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The Low Road

Dear Sam:

I'm not sure what order my letters have been reaching you in, but this one comes after we had that mess with the banjo-birds, finally got them delivered, and then the Old Man renamed our ship The Champ. I got promoted to captain, Hook got promoted to first officer, and so on. As you remember, the Old Man then sent us out to get a cargo of the things these banjo-birds eat.

Let me tell you, Sam, when we started that trip, we were really sitting on top of the universe. We had our accumulated back pay, our new stripes, the Old Man's praise, and our ship had a new name. In a transport outfit where the boss names the ships according to their performance, and where Spitoon is not the worse name, you can see how it would be to be captain of The Champ.

As for our cargo, that didn't worry us too much. After all, we'd lived through the banjo-birds with their needle-pointed two-foot beaks and vicious dispositions. We ought to be able to handle the web-scorpions, slints, greevils, night-robbers, and so on, that the banjo-birds lived on.

Well, Sam, what we overlooked was that the banjo-birds were specialists in slints and greevils, and we weren't.

I know, you haven't had any letter from me about that trip. I just haven't been able to bring myself to talk about it. You can get some idea when I tell you we no sooner limped back into the loading center, when out came a crew to paint out The Champ, and put a new name on the ship. We were too beat up to care much, but we figured we'd got off easy when we found out the new name was Bunglers All.

What we didn't know was that the Old Man had just got started. Next came an order demoting the lot of us. Instead of being captain, I was now first officer. Hook went down to second officer, and so on. Pretty soon, we got our pay, and another jolt. The demotions were back-dated. Next came word that we were fined for various offenses, and out of our cut pay we had to hand over good-sized chunks for the fines. Believe me, there wasn't much left of us when the dust settled.

I know, you might wonder—couldn't we have fought it? In the shape we were in, we couldn't have fought our way out of a paper sack. And we would have run head-on into the Old Man's standard reasoning: "You do the job, and you get the pay. Don't do the job, and you get the axe." The Old Man judges strictly by results.

There are outfits where, if you come back a hundred eighty days late, doped to the eyeballs on bootleg hopweed and awash in home brew, with the cargo lost or forgotten, and then after you're back you shoot up the front office just for fun, why, the corporation will send a lot of headshrinkers out to dig up the 'deep underlying causes,' and vice-presidents will moan and wring their hands because somehow they've failed you. But, as I say, this isn't how our outfit works.

Well, when everything settled down, we were still alive, and we hadn't been fired, and we were starting to think some day we'd get over it, when we got word the new captain was on his way out in a taxi-boat. That really heaped the coals of fire on us. Changing captains is bad enough. But to be demoted, and have a new man put in over you—Let me tell you, Sam, that takes some getting used to.

Hook, now back to second officer, said gloomily, "I wonder what boob they're sticking on us?"

Pete Snyder groaned. "Sure as anything, we'll get one of the ramrods."

That made sense. What Pete meant by "ramrods" was the pair of ex-Space-Force Officers the Old Man uses to straighten out the worst ships and crews. One of the ramrods stands about six foot ten and likes to travel on half-gravity, because the deck bending underfoot irritates him. The other isn't as tall, and he's as spare as a colonist's horsewhip. But regardless of their appearance, one is about as bad as the other. They're both solid poison.

"Ace" Barty, his voice dull, said, "I wonder which one we'll get, Upper Jaw or Lower Jaw?"

They got those nicknames when the Old Man bounced the captain and first officer of Worst Yet, and put both ramrods in, the bigger one for captain, the other for first officer. Worst Yet had a crew that thought it was tougher than any combination of officers—but that was before they shipped out on that trip.

You know, Sam, when something's only half-bad, a man's eager to talk about it. When it's real bad, you have to wait and let it come out, a sliver at a time.

You can take one of the tough crewmen who shipped out on Worst Yet, with Upper Jaw for captain and Lower Jaw for first officer, and go to the most wide-open joint in the easiest-run space center you can find, and pour double shots of super-nova down his throat as long as the place stays open; about 0200, he'll stare into his empty glass and growl, "The bastards." That's it, Sam. That's all he'll say about it.

Pete Snyder must have been thinking about the same thing, because he said, "Just be thankful it isn't both of them."

Ace said bitterly, "Whichever it is, we can make it plenty tough for him."

Hook gave Ace a flat look. "You say anything to him but 'Yes, sir,' and I'll brain you myself."

Ace muttered, "We got to stick together."

"Are you nuts?"

I said, "Anything we might think up, he's already had happen to him. We'd better just endure it."

Ace said grudgingly, "Yes, sir," which was his indirect way of telling me he still regarded me as captain. This was one of the first things either Upper Jaw or Lower Jaw would spot, and naturally Ace and I would both get flattened for it.

All told, this was shaping up to be an unforgettable experience. I was mentally groping for some way out when a crewman called, "Taxi-boat at the main hatch!"

Hook glanced at me. "Now what?"

"Both of us had better meet him. Whichever one it is."

We trudged down to the airlock, and matched lock pressures with the taxi-boat. I don't know what Hook was thinking, but I was wishing I could do as our previous captain had done when this banjo-bird business first started, and just retire off the ship onto a convenient colony world, and have done with the mess. But that was a daydream. There was nothing to do but face up to Upper Jaw or Lower Jaw, whichever one came through.

We swung the hatch back, and stood paralyzed as a big white-haired man looked us over, beamed, stepped in carrying a space bag, said, "Come to my cabin when you get done here," and walked out of sight.

That was our former captain. —The one who had retired.

Well, we closed the hatch, made sure the taxi-boat cast itself loose and started back to its cove, and then we headed for the captain's cabin. On the way, we ran into Ace and Pete, staring as if they'd seen a ghost.

We knocked, and a familiar gruff voice called, "Come in."

The captain was lying back on his bunk, hands clasped behind his head, smiling.

"Boys," he said, "never retire onto a new planet that has winters like that one."

"You hired on again?"

"Which would you choose, forty-foot snow drifts and a fifty-mile wind, or this cabin? Believe me, boys, space is soft. I got out of that place on the first supply ship this spring, got in touch with the Old Man, and he said, 'Sure, come on back.' When I got here he was cursing about 'flying slints.' He didn't get into a good mood till I described the time on that planet when I got stuck in the cabin for four days with only one day's wood, and the snow-wolves padding over the roof trying to pry up the shakes. Let me tell you, boys, this ship is the finest sight I've seen for a long time."

Hook looked dazed, then grinned. What a relief to have our regular captain back! Just then, a crewman brought word that a cargo section was ready, and we were to deliver it to Tarmag II. That was short notice, but nobody complained. We loaded up on supplies, got the cargo section hooked in tight, and started for Tarmag.

Well, Sam, believe it or not, we had no trouble on the trip to Tarmag, and we got there well ahead of schedule. Tarmag II turned out to be a planet that was about 99.9% wild. The other 0.1% or so had been settled by a bunch of one-track-minded superspecialists. As near as we could figure it out, there wasn't a real all-around colonist among them. They'd tried to settle on the mainland first, but it hadn't taken long to find out the planet was going to wipe them out, so they tried an island off the coast, blasted it clean of vegetation and wildlife, and practically made it over. Whenever they needed a source of raw materials on the mainland, they burned away the vegetation, put up a wall, sank their shaft or dug their pit, and so far as possible blocked out the rest of the planet. They've got it set up so they transport by air, or in coastwise robot barges, live in a few modest-sized cities, and as much as possible spend their time in the laboratories.

Think of it, Sam. Here's a planet that's earth-type, with luxuriant vegetation, all kinds of animals, room enough for everyone, and what do these colonists do? They turn their backs on all that, and settle in for a lifetime of research.

Now, that's unusual, but believe me, there's more to it. While we were down on that planet—in the city they call Lab I—what do you suppose we thought about?

Before we started down, Ace was saying, "I wonder what kind of girls they got in this place?"

Once we were down there, Ace started saying, "You know, Al, these guys have got something. I mean, research is the thing. You learn something. You get somewhere. Otherwise, what's life add up to? You're born, grow up, fight, grab your share, have kids, die, and the kids grow up, fight, grab their share, have kids, die, their kids grow up, fight, grab their share, have kids—what's the point?"

Did this tough crew of ours spend their precious leave-time whistling at the girl research-workers, or smuggling out bootleg 200-proof absolute alcohol?

No. They burrowed into libraries, and took special tours of the research facilities. We had to drag them out.

"Whew," said Hook, when we started back up in the tender, "it hurts to leave an opportunity like that behind."

Ace nodded. "I haven't hardly cracked a book since I got my papers. But down in that library, I could see, for the first time—oh, a lot of things. Like just how fascinating an equation really is. There's a beauty there that—"

Pete Snyder interrupted. "The best way to learn is in the Simumodel. Take the body, for instance. You can drift right down into the muscles, follow the nerves, see the blood go rushing by—not really see it, of course but you seem to see it, and—"

"The thing is," said Ace, "you get the integral so what do you do then? You've got the original integrand in the integral. Now where are you? Well—"

"This is all kid stuff," said Hook. "Integrals. Muscles. Listen, Al and me—"

There was a kind of funny change in the atmosphere, and then one-by-one we started looking at each other blankly.

Just how the others felt, I didn't know. But suddenly I couldn't care less about the libraries and the Simumodels.

"Now," said Hook, scowling, "what was that?"

"Drop back down," I said. "That's the first time I ever ran into a thing like that."

We went down about five hundred feet, and, somewhere during the descent, Ace said, "That's funny. For an instant there, I thought I'd gone nuts. You transpose, then you've got—"

Now, again, libraries and simumodels meant something.

Hook scowled, and started the tender up again.

There was that funny change in the atmosphere.

Ace looked around blankly.

"Down slow," I said.

We eased down, and I could tell from the fascinated expression on Ace's face that he was again thinking about his equations.

Hook said, "That's roughly it, Al. Above that level, liquor and women. Below that level, calculus and anatomy."

As we went up, Pete said dazedly, "We were sabotaged!"

Groping for an explanation, we got up to the ship—somehow I can't bring myself to call it by name—and found the captain and the cargo-control officer had finished checking the cargo.

"Damned queer cargo," growled the captain.

The cargo-control officer, a man by the name of Fisher, was studying a thick sheaf of papers, and murmured, "Maybe none of this will happen."

"Maybe. But the sooner we get this load to cut-loose, the better."

Hook and I glanced at each other. So far as we knew, the cargo was just some electronics equipment in crushproof boxes. What was wrong with that?

The captain went off, plainly thinking hard, toward the control room, and Hook and I wasted no time cornering Fisher, the cargo-control man.

"Say, Fish," said Hook. "What's the matter with this load? I can see the planet's peculiar enough. But what's wrong with the cargo?"

Fisher held out a thick sheaf of papers marked:



Read Carefully 

Instructions for Shippers, INSTIM Mark IV.


"INSTIM," said Hook. "What's that?"

"That," said Fisher, "is the thing we're shipping. While you guys were down there taking it easy, the automatic loaders were stacking them in by the thousands."

"Yeah, but what is it?" said Hook.

"That," said Fisher angrily, "is something I would hate to make any bets on. Remember, we're just the shippers. But if you'll leaf through that wad of instructions, you'll see why I'd rather we'd hooked onto a tank with a couple hundred feet of kangbar inside."

Well, that didn't sound good. But it looked worse when we got the thick sheaf of instructions opened up, and started looking through it:

" . . . extreme caution at all times to avoid undue jarring of the units . . .

" . . . accidental activation of any given unit is extremely unlikely; but when shipped in large consignments the possibility becomes a definite consideration, and due care must be exercised . . .

" . . . mutual interaction of the units. This triggering-and-reset characteristic is important in transporting large numbers of units . . .

" . . . similar to a chain reaction . . .

" . . . what happens in extreme cases is not known, as no survivors have yet returned . . .

" . . . any unusual pattern of thought on the part of one or more of the crew members is a warning signal . . ."

Hook and I looked at each other.

Fisher said, "You see what I mean?"

"We're starting to."

Pretty soon we hit the following:

" . . . If, for instance, a crew member, who normally dislikes nucleonics, finds himself unexpectedly wishing to study nucleonics, this may be classified as a Tentative Warning Symptom (TWS). If, in addition, other crew members now find themselves wishing to study nucleonics, again for no known reason, then this mass-interest may be classified as a Definitive Warning Symptom (DWS). If, then, all crew members find themselves earnestly wishing to study nucleonics, this phase may be classified as an Urgent Warning Symptom (UWS). Any otherwise unexplainable increment in the desire to study nucleonics presupposes the activation of more units. The usual progression from TWS to DWS to UWS is not reversible except in the initial phases, as the activation of additional units is cumulative, selective, and mutually reinforcing, and presumably eventuates in mass-activation of all units. The subjective nature of such an experience is as yet unknown, but, objectively, it is presumed to be fatal . . ."

"'Objectively,'" growled Hook, "'it is presumed to be fatal.'"

Fisher said, "That's the part that counts, all right. There's also something in there about how, in large consignments, the possibility becomes a definite probability. This is a large consignment we've got."

"What do we do," I said, "if it does happen? Is that in the instructions?"

Fisher thumbed through the papers, to read:

"In the event of a TWS, locate and manually reset any triggered unit to zero immediately. This will negate the possibility of accidental activations leading to a DWS and the consequent necessity of resetting large numbers of units, with the accompanying risk that the units will set each other more rapidly than they can be neutralized."

The instructions then moved on to a discussion of how to handle the sensitive units.

"Hold on," said Hook. "There's a little item they left out."

"Where," I said, "does it tell us how to locate the unit that's making the trouble?"

Fisher smiled sourly. "It doesn't bother with that. But it does tell us—let's see—here we are: 'Deactivation of the activated units will be signaled by cessation of the anomalous mental response.'"

"So you know when you've found the activated units because then you won't want to study nucleonics, for instance?"


"But the instructions don't tell you how to find the activated units?"


"And just how many units are there?"

"Well, let's see. To begin with, twelve dozen units, each unit packed inside its own protective covers, fit into a special carton about two feet wide by a foot-and-a-half high by three feet long. These cartons are stacked up and packed in shock grids. The shock grids are racked, and all but fill the cargo section. You want to take a look?"

Hook and I glanced at each other.

"Lead the way."

Fisher headed down the corridor to the connecting door, shoved it open, and we followed him into the cargo section.

As far as the eye could reach, cartons a foot-and-a-half by two feet on the end were stacked up in shock grids—open frames with specially designed coil springs and dampers—each grid holding what looked like about thirty-two cartons. The grids locked into stacking racks, and the whole works filled up the cargo-section, leaving just room enough for horizontal and vertical access spaces.

"Just suppose," I said, "that you knew which one of those units was making the trouble? How long would it take to get it out?"

"Well," said Fisher, squinting at the frames, "first we'd have to pull out the right grid. That could take us ten hours, depending on where the grid's located. Then we'd have to disassemble the grid. With the special equipment they use at terminals, that would take about two seconds. But we don't have that special equipment, so we'd be lucky if we got it done in an hour. Then we'd have to separate the cartons, and they're bound together with interlocked Crushflex strips. Say ten minutes to get through that and get out the right carton. Next you have to get into the carton. Each carton has twelve dozen units in it. Each of these units has two protective covers. Well, to be optimistic about it, it would take us maybe twelve hours to get at the right unit, assuming we knew just where it was to start with."

We stood there thinking that over.

Fisher added, "But if these instructions tell how to locate the activated unit, I haven't been able to find it."

"But even if we could, we couldn't reset it immediately?"


Hook swore. "Another disaster-cargo."

"It might be all right," I said, trying to generate a little hope. "There are only two jumps between here and cut-loose."

"Yeah, but that second run is a long one. We better think of something to do pretty fast, because you know what kind of luck we had the last trip."

Just then, the captain swung us out from Tarmag II. We were on our way.


For the first few days, everything seemed fine. We made our first jump, and then we were into that long second leg of the trip. Still there was no trouble. If anything, everybody was more normal than usual. I think this was because we were all afraid not to be normal. If anyone had an unusual thought, he kept it strictly to himself.

Every time we had a chance, we got together, to try to figure out what to do if trouble started. It was the captain who got the first idea.

"Boys," he said, squinting at the contract, "it doesn't say anything here about our delivering these things unactivated."

Hook scowled, "Still, if we don't want the first unit to activate another one, and those two to activate more, we've got to locate that first unit."

"Yes, but the important thing is, the contract does not so state. That gives us a choice. Either we locate any activated unit, or we find some way to live with it."

"It," I said, "and the thousands of others it will turn on."

The captain nodded, and glanced at Fisher. "Do those instructions make any mention of anything that shields out the effect?"

"Not a thing."

Hook said, "Wait a minute. Distance, at least, shields it out." We told the captain what had happened to us down on Tarmag II, and on our way up from the planet, and he quizzed us on it.

"That sounds," he said finally, "as if it's got a definite limit. If we have to, we could treat this as a normal-space haul of explosive cargo, and let it out on the long-reach extension cable."

"If," said Hook, "it waits till after our next jump to act up."

The captain nodded. "Otherwise, we'll have to reel the cargo section in to make the jump, and that will bring us in range of all those units. Well, possibly by the time this thing starts to make trouble, we'll—"

Ace said, his voice somewhat feverish, "We could probably work it out by integral calculus."

There was a silence, as everyone turned to take a good look at Ace.

Ace's eyes were shining. He had that fascinated look we'd seen before.

"Let's see," he said. "The cross-section is probably a circle, but it could be an ellipse, or even—where's some paper? Boy, integration is the most wonderful—"

We glanced from Ace to the captain, who said, "Lay him out. There could be a feedback between him and the cargo."

Hook and I both laid him out, and Pete Snyder did the same thing at the same time, so poor Ace didn't get much integration done, and if he hadn't been pretty tough, we'd probably have killed him.

"Okay," said the captain, "connect the long-reach and let that cargo-section out all the way. Make sure the cable sensor is linked up with the drive-control. I'll get some men suited up and outside to help you."

We started aft, but halfway there Hook stopped and backed up.

Beads of perspiration stood out on his forehead.

Pete Snyder clenched his fist, "What's wrong, old buddy?"

"Before I stepped back, for just a second, I started thinking about calculus."

"Hold it!" I said, before Pete could do anything. "Listen, Hook, can you fight it off and help us with the long-reach?"

"I can try." He took a step forward, then stepped back. "I wouldn't be any use to you."

"Put a mark on that bulkhead, go back and send somebody to help us, then try it with a suit on, and see if you get any further."

Hook took out a marking pencil, drew two vertical lines on the bulkhead, and sprinted back down the corridor. Pete and I went on to the cargo door.

Well, Sam, we didn't have any trouble hooking the cargo section on the long-reach, and we made sure the cable sensor was connected to the drive-control, so any overstrain would cut the drive. We got that part done all right.

The trouble was that as the weight came on the long-reach and helper cables, and as the drive cut back thrust to ease the strain, and as Pete called, "Drive-g into the orange! Low tone from the sensor box!" and as I said into the microphone, "Ease off slow all helper cables—slow, now, slow!" and as the men let the helpers out further and the full strain came on the long-reach, and the sensor-box audible-warning climbed up to a wail and slid down as the drive cut back further—as these things happened and the ship pulled gradually ahead of the cargo-section, it occurred to me that Ace was right. When you integrate e sin x dx and get minus e sin x dx in the answer, that is beautiful. It's so neat, so—

Pete, for an instant, stopped calling out the distance in yards, then resumed with a note of strain in his voice, and then the overpowering desire to work integrations was gone, and after a while Pete called out, "Full length on the long-reach! Standby tone from the sensor box!"

I locked up the emergency disconnect, and got everyone back inside. Letting the cargo section out on the long cable can turn into a tricky operation, but that didn't account for the men's pale nervous look as they got out of their suits.

Pete and I checked to make sure the helper cables were in place, and that there were no leaks around the ship's cargo-section space-door. Everything seemed okay, so we went forward and reported to the captain.

The captain studied our faces.

"Boys," he said, "from the way you look, you're leaving out something."

"e sin x dx," I said.

"It hit you, too?"

"For maybe ten seconds."

"How far out was the cable?"

Pete said, "Maybe a fifth of the way."

I said, "This 'activation of new units' is cumulative, isn't it?"

The captain glanced at the Instructions for Shippers, and quoted: "' . . . cumulative, selective, and mutually reinforcing, and presumably eventuates in mass-activation of all units.'"

Pete said hesitantly, "Sir, maybe we could abandon the cargo under Section XIV—'Cargo imminent hazard to life and limb.'"

The captain didn't bother to answer. The Old Man doesn't recognize Section XIV.

Pete said insistently, "If not, we've still got to make this next subspace jump between us and cut-loose. With this rig, we've got to get that cargo-section in close."

"Then we'll do it," said the captain.

"Yeah, but—"

The captain reached around and took down an expensive-looking blue-and-gold miniaturized book box lettered "Library of Universal Knowledge, 1062 Volumes." He carefully folded out the viewing lenses, pressed a set of little buttons, and handed it to me. "Read this aloud."

A sizeable book seemed to open up as I glanced into the lenses, to read: "Thought Intensifier—A device capable of selectively intensifying intellectual activity in those exposed to its action.

"The thought intensifier, or intellectual stimulator, as a hypothetical device, presently outlawed on several planets, which is believed capable of stimulating known human intellectual interests of many kinds, and maintaining them for long periods, even, with consequent uneasiness, when the intellectual activity runs counter to the exposed individual's natural tendencies. The device cannot, of course, stimulate mental activity that the target is incapable of. A rock, insect, or a man unconscious or in a stupor, is a poor subject for mental stimulation. The device is said to operate by precise activation of selected nerve-tracts or patterns, and obviously such tracts can be affected only if they exist. However, provided nerve-tracts are capable of functioning, this device is said to be capable of activating them.

"While theoretically considered to be potentially useful, in proper hands, and while a large and authoritative body of opinion holds that such devices, if they exist, could and should be used openly to stimulate desirable forms of mental activity, it has also been strongly urged that intellectual stimulators are essentially immoral, and restrict a fundamental 'freedom of thought' (see FREEDOMS, Varieties of).

"Whatever the reality or unreality of these views, the use of thought intensifiers, if it has actually taken place, has been accompanied by such secrecy and indirection that the existence of the devices remains problematical.

"Other names sometimes used in referring to these devices include: 'thought stimulator,' 'thought simulator,' and 'INSTIM,' the latter a supposed trade-name for a particularly unstable type of intellectual stimulator (see SHIPWRECKS, Famous) reputed to be of small size, high power, and great sensitivity to shock with resulting random activation.

"Authoritative opinion currently holds that such devices, in the present state of the art, are impossible, and that persistent rumors concerning their use are only examples of folklore-in-the-making (see FOLKLORE, Recent, SPACE SAUCERS, and MYTHS and RUMORS)."

I handed the box back to the captain, and Pete said doggedly, "How does that help us? We've got to hook the cargo section in close to make the jump, and when we do, there will probably be enough of those units activated so the whole ship will be in range. There won't be a thing we can do except calculus. Food won't interest us. Maintenance won't interest us. We'll work calculus till we drop." He looked around, as if to see from our expressions whether maybe he was nuts; but, believe me, we agreed with him. I never heard of anyone dying of math before, but that didn't help us. Either we found some way to get that cargo to cut-loose without being mentally swamped by it—or it would kill us.

Pete looked worriedly at the captain.

I've seen the captain bothered more by a comma in a contract.

"Well," he said, "we don't know how fast the range of those units is extending. The first thing to do is send a man on a line back along that long-reach, and meanwhile rig the spider lines. We may have to let this cargo section out further."

That made sense, but it was another headache. With the long-reach, we had some acceleration. The spider lines are strong for their thickness, all right. But whatever the stuff is they're made of, it's not only strong, it's elastic. Under tension, the thin shiny strands dwindle down so you can only see the reflection of an angled light on them. They don't hang in a true line, once the waves of expansion and contraction start traveling up and down them, and any particular line can loop around maddeningly. The only way to get them to hang right is to put them under heavy tension, and then, without warning, they stretch. You can get in quite a mess with these lines, but we had no choice. Hook, easing back along the long-reach, discovered that the field of the units was working forward in jumps that would probably put the whole ship deep inside the field sometime tomorrow.

The obvious alternative was to find a way to shield out the effect.

Using metal stocks from the storeroom, and everything else we could think of, we still found nothing that shielded out or modified the field.

To be on the safe side, we had no choice but to rig the spider lines to the long-reach, and ease further ahead of the cargo section. We had to cut our acceleration, and that lengthened the delay to the jump-point, which allowed more time for things to go wrong.

The captain, meanwhile, stayed calm and cheerful. He even gave orders for the cook to brew up a batch of his special-formula potjack, to celebrate when we hit the jump-point. It seemed a funny time to have a celebration, but we didn't have time to think about that. We were too busy trying to work out some kind of protective cage of current-carrying wires. The idea was that the variations in the electromagnetic field might disrupt the field generated by the INSTIM units. It sounded good, but nothing we were able to send through the wires worked.

Meanwhile, the INSTIM field was creeping out. By sending the tender through it on remote control, with a volunteer inside, we were able to plot the edge of the field and estimate its strength. We discovered it was now roughly spherical, and so strong that, once in it, a man had no slightest choice what to do. He thought, worked, and lived calculus, and that was all. We were in no danger from this, yet, but if we reeled that cargo section close to the ship to make the jump, the whole ship would be deep inside it.

The only hope seemed to be to work out some kind of automatic device to reel in the cargo section before the jump, and let it out again afterward. We might have worked this, if it hadn't been for the spider lines. No matter what we did, we couldn't figure any way to make the handling of those lines fully automatic.

Hook and I took it up with the captain.

"Sir," I said, "I don't like to say it, but it seems to me this is one cargo we have to dump."

The captain sat back and looked at us, benevolent and unconvinced.

I said, "We can't shield out the effect. We can't moderate it. We can't vary it at all. This model cargo section has to be hooked in tight when we make that jump. At the jump-point, then, we've got to work inside of the field. But we can't work inside the field. All we can do inside of it is what it dictates."

The captain clasped his hands behind his neck.

"We haven't hit this problem a good low blow yet. We've only tried to solve it on a high level."

Hook said grimly, "I'll hit it as low as I can hit it. But how?"

The captain took down his little book box, and read aloud, " . . . The device cannot, of course, stimulate mental activity that the target is incapable of. A rock, insect, or a man unconscious or in a stupor is a poor subject for mental stimulation . . ."

He then looked at us.

Hook smote his forehead and swore.

I stood there too dazed to speak.

"There are generally two ways," said the captain, "to take care of a problem. One is to solve it on its own terms, satisfy its requirements. That, you might say, is the high road to a solution. The other way is to unhinge the problem—rearrange matters so it doesn't have to be solved. That, you might say, is the low road. Either way, you take care of the problem.

"Say your girl springs it on you that to prove you love her you've got to go out and bring back the head of a wild kangbar you've killed, all by yourself, just for her. The high-road solution of that problem is to go out, find and somehow kill the monster single-handed, and freight back the head.

"The low-road solution is to get her to change her mind, or else find a different girl. That doesn't solve the problem on its own terms. But it takes care of it, all right.

"Now, this cargo of activated INSTIM units puts us in a spot where, to deliver the cargo, we've got to work inside the field generated by the units. But the units are so set that no-one with the capacity to be interested in moderately advanced mathematics can help but be interested in mathematics—to the degree that he can't think of anything else. The field therefore presents us with the problem of somehow finding a technological means to shield out the effect, so that we can work inside the field. This solution is the high road. But that doesn't mean it's the only road."

The captain reached into his desk drawer, and set on the desk a small neatly-stoppered jug.

"I hoped," he said, "that we could figure out a way to shield out the effect. It might be a handy thing to know. But, since we can't, it's worth considering that a man can be in pretty sorry shape and still carry out a routine he's used to, especially if he's drilled at it until it's second nature. But he's not going to work out too many abstruse problems when he's in the particular state I'm thinking of.

"Just what grip can this field get on us if the nerve-tracts necessary to work mathematics problems can't function?"

Well, Sam, I think you get the picture. We drilled day and night from then till we neared the end of that leg of the trip. When the time came the spider lines were a nightmare, but even seeing double from the captain's potjack, we still had the routine down so solid that we were able to reel in the cargo section, make the sub-space jump, and then cut the section loose on the far side. As for the INSTIM units, believe me, there was no handle for them to get hold of us by. That mental lever was out of action.

As for how we felt afterward, let's not even think about that. We were still hung over when we got back to the loading center, but the captain explained it to the Old Man, and everything was okay. We'd met the contract, and that was all he cared about.

The ship even got renamed, and I suppose it's an improvement. But Bunglers All was bad enough to have to explain to curious outsiders. How are we supposed to explain Drunk in Line of Duty?

There's got to be a way around this somehow. Anything you might suggest, Sam, would be welcome.

As ever, Al



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