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´╗┐Title: Postmark Ganymede
Author: Silverberg, Robert, 1935-
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Postmark Ganymede" ***

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                                POSTMARK
                                GANYMEDE

                                   By
                                 ROBERT
                               SILVERBERG


      _Consider the poor mailman of the future. To "sleet and snow
      and dead of night"--things that must not keep him from his
      appointed rounds--will be added, sub-zero void, meteors, and
      planets that won't stay put. Maybe he'll decide that for six
      cents an ounce it just ain't worth it._


"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."

"Check."

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?"

"Yeah?"

"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?"

"We've been invaded," the tired voice said. "The colony's been
completely surrounded by iceworms."

"Iceworms?"

"The local native life," the colonist explained. "They're about thirty
feet long, a foot wide, and mostly mouth. There's a ring of them about a
hundred yards wide surrounding the Dome. They can't get in and we can't
get out--and we can't figure out any possible approach for you."

"Pretty," Preston said. "But why didn't the things bother you while you
were building your Dome?"

"Apparently they have a very long hibernation-cycle. We've only been
here two years, you know. The iceworms must all have been asleep when
we came. But they came swarming out of the ice by the hundreds last
month."

"How come Earth doesn't know?"

"The antenna for our long-range transmitter was outside the Dome. One of
the worms came by and chewed the antenna right off. All we've got left
is this short-range thing we're using and it's no good more than ten
thousand miles from here. You're the first one who's been this close
since it happened."

"I get it." Preston closed his eyes for a second, trying to think things
out.

       *       *       *       *       *

The Colony was under blockade by hostile alien life, thereby making it
impossible for him to deliver the mail. Okay. If he'd been a regular
member of the Postal Service, he'd have given it up as a bad job and
gone back to Earth to report the difficulty.

_But I'm not going back. I'll be the best damned mailman they've got._

"Give me a landing orbit anyway, Ganymede."

"But you can't come down! How will you leave your ship?"

"Don't worry about that," Preston said calmly.

"We have to worry! We don't dare open the Dome, with those creatures
outside. You _can't_ come down, Postal Ship."

"You want your mail or don't you?"

The colonist paused. "Well--"

"Okay, then," Preston said. "Shut up and give me landing coordinates!"

There was a pause, and then the figures started coming over. Preston
jotted them down on a scratch-pad.

"Okay, I've got them. Now sit tight and wait." He glanced contemptuously
at the three mail-pouches behind him, grinned, and started setting up
the orbit.

_Mailman, am I? I'll show them!_

       *       *       *       *       *

He brought the Postal Ship down with all the skill of his years in the
Patrol, spiralling in around the big satellite of Jupiter as cautiously
and as precisely as if he were zeroing in on a pirate lair in the
asteroid belt. In its own way, this was as dangerous, perhaps even more
so.

Preston guided the ship into an ever-narrowing orbit, which he
stabilized about a hundred miles over the surface of Ganymede. As his
ship swung around the moon's poles in its tight orbit, he began to
figure some fuel computations.

His scratch-pad began to fill with notations.

_Fuel storage--_

_Escape velocity--_

_Margin of error--_

_Safety factor--_

Finally he looked up. He had computed exactly how much spare fuel he
had, how much he could afford to waste. It was a small figure--too
small, perhaps.

He turned to the radio. "Ganymede?"

"Where are you, Postal Ship?"

"I'm in a tight orbit about a hundred miles up," Preston said. "Give me
the figures on the circumference of your Dome, Ganymede?"

"Seven miles," the colonist said. "What are you planning to do?"

Preston didn't answer. He broke contact and scribbled some more figures.
Seven miles of iceworms, eh? That was too much to handle. He had planned
on dropping flaming fuel on them and burning them out, but he couldn't
do it that way.

He'd have to try a different tactic.

Down below, he could see the blue-white ammonia ice that was the frozen
atmosphere of Ganymede. Shimmering gently amid the whiteness was the
transparent yellow of the Dome beneath whose curved walls lived the
Ganymede Colony. Even forewarned, Preston shuddered. Surrounding the
Dome was a living, writhing belt of giant worms.

"Lovely," he said. "Just lovely."

Getting up, he clambered over the mail sacks and headed toward the rear
of the ship, hunting for the auxiliary fuel-tanks.

Working rapidly, he lugged one out and strapped it into an empty gun
turret, making sure he could get it loose again when he'd need it.

He wiped away sweat and checked the angle at which the fuel-tank would
face the ground when he came down for a landing. Satisfied, he knocked a
hole in the side of the fuel-tank.

"Okay, Ganymede," he radioed. "I'm coming down."

He blasted loose from the tight orbit and rocked the ship down on
manual. The forbidding surface of Ganymede grew closer and closer. Now
he could see the iceworms plainly.

Hideous, thick creatures, lying coiled in masses around the Dome.
Preston checked his spacesuit, making sure it was sealed. The
instruments told him he was a bare ten miles above Ganymede now. One
more swing around the poles would do it.

He peered out as the Dome came below and once again snapped on the
radio.

       *       *       *       *       *

"I'm going to come down and burn a path through those worms of yours.
Watch me carefully, and jump to it when you see me land. I want that
airlock open, or else."

"But--"

"No buts!"

He was right overhead now. Just one ordinary-type gun would solve the
whole problem, he thought. But Postal Ships didn't get guns. They
weren't supposed to need them.

He centered the ship as well as he could on the Dome below and threw it
into automatic pilot. Jumping from the control panel, he ran back toward
the gun turret and slammed shut the plexilite screen. Its outer wall
opened and the fuel-tank went tumbling outward and down. He returned to
his control-panel seat and looked at the viewscreen. He smiled.

The fuel-tank was lying near the Dome--right in the middle of the nest
of iceworms. The fuel was leaking from the puncture.

The iceworms writhed in from all sides.

"Now!" Preston said grimly.

The ship roared down, jets blasting. The fire licked out, heated the
ground, melted snow--ignited the fuel-tank! A gigantic flame blazed up,
reflected harshly off the snows of Ganymede.

And the mindless iceworms came, marching toward the fire, being
consumed, as still others devoured the bodies of the dead and dying.

Preston looked away and concentrated on the business of finding a place
to land the ship.

       *       *       *       *       *

The holocaust still raged as he leaped down from the catwalk of the
ship, clutching one of the heavy mail sacks, and struggled through the
melting snows to the airlock.

He grinned. The airlock was open.

Arms grabbed him, pulled him through. Someone opened his helmet.

"Great job, Postman!"

"There are two more mail sacks," Preston said. "Get men out after them."

The man in charge gestured to two young colonists, who donned
spacesuits and dashed through the airlock. Preston watched as they raced
to the ship, climbed in, and returned a few moments later with the mail
sacks.

"You've got it all," Preston said. "I'm checking out. I'll get word to
the Patrol to get here and clean up that mess for you."

"How can we thank you?" the official-looking man asked.

"No need to," Preston said casually. "I had to get that mail down here
some way, didn't I?"

He turned away, smiling to himself. Maybe the Chief _had_ known what he
was doing when he took an experienced Patrol man and dumped him into
Postal. Delivering the mail to Ganymede had been more hazardous than
fighting off half a dozen space pirates. _I guess I was wrong_, Preston
thought. _This is no snap job for old men._

Preoccupied, he started out through the airlock. The man in charge
caught his arm. "Say, we don't even know your name! Here you are a hero,
and--"

"Hero?" Preston shrugged. "All I did was deliver the mail. It's all in a
day's work, you know. The mail's got to get through!"


THE END



Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from _Amazing Stories_ September 1957.
    Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
    copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and
    typographical errors have been corrected without note.





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