This question reminded me of a story I read in the 90s.

A woman is caught shoplifting a bunch of metal items by throwing them into her purse. She has no memory, and the purse is empty. Anything metal they put in disappears. The police turn it over to government scientists, who investigate by attaching a large lump of metal to some extremely strong wire and dropping it in like a fishing line.

They have it hooked up to the biggest, strongest crane available, and they begin reeling it back in. They reason that if whoever is on the other side can't let go, it could turn their universe inside out or something equally unpleasant, thus giving Earth the leg up in opening negotiations.

and then

The tension on the line increases until is under too much tension to cut. The story ends with the line slowly sliding back into the purse, with the realization that their plan has backfired in the worst possible way.

Anyone know the name of the story and author?

  • 3
    I remember reading this story and wondering about that detail "too much tension to cut". Is that a real thing?
    – jhocking
    Jul 15, 2015 at 19:32
  • 1
    Well, a line under tension being cut would whiplash really badly. Capable of cutting people in half
    – user16696
    Jul 15, 2015 at 19:51
  • @jhocking I misremembered a little bit. The winch is under too much tension to release, and cutting the steel bar (it's not a wire) with a torch would take too long.
    – Robert
    Jul 16, 2015 at 7:11
  • 1
    Thanks for that clarification, but still wondering if "too much tension" is really a thing that can happen. I'm not super familiar with winches :P
    – jhocking
    Jul 16, 2015 at 12:10

1 Answer 1


"Tiger by the Tail" by Alan E. Nourse.

It's a steel bar instead of a wire but otherwise you remembered it perfectly.

This story is often remembered from the popular anthology "50 Short Science Fiction Tales."

  • It's also republished in Nourse's short-story collection of the same name.
    – slgwv
    Aug 24, 2020 at 22:18
  • @slgwv the link in my answer gives a complete publication history. Aug 24, 2020 at 22:22

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