Child of Fortune, by Norman Spinrad

Re: Child of Fortune, by Norman Spinrad

Postby admin » Sat Mar 19, 2016 5:58 am

Chapter 9

While at first I was more than content to find myself earning my way as a Gypsy Joker via the various modes available to a tantric performer of modest artistry and secret power, after a time I became gradually seized by the somewhat incoherent desire to expand my sphere of interest and enhance my possibilities, for I could not forever deny that my sole means of earning ruegelt consisted of a smattering of my mother's noble art and the electronic enhancement of my modest attainments in the disciplines of same which was mine courtesy of my father's craft.

Moreover, the more I took minor parts in tantric tableaus whose feature players displayed a diligent and indeed obsessive dedication to the true mastery of the high art of which I was no more than a feckless dilettante, the more I realized that I lacked the inner drive to endure the long hours of study and exercise required to achieve the status of a tantric maestra.

Indeed, the atmosphere of the carnival was not exactly conducive to dedicated diligence in the pursuit of any single craft or art, at least not for a youthful spirit new to the life of a true Child of Fortune, for every waking hour offered up a smorgasbord of possible pursuits, not to say a plethora of diversions to distract me from any thought of gainful employ whatever. There were jugglers, sleight of hand artistes, singers, musicians, und so weiter wandering the grounds, and to a Gypsy Joker, admission to the shows and performances taking place within tented walls was gratuit. Not to mention endless possibilities for idle hours of amorous dalliance, though this began to lose a certain piquancy for a laborer in the vineyards of the tantric trades.

Then too I had the example of the polymathic Pater Pan, by the definition of our tribe the ideal Child of Fortune incarnate, far more interested in playing jack-of-all-trades than in becoming a true maestro of any of them, whom, naturellement, I desired to please with the ultimate homage of successful emulation.

Moreover, the Gypsy Jokers did not confine their trades to the environs of the camp; the buskers who thronged our caravanserei also roamed the nearby vecinos giving impromptu performances on the streets thereof for contributions. So too did other members of the tribe hawk finger food, geegaws, and our simple crafts beyond the confines of our bidonville of tents. The street trade served to spread the repute of our carnival; contrawise, the mythos of the permanent fete enhanced the street trade.

Indeed, as Pater Pan would often enough declare, the true venue of the Child of Fortune was out in the streets among the bustling throngs of the quotidian worlds of men, for here we had performed our highest public roles when we were Troubadours and Tinkers, Romany and Hippies, for by playing the part of the Free Spirits of the worlds, we did our part to keep the spirit of the people free. In this, he told us, pecuniary profit was happily at one with a sense of noblesse oblige.

Be such grandiosity as it may, it began to seem to me that it was time to venture forth from the cozy confines of the encampment I had come to call home into the streets of Edoku where once I had been a helpless waif but where I now might carry the piebald banner of the Gypsy Jokers forth as a soldier of a Children's Crusade whose Holy Grail was the ruegelt to be gained therein.

While the spirit was willing, my skills were, to say the least, somewhat circumscribed. I could not sing, dance, juggle, do sleight of hand, or play a musical instrument, and the opportunities for tantric performances on crowded thoroughfares were few and far between. Yet such was my desire to venture forth as a true Child of Fortune of the streets that at length 1 swallowed my pride and deigned to try my hand at the street hawkers' trade.

Exerting my erotic charms to gain the good graces of Dani Ben Bama, a youth who, while he could in no way be mistaken for a chef maestro, was generally regarded as our premiere artiste of finger food, I spent several days wandering the vecino of glass towers with trays of his dainties. These were a cunning assortment of steamed dim sum of variously flavored doughs filled with all sorts of viands, legumes, sweet curries, and flavored creams, liberally spiced with assorted mild intoxicants, and I knew full well that I could find no more promising fare to hawk than this.

But truth be told, though I sallied forth each day with high hopes, more often than not I would return with but a few coins and a great heap of stale buns. For once on the street, I lacked the chutzpah and enthusiasm to continually proclaim the virtues of my wares at the top of my voice or to accost strangers; instead, my technique consisted of wandering aimlessly about in a daze with the haughty expression of one performing a task she clearly considered below her natural station.

At length even Dani, avid though he was for my continued tantric ministrations, was reluctantly moved to suggest that I favor another enterprise with my services.

I met with little more success hawking such items of adornment as embroidered sashes, netsuke of wood and metal, belts woven of silver wire, mirror-berets, und so weiter, though at least the craftsmen of same could afford to be more tolerant of my failures, since these items were not perishable and could be sent back to market with a peddler of more puissant skills.

Finally, I did somewhat better with jewelry crafted by Ali Kazan Bella. Ali was a lusty young man whose good humor and considerable tantric skills I quite enjoyed, and his jewelry , while crude by Edojin standards, manifested a skill and somewhat demented energy for which I could generate a sincere enthusiasm. With cunning little knives he had fashioned himself and under the influence of central nervous system enhancers, Ali carved necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and brooches out of single blocks of wood; filigree bijoux of such intricate fineness that at first glance they appeared to be twisted together out of wire.

This jewelry epitomized precisely those qualities which charmed the Edojin when it came to quaint Child of Fortune crafts: rude materials mimicking those of a higher technological level, clear evidence of long hours of tedious hand labor, and what they called "the wu of blood, sweat, and tears."

Adorned, indeed bedecked, with several rings on every finger, bracelets up and down each arm, a dozen or more necklaces, several pairs of earrings, and brooches pinned all over my tunic to the point where I was fairly armored in wooden filigree, I cut a figure of sufficient bizarrite to attract considerable attention even on the streets of Edoku, and even I, the least forward of street hawkers, was able to do a reasonable trade.

Still, even this modest success as a peddler left me discontent with my place in the life of the streets, or rather, perhaps, such success at the expense of my own dignity after a series of failures resulting at least in part from the disdainful husbanding of same, forced upon me the perception that I was really quite indifferent to success or failure as a mere merchant of the wares of others. Indeed, if I had desired such a vie, I would have been much better advised to remain on Glade and become an agent for the wares of my own father in the haut monde of the wealthy rather than a peddler of snacks and trinkets in the streets.

No, though I continued to hawk his jewelry upon occasion out of affection for Ali, and though I continued to supplement my modest share of this trade with tantric performances in the camp, at length I admitted to myself that I had developed a genuine personal ambition that went beyond mere membership in the Gypsy Joker tribe or even becoming a free spirit of the streets.

It seemed to me, then as now, that it was the Gypsy Joker buskers who wandered Great Edoku performing for what fortune and the impromptu audiences tossed their way who were the true Children of Fortune, the spiritual raison d'etre of our very existence in the wider scheme of things. For it was they who were in truth both living out and extolling the ancient and noble legends of the Gypsies and Hippies, the Troubadours and the Arkies, and, by serving as avatars incarnate of the spirit of the Child of Fortune's millennial romance, keeping it alive in the Second Starfaring Age.

With hindsight's vision, I perceive that this was my first dim inkling of my own future calling, the formless desire to live a life where the spirit meets the mind, to share the vie of the tale-teller or performer, to immerse myself in some higher enterprise for the ding an sich, to present the product of my own inner being for the titillation and edification of an audience of kindred spirits.

Vraiment, at the time I desired nothing more than the egoistic pleasure of the vie itself, for I had no tale to tell or song to sing, nor the craft to do so if I had. Indeed, that was the precise nature of my dilemma: I had fixed my heart's desire upon the life of a street performer, yet I lacked even a passing acquaintance with any entertainer's art.

Naturellement, it was to Pater Pan that I turned for wisdom in the sated afterglow of an evening's erotic exercises in his tent.

"Pas problem, girl!" he told me airily after a less than cogent recitation of my desires. "For sure you will have little difficulty extracting free instruction from some male maestro of your chosen art!"

Curled in his sheltering arms, I nodded my assent. "But what art may that be?" I said.

"You know not?" he said in some perplexity.

I shrugged. "I am less than pleased by the sound of my own voice in song, when it comes to musical instruments, I seem to have several thumbs, I have no interest in sleight of hand, juggling, or dance ..."

Pater laughed. "Apprentice yourself to a street theater group then," he told me. "You can hardly converse for ten minutes without betraying thespic talent!"

I rolled this conceit around the palate of my mind; while it seemed to me that my life on Glade and my small successes on Edoku gave a certain evidence of my talent for playing roles, these had always been of my own crafting, and something about a life of mouthing other people's words left a taste for which I did not entirely care.

I shook my head. "Something about it pleases me not ..."

"Q'ue?"

'Je ne sais pas ..."

"If not you, then who?" Pater demanded. "Speak, girl, I command you, the free sprach of your heart of hearts!"

Something in the tone of his voice, some arcane magic of personal puissance, did indeed impel me to give free verbal rein to the glossolaia of my unformed thoughts.

"I wish to do what you do, Pater, which is to say, I wish to be like you, or rather my own version of the spirit you say we share, which is to say, I wish to live the life of that which I speak, or speak the life of what I am. I mean, you speak, vraiment to become, as you say, both the singer and the song, metaphorically of course, since even I lack the hubris to attempt to subject an audience to my cracked warblings, I mean, that is ... Merde!"

I threw up my hands and snorted in frustration, unable to encompass with any precision that mystery for whose clear image I was searching.

But Pater Pan understood more than what I was saying, or perhaps was able to see the unoccluded vision behind my fog of words. "Aha!" he cried. "It is a ruespieler you wish to become, though perhaps you know it not."

"Ruespieler? Me?"

On the one hand, his declaration rang a chime in my spirit which immediately harmonized with its vibration, but on the other hand, the notion was one which I had never consciously considered. Certainement, ruespieling required not the least bit of musical ability or physical dexterity. Nor was one constrained to play out a role crafted by another or mouth someone else's words. Au contraire, a ruespieler needed only stories to tell, the loquacity to tell them, and the chutzpah to stand in the street and begin spieling in the confident hope that passersby would be moved by her art to listen and then be moved by her tale to contribute to the cause.

"Ruespieler ...?" I repeated much more thoughtfully. "Me ...?"

"Surely you have noticed your own gift of gab?" Pater said dryly. "It was your tantric powers which gained you access to my arms, but for sure it was the power of your blarney which made you a Gypsy Joker without having to pay the fee!"

I was not burdened with false modesty to the point where I need deny this obvious truth. Having accepted this satori from my guru, I could then easily enough perceive that I had always used words and the twists I could put on their meanings to achieve certain practical ends. While my career as a femme fatale of Nouvelle Orlean could not have flourished in the face of tantric ineptitude, surely I had known full well as far back as my initiation with Robi that words were a necessary part of the armamentarium d'amour. Indeed, had I not fought my parents to a standstill by artfully turning their own words to my devices? Had I not at length enticed the incomprehensible Edojin to direct me to a hotel by besting them at their own verbal sport?

As for chutzpah, while I had to admit that I fell short of the necessary amount when it came to hawking the wares of cooks or craftsmen, I was not entirely unforthcoming when it came to peddling my own goods.

But alas, it was precisely this in which I found myself lacking, for while my mystique was what I was hawking in Nouvelle Orlean and my electronically enhanced tantric services thusfar in Edoku, the goods of the ruespieler were stories, and of these I had none.

"I do believe you are right when it comes to ambition," I told Pater, "and I perceive that I may have both the talent to play with words and mayhap the courage to stand naked on the street and declaim, but what story can I tell?"

"There is only one story to tell, and we all tell it," Pater said. "Like the Cloth of Many Colors, each patch has its own tale, but the true story is the whole."

"And what story is that?" I demanded dubiously.

"The story you must learn to tell, of course. What else?"

"Merde! And how do you expect me to learn it if you won't tell it to me?"

"But I've been telling it to you since the first ape climbed down from the trees!"

"May we descend from the lofty heights of the zen koan to the realm of quotidian knowledge?" I suggested dryly. "Just how am I to trap this mythical unicorn of a story?"

"Fortunately, virginity is not required," Pater said archly. "In the realm of maya, it is simply a matter of listening to enough versions until you are sufficiently moved to sew your own patch into the fabric. In even grittier terms, ruespieling, like any art, is a matter of applying the will of the spirit to the diligent study of the craft."

"Quelle chose!" I said with less than enthusiasm. "Do my ears deceive me, or have I truly heard an endorsement of diligent study from the lips of Pater Pan?"

"For sure!" Pater exclaimed grandly. "It has taken me several millennia of diligent study to create that ultimate triumph of the ruespieler's art, my own magnificent legendary self!"

***

I was only to perceive the inner truth of this extravagance much karma later in the depths of the Bloomenveldt, when it was to lead me out of the forest of flowers and back into the worlds of men, but even then, as soon as I began to take practical steps to learn the ruespieler's art, I started to see a certain bizarre veracity behind Pater Pan's modest and outrageous boast.

Having no story to tell to earn myself ruegelt, I continued to vend both my own tantric services and Ali's jewelry in order to maintain a small supply of same while I spent more and more of my time listening to the ruespielers who worked the carnival and following them forth when they took their tales into the street.

Indeed it was the very self-created legend of which Pater Pan had boasted which was the cloak of mythos onto which the tales of the Gypsy Joker ruespielers were sewn. Or mayhap, just as likely, it was Pater Pan who had sewn his own mythic persona together out of swatches of tales snipped from cycles of stories that may indeed have begun as odes sung by bards of the preliterate primeval past, or at any rate certainly seemed to have antecedents that predated the Age of Space. Whether the ruespielers of the Gypsy Jokers unraveled the fabric of the legend of Pater Pan to craft their own tales, or whether Pater had assembled his cloak of personal mythos out of tales told by generations of ruespielers, or whether indeed the truth of the matter was both, the eternal Child of Fortune was the hero of all the most popular tales, and the domo of the Gypsy Jokers was clearly enough the main avatar thereof in the lore of the tribe.

Indeed, each ruespieler had a rather limited repertoire of tales, or so it seemed to me, many of them shared in common, though the more successful ruespielers all had a tale or two that they had made entirely their own, and all would style the tales they held communally somewhat differently, turning what in one version might be romance into another version's farce.

Lance Della Imre told the best version of the most oft-told tale, Spark of the Ark, the story of the Eternal Arkie, who chose to span the entire history of the First Starfaring Age by the expedient, outre even to the Arkies, of passing all but the peak moments thereof in cryogenic slumber.

"And where did he go when the Jump Drive rang down the final curtain on the great slow centuries of the First Starfaring Age?" Lance would demand in his peroration, the most perfect segue from a tale into a plea for donations that any of the ruespielers had contrived.

"Everywhere! Nowhere! Into the space between which lies within our human hearts! There, in that urchin in a Public Service Station smock, here, within this simple teller of the tale, and best of all within the Arkie Sparkie hearts of all you poor quotidian creatures who still retain the nobility of spirit to honor the Arkie Spark within yourselves by showering the teller of the tale with ruegelt!"

Sheila Jin Omar's favorite tale, The Pied Piper of Pan, was perhaps closest to the immediate personal inspiration of the source, since, like myself, she enjoyed certain intimacies with same, and well do I remember her artful declamation thereof, if not without a certain jealous pique.

"Hola, was the Age of Space the wondrous time when our species first pecked its way free of the natal egg of Earth and ventured forth into the starry realms beyond. Mighty for those bygone days in argent and spacefaring science was the land called from afar the Gold Mountain, and all-powerful was its board of directors, the Pentagon, who dreamed of building a new Gold Mountain, an arkology, in which generations of their minions might travel to conquer worlds circling distant stars.

"But alas, the Pentagon was utterly mean-spirited and ruthless in the service of this mighty and noble task, and so those who should have had their wanderjahrs as Children of Fortune were constrained thereby to expend their youth as wage slaves in durance vile.

"Cependant, energy, as the mages even then declared, can be neither created nor destroyed, only channeled or transformed, and no more certainly than when it comes to the kundalinic fires of youth, for to seek to destroy them in the name of obedient servitude is only to arouse and inflame the Serpent's ire.

"Thus did the Serpent Kundalini arise in outrage, and smite the land of the Gold Mountain as Circe had the minions of Odysseus, for behold, the army of young wage slaves was now nowhere to be found, and the fabriks and streets were overrun with a plague of rutting, savage, evil-smelling, hairy, ordure-smeared pigs.

"The pigs were everywhere, soiling the cities, spreading loathsome diseases, smearing the very name of their land with excrement, so that the land of the Gold Mountain came also to be known as the Belly of the Beast. Desperately did the Pentagon strive to complete the arkology Gold Mountain so that they might flee themselves in a simulacrum of their lost golden age from the swinishness and chaos they had themselves unwittingly released.

"Ah, but then did the Pied Piper of Pan appear in the city of the Pentagon, playing that eternal priapic music which has power over both man and beast, and lo, in his passage, the pigs gave over their rootings and ruttings and danced along gaily in his train.

"I will aid you in the nobility of your enterprise," the Pied Piper told the Pentagon, and he declared that he would pipe all the swine out of the Belly of the Beast and into the Gold Mountain, after which it would be a simple matter to let in the void.

"To this the Pentagon readily enough agreed, with scarcely an honest thought as to how the Piper would be paid.

"And so did the Pied Piper of Pan lead the pig people from the Belly of the Beast, but so too did he lead the wage slaves of the Pentagon into the Gold Mountain, for naturellement, the former were only the manifestation in the realm of maya of the thwarted youthful spirits of the latter.

"True to his word, once all were aboard the arkology, the Piper let in the void, but true to his spirit, the void to which his charges were exposed was the one which only the song of the Yellow Brick Road can fill.

"Vraiment, as the tune was changed from the music of unreason to the song that our species had long ago followed from apes into men, so did the wage slaves of the Pentagon follow it out of the Belly of the Beast and into their true selves as Children of Fortune, as the first spacefaring generation of our tribe, as wanderkinder on the first arkology to brave the long light years between the stars, as the first bright flickering of the Arkie Spark. Thus at the very dawning of the First Starfaring Age was the Child of Fortune in glory from the Belly of the Beast reborn."

Thus was the conclusion of one ruespiel the beginning of another, thus did the ruespielers ring changes on each other's interpretations of the tribal mythos, thus did the same familiar figure in various incarnations play the perfect master hero, thus was Pater Pan both the inspiration and creature thereof.

Naturellement, the ruespielers also had access to the vast store of word crystals, books, tapes, computer chips, scrolls, und so weiter that our species has accumulated over several millennia of creating fictions, to which they resorted when all else failed, and even I could have had an instant repertoire by the simple expedient of plagiarizing the perfect masters of the past.

But this was an expedient which somehow never crossed my mind even before I saw how audiences would melt away when they recognized an oft-told tale, or rather, as I was to learn, when the Child of Fortune ruespieler wandered too far from his own mythos.

For on Great Edoku, where the most sophisticated maestros of every art and the greatest of mages gathered to do commerce, the only charm of the ruespieler was that her stories, like the mildly intoxicating dim sum of Dani or the wooden filigree jewelry of Ali, were volkchoses of our demimonde, expressions of the spirit which moved through us.

Whether this was a form of condescension or whether, as Pater and the ruespielers would contend, Children of Fortune, or at any rate Gypsy Jokers, were justly treasured by the Edojin for the wu of their true essence, je ne sais pas, for the inner beings of the citizens of Great Edoku remain unfathomable to me to this very day.

Be that as it may, if one wanted to secure ruegelt from the Edojin, one played the avatar of the Child of Fortune, and extolled the virtues of the tribe, which by his own admission had its highest expression in the living legend who walked among us.

While I was entirely innocent at the time of the art of literary criticism or the lore of human psychoethology, I did sense that Pater was right when he said that all of the stories were patches of the cloth of some whole, vraiment, that in keeping with his identity as the Gypsy King of the Jokers, his boldest lies were also a kind of truth, for from the point of view of the Edojin, at any rate, the Pater Pan who walked among us, the legend whose mantle he had assumed, had in some ultimate sense indeed ridden the long light years with the Arkies, liberated the wage slaves of the Pentagon, been an ancient Gypsy King, no matter whether the flesh in which the same was now contained had passed through all that history or not.

As to the ur-tale itself, the Void at the Axis of the Great Wheel about which all the specific stories revolved, this, alas, remained a central mystery, at least to my perceptions. Which is to say that while the shedding of my intellectual virginity was no less exhilarating than the shedding of my erotic virginity had been, I entered the boudoir of the former with far less craft and self- reparation than the latter, and as a consequence I was far more reluctant to be more than a voyeur.

Each day I resolved to essay my first ruespiel in the form of one of the tales I had heard, and each day I put off my debut to the next, until finally I perceived that I should be content to learn and listen until the spirit was ready to speak through me.

As to when and how my own song would finally be called forth, I had the volktales of our tribe to guide me and the embodiment thereof for a sometime lover, and what I had learned from both was that the Spirit of Fortune spoke through the vie of its Children, that one need first dance to the music before learning to sing the song.

And so there was a time for me that was Golden, a long summer's day of youthful awakening and carefree adventure of the spirit that need never end, or so at the time I thought.

Everything that I did was alive with meaning, for was I not a Child of Fortune in my heart of hearts, leading the life that the spirit thereof commanded, thereby contributing my small part to the mythos of the whole, and enhancing my own enjoyment thereof with the intoxicant of a noble raison d'etre for same thereby?

While I spent more and more of my time trailing after ruespielers and absorbing their tales, I neglected not, or at least not entirely, the more pragmatic aspects of the vie of the Child of Fortune, which is to say that though my deepest attention was to the entirely nouvelle monde of the imagination and intellect which had opened up before me for the first time, I certainly retained a healthy enough loathing for fressen bars to continue to perform as a tantric artist and to hawk Ali's jewelry at least with enough diligence to keep such stuff from passing through my lips.

Nor did my dedication to my newfound role as student impel me to or require a life of monkish celibacy. Indeed there was a certain enzyme of aphrodisia produced in a young brain whose cortices of imagination and intellect were aroused to the levels of excitation of the adolescent erotic backbrain.

Far more ruespielers than one were to benefit amorously from the kundalinic circuit established between my avidity for their tales and my pheromonic receptors. Upon listening to a reasonably attractive ruespieler declaim a tale to my liking, I would often develop a lusty desire to plumb its deeper meanings en boudoir, and indeed, after all his available erotic energies had been depleted, the fellow was then persuaded to discourse on his craft, if only to dissuade further challenges to his sated manhood. Moreover, once both my tantric puissance and sincere desire became general lore among the ruespielers, I was not without volunteers willing to trade instruction in their craft for demonstrations of mine.

Throughout this long golden summer's day, Pater Pan remained my friend and lover in equal measure, displaying naught but approving amusement at my self-appointed role as courtesan of the ruespielers, while demonstrating often enough that the embodiment of their collective oeuvre was also a natural man.

It seemed to me that my life had attained a plane of perfection, that I inhabited a golden dreamland designed for my own delectation, and if this was a street of dreams, I saw nothing beyond into which I ever need awake.

All that was required to raise this perfection to transcendence was the moment when I was finally moved to perform my own tale. Vraiment, there was a certain sweet tension in the contemplation of my debut as a ruespieler, not unlike the joys of contemplating one's first passage d'amour with a new object of desire, and as with such kundalinic energies, the pleasure of the charge lasts longer than the pleasure of release.

Mayhap the foregoing was the rationalization of a sluggardly soul content to drift along in a bliss without risk or change, and indeed I regarded standing alone in the street and declaiming with a certain trepidation. But in truth, since I had no tale to tell, I could hardly be faulted for lack of spiritual courage for failing to make a fool of myself by blathering in public for the sake of hearing my own empty words. Did not the true Child of Fortune wait for the spirit thereof to speak through her?

Be that as it may, all things pass, and even our days of Golden Summer must one day end as our minds do tell us, though the fact that the universe would seem to have imposed this stricture upon us will no doubt remain forever beyond the praise of the human heart.
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Re: Child of Fortune, by Norman Spinrad

Postby admin » Sat Mar 19, 2016 5:59 am

Chapter 10

Well do I remember the true moment when the carnival ended and the morning after began, though, in point of quotidian fact, the Gypsy Jokers dissolved into legend slowly and piecemeal, even as Pater Pan had intended. For the only truly thespic moment in this otherwise gently en tropic process was the very first, the moment in which in more ways than one, the spirit left us and moved on. And that was a satori that none of us who were put through it are ever likely to forget.

The event began as a joyous extravaganza, indeed the peak experience of my time as a Gypsy Joker. Pater Pan arbitrarily declared the revival of the ancient Terrestrial festtag of Mardi Gras, in which the Children of Fortune of Woodstock had smoked their pipe of peace with the Great God Mammon in the form of a parade through the city during which all they sold during the rest of the year for profit was showered gratuit as a love offering on the populace. Pater had decided to revive this noble tradition to thank our friends, the Edojin, for their beneficence, and also because he needed a festive spectacle to celebrate the mysterious event he promised for a climax.

Who does not love a parade, ne, and most particularly, who would refrain from dancing in a joyous crowd through the streets and parklands, toxicated, celebrating, and in general encouraged to behave as extravagantly as possible, when given the license to do so, indeed when you are among those hosting this bacchanalia for the public good?

Who would be so mean-spirited as to drag her feet in the hedonic pursuit of such an enterprise, and who would expect the mystery promised for the esthetic cusp of same to be anything but lighthearted?

Not I, not anyone in the parade, and as for the Edojin, certainement they were at least amused by the spectacle of the Gypsy Jokers parading through their streets and parklands, around their public platzes, past their very dwellings, snaking through the vecino like an ancient Han Dragon Dance, its Captain and Pilot the King of the Gypsy Jokers in his Traje de Luces, and its random recomplicated course steered by the Jump of his whim.

We all marched behind our Piper in the Mardi Gras parade, for our encampment was empty, and all that was portable therein in the way of entertainment and cuisine perambulated through Edoku, offering itself to, indeed thrusting itself upon, the populace thereof. The length of our dragon was measured in terms of the intervals required to keep half a dozen musical troops from overlapping into total cacophony. Jugglers juggled, acrobats tumbled, dancers made their way dancing, singers ran up and down the parade to form ever-changing impromptu choruses. Most of the ruespielers remained mute, but a few were mad or toxicated enough to attempt to bellow tales, or at any rate disjointed fragments of same, over the general din.

Those of us who had no entertainments of our own to donate were given our entree into the spirit of the Mardi Gras in the form of bulging sacks filled with finger food, packets of toxicants, little flasks of wine, and even some simple cheap jewelry, which we tossed to the Edojin along the route at our whim and pleasure. I myself had both a sack of Dani's dim sum spiced with a double dose of toxicants and a bag of Ali's jewelry to dispense. The latter, naturellement, was not painstakingly crafted in his usual mode, but consisted of simplified versions of his true art cast in their ersatz scores from molds.

The parade wound from our encampment up through the previously quiet lanes between the residences of the hills, out across the river and along its bank, then back in a course like the body's intestines through the vecino of strogats at the feet of the glass towers, emerging therefrom in clear sight of our empty camp once more, and then across the noonday desert to the great waterfall, along the line of buttes from which it descended, to a shallowly-sunken bowl of a meadow surrounded on three sides by miniature mountain peaks over which a sun was forever in the process of setting, casting a brilliant early-sunset glow over the final proceedings.

As we paraded through the various venues of the vecino, singing, making music and circus, and tossing little treats from our bags to passersby, we collected a certain number of amused Edojin who followed in train alongside, though since no parade route had been announced, indeed since the Pied Piper seemed not to know what turn he would take from one moment to the next, we never marched formally past static throngs. We were a random bolide of a parade, and fortune rather than planning was required to place anyone along our way.

So in truth, by the time we had all reached the parade's terminus in the amphitheater of bright sunset, there were more of our tribe present than Edojin auslanders, though we retained the curious interest of a goodly number of the latter.

For the span of perhaps two hours, the meadow became the venue of a general fete into which the parade devolved, indeed gathered there in that compass were all the Gypsy Jokers of the streets as well as all those who plied their trades in the caravanserei, and here in the meadow of sunset, one could view our tribe entire and all its divertissements, stripped down to its essence, shorn of its tents and concealments, and of any strictures of pecuniary cunning.

Food and toxicants were passed from hand to hand with no thought of recompense. Musicians played, singers sang, buskers entertained, ruespielers told their tales, and all refrained from accepting the donations that many of the Edojin present persisted in tossing. As for artists of the tantra, these performed al fresco tableaus in which all were invited to join, and in which none need pay a price for pleasure.

As for me, once I had emptied my cornucopia of dim sum and bijoux, I merged myself into the generality of the fete, partaking of food and toxicants thrust into my hand, wandering from entertainment to entertainment, ruespiel to ruespiel, unmotivated, for some reason, to join in the tantric performances or seek out a lone lover for a menage a deux.

Vraiment, the only lover I would have sought out at the very midsummer's eve of the Gypsy Jokers was Pater Pan himself, and the domo of the fete was a quicksilver target whom only fortune could place in my arms. Over there, peeking up above the crowd around a ruespieler, disappearing from my sight for tens of minutes, then visible again in the distance in the act of draining a wine flagon, vanishing from view once more, Pater Pan was a mountain that must come to Mohammed, and I was a particle of random motion across a crowded stube.

And then, with the precision of a domo of the floating cultura who senses when the revelry is balanced on the razor-edge of fatigue, Pater Pan appeared as if by thespic magic, indeed in a cloud of sparks and smoke and thunderclaps, atop the rim of the natural amphitheater.

The effect was so preternaturally perfect as to verge precipitously on the comic. Pater had set off a fireworks display of some duration and complexity to attract the attention of all, and when the donner and blitzen ended and the smoke cleared, there he stood, radiant in his Suit of Many Colors, his golden mane of hair and beard transfigured into a boddhi's aura by the flaming actinic disc of the setting sun against which his noble visage was so exactly centered.

Standing there in a range of bonsai mountains and backlit by a sunset that sublimed his material corpus with the photosphere corona of legend, Pater Pan appeared a Titan, a haut turista from Olympus, even to eyes entirely cognizant of the art that went into the effect. You couldn't help but be awed, if only by the transcendental chutzpah.

"Hear me, oh my Children of Fortune!" he shouted with immense pomposity into the hush of his entrance. "Attend, all ye Gypsy Jokers! Behold the King of the Gypsies and the Prince of the Jokers in all his magnificent glory standing before you! See how the puissance of his grandeur dwarfs the very mountains and towers triumphant against the firmament!"

At this truly excessive braggadocio, many present, myself included, found heckling japes forming upon our lips. But none of them quite came forth. For the transcendent image etched upon our retinas gave sufficient pause to create a moment of stasis into which Pater Pan stepped with the timing of a perfect master.

Abruptly, he sat down, leaning his back up against one mountain and draping his arm over the peak of another, converting the cordillera into his somewhat lumpy chaise.

"Of course they're very small mountains," he said in a very different voice, to general laughter. "As for my magnificent glory, it owes a good deal to thespic lighting, and the firmament against which I tower triumphant is no more than the usual Edojin ersatz of the real thing. Sometimes I forget that. You forget it too."

He stood up again, but now the magic of light and perspective was permanently shattered, and he paced in little ellipses as he spoke, as if to prevent his image of glory from reforming.

"Lest we forget, the King of the Gypsies is only a Child of Fortune, and the Prince of the Jokers is a natural man," he declared with entirely uncharacteristic modesty. "The Child of Fortune remembers that no one should follow leaders, and the natural man knows that the only guru worthy of his students is he who knows when enough is enough." He adopted a somewhat hectoring stance as he declaimed the last, as if to chide us for succumbing to his own excessively puissant charms.

"Sure, and I hope you can still all remember that," he said more conversationally. "I hope I will leave behind Children of Fortune who hear the songs of their own spirits, rather than a ragged band of acolytes who hear only the blarney of mine. For Great Edoku is but a single patch of cloth on the fabric of our Second Starfaring Age, and our time here is but a single swatch of time in the millennial story of our kind. And this natural man who stands before you swore a mighty oath to see all and be all on all the worlds of men before his race was run. So swore I, and so should you all swear, for Pater Pan would be no true Child of Fortune if he abandoned his own Yellow Brick Road for the bothersome role of your perpetual patriarch."

He paused, and then, so it seemed, looked directly in my eyes and broke my heart, though others, I was to learn, also shared this privately poignant perception.

"I have sung the song and passed on the lore, I have known you as friends and lovers and named your tribe, and now I hand on the torch. Enough is enough. Ask no more of the King of the Gypsies. His day as domo of this fete is done. On the morrow, the Prince of the Jokers departs to continue his wandering ministry to the Children of Fortune of the far-flung worlds of men. The Gypsy King of Edoku is dead, long live the Joker Prince of the Yellow Brick Road!"

***

Naturellement, I need not describe the descent into general pandemonium generated by this announcement, nor the transformation of our fete into a ragtag babbling rabble filtering in small troops back through the arrondissement of towers to the Gypsy Joker encampment like a high tide receding from a rocky coast back into the sea.

But mayhap the general mood of our retreat bears some elucidation, for while the mal d'esprit that one would have expected was certainly in evidence, there was a complex overtone to it, for none could deny in her heart of hearts that Pater Pan had spoken truth.

Had we not elected his artfully self-graven image as the leader not merely of our tribe but of each of our spirits? And had we all not learned from Pater Pan himself at least enough to know that this was a violation of the very spirit which he had taught us? For is not the true Child of Fortune anyone who follows the lead of his own spirit and no other? Could we therefore deny that the King of the Gypsy Jokers must die lest we forget that Children of Fortune have no chairmen of the board or kings?

And as for me, who knew the natural man better than most, how could I deny the right of the man who had opened up a world for me and more to seek whatever delights he could find on whatever planets he chose?

Thus speaks the suddenly enlightened noble being in the immediate afterglow of a powerful satori, but the natural woman and soon-to-be-abandoned lover within had long since resurfaced by the time I returned to the encampment, and that Moussa was more than capable of quotidian jealousy, though the identity of the rival remained confusingly elusive.

The area in front of Pater's tent was a chaos of supplicants by the time I arrived, in no mood to meekly await my turn for an audience with the pontiff. Dozens of Gypsy Jokers of both genders were speaking to Pater and each other all at once, though most of them who had insinuated themselves closest to Pater were female and clearly had more on their minds than verbal discourse.

This observation did little to cool the ire of my impending abandonment and without thinking, I found myself activating the Touch, as if marshaling the only of my powers on which I believed I could rely in such extremis. A moment later, I found myself putting it to use that it shames me to recount, goosing my way through the crush in a series of yelps of astonishment and moans of mysterious ecstasy, until I stood before Pater in the full flush of my wrath.

But Pater Pan stepped into the moment with that preternatural timing of his, and turned away wrath with a brilliant smile at my appearance, and a gesture towards the open flap of his tent. "Moussa!" he cried. "Vamanos! We must talk!" And, taking me by the hand, he led me inside as his chosen favorite on his last night in Edoku before the eyes of the tribe and the outrage of my riyals.

On the one hand, I was filled with joy at this openhearted confirmation that I had been at least his first among many, but on the other hand, was this not to be a sad good-bye?

"Pater ..."

"Moussa ..."

We stood there beside the bed, which was the only piece of practical furniture, I not knowing whether to be touched or enraged, and he, from the look of him, for once caught without words.

"Why are you doing this, Pater?" I finally demanded.

"I made not my meaning plain?"

Snorting, I changed the configuration by flopping down on the bed. "Thus spake the King of the Gypsies and the Prince of Blarney spinning koans for the general enlightenment. I believe I have a right to know what's really in the heart of my departing lover,"

"You demand to share the secrets of my soul?"

"I must at least assure myself that you have one."

Pater laughed, he shrugged, he sat down on the bed beside me, and regarded me with a fey expression. "The King of the Gypsies may be gone, but the Prince of the Jokers remains," he said. "So if I am required to jive you not, you must give proper value for value received."

"Have I ever even had the power to dissemble with you, Pater?"

"Have you not?" he accused. "Have you not jived me as to the true secret of your tantric powers? Have you not put me off with displays of wounded outrage at my failure to believe that it derives full-blown from the innocent essence of your spirit?"

"Bien, if you will speak now from the heart, my poor one and only secret will then be revealed," I said impulsively, for what did I have to lose by revealing all to a lover who was about to become lost? "The reasons of the perfect master who acts for the good of the body politic I believe I already comprehend, but I must know the personal selfish reasons of the natural man."

"You do see deeply, Moussa," he owned. "For while the altruistic role of guru and public benefactor has its own selfish rewards, he who imagines he has transcended the ego's desires in the service thereof is but a hollow shell. Vraiment, this natural man does indeed have his own arcane lust, his mad personal passion, beyond even playing the Pied Piper of Pan to the Children of Fortune of the worlds of men."

"And you do not speak of that passion inherent in our genital architecture ..."

He laughed. "That is neither arcane nor mad," he said, "Whereas the passion of which I speak for sure is both!"

"To wit ...?"

"Do you not wish to be immortal, Moussa?" he said.

"Who does not? But it is hardly a passion anyone save perhaps a mage of the healing arts has the means to even insanely pursue ..."

"Wrong!" Pater declared in deadly earnest. "After all, one may pursue and even achieve immortality of the spirit in the memory of posterity by doing great deeds or crafting deathless art ..."

"Or by becoming your own deathless work of art as some have done ..." I suggested dryly.

"For sure, as I have long since done," he owned. "But I pursue immortality of a more hedonic and entirely less selfless kind, the kind the Arkies knew ..."

"The Arkies?"

He nodded, and the strangest look came over him, a look which all but forced me to credit his tales of a birth beyond the dawn of the ancient Age of Space, for in that moment his eyes appeared preternaturally old, as if brimming to overflowing with a million years of sights no mortal man could have lived to see.

"The Arkies passed their generations aboard the great slow arkologies that first brought men to the stars as all do know," he said. "But slow as they were by the standards of the Jump, on their longest voyages they approached within sufficient hailing distance of the speed of light to contract the timestream within. Thus, in a voyage that consumed mere decades of lifespan, might hundreds of light-years be crossed, and far more marvelously, centuries of time.

"Why would the Arkies choose to remain in perpetual motion between the stars? For sure not because the arkologies offered more adventures and delights within their hulls than a planet entire! No, the true dream, the inner heart of the Arkie Spark, was to be there for the whole tale! To weasel a consciousness which spanned millennia of the saga of our species out of the poor three hundred years of our bodies' time! Vraiment, to pursue the impossible goal of knowing the tale of our species' history entire before expiring into the unknowing void! To be, at any rate, as immortal as our kind itself, not as a legend, but in the flesh as a witness, and a natural man!"

"Madness!" I exclaimed. "Impossible! And at any rate, all that, like the Arkies themselves, passed with the First Starfaring Age ..."

"So say those who call themselves mages of history!" Pater declared. "Towards the middle of the First Starfaring Age did it not become common for colonists to pass the long light-years in cryonic sleep, and was not lifespan thereby preserved from time and boredom? Arkies possessed of sufficient funds and daring took to freezing themselves for centuries, awakening for a few months to live another chapter of the long story and replenish their funds, and then jumping through time in the cold of sleep once more. Some were said to have done this scores of times and lived to see the Second Starfaring Age unfold!"

"You display an amazing erudition in the inner lore of the Arkies," I said dryly.

"Porque no? I was there!'

"Is this all in the service of telling me that the man beside me is a fossil Arkie thawed from the glacier of time?"

"Have I not told you that before? Did you believe it then? Do you believe it now? Believe that I saw the First Starfaring Age or not, believe at least that I mean to see the undreamed of wonders of the Third unfold, or nobly perish in the attempt!"

"Impossible!"

"For sure?" said Pater Pan, with the strangest haunted look stealing into his eyes. "Consider. No lifespan at all is lost in electrocoma passage on Void ships, and compared to the cryonics of the First Starfaring Age, successful awakening is so assured that we think nothing of risking it for the sake of mere economic convenience, ne."

"But ... but Void Ships take mere days or weeks to voyage among the worlds of men, not centuries ..."

"Vraiment!" Pater exclaimed. "Therefore, the more you see of the worlds of men, the more you see of time! Moussa, Moussa, have you never yearned to walk the streets of future cities, to meet the citizens of a far future age, to be there when our species at long last greets fellow sapients from across the sea of suns? Have you never railed in your heart against the knowledge that the greatest chapters in our species' tale will surely unfold after you are dead and gone? The Arkies sought to cheat the hand of unjust mortality with a few long slow dangerous leaps, but in the Second Starfaring Age, I seek to do it as it must be done now ..."

Snap! Snap! Snap! went his fingers. "Like that! As the Edojin use the Rapide!"

"Just how many worlds have you seen ..." I whispered in wondering awe, for certainement while the goal he pursued must surely remain forever beyond the reach of mortal man, the millennial quest therefor seemed not entirely beyond the realm of universal law, though the mind both reeled and soared at its contemplation.

"Quien sabe?" said Pater Pan in a voice much less grand. "At least a hundred, if memory serves. And I seek to see the rest before my body's time runs out."

He shrugged. He sighed. And for the first time since I had known him I glimpsed a dark and wistful sadness lurking in the blue depths of my Pied Piper's bright eyes. "In truth, I know that in the end, I must fail, vraiment, what a monster I would be if I truly hoped to succeed, for not even I have the ego to truly wish to see our species vanish from the stars. But if in the end I cannot sanely or justly hope to experience all of human time, then by the spirit which brought me down from the trees and by the Yellow Brick Road which goes forever on, I mean to attempt to experience at any rate all the worlds of men in the pursuit thereof, to die as I have lived, and declare my life a limited victory in the final moment thereof!"

Pater touched my hand. He cocked his head and regarded me with eyes which in that moment seemed both gay and sad, heroic and futile, and in them I saw both the noblest and bravest spirit in all the worlds of men and the smallest of boys terrified of the greatest of darks. "Now do you understand why the natural man, no less than the King of the Gypsies and the Prince of the Jokers cannot stand in place too long?" he said softly.

"Vraiment!" I declared. How mad and sad and doomed and marvelous it all was! What a tale to live as the adventure of your life! "Take me with you!" I said. "I am more than ready to trip the life fantastic through the planets and down the centuries with you forever!"

"I could not do that, even if I wanted to," Pater said, regarding me with a warm and wistful tenderness in which, nevertheless, I could read no regret. "We may be two souls of the same spirit, you and I, but this path that I have chosen is for my steps alone. The natural man who loves you would not let your young soul tag along as consort of such a Fliegende Hollander for the same reason that the Pied Piper must move on when the Children of Fortune have learned the music of his song. Your Yellow Brick Road must be of your own choosing. If the destiny thereof should one day bring you once more to my side, then I will welcome you as an equal spirit. But only as an equal spirit, never a consort. Never as the girl that is, only as the woman you will become. Comprend?"

"Yes," I said in the tiniest of voices. "I like it not, but I do believe I do."

And then, as if to dull the edge of the knife, the spirit of the Joker emerged once more, and spoke in a tone of the most loving cynicism. "Besides, spiritual imperatives and financial considerations coincide. Since the funds I need to travel are paid for with time, I can't afford a free rider, now can I?" Somehow this entirely false mingyness, under the circumstances, was the tenderest mercy of all.

We stared into each other's eyes for a long silent moment, saying good-bye, or, I dared hope, auf wiedersehen, hugging each other's spirits; he long since centered on the acceptance of this as his self-chosen destiny, I not having the least notion as to what my future destiny might be.

Then, as the silent communion began to stretch into a poignant agony, Pater, with his perfect mastery of timing, laughed, shrugged, and screwed his face into the comic rendition of a mean- spirited little boy. "And speaking of value given for value received," he said in an ironic tone, "now that I have shared the deepest secret of my soul, you must reveal the secret of the magic in your touch."

"Well spoken!" I giggled, amazed to find such laughter bubbling up in my spirit as if at the Piper's bidding. "Indeed, far more well spoken for once than the speaker himself believes."

I removed the ring of Touch from my finger and ceremoniously placed it on the little finger of Pater's right hand.

"This?" he exclaimed. "This common piece of bazaar jewelry is the source of your power?"

"Designed without esthetic appeal or apparent economic value to discourage the attention of thieves," I told him ... Attends." So saying, I reached out, took his hand, thumbed on the ring, and before he knew what I was about, had draped his hand squarely upon his own lingam.

The look that came onto his face at once should have been captured in halo or oils by a master craftsman, for I have never, before or since, seen such a melange of amazement, pleasure, befuddlement, and embarrassment appear in such a simultaneous manner on a human visage. He pawed at himself experimentally and stilled a moan. He stroked the inside of his own thigh. He stared at the ring in befuddled delight.

"Merde!" he exclaimed. "I would be the last to deny the esteem in which I hold my own person, but even I would never have believed I could so love myself!"

"My father made it," I told him. "He calls it the Touch."

"Your father? Cuanto cuesta? Surely you can prevail upon him to grant a discount to an amigo? With this and the already puissant prowess of the great Pater Pan, I could plow a course through the women of the worlds that would make Don Juan and Casanova seem like dour celibates!"

"No doubt," I said dryly. "But it is unobtainable at any price. In all the worlds of men, mine is the only one there is, and my father has sworn an oath that no more will be made until I give my leave."

"Pas problem! Only direct him to make a single exception ..."

"And loose what priapic demon on the innocent women of the worlds?"

"Vraiment," Pater said quite seriously, removing the ring and placing it in my hands. "If every lover in all the worlds of men wore such a ring, what would become of the tantric art? If all of us were perfect masters of pleasure, would we still recognize those moments when via the flesh two true spirits meet?"

"I have noticed no lack of such a communion of the spirit between us ..." I pointed out.

"I am not utterly convinced that such a device may not corrode the courage of love's spirit ..."

"I feel no corrosion of my lover's courage!" I insisted.

"Bien. Then you will not object to my suggestion that our last passage d'amour on Edoku be au naturel. Is it not now just that the natural woman now emerge from her magic fortress to bid a true lover bon voyage?"

"Well spoken," I impulsively declared, for the trepidation I felt at his words, bizarrely akin to that of a young virgin about to disrobe for the first time before her lover, only served to spur me on. For what is courage except in the face of fear, and what is love if not the baring of one's own naked and imperfect truth?

So saying, I unwound my Gypsy Joker's sash from about my waist, and began to undress. In truth did I experience something of the trepidatious joy of a virgin's premiere performance, though fortunately not the useless ignorance of same.

Then we were in each other's arms and the truth of it was that while the duration and sensual intensity of the artistic performance might have been less preternaturally sustained, the essence of the experience, stripped down to the essentials of lingam and yoni, was quite the same.

At first each of us strove to overmaster the other with pleasure, and if this loverly contest was now more equal, indeed if for once Pater did obtain the upper hand, the outcome of this almost jocular overture was as before -- we proceeded on to the next movement, in which the duality of giving and receiving pleasure was annihilated in the experience of pleasure itself, and two spirits reached a single cusp.

Vraiment, for once it was but a single cusp, and for once, neither of us felt the need to essay or offer more. Which is not so much to say that we were sated as to say that in tantra, as in any other art, we both realized with the wisdom of our flesh, one does not mar a perfect miniature by attempting to blow it up into a work of epic proportions.

"It would appear that yours is a lover's spirit capable of surviving such power," Pater said at length when we had covered ourselves and snuggled together in the dark. "Myself, I would not trust who, I wonder, is the real Gypsy, and who the real Joker?"

"The two of us," I said, strangely content now to lie in the arms of this man who would be leaving on the morrow.

"I will be gone when you awake," Pater said, as if reading my thoughts. "Better to say auf wiedersehen now than in a tearful morning, ne. I will cut a patch from your tunic before I go and leave you a patch of mine to sew into your sash, so that we will each wear a patch of the other's karma in the fabric of our destinies."

Touched, I kissed him lightly on the cheek. "Leave me with one thing more," I asked him. "Moussa is a kindernom given me by my parents in homage to the patron creature of an innocent childhood long since past. Give me then a true name for the Child of Fortune of the road, and I in turn will promise not to assume it until I am worthy, which is to say until I have earned my first coin as a ruespieler. Thereafter, it will be the name you have given me until we meet again or forever, whichever comes first."

"A name for the ruespieler you will one day be ...?" Pater said thoughtfully. "Bien, I dub thee Sunshine, light of the world and Lucifer's daughter, a star among many but equal to all, and the sacramental wafer of the Children of Fortune of the Age of Space."

"Sunshine ..." I muttered sleepily. ''It seems rather an extravagant name."

"Would I name you for anything less than glory? Sunshine you will be when you are ready to shine forth in the dark."

Those are the last words I remember him speaking that night, though no doubt there were less coherent endearments muttered in that hypnagogic limbo of lost memory occluded by the impending onset of sleep.

True to his word, when I awoke, the King of the Gypsies and the Prince of the Jokers had vanished from my world.
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Re: Child of Fortune, by Norman Spinrad

Postby admin » Sat Mar 19, 2016 5:59 am

Chapter 11

Our immediate general response as Gypsy Jokers on the morrow of Pater Pan's departure was to make a valiant effort to carry on in the spirit of the tribe, both in homage to his legend, and out of a certain twisted quest for exoneration in his eyes that was not without its aspect of psychic vengeance. Which is to say we developed the retrospective perception that our missing protector and patron had never really worked at any of the enterprises we had established save as founder and inspirational dilettante. Were we ourselves not true Children of Fortune, vraiment were we not Gypsy Jokers? Surely we could maintain the spirit and commerce of the carnival on our own!

Naturellement, in moments of reflection even at the time, I understood all too well that the wound which Pater's departure had inflicted on our spirits was designed to produce precisely this response. Nor could I deny the justice in the challenge. If we were unable to be Gypsy Jokers without Pater Pan, how could we have counted ourselves worthy of being Gypsy Jokers with him?

And indeed for a time, to our credit, we succeeded in maintaining our enterprises by our own efforts. Ruespielers, hawkers, and buskers ventured forth as before, the tents of our caravanserei continued to draw customers for tantric performances, games of chance, and entertainments, and craftsmen continued to produce their wares.

Vraiment, it appeared that Pater's departure had truly served to teach the lesson he had intended. Whether what happened next was another koan prepared for our rough-hewn edification by Pater Pan or whether it was a malfunction of his scenario is difficult to clarify even in retrospect, for it hinged upon the peculiarly Edojin creative ambiguity towards matters of legal philosophy.

As I have said, the erection of Child of Fortune favelas was supposedly proscribed on Edoku, or at least as proscribed as anything short of violence or outright rapine could get. Indeed as far as anyone knew, the encampment of the Gypsy Jokers was the sole exception to this mandate, and as to how Pater Pan had cozened the Edojin into granting it, this was as great a mystery among us as the means whereby the Edojin enforced their displeasure against potential encampments of other tribes.

For if I have failed in the course of this narrative to adequately describe or even mention the governing councils and law enforcement officials of Great Edoku, it is not out of oversight or sloth. From the perspective of the Child of Fortune, such councils and officials were entirely non- existent, since one never perceived such personages or their policies in evidence. Enforcement of the civilized niceties simply occurred; the apprehension and punishment of thieves and pickpockets by impromptu posses which Pater had turned into a remunerative enterprise seemed to be the general model of how the body politic of Edoku dealt with miscreants.

As to how the encampment of the Gypsy Jokers had become selfed to the social immune system of the body politic of Edoku, the subtlety of Pater Pan's politicking only began to emerge into view as matters began to deteriorate in its absence.

Within a week of the Mardi Gras parade, the custom of the encampment, far from being augmented by the mythos of this event, began to measurably decline. This was most pronounced when it came to the products of the craftsmen, which all at once seemed to be out of favor. Even the jewelry of Ali went begging for customers at reduced prices at his stand in the encampment, and it soon began to seem pointless for me to try to peddle it in the streets and parks.

The quality and artistry of our crafts had not declined, but alas, they had never found favor on the basis of same in the first place. Rather they had been emblematic artifacts of the treasured quaintness and romantic spirit of the Child of Fortune, to whom one gave ruegelt as an act of fond remembrance to one's own wanderjahr.

Perhaps Pater had been too cunning for our own good, for his own mythos had been such a selling point of our mystique that when it abandoned that mystique in public, our quaintness lost its wu, we were once more perceived as scruffy urchins, and trinkets that had once been votive items in the cult of our spirit were now regarded by the Edojin as tawdry junk.

It was not long thereafter that our tantric tableaus began to play to empty tents, and even those inviting participation began to lose their trade. For once the spirit of the Child of Fortune lost its currency as a stylistic mode, the Child of Fortune was no longer a popular fantasy of the erotic imagination. And on Edoku, where every fantasy of the imagination was made manifest, we could hardly compete with the thousand-and-one delights on the basis of our artistry alone.

As for solo tantric performance, which when all was said and done had been my only reliable source of ruegelt, a night in a tent pretending you were once more a Child of Fortune or an al fresco adventure with same upon momentary whim in the nearest garden, once they were no longer considered wu, became acts of esthetic barbarity.

Well did I come during this devolution to understand the reticence of lordly tribesmen to be observed by denizens of the Public Service Stations partaking of fressen bars! The only of our enterprises that retained some vitality was the vending of finger food from trays, for even the Edojin developed instant cravings for a snack, and would weigh not heavily esthetic judgments if the smell of same reached a hungry palate.

Soon, therefore, our cooks were importuned by hordes of their indigent comrades and lovers, for there was hardly anyone in the encampment who did not have a claim of friendship with one cook or another as I did with Dani. How could he stand idly by and gain profit by peddling his dim sum to the Edojin while I was reduced to choking down fressen? How could he refuse similar alms to anyone else with the same moral claim? How could any true Gypsy Joker see another, and by extension his whole tribe, humiliated in the Public Service Stations when he had the means and the art to prevent his fellow tribesmen from descending to fressen?

And indeed, at first our noble artistes de cuisine could not. Instead of devoting their attentions to selling their fare for ruegelt, they volunteered their efforts to the feeding of their fellows without thought of gain. But alas, without the infusion of ruegelt into this closed economic ecology, there was no way to purchase the ingredients to produce free meals.

At length Dani and his fellow guildsmen saw that further such altruism would in any event be self-extinguishing in the form of bringing their ruin, and, rather than tell their friends and lovers that henceforth ye shall eat fressen and face their outrage, they slunk off in a body without the agonies of more formal farewells.

Now all that we Gypsy Jokers had to distinguish ourselves from the commonality of the Publics were our emblematic Cloth of Many Colors and a desolate village of empty tents. The fressen we were forced to eat was spiced as well with the bile of shame, for in order to secure supplies of the loathsome substance without suffering the jibes of the masses of the Publics, we removed our tribal colors and came and went incognito.

While in truth I for one certainly felt unjustly punished by fate for a shortcoming whose nature I could not fathom, indeed after eating enough fressen could even style myself the victim of Pater Pan's malice, I for one also sensed that there was a satori in all this that transcended such niceties of moral expectation. For while it was easy enough to rail at the malignity of fate, to what agent of injustice could the outraged finger point? To Pater Pan, who had done nothing more evil than impart his spirit and lore and then leave it to us to carry the torch thereof forward? To the Edojin, whose greatest offense was that they no longer seemed to find us charming?

Vraiment, once the moving finger began seeking out targets, only great feats of willful ignorance could prevent it from pointing within.

Certainement, we had all come to rely far too much on Pater Pan and far too little on ourselves for our initiative, and by the time the cooks had left the encampment, all of us who found ourselves forced to subsist on fressen when left to our own independent devices had quite absorbed this lesson.

For myself, this was not so much a lesson in humility as a lesson in my own lack of necessary hubris, which is to say chutzpah, for Pater had left me the name of Sunshine for my career as a ruespieler, and had told me aspects of his tale that were not at all current in the repertoires of others. Moreover, I had fairly well memorized the gists of a dozen or so tales, and one would have thought that someone reduced to fressen would have been a good deal less punctilious about originality.

Yet somehow I never summoned up the courage to stand on a crowded street and begin to declaim. I, who had blarneyed the King of the Gypsy Jokers out of one hundred coins of ruegelt, could not bring myself to address the Edojin in search of far pettier sums!

In truth I do now believe we were all somewhat overharsh in our self-judgments and became more so the longer we lingered in our spiritless encampment, for though at the time we could not quite perceive it, the true lesson that we were being taught was not so much that we were incompetent sloths as that we were still very new to the vie of the Child of Fortune. We had known nothing but the perfect befuddlement of the rube in a strange land, and then the first Golden Summer of our lives on the Yellow Brick Road, and what we were learning now was ultimately nothing more sinister than the final forced perception that all such Golden Summers eventually come to an end.

I finally achieved this satori the night the ruespielers decided to quit the camp. I say we were all overharsh in our self-judgments, and the truth of it is that I was perhaps overharsh in chiding myself for lacking the courage to begin spieling, for certainement in those days it took great chutzpah for even the most artful and experienced of our ruespielers to address their tales to the Edojin. Indeed, more and more of them had given up trying.

For if our crafts no longer had wu in their eyes, and our buskers no longer charmed, and even our tantric services were now considered nikulturni, how much less would the Edojin be inclined to donate ruegelt or even pause to listen to tales extolling a mythos whose trend had come and gone?

As an intimate of many of the ruespielers, and moreover, one known to diligently admire and aspire to practice their art, I was invited to the convocation that was eventually held in one of the now vacant tents -- or at least my attendance was not discouraged once I got wind of it.

It was obvious at once that the generality of the meeting had been resolved before it began to quit the encampment and scatter to the winds while they still had a coin or two for the Rapide. Indeed, by this time, the cooks were not the only Gypsy Jokers who had departed. One by one, craftsmen, tantric artists, and street performers had drifted away to try their tuck in other parts of Edoku where any Gypsy Joker was a legendary creature, so that by the time the ruespielers held their meeting, the tribe was down to half its number, and of these, the majority, like myself, were Children of Fortune without the marketable skills to believe that their prospects might be better elsewhere.

One by one, ruespielers arose to announce their intention to seek fortune elsewhere. After no more than a half hour of this testimony, further reiteration of the obvious was clearly redundant, and the meeting broke up into a farewell party full of toxicated conversations.

I bade farewell to Shane and Lance and other onetime lovers in something of a daze, yet a daze heightened and amplified by something more than social toxication. For I was bidding farewell to more than friends, lovers, and artists whose tales I admired; like it or not, I was also bidding farewell to all possibility of continuing the life which had so perfectly satisfied my spirit during the Golden Summer. Pater was gone, and the central magic of that time with him. I was no longer able to earn ruegelt as a tantric performer, and now, once the ruespielers were gone, I could no longer share that life of the intellect to which I had become fondly accustomed by dallying in their company.

Yet, strange to tell, as the evening progressed I felt less and less desolated by this loss and more and more possessed by a peculiar elation, an elation whose source, under the circumstances, was impossible to find.

Until, after several hours of aimless farewell fete, Shane Kol Barka became sufficiently inflamed by the moment and his own toxication to offer up as a valedictory yet another time-warped transmogrification of the tale of The Spark of the Ark, which it would seem, he extemporized on the spot for the occasion.

"As all do know, when the First Starfaring Age ended, the way of life which had sparked the Arkies time out of mind went whirling down the onrushing black hole of the Second Starfaring Age as Void Ships began to speed between the worlds of men like the Rapide, ending the isolation of one planet from another and ending too any sane raison d'etre for the great slow arkologies which were the Yellow Brick Road caravans of the Arkie generations ..."

He paused, inhaled more toxicant, and went on in an even more florid and hectoring tone. "Yet, think ye not that the Second Starfaring Age sprung full-blown from the brow of Jove nor that the Arkies folded their tents of an evening and gave up the ghost sans a certain rage against the dying of their light! For the great and now useless arkologies still existed, and with the scrap heap as the only other bidder, some Arkies were able to purchase for a song the arkologies in which they had once been happy coolies.

"Alas for the most part theirs were pitiful and maudlin tales which hardly bear repeating, tales of the pathetic and indigent curators of a once noble spirit futilely attempting to keep alive a way of life whose time was long since past, and for the first few centuries of the Second Starfaring Age, deteriorated hulks of arkologies would drift into solar systems like ancient rusted ghosts, with their denizens long since expired from cryogenic failure or starvation, or worse, bearing a generation of babblers whose very humanity had been sapped by the slow depletion of the oxygen supply to their brains.

"Yet as all here do know, the Spark of the Ark was not extinguished by the Second Starfaring Age. For it pleased Fortune that the King of the Gypsies was then an Arkie embarked on a slow voyage of exploration far beyond what was the furthest limits of the worlds of men when it began. For long centuries, he and a few comrades slumbered in cryogenic sleep while the arkology crept with its cargo of colonists towards the far virgin star that had been set as its goal by generations long dead, while unbeknowst and unseen all around them, the great Second Starfaring Age blossomed into full flower.

"So when at last the arkology reached its preordained destination, voila, it found itself not in orbit about a virgin world far from the homes of men, but orbiting Novi Mir itself, a bustling hub of the Second Starfaring Age which had been well-settled for centuries and which now lay well within the sphere of our species' domestication.

"Thus all aboard had been translated via space through time into a far future in which the Way they thought they would follow forever had long since passed into legend. Those Arkies who had been born and lived out their lives as the last generation of the arkology's timestream became but one more tribe of fossils living out the shell of a dead dream, the very last Arkies, wandering from world to world in their Fliegende Hollander until their line expired.

"But the King of the Gypsies, upon awakening like Barbarossa from what in his timestream was but a single night's sleep, saw with the eyes of the true spirit and spoke thusly unto those who had slumbered through the centuries with him. ..."

Shane paused, and stared out across our company as if we were those ancient Arkies, and when he declaimed again, it was as that Gypsy King of old, and mayhap another.

"The days of our tribe are ended. Doomed are those fools who seek to live out a lost Golden Age, for by so doing they lose the very spirit which makes any age golden. Let us therefore not rail against the destiny that has flung us by our stiff necks beyond all hope of remaining what we once were. Rather let us embrace the unknown future with the spirit we embody, for the true Child of Fortune of whom our past personas were but one time-bound avatar knows that the Yellow Brick Road is a journey with no final destination."

Shane Kol Barka quaffed a draught of wine, and when he continued, he was the teller of the tale again, delivering his peroration.

"Thus spoke the Gypsy King of the Arkies, and by so saying became the Pied Piper of the new breed of Children of Fortune of our Second Starfaring Age. Thus spoke the King of the Gypsies and by so saying became the Prince of Jokers to our very own tribe, never truer to the spirit thereof than when he freed it from the maya we had clung to!"

Somewhat shakily, he finished in a much more conversational mode, leaning up against the chair from which he had risen and speaking not so much as a ruespieler but as a fellow Gypsy Joker.

'Thus speaks Shane Kol Barka, thus should we all speak now, and by so saying, free ourselves from our Golden Age as Gypsy Jokers and go forth into the streets of Great Edoku as naked beings in homage not to the maya but to the true spirit thereof."

While a bit short on plot and a bit long on toxicated didacticism, Shane Kol Barka's tale spoke nonetheless to the mystery which had been confounding my heart. Why had my mourning for a perfect bliss now lost been slowly replaced by an excited expectation for the nameless? Why had this occurred upon learning that my days as a consort of the ruespielers were now perforce ended?

Naturellement, because now the difficult and arduous decision to venture forth from the camp of the Gypsy Jokers as a lone traveler on the Yellow Brick Road had been removed from the realm of my own efforts. All that I might have wished to cling to had been yanked out from under me. I was now a free spirit, for I could choose no other course.

Vraiment, like all satoris, this one in retrospect seems like a recitation of the obvious, for like all satoris, it only brought to full awareness in the moment of enlightenment those unfaced truths which were inherent in what one already knew.

And like all true satoris, it sent the spirit forward into its corollaries. For by observing how an impromptu tale somewhat toxicatedly declaimed had chanced to crystallize a moment of clarity out of my own foggy occlusions, I had a glimpse of the highest achievement to which a ruespieler might aspire.

It was enough to finally make me resolve that I would not linger in the nostalgia-haunted encampment of the Gypsy Jokers on the morrow when the ruespielers would be gone. Rather would I go forth into the streets of Edoku as a naked being and, come what may, summon up the courage to emulate my noble mentors.

* * *

And indeed I did so. Or at least I stuffed my few belongings into my pack, made my farewells, and sweet-talked Ali out of sufficient ruegelt as a bon voyage gesture to finance a single Rapide trip to nowhere in particular.

Indeed, rather than return to any venue on Edoku I had previously frequented, nowhere in particular was where I decided to go. Which is to say I simply ordered up the lengthy list of "Public Squares" on the screen of my Bubble, closed my eyes as the choices scrolled by, and chose the first destination to meet my eyes when I opened them. "Luzplatz," I told the Rapide, and was forthwith carried thither.

Immediately upon emerging from the Rapide station, which was hidden in plain sight as a strobing cube of blue brilliance, I was given cause to wonder what jape the trickster of random chance enjoyed at my expense, and given cause as well to realize to what extent I had forgotten that the vecino around the Gypsy Joker encampment was in no way any more typical of Great Edoku than any venue therein was typical of any other.

All unknowing, I had chosen to expend my funds on a one-way Rapide translation to perhaps the most outre and daunting vecino I had yet seen on the planet.

I was surrounded by tall buildings as stark in their rectilinearity and as pristine in their neutral surface texture as a forest of monoliths. Which is not to say that the buildings surrounding the Luzplatz were paragons of unadorned functionality, for every surface thereof was ablaze with a chaos of color to the point where at first glance they all appeared to be constructed not of matter but of energy, Some walls were simple glowing expanses of red or blue or hot yellow, others were covered with arabesque patterns, serpents, rivers of multicolored luminosity. Some displayed portraits of landscapes, or cities, or even people, done up in highly stylized modes with a palette of light. Some of these patterns and pictures remained static, some of them evolved slowly over time, and still others moved in real time like a holocine. No building seemed illumined in a style designed to blend harmoniously with that of any other, and even one wall of a single building might display lighting effects of three or four different modes.

It was quite literally a dazzling spectacle, for the eye was hard-pressed to resolve this chaotic brilliance into coherent architectural modules; rather did it seem to me that I was surrounded by huge jagged curtains of light patched together out of assorted swatches of multicolored energy, not unlike the Cloth of Many Colors which I wore as a sash about my waist.

The Luzplatz itself was a wide circular strogat formed by the convergence of half a dozen radial avenues. The outer perimeter thereof was girdled round with boutiques, tavernas, restaurants, and the entrances to hotels, all illumined in the same riotous melange of styles. In the center of this circular platz thronged with people was a piece de resistance of a bonsaied landscape suitable to the extravagance of the vecino of which it formed the axis.

A moat of foaming water completely surrounded a heavily wooded island which rose to a mountain peak perhaps seventy meters tall. Everything was in perfect scale -- tiny breakers lapping a fringe of white beach less than a meter wide, miniature trees as tall as my finger was long, barely visible rivulets of water tumbling down little canyons -- yet the whole was dwarfed by the brazenly brilliant ersatz works of men surrounding it.

But the effect of the bonsaied island was in no way diminished by this reversal of scale between the urban and natural realms, for the central peak thereof was a mighty miniature volcano in the permanent full glory of eruption. Red hot lava flowed down its sides to send clouds of hissing steam billowing into the air where it touched the water of the moat. The crater glowed like a cauldron of starstuff, and at regular intervals blasted fusillades of brilliant bolides high in the air. Above it towered a boiling pillar of smoke which rose beyond the tops of the buildings into the black, star-speckled sky and which glowed an evil deep orange cast by the furnace of magma seething beneath it.

Moreover, after my senses had to some extent adjusted to all this perpetual light and fire, I saw that, shrunken with distance, was another spectacle curiously congruent with the endless volcanic display of the Luzplatz.

The entire vecino lay under perpetually clear black starry night, all the better to set off its mad chaos of aggressively artificial illumination, and the surrounding geography was therefore veiled in darkness. The single exception was a full-scale snow-capped cone of a mountain shining in its own private blaze of noon in the far distance. The eye could tell at once that it was far off and huge rather than another nearby miniature, for on its somewhat flattened peak, suborbital rocket shuttles could be seen to take off and land on thin trails of fire, and so too did less flamboyant shuttles arrive and depart thereon to service Void Ships in orbit.

The tame bonsaied volcano, the brilliantly lit buildings towering over it, the gateway to the stars in turn dwarfed by the perspective of distance, it all seemed designed to make some elusive philosophical statement, whose inner esthetic, alas, seemed entirely ambiguous to any but the Edojin.

Suffice it to say that all at once I found myself a rube in Xanadu once more, a Child of Fortune ordinaire among many, a stranger once more in Great and unfathomable Edoku.

***

There were several Publics in the immediate vecino of the Luzplatz, and despite initial appearances, a short walk in any direction was sufficient to take me to any one of several different styles of parkland and garden in which to sleep. In this arrondissement, as elsewhere on Edoku, my simple animal needs presented no practical problems.

Indeed, had I wished, no doubt I could have satisfied less basic needs in the Publics of the Luzplatz, for during my brief forays therein, I soon enough learned that the organized tribes in this vecino were few and mainly devoted to the pickpocket's and pilferer's trades, while the mystique of the Gypsy Jokers was far from unknown. I had only to wear my Cloth of Many Colors to be immediately accounted an aristocrat in these circles, albeit a somewhat fallen one. On the other hand, knowledgeable as I had become in the various enterprises of the streets in comparison with these greeners, I could have concealed my tribal identity and no doubt speedily organized my own little tribe with myself as domo.

Nevertheless, I chose to do neither. Young I might have been, but never jejune enough to fantasize a return to the society of the Publics in which I had been a commoner as a petty little queen. Disbanded though the Gypsy Jokers might be, I was still too infused with the spirit thereof to wear the Cloth of Many Colors and eat fressen in Publics at the same time.

I therefore chose for a time the vie of the solitary, venturing into the Publics in anonymity when necessary but eschewing, for the most part, the social life, such as it was, to be had by lingering therein. For I had sworn an oath to myself that I would go forward along the Yellow Brick Road as a ruespieler, never backward into the society out of which I had evolved, and indeed, I knew on some inner level that by keeping to my own company, I would be forced to screw up my courage to declaim, if only to escape from ennui.

I spent my first few days in the vecino of the Luzplatz haunting the stroget surrounding the volcano, assessing the ambiance, familiarizing myself with the ebb and flow of street traffic, sizing up the crowds, und so weiter, or so I told myself. In truth, of course, I was accomplishing nothing at all save procrastination, for the Luzplatz was thronged at all hours, the ebb and flow of the bustle resembled nothing so much as the randomness of brownian motion, and as for the ambiance, it was the very same melange of purposeful commerce and hedonic extravagance to be found in any similar venue on Edoku, if energized to a somewhat higher pitch by the blazing displays of light and the perpetual eruption of the bonsaied volcano.

At length, this cowardly dissembling became all too evident as such even to the most superficial levels of my self-awareness, and there was nothing for it but to proceed into the heart of my fear.

There was a ring of stone benches circling the moat around the volcano, and, forcing any further thoughts from my mind, I took off my pack, jumped up on the nearest bench, spread my arms wide as I had watched many ruespielers do, and announced the title of my spiel in as loud a shout as I could muster, if in a voice not exactly without a tremulo: "The -- the Tale of the Spark of the Ark!"

While I could see that I had caught the momentary attention of most of the passersby within range of my voice by the simple expedient of leaping into prominent visibility and assaulting their eardrums, the same effect could as easily have been produced by setting off an explosion, which is to say that heads turned at the sound of the noise, but as soon as the source thereof had been verified, all those whose attention had been attracted went on about their previous business and pleasures.

Far from undaunted, but by now thoroughly committed, I focused my eyes on the arabesque patterns of light swirling across the wall of a nearby building to shield myself from knowledge of the size of my audience or the utter lack thereof, and launched into my own recomplicated declamation of the version of the tale that Shane Kol Barka had told at the ruespielers' farewell fete, for this had been spontaneously declaimed in such rude style, yet with such effect, at least upon my own spirit, that I felt that even such as I might retell it with some improvement,

"Think not that the Second Starfaring Age sprang full-blown from the brow of We Who Have Gone Before when the Jump Drive was invented, nor that the Arkies of the First Starfaring Age meekly gave over a noble way of life that had endured for millennia when the Void Ships began to knit together the isolated island worlds of men! For the Spark of the Ark is with us today, attend my tale and learn how ..."

While I was attempting to avoid gazing upon the passing throng as I continued to declaim for fear of being entirely tongue-tied by what I might see, I could not avoid counting the house, as it were, out of the corner of my eye, and perceiving to my dismay that it was nil. Nowhere in all that bustle and movement could I detect a stationary person or a look of rapt attention.

"... some Arkies were able to purchase the arkologies in which they had been ... in which they had been willing coolies ..."

What a fool I felt! Standing there shouting into an entirely indifferent whirlwind! Yet strangely, the more foolish and futile I felt, the more I felt my courage grow, for as I grew to lose all hope of attracting an attentive audience, the acceptance of certain defeat by this measure caused me to redefine victory into something attainable, which is to say that I was seized by the angry determination that, come what may, I would not be silenced by indifference, I would tell my tale to the end, even if the only audience was my own spirit.

"... for it pleased Fortune that the Piper of Pan followed the Arkies he had led on a long slow voyage of exploration beyond the furthest known limits of the worlds of men ..."

With hindsight's vision, and not without a certain affection for that foolishly brave girl tremulously declaiming her tale into a vacuum, do I now perceive what a strange, noble, and pathetic figure I cut, an urchin with a pack at her feet standing on a bench before the dwarfing spectacle of an erupting volcano, shouting at the indifferent milling throngs, first in hope, then in embarrassed terror, and finally with the full-throated voice of wounded outrage.

Yet, to my own inner credit, I persisted, and when I finally came to the end of the ordeal, my voice was firm, my body was trembling, my spirit was addressing persons unknown or at least unseen, and I fairly shouted my defiance, switching to Lance Della Imre's florid version of the peroration at the end of the tale.

"And where in our Second Starfaring Age is the Spark of the Ark to be found? Everywhere! Nowhere! On Great Edoku itself in the very Children of Fortune that you scorn! Vraiment, in the teller of this tale! Even within the Arkie Sparkie hearts of all you poor quotidian Edojin who still retain within yourselves the nobility of spirit to honor at least the memory thereof within you by showering me with ruegelt!"

Alas, of course, nothing of the sort happened. Instead I stood there trembling, sweaty, sore of voice and empty of spirit, while throngs of Edojin went their lordly ways with no more than a shrug here, a moue of distaste there, a few passing heads nodding ironically to each other.

A single soul deigned, or mayhap merely chanced, to meet my eyes: a green-haired woman with space-black skin dressed in a flowing gown of golden cloth. She looked at me for a moment en passant, shook her head ruefully, smirked, shrugged, then airily tossed a single coin in my direction.

I know not what was in her heart, or rather I choose not to dwell upon my surmise, for whatever melange of contempt, pity, or rueful admiration caused what to her was no doubt a casual gesture immediately forgotten, of all the coin I was to earn at the ruespieler's trade, none ever meant more to me in the moment of donation thereof than that very first.

***

Nor was I to earn very much more ruegelt in the Luzplatz until Fortune chose to smile on me in the unlikely person of Guy Vlad Boca.

Each day for a week I repaired to the Luzplatz, mounted my bench, and declaimed one tale or another of the repertoire I had learned from the ruespielers of the Gypsy Jokers. I found to my considerable satisfaction that once I had dared this for the first time and survived the indifference of the throngs who refused to become my audience, once I had conquered both the initial fear and subsequent embarrassment of failure, the act of spieling my tales in public held little further terror.

Alas, I also found to my considerable consternation that while repetition might work to ease my trepidation and improve my delivery, the results remained all too negligible. Now and again a few people might pause to listen to a portion of my tale before moving on, upon occasion a few isolated Edojin might even stay for a full performance, but sad to say, the number of coins I accumulated in a week was exceeded by the number of days therein.

As to what part my rudeness in the performance of my art played in this paucity of donations, I am both too proud and too modest to attempt to assay, but certainement the mythos I was extolling seemed as much currently out of favor here in the Luzplatz as it had become in the vecino of the Gypsy Joker encampment. Shorn of the aura of charm in the eyes of the Edojin which seemed to have departed with Pater Pan, the figure of a Child of Fortune ruespieler celebrating the mythos of her kind had little power to hold an audience in the person of a somewhat bedraggled young girl seeking to draw approving attention to her own spectacle from that of an erupting volcano!

Vraiment, it was impossible to hide this perception from myself for very long, yet what else was I to do but persist? True, I might have used my handful of coins to take the Rapide to greener pastures, but I had no notion of where such' a venue might be found, and it somehow seemed better to squander them on a single modest meal in a taverna to prove to myself that I had at least earned one day's respite from fressen.

The truth of the matter was that while I longed for escape from my current karma, indeed while I came to decide that I had had more than my fill of Edoku, no such avenue of escape was open, unless I was willing to surrender the life of a Child of Fortune and return to Glade. And having been the lover of Pater Pan, gained access to the Gypsy Jokers, learned the rudiments of the ruespieler's art, and even begun to practice it, if not exactly remuneratively, I was not about to slink home as a failure in my own eyes.

From this static karma, I was to be rescued by Guy Vlad Boca, my self-styled Merchant Prince, though when I first set eyes on him, he seemed anything but my savior.

Once again, I was standing on my bench before the ludicrously mighty backdrop of the Luzplatz's volcano, declaiming into a void with little hope of monetary reward. On this occasion, I was attempting for the first time Nuri John Barbrera's truly bizarre and historically highly inaccurate The Name Tale of We Who Have Gone Before, for while this might be one of the most difficult of all the tales I knew to tell, it had the twin virtues of enlivening the mythic panoply of the Child of Fortune cycle with the inclusion of both We Who Have Gone Before and the Void Pilot as additional elements.

In this tale, the Arkies of the arkology which first discovered the planet of the vanished sapients are the Child of Fortune figures, but rather than have the historical Alia Haste Moguchi and her mages toil for years to wrest the secret of the Jump Drive from the arcane artifacts thereon, she is transmogrified into the ur-scientist Faust, who straightaway scribes a pentagon of confinement around his computer, and summons up the departed spirit of We Who Have Gone Before with arcane incantations and puissant personality-modeling programs.

By the mating of this alien dybbuk's mythic phallus with the willing yoni of his own lover, she who will therefore become known to the dark fascination of our Second Starfaring Age as the Void Pilot, will he therefore be enabled to Jump in an augenblick of their cusp through long light years of the void between the stars.

Since the unknown nature and fate of We Who Have Gone Before is the central mystery of the Second Starfaring Age, and since the Void Pilot is our high priestess thereof, mayhap this at least would have more timeless appeal to the Edojin than further unvarnished celebrations of the Child of Fortune mystique, which, if truth be told, were beginning to wear a little thin even to my own ears.

Be such hopes as they may, matters went pretty much as before until I reached the point in the tale where Faust first peers within the pentagram to behold in dismay what his arcane powers have conjured.

"Faust's gorge rose and his disgust equaled his outrage as he beheld his Mephisto, for rather than appearing in the avatar of a lofty alien sage, the demon spirit of the vanished race of starfarers had incarnated itself in human archetype as the horny billy goat Pan, chortling lubriciously and stroking his mighty phallus --"

"And so are We Who Have Come Before!" I heard a loud and entirely boorish male voice shout to a sprinkling shower of laughter.

"But not even this could sway Faust's purpose," I persisted, imagining in that moment that I knew quite well how he must have felt. "With cooing words and iron determination did he lead his reluctant Beauty to the mystic boudoir of the anything but reluctant Beast."

"Quelle chose! Let Beauty speak for feminine reluctance, but let the Faust of the species speak for our own priapic beast, bitte!"

My ears burned with another round of laughter, and my ire rose against this buffoon. It could hardly be said that I was such an object of public favor that the sanity of my spirit required a heckler to deflate my overweening confidence.

"Let such professions of masculine swinishness await their own good time," I snapped back, "for soon enough the fruits thereof shall certainement be revealed, minnlein, as the lingam of We Who Have Gone Before penetrates the yoni of the Pilot to the priapic piping of Pan!"

That, at least, was an image of sufficient outrageous crudity to command at least an interval of silence from any audience, and vraiment, it could now be said that something in the way of an audience was indeed in evidence, for a small but definitely interested crowd had now formed before my bench.

"For voila, as the unnatural lovers attain their Great and Only cusp, it is the Pilot and the Arkies who Go Before to carry the Arkie Spark forth from the transient world of history into the legendary now of our Second Starfaring Age, while Faust, poor Faust, is left behind to lust forever after tantric mysteries beyond his poor constipated ken."

"Alors, first you style Faust a fellow willing to procure his own inamorata to a goat, and then you accuse the very same unprincipled rogue of an excess of righteous anality!" said the voice from the crowd.

"It would not be the last time Circe transformed a perfect master of the masculine gender into a barnyard maquereau," I rejoined to modest titters. "And lest anyone doubt the ability of the femme fatale of our species to truly transform men into swine, voila, observe the living example!"

At this there was quite a more satisfying round of laughter, for the source of all this disturbance was now striding boldly forward to this introduction, through the small knot of Edojin, who only too willingly parted to allow what by now they no doubt considered my foil to approach my rude stage.

In truth, he was quite a handsome young man, somewhat thespically accoutred all in black velvet to match his long flowing black hair, and somehow also appropriate to his pouting lips and languid carriage. He wore his skin au naturel, rather than tinted in the Edojin mode. All in all, even I in my anger had to own that this Prince of Swine presented a visual aspect entirely more pleasing than the boorishness of his manners.

"Hola, what a -- mythmash!" the fellow exclaimed, giving me a conspiratorial wink whose meaning was then entirely beyond my comprehension, and then turning to face the little crowd with his arms folded across each other in a gesture of hauteur.

"Is it not enough that you have gifted Alia Haste Moguchi with a phallus and renamed her Faust? And proceeded to outfit him or her or it with the Goddess of Swine as consort? Vraiment, and styled the arcane spirit of We Who Have Gone Before as a slavering goat-creature with an enormous throbbing wong? Now would you have these good folk believe that the Jump Drive which propels our Void Ships from star to star consists of a goat copulating with the queen of the pig people? Who would have thought that such a fair young visage could mask a foul mind of such perversity!"

At this there was a bout of laughter at my expense which fairly singed my ears. "It takes one to know one, n'est-ce pas?" I said. "Vraiment, who but a low-minded maestro of perversity could hear the tale of the birth of our great age rendered in lofty metaphor and on the spot immediately translate it into the bestial imagery of his own poor excuse for a mind?"

"Was I the one who styled Alia Haste Moguchi a maquereau named Faust, We Who Have Gone Before a priapic billy goat, and the figure of the Pilot the queen of the pig people?"

"Vraiment, for like all who lack the art to tell a tale but conceive themselves gifted with the intellect to serve as critics of same, your snout is rooted in the quotidian muck of literality and your ears are deaf to the metaphorical music of the spheres. You are therefore a true brother-spirit to the Faust of my tale."

"Moi? Good folk, I swear a solemn oath that never have I served as matchmaker to the mating of a goat and a pig for my own amusement!"

"I stand corrected," I said, "for quite obviously rather than being the matchmaker, you are the progeny thereof!"

At this, I was rewarded by the cresting of the continuous undercurrent that had begun to serve as counterpoint to our exchange into a fine breaker of laughter. Indeed, by now I had begun to perceive what had degenerated into a contest of insults as a sporting event devoid of all real malice. Moreover, the coherence and thrust of my tale having been entirely destroyed thereby to the amusement of the first audience that had ever paid me heed, I decided to give over any further attempts to continue in an earnest vein and ride with the current flow of karma.

"And you, I surmise, fancy yourself the Pilot of the tale?" he rejoined when the laughter had subsided. "Or may hap the horny goat-god? I confess to a certain confusion in these matters of gender, for as the teller thereof, you seem to have enough difficulty keeping the species of the participants in your orgy straight!"

"Whereas you when participating in your orgies no doubt have difficulty keeping .. other matters straight!"

To the roar of ribald laughter which greeted this jape, he leapt onto the bench beside me, declaring: "Au contraire, I now must stand revealed as the great billy goat Pan himself, for I cannot fail to ... rise to such a challenge." And he rolled both his eyes and hips lubriciously.

"Well spoken!" I said. "In truth, we were all growing somewhat jaded with the ... limpness of your responses! I much prefer the self-proclaimed libidinal billy goat to the impotent creature of the intellect."

"No doubt! For I surmised all along that your desire was to play Circe to my Pan!"

"Au contraire," I proclaimed, "for while I may lay claim to the tantric puissance to turn a man such as yourself into a swine, reversing the procedure is clearly an act of prestidigitation beyond the scope of any woman's art!"

So saying, I thumbed on my ring of Touch, and, out of sight of the laughing crowd, thrust my hand deep into the crack of his buttocks. What happened next seemed to owe as much to the quickness of his thespic instincts as to the sudden kundalinic shock which must have taken him completely by surprise, for he screwed up his face into an outrageous caricature of swinish rut, sank to his knees grunting and making to plant slobbering kisses at my feet, leaving his derriere high in the air with my hand planted therein for all the world to see.

Having achieved this apex, or rather nadir, of obscene comedy, there was nothing for it but to maintain this grotesque figure for a long moment, while the audience, which by the time of this climax had reached some several score, roared and groaned, and began to toss coins.

Upon being showered with the first few droplets of what became a substantial rain of ruegelt, as if by prearranged choreography, we disengaged from our ribald tableau, glanced back and forth at each other, and, holding hands, assumed bowing postures until coin no longer rained upon us and the impromptu audience dispersed.

"Allow me to make a somewhat more formal introduction, " he said, as he aided me in scooping up the booty. "Guy Vlad Boca, servidor de usted."

Vraiment, in his outre manner, he had served me well, for there were some three score pieces of ruegelt by my immediate rude estimation. A few weeks of the same success at various venues and we might gain sufficient ruegelt to quit Edoku for other planets of our respective choosing.

"I somehow sense that you are no Edojin ...?" I asked hopefully.

"Moi?" he said with a little laugh. "Far from it, I am a simple Child of Fortune like yourself."

"Bon!" I declared, for this was precisely as I wished. "May I suggest we dine together at our mutual expense, for together we have certainly garnered enough funds to escape from the vileness of fressen, and together I believe we have affairs of mutual profit to discuss."

"I would be delighted to dine with you and I am sure I would find our discourse amusing at the very least," Guy said somewhat superciliously, or so it seemed. "May I in turn suggest the Crystal Palace, an emporium whose cuisine I have ... ah, heard, is of high repute?"

"Porque no?" I agreed, for I had no counterproposal to make.

"And whom shall I have the honor of dining with?" Guy asked.

"I am Moussa Shasta --" I paused, hefting the weight of the ruegelt I had just earned by my own wits, if at the cost of my unremunerative dignity. "I am Sunshine Shasta Leonardo, Gypsy Joker and ruespieler extraordinaire," I told him. For had I not at long last also earned the right to style myself thusly?
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Re: Child of Fortune, by Norman Spinrad

Postby admin » Sat Mar 19, 2016 6:00 am

Chapter 12

Guy conducted me via Rapide to a narrow range of small mountains whose crestline formed a sharp divide between a sunrise savannah stocked with all manner of gene-crafted ungulates and a steamy swampland glowing in a perpetual sunset and done up in thick woodland not unreminiscent of the Bittersweet Jungle of Glade. The mountains themselves were entirely two- faced: rugged rock walls confronting sunset, gentle wooded slopes greeting the dawn.

The Crystal Palace was situated squarely athwart the divide, so that with a slight twist of the neck one might traverse in an augenblick the temporal distance between sunrise and sunset without being troubled by the quotidian daylight hours between, and it truly was a palace of crystal. Not only were walls and ceiling of a perfect colorless transparency, the very tables and chaises were of the same clear substance, and the floor was a mirror reflecting the sky. Even the cushions on our chaises were of some soft transparent substance, indeed the very plates, chopsticks, and even serviettes were transparent.

The esthetic effect of all this transparency, far from being one of colorless asceticism, was precisely the reverse: walls, ceiling, floors, furniture, tableware, the very air within the salon itself, seemed magically conjured out of the very fires of sunrise and sunset themselves, a venue of gorgeous oranges, mauves and purples, in which the only decor was the essences of the colors themselves.

As for the cuisine, which I gracefully allowed Guy to order up, we dined on a feast of some twenty tiny dishes presented in the rijsttafel mode, though in place of the traditional pot of steamed rice as the ground for the multiplicity of cuisinary miniatures, we were served a great mound of thin and highly saffroned pasta gently fried almost to the point of crispness in some pungent oil. With this repast, we drank a powerful clear wine, like an aromatic sake, which seemed to be laced with mildly psychotropic herbs.

Reposing there in a palace of romantic light liberally sprinkled with richly clad Edojin, daintily picking at artfully prepared dishes representing a good dozen different cuisinary modes, sipping at a wine which warmed my body with a fine sensual glow, I felt several light-years removed from the quotidian vie ordinaire I had so long endured on Edoku. Once more I had returned to the pampered haut monde which I had enjoyed as a favored daughter of the elite of Nouvelle Orlean, as a haut turista on Edoku itself who had airily gone through two months' worth of funds in the same number of weeks. While my time as a Gypsy Joker and lover of the great Pater Pan still shone in memory's afterglow, here I felt that I had returned to my proper station. And it was a grace from which I was determined not to fall again.

And Guy Vlad Boca, so it seemed to me, was the chip of credit, as it were, whereby such a style of life might be indefinitely sustained, if only I could bend his services to my purpose.

In the service of which, I therefore kept my ring of Touch activated, and continually contrived to chance to brush my hand against various portions of his anatomy as we ate, drank, and spoke -- touching his hand or arm to emphasize points of my discourse, patting his thigh in innocent friendly appreciation, snuggling close to him, and in general exercising the usual seductive feminine wiles, greatly augmented by my secret electronic power.

Nor, if truth be told, was I myself entirely immune to the erotic aura which I spun around our intimate tete-a-tete, for certainement he was a handsome enough fellow, with a languid and loose-limbed air that bespoke an attractively sensual spirit, he had proven himself quick and clever enough, and the rosy atmospheric glow of the Crystal Palace, not to say that of the toxicants in the wine, suffused my own body with a pleasantly lustful warmth.

"I sense that our fortunes were intended by destiny to pleasantly intertwine, Guy," I told him, leaning quite close and regarding him coyly over the lip of my wineglass while smoothing his leg with my hand.

"Indeed," he said, his eyes warmed by a smoky sunset glow, "I would have little objection to some pleasant intertwining once our gustatory appetites have been properly sated."

"All in its own good time," I promised. "But I have in mind an enterprise even more intimate than a passage d'amour, indeed one which would spice the same with the piquancy of a deeper sharing, much as the psychotropics in this wine enhance its toxicating pleasures ..."

"Mmmmm ...?" he purred dreamily.

"Our very presence here bespeaks our combined ability to profit together at the ruespieler's trade, ne ..."

"Ruespieler? Moi?" he said with a certain lack of focus, for my hand had slid further inward along his thigh.

"You have never been a ruespieler?" I said in some surprise. "I would have thought ..."

He beamed at me and moved his face closer to mine. "I have never told a tale in my life," he said. "Though I own to a quick wit verbal ..."

"Well then fear not, and leave matters of repertoire to me," I assured him somewhat hyperbolically. "In fact what I have in mind requires no learning in the ruespieler's art."

"What I have in mind requires no verbal skill at all, " he cooed, clasping his hand upon mine as it held my glass. I withdrew my other hand from his thigh, the better to focus his flagging intellect on my words. He pursed his lips in a moue of minor pique.

"Be serious, Guy!" I chided him. "Attend! What I propose is that you and I repeat what we have to our profit so recently performed until we have secured enough funds to purchase electrocoma passage to some other world, and in the meantime to purchase pleasures such as this which Edoku affords. Within a month, we should be on our way."

"Hmmm ..." he said. "Would not such an entertainment soon jade the Edojin, whose fickleness is all too legendary?"

"We need not perform in the same venue twice," I told him. "Moreover, while continuing to play the same bantering duet, we might contrive to vary our japes from time to time for variety's sake." I replaced my stroking hand upon his thigh, moved it even closer to the kundalinic quick of him, and gazed romantically into his eyes. "Well what do you say, Guy? Partners and lovers in the grand adventure of the Yellow Brick Road to our mutual pleasure and enrichment ...?"

"Wandering troubadours of erotic comedy together?" he mused somewhat superciliously. "Guy Vlad Boca, Child of Fortune and ruespieler extraordinaire, with his lady by his side ...?"

"Vraiment! What do you think?"

"Je ne sais pas ..." he said in a bantering tone. "It might be drole ... I can see some possibilities for amusement ..."

"Merde"' I exclaimed. "Drole? Amusement? I offer you a partnership of love and profit and that is the best you have to say for yourself?"

Guy leaned even closer and leered at me slyly. "Guy Vlad Boca has never been one to pursue an enterprise for mere pecuniary gain," he said loftily. "As for love, such might convince me to agree, though it would take some art. At the very least, a demonstration thereof is in order, ne ..."

I tugged briefly and none too gently at the handle of his manhood as if to yank him thereby out of his supercilious mood and watched his eyes go wide and his full lips tremble. "If it is a demonstration you require, " I said forcefully, staring deep into his eyes, "I shall provide one that will leave you shaking like jelly and panting to serve my yoni ..."

"Indeed?" he replied throatily. "In point of fact, that end, at any rate, you have achieved already ..."

***

In some haste, we guzzled down the last of our wine, and settled up the tab, which, alas, consumed most of the ruegelt we had earned together. But this minor catastrophe barely impinged upon my mood, for certainement there would be no lack of funds once I had worked my tantric puissance on Guy and won him to our enterprise.

The choice of cuisinary venue having been Guy's, the choice of boudoir was left to me, both to serve the balance of reciprocation, and for the reason that Guy, by now consumed by priapic lust, seemed entirely unequipped to give that nicety or any other serious and judicious consideration. Lacking sufficient funds to rent a chamber in a hotel, and not wishing to perform our nuptials in the nearest secluded woodland or garden, I conducted us via Rapide to the garden atop the butte, where, what now seemed like half a lifetime's karma ago, Pater Pan had conducted me for our first passage d'amour.

Upon emerging from the lift tube which carried us from the base of the waterfall to the shallow bowl of gardens sunk into the cliff top, a not unpleasant feeling of sweet tristesse for that lover in this venue at that temporal nexus spiced my anticipation of what was to come, as hand in hand with Guy I beheld the little rolling green hills and dells, the crystal pools and burbling brooks, the blooming stands of trees planted along the hilltops as hedges of seclusion. I inhaled the warm perfumed breezes, bounced gaily in the low gravity gradient, removed my shoes and luxuriated in the strange turflike feel of the lawn beneath my bare feet, as I led Guy to a dell by a pool, not unlike the one in which I had first shared love with Pater.

At length, when we reposed on the velvety lawn beneath the cerulean sky, I looked inquiringly at Guy, seeking his approval of the wu of the venue I had chosen.

Guy slowly ran his gaze about the flowering trees on the hillcrest above us, the clear pool on whose shore we lay, the forest rimming the horizon, then regarded me as if sizing up my relation to this bucolic paradise.

"Well?" I finally demanded.

"Quaint," he said in that supercilious tone with which I was becoming quite familiar. "In fact, all in all, rather charming." Then, seeing that consternation upon my face which had been his jocular intent to evoke all along, he broke into goodnatured, albeit raucous, laughter.

"What a beast you are, Guy Vlad Boca!" I exclaimed in much the same spirit. "How in need you are of proper taming!"

So saying, I rolled over upon him, clasping my lips to his, and running my hands, both natural and electronically augmented, freely over the most intimate parts of his body.

How unlike the response of Pater Pan in this very venue upon a similar occasion Guy's was, indeed how unlike the response of any male within my experience! Far from returning my challenge to the pouvoir of his manhood with attempts at overmastery of his own, far from entering into a loverly contest of erotic wills aimed at contesting my mastery of him through pleasure with his own skill at the evoking of same, he immediately gave himself over to unbridled and entirely unconstrained enjoyment of my ministrations. He embraced me tenderly but with little force, he rained little soft kisses on the nape of my neck as I seized his lingam, he moaned and sighed, he fairly purred as I enveloped his body, his head rolling back and forth, eyes half closed, as he flowed softly beneath me like the waves of a tropical sea.

Strange to tell, this entirely frank self-absorption in his own pleasure, far from vexing me with its openly languid passivity, inflamed my lust to a fever pitch in some arcane manner. When we broke our embrace to disrobe, it was I who stripped off my tunic in graceless haste, and he who slowly and teasingly shed his clothing as if for my delectation, smiling slyly at me all the while.

When our nude bodies came together, vraiment, he assumed the superior position and thrust his manly lingam home with a rhythm that left nothing to be desired in terms of vigor, but there was nothing of the rutting animal or egoistic cocksman about it.

Instead, as I spurred him on with my Touch deep in the root of him, he gave himself over to a slow and smoky ecstasy, as if experiencing my pleasure as his own, and somehow turning back his own wanton enjoyment of my preternatural powers upon myself, so that the more I perceived his thoughtless and mindless appreciation of the moment-to-moment pleasure, the more I became inflamed with the lust to drive him to ever more wild heights of abandon.

Our passage d'amour went on and on in this vein for an endless, or at any rate measureless, time, and though we essayed tantric figures of some variety, the inner figure never changed. Vraiment, though I had had lovers of greater artistry and certainement of more sheer tantric power, never had I experienced such a total egoless surrender to ecstasy at my touch as that of Guy Vlad Boca, and never had a man therefore made me feel more potent as a mistress of the tantric arts. Mayhap this is what spurs a man on to feats of tantric heroism in the arms of a woman; je ne sais pas. Suffice it to say that when at length, verdad at what seemed like tantalizingly languid leisure, we eased seamlessly into one single mutual cusp, I felt entirely content, indeed overweeningly pleased with what I had wrought.

Guy, for his part, lay on his back with his hands clasped behind his head, his full lips parted in a sensuous smile of pleasure, his breath deep and slow, and his eyes shut to the world for a long while before he summoned up the composure to speak.

"Now that," he finally said, "was amusing."

"Amusing!" I shrieked. "Is that all anything is to you, Guy, amusing?"

Guy propped himself up against the slope of the dell and softened my anger with a little laugh. "Au contraire," he said. "It takes a great deal to truly amuse me. If you knew me better, you would know to what lengths I am willing to go to be amused, and that I have in fact paid you the highest compliment of which I am capable."

"Well, then," I said, somewhat mollified, "have I sufficiently amused you to convince you that my proposition that we ruespiel together as partners and lovers until we have accumulated sufficient funds to leave Edoku offers enough hope of further amusement for you to consent to give it a try?"

Guy laughed. He regarded me with the strangest unreadable expression. "Oh verdad!" he said. "I can think of no one else I would rather have as a traveling companion. However ... I must confess that thusfar I have been traveling with you under somewhat false pretenses."

"False pretenses?"

"Hai! I fear I have thusfar withheld complete revelation of the full grandeur of my being."

At this modest confession, I was quite literally rendered speechless.

Guy, naturellement, suffered no such aphasia. "All we have told each other is our status as Children of Fortune and our names," he said. "Let us now therefore exchange the tales thereof and I promise you all will be gloriously revealed to your delight. Please begin, Sunshine, for I would not wish your name tale to come as a great anticlimax."

So bemused was I at all this mystery that I scarcely reacted to the implied insult in my haste to get to the bottom of it, which is to say I did as he asked, relating the tales of my maternom and paternom without of course mentioning the Touch, and telling the tale of my nom de rue, Sunshine, and my career as a Gypsy Joker, without needlessly over-emphasizing the degree and depth of my intimacy with Pater Pan.

"Drole," Guy said when I had finished. "A true Child of Fortune of the spirit!" He rose to his feet and tied the arms of his black velvet blouson about his neck so as to accoutre himself with a swirling cloak, more for thespic effect than out of any modest impulse to clothe his nakedness.

"I am Guy Vlad Boca," he declaimed grandly, "and while I too am a true Child of Fortune of the spirit, I hardly need reduce myself to begging in the streets in order to travel from planet to planet as insensate cargo in electrocoma, danke, nor need anyone upon whom I choose to bestow my favor.

"My mother, Boca Morgana Khan, was born to parents of rather formidable wealth on Melloria, her father being Khan Norman Margo, magnate of fabriks on several worlds, and her mother Morgana Desiree Colin, a Void Ship domo of no little repute before meeting her father. Her freenom, Boca, she chose after a wanderjahr amusing herself in the floating cultura homage a La Boca Felicita, a legendary singer and thespian of the First Starfaring Age, for while she never followed that trade, or truth be told any other, she fancied that her great beauty, wit, and sweet voice would surely have served to gain her fortune thereat had not her patrimony felicitously removed the necessity.

"My father, Vlad Dominik Ella, was born into more modest circumstances on Novi Mir. His father, Dominik Ivan Dona, was the proprietor of a palace of pleasure, and his mother, Ella Dane Krasnaya, labored therein as an artiste ordinaire. His freenom, Vlad, he chose after a wanderjahr begun as a freeservant on Void Ships and concluded as an established gambler and tantric performer on same, homage a one Vlad the Impaler, a legendary monster of prehistory, famed, naturellement, for his numerous acts of impalement, though apparently not of the sort of which my father was boasting.

"My parents met aboard the Celestial City, and it was pheromonic congruence at first sight, or at any rate upon first impalement. Boca's parents, naturellement, were somewhat less than enthused when she returned to Melloria with such a swain, marking Vlad as a fortune hunter, which, in a certain sense, he was. In return for his acceptance of a probationary year, Khan Norman Margo gifted him with a substantial sum of credit, with the understanding that only if he returned with this wealth doubled would he be welcomed as a kinsman, expecting, no doubt, that that would be the last he would see of this rake.

"However, to the delight of all concerned, Vlad's instincts as a gambler, and perhaps his penchant for impalement as well, when combined with working capital, served him in good stead as a traveling merchant, trading among the worlds of men in whatever commodities might be bought cheap and sold dear, and when he returned to Melloria, his wealth had in fact quadrupled.

"Today, my father, Vlad Dominik Ella, is the owner and maestro of Interstellar Master Traders, and his wealth exceeds that of my mother's parents by an order of magnitude."

Having concluded his declamation of this extravagant name tale, Guy sat down beside me as if to reestablish our less formal relationship. "And so here you see before you Guy Vlad Boca, Child of Fortune on his wanderjahr vraiment, but no wandering minstrel I!" he said. "Rather I am the scion of Interstellar Master Traders, a Merchant Prince, as it were, traveling at leisure from world to world for my own amusement to be sure, but also absorbing the lore of my future trade."

He reached into a pocket of his blouson and withdrew a chip of credit which he held beneath my nose as if it were a priceless gem, "This little bauble draws without limit upon the coffers of Interstellar Master Traders, a well of plenty without bottom for all practical purposes," he declared. "I am commissioned to do as I will for a period of my own choosing, the only proviso being that I, like my father before me, may never return to Melloria to claim my full patrimony until I have achieved a balance of profit over expenditure in the ratio of two to one. At the rate things are going, this may take some time. But then I am in no particular hurry."

Entirely ignoble emotions coursed through me at the conclusion of all these revelations. Anger at Guy for not having used his magic chip at the Crystal Palace. Anger too at the minginess of my own parents in comparison to the bountiful largesse of Vlad Dominik Ella, which is also to say mean-spirited envy of Guy for his good fortune. Finally, and most painful, despair that my plan to earn ruegelt with his aid had now apparently come to naught.

"You were just ... amusing yourself with me," I finally said in a tone of angry dejection. "You never had any intention of joining me in the ruespieler's trade."

"Indeed," said Guy, with an entirely incongruous grin. "And I must say I still find you most amusing, ma chere. Though of course I must reject your proposal."

But before I could vent my wrath, Guy stayed my words with a finger to my lips. "However, as a Merchant Prince in training, I am constrained to give fair value for value received," he said. "Since the commodity in question is amusement, let me counter with a proposal that I hope you will find amusing, Shortly I will be leaving Edoku for Belshazaar, a planet which I expect will be far more amusing and certainly more remunerative than this one. If you find the notion amusing, why not accompany me thither in the Unicorn Garden, at my expense, of course, or to be more precise, courtesy of Interstellar Master Traders?"

I could scarcely credit my ears. I could hardly believe in such good fortune. Indeed, considering the source, at first blush I was not quite certain that I could trust it. "Belshazaar," I said guardedly. "I've never heard of Belshazaar. What is there to draw us thither?"

"On Belshazaar there is a forest known as the Bloomenwald," Guy told me. "It is reputed to be a veritable cornucopia of psychotropic perfumes, essences, saps, pheromones, und so weiter. While hundreds of them are already on the market, scores more are discovered each year, and a merchant who secures a droit of monopoly for a period in a few of the latest stands to gain a tidy fortune. At the very least, it should be the height of amusement to sample the full panoply of what is available."

My enthusiasm for quitting Great Edoku for such a venue was considerably less total than Guy's, but on the other hand, what were my prospects on Edoku without him save continued indigency and an endless banquet of fressen?

"Gratuit ...?" I asked carefully. "Why should you do such a thing for me?"

"Porque no?" Guy said airily. "From each according to his ability, to each according to her need, as the ancient communards had it, ne. And when it comes to credit, my ability is bottomless, and your need is total. Besides, as I have declared, I find your company amusing."

"We would not travel in electrocoma ...?"

"Quelle chose!" Guy exclaimed in somewhat supercilious outrage. "Do you imagine Guy Vlad Boca would find it amusing to sleep through a voyage when the divertissements of the floating cultura lie readily at hand? Do you account me such a boor that I would offer such passage to a lover? Come, Sunshine, join me as an Honored Passenger in the Grand Palais of the Unicorn Garden!"

"I might be convinced to agree ..." I owned in a tone of mock reluctance. Naturellement, in truth no further inducements were necessary, for it was precisely such access to the haut monde of the floating cultura for which I had so strenuously albeit unsuccessfully campaigned against my parents' refusal. And while Sunshine might have evolved beyond Moussa, she was hardly less determined to live the true vie of the Child of Fortune, which is to say she followed the Yellow Brick Road for sake of the adventure of the journey not the goal of the destination, and in this respect was not Guy Vlad Boca a kindred spirit and the Grand Palais of the floating cultura the true camino real?

"If love is that which would convince you to agree, a demonstration thereof would seem to be once more in order," Guy said. "And I do believe I am once more ready to rise to the occasion."

So he was. So it did.
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Re: Child of Fortune, by Norman Spinrad

Postby admin » Sat Mar 19, 2016 6:00 am

Chapter 13

And so, in the company of my Merchant Prince, I bade farewell to Great Edoku, my days with Pater Pan, my comrades in the Gypsy Jokers, and my burning ambition to pursue the career of a ruespieler with scarcely a look back once I had gained access to the Grand Palais module of the Unicorn Garden.

Call me fickle mayhap, but consider also that had my parents followed the entirely admirable example of Dominik Vlad Ella and provided me with sufficient largesse to begin my wanderjahr in the style to which I had wished to become accustomed, I would never have chosen Edoku, never suffered the indigency and fressen of the Publics, never met Pater, never become a Gypsy Joker or a would-be ruespieler, and therefore never have met Guy Vlad Boca, who would therefore never have needed to rescue me from penury in the first place.

Which is to say that once we were ushered aboard the Unicorn Garden and conducted to a sumptuous if not quite spacious stateroom by suitably deferential freeservants, once I beheld the departure fete taking place in the grand salon, I was immediately possessed of sufficient sophistic logic to convince myself that one way or the other it had always been my proper destiny to voyage between the worlds in this style.

For what a different style it was from my previous experience at starfaring!

No sooner had our belongings been properly ensconced in our stateroom than the ship's annuciators invited our presence at the departure fete now taking place in the grand salon. The Grand Palais module of the Unicorn Garden was divided into five decks; counting downward from the bow to the stern, which was how the gravity gradient was arranged, these were the vivarium, the grand salon, the cuisinary deck, the entertainment deck, and the deck of dream chambers. Of these, the grand salon was the chief venue of the fetes, or rather the continuous fete that went on throughout the nine-day voyage under one nom de jour or another.

Maria Magda Chan, Domo of the Unicorn Garden, had commissioned a grand salon done up in a style which I can only call organiform, which is not to say that any flora or fauna were in evidence. Upon entering from the spinal passageway of the ship, one stood upon a landing stage from which a semicircle of stairs descended, and from which vantage one could therefore view the grand salon as a work of art entire.

I was first struck by the fact that not a single hard surface, flat plane, angle, or indeed even any simple geometric form, was in evidence. Chaises, banquets, tables, vraiment even the lighting fixtures, were all done up as items of upholstery, stuffed with foam, or fluff, or water, or air, and covered with velvety, furry, or indeed skinlike fabrics. All forms flowed, bulged, and curved, reminiscent in an entirely abstract manner of breasts, derrieres, thighs, phalluses, und so weiter, though none of it descended to the crassly representational. Similarly were the hues thereof derived from the organic realm -- subtle browns and greens, soft floral tints, human skin tones -- though nowhere were colors matched to form in an obvious manner. Even the walls, floor, and ceiling were upholstered in patterns of the same style, and the lighting tended to pinks, roses, and ambers. The total effect was of an abstract sensuousity balanced precariously but successfully on the edge of obscenity.

"Fantastic!" I exclaimed in delight.

"Amusing," owned Guy. "Naturellement, I have seen better."

The occasion of this fete, or rather the initial excuse for the opening of the endless round of such festivities, was the celebration of our departure from the solar system of Edoku via Flinger. While we Honored Passengers sipped at wines, inhaled toxicants, and nibbled at dainties offered by circulating floaters, a holo of our Void Captain, Dennis Yassir Coleen, appeared in the center of the grand salon to offer his salutations from the bridge. After this formality was concluded, his image was replaced by that of the great cryowire filigree tube of the Flinger outlined against the stars, and then by the gaping mouth of the hundred-kilometer spiderweb cylinder, seen from the stern of the Unicorn Garden as our Void Ship was drawn backward down it.

When we had achieved Go position at the bottom of the Flinger, we were treated to a final fond farewell image of Great Edoku itself, floating like a brilliant multifaceted and multicolored jewel against the black velvet of space in its orbiting nebula of luz redefusers.

At this moment, I reflected upon the manner in which the style of the grand salon resembled that of an arrondissement on Edoku writ small, and how the Honored Passengers therein resembled and yet did not resemble a similar gathering of Edojin, for while the dress of the Honored Passengers was no less rich and flamboyant than that of the Edojin, there was something somehow less frantic in its general effect, less given over to pushing high style over the edge into the bizarre for the sake of outrage.

"Do not our fellow Honored Passengers resemble a somewhat subdued collection of Edojin?" I remarked idly to Guy.

"Au contraire," he sniffed. "It seems to me that Edoku is something of an attempt to ape the floating cultura by folk who do not quite possess the charming self-assurance that only bottomless wealth can confer. A Grand Palais for the masses, as it were."

Be such lordly judgments as they may, Great Edoku now disappeared into memory, replaced by a holo of my future's image, to wit the starry blackness of the void as seen from the prow of our ship. A moment later, we heard the Void Captain chant the word "Go!" and all at once this starscape dopplered into a smear of blue as the Flinger accelerated the Unicorn Garden to relativistic speed in a sudden surge of mighty energies. Then the ship's visual compensators cut in and we beheld the pointillist starscape of the deep void hurtling toward us.

Our journey had begun. Soon our Pilot would be circuited into her module in the Jump Circuit and then platform orgasm and the arcane machineries derived from the science of We Who Have Gone Before would propel us several light-years toward Belshazaar in an augenblick.

There was a smattering of polite applause and a considerably more enthusiastic round of bon voyage toasting.

"Come," said Guy, "now that the formalities are concluded, let us peruse the amusements that the Unicorn Garden has to offer."

***

Naturellement, the Unicorn Garden, or rather the Grand Palais module thereof, had a profusion of amusements to offer, all of them designed, as I was to learn, to focus the attention of the Honored Passengers inward toward our ersatz little bubble of hedonic reality, rather than outward to confront the vast cold emptiness of the void through which we traveled.

The entertainment deck offered up holocines, games of chance, and a vast library of word crystals, as well as all manner of musical, thespic, and dance performances put on by artists hired expressly for the purpose, or by freeservants doing double duty. Many of the latter were also available at a fee for private tantric performances.

The vivarium of the Unicorn Garden I found reminiscent of some similar venue of Edoku, though of course the scale of this domed parkland was greatly reduced from even that of the bonsaied landscapes which abounded on the planet of the Edojin.

Here, under an impossible holoed sky crammed with rainbows, moons, ringed planets, comets, auroras, tornado clouds, and a plethora of other such fancies rendered in miniature, was a living garden which made no pretense whatever to mimicking the surface of any world trod by man. The vivarium, no more than an acre or two in area, was done up as a forest clearing, so that the walls of the ship, which would otherwise have formed a confining horizon, could disappear behind a thick screen of trees. No two trees in this "forest" appeared to be of the same species, and no species seemed to have escaped the gene-crafter's art. There were trees whose barks were red, silver, furred, even feathered. Golden apples, huge roses, immense flowers of every sort, indeed even giant jewels and glowing tapers sprouted surrealistically in their boughs. As for the clearing, while green grass indeed formed the quotidian background for the tapestry, more of the ground than not was overgrown with brilliantly hued mushrooms and fungi.

The centerpiece of this vivarium was the pond in the center of the forest clearing, around whose shore benches were scattered, upon whose surface blooming water plants of various sorts and colors floated, and in the middle of which, reachable by footbridge, was a tiny desert island with shining sapphire sands shaded by a single immense palm.

But it was in the design of the fauna that the gene-crafters seemed to have done their work in a toxicated state, for the vivarium abounded in living creatures of legend, all done up in miniature. Pterodactyls the size of my hand skittered through the treetops. Knee-high griffins gamboled in the wood. Tiny tyrannosaurs and winged dragons begged morsels from Honored Passengers. The pond was stocked with little sea monsters-serpents, cachalots, squid, ichthyosaurs, und so weiter.

And of course the vivarium of the Unicorn Garden could hardly be complete without half a dozen of its namesakes, each of the purest white, each with a golden spiral horn, and each no more than half a meter high. As for virgins in whose laps they might lay their little heads, these were the only mythical beasts not in evidence.

When it came to the dream chambers of the nethermost deck, the serpentine corridors thereof contained at least a score of these exotic private boudoirs, hardly any of them owing even inspiration to the natural realm.

One might engage in erotic exercises floating upon viscous rainbow-hued and jasmine-scented oil, or drifting weightless within a spherical mirror, or sightless in perfect velvet blackness, or brachiating in zero gravity in a construction of golden rods, or reposing in a nest of azure fluff, or indeed in a chamber padded in what at least gave the illusion of being living human flesh.

Nowhere in the country of the Honored Passengers, however, was there a single port or tele whereby one might experience the vast star-speckled blackness just beyond the hull of the ship, and indeed not even artistic representations of same were in evidence.

And when I chanced to comment on this at table, it was almost as if I had attempted to turn the discourse toward the fecal in terms of the general response I received.

Of the decks of the Grand Palais, the cuisinary deck was the most quotidian in terms of its decors, though this is not to say that the productions of the Unicorn Garden's chef maestro, Mako Carlo Belisandra, were anything less than superb examples of the art.

There were three different salons de cuisine, each appropriate to a different gustatory mood. For those desiring merely a casual meal, there was a simple refectory, with plushly upholstered thronelike stools set in rows along tables of polished black stone, the whole set beneath a trellised canopy of vines. For small private soirees or intimate dining a deux, there was a chamber entirely divided up into secluded tented booths of various appropriate sizes, each richly embroidered, painted, or quilted in a different style, each romantically illumined by braziers, and each containing a low bronze table surrounded by nests of cushions.

Finally, there was the formal grand dining salon, large enough to accommodate the entire company of Honored Passengers for banquets presided over by our Domo, our Void Captain, or both. Here the walls were paneled in some rough-grained greenish-brown wood framed and embellished by rococo golden metalwork in floral designs, the floor was of black marble, as was the great fireplace, and each of the tables was illumined by a crystal chandelier depending from a ceiling painted to resemble a cerulean sky replete with a few fluffy white clouds. Each of the ten round tables could seat ten diners, and each consisted of a disc of bronze mirror glass supported by a heavy ebon pillar which matched the wood of the leather-upholstered chairs.

It was here that Guy and I chanced to draw seats at the Domo's table at the banquet marking the occasion of our first Jump. The Void Captain, naturellement, was occupied at the moment on the bridge, though he would join the fete later, and as for the Pilot circuited into the Jump Drive, she, of course, would never be seen throughout the voyage.

The other seven diners at our table represented a fair cross section of what I had already learned were the four main species of Honored Passengers making up the floating cultura, though of course they hardly eschewed interbreeding.

Kuklai Smith Veronika and Don Terri Wu were men of mature years, and even more mature fortunes, who were more or less retired from pecuniary activities and who spent their lives constantly voyaging among the worlds of men, typical haut turistas seeking nothing but their own pleasure. Then there were those who gained access to the floating cultura by serving the pleasures of such patrons, whether as high courtesans such as the breathtakingly beautiful Cleopatra Kay Jone, or by the fascination of their discourse, such as the mage of astrophysic, Einstein Sergei Chu, or as thespic or musical artists. Thirdly there were those, of whom Mary Menda Hassan, on her leisurely way to serve a stint as professor of Terran prehistory on Dumbala, was a prime example, who traveled, either at their own expense or via the patronage of employers or institutes of learning, for serious purposes of commerce, science, or scholarship.

Last, and in terms of the esteem in which they were held by their fellow Honored Passengers, least, were richly endowed Children of Fortune like Guy, who passed their wanderjahrs in the floating cultura simply because their parents could afford it.

In addition to Guy, this social and intellectual proletariat was represented at our table by Imre Chanda Sumi and Raul Bella Pecava, two young men whom Guy had already judged "amusing," at least in terms of the pharmacopoeia of exotic toxicants they had brought aboard.

As for my station in this hierarchy, it seemed at best problematic, for I was not even an independently subsidized Child of Fortune, and while I never failed to wear my Cloth of Many Colors, the ensign of the Gypsy Jokers carried absolutely no cachet in this society.

Indeed the very discourse thereof did little to draw me into the stream of conversation until the occasion of the first Jump brought forth my grand gaffe.

Over the entree of terrine de fruits de mer, Kuklai Smith Veronika and Cleopatra Kay Jone wittily debated, at least by their own lights, the virtues or lack thereof of composers of whose work I was entirely ignorant. Einstein Sergei Chu held forth on the future stellar evolution of our galaxy over the saffroned fruit soup in terms far too mathematically arcane for me to follow even if the subject had held my interest.

While we dissected the Fire Crab in Black Pepper Aspic, our Domo led a discussion of the relative merits of Grand Palais presided over by a number of her colleagues, and since I was the only one present who had never traveled as an Honored Passenger before, any contribution of mine would hardly have been relevant.

Mary Menda Hassan's discourse on our hominid ancestors over the Goreng de Charcuterie might as well have been in the sprach of same for all I could make of it, and as for the discussion of psychotropics which Guy, Imre, and Raul insisted on inflicting on our enjoyment of the sashimi salad, this was a subject of which I was already beginning to have a surfeit. The Tomedos de Vaco with Smoked Black Mushrooms in Madeira Sauce had just been served when a loud chime sounded. All present paused in midbite for a moment and then went on with the meal. This minor mystery was enough to call forth my first conversational gambit.

"What was that?" I asked.

I was treated to strange looks of distaste from all at the table. "The ship just Jumped," Guy told me matter-of-factly. "Now as I was --"

"Quelle chose!" I exclaimed. "We have just leapt several light-years through the Void and the moment is marked with no more ceremony than that?"

There was an uncomfortable silence during which my tablemates exchanged peculiar glances with everyone but myself. Entirely misreading the moment, or mayhap simply determined to press on now that I had raised a subject upon which I felt that I could at last discourse, I persisted.

"Indeed, why has it not been arranged for us to view this spectacle en holo? Vraiment, nowhere in the Grand Palais are we afforded a vision of the starry grandeur through which we voyage. Furthermore, have none of you noticed the bizarre absence of even motifs relating to same in the works of art and decor with which the Grand Palais is embellished? It puts me in mind of the esthetic of Edoku, wherein ..."

I stopped in midsentence, for I had now become the object of that general air of distaste suitable to a miscreant who boorishly mentions fecal matters at table to which I have already alluded.

"I have said something untoward?" I inquired uneasily. "Would someone be so kind as to enlighten me as to the nature of my faux pas?"

Guy said nothing, and indeed seemed to be doing his best to pretend I was a stranger, a useless stratagem, for as my traveling companion, the sphere of opprobrium around me clearly extended to encompass him, and even Raul and Imre, as fellow Children of Fortune, squirmed in their seats under the disdainful regard of our lordly tablemates.

"This is your first voyage, kinde?" the Domo finally said.

"My first as an Honored Passenger," I told her. "Though I have previously traveled between Glade and Edoku in electrocoma."

The latter emendation hardly seemed to enhance my social status, eliciting instead a further curling of lips and nostrils.

"Je comprends," said Maria Magda Chan. "One may hardly expect punctilious observation of the niceties from such a novice ... Honored Passenger."

"What niceties?" I demanded crossly. "If I have said something nikulturni, perhaps one of you worthies would inform me of the nature of my transgression so that I may avoid further injury to your delicate sensibilities?"

"Well spoken!" declared Imre, and was immediately subject to a round of scowls for his chivalry.

"Since you profess the admirable desire to avoid further offense, ma petite, as Domo it is indeed my duty to instruct you in the social graces," Maria Magda Chan said. "Which is to say it is indeed nikultumi to refer to such matters as the Jump or that through which we are constrained to travel at table or in other polite discourse."

"Which is also why starscape motifs, let alone tele views of the ... ah, Void itself, are not quite in favor among the floating cultura," Kuklai Smith Veronika added in a somewhat kinder paternal tone.

"I stand corrected, and will endeavor to refrain from such offense in future," I said dryly. "But since I am admittedly such a naif in these matters, perhaps someone will explain why those who choose to voyage through the mighty grandeur of the firmament eschew the esthetic appreciation of same, vraiment, why is it nikultumi to wish to experience through the senses the marvel of the Jump upon which our entire civilization depends?"

"Merde!" muttered Cleopatra Kay Jone. Guy fetched me a kick in the shins under the table. Quite crossly, I replied in kind. "Have we not heard enough of this?" Don Terri Wu snapped angrily.

But our mage of astrophysic, Einstein Sergei Chu, seemed to warm to the broaching of his own subject of expertise. "Well and courageously spoken, child," he declared. "Certainement a subject worthy of more consideration in these circles than it receives. As for the aversion of our floating cultura to visual confrontation with the medium through which our ship travels, consider, bitte, the true nature of the physical reality in question. For beyond this thin hull is a deadly vacuum of nearly absolute cold which, though mathematically bounded, is for all practical human purposes remorselessly infinite. Vraiment, we are all but microbes in a bubble of air, protected from instant death only by our own fragile machineries. Should our life support systems malfunction, should the Jump Drive --"

"Enough!" cried Don Terri Wu.

"Vraiment, more than enough!" agreed Maria Magda Hassan.

"Must we be subject to this vileness merely to satisfy the morbid curiosity of this ... this unwashed urchin?" demanded Cleopatra Kay Jone.

Einstein Sergei Chu, however, seemed to take a certain malicious pleasure in the general discomfort. "And as for the Jump, meine kleine," he persisted, "though we have long since elucidated the physical nature of our universe and the laws thereof from the finest structures of the microcosm to the grandest productions of the macrocosm, of the true nature of the single most important phenomenon therein in terms of utility of which we know, we remain in abysmal ignorance. We are like primitives who know how to strike fire from flint but have not the foggiest notion of the chemistry or physics of flame. Like such primitives, we have learned enough of the lost lore of We Who Have Gone Before to build Jump Drives to serve the most essential purpose of our culture, but as to the mass-energy nature of the Jump itself, we are precisely like those savages who fear and worship the unknowable fire which serves them, and surround therefore both the subject and the High Priestess thereof with ignorant taboos of mystification."

"Outrageous!" exclaimed the Domo.

"Grossity!" declared Don Terri Wu.

"Amusing," owned Guy, referring no doubt as much to the resulting contumely as to the sagacity of Einstein's discourse, and favoring me with a grin. Raul and Imre broke into callow giggles which even I found somewhat boorish.

At this strategic moment, Void Captain Dennis Yassir Coleen entered the dining salon. "I will have no more of this at my table in the presence of our Void Captain!" Maria Magda Chan hissed angrily. And, so saying, she rose to greet that worthy with a great show of affection and indeed lascivious attentions.

Such matters were discussed no more at the banquet, nor, indeed, were they to be touched on again for the duration of the voyage. Nor did the innocent instigator of the brouhaha summon up the courage to join in the table talk again for fear of igniting I knew not what.

Nor did any of those present ever again deign to engage myself or my fellow Children of Fortune in civilized discourse for as long as we were aboard. Indeed, whether by dint of the spreading of the tale of this contumely, or whether by long-established general custom, we were seldom included in the social pavane of the floating cultura at all.

"A somewhat subdued collection of Edojin," I had styled the floating cultura to Guy. "Possessed of the charming self-assurance that only bottomless wealth can confer," he had told me.

As for the bottomless wealth of the Honored Passengers, this was everywhere in evidence. But as to the charm of their self-assurance, this was a virtue I was hard-pressed to detect. Certainement, these maestros of manner and artifice chose not to honor us with the blessings thereof, and at least for my part, the feeling was mutual.

***

At the merciful conclusion of the banquet, Guy, Raul, Imre, and I repaired to our stateroom for another session of what was becoming something of a regular ritual, to wit the sampling of the impressive variety of psychochemicals with which Raul and Imre had provisioned themselves for the journey.

While I had fancied myself something of an adept of the lore of psychopharmacology courtesy of my seances with Cort, the sophistication of his smorgasbord thereof compared to what these well- subsidized Children of Fortune had accumulated in their travels as what I had imagined the sophistication of Nouvelle Orlean to be compared to that of Great Edoku.

Vraiment, memory will not serve to recall which toxicant, or indeed which melange of toxicants, we imbibed on any particular occasion, for these sessions blur into a pixilated generality in hindsight, so that the memory of one outre psychic state can hardly be distinguished from that of another, nor, even at the time, did my indulgence therein exactly serve to sharpen my perception of linear temporality or grave particularly clear images upon the cells of my brain.

Suffice it to say that for the first half of the voyage I sampled several dozen substances gathered from any number of worlds, and productive of an impressive range of conscious, semiconscious, and entirely torpid states, though in truth all of them might easily enough have been classified under a limited number of taxonomic phyla.

Certain of these psychochemicals produced states of hilarity in which the most asinine japes were good for prolonged fits of raucous giggling. Others would have us staring mindlessly at the walls or each other for hours at a time. Some of them loosened our tongues and fortified our wit to the point where we were capable of endless elegant discourse, or at least what seemed like same at the time.

But a few were well-crafted psychic enhancers, under the influence of which we would wander the Grand Palais in a state of innocent wonder like haut turistas in Oz, delight to an overwhelming degree in the cuisinary art of Mako Carlo Belisandra, take in musical or thespic performances, or simply stroll about the vivarium enjoying the bizarre ambiance thereof with childlike glee.

Then too, some of these psychochemicals were aphrodisiacs, though congruence of effect upon the male and female of the species was by no means assured.

I might be consumed by the most torrid lust, whereas Guy wished only to discourse endlessly or contemplate the ineffable, or Guy would become a priapic hero, only to be confronted by a lover to whom tantric performance existed only as an abstract and entirely outre concept. But on those occasions when our chemically augmented desires coincided, vraiment, we would become two organisms with but a single tropism, and blissful indeed was the indulgence thereof! And when the spirit moved us, we would repair to the dream chambers and enhance our already chemically augmented pleasures with congress in these fantasy realms expressly designed for the enjoyment of same.

Finally there were those rarest and choicest of substances capable of producing a state of being wherein the realm of the senses was synergized with the realm of the mind to the point where maya's veil seemed to dissolve into a clarity of perception within which all truth seemed revealed. Paradoxically enough, it was within the thrall of one of these true psychedelics that I experienced the satori which caused me to eschew further experiments with same for the rest of the voyage of our bubble of ersatz reality through the Void between the worlds.

Soon after we all swallowed the little brown tablets, we began to feel the initial effects, namely a brightening of the senses, and a desire to be in motion. Raul suggested that we visit the vivarium, and we all readily agreed, for thusfar the psychic enhancer seemed to have produced a mutually congruent effect on the four of us that verged on the telepathic.

But this did not persist for very long. When we had reached the vivarium, Raul rather strenuously suggested that we repose together on the grass and attempt by silent meditation to achieve a satori which he felt lay within the reach of our collective grasp but whose ineffable nature was entirely beyond his powers of description.

As for me, it would have been: difficult to conceive of an activity more productive of discomfort under the circumstances, for the vivarium, with its fanciful ersatz. trees, even more ersatz sky full of contradictory meteorological and astronomical elements, and its pathetic collection of miniature mythical creatures, far from elevating the state of my spirit as its art intended, soon began to achieve the aspect of a willful veil of maya whose illusion grew more and more transparent with every passing moment, threatening to dissolve entirely to reveal a void of ennui the continued contemplation of which produced only a growing formless dread the full revelation of whose nature was the last satori in the universe I would have wished to attain.

Nor were Guy or Imre much interested in a contemplative inward journey in these environs.

"I wish to wander," Imre told Raul. "Rather than waste this experience on singular contemplation, 1 would surfeit my senses to the point of overload."

"Perhaps the dream chambers would be the most interesting venue," Guy suggested.

I exchanged telepathic glances with him. The last thing I wanted was a menage a trois with him and Imre, whom I found not the least bit attractive, nor was I in much of a mood for tantric exercises in general. Such was the puissance of the psychedelic that all this was conveyed in a twitch of the eyebrow and a curl of the lip as was Guy's confirmation of his understanding of same, or so at least it seemed.

"For there we may overload our perceptions with a rapid tour of any number of arcane realities," he said, to make the nonerotic nature of his proposal plain.

Not without a certain grumbling from Raul, we left him in the vivarium to seek nirvana, and repaired to the dream chamber deck, where, as far as I was concerned, Guy and Imre behaved in a manner entirely unsuitable to this concourse of private boudoirs, this venue designed for romance. Fortunately, the individual dream chambers sealed themselves against intrusion when they were occupied, so at least no erotic exercises were interrupted by their boisterous laughter and silly jabberings, but we were the object of more than enough outraged and offended glances on the part of loverly couples strolling hand in hand through the corridors to do considerable damage to the already low repute in which Children of Fortune were held by our fellow Honored Passengers.

My mood, au contraire, was anything but jocular as I trailed after these callow creatures while they capered through the corridors, bounced about in zero-gravity dream chambers, engaged in mock combat in the chamber filled with azure fluff, pulled faces within the spherical mirror, performed obscene pantomines in the chamber of ersatz human flesh, and in general treated the venues in which Guy and I had made love in a manner which cast little credit on the romantic spirit of the male of our species, at least in the eyes of this observer of the opposite gender.

Moreover, once the romantic ambiance of the dream chambers had been destroyed by this adolescent male desecration, I began to perceive what, at least under the influence of the psychotropic, seemed the less wholesome aspect of the very concept of the dream chamber itself. For just as elaborate tantric tableaus that would ordinarily arouse the erotic imagination may come to seem mechanical and even disgustingly perverse to a viewer whose libidinal energies have for one reason or another been forced into dormancy, so did these dream chambers come to seem like the pathetic stratagems whereby jades might seek to arouse memories of the natural man or natural woman they had long since lost. Which is to say that once the chemical and the actions of my jejune companions had contrived to rob me of all possibility of enjoying the effects of the dream chambers, I could perceive nothing but the empty artifice of the means of their production.

In short, I fell into a cafard of spiritual angst which did little to enhance my present appreciation of Guy Vlad Boca. Under the influence of comrades such as Raul and Imre, and the chemical kiss of a surfeit of toxicants, my prince seemed to be turning into a frog.

For the first time since he had rescued me from penury and dashingly swept me up and away into the floating cultura, I began to make invidious comparisons between Pater Pan and his noble vision of the Yellow Brick Road and Guy Vlad Boca, whose self-declared highest vision was amusement, between the paucity of funds and wealth of spirit I had known as a Gypsy Joker and what I had begun to perceive as the wealth of funds and paucity of spirit of the floating cultura, my Merchant Prince lover, vraiment by this time myself for finding myself here.

But to his credit, and mayhap to the credit of the puissance of the psychedelic as well, Guy sensed my growing discomfort of spirit. As Imre wandered aimlessly up the corridor a few paces ahead of us, he caught my eye, read what was written therein, or at any rate scanned the general gist of it, favored me with one of those gay smiles of his, and nodded in conspiratorial agreement.

"Vraiment" these jejune frolics are no longer amusing," he said. "Come, let us repair to the grand salon and join the fete."

I nodded my agreement, then nodded once more in the direction of Imre, nuancing the gesture with but the slightest flare of my nostrils. This too Guy read quite fluently, shrugging with only the corners of his mouth.

And so, leaving Imre to his own devices, we departed the dream chamber deck and made our way to the grand salon, at last shed of what to me had become our unwelcome entourage, and for the moment at least, if with his luster slightly tarnished, Guy Vlad Boca had once more proven himself my prince.

In the grand salon, the fete was in full flower, which is to say this venue was, as it seemed to be at every hour, well-stocked with Honored Passengers; sipping elegantly at wines, nibbling at dainties, judiciously inhaling toxicants far less powerful than what we had become accustomed to in our private seances, and discoursing in little groups on subjects which, as always, seemed abstruse beyond either my ready comprehension or real interest, empty of any real passion, and possessed, therefore of a level of civilized sophistication which I paradoxically envied, though of course I could not then admit it to myself.

As usual, none of these elder elegances were particularly eager to include jejune Children of Fortune such as ourselves in their conversations, and so Guy and I seated ourselves on a chaise in the midst of the fete yet also psychically distanced from it, all the more so on this occasion courtesy of our chemically enhanced perception thereof, which, at least for my part, was not exactly conducive to an empathetic appreciation of same.

So we secured tall fluted glasses of wine from a passing floater and sat there sipping languidly at them with our noses in the air in what at least to us was drole parody of the manners of the Honored Passengers, though no doubt the humor thereof was lost on everyone but ourselves.

"In all veracity, Guy," I inquired in a supercilious tone not untinged with a certain envious contempt, ''as a mage of the subject famed throughout the far-flung worlds of men, do you truly find our present company as perfectly amusing as they seem to find themselves?"

"In as much veracity as I am presently capable of mustering, ma chere liebchen," Guy replied more or less in kind, "I have never found anything as perfectly amusing as the floating cultura seems to find itself."

"Not even me?" I purred coyly.

"Vraiment," he said in a most peculiar tone, "not even myself!"

"An admission I never thought to hear from the lips of Guy Vlad Boca!" I declared lightly.

But Guy had suddenly become more somberly passionate than I had ever seen him. "Do you imagine that one whose spirit had already attained the nirvanic perfection of total amusement would so avidly pursue the same in the imperfectly amusing realm of maya as do I?" he said quite solemnly. "As do Imre and Raul? As do this noble company of Honored Passengers? Vraiment, as do we all, yourself not excluded, if truth be told."

Perhaps it was the psychedelic acting upon my own perceptions, perhaps it was the same speaking through Guy, or more likely the single spirit induced thereby moving through the two of us; at any rate, his entire countenance seemed to alter before my very eyes, and what I now beheld seemed to be his naked spirit unveiled, a spirit whose surface gaiety masked some darker passion of the soul, a deeper Guy than I had previously known, and therefore suddenly a creature of some mystery.

"Who can deny that all human tales begin and end alike?" he said. "Beyond our birth is a nullity and beyond our death is a void, therefore all that we possess are the augenblicks between. Which in turn either amuse or do not. And so some seek wealth because it is more amusing than poverty, fame because it is more amusing than anonymity, power because it is more amusing than impotence, love because it is more amusing than loneliness, knowledge because it is more amusing than ignorance, sensual pleasure because it is more amusing than ennui, und so weiter. As for me, it is the moment of perfect amusement itself I seek no matter the means or consequence, for would not a single instant thereof transcend three quotidian centuries of anything less?"

"Surely," I said, "there must be more to life than that!"

"Vraiment? Then tell me what ..."

"The perfection of the spirit ..? The attainment of total clarity of consciousness ...?"

"La meme chose!" Guy exclaimed. "Precisely the state of which I speak! Let destiny grant me only one eternal augenblick of such total clarity of consciousness! For would not such a nirvanic moment render all that follows and precedes entirely superfluous? For this single instant of perfect amusement, would I trade all and risk all, for to a being who has reached this ultima Thule, are not all other lesser amusements merely the snares of time-bound maya?"

But far from firing my spirit with his own murky and elusive passion, the confluence of Guy's words with the peaking of the psychotropic and the venue in which I found myself had all combined to tear away the illusions of intellect and emotion, artifice and spirit, vraiment of matter and energy themselves, to reveal not that nirvanic union with the atman of which the gurus of all schools do speak, but that which is revealed when the last layer of an onion is finally peeled away, to wit, absolute nothing, the cruel perfection of the Void. In that horrendous moment of entirely useless satori, I could perceive my own body as nothing more than a concatenation of cellular modules, and the cells as replications of molecular patterns, and the molecules as assemblages of atoms, and the atoms as clouds of particles, and the particles as mere waves of unlikely probability, and the probability as no more than momentary perturbations of a singular inevitability, and that inevitability was-was-was a nothingness whose concept the spirit dared not grasp.

From this perspective of unwholesome clarity, in which the grand salon and all within stood revealed as naught but illusion down to the finest subatomic particles, vraiment in which our very spirits seemed to conjure themselves improbably out of the Void, I suddenly understood all too well the nature of my faux pas at the Domo's table.

"Je comprends ..." I whispered.

"Vraiment," said Guy. "We must seek out that perfect moment when time stands still ..."

But I was hardly cognizant of even the music of his voice, let alone the import of his words, lost as I was in my own baleful vision, and the babblement thereof. "No wonder the floating cultura eschews all discourse, art, or vision which confronts ... which confronts ..."

"... that which the ancient sages called the Tao, and the Flower Children the Ego's Glorious Death ..."

"... all the artifice, all the ersatz firmament and bonsaied mythical creatures of the vivarium ..."

"... the mutual tantric cusp, the moment of mortal danger, the ultimate amplification of the biochemistry of consciousness ..."

It was all so horribly obvious. Just as the Void within that was now gobbling up my spirit was held back only by our usual heroic act of willful ignorance, so was the Great and Lonely Void beyond the hull of this ship held back only by the willful ignorance of the entirely artificial reality within, Vraiment, was not the very vertiginous nausea which now gripped my spirit precisely what the entire floating cultura was designed to avoid?

"Vanity, vanity, it is as Einstein Sergei Chu declared, we are all benighted savages, without the courage to face the mystery at the dark heart of all our philosophies, whimpering and puling before the countenance of the Void!"

"And all the rest is useless boredom and maya's lies!"

"Quelle horror!"

"Must we be subjected to this display?"

"Return these addled creatures to the mental retreat; from whence they came!"

All at once my consciousness was quite abruptly returned to the quotidian realm, where I perceived to my abashed chagrin that Guy and I had been sitting there hunched forward on our chaise, staring not at each other so much as through each other, babbling our mutually incomprehensible toxicated philosophies louder and louder, until we were fairly shouting, until, indeed, our unseemly public exhibition had at last provoked an equally strident public outcry against us.

Now we sat there like vile specimens, gazed upon by every disdainful and haughty eye, the objects of scores of curling lips and wrinkled noses, and subject to the lordly chastisement of a long loud silence.

I looked at Guy. Guy looked at me. Out of the comer of my eye, I stole a sidelong glance about the grand salon, where now, having stilled the unseemly tumult with their opprobrium, the Honored Passengers had once again turned their backs on the source thereof and resumed their rounds of assignations, imbibements, and rarefied discourse.

Vraiment, the horrid satori had passed. But not the memory trace thereof entire.

Guy shrugged. "Once more we would seem to have played the buffoons," he said with a fey little smile. "But alas, for this performance no ruegelt would seem to be forthcoming."

"We both seem prone, each in our way, to a tendency to declaim from on high when the spirit moves us without regard to social seemliness," I owned.

Guy peered into my eyes intently for a moment, rolled his own about as if regarding the precincts in which we found ourselves, favored me with a little wink, and then became the old gay Guy once more. "Yet as the ancient wit had it, in vi no veritas, nicht wahr!" he declared. "For who is social seemliness to say that seers and psychonauts such as ourselves babble not the truth?"

"Je ne sais pas, Guy," I admitted. "For who is to even say if we were proclaiming the same vision?"

Guy took my hand in his, lifted my chin with his hand, and kissed me lightly as he brought me to my feet. "Only you and I, ne?" he said. "Do we not in this very moment agree that this soiree has lost its power to amuse? Do not our two hearts now beat as one?"

I regarded once more the fete proceeding all around us, the great and glorious company of the floating cultura, the creme de la creme of our Second Starfaring Age, the haut monde to which a young daughter of Nouvelle Orlean had not so long ago avidly aspired and which regarded me and mine as callow and jejune.

"Vraiment it has," I said, making myself smile as I looked back at Guy, whose amorous interest was made quite frankly plain. "Mayhap they do."

Yet even as I clasped his hand and readily enough allowed him to lead me to our boudoir, I found myself fingering the sash I wore about my waist, and somehow the patchwork cloth thereof seemed nearer and dearer than it ever had before.

***

While the subsequent passage d'amour with Guy and a good ten hours of untrammeled sleep served to purge both the chemical from my metabolism and the metaphysical angst induced thereby from my spirit, in truth the divertissements of the voyage chez Grand Palais and those which Guy, Raul, and Imre continued to pursue together, cloyed from that moment on.

For while the chemically induced perception of the universe as a spiritually daunting void of nullity and ourselves as but illusory perturbations therein passed with the figurative dawn, the memory of the experience did not entirely fade.

In truth, as I knew even then, the weltanschauung which had so consumed my soul with dread under the influence of the psychotropic had been little more than the heightened subjective apprehension of the rudiments of quantum cosmology which we are all taught as children. Vraiment, our cells are composed of molecules, the molecules of atoms, the atoms of particles, and the particles of subparticles which diminish in mass, duration, and probability under dissection until one indeed discovers that the mass-energy cosmos is conjured into being out of theoretical ultimate particles of zero mass, zero duration, and zero probability.

But in the cold clear light of dawn, what of it? If all creation is but a cosmic ruespieler's tale whereby the characters conjure themselves out of their own imagination, then all that should concern the spirit is the art of the story or the lack thereof, ne.

Which is to say that it was the style of the tale the floating cultura chose to live out for itself which now cloyed in the light of my memory of the satoric revelation of the obvious. For had not I stared full-face into the countenance of what all this artifice was meant to deny, and escaped with nothing worse than a certain period of angst and terror? How could I therefore regard these Honored Passengers, who viewed me as callow, as the crown of creation they so obviously considered themselves? How could I regard the pavane from which I was barred by my lack of adult sophistication and urbanity as a vie to which I should aspire?

Or, as Guy would no doubt have put it, where was the amusement to be found therein for a true Child of the spirit's Fortune?

As for the amusements that Guy, Raul, and Imre continued to pursue for the rest of the voyage to Belshazaar, as far as I was concerned, this was more of the same.

The Honored Passengers surrounded themselves with an external environment of illusions crafted of matter and energy, while Guy, Raul, and Imre subsumed the reality of the Void beyond the hull and the Void within the spirit behind a series of illusions crafted of psychotropic alteration of the biochemical matrix containing the consciousness perceiving it. And woe unto that spirit should illusion misfire and reveal the very truth it was meant to deny!

No doubt much of the metaphysical cogency of the foregoing derives from the more mature perceptions of the teller of the tale, rather than from those of the young girl who eschewed further ingestion of psychotropic substances of any puissance for the duration of the voyage through the Void and who spent her time wandering aimlessly through the divertissements of the Grand PaJais in a state of ennui.

I was surfeited with haute cuisine, bored with the passive consumption of art and performance, and certainement, I had had my fill of idle discourse, whether that of the elegant Honored Passengers or that of my so frequently toxicated companions. Only my desire for erotic dalliance with Guy was perforce enhanced, for of all the diversions offered up to pass the idle hours chez Grand Palais, this was the only one in which I might participate as an active agent.

In short, what life aboard the Unicorn Garden, what the vie of the floating cultura, lacked, as far as I was then concerned, was adventure. I did not want to be entertained, I wanted to act. I did not want to perceive, I wanted to do.

As to the nature of the adventure that I sought, as to what acts I imagined I wanted to perform, as to just what it was that I was consumed by the passion to do, this I knew not.

I only knew that I was more than ready to debark from the Unicorn Garden and stand on the real surface of an unknown world once more. And so I spent the remainder of the voyage looking forward to our arrival on Belshazaar, whatever the nature of that planet might be. Having arrived as an ignorant ingenue on Great Edoku, having gained access to the Gypsy Jokers by my own wit, having survived as a Child of Fortune on this most sophisticated of the worlds of men, having at last experienced the floating cultura itself and found it wanting, naturellement I assumed that experience had prepared me for anything.

Alas, once more I was to be proven a naif.
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Re: Child of Fortune, by Norman Spinrad

Postby admin » Sat Mar 19, 2016 6:01 am

Chapter 14

It may seem strange that I had given so little thought to what might await me on Belshazaar before I embarked on the journey thereto, and stranger still that I did not choose to fill my surfeit of idle hours aboard the Unicorn Garden with more diligent study of the planet which represented the light at the end of my tunnel of ennui.

In the first case, I had cared little about the goal of the journey because my goal was the journey itself, which is to say escape from the penury of Edoku into what I had always imagined to be the fascinating vie of the floating cultura. In a curious way, this state of mind was not unlike that of the instance of the second part, wherein my main passion was to escape the Grand Palais as I had escaped poverty, and that to which I was escaping seemed to matter a good deal less than the change of scene itself.

And of course, if truth be told, diligent study of anything had never struck me as an escape route from boredom at this stage in my evolution. Which is not to say that I was completely without curiosity about Belshazaar as each Jump took us closer to the reality thereof, only that I contented myself with a perusal of the entry therefor in the planetary ephemeris, at the conclusion of which I believed I had sufficiently prepared myself for our arrival.

Belshazaar, I learned from the ephemeris, was basically a water world, with some 83% of its surface given over to ocean, and the bulk of its land area consisting of two widely separated major continents, Pallas and Bloomenwald. The former had been entirely defoliated centuries ago and redone in a human-optimized biosphere based chiefly, as such ersatz ecologies tend to be, on that of Earth. Here resided most of the population of a mere fifteen million, and the majority of that in the vecino of the main city, Ciudad Pallas.

Bloomenwald, the other continent, had been left in its native state, for here grew the mighty Bloomenwald itself, the economic raison d'etre for the entire planetary economy.

Belshazaar's gravity was only .4 standards; this apparently allowed trees to grow to gigantic size. When humans first discovered Belshazaar, they found one relatively sparsely vegetated continent, Pallas, and another in a somewhat wetter and warmer clime covered with an enormous interlocked forest of equally enormous trees. Little grew on the forest floor beneath the dense canopy of branches nearly half a kilometer up, and in fact faunal evolution on Belshazaar had proceeded mainly on the endless rolling skyland of the treetops, known as the Bloomenveldt.

As Guy had told me and as the ephemeris confirmed, the Bloomenveldt was indeed a cornucopia of natural psychotropics. The perfumes, fruits, seeds, saps, and other natural products of the Bloomenveldt were apparently redolent with organic molecules that affected the nervous system, endocrine metabolism, and brain chemistry of our species. Hundreds of such products of the Bloomenveldt were already items of commerce, and the main industry of Belshazaar, and certainement its only contribution to interstellar commerce, was the gathering and synthesis of same.

This, the ephemeris pointed out somewhat peckishly, was the scientific and moral justification for the rude total defoliation of the native vegetation from Pallas; a human settlement surrounded by such a psychotropic flora would hardly be viable. What the ephemeris did not bother to dwell on, and what never occurred to me at the time, but what was later to prove the heart of the matter, was the question of how so many molecules produced by the flora of one world could possibly have so many direct and subtle effects upon the psychochemistry of a sapient species which evolved on another.

Nor did the ephemeris convey anything of the esthetic wretchedness of Ciudad Pallas, surely the most peculiarly repulsive city that I in my modest travels had ever seen.

Assuming, quite erroneously as it turned out, that we would travel to what appeared to be Belshazaar's only real scenic attraction immediately upon debarking from the shuttle, I quite deliberately avoided viewing any holo of the Bloomenwald aboard the Unicorn Garden so that I might apprehend this natural wonder with virgin eyes. As the shuttle spiraled down to the surface of Belshazaar, the vision of the planet as seen from space entirely lacked the grandeur and bizarrite of the similar approach to Great Edoku. I beheld great featureless blue-green seas, a huge continent of almost equally uniform deep green fringed with rather narrow beaches and studded with a few bleak rocky massifs peeking up through the endless treetops, and then we were coming down towards the singularly unappetizing-looking continent of Pallas.

Seen from above, most of Pallas appeared to be a sere desert landscape of bleak grays and dull browns, for apparently those who had sterilized the native biosphere had not bothered to extend the benefits of the ersatz Earth-based biosphere much beyond the extended vecino of Ciudad Pallas. And even there, in the grossest possible contrast to Edoku, esthetic considerations seemed never to have crossed their minds.

Smeared across a wide plain roughly in the middle of the continent was a vast hodge-podge irregular checkerboard of autofarms, vast enough, I was later to learn, to supply the nutritive needs of the entire populace. These huge fields of yellow, dun brown, and subdued green were bordered, one from the other, by irrigation channels, along which grew only enough incongruous fir trees to serve as windbreaks.

In the center of this depressingly functional landscape was the even more depressing aerial vista of Ciudad Pallas, toward which we descended with merciful rapidity. This appeared as a predominantly gray and glassy silver sprawl of human habitation, smudged in the middle of the surrounding farmland like a great greasy thumbprint.

As for the vista which greeted my eyes when first I set foot on Belshazaar, this was enough to make me turn to Guy with a curled lip and wrinkled nose as we stood there on the grim black tarmac between the shuttle and the terminal. "This," I sniffed, "is your notion of an amusing planet?"

The shuttleport was built atop a low hill and consisted of little more than a wide expanse of black tarmac, a large oblong terminal building of plain gray concrete and untinted glass, and a number of large warehouses done up in the same dismal mode. From this vantage, one could gain a general visual impression of the surrounding cityscape, such as it was.

This general visual impression was that of a gray urban wasteland sprawling to the horizon in all directions. Which is not to say that Ciudad Pallas appeared to be in a state of economic rot or physical decay; indeed some ruined buildings, verdigris, or even a fetid favela or two would have at least served to imbue the view with some kind of atmospheric ambiance, and the city itself with a feeling of human history. Au contraire, Ciudad Pallas looked as if it had been fabricated, one arrondissement at a time, by the same doggedly functional mentality which had defoliated the continent and replaced the native flora with nothing more than the hundreds of kilometers of esthetically bleak cropland which surrounded the city.

Judging from the regular rows of buildings, the streets of each arrondissement appeared for the most part to be laid out in relentlessly rectilinear gridworks. Each arrondissement seemed to be given over to a particular function, for the buildings of each were as similar as if they had been fabricated and planted at the same time, like the monocultural fields of the autofarms.

There were arrondissements of modest towers, arrondissements of geodesic domes, arrondissements of undisguised fabriks, arrondissements of low rambling structures which appeared to be residence blocks, und so weiter. As for the architectural styles offered up for the esthetic delectation of the eye, the less said the better, for there appeared to be no attempt at art at all. All forms were simple geometric shapes, the predominant colors were concrete gray, muted aluminial sheen, and pale vitreous green, adornments seemed nonexistent, and as for the art of the landscaper, this was nowhere in evidence. Nor, from this vantage, could I pick out parklands, grand public squares, or indeed anything emblematic of civic pride or public amenity.

The odor of the atmosphere I can only compare to the deadly chemical neutrality of the taste of distilled water. The deepest of breaths could detect no floral perfumes, no aroma of parkland, no stench of decay, not even the subtle smell of urban bustle.

"Quelle chose!" I told Guy. "What a wretched city! When do we depart for Bloomenwald?"

"Bloomenwald?" he exclaimed as if that were the most outre suggestion in this world. "There's nothing there but a few research stations and a vast expanse of forest."

"And what is to be found here but an immense expanse of ugly buildings, if I may ask?" I demanded.

Guy smiled. "Appearances are often deceiving," he assured me. "Once we have secured lodgings, I will show you the manifold opportunities for amusement, not to say profit, concealed within the admittedly banal exteriors of Ciudad Pallas."

And so he did, if entirely to my dismay.

Intracity transport in Ciudad Pallas was accomplished mainly by floatcabs which followed guideways in the center of the streets. Like the Rapide, their data screens did double duty as municipal directories, but unlike the Rapide, prices were often quoted for various entries. Guy, therefore, chose the Hotel Pallas by the simple expedient of finding the most expensive hotel in the city, and in like manner rented the most expensive suite it had to offer.

Having said that the Hotel Pallas was the most expensive in the city and that our accommodations were among the most expensive therein, I am hard-pressed to sing its further praises. The building itself was a stark tower crafted mainly of glass and with no particular architectural distinction. Our suite consisted of a large bedchamber, a cuisinary salon connected by pneumo to the hotel kitchen, a toilet, a bath, and a huge sitting room. As for the decor, there was a great deal of thick carpeting, plush upholstery, wooden paneling, polished brasswork, black marble, and an equally great paucity of artful employment thereof. The piece de resistance was an immense expanse of sitting-room window that offered a magnificent view of the full awfulness of Ciudad Pallas.

If a certain churlish ingratitude on my part toward Guy's admittedly unstinting largesse may be detected in the foregoing, vraiment I must confess that the tour through the city from the shuttleport to the hotel had only served to reinforce my initial distaste for this venue.

From ground level, Ciudad Pallas afforded a no less dismal ambiance than it did when viewed from the shuttleport. The arrondissements of the city were not without streets given over to restaurants, boutiques, markets, and the usual civilized necessities, but grand public squares, gardens, or parklands were nowhere in evidence, and indeed the sight of a few pathetic trees scattered here and there was rare enough so that each modest specimen became an event of esthetic significance. For the most part, the streets seemed designed as efficient conduits for floatcabs, private vehicles, and foot traffic, and that was the end of it.

As for the modest foot traffic visible from the floatcab, this seemed divided into two subspecies. On the one hand, there were purposeful and for the most part plainly dressed men and women perambulating rapidly from one building to another, and on the other hand there were any number of individuals in rather tacky garments and lacking something in the way of personal grooming who seemed to be drifting around in a befuddled daze.

What was totally lacking was the brightness and gaiety, the extravagance and ease, the very spirit of the life of the streets, which reached an apogee in Great Edoku and which was also always quite in evidence in Nouvelle Orlean. While my first-hand experience in municipal ambiance was admittedly limited, holos of other cities and word crystals describing the vie thereof led me to believe that few other cities in the worlds of men were as bereft of the joie de vivre of the streets as this one.

"Quelle horror!" I muttered sourly as I stood in our sitting room looking out over the cityscape I had already come to loathe. "What are we doing here, Guy?" I pouted. "What secret charms can this ghastly place contain to persuade you to dally here another hour?"

"Have I not told you that the main industry of Belshazaar is psychotropics?" he said. "Ciudad Pallas is admittedly somewhat indifferent to the esthetics of the external landscape precisely because attention to same is largely superfluous in a city where the full glories of the internal landscape are available to all in such extravagant measure."

I liked not the sound of it, I liked it not at all. "If the sole attraction of Ciudad Pallas is the ready availability of a wide variety of psychotropics, why subject one's enhanced perceptions to such dismal surroundings? Surely, with your chip of unlimited credit, you can purchase whatever psychic enhancers your heart desires and consume the same in some venue far more conducive to spiritual elevation ..."

"Ah, but here whatever psychotropics the heart desires are available gratuit!"

"Gratuit?"

"Indeed better than free!" Guy enthused. "Here in Ciudad Pallas, one may be paid to consume psychotropics! In this noble city, serving as a subject for psychochemical experimentation is an honored profession!"

"What?" I exclaimed and collapsed into the nearest chaise, for such a notion was not something I felt I could contemplate in an upright position.

"Vraiment!" Guy went on in the same grandly enthusiastic vein. "New substances are constantly discovered in the research domes, ne, and these must then be evaluated here under controlled conditions before the viable ones can be offered up on the market. Naturellement, each potential new product must be tested upon scores of human subjects, therefore many psychonauts, as it were, must be employed in the service of the advancement of scientific knowledge and pecuniary profit. Can you think of any career for which I am better suited? Do you know of anyone more likely to achieve success in this noble calling than Guy Vlad Boca?"

"Merde!" I snapped. "What need have you of further funds? You hardly need to serve as an experimental subject in order to earn your keep!"

"True," Guy admitted. "I have no need of further funds. But I always have need of further amusement."

Even knowing Guy as I did, the logic of all this still seemed elusive. "But I thought you had already chosen a career as a traveling merchant, as heir apparent and scion of Interstellar Master Traders," I pointed out.

"Indeed I have."

"Well then, if you must soak your brain in an ocean of assorted psychotropics, why not simply purchase them? Or if you have suddenly developed scruples against expending your father's fortune on your own amusement -- which have never before been in evidence -- why not simply announce your identity to the local purveyors of psychotropics and request free samples of their goods for marketing evaluation?"

"Not a bad notion ..." Guy mused. "But neither as amusing nor as potentially profitable as my own. True enough, as an announced agent of Interstellar Master Traders, I would be showered with free samples of whatever was already on the market. But the opportunity for greatest profit lies in learning of the best of the newest psychotropics before they are offered up to general commerce. Thus, by posing as a mere indigent Child of Fortune, as one of the thousands of paid experimental subjects in which the city abounds, I may learn of the best new products before any other merchants do. And by approaching the manufacturers thereof before they begin to solicit importers and offering a modest premium for exclusivity, I can score a series of commercial coups such as will do my father proud."

"Pfagh!" I snorted. "The truth of the matter is that you find the notion of being paid to sot yourself on arcane chemicals incognito more amusing than the idea of simply purchasing them or securing samples as a merchant!"

"Well spoken!" Guy exclaimed with an idiot grin. "In this matter, the maximization of amusement and the maximization of profit happily coincide. Moreover, I might point out that you too may enhance your consciousness at a pecuniary profit."

He took hold of my hand and fairly dragged me to my feet. "Come, " he said, "let us begin our enterprise. A moment unamused is a moment lost forever, as a wise man once said."

***

And so our endless round of the laboratories and mental retreats of Ciudad Pallas began. Our first visit was to a modest laboratory occupying a single floor of a large tower, and the first sight to greet us therein, and one that would become all too commonplace in the days ahead, was that of an anteroom crowded with about a score applicants for the position of experimental subject.

A more unsavory collection of human specimens would be hard to imagine. Most of our fellow applicants of both genders were of the same general age as ourselves, the males frequently bearded with stubble, the females in a state of dishabille, and both sexes exuding an odor of stale perspiration contaminated with peculiar aromas of acetone and other acrid byproducts of dysfunctional metabolisms. A few of these folk were of a more advanced age and had clearly been pursuing the "profession" of psychonaut longer than was prudent, for these were gaunt of frame, hollow of cheek, deeply shadowed around the eyes, and had a disconcerting tendency to stare fixedly at the walls or ceiling, muttering to themselves.

At length, a woman in a plain gray smock appeared through the doorway to the inner sanctum and announced that the fee offered for the day's experiment would be six units of credit. At this, three or four of the applicants departed with their noses in the air. The rest of us were subjected to a perfunctory examination with a metabolic monitor to weed out those whose bloodstreams or protoplasm might be contaminated with lingering byproducts from other such sessions which might skew the results of today's seance.

Only half a dozen passed this muster, among them, naturellement, Guy and I, who had yet to contaminate our metabolic purity as experimental subjects. We were ushered into a plain gray- walled room containing a series of tables. Before each table was a padded chair. Behind each table sat a gray-clad and bored-looking functionary. Upon each table was a rack of glass vials filled with fluids, powders, and gaseous essences, a word crystal recorder, and a metabolic monitor.

Guy and I were seated at adjacent workbenches. The sallow-skinned, blonde-haired woman seated across the table from me affixed electrodes to my temples, placed a probe under my tongue, inserted another into the pit of my right aim, and did not deign to speak until I was properly attached to her monitoring machineries.

"Bitte, you will spiel your subjective experiences as they occur, trying as best you are able to confine yourself to style of feeling, sparing us any flights of loquacity or philosophical musings, which in any case will be edited out of the transcript," she recited in a flat bored voice after these amenities had been concluded.

"Sniff," she commanded, opening a vial of clear fluid and thrusting it under my nostrils. I sniffed.

"Spiel."

This was easier said than done. A smoky-sweet odor went directly to the back of my brain, where it ignited a ravenous hunger for some specific food I had never encountered. "Total hunger," I said. "For something quite specific that I've never encountered, it's quite difficult to try to explain. ..."

"Superfluous also ... Inhale ... Spiel ..."

The next vial seemed to have no odor at all, but I was abruptly consumed by a raging lust, or more precisely a genital demand for sexual relief completely divorced from my psychic state, which could not have been less interested in such matters at the time.

And so it went. In order to have six units credited to my chip, I was required to sniff, inhale, quaff, or touch something like a dozen substances, and report as laconically as possible on the psychesomic effects thereof. These ranged from narcoleptic torpor to a state of nervous excitation that had me fairly vibrating in my seat, from a sudden loss of color vision to a state of visual perception in which everything glowed with its own inner light, from ravenous hunger, cellular thirst, and sexual lust to the absolute conviction that I had become a disembodied spirit.

At the conclusion of this first job of work as a psychonaut, I reeled out into the bleak streets of Ciudad Pallas in a state of some discombobulation; for though these outre psychic states had all been quite transitory, the memory traces of this dizzying succession of narrowly focused psychic states had loosened my moorings to quotidian consciousness to the point where it took some time to return to reality ordinaire.

Guy, however, assumed a critical air. "Trivial substances," he said loftily. "I found none of it more than passingly amusing, did you?"

"Not even that," I admitted quite truthfully.

He withdrew a sheet of paper from a pocket and studied whatever it was he had scrawled thereon. "While they were crediting your chip, I learned of several other laboratories seeking psychonauts today, " he said. "Let us see if the next one offers better fare ..."

So saying, he fairly dragged me into the next unoccupied floatcab and we were off to another laboratory, if not exactly against my will, then certainement not with my avid approval either, for if truth be told, I was still in no condition to strongly approve or strongly protest anything.

***

To Guy's growing consternation, we were rejected as subjects by the other four laboratories we visited on that first day in Ciudad Pallas, for apparently the rapid succession of substances we had tested at the first had left sufficient aftereffects in our metabolisms to render us unfit as biochemical tabulae rasas at least until the next morning.

As far as Guy was concerned though, the time was not entirely wasted, for while we waited in the anterooms of the various laboratories with our fellow would-be psychonauts, he questioned the more experienced members of this profession, or at any rate those capable of coherent discourse, on the inner lore of the trade.

Apparently the laboratories were not considered the prime venues of employment. For one thing, most of them were given over to the initial screening of the latest psychotropics to emerge from the research domes, so that more often than not one's time was wasted on psychotropics of trivial effect. For another, they were rather mingy when it came to pay scales. Furthermore, for the modest wage they offered, one was usually subjected to a whole battery of substances, which wreaked sufficient confusion to the fine detail of the metabolism to make it rather unlikely that one would be accepted as a fit subject by more than one laboratory in the same day.

"The mental retreats are much to be preferred," Guy was told by one of the more experienced -- which is to say gaunter, older, and more hollow-eyed-psychonauts. "Primero, they offer only one psychotropic per diem. Segundo, they perform molecular adjustments on the extracts, so that the experience is likely to be enhanced. Tercero, the pay is much better, due to the enhanced risk. Al fin, should unexpected difficulties arise, they have the facilities and commitment to restore one's base consciousness to the extent possible, or at worst to care for those who are no longer fit to continue to follow the trade."

Naturellement, the competition for these choicest and most remunerative positions was somewhat severe, but, we were assured, the fact that we were relatively naive subjects would count heavily in our favor for several weeks, which is to say until that advantageous situation no longer obtained.

His mood considerably buoyed by this knowledge, Guy picked diffidently at the undistinguished dinner we consumed in our suite before retiring, nor was his tantric performance anything more than perfunctory, for his attention was on the morrow throughout, and he kept up a nearly continuous babble on the subject of mental retreats and psychotropics even as we lay in each other's arms.

For my part, I had already had more than enough of Ciudad Pallas before I had even set foot on its unappetizing streets, my initial experience as a psychonaut had done little to convince me that I had found my true calling, and the society of the laboratory waiting rooms had not exactly impressed me with its sparkle and wit.

As for the effect this venue seemed to have on my lover, this seemed to resemble that of the company of Raul and Imre writ large, with the added disadvantage that Ciudad Pallas lacked even the esthetic divertissements of the Grand Palais of the Unicorn Garden.

And alas, my lover was also my benefactor, which is to say my sole source of funds save what I might earn at the psychonaut's trade, for the possibility of picking up my nascent career as a ruespieler seemed entirely out of the question here, nor did I imagine I could earn much ruegelt as a tantric performer in Ciudad Pallas either. The unpleasant truth of the matter was that I was trapped in this wretched city until Guy no longer found it amusing or until I could secure enough funds of my own to become an economic free agent. And in Ciudad Pallas, there seemed to be only one way to accomplish that.

So I saw no alternative to accompanying Guy the next I morning to one of the mental retreats in which the city abounded. And indeed my initial impression of this establishment did much to raise my spirits, for, of course, that was precisely what the design and decor thereof were artfully crafted to do.

The mental retreat was a dome atop a plain gray cube, and from without, it presented no more a pleasing aspect than any other building in Ciudad Pallas. Within, however, it was an entirely different matter. The dome was of transparent glass and it enclosed a large central courtyard around which the dormitories, offices, and laboratories of the mental retreat were constructed. This central atrium put me in mind of the vivarium of the Unicorn Garden, save that the natural sky was visible through the dome, and the style of the garden it contained was quite simple; consisting merely of some ordinary trees of several terrestrial species, an expanse of lawn, beds of flowers, a modest fountain, and a sprinkling of wooden benches.

The interior hallways, the room in which we were interviewed, and the chamber in which the psychotropics were administered, were all paneled in rough-grained wood, ceilings were painted a deep blue, and forest-green carpeting abounded.

All in all, an ambiance of ease and tranquility had been successfully created within these cloistered walls, and, moreover, the functionaries of the mental retreat seemed to take care to dress in a congruent style, in flowing garments of either natural browns and greens or gay primary colors. As for those who, by their abstracted airs and lack of attention to personal grooming, appeared to be long-term habitues of the mental retreat, these were dressed in a similar style, and were permitted to roam the corridors and garden at leisure.

The only sour note was struck by the usual denizens of the waiting room, who appeared no different from their compatriots of the same venues in the laboratories.

After the usual metabolic screening process, Guy and I were accepted as subjects and offered twenty-five credit units apiece to test what was described as a single promising substance. This was indeed a far cry from the rates that seemed to prevail in the laboratories, and even I therefore agreed with some enthusiasm, tempered only by the fact that, as usual, we were kept in the dark about the experience we were about to undergo in order not to skew our reactions with expectations.

My trepidation increased however when Guy, myself, and the four other psychonauts who had been selected for the day's labor, were led away into separate private cubicles by our own individual functionaries.

Mine was good enough to ask my name and introduce himself as Doctor-Professor Sigisimund Farben Bruna, a nicety absent from the commerce of the laboratories, though the courtesies did not extend to an exchange of name tales. Electrodes were affixed to my temples, a probe inserted into a vein, and another into my vaginal cavity, but rather than leading to cumbersome stationary machineries, the wires therefrom led to a cunning little portable unit fastened to my waist by a belt.

"You will be free to wander the grounds, Sunshine," the Doctor-Professor told me in a warm, somewhat syrupy voice, as if he were a thespian playing the part of himself. "I will accompany you, and we will converse freely."

"That is the entire process?" I asked somewhat dubiously.

He favored me with a friendly smile that also seemed to owe something to conscious craft, though perhaps it was merely his ice-blue eyes and somewhat overdignified visage combined with my own natural unease which created the impression of a kind of professional sincerity. "But of course changes in your physiology will also be monitored," he said, "so that your anecdotal reportage may be temporally correlated therewith. Thus, given enough subjects, do we develop a more or less precise profile of the psychic states generated by stepwise biochemical alterations caused by the substance in question."

"Which is?"

"A floral extract of some molecular complexity in which certain speculative modifications have been made," he said vaguely, producing a small vial of clear blue fluid. "We commence, ja?"

I shrugged somewhat fatalistically and quaffed the potion, which had a not unpleasant smoky- sweet savor, if somewhat contaminated by a tooth-tingling metallic aftertaste.

"And now ...?" I inquired.

"A stroll in the garden, ja?" suggested the Doctor-Professor. "We have reason to believe that perambulation expedites metabolic absorption."

And so we repaired to the garden, where other such functionaries, be they Doctor-Professors or not, were shepherding other psychonauts, Guy among them, taking pains, or so it seemed, to keep us all at a considerable distance from each other.

While awaiting I knew not what, I sought to engage the Doctor-Professor in discourse upon the subject of his professional interests, seeking thereby to gain some further knowledge of the true nature of the peculiar establishment in which I now found myself. "This place styles itself a mental retreat; are you therefore a Healer of malfunctioning psyches?"

He shrugged somewhat owlishly. "An obsolete concept, nicht wahr," he declared. "Here we delude ourselves not that there exists a singular gestalt of healthy human consciousness toward which all variant states need be bent by our art. Au contraire, our aim is to develop a broad enough palette of psychotropics so that any given psychic state may be produced to order."

'Je ne sais pas ..."

"One client enters a mental retreat in a cafard of egoless fragmentation, ja, and we are commissioned to reattach his psyche to a unified perception of the quotidian realm. Aber ein wanderer may enter with an excessive ego-grounding in the wheel of maya and commission us to produce a psychic state wherein that ego is dissolved into nirvanic union with the atman. Or indeed we may be commissioned to increase the availability of certain arcane psychic gestalts to serve economic and social necessities ..."

"Such as?''

"Most lucrative of all is the obvious need for a psychotropic which would reliably induce in neutral female subjects the rare psychic gestalt of the Void Pilot personality, for vraiment, that would usher in a golden era which might fairly be called the Third Starfaring Age," he enthused. "As things stand now, we must search the mental retreats and demimondes for naturally occurring anorexic addictive personalities of the required extremity, and so unfortunately rare is this syndrome that we never have more than two hundred or so in active service, ja, and this process is to the reliable scientific production of Void Pilots as ancient alchemy is to quantum chemistry, nicht wahr ..."

He brought himself up short and stared at me narrowly, as if suddenly realizing that he had wandered into regions of discourse best not broached to experimental subjects such as myself. And indeed such frankness did little to enhance his moral stature or that of the mental retreats of Ciudad Pallas in my eyes, nor did it exactly increase my confidence in his concern for the personal well-being of experimental subjects or patients.

There was something odious, or so it seemed to me, about the notion of producing any given state of consciousness to order, for the question then arose as to whose specifications were to be followed. And judging from his unwholesome enthusiasm for the ghastly conceit of artificially creating the miserable state of psychic dysfunction necessary to the calling of Void Pilot in order to facilitate interstellar commerce, not to say enhance his own, these specifications need not be at all conducive to the personal happiness of the subject ... or victim.

Which is to say that the style of consciousness induced by his words in my own being was that of a certain dread. For what was about to happen to me?

Vraiment, this thought had no sooner taken form in my brain than I became aware that something was happening.

A strange hollow tingling sensation was slowly spreading up my back and then along my limbs from a point of focus which seemed to be located in the chakra at the base of my spine. Not so much a loss of sensation as a shift in my perception of the kinesthetic image of my own body, as if my spine, and then the bones of my limbs, and then the flesh encasing them, were effervescing into some clear ectoplasmic substance, transparent not so much to sight as to my body's internal kinesthetic senses ...

"The effects begin, ja?" the Doctor-Professor said, studying me intently. "Speak, schnell bitte, before the next stage commences!"

"Je ne sais pas ..." I stammered in no little trepidation. "I ... I seem to be evaporating ... my flesh is turning into air ... into liquid crystal ... into ... into ..."

"Ach gut! Nominal thusfar!"

Nominal? The effect was spreading more rapidly every moment. My arms and legs, then my hands and feet, became ethereal unreality, as transparent to kinesthetic perception as clear glass is to light. Vraiment, I could stand, I could flex my feet, move my fingers, yet somehow, to some sense that was neither feeling nor sight, nor even volitional control, they were not there ...

"Spiel! Recite! Speak, bitte, I must have data!"

"I'm dissolving!" I cried in no little terror. "I'm fading away!" For now my entire body seemed to have ectoplasmated into nothingness from the point of view of the kinesthetic centers of my brain. Though I could see it, and move it, and even feel the pressure of the ground beneath the soles of my feet, in some elusive fashion, my consciousness had retreated up the column of my spine to the citadel of my brain, as if my spirit were dissociating itself from the corporeal matrix in which it arose ...

"More data! More data!" the Doctor-Professor demanded. "This is excellent thusfar!"

"The light! The light!" 1 cried in panic, and then in panic not unalloyed with a certain tremulous wonder, for as the dissolving of kinesthetic awareness began to engulf my head like some amoeboid creature spreading its protoplasm from the base of my neck, through my jaw, up my cheekbones, the green of the trees, the brown of their trunks, the reds and blues and yellows of the beds of flowers, the cerulean tint of the sky, vraiment even the sallow skin-tones of the Doctor- Professor, began to take on a luminous glow, seemed to pulse and shimmer, then to take on an independent substance, as I became little more than the impalpable sensorium against which they impinged ...

"Speak! Speak! Attempt coherence, bitte!"

"Oh! Oh! Oh! I can feel them!" I moaned. For indeed I -- insofar as an "I" still remained -- no longer sensed the brilliant colors as hues pertaining to the surfaces of trees, faces, flowers, or sky, but as independent entities of light magically transmuted into matter, as living organisms engulfing my nonexistent body, as a garment of Cloth of Many Colors, or rather Cloth of Many Touches, for somehow sight had transmuted itself into feeling, and feeling to caresses, and caresses to ... to ...

"Speak! Speak! Schiess, why must it always be thusly at the most critical stage!"

But I could not speak. For there was no longer any "I." There was only a perfect clear emptiness where that "I" had been and a skin of exquisite multicolored flame surrounding it. Vraiment, a skin of kundalinic fire, for as light had become touch, so touch had become tantric ecstasy. All that now existed in the space where I had been was a living mantle of orgasmic substance, a transcendent being that was naught but an interface of orgasm, a flaming aura of static ecstasy burning through the very fabric of space and time.

How long did I remain in this egoless ecstatic state? While I was later to learn that the duration of the experiment was several hours, such measurements had no meaning whatsoever in the subjective realm thereof. For there was neither a timebound ego to measure the hours nor any interface between objective reality and the subjective perception thereof.

Suffice it to say that after some interval quotidian awareness returned to a Sunshine Shasta Leonardo who found herself supine upon a lawn under a blue domed sky, inhaling the effluvia of her own sweat as she breathed in ragged gasps and gazing with unfocused vision into the face of Doctor-Professor Sigisimund Farben Bruna shaking his head in rueful dissatisfaction and appraising her with a coldly professional eye.

"I suppose you have earned your twenty-five credit units," this worthy owned grudgingly. "Though I would pay twice that amount for a subject capable of ingesting this substance and remaining coherent enough to tell the whole tale."
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Re: Child of Fortune, by Norman Spinrad

Postby admin » Sat Mar 19, 2016 6:01 am

Chapter 15

By my own adamant choice, my first venture as an experimental subject for the mages of the mental retreats of Ciudad Pallas was also my last, and no argument of Guy's to the contrary could sway my determination not to submit myself to what I can only call such horrid pleasures again. For while I could not deny his contention that this was a potentially lucrative occupation, I neither trusted in the good intentions of these Hippocratic mercenaries, nor wished to risk my sanity to serve the cause of their profit.

As for Guy, who had been dosed with the same substance and reported a similar sequence of experiences during the floatcab ride back to the Hotel Pallas, he, au contraire, had found it all quite amusing and was just as adamantly determined to continue his career as a psychonaut.

"I cannot comprehend your reluctance," he declared more in genuine amazement than pique. "How can you define the spirit's transcendence of the limitations of the body's sensory apparatus as anything but an enhancement, vraiment, how can you define a timeless and endless orgasmic cusp as anything but ultimate ecstasy?"

"One might say the same for what Void Pilots supposedly declare to be the true ultimate ecstasy of the Jump itself," I snapped. "Would you then have me famish myself into anorexia, rot my brain with a profusion of crude opiates, dally awhile with the Charge, and spend several years in a mental retreat so that I may then enjoy platform orgasm as a Pilot via congress with the Jump Circuit?"

The most unwholesome dreamy look insinuated itself onto Guy's face. "Indeed it is said that in the moment of the Jump, the Pilot achieves far more than platform orgasm," he muttered speculatively, "that via union with the Great and Only Void out of which the dance of matter and energy arises, the spirit achieves ecstatic merger with the atman and transcends thereby the limitations of maya and temporality ..."

I could scarcely credit my ears. "Now you enthusiastically parrot the apocryphal mystical babble of the Void Pilot ...?"

"The Great and Only exists, and the Jump transcends the limitations of the quotidian realm of energy, matter, and time, as witness the fact that we ourselves have so recently traversed light- years in days via its instrumentality, ne," Guy told me. "Therefore may not the Void Pilots achieve the ultimate state of consciousness of which our species is capable?"

"Be that as it may," I pointed out, "the beneficiaries of this transcendent congress with the Void are rendered thereby incapable of enjoying the pleasures of a natural woman, unfit for social intercourse, and expire within a matter of years."

"Vraiment," Guy admitted, "but may not the bargain be worth it? May not that which we fleshly creatures seek in each other's arms be but a pale shadow of an ultimate bliss which our untimebound spirits remember? And indeed, are not matters of lifespan irrelevant to a spirit which experiences a single moment of transcendent time?"

"Next you will declare your intention to become a Void Pilot?" I snorted.

Guy shrugged. "Alas, as you know, that is a path to the ultimate transcendence of maya's realm which is open to the steps of your gender alone," he said with tendentious gravity. "Yet here, in the mental retreats of Ciudad Pallas, do they not seek an elixir which will create the biochemical matrix of a consciousness capable of experiencing same in ordinary female brains? May they not therefore at length concoct a potion which will grant such a cusp to the poor masculine likes of myself? Vraiment, is this not the ultimate of the amusement which I so avidly seek? How can I therefore eschew the path spread before me by the mages of Ciudad Pallas out of cowardly trepidations for the state of my mere corpus?"

At this I was quite literally rendered speechless, nor would I rise to the bait of his babble for the rest of the evening. Nor, alas, would he give it over long enough for a proper passage d'amour before I lapsed into merciful sleep. And on the morrow, he was no more able to comprehend my refusal to accompany him to another mental retreat than I was capable of comprehending his refusal to simply purchase psychotropics of proven ability and effect if he was so set on devoting himself to the contemplation of his own spiritual navel.

"I seek not realms which others have known, for I know of no man who has yet attained the realm which I seek!" he insisted. "Vraiment," he said with a leavening trace of his old wry humor, "no doubt that is half the reason I seek it. But how can you style yourself a true Child of Fortune and not wish to avail yourself of spheres of consciousness never previously known to mortal man when a veritable smorgasbord of same is laid out for your delectation?"

"How can you style yourself a true Child of Fortune and waste your time, not to say risk your spirit, besotting yourself in this wretched city when all the worlds of men are laid out as a veritable smorgasbord of adventure for your delectation, courtesy of your fathers bottomless largesse?"

"The worlds of men, the worlds of the spirit within this single man, la meme chose, ne?"

"Phagh! Merde! Have you not noticed the denizens of the laboratories and mental retreats? Is that what you wish to become, Guy, a gaunt, hollow-eyed wretch staring vacantly at walls and muttering incomprehensible imprecations to yourself?"

"Ah, but who is to say what splendors of the spirit, what transcendent heights of amusement, are in fact contained within such seemingly decadent fleshly she1ls?"

"A maestro of sophistry?" I suggested archly.

Und so weiter. In the days to come, when Guy would return to our suite after a sojourn in the mental retreats, at times glassy-eyed and torpid, but more often than not vibrating with ill-focused energy and babbling of incomprehensible wonders, this dialectic would go another round without approaching any closer to synthesis.

Nor, on the other hand, and to Guy's considerable moral credit, did he ever intrude pecuniary considerations into our fruitless discourse, though I would have been hard put to counter same. For while he was earning an average of some twenty-five units of credit a day in the mental retreats, I, a pauper dependent upon his largesse for my very bed and board, only occasionally visited a laboratory to earn a pittance, and then only under the pressure of a boredom that became more unbearable every day.

In the face of his undeniable magnanimity of spirit when it came to matters of finance, I could hardly summon up the meanness of soul to hector him on subjects where he in turn would have been most vulnerable: to wit, that firstly he was entirely responsible for my presence in this ghastly city, and secondly that his puissance as a lover was dwindling away to nullity as his libidinal energies were sucked down the black hole of his solipsistic psychotropic obsession.

Would I have left Guy Vlad Boca at this point had I possessed sufficient funds to escape Belshazaar on my own? Je ne sais pas, for no such choice was in fact open to my consideration. But mayhap, I still would not have abandoned Guy to the demimonde of the mental retreats, or so I would like to think.

Certainement, I had discovered to my dismay an unwholesome side to his spirit that was more and more coming to the fore. But it was a generous and open-hearted spirit too, and even his obsessive quest for psychotropic nirvana clearly emanated from a core of passionate if foolhardy courage which I would have had to have been a churl to deny.

Then too, the more simple fact of it was that Guy had rescued me from penury on Edoku and freely given whatever it was in his power to give. What sort of Child of Fortune, vraiment, what sort of human spirit, would I have been if I had left such a comrade to be pulled down by his demons without at least offering combat to the same to the limits of my power to do so?

Be such moral conjectures as they may, as karma would justly have it, I lacked the coward's resources to flee from the field of honor, and at length I was presented with both the dire necessity to act and the pragmatic means to do so.

While Guy was off pursuing his solipsistic pleasures, I was left to my own devices, and these were limited indeed. I wandered the bleak streets aimlessly, or rather seeking divertissements that were not to be found therein, namely some analog of the society of the Gypsy Jokers, some promising venue in which to essay a ruespiel, or failing that, at least some opportunity to earn ruegelt as a tantric performer .

Alas, none of the Children of Fortune of Ciudad Pallas had interest in any enterprise save that of the mental retreats and laboratories, what passed for street crowds depressed me beyond any thought of standing up and spieling, and I had entirely lost the pluck to offer my services as a tantric performer to passing strangers, and certainly to passing strangers as unappetizing as these.

But on the tenth day, awash in ennui and self-pity, I was trudging with downcast eyes along a street given over to the usual unimaginative facades of shops and streets, when all at once I was confronted with a vision that jolted me out of my funk and set my spirit soaring.

The entire facade of a libraire had been given over to a bolo display designed to entice custom within. As to whether the generality of the citizenry of Ciudad Pallas might be entranced by this sight, je ne sais pas, but as for me, I stood there dazzled.

For there on the grim gray streets of Ciudad Pallas was a window into another and grander reality: a holo view of the Bloomenveldt itself.

Under an azure sky fleeced with passing clouds, a vast meadow stretched away to the horizon, undulating gently in a breeze. Imagine a dense bank of clouds seen from above, soft billowing mounds, not of white or stormy gray, but of a deep and verdant green.

For what I beheld was the treetop canopy of the Bloomenwald, an aerial rootwork of great interlocking branches from which grew a magically solid veldt of huge leaves, solid enough so that I felt I might step off the street and walk away into wonderland, yet tossing and rolling like foam on the wind. Green and yet not entirely green, for the entire vista of undulating skyland was strewn with a profusion of flowers of every conceivable form and hue, as a desert may be seen to spring into riotous bloom after a day of rain. Flowers whose immense size was revealed by a troupe of tawny-furred bipeds who were to be seen hopping in great soaring bounds among flowers which quite dwarfed them.

Ah, I could all but feel the "land" rocking beneath my feet, feel the sun on my skin and the wind streaming through my hair, I could almost smell gorgeous floral perfumes wafting to my nostrils upon it.

Merde, we were utterly demented to remain in this vile city for another instant when such an Enchanted Forest grew on this very planet! No wonder the citizens of Ciudad Pallas and the denizens of the laboratories and mental retreats seemed so unwholesome! No wonder Guy seemed to be fading into babblement before my eyes! For who but a crippled spirit would be content to experience such a natural reality second-hand in vials when the Bloomenwald itself was but a short flight away?

Surely even Guy would be roused from his psychotropic obsessions by this grand and glorious sight, surely he would be moved to travel forthwith thither, surely the means had been placed in my hands whereby I might save him from himself!

Without further thought, 1 entered the libraire and purchased a copy of the holo so that I might display it for Guy at once, utterly indifferent to the fact that this purchase consumed nearly all of the meager credit on my chip, leaving me with only enough to take a floatcab back to the hotel. This final expenditure I also freely made, unwilling to trade time for credits by returning afoot.

A small pamphlet concerning the Bloomenwald was included in the price of the holo, and this 1 avidly perused while the floatcab carried me through the streets of Ciudad Pallas, all too eager to ignore the tawdry reality through which I need pass in favor of immersion in the lore of the Enchanted Forest.

On Belshazaar, I learned, wormlike forms had evolved directly into vertebrates and thence into higher fauna, and insects had never arisen. The flowers of the Bloomenveldt being of such enormous size, the ecological niches occupied on other worlds by insectile forms were here taken over by mammalians of considerable size and cerebral development. As in the more common mode where insects filled these niches, the flowers exuded molecules in their perfumes, pollens, nectars, and fruits designed to effect the motivational metabolisms of their pollinators.

But since on Belshazaar these pollinators were mammalian forms with developed cerebral cortices, the molecules the flowers evolved to modulate their behaviors also had their effects on man.

Thus was the economy of Belshazaar based upon the chance evolution of an ecosystem in which higher forms had been adapted to serve as the pollinators of the Enchanted Forest.

The pamphlet went on to elucidate a few of the finer details of the ecosystem of the treetops, but by the time I had reached this section of the simple dissertation, the floatcab had reached the Hotel Pallas, and I gave over my studies of same in favor of rushing to our suite to confront Guy with the holo.

I burst into the suite in the full flush of my enthusiasm, and, seeing that Guy reposed on a chaise in the sitting room gazing out over the dismal cityscape provided by the great window, I went directly to the viewer circuited thereto and inserted the holo. The wretched view of the vile city was forthwith replaced by the glorious vision of the Bloomenveldt, as if we were perched in a treehouse above the aerial meadow, looking out on what would soon become our garden of delights.

"Look, Guy, isn't it marvelous?" I burbled. "Ah, how --"

"... So close, vraiment, beyond the dance, rising within me, it is as they say, as Jesu Christo had it, behold, psychonauts of the spirit, you too can walk on water, you must surrender all else to do it, but you can walk on water ..."

Only when he utterly failed to react to this glorious vision did I perceive the metal band around his head, and the wire leads depending therefrom, and the little console to which they were connected. Only then did I realize that he had been addressing himself in an eerie hollow voice at the moment of my arrival. Only then did comprehending rage replace my ignorant joy. For while I had discovered Xochimilco in the treetops, Guy had discovered the Charge.

I knew little about the Charge in those days save the general lore, and I would have expected Guy Vlad Boca to be far better versed in such matters than I, but what I did know was more than enough to outrage my spirit and send an adrenal tide boiling through my blood which balled my hands into fists.

The Charge is in essence the electronic amplification of the electrohologram of human consciousness without topological distortion, so that the Charge Addict seems to remain the same personality only more so, an enhanced version of himself, if only in his own eyes. Of course, if as is all too likely, the Charge Addict is a skewed personality to begin with, amplification produces something a good deal less savory than a bodhisattva.

Worse still, while each increment of Charge achieves an increment of amplification of the electrohologram of consciousness, each increment of Charge also creates an increment of instability in the overall pattern, so that as higher and higher states of consciousness are supposedly achieved, the personality that reaches them grows vaguer and vaguer, until, at least in theory, perfect Enlightenment is reached by a perfect human cipher.

Without even pausing at the time to think these thoughts, I ripped the wires from the console, and flung the vile thing against the wall with all my strength, smashing it to pieces.

Guy Vlad Boca at last acknowledged my existence to the point of turning his face in my direction, his eyes blinking in perplexity in the sudden light of relative reason. "How could you do such a thing to yourself, Guy?" I screamed. "Is mental seppuku in slow motion your concept of the perfect amusement?"

"Mayhap not ... perfect ..." Guy babbled, staring off into inner space once more, "but mayhap as close as we can approach to the edge ..."

"Merde, this is more than I can countenance," I exclaimed, and without further rational consideration, I tore the electrode band from his head, and employed the ring of Touch in a manner which I had never before attempted, applying my hand to the base of his skull, and sending a jolt of energy to the centers of his backbrain which should have been sufficient to have a corpse up and turning cartwheels.

This at least was enough to return him to some semblance of natural awareness.

"By what right did you do that, who are you to judge another spirit's quest, I merely toyed with the edge ..." he said, regarding me first in righteous anger, and then like a little boy whose mother has caught him with his hand in the pastry bin.

"What would you have had me do, sit patiently by and watch you slowly erase your consciousness?"

"I am no sordid Charge Addict, I would never have proceeded to the Up and Out," he said with a great false show of indignation belied by the queasy expression around the corners of his eyes. "I merely wished to taste the nirvanic joys which the Charge Addicts celebrate, never would such a master psychonaut as Guy Vlad Boca have had the weakness of will to fall victim to terminal addiction."

"Indeed? As you have not had the weakness of will to give yourself over to the far less puissant temptations of the mental retreats?"

"How can it be less than a noble calling to pursue profit and enhance consciousness while serving the cause of medical science at the same time?"

"Vraiment?" I said, hunkering down beside his chaise. "If your consciousness has become so puissantly enhanced, then why are you entirely oblivious to the glory before your very eyes!"

He regarded me with a befuddled expression.

Groaning with exasperation, I seized his jaw in my hand and directed his gaze by main force toward the holo image of the Bloomenveldt which had replaced the unwholesome vista of Ciudad Pallas beyond the window. His eyes widened in surprise and seemed to regain some modicum of their quotidian vitality.

"Yes, Guy," I cooed in as seductive a voice as I could muster under the circumstances, "not this wretched city of unnatural experiments and even more unnatural denizens, but the Bloomenveldt of which all herein is but a pale and tortured shadow. Vraiment, and this is but a holo. Ah, can you not imagine us standing there hand in hand in the Enchanted Forest of the treetops, with the warm sun on our skins, and a thousand rich perfumes intoxicating our senses, borne on the same breeze that ruffles our hair and whispers through the branches, and rocks the very ground we stroll upon like transcendent beings along the rolling surface of an arboreal sea ..."

Guy's reaction to this romantic extravagance was to shrug, and own: "Tres simpatico for the devotee of bucolic pleasures, but as for urbane and sophisticated spirits like ourselves, surely you jest?"

"How can you not be possessed of the passion to hie yourself there at once?" I said as evenly as I could, choking back my consternation at his obtuseness by pragmatic act of will.

"For what purpose? For all its grandeur, it is only a forest ..."

"Only a forest!"

"Surely the cities of man abound in more artful amusements and adventures of the spirit than anything that mere brute nature can provide."

"Including the present loathsome venue?" I said in a sneering tone.

"Most particularly Ciudad Pallas, here in the most advanced laboratories of the psychesomic sciences," said Guy, "for where else in the worlds of men are the most arcane states of consciousness to be experienced, and at a profit in the bargain?"

I choked back my disgust and anger in favor of guile, for at this point it was quite clear that there was no hope of persuading Guy to quit Ciudad Pallas for the Bloomenveldt by an honest appeal to esthetics.

"There, mon cher dumkopf, there!" I declared, pointing at the holo of the Bloomenveldt.

"There?"

"Naturellement, Guy," I purred in his ear. "Where else do you suppose all the psychotropics you have already sampled originate? If profit is what you seek based on a droit of monopoly on the latest substances to emerge from the research domes, how better to steal a march on all competition than by seeking them out at their very source'? If what you seek is the attainment of a state of consciousness which has never before existed in a human brain, why piddle about with synthesized derivatives rather than experience directly the full organic complexity? Is anything the mental retreats have to offer, is foolish flirtation with the Charge, any more amusing than that?"

"Je ne sais pas ..." Guy muttered reflectively. "To be the first, to boldly go where no human spirit has gone before, and mayhap to enrich ourselves beyond measure in the process ..."

And all at once, he was positively beaming at me. "Well spoken, ruespieler, well spoken, ma chere Gypsy Joker," he declaimed floridly. "you shall have your heart's desire, y yo tambien, for vraiment, what higher adventure for we two free spirits of the upper air than that which you propose!"

Even then I do believe that I realized that I had ceased to be an ingenue when I applied this forthrightly self-serving strategem. For by no stretch of the imagination could I delude myself that I had appealed to the best that lay in Guy Vlad Boca. But contrawise, did not the vie of Ciudad Pallas appeal to his worst weakness with deadly perfection?

No longer the innocent naif I, I had learned my first lesson in quantitative moral calculus, though at the time I had no concept of how bitter that lesson was to become.
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Re: Child of Fortune, by Norman Spinrad

Postby admin » Sat Mar 19, 2016 6:02 am

Chapter 16

There were no hotels on the continent of Bloomenwald, not even the rudest of inns; indeed the only human constructs were the research domes scattered up and down the eastern coast on the margin of beach between the great forest and the sea. As for accommodations within the Bloomenwald itself or atop the canopy thereof, these of course were nonexistent, for in the first instance the forest floor was a gloomy land of perpetual night choked with unwholesome saphrophytic fungi and infested with an assortment of ill-tempered poisonous reptiles, and the Bloomenveldt, while certainly a solid enough terrain to stroll upon, was hardly suitable as a base for architectural constructs.

Fortunately, auslander turistas did visit the Bloomenwald from time to time, though the natives of Belshazaar, aside from the workers in the research domes, entirely shunned the continent thereof, so a limited number of rooms were available in the domes, provided one was willing to pay the outrageous rent demanded.

As for equipping our little expedition, this we were advised to do before our departure. Since the climate of the Bloomenveldt was perpetually balmy, tents or heavy clothing were redundant, and should we be so foolishly venturesome as to stay away from the dome long enough to require nourishment, we would have to content ourselves with cold concentrates, for the notion of building a fire on the treetops would be, to say the least, ill-advised. Thus, aside from cold concentrates and canteens, our kits contained only three items of equipment: simple beacon receivers in the event we lost our way, filter masks which we were assured were an absolute necessity, and floatbelts to nullify gravity so that we could flit from branch to branch and not fall to the deadly forest floor in the event of a botched landing.

Guy, who had certainly never fancied himself a woodsman, expressed the usual trepidations of the confirmed urbanite during these preparations, but I, who had gone on many an expedition deep into the Bittersweet Jungle of Glade, assured him in all sincerity that I was a maestra of forest lore well versed in the skills of survival therein. So I truly believed, for was one forest not very much like another, even though the Bloomenwald was a forest writ large? Only the question of predators would have given me pause, and these, we were told, were nonexistent.

Within forty-eight hours, we had completed our preparations and boarded the suborbital shuttle, for once I had succeeded in altering the vector of Guy's enthusiasm, he threw his energies and argent into the project as totally as he had pursued his previous obsessions. There were no more sojourns at the mental retreats, the. Charge was never mentioned again, and once more our passages d'amour had achieved a frequency and duration, not to say piquancy, appropriate to a natural man and a natural woman about to share a grand adventure.

Of the shuttle flight to the continent of Bloomenwald, there is little to tell. We arose from Ciudad Pallas' shuttleport as if emerging from a dream of ennui, arced up through a featureless blue sky above an equally featureless ocean, winked through a starry blackness on the edge of space, then descended through a fleecy cloud deck to land on a sandy promontory jutting out into the sea.

Of our first moment on the continent of Bloomenwald, au contraire, much might be said, for this seemed another world entire.

On the tip of the peninsula where we had landed perched a large geodesic dome, whose facets flashed and shimmered in the bright sunlight like the eye of an insect. Landward of our debarkation point, the peninsula joined a narrow strip of beach, and beyond the beach towered the Bloomenwald.

To the naive eye, the edge of the Bloomenwald, seen from the beach, would no doubt have seemed a seacliff palisade, and even I, knowing what I saw, had difficulty crediting the fact that this five-hundred-meter-high wall of brown and black and deep gray crowned with green was in fact the margin of a forest. As far as the eye could see in either direction, this cliff towered over the beach. As a geological formation it would have been impressive enough, but as an endless thicket of living trees, it was so out of scale with the comprehensible that even the educated eye took a good while to unravel the optical illusion.

For what appeared to be a solid cliff of loamy brown earth streaked with formations of gray and black rock was in fact nothing so substantial. The vertical columns of brown upon long second glance revealed themselves as the mighty trunks of enormous trees, and the formations of black and gray rock were nothing more than the deeply gloomed aisles of shadow between them.

"Amusing enough for you, Guy?" I finally managed to whisper.

"Daunting ..." he muttered. "I can certainly see why no one would be mad enough to venture within."

I shuddered at the very thought. For beneath the canopy of the Bloomenwald was an equally vast shadow land somehow deeper in the darkness than any true night could have been, and merely viewing the gigantic edge thereof was enough to set the spirit shivering. As for the unpleasant fauna reputed to lurk therein, one could only be struck with the certainty that whatever chose to dwell in such a place must be of a disposition inimical to the human spirit.

But then we were here to explore the bright sun drenched meadowland of the Bloomenveldt high above, and as to the metaphysics of this image of a land of light crowning the realm of darkness, I was more than content to leave this to the poets, as we turned our backs to the land and our faces to the sea and made our way to the research dome.

***

Domed though it was, the research station sported no central garden, nor did it offer any grand overlook on the edge of the forest. Rather was the interior entirely divided up into three floors of modular rooms given over to laboratories, office spaces, dormitories, und so weiter, and most of the windows looked out on the sea.

Our room, for all the outrageous rent, was no less spartan than the rest of the establishment. There was a bed, an armoire, two night tables, two uncomfortable chairs, toilet facilities, and that was the end of it. As for decor, this tended to unadorned walls in muted pastel colors, thin carpeting in the same pallid hues, and no interior plantings whatever. This was a scientific station given over to serious pursuits, not a resort, and despite the fact that we were paying through: the nose, we were here on sufferance.

While the ambiance, or total lack thereof, of the research dome made this all too apparent, the director of the station, a tall silver-haired woman named Marlene Kona Mendes, was good enough to spell this out in words of one syllable on the occasion of a rather grim welcoming lunch in the refectory staged for our benefit.

"This is a research station engaged in serious studies, and you will therefore trouble not scientists on duty or intrude your presence into the laboratories, bitte," she said over a meal of bland cuisine little better than the concentrates we had purchased in Ciudad Pallas. "Further, if you are so foolish as to become lost on the Bloomenveldt, do not expect us to mount any rescue expeditions. We have a complement of only some two dozen, and none of us have any time to waste tracking down errant turistas. We assume no responsibility, legal or moral, for your safety, comprend?"

"The clarity of your exposition is quite admirable," Guy replied dryly.

Also present at this luncheon were two other turistas who had rented rooms at the station. Omar Ki Benjamin was an elegantly dressed fellow of perpetually ironic mien from Calabiria who styled himself a sufic poet and had been here a week gathering inspiration, or so he said. Sori Smit Jana was a taciturn woman with disconcertingly intense gray eyes who chose to cloak her planet of origin and mission on the Bloomenveldt in mystery.

"I will however give you the same advice I give all such dilettantes, though no doubt you too will ignore it," Marlene Kona Mendes continued with an expression of prim disapproval. "Firstly, I would advise you not to wander more than an hour or two's journey into the Bloomenveldt. Secondly, and even more advisable, never, at any time, remove your filter masks. Thirdly, if you are truly prudent, which I somehow surmise you are not, you will rent, at an additional daily fee, sealed atmosphere suits which will entirely protect you from the floral effiuvia."

Guy and I glanced at each other in some bemusement. Sori remained enigmatic as always. Omar laughed.

"Vraiment," he said, "and when enjoying sexual congress, take care to avoid orgasm. When imbibing wine, stop short of intoxication."

Marlene Kona Mendes shot him a black look, but something about her expression told me that this was a ritual gesture oft repeated.

"It may amuse you to learn that the mages who so earnestly study the psychochemistry of the Bloomenveldt eschew all subjective experience of the object of their obsession," Omar said, "When constrained by practical need to venture forth into the treetops, they do so entirely encased in armor. As to whether they conducted their passages d'amour similarly accoutred, je ne sa is pas, but certainement, it would be prudent, for as all do know, the human body is rife with microorganisms."

"This is so?" I asked the director in some amazement.

"That we are less than natural men and women?"

"That you never venture forth naked to the natural elements, of course," I said.

"Indeed. We are scientists, not mystical libertines such as some present whom I might mention."

"Mea culpa!" declared Omar. "Mea maxima culpa! Insofar as I seek to experience the most extreme states of consciousness that the universe offers our species, I am a mystic. Insofar as I fear no risk in the pursuit thereof; I proudly unfurl the libertine's banner!"

"Well spoken!" Guy exclaimed. Naturellement.

"Vraiment?" said Marlene Kona Mendes dryly. "Then why do you return each night to our mean-spirited company? Why do you not join those who wander the Bloomenveldt in a fog? Why do you not apply for admission into the society of the Bloomenkinder?"

"I am a mystical libertine, not an imbecile!"

"You mean to say there are humans living on the Bloomenveldt?" I said.

"Indeed," said Sori, exhibiting loquacity for the first time, "there are those who wander up and down the coastal fringes between the domes for weeks at a time. As long as they keep the sea in sight, they can always find their way to the next, even unmasked. As for food and drink, the Bloomenveldt provides these in profusion."

"As to how many of the denizens of the Bloomenveldt may still be entitled to style themselves human, that is another matter," Marlene Kona Mendes said.

"She seeks to frighten you with the legend of the Bloomenkinder," said Omar.

"I speak of anyone foolish enough to go unmasked!"

"It would appear that we have much to learn," I said, growing somewhat discomfited in the role of ignorant audience to a debate that had been apparently going on for some time.

"The permanent human condition, nicht wahr?" declared Omar. "One would assume the two of you will be eager to begin on the morrow. I would be honored to be your guide."

***

And so, once the sun had risen the next morning, Guy and I set forth on out' first visit to the Bloomenveldt in the company of Omar Ki Benjamin. "Despite my japes at the expense of our good director," he said as we made our way down the promontory toward the beach, "I would advise that you don your masks at least for the present. The initial impression is disorienting enough as it is. "

Upon reaching the beach, we did so, strapping on the half-masks, which covered nose and mouth while leaving vision unobstructed. We already wore our floatbelts, and Omar instructed us in their use, which seemed simple enough. Indeed the only control was a knob whereby the range of gravity nullification might be adjusted along a continuous range between the Belshazaar-normal value of .4 standard g and the highest setting, which would provide a negative gravity of .1 standard, which is to say a gentle lift of the same value. For safety's sake, this would cut off after ten minutes so as to prevent a wearer who for some reason had lost consciousness from drifting upward beyond the life-sustaining envelope of the atmosphere.

Omar led us inward across the beach for a few score meters, "for best dramatic effect," or so he told us. From this vantage, the edge of the Bloomenwald no longer appeared as a solid palisade; rather did perspective reduce me to the size of an insect peering upward at a vegetal vastness which rose before it to blot out the sky. Indeed, I could gaze within the deeply shadowed aisles of monstrous tree trunks and dimly perceive the pale white shapes of unwholesome fungi festooning the loamy forest floor, and even hear, or so at least it seemed, the scrabblings and chitterings of unseen creatures within.

"Up, up, meine kinder!" Omar cried. "From the maya of the groundlings to the sublimity on high!"

So saying, he twisted the control knob of his floatbelt and began to rise, and a moment later Guy and I followed.

We drifted slowly upward along the shadowy facade of the forest edge like mites ascending to the sky before the mouth of a cave too enormous for their modest perceptive powers to grasp, or like birds spiraling upward before an onrushing front of evil black thunderheads. Then, none too soon for me, we reached the level where the treetop canopy began, and the dark and gloomy immensity of the nether reaches at last gave way to billows of green foliage brilliantly dappled through- out by the bright morning sunlight.

And then, all at once, we had finally overtopped the roof of the forest and rose like the sun in the east, like homeward bound angels, over Eden.

It had been one thing to view the Bloomenveldt en holo but quite another to experience it for the first time in its own true scale. Vraiment, it was immense, in toto and in detail, and yet it was an immensity that, far from daunting the spirit, filled it with delight.

The morning sun behind us illumined in sharp chiaroscuro the wrinkles and folds and hillocks of a green veldt as endless as the blue sky above it. From this perspective hovering scant meters above the surface, the huge flowers which grew in a riotous profusion of bright colors appeared as isolated blooms on the green backdrop in the foreground, but seemed to fairly cover the land as the eye moved toward the horizon. Each ellipsoid leaf was about the size of three or four beds, and they grew in thick bunches along gigantic twigs, which in turn sprouted from unthinkably huge branches which appeared only as suggestive shapes beneath the almost seamless carpet of foliage.

And the whole rolling and undulating subtly in the gentle breeze with a sighing, rushing sound not unlike that of a mildly-tossing sea. This selfsame wind, caressing my sun. warmed skin and tousling my hair, seemed to serve as an organic connection between my body and the living, breath. ing landscape of the treetops, a breath I seemed to share in common with the Bloomenveldt, uniting its spirit with my own.

Naturellement, it was Omar who first broke the silence of that rapt moment. "Set your floatbelts to a tenth gravity and follow me, meine kinder!" he called out, and so saying, drifted downward to touch foot on a giant leaf. No sooner had his feet touched the surface, than, with a great whooping laugh, he bounded high into the air again in a fat lazy arc which carried him a good fifty meters away from us before he touched down once more, at which point, with an agile twisting spring, he propelled himself back in our direction in like manner, to alight like a hopping insect directly below us.

"Come, come, if an old mystic libertine like me can bound freely through the treetops, you youngsters should master the art in a twinkling!"

Guy and I exchanged glances, shrugged, grinned at each other, adjusted our floatbelts, and soon enough discovered that it was so. It was something like bouncing on a trampoline and something like zero gravity ballet. A great leap took virtually no effort at all at this low gravity setting, nor was a landing at all jarring to ankles or knees, and the stately interval of glide between seemed the esthetic equivalent of birdlike flight itself. It was not long before we were cutting aerobatic capers for the sheer delight of it, turning cartwheels and somersaults, executing abrupt changes of direction on the bounce, landing on our hands and vaulting backwards through the air to alight on our feet.

"I grow weary just watching two such natural Bloomenkinder," Omar called out at length. "Shall we proceed with the guided tour?"

And so we did for the next several hours, accustoming ourselves to the sights and sounds and feels of the Bloomenveldt, becoming one with the wonderland of the treetops under the aegis of our mystic libertine guide.

On the one hand, anyone part of the Bloomenveldt seemed much like any other, but on the other hand no two venues thereon were quite the same. Here on this magical land built on air, there were no landmarks or geographical features, only an endless, rolling, tossing veldt of boughs and branches, as formless and fluid as the waves of a sea. That was the seamless sameness of the Bloomenveldt.

But this sea of green was afloat with an abundance of flowers, of which the only sameness was that of immensity of scale, for they seemed to grow in a bewildering variety of shapes and hues. Great yellow blooms the size of a banquet table with spiky black stamens like so many cast-iron spears. Bunches of violet bells, each the size of a man, depending from a central stem. Carmine cups filled with fluid and large enough to serve us as baths. A greater variety of huge blooms within sight of each moment's vision than memory will hold. Fruits there were as well in an equally bewildering variety, hidden under flowers, hanging between them from stems, or nestled in the crotches where leaf stems met twigs.

"How is it possible for such a profusion of different flowers to grow on trees which by their leaves would appear to be all of the same species?" I asked Omar at length.

"I am a poet, not a genetic botanist," he told me, "But as I have been given to understand, each tree, being immensely long-lived by our standards, produces flowers which are genetically heterogeneous, cross-pollinating itself in an onanistic manner, as it were, in order to keep pace with the more rapidly evolving fauna of the Bloomenveldt. Like certain terrestrial coelenterates, the trees of the Bloomenveldt are colonial organisms, at least in a genetic sense." He shrugged. "Alas, that is the extent of my knowledge of such esoteric lore."

As for the fauna of the Bloomenveldt, these creatures fled at our less than stealthy approach, and we were able to glimpse them only from afar or as quick flurries of motion fleeing from our disturbance.

I saw troupes of the tawny-furred bipeds I had seen in the holo clustered around blood-red blooms streaked with black. Small black-furred creatures scattered like a flock of birds on membranous gliding wings when we stumbled upon them as they sucked nectar from the depths of pale orange flowers with long tubular tongues. Legless serpentine mammals with fur diamond- patterned in brown and green slithered away into the foliage as we approached a cluster of huge red puffballs.

There seemed to be some profusion of animal species, all of them mammalian, or at least mammalian-seeming, all of them quite shy of our approach, and all of them seeming to frequent no more than two or three different varieties of flower.

"Vriament, each type of flower exudes pheromonic essences specific to its own choice of pollinator, and laces its nectars and fruits with alkaloids evolved to please the palates of same," Omar told us. "Though at different seasons or different stages of rut, the same animal may be attracted to different flowers, even as we may be seized by pheromonic attractions to different sorts of mates depending upon our ages, state of intoxication, or even the phase of whatever moon there might be, for even in the chemical realm, variety is the spice of amorous life, ne."

"Speaking of which," said Guy, "now that we have mastered the art of perambulation in the treetops and visually acquainted ourselves with the flora and fauna thereof, is it not time we shed these filter masks and sampled the arcane perfumes for which the Bloomenveldt is famed?"

"Quelle chose!" Omar said with a grin. "you mean to say you intend to ignore the sober and prudent advice of science in favor of the reckless abandon of the mystic libertine?"

"When imbibing wine, Guy Vlad Boca is not known to stop short of intoxication," Guy informed him.

"And you, my lady fair?"

"When enjoying sexual congress, Sunshine Shasta Leonardo takes not care to avoid orgasm," I replied gamely, not to be outdone, though not without a certain trepidation either.

"Well spoken, my true Children of Fortune!" Omar declared. "And as a token of the esteem in which I hold such spirit, I will remain masked in order to serve as your ground control, as it were, for at least at first, it takes a bit of getting used to."

And so Guy and I doffed our masks, stowed them in our pockets, and, at the direction of Omar, the three of us leapt off the leaf on which we stood, and came down in the vecino of a bloom consisting of a wide circular veranda of velvety purple petals surrounding a tall tubular column coated with the most delicious crumbly pink pollen.

Delicious? Vraiment, utterly delectable, for my nose, indeed my backbrain, was filled, sotted, indeed transformed into a locus of pure desire by the most wondrous aroma-compounded of the crust of roasted meat, and the savor of rich brown chocolate, and a dozen more subtle undertones of gustatory lust-which informed my mouth with absolute chemical certainty that the grandest production of the premiere chef maestro in all the worlds of men was as fressen compared to this perfect pink ambrosia.

I had only to bury my face in the pollen mass, embrace it, shovel great handfuls into my gaping maw, and my tastebuds would explode in a veritable orgasm of gustatory ecstasy --

"Emphatically not recommended!" Omar shouted, restraining me by main force as I attempted to bury my face in the pollen, and yanking Guy away from a similar attempt with his other hand. "Jump, kinder, jump!" he commanded, and actually delivered a kick to my backside.

This was enough, vraiment, only this would have been enough, to make me leap off the petals of this wonderful flower, and as I did so, I observed Guy subject to similar prodding.

No sooner had 1 soared beyond the olfactory aura of the flower than what the moment before had seemed the most perfect, innocent, and natural desire in all the worlds was at once revealed as the most bizarre and ghastly of gustatory perversions.

The three of us came to rest on a leaf a prim and decent distance away from any of the surrounding flowers. Guy and I regarded each other in blushing embarrassment, as if each had caught the other in a sexual act too loathsome to contemplate.

"Take care to maintain a certain psychic distance from your chemical desires," Omar told us. "With a bit of practice, it is I possible to enjoy the effects without succumbing entirely to the tropisms thereof. Perhaps we should next try something a bit more soporific ..."

Our next flower was a yellow bloom like a great carpet of downy moss overhung by tassels dripping' a fine black powder. The aroma thereof was like a luxuriant tropical wind speaking to me of the passive pleasures of sweet and languid repose. I wanted nothing more than to lay myself down on its soft surface and stare mindlessly up into the azure depths of the sky. This I proceeded to do with Guy by my side. No sooner had my body contacted the yellow petals than I was showered by a dust-fine rain of black pollen which seemed to sparkle in the sunlight and caress my skin like a lover's soothing touch.

Minutes, hours, or an eternity of mindless perfection later, my nostrils were assailed by a stench the fecal fetor of which would have made the stink of rotten meat seem like jasmine, the soft down of the petals beneath my back all at once became a bed of itchy prickles, and I leapt unbidden into the air to come down, trembling and writhing, on a leaf beside Omar. A moment later, Guy arrived, brushing pollen off his body as if it were flecks of burning ash.

"As I warned you," Omar said, "it takes a bit of getting used to at first. But once you have become wise to the wiles of the various flowers, you may learn to use the effects to serve your own pleasures rather than the single-minded purposes thereof."

He pointed out a cluster of brilliant pink blooms perhaps a leap of thirty meters away, "Now those you should sample on your own," he said. "See if you don't find the effects thereof entirely pleasurable. "

Not without a certain trepidation at least on my part, Guy and I bounded over to a leafy pink apron overhung by translucent canopies of petals through which sunlight streamed to envelop us in a lambent rosy glow.

Indeed this rosy ambiance extended beyond the visual realm to encompass smell, and taste, and touch, and senses previously beyond my ken, for no sooner had I entered the seductive sphere of this floral boudoir than my entire being became suffused by a veritable synesthesia of rosy fire. My eyes saw through rosy sheets of light, my nose was filled with rosy musk, my very ears were filled with an ethereal music which somehow hummed a rosy mantra, rose was the taste of the very tongue in my mouth, Guy's skin beneath my touch assumed a rosy aspect to my fingertips, and the sum total of all my senses was a burning rosy lust.

And so we coupled there in the rosy twilight, with the quick and smoky passion of mindless innocent animals, without art, without restraint, without mindfulness of Omar, without in truth even conscious awareness of the act itself.

After we had reached our mutual cusps, the spell seemed to vanish into the wind, leaving only a heavy rosy torpor out of which we smiled contentedly at each other before taking to the air once more to rejoin Omar, who had observed the proceedings from a discreet distance.

"Lust, hunger, torpor, thirst, und so weiter," he said. "It would seem that from the floral viewpoint, these simple tropisms are quite sufficient to comprise the only meaningful motivations of we mammalians who fancy ourselves the crown of creation. Which is to say that if one is a flower, one need only secrete substances sufficient to incite them, and one may lead such creatures by the backbrain to serve the single purpose for which they were quite obviously designed, to wit the distribution and consequent cross-fertilization of one's po1len."

He laughed. "However, if one is a mystic libertine, this simple floral reasoning may be made to serve entirely mammalian purposes. "

Omar smiled at us indulgently. "So now that you have done your best for floral evolution, meine kinder, let us conclude our lesson by revisiting the very same blooms forewarned and therefore in full possession of that sapient critical consciousness which distinguishes us from the natural fauna of the Bloomenveldt."

And so, at his insistence, we did. We returned to the bloom of gustatory passion and reveled in the marvelous aroma of cuisinary nirvana but were able to resist the unseemly lust to gobble. Upon revisiting the yellow flower whose perfume urged languid repose, we stood before it inhaling the most wonderful peace and serenity of the spirit while resisting the urge to lie on its petals. As for our pink passion flower, once we were standing beneath its rosy canopy in full consciousness of the effects of its pheromonic suasions, and, moreover, erotically sated by our recent exercise, we were able to enjoy its aphrodisia of the senses from a more abstract connoisseur's perspective.

At length, the sun began to go down over the Bloomenveldt, Casting deep green shadows over the brighter hues of the treetops, and we replaced our filter masks and proceeded in soaring bounds toward the deepening blue of the sea on the eastern horizon.

"Aha!" cried Omar as the three of us poised on a leaf for the next leap. "A wandering spirit approaches!"

Away to the north, where his pointing finger directed our gaze, I saw a dark shape which at first I took for one of the animals of the Bloomenveldt bounding over the treetops more or less in our direction. Then I realized that its leaps were far too grand to be achieved without the aid of a floatbelt and perceived it as an approaching human.

"Let us tarry a moment and seek to engage him in discourse," Omar suggested. "If this proves possible, it may be of interest. If not, it will at least provide an object lesson."

A few minutes later, a rather bizarre figure alighted on a neighboring leaf: a tall, plumpish, dark- skinned man with a ragged mane of long blond hair, whose body seemed to be bursting out of a tattered tunic several sizes too small for him. Vraiment, he wore a floatbelt, but no filter mask was anywhere in evidence, nor did he carry any sort of pack. His eyes, though clear and healthy- looking from a physiological perspective, seemed not quite focused on quotidian reality.

"Greetings, wanderer," Omar called out. "I am Omar Ki Benjamin, and my companions are Sunshine Shasta Leonardo and Guy Vlad Boca ..."

The man stood there staring at us vapidly and blinking, as if trying to remember the import of such niceties of introduction.

"Come, come, whom do I have the honor of addressing?"

In response, the fellow's blinking only grew more rapid.

"Have you been on the Bloomenveldt long?" I essayed, though by the look of him, the question seemed entirely rhetorical.

"The rising of the sun ... awakening ... the summons of the flowers ... eating ... the setting of the sun ... sleep ..." the fellow said haltingly, as if this were some cosmic revelation. "The cycle repeats itself ... the great wheel turns ..."

"Indeed," said Omar, "I have observed the same myself. But from whence do you come and whither do you go?"

"The great wheel turns ... the spirit follows its karma along the trail of the wind ..."

"No doubt," said Guy. "But might you be so good as to point out from where the trail of the wind has brought you ..?"

The wanderer seemed to make a great effort at inward contemplation. At length, he pointed to the west, then hesitantly swung his finger in an arc from west, to northwest, to more or less due north up the coast.

"If I may essay a translation ...?" offered Omar. "You have come from a research dome somewhere up the coast, and you have swung inland on your journey?"

The fellow nodded with some enthusiasm and then spoke as if through veils of mental fog which had at least begun to clear somewhat. "Research dome ... oui ... several weeks ago ... psychoanthropologist yo ... Meade Ariel Kozuma ... is that not my name ..?"

"You are a psychoanthropologist named Meade Ariel Kozuma," I said firmly, getting the hang of the technique. "You left a research dome up the coast a few weeks ago ... on a field trip? To study ... those who wander the Bloomenveldt?"

He shook his head. "Nein ... not wanderers ... tribes ..." He pointed westward with some excitement.

"There are tribes of humans living in the interior of the Bloomenveldt?" I exclaimed.

He nodded. "Noble flowers ... higher forms ... tribes ... go unmasked ... one with the flowers ... principle of subjective research ..."

"Alors!" exclaimed Omar. "Just how far west did you go, man?"

Meade Ariel Kozuma managed a quite human shrug. "Where flowers are one with man ... evolutionary symbiosis ... not like here ..."

"Merde!" exclaimed Omar. "Next will you claim to have visited the Perfumed Garden of the Bloomenkinder?"

The former psychoanthropologist summoned up the ghost of what had once no doubt been a characteristic moue of professional skepticism. "Legend," he said. "Entirely anecdotal."

The sun was beginning to set in earnest now, the shadows were deepening, and a cool offshore wind had begun to rock the crowns of the great trees. "We had best be getting back to the dome now," Omar told us. He turned to regard Meade Ariel Kozuma. "Will you not let us escort you back to the worlds of men?" he offered.

The psychoanthropologist shook his head with some vigor. "The great wheel turns ..." he chanted. "The summons of the flowers ... the sun sets ..." Then with a sudden bound, he sprang off the leaf, and disappeared in great long slow leaps across the Bloomenveldt toward the sunset like a stone thrown by a skilled giant skipping across the surface of some unthinkably immense pond.

"Most of them are like that," Omar said conversationally. "Some a bit more coherent, some less."

"There are many such wandering the Bloomenveldt?" I asked.

Omar shrugged. "One encounters them from time to time."

Guy was staring westward at the sunset with a rather peculiar abstracted air. "Tribes in the interior ... " he muttered softly. "Higher forms ...? Bloomenkinder ...? The Perfumed Garden ...?" He turned to Omar and spoke more sharply ... "Do such things truly exist?"

"Some of it no doubt may be true, the rest volkchose," Omar replied. "Humans have been visiting the Bloomenveldt for centuries, ne, and some, no doubt, like our bemused friend, wander off never to be seen again. Given sufficient chance and time, one can credit that some survive to produce progeny, tribes of ersatz natives, as it were, Bloomenveldt born. One hears such reports from time to time, but you have observed how unreliable the bearers thereof become."

"These tribes, then, are the so-called Bloomenkinder?"

Omar laughed. "Nein," he said. "The Bloomenkinder are creatures of legend, and the legend thereof is related by the hypothetical tribes to bemused wanderers, who in turn babble to such as we. Mythical beings thrice removed, as it were. Denizens of the Perfumed Garden, a Xanadu deep in the interior where Enlightened Ones dwell in nirvanic perfection with the flowers."

"Do you suppose that such a place can in truth exist?" Guy breathed in a solemn half-whisper.

"Vraiment," said Omar, ''as do Xanadu and Oz and Paradise itself." He tapped Guy playfully on the head. "In here!"

He gazed uneasily to the west, where the disc of the sun had already touched the horizon. "It will soon be dark," he said. "Let us not tarry here further discussing the ineffable." And he bounded off in the direction of the sea.

"We must delve deeper into this," Guy said sharply. "Much deeper."

"It's only a legend, Guy."

"Bloomenkinder and Perfumed Gardens mayhap," Guy said with a dreamy yet all-too-determined look in his eyes. "But the tribes of the interior may be real enough, and one may therefore consider what hold the Bloomenveldt has upon such humans to cause them to remain ..."

"How might folk who know not of the existence of the worlds of men even be tempted to return thereto?" I scoffed.

"Ah, but Meade Ariel Kozuma was a mage in the worlds of men and did he not eschew our offer of rescue? What does he find herein more amusing than all the sophisticated pleasures of our Second Starfaring Age?"

***

After all my weeks in Great and ersatz Edoku, after the inward-facing reality of the Unicorn Garden, and most particularly on the heels of our sojourn in vile Ciudad Pallas, I was more delighted than I could have imagined to find myself once more in a totally natural realm under an open sky, let alone free to soar like a bird about a venue as exotic and beautiful as the Bloomenveldt. During the next five days, Guy and I, at first in the company of Omar and later a deux, spent our daylight hours gamboling in the treetops, sampling the perfumes of the great flowers, and conducting frequent and for the most part highly enjoyable tantric exercises under the influence thereof.

But Guy, after sampling the variety of floral psychotropics in the vecino with his usual diligence in such matters, soon became jaded by the immediate amusements at hand, and began to toy with the notion of penetrating the deeper mysteries of the interior .

The first symptom of this obsession appeared as a quite uncharacteristic scholarly interest in the genetic ecology of the Bloomenveldt and the lore of the human tribes thereof. and endless interrogation of the scientists of the research domes on these subjects under the guise of the sincere amateur student.

When it came to the question of the tribes of the interior, there worthies were either ignorant or deliberately unforthcoming or both, as if there was something they were attempting to hide, mayhap even from themselves.

It was readily enough conceded that the Bloomenveldt abounded with fruits, nectars, and pollens quite sufficient to allow members of our species to live off the land, and not even Marlene Kona Mendes attempted to deny that over the centuries any number of fools had wandered off into the interior never to be seen by civilized eyes again. Nor was it denied that what might have been the descendants of same had been fleetingly sighted by suited research teams foraging into the deeper Bloomenveldt in search of biochemical specimens. But these reverted savages uniformly fled at civilized approach, and, like the fauna of the treetops with whom they no doubt by now had more in common than with civilized folk, they were quite adept at eluding capture on their own terrain.

"In short," the director declared brusquely in what was clearly designed to be her final word on the subject, "there can be no more than a scattered handful of such creatures, they are of minimal scientific interest and even more useless in terms of possible profit, and the effort and risk of scientific study of these curiosities entirely outweighs any benefits that might accrue therefrom."

When it came to the subjects of their own immediate research, however, the scientists were more than willing to offer up their wisdom at interminable length to eager young persons expressing a respectful interest or a guileful simulacrum of same.

It was a matter of some dispute among them as to whether the flowers were actual organs of the trees upon which they grew or whether they were in fact symbiotes of different species, though at length it began to seem to me that this question was a mere verbal nicety, for functionally speaking, they were neither and both.

The great trees of the Bloomenveldt were so long-lived as to be all but immortal from a human perspective, and the Bloomenwald entirely covered the continent upon which it was found; therefore arboreal reproduction was necessary, indeed possible, only on those rare occasions when disease or disaster created a gap in the seamless canopy. Experiments had shown that upon such occasions the flowers of neighboring trees in fact dropped seeds onto the forest floor which grew into saplings. True too that the flowers grew directly from the boughs of the trees and were nourished by their sap. Furthermore, trees and flowers were as genotypically identical as Guy and myself, which is to say they shared identical chromosome numbers and genetic hardware.

But each tree's flowers were as genetically varied in the software expression thereof as the citizens of a human city, and they crossbred with each other to produce a rapid profusion of variations, generation by generation, as if they were independent organisms. Indeed, floral evolution on the Bloomenveldt proceeded by leaps and bounds, and that was why the forest remained a bottomless cornucopia of new psychotropics, for these evolved in response to the flowers' intimate relationship to their mammalian pollinators. Thus did the trees, who themselves reproduced rarely, nevertheless contrive to maintain a richly varied gene pool.

Of what real interest was such genetic arcana to Guy Vlad Boca, who had never in my presence evinced a scholarly interest in anything save the varieties of human amusement?

"You do not comprehend, Sunshine?" he said when I interrogated him on the subject of his sudden development of a passion for genetic botany en boudoir. "Either these people are forthrightly lying to us, or mayhap there is a truth which their crabbed spirits fear to consciously encompass "

"How so?" I demanded.

"The whole object of their research is to derive new psychotropics from the forest, is it not? And these, they readily admit, are produced by the flowers thereof in response to the evolution of their pollinators, ne?"

"This much is obvious, but --"

"Yet they profess complete indifference to the study of the human tribes of the interior! Who live generation after generation in unmasked intimacy with the flowers! Noble flowers ...higher forms ... Did not the wanderer babble of such wonders to be found in the interior?"

"Vraiment," I said dubiously, "but considering the source, must one not grant a certain discount for hyperbole?"

"No doubt," agreed Guy, "but considering the source and style of the tales' denial, which is to say sour spirits who dare not venture even to the edge of the Bloomenveldt without sealing their perceptions away in atmosphere suits, one must also grant a certain discount for spiritual constipation."

"Like the mages of the mental retreats and laboratories of Ciudad Pallas ..." I muttered. "Vraiment, on this planet, science would seem to have devolved from its courageous spiritual quest for truth and technological enhancement in favor of a single-minded search for profit."

"Be that as it may, it is also quite clear that even the greatest opportunity for pecuniary profit lies with sedulous study of the tribes of the interior. Since there would seem to be no baneful force restraining these Bloomenkinder from returning to the civilized realm, they must choose to remain in the depths of the forest because --"

"Because they find the Bloomenveldt more amusing than the worlds of men?"

"I could not have phrased it better myself," Guy said dryly. "And what do you imagine they find more amusing? Surely it is neither haute cuisine nor theatrical performances nor elevated discourse ..."

"More puissant psychotropics!"

Guy beamed at me idiotically. "Go to the head of the class, ma chere," he said with unholy gleefulness.

"But if this is so, then why do the mages of the research domes refrain from study of the flowers and tribes of the interior?"

"Why the sealed suits?" Guy said contemptuously. "Why defoliate the entire continent of Pallas? Because they are like eunuchs studying tantra! Because, as Omar so justly put it, they lack the spiritual courage of the mystic libertine! Do not all men fear confrontation with states of being which their spirits lack sufficient grandeur to encompass? Leaving a golden opportunity for true Children of Fortune such as ourselves who fear not unknown realms of the spirit but pursue the same with an open heart!"

"Guy, you are not suggesting that we --"

"I suggest nothing, I only follow your noble lead, liebchen," Guy insinuated. "For was it not you, cher Sunshine, who so rightly declared that in the Bloomenveldt we might have the grand destiny to achieve states of consciousness never known before to human brains? And enrich ourselves by marketing the substances which produce them!"

"But no one has ever returned from the depths of the Bloomenveldt, or so it is said."

"Indeed. Imagine therefore what is to be gained by mounting the first successful expedition to the heart of the matter and returning with the fruits thereof."

"Imagine what would be lost by failure!"

"Have you not told me often enough of your mastery of forest survival lore?" Guy said. And indeed, if truth be told, I may have styled myself as more of a Diana of the jungle than a few weekends in the quotidian forests of Glade warranted.

"When all is said and done are we not mystic libertines, you and I," Guy persisted. "True Children of Fortune, adventurers of the spirit, more than willing to risk all to gain all."

What was I to say to such a challenge? On the one hand, I could hardly deny the spirit within me which had insisted on braving Great Edoku, all my parents' sage and pragmatic advice to the contrary, which had sent me in pursuit of the Gypsy Jokers against all the wisdom of the Public Service Stations, which had won the heart of Pater Pan with blarney, and which had brought me hither with this brave and foolhardy lover to the edge of the very adventure he proposed.

On the other hand, there was the part of me that knew with the coolness of intellect divorced from passion that what he proposed was dangerous to the point of insanity.

"Vraiment, my spirit is willing, but my reason whispers that such a spirit is quite mad," I declared in all honesty.

But such dualistic ambiguity had certainly never been Guy's style, nor was he fazed by my indecision. "In such a pass, one must await a sign to synergize reason and spirit," he proclaimed grandly. "And from my present perspective I am cavalierly confident that the same will be forthcoming."

***

And so it was, two days later, of a late afternoon. We were lying on a leaf close by a great carnelian circle of petals surrounding a bright green pistil which branched at its pinnacle into an overhanging canopy of fine windblown filaments dripping a sticky resinous pollen, which is to say far enough from the flower to avoid being dusted, but close enough to lie within its perfumed aura.

The state of being induced by the heavy, languorous scent of this perfume seemed perfectly suited to our mood. The still-bright westering sun bathed our limbs with warmth as it cast ever- shifting and slowly lengthening dappled patterns of shadow over the wind-tossed crowns of the great trees. Our leafy pallet rocked us into hypnagogic somnolence like a great green cradle in the hands of some forest spirit, whose breath we could hear in the susurrus of the breeze passing through the boughs and leaves. Empty of mind and full of spirit, drifting on the edge of sleep where vagrant thoughts transformed themselves into the surreal images of dreams, I gazed up into a clear blue sky which mirrored perfectly the blissful cerulean void of my spirit.

Vraiment, at length I surmised that I had in fact drifted off the exquisite edge of this hypnagogic state into the realm of sleep, for out of the languorous fog there coalesced a visage out of dreams ...

A human face such as is not often seen in our Second Starfaring Age: an old man's face, seamed, and lined, and crowned by a mantle of long, thin white hair. The face of a man in the last year or so of his life, when all at once the Healers arts which have preserved life's vigor for three hundred years and more suddenly fail, and the mask of mortality appears to herald the imminence of death.

Yet strange to say it was the clear tranquility of the spirit and peace of the heart written in the calm set of the withered lips and the limpid brown eyes which convinced me I had left the waking realm.

Then the visage spoke and thereby shattered the illusion of dreamy sleep, though not the languorous drifting mood thereof.

"May I share your leaf a while, mes amis?"

An old man crouched on the leaf beside us, naked not merely of clothing, but of floatbelt and filter mask as well.

"Are you a Bloomenkind of the forest?" Guy asked in a voice wherein avid curiosity was bizarrely softened by the reasonless tranquility of the flowers perfume.

The old man laughed, a happy musical sound, or so it seemed. "Not yet," he said.

"You are not a naked tribesman recently emerged from the depths of the forest?" I said in a similar dreamy state.

"Au contraire," said the old man, "naked do I go to merge my spirit with the Bloomenveldt before it leaves this moribund corpus."

"You are a pilgrim come to the Bloomenveldt to die?"

Once more, the old man laughed sweetly without a trace of irony or angst. "Dying one may accomplish in any venue," he said, "it is only the style of one's passage from the mortal realm and the state of one's spirit in the moment thereof that one may choose. As for me, I choose to die in the Bloomenveldt, for here one may expire not in a state of dread, but in a state of enlightenment, into the loving arms of this great forest."

"You know the Bloomenveldt well?" Guy said sharply, willing up the effort to free himself from his torpor. "You are versed in the secrets of its inner heart?"

"A century ago, I came here to study the forest as a mage in the research domes. But something moved my spirit to doff my atmosphere suit, don filter mask and floatbelt, and trek deep enough into the interior to know that here I would come when my time came to die. As for the secrets of the Bloomenveldt's heart, these will forever remain a mystery to those who fear to become breath of its breath. And in those days, such a one was I."

"You traveled to the interior and survived to tell the tale?" I asked just as sharply as Guy, for if this was so, what clearer sign could destiny have given us?

The old one dismissed the grandeur of this feat with an errant wave of his hand. "If one never truly leaves the worlds of men behind, how can one help but return thereto?" he said. "Which is to say there is nothing to hinder the masked traveler from passing through the wonders and glories of the Bloomenveldt untrammeled thereby. The well-equipped turista will encounter neither physical danger nor spiritual enhancement. To brave either, you must doff the filter mask of civilization, and give yourself over to the flowers."

"But even masked you learned enough to know that your spirit wished to make its final journey here ..." said Guy.

"Indeed, my young friend," the old man said. "For while there may be much for a young spirit to lose by surrendering itself to the forest, for an old spirit about to be forced to vacate its quotidian premises there is only an enlightened ending to be gained."

"And what was it that you learned all those long decades ago that convinced you to essay such a final journey?" I asked softly.

"The Bloomenveldt is alive!"

"Hardly a revelation of astounding proportions," I could not quite refrain from pointing out dryly.

"Alive as you or I, mein kind," the old man said. "Possessed of a genetic intelligence, a sapient spirit which it has received as a gift of man. For millions of years did the forest slumber as mindless trees produced substances to manipulate the mindless pollinators thereof. But then our species came to Belshazaar and sapients over the centuries wandered off into the forest, and so since that time the forest has been evolving in symbiosis with man. Deeper within the Bloomenveldt in the land of the Bloomenkinder, the flowers have evolved pheromones and alkaloids designed not to attract insensate mammals but our own sapient spirit. As we have gifted the forest with the template of consciousness, so does the Bloomenveldt offer us psychotropics crafted by that very chemical sentience to reward us with the highest realms of consciousness it currently knows how to grant. True symbiosis, a just and profitable bargain between our two species."

"The Perfumed Garden ..." breathed Guy. "Where humans and flowers have achieved symbiotic perfection. Where floral and human evolution have contrived to merge. Where nirvanic transcendence arises from the very chemistry of the brain."

"So it is said," declared the ancient one. "And so do I seek this realm of the spirit as the physical matrix thereof expires."

"May you find what you seek," I told him with an open heart.

"Y tu tambien."

And with that, he arose, and with a somewhat feeble though long-legged gait, departed into the depths of the Bloomenveldt, into the rosy mists of dusk, into the deeper mysteries thereof from which no man had returned to tell the tale.

When he had disappeared like a wraith, Guy and I left the flower of his apparition to discuss on a neutral leaf what we had learned within the realm of its perfume.

"Was that not a sign that spoke to both your mind and your spirit, Sunshine?" Guy asked me. "Is there now anything to hold us back from the journey within to the heart of the matter? Will you now not join me in the quest to gain all now that you have been reassured that we do not really risk all? And now that you have spoken with the spirit of all there is to gain?"

And indeed it was. And indeed there wasn't. And indeed I would.

"Let us be gone in the morning, " I said gamely, "lest my resolve vanish in the cold clear light of day. "
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Re: Child of Fortune, by Norman Spinrad

Postby admin » Sat Mar 19, 2016 6:02 am

Chapter 17

And so as Belshazaar's sun arose over the Bloomenveldt the next morning, so did we -- equipped with floatbelts, filter masks, beacon receivers, kits for collecting floral essences, a full month's worth of concentrates, the assurances of the previous afternoon's apparition, and a plan of action which would seem to be foolproof.

We would proceed due westward into the interior for five days. At the speed we could make bounding across the treetops, this should be long enough to penetrate several hundred kilometers into the Bloomenveldt, so if we spied no humans after five days of this procedure, it could fairly be said that the mystics, libertine or otherwise, were wrong, and the scientists, crabbed of spirit though they be, were right, and no significant human population was to be found.

At which point, we would simply return from whence we came. Even without the beacon receivers, there would seem to be no danger of losing our way, for toward sunrise was the coast, and once the beach was attained, one could not follow it in either direction for more than two or three days without reaching a dome.

The only peril would seem to be that of the spirit, for we knew all too well the state of discombobulation that could be attained by wandering the Bloomenveldt unmasked, courtesy of the object lesson of Meade Ariel Kozuma. Therefore, at my insistence, if not without some resistance, Guy acceded to a further procedural pact. We would both go masked as we traveled inward, and if we paused to sample the offerings of any flower along the way, we would never unmask together -- when one of us played the role of psychonaut, the other would always be there to serve as ground control.

We did not inform Marlene Kona Mendes or her staff of our intentions, but simply gathered up our gear and left, for on the one hand we had already been informed in no uncertain terms that we could expect no rescue mission from that quarter in the event of difficulty, and on the other, Guy's professed goal, or at any rate his pecuniary rationalization for this adventure of the spirit, was to steal a grand commercial march on these selfsame mages by returning from the deep interior with samples of psychotropics which would put their pathetic efforts to shame.

We did, however, bid a fond and secret farewell to Omar Ki Benjamin, for it is difficult to embark on such a grand adventure without a bit of boasting into a sympathetic and reassuring ear, and from the quarter of this self-styled mystic libertine, we knew we could count on a moral support entirely in contrast to the hectoring we no doubt would have been subject to had we broached our intentions to the gnomes of the research dome.

Nor were we disappointed by the spirit with which Omar greeted our announcement. "Ah!" he sighed grandly. "And I style myself the mystic libertine! Vraiment, I am tempted by the song of my spirit to join you ... But no, this is a venture for two young lovers, ne, a romance for a dyad, hardly suitable for the sort of menage a trois we would form together. But know that Omar Ki Benjamin is with you in spirit, and as a bona fide thereof, the following oath: should you safely return, I will compose a paean to your triumph; if such should not be the case, your memory will be honored in a tragic ode. So from a certain perspective, you cannot fail, my brave kinder, for one way or the other, you will live forever as the heroic or tragic protagonists of high art!"

With this supportive if somewhat egoistic benediction, and the bright morning sun at our back, we set out westward across the endless green veldt of the treetops, proceeding quite literally by leaps and bounds toward our unknown destiny deep within the Bloomenveldt, though of just how deep into the mysteries at its heart we would penetrate, and of just how strange our divergent destinies therein would become, we were cruelly and mercifully ignorant.

* * *

We passed the first day of our journey in entirely locomotive pursuits, bounding in great soaring leaps across a treetop landscape that assumed a certain oceanic if lovely sameness as soon as we had lost sight of the actual sea. The great arboreal meadowland rolling and tossing in the breeze extended as far as the eye could see, and since the only geographical relief was that of the occasional tree crown which grew a few meters taller than the generality of the veldt, the eye could see in a great unobstructed circle from horizon to horizon.

While in a certain sense the ambiance of our passage was therefore not unlike what I had upon occasion experienced power-skiing on Glade's ocean beyond the sight of land, the endless vista of the Bloomenveldt induced none of the visual ennui of a featureless sea, for far from presenting a boundless surface of featureless green, the Bloomenveldt was a splendid carpet of more colors than the memory could count or the eye resolve into anything but a wild prismatic smear, for the flowers grew everywhere, and the hues and forms thereof seemed, if anything, more profusely diverse the further inward we traveled.

Then too it was possible to catch glimpses upon occasion from the apogees of our leaps of the denizens of the treetops gathered around their favored flowers, though these creatures never failed to scatter into the foliage upon any attempt at closer approach.

After countless hours of springing from leaf to leaf with my conscious attention all but subsumed in the repetitive if delightful mechanics thereof, engulfed in the endless green sameness and equally endless floral variety of this universe in the treetops, I began to feel like a natural creature of the Bloomenveldt myself. Guy and I, like the creatures of any forest, soon enough came to tell the passage of the hours by the movement of the sun across the sky, for only when the disc thereof began to slide down past the sharp green line of the western horizon, sending pale streamers of purple and orange across the blue of the heavens and deepening shadows across the Bloomenveldt, did we feel any sense of fatigue.

And even this was not so much a soreness of muscles, which in fact might have easily enough pressed on far into the night given the feather-lightness provided to their burdens by our floatbelts, but a certain self-satisfied if somewhat tremulous psychic fatigue in the face of oncoming night.

***

Of our first night on the Bloomenveldt, there is little to relate in terms of outre visions, but much to relate in terms of unsettling sounds and the impingement thereof on our spirits.

As twilight began to come on in earnest, we sought out a leafy bed well beyond any floral sphere of influence, for our pact to the contrary notwithstanding, it would have been impossible to consume our meal of cold concentrates through a mask, nor did the prospect of remaining masked while the other ate have much appeal given the less than festive nature of the fare to begin with. Moreover, it had not occurred to me until I was faced with the actual practical reality that sleeping in a filter mask was hardly the sort of physical discomfort or psychic claustrophobia that I would wish to inflict on either Guy or myself alone in a strange forest in the blackest of nights.

By the time we had found a neutral enough leaf, there was just enough light left to unpack our rations by, and by the time we had gobbled down fare that differed little from fressen save in the addition of unconvincing ersatz flavorings of anonymous vegetables and meat, the Bloomenveldt lay in the full thrall of night.

Under a mighty canopy of coldly luminescent stars, the world of the treetops lay in convoluted blackness, illumined pallidly thereby only sufficient unto transforming the dark shapes of the tree crowns into enigmas which the eye might populate with an abundance of fantastic and mayhap frightening forms. These phantoms of the night were given voice by the wind brushing through the leaves, and the chitterings, scrapings, and rustlings of unseen creatures.

Then too, the vagrant breezes blew ghostly wisps of floral perfumes to our unmasked nostrils, so that faint traces of chemical imperatives teased and swirled just beyond the conscious apprehension of our brains. Tendrils of torpor, fading mists of pheromonic lust, vagrant dying traces of indefinable sublimities ...

Guy and I huddled on our leaf in each other's arms. Little was said. for there was little to say and much to feel, as we lay there in the velvety darkness under the glory of the stars, rocked by the wind shaking the treetops, listening to the vague murmurings and chitterings, inhaling faint fragrances that moved our spirits to contemplative torpors, and at length to slow and languorous lovemaking that arose seamlessly from the vapors of the night, and subsided just as imperceptibly into a sleep informed by exotic unremembered dreams.

***

In the morning we arose, blinking and stretching in the all-too-brilliant actinic light of dawn. After a cold breakfast of concentrates and water from our canteens, we donned our filter masks and pressed on to the west.

The second day on the Bloomenveldt differed little from the first, save that by late morning clouds began to form, and by early afternoon they burst forth with a brief but drenching warm rain, which forced us to take cover until it had passed. Ah, but even as the storm subsided into a lingering mist, the sun burst through the dissipating clouds, and for perhaps fifteen minutes a great rainbow formed, overarching a Bloomenveldt whose every leaf and flower glistened with a diamond sheen of moisture.

More to the pragmatic point perhaps, every depression in every leaf filled itself up with water whose chemical purity approached distilled perfection, in contrast to the suspect fluids to be found in the cups of many flowers, allowing us to top off our canteens, drink our fill, and ablute ourselves before traveling on.

Nor did our second night on the Bloomenveldt differ in any significant aspect from the first, and on the morrow we were awoken once more by the first full light of day, breakfasted, and went on. Once more the sky clouded toward noon and rained its life-sustaining moisture on the Bloomenveldt in an early afternoon shower of some strength but little duration, though this time we were somewhat disappointed when no rainbow formed as the sun overcame the mists.

But whatever disappointment we may have felt at the failure of this meteorological grace note to appear was soon forgotten, for it could not have been more than an hour after the end of the rain when at last we spotted humans.

I had ended a leap half a bound ahead of Guy, and was awaiting his landing before jumping off again when he came down beside me shaking his head and waving his arms. "Wait Sunshine!" he cried. "I do believe I've seen Bloomenkinder! Or at any rate, something human."

"Where?"

He pointed off to the southwest. "No more than four hundred meters," he said. "By a yellow flower streaked with red. Let us proceed cautiously, for they may be as shy as the animals of the forest."

And so we did, jumping from leaf to leaf in short shallow arcs, rather than bounding along bumptiously at the full stretch of our powers. Soon we could make out three human shapes, raggedly clothed, but clothed nonetheless, gathered about a large open yellow bloom with red- veined petals and a cluster of short, fat, black stamens.

"How should we proceed ...?" Guy mused.

I shrugged. "A sudden approach might startle, and stealth might signal treacherous intent, so let us simply come upon them at an easy walk in plain sight like the friendly innocents we are."

And so we stepped out from concealment and strolled boldly but deliberately across the leaves toward the yellow flower. Far from fleeing at the sight of us, or taking any umbrage at our approach, or contrawise calling out greetings, the three habitues thereof seemed to all but ignore us, even after we had made our way to the edge of their flower.

Two men and a woman, all of them sleek with fat, reposed supinely on the flower's petals, their backs resting against the black stamens from which they were languidly clawing handfuls of crumbly black pollen which they proceeded to stuff in their mouths with complete disregard for the niceties of table manners. The tatters of cloth clinging to random areas of their corpulent bodies gave clear evidence that they had once been citizens of civilized realms, but their vacantly dreamy eyes and slackly torpid grins did not exactly bespeak an urbane awareness.

"Greetings, Bloomenkinder," I finally said, for want of any more cunning conversational ploy. I was rewarded by a certain mildly interested focusing of dim attention in our direction, which is to say they deigned to look at us, and the woman plucked a handful of pollen from the stamen behind her and held it forth in a rather indifferent gesture of offering.

"Mangia ..." she suggested in a peculiar voice that seemed somehow befuddled at its own existence, as if this might have been the first word she had uttered in weeks.

"No, thank you," Guy said uneasily. "We've already dined."

The fatter of the two men stroked the surface of the petal beside him in a gesture that, under the circumstances, seemed quite obscene.

Guy and I glanced at each other, entirely taken aback by this unwholesome spectacle of human reversion. "Uh ... have you dwelt here long ...?" Guy asked in an inanely conversational tone whose normality seemed utterly inappropriate to the situation. But then what manner of discourse should one adopt to extract information from such creatures?

"How ... long ..." the woman muttered in an uninflected monotone, as if unsuccessfully attempting to grasp a concept whose meaning had long since fled. The three of them exchanged slow, befuddled glances.

"Bitte, are there other humans in this area?" I essayed.

"Humans ..."

In some exasperation, I pointed in turn to the three of them, Guy, and myself, then counted off five fingers. "Human," I explained. "Here. Five." I swung my other arm in a wide arc as if to encompass the nearby forest, wriggling the fingers of that hand speculatively. "More? More humans?"

At length, this seemed to penetrate the perfumed fog to some small extent. "Humans ..." mused the less obese man. He held up a hand and stared at it stupidly for a moment. Then he began to wriggle his fingers. He raised his other hand and began to wriggle the fingers thereof as well. Soon all three of them were wriggling all available fingers, giggling, and chanting "Humans ... humans ... humans ..."

"Around other flowers?"

They gave over their gesticulating and peered at me dimly, as if wriggling their fingers and pondering a second word was a bit more than they could manage at the same time.

"Flower," I said, pointing to the bloom which so obviously held them in thrall, then holding up a single finger. I held up my other hand and wriggled my fingers questioningly. "More flowers? With more humans?"

Once more the three of them began to wriggle all of their fingers. "Humans ... flowers ... humans ... flowers ..."

When after another bout of giggling they had exhausted their interest and lapsed into silence, the woman regarded me with what under the circumstances passed for an expression of some intensity and at length summoned up what was no doubt an impressive skein of words, given the source. "Humans ... flowers ..." she said, spreading her arms wide and wriggling all of her fingers. "Red ... blue ... white ... purple ..." Then she ceased this flurry, stroked the yellow petal on which she lay, and painted an expression of orgasmic ecstasy across her slack features. "Yellow ..." she purred emphatically. "Yellow, yellow, yellow, ah! ah! ah!"

"Ah! Ah! Ah!"

The three of them commenced to moan softly in rough unison, lying flat out on the petals now as if exhausted by their mighty intellectual efforts, and evinced no further interest in our existence.

"Higher forms?" I sniffed contemptuously to Guy. "Noble flowers? Merde!"

Guy shrugged. "Mayhap unknown inner bliss lies within these seemingly decadent corpuses ...?" he suggested ironically.

"Bien," I told him. "Then perhaps you care to unmask and smell the pretty flower ...?"

Even Guy Vlad Boca blanched at this jocular invitation. "There is a bright side, however," he pointed out. "We have proven that there are humans in the deep Bloomenveldt. We have proven that the gnomes of the research domes know not whereof they speak."

"Have we? Or have we merely discovered the handful of poor pathetic wretches of which they speak?"

"Quien sabe?" Guy admitted. "Far too soon to tell. Let us tarry awhile in these environs and see what further close exploration may discover."

***

Vraiment, further explorations in this area over the next two days did prove fruitful, if less than exalting, for we encountered upward of a dozen flowers attended by small groups of apparently formerly civilized human revertees, and, given the wide scattering of our discoveries, the random nature of our search, and the profusion of flowers in the vecino, no doubt we failed to discover a good many more.

As for the Bloomenkinder tribes of which the tales told, these were nowhere in evidence, for nowhere did we encounter more than three or four humans in attendance at any bloom, and by the tattered rags still clinging to their bodies, it was evident that these were all folk who originated in civilized realms, rather than being the mythical offspring of generations of indigenous savages, noble or otherwise.

For the most part, they were no more verbal, and sometimes less, than the first group we had encountered, though the nature of their devotions varied with the flowers they chose to attend, or more aptly put perhaps, with the variety of flower that had captured their spirits.

As well as three more examples of the yellow flower with black stamens, we encountered acolytes of a certain puffy black bloom who exhibited a mild form of territorial behavior, locking hands to form a circle around the object of their affection at our approach, and devotees of a certain species of brilliant pinkish flower who, by pantomimed gestures, invited us to join them in the energetic if inartistic orgiastic figures which they seemed capable of sustaining indefinitely under the influence of this bloom of animal lust.

Not even Guy was tempted to personal experimentation with the psychotropics offered up by the flowers we encountered in those two days, for it seemed all too clear that these revertees had fallen under the thrall of molecules originally evolved to evoke the rude mammalian drives of the native fauna, so that the states of consciousness induced thereby could hardly be said to be elevated above the human norm.

Nor might any of these psychotropics be said to be marketable, save perhaps as less than subtle remedies for anorexia, sexual ennui, insomnia, or worse, as agents of unscrupulous behavioral control.

On the afternoon of the third day, however, we happened on a new variety of flower which tempted us sorely indeed.

Making our way via a series of short shallow leaps, we rounded a hillock of a tree crown to find ourselves directly confronted with an overhanging bell-shaped bloom whose pale and translucent violet petals cast an all-but-ultraviolet glow over the mossy green pollen bed beneath it. Upon which two human figures were languorously copulating side by side in a slow, steady rhythm.

Indeed, to call this copulation would seem to be unjust, for the gaunt rag-clad man and the equally gaunt woman, while anything but appetizing in our eyes, were manifestly perfect each to the other in their own. For in the face of their beatific smiles, their tender gazes, and the very rhythms they offered up to each other's delight, one would have had to have been an utter churl to deny that, beneath the violet canopy and under the pheromonic influence thereof, they were truly making love.

Vraiment, Guy and I found ourselves holding hands and speaking in hushed whispers as we stood before this somehow charming, not to say arousing, tantric figure.

"We can hardly intrude upon such dyadic bliss ..."

"Indeed, let us wait until they have reached their final cusps, ne ..."

As it turned out, the latter stratagem proved as fruitless as the former politesse proved superfluous, for their passage d'amour went on interminably, which is to say that the rhythm thereof seemed designed to prolong the tantric exercise into infinity by the eschewing of any climactic cusp.

At length, Guy's mounting impatience overcame his gallantry. "This could go on forever," he whispered, securing a vacuum vial from his pack. "I must have a sample of this psychotropic!"

So saying, and against my hushed protestations to the contrary, he stole close upon them, vial in hand.

Hola, it was as if he did not exist! Their passage d'amour continued unabated and untrammeled as he crawled around the flower gathering vapors, nor did they pay him any heed when, seeing this, he experimentally exposed himself to their full vision. Indeed, not even when I strode boldly up to Guy and tugged him away by the sleeve did our presence have any discernible effect.

Vraiment, not even when we forgot to hush our speech in our excitement did our existence intrude upon the perfect dyadic consciousness of the lovers on the flower.

"We must try this, you and I, ne!" Guy exclaimed.

"I long to experience such bliss as well," I agreed tremulously. "But if we do, will we not be lost?"

"To all save each other, mayhap ..." he said dreamily.

"We must think on this before we lose all capacity for same," I told him sharply. "Though certainement it would appear we have found a hint of floral paradise out of which poetry and romantic legend might justly arise ..."

Eschewing other objects of exploration, we discovered three more of the violet blooms d'amour during that afternoon and the next morning, and on each we found dyadic figures similarly enraptured in perfect tantric bliss, indeed a bliss which seemed quite indefatigable, for we had yet to encounter such lovers engaged in eating, repose, or any other activity save endless love.

Guy, for his part, grew more and more displeased with my refusal to unmask with him and share such preternatural pleasures, while I demurred under the guise of unwillingness to eject lovers from their flower by main force. In truth, however, while like any natural woman my spirit, not to say my flesh, grew more and more desirous of knowing such erotic ecstasies, my mind rang bells of warning, for if such was the puissance of this flower's pheromone of passion that in its thrall lovers eschewed all nutriment or rest, how long before such tantric demons expired in blissful famishment in each other's arms?

Inevitably, we finally discovered such a bloom unoccupied, a vacant boudoir bathed in violet light, awaiting only two wandering creatures such as we.

"A sign, nicht wahr?" Guy insisted. "A clear signal from destiny, ne?"

"Mayhap from fate ..."

"Pah! When imbibing wine, do you stop short of intoxication? When engaged in sexual congress, do you take care to avoid orgasm?"

"To quote the same source, I am a mystic libertine, not an imbecile."

Guy regarded me with an expression somewhere between contemptuous anger and a sullen thwarted pout.

"Very well then," I declared. "I invoke our pact. Which is to say that one of us must at all times play ground control to the psychonaut. Therefore, let us repair to the flower of your desires, one of us unmasked, and when that personage has fully experienced the naked joys thereof, the functions shall be reversed."

"This is the meanness of spirit in which you propose to conduct a passage of transcendent amour?"

"No meanness of spirit is intended," I told him crossly, in token of which, and in the absence of any masculine gallantry to the contrary, you may have the honor of removing your mask first."

To this open-hearted gesture, Guy could hardly make any further demur, and so he nodded in silent agreement and began to doff his clothes. I did likewise, and in not much more time than it takes to tell, we stood naked before each other, or rather adorned only by the filter masks covering our noses and mouths, a spectacle inducive of a good deal more mirth than lust.

But no sooner had Guy removed his mask than the ironic grin which this bizarre vision had smeared across his face vanished, to be replaced by a beatific smile of priapic though not untender lust, unmistakably counterpointed, as it were, by the all-but-instant erection of his insistent lingam.

In truth more bemused than aroused, I allowed him to seize my hand and lead me forthwith into the shaft of violet light beneath the translucent canopy of the flower. In this venue I thought not to activate my ring of Touch, for while Guy had never voiced wonder at my preternatural erotic puissance, putting it down, no doubt, to his own preternatural capacity for the enjoyment of pleasure, it seemed to me that chemical enhancement would be more than sufficient without resorting to the electronic.

From my point of view, there is little to report of this opening movement of our two-part duet save the seeming endlessness thereof, the mighty duration of Guy's phallic prowess, and the ironic fact that it was Sunshine, the ground control, who experienced cusp after cusp via the ministrations of her pheromonically enhanced psychonaut. For once, it was Guy who was given over to the granting of pleasure without thought or rhythm designed to bring about his own orgasmic completion, and I who surrendered sweetly to the abundance of my own ecstasies.

Vraiment, to the superabundance thereof, for Guy went on and on and on in the same even rhythm, long after sweet ecstasies had given way to a surfeit of pleasure and delight had given way to fatigue, and even fatigue had given way to a boredom of orgasms, if such can be imagined.

When I could tolerate this tender and loving selfless performance no longer, I at last activated the Touch and seizing him by the very root of his lingam, brought him to a moaning, shuddering, piercing conclusion, which I felt sure would leave the mightiest of lovers incapable of proceeding further.

But no, quelle chose, no sooner had he brought his ragged panting under some semblance of control, than his still triumphant phallus was at it again, determined to fill me with yet more unwanted pleasure.

There seemed to be only one thing for it, even though I was certain that no power in the worlds of men or elsewhere could now provoke me to further desire. I tore the filter mask from my face and affixed it over Guy's by main force.

How wrong I was!

No sooner had I taken my first unmasked breath than a pungent, sweet, musky aroma went straight from my nostrils to the very back reaches of my brain, from which it flowed like a living serpent of fire down my spine to ignite a veritable kundalinic explosion in my lower chakras. Vraiment, a rosy, languid explosion which billowed upward, outward, and inward from the base of my spine to fill my loins, and my limbs, and indeed my cerebrum, with roiling clouds of sensuous pink smoke, which in less time than it takes to tell had completely consumed all other aspects of my being.

It seemed to me, or at any rate to the extent that there remained a "me," that my body had become an ecstatic outline of passionate fire, like the fabled burning bush, aflame yet unconsumed.

I seized Guy in my arms, rolled over upon him, and impaled the quick of him in the rosy translucence of my flesh. Ah, oh, he was beautiful! The flesh of his body had the warm sleekness of silk before a bonfire. Each ecstatic tremor of his flesh sent crystal fragments of achingly tender joy down my nerve trunks, the sounds of his pleasures ignited sparkles in my heart, and his face was that of a veritable deity, a mask of tantric perfection auraed by the glow of his marvelous spirit.

There was nothing in the universe but the exquisite texture of satiny flesh and silken sighs, nought existed but the rose-colored breath of his flesh against mine.

How long this persisted, memory would not bind. There were cries, and moans, and tremors, and wordless shouts, and then a thin and agonized voice crying "Stop! Stop! Stop!"

Then the mindless creature of fire that I had become found itself being borne through the air like a weightless cloud, something vile and rubbery was forced onto my face ...

And ...

And the sentient human that I had been found herself seated on a leaf gazing wildly at Guy. Both of us were masked, both of us were panting with exhaustion, and both of us were redolent with passionate effluvia and sweat.

We stared at each other, blinking, for a long while before either of us managed to speak.

"Vraiment, you were right, unmasked together, we would have been lost forever," Guy finally breathed.

"It would almost have been worth it ..." I sighed.

***

But not even Guy Vlad Boca was ready to suggest that we repeat this experiment mutually unmasked, nor did the notion of enjoying such dangerous ecstasies again as alternating psychonauts and ground controls much appeal to either of us. For while in a certain sense it could be said that the ground control drew as much erotic benefit from the psychonaut's chemically augmented tantric puissance as he did, the sexual disjunction cut both ways as well. For under the influence of the flower, the masked lover would always be pleasured to the point of boredom or pain, while the lover in thrall to the flower quite literally could never be sated.

Clearly this flower was only for lovers to whom mutual erotic seppuku was an acceptable ultimate consummation, and expiration via terminal fatigue or famishment was an acceptable price to pay. For such samurai romantics, the perfume of the violet flower might be a great boon, and indeed, under controlled conditions it might be a sovereign remedy for impotence, libidinal ennui, and even conjugal fecklessness, or so Guy believed.

Certainement, here was a product that Interstellar Master Traders should have no trouble marketing at a considerable profit. As for the morality of such an enterprise, Guy declared, the nature of the psychotropic's effect should be forthrightly delineated to the purchaser, whose destiny thereby would be placed entirely in his own hands.

Be that as it may, what we had experienced had demonstrated that there could be more to the Bloomenveldt's blandishments than crude appeal to simple mammalian tropisms, for the violet flower, certainement, produced an intense state of erotic arousal in which the spiritual dimension was not absent, as if somehow there was indeed a floral intelligence at work on the Bloomenveldt whose biochemical sapience was capable of the subtlety necessary to touch the human heart.

Mayhap we would have been able to put it all down to chance conjunction between Belshazaar's floral biochemistry and a randomly evolved human congruence therewith in certain isolated cerebral centers had we not soon thereafter encountered another mode of human and floral chemical convergence which affected what one would have thought were entirely spiritual levels of human sapience.

Consciously or not, whether simply carrying forth our original plan or being drawn deeper into the Bloomenveldt by the natural order of things, we drifted slowly westward during the next two days. Here we continued to find small groups of humans in thrall to what we had bizarrely enough begun to dismiss as quotidian blooms, and here too dyads blissfully bewitched by the flower of violet passion were also in evidence.

But now for the first time we encountered solitary humans in psychotropic communion with their own flower.

The upright petals of the flower in question were always blue, though the tint thereof might vary, and the stamen consisted of a large flat mound covered with fist-sized grains of soft white pollen. Upon this pallet the human devotee sat motionless with nourishment ready at hand gazing wide- eyed not at the glories and wonders of the Bloomenveldt but at entirely subjective vistas within.

Male and female, they were all in those terminal years of their lifespan when the hair grays and thins, and the skin dries into parchment, and the vital energies may no longer be reignited by the Healers' arts. But if their bodies were dismaying reminders of ultimate mortality, the spirits which peered inward in their limpid empty eyes, were, if the same are truly mirrors of the soul as the poets contend, in blissful transcendence of the limits of temporal linearity, at least from their own point of view.

Even such callow mystic libertines as we could not summon up the crudeness to attempt to rouse such living buddhas to discourse by insistent hectorings, nor would such a stratagem likely have succeeded, for all such hermits that we were to encounter in the next two days moved only their hands to convey the occasional pollen grain to their mouths, and otherwise might have been temple icons of stone for all the awareness of or interest in the external realm they betrayed.

Whether such buddhas were drawn to the lotus, or whether the flowers were capable of granting ultimate enlightenment to ordinary human dross, or whether for that matter, these living icons in fact contained the spirits of which they spoke at all, we could in truth know not, for total vegetative nonsentience for all I knew could produce the same visual effect as transcendence of maya's veil. And indeed certain cynical wits have been known to contend that the mental states themselves are much the same.

"It would seem there is only one method of discerning whether these ancients are enlightened beings whose spirits soar in realms of grandeur beyond maya's tawdry veils or whether their sapience has been extinguished leaving only vacuous protoplasmic shells behind," Guy opined the night of the second day among the babas of the Bloomenveldt.

"Namely?"

"Namely to inhale the lotus breath ourselves and learn whether we become bodhis or zombies ..."

"Guy! Surely not even you would lay such a wager!"

"Of course I spoke in jest," he said, laughing rather unconvincingly and hugging me to him. "Still, if one knew matters were what they seem, what reason would there be to dally with lesser amusements endlessly if the ultimate were truly available for a mere breath of perfume?"

"This for one" I declared pettishly, thumbing on the Touch and pulling on his lingam, for while Guy's mood was hardly one which aroused me to erotic passion, I knew no other more immediately puissant means of changing this unwholesome subject.

***

But as it turned out, on the afternoon of the next day we came upon a baba of the Bloomenveldt who at last deigned to address us.

Bathed in a golden beam of sunlight streaming through a break in the foliage behind as if the whole scene had been deliberately lit with thespic intent, was a great fan of petals whose hue was a blue that was almost black, the hue of that region of a planetary atmosphere where sky becomes space, or of that celestial moment between sunset and night. Upon the flat stamen covered with white pollen sat a naked man with hair and beard of the same color, his legs folded under him in the classic lotus posture, his back to the floral halo like a figure out of primeval temple art, and his lips creased in a beatific smile.

But, far from being lost in internal vistas, his great brown eyes tracked us as we approached with a clarity and sentience impossible to deny.

Nor, it seemed, could our eyes break their lock on his, as, without consultation, Guy and I strode hand in hand toward this baba and seated ourselves before him like dutiful acolytes before their guru. Mayhap it was the ambiance which so compelled us, mayhap there was true power in this ancient's eyes, or mayhap we both had the same thought, namely that since this hermit so manifestly acknowledged our existence, such an approach might at last induce one of these sphinxes to speak.

"Speak to us, bitte, baba," I said in a firm but respectful voice, "and show us that someone at least is at home beyond that sage facade."

The smile broadened into something more like a grin. "I have never been more at home behind my eyes," said a calm, clear voice.

"You speak!"

"Why then do the other hermits remain silent?"

"Only they may tell you, kind, and they choose silence."

"But you do speak to us," I said. "Why are you different?"

"Are not all humans different, each from the other?" the baba said. "In the worlds of men, I was a dedicated pedagog, so mayhap before my final flower do I choose to speak to young spirits in the manner of a loquacious bodhisattva ...

"If this is so, why do you sit passively awaiting death, rather than return to the worlds of men and go up and out doing noble deeds like a true bodhisattva?"

The old man's eyes widened, and his permanent smile strayed for a moment from beatitude to the mundanely specific, to wit that of his former pedagogical self happening suddenly on an unexpectedly sharp student.

"In the worlds of men, I would expire raging against the dying of the light," he said. "Only within the celestial sphere of my perfect flower may I know my final moment in the Tao."

"Hola! Then this is indeed the perfect lotus of ultimate enlightenment!" Guy exclaimed, fingering his filter mask in a most unsettling manner.

"Many flowers grow on the Bloomenveldt. Here each of us may find the flower of their perfection."

"Mayhap this is mine ..." Guy said breathlessly, and made to remove it.

But before I could move to stop him, the old man stayed him with a sudden instant upraising of his hand, a puissant gesture indeed in light of his previous utter immobility. And when he then spoke, the tranquil certitude of the bodhi was married to the authority of the teacher.

"Seek first your own full blossoming, young spirit, before you contemplate this final flower!"

"Well spoken, well spoken indeed!" I was moved to enthusiastically declare.

And at this, by signs so subtle as to be perceivable only en gestalt, the spirit animating the withering body evinced a preparation to withdraw from further worldly discourse.

"Wait!" said Guy. "At least tell me then how I am to know the flower of my own perfection!"

"Let the Perfume of Paradise come unto thee, Mohammed."

"Vraiment, of course, we can only find our way by losing it, ne?" Guy exclaimed. "We must breathe in the spirit of this enchanted forest, we must seek our destiny bravely unmasked, that is what he is telling us, Sunshine!"

"This koan affords me no such unequivocal satori," I told him sourly.

"Merde, tell this groundling in words she may comprehend, bitte!" he demanded quite boorishly of the silent bodhi.

But the old man quite ignored this unseemly cajolement. His spirit had long since departed to the untrammeled contemplation of regions within. No effort of ours could conjure it to speak again.
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Re: Child of Fortune, by Norman Spinrad

Postby admin » Sat Mar 19, 2016 6:02 am

Chapter 18

Guy, on the other hand, was far from being at a loss for words.

"Look at the Bloomenveldt, Sunshine"' he proclaimed after we had withdrawn a decent distance, and I humored him to the extent of staring out across the endless rolling vista of foliage and flowers. "Can your eyes tell one part of it from another? Regard the sounds of the Bloomenveldt! Can you discern anything more informative than the whispering of the wind through the treetops or the chittering of unseen fauna?"

"Bien, the cogency of your discourse has convinced me that it all looks and sounds the same ..." I said sourly.

"But we know it is not all the same, do we not? Is it not quite obvious?"

"Isn't what quite obvious?"

"Merde, that you cannot use your eyes and ears to track down the inner mysteries of the Bloomenveldt, of course," Guy exclaimed as if addressing a dimwit. "you must use your nose to follow that which rides upon the wind! Surely you can see that?"

"I am not an imbecile, Guy!" I snapped back pettishly ... But can't you see that we would like as not lose our way therein if we attempted to doff our masks and follow a floral piper?"

"But you yourself have said we can always find the coast by following the sunrise," Guy pointed out slyly. "There will be little danger if we adhere to the terms of our traveling treaty. One of us to be the psychonaut, and the other the ground control. Remember! It was your idea, ne?"

"My idea? It was never my notion to travel unmasked, only to insure that one of us always retain reason if we paused now and again to sample the perfume of a flower!"

Guy stared angrily at me.

"What do you suggest then, that we give over our quest just when we have finally caught the scent of our quarry?"

I regarded him with no less pique, but when it came to formulating a cogent rejoinder, my wits failed me.

"Does the silence of the sphinx signal assent?" he persisted sarcastically. "Vraiment, enough, I take your silence for assent, whether that is your intent or not!" And so saying, before I could protest, he doffed his filter mask, took a deep breath, and regarded me triumphantly. "Voila, the intrepid psychonaut!, he declared. "Come, Sunshine, surely by your own lights, you cannot allow me to proceed without a ground control?"

And with that, he bounded off to the west, leaving me no choice but to follow him, muttering futile imprecations under my breath.

***

For the rest of the afternoon, Guy never paused long enough for me to hector him, but led us on a ragged zig-zag course generally westward, which is to say the direction logic had been taking us in the first place, before he decided to allow the backbrain to follow where the nose might lead it. And while I found his puissance as a tracker less than overwhelming, and his cavalier unilateralism boorish in the extreme, at length I was forced to admit that I could discern no obvious sign of danger.

Guy would drift down onto a leaf and kick off in his next leap apparently without conscious thought, though the direction of our vector would almost always alter slightly. In this manner, with Guy at the helm, did we proceed westward, like a sailboat tacking across unfelt breezes.

As the afternoon wore on, my anger attenuated as my curiosity began to come to the fore. What arcane scent was my foolhardy psychonaut following? What visions were wafting through his brain on the pheromonic wind? Or were we tacking this way and that to no coherent purpose?

Vraiment, if truth be told, by the time night began to fall, and prudence constrained even Guy to seek out a leaf well clear of any floral influences, my curiosity had taken on a certain envious tinge, for while I was not an imbecile, had I not readily enough owned to being a mystic libertine? Which is to say that I had never been one to stop short of orgasm in the throes of tantric bliss, nor, even in Nouvelle Orlean, had I been much for allowing even the most venturesome of swains to boast that they could go where I dare not follow.

As soon as we had broken out our concentrates, therefore, I quite forgot the ireful tirade I had been rehearsing to myself during the hot-blooded afternoon's journey, in favor of satisfying the curiosity which had come on with the glorious soul-stirring colors of the Bloomenveldt sunset.

But Guy, alas, from this vantage beyond the olfactory visions of the flowers, was hard put to render the memories thereof in the sprach of the poor quotidian ground control.

"It was as if ... It seemed as though ..." He shrugged, bit off a mouthful of concentrate, and chewed it down slowly before he tried again, as if trying to masticate some coherent verbal juices out of it. "Dilute residues of numerous faint far-off psychotropics in a liter or two of fine white wine and sip steadily at it as you gambol freely in the gardens of paradise ..." he declared extravagantly.

"While that may serve as an excellent recipe for achieving a simulation of the experience, it leaves something to be desired in the way of descriptive imagery," I complained.

Guy gave me a strange look then, a sad look, the look of someone struggling to regain the fading memory of a moment of satoric enlightenment.

"It cannot be described in imagery, no matter how puissant," he told me. "Vraiment, it would appear that the memory of what it was like cannot even attempt to express itself in the realm of maya, for now does it all seem like a wonderful dream, existing on a plane of consciousness one cannot even quite remember down here with the groundlings ..."

"With the groundlings?" I exclaimed. "Who are these groundlings to whom you are referring? There are only Guy Vlad Boca and Sunshine Shasta Leonardo alone here in the forest."

If truth be told, I was doubly vexed, first at his arrogant proclamations of visionary superiority, and worse, at the extent to which his characterization of my role as ground control cut at the truth.

"Is this the mystic libertine who now speaks?" Guy taunted challengingly. "Is this the true Child of Fortune's spirit? Will you now take your rightful turn as psychonaut on the morrow?"

"Certainement!" I declared without thinking, though not without wondering as soon as the words passed my lips whether I spoke with the true Spark or whether I was merely foolishly but inevitably rising to the bait of reckless masculine challenge.

***

Be that as it may, in the morning, after we breakfasted quickly and abluted ourselves with morning mist condensed in the cup of a nearby leaf, Guy donned the mask of ground control, and with a gallant little bow, invited me to assume the lead, and I took up the gauntlet.

As always, we had chosen our leaf for the night to be well clear of any strong floral eflluvia, so that when I inhaled deeply in search of a sign, I sensed little more than the rich odor of abundant greenery, the dawning savor of mist evaporating in warm sunlight, and vague undertones of hidden complexity to the vintage well below the sphere of conscious apprehension.

For lack of any more promising course of action, I put the rising sun at my back, adjusted my floatbelt to .1 g, and took off in a soaring leap to the due west.

As I rose upward, the heavy background odor of the greenery fell away like the thick shielding layers of a planet's lower atmosphere, and I found myself sniffing the rarefied ions of the psychostratosphere. In truth the molecules thereof were so dispersed up here at the apogee of my leap as to make the air seem almost odorless in contrast to the leafy aroma of the Bloomenveldt's surface.

But on the other hand, up here every flower seemed to have contributed a bit of its perfume to an incredibly complex but attenuated brew in which no single tropism could dominate. This melange of phantom odors seemed to go directly to the brain centers themselves, where it manifested itself as a faint psychic scent, the breath of the Bloomenveldt entire, like the whisperings of a million distant voices.

Vraiment, it was like a sip of well-diluted psychotropic wine, for there were exhilaration and unvoiced promises in the savor of the breath of the Enchanted Forest entire, though no pheromonic imperative stood out far enough to reach the conscious level of the mind, and none held sway long enough to be coherent even to the backbrain. Thus the spirit that chose to ride this most ethereal of breezes might be deflected this way and that by the molecule of the moment, like a monomer film riding the solar wind.

Which is to say that when I came down on a leaf, I twisted my body in a movement that would seem to have been derived from the ballistic inevitability of the moment, but which I nevertheless found to be deflecting my previous vector when in the same motion I pushed off.

The movement felt right, is all that I can really say about it, it seemed an inevitable step in the dance of faint floral essences in my mind, and in the dance of my spirit through the forest of flowers.

***

As the day wore on, I felt more at ease following the perfumed wind streaming through the unbound hair of my mind, more in harmony with Guy as well, indeed thankful to him for daring me to follow his brave example, for now I found myself trusting the caring spirit of the Bloomenveldt.

What reason was there to mistrust the spirit of a vegetative sapience whose own self-interest led it to design essences contrived to entice our delight? Why would such a symbiote do its partners harm ?

For in the complex perfume high above the Bloomenveldt one could sense the moral neutrality of the flowers. If, as the baba said, the Bloomenveldt eventually offered each spirit its perfect flower, then did it not also follow that one could not succumb to other than the bloom of one's own perfected destiny?

Thus did I flitter vaporously for untold golden summer hours through the treetops of the Bloomenveldt like a blithe butterfly dancing joyously among the great and noble flowers.

But as the sun began to slide down from its zenith, I came down from the apogee of my latest porpoise leap through the psychotropic clouds, suddenly seized by a compulsion that had me twisting my body in an attempt to alter my ballistic trajectory in midair, which is to say a powerful odor had all at once emerged from the background, a wonderful aroma that beckoned insistently to the back reaches of my brain with extravagant promises of both perfect peace and sexual ecstasy, as if this perfume were compounded of both lotus and forthrightly erotic musk.

I came down on the next leaf somewhat clumsily, for my attempt at midair course correction was less than totally successful, just as my awareness of what I was doing had not quite yet caught up with the act itself. I bounded off again, not for maximum distance, but on a shallow arc which I now comprehended would take me to the source of the perfume, though as to why I would want to do such a thing, this was a motivational nicety which at that moment I could not quite conceptualize.

I landed on an apron of leaves upon which grew three flowers of the same species, separated each from the other by some dozen meters. Each was a towering tubular bloom whose tall and partially folded petals were colored a vibrant rose streaked with markings of an equally vibrant royal blue. The pollen-heavy blue heads of stamens peered up through the pursed floral lips at the apexes of the flowers like buds in the mouths of tall elegant vases.

This botanic detail by way of considered hindsight, for I noticed hardly anything at the time save an overwhelming bouquet of belonging and the humans clustered around each flower.

There were more of them than we had yet seen together on the Bloomenveldt before, a least a dozen, four or five to a flower. More of them than not were still adorned by scraps of civilized rags and had the overstuffed look we had so frequently seen.

But there was a far more splendid breed of human among them, nude and lithely perfect examples of both genders of our species, who stood with a proud erectness and moved with an animal grace which made it quite clear that they had never known the clothes or malaises of civilization. Vraiment, they were like a brood of avid athletes innocently chiding a congress of sybaritic gourmands with their noble bodily perfection.

All this I perceived in a gestalted instant, along with the overwhelming longing to be one of their company. Fortunately, however, Guy had caught up with me, and before I could lope forward, he had me in an embrace as much of triumphant joy as of restraint.

"You've done it, Sunshine!" he exulted. "You've found the Bloomenkinder!"

So it would appear I had. As I stood there struggling against Guy's embrace which was preventing me from achieving my joyous floral destiny on the one hand, and grateful for same in the higher centers of my mind on the other, I was enabled thereby to both sense the reality with nostrils entirely under its pheromonic thrall, and view it from another perspective as a forcibly detached observer.

Two of the Bloomenkinder, if such they were, and two of the civilized revertees, sat around the base of one of the flowers gorging on clusters of large, purple, ovoid fruit, and my mouth watered its demand to gobble its succulence. A similarly integrated group seemed to be waiting at the base of the furthest flower for some unimaginable event. More of both styles of humans dozed hypnogogically around the base of the third flower, whose perfume spoke to me of the pleasures of dreamless slumber. Then all at once, or rather with a rapid but stately vegetative grace, the furthest flower peeled open to lay itself out into a luxurious carpeted mat before those humans who had apparently been awaiting just this occurrence. Forthwith, they laid themselves down on the floral carpet, and began copulating in varying figures with gay abandon, and while what reason remained found this performance a less than artful spectacle, my loins were possessed of an entirely more avid opinion.

Vraiment, my nostrils were assailed and enticed by a roil of conflicting imperatives, and mayhap it was only the concern now evident in Guy's eyes, or the power of his embrace, or some inner reservoir of resource which both gave me the moral will to possess, that enabled me to make my hands put on my mask.

I stood there hyperventilating for several moments as the perfumes cleared like a dense fog bank under a hot rising sun from the hollows and copses of my brain.

Then I saw that Guy. perhaps taking this as a sign that I merely wished to exchange functions, was about to remove his own filter mask.

"No!" I shouted, clawing his fingers away from the straps. "Under no circumstances! I was only barely able ... I was about to ..."

Confronted with the force and anguish of my determination, Guy for once relented. "Are these not the fabled Bloomenkinder?" he said in a poutish puzzled voice. "Is this not the Perfumed Garden?"

"These may be the fabled Bloomenkinder," I told him with all the firmness I could muster, "but certainement this is not the Perfumed Garden! Far from being exalted or subtle, these flowers exude overwhelming perfumes which induce crude and basic desires no more enlightened than the fulfillment thereof which you now observe. Only if your notion of perfection is to spend the rest of your life cycling between gorging on the same fruit, torpid unconsciousness, and brute mindless copulation, should you breathe this unfiltered air!"

"But at least these may indeed be true Bloomenkinder!" Guy insisted. "At the very least, we must attempt to question them!"

This I could hardly deny, though I was a good deal less than sanguine about our ability to entice these tribespeople of the Bloomenveldt into coherent discourse.

At first, we took the path of least resistance, and attempted to rouse the sleepers from their torpor with halloos, and then shouts. But the most we could induce by these methods was the heavy peeling of an eyeball for a brief indifferent moment.

Since intruding upon an abandoned orgy for the purpose of prying away participants to willingly submit to interrogation seemed hardly practical, we repaired to the banquet of purple fruit in hopes of inducing some idle table talk.

Four tribespeople squatted on their haunches devouring great mouthfuls of fruit by the less than elegant procedure of holding the juicy ovoids up to their mouths with both hands, chomping off bites of the dripping fruit as large as their jaws could encompass, and wolfing them down with an energetic series of gobbles. Two of these were obese men still festooned with raggy tatters, whose manner of dining seemed slobbery and distasteful. Yet the other two, male and female Bloomenkinder, who by any ergonomic measure were performing precisely the same movements to precisely the same practical effect, seemed no more ill-bred in the act thereof than moussas methodically dealing with berries.

None of them reacted to our approach with startlement or flight or territorial outrage, nor, on the other hand, did any of them offer food or greeting. The long and short of it was that, despite the appearance of these bizarre auslanders in their midst, they all continued to eat in the same tranquilly obsessive manner.

"Any brilliant bon mots, Guy? I confess that I am at a loss for a suitable conversational entree into these social circles."

Guy shrugged. "Manners, at any rate, would seem to be redundant." So saying, he fairly thrust his face upon one of the fat fellows and spoke loudly, insistently, and slowly, as one might address a very young child or a rather recalcitrant parrot. "The ... Perfumed ... Garden ...We ... seek ... the ... Perfumed Garden ... Do ... you ... know ... the ... Perfumed ... Garden?"

The man went so far as to raise his gaze from the fruit to meet Guy's, though this did not at all disturb the gulping rhythm of his feeding.

"The Perfumed Garden! The Perfumed Garden"' Guy chanted, hand-signaling me to join his efforts. "The Perfumed Garden! The Perfumed Garden!"

At length, indeed at considerable length, our chanting drew forth a tenuous echo, much as the same procedure might eventually provoke mimicry from a talking bird or enhance the vocabulary of an infant. "Perfumed Garden ... Perfumed Garden ..." But rather than seeming to acquire a new sound, the man, blinking rapidly and giving over his chewing for a moment, seemed to be struggling to regain the sound of a distant memory.

"The Perfumed Garden," I said syncopatedly, and then added two more beats to the rhythm. "We seek the Perfumed Garden ..."

"We ... seek ... the Perfumed Garden ... Seek ... the ... Perfumed Garden ... Seek ... the ... Perfumed ...Garden ...Seek ... the ... Perfumed ... Garden ..."

Meaning seemed to slowly leach into his parroting of the syllables and a certain dim sapience seemed to return to his eyes. He had stopped eating now, and the dripping fruit lay limply in his hands. "Seek the Perfumed Garden," he seemed to say more decisively, nodding his head almost imperceptibly as if agreeing with the wisdom of this proposition.

Having given our venture this blessing, it would seem that he had dealt with the matter to his own satisfaction, for he forthwith returned to his single-minded devouring of the purple fruit.

"The Perfumed Garden"' Guy cried, shaking the fellow back into attention by the shoulders. "Where is it?" The obese fellow seemed to exhibit no ill temper at this admittedly boorish behavior, nor did any of his table mates pay the matter any more heed than they had our verbal hectoring. indeed, the tribesman almost seemed to manage a sort of smile.

"Bloomenkinder ... Bloomenkinder ..." he chanted, directing our attention via a glance of his eyes to the nearby examples of same.

"Ask the Bloomenkinder?" Guy demanded. "Ask the Bloomenkinder? Is that your meaning, ask the Bloomenkinder?" "Ask the Bloomenkinder! Ask the Bloomenkinder"' the tribesman chanted, and then, having delivered up this advice, if such it was, he returned to his fruit and could not be roused to speak again even by shouting and shaking.

Shrugging, I addressed the nearest of the Bloomenkinder, a lovely female creature with taut bronzed flesh, long streaming blonde hair, a beatific smile, and lambently vacant blue eyes. "We seek the Perfumed Garden," I said, feeling rather foolish. "Is it true that you know where it lies?"

The sound of my voice caused her to look up at me for a moment, but for all the sapient response I saw in that transcendently tranquil face, I might have been addressing one of the equally beautiful and equally vapid flowers.

Nor did the male of the species prove any more responsive, though no doubt had the petals of the flower at that moment opened and the perfume d'amour blown forth, it would have been an entirely different matter. And despite my intellectual repugnance for sexual congress with insensate creatures, I almost wished they would, for seldom had I seen such a specimen of obvious animal virility.

Be that as it may, the injunction to ask the Bloomenkinder seemed some kind of dim Bloomenveldt irony, for the true Bloomenkinder seemed totally beyond responding to any verbal interrogation.

By this time the sun was beginning to sink toward the horizon, and the deepening shadows of impending twilight were beginning to spread across the foliage, casting a definite waning westering perspective over the endless veldt, in which all the dappled shadowy paths led toward sunset.

"Ask the Bloomenkinder!" I declared. "One might as well ask a marble statue!"

But even as I spoke, even as the leafy glade and its three flowers were bathed in the slanting amber light of late afternoon, the petals of the flower of copulation began to slowly fold upwards as all tantric exercises ceased. The humans left their floral boudoir to stand before it in motionless silence. So too did those among whom we stood cease their masticating, let fall the remains of their fruit, and rise slowly to their feet.

A few moments later, all those who had come to the Enchanted Forest from the worlds of men moved measuredly toward the flower where five such folk were already sleeping and joined them in the land of nod in less time than it takes to tell.

But the Bloomenkinder! Ah, the Bloomenkinder!

Wherever they had been when the floral clock had rung down day's end, so did they stand there now, and so would they stand until the sun's disc had bisected the horizon. And all of them stood there like sunflowers, staring due west along precisely the same vector, transfixed by the sunset, or mayhap turning toward that Mecca whose direction we had indeed been told only the Bloomenkinder knew.

***

And when we too had found our own leafy nest for the Bloomenveldt night, Guy proclaimed his unshakable conviction that the Bloomenkinder had indeed answered our question.

"Certainement, these Bloomenkinder must be in spiritual rapport with some lost Eden of theirs to the west," he insisted.

"Mayhap their genes are merely coded with some kind of tropic memory ..." I suggested dubiously.

"La meme chose, for the further into the Bloomenveldt we penetrate, the more highly evolved the floral forms in terms of their intimate involvement with the psyches of their humans, and since these Bloomenkinder are clearly more perfectly attuned to the spirit of the forest than any other folk we have yet encountered, they must therefore derive from lands to the west. At any rate, we must certainly proceed in the direction they commend to our attention, for if such as the Perfumed Garden exists, who but the Bloomenkinder can possibly show us the way?"

"No doubt," I said, "but the way to what?"

"To what?" exclaimed Guy. "To the most puissant psychotropics the Bloomenveldt has evolved from contact with our species! To the Perfumed Garden!"

"If such in fact exists," I replied, not by now sure whether I wished to attain this ultima Thule of his or feared that we would.

"Well then at least to the heart of the matter," Guy said, finally seeing that my enthusiasm in no way matched his own, though in no way giving it over for an instant. "In any event, it is my turn to be the psychonaut when we travel on tomorrow."

***

Thus did we indeed journey onward in the morning, with myself masked and following Guy, and Guy following whatever it was that came to him on the wind.

Until some time past noon, he bounded from leaf to leaf with long, high, straight leaps calculated to cover as much distance as rapidly as possible, and we proceeded in this manner due west with no tacking at all, as if by act of will he had determined to steer this steady course through the vapors.

Then, in the early afternoon, his leaps began to shorten, and the path we followed became more erratic. Several times he would leap directly upward, hang inhaling deeply at the top of his arc, and come down not a dozen meters from his point of departure. At length, his leaps became shorter but surer, and now we were running over the leaves like explorers loping over the low- gravity surface of an asteroid, zigging and zagging this way and that without any logical consideration, as if Guy were following some invisible trail like a hound on a scent.

Then all at once he slowed, and then stopped, and then stood there on a leaf peering motionlessly at something obscured from my vision by a dip in the terrain as I came up beside him.

And beheld the village, if so such a thing may be styled, of the Bloomenkinder.

Within the shallow dell of great branches immediately below us, an entire subbranch supporting as many as a hundred leaves had burst into bloom. There were at least a dozen flowers growing within meters of each other, so that the effect was almost that of a flower bed planted in an overgrown lawn. And there were several species of flower intermingling in this Bloomenveldt garden. There were brilliant pink cups like enormous open mouths whose petals were streaked with black, and flowers which were the inverse color image of same. There were flowers that consisted mostly of conelike mounds of yellow pollen, and flowers that were mostly tall white petals. There were hanging clusters of lavender bells, and puffballs bursting with a profusion of rainbow hues.

And there were Bloomenkinder moving amongst the flowers, perhaps two score of them, engaged in what at least from a distance seemed almost like the varied quotidian tasks of typical village life.

Guy stood there with an utterly tranquil bliss painted across his face. "Beautiful ..." he sighed. "Perfect ..." I caught him by the hand as he began to drift forward.

"Guy! Guy! What's happening to you?"

Guy seemed to struggle with his words, even as he struggled against my restraint.

"Can't you feel it, Sunshine?" he burbled ecstatically. "The rightness of all creation ... The great wheel slowly turning in harmony with the music of the spheres ..."

He paused, blinking. He turned to favor me with the most radiant smile. "Fear not, ma chere," he said softly and with utterly tranquil certainty, "no harm can come to us in this Garden of Perfection."

Never had I seen Guy Vlad Boca so seemingly at peace with his own spirit, vraiment such was the calm clarity he fairly exuded, and such was the undeniable visual beauty of the village of the Bloomenkinder, that I allowed him to lead me forward among the flowers, among the perfect Bloomenkinder, with their clear and empty eyes, their magnificent unveiled physiques, and their innocent animal grace.

The Bloomenkinder moved about from flower to flower slowly and gracefully, never seeming to impede each other's movements, yet never seeming to need to step aside to avoid doing so, as if moving as parts of a single organism, or more aptly perhaps as if following a carefully crafted choreography in their waltz among the flowers.

Their eyes betrayed awareness of us just as they betrayed a certain positional awareness of each other. They seemed to regard us as natural obstacles, to be adroitly avoided with calm adjustments of their dance, but paid us no further heed. Vraiment, I too believed now that no harm could come to us here, for it was as if I were walking down a street in a dream, wrapped in a voyeuristic cloak of invisibility, incapable of being harmed on the one hand, and incapable of social intercourse with the citizens of this land of nod on the other.

But certainement, never in my dreams had I ever wandered through such a venue as this.

Here, as in our previous experience, there were flowers where tantric exercises were taking place, flowers serving as refectories and floral dream chambers, and a pheromonic clockwork could easily enough be perceived circulating the Bloomenkinder between the phases of the cycle.

But here the flowers were so many and the species thereof so varied, and the resultant complexity they evoked in the I behavior of their humans so recomplicated that one could not be entirely certain that the dance of the Bloomenkinder was not informed by sapience.

Three different fruits and at least two nectars were offered up by the flowers of this garden. Clusters of head-sized black berries grew at the base of the lavender bells. Both the pink cups and their black negative images grew amidst shaggy white melons, and both were filled with syrupy fluid. Long tubular fruit grew from the base of the tall white flowers. Some of these same flowers were exuding perfumes of lazy repose, so that Bloomenkinder dozed amidst the fruit, and some of them were the venues of abandoned yet somehow stately tantric tableaus, figures of considerable complexity being enacted without crushing so much as a single berry.

Moreover, the floral sequences seemed to cycle with balanced regularity, as if, like conscientious parents, the flowers sought to discourage bouts of obsessive excess. Rather than gorge themselves to torpor on a single fruit or nectar, the Bloomenkinder would wander from that flower to this, sampling the various courses and sipping at the vintages, like diners at a buffet.

Even in the sexual realm, variations were in evidence which at least raised the question of sapient style. There were short, intense, recomplicated figures involving any number of participants in frenetic multiplex interpenetrations, which sustained themselves for only a few minutes. There were smaller and more stable groupings which might go on at some length, and even dyads of conventional lovers.

"One might almost believe that these are revelers at some abandoned fete circulating between the smorgasbord and the boudoir," I whispered to Guy as we wandered wonderingly through this Bloomenkinder garden.

"Well spoken!" Guy declared grandly. "For do we not behold that very paradise of which the bodhis speak, where perfect innocents enjoy an endless soiree of tantric and sensual delights and strife and toil are forever banished?"

"The bodhis speak of a spiritual parameter to nirvana as well," I reminded him. "For surely there is more to it than endless toxicated carnival."

"Vraiment," Guy said. "Can you not smell the state of perfect spiritual harmony in which these fortunate people exist, the animal grace of every move, their beatific visages. Is this not the ultimate state all men seek?"

"Je ne sais pas ..." I said. "I see harmony and grace, vraiment, but I have no wish to become a member of this perfected company."

"Nor I, alas," Guy said quite regretfully, "for since we can never be innocently perfect Bloomenkinder, these cannot be our perfect flowers." His visage brightened. "But does it not promise a Garden of more sapient Perfection for such as we further on in the psychic interior? Ah, Sunshine, I can smell it on the wind ..."

Vraiment even I could at least dimly perceive the allure of this promise, for who could deny that I indeed beheld the possibility of a certain sort of human perfection?

For the Bloomenkinder, if one granted them awareness at all, must indeed exist in a state of perpetual bliss. Had not their desires been reduced to sex, food, drink, and repose, were these not met with immediate gratification as soon as they were aroused by the perfumes of the proprietors? Did they not sleep and eat and make love with the perfect wu of zen archers?

Which is to say that even masked I could feel the beneficence of the Bloomenveldt, the care it seemed to take for the animal happiness of its charges. Who was to say that somewhere deeper in its heart that puissant concern did not extend to the sapient spirit, for had we not already encountered flowers which would seem to have gifted the dying babas with the vision of enlightenment to illumine their final hours?

So did I slide into a dreamy state myself, so was I almost tempted to remove my filter mask and breathe the perfume of this fairyland garden, so did I consider asking now for my own turn as psychonaut, so was I all but seduced by the forest spirit.

Until at length we happened to pass close by one of the great rainbow-hued puffballs.

Upon close inspection, this flower proved to be compounded of thousands of tiny blooms of red, blue, green, yellow, or mixed tints thereof, gathered together to form a round fluffy hedge atop a short thick stalk surrounded by an apron of thick, mossy, yellow pollen.

Upon this floral blanket crawled two chubby, torpid, naked human infants, entirely unattended, which struck me as the height of parental irresponsibility and hardly indicative of enlightened beings.

But when I examined the stalk of the puffball more closely, I saw the ultimate extent to which the Bloomenkinder had surrendered their spirits to the flowers.

Around the circumference of the stalk grew a ring of bright pink mounded protuberances which dimpled out at their centers into tiny tubular carmine teats. And teats they were in more than metaphor, for suckling on three of them, eyes closed in gurgling pleasure and squirming slowly in delighted contentment, were three more human infants.

***

Upon confronting this ghastly example of vegetative motherhood, I fairly dragged Guy away from the flower. "Put on your mask!" I hissed. "We must talk at once in the cold clear light of day."

"I have no wish to put on my mask," Guy said airily.

"That is exactly the problem," I snapped, in no mood to take no for an answer, and I reinforced my words with tugs and kicks and frowns and gesticulations, as I shepherded Guy out of the village of the Bloomenkinder, and if he had not been persuaded by the agitated determination of my will, I might very well have essayed a resort to brute force.

"Mask yourself!" I demanded when I had gotten him to a leaf well clear of floral influences. "I do believe this has gone more than far enough!"

"Certainly not"' Guy replied in a tone of infuriating tranquility ."Indeed, why do you not toss aside your own forthwith, for upon so doing, you will never wish to filter out the perfumes of paradise again ..."

"Merde, Guy, just listen to yourself!" I fairly snarled. "Proof enough that it's time we gave over this mad quest and returned eastward to the coast!"

"Quelle chose!" he exclaimed. "Return to the coast? Give over our quest? When we are this close to attaining the ultimate object thereof!"

"To attaining what?" I snapped. "Surely not even you wish to become an empty Bloomenkind of the forest, blissfully content to mindlessly copulate, eat fruit, and sleep, while your sentience is given over to the pheromonic massage of your backbrain, and your offspring suckle at vegetative teats!"

"Of course not," Guy said airily. "Here I smell only perfect flowers for perfect Bloomenkinder. The Perfumed Garden of our perfection must surely lie deeper within."

"Phagh!" I snorted. "How much more such perfection do you require? Do not these Bloomenkinder satisfy your criteria of perfect symbiotic union with their flowers? They eat, sleep, and copulate at the behest of their floral overseers in a state of blissful surrender thereto, and rather than drink the milk of imperfect human sentience, they are weaned on the sap of the lotus!"

"Vraiment, the flowers lovingly husband the welfare of their humans ..."

"At the price of their human spirits, a pact known to be a devilish bargain since our ancestors climbed down from their trees!"

"Devilish bargain?" scoffed Guy. "Have we not seen flowers who offer molecules of enlightenment to dying humans in their hour of need? How much more proof of the Bloomenveldt's love for our species can you require?"

"Merde!" I exclaimed, having long since had enough of this futile dialectic. "Will you not return to the coast with me now?" I said, knowing full well the answer, for all too clearly his vaporous whim was set in iron.

"Will you now refuse to go forward with me into the glorious promise of the Bloomenveldt's heart?"

We stood there alone in the Enchanted Forest, each attempting to stare the other down at this fateful karmic nexus.

"If I insist on turning back, will you go on alone?" I at length demanded in a fury.

"If I insist on going forward, will you return alone?" Guy rejoined in a smug tone of tranquil sweetness.

"Will you not at least don your mask?" I pleaded despairingly.

"Will you not now doff yours so that as comrades, lovers, and true Children of Fortune, we may breathe the perfumes of paradise as a single perfect spirit?"

"Hijo de caga, nom de merde"' I snarled, admitting with as perfect a vacuum of good grace as I could muster that he had won.

For while Guy may have been bluffing, while he might in the end have followed me had I turned my back and strode eastward boldly, I knew full well that I could not fail to follow him if he turned his back on me. For not only did my cowardly aspect dread the thought of lone travel on the Bloomenveldt, but my more heroic nature could not abandon a comrade spirit in the jungle whether or not that spirit would have been ready to abandon me to follow his star, and no matter how much ire I now felt against him.

And to turn the screw of my frustrated fury a notch tighter, I knew full well that Guy had been able to win this contest of wills precisely because he knew this too.

***

And so I found myself following Guy ever deeper into the Bloomenveldt, or rather being dragged along like a small girl leashed to a large hound hot upon a scent.

For the rest of the day, Guy bounded along in great leaps to the west, pausing only to take his high hanging jumps from time to time to sniff at the air, like just such a hound following a pheromonic trail through a realm of perception wherein the bold relief of the olfactory topography belied the apparently featureless plain of the eye's vision.

By the time we stopped for the night, I was in a foul and sullen humor indeed and hardly in any mood for discourse with the likes of him, mystic or otherwise.

But Guy Vlad Boca read nothing of this in either my mien or my silence. Vraiment, he hardly gave over his blissful babblement even while eating and drinking, he noticed not the perfect one- sidedness of the conversation, indeed I could not be entirely sure that he even noticed my existence, so toxicated was he with the glories of the perfumed visions with which his brain was so thoroughly besotted.

"... I know it is there now, for I can taste it calling to me on the wind, faint but surging with power, as one may sense the life-giving waters of a mighty river flowing unseen and unheard not so far away in the forest, the great river of the Bloomenveldt spirit flowing around me and through me, carrying me away in the loving embrace of its clear blue waters ..."

Und so endless weiter. Indeed by the time we had finished our meal and I could look forward to the nighttime surcease of consciousness, it was hard to be sure who or what spoke, for Guy by now was not even looking at me as he declaimed, rather did his eyes abruptly shift randomly from focus to focus like those of a nervous rodent, or worse, like the eyes of a man in the throes of some arcane possession. So too did his voice take on a deep and almost syrupy timbre which I had never heard before, and the pronoun of the first person had vanished from the repertoire of his Lingo.

"... home to the spirit's safe harbor in the ancestral forest, back to the long-lost garden, forward into the perfume of perfect bliss, when you were Bloomenkinder of the Earth in the innocent spirit's grace, the great wheel turns, and the rain returns to the sea, and the many return to the one from whence they came and that moment is forever ..."

There I lay in the darkness longing for sleep while Guy, or whatever dybbuk of the wood spoke through him, assailed me and the night with these visions in a hypnogogic voice which at length had me finding myself hearkening to them, hearing in them the whispered blandishments of some long lost lover.

Vraiment, I found myself erotically aroused, as if about to be enthralled by some incubus. Alors, when I became aware of this state, my present distaste for the person of Guy Vlad Boca was overcome by both endocrine imperative and the need to do whatever had to be done to still that insinuating voice.

Which is to say, I thumbed on my ring of Touch and forthrightly applied it to the handle of the natural man.

But the same would not rise to the occasion, my own best efforts and the puissant craft of Leonardo to the contrary! For all my efforts, I might have been massaging a carrot. Indeed such a tuber would in fact have been an improvement when it came to firmness of form.

But when at limply endless length I had succeeded in falling into a frustrated, fearful, and petulant sleep, I was rudely awoken by Guy, who had already set to work with a virile vigor and not so much as a by-your-leave.

Never had Guy Vlad Boca been such a puissant lover, never had he taken unto himself such a machismo of command, for he persisted silently and remorselessly against my outrage, which was soon somewhat diminished in conviction by my hours of sexual constriction and the entirely uncharacteristic tantric mastery of his assault.

Vraiment it was an overweening assumption of the most primitive masculine prerogative, but under the circumstances, it became rather difficult to maintain the proper feminine outrage in the face of an endless succession of mighty ecstatic cusps, each one a greater relief than the last, each one propelling me further down the merciful black velvet path of sweet oblivion, until I expired into the arms of sleep and my demon Bloomenveldt lover.

***

The morning after, naturellement, it was quite another matter. "What got into you last night, Guy Vlad Boca?" I shouted at him upon awakening and disentangling myself from his embrace with a vigor that entirely disregarded the sanctity of his slumber. "How dare you force yourself upon me against all my protests to the contrary!"

Guy, upon awakening to this loud indignation, favored me with a smile of radiant innocence.

"Alors," I said angrily, but not without a certain ambiguous embarrassment, "now you will grin at me like a simian and tell me how much I enjoyed it!"

"Enjoyed what?" Guy said, regarding me with the same shining visage of innocent ignorance.

Could it be that this ignorance of all unchivalrous behavior was not feigned? Vraiment, did Guy Vlad Boca have this perfect power to artlessly dissemble under even the best of circumstances?

"It's really true, Guy?" I said, studying him closely for any sign of irony. "You remember nothing?"

Guy slowly rose to a sitting position. Still smiling the same bodhi smile, he turned his face from me to look westward across the endless ethereal Bloomenveldt, pastelled to ghostly luminescence as the rising sun only began to burn away the morning mist.

"I remember what the Bloomenkinder know," he said in that same strange basso profundo as he clumsily scrabbled to his feet, still gazing fixedly to the west like a Bloomenkind at sunset.

Entirely distractedly, he began cramming his effects into his pack, not for a moment giving up his visionary fixation.

In a panic, I stuffed my own pack as best I was able, for Guy was already hoisting his in less time than it takes to tell, and poising for a great leap westward.

Then off he went without so much as another word, and I was reduced to catching up as best I could, bounding along in Guy's train once more as he sniffed and snuffled across the Bloomenveldt. Vraiment, and in the canine manner, he seemed to grow ever more excited as he bayed along the trails of scent.

By midafternoon, he began to veer off to the southwest in a jerky series of tacks. And then, two or three hours later, his behavior grew even more frenetic, like that of a hound brought the first full whiff of the scent of his quarry on a change in the wind.

He came down from one of his leaps with a rigid, narrow-eyed alertness, and stood quite frozen like that on a leaf, as if to await my arrival. But as it turned out, a sudden return of his lost gallantry had nothing to do with it, for when I arrived at his side he entirely ignored my presence and continued to stare fixedly along the vector of his own nose. No doubt had he been equipped with a tail, it would have pointed out straight behind him.

"What is it, Guy?" I demanded. "I see nought but the usual endless leaves and flowers." For indeed that was all there was to be seen, not even a Bloomenkinder garden was in evidence.

"A grand and mighty spirit summoning its true children home," said that dybbuk voice through Guy Vlad Boca's lips. "The spirit of once and future flowers."

"Quelle chose, Guy, before you succumb to such a puissant tropism as you describe, put your mask on at --"

But without another word, he was off in a great leap directly along the point of his fixed vision, and I was constrained to follow at once or risk losing sight of him entirely.

Nor did I have much space for thought for the next hour, for all my efforts were of necessity dedicated to negotiating leaps of sufficient force and rapidity to keep Guy in sight as he bounded across the Bloomenveldt at the greatest speed of which his efforts were capable. Nor did he seem to have any further doubts as to the precise vector of his destiny, for his course now had the geometric inevitability of a ballistic trajectory .

And then, at the apogee of one of my own leaps, I thought I spied an anomaly on the horizon exactly on the compass point toward which Guy was heading, no more than the first hint of land that one perceives after a voyage on an open ocean.

I made my next leap shorter and higher, trying to gain as lofty a vantage as possible without being left behind. Vraiment, there was something there, just on the line of the horizon, a splash of colors and shapes.

But I had no time to pause for thought when I alighted from this crow's nest in the air, for Guy was pulling away from me already, and I had had to maximize my speed to catch up to him, indeed to merely keep him in sight. So I paused not for another clear view of whatever it was we were approaching by leaps and bounds until after quite a chase across the treetops, and indeed I only managed to catch up with him at all when he was brought up short by a sight that transfixed us both.

We stood together on a tall hillock of foliage looking out over a long shallow dip in the Bloomenveldt. The center of this plain in the treetops rose gently into another highland formed by the elevated crown of a single great tree.

In an overwhelming display of floral exuberance, the entire great treecrown had burst into flower, like a proud peacock displaying his full brilliant glory among the quotidian arboreal fowl.

"Behold, oh ye true children of the Enchanted Forest," said a voice that in that moment seemed to speak for both my by-now-long-lost lover and that which had claimed him. "Behold the Perfumed Garden."
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