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   Chapter 10 No.10

Badge of Infamy By Lester Del Rey Characters: 10268

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Execution

The hours of waiting were blurred for Doc. There were periods when fear clogged his throat and left him gasping with the need to scream and beat his cell walls. There were also times when it didn't seem to matter, and when his only thoughts were for the villages and the plague.

They brought him the papers, where he was painted as a monster beside whom Jack the Ripper and Albrecht Delier were gentle amateurs. They were trying to focus all fear and resentment on him. Maybe it was working. There were screaming crowds outside the jail, and the noise of their hatred was strong enough to carry through even the atmosphere of Mars. But there were also signs that the Lobby was worried, as if afraid that some attempt might still be made to rescue him.

He'd looked forward to the trip to the airport as a way of judging public reaction. But apparently the Lobby had no desire to test that. The guards led him up to the roof of the jail, where a rocket was waiting. The landing space was too small for one of the station shuttles, but a little Northport-Southport shuttle was parked there after what must have been a difficult set-down. The guards tested Doc's manacles and forced him into the shuttle.

Inside, Chris was waiting, carrying an official automatic. There was also a young pilot, looking nervous and unhappy. He was muttering under his breath as the guards locked Doc's legs to a seat and left.

"All right," Chris ordered. "Up ship!"

"I tell you we're overweight with you. I wasn't counting on three for the trip," the pilot protested. "The only thing that will get this into orbit with the station is faith. I'm loaded with every drop of fuel she'll hold and it still isn't enough."

"That's your problem," Chris told him firmly. "You've got your orders, and so have I. Up ship!"

If she had her own worries about the shuttle, she didn't show it. Chris had never been afraid to do what she felt she should. The pilot stared at her doubtfully and finally turned back to his controls, still muttering.

The shuttle lifted sluggishly, but there was no great difficulty. Doc could see that there was even some fuel remaining when they slipped into the tube at the orbital station. Chris went out, and other guards came in to free him.

"So long, Dr. Feldman," the pilot called softly as they led him out. Then the guards shoved him through the airlock into the station. Fifteen minutes later he was locked into one of the cabins of the Iroquois, with all his possessions stacked beside him.

He grinned wryly. As an honest worker on the Navaho he'd been treated like an animal. Now, as a human fiend, he was installed in a luxury cabin of the finest ship of the fleet, with constant spin to give a feeling of weight and more room than the entire tube crew had known.

He roamed the cabin until he found a little collapsible table. He set the electron microscope up on that and plugged it in. It seemed a shame that good equipment should be wasted along with his life. He wondered if they would really throw it out into space with him. Probably they would.

He pushed a button on the call board over the table and asked for the steward. There was a long wait, as if the procedure were being checked with some authority, but finally he received a surly acknowledgement. "Steward. Whatcha want?"

"How's the chance of getting some food?"

"You're on first-class."

They could afford it, Doc decided. He wouldn't cost them much, considering the distance he was going. "Bring me two complete dinners-one Earth-normal and one Mars-normal."

"Okay, Feldman. But if you think you can suicide that way, you're wrong. You may be sick, but you'll be alive when they dump you."

A sharp click interrupted him. "That's enough, Steward. Captain Everts speaking. Dr. Feldman, you have my apologies. Until you reach your destination, you are my passenger and entitled to every consideration of any other passenger except freedom of movement through the ship. I am always available for legitimate complaints."

Feldman shook his head. He'd heard of such men. But he'd thought the species extinct.

The steward brought his food in a thoroughly chastened manner. He managed to find space for it and came to attention. "Is that all-sir?"

For a moment, as the smell of real steak reached him, Doc regretted the fact that his metabolism had been switched. Then he shrugged. A little wouldn't hurt him, though there was no proper nourishment in it. He squeezed some of the gravy and bits of meat into one of his bottles, sticking to his purpose; then he fell to on the rest. But after a few bites, it was queerly unsatisfactory. The seemingly unappealing Mars-normal ragout suited his current tastes better, after all.

Once the steward had cleared away the dishes, Doc went to work. It was better than wasting his time in dread. He might even be able to leave some notes behind.

A gong sounded, and a red light warned him that acceleration was due. He finished with his bottles, put them into the incubator, and piled into his bunk, swallowing one of the tablets of morphetal the ship

furnished.

Acceleration had ended, and a simple breakfast was waiting when he awoke. There was also a red flashing light over the call board. He flipped the switch while reaching for the coffee.

"Captain Everts," the speaker said. "May I join you in your cabin?"

"Come ahead," Feldman invited. He cut off the switch and glanced at the clock on the wall. There were less than eleven hours left to him.

Everts was a trim man of forty, erect but not rigid. There was neither friendliness nor hostility in his glance. His words were courteous as Doc motioned toward the tray of breakfast. "I've already eaten, thank you."

He accepted a chair. His voice was apologetic when he began. "This is a personal matter which I perhaps have no right to bring up. But my wife is greatly worried about this plague. I violate no confidence in telling you there is considerable unease, even on Earth, according to messages I have received. The ship physician believes Mrs. Everts may have the plague, but isn't sure of the symptoms. I understand you are quite expert."

Doc wondered about the physician. Apparently there was another man who placed his patients above anything else, though he was probably meticulous about obeying all actual rules. There was no law against listening to a pariah, at least.

"When did she have Selznik's migraine?" he asked.

"About thirteen years ago. We went through it together, shortly after having our metabolism switched during the food shortage of '88."

Doc felt carefully at the base of the Captain's skull; the swelling was there. He asked a few questions, but there could be no doubt.

"Both of you must have it, Captain, though it won't mature for another year. I'm sorry."

"There's no hope, then?"

Doc studied the man. But Everts wasn't the sort to dicker even for his life. "Nothing that I've found, Captain. I have a clue, but I'm still working on it. Perhaps if I could leave a few notes for your physician-"

It was Everts' turn to shake his head. "I'm sorry, Dr. Feldman. I have orders to burn out your cabin when you leave. But thank you." He got to his feet and left as quietly and erectly as he had entered.

Doc tore up his notes bitterly. He paced his cabin slowly, reading out the hours while his eyes lingered on the little bottle of cultures. At times the fear grew in him, but he mastered it. There was half an hour left when he began opening the little bottles and making his films.

He was still not finished when steps echoed down the hall, but he was reasonably sure of his results. The bug could not grow in Earth-normal tissue.

Three men entered the room. One of them, dressed in a spacesuit, held out another suit to him. The other two began gathering up everything in the cabin and stowing it neatly into a sack designed to protect freight for a limited time in a vacuum.

Doc forced his hands to steadiness with foolish pride and began climbing into the suit. He reached for the helmet, but the man shook his head, pointing to the oxygen gauge. There would be exactly one hour's supply of oxygen when he was thrown out and it still lacked five minutes of the deadline.

They marched him down the hallway, to meet Everts coming toward them. There were still three minutes left when they reached the airlock, with its inner door already open. The spacesuited man climbed into it and began strapping down so that the rush of air would not sweep him outward when the other seal was released.

Doc had saved one bracky weed. Now he raised it to his lips, fumbling for a light.

Everts stepped forward and flipped a lighter. Doc inhaled deeply. Fear was thick in every muscle, and he needed the smoke desperately. Then he caught himself.

"Better change your metabolism back to Earth-normal, Captain Everts," he said, and his voice was so normal that he hardly recognized it.

Everts' eyes widened briefly. The man bowed faintly. "Thank you, Dr. Feldman."

It was ridiculous, impossible, and yet there was a curious relief at the formality of it. It was like something from a play, too unreal to affect his life.

Everts nodded to the man holding the helmet. Doc dropped his bracky weed and felt the helmet snap down. A hiss of oxygen reached him and the suit ballooned out. There was no gravity; the two men handed him up easily to the one in the airlock while the inner seal began to close.

There was still ten seconds to go, according to the big chronometer that had been installed in the lock. The spaceman used it in tying the sack of possessions firmly to Doc's suit.

A red light went on. The man caught Doc and held him against the outer seal. The red light blinked. Four seconds ... three ... two....

There was a sudden heavy thudding sound, and the Iroquois seemed to jerk sideways slightly. The spaceman's face swung around in surprise.

The red light blinked and stayed on. Zero!

The outer seal snapped open and the spaceman heaved. Air exploded outwards, and Doc went with it. He was alone in space, gliding away from the ship, with oxygen hissing softly through the valve and ticking away his life.

* * *

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