The Eggs of 113

Unit H51 wasn’t called a prison, because it mattered very much what things were called.  Besides, a casual observer walking through it could very easily have taken it for a residential or business sector of the Mars-Two complex.  The corridors were as bland and faceless as they were anywhere else, the soft even lighting casting no shadows, and the sliding doors which led off them into the separate rooms were the same dull, uniform metallic grey.  There were guards on duty, naturally, but no more than there were in any other part of the complex.  After all, they were hardly needed.  The difference between Unit H51 and the rest of the complex could only be seen from the inside of one of the rooms.

There was the usual button to open the doors on the outside.  But on the inside, there was none.

One of the doors slid open.  Someone walked in.  A middle-aged man, who was lying on his inadequate bed staring contemplatively at the ceiling, regarded his visitor with mild interest.

“Ah,” he observed, quite cordially.  “You aren’t one of the regulars.  Welcome to the job.”

The visitor was taken aback.  It wasn’t the kind of reaction he had expected.  “I’m not one of the staff here,” he replied, closing the door with the little remote controller which had been programmed to work only with the unique identity chip implanted in his hand.  “I’m a psychiatrist.”

The prisoner grinned engagingly.  “Even better!  Does this mean I get a morning off the torture machines?”

The psychiatrist frowned.  “You are mistaken, 113.  They are not torture machines.  They are Pavlovian stimulators, as you have been told many times.  The aim of the machines is to reinforce your positive beliefs about society and weaken the negative ones.  They are for your own good.”

“Oh?  Ever tried one?”  The prisoner swung himself round into a sitting position, with a surprising grace for a man who had put on some weight with the advancing years.  “Come and have a seat, do.  I’m afraid there’s only the end of the bed, but if they won’t give me a chair how in space do they expect me to entertain visitors properly?”  He paused.  “And, by the way, my name’s not 113.  Feel free to call me Uldar.”

“You know very well that is against protocol, 113,” replied the psychiatrist firmly, sitting down.  “Now then.  I’ve read your file thoroughly, so you don’t have to tell me about anything that happened in the past.  I’m well aware of the fact that you’ve been convicted for heterodoxy, specifically for your interest in historic languages.  What I am here to do today is to assess your current situation in order to decide whether it would be more appropriate to transfer you to a dedicated criminal psychiatric unit, in view of your intransigence so far under routine treatment.”

“H’mm,” said Uldar, a curious smile lighting his face.  “Let’s see.  A rough translation of that would be, you’ve come to see if I’m crazy because I haven’t responded so far to torture.  Yes?”

The psychiatrist was annoyed.  “Your use of the word ‘torture’ is extremely negative, and a wilful misunderstanding of the treatment you are currently undergoing,” he snapped.

Uldar shrugged.  “I could show you some of the scars,” he offered.  “Or would that put you off your breakfast?”

The psychiatrist ignored him.  “First of all,” he said, in a voice that suggested it was about time he got down to some business, “I want you to explain to me why the study of historic languages is societally inappropriate.”

Uldar sighed.  “I can tell you what I’ve been told,” he replied.  “I assume that’s what you want to hear.  I have had it explained to me, forcibly and at some length, that the study of historic languages is divisive because there is a risk of re-establishing communication barriers and petty nationalisms.”

The psychiatrist raised an eyebrow.  “You don’t appear to be convinced of that.”

“Absolutely not,” replied Uldar.  “For that to happen, people would have to take it to utter extremes and forget Terran English altogether.  Why would anyone want to do that, when it’s so convenient to have a language in common?”

“Then why waste time learning others?” countered the psychiatrist.

Uldar grinned boyishly.  “For fun?  Listen, did you know that in Italian the word for ‘hedgehog’ is the same as the word for ‘curly’?  If you asked most people what the defining characteristic of a hedgehog was, they’d say it was spiky, but to the Italians it was the fact that it could curl up in a ball.  Don’t you think that’s interesting?”

“Why should anyone be interested in people’s psychological perceptions of an extinct animal?”

“Well, you should know that.  Psychology’s your pigeon, after all.”  Uldar let out a sigh.  “You know what I could really do with more than anything?  A nice cup of coffee.  Real coffee, not that dreadful synthetic muck out of the machines.  Ever tried it?”

“The drink that comes from the machines is real coffee,” replied the psychiatrist patiently.  “There is no other kind.”

Uldar grinned again.  “Either you haven’t lived, or you’re just trying to make yourself feel better.  Of course there’s real coffee!  You just have to know where to get it.  Do you have a name, by the way?”

“Not one that is relevant to you, 113.”

“I thought you might say that, but I had to ask.  All right, then, I’ll call you… let me see… Alberto.  You look as though you might just have a bit of Italian in you somewhere.”

“You will not call me that,” retorted the psychiatrist.

“What have I got to lose?” replied Uldar, reasonably.  “I’m going to be back on the torture machines this afternoon whatever happens.  For as long as you refuse to give me your real name, you’re Alberto.  You ought to be thankful I didn’t call you Scumbag or something.  Fortunately I’m not the type.”

The psychiatrist gritted his teeth.  “I see the Chief Administrator did not exaggerate your social problems.  Well then, 113, I want you to try to justify to me why you think you should be allowed back into normal society.”

“H’mm,” replied Uldar.  “Normal society.  That would be a good idea.  When do you think it’ll happen?”

“When you are prepared to co-operate,” answered the psychiatrist, deliberately misunderstanding the pronoun.

“I don’t think you quite followed me,” said Uldar mildly.  “I meant I wondered when normal society would happen.  Do you honestly think that what we have at the moment is normal?  When a man can be tortured simply for an interest in languages?”

“You are a highly intelligent man, 113.  How is it that you simply don’t appear to be able to comprehend the seriousness of your crime?”

“Well, since we’re exchanging compliments now, you’re obviously pretty bright yourself, Alberto.  So, tell me – how is it that you don’t understand the fact that you live in a society that’s skewed so badly there’s no humanity left in it?”

The psychiatrist glared at him.  “No humanity?  I can assure you, 113, that no effort or expense is being spared to try to rehabilitate you.”

“H’mm.  I’m honoured.”  He flashed the psychiatrist a wry smile.  “And supposing my IQ were 75 rather than 175, as it in fact is?  Would the same effort and expense be put into attempting to force me into monotonous conformity?  You know, I rather think not.”  He leaned back easily against the wall.  “Oh dear, I’m getting terribly cynical in my old age, don’t you think?  Anyway, I don’t think this conversation is really getting either of us anywhere, but since you’re here, would you like to have a look at my eggs?”

The psychiatrist frowned in puzzlement.  “Your eggs?” he repeated.

“Yes.  My eggs.  After all, I have to have something to do in here, so I’ve become a bit of a collector.”  He smiled again.  “It passes the time and keeps me sane, if the word has any meaning any longer.”

“A collector?”

“Of course.  I’ll just get the box.  Excuse me.”  He rummaged under the bed.  “What I could really do with is a nice display cabinet, but you know how things are, I’m sure.  Beggars can’t be choosers.”  He reappeared, apparently holding something quite heavy in his hands.  “Just move over a little that way, if you would… thank you.  Now I can put it down here.”

“What are you talking about, man?  There’s no box.  There’s nothing there!”

Uldar grinned.  “You’re not looking carefully enough, are you, Alberto?  Now let me just open it, if I can find the key.”  He rummaged in the pocket of his thin regulation trousers, produced a small invisible key, and made a convincing performance of opening the box.  “I have to keep it locked, you understand.  Some of these eggs are really valuable.”

The psychiatrist narrowed his eyes.  “Are you playing games with me?”

“Would I do such a thing?  Here we are.  This one’s not valuable at all really, but it’s still one of my favourites.”  He reached into the imaginary box and brought out a cupped hand, giving a curiously skilful illusion that there was an object in it which weighed perhaps two hundred grammes.  “Green onyx.  See the veining?  Lovely, isn’t it?”

“What is the point of all this?” demanded the psychiatrist angrily.  “Are you really insane, or are you just trying to convince me you are?”

“Oh, really, Alberto, I’m saner than you are,” Uldar assured him.  “Honestly.  Now, this one’s very fragile, so I’m not going to let you touch it.  It’s a real egg, or it was – the inside has been blown out, of course.  Hand-painted, as you can see, but what really distinguishes it is the way the gold leaf has been applied.  Someone must have had an amazingly steady hand.  Let’s put that one back quickly – I don’t want it to get broken.  Ah yes, this one here is carved rosewood.  I wonder how they managed to polish right down inside the carving?  Some form of chemical process, I imagine, but very clever nonetheless.  Oh, and this one is valuable.  A genuine Fabergé egg, which apparently used to belong to Catherine the Great – have you heard of her?  I suppose you probably haven’t, given that the study of history isn’t exactly encouraged these days.  A Russian empress, she was.  She certainly had excellent taste in objets d’art.  Oh, no, that’s French, isn’t it?”  His brown eyes twinkled mischievously.  “I shouldn’t say that.  It’ll get me an extra hour on the torture machines.”

“It’s a phrase which is perfectly acceptable in Terran English,” snarled the psychiatrist, “and don’t try to convince me you don’t know that.  You are deliberately trying to provoke me.”

“Not me, old chap.  You’re provoking yourself,” replied Uldar mildly.  “Now, this one…”

The psychiatrist stood up abruptly.  “I think I’ve heard quite enough.  Reluctant as I am to do so given your level of intelligence, I’m going to have to recommend you for complete mental reprogramming.  I don’t see any possible alternative.”

Uldar’s eyebrows shot up.  “Don’t you think that’s a little disproportionate?  Essentially, what you’ve just said is that you’re going to recommend the erasure of my entire personality, memories, everything that makes me the person I am, simply in order to eradicate an interest in old languages?  I don’t know about you, but that strikes me as just a touch extreme when I really think about it.”

The psychiatrist gritted his teeth.  “Listen,” he said stiffly.  “You should realise as well as I do that it’s the thin end of the wedge.  The moment we start allowing people to learn languages, the next thing they’ll be wanting to do is teach them to others.  Then there’ll be all sorts of separatist nationalist groups springing up who want to learn the language of the race they were descended from, and before we know it there’ll be tribes again.  Groups of people with individual cultures, people who don’t understand one another and don’t want to make the effort, people who, in the end, won’t even bother to speak Terran English.  It’ll set the Galaxy back to the bad old days before we had proper space travel.  Surely you can see that?”

“Dear me,” replied Uldar, very seriously.  “Yes, I do see your point.  And then we’d have to have language lessons in schools, wouldn’t we?  So that people could understand one another.”  He smiled again.  “And how immeasurably that would broaden our appreciation of our own language!  You know, Alberto, I’ve studied Italian, French, German and Russian.  Italian and French are quite similar to each other, but very different from Terran English.  The other two are different again.  When you really get to understand how another language works, it highlights things in your own language that you’d never even have thought of if you hadn’t had the comparison.  Why do we put things a certain way?  We don’t know, we just do, because that’s how our language operates.  Other languages work differently.  Take the subjunctive, for example.  In Terran English it’s pretty vestigial, but in French it’s used quite a lot, and in Italian even more.  In Italian you don’t say ‘I believe he’s in the house’, you say ‘I believe he should be in the house’.  It’s like the hedgehog, I suppose.  A different way of looking at things.”

“Language is just a useful tool,” replied the psychiatrist.  “It’s not intended to be appreciated.”

Uldar shrugged.  “Why not?  Language is a wonderful thing.  Incidentally, you haven’t finished looking at the eggs.  I’ve got several more I’d like to show you.”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” snapped the psychiatrist.  “The eggs are not real.”

Uldar looked him straight in the eye.  “Oh, but they are,” he assured him gently.  “My eggs are beautiful.  So they are, in fact, the only thing round here that is real.”

“You’re insane,” retorted the psychiatrist, but he did not seem quite convinced.

“Alberto, Alberto, if you’ll just calm down a little and listen to me, I will explain,” said Uldar.  “You ought to do something about that temper of yours, you know.  They say it’s bad for the blood pressure.  Now sit down again, and if it makes you happy I will close the box and put it away.  Satisfied?”

“Do you absolutely have to go through this charade?” hissed the psychiatrist.  “I’ve heard enough.  I’m going.”

“Without an explanation?  Dear me.  I thought you had come specifically to assess my sanity?  You ought at least to listen to what I have to say about the eggs.”

“It doesn’t matter.  I can write exactly what I like in my report on you.  You’re in no position to challenge it.”  He took a step towards the door.

“Of course you can,” agreed Uldar.  “It’s your privilege.  You can write down a whole complicated tissue of lies, and there isn’t a thing I can do about it.”  He paused.  “But, just for your own satisfaction, wouldn’t you like to hear the truth?  I’m sure it’s something of a rare bird under the current administration.”

The psychiatrist turned suspiciously.  “What exactly do you mean by that?”

“Just what I said.  Governments invariably tell lies.  This one exists by them.  That’s common knowledge, but only someone in my position, who has nothing left to lose, can afford to say it aloud.”

“No.  I meant, why do you think it would satisfy me to hear about your damned eggs?”

“Because otherwise,” explained Uldar, with disarming honesty, “you’ll spend the rest of your life wondering why that silly old fool was going on about a box of imaginary eggs.  Am I right?”

“Oh, so you admit they’re imaginary?” demanded the psychiatrist, triumphantly.  “A moment ago, you said they were real.”

“They are both.  Sit down, Alberto, and I’ll tell you what I mean.  Whether or not you choose to put it in your report is entirely up to you.”

The psychiatrist frowned, but he walked back up to the bed and sat down again.  “Why does that not worry you?” he asked.  “You know very well I have the power to have you reprogrammed.”

“Of course.  What is the only thing I have to lose?  My life.  If I go through the reprogramming, isn’t that just the same thing?  I, as a person, will be effectively dead.  Something else will carry on living in my body, but it won’t be me.  So it makes no difference to me whether you reprogram me or execute me.  I’m an old man, Alberto, or at least I’m getting that way.  I’ve had an interesting life.  You wouldn’t exactly be cutting me off in my prime.  And, of course, after that, there’d be nothing more you could do to me.  Why should I spoil whatever is left of my life by fretting about it?”

“You were going to tell me about the eggs,” the psychiatrist reminded him, with a shade of uneasiness.  There was something about this gentle elderly man which was starting to prey on his nerves.

“So I was.  I do apologise,” replied Uldar contritely.  “Well, Alberto, let me tell you about my usual day.  I am woken up at five in the morning by a guard, and then I am taken to the gym for an hour’s exercise before breakfast.  Breakfast is reasonably nutritious but, naturally, extremely boring.  After that I am brought back here for a little while, and then I am taken for a stint on the torture machines.  I know you would prefer to call them Pavlovian stimulators, but I’m afraid I have always called a spade a spade.  Sometimes I get lunch, but if I am considered to be particularly intransigent I am deprived of it as an extra punishment.  It makes very little difference, since it’s hardly a gourmet’s delight.  The afternoon is more varied; sometimes I have to go back on the machines, but at other times I am made to watch instructive viewchips to make me aware how wonderful the current regime is, or else I spend the whole afternoon in here.  Dinner is at half past six, and again, the less said about it the better.  The evenings are my own, but, you understand, I am not given anything to occupy myself with.  I believe I am expected to meditate on my shortcomings.”  He smiled.  “However, since I already know very well what those are and my opinion on them is quite at variance with that of the administration here, I have found another way to occupy myself.  I created the eggs.”

The psychiatrist frowned.  “The eggs,” he repeated, almost to himself.

“That’s right.”  Uldar made some show of closing the box and locking it again.  “I have nothing here except for the resources that are inside me.  Nobody can take those away from me without also taking my life, and so I’m quite content.  I have an imagination, and I have a memory.  With them, I can make beautiful things.”  He smiled again.  “I started with the green onyx one.  I did mention that that was one of my favourites.  I visualised it very carefully until I could turn it around in my mind and see it from every angle, all the subtle details of the veining in the stone.  I promised myself right from the beginning that I would never acquire another egg until I could see each one of the others well enough to be able to paint a picture of it from any angle I chose.  You’d be surprised at how much thought and care that takes.  I started my collection not long after I was locked in here, and even now I have only a dozen eggs.”

“And Catherine the Great?” demanded the psychiatrist, intrigued despite himself.

“Ah, well, I have a whimsical streak,” explained Uldar, slightly deprecatingly.  “I once saw a picture of a Fabergé egg which genuinely did belong to Catherine the Great, and I tried to model mine on it as closely as I could recall.  And since, after all, I make the rules for my egg collection, who’s to say it’s not the same one?  Did it look any different to you?” he asked, mischievously.

“What do you think I am?  A mind reader?”

“Clearly not, or you would definitely have appreciated my eggs.  It really is rather a pity you’re not a telepath, as a matter of fact.  I’d like you to have been able to see them.  I’m rather proud of them.”

“So what was the point of going through the charade of showing them to me?”

Uldar shrugged again.  “Just so you knew they were there,” he replied, calmly.

“And what good do you think it will do you to have me know that?” asked the psychiatrist.

“Oh, no,” replied Uldar seriously.  “It was for your benefit, not mine.  After all, I’ve nothing against you.”

“What exactly do you mean by that?” asked the psychiatrist, suspiciously.

Uldar sighed.  “You’re an intelligent man, Alberto.  Unfortunately intelligence is a rather dangerous thing to possess in this present society, which is why, of course, it will eventually collapse and be replaced by something which is both more logical and more compassionate.  One day, you will be horrified to discover that you, too, have developed some interest which is not acceptable to the State, and unless you are prepared to live with the constant dissembling required to conceal it, you will end up in the same situation as I am.  And then… I’d like you to think of me, Alberto, and remember my eggs.  Of course it doesn’t have to be eggs; it depends on your exact turn of mind.  I’m an artistic type, so I do the mental equivalent of painting and sculpture.  You may be the literary type, and write books that exist only in your head.  It’s entirely up to you.  But I can assure you, you will need some way to cope, and to reassure yourself that you are still a human being no matter what they try to do to convince you otherwise.  Do you understand?”

The psychiatrist stared at him for a long time.  Uldar’s brown eyes met his gaze, thoughtful, kindly, a little mischievous, totally fearless.

“Well, do you?” he prompted, mildly.

“I am a loyal citizen,” replied the psychiatrist, licking dry lips.  “I am not guilty of any offence which would place me in your situation.”

“So far,” added Uldar, with a hint of a shrug.  “After all, you’re quite a bit younger than I am.  Besides, do you know what they’re going to decide to criminalise next?  I’m sure I don’t.”

“I… think I’d better be going,” said the psychiatrist hastily.  “This has been, er, a most illuminating interview, and I shall make sure that your exceptional willingness to co-operate with me is mentioned in my report.  I’m sure that will count in your favour.”

Uldar grinned.  “My word!  You never know, it may even save me an afternoon on the machines.  You’re very kind, Alberto.”

“Er… Kalenak,” mumbled the psychiatrist, suddenly and impulsively.

“I’m sorry?”

“My name’s not Alberto.  It’s Kalenak.”

“How very nice of you to tell me that,” replied Uldar, clearly quite moved.  “Kalenak.  It’s a nice name, too.  It has a ring to it.  Just one moment, before you go.  I don’t suppose I shall ever see you again, but I’d like you to have a little keepsake.”  He took out the imaginary key once again, and opened his invisible box.  “Here you are.  This is the carved rosewood one.  It has such a lovely feel to it.”

Kalenak stared at his outstretched hand.  “But I couldn’t take that!” he stammered.  “You spent so long making it…”

“That’s perfectly all right.  I can make another one.  Not quite the same, obviously – there would be no point in doing that.  Every one of them has to be unique, just like people.  But I can make one that’s very like it.  Rosewood’s quite versatile stuff, you understand.”

Kalenak solemnly took the imaginary egg from Uldar’s hand, and transferred it to his pocket.  It was an uncanny, disturbing sensation; he almost imagined he could feel its weight and the warm touch of the polished wood.  “Thank you,” he murmured, awkwardly.

“My pleasure,” replied Uldar with a smile.  “It’s nice to be able to do something for someone.  I very rarely get the chance these days.”

“Well…” Kalenak tailed off, not quite sure how to go on.

“Don’t worry, Kalenak.  I’ve enjoyed our little conversation this morning.  It’s not often I get a visitor.  Are you seeing any of the other prisoners today, incidentally, or just me?”

Kalenak almost smiled, for the first time since he had entered the room.  “I suppose it’s no good reminding you that you are not a prisoner, you’re a social patient?” he enquired.

“None whatsoever,” agreed Uldar cheerfully.  “You may think this a little strange coming from a man who has just shown you his collection of purely imaginary eggs, but I’ve always been a realist.”

“Perhaps not so strange,” mused Kalenak.  “I must go.  I have to write my report on you.  I was called in specifically to see you because of your… somewhat unusual nature, you understand.  They wouldn’t ask me to go round talking to all the patients here.”

Uldar beamed.  “I think that’s the nicest thing anyone has said to me since I came here.  Unusual nature!  You reassure me immensely, Kalenak.  It means I am not a clone, not a copy, not a number, not a statistic, but myself.  Still myself, even after everything that has been done to me.  A little battered around the edges by time and cynicism, of course, but essentially still as God made me.  I think that’s a victory I’m entitled to celebrate a little, don’t you?”

“How will you celebrate?” asked Kalenak, fascinated.

“How do you think?  I’ll make another egg, of course!”

“Good luck,” murmured Kalenak, as he left.

“Kalenak!” Uldar called after him.  He turned.

“What?”

“You left the door open.  You really ought to lock it, you know.  If I escaped, you could get into terrible trouble, and I wouldn’t want that to happen after you’ve been so kind.”

“Ah… yes… you’ve given me quite a lot to think about, Uldar,” replied Kalenak, shaken.  Had he really been so distracted, or had a rebel part of him taken over and left the door open deliberately?  He was not at all sure that that was one of the things he wanted to think about.  He locked the door and set off slowly back down the corridor the way he had come.

He’d just used the man’s name, not his number.  That was something else he was sure he hadn’t meant.  It had just slipped out.  Almost without willing it, he put a hand into the pocket where the imaginary rosewood egg was supposed to be.  He drew it out again sharply.  If he weren’t careful, he could let that kind of thing cloud his mind, and he was going to have to write a sensible report.

In which he would recommend… what?

He already knew he could no longer recommend mental reprogramming.  He’d have to live with himself for ever afterwards if he did, remembering those gentle, humorous brown eyes, and feeling the intangible but curiously real weight of the egg in his pocket for the rest of his life, like the Ancient Mariner’s albatross.  Uldar had been absolutely right: his body would live on, but his mind would be dead as effectively as if he had been given the lethal injection which was the standard penalty for violent crime of any seriousness.  But how could he write “This man is harmless and should be released”?  If he did that, then Uldar’s disquieting prediction about his own future would be fulfilled far more quickly than Uldar could possibly have envisaged.

He thought bleakly about the treatment generally meted out to those labelled as criminally insane.  It wasn’t encouraging.  He shivered involuntarily.

Insane but harmless?  That was a possibility.  It would still mean Uldar would be institutionalised for the rest of his life, but at least he would be treated with some measure of kindness, and it would mean respite from the Pavlovian stimulators – no, damn it, the torture machines.  What else were they?  And he might just get away with it, too.  Whatever else Uldar was, however seditiously individualistic his opinions, at least there was no way in the Galaxy anyone could call him violent.  Yes, it might work.  At any rate, it was the best compromise Kalenak could think of.

He made up his mind.  “Insane but harmless” would do.  After all, he could cite plenty of corroborative evidence.  The man had a collection of twelve completely imaginary eggs, which he could describe in detail and insisted on regarding as real.  Present that in the right way, and it wouldn’t be difficult to convince the authorities that they were dealing with, to put it in the sort of blunt terms Uldar himself would favour, a complete fruit cake.

It’s the best I can do for him, he told himself.  I have to put something down that stands a chance of being taken seriously, or it won’t improve his situation and it may even make it worse.  Perhaps there’s a chance he’ll be reassessed and released at a later date.  At any rate, the psychiatric units aren’t so bad.  They may try to sedate him to the eyebrows, of course, but I’ve got a funny feeling he’ll find a way round that.  Make out he’s so sensitive to the drugs they’re using that they’ll have to lower the dose.  He can act well enough to make his box of eggs look convincing, so I’m sure he can pretend to be more sedated than he really is if he has a mind to do so.

He sighed as he stepped into the Chief Administrator’s office.  “That was quick,” observed the Chief Administrator drily.

“I’ve found out all I need to know,” replied Kalenak tersely.  “The man’s stark staring mad, but totally harmless.  He shouldn’t be in here.  He should be in a psychiatric unit.”

“Indeed?”

Kalenak nodded.  “Go and see him for yourself and ask him about his eggs, if you have any doubts on the matter.  He has an imaginary box under his bed, locked with an imaginary key, with a dozen imaginary eggs in it, every one different.  He insisted on showing them to me.”

“H’mm.”  The Chief Administrator stared at something on the desk for a moment.  “And you’re going to put that in your report, are you?”

“Of course.  But I thought I ought to give you the gist of it before I left.  These things take a while to produce, you see, and my professional opinion is that this unit is acting to the further detriment of the patient’s remaining sanity.  I’d like to recommend to you that he is transferred to a psychiatric unit immediately, without the delay which would be involved in the production and distribution of my official report.”

The Chief Administrator frowned.  “You are quite sure about that?  Patient 113 is, as I’m sure you’re well aware, a man of exceptionally high intelligence.  I take it you have considered the possibility that he might have been trying to fool you into thinking he was insane, in order to secure such a transfer?”

“Naturally.  I am not exactly stupid myself, Chief Administrator, and I have a great deal of experience in dealing with mental patients.”

“I see.  And you are quite convinced that he is not acting?”

“Entirely.  Why do you think the Pavlovian stimulators have completely failed to have any effect on him?  His mind is simply not normal.”

“And your precise professional diagnosis of his condition?”

Kalenak was immediately wary, suspecting a trap.  “Schizophrenia,” he replied slowly, ready to produce chapter and verse on the subject of delusions.  He caught himself in alarm.  This was the Chief Administrator of Unit H51, someone he would probably never see again after he left here and of whom he had no reason to be afraid.  Was he himself beginning to develop paranoid symptoms?

“Our own unit medic found no evidence of that.”

“It’s more than likely to have developed since he arrived here, as a response to the rather extreme conditions created by the Pavlovian stimulators.  There’s no history of delusions or other mental illness in his file, but it’s clear that he has always been somewhat unstable or he would never have persisted in his unfortunate habit of studying languages when he was perfectly aware that it was not acceptable in modern society.  What began as a minor instability has now become a full-blown mental illness, and I repeat my professional opinion that the Pavlovian stimulators are having the effect of exacerbating that and may well have caused it in the first place.  Schizophrenia is a well-recognised and perfectly controllable condition.  Moreover, unlike many schizophrenics, Patient 113 is not violent, and therefore he cannot possibly qualify in any way as criminally insane.  His needs, and those of society, would be best served by placing him in an ordinary psychiatric unit.”

“So you are saying,” persisted the Chief Administrator smoothly, “that the judicial system has made an error?”

“Sending him here in the first place was a matter for the judges, not for a psychiatrist,” he replied.  “The question is not whether there was a miscarriage of justice at that time, but how far circumstances have changed since then, and whether it is still appropriate to keep him in this unit.  You called me in for a professional opinion.  I have given it.  It’s not up to me to criticise those who sent him here.  I wasn’t there at the time.”

“I see.  Well then, pending your report, I shall send the unit medic to see him, and if she agrees with your diagnosis I shall be prepared to act on your somewhat unusual recommendation.”

Kalenak gave a stiff little bow.  “Thank you.  I shall have the report in your hands as soon as possible.”

He left, and as the door closed behind him he let out a deep breath which he had not been aware that he was holding.  That had been an uncomfortable little interview.  He felt like a marked man, as if Uldar’s egg were visible in his pocket, betraying itself and him to the Galaxy.

Oh, Uldar had been right, there was no doubting it.  He knew that with a sudden sinking certainty as he walked through the interchangeable corridors back to the sector where he was currently staying; the next morning he would catch the shuttle back to Earth, and it would not be a moment too soon.  Yes, Uldar had been right.  You either acquiesced, as Kalenak had done all his life so far, and watched your identity slowly but surely disappear.  Or you took the first tiny, hesitant step towards freedom, and it opened wide its arms and called you forward until, one day, maybe sooner, maybe later, depending on how clever and cautious you were, you heard the heavy tread of armed guards following you, and then you’d find yourself in a cell that was called a room, in a prison that was called a unit, in the company of torture machines that were called Pavlovian stimulators.

One day it would happen.  He owed it to Uldar, as well as himself, to put off that day for as long as he possibly could, but he knew he could not put it off for ever.  The most he could hope was that he might manage to live to about Uldar’s present age before it did, by which time Uldar stood a good chance of being safely dead.

He slipped his hand back into his pocket, an unreadable smile on his face.  But when it does, he thought wryly… I shall still have my carved rosewood egg.  And whatever happens, they will never take that away from me, nor the reality for which it stands.

 

 

Deo Gratias

28 April 2001

 

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