“Have you talked about this to the psychiatrist?”
“So he could try to mortar up the gaps for me, fill in the gulfs with noise and warm water and words and hands touching me, and all that? No, thanks.” Hitchcock stopped. “I’m getting worse, aren’t I? I thought so. This morning when I woke up I thought, I’m getting worse. Or is it better?” He paused again and cocked an eye at Clemens. “Are you there? Are youreally there? Go on, prove it.”
Clemens slapped him on the arm, hard.
“Yes,” said Hitchcock, rubbing his arm, looking at it very thoroughly, wonderingly, massaging it. “You were there. For a brief fraction of an instant. But I wonder if you are—now.
“See you later,” said Clemens. He was on his way to find the doctor. He walked away.
A bell rang. Two bells, three bells rang. The ship rocked as if a hand had slapped it. There was a sucking sound, the sound of a vacuum cleaner turned on. Clemens heard the screams and felt the air thin. The air hissed away about his ears. Suddenly there was nothing in his nose or lungs. He stumbled and then the hissing stopped.
He heard someone cry, “A meteor.” Another said, “It’s patched!” And this was true. The ship’s emergency spider, running over the outside of the hull, had slapped a hot patch on the hole in the metal and welded it tight.
Someone was talking and talking and then beginning to shout at a distance. Clemens ran along the corridor through the freshening, thickening air. As he turned in at a bulkhead he saw the hole in the steel wall, freshly sealed; he saw the meteor fragments lying about the room like bits of a toy. He saw the captain and the members of the crew and a man lying on the floor. It was Hitchcock. His eyes were closed and he was crying. “It tried to kill me,” he said, over and over. “It tried to kill me.” They got him on his feet. “It can’t do that,” said Hitchcock. “That’s not how it should be. Things like that can’t happen, can they? It came in afterme. Why did it do that?”
“All right, all right Hitchcock,” said the captain.
The doctor was bandaging a small cut on Hitchcock’s arm. Hitchcock looked up, his face pale, and saw Clemens there looking at him. “It tried tokill me,” he said.
“I know,” said Clemens.
Seventeen hours passed. The ship moved on in space.
Clemens stepped through a bulkhead and waited. The psychiatrist and the captain were there. Hitchcock sat on the floor with his legs drawn up to his chest, arms wrapped tight about them.
“Hitchcock,” said the captain.
“Hitchcock, listen to me,” said the psychiatrist.
They turned to Clemens. “You’re his friend?”
“Do you want to help us?”
“If I can.”
“It was that damned meteor,” said the captain. “This might not have happened if it hadn’t been for that.”
“It would’ve come anyway, sooner or later,” said the doctor. To Clemens: “You might talk to him.”
Clemens walked quietly over and crouched by Hitchcock and began to shake his arm gently, calling in a low voice, “Hey there, Hitchcock.”
“Hey, it’s me. Me, Clemens,” said Clemens. “Look, I’m here.” He gave the arm a little slap. He massaged the rigid neck, gently, and the back of the bent-down head. He glanced at the psychiatrist, who sighed very softly. The captain shrugged.
“Shock treatment, Doctor?”
The psychiatrist nodded. “We’ll start within the hour.” Yes, thought Clemens, shock treatment. Play a dozen jazz records for him, wave a bottle of fresh green chlorophyll and dandelions under his nose, put grass under his feet, squirt Chanel on the air, cut his hair, clip his fingernails, bring him a woman, shout, bang and crash at him, fry him with electricity, fill the gap and the gulf, but where’s your proof? You can’t keep proving to him forever. You can’t entertain a baby with rattles and sirens all night every night for the next thirty years. Sometime you’ve got to stop. When you do that, he’s lost again. That is, if he pays any attention to you at all.