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   Chapter 15 No.15

Badge of Infamy By Lester Del Rey Characters: 26197

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Decision

Two days was never enough time for a miracle. Doc decided as he packed his notes into a small bag and put it beside his bundle of personal belongings. He glanced around the room for the last time, and managed a grin at Jake's gloomy expression.

"Maybe I can bluff them, or maybe they'll string along for a while," he said. "Anyhow, now that they've agreed to take me and my notes in place of the cure we're fresh out of, I've got to be on that shuttle when it goes back to their men at orbital station."

Jake nodded. "I don't like selling friends down the river, Doc. But it wouldn't do you any more good to blow up with the planet, I reckon. They won't call off the war rockets when they do get you, of course. But maybe they won't use them, except as a threat to put the Lobbies back in, stronger than ever."

He stuck out one of his awkwardly shaped hands, clapped the aspirator over his face and hurried out. Doc picked up his bags and went toward the little tractor where Lou was waiting to drive him and Chris back toward Southport and the shuttle rocket that would be landing for them. They hadn't mentioned Chris in their demands, but her father must expect her to return.

After they had him, he'd be on his own. His best course was probably to insist on talking only to Ryan at Medical Lobby, and then being completely honest. The room here would be kept sealed, in case the Lobby wanted to investigate where he had failed. And his notes were honest, which was something that could usually be determined. Chris could testify to that, anyhow, since she'd kept a lot of them for him.

At best, there would be a chance for some compromise and perhaps some clue for them that might eventually end the plague. They had enough men to work on it, and billions in equipment. At worst, he should gain a little time.

"Cheer up, Chris," he told her as he climbed through the little airlock. "Maybe Harkness will turn up the cure before our negotiations break down. He has the whole of Northport Hospital to play with. They haven't tried to chase him out of there yet. After all, we almost found something with no equipment except wild imaginations."

She shook her head as the tractor began moving. "Shut up! I've got enough trouble without your coming down with logorrhea. Don't be a fool."

"Why change now?" he asked her. "Everything I've done has been because I am a fool. I guess my luck lasted longer than I could expect. And I'm still fool enough to think that the solution has to turn up eventually. We know it has to be in that room. Damn it, we must know it-if we could only think straight now."

She reached over and touched his hand, but made no comment. They had been over that statement of desperation too many times already. But it kept nagging at him-something in the room, something in the room! Something so common that nobody noticed it!

They passed a crowd chasing down a runner. Something in that room could have saved the unlucky man. It could have saved Mars, perhaps.

He growled for the hundredth time, cursing his fatigue-numbed mind. Too little sleep, too much coffee and bracky....

He reached for the package of weed, realizing that he would miss it on Earth, if he ever got there. Like everything here on the planet, he'd begun by detesting it and wound up finding it the thing he wanted to keep forever. He lighted the bracky and sat smoking, watching Lou drive. When the first was finished, he lighted another from the butt.

She put out a hand and took it away. "Please, Dan. I can stand the stuff, but I'll never like it, and the tractor's stuffy enough already. I've taken enough of it. And it keeps reminding me of our test-the three of you stinking up the place, puffing and blowing that out, while I couldn't even get a breath of air...."

She was getting logorrhea herself now and-

The answer finally hit him! He jerked around, making a grab for Lou's shoulder, motioning for the man to head back.

"Bracky-it has to be! Chris, that's it. Jake picked out the second group of men from his friends-and they are all cronies because they hang around so much in their so-called smoking room. The first time, it killed the bugs for all of us who smoked-and it didn't work for you because you never learned the habit."

Lou had the tractor turned and the rheostat all the way to the floor.

She was sitting up now, but she wasn't fully satisfied. "The percentage of immunes seems about right. But why do some of the smokers get the disease while some don't?"

"Why not? It depends on whether they pick up the habit before or after the disease gets started. Tom must have got his while he was in Northport. They wouldn't let him smoke there-if he had the habit before, for that matter."

She found no fault with that. He twisted it back and forth in his mind, trying to find a fault. There seemed to be none. The only trouble was that they couldn't send a message that bracky was the cure and hope that Earth would prove it true. No polite note of apology would do after that. They had to be sure. Too many other ideas had proved wrong already.

Jake saw them coming and came running toward the laboratory, but Lou stopped the tractor before it reached the building and let the older man in.

"Get me a dozen men who have the plague. I want the worst cases you have, and ones that Harkness tested himself," Doc ordered. "And then start praying that the cure we've got works fast."

Chris was at the electron mike at once, but one of her hands reached out for the weed. She began puffing valiantly, making sick faces. Now other men began coming in, their faces struggling to find hope, but not daring to believe yet. Jake followed them.

"We'll test at ten-minute intervals. That will be about two hours for the last from the group," Doc decided. One of the doctors Harkness had brought to the villages was busy cutting tiny sections from the lumps on the men's necks, while Chris ran them through the microscope to make sure the bugs were still alive. The regular optical mike was strong enough for that.

Doc handed each man a bracky weed, with instructions to keep smoking, no matter how sick it made him.

There were no results at the end of ten minutes when the first test was made. The second, at the end of twenty minutes, was still infected with live bugs. At the half-hour, Chris frowned.

"I can't be sure-take a look, Dan."

He bent over, moving the slide to examine another spot. "I think so. The next one should tell."

There was no doubt about the fourth test. The bugs were dead, without a single exception that they could find.

One by one, the men were tested and went storming out, shouting the news. For a minute, the gathering crowd was skeptical, remembering the other failures. Then, abruptly, men were screaming, crying and fighting for the precious bracky, like the legions of the damned grabbing for lottery tickets when the prize was a passport to paradise.

Jake swore as he moved toward the door. "We're low on bracky here. Have to get a supply from Edison, I guess, and cart it to the shuttle. Enough for a sample, and to make them want more. It'll be tough, but we'll get it there in time-by the time the shuttle should be picking you up. Doc, you've won our war! From now on, if Earth wants to keep her population up, we'll be a free planet!"

Chris turned slowly from the microscope, holding a slide in her hands. "My bugs," she said unbelievingly. "Dan, they're dead!"

Jake patted her shoulder. "That makes it perfect, girl. Now come on. We've got to start celebrating a victory!"

* * *

It was the general feeling of most of the heads of the villages when they met the next day in Southport, using the courtroom that had been presided over so long by Judge Ben Wilson. It was victory, and to the victor belonged the spoils. The bracky had gone out to Earth on a converted war rocket that could make the trip in less than two weeks, and one packet had been specially labeled for Captain Everts. But Earth had already confirmed the cure. The small amounts of the herb found in the botanical collections had been enough to satisfy all doubts.

Harkness, Chris and Doc had been fighting against the desire to rob Earth blind that filled most of the men here for hours now. Now they had the backing of Jake and Ben Wilson. And now finally they leaned back, sensing that the argument had been won.

Bargaining was all right in its place, but it had no place in affairs of life and death such as this. They had to see that Earth received all the bracky she needed. It was only right to charge a fair price for it, but they couldn't restrict it by withholding or overcharging. And they could still gain their ends without blackmail.

Martian alkaloids were tricky things, and bracky smoke contained a number of them. It would take Earth at least ten years to discover and synthesize the right one-and it would still probably cost more than it would to import the weed from Mars. As long as the source of that weed was here, and in the hands of the colonials, there would be no danger of Earth's bombing the planet.

Harkness got up to underscore a point Wilson had made. "The plague lived a million years, and it won't disappear now. The jumping headache, or Selznick's migraine, is unpleasant enough to make us reasonably sure that there will be a steady consumption of the weed. Our problem will be to keep the children from using too much of it, probably." He pulled a weed out and lighted it, puckering his face as the smoke bit his tongue. "I'm told that this gets to be an enjoyable habit. If I can believe that, surely you can believe me when I say we don't have to bargain with lives."

The village men were human, and most of them could remember the strain they had been under when they expected those they loved to die at any hour. It had made them crave vengeance, but now as they had a chance to reexamine it, they began to find it harder to impose the horror of any such threat on others. The final vote was almost unanimous.

Doc listened as they wrangled over the wording of the message to Earth, feeling disconnected from it. He passed Chris a bracky and lighted it for her. She took it automatically, smiling as the smoke hit her lungs. It was one thing they had in common now, at least.

Ben Wilson finally read the message.

"To the people of Earth, greetings!

"On behalf of the free people of Mars, I have the honor to announce that this planet hereby declares itself a sovereign and independent world. We shall continue to regard Earth as our mother, and to consider the health and welfare of her people in no way second to our own in matters which affect both planets. We trust that Earth will share this feeling of mutual friendship. We trust that all strains of hostility will be ended. The advantages to each from peaceful commerce make any course other than the most cordial of relations unthinkable.

"We shall consider proof of such friendship an order by Earth to all rockets circling this planet that they shall deliver themselves safely into our hands, in order that we may begin converting them to peaceful purposes for the trade that is to come. In turn, we pledge that all efforts will be made to ensure a prompt delivery of those products most in demand, including the curative bracky plant."

He turned to Doc then. "You want to sign it, Dr. Feldman? Make it as acting president or something, until we can get around to voting you into permanent office."

"You and Jake fight over the job," Doc told him. "No, Ben, I mean it."

He got up and moved out into the outer room, where he could avoid the stares of amazement that were turned to him. He'd never asked for the honor, and he didn't want it.

Chris came with him. Her face was shocked and something was slowly draining out of it as he looked at her.

"Forget it, Chris," he said. "You're going back to Earth. There is nothing for you here."

She hadn't quite given up. "There could be, Dan. You know that."

"No. No, Chris, I don't think there ever can be. You can't find a man strong enough to rule who'll be weak enough to let you rule in his place. It didn't work on Earth, and it won't work here. Forget the dreams you had of what could be done with a new planet. Those are the dreams that made a mess of the old one."

"I'll be back," she told him. "Some day I'll be back."

He shook his head again. "No. You wouldn't like what you find here. Freedom is heady stuff, but you have to have a taste for it. You can't acquire a fondness for it secondhand. And for a while, there's going to be freedom here. Besides, once you get back to Earth, you'll forget what happened here."

She sighed at last. For the first time since he had known her, she seemed to give in completely. And for that brief moment, he loved what she could have been, but never would be.

"All right, Dan," she said quietly. "I can't fight you. I never could, I see now. I'll take the rocket back. What are you going to do?"

He hadn't bothered

to think, but he knew the answer. "Research. What else?"

There would be a lot of research done here. It had been suppressed too long, and had piled up a back-pressure that would have to be relieved. And from that research, he suspected, would come the end of the stable oligarchy of Earth. It could never stand against the changes that would be pouring out of Mars.

She put her hands on his shoulders and moved forward to kiss him. He bent down to meet her, and found her eyes were wet. Maybe his were, too. Then she broke free.

"You're a fool, Dan Feldman," she whispered, and began moving down the hallway and out of the council hall of Mars.

Doc Feldman nodded slowly as he let her go. He was a fool. He had always been a fool, and always would be. And that was why he could never take over leadership here. Fools and idealists should never govern a world. It took practical men such as Jake to do that.

But the practical men needed the foolish idealists, too. And maybe for a time here on Mars their kind of men and his kind of fools could make one more stab at the ancient puzzle of freedom.

Outside the war rockets of Earth began landing quietly on the free soil of Mars.

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