It took all of nineteen and a half hours of intense negotiations with contractors and port authorities for Zelleus to get clearance for take-off. Mech working platforms, scaffolding and droids pull back and leave Blue Dragon hovering in her own anti-grav field as the gaping doors roll back, filling the hangar with a deep smoky purple of fading evening Pallarti light. The ship moves slowly forward jetting on thrusters. It settles at a jaunty angle to the sky on the nearest launch pad. As soon as the hangar doors close the massive torch drive engages and in a roar that was probably heard as far as a hundred miles beyond the port and even farther at sea, Blue Dragon lifts off on her secret destination, a fiery arrow aimed at alien starry fields.
Every human aboard is safely strapped either in bunk harness or in command chairs. Thane, at the insistence of Zelleus, and with some raised eyebrows from commander Natak and his assistant, the one-legged Josef Virkof, sits in the Second’s chair. Despite the containment field being at maximum the chair’s special fabric wraps around the slim Thane, almost covering his entire face. He tries to lift his hand to push it back so he can see the star field growing brighter but he is solidly pinned to the chair. Moments later the ship erupts into flame as she passes through and out of atmosphere. Then the pull lessens and the scene is one Thane can never forget.
Stars, bright, large and so clear as he has never imagined, surround Blue Dragon. He notices they are of various colors, some even having strange shapes. He learns later that these are just an optical illusion of tightly packed groups yet to be exploded into new systems.
He scans computerized visuals and sees the long torch flame shorten, then disappear. Then comes the test: zero g. His stomach revolts violently to the change and a bag appears before his face. He throws up. The others laugh. Now he understands why no one ate at their last meeting and they had looked at him knowingly when he casually ate a tart made of some fleshy blue fruit. It was to be a long time before he tried that pastry again.
As the ship begins to rotate, a sense of gravity is returned and he feels better. Josef comments on his complexion.
“Well Thane, I like those rosy cheeks better than that waxy complexion you served us before,” then looks around and winks. They all know his rosy complexion is due to momentary shame at demonstrating his ignorance of space travel exigencies. There were to be many more embarrassing moments, mostly in moving from place to place without becoming an unguided missile reminiscent of a bouncy ball. There would be many bruises from collisions with walls, port frames and even other human beings. As well as bathroom incidents, fortunately these always in private. But as with all things petty, these would become faded memories as life aboard Blue became predictably work, work and more work.
Zelleus had the Dragon retrofitted on Pallarti, certainly, but only on those aspects that could not be attended to in deep space. Most internal repairs and changes not of a critical nature to take-off and immediate serviceability were relegated to the crew during the interminable fugue days of post-light speed. When not strapped into a sleep harness, at work or on break Thane would find certain parts of Blue with bulging visual observation ports. Here he would sit and ponder what his eyes saw and what his mind absorbed and translated for him. He would think, not only of the future, wherever Zelleus and Blue were taking him, but of his own past, that due to fugue effect seemed so distant, and see himself as a dimly remembered other person. The only person he could not forget was his brother. And a plan began to evolve in his mind.
There were no longer stars in his field of view. Just strange lights, complex and both frightening and attractive. He was repulsed by their clashing, barbaric nakedness in what should have been dark, empty space. At the same time he was pulled to them until he’d find himself stuck to the transparent plasteel bubble, as if his body would pass through and become one with the wizardry demonstration of arcane lighting, not as something so fast as to appear instantly, but more as a lazily moving display of undulating wet paints, observers or hitchhikers along Blue’s trajectory. ‘I can’t get my mind into this,’ he would think, ‘what am I that I can pass by light’s presence and leave it behind?’ ‘What does that make me, us?’
Thane also spent much time going through human history in the vidrecs-1 aboard Blue. He pondered the concept of human expansion throughout the galaxy. He analyzed his previous understanding of space as man’s final frontier. So it had been called long ago, first as conjecture in ancient earth literature and entertainment media. Then truly so as the first great torch ships, with complements of humans in fugue sleep numbering as high as ten thousands in some, finally lumbered off from their construction orbit around earth’s moon to seek “strange new worlds and new civilizations.”
The worlds were found, and so were the civilizations which were promptly dismissed, barely noticed or trod underfoot, for they were mere lowly life-forms: primitive cellular organisms, plants, insects, reptilians and not much more. These were quickly catalogued as useful or inimical and treated accordingly by the Earthian invaders. There is no question that Earthians are the masters of space, at least in their inhabited and claimed sectors of the galaxy. Whatever they find out there is for their use. If whatever else is out there disagrees with that assumption, let it fight back.
The credo of Earth conquered space could read thus: “Mine until someone can take it away from me by force and over my dead body.”
But space is no longer the final frontier. We are certain now about the existence of possibly countless other dimensions. And to confuse the picture even more, human scientists have established proof of the existence of other universes, sometimes referred to as “parallel” universes. On worlds dedicated to scientific discovery, ostensibly protected from undue political influence and the ever-present threat of war, worlds such as Orthopterris and Gallilei Prime, research into ways of crossing into such parallel worlds or other theoretically infinite dimensions are on a feverish, competitive course. So the information tells him.
‘Where is Zelleus taking us?’ wonders Thane as he works his mind through the data during long periods of otherwise repetitive, often boring, repair and maintenance work. Thane is shy and seldom ventures opinions unless he feels the obvious must be stated. This he does in such a self-effacing way that no one is ever annoyed by his intrusions. Sometimes he is even asked for input on complex problems involving space probabilities. When he admits to having an opinion most usually listen.
After many “days” of their cross-sectioning travel, Zelleus, for the first time, invites Thane to his private quarters. Although captain and owner of the ship, his quarters are no different that those of the crew. Perhaps somewhat larger, but most of that space is taken by private research equipment. Thane is served a specially brewed “beer” by a droid then motioned to sit. He positions himself lotus-fashion on a chair, hooks his toes in the “grav hooks” and waits. Zelleus stretches back on his velcro’d webbing. He surveys Thane. There is a look in his eyes Thane has not seen before.
“What’s the most burning question you have for me, Thane? One you’ve been wanting to ask since we sailed from Pallarti, but have not dared?”
Taken aback, Thane looks away. How to phrase his question? Will the captain be offended?
“Why are there no women crew members on Blue, sir?”
“I’d really like it if you’d call me Zelleus when in my quarters. Would you?”
“Yes s… I mean, Zelleus. I can do that.”
“Good. Another pointed question about an obvious point by Thane, huh? Well, it needed asking. Took you long enough. Yes, on most starships they try to have a fairly equal number of men and women. The idea is that as romantic attachments are made, there will be less jealousy if everyone can have somebody. Thane, I can tell you of a certainty that humans are certifiable idiots who learn nothing until it’s forced down their stinking throats. They refuse to accept the fact that their primal motive energy is from feelings, feelings that burn into wild emotions and cause havoc wherever they go.
Over the millennia of their existence they have evolved complex, convoluted, often utterly senseless and idiotic systems to force their feelings into semantics, mind-altering beliefs, mathematical equations or scientific theories. So much of this and less of that, combined with such and such, with this removed will give you thus…”
He raises his voice, and his arms. “It’s all bullshit, Thane! I don’t have female crew simply because I cannot afford the certain and inevitable complications. People “in love” or otherwise concerned about each other beyond the team effect become careless of their duties aboard ship and less effective. I have observed time and again that one of the reasons I overcame a much more formidable enemy was because the people aboard that ship were of many minds as how to deal with me. I would inevitably find out, under interrogation, that the confusion resulted from deep concern for loved ones aboard ship. Those with serious emotional attachments were usually for running away. The others would want to attack, willing to take greater risks.”
He stands, imitating the buzzing of an insect. “I’m a wasp, Thane, single-minded and deadly. I am a unit with my ship, first, then my crew. This feeling goes into the crew also. They know their survival depends on single-mindedness. When I brought you aboard I never thought to appraise you of this. To me you were just a boy in desperate need and I wanted a companion, friend if you will, who would be different than all the men in my crew. Since I could not bring a female aboard, I thought perhaps you would serve that role.”
He notices Thane being startled by this admission. Also, a rare trait in him, he begins to fidget uncomfortably and blushes deeply.
“At ease, Thane! I’m not asking you to perform sexual favors for me here. I’m speaking of your “presence” – your healthy youth, your innocence, your open-mindedness, your willingness to serve without question, and your intuitive intelligence. I’ve watched you Thane. I know you are different from the rest of my crew. And I’ve noticed them taking an interest in you too. I can easily imagine some of them thinking how good you’d look in a woman’s garb. I have those feelings too, you know? I didn’t have them when we left Pallarti or I wouldn’t have taken you on board. But here, in fugue time, things shift. Perspectives change.
As if suddenly changing the subject he asks, “Ever heard of Atamine?”
Thane shakes his head, ‘no.’
“We have developed a drug, affectionately called “Tammy” by the men, that we use on these voyages without female company. With the visual aid of a female holo of choice you enter into the fantasy of sexual virtual reality with her. The drug has no lasting side effects. All that remains of the experience after some three hours of sleep is a pleasant memory. But it remains a real experience nevertheless.
The men who wish to partake of this experience must first agree to the cost, that comes from their credits earned by position and time spent aboard ship. Participants are then slotted for it one at a time, by first come, first serve basis, not seniority. One chamber aboard ship, when not in combat duty, is allocated for this. The man’s experience is monitored by Ship computer and logged. Only the captain and the man himself may access that information. That section of Ship’s memory is automatically purged upon entry into any field over point five gravity, in case the ship has to land.
The men may talk about their experience with one another, certainly, but they are not permitted to share Ship recordings of it with one another nor can they make a personal recording of it. This is simply to prevent the temptation to pilfer such information to sell to that ever hungry for gossip and porn media blight you find on almost every world. Now there’s a bunch I’d like to introduce to my lasers…”
“Why would the man want to review his experience with the sex drug?”
“It’s an interactive program that builds on the experience. The man can make changes to the program to touch on some physical or emotional aspects that were missed in the previous encounter. For example, he may want the same woman, but younger, older, more, or less, experienced. He may want more aggressive behavior on her part, or more passivity. He may want to experience it in a different era. He may want more than one woman. He may want the relationship to grow into a bonding, a family on some world of choice. It’s an experience with unlimited possibilities. But the bottom line, Thane, is that it greatly reduces cases of violence from the inevitable spread of homosexuality in an all-male closed environment.”
“So, with our crew of forty-six, if every man signs up, how long would it be before the first man gets to use this program again?”
“That’s the “x” factor Thane. If the next scheduled man is busy his slot goes to the next in line, then he gets his turn when free. Some men take longer in the experience than others. Six men per twenty hours is average. So you see the cycling factor is not so long. If it were, I would be willing to create two such holo-rooms for the crew, of course. But Blue Dragon is not a cruise ship and I don’t want to turn too much time to entertainment.”
“Interesting, Zelleus.” Thane looks directly in his captain’s face, waiting for the next obvious question.
Zelleus sighs deeply and opens his arms, then his hands, gesturing. “Look, do you want to sign up for this experience, Thane? I can slot you in and your first trial is free.”
“Oh” gasps Thane. “I was almost afraid you’d ask me. I don’t think so. I… I’m inexperienced in such things and haven’t thought about sex that way. Maybe in time I’ll change my mind. Thank you for offering.”
“What do you mean by ‘that way’ Thane?”
“What I mean is, I always thought that when I had my own encounter, it would be from love sir, I mean Zelleus. I always believed that some day I would meet that particular person and we would fall in love. Then we would commit to one-another and it would be wonderful.”
“You disappoint me, Thane. You seem to lack in powers of observation here. Let me challenge you on this point: give me one example from the adults you have observed in your own life, of a successful romantic relationship, one that lasts through according to the words spoken at the official bonding ceremony?”
Thane blushes, now truly embarrassed. “I can’t Zelleus. But I still believe it’s possible for me. It’s my dream. Do you think it’s so stupid, to want love, to want to be sure about someone?”
“No, it’s not. And maybe it has to happen one day to someone we know. Why not you? I’d say of all the people I’ve met whose stories I’ve heard, you deserve it most. You truly are a good person Thane.”
Zelleus looks at Thane critically: “You haven’t been taking care of yourself lately, have you, Thane? I think maybe I’ve been working you too hard. That uniform is a disgrace and your hair needs a serious wash. I am going to get you a new uniform. Meanwhile I want you to use my shower facility here and clean up. I have a very good shampoo there I’m sure you’ll like. Give it a try. There is a new razor there too. Feel free to use it, although I still don’t see any growth on that pretty face of yours.”
“I… Yes Zelleus. I’ll do as you say. Thank you.”
After Zelleus has gone on his search for a proper uniform, Thane enters the man’s cubicle, undresses and begins a thorough shower, hooking his feet in the stirrups in the floor to keep from floating up. He methodically shampoos his long hair and looks at the razor but does not pick it up. He remains in the shower enjoying the sensation of the misting field of warm water over smooth skin, a luxury he didn’t remember ever having known…
1-Vidrecs: video recordings, also known as Vidlibs, recordings for library records.