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My name is Bliss Marie Carmichael. My parents wanted me for a long time before they were actually able to have me, so when I was born, my mom named me Bliss because she was so happy - well, that's what she told me when I was a little kid and came home from school upset one day because the word "bliss" was on our new vocabulary list and all the kids made fun of me about it. Of course hearing that made me feel bettter at the time, and now I love my name just because it's unique, and mine.

Anyway, enough about that. My dad was a farmer. He had dropped out of high school a year before graduating because of a family emergency, but he did well for himself, working two and three jobs at a time. When he married Mom, he bought a farm on Firewater, complete with a cow, two pigs (and more in spring when piglets were born), ducks on the pond, eight hens, one rooster, and a pony. Life on the farm was rich and full and wonderful. I can still remember trotting after mom to feed the chickens when I could barely walk, and being allowed to help carry the eggs to the house and milk Clover, the cow, and Dad holding me in his arms so I could see into the pig pen - I was afraid of Frank and Sally, the pigs.

When I was about four, my parents found out they couldn't have any more children. But they desperately wanted more, and I had begun to ask for a little brother or sister, so they decided to adopt. Within three years, I had three siblings, all younger than I: David, two years younger, the family joker; shy Megan, who is David's age; and boisterous Austin, a year younger than both of them.

About a year and a half after we adopted Austin, my Uncle Jed came to live with us, fresh from a life as a starship pilot. He'd retired after being wounded in a Praelor invasion. His right leg had been badly injured by a piece of flying debris when his ship was destroyed, and then he'd received a severe acid burn right on top of the wound. It never healed properly, and by the time he came to live with us, he walked with a short, thick wooden cane. He still managed to help with the chores during the day, though, and at night, he told us the most fascinating stories - all about flying up among the stars. "See that one?" he used to ask, pointing to the biggest, brightest one he could find while we all sat out in the yard. We'd all look and nod - at least we kids would. His eyes would twinkle at us, and he'd say in a sort of conspiratorial tone, "I've seen it up close. I've gotten as close to it as I am to you now." But Uncle Jed didn't stay with us long. He met and married my Aunt Jenny, and moved away and went into business for himself. As it turned out, that was for the best.

When I was nine, the local economy took a sharp downturn, and by the time I was ten , we'd reached full-scale depression and Dad lost the farm. He was crushed, and Mom went around looking like she was in shock for days. Of all of us, I was the only kid who really understood, and even I never dreamed how hard things would get. Dad decided to move us from Firewater to the prosperous Outreach, where he would find more stable work than farming. But by then all our savings were gone. He had just enough to pay our flight fare and buy us an apartment in the slums. It was actually a big place, as they go. The main room was a kitchen and living area, and there were two little bedrooms, a bathroom, and a laundry closet. We were definitely cozy. It was fun to us kids for a while, seeing Mom cook at a tiny stove in one corner and eating on the patched sofa at a folding table because a bigger one wouldn't fit. My parents had one bedroom, and we had the other. We didn't have any furniture in there except a big bed, in which all four of us slept. Even that was fun for the first few weeks. Every Sunday, we attended the Outreach City Mission Work - not a church, but an informal Christian organization that held Bible studies and did humanitarian work on a regular basis in the slums. We found friends there, and the minister and his wife who headed it up welcomed us like long-lost family. But then Dad brought home his first paycheck, and found that it was barely enough to cover the rent and feed us for the next month. An epidemic of the stomach bug hit the slums, and for weeks you could always hear the sound of vomiting from the apartments on either side or even outside as someone wandered in the hall or the street. We all got it. Mom made the sick ones sleep on the sofa in the living room, but even that didn't work when two or three got sick at a time. But we survived somehow, and pretty soon that long, crazy summer was over and Mom decided she would homeschool all us kids, because the school in the slums was pretty rough, and she and Dad didn't want us going to it. We'd thought the apartment was cramped before - we had no idea until school supplies took up residence there, too. Sometimes, we got so desperate that we would walk all the way to the park and stay there all day just to study in the open air. But in spite of all this, we managed, and we were happy.

One night when I was eighteen, I woke up to the sound of shouting and banging coming through our bedroom wall. My brothers and sister and parents woke up too, and for a while we huddled together in the living room, listening as our neighbors fought and their newborn infant cried. There was a scream, and then everything was silent. We thought they'd worn themselves out and gone back to bed - all this was just part of life here, after all - until there was a knock on our door. Dad went to open it, Mom and us kids right behind him. There stood our neighbors' oldest, a sweet-faced, blonde-haired boy of six named Kyle, carrying his baby sister Gracie in his arms and looking terrified. "Daddy hurt Mommy," he said, "and I think he's gonna hurt himself, too." We handed him and the baby over to David and Megan, and I went across the hall with Mom and Dad. I guess they were too anxious to waste time with protests. But by the time we got there, it was too late. Mrs. Turner was dead, and Mr. Turner had hanged himself. I didn't get close enough to see their faces, or the bruises on Mrs. Turner's neck. I ran home to help my sibs take care of the two kids who would soon become the newest members of our family.

By the next year, my parents were feeling the strain of having two more mouths to feed, and I decided it was time to start thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. I thought of trying to get a job in the same factory where Dad worked, or maybe looking around in the nicer parts of town. But every time I tried to imagine myself working in Shandy's Shop or Change of a Dress, the image of the starship landing pad and Uncle Jed's voice telling stories of the stars filled my head instead. I tried to talk myself out of it at first. "Come on, Bliss, you're the last person who'd ever make a good pilot." Then I talked to Dad. He was realistic but sympathetic, and he believed in me. So it was that the fall after I turned twenty, I set off in a shuttle for Flight Academy.

Now, two years later, here I am, a happy graduate, delighting in a pilot's life and the great opportunity it gives me to help myself and my family rise above poverty and hardship. I'm not quite there yet, but I know I will be soon, and I can't wait to see what adventures wait for me along the way.



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