Gateway to Darkness
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by Fredric Brown
Category: Science Fiction/Mystery/Crime
Description: Crag was a no good drunk and deviant, now facing life in prison. But the good judge Jon Olliver offers him his freedom--plus a million credits!--in exchange for a small favor: steal a harmless tool from a rich scientist in Mars. Crag suspects a catch, but he finds it so hard to resist ? especially when he knows that Olliver's beautiful wife, Evadne, will be joining them in the adventure! A great 1940s novella from a master of the form.
eBook Publisher: Wonder Audiobooks, LLC/Wonder eBooks, Super Science Stories
eBookwise Release Date: February 2010
2 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [72 KB]
Reading time: 44-61 min.
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 disinclination 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, 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 coming 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 corridor two uniformed guards were waiting near an automatic 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 approached 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 unimportant 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 candidate for Coordinator of North America. He'd lost the election, but surely he would have retained a more important niche for himself, in the party if not in the government, 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 conversation 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 plaintiff was found guilty as charged.
Judge Jon Olliver said briefly, "Indeterminate sentence 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 conversation with the judge. That always came after the sentencing 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 remained; 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 time 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 Olliver signaled to the guards to leave the room with the others.
Crag stepped forward. He thought, I 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 sufficiently 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 going 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?"