by Warren Blair
"The Milkman," that's what they call me. You know, "Hey, there's The Milkman"; "Oh, that's The Milkman." That kind of thing. Although, a lot of people think that that's actually my name, "Milkman." "Hey Milkman, how ya doin?" "Goin' out on a delivery, Milkman?" It's gotten so that even some of my friends think it's my name; so they have a more familiar version: "Hey, Milk, what's up?" "I was talking to Milk the other day...." It goes on and on, I don't really mind it, but lately it's been making me think about why I hang on to the job. Most guys don't stay long, even though the pay is way above average. Granted, it can be very boring and repetitive, but that isn't why they quit. I know why, and so I guess it's odd that I don't think about it more, because, knowing me, I would have seen myself as the least likely to stay.
Lift-off was as uneventful as usual, no problems in my command office, and none in the cargo bays. The trip was unexceptional, as well, and as I passed the Moon, I had the computers run a last-minute cargo check, and there were still no problems there. I ordered the AI co-pilot to begin the stability/alignment sequence, so we could open up the cargo bay. I put on my walking clothes and checked my Oxy Meters and the Manual Check List, which the computer verified (but you always look yourself, specially at the Oxys).
I hooked up to the lifeline that extended down the outside of the ship and stepped out into the void. The cargo bay was almost completely uncovered, and I floated on over. I saw all the cylinders lined up in double rows in each section, just like eggs, in what I think they used to call cartons. As these were, in antiquity, delivered by a Milkman, hence the name for guys that do my job. Like I say, though, most don't last long; so that's why I'm THE Milkman and all, like I said before.
I approached the first can and verified the number. The red Oxy light was blinking, and the AI confirmed all life support was indeed on and operational. It then turned on all the other systems, and I prepared the can for release. I popped it out with the hydraulics and positioned the main jets. I hit the exact-time-of-launch verification button, which put the time into the AI, and pushed the can off. It's funny; it really doesn't matter what direction the can goes in (as long as it's away from Earth), cause the gyros and onboard AIs will handle Earth orientation, direction for return and all. But they insist that human hands shove them off, and verify initial thrust from the jets. This is the most dangerous time for the milkmen (I know), because we can see in the computer display how long the can is set for and, invariably, you accidentally will look into one of the portholes of one of them, and you'll see the horrible, pleading face pressed up against it. Some milkmen only see that once, and they're burned out -- particularly out this deep; because these are the worst cases, and they're solo cans and set for a long time.
I often wonder if the onboard AI systems really work for the time they're supposed to, and if the jets actually reverse on time and all. I haven't been on the job that long, but I never saw or heard of any that came back; but they could work, and that would still be possible. I remember when I saw the first face. I thought, Does what he did really merit this? And even though I knew that the can would telescope to at least double the size it was now, and that there was a programmed Vid and Audi library with sufficient material for the allotted time, I wondered if that would be enough. I also knew that each had been treated with intravenous antibiotics, etc., and isolated in a sterile environment for several weeks before insertion into the can. But I wondered if they could really kill off everything, so there was no chance of illness during the duration of the sentence. And what about the waste material? Lets face it: It would be collected and sealed and jettisoned regularly, but we were shootin' an awful lot of that stuff at something or maybe someone, and, at the least, somewhere.
I used to think it was better in the old days, when they just set them in timed elliptical orbits, or put them in the Prison Stations around Earth itself. But I guess it got too cluttered, what with communications systems, commercial flights, and all, and the stations had to be manned and weren't really tough enough on the hard cases. Like I say, though, that's the way I used to think, until....
Still, once in a while, it does bother me a little, until I come to guys like these last two. The last two were Lifers. That meant they would be a little heavier, because of the food-service modules (that meter it out -- the inmate can't get at it ) and the extra-large Oxy units and backups to ensure there will always be enough air until the end; although, they do save on some of the computer hardware and the return jets and guidance systems. When I'm doin' one of these, I make sure I get a look in a porthole, and (maybe it isn't right) I always smile and wave just before I push them off. Maybe that's why they insist that it be a human hand; maybe that's why I'm still a Milkman -- THE Milkman. I hope not. I pray one day it will bother me terribly. I pray I'll burn out, and give up the route. *
Story copyright © 1995 by Warren Blair.
Illustration copyright © 1995 by Ron Tedeschi.
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