Earth maintained an important garrison on Asteroid Y-3. Now suddenly it was imperiled with a biological impossibility--men becoming plants!
“Well, Corporal Westerburg,” Doctor Henry Harris said gently, “just why do you think you’re a plant?”
As he spoke, Harris glanced down again at the card on his desk. It was from the Base Commander himself, made out in Cox’s heavy scrawl: Doc, this is the lad I told you about. Talk to him and try to find out how he got this delusion. He’s from the new Garrison, the new check-station on Asteroid Y-3, and we don’t want anything to go wrong there. Especially a silly damn thing like this!
Harris pushed the card aside and stared back up at the youth across the desk from him. The young man seemed ill at ease and appeared to be avoiding answering the question Harris had put to him. Harris frowned. Westerburg was a good-looking chap, actually handsome in his Patrol uniform, a shock of blond hair over one eye. He was tall, almost six feet, a fine healthy lad, just two years out of Training, according to the card. Born in Detroit. Had measles when he was nine. Interested in jet engines, tennis, and girls. Twenty-six years old.
“Well, Corporal Westerburg,” Doctor Harris said again. “Why do you think you’re a plant?”
The Corporal looked up shyly. He cleared his throat. “Sir, I am a plant, I don’t just think so. I’ve been a plant for several days, now.”
“I see.” The Doctor nodded. “You mean that you weren’t always a plant?”
“No, sir. I just became a plant recently.”
“And what were you before you became a plant?”
“Well, sir, I was just like the rest of you.”
There was silence. Doctor Harris took up his pen and scratched a few lines, but nothing of importance came. A plant? And such a healthy-looking lad! Harris removed his steel-rimmed glasses and polished them with his handkerchief. He put them on again and leaned back in his chair. “Care for a cigarette, Corporal?”
The Doctor lit one himself, resting his arm on the edge of the chair. “Corporal, you must realize that there are very few men who become plants, especially on such short notice. I have to admit you are the first person who has ever told me such a thing.”
“Yes, sir, I realize it’s quite rare.”
“You can understand why I’m interested, then. When you say you’re a plant, you mean you’re not capable of mobility? Or do you mean you’re a vegetable, as opposed to an animal? Or just what?”
The Corporal looked away. “I can’t tell you any more,” he murmured. “I’m sorry, sir.”
“Well, would you mind telling me how you became a plant?”
Corporal Westerburg hesitated. He stared down at the floor, then out the window at the spaceport, then at a fly on the desk. At last he stood up, getting slowly to his feet. “I can’t even tell you that, sir,” he said.
“You can’t? Why not?”
“Because--because I promised not to.”
The room was silent. Doctor Harris rose, too, and they both stood facing each other. Harris frowned, rubbing his jaw. “Corporal, just who did you promise?”
“I can’t even tell you that, sir. I’m sorry.”
The Doctor considered this. At last he went to the door and opened it. “All right, Corporal. You may go now. And thanks for your time.”
“I’m sorry I’m not more helpful.” The Corporal went slowly out and Harris closed the door after him. Then he went across his office to the vidphone. He rang Commander Cox’s letter. A moment later the beefy good-natured face of the Base Commander appeared.
“Cox, this is Harris. I talked to him, all right. All I could get is the statement that he’s a plant. What else is there? What kind of behavior pattern?”
“Well,” Cox said, “the first thing they noticed was that he wouldn’t do any work. The Garrison Chief reported that this Westerburg would wander off outside the Garrison and just sit, all day long. Just sit.”
“In the sun?”
“Yes. Just sit in the sun. Then at nightfall he would come back in. When they asked why he wasn’t working in the jet repair building he told them he had to be out in the sun. Then he said--” Cox hesitated.
“Yes? Said what?”
“He said that work was unnatural. That it was a waste of time. That the only worthwhile thing was to sit and contemplate--outside.”
“Then they asked him how he got that idea, and then he revealed to them that he had become a plant.”
“I’m going to have to talk to him again, I can see,” Harris said. “And he’s applied for a permanent discharge from the Patrol? What reason did he give?”
“The same, that he’s a plant now, and has no more interest in being a Patrolman. All he wants to do is sit in the sun. It’s the damnedest thing I ever heard.”
“All right. I think I’ll visit him in his quarters.” Harris looked at his watch. “I’ll go over after dinner.”
“Good luck,” Cox said gloomily. “But who ever heard of a man turning into a plant? We told him it wasn’t possible, but he just smiled at us.”
“I’ll let you know how I make out,” Harris said.
Harris walked slowly down the hall. It was after six; the evening meal was over. A dim concept was coming into his mind, but it was much too soon to be sure. He increased his pace, turning right at the end of the hall. Two nurses passed, hurrying by. Westerburg was quartered with a buddy, a man who had been injured in a jet blast and who was now almost recovered. Harris came to the dorm wing and stopped, checking the numbers on the doors.
“Can I help you, sir?” the robot attendant said, gliding up.
“I’m looking for Corporal Westerburg’s room.”
“Three doors to the right.”
Harris went on. Asteroid Y-3 had only recently been garrisoned and staffed. It had become the primary check-point to halt and examine ships entering the system from outer space. The Garrison made sure that no dangerous bacteria, fungus, or what-not arrived to infect the system. A nice asteroid it was, warm, well-watered, with trees and lakes and lots of sunlight. And the most modern Garrison in the nine planets. He shook his head, coming to the third door. He stopped, raising his hand and knocking.
“Who’s there?” sounded through the door.
“I want to see Corporal Westerburg.”
The door opened. A bovine youth with horn-rimmed glasses looked out, a book in his hand. “Who are you?”
“I’m sorry, sir. Corporal Westerburg is asleep.”
“Would he mind if I woke him up? I want very much to talk to him.” Harris peered inside. He could see a neat room, with a desk, a rug and lamp, and two bunks. On one of the bunks was Westerburg, lying face up, his arms folded across his chest, his eyes tightly closed.
“Sir,” the bovine youth said, “I’m afraid I can’t wake him up for you, much as I’d like to.”
“You can’t? Why not?”
“Sir, Corporal Westerburg won’t wake up, not after the sun sets. He just won’t. He can’t be wakened.”
“But in the morning, as soon as the sun comes up, he leaps out of bed and goes outside. Stays the whole day.”
“I see,” the Doctor said. “Well, thanks anyhow.” He went back out into the hall and the door shut after him. “There’s more to this than I realized,” he murmured. He went on back the way he had come.
It was a warm sunny day. The sky was almost free of clouds and a gentle wind moved through the cedars along the bank of the stream. There was a path leading from the hospital building down the slope to the stream. At the stream a small bridge led over to the other side, and a few patients were standing on the bridge, wrapped in their bathrobes, looking aimlessly down at the water.
It took Harris several minutes to find Westerburg. The youth was not with the other patients, near or around the bridge. He had gone farther down, past the cedar trees and out onto a strip of bright meadow, where poppies and grass grew everywhere. He was sitting on the stream bank, on a flat grey stone, leaning back and staring up, his mouth open a little. He did not notice the Doctor until Harris was almost beside him.
“Hello,” Harris said softly.
Westerburg opened his eyes, looking up. He smiled and got slowly to his feet, a graceful, flowing motion that was rather surprising for a man of his size. “Hello, Doctor. What brings you out here?”
“Nothing. Thought I’d get some sun.”
“Here, you can share my rock.” Westerburg moved over and Harris sat down gingerly, being careful not to catch his trousers on the sharp edges of the rock. He lit a cigarette and gazed silently down at the water. Beside him, Westerburg had resumed his strange position, leaning back, resting on his hands, staring up with his eyes shut tight.
“Nice day,” the Doctor said.
“Do you come here every day?”
“You like it better out here than inside.”
“I can’t stay inside,” Westerburg said.
“You can’t? How do you mean, ‘can’t’?”
“You would die without air, wouldn’t you?” the Corporal said.
“And you’d die without sunlight?”
“Corporal, may I ask you something? Do you plan to do this the rest of your life, sit out in the sun on a flat rock? Nothing else?”
“How about your job? You went to school for years to become a Patrolman. You wanted to enter the Patrol very badly. You were given a fine rating and a first-class position. How do you feel, giving all that up? You know, it won’t be easy to get back in again. Do you realize that?”
“I realize it.”
“And you’re really going to give it all up?”
Harris was silent for a while. At last he put his cigarette out and turned toward the youth. “All right, let’s say you give up your job and sit in the sun. Well, what happens, then? Someone else has to do the job instead of you. Isn’t that true? The job has to be done, your job has to be done. And if you don’t do it someone else has to.”
“I suppose so.”
“Westerburg, suppose everyone felt the way you do? Suppose everyone wanted to sit in the sun all day? What would happen? No one would check ships coming from outer space. Bacteria and toxic crystals would enter the system and cause mass death and suffering. Isn’t that right?”
“If everyone felt the way I do they wouldn’t be going into outer space.”
“But they have to. They have to trade, they have to get minerals and products and new plants.”
“To keep society going.”
“Well--” Harris gestured. “People couldn’t live without society.”
Westerburg said nothing to that. Harris watched him, but the youth did not answer.
“Isn’t that right?” Harris said.
“Perhaps. It’s a peculiar business, Doctor. You know, I struggled for years to get through Training. I had to work and pay my own way. Washed dishes, worked in kitchens. Studied at night, learned, crammed, worked on and on. And you know what I think, now?”
“I wish I’d become a plant earlier.”
Doctor Harris stood up. “Westerburg, when you come inside, will you stop off at my office? I want to give you a few tests, if you don’t mind.”
“The shock box?” Westerburg smiled. “I knew that would be coming around. Sure, I don’t mind.”
Nettled, Harris left the rock, walking back up the bank a short distance. “About three, Corporal?”
The Corporal nodded.
Harris made his way up the hill, to the path, toward the hospital building. The whole thing was beginning to become more clear to him. A boy who had struggled all his life. Financial insecurity. Idealized goal, getting a Patrol assignment. Finally reached it, found the load too great. And on Asteroid Y-3 there was too much vegetation to look at all day. Primitive identification and projection on the flora of the asteroid. Concept of security involved in immobility and permanence. Unchanging forest.
He entered the building. A robot orderly stopped him almost at once. “Sir, Commander Cox wants you urgently, on the vidphone.”
“Thanks.” Harris strode to his office. He dialed Cox’s letter and the Commander’s face came presently into focus. “Cox? This is Harris. I’ve been out talking to the boy. I’m beginning to get this lined up, now. I can see the pattern, too much load too long. Finally gets what he wants and the idealization shatters under the--”
“Harris!” Cox barked. “Shut up and listen. I just got a report from Y-3. They’re sending an express rocket here. It’s on the way.”
“An express rocket?”
“Five more cases like Westerburg. All say they’re plants! The Garrison Chief is worried as hell. Says we must find out what it is or the Garrison will fall apart, right away. Do you get me, Harris? Find out what it is!”
“Yes, sir,” Harris murmured. “Yes, sir.”
By the end of the week there were twenty cases, and all, of course, were from Asteroid Y-3.
Commander Cox and Harris stood together at the top of the hill, looking gloomily down at the stream below. Sixteen men and four women sat in the sun along the bank, none of them moving, none speaking. An hour had gone by since Cox and Harris appeared, and in all that time the twenty people below had not stirred.
“I don’t get it,” Cox said, shaking his head. “I just absolutely don’t get it. Harris, is this the beginning of the end? Is everything going to start cracking around us? It gives me a hell of a strange feeling to see those people down there, basking away in the sun, just sitting and basking.”
“Who’s that man there with the red hair?”
“That’s Ulrich Deutsch. He was Second in Command at the Garrison. Now look at him! Sits and dozes with his mouth open and his eyes shut. A week ago that man was climbing, going right up to the top. When the Garrison Chief retires he was supposed to take over. Maybe another year, at the most. All his life he’s been climbing to get up there.”
“And now he sits in the sun,” Harris finished.
“That woman. The brunette, with the short hair. Career woman. Head of the entire office staff of the Garrison. And the man beside her. Janitor. And that cute little gal there, with the bosom. Secretary, just out of school. All kinds. And I got a note this morning, three more coming in sometime today.”
Harris nodded. “The strange thing is--they really want to sit down there. They’re completely rational; they could do something else, but they just don’t care to.”
“Well?” Cox said. “What are you going to do? Have you found anything? We’re counting on you. Let’s hear it.”
“I couldn’t get anything out of them directly,” Harris said, “but I’ve had some interesting results with the shock box. Let’s go inside and I’ll show you.”
“Fine,” Cox turned and started toward the hospital. “Show me anything you’ve got. This is serious. Now I know how Tiberius felt when Christianity showed up in high places.”
Harris snapped off the light. The room was pitch black. “I’ll run this first reel for you. The subject is one of the best biologists stationed at the Garrison. Robert Bradshaw. He came in yesterday. I got a good run from the shock box because Bradshaw’s mind is so highly differentiated. There’s a lot of repressed material of a non-rational nature, more than usual.”
He pressed a switch. The projector whirred, and on the far wall a three-dimensional image appeared in color, so real that it might have been the man himself. Robert Bradshaw was a man of fifty, heavy-set, with iron grey hair and a square jaw. He sat in the chair calmly, his hands resting on the arms, oblivious to the electrodes attached to his neck and wrist. “There I go,” Harris said. “Watch.”
His film-image appeared, approaching Bradshaw. “Now, Mr. Bradshaw,” his image said, “this won’t hurt you at all, and it’ll help us a lot.” The image rotated the controls on the shock box. Bradshaw stiffened, and his jaw set, but otherwise he gave no sign. The image of Harris regarded him for a time and then stepped away from the controls.
“Can you hear me, Mr. Bradshaw?” the image asked.
“What is your name?”
“Robert C. Bradshaw.”
“What is your position?”
“Chief Biologist at the check-station on Y-3.”
“Are you there now?”
“No, I’m back on Terra. In a hospital.”
“Because I admitted to the Garrison Chief that I had become a plant.”
“Is that true? That you are a plant.”
“Yes, in a non-biological sense. I retain the physiology of a human being, of course.”
“What do you mean, then, that you’re a plant?”
“The reference is to attitudinal response, to Weltanschauung.”
“It is possible for a warm-blooded animal, an upper primate, to adopt the psychology of a plant, to some extent.”
“I refer to this.”
“And the others? They refer to this also?”
“How did this occur, your adopting this attitude?”
Bradshaw’s image hesitated, the lips twisting. “See?” Harris said to Cox. “Strong conflict. He wouldn’t have gone on, if he had been fully conscious.”
“I was taught to become a plant.”
The image of Harris showed surprise and interest. “What do you mean, you were taught to become a plant?”
“They realized my problems and taught me to become a plant. Now I’m free from them, the problems.”
“Who? Who taught you?”
“Who? The Pipers? Who are the Pipers?”
There was no answer.
“Mr. Bradshaw, who are the Pipers?”
After a long, agonized pause, the heavy lips parted. “They live in the woods...”
Harris snapped off the projector, and the lights came on. He and Cox blinked. “That was all I could get,” Harris said. “But I was lucky to get that. He wasn’t supposed to tell, not at all. That was the thing they all promised not to do, tell who taught them to become plants. The Pipers who live in the woods, on Asteroid Y-3.”
“You got this story from all twenty?”
“No.” Harris grimaced. “Most of them put up too much fight. I couldn’t even get this much from them.”
Cox reflected. “The Pipers. Well? What do you propose to do? Just wait around until you can get the full story? Is that your program?”
“No,” Harris said. “Not at all. I’m going to Y-3 and find out who the Pipers are, myself.”
The small patrol ship made its landing with care and precision, its jets choking into final silence. The hatch slid back and Doctor Henry Harris found himself staring out at a field, a brown, sun-baked landing field. At the end of the field was a tall signal tower. Around the field on all sides were long grey buildings, the Garrison check-station itself. Not far off a huge Venusian cruiser was parked, a vast green hulk, like an enormous lime. The technicians from the station were swarming all over it, checking and examining each inch of it for lethal life-forms and poisons that might have attached themselves to the hull.
“All out, sir,” the pilot said.
Harris nodded. He took hold of his two suitcases and stepped carefully down. The ground was hot underfoot, and he blinked in the bright sunlight. Jupiter was in the sky, and the vast planet reflected considerable sunlight down onto the asteroid.
Harris started across the field, carrying his suitcases. A field attendant was already busy opening the storage compartment of the patrol ship, extracting his trunk. The attendant lowered the trunk into a waiting dolly and came after him, manipulating the little truck with bored skill.
As Harris came to the entrance of the signal tower the gate slid back and a man came forward, an older man, large and robust, with white hair and a steady walk.
“How are you, Doctor?” he said, holding his hand out. “I’m Lawrence Watts, the Garrison Chief.”
They shook hands. Watts smiled down at Harris. He was a huge old man, still regal and straight in his dark blue uniform, with his gold epaulets sparkling on his shoulders.
“Have a good trip?” Watts asked. “Come on inside and I’ll have a drink fixed for you. It gets hot around here, with the Big Mirror up there.”
“Jupiter?” Harris followed him inside the building. The signal tower was cool and dark, a welcome relief. “Why is the gravity so near Terra’s? I expected to go flying off like a kangaroo. Is it artificial?”
“No. There’s a dense core of some kind to the asteroid, some kind of metallic deposit. That’s why we picked this asteroid out of all the others. It made the construction problem much simpler, and it also explains why the asteroid has natural air and water. Did you see the hills?”