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I'm asking this for a friend of my daughter's and I don't have a lot of information.

Basically, a spaceship is in a battle with another ship. They are about to defeat their enemy. Before they are able to destroy them, though, they shoot out a featureless orb which is accidentally brought on board. They are completely unable to analyze the orb and are afraid to do much for fear that any action may set it off. A mutiny takes place as a result and they end up surrendering to their enemy. He said he believes it's from the later half of the 20th century.

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  • Hi, welcome to the site. Can you give us a rough idea of when this story was read, and how old it may have been? Oct 30, 2023 at 4:50
  • Sorry about that. All he said was that he thinks it's from the last half of the 20th century.
    – Brian
    Oct 30, 2023 at 4:54

1 Answer 1

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This is "Situation Thirty" by Frank M. Robinson, first published in 1951. I have it in front of me in Gordon R. Dickson's anthology Combat SF, published in 1981.

You have much of the story correct.

A fleet of ships from Earth is ambushed and destroyed - except for one ship the aliens plan to take home as a trophy and to learn about Earth technology. The alien fleet leaves for home, with one ship staying behind to bring back the Earth ship.

The officers of the Earth ships are psychologically programmed - they cannot give up or admit defeat.

The last officer on board the Earth ship comes up with a plan. Since the aliens left the Earthlings alive, they must have curiosity the same as humans do. He arranges for a simple steel box to be set drifting so that it will be picked up by the alien flagship.

Sure enough, one of the enlisted personnel in the alien ship snags the box, brings it on board, and delivers it to the commander of the fleet.

The commander has the box analyzed - or rather, he tries to. His technicians initially can't find anything special about the box. Since their analysis doesn't show anything, they start imagining all kinds of things it might be. It has to be something dangerous else the Earth ship wouldn't have sent it.

The aliens grapple with it for a couple of days, with the Earth officer certain that the cube was having the expected effect. He discusses the results of his little example of psychological warfare with his highest ranked enlisted man and explains that the box was simply an empty steel box intended to sow doubt in the minds of the alien officers. They suspect it has to be something, but can't find anything since it is really just a box.

The aliens keep trying to examine the box and coming up with reasons why each attempt might be bad - they end up unable to do anything with it for fear they may set off whatever kind of bomb or weapon it might be. Eventually, they come to suspect that it may be set to go off after a period of time.

About the time the Earth officer is expecting the aliens to surrender, an Earth crewman brings him a steel sphere that drifted over from the aliens.

The officer immediately recognizes it for the same kind of thing he'd sent the aliens. It has the same effect on him as his box had on the aliens, with the result that he cracks up - the sphere might be fake, but it might be real. If it is real, the aliens are superior. If they are superior then he can't win but he must win - except he can't. Caught between reality, imagination, and indoctrination, he cracks up.

The enlisted man has the now crazy officer locked away, then gives orders to the effect that the sphere should be sliced open and that surrender terms will be transmitted to the alien fleet and the aliens taken captive.


The enlisted man realizes that it doesn't matter what the sphere is. The Earth ship and its crewmen is already lost - the ship will be dismantled and the crew killed. If the sphere is a bomb, then they will die a little earlier. If not, then he can take advantage of the officer's psychological warfare trick to capture the aliens. From the Earth crewman's point of view, things can only get better.

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    Thank you again. That was the right story and my daughter's friend was thrilled.
    – Brian
    Oct 31, 2023 at 4:03

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