Ordeal in Space by Ralph Sloan appeared in the Fall 1949 issue of Planet Stories. It is unrelated to the Robert Heinlein story by the same name.
Ordeal in Space is a gritty story of a cop who’s walking a dangerous line between the law and his desire for revenge. It’s a pretty ‘tough’ tale that’s only slightly marred by one of the sillier sci-fi elements, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Space Patrol Lt. Mike Logan approaches a prison cell with hate and revenge in his heart – he’s going shoot Edward Snyder, the criminal who murdered his brother. Before he can pull the trigger, Logan is apprehended by one of the prison guards.
Logan’s punishment is to personally take Snyder back to Earth to be hung and see that he gets there alive and in one piece.
Should anything happen to Snyder en route to Earth, Logan will wash out of the Patrol and become a pariah in the Solar System, forever dashing the hopes he and his brother had for getting a charter to explore the outer Solar System.
His CO explains the situation to him and regales Logan with an anecdote of his own:
“It takes guts on the outer planets, Logan. I was born on Neptune. At ten I watched drunken natives work a Mhulo Taag sacrifice on my mother after killing my father and tying me up.” He paled. “The priest used a sharp razor. I never forgot it or his face. Twelve years later I brought him in over six thousand miles of ice when I’d have given my soul to kill him.”
He’ll do it. He’ll do it for Johnny.
What ensues is a hellish 48 hour space flight from the Jupiter prison to Earth. All the while, Snyder taunts Logan to go ahead and kill him. After multiple ordeals (in space) during which Logan has to restrain himself from putting a bullet in Snyder’s head, an incident forces Logan to make an emergency landing on the Moon. Following a life and death struggle, Logan is finally able to subdue Snyder and the both are picked up a patrol.
Logan wakes to find that he’s been out for a number of days and missed Snyder’s execution. He’s called in for a debriefing where one of the captains is prepared to bust his balls over ‘assaulting the prisoner’; the general sends the captain off and finishes debriefing Logan.
“Why didn’t you kill the blasted maniac? It would have been self-defense.”
Logan experienced a wave of bitterness. The hell had been for nothing. Something he didn’t even remember clearly had caused him to fail Bates, fail Johnny. “Bates told me he had brought in the native that tortured his mother to death,” he said weakly. “I tried to show as much guts. I guess I haven’t got it.”
“Bates, eh?” Winkham mused and looked out the window. “I was his commanding officer then. The native was alive all right, but we always wondered how his ears got sliced off and stuffed in his mouth. We questioned him but couldn’t make out his language.”
“Neptunian priests all speak English,” Logan contradicted.
“I know, but none of us did,” the general returned with a wry grin. “And I don’t think anyone on this post will either. Even if I have to break a captain to hangar-monkey.”
Daaaaang! The whole time he’d struggled to remain true to his morals and justice, and the system was so corrupt that he could’ve gotten away with it!
Anyway, I mentioned ‘sillier sci-fi elements’ earlier. For whatever reason, Snyder is allowed to have a pet alien monkey thing called a Moon Mimic with him all the time. He’s able to use this thing frequently to either irritate Logan or assist in his various escape attempts. There’s a reason why death row criminals aren’t allowed to have helper monkey or pet chimps with them in their cell or during prisoner transport. Other than that, this was a pretty solid story and makes me ask myself “Why can’t we have L.A. Confidential In Space?!”
Ralph Sloan would go on to have only a few more features in various pulps after this one – a shame, because I’d certainly like to read more from him.