January 4th 2017
Greetings, traveler. During our many journeys, we have found that although the sights and sounds of our vast universe may be awe inspiring, it’s the diversity of the souls who inhabit it that truly makes it special. It’s why the team here at OBSERVIST LIFESTYLE is determined to offer a firsthand look at the myriad of people and cultures that form the unique tapestry of our Empire and beyond.
While traveling for pleasure is one of life’s great joys, most travel done in the Empire is for commerce. Massive ships drift across the expanse hauling billions of cargo tonnage from city to city, planet to planet, system to system, to where they are needed most. But what happens when the goods you need to deliver are the massive ships?
Most traditionally-sized vessels can be transported inside a hauler like any other large cargo, or towed by a tugship, but for larger classes of ships like the MISC Endeavor or RSI Orion, the only way to get them from the manufacturer’s shipyards to the customer is to be piloted. Flying a ship from A to B sounds like it would be straightforward enough, barring all the usual hiccups that can mar any interstellar flight. The difference here however is that when someone spends the credits for a brand new ship, they expect it to arrive in like-new condition. That part, it turns out, isn’t so easy.
Enter the hardworking men and women of Seven-league Vehicle Delivery Service and the unconventional life they lead flying ships as if they were never flown at all.
“The first thing everyone does when they learn about how we transport the ships is to suggest an easier way.” I am sitting across from Tahota Ersdil in a small, cramped office in Odyssa filled with dusty ship manuals dating back the last fifty years, datapads stacked precariously high and the thick, lingering smell of cigar smoke. “Trust me. We’ve thought of it or tried it already. The iso system is what we do because not only does it work, but it’s cheap.”
Tahota, owner and founder of Seven-league Delivery, has been kind enough to walk me through the ‘iso’ pilot system that he created over 50 years ago and that many ship delivery companies have adapted since. Iso, short for isolated, refers to the method of having a solitary pilot tasked with flying one of these behemoths for interstellar delivery. “See, the first idea most folks have to deliver one of these is to hire a crew and just fly it to wherever. That’s problematic for two reasons. The big one is that paying a crew costs credits.” In order to afford the expense of sending multiple crewmembers along on the delivery, either the sender or the owner would have to pay extra for the shipment, or as what ended up happening once delivery companies started competing on price, delivery crews would receive a smaller salary once it was split amongst themselves.
“The second major issue with a crew is that no matter how careful you are, having that many people aboard is gonna leave signs. Those people are gonna have to eat and sleep and take a crap somewhere. Do they do it onboard and spend the time doing a deep clean when you arrive? Do you send along an escort ship and have people transfer back and forth? Oh, and speaking of escorts, we haven’t even begun to talk about security protocols.”
It became clear quickly as Tahota listed the pitfalls of ship delivery that the balance of time and credits was a difficult equilibrium to strike. Of course, some manufacturers, ship sellers and insurance companies avoid the problem alltogether and just send the owner a shuttle ticket so they can travel and transport it themselves — or in the case of some real bargain-rate insurers, the owner is left to figure out the logistics themselves. However, many customers have come to expect the convenience of having their newly acquired ship delivered to them. After decades of trial and error, there seem to be three main systems that delivery companies employ: iso, ‘trio’ and ‘legging.’
The trio system consists of a three-member team where one person is flying the delivery ship, one is flying an escort craft, and one is resting. To keep the delivery ship in pristine condition, the person piloting it wears a fully-enclosed suit at all times, and bio-functions are restricted to the escort ship. Flying a trio is considered to be the most moderate system. Tahato explains, “Trios are nice because you get the fresh pilots and the escort ship is there in case stuff goes wrong, but the profit margin on a trio is slim. That extra crew and escort fuel eat into the overhead pretty fast. I flew trio for a while when I started out, and if I wasn’t doing a run, I could barely afford a place to sleep and eat. Forget about saving up any credits. You had to keep making deliveries because if you stopped, you’d starve. It was tough.”
The next method, legging, refers to the delivery trip being broken into multiple segments or ‘legs’ flown by several pilots, each one covering the journey between two ports where the ship is then handed off to the next pilot. This has the benefit of each pilot only having to cover a short distance. Though the pilots typically receive less pay per delivery, they can make up the difference if there is a steady flow of ships being delivered back and forth. “Legging’s used a lot in the more populated systems,” says Tahato, “but with all those additional hands involved and that much landing and taking off, you see a lot more accidents happen — from small stuff like dings and scuffs, all the way to having some drunk Aurora pilot crash into you. Not to mention that usually the space around refuel stations are often prime hunting grounds since outlaws know that’s where ships are gonna be. Legging works for some people and insurance companies seem to prefer it, but the ship manufacturers tend to like iso because it’s the best at getting the ship where it’s going like new.”
The iso system, the one Seven-league specializes in, consists of a lone suited pilot flying the whole journey by themselves without making a single stop. It is the method that earns the pilot and the delivery company the most profit, but it is considered a grueling and difficult trip. Of course, I had to find out just how difficult for myself.
Tahato arranged for me to ride along on an iso trip with one of Seven-league’s longest-flying runners, Daniel Dente. Arriving at the dock in the upper atmosphere of Crusader, I am greeted by the gleaming hull of a brand new Genesis Starliner fresh from the plant. Just under a hundred meters in width and length, Seven-league has been contracted to deliver the hulking cruiser to Cassel by a company specializing in sightseeing tours. The inside of the ship is richly appointed with amenities, none of which I will be permitted to enjoy during my journey aboard.
Daniel greets me inside the storage area where he is double-checking the quantum fuel supplies. One of the keys to flying iso is to avoid stopping at any refill stations. Not only are they a safety concern as they attract outlaws but any docking increases the risk of accidents. Instead, Daniel and I will be refueling the starliner ourselves via EVA. “We’ve got exactly what we need and just a tiny bit of emergency fuel. Since we’re carrying it, adding more fuel requires even more fuel to transport. There’s a lot of formulas and stuff to help us figure it all out,” Daniel explains to me through his helmet.
Like me, Daniel is already fully suited up and will remain sealed in for the remainder of the trip. Before boarding, I had been fitted with a nutra-pack that will take care of my nutrition requirements, as well as an extremely potent cocktail of sleep-replacements and stims to ensure that I remain awake for the entirety of the delivery run. Daniel assures me the nausea will pass soon. “It’s the worst at the beginning and then at the end when you’re coming off it,” says Daniel, “but it means we can do the trip in a straight shot without any breaks, which is faster and safer. Of course, you can only stay on the meds for a few weeks before the real serious side effects kick in. Works out, though. I do a few weeks on and then a month or so off with the family before I head back out.”
I can tell that Daniel isn’t quite sure what to do with me. After fifteen years of flying with Seven-league, he’s grown accustomed to piloting alone. As we leave Crusader behind, he sings to himself until he bashfully stops when he remembers I’m there. “My kids always point out when I’m singing or talking to myself. Drives them nuts,” he tells me. I ask Daniel what he does to keep himself occupied. “The company doesn’t allow us to put up vids or make comm calls while flying. Safety and all that. For the most part it’s music and sometimes audiofeeds. People are always amazed at how well read I am and I tell them they should try being awake for a week. But really, I’m focusing on flying for the most part,” explains Daniel. “These bigger ships usually have a few people monitoring everything, but I have to keep an eye on it all myself. It’s not too bad since we turn off all non-essential systems, but it’s still enough to keep you busy.” The ship’s life support isn’t even active and the only lights on are the ones in the cockpit. Breathing and illumination will be taken care of, once again, by our suits. Later on in the flight, when we had to go check a coupler on the engine, walking through the dark hull of the ship was a tremendously eerie feeling. Even with Daniel as company I still felt very alone.
The views out the window offer no relief as the route Daniel has charted ensures that we sweep very wide of any points of interest. Since we’re flying without a protection escort, it’s important to minimize contact with other ships as much as possible. While most ships you encounter offer no danger, it’s still safer to not take the risk. The most dangerous part of our journey was when we approach a jump point.
As we near the Stanton-Terra jump, Daniel goes into high alert, doing careful scans for any signatures before approaching. We wait for an ArcCorp freighter to pass before making the approach ourselves. I find myself tempted to comm the other pilot just for the social contact. “I get that,” says Daniel as I tell him of my urge. “I was always a bit of an introvert, so the alone time doesn’t get to me as much but even I can go a bit stir crazy. Especially when nothing goes wrong. It’s funny that in some ways the smoothest trips are the hardest mentally. Sometimes, I make recordings to my family or I can tune into the open channel and listen to other people. That helps a bit.” I ask about bringing guests along on the runs and learn that the insurance cost of having the extra people aboard is too high to make it worthwhile.
The first time we had to refuel was the real test to see if I had what it takes to become an iso pilot myself. Leaving the relative safety of the ship to head out into space, knowing that we were completely off the radar if anything should happen, turned out to be more than I could handle. Seeing my heart rate spike past its already elevated levels from the stim cocktail ended my spacewalk before it began. Daniel insisted I stay aboard, so I watched him refuel the ship by himself.
I’d like to say that the rest of the trip got better. That by the end I finally got out and did a refuel myself or that maybe Daniel gave me a turn at the wheel, but the truth is after that first panic attack, it only got worse. I had gotten inside my own head. Daniel told me that he had seen it happen before, “Not everyone can do this job. Just a fact. There’s nothing to be ashamed about.” Despite all that, I am proud to say that I stuck it out all the way to Goss. I may not have the fortitude to be an iso pilot, but at least I saw the trip through to the end.
For the rest of my life, I think I will always remember the relief I felt when we touched down on Cassel and I finally got to take off my helmet. The sense of freedom was overwhelming. To think that hundreds of men and women make their living this way, crossing through the emptiness of space so that people can get a brand new pristine ship, is just another example of the sort of thing that happens every day in this ’verse without most of us being aware of it. In the end, it was a successful run, no thanks to me. I apologized for not being more help as we said goodbye and Daniel shrugged, simply saying, “I’m used to doing it by myself.”