Chapter I: The Assignment

It might surprise the reader to hear me refer to my forced estrangement from Earth as a "vacation," but this term fits the situation nicely. Before my trip I worked as a reporter for the New-New York Times, which was based in Los Angeles, California. Let me say that one would have to search long and hard to find a more despicable job. I speak with some experience here, for I am a fully franchised citizen, having done my Federal Service as a mechanical specialist for the Terran Marine Corps—a position where I could reasonably assume that those shooting at me were enemies who warranted return fire. Switching from such clear-cut distinctions to the muddle of a bureaucratic battlefield was traumatic, but I learned to adapt to the point where I could do my job while I was loathing it. In fact, I remain to this day quite amazed that I had that job at all, given my background as a tinkerer rather than a "seeker of the truth" that the paper claims to stuff its ranks with.

Though I didn't know it at the time my vacation began when I was called into the office of the person most responsible for making my position miserable. His name was Allen Thickmann, Senior Editor—his last name being pronounced TEH-HICK-MAN by those under his employ while in his presence and JACK-ASS when said employees knew he wasn't around. The only thing remarkable about him was that his last name was one of the Seven Great Ironies of the World, because thick he was, both in body in mind. He's not quite as thick now, or alive, since he died a month after I left under mysterious circumstances involving six spotted owls covered with goats' blood, some satanic runes carved into a toilet seat, and a half-empty glass of skim milk. Don't ask me what those items were doing in the Executive Washroom; my cubicle wasn't on that particular floor.

In any case, I was no sooner seated in his office when he told me that I would be taking a business trip that afternoon, after which he went back to the all-important task of ignoring me while pretending to be engulfed in a pile of work. The "pretend" part of the work was apparent from the sounds of a video game being run on his console. Up until a few weeks ago it had irked me that he never even attempted to hide the fact that the "work" prompting this curtness was a 'Net role-playing game. Though I don't know exactly what character he was masquerading as I've always imagined him as a mage; a fat, bumbling, stupid mage who walked and talked like the Almighty Himself but whose only power was to scapegoat. At first, his blatant display of unprofessionalism seemed to me to be a way for him impose on his employees his own imaginary grandeur and a feeling of insignificance. It stopped being irksome when I realized that this wasn't so and that he just didn't know how to adjust the volume on his console, hence my imagining of him as a stupid mage in addition to fat and bumbling. Emboldened since with this knowledge I knew he could not deter me with his dismissive tones or imaginary grandeur, and so I was easily able to ask where I would be going on my business trip, being the shrewd person that I am.

I wasn't expecting an immediate or useful reply, and I don't think Thickmann intended to give me one. Looking back, I'm fairly sure he wouldn't have if he hadn't been distracted by a particularly nasty mountain troll or something along that line—and if that was the case I hope it stomped his character into gooey puddle. He told me, and I quote: "Nowhere special," adding as an afterthought, "you'll be leaving around 5 p.m., maybe earlier. Your travel papers should be ready by three." I took the trouble to quote this because this single phrase was the most informative thing I had ever gotten out of him in my year of working in his company. It could very well be the most coherent thing he has ever said because some of my coworkers who survive to this day say I'm making it up. At the time I had been steeled for a long and drawn out war, and having been given the keys to the kingdom after the first skirmish I decided not to push my luck; it was back to my cubicle to fritter away the afternoon on busywork.

One thing that has always frustrated me about Thickmann was how he managed to keep an employee in his office just long enough to let their work pile up to engulfing levels. Three o'clock found me busily compiling data for a chart explaining the changes in something nobody cared about over a period of five years. The mail clerk happened by about this time and threw a packet at my head that missed and instead knocked a stack of papers off of my desk and into my lap. After exchanging pleasantries with the mail clerk and reminding him that I knew where he slept I paid some attention to the packet and noticed that a hastily handwritten note had been attached detailing my assignment.

Typical bureaucracy is what I remember thinking after I read it. I had been tasked to a team doing research on resource developments outside of Sol. Perfect. Every other reporter in the galaxy got to go visit galactic hotspots like Protius or investigate the alcoholic content of tropical drinks. Me, I get to go poke a rock. Whoopee. It was slated to be a two month assignment, but I could have gotten far more accurate information from a two minute search on the 'Net. I might have argued this when I first started working for the paper, but I had raised similar arguments over such matters before. What these arguments invariable resulted in was a long winded speech that described, in the most ridiculously dramatic way possible, how the old news paper had been done in by its failure to double check. Whoever was giving the speech went on to describe how Satan's minions pounced on the poor defenseless company like lions on a gazelle and ripped it to shreds. If a listener lasts this long into the speech then they get to hear about how, when all hope seemed lost, a heroic army of surviving journalists stormed the fiery pits of Hell, beat back the demons, and salvaged enough of the old company to start over.

As I said, they like to dramatize. Not only do they like to dramatize their stories; they also like to add a little drama to the lives of those at the bottom of the corporate pecking order, no doubt feeling that we probably deserved it, else we wouldn't be at the bottom to begin with. When I pulled the mini disk out of the packet and plugged it into my palm computer it was 3:07; after I had gotten the ticket downloaded and looked over the specifics to construct my travel plans I noticed that my plane was scheduled to leave the gate at 3:30.

In ideal traffic conditions, which have never existed in Los Angeles, traveling from my cubicle to my apartment takes about half an hour. From there to the aerospaceport is another hour. Getting checked in and through security can take anywhere from ten minutes to half an hour, and getting to the terminal is at least another fifteen. I'm still not quite sure how I did it, but I violated, simultaneously, every known rule about the way in which matter can move through space and time in getting to the plane with exactly three seconds to spare. After picking myself up, since I'd had to leap the last few meters headfirst, I had no trouble locating my seat; it was the one next to the only other two people on plane breathing heavily and wearing the expressions of supreme annoyance that only working for Thickmann could produce.

After getting a good look at them though I had a great deal of trouble figuring out why they had been assigned with me. It wasn't that they were the wrong people for the job, far from it in fact, but that Jessica Bollens and Ryan Tanker were perhaps the only other competent reporters on the entire NNYT's staff. It wasn't Thickmann's style to pair any competent employee with any other competent employee, much less let three of them run amok! What if they should actually accomplish something? He'd then have to acknowledge that reporters serve as important a purpose as the journalists. I had dismissed it as a freak occurrence, but I've been asking around to all my surviving acquaintances and they tell me that they noticed many such discrepancies during the month just before his death. Someday I plan to find Thickmann's murderer and thank him, her, or maybe even it for doing the Universe such a wonderful favor.

"Sam! This is a surprise." Jessica, or Jessie as she is more widely known, was the first to catch her second wind and offer me greetings.

"Jackass must really be slipping." Ryan gasped next. Both he and Jessie were in a dire state of dishevelment, but from the dirt and what I'm guessing were bloodstains on Ryan's coat it was obvious he had had the most interesting trip to the terminal. I buckled into the seat between Ryan and Jessie just in time to hear the attendants start their pre-flight safety speech. The sheer boredom of being reminded by a perky twenty-something as to why it was not a good idea jump out of the plane at 20,000 meters drove me to lean over to Jessie and start asking sensible questions.

"Any idea what rocks we're supposed to be looking for once we get out there?"

"No," she replied. "All I got was a notice to be on this plane with enough underwear to last awhile. We might get more once we make it to the Mount of Olives." I wondered for a moment why she thought we were going to Israel before I caught the glint in her eye and realized what she was really talking about.

"You don't mean…" I started to asked in shock before Ryan flashed me a grin.

"That's right," he said with a devilish smile. "Check your ticket. We're taking the Stairway to Heaven."

This was but the first in what was to be a long, long, long series of inconveniences.