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***START OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK BREAKING POINT***

 

E-text prepared by Greg Weeks, Pat A. Benoy,
and the Project Gutenberg Online Distributed Proofreading Team
(http://www.pgdp.net)

 

Transcriber's Note:

Transcriber notes in the text are identified by red dashed underlines. Hovering the cursor over the underlined text will reveal minor typographical errors present in the original text which have been corrected by the transcriber.

This etext was produced from Space Science Fiction, March, 1953. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.

 

 

 
BREAKING
POINT
 

BY JAMES E. GUNN

ILLUSTRATED BY EBEL

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.

 

[Pg 8]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 [Pg 9]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.

Bup-bup-bup-bup ...

"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[Pg 10] 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.

Pwing-g-g!

"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."[Pg 11]

"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[Pg 12] 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.[Pg 13]

Then the words came. They were English words, faultlessly spoken, loud and clear

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