The Void Captain's Tale, by Norman Spinrad

The Void Captain's Tale, by Norman Spinrad

Postby admin » Sat Mar 19, 2016 6:12 am

THE VOID CAPTAIN'S TALE
by Norman Spinrad
© 1983 Norman Spinrad

NOTICE: THIS WORK MAY BE PROTECTED BY COPYRIGHT

YOU ARE REQUIRED TO READ THE COPYRIGHT NOTICE AT THIS LINK BEFORE YOU READ THE FOLLOWING WORK, THAT IS AVAILABLE SOLELY FOR PRIVATE STUDY, SCHOLARSHIP OR RESEARCH PURSUANT TO 17 U.S.C. SECTION 107 AND 108. IN THE EVENT THAT THE LIBRARY DETERMINES THAT UNLAWFUL COPYING OF THIS WORK HAS OCCURRED, THE LIBRARY HAS THE RIGHT TO BLOCK THE I.P. ADDRESS AT WHICH THE UNLAWFUL COPYING APPEARED TO HAVE OCCURRED. THANK YOU FOR RESPECTING THE RIGHTS OF COPYRIGHT OWNERS.


Image

Table of Contents:

• Chapter 1
• Chapter 2
• Chapter 3
• Chapter 4
• Chapter 5
• Chapter 6
• Chapter 7
• Chapter 8
• Chapter 9
• Chapter 10
• Chapter 11
• Chapter 12
• Chapter 13
• Chapter 14
• Chapter 15
• Chapter 16

"Thus, the multiplex dualities of the voyage -- the yang and the yin, the propulsive and the nurturative, the objective and the subjective, the hierarchical and the democratic, pouvoir and puissance, the exterior and the interior, the cold, dark void without and the bright, glittering complexity within -- are embodied and metaphored in the Captain and the Domo."

-- "Void Captain's Tale," by Norman Spinrad
admin
Site Admin
 
Posts: 17175
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Void Captain's Tale, by Norman Spinrad

Postby admin » Sat Mar 19, 2016 6:13 am

Fur mi Kameraden de todas partes
No mondo nostro,
No spirito uno,
J'essaie esto Traum futuro
In an anglish sprach
De nuestro Lingo.


CHAPTER 1

I AM GENRO KANE GUPTA, Void Captain of the Dragon Zephyr, and mayhap this is my todtentale. Of necessity, it is also the tale of Void Pilot Dominique Alia Wu, but she is gone into the Great and Only, and I lack both the art to present her point of view in the late 20th Century novelistic mode and the insight to say in what sense her tale goes on.

So this tale must not be presumed to mirror any consciousness but my own. Indeed, so acutely aware am I of my own imperfections as a subjective instrument that, were I a Sea Captain of Old rather than a Void Captain of the Second Starfaring Age, I would be sorely tempted to adopt the literary mode known as Ship's Log, in which Captains even less versed in the tale-teller's art than I scribed terse laconic descriptions of daily events, reporting everything from the ship's position to occurrences of tragic enormity in the same even, stylized, objective prose.

Thusly:

On the day that Void Captain Genro Kane Gupta assumed command of the Dragon Zephyr in orbit around Earth, he engaged in an unwholesome exchange of name tales on the sky ferry to the ship with the Void Pilot Dominique Alia Wu.

On the day of the first Jump, he conversed with her at unnatural length afterward.

After the third Jump, they performed a sexual act.

On the ninth Jump, Void Captain Genro Kane Gupta neglected to dump the vector coordinate overlay into the Jump Circuit Computer prior to activation of the Jump Circuit. The consciousness of Void Pilot Dominique Alia Wu left its material matrix and did not return, though the Dragon Zephyr somehow survived this Blind Jump.

The ship is now marooned about a score light-years from the nearest habited star, without a Pilot. This is the last Log entry I shall make before I call for volunteers.

One must admit that this mode achieves a certain power of understatement, the wu of an unselfconscious artifact crafted entirely by functional imperative.

But like any product of an unselfconscious mechanism, it touches not the spirit. It does not explain how a man could come to sacrifice himself and his ship, his center and his duty, to an unwholesome passion for the unattainable, nor does it enable the audience to judge for itself whether this be a romance or a tragedy or an evil farce.

For that, a mode that admits of its own subjectivity is required, and besides I have neither handscriber nor book leaves with which to produce an artfully pleasing ersatz of an ancient Ship's Log. So I am encoding an admittedly personal tale on word crystal in our contemporary manner in the wan hope that by doing so, by attempting to tell the story without excluding the storms of the spirit, I may in the end come to gain that insight in the telling which failed to inform the acts in question. In the unlikely event that this account should reach another human spirit, I ask that you decode it first into print, so that some small reflection of lost objectivity be retained.

Having made this miserable and pathetic apologia, I shall henceforth abandon all pretense of objectivity and speak my final tale from the heart as if I were recounting it into the sympathetic ear of a fellow being.

Thus I shall now proceed in the conventional manner with the tales of my pedigree and freenom.



My father, Kane Krasna AIda, was a Void Ship Man Jack without desire for command. Rather for him the attraction of starfaring was the rhythm of the via it self--the shipboard opportunity for solitary contemplation, and the long planetary layovers he chose to take, which enabled him to savor fully a multiplicity of worlds. While he was a rounded man who practiced several Ways from time to time as a matter of civilized course, his goals were esthetic rather than spiritual. He traveled widely to enrich his store of sensory data rather than approach the One through its multiplicity, and he used his shipboard solitude not for spiritual meditation upon all he had encompassed but for the practice of many sensory arts.

He practiced the eternal arts of painting and sculpture in many styles and with a multiplicity of tools and materials. He composed music conventionally on sound crystal but also on a silver flute, of which ancient instrument he had achieved considerable mastery. He crafted world bubbles and the tiny organisms within. None of his works achieved commercial validation or critical incorporation into the stream of the art, but then, he chose not to offer them up for such.

His freenom, Kane, he chose homage a Karl Kane, a semi-legendary figure of the First Starfaring Age, an artist of visual images, who, upon completing a thirty- year voyage from Earth to Novi Mir in one of the slower- than-light torchships of the period with oeuvre of completed works that supposedly put him in the class of Leonardo, Hokusai, and Bramjonovitch, packed his works and himself on the next torchship leaving the planet and disappeared into legend.

My mother, Gupta Lee Miko, never left Arcady, the planet where she was born, where she served as a judicial arbitrator when she met my father, and where she so serves still. Arcady is a rather pastoral planet of soaring mountains, broad plains, and placid crystal seas; moonless, without significant axial tilt or orbital eccentricity, its habitable regions are lands of eternal autumn briskness, the heimat of a people similarly cool and clear and brisk. Justice on Arcady bas been likened to a clear blue light proceeding from a center of platonic logic, and this is the consciousness that my mother has always sought to maintain, ironized by a gemutlich perception of the merciful possibility of ever achieving this goal absolute.

Her freenom, Gupta, she chose homage a Sanjiro Gupta, an ark administrator of the early First Starfaring Age, who left the system of Sol with a consignment of stellar colonists dredged up from the deepest political dungeons of a consortium of sponsoring national governments, and arrived three generations later as the guiding memory of the sanest political system of the day, the forerunner of our modern transtellar society. Though this model colony ship society did not long survive planetary dispersion, and the proto-Lingo that had evolved soon began to break down into its constituent sprachs, it was Sanjiro Gupta who tossed the first pebble of modernity into the dark pool of that chauvin-ridden age, whose time-amplified ripples are the social mantra of our day.

My parents met on Arcady of course, on one of his open-ended planetary sojourns. Though she was ten years his senior and their consciousness interface was mutually recognizable as ultimately unstable from the start, their pheromone profiles matched chemical objects and desires so mutually that amour was inevitable.

Since each was a person of caritas and both understood the transience of their passage together, a mutual agreement was conceived to commemorate it with a child, namely myself.

My father remained on Arcady with my mother as agreed until I was six. While my father's Lingo was dominantly nihonogo and the sprach of my mother more deutsch than anything else, the parental sprach they evolved together was heavily anglic. I grew up speaking this, and my Lingo is an anglish sprach to this day.

On my sixth birthday, my father resumed his wanderlebe, returning to Arcady at long irregular intervals from his starfaring. Since the rhythm of their time together was long and intermittent and since their love song bad a pre-designed end, my parents were able to maintain a mutual caritas long after amour had failed, despite their basic psychic dissonance, and my upbringing was satisfyingly complex.

From the intermittent appearances of my starfaring father, I naturally acquired an image of the romance of travel, and, more subtly, the yearning to achieve a broadness of psyche, to become a man who was more than a functional description of his work.

The influence of my mother tempered this romanticism and subjectivism with a certain respect for logical detachment, with the belief that a truly centered person would always retain a cool, clear void in the eye of his storm.

Even then I was probably not entirely unaware that in this dynamic I was merely choosing my own psychic sprach of the social Lingo of our Age, finding for myself in my own carefully naive way the specific expression of the general image of menschkeit.

Which for me became the desire to be a Void Ship Captain even before I passaged through my wanderjahr to adulthood, though of course I spent the traditional year or so aimlessly wandering through the mondes and demi-mondes of the habited star sphere anyway, sampling molecules and charges, masters, adventures, and hardships, wandering women and vagrant vias. Like everyone else, I passed through adolescence as a child of fortune, but, unlike many, I never felt the seduction of an eternal Wanderjahr as the ultimate incarnation, and, unlike most, I wasn't reluctant for this golden summer to end.

After a seemly interval searching for the true essence of my being, which I had long since found, I entered the Academy of the Stars, and graduated as a general officer of Void Ships after an unexceptional and unexceptionable apprenticeship.

My freenom, Genro, I chose upon graduation, homage a Genro Gonzaga Tabriz, a famous Void Ship Captain of the early Second Starfaring Age, who had attained almost three centuries of age, spent most of that time as a Captain of Void Ships, visited most of the habited planets of his day, and planted colonies on a score more. When advanced age finally caught up with him, he recorded what is still considered one of the most artistically satisfying todtentales ever told, then flew a small scoutcraft in a downspiraling orbit about a black hole, sending back his impressions continuously in the haiku mode until he reached the event horizon, where, so the legend might be crafted, he exists as an eternal human haiku even today.

I did not, I think, choose Genro as my freenom out of my romantic admiration for the life that the man had led and my desire to emulate it- which of course existed-but for the finished work of art that was its end result. Though at the time all I probably understood was that Genro had been all that a Void Captain should be, that Genro was what I wished to someday become.

Only the Genro that I now am can begin to appreciate the irony of the choice of freenom of that naive young man.
admin
Site Admin
 
Posts: 17175
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Void Captain's Tale, by Norman Spinrad

Postby admin » Sat Mar 19, 2016 6:13 am

CHAPTER 2

Now THAT I HAVE properly introduced myself, one tale-telling mode would have me recite my exploits and adventures and glorify my rise to Captain before proceeding to confess the story of my fatal obsession, thus rendering what might otherwise be a mere tale of perverse passion into formal high tragedy. Another, less classical. mode would proceed at once to my exchange of name tales with Dominique Alia Wu.

As I sit here in my cabin encoding this onto word crystal before screwing up my courage to face crew and passengers once more, I can hardly summon the hubris to paean what glory I may have attained prior to that karmic nexus, but on the other hand my prior experience shipping with close to three score other Void Pilots seems both relevant as a background of generality regarding my previous congress with the creatures, and necessary to recount if I am then to convey the absolute uniqueness of the Void Pilot Dominique Alia Wu.

At the time that I assumed command of the Dragon Zephyr, I had been a Void Ship Captain for eight years, had served as second officer for four, and had served the usual junior apprenticeship for three. Thus I would estimate that I would have shipped with some three score Pilots before I met Dominique, a good twenty percent or so of those extant within that timeframe.

Dominique Alia Wu was the first and only Pilot with whom I ever exchanged name tales, let alone amour.

For those who have neither crewed on Void Ships nor traveled extensively as Honored Passengers, this total lack of social intercourse between Captain and Pilot may amaze; for those who have, only my crossing of this interface will be anything but a restatement of the obvious.

Of course there can scarcely be any citizens of the Second Starfaring Age who do not think they know something about the Void Pilots who make our transtellar civilization possible. In functional terms, the Pilot is the human component of the Jump Circuit, the organic element of our star drive, who, cyborged to the Jump Drive by the Harmonizer and activated by the Primer Circuit, navigates the ship through the space-time discontinuity of the Jump and out the other side the requisite number of light-years in the right direction.

There is no falsehood in this, but none of the inner truth either.

Alas, literature and, to a lesser extent, the pictorial arts have archetyped the Pilot as the mystical, sensual belle dame transhumaine of the spaceways, and this is a lie both so enormous and so cunningly twisted around the truth that it forms an all-too-necessary foma at the heart of our transtellar weltanschauung.

To dispose of the trivialities of surface with a surflace refutation: few Pilots choose to be beautiful and none are sexual sports between Jumps. Far from it. They are as divorced from the sphere of human desire as it is possible for a member of our species to become.

"Pilot" is an ironic misnomer. Far from the mastery of ship and vector that the word implies, a Pilot is merely the psycho-organic resistor in the Jump Circuit, a living module of circuitry in a far larger mechanism. The Primer induces a specific configuration of psychesomic orgasm in the nervous system of the Pilot. The vrai Jump Drive, the actual propulsion system, is entirely a mass-energy device, which enmeshes the ship in the psycho-electronic matrix of the Pilot's psychic reference state, the fields synergized by conventional inorganic circuitry. Once this synergy is achieved, the Jump "begins." At the other side of a quite literally immeasurable temporal discontinuity, the ship "comes out" of the Jump an average of 3.8 light-years away and most often roughly along the desired vector.

For what happens within this timeless moment, not for any romance of the spaceways or altruistic desire to serve the species, Pilots surrender all else.

When they lapse into occasional coherency on the subject of their beloved Great and Only, Pilots claim that the interval of the Jump is both timeless and eternal, like the orgasm itself, that all else is shadow, that true union with the Atman is achieved, und so weiter.

Whether this is subjectively true or not and whether this subjective truth transcends phenomenological reality, it has very real phenomenological effects on both the recruitment parameters imposed by reality upon our Void Ship fleet and the social role or lack of same of the Void Ship Pilot in shipboard dynamics.

For obvious biological reasons, a Pilot must be a woman; the male psychoelectrical physiology is simply incapable of platform psychesomic orgasm. Less well known are the rigid psychic parameters, which evolved through a process of trial and error over half a century. The Pilot must be a willing volunteer. The Pilot must possess what in ancient days would have been called an "addictive personality," which here translates into a willing surrender to the Jump and all that it implies-- the ultimate coeur addiction on a metaphysical level. The Pilot must be incapable of ordinary orgasm at the touch of congruent flesh, though the causality direction here is sometimes disputed.

So outre and specific are the psychic parameters for Pilots that the fifty billion population of the habited planets supplies us with no more than two hundred of these rare creatures on duty at any given time, to the great detriment of interstellar commerce and exploration. These are almost entirely recruited from the demi-mondes and mental retreats where those whose wanderjahrs led not to the finding of the true self but to the losing of same live out their lives in obsessive addiction to no particular charge or molecule. Indeed this may be why such bas-kulturs are not merely tolerated but glorified by popular culture and subsidized by corporate entities and magnates, though the circularity of this causality would no doubt be fiercely denied by all concerned.

So the Pilot-recruit is a nonorgasmic terminal addict recruited from a spiritual vacuum to willingly surrender all to the ineffableness of the Jump. Aimless vagabonds of the spirit, alienated from their own bodies, willingly offering up the last ghost of their humanity to the Jump Circuit.

And the Jump makes them worse. The physiological price is severe; the required twenty-four-standard-hour recuperation period is the true speed limit of interstellar voyaging, and the average Pilot burns out after ten years. Typically anorexic to begin with, the Pilot loses all interest in the esthetics of nutriment and must be drip-fed during the recuperation period. Needless to say, personal grooming and cleanliness have an even lower priority in the Pilot's scheme of things.

So while they are considered officers of the crew, with the privileges of same through long tradition, they mingle not with the crew or the Honored Passengers, by both an almost equally long tradition and their own chronic physical enfeeblement. Of all the Pilots I have shipped with, only Dominique Alia Wu ever crossed the walls of this unstated purdah or even acknowledged anything but indifference to its existence.

Perhaps now you will be ready to understand why the notion never broached my consciousness that Dominique was in fact my Pilot when first I saw her on the sky ferry up to the Dragon Zephyr from Earth.

***

In one sense every Void Ship voyage is a new command and in all senses one's crew is never the same twice, but in the case of the Dragon Zephyr, this was doubly so. The module I had dubbed "Dragon" was not only new to me, it was new to service, straight from the circumlunar fabrik; by one of those mathematical oddities, there was also not a single member of the Dragon crew with whom I had shipped before.

So what with an enlarged number of technical reports and crew tales to go over in a command assumption rite not expanded beyond the usual week, my consciousness had been warped toward a necessarily speeded-up mode. I seemed to be just barely on time for everything, and in fact I found myself dashing on board the sky ferry rather at the last minute.

There were only two empty seats available by then: one beside a rather obese and untidy-looking fellow wearing the blazon of the Flinger crew, and the other beside a slim but attractively proportioned woman, plainly but smartly dressed in a functional pale-blue voyaging costume, with a cap of short brown hair, bright dark eyes, and an eagle-visaged profile. Naturally, I chose the beauty over my fellow beast without noticing the decision in my haste as anything but pheromonic esthetics.

Only when I had strapped in, stretched out, and performed a brief breathing exercise to relax my tempo, did I fully notice my seatmate, who sat staring out the port at what seemed like nothing in particular.

What I had perceived in my distracted mode as conventional beauty was now revealed as something far less boring. The body within the form-revealing voyaging costume was not a slim, boyish figure but rather that of a buxom voluptuary honed down to its bare functionalism by the practice of some martial or yogic art, or feverish dedication, or both. Her features were not paradigms of stylized beauty in any cultural mode with which I was familiar, and the plain cap of brown hair was seemingly a deliberate anti-dramatic gesture.

Yet the gestalt had brio, presence, a beauty not of feature but of inner transmutation. Her dark bright eyes were the crown of a curving aquiline nose that served to highlight their intensity, her mouth seemed an ideogram of ironic internal dialogue, and the lack of grand coiffure served to focus visual attention on the inner fires rather than on external fleshly harmonies of form.

Of course I was well aware that this perception owed a good deal to the chance congruence of her pheromones with the chemical ideal engraved in my genes and I thought little more of it at the time, my thoughts still primarily focused more on taking command than on this frisson of passing glandular attraction.

At any rate, before I could contemplate initiating a conversation, the warning chord sounded, the luzer was lit, and the sky ferry surged upward atop a pillar of luz, a stream of densified photons pushing it to orbital velocity at an even three gravities--smooth and silent, but still not exactly conducive to artfully casual discourse, and nothing passed between us until the ferry was in the process of matching orbits with the Dragon Zephyr.

Though all Void Ships are assembled for their voyages out of the same eight basic module classes, no two, even of the same general function, are exact duplicates--appropriately emblematic, it is sometimes said, of the coding mode of the DNA molecule.

Indeed, the shape of the core module, the Dragon in this instance, all but turns this fanciful metaphor into a parody of itself. With bridge, crew quarters, sick bay, Jump Drive machinery, and Pilot's module all contained in the ellipsoidal body of the Dragon, and the spinr trailing behind like an erect tail, the core module did indeed resemble a giant silvery spermatozoon; the yang, the male, the propulsive principle, ejaculated from the electronic phallus of the Flinger to fertilize the stars with human genes.

Fortunately, perhaps, the metaphor breaks down at this point. Rather than burying itself in some massive ovum, the prow of the Dragon was the bow of the Dragon Zephyr configuration itself, with the various modules gestalted as the Zephyr slung close against the spine of the the core module like a variety of huge metallic sausages.

The Dragon Zephyr was a free-market merchant conveying a mixed cargo of freight and passengers to Estrella Bonita. This was a planetary system about two hundred light-years or a mean twenty Jumps from Earth--four habited planets, three gas giants, and any number of mineral-rich rocks. A system long on economic opportunity, short on labor, and with enough outre flora, fauna, and impressive scenery to attract the grand tourists and their floating cultura.

So on this outward voyage, the Zephyr configuration consisted of ten dormodules, each storing a thousand immigrants in electrocoma; twenty freight modules hauling lucrative luxury goods and classic Terrestrial cuisinary items; a stateroom module for fifty Honored Passengers; and the congruent Grand Palais module.

To the untrained eye, this superficially asymmetric assortment of cylinders of different sizes and masses secured to the spine of the ship in no discernible formal pattern must seem random, but in fact each Void Ship configuration must be carefully balanced as to both mass distribution and congruence with the Jump Field aura.

This balance is checked and rechecked endlessly to ensure against either excessive stress during conventional acceleration or breach of integrity of the Jump Field aura, and the assembly crew was giving it one final check before turning the ship over to my command as we maneuvered toward it from several kilometers out.

An aura of pale rainbow brilliance suddenly enveloped the ship, turning it into a shimmery silhouette of itself--the configuration was in fact congruent with the field produced by its Jump Drive generator, as by now all knew it would be. This final test was more a salute to my arrival than anything else, the equivalent rite to the ancient seafaring custom of piping the Captain aboard.

But my seatmate's face twisted momentarily into a mask of what seemed like fear. Or anger?

"Don't worry," I said soothingly, "it's just the final test of the Jump Field congruence, and all is in order. Is this your first stellar voyage?"

She turned to regard me with curled lip and angry eyes. "Hardly," she said. "And I ken the procedure. But time-honored stupidity becomes not sage, ne?"

Her ferocity aroused something primal in me, but what she was saying made no sense. "Time-honored stupidity?" I inquired.

She didn't answer until they had turned off the Jump Field and we resumed matching orbits with what was once again entirely a conventional mass-energy construct.. And she let out a sharp sigh of what seemed like bitter relief before she spoke.

"Contra disaster, test the Jump Drive, ja?" she said scathingly. "Sans a Pilot in the circuit, vrai? So as to court the greater disaster, no?"

"Greater disaster?" I asked in mystification and in a certain mood malo. From whence this contemptuous anger?

"A Blind Jump, mon cher dummkopf! Pilotless and blind in the Great and Lonely, a current they no se comes and carries them away."

Now at least I understood what she was talking about. The "Blind Jump" is of course part of the romance of starfaring; the belief, or the thrill of tempting the belief, that ships have vanished in mid-Jump into the Great and Lonely, passengers and crew translated from matter and energy into the Void beyond the void. Since it is the ingenious nature of this folkchose that its truth can be neither proven nor disproven, and since Void Ships inevitably do disappear without a trace over the centuries and light-years, no Void Captain could utterly deny the possibility.

But it is surmised, indeed all but proven, that such a hypothetical Blind Jump can occur only when the Pilot dies in mid-Jump, in the exact instant of psychesomic orgasm. Either that or a malfunction in the Jump Circuit computer somehow causes it to fail to impose the vector coordinate overlay on the Pilot's psychic matrix.

However, in either case a Pilot must be in the circuit. Without a Pilot in the circuit, the ship will not Jump, and a ship that does not Jump obviously cannot Jump Blind.

"I can assure you," I said, "that such a thing is impossible."

A wordless snort of derision. "So the Blind Jump, it is impossible, upon your word of honor?" she said, bending her Lingo closer to my anglish sprach, the better, perhaps, to convey her contemptuous sarcasm. "Ships have never vanished, and a dead Pilot in the circuit is nothing?"

Her arrogance was more than beginning to disturb me. What had I done to offend her? Whence this vehemence on a topic of casual conversation? At the same time, there was something sensually fascinating about the very vehemence that was arousing my own ire. Her psychesomic metabolism seemed turned up to a pitch of barely controlled fever. Her eyes burned, her tongue stung, her body seemed to radiate an attractive excess of prana, and I was sure that this was more than my pheromone receptors coloring my perception. It seemed to me that whatever this mode was, it was not generated by any reaction to me, but by her own internal essence.

This perception allowed me to recenter myself, to stay my reactive anger. "I didn't say Blind Jumps were impossible," I told her. "Or at least I didn't mean to. All I meant was that there's no danger in testing the Jump Field without a Pilot in the circuit. Without a Pilot in the circuit, the ship cannot Jump, and if it cannot Jump, it can hardly Jump-Blind."

She half-turned in her seat. Her anger seemed to transmute into something else as she studied me with an open, slightly mocking stare. "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophies,'" she said. An eldritch trick of perception occurred in the next moment. As she continued to stare at me, the irony seemed to vanish from her face and the humanity from her eyes, as if a mask had been removed--or donned? --and I found myself looking into two opaque marbles set in the face of a fleshly statue, classically Greek in their archetypal emptiness. As if the animating consciousness had gone--elsewhere.

It--whatever it had been--lasted only a moment, just long enough to make me shudder. Thespic art? Vibrational control? Or merely an artifact of my own own sensorium?

"The Great and Lonely is the One and Only," she said. "The order you see is a dream, mon petit. Only chaos is real, outside the law."

"The laws describing the totality of mass-energy phenomena are quite real, have been fully elucidated for centuries, and make any such thing as a Blind Jump without a Pilot in the circuit impossible," I told her angrily. "I can assure you of that."

"You assure me? You assure me?"

Her arrogance, her patronization, and the pheromonic ambivalence of my reaction to it, finally produced an outraged strut of masculine pride. "You may consider yourself a seasoned stellar traveler," I told her. "But I've been starfaring for fifteen years, and in fact I happen to be Genro Kane Gupta, Void Captain Genro Kane Gupta, commander of the ship you're about to board!"

Whatever response my endocrine system might have been expecting, it was certainly not the one that it got. She seemed to choke back some snide species of laugh. She cocked her head at me as if in amusement. A measured devilment seemed to replace the fire in her eyes.

"You will now spiel for me your name tale, Captain, bitte?" she said more quietly. "And after, if you wish, I will be most pleased to declaim mine."

Though I deluded myself not that our discourse had suddenly harmonized into a genuine exchange of courtesies, I could hardly refuse a request for civilized introduction from someone I had just boasted my name and rank to.

So, while she listened with no apparent keen edge of interest, I told the tales of my paternom, my maternom, and my choice of freenom in what was probably an unduly terse and not very artistic style.

When I told the tale of Genro Gonzago Tabriz's haiku-trailing eternal spiral down into the black hole, intensity of attent seemed to sparkle back into her eyes, but when I had finished, she regarded me with a strange blank uncertainty.

"An admirable pedigree and a choice of freenom not without more satori than you suppose, Captain Genro," she said enigmatically. "At your pleasure, my name tale is now yours to hear. But if you will the sparing of the experience, I withdraw feelings of offense now. You may wish the absence of the burden."

"Burden!"

"Verdad."

"What burden can your name tale possibly impose on me?" I asked in bewilderment.

"That you cannot know till you have heard it, ne?" she said sardonically.

"Speak to me then the tale of your name," I said, feeling I had been trapped into hearing something I had every intention of hearing in the first place. "I accept full responsibility."

She laughed--cruelly, I thought--and her expression grew stranger and stranger as she spoke, distant, abstracted, and yet seeming to study my face for any passing reaction with ironic amusement.

***

My name is Dominique Alia Wu.

My father, Alia Smith Per, was a man of mighty argent, a rich merchant of biologicals, both import and export, on Ariel, but that describes him not at all. His mother originated the enterprise, and while she lived to maintain it, his life was one grand golden wanderjahr of magnificent indulgence of the sensorium, long years of floating orb to orb in the cultura of the Honored Passengers and passionate pursuit of samadhi through its bio-electronic matrix.

But exit la mama de oro via a-flying collision and my father must return to Ariel to sustain that which sustains him or have the courage to continue as a child of fortune sin dinero.

Choosing that discretion which is no part of valor, he returned home to la vie bourgeoise, a merchant by day, a tourist of the ecstatic by night, and nowhere a center.

His freenom, Alia, he chose upon assumption of this duality, in foolish wistfulness, homage a Alia Haste Moguchi, merchant princess of the late First Starfaring Age, who, in her quest for wealth, spent her life in pursuit of same at a sublight crawl but stumbled upon the planetary ruins of We Who Have Gone Before, and thus found the key to mass-energy transcendence in the service of her own greed. Thus did my father seek to justify to himself and beg a boon of fate.

My mother, Wu Jani Martin, was also born on Ariel, but not to the silver. During her wanderjahr of the customary duration, she experienced much samadhi, or the shadow of same, and upon her return to Ariel, sought to survive as a teacher of inspiration, on the white light of her essence.

Her freenom, Wu, she chose upon embarkation on this via, homage a an endless line of boddhis who had chosen this freenom back into the mists of dawn man on Earth homage a the purity of being they sought to attain, the clear consciousness of the unselfconscious act, the embrace of the Void.

My mother and father met on Ariel, in a casa de amor in the seacoast playland of Carondole, sehr romantic, ne? For one path of the many that my mother followed was that of the tantric ecstasies, and my father considered himself a maestro of these arts, though his ultima thule might fall short of the perfected mystery.

The magic of amor, quien sabe? These two, who each in the mirror of the other should have seen a halfling, and via that vision the halflings in themselves, against all logic made for each other a sexual fascination, and out of that, a period of caritas, and out of that, me, and out of me, a bond of honor which survived both the cooling of the fires and the war of the spirit which consumed the ashes.

Upon my nativity, my father conferred upon my mother in a license of honor the irrevocable droit to draw upon his treasure as she saw fit, and when their differences sundered them when I was twelve, the same on me.

So my kinderhood on Ariel was one of material whim and psychic smorgasbord. Chez mama, satoric disdain for the things of the world in luxurious asceticism; chez papa, professions of dedication to that from which he had turned away and the selfish obsession altruistique that his kleine cher be truly free to follow her own way.

From my mother, I received the quest for the absolute, and contempt for everyone I've met who thinks they have found it. From my father, dinero dripping from my jeweled fingertips, and the assumption that the road of excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom.

In this karmic state did I commence my wanderjahr as soon as it was possible, and with lust, grand passion, and gelt did I dance that camino real. Through amour, the exotic, and the perfume of decay did I seek to balm the wound in my father's soul in his stead. Through molecules and charges, disciplines and arts, perfect masters and those far from, and even the study of the nonhuman enigmas, did I seek to find that which my mother thought she had.

The result, naturellement, was an endless nada receding before me in flesh and locales, in mondes and demi-mondes, in the floating cultura and the mystic wastelands, drugged with experience, unable to fly. Your typical lost child of fortune, ne, were it not for the studies and ways, which, though unable to show me the Way, were puissant enough to never let me forget just how lost I really was.

My freenom, Dominique, I chose homage a Dominique Noda Benares, a person who died in the gifting, perhaps a person of no consequence, and certainly someone you would despise....

***

She paused, not so much I think for effect, but out of the sudden realization that she was going too far. These tales of her paternom and maternom were like regurgitations of bitter bile, not a name tale in the civilized mode. In the demi-mondes of aging children of fortune or in the groves of mental retreats might such be considered fair introduction. Yet in their raw red pain, their uncivilized darkness, lay their power and fascination, which only a corpse could fail to perceive.

"I would spare you the tale of my freenom, mon cher ," she finally said.

"You have not spared me the suspense, and you know it, " I told her. "You wish me to ask to hear it and thus absolve you of the imposition you truly wish to make. Very well then, spiel me your tale."

Emotions seemed to flicker after each other in her eyes--shock of recognition, anger, respect of a new sort, bitterness. But her mouth remained a sneerish ideogram, a challenge to my acceptance of her challenge. "Tres bon then," she said. "Meet your shipmate, mein Captain."

My freenom, Dominique, I chose homage a Dominique Noda Benares, a Void Pilot who died after the eighth Jump on the Void Ship Feather Serpent, ten Jumps out of Wunderwelt headed for Han and at least three Jumps from anywhere else.

I was an Honored Passenger on the Feather Serpent on that voyage, and as is known, under such circumstances the Void Captain, for want of any better hope, appeals to altruism and honor, points out that the alternative is slow death by marooning in any event, and asks virgin females as it were to sacrifice themselves upon the altar of the Jump Circuit.

Such a longtime Honored Passenger as myself, versed in the lore and no little of the functionality of starfaring, knew quite well that such Pilots of desperation almost never succeed, and that ships such as ours were almost certainly doomed.

Nevertheless, it was not some naive child of fortune who volunteered to brave the Great and Lonely but this open-eyed and knowing sophisticate. With the clarity of mama, I saw that this was a wager I could not lose. On one side, certain death when the air ran out, and on the other, either triumph transcendent or the status quo ante. With the passion mystique of papa, I lusted after this ultimate confrontation with existence. Chez moi, I felt I had always Jumped Blind.

Thus did I find myself and my freenom. Thus did I trade all for the Great and Only. Thus did I become your Void Pilot, Captain Genro; thus the name tale of Dominique Alia Wu.

***

Her laughter rang in my ears. Once again, that eldritch frisson of perception as the humanity seemed to flee from her eyes into places unknown, as her features seemed to stylize into a No mask of themselves.

I froze, I flashed hot and cold; I must have actually gaped in amazement and horror at this grand coup of outrage.

Pilots, or my image of Pilots: pallid, slack-jawed, ill-smelling creatures hardly capable of social intercourse at all, the necessary unseen fleshly module in the machinery of function.

What unseemly rubicon had I been tricked across? Now I had spoken with my Pilot, the comfortable archetype bad been shattered, and I knew that I had indeed heard a name tale that would prove a burden. Though we spoke no more on the sky ferry, the deed had already been done. Captain Genro Kane Gupta had exchanged name tales with Pilot Dominique Alia Wu, and that much was already irrevocable. Tiny tendrils of relationship had already begun to insinuate themselves through the stone wall of wisely crafted custom that should have stood between us.
admin
Site Admin
 
Posts: 17175
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Void Captain's Tale, by Norman Spinrad

Postby admin » Sat Mar 19, 2016 6:13 am

CHAPTER 3

NATURELLEMENT, I saw not my Pilot again before the first Jump. Time, as well as custom and my own determination, forbade it. Indeed, taking over my new command, preparing the ship for acceleration, and then matching orbits with the Flinger, all within four hours, so totally occupied my attention that I didn't even have time to meet the Domo of the Honored Passengers before we left orbit.

To the virgin starfarer, six officers may seem a somewhat inadequate crew for a vehicle transporting over ten thousand humans and three thousand tons of cargo, but the same person thinks nothing of fabriks of equal size and complexity with only one human maestro. Actually the reverse is true: a six-officer crew on a Void Ship like the Dragon Zephyr has a high redundancy coefficient.

The bridge crew consisted of Argus Edison Gandhi Computer Interface or Second Officer; Mori Lao Chaka Man Jack or Third; and myself, Void Captain, or First.

Upon leaving the Academy, every starfaring officer first ships as Man Jack for a period, learning the systems of the Void Ship and how to repair them in an emergency from a functional craftsman's point of view. After achieving distinction as Man Jack, an officer then does a tour as Interface, becoming the maestro of the ship's machineries from a control position. Only after mastering the duties of both Third and Second Officer may one aspire to Void Captain and command. Thus Argus could perform Mori's duties in extremis and I could double for both of them. And of course Argus had reached the stage of her career where command should not be beyond her should heroism demand.

The virgin Honored Passenger is also sometimes discomfited to learn that round-the-clock bridge watches are not maintained, and may first be startled to encounter all three bridge officers in the Grand Palais at the same time. But since a Void Ship between Jumps is in effect lying dead in the deep starless void, there is no reason to burden the crew with pointless duty or the ship with excess personnel, and there is no reason why we may all not take our ease in the floating cultura.

Of course this hardly applies to the Med crew; these three are kept more than busy during the inter-Jump periods tending to the recuperation of the Pilot, their role in the floating cultura being traditionally filled by their dedicated absence.

Paradoxically, the single period of idle repose for the Med crew is the period of maximum activity for the bridge crew. As the Void Ship is warped out of its holding orbit, matches orbits with the Flinger, and eases itself carefully into Go position, the Man Jack must constantly monitor all systems for acceleration-generated deviations, and the Interface must deal with the mathematics of the subtle trajectories while the Captain tends to the intangibles of command.

But since the Pilot at this point has not Jumped since the last voyage and need not be inserted into the Jump Circuit for several hours, it is customary for the Med crew to come to the bridge to observe departure; since this is the only time the entire crew will muster during the voyage, the departure becomes rite as well as functional procedure.

The design of the bridge itself enhances this artful homage to the ancient seafaring esprit. An elliptical wedge forming the upper bow of the Dragon, its curving outer wall is one seamless tele screen, handsomely crafting the illusion that one rests upon an open forward deck looking bowward into the depths of the starry sea.

The Second Officer sits at her Computer Interface facing this grand panorama, casting data readouts and reference grids upon it at the Captain's command. To her left is the chaise of the Man Jack, empty now as Mori scurries and worries over her brood of systems monitors curving along the forward bulkhead.

My chaise, with its master controls, enhanced height, and carven brass embellishments, is fastened to the deck just behind them, the ceremonial throne of command.

Behind me, a small temple pew as it were: four spartan courtesy chaises for the rest of the crew, all but the traditional empty chaise of the Pilot now occupied by the Med crew Maestro, his Man Jack, and the Healer.

"Prepare to leave orbit," I intone, and the ritual begins.

"All systems secured for orbital maneuvering," Mori called out, hovering over her bank of readouts.

"Orbital exchange profile computed, ..." Argus said, touching a control point, "... and ready to dump." A red control point on my own console winked on, inviting my command.

"Display maneuvering grid."

The illusion of open starry space surrounding us was faulted by a red gridwork of spherical coordinates centered upon a green crosshairs signifying the ship's axis of acceleration.

"Dumping orbital exchange profile," I announced, touching my first red command point. The maneuvering command was now transferred from my command holding banks into the orbital control computer, and another of my red command points became active.

The moment of high romance, such as it was, had arrived. "Exchanging orbits," I announced, conscious of a certain thespic self-indulgence as I touched the command point.

Auditory sensors provided an ersatz confirmation of the chuff-chuff- chuff of a horde of tiny reaction thrusters, and the starfield jitterdanced into a new alignment with the reference grid. A sapphire slice of the Earth below lit up the far right edge of the great tele screen with its gegenschein glow. A louder, more authoritative ersatz chuff, and the crosshairs bow of the Dragon Zephyr began to cleave the wine-dark sea in a ponderous glide, a foamy wake of stars streaming in slow motion over us as we rode into a higher orbit.

At this moment, I had always been accustomed to flowing into the romantic seafaring metaphor, the Captain slowly inching his ship out of harbor, gazing eagle-eyed into the voidy sea surrounded by the full muster of his admiring crew.

But this time, for some reason, my role in this happy rite had a somewhat hollow feel. My consciousness was focused on the functional, not its greater metaphorical glory. I was too aware that all I had really done was feed a command computed by my Interface into the orbital maneuvering computer, that the drama of conning my ship as the starfield eased gracefully into new configuration was illusion, that we were moving along a ballistically inevitable curve as beyond my control as kismet. For some reason I cared not to contemplate, this in turn focused my awareness on the psychic pressure of the unseen empty Pilot's chaise behind me, mocking me with the reminder that soon enough I would lose even this thespic ersatz of true command.

"Flinger on the grid, Captain Genro," Argus called out, and there, tiny in the distance but nominally centered in our crosshairs, was a tube of silver filigree lace, a phallic cobweb rapidly growing in size as we eased into our leading orbit before it.

"Read out closing velocities to dead stop, lnterface," I ordered.

"Five thousand meters per second ... 3,700 ... 2000 ...." Digits flashed in yellow beneath the crosshairs as that which had seemed far away, fragile, and small rapidly became closer, fragile, and enormous.

"Fifteen hundred ... 1,000 ... 423 ...."

The Jump Drive itself is not exactly a precise propulsive instrument; a final Jump that puts a Void Ship within half a light-year of the target system is bon suerte indeed. Fortunately, the mass-energy discontinuity of the Jump affects not the ship's velocity relative to the quotidian universe: a Void Ship emerges from one or ten or a hundred Jumps with the relative velocity with which it began; conservation of momentum in mass-energy reality is not disturbed.

Since no amount of corrective Jumping will place the ship cozily within the target solar system, a high relativistic velocity is needed to effect final rendezvous within a reasonable subjective time frame. With the gravitic compensators insulating the ship from any gee stresses, losing this velocity on final approach via severe ballistic breaking maneuvers is no problem, but generating it from a dead stop in space would require an economically crippling amount of onboard reaction mass. Therefore it is more than desirable for a Void Ship to enter its first Jump with near-light speed.

Voila, the Flinger.

"Two hundred ten ...175 ... 80 ...17 ... o...."

"Zero relative velocity," I announced ceremoniously. "Orbital exchange perfected."

Now the Dragon Zephyr sat motionless in space facing into the circular mouth of an enormous yet ethereal tunnel half a kilometer in diameter and a hundred kilometers long. Constructed of nothing more substantial in material terms than a framework of cryowire hoops supporting equally thin longitudinal members, the Flinger tube seemed as much of an abstraction on the tele as the maneuvering grid projected upon it, vast in scale, yet barely extant.

"Patch Flinger Control," I ordered. An amber point lit up on my console as Argus established a com channel. "Flinger control, this is the Dragon Zephyr at zero relative velocity in orbit 2.3 kilometers out. Request guidance interface. "

"Dragon Zephyr, this is Flinger control," a vaguely female voice answered. "Coordinates and zero velocity confirmed. Computer patch confirmed and locked in. You may proceed with your insertion procedure."

Another touch point on my console glowed red. Needless to say, conning a Void Ship the length of a tunnel a hundred kilometers long and a mere half-a-kilometer wide by manual maneuvering, while not humanly impossible, would be tedious and problematical. So when I touched this command point, the Flinger control computer took over the conning of the ship via its synergy with our own orbital maneuvering computer and I was reduced to the role of human safety backup to the automatics--a perception that this time around somehow seemed new and unsettling as they proceeded to turn the ship end for end and draw it stern-first smoothly and surely down the bore of the Flinger barrel toward Go position.

The far end of the Flinger was capped by the field generator and the Flinger control complex. A system or orbiting solaires beamed power to the field generator in the form of luz densified from the local stellar source; this in turn was used to electrify the gridwork Flinger barrel, creating a powerful cylindrical magnetic field in the manner of a particle accelerator. At Go position, the Dragon Zephyr would be encapsulated in an electromagnetic bubble of opposite charge, which in turn would be accelerated electromagnetically by interaction with the field, flinging the ship within it into the void at near- light velocity.

Now the ship was being drawn down the Flinger bore by a slow-motion reversal of this selfsame process, receding down the latticework corridor like a fly slowly being drawn into a spider's web.

"Go Position," Argus called out as the Dragon Zephyr came to a dead stop, its stern less than a half-kilometer from the "bottom" of the Flinger tube.

"Confirm internal gravity at one gee."

"Internal gravity confirmed at one gee," Mori called out from one of her consoles.

"Assume departure position," I told her. "Activate internal com systems," I ordered Argus.

Mori seated herself beside Argus. Another amber point glowed on my console. The climax of the departure rite neared. Now the Honored Passengers could listen in on the bridge conversation and watch our departure via the teles in their staterooms or the Grand Palais module. At this point, many Void Captains choose to address some salutations to the Honored Passengers, even at times a haiku composed in honor of the occasion, as I myself, in other moods, have done. Now, however, my tongue seemed tied, and I left the unfelt poetry of the moment to the wu of unselfconscious functionality.

"Flinger control, this is the Dragon Zephyr, awaiting Go command release."

"Dragon Zephyr, this is Flinger control. You have Go command release. Bon voyage, Captain Genro."

A red touch point lit on my console; the final, not strictly functional, bon chose of the ritual. Now the Flinger Control patch was reversed, and I commanded the energies of the Flinger from on board the ship, a symbolic transfer of the ship's destiny to my lone hand.

Following the rite mechanically to its final conclusion, I positioned my finger above the touch point with a mimed gesture of thespic pregnancy, though somehow it all seemed hollow now, like a Way degenerated into mere religiosity. Before me, the starfield was framed by the latticework tunnel of the Flinger barrel, dwindling away in perspective to a small distant circle of stars marked by the crosshairs of the maneuvering grid laid in over the approaching immensity of the deep void.

Focusing on this as best I could, I chanted the word "Go!" with as much grandeur as I could muster and touched the glowing red point.

For the merest instant, the purest augenblick, the great latticework tunnel blurred into the apparent solidity of tremendous relative motion, the stars in the central circle dopplered through blue into violet and beyond, as we seemed to hurtle forward into an unreal universe of ultraviolet pinpricks through black velvet keening into eye-killing transvisibility.

Then we were floating, apparently motionless, in the still, silent cosmos of multicolored stars as the tele's spectral compensator circuits cut in, recreating the illusion of crystal starry night, annihilating all sensory connection to our headlong near-light-speed crawl through the god and awful void which had already put the womb-world of men far behind us.

The rite ended in a spatter of formal applause, which, in that moment, seemed as empty and transparent to me as the tele's tranking illusion. I ordered Mori to put her consoles on internal automatics, gave Argus leave to secure the bridge, and rose from my chaise to accept the customary nods of approval from the Med crew, rising from their own chaises behind me.

But as I ushered the crew out of the bridge, as I led them in the usual fashion to the usual departure fete in the Grand Palais, as I put this functional duty behind me and went to fill my symbolic role in the floating cultura of the Honored Passengers, I found my consciousness focusing not on the five who accompanied me but on the one who did not. On she whose place in the departure rite had been an empty chaise, whose role in the floating cultura would be equally defined by her absence. On my Void Pilot, Dominique Alia Wu, who would remain, or so I then thought, the unseen center of all these rituals and machineries, the invisible hub of our karmic wheel, the center which was void.
admin
Site Admin
 
Posts: 17175
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Void Captain's Tale, by Norman Spinrad

Postby admin » Sat Mar 19, 2016 6:14 am

CHAPTER 4

As I SIT HERE reviewing what I have just encoded onto word crystal, I ponder whether the scene I have just attempted to render has been infected with my present knowledge of what was to occur later, an uncrafted employment of the time-honored literary device known as foreshadowing. Or had my spirit already been warped by that single chance encounter on the sky ferry? Worse still, is psychic time, like the absolute time of pure mass-energy science, a circled serpent biting its own tail, so that future events color past perceptions, moving us along the inevitable skein of maya via ballistic trajectories of deterministic inevitability?

But in that direction lies both paranoia noir and the guiltless psychopathy that denies destiny and will in favor of surrender to all- absolving karma.

So I will plead not the excuse of karmic inevitability and return to my narrative of conventional linearity with but a passing attempt to illumine the strange mood of the Genro of that timeframe with the hindsight of this.

Which is to say that even as I led my crew down the Dragon's spinal corridor toward the Grand Palais module, I do believe that I had some dim gray awareness that the void I had felt within the departure ritual, the ennui of resentment I had sensed within me for the first time toward the surrender of true functional command to the automatics, had somehow to do with the impingement upon my Captainly persona of the being of my Void Pilot.

There is no time during the voyage when the Void Captain is not in total command of his ship, or so we are taught at the Academy. The Captain commands the orbital exchange and the Flinger insertion; it is he who gives the Go command and trims vector preparatory to the first Jump. It is he who commands the Jump itself--

--then the ship is several light-years away from its previous locus, and command is resumed after a discontinuity of literally no time at all. I could count on a mean average of twenty Jumps between Earth and Estrella Bonita, three weeks during which the moments I was not in command could not be measured by man's most subtle timepiece, indeed might be said to have no duration at all.

Yet those twenty odd moments were in an absolute sense all that mattered.

As long as the Void Pilot remained a protoplasmic module in the machineries and nothing more, the illusion of total command could remain complete. But once my Pilot had acquired a name in my consciousness, a name with tales attached to it--in short, humanity and a personality--I could no longer entirely blind myself to the fact that I too was in a sense a protoplasmic module in a complex of automatic machineries, a subjectivity cyborged to the objective mechanism of the ship. Did not all my commands in truth amount to naught save the activation of computer-generated programs, programs that I myself had not personally crafted since my tour as Interface?

When then was I truly in command in the ancient seafaring sense?

Even then, as I led my crew into the Grand Palais, I believe I had achieved--if it is not too rich an irony--an enhanced perception of the inner wisdom of the custom of sequestering the Captain from personal contact with his Pilot, a foreshadowing in real and not literary time of worse things to come.

But this dark mood lifted as soon as I made my first entrance of the voyage into the inner world of the Grand Palais. For here was the other sphere of my Captainly duties, and one that admitted not of mechanistic distancings or excessive objectivization of my central role in its subjective reality.

Indeed, absolute perception of our objective reality was exactly what it was designed to avoid.

In objective reality, five dozen humans were to spend the next three weeks sealed in a series of metal canisters, insulated from the absolute reality of the absolute cold, absolute lifelessness, absolute immensity, and absolute indifference to the human spirit of the deep void between the stars. Long experience, dating back to the dawn of the First Starfaring Age, had shown that naked exposure to the psychic reality of the void was as deadly to the spirit as naked exposure to the physical reality would be to the flesh.

In those bygone days when starfaring meant generations spent in a single voyage, it was soon learned that only ships large enough to be worlds entire could sanely convey their human cargo from star to star, indeed that further, only carefully crafted shipboard cultures would prove viable: those in which rite, art, festival, entertainment, indeed interior architecture itself, were all designed to concentrate consciousness on the world inside and to avoid excessive true awareness of the absolute reality without. Vast transparent vistas of the star glories, while technically feasible and esthetically satisfying in an absolute sense, proved ultimately destructive to the soul. Consciousness liberated from ritual, custom, and role, while part of the general philosophical bravery of the age, proved too naked and vulnerable in the face of true chaos; indeed, our current acceptance of the quotidian metaphors for the absolute as necessary psychic artifacts is thought to date from this confrontation of total clarity with total necessity.

Apres the Jump, with voyage times reduced to weeks instead of generations and the electrocoma storage of passengers reducing the subjective duration to zero, it was first assumed that Void Ship crews could endure the naked absolute. Indeed many did. But too many did not.

Thus the institution of the society of Honored Passengers and the Grand Palais, not out of desire to increase the profitability of the voyage--for a long time these fares were subsidized at a loss--but out of the necessity to create for the crew an interior world not merely of artifact but of culture, not merely of thing but of spirit; rich enough, complex enough, human enough to focus attention on the reality within rather than the void without.

Only later, when starfaring became the ultimate pastime of the rich and the wanderer, the seeker and the ennui-ridden, did the fare rise far beyond the point of economic profitability, did ship vie with ship in the luxuriousness of its Grand Palais and the hedonics to be found therein, did figure and ground reverse themselves, did the floating cultura and its endless fete become its own raison d'etre, did Captain and crew become personas in a system of shipboard dynamics designed as much for the savor of the Honored Passengers as for the mental centering of the ship's officers.

The Dragon Zephyr configuration contained one standard stateroom module quartering fifty Honored Passengers, the domo, and the staff of ten freeservants. While this mandated a single Grand Palais module of standard volume, the Grand Palais Zephyr, like all such modules, was a sui generis and idiosyncratic work of art within its standard cylindrical shell.

The main passage from the Dragon's spine debouched directly into the grand salon deck, following the usual esthetic logic. What was a functional steel safety door on the outside was abstracted filigreed brasswork on the inside and opened onto a dramatically lit pink marble platform for grand entrance sake. This in turn was the capstone landing of a short curving flight of marble stairs down which all who entered must promenade in full sight to reach the main floor of the salon.

The main floor itself was a rather cunning sort of integrated environmental sculpture in assorted polished and occasionally carven hardwoods, carpetings of many different textures, hues, and designs, and plushed cushions sensuously curved in rather anthropomorphic shapes. There were no furniture, consistent floor, or ornamental sculpture as discrete elements; rather chaises, conversation pits, tables, wooden sculptures, cushions, und so weiter flowed and metamorphosed into each other, indeed seemed to evolve out of each other in an organic whole of many subtle levels, sublevels, and gradations in an artfully chaotic multiplexity seemingly as convoluted as the human brain.

Hanging high above in the vaguely burgundy shadow of the overarching ceiling was a huge mobile chandelier of multicolored crystals lit from within, a dazzlingly complex dance of orbiting elements softly dappling all below in an ever-changing prismatic pavane. In addition, small spots, glowing globes, candled sconces, and holo simed fires added dramatic highlights, subtle counterpoints, circles of brilliance, to the overall spectral complexity of the whole.

Across from the main entrance, a kind of ramp or balcony began at mean floor level, spiraling twice around the zebrawood walls before disappearing through an archway high above us. This was scattered with tiny cafe tables and chairs whose legs were cunningly crafted in an asymmetric manner to remain level against the subtle pitch of the ramp for those who preferred an observatory tete-a-tete to direct participation. Visual artworks in various modes formed a mini-museum along the walls of the ramp, which also triplexed its function by leading to the vivarium above, which was both the "top" deck of the Grand Palais and its esthetic piece de resistance.

The departure fete was in full flight as I paused on the entrance platform with the full muster of my crew behind me. All the Honored Passengers were in attendance in their finest plumage; freeservants emerged via the lift from the cuisinary deck below bearing silver trays of hot viands to augment the scattered cold buffets; floaters of beverages circulated among the revelers, fumes of assorted intoxicants perfumed the air; focused musics in various styles harmonized into an overall fugue from this aural overlook. The essential ambiance of the floating cultura was in full flower. Our Domo, Lorenza Kareen Patali, had thusfar done herself proud.

This was hardly surprising; for although I had never shipped with Lorenza before, her repute was wide in more modes than one, and her name tale was au courant among Void officers and floating cultura alike.

Her father, Patali Ktan Abrim, had been that rarity, a Void Captain who had cunningly invested his wage in mercantile realms, and who upon retirement chose to join the floating cultura itself as an Honored Passenger. Her mother, Kareen Mirne Mois, had inherited vast wealth as a young child of fortune, had chosen to spend it in the floating cultura, had met Patali Ktan Abrim five years before his retirement while an Honored Passenger on his ship, the Star Phoenix, had thereafter been an Honored Passenger on every ship under his command, and no doubt had decisively influenced his ultimate choice of retirement venue.

Lorenza Kareen Patali had been conceived by this pair on the Unicorn Garden, had been born on the Flame Mountain, had been raised to womanhood in the floating cultura by her parents, who voyaged together to this day, and prided herself on never having set foot on a planetary surface.

Her freenom, Lorenza, she chose upon her first appointment as Domo de Grand Palais homage a Lorenzo the Magnificent, a perhaps legendary doge of the perhaps legendary terrestrial city of Venice, famed in lore as a patron of art, opulence, and decadently magnificent hospitality.

It was gossiped among officers that Lorenza Kareen Patali sought after her own Void Captain with whom to recreate the love story of her parents. It was said she possessed the wealth to confer the boon of eternal Honored Passenger status on whom she chose; it was also said that she had never shipped with a Void Captain who had not become her amour in flesh as well as metaphor.

This apocrypha certainly lost no credence in my eyes at the sight of the woman slowly and dramatically mounting the stairs toward us in a flourish of her flowing garments, playing to the hushed revelers below with full consciousness of her thespic beauty.

Tall and sinuous, long of limb, petite of bosom, she wore a long train of some silvery gossamer gathered into an artificial waist just below her bare breasts by a wide dirndl so encrusted with multicolored gems that the color of its matrix material remained a mystery. From her shoulders flowed a long, high-collared cloak of black velvet veined with traceries of silver thread. Her nipples were capped by silver brooches upon which blazed huge rubies lit from within. Her long blood-red hair was helmeted above her head, secured in place by strings of Tartanian snow-pearls. Her skin was a preternaturally lustrous black, her features thin, delicate, but dramatically chiseled, and her eyes a lucent sapphire blue.

Even in an age when a woman's appearance could be an entirely self- crafted work of art, indeed perhaps because mere genetically inherited beauty could be simulated at whim by the biocosmetician's skills, Lorenza Kareen Patali's fleshly persona was outrageously audacious in its outre concept and entirely stunning in its successful execution.

"Salutations and greetings, Captain Genro Kane Gupta, and welcome to the fete," she said in an intimate purr that yet carried for effect to the far reaches of the salon. She held out her hand for my greeting; I took it, raised it in the general direction of my lips, but did not kiss.

"Bienvenidos Domo Lorenza Kareen Patali," I replied with equally thespic formality, pitching my salutation to encompass the Honored Passengers below, and turning my head to face them. "Salutations to your Honored Passengers, from your Captain and your crew."

Following the ritual with punctilio but also with a certain detachment of attention, I introduced Interface Argus Edison Gandhi and Man Jack Mori Lao Chaka in that order and in those functional terms as protocol dictates. Each in turn bowed briefly to the salon, to the Domo, to the Captain, and then descended individually, basking for a moment in the full attention of the floating cultura before being absorbed into it; Argus with a certain would-be Captainly hauteur, Mori with the more forthright enthusiasm of the junior officer.

"Your Med crew, Maestro Hiro Alin Nagy, Healer Lao Dant Arena, Med Man Jack Bondi Mackenzie Cole ..." These three I introduced all together as a functional unit, and as a triparte unit they descended the stairs together with more perfunctory bows, metaphoric of the Med crew's role of dedicated detachment from the voyage-long fete of the floating cultura.

" Allow me, my Captain," Lorenza said ceremoniously, hooking my arm in hers.

"My pleasure, Domo Lorenza," I replied formally, and we descended arm in arm into the fete, which, with the customary stylization of hushes and flourishes, resumed its previous pavane of varied amusements ere we had reached it, allowing Captain and Domo their traditional interval of initiatory acquaintance.

The origin of the duet of Captain and Domo played out for the delectation of the floating cultura is lost in the distant mists of starfaring's antique social evolution, but its post facto rationale in shipboard dynamics is taught at the Academy.

As the Captain serves as the apex of the crew, so does the Domo serve as the apex of the Honored Passengers. The Captain, the yang, maestro of the propulsive, the exterior, the objective component of the voyage, derives his hierarchical pouvoir from his functional position atop the structure of the crew; he is defined by his authority to command. The Domo, the yin, maestra of the nurturative, the interior, the subjective component of the voyage, derives not pouvoir but puissance from her psychic position as the focus of the Honored Passengers' collective desire; she is defined by her ability to please her clientele with artistically, libidinally, and socially satisfying ambiance.

Thus, the multiplex dualities of the voyage--the yang and the yin, the propulsive and the nurturative, the objective and the subjective, the hierarchical and the democratic, pouvoir and puissance, the exterior and the interior, the cold, dark void without and the bright, glittering complexity within--are embodied and metaphored in the Captain and the Domo.

Ideally, their duet d'amour embodies the higher unity that transcends these dualities of maya, expresses and confirms the ultimate source of social, psychic, and spiritual energy in the dialectic between yang and yin, objective knowledge and subjective desire, that phenomenon of the interface between that is both spiritually subjective and a biological mass-energy reality--the libidinal tension, the prana, that some identify as the life force itself.

On a less metaphysically exalted level, the ritualized affair d'amour between Captain and Domo serves to maintain the necessary psychosexual distance between both Captain and Domo and the ever-shifting patterns of lustful liaison that dance to the sybaritic music of the Grand Palais. While both Captain and Domo are free to indulge their caprices d'amour from moment to moment with Honored Passengers of the floating cultura, their traditional voyage-long liaison--sometimes mere useful metaphor, frequently not--maintains their roles as archetypal embodiments of the overall shipboard dynamics of yang and yin and prevents them from forming liaisons of the heart with those to whom they must remain living but psychically distant metaphors if dynamic balance is to be maintained.

Thus are we taught at the Academy. In the unofficial lore bandied by officers, elaborate jocularities are derived from the notion that in Captain and Domo do the opposite worlds of bridge and Grand Palais maintain cordiality in the face of inherent psychic differences, even as men and women, through the aqua regia of sexual congress.

Troth be told, I have long believed that the custom is one of those inner mysteries of archetypal drama whose highest function is to remain forever beyond the final analysis of the actors involved.

And my curious reaction to the fabled and dazzling Lorenza Kareen Patali did little to disabuse me of this paradoxical conviction.

It goes without saying that my organism was lustfully magnetized by this persona of all fleshly desire, whose every detail was magnificently crafted to evoke just this response; the diaphany of her gown, the jeweled brilliance of her rubied nipples thrust upward by the tightly cinched dirndl, the velvet texture of her ebon skin, the sapphire sparkle of her glowing. eyes, even her rosy musk, which seemed all but designed to accord with my pheromonic ideal of womanly savor.

And as she conducted me on the customary grand tour of the Grand Palais module, which she had crafted, both traditional archetype and personal attentions served to focus the full puissance of this feminine armamentarium on the conquest of my masculine desire.

"Do try some of this wine, Captain Genro," she said, handing me a goblet off a passing floater. "Tres piquant, and rather a rare vintage." The goblet was antique gold-reddened cut crystal; the wine, though red, was cold, with a strangely refreshing, bitter afterbite; and her eyes regarded me over the lip of her own goblet with frank speculation.

"Tu tambien," I said with the expected gallantry, though of course she was also a rare and piquant vintage, which I knew almost as well as she did.

She laughed, took my arm again, and danced me about the grand salon, displaying for me the artifacts and effects she had gathered, displaying me as well for a brief choice selection of the Honored Passengers who had chosen to voyage under her esthetic direction, all the while contriving to brush briefly against me with thigh and shoulder, private glance and perfumed breath.

As much, of course, for the Honored Passengers as for myself; this too was a grace note of the total effect, which, I had to admit, was as well crafted or better than any I had experienced on previous voyages.

While the Domo is neither chef nor interior designer, composer of music nor vintner, dramaturge nor colorist, she is the maestra who directs and blends the products of these diverse arts into the whole that is the Grand Palais, the total voyage-long fete, the overarching ambient artform that will exist for this voyage alone. The style of the duet d'amour of Domo and Captain is also an element of this design-- sometimes a chase, sometimes a series of dramatically feigned assignations, sometimes a complex rondole involving Honored Passengers in supporting roles, occasionally a true affair of the heart.

Here, it seemed, Lorenza was playing to her own legend as seeker after a true eternal life-mate, would-be seductrice of the Captain into the via of the floating cultura.

While the Honored Passengers to whom I was fleetingly introduced seemed a typical cross-section of the floating cultura--aging children of fortune possessed of unearned wealth, merchant princes and princesses on holiday or permanent vacation, stunning specimens of male and female beauty traveling as companions to the rich, successful artists enriching their input, less successful practitioners gifted with the voyage by patrons, assorted tropical pilot fish of the wealthy cherished for their entertainment value--there seemed to be an unusually high proportion of repeat voyagers, Honored Passengers who chose to follow Lorenza Kareen Patali from voyage to voyage rather than flit from Domo to Domo sampling eternal variety in the more usual mode.

A few of these--a tall, somewhat anguished-looking merchant from Heimat, Korma Ori Sandoval; an ancient jeweled femme named Sandra Roche Pandit; Picasso Lar Colin, a flashily dressed painter of some repute--seemed wistful suitors for Lorenza's attentions, but others, exchanging fey glances with her, examining me with deliberately feigned coversion, commenting upon her brushes and touches against me in subtle ideograms of body language, seemed connoisseurs, as it were, of the mystique in which Lorenza had wrapped herself, followers of the perhaps deliberately endless tale of her search for the Captain of her desires.

I began to wonder if this romance attached to the name tale of Lorenza Kareen Patali was not part of the total persona she had crafted for herself, a deliberate touch of psychic piquancy to enrich the ambiance that was her artistic metier, as much a conscious artifice as the chandelier of light-casting crystal, the bright-blue eyes set in ebon skin, the illumined ruby nipples, the high-sculptured coiffure crusted with snow-pearls.

Thusly pondering, I began to wonder whether there was anything of essence within the artifice; whether this dazzling persona that so aroused my fleshly desire contained a being whose dimension extended into hidden realms of the spirit, or whether Lorenza Kareen Patali had become entirely the creation of her own consciously crafted mystique, that and nothing more. I do not know why hypothesized perception frissoned my animal appreciation of her libidinal attentions with a moue of contempt.

Following this tentative nuptial display for the delectation of her Honored Passengers, Lorenza conducted me on a somewhat perfunctory tour of the decks "below" the grand salon, apparently saving the vivarium that crowned it, the piece de resistance, for last.

Immediately below the grand salon was an entire deck devoted to the cuisinary arts. In the center was an elaborate larder, cellar, and food preparation complex presided over by Bocuse Dante Ho, a truly great chef maestro with whom I had had the pleasure of shipping twice before, master of the daring blend of contrasting cuisinary styles. Arranged in truncated wedges around this hidden hub were no less than four dining parlors in contrasting modes.

There was a great dining hall done in brass, dark woods, massive stone fireplace, crystal chandeliers, and blue-and-white brocade containing an immense circular table of carven mahogany around which the entire complement of Honored Passengers and crew could be seated for formal banqueting. A second parlor was divided up into a dozen small curtained booths for intimate dining. A third was arranged in the Han floor--sitting mode--immensely ancient decorative wall hangings, low, round red-and-black-lacquered tables around sunken braziers, an abundance of plush bodyform cushions. The fourth and plainest was deliberately severe; long tables of white wood with matching benches, floor of gleaming black tile, matte white ceiling, walls covered with stylized floral designs in bright primary colors--a pleasant enough refectory for strictly functional fressing.

Beneath the cuisinary deck was a deck devoted to the dramatic arts, thespic and musical, living and recorded. Central to this complex was a circular theater suitable for both live performance and display of the ship's large library of holocines. Around this central core, libraries of word crystals and traditional leaved books, a small chamber for intimate musical performances, a room suitable for public exhibition of the erotic arts, a storage closet boasting musical instruments spanning three thousand years of history and a multiplexity of cultural modes, a cloud chamber for light and air symphonies.

Throughout this tour of the lower decks of the Grand Palais she had wrought, Lorenza assumed a certain formal distance like a maestra of production conducting a prospective investor through the machineries of her fabrik; not, however, without the stray touch of thigh on thigh, the taste of perfumed breath on words uttered nearer than aural function demanded, her arm linked in mine all the while.

Only when we had reached the nethermost region did she grow more openly intimate. The "lowest" deck of the Grand Palais module was given over to a seemingly chaotic maze of dream chambers opening off a convoluted tunneled passageway that curved and wound around them like the interior of a great coiled serpent. The organically rounded walls of the tunnel glowed an erotic rose, a hue picked up and made palpable by the perfumed mist that filled it. Many of the chambers were already occupied, and while the interiors of most of these were screened from our view by light curtains, the sighs and moans, the rhythmic rustlings, were allowed to suffuse into the rosy ambiance of the passageway, surrounding us with the music d'amour, inevitably drawing us deeper into each other's body spaces.

Lorenza pressed her side lightly against mine and slid the arm that had been hooked in mine around my waist; I protested not.

"Let me show you what dreams and pleasure are presently available," she said close by my ear, close enough for me to feel the tickle of her breath upon it.

Side by side, virtually cheek by cheek, we peered into an impressive variety of vacant dream chambers--zero gravity wombs upholstered in vulval pink, holoed in fire, englobed in the illusion of boundless black; simulacrums of bosky groves and grassy dells from half a dozen planets; cunning illusions of grandiose landscapes; rooms and chambers from many epochs and worlds; even a pool of some viscous rainbow fluid undulating in slow motion under enhanced gravity.

"And your pleasure, Captain Genro?" she said, slipping around to face me. "Which of these dream chambers would you choose to share?"

"I cannot answer that," I told her.

"Por que no?" she asked, her bright-blue eyes staring into mine, beacons of illusory meaning in an otherwise unreadable and entirely composed countenance.

"Because it's not a question one can answer in the abstract. It depends upon with whom."

She laughed, perhaps all too perfectly. Lightly, she snaked her hands into my hair and drew me into a short, tight embrace, a brief, deep kiss. Her mouth tasted of mint and roses; her jeweled nipples and gem-crusted dirndl embossed my flesh with patterns of delicate pain.

"For the sake of argument, then," she said huskily, drawing away but leaving her arm draped around my waist. "Which dream chamber would now be yours?"

"And yours?" I asked, challenging her with my eyes, feeling the heat of her calling to me, and yet acting out my role in this erotic pavane with a certain annoyed detachment.

"All this is mine, cher Genro," she said, leaning forward with utter precision so that the hard-jeweled tips of her bared breasts stung my chest like electrodes. "You will find me an amour of considerable variety."

"Will I?"

"In time," she said with a sublime frankness that went beyond arrogance. "But now we should finish our little tour, oui?" She ran her fingertips lightly over her dirndl, her breast brooches, her complex coiffure; a series of erotic self-caresses that both aroused my fleshly desire and focused another part of my attention on the complex artifices of her carapacelike persona. "Beauty, alas, does not always allow for function, and I am currently dressed for the former."

For a moment, lust, annoyance, and something else not easily identified synergized within me into a desire to tear away the artifices of that persona, strip her naked, and have her not in some chamber of illusion, but there in the functional passageway. But of course that was unthinkable, and besides, I wondered whether, once the wrappings had been peeled, there would be anything within.

So, without demur, and with a formal little bow of gallantry, I allowed her to lead me back to the lift, which took us directly back to the grand salon itself. The fete was in full flower; many of the Honored Passengers showed the effects of civilized intoxicants; discoursing with extravagant gestures, silently absorbed in contemplating islands of music and patterns of shifting light, caressing each other genteely in private alcoves, or staring into each other's eyes across the small private tables set along the observatory ramp that led up to the vivarium.

Argus glanced at me covertly from the center of a small group of admirers as we crossed the main floor to the debouchment of the ramp, obviously playing at officership with this self-selection of Honored Passengers, perhaps fantasizing her future as a Void Captain. Halfway up the spiral of the ramp, we passed young Mori, her eyes shining as she held hands across a table from a handsome young man with a great mane of leonine curls. Shipboard dynamics appeared to be proceeding nominally, at least where my charges and Lorenza's were concerned.

"And now, mon Captain, the piece de resistance," Lorenza said as we reached the pinnacle of the ramp, a light-curtained archway beyond which was hidden the vivarium that capped the Grand Palais module. "I venture to warrant that even a seasoned voyager such as yourself has never quite experienced its equal."

Indeed, vraiment, sans doubt! While all Grand Palais modules have their vivariums, and while I had seen many fine specimens of the genre, I had indeed never experienced quite the equal of what lay beyond that light curtain.

As I had expected, we stepped forth into a cunning simulacrum of nature, an interior garden under an overarching dome. Tall, full-leaved trees of half a dozen species had been thickly planted all around the circumference, screening off the walls, destroying any unseemly sight of periphery or horizon, artificial or otherwise. Jagged peninsulas of this circumferential forest grew out randomly toward the center of the vivarium, perfecting the illusion of a shaded dell in an endless wood.

The garden floor was thick black loam; here mossed in green velvet, there obscured by undergrowth fringing the solitary trees scattered about the open space, small islands of cropped lawn elsewhere, black baldnesses framing artful arrangements of rock outcroppings, brilliant carpets of fungus scattered everywhere like spilled jewels. There was a pool dappled with green lily-pads and bright violet blooms. A shallow, winding brook burbled over miniature rapids and tiny waterfalls. The distance between trees had been carefully calculated to support a lacy overhead canopy of lianas, vines, Spanish mosses. The air was warm, moist, and fragrant with vegetative abundance just this side of rot. Stone benches anciently patinaed with moss and wooden seats crumbling away were the only visible human artifacts, these seeming to be subsiding into the landscape or growing organically from it.

Two things raised this vivarium from craft to something approaching genius--the fauna and the sky.

Insects buzzed torpidly over the pool where frogs croaked their overfed hunger; bright-blue, red, and yellow sauroids, tiny flashes of color, zipped through the undergrowth; shy little rodents darted across our path. And the birds! The air was alive with the song and color of hundreds of minuscule finches, like schools and shoals of tropical reef-fish taken to the skies.

And the sky itself, beyond the thin overhead canopy, was that of late Earth evening, a deepening blue directly overhead, purpling toward black in the direction of the unseen horizon, where, in the "west," a smoky orange slice of sun flared somberly as it set through the obscuring foliage, streaking the sky with streamers of mauve, deep pink, and rose.

We walked for long, silent moments along the edge of the brook, beside the forest pool, serenaded by the birds, steeped in the eternal sunset. Few Honored Passengers were in evidence, and these for the most part solitaries absorbed in themselves. After a time, we found an isolated stone bench highlighted in a magic circle of rose-colored light that poured down through a small break in the forest canopy.

"You asked me which dream chamber I would choose to share," I said, drawing Lorenza down beside me. "Now I have found it."

"Here?" she said with a moue of distaste, if not of sheer alarm. "In the dirt and shrubbery perhaps, or on this bed of stone? Que drole, Captain Genro! You are of course not serious. In any event, I am hardly dressed for the sharing of such a bizarre fantasy, even should it arouse me to ardor."

"Of course," I said ambiguously, staring at this creature of jeweled and crafted artifice, this woman who prided herself on never having set foot on a planetary surface, and wondering how she had brought such a place into being. And why. And whether for her this was merely an exercise of technical craft, sans spirit. And how it could be possible for one to coldly create such art while remaining indifferent to its own essence.

Now it was growing noticeably darker; the sky above us was deepening to black, the sun had disappeared behind the forest wall, and the last faint rays of gauzy light were peeling back from the body of night.

"Night follows day here?" I marveled. "You have arranged that as well?"

"Naturellement," she said evenly. "It is the logic of the form, is it not? Projected on the dome is a holocycle; at times there are clouds for sunrise or sunset, the program is randomized a la brute nature."

From behind a copse came the intensive sound of human footsteps, and a moment later came the most intrusive of all possible human apparitions--Hiro, Lao, and Bondi, my Med crew, wrapped in some technical conversation, darker birds of omen, harbingers of another reality.

"-remarkable parameters-"

"-we shall see after the first Jump-"

"-could last another ten years-"

"Ah, Captain Genro," Maestro Hiro Alin Nagy said by way of greeting, his swarthy face a mask of abstracted concentration under a short cap of black hair. "We were just discussing the med profile of our Pilot, an amazing specimen ...."

I could feel Lorenza tensing beside me; a new aura of chill seemed to emanate from her, and this did not seem a matter of persona.

"Domo Lorenza," Hiro said formally, apparently from the look of him picking up the same vibration. Here was another aspect of the Med crew's alienation from the floating cultura, a subtle pariahhood that even I at this moment could sense.

"We were just returning to the sick bay in any event," Lao said uncomfortably. A slight gray-haired man of advanced years and sensitive brown eyes, he at least seemed unhappily aware of the unwelcomeness of their presence.

"Indeed yes," Hiro said obtusely. "Soon it will be time for our first Jump."

With that, and perfunctory bows, the three of them departed. But the spell of the garden, if only in my own consciousness, had been broken. With a furtive look above, Lorenza rose from the bench.

"It is time we too departed, ne," she said. "I must see to my Honored Passengers, and you ... you, mon cher, will soon have your duties to attend to as well ...."

Following the line of her glance, I saw that above us the sun had fully set, and all at once the stars had come out, and not via the slow stepwise pin pricking into visibility of a simulated planetary night seen through a misty and comforting curtain of atmosphere.

No, the holoed illusion had vanished entirely, and the dome now functioned as a direct tele, its only concession to artifice the spectral compensation circuits. Now the full metallic brilliance and icy black emptiness of the naked void itself howled in upon this ersatz garden, upon we poor ostriches hiding our heads in the sands of illusion from the full and terrible perception of that infinite night through which the shadow world of the ship presumed to pass.
admin
Site Admin
 
Posts: 17175
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Void Captain's Tale, by Norman Spinrad

Postby admin » Sat Mar 19, 2016 6:14 am

CHAPTER 5

JUMP DRIVE GENERATOR activated on standby... parameters nominal ...."

The first red command point lit up on my console.

"Jump Circuit electronics activated ... parameters nominal .... Harmonizer circuits activated on standby ... parameters nominal ...."

One by one, the amber ready points lit up before me as Mori scurried along the bank of monitors rimming the curving front wall of the bridge. As she scrambled back and forth before the chest-high monitors, her eyes fixed on her instruments as she chanted her part in the ritual, I understood for the first time, or at least had the unique perception, that these consoles had been so arranged as a piece of psychic engineering.

After all, they could more conveniently have been heaped up around the Man Jack's chaise; there was no purely functional need to string them out along the curve of the bridge's "bow" like a retaining wall. Indeed, this was an inefficient arrangement that forced the poor Man Jack to hop about from one to the other like a slavey.

But without this curved retaining wall of instruments, this fence between us and the lip of the abyss, this foredeck railing, if you will, the three of us would have been vertiginously planted on the bridge deck surrounded by a sea of stars with nothing to keep a random breeze or a fumblefooted stumble from spilling us over the edge into the infinite void.

Naturellement, in reality the starry sea was but a color-corrected tele image; we were not on an open deck but in an enclosed capsule, and there were no galactic breezes or waves about to sweep us away. The mind understood this, but now, close on to the first Jump, with no projected maneuvering grid to fracture the totality of the illusion, the spirit could begin to wonder.

"... Primer circuit activated on standby ... parameters nominal .... Pilot in the circuit ... life signs within acceptable parameters ... checklist completed, and all systems ready for the Jump."

Mori glanced back at me expectantly, her young face bright with anticipation, her eyes eager yet professionally cool., "Take your Jump position, Man Jack," I ordered from my Captain's throne, feeling a certain tightness in my voice, the usual building of tension.

Mori took her seat beside Argus, who now began her own brief speaking part in the ritual. "

"Ship's position and vector verified and recorded ... vector coordinate overlay computed--and on your board, Captain Genro!"

Two more red command points lit up on my console, and now I had reached the peak moment of total command. "Dumping vector coordinate overlay into Jump Circuit computer," I announced, touching the first command point.

Now the vector coordinate overlay that Argus had computed was programmed into the Jump Circuit Computer: a specific solution to the equation that related the mass-energy universe to the co-extensive non-Einsteinian psychesomic space of the Jump, which would guide--or force--the mindfield of the Pilot and the congruent mass-energy phenomenon of the ship through that ineffable Great and Lonely and out the other side in more or less the right direction.

All my ready points remained amber. I touched a second command point. "Jump Field aura erected."

Three soft musical notes sounded throughout the ship, the traditional announcement of an impending Jump. Now the Dragon Zephyr was entirely englobed in the complex energy field known as the Jump Field aura. My ready points all stayed amber, indicating that the Jump aura was in the proper configuration without breach or waver, that the Jump Circuit electronics were still functioning nominally, that the Harmonizer was ready to tune the ship's Jump aura to the Pilot's mindfield, impressing the higher psychesomic coordinates on the lower mass-energy pattern that was the ship, pulling it into the Jump as soon as I touched the final red command point.

As I always do, as all Void Captains surely must, I paused for a long contemplative moment, taking a slow intake of breath as my finger poised just above this point of ultimate command.

What actually happens during the Jump? A schematic description is possible. When I touched the command point, the Primer circuit would boost the Pilot's nervous system into total psychesomic platform orgasm; simultaneously, the Harmonizer would sync the Jump aura with this psychoelectronic configuration, the Jump Circuit computer would overlay this combined field with the vector coordinates, and--

--the ship Jumps.

But what happens during the Jump? What does the Pilot do, what does the Pilot experience, in that eternal nanosecond of psychesomic orgasm?

An electrophysiological description of psychesomic orgasm is possible. The Primer circuit simultaneously stimulates the Pilot's nervous system to sexual orgasm, nirvanic fugue, alpha wave peak, vagal spasm, adrenal flush, and about twenty other less drastic electrophysiological cusps. And keeps her there for something less than a micromininanosecond of objective time, for the timeless subjective eternity of the Jump.

But what happens there in the discontinuous Great and Only? How does the Pilot Jump the ship? How does the vector coordinate overlay usually enable her to Jump it in more or less the right direction? Why do the lengths of the Jump vary with such total unpredictability?

A psychoelectronic theory of the Jump more or less exists. In psychesomic orgasm, the electronic hologram in four-space that is the Pilot's psyche becomes co-extensive with the space-time hologram that is the total eternal universe, existing in this hypothetical Jump space for a literally timeless moment co-extensive with eternity itself. The vector coordinate overlay somehow serves as an "anchor" to four- space, pulling Pilot and ship back into what we are pleased to call "the universe," several light-years more or less along the computed vector.

Or so we are taught at the Academy. By this process do we mighty Captains con our ships between the stars! Do you begin to appreciate the true discontinuity between Void Pilots and quotidian humanity?

Then consider this ultimate mystery of the Jump: the process itself was developed from a cryptic device found in the neat and perfect ruins left by that long.-vanished race who identified themselves only as We Who Have Gone Before, after thirty years of experiments on a purely trial-and-error basis.

So as I sat there on my throne of command, my finger poised to initiate this literally timeless process beyond my true comprehension or control, I held my breath for a long moment, staring out into the sea of stars, the infinite universe of matter and energy which we are pleased to call the void, and for the first time, that awesome vista seemed no more an absolute reality than its image on the great tele before me. The tele image was a color compensated mask beyond which lay the naked universe itself; was this not in turn a mask of matter and energy, the final veil of maya, behind which lurked, beyond which lurked . ..?

I blinked. I forced myself to exhale slowly and completely. Even as I first realized that it was there, I forced myself to banish the name of Dominique Alia Wu from that corner of my consciousness where I suddenly found it lurking, the human personification of that mystery, the psyche behind that functional glob of protoplasm known as the Pilot wired into the circuit that ended at my fingertip. I perceived a new level of the time-honored wisdom that isolated the Pilot from human intercourse with Captain and crew; now that it had been breached, however briefly, I saw that she had already perturbed the equilibrium of my spirit, the focus of my will to put her through the Jump.

I stared intently into the starry sea, using it as a mandala to center my being on the moment at hand, to banish these dark musings. I was the Captain, this was my ship, and here was the realm through which I would now sail her. "Jump!" I shouted, and as of old, I played the time-honored and futile Captain's game of trying to perceive the starfield's shift as I touched the command point.

And as of old, failing. One instant the stars were in the previous configuration, and then in another, no motion, no blurring of image, no instant of discontinuity that the human eye could record.

We were elsewhere. We had Jumped.

Argus projected a gridwork across the naked countenance of these new stars. Ghost images of other starfields flickered rapidly across the tele, doubling vision, tripling it, as the computer sought to match reality with the perspective patterns in its memory bank. In less than a minute, this process ended as one of the memory images locked in, synced to the master image of the reality without.

Numbers flickered across the tele, then held. Mori let out a wordless cry of approval.

"Four-point-oh-one light-years," Argus said proudly. "Radial deviation from nominal course .76 percent. We couldn't ask for a better Jump, Captain. Congratulations."

"Thank you, Interface," I replied somewhat hollowly, wondering, in truth, who was really being congratulated for what.

***

Wandering under the bright morning sky of the vivarium not long after that first Jump, inhaling the life-redolent air, listening to the converse of the twittering finches, observing small groups of Honored Passengers walking, conversing, assignating, and in general acting very much like strollers in any planetary garden, I wondered, perhaps for the first time, why they all chose to be Honored Passengers in the first place.

To travel from star to star? But that was achieved more easily and at far less cost by the ten thousand the Dragon Zephyr carried in electrocoma; go to sleep at your point of origin, awake at your destination with no passage of subjective time, and with nil expenditure of lifespan in the bargain. To experience the adventure and romance of sailing the starry main? But Honored Passengers hardly deigned to admit awareness of the ship's passage into their consciousness; everything in the Grand Palais, like this planetary simulacrum, was designed to deny it.

Of course I knew full well that the true answer was to enjoy the endless fete of the floating cultura itself; people chose to be Honored Passengers for the ambiance created for them by Domos such as Lorenza. But if the floating cultura was its own tautological raison d'etre, why then did it need the venue of Void Ships to exist? Could not all this as easily be called into being on a planetary surface or an orbiting pleasure palais?

Obviously not, since no such phenomenon existed. There must be an inner reason, some subtle and deeper psychic need buried within these seemingly straightforward devotees of the hedonic arts, a call from the void to their spirits of which they were consciously unaware, which, paradoxically, they spent their endless voyages both seeking and fleeing,

Truth be told with hindsight's vision, these musings were no doubt the externalization of the roilings and bubblings beginning to stir the deeper waters of my own being. Why had I devoted my life to this selfsame starfaring? To share the vie of the floating cultura in the only way feasible to my economic station? To experience the variety of the far-flung worlds of men? To encompass the exhilaration of command? To gaze from my Captain's throne into the starry seas and know the full soul-stirring glory of confronting the void absolute?

All this had always seemed well and good, but now, although I knew not why, it was beginning to seem like another veil of maya, a tissue of illusion that was beginning to shred. Like some primal lungfish confronting the interface between sea and air for the first time, I could dimly sense some evolutionary force urging me onward into the fearful unknown.

"Ah, Captain Genro, I surmised that here you might be found."

Lorenza Kareen Patali had appeared around the next bend of the brook, seated on a stone bench amid a brightly plumed entourage, reminiscent, in that moment, of the flock of tiny finches twittering in the willow above it. Four men in suits of green, crimson, ice blue, and white, the latter two sporting cloaks of contrasting brown and black; a short, buxom blonde woman of ripening age in a suit of gold with high, tight black boots, and a tall, spectrally thin woman magnificently clad in a knee-length gown crafted of some arcane material perfectly simulating the tail plumage of a male peacock.

Lorenza herself was attired in understated contrast to both her companions and her previous persona. Halter and shorts of white silk and calf-high white boots, all plain and unadorned, were her only garments, but these, set off against her velvet black skin, created a stunning harlequin effect. Not a jewel was in evidence, and her long hair flowed over her shoulders and breastbone in artful disarray.

Whether this effect was calculated for my benefit I knew not; certainement, it aroused a less ambivalent desire than her previous style, sufficient to burn away my complex mental mists in the fire of unalloyed sexual lust.

"Come sit beside me," she invited amid the flutterings and rustlings of her standing flock, whom she introduced in a chirping of syllables that passed through the forefront of my attention without leaving a significant memory trace.

Similarly, the ensuing idle discourse made scant impression at the time, still less in memory's recollection. Two of the men, Seldi Michel Chang and Peri Donal Jofe, green-and white-clad respectively, were obviously long-time devotees of Lorenza's voyages; amours of one time or another--as, I surmised, was the woman dressed as a peacock. The other woman was a light composer of some obscure renown, and the men in blue and crimson were traveling merchants. The talk of connoisseurship--the vintages of the Grand Palais's cellar, comparison of Bocuse Dante Ho with other chef maestros of renown, who had worn what at the departure fete, amateur critiques of various holocines, the psychic effects of sundry drugs, und so weiter.

In this refined discourse I took little active part, nor, really, was such expected of me. The true interest, the inner dialog, lay, for Lorenza, myself, and our audience, in the placing of her hand on my knee, the covert stage glances between us, the languages of our bodies as the pavane of assignation was played out in public for the amusement, delectation, and perhaps somehow the reassurance of our Honored Passengers,

Now I took an unselfconscious pleasure in the playing out of my Captainly role; perhaps there was as well reassurance for myself as I allowed sexual magnetism and the ritual of the cultura to sync the focus of my being into the expectations inherent in my persona, banishing the tension between inner and outer man. Or perhaps banishing, for the moment, the inner man himself to the subworld whence he had intruded upon my tranquility. Thus the wisdom of properly crafted ritual--and its folly.

After a time, our audience detected that the first movement of the piece was over, and, with bows, hand kisses, exchanges of glances and body signals, they made their departures, whispering and gossiping their way among the trees, perhaps inspired to intrigue d'amour of their own by our archetypal example.

Lorenza arose, drawing me to my feet by the hands, stretched in languid invitation, gazed at me with those sapphire-blue eyes. "You have noticed, have you not?" she said.

"How could any man have not?" I replied gallantly.

She laughed a bit perfunctorily; a moue of impatience seemed to form on her lips. "I mean that I am more suitably attired for amour," she said, touching a finger to the fastener between the cups of her halter, another to a strip running down the front of her shorts. "A touch here ... and here ... and voila, the inner woman."

"To please your perception of my taste?"

"Por que no?" she said, shrugging. "As { informed you, I will prove an amour of considerable variety. At another time, you will grant me gallant reciprocation, ne?"

"Certainement," I replied, glancing about. The vivarium, though, was relatively crowded at this juncture; seclusion for long seemed unlikely. and public performance less than genteel for this occasion. "I venture not to suggest this natural venue."

"You have now a choice of dream chambers?"

"Your stateroom and yourself would be dream enough for now," I said. "I need not alloy with fantasy such an enticing reality."

She wrapped her arm around my waist and drew me close. "For now," she said, "like this ship, I am under your command. Later, I shall school you in the sensory refinements."

And so, our bodies pressed together, our arms around each other's waists, we promenaded out of the vivarium, down the ramp to the main floor of the grand salon, across it, up the display stairs to its entrance, through the passageways of the ship, to her private chamber. All under the approving gaze of multitudes of Honored Passengers, freeservants, and even Mori, who favored me with an engaging smile.

***

Of what transpired between Void Captain Genro Kane Gupta and Domo Lorenza Kareen Patali in her stateroom, there is much to say and little. Lorenza's body sans its final scant bits of concealment provided but one slightly unexpected frisson of surprise--the hair of her pubes matched the red hue of her long mane. As to whether this verified the naturality of her tresses, or, more likely, the subtlety and completion of her artifice, I retained too much gallantry to inquire. Lorenza nude differed not in total effect from Lorenza clothed, and to say that both were beautiful is to belabor the obvious.

Like any conceivable Domo, indeed like any woman of the floating cultura, she proved well schooled in the techniques of erotic performance and adept at their execution. Whatever my personal or psychic limitations, I have always cultivated the arts of civilized sexuality as well as being a natural man of no less than normal animal energy, and I think it accurate to say that my repertoire and performance thereof was, at the least, adequate to the occasion.

Together we enjoyed chingada in several configurations, amour de la bouche in equal measures, the delicate diddling of the pain-pleasure interface with no little satisfaction, and in between the less orgasmic-oriented arts of erotic massage and digitation, achieving both a satisfying prolongation of libidinal tension and an abundance of orgasmic completions.

That is the much and this is the little: that during the entire passage d'amour we practiced not those higher exercises of the tantra which seek to harness the libidinal energies and fleshly possibilities in the service of a communion of the spirit. Thus while it might be fairly said that our practices of the erotic crafts left little to be desired, it cannot be said that our duet achieved the level of true art. At the surfeited conclusion of our exercises we were no less strangers and no more lovers.

Nor, do I think, did either of us seek such higher union. Whatever the pheronomic congruences that might have drawn us together on a biological level, the psychic extension of our passage d'amour lay not in the personal sphere but the social, not in any tropism toward emotional intimacy but in our fulfillment of our roles within the shipboard dynamics of the floating cultura. The Void Captain and the Domo had successfully completed their nuptial dance; if our congress attained anything beyond the purely physical, it was this.

Afterward, we lay there on the bed quenching our thirst with dry white wine, conversing idly as we might have after sharing a well-prepared meal.

"You are quite skilled in the oral sequences, Captain Genro. I was for the most part pleasantly unable to anticipate your pauses and changes."

"Not so much through creativity on my part, I think, but due to the spontaneity of your responses, controlled, and yet with a randomness never quite predictable ..."

Ah, tres gallant! But one who dances well with one partner may not with the next, who in turn may perform brilliantly with a third ..."

"To our synergy, then," I said, clinking glasses.

Und so weiter, Troth be told, once my lust had been slaked and my Captainly role performed, it was not long before I desired nothing so much as to end this unsatisfying coda, to make my exit in a harmonically benign manner, Thus I was not as perturbed as I gallantly pretended when the stateroom's annunciator interrupted these civilized banalities.

"Captain Genro .. Captain Genro, please contact Chef Bocuse Dante Ho."

"What could Bocuse want of me?" I muttered in puzzlement to Lorenza. "Surely it must be a matter for the Domo ..."

Lorenza shrugged in equal puzzlement as I patched through to the cuisinary deck, "This is Captain Genro ..."

"Bocuse here, mi Captain," said the chef maestro's agitated voice, "We have here an altercation between one of my freeservants and an officer. Unheard of! Scandalous! Shit! Merde! Caga! This cannot be countenanced! You must make fini muy presto!"

"What is the problem, maestro?" I demanded,

"This officer is demanding service. It is an uproar! Grossity! I cannot create under this catastrophe!"

"What's the problem, man?" I snapped. "Who is this officer and why is a demand for service creating an uproar?"

"Who is this officer is the problem, Captain Genro. It is the Pilot, here in my province, and demanding the preparation and service of culinary unspeakability!"
admin
Site Admin
 
Posts: 17175
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Void Captain's Tale, by Norman Spinrad

Postby admin » Sat Mar 19, 2016 6:14 am

CHAPTER 6

THE UPROAR ON THE cuisinary deck, when I arrived there with Lorenza, was perhaps not quite the catastrophe that Bocuse had painted, being confined to the sparsely occupied refectory, but I could immediately see that undoing this unprecedented knot of custom and protocol was going to take a Gordian stroke.

Dominique Alia Wu sat alone at one of the long white tables in this most starkly functional of the four dining rooms, her hands balled into fists on the tabletop before her. She was dressed, if that is the word, in a plain blue sick-bay gown, and her short brown hair had not seen a comb. There were deep black circles under her eyes, the skin of her face was somewhat greenly pale, her mouth was curled into a snarl, and, in short, she would have presented a most unwholesome spectacle at any feast.

Standing across the barricade of the table from her was Bocuse Dante Ho, a thin, elegant, dark-haired man unsuccessfully trying to calm himself, and one of the Grand Palais's freeservants, a blond young woman in full flush of outrage. Fortunately, this particular dining chamber seemed not popular at this hour, and there were only half a dozen Honored Passengers in attendance at this unseemly altercation.

Before any and all could assail my ears, I held up my hand in a gesture of both peace and command, putting on a stern visage of Captainly ire, and demanded of Bocuse: "Why was it deemed necessary to summon me to your venue, chef maestro? And please reply with the clarity and calm of which I know you to be capable."

Bocuse could be seen to be making a strenuous effort to contain himself; indeed, it seemed to me that his jaw-clenching and deep breathing were at least partly for thespic effect. "This ... personage demands service of my staff and myself, Captain Genro," he said thickly. "She has refused the request of my freeservant to be gone, she has gone so far as to deny my own authority to eflicate her removal, and ... and she has invoked the cuisinary privileges of an officer! Moreover, mon Captain, the viandry barbarism she demands I produce-pfah!"

"This is so ... Pilot?" I asked Dominique Alia Wu sharply.

"That I wish to be fed nourishment for my body! Ja-wohl! That I have the droit legal as an officer of your crew, certainement, nicht wahr? As for the barbarism of my alimentary request, de gustibus non disputandum est, ne? Besides, who better than I to judge my body's nutritive requirements? If medical verification is required, secure the opinion of Maestro Hiro. I will not have my nutrients prescribed by this oaf!"

"Oaf, is it, you vile creature?" Bocuse shouted. "Imbecile, the art of Bocuse Dante Ho is famed throughout--"

"Quiet!" I roared. "Contain yourselves!"

Immediately, Bocuse presented me with a mask of sweet reason. "My apologies, Captain Genro. I should not have allowed the rantings of this creature to inflame my passions, this I contritely acknowledge. Pero, a kilo slab of semi-raw steak of beef encrusted with melted cheese, garnished with three fried eggs, accompanied by boiled haricots soy--does not the gorge rise? To be washed down with a beaker of milk, no less!"

The gorge rose indeed. "This is truly the meal you requested?" I asked Dominique, surmising that Bocuse was indulging in his customary hyperbole.

"My organism requires massive intakes of protein and calcium," she said, glaring at me. "This meal supplies it. But if it will end this farce, this artiste de cuisine may drown it in a sauce of his own choosing. For me, it is mere fuel, I concern myself not with esthetics."

"Merde! Sacrilege! How am I to contend with this attitude?"

"These culinary niceties are hardly to the point, are they, Genro?" Lorenza said, interjecting her secondary authority as Domo for the first time. "If we may discuss this together for a moment ...?" she said, drawing me aside. "You cannot allow a ... a Pilot to disturb the harmonics of my Grand Palais," she told me sotto voce. "To insult and distract a truly great chef maestro. You must banish her from the Grand Palais permanently and forthwith."

"I'm afraid I can't do that, Lorenza," I told her.

"You're the Captain, are you not?" she snapped at me, eyes flashing, mouth twisted--in short, displaying more genuine emotion than during our entire passage d'amour. "Your authority is absolute."

"But she is the Pilot and technically has the rights of a ship's officer."

"Pah! It is unheard of for a Pilot to exercise them! Look at her, without even the minimal attention to grooming, and no doubt her odor matches her appearance. Observe the discomfort of these few Honored Passengers. What if she were to demand the right of attendance at banquet?"

"What if she were to refuse to enter the Pilot's module?" I pointed out unhappily.

Lorenza's tightened jaw fell. Her lips trembled for an augenblick. "Then ... then you would force her, no? You are empowered to ... to ..."

"A ship will not Jump without a willing Pilot in the Circuit. Long experience has established this unfelicitous fact."

"Then ... then what will we do?" Lorenza's change of expression and her use of the plural pronoun seemed to indicate that at least her displeasure was no longer focused on my person.

I shrugged. "Under the circumstances, there is no alternative save to exercise the diplomatic arts and effect a compromise. "

We returned to the suspended tableau of confrontation. "Custom and contractual droit leave me no alternative," I told Bocuse. "I must order you to fill this officer's request and to honor all such requests in future."

"This is an--"

"However," I interrupted loudly, "this meal will be served behind curtains in the chamber of booths, not here." To Dominique I said harshly: "I will join you at table, and we will discuss some necessary matters of protocol and civilized behavior."

If I had expected her ire at this public confinement to purdah, I was not to feel its weight. Raking Bocuse, the freeservant, Lorenza. and the onlookers one by one with glares of black disdain, Dominique rose shakily and slowly to her feet, not turning her attention to me until she was fully standing.

"Danke schoen, Captain," she said with an ironic gentility that seemed aimed at all but myself. "I would prefer your company to that of these shadows." She favored me with a bitter little smile. "Even if your preferred table talk be the behavior of their so-called civilization."

Naturellement, nothing she could have done would have achieved more in the way of inflicting upon me the raised brows and soured puckers of all present, nor could she have chosen a better method of preventing me from deflecting it. Though I had sought to remain neutral and impartial, her very graciousness toward me combined with her open contempt for the others to create in their eyes the illusion that the Captain had allied himself with the Pilot. Soon, no doubt, this would be transmuted into unsavory legend as the tale passed from ear to ear.

Although her gait was tottery and tentative as we walked together into the chamber of booths, I offered not my arm in support. Nor, mercifully, did she seek to secure it.

***

"So," Dominique said with some belligerence once we were seated across from each other in a curtained booth, "you wish to discuss protocol and civilized behavior." Now the black contempt she had publicly spared me was openly expressed in her bloodshot, rheumy, yet still darkly glaring eyes.

"Both of which you have egregiously violated."

"Indeed! And the refusal to serve an officer despite contractual droit-- his is the observance of punctilious protocol, nicht wahr? My banishment from the sight of these apes humaine like some leprous beast--this, of course, is civilized behavior!"

"You are no starfaring novice," I told her. "You know full well that a Pilot doesn't ... that a Pilot never--"

"Ventures from sick bay or her cabin to inflict reality noir upon the fantasy world of the Honored Passengers? Disturbs the social dynamics which enable these shadows to brave the void by denying its existence? Intrudes like the Ancient Mariner upon the feast?" She leaned forward on her elbows, crooked her sneer at me knowingly. "Speaks to her Captain?"

"All that," I said inanely, quite aware of my own lameness as I said it. But how was I to react? How does one speak of the necessities of shipboard dynamics to one whose proper role in the harmonic function of same is pariahhood? "I'm responsible not only for the safety and navigation of the ship but for maintaining the psychic tranquility of the voyage."

"This is not the function of our so-beautiful Domo?"

"Not when an officer is involved."

"So now I am, after all, granted the status of an officer," she said slyly. "Therefore you cannot deny me the privileges of same."

"Damn it all, you know exactly what I'm talking about!"

"Vraiment, Captain," she said coldly. "Perhaps better than you do, or minimal, better than you are willing to say. I am Pilot; equipment, not crew. Thing, not human. An offense to the genteel eyes of the Honored Passengers. Voila, mon pauvre petit, I have said it for you."

"Well look at you'." I croaked. "You're ...you're--"

"Indifferent to the appearance of my corpus material?" she suggested without rancor. "Verdad. You wish me to dress differently, I will do so in any mode you choose. Haute coiffeur, bijoux, lip paint, whatever, I do as you command in this regard with supreme indifference. Similarly, I shall take my nourishment in this closed booth and make your life the easier by intruding upon the reality of the Honored Passengers as little as possible. For that too I regard with supreme indifference."

The curtain parted before I could form any reaction to this perplexing tirade, and a sullen but carefully composed freeservant--a different one than before--placed Dominique's bizarre meal before her. On a silver salver lay a large wooden plate, a crystal wine goblet, and a silver pitcher of milk. On the plate Bocuse had arranged a huge seared slab of beef atop a bed of small boiled tan beans; this was frosted like a bare mountaintop with melted white cheese. Atop the cheese, he had placed the fried eggs to resemble a garish face--two gross yellow eyes, a bulbous nose consisting of the third egg nostriled with peppercorns, and a sprig of greens for a gaping mouth to make the whole effect plain.

Dominique seemed not to notice this at all, or if she did, it was one more nicety to which she at least feigned supreme indifference. She poured a goblet of milk, drained it in one unseemly gulp, refilled it, attacked the viand with knife and fork, thrust a large chunk of meat and cheese dripping with egg yolk into her mouth, and did not speak again until she had thoroughly devoured it.

"But where and how and what I eat, with this I will not countenance interference," she said, washing her words down with another full goblet of milk.

"A Pilot with a hearty appetite," I managed to say as she crammed another enormous dripping morsel into her methodically masticating mouth. "Will wonders never cease?"

"That depends on your state of being," she said. "All wonders protoplasmic cease. All matter eventually as well. Every energy proceeds toward extinction through ultimate entropy, nicht wahr? But one wonder never ceases, and if one's being could remain there, neither would you. But in the meantime--in this mean space-time--there is the necessity to preserve the corpus material as long as possible. Because while there is a wonder which never ceases, Captain Genro, that which perceives it is alas captive to the flesh."

No doubt my expression was a ludicrous sight as I goggled at her foolishly.

"I'm confusing you, Captain, ne?" she said, never pausing in her ingestion of protein and calcium. "A Pilot is a pale, deathly creature sans concern for bodily health, sans even the power of coherent speech let alone discourse in what you no doubt regard as the mode philosophique, no? She favored me with a vulpine smile that for the first time seemed to betray some distant hint of human warmth.

"I must confess I've never encountered a Pilot like you," I admitted rather lamely. There was an intensity about her so close to coldness, an emotionless passion, an icy fire, that prevented me from forming a coherent conscious reaction. She was total paradox. Such a creature shouldn't be.

Now she actually laughed. "Nor are you likely to," she said. "My name tale should have told you that, were you capable of encompassing its inner meaning. My path has been for my steps alone."

"Is that a quotation?"

She shrugged. "Words," she said, "they are all quotations, no? Not one that has not been used over and over again. A la the atoms of this food I eat, passing from it into my body, then beyond. The universe of matter and energy itself consists of endlessly requoted ultimate particles, nicht wahr?"

"While pattern itself is all that marches on?"

That made her actually stop eating for a moment. She studied me as if she had never seen me before. "You are not a stupid man," she said in a tone of discovery untinged with any irony that I could detect.

"Then why are you so hostile?"

"Am I?"

"Yes."

Slowly, as if lost in thought, she sipped down another goblet of milk. "Between us there is a gulf, mon cher ," she said in a new and softer tone. "But not, I think, hostility. That would be a thing of personality-- to which I am indifferent. Vraiment, this tension is more impersonal and deeper, both. We do not inhabit the same reality."

"We are sitting here in a booth on the cuisinary deck of the Dragon Zephyr," I pointed out. "Surely that much reality we share."

"So?" she said ironically, fixing me with her hard, deep eyes. "Then, bitte, you will tell me the purpose of this ship?"

"The purpose of the ship?" What did she mean by that? "The Dragon Zephyr, as you must surely know, is a combined freight and passenger configuration with--"

"Your purpose," she said. "Your reality, not mine. Chez moi, the purpose of this ship is to contain a Jump Circuit for me to be in, and your function and the crew tambien is to send me forth into the Great and Only. And all else is shadow."

"And the purpose of the Jump itself--"

"The purpose of the Jump is to reach that state of being which is its own purpose," she said, washing down a final morsel with the last of the milk and rising shakily from the table. I could now see that she was in far frailer physical state than I had realized; the intensity of the inner fire had masked the full extent of her physiological exhaustion.

"So you see, liebe Genro, the purpose of nutritive ingestion is to preserve the corpus material as long as possible, and the purpose of corporeal preservation is to experience as many Jumps as possible until some day ..."

She stared silently into my eyes, and for a moment I saw not the black circles under them, the pinkening of her whites, the wasted physiognomy. What ] saw was what I had seen in that moment on the sky ferry--two empty opaque orbs in an archetypal mask, empty yet bottomless like the void itself.

I shuddered inwardly. "And my purpose in this cosmic scheme of yours--?" I muttered, saying anything to break the spell.

Humanity leaked back into her eyes. She cocked her head at me, and seemed to shake it imperceptibly, an ideogram of some unfathomable regret, a frisson of hesitant mercy.

"That," she said, touching a cold hand briefly to my cheek, "is not, I think, something you would be well served to know. Though in time-- quien sabe?"

***

Between that strange and unsettling tete a tete and the time of the next Jump, I, like the Dragon Zephyr itself, ran on automatics. Which is not to say I stumbled about in a zombie trance, avoided human contact, or even neglected my Captainly duties chez the floating cultura.

Far from it--the altercation between Dominique and Bocuse, the necessary nature of my resolution of it, my sharing of the Pilot's table, had perturbed the harmonics already, and my duty clearly lay, not in exacerbating the situation by behaving bizarrely or refusing to demonstrate social behavior at all, but in soothing the roiled waters.

So I mounted a Captain's banquet for the entire complement of Honored Passengers, not without much stroking and praising of Bocuse while earnestly and artfully discoursing with him on our proposals for the menu. I explained to him the practical necessity of not antagonizing the Pilot, one exasperated professional to another, and I even praised the drollery with which he had arranged Dominique's fetid fare.

As a result of these ministrations, harmony was restored between the Captain and the great Chef Maestro, and Bocuse presented a series of dishes truly representative of his genius at the peak of its form.

This savory evidence of rapport between Captain and Chef Maestro did much to erase any lingering vibrations noir between myself and the Honored Passengers by the time the long meal ended, and the rest was washed away by my easy jocularity on the subject of the confrontation, Lorenza's professionally gracious praise of my Solomonic resolution of the matter, and many wines of noble vintage.

Yet throughout my performance at the banquet, I was aware of it as just that, the Captain playing out his archetypal role of bonhomie and raconteurship. Even as I feasted on the Peking Goose with Red Heldhime Fungi, the Delight Garden of the Ten Worlds, the Marfleish Stuffed with Sturgeon Pate in Sauce Haricot Noir, the Jalapeno and Palm Heart Salad, and the rest of it--even as my gustatory sense retained full intellectual awareness of the glories of the table, I could not rid my consciousness of Dominique's "supreme indifference" to the cuisinary arts, and part of me was watching all of us as protoplasmic mechanisms stuffing fuel into our input orifices.'

"Shadows," she had called them--us?--and shadow they all seemed, these Honored Passengers, these brightly plumed birds of passage twittering away in their gilded cage, which, carefully obscured from their conscious perception, floated precariously in the empty infinity of the void. A void which I myself was beginning to perceive as a shadow of something even greater and more absolute beneath the mask of what I had once considered the ultimate reality.

With such outre demons gnawing at my consciousness, it took a certain social heroism, or rather perhaps a certain psychosocial skill, to allow my persona to perform its accustomed functions without realtime connection to its animating being. I began to understand those moments in which Dominique's consciousness seemed to have vacated her eyes, and now and again in augenblick of paranoia noir, I wondered if the same might be revealing itself on my own visage.

Maintaining this dichotomy between Captainly role and psychic malaise, while a smoothly running automatic process, proved quite fatiguing, and, once the banquet had lapsed into third cordials and psychoactive herbals, pled torpor with no little justification and repaired alone to my cabin. There reality swiftly followed artifice, and I fell into a black, dreamless sleep which mercifully lasted until it was time to make ready for the next Jump.

***

"-checklist completed, and all systems ready for the Jump."

"Take your Jump position, Man Jack."

"Ship's position and vector verified and recorded ... vector coordinate overlay computed and on your board Captain_-"

"Dumping vector coordinate overlay into Jump Circuit Computer ... Jump Field aura erected ..."

The chimes announced the impending Jump, all my ready points were amber, my finger was poised once more above the Jump Command point--all was as it had been more times than I could count. Not an iota of the ritual had changed.

Only the subjectivity of he who perceived it. Naturellement, I had never been intellectually unaware that the Jump Circuit my fateful finger was about to activate contained more than inanimate machineries, that below me in the Pilot's module, floating in an ersatz amnion, breathing through the umbilical mask, electronically connected to the command point beneath my finger, was a human component. But previously that objective description had truly encompassed my total existential awareness of the act I was about to perform.

But now, unwanted and unbidden, awareness of another subjectivity in the Circuit had entered my cold equations. That human circuit module now had a name, personality, a connection to my spirit. I had eaten from the tree of knowledge, or rather, perhaps, had its bittersweet fruit thrust down my throat.

Now I was all too aware of another and alien sense of purpose alive in the Circuit, another subjectivity mated to my own by the mediating machineries, and with this awareness came a disconcerting sense of the relativity of my own objective reality. To me, the purpose of the Jump Circuit was to transport the Dragon Zephyr toward Estrella Bonita. In Dominique's reality, though, the purpose of the Jump Circuit, the ship, indeed of myself, was, as she had put it, "to reach that state of being which is its own purpose."

Her means was my end, my end was her means; there was a tension between our realities that was almost sexual, indeed--

"Captain Genro? Is something wrong?"

Argus had swiveled around in her seat to regard me with an expression of some concern.

"Wrong?" How long had my finger been poised above the command points? Had I lost all sense of objective time?

"My board shows an amber. Do you have an anomaly?"

"No, all amber here. You are ready for the Jump?"

"Of course," she said, giving me a most peculiar look.

"Well then ... Jump!" I said, and brought my finger down on the command point.

And as I did, the grotesque image that had been coalescing at the periphery of my consciousness sprang unbidden into full fetid flower.

Via the lightest touch of my finger upon the Jump command point, I was, in cold objective reality, quite literally inducing in Dominique an orgasm far beyond anything of which I would have been capable as her fleshly lover. As long as the Pilot had been a mere protoplasmic module in the Jump Circuit, this sexual connection between Captain and Pilot, this reality which went far beyond erotic metaphor, existed not in the sphere of my awareness. But now that awareness of her as a taled name, another subjectivity, a woman, had been thrust upon me, I was aware of myself as her cyborged demon lover, an electronic rapist, yet somehow also the victim of the act as I plunged into her with my phallus of psychesomic fire.

" Jump!"

One instant the stars were in one configuration, then in another. Did I imagine that I had experienced the impalpable interval between, that I could feel her being flash through its unknowable ultimate ecstasy? Did we silently sigh in unison or mutually shriek our mute violation?

One thing was certain as I sat there trembling--I now had a far deeper perception of why Captains did not want to know their Pilots, of the wisdom of the barriers our civilization had erected between.

And having been forced to that perception, I was forced to realize as well that I had unknowingly staggered across that psychic rubicon, that it was already too late to go back the way I had come. Any attempt at willful ignorance would now be futile or worse; the only talisman against excessive knowledge that might have puissance would be more knowledge.

So, once our new position had been computed, I too took another quantum leap along the geodesic toward my terminal destination.

In violation of all unstated protocol, I made my way down the spine of the ship to the Pilot's module, lingering in the passageway outside until the Med crew transferred Dominique to sick bay so as to simulate a chance meeting.

I did not have long to wait. In a few minutes, Lao and Bondi appeared, wheeling a gurney up the passageway where I stood along the route to sick bay, with Hiro himself trailing close behind.

"Captain?"

"What are you doing here?"

I froze, arms akimbo, living in a nightmare of what I must have looked like to the Med crew, the violator standing over the ravished in the presence of his accomplices.

"On my way to the generator room," I extemporized gruffly. "Something of a flicker in the output, but nothing serious, I think."

The three of them looked at me peculiarly; guiltily, I thought, perhaps perceiving yet another previously unexamined psychic reality, perhaps merely projecting my own angst upon them.

But the moment passed in silence, and then they were wheeling the gurney hastily past me. Not, however, before I got a good, full look at Dominique.

Her pale sweat-covered body was partially covered by a sheet. A red welt was fading across her forehead where the electrode band had been; there was a small plexi-seal over the contused pit of her right arm; and bits of grayish electrode cement still clung to her forearms and exposed nipples. Her cheeks were a hideous blotchwork of flush and pallor, and there were great blackened hollows under her grit-sealed eyes.

And she was smiling beatifically.
admin
Site Admin
 
Posts: 17175
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Void Captain's Tale, by Norman Spinrad

Postby admin » Sat Mar 19, 2016 6:15 am

CHAPTER 7

NATURELLEMENT, BECAUSE I WAS Captain, there was no authority aboard to whom I could confide my mal d'esprit without undermining all confidence in my command. Thus far I had been able to pass off social intercourse with the Pilot, support of her right to limited officers' privileges, even the viewing of her ravaged corpus straight from the bed of the act, as random strokes of karma or the exigencies of command, but if I bared the nature of the consciousness behind my acts to officer or Honored Passenger, surely that person would question my fitness to fulfill my Captainly role and would hardly feel bound to social silence on my behalf.

Still, there was the ghost of a shipboard tradition far older than starfaring whereby captains of lonely command might seek a certain circumscribed counsel from the ship's physician, bound as that officer was by the ancient oath of Hippocrates to silence on anything that could be construed as a private medical matter. Of course this officer was not bound to silence in extremis, that is, in cases where the dementia of the Captain endangered the ship, but some semblance of this Hippocratic discretion still survived in the Second Starfaring Age as a sort of psychic safety valve.

On the Dragon Zephyr, the Healer was responsible for correcting malfunctions of body and mind, but Maestro Hiro was First Medical Officer by dint of his overall responsibility for the passengers in electrocoma, and, more apropos in this case, by his responsibility for the functional maintenance of the Pilot.

Thus, using my "accidental" vision of the severely ravaged state of our Pilot as an excuse, and not without putting on a certain false innocence about such matters, I might use my legitimate Captainly concern for the safety of the ship to circumspectly approach Maestro Hiro on the matters that troubled my spirit.

While the customary social reserve between Captain and Med crew Maestro had not been breached, I had of course perused a summary of his name tale upon assuming command of the Dragon Zephyr.

Hiro Alin Nagy had been born on Earth. His father, Alin Mallory Fried, was an astrophysicist of some minor renown, specializing in mass-energy aspects of the Jump. His freenom, Alin, he had chosen upon acceptance of his thesis, homage a Alin Vladimir Khan, leader of the scientific team which had finally produced the first working Jump Drive. Hiro's mother, Nagy Toda Gala, was an exobiologist who had retired to a Terran university to pursue theoretical studies relating to the failure of the multiplicity of known biospheres to crown their creation with sapience. Her freenom, Nagy, she chose homage a Galen Nagy, a biologist of the early First Starfaring Age, the first scientist to study a complex extra-solar ecosphere.

Thus from his mother, Hiro had inherited a certain interest in starfaring as well as a bent for the biological sciences, while from his father he had received an interest in the physics of the Jump itself.

His freenom, Hiro, he had chosen somewhat bizarrely homage a Hiro Karim Abdullah, an involuntarily retired Void Ship Med Maestro he had encountered as a patient in a mental retreat.

A short, dark man of the reserve traditional to his calling, Maestro Hiro betrayed little overt emotion upon being summoned to my cabin, although surely he must have been bemused by this outre procedure, especially coming so soon after the unseemly confrontation outside the Pilot's module.

After a formal offer of liquid refreshment, which was just as formally refused, I decided to come immediately as close to the point of this peculiar seance as was politic.

"I realize this is a somewhat unusual occurrence, but then it is not usual for the Captain to view the Pilot, and especially not so soon after ... ah ..."

A mere raising of an eyebrow; I could sense a certain distaste, a total lack of forthcomingness hardly surprising under the circumstances.

"Quite frankly, I am concerned about the physical condition of our Pilot." I said. "She seemed, well, severely depleted ..."

A brittle and entirely humorless laugh. "Trouble yourself not, mein Captain," Hiro said brusquely. "Of all the Void Pilots I have had under my care, Dominique Alia Wu has the strongest physique. Anomalously so, in fact."

"Indeed?"

"Vraiment. An amazing specimen. Most of these creatures remain in vegetative state between Jumps. This one exercises its musculature through perambulation--as you have had unfortunate occasion to observe. Most of them will not eat and must be nourished intravenously. This one not only cooperates fully with nutritional mandation but orders up viands on the cuisinary deck to the discomfort of all."

"But she looked so pale, so comatose, so near-moribund--"

Emotion for the first time--a derisory snort, a curl of the lip, a certain moue of unpleasant superior knowledge. "Au contraire, the physiological consequences of the Jump were minimal."

"Minimal? You call that minimal?"

"Minimal," Hiro said flatly. "You need parallax to comprehend this, mein Captain; you should observe what most of them look like afterward." He gave me a hard, speculative look, and for a moment I felt he was perceiving my inner being, that confusion of spirit which I both sought to bare and feared to reveal.

"I withdraw that, Captain Genro," he said. Already you have seen more than you should have. That is the true reason for us meeting, nicht wahr?"

It was, I think, a certain act of courage for me merely to nod numbly.

A certain concern for my well-being seemed to steal into Maestro Hiro's features, albeit of a stern fatherly species. "There is a paradox noir about this Pilot," he said. "I have been favored with the most superior specimen of the breed that I have ever encountered, and one, moreover, who cooperates with the recovery regime to an unnatural degree; this should please a man of my profession. Alas, it does not. There is an aura of ... unwholesomeness here, a blackness of das energei, a ..." He threw up his hands in a gesture of verbal defeat. "She speaks, she examines her own physiological readouts, she treats us like ... like ..."

"Shadows?" I ventured. "Servants of her purpose rather than the accustomed reverse?"

Hiro's eyes widened; in surprise and perhaps a frisson of sudden self discovery, "This is your perception, Captain, or ...?"

"Something she said to me," I admitted. "That the purpose of ship and crew, your purpose and mine, Maestro Hiro, is to send her forth into the Great and Only, and that all else is shadow. You are as versed in the lore of the Jump as any man may be. Can you elucidate the inner meaning?"

Hiro scowled, he shrugged, he threw up his bands--all an ideogram of philosophic dismissal that was less than entirely convincing. "These creatures, when they manage a coherent sprach, babble about naught but their Great and Only, aber semantic content, nil . ..."

"It is a reference to Jump space itself, ne?" I persisted.

"There is no such thing as Jump space, Captain, as you well know; this is a contradiction in terms."

"Well then to the Jump itself, to psychesomic orgasm, to what happens between the time I touch the Jump command point and the time the ship--"

"This interval is also nonexistent," Hiro said testily.

"To psychesomic orgasm, then," I replied with congruent petulance. "Surely you will concede that that exists, being a verified expert on same."

"What is the point of all this, Captain Genro? You did not truly summon me here out of mere concern for the health of our Pilot, verdad?"

"Verdad," I admitted. "Dominique spoke to me of the sublimity of the experience, I have seen the baleful physiological results, and yet ... You have never pondered these matters, Maestro Hiro?"

"What matters, Captain Genro?" he said with what seemed to be willfully, if not fearfully, crafted ignorance.

"The essence of it, Maestro. Of the Jump, psychesomic orgasm, the Great and Lonely, the mysterious nonexistent interval, that upon which starfaring and our entire civilization revolve, the center which is void."

"So ..." Maestro Hiro said slowly. "This Pilot, she has projected her obsessions into your mindfield, nicht wahr? 'Dominique,' you have called her? You have been favored with the tale of this name perhaps as well?"

I could only nod. "You wish to hear it?"

"Nein!" Hiro snapped with unmistakable shrillness. "It is exactly what I do not want to hear!"

"You have no curiosity about the pedigree and free nom of your patient?"

Maestro Hiro inhaled slowly and deeply, held his breath for a long moment, then exhaled fully; when he had completed this exercise, he seemed to have composed himself by an act of will. He now regarded me with an expression of sagely and perhaps slightly forlorn sympathy.

"I begin to encompass more fully what has compelled this consultation, mein Captain, though I fear you possess not full self-awareness of what moves you," he said softly and evenly. "I have observed this cafard before in members of my own profession, aber in a Void Captain nimmer,"

"Cafard of your profession ...?"

"Ja," Hiro said thickly. "Once have I observed the aftermath, twice the malaise in process, and other cases are enshrined in the literature. It is why it is a grave mistake to allow oneself to regard the Pilot as a 'patient.' Why also Med crews have Healers like Lao subordinate to the Maestro, even though, naturellement, all Maestro are versed in the Healing arts. If I may presume a philosophic digression ...?"

"By all means," I told him. I had shipped with many Med crew Maestros, of course, but all maintained reserve, as much, I think, by psychotypical inclination as by custom, and this was as close as any had come to revealing a bit of the inner lore.

"My duty absolute aboard this ship is to keep a functional Pilot in the Circuit, ne, just as yours is to command the actuation of same. Far better than you and in sehr grimmer detail do I ken the grave physiological consequences that each Jump inflicts on the protoplasmic module. Nevertheless, my duty requires the will to inflict same; thus I must divorce myself utterly from the connection empathetique of the Healer, for my duty is not for the well-being of any so-called 'patient,' which in cold biological fact it contradicts, but, like you, to the service of the Jump Circuit."

Hiro leaned back slightly, and his eyes seemed to glaze with memory's haze. "Mal suerte to any Med crew Maestro who drifts from this perception and allows himself to become infected by psychic engrams from his Healer training! Twice as Man Jack have I observed the process of this cafard d'angst. In the primary phase, the Maestros delayed the voyage by insisting on longer and longer recuperation periods, their will sapped by angst and guilt. In the phase terminal, the Maestro develops an obsession mystique, a theory manque for relating the objective parameters of psychesomic orgasm to the inner subjectivity of the Jump, and in this dismal pursuit of the unknowable, attempts to draw the Pilot into endless arcane and demented discourse upon the subject."

Hiro's eyes came back into sharp focus; he regarded me with a strange mixture of distaste and sympathetic concern. "Not lightly do I reveal this secret shame of my guild, Captain Genro. I do this because I detect certain symptoms of the primary phase in yourself, and should a Void Captain degenerate into phase terminal ..." He shrugged darkly. "Quien sabe? There is no precedent. Aber, do you not now detect this conundrum nibbling at the purity of your will? Is this not the inner reason for the meeting?'

"Your insight makes it appear so," I admitted, and in truth Maestro Hiro's discourse seemed to possess a puissance that cast a harsh white light into certain of my dark corners. Yet somehow a more subtle chiaroscuro of nuanced complexity seemed obscured by the very clinical clarity of his exposition. "What then," I asked, "do you prescribe as a prophylactic?"

"Summoning my counsel is a positive indication, a sign of your awareness of the problem; at this early stage, the elevation of this perception to the conscious level is a step toward cure. It now but remains to eschew any further intercourse with the Pilot, and, contra such impulses, I may offer the following inoculation. ..."

Hiro's countenance took on a perhaps thespically crafted visage of lofty irony. "Namely, that the victims of this cafard are universally loathed, detested, rebuffed, and shunned by the very objects of their obsessive concern. The circle of their futility is complete."

"By the Pilot? But why?.

Maestro Hiro threw up his hands in unfeigned exasperation. "Why? Because they are Pilots--psychically diseased creatures addicted to that which is destroying them! Would a man of sanity demand of a charge addict a logical explanation of his passion for the electronic ecstasy that is slowly erasing the personality from his cerebral hologram? La meme chose!"

Hiro studied my face expectantly, as if seeking to read the accepted cogency of his own weltanschauung thereon. With thespic deliberance, I arranged my features in the appropriate facial ideogram, sensing that I had reached a point of finality in his reality; a void, a paradox, which he both acknowledged and chose to deny, and upon which his own psychic equilibrium seemed to be precariously balanced. I dared not seek to press him beyond this self-defined limit.

"I thank you for your wise counsel, Maestro Hiro," I said formally, but not without a certain sincerity.

"My duty and my privilege, Captain Genro. You will now meditate upon it, nicht wahr, and free yourself from this mood malo?"

"Certainement," I told him, but in the end his words had brought me no peace. For as he had first admitted and then willfully forgotten, Dominique Alia W u was an anomaly. Far from holding me in contempt for pressing up against the interface between our realities, she seemed possessed of the will to erode it. Already she had cozened me into the queasy perception of the absolute relativity of our subjective realities, and by so doing had destroyed my unexamined conviction in the absolute objective reality of the mass-energy universe itself.

And from somewhere in the depths of that Void beyond the void came the seductive and fearsome conviction that, for ultimate unknown purposes of her own, she sought to dragoon me across that abyss to the other side.

***

Trepidations notwithstanding and psychic equilibrium not exactly restored, I nevertheless threw myself into the vie of the floating cultura until the time for the next Jump by entirely conscious act of will, determined that I would follow Maestro Hiro's prescription at least to the extent of avoiding all contact with Dominique Alia W u. Minimal, total concentration on the duties of my Captainly role would remove the temporal opportunity to succumb to any such temptation, and there was always the hope that right actions well and properly performed would cleanse my consciousness of its inner perturbations, just as evil deeds even helplessly committed under karmic duress so often engrave themselves upon the soul.

Thus I arranged luncheon with Argus and Mori and allowed each of them in turn to invite an Honored Passenger of her own choosing to this little fete, which was held in the Han-style dining room. As my own guest, I chose our Domo, so that the two of us might preside over the meal as patrons of the voyage, a gesture of respect to my bridge officers, and a statement of harmonious shipboard dynamics in petit.

Argus Edison Gandhi was born in the rings of Saturn. Her mother, Edison Siddi Yakov, was a mining engineer working in the Saturnian rings aboard one of the floating stations. Her freenom, Edison, she chose homage a Thomas Alva Edison, a legendary engineering mage of the pre-starfaring era. Argus' father, Gandhi Rasta Krasnya, was a starfaring commodity speculator from Jah. His freenom, Gandhi, he chose, perhaps ironically, homage a Mohandas Gandhi, an ancient mythic figure devoted to altruism and celibacy.

The two met while both were on holiday in the Vale of Kashmir, a lavish pleasure land on Earth. Having little congruence save in the realm of pheromonic feedback, they nevertheless decided to incarnate their passion out of genetic idealism. The result, Argus, was brought up in the technically demanding environment of a mining complex floating in the void close by one of the scenic wonders of the human worlds, and after a wanderjahr spent by choice as a volunteer on an exploratory expedition, inevitably chose to enter the Academy. Her freenom, Argus, she chose upon graduation, homage a the ancient archetype of exploratory adventure.

The Passenger she Honored with her invitation was apparently chosen not as a romantic favor but as a gesture of conversational amusement. Maddhi Boddhi Clear was a bizarre pilot fish in the tropical aquarium of the floating cultura. A thespic white-haired dandy of unknown pedigree, he had chosen not merely a freenom but an ersatz pedigree homage a his own vision of himself as prophet. For decades he had savored the vie of the floating cultura through the patronage of its abundance of wealthy acolytes, or those who could afford the jocularity of harboring a man who claimed to be in spiritual contact with We Who Have Gone Before.

Mori Lao Chaka was born on Zule, a thinly populated planet maintained as an unmodified primal biosphere. Her father, Lao Michel Bote, was a freehold botanical farmer on Zule. His freenom, Lao, he chose homage: a Lao-tze, sage of the Tao, whose Way he sought to follow. Her mother, Chaka Kali Moon, was a botanical scientist whom her father met while she was conducting a prolonged study of certain interactions of Zule and human molecular biochemistry. Her freenom, Chaka, she chose homage a Chaka Zulu, a Terran tribal leader of the pre-starfaring era.

Mori was raised on Zule, passed through a short but apparently intense wanderjahr as a random charge addict, from which she emerged with a desire to go starfaring. Her freenom, Mori, she chose homage a Mori Masu Kelly, a terminal charge addict, who had sagely deflected her vector from his own chosen path on his way to ecstatic self-extinction.

The Passenger whom Mori Honored was Rumi Jellah Cohn, a merchant artiste, a speculator in the arts of others, and creator of his own environmental holosims, the combined income from which enabled him to join the floating cultura. An urbane, handsome man, he had been seen in Mori's company on the dream chamber deck on more than one occasion, according to Lorenza.

Our chosen luncheon mode was that of the communal feast. Each communicant chose a dish in turn, seeking to harmonize its idiosyncrasy into the whole, and we all ate in the Han mode, reclining on cushions around a low table and sampling the dishes with sticks and bowls.

Mori chose first and selected Tea-Perfumed Duck in Black Morel Gravy. Rumi countered with the Twenty Garden Delights, a more austere salad form. Argus selected Fire Prawns and Phoenix Peppers, a dry-flashed curry. The prophet of We Who Have Gone Before ordered up . Poached Coho Salmon Stuffed with Grand Cru Caviar in Saffron Sauce. Lorenza added balance with Ariel Vaco Steaks simply seared to succulence and served sliced with smoked mushrooms, leaving me to complete the pattern, toward which end I assayed a Puffed Omelet with Fromage et Charcuterie Beaucoup Varie.

This sort of multi mode cuisinary fugue was the pinnacle of the fame of Bocuse Dante Ho, and such was the puissance of his art that even my consciousness was drawn from its dark musings metaphysique into the gustatory realm of the senses. Until, that is, semi-sated dining gave way to increasingly animated conversation.

The post-prandial discourse began naturally enough with appreciation of the art of Bocuse and the vintages Lorenza had stocked to complement it. Thence to a discussion of the merits of the Grand Palais of the Dragon Zephyr, laudatory to our Domo. Lorenza described previous Grand Palais of her design, and I recounted my other voyages with Bocuse Dante Ho and the cuisinary marvels thereof and went on to describe Grand Palais modules from a selection of my former commands.

Only when Argus in her turn told us of her wanderjahr on the explorer Divine Eagle did we begin to drift into less entirely esthetic waters.

The Divine Eagle had spent a year extending the boundaries of the human worlds. Five habitable planets had they discovered, three with thriving biospheres. Yet of course the dream of young Argus Edison Gandhi and her gallant companions had not been realized.

"Of course the dream of all on board was to discover other sentient life. I suppose all novice starfarers are driven into their careers by that dream--to sail our little canoe into the harbor of a great celestial city, wouldn't you say so, Captain Genro!"

"For my part, the far-flung worlds of men were sufficient romance," I said lightly. "Though needless to say, I would have been pleased to make the acquaintance of advanced sapients of another breed, or even to have happened upon another set of suitably melancholy ruins."

There was laughter at this of a somewhat more nervous sort than I had intended when I used myself as a crusty salt to deflect Argus from passionate speculation on the paucity of brother sapients in our corner of the universe. In all the centuries of our human starfaring, we have encountered so little in the way of circumstantial evidence that we are not alone in a cursed creation that even a puckish attempt to deflect genteel conversation from the subject only served to fasten attention upon it.

And of course it was Maddhi Boddhi Clear who seized upon my unfortunate opening to segue artfully into the exposition of his own obsession.

"I find not what was left behind by We Who Have Gone Before melancholy, gut Captain, nor could you call their civilization a ruin," Maddhi said earnestly. "True, our other examples of the cosmic fate of sapience are limited to two planetary ruins and three dim ancient data packets transmitted from across the galaxy millions of years ago, but We Who Have Gone Before have left us a legacy of triumph, not tragedy."

"Mon cher Maddhi," Lorenza said indulgently, "they are by their own admission gone, ne, and we by our own admission are here. Racial seppuku may be an esthetically pleasing fini, but does it not take a peculiar esthetic indeed to take it as triumph?"

"It is true," said Rumi, "that the world they left behind was arranged as an artistically pleasing whole, not a ruin."

"And they left us the secret of the Jump," Mori said with bright innocence. But that part of me which had been carefully and willfully removed from my Captainly persona suddenly came alive with attention. What karma moved the voyage of the Dragon Zephyr?

"Hardly," Argus said loftily. "They left an analog of the device which merely stimulated our own research. It still isn't even clear whether they realized they had developed a true stardrive."

"But they called themselves We Who Have Gone Before, didn't they?" Mori insisted. "So they must have gone somewhere. I mean, they put their planet in order, left us the secret of how to follow, and went off exploring the galaxy, didn't they? I mean, I always thought--"

"Sheer supposition. The alternate theory has equal cogency: that they played with the fire of psychesomic orgasm in a demented and degenerate religious fervor, and far from using their discovery to go starfaring, destroyed themselves with it in a racial trance state."

"But--"

Maddhi Boddhi Clear, who had indirectly catalyzed this conflict between Mori and Argus, now sought to ameliorate it, and bend it to his own rhetorical end in the process. "Both and neither, gute madchen," he said smoothly. "The evidence is contradictory only when we insist on imposing limited human matrices. It is true that from a device of We Who Have Gone Before human science derived its stardrive. True also that they conceived it not as a mere propulsive mundacity. True too that they used it as an instrument of ecstatic racial seppuku. All true and all false. For this was no suicidal religious mania but the ultimate rational act. Having extended their weltanschauung beyond the maya of mass and energy, they committed their beings to the higher reality. They have Gone Before. They have gone voyaging, but not among the stars."

"Where then?" scoffed Rumi.

"Beyond our human concept of where," Maddhi said grandiosely, but there was a sincere vision behind his eyes. "Beyond our human concept of when."

"Into Jump space itself?" I blurted.

Argus gave me a superior look. "Jump space is a mathematical contradiction in terms," she said.

"Vraiment, meine kleine," Maddhi said indulgently. "They have gone into a contradiction of our terms, a black hole through our reality construct, into the Great and Only."

"Now you're babbling like a Pilot," Argus said. There was a hush of offense around the table, and an augenblick of Dominique's presence darkened my spirit, but she pressed on. "If I understand your theory correctly, We Who Have Gone Before were in effect a race of Pilots who all together decided to Blind Jump into nowhere one fine day!"

"As a phenomenological concept, it describes the objective phenomenon," Maddhi agreed amiably. "But like all such concepts, it touches not the essence."

I was seized by an arcane sort of deja vu, not of phenomena but, like the satoric puissance of the words that had triggered it, of the spirit. In that moment, I perceived my consciousness as being in the same psychesomic state that I had experienced when I first looked into Dominique's alienated eyes on the sky ferry, when the naked stars had ripped away the sunset veil of illusion in the vivarium, as I imagined the Circuit as an electronic phallus with which I had pierced her at the moment of the last Jump. I felt myself whirling in a cold, sweaty vortex.

"But surely such a surrendering of existence for the sake of a transitory moment of ineffability is itself a sign of racial dementia," I insisted. "Our own Pilots are rare specimens of obsessive and pathological psyches."

"Certainement, mon cher," Lorenza agreed lightly.

"Imagine an entire species of such creatures! Impossible! They would have famished themselves into extinction before they were fairly down from their ancestral trees!" The laughter that greeted this from all save Maddhi and myself fairly slapped me across the face with the cold hand of guilt, with the sense that I had committed treason against I knew not what.

"The moment that We Who Have Gone Before sought was not transitory, nor are they in their own reality extinct," Maddhi said testily. "They still speak to those who have ears to listen."

"Such as yourself?" Lorenza said in a tone of high amusement. "And what do they tell you, these spirits from the great beyond? What sprach of Lingo do they speak?"

"They speak not Lingo at all. I perceive them in dreams, at the hypnogogic edge of sleep, under the influence of certain molecules and charges, and what they tell me is beyond my mental constructs, beyond the present perceptions of our species, beyond linear time. ..." He shrugged. "Where they have gone, they have Gone Before, and our time to follow them is not yet. What they tell me is something we are not yet ready to know. What they tell me is to prepare the way we too will someday walk."

"Perhaps you miss your calling," Argus suggested dryly. "Why not enter the module as Pilot?"

The visage of Maddhi Boddhi Clear darkened, his eyes seemed to cringe, and for a moment he seemed a much older and forsaken man. This ideogram of despair he then seemed to slowly erase by conscious act of will. "As you know, among our species, that high privilege is alas reserved for your own fair sex," he said dryly. "However, in certain moments of sexual cusp, We Who Have Gone Before do speak to me. Lacking the physiology to utilize the Jump Circuit, I must make do with fleshly substitutes. Would you care to assist my researches in a dream chamber of your choosing?"

At this, all tension was released in ribald laughter; even Argus had to smile at the thought of sexual congress with her bizarre Honored guest, at her own unintentional jocularity in mirroring Mori's favor d'amour to Rumi with this outre choice.

"You, perhaps, ma belle Domo?" Maddhi japed, leering exaggeratedly at Lorenza. "The other possibility seems entirely occupied." This with a knowing patronly glance from Mori to Rumi.

The luncheon fete was thus allowed to exhaust itself in sexual japes and thespic play at assignations; indeed, I openly arranged dinner a deux with Lorenza as an appropriate gesture with which to close the festivities.

But as we retired from the dining chamber, I sought and seized the opportunity to study the face of Maddhi Boddhi Clear in unguarded repose. What I saw then was not a mountebank rogue of self-possession but an old man suffering some ineffable fatigue d'esprit, some inner unfulfilled longing, an anguished pilgrim behind the prophet's thespic mask.

What I perceived then was that he had deliberately and in retrospect rather crudely diverted the discourse into ribaldry when something had penetrated that facade. As if Argus' suggestion had been taken seriously by his spirit, as if her jape that he become a Pilot had chanced to touch some inner wound. Chance that his escape from this slip of the mask had been into sexuality verbal? Or something darker and deeper which was becoming increasingly more difficult for me to evade?

That part of me which had rushed to view the supine body of Dominique Alia Wu fresh from congress with the mystery of the Jump yearned to draw him aside and slake some unwholesome thirst with the loathsome semblance of a kindred spirit.

Fortunately, however, Void Captain Genro Kane Gupta was still in command, and I forswore this empathetic temptation, retiring alone behind the mask of my own persona to brood upon my all too un-Captainly thoughts.

***

I spent the interval between luncheon and my intimate dinner with Lorenza seeking to escape true psychic contact with my fellow beings by chatting aimlessly with as many of them as possible and seeking to escape true psychic contact with my own chaotic inner being by overloading my sensorium and thus drawing my attention outward. Most of all, of course, I was seeking to escape from the true focus of my spirit's attention, a feat of psychic gymnastics problematical even for perfect masters.

I can code those words onto crystal now sitting here in my cabin in the doom glow of hindsight with all the deeds that were then to come already done, but at the time I had no such ironic insight. Vraiment, insight was what I both fled and sought. I certainly knew on some unadmitted level that this was true, and I knew all too well that there was only one way to lay that paradox away ... exactly the path I sought to avoid. The path to where I sit now, a moral monster screwing up his courage to face crew and Honored Passengers with his own bizarre version of the standard tactic of final desperation.

Yet even now there is an ambiguity to this tale as I recite it to my own spirit in the full knowledge of the enormity I've committed. Great is the sin I have committed against those entrusted to my stewardship, great the sin that Dominique Alia Wu committed against me. Yet in some way is this not also a tragic triumph of love? Even now, I cannot decide whether I was foolish dupe or noble and tragic lover. Or whether the two are one and the same.

With Lorenza, however, no such arcanities pertained. If Dominique was the invisible focus of the inner void, Lorenza was certainly the ubiquitously visible focus of the outer reality, the fete-mistress of the floating cultura into which I sought to flee. As her amour, my social patterns were programmed by my Captainly role, needing no true attention from my troubled spirit, and our dinner a deux in the chamber of booths proceeded smoothly toward its inevitable conclusion like the oft-danced pavane that it was.

No doubt this was in great part why I had made the assignation; by throwing myself into my Captainly role I was in some measure able to bring about an inner state of relative thoughtlessness. Moreover, Lorenza Kareen Patali as a self-created work of art was a sexual offering of great pouvoir, our pheromones were relatively congruent, and I could look forward to erotic exercises in which performance was everything and psychic connections were nothing.

We dined with the curtain drawn open, to delectate the Honored Passengers and also, at Lorenza's insistence, to delectate ourselves with the knowledge of the titillated and approving observance. We feasted light on Fruit de Mer Cru Galatique, turning the consumption of the iced tray of assorted raw mollusks into a game d'amour as old as time, forking bits into each other's mouths, accepting them with overdramatic flourishes of tongue and lips, caressing the raw flesh lasciviously as we devoured it. All with foot play under the table, lidded glances above, and a liter of Ariel blanque.

As I played my role with a certain psychic detachment but growing somic involvement, I began, in an involuted way, to appreciate Lorenza Kareen Patali, and to comprehend her eminence as Domo supreme. Lorenza was a sincere citizen of the floating cultura, which is to say her social persona and her inner psychic structure were in congruence; her spirit clearly believed in the esthetic merit of the way she had chosen; there was no tension between role and reality.

If this gave her a certain flattening of inner ambiguity and hence of fascination, it also allowed one to meet surface with surface without qualms of insincerity. After a period noir of inner turmoil and half a liter of wine, I welcomed this refreshment.

"So, mon cher, your dinner has sweetened the taste of your luncheon, ne? You must teach your Second Officer the subtleties of table drollery, so as not to provoke such inartistic conversation. This foolish Maddhi of hers became a bore at her provocation. Do they no longer teach such arts at the Academy?"

"They teach the craft, Lorenza, but who can teach the art?" I said gallantly. "Genius such as yours is a genetic gift."

"So I have heard from my parents," she said lightly, playfully forking a final oyster into my mouth.

She was wearing transparent red pantaloons and blouson; beneath these, brazen latticework jewelry curled like vines and serpents about her breasts and pubes. A headdress of similar brass filigree secured her red hair into a flowing helmet, this actually done up in animal and vegetative forms, sapphire-and-emerald-eyed serpents peering out from the forest of her coiffure. Red, brass, and black, mist over metal pressing skin; the whole was a sensual image of self -created erotic art How could a natural man fail to respond?

She leaned forward and watched my mouth with those ice-blue eyes as I slowly ate the last morsel for her benefit, tasting, and smoothing, and licking my lips. "Now that we have tasted the appetizer, it is time for the piece de resistance, ne!" she said when I had finished, kissing my lips clean with gustatory exaggeration to the half-murmured attention of our fellow diners.

"I see no reason for resistance," I replied.

"You resist nothing, mon cher?"

"Nada," I said, "you are the Domo, are you not, the mistress of the fete?"

"I may choose a chamber of dreams and this time you will enter?"'

"I will follow you anywhere," I said gaily, holding up her hand and giving it a courtly kiss. In truth, I did now welcome the synergy of erotic exercise and crafted fantasy which I had previously rejected. I was ready to follow our Domo into the playful netherworld of the floating cultura, to indulge myself in her reality and thus find respite from my own.

Boisterously and with much fondling did we descend to the dream chamber deck in the lowest part of the Grand Palais, and boisterously did Lorenza lead me through the serpentine rose passageway in search of the dream chamber that would pique her desire, deliberately yet in a curious sense unselfconsciously displaying the public flag of our romance and thereby fulfilling the archetype of our appointed roles.

After an artistically suitable movement of this social foreplay, Lorenza led me into her chosen chamber of dreams.

Lucent jungle-green walls of protoplasmic softness, heated to body temperature, enwombed us in emerald glory as we floated weightless in the thick, steamy, musk-scented air. No, we were not quite weightless; like leaves in a breeze, we drifted slowly to the floor, kicking ourselves off into flight again at the flick of a toe. Mantric fugues on stringed and electronic instruments vibrated the nearly palpable air with soaring energy.

We bounded and flew into a clean, perfumed sweat, intimately exploring the fleshly simulacrum in which we cavorted, its cunningly crafted mounds and folds, troughs and crevices, swellings and concavities, all somehow abstractly reminiscent of the textures of a lover's body.

Imperceptibly, Lorenza's diaphanous garments began to deliquesce into the air like vanishing tendrils of rose-colored fog evaporating into sunrise; as they evaporated, baring her gleaming black flesh restrained at breasts and mound by tight-fitting brass accents flashing emerald highlights with every movement of her body, the smoldering aroma of fire suffused into the musky air.

Slowly and languorously, she let her floating body find its rest not on the floor of the chamber but against the abstract erotiform wall, straddling a soft, saddle like protuberance, supported on her pubes with her legs hanging free, arms thrown back into a long cushioned crevice between two mounds.

Surely this was as pure and artistic a sensual invitation as I had ever been presented.

I drew off my sweat-sodden clothes, let them slowly drift toward the floor where I stood, bounded lightly into the air, kicked high off the far wall, so that I soared slowly and languidly toward her from away and above, bellying in like a great swan upon the breast of a dark, still lake.

Arms outstretched, chest to chest, lip to lip, I landed softly in her embrace, and we hung by our mutual tantric junctures together on the skin-soft, flesh-warm erotiform perch.

Naturellement, like any other male of the species humaine, I had experienced upon occasion the inability to spring to erection when the situation warranted, either through fatigue or distraction or the triumph of inner esthetic judgment over situational expectation.

Now, however, I felt neither fatigue nor distraction, and esthetic judgment coincided gloriously with the expectation of both parties. There I hung, suspended pube a pube, mouths intertwined, in the embrace of a more than willing woman of dazzling beauty who had brought us together in this emerald garden of flying delights, light as feathers riding the mantras that fugued the erotically perfumed air.

Nevertheless, my natural man had deserted me.

There are, of course, certain exercises, techniques, and niceties that a man of civilized savoir faire has recourse to under such limp circumstances, and I employed a sequence of these before Lorenza could become offended by my lack of phallic homage to her undeniable charms.

I stretched out supine upon the erotiform divan and lavished upon her yoni such skillful and prolonged caresses as to transport her repeatedly into moaning peaks of distraction while I applied will and physiology to the problem at hand. Certain meditative yogics will more often than not harmonize the state of the soma with the desire of the psyche, and when these proved somewhat ineffective, simple venus manipulation achieved at least the desired physiological effect.

In fact in point of pure tantric performance, I was indefatigable thereafter. The test of any performer is triumph over mal karma, and the proof of such triumph is the approval of the audience; in that regard, Lorenza's surfeited peaks of ecstasy validated this self-perception.

Nevertheless, it was performance in more than metaphor. The pleasure I was giving aroused no joy in me, and the transports of Lorenza brought me no closer to release. I performed my phallic variations in conscious fulfillment of my duty, not in a trance of mindless ecstasy.

Ultimately it was Lorenza, overwhelmed with orgasm, gasping raggedly for breath, glowing with perspiration, who admitted her fatigue and satiation.

"Beacoup, mon cher," she panted in my ear. Seek your own fulfillment."

This I attempted one more time, not informing her that my prolonged priapism had been anything other than gallantry, before ruefully admitting defeat.

At this imbalance in the ecstasy of our pas de deux, Lorenza displayed a sincere concern and bent her neck and her energies to oral caresses designed to redress it.

While her skill at these erotic exercises was unimpeachable and her intent of the highest morality d'amour, by this time I knew that the attempt was futile, for in my psychic exhaustion and physical frustration, I had passed over to the stage where the only pleasure possible to me was rest. Though it was ungallant of me to do so, there was finally no alternative, and with rueful but firm gestures, I bade her cease.

"Que problem, mon cher?"

"Quien sabe?" I said soothingly. "Perhaps it was the wine. Or the overwhelming pleasure that I sought to prolong into eternity. Or some temporary infirmity. De nada."

She looked at me inquiringly, and now perhaps there was something more speculative behind her concern.

"Certainly there was nothing lacking in the pleasure of the chase," I told her, "and the true pleasure lies not in the goal but in the journey, nicht wahr."

With this and other similar verbal niceties, Lorenza was mollified, and the pas de deux ended not in overt tension between us. We both had too much civilized concern for each other for that, and our roles in the floating cultura needed not further perturbation. We boistered through the passageway and into the grand salon together as if buoyed on tantric energies and exchanged light pleasantries with a number of Honored Passengers over brandies before repairing to our respective private cabins.

But despite these appearances, I sensed that the void within me, that black hole of confusion which had somehow been bored through my weltanschauung, had finally begun to fracture the phenomenological realm precisely at its point of greatest ambiguity--the sexual interface where psyche and soma could no longer be dualized. I only hoped that the pattern would not spread to the sphere of social duty, that this most subtle of breaches with the Domo of the Honored Passengers could be healed before its vibrations disharmonized the social dynamics of my ship.

I passed the period until the third Jump in a fitful melange of dream-haunted sleep and hypnogogic half-wakefulness, erotic ideograms of ever-increasing extremity filling my sensorium in hormonal frustration while my somic indicator lay unresponsive to the demands of release.
admin
Site Admin
 
Posts: 17175
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Void Captain's Tale, by Norman Spinrad

Postby admin » Sat Mar 19, 2016 6:15 am

CHAPTER 8

HOLLOW-EYED AND HAGGARD as I was from lack of any but haunted-sleep, my condition was taken with unvoiced jocularity as the nobly earned aftermath of heroic indulgence by Argus and Mori when I arrived on the bridge I was mercifully glad that neither of them sought to banter bon mots concerning events chez Grand Palais; surfeited of erotic imagery in word, deed, and thought, I was relieved to detumesce through duty's mantra into the professional performance of my absolute rather than social Captainly role.

Or so I thought as we began the countdown ritual, sitting on my throne of power gazing into the starry sea from the bow of my vessel.

"Jump Drive generator activated ... parameters nominal ... Harmonizer circuits activated ... Jump Circuit electronics on standby. ..."

But with every amber ready point that winked on in sequence, another quantum of energy seemed to surge into the strange tension building within me, a twisting wind in the viscera, an unbidden flow of prana from psyche into soma. ...

"Primer circuit activated ... parameters nominal. ..."

Far from escaping the center of my malaise, I found myself whirling right into it. Far from detumescing through the Jump ritual, I was confronted in the most inescapable way possible with the fact that my libido had been magnetized by the sexual ideogram of the Jump. For as the moment approached, the treacherous schlange kundalini uncoiled into attention. All that had been missing in the dream chamber with Lorenza was activated now, and with it the realization that an engrammic dybbuk foreign to my will had seized control of my libidinal lance.

"Pilot in the Circuit ...," Mori chanted.

Pilot in the Circuit indeed! I satoried as the image contacted my sensorium. I understood with dreadful new clarity why Captains did not want to meet their Pilots. Why Captains feared meeting their Pilots, though they knew it not. Once this relationship was personified, it became eroticized, and once it became eroticized, it captured the imagination of the unnatural man. In the ancient literal sense, I had been bewitched by my Pilot; Dominique Alia Wu had secreted a succubus into my consciousness.

"Checklist completed, and all systems ready for the Jump."

As I gave my first command, I determined to take a more active role in the rite in more ways than one; I surrendered to the pattern moving through me in a therapeutic spirit. I would self-consciously allow this enigma I had discovered within me to play out its scenario through me under observation of my intellection and thus leach it of its programmatic power.

"Take your position, Man Jack."

"Vector coordinate overlay computed and on your board "

"Dumping vector coordinate overlay into Jump Circuit computer," I found myself chanting with an unholy anticipation, and as I actually touched my first command point, I felt a momentary metaphorical if not electronic feedback from the Circuit, from the ship, and the sparkling stars, and the energies moving through my command.

"Jump Field aura ... erected." Even random words of the ritual now seemed to synchronize into the building rhythm pulsing through me, driving me forward into a cyborged embrace.

My body seemed to crackle with unreleased energy as my finger paused above the ultimate command point and the chimes sounded, as if that digit were pressed as tight against the fabric of the universe as my nether pole against my trousers. I stared out into the bright, hard glory of the void as into the eyes of a lover.

"Jump!" I shouted, not, so it seemed, to Argus or Mori or to the ship's annunciators, but to the one person aboard my voice could not reach; she whose ecstasy lay at the touch of my hand, she whose ultimate purpose I now served as I touched the command point.

It was over. In an augenblick, the stars had changed configuration. Dominique had passed through ecstasy into coma, and the Dragon Zephyr had Jumped closer to EstrellaBonita.

And I, once more, was left in a state of hormonic and psychic frustration. During that imperceptible insertion through the fabric of space-time, did I seek to experience the subjective eternity of the Great and Lonely through which my machineries had propelled my cyborged demon lover through feedback with the Circuit? Had I imagined I had succeeded? Meaningless conjecture. The climactic moment came and went in an instant quite literally too short to leave a memory trace.

In my reality, nothing had happened, save the translation of the ship 3.8 light-years toward our destination; even the starfield shift, as always, had gone unperceived in the quotidian timestream.

So I departed the bridge in an extenuated amplification of the state in which I had arrived; my unfulfilled priapism wilting in the aftermath of yet one more dream or ideogrammically abstracted sexuality.

Yet now, minimal, I had achieved knowledge of that which had seized my spirit; by confronting the dybbuk I had beheld the face of that from which I fled. Since that exchange of name tales on the sky ferry, I had become a man obsessed; I was obsessed still, but now knowledge gave me both the courage and the anger to perceive the nature of that obsession and do what duty demanded.

Vraiment, I judged myself contaminated in spirit, impaired in the functioning of my Captainly role, sexually disharmonized, and in danger of losing my will to command the Jump. In these circumstances, I could conceive of only two honorable alternatives. I could remove myself from command for psychic disequilibrium and no doubt be rightly found unfit for another berth as Void Captain, or I could seek the knowledge necessary to free myself from this karmic quagmire from the source of the mal d'esprit herself.

Thus formulated, the proposition was a tautology. Great risk might there be in disregarding the prescription of Maestro Hiro and interviewing Dominique Alia Wu again, both to my authority as Captain and my own psychic destiny, but all this would in any event be lost if I surrendered my command.

Once breached, my innocence was gone forever, and the only path back to the Captaincy of my own soul was that of inner knowledge, that very knowledge which we are taught at the Academy not to seek.

***

During the first three hours of the recovery period, the Pilot remains in coma in sick bay as intravenous infusions and charge inducers bring her life readings into stabilized equilibrium and restore her to a semblance of consciousness. She is then transferred to her cabin, where, custom dictates, she remains to recuperate for the next Jump. Thus the recovery routine for that abstraction "the Pilot"; Dominique Alia Wu might be "exercising her musculature" and taking nourishment on the cuisinary deck within five hours of the Jump for all I knew or dared to ask concerning the generality of her unprecedented habits.

This interval I passed alone in my cabin, unwilling to submit myself to further social stimuli, uncertain of my ability to function within my role, and searching unsuccessfully for a mode of encounter with my Pilot which would not arouse the disapproving interest of Maestro Hiro or further project the disharmony of my being into the social dynamics of the ship.

But there was no socially benign path to further congress with Dominique Alia Wu, no channel of command or Captainly duty which I might invoke; even were I to arrange to encounter her by chance on the cuisinary deck, to engage her in conversation there once again would be a publicly proclaimed act of will.

Lacking any pretext that would have borne public or officerly scrutiny, I at last lapsed into the sad and tragi-comic stratagem of stealth.

Thus could the Captain of the Dragon Zephyr be found slinking guiltily up the spinal corridor toward the Pilot's cabin like a buffoon in some farce d'amour, starting at sounds, and detouring up side passages at approaching footfalls, until at last the coast of his assignation was clear of observers and he could slide like a shadow through a half-opened door.

Dominique was propped up on pillows in a bed whose headboard displayed a full array of physiological parameters a glance at which told me that her inner resources were already recovering from her ordeal. A few welts and blotches were still fading from her face, and her eyes were still deeply pinkened and hollowed in greenish black shadows. She started at my clandestine entry, but what surprise she displayed in the afterknowledge of my identity seemed mere thespic display; perhaps it was my projection, but she appeared rather to be stifling some wry moue of amused confirmation.

"Mon Captain?" she said. "Que pasa? You look terrible. Do sit down." Though there were two chairs in the cabin, she patted the bedclothes with a somewhat shaky hand, and I seated myself at the foot of the bed, wondering how I was going to begin. And what.

"Are you all right?" I muttered inanely.

"Nominal for this timeframe," she said, nodding in the direction of the headboard monitors. "Aber for small talk and salutations the Void Captain of the Dragon Zephyr does not secretly steal into the boudoir of the Pilot. Grand scandal were you to be seen in such an act. I shun not your company, liebchen, but your duty requires you to shun mine. So ...?"

"Very well, Dominique," I said sternly, donning my Captainly persona as best I could under the circumstances. "I have reason to believe ..."

What? What could I say to her? I have reason to believe you have bewitched me? I accuse you of planting a sexual ideogram in my consciousness? Truth be told, in that augenblick I was confronted with my own perception of how demented any verbal rendering of the state of my consciousness would sound. What was I doing here? Should I not remove myself as Captain at once as unfit for command?

"Well?" Dominique snapped. "Can you not speak?" Then she leaned forward slightly, squinted her bloodshot eyes as if truly seeing me by active choice for the first time, and when she spoke again, it was in another voice from another place. "Perhaps I understand, Genro. There is something troubling you, ne, something that must not be revealed to another person, aber something that must be voiced for the sake of your psychic equilibrium, nicht wahr?"

"Yes," I gasped in simple amazement. Did she know? Was it written so plainly in my body language that all could see it? Or did she know because she had done it to me deliberately?

"So," she said in a strange, ironic, almost darkly gay tone, "you have come to me, the Pilot, demi-person, a sympathetic ear sans transmitting mouth, a psyche in social purdah. "

"I didn't mean to suggest I deny your humanity--"

"No, no, no, cher liebchen," she said, actually smiling upon me. "You are right. Any secret is secure with me. No hay falta. You deny not my essence humaine, merely my social existence, a lack of shadow role to which I could not be more indifferent. Speak, cher Genro, your dark secrets are as safe with me as if you were proclaiming them into the void." Her hands seemed to creep unconsciously toward mine over the bedclothes. Her words seemed to ambiguify their meanings. Her eyes, reddened and shadowed though they were, suddenly had the power to capture my gaze and then hurl it back like silvered mirrors.

I felt that we had passed over into another level of discourse. In truth, the knowledge of my malaise d'esprit was safe with she who was its focus; in truth, confronting her with it would be proclaiming it into the void in the center of the vortex. Somehow I had been given new energy by this frail creature newly returned from comatose exhaustion.

"Have you done this to me for the sake of revenge?" I demanded softly.

"Revenge?" she said ingenuously. "For what? Por que? What is it that you conceive I have done?"

"Since I unwittingly exchanged name tales with you on the sky ferry, my consciousness has been invaded by uncertainties, obsessions noir, matters that impair my ... my ..."

" Ach so," she cooed, rising from her pillows to regard me from a greater height. "Adam has nibbled little green apples from the tree of knowledge and now he has indigestion cosmique."

"And did not Eve hand the fateful fruit to him by act of will?"

"Blame the serpent of circumstance," she said. "A random meeting on the ferry, an altercation which required your intercession--from this I am accused of conspiring to seduce mein bon Captain from his faithful duty?"

"An altercation you knew would require my attention," I said more uncertainly, for is the essence of paranoia not the projection of willed patterns into random event?

Dominique laughed. She disentangled her body from the bedclothes and crawled prone across the bed toward me, then propped her head in her hands and stared at me with some dark amusement. "So smitten was I by your manly charms in our chance encounter that I fomented a cause celebre in order to be with you, vraiment, and then with this fleshly envelope I captured your imagination erotique, so as to seduce you into invading my boudoir with amorous intent, where I now hold you at my sensual mercy!"

She laughed again, colder this time. "You have no low opinion of your charisma d'amour, mi caballero," she said with a decidedly sharp edge to the jape.

"A Void Captain is an archetypal figure of romance; is it impossible for such an aura to have affected a Pilot who offered up her name tale unbidden in its presence? Particularly in view of our ... functional relationship."

Dominique drew herself shakily up into a yogic squat, visibly feeble at first, but seeming to extract strength from the completed posture, facing me now eye to eye on a shared level.

"Precisely in view of our functional relationship, such infatuation is impossible," she said. "Not through any paucity of your manly potency or conscience sympathetique, liebchen, for I sense in you a hidden fellow being. Aber, chez moi, the fulfillment of the flesh stands revealed as a pale shadow of the Greater Glory, beyond the power of any tantric hero to grant. "

"Then it is revenge! First you ensorcel me and then you declare me the erotic inferior of a concatenation of electronic circuitry."

"But why would I do such a thing?"

"Is it not the ancient sexual technique of the femme fatale, the capture of the erotic impulse and its channelization toward a goal unobtainable? Is this not the classic feminine mode of vengeance?"

"Moi, femme fatale? Genro, Genro, can you not comprehend that erotic games interest me not, whether of the body or the mind? Least of all the pettiness of vengeance. Why vengeance? Por que?"

"The natural hostility between Pilot and Captain ..." I muttered uncertainly as she regarded me as if I were some pauvre petit. Nevertheless, I pressed on. "After the last Jump, I ... I chanced to see you being wheeled out of the Pilot's module. For the first time, I comprehended the full price the Jump exacts, and after all, it is in a very real sense I who ... who ..."

I realized as I spoke that I was dissembling, and not only to Dominique but to myself. Indeed I had a perception of this whole conversation as a pavane of dissembling, a careful tiptoe dance about the void at its center. I knew that she sought not vengeance. She knew that I was not consumed with fleshly lust for her body. We both knew that the Jump involved no rape of her will.

Nevertheless, I danced out the figure. "I fear my enhanced perception is weakening my will to command the Jump," I recited, repairing in guile to Maestro Hiro's assessment of my cafard.

Her eyes flared in alarm, then hardened into a frightening coldness. "I know what you are doing," they said.

"If it be my absolution you seek, take it gladly and truly, mon cher dummkopf," she said. "You know that any price I pay as fare to the Great and Only is a bargain I willingly make."

"Then it truly is worth everything to you--your health, your life, your spirit humaine?"

Dominique leaned closer to me. I could smell the acetone on her breath, the biochemical signature of the price she paid for the ecstasy of the Jump. Somehow this excited my pheromonic receptors, somehow I was aroused, somehow the smell of her words was the odor of truth.

"Truly, liebchen," she said softly. Her tired eyes seemed as human as I had seen them, and she smiled assuringly as she touched a tremulous hand to my cheek. "If you insist on metaphor erotique, bitte do not choose to imagine our transaction as the rape brutal. You ravish not my spirit. "

"I think I believe you," I said, sexually aroused by her presence in my body space, the odor of dark mystery tainting her breath, all the hidden subtexts of our discourse. In that moment, I recognized through somic memory's congruence that my erotic vision of the Jump, the dreams that had haunted my sleep, my sexual dysfunction chez Lorenza, were all metaphorical dybbuks of the same erotic engram, the one that rose to the surface now, coded into my very hormonic metabolism. Even the lust I now allowed myself to feel for Dominique might be merely another somic metaphor for this psychic ideogram.

"I believe, but I don't understand," I breathed softly, aware that I too was leaning closer, that her hand was now pressed firmly and warmly against my cheek. "The enormity of the price you pay is all too apparent; explain to me then this glory for which you forsake all else gladly."

"No words can tell, poor creature," she said with sad finality, and I knew we had at last danced our way through to the heart of the matter. To the void at the heart of the matter, the mystery to which I found my phallic pulse beating.

"I don't know whether I can command another Jump without knowing," I said, half cruelly, and half provocatively.

"But you must!" she hissed in cat-sudden fury, clutching at my shoulders with both hands.

Startled by the angry passion I had aroused, I made sure my eyes gave the lie to my words, and she subsided almost immediately. A succession of expressions passed across her face in such rapid perfusion that the process of transformation was beyond my gestalting, but somehow, in the next moment, she was regarding me tenderly and holding me with a lover's touch.

"Ach, mein pauvre Genro," she said lornly. "Words there are not. You seek truly, but you know not what. You seek what I have found, but where I go, you cannot. "

"Try," I implored simply.

"Try?" she said strangely. "You wish me to try in the only way I know how?"

I stared silently without waver into those hollowed, bloodshot, feverish eyes, smelled the odor of flesh pushed far beyond its natural limits on her breath, and my phallus pressed against the fabric of my pants as my spirit pressed against the interface of her secret knowledge, and the kundalini fire that ran along this circuit I somehow finally perceived as envy.

"Bon," she said, and without romantic preamble or false formalities, she freed that tormented serpent from its civilized restraints and exposed its declaration to the open light of day. "Surrender to the moment, imagine it forever, and quien sabe, maybe it is not impossible you begin to understand."

So saying, she arched her neck gracefully, swallowing the blind serpent of my forbidden desire down a long, warm, silky passage that both eased the pain of thwarted passion and inflamed it into a nerve trunk that drew my spirit down it into a place beyond thought.

Waves of ecstatic energy pulsed through me, mirrored in the moire light flashes that formed fantastically complex visual ragas behind my rolling eyes. My flesh seemed to ripple as knots of sour tension passed up and through me to discharge themselves through my finally activated tantric focus.

Faster and faster and ever more freely, these waves of pranic energy surged through me as I became a transparent medium for their transmission. Crest to crest they came now, compressing through linear time into a clear shaft of white light on all psychic and protoplasmic wavebands that lanced through me, a bolt of total discharge which left me shouting wordlessly in some time without space.

Slowly, the fragments of my consciousness reformed into an awareness of place and time, into the kinesthetic awareness of my back against the softness of the bed, into the sight of Dominique Alia Wu looking down at me, her features calmly composed, her eyes mirrored windows over what lay within.

"A shadow," she said. "Just a pale shadow."

That interior-focused moment passed and humanity returned to her tired, hollowed eyes. "So, mon cher liebchen," she said, "You will remember that should your will waver at the time of the Jump, nicht wahr, and you will at least know it is no rape you do."

And so it began. So it truly began.
admin
Site Admin
 
Posts: 17175
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Void Captain's Tale, by Norman Spinrad

Postby admin » Sat Mar 19, 2016 6:15 am

CHAPTER 9

HOW CAN AN ACT of social madness tranquillify the spirit? How can a breach of one's bound duty lead to the more proper performance of same?

No doubt our Healer could have supplied some theoretical abstraction to account for the generality of such paradoxical abstraction, but I was hardly about to consult Lao or Maestro Hiro concerning the alchemical sexuality of the specific release.

Suffice it to say that once I had made my secret exit from Dominique's cabin and returned to the environs of the floating cultura, I found myself somewhat more comfortable within my Captainly persona, more able to function in the phenomenological realm on a phenomenological level.

Naturellement, one did not have to be a Healer to know that release from the hormonic torture of the most prolonged and convoluted act of coitus interruptus that I could have conceived of had a good deal to do with restoring my psychic and hence social functionality. From the first faint stirrings at the time of the second Jump to the long-delayed release in Dominique's cabin, my metabolism had been flushed with adrenal and gonadal imperatives the continual arousal and frustration of which could hardly have been said to be conducive to psychic clarity.

Now, at least, the somic component of my "cafard" had been removed by the ministrations of Dominique Alia Wu and my psychic dialectic could at least proceed from a base of biochemical equilibrium.

The ancient volkwisdom that an erect phallus knows no morality is meant as an ironic jocularity, but it contains an approximation of the truth; when your libidinal energy is captured by a sexual engram, the logic of further action is that not of your will but of the engram itself until that energy is discharged.

Moreover, surrender to my passion noir had at least granted me a truer image of its essence; I had confronted the void at its coeur and passed through into knowledge however partial of my true position in the sexual equation of the Jump.

Primitive man evolved many cultural techniques for the sexual subjugation of the femme of the species, as crude as clitoral excision and as subtle as denying spiritual equality. Even in enlightened ages, this was perceived as economically motivated behavior or possessive greed, the transformation of feminine favors into a commodity of trade in the commerce of the masculine ego.

Actually, this is just one more transformation of the deeper motivation to a more palatable rationalization, albeit a self-admittedly unsavory one. What I had learned in the embrace of my Pilot was something well established in the annals of biology and even a truism of Jump technology: the orgasmic potential of the female of our species transcends that of the male.

Thus the sociosexual subjugation of femme by homme, far from being an aggressive act of phallic aggrandizement, is actually a defense mechanism, a flight from confrontation with this cosmic injustice. The whole cultural labyrinth of male courtship of feminine favors is actually a shrill denial of the true nature of the transaction, namely, that the erotically sophisticated male grants higher favors than any he can receive. Women of course collude in this deception, since masculine perception of the true situation would not only subject them to naked and unwholesome envy but reverse the polarity of the archetypal duality to their strategic disfavor.

The wall of purdah between Captain and Pilot was perhaps the ultimate expression of this denial, as the mechanism of the Jump Circuit was the ultimate extension of that which was denied. Here the imbalance reached beyond biology, beyond the realm of mass-energy phenomena, into the Great and Lonely itself; so named by those few female initiates who rode alone on the masculine machineries into its hidden ecstatic heart.

In cold scientific fact, not mere metaphor, the Jump was half of a sexual act; the result of my touch on the Jump command point was as much the granting of sexual ecstasy as my performance for Lorenza in the dream chamber, and in both cases it was not my own purpose that I served.

To expose a Void Captain to the human reality of his Pilot is to expose him to the sexual core of his duty, to the one-sided sexual congress of the Jump, to his own envy--of feminine platform orgasm, of the true mistress of the ship's destiny, of that which his masculine spirit cannot touch.

Small wonder then that our starfaring culture has evolved this wall of purdah around the mystery at its heart. Small wonder that the floating cultura has elaborated itself around it in order to divert the Captain's erotic attention into his archetypal relationship with the Domo. Small wonder that this relationship stands at the center of harmonious shipboard dynamics. Small wonder that once Dominique had breached that wall, my libido reverted its focus from the social to the psychic.

Naturellement, this logical analysis did not spring full-blown into my brow at the moment of Dominique's act of noblesse oblige; rather did it proceed to evolve to my present rueful understanding via contemplation, perusal of relevant word crystals, and further karmic lessons from that moment until this. Even now, as I code this ultimate justification onto word crystal, I am aware that I am still somehow dissembling, or rather failing to render a logical memory of that satori in a mode comprehensible to my quotidian mind.

Nevertheless, it is just to state that now I was aware that I was in the grip of a futile passion, not for the body or even the spirit of Dominique Alia Wu, but for that which I could only taste as a pale shadow through her mediation. The very ludicrity of such a fixation served to render it less puissant as a poisoner of my psyche, or so it seemed at the time. For this was no pheromonic infatuation or passion for psychoerotic communion, but a mere malfunction of my psychic processes, a mutation on the chromosome caused by a chance cosmic bolide. Like all such maladaptive mutations, would it not be self-extinguishing through the passage of evolutionary time?

Or so I seemed to have persuaded myself after a short period of untrammeled sleep, and judiciously distant participation in the niceties of the Grand Palais.

Upon stealing from Dominique's cabin, I had repaired to my own, where I almost immediately sank into dreamless slumber; upon awakening, I practiced several yogic asanas and a long, contemplative ablution, at the conclusion of which I had sufficiently reformulated my rationale to continue my digestion of inner events in the artificial outer world of the vivarium.

Here, amid the lush foliage, the groaking frogs, the insectile motes, the twittering rainbow flocks of finches, and parties of no less lavishly plumaged Honored Passengers, did I perceive the evolutionary imperatives at work. Frogs yearned not to fly, birds yearned not to swim, and the floating cultura that bridged the stars yearned not to encompass the region between. For a bird to swim the deeps is to die out of air; for a frog to fly it must cease to be a frog; for men to leap naked into the void is similarly prescribed by our genes. Of the three, however, only men had the power to transcend their species programming, to encapsulate themselves in technology and art and culture and invade the alien element in a bubble of their own self- created reality.

Thus, these human survival mechanisms, when functioning properly, represent not the triumph of determinism over the individual but the triumph of spirit over evolutionary determinism.

To be thrust by chance outside this reality humaine for a vision of what lay beyond and below was to achieve a more sympathetic perception of one's fellow travelers as they danced their part in the figure. I was sure that my distant obsession had vanished in the cold clear evolutionary light of day.

Soon I was taking part in conversations, sipping wine from goblets, exchanging pleasantries once more with the Honored Passengers in my charge.

And was not the discourse of the floating cultura the highest to be found among the worlds of men? In a few hours of light banter, subjects of conversation included the outre ecospheres of two recently discovered habitable planets, a comparison of modern vintages with those of ancient Terrestrial tradition, the relative balance of yin and yang in our transtellar culture, speculations on the paucity of sapient life in our small region of the galaxy, trends in contemporary painting and sculpture, und so weiter, as well as the inevitable shipboard gossip.

If the floating cultura contained its fair share and then some of subsidized children of fortune, wealthy sybarites, refugees from ennui, and their attendant parasitic organisms, did these not serve as a communal matrix for the merchants, artists, scientists, esthetes, and pilgrims who traveled among the stars for higher purposes? In ancient days, the courts of monarchs served as similar distillations of the more rarefied essences of human culture; these too were gilded cages filled with self-pampered birds of paradise, but in their precincts were also to be found the philosophers, artists, and mages of the age.

Wealth of a primary order surrounds itself with choicest viands, vintages, art, and luxuriousness, but beyond these sensual indulgences of the rich lay the possibility of the ultimate patronly purchase--the company of the intellectual, artistic, scientific, and spiritual creme de la creme of human society. Surely in our Second Starfaring Age the floating cultura represented this heady distillation; churlish of me, nicht wahr, to look down my lofty nose at the pinnacle of my society from some haughty Olympus when in reality I too was the direct beneficiary of its patronage.

Thus had the secret violation of the central taboo of my social matrix somehow restored to me some semblance of harmony with same.

Only the inevitable confrontation with Lorenza Kareen Patali was to perturb this immersion in the social waters with the post- and fore-shadowing of the intrusive void; with intimations of the less social dynamics that nevertheless still surrounded and underlay both this golden bubble of human gaiety and my own presently integrated social persona.

I had made entrance into the grand salon in the company of Mori, her merchant artiste Rumi Jellah Cohn, Sar Medina Gondo, a ravishing golden-haired woman of great wealth and little intellect who had attached herself to my Captainly person, and Orvis Embri Rico, a somewhat threadbare light sculptor who seemed to be either her amour d'argent, under her patronage, or both.

Lorenza was reclining in a padded niche spotlighted in somber rose with a large muscular man in loose-flowing pantaloons and blouson of black silk; by their body postures, the pipe of herbal intoxicant they were sharing, the silver goblets of wine resting lip to lip on the tabouret before them, I surmised that they had but recently emerged from passage in a dream chamber.

Arcane, diverse, and unsettling were my reactions to this perception. Lorenza was at her most enticing in this configuration of sated repose; her long red hair artfully displayed, her glowing ebon skin cleansed of all artifice, her body languid within a formless, translucent yellow boudoir robe. This vision, enhanced perhaps by the presence of her consort of the moment, aroused in me a certain glandular ardor of the sort that had been lacking in our recent pas de deux, a nostalgia for the pleasure in her embrace that had been denied me by my own psychic dysfunction, a desire to replay the episode to a more mutually satisfying conclusion.

At the same time, I felt a certain Captainly displeasure at this open proclamation of the fact of the matter, a frisson of atavistic male jealousy, but also a sense of disruption of subtle social harmonies of which I, not she, had been the true causal agent. While it is not unseemly for Domo and Captain to share dream chambers with all and sundry, the illusion, at least, of the meetness of discretion is better preserved in the public realm lest such liaisons be perceived by the Honored Passengers as a statement of reproach, as deliberate violation of the archetypal fiction.

Which, I sensed, this tableau was meant to be; as if, somehow, on some subliminal level, Lorenza had been aware of my tryst with Dominique and sought to chide me with a public redress of the balance. Or so I surmised in my suddenly reactivated and guilt-ridden sexual malaise.

Hesitant as to whether to rise to the perhaps self-projected bait or to leave the pair to their own devices, I was relieved of this decision by Sar, who seized me possessively by the arm and paraded me toward them with the others in train.

"Ach, Lorenza," she said rather floridly, "I must to you give thanks for the enjoyment of a tres rare voyage! The cunningness of the vivarium, the glories of the table, the piquancy of the entertainment! The companionship sympathetique! The dream chambers so daring ..."

The last with a thespic giggle, a rolling of eyes, and a drawing closer to me as subtle as the rest of it, which soured Orvis' expression and fairly caused Rumi to hide his amusement behind his hand.

Lorenza seemed oblivious to this repartee, or feigned indifference, or more likely perceived the nullity at its heart. "Merci, good Sar," she said languidly. "The appreciation of the connoisseur is the highest pleasure of the artiste." She was looking at the two of us as she said it, but the deliberate lidding of her eyes, the moist parting of her lips, gave me to understand that the inner meaning of the riposte was directed at me.

"And you, good sir, are you also a connoisseur of the pleasures of the Grand Palais, or do you travel in a more functional mode?" I said, addressing the black-garbed fellow.

"Neither, or perhaps both," he answered mildly, drawing on the herbal pipe. "Like yourself, Captain Genro, I provide service for Honored Passengers. Aga Henri Koram, servidor de usted, freeservant in the employ of our fair Domo."

"Indeed," said Sar with some raising of her brow. "And what manner of services do you provide?"

Aga smiled blandly at her with his calm brown eyes. "'I am skilled in the serving of wines and cuisine in the classic manner as well as the composition and performance of musical odes," be said. "In addition, I have mastered the tantric arts, for the successful freeservant must be versatile in many modes of pleasure."

"A pleasure to make your acquaintance," Sar said silkily. "Perhaps before this voyage is completed I shall commission your services--"

"If so, I trust you will find my rates just and my performances appealing, as most have in the past." Aga said without either false modesty or boastful pride. "Domo Lorenza can attest to that; we have voyaged together on a number of occasions."

Lorenza, who had been regarding this byplay with a carefully crafted air of detached amusement, inclined her head in Aga's direction with a slow toss of her hair, her icy-blue eyes fixed all the while upon mine, or so it seemed. "Vraiment, Aga's performances are of the highest caliber," she said feyly.

A moment of uneasy silence reigned; had it not been for this, it might have been possible for me to dismiss my perception of the inner dialog aimed at me as delusion of paranoid reference. As it was, the expression on the observatory faces confirmed my weltanschauung; Lorenza had deliberately fashioned this tableau so as to externalize the subtle disharmony between us into an only slightly less subtle social rebuke.

If the piquing of my manly and Captainly attention had been the ultimate goal of this charade, the ploy had met with no little success; after a seemly period of further niceties, I drew Lorenza aside on the pretext of discussing certain aspects of our duties. Though in truth, the harmonious performance of our duties was not exactly beside my point.

"You are angry with me because of what happened in the dream chamber; that is the raison d'etre for this public display of gamesmanship, nicht wahr?"

Lorenza regarded me from behind a facade of ingenuous innocence. "Gamesmanship? Public display? Que pasa, mon cher Genro?"

"Surely you do not deny sharing a dream chamber with this freeservant Aga?"

"Surely I do not indeed," she said mildly. "For what reason should I?"

I stared intently into her icy eyes, realizing that this mode of discourse could overtly communicate nothing without the collaboration empathetique which she was deliberately withholding. Paradoxically, however, true messages were being passed back and forth here below the primary verbal surface; obliquely, she was telling me she marked indeed my meaning. Which, after all, was only that her own previous oblique communique had found its mark.

"No reason at all, Lorenza," I said. "But it would be better if such rebukes were delivered less publicly."

"Rebuke, mon cher?" she said evenly. "Why would you imagine I wished to rebuke you?" But she favored me with a smile that reversed the polarity of her meaning.

"No doubt it is I who rebuke myself by projecting my own self- judgment upon your acts of innocence," ] said, ironically nuancing my words with facial commentary in turn.

"Tres gallant," Lorenza said dryly.

To my own surprise, though perhaps not to hers, I was beginning to find this subtle duel erotically arousing. "] am not without such graces," I said evenly. "Though I do not profess the skills of the professional."

Her eyes warmed somewhat toward me and she delivered the next words with a small smile. "Pero for an amateur tantrique, your performance lacks little. Except, perhaps, the true sincerity."

"Perhaps that may be remedied with sufficient practice."

"Quien sabe?" she said with a little laugh. "Vraiment, I am willing to continue this dialog in more intimate detail after a suitable period of reflection."

"After the next Jump?" I suggested. "In another dream chamber of your choosing?"

"No, cher Genro. This time, the choice of venue should be yours, ne, since my previous choice did not entirely fulfill your satisfaction."

"You too are not without gallantry, Lorenza," I said, sealing the assignation with a kiss of her hand, although in truth we both knew that I was being challenged.

***

Thus was the veneer of civilization maintained and defended, thus did Captain and Domo preserve the rhythm of their public pavane from unseemly disharmony. Lorenza took my hand as we returned to the milieu of social interaction; and by eye contacts and touches, shared wine and duets of jocularity, did we proclaim that our personas had returned to the proper fulfillment of our expected roles.

No doubt those unfamiliar with the rarefied atmosphere of the floating cultura may protest that such obliqueness represents not so much the niceties of gentility as a certain anomie, a spiritless charade, a decadent concern with surface over substance.

Perhaps this subjective truth has its validity, just as the converse proposition is not without its own puissance--namely, that true civilization consists precisely of conventions, rituals, and modes of oblique communication whereby the chaos within and the void without may be expressed and contained within the harmonious consensus of shared social objectivity, thus maintaining our bubble of crafted reality, the necessary illusion. Indeed, there are those who define the essential nature of all artistic forms in just this manner.

Be that as it may, the transaction between Captain and Domo, sincere or not in terms of Genro and Lorenza, served not only to reharmonize the social surface but to submerge my inner chaos beneath the social dialectic of the dance. For the next few hours, I do believe that I was entirely concerned with the duties and niceties of my Captainly role, my interior musings given over to considerations of an appropriate choice of dream chamber, to the esthetique d'amour, rather than arcane meta physic, to style rather than substance.

Only as I made my way to the bridge for the fourth Jump did this comforting mantle of illusion begin to unravel.

***

As I walked briskly toward the bridge up the ship's spinal corridor, awareness of a by-now-familiar tension began to creep into the forefront of my consciousness, with every marching step. For the first time, I believe, I noticed how few Honored Passengers that I chanced to meet saluted me, nor did I acknowledge their existence; as if by unstated, indeed by until-now-unperceived, agreement this transition from the inner illusion of the floating cultura to the outer reality of my true command was a solemn rite to be conducted in social isolation.

Indeed, as I emerged onto the bridge, I felt my persona dissolving under the cold black vault of the starry void; vast impersonal energies seemed to pour in upon me from those millions of unwinking stellar eyes; a hard-edged and entirely indifferent reality enfolded me in its chill yet somehow darkly sensual embrace. Clearly the armor of psychic construct, the cultural surface of the persona, was entirely inadequate to confront the naked countenance of the void; how vain seemed such illusion in the face of this pitiless reality.

Yet what greater grandeur could the true spirit within encompass than to sit here on the throne of the Captaincy, naked before this ultimate unveiled, and dare to challenge it with the mere machineries of men?

As the familiar countdown ritual began, I perceived it as if for the first time as solemn rite in more than metaphor, as the mantra whereby we few initiates who faced the visage beyond maya's veil, here on this ersatz mountaintop above the inner world of men, might shield ourselves from the true sight of chaos in our functional dance of duty.

Thus did we exchange one illusion for another; thus did we avert our gaze from the ultimate challenge to our spirits.

"Jump Circuit electronics on standby ... Primer parameters normal. ..."

As Mori went through her checklist, I found myself reversing the polarity of the ritual; rather than focus my gaze and attention on the amber ready points winking into incandescence on my board, I stared upward and outward at the naked void itself, letting the rhythm of the words carry my consciousness not into the rite but beyond it, into awareness of all that it sought to deny.

"Pilot in the Circuit ..."

A cold wind seemed to move through me as the ritual reminded me that deep within the enveloping machinery, enwombed and sightless in the Pilot's module, Dominique, of all aboard, alone confronted the true reality, the true unreality, the faceless and formless Great and Lonely before which even the universal void was but illusion's final veil.

"... checklist completed and all systems ready for the Jump ..."

"Take your position, Man Jack."

"Vector coordinate overlay computed and on your board ..."

"Dumping vector coordinate overlay into Jump Circuit computer," I chanted, touching the command point through kinesthetic memory, the starry blackness still flooding my sensorium. As I did so, I was aware of this action as the umbilical connection to quotidian reality, the projection of human will into the impending mass energy discontinuity of the Jump, the bread-crumb trail through the forest, the way through to the hearth of home.

"Jump Field aura ... erected. ..."

In truth, once more I felt erotic stirrings, but now these were overlayed with empathy humaine; if eros is the sharing of psychic communion through translation into the sprach of the flesh, then dare call it love that I felt as envy of the voyage fused with admiration for the voyager.

Slowly I moved my finger toward the Jump command point as if through the thick crystalline syrup of time; the interval seemed to expand as my consciousness poured satori into it.

The first note of the Jump signal sounded, reverberating through the bridge, the ship, my body; everywhere but the center, the Pilot's module, the hub which was void.

With it came the memory of Dominique--leaning into my body space, the acetone smell of her breath, the odor of the void and the courage to dare it; and with that olfactory memory-trace, the congruent memory of my sexual arousal, called forth now in realtime.

The second note sounded, releasing the words she had spoken. "If you insist on metaphor erotique, bitte do not choose to imagine our transaction as the rape brutal. You ravish not my spirit."

But now the music of those words seemed to be a tune of new meaning. "You ravish not my spirit," sang the melody. Au contraire, au contraire! whispered the afterbeat.

The final note sounded.

My memory track looped back upon itself, compressing her lips gliding down the nerve-trunk of my phallic ecstasy into temporal congruence with her last words uttered in the afterglow, her eyes glazed like mirrors over the beyond within: "So, mon cher liebchen, you willl remember that should your will waver at the time of the Jump, nicht wahr, and you will at least know it is no rape you do." Au contraire, au contraire!

And as I stared out into the starry blackness as into a lover's eyes, her eyes, with my finger paused in erect attention over the point of ultimate penetration, I understood.

"Jump," I said, my mouth seeming to form the word with infinite slowness, rolling it, tasting it, and blowing it into the void like a kiss. Neither rape nor cold mechanics nor ideogram of psychic malfunction, I perceived my touch upon the command point as act of love; true, ultimate, and beyond the realm of selfish satisfaction.

In that durationless augenblick, I seemed to feel an electric channel open; from my mouth surrounding our single shared word of love and the tip of my finger upon the electronic quick of her center, through memory's orgasmic trace, to Dominique, up there in the Great and Lonely, down there in the Pilot's module, and a great soundless sigh of airy energy exploded from my inner being.

The stars had shifted. The moment had passed. In fleshly realtime, my body hummed once more with the jagged energy of unreleased fulfillment.

***

Not without enormous psychic effort and duty-bound act of will did I remove myself from the seat of that fast-fading satori. It seemed as if I might somehow recapture that which was dissolving from the forefront of my realtime mind into the depths whence it came by contemplation of that starry mandala we take for all that is, or failing that, to complete the circuit by congress with the only soul aboard whose spirit had touched mine in the moment that had passed.

But Argus had announced our new position, my crew awaited orders to secure the bridge, Dominique lay comatose, and my assignation with Lorenza awaited. Once more must Genro Kane Gupta don the mask of role and duty; once more must my disharmonized spirit serve the harmony of my ship. Already, Argus and Mori were regarding their Captain peculiarly as he slumped there staring into space.

***

It was a thing of some small mercy that I had arranged to meet Lorenza in the deck of dream chambers itself rather than in the grand salon or other social venue; for as I made my way through the corridors and lifts, I was sorely pressed indeed to return the salutations of those I passed along the way. Shadows, poor pale shadows, and I an unwilling player in this quotidian charade.

Was I then aware of the slippage of my persona; did I perceive in the mirror of passing faces my own gathering social anomie?

As the lift deposited my corpus in the nether reaches of the Grand Palais, Lorenza was there to greet me. Wrapped in flowing gauzy veils whose rosy hue matched to perfection the uterine walls of the corridor coiled about the dream chambers, her long red hair trailing off into the subtle currents of perfumed mist, she seemed a concatenation of the atmosphere itself, an apparition, a dryad of this lust-pink forest.

Nevertheless, it took a certain act of will, a blinking back of darker spirits, to rouse my natural man from his bubble of fugue, even in the face of this vision of fleshly delights.

"Ah cher Genro, what dream shall we now share?" she said, gripping my hands lightly like a small child anticipating a trip to a fete.

"Nada beside the vision which now is mine," I replied, summoning up the ghost of gallantry while avoiding a specific response, for in truth such considerations of venue had not passed through my attention since I had last entered the bridge, and indeed even my previous musings upon these erotic esthetics had fled down memory's abyss.

With a show of some gaiety, I led her through the maze by the hand, peering teasingly into this chamber and that as if sure of my destination but spicing what was to come with playful mock indecision; naturellement, the reverse was true, as I sought a chamber that might pique not only her desire but the flagging spirit of my own.

Was it karma working through random motion, the subtle sense that the charade was wearing thin, or was it outer congruence with my inner tropism that finally made the choice? In truth perhaps all three, for the venue presented itself just as Lorenza's hand in mine was tightening with a certain questioning impatience; and certainement, the dream chamber that presented itself at that very moment mirrored that which called to me from within.

The dream of this chamber was space itself: an illusory infinity of jewel- pierced blackness into which we floated free from gravity's turgid embrace. Naturellement, not the cold, deadly void beyond the hull of the Dragon Zephyr but a stylized abstraction of same. Not a frozen vacuum but lambent, humid air heated to the temperature of the blood's desire. Nor were the stars fixed like eternal vertices in a crystal lattice; rather did they perform a complex and stately interweaving waltz to the music of some celestial orchestra. The void, yes, but denatured and molded closer to the human heart's desire.

"Que drole, mon Captain," Lorenza said, her amusement perhaps shaded with a certain dubious restraint as she drifted slowly in the swirling mists of her garments. "The Void Ship Captain chooses the void, ne?"

No bon mot sprang to my mind; indeed, for an augenblick of paranoia noir, it seemed as if those ice-blue eyes had seen to the very core of my transfleshly desire. And in truth a strange energy began to uncoil down the chakras of my spine to raise my phallic lance to rigid, somehow metallic awareness; not the sensual unfurling of prana humaine but the sudden cold flashing of bright-blue electricity along the circuitry of my wires.

I unpeeled myself from my clothing with mechanical efficiency, scarcely noticing the slow disrobing dance of veils which Lorenza performed for my delight. As if some hidden sensors had marked this opening movement of our pavane, the music's tempo began to quicken, and the stars whirled faster in their interweaving orbits.

Ebon skin naked against the deeper darkness, Lorenza's body seemed to melt into the void, becoming a mounding, curving, palpitating extension of the atmosphere itself, an esprit de la nuit emerging from the clinging black waters in a foam of stars; blue eyes, white smile, red nebula of hair incarnating the ineffable itself.

Stars whirled faster, music quickened, and I drifted open-armed toward her, down, down, down the vortex of memory's desire--into the Circuit, into the void, into the Captain's throne, my finger erect over the command point as I stared out into the countenance of the great beyond.

My spine was an arc of cold electric fire, my phallus was engorged with painful charge; my sense of who, and where, and what, like the vortex of stars drawing me down into their center, like the face of the incarnated void itself, seemed to dissolve and fragment into chaos sans form, sans interface between.

As we touched, as our arms enfolded, as flesh rippled into flesh, as lips and tongues coalesced and intertwined, as the music rose into an ongoing crescendo and the whirling stars became a black hole vortex around our central void, there was naught but a searing succession of lightning bolts sparking down my spine and into the tortured lance of my phallus, twitching and throbbing in the throes of the heterodyning charge.

Groaning, my finger touched the command point; with a single swordstroke thrust, I penetrated to the core quick of the darkness--

Jump!

--and exploded in a sharp-sharded shower of electric glass, bolt after bolt of searing cold ecstasy surging through my galvanic flesh into the vulva of the void.

Like the Jump itself, it was over in an augenblick, leaving me spent, fragmented, and rapidly detumescing, hanging limp and panting in the darkness.

Lorenza floated before me, eyes like cold blue marbles, lips curled into a violent sneer. "Animal!" she snarled roughly. "This is for you the art tantrique?"

I floated there for a long, silent moment under the withering contempt of her gaze; absorbing it, encompassing it, making its judgment my own. Wretched with shame, squamous with vile and unvoiceable secret knowledge, shivering in my own guilty sweat, how could I reply?

And yet ... and yet ...

Slowly, my psychic focus began to coalesce back into my quotidian Captainly persona; I became all too aware now of the enormity I had wrought, the unseemly breach between Captain and Domo, and all which it might portend in the social realm. Hesitantly, I swam toward her, my conscience politique aroused to some reptilian notion of redressment via the willful but juiceless application of the oral tantric arts.

"No!" Lorenza shouted, holding up a fending hand, arching her body away from me in an ideogram of reflexive disgust. Then, regarding me through narrower and more thoughtful eyes, more softly: "No ..."

"I'm sorry, Lorenza, I-"

"V raiment!" she snapped. "You are sorry indeed!"

Then, once again, a softer echo: "Vraiment, mon pauvre petit." She sighed, her shoulders relaxed, and slowly she came to regard me more in sorrow than anger. "Truly, you are possessed by some malaise, Genro. First the priapic frustration for you, then this ... this loss of civilized control."

I nodded my mute agreement, grateful for her sympathy on this level, but knowing full well that a true connection empathetique between us was impossible on a higher one.

Aware now of my shameful discomfort, she moved somewhat closer, brought her hand up as if considering a touch of my cheek. "De nada, cher Genro," she said. "I have experienced the maladroit performance sexual before. Surely Healer Lao will cure you of this malady."

"I think not," I told her, shaking my head. For I knew full well that no cure for my affliction could be found within the sphere of the Healer's art, if indeed that which had infected my spirit could rightly be called disease.

"Por que no?" she said with some renewed pique. "To fail in the pas d'amour through some malaise, this I can pity, but to refuse to seek a cure out of foolish masculine pride, this is conscious act of ego!"

"Call it what you will," I said with the stubbornness born of secret knowledge which I could not reveal. "But you will, bitte, speak of it not to passengers or crew. We must not infect the social realm with our ... with our--"

"'You presume to hector me with the canards of duty?" she snapped. "You, who refuse to properly perform your own? I am Domo of the Grand Palais of the Dragon Zephyr! I will disturb not the harmony of my own domain with personal pique! We will, naturellement, maintain the facade civil."

"I appreciate your discretion, Lorenza."

"Discretion, pah!" she declared with lofty coldness. "I maintain the facade civil for the sake of my duty, my wretched Captain, and that is all!"

I nodded, I sighed, I retreated behind the wall that now lay between us, a barrier of my own creation, willful or not. But as I drew my clothes over my cold, detumescent flesh, I was possessed by a perverse sense of bitter freedom. I knew now that the focus of my consciousness had been released from the performance of my Captainly role into a self-imposed purdah d'esprit. Like Dominique, the purpose that my spirit served was now its own.

Or so in my malaise did I believe.
admin
Site Admin
 
Posts: 17175
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Next

Return to Science Fiction

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 2 guests