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THE VOID CAPTAIN'S TALE

 

CHAPTER 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I cannot answer that," I told her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Will I?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"-remarkable parameters-"

"-we shall see after the first Jump-"

"-could last another ten years-"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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