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THE VOID CAPTAIN'S TALE

 

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.