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´╗┐Title: One-Shot
Author: Blish, James Benjamin
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "One-Shot" ***

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 _You can do a great deal if
 you have enough data, and
 enough time to compute on it,
 by logical methods. But given
 the situation that neither data
 nor time is adequate, and an
 answer must be produced ...
 what do you do?_


Illustrated by van Dongen

On the day that the Polish freighter _Ludmilla_ laid an egg in New York
harbor, Abner Longmans ("One-Shot") Braun was in the city going about
his normal business, which was making another million dollars. As we
found out later, almost nothing else was normal about that particular
week end for Braun. For one thing, he had brought his family with him--a
complete departure from routine--reflecting the unprecedentedly
legitimate nature of the deals he was trying to make. From every point
of view it was a bad week end for the CIA to mix into his affairs, but
nobody had explained that to the master of the _Ludmilla_.

I had better add here that we knew nothing about this until afterward;
from the point of view of the storyteller, an organization like Civilian
Intelligence Associates gets to all its facts backwards, entering the
tale at the pay-off, working back to the hook, and winding up with a
sheaf of background facts to feed into the computer for Next Time. It's
rough on the various people who've tried to fictionalize what we
do--particularly for the lazy examples of the breed, who come to us
expecting that their plotting has already been done for them--but it's
inherent in the way we operate, and there it is.

Certainly nobody at CIA so much as thought of Braun when the news first
came through. Harry Anderton, the Harbor Defense chief, called us at
0830 Friday to take on the job of identifying the egg; this was when our
records show us officially entering the affair, but, of course, Anderton
had been keeping the wires to Washington steaming for an hour before
that, getting authorization to spend some of his money on us (our
clearance status was then and is now C&R--clean and routine).

I was in the central office when the call came through, and had some
difficulty in making out precisely what Anderton wanted of us. "Slow
down, Colonel Anderton, please," I begged him. "Two or three seconds
won't make that much difference. How did you find out about this egg in
the first place?"

"The automatic compartment bulkheads on the _Ludmilla_ were defective,"
he said. "It seems that this egg was buried among a lot of other crates
in the dump-cell of the hold--"

"What's a dump cell?"

"It's a sea lock for getting rid of dangerous cargo. The bottom of it
opens right to Davy Jones. Standard fitting for ships carrying
explosives, radioactives, anything that might act up unexpectedly."

"All right," I said. "Go ahead."

"Well, there was a timer on the dump-cell floor, set to drop the egg
when the ship came up the river. That worked fine, but the automatic
bulkheads that are supposed to keep the rest of the ship from being
flooded while the cell's open, didn't. At least they didn't do a
thorough job. The _Ludmilla_ began to list and the captain yelled for
help. When the Harbor Patrol found the dump-cell open, they called us

"I see." I thought about it a moment. "In other words, you don't know
whether the _Ludmilla_ really laid an egg or not."

"That's what I keep trying to explain to you, Dr. Harris. We don't know
what she dropped and we haven't any way of finding out. It could be a
bomb--it could be anything. We're sweating everybody on board the ship
now, but it's my guess that none of them know anything; the whole
procedure was designed to be automatic."

"All right, we'll take it," I said. "You've got divers down?"

"Sure, but--"

"We'll worry about the buts from here on. Get us a direct line from
your barge to the big board here so we can direct the work. Better get
on over here yourself."

"Right." He sounded relieved. Official people have a lot of confidence
in CIA; too much, in my estimation. Some day the job will come along
that we can't handle, and then Washington will be kicking itself--or,
more likely, some scapegoat--for having failed to develop a comparable
government department.

Not that there was much prospect of Washington's doing that. Official
thinking had been running in the other direction for years. The
precedent was the Associated Universities organization which ran
Brookhaven; CIA had been started the same way, by a loose corporation of
universities and industries all of which had wanted to own an ULTIMAC
and no one of which had had the money to buy one for itself. The
Eisenhower administration, with its emphasis on private enterprise and
concomitant reluctance to sink federal funds into projects of such size,
had turned the two examples into a nice fat trend, which ULTIMAC herself
said wasn't going to be reversed within the practicable lifetime of CIA.

       *       *       *       *       *

I buzzed for two staffers, and in five minutes got Clark Cheyney and
Joan Hadamard, CIA's business manager and social science division chief
respectively. The titles were almost solely for the benefit of the
T/O--that is, Clark and Joan do serve in those capacities, but said
service takes about two per cent of their capacities and their time. I
shot them a couple of sentences of explanation, trusting them to pick up
whatever else they needed from the tape, and checked the line to the
divers' barge.

It was already open; Anderton had gone to work quickly and with decision
once he was sure we were taking on the major question. The television
screen lit, but nothing showed on it but murky light, striped with
streamers of darkness slowly rising and falling. The audio went
_cloonck_ ... _oing_, _oing_ ... _bonk_ ... _oing_ ... Underwater
noises, shapeless and characterless.

"Hello, out there in the harbor. This is CIA, Harris calling. Come in,

"Monig here," the audio said. _Boink_ ... _oing_, _oing_ ...

"Got anything yet?"

"Not a thing, Dr. Harris," Monig said. "You can't see three inches in
front of your face down here--it's too silty. We've bumped into a couple
of crates, but so far, no egg."

"Keep trying."

Cheyney, looking even more like a bulldog than usual, was setting his
stopwatch by one of the eight clocks on ULTIMAC's face. "Want me to take
the divers?" he said.

"No, Clark, not yet. I'd rather have Joan do it for the moment." I
passed the mike to her. "You'd better run a probability series first."

"Check." He began feeding tape into the integrator's mouth. "What's your
angle, Peter?"

"The ship. I want to see how heavily shielded that dump-cell is."

"It isn't shielded at all," Anderton's voice said behind me. I hadn't
heard him come in. "But that doesn't prove anything. The egg might have
carried sufficient shielding in itself. Or maybe the Commies didn't care
whether the crew was exposed or not. Or maybe there isn't any egg."

"All that's possible," I admitted. "But I want to see it, anyhow."

"Have you taken blood tests?" Joan asked Anderton.


"Get the reports through to me, then. I want white-cell counts,
differentials, platelet counts, hematocrit and sed rates on every man."

Anderton picked up the phone and I took a firm hold on the doorknob.

"Hey," Anderton said, putting the phone down again. "Are you going to
duck out just like that? Remember, Dr. Harris, we've got to evacuate the
city first of all! No matter whether it's a real egg or not--we can't
take the chance on it's _not_ being an egg!"

"Don't move a man until you get a go-ahead from CIA," I said. "For all
we know now, evacuating the city may be just what the enemy wants us to
do--so they can grab it unharmed. Or they may want to start a panic for
some other reason, any one of fifty possible reasons."

"You can't take such a gamble," he said grimly. "There are eight and a
half million lives riding on it. I can't let you do it."

"You passed your authority to us when you hired us," I pointed out. "If
you want to evacuate without our O.K., you'll have to fire us first.
It'll take another hour to get that cleared from Washington--so you
might as well give us the hour."

He stared at me for a moment, his lips thinned. Then he picked up the
phone again to order Joan's blood count, and I got out the door, fast.

       *       *       *       *       *

A reasonable man would have said that I found nothing useful on the
_Ludmilla_, except negative information. But the fact is that anything I
found would have been a surprise to me; I went down looking for
surprises. I found nothing but a faint trail to Abner Longmans Braun,
most of which was fifteen years cold.

There'd been a time when I'd known Braun, briefly and to no profit to
either of us. As an undergraduate majoring in social sciences, I'd taken
on a term paper on the old International Longshoreman's Association, a
racket-ridden union now formally extinct--although anyone who knew the
signs could still pick up some traces on the docks. In those days, Braun
had been the business manager of an insurance firm, the sole visible
function of which had been to write policies for the ILA and its
individual dock-wallopers. For some reason, he had been amused by the
brash youngster who'd barged in on him and demanded the lowdown, and had
shown me considerable lengths of ropes not normally in view of the
public--nothing incriminating, but enough to give me a better insight
into how the union operated than I had had any right to expect--or even

Hence I was surprised to hear somebody on the docks remark that Braun
was in the city over the week end. It would never have occurred to me
that he still interested himself in the waterfront, for he'd gone
respectable with a vengeance. He was still a professional gambler, and
according to what he had told the Congressional Investigating Committee
last year, took in thirty to fifty thousand dollars a year at it, but
his gambles were no longer concentrated on horses, the numbers, or shady
insurance deals. Nowadays what he did was called investment--mostly in
real estate; realtors knew him well as the man who had _almost_ bought
the Empire State Building. (The _almost_ in the equation stands for the
moment when the shoestring broke.)

Joan had been following his career, too, not because she had ever met
him, but because for her he was a type study in the evolution of what
she called "the extra-legal ego." "With personalities like that,
respectability is a disease," she told me. "There's always an
almost-open conflict between the desire to be powerful and the desire to
be accepted; your ordinary criminal is a moral imbecile, but people like
Braun are damned with a conscience, and sooner or later they crack
trying to appease it."

"I'd sooner try to crack a Timkin bearing," I said. "Braun's ten-point
steel all the way through."

"Don't you believe it. The symptoms are showing all over him. Now he's
backing Broadway plays, sponsoring beginning actresses, joining
playwrights' groups--he's the only member of Buskin and Brush who's
never written a play, acted in one, or so much as pulled the rope to
raise the curtain."

"That's investment," I said. "That's his business."

"Peter, you're only looking at the surface. His real investments almost
never fail. But the plays he backs _always_ do. They have to; he's
sinking money in them to appease his conscience, and if they were to
succeed it would double his guilt instead of salving it. It's the same
way with the young actresses. He's not sexually interested in them--his
type never is, because living a rigidly orthodox family life is part of
the effort towards respectability. He's backing them to 'pay his debt to
society'--in other words, they're talismans to keep him out of jail."

"It doesn't seem like a very satisfactory substitute."

"Of course it isn't," Joan had said. "The next thing he'll do is go in
for direct public service--giving money to hospitals or something like
that. You watch."

She had been right; within the year, Braun had announced the founding of
an association for clearing the Detroit slum area where he had been
born--the plainest kind of symbolic suicide: _Let's not have any more
Abner Longmans Brauns born down here_. It depressed me to see it happen,
for next on Joan's agenda for Braun was an entry into politics as a
fighting liberal--a New Dealer twenty years too late. Since I'm mildly
liberal myself when I'm off duty, I hated to think what Braun's career
might tell me about my own motives, if I'd let it.

       *       *       *       *       *

All of which had nothing to do with why I was prowling around the
_Ludmilla_--or did it? I kept remembering Anderton's challenge: "You
can't take such a gamble. There are eight and a half million lives
riding on it--" That put it up into Braun's normal operating area, all
right. The connection was still hazy, but on the grounds that any link
might be useful, I phoned him.

He remembered me instantly; like most uneducated, power-driven men, he
had a memory as good as any machine's.

"You never did send me that paper you was going to write," he said. His
voice seemed absolutely unchanged, although he was in his seventies now.
"You promised you would."

"Kids don't keep their promises as well as they should," I said. "But
I've still got copies and I'll see to it that you get one, this time.
Right now I need another favor--something right up your alley."

"CIA business?"

"Yes. I didn't know you knew I was with CIA."

Braun chuckled. "I still know a thing or two," he said. "What's the

"That I can't tell you over the phone. But it's the biggest gamble there
ever was, and I think we need an expert. Can you come down to CIA's
central headquarters right away?"

"Yeah, if it's that big. If it ain't, I got lots of business here, Andy.
And I ain't going to be in town long. You're sure it's top stuff?"

"My word on it."

He was silent a moment. Then he said, "Andy, send me your paper."

"The paper? Sure, but--" Then I got it. I'd given him my word. "You'll
get it," I said. "Thanks, Mr. Braun."

I called headquarters and sent a messenger to my apartment to look for
one of those long-dusty blue folders with the legal-length sheets inside
them, with orders to scorch it over to Braun without stopping to breathe
more than once. Then I went back myself.

The atmosphere had changed. Anderton was sitting by the big desk,
clenching his fists and sweating; his whole posture telegraphed his
controlled helplessness. Cheyney was bent over a seismograph,
echo-sounding for the egg through the river bottom. If that even had a
prayer of working, I knew, he'd have had the trains of the Hudson &
Manhattan stopped; their rumbling course through their tubes would have
blanked out any possible echo-pip from the egg.

"Wild goose chase?" Joan said, scanning my face.

"Not quite. I've got something, if I can just figure out what it is.
Remember One-Shot Braun?"

"Yes. What's he got to do with it?"


"Nothing," I said. "But I want to bring him in. I don't think we'll lick
this project before deadline without him."

"What good is a professional gambler on a job like this? He'll just get
in the way."

I looked toward the television screen, which now showed an amorphous
black mass, jutting up from a foundation of even deeper black. "Is that
operation getting you anywhere?"

"Nothing's gotten us anywhere," Anderton interjected harshly. "We don't
even know if that's the egg--the whole area is littered with crates.
Harris, you've got to let me get that alert out!"

"Clark, how's the time going?"

Cheyney consulted the stopwatch. "Deadline in twenty-nine minutes," he

"All right, let's use those minutes. I'm beginning to see this thing a
little clearer. Joan, what we've got here is a one-shot gamble; right?"

"In effect," she said cautiously.

"And it's my guess that we're never going to get the answer by diving
for it--not in time, anyhow. Remember when the Navy lost a barge-load of
shells in the harbor, back in '52? They scrabbled for them for a year
and never pulled up a one; they finally had to warn the public that if
it found anything funny-looking along the shore it shouldn't bang said
object, or shake it either. We're better equipped than the Navy was
then--but we're working against a deadline."

"If you'd admitted that earlier," Anderton said hoarsely, "we'd have
half a million people out of the city by now. Maybe even a million."

"We haven't given up yet, colonel. The point is this, Joan: what we need
is an inspired guess. Get anything from the prob series, Clark? I
thought not. On a one-shot gamble of this kind, the 'laws' of chance are
no good at all. For that matter, the so-called ESP experiments showed us
long ago that even the way we construct random tables is full of
holes--and that a man with a feeling for the essence of a gamble can
make a monkey out of chance almost at will.

"And if there ever was such a man, Braun is it. That's why I asked him
to come down here. I want him to look at that lump on the screen
and--play a hunch."

"You're out of your mind," Anderton said.

       *       *       *       *       *

A decorous knock spared me the trouble of having to deny, affirm or
ignore the judgment. It was Braun; the messenger had been fast, and the
gambler hadn't bothered to read what a college student had thought of
him fifteen years ago. He came forward and held out his hand, while the
others looked him over frankly.

He was impressive, all right. It would have been hard for a stranger to
believe that he was aiming at respectability; to the eye, he was already
there. He was tall and spare, and walked perfectly erect, not without
spring despite his age. His clothing was as far from that of a gambler
as you could have taken it by design: a black double-breasted suit with
a thin vertical stripe, a gray silk tie with a pearl stickpin just
barely large enough to be visible at all, a black Homburg; all perfectly
fitted, all worn with proper casualness--one might almost say a formal
casualness. It was only when he opened his mouth that One-Shot Braun was
in the suit with him.

"I come over as soon as your runner got to me," he said. "What's the
pitch, Andy?"

"Mr. Braun, this is Joan Hadamard, Clark Cheyney, Colonel Anderton. I'll
be quick because we need speed now. A Polish ship has dropped something
out in the harbor. We don't know what it is. It may be a hell-bomb, or
it may be just somebody's old laundry. Obviously we've got to find out
which--and we want you to tell us."

Braun's aristocratic eyebrows went up. "Me? Hell, Andy, I don't know
nothing about things like that. I'm surprised with you. I thought CIA
had all the brains it needed--ain't you got machines to tell you answers
like that?"

I pointed silently to Joan, who had gone back to work the moment the
introductions were over. She was still on the mike to the divers. She
was saying: "What does it look like?"

"It's just a lump of something, Dr. Hadamard. Can't even tell its
shape--it's buried too deeply in the mud." _Cloonk_ ... _Oing_, _oing_

"Try the Geiger."

"We did. Nothing but background."

"Scintillation counter?"

"Nothing, Dr. Hadamard. Could be it's shielded."

"Let us do the guessing, Monig. All right, maybe it's got a clockwork
fuse that didn't break with the impact. Or a gyroscopic fuse. Stick a
stethoscope on it and see if you pick up a ticking or anything that
sounds like a motor running."

       *       *       *       *       *

There was a lag and I turned back to Braun. "As you can see, we're
stymied. This is a long shot, Mr. Braun. One throw of the dice--one
show-down hand. We've got to have an expert call it for us--somebody
with a record of hits on long shots. That's why I called you."

"It's no good," he said. He took off the Homburg, took his handkerchief
from his breast pocket, and wiped the hatband. "I can't do it."

"Why not?"

"It ain't my _kind_ of thing," he said. "Look, I never in my life run
odds on anything that made any difference. But this makes a difference.
If I guess wrong--"

"Then we're all dead ducks. But why should you guess wrong? Your hunches
have been working for sixty years now."

Braun wiped his face. "No. You don't get it. I wish you'd listen to me.
Look, my wife and my kids are in the city. It ain't only my life, it's
theirs, too. That's what I care about. That's why it's no good. On
things that matter to me, _my hunches don't work_."

I was stunned, and so, I could see, were Joan and Cheyney. I suppose I
should have guessed it, but it had never occurred to me.

"Ten minutes," Cheyney said.

I looked up at Braun. He was frightened, and again I was surprised
without having any right to be. I tried to keep at least my voice calm.

"Please try it anyhow, Mr. Braun--as a favor. It's already too late to
do it any other way. And if you guess wrong, the outcome won't be any
worse than if you don't try at all."

"My kids," he whispered. I don't think he knew that he was speaking
aloud. I waited.

Then his eyes seemed to come back to the present. "All right," he said.
"I told you the truth, Andy. Remember that. So--is it a bomb or ain't
it? That's what's up for grabs, right?"

I nodded. He closed his eyes. An unexpected stab of pure fright went
down my back. Without the eyes, Braun's face was a death mask.

The water sounds and the irregular ticking of a Geiger counter seemed to
spring out from the audio speaker, four times as loud as before. I could
even hear the pen of the seismograph scribbling away, until I looked at
the instrument and saw that Clark had stopped it, probably long ago.

Droplets of sweat began to form along Braun's forehead and his upper
lip. The handkerchief remained crushed in his hand.

Anderton said, "Of all the fool--"

"Hush!" Joan said quietly.

       *       *       *       *       *

Slowly, Braun opened his eyes. "All right," he said. "You guys wanted it
this way. _I say it's a bomb._" He stared at us for a moment more--and
then, all at once, the Timkin bearing burst. Words poured out of it.
"Now you guys do something, do your job like I did mine--get my wife and
kids out of there--empty the city--do something, _do something_!"

Anderton was already grabbing for the phone. "You're right, Mr. Braun.
If it isn't already too late--"

Cheyney shot out a hand and caught Anderton's telephone arm by the
wrist. "Wait a minute," he said.

"What d'you mean, 'wait a minute'? Haven't you already shot enough

Cheyney did not let go; instead, he looked inquiringly at Joan and said,
"One minute, Joan. You might as well go ahead."

She nodded and spoke into the mike. "Monig, unscrew the cap."

"Unscrew the cap?" the audio squawked. "But Dr. Hadamard, if that sets
it off--"

"It won't go off. That's the one thing you can be sure it won't do."

"What is this?" Anderton demanded. "And what's this deadline stuff,

"The cap's off," Monig reported. "We're getting plenty of radiation now.
Just a minute-- Yeah. Dr. Hadamard, it's a bomb, all right. But it
hasn't got a fuse. Now how could they have made a fool mistake like

"In other words, it's a dud," Joan said.

"That's right, a dud."

Now, at last, Braun wiped his face, which was quite gray. "I told you
the truth," he said grimly. "My hunches don't work on stuff like this."

"But they do," I said. "I'm sorry we put you through the wringer--and
you too, colonel--but we couldn't let an opportunity like this slip. It
was too good a chance for us to test how our facilities would stand up
in a real bomb-drop."

"A real drop?" Anderton said. "Are you trying to say that CIA staged
this? You ought to be shot, the whole pack of you!"

"No, not exactly," I said. "The enemy's responsible for the drop, all
right. We got word last month from our man in Gdynia that they were
going to do it, and that the bomb would be on board the _Ludmilla_. As I
say, it was too good an opportunity to miss. We wanted to find out just
how long it would take us to figure out the nature of the bomb--which we
didn't know in detail--after it was dropped here. So we had our people
in Gdynia defuse the thing after it was put on board the ship, but
otherwise leave it entirely alone.

"Actually, you see, your hunch was right on the button as far as it
went. We didn't ask you whether or not that object was a live bomb. We
asked whether it was a bomb or not. You said it was, and you were

The expression on Braun's face was exactly like the one he had worn
while he had been searching for his decision--except that, since his
eyes were open, I could see that it was directed at me. "If this was the
old days," he said in an ice-cold voice, "I might of made the colonel's
idea come true. I don't go for tricks like this, Andy."

"It was more than a trick," Clark put in. "You'll remember we had a
deadline on the test, Mr. Braun. Obviously, in a real drop we wouldn't
have all the time in the world to figure out what kind of a thing had
been dropped. If we had still failed to establish that when the deadline
ran out, we would have had to allow evacuation of the city, with all the
attendant risk that that was exactly what the enemy wanted us to do."


"So we failed the test," I said. "At one minute short of the deadline,
Joan had the divers unscrew the cap. In a real drop that would have
resulted in a detonation, if the bomb was real; we'd never risk it. That
we did do it in the test was a concession of failure--an admission that
our usual methods didn't come through for us in time.

"And that means that you were the only person who did come through, Mr.
Braun. If a real bomb-drop ever comes, we're going to have to have you
here, as an active part of our investigation. Your intuition for the
one-shot gamble was the one thing that bailed us out this time. Next
time it may save eight million lives."

There was quite a long silence. All of us, Anderton included, watched
Braun intently, but his impassive face failed to show any trace of how
his thoughts were running.

When he did speak at last, what he said must have seemed insanely
irrelevant to Anderton, and maybe to Cheyney too. And perhaps it meant
nothing more to Joan than the final clinical note in a case history.

"It's funny," he said, "I was thinking of running for Congress next year
from my district. But maybe this is more important."

It was, I believe, the sigh of a man at peace with himself.


Transcriber's Note

    This etext was produced from _Astounding Science Fiction_ August
    1955. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
    copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and
    typographical errors have been corrected without note.

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enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.