Chapter 1:

Nothing but the regular hustle and bustle at the local IPS. The Interstellar Postal Service was in full swing this time of year. Christmas was right around the corner, along with New Years and all of the celebrations that accommodated such festivities.

Being such a young company with such a huge task, everyone's nerves were on edge. The city carriers were getting their cardio in double-time, and even the janitors were battling weight loss and cardiac arrest.

So what was setting this holiday season apart from the past? Several things. There were two new Establishments out past the Asteroid Belt. In the last several months they had grown from population in the thousands to the hundred-thousands. Normally this wouldn't seem like much. But these Establishments were new colonies. They didn't have the earthly resources that the inner establishments found so available. They needed constant shipments of food and water.

And so twice weekly I found myself traveling past the orbit of Mars, taking care of these pilgrims who so desperately needed an escape from the simple monotony of daily life on Earth.

I've been working at IPS since its inception two years ago. Still low on the totem pole, I was a delivery boy. Higher than a city carrier, but with less recognition. My official title was I-PLANT (Inter-Planetary Logistics and Airflight Nvigation capable Tracker) Crew Member.

The I-Plant was comprised of four people; two pilots, a technician and a crew-chief.

"Okay, bring it in," our crew-chief, Kyle, said. I rolled my eyes and walked the four steps onto the cargo ramp of our small hauler. While our environment here on the space-station was controlled, I found myself to be less than comfortable. That didn't matter. Soon we'd be underway, I imagined, and I'd be able to crank up the heat in my birthing area.

"One, two, three. Good," Kyle continued. "All accounted for. Now, before we prepare for take-off, I just want to go over a few safety standards. When Underway, keep all manual and electric locks engaged. There's no need to play with death when there's no oxygen and..." He continued his usual rant about the basic spaceflight safety procedures. It was likely there would be nothing new for him to relay to us. Even if there was, we wouldn't listen. We've been doing this for two years now.

I could feel my comm-tablet vibrating in my pocket. Most likely just a call from a local university trying to promote their awesome tuition, or a wrong-numbber from someone's lonely grandmother. I ignored it. If I answered in the middle of this very important safety brief, I'd probably get my ass chewed out for being rude and disrespectful to my crew-chief.

Kyle could see us getting impatient, so he decided to wrap things up. "Now let's go out there and continue to do great things!"

We walked up the ramp and into the cargo hold. It was stuffed to the overhead ceiling with wooden crates and plastic totes, pallets of bottled, purified water and boxes full of hand-written letters. I'm sure there was plenty of junk mail too. Everything was pretty well-packed, as if our packers had been well trained in Tetris, the only game of its time to survive four centuries of advancing technology. There was only a small istle between the stacks leading into the birthing and cockpit areas. We squeezed by the cargo and continued until we reached our seats in the cockpit.

The pilots' seats were positioned in the fore-most part of the vessel. Kyle had a seat just aft of theirs, on the starboard side. He seldom sat in it. He was a motard, always standing and giving commands and trying to be a leader. He was the chief after all.

And then there was me, the technician. I didn't really get a seat. A small bench in the rear of the cockpit, just wide enough to fit my small buttocks on, with a handle on either side if things got rough. The bench seat was good enough for me, though. I was out of the way for all major aspects of flight and navigation. I knew how to maneuver the craft. In fact, we all did. During orientation all personnel involved with an I-PLANT learn how to pilot the basic hauler, whether it's our duty or not.

I've tried to give some pointers to Jenson and Jarrod, our pilots, about basic preventative maintenance. They were interested slightly, but didn't really grasp much. That was okay though. They were decent enough operators, and I wasn't going anywhere. I enjoyed taking care of the engines and the rest of the systems. I was no expert, but I knew more than the basics and I could fix just about any minor issue temporarily so the mission wouldn't be hindered.

The temperature dropped even further when we entered the cockpit. I could see my breath and I even felt my hairs stand up slightly. I don't hate the cold by any means, but space doesn't really offer any natural alternative, so I've grown tired of it. I took my rightful seat on the bench as everyone else strapped in. Kyle even sat down, though not for long.

Jenson started flipping switches and pressing controls on the navigation system, while Jarrod did the same with the communications. They made a good team. Never needing to speak verbal commands to each other, it was like their minds were intertwined. Both with brown, messy hair and standing tall and well-built, anyone who didn't know them would likely peg them as brothers. While that wasn't the case, they have known each other for quite some time.

"The ramp's hydraulics won't engage," Jenson said to no one in particular, although I knew this was going to get blamed on me.

"Silas," Kyle stepped in, addressing me by my full first name before I could even stand up. He looked at me like I'd kicked his dog. The ramp failing to close wasn't really that big of a deal. An easy fix, I assumed. Probably just a loose fuse or plug.

"I'm on it," I said, denying him any chance of barking orders at me. I got up and squeezed back out through the cargo and down to the portside bulkhead. The hydraulic interface module had a green solid light, indicating that the ramp had been set to the close position. This meant to me that the problem lay somewhere after the interface. I opened it up and took a quick look. "Yep," I said to myself as I plugged the motor back into the relay panel. I secured it with some duct tape to keep it from disconnecting again until we returned and I could go get the proper fittings. The ramp made a low pitched humming sound as it raised up until it was fully seated within the frame, making a loud locking sound as the latches automatically engaged.

"This better not become a habit," Kyle said as I sat back down on my bench.

"We're good," I said reassuringly.

"Okay then. Let's get moving. I'm hoping we can get there fast enough to enjoy some local cuisine and maybe indulge is some of their finest entertainment." Kyle was definitely an extrovert. He enjoyed doing new things, meeting new people and hanging out on the town. More often than not I've denied his requests to go out drinking. I'm not sure if he was actually interested in hanging out with me or simply just wanted a sober pilot to chauffer him around


The airlock could be a dangerous place if it wasn't operated by experienced and competent controllers. The controllers in the command deck of IPSs space station, named Sky Six, were military veterans who performed these very same tasks under the pressure of a combat environment. I trusted them with my life when it came to departing and arriving. Not that operating the airlock was fairly difficult, it was simply a series of switches. But the understanding and care needed to do it properly, and safely, only came through experience.

"Sky Six main, this is Sky Six mobile, requesting permission to depart airlock three with three packs," Jarrod spoke over the hauler's communication transmitter.

"Standby," replied Sky Six. They weren't a very conversational group. Several seconds passed as lights inside the airlock flashed different colors as it ran through its series of self-diagnostics. "Proceed through hatch one," commanded the operator. The hatch in front of us opened up as he was speaking. Jenson guided us in easily, and the hatch closed behind.

Jenson maneuvered our vessel to the center of the airlock. While I couldn't see it, I knew what was going on outside. A rail would extend from the floor beneath us, interlocking with the hauler. Like a magnetic monorail, it would build up energy using electromagnets and earth magnets.

I heard, for just a split second, the atmosphere flushing out of the airlock. Then there was dead silence. No noise in a vacuum. No noise in space. No noise.

"Sky Six mobile, you are cleared for take-off. Proceed when ready," the command deck said, cutting the transmission. Once we departed, they would ensure the airlock was restored to its proper atmospheric pressure, and business aboard Sky Six would resume as usual.

I felt a jolt of excitement as the door to outer-space opened. Though I've done this hundreds of times over the last two years, it never gets old. The rush of accelerating at exponents of the speed of sounds, the way the space station turns into a blip behind you.

The polarities on the magnetic rail reversed, slingshotting us into the vacuum beyond.