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The Passenger   By:

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The classic route to a man's heart is through his stomach and she was just his dish.

Illustrated by CONNELL

The transport swung past Centaurus on the last leg of her long journey to Sol. There was no flash, no roar as she swept across the darkness of space. As silent as a ghost, as quiet as a puff of moonlight she moved, riding the gravitational fields that spread like tangled, invisible spider webs between the stars.

Within the ship there was also silence, but the air was stirred by a faint, persistent vibration from the field generators. This noiseless pulse stole into every corner of the ship, through long, empty passageways lined with closed stateroom doors, up spiraling stairways to the bridge and navigational decks, and down into vast and echoing holds, filled with strange cargo from distant worlds.

This vibration pulsed through Lenore's stateroom. As she relaxed on her couch, she bathed in it, letting it flow through her to tingle in her fingertips and whisper behind her closed eyelids.

"Home," it pulsed, "you're going home."

She repeated the word to herself, moving her lips softly but making no sound. "Home," she breathed, "back home to Earth." Back to the proud old planet that was always home, no matter how far you wandered under alien suns. Back to the shining cities clustered along blue seacoasts. Back to the golden grainlands of the central states and the high, blue grandeur of the western mountains. And back to the myriad tiny things that she remembered best, the little, friendly things ... a stretch of maple shadowed streets heavy and still with the heat of a summer noon; a flurry of pigeons in the courthouse square; yellow dandelions in a green lawn, the whir of a lawnmower and the smell of the cut grass; ivy on old bricks and the rough feel of oak bark under her hands; water lilies and watermelons and crepe papery dances and picnics by the river in the summer dusk; and the library steps in the evening, with fireflies in the cool grass and the school chimes sounding the slow hours through the friendly dark.

She thought to herself, "It's been such a long time since you were home. There will be a whole new flock of pigeons now." She smiled at the recollection of the eager, awkward girl of twenty that she had been when she had finished school and had entered the Government Education Service. "Travel While Helping Others" had been the motto of the GES.

She had traveled, all right, a long, long way inside a rusty freighter without a single porthole, to a planet out on the rim of the Galaxy that was as barren and dreary as a cosmic slag heap. Five years on the rock pile, five years of knocking yourself out trying to explain history and Shakespeare and geometry to a bunch of grubby little miners' kids in a tin schoolhouse at the edge of a cluster of tin shacks that was supposed to be a town. Five years of trudging around with your nails worn and dirty and your hair chopped short, of wearing the latest thing in overalls. Five years of not talking with the young miners because they got in trouble with the foreman, and not talking with the crewmen from the ore freighters because they got in trouble with the first mate, and not talking with yourself because you got in trouble with the psychologist.

They took care of you in the Education Service; they guarded your diet and your virtue, your body and your mind. Everything but your happiness.

There was lots to do, of course. You could prepare lessons and read papers and cheap novels in the miners' library, or nail some more tin on your quarters to keep out the wind and the dust and the little animals. You could go walking to the edge of town and look at all the pretty gray stones and the trees, like squashed down barrel cactus; watch the larger sun sink behind the horizon with its little companion star circling around it, diving out of sight to the right and popping up again on the left... Continue reading book >>

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