The Complete Stories (Page 160)
The Hawkinsite was not in the least disconcerted. "Quite so," he said, and his hoofed fingers held out a thin, flexible hose that ran up his body, its tint blending into that of his yellowish skin, and entered the corner of his wide mouth. Rose felt slightly embarrassed, as though at the display of intimate articles of clothing.
Drake said, "And does it contain pure cyanide?"
The Hawkinsite humorously blinked his eyes. "I hope you are not considering possible danger to Earthites. I know the gas is highly poisonous to you and I do not need a great deal. The gas contained in the cylinder is five per cent hydrogen cyanide, the remainder oxygen. None of it emerges except when I actually suck at the tube, and that need not be done frequently."
"I see. And you really must have the gas to live?"
Rose was slightly appalled. One simply did not ask such questions without careful preparation. It was impossible to foresee where the sensitive points of an alien psychology might be. And Drake must be doing this deliberately, since he could not help realizing that he could get answers to such questions as easily from herself. Or was it that he preferred not to ask her?
The Hawkinsite remained apparently unperturbed. "Are you not a biologist, Mr. Smollett?"
"No, Dr. Tholan."
"But you are in close association with Mrs. Dr. Smollett."
Drake smile a bit. "Yes, I am married to a Mrs. doctor, but just the same I am not a biologist; merely a minor government official. My wife’s friends," he added, "call me a policeman."
Rose bit the inside of her cheek. In this case it was the Hawkinsite who had impinged upon the sensitive point of an alien psychology. On Hawkin’s Planet, there was a tight caste system and intercaste associations were limited. But Drake wouldn’t realize that.
The Hawkinsite turned to her. "May I have your permission, Mrs. Smollett, to explain a little of our biochemistry to your husband? It will be dull for you, since I am sure you must understand it quite well already."
She said, "By all means do, Dr. Tholan."
He said, "You see, Mr. Smollett, the respiratory system in your body and
in the bodies of all air-breathing creatures on Earth is controlled by certain metal-containing enzymes, I am taught. The metal is usually iron, though sometimes it is copper. In either case, small traces of cyanide would combine with these metals and immobilize the respiratory system of the terrestrial living cell. They would be prevented from using oxygen and killed in a few minutes.
"The life on my own planet is not quite so constituted. The key respiratory compounds contain neither iron nor copper; no metal at all, in fact. It is for this reason that my blood is colorless. Our compounds contain certain organic groupings which are essential to life, and these groupings can only be maintained intact in the presence of a small concentration of cyanide. Undoubtedly, this type of protein has developed through millions of years of evolution on a world which has a few tenths of a per cent of hydrogen cyanide occurring naturally in the atmosphere. Its presence is maintained by a biological cycle. Various of our native micro-organisms liberate the free gas."
"You make it extremely clear, Dr. Tholan, and very interesting," Drake said. "What happens if you don’t breathe it? Do you just go, like that?" He snapped his fingers.
"Not quite. It isn’t equivalent to the presence of cyanide for you. In my case, the absence of cyanide would be equivalent to slow strangulation. It happens sometimes, in ill-ventilated rooms on my world, that the cyanide is gradually consumed and falls below the minimum necessary concentration. The results are very painful and difficult to treat."
Rose had to give Drake credit; he really sounded interested. And the alien, thank heaven, did not mind the catechism.
The rest of the dinner passed without incident. It was almost pleasant.
Throughout the evening, Drake remained that way; interested. Even more than that-absorbed. He drowned her out, and she was glad of it. He was the one who was really colorful and it was only her job, her specialized training, that stole the color from him. She looked at him gloomily and thought, Why did he many me?
Drake sat, one leg crossed over the other, hands clasped and tapping his chin gently, watching the Hawkinsite intently. The Hawkinsite faced him, standing in his quadruped fashion.
Drake said, "I find it difficult to keep thinking of you as a doctor."
The Hawkinsite laughingly blinked his eyes. "I understand what you mean," he said. "I find it difficult to think of you as a policeman. On my world, policemen are very specialized and distinctive people."
"Are they?" said Drake, somewhat drily, and then changed the subject. "I gather that you are not here on a pleasure trip."
"No, I am here very much on business. I intend to study this queer plane you call Earth, as it has never been studied before by any of my people.’
"Queer?" asked Drake. "In what way?"
The Hawkinsite looked at Rose. "Does he know of the Inhibition Death?"
Rose felt embarrassed. "His work is important," she said. "I am afraid that my husband has little time to listen to the details of my work." She knew that this was not really adequate and she felt herself to be the recipient, yet again, of one of the Hawkinsite’s unreadable emotions.
The extraterrestrial creature turned back to Drake. "It is always amazing to me to find how little you Earthmen understand your own unusual characteristics. Look, there are five intelligent races in the Galaxy. These have all developed independently, yet have managed to converge in remarkable fashion. It is as though, in the long run, intelligence requires a certain physical makeup to flourish. I leave that question for philosophers. But I need not belabor the point, since it must be a familiar one to you.