Monday, May 23, 2016

Return to Tomorrow - Chapter XI - The Cold, Dark Void of Purpose

I guess if nothing else, last chapter showed why Jocelyn, who had already shown a willingness to hold people against their will to fill a vacancy on his spaceship, didn't just handcuff Corday to the celestolabe while the rest of the crew had their shore leave - clearly Jocelyn knew that Corday, upon discovering that all his hopes and dreams had been reduced to ash, would find no other recourse than to return to his prison and continue to serve under the man who had destroyed his life.  Wise man, that Jocelyn.  Not sure about Corday, though.

The quivering Hound of Heaven hurled herself on course, blazing bow to bridge with particle flame, drives snarling with subdued ferocity as they sped to higher speeds - a lance of fire in the black of absolute zero.

Yeah, we've gone straight from New New Chicago to the cold heart of space, and also timeskipped ahead by two years, and not a whole lot has changed aboard the good ship Flea Circus.  There's a new comms man on the bridge since the old one got killed in some battle, but since I can't remember the previous guy's name, assuming we were ever introduced, I'm not too torn up about it.  The bridge itself is still "a belt of black ports through which one saw the march of stars; a worn deck which was never washed, panel on panel and rack on rack of meters, dials and controls scummed each one with grease."  The recycled air is still stinky.

But Corday?  Our hero has taken several levels of Dashing Spaceman after learning that his previous Surveyor-Engineer class is more or less defunct.  He carries himself like a seasoned star-sailor, habitually grasping rails and such while at his station, "the spaceman's habit of never going far from a hand-hold and never being unprepared against ungravity."

Ungravity is not to be excused with antigravity, which may be what allows Earth's taxis to hover, or artificial gravity, which is presumably what allows Corday to stand on the deck in the first place.  Maybe the author means zero-gravity, suggesting that the Hound's artificial gravity can crap out at times and send people a-floating?

This would fit the ship - Corday's spent enough time on the Hound to know that the ship's engines tend to be a bit uneven when accelerating between one-forty- and one-fifty-thousand miles per second, probably due to the new fuel catalysts installed ten trips back.  But it's worth it once you get to the 150's and up, "for one's weight eased down as the gravity curve decreased."  Because when... when you're going fast, when flying far enough from a planet that there's no gravity, there's even less gravity, so...  Hmm.  Maybe this is that ungravity Hubbard was talking about?  Like they're in a zero-g environment, but the ship has artificial gravity so they can walk around normally, but then they go fast enough for some force to ameliorate some of that artificial gravity?  Instead of just turning the thing down.

Hubbard Science - always good for a perplexed chuckle, like trying to figure out why someone's wearing a duck as a hat while he insists that there isn't a waterfowl on his head.

Beyond the technical stuff, Corday is also becoming a better officer, someone able to say "Silence on the bridge" without getting any grumbling in response.  He's also gotten pretty good at calculating courses and navigating, which isn't to say that the arch-dick won't jump on any mistakes - Corday's ears still burn when he remembers that time Jocelyn noticed that one of Corday's calculations was off by a whole tenth of a second.

"I don't misdoubt, Mr. Corday, that some day when I am old and bent you'll have mastered simple trig.  Mr. Hale, loan Mr. Corday a book on sphericals.  You won't need one on arithmetic too, will you, Mr. Corday?"

Presumably Jocelyn is one of those old-school types who refuses to let those under his command use calculators.  There's certainly no mention of, say, a computer system to crunch these numbers with greater speed and accuracy than anyone abducted from the last port of call.

Unfortunately, these new character levels have not been accompanied by any new friends for Mr. Corday - he's not really bonding with anyone, and still doesn't feel like he belongs aboard the ship.  Heck, he's even down an acquaintance since Gow-Eater killed himself eight months ago. Corday's not associating with Queen since her mutiny idea never got off the ground, especially after five shipwrecked sailors picked up on Venus ended up turning on Jocelyn and getting chucked out the airlock for their trouble.  Gow-Eater and someone named Mag Godine had gotten into an argument whether the mutineers froze from the absolute zero or experienced explosive decompression first.  (For the record, they're both wrong - you wouldn't swell up and explode or freeze over, you'd quickly pass out for lack of air before dying of an embolism or internal decompression damage a few minutes later.)  At any rate, watching someone else get executed for a crime he was considering has made Corday keep his head down these past two years.

But at least there's Snoozer, the courier girl who seems to like Corday, right?  She burst into tears when he disembarked back at New Chicago, and presumably was very happy to see him come back, so surely she counts as a friend?  Wrong.  Hubbard doesn't even mention her, which is weird because- well, later.

There's a lot of singing in this chapter of introspection and exposition, too - a paragraph-long song called "Viva la Company" which is 30% the word "viva," and more than a page is wasted on a tune called "Voyage" that I won't quote in full.

A full ten times a hundred years
Will pass as on we run
A full times a hundred years
Earth spins around the Sun.

Then back we'll be with ore and gem
Enough a town to buy
The Hound but six months older now
For only planets die.

God bless the mates
And keep our crew from harm upon this day
And God bless Captain Jocelyn 
Who walks his lonely way.

Again with the mineral wealth and shiny rocks.  What, is Earth gonna run out of uranium in a few centuries?  And the best place to get more is far outside the Solar System?

The song does get Corday thinking, though.  He still feels flashes of shame whenever he thinks about Queen's plot against Jocelyn and his role in it, even though Corday absolutely hates the man.  And as the crew moves on to "Why, Why, Why Do We Cruise the Useless Sky," Corday ponders the question in the song's title.

They had no purpose.  They had no goal.  They were outcasts, condemned to exist until they died, without home or friends, behind the skin of this vessel, accomplishing nothing, idly watching the parade of the pointless centuries.

Uh oh, Hubbard, even your characters are questioning the underlying premise of the story.

So when Hale comes by at the end of Corday's watch and reports that they'll be at Earth again in a couple of months, Corday abruptly asks why, and points out that they could've joined the colony on the last planet they visited, a pretty nice ball of dirt called O'Rourke.

"Stayed on - on O'Rourke?" said Hale.

"Why not?  We could do worse.  We've got odds and ends of the craft aboard.  We have a government.  And we could live our lives like people."

"Live our lives -?  What are you?  Drunk?"

"Give me a good reason against it."

"Why, why... there's plenty against it.  I-"  And he floundered and began to get angry because he didn't have an answer.

Corday points out that it's been fifty generations since they were last on Earth, and they have no "command ground" [sic] with the population, who have no problem with screwing over these traveling merchants since even their great-grandkids will see the Hound again.  Hale counters that Corday is breeding discontent and says if he doesn't like being on the ship, fine then, leave!  And Hale stomps off, angry, and Corday is mad too because he knows he very well could - "He knew they could do without him.  Jocelyn said it often enough."

Then why the hell did he kidnap Corday?

But Corday balks at the thought of giving up life on the long passage.  After all, it's three and a half millennia since he was born, so if he went back to Earth he'd have to start completely over to have any hope of fitting in.

He did not belong on Earth any more.  He was homeless, a wanderer in absolute zero and eternity.  But Hale need not have driven it so hard.

He frowned.  Jocelyn liked his creature comforts.  Why didn't Jocelyn see how really easy it would be to make a new colony of his ship on some hospitable star?  Earth, no.  But a good planet in an astronomically reliable system - why not?

Good question!  The economics of this whole enterprise are pretty iffy, as you're basically spending a lot of rocket fuel hauling crap from world to world, flinging Supply out into the void and praying that Demand will be there waiting instead of doing the smart thing and answering a known Demand with your Supply in a timely fashion.  And then if you profit off this venture, you spend it on whatever baubles can fit aboard your quarters as you take off to do it again, there's no endgame you're working toward.  And all the time there's the misery of being temporally displaced, watching everything you know and love get buried under the weight of years that pass you by thanks to a quirk of physics.  So why the Manco Devil would anyone choose this life?

And then he recalled the brutality of some of their visits and the greed and licenses of the crew.  Those, he though, disheartened, were answers.

If you think that this is going to preface a flashback or something elaborating on those brutal visits or greedy crewmen, think again.  So to make sense of this statement, we can only use what details we've already been given.  Thus, the facts that some planetside merchants like to rip off long passage freighters and a few of those traders like to gamble or tried a mutiny that one time means that the crew of the Hound is basically stuck crewing the Hound.  They don't fit in on Earth, and they can't join a colony on a place like O'Rourke because... well, it's just best to keep doing what you're doing, even if you hate it and aren't sure why you're doing it.

Hubbard thinks he has a better answer, but it'll be a while before we learn his profoundly stupid justification for all this.  Until then, look forward to more high adventures in outer space, such as next chapter, when Corday gets into an argument with a spaceport mechanic and rages at Jocelyn some more.

Back to Chapter X

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