“I’m washed up,” Preston growled bitterly. “They made a postman out of me. Me--a postman!”
He crumpled the assignment memo into a small, hard ball and hurled it at the bristly image of himself in the bar mirror. He hadn’t shaved in three days--which was how long it had been since he had been notified of his removal from Space Patrol Service and his transfer to Postal Delivery.
Suddenly, Preston felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked up and saw a man in the trim gray of a Patrolman’s uniform.
“What do you want, Dawes?”
“Chief’s been looking for you, Preston. It’s time for you to get going on your run.”
Preston scowled. “Time to go deliver the mail, eh?” He spat. “Don’t they have anything better to do with good spacemen than make letter carriers out of them?”
The other man shook his head. “You won’t get anywhere grousing about it, Preston. Your papers don’t specify which branch you’re assigned to, and if they want to make you carry the mail--that’s it.” His voice became suddenly gentle. “Come on, Pres. One last drink, and then let’s go. You don’t want to spoil a good record, do you?”
“No,” Preston said reflectively. He gulped his drink and stood up. “Okay. I’m ready. Neither snow nor rain shall stay me from my appointed rounds, or however the damned thing goes.”
“That’s a smart attitude, Preston. Come on--I’ll walk you over to Administration.”
Savagely, Preston ripped away the hand that the other had put around his shoulders. “I can get there myself. At least give me credit for that!”
“Okay,” Dawes said, shrugging. “Well--good luck, Preston.”
“Yeah. Thanks. Thanks real lots.”
He pushed his way past the man in Space Grays and shouldered past a couple of barflies as he left. He pushed open the door of the bar and stood outside for a moment.
It was near midnight, and the sky over Nome Spaceport was bright with stars. Preston’s trained eye picked out Mars, Jupiter, Uranus. There they were--waiting. But he would spend the rest of his days ferrying letters on the Ganymede run.
He sucked in the cold night air of summertime Alaska and squared his shoulders.
Two hours later, Preston sat at the controls of a one-man patrol ship just as he had in the old days. Only the control panel was bare where the firing studs for the heavy guns was found in regular patrol ships. And in the cargo hold instead of crates of spare ammo there were three bulging sacks of mail destined for the colony on Ganymede.
Slight difference, Preston thought, as he set up his blasting pattern.
“Okay, Preston,” came the voice from the tower. “You’ve got clearance.”
“Cheers,” Preston said, and yanked the blast-lever. The ship jolted upward, and for a second he felt a little of the old thrill--until he remembered.
He took the ship out in space, saw the blackness in the viewplate. The radio crackled.
“Come in, Postal Ship. Come in, Postal Ship.”
“I’m in. What do you want?”
“We’re your convoy,” a hard voice said. “Patrol Ship 08756, Lieutenant Mellors, above you. Down at three o’clock, Patrol Ship 10732, Lieutenant Gunderson. We’ll take you through the Pirate Belt.”
Preston felt his face go hot with shame. Mellors! Gunderson! They would stick two of his old sidekicks on the job of guarding him.
“Please acknowledge,” Mellors said.
[Illustration: “The iceworms were not expecting any mail--just the mailman.”]
Preston paused. Then: “Postal Ship 1872, Lieutenant Preston aboard. I acknowledge message.”
There was a stunned silence. “Preston? Hal Preston?”
“The one and only,” Preston said.
“What are you doing on a Postal ship?” Mellors asked.
“Why don’t you ask the Chief that? He’s the one who yanked me out of the Patrol and put me here.”
“Can you beat that?” Gunderson asked incredulously. “Hal Preston, on a Postal ship.”
“Yeah. Incredible, isn’t it?” Preston asked bitterly. “You can’t believe your ears. Well, you better believe it, because here I am.”
“Must be some clerical error,” Gunderson said.
“Let’s change the subject,” Preston snapped.
They were silent for a few moments, as the three ships--two armed, one loaded with mail for Ganymede--streaked outward away from Earth. Manipulating his controls with the ease of long experience, Preston guided the ship smoothly toward the gleaming bulk of far-off Jupiter. Even at this distance, he could see five or six bright pips surrounding the huge planet. There was Callisto, and--ah--there was Ganymede.
He made computations, checked his controls, figured orbits. Anything to keep from having to talk to his two ex-Patrolmates or from having to think about the humiliating job he was on. Anything to--
“Pirates! Moving up at two o’clock!“
Preston came awake. He picked off the location of the pirate ships--there were two of them, coming up out of the asteroid belt. Small, deadly, compact, they orbited toward him.
He pounded the instrument panel in impotent rage, looking for the guns that weren’t there.
“Don’t worry, Pres,” came Mellors’ voice. “We’ll take care of them for you.”
“Thanks,” Preston said bitterly. He watched as the pirate ships approached, longing to trade places with the men in the Patrol ships above and below him.
Suddenly a bright spear of flame lashed out across space and the hull of Gunderson’s ship glowed cherry red. “I’m okay,” Gunderson reported immediately. “Screens took the charge.”
Preston gripped his controls and threw the ship into a plunging dive that dropped it back behind the protection of both Patrol ships. He saw Gunderson and Mellors converge on one of the pirates. Two blue beams licked out, and the pirate ship exploded.
But then the second pirate swooped down in an unexpected dive. “Look out!” Preston yelled helplessly--but it was too late. Beams ripped into the hull of Mellors’ ship, and a dark fissure line opened down the side of the ship. Preston smashed his hand against the control panel. Better to die in an honest dogfight than to live this way!
It was one against one, now--Gunderson against the pirate. Preston dropped back again to take advantage of the Patrol ship’s protection.
“I’m going to try a diversionary tactic,” Gunderson said on untappable tight-beam. “Get ready to cut under and streak for Ganymede with all you got.”
Preston watched as the tactic got under way. Gunderson’s ship traveled in a long, looping spiral that drew the pirate into the upper quadrant of space. His path free, Preston guided his ship under the other two and toward unobstructed freedom. As he looked back, he saw Gunderson steaming for the pirate on a sure collision orbit.
He turned away. The score was two Patrolmen dead, two ships wrecked--but the mails would get through.
Shaking his head, Preston leaned forward over his control board and headed on toward Ganymede.
The blue-white, frozen moon hung beneath him. Preston snapped on the radio.
“Ganymede Colony? Come in, please. This is your Postal Ship.” The words tasted sour in his mouth.
There was silence for a second. “Come in, Ganymede,” Preston repeated impatiently--and then the sound of a distress signal cut across his audio pickup.
It was coming on wide beam from the satellite below--and they had cut out all receiving facilities in an attempt to step up their transmitter. Preston reached for the wide-beam stud, pressed it.
“Okay, I pick up your signal, Ganymede. Come in, now!”
“This is Ganymede,” a tense voice said. “We’ve got trouble down here. Who are you?”
“Mail ship,” Preston said. “From Earth. What’s going on?”
There was the sound of voices whispering somewhere near the microphone. Finally: “Hello, Mail Ship?”
“You’re going to have to turn back to Earth, fellow. You can’t land here. It’s rough on us, missing a mail trip, but--”
Preston said impatiently, “Why can’t I land? What the devil’s going on down there?”