Mary sat quietly and watched the handsome man’s legs blown off; watched further as the great ship began to crumple and break into small pieces in the middle of the blazing night. She fidgeted slightly as the men and the parts of the men came floating dreamily through the wreckage out into the awful silence. And when the meteorite shower came upon the men, gouging holes through everything, tearing flesh and ripping bones, Mary closed her eyes.
Mrs. Cuberle glanced up from her magazine.
“Do we have to wait much longer?”
“I don’t think so. Why?”
Mary said nothing but looked at the moving wall.
“Oh, that.” Mrs. Cuberle laughed and shook her head. “That tired old thing. Read a magazine, Mary, like I’m doing. We’ve all seen that a million times.”
“Does it have to be on, Mother?”
“Well, nobody seems to be watching. I don’t think the doctor would mind if I switched it off.”
Mrs. Cuberle rose from the couch and walked to the wall. She depressed a little button and the life went from the wall, flickering and glowing.
Mary opened her eyes.
“Honestly,” Mrs. Cuberle said to a woman sitting beside her, “you’d think they’d try to get something else. We might as well go to the museum and watch the first landing on Mars. The Mayoraka Disaster--really!”
The woman replied without distracting her eyes from the magazine page. “It’s the doctor’s idea. Psychological.”
Mrs. Cuberle opened her mouth and moved her head up and down knowingly.
“Ohhh. I should have known there was some reason. Still, who watches it?”
“The children do. Makes them think, makes them grateful or something.”
Mary picked up a magazine and leafed through the pages. All photographs, of women and men. Women like Mother and like the others in the room; slender, tanned, shapely, beautiful women; and men with large muscles and shiny hair. Women and men, all looking alike, all perfect and beautiful. She folded the magazine and wondered how to answer the questions that would be asked.
“Gracious, what is it now! Can’t you sit still for a minute?”
“But we’ve been here three hours.”
Mrs. Cuberle sniffed.
“Do--do I really have to?”
“Now don’t be silly, Mary. After those terrible things you told me, of course you do.”
An olive-skinned woman in a transparent white uniform came into the reception room.
“Cuberle. Mrs. Zena Cuberle?”
“Doctor will see you now.”
Mrs. Cuberle took Mary’s hand and they walked behind the nurse down a long corridor.
A man who seemed in his middle twenties looked up from a desk. He smiled and gestured toward two adjoining chairs.
“Doctor Hortel, I--”
The doctor snapped his fingers.
“Of course, I know. Your daughter. Ha ha, I certainly do know your trouble. Get so many of them nowadays--takes up most of my time.”
“You do?” asked Mrs. Cuberle. “Frankly, it had begun to upset me.”
“Upset? Hmm. Not good. Not good at all. Ah, but then--if people did not get upset, we psychiatrists would be out of a job, eh? Go the way of the early M. D. But, I assure you, I need hear no more.” He turned his handsome face to Mary. “Little girl, how old are you?”
“Oh, a real bit of impatience. It’s just about time, of course. What might your name be?”
“Charming! And so unusual. Well now, Mary, may I say that I understand your problem--understand it thoroughly?”
Mrs. Cuberle smiled and smoothed the sequins on her blouse.
“Madam, you have no idea how many there are these days. Sometimes it preys on their minds so that it affects them physically, even mentally. Makes them act strange, say peculiar, unexpected things. One little girl I recall was so distraught she did nothing but brood all day long. Can you imagine!”
“That’s what Mary does. When she finally told me, doctor, I thought she had gone--you know.”
“That bad, eh? Afraid we’ll have to start a re-education program, very soon, or they’ll all be like this. I believe I’ll suggest it to the senator day after tomorrow.”
“I don’t quite understand, doctor.”
“Simply, Mrs. Cuberle, that the children have got to be thoroughly instructed. Thoroughly. Too much is taken for granted and childish minds somehow refuse to accept things without definite reason. Children have become far too intellectual, which, as I trust I needn’t remind you, is a dangerous thing.”
“Yes, but what has this to do with--”
“With Mary? Everything, of course. Mary, like half the sixteen, seventeen and eighteen year olds today, has begun to feel acutely self-conscious. She feels that her body has developed sufficiently for the Transformation--which of course it has not, not quite yet--and she cannot understand the complex reasons that compel her to wait until some future date. Mary looks at you, at the women all about her, at the pictures, and then she looks into a mirror. From pure perfection of body, face, limbs, pigmentation, carriage, stance, from simon-pure perfection, if I may be allowed the expression, she sees herself and is horrified. Isn’t that so, my dear child? Of course--of course. She asks herself, why must I be hideous, unbalanced, oversize, undersize, full of revolting skin eruptions, badly schemed organically? In short, Mary is tired of being a monster and is overly anxious to achieve what almost everyone else has already achieved.”
“But--” said Mrs. Cuberle.
“This much you understand, doubtless. Now, Mary, what you object to is that our society offers you, and the others like you, no convincing logic on the side of waiting until age nineteen. It is all taken for granted, and you want to know why! It is that simple. A non-technical explanation will not suffice--mercy no! The modern child wants facts, solid technical data, to satisfy her every question. And that, as you can both see, will take a good deal of reorganizing.”
“But--” said Mary.
“The child is upset, nervous, tense; she acts strange, peculiar, odd, worries you and makes herself ill because it is beyond our meagre powers to put it across. I tell you, what we need is a whole new basis for learning. And, that will take doing. It will take doing, Mrs. Cuberle. Now, don’t you worry about Mary, and don’t you worry, child. I’ll prescribe some pills and--”
“No, no, doctor! You’re all mixed up,” cried Mrs. Cuberle.
“I beg your pardon, Madam?”
“What I mean is, you’ve got it wrong. Tell him, Mary, tell the doctor what you told me.”
Mary shifted uneasily in the chair.
“It’s that--I don’t want it.”
The doctor’s well-proportioned jaw dropped.
“Would you please repeat that?”
“I said, I don’t want the Transformation.”
“D--Don’t want it?”
“You see? She told me. That’s why I came to you.”
The doctor looked at Mary suspiciously.
“But that’s impossible! I have never heard of such a thing. Little girl, you are playing a joke!”
Mary nodded negatively.
“See, doctor. What can it be?” Mrs. Cuberle rose and began to pace.
The doctor clucked his tongue and took from a small cupboard a black box covered with buttons and dials and wire.
“Oh no, you don’t think--I mean, could it?”
“We shall soon see.” The doctor revolved a number of dials and studied the single bulb in the center of the box. It did not flicker. He removed handles from Mary’s head.
“Dear me,” the doctor said, “dear me. Your daughter is perfectly sane, Mrs. Cuberle.”
“Well, then what is it?”
“Perhaps she is lying. We haven’t completely eliminated that factor as yet; it slips into certain organisms.”
More tests. More machines and more negative results.
Mary pushed her foot in a circle on the floor. When the doctor put his hands to her shoulders, she looked up pleasantly.
“Little girl,” said the handsome man, “do you actually mean to tell us that you prefer that body?”
“May I ask why.”
“I like it. It’s--hard to explain, but it’s me and that’s what I like. Not the looks, maybe, but the me.”
“You can look in the mirror and see yourself, then look at--well, at your mother and be content?”
“Yes, sir.” Mary thought of her reasons; fuzzy, vague, but very definitely there. Maybe she had said the reason. No. Only a part of it.
“Mrs. Cuberle,” the doctor said, “I suggest that your husband have a long talk with Mary.”
“My husband is dead. That affair near Ganymede, I believe. Something like that.”
“Oh, splendid. Rocket man, eh? Very interesting organisms. Something always seems to happen to rocket men, in one way or another. But--I suppose we should do something.” The doctor scratched his jaw. “When did she first start talking this way,” he asked.
“Oh, for quite some time. I used to think it was because she was such a baby. But lately, the time getting so close and all, I thought I’d better see you.”
“Of course, yes, very wise. Er--does she also do odd things?”
“Well, I found her on the second level one night. She was lying on the floor and when I asked her what she was doing, she said she was trying to sleep.”
Mary flinched. She was sorry, in a way, that Mother had found that out.
“To--did you say ‘sleep’?”
“Now where could she have picked that up?”
“Mary, don’t you know that nobody sleeps anymore? That we have an infinitely greater life-span than our poor ancestors now that the wasteful state of unconsciousness has been conquered? Child, have you actually slept? No one knows how anymore.”
“No sir, but I almost did.”
The doctor sighed. “But, it’s unheard of! How could you begin to try to do something people have forgotten entirely about?”
“The way it was described in the book, it sounded nice, that’s all.” Mary was feeling very uncomfortable now. Home and no talking man in a foolish white gown...
“Book, book? Are there books at your Unit, Madam?”
“There could be--I haven’t cleaned up in a while.”
“That is certainly peculiar. I haven’t seen a book for years. Not since ‘17.”
Mary began to fidget and stare nervously about.
“But with the tapes, why should you try and read books--where did you get them?”
“Daddy did. He got them from his father and so did Grandpa. He said they’re better than the tapes and he was right.”
Mrs. Cuberle flushed.
“My husband was a little strange, Doctor Hortel. He kept those things despite everything I said.
“Dear me, I--excuse me.”
The muscular, black-haired doctor walked to another cabinet and selected from the shelf a bottle. From the bottle he took two large pills and swallowed them.
“Sleep--books--doesn’t want the Transformation--Mrs. Cuberle, my dear good woman, this is grave. Doesn’t want the Transformation. I would appreciate it if you would change psychiatrists: I am very busy and, uh, this is somewhat specialized. I suggest Centraldome. Many fine doctors there. Goodbye.”
The doctor turned and sat down in a large chair and folded his hands. Mary watched him and wondered why the simple statements should have so changed things. But the doctor did not move from the chair.
“Well!” said Mrs. Cuberle and walked quickly from the room.
The man’s legs were being blown off again as they left the reception room.
Mary considered the reflection in the mirrored wall. She sat on the floor and looked at different angles of herself: profile, full-face, full length, naked, clothed. Then she took up the magazine and studied it. She sighed.
“Mirror, mirror on the wall--” The words came haltingly to her mind and from her lips. She hadn’t read them, she recalled. Daddy had said them, quoted them as he put it. But they too were lines from a book--”who is the fairest of--”
A picture of Mother sat upon the dresser and Mary considered this now. Looked for a long time at the slender, feminine neck. The golden skin, smooth and without blemish, without wrinkles and without age. The dark brown eyes and the thin tapers of eyebrows, the long black lashes, set evenly, so that each half of the face corresponded precisely. The half-parted-mouth, a violet tint against the gold, the white, white teeth, even, sparkling.
Mother. Beautiful, Transformed Mother. And back again to the mirror.
“--of them all...”
The image of a rather chubby girl, without lines of rhythm or grace, without perfection. Splotchy skin full of little holes, puffs in the cheeks, red eruptions on the forehead. Perspiration, shapeless hair flowing onto shapeless shoulders down a shapeless body. Like all of them, before the Transformation.
Did they all look like this, before? Did Mother, even?
Mary thought hard, trying to remember exactly what Daddy and Grandpa had said, why they said the Transformation was a bad thing, and why she believed and agreed with them so strongly. It made little sense, but they were right. They were right! And one day, she would understand completely.
Mrs. Cuberle slammed the door angrily and Mary jumped to her feet. She hadn’t forgotten about it. “The way you upset Dr. Hortel. He won’t even see me anymore, and these traumas are getting horrible. I’ll have to get that awful Dr. Wagoner.”
Mrs. Cuberle sat on the couch and crossed her legs carefully.
“What in the world were you doing on the floor?”
“Trying to sleep.”
“Now, I won’t hear of it! You’ve got to stop it! You know you’re not insane. Why should you want to do such a silly thing?”
“The books. And Daddy told me about it.”
“And you mustn’t read those terrible things.”
“Why--is there a law against them?”
“Well, no, but people tired of books when the tapes came in. You know that. The house is full of tapes; anything you want.”
Mary stuck out her lower lip.
“They’re no fun. All about the Wars and the colonizations.”
“And I suppose books are fun?”
“Yes. They are.”
“And that’s where you got this idiotic notion that you don’t want the Transformation, isn’t it? Of course it is. Well, we’ll see to that!”
Mrs. Cuberle rose quickly and took the books from the corner and from the closet and filled her arms with them. She looked everywhere in the room and gathered the old rotten volumes.
These she carried from the room and threw into the elevator. A button guided the doors shut.
“I thought you’d do that,” Mary said. “That’s why I hid most of the good ones. Where you’ll never find them.”
Mrs. Cuberle put a satin handkerchief to her eyes and began to weep.
“Just look at you. Look. I don’t know what I ever did to deserve this!”
“Deserve what, Mother? What am I doing that’s so wrong?” Mary’s mind rippled in a confused stream.
“What!” Mrs. Cuberle screamed, “What! Do you think I want people to point to you and say I’m the mother of an idiot? That’s what they’ll say, you’ll see. Or,” she looked up hopefully, “have you changed your mind?”
“No.” The vague reasons, longing to be put into words.
“It doesn’t hurt. They just take off a little skin and put some on and give you pills and electronic treatments and things like that. It doesn’t take more than a week.”
“No.” The reason.
“Don’t you want to be beautiful, like other people--like me? Look at your friend Shala, she’s getting her Transformation next month. And she’s almost pretty now.”
“Mother, I don’t care--”
“If it’s the bones you’re worried about, well, that doesn’t hurt. They give you a shot and when you wake up, everything’s moulded right. Everything, to suit the personality.”
“I don’t care, I don’t care.”
“I like me the way I am.” Almost--almost exactly. But not quite. Part of it, however. Part of what Daddy and Grandpa meant.
“But you’re so ugly, dear! Like Dr. Hortel said. And Mr. Willmes, at the factory. He told some people he thought you were the ugliest girl he’d ever seen. Says he’ll be thankful when you have your Transformation. And what if he hears of all this, what’ll happen then?”
“Daddy said I was beautiful.”
“Well really, dear. You do have eyes.”
“Daddy said that real beauty is only skin deep. He said a lot of things like that and when I read the books I felt the same way. I guess I don’t want to look like everybody else, that’s all.” No, that’s not it. Not at all it.
“That man had too much to do with you. You’ll notice that he had his Transformation, though!”
“But he was sorry. He told me that if he had it to do over again, he’d never do it. He said for me to be stronger than he was.”
“Well, I won’t have it. You’re not going to get away with this, young lady. After all, I am your mother.”
A bulb flickered in the bathroom and Mrs. Cuberle walked uncertainly to the cabinet. She took out a little cardboard box.
“Time for lunch.”
Mary nodded. That was another thing the books talked about, which the tapes did not. Lunch seemed to be something special long ago, or at least different. The books talked of strange ways of putting a load of things into the mouth and chewing these things. Enjoying them. Strange and somehow wonderful.
“And you’d better get ready for work.”
The office was quiet and without shadows. The walls gave off a steady luminescence, distributed the light evenly upon all the desks and tables. And it was neither hot nor cold.
Mary held the ruler firmly and allowed the pen to travel down the metal edge effortlessly. The new black lines were small and accurate. She tipped her head, compared the notes beside her to the plan she was working on. She noticed the beautiful people looking at her more furtively than before, and she wondered about this as she made her lines.
A tall man rose from his desk in the rear of the office and walked down the aisle to Mary’s table. He surveyed her work, allowing his eyes to travel cautiously from her face to the draft.
Mary looked around.
“Nice job,” said the man.
“Thank you, Mr. Willmes.”
“Dralich shouldn’t have anything to complain about. That crane should hold the whole damn city.”
“It’s very good alloy, sir.”
“Yeah. Say, kid, you got a minute?”
“Let’s go into Mullinson’s office.”
The big handsome man led the way into a small cubby-hole of a room. He motioned to a chair and sat on the edge of one desk.
“Kid, I never was one to beat around the bush. Somebody called in little while ago, gave me some crazy story about you not wanting the Transformation.”
Mary said “Oh.” Daddy had said it would have to happen, some day. This must be what he meant.
“I would’ve told them they were way off the beam, but I wanted to talk to you first, get it straight.”
“Well, sir, it’s true. I don’t. I want to stay this way.”
The man looked at Mary and then coughed, embarrassedly.
“What the hell--excuse me, kid, but--I don’t exactly get it. You, uh, you saw the psychiatrist?”
“Yes sir. I’m not insane. Dr. Hortel can tell you.”
“I didn’t mean anything like that. Well--” the man laughed nervously. “I don’t know what to say. You’re still a cub, but you do swell work. Lot of good results, lots of comments from the stations. But, Mr. Poole won’t like it.”
“I know. I know what you mean, Mr. Willmes. But nothing can change my mind. I want to stay this way and that’s all there is to it.”
“But--you’ll get old before you’re half through life.”