Short SF Stories,
Tales for Technophobes
Copyright © Jane Palmer 2013
First edition Dodo Books 2013
All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction
and any resemblance to persons
living or dead is purely coincidental.
The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
All right reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
An android pays the ultimate sacrifice for his art.
Vile, voracious, and trapped in Fairyland.
How to widen the vistas of a young reprobate.
Explode with your favourite drug.
Sentient life with no sense.
Magpie meets time traveller in pink.
One glance and the brain is scrambled.
The dangers of lacemaking.
In the beginning it seemed as though everyone had collaborated with the space programme; geologists, seismologists, vulcanologists, palaeontologists and gerontologists - so why not artists? That was a long time ago of course, when jaunts to the moon were inexpensive and could be booked on the Internet. But the result of the collaboration between all those art theorists, colourists, experts in perspective and A1 technicians survived.
He was called Hengie.
Active for over a century, painting the wonders of space from an easel attached to the hull of his spacecraft, the android had become one of those remarkable anomalies that economic common sense would never again reproduce. Some commissions had sent him to the outer reaches of the Solar System for such extended periods, only the descendants of the client who had requested the painting would see the canvas. Compared to recent androids with their prefabricated modernity that would be replaced as soon as an upgrade was available, he was an electronic dinosaur made when self-destruct modules were installed in robotic units as standard. Hengie revelled in his archaic status as a creative dragon able to anneal paint to the metallic canvas with his fiery breath and the deftness with which he used palette knife, brush or fingerpads to apply the pigments designed for zero gravity. Powdered with cosmic dust, the artist's creations were quite distinctive and, in Earth’s atmosphere, glinted as if peppered with crushed diamonds.
Once the paint was enamelled to the canvases they were stored, ready for transit back to his agency.
The demand for his glorious spacescapes increased over the decades, sending their value into the realms of inner-city real estate. This unique android remained isolated from humanity in the deep reaches of the Solar System and, as a consequence, his ancient programming allowed him to develop an obsessional commitment to art that became a little scary. The agency who managed Hengie was aware of this and endeavoured to remain in constant contact with their lucrative marvel, just in case he decided on some euphoric whim to become one with the Universe and to donate his mineral components back to the natural forces that had generated them.
In fact, in robotic terms, Hengie was growing a little flaky. Fortunately, and perhaps because of this, his artistic ability just increased. He no longer experienced the Cosmos in the same hues as mortal eyes: capable of seeing on so many wavelengths, he was exasperated at being limited to the palette created by human chemists.
Hengie saw the subject of his next commission as mauve.
He set up his easel to paint on a moon dangerously near the orbit of a comet to assiduously paint every subtle nuance of Saturn in pink and purple hues.
As the android frenetically, meticulously, applied the pigments to the new canvas he ignored the buzzing of alarm circuits warning him to slow down. What had his long dead programmers known about inspiration, confined to some artificially illuminated office on the pressurised 500th floor of an office tower? As he stood with his easel on the glorious moonscape illuminated by Saturn's subtle light, Hengie was communing with the stars, able to see through the turbulent atmosphere to the planet's inner gases swirling in dynamic eddies created by its rotation.
Canvas complete, the artist returned to his ship to download the commission chip for his next assignment. This one had been transmitted as a priority from a client previously unknown to his agency. Hengie had never received a request for anything quite like it before. There would be very few pinks, mauves or delicate oranges - let alone bright colours - required, though he might possibly get away with a hint of silver. What a waste of time! He should have been painting the extraordinary atmospheric layers of Jupiter, not an unprepossessing dead, dull, primitive moon that orbited it. Why were humans so interested in these desolate lumps of rock when this Universe was filled with the magical, rhythmic patterns of creation?
Hengie slotted his last canvas in the store with the thousand others for the courier craft, which would skilfully roll them into half a dozen bundles for its delivery pod. Then, in a manoeuvre that would have pulverised mere flesh and bone, the gravity of Saturn slung shot his ship onto a course for Jupiter. Hengie may have been contemptuous of the wealthy clients who coveted the beautiful things he created, but out in the far reaches of the Solar System there were more immediate things to worry about, like the gravitational attraction of his subjects, the risk of the solar wind frying unprotected electronic circuits and sulphuric atmospheres that could corrode the android's gleaming body in seconds. This time the hazards were compounded by him being despatched to a location where even automated probes had disappeared. What had his agency been thinking when accepting this commission! Hengie was far too valuable to risk on projects more suited to digital cameras. Unfortunately, whatever else his programming permitted him to get away with, refusing an instruction was not one of them.
After waking from sleep mode to refresh his circuits, Hengie was confronted by a bleak, grey vista only ever illuminated by the reflected light of Jupiter. Also rotating the gaseous giant was the spiteful, sulphurous splendour of Io and icy grandeur of Europa yet this small, barely recorded, moon with nothing to recommend it artistically was the client's chosen subject. His not to reason why... though the artist still felt entitled to resent the waste of his considerable talents.
At least there was no corrosive atmosphere, dangerous gravitational rifts or meteoric bombardment to contend with, so Hengie landed his ship on the desolate moon to contemplate the dreary palette needed to satisfy the artistically deprived mentality that believed a work of art could be created from this gloomy place. It would be as difficult as transforming shale into cut diamond.
Tempted to record the grandeur of Jupiter's huge, rotating cloud systems instead of the half-lit barrenness about him, Hengie secured his easel to a rock so it was held fast in the moon's zero gravity. Perhaps this was his agency's way of checking that he was still a viable investment. The android had been aware of tiny system failures that intermittently made him mistake purple for grey, or sprung steel palette knives for his multi purpose fingertips, but was reassured that the resulting quirkiness added interest to his work. These weren't errors, any more than the impulses that occasionally leapfrogged safety gates to make him very cranky when asteroids spoilt the view, or bursts of solar wind burnished away the newly applied pigment. Clients may have accepted the resulting impressionistic splashes of paint as artistic statement, but unbeknown to Hengie his agency viewed it as an impending system failure which could not be reprogrammed.
Two canvasses of the monotonous moonscape were completed in quick succession. What was Hengie doing here when there were space probes to photograph this sort of thing? So what if they did disappear? They had probably been too sophisticated for their own good and would no doubt start transmitting again after being struck by a piece of the human-generated space debris that now infested the inner Solar System,
The android was annealing the paintings when something fizzed at the edge of his peripheral vision - and then quickly faded. Hengie assumed that it was due to one of those annoying blips in his ancient circuitry - so ignored it.
The artist started on his last canvas, anxious to complete the commission of this dismal moon, which was probably being orbited by the shattered remains of the photographic probes.
Just as Hengie began to overcome his craving for the brighter end of the spectrum, a brilliant slice of light opened before him. It was like a vertical clam that had swallowed a firework display.
Despite the artist's immediate instinct to record the anomaly, he stopped painting when the dazzling star-filled gap in reality opened wider. He lowered his paint-impregnated brushes and did the android equivalent of gawp.
Hengie had seen many strange and wonderful things in the Solar System, and painted most of them, yet had never encountered a chasm of light to another dimension. He was programmed to apply pigments to canvas, not dabble in reality bending, quantum anomalies. Hengie would have gone on believing that if the aberration had not triggered a codicil in the client's instructions. The mission to this primitive moon was not to paint it, but discover what had happened to all those previously dispatched, sophisticated probes. However demeaning to an android of his status, the reasoning behind the assignment was logical. An ancient unit like Hengie was robust and had been able to withstand everything the Solar System had bombarded him for over a century, so was well placed to survive whatever had been picking off much later technology.
The circuits of the crotchety android buzzed with annoyance. Worse still, this assignment was daring to tell him to PHOTOGRAPH the anomaly like some cheap digital camera.
Hengie's artistic sensitivities wanted to rebel.
The light was now so intense it spilt out onto the moonscape like a voracious, glowing entity swallowing the gloom. The glorious sight appeared less wonderful when the toxic program Hengie had downloaded from his agency activated supplementary instructions that went beyond triggering creative indignation. It wasn't merely photography that was required. After transmitting the images, Hengie was being ordered to blow up the small moon.
The android's circuits almost seized up. How dare they use him like some mindless military drone! Apart from that, his ship carried no mines. How could he destroy a moon? But in his mortal aspirations, Hengie had overlooked that he was, after all, created from early robot technology which had that powerful, remotely controlled self-destruct module installed at its core.
The artist hesitated. Would they have dared to include the command to detonate it in the instructions, had the temerity to blow to smithereens the most unique, accomplished technology ever produced since Babbage's conception of his calculating machine? No, he decided, he was too important, and confidently went towards the widening vista of welcoming light knowing that they would not dare sacrifice his precious circuits for the sake of puny, creatively barren, humanity.
Hengie peered into the luminous abyss and his optical circuits were briefly unable to focus. Colours merged with sound to weave a coruscating eternity and he could see all the probes that had been sent to investigate the anomaly dotting a brilliant sky; tumbling dots of futility littering the enormity of another universe. There were even one or two alien spaceships.
The astrophysicists on Earth had detected that this exquisite slash of light was the rift to another dimension on the verge of turning their reality inside out.
Would this be such a bad thing? Hengie wondered. This other universe was filled with light, beauty and incongruous strangeness. All right, if the Solar System was sucked into it, everything it contained would be crushed out of existence, including Earth. But what a way to go; far more glorious than a rain of meteors or deadly pandemic. A few seconds of excruciating bafflement and humanity would become one with another universe, donating its atoms to the creation of a more exotic reality.
Having already witnessed the most startling, dazzling and beautiful vistas inaccessible to the human species, Hengie had never encountered anything quite like this. If his self destruct command was activated, the gateway to this pristine, pocket universe would be sealed forever.
The android could not resist placing a tentative steel toe over its threshold - he had plenty of replacement feet if it was crushed. Instead, light from the exquisite cosmic bubble now gushed over the dull surface, its billowing skirt transforming the dreary shale of the shattered moonscape into diamond - facetted diamond!
This dimensional fissure may have been deadly to organic matter, but it was also glorious, begging to be painted. Hengie dismissed the certainty that it was a destructive, parasitic wormhole and focussed on the probability that it had been created by sentient beings who used its jewelled throat to travel to other universes. How could Hengie destroy this inter-dimensional portal? Only he had the artistic perception to appreciate its beauty, possessing more acuity than a convention of art dealers. Without him humans would be limited to the earthbound scenes of allegory, sentimentality, crude abstraction and landscape. Hengie knew what the Cosmos really looked like. Who were these pretentious insects to tell HIM to destroy perfection? He just wanted to swim in the fatal attraction of the anomaly's glamour.
Hengie stepped through the fissure of light into the new, glittering universe - and exploded.
The search probe soon located Hengie’s easel tumbling through space, still bolted to its rock. The shards that had been his circuits, body casing and drive units spangled the shattered rubble of the destroyed moon as they tried to find an orbit, their sheared edges glinting in Jupiter's light.
The value of Hengie's canvases trebled.