The Curmudgeon


Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Little Doctor: an extract

A story of fundamental human values

By the time the Archbishop visited us, in the third or fourth year of the war, we had made substantial progress. We were no longer trying to rearrange the grammar of the genetic sentence; what we were attempting was merely an editorial chore: take out a word or two here, emphasise another word there. Eureka! The best eyesight, the most sensitive fingers, and a docile brain. We also perfected, or at any rate made workable, a process for accelerating the onset of maturity so that Ghober wouldn't have to wait fifteen years for his recruits.

Our first major success was Eugene. At the time of the Archbishop's visit, Eugene was six months old. Six months out of his incubator, that is; the time between then and his conception, if such a term can be used, was something approaching two years. To confuse the issue further, Eugene was "born" at a somewhat later stage of his development than a normal human infant; he remained in the incubator until approximately the equivalent of his fifth year.

At six months of age, Eugene resembled a rather gangly ten-year-old. The hands at the ends of his smooth child's arms were disproportionately large, and the backs of them were matted with fine but copious hair. The fingers were stubby and strong. Lisa Faig said sourly that he could probably strip, clean and reassemble an army rifle in a hundred seconds by instinct alone, but although it might have made good publicity, this was not the case. However, the instincts Eugene did have made him dextrous and mechanically adept. He could not strip and reassemble a rifle without first being shown how; but once he was shown, he learned quickly.

He was also a very good shot. At the end of the Archbishop's visit, we arranged a small publicity stunt in the form of a rifle competition between the members of our own military contingent and the Archbishop's honour guard. We set up targets, stationary and moving, and invited every soldier in the place to participate; all told, about a hundred men and women must have entered the first round. The winner of the contest got to shoot against Eugene. The results were not quite as spectacular as we might have hoped - the soldier, an experienced trick-shooter as well as a competent sniper, achieved a close victory - but, given his age and his slightly freakish appearance, Eugene's performance was impressive.

His head was small, and had a slight air of deformity about it, although most of our modifications had been internal. The nose and mouth were undersized, and made to look tiny by the large protruding eyes. But to the observer, Eugene's eyes were unusual less because of their size or shape than because of the rarity with which they blinked or moved. When Eugene wished to look aside, he would move his whole head rather than just his eyeballs, so that anyone who attracted his attention received not a casual glance, but the full force of his slightly unsettling stare.

Eugene could talk, but he could not use language. That is to say, he could use words and sentences in context, but he could not make up new sentences of his own. His utterances were restricted to a few - few in comparison to a normal human being, that is - stereotyped phrases which could be varied according to circumstances. He was able to say yes, no and thank you, and he was able to ask for things that he needed. He was able to learn people's names and address them properly; he understood rank. He was able to learn the names of parts in a machine, and the names of the actions required to assemble those parts and make use of the machine. He was not able to argue, discuss, make up new names. When shoving a magazine into a rifle for the competition, he would never spontaneously toss the magazine up so that it spun in the air, and then catch it before loading it into his weapon, as was the habit of the woman who defeated him. Eugene had some spontaneity and initiative - he was, for instance, a superlative thief - and there were times when he even seemed to have a sense of humour; but he had not the slightest interest in imitating those around him, except with regard to his own narrow field of specialisation.

There was some debate among the scientists as to what we should call these creatures of ours, this new breed of which Eugene was the Adam. We could not think of them as human beings, even in the sense that the most deformed and imbecilic "natural" infant is a human being; yet at the same time they certainly were not animals. Someone suggested calling them grunts, but the nobody had the courage to repeat the suggestion in Lisa's presence. Lisa herself thought we might call them Tophetans. Others suggested simply robots, but this was unsatisfactory because it was obvious the creatures were not machines. Given the name of Project Anthill, Crick thought we might call them formicans, and classify them according to a caste system similar to that used by ants and termites. I still feel that this suggestion might have had potential.

Had Eugene and his kind ever been used in the field, no doubt the ordinary soldiers would have conferred some pithy epithet upon them; a name that would have subsumed and outlived our prim scientific classifications. The Allied propagandists, who never even saw one of Tophet's children, had no doubt of their nature: mutants, monsters, idiots, perversions, horrors.


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