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Chapter Seven
Creatures That Once Were Men

MR. ANTHONY STEELE took the position which had been assigned to him, at the entrance to the Victory Building. It was an hour after midnight, and up the steel canyons, came a sharp Hudson wind. Dr. Steele shivered—the War must have been like this, he thought, the War in which his uncle had been an army doctor, from which he had not come back.

Thus it was to serve your country, or even your city, against a still-unconquered enemy, an enemy even more formidable in its hidden, sinister mystery. Dr. Steele had been shivering a little bit all day.

When they'd told him that old Dr. Skull was responsible for a new and ghastly form of disease, he'd been upset about that, and had tried to get in touch with the man. But Dr. Skull could not be reached. . . .

Then, the call from Borden, at Tony Steele's customary comfortable bed-time, impressing him into this Emergency Medical Committee. . . .

Wild talk, frightening talk—that had been his impression of the first Committee meeting in the new Victory Building. If it hadn't been for Borden, he wouldn't have been there; he wouldn't have trusted any of the others. And if ever he had seen the fires of insanity reflected in human eyes, he had seen them in the eyes of several of the supposed leaders of the Committee, and they all seemed to belong to a secret order of sorts; all wearing watch fobs in the shape of a purple-eyed octopus.

But how could you tell? Those might have been fever-lights, signs of this growing pestilence! The men might have been stricken with the first stages of the malady, and were working on nevertheless, sacrificing themselves for their fellows, for nobody could tell yet how this thing really started.

There was nothing really to go by, except the talk, and a few apparently unrelated facts. The Mid-City Hospital had burned down, and some Committee members had openly accused the monstrous patients, who apparently hated doctors and hospitals. Borden and a few of his medical friends had accused Jeffrey Fairchild, of all people! Said his wealth had made him a thrill-criminal. Borden even claimed to have seen Jeff at the fire, purposely, he said, contributing to the confusion. Jeffrey Fairchild, that amiable and intelligent young man about town who had been so helpful when Steel first started practice, four years ago!

And now the monsters were coming, for aid, for treatment, and it was Steele's job to admit them. It hadn't been hard getting them out of hospitals, he surmised, or away from the care of their private physicians—it seemed part of the disease to mistrust any known sort of medical help. Tony Steele looked at them, not realizing how he trembled. . . .

Hundreds of headlamps, from ambulances and private cars, played a false dawn on the pavement about the Victory Building. Escorted by police, by internes and nurses, by private citizens who seemed normal in all but their distraught perplexity, they were coming. Hundreds of them, scrambling for the lighted doors of the Victory Building. As though the lame and halt of the world had converged at the purple point. . . . As though the lame and the halt of history had risen half-rotting from their graves for some weird rite of resuscitation.

And the overpowering odor! Not even the effluvium of stale sweat, this thing; It was more like the humors that might arise in an overheated morgue. . . .

And he was supposed to help, to cure, he who had specialized in those diseases which are a luxury.

A policeman joined him, and then the crowd became something between a mob and an Act of God. For what seemed hours, Dr. Steel stood there, assorting those who sought to surge inward, allowing only the damnably sick to pass, and in spite of the dark morning's chill, he began to sweat. His voice grew hoarse with shouting directions. All about him, he sensed the press of grotesque and tragic humanity, hobbling toward possible salvation from God knew what hell of self-loathing. . . .

He didn't know! He hardly knew what great work he was engaged in, what was the beginning and the end of this process which began when the monsters left their ward beds, to end their grim trek upstairs on the forty-fourth floor of the Victory Building. He somehow felt himself a sentient tool, taking orders, standing at the doorway between mystery and mystery. . . .

How had they sickened? How would they be cured? What was he about here, and how had this vast and grisly chaos come so unpredictably, so violently, into his pleasant life? He wondered if Charon had felt as he did, bound forever to the Styx, witlessly rowing souls between remembered life and anticipated death. . . .

 

Another man tapped Tony Steele's shoulder, and said, "I'll relieve you, doctor. You're needed upstairs."

Steele sighed, the breath coming hard through his nostrils. Upstairs, at least, was more where a doctor belonged. Tony Steele was no tough-minded man. He liked people, liked to see them well and happy. It was for that reason, as much as for anything, that he had concentrated on rich patients. The rich, when they were ill, could be cheered so easily, could be sent to handsome hospital suites, could be ordered to take Napoleon brandy as a tonic, or luxury cruises on palatial liners. . . .

But the poor. . . . No, there was less you could do for the poor. You had to see them hungry-eyed and listless, in those airless sunless flats, worrying about money, worrying about bills, worrying about the cost of medicine. . . . You had to see a fifth child born into a three-room hovel, knowing that from its birth that the child would have to fight for its right to food, its right to a corner of the world, its very right to live. . . .

But now, Tony Steele was looking on human suffering in a stark and inexplicable shape. What good was a bedside manner for these shapes that might have been conceived in hell?

It was more than a clinical manner they needed, something of the all-wise, little father attitude. . . . Tony Steele went up to the forty-fourth floor, where the emergency clinic had been equipped to diagnose these patients.

Shuddering at some internal chill, Steele took his place in the busy clinic, and waited for the monsters to file in. He had not long to wait, for a nurse escorted a hobbling thing to him, a thing that looked at him with strange malevolence out of its huge unblinking eyes. . . .

"Name?" he asked, trying hard to remember the clinical manner.

The thing grunted its response. Steele asked the other questions, insanely irrelevant questions, about age, address, and occupation. Those are the things you ask a man, he thought. But this thing isn't a man—not any more! It's a shell around a private hades. . . .

"You cannot help me," the thing said, after it had answered all the questions. There was the ghost of manhood in those harsh tones. "I prefer—to die."

"Now, now, Mr. White. . . ." Steele protested, half-heartedly. Hell, why shouldn't the thing prefer to die! Who was he to interrupt that choice? "If you'll just trust us, we'll do so much for you. . . . We'll make you well again!"

The man said, "Fool." That was all, and the nurse led him away.

Steele stared after him, trembling. He was unaware of another patient in front of him, a patient whose mind had gone, who struggled wordlessly, and had to be held by two strong young men.

"Fool." What had that meant? It had been so concise, so unemotional. . . . Steele saw another doctor at his elbow. There were a lot of them standing around.

"Here," he shouted at his fellow-practitioner. "You take the cases. I've got to see somebody."

It wasn't quite suspicion—it was more like a passionate disquietude. So much suffering, so much madness. . . . Fool, the monster had called him, after saying also, I prefer to die.

That living, suffering organism who had once known a man named White—he'd sounded so like an educated man. A little like Steele's usual well-mannered patients. There might be something, maybe neuro-vascular tests that could relieve him. Perhaps it had been done already, but Steele knew a million men could take the same experiment and only one of them read anything like a correct diagnosis out of it.

He'd have to check with Borden on that! Borden would have to give him that much of a free hand. It might be simple; there might be a simple magic solution that would make the world right again, that would send Tony Steele back to his fine offices on West End Avenue, where he could believe again in the innate cheeriness of things.

Monster and nurse were vanishing down the corridor. He knew they were going to the treatment rooms on the floor above. Borden was in charge of all that—Borden was there, too.

Steele went down the corridor after them, but he took a different elevator. Somehow, he didn't want to face White again. . . .

Borden was sitting in that important-looking office, giving directions to tired and respectful-looking doctors. Steele considered that he hadn't been paid a cent, and so owed no respect to anyone.

"Give me a laboratory," he demanded of Borden without prelude.

 

Borden's eyes assumed a surprised expression. No one else spoke. "Why should I?" Borden inquired.

Steele, a nerve specialist, attacked the problem from that angle almost out of habit. "It's their whole systems," he explained. "I'm sure of it. There isn't a breakdown in any one place—it's the whole system getting wrong stimuli, as nerves transmitting wrong stimuli to the body cells. Almost as though they were reacting to a different environment—as different, say, as though they'd all been transplanted to the moon."

"Pardon me if I seem skeptical," Borden remarked wearily, "but I've been approaching the problem from so practical an angle myself, that I haven't much patience with theories. Medicine is medicine— it's complicated, detailed, difficult. . . . And you don't get cures by saying your patients have been transplanted to the moon."

"I didn't say that," Steele answered hotly.

Borden shrugged. "Very well. You're needed downstairs, but if it's going to make you any happier, you can have your laboratory. I'd suggest, however, that you first take a good look into the ward, unless it's against your theories to clutter your mind with factual details about the people you're supposed to cure."

The two older doctors in Borden's office snickered, and the three younger ones looked sympathetically crushed. Steele felt the hot flush under his cheeks, checked an impulse to tell Borden to go to hell. The old coot was getting so darned officious lately. . . .

"I'll take a look," he said, mustering some kind of calm into his tone. Borden pointed to the large door on his left.

"Right down that corridor," Borden directed. "If you have the heart to waste time on theories after you see those people, you're a harder man than I think."

But he wasn't hard! Tony Steele only wished he were. He was sorry now, that he made the gesture of going into the ward. As he walked down the short corridor between Borden's office and the ward, he had an overwhelming sense of repugnance. He knew they were sick, not ghastly, only sick. . . . But he could smell them even before he entered the ward. . . .

As he stepped across the threshold, an eerie howl, like the baying of a dog, sent the short hair bristling up his spine. Then the howl turned into a chorus, and Steele turned, would have fled, but a shapeless and gelid force grasped him, pulled him back into the room.

The monsters—what did they want with him?

As they circled about, pawing and clutching at him, he screamed that he was a doctor, that he had come on a routine examination.

The last thing he heard, before the blood roaring in his ears drowned out all external sound, was the wild unearthly laughter that greeted his protest. He realized that he was being held as a rabbit is held by a pack of dogs . . . that naked teeth were ripping the covering of his flesh . . . searching for veins and arteries. . . .

Weakly, he could see his own blood dribbling richly over their enormous chins, the stuff of his life. He could feel the seeping of cold air into his emptying arteries. . . .

And then he saw the monster called White standing a little way apart, arms folded over his chest.

It seemed in a dream of drumming revulsion that White's lips moved, repeating the word, "Fool." And now Steele knew what he had meant when he said, "I prefer to die."

Borden—Borden had sent him here. Borden must have known, and wanted him out of the way, after he proposed a cure!

If he could only make them understand, these people! Understand that he was worth more to them alive. . . .

The last thing he saw was White walking toward him, but he never knew whether White reached him or not. . . .

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Framed