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(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…”