30 September 2016

Survival (Had Robert Sheckley, rather than Tom Godwin, written “The Cold Equations”)


M
elvin Blaire paused in the act of placing a red queen on a black king. Angry buzzers were sounding throughout his small spacecraft, and half a dozen lights on his control panel were blinking alarmingly. He fumbled for the Emergency Spacecraft Instructions disk, knocking the cards onto the floor, found it, and dropped it into a slot in his Information Decoder.
This was the first emergency he had ever faced in his eight years on the necessary but undemanding job as pilot of an emergency spacecraft for Interspace Transport. He had had the usual run of accidents, of course—planetary collisions, novas, spacewarp entanglements—but real emergencies had hitherto passed him by.
Actually, Melvin thought, survival had become largely a pushbutton affair in the twenty-second century. In case of trouble all he had to do was to follow the instructions on the disk and it would be taken care of automatically by a host of busy, efficient mechanisms. The old days, when survival depended on individual initiative and luck, were gone. Now survival depended only on luck.
“What do you want?” demanded the decoder.
“I have an emergency,” Melvin explained diffidently.
“So you have,” agreed the decoder. “Your ship’s weight does not match the specifications, there is insufficient fuel to land, an unauthorized person is aboard—”
“Unauthorized person?” exclaimed Melvin. “Who? Where?” He wondered briefly if the decoder had blown a fuse. It was an Acme, and guaranteed for the lifetime of the user, plus or minus seven years, but still—
“You have a stowaway,” elucidated the decoder. “Human or humanoid, blond, blue-eyed, female, standing about two yards behind you—”
Melvin spun around. The decoder was right. He had a stowaway, a remarkably pretty light-haired girl. “What are you doing here?” he said weakly. “This is an emergency vessel, not a passenger liner. I’m carrying vitally needed serum to some god-forsaken outpost—”
“Omega 6,” the girl said. “That’s why I came aboard. My brother’s stationed there.”
“But it’s against the rules,” protested Melvin.
“Rules,” she shrugged, “What are rules anyway, but man’s futile attempt to impose order on the indeterminate universe?”
Melvin recognized this as a creedal statement from this year’s best-selling cult, the Heisenbergian Rites, but he was not to be put off. “Interspace won’t see it that way,” he said.
“So okay,” she said, “I broke a rule. So what?”
“Procedure for dealing with unauthorized lifeform or lifeforms in flight,” spoke the decoder, “first, ascertain that there is in fact an unauthorized lifeform or lifeforms aboard.”
“Check,” said Melvin instantly.
“Determine the lifeform’s identity or identities.”
“Check,” said Melvin. He turned to the girl. “Who are you?”
“Janet Morgan,” she said. “I’m an industrial saboteur on Mebla 3.” She offered Melvin her identity tape.
Melvin ran the tape through the data accumulator. “What next?” he asked.
“Within a period of fifteen minutes following the discovery,” said the decoder, “eject the unauthorized lifeform from the craft.”
“Eject!” exclaimed Janet. “Why?”
“To conserve fuel,” replied the decoder, “The presence of sufficient fuel is necessary to land successfully and to maintain the morale of the crew at the optimum level required by law.”
“You mean they give spacecraft controllers the right to kill people?” she said incredulously. “That doesn’t make sense.”
Melvin smiled apologetically.
“It may not make sense,” said the decoder, “but it’s efficient, which is more important.”
“But this is an ES Class IV,” she said. “It could hold more fuel. Why don’t they put enough in?”
“This way,” intoned the machine, “we sharpen the pilot’s reflexes, discourage ineptitude, and promote the virtues of conservation and thrift. Allowing the pilot to remove unauthorized lifeforms himself gives him confidence and an opportunity to discharge his aggressions.”
“I have no choice,” said Melvin. “You see how it is.”
“I see how it is,” said Janet. “Look, why don’t you forget your peculiar friends at Interspace? We have enough fuel to reach Epsilon 4. We could go there, sell the ship, and have a good time? Why not?”
Melvin stared at her, wondering how such a pretty girl could propose so antisocial an act. Disconcertingly he became aware of the scent of her perfume. He shook his head to clear it. “I couldn’t rob my employers,” he said.
“But you could push me out the airlock,” said Janet.
“That’s different,” he said. He was finding it difficult to think. Something about her presence was disturbing him, clouding his mind and numbing his senses. “It’s not against the rules,” he mumbled.
Why couldn’t he think? There was something in the atmosphere—the perfume. Perfume? Perfume hell—it was Lethalex-27, one of the many products designed for saboteurs and spies, guaranteed to knock out any humanoid within twenty feet of the user. The room spun as he slipped to the floor.
“Is that a standard airlock?” he heard her ask the decoder. Why hadn’t he seen it? Survival is a full-time occupation, not something to be delegated to machines. One moment of inattention, one mistake, and out the airlock you go, into the vast reaches of space.
At least, he thought, they could have let him finish his game.

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