CHILD OF FORTUNE
By my own adamant choice, my first venture as an experimental subject for the mages of the mental retreats of Ciudad Pallas was also my last, and no argument of Guy's to the contrary could sway my determination not to submit myself to what I can only call such horrid pleasures again. For while I could not deny his contention that this was a potentially lucrative occupation, I neither trusted in the good intentions of these Hippocratic mercenaries, nor wished to risk my sanity to serve the cause of their profit.
As for Guy, who had been dosed with the same substance and reported a similar sequence of experiences during the floatcab ride back to the Hotel Pallas, he, au contraire, had found it all quite amusing and was just as adamantly determined to continue his career as a psychonaut.
"I cannot comprehend your reluctance," he declared more in genuine amazement than pique. "How can you define the spirit's transcendence of the limitations of the body's sensory apparatus as anything but an enhancement, vraiment, how can you define a timeless and endless orgasmic cusp as anything but ultimate ecstasy?"
"One might say the same for what Void Pilots supposedly declare to be the true ultimate ecstasy of the Jump itself," I snapped. "Would you then have me famish myself into anorexia, rot my brain with a profusion of crude opiates, dally awhile with the Charge, and spend several years in a mental retreat so that I may then enjoy platform orgasm as a Pilot via congress with the Jump Circuit?"
The most unwholesome dreamy look insinuated itself onto Guy's face. "Indeed it is said that in the moment of the Jump, the Pilot achieves far more than platform orgasm," he muttered speculatively, "that via union with the Great and Only Void out of which the dance of matter and energy arises, the spirit achieves ecstatic merger with the atman and transcends thereby the limitations of maya and temporality ..."
I could scarcely credit my ears. "Now you enthusiastically parrot the apocryphal mystical babble of the Void Pilot ...?"
"The Great and Only exists, and the Jump transcends the limitations of the quotidian realm of energy, matter, and time, as witness the fact that we ourselves have so recently traversed light- years in days via its instrumentality, ne," Guy told me. "Therefore may not the Void Pilots achieve the ultimate state of consciousness of which our species is capable?"
"Be that as it may," I pointed out, "the beneficiaries of this transcendent congress with the Void are rendered thereby incapable of enjoying the pleasures of a natural woman, unfit for social intercourse, and expire within a matter of years."
"Vraiment," Guy admitted, "but may not the bargain be worth it? May not that which we fleshly creatures seek in each other's arms be but a pale shadow of an ultimate bliss which our untimebound spirits remember? And indeed, are not matters of lifespan irrelevant to a spirit which experiences a single moment of transcendent time?"
"Next you will declare your intention to become a Void Pilot?" I snorted.
Guy shrugged. "Alas, as you know, that is a path to the ultimate transcendence of maya's realm which is open to the steps of your gender alone," he said with tendentious gravity. "Yet here, in the mental retreats of Ciudad Pallas, do they not seek an elixir which will create the biochemical matrix of a consciousness capable of experiencing same in ordinary female brains? May they not therefore at length concoct a potion which will grant such a cusp to the poor masculine likes of myself? Vraiment, is this not the ultimate of the amusement which I so avidly seek? How can I therefore eschew the path spread before me by the mages of Ciudad Pallas out of cowardly trepidations for the state of my mere corpus?"
At this I was quite literally rendered speechless, nor would I rise to the bait of his babble for the rest of the evening. Nor, alas, would he give it over long enough for a proper passage d'amour before I lapsed into merciful sleep. And on the morrow, he was no more able to comprehend my refusal to accompany him to another mental retreat than I was capable of comprehending his refusal to simply purchase psychotropics of proven ability and effect if he was so set on devoting himself to the contemplation of his own spiritual navel.
"I seek not realms which others have known, for I know of no man who has yet attained the realm which I seek!" he insisted. "Vraiment," he said with a leavening trace of his old wry humor, "no doubt that is half the reason I seek it. But how can you style yourself a true Child of Fortune and not wish to avail yourself of spheres of consciousness never previously known to mortal man when a veritable smorgasbord of same is laid out for your delectation?"
"How can you style yourself a true Child of Fortune and waste your time, not to say risk your spirit, besotting yourself in this wretched city when all the worlds of men are laid out as a veritable smorgasbord of adventure for your delectation, courtesy of your fathers bottomless largesse?"
"The worlds of men, the worlds of the spirit within this single man, la meme chose, ne?"
"Phagh! Merde! Have you not noticed the denizens of the laboratories and mental retreats? Is that what you wish to become, Guy, a gaunt, hollow-eyed wretch staring vacantly at walls and muttering incomprehensible imprecations to yourself?"
"Ah, but who is to say what splendors of the spirit, what transcendent heights of amusement, are in fact contained within such seemingly decadent fleshly she1ls?"
"A maestro of sophistry?" I suggested archly.
Und so weiter. In the days to come, when Guy would return to our suite after a sojourn in the mental retreats, at times glassy-eyed and torpid, but more often than not vibrating with ill-focused energy and babbling of incomprehensible wonders, this dialectic would go another round without approaching any closer to synthesis.
Nor, on the other hand, and to Guy's considerable moral credit, did he ever intrude pecuniary considerations into our fruitless discourse, though I would have been hard put to counter same. For while he was earning an average of some twenty-five units of credit a day in the mental retreats, I, a pauper dependent upon his largesse for my very bed and board, only occasionally visited a laboratory to earn a pittance, and then only under the pressure of a boredom that became more unbearable every day.
In the face of his undeniable magnanimity of spirit when it came to matters of finance, I could hardly summon up the meanness of soul to hector him on subjects where he in turn would have been most vulnerable: to wit, that firstly he was entirely responsible for my presence in this ghastly city, and secondly that his puissance as a lover was dwindling away to nullity as his libidinal energies were sucked down the black hole of his solipsistic psychotropic obsession.
Would I have left Guy Vlad Boca at this point had I possessed sufficient funds to escape Belshazaar on my own? Je ne sais pas, for no such choice was in fact open to my consideration. But mayhap, I still would not have abandoned Guy to the demimonde of the mental retreats, or so I would like to think.
Certainement, I had discovered to my dismay an unwholesome side to his spirit that was more and more coming to the fore. But it was a generous and open-hearted spirit too, and even his obsessive quest for psychotropic nirvana clearly emanated from a core of passionate if foolhardy courage which I would have had to have been a churl to deny.
Then too, the more simple fact of it was that Guy had rescued me from penury on Edoku and freely given whatever it was in his power to give. What sort of Child of Fortune, vraiment, what sort of human spirit, would I have been if I had left such a comrade to be pulled down by his demons without at least offering combat to the same to the limits of my power to do so?
Be such moral conjectures as they may, as karma would justly have it, I lacked the coward's resources to flee from the field of honor, and at length I was presented with both the dire necessity to act and the pragmatic means to do so.
While Guy was off pursuing his solipsistic pleasures, I was left to my own devices, and these were limited indeed. I wandered the bleak streets aimlessly, or rather seeking divertissements that were not to be found therein, namely some analog of the society of the Gypsy Jokers, some promising venue in which to essay a ruespiel, or failing that, at least some opportunity to earn ruegelt as a tantric performer .
Alas, none of the Children of Fortune of Ciudad Pallas had interest in any enterprise save that of the mental retreats and laboratories, what passed for street crowds depressed me beyond any thought of standing up and spieling, and I had entirely lost the pluck to offer my services as a tantric performer to passing strangers, and certainly to passing strangers as unappetizing as these.
But on the tenth day, awash in ennui and self-pity, I was trudging with downcast eyes along a street given over to the usual unimaginative facades of shops and streets, when all at once I was confronted with a vision that jolted me out of my funk and set my spirit soaring.
The entire facade of a libraire had been given over to a bolo display designed to entice custom within. As to whether the generality of the citizenry of Ciudad Pallas might be entranced by this sight, je ne sais pas, but as for me, I stood there dazzled.
For there on the grim gray streets of Ciudad Pallas was a window into another and grander reality: a holo view of the Bloomenveldt itself.
Under an azure sky fleeced with passing clouds, a vast meadow stretched away to the horizon, undulating gently in a breeze. Imagine a dense bank of clouds seen from above, soft billowing mounds, not of white or stormy gray, but of a deep and verdant green.
For what I beheld was the treetop canopy of the Bloomenwald, an aerial rootwork of great interlocking branches from which grew a magically solid veldt of huge leaves, solid enough so that I felt I might step off the street and walk away into wonderland, yet tossing and rolling like foam on the wind. Green and yet not entirely green, for the entire vista of undulating skyland was strewn with a profusion of flowers of every conceivable form and hue, as a desert may be seen to spring into riotous bloom after a day of rain. Flowers whose immense size was revealed by a troupe of tawny-furred bipeds who were to be seen hopping in great soaring bounds among flowers which quite dwarfed them.
Ah, I could all but feel the "land" rocking beneath my feet, feel the sun on my skin and the wind streaming through my hair, I could almost smell gorgeous floral perfumes wafting to my nostrils upon it.
Merde, we were utterly demented to remain in this vile city for another instant when such an Enchanted Forest grew on this very planet! No wonder the citizens of Ciudad Pallas and the denizens of the laboratories and mental retreats seemed so unwholesome! No wonder Guy seemed to be fading into babblement before my eyes! For who but a crippled spirit would be content to experience such a natural reality second-hand in vials when the Bloomenwald itself was but a short flight away?
Surely even Guy would be roused from his psychotropic obsessions by this grand and glorious sight, surely he would be moved to travel forthwith thither, surely the means had been placed in my hands whereby I might save him from himself!
Without further thought, 1 entered the libraire and purchased a copy of the holo so that I might display it for Guy at once, utterly indifferent to the fact that this purchase consumed nearly all of the meager credit on my chip, leaving me with only enough to take a floatcab back to the hotel. This final expenditure I also freely made, unwilling to trade time for credits by returning afoot.
A small pamphlet concerning the Bloomenwald was included in the price of the holo, and this 1 avidly perused while the floatcab carried me through the streets of Ciudad Pallas, all too eager to ignore the tawdry reality through which I need pass in favor of immersion in the lore of the Enchanted Forest.
On Belshazaar, I learned, wormlike forms had evolved directly into vertebrates and thence into higher fauna, and insects had never arisen. The flowers of the Bloomenveldt being of such enormous size, the ecological niches occupied on other worlds by insectile forms were here taken over by mammalians of considerable size and cerebral development. As in the more common mode where insects filled these niches, the flowers exuded molecules in their perfumes, pollens, nectars, and fruits designed to effect the motivational metabolisms of their pollinators.
But since on Belshazaar these pollinators were mammalian forms with developed cerebral cortices, the molecules the flowers evolved to modulate their behaviors also had their effects on man.
Thus was the economy of Belshazaar based upon the chance evolution of an ecosystem in which higher forms had been adapted to serve as the pollinators of the Enchanted Forest.
The pamphlet went on to elucidate a few of the finer details of the ecosystem of the treetops, but by the time I had reached this section of the simple dissertation, the floatcab had reached the Hotel Pallas, and I gave over my studies of same in favor of rushing to our suite to confront Guy with the holo.
I burst into the suite in the full flush of my enthusiasm, and, seeing that Guy reposed on a chaise in the sitting room gazing out over the dismal cityscape provided by the great window, I went directly to the viewer circuited thereto and inserted the holo. The wretched view of the vile city was forthwith replaced by the glorious vision of the Bloomenveldt, as if we were perched in a treehouse above the aerial meadow, looking out on what would soon become our garden of delights.
"Look, Guy, isn't it marvelous?" I burbled. "Ah, how --"
"... So close, vraiment, beyond the dance, rising within me, it is as they say, as Jesu Christo had it, behold, psychonauts of the spirit, you too can walk on water, you must surrender all else to do it, but you can walk on water ..."
Only when he utterly failed to react to this glorious vision did I perceive the metal band around his head, and the wire leads depending therefrom, and the little console to which they were connected. Only then did I realize that he had been addressing himself in an eerie hollow voice at the moment of my arrival. Only then did comprehending rage replace my ignorant joy. For while I had discovered Xochimilco in the treetops, Guy had discovered the Charge.
I knew little about the Charge in those days save the general lore, and I would have expected Guy Vlad Boca to be far better versed in such matters than I, but what I did know was more than enough to outrage my spirit and send an adrenal tide boiling through my blood which balled my hands into fists.
The Charge is in essence the electronic amplification of the electrohologram of human consciousness without topological distortion, so that the Charge Addict seems to remain the same personality only more so, an enhanced version of himself, if only in his own eyes. Of course, if as is all too likely, the Charge Addict is a skewed personality to begin with, amplification produces something a good deal less savory than a bodhisattva.
Worse still, while each increment of Charge achieves an increment of amplification of the electrohologram of consciousness, each increment of Charge also creates an increment of instability in the overall pattern, so that as higher and higher states of consciousness are supposedly achieved, the personality that reaches them grows vaguer and vaguer, until, at least in theory, perfect Enlightenment is reached by a perfect human cipher.
Without even pausing at the time to think these thoughts, I ripped the wires from the console, and flung the vile thing against the wall with all my strength, smashing it to pieces.
Guy Vlad Boca at last acknowledged my existence to the point of turning his face in my direction, his eyes blinking in perplexity in the sudden light of relative reason. "How could you do such a thing to yourself, Guy?" I screamed. "Is mental seppuku in slow motion your concept of the perfect amusement?"
"Mayhap not ... perfect ..." Guy babbled, staring off into inner space once more, "but mayhap as close as we can approach to the edge ..."
"Merde, this is more than I can countenance," I exclaimed, and without further rational consideration, I tore the electrode band from his head, and employed the ring of Touch in a manner which I had never before attempted, applying my hand to the base of his skull, and sending a jolt of energy to the centers of his backbrain which should have been sufficient to have a corpse up and turning cartwheels.
This at least was enough to return him to some semblance of natural awareness.
"By what right did you do that, who are you to judge another spirit's quest, I merely toyed with the edge ..." he said, regarding me first in righteous anger, and then like a little boy whose mother has caught him with his hand in the pastry bin.
"What would you have had me do, sit patiently by and watch you slowly erase your consciousness?"
"I am no sordid Charge Addict, I would never have proceeded to the Up and Out," he said with a great false show of indignation belied by the queasy expression around the corners of his eyes. "I merely wished to taste the nirvanic joys which the Charge Addicts celebrate, never would such a master psychonaut as Guy Vlad Boca have had the weakness of will to fall victim to terminal addiction."
"Indeed? As you have not had the weakness of will to give yourself over to the far less puissant temptations of the mental retreats?"
"How can it be less than a noble calling to pursue profit and enhance consciousness while serving the cause of medical science at the same time?"
"Vraiment?" I said, hunkering down beside his chaise. "If your consciousness has become so puissantly enhanced, then why are you entirely oblivious to the glory before your very eyes!"
He regarded me with a befuddled expression.
Groaning with exasperation, I seized his jaw in my hand and directed his gaze by main force toward the holo image of the Bloomenveldt which had replaced the unwholesome vista of Ciudad Pallas beyond the window. His eyes widened in surprise and seemed to regain some modicum of their quotidian vitality.
"Yes, Guy," I cooed in as seductive a voice as I could muster under the circumstances, "not this wretched city of unnatural experiments and even more unnatural denizens, but the Bloomenveldt of which all herein is but a pale and tortured shadow. Vraiment, and this is but a holo. Ah, can you not imagine us standing there hand in hand in the Enchanted Forest of the treetops, with the warm sun on our skins, and a thousand rich perfumes intoxicating our senses, borne on the same breeze that ruffles our hair and whispers through the branches, and rocks the very ground we stroll upon like transcendent beings along the rolling surface of an arboreal sea ..."
Guy's reaction to this romantic extravagance was to shrug, and own: "Tres simpatico for the devotee of bucolic pleasures, but as for urbane and sophisticated spirits like ourselves, surely you jest?"
"How can you not be possessed of the passion to hie yourself there at once?" I said as evenly as I could, choking back my consternation at his obtuseness by pragmatic act of will.
"For what purpose? For all its grandeur, it is only a forest ..."
"Only a forest!"
"Surely the cities of man abound in more artful amusements and adventures of the spirit than anything that mere brute nature can provide."
"Including the present loathsome venue?" I said in a sneering tone.
"Most particularly Ciudad Pallas, here in the most advanced laboratories of the psychesomic sciences," said Guy, "for where else in the worlds of men are the most arcane states of consciousness to be experienced, and at a profit in the bargain?"
I choked back my disgust and anger in favor of guile, for at this point it was quite clear that there was no hope of persuading Guy to quit Ciudad Pallas for the Bloomenveldt by an honest appeal to esthetics.
"There, mon cher dumkopf, there!" I declared, pointing at the holo of the Bloomenveldt.
"Naturellement, Guy," I purred in his ear. "Where else do you suppose all the psychotropics you have already sampled originate? If profit is what you seek based on a droit of monopoly on the latest substances to emerge from the research domes, how better to steal a march on all competition than by seeking them out at their very source'? If what you seek is the attainment of a state of consciousness which has never before existed in a human brain, why piddle about with synthesized derivatives rather than experience directly the full organic complexity? Is anything the mental retreats have to offer, is foolish flirtation with the Charge, any more amusing than that?"
"Je ne sais pas ..." Guy muttered reflectively. "To be the first, to boldly go where no human spirit has gone before, and mayhap to enrich ourselves beyond measure in the process ..."
And all at once, he was positively beaming at me. "Well spoken, ruespieler, well spoken, ma chere Gypsy Joker," he declaimed floridly. "you shall have your heart's desire, y yo tambien, for vraiment, what higher adventure for we two free spirits of the upper air than that which you propose!"
Even then I do believe that I realized that I had ceased to be an ingenue when I applied this forthrightly self-serving strategem. For by no stretch of the imagination could I delude myself that I had appealed to the best that lay in Guy Vlad Boca. But contrawise, did not the vie of Ciudad Pallas appeal to his worst weakness with deadly perfection?
No longer the innocent naif I, I had learned my first lesson in quantitative moral calculus, though at the time I had no concept of how bitter that lesson was to become.
There were no hotels on the continent of Bloomenwald, not even the rudest of inns; indeed the only human constructs were the research domes scattered up and down the eastern coast on the margin of beach between the great forest and the sea. As for accommodations within the Bloomenwald itself or atop the canopy thereof, these of course were nonexistent, for in the first instance the forest floor was a gloomy land of perpetual night choked with unwholesome saphrophytic fungi and infested with an assortment of ill-tempered poisonous reptiles, and the Bloomenveldt, while certainly a solid enough terrain to stroll upon, was hardly suitable as a base for architectural constructs.
Fortunately, auslander turistas did visit the Bloomenwald from time to time, though the natives of Belshazaar, aside from the workers in the research domes, entirely shunned the continent thereof, so a limited number of rooms were available in the domes, provided one was willing to pay the outrageous rent demanded.
As for equipping our little expedition, this we were advised to do before our departure. Since the climate of the Bloomenveldt was perpetually balmy, tents or heavy clothing were redundant, and should we be so foolishly venturesome as to stay away from the dome long enough to require nourishment, we would have to content ourselves with cold concentrates, for the notion of building a fire on the treetops would be, to say the least, ill-advised. Thus, aside from cold concentrates and canteens, our kits contained only three items of equipment: simple beacon receivers in the event we lost our way, filter masks which we were assured were an absolute necessity, and floatbelts to nullify gravity so that we could flit from branch to branch and not fall to the deadly forest floor in the event of a botched landing.
Guy, who had certainly never fancied himself a woodsman, expressed the usual trepidations of the confirmed urbanite during these preparations, but I, who had gone on many an expedition deep into the Bittersweet Jungle of Glade, assured him in all sincerity that I was a maestra of forest lore well versed in the skills of survival therein. So I truly believed, for was one forest not very much like another, even though the Bloomenwald was a forest writ large? Only the question of predators would have given me pause, and these, we were told, were nonexistent.
Within forty-eight hours, we had completed our preparations and boarded the suborbital shuttle, for once I had succeeded in altering the vector of Guy's enthusiasm, he threw his energies and argent into the project as totally as he had pursued his previous obsessions. There were no more sojourns at the mental retreats, the. Charge was never mentioned again, and once more our passages d'amour had achieved a frequency and duration, not to say piquancy, appropriate to a natural man and a natural woman about to share a grand adventure.
Of the shuttle flight to the continent of Bloomenwald, there is little to tell. We arose from Ciudad Pallas' shuttleport as if emerging from a dream of ennui, arced up through a featureless blue sky above an equally featureless ocean, winked through a starry blackness on the edge of space, then descended through a fleecy cloud deck to land on a sandy promontory jutting out into the sea.
Of our first moment on the continent of Bloomenwald, au contraire, much might be said, for this seemed another world entire.
On the tip of the peninsula where we had landed perched a large geodesic dome, whose facets flashed and shimmered in the bright sunlight like the eye of an insect. Landward of our debarkation point, the peninsula joined a narrow strip of beach, and beyond the beach towered the Bloomenwald.
To the naive eye, the edge of the Bloomenwald, seen from the beach, would no doubt have seemed a seacliff palisade, and even I, knowing what I saw, had difficulty crediting the fact that this five-hundred-meter-high wall of brown and black and deep gray crowned with green was in fact the margin of a forest. As far as the eye could see in either direction, this cliff towered over the beach. As a geological formation it would have been impressive enough, but as an endless thicket of living trees, it was so out of scale with the comprehensible that even the educated eye took a good while to unravel the optical illusion.
For what appeared to be a solid cliff of loamy brown earth streaked with formations of gray and black rock was in fact nothing so substantial. The vertical columns of brown upon long second glance revealed themselves as the mighty trunks of enormous trees, and the formations of black and gray rock were nothing more than the deeply gloomed aisles of shadow between them.
"Amusing enough for you, Guy?" I finally managed to whisper.
"Daunting ..." he muttered. "I can certainly see why no one would be mad enough to venture within."
I shuddered at the very thought. For beneath the canopy of the Bloomenwald was an equally vast shadow land somehow deeper in the darkness than any true night could have been, and merely viewing the gigantic edge thereof was enough to set the spirit shivering. As for the unpleasant fauna reputed to lurk therein, one could only be struck with the certainty that whatever chose to dwell in such a place must be of a disposition inimical to the human spirit.
But then we were here to explore the bright sun drenched meadowland of the Bloomenveldt high above, and as to the metaphysics of this image of a land of light crowning the realm of darkness, I was more than content to leave this to the poets, as we turned our backs to the land and our faces to the sea and made our way to the research dome.
Domed though it was, the research station sported no central garden, nor did it offer any grand overlook on the edge of the forest. Rather was the interior entirely divided up into three floors of modular rooms given over to laboratories, office spaces, dormitories, und so weiter, and most of the windows looked out on the sea.
Our room, for all the outrageous rent, was no less spartan than the rest of the establishment. There was a bed, an armoire, two night tables, two uncomfortable chairs, toilet facilities, and that was the end of it. As for decor, this tended to unadorned walls in muted pastel colors, thin carpeting in the same pallid hues, and no interior plantings whatever. This was a scientific station given over to serious pursuits, not a resort, and despite the fact that we were paying through: the nose, we were here on sufferance.
While the ambiance, or total lack thereof, of the research dome made this all too apparent, the director of the station, a tall silver-haired woman named Marlene Kona Mendes, was good enough to spell this out in words of one syllable on the occasion of a rather grim welcoming lunch in the refectory staged for our benefit.
"This is a research station engaged in serious studies, and you will therefore trouble not scientists on duty or intrude your presence into the laboratories, bitte," she said over a meal of bland cuisine little better than the concentrates we had purchased in Ciudad Pallas. "Further, if you are so foolish as to become lost on the Bloomenveldt, do not expect us to mount any rescue expeditions. We have a complement of only some two dozen, and none of us have any time to waste tracking down errant turistas. We assume no responsibility, legal or moral, for your safety, comprend?"
"The clarity of your exposition is quite admirable," Guy replied dryly.
Also present at this luncheon were two other turistas who had rented rooms at the station. Omar Ki Benjamin was an elegantly dressed fellow of perpetually ironic mien from Calabiria who styled himself a sufic poet and had been here a week gathering inspiration, or so he said. Sori Smit Jana was a taciturn woman with disconcertingly intense gray eyes who chose to cloak her planet of origin and mission on the Bloomenveldt in mystery.
"I will however give you the same advice I give all such dilettantes, though no doubt you too will ignore it," Marlene Kona Mendes continued with an expression of prim disapproval. "Firstly, I would advise you not to wander more than an hour or two's journey into the Bloomenveldt. Secondly, and even more advisable, never, at any time, remove your filter masks. Thirdly, if you are truly prudent, which I somehow surmise you are not, you will rent, at an additional daily fee, sealed atmosphere suits which will entirely protect you from the floral effiuvia."
Guy and I glanced at each other in some bemusement. Sori remained enigmatic as always. Omar laughed.
"Vraiment," he said, "and when enjoying sexual congress, take care to avoid orgasm. When imbibing wine, stop short of intoxication."
Marlene Kona Mendes shot him a black look, but something about her expression told me that this was a ritual gesture oft repeated.
"It may amuse you to learn that the mages who so earnestly study the psychochemistry of the Bloomenveldt eschew all subjective experience of the object of their obsession," Omar said, "When constrained by practical need to venture forth into the treetops, they do so entirely encased in armor. As to whether they conducted their passages d'amour similarly accoutred, je ne sa is pas, but certainement, it would be prudent, for as all do know, the human body is rife with microorganisms."
"This is so?" I asked the director in some amazement.
"That we are less than natural men and women?"
"That you never venture forth naked to the natural elements, of course," I said.
"Indeed. We are scientists, not mystical libertines such as some present whom I might mention."
"Mea culpa!" declared Omar. "Mea maxima culpa! Insofar as I seek to experience the most extreme states of consciousness that the universe offers our species, I am a mystic. Insofar as I fear no risk in the pursuit thereof; I proudly unfurl the libertine's banner!"
"Well spoken!" Guy exclaimed. Naturellement.
"Vraiment?" said Marlene Kona Mendes dryly. "Then why do you return each night to our mean-spirited company? Why do you not join those who wander the Bloomenveldt in a fog? Why do you not apply for admission into the society of the Bloomenkinder?"
"I am a mystical libertine, not an imbecile!"
"You mean to say there are humans living on the Bloomenveldt?" I said.
"Indeed," said Sori, exhibiting loquacity for the first time, "there are those who wander up and down the coastal fringes between the domes for weeks at a time. As long as they keep the sea in sight, they can always find their way to the next, even unmasked. As for food and drink, the Bloomenveldt provides these in profusion."
"As to how many of the denizens of the Bloomenveldt may still be entitled to style themselves human, that is another matter," Marlene Kona Mendes said.
"She seeks to frighten you with the legend of the Bloomenkinder," said Omar.
"I speak of anyone foolish enough to go unmasked!"
"It would appear that we have much to learn," I said, growing somewhat discomfited in the role of ignorant audience to a debate that had been apparently going on for some time.
"The permanent human condition, nicht wahr?" declared Omar. "One would assume the two of you will be eager to begin on the morrow. I would be honored to be your guide."
And so, once the sun had risen the next morning, Guy and I set forth on out' first visit to the Bloomenveldt in the company of Omar Ki Benjamin. "Despite my japes at the expense of our good director," he said as we made our way down the promontory toward the beach, "I would advise that you don your masks at least for the present. The initial impression is disorienting enough as it is. "
Upon reaching the beach, we did so, strapping on the half-masks, which covered nose and mouth while leaving vision unobstructed. We already wore our floatbelts, and Omar instructed us in their use, which seemed simple enough. Indeed the only control was a knob whereby the range of gravity nullification might be adjusted along a continuous range between the Belshazaar-normal value of .4 standard g and the highest setting, which would provide a negative gravity of .1 standard, which is to say a gentle lift of the same value. For safety's sake, this would cut off after ten minutes so as to prevent a wearer who for some reason had lost consciousness from drifting upward beyond the life-sustaining envelope of the atmosphere.
Omar led us inward across the beach for a few score meters, "for best dramatic effect," or so he told us. From this vantage, the edge of the Bloomenwald no longer appeared as a solid palisade; rather did perspective reduce me to the size of an insect peering upward at a vegetal vastness which rose before it to blot out the sky. Indeed, I could gaze within the deeply shadowed aisles of monstrous tree trunks and dimly perceive the pale white shapes of unwholesome fungi festooning the loamy forest floor, and even hear, or so at least it seemed, the scrabblings and chitterings of unseen creatures within.
"Up, up, meine kinder!" Omar cried. "From the maya of the groundlings to the sublimity on high!"
So saying, he twisted the control knob of his floatbelt and began to rise, and a moment later Guy and I followed.
We drifted slowly upward along the shadowy facade of the forest edge like mites ascending to the sky before the mouth of a cave too enormous for their modest perceptive powers to grasp, or like birds spiraling upward before an onrushing front of evil black thunderheads. Then, none too soon for me, we reached the level where the treetop canopy began, and the dark and gloomy immensity of the nether reaches at last gave way to billows of green foliage brilliantly dappled through- out by the bright morning sunlight.
And then, all at once, we had finally overtopped the roof of the forest and rose like the sun in the east, like homeward bound angels, over Eden.
It had been one thing to view the Bloomenveldt en holo but quite another to experience it for the first time in its own true scale. Vraiment, it was immense, in toto and in detail, and yet it was an immensity that, far from daunting the spirit, filled it with delight.
The morning sun behind us illumined in sharp chiaroscuro the wrinkles and folds and hillocks of a green veldt as endless as the blue sky above it. From this perspective hovering scant meters above the surface, the huge flowers which grew in a riotous profusion of bright colors appeared as isolated blooms on the green backdrop in the foreground, but seemed to fairly cover the land as the eye moved toward the horizon. Each ellipsoid leaf was about the size of three or four beds, and they grew in thick bunches along gigantic twigs, which in turn sprouted from unthinkably huge branches which appeared only as suggestive shapes beneath the almost seamless carpet of foliage.
And the whole rolling and undulating subtly in the gentle breeze with a sighing, rushing sound not unlike that of a mildly-tossing sea. This selfsame wind, caressing my sun. warmed skin and tousling my hair, seemed to serve as an organic connection between my body and the living, breath. ing landscape of the treetops, a breath I seemed to share in common with the Bloomenveldt, uniting its spirit with my own.
Naturellement, it was Omar who first broke the silence of that rapt moment. "Set your floatbelts to a tenth gravity and follow me, meine kinder!" he called out, and so saying, drifted downward to touch foot on a giant leaf. No sooner had his feet touched the surface, than, with a great whooping laugh, he bounded high into the air again in a fat lazy arc which carried him a good fifty meters away from us before he touched down once more, at which point, with an agile twisting spring, he propelled himself back in our direction in like manner, to alight like a hopping insect directly below us.
"Come, come, if an old mystic libertine like me can bound freely through the treetops, you youngsters should master the art in a twinkling!"
Guy and I exchanged glances, shrugged, grinned at each other, adjusted our floatbelts, and soon enough discovered that it was so. It was something like bouncing on a trampoline and something like zero gravity ballet. A great leap took virtually no effort at all at this low gravity setting, nor was a landing at all jarring to ankles or knees, and the stately interval of glide between seemed the esthetic equivalent of birdlike flight itself. It was not long before we were cutting aerobatic capers for the sheer delight of it, turning cartwheels and somersaults, executing abrupt changes of direction on the bounce, landing on our hands and vaulting backwards through the air to alight on our feet.
"I grow weary just watching two such natural Bloomenkinder," Omar called out at length. "Shall we proceed with the guided tour?"
And so we did for the next several hours, accustoming ourselves to the sights and sounds and feels of the Bloomenveldt, becoming one with the wonderland of the treetops under the aegis of our mystic libertine guide.
On the one hand, anyone part of the Bloomenveldt seemed much like any other, but on the other hand no two venues thereon were quite the same. Here on this magical land built on air, there were no landmarks or geographical features, only an endless, rolling, tossing veldt of boughs and branches, as formless and fluid as the waves of a sea. That was the seamless sameness of the Bloomenveldt.
But this sea of green was afloat with an abundance of flowers, of which the only sameness was that of immensity of scale, for they seemed to grow in a bewildering variety of shapes and hues. Great yellow blooms the size of a banquet table with spiky black stamens like so many cast-iron spears. Bunches of violet bells, each the size of a man, depending from a central stem. Carmine cups filled with fluid and large enough to serve us as baths. A greater variety of huge blooms within sight of each moment's vision than memory will hold. Fruits there were as well in an equally bewildering variety, hidden under flowers, hanging between them from stems, or nestled in the crotches where leaf stems met twigs.
"How is it possible for such a profusion of different flowers to grow on trees which by their leaves would appear to be all of the same species?" I asked Omar at length.
"I am a poet, not a genetic botanist," he told me, "But as I have been given to understand, each tree, being immensely long-lived by our standards, produces flowers which are genetically heterogeneous, cross-pollinating itself in an onanistic manner, as it were, in order to keep pace with the more rapidly evolving fauna of the Bloomenveldt. Like certain terrestrial coelenterates, the trees of the Bloomenveldt are colonial organisms, at least in a genetic sense." He shrugged. "Alas, that is the extent of my knowledge of such esoteric lore."
As for the fauna of the Bloomenveldt, these creatures fled at our less than stealthy approach, and we were able to glimpse them only from afar or as quick flurries of motion fleeing from our disturbance.
I saw troupes of the tawny-furred bipeds I had seen in the holo clustered around blood-red blooms streaked with black. Small black-furred creatures scattered like a flock of birds on membranous gliding wings when we stumbled upon them as they sucked nectar from the depths of pale orange flowers with long tubular tongues. Legless serpentine mammals with fur diamond- patterned in brown and green slithered away into the foliage as we approached a cluster of huge red puffballs.
There seemed to be some profusion of animal species, all of them mammalian, or at least mammalian-seeming, all of them quite shy of our approach, and all of them seeming to frequent no more than two or three different varieties of flower.
"Vriament, each type of flower exudes pheromonic essences specific to its own choice of pollinator, and laces its nectars and fruits with alkaloids evolved to please the palates of same," Omar told us. "Though at different seasons or different stages of rut, the same animal may be attracted to different flowers, even as we may be seized by pheromonic attractions to different sorts of mates depending upon our ages, state of intoxication, or even the phase of whatever moon there might be, for even in the chemical realm, variety is the spice of amorous life, ne."
"Speaking of which," said Guy, "now that we have mastered the art of perambulation in the treetops and visually acquainted ourselves with the flora and fauna thereof, is it not time we shed these filter masks and sampled the arcane perfumes for which the Bloomenveldt is famed?"
"Quelle chose!" Omar said with a grin. "you mean to say you intend to ignore the sober and prudent advice of science in favor of the reckless abandon of the mystic libertine?"
"When imbibing wine, Guy Vlad Boca is not known to stop short of intoxication," Guy informed him.
"And you, my lady fair?"
"When enjoying sexual congress, Sunshine Shasta Leonardo takes not care to avoid orgasm," I replied gamely, not to be outdone, though not without a certain trepidation either.
"Well spoken, my true Children of Fortune!" Omar declared. "And as a token of the esteem in which I hold such spirit, I will remain masked in order to serve as your ground control, as it were, for at least at first, it takes a bit of getting used to."
And so Guy and I doffed our masks, stowed them in our pockets, and, at the direction of Omar, the three of us leapt off the leaf on which we stood, and came down in the vecino of a bloom consisting of a wide circular veranda of velvety purple petals surrounding a tall tubular column coated with the most delicious crumbly pink pollen.
Delicious? Vraiment, utterly delectable, for my nose, indeed my backbrain, was filled, sotted, indeed transformed into a locus of pure desire by the most wondrous aroma-compounded of the crust of roasted meat, and the savor of rich brown chocolate, and a dozen more subtle undertones of gustatory lust-which informed my mouth with absolute chemical certainty that the grandest production of the premiere chef maestro in all the worlds of men was as fressen compared to this perfect pink ambrosia.
I had only to bury my face in the pollen mass, embrace it, shovel great handfuls into my gaping maw, and my tastebuds would explode in a veritable orgasm of gustatory ecstasy --
"Emphatically not recommended!" Omar shouted, restraining me by main force as I attempted to bury my face in the pollen, and yanking Guy away from a similar attempt with his other hand. "Jump, kinder, jump!" he commanded, and actually delivered a kick to my backside.
This was enough, vraiment, only this would have been enough, to make me leap off the petals of this wonderful flower, and as I did so, I observed Guy subject to similar prodding.
No sooner had 1 soared beyond the olfactory aura of the flower than what the moment before had seemed the most perfect, innocent, and natural desire in all the worlds was at once revealed as the most bizarre and ghastly of gustatory perversions.
The three of us came to rest on a leaf a prim and decent distance away from any of the surrounding flowers. Guy and I regarded each other in blushing embarrassment, as if each had caught the other in a sexual act too loathsome to contemplate.
"Take care to maintain a certain psychic distance from your chemical desires," Omar told us. "With a bit of practice, it is I possible to enjoy the effects without succumbing entirely to the tropisms thereof. Perhaps we should next try something a bit more soporific ..."
Our next flower was a yellow bloom like a great carpet of downy moss overhung by tassels dripping' a fine black powder. The aroma thereof was like a luxuriant tropical wind speaking to me of the passive pleasures of sweet and languid repose. I wanted nothing more than to lay myself down on its soft surface and stare mindlessly up into the azure depths of the sky. This I proceeded to do with Guy by my side. No sooner had my body contacted the yellow petals than I was showered by a dust-fine rain of black pollen which seemed to sparkle in the sunlight and caress my skin like a lover's soothing touch.
Minutes, hours, or an eternity of mindless perfection later, my nostrils were assailed by a stench the fecal fetor of which would have made the stink of rotten meat seem like jasmine, the soft down of the petals beneath my back all at once became a bed of itchy prickles, and I leapt unbidden into the air to come down, trembling and writhing, on a leaf beside Omar. A moment later, Guy arrived, brushing pollen off his body as if it were flecks of burning ash.
"As I warned you," Omar said, "it takes a bit of getting used to at first. But once you have become wise to the wiles of the various flowers, you may learn to use the effects to serve your own pleasures rather than the single-minded purposes thereof."
He pointed out a cluster of brilliant pink blooms perhaps a leap of thirty meters away, "Now those you should sample on your own," he said. "See if you don't find the effects thereof entirely pleasurable. "
Not without a certain trepidation at least on my part, Guy and I bounded over to a leafy pink apron overhung by translucent canopies of petals through which sunlight streamed to envelop us in a lambent rosy glow.
Indeed this rosy ambiance extended beyond the visual realm to encompass smell, and taste, and touch, and senses previously beyond my ken, for no sooner had I entered the seductive sphere of this floral boudoir than my entire being became suffused by a veritable synesthesia of rosy fire. My eyes saw through rosy sheets of light, my nose was filled with rosy musk, my very ears were filled with an ethereal music which somehow hummed a rosy mantra, rose was the taste of the very tongue in my mouth, Guy's skin beneath my touch assumed a rosy aspect to my fingertips, and the sum total of all my senses was a burning rosy lust.
And so we coupled there in the rosy twilight, with the quick and smoky passion of mindless innocent animals, without art, without restraint, without mindfulness of Omar, without in truth even conscious awareness of the act itself.
After we had reached our mutual cusps, the spell seemed to vanish into the wind, leaving only a heavy rosy torpor out of which we smiled contentedly at each other before taking to the air once more to rejoin Omar, who had observed the proceedings from a discreet distance.
"Lust, hunger, torpor, thirst, und so weiter," he said. "It would seem that from the floral viewpoint, these simple tropisms are quite sufficient to comprise the only meaningful motivations of we mammalians who fancy ourselves the crown of creation. Which is to say that if one is a flower, one need only secrete substances sufficient to incite them, and one may lead such creatures by the backbrain to serve the single purpose for which they were quite obviously designed, to wit the distribution and consequent cross-fertilization of one's po1len."
He laughed. "However, if one is a mystic libertine, this simple floral reasoning may be made to serve entirely mammalian purposes. "
Omar smiled at us indulgently. "So now that you have done your best for floral evolution, meine kinder, let us conclude our lesson by revisiting the very same blooms forewarned and therefore in full possession of that sapient critical consciousness which distinguishes us from the natural fauna of the Bloomenveldt."
And so, at his insistence, we did. We returned to the bloom of gustatory passion and reveled in the marvelous aroma of cuisinary nirvana but were able to resist the unseemly lust to gobble. Upon revisiting the yellow flower whose perfume urged languid repose, we stood before it inhaling the most wonderful peace and serenity of the spirit while resisting the urge to lie on its petals. As for our pink passion flower, once we were standing beneath its rosy canopy in full consciousness of the effects of its pheromonic suasions, and, moreover, erotically sated by our recent exercise, we were able to enjoy its aphrodisia of the senses from a more abstract connoisseur's perspective.
At length, the sun began to go down over the Bloomenveldt, Casting deep green shadows over the brighter hues of the treetops, and we replaced our filter masks and proceeded in soaring bounds toward the deepening blue of the sea on the eastern horizon.
"Aha!" cried Omar as the three of us poised on a leaf for the next leap. "A wandering spirit approaches!"
Away to the north, where his pointing finger directed our gaze, I saw a dark shape which at first I took for one of the animals of the Bloomenveldt bounding over the treetops more or less in our direction. Then I realized that its leaps were far too grand to be achieved without the aid of a floatbelt and perceived it as an approaching human.
"Let us tarry a moment and seek to engage him in discourse," Omar suggested. "If this proves possible, it may be of interest. If not, it will at least provide an object lesson."
A few minutes later, a rather bizarre figure alighted on a neighboring leaf: a tall, plumpish, dark- skinned man with a ragged mane of long blond hair, whose body seemed to be bursting out of a tattered tunic several sizes too small for him. Vraiment, he wore a floatbelt, but no filter mask was anywhere in evidence, nor did he carry any sort of pack. His eyes, though clear and healthy- looking from a physiological perspective, seemed not quite focused on quotidian reality.
"Greetings, wanderer," Omar called out. "I am Omar Ki Benjamin, and my companions are Sunshine Shasta Leonardo and Guy Vlad Boca ..."
The man stood there staring at us vapidly and blinking, as if trying to remember the import of such niceties of introduction.
"Come, come, whom do I have the honor of addressing?"
In response, the fellow's blinking only grew more rapid.
"Have you been on the Bloomenveldt long?" I essayed, though by the look of him, the question seemed entirely rhetorical.
"The rising of the sun ... awakening ... the summons of the flowers ... eating ... the setting of the sun ... sleep ..." the fellow said haltingly, as if this were some cosmic revelation. "The cycle repeats itself ... the great wheel turns ..."
"Indeed," said Omar, "I have observed the same myself. But from whence do you come and whither do you go?"
"The great wheel turns ... the spirit follows its karma along the trail of the wind ..."
"No doubt," said Guy. "But might you be so good as to point out from where the trail of the wind has brought you ..?"
The wanderer seemed to make a great effort at inward contemplation. At length, he pointed to the west, then hesitantly swung his finger in an arc from west, to northwest, to more or less due north up the coast.
"If I may essay a translation ...?" offered Omar. "You have come from a research dome somewhere up the coast, and you have swung inland on your journey?"
The fellow nodded with some enthusiasm and then spoke as if through veils of mental fog which had at least begun to clear somewhat. "Research dome ... oui ... several weeks ago ... psychoanthropologist yo ... Meade Ariel Kozuma ... is that not my name ..?"
"You are a psychoanthropologist named Meade Ariel Kozuma," I said firmly, getting the hang of the technique. "You left a research dome up the coast a few weeks ago ... on a field trip? To study ... those who wander the Bloomenveldt?"
He shook his head. "Nein ... not wanderers ... tribes ..." He pointed westward with some excitement.
"There are tribes of humans living in the interior of the Bloomenveldt?" I exclaimed.
He nodded. "Noble flowers ... higher forms ... tribes ... go unmasked ... one with the flowers ... principle of subjective research ..."
"Alors!" exclaimed Omar. "Just how far west did you go, man?"
Meade Ariel Kozuma managed a quite human shrug. "Where flowers are one with man ... evolutionary symbiosis ... not like here ..."
"Merde!" exclaimed Omar. "Next will you claim to have visited the Perfumed Garden of the Bloomenkinder?"
The former psychoanthropologist summoned up the ghost of what had once no doubt been a characteristic moue of professional skepticism. "Legend," he said. "Entirely anecdotal."
The sun was beginning to set in earnest now, the shadows were deepening, and a cool offshore wind had begun to rock the crowns of the great trees. "We had best be getting back to the dome now," Omar told us. He turned to regard Meade Ariel Kozuma. "Will you not let us escort you back to the worlds of men?" he offered.
The psychoanthropologist shook his head with some vigor. "The great wheel turns ..." he chanted. "The summons of the flowers ... the sun sets ..." Then with a sudden bound, he sprang off the leaf, and disappeared in great long slow leaps across the Bloomenveldt toward the sunset like a stone thrown by a skilled giant skipping across the surface of some unthinkably immense pond.
"Most of them are like that," Omar said conversationally. "Some a bit more coherent, some less."
"There are many such wandering the Bloomenveldt?" I asked.
Omar shrugged. "One encounters them from time to time."
Guy was staring westward at the sunset with a rather peculiar abstracted air. "Tribes in the interior ... " he muttered softly. "Higher forms ...? Bloomenkinder ...? The Perfumed Garden ...?" He turned to Omar and spoke more sharply ... "Do such things truly exist?"
"Some of it no doubt may be true, the rest volkchose," Omar replied. "Humans have been visiting the Bloomenveldt for centuries, ne, and some, no doubt, like our bemused friend, wander off never to be seen again. Given sufficient chance and time, one can credit that some survive to produce progeny, tribes of ersatz natives, as it were, Bloomenveldt born. One hears such reports from time to time, but you have observed how unreliable the bearers thereof become."
"These tribes, then, are the so-called Bloomenkinder?"
Omar laughed. "Nein," he said. "The Bloomenkinder are creatures of legend, and the legend thereof is related by the hypothetical tribes to bemused wanderers, who in turn babble to such as we. Mythical beings thrice removed, as it were. Denizens of the Perfumed Garden, a Xanadu deep in the interior where Enlightened Ones dwell in nirvanic perfection with the flowers."
"Do you suppose that such a place can in truth exist?" Guy breathed in a solemn half-whisper.
"Vraiment," said Omar, ''as do Xanadu and Oz and Paradise itself." He tapped Guy playfully on the head. "In here!"
He gazed uneasily to the west, where the disc of the sun had already touched the horizon. "It will soon be dark," he said. "Let us not tarry here further discussing the ineffable." And he bounded off in the direction of the sea.
"We must delve deeper into this," Guy said sharply. "Much deeper."
"It's only a legend, Guy."
"Bloomenkinder and Perfumed Gardens mayhap," Guy said with a dreamy yet all-too-determined look in his eyes. "But the tribes of the interior may be real enough, and one may therefore consider what hold the Bloomenveldt has upon such humans to cause them to remain ..."
"How might folk who know not of the existence of the worlds of men even be tempted to return thereto?" I scoffed.
"Ah, but Meade Ariel Kozuma was a mage in the worlds of men and did he not eschew our offer of rescue? What does he find herein more amusing than all the sophisticated pleasures of our Second Starfaring Age?"
After all my weeks in Great and ersatz Edoku, after the inward-facing reality of the Unicorn Garden, and most particularly on the heels of our sojourn in vile Ciudad Pallas, I was more delighted than I could have imagined to find myself once more in a totally natural realm under an open sky, let alone free to soar like a bird about a venue as exotic and beautiful as the Bloomenveldt. During the next five days, Guy and I, at first in the company of Omar and later a deux, spent our daylight hours gamboling in the treetops, sampling the perfumes of the great flowers, and conducting frequent and for the most part highly enjoyable tantric exercises under the influence thereof.
But Guy, after sampling the variety of floral psychotropics in the vecino with his usual diligence in such matters, soon became jaded by the immediate amusements at hand, and began to toy with the notion of penetrating the deeper mysteries of the interior .
The first symptom of this obsession appeared as a quite uncharacteristic scholarly interest in the genetic ecology of the Bloomenveldt and the lore of the human tribes thereof. and endless interrogation of the scientists of the research domes on these subjects under the guise of the sincere amateur student.
When it came to the question of the tribes of the interior, there worthies were either ignorant or deliberately unforthcoming or both, as if there was something they were attempting to hide, mayhap even from themselves.
It was readily enough conceded that the Bloomenveldt abounded with fruits, nectars, and pollens quite sufficient to allow members of our species to live off the land, and not even Marlene Kona Mendes attempted to deny that over the centuries any number of fools had wandered off into the interior never to be seen by civilized eyes again. Nor was it denied that what might have been the descendants of same had been fleetingly sighted by suited research teams foraging into the deeper Bloomenveldt in search of biochemical specimens. But these reverted savages uniformly fled at civilized approach, and, like the fauna of the treetops with whom they no doubt by now had more in common than with civilized folk, they were quite adept at eluding capture on their own terrain.
"In short," the director declared brusquely in what was clearly designed to be her final word on the subject, "there can be no more than a scattered handful of such creatures, they are of minimal scientific interest and even more useless in terms of possible profit, and the effort and risk of scientific study of these curiosities entirely outweighs any benefits that might accrue therefrom."
When it came to the subjects of their own immediate research, however, the scientists were more than willing to offer up their wisdom at interminable length to eager young persons expressing a respectful interest or a guileful simulacrum of same.
It was a matter of some dispute among them as to whether the flowers were actual organs of the trees upon which they grew or whether they were in fact symbiotes of different species, though at length it began to seem to me that this question was a mere verbal nicety, for functionally speaking, they were neither and both.
The great trees of the Bloomenveldt were so long-lived as to be all but immortal from a human perspective, and the Bloomenwald entirely covered the continent upon which it was found; therefore arboreal reproduction was necessary, indeed possible, only on those rare occasions when disease or disaster created a gap in the seamless canopy. Experiments had shown that upon such occasions the flowers of neighboring trees in fact dropped seeds onto the forest floor which grew into saplings. True too that the flowers grew directly from the boughs of the trees and were nourished by their sap. Furthermore, trees and flowers were as genotypically identical as Guy and myself, which is to say they shared identical chromosome numbers and genetic hardware.
But each tree's flowers were as genetically varied in the software expression thereof as the citizens of a human city, and they crossbred with each other to produce a rapid profusion of variations, generation by generation, as if they were independent organisms. Indeed, floral evolution on the Bloomenveldt proceeded by leaps and bounds, and that was why the forest remained a bottomless cornucopia of new psychotropics, for these evolved in response to the flowers' intimate relationship to their mammalian pollinators. Thus did the trees, who themselves reproduced rarely, nevertheless contrive to maintain a richly varied gene pool.
Of what real interest was such genetic arcana to Guy Vlad Boca, who had never in my presence evinced a scholarly interest in anything save the varieties of human amusement?
"You do not comprehend, Sunshine?" he said when I interrogated him on the subject of his sudden development of a passion for genetic botany en boudoir. "Either these people are forthrightly lying to us, or mayhap there is a truth which their crabbed spirits fear to consciously encompass "
"How so?" I demanded.
"The whole object of their research is to derive new psychotropics from the forest, is it not? And these, they readily admit, are produced by the flowers thereof in response to the evolution of their pollinators, ne?"
"This much is obvious, but --"
"Yet they profess complete indifference to the study of the human tribes of the interior! Who live generation after generation in unmasked intimacy with the flowers! Noble flowers ...higher forms ... Did not the wanderer babble of such wonders to be found in the interior?"
"Vraiment," I said dubiously, "but considering the source, must one not grant a certain discount for hyperbole?"
"No doubt," agreed Guy, "but considering the source and style of the tales' denial, which is to say sour spirits who dare not venture even to the edge of the Bloomenveldt without sealing their perceptions away in atmosphere suits, one must also grant a certain discount for spiritual constipation."
"Like the mages of the mental retreats and laboratories of Ciudad Pallas ..." I muttered. "Vraiment, on this planet, science would seem to have devolved from its courageous spiritual quest for truth and technological enhancement in favor of a single-minded search for profit."
"Be that as it may, it is also quite clear that even the greatest opportunity for pecuniary profit lies with sedulous study of the tribes of the interior. Since there would seem to be no baneful force restraining these Bloomenkinder from returning to the civilized realm, they must choose to remain in the depths of the forest because --"
"Because they find the Bloomenveldt more amusing than the worlds of men?"
"I could not have phrased it better myself," Guy said dryly. "And what do you imagine they find more amusing? Surely it is neither haute cuisine nor theatrical performances nor elevated discourse ..."
"More puissant psychotropics!"
Guy beamed at me idiotically. "Go to the head of the class, ma chere," he said with unholy gleefulness.
"But if this is so, then why do the mages of the research domes refrain from study of the flowers and tribes of the interior?"
"Why the sealed suits?" Guy said contemptuously. "Why defoliate the entire continent of Pallas? Because they are like eunuchs studying tantra! Because, as Omar so justly put it, they lack the spiritual courage of the mystic libertine! Do not all men fear confrontation with states of being which their spirits lack sufficient grandeur to encompass? Leaving a golden opportunity for true Children of Fortune such as ourselves who fear not unknown realms of the spirit but pursue the same with an open heart!"
"Guy, you are not suggesting that we --"
"I suggest nothing, I only follow your noble lead, liebchen," Guy insinuated. "For was it not you, cher Sunshine, who so rightly declared that in the Bloomenveldt we might have the grand destiny to achieve states of consciousness never known before to human brains? And enrich ourselves by marketing the substances which produce them!"
"But no one has ever returned from the depths of the Bloomenveldt, or so it is said."
"Indeed. Imagine therefore what is to be gained by mounting the first successful expedition to the heart of the matter and returning with the fruits thereof."
"Imagine what would be lost by failure!"
"Have you not told me often enough of your mastery of forest survival lore?" Guy said. And indeed, if truth be told, I may have styled myself as more of a Diana of the jungle than a few weekends in the quotidian forests of Glade warranted.
"When all is said and done are we not mystic libertines, you and I," Guy persisted. "True Children of Fortune, adventurers of the spirit, more than willing to risk all to gain all."
What was I to say to such a challenge? On the one hand, I could hardly deny the spirit within me which had insisted on braving Great Edoku, all my parents' sage and pragmatic advice to the contrary, which had sent me in pursuit of the Gypsy Jokers against all the wisdom of the Public Service Stations, which had won the heart of Pater Pan with blarney, and which had brought me hither with this brave and foolhardy lover to the edge of the very adventure he proposed.
On the other hand, there was the part of me that knew with the coolness of intellect divorced from passion that what he proposed was dangerous to the point of insanity.
"Vraiment, my spirit is willing, but my reason whispers that such a spirit is quite mad," I declared in all honesty.
But such dualistic ambiguity had certainly never been Guy's style, nor was he fazed by my indecision. "In such a pass, one must await a sign to synergize reason and spirit," he proclaimed grandly. "And from my present perspective I am cavalierly confident that the same will be forthcoming."
And so it was, two days later, of a late afternoon. We were lying on a leaf close by a great carnelian circle of petals surrounding a bright green pistil which branched at its pinnacle into an overhanging canopy of fine windblown filaments dripping a sticky resinous pollen, which is to say far enough from the flower to avoid being dusted, but close enough to lie within its perfumed aura.
The state of being induced by the heavy, languorous scent of this perfume seemed perfectly suited to our mood. The still-bright westering sun bathed our limbs with warmth as it cast ever- shifting and slowly lengthening dappled patterns of shadow over the wind-tossed crowns of the great trees. Our leafy pallet rocked us into hypnagogic somnolence like a great green cradle in the hands of some forest spirit, whose breath we could hear in the susurrus of the breeze passing through the boughs and leaves. Empty of mind and full of spirit, drifting on the edge of sleep where vagrant thoughts transformed themselves into the surreal images of dreams, I gazed up into a clear blue sky which mirrored perfectly the blissful cerulean void of my spirit.
Vraiment, at length I surmised that I had in fact drifted off the exquisite edge of this hypnagogic state into the realm of sleep, for out of the languorous fog there coalesced a visage out of dreams ...
A human face such as is not often seen in our Second Starfaring Age: an old man's face, seamed, and lined, and crowned by a mantle of long, thin white hair. The face of a man in the last year or so of his life, when all at once the Healers arts which have preserved life's vigor for three hundred years and more suddenly fail, and the mask of mortality appears to herald the imminence of death.
Yet strange to say it was the clear tranquility of the spirit and peace of the heart written in the calm set of the withered lips and the limpid brown eyes which convinced me I had left the waking realm.
Then the visage spoke and thereby shattered the illusion of dreamy sleep, though not the languorous drifting mood thereof.
"May I share your leaf a while, mes amis?"
An old man crouched on the leaf beside us, naked not merely of clothing, but of floatbelt and filter mask as well.
"Are you a Bloomenkind of the forest?" Guy asked in a voice wherein avid curiosity was bizarrely softened by the reasonless tranquility of the flowers perfume.
The old man laughed, a happy musical sound, or so it seemed. "Not yet," he said.
"You are not a naked tribesman recently emerged from the depths of the forest?" I said in a similar dreamy state.
"Au contraire," said the old man, "naked do I go to merge my spirit with the Bloomenveldt before it leaves this moribund corpus."
"You are a pilgrim come to the Bloomenveldt to die?"
Once more, the old man laughed sweetly without a trace of irony or angst. "Dying one may accomplish in any venue," he said, "it is only the style of one's passage from the mortal realm and the state of one's spirit in the moment thereof that one may choose. As for me, I choose to die in the Bloomenveldt, for here one may expire not in a state of dread, but in a state of enlightenment, into the loving arms of this great forest."
"You know the Bloomenveldt well?" Guy said sharply, willing up the effort to free himself from his torpor. "You are versed in the secrets of its inner heart?"
"A century ago, I came here to study the forest as a mage in the research domes. But something moved my spirit to doff my atmosphere suit, don filter mask and floatbelt, and trek deep enough into the interior to know that here I would come when my time came to die. As for the secrets of the Bloomenveldt's heart, these will forever remain a mystery to those who fear to become breath of its breath. And in those days, such a one was I."
"You traveled to the interior and survived to tell the tale?" I asked just as sharply as Guy, for if this was so, what clearer sign could destiny have given us?
The old one dismissed the grandeur of this feat with an errant wave of his hand. "If one never truly leaves the worlds of men behind, how can one help but return thereto?" he said. "Which is to say there is nothing to hinder the masked traveler from passing through the wonders and glories of the Bloomenveldt untrammeled thereby. The well-equipped turista will encounter neither physical danger nor spiritual enhancement. To brave either, you must doff the filter mask of civilization, and give yourself over to the flowers."
"But even masked you learned enough to know that your spirit wished to make its final journey here ..." said Guy.
"Indeed, my young friend," the old man said. "For while there may be much for a young spirit to lose by surrendering itself to the forest, for an old spirit about to be forced to vacate its quotidian premises there is only an enlightened ending to be gained."
"And what was it that you learned all those long decades ago that convinced you to essay such a final journey?" I asked softly.
"The Bloomenveldt is alive!"
"Hardly a revelation of astounding proportions," I could not quite refrain from pointing out dryly.
"Alive as you or I, mein kind," the old man said. "Possessed of a genetic intelligence, a sapient spirit which it has received as a gift of man. For millions of years did the forest slumber as mindless trees produced substances to manipulate the mindless pollinators thereof. But then our species came to Belshazaar and sapients over the centuries wandered off into the forest, and so since that time the forest has been evolving in symbiosis with man. Deeper within the Bloomenveldt in the land of the Bloomenkinder, the flowers have evolved pheromones and alkaloids designed not to attract insensate mammals but our own sapient spirit. As we have gifted the forest with the template of consciousness, so does the Bloomenveldt offer us psychotropics crafted by that very chemical sentience to reward us with the highest realms of consciousness it currently knows how to grant. True symbiosis, a just and profitable bargain between our two species."
"The Perfumed Garden ..." breathed Guy. "Where humans and flowers have achieved symbiotic perfection. Where floral and human evolution have contrived to merge. Where nirvanic transcendence arises from the very chemistry of the brain."
"So it is said," declared the ancient one. "And so do I seek this realm of the spirit as the physical matrix thereof expires."
"May you find what you seek," I told him with an open heart.
"Y tu tambien."
And with that, he arose, and with a somewhat feeble though long-legged gait, departed into the depths of the Bloomenveldt, into the rosy mists of dusk, into the deeper mysteries thereof from which no man had returned to tell the tale.
When he had disappeared like a wraith, Guy and I left the flower of his apparition to discuss on a neutral leaf what we had learned within the realm of its perfume.
"Was that not a sign that spoke to both your mind and your spirit, Sunshine?" Guy asked me. "Is there now anything to hold us back from the journey within to the heart of the matter? Will you now not join me in the quest to gain all now that you have been reassured that we do not really risk all? And now that you have spoken with the spirit of all there is to gain?"
And indeed it was. And indeed there wasn't. And indeed I would.
"Let us be gone in the morning, " I said gamely, "lest my resolve vanish in the cold clear light of day. "