Jeanette sensed that the urgency was gone from Sailor Treelithe’s demeanor. So she wasn’t alarmed by his refusal to let them go. But could she tell whether he was just being playful or something else? Well, no. She would have been frankly upset if this was a ploy to get them to attend a banquet or something like that, much as she had gotten to like banquets. But he had asked them to come with him, and come they did.
They entered the main chapel of the Kirk, the one-time throne room that still had a spectacular view of the satellite system of the Big Planet. The doors clicked shut and the panther faced the travelers.
“I am now doubly in your debt--and even those inhabitants of the Moon of the Moon who don’t like or trust you are indebted to you. Your abilities and resourcefulness are at the top end of the impressive spectrum.”
“However, you just barely pulled you out of that bomb scare aboard your ship. There is no way I--we, the Kirk--are going to allow you to go off into the unknown without an actual captain.”
Dr. Ransom answered him with kindness in his voice. “I explained our predicament to you before. We are in all likelihood going to our death in our war with Deep Chaos. We can’t hire somebody on for that journey. And the Wild Reach is completely unknown territory for us as well as anyone we’ve come into contact with. Artificial Intelligence will have to do.”
“Artificial intelligences are indicated for supplemental handling of systems for crew on an upgraded ship or a specialized mission. But despite your intelligence, which I can’t fault, all of you are from low-echelon technological civilizations. O Tse is the only one from a society with star drives at all. I understand your misgivings, but you won’t last a month with an AI-only ship. It’s why half of the lowlives on board this station still have jobs.”
The Queen of Hearts said calmly, “I know you wouldn’t have brought this issue up without having a solution in mind. I for one am interested in your idea.”
The panther nodded. He raised his arm and a figure came from a corner on the other side of the chapel.
Jeanette was startled, because her first impression was that this was a Pilgrim. The person’s eyes were very large and black-rimmed, though not the size of the Pilgrim’s eyes, nor as owl-like. And his face looked a little like the Pilot-ghost that had come across the Wooden Shoe under false pretenses. He was rotund, and wearing a dull-green coverall, and had a build kind of like a dumpy Tyrannosaurus Rex, and he seemed to have feathers instead of hair. But his smile was broad and pleasant.
“I’m Guild Master Mariner Tchulik Vakayaga Chresti, and it’s a title you won’t find attached to anything but a cenotaph in this era. I’ve worn out three bodies in tacking against the geodesics of Cosmic Infinity, And with the Kirk bringing your endeavor to my attention, a daring cruise along the Wild Reach, to the Clear Star and the Edge of Everything sounds like something to do.”
Lord Elphinstone faced him. “You have also been told how dangerous we expect it to be, and how this may be a voyage, not to add to a long list, but to end it. Why does that not seem to bother you?”
Chresti said “This is my story. I was a young boy in love with the stars, and ran away from my clan to sign aboard a warship of a great empire that nobody I’d meet today would recognize the name of. They were frugal with their crew and with their marines: before each engagement they’d record our bodies and personalities, and if we died in battle, we’d be restored from our last backup.”
“I’ve heard of the technique, ” said O Tse. “It has severe drawbacks. Few use it these days.”
“Nonetheless I found it suited me. When I had had enough of their dreadful wars, I jumped to a pirate ship and began my long career. There are many folk out there who remember shipping with me and me dying that I have no memory of whatsoever, since I rebooted myself and went off elsewhere. And so with you: you won’t find a better ship’s captain than me, nor more willing to take risks in your grand adventure--and if it all ends badly, well, I wake up on a slab and look for another bunk.”
That sounded incredibly creepy and scary to Jeanette, and for someone for whom the question Who Am I? Was tremendously complicated already, she wanted to think about something else--but strictly from a logical point of view it made sense. And he had said it all in such a jovial tone that it couldn’t be that awful, could it?
Everybody thought for a while, and Jeanette’s father said to the panther, “You insisted on a real captain, Sailor Treelithe--and yet our friend here is not quite a rock hard case of reality.”
“Ha!” Said the feathered spacefarer. “Your point is well taken, sir--but I don’t have the disadvantages of those machine-learning dolts. Real I may not entirely be--but artificial I most certainly am not!”
Senhor Capoeira Capybara sidled closely to Tchulik Chresti, giving him a detailed one-over--then turned to the Panther. “And you will certify, swearing on your biggest and best altar, that this, er, entity is who he says he is?”
The panther bowed his head. “I so swear. If you desired it, I could load you down with affidavits and test results. And the fact of the matter is that hw’s very close to the best there is.”
The capybara nodded. Despite everything metaphysical, Jeanette decided she liked Captain Tchulik. Maybe it was because a little confidence was welcome in her life just about now, so she made the vote unanimous.
They had a nice big meal anyway--a couple of dishes short of a banquet--in one of the Kirk’s refectories. And shortly after that, the Wooden Shoe had a quiet launch from the Moon of the Moon, maybe for the last time.
Whether it had been a day or two or three, it had been busy and exhausting, and Jeanette was looking forward to trying out her bunk that she had designed for herself, but when it was all prepared she decided to go up to the bridge instead.
Captain Tchulik’s hands were busy and he was negotiating the complex magnetic fields of the Big Planet, but he did it with smooth assurance, so she asked him, “What does it feel like, Captain Chresti? You being you, but parts of you missing?”
Without taking his eyes from the screen, he said in a softer voice, “It’s not always as easy as I try to make it sound. Sometimes I just come to the conclusion that I don’t really exist. But then I say, who’s asking the question?” He made a few adjustments.
“But that’s when I put one hand held high in the dark, and I head out.”