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THE VOID CAPTAIN'S TALE

 

CHAPTER 9

HOW CAN AN ACT of social madness tranquillify the spirit? How can a breach of one's bound duty lead to the more proper performance of same?

No doubt our Healer could have supplied some theoretical abstraction to account for the generality of such paradoxical abstraction, but I was hardly about to consult Lao or Maestro Hiro concerning the alchemical sexuality of the specific release.

Suffice it to say that once I had made my secret exit from Dominique's cabin and returned to the environs of the floating cultura, I found myself somewhat more comfortable within my Captainly persona, more able to function in the phenomenological realm on a phenomenological level.

Naturellement, one did not have to be a Healer to know that release from the hormonic torture of the most prolonged and convoluted act of coitus interruptus that I could have conceived of had a good deal to do with restoring my psychic and hence social functionality. From the first faint stirrings at the time of the second Jump to the long-delayed release in Dominique's cabin, my metabolism had been flushed with adrenal and gonadal imperatives the continual arousal and frustration of which could hardly have been said to be conducive to psychic clarity.

Now, at least, the somic component of my "cafard" had been removed by the ministrations of Dominique Alia Wu and my psychic dialectic could at least proceed from a base of biochemical equilibrium.

The ancient volkwisdom that an erect phallus knows no morality is meant as an ironic jocularity, but it contains an approximation of the truth; when your libidinal energy is captured by a sexual engram, the logic of further action is that not of your will but of the engram itself until that energy is discharged.

Moreover, surrender to my passion noir had at least granted me a truer image of its essence; I had confronted the void at its coeur and passed through into knowledge however partial of my true position in the sexual equation of the Jump.

Primitive man evolved many cultural techniques for the sexual subjugation of the femme of the species, as crude as clitoral excision and as subtle as denying spiritual equality. Even in enlightened ages, this was perceived as economically motivated behavior or possessive greed, the transformation of feminine favors into a commodity of trade in the commerce of the masculine ego.

Actually, this is just one more transformation of the deeper motivation to a more palatable rationalization, albeit a self-admittedly unsavory one. What I had learned in the embrace of my Pilot was something well established in the annals of biology and even a truism of Jump technology: the orgasmic potential of the female of our species transcends that of the male.

Thus the sociosexual subjugation of femme by homme, far from being an aggressive act of phallic aggrandizement, is actually a defense mechanism, a flight from confrontation with this cosmic injustice. The whole cultural labyrinth of male courtship of feminine favors is actually a shrill denial of the true nature of the transaction, namely, that the erotically sophisticated male grants higher favors than any he can receive. Women of course  collude in this deception, since masculine perception of the true situation would not only subject them to naked and unwholesome envy but reverse the polarity of the archetypal duality to their strategic disfavor.

The wall of purdah between Captain and Pilot was perhaps the ultimate expression of this denial, as the mechanism of the Jump Circuit was the ultimate extension of that which was denied. Here the imbalance reached beyond biology, beyond the realm of mass-energy phenomena, into the Great and Lonely itself; so named by those few female initiates who rode alone on the masculine machineries into its hidden ecstatic heart.

In cold scientific fact, not mere metaphor, the Jump was half of a sexual act; the result of my touch on the Jump command point was as much the granting of sexual ecstasy as my performance for Lorenza in the dream chamber, and in both cases it was not my own purpose that I served.

To expose a Void Captain to the human reality of his Pilot is to expose him to the sexual core of his duty, to the one-sided sexual congress of the Jump, to his own envy--of feminine platform orgasm, of the true mistress of the ship's destiny, of that which his masculine spirit cannot touch.

Small wonder then that our starfaring culture has evolved this wall of purdah around the mystery at its heart. Small wonder that the floating cultura has elaborated itself around it in order to divert the Captain's erotic attention into his archetypal relationship with the Domo. Small wonder that this relationship stands at the center of harmonious shipboard dynamics. Small wonder that once Dominique had breached that wall, my libido reverted its focus from the social to the psychic.

Naturellement, this logical analysis did not spring full-blown into my brow at the moment of Dominique's act of noblesse oblige; rather did it proceed to evolve to my present rueful understanding via contemplation, perusal of relevant word crystals, and further karmic lessons from that moment until this. Even now, as I code this ultimate justification onto word crystal, I am aware that I am still somehow dissembling, or rather failing to render a logical memory of that satori in a mode comprehensible to my quotidian mind.

Nevertheless, it is just to state that now I was aware that I was in the grip of a futile passion, not for the body or even the spirit of Dominique Alia Wu, but for that which I could only taste as a pale shadow through her mediation. The very ludicrity of such a fixation served to render it less puissant as a poisoner of my psyche, or so it seemed at the time. For this was no pheromonic infatuation or passion for psychoerotic communion, but a mere malfunction of my psychic processes, a mutation on the chromosome caused by a chance cosmic bolide. Like all such maladaptive mutations, would it not be self-extinguishing through the passage of evolutionary time?

Or so I seemed to have persuaded myself after a short period of untrammeled sleep, and judiciously distant participation in the niceties of the Grand Palais.

Upon stealing from Dominique's cabin, I had repaired to my own, where I almost immediately sank into dreamless slumber; upon awakening, I practiced several yogic asanas and a long, contemplative ablution, at the conclusion of which I had sufficiently reformulated my rationale to continue my digestion of inner events in the artificial outer world of the vivarium.

Here, amid the lush foliage, the groaking frogs, the insectile motes, the twittering rainbow flocks of finches, and parties of no less lavishly plumaged Honored Passengers, did I perceive the evolutionary imperatives at work. Frogs yearned not to fly, birds yearned not to swim, and the floating cultura that bridged the stars yearned not to encompass the region between. For a bird to swim the deeps is to die out of air; for a frog to fly it must cease to be a frog; for men to leap naked into the void is similarly prescribed by our genes. Of the three, however, only men had the power to transcend their species programming, to encapsulate themselves in technology and art and culture and invade the alien element in a bubble of their own self- created reality.

Thus, these human survival mechanisms, when functioning properly, represent not the triumph of determinism over the individual but the triumph of spirit over evolutionary determinism.

To be thrust by chance outside this reality humaine for a vision of what lay beyond and below was to achieve a more sympathetic perception of one's fellow travelers as they danced their part in the figure. I was sure that my distant obsession had vanished in the cold clear evolutionary light of day.

Soon I was taking part in conversations, sipping wine from goblets, exchanging pleasantries once more with the Honored Passengers in my charge.

And was not the discourse of the floating cultura the highest to be found among the worlds of men? In a few hours of light banter, subjects of conversation included the outre ecospheres of two recently discovered habitable planets, a comparison of modern vintages with those of ancient Terrestrial tradition, the relative balance of yin and yang in our transtellar culture, speculations on the paucity of sapient life in our small region of the galaxy, trends in contemporary painting and sculpture, und so weiter, as well as the inevitable shipboard gossip.

If the floating cultura contained its fair share and then some of subsidized children of fortune, wealthy sybarites, refugees from ennui, and their attendant parasitic organisms, did these not serve as a communal matrix for the merchants, artists, scientists, esthetes, and pilgrims who traveled among the stars for higher purposes?  In ancient days, the courts of monarchs served as similar distillations of the more rarefied essences of human culture; these too were gilded cages filled with self-pampered birds of paradise, but in their precincts were also to be found the philosophers, artists, and mages of the age.

Wealth of a primary order surrounds itself with choicest viands, vintages, art, and luxuriousness, but beyond these sensual indulgences of the rich lay the possibility of the ultimate patronly purchase--the company of the intellectual, artistic, scientific, and spiritual creme de la creme of human society. Surely in our Second Starfaring Age the floating cultura represented this heady distillation; churlish of me, nicht wahr, to look down my lofty nose at the pinnacle of my society from some haughty Olympus when in reality I too was the direct beneficiary of its patronage.

Thus had the secret violation of the central taboo of my social matrix somehow restored to me some semblance of harmony with same.

Only the inevitable confrontation with Lorenza Kareen Patali was to perturb this immersion in the social waters with the post- and fore-shadowing of the intrusive void; with intimations of the less social dynamics that nevertheless still surrounded and underlay both this golden bubble of human gaiety and my own presently integrated social persona.

I had made entrance into the grand salon in the company of Mori, her merchant artiste Rumi Jellah Cohn, Sar Medina Gondo, a ravishing golden-haired woman of great wealth and little intellect who had attached herself to my Captainly person, and Orvis Embri Rico, a somewhat threadbare light sculptor who seemed to be either her amour d'argent, under her patronage, or both.

Lorenza was reclining in a padded niche spotlighted in somber rose with a large muscular man in loose-flowing pantaloons and blouson of black silk; by their body postures, the pipe of herbal intoxicant they were sharing, the silver goblets of wine resting lip to lip on the tabouret before them, I surmised that they had but recently emerged from passage in a dream chamber.

Arcane, diverse, and unsettling were my reactions to this perception. Lorenza was at her most enticing in this configuration of sated repose; her long red hair artfully displayed, her glowing ebon skin cleansed of all artifice, her body languid within a formless, translucent yellow boudoir robe. This vision, enhanced perhaps by the presence of her consort of the moment, aroused in me a certain glandular ardor of the sort that had been lacking in our recent pas de deux, a nostalgia for the pleasure in her embrace that had been denied me by my own psychic dysfunction, a desire to replay the episode to a more mutually satisfying conclusion.

At the same time, I felt a certain Captainly displeasure at this open proclamation of the fact of the matter, a frisson of atavistic male jealousy, but also a sense of disruption of subtle social harmonies of which I, not she, had been the true causal agent. While it is not unseemly for Domo and Captain to share dream chambers with all and sundry, the illusion, at least, of the meetness of discretion is better preserved in the public realm lest such liaisons be perceived by the Honored Passengers as a statement of reproach, as deliberate violation of the archetypal fiction.

Which, I sensed, this tableau was meant to be; as if, somehow, on some subliminal level, Lorenza had been aware of my tryst with Dominique and sought to chide me with a public redress of the balance. Or so I surmised in my suddenly reactivated and guilt-ridden sexual malaise.

Hesitant as to whether to rise to the perhaps self-projected bait or to leave the pair to their own devices, I was relieved of this decision by Sar, who seized me possessively by the arm and paraded me toward them with the others in train.

"Ach, Lorenza," she said rather floridly, "I must to you give thanks for the enjoyment of a tres rare voyage! The cunningness of the vivarium, the glories of the table, the piquancy of the entertainment! The companionship sympathetique! The dream chambers so daring ..."

The last with a thespic giggle, a rolling of eyes, and a drawing closer to me as subtle as the rest of it, which soured Orvis' expression and fairly caused Rumi to hide his amusement behind his hand.

Lorenza seemed oblivious to this repartee, or feigned indifference, or more likely perceived the nullity at its heart. "Merci, good Sar," she said languidly. "The appreciation of the connoisseur is the highest pleasure of the artiste." She was looking at the two of us as she said it, but the deliberate lidding of her eyes, the moist parting of her lips, gave me to understand that the inner meaning of the riposte was directed at me.

"And you, good sir, are you also a connoisseur of the pleasures of the Grand Palais, or do you travel in a more functional mode?" I said, addressing the black-garbed fellow.

"Neither, or perhaps both," he answered mildly, drawing on the herbal pipe. "Like yourself, Captain Genro, I provide service for Honored Passengers. Aga Henri Koram, servidor de usted, freeservant in the employ of our fair Domo."

"Indeed," said Sar with some raising of her brow. "And what manner of services do you provide?"

Aga smiled blandly at her with his calm brown eyes. "'I am skilled in the serving of wines and cuisine in the classic manner as well as the composition and performance of musical odes," be said. "In addition, I have mastered the tantric arts, for the successful freeservant must be versatile in many modes of pleasure."

"A pleasure to make your acquaintance," Sar said silkily. "Perhaps before this voyage is completed I shall commission your services--"

"If so, I trust you will find my rates just and my performances appealing, as most have in the past." Aga said without either false modesty or boastful pride. "Domo Lorenza can attest to that; we have voyaged together on a number of occasions."

Lorenza, who had been regarding this byplay with a carefully crafted air of detached amusement, inclined her head in Aga's direction with a slow toss of her hair, her icy-blue eyes fixed all the while upon mine, or so it seemed. "Vraiment, Aga's performances are of the highest caliber," she said feyly.

A moment of uneasy silence reigned; had it not been for this, it might have been possible for me to dismiss my perception of the inner dialog aimed at me as delusion of paranoid reference. As it was, the expression on the observatory faces confirmed my weltanschauung; Lorenza had deliberately fashioned this tableau so as to externalize the subtle disharmony between us into an only slightly less subtle social rebuke.

If the piquing of my manly and Captainly attention had been the ultimate goal of this charade, the ploy had met with no little success; after a seemly period of further niceties, I drew Lorenza aside on the pretext of discussing certain aspects of our duties. Though in truth, the harmonious performance of our duties was not exactly beside my point.

"You are angry with me because of what happened in the dream chamber; that is the raison d'etre for this public display of gamesmanship, nicht wahr?"

Lorenza regarded me from behind a facade of ingenuous innocence. "Gamesmanship? Public display? Que pasa, mon cher Genro?"

"Surely you do not deny sharing a dream chamber with this freeservant Aga?"

"Surely I do not indeed," she said mildly. "For what reason should I?"

I stared intently into her icy eyes, realizing that this mode of discourse could overtly communicate nothing without the collaboration empathetique which she was deliberately withholding. Paradoxically, however, true messages were being passed back and forth here below the primary verbal surface; obliquely, she was telling me she marked indeed my meaning. Which, after all, was only that her own previous oblique communique had found its mark.

"No reason at all, Lorenza," I said. "But it would be better if such rebukes were delivered less publicly."

"Rebuke, mon cher?" she said evenly. "Why would you imagine I wished to rebuke you?" But she favored me with a smile that reversed the polarity of her meaning.

"No doubt it is I who rebuke myself by projecting my own self- judgment upon your acts of innocence," ] said, ironically nuancing my words with facial commentary in turn.

"Tres gallant," Lorenza said dryly.

To my own surprise, though perhaps not to hers, I was beginning to find this subtle duel erotically arousing. "] am not without such graces," I said evenly. "Though I do not profess the skills of the professional."

Her eyes warmed somewhat toward me and she delivered the next words with a small smile. "Pero for an amateur tantrique, your performance lacks little. Except, perhaps, the true sincerity."

"Perhaps that may be remedied with sufficient practice."

"Quien sabe?" she said with a little laugh. "Vraiment, I am willing to continue this dialog in more intimate detail after a suitable period of reflection."

"After the next Jump?" I suggested. "In another dream chamber of your choosing?"

"No, cher Genro. This time, the choice of venue should be yours, ne, since my previous choice did not entirely fulfill your satisfaction."

"You too are not without gallantry, Lorenza," I said, sealing the assignation with a kiss of her hand, although in truth we both knew that I was being challenged.

***

Thus was the veneer of civilization maintained and defended, thus did Captain and Domo preserve the rhythm of their public pavane from unseemly disharmony. Lorenza took my hand as we returned to the milieu of social interaction; and by eye contacts and touches, shared wine and duets of jocularity, did we proclaim that our personas had returned to the proper fulfillment of our expected roles.

No doubt those unfamiliar with the rarefied atmosphere of the floating cultura may protest that such obliqueness represents not so much the niceties of gentility as a certain anomie, a spiritless charade, a decadent concern with surface over substance.

Perhaps this subjective truth has its validity, just as the converse proposition is not without its own puissance--namely, that true civilization consists precisely of conventions, rituals, and modes of oblique communication whereby the chaos within and the void without may be expressed and contained within the harmonious consensus of shared social objectivity, thus maintaining our bubble of crafted reality, the necessary illusion. Indeed, there are those who define the essential nature of all artistic forms in just this manner.

Be that as it may, the transaction between Captain and Domo, sincere or not in terms of Genro and Lorenza, served not only to reharmonize the social surface but to submerge my inner chaos beneath the social dialectic of the dance. For the next few hours, I do believe that I was entirely concerned with the duties and niceties of my Captainly role, my interior musings given over to considerations of an appropriate choice of dream chamber, to the esthetique d'amour, rather than arcane meta physic, to style rather than substance.

Only as I made my way to the bridge for the fourth Jump did this comforting mantle of illusion begin to unravel.

***

As I walked briskly toward the bridge up the ship's spinal corridor, awareness of a by-now-familiar tension began to creep into the forefront of my consciousness, with every marching step. For the first time, I believe, I noticed how few Honored Passengers that I chanced to meet saluted me, nor did I acknowledge their existence; as if by unstated, indeed by until-now-unperceived, agreement this transition from the inner illusion of the floating cultura to the outer reality of my true command was a solemn rite to be conducted in social isolation.

Indeed, as I emerged onto the bridge, I felt my persona dissolving under the cold black vault of the starry void; vast impersonal energies seemed to pour in upon me from those millions of unwinking stellar eyes; a hard-edged and entirely indifferent reality enfolded me in its chill yet somehow darkly sensual embrace. Clearly the armor of psychic construct, the cultural surface of the persona, was entirely inadequate to confront the naked countenance of the void; how vain seemed such illusion in the face of this pitiless reality.

Yet what greater grandeur could the true spirit within encompass than to sit here on the throne of the Captaincy, naked before this ultimate unveiled, and dare to challenge it with the mere machineries of men?

As the familiar countdown ritual began, I perceived it as if for the first time as solemn rite in more than metaphor, as the mantra whereby we few initiates who faced the visage beyond maya's veil, here on this ersatz mountaintop above the inner world of men, might shield ourselves from the true sight of chaos in our functional dance of duty.

Thus did we exchange one illusion for another; thus did we avert our gaze from the ultimate challenge to our spirits.

"Jump Circuit electronics on standby ... Primer parameters normal. ..."

As Mori went through her checklist, I found myself reversing the polarity of the ritual; rather than focus my gaze and attention on the amber ready points winking into incandescence on my board, I stared upward and outward at the naked void itself, letting the rhythm of the words carry my consciousness not into the rite but beyond it, into awareness of all that it sought to deny.

"Pilot in the Circuit ..."

A cold wind seemed to move through me as the ritual reminded me that deep within the enveloping machinery, enwombed and sightless in the Pilot's module, Dominique, of all aboard, alone confronted the true reality, the true unreality, the faceless and formless Great and Lonely before which even the universal void was but illusion's final veil.

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

"Take your position, Man Jack."

"Vector coordinate overlay computed and on your board ..."

"Dumping vector coordinate overlay into Jump Circuit computer," I chanted, touching the command point through kinesthetic memory, the starry blackness still  flooding my sensorium. As I did so, I was aware of this action as the umbilical connection to quotidian reality, the projection of human will into the impending mass energy discontinuity of the Jump, the bread-crumb trail through the forest, the way through to the hearth of home.

"Jump Field aura ... erected. ..."

In truth, once more I felt erotic stirrings, but now these were overlayed with empathy humaine; if eros is the sharing of psychic communion through translation into the sprach of the flesh, then dare call it love that I felt as envy of the voyage fused with admiration for the voyager.

Slowly I moved my finger toward the Jump command point as if through the thick crystalline syrup of time; the interval seemed to expand as my consciousness poured satori into it.

The first note of the Jump signal sounded, reverberating through the bridge, the ship, my body; everywhere but the center, the Pilot's module, the hub which was void.

With it came the memory of Dominique--leaning into my body space, the acetone smell of her breath, the odor of the void and the courage to dare it; and with that olfactory memory-trace, the congruent memory of my sexual arousal, called forth now in realtime.

The second note sounded, releasing the words she had spoken. "If you insist on metaphor erotique, bitte do not choose to imagine our transaction as the rape brutal.  You ravish not my spirit."

But now the music of those words seemed to be a tune of new meaning. "You ravish not my spirit," sang the melody. Au contraire, au contraire!  whispered the afterbeat.

The final note sounded.

My memory track looped back upon itself, compressing her lips gliding down the nerve-trunk of my phallic ecstasy into temporal congruence with her last words uttered in the afterglow, her eyes glazed like mirrors over the beyond within: "So, mon cher liebchen, you willl remember that should your will waver at the time of the Jump, nicht wahr, and you will at least know it is no rape you do." Au contraire, au contraire!

And as I stared out into the starry blackness as into a lover's eyes, her eyes, with my finger paused in erect attention over the point of ultimate penetration, I understood.

"Jump," I said, my mouth seeming to form the word with infinite slowness, rolling it, tasting it, and blowing it into the void like a kiss. Neither rape nor cold mechanics nor ideogram of psychic malfunction, I perceived my touch upon the command point as act of love; true, ultimate, and beyond the realm of selfish satisfaction.

In that durationless augenblick, I seemed to feel an electric channel open; from my mouth surrounding our single shared word of love and the tip of my finger upon the electronic quick of her center, through memory's orgasmic trace, to Dominique, up there in the Great and Lonely, down there in the Pilot's module, and a great soundless sigh of airy energy exploded from my inner being.

The stars had shifted. The moment had passed. In fleshly realtime, my body hummed once more with the jagged energy of unreleased fulfillment.

***

Not without enormous psychic effort and duty-bound act of will did I remove myself from the seat of that fast-fading satori. It seemed as if I might somehow recapture that which was dissolving from the forefront of my realtime mind into the depths whence it came by contemplation of that starry mandala we take for all that is, or failing that, to complete the circuit by congress with the only soul aboard whose spirit had touched mine in the moment that had passed.

But Argus had announced our new position, my crew awaited orders to secure the bridge, Dominique lay comatose, and my assignation with Lorenza awaited. Once more must Genro Kane Gupta don the mask of role and duty; once more must my disharmonized spirit serve the harmony of my ship. Already, Argus and Mori were regarding their Captain peculiarly as he slumped there staring into space.

***

It was a thing of some small mercy that I had arranged to meet Lorenza in the deck of dream chambers itself rather than in the grand salon or other social venue; for as I made my way through the corridors and lifts, I was sorely pressed indeed to return the salutations of those I passed along the way. Shadows, poor pale shadows, and I an unwilling player in this quotidian charade.

Was I then aware of the slippage of my persona; did I perceive in the mirror of passing faces my own gathering social anomie?

As the lift deposited my corpus in the nether reaches of the Grand Palais, Lorenza was there to greet me.  Wrapped in flowing gauzy veils whose rosy hue matched to perfection the uterine walls of the corridor coiled about the dream chambers, her long red hair trailing off into the subtle currents of perfumed mist, she seemed a concatenation of the atmosphere itself, an apparition, a dryad of this lust-pink forest.

Nevertheless, it took a certain act of will, a blinking back of darker spirits, to rouse my natural man from his bubble of fugue, even in the face of this vision of fleshly delights.

"Ah cher Genro, what dream shall we now share?" she said, gripping my hands lightly like a small child anticipating a trip to a fete.

"Nada beside the vision which now is mine," I replied, summoning up the ghost of gallantry while avoiding a specific response, for in truth such considerations of venue had not passed through my attention since I had last entered the bridge, and indeed even my previous musings upon these erotic esthetics had fled down memory's abyss.

With a show of some gaiety, I led her through the maze by the hand, peering teasingly into this chamber and that as if sure of my destination but spicing what was to come with playful mock indecision; naturellement, the reverse was true, as I sought a chamber that might pique not only her desire but the flagging spirit of my own.

Was it karma working through random motion, the subtle sense that the charade was wearing thin, or was it outer congruence with my inner tropism that finally made the choice? In truth perhaps all three, for the venue presented itself just as Lorenza's hand in mine was tightening with a certain questioning impatience; and certainement, the dream chamber that presented itself at that very moment mirrored that which called to me from within.

The dream of this chamber was space itself: an illusory infinity of jewel- pierced blackness into which we floated free from gravity's turgid embrace. Naturellement, not the cold, deadly void beyond the hull of the Dragon Zephyr but a stylized abstraction of same. Not a frozen vacuum but lambent, humid air heated to the temperature of the blood's desire. Nor were the stars fixed like eternal vertices in a crystal lattice; rather did they perform a complex and stately interweaving waltz to the music of some celestial orchestra. The void, yes, but denatured and molded closer to the human heart's desire.

"Que drole, mon Captain," Lorenza said, her amusement perhaps shaded with a certain dubious restraint as she drifted slowly in the swirling mists of her garments. "The Void Ship Captain chooses the void, ne?"

No bon mot sprang to my mind; indeed, for an augenblick of paranoia noir, it seemed as if those ice-blue eyes had seen to the very core of my transfleshly desire. And in truth a strange energy began to uncoil down the chakras of my spine to raise my phallic lance to rigid, somehow metallic awareness; not the sensual unfurling of prana humaine but the sudden cold flashing of bright-blue electricity along the circuitry of my wires.

I unpeeled myself from my clothing with mechanical efficiency, scarcely noticing the slow disrobing dance of veils which Lorenza performed for my delight. As if some hidden sensors had marked this opening movement of our pavane, the music's tempo began to quicken, and the stars whirled faster in their interweaving orbits.

Ebon skin naked against the deeper darkness, Lorenza's body seemed to melt into the void, becoming a mounding, curving, palpitating extension of the atmosphere itself, an esprit de la nuit emerging from the clinging black waters in a foam of stars; blue eyes, white smile, red nebula of hair incarnating the ineffable itself.

Stars whirled faster, music quickened, and I drifted open-armed toward her, down, down, down the vortex of memory's desire--into the Circuit, into the void, into the Captain's throne, my finger erect over the command point as I stared out into the countenance of the great beyond.

My spine was an arc of cold electric fire, my phallus was engorged with painful charge; my sense of who, and where, and what, like the vortex of stars drawing me down into their center, like the face of the incarnated void itself, seemed to dissolve and fragment into chaos sans form, sans interface between.

As we touched, as our arms enfolded, as flesh rippled into flesh, as lips and tongues coalesced and intertwined, as the music rose into an ongoing crescendo and the whirling stars became a black hole vortex around our central void, there was naught but a searing succession of lightning bolts sparking down my spine and into the tortured lance of my phallus, twitching and throbbing in the throes of the heterodyning charge.

Groaning, my finger touched the command point; with a single swordstroke thrust, I penetrated to the core quick of the darkness--

Jump!

--and exploded in a sharp-sharded shower of electric glass, bolt after bolt of searing cold ecstasy surging through my galvanic flesh into the vulva of the void.

Like the Jump itself, it was over in an augenblick, leaving me spent, fragmented, and rapidly detumescing, hanging limp and panting in the darkness.

Lorenza floated before me, eyes like cold blue marbles, lips curled into a violent sneer. "Animal!" she snarled roughly. "This is for you the art tantrique?"

I floated there for a long, silent moment under the withering contempt of her gaze; absorbing it, encompassing it, making its judgment my own. Wretched with shame, squamous with vile and unvoiceable secret knowledge, shivering in my own guilty sweat, how could I reply?

And yet ... and yet ...

Slowly, my psychic focus began to coalesce back into my quotidian Captainly persona; I became all too aware now of the enormity I had wrought, the unseemly breach between Captain and Domo, and all which it might portend in the social realm. Hesitantly, I swam toward her, my conscience politique aroused to some reptilian notion of redressment via the willful but juiceless application of the oral tantric arts.

"No!" Lorenza shouted, holding up a fending hand, arching her body away from me in an ideogram of reflexive disgust. Then, regarding me through narrower and more thoughtful eyes, more softly: "No ..."

"I'm sorry, Lorenza, I-"

"V raiment!" she snapped. "You are sorry indeed!"

Then, once again, a softer echo: "Vraiment, mon pauvre petit." She sighed, her shoulders relaxed, and slowly she came to regard me more in sorrow than anger. "Truly, you are possessed by some malaise, Genro. First the priapic frustration for you, then this ... this loss of civilized control."

I nodded my mute agreement, grateful for her sympathy on this level, but knowing full well that a true connection empathetique between us was impossible on a higher one.

Aware now of my shameful discomfort, she moved somewhat closer, brought her hand up as if considering a touch of my cheek. "De nada, cher Genro," she said. "I have experienced the maladroit performance sexual before. Surely Healer Lao will cure you of this malady."

"I think not," I told her, shaking my head. For I knew full well that no cure for my affliction could be found within the sphere of the Healer's art, if indeed that which had infected my spirit could rightly be called disease.

"Por que no?" she said with some renewed pique. "To fail in the pas d'amour through some malaise, this I can pity, but to refuse to seek a cure out of foolish masculine pride, this is conscious act of ego!"

"Call it what you will," I said with the stubbornness born of secret knowledge which I could not reveal. "But you will, bitte, speak of it not to passengers or crew. We must not infect the social realm with our ... with our--"

"'You presume to hector me with the canards of duty?" she snapped. "You, who refuse to properly perform your own? I am Domo of the Grand Palais of the Dragon Zephyr!  I will disturb not the harmony of my own domain with personal pique! We will, naturellement, maintain the facade civil."

"I appreciate your discretion, Lorenza."

"Discretion, pah!" she declared with lofty coldness. "I maintain the facade civil for the sake of my duty, my wretched Captain, and that is all!"

I nodded, I sighed, I retreated behind the wall that now lay between us, a barrier of my own creation, willful or not.  But as I drew my clothes over my cold, detumescent flesh, I was possessed by a perverse sense of bitter freedom. I knew now that the focus of my consciousness had been released from the performance of my Captainly role into a self-imposed purdah d'esprit. Like Dominique, the purpose that my spirit served was now its own.

Or so in my malaise did I believe.