“Ticket,” I repeated, finally producing our stubs and handing them over without so much as a single nervous tremor.
“You’re paid up clear into Roosha,” he said, looking us over again. He had apparently never been taught that it was rude to peruse a person as thoroughly as you did a book. “Do you know that you’re paid up clear into Roosha? Why pay up clear into Roosha if you were going to get off here?”
“A last minute change of plans,” I said. I was feeling the strain of two days and nights without sleep and without benefit of honest-to-Hippocrates warm food except for that meal we had gotten at the backstreet restaurant in San Francisco. I didn’t know if my lies were coming out like lies or whether he would accept what I said at face value. Apparently, there was some degree of verisimilitude to my rantings, for he shrugged and carefully entered the numbers of our stubs in the departure book. If the World Authority crashed the fake names we were now using—and they certainly would, eventually—here was a record, a set of clerical footprints for them to seize upon and follow.
“That capsule at the end,” he said. He consulted a pendant watch that hung on a fine chain around his neck. “We’ll be dropping you in eleven minutes.”
We moved down the line of egg-shaped, crimson globes that nested in the bays in the floor. The officer came after us, slid back the heavy cover on the last egg. “Dropped before?” he asked, obviously hopeful that we would say no and allow him to show his superiority with a long, detailed, condescending lecture.
“Many times,” I said. I wondered what he would have done if I had said fourteen times in the past week.
“Remember to strap tight. Grip the padded wheel until the beam contact is made, and don’t unstrap until ground control directs you to.”
I waited until He moved into the capsule and took the left seat, then I squeezed through the oval entrance-way and climbed into the right. The officer frowned. “Let’s see you grip the wheel,” he snapped. We gripped it, though there was no need to prepare this far ahead. “That’s better,” he said. He eyed me suspiciously, obviously trying to remember something. “Don’t let go of that wheel until beam contact,” he repeated. He was getting to be a bore.
He shook his head. “I don’t know. You people never seem to learn. Lots of people drop without gripping the wheel. Then, when freefall surprises them, they get excited and grab for anything, cut themselves on file console— And when the jolt from beam contact comes— Brother! Fireworks! They jump and throw their arms around, break their fingers on things—”
“We’ll grip the wheel,” I said, feeling as if I were confronted with a broken record. I longed to reach out and swat him so that he could get on with other parts of his speech.
“Be sure to.”
“We sure will,” He said, smiling at the officer with that winning grin of His.
The officer nodded, hesitated as if there were something he wanted to say. And, of course, there was something he wanted to say. Down deep in the sticky mud of his brain, there was a little voice telling him just who we were and what he should do about it. Fortunately for us, the voice was muffled by so much mud that he could not understand what it was saying. Finally he shrugged again, slid the cover shut and turned the latches on the outside, locking us in. I knew that his mind was struggling to make connections. I had come to know that look by now, the gaze of someone who is sure he knows us. Sooner or later, this drop officer would remember who we were. I only hoped it was not until we were out of Cantwell Port and on our way.
“Don’t worry, Jacob,” He said, flashing His chalk-white teeth in a broad, flawless smile and eating into me with those ice eyes of His.
He was trying to cheer me.
So I smiled.
Suddenly, lights flashed and buzzers bleeped. We dropped. . .