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THE VOID CAPTAIN'S TALE

 

CHAPTER 13

I WANDERED STERNWARD down the main corridor in a daze, or, mayhap, stunned by the clarity of too much truth. Past the entrances to the stateroom module and Grand Palais and through the cross traffic as if on rails, oblivious to anything outside the compass of my own inner universe. If indeed anything could be said to exist outside the parameters of the conundrum which had now become my own inner demon.

I had exited Dominique's cabin in a burst of righteous indignation, but this emotional clarity felt fraudulent even as I allowed it to move me; and once I was outside, other, more serpentine voices became insinuated in my inner ear, and all I knew at that moment was that I had to escape the chaos inside my own mind before I could even begin to center a focus.

In previous bouts of what the ship's gossip was no doubt calling my cafard, I had sought out either the solitude of my cabin or the pseudo-natural realm of the vivarium as refuge from the storm, but now the company of my own four walls offered anything but the promise of escape, and the vivarium, with its simulated biosphere and false sky seemed but the quintessence of the floating cultura of maya. As for social roles and niceties with my fellow denizens, I hardly trusted my ability to maintain a coherent persona.

My feet propelled me ever sternward, beyond the habited area of the ship, into the sections of corridor to which the various freight modules were secured; regularly spaced hatches leading to inspection passageways lined this seldom-traveled section of the Dragon's spine on both sides. As this pattern became a featureless generality my footsteps slowed, my mind began to ruminate on what my spirit had swallowed, and I began to understand why I had brought myself here.

The true ambivalence of my connection empathetique to Dominique Alia Wu could not for long be subsumed under the rubric of moral outrage, which is not to say that in a moral matrix her small suggestion was less that outrageous. But I could not deny that my spirit was amorally attracted to this ultimate temptation as my conscience was morally repelled by it.

As for emotions of a human level, here too, repulsion and attraction were locked in stasis around the central void.

Had this utterly ruthless creature not seduced me step by step into this ultimate confrontation with my own spirit for her own self-proclaimed higher purpose which brooked of no tender feelings for me as a man? Or had something in her sensed a kindred something in me which drew us together in our outre tantric pattern like the more fleshly but no less unwilled tropism of mutual pheromonic lust?

Certainement, there was truth between us, in abundant surfeit. Truth absolute, truth noir, but truth without a moral dimension. My very state of being proclaimed that we were, alas, kindred spirits, although that to which we together were kin might be & less than romantic matter.

Against the will of self-esteem's desire, I could not fail to acknowledge that the true chasm between us lay both below and beyond the moral realm of ethical esthetics.  Indeed, her ruthless dedication to her one true grail, proceeding as it did from a single absolute axiom to an entirely unwavering pursuit of this axiomatic higher good, might be said to be at least formally superior to my chaotic involutions.

Which is to say that I had become a creature of unresolved doubt while she never doubted her priorities for a single instant.

Did I not envy such terrible clarity of spirit even as I was repelled and outraged by its ultimate expression in the realm of action? For her certainty, her ghastly  willingness to ignore all morality in the pursuit of eternal Great and Only, was based upon the actual experience, whereas my morally superior outrage was that of a spirit in ignorance.

Each cargo module was connected to the central core of the Dragon Zephyr by an inspection passageway.  Each passageway had a tele monitor for inspecting the condition of its module via remotes. In case of emergency necessity, each passageway was also equipped with an egress and a rack of voidbubble belts.

Excursions out onto the exterior of a Void Ship faring between the stars at relativistic high velocity are not common, which is to say that, uncommon as they are, Void Ship crews would prefer that they be less common still. Indeed I had attained to my Captain's rank and served in that capacity for many years without ever experiencing the unmediated reality of the interstellar void.

The bridge tele and lesser viewers scattered all over the ship were all equipped with compensation circuits which rendered outside reality not as it would have appeared to the naked senses but as the eye would have perceived the galactic abyss from some abstract point of rest. Thus, the starry seas I surveyed from my throne on the bridge were at once another illusion and recreated reality in its untimedistorted incarnation.

Those whom emergency has constrained to work outside a ship declare the experience most unsettling. At these relativistic speeds, the spectrum is dopplered blue toward the bow, red toward the stern, and the shockwave of the ship as its shield deflects the velocity-compacted interstellar medium paints a rainbow aura before it; these effects, however, are said to be mere outre visual curiosities. But the bending of space itself does things to the human visual sensorium that are described as akin to staring into the foveal blind spot in effect, if not in content.

Despite the queasy and arcane repute of this experience, in another sense because of it, I found myself opening a hatch and entering an inspection passageway, moved by the perverse determination to match Dominique's experiential knowledge of the naked void with as close an encounter as I could conjure this side of sharing her Blind Jump.

Quien sabe? Somehow I felt l owed such a direct confrontation to her and to myself; somehow I perhaps believed that the most absolute morality demanded that I look as deeply into the ultimate as my nature would permit before I could in true conscience put it behind me.  Only by facing that reality could I in true clarity renounce it.

The inspection passageway was a simple flextube connection between the Dragon's spine and the freight module, about fifty meters long and atmosphere-sealed at either end so as to do double duty as a roughhewn airlock. Immediately upon entering, I confronted the rack of voidbubble belts, donning one and sealing the hatch behind me before proceeding up the tube to the simple egress hatch equidistant from both ends. This was equipped with a system for valving air in and out of the sealed passageway, and twin green-glowing ready points, which now indicated that the seal was complete.

The tele remote monitor was installed directly across the tube from the egress for convenience' sake, and before erecting my bubble, I paused before it to regard for the last time with virgin eyes the electronic simulacrum that had always been my least-indirect perception of the reality of the deep interstellar void.

The image on the tele screen was a snugly contained picture of what lay beyond the ship's skin, unlike the great firmament of illusion which overarched the bridge; the necessary distortion of representational scale served, in that moment, to render the still pointillist starscape obviously unreal.

Nevertheless, it was, in a sense, a truer image of the reality than my naked vision was about to experience in the reality itself. On the tele, the distortion was the product of craft and intellect striving to represent an image of the absolute from a theoretical point of detachment, whereas the relativistic distortions of the raw reality were the means by which random chaos hid behind its own veil.

Thus did that which lay beyond the egress insinuate its vibrations into my perceptual field by the mere fact of my decision to confront it. I erected my bubble of polarized force and began valving air out of the passageway, staring at the tele as the pressure came down as if to impress this human representation of the transhuman reality onto my brain before venturing forth.

All exterior surfaces of the Dragon Zephyr were charged with a quarter-gravity field perpendicular to their plane, so that when I opened the egress hatch and crawled out, I was immediately able to rise to my feet and stand at an unsettling angle to the curved exterior of the passageway without kinesthetic vertigo or backbrain fear of falling, like a fly upon a glowglobe.

When I allowed my visual focus to shift from the metal beneath my feet, however, my equilibrium was severely taxed.

I was standing on a thin branch of an enormous metal tree, the stem, as it were, of one of the dozens of huge metallic fruit depending from the trunk of the Dragon's spine, which towered up toward a rainbow sheen high above me. Attempts to look out into the depths around me were met by a sense of nauseous and formless constriction, as if reality itself were hiding in the blind spot of my visual field no matter where I tried to focus my gaze.  Blue-and-red-streaked reflections in a black distorting mirror swirled around me at the edge of my peripheral vision, which itself seemed to iris in to a narrow perceptual tunnel warped at a bizarrely pitched angle.

Stomach heaving, I redirected my visual focus to the sight of my feet touching metal, and walked hastily and easily with my eyes downcast to the juncture of the passageway tube with the central core of the Dragon. Here I placed one foot on the "wall" before me, leaned backward as I completed the perpendicular step, and found myself standing on the ship's spine itself, looking forward along the mighty length of my vessel.

Like an immense metal javelin, the Dragon's spine on which I stood seemed to pierce the fabric of space as it hurtled into the rainbow shield of the ship's deflectors, a giant needle whose prick maintained a prismatic meniscus of surface tension through the oil-slick surface of reality.

Streaming like a spiraling comet's corona from this central anomaly, space was a reversed whirlpool of darkling nothingness smeared with a cloud of blue motes, forever exploding into being before me as I rode ever onward into the eye of the storm. Behind, the universe was a red-misted vagueness drawing down a long tunnel to a vanishing point, and the tunnel itself, the reality of my visual perception, seemed to have neither length nor sides.

Unable to form this visual input into a coherent sensorium via quotidian parameters, my perceptual centers were forced to coalesce my consciousness around an altered matrix. This new spirit perceived itself as a viewpoint on the surface of its own sensorium, a second-order abstraction of the interface between sensory data flow and internal processing mechanism.

Thus, even the absolutism of physical objectivity was revealed as arbitrary itself from the point of view of this ultimate subjectivity.

From this altered perspective, I was riding through the cosmos in a bubble of time, which is to say that the only true reality was the great ship on which I stood and the viewpoint that stood upon it, for this was the only reality of which that viewpoint was equipped to form an image.

Vraiment, was not that reality sufficient to fill the soul? There I stood, a tiny mote upon the back of this mighty metal leviathan, this great silent silvery dragon burning its way through the fabric of the universe itself,  the ultimate defiance of the process from which it arose. And was I not, despite all fathomable appearances, the master of the preternatural behemoth on which I rode?

Thus the warped and twisted reality radiating from the prow of the Dragon Zephyr became a mere artifact of the system, a phenomenon of the interface between a given input and the essential spirit within, which perceived it as through glass darkly.

I had ventured into this realm in order to confront the  unmediated absolute directly, but the revelation which it had forced upon me was the paradoxical nature of the conundrum of absolute reality itself.

If this star-filled void had any objective reality, was it it not that still, cold blackness of invariant crystal pin pointed with abstract points of light which was simulated by the ship's teles? Contrariwise, was that diorama not an illusion, and the present unmediated natural chaos the unmasked face of the ultimate?

Au contraire, was my present reality not an illusion generated by the relativistic motion of the ship?

Vraiment, they were both real and both illusion. For was not the arbitrary distinction between illusion and reality the ultimate illusion itself?

Cosmic physics informs us that our universe exploded into being from a single space-time point in the deep but finite past; particles, atoms, stars, planets, biospheres, sapience--all implied in that ancient eruption of existence into perfect void. Tambien do the cosmic physicists tell us that this hyperglobular shockwave of being is still expanding to fill the indefinable matrix in which it has occurred. But of that which surrounds this universal exploding mandala of space and time, even our greatest mages remain mute. Indeed, there is a theorem, proven unprovable by its own terms, that knowledge of what lies beyond the universal material matrix is by definition beyond the powers of an internal viewpoint to conceive.

But as I stood there overcome by the spectacle and by this ultimate perception of that most essential of voids, I realized as well that by one single instrumentality did consciousness thrust its tendril beyond the absolute theoretical shell of this universal egg--the Jump itself transcended the absolute rules which prevailed within.

And by so doing verified the possibility of attaining a viewpoint beyond maya's veil.

I marveled at the clarity of this awesome satori. The absolute reality of the Jump was confirmed within our quotidian realm by the translation of the ship from locus to locus in defiance of our treasured universal laws of mass-energy phenomena. Thus did our technology produce an effect which transcended the weltanschauung of the very science that produced it, thus did the serpent of the cosmic paradox swallow its own tail, thus was chaos supreme reborn out of the ultimate order.

I was daunted by the implications in our shadow world of forms. Of all phenomena in the realm of maya, only the Jump itself allowed the spirit to transcend the mass-energy matrix which gave it birth, and in a manner which paradoxically allowed our very instruments to record this fact. Yet just as my sensory perceptors could form no coherent image of the relativistic whirlwind at whose subjective focus I stood, so was our entire rational starfaring civilization unable to gaze with clarity into the anomaly in its very concept of reality, upon which it was nevertheless centered.

Small wonder then that an intricate floating cultura had evolved to insulate starfarers from this perception.  Less wonder still that this social matrix had evolved a wall of purdah to separate the rational will of its Void Captain from the transcendent reality of its Pilot. No wonder at all that these cultural instrumentalities rang hollow in the spirit of one who had seen too far.

And if I, who even now still viewed the ultimate through distorted reflection from within the illusion, had become a rogue spirit within the human herd, what reality could a concept like social or even human morality have for Dominique, who had experienced the most intimate of congress with that which I apprehended only in tormented fantasy?

Vraiment was the Great and Only that which served no other purpose than its own. Great. And Only. And solipsistically Lonely.

The temporal duration of this satoric moment I perceived not; all this could have passed in an augenblick, or I might have stood there transfixed for an hour. Be that as it may, it was a moment that I passed through, not a state of being that my psyche could long coherently contain. And once I had passed through it, my vertigo returned redoubled, transformed from a confusion of the sensesinto a nausea of the spirit.

On trembling knees and with my eyes downcast to focus on the mechanics of perambulation alone, I retreated to the egress hatch, all too aware as I crawled through it and closed it behind me that I was scuttling like a blinded mole back into the comforting darkness out of a surfeit of light.

Reflexively, I activated the passageway's tele as I waited for it to fill with air, retreating behind the illusion crafted by the sensors of my bunker, striving to 'purge my consciousness of its vertiginous clarity.

When the atmospheric pressure had equalized, I folded my voidbubble, returned the belt to its rack, and shakily  re-entered the reality of the ship.

There in the corridor to be confronted by my Second Officer, Argus Edison Gandhi, regarding me with bemusement and no little concern as I emerged from the hatch.

"Captain Genro? What are you doing here?"

"I might ask the same question, Interface," I rejoined hollowly.

"There was an instrument reading to the effect that someone was out on the hull in this area," she said. "Mori picked it up on a routine scan, I couldn't find you, so I came here to investigate myself." She peered at me narrowly.  "Were you ... outside?"

I nodded silently, unable to frame a coherent verbal response.

"Is there something wrong with this module? Do we have bolide damage? Did you detect an air leak?"

"External conditions are nominal," I managed to inform her authoritatively,

"Well then, why were you outside?" Argus demanded, as if she were the senior officer.

My initial impulse was to dismiss her with a frost of Captainly ire. My second thought was to invent a harmless anomaly which might have caused me to investigate. But as I regarded this ambitious young officer, this future Void Ship Captain, with her expression of dutiful earnestness, her air of self-conscious competence, and her uncomprehending rational bright eyes, I decided for once to be true to my own inner nature, and thereby, perhaps, to the respect l owed her as an officer and a fellow being,

"You have never been outside, Argus?" I said.

"In orbit, but never ... never ... out here. ..."

"Well, neither had I before now.  I thought it was time."

"Time?" she inhaled, openly regarding me now as an object of unwholesome speculation.

"Time to apprehend the reality through which I guide my ship," I dissembled. "Has it never occurred to you that we are in a sense traveling blind, that we perceive the seas we sail, as it were, only through the mediation of our technical instrumentalities? Have you never wished to experience the true void firsthand?"

Her eyes widened. "Everything I have heard of the experience causes me to believe that it is unsettling in the extreme," she said. "Is this not so?"

"Verdad. But such unsettlement might make one a better officer, ne, certainement a more knowledgeable one at any rate. I commend it to your consideration, Interface."

"Are you ordering me to go outside, Captain Genro?" Argus said in a challenging tone of some insolence. But her expression belied this with a certain fearfulness.

"I merely grant you the option of the experience," I told her. "As I have granted myself."

"Captain, are you sure you--"

"The matter is now closed," I snapped in Captainly fashion, and I strode briskly up the corridor toward the habited areas of the ship without looking back, either upon the further reaction of my Second Officer or upon the gateway between our shared reality and that which lay beyond, through which I had perhaps even then irrevocably passed.

***

Much to my dismay, but in a certain sense to a higher form of indifference, before many hours had passed, my sojourn in the void had become common knowledge, not to say obsessive gossip, within the floating cultura. No doubt in the absence of any order to the contrary, Argus had discussed the matter with Mori, who in turn could not have kept the tale from Rumi Jellah Cohn, and thence to the general diffusion via word of mouth. Perhaps Argus herself had also made the subject a matter of public conjecture so that the tale quickly rippled through the body politic from an ever-expanding multiplicity of foci.

Whatever the vectors of diffusion, it soon became impossible for me to appear anywhere without my mental state and unfathomable motivation for this outre behavior becoming the center of both obliquely inquiring attention and pointedly averted eyes.

Some, like Maddhi Boddhi Clear, Rumi, and a cosmological physicist named Einstein Shomi Ali, sought openly to engage me in discourse upon the subject of my questionable adventure. Einstein wished fervently to have a detailed description of the distortion effects; Rumi, seeking a somewhat deeper cut, wished me to repair to his cabin, where I could compare my sensory experience with certain paintings and objets d'art said to have been created by artists in various states of psyche-somic transport. Maddhi, naturellement, in his florid public style, probed me for evidence of the traces of We Who Have Gone Before written in the perception of the naked firmament, although I sensed beneath this posturing a deeper longing to apprehend the essence of the experience itself.

To this sort of interrogator I replied with candid truth, albeit of a careful narrowness defined by the parameters of the question. To the cosmologist, I described my sensory experience in terms of distortion, without divulging the psychic consequences. Rumi I put off with the generality that no art I had ever seen expressed this reality, although perhaps in future I would accept his invitation to peruse his collection of arcana. Chez Maddhi, I told him my experience had led me to believe in the ultimate sincerity of his ultimate quest, though I had detected no trace of alien sapience.

In truth I obtained a certain unwholesome satisfaction from speaking at last from my authentic spirit, be that essence as it may, rather than dissembling through my persona, though I retained enough self-consciousness of the necessities of my Captainly role to refrain from transcending the weltanschauung of my questioners.

As for those, who, like Sar, Argus, Mori, Aga, and most of all our Domo Lorenza, sought to diagnose my malaise with oblique inanities and loaded pleasantries, it was this insinuating interrogation which finally drove me to the solitude of my cabin somewhat against my will.

The vague inquiries as to my pattern of sleep, content of dreams, and physiological function were discomforting enough, but when Lorenza turned this process into a public inquisition, I could tolerate it no longer.

Although I had been scrupulously avoiding her company as best I could, the most socially conspicuous figure aboard could hardly expect to escape confrontation with the mistress of the Grand Palais indefinitely.

I was sitting in the refectory of the cuisinary deck where hunger had driven me when the inevitable occurred. Here, where the long white tables and bench seating created the communal ambiance of a barracks dining hall, one might assuage one's hunger without making of it a social event, at least to the extent that such a thing was possible to the Captain of the ship. Though the public refectory was crowded, here the social niceties required that one did not engage in conversation with one's neighbor unless the desire was mutual, and such solitary communion with one's meal was not looked at askance.

Thus, I had for the moment successfully retreated both from babbling tongues and from inner voices into the sensory universe of a platter of Pasta Goreng a la Fruit de Mer, a confection of noodles, vegetables, seafood, eggs, and spices of daunting complexity, when Lorenza made her grand entrance.

Bereft now of retinue, she was dressed in a simple white costume of pantaloons and blouson, and her long hair had been gathered behind her neck in a queue. Sans bijoux or pigments, she seemed a bit puffed and haggard, as if from a surfeit of pleasures perhaps too determinedly pursued. Nevertheless, it was impossible for Lorenza Kareen Patali to enter a room in a style not calculated to announce her presence, and not for our Domo the etiquette of privacy in a communal dining hall. She marched up to where I sat and seated herself beside me in a manner which brooked not of the possibility of suave dismissal.

"I'm sorry for my outburst in the grand salon, Genro," she said in a normal tone of voice which nonetheless carried to at least the nearest half-dozen Honored Passengers scattered the length of the table. "I had partaken of a considerable complexity of spirits, molecules, and charges and was in the throes of amorous intrigues as well."

"A trifling event," I said with a combination of gallantry, true indifference, and desire to keep the subject closed.  "We all have such moments, ne?"

"But it was an act of cruelty to tax you for your erotic indifference when in fact you were suffering from some deeper malaise. "

This remark sufficed to draw my attention up from my platter to regard her with raised brows. Tambien did the attention of all within earshot focus upon this confrontation, though their eyes were fixed all the more fully on the meals before them.

" Ach, pauvre Genro, it is known to one and all that you have been wandering all over the hull of the ship like a lost soul," she said with an expression of solicitude, although it was impossible not to detect a certain malicious edge to her voice. "How gauche of me to attribute your lack of ardor to indifference to feminine charms when in fact you were the victim of some psychesomic dysfunction. "

"I am aware of no such malady," I said frostily, squirming under the covert but obvious scrutiny of our tablemates.

Lorenza leaned closer, as if into a sphere of confidentiality, but curbed not her verbal projection. "Ah, mon cher, that is the most disturbing symptom of all. You behave like an amateur erotique in the dream chamber with one who has already experienced your sophistication in the tantric arts, you engage in strange seances with the likes of Maddhi Boddhi Clear, you float silently about the ship like a ghost, you spend long periods in solitary brooding, and finalement, you wander ... outside where no sane person would want to venture, and yet you cannot detect any dysfunction in your behavior!"

Diagonally across the table, a woman made tiny choking noises as if swallowing her laughter, and several pairs of eyes could not resist sidelong glances.

"I am not aware that my duties have not been performed properly," I said angrily. "As for the rest, there are philosophic concerns which may cause the attention to transcend the realms of social niceties and erotic interest, though mayhap these are beyond your comprehension."

Lorenza clicked her tongue and shook her head slowly in a ruefully maternal manner. "Mon pauvre petit," she crooned with poisonous sweetness, "I seek to aid your recovery, not chide your actions. It is likely your condition has some organic basis, I do believe. Have you trouble sleeping? Does your breath have a peculiar savor?  Are you experiencing cerebral agues?"

I glared at her in something of an impotent rage. The attention of the surrounding Honored Passengers had now become forthrightly overt and titillation seemed to have been replaced in several cases by a certain fearful concern for the mental equilibrium of their Captainly steward.

"My sleep is undisturbed, my breath offends not my own senses, nor do I suffer head pains," I snapped.

"Is your appetite lethargic or outre?" she persisted. "Is your sense of smell perhaps preternaturally keen? Are your bowel movements regular?"

"I hardly believe my defecations or lack thereof are a fit subject of discourse between us in this or any other venue!" I shouted in dumbfounded outrage.

The murmurings of conversation lapsed into total silence throughout the entire dining room. All eyes were turned in my direction. Brows were raised, jaws hung agape, and I was suddenly surrounded by a mass perception of my own unwholesome exposure so naked and complete as to set my face burning.

"Poor Genro," Lorenza said into this thespic hush, touching a hand to my flaming cheek. "Do you now not think it wise to seek medical attention?"

I could hear the intake of breath at the voicing of this suggestion, and I could see a dozen glances exchanged with nearly imperceptible nods, as if Lorenza had spoken for them.

I bolted to my feet, flinging my chopsticks into my dish with disgust, and raked my gaze angrily around the room so as to compel a ripple of averted faces.

"I thank you for your solicitude," I snarled at Lorenza, "but I, not you, am still the ultimate authority on this ship! You would do well to keep your insinuations to yourself!"

So saying, and with the lack of any other recourse, I stalked out of the room in righteous outrage, but not quite swiftly enough to escape the sound of the pandemonium that erupted as soon as my back was fairly turned.

***

I could not have been sulking in my cabin for more than an hour when Healer Lao interrupted my broodings with a request via the annunciator to visit the sick bay for a medical perusal, which, he solicitously hoped, would restore the confidence of crew and Honored Passengers in the health of the Captain of their ship.

Nor could I say that such a summons had been entirely unexpected. While there was no authority aboard to supersede my own, in extreme instances a Captain might be placed under medical supervision of the Healer if that functionary was sufficiently convinced of his inability to perform his duties to risk his own career on such a diagnosis and if the Second Officer could be persuaded to assume command under the circumstances at even greater risk than his own.

Such involuntary transfers of command have been exceedingly rare, and instances in which the Healer and Second Officer involved were later held blameless are rarer still, to the point where the particulars of them all are known by all Academy graduates.

Therefore there remains a wise and practical ambiguity as to such procedures; the situation is recognized as one by definition so extreme that no regulation can define its parameters. Thus an extreme politesse is maintained in these matters between all parties. I could refuse Healer Lao's request with Captainly impunity, but to do so might incline him to draw conclusions therefrom which could expand speculation further and cause him to ponder more extreme measures. Whereas a cooperative attitude and a nominal chart, as it were, might do much to tranquillify the situation if it were made public knowledge.

I therefore readily agreed to proceed to the sick bay at once and made my passage thence as conspicuous as possible, rather than slinking like a miscreant to some shameful venue. Indeed, I took several conversational opportunities to inform the generality that I was on my way to the examination, a disclosure which was greeted with a mixture of relief and bemusement.

Only when I reached the Healer's lair was my composure fractured. For waiting for me there amidst the cabinets, chaises, and instruments was not a solitary Hippocratic monk, but a veritable conclave of inquisition:  Lorenza, Argus, and Maestro Hiro himself, surrounding the obviously disquieted Lao with grim expressions.

"What is the meaning of this?" I snapped, donning my persona of command.

"This examination was suggested by our Domo," Lao said uneasily.

"And by myself as well," said Argus. "When Domo Lorenza told me of your bizarre behavior in the refectory, I agreed that such was prudent, coming soon after our own encounter. I trust you win accept our initiative in the dutiful spirit in which it was intended."

"Under the circumstances, Healer Lao naturally thought it meet to have me present, " Maestro Hiro said evenly.

I paused on the brink of asserting my power to dismiss these onlookers; to avoid the appearance of a conspiracy against me, they could hardly refuse to grant me privacy, and I was outraged by their unseemly presumption.

But upon reflection, I realized that I had much to gain and little to lose by their witness. In the unlikely event that Healer Lao was willing to opine that my functionality was impaired, they would be informed in any case, and when I was found fit to command, as I was certain I would be, what better vectors to spread the word of this outcome than my chastened accusers?

I met their eyes, one pair after the other, with a cold, unwavering gaze. "Very well." ] said, "since you all consider yourselves sympathetically interested parties, I would be an ingrate and a churl not to allow you to remain.  Let us proceed expeditiously; I wish to have my usual full untroubled sleep before the next Jump."

And so, under the nervous gaze of my Second Officer, the professional neutrality of Maestro Hiro, and the lidded stare of Lorenza, the Captain of the Dragon Zephyr gave his corpus up to the probings, readings, samplings, and palpations of the ship's Healer. Electrodes of all sorts were attached to various portions of my anatomy, samples of blood, skin, hair, saliva, and the like were collected and analyzed. Arcane instruments were passed over, around, upon, and into my nooks and crannies.

At length, vraiment at considerable length, these rituals were concluded, and the diverse data digested by a med computer, which shortly displayed a summary readout for the perusal of Healer Lao and Maestro Hiro.

The two medical officers studied this for a time together, whispered to each other briefly, nodded their agreement, shrugged, and turned to report their findings.

"Well?" I demanded. "Is there any evidence of dysfunction?"

"Your metabolic intake has a slight insufficiency of calcium, your brainwaves indicate an undesirable level of fatigue, and there is a noticeable deficiency of iron in your corpuscles. " Healer Lao said owlishly. "I advise you to consume more cheeses, fresh green vegetables, and organ meats and to sleep more regularly."

"And you, Maestro Hiro, do you have anything to add to this calamitous diagnosis?"

"Only that such an examination reveals only the absence of any somic components of psychic malaise," be replied unhappily. "Without a detailed psychic audit of some duration, no further conclusions can be drawn, for only subjective analysis can detect purely psychic anomalies."

"But what of behavioral bizarrities!" Lorenza demanded. "Surely these are objective evidence of a malfunctioning mind?"

"Behavioral bizarrities?" I shouted. "I lust not after your favors, I choose not to make idle conversation, I exercise my Captainly prerogatives to inspect the exterior of my ship, and these are self- evident proofs of derangement?"

"There has been no talk of derangement," Lao said soothingly, clearly embarrassed at such unseemliness in his sanctum.

"Indeed?" I said with exaggerated evenness. "Then you are now willing to attest to my full possession of sapient sanity?"

"I have no cause to attest otherwise," he replied.

"Then as far as I am concerned, the matter is ended," I declared. "Be assured that I lodge no recriminations. My Med crew was merely performing its appointed duty, and my Second Officer can be accused of nothing worse than an excessive concern for the safety of the ship."

I shifted my attention to Lorenza, whom I had deliberately exempted from this profession of forgiveness. "As for you, cher Lorenza," I said cruelly, "while your comportment has been less than exemplary, who cannot forgive the folly of a woman scorned?"

With a wordless growl of outrage, Lorenza stormed from the room.

As Argus somewhat shamefacedly made to follow, I held her back. "A moment please, Interface, I have an order to give you before you are dismissed."

Argus turned to regard me with a neutral professional readiness which aroused my own professional admiration under the circumstances even though my ire against her could hardly be said to have completely cooled.

"I delegate to you the duty of reporting via the ship's annunciators the result of this inquiry," I said.

Her eyes widened. Lao and Hiro glanced at each other in bemusement.

"You ... you wish me to report publicly to the Honored Passengers that the Captain is in full possession of his faculties?" she said incredulously.

"I order you to do so, Interface." I said. "Since you so rightly perceived it your duty to ask the question on behalf of the commonality, it is tambien your duty to announce the answer to same, nicht wahr?"

"Captain, do you think such a procedure is advisable?" Maestro Hiro said.

"If I did not, I would hardly issue the order."

"But--"

"Enough," I said roughly, but without losing control. "In medical matters, I defer to your judgment, as I have just proven. But as Captain of the Dragon Zephyr, I will brook no argumentation on the procedural orders I give on my ship."

And to spare both them and myself further confrontation, I let that caveat serve as my exit, assured that I had established the rightful authority of my command.