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Death of a spaceman, p.1

Death of a Spaceman, page 1

 

Death of a Spaceman
 


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Death of a Spaceman


  Produced by Greg Weeks, Stephen Blundell and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team at https://www.pgdp.net

  Illustrator: Ernest Schroeder]

  DEATH OF A SPACEMAN

  BY WALTER M. MILLER, JR.

  _The manner in which a man has lived is often the key to the way he will die. Take old man Donegal, for example. Most of his adult life was spent in digging a hole through space to learn what was on the other side. Would he go out the same way?_

  Old Donegal was dying. They had all known it was coming, and theywatched it come--his haggard wife, his daughter, and now his grandson,home on emergency leave from the pre-astronautics academy. Old Donegalknew it too, and had known it from the beginning, when he had begun tolose control of his legs and was forced to walk with a cane. But most ofthe time, he pretended to let them keep the secret they shared with thedoctors--that the operations had all been failures, and that the cancerthat fed at his spine would gnaw its way brainward until the paralysisengulfed vital organs, and then Old Donegal would cease to be. It wouldbe cruel to let them know that he knew. Once, weeks ago, he had jokedabout the approaching shadows.

  "Buy the plot back where people won't walk over it, Martha," he said."Get it way back under the cedars--next to the fence. There aren't manygraves back there yet. I want to be alone."

  "Don't _talk_ that way, Donny!" his wife had choked. "You're not dying."

  His eyes twinkled maliciously. "Listen, Martha, I want to be buriedface-down. I want to be buried with my back to space, understand? Don'tlet them lay me out like a lily."

  "Donny, _please_!"

  "They oughta face a man the way he's headed," Donegal grunted. "I beenup--_way_ up. Now I'm going straight down."

  Martha had fled from the room in tears. He had never done it again,except to the interns and nurses, who, while they insisted that he wasgoing to get well, didn't mind joking with him about it.

  Martha can bear my death, he thought, can bear pre-knowledge of it. Butshe couldn't bear thinking that he might take it calmly. If he accepteddeath gracefully, it would be like deliberately leaving her, and OldDonegal had decided to help her believe whatever would be comforting toher in such a troublesome moment.

  "When'll they let me out of this bed again?" he complained.

  "Be patient, Donny," she sighed. "It won't be long. You'll be up andaround before you know it."

  "Back on the moon-run, maybe?" he offered. "Listen, Martha, I beenplanet-bound too long. I'm not too old for the moon-run, am I?Sixty-three's not so old."

  That had been carrying things too far. She knew he was hoaxing, anddabbed at her eyes again. The dead must humor the mourners, he thought,and the sick must comfort the visitors. It was always so.

  But it was harder, now that the end was near. His eyes were hazy, andhis thoughts unclear. He could move his arms a little, clumsily, butfeeling was gone from them. The rest of his body was lost to him.Sometimes he seemed to feel his stomach and his hips, but the sensationwas mostly an illusion offered by higher nervous centers, like the"ghost-arm" that an amputee continues to feel. The wires were down, andhe was cut off from himself.

  * * * * *

  He lay wheezing on the hospital bed, in his own room, in his own rentedflat. Gaunt and unshaven, gray as winter twilight, he lay staring at thewhite net curtains that billowed gently in the breeze from the openwindow. There was no sound in the room but the sound of breathing andthe loud ticking of an alarm clock. Occasionally he heard a chairscraping on the stone terrace next door, and the low mutter of voices,sometimes laughter, as the servants of the Keith mansion arranged theterrace for late afternoon guests.

  With considerable effort, he rolled his head toward Martha who satbeside the bed, pinch-faced and weary.

  "You ought to get some sleep," he said.

  "I slept yesterday. Don't talk, Donny. It tires you."

  "You ought to get more sleep. You never sleep enough. Are you afraidI'll get up and run away if you go to sleep for a while?"

  She managed a brittle smile. "There'll be plenty of time for sleepwhen ... when you're well again." The brittle smile fled and sheswallowed hard, like swallowing a fish-bone. He glanced down, andnoticed that she was squeezing his hand spasmodically.

  There wasn't much left of the hand, he thought. Bones and uglytight-stretched hide spotted with brown. Bulging knuckles with yellowcigaret stains. My hand. He tried to tighten it, tried to squeezeMartha's thin one in return. He watched it open and contract a little,but it was like operating a remote-control mechanism. Goodbye, hand,you're leaving me the way my legs did, he told it. I'll see you again inhell. How hammy can you get, Old Donegal? You maudlin ass.

  "Requiescat," he muttered over the hand, and let it lie in peace.

  Perhaps she heard him. "Donny," she whispered, leaning closer, "won'tyou let me call the priest now? Please."

  He rattled a sigh and rolled his head toward the window again. "Are theKeiths having a party today?" he asked. "Sounds like they're movingchairs out on the terrace."

  "Please, Donny, the priest?"

  He let his head roll aside and closed his eyes, as if asleep. The bedshook slightly as she quickly caught at his wrist to feel for a pulse.

  "If I'm not dying, I don't need a priest," he said sleepily.

  "That's not right," she scolded softly. "You know that's not right,Donny. You know better."

  Maybe I'm being too rough on her? he wondered. He hadn't minded gettingbaptized her way, and married her way, and occasionally priest-handledthe way she wanted him to when he was home from a space-run, but when itcame to dying, Old Donegal wanted to do it his own way.

  * * * * *

  He opened his eyes at the sound of a bench being dragged across thestone terrace. "Martha, what kind of a party are the Keiths havingtoday?"

  "I wouldn't know," she said stiffly. "You'd think they'd have a littlemore respect. You'd think they'd put it off a few days."

  "Until--?"

  "Until you feel better."

  "I feel fine, Martha. I like parties. I'm glad they're having one. Pourme a drink, will you? I can't reach the bottle anymore."

  "It's empty."

  "No, it isn't, Martha, it's still a quarter full. I know. I've beenwatching it."

  "You shouldn't have it, Donny. Please don't."

  "But this is a party, Martha. Besides, the doctor says I can havewhatever I want. Whatever I want, you hear? That means I'm getting well,doesn't it?"

  "Sure, Donny, sure. Getting well."

  "The whiskey, Martha. Just a finger in a tumbler, no more. I want tofeel like it's a party."

  Her throat was rigid as she poured it. She helped him get the tumbler tohis mouth. The liquor seared his throat, and he gagged a little as thefumes clogged his nose. Good whiskey, the best--but he couldn't take itany more. He eyed the green stamp on the neck of the bottle on thebed-table and grinned. He hadn't had whiskey like that since hisspace-days. Couldn't afford it now, not on a blastman's pension.

  * * * * *

  He remembered how he and Caid used to smuggle a couple of fifths aboardfor the moon-run. If they caught you, it meant suspension, but there wasno harm in it, not for the blastroom men who had nothing much to do fromthe time the ship acquired enough velocity for the long, long coasterride until they started the rockets again for Lunar landing. You coulddrink a fifth, jettison the bottle through the trash lock, and sober upbefore you were needed again. It was the only way to pass the time inthe cramped cubicle, unless you ruined your eyes trying to read by theglow-lamps. Old Donegal chuckled. If he and Caid had stayed on the run,Earth would have a ring by now, like Saturn--a ring of Old Granddadbottles.
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  "You said it, Donny-boy," said the misty man by the billowing curtains."Who else knows the gegenschein is broken glass?"

  Donegal laughed. Then he wondered what the man was doing there. The manwas lounging against the window, and his unzipped space rig draped abouthim in an old familiar way. Loose plug-in connections and hose-endsdangled about his lean body. He was freckled and grinning.

  "Caid," Old Donegal breathed softly.

  "What did you say, Donny?" Martha answered.

  Old Donegal blinked hard and shook his head. Something let go with asoggy snap, and the misty man
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