Breaking Point
Chapter V

Public Domain

... and there I was, Doctor, in the lobby of the hotel at noon, stark naked!

Do you have these dreams often?

I’m afraid so, Doctor. Am I--all right? I mean...”

Let me ask you this question: Do you believe that these experiences are real?

Of course not!

Then, Madam, you are, by definition, sane; for insanity, in the final analysis, is the inability to distinguish the real from the unreal.

Paresi and the Captain ran aft together, and together they stopped four paces away from the bulging blackness.

Johnny!“ The Captain’s voice cracked with the agonized effort of his cry. He stepped to the black wall, pounded it with the heel of his hand.

“He won’t hear you,” said Paresi bleakly. “Come back, Captain. Come back.”

“Why him? Why Johnny? They’ve done everything they could to Johnny; you said so yourself!”

“Come back,” Paresi said again, soothing. Then he spoke briskly: “Can’t you see they’re not doing anything to him? They’re doing it to us!”

The Captain stood rigidly, staring at the featureless intrusion. He turned presently. “To us,” he parroted. Then he stumbled blindly to the doctor, who put a firm hand on his biceps and walked with him to the forward acceleration couch.

The Captain sat down heavily with his back to this new invasion. Paresi stood by him reflectively, then walked silently to Hoskins.

The engineer sat over his chessboard in deep concentration. The far edge of the board seemed to be indefinite, lost partially in the mysterious sable curtain which covered the bulkhead.

“Hoskins.”

No answer.

Paresi put his hand on Hoskins’ shoulder. Hoskins’ head came up slowly. He did not turn it. His gaze was straight ahead into the darkness. But at least it was off the board.

“Hoskins,” said Paresi, “why are you playing chess?”

“Chess is chess,” said Hoskins quietly. “Chess may symbolize any conflict, but it is chess and it will remain chess.”

“Who are you playing with?”

No answer.

“Hoskins--we need you. Help us.”

Hoskins let his gaze travel slowly downward again until it was on the board. “The word is not the thing,” he said. “The number is not the thing. The picture, the ideograph, the symbol--these are not the thing. Conversely...”

“Yes, Hoskins.”

Paresi waited. Hoskins did not move or speak. Paresi put his hand on the man’s shoulder again, but now there was no response. He cursed suddenly, bent and brought up his hand with a violent smash and sent board and pieces flying.

When the clatter had died down Hoskins said pleasantly, “The pieces are not the game. The symbols are not the thing.” He sat still, his eyes fixed on the empty chair where the board had been. He put out a hand and moved a piece where there was no piece to a square which was no longer there. Then he sat and waited.

Paresi, breathing heavily, backed off, whirled, and went back to the Captain.

Anderson looked up at him, and there was the glimmer of humor in his eyes. “Better sit down and talk about something different, Doctor.”

Paresi made an animal sound, soft and deep, far back in his throat, plumped down next to the Captain, and kneaded his hands together for a moment. Then he smiled. “Quite right, skipper. I’d better.”

They sat quietly for a moment. Then the Captain prompted, “About the different breaking point...”

“Yes, Captain?”

“Perhaps you can put your finger on the thing that makes different men break in different ways, for different reasons. I mean, Johnny’s case seemed pretty clear cut, and what you haven’t explained about Hoskins, Hoskins has demonstrated pretty clearly. About Ives, now--we can skip that for the time he’ll be unconscious. But if you can figure out where you and I might break, why--we’d know what to look for.”

“You think that would help?”

“We’d be prepared.”

Paresi looked at him sharply. “Let’s hypothesize a child who is afraid of the dark. Ask him and he might say that there’s a something in dark places that will jump out at him. Then assure him, with great authority, that not only is he right but that it’s about to jump any minute, and what have you done?”

“Damage,” nodded the Captain. “But you wouldn’t say that to the child. You’d tell him there was nothing there. You’d prove there wasn’t.”

“So I would,” agreed the doctor. “But in our case I couldn’t do anything of the kind. Johnny broke over machines that really didn’t work. Hoskins broke over phenomena that couldn’t be measured nor understood. Ives broke over things that scuttled and crawled. Subjectively real phenomena, all of them. Whatever basic terrors hide in you and in me will come to face us, no matter how improbable they might be. And you want me to tell you what they are. No, skipper. Better leave them in your subconscious, where you’ve buried them.”

“I’m not afraid,” said the Captain. “Tell me, Paresi! At least I’ll know. I’d rather know. I’d so damn much rather know!”

“You’re sure I can tell you?”

“Yes.”

“I haven’t psychoanalyzed you, you know. Some of these things are very hard to--”

“You do know, don’t you?”

“Damn you, yes!” Paresi wet his lips. “All right, then. I may be doing a wrong thing here ... You’ve cuddled up to the idea that I’m a very astute character who automatically knows about things like this, and it’s been a comfort to you. Well, I’ve got news for you. I didn’t figure all these things out. I was told.”

“Told?”

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