Accidental death, p.1
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       Accidental Death, p.1

           Peter Baily
 
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Accidental Death


  Produced by Greg Weeks, Bruce Albrecht, Stephen Blundelland the Online Distributed Proofreading Team athttps://www.pgdp.net

  ACCIDENTAL DEATH

  BY PETER BAILY

  _The most dangerous of weapons is the one you don't know is loaded._

  Illustrated by Schoenherr

  The wind howled out of the northwest, blind with snow and barbed withice crystals. All the way up the half-mile precipice it fingered andwrenched away at groaning ice-slabs. It screamed over the top, whirledsnow in a dervish dance around the hollow there, piled snow into thelong furrow plowed ruler-straight through streamlined hummocks of snow.

  The sun glinted on black rock glazed by ice, chasms and ridges andbridges of ice. It lit the snow slope to a frozen glare, penciled blackshadow down the long furrow, and flashed at the furrow's end on a thingof metal and plastics, an artifact thrown down in the dead wilderness.

  Nothing grew, nothing flew, nothing walked, nothing talked. But thething in the hollow was stirring in stiff jerks like a snake with itsback broken or a clockwork toy running down. When the movements stopped,there was a click and a strange sound began. Thin, scratchy, inaudiblemore than a yard away, weary but still cocky, there leaked from theshape in the hollow the sound of a human voice.

  "I've tried my hands and arms and they seem to work," it began. "I'vewiggled my toes with entire success. It's well on the cards that I'm allin one piece and not broken up at all, though I don't see how it couldhappen. Right now I don't feel like struggling up and finding out. I'mfine where I am. I'll just lie here for a while and relax, and get someof the story on tape. This suit's got a built-in recorder, I might aswell use it. That way even if I'm not as well as I feel, I'll leave amessage. You probably know we're back and wonder what went wrong.

  "I suppose I'm in a state of shock. That's why I can't seem to get up.Who wouldn't be shocked after luck like that?

  "I've always been lucky, I guess. Luck got me a place in the _Whale_.Sure I'm a good astronomer but so are lots of other guys. If I were tenyears older, it would have been an honor, being picked for the firstlong jump in the first starship ever. At my age it was luck.

  "You'll want to know if the ship worked. Well, she did. Went like abomb. We got lined up between Earth and Mars, you'll remember, and Jamespushed the button marked 'Jump'. Took his finger off the button andthere we were: _Alpha Centauri_. Two months later your time, one secondlater by us. We covered our whole survey assignment like that, smooth asa pint of old and mild which right now I could certainly use. Better yetwould be a pint of hot black coffee with sugar in. Failing that, I couldeven go for a long drink of cold water. There was never anything wrongwith the _Whale_ till right at the end and even then I doubt if it wasthe ship itself that fouled things up.

  "That was some survey assignment. We astronomers really lived. Wait tillyou see--but of course you won't. I could weep when I think of thosemiles of lovely color film, all gone up in smoke.

  * * * * *

  "I'm shocked all right. I never said who I was. Matt Hennessy, fromFarside Observatory, back of the Moon, just back from a proving flight_cum_ astronomical survey in the starship _Whale_. Whoever you are whofinds this tape, you're made. Take it to any radio station or newspaperoffice. You'll find you can name your price and don't take any woodennickels.

  "Where had I got to? I'd told you how we happened to find Chang, hadn'tI? That's what the natives called it. Walking, talking natives on a bluesky planet with 1.1 g gravity and a twenty per cent oxygen atmosphere atfifteen p.s.i. The odds against finding Chang on a six-sun survey on thefirst star jump ever must be up in the googols. We certainly were lucky.

  "The Chang natives aren't very technical--haven't got space travel forinstance. They're good astronomers, though. We were able to show themour sun, in their telescopes. In their way, they're a highly civilizedpeople. Look more like cats than people, but they're people all right.If you doubt it, chew these facts over.

  "One, they learned our language in four weeks. When I say they, I mean aten-man team of them.

  "Two, they brew a near-beer that's a lot nearer than the canned stuff wehad aboard the _Whale_.

  "Three, they've a great sense of humor. Ran rather to silly practicaljokes, but still. Can't say I care for that hot-foot and belly-laughstuff myself, but tastes differ.

  "Four, the ten-man language team also learned chess and table tennis.

  "But why go on? People who talk English, drink beer, like jokes and beatme at chess or table-tennis are people for my money, even if they looklike tigers in trousers.

  "It was funny the way they won all the time at table tennis. Theycertainly weren't so hot at it. Maybe that ten per cent extra gravityput us off our strokes. As for chess, Svendlov was our champion. He wonsometimes. The rest of us seemed to lose whichever Chingsi we played.There again it wasn't so much that they were good. How could they be, inthe time? It was more that we all seemed to make silly mistakes when weplayed them and that's fatal in chess. Of course it's a screwysituation, playing chess with something that grows its own fur coat, hasyellow eyes an inch and a half long and long white whiskers. Could _you_have kept your mind on the game?

  "And don't think I fell victim to their feline charm. The children werepets, but you didn't feel like patting the adults on their big grinningheads. Personally I didn't like the one I knew best. He wascalled--well, we called him Charley, and he was the ethnologist,ambassador, contact man, or whatever you like to call him, who came backwith us. Why I disliked him was because he was always trying to get theedge on you. All the time he had to be top. Great sense of humor, ofcourse. I nearly broke my neck on that butter-slide he fixed up in themetal alleyway to the _Whale's_ engine room. Charley laughed fit tobust, everyone laughed, I even laughed myself though doing it hurtme more than the tumble had. Yes, life and soul of the party, oldCharley ...

  "My last sight of the _Minnow_ was a cabin full of dead and dying men,the sweetish stink of burned flesh and the choking reek of scorchinginsulation, the boat jolting and shuddering and beginning to break up,and in the middle of the flames, still unhurt, was Charley. He waslaughing ...

  "My God, it's dark out here. Wonder how high I am. Must be all of fiftymiles, and doing eight hundred miles an hour at least. I'll be doingmore than that when I land. What's final velocity for a fifty-mile fall?Same as a fifty thousand mile fall, I suppose; same as escape;twenty-four thousand miles an hour. I'll make a mess ...

  * * * * *

  "That's better. Why didn't I close my eyes before? Those star streaksmade me dizzy. I'll make a nice shooting star when I hit air. Come tothink of it, I must be deep in air now. Let's take a look.

  "It's getting lighter. Look at those peaks down there! Like greatknives. I don't seem to be falling as fast as I expected though. Almostseem to be floating. Let's switch on the radio and tell the world hello.Hello, earth ... hello, again ... and good-by ...

  "Sorry about that. I passed out. I don't know what I said, if anything,and the suit recorder has no playback or eraser. What must have happenedis that the suit ran out of oxygen, and I lost consciousness due toanoxia. I dreamed I switched on the radio, but I actually switched onthe emergency tank, thank the Lord, and that brought me round.

  "Come to think of it, why not crack the suit and breath fresh airinstead of bottled?

  "No. I'd have to get up to do that. I think I'll just lie here a littlebit longer and get properly rested up before I try anything big likestanding up.

  "I was telling about the return journey, wasn't I? The long jump backhome, which should have dumped us between the orbits of Earth and Mars.Instead of which, when James took his finger off the button, themass-detector showed nothing except the noise-level of
the universe.

  "We were out in that no place for a day. We astronomers had to establishour exact position relative to the solar system. The crew had to findout exactly what went wrong. The physicists had to make mystic passes infront of meters and mutter about residual folds in stress-free space.Our task was easy, because we were about half a light-year from the sun.The crew's job was also easy: they found what went wrong in less thanhalf an hour.

  "It still seems incredible. To program the ship for a star-jump, youmerely told it where you were and where you wanted to go. In practicalterms, that entailed first a series of exact measurements which had tobe translated into the somewhat abstruse co-ordinate system
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