Ab Skhy has been sent by the Quality-Carriers to the planet Sanfran, a fifty-year voyage from Earth, to carry out an investigation on the mysterious Charlatans. They seem to be at the origin of a technological leap forward by many planets dependent, since their colonisation, on periodic deliveries of equipment from Earth. Whilst being followed, Ab crosses a threshold into space, with casual companions, Sly, an immortal telepathic settler from Earth, and Captain Ilan S'berro, an old sea dog from Sanfran. All three land up on Yenoc, a low-tech world.... Meanwhile, Crazy Horse, the animal mastermind fitted in the spaceship that took Ab to Sanfran, receives a warning message from one of his kind:
"We are all in danger. The Quality-Carriers have decided to get rid of us." Unusual and moving, Le temps du voyage is a picaresque space opera in the Jack Vance vein, to whom Wagner renders homage.
Crazy Horse slipped the Crome Syrcus into orbit after checking his course parameters one last time. A routine precaution. He had gone through approach procedures so many times he could have done it with cameras unplugged and instruments off, guided only by the columns of numbers marching through his mind. This was the sixty-third time the vessel and its embedded Pilot had entered the Procyon System.
But Crazy Horse remembered very little of the previous crossings. His powerful brain was devoted almost exclusively to analysis, and his miniscule erasable memory zone quickly supplanted old events with new. If he wanted to know more about previous missions, he could consult the crystalline memory banks of the onboard system. As a rule though, Crazy Horse was not curious about the past. His certainty that preceding flights had gone smoothly was enough.
But this trip resembled no other. For the first time, his disembodied consciousness, encysted in the very workings of the ship, started to experience impatience.
A radio message pulsing up from the blue and white planet that rolled beneath the ship jerked him from his thoughts. Someone in a control tower asking him to identify himself. He immediately responded, emitting his call sign and a summary of his cargo. Of course, they already knew whom they were dealing with, long before receiving his confirmation. The flight of the Crome Syrcus, as those of all other interstellar vessels, had been planned centuries in advance.
It was time to wake up the man in hibernation in the cryogenic chamber. Crazy Horse delegated this task to an electronic co-processor. That particular wave of impulses carried him far back into the past, to the times when the Crome Syrcus carried millions of unconscious men and women on each voyage, all frozen in the white sleep of controlled hibernation. The embedded Pilot had seen only the tail end of that era, but the ship's data banks were well furnished on the subject.
Again, a flood of confused images washed over Crazy Horse. He found it difficult to push them away. But it was not the moment to let himself slip into contemplation of the past, for he had an unusual task to perform.
A new radio message arrived with the coordinates of the release points for the cargo containers. The starship itself, with its massive propulsion units, could not land on any planet. It pulled a train of some forty metallic spheres that he simply left behind at the end of each crossing, after which, he had only to return to Earth as he had come, at one quarter light-speed.
Crazy Horse let the first ten containers go. They would remain in orbit a short while, in the wake of the Crome Syrcus. Then the small directional rockets welded to their mid-sections would fire, in a constellation of dark purple sparks, and the gigantic spheres would head down to the bright disk of the planet. They would enter the atmosphere at a carefully calculated angle, following a trajectory that would bring them, in less than an hour, right to the bottom of the gravity well.
The co-processor announced that the awakening procedure was in its final stages. The speed with which his passenger had regained consciousness surprised Crazy Horse, although he knew very well that it took only twenty minutes whereas before, dozens of hours were necessary. I'm starting to get old, he thought, before focusing his attention on the release of the second series of containers.
The passenger's name was Ab Skhy, two words that held no significance to Crazy Horse. He knew himself incapable of remembering them without the aid of the crystal clusters in the onboard computer system cellules, ever growing but oh so slowly! That was no design defect. The meticulous reorganization of his brain's synaptic connections had been performed with the care proportional to the importance of his future task. A vessel worth hundreds of billions of solcreds would never have been confided to a flawed Pilot.
"Sanfran?" the passenger croaked.
Crazy Horse had to consult the crystals again. When he thought of this world, it was only as 'destination.'
"Yes," he replied, annoyed at the millisecond delay caused by having to search for the desired information. "Sanfran, Procyon's second planet. Distance to principal star, 2.04 astronomical units. Diameter, 15, 151 kilometers. Gravity, 0.91 Gs. Density..."
"Okay, okay! I didn't ask you to recite the star atlas."
Crazy Horse felt hurt. He was only trying to be helpful. He wondered what his passenger's state of mind could be. Even in the times when having voyagers aboard was the norm -- those blessed times, he thought, when he and all other Pilots did not have to endure their long, long watches alone -- even then many humans acted strangely when they came out of hibernation. Crazy Horse had never been able to understand why.
"Why are you so irritable?" he asked.
Crazy Horse was far from being an expert on human psychology, but over the centuries, he had learned the utility of identifying most expressions and attitudes, without resorting to the crystals, and he recognized that the passenger was troubled.
"Excuse me, Pilot. I shouldn't have talked to you in that tone. But you ought to understand that...ah, no, you wouldn't know what it's like to sleep for fifty years."
"You would have preferred to age?"