Fresh Air Fiend

by Kris Neville

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Sick and helpless, he was very lucky to have a faithful native woman to nurse him. Or was he?

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

He rolled over to look at the plants. They were crinkled and dead and useless in the narrow flower box across the hut. He tried to draw his arm under his body to force himself erect. The reserve oxygen began to hiss in sleepily. He tried to signal Hertha to help him, but she was across the room with her back to him, her hands fumbling with a bowl of dark, syrupy medicine. His lips moved, but the words died in his throat.

He wanted to explain to her that scientists in huge laboratories with many helpers and millions of dollars had been unable to find a cure for liguna fever. He wanted to explain that no brown liquid, made like cake batter, would cure the disease that had decimated the crews of two expeditions to Sitari and somehow gotten back to cut down the population of Wiblanihaven.

But, watching her, he could understand what she thought she was doing. At one time she must have seen a pharmacist put chemicals into a mortar and grind them with a pestle. This, she must have remembered, was what people did to make medicine, and now she put what chemical-appearing substances she could locate--flour, powdered coffee, lemon extract, salt--into a bowl and mashed them together. She was very intent on her work and it probably made her feel almost helpful.

Finally she moved out of his field of vision; he found that he could not turn his head to follow her with his eyes. He lay conscious but inert, like waterlogged wood on a river bottom. He heard sounds of her movement. At last he slept.

He awakened with a start. His head was clearer than it had been for hours. He listened to the oxygen hissing in again. He tried to read the dial on the far wall, but it blurred before his eyes.

“Hertha,” he said.

She came quickly to his cot.

“What does the oxygen register say?”

“Oxygen register?”

He gritted his teeth against the fever which began to shake his body mercilessly until he wanted to scream to make it stop. He became angry even as the fever shook him: angry not really at the doctors; not really at any one thing. Angry because the mountains did not care if he saw them; angry that the air did not care if he breathed it. Angry because, between planets, between suns, the coldness of space merely waited, not giving a damn.

Several years ago--ten, twenty, perhaps more--some doctor had finally isolated a strain of the filterable virus of liguna fever that could be used as a vaccine: too weak to kill, but strong enough to produce immunity against its more virulent brother strains. That opened up the Sitari System for colonization and exploration and meant that the men who got there first would make fortunes.

So he went to the base at Ke, first selling his strip mine property and disposing of his tools and equipping his spaceship for the intersolar trip; and at Ke they shot him full of the disease. But his bloodstream built no antibodies. The weakened virus settled in his nervous system and there was no way of getting it out. The doctors were very sorry for him, and they assured him it was a one-in-ten-thousand phenomenon. Thereafter, he suffered recurrent paralytic attacks.

If it had not been for the advance warning--a pain at the base of his spine, a moment of violent trembling in his knees--he would have been forced to give up solitary strip mining altogether. As it was, whenever he felt the warning, he had to hurry to the nearest colony and be hospitalized for the duration of the attack. He had had four such warnings on this satellite, and three times he had gone to Pastiville on Helio and been cared for and come away with less money than he had gone with.

His bank credit, once large, had slowly dribbled away, and now he made just about enough from his mining to care for himself during illness. He could not afford to hunt for less dangerous, less isolated work. It would not pay enough, for he knew how to do very little that civilization needed done. He was finally trapped; no longer could he afford a pilot for the long flight from Helio to a newer frontier, and he could not risk the trip alone.

He lay waiting for the new spasm of fever and stared at Hertha who, this time, would care for him here and he would not need to go to a hospital. Perhaps, after a little while, he would be able to save enough to push on, through the awful indifference of space, to some new world where, with luck, there would be a sudden fortune.

Then he could go back to civilization.

He realized bitterly that he was merely telling himself he would go back. He knew there was only one direction he could go, and that direction was not back.

Hertha waited, hurt-eyed, moving her pudgy hands helplessly.

When the shaking subsided, he explained through chattering teeth about the oxygen register across the room, and she went away.

The fever vanished completely, leaving him listless. His hand, lying on the rough blanket, was abnormally white. He wiggled the fingers, but he could not feel the wool.

His mouth was dry and he wanted a drink of water.

Hertha moved out of his range of vision. He shifted his head on the damp pillow and watched her out of the corner of his eye.

He had never heard her real name, but she did not seem to object to his name for her.

I am that which began;

Out of me the years roll;

Out of me God and man;

I am equal and whole;

God changes, and man,

And the form of them bodily;

I am the soul.

He tried to sit up again, but he was very weak. He wanted to quote it to her and tell her what he had never told her: that the name of it was Hertha and that it had been written long ago by a man named Swinburne, and he wanted to explain why he had named her after a poem, because it was very funny.

The harsh light hurt his eyes and made him feel dizzy. He lay watching her as she bent toward the oxygen dial, wrinkling her face in animal concentration, trying to read it for him. Her puzzled expression was pathetic; it reminded him of the first time he had seen her.

The walls began to spin crazily, for the hut had been intended for only one person.

He remembered the first time he saw her, cowering in a filthy alleyway in the Miramus. At first he thought she had taken some food from a garbage pail and was trying to conceal it by holding it to her breast. But when the flare of a rocket leaving the field two blocks away lit the area for a moment, he saw that she was holding a tiny welikin, terribly mangled, looking as if it had just been run over by a heavy transport truck. He took it away from her and threw it into the darkness, shuddering.

“It was dead,” he said.

She continued to stare at him, starting to cry silently, big, round, salt tears that she brushed at with reddened hands.

“My--my--” she stammered.

He had an eerie feeling that she was trying to say, “My baby,” and he felt a little chill of pity creep up his spine.

“What do you do?” he asked kindly.

“Sweep floors. I work a little for the Commander’s wife. Around her home.”

“How did you get here?”

Still crying, she said, “On a rocket.”

“Of course. What I meant was...” But he did not need to ask how she had gotten passed the emigration officers. Some influential man--such things could happen, especially when the destination was a relatively new frontier, such as Helio, where there was little danger of investigation--had seen to it that certain answers were falsified; and a little money and a corrupt official had conspired to produce a passport which read, “Mentally and physically fit for colonization.”

The influential man had, in effect, bought and paid for a personal slave to bring with him to the stars. She would not know of her legal rights. She would be easily frightened and confused. And then something had happened, and for some reason she had been abandoned to shift for herself. Perhaps she had run away.

He looked away from her face. This was none of his affair.

“Never mind,” he said. He reached into his pocket and gave her a few coins and then turned and walked rapidly away, suddenly anxious to see the bright, remembered face of the young colonist, Doris, Don’s friend; a face that would chase away the memory of this pathetic creature.

After a moment, he heard the pad of her feet hopefully, fearfully following him.

She was standing beside his cot again, and he concentrated to make the walls stop spinning.

“It had a blue line.”

“Yes, I know. Where?”

She showed him with her fingers. “This much.”

“Halfway up?” he prompted.

Dumbly, she nodded.

He looked at the plants. “Hertha, listen. I’ve got to talk before the paralysis comes back. You’ll have to listen very carefully and try to understand. I’ll be all right in about ten days. You know that?”

She nodded again.

He took a deep breath that seemed to catch in his throat. “But you’ll have to go outside before then.”

Hertha whimpered and fluttered her hands nervously.

“I know you’re afraid,” he said. “I wouldn’t ask you, but it has to be done. I can’t go. You can see that, can’t you? It has to be done.”


“Nonsense!” he said harshly. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Put on the outside suit and nothing can hurt you.”

Moaning in fear, she shook her head.

“Listen, Hertha! You’ve got to do it. For me!” He did not like to make the appeal personal. He would have preferred to convince her that fear of the outside was groundless. It was not possible. He had attempted, again and again, to explain that the tiny satellite with its poison air was completely harmless as long as she wore a surface suit. There was no alien life, no possible danger, outside this tiny square of insulated hut and breathable air. But it was useless. And the personal appeal was the only course remaining. It was as much for her sake as his; she also needed oxygen, but she could never understand that fact.

“For you?” she asked.

He nodded, feeling the fever rise. His face twisted in pain, and he stared pleadingly into her cow-like eyes: dumb eyes, animal eyes, brown and trusting and ... loyal. The paralysis struck. His voice would not come up out of his chest and the dizziness swamped his mind, and, in fever, he was once again in Pastiville, the nearest planet with an oxygen atmosphere.

Hertha followed him up the alley, out into the cheap glitter of Windopole Avenue, a rutted, smelly street which was the center of the port-workers’ section. She followed him across Windopole, up Venus, across Nineshime. He turned into the Lexo Building, which had become shabby since he had seen it last, when it had been freshly painted. She did not follow him inside, and he breathed a sigh of relief and tried to put her out of his mind as he walked up the stairs to the room 17B.

After a moment’s hesitation, his heart knocking with pleasant anticipation, he pressed the buzzer.

“Come in.”

He found the knob, twisted open the door, entered.

“Why Jimmy!” the girl said in what seemed to be surprise and heavy delight. She crossed to him quickly and offered her lips to be kissed. “It’s good to see you!”

He took half a step backward, trying to keep the shock out of his face.

“Oh, it’s so good to see you, Jimmy! Sit down. Tell me all about it, about everything. Did you make loads and loads of money? When did you get back? How’s the lig fever?”

He sat down, scarcely listening, studying the apartment, feeling vaguely ill. She was chattering, he realized, to overcome her embarrassment.

“The books you ordered came. I’ve got them right here. They’re all there but some poetry or other. There was a letter about that, but the people just said they didn’t have it in stock. I opened it to see if it required an answer. Just a sec. I’ll get them for you.” She left the room with quick, nervous strides.

The apartment had been redone since he had seen it. There were now expensive drapes at the windows, imported from somewhere; a genuine Earth tapestry hung above the door. Plump silken pillows scattered on the floor and a late model phono-general in the corner, with a gleaming cabinet and record spool accessory box.

She came back with the books, neatly done up in a bundle.

“I guess you still read as much as ever? Don said you always were a great reader.”

Uncomfortably, he stood up.

She put the books on a low serving table, moistened her lips to make them glistening red. “Sit down, Jimmy!”

He still stood.

Jimmy!“ she said in mock anger. “Sit down! Goodness, it’s good to have a fellow Earthman to talk to. I was so busy when you came by the other time, we scarcely had a minute to talk. I’d just got here, you remember ... Well, I’m settled now, so we’ll just have to have a nice, long talk.”

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