Breaking Point [MultiFormat]
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eBook by James Gunn
eBook Category: Science Fiction
eBook Description: The ship was proof against any test, but the men inside her could be strained and warped, individually and horribly. Unfortunately, while the men knew that, they couldn't really believe it. The Aliens could--and did.
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, Published: USA, 1953
Fictionwise Release Date: July 2007
5 Reader Ratings:
They sent the advance unit out to scout the new planet in the Ambassador, homing down on the secret beeping of a featureless box dropped by an earlier survey party. Then they sat back at GHQ and began the same old pattern of worry that followed every advance unit.
Not about the ship. The Ambassador was a perfect machine, automatic, self-adjusting, self-regulating. It was built to last and do its job without failure under any and all conditions, as long as there was a universe around it. And it could not fail. There was no question about that.
But an advance unit is composed of men. The factors of safety are indeterminable; the duplications of their internal mechanisms are conjectural, variable. The strength of the unit is the sum of the strengths of its members. The weakness of the unit can be a single small failing in a single man. * * * *
Beep ... boop...
"Gotcha!" said Ives. Ives was Communications. He had quick eyes, quick hands. He was huge, almost gross, but graceful. "On the nose." He grinned and turned up the volume.
Beep ... boop...
"What else do you expect?" said Johnny. Johnny was the pilot--young, wide, flat. His movements were as controlled and decisive as those of the ship itself, in which he had an unshakeable faith. He slid into the bucket seat before the great master console.
Beep ... boop...
"We expect the ship to do her job," said Hoskins, the Engineer. He was mild and deft, middle-aged, with a domed head and wide, light-blue eyes behind old fashioned spectacles. He shared Johnny's belief in the machine, but through understanding rather than through admiration. "But it's always good to see her do it."
Beep ... boop...
"Beautiful," said Captain Anderson softly, and he may have been talking about the way the ship was homing in on the tiny, featureless box that Survey had dropped on the unexplored planet, or about the planet itself, or even about the smooth integration of his crew.
Beep ... boop...
Paresi said nothing. He had eyebrows and nostrils as sensitive as a radarscope, and masked eyes of a luminous black. Faces and motives were to him what gauges and log-entries were to the Engineer. Paresi was the Doctor, and he had many a salve and many a splint for invisible ills. He saw everything and understood much. He leaned against the bulkhead, his gaze flicking from one to the other of the crew. Occasionally his small mustache twitched like the antennae of a cat watching a bird.
Barely audible, faint as the blue outline of a distant hill, hungry and lost as the half-heard cry of a banshee, came the thin sound of high atmosphere against the ship's hull.
An hour passed. * * * *
"Shut that damned thing off!"
Ives looked up at the pilot, startled. He turned the gain down to a whisper. Paresi left the bulkhead and stood behind Johnny. "What's the matter?" he asked. His voice was feline, too--a sort of purr.
Johnny looked up at him quickly, and grinned. "I can put her down," he said. "That's what I'm here for. I--like to think maybe I'll get to do it, that's all. I can't think that with the autopilot blasting out an 'on course'." He punched the veering-jet controls. It served men perfectly. The ship ignored him, homed on the beam. The ship computed velocity, altitude, gravity, magnetic polarization, windage; used and balanced and adjusted for them all. It adjusted for interference from the manual controls. It served men perfectly. It ignored them utterly.
Johnny turned to look out and downward. Paresi's gaze followed. It was a beautiful planet, perhaps a shade greener than the blue-green of earth. It seemed, indefinably, more park-like than wild. It had an air of controlled lushness and peace.
The braking jets thundered as Johnny depressed a control. Paresi nodded slightly as he saw the pilot's hand move, for he knew that the autopilot had done it, and that Johnny's movement was one of trained reflex. The youngster was intense and alert, hair-trigger schooled, taught to pretend in such detail that the pretense was reality to him; a precise pretense that would become reality for all of them if the machine failed.
But of course the machine would not fail.
Fields fled beneath them, looking like a crazy-quilt in pastel. On them, nothing moved. Hoskins moved to the viewport and watched them mildly. "Very pastoral," he said. "Pretty."
"They haven't gotten very far," said Ives.
"Or they've gotten very far indeed," said Captain Anderson.
Johnny snorted. "No factories. No bridges. Cow-tracks and goat paths."
The Captain chuckled. "Some cultures go through an agrarian stage to reach a technological civilization, and some pass through technology to reach the pastoral."
"I don't see it," said Johnny shortly, eyes ahead.
Paresi's hand touched the Captain's arm, and the Captain then said nothing. * * * *
"Stand by for landing," said the Captain.
Ives and Hoskins went aft to the shock-panels in the after bulkhead. Paresi and the Captain stepped into niches flanking the console. Johnny touched a control that freed his chair in its hydraulic gimbals. Chair and niches and shock-panels would not be needed as long as the artificial gravity and inertialess field functioned; it was a ritual.
The ship skimmed treetops, heading phlegmatically for a rocky bluff. A gush of flame from its underjets and it shouldered heavily upward, just missing the jagged crest. A gout of fire forward, another, and it went into a long flat glide, following the fall of a foothill to the plain beyond. It held course and reduced speed, letting the ground billow up to it rather than descending. There was a moment of almost-flight, almost-sliding, and then a rush of dust and smoke which over-took and passed them. When it cleared, they were part of the plain, part of the planet.
"A good landing, John," Paresi said. Hoskins caught his eye and frowned. Paresi grinned broadly, and the exchange between them was clear: Why do you needle the kid? and Quiet, Engine-room. I know what I'm doing. Hoskins shrugged, and, with Ives, crossed to the communications desk.
Ives ran his fat, skilled hands over the controls and peered at his indicators. "It's more than a good landing," he grunted. "That squeak-box we homed in on can't be more than a hundred meters from here. First time I've ever seen a ship bullseye like that."
Johnny locked his gimbals, ran a steady, sensitive hand over the turn of the console as if it were a woman's flank. "Why--how close do you usually come?"
"Planetfall's close enough to satisfy Survey," said the Captain. "Once in a while the box will materialize conveniently on a continent. But this--this is too good to be true. We practically landed on it."
Hoskins nodded. "It's usually buried in some jungle, or at the bottom of a sea. But this is really all right. What a lineup! Point nine-eight earth gravity, Earth-type atmosphere--"
"Argon-rich," said, Ives, from the panel. "Very rich."
"That'll make no real difference," Hoskins went on. "Temperature, about normal for an early summer back home ... looks as if there's a fiendish plot afoot here to make things easy for us."
Paresi said, as if to himself, "I worry about easy things." * * * *
"Yeah, I know," snorted Johnny, rising to stretch. "The head-shrinker always does it the hard way. You can't just dislike rice pudding; it has to be a sister-syndrome. If the shortest distance is from here to there, don't take it--remember your Uncle Oedipus."
Captain Anderson chuckled. "Cut your jets, Johnny. Maybe Paresi's tortuous reasoning does seem out of order on such a nice day. But remember--eternal vigilance isn't just the price of liberty, as the old books say. It's the price of existence. We know we're here--but we don't know where 'here' is, and won't until after we get back. This is really Terra Incognita. The location of Earth, or even of our part of the galaxy, is something that has to be concealed at all costs, until we're sure we're not going to turn up a potentially dangerous, possibly superior alien culture. What we don't know can't hurt Earth. No conceivable method could get that information out of us, any more than it could be had from the squeak-box that Survey dropped here.
"Base all your thinking on that, Johnny. If that seems like leaning over backwards, it's only a sample of how careful we've got to be, how many angles we've got to figure."
"Hell," said the pilot. "I know all that. I was just ribbing the bat-snatcher here." He thumbed a cigarette out of his tunic, touched his lighter to it. He frowned, stared at the lighter, tried it again. "It doesn't work. Damn it!" he barked explosively, "I don't like things that don't work!"
Paresi was beside him, catlike, watchful. "Here's a light. Take it easy, Johnny! A bum lighter's not that important."
Johnny looked sullenly at his lighter. "It doesn't work," he muttered. "Guaranteed, too. When we get back I'm going to feed it to Supply." He made a vivid gesture to describe the feeding technique, and jammed the lighter back into his pocket.
"Heh!" Ives' heavy voice came from the communications desk. "Maybe the natives are primitives, at that. Not a whisper of any radio on any band. No powerline fields, either. These are plowboys, for sure."
Johnny looked out at the sleeping valley. His irritation over the lighter was still in his voice. "Imagine that. No video or trideo. No jet-races or feelies. What do people do with their time in a place like this?"
"Books," said Hoskins, almost absently. "Chess. Conversation."
"I don't know what chess is, and conversation's great if you want to tell somebody something, like 'bring me a steak'," said Johnny. "Let's get out of this fire-trap," he said to the Captain.
"In time," said the Captain. "Ives, DX those radio frequencies. If there's so much as a smell of radiation even from the other side of this planet, we want to know about it. Hoskins, check the landing-suits--food, water, oxygen, radio, everything. Earth-type planet or no, we're not fooling with alien viruses. Johnny, I want you to survey this valley in every way you can and plot a minimum of three take-off vectors." * * * *
The crew fell to work, Ives and Hoskins intently, Johnny off-handedly, as if he were playing out a ritual with some children. Paresi bent over a stereomicroscope, manipulating controls which brought in samples of air-borne bacteria and fungi and placed them under its objective. Captain Anderson ranged up beside him.
"We could walk out of the ship as if we were on Muroc Port," said Paresi. "These couldn't be more like Earth organisms if they'd been transplanted from home to delude us."
The Captain laughed. "Sometimes I tend to agree with Johnny. I never met a more suspicious character. How'd you ever bring yourself to sign your contract?"
"Turned my back on a couple of clauses," said Paresi. "Here--have a look."
At that moment the usually imperturbable Ives uttered a sharp grunt that echoed and re-echoed through the cabin. Paresi and the Captain turned. Hoskins was just coming out of the after alleyway with an oxygen bottle in his hand, and had frozen in his tracks at the sharp sound Ives had made. Johnny had whipped around as if the grunt had been a lion's roar. His back was to the bulkhead, his lean, long frame tensed for fight or flight. It was indescribable, Ives' grunt, and it was the only sound which could have had such an effect on such a variety of men--the same shocked immobility.
Ives sat over his Communications desk as if hypnotized by it. He moved one great arm forward, almost reluctantly, and turned a knob.
A soft, smooth hum filled the room. "Carrier," said Ives.
Then the words came. They were English words, faultlessly spoken, loud and clear and precise. They were harmless words, pleasant words even.
They were: "Men of Earth! Welcome to our planet."
The voice hung in the air. The words stuck in the silence like insects wriggling upon a pin. Then the voice was gone, and the silence was complete and heavy. The carrier hum ceased. With a spine-tingling brief blaze of high-frequency sound, Hoskins' oxygen-bottle hit the steel deck. * * * *
Then they all began to breathe again.
"There's your farmers, Johnny," said Paresi.
"Knight to bishop's third," said Hoskins softly.
"What's that?" demanded Johnny.
"Chess again," said the Captain appreciatively. "An opening gambit."
Johnny put a cigarette to his lips, tried his lighter. "Damn. Gimme a light, Ives."
Ives complied, saying over his big shoulder to the Captain, "In case you wondered, there was no fix on that. My direction-finders indicate that the signal came simultaneously from forty-odd transmitters placed in a circle around the ship which is their way of saying 'I dunno'."
The Captain walked to the view bubble in front of the console and peered around. He saw the valley, the warm light of mid-afternoon, the too-green slopes and the blue-green distances. Trees, rocks, a balancing bird.
"It doesn't work," muttered Johnny.
The Captain ignored him. "'Men of Earth.... '" he quoted. "Ives, they've gotten into Survey's squeak-box and analyzed its origin. They know all about us!"
"They don't because they can't," said Ives flatly. "Survey traverses those boxes through second-order space. They materialize near a planet and drop in. No computation on earth or off it could trace their normal-space trajectory, let alone what happens in the second-order condition. The elements the box is made of are carefully averaged isotopic forms that could have come from any of nine galaxies we know about and probably more. And all it does is throw out a VUHF signal that says beep on one side, boop on the other, and bup-bup in between. It does not speak English, mention the planet Earth, announce anyone's arrival and purpose, or teach etiquette."
Captain Anderson spread his hands. "They got it from somewhere. They didn't get it from us. This ship and the box are the only Terran objects on this planet. Therefore they got their information from the box."
"Q.E.D. You reason like Euclid," said Paresi admiringly. "But don't forget that geometry is an artificial school, based on arbitrary axioms. It just doesn't work where the shortest distance is not a straight line.... I'd suggest we gather evidence and postpone our conclusions."
"How do you think they got it?" Ives challenged.
"I think we can operate from the fact they got it, and make our analyses when we have more data." * * * *
Ives went back to his desk and threw a switch.
"What are you doing?" asked the Captain.
"Don't you think they ought to be answered?"
"Turn it off, Ives."
"Turn it off!" Ives did. An expedition is an informal, highly democratic group, and can afford to be, for when the situation calls for it, there is never any question of where authority lies. The Captain said, "There is nothing we can say to them which won't yield them more information. Nothing. For all we know it may be very important to them to learn whether or not we received their message. Our countermove is obviously to make no move at all."
"You mean just sit here and wait until they do something else?" asked Johnny, appalled.
The Captain thumped his shoulder. "Don't worry. We'll do something in some other area than communications. Hoskins--are those landing suits ready?"
"All but," rapped Hoskins. He scooped up the oxygen bottle and disappeared.
Paresi said, "We'll tell them something if we don't answer."
The Captain set his jaw. "We do what we can, Nick. We do the best we can. Got any better ideas?"
Paresi shrugged easily and smiled. "Just knocking, skipper. Knock everything. Then what's hollow, you know about."
"I should know better than to jump salty with you," said the Captain, all but returning the doctor's smile. "Johnny. Hoskins. Prepare for exploratory patrol."
"I'll go," said Paresi.
"Johnny goes," said the Captain bluntly, "because it's his first trip, and because if he isn't given something to do he'll bust his adrenals. Hoskins goes, because of all of us, the Engineer is most expendable. Ives stays because we need hair-trigger communications. I stay to correlate what goes on outside with what goes on inside. You stay because if anything goes wrong I'd rather have you fixing the men up than find myself trying to fix you up." He squinted at Paresi. "Does that knock solid?"
"Testing, Johnny," Ives said into a microphone. Johnny's duplicated voice, from the open face-plate of his helmet and from the intercom speaker, said, "I hear you fine."
"If I'd never seen you," said the speaker softly, "I'd think you were right here in the suit with me." Hoskins' helmet was obviously buttoned up.
The two men came shuffling into the cabin, looking like gleaming ghosts in their chameleon-suits, which repeated the color of the walls. "Someday," growled Johnny, "there'll be a type suit where you can scratch your--" * * * *
"Scratch when you get back," said the Captain. "Now hear this. Johnny, you can move fastest. You go out first. Wait in the airlock for thirty seconds after the outer port opens. When Ives gives you the beep, jump out, run around the bows and plant your back against the hull directly opposite the port. Hold your blaster at the ready, aimed down--you hear me? Down, so that any observer will know you're armed but not attacking. Hoskins, you'll be in the lock with the outer port open by that time. When Johnny gives the all clear, you'll jump out and put your back against the hull by the port. Then you'll both stay where you are until you get further orders. Is that clear?"
"You're covered adequately from the ship. Don't fire without orders. There's nothing you can get with a blaster that we can't get first with a projector--unless it happens to be within ten meters of the hull and we can't depress to it. Even then, describe it first and await orders to fire except in really extreme emergency. A single shot at the wrong time could set us back a thousand years with this planet. Remember that this ship isn't called Killer or Warrior or even Hero. It's the Earth Ship Ambassador. Go to it, and good luck."
Hoskins stepped back and waved Johnny past him. "After you, Jets."
Johnny's teeth flashed behind the face-plate. He clicked his heels and bowed stiffly from the waist, in a fine burlesque of an ancient courtier. He stalked past Hoskins and punched the button which controlled the airlock.
They waited. Nothing.
Johnny frowned, jabbed the button again. And again. The Captain started to speak, then fell watchfully silent. Johnny reached toward the button, touched it, then struck it savagely. He stepped back then, one foot striking the other like that of a clumsy child. He turned partially to the others. In his voice, as it came from the speaker across the room, was a deep amazement that rang like the opening chords of a prophetic and gloomy symphony.
He said, "The port won't open."