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They were not all as ugly as Doctor Arbuthnot. Some of the nurses were almost attractive--unless the habit of confronting trolls like Arbuthnot and his equally hideous colleagues was already redefining his idea of beauty. But even those lithe young females were all mouth-breathers. And despite the obviously artificial septums someone had grafted onto their noses, they had all been born with single nostrils, just like the good doctor.
He was being treated like royalty. He was served real, if not always identifiable, food and had his sheets changed twice a day. Even his excretions were being accorded a deference that bordered on reverence. He felt like he was being toilet-trained all over again, the ploy now, as then, being to reward him with praise.
Everyone seemed to know all about him. They realized right from the start he would not be able to breathe in their oxygen-poor atmosphere, so he was provided with his own special supply of that vital commodity, piped into his room at no doubt considerable expense. They also spoke his language, or a fair approximation of it, rather like foreign students who have had only each other and some records to practice with. They had a pretty good idea of what he ate, though he suspected their beaming smiles, that weird distortion of their fishy mouths, were put on as much to hide their disgust at his own alien appearance as to seem neighborly. One of these young nymphs had even offered to climb under the sheets with him.
Arbuthnot dropped by twice a day to listen to his heart and draw blood. The Earthman had tried to engage him in conversation, but Arbuthnot only smiled and told him to save his strength. There wouldbe plenty of time later for talk. The nurses were equally unresponsive.
The situation was in some ways so familiar--shipwrecked sailor being attended to by friendly alien natives--that for the first few days he didn't even think to complain. He assumed he was on some outer planet of the Confederacy. There were hundreds of them, some supporting indigenous populations, others harboring colonies of the NWC or the older Union that preceded it. There was no keeping track of all of them.
"You wished to see me, Mister Bosun?" Arbuthnot said, striking the tone of the busy professional acceding to the wishes of an unreasonable patient. The patient in this case might have fallen for it, but he was convinced by now there was something fishy about Arbuthnot besides his face.
"If you can spare the time."
Arbuthnot chose to ignore the sarcasm and sat down in a chair opposite the bed.
"I've been in this ... hospital for almost a week," Bosun went on. "But no one has been willing to tell me what planet I'm on or what I'm being treated for. I'm very grateful for your rescuing me, but I haven't been injured and, as far as I can see, I'm about as fit as I've ever been. I realize your atmosphere isn't fit for me to breathe, but surely you could supply me with some kind of device which would permit me to leave this room. I'm an officer of the New Worlds Confederacy, Second Quadrant, Seventh Fleet. I have an obligation to return to my unit. I've said all this to several people any number of times in the past week, but all I get in return is silence and smiles--if you can call them that. I want to know what's going on."
Arbuthnot started to distort his mouth into that odd horizontal that passed for a grin, but then thought better of it. "I can understand your distress," he replied in the same queer accent they all spoke in. "You've been through a great deal. We've tried to make you as comfortable as possible."
"I'm not complaining about the service. All I want to know is where I am and why I'm here."
"I understand," Arbuthnot said, stretching his mouth sideways with a vengeance.
"I really don't think you do, Doctor. I'm tired of being prodded and poked and looked after like a baby in diapers. I want to leave this room. If I can't return to the fleet, then I want at least the freedom to move about your planet. I spent God-knows how many days floating about in space, trapped inside a space suit ... By the way, what did you do with my spacesuit?"
"Not to worry."
"That's exactly what I mean. I never get a straight answer from you people. If I ask what the soup's made of, I get a platitude for a reply. Soup isn't made out of platitudes."
Arbuthnot's creaseless brow went up a fraction of an inch, as if he were hearing this piece of information for the first time.
"All right, Doctor. If you won't cooperate, I'll find out for myself."
Arbuthnot got to his feet but made no attempt to restrain his patient. "You really shouldn't..." he began, but the Earthman had already opened the door and stepped, however wobbly, into the corridor outside.
Instead of the white hospital walls he expected to find, with those almost-pretty nurses strolling back and forth attending to other patients, he was confronted by a very large room, containing some of the oddest-looking furniture he had ever seen. It was otherwise empty, except for one armchair occupied by a huge, blue-green hulk. The creature had a mouth easily three times the size of Arbuthnot's and, even at a distance of several yards, the most nauseating case of halitosis. At first Bosun thought it was the smell of its breath that was making him woozy, but even as he felt his legs go slack he realized his lightheadedness was actually due to the oxygen-poor air he was breathing. He gave himself up to unconsciousness in the hope this bizarre dream was finally going to end.
When he awoke he was back in his bed. The same white walls were staring down at him. Arbuthnot was drawing blood.
"What happened?" he asked, watching the thick red liquid ooze into a glass tube.
"You decompensated. Nothing to be concerned about."
Arbuthnot capped the tube, then swabbed the Earthman's arm with something cold and applied a bandage. The procedure--not the drawing of blood itself but the way in which he went about it--seemed very queer, as did the word which Arbuthnot used to describe his patient's deoxygenated state. One of the Fleet physicians would simply have applied an analyzer, removed a few drops painlessly, and learned everything he wanted to from the readout. There would have been none of this disgusting pricking and probing to locate a vein, and certainly no use of a needle. He promised himself this was the last time he would submit to such a barbaric procedure.
"What now?" he asked, too weakened by his ordeal to continue his protest.
"You'll be up and about shortly."
"What does 'shortly' mean?"
"Another week. Perhaps less. We have to finish the series of tests we've been running on you. As you've just found out, our atmosphere is not suitable for a metabolism such as your own. We shall have to provide you with a respirator. In the meantime, we must make absolutely certain there isn't anything in our environment that might do you some harm--or that you might do harm to yourself.
The stranded space sailor stared blankly at the white-coated figure. Despite the creature's grotesque features, there was no mistaking the hesitance in his expression.
"Well, I was just using a ... generic word. In the meantime, I hope you will be cooperative. I assure you, we have nothing but your best interests at heart."
Arbuthnot turned to leave.
"Wait a minute. What about telling me where I am?"
"You are on the planet Leffingwell."
"No doubt your own people know it by some other name."
"You're in the Second Quadrant, I take it?"
"You don't know?"
"I'm a physician, Mr. Bosun, not an astronomer. I cannot answer all your questions. In due time you will be introduced to those who can. In the meantime, please try to rest."
The Earthman ("Bosun" was just the name printed on the uniform he had long since shed) had never heard of any planet called Leffingwell. Planets were frequently named after prominent men and women, especially those in the government and sciences. But he had never heard of anyone who went by such a name. Perhaps the planet had two names, one for the New Worlds Confederacy and another for local consumption.
For the next two days he ate, bled, and excreted on cue. He even considered taking a whirl with one of the less fishy-looking nurses, but changed his mind when it occurred to him that she might only be after a sperm specimen. His patience was rewarded. At the end of the second day Arbuthnot appeared with a device that looked suspiciously like an ancient gas mask.
"You want me to wear that?"
"It works quite well. It's been tested rigorously."
Bosun accepted the rubbery object cautiously.
"Try it on."
A nurse assisted him. He asked for a mirror to see what he looked like.
"My God," he said. "I look like one of you."
Arbuthnot and the nurse were beaming. They obviously thought the mask had made an improvement in their patient's appearance. It almost obscured his eyes, making them appear smaller than they actually were. It forced his cheeks inward and his mouth outward, like a flounder gasping for breath. It was even colored blue, like some of the Leffingwellians who had attended him.
"I don't like it. But I'll wear it if it means I can finally get out of this place."
The next morning he was up bright and early. He gave up one more blood sample, then breakfasted on something that looked like scrambled eggs but tasted like eggplant. He washed it down with a glass of milk whose origins he made a point of not inquiring after. Then he dressed himself in the simple pants and tunic that had been left for him and sat down to wait. A half-hour passed without any sign of Arbuthnot. A nurse apologized for the delay. Another half-hour passed. He already had a suspicion that, if it were up to Arbuthnot, he would spend the rest of his days giving up blood and urine samples.
When the doctor finally arrived he was not alone. With him was a shorter, bluer version of himself, who made even more noise breathing and whose exhalations made Arbuthnot's smell like a rose garden.
"Mr. Bosun, I would like you to meet Minister Pridwell."
Pridwell brought his heels smartly together and stuck out his hand. Was the little fish trying to be funny?
"Mr. Pridwell will escort you to the Prime Minister's office."
Pridwell was staring at Bosun with Leffingwellian rapture--mouth contorted almost at right angles to its normally vertical oval, tiny eyes ablaze with pride.
"My pleasure, Mr. Minister," Bosun replied with a straight face.
He put on his oxygen mask, tested it one more time, then was led out of the room. The blue-green bruiser he had stumbled on a couple days ago was nowhere to be seen. Arbuthnot led the way, the Earthman followed, then Pridwell. They came to a kind of vestibule. The nurses were gathered there, apparently to say goodbye. Most of them had not yet seen him in his new mask. They squealed with delight. A couple even kissed him, making the sort of smacking noise he imagined a catfish must make when she greets her husband at the end of a long day upstream.
He was not prepared for the intense glare of the outdoors. Arbuthnot handed him a pair of sunglasses identical to the kind his grandfather had worn eighty years earlier in a different corner of the galaxy. Everything looked different with them on. The monotonous glare polarized into distinct shapes and colors.
He had been around long enough to know the unfamiliar and the invisible were the same. To see at all was to recognize. A totally alien object, creature, or landscape would not even appear as grotesque. It wouldn't appear at all, escaping notice just as the plethora of free-floating atoms that fed the huge engines of a ship like the one he had served on remained invisible to the naked eye.
At first the landscape looked like the random series of blotches in a child's painting. Then he began to distinguish individual forms. Finally he perceived a prospective, with foreground, middle and background. It was, in fact, not so unusual after all. He had certainly seen more exotic--or rather, he had misperceived any number of environments for the very reason they were not the carbon-based structures he had come to expect.
It was a generally flat terrain, almost prairie-like. The vegetation was sparse, and what there was of it was a spindly blue-green. There was plenty of protection for mammalian life in the ion layer he had detected while still in orbit, but for some reason--maybe not enough ultraviolet light--plant life was not thriving on the abundant CO2 in the atmosphere.
The prairie seemed to stretch on endlessly. To the west (if his reckoning of the light was correct), the spires of what looked like an ancient earthly city rose like a mirage from the plain.
"All right," he said, descending the few short steps to terra firma, "I'm ready."