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Dear Sam:

As you'll see from the return address on the message spool, I am not writing this letter from any place you'd be expecting me to write it from, and as you'll see from the date above, I am writing it a little later than I thought I would. But I'm writing it, Sam, and let me tell you, that's a lot more than I expected to be doing just a little while ago.

As you remember, the last time I wrote was to tell you about that mess we got into trying to deliver fifty live banjo-birds, each of which weighed around sixty pounds, from a frontier planet called Poverty to another carrier who would deliver them to a research outfit on Ultima.

What with their spurs, claws, hooks, bad dispositions, and two-foot long, needle-pointed beaks, these birds proved to be quite a problem. The contract was filled with strict requirements and heavy penalties; one of the birds rammed his beak through our cargo-control man; and then our captain, who had just completed his time, chose to retire onto a nearby colony planet.

This left us stuck with these fifty birds and the contract, with no cargo-control man and no captain, and with the Old Man back at company headquarters breathing fire and impatiently eying the schedule.

Then, when we did manage to locate a retired cargo-control man on a colony planet, he turned out to be a shifty-eyed individual with a long record of disasters, and all told, he scared us worse than the birds.

As for a captain, that, in theory, was duly provided for in the regulations. I was first officer, so the captain's retirement automatically made me acting captain. Unfortunately, so far as having an actual captain was concerned—

Well, most of the men we have for officers and crew got recruited from colony planets, where they grow up rough, tough, and independent. You don't impress them much with little brass insignia. They look to the man behind the symbol. And they all knew I was really Al, the first officer and not the captain.

The result was, I still got the same respect as before, with a little bit added because on paper I was now top dog, and with a sizable chunk taken away, because the captain, the real captain, wasn't here now to back me up.

If you've ever been in this spot, Sam, you know it doesn't take long to get pretty tired of it.

Well, one thing led to another, till it dawned on me that we were right next to running the boat on a committee basis, with each and every committee member having his own private veto. There's not too much first-hand information on how this committee system of running a ship turns out, because it's not too often any survivors of it ever come back alive. It's sort of like the question whether you feel any pain when you blow your brains out. There's not much really reliable first-hand information on the subject.

Before we found out the answer for ourselves, it happened one day that "Hook" Fuller, now acting first officer, was in my cabin with me, resting up after a bout with the birds. Pete Snyder, acting second officer, and Ace Bartry, acting third officer, were there, too, everybody sprawled around wondering how we were ever going to get out of this mess in one piece. Now, as it happened, I had this unreliable cargo-control man locked up in the captain's cabin, because it was roomy and had its own toilet, and the fact of this Jonah having the captain's cabin grated.

Pretty soon, right there before my eyes, the committee system went to work to decide where to stick the cargo-control man, and in the process, good old Ace said things it was O.K. for him to say to his pal, Al, but that weren't so hot for a third officer to say to any ship's captain anywhere, acting or otherwise.

I don't know, Sam, if you ever heard of Iron Fist Karmak, but I served under him once, and I made the mistake one time of arguing a point when the right thing was to say "Yes, sir," and go do it.

Iron Fist Karmak then made a little speech. It was one of those that burns itself into your memory in letters of fire, and that you can really remember afterward, because you wake up nights with it running itself over in your head. Even yet, I still wake up sometimes in a cold sweat, saying "Yes, sir. I will, sir." Then it takes a little while to get unstuck from that speech and come back to the present.

What I'm driving at, Sam, is that I didn't have any trouble remembering that speech. It presented itself to me, ready-made, when Ace Bartry disputed my arrangements for running things, and then, since there was not another thing I could have done to straighten the mess out, I let Ace have that speech, right between the eyes.

When the smoke and dust cleared away, and Ace swallowed hard, and said "Yes, sir. I will, sir," and saluted and stumbled out of there, the overall ricochet, fragmentation, and general shock-effect of that speech brought Pete Snyder to his feet as if he'd been lifted up by the back of his neck, and he excused himself and cleared out, too.

This only left "Hook" Fuller, the acting first officer. I was afraid maybe I'd overdone the thing, and now I wouldn't have anyone to talk to, but Hook only grinned, and wanted to know where that speech came from.

Well, I was telling him, and we were congratulating ourselves that maybe things would run smoother now, when a crewman came rushing in and said the cargo-control man was in the cargo section, and had ordered all the birds unstrapped so he could carry out an inspection of the anesthetizing equipment.

Sam, nobody could describe the scene in that cargo section. Luckily, only about a dozen of the birds were actually unstrapped before the first one woke up and took off after the cargo-control man. By the time we got there, there were eight of them after him, and he had the interstellar sprint record sewed up tight. I could tell you, I suppose, how we finally got the birds off him, how we distracted them while we stuck the boob in the spacesuit locker to keep him out of the way, how we finally got the precious birds strapped back in their anesthetic couches, and then how—drenched in sweat, and with the deck seeming to rise and fall around us in waves—we stood there and heard the insane raving of this cargo-control man, who was having some kind of megalomaniac seizure right there in the suit locker, and was threatening us with all kinds of punishments because we'd interrupted his inspection.

I could tell you, Sam, but you already know all about those birds, anyway. And every time I think about that scene in the cargo section I can hear the blood start to roar in my ears, and see the incandescent spots dance before my eyes, and I'm not so sure I want to relive that part of it for a while yet.

Just take it from me, we were in a rare frame of mind by the time we got this raving cargo-control man crammed into a suit that was free of beak-holes. We got the face plate on, then we bundled him out through the cargo-section air lock and onto the net. This sobered him up pretty fast, maybe because it occurred to him that all we had to do to get rid of one of our troubles was to give him one good shove. In any case, when we got him inside the ship and dragged him out of the suit, he'd stopped raging, and we had the shifty-eyed hangdog boob who'd signed on in the first place.

After this experience, we naturally expected every imaginable kind of trouble getting past that one subspace jump that remained between us and transfer of the cargo. So we put a couple of big bolts on the outside of the cabin door, and kept the cargo-control man locked up tight in there, with a guard outside keeping track of him, and didn't let him back into the cargo section until just before the jump.

Hook and I got him alone before he went in, and we put it to him in little words just what would happen if he tried what he'd done the time before. We went into the cargo section with him, along with the better part of the crew, which was split up into squads and all set for anything.

While we were all on our toes, set for the worst, the cargo-control man carried out a kind of half-hearted inspection, shrugged, and signed the necessary papers. The instant he finished signing the papers, Hook, who was taking no chances, reached over with a length of pipe and laid him senseless on the deck. We got him out of the cargo section, back into the ship, and locked in his cabin. Then we stared at each other.

This seemed to end our problem.

We felt like people who'd been all set to lift the three-hundred pound weight, and it turns out to be just hollowed-out balsa wood, weighing six ounces.

We should have been relieved. Instead, things seemed to get out of proportion, and we had to remind ourselves that the business wasn't over yet. We still had to make the actual subspace jump, and then connect up with the other carrier.

The jump was no trouble. And when we finished it, there was the steady beep of one of the other ship's signal beacons, telling us everything was in order. In a little while, we'd be in contact with this other ship, which was named Starbright. It all seemed too easy.

About this time, Pete Snyder came in carrying a little flat brown bottle, and showed it to Hook. After he'd questioned Pete for a while, Hook handed me the bottle.

"Ace is with the cargo-control boob in the library. While the cabin was empty, Pete went through it and found this."

The crisp, neatly-printed label on the bottle read: "o-Amino-p-sugadeine(2,3,4-tribaloate)-quinquigesimophenoleine." While I was mentally groping around, trying to figure out what this might be, it dawned on me that under this were a couple of other words, in very fine type. I took the bottle over to the control console, where there was a better light, and managed to read it:


(Purified Hopweed)


I looked around. "Pete found this—"

"In the cargo-control man's stuff."

"And he's where?"


On this trip, the ship's library had gotten so little use I'd forgotten we had one.

"What's he doing in there?"

"He says he wants to change his specialty. He's studying up on navigation. He says that being a cargo-control officer has led him astray and he wants to return to the true path."

I got hung up for a few seconds trying to figure out the reasoning behind this, but finally managed to get loose. "And where was the bottle?"

"His bunk mattress was cut open at the top, along the edge. Pete says there were half-a-dozen of these in there."

Hook and I stared at the powder in the bottle. Hook looked up.

"What do we do?"

"Better have Pete put this stuff back with the rest. Have him try to fix the place it was in so it won't look like anyone's gotten into it. We'll figure this out later, after we get rid of the cargo section."

Hook nodded, and the communications man said, "Sir, the captain of Starbright wants to talk to you."

Naturally, he would. The cargo remained technically our responsibility till Starbright had the cargo section. While Starbright couldn't actually escape the terms of the contract through this technicality, they could stretch them considerably. If any of the birds, for instance, were a trifle sickly, Starbright could suffer a series of unfortunate accidents that would so delay transfer of the cargo section that the sickly birds would have time to weaken and die—with us. Then we would get hit with the penalty, not Starbright. There were quite a few variations on this idea.

"O.K." I said, "but let's have a short-focus transmission." Nearly everyone on the ship was bandaged up, and it seemed just as well not to advertise this fact.

The communications man said, "Short-focus transmission. Here you go, sir."

The screen lit up to show a sleek-looking officer with every hair in place, uniform fresh and crisp, and insignia glittering. "Omark, Captain, T. S. M. Starbright, Central Transportation Lines, Incorporated." There was that about his smooth tone of voice that suggested the purr of a large fat cat eying a canary.

Across the control room, Hook shut his eyes.

Starbright's captain came to the end of his introduction, and stood there looking superior, smug, and completely in control of the situation.

Well, as you know, Sam, in our outfit, we don't go for this superior-attitude stuff. We have other methods.

I looked at him on the screen for a while, as if I were looking at some weird kind of bug. Then I said, "Do you know what you're getting into, Omak?"

"What's that?"

"This is a tough cargo."

"What's wrong with it?"

"I don't know as there's anything wrong with the cargo. I'm just wondering if you can handle it."

This brought him halfway down off his perch, but he was back up on it in a flash.

"An inspection crew will be alongside your boat in twenty minutes. See that the cargo doors are opened at once, or you may suffer some unexpected delays."

His face registered untouchable superiority, but he already had one foot in a trap. I looked at him, and he sighted down his nose at me. Then I let him have it.

"Before you dish out the next threat to hold us up, Omak, remember that the Commission frowns on these artificial delays. This conversation is being recorded." Of course, he should have avoided this obvious mess. But he had gotten irritated.

His expression showed that he knew trouble when he saw it. To paste over the hesitation, while he groped for a way out, he said, "My name is Omark."

Naturally, I knew his name. But the idea was to get him mad.

"I'm not worried about your name, Omak. I'm wondering if you can handle the cargo. Do you know what it is?"

"Certainly. It—"

"And no inspection crew is coming aboard this ship, Omak. You can send a cargo-control man and one other into the cargo section. Or you can look yourself."

The look of anger that went over his face was real now. He glared out of the screen.

"Listen, you—"

"Have you considered subcontracting this job? We might run it the rest of the way in, for a price."

The last of his air of superiority evaporated into raw anger. "Listen, you outplanet junk-jockey, we've handled tougher cargoes than you ever heard of. No, we won't hire you to run it through for us." He turned away from the screen to bark orders, then looked back, "Cast it off, and get out of our way."

He had now said the words. But it wouldn't hurt to reinforce them.

"If you want it that way—"

"That's the way it's going to be."

I let a look of imitation respect seep onto my face. "As you say, Captain Omark." I turned to Hook, who was out of range of the screen and grinning from ear to ear. "Cast loose the cargo section!"

Hook left the control room in a streak.

I turned back to the screen, where Starbright's captain now had a faintly bemused look on his face. It had evidently just occurred to him that there was a price on his having the last word. He was accepting the cargo section as it was, with no inspection at all.

"Ah—" he said, "the cargo—"

I tried to look friendly and considerate. If I remembered correctly, he had said, "Cast it loose," not "Cast the cargo section loose." If he thought of this, he might worm out of it yet. But once his men actually took charge of the thing, he was stuck with it.

"Captain," I said considerately, to get him off on another track and pass a little time, "to the best of my knowledge, one of the birds may be slightly lame. You may want to check the contract, but I believe—"

Hook's yell echoed up the corridor.

"Cargo section loose!"

To get rid of it that fast, they must have cut the cables, and left the crew men in the cargo section to get back on hand-jets.

I said, "Captain, my crew is very experienced in handling this sort of thing. They've already cast the cargo section loose for you. However, if you'd like to reconsider, and want to change your mind about contracting with us to take it back for you—"

He had now been formally told that the cargo section was his. Failure to object to this would constitute "tacit acceptance of responsibility" for the cargo section.

He said irritatedly, "No, we can handle it."

The thing was now officially his.

There would be no point trying to describe my feeling of relief, but Omark plainly caught it. He was now completely down off his pedestal, and wide awake.

He said shortly, "What's wrong with the cargo?"

"I haven't said there was anything wrong with it. I've been trying to tell you, it's tough."

"What do you mean?"

It was easy enough to answer that. As I described the birds' build, their hooks, claws, spurs, bristly down, rough quills and long sharp beaks, a look of comprehension began to dawn on the face in the screen.

"Maybe we should have subcontracted with you."

I smiled. "That offer is now officially withdrawn."

"I'll bet." He laughed suddenly, then shrugged. "Send a man over with the papers, and we'll get started. This is the kind of haul where we'll want to break speed records."

Half-an-hour later, all the formalities had been gone through and we were congratulating ourselves that, at last, we were completely free of the birds. We'd been in a nasty spot, but we'd come through.

We were so relieved we felt dizzy, and went around cheerfully hammering each other on the back.

I don't know just what it is, Sam, that makes a man forget when things are going well, the fly in the ointment that was obvious enough beforehand.

Anyway, Hook and me, along with Pete, wound up in my cabin, shaking each other's hands, congratulating ourselves that our troubles were over, and passing around a flask of Supernova Bottled Food Drink. They make this, you know, on Hyperion, where they have a strict prohibitionist government, and about fifty per cent of the planetary revenue comes out of "condensed high-energy liquid food-products." I guess if you run an acre of New Venusian rockwheat through a still and bottle it, you could call it that, all right. Anyway, we had several cases of it on board.

Well, the Supernova Bottled Food Drink was running pretty low, and the ship's officers present were worth around two cents a hundredweight, when there came a pound of feet outside, and Ace bolted in.

"Al . . . I mean Captain . . . the Jonah's taken over the control room!"

Iron Fist Karmak would have ended this in about fifteen seconds. But then, Iron Fist Karmak would never have filled up on Bottled Food Drink with the trip unfinished. While I was cursing myself for forgetting I was supposed to be captain, and struggling to get some idea through the haze of Food Drink, Pete rose slowly up off the deck, looked at Ace gravely, and fell forward on his face.

Ace said anxiously, "What do we do?"

"How'd it happen?"

"He came in with his uniform all neat and his brass polished, and a fusion gun in one hand, and told us he was taking over under Article 66, Captain Disabled or Lost Overboard, and said, on top of that, this was now a cargo section under Article 17, Definition of Relative Terminology, and to prove it he showed us two things like oversize duck eggs and said they'd hatch out into banjo-birds, and under the contract they had to be transported in a cargo section, so therefore this was a cargo section, and he was in charge of the cargo section."

Hook was lying flat on his back on the bunk, and had hold of it with both hands to steady himself. He was listening with an intent look except that now and then the pupils of his eyes took off and went around in circles and he almost fell off the bunk. He cleared his throat.

"Doped up. Hopweed."

I nodded. Obviously, that must be it. I glanced at Ace.

"He make any change in course?"

"Sure he did!"

"How? What did he do?"

"I don't know. I was face up against a bulkhead with my hands back of my neck."

"How'd you get loose?"

"He decided it was time for me to go off-duty."

Time was passing. I still hadn't thought of anything to do, but just then the tail-end of an idea went past, and if it hadn't been for the food-drink, I could probably have ended the mess right there. As it was, I could only grope for the idea.

Ace said urgently, "What are we going to do? We can't leave him there! He's setting us up for a jump."

Hook swung to a sitting position. "Can't jump here! This is uncharted!"

"What do you mean, he can't? He's going to! You can jump anywhere. The only difference is, we don't know where we'll come out!"

"Well, that's it! You could come out in a sun, or in some God-forsaken place. Only a madman or a hopped-up dope-fiend would—"

"What do you think this guy is?"

There was a silence during which we should have been thinking. Again, I almost had it, but then the food drink went to work, and about all that came to me was that this was unfair, it wasn't right, it—

Before I started babbling about this, and maybe getting out a handkerchief to cry into, I said, "Take hold of my arm, Ace, and lead me down the corridor to this bird's cabin."

Ace did as told, and we caromed off the bulkheads to the boob's cabin.

"O.K." I said, "see if the stuff is where he had it before. That powder in bottles."

Ace got on the bunk, yanked back the pillow and the covers, and felt around the side of the mattress. "It's here."

"Get the bottles out of there and hide them. Then wait in here, and when he comes back in, knock him senseless."

"O.K. But—"

"Before you do that, aim me down the corridor toward the control room. Just get me headed in the right direction."

"He'll kill you, Al."

"Never mind. That's my worry." I still didn't have any idea what to do about this mess, but I had to do something.

"What are you going to do?"

"How should I know?"


"If I stay here, I'll pass out. Come on. Move."

"I don't know. It seems to me he'll just shoot you."

I let Ace have a few selected lines from the little speech I'd given him before, and his face changed color.

"O.K., then, I mean, yes, sir." He aimed me toward the control room. "I still don't see what you can do."

"Never mind that. This is what Iron Fist Karmak would do."

Ace said, in a peculiar voice, "Who is—" Then he gave it up. Anyone can stand only so much in any given length of time.

On the way past my cabin, I shoved the door open and spotted Hook, who'd evidently just finished dousing himself with cold water.

"Next time," he said dizzily, reeling across the deck toward me, "let's get some better brand. There's something about this Liquid Food Drink—"

"Like what?"

"I don't know. Wormwood, maybe."

I dragged my mind back onto the subject. Abruptly the idea came to me.

"Reach into my locker beside the bunk there, and get out the hypo gun we used for that load of zoo specimens. It's in the corner, on the right."

"That's too good for him. We ought to blow his head off."

"The trouble is, right now we might miss him. Then where'd we be? Get that gun."

Hook nodded. "This boat has a fairly thin hull, doesn't it?" The door of the locker clattered back, and in only two or three grabs, he had the gun. "Here it is. I hope it's loaded with—"

Just then, with both of us just starting to come back to our senses, there was a kind of twitch, a sort of sudden readjustment, and although everything looked the same, something was different.

" . . . Cyanide," said Hook. He handed me the gun, and said bleakly, "He did it."

I took the gun. One thing about this outfit, the Old Man insists on the best equipment for making sub-space jumps. There was just a trace of that queasy nauseous sensation.

"Come on," I said. "The two of us ought to be able to take him."

"Sure," said Hook. "I feel like half a man, anyway."

We groped our way down the corridor, and were almost there when there was a sort of twitch, a kind of unexpected readjustment, and the consciousness of a sudden change.

Hook caught his breath, and I stood paralyzed for an instant.

He had done it again. Now, had he jumped us back to where we started from, or—

Around and through us, there was a kind of twitch in the fabric of things, an unexpected rearrangement, and a sense of displacement in some indescribable direction.

A third jump!

Before anything else happened, I stepped into the control room, already squeezing the trigger of the hypo gun.

On about the fourth or fifth shot, I got him.

As the cargo-control man landed full-length on the deck, Hook staggered in, cursing.

"That last one was a long one."

"He was all set for another. Now, I wonder just where the Sam Hill he's landed us."

I hit the Astroposit button, and there was a long silence as the device compared local stellar patterns with known stellar patterns, and tried to find a match. At length, a strip of paper tape unreeled, and I tore it off anxiously.




Hook swore. "I didn't even know it knew that word."

"Probably it never had reason to use it before." I glanced at the outside screen, and hit the wide-angle button. For just an instant, I stared at it, and couldn't believe what I saw.

"No," said Hook. "It can't be. It's the liquor."

"No, it isn't." Not even Supernova Liquid Food Drink could have done that. We had to find out, so I hit the Tridem Visual Display switch.

The control-room lights faded out. Around us, like shining points of light, appeared the three-dimensional image of the stars outside.

These stars were all of the same brightness, evenly spaced, in a regularly-repeated pattern.

In about half-an-hour, Hook and I had the cargo-control maniac strapped to the bunk in his cabin. Ace, tense with the knowledge of the number of jumps that had been made, almost brained us as we came in, but that seemed like a small matter. Hook and I were cold sober now, and when we brought Pete Snyder around long enough to see that stellar pattern, all of a sudden he was cold sober, too.

"My God," he said. "What is this," he demanded. "A joke?"

Nobody said anything, and Pete burst out, "There isn't any place like this!"

Hook said, "Think back. We've got a Jonah on board. He got control of the ship, and took three jumps."

"We've got to backtrack!"

We snapped the lights back on, and looked at the console. There were the subspace-jump master-control levers:

Recon. OFF
Monitor OFF
Memory OFF
Manual ON


Pete said in a whisper. "There's no record." An instant later, he said, "Maybe he just repeated."

"Nuts," said Hook. "The first two were different from that last one."

"If we could figure back from what he's got on the board—"

"No," I said, pointing to the automatic-reset switch. "That doesn't prove a thing. The board cleared itself after each jump, and he was setting it up for another jump just as I got in here."

Pete was staring into the outside screen. "There's no place where the stars are spaced that regular. There couldn't be."

Ace was looking at it, too, not saying anything. Then Pete said, in a shaky voice, "This place is different."

That sounded like the number one moronic comment of the year, but he had a point. There was something different in the feel of things—but it was hard to pin down just what it was. On an Earth-type planet, there's a different feel on a warm spring morning than there is on a crisp fall day. It's possible to pin down the reasons for that difference. This feeling was harder to pin down, but it was there just the same.

Ace nodded. "Something . . . something different. Let's turn that screen off."

I switched it off, but the peculiar sensation remained.

Hook snorted. "Between the local absinthe, the cargo boob, and that sight outside, it would be a wonder if we didn't feel funny. Let's get some sleep. At least the boob didn't land us inside a sun. Come on, tomorrow's a big day."

Hook's voice sounded a little strained, but he was moving in the right direction.

"Good idea," I said. "Let's go."

I started for the corridor, and the others followed.

We muttered dazed good nights to each other, and headed for our separate cabins. I didn't know about Hook and Pete and Ace, but I could feel those regularly-spaced stars looking at me right through the hull of the ship. I lay there for a while, face-to-face with the impossible, then rolled over and tried lying on my side, then on my back. It didn't help. I had such a vivid mental picture of those stars that we might as well have had a transparent hull. I glanced at my watch, and saw it was 0245, shiptime. Just then, there was a quiet tap, and I sat up.

"Who is it?"


"Just a minute."

I got up, snapped on the lights, and Hook came in, lugging the mattress off his cot and a pile of blankets, which he unloaded onto the deck. He said apologetically, "I keep seeing those damn stars, lined up for parade. There's something else, too." He flattened out the mattress and got the blankets where he wanted them. Then he whacked the pillow with his fist and lay down. "That cargo-control moron. Did you see how he landed, Al?"

"What do you mean?"

"When you shot him and he fell."

"He went down the way you'd expect if he was somebody kidding around. As if someone were to keep his feet together, lean, and start to fall. Only he wasn't kidding, so he went all the way, full length."

"Did he look natural to you?"

I put the light off and settled back into my bunk. Now that Hook mentioned it, there had been something weird about the way he fell. Then I shrugged. "To begin with, he was doped up. Then I shot him with a hypo gun. Naturally he didn't fall the way you might expect."

Hook sighed. "Turn the light on, Al." There was a tinkle of coins.

By now, I'd forgotten my own uneasiness, and was beginning to feel puzzled. I snapped the light on, and looked around.

Hook tossed a small a handful of coins into the air.

I watched exasperatedly, "What's the idea? Are you out of your—"

But by then, all the coins had hit the deck, and formed a nice neat pattern, the largest coin in the center, and the smaller ones alternated in a circle around the outside.

When I stared at this, Hook said, "When this cargo-control man fell, he started to reach back with his hands to break his fall, but then he passed out completely. He ended up flat on his back, with his body in a straight line, both arms out and the fingers spread wide. You could have run an upright mirror down the center of his body, and never have noticed the difference. One side was exactly the same position as the other."

Scowling, I said, "Let's see those coins."

Hook gathered them up, and handed them to me. I shook them up, and tossed them. They came down with the largest one in the center, and the others spread alternately around it, larger and smaller, to form the outline of a stylized, sharp-pointed star.

I looked at this for a while, then stared off into the distance.

I looked back, and there the coins were, still in the same pattern.

I took the coins in one hand, and instead of tossing them up, swung my arm slightly down, so as to scatter them in a rough line.

There was a clink and clatter as they hit, and then there they were.

The large coin was in the center, the others alternated in a long ellipse around it.

I shut my eyes, looked again, then got up and felt of the coins. Next I had Hook describe their position. It was exactly as it seemed to be. The coins, of themselves, had fallen into another regular pattern.

Hook said, "The odds against a thing like this are—" His face took on a peculiar expression. I guess he was trying to figure the odds, and couldn't keep track of all the zeros. "Well," he said, "the thing is impossible, that's all. When improbability reaches a certain point—"

"No," I said, "that's where you're wrong. No matter how improbable a thing is, that doesn't make it impossible. If you've got a hundred billion white marbles, and one blue marble, you might still reach in some time and come out with the blue marble."

"Yeah, but if you've got a hundred trillion trillion to the quintillionth power to the—" He went on adding powers and multiplying till he had to take a fresh breath. "If you've got that many white marbles, and just one blue one, then—"

I shook my head. "I sure wouldn't want to bet on getting it out of there. But as long as that one blue marble is in there, there's nothing impossible about reaching in and coming out with it."

"But the odds—"

"The odds are for betting, so you can judge what's likely over a long period, when everything averages out. The odds don't mean a thing on one single throw."

Hook looked unconvinced. I said, "There's a casino on Tiamaz, where one of the tables has a game played with seven wheels. Each wheel has sixty-four numbers, plus a zero. The numbers are alternating red and green. The zero is black. The rules of the game hold that if the little silver balls, and the golden ball of the master wheel in the center, all settle on zero, the player loses not only what he's bet, but everything he owns. Now, you figure the odds on that happening. But that's the rule, and on that planet, gambling losses are legal. Well, I was in there one night, just watching, when a married shipmate of mine, with a big ship-savings account, got into the game, just so he could say he'd played it. He no sooner got started then the number one wheel came to a stop and the little ball settled on zero. Then the next wheel stopped, and the little ball rolled on to sixty-four, then fell over onto zero. The another wheel stopped and the little ball settled on zero. Then another wheel stopped, and the little ball tipped off of number one, rolled onto zero, rocked back and forth and settled down there.

"Well, my shipmate was sitting there, gripping the table edge, moving his lips in silence, and dripping sweat onto the green cloth, as one by one the little balls stopped on zero. Then the last wheel came to a stop, and the last little ball rolled slowly around, and settled on number two. My shipmate shut his eyes, got up, slowly walked out, and I'd like to ask you the odds on what he'd tell you if you told him something can't happen because the odds are against it."

"H'm-m-m," said Hook, and thought that over.

The saying has it that "Seeing's believing," but I don't know. The stars were right out there to look at, and there lay the coins on the deck in front of us; but here we were, arguing about whether it was possible, because it didn't seem reasonable. And it didn't seem reasonable because we hadn't ever seen it before. Maybe that saying ought to be, "Habitual seeing is believing."

"Well," said Hook. "I . . . I see you've got a point. But how do you explain a thing like this?"

I looked at those coins lying in a nice regular ellipse, and wondered how anyone could possibly explain a thing like that. On the other hand, it had to be done. If we couldn't explain it, we were going to be in a first-class mess tomorrow, as soon as the crew discovered what was outside.

Well, the wispy end of a thought occurred to me, and I started reeling it in, talking all the while to see how Hook reacted to the idea. He lay on his mattress with one elbow on his pillow, listening intently, while disbelief and hope flickered alternately across his face. Then suddenly he began to nod.

"That's it. You've got it, Al!"

The explanation satisfied him so well that he grinned, got up, and said, "Now I can sleep." He agreed when I insisted that he keep quiet about the coins, then went off down the corridor with his mattress and blankets, and I turned out the lights, lay back down on my bunk, and fell asleep. My last conscious thought was that I was going to have to give that explanation to the entire crew tomorrow, and somehow convince them.

Otherwise, we might have a mutiny.

Well, the ship's chronometer crawled around to what would have to serve us as dawn, and one thing led straight to another till there I was, talking into the ship's public address system. Word had gotten around pretty fast after the first glimpse at what was outside that thin hull.

"Men," I said, "as you've doubtless learned, we have a unique scene outside. Few if any other crews have ever had the chance to see this. What we see out there is nothing less than a complete reversal of the usual rule of Nature. The stars out there are not strewn around in random disorder. In this region of space, disorder is not the rule. You have only to look to see the proof of this."

"Experience," I went on, "teaches us that whatever a man tries to do, Nature will try to undo. If he builds a house, Nature will immediately go to work to level it. The natural tendency is for everything to be brought, ultimately, to the same low level of random disorder. We call this the tendency toward increasing 'entropy.' It is the tendency for all material things eventually to reach a vanishingly low level of available energy."

"What does this have to do with what we see outside?"

There was murmur of agreement. That was what they wanted to know, too.

"Why, it has everything to do with it. The only reason that what we see out there surprises us is—we're used to the disorder of nature."

There was a tense silence while they grappled with this explanation. Happily, this part was apparently true. Later on, things got more doubtful.

"What we're used to seeing in Nature is disorder, stars scattered around at random, different sizes and types of stars mingled together without any apparent plan. Throughout history, man has stood for order, and has had to fight against Nature's disorder."

"But now, men," I added, "at last we're in a place where Nature does things our way.

"So you see," I said, speaking fast into the intense silence, "some people may say, 'It can't be,' but we know better. Overall, it may be that the increase in entropy, the general decrease in available energy, is the rule. Overall, a tendency for random disorder may be the rule. But there is nevertheless a distinct small chance of exactly the opposite behavior. And the universe is a big place. Well, men, we've been lucky enough to hit it! Maybe we're just getting paid back for what we went through with those birds. Whatever the reason, when that cargo-control man got at the jump lever, we didn't land inside of a sun. Instead, we were lucky enough to come out in a place where order is the rule."

There was a confused murmuring, because naturally they failed to see the advantage of the thing.

"And to prove it," I said triumphantly, "take a handful of coins, and just toss them on the deck, and see what happens. In this place, random chance produces order infallibly. We can't lose. Try it."

Hook was listening, with the air of a connoisseur, and now shook his head exasperatedly. He couldn't quite follow the last part of that argument, and he didn't think the crew would follow it, either.

From all over the ship, however, there now came the sound of coins clattering on the deck. A rising murmur of amazement suggested the proper time to say triumphantly, "So, you see, men, there's nothing to worry about. The tendency of this place is to increase its own order by helping us get away. We'll be out of here as soon as we have time to check the jump equipment. Meanwhile, I suggest that all men not on duty experiment with this condition of reversed-entropy. It's a rare opportunity, and one that few crews have ever had before."

There was a brief cheer from some of the men. I snapped off the public-address system, and took a deep breath.

"Phew," said Hook, looking dazed, "Well, it looks like that will hold them for now, anyway."

"How long to check that jump equipment?"

"Not long. If nothing goes wrong, maybe half-an-hour. But then what?"

"Then we get out of here."

"Another random jump?"

"Can you think of anything worse than this? Or can you figure out how to calculate our way out of this?"

"No. But—"

"How long is our explanation going to hold the crew?"

Hook nodded. "We better get out of here before the novelty wears off."

"That's what I figure."

"But how do we know we won't wind up inside a sun? And how do we get back on course?"

"I could explain that to you," I said. "And it's a very logical explanation. The only thing is, Nature and logic don't always agree."

Hook, squirming, looked surprised for just an instant, as if he saw what I was driving at. "Yeah," he said, "Well, let's hope this is one place where they do."

Thirty-two minutes later, I reached out like somebody working a Ouija board, set up the jump, snapped the automatic reset forward to clear the board right after the jump, and pulled the lever.

What I'd been basing my hopes on, and it seemed like a pretty weak reed, was the thought that in this place we had order, not disorder. At least, it looked like our idea of order. And it was, you might say, improbable almost, but not quite, to the point of impossibility. This was, in other words, a place where the next-to-impossible was established as the order of nature. In such a place, what would happen when we pulled the jump lever?

Anywhere else, the odds were astronomically against our getting back on course. But how was it here, where the order of nature was reversed?

This was one of those arguments that sounds good, but when you bet on it, you get flattened. Unfortunately, there was nothing else we could do but bet on it.

I don't doubt that other people have prayed harder than I did when I pulled that lever, but I was pretty near the top of my own form. Then there was that sense of a twitch, a sort of sudden readjustment that told of the jump, and then all of a sudden Hook, Pete, and Ace were banging me on the back.

"You did it, Al! You did it!"

"Did what? Are we back on course?"

"On course, my foot! Look at that screen!"

I wiped the sweat out of my eyes, and looked at it, then I shut my eyes, and looked again.

Centered on the screen in front of us was a loading-center, where ships like ours pick up and transfer cargo. Near the loading center, a huge beacon sent out its visual identification signal, which you might still pick up even if radio, radar, snap-beams, and everything else failed you. As the big beacon swung around, there was a dazzling multiple flash that we couldn't help interpreting.

And when we did, it was an inescapable fact that the almost-impossible had happened. This loading center was our home base. The central office was right there in front of us.

Well, as you can imagine, Sam, the Old Man was really surprised to see us. He wanted the whole story, so I told him all about it—birds, cargo-control man, liquid food drink, non-entropy region of space and all.

Naturally, I expected skepticism, pointed questions, close examination of the evidence, and finally reluctant acceptance of the facts for what they were.

Instead, the Old Man started to laugh. He got back away from the desk in order to have room to double up, and almost laughed his head off. Then with his face still red, with a grin from ear to ear, what did he do but say, "'Volcanic Bottled Food drink,' eh? Is that the name of it?"

"No, sir." I could see this wasn't going to work out quite the way I expected. "Supernova Bottled Food Drink."

That sent him off again, and several times when I thought he'd come to the end, he'd bang his fist on the desk, and mutter "Supernova," or "Bottled Food Drink," and then he was off again.

This can get sort of wearisome after a while, but he was the Boss, and it didn't bother him. Finally he came out around his desk, squeezed my hand in a painful grip, banged me on the back so hard I almost went out through the wall, and said, "Good work! That cargo went through on time, no complaints, and I heard how you put the squeeze on Starbright. That's the stuff! Keep it up!"

"But—Ah—But—What about the stars? What about—"

He let out a laugh that bounced all around the room. "You want to change your brand, boy. You want to keep away from that Volcano Bottled Food Drink."

When I went out of there, he was still laughing, and they tell me he'd start off again for no apparent reason for days afterward. Meanwhile, he didn't lose any time showing his approval of the fact that we'd got the cargo through. I hadn't gotten back to the ship before there was a crew out there painting out Whizeroo, which was the name of the ship, and painting in The Champ, which was our new name. Personally, I liked Whizeroo better, but we didn't have any time to croak about that. Orders came through confirming us all in the rank we had after the captain retired, so now I was a real captain, Hook was a real first officer, and so on, instead of our just holding the rank more or less by accident. Right after we got word of this, our back pay came through, and since this was partly based on our new rank, it fairly blew the tops of our heads off.

After you've borne up under bad luck long enough, when it does turn and run good for a while, it's easy to confuse the change with a permanent improvement. If we'd had much more praise and good luck, I don't think Hook and the rest of us could have stood it.

Just as we were settling back to admire all the new stripes, and as we were wondering what to do with all that accumulated pay, a message came through from the Old Man, who had gone off to tie up some deal, and wasn't expected back for a while. This message was to us, and it went as follows:




It took a second to realize The Champ was the new name for our ship. Then the details started to come in. It seemed that these banjo-birds, in their natural state, lived on a diet of "web-scorpions," "flying slints," and "double-ended greevils." In turn, these things, in order to stay in good health, required a steady diet of a variety of other things, equally outlandish, all of which had to be housed in a "pseudo-arboreal habitat." The idea was not just to transport the greevils, slints, and so on, preferably frozen or canned, but to lug around the whole "pseudo-arboreal habitat," with all these things in it. Alive.

The contract, as expected, specified that the greevils, web-scorpions, et cetera, had to be certified by a cargo-control man before each subspace jump, but after what we'd lived through, that was no surprise. What did give us sort of a jolt was the provision reading:

" . . . The aforesaid carrier does hereby warrant and agree that in no event will the food supply of the aforesaid units of live cargo be contaminated by permitting these aforesaid units of live cargo, voluntarily or involuntarily, to ingest human flesh, or extract from officers, crew, passengers, or others, blood and/or other nutrient materials whatever, in any quantity, manner, or under any condition or conditions whatever, foreseeable or not foreseeable . . ."

There are several other clauses in this contract along these same lines—namely, that we won't contaminate these specimens by letting them eat us up.

Well, Sam, it doesn't exactly sound good, and I don't know just what we'll run into, but I don't see how it could possibly be any worse than those birds.

Anyway, it isn't this new assignment that bothers us right now. What sort of burns us up is the reaction we get every time we try to explain about those stars. They don't call it a "mass-hallucination," which would be maddening enough. They call it, a "mass delirium tremens," and I never heard of anything like that.

I know, Sam, we should have kept some record of how to get back there, but then, a lot of people would have gone to look, wouldn't they? And that would have created disorder, right? And that, in other words, would have made our safe return a condition leading to increased entropy and decreased order, wouldn't it? But everything about that place showed that it favored increased order, not decreased order, so what do you suppose would have happened to us if we'd tried to keep a record of how to get back?

I tell you, Sam, there are a lot of people around today that you can't convince without a notarized statement, even when you've got a perfectly clear case, and unarguable good reasons such as I just mentioned.

Well, that's life.

Anyway, Sam, you believe me, don't you?


As ever,



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