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Under extreme duress, the human mind can come up with an array of impossibly complex coping mechanisms. Is that what’s behind the strange epidemic that army physician Henry Harris has noticed overtaking soldiers who have returned from the distant celestial body known as Asteroid Y-3? Harris makes a trip to the asteroid to figure things out – and seems to fall prey to the ‘delusion’ himself. Fans of Philip K. Dick’s unique brand of suspenseful science fiction will love this twisted tale.
29 pages, with a reading time of ~0.5 hours (7,295 words), and first published in 1953. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, 2014.
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“Well, Corporal Westerburg,” Doctor Henry Harris said gently, “just why do you think you’re a plant?”
As he spoke, Harris glanced down again at the card on his desk. It was from the Base Commander himself, made out in Cox’s heavy scrawl: Doc, this is the lad I told you about. Talk to him and try to find out how he got this delusion. He’s from the new Garrison, the new check-station on Asteroid Y-3, and we don’t want anything to go wrong there. Especially a silly damn thing like this!
Harris pushed the card aside and stared back up at the youth across the desk from him. The young man seemed ill at ease and appeared to be avoiding answering the question Harris had put to him. Harris frowned. Westerburg was a good-looking chap, actually handsome in his Patrol uniform, a shock of blond hair over one eye. He was tall, almost six feet, a fine healthy lad, just two years out of Training, according to the card. Born in Detroit. Had measles when he was nine. Interested in jet engines, tennis, and girls. Twenty-six years old.
“Well, Corporal Westerburg,” Doctor Harris said again. “Why do you think you’re a plant?”
The Corporal looked up shyly. He cleared his throat. “Sir, I am a plant, I don’t just think so. I’ve been a plant for several days, now.”
“I see.” The Doctor nodded. “You mean that you weren’t always a plant?”
“No, sir. I just became a plant recently.”
“And what were you before you became a plant?”
“Well, sir, I was just like the rest of you.”
There was silence. Doctor Harris took up his pen and scratched a few lines, but nothing of importance came. A plant? And such a healthy-looking lad! Harris removed his steel-rimmed glasses and polished them with his handkerchief. He put them on again and leaned back in his chair. “Care for a cigarette, Corporal?”
The Doctor lit one himself, resting his arm on the edge of the chair. “Corporal, you must realize that there are very few men who become plants, especially on such short notice. I have to admit you are the first person who has ever told me such a thing.”
“Yes, sir, I realize it’s quite rare.”
“You can understand why I’m interested, then. When you say you’re a plant, you mean you’re not capable of mobility? Or do you mean you’re a vegetable, as opposed to an animal? Or just what?”
The Corporal looked away. “I can’t tell you any more,” he murmured. “I’m sorry, sir.”
“Well, would you mind telling me how you became a plant?”
Corporal Westerburg hesitated. He stared down at the floor, then out the window at the spaceport, then at a fly on the desk. At last he stood up, getting slowly to his feet. “I can’t even tell you that, sir,” he said.
“You can’t? Why not?”
“Because–because I promised not to.”
* * * * *
The room was silent. Doctor Harris rose, too, and they both stood facing each other. Harris frowned, rubbing his jaw. “Corporal, just who did you promise?”
“I can’t even tell you that, sir. I’m sorry.”
The Doctor considered this. At last he went to the door and opened it. “All right, Corporal. You may go now. And thanks for your time.”
“I’m sorry I’m not more helpful.” The Corporal went slowly out and Harris closed the door after him. Then he went across his office to the vidphone. He rang Commander Cox’s letter. A moment later the beefy good-natured face of the Base Commander appeared.
“Cox, this is Harris. I talked to him, all right. All I could get is the statement that he’s a plant. What else is there? What kind of behavior pattern?”
“Well,” Cox said, “the first thing they noticed was that he wouldn’t do any work. The Garrison Chief reported that this Westerburg would wander off outside the Garrison and just sit, all day long. Just sit.”
“In the sun?”
“Yes. Just sit in the sun. Then at nightfall he would come back in. When they asked why he wasn’t working in the jet repair building he told them he had to be out in the sun. Then he said–” Cox hesitated.
“Yes? Said what?”
“He said that work was unnatural. That it was a waste of time. That the only worthwhile thing was to sit and contemplate–outside.”