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THE VOID CAPTAIN'S TALE

 

CHAPTER 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"This is an--"

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

"Both of which you have egregiously violated."

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

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

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

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

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

"Not when an officer is involved."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Is that a quotation?"

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

"While pattern itself is all that marches on?"

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

"Then why are you so hostile?"

"Am I?"

"Yes."

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

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

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

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

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

"And the purpose of the Jump itself--"

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

"Take your Jump position, Man Jack."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Captain Genro? Is something wrong?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

" Jump!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Captain?"

"What are you doing here?"

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

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

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

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

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

And she was smiling beatifically.