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Breaking Point   By: (1923-)

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BREAKING POINT

by

JAMES E. GUNN

Illustrated by Ebel

[Illustration: Frontispiece: spaceman studying a chess board.]

[Illustration: Spider and rat in outer space surrounded by planets.]

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.

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.

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... Continue reading book >>




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