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Accidental Death by Peter Baily

ACCIDENTAL DEATH

BY PETER BAILY

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

Illustrated by Schoenherr

[Illustration]

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

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

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

"I've tried my hands and arms and they seem to work," it began. "I've wiggled my toes with entire success. It's well on the cards that I'm all in one piece and not broken up at all, though I don't see how it could happen. Right now I don't feel like struggling up and finding out. I'm fine where I am. I'll just lie here for a while and relax, and get some of the story on tape. This suit's got a built-in recorder, I might as well use it. That way even if I'm not as well as I feel, I'll leave a message. 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 ten years older, it would have been an honor, being picked for the first long 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 a bomb. We got lined up between Earth and Mars, you'll remember, and James pushed the button marked 'Jump'. Took his finger off the button and there we were: _Alpha Centauri_. Two months later your time, one second later by us. We covered our whole survey assignment like that, smooth as a pint of old and mild which right now I could certainly use. Better yet would be a pint of hot black coffee with sugar in. Failing that, I could even go for a long drink of cold water. There was never anything wrong with the _Whale_ till right at the end and even then I doubt if it was the ship itself that fouled things up.

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


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