NATURELLEMENT, I saw not my Pilot again before the first Jump. Time, as well as custom and my own determination, forbade it. Indeed, taking over my new command, preparing the ship for acceleration, and then matching orbits with the Flinger, all within four hours, so totally occupied my attention that I didn't even have time to meet the Domo of the Honored Passengers before we left orbit.
To the virgin starfarer, six officers may seem a somewhat inadequate crew for a vehicle transporting over ten thousand humans and three thousand tons of cargo, but the same person thinks nothing of fabriks of equal size and complexity with only one human maestro. Actually the reverse is true: a six-officer crew on a Void Ship like the Dragon Zephyr has a high redundancy coefficient.
The bridge crew consisted of Argus Edison Gandhi Computer Interface or Second Officer; Mori Lao Chaka Man Jack or Third; and myself, Void Captain, or First.
Upon leaving the Academy, every starfaring officer first ships as Man Jack for a period, learning the systems of the Void Ship and how to repair them in an emergency from a functional craftsman's point of view. After achieving distinction as Man Jack, an officer then does a tour as Interface, becoming the maestro of the ship's machineries from a control position. Only after mastering the duties of both Third and Second Officer may one aspire to Void Captain and command. Thus Argus could perform Mori's duties in extremis and I could double for both of them. And of course Argus had reached the stage of her career where command should not be beyond her should heroism demand.
The virgin Honored Passenger is also sometimes discomfited to learn that round-the-clock bridge watches are not maintained, and may first be startled to encounter all three bridge officers in the Grand Palais at the same time. But since a Void Ship between Jumps is in effect lying dead in the deep starless void, there is no reason to burden the crew with pointless duty or the ship with excess personnel, and there is no reason why we may all not take our ease in the floating cultura.
Of course this hardly applies to the Med crew; these three are kept more than busy during the inter-Jump periods tending to the recuperation of the Pilot, their role in the floating cultura being traditionally filled by their dedicated absence.
Paradoxically, the single period of idle repose for the Med crew is the period of maximum activity for the bridge crew. As the Void Ship is warped out of its holding orbit, matches orbits with the Flinger, and eases itself carefully into Go position, the Man Jack must constantly monitor all systems for acceleration-generated deviations, and the Interface must deal with the mathematics of the subtle trajectories while the Captain tends to the intangibles of command.
But since the Pilot at this point has not Jumped since the last voyage and need not be inserted into the Jump Circuit for several hours, it is customary for the Med crew to come to the bridge to observe departure; since this is the only time the entire crew will muster during the voyage, the departure becomes rite as well as functional procedure.
The design of the bridge itself enhances this artful homage to the ancient seafaring esprit. An elliptical wedge forming the upper bow of the Dragon, its curving outer wall is one seamless tele screen, handsomely crafting the illusion that one rests upon an open forward deck looking bowward into the depths of the starry sea.
The Second Officer sits at her Computer Interface facing this grand panorama, casting data readouts and reference grids upon it at the Captain's command. To her left is the chaise of the Man Jack, empty now as Mori scurries and worries over her brood of systems monitors curving along the forward bulkhead.
My chaise, with its master controls, enhanced height, and carven brass embellishments, is fastened to the deck just behind them, the ceremonial throne of command.
Behind me, a small temple pew as it were: four spartan courtesy chaises for the rest of the crew, all but the traditional empty chaise of the Pilot now occupied by the Med crew Maestro, his Man Jack, and the Healer.
"Prepare to leave orbit," I intone, and the ritual begins.
"All systems secured for orbital maneuvering," Mori called out, hovering over her bank of readouts.
"Orbital exchange profile computed, ..." Argus said, touching a control point, "... and ready to dump." A red control point on my own console winked on, inviting my command.
"Display maneuvering grid."
The illusion of open starry space surrounding us was faulted by a red gridwork of spherical coordinates centered upon a green crosshairs signifying the ship's axis of acceleration.
"Dumping orbital exchange profile," I announced, touching my first red command point. The maneuvering command was now transferred from my command holding banks into the orbital control computer, and another of my red command points became active.
The moment of high romance, such as it was, had arrived. "Exchanging orbits," I announced, conscious of a certain thespic self-indulgence as I touched the command point.
Auditory sensors provided an ersatz confirmation of the chuff-chuff- chuff of a horde of tiny reaction thrusters, and the starfield jitterdanced into a new alignment with the reference grid. A sapphire slice of the Earth below lit up the far right edge of the great tele screen with its gegenschein glow. A louder, more authoritative ersatz chuff, and the crosshairs bow of the Dragon Zephyr began to cleave the wine-dark sea in a ponderous glide, a foamy wake of stars streaming in slow motion over us as we rode into a higher orbit.
At this moment, I had always been accustomed to flowing into the romantic seafaring metaphor, the Captain slowly inching his ship out of harbor, gazing eagle-eyed into the voidy sea surrounded by the full muster of his admiring crew.
But this time, for some reason, my role in this happy rite had a somewhat hollow feel. My consciousness was focused on the functional, not its greater metaphorical glory. I was too aware that all I had really done was feed a command computed by my Interface into the orbital maneuvering computer, that the drama of conning my ship as the starfield eased gracefully into new configuration was illusion, that we were moving along a ballistically inevitable curve as beyond my control as kismet. For some reason I cared not to contemplate, this in turn focused my awareness on the psychic pressure of the unseen empty Pilot's chaise behind me, mocking me with the reminder that soon enough I would lose even this thespic ersatz of true command.
"Flinger on the grid, Captain Genro," Argus called out, and there, tiny in the distance but nominally centered in our crosshairs, was a tube of silver filigree lace, a phallic cobweb rapidly growing in size as we eased into our leading orbit before it.
"Read out closing velocities to dead stop, lnterface," I ordered.
"Five thousand meters per second ... 3,700 ... 2000 ...." Digits flashed in yellow beneath the crosshairs as that which had seemed far away, fragile, and small rapidly became closer, fragile, and enormous.
"Fifteen hundred ... 1,000 ... 423 ...."
The Jump Drive itself is not exactly a precise propulsive instrument; a final Jump that puts a Void Ship within half a light-year of the target system is bon suerte indeed. Fortunately, the mass-energy discontinuity of the Jump affects not the ship's velocity relative to the quotidian universe: a Void Ship emerges from one or ten or a hundred Jumps with the relative velocity with which it began; conservation of momentum in mass-energy reality is not disturbed.
Since no amount of corrective Jumping will place the ship cozily within the target solar system, a high relativistic velocity is needed to effect final rendezvous within a reasonable subjective time frame. With the gravitic compensators insulating the ship from any gee stresses, losing this velocity on final approach via severe ballistic breaking maneuvers is no problem, but generating it from a dead stop in space would require an economically crippling amount of onboard reaction mass. Therefore it is more than desirable for a Void Ship to enter its first Jump with near-light speed.
Voila, the Flinger.
"Two hundred ten ...175 ... 80 ...17 ... o...."
"Zero relative velocity," I announced ceremoniously. "Orbital exchange perfected."
Now the Dragon Zephyr sat motionless in space facing into the circular mouth of an enormous yet ethereal tunnel half a kilometer in diameter and a hundred kilometers long. Constructed of nothing more substantial in material terms than a framework of cryowire hoops supporting equally thin longitudinal members, the Flinger tube seemed as much of an abstraction on the tele as the maneuvering grid projected upon it, vast in scale, yet barely extant.
"Patch Flinger Control," I ordered. An amber point lit up on my console as Argus established a com channel. "Flinger control, this is the Dragon Zephyr at zero relative velocity in orbit 2.3 kilometers out. Request guidance interface. "
"Dragon Zephyr, this is Flinger control," a vaguely female voice answered. "Coordinates and zero velocity confirmed. Computer patch confirmed and locked in. You may proceed with your insertion procedure."
Another touch point on my console glowed red. Needless to say, conning a Void Ship the length of a tunnel a hundred kilometers long and a mere half-a-kilometer wide by manual maneuvering, while not humanly impossible, would be tedious and problematical. So when I touched this command point, the Flinger control computer took over the conning of the ship via its synergy with our own orbital maneuvering computer and I was reduced to the role of human safety backup to the automatics--a perception that this time around somehow seemed new and unsettling as they proceeded to turn the ship end for end and draw it stern-first smoothly and surely down the bore of the Flinger barrel toward Go position.
The far end of the Flinger was capped by the field generator and the Flinger control complex. A system or orbiting solaires beamed power to the field generator in the form of luz densified from the local stellar source; this in turn was used to electrify the gridwork Flinger barrel, creating a powerful cylindrical magnetic field in the manner of a particle accelerator. At Go position, the Dragon Zephyr would be encapsulated in an electromagnetic bubble of opposite charge, which in turn would be accelerated electromagnetically by interaction with the field, flinging the ship within it into the void at near- light velocity.
Now the ship was being drawn down the Flinger bore by a slow-motion reversal of this selfsame process, receding down the latticework corridor like a fly slowly being drawn into a spider's web.
"Go Position," Argus called out as the Dragon Zephyr came to a dead stop, its stern less than a half-kilometer from the "bottom" of the Flinger tube.
"Confirm internal gravity at one gee."
"Internal gravity confirmed at one gee," Mori called out from one of her consoles.
"Assume departure position," I told her. "Activate internal com systems," I ordered Argus.
Mori seated herself beside Argus. Another amber point glowed on my console. The climax of the departure rite neared. Now the Honored Passengers could listen in on the bridge conversation and watch our departure via the teles in their staterooms or the Grand Palais module. At this point, many Void Captains choose to address some salutations to the Honored Passengers, even at times a haiku composed in honor of the occasion, as I myself, in other moods, have done. Now, however, my tongue seemed tied, and I left the unfelt poetry of the moment to the wu of unselfconscious functionality.
"Flinger control, this is the Dragon Zephyr, awaiting Go command release."
"Dragon Zephyr, this is Flinger control. You have Go command release. Bon voyage, Captain Genro."
A red touch point lit on my console; the final, not strictly functional, bon chose of the ritual. Now the Flinger Control patch was reversed, and I commanded the energies of the Flinger from on board the ship, a symbolic transfer of the ship's destiny to my lone hand.
Following the rite mechanically to its final conclusion, I positioned my finger above the touch point with a mimed gesture of thespic pregnancy, though somehow it all seemed hollow now, like a Way degenerated into mere religiosity. Before me, the starfield was framed by the latticework tunnel of the Flinger barrel, dwindling away in perspective to a small distant circle of stars marked by the crosshairs of the maneuvering grid laid in over the approaching immensity of the deep void.
Focusing on this as best I could, I chanted the word "Go!" with as much grandeur as I could muster and touched the glowing red point.
For the merest instant, the purest augenblick, the great latticework tunnel blurred into the apparent solidity of tremendous relative motion, the stars in the central circle dopplered through blue into violet and beyond, as we seemed to hurtle forward into an unreal universe of ultraviolet pinpricks through black velvet keening into eye-killing transvisibility.
Then we were floating, apparently motionless, in the still, silent cosmos of multicolored stars as the tele's spectral compensator circuits cut in, recreating the illusion of crystal starry night, annihilating all sensory connection to our headlong near-light-speed crawl through the god and awful void which had already put the womb-world of men far behind us.
The rite ended in a spatter of formal applause, which, in that moment, seemed as empty and transparent to me as the tele's tranking illusion. I ordered Mori to put her consoles on internal automatics, gave Argus leave to secure the bridge, and rose from my chaise to accept the customary nods of approval from the Med crew, rising from their own chaises behind me.
But as I ushered the crew out of the bridge, as I led them in the usual fashion to the usual departure fete in the Grand Palais, as I put this functional duty behind me and went to fill my symbolic role in the floating cultura of the Honored Passengers, I found my consciousness focusing not on the five who accompanied me but on the one who did not. On she whose place in the departure rite had been an empty chaise, whose role in the floating cultura would be equally defined by her absence. On my Void Pilot, Dominique Alia Wu, who would remain, or so I then thought, the unseen center of all these rituals and machineries, the invisible hub of our karmic wheel, the center which was void.