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Fredric Brown - Gateway To Darkness

By Maria Barnes,2014-11-24 14:44
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Fredric Brown - Gateway To Darkness

GATEWAY TO DARKNESS

    THERE WAS this Crag, and he was a thief and a smuggler and a murderer. He'd been a spaceman once and he had a metal hand and a permanent squint to show for it. Those, and a taste for exotic liquors and a strong disincli?nation for work. Especially as he would have had to work a week to buy one small jigger of even the cheapest of the fluids that were the only things that made life worthwhile to him. At anything he was qualified to do, that is, except stealing, smuggling and murder. These paid well.

    He had no business in Albuquerque, but he got around. And that time they caught him. It was for something he hadn't done, but they had proof that he did it. Proof enough to send him to the penal colony of Callisto, which he wouldn't have minded too much, or to send him to the psycher, which he would have minded very much indeed.

    He sat on the bed in his cell and worried about it, and about the fact that he needed a drink. The two worries went together, in a way. If they sent him to the psycher, he'd never want a drink again, and he wanted to want a drink.

    The psycher was pretty bad. They used it only in extreme cases, partly because they hadn't perfected it yet. Sometimesstatistically about

    one time out of nineit drove its subject crazy, stark raving crazy. The eight times out of nine that it worked, it was worse. It adjusted you; it made you normal. And in the process it killed your memories, the good ones as well as the bad ones, and you started from scratch.

    You remembered how to talk and feed yourself and how to use a slipstick or play a fluteif, that is, you knew how to use a slipstick or play a flute before you went to the psycher. But you didn't remember your name unless they told you. And you didn't remember the time you were tortured for three days and two nights on Venus before the rest of the crew found you and took you away from the animated vegetables who didn't like meat in any form and especially in human form. You didn't remember the time you were spacemad, the time you went nine days without water, the timewell, you didn't remember anything that had ever happened to you.

Not even the good things.

    You started from scratch, a different person. And Crag thought he wouldn't mind dying, particularly, but he didn't want his body to keep on walking around afterwards, animated by a well-adjusted stranger, who just wouldn't be he.

    So he paced up and down his cell and made up his mind that he'd at least try to kill himself before he'd let them strap him into the psycher chair, if it came to that.

    He hoped that he could do it. He had a lethal weapon with him, the only one he ever carried, but it would be difficult to use on himself. Oh, it could be done if he had the guts; but it takes plenty of guts to kill yourself with a bludgeon, even so efficient a one as his metal hand. Looking at that hand, though it was obviously of metal, no one ever guessed that it weighed twelve pounds instead of a few ounces. The outside layer was Alloy G, a fraction of the weight of magnesium, not much heavier, in fact, than balsa wood. And since you couldn't mistake the appearance of Alloy G, nobody ever suspected that under it was steel for strength and under the steel lead for weight. It wasn't a hand you'd want to be slapped in the face with. But long practice and the development of strength in his left arm enabled him to carry it as casually as though it weighed the three or four ounces you'd ex?pect it to weigh.

    He quit pacing and went to the window and stood looking down at the huge sprawling city of Albuquerque, capital of SW Sector of North America, third largest city in the world since it had become the number one spaceport of the Western Hemisphere.

    The window wasn't barred but the transparent plastic of the pane was tough stuff. Still, he thought he could hatter through it with one hand, if that hand were his left one. But he could only commit suicide that way. There was a sheer drop of thirty stories from this, the top floor of the SW Sector Capitol Building.

    For a moment he considered it and then he remem?bered that it was only probable, not certain, that they'd send him to the psycher. The Callisto penal colony-well, that wasn't so good, either, but there was always at least a remote chance of escape from Callisto. Enough of a chance that he wouldn't jump out of any thirtieth-story windows to avoid going there. Maybe not even to avoid staying there.

    But if he had a chance, after being ordered to the psycher, it would be an easier way of killing himself than the one he'd thought of first.

    A voice behind him said, "Your trial has been called for fourteen-ten. That is ten minutes from now. Be ready."

    He turned around and looked at the grille in the wall from which the mechanical voice had come. He made a raspberry sound at the grille-not that it did any good, for it was strictly a one-way communicator-and turned back to the window.

    He hated it, that sprawling corrupt city out there, scene of intrigue-as were all other cities-between the Guilds and the Gilded. Politics rampant upon a field of muck, and everybody, except the leaders, caught in the middle. He hated Earth; he wondered why he'd come back to it this time.

    After a while the voice behind him said, "Your door is now unlocked. You will proceed to the end of the corridor outside it, where you will meet the guards who will escort you to the proper room."

    He caught the distant silver flash of a spaceship com?ing in; he waited a few seconds until it was out of sight behind the buildings. He didn't wait any longer than that because he knew this was a test. He'd heard of it from others who'd been here. You could sit and wait for the guards to come and get you, or you could obey the command of the speaker and go to meet them. If you ignored the order and made them come to you, it showed you were not adjusted; it was a point against you when the time came for your sentence.

    So he went out into the corridor and along it; there was only one way to go. A hundred yards along the cor?ridor two uniformed guards were waiting near an auto?matic door. They were armed with holstered heaters.

    He didn't speak to them, nor they to him. He fell in between them and the door opened by itself as they ap?proached it. He knew it wouldn't have opened for him alone. He knew, too, that he could easily take both of them before either could draw a heater. A backhand blow to the guard on his left and then a quick swing across to the other one.

    But getting down those thirty stories to the street would be something else again. A chance in a million, with all the safeguards between here and there.

    So he walked between them down the ramp to the floor below and to the door of one of the rooms on that floor. And through the door.

    He was the last arrival, if you didn't count the two guards who came in after him. The others were waiting. The six jurors in the box; of whom three would be Guilders and three Gilded. The two attorneys-one of whom had talked to him yesterday in his cell and had told him how hopeless things looked. The operator of the recording machine. And the judge.

    He glanced at the judge and almost let an expression of surprise show on his face. The judge was Jon Olliver.

    Crag quickly looked away. He wondered what the great Jon Olliver was doing here, judging an unimpor?tant criminal case. Jon Olliver was a great man, one of the few statesmen, as against politicians, of the entire System. Six months ago Olliver had been the Guild candi?date for Coordinator of North America. He'd lost the election, but surely he would have retained a more im?portant niche for himself, in the party if not in the gov?ernment, than an ordinary criminal judge's job.

    True, Olliver had started his political career as a judge; four years ago he'd been on the bench the one previous time Crag had been arrested and tried. The evidence had, that time, been insufficient and the jury had freed him. But he still remembered the blistering jeremiad Olliver had delivered to him afterward, in the private conversa?tion between judge and accused that was customary whether the latter was convicted or acquitted.

    Ever since, Crag had hated Jon Olliver as a man, and had admired him as a judge and as a statesman, after Olliver had gone into politics and had so nearly been elected Coordinator.

    But Coordinator was the highest position to which any man could aspire. The only authority higher was the Council of Coordinators, made up of seven Coordinators of Earth and four from the planets, one from each major planet inhabited by the human race. The Council of Coordinators was the ultimate authority in the Solar System, which, since interstellar travel looked a long way off, meant the ultimate authority in the known-to-be-?inhabited universe. So it seemed almost incredible to Crag that a man who'd almost been a Coordinator should now, in the six months since his candidacy, have dropped back down to the unimportant job he'd held five years ago. But that was politics for you, he thought, in this corrupt age; an honest man didn't have a chance.

    No more of a chance than he was going to have against this frameup the police had rigged against him.

    The trial started and he knew he'd been right. The evidence was there-on recording tapes; there were no witnesses-and it proved him completely guilty. It was false, but it sounded true. It took only ten minutes or so to run it off. The prosecuting attorney took no longer; he didn't have to. His own attorney made a weak and fumbling-but possibly sincere-effort to disprove the apparently obvious.

    And that was that. The jury went out and stayed all of a minute, and came back. The defendant was found guilty as charged.

    Judge Jon Olliver said briefly, "Indeterminate sen?tence on Callisto."

    The technician shut off the recording machine; the trial was over.

    Crag let nothing show on his face, although there was relief in his mind that it had not been the psycher. Not too much relief; he'd have killed himself if it had been, and death wasn't much worse than life on Callisto. And he knew that indeterminate sentence on Callisto meant life sentence-unless he volunteered to be psyched. That was what an indeterminate sentence really meant; it gave the convicted his choice between a life sentence and the psycher.

    A signal from the judge and the others began to leave. Crag did not move; he knew without being told that he was expected to wait for the customary private conversa?tion with the judge. That always came after the sen?tencing and, in very rare cases, could make a change in the sentence. Sometimes, but not often, after private conversation with a prisoner a judge lessened or increased the sentence; he had power to do so up to twenty-four hours after his original pronouncement.

    It was optional with the judge whether the guards re?mained; if he thought there was a possibility of the prisoner attempting physical violence, he could have them remain, with heaters ready, but back out of hearing range in a far corner of the room. That was what Olliver had done the last tune Crag had appeared before him, after the acquittal. Undoubtedly it was because he had recognized the violence in Crag and had feared to provoke him by the things he was going to say.

    But this time Oliver signaled to the guards to leave the room with the others.

    Crag stepped forward. He thought, 1 can reach across that bench and kill him easily. He was tempted, simply by how easy it would be, even though he knew that it would mean the psycher-or his own private alternative.

Olliver said, "Don't do it, Crag."

    Crag didn't answer. He didn't intend to, unless he found himself provoked beyond endurance by what he was going to have to hear. But he knew the best way to handle one of these interviews was to keep it strictly a one-way conversation by refusing to talk back. Silence might annoy Olliver, but it would not annoy him suffi?ciently to make him increase the sentence. And nothing he could say would make Olliver lessen it.

    "You'd be sorry if you did, Crag. Because I'm not go?ing to ride you this time. In fact, I'm going to make you a proposition."

    What kind of a proposition, Crag wondered, could a judge want to make to a man he'd just sentenced to life on Callisto? But he didn't ask; he waited.

Olliver smiled. His face was handsome when he smiled.

    He leaned forward across the bench. He said softly, "Crag, how would you like your freedom, and a million credits?"

CHAPTER TWO: ESCAPE TO DANGER

CRAG said hoarsely, "You're kidding. And if you are-"

    He must have swayed forward or, without knowing it, started to lift his hand, for Olliver jerked back and his face was a bit white as he said "Don't" again, this time sharply.

    And he went on, fast: "I'm not-kidding, Crag. A million credits, enough to keep you drunk the rest of your life. Freedom. And a chance to help humanity, to null the human race out of the bog into which it has sunk in this period of mankind's decadence. A rare chance, Crag."

    Crag said, "Save that for your speeches, Judge. The hell with humanity. But I'll settle for my freedom and a million. One thing, though. This trial was a frameup. I didn't do it. Was it your frameup?"

    Olliver shook his head slowly. He said, "No, not mine. But I rather suspected it was framed. The evidence was too good. You don't leave evidence like that, do you, Crag?"

    Crag didn't bother to answer that. He asked, "Who did it, then?"

    "The police, I imagine. There's an election coming up-and the Commissioner's office is elective. A few con?victions like yours will look good on the records. You're pretty well known, Crag, in spite of the fact that there's never been a conviction against you. The newscasts from the stations on the Gilded side are going to give Com?missioner Green plenty of credit for getting you."

    It sounded logical. Crag said, "I know what I'm going to do with part of my freedom, then."

    Olliver's voice was sharp again. "Not until after, Crag. I don't care what you do-after the job I want you to do for me. You agree to that?"

    Crag shrugged. "Okay. What's the job?" He didn't really care what it was, or even how risky it was. For the difference between life on Callisto and freedom and a million, he couldn't think of anything he wouldn't do. He'd try it even if there was one chance in a thousand of his pulling it off and staying alive.

    Olliver said, "This isn't the time or place to tell you about it; we shouldn't talk too long. You'll be a free man when we talk. That much comes first. The million comes afterwards, if you succeed."

"And if I turn down the job after you've let me go?”

    “I don't think you will. It's not an easy one, but I don't think you'll turn it down for a million, even if you're already free. And there might be more for you in it than just money-but we won't talk about that unless you succeed. Fair enough?"

    "Fair enough. But-I want to be sure about this fram?ing business. Do you mean to tell me it was just coinci?dence that you wanted me to do something for you and that I got framed and you sat on the case?"

    Olliver smiled again. "It's a small world, Crag. And it's partly a coincidence, but not as much of a one as you think. First, you're not the only man in the system that could do what I want done. +You're one of several I had in mind. Possibly the best, I'll give you that. I was wondering how to contact one of you. And I saw your name on the docket and requested to sit on the case. You should know enough about law to know that a judge can ask to sit on a case if he has had previous experience with the accused."

Crag nodded. That was true, and it made sense.

    Olliver said, "But to brass tacks; we shouldn't be talk?ing much longer than this. I don't want any suspicion to attach to me when you escape."

"Escape?"

    "Of course. You were judged guilty, Crag, and on strong evidence. I couldn't possibly free you legally; I couldn't even have given you a lighter sentence than I did. If I freed you now, you I'd he impeached. But I-or perhaps I should say we-can arrange for you to escape. Today, shortly after you're returned to your cell to await transportation to Callisto."

"Who's we?" Crag asked.

    "A new political party, Crag, that's going to bring this world-the whole System-out of the degradation into which it has sunk. It's going to end the bribery and cor?ruption. It's going to take us back to old-fashioned de?mocracy by ending the deadlock between the Guilds and the Syndicates. It's going to be a middle-of-the-road party. 'We're going to bring honest government back and-he stopped and grinned boyishly. "I didn't mean to start a lecture. In which I suppose you aren't interested anyway. We call ourselves the Cooperationists."

"You're working under cover?"

    "For the present. Not much longer. In a few months we come into the open, in time to start gathering support-votes-for the next elections." He made a sudden im?patient gesture. "But I'll tell you all this later, when we're at leisure. Right now the important thing is your escape.

    "You'll he taken back to your cell when I give the signal that we're through talking. I'll put on the record that you were intransigent and unrepentant and that I am making no modification of your sentence. Within

    an hour from your return, arrangements for your escape will be made and you'll be told what to do."

"Told how?"

    "By the speaker in your cell. They're on private, tap-proof circuits. A member of the party has access to them. Simply follow instructions and you'll be free by seventeen hours."

"And then? If I still want to earn the million?"

    "Come to my house. It's listed; you can get the address when you need it. Be there at twenty-two."

    "It's guarded?" Crag asked. He knew that houses of most important political figures were.

    "Yes. And I'm not going to tell the guards to let you in. They're not party members. I think they're in the pay of the opposition, but that's all right with me. I use them to allay suspicion."

"How do I get past them, then?"

    Olliver said, "If you can't do that, without help or advice from me, then you're not the man I think you are, Crag and you're not the man I want. But don't kill un?less you have to. I don't like violence, unless it's abso?lutely necessary and in a good cause. I don't like it even then, but-"

    He glanced at his wrist watch and then reached out and put his fingers on a button on one side of the bench. He asked, "Agreed?" and as Crag nodded, he pushed the button.

    The two guards came back in. Oliver said, "Return the prisoner to his cell."

    One on each side of him, they led him back up the ramp to the floor above and escorted him all the way to his cell.

    The door clanged. Crag sat down on the bed and tried to puzzle things out. He wasn't modest enough about his particular talents to wonder why Olliver had chosen him if he had a dirty job to be done. But he was curious what dirty job a man like Olliver would have to offer. If there was an honest and fair man in politics, Olliver was that man.

    It must be something of overwhelming impor?tance if Olliver was sacrificing his principles to expediency.

    Well, he, Crag, certainly had nothing to lose, whether he trusted Olliver's motives or not. And he thought he trusted them.

    He went back to the window and stood there looking down at the teeming city, thinking with wonder how greatly his fortunes had changed in the brief space of an hour and a half. That long ago he'd stood here like this and wondered whether to batter through the plastic pane and throw himself from the window. Now he was not only to be free but to have a chance at more money than he'd ever hoped to see in one sum.

    When an hour was nearly up, he went over and stood by the speaker grille so he would not miss anything that came over it. One cannot ask questions over a one-way communicator, and he'd have to get every word the first time.

    It was well that he did. The voice, when it came, was soft-and it was a woman's voice. From the window he could have heard it, but might have missed part of the message. "I have just moved the switch that unlocks your cell door," the voice said. "Leave your cell and walk as you did on your way to the courtroom. I will meet you at the portal, at the place where two guards met you before."

    The cell door was unlocked, all right. He went through it and along the corridor.

    A woman waited for him. She was beautiful; not even the severe costume of a technician could completely con?ceal the soft, lush curves of her body; not even the fact that she wore horn-rimmed spectacles and was com?pletely without makeup could detract from the beauty of her face. Her eyes even through glass, were the darkest, deepest blue he had ever seen, and her hair-what showed of it beneath the technician's beret-was burnished copper.

    He stared at her as he came near. And hated her, partly because she was a woman and partly because she was so beautiful. But mostly because her hair was ex?actly the same color as Lea's had been.

    She held out a little metal bar. "Take this," she told him. "Put it in your pocket. It's radioactive; without it or without a guard with you who has one, every portal here is a death-trap."

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