Abyss & Apex : Fourth Quarter 2010

High Art

by Alan Smale

A red light turned to green, there was a hiss and click, and the door in front of Durran moved smoothly aside.

The airlock he occupied was small and confined, and when he saw the pit that was opening up before him, his hands shot out instinctively to either side to save him from falling. One hand grasped a reassuring rail while the other punched a metal wall. Beside him, the space suit he had just struggled out of wallowed lazily in the breeze, one arm drifting up in weightless irony.

No downs here, space klutz, said the rational part of his brain, as his knuckles whitened.

There’d been a slight pressure differential between the lock and the hab, that was all. There was no gravity to pull him forward. He was merely looking down the long axis of the recreation module. It might as well be a tunnel as a pit, so he tried to think about it that way. He’d been off-Earth for five hours, and his inner ear wasn’t done complaining yet.

For most of those hours he’d been strapped into a shuttle being alternately compressed and stretched by varying accelerations, and finally confused by the absence of any acceleration at all. Once they turned him loose in the Station he’d struggled manfully trying to tell up from down, and then had been gloriously ill. Vomiting in zero-G brought it home to him how dangerous simple things could be up here.

He’d wanted rest, and time to allow his insides to accustom themselves to their new situation, but the unsmiling hired help shook their crewcuts and gave him a clean jumpsuit, and here he was. In the middle of the largest tin can since Andy Warhol. Into the rec module, they said, you’ll want to see Mr. Kane as soon as possible. Which was news to him. But then again, Kane had paid for his seat on the shuttle, a tidy sum that came to about five times Durran’s total income from his paintings and sculptures over the twenty years of his professional life, so he reckoned that as far as Kane was concerned he was bought and paid for.

Durran didn’t want to see anybody just then, and especially not Kane. His head felt two feet wide, and his throat was arid. Five years ago, he wouldn’t have accepted the invitation. But some of the old anger he had carried around with him had disappeared quietly beyond the back of his mind. Curiosity now loomed larger than principle. Maybe he was getting old.

He dithered in the doorway. Nothing happened except that his heartbeat fell below one twenty per minute, and he began to feel brave again, in a cautious sort of way.

In his few short hours of free fall he had learned to make every move gently and carefully. Young, angry, impulsive Durran would probably have left his brains smeared over some bulkhead or workstation by now. The older, more reflective Durran knew haste from speed, and valued his skull. So he let himself go, pushed off smoothly and floated into the rec module. He could have clung to the rail and waited, but that lacked dignity; these things have to be done.

It was the biggest open space he’d been in so far. He was inside a cylinder perhaps fifty meters long and thirty in diameter. At the far end there may have been cupboards, but the lighting was too poor for him to tell. Otherwise, the inner surface was dark and featureless. Half way along, a large spiked tube reached from the ceiling, extending to the invisible axis of the cylinder, and Durran chose the spike to define his local vertical. His dry throat warned him of the dangers of losing orientation again.

As he floated along he became aware that the tin can was waisted by a channel ten meters wide and maybe two meters deep. The tube grew out of the side of this channel.

He was halfway to the spike when the end of it ballooned outwards to form a gleaming, growing sphere in the exact center of the hab. He was floating free and could not change course to avoid it. Neither could he work out what it was. By the time he reached it, the globe was larger than he was. He stretched out his hands to meet the sphere, and surface tension brought him to a halt and pushed him away. The sphere pulsed rhythmically and dissipated the force of his arrival around its equator and across its poles.

Being near a drop of water that size was distinctly disconcerting.

He reached the safety of the curved wall. A small semicircular hoop jutted out from the wall, and he slipped his hand through it to hold position while he waited for something to happen.

He did not have to wait for long.

The wall began to slide away from him in a smooth but alarming fashion. He clutched the loop more tightly to anchor himself in place, while a steadily-increasing force nudged him towards the tiles. Gravity was coming. They were applying spin to the module, and the wall was becoming the floor. He watched the globe of water.

The giant sphere was stretching. It deformed like melting plastic, complex modes of vibration shimmering across its surface, and became a disk. Its blunt edges yearned towards the gully that waited to receive it. Smooth silver tendrils flexed, and thick fluid arms reached out. There was a slow, malignant beauty about it.

Then the dreamlike motion was shattered as the surface tension broke. The mystic surface punctured everywhere, and water again behaved like the water he knew.

Meters away, two thousand tonnes of water cascaded outward past him into the pit. He was instantly drenched by the spray. The bulk of the water thundered straight into the gully where it crashed and boiled, dissipating the energy of its fall. He sat up, keeping a firm grasp on the anchor ring, as a small fraction of the water burst its bounds and swirled around him, chest-deep.

Here he was on his first trip into the airless waste of outer space, surrounded by water. Durran closed his eyes and tried not to think of the stresses running through the structure of the hab.

The floors were angled slightly towards the water-channel, and the flood quickly receded. The storm was over. A few seconds later his heart started beating normally again.

“Thanks a lot,” he said. “That was just great. You wanted to drown me, you could have done it on Earth.” Nobody answered, so he stood up and peeled the fabric of the sodden jumpsuit away from his body, trying to squeeze the water out of it. The lighting changed subtly. He looked around.

The cylinder seemed alternately spacious and claustrophobic as his perspective strobed between extremes. Then his instincts clicked in and he started to rationalize it with artist’s eyes.

A ribbon of blue stretched around the circumference of the cylinder. Little waves slapped lazily against the edge of the channel. He was standing by the first orbiting swimming pool.

On either side of him the floor curved up and away, two arms of translucent tiling that reached up to join hands over his head. The poolside was lit in angular panels of green, yellow, and blue. Not far away from him a flat metal tubular sun bed with black foam cushions had appeared. Green shadows bordered flat areas of warm red. It was very peaceful after the flood that had preceded it.

He had seen something like this before. “Hockney, California period. Late twentieth.” he said out loud. “Cute. And much too obvious.”

Durran took a few experimental steps along the poolside. Perception said he should be climbing a slope, but the floor beneath him stayed level as he walked. He understood the physics, but being there made it different and strange.

The perspective was interesting. Simultaneous infinity and confinement. Standing in a pit with blue waters curving above him, he felt both peaceful and unsettled. It was a bizarre and pointless environment. On canvas, in oils, it wouldn’t work at all; for Durran it barely worked in reality.

A quarter-turn around the cylinder, a man appeared; a horizontal standing figure, twenty meters away. Durran could see that he was tall, well-built and black. He was wearing a three-piece, and he was a hologram. Kane, twenty years on, in replica.

The holo walked away, up the underside of an impossible vaulted ceiling. Durran could hear him humming quietly, or at any rate a tuneless hum followed the figure around. Durran had a twinge of vertigo as the man passed directly above him. He closed his eyes, then turned to watch Kane descend.

A young woman lay on the sun bed. She wore sunglasses and a tan, and was quite real. The holo of Kane nodded politely as it walked past her, and she smiled and waved back.

Kane walked up to him. “Good morning,” he said, and dived into the pool, fully clothed. Durran took an involuntary step backwards, and then felt foolish. No splash. The holo disappeared at the interface between water and air, a man in a suit sliding into nothing.

A new Kane, again a holo, marched down towards him from the opposite direction in blueskin shorts and a singlet, walking on the water. As the figure approached it began to move beneath the surface of the pool, marching in a straight line through the curve. As the water rose past Kane’s waist the holo turned white. Durran began to feel irritated. He didn’t like parlor tricks. “I hope someone’s enjoying this,” he said, and started to walk, leaving the woman behind him.

A third Kane, no holo this time, jogged from the shadows on the other side of the pool. Durran was near the base of the spike; Kane ran to it, jumped, and began to shin up it as if it were a rope. He was naked except for his shorts, and the muscles on his arms and back moved strongly beneath his skin as he pulled himself to the tip, out of the gravity well. He pushed off from the top, weightless, into a very slow dive, performing a couple of almost negligent somersaults and curl turns. He fell gently at first, and then more rapidly as he curved upwards away from Durran. He hit the water in a jet-straight dive position and began to swim around the pool in a fast crawl.

Durran started to walk again. It might be a long time before Kane got round to actually speaking to him.

Kane swam past. They ignored each other. Durran could play this game too. He wasn’t paying for it.

Second time around, Kane drew level with him and surface dived, kicking himself under. Durran watched idly as he walked, waiting for Kane to come up. He didn’t. The surface of the water was calm, easy.

Durran frowned and glanced back and forth. He looked at the woman, who was now ahead of him ten meters and up the slope. She scratched her left ankle with her right foot and arched her back sinuously.

Another trick. An airlock at the bottom of the pool. He said, “If you know how to get in touch with your Mr. Kane, you might tell him I’m losing patience.”

She stretched like a cat, with no sense of embarrassment or modesty. She radiated physical. He hated her already. She was rapidly turning into all the women he’d ever avoided.

“Do we need him?” she said. Her voice was low and deliberately sensual. “He may be gone for a long time.” She smiled. Even her teeth were wonderful.

He sniffed suspiciously as a heady perfume and a certain sharpness intertwined in the air around them. “Pheromone enhancement?” he said, and her smile turned glassy. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll just walk around. And around.” He pushed his hands into his pockets and moved on.

And Kane was there, waiting for him a half-turn around the hub. He wore the blueskin shorts and a short black towel around his neck. “Hi,” said Kane. “Good flight?”

“Glad you could spare the time,” said Durran with heavy irony.

Kane grinned, and waved at the pool. “You’re impressed.”

“No.”

“Good,” said Kane. “Good. I hoped you wouldn’t be. How long has it been anyway? Twenty years?”

Twenty years —

Durran was young then. Quick and decisive with the brush. He let it come, no, he made it come from deep inside, he forced the flow and his paintings and metals were full of his brooding anger at the world. There was no job or cause waiting for him after art school in London, so he pulled a pack onto his back and charged into Europe looking for subjects important enough to put to canvas. He timed his charge well, and arrived in Paris just as the barricades were going up again.

Bad days. Slogans in bastard French daubed on walls, the gendarmes looming black like giant animals out of the smoke and the gas. Students too young to wash themselves properly, crushed into the gutters.

Durran knew the cause was lost before the first petrol-primed milk bottle shattered on the gendarmerie wall. But he also knew it was right.

He tried to paint what he saw, and had the unsigned canvases smuggled back to London and displayed in the Razor CafĂ© , a hangout of the angry and radical chic. And he learned how to make bombs. He wasn’t proud of the knowledge. It was just something that he had to do.

Just before Black Tuesday, when the movement was crushed altogether by the storm troopers and the wiretracks, Durran vanished. Better quick than dead.

When it came to the bottom line, it wasn’t his country.

But he always knew he’d run out on them just when they needed him most.

Sometimes he had nightmares about that.

He remembered a lot about the days in Paris. It was the time in his life when he felt most alive. One of the people who stuck in his mind was Kane. The American. The outsider, in a city dangerous with outsiders.

“You don’t do it this way,” said Kane. “You don’t collect up all your friends and walk into a furnace together to stop the heat. You find the control room. You press the button. Want to feed the homeless? Your way is to march to the slaughterhouse and get yourself chopped up into sausages. Shit for brains, brains in your fists. You should take the rest of the year out and think about this, before you all get stomped on. Grow up first, and fight when you know your ass from Christmas.” They’d thrown him out.

And they threw him out, and they threw him out, but he always came back, and eventually they figured it was less trouble to just leave him be and shout at him occasionally when he got really acidic with them. But Kane had some good points, and they only hated him because they knew he was right. Kane was the voice of sneering reason in a war running rich on passion. And for all his disdain and his jive, Kane had never played it dirty. There was a lot of money to be made in Paris that autumn, for men and women with two faces and no consciences, but Kane hadn’t gone that way.

Not then. But here he was.

“You haven’t changed,” said Durran. “You were a shit then. Now you’re just a shit with money.”

“Small talk,” said Kane pleasantly. “Let’s work. What do you think?”

“Of this place? Artificial,” said Durran. “All effect. No depth, less subtlety. Sledgehammer sculpture.”

The whole thing, the transition into gravity, the holos, even the woman, was precisely calculated to make him feel ill at ease. Durran didn’t like that. He knew he was probably behaving exactly as he was expected to behave, and he liked that even less. It didn’t feel right. Something was going on that he didn’t understand.

He warmed up. “Listen, I’m your guest here. I came at your invitation. Since I arrived I’ve been in grave discomfort and great potential danger, and finally bored to death by a bunch of holo tricks.”

“Potential,” said Kane. “That’s the magic word. This is it, around you. You’re up here so I can show you potential. Artistic and gravitational, both. The pool’s kind of a neat idea. Okay, like it’s a bit Disneyland, a bit obvious, but I’m an obvious person.”

Durran looked at him sideways. “Yeah.”

Kane just smiled, and started to walk. Reluctantly, Durran walked with him. It seemed that the hab wheeled around them like a treadmill. “Comes pretty expensive, though. I doubt if you could guess how much this little playpark cost.”

Durran said, “Money doesn’t make art, Kane. You make art with five dollars of oil paint and a soul. Maybe a few chunks of soft metal and some wire, and a bit of visionary talent. What you have here is just colossal arrogance. Masturbation with a blank check.”

Kane was watching him closely. Durran felt like he was being tested for something and failing. However hard he hit the ball, it somehow ended up straight back in his own court. “Okay,” said Kane. “So I tried to impress you too much. But this is what drives me, Durran; looking good, making big things that have never been made before, making them right and making them work. This cost millions, hell, just bringing the water out of the gravity well cost millions. Yeah, a blank check, from a big man in the U.S. Okay, maybe he’s got a big wallet and a small hat but he’s here, he can see the future close enough to smell it, and there’s a big profit for both of us in it. All three of us. This isn’t just jerking off, this is new art, and defining frontiers. And this is business, the biggest.

“The cutting edge. High Art. Want to be here when it happens?”

“No,” said Durran. “I don’t think I do.”

This is what drives me, Durran — Was this really Kane?

“She’s in it too. She’s the best too. You, me, her, Mr. Money; the best. I build good, he spends good, she feels good and –”

“– and you need me to make it look good,” said Durran.

“I need your help on the visuals,” said Kane. “I can build like no-one else, but I don’t know jack-shit about color. The choice of medium, the whole scheme, it’s all yours.”

“Thank you,” said Durran. “So when does my return flight check in?”

Kane gave him a long look, and shook his head infinitesimally. It was a conspirator’s look. “I think you’re not thinking this right. I annoy the shit out of you, I know that, but hey, no fire without sparks. I’m a hammerer. I cut shapes out of metal, and file off the sharp bits. But you….. Surely you can see the opportunity we’ve got here? This is why we were born.”

Durran sighed and raised his head. Hidden incandescents winked in a pattern on the farthest shores of the water ring, scattering smooth webs of light across the inner space. The world is inside out, he thought; infinity was on the inside, bounded by the finite. The Universe, underneath him wherever he walked. This little chat was all inside out too, and he was still missing something.

“There are a million artists down there, hungry for this. Fires in the belly. People who eat, sleep, breathe and create, with youth and newness and shiny young souls, who’d give their kidneys to be standing where you are now. Beg to sweep the floors, let alone choose the color of them. But I don’t need beggars. I just need the best, and it’s you. Oils, marble, metal, CAD, multimedia, it’s you. You aren’t restless, just cantankerous. But best is best, and we’re it.

“Art on Earth is dead, been alive for four thousand years and now it just smells. The world is full of dead artists, and some of them are still moving around. But here, it’s all different. Here gravity works outwards. Or maybe not at all. New art is when you let the paintbrush go, and it just floats. Just floats.”

The jive talk turned off as if he’d flicked a switch. “I’m offering you a third of the biggest pie there is, Durran. We can make a mark here. Say yes.”

“You aren’t convincing me,” said Durran. “Really. So much of this is just…. What about her, for example? I can’t place her, Kane. She really isn’t your style.”

“Monique’s not mine. She’s payroll. She’s the sweetener when we deal with the boys with the checks. They expect an extra sparkle. If they don’t get it they figure I’m not for real. Sign of the times.” Kane smiled. “She’s pretty wild. Like her?”

An insignificant part of Durran wanted her, but he knew it was all artificial, a cocktail of biochemicals. Nothing real. An extra grain of sand beneath his shell.

“Not interested,” said Durran. “Don’t try and buy me, not with anything, and definitely not with sex of all things. That just makes me angry.”

“I wasn’t buying,” said Kane. “Just describing. Man, that stuff’s art too.”

Durran rubbed his eyes. This wasn’t getting any better, not at all. Kane was making him want to scream, and the perspective still had him off balance. He needed time. “Okay, here’s what we do next,” said Durran. “You leave me in here for a few minutes to think about all this. Put on some clothes. Find a nice ordinary box-shaped room with chairs and tables and an up and a down, where I can feel comfortable, and then we can talk. And get her out too. If I as much as smell her again, it’s all over.” And, he thought, why am I wasting my time?

Kane nodded approval. “Will do. I’m gone. Take it easy, look around, have a drink. I’ll be out back. But do this for me: Think Art. Think tomorrow.” Kane saluted him, and was gone.

Monique had evaporated as silently as she’d arrived. Durran was alone again in the rec module.

He looked around. He wanted to be on the other side of the strip of water and there was only one way to get there. Hell, he was still wet anyway. He jumped in fully clothed and dog-paddled over.

The bar, cupboards, lockers. Durran threw each door open, pulled every drawer loose. He found a wide selection of sports gear; bats and rackets and sticks and balls of various sizes. He found nets and buoys for water polo, a video unit and a bunch of laser disks, a sound system, some books. He found leather and rubber apparatus, in Monique’s size. He found environment controls; heat, aircon, humidity, lighting, UV concentration. He didn’t know what he was doing. His body was going on ahead and leaving his mind to catch up later. Once he’d been through everything, he realized that he was really looking for a large red button marked SELF DESTRUCT and he wasn’t too likely to find one, so he kicked the videodisks and the leatherwear into the pool and gave up. He was almost certainly being watched through some hidden TV feed anyhow.

… Almost certainly being watched. Hmmm. Maybe that was the clue.

All of this might shift into sharper focus if he could only think straight. Anger stood rigid like a red wall behind his eyes.

Durran studied the bar. It contained three long rows of bottles, all different. Spirits from around the world. He poured himself a big Scotch, just because he could. Then he poured the drink into the ice tray. He picked up the bottle, stood back and hurled it into the cabinet with all his strength. There was the cry of breaking glass and a gurgle of liquid, and the pungent aroma of an unholy cocktail. He shut the door on the mess, his stomach muttering acid threats.

He crossed the pool again and walked over to the airlock he’d entered through an hour before. He could see no obvious controls or instructions on the inside, just nine numbered buttons and an intercom system. Central control, or a specific combination. So much for emergency evacuation.

Standing there, Durran had a glorious vision. Explosive depressurization of the rec module as he blew both airlock doors at once. Two thousand tonnes of water in a billion tiny droplets, spreading into the vacuum of space, the rays of the sun glinting and dispersing through an infinity of tiny prisms. His own body floating among the pure colors, pirouetting in the silence, surrounded by perfect spheres. Now that would be art.

He turned back. There was a beauty in the calm symmetry of the pool, a ring of bright water. Without Kane it could be beautiful. Without the stink and corruption of money it could be very different.

He walked to the poolside, and followed the line of it with his eyes, around and back. Then he peeled off the soaking jumpsuit and slipped into the water.

Don’t think anger. Think Art.

He swam on his front, hard, with his eyes closed. The muscles in his shoulders and thighs cracked with the effort. I should take more exercise. The flow of the waters past his head and limbs and the pain of the exertion gradually drew the fangs of his anger, blunted the daggers of his contempt. He looked up from the water. He was not where he had begun. He could have swum fifty meters or ten kilometers, there was no way of telling.

He turned onto his back and kicked himself slowly along the pool, looking straight up at the place where he had come from, the place where he was going to. The aesthetics of the third dimension. New living spaces for a new generation. New symmetries, altered perspectives. Architecture for zero-G. Interior design for outer space. Writing the brochures would be no trouble, anyway.

High Art.

He thought of Goya and Blake, Constable and Reubens, Dali and Warhol and Hockney and Pollock. He wasn’t in their league, but it was the same game. He knew what they’d say, if they were here.

Total artistic control, or nothing at all. No bargaining, no compromises and no holograms. One vision. A thousand spacehabs, each an individual creation. Something the world could look up to.

But it wasn’t that simple.

Durran thought about it for another few orbits of the hub, that invisible line along the cylinder from which all those possibilities spread.

This place is a rich man’s playhouse. I know how that gets to me. But maybe it’s got to be like this. It’s no good sitting in a street in Athens or Bangkok kicking my heels and thinking up pretty slogans and cunning combinations of symbols. The Universe may be the birthright of all humanity, but Space is still frontier country and this time it’s Kane’s Mr. Money and his pals who drive the wagons.

But they can’t do it without us. We’ll be here too.

The action is going to happen here, not there. The Corporation Men will pay for it, and we’ll build them little round palaces and make them look nice. But we’ll understand how everything works, and they won’t. Spacehabs are a controlled environment, and we’ll be the ones nearest the controls. The big bad boys with the billions will come here anyway, but if we come too, they’ll never be able to cover their asses from the vacuum. We’ll be their consciences.

Just one thing. You can’t splash the people’s art on a rich man’s wall.

Not unless you’re very, very clever.

And Durran started to feel them again, those little centipedes tickling the base of his spine as they came to life and started walking around. The dangerous narrow path. Like Paris, only different.

That was why Kane had chosen Durran. Because he knew. The genius of the pool and some of the showmanship; that was Kane. But the other stuff, that was someone else. Somebody who didn’t really exist.

Kane would be watching him now. And Mr. Money would be watching both of them. The hab had to be screaming with wires, and Kane knew it and was doing a balancing act between his two audiences, only showing half of the story to each. Monique’s not mine…. No. No indeed. But useful, all the same. Feed grapes to the Romans. Watch the Empire sink even more quickly into decadence.

At last, Durran had got the picture.

He could make a difference again.

He swam on for a long time.

Eventually, when he was ready, he hauled himself out of the pool and wrapped himself in towels, and went to find Kane.

 

__________

Alan P. Smale’s fishy tale “Quartet, with Mermaids” appeared in Issue 25 of Abyss & Apex. He has also made sales to a variety of other magazines including Realms of Fantasy (four times, with a fifth upcoming in 2010), Paradox, and Dark Regions, and original anthologies Panverse One, Book of Dead Things, Writers of the Future #13, Low Port, A Wizard’s Dozen and A Nightmare’s Dozen (Harcourt Brace). A full reckoning can be found at http://www.alansmale.com





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