He had no recognizable modus operandi, changing his methods with each new crime. He never left a clue. But, in bravado, he signed his name to every job: his monicker flattered him, and after each malefaction the victim--usually a government agency, a giant corporation, or one of the clan enterprises of the smaller planets--would receive a message consisting merely of the impudent depiction of a large wriggling eel.
They got him at last, of course. The Galactic Police, like the prehistoric Royal Canadian Mounted, have the reputation of always catching their man. (Sometimes they don't catch him till he's dead, but they catch him.) It took them 26 years, and it was a hard job, for The Eel always worked alone and never talked afterward.
They did it by the herculean labor of investigating the source of the fortune of every inhabitant of Earth, since all that was known was that The Eel was a terrestrial. Every computer in the Federation worked overtime analyzing the data fed into it. It wasn't entirely a thankless task, for, as a by-product, a lot of embezzlers, tax evaders and lesser robbers were turned up.
In the end, it narrowed down to one man who owned more than he could account for having. Even so, they almost lost him, for his takings were cached away under so many pseudonyms that it took several months just to establish that they all belonged to the same person. When that was settled, the police swooped. The Eel surrendered quietly; the one thing he had been surest of was never being apprehended, and he was so dumfounded he was unable to put up any resistance.
And then came the still greater question: which of the planets was to have him?
Xystil said it had the first right because his theft there had been the largest--a sum so huge, it could be expressed only by an algebraic index. Artha's argument was that his first recorded crime had been on that planet. Medoris wanted him because its only penalty for any felony is an immediate and rather horrible death, and that would guarantee getting rid of The Eel forever.
Ceres put in a claim on the ground that it was the only planet or moon in the Sol System in which he had operated, and since he was a terrestrial, it was a matter for local jurisdiction. Eb pleaded that it was the newest and poorest member of the Galactic Federation, and should have been protected in its inexperience against his thievishness.
Ha-Almirath argued that it had earned his custody because it was its Chief Ruler who had suggested to the police the method which had resulted in his arrest. Vavinour countered that it should be the chosen recipient, since the theft there had included desecration of the High Temple.
Little Agsk, which was only a probationary Galactic Associate, modestly said that if it were given The Eel, its prompt and exemplary punishment might qualify it for full membership, and it would be grateful for the chance.
A special meeting of the Galactic Council had to be called for the sole purpose of deciding who got The Eel.
Representatives of all the claimant planets made their representations. Each told in eloquent detail why his planet and his alone was entitled to custody of the arch-criminal, and what they would do to him when--not if--they got him. After they had all been heard, the councilors went into executive session, with press and public barred. An indiscreet councilor (it was O-Al of Phlagon of Altair, if you want to know) leaked later some of the rather indecorous proceedings.
The Earth councilor, he reported, had been granted a voice but no vote, since Earth was not an interested party as to the crime, but only as to the criminal. Every possible system of arbitration had been discussed--chronological, numerical in respect to the size of the theft, legalistic in respect to whether the culprit would be available to hand on to another victim when the first had got through punishing him.
In the welter of claims and counterclaims, one harassed councilor wearily suggested a lottery. Another in desperation recommended handing The Eel a list of prospective punishments on each of the eight planets and observing which one seemed to inspire him with most dread--which would then be the one selected. One even proposed poisoning him and announcing his sudden collapse and death.
The sessions went on day and night; the exhausted councilors separated for brief periods of sleep, then went at it again. A hung jury was unthinkable; something had to be decided. The news outlets of the entire Galaxy were beginning to issue sarcastic editorials about procrastination and coddling criminals, with hints about bribery and corruption, and remarks that perhaps what was needed was a few impeachments and a new general election.
So at last, in utter despair, they awarded The Eel to Agsk, as a sort of bonus and incentive. Whichever planet they named, the other seven were going to scream to high heaven, and Agsk was least likely to be able to retaliate against any expressions of indignation.
Agskians, as everyone knows, are fairly humanoid beings, primitives from the outer edge of the Galaxy. They were like college freshmen invited to a senior fraternity. This was their Big Chance to Make Good.
The Eel, taciturn as ever, was delivered to a delegation of six of them sent to meet him in one of their lumbering spaceships, a low countergrav machine such as Earth had outgrown several millennia before. They were so afraid of losing him that they put a metal belt around him with six chains attached to it, and fastened all six of themselves to him. Once on Agsk, he was placed in a specially made stone pit, surrounded by guards, and fed through the only opening.
In preparation for the influx of visitors to the trial, an anticipated greater assembly of off-planeters than little Agsk had ever seen, they evacuated their capital city temporarily, resettling all its citizens except those needed to serve and care for the guests, and remodeled the biggest houses for the accommodation of those who had peculiar space, shape, or other requirements.
Never since the Galactic Federation was founded had so many beings, human, humanoid, semi-humanoid and non-humanoid, gathered at the same time on any one member-planet. Every newstape, tridimens, audio and all other varieties of information services--even including the drum amplifiers of Medoris and the ray-variants of Eb--applied for and were granted a place in the courtroom. This, because no other edifice was large enough, was an immense stone amphitheater usually devoted to rather curious games with animals; since it rains on Agsk only for two specified hours on every one of their days, no roof was needed. At every seat, there was a translatophone, with interpreters ready in plastic cages to translate the Intergalactic in which the trial was conducted into even the clicks and hisses of Jorg and the eye-flashes of Omonro.
And in the midst of all this, the cause and purpose of it all, sat the legendary Eel.
Seen at last, he was hardly an impressive figure. Time had been going on and The Eel was in his fifties, bald and a trifle paunchy. He was completely ordinary in appearance, a circumstance which had, of course, enabled him to pass unobserved on so many planets; he looked like a salesman or a minor official, and had indeed been so taken by the unnoticing inhabitants of innumerable planets.
People had wondered, when word came of some new outrage by this master-thief, if perhaps he had disguised himself as a resident of the scene of each fresh crime, but now it was obvious that this had not been necessary. He had been too clever to pick any planet where visitors from Earth were not a common sight, and he had been too insignificant for anyone to pay attention to him.
The criminal code of Agsk is unique in the Galaxy, though there are rumors of something similar among a legendary extinct tribe on Earth called the Guanches. The high priest is also the chief executive (as well as the minister of education and head of the medical faculty), and he rules jointly with a priestess who also officiates as chief judge.
The Agskians have some strange ideas to a terrestrial eye--for example, suicide is an honor, and anyone of insufficient rank who commits it condemns his immediate family to punishment for his presumption. They are great family people, in general. Also, they never lie, and find it hard to realize that other beings do.
Murder, to them, is merely a matter for negotiation between the murderer and the relatives of the victim, provided it is open and without deceit. But grand larceny, since property is the foundation of the family, is punished in a way that shows that the Agskians, though technologically primitive, are psychologically very advanced.
They reason that death, because it comes inevitably to all, is the least of misfortunes. Lasting grief, remorse and guilt are the greatest. So they let the thief live and do not even imprison him.
Instead, they find out who it is that the criminal most loves. If they do not know who it is, they merely ask him, and since Agskians never lie, he always tells them. Then they seize that person, and kill him or her, slowly and painfully, before the thief's eyes.
And the agreement had been that The Eel was to be tried and punished by the laws and customs of the planet to which he was awarded.
The actual trial and conviction of The Eel were almost perfunctory. Without needing to resort to torture, his jailers had been presented, on a platter as it were, with a full confession--so far as the particular robbery he had committed on Agsk was concerned. There is a provision for defense in the Agskian code, but it was unneeded because The Eel had pleaded guilty.
But he knew very well he would not be executed by the Agskians; he would instead be set free (presumably with a broken heart) to be handed over to the next claimant--and that, the Council had decided, would be Medoris. Since Medoris always kills its criminals, that would end the whole controversy.
So the Eel was quite aware that his conviction by Agsk would be only the preliminary to an exquisitely painful and lingering demise at the two-clawed hands of the Medorans. His business was somehow to get out from under.
Naturally, the resources of the Galactic Police had been at the full disposal of the officials of Agsk.
The files had been opened, and the Agskians had before them The Eel's history back to the day of his birth. He himself had been questioned, encelographed, hypnotized, dormitized, injected, psychographed, subjected to all the means of eliciting information devised by all eight planets--for the other seven, once their first resentment was over, had reconciled themselves and cooperated whole-heartedly with Agsk.
Medoris especially had been of the greatest help. The Medorans could hardly wait.
In the spate of news of the trial that inundated every portion of the Galaxy, there began to be discovered a note of sympathy for this one little creature arrayed against the mightiest powers of the Galaxy. Poor people who wished they had his nerve, and romantic people who dreamed of adventures they would never dare perform, began to say that The Eel wasn't so bad, after all; he became a symbol of the rebellious individual thumbing his nose at entrenched authority. Students of Earth prehistory will recognize such symbols in the mythical Robin Hood and Al Capone.
These were the people who were glad to put up when bets began to be made. At first the odds were ten to one against The Eel; then, as time dragged by, they dropped until it was even money.
Agsk itself began to be worried. It was one thing to make a big, expensive splurge to impress the Galaxy and to hasten its acceptance into full membership in the Federation, but nobody had expected the show to last more than a few days. If it kept on much longer, Agsk would be bankrupt.
For the trial had foundered on one insoluble problem: the only way The Eel could ever be punished by their laws was to kill the person he most loved--and nobody could discover that he had ever loved anybody.
His mother? His father? He had been an undutiful and unaffectionate son, and his parents were long since dead in any case. He had never had a brother, a sister, a wife or a child. No probing could find any woman with whom he had ever been in love. He had never had an intimate friend.
He did nothing to help, naturally. He simply sat in his chains and smiled and waited. He was perfectly willing to be escorted from the court every evening, relieved of his fetters and placed in his pit. It was a much pleasanter existence than being executed inch by inch by the Medorans. For all he cared, the Agskians could go on spending their planetary income until he finally died of old age.
The priestess-judge and her co-adjutors wore themselves out in discussions far into the night. They lost up to 15 pounds apiece, which on Agsk, where the average weight of adults is about 40, was serious. It began to look as if The Eel's judges would predecease him.
Whom did The Eel love? They went into minutiae and subterfuges. He had never had a pet to which he was devoted. He had never even loved a house which could be razed. He could not be said to have loved the immense fortune he had stolen, for he had concealed his wealth and used little of it, and in any event it had all been confiscated and, so far as possible, restored proportionately to those he had robbed.
What he had loved most, doubtless, was his prowess in stealing unimaginable sums and getting away with it--but there is no way of "killing" a criminal technique.
Almost a year had passed. Agsk was beginning to wish The Eel had never been caught, or that they had never been awarded the glory of trying him.
At last the priestess-judge, in utter despair, took off her judge's robes, put on the cassock and surplice of her sacred calling, and laid the problem before the most unapproachable and august of the gods of Agsk.
The trial was suspended while she lay for three days in a trance on the high altar. She emerged weak and tottering, her skin light blue instead of its healthy purple, but her head high and her mouth curved in triumph.
At sight of her, renewed excitement surged through the audience. News-gatherers, who had been finding it difficult of late to get anything to report, rushed to their instruments.
"Remove the defendant's chains and set him free," the priestess-judge ordered in ringing tones. "The Great God of the Unspeakable Name has revealed to me whom the defendant most loves. As soon as he is freed, seize him and slay him. For the only being he loves is--himself."
There was an instant's silence, and then a roar. The Medorans howled in frustration.
But The Eel, still guarded but unchained, stood up and laughed aloud.
"Your Great God is a fool!" he said blasphemously. "I deny that I love myself. I care nothing for myself at all."
The priestess-judge sighed. "Since this is your sworn denial, it must be true," she said. "So then we cannot kill you. Instead, we grant that you do indeed love no one. Therefore you are a creature so far outside our comprehension that you cannot come under our laws, no matter how you have broken them. We shall notify the Federation that we abandon our jurisdiction and hand you over to our sister-planet which is next in line to judge you."
Then all the viewers on tridimens on countless planets saw something that nobody had ever thought to see--The Eel's armor of self-confidence cracked and terror poured through the gap.
He dropped to his knees and cried: "Wait! Wait! I confess that I blasphemed your god, but without realizing that I did!"
"You mean," pressed the priestess-judge, "you acknowledge that you yourself are the only being dear to you?"
"No, not that, either. Until now, I have never known love. But now it has come upon me like a nova and I must speak the truth." He paused, still on his knees, and looked piteously at the priestess-judge. "Are--are you bound by your law to--to believe me and to kill, instead of me, this--this being I adore?"
"We are so bound," she stated.
"Then," said The Eel, smiling and confident again, rising to his feet, "before all the Galaxy, I must declare the object of my sudden but everlasting passion. Great lady, it is you!"
The Eel is still in his pit, which has been made most comfortable by his sympathizers, while the Council of the Galactic Federation seeks feverishly and vainly, year after year, to find some legal way out of the impasse.
Agsk, however, requests all Federation citizens to submit solutions, the grand prize for a workable answer being a lifetime term as president of the planet. A secondary contest (prize: lifetime ambassadorship to the Galactic Federation) is offered for a legal way around the statute barring criminals (specifically The Eel) from entering the primary contest.
BADGE OF INFAMY.
by Lester del Rey
The computer seemed to work as it should. The speed was within acceptable limits. He gave up trying to see the ground and was forced to trust the machinery designed for amateur pilots. The flare bloomed, and he yanked down on the little lever.
It could have been worse. They hit the ground, bounced twice, and turned over. The ship was a mess when Feldman freed himself from the elastic straps of the seat. Chris had shrieked as they hit, but she was unbuckling herself now.
He threw her her spacesuit and one of the emergency bottles of oxygen from the rack. "Hurry up with that. We've sprung a leak and the pressure's dropping."
Pariah The air of the city's cheapest flophouse was thick with the smells of harsh antiseptic and unwashed bodies. The early Christmas snowstorm had driven in every bum who could steal or beg the price of admission, and the long rows of cots were filled with fully clothed figures. Those who could afford the extra dime were huddled under thin, grimy blankets.
The pariah who had been Dr. Daniel Feldman enjoyed no such luxury. He tossed fitfully on a bare cot, bringing his face into the dim light. It had been a handsome face, but now the black stubble of beard lay over gaunt features and sunken cheeks. He looked ten years older than his scant thirty-two, and there were the beginnings of a snarl at the corners of his mouth. Clothes that had once been expensive were wrinkled and covered with grime that no amount of cleaning could remove. His tall, thin body was awkwardly curled up in a vain effort to conserve heat and one of his hands instinctively clutched at his tiny bag of possessions.
He stirred again, and suddenly jerked upright with a protest already forming on his lips. The ugly surroundings registered on his eyes, and he stared suspiciously at the other cots. But there was no sign that anyone had been trying to rob him of his bindle or the precious bag of cheap tobacco.
He started to relax back onto the couch when a sound caught his attention, even over the snoring of the others. It was a low wail, the sound of a man who can no longer control himself.
Feldman swung to the cot on his left as the moan hacked off. The man there was well fed and clean-shaven, but his face was gray with sickness. He was writhing and clutching his stomach, arching his back against the misery inside him.
"Space-stomach?" Feldman diagnosed.
He had no need of the weak answering nod. He'd treated such cases several times in the past. The disease was usually caused by the absence of gravity out in space, but it could be brought on later from abuse of the weakened internal organs, such as the intake of too much bad liquor. The man must have been frequenting the wrong space-front bars.
Now he was obviously dying. Violent peristaltic contractions seemed to be tearing the intestines out of him, and the paroxysms were coming faster. His eyes darted to Feldman's tobacco sack and there was animal appeal in them.
Feldman hesitated, then reluctantly rolled a smoke. He held the cigarette while the spaceman took a long, gasping drag on it. He smoked the remainder himself, letting the harsh tobacco burn against his lungs and sicken his empty stomach. Then he shrugged and threaded his way through the narrow aisles toward the attendant.
"Better get a doctor," he said bitterly, when the young punk looked up at him. "You've got a man dying of space-stomach on 214."
The sneer on the kid's face deepened. "Yeah? We don't pay for doctors every time some wino wants to throw up. Forget it and get back where you belong, bo."
"You'll have a corpse on your hands in an hour," Feldman insisted. "I know space-stomach, damn it."
The kid turned back to his lottery sheet. "Go treat yourself if you wanta play doctor. Go on, scram--before I toss you out in the snow!"
One of Feldman's white-knuckled hands reached for the attendant. Then he caught himself. He started to turn back, hesitated, and finally faced the kid again. "I'm not fooling. And I was a doctor," he stated. "My name is Daniel Feldman."
The attendant nodded absently, until the words finally penetrated. He looked up, studied Feldman with surprised curiosity and growing contempt, and reached for the phone. "Gimme Medical Directory," he muttered.
Feldman felt the kid's eyes on his back as he stumbled through the aisles to his cot again. He slumped down, rolling another cigarette in hands that shook. The sick man was approaching delirium now, and the moans were mixed with weak whining sounds of fear. Other men had wakened and were watching, but nobody made a move to help.
The retching and writhing of the sick man had begun to weaken, but it was still not too late to save him. Hot water and skillful massage could interrupt the paroxysms. In fifteen minutes, Feldman could have stopped the attack completely.
He found his feet on the floor and his hands already reaching out. Savagely he pulled himself back. Sure, he could save the man--and wind up in the gas chamber! There'd be no mercy for his second offense against Lobby laws. If the spaceman lived, Feldman might get off with a flogging--that was standard punishment for a pariah who stepped out of line. But with his luck, there would be a heart arrest and another juicy story for the papers.
Idealism! The Medical Lobby made a lot out of the word. But it wasn't for him. A pariah had no business thinking of others.
As Feldman sat there staring, the spaceman grew quieter. Sometimes, even at this stage, massage could help. It was harder without liberal supplies of hot water, but the massage was the really important treatment. It was the trembling of Feldman's hands that stopped him. He no longer had the strength or the certainty to make the massage effective.
He was glaring at his hands in self-disgust when the legal doctor arrived. The man was old and tired. Probably he had been another idealist who had wound up defeated, content to leave things up to the established procedures of the Medical Lobby. He looked it as he bent over the dying man.