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Title: A Madman On Board
Author: Silverberg, Robert
Language: English
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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 "A Madman On Board" ***

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              Conroy found himself shanghaied to certain
            death in the radiation chamber of Earth's Wheel
            in space--as the planet below faced doom from--

                           A Madman On Board

                         By Robert Silverberg

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
              Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy
                             February 1958
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


Through the clear plexiplast viewing dome of Earth Satellite V2-ZF, the
bright orb of Earth could be seen, full and lustrous green against the
sharp blackness of space.

But Dave Conroy wasn't able to feel much pleasure in the view. As he
waited, hands linked with duralloy chains, he knew only that somehow
he had landed in trouble--trouble that would probably cost him his
life, here among the beauties of the orbital satellite.

"Go on in, next batch," a bored voice ordered.

Dave began to move, along with the half-dozen stubble-faced
disreputable-looking men he was chained to. They stepped through a
permaluce door; it swung closed silently behind them.

"This is the entrance to the jetroom," a uniformed man facing them
announced. "I'm Major Hawes. Welcome to Earth Satellite V2-ZF--you poor
suckers!" An acid sneer tinted his voice.

"Hey, hold on!" the man next to Conroy shouted. "What's goin' to happen
to us?"

Major Hawes smiled politely. "You'll be put to work in the jetroom of
the Satellite, making sure our noble orbiting wheel stays warm and
cozy. You'll be feeding radioactives to the converter. You'll be doing
a lot of jobs robots could do twice as well, and after a year or so of
it your bodies will start to rot and you'll fall apart and you'll get
the deaths you deserve."

Hawes chuckled. "There'll be guards making sure you don't shirk.
Inside, now--and your predecessors will show you what you're to do."

The chains fell away. In here, no chains were needed. Dimly, Dave
Conroy rubbed his forehead and wondered what he had done to condemn
himself to this living hell.

"What kind of place is this?" he asked the man at his right, as a
gleaming cupralloy door irised open before them.

"Is your mind snapping, buddy? You can't have forgotten so soon."

"I--I--it's all so hazy--"

"Hazy? It's simple, friend. You and me are four-time losers, like all
these other guys. We got life imprisonment--but we volunteered for
satellite duty instead. It's a quick death--only a year or so instead
of a lifetime behind bars. And since there ain't no execution any more,
we took it."

_No--no_--part of Conroy's mind protested. _I didn't volunteer. I never
was in jail ... except that drunken jetting once, and that was just
overnight. How--why--?_

"That can't be right," he said. "I'm not a criminal."

The other man looked at him strangely, then smiled pityingly. "You
musta been lookin' the wrong way when the recruiters came around, then.
Those birds'll do anything for ten thousand bucks."

       *       *       *       *       *

They came to the end of the long corridor and approached another
door--and suddenly Conroy remembered.

He had been drunk, that last night on Earth--and suddenly everyone in
the bar had run madly out the door, into the washroom, hid anyplace
they could. Two men had entered.

Recruiters. Space-station recruiters. Conroy remembered protesting
mildly through a vague blue of alcohol and synthojoy, then letting them
take him away. Sober now, he recalled having heard of such things. The
space-stations needed men--and they'd grab them any way they could.
They'd take uncomplaining derelicts when the supply of convicts ran out.

His fiancee Janet had told him, when she broke their engagement,
"Your drinking'll kill you some day, Dave." The words had been
prophetic--though not the way she meant.

The final door opened--and eight shambling, patchy-fleshed, almost bald
wrecks of men came toward them. Dave shuddered. This was what a year of
continuous hard radiation could do, even through tough shielding. This
was what he'd look like a year from now.

Already he imagined he could feel the subatomic particles ripping
through his body, even though he knew it was only an illusion. The
radiation wouldn't begin to affect him for a few days--but even now he
felt his skin tingling and itching from force of suggestion.

_I've got to get out of here_, he thought with a clarity he'd not known
since he began drinking. _I'm still young. I don't want to rot down
here._

_God, why couldn't I have been sober that night?_

The eight jetmen looked like lepers. Through lipless mouths they
greeted the newcomers. Their voices were dry and whispering, as if
their vocal cords had succumbed to the radiation too.

Conroy had been a scientist ... once. Conroy, more than any of the six
convicts he had been shipped with, knew what sort of agonies lay ahead.

He turned. The door had irised shut behind him, erecting an
invulnerable barrier between him and freedom.

He studied the door while the loathsome once-men greeted the men who
would replace them at their deadly task. It looked fairly familiar; it
was almost like--by space, it _was_!--an ultron-relay door.

A door Dave Conroy had helped to design, he and his partner Lloyd
Regan, back before the terrible lab accident that had killed Regan and
set Conroy to drinking.

Moving unobtrusively away from the group, he edged to the door.
Yes--it _was_ an ultronic door, he confirmed on close inspection. And
that meant--

Hands that had once been those of a skilled engineer felt along the
smooth metal for the emergency-hatch, found the microscopic depression
built into the cupralloy for use in case the delicate ultronic
mechanism of the door failed. His finger nestled in the slot for an
instant--

And the door irised open.

"Hey!" he shouted, and jumped through. He heard the startled cries of
the convicts.

"It's a trap," someone yelled. But another said, "Let's run for
it"--and then the whole pack of them swarmed through the open door,
Conroy in the lead.

       *       *       *       *       *

They dashed back up the long corridor and Conroy opened the other door
by the same process. Then they were out in the main room again.

Major Hawes gasped in astonishment as he saw the ragged army sweep
toward him. He drew his blaster, but one of the half-skeletonized
veteran jetmen stumbled forward and took the bolt in his stomach, then
kept going and wrapped decaying arms around the Major's throat.

Conroy's fist collided with the mouth of a surprised Space-Station
guard; his knuckles felt a sharp stab of pain, and teeth crumbled. Dave
came up with a staggering blow to the guard's midsection and he fell.

That left two more to take care of. The lightning assault was still
only seconds old. One of the guards was fingering the firing-stud
on his blaster, but a man Conroy knew only as Pete sprang forward,
wrenched the gun away, and dove into the guard.

Conroy grabbed the fallen gun, scooped it up and fired. His bolt
spurted redly into the arm of the remaining guard.

Three more Space-Station men in gray uniforms came in, and Conroy and
his little army swept forward to meet them. In the general confusion,
Conroy's blaster was swept away--and, alone, unarmed, he slipped past
the milling rebels and escaped into the corridor outside.

He found himself facing the giant viewing dome again, the curving arc
of plexiplast that bellied out from the side of the satellite and
afforded a striking view of the distant Earth. The orbiter was 100,000
miles above the Earth's surface--a sort of halfway-house between
Earth and the Moon. From a hundred thousand miles up, the view was
breathtaking.

Conroy glanced out at the sweeping circle that was Earth, green and
shining in the sky. Just now, Africa and Europe were upturned, and the
rippling mass of the Atlantic. A little tingle of wonder shot through
Conroy at the sight of his home world, seen from the satellite he had
helped to build.

Then he saw guards heading down the broad corridor that ran completely
around the outer rim of the satellite, and knew he had to hide.

Quickly, he ducked into a washroom off to the right. As the door slid
closed, he deftly jimmied the photonic beam to keep it that way until
he was ready to come out.

He glanced at his face in the mirror, seeing as if for the first time
the baggy eyes, the heavy growth of beard, the beaten, run-down color
of the skin. The memory of a photo crossed his mind: a tridim in
natural color, taken three years ago. He and Janet, together, their
arms locked around each other, their faces bright, laughing.

Three years ago. Then came the accident; then the lab was destroyed and
Lloyd killed. And then the drinking began.

Now, three years later, where was Janet? Someplace far off, remote,
untouchable. Her father's party had taken over in the last election and
he was now a bigwig in the Space Commission. Probably she was still
clean and fresh, bright and young. Maybe she was married.

_And me?_ He looked with revulsion at the bleary mask his face had
become.

He went to work with the depilator supplied in the washroom and rapidly
wiped away his beard. Then he scrubbed his face the way it hadn't been
scrubbed in months. He came out pink.

Stripping, he dropped his clothes in the Valet Hopper and stepped under
the stinging spray of the shower. Robot hands scrubbed him down. Layers
of dirt stripped away. An ion-massage set his blood pounding, broke
down fatty tissue, left his skin tinglingly clean.

He surveyed his naked body in the mirror. Not bad, he thought. A long
way from what it had been, but not bad.

He dressed rapidly. He was still wearing the clothes in which he had
been picked up the night before--only now he fastened the collar
magnesnap, adjusted the tie, straightened the trousers. When he was
finished, he could pass for a tourist stopping off to see the satellite
before making the jaunt to Luna.

Despite himself, he grinned. _They'll never recognize me in this
disguise. They'll be looking for a hobo, not a clean cut young
tourist._

Feeling invigorated and dapper, he activated the door and stepped into
the corridor.

       *       *       *       *       *

Strolling in leisure, he walked to the viewing dome and peered out at
Earth. A chubby matron stood next to him.

"Lovely, isn't it?" she said.

"It's quite a sight. This your first time?"

"Yes. It's all wonderful up here. I think it's marvelous that the
satellite's been built!"

"It certainly is," Dave said, thinking of the radiation-eaten wretches
somewhere in the lower levels of the big wheel.

Feeling a little sick to his stomach, he smiled and walked on. A
grey-clad guard stood at the entrance to the Tourists' Lounge. Choking
back his tenseness, Conroy walked up to him.

"Pardon me, officer--"

"Yes?"

"Could you give me some information? I'd like to know when the next
liner leaves for Earth. I find I have to cut short my trip."

The guard frowned. "Liner service to Earth is temporarily discontinued,
sir. Didn't you hear the notice?"

"What?"

"That's right," the guard said. "Emergency Provision 104b has been put
into operation. The Space-Station is temporarily quarantined."

"Can you tell me why?" Conroy asked.

"Something to do with an inspection sir. That's all I can say."

Putting a tone of easy conspiracy in his voice, Conroy whispered, "I
hear some convicts down below staged a rebellion a little while ago.
This wouldn't have anything to do with it, would it?"

The guard shook, his head in immediate denial. "Oh, _no_, sir. That was
strictly a brief flare-up; it's all been smoothed over now."

"Oh. Thanks," Conroy said. "Thanks very much." He smiled to the guard
and walked past him into the lounge.

So the "brief flare-up" was all over with, eh? Obviously they were
keeping it quiet as far as the passengers were concerned. Probably that
guard was wondering how Conroy had heard of it in the first place.

But one thing seemed good: he hadn't been recognized. He just looked
too respectable with all the dirt laundered out of his clothes and with
his face shaven, to be one of the missing jetmen from below. That gave
him a certain amount of freedom.

Only--whatever this quarantine thing was about, that increased the
tension. He had hoped to grab the first liner back to Earth; now he'd
have to wait until the quarantine ended and that gave the satellite
guards a chance to track him down. He couldn't pose as a tourist
forever, even aboard such a huge station as this one.

They'd find him sooner or later. Meanwhile, he needed a drink. He
peered through the swirling dim lights at the bar, trying to see the
bartender's face. Conroy was pretty good at guessing whether or not he
could cadge a drink.

But there was a girl sitting at the bar, sleek and slim in a dress
that had probably been sprayed on. Her legs were crossed, baring long,
lovely calves. Her face--

Conroy gasped.

It was Janet.

       *       *       *       *       *

Feeling a thunderous pounding in his ears, he crossed the floor and
slid into the chair next to hers.

She hadn't changed. She was looking away, watching the pulsating
vibromural on the opposite wall, and he studied her covertly in the
backbar mirror. Her skin still had that clear, crystalline appearance;
her eyes were bright and vigorous, her lips full, desirable. The dress
_had_ been sprayed on; it clung revealingly to the high breasts and
slim body that Conroy had once thought would be his.

"Hello, Janet," he said.

A little startled, the girl turned away from the vibromural. "Do I know
you? _Oh!_"--a little gasp--"Dave?"

"That's right. Dave."

She whirled on her chair to face him. "Oh, Dave, it must be years.
_Years!_"

"Three years." There was no ring on her finger, he saw. "How have you
been?"

"Fine," she said. "You've heard about Dad's new job, and--"

"How have _you_ been?"

"A little lonely, sometimes," she admitted. "I've been working in Dad's
office since I finished school. How about you? Did--did you ever get
back into lab work?"

"No," he said hollowly. "I never did."

"What brings you to the Wheel?" she asked.

"I'm a tourist," he improvised. "Saw the sights on Luna, and now I'm on
my way back to Earth." He moistened his lips. "How about a drink?"

"Fine!"

"Two martinis, please," he ordered. When the barkeep brought them, he
said, "Charge them to Allied Technolabs' account. They'll take care of
it."

"Right, sir."

Allied Technolabs had been the contractors that built the Space
Station. Conroy hadn't been affiliated with them since the lab
explosion--but if Janet noticed, she said nothing.

Conroy caressed the drink, sipped it thirstily.

"Are--you--"

"Still drinking?" he finished. "A little. Not as much. I'm leading a
clean life." _It was a lie_, he thought bitterly. _But what else could
I say?_

The martini warmed him--that, and the girl's presence. She reawakened
all the old longing in him, filled him with dull anger at the way the
past three years had been pulled from him--years he could have spent
wed to Janet.

But she had broken the engagement, she had wanted no part of a
seemingly incurable alcoholic. She was too good for him. He wondered
how she'd feel if he told her he was also a fugitive from the jetgang
belowdecks.

"What are you doing here on the Wheel yourself?" he asked.

Lowering her voice, she said, "I'm here with Dad. He's conducting a
top-secret hush-hush investigation."

"Oh? Can you tell an old friend?"

She smiled sadly. "I really can't. It's upper-security doubleplus, if
you know what I mean."

He chuckled. "You really take your job seriously. I mean, if you can't
tell--"

Reddening, she said, "Oh, okay, Dave. I guess you'll find out one way
or another anyway. There's been a rumor that a saboteur's aboard the
Space-Station."

"_What?_" He started from his seat. "Then why'd he bring _you_ here?"

"Shh! It's not dangerous here--this is the safest place. The rumor says
the saboteur's going to get control of the satellite and bomb Earth!
Washington's supposed to be first target!"

Conroy felt the color drain from his face. When they had built the
satellite, this fear had been in everyone's mind--that, despite the
world peace that prevailed, someday an alien power might use the
satellite as an instrument of destruction. And now--

"You sure of this?"

"We're not sure of anything. That's why Dad's here. It's awfully
dangerous, but as one of the Space Commissioners it's his
responsibility to check on it. And he brought me along in case it
was true; he didn't want me down in Washington if it was going to be
bombed."

He leaned closer; the drink had gone to work, stirring his insides,
warming him, emboldening him. "I'm glad he came here and brought you
along," he said. "Janet--"

"Please, Dave."

"Don't say it that way! I--"

He paused, feeling a hand on his shoulder. He looked up at the stony
face of a Space-Station Guard.

"Are you David Conroy?" the guard asked.

       *       *       *       *       *

"What if I am?" Conroy asked stiffly....

"Major Hawes wants you, Conroy. The penalty for escaping from--"

He was out of his seat in an instant, cutting off the guard's words
before Janet could hear them. He could see her pale, frightened face.
She shrank back.

"I'm not the man you want!" he snapped.

"That doesn't matter. Come with me, Conroy."

The guard reached out for him. Conroy responded with a short choppy
blow to the gray-clad midsection, and as the man grunted Dave swung a
roundhouse right that sent him wobbling back against a table of noisy
tourists.

The table went over; glassware shattered tinklingly and angry voices
could be heard. In the crowded lounge, people turned to watch the brawl.

He heard Janet's cry. "Dave! What's happening?"

The guard rose from the heap of dishes and bottles, and Conroy ran
toward him. They locked, and Conroy knocked him back again. The guard
didn't dare fire in these close quarters.

Instead he grabbed a champagne bottle from a nearby table and hurled it
at Conroy. Dave ducked; the bottle sped over his head and crashed into
the mirror back of the bar.

Conroy saw several more guards entering the lounge, and ducked back
behind another table.

They came toward him. Patrons of the lounge huddled back out of the
way. As the three guards approached, Conroy upended the table, tossing
to the floor a shower of half-filled plates, and hurled it at them.

It knocked them back. Nimbly he sprinted past them, only to meet four
more entering the lounge.

By now almost everyone in the lounge was up and swinging; Dave had no
idea where Janet was, but he hoped she was gone.

His fist struck a gray uniform just as a hand clubbed down numbingly
on his shoulder. He shook the blow off, pile-drove his way through the
confused, milling pack of people, and headed for the exit.

Once again he was in the corridor. An alarm now wailed through the
Wheel; Conroy, half out of breath, dashed pantingly along the metal
floor, hearing the dull chonking sound of his feet as he ran.

_Run. Run._ That was the only thought in his mind. They were hunting
him, wanted to stick him back in the jet section to rot into a mindless
hulk of neutron-blasted protoplasm, and he was running away.

The endless wheel of the Space-Station opened out before him. He knew
he would have to turn off somewhere, else he would come full circle and
run smack into guards again.

He passed a washroom, toyed with the idea of entering it, then rejected
the stratagem. No sense blockading himself in there; they'd only starve
him out once they found out where he was. No. He needed some more
strategic hiding-place until this blew over.

The thought of what Janet had said drifted through his mind. A saboteur
aboard the Station--threatening to bomb Washington.

Just another wild rumor, probably, though it certainly needed checking.
But--

_The control center!_ he thought. _What if I hide there--and threaten
to destroy the station if they don't release me from serving in the
jetroom?_

They'd have to grant him safe-conduct; he'd broadcast his appeal over a
world-wide circuit to the planet below. It would cause a global scandal
once the world learned how recruits for the jetroom were found.

He racked his memory for location of the control center, finally found
the blueprint in his mind and searched it. Designs that he'd forgotten
along with the rest of his engineering career came back.

He doubled along his track, found a side-corridor, ran down it. The way
to the control center was along lateral spoke eleven, to the heart of
the Wheel.

The corridor was clear. He ran desperately.

       *       *       *       *       *

It seemed like an endless corridor, but eventually he reached the
ultronic door that led to the control center. As he expected, a
poker-faced guard stood there.

"Sorry, no one's allowed in, sir. Commissioner Merrill is in there
and--"

Commissioner Merrill? Janet's dad? That complicated things. But he had
to get inside.

"Will you tell Commissioner Merrill it's urgent that I see him. It's
about his daughter. Some drunk in the Tourist Lounge tried to attack
her, and--"

"Of course, sir." The guard turned to press the relay that would open
the door, and Conroy clubbed down on the back of his neck with the side
of a fist.

The man shuddered under the blow, began to reach for his blaster, and
Conroy hit him again. He fell heavily.

Thoughtfully, Conroy extracted the blaster from the guard's holster,
then reached up and slid his hand over the wall, searching for the
ultronic relay that he himself had designed so long ago. The door
irised open.

Conroy stepped inside. No one was visible in the outer room; no sound
was heard except the continual chattering of the cybernetic governors
that operated the satellite. He let the door close and activated the
lock. No one would get in until he was ready to let them in, now; it
was a circuit known only to the builders of the station and the high
officers.

The first thing was to find Merrill, and anyone else who might be in
the control center. Conroy knew what he had to do: take charge of the
control center, broadcast his terms to the Space-Station and to Earth,
and wait for them to agree to release him. If they called his bluff--

He shivered. No, they'd never do that. If he threatened to destroy the
Station they'd grant him freedom without hesitation. In a situation
like that, you don't try to call a madman's bluff.

Conroy slid open the door that led to the inner room that was the nerve
center of the giant station. He looked in--and gasped.

Commandant Naylor and several other men in high-rank uniforms lay bound
in one corner of the cabin. And at the controls of the Station was
Commissioner Merrill.

He seemed to be chuckling to himself. Conroy paused by the door and
watched, horror-stricken.

Merrill had activated the long-dormant bombay units, and, according
to the pattern on the radar screen above his head, he had swung a
fusion-bomb onto the hoists.

The bombs were kept at the Station--in case. They were strictly
top-secret, stored on the satellite in the event that they would be
needed in a war. Conroy knew about them only because he had seen the
specifications for the satellite before it had been built; Merrill, as
Commissioner, would also know about them.

And Merrill was aiming the deadly bomb square at Washington!

       *       *       *       *       *

Conroy lifted his blaster, but knew he could never fire on Janet's
father cold-bloodedly.

In a hoarse voice he said, "Have you gone mad, Merrill?"

"What--?"

Merrill turned. His face was so contorted by emotion that Conroy barely
recognized it; the man's eyes were bright and glinting as if he were
possessed.

He had been sent here to search out a saboteur--but how could he do
that, when he himself _was_ the saboteur?

"Conroy! How did you get in here?"

"Get away from those controls," Conroy ordered, his throat dry. "If you
make a move toward them I'll blast you down."

_Don't call my bluff_, he prayed. _Don't!_

All Merrill had to do to release the bomb was to trip a cryotonic
relay; fiery death would descend on Washington within minutes. Stiffly
Conroy moved toward him.

"Keep your hands in the air, Merrill."

A blaster lay to one side--the blaster, no doubt, with which Merrill
had overpowered the Wheel's officers. Conroy edged toward it.

And then Merrill put his head down and charged desperately toward
Conroy.

Dave's hand wavered on the gun for a moment; he still could not fire.
Cursing, he hurled the blaster to one side and met Merrill's charge.

The Commissioner was in his fifties, but heavyset and muscular. He tore
into Conroy with a madman's fury. Gasping from a stomach blow, Conroy
reeled backward, locked his hands, brought them down with all his force
on Merrill's bull-like neck.

_Forget he's Janet's dad_, he ordered himself. _Hit him or he'll kill
you._

He drove his fists mercilessly into the Commissioner's bulk. Merrill
kept coming in his suicide attack. Finally Conroy crashed a fist into
the older man's jaw, and he sagged to the ground.

"Thank God!" Commandant Naylor exclaimed, wrestling in furious
impotence with his bonds. "That madman was about to bomb Washington!"

"I know," Conroy said tiredly. "I know."

       *       *       *       *       *

Later, he held a sobbing Janet Merrill in his arms, felt her soft
warmth against him, soothed her as she wept.

"Easy, baby. Your Dad'll be all right once the psych-crew calms him
down. He had space-sickness; it can happen to anyone. He went out of
his mind temporarily--and instead of preventing the saboteur from
bombing, he _became_ the saboteur!"

"But the disgrace--"

"It'll be hushed up," he said. "It could happen to anyone. When he
comes out of it he'll forget the whole thing."

She started to calm. "And what about you?"

Chuckling, he said, "You don't think they're going to condemn me after
all this, do you? I had a talk with the Commandant. They're going to
investigate the whole filthy business of the jetroom and replace those
men with robots. And I'm completely cleared."

"That's wonderful, darling," she said.

"_Darling--?_" he repeated. "But I thought--"

"I was a fool, Dave," she said. "I didn't have enough faith in
you--_then_."

"How about now?"

She looked up at him and wiped tears from her glittering eyes. "We've
wasted three years, darling. When can we start making up for lost time?"



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