“Not Mister, Lieutenant.”
“Sorry, look, I’m being really rude here. I’m Hartnell and this is Baker, Julie Baker. It’s our job to look after the dormitory here, and answer the bell. Sit down, please. Can I get you anything? Coffee, water?”
He sat down, stiffly, in the chair furthest away from the long-haired woman, Julie. He felt she didn’t like him already, whereas the other one, short-haired Hartnell (probably a private, or at most corporal, given the job she was doing) was still reserving judgement. He found himself wondering what her first name was, and whether it was a pretty name. He hoped it was. They had warned him also of such emotional imbalances – at first, until his new system adjusted to the stresses and strains.
Objectively, he knew it was of minor importance whether the two young women liked him or not. He had a job to do and so did they – but what he knew and what he felt no longer connected in any meaningful way. He felt that if neither of the women gave him a kind word in the very near future he would howl like a dog in pain and disappointment. Their approval seemed to him, for the moment, the most important thing in the world.
“Please,” he said. “Please. I’m very tired.” And started to cry.
What once would have embarrassed him almost beyond endurance was now something of a relief. The tears flowed. At first he wiped them away with his sleeve, but then he found himself starting to sob, which necessitated covering his face with both hands. At length he stopped, and blew his nose. Only then did he think of the effect this might be having on the two women, who had been shortly before the centre of his universe.
Hartnell was now sitting next to Baker, who had her arms around the shoulders of her friend. They were looking at him with consternation – “Gob-struck,” he thought, proud to have recovered this useful word from his cerebrum.
He felt no need, now, to take the initiative or say the first word. He felt strangely at peace – as if, by humiliating himself so utterly before them, he no longer had any need to fear their reactions. The rest was up to them.
“What’s wrong?” the softer, more feminine girl Baker asked at length.
“Nothing,” he replied, perfectly deadpan and affectless once more. He knew that now they would not take him solely at face value.
“But … do you often do that?” she continued, apparently determined to pursue the matter to its conclusion.