- Author: Jim Harmon
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By JIM HARMON
Illustrated by GAUGHAN
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Science Fiction November 1957.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
The man worth while couldn't be allowed
to smile ... if he ever laughed at himself,
the entire ship and crew were as good as dead!
If there is anything I am afraid of, and there probably is, it is having a rookie Accident Prone, half-starved from the unemployment lines, aboard my spaceship. They are always so anxious to please. They remember what it is like to live in a rathole behind an apartment house furnace eating day-old bread and wilted vegetables, which doesn't compare favorably to the Admiralty-style staterooms and steak and caviar they draw down in the Exploration Service.
You may wonder why anybody should make things so pleasant for a grownup who can't walk a city block without tripping over his own feet and who has a very low life expectancy on Earth due to the automobiles they are constantly stepping in front of and the live wires they are fond of picking up so the street won't be littered.
The Admiralty, however, is a very thorough group of men. Before they open a planet to colonization or even fraternization, they insist on knowing just what they are up against.
Accident Prones can find out what is wrong with a planet as easily as falling off a log, which they will if there is one lonely tree on the whole world. A single pit of quicksand on a veritable Eden of a planet and a Prone will be knee-deep in it within an hour of blastdown. If an alien race will smile patronizingly on your heroic attempts at genocide, but be offended into a murderous religious frenzy if you blow your nose, you can take the long end of the odds that the Prone will almost immediately catch a cold.
All of this is properly recorded for the next expedition in the Admiralty files, and if it's any consolation, high officials and screen stars often visit you in the hospital.
Charlie Baxter was like all of the other Prones, only worse. Moran III was sort of an unofficial test for him and he wanted to make good. We had blasted down in the black of night and were waiting for daylight to begin our re-survey of the planet. It was Charlie's first assignment, so we had an easy one—just seeing if anything new had developed in the last fifty years.
Baxter's guard was doubled as soon as we set down, of course, and that made him fidgety. He had heard all the stories about how high the casualty rate was with Prones aboard spaceships and now he was beginning to get nervous.
Actually Charlie was safer in space than he would be back on Earth with all those cars and people. We could have told him how the Service practically never lost a Prone—they were too valuable and rare to lose—but we did not want him to stop worrying. The precautions we took to safeguard him, the armed men who went with him everywhere, the Accident Prone First Aid Kit with spare parts for him, blood, eyes, bone, nerves, arms, legs, and so forth, only emphasized to him the danger, not the rigidly secured safety.
We like it that way.
No one knows what causes an accident prone. The big insurance companies on Earth discovered them when they found out in the last part of the nineteenth century that ninety per cent of the accidents were happening to a few per cent of the people. They soon found out that these people were not malingering or trying to defraud anybody; they simply had accidents.
I suppose everything from psychology to extra-sensory perception has been used to explain or explain away prones. I have my own ideas. I think an accident prone is simply a super-genius with a super-doubt of himself.
I believe accident prones have a better system of calculation than a cybernetic machine. They can take everything into consideration—the humidity, their blood sugar, the expression on the other guy's face—and somewhere in the corners and attic of their brain they infallibly make the right choice in any given situation. Then, because they are incapable of trusting themselves, they do exactly the opposite.
I felt a little sorry for Charlie Baxter, but I was Captain of the Hilliard and my job was to keep him worried and trying. The worst thing that can happen is for a Prone to give up and let himself sink into the fate of being a Prone. He will wear the rut right down into a tomb.
Accident Prones have to stay worried and thinking, trying to break out of the jinx that traps them. Usually they come to discover this themselves, but by then, if they are real professionals with a career in the Service, they have framed the right attitude and they keep it.
Baxter was a novice and very much of an amateur at the game. He didn't like the scoring system, but he was attached to the equipment and didn't want to lose it.
His clumsiness back on Earth had cost him every decent job he ever had. He had come all the way down the line until he was rated eligible only for the position of Prone aboard a spaceship. He had been poor—hungry, cold, wet, poor—and now he had luxury of a kind almost no one had in our era. He was drunk with it, passionately in love with it. It would cease to be quite so important after a few years of regular food, clean clothes and a solid roof to keep out the rain. But right now I knew he would come precariously close to killing to keep it. Or to being killed.
He was ready to work.
I knocked politely on his hatch and straightened my tunic. I have always admired the men who can look starched in a uniform. Mine always seemed to wrinkle as soon as I put them around my raw-boned frame. Sometimes it is hard for me to keep a military appearance or manner. I got my commission during the Crisis ten years back, because of my work in the reserve unit that I created out of my employees in the glass works (glassware blown to order for laboratories).
Someone said something through the door and I went inside.
Bronoski looked at me over the top of his picture tape from where he lay on the sofa. No one else was in the compartment.
"Where is Baxter?" I asked the hulking guard. My eyes were on the sofa. My own bed pulled out of the wall and was considerably inferior to this, much less Baxter's bed in the next cabin. But then I am only a captain.
Bronoski swung his feet off the couch and stood more or less in what I might have taken for attention if I hadn't known him better. "Sidney and Elliot escorted him down to the men's room, Captain Jackson."
"You mean," I said very quietly, "that he isn't in his own bath?"
"No sir," Bronoski said wearily. "He told us it was out of order."
I stifled the gurgle of rage that came into my throat and motioned Bronoski to follow me. The engines on the Hilliard were more likely to be out of order than the plumbing in the Accident Prone's suite. No effort was spared to insure comfort for the key man in the whole crew.
One glance inside the compartment at the end of the corridor satisfied me. There wasn't a thing wrong with the plumbing, so Baxter must have had something in mind.
On a hunch of my own, I checked the supply lockers next to the airlock while Bronoski fired questions at my back. Three translator collars were missing. Baxter had left the spaceship and gone off into an alien night.
Elliot and Sidney, the guards, were absolutely prohibited from interfering in any way with a Prone's decisions. They merely had to follow him and give their lives to save his, if necessary.
I grabbed up a translator collar and tossed one to Bronoski. Then, just as we were getting into the airlock, I remembered something and ran back to the bridge.
The thick brown envelope I had left on my desk was gone. I had shown it to Baxter and informed him that he should study it when he felt so inclined. He had seemed bored with the idea then, but he had come back for the report before leaving the ship. The envelope contained the exploration survey on Moran III made some fifty years before.
I unlocked a desk drawer with my thumb print and drew out a duplicate of the report. I didn't have too much confidence in it and I hoped Charlie Baxter had less. Lots of things can change on a planet in fifty years, including its inhabitants.
Bronoski picked up Baxter's tracks and those of the two guards, Elliot and Sidney, with ultra-violet light. They were cold splotches of green fire against the rotting black peat of the jungle path. The whole dark, tangled mess smelled of sour mash, an intoxicating bourbon-type aroma.
I jogged along following the big man more by instinct than anything else, ruining my eyes in an effort to refresh my memory as to the contents of the survey report in the cheery little glow from my cigarette lighter.
The lighter was beginning to feel hot to my fingers and I started to worry about radiation leak, although they are supposed to be guaranteed perfectly shielded. I read that before the last exploration party had left, they had made the Moranite natives blood brothers. Then Bronoski knocked me down.
Actually he put his hands in the small of my back and shoved politely but firmly. Just the same, I went face down into the moist dirt fast enough.
I raised my head cautiously to see if Bronoski would shove it back down. He didn't.
I could see through the stringy, alcoholic grass fairly well and there were Baxter, Elliot and Sidney in the middle of a curious mob of aliens.
Charlie Baxter had got pretty thin on his starvation diet back on Earth. He had grown a slight pot belly on the good food he drew down as Prone, but he was a fairly nice-looking young fellow. He looked even better in the pale moonlight, mixed amber and chartreuse from the twin satellites, and in contrast to the rest of the group.
Elliot Charterson and Sidney Von Elderman were more or less type-cast as brawny, brainless bodyguards. Their friends described them as muscle-bound apes, but other people sometimes got insulting.
The natives were less formidable. They made the slight lump of fat Charlie had at his waist look positively indecent.
The natives were skinny. How skinny? Well, the only curves they had in their bodies were their bulging eyeballs. But just because they were thin didn't mean they were pushovers. Whips and garrotes aren't fat and these looked just as dangerous.
Whenever I see aliens who are so humanoid, I remember all that Sunday supplement stuff about the Galaxy being colonized sometime by one humanlike race and the Ten Lost Tribes and so forth.
They didn't give me much time to think about it just then. The natives looked unhappy—belligerently unhappy.
I began to shake and at the same time to assure myself that I didn't have anything to worry about, that the precious Accident Prone would come out of it alive. After all, Elliot and Sidney were there to protect him. They had machine guns, flame-throwers, atomic grenades, and some really potent weapons. They could handle the situation. I didn't have a thing to worry about.
So why couldn't I stop shaking?
Maybe it was the way the natives were slowly but deliberately forming a circle about Charlie and his bodyguards.
The clothing of the Moranites hadn't changed much, I noticed. That was understandable. They had a non-mechanical civilization with scattered colonies that it would take a terrestrial season to tour by animal cart.
An isolated culture like that couldn't change many of its customs. Then Charlie shouldn't have any trouble if he stuck to the findings on behavior in the report. Naturally, that meant by now he had discovered the fatal error.
The three men were just standing still, waiting for the aliens to make the first move. The natives looked just as worried as Charlie and his guards, but then that might have been their natural expression.
I jumped a little when the natives all began to talk at once. The mixture of sound was