[Editor’s note: Science fiction author Algis Budrys died on June 9, 2008; a review of his eventful career begins on page 80. The following story originally appeared in the March 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.]
“Len? Lenny?” The unearthly man in the next bed was trying to wake me up.
I lay in the dark, my hands behind my head, listening to the traffic going by the hospital. Even late at night–and it was late whenever the man in the next bed dared to talk to me–the traffic outside was fairly heavy because the highway ran straight through town. That had been a lucky thing for me, because the ambulance attendant never had been able to stop the flow of blood out of my legs. Another half mile, another two minutes, and I would have been as dry as a cast-off snakeskin.
But I was all right, now, except that the jack-knifing truck had taken my legs off under the dashboard. I was alive, and I could hear the trucks going by all night. The long, long rigs; semi-trailers, tandems, reefers … coming up the seaboard from Charleston and Norfolk, going on to New York … coming down from Boston, from Providence … Men I knew, driving them. Jack Biggs. Sam Lasovic. Tiny Morrs, with the ring finger of his right hand missing at the first joint. I was one up on Tiny, for sure.
Job in the dispatcher’s office waiting for you, Lenny, I said to myself. No sweat. No more bad coffee, cold nights, sandpaper eyes. Getting a little old for the road, anyhow. Thirty-eight. Sure.
“Lenny … “
The best the man in the next bed would do was whisper. I wondered if he wasn’t just afraid. He was afraid to talk at all in the daytime, because the nurses simply stuck a new needle in him every time he made a sound. Stuck it through a thin place in the bandages, they did, and walked away in a hurry. Sometimes they missed, and sometimes only some of the morphine got under his skin, so that only his arm went numb. The man in the next bed bragged about the times that happened. He tried to make them miss, moving his arms a little. Sometimes they noticed, but more often they didn’t.
He didn’t want the needle, the man in the next bed didn’t. The needle took away the pain, and without the pain, with bandaging all over his face, he didn’t have any proof he was alive. He was a stubborn, smart man, fighting back that way, because he’d developed a craving for the stuff, even not being like you and me. I mean, from some different place.
“Lenny … “
“Hunh?” I said, fogging my voice. I always made him wait. I didn’t want him to know I stayed awake all night.
“I’m sorry, Len.”
“Okay,” I said quickly, I didn’t want him feeling obligated to me. “It’s all right. I get plenty of sleep daytimes.”
“Len. The formula for exceeding the velocity of light is … ” And he began giving me the figures and letters.
Last night it had been the exact proportions of the metals in a high-temperature resistant alloy; the melting and pouring techniques for it; the hardening process. The night before, hull specifications. I listened until he was through.
“Have you got that, Lenny?”
“Read it back to me.”