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THE VOID CAPTAIN'S TALE

 

CHAPTER 7

NATURELLEMENT, BECAUSE I WAS Captain, there was no authority aboard to whom I could confide my mal d'esprit without undermining all confidence in my command. Thus far I had been able to pass off social intercourse with the Pilot, support of her right to limited officers' privileges, even the viewing of her ravaged corpus straight from the bed of the act, as random strokes of karma or the exigencies of command, but if I bared the nature of the consciousness behind my acts to officer or Honored Passenger, surely that person would question my fitness to fulfill my Captainly role and would hardly feel bound to social silence on my behalf.

Still, there was the ghost of a shipboard tradition far older than starfaring whereby captains of lonely command might seek a certain circumscribed counsel from the ship's physician, bound as that officer was by the ancient oath of Hippocrates to silence on anything that could be construed as a private medical matter. Of course this officer was not bound to silence in extremis, that is, in cases where the dementia of the Captain endangered the ship, but some semblance of this Hippocratic discretion still survived in the Second Starfaring Age as a sort of psychic safety valve.

On the Dragon Zephyr, the Healer was responsible for correcting malfunctions of body and mind, but Maestro Hiro was First Medical Officer by dint of his overall responsibility for the passengers in electrocoma, and, more apropos in this case, by his responsibility for the functional maintenance of the Pilot.

Thus, using my "accidental" vision of the severely ravaged state of our Pilot as an excuse, and not without putting on a certain false innocence about such matters, I might use my legitimate Captainly concern for the safety of the ship to circumspectly approach Maestro Hiro on the matters that troubled my spirit.

While the customary social reserve between Captain and Med crew Maestro had not been breached, I had of course perused a summary of his name tale upon assuming command of the Dragon Zephyr.

Hiro Alin Nagy had been born on Earth. His father, Alin Mallory Fried, was an astrophysicist of some minor renown, specializing in mass-energy aspects of the Jump. His freenom, Alin, he had chosen upon acceptance of his thesis, homage a Alin Vladimir Khan, leader of the scientific team which had finally produced the first working Jump Drive. Hiro's mother, Nagy Toda Gala, was an exobiologist who had retired to a Terran university to pursue theoretical studies relating to the failure of the multiplicity of known biospheres to crown their creation  with sapience. Her freenom, Nagy, she chose homage a Galen Nagy, a biologist of the early First Starfaring Age, the first scientist to study a complex extra-solar ecosphere.

Thus from his mother, Hiro had inherited a certain interest in starfaring as well as a bent for the biological sciences, while from his father he had received an interest in the physics of the Jump itself.

His freenom, Hiro, he had chosen somewhat bizarrely homage a Hiro Karim Abdullah, an involuntarily retired Void Ship Med Maestro he had encountered as a patient in a mental retreat.

A short, dark man of the reserve traditional to his calling, Maestro Hiro betrayed little overt emotion upon being summoned to my cabin, although surely he must have been bemused by this outre procedure, especially coming so soon after the unseemly confrontation outside the Pilot's module.

After a formal offer of liquid refreshment, which was just as formally refused, I decided to come immediately as close to the point of this peculiar seance as was politic.

"I realize this is a somewhat unusual occurrence, but then it is not usual for the Captain to view the Pilot, and especially not so soon after ... ah ..."

A mere raising of an eyebrow;  I could sense a certain distaste, a total lack of forthcomingness hardly surprising under the circumstances.

"Quite frankly, I am concerned about the physical condition of our Pilot." I said. "She seemed, well, severely depleted ..."

A brittle and entirely humorless laugh. "Trouble yourself not, mein Captain," Hiro said brusquely. "Of all the Void Pilots I have had under my care, Dominique Alia Wu has the strongest physique. Anomalously so, in fact."

"Indeed?"

"Vraiment.  An amazing specimen. Most of these creatures remain in vegetative state between Jumps. This one exercises its musculature through perambulation--as you have had unfortunate occasion to observe. Most of them will not eat and must be nourished intravenously. This one not only cooperates fully with nutritional mandation but orders up viands on the cuisinary deck to the discomfort of all."

"But she looked so pale, so comatose, so near-moribund--"

Emotion for the first time--a derisory snort, a curl of the lip, a certain moue of unpleasant superior knowledge. "Au contraire, the physiological consequences of the Jump were minimal."

"Minimal? You call that minimal?"

"Minimal," Hiro said flatly. "You need parallax to comprehend this, mein Captain; you should observe what most of them look like afterward." He gave me a hard, speculative look, and for a moment I felt he was perceiving my inner being, that confusion of spirit which I both sought to bare and feared to reveal.

"I withdraw that, Captain Genro," he said.  Already you have seen more than you should have. That is the true reason for us meeting, nicht wahr?"

It was, I think, a certain act of courage for me merely to nod numbly.

A certain concern for my well-being seemed to steal into Maestro Hiro's features, albeit of a stern fatherly species.  "There is a paradox noir about this Pilot," he said. "I have been favored with the most superior specimen of the breed that I have ever encountered, and one, moreover, who cooperates with the recovery regime to an unnatural degree; this should please a man of my profession. Alas, it does not. There is an aura of ... unwholesomeness here, a blackness of das energei, a ..." He threw up his hands in a gesture of verbal defeat. "She speaks, she examines her own physiological readouts, she treats us like ... like ..."

"Shadows?" I ventured. "Servants of her purpose rather than the accustomed reverse?"

Hiro's eyes widened; in surprise and perhaps a frisson of sudden self discovery, "This is your perception, Captain, or ...?"

"Something she said to me," I admitted. "That the purpose of ship and crew, your purpose and mine, Maestro Hiro, is to send her forth into the Great and Only, and that all else is shadow. You are as versed in the lore of the Jump as any man may be.  Can you elucidate the inner meaning?"

Hiro scowled, he shrugged, he threw up his bands--all an ideogram of philosophic dismissal that was less than entirely convincing. "These creatures, when they manage a coherent sprach, babble about naught but their Great and Only, aber semantic content, nil . ..."

"It is a reference to Jump space itself, ne?" I persisted.

"There is no such thing as Jump space, Captain, as you well know; this is a contradiction in terms."

"Well then to the Jump itself, to psychesomic orgasm, to what happens between the time I touch the Jump command point and the time the ship--"

"This interval is also nonexistent," Hiro said testily.

"To psychesomic orgasm, then," I replied with congruent petulance. "Surely you will concede that that exists, being a verified expert on same."

"What is the point of all this, Captain Genro? You did not truly summon me here out of mere concern for the health of our Pilot, verdad?"

"Verdad," I admitted. "Dominique spoke to me of the sublimity of the experience, I have seen the baleful physiological results, and yet ... You have never pondered these matters, Maestro Hiro?"

"What matters, Captain Genro?" he said with what seemed to be willfully, if not fearfully, crafted ignorance.

"The essence of it, Maestro. Of the Jump, psychesomic orgasm, the Great and Lonely, the mysterious nonexistent interval, that upon which starfaring and our entire civilization revolve, the center which is void."

"So ..." Maestro Hiro said slowly. "This Pilot, she has projected her obsessions into your mindfield, nicht wahr? 'Dominique,' you have called her? You have been favored  with the tale of this name perhaps as well?"

I could only nod. "You wish to hear it?"

"Nein!" Hiro snapped with unmistakable shrillness. "It is exactly what I do not want to hear!"

"You have no curiosity about the pedigree and free nom of your patient?"

Maestro Hiro inhaled slowly and deeply, held his breath for a long moment, then exhaled fully; when he had completed this exercise, he seemed to have composed himself by an act of will. He now regarded me with an expression of sagely and perhaps slightly forlorn sympathy.

"I begin to encompass more fully what has compelled this consultation, mein Captain, though I fear you possess not full self-awareness of what moves you," he said softly and evenly. "I have observed this cafard before in members of my own profession, aber in a Void Captain nimmer,"

"Cafard of your profession ...?"

"Ja," Hiro said thickly. "Once have I observed the aftermath, twice the malaise in process, and other cases are enshrined in the literature. It is why it is a grave mistake to allow oneself to regard the Pilot as a 'patient.' Why also Med crews have Healers like Lao subordinate to the Maestro, even though, naturellement, all Maestro are versed in the Healing arts. If I may presume a philosophic digression ...?"

"By all means," I told him. I had shipped with many Med crew Maestros, of course, but all maintained reserve, as much, I think, by psychotypical inclination as by custom, and this was as close as any had come to revealing a bit of the inner lore.

"My duty absolute aboard this ship is to keep a functional Pilot in the Circuit, ne, just as yours is to command the actuation of same. Far better than you and in sehr grimmer detail do I ken the grave physiological consequences that each Jump inflicts on the protoplasmic module. Nevertheless, my duty requires the will to inflict same; thus I must divorce myself utterly from the connection empathetique of the Healer, for my duty is not  for the well-being of any so-called 'patient,' which in cold biological fact it contradicts, but, like you, to the service of the Jump Circuit."

Hiro leaned back slightly, and his eyes seemed to glaze with memory's haze. "Mal suerte to any Med crew Maestro who drifts from this perception and allows himself to become infected by psychic engrams from his Healer training! Twice as Man Jack have I observed the process of this cafard d'angst.   In the primary phase, the Maestros delayed the voyage by insisting on longer and longer recuperation periods, their will sapped by angst and guilt. In the phase terminal, the Maestro develops an obsession mystique, a theory manque for relating the objective parameters of psychesomic orgasm to the inner subjectivity of the Jump, and in this dismal pursuit of the unknowable, attempts to draw the Pilot into endless arcane and demented discourse upon the subject."

Hiro's eyes came back into sharp focus; he regarded me with a strange mixture of distaste and sympathetic concern. "Not lightly do I reveal this secret shame of my guild, Captain Genro. I do this because I detect certain symptoms of the primary phase in yourself, and should a Void Captain degenerate into phase terminal ..." He shrugged darkly. "Quien sabe? There is no precedent. Aber, do you not now detect this conundrum nibbling at the purity of your will? Is this not the inner reason for the meeting?'

"Your insight makes it appear so," I admitted, and in truth Maestro Hiro's discourse seemed to possess a puissance that cast a harsh white light into certain of my dark corners. Yet somehow a more subtle chiaroscuro of nuanced complexity seemed obscured by the very clinical clarity of his exposition. "What then," I asked, "do you prescribe as a prophylactic?"

"Summoning my counsel is a positive indication, a sign of your awareness of the problem; at this early stage, the elevation of this perception to the conscious level is a step toward cure. It now but remains to eschew any further intercourse with the Pilot, and, contra such impulses, I may offer the following inoculation. ..."

Hiro's countenance took on a perhaps thespically crafted visage of lofty irony. "Namely, that the victims of this cafard are universally loathed, detested, rebuffed, and shunned by the very objects of their obsessive concern. The circle of their futility is complete."

"By the Pilot?  But why?.

Maestro Hiro threw up his hands in unfeigned exasperation. "Why? Because they are Pilots--psychically diseased creatures addicted to that which is destroying them! Would a man of sanity demand of a charge addict a logical explanation of his passion for the electronic ecstasy that is slowly erasing the personality from his cerebral hologram? La meme chose!"

Hiro studied my face expectantly, as if seeking to read the accepted cogency of his own weltanschauung thereon. With thespic deliberance, I arranged my features in the appropriate facial ideogram, sensing that I had reached a point of finality in his reality; a void, a paradox, which he both acknowledged and chose to deny, and upon which his own psychic equilibrium seemed to be precariously balanced. I dared not seek to press him beyond this self-defined limit.

"I thank you for your wise counsel, Maestro Hiro," I said formally, but not without a certain sincerity.

"My duty and my privilege, Captain Genro. You will now meditate upon it, nicht wahr, and free yourself from this mood malo?"

"Certainement," I told him, but in the end his words had brought me no peace. For as he had first admitted and then willfully forgotten, Dominique Alia W u was an anomaly. Far from holding me in contempt for pressing up against the interface between our realities, she seemed possessed of the will to erode it. Already she had cozened me into the queasy perception of the absolute relativity of our subjective realities, and by so doing had destroyed my unexamined conviction in the absolute objective reality of the mass-energy universe itself.

And from somewhere in the depths of that Void beyond the void came the seductive and fearsome conviction that, for ultimate unknown purposes of her own, she sought to dragoon me across that abyss to the other side.

***

Trepidations notwithstanding and psychic equilibrium not exactly restored, I nevertheless threw myself into the vie of the floating cultura until the time for the next Jump by entirely conscious act of will, determined that I would follow Maestro Hiro's prescription at least to the extent of avoiding all contact with Dominique Alia W u. Minimal, total concentration on the duties of my Captainly role would remove the temporal opportunity to succumb to any such temptation, and there was always the hope that right actions well and properly performed would cleanse my consciousness of its inner perturbations, just as evil deeds even helplessly committed under karmic duress so often engrave themselves upon the soul.

Thus I arranged luncheon with Argus and Mori and allowed each of them in turn to invite an Honored Passenger of her own choosing to this little fete, which was held in the Han-style dining room. As my own guest, I chose our Domo, so that the two of us might preside over the meal as patrons of the voyage, a gesture of respect to my bridge officers, and a statement of harmonious shipboard dynamics in petit.

Argus Edison Gandhi was born in the rings of Saturn. Her mother, Edison Siddi Yakov, was a mining engineer working in the Saturnian rings aboard one of the floating stations. Her freenom, Edison, she chose homage a Thomas Alva Edison, a legendary engineering mage of the pre-starfaring era. Argus' father, Gandhi Rasta Krasnya, was a starfaring commodity speculator from Jah. His freenom, Gandhi, he chose, perhaps ironically, homage a Mohandas Gandhi, an ancient mythic figure devoted to altruism and celibacy.

The two met while both were on holiday in the Vale of Kashmir, a lavish pleasure land on Earth. Having little congruence save in the realm of pheromonic feedback, they nevertheless decided to incarnate their passion out of genetic idealism. The result, Argus, was brought up in the technically demanding environment of a mining complex floating in the void close by one of the scenic wonders of the human worlds, and after a wanderjahr spent by choice as a volunteer on an exploratory expedition, inevitably chose to enter the Academy. Her freenom, Argus, she chose upon graduation, homage a the ancient archetype of exploratory adventure.

The Passenger she Honored with her invitation was apparently chosen not as a romantic favor but as a gesture of conversational amusement. Maddhi Boddhi Clear was a bizarre pilot fish in the tropical aquarium of the floating cultura. A thespic white-haired dandy of unknown pedigree, he had chosen not merely a freenom but an ersatz pedigree homage a his own vision of himself as prophet. For decades he had savored the vie of the floating cultura through the patronage of its abundance of wealthy acolytes, or those who could afford the jocularity of harboring a man who claimed to be in spiritual contact with We Who Have Gone Before.

Mori Lao Chaka was born on Zule, a thinly populated planet maintained as an unmodified primal biosphere. Her father, Lao Michel Bote, was a freehold botanical farmer on Zule. His freenom, Lao, he chose homage: a Lao-tze, sage of the Tao, whose Way he sought to follow. Her mother, Chaka Kali Moon, was a botanical scientist whom her father met while she was conducting a prolonged study of certain interactions of Zule and human molecular biochemistry. Her freenom, Chaka, she chose homage a Chaka Zulu, a Terran tribal leader of the pre-starfaring era.

Mori was raised on Zule, passed through a short but apparently intense wanderjahr as a random charge addict, from which she emerged with a desire to go starfaring. Her freenom, Mori, she chose homage a Mori Masu Kelly, a terminal charge addict, who had sagely deflected her vector from his own chosen path on his way to ecstatic self-extinction.

The Passenger whom Mori Honored was Rumi Jellah Cohn, a merchant artiste, a speculator in the arts of others, and creator of his own environmental holosims, the combined income from which enabled him to join the floating cultura. An urbane, handsome man, he had been seen in Mori's company on the dream chamber deck on more than one occasion, according to Lorenza.

Our chosen luncheon mode was that of the communal feast. Each communicant chose a dish in turn, seeking to harmonize its idiosyncrasy into the whole, and we all ate in the Han mode, reclining on cushions around a low table and sampling the dishes with sticks and bowls.

Mori chose first and selected Tea-Perfumed Duck in Black Morel Gravy. Rumi countered with the Twenty Garden Delights, a more austere salad form. Argus selected Fire Prawns and Phoenix Peppers, a dry-flashed curry.  The prophet of We Who Have Gone Before ordered up . Poached Coho Salmon Stuffed with Grand Cru Caviar in Saffron Sauce. Lorenza added balance with Ariel Vaco Steaks simply seared to succulence and served sliced with smoked mushrooms, leaving me to complete the pattern, toward which end I assayed a Puffed Omelet with Fromage et Charcuterie Beaucoup Varie.

This sort of multi mode cuisinary fugue was the pinnacle of the fame of Bocuse Dante Ho, and such was the puissance of his art that even my consciousness was drawn from its dark musings metaphysique into the gustatory realm of the senses. Until, that is, semi-sated dining gave way to increasingly animated conversation.

The post-prandial discourse began naturally enough with appreciation of the art of Bocuse and the vintages Lorenza had stocked to complement it. Thence to a discussion of the merits of the Grand Palais of the Dragon Zephyr, laudatory to our Domo. Lorenza described previous Grand Palais of her design, and I recounted my other voyages with Bocuse Dante Ho and the cuisinary marvels thereof and went on to describe Grand Palais modules from a selection of my former commands.

Only when Argus in her turn told us of her wanderjahr on the explorer Divine Eagle did we begin to drift into less entirely esthetic waters.

The Divine Eagle had spent a year extending the boundaries of the human worlds. Five habitable planets had they discovered, three with thriving biospheres. Yet of course the dream of young Argus Edison Gandhi and her gallant companions had not been realized.

"Of course the dream of all on board was to discover other sentient life. I suppose all novice starfarers are driven into their careers by that dream--to sail our little canoe into the harbor of a great celestial city, wouldn't you say so, Captain Genro!"

"For my part, the far-flung worlds of men were sufficient romance," I said lightly. "Though needless to say, I would have been pleased to make the acquaintance of advanced sapients of another breed, or even to have happened upon another set of suitably melancholy ruins."

There was laughter at this of a somewhat more nervous sort than I had intended when I used myself as a crusty salt to deflect Argus from passionate speculation on the paucity of brother sapients in our corner of the universe. In all the centuries of our human starfaring, we have encountered so little in the way of circumstantial evidence that we are not alone in a cursed creation that even a puckish attempt to deflect genteel conversation from the subject only served to fasten attention upon it.

And of course it was Maddhi Boddhi Clear who seized upon my unfortunate opening to segue artfully into the exposition of his own obsession.

"I find not what was left behind by We Who Have Gone Before melancholy, gut Captain, nor could you call their civilization a ruin," Maddhi said earnestly. "True, our other examples of the cosmic fate of sapience are limited to two planetary ruins and three dim ancient data packets transmitted from across the galaxy millions of years ago, but We Who Have Gone Before have left us a legacy of triumph, not tragedy."

"Mon cher Maddhi," Lorenza said indulgently, "they are by their own admission gone, ne, and we by our own admission are here. Racial seppuku may be an esthetically pleasing fini, but does it not take a peculiar esthetic indeed to take it as triumph?"

"It is true," said Rumi, "that the world they left behind was arranged as an artistically pleasing whole, not a ruin."

"And they left us the secret of the Jump," Mori said with bright innocence. But that part of me which had been carefully and willfully removed from my Captainly persona suddenly came alive with attention. What karma moved the voyage of the Dragon Zephyr?

"Hardly," Argus said loftily. "They left an analog of the device which merely stimulated our own research. It still isn't even clear whether they realized they had developed a true stardrive."

"But they called themselves We Who Have Gone Before, didn't they?" Mori insisted. "So they must have gone somewhere. I mean, they put their planet in order, left us the secret of how to follow, and went off exploring the galaxy, didn't they? I mean, I always thought--"

"Sheer supposition. The alternate theory has equal cogency: that they played with the fire of psychesomic orgasm in a demented and degenerate religious fervor, and far from using their discovery to go starfaring, destroyed themselves with it in a racial trance state."

"But--"

Maddhi Boddhi Clear, who had indirectly catalyzed this conflict between Mori and Argus, now sought to ameliorate it, and bend it to his own rhetorical end in the process.  "Both and neither, gute madchen," he said smoothly. "The evidence is contradictory only when we insist on imposing limited human matrices. It is true that from a device of We Who Have Gone Before human science derived its stardrive. True also that they conceived it not as a mere propulsive mundacity. True too that they used it as an instrument of ecstatic racial seppuku.  All true and all false. For this was no suicidal religious mania but the ultimate rational act.  Having extended their weltanschauung beyond the maya of mass and energy, they committed their beings to the higher reality. They have Gone Before. They have gone voyaging, but not among the stars."

"Where then?" scoffed Rumi.

"Beyond our human concept of where," Maddhi said grandiosely, but there was a sincere vision behind his eyes. "Beyond our human concept of when."

"Into Jump space itself?" I blurted.

Argus gave me a superior look. "Jump space is a mathematical contradiction in terms," she said.

"Vraiment, meine kleine," Maddhi said indulgently. "They have gone into a contradiction of our terms, a black hole through our reality construct, into the Great and Only."

"Now you're babbling like a Pilot," Argus said. There was a hush of offense around the table, and an augenblick of Dominique's presence darkened my spirit, but she pressed on. "If I understand your theory correctly, We Who Have Gone Before were in effect a race of Pilots who all together decided to Blind Jump into nowhere one fine day!"

"As a phenomenological concept, it describes the objective phenomenon," Maddhi agreed amiably. "But like all such concepts, it touches not the essence."

I was seized by an arcane sort of deja vu, not of phenomena but, like the satoric puissance of the words that had triggered it, of the spirit. In that moment, I perceived my consciousness as being in the same psychesomic state that I had experienced when I first looked into Dominique's alienated eyes on the sky ferry, when the naked stars had ripped away the sunset veil of illusion in the vivarium, as I imagined the Circuit as an electronic phallus with which I had pierced her at the moment of the last Jump. I felt myself whirling in a cold, sweaty vortex.

"But surely such a surrendering of existence for the sake of a transitory moment of ineffability is itself a sign of racial dementia," I insisted. "Our own Pilots are rare specimens of obsessive and pathological psyches."

"Certainement, mon cher," Lorenza agreed lightly.

"Imagine an entire species of such creatures! Impossible! They would have famished themselves into extinction before they were fairly down from their ancestral trees!" The laughter that greeted this from all save Maddhi and myself fairly slapped me across the face with the cold hand of guilt, with the sense that I had committed treason against I knew not what.

"The moment that We Who Have Gone Before sought was not transitory, nor are they in their own reality extinct," Maddhi said testily. "They still speak to those who have ears to listen."

"Such as yourself?" Lorenza said in a tone of high amusement. "And what do they tell you, these spirits from the great beyond? What sprach of Lingo do they speak?"

"They speak not Lingo at all. I perceive them in dreams, at the hypnogogic edge of sleep, under the influence of certain molecules and charges, and what they tell me is beyond my mental constructs, beyond the present perceptions of our species, beyond linear time. ..." He shrugged. "Where they have gone, they have Gone Before, and our time to follow them is not yet. What they tell me is something we are not yet ready to know. What they tell me is to prepare the way we too will someday walk."

"Perhaps you miss your calling," Argus suggested dryly. "Why not enter the module as Pilot?"

The visage of Maddhi Boddhi Clear darkened, his eyes seemed to cringe, and for a moment he seemed a much older and forsaken man. This ideogram of despair he then seemed to slowly erase by conscious act of will.  "As you know, among our species, that high privilege is alas reserved for your own fair sex," he said dryly. "However, in certain moments of sexual cusp, We Who Have Gone Before do speak to me. Lacking the physiology to utilize the Jump Circuit, I must make do with fleshly substitutes. Would you care to assist my researches in a dream chamber of your choosing?"

At this, all tension was released in ribald laughter; even Argus had to smile at the thought of sexual congress with her bizarre Honored guest, at her own unintentional jocularity in mirroring Mori's favor d'amour to Rumi with this outre choice.

"You, perhaps, ma belle Domo?" Maddhi japed, leering exaggeratedly at Lorenza. "The other possibility seems entirely occupied." This with a knowing patronly glance from Mori to Rumi.

The luncheon fete was thus allowed to exhaust itself in sexual japes and thespic play at assignations; indeed, I openly arranged dinner a deux with Lorenza as an appropriate gesture with which to close the festivities.

But as we retired from the dining chamber, I sought and seized the opportunity to study the face of Maddhi Boddhi Clear in unguarded repose. What I saw then was not a mountebank rogue of self-possession but an old man suffering some ineffable fatigue d'esprit, some inner unfulfilled longing, an anguished pilgrim behind the prophet's thespic mask.

What I perceived then was that he had deliberately and in retrospect rather crudely diverted the discourse into ribaldry when something had penetrated that facade. As if Argus' suggestion had been taken seriously by his spirit, as if her jape that he become a Pilot had chanced to touch some inner wound. Chance that his escape from this slip of the mask had been into sexuality verbal?  Or something darker and deeper which was becoming increasingly more difficult for me to evade?

That part of me which had rushed to view the supine body of Dominique Alia Wu fresh from congress with the mystery of the Jump yearned to draw him aside and slake some unwholesome thirst with the loathsome semblance of a kindred spirit.

Fortunately, however, Void Captain Genro Kane Gupta was still in command, and I forswore this empathetic temptation, retiring alone behind the mask of my own persona to brood upon my all too un-Captainly thoughts.

***

I spent the interval between luncheon and my intimate dinner with Lorenza seeking to escape true psychic contact with my fellow beings by chatting aimlessly with as many of them as possible and seeking to escape true psychic contact with my own chaotic inner being by overloading my sensorium and thus drawing my attention outward. Most of all, of course, I was seeking to escape from the true focus of my spirit's attention, a feat of psychic gymnastics problematical even for perfect masters.

I can code those words onto crystal now sitting here in my cabin in the doom glow of hindsight with all the deeds that were then to come already done, but at the time I had no such ironic insight. Vraiment, insight was what I both fled and sought. I certainly knew on some unadmitted level that this was true, and I knew all too well that there was only one way to lay that paradox away ... exactly the path I sought to avoid. The path to where I sit now, a moral monster screwing up his courage to face crew and Honored Passengers with his own bizarre version of the standard tactic of final desperation.

Yet even now there is an ambiguity to this tale as I recite it to my own spirit in the full knowledge of the enormity I've committed. Great is the sin I have committed against those entrusted to my stewardship, great the sin that Dominique Alia Wu committed against me.  Yet in some way is this not also a tragic triumph of love?  Even now, I cannot decide whether I was foolish dupe or noble and tragic lover. Or whether the two are one and the same.

With Lorenza, however, no such arcanities pertained.  If Dominique was the invisible focus of the inner void, Lorenza was certainly the ubiquitously visible focus of the outer reality, the fete-mistress of the floating cultura into which I sought to flee. As her amour, my social patterns were programmed by my Captainly role, needing no true attention from my troubled spirit, and our dinner a deux  in the chamber of booths proceeded smoothly toward its inevitable conclusion like the oft-danced pavane that it was.

No doubt this was in great part why I had made the assignation; by throwing myself into my Captainly role I was in some measure able to bring about an inner state of relative thoughtlessness. Moreover, Lorenza Kareen Patali as a self-created work of art was a sexual offering of great pouvoir, our pheromones were relatively congruent, and I could look forward to erotic exercises in which performance was everything and psychic connections were nothing.

We dined with the curtain drawn open, to delectate the Honored Passengers and also, at Lorenza's insistence, to delectate ourselves with the knowledge of the titillated and approving observance. We feasted light on Fruit de Mer Cru Galatique, turning the consumption of the iced tray of assorted raw mollusks into a game d'amour as old as time, forking bits into each other's mouths, accepting them with overdramatic flourishes of tongue and lips, caressing the raw flesh lasciviously as we devoured it. All with foot play under the table, lidded glances above, and a liter of Ariel blanque.

As I played my role with a certain psychic detachment but growing somic involvement, I began, in an involuted way, to appreciate Lorenza Kareen Patali, and to comprehend her eminence as Domo supreme. Lorenza was a sincere citizen of the floating cultura, which is to say her social persona and her inner psychic structure were in congruence; her spirit clearly believed in the esthetic merit of the way she had chosen; there was no tension between role and reality.

If this gave her a certain flattening of inner ambiguity and hence of fascination, it also allowed one to meet surface with surface without qualms of insincerity. After a period noir of inner turmoil and half a liter of wine, I welcomed this refreshment.

"So, mon cher, your dinner has sweetened the taste of your luncheon, ne? You must teach your Second Officer the subtleties of table drollery, so as not to provoke such inartistic conversation. This foolish Maddhi of hers became a bore at her provocation. Do they no longer teach such arts at the Academy?"

"They teach the craft, Lorenza, but who can teach the art?" I said gallantly. "Genius such as yours is a genetic gift."

"So I have heard from my parents," she said lightly, playfully forking a final oyster into my mouth.

She was wearing transparent red pantaloons and blouson; beneath these, brazen latticework jewelry curled like vines and serpents about her breasts and pubes. A headdress of similar brass filigree secured her red hair into a flowing helmet, this actually done up in animal and vegetative forms, sapphire-and-emerald-eyed serpents peering out from the forest of her coiffure. Red, brass, and black, mist over metal pressing skin; the whole was a sensual image of self -created erotic art How could a natural man fail to respond?

She leaned forward and watched my mouth with those ice-blue eyes as I slowly ate the last morsel for her benefit, tasting, and smoothing, and licking my lips. "Now that we have tasted the appetizer, it is time for the piece de resistance, ne!" she said when I had finished, kissing my lips clean with gustatory exaggeration to the half-murmured attention of our fellow diners.

"I see no reason for resistance," I replied.

"You resist nothing, mon cher?"

"Nada," I said, "you are the Domo, are you not, the mistress of the fete?"

"I may choose a chamber of dreams and this time you will enter?"'

"I will follow you anywhere," I said gaily, holding up her hand and giving it a courtly kiss. In truth, I did now welcome the synergy of erotic exercise and crafted fantasy which I had previously rejected. I was ready to follow our Domo into the playful netherworld of the floating cultura, to indulge myself in her reality and thus find respite from my own.

Boisterously and with much fondling did we descend to the dream chamber deck in the lowest part of the Grand Palais, and boisterously did Lorenza lead me through the serpentine rose passageway in search of the dream chamber that would pique her desire, deliberately yet in a curious sense unselfconsciously displaying the public flag of our romance and thereby fulfilling the archetype of our appointed roles.

After an artistically suitable movement of this social foreplay, Lorenza led me into her chosen chamber of dreams.

Lucent jungle-green walls of protoplasmic softness, heated to body temperature, enwombed us in emerald glory as we floated weightless in the thick, steamy, musk-scented air. No, we were not quite weightless; like leaves in a breeze, we drifted slowly to the floor, kicking ourselves off into flight again at the flick of a toe. Mantric fugues on stringed and electronic instruments vibrated the nearly palpable air with soaring energy.

We bounded and flew into a clean, perfumed sweat, intimately exploring the fleshly simulacrum in which we cavorted, its cunningly crafted mounds and folds, troughs and crevices, swellings and concavities, all somehow abstractly reminiscent of the textures of a lover's body.

Imperceptibly, Lorenza's diaphanous garments began to deliquesce into the air like vanishing tendrils of rose-colored fog evaporating into sunrise; as they evaporated, baring her gleaming black flesh restrained at breasts and mound by tight-fitting brass accents flashing emerald highlights with every movement of her body, the smoldering aroma of fire suffused into the musky air.

Slowly and languorously, she let her floating body find its rest not on the floor of the chamber but against the abstract erotiform wall, straddling a soft, saddle like protuberance, supported on her pubes with her legs hanging free, arms thrown back into a long cushioned crevice between two mounds.

Surely this was as pure and artistic a sensual invitation as I had ever been presented.

I drew off my sweat-sodden clothes, let them slowly drift toward the floor where I stood, bounded lightly into the air, kicked high off the far wall, so that I soared slowly and languidly toward her from away and above, bellying in like a great swan upon the breast of a dark, still lake.

Arms outstretched, chest to chest, lip to lip, I landed softly in her embrace, and we hung by our mutual tantric junctures together on the skin-soft, flesh-warm erotiform perch.

Naturellement, like any other male of the species humaine, I had experienced upon occasion the inability to spring to erection when the situation warranted, either through fatigue or distraction or the triumph of inner esthetic judgment over situational expectation.

Now, however, I felt neither fatigue nor distraction, and esthetic judgment coincided gloriously with the expectation of both parties. There I hung, suspended pube a pube, mouths intertwined, in the embrace of a more than willing woman of dazzling beauty who had brought us together in this emerald garden of flying delights, light as feathers riding the mantras that fugued the erotically perfumed air.

Nevertheless, my natural man had deserted me.

There are, of course, certain exercises, techniques, and niceties that a man of civilized savoir faire has recourse to under such limp circumstances, and I employed a sequence of these before Lorenza could become offended by my lack of phallic homage to her undeniable charms.

I stretched out supine upon the erotiform divan and lavished upon her yoni such skillful and prolonged caresses as to transport her repeatedly into moaning peaks of distraction while I applied will and physiology to the problem at hand. Certain meditative yogics will more often than not harmonize the state of the soma with the desire of the psyche, and when these proved somewhat ineffective, simple venus manipulation achieved at least the desired physiological effect.

In fact in point of pure tantric performance, I was indefatigable thereafter. The test of any performer is triumph over mal karma, and the proof of such triumph is the approval of the audience; in that regard, Lorenza's surfeited peaks of ecstasy validated this self-perception.

Nevertheless, it was performance in more than metaphor. The pleasure I was giving aroused no joy in me, and the transports of Lorenza brought me no closer to release. I performed my phallic variations in conscious fulfillment of my duty, not in a trance of mindless ecstasy.

Ultimately it was Lorenza, overwhelmed with orgasm, gasping raggedly for breath, glowing with perspiration, who admitted her fatigue and satiation.

"Beacoup, mon cher," she panted in my ear.  Seek your own fulfillment."

This I attempted one more time, not informing her that my prolonged priapism had been anything other than gallantry, before ruefully admitting defeat.

At this imbalance in the ecstasy of our pas de deux, Lorenza displayed a sincere concern and bent her neck and her energies to oral caresses designed to redress it.

While her skill at these erotic exercises was unimpeachable and her intent of the highest morality d'amour, by this time I knew that the attempt was futile, for in my psychic exhaustion and physical frustration, I had passed over to the stage where the only pleasure possible to me was rest. Though it was ungallant of me to do so, there was finally no alternative, and with rueful but firm gestures, I bade her cease.

"Que problem, mon cher?"

"Quien sabe?"  I said soothingly. "Perhaps it was the wine. Or the overwhelming pleasure that I sought to prolong into eternity. Or some temporary infirmity. De nada."

She looked at me inquiringly, and now perhaps there was something more speculative behind her concern.

"Certainly there was nothing lacking in the pleasure of the chase," I told her, "and the true pleasure lies not in the goal but in the journey, nicht wahr."

With this and other similar verbal niceties, Lorenza was mollified, and the pas de deux ended not in overt tension between us. We both had too much civilized concern for each other for that, and our roles in the floating cultura needed not further perturbation. We boistered through the passageway and into the grand salon together as if buoyed on tantric energies and exchanged light pleasantries with a number of Honored Passengers over brandies before repairing to our respective private cabins.

But despite these appearances, I sensed that the void within me, that black hole of confusion which had somehow been bored through my weltanschauung, had finally begun to fracture the phenomenological realm precisely at its point of greatest ambiguity--the sexual interface where psyche and soma could no longer be dualized. I only hoped that the pattern would not spread to the sphere of social duty, that this most subtle of breaches with the Domo of the Honored Passengers could be healed before its vibrations disharmonized the social dynamics of my ship.

I passed the period until the third Jump in a fitful melange of dream-haunted sleep and hypnogogic half-wakefulness, erotic ideograms of ever-increasing extremity filling my sensorium in hormonal frustration while my somic indicator lay unresponsive to the demands of release.

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