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´╗┐Title: The Eel
Author: DeFord, Miriam Allen
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Eel" ***

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                         Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from Galaxy Science Fiction April 1958.
    Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
    copyright on this publication was renewed.


                               the eel


                        BY MIRIAM ALLEN DeFORD


                        Illustrated by DILLON


     _The punishment had to fit more than just the crime--it had
      to suit every world in the Galaxy!_

       *       *       *       *       *



He was intimately and unfavorably known everywhere in the Galaxy, but
with special virulence on eight planets in three different solar
systems. He was eagerly sought on each; they all wanted to try him and
punish him--in each case, by their own laws and customs. This had been
going on for 26 terrestrial years, which means from minus ten to plus
280 in some of the others. The only place that didn't want him was
Earth, his native planet, where he was too smart to operate--but, of
course, the Galactic Police were looking for him there too, to deliver
him to the authorities of the other planets in accordance with the
Interplanetary Constitution.

For all of those years, The Eel (which was his Earth monicker;
elsewhere, he was known by names indicating equally squirmy and slimy
life-forms) had been gayly going his way, known under a dozen
different aliases, turning up suddenly here, there, everywhere,
committing his gigantic depredations, and disappearing as quickly and
silently when his latest enterprise had succeeded. He specialized in
enormous, unprecedented thefts. It was said that he despised stealing
anything under the value of 100 million terrestrial units, and most of
his thefts were much larger than that.

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.

[Illustration]

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.

                                                   --MIRIAM ALLEN DeFORD

       *       *       *       *       *





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