, Johnny.”
“Thank you, Firebird,” I said. “The Chief promised to send some therapeutic juices through the Seitz filter. If you’ve a mind to sample a little sterile White Horse, perhaps tie one on with me this evening, you’d be most welcome.”
“I’ll be proud and happy,” the Firebird said. She scooted even closer.
I found her propinquity not at all unpleasant. Was I perhaps of the Flesh-Presser clan myself? The girl smelled good, the faint wholesome feminine odor of my Lapin foster-sisters--a perfume an outside wench, host to a universe of bacteria, could approximate only with Pepsodent and the most meticulous attention to her underarms, I gather from TV.
“How am I to entertain you, sir?” the Firebird asked me. “I have current gossip, vintage scandal, clever anecdotes lifted from the steaming pages of my autoclaved Reader’s Digest, imitations of bird-songs--heavy on the mating-calls, these--and sheer adoration.” She paused. “Scratch that last offering, Johnny,” she said. “It’s un-hygienic for a girl to wear her heart on her sleeve, even here.”
“I’ve lost touch with the Big Tank social whirl these last few weeks,” I said. “I’ve been spending all my alive-time in the greater world of Valparaiso, Indiana. Bring me abreast of the local gossip, Firebird, if you please.”
“Gladly. First there’s the case of Mary deWitte. She’s still on the trail of her basketball star--a fellow named Lofting--confident that somehow they’ll manage to compromise her hateful purity ... Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned Mary,” she said, seeing that I was frowning.
“I was just thinking,” I said. “Miss deWitte and I might get together to establish an Amour Anonymous group in the Big Tank.”
“If you do, Johnny,” the Firebird said softly, “write me up a card as a charter member.”
“The Chief was talking about Mary deWitte only a few minutes ago,” I said. “Hasn’t she accepted the fact that we Lapins can’t hope to breed with those jungle weeds outdoors?”
“Have you accepted that fact, Johnny?” the Firebird asked.
“Apt question,” I admitted. “Sure. I’ve decided that Anne is as unavailable to me as Mars is. I don’t know which makes me more bitter, Firebird; losing Anne or being denied the chance at the stars. Now that the solar system is getting man’s footprints all over it, now that the Orion ships are slamming out to Mars and back on a busline’s schedule, and the biggest ship of all is being fitted for deep space at the back of the moon, the constellations don’t seem much further off than Chicago. But not for me.”
“You think you’re bitter, bud, you should hear me with my hair down,” the Firebird said. “But we’ve had dirges enough for one evening. Your whiskey should be filtered through by now. Let’s go wet our Scotch apéritif, and have dinner.”
“I’m not hungry,” I said. “I just ate a turnip.”
“Will turnips make you big and strong? You need solider food, like Scotch. That’s my professional opinion, Doctor.” She got up and tugged at my hand. “Come on, Johnny. I’m not about to let you sit here all evening and brood.”
“Is this your prescription, sweet Firebird?” I asked. “That I’m to go back to the madding crowd, mingle with my twenty-eight fellows in aseptic togetherness? Well, you’re probably right.” I got up from my park-bench to walk with her, hand-in-hand, to the dining room, stopping en route at my room for a shirt. Dinner was a formal affair in the Big Tank, shirts for the gentlemen and shoes for all.
The other Lapins were already eating. They greeted me and especially the Firebird with jokes and fellowshippy sounds.
I felt very much at home with them. There was Bud Dorsey, our weight-lifting astrophysicist, his magnificent u.v.-blackened body a study in the surface musculature of the human male. At his table was Karl Fyrmeister, who has a practically complete collection of the airmail stamps of the world to console him on long winter evenings. All the stamps are quite sterile. Karl was talking with Gloria Moss, whose academic specialty was group dynamics. She demonstrated muscular dynamics so attractively that when she walked about the campus in her chastity-suit she drew whistles, a truly remarkable accolade when you consider that the c-suit is somewhat less faithful to the wearer’s form than a poncho. Keto Hannamuri sat the four-place table with Bud and Karl and Gloria. He was my fellow-medic among McQueen’s Beasts, a pediatrician. Kids loved him. Wearing his sterility-suit as he made his Ped Ward rounds, that Oriental smile showing through the face-plate of his mask, Keto seemed to the television-nurtured youngsters the very model of the friendly extra-solar alien, complete with space-suit. Besides his flair for showmanship, Keto was a remarkably fine doctor. As we passed his table, he slapped the Firebird’s short-shorted callipygia in a kin-ship-gesture of the Flesh-Presser clan.
I felt a sudden overwhelming love for all these people, my brothers-and-sister-in-exile. I took my tray to sit down quick with the Firebird before my reserve, depleted by the emotional beating I’d taken at noon, gave way.
The menu featured radared steak. The meat was germ-free and somewhat tenderized by the high-energy beams. (A purist in culinary proteins might go so far as to say denatured.) The nearest any Lapin came to ingesting a bacterium was here at the table, where we ate billions of bacterial corpses. The bugs achieved a post-mortem revenge by triggering the production of faint bacterial antibodies in our blood.
Besides the steaks and the myriads of murdered microbes, we had an aseptic salad prepared from Tank-grown hydroponic vegetation, dressed with Roquefort, the cheese that vies with penicillin in my private hall of fame as the noblest product ever a mold gave man. The Scotch that Dr. McQueen had promised to send was on hand, Seitz-filtered into a sterile White Horse bottle. Not really caring to dilute my poignancies with alcohol, I passed the whiskey among the tables nearby.
The Firebird was managing to stay quite close to me, though technically remaining on her own side of the table, eating and talking and now and then flashing me such a glance of yearning that I was pierced by the sight of her and by a remembered line of e. e. cummings’s: “ ... your slightest look easily will unclose me though I have closed myself as fingers...” Just as suddenly, I realized that mine was a highly pathological state of mind, the rinse-phase of the brain-wash. Autism can be produced as surely by loneliness or unrequitable love as by injections of LSD-25.
So I turned my attention to my environment, consciously flexing my muscles of mental health. I answered the Firebird’s sallies with automatic flippancy. I ate my steak, savoring its flavor. And I looked about the dining-room, examining it as though I’d never eaten there before.
The Lapins’ dining-room in the Big Tank is about the size of a railroad restaurant car. (Not that I’ve ever been aboard a train to make the comparison. The stringencies of the sterility-suit tie such of us to the Big Tank on a short leash: the most sanitary of outside washrooms would prove a pesthole to a Lapin.) The kitchen, which was under the supervision of the Firebird, our dietitian, could have been squeezed into a telephone booth. It served chiefly as receiving-station for the autoclave and the radar-room, through which all our food came. With its ten little four-place tables, each covered with a gypsy red-checkerboard cloth, set with a green glass vase of Tank-grown daisies, our dining-room was friendly enough. The Tank-ness of it, though, was emphasized by a mural along one wall, a fantasy of stars and men and microbes that half a dozen of us had planned and painted one week. Where the mural was now had once been a picture window, overlooking a green stretch of Central campus, a source of comfort to us all. An Air Force jet, though, pulling out of a dive invisibly above us, had sonic-boomed a crack in both panes of the double glass of the window, causing a general alert as we realized that some airborne Proteus or fortunate Staphylococcus or lonely Aspergillis might have invaded our fortress through this almost microscopic breach in our walls.
Careful decontamination had saved our sterility, but now the Big Tank had no window.
“I was saying...” the Firebird said, in a firm voice.
“Sorry, doll. You were saying?”
“That Mary deWitte isn’t here. Do you suppose she’s still outside? She checked out her sterility-suit about the same time you did.”
“That’s a good nine hours ago,” I said, glancing at the clock set over Saturn on our mural. “Either Mary has been on a restricted-fluids diet, or True Love has made her careless of visceral discomfort.”
“Don’t be coarse, Johnny.”
“The demands of the kidney are as exigent as those of the heart, Firebird,” I said. “I think I’d better call Dr. McQueen.”
“You’ll only cause trouble for her and Lofting,” Firebird said.
“I’ve decided that it’s better to be lovesick than dead,” I explained, getting up from the table.
I went to the phone in the corner of the dining-room and dialed Dr. McQueen’s home. “Chief? John Bogardus. Mary deWitte still hasn’t come home to roost. I think we’d better find her before she does something splendid and foolish.”
“Like perhaps marrying her contaminated basketball-player and setting out on a suicidal honeymoon?” Dr. McQueen suggested. “You’re right, John; we should prevent that sort of thing. The rub is, we’re too late. I got a phone-call from Mary a few minutes after I got home this evening. She abandoned her sterility-suit in a downtown Chicago hotel room at noon today, and married her fledgling lawyer in a civil ceremony at one o’clock. I tried to find out from her where she was, but she just said she was very happy and hung up.”
“Hell! What are we going to do?”
“I’m flying to Chicago, where I’ll ask the help of the police in finding Mary,” the Chief said. “Once I’ve run down the happy couple, though, damned if I know what I’ll do next. Shall I stand outside the bridal chamber with a syringeful of broad-spectrum antibiotics, waiting for Mary to sneeze?”
“They’ll have a short marriage,” I said.
“Mary knows how likely it is that she’ll never grow old,” Dr. McQueen said. “But I suspect that she hasn’t said a word to her husband. I’d better go now, John. My plane leaves in twenty minutes.”
“Don’t let this prey on you too much, Chief,” I said. “We Lapins have free will, too. We’re old enough to bear the responsibilities for our own actions.”
“Thank you, Johnny.” Dr. McQueen hung up.
I returned to the table with no enthusiasm for the remaining half of my steak. “What’s up, Johnny?” the Firebird asked me.
“Now we are twenty-eight,” I said. “They were married in Chicago at one o’clock.”
“How wonderful!” the Firebird exulted.
She stood and pounded our table-top with the vase, scattering damp daisies on the cloth. “Quiet, everybody! I’ve got an announcement.” The chatter over dessert simmered down. “Mary deWitte got married today--here’s to the bride!” Firebird slopped two ounces of White Horse into her glass and downed them at a heroic gulp. She sat, sputtering. The chatter at the other tables crescendoed as our colleagues reminded one another of the significance of the Firebird’s news.
“Will you also propose the toast at Mary’s wake?” I asked.
“What a hideous thing to say!”