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    :chapter one:

    Prue turned away from her console. She ran her fingers through her hair, pulling it out of her face, and sighed.

    Well, maybe that's not the best place to start. Prue, as you may have noticed, is a female. Prudence Close. Me. I should probably give you a little background now, because I always find it awkward to go back and weave it in later. I was born. I lived. I was educated. With me so far? Okay, I got a job. As a receptionist. I was working 8 am to 6 pm answering phones, running errands, entering data into a computer, and painting my nails. Viridian, preferably. With one nail on my left hand purple. So, going back to the story:

    I turned away from the console. I ran my fingers through my hair, pulling it out of my face, then sighed. That fingernail polish hadn't been quite dry yet. It was not shaping up to be a smooth day. The boss was running late, but he still managed to find time to send frantic messages from his handheld reminding me about all the things he had to do today. I'd been working there for two years at that time, and I could've run the office with one hand tied behind my back. I had run it with a broken arm for a few months earlier in the year.

    All my papers were neatly stacked. My inbox was empty, as was my outbox. The day's schedule was neatly posted on my desktop, and a fresh copy was on Mr. Blenk's desk, along with an electronic copy on his screen. The coffee was hot.

    Unfortunately, I also had a paper cut and a burn from the coffeemaker, and I now had nail polish in my hair. At least I hadn't spilled anything on my blouse yet. I was fairly sure the back office secretaries kept a running pool for betting on whether I would escape unscathed from day to day. I could keep my desk and office spotless and in order, and yet go home looking as though I had been caught in an earthquake or mudslide. Well, nobody's perfect. A significant part of being a receptionist is appearance, and I tended to barely squeeze through on my performance evaluations, mostly on the strength of my organizational skills. The only missed appointment since I had started working was the result of a car accident involving the senior partner.

    Harry Blenk was on his way into the office this morning. He had an early appointment, and I cringed at the thought of how carelessly he was probably navigating the roads. He had his wireless with him, and his eyes were most likely glued to the screen while he sent me frantic emails, instead of watching the road like they should be.

    Prue, please sned the performance repot for the past year to my delsk. I want it there when i walk in the door, don't bbe late. Is my first appoinstment on shcedulre/

    Yes, Mr. Blenk. No, Mr. Blenk. Yes, Mr. Blenk. The coffee is ready, sir.

    I'm stick at a reaad light. Tel the appoinstment I'm coming as fast as I can.

    He's not here yet, Mr. Blenk. I'll be sure to make him comfortable.

    Mr. Blenk charged out of the elevator onto the polished meganwood floor.
    "Is he here? Where's my coffee?"
    I swiftly moved to take his coat and briefcase and reminded him to straighten his tie. He always put it on crooked.
    "He's not due for 5 more minutes. I put a cup of coffee on your desk. The report is right on top."
    He ran his fingers distractedly through his hair. I've always wanted to say that, and it certainly describes Harry that morning.

    Harry Blenk was seated behind his desk, drinking his coffee and reading the report when I looked up to see the appointment coming in.
    "Good morning, how can I help you?"
    The stubby little man walked directly up to my desk. "Please tell Mr. Blenk I'm here."
    "Can I give a name?"
    "Call me Smith. Mr. Smith."
    "Just a moment, Mr. Smith." I called Mr. Blenk's office. He answered, looking slightly less harried, but his tie was askew again. "Mr. Smith is here for the 8 am, Mr. Blenk."
    "Okay, let him in."
    "Mr. Smith, please ..."
    Mr. Smith had already opened the door and was walking in. Mr. Blenk's image looked up sharply from his desk, and his faced turned white. Then he cut the connection.

    I made a smart check mark next to the 8 am appointment section, and double checked that I had stamped all the outgoing envelopes. Suddenly, the office door was flung open, making me jump.
    "Young lady, please page all the staff to come into this office. Immediately." Mr. Smith closed the door again, leaving me with my mouth slightly open. I closed it, then pushed a combination of buttons on the desktop. My voice reverberated through the quiet building.
    "Attention, please. All members of the administrative staff are requested to converge on Mr. Blenk's office immediately. Yes, Ralph, you too."
    I stayed sitting, irresolute for a moment. Was I required as well? Considering the early hour, they would be lucky if 5 people showed up, including me. I decided to go in, and I set the desk on autopilot. The simulacrum was perfectly capable of sending the mail out and answering the phone and even taking messages to a degree. But it couldn't make coffee, so they kept me around, as Ralph used to joke. Ralph is a junior associate, which basically means he's a glorified errand boy for the partners' use. I always shot right back that his primary function was to make sure each partner had at least three unread messages in his inbox, so they thought he was doing his job. True enough.

    My gray suit was still spotless when I appeared in Mr. Blenk's office. I was very glad that the meeting was this early in the morning, before I had had a chance to smear anything on my cuffs. Mr. Blenk was sitting perfectly still behind his desk, and Mr. Smith was sitting in a chair that had been moved around beside him. Ralph and Sal were already there waiting for me. Mr. Smith raised an eyebrow.
    "Am I to infer that these are all the employees present in the building.?"
    I looked at Harry. He wasn't about to answer, so I did. "Yes. The other employees are due in at nine."
    "Well, I'll just record this for them. I don't want to say it twice, and I'm not going to stick around and wait for them."
    I watched him fumble with the buttons on Harry Blenk's desk until finally the red light flickered on above the word 'REC' which was written in black letters right on the surface of the desk.

    Mr. Smith cleared his throat, and shook out a paper he was holding in his hand.
    "Ahem. This office, herein termed RoVer GT, is hereby declared to be in operation outside the bounds and against the regulations of Rule 5, paragraph 29 of the Stex Code. Therefore, it is closed until further notice, and all employees of this entity are required to present themselves to the 6th Bound Office for investigation and reployment."
    He refolded the paper, snapped his case shut, and smiled mechanically. "Have a nice day."
    :chapter two:

    On the way out, Mr. Smith told me to post the recording on every entrance to the office building. I collected my things and went out to my car. That took a couple of trips, because I really had had no idea that anything like this was going to happen, and I tend to accumulate an entire spectrum of accessories in any place I visit regularly. Besides, the coffee machine was mine, and it wasn't a cheap model.

    Harry tried to give a little explanation of what had happened, but what it came down to was that the company was broke. It had been broke for several years, subsisting on the contributions of the senior partner, and the senior partner had died over the weekend. There was a competitor who had been trying to put us out of business for a long time, and they had jumped on the opportunity to request an audit, which had promptly found several fishy entries in the books and decided to shut us down. Rumor had it that there were interesting relationships between the auditing company and the competing company, but there was no real doubt as to the veracity of the findings. RoVer GT was going down. Actually, I think the last vestiges of life had departed by 9:34 am that morning. That's when I pulled out of the parking lot.

    I made a few courtesy calls to people who had made appointments for that day and the next few, figuring that anyone after that could find out through the news. Then I went home. I knew better than to go straight over to the Bound Office. They probably had no idea any of this was going on, and they'd keep me filling out paperwork on the culinary preferences of my extended family until my transfer came in rather than admit that they weren't ready for me and ask me to come back later. I thought I'd wait a couple of days before going in.

    That may have been a mistake. I don't suppose I'll ever know. Maybe my neighbors noticed that I wasn't leaving at the usual time anymore. Two days after the interesting occurrences in Mr. Blenk's office, the jobbers came knocking at my door.

    I had just gotten out of the shower, and I was sitting on my couch drinking cocoa and reading my Bible. I'd been using my free time to catch up on everything around the house, and I'd even clipped Gryphon's claws. He needed it. Gryphon is my patsy, and he was enjoying my constant company.

    The jobbers were standing on the front porch when I looked through the peephole in the door and saw their distinctive purple badges. Mike and Ike, they read. Mike stepped forward to knock again, but I opened the door.

    "Ms. Close?"
    "Yes. How can I help you." Polite to the death, that's me.
    "We are here to investigate rumors that you are no longer employed. Is that correct?"
    "Actually, I'm not sure. I'm supposed to report to the Bound Office. I think they may have my paperwork by tomorrow."
    Ike's brow creased. Mike stepped closer. "May we come in? We should use your connection to contact the Bound Office ourselves."
    "Sure. Come right in." Well, what was I supposed to do? They'd find out sooner or later, and there wasn't really anything I could do to change the course of events at this point. I watched their faces as they entered the main room.
    "There's a jack on the wall behind that fake tree."
    Ike pulled a cord from his jacket pocket and plugged it in. He was immediately surrounded by floating screens, and began interfacing with the connection, dialing up the Bound Office. He must have had a private number, because it only took him a minute and a half to get through to someone who had actual authority.
    "Cocoa, anyone?"
    Ike didn't respond.
    "No, thank you," came Mike's reply.
    Apparently Ike was a silent parter. Maybe even a construct. It could be hard to tell sometimes.
    "What is your reference number, Ms. Close?"
    "I'm sorry, I don't have a reference number for my past job. My personal number is PC273, and I'm a Clerk rating."
    Ike entered some information into the grid, and then motioned to Mike to come see. Mike glanced over the information, then stepped back.
    "Well, Ms. Close -- "
    "Please, Miss Close or Prudence."
    "Ms. Close, we may have saved you a trip. The Bound Office does not require you to appear for investigation. You are required to present yourself to the Postmaster General's office at 9 am tomorrow morning. Don't be late. We'll be going now. Thank you for your cooperation."

    I closed the door behind them and then started up my on connection. I had been surprised to see them use a jack, because the wireless network was working perfectly. I called Ralph.
    "Ralph, this is Prue. I just had a visit from the jobbers. Have you been to the Bound Office yet?"
    "Nah, I thought I'd wait till tomorrow. They're always last to get the paperwork. Hold up a minute, Prue, there's someone at the door."
    I set an alarm on my screen and started to rinse out my cocoa cup and fry some eggs. There was a distinct possibility that Mike and Ike's counterparts had shown up at Ralph's house, and it might be a bit before he came back on the line. Breakfast was sounding pretty good.

    The eggs had been turned and I was just sliding them onto my plate when Ralph buzzed back.
    "Yo!" I called from across the room. "I'm here!"
    "Prue, that was Harry and Larry from the Bound Office. It seems I'm supposed to report to the Postmaster General's office tomorrow morning. I can't figure how they got the news that I was unemployed, though. My neighbors all work early and late, so nobody's ever around here."
    "Huh. I thought my neighbors turned me in. Gryphon has irritated a few of them by jumping around when I'm out." I took a bite of eggs and toast.
    "Have you heard yet from Sal or anyone else at the office?"
    "Nope." I swallowed hastily. "I do have their numbers, though. I'll check them out after breakfast. I've not really got anything else to do right now."
    "I imagine your house is singularly spotless, since you've been home for a few days. Did you ever get that chocolate spot out of your blouse?"
    "Not really. I think I can wear a broach over it, though."
    Ralph chuckled. "Well, I have things to do, especially if I'm going to be employed soon. Catch you tomorrow."
    "Bye," I said with my mouth full. You have to eat eggs when they're hot, or you may as well just dump them in Gryph's dish.

    I dressed very nicely for the calls to Sal, Cheri, and Daisy. Their teasing had always had a slightly more acid tone than Ralph's, because, frankly, I was better at my job.
    "Sal, this is Prue from the office. If you get in today, please give a call."
    "Cheri, this is Prue from the office. Please give me a call today. Otherwise, don't worry about it."
    "Hello, this is Prue. I'm calling for Daisy Maller. Is she in today?"
    The voice on the other end had a suspicious tone. "There's nobody here by that name."
    "Oh, I'm sorry, I must have dialed wrong. Is this 298-3994?" The screen stayed resolutely black.
    "Yes. There's no one here by that name."
    Then they hung up.
    "Hmm," I mused. "Nobody home. We'll see if they call back."
    There were no incoming calls for the rest of the morning. I called my parents in the afternoon.
    "Mom, I've got a possibility at the Postmaster General's office in the morning. I'll call and let you know later. How's it going with you?"
    Chatting with my mother took up another hour or so of the afternoon. Don't worry, I wasn't blocking incoming calls by talking. I can have up to 5 people on at once with the wireless connections to my screens.

    That evening Gryph and I went for a walk in the park. It was wintery and cold outside, but the sun was out and I walked quickly. Gryph was trying out his new leash. He didn't really like it, but I had been firm. Either he was going to walk on a leash, or he wasn't getting any further than the windowsill. I took my mobile, just in case a call came through.

    Gryph and a book formed the majority of my activities that evening. I might not have a lot of free time in the near future.
    :chapter three:

    "Hey, Ralph!" I waved to him as I approached through the large, empty building. There was a receptionist at a large desk across one wall, and a door which I assumed led into a rabbit warren of offices and mail sorters. The lobby seemed to be as big as an airplane hangar. There were several chairs over near one wall with a large table among them. Ralph was seated in one of the chairs, bent over a piece of paper.

    I walked up to the desk.
    "Hi, I'm Prudence Close. I'm supposed to report at 9 am."
    The receptionist flipped through a stack of papers.
    "Take this and grab a pen from that jar. Fill it out and bring it back to me."
    I took the sheaf of papers. It felt like I'd be there for a while. "Good thing I brought that snack," I muttered to myself. I took a seat across the table from Ralph, and began to look through the pages. Most of them seemed to be the basic personality-type kind of question. You know, like how many times you go out each week, how often you go to the movies, what kinds of things do you do in your free time, and what is your favorite ice cream flavor.

    "It's amazing, I think, that even though we have all this great technology and we can do practically anything except eat over a long distance connection, that we still have to fill out these silly forms on paper."
    "In quadruplicate," assented Ralph.
    "Oh, no, you've got to be kidding."
    "Nope. Look at instruction number 49. 'Please Use Block Letters and Press Down Hard."
    I looked again in disbelief. "I thought those went out with the dark ages!"

    One and a half hours later I approached the desk again. "Okay, I think I'm done."
    She glanced over the papers. "Did you sign and date the last page and initial the last three paragraphs?"
    "Please have a seat. An instructor will be right with you."
    Instructor, huh? I took a seat in another hard backed metal chair. Ralph had finished with his questionnaire a few minutes earlier.
    "So," I asked, "were you able to answer the question about at what depth humpback whales sing?"
    "No, I didn't have that one. I had a question about how far away bees go from their hive to to collect nectar. I had no clue."
    "Me neither. About the humpbacks, I mean."

    At about 11 am the door behind the receptionist's desk opened and a bald man came out. He had thick glasses on, and his shirt sleeves were rolled up. He spoke with the receptionist for a moment, then walked over to where we were. We stood up as he approached.
    "Mr. Doan, Ms. Close?"
    "Miss Close, please."
    "I beg your pardon?" He gave me a blank stare.
    "Never mind." I braced myself for misunderstandings galore.
    "I am Chad Faller. I will be your instructor."
    And he led us through the door behind the desk.
    :chapter four:

    I was home rather late that evening. Ralph and I had decided to grab something for dinner on the way back to town. The Postmaster General's office was a ways out of town, back in a sprawling complex near the spaceport. The fumes from the spaceport and the sheer magnitude of the ships and the area needed to land them necessitated an extremely large land area near a significant amount of water.

    As I changed out of my professional clothes, as I called them because of the amount of money I spent on them, I told Gryph about my day.
    "Mr. Faller told us all about our new jobs. Guess what? I'm going to be a postman! Postwoman? Postperson? We learned all about the basic sorting processes and the machines that do most of the work today. They still haven't told me where I'm going to work though. I'm going back tomorrow, and I don't know how long I'll be gone, so I'm taking you for a nice, long walk right now."

    I was back reporting to the receptionist at 9 am the next day. Ralph was just being led through the back door, and I waved to him. Then I sat down to wait. Mr. Faller came back in a few minutes, and took me back into the office space. He brought me to a small cubicle that contained a small console and a set of virtual glasses.
    "Put these on and take the orientation. Then go ahead and try to do the first lesson. I'll be back when you're done."

    When I put the goggles on, they let me see the console still, but suddenly I appeared to be floating on a seat in midair, with a panorama of stars laid out before me. I almost fell off the chair when Betelgeuse appeared as a ball of fire on my screen. I know it was Betelgeuse, because the computer said so. A deep, bass voice spoke in my ear.
    "Good morning. I am EI 23. I will be your guide to the virtual space training program. We are going to test your ability to recognize certain landmarks in space with the help of a navigational system, and your ability to perform certain basic tasks required of the commander of a postal ship."

    "A what?!"

    "If you are sensitive to drastic changes in light or motion, please press the emergency red button now."

    I didn't do anything. There was no way I was going to miss this.

    The computer screen began to orient towards a certain star. I had seen that constellation many times. Orion.
    "This is the constellation Orion, as seen from where you are. Betelgeuse is is the first-magnitude red star you see there on his shoulder. 'Betelgeuse' means 'the hand of the central one' in Arabic. This star is encircled by several small planetoids which contain mining platforms and colonies. This simulation will involve a trip to Betelgamma and back. Please pay close attention.

    As I watched avidly, I seemed to accelerate towards the star. In several moments, it was quite as subjectively large as the moon. A system opened out before my eyes, showing several enormous mining machines and many small, silvery bubbles which I assumed were the colonies' mobile spheres. Suddenly, the console in front of me began to flash different lights, and the picture disappeared, to be replaced by a data screen and a picture of the large lake outside. I realized I was now in a simulated rocket, which was about to lift off.

    I quickly read the labels for the dials and gadgets which appeared before me, then reviewed the data screen quickly.

    02/23/2983 0908 PS 38 TO BETELGEUSE

    DEPARTING 0910 02/23/2983


    A voice buzzed in my ear. "We are commencing lift sequence. Please report. Fuel pressure?"

    I hesitated, searching my screen for anything remotely resembling a car's tank meter. The question was repeated:
    "Fuel pressure?"

    I found the gauge. "Check."

    "Life support systems?"

    "Um, check."

    "Please repeat."

    Well, I guess they don't get 'ums' very well. I rolled my eyes and tried again.

    I heard the voice of the computer again. "We will review each of these systems and emergency procedures for each in our next lesson. For now, this lesson assumes all critical systems to be prepared. It will not be so in all of these lessons."

    The screen flared with static. "Effects or imitation?" I wondered silently. Then I was looking at the stars again.

    "Please focus the small, round circle over Betelgeuse."

    Oh, great. Now I was supposed to find it by myself? Then, a map opened as a screen next to my seat. "This is part of your navigational system. Use it to focus yourself on Betelgeuse."

    I looked for the familiar constellation, but everything was suddenly quite different. Okay, plan B. I looked at the map, trying to figure out how I could control the view. There seemed to be a set of interesting buttons on the screen itself. But if this was a hologram, how could I interact with it?

    "Computer, can you respond to my verbal commands?"
    "Yes, Ms. Close."
    "Please, call me Miss Close."
    "Yes, Ms. Close."
    "Please give me a view of the map from earth. As I would see the constellations from earth, I mean."

    The map twisted like a living entity, and then I saw it. Orion. Carefully, I used my finger to try a spot just below the map. It lit up green.
    "Computer, please delete that mark."
    It vanished. More confidently now, I place my finger directly on Orion's right shoulder. It lit up bright green.

    "Computer, reorient the star map to reflect our current position." We were drifting slightly, but I could now see a small green dot on the map. Then I thought of something else, and considered slapping my forehead with my palm. "Computer, please mark the location of Betelgeuse on my star map with a red signal."

    The green point was encircled by a red glow. Obviously, I had been trying to do that the hard way. I then compared the map to the outside world and drew the circle over to the star I had identified. Actually, this all seemed rather too easy. Why did they even need people when a computer seemed to be able to figure it all out?
    :chapter five:

    I continued to follow the instructions of the computer through a series of exercises that imitated the firing of directional rockets along the sides of a ship. I dodged meteors, repaired life support, and inserted my mail conduit into a receiving chute at the end of my journey. The whole thing felt like an exalted computer game.

    Finally, the screen reverted back to the original starscape. Then it blinked out. I blinked, too, and then removed the goggles. The clock showed 1 o'clock pm, so I dug in my purse for a granola bar and sat eating it until Mr. Faller came back and asked me how it was going.

    "Ah, I see you have completed your lesson. How did you like it?"
    "I don't know. That was fun, but it was also all rather easy. I'm pretty sure that just about everything I did could have been done by a computer. Do the lessons get harder?"
    "Yes. As you progress, you take over more and more functions that the computer is just ignoring at the lower levels. Once you master the basics, then you start to work faster and harder."
    "What am I doing? I mean, is this job training for me, and if so, what is the job?"
    "You have been selected to train to be a pilot for a mail carrier. They make frequent trips out to various colonies delivering mail and they also take commissions and carry various supplies and such back and forth. We need pilots, and your profile was picked by the jobbers."
    "The jobbers, huh. Well, they know best."
    Mr. Faller opened the file he had in his hand and handed me a page.
    "This is the calender you need to follow for the next few weeks. You are due here at 8 am every morning and you will be in this cubicle until 5 pm. Is there any reason this will not work for you?"
    "Um, no, I don't think so. I can do that. Weekdays, right?."
    "That's right. Go ahead and continue through the lessons. You can have a half-hour break for lunch each day. There is a cafeteria down that hallway and through the double doors. Here is a map of the facility. You are expected to finish the program within a month, and then you will continue your training on the spaceport."
    "We will see you bright and early Monday morning. You will need to take a physical, and then you can get right to work."

    I exited the building at about 5:10pm. I kept looking around for Ralph -- I wanted to discuss this with him. We had always been friendly since I met him in the office, and we'd had lunch a couple of times. Nothing serious, but a girl can still hope, right? He didn't seem to be around tonight. A pity, because I wanted to know what job they had given him.

    Gryphon wasn't very happy to see me. He had probably been spoiled by the few days I had been home. I dragged him out for a walk anyway, and then curled up to read my Bible. I was supposed to meet a few friends for a study the next morning.
    :chapter six:

    I showed up for my lessons faithfully. It became a bit clearer why they needed an actual person on board the flight craft. For one thing, the vocabulary that the computer could recognize was very limited. As time went on, I was able to teach it a little more of mine, but I think it was still limited to my voice on those few. It had no way to know how to react in an emergency, and there were no robots capable of making the repairs that might be necessary should I run into any trouble.

    I don't want to bore you with all the specifics. Suffice it to say, at the end of three weeks I knew as much as I could about flying a spacecraft. Academically, that is. I knew that there would be a difference when I had to do it in the real thing. I completed the computer course in the early afternoon of a Wednesday. Mr. Faller came by and watched me finish the last computer trial run. I didn't explode or puncture my air supply, and I successfully prevented the computer from 'accidentally' dumping the mail into the void.

    "'A' plus, Ms. Close. You will make an excellent pilot. All right, you will tour the inside of a postal ship this afternoon. Please drive on over to the spaceport and give them this piece of paper."

    I took the slip and looked at it. It merely said "Prudence Close" and had a bar code at the bottom. After getting in my car, I drove the few minutes over to the spaceport and handed my slip of paper in. The kid behind the desk scanned the code, and told me to follow the flashing blue lights. The floor lit up before me, and I started down a wide hallway. There were several lines inset in the floor, and other colors were lit up as well as the blue. I was not really paying attention, walking quickly and watching the blue line. Suddenly, there was another person walking in front of me. I raised a mental eyebrow. Surely, that was Ralph? I hadn't seen him for the last couple of weeks, and assumed he was just as busy as I was. He had sent me one message, but it hadn't mentioned his new employment at all.

    The man in front of me seemed to be following a green light. As far as I could tell, it was running parallel to the blue light. I picked up my pace a bit, and caught up with him.

    "Hey, Prue! How are you?"
    "I'm fine. What's up?"
    Ralph grimaced. "I took that physical, you know, and they decided to fly me over to Herskin Hospital and fix my foot. I was away, then I was on crutches. I did a computer study program at home, mostly, and now I'm here. I guess I'm a pilot. What are you?"
    "I'm a pilot, too. So far. I'll have to see if I get seasick or anything. I'm really not sure how they organize these craft."
    "I'm here for a tour today. You, too?"
    "Yep. How did you finish the computer training so quickly? It took me this long, and I didn't have a broken foot!"
    Ralph grinned. "Slowpoke! Actually, because I was housebound, I did a bit on weekends as well. I must have caught up with you. Did you have it at home, or were you at the post office?
    "I was at the office. Cheater."

    We walked along the hall for quite a ways. I was beginning to wonder how many acres this gently curving hall could cover, when we took a sharp turn and ended up at a solid-looking door.
    "Ladies first." Ralph ushered me in, and we both turned to look. Up. Then up again. Still more up.
    "Well, so much for the postmen and their little jeeps. That's huge!" My neck was getting a kink from staring straight up.
    :chapter seven:

    "Ahem?" We both looked ahead again. A petite woman in a jumpsuit was standing in front of a large desk a few feet away. "Would you step this way, please?"

    We walked over to her. "Hi, I'm Prue Close."
    "I'm Ralph Doan."
    "I am Melissa Harker. I will be your guide on this tour of the 326. Have either of you ever seen a spaceship before?"
    Ralph shrugged. "I went to space camp when I was a kid. We saw some of the prototypes. I've never been in a full-scale model, though."
    "Well, this should be interesting for you. I understand you are both training to be pilots?"
    "That's right." I smiled my agreement with Ralph.
    "Okay, come on this way. I see you're both wearing sensible shoes? Good. We have to go up the elevator to the entrance."

    "We are about six stories up right now," Melissa continued as we finished our ascent.
    I looked down. "Cool. How tall is this thing?"
    "It's about eight stories tall. It's really not that large. Compared to some of the earlier models, she's positively dainty."
    "What's her name?" asked Ralph.
    "Giselle. One of the techs listens to old operas, and he was in line to choose her name. Neither of you will have this ship, but yours will have similar layouts in the inside."

    We stepped through a rounded hatch and stood on a steel-plated floor. "Of course, we do not have artificial gravity. There are a few people who faithfully try to develop that, but for now we will be walking on the walls. When the ship is in flight, you will operate in free fall. We are also currently using magnetic boots to give our spacers good traction. Most of the postpersons were not initially trained for space work, so we try to keep it as safe as possible. However, each piece of mail to a colony should be duplicated and each copy sent separately. Ms. Close, why don't you go ahead and go down through that hole there."

    I lowered myself down a hole. It was quite wide, and had grips running all the way around it. Melissa followed me, and then Ralph. Presently we stood on another smooth surface. When I looked closer at it, though, I saw that it had a layered, almost compressed appearance. Steel plywood?

    To one side, on what would probably be a wall when the ship was in motion, was a series of small compartments. "This serves as a closet. A hammock is strung between these two walls for sleeping. This is a basic living area. That wall houses the main computer, and a screen will show when it is called. You will have to train your own computer, of course. Also, a small animal can stay in that section of the room."
    I saw what looked like a small caged area with a smaller hammock strung up inside it.
    "Any animal will have to be one of the approved varieties that do well in free fall. No dogs, for example. A complete list will be in your handbook. Most of the animals imported from Sirius are acceptable, since they or their ancestors made the trip here in the first place."
    I grinned. "I have a patsy. Why do they allow animals, anyway?"
    "It has been shown that people can function better on long solo runs with a companion. A small animal is cheaper to carry than a second human. Also, they don't argue as much. If arguing is what you need, most of the time you are within communications distance of a node that supplies wireless access to the web. It is free for our employees."

    The tour continued. There was a small kitchen, which was considerably morphed from what I had grown up with. There was a small cupboard which served as an oven, and a dispenser that would mix any drink and put it in a small container that had a seal and a straw. You merely pushed the buttons for the ingredients.
    "I'm afraid there is a limited amount of alcohol, and that is in the medical cupboard."
    Ralph gave a mock groan. "You mean, we should save it for emergencies?"
    "Sorry, but we don't really want drunk pilots. We can't let you be schmozzled the whole time -- if we didn't need people on call, we'd just use the autopilot."
    I just laughed. I've never liked alcohol, so as long as they had plenty of milk and chocolate, I was set.
    "Do you have a coffee dispenser?" I queried.
    "Yes. We load beans in, and the drink mixer can also mix espressos and such. No problems there. I should warn you, the coffee that is provided isn't the best quality. However, you can make arrangements to get your own provisions substituted, so long as you stay within your weight requirements."

    We continued on to a level that was almost spherical, with all padded walls.
    "This is your console. You can also use it as a living area, but be aware that when you are using the computer, you don't want a lot of things cluttering up the walls. They are cushioned to protect you if you accidentally run into one while running a program. The screens limit your visibility, and you have to sit in the middle of the sphere to have them situated properly around you. You will practice using the maps and all the different interfaces and functions. You can customize that, also. From now on, you will be working with your ship's computer. The computer has to have at least a hundred hours working with you before we consider it has accustomed enough to your voice and commands. You will be working with the same ship systems for your entire career -- even if your ship is damaged, we have a backup file of every single computer profile here at the base. There are certain things you can change in the layout of your ship, also."

    Melissa motioned down and around. "There is a band of firing rockets around the belly of the ship. These are its attitude adjusters, and they also control the spin. We try to give you more fuel than you will need, and once the ship is in space it should never need to land. Later you may make some of the longer trips, and there will be less leeway for mistakes and adjustments. The mail rides in the outer band of the skin, and acts as insulation for you. The temperature will probably stay around 72 degrees for the most part, unless you need it a little warmer or cooler. You will wear jumpsuits most of the time, unless there is a specific reason for you to wear more professional clothing. There will be a uniform issued to you, three jumpsuits, and you will have lockers for any personal items you want to have. The weight limit will be listed in your documents. All right, any questions?"

    I raised my hand, a little hesitantly. "Where's the restroom?"
    :chapter eight:

    "I don't see why you think it's so funny. That's important information to have!" I pretended to try to punch Ralph, and he pretended to duck and cower.
    "Prue, do you suppose we'll get to name our own ships?"
    "I don't know. That would be fun. Do you have any ideas?"
    "I was thinking about something like, Ralph and The Anarchist."
    "Silly. What makes you think they want a ship that delivers the mail, a bastion of freedom and symbol of government stability, named 'The Anarchist'?"
    "Yeah, yeah. But you have to admit, it does have a ring to it."
    "Maybe I'll continue my current Greek myth trend. What do you think, the Medusa? Scylla? Charybdis? Or maybe -- Djinn. No, I don't think I like that one. Dryad? Naiad?" I rolled
    my eyes. "Yeah, I know, lame, lame, lame. Out comes the dictionary."

    Ralph and I walked back to our cars. "See you tomorrow, Prue. My ship's bigger than yours!"
    "You haven't even seen it yet! How do you know the female of the species isn't bigger than the male?"
    "Now, now, Prue, both ships would be female."
    "Oh, yeah. Whoops. See you tomorrow!"
    I started my car and trundled down the long strip to the city, muttering under my breath. "Ladybug? Katydid? Patsy, even? Well, maybe you'll get lucky and it will already have a perfectly good name. Or not. You could be stuck with 'The Queen of Indochina.'" Yikes.

    I took Gryphon with me that Friday. I figured he might as well get used to the ship and computer right along with me. We walked in through the front door, and the same rather young kid was there. His attitude didn't seem to have improved since yesterday, but he delivered a name tag with a lariat for hanging it around my neck. There was also a small computer memory device which looked like a keycard that had been melded onto a small hard drive. When he saw Gryphon, he handed me another card that was attached to a small harness which I buckled around Gryphon's neck and behind his front legs. His card fitted into a slot on the top of the harness. I assumed it could be read by various scanners in the ceiling.

    I snapped his lead onto the harness where a handy-dandy D-ring was provided, and we were instructed to follow the pink light down the never-ending curved hallway. We walked for several minutes before the line finally branched off to one of the large docking bays. We walked in, and Melissa was there waiting.
    "I just wanted to come down and introduce you to your docking crew. Mike, Jenks, Cal, come on over here. This is Ms. Prudence Close. She will be piloting this ship. Ms. Close --"
    "Please, you can all call me Prue. I'd hear you better, honestly."
    "Okay, Prue, this is Mike," she pointed to the man in the middle. He had brown hair which was a bit long, and a friendly smile. "This is Jenks," and I shook hands with a tall, dark, and handsome. He didn't say anything, and he didn't really smile at me. "Jenks will be your instructor. He is an expert on computer programming, and he was part of the developing team for your particular version of Postal." I raised a mental eyebrow at the name.
    "I hope you didn't have a hand in naming it that," I smiled at him.
    Melissa chuckled. "We have very warped senses of humor here. But no, that was Susie's idea."
    The last member she introduced was a brunette with a pony tail dangling halfway down her back. "This is Cal. She and Mike are mechanics. They are finishing the furnishing and mechanisms in the ship. She'll be ready to launch soon. We'll dock her at the space station, and you can leave on your rounds pretty much as soon as you've finished your training."
    I was startled. "Don't I have to do a couple of practice launches, first?"
    Melissa laughed, "Yes, you'll take another messenger ship up a few times. No worries, we have the course perfected. You'll be fine. Now, who is this furry creature?"
    "This is Gryphon, my patsy. I thought he might be able to see the new ship with me. He's also pretty good at staying out of the way if I tell him to."

    After Gryphon was duly admired, I took another tour. This was my ship. Melissa informed me that I would have the honor of assigning a name, but it had to be approved. I thought about it for a bit, then asked, "Do you have a listing of names that are already in use?"
    "Yes. You can use your key to access any computer station and examine the files and records for all ships and practically any other information you would like to know."
    I was pretty sure there was some restricted information, but I didn't quibble at the facts I was allowed to review. There were probably many files that Melissa wasn't privy to either.
    "Okay. Can I look at them and then get back to you about a name later?"
    "Sure. For now, Jenks will introduce you to your Postal. Learn your way around a bit. You should probably leave your patsy home for the first few trips." Melissa pursed her lips. "On the other hand, why don't you let him get accustomed to staying in the ship while you're performing your duties. Bring him here tomorrow, and we'll install him in his quarters for the day. That way we can iron out any problems. The animal accommodations are still somewhat new, and I'm sure Jackie would like to observe him."
    "Jackie is our veterinarian slash biologist. She's in charge of the creatures' comforts." Melissa smiled at her own joke.
    "Thanks for your help."
    "You can call me at any time during your training for help or information. I'll be tracking your progress. Good luck!"
    I waved good-bye.

    Jenks was standing at the hatch. I walked over to him, leaving Gryphon tethered to a heavy chair which was in a corner by itself. Gryph had promptly curled up and gone to sleep; that was his normal response to situations he regarded as incomprehensible.
    "Well, what should I do first?"
    Jenks regarded me. "First I have to introduce you to your computer. You will have to teach it how to respond when you talk and how to recognize your voice. I want you to spend at least three hours today just conversing with it. You will have to give it a name, and customize how you want it to sound. Then we will go over what you've learned so far from the computer training program."

    Jenks showed me where the slots for my key card were located. I could access my personal Postal from any wireless capable computer station (which was all of them), and from several points in my ship. Most importantly near the bunk and in my command chair. Since the ship was docked, everything inside was still sideways. Otherwise, I would have sat on my bed. Since that was impossible, I pulled the chair Gryph was tethered to over to a computer station that was in the same corner. I was sufficiently out of the way of the other workers, and I wouldn't worry too much about being overheard. So I'm paranoid. So what?

    After I slid my key card into the slot, a screen came up asking me to give my clearance. Jenks entered a code which caused the computer to display my personal information.
    "You can change your passcode here. I'd recommend that you do so soon. Once you've looked through this information, you can access your Postal through this icon here. There will be a guide to help you through the basic set-up. That should take an hour or so. Then, I want you to go through the voice command set-up. That will be mainly geared toward helping the computer understand you at all times."

    I glanced over my information, then changed my code. "Melpomena837," I muttered. Now, as long as I could remember how to spell it, I was home free. I activated the station's headset and put it on.

    The icon to access my Postal looked like a squid wrestling with a lobster. I wondered who created the graphics. Maybe I could change that, also. I touched it.

    A soft, androgynous voice spoke to me. "Postal 458. Please follow the directions for set-up"
    I selected my way through several pages, choosing the characteristics I wanted. A deep, baritone voice? No, I liked the tenor better. Baritone made me feel like the computer was smarter than me. It may have been true, but I didn't like it. I named him Clarence. Just because.

    Sometimes I had to repeat my choice more than once. Clarence kept filing away every impression of my voice. He seemed to be rather smart. A holographic image of him popped up on my screen. I told him he could choose what to look like, on a random basis, each time I called him until I decided I needed something permanent. I introduced Gryphon. Gryph wasn't too keen on a talking hologram, so once he had tried to sniff Clarence and was disappointed, he just went back to sleep. Clarence kept asking me leading questions, and I chatted away at him. When a word came by that he didn't catch, he asked me to repeat it. Once, I had to give in and type the word for him so he could file it as my own special pronunciation. Whaddaya mean, 'whaddaya' isn't in your dictionary?

    I set up a mailbox and notified the Postmaster General's office that I was on-line for all communications, but that I was not ready for an assignment. Clarence showed me his resources. A beautiful library and entertainment resources that were not to be sneered at. He had virtual everything, and classes that I could take while en route to my various destinations. I took a look at the map showing the bases that mail was delivered to - especially Betelgeuse, because that was what my training program had shown. It was all fascinating.
    :chapter nine:

    Every once in a while I get caught up in a new experience, new book, or just plain old daydreams. Then I wake up, and everyone around me is eying me, wondering if I'm really that out of touch with the universe. I start paying attention to politics, and suddenly I'm out of touch with my friends. I start talking to my friends regularly, and then I can't remember what I was trying to learn yesterday. I concentrate again on my, ahem, 'continuing education,' and then when the country is fuming about the latest political gaffe by their party or the other, I just keep my head down and try to figure out what blew up. As a result of this, I wasn't sure about all the procedures the Stex Code used to match people with the jobs they wanted them to do.

    Since the Stex Convention several years ago, after the Panic, the Stex Code of Employment had been in effect. It wasn't really too bad, but unpredictability was inherent. Basically, there was a law that any able-bodied person who was not the homemaker in a family with children (and that provision barely got in, to hear my mother tell it!), had to have a job. Period. If you were unemployed, they would find you. Kind of like truant officers for adults. Every child was entitled to an education through high school levels, and after that you would be trained for whatever job They decided you were best suited -- or whatever they thought needed doing at that moment. The funny thing was, even though you might expect that kind of a plan to fall apart, it hadn't. Pay rates were still determined by capability and such, and tenure was a valid argument against relocation. So many people didn't want to be stuck in jobs they hated that they did their homework and applied for what they wanted before being forcibly assigned. I tried to keep in contact with friends, continuing to meet with them every Saturday morning. We had a rather amorphous group; singleness and jobbers mixed together does not promote stability. Ralph, though invited, didn't like to come -- he always slept in on Saturdays. My parents and siblings lived in another town. I kept in contact with them and went home for the weekend every few weeks.

    I hadn't been very concerned with my position. I knew I had good secretarial qualifications, and I had been happy with the job at RoVer. Space pilot for a mail ship? Luck of the draw. And I was determined to enjoy it. Moving away from home had been an interesting experience. I had been in the same town as my parents for so long that it was quite disconcerting to not have anywhere at all to go when I felt bored and unsocialized. Now that I'd been here for two years, and at the same job most of that time, I had turned some acquaintances into friends, and some friends into good buddies. Ralph was the one I had known longest, because any person who wasn't tied down had a tendency to attract the jobbers' attention, and then they would be moved indiscriminately around the country.

    After my initial introduction to Clarence, he began to lead me through the regulations handbook. Only, it wasn't really a handbook. More of a complicated version of tax forms. Memorization wasn't necessary for the whole thing, just the parts that were most likely to apply to me. Emergency codes, such as What To Do If You Get a Distress Signal Coming From A Spaceship That Looks Like It Got Hit By A Big Rock, and rules for how and when to deliver and pick up mail on stations. Most places had their own collection facilities and I was merely a courier, but some of the smaller stations were hand-delivery only.

    Gryphon became quite acclimated to the docking bay fairly quickly, though he did not like the plethora of people who tended to wander through our space. He started to make a habit of clinging to the ladder about 10 feet from the ground and falling on members of the docking crew. Brat.
    :chapter ten:

    "Hi?" A voice behind me made me turn around and blink. So many people had been in and out, I really hadn't been paying attention anymore. Silly, I scolded myself, don't let people sneak up on you!
    "I'm Tommy Price. I was sent over to, um -- well, I guess mentor is the right word. Are you Prudence Close?" A friendly, but slightly uncertain smile hovered on the face of the man who was facing me. Silvery hair and a medium build, he was dressed in a jumpsuit similar to the ones I'd seen on many of the other people in the building. His lariat proclaimed him to be T. Price, Mailer.
    "Yes. Are you a pilot?" I smiled at him.
    "Yeah. I finished a run recently, so I've got some ground time. I'm supposed to help you learn the ropes, maybe take you for a ride."
    "Oh, okay. They told me someone would be along, but I wasn't sure when to expect you."
    "There aren't very many mailers who have been around long enough to help explain things. The computer can give you the basics, but nothing beats trying it for real." He seemed to relax, now that he was sure he had the right person.
    "What's first?"
    "Oh. Well, if you like we can get together tomorrow. I'll come over here and fetch you and show you around my boat. She's got some maintenance being done just now, but I can give you a tour. Then we'll see about trying a small craft out." He eyed me dubiously. "Is that what you usually wear?"
    I glanced down at my skirt and blouse. "Well, I bought them, so I have to wear them sometime. Should I wear a jumpsuit tomorrow?"
    "Yeah. And you should pack for overnight. I'll clear it with control."
    "Wait a minute. Where are we going?"
    "To the moon."
    "Oh. Uh, should I bring my patsy?"
    "Is that your critter hanging on the ladder?"
    "Yeah. Gryphon. He'll be traveling with me."
    "Sure. Bring him along. We can introduce him to my slip, and he can start to learn about movement in space. Sirian, right?"
    "Check with the vet for a suit for him. They should have them in stock for patsies. I'll meet you here around 9 a.m. tomorrow."
    "Okay. Nice meeting you," I called as he moved away. He turned and waved.

    I asked Clarence about the moon base after Tommy left. He obliged with a map and a travel brochure that must have been designed for millionaires. No one I knew could even afford the starting prices for the basic round-trip fares. I also looked up the word "slip." I hoped I'd heard right, and I had. A slip was a kind of tree dwelling snake with a bird's beak, also from Sirius. I was glad to see they were not large carnivores, but more on the order of insect hunters. Hopefully Gryph wouldn't get any ideas.

    Gryph and I stopped by the vet's offices on the way out that evening. Jackie was a small woman with dark hair and glasses perched on the tip of her nose. She looked over them at Gryphon and through them at me and under them at the paperwork she held in her hand.

    "Hi, I'm Prue Close. This is Gryphon. I'm planning on taking him with me to the moon tomorrow, and I need a case or suit or whatever it is he's supposed to use."
    She raised an eyebrow at me. "New at this?" When I nodded, she briskly handed me a clipboard. Oh, great. More questions.
    "Please fill this out. I'm Jackie Blintz. I'll need to give him a quick examination. Seeing as how you're planning on going up tomorrow, I'll do it now, but in the future please try get an appointment further ahead."
    "Sorry. I didn't know myself until this morning."
    "Well, the training program is not exactly smooth yet. I'll get him outfitted for you."
    I sat and tried to remember not to chew on the end of the pen as I filled out the basic forms. Nothing very complicated, just asking about his medical history. Gryph squeaked a bit as I handed the leash over to Jackie. "Don't be silly," I scolded him. He hadn't been to a vet since I'd bought him, so he didn't have a real fear. He was just reacting to some of the smells. There was a large glass wall between the waiting area and the room where some animals were in cages awaiting whatever tortures where soon to be administered. As Gryph disappeared into the back area I idled over to see what was in. It appeared to be a bit of a boarding area as well. There were a couple patsies, a few of what I now recognized as slips on heat rocks, and a couple of other rather exotic imports. At least, I assumed they were imports.

    Gryph rematerialized as a small sphere. He was inside what looked like an over-sized hamster ball, complete with water and food compartments. It was mostly clear to let him see out, and there was another ring set into what might have been the top of his package for me to snap a cord to. There were actually two spheres: One was set like a shell over the other, with just the bottom cut away, which left a construction something like a wheel on a desk chair. I could hook the lead to the top shell and the bottom one would roll along. Alternatively, if I unclipped the leash, he could stroll along the bottom of his shell, pushing it along.
    :chapter eleven:

    I stayed up rather late the night before the trip was scheduled. It wasn't that I was nervous, I just wanted to make sure I had everything packed. Okay, maybe I was nervous. I certainly wasn't tired!

    After a bit of pacing, trying to remember if I needed anything else, I turned on some quiet music and wandered aimlessly around the house. I ended up near my closet. Opening the door, I took a look at all the business clothes I had bought with my salary, depriving myself of any morning pastries and espresso in an effort to get quality and style. Well, so much for that. Not too many formal occasions on a postal ship, I was sure. I had packed a nice pair of pants and a blouse for the moon, just in case. I'm a bit of a pack rat -- if I think I might use it, I take it. That doesn't keep me from forgetting things, though, so I stood and fretted again. Gryph was finally fed up with my wandering and went to bed. As the music washed over my frayed nerves, the problems I was facing began to take a less menacing form. I needed sleep. If I didn't get that, anything else was not going to matter very much. A tempting thought, but I finally climbed between my clean sheets and relaxed.

    I awoke the next morning to classical music playing on my system. Sibelius' 'Valse Triste' accompanied my omelet manufacture, and I couldn't help twirling around in the kitchen. The moon! The idea was unreal, but I left home early. I put Gryphon in his little bubble after making sure the food and water compartments were filled, but I didn't seal the door.

    We arrived at the base right on time, and Tommy was waiting for us at the front desk. I had a big silly smile on my face, and he grinned right back at me.

    "I'm ready." I let my bag down on the floor, and stood waiting. Tommy gave the clerk some papers, which were stamped and handed right back.
    "Okay, Prudence, we're on our way. Follow me."

    We began to traverse the gently curving corridor, but almost immediately Tommy opened a door and we stepped through. We were outside again, but it looked like an enclosed area. We followed a paved pathway through a maze of ladders and various other wheeled contraptions whose uses I could only guess at. After a few minutes, the haze of metal thinned out, and I could see a thin needley spacecraft pointed at the sky.

    "This is a personnel transport," explained Tommy. "It's used to ferry people back and forth from the moon base. Most people only use it for vacations and things like that, if they really want to come back down."
    "You mean, they stay up there all the time? They don't come down, even for vacations?"
    "You'll see. I rarely come down. But I had to visit my family this year."
    That made me stop and think. This year? How often did he get a vacation? And why didn't people come down? I remembered an old Proverb about keeping your mouth shut, and continued to follow Tommy along the path.

    We reached the ladder, and Tommy helped me get Gryph up the ladder. He said that he had packed his stuff the previous day, and his slip was also already aboard. The layout inside the ship was similar to that of a postal ship, but the slimness was due to the fact that there was no outer skin, which on my ship would be used to hold the cargo. We stowed my bag in the lowest level, hooked Gryph's bubble to a catch in the wall, and Tommy introduced me to his slip.
    "Frank, this is Prue. And Gryph."
    "Hi, Frank," I said. The animal gazed at me through one clear eye.
    "Say 'Hi,' Frank," ordered Tommy.
    Suddenly, Frank opened his mouth, and a shy little girl's voice issued from within him. "Hi."
    "Wow," I said. "I've never heard one talk before."
    "Yeah, I was surprised at first, too. But I'm used to it, now. Frank is my only company for most of the time I'm out on duty. He knows lots of words," Tommy said, stroking the scaly back of the lizard.

    "How long do you go out for at once? I mean, how long do your trips take?"
    "Well, it depends on which route you're on. I'm on a longish one, so it takes me about 47 days to make a round-trip. And you don't get more than a few days, if that, station-time before they send you out again. With such a long rotation, the mail piles up."
    "Oh. So, do you know how long a rotation to Betelgeuse would take?"
    "Betelgeuse? There isn't a route to Betelgeuse. That's just a set-up for the training computer."
    "I see. I thought I saw --"
    "We'd better get going," Tommy interrupted me. "The countdown will begin in about 15 minutes from now. Seal Gryph's suit, and I'll put Frank in his cabinet. Then we need to get strapped into our seats."

    After securing the animals, Tommy led me to the central control center of the ship. We were in a padded, rather circular room. Along the walls of the room were about ten bunks. Tommy watched me buckle myself in, as I counted off the steps I had been taught. Just like in old movies, I was laying horizontally with my knees bent and feet elevated on a step-like structure.

    "Okay," Tommy began, "I will be in control for this flight, but I'm going to bring up the co-pilot's controls for you to watch exactly what I do. Don't touch anything, but you can talk to me."

    He laid himself in another bunk, and suddenly all the lights in the cabin turned off. A sphere began to glow around me, and pinpoints of light marked the positions of stars in a now touchable sky. I nearly reached out to feel the map, but kept control of myself. If I arched my neck over back and sideways, I could see that Tommy had another transparent sphere around him, and he was touching it. Mine must have mirrored his, because the stars shifted and swam around me. A green dot picked out a bright spot, and that was suddenly magnified. An ungainly box hung in the air, solar sails extended.
    "That's a refueling station," called Tommy. "And here. Here is the moon base."
    The stars spun again, and then I saw the round globe of rock. It sped towards my face, then hung so I could just make out a sprawling system of tubes and domes which extended along the surface.

    I knew from reading various materials that the moon base was really mostly underground. The designers had calculated that as the most efficient use of space and materials, although just like any structure that was the first of its kind, the cost had been higher than anticipated.

    What started out as a commercial venture had failed, but several governments of the time had decided to pick it up and finish it out. As a result, the workmanship varied, and it was mostly populated by postal employees, marshals, and various relatives of the above. I had heard the rumors of a thriving black market and rebel coalition, just like everyone else. I didn't know what to think, but I was ready to find out.
    :chapter twelve:

    "Okay, counting down," Tommy informed me. A large red number, like those found on antique alarm clocks, appeared before me and ticked down from ten through three to two to one to ...

    A rumbling began directly below me, and vibrations traveled up through the seat and into my head. I could feel my eyeballs jiggling, and reminded myself not to bite my tongue. I gripped the rests on the sides of the prone chair, and closed my eyes.

    Have you ever been to a live concert? You know, the ones where if you get close to the stage, the bass is so loud that you can't hear anything at all physically, but your bones begin to vibrate to the rhythm? That is close to what I was feeling for the next few moments. And then we began to actually accelerate.

    I expect that most of you have read previous accounts of how it feels to lift off from the planet, the pressure which increases as your momentum is gained, the sudden interesting question of, "Will I be squished to jelly or not?" Let me tell you, it's so much better in person. Many people I know hate lifting off, landing, or anything which causes their insides to attempt a reversal -- but that's the best part, in my opinion. You can't get that sensation anywhere else -- except perhaps by falling in love. But we'll get to that later.

    The sequence of events that led to us being airborne and then past the atmosphere did not last as long as I would have liked. Savoring every moment, I wished I could have hit a slo-mo button at that point in time. On the other hand, however, I was impatient for the next step. So, when Tommy finally gave me permission to 'move about the cabin,' I unbuckled and tentatively pushed myself slowly away from the chair, maintaining a hold on one of the sides at all times. Weightlessness is fun, too. If I were to tell you all the thoughts that were cascading through my head at that point in time, the rest of the story would never be told. However, I will say that it was nearly as fun as lift off. Almost.

    My attention to my own feelings was distracted by a piteous yowling which emanated from the corner where Gryph was. Frank was in a small cabinet, coiled tightly around a post which connected the ceiling and floor, and Gryphon was in another cabinet directly below his, but still encased in his suit. He was not happy. I wasn't exactly sure what to do for him; belatedly, I realized that I should have asked the expert back on the ground for advice concerning the acclimatization of patsies to free-fall. Oh, well. I pulled his suit out of the cabinet, maneuvered it in front of me, and spoke soothingly to him. Didn't help very much.

    Tommy grinned. "He doesn't know what's going on. Give him some time to get accustomed to the feeling. We won't be in free-fall for very long this time, anyway. We will land fairly soon, and he'll have some gravity on the moon."

    I felt a little guilty about it, but, after checking that Gryph had access to his food and water, I stuck him back in the little cabinet and turned my attention back to the ship which was conveying me beyond my wildest dreams.
    Mm, I have some catching up to do now. The field trip distracted me.

    ~Monies O.o
    • CommentTimeOct 20th 2007
    Poor Gryph. Prue should take better care of him. Nice foreshadowing.
    Hold the phone! Foreshadowing? Quick, what was I foreshadowing? Don't want to miss the actual shadowy bit ...

    mmmk. yeah. gotcha.

    All good now. :-)

    It's been a month since u wrote last. What's going on?

    • CommentTimeNov 2nd 2007
    Good point. Hey Prue! Wake up! Shake yourself out of free fall.
    But I *like* freefall. I'm divorced from my laptop for several hours -- until Sunday. But I hope to compose for a bit then. If I don't, feel free to heap reproach. Or chocolate. Either way.

    :chapter thirteen:

    Floating there, in the moment, I remember wondering how long it would take, constantly in and exiting from and going back to free-fall, before I became accustomed to the beautiful weightlessness, to the novelty of being unsupported and yet supported midair, to having to run each prospective move through a mental maze of physics, mass considerations, and directional results. I knew that I would probably become accustomed to it, perhaps even grow to be annoyed or dislike it entirely. But at that point it was merely a mental exercise. I could not, in my soul, believe that those feelings would come to pass, although mentally I knew it to be quite possible. Too soon for me, experimenting with my stomach, up and down, and movement in the cushioned area of the ship, Tommy announced our imminent landing.

    "Come and buckle up, Prue. We're going to be guided in by remote autopilot, and it can get bumpy sometimes." He explained that most ports had their own AI which would direct traffic, not trusting to the steering skills of spacers. The undeveloped personality of the ship notified us of the upcoming maneuvers, and we simply sat and watched the stars spin around us in the viewing display. I could see how some people would contract motion sickness in that atmosphere. One of our physical tests before assignment had been for motion sickness -- I thought I might be slightly susceptible, but it wasn't enough to dissuade the jobbers, apparently.

    The display showed the station on the moon's surface, as we neared it. I began to feel the tug of gravity again, and although I knew it to be minuscule compared to earth's, it felt immense after the freedom I had just experienced. "With the moon's gravity, you can still do incredible things," Tommy observed. "You can only feel it now because we've just been in free-fall. If we'd gone directly from earth to the moon, you'd have felt incredibly light."

    "But that's impossible," I objected. "You have to go through space to get to the moon."

    "Well, it's a bit of a speculation, but they've got earth-gravity simulators on the moon, mostly by centrifuge, and they've experimented with the differences. Trust me, if we went back to earth right now, you'd notice a big difference."

    I laughed. "Oh, I believe you, I just didn't see how it could have been experienced as a direct comparison. Will we be able to visit the gravity simulators?"

    Tommy seemed uncomfortable with the question. "Well, if you really want to, we can probably find an opportunity ..."

    The transport interrupted his reluctant ramble, as a bump and a crash coincided with it's announcement of contact. For the next two minutes the ship continued to rattle off statistics relating to moon weather, base internal conditions, and the stabilization of our atmospheric link to the station. Hissing and clanking sounds emanated from the walls, signaling hookups, links, and other attaching bits I could still barely guess at.

    "Welcome to the moon," smiled Tommy. "Please collect your baggage and file out singly in the order in which you entered." I grinned back at him.
    I really like this one EA. No stopping.
    Haha. I'm glad you like it. But I'm not EA here. :-P Gotta keep your names straight, Con.

    Don't worry about me quitting this one -- the worst that will happen is I'll have to skip the moon-base bit because I can't figure it out and move right along to the action-in-outer-space. Such a tragedy, I'm sure.

    hmph, skipping parts. . .idk about that, but anyhow, s'long as you know who I'm talking about semicolon . . .
    Tartton, I refuse to participate in your silly games!

    I really really don't want to skip it, so I think it will come out. I may have to edit it later, though. (Who am I kidding, I'll have to edit the whole thing. haha)

    :chapter fourteen:

    After Tommy filled out some paperwork, which was conducted in an office which looked like any other office, except for the heavy paperweights on all the piles of forms, we stepped out of the station and onto a concourse. The road perpendicular to where we were standing stretched for miles in either direction. I don't think I had appreciated the size of the base before, and, actually, it was too large to take in the immensity just by looking in either direction. People in jumpsuits were walking along both lanes of the road; the only mechanical transport I saw was a type of gurney pulled by an electric motor. It had many boxes on it, all labeled 'FeraTran.'

    I took a minute to absorb the scene before me, then Tommy motioned for me to follow him down the right-hand side of the lane. I nearly lost him a couple of times during that short trip, because I kept craning my neck up and looking around to see the buildings, the ships whose noses barely poked over the side of the station enclosure, and the separate bubble which domed the metropolitan area where we were.

    Tommy took me to a Postal House, which was basically an inn where the bed and breakfast were free to postal workers. I had to scan my tag at the door, and the lady at the front told me what was included with the deal and what I'd get charged extra for if I ordered it. I left my bags in my room, which would only open for my tag once the security system was set.

    Gryphon had been persistently howling his objection to the current events, only stopping once I finally released him from the suit in our room. He curled up into a ball in my lap, the harness with his id glinting dully in the artificial light. I soothed him until he fell asleep, then left him on the bed with food and water close by. Then I put together a day bag with everything I thought I'd need for sight-seeing. I rejoined Tommy in the lobby, apologizing for my tardiness.

    "No worries," said Tommy. "Patsies always make the most noise when they first get pulled back into space. But he'll settle down soon enough. I've heard that they can be the best companions. I, of course, wouldn't trade Frank for anything." Frank was snugged around Tommy's upper arm, looking like an excited child on a trip to the zoo. At least, as much as a lizard could look excited.

    "Does Frank ever cut off your circulation?" I asked interestedly.

    "Not so far. He's pretty used to this station, and regards it as an amusement park, I think."

    The slip looked at me when I said his name, and repeated it back. "Frank." I grinned at him, but looked back at Tommy. "Where to now?"

    "Now I show you around a little bit. There are a few places that you'll need to know about right from the start."

    I got the grand tour, starting from the front of the Postal House and continuing to several restaurants, a Post Office and review of the procedures for dropping mail off, a couple of stores which sold many of the non-regulation items I would want to stock my ship with, and a weapons store.

    "Okay," Tommy began, "We have an allowance with which to get you a good weapon. If you are in your ship, you will have the basic armaments with which that comes. If you ever get to the point where you're on your ship and need a personal weapon, then you've pretty much already lost. My recommendation is to get a low-atmosphere projectile weapon, for surface use."

    "Hmm." I considered. "So, I wouldn't be able to use that on board -- no projectiles in my air bubble in space."

    "That's right -- unless you have your suit on. You'll bleed the air right out if you start a fire fight in that shell."

    "How about a knife?"

    "I've got a couple of knives. However, they're not included in your allowance, and I'd recommend taking lessons before you try to fight with them. As an amateur, all you'd end up doing would be giving the knife to your enemy, which is about the last thing you want to do."

    "Right. So, projectile weapon it is."

    We looked over several styles and weights, and Tommy helped me pick one that wasn't too heavy or too light, was easily carried and concealed in my uniform, and didn't take expensive ammunition. Once we were back on the street outside, I examined the box I held in my arms. "So ... what do I do with this? Am I supposed to take it home until I get my ship?"

    Tommy fidgeted. "Not exactly. Let's take it to a range and test it out, okay?"

    I wasn't sure what was making him so jumpy, but I hadn't known him long, so assumed that was part of his normal attitude. We went to the edge of the bubble, rented a couple of bulletproof space suits, and stepped out onto a large paved area with targets at the far end.

    "Let's see what you can do," Tommy challenged. I think I hit the target once out of twenty shots.
    Either its a tricky weapon, or someone needs an awful lot of practice.
    I think the target moves.

    I must say I enjoyed this story even if it hasn't been posted on for *looks at date of last post* quite literally, years. :)
    I know, I'm so behind on everything here.


    P.S. I hope to be posting my own story in a while here so that I won't be just a useless-feeling commentator. ;)
    • CommentTimeMar 19th 2009
    Never useless, Nylad. A very encouraging commentator.

    Commentators are never useless!  And I do need to work on this story ... maybe after I've finished moving my house and my husband's house and going on a honeymoon and painting the house and working on my new business.  Should have lots of time after that ... >.<  :-D

    Well, Thanks. It's very understandable that you are quite busy. Take your time.
    No! Don't tell her that! Now we'll never hear (read) the end of the story!!!
    Hmm. I suppose that could be one result... Maybe it'll work like reverse psychology and she'll want to finish it fast. ;)
    Maybe... *skeptically*
    Yes, It's a fools hope, at best.

    I must add my plea for MORE!


    Wow, it's amazing how quickly a couple of years can go by, and no progress be made in the story ...

    I assure you all, I've been bandying about possible plot lines in my head for some time now, and I have a vague idea of where I'm hoping the story will go. 

    Anyway, tally-ho, it's a-writing I will go!!

    Thankful People: Dynamic Juggernaut
      CommentAuthorCurly Que
    • CommentTimeAug 22nd 2010
    Okay, now it's been a year since a couple of years went by. :-P

    Hey, you're not supposed to notice that!

    Busy Anemone

      CommentAuthorCurly Que
    • CommentTimeAug 24th 2010