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Planet Stories

January 1952

Life could be for a whole forest of years, but dying took just as long as one wished. Condemeign reckoned he might as well do the world a bad turn while he was about it One might as well have one's little joke. The world had had one on him.


A Fine Day for Dying

By JOHN MARTIN

WITH a stroke of his pen, Condemeign signed a death sentence on a toffish nephew and condemned an older and even more lethal bore of a brother to a swinish end. The new provisions of the will took most of what Condemeign had left in his bank balance. He sighed. There was just so much undiluted evil that one might might create with just about twice the money he had signed away. He might also have written another Greater Testament, one that would have corrupted, instead of admonished. But the unconscious Villons and Des Esseintes of his world were hapless, constricted anachronisms. The universe had expanded, but, somehow, it had also fenced in common elbow room.

The other details took only another minute. The apartment would be repossessed by the housing authorities. The car would be melted down into cash to satisfy certain codicils of the wills. Odds and ends were plainly earmarked for the trash chutes, destined to wind up part of a great garbage boat hurtling into the sun, to be reduced to light and warmth.

Beyond that, he thought, ruminating on the promises of Nepenthe, Incorporated's slide paper brochure that had fallen into his hand, and barring, of course, what he was wearing at present, there was a comforting zero. Not even the mice would get that. There were no mice, no insects nor even a great variety of bacilli on the great three-mile-square cube spinning its slow orbit one hundred thousand miles beyond the limits of the atmosphere. The brochure had been more than insistent on that point. The little distractions were to vanish. Nothing was to mar the serenity or adventure of the final hours or days.

Condemeign did not bother to glance round the tidy, clean room. He took a swig of gin and picked up the telephone receiver, dialing with his free hand. When the receiver clicked and a rather corpsy female voice greeted him at the other end of the wire he spoke his name into the mouthpiece and hung up. Then he finished the gin and waited.

The man who came for him could not have been told from a thousand. His face had a slow, blurred look, as though someone had blotted it with a sponge while it was drying. His clothes were seasonal, decent and reasonably gay. Condemeign could not place him as a latter-day Charon, but then he remembered that there was an inevitable difference between the man who takes your ticket and the navigator who swings the steel coracle out into the Styx.

The ride to the spaceport was curiously dull. Condemeign, having embarked upon oblivion, realized instantly the futility of even one final journey. A dry disappointment crinkled his tongue. He leaned forward in the aircar's seat to call a sardonic halt, but it was not even necessary for his companion to put out a restraining hand. Condemeign relaxed. His pulse had not accelerated by the slightest degree. But that could only be because he wasn't staring into black jaws as yet. Barbiturates in a bathroom in sufficient doses were simply bourgeois. The way to end, as Nepenthe promised, was on a grander scale, with the cosmos a bated spectator and the sun exploding in one's face.

They walked to the small tender. Condemeign had been curious as to when the thin sheaf of banknotes in his pocket was expected to change hands. His guide halted at the flight of steel steps and squinted a little at die sun that drenched the spaceport. His eyes caught on the tall needle of an interplanetary freighter and then he looked at Condemeign.

"There is a little matter of the money," he said.

"Better count it," Condemeign said. "Twenty-five thousand in large bills. And if you think I went to all the bother of having the serials copied, it is because you fail to understand the thoughts of a man quite eager to die."

The blurred features came into sharp focus like a viewplate clearing. It was Charon, now, counting the bills rapidly.

"It is true that not all the final reports have been examined by our psychological department, Mr. Condemeign," he said. "But you wouldn't have gotten even this far if you had been found grossly wanting." He put the bills away and waved a hand gracefully at the great billiard table of the spaceport, the bulking, far-off mountains and the quiet sky. "It is a beautiful day, Mr. Gondemeign. Perhaps you had better take a last look around."

"I did," Condemeign sighed. "Last night. And it wasn't any fun at all." He climbed aboard the tender. When he and his guide had gotten into their straps there was a faint hiss and the bright airport began to drop away quickly.

THE sense of strangling boredom never left him. Not even when the great corona flared out of the paling blue and pulsed through the border between earth and sky. He had never seen it before, and his absolute ennui confirmed his decision. From the tangled roots of the flower to the last Einsteinian closed curve there was dull sameness in the universe. If there was a god it was only because he had never heard of Nepenthe, Inc.

Then the multi-miled palace of death swam sluggishly into view, a fat, tin-colored cookie can, with thousands of blind eyes.

The pilot who sat abstemiously on the edge of his seat threw a bunch of fingers at the cookie can. He was a short, pulpy man with eyes that looked as though they had seen stars topple and blinked for the dryness.

"Never seen anything like that hanging in the sky, did you?" he asked.

Condemeign frowned. He edged an eye toward the sun, gaudy in its necklace of gas and stars.

"What about the moon?" he said. "What about half of that thing with its guts coming out?"

The guide smiled gently.

"Quite impossible, Mr. Condemeign. Nepenthe is surrounded by a force screen that could deflect a planet."

Condemeign brooded.

"With that sort of invulnerability, someone might..."

"Someone tried. And after that, even the sun wouldn't have him. He's poking out around the Andromeda nebula, now, quite helpless, of course. He can't turn the power off. Not in his lifetime, anyway."

A wide mouth gaped in the now faintly visible force screen through which an ordinary blue light ray pulsed, serving as a beam, and the tender turned slowly, pointing its narrow nose at the welcoming maw.

Condemeign watched the pilot make small, hushed motions at the instrument. When he looked up again the airlock had closed behind them and a wiry steel claw reached out to wrap the tender in its cradle.

He had half expected to see a winding line of neophytes clad in robes of white writhing somewhere into a leafy nothingness with a mist-driven tempo,...

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