Piper in the Woods

by

Tags: Science Fiction, Novel-Classic, .

Desc: Science Fiction Story: "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!

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?”

“No, sir.”

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.”

“What then?”

“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?”

“Doctor Harris.”

“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.”

“Cataleptic? Really?”

“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.

“Yes.”

“Do you come here every day?”

“Yes.”

“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?”

Westerburg nodded.

“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?”

Westerburg nodded.

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