CHILD OF FORTUNE
And so, in the company of my Merchant Prince, I bade farewell to Great Edoku, my days with Pater Pan, my comrades in the Gypsy Jokers, and my burning ambition to pursue the career of a ruespieler with scarcely a look back once I had gained access to the Grand Palais module of the Unicorn Garden.
Call me fickle mayhap, but consider also that had my parents followed the entirely admirable example of Dominik Vlad Ella and provided me with sufficient largesse to begin my wanderjahr in the style to which I had wished to become accustomed, I would never have chosen Edoku, never suffered the indigency and fressen of the Publics, never met Pater, never become a Gypsy Joker or a would-be ruespieler, and therefore never have met Guy Vlad Boca, who would therefore never have needed to rescue me from penury in the first place.
Which is to say that once we were ushered aboard the Unicorn Garden and conducted to a sumptuous if not quite spacious stateroom by suitably deferential freeservants, once I beheld the departure fete taking place in the grand salon, I was immediately possessed of sufficient sophistic logic to convince myself that one way or the other it had always been my proper destiny to voyage between the worlds in this style.
For what a different style it was from my previous experience at starfaring!
No sooner had our belongings been properly ensconced in our stateroom than the ship's annuciators invited our presence at the departure fete now taking place in the grand salon. The Grand Palais module of the Unicorn Garden was divided into five decks; counting downward from the bow to the stern, which was how the gravity gradient was arranged, these were the vivarium, the grand salon, the cuisinary deck, the entertainment deck, and the deck of dream chambers. Of these, the grand salon was the chief venue of the fetes, or rather the continuous fete that went on throughout the nine-day voyage under one nom de jour or another.
Maria Magda Chan, Domo of the Unicorn Garden, had commissioned a grand salon done up in a style which I can only call organiform, which is not to say that any flora or fauna were in evidence. Upon entering from the spinal passageway of the ship, one stood upon a landing stage from which a semicircle of stairs descended, and from which vantage one could therefore view the grand salon as a work of art entire.
I was first struck by the fact that not a single hard surface, flat plane, angle, or indeed even any simple geometric form, was in evidence. Chaises, banquets, tables, vraiment even the lighting fixtures, were all done up as items of upholstery, stuffed with foam, or fluff, or water, or air, and covered with velvety, furry, or indeed skinlike fabrics. All forms flowed, bulged, and curved, reminiscent in an entirely abstract manner of breasts, derrieres, thighs, phalluses, und so weiter, though none of it descended to the crassly representational. Similarly were the hues thereof derived from the organic realm -- subtle browns and greens, soft floral tints, human skin tones -- though nowhere were colors matched to form in an obvious manner. Even the walls, floor, and ceiling were upholstered in patterns of the same style, and the lighting tended to pinks, roses, and ambers. The total effect was of an abstract sensuousity balanced precariously but successfully on the edge of obscenity.
"Fantastic!" I exclaimed in delight.
"Amusing," owned Guy. "Naturellement, I have seen better."
The occasion of this fete, or rather the initial excuse for the opening of the endless round of such festivities, was the celebration of our departure from the solar system of Edoku via Flinger. While we Honored Passengers sipped at wines, inhaled toxicants, and nibbled at dainties offered by circulating floaters, a holo of our Void Captain, Dennis Yassir Coleen, appeared in the center of the grand salon to offer his salutations from the bridge. After this formality was concluded, his image was replaced by that of the great cryowire filigree tube of the Flinger outlined against the stars, and then by the gaping mouth of the hundred-kilometer spiderweb cylinder, seen from the stern of the Unicorn Garden as our Void Ship was drawn backward down it.
When we had achieved Go position at the bottom of the Flinger, we were treated to a final fond farewell image of Great Edoku itself, floating like a brilliant multifaceted and multicolored jewel against the black velvet of space in its orbiting nebula of luz redefusers.
At this moment, I reflected upon the manner in which the style of the grand salon resembled that of an arrondissement on Edoku writ small, and how the Honored Passengers therein resembled and yet did not resemble a similar gathering of Edojin, for while the dress of the Honored Passengers was no less rich and flamboyant than that of the Edojin, there was something somehow less frantic in its general effect, less given over to pushing high style over the edge into the bizarre for the sake of outrage.
"Do not our fellow Honored Passengers resemble a somewhat subdued collection of Edojin?" I remarked idly to Guy.
"Au contraire," he sniffed. "It seems to me that Edoku is something of an attempt to ape the floating cultura by folk who do not quite possess the charming self-assurance that only bottomless wealth can confer. A Grand Palais for the masses, as it were."
Be such lordly judgments as they may, Great Edoku now disappeared into memory, replaced by a holo of my future's image, to wit the starry blackness of the void as seen from the prow of our ship. A moment later, we heard the Void Captain chant the word "Go!" and all at once this starscape dopplered into a smear of blue as the Flinger accelerated the Unicorn Garden to relativistic speed in a sudden surge of mighty energies. Then the ship's visual compensators cut in and we beheld the pointillist starscape of the deep void hurtling toward us.
Our journey had begun. Soon our Pilot would be circuited into her module in the Jump Circuit and then platform orgasm and the arcane machineries derived from the science of We Who Have Gone Before would propel us several light-years toward Belshazaar in an augenblick.
There was a smattering of polite applause and a considerably more enthusiastic round of bon voyage toasting.
"Come," said Guy, "now that the formalities are concluded, let us peruse the amusements that the Unicorn Garden has to offer."
Naturellement, the Unicorn Garden, or rather the Grand Palais module thereof, had a profusion of amusements to offer, all of them designed, as I was to learn, to focus the attention of the Honored Passengers inward toward our ersatz little bubble of hedonic reality, rather than outward to confront the vast cold emptiness of the void through which we traveled.
The entertainment deck offered up holocines, games of chance, and a vast library of word crystals, as well as all manner of musical, thespic, and dance performances put on by artists hired expressly for the purpose, or by freeservants doing double duty. Many of the latter were also available at a fee for private tantric performances.
The vivarium of the Unicorn Garden I found reminiscent of some similar venue of Edoku, though of course the scale of this domed parkland was greatly reduced from even that of the bonsaied landscapes which abounded on the planet of the Edojin.
Here, under an impossible holoed sky crammed with rainbows, moons, ringed planets, comets, auroras, tornado clouds, and a plethora of other such fancies rendered in miniature, was a living garden which made no pretense whatever to mimicking the surface of any world trod by man. The vivarium, no more than an acre or two in area, was done up as a forest clearing, so that the walls of the ship, which would otherwise have formed a confining horizon, could disappear behind a thick screen of trees. No two trees in this "forest" appeared to be of the same species, and no species seemed to have escaped the gene-crafter's art. There were trees whose barks were red, silver, furred, even feathered. Golden apples, huge roses, immense flowers of every sort, indeed even giant jewels and glowing tapers sprouted surrealistically in their boughs. As for the clearing, while green grass indeed formed the quotidian background for the tapestry, more of the ground than not was overgrown with brilliantly hued mushrooms and fungi.
The centerpiece of this vivarium was the pond in the center of the forest clearing, around whose shore benches were scattered, upon whose surface blooming water plants of various sorts and colors floated, and in the middle of which, reachable by footbridge, was a tiny desert island with shining sapphire sands shaded by a single immense palm.
But it was in the design of the fauna that the gene-crafters seemed to have done their work in a toxicated state, for the vivarium abounded in living creatures of legend, all done up in miniature. Pterodactyls the size of my hand skittered through the treetops. Knee-high griffins gamboled in the wood. Tiny tyrannosaurs and winged dragons begged morsels from Honored Passengers. The pond was stocked with little sea monsters-serpents, cachalots, squid, ichthyosaurs, und so weiter.
And of course the vivarium of the Unicorn Garden could hardly be complete without half a dozen of its namesakes, each of the purest white, each with a golden spiral horn, and each no more than half a meter high. As for virgins in whose laps they might lay their little heads, these were the only mythical beasts not in evidence.
When it came to the dream chambers of the nethermost deck, the serpentine corridors thereof contained at least a score of these exotic private boudoirs, hardly any of them owing even inspiration to the natural realm.
One might engage in erotic exercises floating upon viscous rainbow-hued and jasmine-scented oil, or drifting weightless within a spherical mirror, or sightless in perfect velvet blackness, or brachiating in zero gravity in a construction of golden rods, or reposing in a nest of azure fluff, or indeed in a chamber padded in what at least gave the illusion of being living human flesh.
Nowhere in the country of the Honored Passengers, however, was there a single port or tele whereby one might experience the vast star-speckled blackness just beyond the hull of the ship, and indeed not even artistic representations of same were in evidence.
And when I chanced to comment on this at table, it was almost as if I had attempted to turn the discourse toward the fecal in terms of the general response I received.
Of the decks of the Grand Palais, the cuisinary deck was the most quotidian in terms of its decors, though this is not to say that the productions of the Unicorn Garden's chef maestro, Mako Carlo Belisandra, were anything less than superb examples of the art.
There were three different salons de cuisine, each appropriate to a different gustatory mood. For those desiring merely a casual meal, there was a simple refectory, with plushly upholstered thronelike stools set in rows along tables of polished black stone, the whole set beneath a trellised canopy of vines. For small private soirees or intimate dining a deux, there was a chamber entirely divided up into secluded tented booths of various appropriate sizes, each richly embroidered, painted, or quilted in a different style, each romantically illumined by braziers, and each containing a low bronze table surrounded by nests of cushions.
Finally, there was the formal grand dining salon, large enough to accommodate the entire company of Honored Passengers for banquets presided over by our Domo, our Void Captain, or both. Here the walls were paneled in some rough-grained greenish-brown wood framed and embellished by rococo golden metalwork in floral designs, the floor was of black marble, as was the great fireplace, and each of the tables was illumined by a crystal chandelier depending from a ceiling painted to resemble a cerulean sky replete with a few fluffy white clouds. Each of the ten round tables could seat ten diners, and each consisted of a disc of bronze mirror glass supported by a heavy ebon pillar which matched the wood of the leather-upholstered chairs.
It was here that Guy and I chanced to draw seats at the Domo's table at the banquet marking the occasion of our first Jump. The Void Captain, naturellement, was occupied at the moment on the bridge, though he would join the fete later, and as for the Pilot circuited into the Jump Drive, she, of course, would never be seen throughout the voyage.
The other seven diners at our table represented a fair cross section of what I had already learned were the four main species of Honored Passengers making up the floating cultura, though of course they hardly eschewed interbreeding.
Kuklai Smith Veronika and Don Terri Wu were men of mature years, and even more mature fortunes, who were more or less retired from pecuniary activities and who spent their lives constantly voyaging among the worlds of men, typical haut turistas seeking nothing but their own pleasure. Then there were those who gained access to the floating cultura by serving the pleasures of such patrons, whether as high courtesans such as the breathtakingly beautiful Cleopatra Kay Jone, or by the fascination of their discourse, such as the mage of astrophysic, Einstein Sergei Chu, or as thespic or musical artists. Thirdly there were those, of whom Mary Menda Hassan, on her leisurely way to serve a stint as professor of Terran prehistory on Dumbala, was a prime example, who traveled, either at their own expense or via the patronage of employers or institutes of learning, for serious purposes of commerce, science, or scholarship.
Last, and in terms of the esteem in which they were held by their fellow Honored Passengers, least, were richly endowed Children of Fortune like Guy, who passed their wanderjahrs in the floating cultura simply because their parents could afford it.
In addition to Guy, this social and intellectual proletariat was represented at our table by Imre Chanda Sumi and Raul Bella Pecava, two young men whom Guy had already judged "amusing," at least in terms of the pharmacopoeia of exotic toxicants they had brought aboard.
As for my station in this hierarchy, it seemed at best problematic, for I was not even an independently subsidized Child of Fortune, and while I never failed to wear my Cloth of Many Colors, the ensign of the Gypsy Jokers carried absolutely no cachet in this society.
Indeed the very discourse thereof did little to draw me into the stream of conversation until the occasion of the first Jump brought forth my grand gaffe.
Over the entree of terrine de fruits de mer, Kuklai Smith Veronika and Cleopatra Kay Jone wittily debated, at least by their own lights, the virtues or lack thereof of composers of whose work I was entirely ignorant. Einstein Sergei Chu held forth on the future stellar evolution of our galaxy over the saffroned fruit soup in terms far too mathematically arcane for me to follow even if the subject had held my interest.
While we dissected the Fire Crab in Black Pepper Aspic, our Domo led a discussion of the relative merits of Grand Palais presided over by a number of her colleagues, and since I was the only one present who had never traveled as an Honored Passenger before, any contribution of mine would hardly have been relevant.
Mary Menda Hassan's discourse on our hominid ancestors over the Goreng de Charcuterie might as well have been in the sprach of same for all I could make of it, and as for the discussion of psychotropics which Guy, Imre, and Raul insisted on inflicting on our enjoyment of the sashimi salad, this was a subject of which I was already beginning to have a surfeit. The Tomedos de Vaco with Smoked Black Mushrooms in Madeira Sauce had just been served when a loud chime sounded. All present paused in midbite for a moment and then went on with the meal. This minor mystery was enough to call forth my first conversational gambit.
"What was that?" I asked.
I was treated to strange looks of distaste from all at the table. "The ship just Jumped," Guy told me matter-of-factly. "Now as I was --"
"Quelle chose!" I exclaimed. "We have just leapt several light-years through the Void and the moment is marked with no more ceremony than that?"
There was an uncomfortable silence during which my tablemates exchanged peculiar glances with everyone but myself. Entirely misreading the moment, or mayhap simply determined to press on now that I had raised a subject upon which I felt that I could at last discourse, I persisted.
"Indeed, why has it not been arranged for us to view this spectacle en holo? Vraiment, nowhere in the Grand Palais are we afforded a vision of the starry grandeur through which we voyage. Furthermore, have none of you noticed the bizarre absence of even motifs relating to same in the works of art and decor with which the Grand Palais is embellished? It puts me in mind of the esthetic of Edoku, wherein ..."
I stopped in midsentence, for I had now become the object of that general air of distaste suitable to a miscreant who boorishly mentions fecal matters at table to which I have already alluded.
"I have said something untoward?" I inquired uneasily. "Would someone be so kind as to enlighten me as to the nature of my faux pas?"
Guy said nothing, and indeed seemed to be doing his best to pretend I was a stranger, a useless stratagem, for as my traveling companion, the sphere of opprobrium around me clearly extended to encompass him, and even Raul and Imre, as fellow Children of Fortune, squirmed in their seats under the disdainful regard of our lordly tablemates.
"This is your first voyage, kinde?" the Domo finally said.
"My first as an Honored Passenger," I told her. "Though I have previously traveled between Glade and Edoku in electrocoma."
The latter emendation hardly seemed to enhance my social status, eliciting instead a further curling of lips and nostrils.
"Je comprends," said Maria Magda Chan. "One may hardly expect punctilious observation of the niceties from such a novice ... Honored Passenger."
"What niceties?" I demanded crossly. "If I have said something nikulturni, perhaps one of you worthies would inform me of the nature of my transgression so that I may avoid further injury to your delicate sensibilities?"
"Well spoken!" declared Imre, and was immediately subject to a round of scowls for his chivalry.
"Since you profess the admirable desire to avoid further offense, ma petite, as Domo it is indeed my duty to instruct you in the social graces," Maria Magda Chan said. "Which is to say it is indeed nikultumi to refer to such matters as the Jump or that through which we are constrained to travel at table or in other polite discourse."
"Which is also why starscape motifs, let alone tele views of the ... ah, Void itself, are not quite in favor among the floating cultura," Kuklai Smith Veronika added in a somewhat kinder paternal tone.
"I stand corrected, and will endeavor to refrain from such offense in future," I said dryly. "But since I am admittedly such a naif in these matters, perhaps someone will explain why those who choose to voyage through the mighty grandeur of the firmament eschew the esthetic appreciation of same, vraiment, why is it nikultumi to wish to experience through the senses the marvel of the Jump upon which our entire civilization depends?"
"Merde!" muttered Cleopatra Kay Jone. Guy fetched me a kick in the shins under the table. Quite crossly, I replied in kind. "Have we not heard enough of this?" Don Terri Wu snapped angrily.
But our mage of astrophysic, Einstein Sergei Chu, seemed to warm to the broaching of his own subject of expertise. "Well and courageously spoken, child," he declared. "Certainement a subject worthy of more consideration in these circles than it receives. As for the aversion of our floating cultura to visual confrontation with the medium through which our ship travels, consider, bitte, the true nature of the physical reality in question. For beyond this thin hull is a deadly vacuum of nearly absolute cold which, though mathematically bounded, is for all practical human purposes remorselessly infinite. Vraiment, we are all but microbes in a bubble of air, protected from instant death only by our own fragile machineries. Should our life support systems malfunction, should the Jump Drive --"
"Enough!" cried Don Terri Wu.
"Vraiment, more than enough!" agreed Maria Magda Hassan.
"Must we be subject to this vileness merely to satisfy the morbid curiosity of this ... this unwashed urchin?" demanded Cleopatra Kay Jone.
Einstein Sergei Chu, however, seemed to take a certain malicious pleasure in the general discomfort. "And as for the Jump, meine kleine," he persisted, "though we have long since elucidated the physical nature of our universe and the laws thereof from the finest structures of the microcosm to the grandest productions of the macrocosm, of the true nature of the single most important phenomenon therein in terms of utility of which we know, we remain in abysmal ignorance. We are like primitives who know how to strike fire from flint but have not the foggiest notion of the chemistry or physics of flame. Like such primitives, we have learned enough of the lost lore of We Who Have Gone Before to build Jump Drives to serve the most essential purpose of our culture, but as to the mass-energy nature of the Jump itself, we are precisely like those savages who fear and worship the unknowable fire which serves them, and surround therefore both the subject and the High Priestess thereof with ignorant taboos of mystification."
"Outrageous!" exclaimed the Domo.
"Grossity!" declared Don Terri Wu.
"Amusing," owned Guy, referring no doubt as much to the resulting contumely as to the sagacity of Einstein's discourse, and favoring me with a grin. Raul and Imre broke into callow giggles which even I found somewhat boorish.
At this strategic moment, Void Captain Dennis Yassir Coleen entered the dining salon. "I will have no more of this at my table in the presence of our Void Captain!" Maria Magda Chan hissed angrily. And, so saying, she rose to greet that worthy with a great show of affection and indeed lascivious attentions.
Such matters were discussed no more at the banquet, nor, indeed, were they to be touched on again for the duration of the voyage. Nor did the innocent instigator of the brouhaha summon up the courage to join in the table talk again for fear of igniting I knew not what.
Nor did any of those present ever again deign to engage myself or my fellow Children of Fortune in civilized discourse for as long as we were aboard. Indeed, whether by dint of the spreading of the tale of this contumely, or whether by long-established general custom, we were seldom included in the social pavane of the floating cultura at all.
"A somewhat subdued collection of Edojin," I had styled the floating cultura to Guy. "Possessed of the charming self-assurance that only bottomless wealth can confer," he had told me.
As for the bottomless wealth of the Honored Passengers, this was everywhere in evidence. But as to the charm of their self-assurance, this was a virtue I was hard-pressed to detect. Certainement, these maestros of manner and artifice chose not to honor us with the blessings thereof, and at least for my part, the feeling was mutual.
At the merciful conclusion of the banquet, Guy, Raul, Imre, and I repaired to our stateroom for another session of what was becoming something of a regular ritual, to wit the sampling of the impressive variety of psychochemicals with which Raul and Imre had provisioned themselves for the journey.
While I had fancied myself something of an adept of the lore of psychopharmacology courtesy of my seances with Cort, the sophistication of his smorgasbord thereof compared to what these well- subsidized Children of Fortune had accumulated in their travels as what I had imagined the sophistication of Nouvelle Orlean to be compared to that of Great Edoku.
Vraiment, memory will not serve to recall which toxicant, or indeed which melange of toxicants, we imbibed on any particular occasion, for these sessions blur into a pixilated generality in hindsight, so that the memory of one outre psychic state can hardly be distinguished from that of another, nor, even at the time, did my indulgence therein exactly serve to sharpen my perception of linear temporality or grave particularly clear images upon the cells of my brain.
Suffice it to say that for the first half of the voyage I sampled several dozen substances gathered from any number of worlds, and productive of an impressive range of conscious, semiconscious, and entirely torpid states, though in truth all of them might easily enough have been classified under a limited number of taxonomic phyla.
Certain of these psychochemicals produced states of hilarity in which the most asinine japes were good for prolonged fits of raucous giggling. Others would have us staring mindlessly at the walls or each other for hours at a time. Some of them loosened our tongues and fortified our wit to the point where we were capable of endless elegant discourse, or at least what seemed like same at the time.
But a few were well-crafted psychic enhancers, under the influence of which we would wander the Grand Palais in a state of innocent wonder like haut turistas in Oz, delight to an overwhelming degree in the cuisinary art of Mako Carlo Belisandra, take in musical or thespic performances, or simply stroll about the vivarium enjoying the bizarre ambiance thereof with childlike glee.
Then too, some of these psychochemicals were aphrodisiacs, though congruence of effect upon the male and female of the species was by no means assured.
I might be consumed by the most torrid lust, whereas Guy wished only to discourse endlessly or contemplate the ineffable, or Guy would become a priapic hero, only to be confronted by a lover to whom tantric performance existed only as an abstract and entirely outre concept. But on those occasions when our chemically augmented desires coincided, vraiment, we would become two organisms with but a single tropism, and blissful indeed was the indulgence thereof! And when the spirit moved us, we would repair to the dream chambers and enhance our already chemically augmented pleasures with congress in these fantasy realms expressly designed for the enjoyment of same.
Finally there were those rarest and choicest of substances capable of producing a state of being wherein the realm of the senses was synergized with the realm of the mind to the point where maya's veil seemed to dissolve into a clarity of perception within which all truth seemed revealed. Paradoxically enough, it was within the thrall of one of these true psychedelics that I experienced the satori which caused me to eschew further experiments with same for the rest of the voyage of our bubble of ersatz reality through the Void between the worlds.
Soon after we all swallowed the little brown tablets, we began to feel the initial effects, namely a brightening of the senses, and a desire to be in motion. Raul suggested that we visit the vivarium, and we all readily agreed, for thusfar the psychic enhancer seemed to have produced a mutually congruent effect on the four of us that verged on the telepathic.
But this did not persist for very long. When we had reached the vivarium, Raul rather strenuously suggested that we repose together on the grass and attempt by silent meditation to achieve a satori which he felt lay within the reach of our collective grasp but whose ineffable nature was entirely beyond his powers of description.
As for me, it would have been: difficult to conceive of an activity more productive of discomfort under the circumstances, for the vivarium, with its fanciful ersatz. trees, even more ersatz sky full of contradictory meteorological and astronomical elements, and its pathetic collection of miniature mythical creatures, far from elevating the state of my spirit as its art intended, soon began to achieve the aspect of a willful veil of maya whose illusion grew more and more transparent with every passing moment, threatening to dissolve entirely to reveal a void of ennui the continued contemplation of which produced only a growing formless dread the full revelation of whose nature was the last satori in the universe I would have wished to attain.
Nor were Guy or Imre much interested in a contemplative inward journey in these environs.
"I wish to wander," Imre told Raul. "Rather than waste this experience on singular contemplation, 1 would surfeit my senses to the point of overload."
"Perhaps the dream chambers would be the most interesting venue," Guy suggested.
I exchanged telepathic glances with him. The last thing I wanted was a menage a trois with him and Imre, whom I found not the least bit attractive, nor was I in much of a mood for tantric exercises in general. Such was the puissance of the psychedelic that all this was conveyed in a twitch of the eyebrow and a curl of the lip as was Guy's confirmation of his understanding of same, or so at least it seemed.
"For there we may overload our perceptions with a rapid tour of any number of arcane realities," he said, to make the nonerotic nature of his proposal plain.
Not without a certain grumbling from Raul, we left him in the vivarium to seek nirvana, and repaired to the dream chamber deck, where, as far as I was concerned, Guy and Imre behaved in a manner entirely unsuitable to this concourse of private boudoirs, this venue designed for romance. Fortunately, the individual dream chambers sealed themselves against intrusion when they were occupied, so at least no erotic exercises were interrupted by their boisterous laughter and silly jabberings, but we were the object of more than enough outraged and offended glances on the part of loverly couples strolling hand in hand through the corridors to do considerable damage to the already low repute in which Children of Fortune were held by our fellow Honored Passengers.
My mood, au contraire, was anything but jocular as I trailed after these callow creatures while they capered through the corridors, bounced about in zero-gravity dream chambers, engaged in mock combat in the chamber filled with azure fluff, pulled faces within the spherical mirror, performed obscene pantomines in the chamber of ersatz human flesh, and in general treated the venues in which Guy and I had made love in a manner which cast little credit on the romantic spirit of the male of our species, at least in the eyes of this observer of the opposite gender.
Moreover, once the romantic ambiance of the dream chambers had been destroyed by this adolescent male desecration, I began to perceive what, at least under the influence of the psychotropic, seemed the less wholesome aspect of the very concept of the dream chamber itself. For just as elaborate tantric tableaus that would ordinarily arouse the erotic imagination may come to seem mechanical and even disgustingly perverse to a viewer whose libidinal energies have for one reason or another been forced into dormancy, so did these dream chambers come to seem like the pathetic stratagems whereby jades might seek to arouse memories of the natural man or natural woman they had long since lost. Which is to say that once the chemical and the actions of my jejune companions had contrived to rob me of all possibility of enjoying the effects of the dream chambers, I could perceive nothing but the empty artifice of the means of their production.
In short, I fell into a cafard of spiritual angst which did little to enhance my present appreciation of Guy Vlad Boca. Under the influence of comrades such as Raul and Imre, and the chemical kiss of a surfeit of toxicants, my prince seemed to be turning into a frog.
For the first time since he had rescued me from penury and dashingly swept me up and away into the floating cultura, I began to make invidious comparisons between Pater Pan and his noble vision of the Yellow Brick Road and Guy Vlad Boca, whose self-declared highest vision was amusement, between the paucity of funds and wealth of spirit I had known as a Gypsy Joker and what I had begun to perceive as the wealth of funds and paucity of spirit of the floating cultura, my Merchant Prince lover, vraiment by this time myself for finding myself here.
But to his credit, and mayhap to the credit of the puissance of the psychedelic as well, Guy sensed my growing discomfort of spirit. As Imre wandered aimlessly up the corridor a few paces ahead of us, he caught my eye, read what was written therein, or at any rate scanned the general gist of it, favored me with one of those gay smiles of his, and nodded in conspiratorial agreement.
"Vraiment" these jejune frolics are no longer amusing," he said. "Come, let us repair to the grand salon and join the fete."
I nodded my agreement, then nodded once more in the direction of Imre, nuancing the gesture with but the slightest flare of my nostrils. This too Guy read quite fluently, shrugging with only the corners of his mouth.
And so, leaving Imre to his own devices, we departed the dream chamber deck and made our way to the grand salon, at last shed of what to me had become our unwelcome entourage, and for the moment at least, if with his luster slightly tarnished, Guy Vlad Boca had once more proven himself my prince.
In the grand salon, the fete was in full flower, which is to say this venue was, as it seemed to be at every hour, well-stocked with Honored Passengers; sipping elegantly at wines, nibbling at dainties, judiciously inhaling toxicants far less powerful than what we had become accustomed to in our private seances, and discoursing in little groups on subjects which, as always, seemed abstruse beyond either my ready comprehension or real interest, empty of any real passion, and possessed, therefore of a level of civilized sophistication which I paradoxically envied, though of course I could not then admit it to myself.
As usual, none of these elder elegances were particularly eager to include jejune Children of Fortune such as ourselves in their conversations, and so Guy and I seated ourselves on a chaise in the midst of the fete yet also psychically distanced from it, all the more so on this occasion courtesy of our chemically enhanced perception thereof, which, at least for my part, was not exactly conducive to an empathetic appreciation of same.
So we secured tall fluted glasses of wine from a passing floater and sat there sipping languidly at them with our noses in the air in what at least to us was drole parody of the manners of the Honored Passengers, though no doubt the humor thereof was lost on everyone but ourselves.
"In all veracity, Guy," I inquired in a supercilious tone not untinged with a certain envious contempt, ''as a mage of the subject famed throughout the far-flung worlds of men, do you truly find our present company as perfectly amusing as they seem to find themselves?"
"In as much veracity as I am presently capable of mustering, ma chere liebchen," Guy replied more or less in kind, "I have never found anything as perfectly amusing as the floating cultura seems to find itself."
"Not even me?" I purred coyly.
"Vraiment," he said in a most peculiar tone, "not even myself!"
"An admission I never thought to hear from the lips of Guy Vlad Boca!" I declared lightly.
But Guy had suddenly become more somberly passionate than I had ever seen him. "Do you imagine that one whose spirit had already attained the nirvanic perfection of total amusement would so avidly pursue the same in the imperfectly amusing realm of maya as do I?" he said quite solemnly. "As do Imre and Raul? As do this noble company of Honored Passengers? Vraiment, as do we all, yourself not excluded, if truth be told."
Perhaps it was the psychedelic acting upon my own perceptions, perhaps it was the same speaking through Guy, or more likely the single spirit induced thereby moving through the two of us; at any rate, his entire countenance seemed to alter before my very eyes, and what I now beheld seemed to be his naked spirit unveiled, a spirit whose surface gaiety masked some darker passion of the soul, a deeper Guy than I had previously known, and therefore suddenly a creature of some mystery.
"Who can deny that all human tales begin and end alike?" he said. "Beyond our birth is a nullity and beyond our death is a void, therefore all that we possess are the augenblicks between. Which in turn either amuse or do not. And so some seek wealth because it is more amusing than poverty, fame because it is more amusing than anonymity, power because it is more amusing than impotence, love because it is more amusing than loneliness, knowledge because it is more amusing than ignorance, sensual pleasure because it is more amusing than ennui, und so weiter. As for me, it is the moment of perfect amusement itself I seek no matter the means or consequence, for would not a single instant thereof transcend three quotidian centuries of anything less?"
"Surely," I said, "there must be more to life than that!"
"Vraiment? Then tell me what ..."
"The perfection of the spirit ..? The attainment of total clarity of consciousness ...?"
"La meme chose!" Guy exclaimed. "Precisely the state of which I speak! Let destiny grant me only one eternal augenblick of such total clarity of consciousness! For would not such a nirvanic moment render all that follows and precedes entirely superfluous? For this single instant of perfect amusement, would I trade all and risk all, for to a being who has reached this ultima Thule, are not all other lesser amusements merely the snares of time-bound maya?"
But far from firing my spirit with his own murky and elusive passion, the confluence of Guy's words with the peaking of the psychotropic and the venue in which I found myself had all combined to tear away the illusions of intellect and emotion, artifice and spirit, vraiment of matter and energy themselves, to reveal not that nirvanic union with the atman of which the gurus of all schools do speak, but that which is revealed when the last layer of an onion is finally peeled away, to wit, absolute nothing, the cruel perfection of the Void. In that horrendous moment of entirely useless satori, I could perceive my own body as nothing more than a concatenation of cellular modules, and the cells as replications of molecular patterns, and the molecules as assemblages of atoms, and the atoms as clouds of particles, and the particles as mere waves of unlikely probability, and the probability as no more than momentary perturbations of a singular inevitability, and that inevitability was-was-was a nothingness whose concept the spirit dared not grasp.
From this perspective of unwholesome clarity, in which the grand salon and all within stood revealed as naught but illusion down to the finest subatomic particles, vraiment in which our very spirits seemed to conjure themselves improbably out of the Void, I suddenly understood all too well the nature of my faux pas at the Domo's table.
"Je comprends ..." I whispered.
"Vraiment," said Guy. "We must seek out that perfect moment when time stands still ..."
But I was hardly cognizant of even the music of his voice, let alone the import of his words, lost as I was in my own baleful vision, and the babblement thereof. "No wonder the floating cultura eschews all discourse, art, or vision which confronts ... which confronts ..."
"... that which the ancient sages called the Tao, and the Flower Children the Ego's Glorious Death ..."
"... all the artifice, all the ersatz firmament and bonsaied mythical creatures of the vivarium ..."
"... the mutual tantric cusp, the moment of mortal danger, the ultimate amplification of the biochemistry of consciousness ..."
It was all so horribly obvious. Just as the Void within that was now gobbling up my spirit was held back only by our usual heroic act of willful ignorance, so was the Great and Lonely Void beyond the hull of this ship held back only by the willful ignorance of the entirely artificial reality within, Vraiment, was not the very vertiginous nausea which now gripped my spirit precisely what the entire floating cultura was designed to avoid?
"Vanity, vanity, it is as Einstein Sergei Chu declared, we are all benighted savages, without the courage to face the mystery at the dark heart of all our philosophies, whimpering and puling before the countenance of the Void!"
"And all the rest is useless boredom and maya's lies!"
"Must we be subjected to this display?"
"Return these addled creatures to the mental retreat; from whence they came!"
All at once my consciousness was quite abruptly returned to the quotidian realm, where I perceived to my abashed chagrin that Guy and I had been sitting there hunched forward on our chaise, staring not at each other so much as through each other, babbling our mutually incomprehensible toxicated philosophies louder and louder, until we were fairly shouting, until, indeed, our unseemly public exhibition had at last provoked an equally strident public outcry against us.
Now we sat there like vile specimens, gazed upon by every disdainful and haughty eye, the objects of scores of curling lips and wrinkled noses, and subject to the lordly chastisement of a long loud silence.
I looked at Guy. Guy looked at me. Out of the comer of my eye, I stole a sidelong glance about the grand salon, where now, having stilled the unseemly tumult with their opprobrium, the Honored Passengers had once again turned their backs on the source thereof and resumed their rounds of assignations, imbibements, and rarefied discourse.
Vraiment, the horrid satori had passed. But not the memory trace thereof entire.
Guy shrugged. "Once more we would seem to have played the buffoons," he said with a fey little smile. "But alas, for this performance no ruegelt would seem to be forthcoming."
"We both seem prone, each in our way, to a tendency to declaim from on high when the spirit moves us without regard to social seemliness," I owned.
Guy peered into my eyes intently for a moment, rolled his own about as if regarding the precincts in which we found ourselves, favored me with a little wink, and then became the old gay Guy once more. "Yet as the ancient wit had it, in vi no veritas, nicht wahr!" he declared. "For who is social seemliness to say that seers and psychonauts such as ourselves babble not the truth?"
"Je ne sais pas, Guy," I admitted. "For who is to even say if we were proclaiming the same vision?"
Guy took my hand in his, lifted my chin with his hand, and kissed me lightly as he brought me to my feet. "Only you and I, ne?" he said. "Do we not in this very moment agree that this soiree has lost its power to amuse? Do not our two hearts now beat as one?"
I regarded once more the fete proceeding all around us, the great and glorious company of the floating cultura, the creme de la creme of our Second Starfaring Age, the haut monde to which a young daughter of Nouvelle Orlean had not so long ago avidly aspired and which regarded me and mine as callow and jejune.
"Vraiment it has," I said, making myself smile as I looked back at Guy, whose amorous interest was made quite frankly plain. "Mayhap they do."
Yet even as I clasped his hand and readily enough allowed him to lead me to our boudoir, I found myself fingering the sash I wore about my waist, and somehow the patchwork cloth thereof seemed nearer and dearer than it ever had before.
While the subsequent passage d'amour with Guy and a good ten hours of untrammeled sleep served to purge both the chemical from my metabolism and the metaphysical angst induced thereby from my spirit, in truth the divertissements of the voyage chez Grand Palais and those which Guy, Raul, and Imre continued to pursue together, cloyed from that moment on.
For while the chemically induced perception of the universe as a spiritually daunting void of nullity and ourselves as but illusory perturbations therein passed with the figurative dawn, the memory of the experience did not entirely fade.
In truth, as I knew even then, the weltanschauung which had so consumed my soul with dread under the influence of the psychotropic had been little more than the heightened subjective apprehension of the rudiments of quantum cosmology which we are all taught as children. Vraiment, our cells are composed of molecules, the molecules of atoms, the atoms of particles, and the particles of subparticles which diminish in mass, duration, and probability under dissection until one indeed discovers that the mass-energy cosmos is conjured into being out of theoretical ultimate particles of zero mass, zero duration, and zero probability.
But in the cold clear light of dawn, what of it? If all creation is but a cosmic ruespieler's tale whereby the characters conjure themselves out of their own imagination, then all that should concern the spirit is the art of the story or the lack thereof, ne.
Which is to say that it was the style of the tale the floating cultura chose to live out for itself which now cloyed in the light of my memory of the satoric revelation of the obvious. For had not I stared full-face into the countenance of what all this artifice was meant to deny, and escaped with nothing worse than a certain period of angst and terror? How could I therefore regard these Honored Passengers, who viewed me as callow, as the crown of creation they so obviously considered themselves? How could I regard the pavane from which I was barred by my lack of adult sophistication and urbanity as a vie to which I should aspire?
Or, as Guy would no doubt have put it, where was the amusement to be found therein for a true Child of the spirit's Fortune?
As for the amusements that Guy, Raul, and Imre continued to pursue for the rest of the voyage to Belshazaar, as far as I was concerned, this was more of the same.
The Honored Passengers surrounded themselves with an external environment of illusions crafted of matter and energy, while Guy, Raul, and Imre subsumed the reality of the Void beyond the hull and the Void within the spirit behind a series of illusions crafted of psychotropic alteration of the biochemical matrix containing the consciousness perceiving it. And woe unto that spirit should illusion misfire and reveal the very truth it was meant to deny!
No doubt much of the metaphysical cogency of the foregoing derives from the more mature perceptions of the teller of the tale, rather than from those of the young girl who eschewed further ingestion of psychotropic substances of any puissance for the duration of the voyage through the Void and who spent her time wandering aimlessly through the divertissements of the Grand PaJais in a state of ennui.
I was surfeited with haute cuisine, bored with the passive consumption of art and performance, and certainement, I had had my fill of idle discourse, whether that of the elegant Honored Passengers or that of my so frequently toxicated companions. Only my desire for erotic dalliance with Guy was perforce enhanced, for of all the diversions offered up to pass the idle hours chez Grand Palais, this was the only one in which I might participate as an active agent.
In short, what life aboard the Unicorn Garden, what the vie of the floating cultura, lacked, as far as I was then concerned, was adventure. I did not want to be entertained, I wanted to act. I did not want to perceive, I wanted to do.
As to the nature of the adventure that I sought, as to what acts I imagined I wanted to perform, as to just what it was that I was consumed by the passion to do, this I knew not.
I only knew that I was more than ready to debark from the Unicorn Garden and stand on the real surface of an unknown world once more. And so I spent the remainder of the voyage looking forward to our arrival on Belshazaar, whatever the nature of that planet might be. Having arrived as an ignorant ingenue on Great Edoku, having gained access to the Gypsy Jokers by my own wit, having survived as a Child of Fortune on this most sophisticated of the worlds of men, having at last experienced the floating cultura itself and found it wanting, naturellement I assumed that experience had prepared me for anything.
Alas, once more I was to be proven a naif.
It may seem strange that I had given so little thought to what might await me on Belshazaar before I embarked on the journey thereto, and stranger still that I did not choose to fill my surfeit of idle hours aboard the Unicorn Garden with more diligent study of the planet which represented the light at the end of my tunnel of ennui.
In the first case, I had cared little about the goal of the journey because my goal was the journey itself, which is to say escape from the penury of Edoku into what I had always imagined to be the fascinating vie of the floating cultura. In a curious way, this state of mind was not unlike that of the instance of the second part, wherein my main passion was to escape the Grand Palais as I had escaped poverty, and that to which I was escaping seemed to matter a good deal less than the change of scene itself.
And of course, if truth be told, diligent study of anything had never struck me as an escape route from boredom at this stage in my evolution. Which is not to say that I was completely without curiosity about Belshazaar as each Jump took us closer to the reality thereof, only that I contented myself with a perusal of the entry therefor in the planetary ephemeris, at the conclusion of which I believed I had sufficiently prepared myself for our arrival.
Belshazaar, I learned from the ephemeris, was basically a water world, with some 83% of its surface given over to ocean, and the bulk of its land area consisting of two widely separated major continents, Pallas and Bloomenwald. The former had been entirely defoliated centuries ago and redone in a human-optimized biosphere based chiefly, as such ersatz ecologies tend to be, on that of Earth. Here resided most of the population of a mere fifteen million, and the majority of that in the vecino of the main city, Ciudad Pallas.
Bloomenwald, the other continent, had been left in its native state, for here grew the mighty Bloomenwald itself, the economic raison d'etre for the entire planetary economy.
Belshazaar's gravity was only .4 standards; this apparently allowed trees to grow to gigantic size. When humans first discovered Belshazaar, they found one relatively sparsely vegetated continent, Pallas, and another in a somewhat wetter and warmer clime covered with an enormous interlocked forest of equally enormous trees. Little grew on the forest floor beneath the dense canopy of branches nearly half a kilometer up, and in fact faunal evolution on Belshazaar had proceeded mainly on the endless rolling skyland of the treetops, known as the Bloomenveldt.
As Guy had told me and as the ephemeris confirmed, the Bloomenveldt was indeed a cornucopia of natural psychotropics. The perfumes, fruits, seeds, saps, and other natural products of the Bloomenveldt were apparently redolent with organic molecules that affected the nervous system, endocrine metabolism, and brain chemistry of our species. Hundreds of such products of the Bloomenveldt were already items of commerce, and the main industry of Belshazaar, and certainement its only contribution to interstellar commerce, was the gathering and synthesis of same.
This, the ephemeris pointed out somewhat peckishly, was the scientific and moral justification for the rude total defoliation of the native vegetation from Pallas; a human settlement surrounded by such a psychotropic flora would hardly be viable. What the ephemeris did not bother to dwell on, and what never occurred to me at the time, but what was later to prove the heart of the matter, was the question of how so many molecules produced by the flora of one world could possibly have so many direct and subtle effects upon the psychochemistry of a sapient species which evolved on another.
Nor did the ephemeris convey anything of the esthetic wretchedness of Ciudad Pallas, surely the most peculiarly repulsive city that I in my modest travels had ever seen.
Assuming, quite erroneously as it turned out, that we would travel to what appeared to be Belshazaar's only real scenic attraction immediately upon debarking from the shuttle, I quite deliberately avoided viewing any holo of the Bloomenwald aboard the Unicorn Garden so that I might apprehend this natural wonder with virgin eyes. As the shuttle spiraled down to the surface of Belshazaar, the vision of the planet as seen from space entirely lacked the grandeur and bizarrite of the similar approach to Great Edoku. I beheld great featureless blue-green seas, a huge continent of almost equally uniform deep green fringed with rather narrow beaches and studded with a few bleak rocky massifs peeking up through the endless treetops, and then we were coming down towards the singularly unappetizing-looking continent of Pallas.
Seen from above, most of Pallas appeared to be a sere desert landscape of bleak grays and dull browns, for apparently those who had sterilized the native biosphere had not bothered to extend the benefits of the ersatz Earth-based biosphere much beyond the extended vecino of Ciudad Pallas. And even there, in the grossest possible contrast to Edoku, esthetic considerations seemed never to have crossed their minds.
Smeared across a wide plain roughly in the middle of the continent was a vast hodge-podge irregular checkerboard of autofarms, vast enough, I was later to learn, to supply the nutritive needs of the entire populace. These huge fields of yellow, dun brown, and subdued green were bordered, one from the other, by irrigation channels, along which grew only enough incongruous fir trees to serve as windbreaks.
In the center of this depressingly functional landscape was the even more depressing aerial vista of Ciudad Pallas, toward which we descended with merciful rapidity. This appeared as a predominantly gray and glassy silver sprawl of human habitation, smudged in the middle of the surrounding farmland like a great greasy thumbprint.
As for the vista which greeted my eyes when first I set foot on Belshazaar, this was enough to make me turn to Guy with a curled lip and wrinkled nose as we stood there on the grim black tarmac between the shuttle and the terminal. "This," I sniffed, "is your notion of an amusing planet?"
The shuttleport was built atop a low hill and consisted of little more than a wide expanse of black tarmac, a large oblong terminal building of plain gray concrete and untinted glass, and a number of large warehouses done up in the same dismal mode. From this vantage, one could gain a general visual impression of the surrounding cityscape, such as it was.
This general visual impression was that of a gray urban wasteland sprawling to the horizon in all directions. Which is not to say that Ciudad Pallas appeared to be in a state of economic rot or physical decay; indeed some ruined buildings, verdigris, or even a fetid favela or two would have at least served to imbue the view with some kind of atmospheric ambiance, and the city itself with a feeling of human history. Au contraire, Ciudad Pallas looked as if it had been fabricated, one arrondissement at a time, by the same doggedly functional mentality which had defoliated the continent and replaced the native flora with nothing more than the hundreds of kilometers of esthetically bleak cropland which surrounded the city.
Judging from the regular rows of buildings, the streets of each arrondissement appeared for the most part to be laid out in relentlessly rectilinear gridworks. Each arrondissement seemed to be given over to a particular function, for the buildings of each were as similar as if they had been fabricated and planted at the same time, like the monocultural fields of the autofarms.
There were arrondissements of modest towers, arrondissements of geodesic domes, arrondissements of undisguised fabriks, arrondissements of low rambling structures which appeared to be residence blocks, und so weiter. As for the architectural styles offered up for the esthetic delectation of the eye, the less said the better, for there appeared to be no attempt at art at all. All forms were simple geometric shapes, the predominant colors were concrete gray, muted aluminial sheen, and pale vitreous green, adornments seemed nonexistent, and as for the art of the landscaper, this was nowhere in evidence. Nor, from this vantage, could I pick out parklands, grand public squares, or indeed anything emblematic of civic pride or public amenity.
The odor of the atmosphere I can only compare to the deadly chemical neutrality of the taste of distilled water. The deepest of breaths could detect no floral perfumes, no aroma of parkland, no stench of decay, not even the subtle smell of urban bustle.
"Quelle chose!" I told Guy. "What a wretched city! When do we depart for Bloomenwald?"
"Bloomenwald?" he exclaimed as if that were the most outre suggestion in this world. "There's nothing there but a few research stations and a vast expanse of forest."
"And what is to be found here but an immense expanse of ugly buildings, if I may ask?" I demanded.
Guy smiled. "Appearances are often deceiving," he assured me. "Once we have secured lodgings, I will show you the manifold opportunities for amusement, not to say profit, concealed within the admittedly banal exteriors of Ciudad Pallas."
And so he did, if entirely to my dismay.
Intracity transport in Ciudad Pallas was accomplished mainly by floatcabs which followed guideways in the center of the streets. Like the Rapide, their data screens did double duty as municipal directories, but unlike the Rapide, prices were often quoted for various entries. Guy, therefore, chose the Hotel Pallas by the simple expedient of finding the most expensive hotel in the city, and in like manner rented the most expensive suite it had to offer.
Having said that the Hotel Pallas was the most expensive in the city and that our accommodations were among the most expensive therein, I am hard-pressed to sing its further praises. The building itself was a stark tower crafted mainly of glass and with no particular architectural distinction. Our suite consisted of a large bedchamber, a cuisinary salon connected by pneumo to the hotel kitchen, a toilet, a bath, and a huge sitting room. As for the decor, there was a great deal of thick carpeting, plush upholstery, wooden paneling, polished brasswork, black marble, and an equally great paucity of artful employment thereof. The piece de resistance was an immense expanse of sitting-room window that offered a magnificent view of the full awfulness of Ciudad Pallas.
If a certain churlish ingratitude on my part toward Guy's admittedly unstinting largesse may be detected in the foregoing, vraiment I must confess that the tour through the city from the shuttleport to the hotel had only served to reinforce my initial distaste for this venue.
From ground level, Ciudad Pallas afforded a no less dismal ambiance than it did when viewed from the shuttleport. The arrondissements of the city were not without streets given over to restaurants, boutiques, markets, and the usual civilized necessities, but grand public squares, gardens, or parklands were nowhere in evidence, and indeed the sight of a few pathetic trees scattered here and there was rare enough so that each modest specimen became an event of esthetic significance. For the most part, the streets seemed designed as efficient conduits for floatcabs, private vehicles, and foot traffic, and that was the end of it.
As for the modest foot traffic visible from the floatcab, this seemed divided into two subspecies. On the one hand, there were purposeful and for the most part plainly dressed men and women perambulating rapidly from one building to another, and on the other hand there were any number of individuals in rather tacky garments and lacking something in the way of personal grooming who seemed to be drifting around in a befuddled daze.
What was totally lacking was the brightness and gaiety, the extravagance and ease, the very spirit of the life of the streets, which reached an apogee in Great Edoku and which was also always quite in evidence in Nouvelle Orlean. While my first-hand experience in municipal ambiance was admittedly limited, holos of other cities and word crystals describing the vie thereof led me to believe that few other cities in the worlds of men were as bereft of the joie de vivre of the streets as this one.
"Quelle horror!" I muttered sourly as I stood in our sitting room looking out over the cityscape I had already come to loathe. "What are we doing here, Guy?" I pouted. "What secret charms can this ghastly place contain to persuade you to dally here another hour?"
"Have I not told you that the main industry of Belshazaar is psychotropics?" he said. "Ciudad Pallas is admittedly somewhat indifferent to the esthetics of the external landscape precisely because attention to same is largely superfluous in a city where the full glories of the internal landscape are available to all in such extravagant measure."
I liked not the sound of it, I liked it not at all. "If the sole attraction of Ciudad Pallas is the ready availability of a wide variety of psychotropics, why subject one's enhanced perceptions to such dismal surroundings? Surely, with your chip of unlimited credit, you can purchase whatever psychic enhancers your heart desires and consume the same in some venue far more conducive to spiritual elevation ..."
"Ah, but here whatever psychotropics the heart desires are available gratuit!"
"Indeed better than free!" Guy enthused. "Here in Ciudad Pallas, one may be paid to consume psychotropics! In this noble city, serving as a subject for psychochemical experimentation is an honored profession!"
"What?" I exclaimed and collapsed into the nearest chaise, for such a notion was not something I felt I could contemplate in an upright position.
"Vraiment!" Guy went on in the same grandly enthusiastic vein. "New substances are constantly discovered in the research domes, ne, and these must then be evaluated here under controlled conditions before the viable ones can be offered up on the market. Naturellement, each potential new product must be tested upon scores of human subjects, therefore many psychonauts, as it were, must be employed in the service of the advancement of scientific knowledge and pecuniary profit. Can you think of any career for which I am better suited? Do you know of anyone more likely to achieve success in this noble calling than Guy Vlad Boca?"
"Merde!" I snapped. "What need have you of further funds? You hardly need to serve as an experimental subject in order to earn your keep!"
"True," Guy admitted. "I have no need of further funds. But I always have need of further amusement."
Even knowing Guy as I did, the logic of all this still seemed elusive. "But I thought you had already chosen a career as a traveling merchant, as heir apparent and scion of Interstellar Master Traders," I pointed out.
"Indeed I have."
"Well then, if you must soak your brain in an ocean of assorted psychotropics, why not simply purchase them? Or if you have suddenly developed scruples against expending your father's fortune on your own amusement -- which have never before been in evidence -- why not simply announce your identity to the local purveyors of psychotropics and request free samples of their goods for marketing evaluation?"
"Not a bad notion ..." Guy mused. "But neither as amusing nor as potentially profitable as my own. True enough, as an announced agent of Interstellar Master Traders, I would be showered with free samples of whatever was already on the market. But the opportunity for greatest profit lies in learning of the best of the newest psychotropics before they are offered up to general commerce. Thus, by posing as a mere indigent Child of Fortune, as one of the thousands of paid experimental subjects in which the city abounds, I may learn of the best new products before any other merchants do. And by approaching the manufacturers thereof before they begin to solicit importers and offering a modest premium for exclusivity, I can score a series of commercial coups such as will do my father proud."
"Pfagh!" I snorted. "The truth of the matter is that you find the notion of being paid to sot yourself on arcane chemicals incognito more amusing than the idea of simply purchasing them or securing samples as a merchant!"
"Well spoken!" Guy exclaimed with an idiot grin. "In this matter, the maximization of amusement and the maximization of profit happily coincide. Moreover, I might point out that you too may enhance your consciousness at a pecuniary profit."
He took hold of my hand and fairly dragged me to my feet. "Come, " he said, "let us begin our enterprise. A moment unamused is a moment lost forever, as a wise man once said."
And so our endless round of the laboratories and mental retreats of Ciudad Pallas began. Our first visit was to a modest laboratory occupying a single floor of a large tower, and the first sight to greet us therein, and one that would become all too commonplace in the days ahead, was that of an anteroom crowded with about a score applicants for the position of experimental subject.
A more unsavory collection of human specimens would be hard to imagine. Most of our fellow applicants of both genders were of the same general age as ourselves, the males frequently bearded with stubble, the females in a state of dishabille, and both sexes exuding an odor of stale perspiration contaminated with peculiar aromas of acetone and other acrid byproducts of dysfunctional metabolisms. A few of these folk were of a more advanced age and had clearly been pursuing the "profession" of psychonaut longer than was prudent, for these were gaunt of frame, hollow of cheek, deeply shadowed around the eyes, and had a disconcerting tendency to stare fixedly at the walls or ceiling, muttering to themselves.
At length, a woman in a plain gray smock appeared through the doorway to the inner sanctum and announced that the fee offered for the day's experiment would be six units of credit. At this, three or four of the applicants departed with their noses in the air. The rest of us were subjected to a perfunctory examination with a metabolic monitor to weed out those whose bloodstreams or protoplasm might be contaminated with lingering byproducts from other such sessions which might skew the results of today's seance.
Only half a dozen passed this muster, among them, naturellement, Guy and I, who had yet to contaminate our metabolic purity as experimental subjects. We were ushered into a plain gray- walled room containing a series of tables. Before each table was a padded chair. Behind each table sat a gray-clad and bored-looking functionary. Upon each table was a rack of glass vials filled with fluids, powders, and gaseous essences, a word crystal recorder, and a metabolic monitor.
Guy and I were seated at adjacent workbenches. The sallow-skinned, blonde-haired woman seated across the table from me affixed electrodes to my temples, placed a probe under my tongue, inserted another into the pit of my right aim, and did not deign to speak until I was properly attached to her monitoring machineries.
"Bitte, you will spiel your subjective experiences as they occur, trying as best you are able to confine yourself to style of feeling, sparing us any flights of loquacity or philosophical musings, which in any case will be edited out of the transcript," she recited in a flat bored voice after these amenities had been concluded.
"Sniff," she commanded, opening a vial of clear fluid and thrusting it under my nostrils. I sniffed.
This was easier said than done. A smoky-sweet odor went directly to the back of my brain, where it ignited a ravenous hunger for some specific food I had never encountered. "Total hunger," I said. "For something quite specific that I've never encountered, it's quite difficult to try to explain. ..."
"Superfluous also ... Inhale ... Spiel ..."
The next vial seemed to have no odor at all, but I was abruptly consumed by a raging lust, or more precisely a genital demand for sexual relief completely divorced from my psychic state, which could not have been less interested in such matters at the time.
And so it went. In order to have six units credited to my chip, I was required to sniff, inhale, quaff, or touch something like a dozen substances, and report as laconically as possible on the psychesomic effects thereof. These ranged from narcoleptic torpor to a state of nervous excitation that had me fairly vibrating in my seat, from a sudden loss of color vision to a state of visual perception in which everything glowed with its own inner light, from ravenous hunger, cellular thirst, and sexual lust to the absolute conviction that I had become a disembodied spirit.
At the conclusion of this first job of work as a psychonaut, I reeled out into the bleak streets of Ciudad Pallas in a state of some discombobulation; for though these outre psychic states had all been quite transitory, the memory traces of this dizzying succession of narrowly focused psychic states had loosened my moorings to quotidian consciousness to the point where it took some time to return to reality ordinaire.
Guy, however, assumed a critical air. "Trivial substances," he said loftily. "I found none of it more than passingly amusing, did you?"
"Not even that," I admitted quite truthfully.
He withdrew a sheet of paper from a pocket and studied whatever it was he had scrawled thereon. "While they were crediting your chip, I learned of several other laboratories seeking psychonauts today, " he said. "Let us see if the next one offers better fare ..."
So saying, he fairly dragged me into the next unoccupied floatcab and we were off to another laboratory, if not exactly against my will, then certainement not with my avid approval either, for if truth be told, I was still in no condition to strongly approve or strongly protest anything.
To Guy's growing consternation, we were rejected as subjects by the other four laboratories we visited on that first day in Ciudad Pallas, for apparently the rapid succession of substances we had tested at the first had left sufficient aftereffects in our metabolisms to render us unfit as biochemical tabulae rasas at least until the next morning.
As far as Guy was concerned though, the time was not entirely wasted, for while we waited in the anterooms of the various laboratories with our fellow would-be psychonauts, he questioned the more experienced members of this profession, or at any rate those capable of coherent discourse, on the inner lore of the trade.
Apparently the laboratories were not considered the prime venues of employment. For one thing, most of them were given over to the initial screening of the latest psychotropics to emerge from the research domes, so that more often than not one's time was wasted on psychotropics of trivial effect. For another, they were rather mingy when it came to pay scales. Furthermore, for the modest wage they offered, one was usually subjected to a whole battery of substances, which wreaked sufficient confusion to the fine detail of the metabolism to make it rather unlikely that one would be accepted as a fit subject by more than one laboratory in the same day.
"The mental retreats are much to be preferred," Guy was told by one of the more experienced -- which is to say gaunter, older, and more hollow-eyed-psychonauts. "Primero, they offer only one psychotropic per diem. Segundo, they perform molecular adjustments on the extracts, so that the experience is likely to be enhanced. Tercero, the pay is much better, due to the enhanced risk. Al fin, should unexpected difficulties arise, they have the facilities and commitment to restore one's base consciousness to the extent possible, or at worst to care for those who are no longer fit to continue to follow the trade."
Naturellement, the competition for these choicest and most remunerative positions was somewhat severe, but, we were assured, the fact that we were relatively naive subjects would count heavily in our favor for several weeks, which is to say until that advantageous situation no longer obtained.
His mood considerably buoyed by this knowledge, Guy picked diffidently at the undistinguished dinner we consumed in our suite before retiring, nor was his tantric performance anything more than perfunctory, for his attention was on the morrow throughout, and he kept up a nearly continuous babble on the subject of mental retreats and psychotropics even as we lay in each other's arms.
For my part, I had already had more than enough of Ciudad Pallas before I had even set foot on its unappetizing streets, my initial experience as a psychonaut had done little to convince me that I had found my true calling, and the society of the laboratory waiting rooms had not exactly impressed me with its sparkle and wit.
As for the effect this venue seemed to have on my lover, this seemed to resemble that of the company of Raul and Imre writ large, with the added disadvantage that Ciudad Pallas lacked even the esthetic divertissements of the Grand Palais of the Unicorn Garden.
And alas, my lover was also my benefactor, which is to say my sole source of funds save what I might earn at the psychonaut's trade, for the possibility of picking up my nascent career as a ruespieler seemed entirely out of the question here, nor did I imagine I could earn much ruegelt as a tantric performer in Ciudad Pallas either. The unpleasant truth of the matter was that I was trapped in this wretched city until Guy no longer found it amusing or until I could secure enough funds of my own to become an economic free agent. And in Ciudad Pallas, there seemed to be only one way to accomplish that.
So I saw no alternative to accompanying Guy the next I morning to one of the mental retreats in which the city abounded. And indeed my initial impression of this establishment did much to raise my spirits, for, of course, that was precisely what the design and decor thereof were artfully crafted to do.
The mental retreat was a dome atop a plain gray cube, and from without, it presented no more a pleasing aspect than any other building in Ciudad Pallas. Within, however, it was an entirely different matter. The dome was of transparent glass and it enclosed a large central courtyard around which the dormitories, offices, and laboratories of the mental retreat were constructed. This central atrium put me in mind of the vivarium of the Unicorn Garden, save that the natural sky was visible through the dome, and the style of the garden it contained was quite simple; consisting merely of some ordinary trees of several terrestrial species, an expanse of lawn, beds of flowers, a modest fountain, and a sprinkling of wooden benches.
The interior hallways, the room in which we were interviewed, and the chamber in which the psychotropics were administered, were all paneled in rough-grained wood, ceilings were painted a deep blue, and forest-green carpeting abounded.
All in all, an ambiance of ease and tranquility had been successfully created within these cloistered walls, and, moreover, the functionaries of the mental retreat seemed to take care to dress in a congruent style, in flowing garments of either natural browns and greens or gay primary colors. As for those who, by their abstracted airs and lack of attention to personal grooming, appeared to be long-term habitues of the mental retreat, these were dressed in a similar style, and were permitted to roam the corridors and garden at leisure.
The only sour note was struck by the usual denizens of the waiting room, who appeared no different from their compatriots of the same venues in the laboratories.
After the usual metabolic screening process, Guy and I were accepted as subjects and offered twenty-five credit units apiece to test what was described as a single promising substance. This was indeed a far cry from the rates that seemed to prevail in the laboratories, and even I therefore agreed with some enthusiasm, tempered only by the fact that, as usual, we were kept in the dark about the experience we were about to undergo in order not to skew our reactions with expectations.
My trepidation increased however when Guy, myself, and the four other psychonauts who had been selected for the day's labor, were led away into separate private cubicles by our own individual functionaries.
Mine was good enough to ask my name and introduce himself as Doctor-Professor Sigisimund Farben Bruna, a nicety absent from the commerce of the laboratories, though the courtesies did not extend to an exchange of name tales. Electrodes were affixed to my temples, a probe inserted into a vein, and another into my vaginal cavity, but rather than leading to cumbersome stationary machineries, the wires therefrom led to a cunning little portable unit fastened to my waist by a belt.
"You will be free to wander the grounds, Sunshine," the Doctor-Professor told me in a warm, somewhat syrupy voice, as if he were a thespian playing the part of himself. "I will accompany you, and we will converse freely."
"That is the entire process?" I asked somewhat dubiously.
He favored me with a friendly smile that also seemed to owe something to conscious craft, though perhaps it was merely his ice-blue eyes and somewhat overdignified visage combined with my own natural unease which created the impression of a kind of professional sincerity. "But of course changes in your physiology will also be monitored," he said, "so that your anecdotal reportage may be temporally correlated therewith. Thus, given enough subjects, do we develop a more or less precise profile of the psychic states generated by stepwise biochemical alterations caused by the substance in question."
"A floral extract of some molecular complexity in which certain speculative modifications have been made," he said vaguely, producing a small vial of clear blue fluid. "We commence, ja?"
I shrugged somewhat fatalistically and quaffed the potion, which had a not unpleasant smoky- sweet savor, if somewhat contaminated by a tooth-tingling metallic aftertaste.
"And now ...?" I inquired.
"A stroll in the garden, ja?" suggested the Doctor-Professor. "We have reason to believe that perambulation expedites metabolic absorption."
And so we repaired to the garden, where other such functionaries, be they Doctor-Professors or not, were shepherding other psychonauts, Guy among them, taking pains, or so it seemed, to keep us all at a considerable distance from each other.
While awaiting I knew not what, I sought to engage the Doctor-Professor in discourse upon the subject of his professional interests, seeking thereby to gain some further knowledge of the true nature of the peculiar establishment in which I now found myself. "This place styles itself a mental retreat; are you therefore a Healer of malfunctioning psyches?"
He shrugged somewhat owlishly. "An obsolete concept, nicht wahr," he declared. "Here we delude ourselves not that there exists a singular gestalt of healthy human consciousness toward which all variant states need be bent by our art. Au contraire, our aim is to develop a broad enough palette of psychotropics so that any given psychic state may be produced to order."
'Je ne sais pas ..."
"One client enters a mental retreat in a cafard of egoless fragmentation, ja, and we are commissioned to reattach his psyche to a unified perception of the quotidian realm. Aber ein wanderer may enter with an excessive ego-grounding in the wheel of maya and commission us to produce a psychic state wherein that ego is dissolved into nirvanic union with the atman. Or indeed we may be commissioned to increase the availability of certain arcane psychic gestalts to serve economic and social necessities ..."
"Most lucrative of all is the obvious need for a psychotropic which would reliably induce in neutral female subjects the rare psychic gestalt of the Void Pilot personality, for vraiment, that would usher in a golden era which might fairly be called the Third Starfaring Age," he enthused. "As things stand now, we must search the mental retreats and demimondes for naturally occurring anorexic addictive personalities of the required extremity, and so unfortunately rare is this syndrome that we never have more than two hundred or so in active service, ja, and this process is to the reliable scientific production of Void Pilots as ancient alchemy is to quantum chemistry, nicht wahr ..."
He brought himself up short and stared at me narrowly, as if suddenly realizing that he had wandered into regions of discourse best not broached to experimental subjects such as myself. And indeed such frankness did little to enhance his moral stature or that of the mental retreats of Ciudad Pallas in my eyes, nor did it exactly increase my confidence in his concern for the personal well-being of experimental subjects or patients.
There was something odious, or so it seemed to me, about the notion of producing any given state of consciousness to order, for the question then arose as to whose specifications were to be followed. And judging from his unwholesome enthusiasm for the ghastly conceit of artificially creating the miserable state of psychic dysfunction necessary to the calling of Void Pilot in order to facilitate interstellar commerce, not to say enhance his own, these specifications need not be at all conducive to the personal happiness of the subject ... or victim.
Which is to say that the style of consciousness induced by his words in my own being was that of a certain dread. For what was about to happen to me?
Vraiment, this thought had no sooner taken form in my brain than I became aware that something was happening.
A strange hollow tingling sensation was slowly spreading up my back and then along my limbs from a point of focus which seemed to be located in the chakra at the base of my spine. Not so much a loss of sensation as a shift in my perception of the kinesthetic image of my own body, as if my spine, and then the bones of my limbs, and then the flesh encasing them, were effervescing into some clear ectoplasmic substance, transparent not so much to sight as to my body's internal kinesthetic senses ...
"The effects begin, ja?" the Doctor-Professor said, studying me intently. "Speak, schnell bitte, before the next stage commences!"
"Je ne sais pas ..." I stammered in no little trepidation. "I ... I seem to be evaporating ... my flesh is turning into air ... into liquid crystal ... into ... into ..."
"Ach gut! Nominal thusfar!"
Nominal? The effect was spreading more rapidly every moment. My arms and legs, then my hands and feet, became ethereal unreality, as transparent to kinesthetic perception as clear glass is to light. Vraiment, I could stand, I could flex my feet, move my fingers, yet somehow, to some sense that was neither feeling nor sight, nor even volitional control, they were not there ...
"Spiel! Recite! Speak, bitte, I must have data!"
"I'm dissolving!" I cried in no little terror. "I'm fading away!" For now my entire body seemed to have ectoplasmated into nothingness from the point of view of the kinesthetic centers of my brain. Though I could see it, and move it, and even feel the pressure of the ground beneath the soles of my feet, in some elusive fashion, my consciousness had retreated up the column of my spine to the citadel of my brain, as if my spirit were dissociating itself from the corporeal matrix in which it arose ...
"More data! More data!" the Doctor-Professor demanded. "This is excellent thusfar!"
"The light! The light!" 1 cried in panic, and then in panic not unalloyed with a certain tremulous wonder, for as the dissolving of kinesthetic awareness began to engulf my head like some amoeboid creature spreading its protoplasm from the base of my neck, through my jaw, up my cheekbones, the green of the trees, the brown of their trunks, the reds and blues and yellows of the beds of flowers, the cerulean tint of the sky, vraiment even the sallow skin-tones of the Doctor- Professor, began to take on a luminous glow, seemed to pulse and shimmer, then to take on an independent substance, as I became little more than the impalpable sensorium against which they impinged ...
"Speak! Speak! Attempt coherence, bitte!"
"Oh! Oh! Oh! I can feel them!" I moaned. For indeed I -- insofar as an "I" still remained -- no longer sensed the brilliant colors as hues pertaining to the surfaces of trees, faces, flowers, or sky, but as independent entities of light magically transmuted into matter, as living organisms engulfing my nonexistent body, as a garment of Cloth of Many Colors, or rather Cloth of Many Touches, for somehow sight had transmuted itself into feeling, and feeling to caresses, and caresses to ... to ...
"Speak! Speak! Schiess, why must it always be thusly at the most critical stage!"
But I could not speak. For there was no longer any "I." There was only a perfect clear emptiness where that "I" had been and a skin of exquisite multicolored flame surrounding it. Vraiment, a skin of kundalinic fire, for as light had become touch, so touch had become tantric ecstasy. All that now existed in the space where I had been was a living mantle of orgasmic substance, a transcendent being that was naught but an interface of orgasm, a flaming aura of static ecstasy burning through the very fabric of space and time.
How long did I remain in this egoless ecstatic state? While I was later to learn that the duration of the experiment was several hours, such measurements had no meaning whatsoever in the subjective realm thereof. For there was neither a timebound ego to measure the hours nor any interface between objective reality and the subjective perception thereof.
Suffice it to say that after some interval quotidian awareness returned to a Sunshine Shasta Leonardo who found herself supine upon a lawn under a blue domed sky, inhaling the effluvia of her own sweat as she breathed in ragged gasps and gazing with unfocused vision into the face of Doctor-Professor Sigisimund Farben Bruna shaking his head in rueful dissatisfaction and appraising her with a coldly professional eye.
"I suppose you have earned your twenty-five credit units," this worthy owned grudgingly. "Though I would pay twice that amount for a subject capable of ingesting this substance and remaining coherent enough to tell the whole tale."