BY PETER BAILY
The most dangerous of weapons
is the one you don't know is loaded.
Illustrated by Schoenherr
he wind howled out of
the northwest, blind
with snow and barbed
with ice crystals. All
the way up the half-mile
precipice it fingered and wrenched
away at groaning ice-slabs. It
screamed over the top, whirled snow
in a dervish dance around the hollow
there, piled snow into the long furrow plowed ruler-straight through
streamlined hummocks of snow.
The sun glinted on black rock
glazed by ice, chasms and ridges and
bridges of ice. It lit the snow slope
to a frozen glare, penciled black
shadow down the long furrow, and
flashed at the furrow's end on a
thing of metal and plastics, an artifact
thrown down in the dead wilderness.
Nothing grew, nothing flew, nothing
walked, nothing talked. But the
thing in the hollow was stirring in
stiff jerks like a snake with its back
broken or a clockwork toy running
down. When the movements stopped,
there was a click and a strange
sound began. Thin, scratchy, inaudible
more than a yard away, weary
but still cocky, there leaked from the
shape in the hollow the sound of a
"I've tried my hands and arms
and they seem to work," it began.
"I've wiggled my toes with entire
success. It's well on the cards that
I'm all in one piece and not broken
up at all, though I don't see how it
could happen. Right now I don't
feel like struggling up and finding
out. I'm fine where I am. I'll just lie
here for a while and relax, and get
some of the story on tape. This suit's
got a built-in recorder, I might as
well use it. That way even if I'm not
as well as I feel, I'll leave a message.
You probably know we're back
and wonder what went wrong.
"I suppose I'm in a state of shock.
That's why I can't seem to get up.
Who wouldn't be shocked after luck
"I've always been lucky, I guess.
Luck got me a place in the Whale.
Sure I'm a good astronomer but so
are lots of other guys. If I were ten
years older, it would have been an
honor, being picked for the first long
jump in the first starship ever. At my
age it was luck.
"You'll want to know if the ship
worked. Well, she did. Went like a
bomb. We got lined up between
Earth and Mars, you'll remember,
and James pushed the button marked
'Jump'. Took his finger off the button
and there we were: Alpha Centauri.
Two months later your time,
one second later by us. We covered
our whole survey assignment like
that, smooth as a pint of old and
mild which right now I could certainly
use. Better yet would be a pint
of hot black coffee with sugar in.
Failing that, I could even go for a
long drink of cold water. There was
never anything wrong with the Whale
till right at the end and even then I
doubt if it was the ship itself that
fouled things up.
"That was some survey assignment.
We astronomers really lived.
Wait till you see—but of course you
won't. I could weep when I think of
those miles of lovely color film, all
gone up in smoke.
"I'm shocked all right. I never said
who I was. Matt Hennessy, from Farside
Observatory, back of the Moon,
just back from a proving flight cum
astronomical survey in the starship
Whale. Whoever you are who finds
this tape, you're made. Take it to
any radio station or newspaper office.
You'll find you can name your price
and don't take any wooden nickels.
"Where had I got to? I'd told you
how we happened to find Chang,
hadn't I? That's what the natives called
it. Walking, talking natives on a
blue sky planet with 1.1 g gravity
and a twenty per cent oxygen atmosphere
at fifteen p.s.i. The odds
against finding Chang on a six-sun
survey on the first star jump ever
must be up in the googols. We certainly
"The Chang natives aren't very
technical—haven't got space travel
for instance. They're good astronomers,
though. We were able to show
them our sun, in their telescopes. In
their way, they're a highly civilized
people. Look more like cats than
people, but they're people all right.
If you doubt it, chew these facts
"One, they learned our language
in four weeks. When I say they, I
mean a ten-man team of them.
"Two, they brew a near-beer that's
a lot nearer than the canned stuff we
had aboard the Whale.
"Three, they've a great sense of
humor. Ran rather to silly practical
jokes, but still. Can't say I care for
that hot-foot and belly-laugh stuff
myself, but tastes differ.
"Four, the ten-man language team
also learned chess and table tennis.
"But why go on? People who talk
English, drink beer, like jokes and
beat me at chess or table-tennis are
people for my money, even if they
look like tigers in trousers.
"It was funny the way they won
all the time at table tennis. They certainly
weren't so hot at it. Maybe
that ten per cent extra gravity put us
off our strokes. As for chess, Svendlov
was our champion. He won
sometimes. The rest of us seemed to
lose whichever Chingsi we played.
There again it wasn't so much that
they were good. How could they be,
in the time? It was more that we all
seemed to make silly mistakes when
we played them and that's fatal in
chess. Of course it's a screwy situation,
playing chess with something
that grows its own fur coat, has yellow
eyes an inch and a half long
and long white whiskers. Could you
have kept your mind on the game?
"And don't think I fell victim to
their feline charm. The children were
pets, but you didn't feel like patting
the adults on their big grinning
heads. Personally I didn't like the one
I knew best. He was called—well, we
called him Charley, and he was the
ethnologist, ambassador, contact man,
or whatever you like to call him, who
came back with us. Why I disliked
him was because he was always trying
to get the edge on you. All the
time he had to be top. Great sense
of humor, of course. I nearly broke
my neck on that butter-slide he fixed
up in the metal alleyway to the
Whale's engine room. Charley laughed
fit to bust, everyone laughed, I
even laughed myself though doing it
hurt me more than the tumble had.
Yes, life and soul of the party, old
"My last sight of the Minnow was
a cabin full of dead and dying men,
the sweetish stink of burned flesh
and the choking reek of scorching insulation,
the boat jolting and shuddering
and beginning to break up,
and in the middle of the flames, still
unhurt, was Charley. He was laughing ...
"My God, it's dark out here. Wonder
how high I am. Must be all of
fifty miles, and doing eight hundred
miles an hour at least. I'll be doing
more than that when I land. What's
final velocity for a fifty-mile fall?
Same as a fifty thousand mile fall, I
suppose; same as escape; twenty-four
thousand miles an hour. I'll make a
"That's better. Why didn't I close
my eyes before? Those star streaks
made me dizzy. I'll make a nice
shooting star when I hit air. Come to
think of it, I must be deep in air
now. Let's take a look.
"It's getting lighter. Look at those
peaks down there! Like great knives.
I don't seem to be falling as fast as
I expected though. Almost seem to be
floating. Let's switch on the radio
and tell the world hello. Hello, earth
... hello, again ... and good-by ...
"Sorry about that. I passed out. I
don't know what I said, if anything,
and the suit recorder has no playback
or eraser. What must have happened
is that the suit ran out of
oxygen, and I lost consciousness due
to anoxia. I dreamed I switched on
the radio, but I actually switched on
the emergency tank, thank the Lord,
and that brought me round.
"Come to think of it, why not
crack the suit and breath fresh air
instead of bottled?
"No. I'd have to get up to do that.
I think I'll just lie here a little bit
longer and get properly rested up
before I try anything big like standing
"I was telling about the return
journey, wasn't I? The long jump
back home, which should have dumped
us between the orbits of Earth
and Mars. Instead of which, when
James took his finger off the button,
the mass-detector showed nothing
except the noise-level of the universe.
"We were out in that no place for
a day. We astronomers had to establish
our exact position relative to the
solar system. The crew had to find
out exactly what went wrong. The
physicists had to make mystic passes
in front of meters and mutter about
residual folds in stress-free space.
Our task was easy, because we were
about half a light-year from the sun.
The crew's job was also easy: they
found what went wrong in less than
half an hour.
"It still seems incredible. To program
the ship for a star-jump, you
merely told it where you were and
where you wanted to go. In practical
terms, that entailed first a series of
exact measurements which had to be
translated into the somewhat abstruse
co-ordinate system we used based on
the topological order of mass-points
in the galaxy. Then you cut a tape on
the computer and hit the button.
Nothing was wrong with the computer.
Nothing was wrong with the
engines. We'd hit the right button
and we'd gone to the place we'd aimed
for. All we'd done was aim for
the wrong place. It hurts me to tell
you this and I'm just attached personnel
with no space-flight tradition. In
practical terms, one highly trained
crew member had punched a wrong
pattern of holes on the tape. Another
equally skilled had failed to notice
this when reading back. A childish
error, highly improbable; twice repeated,
thus squaring the improbability.
Incredible, but that's what
"Anyway, we took good care with
the next lot of measurements. That's
why we were out there so long. They
were cross-checked about five times.
I got sick so I climbed into a spacesuit
and went outside and took some
photographs of the Sun which I hoped
would help to determine hydrogen
density in the outer regions. When
I got back everything was ready. We
disposed ourselves about the control
room and relaxed for all we were
worth. We were all praying that this
time nothing would go wrong, and
all looking forward to seeing Earth
again after four months subjective
time away, except for Charley, who
was still chuckling and shaking his
head, and Captain James who was
glaring at Charley and obviously
wishing human dignity permitted him
to tear Charley limb from limb. Then
James pressed the button.
"Everything twanged like a bowstring.
I felt myself turned inside out,
passed through a small sieve, and
poured back into shape. The entire
bow wall-screen was full of Earth.
Something was wrong all right, and
this time it was much, much worse.
We'd come out of the jump about
two hundred miles above the Pacific,
pointed straight down, traveling at a
relative speed of about two thousand
miles an hour.
"It was a fantastic situation. Here
was the Whale, the most powerful
ship ever built, which could cover
fifty light-years in a subjective time
of one second, and it was helpless.
For, as of course you know, the
star-drive couldn't be used again for
at least two hours.
"The Whale also had ion rockets
of course, the standard deuterium-fusion
thing with direct conversion.
As again you know, this is good for
interplanetary flight because you can
run it continuously and it has extremely
high exhaust velocity. But in
our situation it was no good because
it has rather a low thrust. It would
have taken more time than we had to
deflect us enough to avoid a smash.
We had five minutes to abandon
"James got us all into the Minnow
at a dead run. There was no time to
take anything at all except the clothes
we stood in. The Minnow was meant
for short heavy hops to planets or
asteroids. In addition to the ion drive
it had emergency atomic rockets,
using steam for reaction mass. We
thanked God for that when Cazamian
canceled our downwards velocity
with them in a few seconds. We
curved away up over China and from
about fifty miles high we saw the
Whale hit the Pacific. Six hundred
tons of mass at well over two thousand
miles an hour make an almighty
splash. By now you'll have divers
down, but I doubt they'll salvage
much you can use.
"I wonder why James went down
with the ship, as the saying is? Not
that it made any difference. It must
have broken his heart to know that
his lovely ship was getting the chopper.
Or did he suspect another human
"We didn't have time to think
about that, or even to get the radio
working. The steam rockets blew
up. Poor Cazamian was burnt to a
crisp. Only thing that saved me was
the spacesuit I was still wearing. I
snapped the face plate down because
the cabin was filling with fumes. I
saw Charley coming out of the toilet—that's
how he'd escaped—and I
saw him beginning to laugh. Then
the port side collapsed and I fell out.
"I saw the launch spinning away,
glowing red against a purplish black
sky. I tumbled head over heels towards
the huge curved shield of
earth fifty miles below. I shut my
eyes and that's about all I remember.
I don't see how any of us could have
survived. I think we're all dead.
"I'll have to get up and crack this
suit and let some air in. But I can't.
I fell fifty miles without a parachute.
I'm dead so I can't stand up."
There was silence for a while except
for the vicious howl of the wind.
Then snow began to shift on the
ledge. A man crawled stiffly out and
came shakily to his feet. He moved
slowly around for some time. After
about two hours he returned to the
hollow, squatted down and switched
on the recorder. The voice began
again, considerably wearier.
"Hello there. I'm in the bleakest
wilderness I've ever seen. This place
makes the moon look cozy. There's
precipice around me every way but
one and that's up. So it's up I'll have
to go till I find a way to go down.
I've been chewing snow to quench
my thirst but I could eat a horse. I
picked up a short-wave broadcast on
my suit but couldn't understand a
word. Not English, not French, and
there I stick. Listened to it for fifteen
minutes just to hear a human voice
again. I haven't much hope of reaching
anyone with my five milliwatt
suit transmitter but I'll keep trying.
"Just before I start the climb there
are two things I want to get on tape.
The first is how I got here. I've remembered
something from my military
training, when I did some parachute
jumps. Terminal velocity for a
human body falling through air is
about one hundred twenty m.p.h.
Falling fifty miles is no worse than
falling five hundred feet. You'd be
lucky to live through a five hundred
foot fall, true, but I've been lucky.
The suit is bulky but light and probably
slowed my fall. I hit a sixty mile
an hour updraft this side of the
mountain, skidded downhill through
about half a mile of snow and fetched
up in a drift. The suit is part
worn but still operational. I'm fine.
"The second thing I want to say is
about the Chingsi, and here it is:
watch out for them. Those jokers are
dangerous. I'm not telling how because
I've got a scientific reputation
to watch. You'll have to figure it out
for yourselves. Here are the clues:
(1) The Chingsi talk and laugh but
after all they aren't human. On
an alien world a hundred light-years
away, why shouldn't alien
talents develop? A talent that's
so uncertain and rudimentary
here that most people don't believe
it, might be highly developed
(2) The Whale expedition did fine
till it found Chang. Then it hit
a seam of bad luck. Real stinking
bad luck that went on and
on till it looks fishy. We lost
the ship, we lost the launch, all
but one of us lost our lives. We
couldn't even win a game of
"So what is luck, good or bad?
Scientifically speaking, future chance
events are by definition chance. They
can turn out favorable or not. When
a preponderance of chance events has
occurred unfavorably, you've got bad
luck. It's a fancy name for a lot of
chance results that didn't go your
way. But the gambler defines it differently.
For him, luck refers to the
future, and you've got bad luck when
future chance events won't go your
way. Scientific investigations into this
have been inconclusive, but everyone
knows that some people are lucky and
others aren't. All we've got are hints
and glimmers, the fumbling touch of
a rudimentary talent. There's the evil
eye legend and the Jonah, bad luck
bringers. Superstition? Maybe; but
ask the insurance companies about
accident prones. What's in a name?
Call a man unlucky and you're superstitious.
Call him accident prone and
that's sound business sense. I've said
"All the same, search the space-flight
records, talk to the actuaries.
When a ship is working perfectly
and is operated by a hand-picked
crew of highly trained men in perfect
condition, how often is it wrecked
by a series of silly errors happening
one after another in defiance of
"I'll sign off with two thoughts,
one depressing and one cheering. A
single Chingsi wrecked our ship and
our launch. What could a whole
planetful of them do?
"On the other hand, a talent that
manipulates chance events is bound
to be chancy. No matter how highly
developed it can't be surefire. The
proof is that I've survived to tell the
At twenty below zero and fifty
miles an hour the wind ravaged the
mountain. Peering through his polarized
vizor at the white waste and the
snow-filled air howling over it, sliding
and stumbling with every step
on a slope that got gradually steeper
and seemed to go on forever, Matt
Hennessy began to inch his way up
the north face of Mount Everest.
This etext was produced from Astounding Science Fiction February 1959.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the
U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.