Accidental death, p.2
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       Accidental Death, p.2

           Peter Baily
 
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we usedbased on the topological order of mass-points in the galaxy. Then youcut a tape on the computer and hit the button. Nothing was wrong withthe computer. Nothing was wrong with the engines. We'd hit the rightbutton and we'd gone to the place we'd aimed for. All we'd done was aimfor the wrong place. It hurts me to tell you this and I'm just attachedpersonnel with no space-flight tradition. In practical terms, one highlytrained crew member had punched a wrong pattern of holes on the tape.Another equally skilled had failed to notice this when reading back. Achildish error, highly improbable; twice repeated, thus squaring theimprobability. Incredible, but that's what happened.

  "Anyway, we took good care with the next lot of measurements. That's whywe were out there so long. They were cross-checked about five times. Igot sick so I climbed into a spacesuit and went outside and took somephotographs of the Sun which I hoped would help to determine hydrogendensity in the outer regions. When I got back everything was ready. Wedisposed ourselves about the control room and relaxed for all we wereworth. We were all praying that this time nothing would go wrong, andall looking forward to seeing Earth again after four months subjectivetime away, except for Charley, who was still chuckling and shaking hishead, and Captain James who was glaring at Charley and obviously wishinghuman dignity permitted him to tear Charley limb from limb. Then Jamespressed the button.

  "Everything twanged like a bowstring. I felt myself turned inside out,passed through a small sieve, and poured back into shape. The entire bowwall-screen was full of Earth. Something was wrong all right, and thistime it was much, much worse. We'd come out of the jump about twohundred miles above the Pacific, pointed straight down, traveling at arelative speed of about two thousand miles an hour.

  "It was a fantastic situation. Here was the _Whale_, the most powerfulship ever built, which could cover fifty light-years in a subjectivetime of one second, and it was helpless. For, as of course you know, thestar-drive couldn't be used again for at least two hours.

  "The _Whale_ also had ion rockets of course, the standarddeuterium-fusion thing with direct conversion. As again you know, thisis good for interplanetary flight because you can run it continuouslyand it has extremely high exhaust velocity. But in our situation it wasno good because it has rather a low thrust. It would have taken moretime than we had to deflect us enough to avoid a smash. We had fiveminutes to abandon ship.

  "James got us all into the _Minnow_ at a dead run. There was no time totake anything at all except the clothes we stood in. The _Minnow_ wasmeant for short heavy hops to planets or asteroids. In addition to theion drive it had emergency atomic rockets, using steam for reactionmass. We thanked God for that when Cazamian canceled our downwardsvelocity with them in a few seconds. We curved away up over China andfrom about fifty miles high we saw the _Whale_ hit the Pacific. Sixhundred tons of mass at well over two thousand miles an hour make analmighty splash. By now you'll have divers down, but I doubt they'llsalvage much you can use.

  "I wonder why James went down with the ship, as the saying is? Not thatit made any difference. It must have broken his heart to know that hislovely ship was getting the chopper. Or did he suspect another humanerror?

  "We didn't have time to think about that, or even to get the radioworking. The steam rockets blew up. Poor Cazamian was burnt to a crisp.Only thing that saved me was the spacesuit I was still wearing. Isnapped the face plate down because the cabin was filling with fumes. Isaw Charley coming out of the toilet--that's how he'd escaped--and I sawhim beginning to laugh. Then the port side collapsed and I fell out.

  "I saw the launch spinning away, glowing red against a purplish blacksky. I tumbled head over heels towards the huge curved shield of earthfifty miles below. I shut my eyes and that's about all I remember. Idon't see how any of us could have survived. I think we're all dead.

  "I'll have to get up and crack this suit and let some air in. But Ican't. I fell fifty miles without a parachute. I'm dead so I can't standup."

  * * * * *

  There was silence for a while except for the vicious howl of the wind.Then snow began to shift on the ledge. A man crawled stiffly out andcame shakily to his feet. He moved slowly around for some time. Afterabout two hours he returned to the hollow, squatted down and switched onthe recorder. The voice began again, considerably wearier.

  "Hello there. I'm in the bleakest wilderness I've ever seen. This placemakes the moon look cozy. There's precipice around me every way but oneand that's up. So it's up I'll have to go till I find a way to go down.I've been chewing snow to quench my thirst but I could eat a horse. Ipicked up a short-wave broadcast on my suit but couldn't understand aword. Not English, not French, and there I stick. Listened to it forfifteen minutes just to hear a human voice again. I haven't much hope ofreaching anyone with my five milliwatt suit transmitter but I'll keeptrying.

  "Just before I start the climb there are two things I want to get ontape. The first is how I got here. I've remembered something from mymilitary training, when I did some parachute jumps. Terminal velocityfor a human body falling through air is about one hundred twenty m.p.h.Falling fifty miles is no worse than falling five hundred feet. You'd belucky to live through a five hundred foot fall, true, but I've beenlucky. The suit is bulky but light and probably slowed my fall. I hit asixty mile an hour updraft this side of the mountain, skidded downhillthrough about half a mile of snow and fetched up in a drift. The suit ispart worn but still operational. I'm fine.

  "The second thing I want to say is about the Chingsi, and here it is:watch out for them. Those jokers are dangerous. I'm not telling howbecause I've got a scientific reputation to watch. You'll have to figureit out for yourselves. Here are the clues:

  (1) The Chingsi talk and laugh but after all they aren't human. On an alien world a hundred light-years away, why shouldn't alien talents develop? A talent that's so uncertain and rudimentary here that most people don't believe it, might be highly developed out there.

  (2) The _Whale_ expedition did fine till it found Chang. Then it hit a seam of bad luck. Real stinking bad luck that went on and on till it looks fishy. We lost the ship, we lost the launch, all but one of us lost our lives. We couldn't even win a game of ping-pong.

  "So what is luck, good or bad? Scientifically speaking, future chanceevents are by definition chance. They can turn out favorable or not.When a preponderance of chance events has occurred unfavorably, you'vegot bad luck. It's a fancy name for a lot of chance results that didn'tgo your way. But the gambler defines it differently. For him, luckrefers to the future, and you've got bad luck when future chance eventswon't go your way. Scientific investigations into this have beeninconclusive, but everyone knows that some people are lucky and othersaren't. All we've got are hints and glimmers, the fumbling touch of arudimentary talent. There's the evil eye legend and the Jonah, bad luckbringers. Superstition? Maybe; but ask the insurance companies aboutaccident prones. What's in a name? Call a man unlucky and you'resuperstitious. Call him accident prone and that's sound business sense.I've said enough.

  "All the same, search the space-flight records, talk to the actuaries.When a ship is working perfectly and is operated by a hand-picked crewof highly trained men in perfect condition, how often is it wrecked by aseries of silly errors happening one after another in defiance ofprobability?

  "I'll sign off with two thoughts, one depressing and one cheering. Asingle Chingsi wrecked our ship and our launch. What could a wholeplanetful of them do?

  "On the other hand, a talent that manipulates chance events is bound tobe chancy. No matter how highly developed it can't be surefire. Theproof is that I've survived to tell the tale."

  * * * * *

  At twenty below zero and fifty miles an hour the wind ravaged themountain. Peering through his polarized vizor at the white waste and thesnow-filled air howling over it, sliding and stumbling with every stepon a slope that got gradually steeper and seemed to go on forever, MattHennessy began to inch hi
s way up the north face of Mount Everest.

  THE END

  Transcriber's Note:

  This etext was produced from _Astounding Science Fiction_ February 1959. 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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