“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.