The Star Lord waited, poised for her maiden voyage. The gigantic silvery spindle, still cradled in its scaffoldings, towered upwards against the artificial sky of Satellite Y.
The passengers were beginning to come on board before Captain Josiah Evans had finished checking the reports of his responsible officers. The ship was ready for space, now, and there was nothing more he could do until takeoff. With long, deliberate steps he walked to his cabin, closed the door, and in the privacy he had come to regard as the greatest luxury life had to offer him, he sank into his chair and reached for the post-bag which had been delivered by the morning's rocket ferry from earth.
There were no personal letters for him. He rarely received any and never really expected any, for his career had always been more important to him than personal ties. Shoving aside the official documents, he picked up the small brown parcel, slit the pliofilm covering with his pocket knife, and inspected the red leather cover with its simple title: Ley's Rockets and Space Ships. At the bottom of the cover was a date: May 1, 2421, Volume 456. In the nearly five hundred years since the publication of Volume one, which listed all the earth's rocket ships on half of one page, the annual edition of this book, regularly edited and brought up to date, had become the spaceman's bible.
Captain Evans was annoyed to find that his hands were shaking as he leafed through the pages, and he paused a few seconds, trying to control his excitement. His black hair had begun to turn gray above his ears, and there were a few white hairs in his bushy eyebrows. But a healthy pink glowed under the skin of his well-fleshed cheeks, and the jut of his chin showed the confidence of one used to receiving immediate, unquestioning obedience. When his long fingers had stopped their trembling, he found the entry he had been looking for, and a triumphant smile lighted his heavy features as he settled deeper in his chair and read the first paragraph.
"Star Lord: newest model in space-ships of the famed Star Line. Vital Statistics: Construction begun February 2418, on Satellite Y. Christened, October, 2420. Maiden voyage to Almazin III scheduled spring, 2421."
He looked up at the diagram of the ship which hung on the wall at his right, then glanced at the zodiometer on his desk. May 3, late spring.
"Powered by twenty-four total conversion Piles. Passenger capacity 1250. Crew and maintenance 250. Six life boats, capacity 1500. Captain. Josiah Evans."
His throat swelling, he was almost choked with pride as he read the final Statistic. This, he thought was the climax of his career, the place he had been working towards all his life. It had been a long road from his lonely boyhood in a Kansas orphanage, to Captain of the earth's finest spaceship.
The Star Lord was the perfection of modern space craft, the creation of the earth's most skilled designers and builders, the largest ship ever launched. Protected by every safety device the ingenuity of man had been able to contrive, she was a palace to glide among the stars.
His heart beat more rapidly as he read the next section.
"Prediction: her maiden voyage will break all previous speed records, and regain for her backers the coveted Blue Ribbon, lost ten years ago to the Light Lines."
No question of that, he thought. No faster ship had ever been built. But he frowned as he read the final paragraph:
"Sidelights: Reviving a long obsolete custom, certain astrologers in London have cast the horoscope of the Star Lord and pronounced the auguries to be unfavorable. This verdict, plus the incident at the christening, has caused some head-shaking among the superstitious fringe, and some twittering about 'cosmic arrogance'. But few of the lords of the earth, we imagine, will therefore feel impelled to cancel their passages on this veritable Lord of the Stars."
Evans remembered that christening. High in the scaffolding he had stood on the platform with the christening party: the Secretary of Interstellar Commerce, the Ambassador from Almazin III, the Governor of Satellite Y, and President and Mrs. Laurier of Earth.
Swaying gently in the still air, the traditional bottle of champagne hung before them, suspended at the end of a long ribbon. Mrs. Laurier's eyes were shining, her cheeks flushed, as she looked at her husband for a signal. At his smile and nod she had said in a high clear voice, "I christen thee Star Lord!" and then reached out to grasp the bottle. Before she could touch it, somewhere above them the slender ribbon broke.
The bottle fell like a stone, plummeted straight down and crashed into a million fragments on the floor of the satellite.
An instant's shocked silence, and then a roar of voices surged up from the crowds watching below. Mrs. Laurier had put her hand to her mouth, and shivered.
"What a dreadful thing!" she whispered. "Does that mean bad luck?"
President Laurier had frowned at her, but the Secretary of Interstellar Commerce had laughed.
"Don't be alarmed, Mrs. Laurier. There is no such thing as luck. Even without a bath of champagne, this magnificent vessel will prove that man is certainly master of the universe. She begins her life well and truly named."
The Star Line ought to abandon that silly custom of christening a new ship, thought Captain Evans. It was an archaic ceremony, utterly irrational, a foolish relic of a primitive world in which people had been so uncertain of their machines that they had had to depend on luck, and to beg good fortune of unpredictable gods.
Taking up Ley's Space Ships again, he began fondly to reread the page, when there was a knock at the door and a crewman entered.
"Mr. Jasperson to see you, sir."
The Captain stared, a tiny muscle in his cheek quivering.
"You know I'm not to be disturbed until after takeoff, Stacey."
"Yes, sir. But Mr. Jasperson insisted. He says he knows those rules don't apply to him."
Evans closed the book, laid it on his desk, and stood up. He leaned forward and spoke softly.
"Tell Mr. Jasperson--"
"Tell him what, Josiah?" boomed a voice from the opening door. "You can tell me yourself now."
Burl Jasperson was a portly little man with legs too short for his bulging body, and clothes that were too tight. His head was bald except for a fringe above the ears, and he might have been a comical figure but for the icy blue eyes that probed from under the dome of his forehead.
"What have you got to tell me? You're quite right not to let the ragtag and bobtail bother you at a time like this, but I know your old friend Burl Jasperson is always welcome."
With scarcely a pause, the Captain extended his hand.
"How are you, Burl? Won't you come in? I hope the Purser has taken care of you properly?"
"I'm comfortable enough, thanks, and I'm looking forward to the trip. It's odd, come to think of it, that though I've been Chairman of the board of directors, and have spent some thirty years managing a fleet of space liners, yet I've never before made a trip myself. I don't like crowds of people, for one thing, and then I've been busy."
"What made you decide to go along on this one?"
Reaching across the table, Jasperson picked up the silver carafe and poured himself a glass of water.
"Ah! Nothing like a drink of cold water! The fact is, I wanted to check up on things, make notes of possible improvements in the Star Line's service, and sample passenger reactions. Then too, I'll have the satisfaction of being present on the trip which will establish the Line's supremacy, once and for all. This crossing will make history. It means everything to us, Josiah. You know we're counting on you to break the record. We want to win back the Blue Ribbon, and we expect you to manage it for us."
"I shall do my best."
"That's the spirit I like to see. Full speed ahead!"
"Certainly--consistent with safety."
"Consistent with reasonable safety, of course. I know you won't let yourself be taken in by all this nonsense about the imaginary dangers of hyperspace."
"What do you mean?"
"All this nonsense about the Thakura Ripples! But then, of course you're a sensible man or we wouldn't have hired you, and I'm sure you agree with me that the Star Lord can deal with anything that hyperspace has to offer."
Jasperson adjusted the set of his jacket over his plump stomach while he waited for an answer, and Captain Evans stared at him.
"Is that why you're wearing a pistol?" he said dryly. "To help the ship fight her battles?"
"This?" His face reddened as he patted his bulging pockets. "Oh, it's just a habit. I don't like being without protection; I always wear a gun in one pocket and my recorder in the other."
"You'll scarcely be in any danger on the ship, Burl. Better leave it in your cabin."
"All right. But about the Ripples--you aren't going to take them seriously, are you?"
"I wish you'd be a little more frank, Mr. Chairman. Has the Star Line suddenly lost confidence in me?"
"No, no, nothing of the sort! We've every confidence in you, of course. But I've been hearing rumors, hints that we may have to make a slow crossing, and I've been wondering. But then, I'm sure that a man of your intelligence doesn't take the Ripples any more seriously than I do."
"I don't know what gossip you have been hearing," said the Captain, hesitantly. "'Ripples' is probably a very inaccurate and inadequate name for the phenomenon. Thakura might equally well have called them rapids, falls, bumps, spaces, holes, or discontinuities."
"Then why did he choose to call them Ripples?"
"Probably because he didn't know exactly what they are. The whole problem is a very complicated one."
"Complicated nonsense, I call it. Well, we won't quarrel, my dear Josiah, but don't let them hold us back. Remember, we're out to break all records!"