The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol X Part 7
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The doctor turned back at last to the attendant. "Too late. The best I can do is ease his pain. The call should have been made half an hour earlier."
He had obviously never handled s.p.a.ce-stomach before. He administered a hypo that probably held narconal. Feldman watched, his guts tightening sympathetically for the shock that would be to the sick man. But at least it would shorten his sufferings. The final seizure lasted only a minute or so.
"Hopeless," the doctor said. His eyes were clouded for a moment, and then he shrugged. "Well, I'll make out a death certificate. Anyone here know his name?"
His eyes swung about the cots until they came to rest on Feldman. He frowned, and a twisted smile curved his lips.
"Feldman, isn't it? You still look something like your pictures. Do you know the deceased?"
Feldman shook his head bitterly. "No. I don't know his name. I don't even know why he wasn't cyanotic at the end, if it was s.p.a.ce-stomach. Do you, doctor?"
The old man threw a startled glance at the corpse. Then he shrugged and nodded to the attendant. "Well, go through his things. If he still has a s.p.a.ce ticket, I can get his name from that."
The kid began pawing through the bag that had fallen from the cot. He dragged out a pair of shoes, half a bottle of cheap rum, a wallet and a bronze s.p.a.ce ticket. He wasn't quick enough with the wallet, and the doctor took it from him.
"Medical Lobby authorization. If he has any money, it covers my fee and the rest goes to his own Lobby." There were several bills, all of large denominations. He turned the ticket over and began filling in the death certificate. "Arthur Billings. s.p.a.ce Lobby. Crewman. Cause of death, idiopathic gastroenteritis and delirium tremens."
There had been no evidence of delirium tremens, but apparently the doctor felt he had scored a point. He tossed the s.p.a.ce ticket toward the shoes, closed his bag, and prepared to leave.
"Hey, doc!" The attendant's voice was indignant. "Hey, what about my reporting fee?"
The doctor stopped. He glanced at the kid, then toward Feldman, his face a mixture of speculation and dislike. He took a dollar bill from the wallet. "That's right," he admitted. "The fee for reporting a solvent case. Medical Lobby rules apply--even to a man who breaks them."
The kid's hand was out, but the doctor dropped the dollar onto Feldman's cot. "There's your fee, pariah." He left, forcing the protesting attendant to precede him.
Feldman reached for the bill. It was blood money for letting a man die--but it meant cigarettes and food--or shelter for another night, if he could get a mission meal. He no longer could afford pride. Grimly, he pocketed the bill, staring at the face of the dead man. It looked back sightlessly, now showing a faint speckling of tiny dots. They caught Feldman's eyes, and he bent closer. There should be no black dots on the skin of a man who died of s.p.a.ce-stomach. And there should have been cyanosis....
He swore and bent down to find the wrecks of his shoes. He couldn't worry about anything now but getting away from here before the attendant made trouble. His eyes rested on the shoes of the dead man--st.u.r.dy boots that would last for another year. They could do the corpse no good; someone else would steal them if he didn't. But he hesitated, cursing himself.
The right boot fitted better than he could have expected, but something got in the way as he tried to put the left one on. His fingers found the bronze ticket. He turned it over, considering it. He wasn't ready to fraud his ident.i.ty for what he'd heard of life on the s.p.a.ces.h.i.+ps, yet. But he shoved it into his pocket and finished lacing the boots.
Outside, the snow was still falling, but it had turned to slush, and the sidewalk was soggy underfoot. There was going to be no work shoveling snow, he realized. This would melt before the day was over. Feldman hunched the suitcoat up, s.h.i.+vering as the cold bit into him. The boots felt good, though; if he'd had socks, they would have been completely comfortable.
He pa.s.sed a cheap restaurant, and the smell of the synthetics set his stomach churning. It had been two days since his last real meal, and the dollar burned in his pocket. But he had to wait. There was a fair chance this early that he could scavenge something edible.
He shuffled on. After a while, the cold bothered him less, and he pa.s.sed through the hunger spell. He rolled another smoke and sucked at it, hardly thinking. It was better that way.
It was much later when the big caduceus set into the sidewalk snapped him back to awareness of where he'd traveled. His undirected feet had led him much too far uptown, following old habits. This was the Medical Lobby building, where he'd spent more than enough time, including three weeks in custody before they stripped him of all rank and status.
His eyes wandered to the ornate entrance where he'd first emerged as a pariah. He'd meant to walk down those steps as if he were still a man. But each step had drained his resolution, until he'd finally covered his face and slunk off, knowing himself for what the world had branded him.
He stood there now, staring at the smug young medical politicians and the tired old general pract.i.tioners filing in and out. One of the latter halted, fumbled in his pocket and drew out a quarter.
"Merry Christmas!" he said dully.
Feldman fingered the coin. Then he saw a gray Medical policeman watching him, and he knew it was time to move on. Sooner or later, someone would recognize him here.
He clutched the quarter and turned to look for a coffee shop that sold the synthetics to which his metabolism had been switched. No shop would serve him here, but he could buy coffee and a piece of cake to take out.
A flurry of motion registered from the corner of his eye, and he glanced back.
The girl rus.h.i.+ng down the steps had a clear soprano voice, cultured and commanding. The gray Medical uniform seemed molded to her shapely figure and her red hair glistened in the lights of the street. Her snub nose and determined mouth weren't the current fas.h.i.+on, but n.o.body stopped to think of fas.h.i.+ons when they saw her. She didn't have to be the daughter of the president of Medical Lobby to rule.
It was Chris--Chris Feldman once, and now Chris Ryan again.
Feldman swung toward a cab. For a moment, his att.i.tude was automatic and a.s.sured, and the cab stopped before the driver noticed his clothes. He picked up the bag Chris dropped and swung it onto the front seat. She was fumbling in her change purse as he turned back to shut the door.
"Thank you, my good man," she said. She could be gracious, even to a pariah, when his homage suited her. She dropped two quarters into his hand, raising her eyes.
Recognition flowed into them, followed by icy shock. She yanked the cab door shut and shouted something to the driver. The cab took off with a rush that left Feldman in a backwash of slush and mud.
He glanced down at the coins in his hand. It was his lucky day, he thought bitterly.
He moved across the street and away, not bothering about the squeal of brakes and the honking horns. He looked back only once, toward the glowing sign that topped the building. Your health is our business! Then the great symbol of the health business faded behind him, and he stumbled on, sucking incessantly at the cigarettes he rolled. One hand clutched the bronze badge belonging to the dead man and his stolen boots drove onward through the melting snow.
It was Christmas in the year 2100 on the protectorate of Earth.
Lobby Feldman had set his legs the problem of heading for the great s.p.a.ceport and escape from Earth, and he let them take him without further guidance. His mind was wrapped up in a whirl of the past--his past and that of the whole planet. Both pasts had in common the growth and sudden ruin of idealism.
Idealism! Throughout history, some men had sought the ideal, and most had called it freedom. Only fools expected absolute freedom, but wise men dreamed up many systems of relative freedom, including democracy. They had tried that in America, as the last fling of the dream. It had been a good attempt, too.
The men who drew the Const.i.tution had been pretty practical dreamers. They came to their task after a bitter war and a worse period of wild chaos, and they had learned where idealism stopped and idiocy began. They set up a republic with all the elements of democracy that they considered safe. It had worked well enough to make America the number one power of the world. But the men who followed the framers of the new plan were a different sort, without the knowledge of practical limits.
The privileges their ancestors had earned in blood and care became automatic rights. Practical men tried to explain that there were no such rights--that each generation had to pay for its rights with responsibility. That kind of talk didn't get far. People wanted to hear about rights, not about duties.
They took the phrase that all men were created equal and left out the implied kicker that equality was in the sight of G.o.d and before the law. They wanted an equality with the greatest men without giving up their drive toward mediocrity, and they meant to have it. In a way, they got it.
They got the vote extended to everyone. The man on subsidy or public dole could vote to demand more. The man who read of nothing beyond s.e.x crimes could vote on the great political issues of the world. No ability was needed for his vote. In fact, he was a.s.sured that voting alone was enough to make him a fine and n.o.ble citizen. He loved that, if he bothered to vote at all that year. He became a great man by listing his unthought, hungry desire for someone to take care of him without responsibility. So he went out and voted for the man who promised him most, or who looked most like what his limited dreams felt to be a father image or son image or hero image. He never bothered later to see how the men he'd elected had handled the jobs he had given them.
Someone had to look, of course, and someone did. Organized special interests stepped in where the mob had failed. Lobbies grew up. There had always been pressure groups, but now they developed into a third arm of the government.
The old Farm Lobby was unbeatable. The big farmers shaped the laws they wanted. They convinced the little farmers it was for the good of all, and they made the story stick well enough to swing the farm vote. They made the laws when it came to food and crops.
The last of the great lobbies was s.p.a.ce, probably. It was an accident that grew up so fast it never even knew it wasn't a real part of the government. It developed during a period of chaos when another country called Russia got the first hunk of metal above the atmosphere and when the representatives who had been picked for everything but their grasp of science and government went into panic over a myth of national prestige.
The s.p.a.ce effort was turned over to the aircraft industry, which had never been able to manage itself successfully except under the stimulus of war or a threat of war. The failing airplane industry became the s.p.a.ce combine overnight, and n.o.body kept track of how big it was, except a few sharp operators.
They worked out a system of subcontracts that spread the profits so wide that hardly a company of any size in the country wasn't getting a share. Thus a lot of patriotic, n.o.ble voters got their pay from companies in the lobby block and could be panicked by the lobby at the first mention of recession.
So s.p.a.ce Lobby took over completely in its own field. It developed enough pressure to get whatever appropriations it wanted, even over Presidential veto. It created the only s.p.a.ce experts, which meant that the men placed in government agencies to regulate it came from its own ranks.
The other lobbies learned a lot from s.p.a.ce.
There had been a medical lobby long before, but it had been a conservative group, mostly concerned with protecting medical autonomy and ethics. It also tried to prevent government control of treatment and payment, feeling that it couldn't trust the people to know where to stop. But its history was a long series of retreats.
It fought what it called socialized medicine. But the people wanted their troubles handled free--which meant by government spending, since that could be added to the national debt, and thus didn't seem to cost anything. It lost, and eventually the government paid most medical costs, with doctors working on a fixed fee. Then quant.i.ty of treatment paid, rather than quality. Competence no longer mattered so much. The Lobby lost, but didn't know it--because the lowered standards of competence in the profession lowered the caliber of men running the political aspects of that profession as exemplified by the Lobby.
It took a world-wide plague to turn the tide. The plague began in old China; anything could start there, with more than a billion people huddled in one area and a few madmen planning to conquer the world. It might have been a laboratory mutation, but n.o.body could ever prove it.
It wiped out two billion people, depopulated Africa and most of Asia, and wrecked Europe, leaving only America comparatively safe to take over. An obscure scientist in one of the laboratories run by the Medical Lobby found a cure before the first waves of the epidemic hit America. Rutherford Ryan, then head of the Lobby, made sure that Medical Lobby got all the credit.
By the time the world recovered, America ran it and the Medical Lobby was untouchable. Ryan made a deal with s.p.a.ce Lobby, and the two effectively ran the world. None of the smaller lobbies could buck them, and neither could the government.
There was still a president and a congress, as there had been a Senate under the Roman Caesars. But the two Lobbies ran themselves as they chose. The real government had become a kind of oligarchy, as it always did after too much false democracy ruined the ideals of real and practical self-rule. A man belonged to his Lobby, just as a serf had belonged to his feudal landlord.
It was a safe world now. Maybe progress had been halted at about the level of 1980, but so long as the citizens didn't break the rules of their lobbies, they had very little to worry about. For that, for security and the right not to think, most people were willing to leave well enough alone.
Some rules seemed harsh, of course, such as the law that all operations had to be performed in Lobby hospitals. But that could be justified; it was the only safe kind of surgery and the only way to make sure there was no unsupervised experimentation, such as that which supposedly caused the plague. The rule was now an absolute ethic of medicine. It also made for better fees.
Feldman's father had stuck by the rule but had questioned it. Feldman learned not to question in medical school. He scored second in Medical Ethics only to Christina Ryan.
He had never figured why she singled him out for her attentions, but he gloried in both those attentions and the results. He became automatically a rising young man, the favorite of the daughter of the Lobby president. He went through interns.h.i.+p without a sign of trouble. Chris humored him in his desire to spend three years of practice in a poor section loaded with disease, and her father approved; such selfless dedication was the perfect image projection for a future son-in-law. In return, he agreed to follow that period by becoming an administrator. A doctor's doctor, as they put it.
They were married in April and his office was ready in May, complete with a staff of eighty. The publicity releases had gone out, and the Public Relations Lobby that handled news and education was paid to begin the greatest build-up any young genius ever had.
They celebrated that, with a little party of some four hundred people and reporters at Ryan's lodge in Canada. It was to be a gala weekend.
It was then that Baxter shot himself.
Baxter had been Feldman's closest friend in the Lobby. He'd come along to handle press relations and had gotten romantic about the countryside, never having been out of a city before. He hired a guide and went hunting, eighty miles beyond the last outpost of civilization. Somehow, he got his hand on a gun, though only guides were supposed to touch them, managed to overcome its safety devices, and then pulled the trigger with the gun pointed the wrong way.
Chris, Feldman and Harnett from Public Relations had accompanied him on the trip. They were sitting in a nearby car while Feldman enjoyed the scenery, Chris made further plans, and Harnett gathered material. There was also a photographer and writer, but they hadn't been introduced by name.
Feldman reached Baxter first. The man was moaning and scared, and he was bleeding profusely. Only a miracle had saved him from instant death. The bullet had struck a rib, been deflected and robbed of some of its energy, and had barely reached the heart. But it had pierced the pericardium, as best Feldman could guess, and it could be fatal at any moment.
He'd reached for a probe without thinking. Chris knocked his hand aside.
She was right, of course. He couldn't operate outside a hospital. But they had no phone in the lodge where the guide lived and no way to summon an ambulance. They'd have to drive Baxter back in the car, which would almost certainly result in his death.
When Feldman seemed uncertain, Harnett had given his warning in a low but vehement voice. "You touch him, Dan, and I'll spread it in every one of our media. I'll have to. It's the only way to retain public confidence. There'd be a leak, with all the guides and others here, and we can't afford that. I like you--you have color. But touch that wound and I'll crucify you."
Chris added her own threats. She'd spent years making him the outlet for all her ambitions, denied because women were still only second-rate members of Medical Lobby. She couldn't let it go now. And she was probably genuinely shocked.
Baxter groaned again and started to bleed more profusely.
There wasn't much equipment. Feldman operated with a pocketknife sterilized in a bottle of expensive Scotch and only anodyne tablets in place of anesthesia. He got the bullet out and sewed up the wound with a bit of surgical thread he'd been using to tie up a torn good-luck emblem. The photographer and writer recorded the whole thing. Chris swore harshly and beat her fists against the bole of a tree. But Baxter lived. He recovered completely, and was shocked at the heinous thing that had been done to him.
They crucified Feldman.
s.p.a.ceman Most crewmen lived rough, ugly lives--and usually, short ones. Pa.s.sengers and officers on the big tubs were given the equivalent of gravity in spinning compartments, but the crews rode "free". The lucky crewmen lived through their accidents, got s.p.a.ce-stomach now and then, and recovered. n.o.body cared about the others.
Feldman's ticket was work-stamped for the Navaho, and n.o.body questioned his ident.i.ty. He suffered through the agony of acceleration on the shuttle up to the orbital station, then was sick as acceleration stopped. But he was able to control himself enough to follow other crewmen down a hall of the station toward the Navaho. The big s.h.i.+ps never touched a planet, always docking at the stations.
A checker met the crew and reached for their badges. He barely glanced at them, punched a mark for each on his checkoff sheet, and handed them back. "Deckmen forward, tubemen to the rear," he ordered. "Navaho blasts in fifteen minutes. Hey, you! You're tubes."
Feldman grunted. He should have expected it. Tubemen had the lowest lot of all the crew. Between the killing work, the heat of the tubes, and occasional doses of radiation, their lives weren't worth the metal value of their tickets.
He began pulling himself clumsily along a shaft, dodging freight the loaders were tossing from hand to hand. A bag hit his head, drawing blood, and another caught him in the groin.
"Watch it, bo," a loader yelled at him. "You dent that bag and they'll brig you. Cantcha see it's got a special courtesy stripe?"
It had a brilliant green stripe, he saw. It also had a name, printed in block letters that shouted their ident.i.ty before he could read the words. Dr. Christina Ryan, Southport, Mars.
And he'd had to choose this time to leave Earth!
Suddenly he was glad he was a.s.signed to the tubes. It was the one place on the s.h.i.+p where he'd be least likely to run into her. As a doctor and a courtesy pa.s.senger, she'd have complete run of the s.h.i.+p, but she'd hardly bother with the dangerous and unpleasant tube section.
He dragged his way back, beginning to sweat with the effort. The Navaho was an old s.h.i.+p. A lot of the handholds were missing, and he had to throw himself along by erratic leaps. He was gaining proficiency, but not enough to handle himself if the s.h.i.+p blasted off. Time was growing short when he reached the aft bunkroom where the other tubemen were waiting.
"Ben," one husky introduced himself. "Tube chief. Know how to work this?"
Feldman could see that they were a.s.sembling a small still. He'd heard of the phenomenal quant.i.ties of beer s.p.a.cemen drank, and now he realized what really happened to it. Hard liquor was supposed to be forbidden, but they made their own. "I can work it," he decided. "I'm--uh--Dan."
"Okay, Dan." Ben glanced at the clock. "Hit the sacks, boys."
By the time Feldman could settle into the sacklike hammock, the Navaho began to shake faintly, and weight piled up. It was mild compared to that on the shuttle, since the big s.h.i.+ps couldn't take high acceleration. s.p.a.ce had been conquered for more than a century, but the s.h.i.+ps were still flimsy tubs that took months to reach Mars, using immense amounts of fuel. Only the valuable plant hormones from Mars made commerce possible at the ridiculously high freight rate.
Three hours later he began to find out why s.p.a.cemen didn't seem to fear dying or turning pariah. The tube quarters had grown insufferably hot during the long blast, but the main tube-room was blistering as Ben led the men into it. The chief handed out s.p.a.cesuits and motioned for Dan.
"Greenhorn, aincha? Okay, I'll take you with me. We go out in the tubes and pull the lining. I pry up the stuff, you carry it back here and stack it."
They sealed off the tube-room, pumped out the air, and went into the steaming, mildly radioactive tubes, just big enough for a man on hands and knees. Beyond the tube mouth was empty s.p.a.ce, waiting for the man who slipped. Ben began ripping out the eroded blocks with a special tool. Feldman carried them back and stacked them along with others. A plasma furnace melted them down into new blocks. The work grew progressively worse as the distance to the tube-room increased. The tube mouth yawned closer and closer. There were no handholds there--only the friction of a man's body in the tube.
Life settled into a dull routine of labor, sleep, and the brief relief of the crude white mule from the still.
They were six weeks out and almost finished with the tube cleaning when Number Two tube blew. Bits of the remaining radioactive fuel must have collected slowly until they reached blow-point. Feldman in Number One would have gone sailing out into s.p.a.ce, but Ben reacted at once. As the s.h.i.+p leaped slightly, Feldman brought up sharply against the chief's braced body. For a second their fate hung in the balance. Then it was over, and Ben shoved him back, grinning faintly.
He jerked his thumb and touched helmets briefly. "There they go, Dan."
The two men who had been working in Number Two were charred lumps, drifting out into s.p.a.ce.
No further comment was made on it, except that they'd have to work harder from now on, since they were shorthanded.
That rest period Feldman came down with a mild attack of s.p.a.ce-stomach--which meant no more drinking for him--and was off work for a day. Then the pace picked up. The tubes were cleared and they began laying the new lining for the landing blasts. There was no time for thought after that. Mars' orbital station lay close when the work was finished.
Ben slapped Feldman on the back. "Ya ain't bad for a greenie, Dan. We all get six-day pa.s.ses on Mars. Hit the sack now so you won't waste time sleeping then. We'll hear it when the s.h.i.+p berths."
Feldman didn't hear it, but the others did. He felt Ben shaking his shoulder, trying to drag him out of the sack. "Grab your junk, Dan."
Ben picked up Feldman's nearly empty bag and tossed it toward him, before his eyes were fully open. He grabbed for it and missed. He grabbed again, with Ben's laughter in his ears. The bag hit the wall and fell open, spilling its contents.
Feldman began gathering it up, but the chief was no longer laughing. A big hand grabbed up the s.p.a.ce ticket suddenly, and there was no friendliness now on Ben's face.
The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol X Part 7
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The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol X Part 7 summary
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