Mute by Piers Anthony
* * *
Los Angeles, CA
Knot always slept on his left side. Early in life he had tried to vary it, but long ago had given that up as futile. Normal symmetrical repose was for normal, symmetrical people.
He put his right foot over the edge of the hammock, ready to get up. He paused, as he always did, to look at it. It was a fine, big, healthy foot, with six well-formed toes. The foot of a minimally mutant human being.
He set it on down to the floor, doing a slow barrel-roll emergence from the web. He stood and stretched. His left foot was smaller, stunted, with only four toes, but it served. His legs differed in length, but he had learned to compensate, walking with his right knee chronically bent so that he hardly bumped at all when he traveled. His hands differed from each other similarly, and his ears; it was as though nature had run out of raw material before completing him. Often he had wished for a redistribution; a finger moved from this hand to that one, some muscle and bone shifted from one side to the other. But he always had to remind himself that as physical mutancy went, his case was marginal. He could, with proper clothing and effort, pass for normal.
Here at the enclave, he didn’t bother; his condition was really an asset that he tried to make more obvious. The real mutants were better able to accept him, that way.
Knot dug out his clothing, which was tailored to his physique. The enclave had excellent hand-craftsmen: a source of personal pride to him. It was Knot’s job to make the employment assignments, and this was no casual matter. This enclave had an excellent record, and this was due in large part to Knot’s professional skill.
He set out for the mess hall. The dawning day outside his bunk-cube was lovely; the blue sun of Planet Nelson was striking through the green morning cloud layer, starting the strong updraft that would soon clear the sky. In the evening the process would reverse, with a visible downdraft and closure by vapor. Knot, like most residents, was fascinated by these natural color shows. No two were quite alike; the patterns and hues shifted with countless minor variables, and the shows were useful for entertainment, divination, art-inspiration and wagering. Holographs of them were exported commercially.
But he could not dawdle, this time; his slot for breakfast was upon him, and the mess-chief became surly when the normal flow was disrupted.
The mess-guard had four eyes. All of them focused on Knot as the man frowned. “Have you checked in at the office?” He spoke with a certain awkwardness, for he also had two tongues.
“I have,” Knot said, standing so that his suit exaggerated his imbalance. No one could mistake him for a normal now. “Here is my card.”
The guard perused the card, “Very well. Go in and take your ration from the counter and sit down at a green table. You do have color perception?”
“Yes—in the right eye,” Knot said, “Monochrome in the left.”
“Once you get established, you’ll be assigned to a compatible group at a red or blue table,” the guard said. “But newcomers have to eat alone, until we get to know them. We have a lot of variation here, but we’re the top enclave in this region of space, and we don’t like trouble.”
“I understand,” Knot said with due humility. “I’ll try to conduct myself properly.”
He went on in, smiling privately. He had gone through this ritual with this guard for the past year, every morning, and with the predecessor-guard for two years before that. He would be alarmed if the man ever recognized him.
Breakfast was a leaf of leanfruit, the succulent foliage that was a meal in itself. An enterprising mutant had discovered how to detoxify it, at one swoop ameliorating the enclave’s problem of nourishment. Knot felt pride in that, too; he had selected that mutant for that research. The man had been blind and scrawny, with reverse joints on his fingers, unable to do much useful work, but had an insatiable appetite. At another enclave he would have been a useless burden destined for an untimely accident—such accidents were common in such situations—but Knot had told him he could eat all he wanted if he could figure out how to avoid being poisoned by what was most available. The man had proceeded with a will, noting that no native animals died, though many consumed leanfruit. An enzyme in their saliva did the trick. Now that enzyme was routinely included in the salad dressing. The mutant had become a hero, while Knot was forgotten—and that was the way it had to be.
Actually, the leanfruit breakthrough had not helped everyone. Some mutants could consume grass, wood shavings or paper refuse; others were unable to digest any natural food. But the breakthrough had helped the majority, and enhanced the status of the enclave. The hero had been awarded a silver medal on a chain—which was typical of the bureaucracy, since he happened to be allergic to that metal.
Knot glanced around the hall. There were twenty tables, half of them occupied. This was a small mess, its service extended efficiently by its continuous shifts of operation. There were several others to allow reasonable segregation among mutants. These ones were minimal: extra digits, or distorted portions of the body, or superfluous appendages of not too gross a nature. Some did not show, as with the large-chested woman who had three livers and an extra lung; she would have been much in demand among enclave males, had she not also had three reasons opposing any friendly approach.
Some of those present looked at Knot with mild curiosity, not recognizing him. He knew them all, of course, but made no show of familiarity.
After the meal Knot repaired to his office. The outdoor color show was over by this time, as it generally was. One day he was going to pull a string to get his breakfast slot shifted, so that he could enjoy the show as most others did. But it was hard to pull strings when no one remembered him.
His secretary was already bustling about. Her name was York, and she looked impressively normal. It took a second glance for newcomers to realize that her bosom was composed of three breasts. Knot wondered whether she was any relation to the woman with three livers, but decided against; there was no physical resemblance, and in any event mutations were not hereditary. Not in that sense.
But that superficial normality could be a problem. Once, York had been challenged by a surly arrival, who hated normals and refused to deal with her. In a fit of pique York had ripped off her own blouse and triple halter and silenced him most effectively. There were no normals in this enclave.
“Two routine and one special,” York announced with a smile. She was moderately pretty, and more than moderately smart. He wondered at times why she didn’t apply for cosmetic surgery to enable her to join the normals without prejudice; it was permitted. Mutants, on the few occasions they conceived, gave birth to normal babies; there were no breeding restrictions, and many mutants did go under the knife so they could pass. Yet the majority did not, and this was not merely a matter of economics. A person who had been raised a mutant, identified with mutants for the rest of his life. Probably it was York’s pride of the flesh; she did not want to be normal.
Actually, Knot thought, it would be a shame to mastectomize such a beautiful breast. She was a true mutant, not a genetic freak; her extra breast was directly between the other two and of equal size and configuration, except it was somewhat squeezed. She had quite a double cleavage, when she cared to show it. When non-mutant females had extra breasts, in contrast, they tended to be below the regular ones, like the teats on an animal, in parallel lines down the torso.
She caught him looking. “Did we do something last night?” she inquired brightly. “I have no note of it—”
“No, no, my mind was drifting,” Knot said quickly.
“That was evident, as was its direction of drift. Maybe tonight, then—?”
He ignored the flirt
“Of course.” She knew exactly what he meant. She would listen in on the intercom and transcribe a summary of each interview for the file. She was very good at this. Her summaries were complete almost before each interview ended. If she didn’t have a note on a given event, it probably hadn’t happened. Which was the case with their conjectured liaison of the prior night.
The first client was a large man, whitish of skin, with reddish splotches, whose head rose into a blank and hairless dome. The ears were mere holes, the nose a double slit, and there were no eyes at all. Only the mouth was normal.
“Salutation,” Knot said, “You can hear?” York’s preliminary note, on the desk before him, indicated that the man could perceive sound, but it was better to establish this openly. Mutants could be sensitive about their handicaps, even among other mutants. The attitudes engendered by life among callous normals could take time to abate.
“I can hear,” the man said clearly. “I am Flas, from Planet Jeen.”
“Excellent! I’ve heard good things of Jeen.”
Of course the man challenged this, suspiciously. “What do you know of it?”
Knot was prepared; he had an excellent geographic memory, which he cultivated for just this reason. Clients were much easier to put at ease when their home worlds were complimented. “The crystal dunes on the north continent there are among the prettiest sights in the galaxy. If I ever can afford a vacation, that is where I’d go,” Knot paused, artfully. “Um, I did not mean to refer to a sense you lack. My apology.”
“Who are you?” the mutant demanded, gruffly satisfied. He was not, as Knot had surmised, sensitive about his blindness and now he knew that Knot was indeed familiar with his hone planet.
“I am Knot, the placement officer of Enclave MM58 on the Planet Nelson.”
The lofty forehead wrinkled. “If you are not he, why do you address me now?”
“Knot, with a sounded K, one syllable,” Knot said patiently. He had been through this, too, many times before, and rather enjoyed it. “My name.
The mutant smiled. “Knot,” he repeated, pronouncing the K. “Apology.” He was now fairly well relaxed.
“Accepted. It is a common misapprehension. Some claim my name has suffered more mutation than my body. May I shake your hand?”
The mutant put forth his large right hand. Knot met it with his equally large hand. The mutant’s grip was gentle, though he was obviously quite strong.
“You are larger than you sound,” Flas said. “And mutant,” he added, feeling the sixth finger.
“We are all mutant here,” Knot assured him. That was why he had shaken hands; otherwise the blind mutant could have been in doubt about Knot’s status, despite his hint about it. “We don’t like to have normals interfering. We are all like you: min-mutes and mod-mutes, of human-norm intellect or above, able to function independently. This enclave is self-supporting; we export as much as we import. We have pride.”
“Pride,” Flas echoed wistfully. “I have known little of that. Even the lobos have higher social status than my type, on Jeen.”
Which was evidently the major reason Flas had come here.
“Lobos are surgically normal people, of no special significance,” Knot said warmly. “Mutants are the catalyst of modern human society.” This message, too, he had repeated many times, but it always buoyed him: the justification of his kind. “Without us, there would be no space travel, no colonization of inclement planets or habitats. Without us, in fact, the human empire would collapse and the Coordination Computer would be junk.”
“You speak as if you believe.”
“I do believe! And you will believe too, or you will not fit in well here. We have the pride of the flesh. Normals are largely restricted to the surfaces of Earth-type planets; the future of the species lies with the mutants.”
“The psi-mutes, maybe,” Flas said. “Not with our kind.”
“The phys-mutes too! Today Enclave MM58 is self-supporting; ultimately we may become a creditor entity, with our own representative in the Galactic Concord. Because of the loyalty and application of specially skilled mutants like you.”
“Pep talk,” Flas said. “I have heard it before.”
“You will perceive new meaning in it. This is not a junkyard enclave; this is a viable economic society. What are your skills?”
Despite his superficial reserve, Flas smiled, responding to Knot’s enthusiasm. “I am good with my hands. I have made hundreds of baskets in my day.”
“A basket case!” Knot snorted. “Where is the future in baskets?” The mutant shrugged. “When I asked them that, they sent me here.”
“You have a questioning mind and an independent spirit. They don’t like that in some places. We do like it here.” Knot considered. “It is my job to find the ideal situation for you, considering your physical, mental and social propensities. You will not be assigned anywhere against your will; if you don’t like what I suggest, I’ll look for something else. Sometimes I get too innovative and miss the mark embarrassingly. Sometimes something sounds good, but doesn’t work out in practice. If there were not such problems, there would be no point in my job, would there?”
“You’re working up to something awkward,” Flas said.
“Astute observation. We have a local animal we call the snird, a kind of cross between a snake and a bird in the Earth-book listing. It lays eggs in the dark, and these eggs contain a chemical of value in stellar photography. The elevated radiation of space interferes with conventional processes, as we mutants well know, but this chemical is resistant. The problem is that in the raw state it is hypersensitive to light. Even an instant’s exposure ruins it. So we must collect the eggs in complete darkness. Unfortunately the snirds are protective of their eggs, and their bite is poisonous.”
“Take the eggs with pincers, or wearing gauntlets,” Flas suggested, interested.
“The eggs are extremely delicate, and of odd shapes and sizes. Careless or mechanical handling breaks them. They must be kept warm and intact until brought to the laboratory. In addition, they must be harvested at the right moment; only a ‘ripe’ egg, distinguished by a slightly hardened surface, possesses the necessary quality. A green one is useless. Only an expert human touch suffices to distinguish between them—but for some reason most of our sighted people are reluctant.”
The mutant laughed. “I can well believe!”
“We have elevated the incentive bonus, to no avail. A good snird-egg harvester can arrange his own hours of work, has a twenty percent extra food ration, and a generous personal expense allowance. It is possible to develop a comfortable savings account that permits early retirement.”
“If he survives that long!”
“Yet the snird gives fair warning. A faint buzz before striking—” Knot paused. “How good is your hearing?”
“Excellent. And my courage. How bad is a snird-strike?”
“Not fatal, if treated in time. We do have excellent treatment facilities, and an alert, attractive and solicitous nurse. But it is better to avoid it—which an experienced harvester can normally do.”
“You figure I’ll rise to the challenge?”
“You do strike me as that sort of man.”
“You play me like a violin,” Flas said. Then he decided. “I’ll give it a try.”
“Excellent.” Knot activated the intercom. This was a redundant gesture, as it was already on, but he preferred not to advertise that fact. “Have a courier conduct Mutant Flas to the Foraging Unit, and notify them that he will essay the egg harvesting, snird division.”
“He’s got nerve,” York remarked.
“The women of MM58 appreciate nerve,” Knot told Flas. “I believe you will like it here. The Foraging foreman will brief you thoroughly, of course.”
The courier entered the office. She was a young lady whose arms were linked together by fused hands; she co
Flas stood, tracking her by the sound. “This way, mutant,” the girl said. Her voice was dulcet, and her pronunciation of “mutant” made it sound like a badge of honor.
Knot relaxed. He had put together a good crew, trained to make clients respond positively and feel welcome. Nevertheless, there was always a certain tension, and the first interview of the day was the worst. This one had gone very well. The Foraging Unit had been bugging him for another harvester for some time.
The next client entered. This was an older woman. She had large bright eyes, but instead of ears her head sprouted a stout pair of horns. The lower part of her face projected forward, like the muzzle of a sheep, and her mouth was obviously unsuitable for human speech. She wore a rather voluminous robe that concealed any other mutations she might have, except for hands that were callused and hooflike.
Knot held up his right fist in the clubfoot signal of greeting. A number of mutants had problems with their extremities, so this sub-language was useful. Knot was familiar with a great many forms of communication.
The woman perked up when she recognized the gesture. She brought up her own fist.
Knot introduced himself, speaking aloud at the same time as he signaled, so York could transcribe it, “I am Knot, the placement officer of MM58.” There was no problem with the pronunciation of the name in sign language. “You are—” He read the signals she returned. “Greta, transferred here at your request because—” He smiled warmly. “—because you received news of our stature and wanted to participate.” He made an expansive gesture. “That is a very positive attitude, Greta. What do you have in mind to do here?”
Now Greta was doubtful. She had been employed before as a water carrier, but had not been very efficient because it was hard for her to pick up the buckets. Also, there had been no need for the service, since water was pumped in to central locations of that enclave. Thus it had been mere make-work, useless. She preferred to find better employment before she met with a UA—Untimely Accident—but did not know what that might be. Yet she had heard that MM58 seemed to be charmed that way, with everyone there finding good jobs.