Break a Leg - Cover

Break a Leg

by Jim Harmon

Copyright© 2018 by Jim Harmon

Science Fiction Story: 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!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

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 fed to me through my translator collar while the cybernetic unit back on board the spaceship tried decoding the words. It was too much of an overload and, infuriatingly, the sound was cut out altogether. I started to rip my collar off when the natives stopped screeching and a spokesman stepped forward.

The native slumped a little more than the others, as if he were more relaxed, and his eyes didn’t goggle so much. He said, “We do not understand,” and the translation came through fine.

Baxter swallowed and started forward to meet the alien halfway. His boot slipped on the wet scrub grass and I saw him do the desperate little dance to regain his balance that I had seen him make so many times; he could never stay on his feet.

Before he could perform his usual pratfall, Sidney and Elliot were at his sides, supporting him by his thin biceps. He glared at them and shrugged them off, informing them wordlessly that he would have regained his balance if they had given him half a chance.

“We do not understand,” the native repeated. “Do you hold us in so much contempt as to claim all of us as your brothers?”

“All beings are brothers,” Charlie said. “We were made blood brothers by your people and my people several hundred of your years ago.”

Charlie’s words were being translated into the native language, of course, but Bronoski’s collars and mine switched them back into Terrestrial. I’ve read stories where explorers wearing translators couldn’t understand each other, but that isn’t the way it works. If you listen closely, you make out the words in your own language underneath, and if you pay very close attention, you can find minor semantic differences in the original words and the echo translated back from a native language.

I was trying to catch both versions from Charlie. I knew he was making a mistake and later I wanted to be sure I knew just what it was. Frankly, I would have used the blood-brother gambit myself. I had also read about it in the survey report, as I made a point of telling you. This just proves that Accident Prones haven’t secured the franchise on mistakes. The difference is that I would have gone about it a lot more cautiously.

“Enough of this,” the native said sharply. “Do you claim to be my brother?”

“Sure,” Charlie said.

Dispassionately but automatically, the alien launched himself at the Prone’s throat.

Charterson and Von Elderman instantly went into action. Elliot Charterson jumped to Charlie’s assistance while Sidney Von Elderman swung around to protect Charlie from the rest of the crowd.

But the defense didn’t work.

The other aliens didn’t try to get to Baxter, but when they saw Elliot start to interfere with the two writhing opponents, they clawed him down into the grass. Sidney had been set to defend the Prone, not his fellow guard. They might have been all right if he had pulled a few off Elliot and let him get to work, except his training told him that the life of a guard did not matter a twit, but that a Prone must be defended. He started toward Charlie Baxter and was immediately pulled down by a spare dozen of the mob.

It all meant one thing to me. The reaction of the crowd had been spontaneous, not planned. That meant that the struggle between Charlie and the spokesman was a high order of single combat with which it was unholy, indecent and dastardly to interfere.

I could fairly hear Bronoski’s steel muscles preparing for battle as he saw his two mammoth pals go down under the press of numbers. A bristle-covered bullet of skull rose out of the grass beside me and it was my turn to grind his face in the muck.

I had a nice little problem to contend with.

I knew the reason Baxter had slipped out at night to be the first to greet the aliens. He was determined to be useful and necessary without fouling things up. I suppose Charlie had never felt valuable to anyone before in his life, but at the same time it hurt him to think that he was valuable only because he was a misfit.

He had decided to take a positive approach. If he did things right, that would be as good proof of conditions as if he made the mistakes he was supposed to do. But he couldn’t lick that doubt of himself that had been ground into him since birth and there he was, in trouble as always.

Now maybe Bronoski and I could get him out ourselves by a direct approach, but Charlie would probably lose all self-confidence and sink down into accepting himself as an Accident Prone, a purely passive state.

We couldn’t have that. We had to have Charlie acting and thinking and therefore making mistakes whose bad examples we could profit by.

As I lay on my belly thinking, Charlie was putting up a pretty good fight with the stringy native. He got in a few good punches, which seemed to mystify the native, who apparently knew nothing of boxing. Naturally Charlie then began wrestling a trained and deadly wrestler instead of continuing to box him.

I grabbed Bronoski by his puffy ear and hissed some commands into it. He fumbled out a book of matches and lit one for me. By the tiny flicker of light, I began tearing apart my lighter.

I suppose you have played “tickling the dragon’s tail” when you were a kid. I did. I guess all kids have. You know, worrying around two lumps of fissionable material and just keeping them from uniting and making a critical mass that will result in an explosion or lethal radiation. I caught my oldest boy doing it one day back on Earth and gave him a good tanning for it. Actually I thought it showed he had a lot of grit. Every real boy likes to tickle the dragon’s tail.

Maybe I was a little old for it, but that’s what I was doing there in the Moran III jungle.

I got the shield off my cigarette lighter and jerked out the dinky little damper rods for the pile and started easing the two little bricks toward each other with the point of my lead pencil.

I heard something that resembled a death rattle come from Charlie’s throat as the fingers of the alien closed down on it and my hand twitched. A blooming light stabbed at my eyes and I flicked the lighter away from me.

The explosion was a dud.

It lit up the jungle for a radius of half a mile like a giant flashbulb, but it exploded only about ten times as loud as a pistol shot. The mass hadn’t been slapped together hard enough or held long enough to do any real damage.

The natives weren’t fools, though. They got out of there fast. I wished I could have gone with them. There was undoubtedly an unhealthy amount of radiation hanging around.

“Now!” I told Bronoski.

He ran into the clearing and found four bodies sprawled out: Charlie Baxter, his two guards and the native spokesman.

Charlie and the native were both technically unconscious, but they each had a stranglehold on each other, with Charlie getting the worst of it.

Bronoski pried the two of them apart.

While he roused Sidney and Elliot from their punch-drunk state, I examined Charlie. He had a nasty burn on his leg and two toes were gone. If there was an explosion anywhere around, he was bound to be in front of it.

He was abruptly choking and blinking watery eyes.

“You did it, Charlie,” I lied. “You beat him fair and square.”

Charlie was in bed for the next few days while his grafted toes grew on, but he didn’t seem to mind.

We knew enough not to use the blood-brothers approach after fifty years and therefore it did not take us long to find out why we shouldn’t.

The Moran III culture was isolated in small colonies, but we had forgotten that a generation of the intelligent life-forms was only three Earth months. It seems a waste at first thought, but all things are relative. The Crystopeds of New Lichtenstein, for instance, have a life span of twenty thousand Terrestrial years.

With so fast a turnover in Moran III individuals, there was bound to be a lot of variables introduced, resulting in change.

The idea that seemed to be in favor was the survival of the fittest. Since the natives were born in litters, with single births extremely rare, this concept was practiced from the first. Unless they were particularly cunning, the runts of the litter did not survive the first year and rarely more than one sibling ever saw adulthood.

Obviously, to claim to be a native’s brother was to challenge him to a test of survival.

My men learned to call themselves Last Brother in the usual bragging preliminaries that preceded every encounter. We got pretty good results with that approach and learned a lot about the changes in customs in the half century. But finally one of the men--either Frank Peirmonte or Sidney Charterson, who both claim to be the one--thought of calling the crew a Family and right away we began hitting it off famously.

The Moranites figured we would kill each other off all except maybe one, whom they could handle themselves. They still had folk legends about the previous visit of Earthmen and they didn’t trust us.

Charlie Baxter’s original mistake had supplied us with the Rosetta Stone we needed.

Doctor Selby told me Charlie could get up finally, so I went to his suite and shook hands with him as he still lay in bed.

I waited for the big moment when Charlie would be on his feet again and we could get on with the re-survey of the planet.

“Here goes,” Charlie said and threw back his sheet.

He swung his legs around and tottered to his feet. He was a little weak, but he took a few steps and seemed to make it okay.

Then the inevitable happened. He snagged the edge of one of the Persian carpets on the bedroom floor with his big toe and started to fall.

Selby and I both dived forward to catch him, but instead of doing the arm-waving dance for balance that we were both used to, he seemed to go limp and he plopped on the floor like a wet fish.

Immediately he jumped to his feet, grinning. “I finally learned to go limp when I take a fall, sir. It took a lot of practice. I imagine I’ll save some broken bones that way.”

“Yes,” I said uneasily. “You have been thinking about this quite a lot while you lay there, haven’t you, Baxter?”

“Yes, sir. I see I’ve been fighting this thing too hard. I am an Accident Prone and I might as well accept it. Why not? I seem to always muddle through some way, like out there in the jungle, so why should I worry or feel embarrassed? I know I can’t change it.”

I was beginning to do some worrying of my own. Things weren’t working out the way they should. We were supposed to see that Prones kept developing a certain amount of doomed self-confidence, but they couldn’t be allowed to believe they were infallible Prones. A Prone’s value lies in his active and constructive effort to do the right thing. If he merely accepts being a Prone, his accidents gain us nothing. We can’t profit from mistakes that come about from resignation or laughing off blunders or, as in this case, conviction that he never got himself into anything he couldn’t get himself out of.

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