/ Language: English / Genre:sf

I See a Man Sitting on a Chair, and the Chair Is Biting His Leg

Harlan Ellison


I See a Man Sitting on a Chair, and the Chair Is Biting His Leg

by Robert Sheckley and Harlan Ellison

Behind him lay the gray Azores, behind the Gates of Hercules; the sky above, the goo below.

“Screwin’ goo! Screwin’ goo!” Pareti yelled at the fading afternoon sunlight. It came up garbled, around the stump of cigar, and it lacked the vigor Pareti usually brought to the curse, because it was nearly shift’s end, and he was exhausted. The first time he had yelled it had been three years before, when he had signed up to work in the goo fields as a harvester. He had yelled it when he’d first seen the mucous gray plankton mutation spotting this area of the Atlantic. Like leprosy on the cool blue body of the sea.

“Screwin’ goo,” he murmured. It was ritual now. It kept him company in the punt. Just him, alone there: Joe Pareti and his dying voice. And the ghostly gray-white goo.

He caught the moving flash of grayout of the corner of his eye, light reflecting in the Eskimo-slit glasses. He wheeled the punt around expertly. The goo was extruding again. A grayish-pale tentacle rose above the ocean’s surface; it looked like an elephant’s trunk. Skimming smoothly toward it, Pareti unconsciously gauged his distance: five feet from it, right arm tensed, out comes the net—the strange net on its pole, that resembled nothing so much as the butterfly nets used by the Indians of Patzcuaro—and with a side-arm softball pitch of a motion he scooped it up, writhing.

The goo wriggled and twisted, flailed at the meshes, sucked toothlessly up the aluminum handle. Pareti estimated the chunk at five pounds, even as he brought it inboard and dumped it into the lazarette. It was heavy for so small a fragment.

As the goo fell toward it, the lazarette dilated and compressed air shut the lid down with a sucking sound on the tentacle. Then the iris closed over the lid.

The goo had touched him on the glove. Pareti decided it was too much trouble to disinfect immediately. He swiped absently at his thinning sun-bleached hair, falling over his eyes, and wheeled the punt around again.

He was about two miles from the TexasTower.

He was fifty miles out into the Atlantic.

He was off the coast of Hatteras, in Diamond Shoals.

He was at 35° latitude, 75° west longitude.

He was well into the goo fields.

He was exhausted. Shift’s end.

Screwin’ goo.

He began working his way back.

The sea was flat, and a long, steady swell rolled back toward the TexasTower. There was no wind, and the sun shone hard and diamond as it had ever since the Third World War, brighter than it had ever shone before. It was almost perfect harvesting weather, at five hundred and thirty dollars a shift.

Off to his left a ten-square-yard film of goo lay like a delicate tracery of gray, almost invisible against the ocean. He altered course and expertly collected it. It offered no fight at all. Stretched too thin.

He continued toward the TexasTower, gathering goo as he skimmed. He rarely encountered the same shape twice. The largest chunk he collected was disguised as a cyprus stump. (Stupid goo, he thought, who ever saw a cyprus stump growing fifty miles out?) The smallest was a copy of a baby seal. Cadaverously gray and eyeless. Pareti gathered each piece quickly, without hesitation: he had an uncanny aptitude for recognizing goo in any of its shapes, and a flawless harvesting technique that was infinitely more refined and eloquent than the methods used by the Company-trained harvesters. He was the dancer with natural rhythm, the painter who had never taken a lesson, the instinctive tracker. It had been the impetus that had led him here to the goo fields when he had graduated Summa Cum from the Multiversity, rather than into industry or one of the cattle-prod think-factories. Everything he had learned, all the education he had gotten; of what use was it in a clogged choking jamcrowded world of twenty-seven billion overcrowded people, all scrabbling for the most demeaning jobs? Anyone could get an education, a few less got their degrees, even less got their gold seals, and a handful—like Joe Pareti—came out the other end of the Multiversity slide-trough with a degree, a doctorate, a gold seal and the double—a rating. And none of it was worth his natural instinct for goo harvesting.

At the speed he harvested, he could earn more than a projects engineer.

After twelve hours of shift, out on the glare-frosted sea, even that satisfaction was dulled by exhaustion. He only wanted to hit the bunk in his stateroom. And sleep. And sleep. He threw the soggy cigar stub into the sea.

The structure loomed up before him. It was traditionally called a TexasTower, yet it bore no resemblance to the original offshore drilling rigs of pre-Third War America. It looked, instead, like an articulated coral reef or the skeleton of some inconceivable aluminum whale.

The TexasTower was a problem in definition. It could be moved, therefore it was a ship: it could be fastened irrevocably to the ocean bottom, therefore it was an island. Above the surface there was a cat’s cradle network of pipes: feeder tubes into which the goo was fed by the harvesters (as Pareti now fed his load, hooking the lazarette’s collapsible tube nozzle onto the monel metal hardware of the TexasTower’s feeder tube, feeling the tube pulse as the pneumatic suction was applied, sucking the goo out of the punt’s storage bins), pipe racks to moor the punts, more pipes to support the radar mast.

There was a pair of cylindrical pipes that gaped open like howitzers. The entry ports. Below the waterline, like an iceberg, the TexasTower spread and extended itself, with collapsible sections that could be extended or folded away as depth and necessity demanded. Here in Diamond Shoals, several dozen of the lowest levels had been folded inoperative.

It was shapeless, ungainly, slow-moving, impossible to sink in a hurricane, more ponderous than a galleon. As a ship, it was unquestionably the worst design in nautical history; but as a factory, it was a marvel.

Pareti climbed out of the mooring complex, carrying his net-pole, and entered the nearest entry port. He went through the decontamination and storage locks, and was puffed inside the TexasTower proper. Swinging down the winding aluminum staircase, he heard voices rising from below. It was Mercier, about to go on-shift, and Peggy Flinn, who had been on sick call for the last three days with her period. The two harvesters were arguing.

“They’re processing it out at fifty-six dollars a ton,” Peggy was saying, her voice rising. Apparently they had been at it for some time. They were discussing harvester bonuses.

“Before or after it fragments?” Mercier demanded.

“Now you know damn well that’s after-frag weight,” she snapped back. “Which means every ton we snag out here gets tanked through and comes up somewhere around forty or forty-one tons after radiation. We’re getting bonus money on Tower weight, not frag weight!”

Pareti had heard it a million times before in his three years on the goo fields. The goo was sent back to the cracking and radiation plants when the bins were full. Subjected to the various patented techniques of the master processing companies the goo multiplied itself molecule for molecule, fragmented, grew, expanded, swelled, and yielded forty times its own original weight of goo. Which was then “killed” and reprocessed as the basic artificial foodstuff of a population diet long-since a stranger to steaks and eggs and carrots and coffee. The Third War had been a terrible tragedy in that it had killed off enormous quantities of everything except people.

The goo was ground up, reprocessed, purified, vitamin-supplemented, colored, scented, accented, individually packaged under a host of brand names—VitaGram; Savor; Deelish; Gratifood; Sweetmeat; Quench-Caffé; Family Treatall—and marketed to twenty-seven billion open and waiting mouths. Merely add thrice-reprocessed water and serve.

The harvesters were literally keeping the world alive.

And even at five hundred and thirty dollars per shift, some of them felt they were being underpaid.

Pared clanked down the last few steps and the two arguing harvesters looked up at him. “Hi, Joe.” Mercier said. Peggy smiled.

“Long shift?” she asked archly.

“Long enough. I’m whacked out.”

She stood a little straighter. “Completely?”

Pareti rubbed at his eyes. They felt grainy; he had been getting more dust in them than usual. “I thought it was that-time-of-the-month for you?”

“Aw gone,” she grinned, spreading her hands like a little girl whose measles have vanished.

“Yeah, that’d be nice,” Pareti accepted her service, “if you’ll throw in a back rub.”

“And I’ll crack your spine.”

Mercier chuckled and moved toward the staircase. “See you later,” he said over his shoulder.

Pareti and Peggy Flinn went down through sections to his stateroom. Living in an encapsulated environment for upwards of six months at a stretch, the harvesters had evolved their own social relationships. Women who were touchy about their sexual liaisons did not last long on the TexasTowers. There were seldom shore leaves for the harvesters—who referred to themselves as “the black gang”—and consequently all conveniences were provided by the company. Films, gourmet chefs, recreational sports, a fully-stocked and constantly changing library…and the lady harvesters. It had begun with some of the women accepting “gratuities” from the men for sex, but that had had a deleterious effect on morale, so now their basic shift wages and bonuses were supplemented by off-shift sex pay. It was not uncommon for a reasonably good-looking and harvesting-adept woman to come back after an eight-or-nine-month TexasTower stint with fifty thousand dollars in her credit account.

In the stateroom, they undressed.

“Jesus,” Peggy commented, “what happened to all your hair?”

It had been several months since they had been together.

“I guess I’m going bald. “ Pareti shrugged it off. He wiped himself down completely with a disposable moist-cloth from the dispenser, and tossed it into the incinerator iris.

All over?” she asked incredulously.

“Hey, Peg,” Pareti said wearily. “I’ve been out for twelve hours. I’m whacked out, and I want to get some sleep. Now do you want to or don’t you?”

She smiled at him. “You’re cute, Joe.”

“I’m a pudding, I am,” he replied, and sank down on the comfortable bed. She came to him and they had sex.

Then he went to sleep.

Fifty years before, the Third World War had finally broken out. It had been preceded by thirty years of Cold War Phase II. Phase I had ended in the 1970s, when it was obvious that War was inevitable. Phase II had been the defensive measures against overkill. They had sunk the subterranean cavern cities, the “canister cities” as the sub-urban planners called them. (They weren’t called anything as unglamorous as that publicly. In the press releases they were glowingly named Jade City, DownTown, Golden Grotto, North and South Diamond, Onyxville, Sub-City, East Pyrites. And in the Smokies they sank the gigantic North American Continent antimissile complex, Ironwall, two miles down.)

The breeding had started long before Phase I. Malthus had been right. Under the impetus of fear, people multiplied as never before. And in canister cities like Lower Hong Kong, Labyrinth (under Boston) and New Cuernavaca the enclosed conformity of life left them few pleasures. So they multiplied. And again. And geometrically the progression filled the canister cities. They sent out tunnels and tubes and feelers, and the Earth filled up with the squalling, teeming, hungry inhabitants of the land of fear. Aboveground only the military and scientific elite chose to live, out of necessity.

Then came the War.

Bacteriologically, atomically, with laser and radiation it came.

It was bad enough on the North American continent: Los Angeles was slagged. Ironwall and half the Smokies were gone, the missile complex buried forever under mountains that were now soft, rolling hills. Oak Ridge went up in one bright flash. Louisville was reduced to rubble. Detroit and Birmingham no longer existed; in their places were smooth reflective surfaces, almost perfectly flat like mirrored wafers of oxidized chrome plate.

New York and Chicago had been better protected. They had lost their suburbs, but not their canister subcities. And the central cores of the metropolises remained. Battered, but still functioning.

It had been just as bad, even worse, on the other continents. But there had been time during the two Phases of the Cold War to develop serums, remedies, antidotes, therapeutics. People were saved by the millions.

Even so…one could not inject an ear of corn.

Nor could one inoculate every cat and dog and wild boar and antelope and llama and Kodiak bear. Nor could one seed the oceans and save the fish. Ecology went mad. Some species survived, others died out completely.

The Hunger Strikes and the Food Riots began.

And ended quickly. People too weak from hunger cannot fight. So the cannibal times came. And then the governments, terrified by what they had done to themselves and each other, banded together at last.

The United Nations had been rebuilt, and they had commissioned the Companies to solve the problems of artificial foodstuffs. But it was a slow process.

What they had only dimly realized was that the Westerly Winds, carrying all the radiation and residue of bacteriological lunacy, had swept across the North American continent, picking up their additional loads at the Smokies, Louisville, Detroit, New York, and had carried the polluted and deadly cargo across the Eastern Seaboard, across the Atlantic, to dissipate finally in the jetstream over Asia. But not before massive fallout off the Carolinas had combined with sunlight and rain to produce a strange mutation in the plankton-rich waters of Diamond Shoals.

Ten years after the end of the Third World War, the plankton had become something else. It was called goo by the fishermen of the Outer Banks.

Diamond Shoals had become a cauldron of creation.

The goo spread. It adapted. It metamorphosed. And there was panic. Deformed exo-skeletal fish swam in the shallow waters; four new species of dog shark were found (one was a successful adaptation); a centipedal squid with a hundred arms flourished for several years, then unaccountably vanished.

The goo did not vanish.

Experiments followed, and miraculously, what had seemed to be an imminent and unstoppable menace to life on the seas, and probably on the planet as a whole…revealed itself as a miracle. It saved the world. The goo, when “killed,” could be turned into artificial nourishment. It contained a wide spectrum of proteins, vitamins, amino acids, carbohydrates, and even necessary minimum amounts of trace elements. When dehydrated and packaged, it was economically rewarding. When combined with water it could be cooked, stewed, pan fried, boiled, baked, poached, sautéed, stuffed or used as a stuffing. It was as close to the perfect food as had ever been found. Its flavor altered endlessly, depending entirely on which patented processing system was used. It had many tastes, but no characteristic taste.

Alive, it functioned on a quasi-vegetative level. An unstable protoplasmic agglomeration, it was apparently unintelligent, though it had an undeniable urge toward form. It structured itself endlessly into rudimentary plant and animal shapes, none viable. It was as if the goo desired to become something.

(It was hoped in the research labs of the Companies that the goo never discovered what it wanted to become.)

“Killed,” it was a tasty meal.

Harvesting factories—the TexasTowers—were erected by each of the Companies, and harvesters were trained. They drew the highest wages of any nontechnical occupation in the world. It was not due to the long hours, or the exhausting labor. The pay was, in fact, legally referred to as “high-hazard pay.”

Joe Pareti had danced the educational pavane and had decided the tune was not nearly sprightly enough for him. He became a harvester. He never really understood why all the credits being deposited in his account were called high-hazard pay.

He was about to find out.

It was a song that ended in a scream. And then he woke up. The night’s sleep had held no rest. Eleven hours on his back; eleven hours of helpless drudgery; and at last an escape, an absurd transition into exhausted wakefulness. For a moment he lay there, he couldn’t move.

Then getting to his feet, he found himself fighting for balance. Sleep had not used him well.

Sleep had scoured his skin with emery paper.

Sleep had polished his fingers with diamond dust. Sleep had abraded his scalp.

Sleep had sand-blasted his eyes.

Oh dear God, he thought, feeling pain in every nerve ending. He stumbled to the toilet and hit the back of his neck a sharp, short blast with the needle-spray of the shower head. Then he went to the mirror, and automatically pulled his razor out of the charge niche. Then he looked at himself in the mirror, and stopped.

Sleep had: scoured his skin with emery paper, polished his fingers with diamond dust, abraded his scalp, sandblasted his eyes.

It was barely a colorful way of putting it. Almost literally, that was what had happened to him while he had slept.

He stared into the mirror, and recoiled from the sight. If this is what sex with that damned Flinn does to a guy, I’m going celibate.

He was totally bald.

The wispy hair he recalled brushing out of his face during the previous on-shift, was gone. His head was smooth and pale as a fortune teller’s crystal ball.

He had no eyelashes.

He had no eyebrows.

His chest was smooth as a woman’s.

His pubis had been denuded.

His fingernails were almost translucent, as though the uppermost layers of dead horn had been removed.

He looked in the mirror again. He saw himself… more or less. Not very much less, actually: no more than a pound of him was gone. But it was a noticeable pound.

His hair.

Assorted warts, moles, scar tissue and calluses.

The protective hairs in his nostrils.

His kneecaps, elbows and heels were scoured pink.

Joe Pareti found he was still holding the razor. He put it down. And stared at himself in horrified fascination for several timeless moments. He had a ghastly feeling he knew what had happened to him. I’m in deep trouble, he thought.

He went looking for the TexasTower’s doctor. He was not in the sickbay. He found him in the pharmacology lab. The doctor took one look and preceded him back to sickbay. Where he confirmed Pareti’s suspicions.

The doctor was a quiet, orderly man named Ball. Very tall, very thin, with an irreducible amount of professional ghoulishness. Normally he was inclined to gloom; but looking at the hairless Pareti he cheered perceptibly.

Pareti felt himself being dehumanized. He had followed Ball into the sickbay as a man; now he felt himself transformed into a specimen, a diseased culture to be peered at under a macroscope.

“Hah, yes,” the doctor said. “Interesting. Would you turn your head, please? Good…good…fine, now blink.”

Pareti did as he was told. Ball jotted down notes, turned on the recording cameras, and hummed to himself as he arranged a tray of shining instruments.

“You’ve caught it, of course,” Ball said, almost as an afterthought.

“Caught what?” Pareti demanded, hoping he’d get some other answer.

“Ashton’s Disease. Goo infection, if you like, but we call it Ashton’s, after the first case.” Then he chuckled to himself: “I don’t suppose you thought it was dermatitis?”

Pareti thought he heard eerie music, an organ, a harpsichord.

Ball went on. “Your case is atypical, just like all the others, so, really, that makes it typical. It has a rather ugly Latin name, as well, but Ashton’s will do.”

“Stuff all that,” Pareti said angrily. “Are you absolutely sure?”

“Why do you think you get high-hazard, why do you think they keep me on board? I’m no G.P., I’m a specialist. Of course I’m absolutely sure. You’re only the sixth recorded case. Lancet and the AMA Journal will be interested. In fact, with the proper presentation Scientific American might care to publish an article.”

“What can you do for me?” Pareti snapped.

“I can offer you a drink of excellent pre-War Bourbon,” Dr. Ball said. “Not a specific for your ailment, but good for the whole man, so to speak.”

“Stop screwing around with me. I don’t think it’s a haha. Isn’t there anything else? You’re a specialist!”

Ball seemed to realize for the first time that his black humor was not being received with wild enthusiasm. “Mr. Pareti, medical science admits of no impossibility, not even the reversal of biological death. But that is a statement of theory. There are many things we could try. We could hospitalize you, stuff you with drugs, irradiate your skin, smear you with calamine lotion, even conduct experiments in homeopathy and acupuncture and moxibustion. But this would have no practical effect, except to make you very uncomfortable. In the present state of our knowledge, Ashton’s is irreversible and, uh, terminal.”

Pareti swallowed hard at the last word.

Oddly, Ball smiled and added, “You might as well relax and enjoy it.”

Pareti moved a step toward him, angrily. “You’re a morbid son of a bitch!”

“Please excuse my levity,” the doctor said quickly. “I know I have a dumb sense of humor. I don’t rejoice in your fate…really, I don’t…I’m bored on this desolate Tower…I’m happy to have some real work. But I can see you don’t know much about Ashton’s…the disease may not be too difficult to live with.”

“I thought you said it was terminal?”

“So I did. But then, everything is terminal, even health, even life itself. The question is how long, and in what manner.”

Pareti slumped down into a Swedish-designed relaxer chair that converted—when the stirrups were elevated—into a dilation-and-curettage brace-framework for abortions. “I have a feeling you’re going to lecture me,” he said, with sudden exhaustion.

“Forgive me. It’s so dull for me here.”

“Go on, go on, for Christ’s sake.” Pareti wobbled his hand wearily.

“Well, the answer is ambiguous, but not unpromising,” Ball said, settling with enthusiasm into his recitation. “I told you, I believe, that the most typical thing about the disease is it atypicality. Let us consider your illustrious predecessors.

“Case One died within a week of contracting the disease, apparently of a pneumonic complication…”

Pareti looked sick. “Swell,” he said.

“Ah! But Case Two,” Ball caroled, “Case Two was Ashton, after whom the Disease was named. He became voluble, almost echolalic. One day, before a considerable crowd, he levitated to a height of eighteen feet. He hung there without visible support, haranguing the crowd in a hermetic language of his own devising. Then he vanished, into thin air (but not too thin for him) and was never heard from again. Hence, Ashton’s Disease. Case Three…”

“What happened to Ashton?” Pareti asked, a vapor of hysteria in his voice.

Ball spread his hands, without an answer. Pareti looked away.

“Case Three found that he could live underwater, though not in the air. He spent two happy years in the coral reefs off Marathon, Florida.”

“What happened to him?” Pareti asked.

“A pack of dolphins did him in. It was the first recorded instance of a dolphin attacking a man. We have often wondered what he said to them.”

“And the others?”

“Case Four is currently living in the Ausable Chasm community. He operates a mushroom farm. He’s become quite rich. We can’t detect any effect of the disease beyond loss of hair and dead skin (in that way, your cases are similar, but it may be just coincidence). He has a unique way with mushrooms, of course.”

“That sounds good,” Pareti brightened.

“Perhaps. But Case Five is unfortunate. A really amazing degeneration of the organs, accompanied by a simultaneous external growth of same. This left him with a definitely surrealistic look: heart hanging below his left armpit, intestines wrapped around his waist, that sort of thing. Then he began to develop a chitinous exo-skeleton, antennae, scales, feathers—his body couldn’t seem to decide what it was evolving into. It opted at last for earth. Wormdom—an anaerobic species, quite unusual. He was last seen burrowing into sandy loam near Point Judith. Sonar followed him for several months, all the way to central Pennsylvania.”

Pareti shuddered. “Did he die then?” Again, Ball spread his hands, no answer. “We don’t know. He may be in a burrow, quiescent, parthenogenetic, hatching the eggs of an inconceivable new species. Or he may have evolved into the ultimate skeletal form…unliving, indestructible rock.”

Pareti clasped his hairless hands, and shivered like a child. “Jesus,” he murmured, “what a beautiful prospect. Something I can really look forward to.”

“The form of your particular case might be pleasant,” Ball ventured.

Pareti looked up at him with open malice. “Aren’t you the smooth bastard, though? Sit out here in the water and laugh your ass off while the goo nibbles on some guy you never met before. What the hell do you do for amusement, roast cockroaches and listen to them scream?”

“Don’t blame me, Mr. Pareti,” the doctor said evenly. “You chose your line of work, not I. You were advised of the risks—”

“They said hardly anybody caught the goo disease, it was all in the small type on the contract,” Pareti burst in.

“—but you were advised of the risks,” Ball pressed on, “and you received hazard-bonus accordingly. You never complained during the three years that money was being poured into your account, you shouldn’t bellyache now. It’s rather unseemly. After all, you make approximately eight times my salary. That should buy you a lot of balm.”

“Yeah, I made the bonuses,” Pareti snarled, “and now I’m really earning it! The Company—”

‘The Company,” Ball said, with great care, “is absolutely free of responsibility. You should indeed have read all that tiny type. But you’re correct: you are earning the bonuses now. In effect you were paid to expose yourself to a rare disease. You were gambling with the Company’s money that you wouldn’t contract Ashton’s. You gambled, and unfortunately, seem to have lost.”

“Not that I’m getting any,” Pareti said archly, “but I’m not asking for your sympathy. I’m only asking for your professional advice, which you are paid—overpaid, in my estimation—to give. I want to know what I should do… and what I ought to expect.”

Ball shrugged. “Expect the unexpected, of course. You’re only the sixth, you know. There’s been no clear-cut pattern established. The disease is as unstable as its progenitor…the goo. The only pattern—and I would hesitate even to suggest that it was a pattern—”

“Stop waltzing with me, damn it! Spit it out!”

Ball pursed his lips. He might have pressed Pareti as far as he cared to press him. “The pattern, then, would appear to be this: a radical change of relationship occurs between the victim and the external world. These can be animate transformations, like the growth of external organs and functional gills; or inanimate transformations, like the victim who levitated.”

“What about the fourth case, the one who’s still alive and normal?”

“He isn’t exactly normal,” the doctor said, frowning. “His relationship with his mushrooms is a kind of perverted love; reciprocated, I might add. Some researchers suspect that he has himself become a kind of intelligent mushroom.”

Pareti bit his thumbnail. There was a wildness in his eyes. “Isn’t there any cure, anything?”

Ball seemed to be looking at Pareti with thinly veiled disgust. “Whimpering won’t do you any good. Perhaps nothing will. I understand Case Five tried to hold off the effects as long as he could, with will power, or concentration…something ludicrous like that.”

“Did it work?”

“For a while, perhaps. No one could be sure. In any case, it was strictly conjecture after a point; the Disease finally took him over.”

“But it’s possible?”

Ball snorted. “Yes, Mr. Pareti, it’s possible.” He shook his head as if he could not believe the way Pareti was taking this. “Remember, none of the cases was like any other. I don’t know what joys you can look forward to, but whatever they are…they’re bound to be unusual.”

Pareti stood up. “I’ll fight it off. It isn’t going to take me over like the others.”

Ball’s expression was of disgust. “I doubt it, Pareti. I never met any of the others, but from what I’ve read of them, they were far stronger men than you seem to be.”

“Why? Just because this has me shaken?”

“No, because you’re a sniveler.”

“You’re the most compassionless mother I’ve ever met!”

“I cannot pretend grief that you’ve contracted Ashton’s. You gambled, and you lost. Stop whimpering.”

“You said that before, Dr. Ball.”

“I say it again now!”

“Is that all from you?”

“That’s all from me, to be sure,” Dr. Ball said, snidely. “But it’s not all for you, I’m equally sure.”

“But you’re sure that’s all you have to tell me?”

Ball nodded, still wearing the insipid grin of the medical ghoul. He was wearing it as Pareti took two quick, short steps and jacked a fist into the doctor’s stomach, just below the heart. Ball’s eyes seemed to extrude almost as the goo extruded, and his face went three shades of gray toward matching his lab smock. Pareti held him up under the chin with his left hand and drove a short, straight right directly into the doctor’s nose.

Ball flailed backward and hit the glass-fronted instrument case, breaking the glass with a crash. Ball settled to the floor, still conscious, but in awful pain. He stared up at Pareti as the harvester turned toward the door. Pared turned back momentarily, smiling for the first time since he had entered the sick bay.

“That’s a helluva bedside manner you’ve got there, Doc.”

Then he left.

He was forced to leave the TexasTower within the hour, as the law proscribed. He received a final statement of the back pay due him for the nine-month shift he had been working. He also received a sizeable termination bonus. Though everyone knew Ashton’s Disease was not contagious, when he passed Peggy Flinn on his way to the exit lock, she looked at him sadly and said goodbye, but would not kiss him farewell. She looked sheepish. “Whore,” Pareti murmured under his breath, but she heard him.

A Company lift had been sent for him. A big fifteen-passenger job with two stewardesses, a lounge, movie theater and pocket billiard accommodations. Before he was put on board, the Projects Superintendent, head man on the TexasTower, spoke to him at the lock.

“You aren’t a Typhoid Mary, you can’t give it to anyone. It’s merely unlovely and unpredictable. That’s what they tell me. Technically, there’s no quarantine; you can go where you please. But realistically, you can appreciate that your presence in the surface cities wouldn’t be welcome. Not that you’d be missing much…all the action is underground.”

Pareti nodded silently. He was well over his shaken reactions of earlier. He was now determined to fight the Disease with the strength of his own will.

“Is that it?” he asked the Projects Super.

The man nodded, and extended his hand.

Pareti hesitated a moment, then shook it.

As Pareti was walking down the ramp to the lift, the Projects Super called after him. “Hey, Pareti?”

Joe turned back.

“Thanks for belting that bastard Ball. I’ve been itching to do it for six years.” He grinned.

It was an embarrassed, brave little smile that Joe Pareti returned, as he said goodbye to who he was and what he was, and boarded the lift for the real world.

He had free passage to the destination of his choice. He chose East pyrites. If he was going to make a new life for himself with the money he had saved in three years working the goo fields, at least he was going to do it after one king-sized whore leave. It had been nine months since he had been anywhere near excitement—you sure as hell couldn’t call Peggy Flinn with her flat-chest, excitement—and there was time for fun before the time to settle down.

One of the stewardesses, wearing an off-the-bosom jumper with a “kicki” skirt, paused beside his seat and smiled down at him. “Care for a drink?”

Pareti’s thoughts were hardly of liquor. She was a high-breasted, long-legged item with light turquoise hair. But he knew she had been apprised of his ailment, and her reaction would be the same as Peggy Flinn’s.

He smiled up at her, thinking of what he would like to do with her if she were amenable. She took his hand and led him back to one of the washrooms. She led him inside, bolted the door, and dropped her clothes. Pareti was so astonished he had to let her undress him. It was cramped and close in the tiny bathroom, but the stewardess was marvelously inventive, not to mention limber.

When she was done with him, her face flushed, her neck spotted with little purple love-bites, her eyes almost feverish, she mumbled something about being unable to resist him, gathered up her clothes without even putting them on and, with acute embarrassment, floundered out of the bathroom, leaving him standing there with his pants down around his shoes.

Pareti looked at himself in the mirror. Again. He seemed to be doing nothing but staring into mirrors today. What stared out at him was himself, bald Pareti. He had the suddenly pleasurable feeling that whatever manner the goo infection in his body was taking to evolve itself, it would probably make him irresistible to women. All at once he could not find it in his heart to think too unkindly of the goo.

He had happy dreams of what joys and delights were in store for him if the goo, for instance, built him as big as a horse, or if it heightened this already-obvious attraction women had for him, or if it—

He caught himself.

Uh-uh. No thank you. That was just what had happened to the other five. They had been taken over by the goo. It had done what it had wanted with them. Well, he was going to fight it, battle it from invading him from the top of his bald head to the soles of his uncallused feet.

He got dressed.

No indeed not. He wasn’t going to enjoy any more sex like he’d just had. (And it became obvious to him that whatever the goo had done to the attraction-waves of his personality, it had also served to heighten his perceptions in that area. It had been the best he’d ever had.)

He was going to grab a little fun in East pyrites, and then buy himself a parcel of land topside, find the right woman, settle down, and buy himself a good position with one of the Companies.

He went back into the cabin of the lift. The other stewardess was on duty. She didn’t say anything, but the one who had taken Pareti into the toilet did not show herself through the remainder of the flight, and her replacement kept staring at Joe as though she wanted to nibble him with tiny teeth.

East pyrites, Nevada, was located eighty-seven miles south of the radioactive ghost town that had been called Las Vegas. It was also three miles below it. It was conservatively rated one of the marvels of the world. Its devotion to vice was obsessive, amounting to an almost puritanical drive to pleasure. In East pyrites the phrase had been coined:

PLEASURE IS A STERN DUTY IMPOSED ON US BY THE WORLD.

In East pyrites, the fertility cults of antiquity had been revived in deadly seriousness. Pareti found this to be true as he stepped out of the dropshaft on the seventieth underlevel. A mass gangbang was in progress, in the middle of the intersection of Dude Avenue and Gold Dust Boulevard, between fifty male members of the Ishtar Boppers and ten lovely girls who had signed in blood their membership to the Swingers of Cybele.

He carefully avoided the embroglio. It looked like fun, but he wasn’t going to aid and abet the goo in taking him over.

He hailed a taxi and stared at the scenery. The Temple of Strangers was served by the virgin daughters of the town’s leading citizens; executions for impiety were held publicly in the Court of the Sun; Christianity was in disrepute: it wasn’t any fun.

The old Nevadan custom of gambling was still observed, but had been elaborated, ramified and extended. In East pyrites, the saying, “You bet your life,” had real and sinister meanings.

Many of the practices in East pyrites were un-Constitutional; others were implausible; and some were downright inconceivable.

Pareti loved it at once.

He selected the Round-The-World Combination Hotel, close to the Hall of Perversions, just across the street from the verdant expanse of Torture Garden. In his room, he showered, changed, and tried to decide what to do first. Dinner in the Slaughterhouse, of course; then perhaps a little mild exercise in the cool darkness of the Mudbath Club. After that—

He suddenly became aware that he was not alone. Someone or something was in the room with him.

He looked around. There was apparently nothing wrong, except that he could have sworn he had put his jacket on a chair. Now it was on the bed, near him.

After a moment’s hesitation he reached for the jacket. The garment slid away from him. “Try to catch me!” it said, in a coy, insipid voice. Pareti grabbed for it, but the jacket danced away from him.

Pareti stared at it. Wires? Magnets? A joke of the management of the Hotel? He knew instinctively that he would find no rational way in which the coat had moved and talked. He gritted his teeth and stalked it.

The jacket moved away, laughing, dipping like a bat. Pareti cornered it behind the room’s massage unit, and managed to grab a sleeve. I’ve got to have this goddam thing sent out to be cleaned and burned, he thought insanely.

It lay limp for a moment. Then it curled around and tickled the palm of his hand.

Pareti giggled involuntarily, then flung the garment away from him and hurried out of the room.

Descending by dropshaft to the street, he knew that had been the true onset of the Disease. It had altered the relationship between him and an article of clothing. An inanimate object. The goo was getting bolder.

What would it do next? He was in a soft place called The Soft Place. It was a gambling hall whose innovation was an elaborate game called Stick It. The game was played by seating oneself before a long counter with a round polyethylene-lined hole in the facing panel, and inserting a certain portion of the anatomy therein. It was strictly a man’s game, of course.

One placed one’s bets on the flickering light-panels that covered the counter-top. These lights were changed in a random pattern by a computer programmer, and through the intricacies of the betting and odds, various things happened behind the facing panels, to whomever happened to be inserted in the playing-hole. Some of the things were very nice indeed. Some were not.

Ten seats down to his right, Pareti heard a man scream, high and shrill, like a woman. An attendant in white came with a sheet and a pneumatic stretcher, and took the bettor away. The man to Pareti’s left was sitting forward, up tight against the panel, moaning with pleasure. His amber WINNER light was flashing.

A tall, elegant woman with inky hair came up beside Pareti’s chair. “Honey, you shouldn’t be wasting anything as nice as you here. Why don’t we go downshaft to my brig and squam a little…”

Pareti panicked. He knew the goo was at work again. He withdrew from the panel just as the flickering lights went up LOSER in front of him, and the distinct sound of whirring razor blades came out of the playing-hole. He saw his bets sucked into the board, and he turned without looking at the woman, knowing she would be the most gorgeous creature he had ever seen. And he didn’t need that aggravation on top of everything else.

He ran out of The Soft Place. The goo, and Ashton’s Disease, were ruining his good time of hell-for-leather. But he was not, repeat, not going to let it get the better of him. Behind him, the woman was crying.

He was hurrying, but he didn’t know where he was going. Fear encased him like a second self. The thing he ran from was within him, pulsing and growing within him, running with him, perhaps moving out ahead of him. But the empty ritual of flight calmed him, left him better able to think.

He sat down on a park bench beneath an obscenely-shaped purple lamp post. The neon designs were gagging and suggestive. It was quiet here—except for the Muzak—he was in the world-famous Hangover Square. He could hear nothing—except the Muzak—and the stifled moans of a tourist expiring in the bushes.

What could he do? He could resist, he could close out the effects of Ashton’s Disease by concentration…

A newspaper fluttered across the street and plastered itself around his foot. Pareti tried to kick it away. It clung to his foot, and he heard it whisper, “Please, oh please do not spurn me.”

“Get away from me!” Pareti screamed. He was suddenly terrified; he could see the newspaper crinkle as it tried to unsnap his shoe-buttons.

“I want to kiss your feet,” the newspaper pleaded. “Is that so terrible? Is it wrong? Am I so ugly?”

“Let go!” Pareti shouted, tugging at the paper, which had formed into a pair of giant white lips.

A man walked past him, stopped, stared, and said, “Jim, that’s the damnedest bit I ever saw. You do that as a lounge act or just for kicks?”

“Voyeur!” the newspaper hissed, and fluttered away down the street.

“How do you control it?” the man asked. “Special controls in your pocket or something?”

Pareti shook his head numbly. He was so tired suddenly. He said, “You actually saw it kiss my foot?”

“I mean to tell you I saw it,” the man said.

“I hoped that maybe I was only hallucinating,” Pareti said. He got up from the bench and walked unsteadily away. He didn’t hurry.

He was in no rush to meet the next manifestation of Ashton’s Disease.

In a dim bar he drank six souses and had to be carried to the public Dry-Out on the corner. He cursed the attendants for reviving him. At least when he was bagged, he didn’t have to compete with the world around him for possession of his sanity.

In the Taj Mahal he played girls, purposely aiming badly when he threw the dirks and the kris at the rapidly spinning bawds on the giant wheel. He clipped the ear off a blonde, planted one ineffectually between the legs of a brunette, and missed entirely with his other shots. It cost him seven hundred dollars. He yelled cheat and was bounced.

A head-changer approached him on Leopold Way, and offered the unspeakable delights of an illegal head-changing operation by a doctor who was “clean and very decent.” He yelled for a cop, and the little ratfink scuttled away in the crowd.

A taxi driver suggested the Vale of Tears and though it sounded lousy, he gave the guy the go-ahead. When he entered the place—which was on the eighty-first level, a slum section of foul odors and wan street lights—he recognized it at once for what it was. A necro-joint. The smell of freshly-stacked corpses rose up to gag him.

He only stayed an hour.

There were nautch joints, and blind pigs, and hallucinogen bars, and a great many hands touching him, touching him.

Finally, after a long time, he found himself back in the park, where the newspaper had come after him. He didn’t know how he’d gotten there, but he had a tattoo of a naked seventy-year-old female dwarf on his chest.

He walked through the park, but found that he had picked an unpromising route. Dogwood barked at him and caressed his shoulders; Spanish Moss sang a fandango; an infatuated willow drenched him in tears. He broke into a run, trying to get away from the importunities of cherry trees, the artless Western prattle of sagebrush, the languors of poplar. Through him, his disease was acting on the environment. He was infecting the world he passed through; no, he wasn’t contagious to humans, hell no, it was worse than that: he was a Typhoid Mary for the inanimate world! And the altered universe loved him, tried to win him. Godlike, an Unmoved Mover, unable to deal with his involuntary creations, he fought down panic and tried to escape from the passions of a suddenly writhing world.

He passed a roving gang of juvies, who offered to beat the crap out of him, for a price, but he turned them down and stumbled on.

He came out onto De Sade Boulevard, but even here there was no relief. He could hear the little paving stones whispering about him:

“Say, he’s cute.

“Forget it, he’d never look at you.

“You vicious bitch!”

“I tell you he’ll never look at you.”

“Sure he will. Hey, Joe—”

“What did I tell you? He didn’t even look at you!”

“But he’s got to! Joe, Joe, it’s me, over here—”

Pareti whirled and yelled, “As far as I’m concerned, one paving stone looks exactly like another paving stone. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all.”

That shut them up, by God! But what was this?

High overhead, the neon sign above cut-rate Sex City was beginning to flash furiously. The letters twisted and formed a new message:

I AM A NEON SIGN

AND I ADORE JOE PARETI!

A crowd had gathered to observe the phenomenon. “What the hell is a Joe Pareti?” one woman asked.

“A casualty of love,” Pareti told her. “Speak the name softly, the next corpse you see may be your own.”

“You’re a twisto,” the woman said.

“I fear not,” Pareti said politely, a little madly. “Madness is my ambition, true. But I dare not hope to achieve it.”

She stared at him as he opened the door and went into Sex City. But she didn’t believe her eyes when the doorknob gave him a playful little pat on the ass.

“The way it works is this,” the salesman said. “Fulfillment is no problem; the tough thing is desire, don’t you dig? Desires die of fulfillment and gotta be replaced by new, different desires. A lotta people desire to have weirdo desires, but they can’t make it onaccounta having lived a lifetime on the straights. But us here at the Impulse Implantation Center can condition you to like anything you’d like to like.”

He had hold of Pareti’s sleeve with a tourisnag, a rubber-lined clamp on the end of a telescoping rod; it was used to snag tourists passing through the Odd Services Arcade, to drag them closer to specific facilities.

“Thanks, I’ll think it over,” Pareti said, trying without much success to get the tourisnag off his sleeve.

“Wait, hey, Jim, dig! We got a special bargain rate, a real cheapo, it’s only on for the next hour! Suppose we fix you up with pedophilia, a really high-class desire which has not as yet been over-exploited? Or take bestiality… or take both for the special giveaway price—”

Pareti managed to pull the snag from his sleeve, and hurried on down the Arcade without looking back. He knew that one should never get Impulse Implanation from boiler-shop operators. A friend of his had made that mistake while on leave from a TexasTower, had been stuck with a passion for gravel, and had died after three admittedly enjoyable hours.

The Arcade was teeming, the screams and laughter of weekend freakoffs and smutters rising up toward the central dome of ever-changing light patterns, crapout kliegs, and grass-jets emitting their pleasant, ceaseless streams of thin blue marijuana smoke. He needed quiet; he needed aloneness.

He slid into a Spook Booth. Intercourse with ghosts was outlawed in some states, but most doctors agreed that it was not harmful if one made certain to wash off the ectoplasmic residue afterward with a thirty percent alcohol solution. Of course, it was more risky for women (he saw a Douche Bidet Rest Stop just across the Arcade concourse, and marveled momentarily at the thoroughness of the East pyrites Better Business Bureau; they took care of every exigency).

He leaned back in the darkness, heard the beginning of a thin, eerie wail…

Then the Booth door was opened. A uniformed attendant asked, “Mr. Joseph Pareti?”

Pareti nodded. “What is it?”

“Sorry to disturb you, sir. A call for you.” She handed him a telephone, caressed his thigh, and left, closing the door. Pareti held the phone and it buzzed. He put it to his ear. “Hello?”

“Hi there.”

“Who is this?”

“This is your telephone, stupid. Who did you think it was?”

“I can’t take all this! Stop talking!”

“It’s not talking that’s difficult,” the telephone said. “The tough thing is finding something to say.”

“Well, what do you want to say?”

“Nothing much. I just wanted you to know that somewhere, somehow, Bird lives.”

“Bird? Bird who? What in hell are you talking about?” There was no answer. The telephone had hung up.

He put the telephone down on the comfort ledge and sank back, hoping to God he could make it in peace and quiet. The phone buzzed again, almost immediately. He did not pick it up, and it went from buzz to ring. He put it to his ear again.

“Hello?”

“Hi there,” a silky voice said.

“Who is this?”

“This is your telephone, Joe baby. I called before. I thought you might like this voice better.”

“Why don’t you leave me alone?” Joe almost sobbed.

“How can I, Joe?” the telephone asked. “I love you! Oh Joe, Joe, I’ve tried so hard to please you. But you’re so moody, baby, I just don’t understand. I was a really pretty dogwood, and you barely glanced at me! I became a newspaper, and you didn’t even read what I wrote about you, you ungrateful thing!”

“You’re my disease,” Pareti said unsteadily. “Leave me alone!”

“Me? A disease?” the telephone asked, a hurt note in the silken voice. “Oh, Joe, darling, how can you call me that? How can you pretend indifference after all we’ve been to each other?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Pareti said.

“You do too know! You came to me every day, Joe, out on the warm sea. I was sort of young and silly then, I didn’t understand, I tried to hide from you. But you lifted me up out of the water, you brought me close to you; you were patient and kind, and little by little I grew up. Sometimes I’d even try to wriggle up the pole handle to kiss your fingers…”

“Stop it!” Pareti felt his senses reeling, this was insanity, everything was becoming something else, the world and, the Spook Booth were whirling around. “You’ve got it all wrong—”

“I have not!” the telephone said indignantly. “You called me pet names, I was your screwin’ goo! I’ll admit, I had tried other men before you, Joe. But then, you’d been with women before we met, so we mustn’t throw the past up to one another. But even with the other five I tried, I was never able to become what I wanted to be. Can you understand how frustrating that was for me, Joe? Can you? I had my whole life before me and I didn’t know what to do with it. One’s shape is one’s career, you know, and I was confused, until I met you…Excuse me if I babble, darling, but this is the first chance we’ve had for a real talk.”

Through the gibbering madness of it all, Pareti saw it now, and understood it. They had underestimated the goo. It had been a young organism, mute but not unintelligent, shaped by the powerful desires it possessed like every other living creature. To have form. It was evolving—

Into what?

“Joe, what do you think? What would you like me to become?”

“Could you turn into a girl?” Pareti asked, timorously.

“I’m afraid not,” the telephone said. “I tried that a few times; and I tried being a nice collie, too, and a horse. But I guess I did a pretty sloppy job, and anyhow, it felt all wrong. I mean, it’s just not me. But name anything else!”

“No!” Pareti bellowed. For a moment, he had been going along with it. The lunacy was catching.

“I could become a rug under your feet, or if you wouldn’t think it was too daring, I could become your underwear—”

“Goddam it, I don’t love you!” Pareti shrieked. “You’re nothing but gray ugly goo! I hate your guts! You’re a disease…why don’t you go love something like yourself?”

“There’s nothing like me except me,” the telephone sobbed. “And besides, it’s you I love.”

“Well, I don’t give a damn for you!”

“You’re cruel!”

“You stink, you’re ugly, I don’t love you, I’ve never loved you!”

“Don’t say that, Joe,” the telephone warned.

“I’m saying it! I never loved you, I only used you! I don’t want your love, your love nauseates me, do you understand?”

He waited for an answer, but there was suddenly only an ominous, surly silence on the telephone. Then he heard the dial tone. The telephone had hung up.

Now. Pareti has returned to his hotel. He sits in his embroidered room, which has been cunningly constructed for the mechanical equivalents of love. Doubtless he is lovable; but he feels no love. That is obvious to the chair, to the bed, and to the flighty overhead lamp. Even the bureau, not normally observant, realizes that Pareti is loveless.

It is more than sad; it is annoying. It goes beyond mere annoyance; it is maddening. To love is a mandate, to be unloved is insupportable. Can it be true? Yes, it can; Joe Pareti does not love his loveless lover.

Joe Pareti is a man. He is the sixth man to spurn the loving lover’s lovely love. Man does not love: can one argue the syllogism? Can frustrated passion be expected to defer judgment any longer?

Pareti looks up and sees the gilded mirror on the facing wall. He remembers that a mirror led Alice to Looking-Glass Land, and Orpheus to Perdition; that Cocteau called mirrors the gateways to hell.

He asks himself what a mirror is. He answers himself that a mirror is an eye waiting to be looked through.

He looks into the mirror and finds himself looking out of the mirror.

Joe Pareti has five new eyes. Two on the bedroom walls, one on the bedroom ceiling, one in the bathroom, one in the hall. He looks through his new eyes and sees new things.

There is the couch, sad lovelorn creature. Half visible is the standing lamp, its curved neck denoting fury. Over here is the closet door, stiff-backed, mute with rage.

Love is always a risk; but hate is a deadly peril. Joe Pareti looks out through the mirrors, and he says to himself, I see a man sitting on a chair, and the chair is biting his leg.