Reading at the kitchen table was on the list of forbidden activities, but it was not strictly a mealtime and nobody else was there.  He flipped the section open.
He found himself faced with a cartoon of a man shaving and threatening his mirror with replacement unless his looks improved.  Mike found the implications depressing and quickly turned the page.  That put him in the help-wanted notices.  Normally, Mike would have passed up out-of-town classifieds in favor of a story about the new Mars outpost, but maybe it was just as well that he didn’t.  Only qualified scientists and engineers and sometimes their families ever made it into space.  He would be lucky even if he could someday afford to attend an evening college part-time.  He began to skim through the job listings, only half-paying attention to their extremely specialized requirements, when one of the titles caught his eye.

EXCITING NEW PROJECT needs innovative people with wide range of interests and qualifications.  No experience needed for some positions.  Relocation, fringe benefits, expenses, profit sharing.  Reply “Venture,” c/o this paper.  Include times available for interview.

Mike reread the notice slowly.  There was no mention of the nature of the project, but something implied in the wording intrigued him.  He copied the ad instead of tearing it out and put the note in his pocket.  No use leaving a hole in the paper as a clue.  Mom wouldn’t like the idea of his moving out of town, and he didn’t want to start an uproar prematurely.  Especially since he would have to listen to it.
He decided he would use the old, portable word processor after his parents took the bus for work in the morning.  That would give him the whole evening to revise his background summary (he couldn’t bring himself to call it a resume; the gas station had supplied his only full-time job).  If he checked the mailbox every afternoon before Mom got home, the subject wouldn’t have to be brought up until he knew whether he was going to get an interview.  And, he thought grimly, if he didn’t get that interview, no one would ever have to know.
The next several days dragged miserably.  Mike had typed and mailed the letter the following morning, then had found it impossible to concentrate on the few things he could find to do on a day that had become hot and sticky.  The change in the weather developed into a real heat wave, pressuring Mike with a restless desire to get out of the apartment.  At the same time, he felt the compulsion to be home in the afternoon when the mail came.  He began to take long walks in the morning, returning home to build himself a sandwich before the early afternoon sun grew too oppressive.  The walks burned up enough nervous energy for Mike to spend the hottest part of the day reading in the living room while consuming huge quantities of lemonade.
Evenings were typical of all evenings and less wearisome by his not expecting anything new of them.  He took to setting the table before supper and picking up around the apartment, which pleased his sister; it was her job.  Even in early August, school-related activities usually kept Sam from getting home until late in the afternoon, making her rush to finish her chores before supper.  If their parents noticed the change, there was no sign.
The heat wave finally broke that Friday in a clap of thunder and a sudden downpour, blotting out the afternoon sun.  Mike decided he was glad to be inside and resumed reading.  The book was a novel of the Old American West.  He had reached one of the better parts and was far away when the doorbell rang.
It was a very wet mailman.
 

“Look, you don’t have to give me an answer now.”  The executive dug out a business-size card.  “Here’s a number where you can leave me a message safely.  Just call if you have something.”  There was no name on the copier-printed card.  He left it on the table and appeared to head for the men’s room.  By the time his path had turned toward the exit instead, the card was gone from the table.
The executive smiled behind frosty breath as he got into his car.  The duplicate salary would start immediately, delivered by U. S. mail to the man’s apartment where he lived alone.  Sending the checks to that address, with the envelope stamped, “Do Not Forward,” would be a powerful incentive not to move away suddenly.  The regular arrival of this profitable and potentially incriminating evidence would ensure his cooperation.  No matter that a formal commitment had not been made.  The hook was set.

The main airlock door, which also contained the docking port, began to open inward, splitting into six parts as its shallow dome shape nestled into recesses in the curving floor.  Beyond were the stars, dimmed by the work lights unless one stood near the entrance.  From that vantage, they blazed from velvet blackness, turning like a majestic, giant wheel.  Before awe had a chance to hypnotize him, Mike was set busy helping to bridge temporary guide rails from the more-nearly permanent ones that held the ferry in place to the docking rails outside the bow of the Serendipity.

Once, tethered by a safety line, he had a chance to look down from the rim of the open port.  For a moment he froze.  The bow of the ship was like a gigantic, sheer cliff dotted here and there with instrumentation and thruster ports.  Beyond the bottom of the cliff there was nothing.  Nothing but the wheeling stars.  As he stared into the endless depths, the realization came crashing in on him just how big it was out there.

The windswept upper hull of the dirigible seemed to Mike like the dim surface of a small, bare planet far from any star.  Or maybe the back of a huge whale sleeping on the surface at night.  Checking for jams, he picked his way with the others along the double dorsal ridge formed by the opened balloon-pod covers, which extended from behind the steeper surface of the nose section to just ahead of the unfinished compartment at the stern.  Irregular bubbles in the partially unfurled material whipped back and forth in the wind like a strangely bloated and misshapen flag.  Atmospheric temperature and pressure were both rising visibly on his suit instruments, a worrisome reminder of their deadline, but there seemed to be nothing mechanically wrong.

“This is Tantalus again,” the link operator came on the line.  “Better get that rescue party on the road.  I just got a bulletin from meteorology.  There’s some kind of disturbance building up along the terminator.  We can’t see it very well from here.  It must be a surface effect because it can’t be seen from orbit at all.  But it looks like something big.  At the rate it’s spreading, it could reach you in less than twenty hours.”

The Adventure Begins

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