Home Fiction Humor Essays Books


by Greg Swann

On Tuesday, Snowballers get paid.

That's Tuesday Earthside time. 'Tarybase squeals unrelentingly, but on Tuesday she runs down the roster, tickling each transponder in the fleet. Along with fair notice of another week's pay comes that irksome reminder that no Snowballer is his own boss: "This Freight Hauler, designation A-5117, is the exclusive property of the Sallyship SallyBank Valenta. Use for any purpose except those assigned by the Sallyship, or by the Ship's duly appointed agents, constitutes theft."

I really don't know why they have to rub things in that way... Maybe it's just the SallyBanker. Last time I was at Cometary Base I was talking to a rock-jumper up from the Asteroids, which is Helena turf; he said they use a whole different approach there.

Face it: I wasn't going all that fast, only about .97 lights, about four Tuesday's a week. But if I decided to give it the gun, I could be two or three light years away before they even got a posse up to speed. The Ship has to depend on the honesty of the Snowballers, so why pretend otherwise with snotty legal notices?

The honesty and the greed: what's a ship really worth, compared to two or twenty paychecks a week? Not enough for you? How about the effective immortality of working ten years while the home planet lives through a hundred? Maybe it's not the same as living all that time at subjective speed, but at least you get to reap the benefits of technological advances you'd never have seen otherwise.

I don't think there's a Snowballer in the sky who doesn't love his ship as much that old cowboy loved his horse. But at least the cowpoke could have eaten the horse, if pickings got slim. A Snowballer without a ship is about as useful as a horse in zero gee.

You move them rocks, my friend. Move them rocks and capture the video squeal and swear and sleep and try not to go crazy while Tuesday after Tuesday whizzes by. Herd them rocks at almost the speed of light in a giant orbit circum Sol, and after ten long years you stop off at 'Tarybase for a drink and sign up to do the whole tour again...

What for? I wonder if the pencil-pusher behind that legal notice knows... It ain't the money, friend. The money just collects. It might be the solitude, or the action, or the speed, or the time dilation, or the starbow. Or it might be just the challenge of riding those rocks like a bronco-buster, gripping tight and strong-arming their orbits, forcing them into the new groove then pounding on the velocity until they're hurled out so far and fast they'll arrive at the destination in almost real-time. Maybe the best compensation is just the thrill of flinging that fastball at C, confident that a Snowballer at the other end is waiting to tame that rock, bring her home to the traders.

You herd 'em up and move 'em out, then use the velocity to catch a rock on the way back, drag it down to a speed the pineapples in-system can handle, then catch another rock on the way out and repeat the process...

Is it fun? In a way, the way a long, drawn-out chess game can be fun. If you're in the game for quick thrills, get out: it don't happen that way. But if you can take satisfaction from the success of an incremental strategy through time, you can understand why a Snowballer doesn't need to be told not to steal his ship.

Cheaters never prosper, true enough, but what's worse: cheaters never win. Winning's what you did when you bested your opponent by fair play. If you beat him by fraud, you might steal the kitty, but you won't have won. I don't but doubt there's a black market in small ships, especially ships with the boost-power of a Snowballer. But while a man might lay back a bundle for hijacking his own truck, he wouldn't be haulin' rocks... And he wouldn't be flying that bird, not ever again.

You growl at the squeal, curse at the rock, spit at the food... But give up the ship? No, sir. Not me. Not ever.

Corrigan's the name. Johnny Corrigan, not that I hear it spoken much. For a while, folks were calling me the Time Capsule, but that was later. On that Tuesday I was just plain old Corrigan, growling at that snotty message: 'any other use constitutes theft'.

It wasn't Tuesday shipside, of course. Or maybe it was... I don't have much use for calendars, and I pay but casual attention to the ship's clock. It was morning because I had just woken; I had my steaming algaecaf mug in easy reach, and I hadn't quite cleaned the crustiness out of my eyes. It was Tuesday because I just got paid; it would be payday three more times before I slept another seven nights.

I flopped down at the console and danced my fingers over the keys. At four-to-one, you get prime-choice video. The squeal is digital, so it's self-timing, with reference to a tick. What I'm saying is, the ship's computer knows how to slow it down and make sense of it, no matter how far out of synch we are with Base. I fingered around the catalog to see what was coming up, programmed a few for taping, then flipped over to the command channel, to check the status of my rock.

I had just dropped a beauty, a big ball of copper from Gobi, and I was matching in to a load of bio-waste bound for Underside. Cruising slow and lazy, ready to put some speed behind my jet...

To be honest, I wasn't planning on quite that much speed...

"Wild Pitch!" The screen screamed the warning with pulsing urgency. I keyed up the details: some greenhorn from Diana had hurled a load of liquid nitrogen without correcting for Tarybase's orbit. The rock was headed the right way, but it would never come closer than about a year and half from the Cometary Base.

I was only about eight minutes out from the squeal, and I guessed I was at least a day closer than any other rock-jockey. It makes a difference: the foul ball was moving at just short of C. Therefore the warning laser from Diana was only about 32 days ahead of the rock. A Snowballer closer to it might have a better chance of making pick-up, but the further a truck is from base, the longer the turnaround delay in communications.

Without even thinking about all that, I slammed at the keys. I put in a call for the rock, then jammed down on the drive. Whatever speed I put on I could shed, if base already had another trucker on the rock. But, if not... Sixteen minutes of boost may not seem like a lot, but it put me sixteen minutes closer to that rock. If I had to grab it, I'd just as soon not spend my whole life on the chase...

And it worked out to a more than sixteen minutes anyway. My squeal moved in real-time, as did theirs, and the processing was speeded-up four-to-one, in my time-frame. But it was almost twenty minutes before they got back to me. I waited, fidgeting and plotting orbits. I wasn't in range of the foul ball's transponder, but I knew the hunk of sky she'd be coming from, and I had pretty good numbers from Diana on course and velocity.

Slow, really: only about .99. Young guys are always scared to throw 'em fast, almost as scared as they are of catching 'em fast. Hell, I was the same way. And I'll say this: if the meatball had to push the rock out wild, it was kind of him to push it out slow...

But it was so wild...

No way I could slow in time to catch it on the way in. To boost out, I'd have to push it to three nines and beyond, and with that kind of mass, it'd be a while before I slowed back to .99. I'd be lucky if I matched in closer than half a year behind.

So I'd have to push out the other way, build velocity as I trotted out from Sol. I'd match with the rock at maybe three years out, then I'd have to circle back again to bring her home.

Do you see? On a continuous-boost ship, there's no such thing as reverse. I couldn't capture that rock at .99, slow to zero, then turn around and boost back on the same vector. Mr. Frosty is a good provider, but no refrigerator is quite that deep...

What I could do is throw mass sideways after I caught the foul, warp my momentum in a curve to circle back to Sol. I could boost the whole while, which would cut the time some, for me. But that rock was going to be eight, ten years late, no matter what.

It would seem like a lot less time to me, thank heavens, a little over a year. Normally, I'll dance with a particular rock just over half a year, Earthside time. That works out to less than a month of my time, averaging velocity shifts. A year on a rock would be a first for me, but it was no real hardship.

But I didn't have to tell 'Tarybase that...

I knew before I heard the squeal that it was my rock. I had the volume up on the ear-bound circuit, not that I can make sense of those screeches: video sounds like an electric razor being attacked by a crazed chimp. I keyed the computer to display to the screen as it translated: "It's yours, Corrigan. Hardship pay authorized. Good Business!" There was more, of course; there's always more: a suggested flight plan, orbit maps of the rock and of plotted debris in the neighborhood, telescope pictures of the rock itself, just a slew of stuff. I threw out the flight plan and fed the rest to the computer.

I keyed out my response, hot and fast: "Good Business! I've been boosting for that nitrogen since I caught your flash." I shot off the picture of the flight-plan I'd prepared. "Estimate pick-up in three years, minus. Three to three-and-a-half on the curve, then three to scoot home. Call it nine-and-half, ten years. Most of it out of touch. Request triple hardship differential."

I was in my thirties before I understood negotiation. Negotiation is what poor people call working for a living. They call it that for the same reason they're poor: they don't know how to negotiate. When you bargain with somebody, you have to keep in mind that your goal is whatever it is you're haggling for, not being good buddies with the opposition. Lots of people are willing to pay smiles instead of cash, but answer me this: how many smiles do you have to collect before you can trade 'em in for dinner? People approach negotiation as though they're some kind of diplomats, as if the important thing is to avoid disgracing some invisible monarch, rather than to get whatever it is they came to get.

Well, nobody ever got what he wanted going about things that way. If your aim is to win, then you'd better be prepared to state loud and clear what it is you're after. Generally, it's a good idea to paint things about 200% their true size, to leave yourself some give. Rock-chasing's plain fun for me, never a hardship. But pencil-pushers would be pushing rocks if they knew how good it feels. Let 'em think it's the worst possible news, and I might get double hardship.

Or, who knows?: maybe even triple.

I've never known what to make of desk-pilots, and I can't believe they're any better informed about Snowballers. To a dirty-footed paper-shuffler, ten years alone in space might seem like pure hell. If so, then I'd get that triple, for the same reason that garbagemen and morticians make good money everywhere: 'better you than me, buddy'. So be it. But better for me, too, or no deal.

That bit about 'out of touch' was just to rub it in. What could make the horror worse, for a staple-jockey? No home, no wife, no kiddies, no dinner-on-the-table-at-five-fifteen. No friends, no club, no bars... No jammed theaters, no crowded trams, no random elbow-jostlings on the walk... No people anywhere, no people anywhere at all, just you, your shadow, and your reflection, day after unending day. For ten years! Now take your typical herd-like dusty-foot, put him in a Snowballer and set him off. I admit readily to my prejudices, so you decide for yourself: what would happen to him? Now let's drop the ax: no video. Isn't that the kind of nightmare that would make a pencil-pusher give up sleeping?

So: I lied about the time: it's ten years to them, not me. I lied about the hardship: collecting paychecks at ten-to-one, average, is not the sort of burden you'll hear me moan about. And I lied about the video: I've got all I need and then some on tape, and I sure wouldn't miss that legal sneer. Well, maybe I didn't quite lie, I just didn't give away my information about local conditions for nothing. I'd expect them to do me the same favor.

What I did do is let them now that I expect to be compensated for my worth to them. A lot of the value of that nitrogen was peeled away by the baboon who tossed it out of the groove; a pick-up on triple-time ain't cheap, and SallyBank's going to have to pay big lateness penalties, no matter what. But they couldn't let the rock go: if it hit something, as unlikely as that seems, the SallyBanker would be liable for all damages. And a Snowball at C only has to hit something once to do - literally - a world of damage...

So my attitude was: let 'em gnaw erasers!

I checked the clock: over thirty minutes. I was vectored more or less perpendicular to the squeal, so I wasn't losing any time against it, the wave wasn't having to chase me down. Time out for buck passing was my guess, and it wasn't long before I found I was right: the screen came alive with true video: Ivan Ford, the Chief Dispatcher.

"Corrigan, you bastard!," his image growled. He fixed me with an evil eye. His tie was pulled loose, and his grey hair looked fresh-ploughed. "You'll get your triple, but if you're as much as a nanosecond over ten years, I'll have your head!"

If you think you gain something from smiles, maybe you think you lose something to snarls. Me, I got triple-time. Call it fifteen hundred Tuesday's for the price of fifty. Not astrobucks, maybe, but not algaefood either. Making things miserable for Ivan the Irritable was just a bonus... Hah!

He'd sent out a contract, and I squealed back my password as assent.

Then I took a bath.

Do you know about the Snowballer design? The life-system is just a plain old Dragonfly, half-an-inch of poly-styrene molded over a metal box; you cure the plastic, pull away the mold and - presto! - instant hull. I have Dragon drives, four instead of one, mounted along the base. When I boost on all four drives - almost never - I'm naked-eye visible at a half-hour: four thigh-width lithium lasers pulverizing rock in a hazy green glow. On a regular Dragonfly, Mr. Frosty, the air, food and refrigeration plants, would be mounted under the drive, to balance the load. But on a Snowballer, it's on top, to offset as much as possible of the weight of the cargo.

The Trumpet is mounted under the Dragon drives, so that everything else is above it, along the axis of motion, as a futile attempt at ballast. All of the old bronco-busters load up with rocks all around, as well, except in front of the horn. You're probably used to seeing planet-crashers, so you think of a spaceship as something sleek, streamlined. Stripped, a Snowballer looks like a stack of bricks. With boost and ballast mass strapped on, she looks like a pile of rocks. Strapped to a shipment of trade goods, she looks like a moon dragging a planet.

The hull itself is just a box, 10 x 10 x 15. A hundred square feet is claustrophobia-space, right?: smaller than a respectable elevator. Not too bad: when I'm not boosting, about half the time, I have fifteen hundred cubic feet to live in. And the other half the time I'm blasting at plus-factor gees, and then I don't use any more space than I have to.

When I'm boosting, I spend as much of my time as I can in the bath. In free-fall, you have to shower, since you need a jet to move the water at all, and you have to shiver in the draft of the recovery-vac. But under power all that water just sits where it is, and you can just lie back and soak. And you have to, if you want to pump back double-gees for any length of time. Displacement and buoyancy are just numbers on a screen until you feel the pain lifted from your bones by the flotation-massage...

I could stay in there for weeks. In fact, I do, coming out only to eat, check the groove, and use the bulb. I have a mylar-sealed photo of Emily mounted on the ceiling, and I can just lay there and look at her and sleep and wake-up looking at her and dream and make tracks across the sky. I guess it's because of her that I got into Snowballing, but I don't dwell on that. Instead, I dream about the good times, before... I never had much use for people, but I can't say I have any use for them at all, now, not anymore. I have my ship and my bath and my memories, but that's more than enough, more than I ever hoped for.

A rough orbit from birth, I don't deny it. But what I figure is: it don't matter what you boosted on the way, what matters is where you got to... When I boost under reasonable gees I study and read, watch video or play games with the computer. I program a lot, just for fun, and putter around with algaeplast.

I guess you've got to be different from most to tolerate nothing but your own company for ten years on a tour, but it's really the best thing for me. No noise, no interruptions, nothing but a mind and the things it can find to do with itself. I've been slinging rocks for more than two hundred Earthside years. It may be that I left something there, when I blasted away in a Snowballer, but it's gone now... I don't have any company most of the time, but I don't miss it, either. Think what you will: I'm happy doing what I do. Can you say as much?

Herd them rocks, my friend...

I was almost four months chasing down that stray, four months sounding the Trumpet, blasting back anything that fell in my path. Toward the end, I was logging seven Tuesday's a day. I lost touch with base less than a year out, but I had the computer keep track of the paychecks.

Me, I stayed in the bath, mostly. I hung a video monitor in the corner and watched my tapes. I treasured Emily and slept. I chowed down on the replenishables, shrimpies and algae flour, and left the irreplaceable riches of the icebox alone. I read about twenty books on the screen and planned chores for low-boost.

And I laid on velocity...

Speed, friend, speed. Both to catch that foul and to grasp it to me.

Velocity is time. The faster I rode, the faster the journey in my subjective time: at .97 lights ten light years would seem like two-and-a-half years, but at .9988 it would be about six months. It makes a difference.

And: velocity is mass. The faster I arrive at that rock, the more massive I'll be. It will be nearly infinitely massive as well, and so, when I pass it, we'll act upon each other by gravitation. I don't start decelerating until I begin to pull too far away from a rock: before then, I let our mutual warp pull us in.

Do you see?: the rock attracts me and drags down some of my speed, but, at the same time, I attract it, dragging its velocity 'up'. Gravity is a pretty power-cheap way of matching orbits, when you think about it, provided you've got the boost mass to keep from coming together too fast.

I blasted that Trumpet up to .9998, fifty-to-one, before I caught up to that wayward nitrogen, almost three years out from Sol. I didn't spend any Dragon mass. I didn't need to. The Trumpet just sucks down all the space garbage it can find, and spits it out the other way. You can travel like that indefinitely: there isn't much matter in the deeps, but if you forage in a thousand-mile cone, you can do all right.

The horn is a Mitchellson device, and don't ask me to explain what that means. It's a big eventuality field shaped like a child's toy horn. It reaches out in front of the ship and drags down anything it finds and pumps it through the ship. It pulls the ship forward, by the cumulative 'drag-forward' of tugging on infinitesimally small masses, then it pushes it, rocket-style, by throwing that mass overboard, when it has accelerated it to almost-infinite mass.

A Trumpet drive vacuums dust and spits it out. Accelerating, the power is augmented, because you're 'ramming' mass, as well as attracting it with the field, and because you're tossing it behind your own momentum. Decelerating, you lose that power, but you pick up some drag by tossing mass against your momentum. There's another Mitchellson field to absorb that drag: if it ever failed at any kind of velocity, what once was a Snowballer would become an astral spectacle in about four nanoseconds. Subjective.

But, speeding up or slowing down, the Trumpet is always assisted by the ship's own gravitational mass, which sucks down dust even faster than the field - that's why there is a field. At anything near C, without that field I'd be bombed by super-heavy dust. With it, I just grab it and throw it away. And add velocity for my trouble.

I didn't start decelerating until I was almost matched-in, in front of the rock. I approached it from under and behind, and I was acting on it before I could see it. It was slowing me, but I was hurrying it, and I passed over just back of it, not a thousand miles away. The closer the better, really, within bounds. I spun the gyros slowly to J-pipe back down, matched-in at about a thousand miles in front.

I was tugging on that stray the whole while. Its rest mass was far greater than mine, but I had mass from velocity. By the time we were more or less matched, it had slowed me down to .995. Or: I had speeded it up to .995. I flipped around and blew the Trumpet against the attraction, approaching the rock gradually, so as to arrive without being knocked-silly...

Slowly, so slowly, you gather up the space. As you fight the attraction, you lessen it: you lose your mass relative to the rock as you lose your velocity relative to it. At a thousand feet you're moving at maybe three miles per hour, and you can touch down by doing a 'Pffffft! Pfft! Pfft!' on the fire breathers. No muss, no fuss.

And almost no mass blasted, for the whole trip!

I've spent so much time in the bath that you may have wondered what a Snowballer is for. Couldn't a squeal-programmed computer run down rocks? Probably. Couldn't it match in and lock tight? Maybe, but not without denting the merchandise: learning to touch down takes a lot of practice. Could it get the rock home? Probably not.

The problem is stability: keeping a steady vector when nine-tenths of the mass is on one side of the Trumpet. Learning to make a stable, pushable mass out of a Snowball takes practice, too. Lots of practice.

I'd played low-gee games while waiting to match, but as soon as I locked, I was outside, helmet deep in vacuum. The rock was a regular Snowball: the merchandise was packed up in a cargo hull wrapped in water ice. As usual, it had a small Mitchellson generator to throw a protective field around it, but I'd shut this off when we touched; it would ride back behind the Trumpet.

Ride 'em down, rope 'em up: the icy globe was studded with chain hooks. These are thick loops of steel that spring up from the cargo hull. I keep about two hundred miles of chain, stored down with the Dragonfliers; each link is thicker than my thumb. The Trumpet's hull is steel, and it's also hooked. For the best part of a day I was out there, with nothing but the Trumpet's field between me and incandescence, chaining that rock.

I'm a pessimist: I looped chains all the way around in eight directions. I looped back and forth, block-and-tackle style, on the hooks nearest the ship. Those chains have a lot of rest mass, so it's slow, sweaty work. But if you've ever had a rock try to peel away from you... Well, you learn to think paranoid. I was going to be putting a lot of bounce on that rock's inertia, and I didn't want it running away from me. Or worse: busting loose on one side, then crashing back when it's lashed around by the other. So, you say what you want: you can be over-cautious again and again, but you only have to be 'under-cautious' once to be dead forever...

I had reared-up on the hydraulic jacks before I set the chains, so all I had left to do was position the gyros, and I'd be off. What I wanted most was a bath, but there's nothing but spray at zero-gee, so I pushed myself and got 'em locked on. Chains and gyros can only do so much, but my ballast mass would help, as would the angle of the drive: I'd be pushing that rock all the way to Sol, the way a dog pushes a ball with his snout.

My stomach was cursing for dinner before I finished, but I was able to start the boost routine while Mr. Frosty was trying to do something new with shrimp and algae. I ate at one gee, then tuned that Trumpet up to two while the bath was running.


Rope 'em up, ride 'em home...


I don't know what got me looking at those old star pictures. Star maps, really, not pictures. At my velocity, pictures from the outside are rainbow bright and beautiful, but not very informative. I had 'skewed' hard up to about twenty-five-to-one, then boosted more gently to wrap around to Sol. At half-a-gee, it was perfect weather for futzing around.

But I don't know why I dug out those old tapes... I'd saved them from my first tour, so long ago. The rule is, on the first tour you go through everything, the cabin fever, the loneliness, the restlessness, the days wasted on the revenge of intense boredom, the whole horrorshow. You don't know the job and you don't know how to validate your own sanity and you're scared shitless that you'll do something wrong and die the infinite death of space-time at twenty-to-one...

Everybody goes through it, and everybody who sticks it out for a second tour gets over it. When it had gripped me at its tightest, I happened to flip by those maps in the video catalog and stopped for a longer look.

They were generated from radio-telescope pictures of Andromeda Galaxy, also known as the nebula M31 to those with dust in their eyes. When I first looked at them, I think maybe I was a little tetched about being so out of synch with normal time; it was nice to think about a universe so large that the pictures of a 'nearby' galaxy were two million years out of date on the day they were made. To make it there in fifty years, I'd have to push time back to forty-thousand-to-one, but I could do it. I think the first time I felt like a true Snowballer was when I realized I had the Trumpet-power to push time back indefinitely, to go to Andromeda myself, if I wanted to, to see where the stars had swung...

Maybe it was the memory, or maybe it was something else. I spent a couple of days gazing into those maps, trying to imagine what two million years of time would have done to the picture, what orbits had been warped, which bright beacons had gone nova...

It don't matter what you boosted on the way, I heard my mind call, what matters is where you got to...

Maybe it was just funk, but I asked myself: Where are you going, Corrigan? The name of the game is getting what you want, sure. But what do you want? When I got into this game, I was lured by the money. But the money just collects: you can't spend it and herd rocks. I guess I thought for a while that I'd retire as a wealthy dirt-kicker: at least, that's what I told myself when I signed-up for a second tour, that I'd be the friskiest old geezer ever to chase a skirt.

Well, I'd put back almost a quarter-millennium in less than twenty-five years, but where had I gotten...?

Money, sure, including ten years tripled for this one stray. But money is a trade medium: except in trade, it has no value. If I slow down and get my feet dirty, I'll be a rich man. But if I stay in the ship, I've got video, Mr. Frosty, and the bath...

Money is not a value by itself, and I guess what I was asking myself was: which is worth more? The money or the ship? The money and people and noise and fights and hostility, or the ship and peace and quiet and Emily, what's left of her in my memories... Which would you choose?

I had my mind made up a month before I caught the weakest squeal: "This freight hauler - designation A-5117 - is the exclusive property of the Sallyship SallyBank Valenta. Use for any purpose except those assigned..." Well, I said I wouldn't miss it, and I hadn't, but it was jolt anyway, even though it only confirmed me in my resolve.

I was still cruising at twenty-five-to-one, so I waited a day to punch out a squeal, just to make sure my signal would cut through the dust. I laid down my terms and waited. I was still a long ways out, but I'd be shortening the turnaround delay with every passing second.

It was sixteen days before they got back to me, with just a pencil-pusher's rubber-stamped refusal. I squealed back my retort, then waited some more.

Eight days later, I got the pencil-pusher's boss, and five days after that I heard from his boss. If smiles and snarls were edible, I could have sworn off shrimpies... But they aren't, and I knew I was stuck in a holding pattern, Ivan's shield, so I just held fast to my line and let the rest wash off me.

Ford finally came on-line when I was only about an hour out. I had slowed the rock enough for another Snowballer to grab it, but then I started pounding the velocity back on. When that ugly mug hit the screen, I was racing toward the squeal at seventeen-to-one.

"Corrigan, you horsethief! What is this stunt you're tying to pull?"

"I want to trade my back-pay and savings for the ship," I shot back. "Didn't your helpers tell you?" I waited out the delay.

"Hah! I have to tell them when to go to the bulb... But I hope they told you that Snowballers aren't for sale."

"I heard the word 'no' in a thousand variations," I sneered. "Uh, how much is it you owe me, anyway?" Squirm, Ivan, squirm!

He did, too: I could see the gears gnashing against each other, when the video squeal made it back. I was closing on him: we'd reach a point where our conversation would seem almost interactive, almost no delay at all, except for timing translations.

"...Uh," said Ivan the Irritated, "you know, Corrigan, the mark of a true executive is knowing when to bend the rules..."

"I get to keep her, huh?"

"Well..., I'm certain if the 'Banker were here, she'd authorize it."

"Translation: you hope Our Lady of the Skyways won't have your head on a platter."


"Cool you jet, Ivan," I said, smiling. "If she don't like it, just grab a Snowballer of your own." I laughed.

"Very funny, Corrigan... But what do you plan to do?"

My smile deepened. "See the stars, Ivan. See the stars..."

"Well, it's your funeral. But, I swear, if I live to be a thousand, I'll never understand Snowballers!"

"Probably not. But it's not because of the time. Your problem is that you don't know how to negotiate. You throw your mass every which way and end up getting nowhere..."

"Oh, and do you think you've gotten the better of me?"

"Hadn't thought about it. What I'm looking for is what's better for me."

...For the first year or two, you blow up too often, claw out at the air looking for someone to hit. Then it starts to throb in your brain and you find yourself saying your name out loud, again and again, just to hear it said by somebody. You watch four minutes of thirty-eight movies and read six pages of fifty-one novels, make six meals a day and flush five down the bulb, drum your fingers against the hull, just to hear the sound of life... You can cry about it, or rage, or you can scoot home early, at a twenty percent penalty against your back-pay. Or you can get used to it, the way those old cowpokes got used to eating dirt in their dinner.

You can make a big commotion if you want, all the way to insanity if you think you need to be there. Or you can get involved with your life, work to pull best-boost out of what looks like a bad orbit.

I think the thing that irks me most about the boobs at 'Tarybase is that they seem so removed from themselves... Do you know what I mean? You talk to one of them and it seems as though he's constantly saying 'this is what I do, but this is who I am'... Two different things at the same time, almost as if he were two different people: one puts on an act while the other applauds, then they switch places... And I can't but think that the real person, the stage manager behind the show - I think he identifies with the spectator, not the performer, no matter who is on stage. You can call it evidence, or you can call it the mad ravings of a hermit, but it seems funny to me that not one of those meatballs will ever stand up and say out loud: 'what I do is not what I am'. But, as I say, it never seems unsaid, as if it's so commonplace that it would be redundant to mention it...

You figure it out...

What I can say is this: when you're a rock jockey, if you take the idea that your life is a tragedy, or a comedy, for which you bear only a ticket-holder's responsibility, you put yourself in peril. You can play that game for a little while. Or you can play it half-way for years, by doing the job while pretend-gawking that you're watching instead. But, sooner, later, sometime, a rock will smack you. And then you will die.

Not what I call the right way to go about things...

So, you make the best of a bad orbit. And after a while, you find that it's not so bad at all. You plot your location, velocity, vector, and destination, then apply energy where it'll do the most good. You can bitch about what it costs you, but the price won't go down by your doing so. And it might go 'sky-high', if you bitch your way into a smashup.

Face it: food is not improved by being flushed to the chemical farm. You can flush all Mr. Frosty can provide, but that won't turn algae flour into grapes and shrimpies into beefsteak. If you can't say: 'I am what I'm doing and I'll be what I'm boosting to be' - well, friend, you're in a bad way...

But then, what am I?

One of a kind, to be sure: homo galactica, the star of scads of future Andromedan horror films: 'It Came From The Milky Way!' Hah!

But I'm not a rock jockey, not anymore. And I'm not a human 'Time Capsule', like the newsboys were squealing. And I'm for damn sure not 'Johnny Humanseed', which is what some sob-sister couldn't restrain herself from screeching.

I'm Corrigan, friend, same as always. Just more of what I've always been. I've negotiated a better orbit: I'm not racing around in a circle, chasing a paycheck. Not anymore.

I'm Johnny Corrigan, and I just got paid. I'm boosting for Andromeda at forty-thousand-to-one, if I can push it that high. And if you don't like it - well, be sure to tell me about it, when you catch up to me...

"When they ask why I go," I sang out, pushing away from the video console. "I tell them it's so: You can learn a lot from video!" I had flipped around through the squeal for a long while after Ford vanished, listening absently to the news but mostly thinking...

I programmed all four screens to Andromeda-shots, then poked around up in Frosty's hoard and brought back a squab and a bottle of Russian vodka, precious anywhere above Earth's atmosphere, priceless where I'm going. I fell just short of swallowing that bird whole and frozen, but I let the kitchen play with it long enough for me to pronounce two solemn toasts, one to Andromeda and one to Corrigan. I would have toasted the ship - my ship - but I would have been reduced to babbling afterward, no more than I drink.

The vodka was so cold, but that bird roasted it, along with algaecakes and breaded-shrimpies, for crunch. When I finished, I leaned back in my chair and gazed into those stars, a little bit high and a whole lot satisfied. You can get anywhere you want to, really, if you negotiate the right orbit and give it the boost it requires. Or you can spin around in circles. But life is motion, and if you're not going somewhere, then you're not going anywhere, that's what I say.

Me, I'm going to get on my horse and ride. I suppose you can't ever reach the horizon, but you sure can see a whole lot on the way...

The transponder's squeal broke me out of my reverie: "This freight hauler..." Those clowns never get anything right: Tuesday, sure, but not for me. But then I caught on: "...is the exclusive property of Johnny Corrigan..." Damn betcha!

I poured myself one last nip of that vodka and held the glass high: So, long, 'Tarybase, and Good Business! So long, Earth, Sol, Milky Way! So long, Emily... I'm keeping the best of you, but each of us has to blast on his own vector, and mine leads away from here...

To Life! To the life that is a doing, a being, a becoming...

And: To Payday! That's what we're all boosting for, isn't it?

Home Fiction Humor Essays Books