By Miriam Allen de Ford (1888-1975).
First appearance: Galaxy, April 1958.
Reprinted several times (HERE).
Short story (10 pages).
Online at Project Gutenberg (HERE).
"The punishment had to fit more than just the crime—it had to suit every world in the Galaxy!"Some people are really good at what they do, even if what they do isn't really good:
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 Inter-planetary 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 sudden-ly here, there, everywhere, committing his gigantic depredations, and disappear-ing as quickly and silently when his latest enterprise had succeeded. He special-ized 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 govern-ment 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 . . .But that's not the end of the story, not by a long shot . . .
Comment: A satire on bureaucracy, with special relevance to law and order.
- Background info on our author is online at Wikipedia (HERE), the Internet Science Fiction Database (HERE), and the Science Fiction Encyclopedia (HERE).
- The theme of criminality and what to do about it has preoccupied science fiction/fantasy writers for a long time; you'll see how much when you consult these SFE entries: "Crime and Punishment" (HERE), "Prisons" (HERE), "Memory Edit" (HERE), and "Psychology" (HERE).
- In the story, the Agskians let political considerations influence their criminal justice system; depending (probably too much) on Earth history, SF writers have dreamed BIG when it comes to galactic government—go to the SFE (HERE) and Atomic Rockets (HERE) to see just how big.
- The author mentions the Guanches, an extinct Earth society; see Wikipedia (HERE).
The bottom line: "It is a question whether, when we break a murderer on the wheel, we do not fall into the error a child makes when it hits the chair it has bumped into."
— Georg C. Lichtenberg