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Authors: John Wyndham

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BOOK: The Compassion Circuit
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“Uncertain and fragile,” Janet repeated. “Yes, that’s how I feel.”

“Humans have to live so precariously,” Hester went on. “If my arm or leg should be crushed I can have a new one in a few minutes. But a human would have agony for a long time, and not even a new limb at the end of it—just a faulty one, if he were lucky. That isn’t as bad as it used to be because in designing us you learned how to make good arms and legs, much stronger and better than the old ones.

People would be much more sensible to have a weak arm or leg replaced at once, but they don’t seem to want to if they can possibly keep the old ones.”

“You mean they can be grafted on? I didn’t know that,” Janet said. “I wish it were only arms or legs that’s wrong with me. I don’t think I should hesitate…”

She sighed. “The doctor wasn’t encouraging this morning, Hester. I’ve been losing ground and must rest more. I don’t believe he expects me to get any stronger. He was just trying to cheer me up before…

He had a funny sort of look after he’d examined me. But all he said was I should rest more. What’s the good of being alive if it’s only rest—rest—rest?

“And there’s poor George. What sort of a life is it for him, and he’s been so patient with me, so sweet. I’d rather anything than go on feebly like this. I’d sooner die…”

Janet went on talking, more to herself than to the patient Hester standing by. She talked herself into tears. Then presently, she looked up.

“Oh, Hester, if you were human I couldn’t bear it. I think I’d hate you for being so strong and so well.

But I don’t, Hester. You’re so kind and so patient when I’m silly, like this. I believe you’d cry with me to keep me company if you could.”

“I would if I could,” the robot agreed. “My compassion-circuit—”

“Oh,
no
!” Janet protested. “It can’t be just that. You’ve a heart somewhere, Hester. You must have.”

“I expect it is more reliable than a heart,” said Hester.

She stepped a little closer, stooped down, and lifted Janet up as if she weighed nothing at all.

“You’ve tired yourself out, Janet, dear,” she told her. “I’ll take you upstairs. You’ll be able to sleep a little before he gets back.”

Janet could feel the robot’s arms cold through her dress, but the coldness did not trouble her any more. She was aware only that they were strong, protecting arms around her.

She said: “Oh, Hester, you are such a comfort. You
know
what I ought to do.” She paused, then she added miserably: “I know what he thinks—the doctor, I mean. I could see it. He just thinks I’m going to go on getting weaker and weaker until one day I’ll fade away and die. I said I’d sooner die, but I wouldn’t, Hester. I don’t want to die…”

The robot rocked her a little, as if she were a child.

“There, there, dear. It’s not as bad as that—nothing like,” she told her. “You mustn’t think about dying. And you mustn’t cry any more. It’s not good for you, you know. Besides, you won’t want him to see you’ve been crying.”

“I’ll try not to,” agreed Janet obediently, as Hester carried her out of the room and up the stairs…

The hospital reception-robot looked up from the desk.

“My wife,” George said. “I rang you up about an hour ago.”

The robot’s face took on an impeccable expression of professional sympathy.

“Yes, Mr. Shand. I’m afraid it has been a shock for you, but as I told you, your house-robot did quite the right thing to send her here at once.”

“I’ve tried to get on to her own doctor, but he’s away,” George told her.

“You don’t need to worry about that, Mr. Shand. She has been examined, and we have had all her records sent over from the hospital she was in before. The operation has been provisionally fixed for tomorrow, but of course we shall need your consent.”

George hesitated. “May I see the doctor in charge of her?”

“He isn’t in the hospital at the moment, I’m afraid.”

“It is—absolutely necessary?” George asked, after a pause.

The robot looked at him steadily, and nodded, said, “She must have been growing steadily weaker for some months now.”

George nodded.

“The only alternative is that she will grow weaker still, and have more pain before the end,” she told him.

George stared at the wall blankly for some seconds. “I see,” he said bleakly.

He picked up a pen in a shaky hand and signed the form that she put before him. He gazed at it awhile without seeing it.

“Will—will she have a good chance?” he asked.

“Yes,” the robot told him. “There is never complete absence of risk, of course. But there’s a very good chance of complete success.”

George sighed, and nodded. “I’d like to see her,” he said.

The robot pressed a bell-push. “You may
see
her,” she said. “But I must ask you not to disturb her.

She’s asleep now, and it’s better for her not to be awakened.”

George had to be satisfied with that, but he left the hospital feeling a little better for the sight of the quiet smile on Janet’s lips as she slept.

The hospital called him at the office the following afternoon. They were reassuring. The operation appeared to have been a complete success. Everyone was quite confident of the outcome. There was no need to worry. The doctors were perfectly satisfied. No, it would not be wise to allow any visitors for a few days yet. But there was nothing to worry about. Nothing at all.

George rang up each day just before he left, in the hope that he would be allowed a visit. The hospital was kindly and heartening, but adamant about visits. And then, on the fifth day, they suddenly told him she had already left on her way home. George was staggered. He had been prepared to find it a matter of weeks. He dashed out, bought a bunch of roses, and left half a dozen traffic regulations in fragments behind him.

“Where is she?” he demanded of Hester as she opened the door.

“She’s in bed. I thought it might be better if—” Hester began, but he lost the rest of the sentence as he bounded up the stairs.

Janet was lying in the bed. Only her head was visible, cut off by the line of the sheet, and a bandage around her neck. George put the flowers down on the bedside table. He stooped over Janet and kissed her gently. She looked up at him from anxious eyes.

“Oh, George, dear. Has she told you?”

“Has who told me what?” he asked, sitting down on the side of the bed.

“Hester. She said she would. Oh, George, I didn’t mean it. At least, I don’t think I meant it. She sent me, George. I was so weak and wretched. I wanted to be strong. I don’t think I really understood.

Hester said—”

“Take it easy, darling. Take it easy,” George suggested with a smile. “What on earth’s all this about?”

He felt under the bedclothes and found her hand. “But, George—” she began.

He interrupted her. “I say, darling, your hand’s dreadfully cold. It’s almost like—” His fingers slid further up her arm. His eyes widened at her, incredulously. He jumped up suddenly from the bed and flung back the covers. He put his hand on the thin nightdress, over her heart—and then snatched it away as if he had been stung. He staggered back. “God!
NO!”
he said, staring at her.

“But George. George, darling—” said Janet’s head on the pillows.

“NO!
NO!”
cried George, almost in a shriek. He turned and ran blindly from the room. In the darkness on the landing he missed the top step of the stairs, and went headlong down the whole flight.

Hester found him lying in a huddle in the hall. She bent down and gently explored the damage. The extent of it, and the fragility of the frame that had suffered it disturbed her compassion-circuit very greatly.

She did not try to move him, but went to the telephone and dialed.

“Emergency?” she asked, and gave the name and address. “Yes, at once,” she told them. “There may not be a lot of time. Several compound fractures, and I think his back is broken, poor man… No. There appears to be no damage to his head… Yes, much better. He’d be crippled for life, even if he did get over it… Yes, better send the form of consent with the ambulance so that it can be signed at once… Oh, yes, that’ll be quite all right. His wife will sign it.”

The End.

Notes and proofing history

Scanned with preliminary proofing by A\NN/A

January 14th, 2008—v1.0

from:
Thirteen Great Science Fiction Stories, Cronklin, ed.
, 1960

Originally published in
Fantastic Universe
, December, 1954

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