BY THE TIME I had screwed up my courage and screwed down my anger to the point where I might risk another immersion in the floating cultura, the effects of the contretemps were all too evident in the lidded and carefully neutral eyes that everywhere met my glance, in the murmuring and swift whispering that sprang into being wherever I turned my back.
Goaded into an unthinking reaction by intoxicated outrage to my manhood like some naive adolescent or detumescent aging roue, I had myself exacerbated exactly the perception that I had sought to prevent.
Now, sans doubt, Lorenza's accusation of impotent celibacy would contend as a theory for my bizarre mood with my own foolish proclamation of a hidden amour. My movements and actions would be subject to the prying scrutiny of all and sundry, my mental state would continue to be a prime topic of idle speculation--all of which, alas, being that which I had made my appearance at the fete in order to avoid arousing.
Under such circumstances, my continued subjection to this reality served no tactical purpose, and, feigning wooziness myself, I beat my rather disorderly retreat from the grand salon.
Out in the empty spinal corridor, I paused to catch my psychic breath, clearing the fog of social banalities and games of persona from the center of my perceptions. And I must confess that, as I stood there with the long tubular corridor stretching away to vanishing points fore and aft like the geodesic of my own lifeline, reflection upon the state of my own sanity could not remain absent from my scrutiny.
I began walking slowly up the corridor through solitary, coupled, and grouped Honored Passengers crossing over from the grand salon to the stateroom module, drifting through this area of cross traffic like a wraith. Soon I had passed beyond this habited country into the long empty passage to the bridge at the Dragon Zephyr's bow.
Behind me, the world of the floating cultura seemed to recede down a corridor of time, becoming a memory, a distant shadow play, a place I had left, and to which, in a certain sense, I now knew I could not return in the same karmic form. The figure of Void Captain Genro Kane Gupta was now irrevocably an object of unwholesome surmise; unarguable also that on this voyage Captain and Domo had become the polar foci of disharmony rather than the ritual leaders of the accustomed pavane.
Nor could I deny that the unwritten social contract had been nullified by an act of my own will. Just as I had donned the robes of pariahhood in the eyes of my charges, so had they become less than wholesome to my own inner eye. Between us lay a barrier of fractured expectation and shattered illusion, an intrusion of more puissant forces through the fabric of the reality we once had shared.
To those whose lives were seamlessly subsumed into the mass and energy of maya's realm, was not a consciousness such as now possessed me beyond their ken? Were not they sleepwalkers through a vain illusion from the vantage of this outre apparition in their midst? Verdad, if sanity is a social definition, then Genro Kane Gupta was mad; aber if the spirit is the highest judge, then was I not the only sane person aboard?
Dominique and I.
Who served no lower purpose than our own.
I found myself approaching the Pilot's cabin just as our Healer, Lao Dant Arena, was shutting the door behind him. "Captain Genro?" he said from under raised eyebrows. "Why are you not in the Grand Palais?" Meaning, naturellement, Why do I encounter you in this province?
"I seek," I said spontaneously, "the solitude of the bridge."
"Indeed. I was just on my way there now."
"Is something amiss with the ship? Some anomaly or malfunction in the mechanism?"
"There is nothing to fear, Lao. I merely wish to to commune, as it were, with the stars."
The Healer now regarded me with a certain professionally sympathetic concern. "I have observed in you a certain malaise of the aura of late, if you will forgive me, Captain," he said. "It is said that you have been lacking some subtle elan vital, that--you will pardon my concerned intrusion--that you reject all overtures to erotic exercise."
"I was not aware that the duties of a Healer included serving as a conduit for mendacious gossip," I said sharply but without fire, determined not to provoke any more suspicion than my appearance in these environs had already warranted.
Lao squirmed nervously and leaned closer, an expression of acknowledgment of his transgression of the bounds of nicety which I somehow found engaging. "I meant only to open a conduit between yourself and the exercise of my art," he said hesitantly.
I stared at him in unfeigned befuddlement. He drew even closer and lowered his voice to a tone of confidentiality even though there was not another person in sight.
"As a Healer, I do well know that the broaching of such matters presents certain difficulties of the ego..."
"Difficulties of the ego?"
"Vraiment, alas. Foolish but true. If a man suffers from dysfunction of the stomach, or the heart, or the bowels, or discerns in himself a depressive metabolism, he suffers no qualms over seeking a Healer's aid. But let his phallic organ become the victim of somic or psychic malaise, and more often than not he will suffer in silence rather than forthrightly acknowledge his disease and be cured."
"Are you suggesting that I am suffering from ... from a phallic dysfunction?" I said, feigning lofty amusement even as my scrotal sac contracted.
"Only you are presently aware of any such symptoms," Lao said nervously. "However, from the secondary data available to me, such a possibility does present itself. A certain anomic flattening of zestful social intercourse, solitary broodings, mystical studies, as it were--these are all peripheral effects not so much of the malady itself as of the secretive defensive reaction to it. Indeed, paradoxically, the lancing of the boil of secrecy is ofttimes sufficient to restore normal erotic function."
The touching yet also clinically detached mien he had fashioned, the rational placitude of his words, somehow made me wish that I could plead to a simple case of impotence; indeed, had such been my state, I no doubt would have unburdened myself, for clearly Healer Lao knew his art well. How less taxing it would have been to quaff a few capsules, perform a prescribed series of special asanas, and be relieved of all psychesomic disharmonies!
Unfortunately, my tantric conundrum, if malady it indeed was, would hardly prove susceptible to potions or exercises, being not a symptom of dysfunction in the psychesomic matrix but of the spirit's dialectic with the universal corpus in which it was bound.
Vraiment, all other supplicants might find me less than a natural man, but she who waited behind that closed door had the power to raise my priapic lust to be something more.
"I assure you, Healer, my lingam is in fine working order," I told him. "Rather, perhaps, has my taste been jaded by excessive indulgence in the pulchritude habitually available to a man of my station. Alas, it now takes a rare morsel to tempt my so thoroughly sated fancy."
"As you say, Captain Genro," Lao said neutrally. "Though such a complaint is rather rare in the annals of the amorous chase."
"But then we Void Captains are a rare breed, nicht wahr?"
"So I have noticed," Healer Lao said. "But should you have need of my services in future, do not hesitate to seek them out."
"Naturellement," I said ingenuously, and seeing that Lao was not likely to end this seance on his own, I turned and resumed my supposed journey toward the bridge, not daring to glance behind me to see if I was indeed being observed.
Thus did I deem it politic to actually enter the deserted bridge in order to fulfill my ruse in the sight of any watching eye. The chamber lay in darkness relieved only by the faint amber and green lights of the bank of monitors. The tele, of course, was deactivated, and its great overarching glassiness gleamed palely in the ghostly glow. How long had my destiny lain in this venue and where was it leading me now?
From the Interface console, I let in the cosmos, or the color-compensated simulacrum of same, activating the tele sans the orienting gridwork of man. A million stars and nothing more looked down on me as I stood there in the darkness--points of light that cast neither illumination nor shadow, like pinpricks in a black curtain lit from within.
Like a miserable microbe, I scuttled under this enigmatic cold scrutiny for the psychic shelter of my Captain's chaise. Like fabled King Canute did I sit there staring out into the dark ocean and commanding the waves to part; like that archetype of hubris, did I too fail to prevail.
Verdad, I was the victim of impotence, but alas not of the flesh. Did I not throb with desire as I performed here? Did I not achieve orgasmic completion at the hands of my Dominique? Was it not merely in the temporal continuity that I failed the test of a natural man?
Indeed, my phallus now ached with thwarted desire under the bleak and lonely stars. Soon it would be time to make my way down the corridor to Dominique's cabin, where this thirst would be slaked. Or would it? For while any thoughts of protoplasmic impotence were banished by the evidence within my own trousers, under the pitiless truth of the void, I could not deny that I suffered from an impotence of the spirit.
I could neither achieve the true completion that I sought through the masturbatory manipulations of Dominique nor transport her to that higher realm with my machismic puissance, though I served as the will for the demon lover of the Jump Circuit. Was this not a form of impotence, albeit of a species unknown to Healer Lao's art? My phallus quivered with the somic memory of the act it failed to perform here, with the transference of tantric function to a finger on a command point as Dominique rode my will, shunning my flesh.
Yet in the moment of time-warped reciprocation, when her lips or her fingers gripped my kundalinic nexus and released its fleshly constriction, did my consciousness not batter futilely against the ultimate, did I not also eschew her womanly reality for the fantasy of the genderless orgasm of the Great and Only? Were not her descriptions of it as she cozened my lingam the only sweet words she whispered in my ear?
All at once the bridge seemed to grow colder, as if the airless chill of the void itself were leaking through its very image on the tele screen, as if the concept alone were enough to shrivel my flesh.
I could bear this venue no longer, for here did the source of my frustrations lie, and only in the arms of Dominique might I at last complete the broken tantric cycle and release the true kundalinic charge in the only way open to a mortal and natural man. I burned with the passionate yet coldly desperate desire to master her now, in the flesh, as a man, to feel her ecstasy surround me in the moment of my own, to pierce the wall of time between us with my disdained phallic lance.
In short, perhaps through Lao's suggestion, my spiritual dilemma had found expression in the sprach of the flesh, and so too, I then believed, did its solution appear to be a simple, straightforward coital act.
Reasonably secure in the knowledge that no Honored Passenger or crew member would be lingering in these deserted environs, I strode boldly down the corridor, following the thrall of my determination through the door of Dominique's cabin and to her bedside without further rational considerations.
Dominique lay propped up on her pillows awaiting my arrival with the expectation of established custom; not long out of unconsciousness, her spirit shone brightly through eyes still reddened with the Jump's sickly after-glow.
But this time I perceived as her glance fell upon me that what were hours of coital interruption in my timestream passed in little more than an augenblick in hers. As her psyche swam back into consciousness, the Jump had occurred only a subjective moment before. One more convolution in the temporal maze between us, yet another point at which our realities did not touch--all the more reason to skewer this Gordian knot with my sword.
"So, cher Genro," she crooned, as I eased myself onto the bed beside her, following the ideogrammic pattern of what had become our frozen tantric form. Sans hesitation or truly passion, she slid her hand up my thigh with repetition-honed surety, enfolding the response she knew would be there.
"So, liebe Dominique, I have become an object of unwholesome surmise to the passengers and crew of my own ship; my manly potence is questioned by all and sundry, and all for the love of you. ... "
I gazed into her eyes as I said it, or rather into a focal plane just short of her face, so that naught but ambiguity might be read from my intense stare, and I nuanced my voice with wry irony even as I made my face a mask of stone. As for me, I remained to myself unreadable as well, distant from whatever might have lain at the heart of my meaning of this phenomenological and social truth.
"You know not what you say," she said.
"Perhaps," I replied. "Certainement, I know not what I do."
"Mein pauvre petit," she said, stroking my cheek as if I were a lorn little child, a gesture I now perceived as having become a commonality in the ritual of our affair.
"My femme fatale," I said enigmatically; undertoning passion with irony as I grabbed her up in my arms, determined to proceed with my phallic intentions even though no psychic mode of amorous procedure seemed to present itself to the flesh with any conviction.
"Vraiment, Genro," she said as her body tensed into resistance, "you do indeed know not what you do."
"What I do now is the only thing I do with clear volition," I told her, speaking at last a plain, unambiguous truth.
So saying, I reached back into the memory track of a thousand such moments and kissed her full on the lips, open-mouthed and with full labial honors.
Her pliant lips were unresistant to my own and nothing more, her breath metallic with chemical fatigue, and her body remained a fleshly statue under my touch. Yet somehow this very nonresponsiveness seemed to fuel the fires of my lust with the determination to shatter it into womanly passion.
I slid my hand under the bedclothes to seize her at the quick, even as her immobile hand remained fastened to my own tantric focus.
At this, she pulled her mouth away with a cool, calm lack of either startlement or distaste and looked me evenly in the eyes.
"You'd rather not," she said.
"You mean you would rather not. I assure you I know exactly what I want. "
A thin smile creased her puffy, bruised lips, and the spirit seemed to vanish from the windows of her eyes, robbing her face of mere human expression. "Nein, liebchen," she said. "I know what you want. Do not make me cruel enough to tell you."
In response, as if to shout "This is what I want!" like some brutish lout, I tossed her on her back and fell upon her, tearing aside bedclothes and raiment with an unseemly haste, and not without her assistance. This accomplished, I moved my mouth toward hers as she reestablished her hold on my lingam.
But as my lips descended toward her, she rolled her head away, still without expressing any displeasure by releasing her grip on my manhood. She stared up at me with something short of defiance and something more than rejection's ice.
"You may do as you believe you desire without any ill will chez moi," she said softly. "Only then will you believe what you already know."
"Only then will you know what I believe!" I countered angrily, but not without a certain tender passion, and I prized her hand away from my phallus and penetrated at last to the core of the matter with the first heartfelt thrust.
There was no resistance to my penetration. Nor was there any discernible response. My rage engorged by this ultimate affront to my manly puissance, I threw into the fray all my frenzied vigor and all my not inconsiderable tantric skill. Nevertheless, I was thrusting my kundalinic prana into a vacuum, I was delving a featureless void; I evoked not a sound or movement, not even as my control eroded after what seemed like an eternity of fiery calisthenics and my flesh was carried by its own momentum toward the edge of its solitary release.
Indeed at the ultimate moment, I looked full into Dominique's eyes, and what I beheld there staring back at me from some unfathomable distance was a mask of indifference, sans feeling or passion or even triumphant self-control; merely a nothingness so absolute that my orgasm became an ugly explosion of soul-chilling ice.
"It's not you, mein pauvre," she said as I lay upon her in exhaustion and no little despair. "You are the noble stallion of the tantra, but chez moi, it is no use."
"The first occasion is seldom representative of the full possibilities," I whined with a certain wounded pompous pride, "If you will allow others, I will prove it to you."
"I allow you all, Genro, provided you do not fail to allow me the One," she said with a strange passionless indifference. "But even should you be skilled enough to evoke your desired response, you will only learn that you have not gotten what you really want."
"And what is it that I really want?" I demanded, rolling off her into a squat, and glaring down at her supine form from above.
"You know it already, though alas, you must hear it from my lips," Dominique said, slowly rising to face me level to level. "What only I can have."
Chilled to the coeur, frozen in timeless amber, I looked unwaveringly into her eyes, into the voidly visage of the Great and Only, into the opaque-mirrored black vision of my own impossible desire.
"Ach, Genro, you yearn to be my lover in the Jump, ne, to share the cusp of the spirit beyond the mere orgasm of the flesh. And would I not give you this gladly if it were mine to grant? But this is impossible, my poor creature. Unless...."
"Unless?" I hissed sharply as I felt my blood beat in my suddenly echoing brain.
"Unless, like me, you are willing to forsake all else; unless you are truly mad or sane enough to travel the path to its ultimate end."
"There is a way?" I said, aware now that this moment had been preordained on the sky ferry, and mayhap by her will. I sensed with the cold certainty of hindsight's logic that all had been a prelude to this, that despite her protestations to the contrary, she had sought to bring me here from the start, and for purpose of her own as she herself had declared. If a sympathy of sorts had evolved between us in the process, it was no doubt incidental to her true quest, the object of which she had now made my own. Yet despite this satoric knowledge of her guileful manipulations, I hung breathless on her words, although I feared what I was to hear.
Dominique, somewhat shakily, eased her body back into her nest of pillows for support; I remained squatting where I was, but our eye contact never wavered.
"You have never seen the face of a Pilot who has died in the Jump," she began. "Aber, mon cher, I have, on the Feather Serpent, the face of the Pilot who died on that voyage, Dominique Noda Benares, whose destiny and freenom I took upon viewing it."
She shivered. For a moment her eyes became shimmers of mirrored opacity, but then I began to glimpse something forming out of my own inner chaos beginning to be reflected back.
"Tres drole, no, sehr macabre, I look into the face of a corpse, and I know that I can be a Pilot, and I know tambien that I must. Had you seen it, Genro, perhaps you would understand. The face of a soul that had died transformed."
In her eyes, in the memory of her own mask of comatose bliss glimpsed on the gurney, in the congruence of her words with Maddhi Boddhi Clear's description of the dying moment of his lover who had sought this apotheosis on the altar of We Who Have Gone Before ecstatically impaled on his lance, I could almost see the dead Pilot's face.
"Perhaps I am beginning to understand," I said. "You sought that blissful moment of final release, you were seduced by ecstatic death."
Dominique shrugged, breaking the intensity of the moment, perhaps through breathless choice. "Could I truly know what I was seeking before my first Jump?" she said. "I knew not what I sought, only where it was to be found. It took me many Jumps to begin to understand."
She paused, breaking eye contact and leaning back against the pillows as if to inform me that this discourse had a distance to go before it reached the answer I both sought and dreaded.
"Dominique Noda Benares must have been gifted by fate with the death of the body in the moment of the Jump. Somehow, the Feather Serpent passed through, and she went on."
"On. On and on and on. Forever."
"I don't understand."
"Poor creature, of course you do not!" she said ruefully. "To you, the Jump is an augenblick too brief to register on your instruments, nicht wahr, aber within it lies eternity. There is no time in the Great and Only; therefore, within it, there is all time. There is no space, and so there is all space. Nothing is contained, and so the spirit contains all. ..." She shrugged, she squirmed, her face twisted and twitched, as if her whole corpus were frustrated by the impossibility of speaking the unwordable.
"The antique human religions, nicht wahr," she finally said, "with their cravings for nirvana, Atman, life everlasting in the heavens above--these must have been dim perceptions of that which underlies and transcends this temporal illusion, where spirit grows from flesh, only to depart into the nothingness from which it came."
She sighed. She smiled at me, a smile not without human warmth but not without something else too.
"We swim in deep waters, liebchen," she said softly. "Con su permiso, we go deeper still. I hold back nothing; I tell you my dream that I have never dared to reveal to another soul. The dream that makes me a sport even among Pilots, the hope that has caused me to preserve my flesh with nutriment and exercise so that it may maintain my spirit in this realm as long as possible. I have told you I do this so as to experience as many Jumps as possible in my life span. But now that I have found you, I reveal the truth of which that is the shadow. ..."
She stared into my eyes, uncertainly it seemed, as if trying to verify some conclusion written therein. I stared back at her shorn of all artifice or manipulative intent, opening my windows to reveal whatever unknown essence she sought to perceive within.
"My dream, cher Genro, is to find a Captain who will help me to make one last Jump into the Great and Only, who will let me go on and not come back. And I believe I have found him in you."
"You have heard of the Blind Jump, nicht wahr," she said in a strange, distant tone that seemed to echo down the corridors of my mind. Without conscious awareness of the process until it was completed, I found myself sinking silently into the pillows beside her as if my body were no longer willing to bear its own weight.
"No one here knows what happens to a ship that Jumps Blind except that it vanishes from the here and now," she went on. "Science has its limited surmises as to how. A malfunction of the electronic instrumentality. Biological failure as the overlay guides the Pilot through the cusp. Some mad test of a Pilotless Jump Circuit. This much you are taught at your Academy, verdad?"
I nodded numbly, reduced to silent absorption of what I already sensed was about to be revealed.
"But there is that of which the scientists dare not speak," she said. "The Blind Jump achieved by the will humaine. Aber not by the will of the Pilot. What I have sought is a Captain of the Void with the vision and the understanding to do it for me. And you, mein Genro, are you that man?"
"What is it you expect me to do?" I whispered.
"In technical terms, a trivial act. It is the vector coordinate overlay which guides the Pilot and through her the ship through the Great and Lonely back into this pale realm, nicht wahr, which forces her spirit to return. When next we Jump, neglect to feed the vector coordinate overlay into the Jump Circuit computer, let me jump free, up and out and on into the Great and Only. Set me free, liebe Genro, set me free!"
"Set you free!" I shouted. "Kill myself and destroy my ship for the sake of your cosmic unnamable! What ego! What arrogance! What madness! What demonic gall! How can you believe that I would even consider such a thing? What kind of monster do you think I am?"
Dominique looked back into my outrage with eyes of black ice. "You were told that to achieve what fleshly destiny has decreed you can never have you must forsake all else, mannlein. You were told that you must be mad or sane enough to follow the path to its ultimate end. Now you have arrived."
Her voice had become distant and hard and cosmically cold, sans emotion humaine, sans pity, sans morality, and yet, somehow, informed by a quality that seemed to transcend all of these.
"What happens to a ship that Jumps Blind, Genro?'" she asked in that same even and unyielding voice.
"No one knows," I said softly. "No one can." But already my visceral precognition was oozing forward within my bowels toward the awful inevitable, toward the ultimate and monstrous bargain offered up to my soul.
"If Pilot and ship Jump free into the Great and Only, if there is no vector coordinate overlay to dragoon us back, will we not go on together eternally in the timelessness beyond the void, and will that untimebound moment not last forever for our spirits? Free me, Genro. Free me and I'll take you with me."
"And everyone else on this ship."
"Yes," she said coldly, without a flicker of regret or guilt.
"That's mass murder. ..," I declared righteously. "That's evil beyond all rationalization. ..."
"Only if you also believe it is suicide," she said evenly. " Aber chez moi, if you believe as I believe, as you cannot help yourself from believing, is it not the bestowing of the ultimate good?"
"No man has the right to make such a choice for another," I said firmly. In that, at least, my conviction was not feigned.
"Forsaking ... all ... else. ..," she said slowly and harshly, emphasizing every syllable as if to express the whole as a single, terrible, indivisible truth. "You were told that was the price. All else, mannlein. All considerations of this shadow realm."
My heart seemed to stop in my chest as I saw my own depths mirrored in her eyes. As I looked through those windows into the eternity within, time froze, perspective reversed itself, and all that I saw seemed a reflection of myself.
"I'd never do such a thing," I said bloodlessly, "Surely you must realize that." Was the waver only in my voice, or had it already come to express a tremor in my resolve? Was it the thin, knowing smile on her lips that made my own words ring hollow in my ears, or was it already the shadow of the inevitable emerging like leviathan from my own depths?
"There are many Jumps between here and Estrella Bonita," Dominique said calmly, dismissing my protestations from her discourse as if their finality had never been uttered. "And never is not so long a time as forever, verdad?"
Our eyes locked in a long, silent contest of wills.
"Never," I finally said, crawling from that bed of unspeakable temptation to stand as my own man. "And will I allow you to tempt me so again. I put all this behind me! It's time we said goodbye."
She looked up at me evenly as I backed toward the door. "Say what you will, mon cher ," she said with ruthless knowingness, "this is only auf wiedersehen."