A Performance of Death
From “Se alquila un Planeta” -- “Planet for rent”. Equipo Sirius, Spain 2002, and from
Axxón, vol. 110
(Translation: D. W. Koon)
“Taking great care today. Having much public,” said Ettubruté as he entered the tent, with the husky rattle that was his voice. Then approaching Moy, who was checking over his equipment for the nth time, he added, “Not needing to adjust again... I having done it two times already.”
“Oh, I’ll take great care. Don’t worry about that. And let me explain something to you: I will check it over a hundred times if I feel I need to; it’s my life that is on the line here ... not yours, brute,” Moy grumbled without looking at him.
The Colossaur snorted, more out of routine than for being truly offended. Matter of habit; in the beginning he had been rather bothered every time the human called him “brute”.
By the standards of his race, Ettubruté was small and weak. That’s why he had become a theatrical agent. Like all the professions which did not involve physical force, dexterity and aggression, artistic activity of any type was not well appreciated by the natives of Colossa. The honorable and ideal professions for a “normal” Colossaur were limited to bodyguard, peace officer or soldier. Ettubruté was a pitiful example of his species.
The funny thing was that the bit about being a brute was not mockery from Moy. The “weak” Colossaur who was his agent had a natural armor of reddish boney plates that few weapons could penetrate and which measured three meters in height at the midpoint of his length. He might be a half meter shy in height and 50 kilos shy in weight from the norm for his race... but he was more than strong enough to turn any human into a pulp with a blow from his arm, which was as thick as Moy’s thigh.
“Being important that everything turning out better than ever today. If you failing, contract coming to end,” the Colossaur gestured threateningly with his enormous tridactyl hand. ”Not even earning return ticket.” He turned and left so suddenly that the tent’s fine but resistant synthplast walls shook, nearly crumbling.
“Imbecile,” Moy muttered, but only after the sound of the heavy footsteps of the Xenoid had died down outside. All Colossaurs have a fine ear and can be very spiteful.
He wasn’t afraid of Ettubruté’s armored fists and his immense muscles... the Colossaur wouldn’t dare to damage him: he was the hen who laid the golden eggs, his best investment.
What really terrified him was what he could do with his profits with that leonine contract that he had been obliged to sign as nonnegotiable condition for leaving the Earth. There were clauses that literally turned him into a slave, if the Xenoid decided to exercise them. And the worst was that since Moy had signed and sealed them voluntarily with his fingerprints, vocal pattern and retinal identification, he had no legal recourse to stop Ettubruté from doing so.
Luckily, he could claim that something like a ... friendship had developed between him and his agent. Although that was too grand a word to use to describe any relationship between a Xenoid and a human.
Nevertheless, if Ettubruté wished to do him serious harm...
Better not to think about it.
“I’m trapped, trapped, trapped, trapped,” he hummed, as was his custom acquired after months of relative isolation. How long since he had laid eyes on another human face? Months. Not since Kandria, in Colossa. And she wasn’t even entirely human, but a human-Centaurian half-breed...
And even his own face had begun to seem strange to him in the mirror. Logical, after having looked at so many furry, scaled, feathered, or simply indescribable mugs from across the length and width of the galaxy.
“Wouldn’t you like to see other worlds, boy? Had I but known. First prize: a free ticket to three planets; second prize: a free ticket to three hundred,” he sneered, “The only shame is that I can’t tell anyone. The things I’ve seen ...”
The tour with Ettubruté had shown him beings and places he could never have imagined back on Earth. Marvelous and terrible things. Beings that any biologist or sociologist on Earth would have given ten years of his life just to witness.
The Morlocks of Betelgeuse with their phosphorescent skins, the two-headed birds of Arcturus, the marsupials of Algol with their natural teleportation. And one hundred other races. The cosmos was much larger than he had ever imagined on Earth, and there were even more hidden beings than he could ever imagine.
Beings that others never mentioned: the galactic laws controlled very strictly the flow of scientific and technological information to the so-called “backward” races. Like homo sapiens. And in signing his contract, Moy knew that his memory would be scrubbed clean on the eve of his return to Earth. To preserve the anonymity of the races that did not wish to be known by homo sapiens. So that he could tell no one his experiences. An elementary precaution to avoid that any wisdom and technology which could not “rationally” be employed by the Earthlings should ever fall into their hands.
“The important thing is what I have lived it and that I remember it, even if I can’t tell anyone else,” he muttered. Luckily he had never gone to Auya...
He paused for a moment from fixing his nanomanipulators and gazed outside the tent, over his shoulder. The hologram of the blue, red and black triple rhombus floated, spinning lightly over the tallest buildings in the plaza. The symbol of the Auyar.
The richest race in the galaxy. And the race most obsessive about its privacy. Nobody knew what the Auyar really looked like. Nobody knew the location of their worlds. Everyone who visited them suffered a complete erasure of their memories...
For some seconds he stared at the triple rhombus, like an innocent little bird before the hypnotic eyes of the cobra. The Auyar paid very well. Better than anyone. A contract with them would set him up for life. But there was a price to be paid: his mind would later be wiped as clean as a newborn’s. The one treasure that he had managed to amass in his not very long life: his memories.
Moy stretched himself and pulled his eyes from the triple rhombus with a nearly physical effort. “I had better think of something else or I won’t be able to do anything today,” he muttered, feeling the drops of sweat drip down his forehead. “Right now I’d love a dose of...”
A dose, a dose... NO.
He could not allow himself to even think about it.
Telecrack had nearly liquefied his brain. Ettubruté vowed to fire him if he ever caught him using it again, after all it had cost to detox Moy. And the worst thing about the Colossaurs was that they always kept their word.
“It’s his own fault... he shouldn’t have let me feel so lonely,” Moy grumbled. “I had to look for company in tele...”
He swallowed hard. Just the mention of the drug and the memory of the incomparable sensation as it entered his veins had set him trembling. He had to steady himself in a corner of the tent to keep from falling.
Of course it had been the Colossaur’s fault.
Why had he never told him that the supposed telepathic abilities unleashed by telecrack were a myth? And why had he not, as his agent, helped him manage his finances better the first few months? To invest them, as he himself had done?
Well, in reality the only thing he needed to wean himself away from drugs and other sinful pleasures was the will to do so. But Moy was so eager to have his credits to spend as he pleased, that perhaps even that wasn’t enough...
“Nobody learns from other people’s missed aches,” he muttered, smiling.
With a sad smile, he remembered his buying frenzy of the first months. Amazed by the sheer novelty of his performances, the Xenoids had eagerly showered him with credits. And he had squandered them just as eagerly.
Everything he had always wanted on Earth but had never had. Everything that had always symbolized status, power and riches for him. Expensive clothes. Exotic dishes. Sumptuous Cetian courtesans. He bought gifts for all his family and shipped them home by teletransport. A condo in the most luxurious neighborhood. Credits, more credits,... and finally telecrack.
The excuse he gave himself for trying it was pathetically cliché. Something like, having arrived at a certain level, each artist needs to develop his parapsychological facilities if he wishes to go further. What great performances he could create if he could read the mind of the public! The perfect feedback, the golden ring...
“Ha,” Moy laughed dryly, “the golden nothing.”
In the deepest recesses of his being he had sensed that telecrack was a fraud. It was an absurd impossibility for a human being to turn telepathic, even temporarily. What pulled him in was not so much its supposed effects as its ability to produce an irreversible addiction. And the side-effects, the brain damage which it could leave behind. Playing with death...
A dose and another dose. Russian roulette.
And telecrack, even off-Earth, was an expensive drug.
It cost thousands and thousand to fill his veins with its poison.
Until one day Ettubruté, tired of witnessing his self-destruction, shipped him off by force to a Detox Center. At the time, Moy was mere skin and bones, weighing a paltry ninety pounds and breathing only on a wing and a prayer.
They took care of him in the Center. They took very good care of him.
They freed him forever of his addiction.
Good. One supposes that’s what they’re there for.
The incredible thing was that they did it in only eight days.
Eight days in which he grew to know all the colors and tastes of hell. It had been bad. Very bad.
But the knowledge was more than sufficient.
He did not wish to remember the details... or else he couldn’t. The Auyar weren’t the only ones who knew how to scrub one’s memories.
He left a new man, 60 pounds heavier and with nearly all of his former self-control. With an absolute respect for Xenoid medicine, which had worked the miracle of freeing him from a drug from which he would never, ever have escaped on Earth.
And with a mixture of gratitude and resentment towards Ettubruté. He had saved his life, yes... but he had put the entire cost of the treatment on Moy’s own tab.
Only after he had reviewed his finances did he understand how much money he had squandered. Between the bill for the Detox Center (efficiency costs dearly in any part of the galaxy) and his payments for telecrack, he owed nearly a half million to the Colossaur. And the worst part was that the agent was considering ditching him and demanding his money back for breach of contract. Leaving him stranded in a strange world, without a single credit... It would have been almost like killing him.
Only by pleading, begging and invoking the “old friendship” which united the two had he managed to convince Ettubruté to lend him enough credits to eat and to fix his equipment for his performances. Only with the promise of conscientiously paying off his debt plus 50% did he manage to start over again. From scratch...
The Colossaur had sucked his blood with the skill of a vampire. And the funny thing was that he should still feel grateful for being allowed to let him continue sucking for some time more.
Of course he had to sell his custom-made suits and his luxury condo and swear off the pricey whores and the exotic dishes. But he had learned his lesson. For good.
“And here I am again, back at the plant,” he breathed. At least he had been strong enough not to give up. He had had a good enough time. Maybe too good. Now he knew what one could do with money. And he knew that he could earn it. The second time would be different.
At least there would be a second time.
He had had to tighten his belt in the last few months... but already he had nearly paid off his debt to the Colossaur. Soon, whatever he earned would be his own again... minus his agent’s usual 25% fee.
“Leech,” he muttered, but without real bitterness. Yes, it was an obscene percentage. No Xenoid artist paid more than 10% to his agent. But he was a human, an Earthling... that is to say, shit. And so he would continue to bless his lucky stars and Ettubruté for giving him the opportunity to leave that cultural and financial black hole which was the Earth.
There were thousands of human artists who would envy his situation, of that he was certain. Many, better and more original than himself, would have sold their souls to the devil to leave.
He thought of his next triumphant return with satisfaction, of having enough credits to buy an entire Earth city. And with first-hand information. Having seen enough of the Xenoid arts that his own work would remain light years ahead of any competitor -- in concept, theory and execution.
They could keep him from telling what he had seen, but they could not keep those experiences from filtering into his art...
He didn’t have that much to complain about. It could have been much worse. Ettubruté, after all, was almost his friend.
Once more he remembered Kandria, the holoprojection artist he had known on Colossa. A gorgeous human-Centaurian half-breed and with authentic talent. Some of her Multisymphonies were exceptional. And the girl was simply fantastic at making love. Shame that they had barely had two weeks together. Moy would have had nothing against starting a very serious, lasting relationship with her. Although perhaps her Centaurian agent might have objected.
The agent was her own father. And although she swore a thousand times to Moy that that blue-skinned humanoid truly loved her, even a blind man could tell that the supposed “filial love” of her “daddy” was no more than a carefully-thought-out strategy. To let his bastard daughter earn tons of money for him. Enough money to force the rigid society of his home world into forgiving him the sin of having mixed his blood with a species as inferior as homo sapiens.
The affection and consideration which Kandria’s father showed her in public was too exaggerated to be real. Particularly coming from a race as cold and distant as the Centaurians. They say that they all have icicles for hearts and computers for brains. And that was putting it mildly, in Moy’s opinion.
But he never said anything about that to her. If the poor little girl was happy believing herself loved by her daddy, he was not going to spoil the illusion. At least not while he enjoyed her splendid body every night.
He remembered their sessions with another sigh. Kandria... Her skin, with that most beautiful turquoise tone, so elastic, her enormous eyes. Her passion... Kandria was a magnificent example of what Ettubruté would cynically call “optimal use of native ability”. Which wasn’t much: like almost all hybrids, she was congenitally sterile. The funny thing was that she was capable of so much sexual enthusiasm, for someone lacking a functional vagina or ovaries...
“In matters of sex, all bets are off,” Moy shrugged his shoulders and adjusted the flayers. Everything up to spec. Ettubruté was not only a capable agent (perhaps too capable) but he was also a very competent partner in technical matters. You could argue that he had earned his twenty-five percent free and clear.
If not a true friendship, at least the two had developed a very special relationship. “Love-hate” was an expression that was just too crude to define it.
Everything started with the nickname which Moy had given him almost upon signing the contract, on confessing himself incapable of pronouncing his real name, which sounded like Uarrtorgrourrtreerfroarturr. Ettubruté was only a sophisticated way of saying “doohickey” or “that thing”. The Colossaur didn’t like it much. From that moment they passed half their time taunting each other. Perhaps to forget how much each needed the other.
“If I stop calling him ‘brute’ he should at least give up mangling my language,” Moy reflected out loud, checking the pendulum and the bleeders.
Despite his race’s notoriety for lack of facility with languages, Ettubruté had still refused to use the cybernetic translator. He preferred to mangle the Earthling’s language barbarically. Moy had grown accustomed to this, even enjoyed it. At least it was more..... personal (Colossaurial?) than the translator’s perfect mechanical pronunciation.
Although neither of the two complained about it to the other, Ettubruté was as lonely as he. Or even more so.
In Ningando, the Cetian capital, there were no more than five humans, aside from Moy. On the other hand, teams of Colossaur policemen were everywhere to be seen. But those perfect examples of their race mocked Ettubruté for his “weakness” and for his “dishonorable” work. To the point of ignoring him when they crossed paths with him, as if he didn’t exist. For them he was a virtual pariah. Although Ettubruté pretended to ignore it, it was obvious that this ostracism by his peers was more painful to him than Moy’s isolation from his own kind.
That was probably why they had ended up becoming so intimate.
“The solidarity of the pariahs...” Moy smirked, checking the explosive charges one by one without finding any problems.
He had never known whether Ettubruté was male or female. He had always treated him as a “he”, unconsciously: he identified his force and brusque manners as masculine.
Not that it mattered much. As far as he knew, the Colossaurs had as many as seven sexes... and at any rate, their genitals remained hidden beneath the plates of their armor 99.99% of the time. During the few moments of sexual intimacy they had shared, practically forced upon them by their mutual solitude, the human had always felt reassured and safer letting himself be caressed by those large tridactyl hands and that sensitive forked tongue, before returning the favor on those flaps of violet colored skin that resembled a withered flower which he assumed to be his agent’s genitals. He never figured out whether Ettubruté expected him to penetrate them or to let himself be penetrated... and he didn’t have the least amount of interest in finding out.
Caressing Ettubruté’s armored shell was a strange sensation. Like stroking a machine or a stone statue. Moy had always heard that the Colossaurs hardly felt any sensation in their shells. But Ettubruté seemed to enjoy it more than anything. And it didn’t take much effort to please him. It was like petting a dog. Although quite a bit larger...
From childhood, Moy, like every other Earthling, had learned that sex was legal tender for humans discharging their obligations to the Xenoids. Although it never would have even occurred to him to take up such “social work” for its own sake, he considered the time he spent satiating the strange appetites of the Colossaur a worthwhile emotional… investment. It had probably tipped the scales in favor of Ettubruté giving him a second chance with his debts.
In life everything had its price.
All was well. Whistling, Moy left the tent and made for the crammed plaza. The bustle, the smell and the colors assaulted his senses like a hard slap. He breathed in deeply and continued walking.
It had become his custom to take a short walk before each presentation. The handsome spectacle of the Cetian capital and its inhabitants both calmed him and motivated him. Its message was more or less “see what all awaits you if you work hard and don’t squander your pay.”
Normally there weren’t many pedestrians in the wide esplanade, but this was a special day. With that flamboyant esthetic sense with which only the Cetians knew how to throw a party (when they felt like it), the locals had organized a planetary carnival to celebrate the Day of Union, the most important anniversary for all the races. The commemoration of their integration to the community of intelligences of the galaxy. Something like a civilization’s coming-out party.
Mingling with the groups of Cetians and other Xenoids decked out with exotic and multicolored masks, Moy asked himself whether some day humans might celebrate something like this, in place of the Day of Contact. Or should he say the Day of Conquest?
“Karjuz friz?!” Lost in thought, it took him nearly a second to notice of the words which a Cetian had just fired at him point blank and with great enthusiasm.
He sized this creature up timidly. With an ingenious system of holoprojections, the Xenoid had managed to impart total transparency of the right half of its body. This halfling, it would seem, had confused his human body with a particularly hilarious costume and had said something witty about it. Or perhaps it had simply asked him where he had gotten it, or something similar.
Moy didn’t know many words of Cetian and was not wearing a translator. Like the Colossaur, he didn’t like them much.
He eagerly embraced the Cetian, almost yelling in its ear, “Your half-mother sells herself to the Polyps!” and laughed.
The humanoid looked at him for an instant. Then it shook his head from side to side in the Cetian manner of agreeing. It laughed with a crystalline sound and left, prancing merrily.
Seemed to be a male. What a shame.
If ninety-nine percent of the time they were refined esthetes who maintained a distant composure with all alien beings, on the Day of Union the Cetians let their hair down completely. For those 26 hours they permitted themselves all manner of joke and attended entertainments which they would have considered unimaginably obscene the rest of the year.
The aphrodisiac smell of patchouli which the last embrace had left him opened up his pituitaries and had nearly left Moy with an erection.
He stood watching the Cetian, wanting to follow.
It could be a male (and the Cetians hated and punished homosexuality) and he had never much cared for his own gender. However, ... if everything was permitted on this day... why not?
Meanwhile, the halfling had already vanished into the crowd.
Moy breathed deeply. Maybe after the performance he would find a more... communicative female. One who would not charge him. Because those Cetian courtesans were magnificent, but obscenely expensive.
The Cetian humanoids had a rare beauty which hinted at feline ancestry and to which humans were particularly susceptible. When the first males of the species had visited the Earth, there were true waves of frenzy and passion among the human females, eclipsing any hero worship over minstrels or filmstars from the past.
And the females... Moy would never forget the stirrings in his crotch he had felt at age fourteen, when he first spied one of them who had shown up, apparently by mistake, at an exhibition of paintings by his drawing teacher. The tall and gracefully proportioned figure, the eyes marked by vertical pupils, the floating ease of her gestures, the caressing tone of her voice. That air of exotic sensuality that seemed to emanate from her whole body... and the fragrance.
It didn’t offer much consolation to learn that they were pheromones which every female or male could generate at will. The effect was the same: a desire to rub up against their skin, to caress them, to submit to them and to make them submit... and at the same time a nearly divine respect that prevented anyone who was not a mental retard, a sexual cripple or a lobotomy patient from ever trying to engage someone born under the rays of Tau Ceti in sex... unless first receiving a clear invitation to do so.
And, most interestingly, that respectful fascination was an effect suffered not only by humans. Centaurians, Colossaurs... even the hermaphroditic, telepathic Grodos seemed to lose part of their commercial sang-froid before the gorgeous Cetians. One of the many mysteries of the cosmos.
On the basis of months having lived among them, Moy had arrived at his own conclusion: the highly refined Cetians, however dedicated they professed themselves to be to the fine arts, had perfected sexual attraction as their highest art form. Smitten by beauty, they had become it. It was their weapon and their trump card in the great poker match of power in which all the races of the galaxy were engaged. As telepathy was for the Grodos, anonymity was for the Auyar and sheer body mass was for the Colossaurs.
But one should not be fooled by their angelic appearance. They were angels from hell: under their serene and aloof charm they almost always had cruel and calculating minds, eager to win all, sinister exploiters of the slimmest advantage. Behind the mantle of beauty were hidden implacable beings, capable of seducing humans only to turn them into slaves for their bordellos or to harvest their organs for transplant. Or even worse.
That’s for sure: they might just be the Judases of the galaxy... but no one could beat their artistic sensibility.
Ettubruté had been very astute to choose Ningando as the final stop on his tour. The capital of Tau Ceti was like New York in the golden era on Earth: the Mecca of all art in the galaxy. To make it here, among the Cetians was to make it anywhere (except for perhaps the planet of the enigmatic Auyar). And the reviews he had seen seemed to speak highly of his performances. Perhaps his Colossaur agent didn’t know much about art. But at least he knew where to find those who did... and, furthermore, those who would pay well for it.
Paying for art. Money. Credits. Everything reduced to that.
Moy walked, distracted, entering through one of the streets that departed like curved rays from the hub which was the plaza. The shadows of the high buildings which bordered the pedestrian avenue fell over him.
They were irregular constructions and seemed to belong to a thousand styles, all different. And yet the general overall effect was strangely harmonious. The Cetians had realized the impossible dream of Michelangelo, Le Courbusier, Niemeyer and other great human urbanists: the city as sculpture. The city conceived as a single entity, as a live organism which maintains a perceptible and natural order as it grows. Compared with Ningando and the other Cetian urbs, the cities of the other Xenoid races, despite being magnificent, seemed identical to those of the humans: gigantic cancers, chaotic growth, unhealthy, putrid. Mere failed attempts at urban planning.
Moy remembered Colossa, the native world of Ettubruté, the first one he visited after leaving Earth. Massive ramparts. Robust towers. Buttresses and bulwarks. Fortified cities conceived of and erected as temples to force and solidity by a powerful warrior race. Cities of excess, strong but lacking in beauty. Graceless, rhythmless. Lifeless.
Here, curves and straight lines, volumes and surfaces combined in dizzying harmony.
Ningando. What human artists and architects would not give to see your constructions! How he would eagerly drink in its glorious forms with his friends. How Jowe, for example, would have enjoyed every centimeter of those buildings...
Moy stopped and looked back. Jowe...
Brilliant, delicate, sincere, pure, intransigent... stupid, ill-adapted, destined for failure: Jowe.
The most talented. The one with the most original ideas. The most loyal to his esthetic ideals. Always the least concerned with the marketplace. The one who most despised agents and sellers.
The one who sold the least number of works, because he refused to flatter the tastes of the Xenoid tourists who came seeking the exotic and local color in the human artists and ran fleeing from anything smelling of trial and experimentation. The one who never squandered his talent in portraits of voluptuous social workers wearing their minimal and provocative attire, nor in phony, shining, touristy landscapes. The one who most hated the complacent choirs of the common critics. Because his works poked behind the empty provocation and the sterile masturbation which theories and countertheories produced. Because he made art.
Jowe was a born loser. One who would never have traded one of his works for a ticket to success off-Earth. A loser proud of his nothingness. And happy.
Happy... The last that Moy had heard from him was that he continued creating, as indefatigable and incomprehensible as ever. And that, in order not to prostitute his art, he had entered the semilegal protections racket. In order not to die of hunger.
Hopefully it was going well. Few people deserved success as much as he did.
But life had taught Moy that success is not something for those who deserve it, but for those who seduce it and trick it and fight for it by whatever means necessary. For those who wink one eye at Mammon and the other at the Muses.
Idealists like Jowe always wound up as road kill. The business of protection was tough. Probably at that moment, moved to pity by the tearful eyes of some independent social worker, he was megacredits in debt to the Yakuza or the Mafia. Or, much more likely, he was being purged by years in Corporal Exchange for the stupidity of collaborating with the dreamers of the Pro-Liberation Earth Xenophobe Union... a gang of fanatics that Planetary Security only allowed to exist because to eliminate them once and for all would mean forfeiting the inflated budget they received for their fight against terrorism.
Jowe. Shame that he had chosen the wrong fork in the crossroads of life. That of the defeated martyr rather than that of the successful hero. He had true genius, while Moy had only a little talent but a certain commercial ability. But together they could both have gone very far...
And he would have enjoyed it so much, simply sharing with him his awe at the exquisite architecture of Ningando, in front of the delicate filigrees of the clothing of the inhabitants, before the beating pulse of its cosmopolitan heart...
Absorbed in his memories, Moy almost tripped over a group of Cetians whose severe gray clothes contrasted strongly with the explosion of forms and colors of the finery of the others.
The Earth was not the only place where the races whose physiology was inappropriate or incompatible with the local biosphere ran about in native bodies in order to move freely without a bulky vital support system. But among the Cetians and other cultures, the candidates for Corporal Exchange were well paid volunteers who considered it an honor to serve as “horses” for representatives of another race. Not criminals serving out their sentences, as the “horses” were on Earth.
And even in Ningando as in any other place in the galaxy, the procedure was prohibitively expensive. It included astronomical insurance costs to cover the possibility of damage to the host-bodies. The shit prices offered by The Planetary Tourist Agency on Earth were a tempting lure for any tourist anxious to mix with the local population without being noticed.
Moy mumbled a clumsy excuse in his rudimentary Cetian, got out of the way of the Cetians in their gray suits and watched them. Identifying the original race of Corporal Exchange users from the manner in which their “horses” moved had turned into his favorite form of entertainment. These were seven and they walked hand in hand. Although their gait would have been the envy of the most graceful human ballerina, it was clumsy in relation to that of normal Cetians. And they gestured a lot. A lot. They almost spoke more through signals than by vocalizing.
Polyps from Aldebaran, probably. Their mad gesturing gave them away. Moy watched them hopefully. Unfortunately, they left the plaza and his performance. They were probably very rich. Their hyperresistant anatomy had adapted perfectly to almost all biospheres, so that their running around in Cetian bodies was just a luxurious whim.
One day he too would visit Aldebaran, he promised himself. Of course, it would have to be when he was very rich. Nobody who was not a Polyp, or at least who occupied the body of one, could survive the tremendous sea pressures of that world.
What would it be like to weight nearly a ton, have hundreds of tentacles and one single muscular foot and to move slowly along the floor of the ocean? At the very least, it would be a very interesting experience...
He sighed. He would probably never know. Most surely there would be some provision that forbade members of “inferior” races, as the human race was considered, from occupying the bodies of beings belonging to species with full galactic rights.
However much money he could manage to amass, this was something that he would never be able to deny. His original sin: to be born human... with the greater part of the universe forever closed to him.
This idea depressed him so much that for a second he considered the possibility of not showing up for his own performance. Of leaving it all and returning to Earth. Of being poor forever, but at least being among his peers.
They probably wouldn’t notice it much, in this Day of Union carnival, and there would be no great consequences...
But almost immediately he remembered how barely a month earlier he had gone on a monumental binge on a distillation of local algae which compared favorably with white Earth wines. And how, thinking that inebriation was quite an acceptable excuse for missing one of his weekly performances, he had remained asleep and unworried in his tiny lodging.
Three hours after the appointed time for the start of his performance two Colossaurs who would have made Ettubruté look like a helpless weakling woke him, battering the lock of his cubicle’s diaphragm. And without daring to offer any other defense except verbal (obviously they didn’t understand him or wear translators), he found himself dragged to a place which seemed too much like a prison not to be one. Into which they literally tossed him headfirst. It was almost a miracle that he didn’t break his neck when he landed.
Only thirty hours later did his agent deign to show up and Moy, totally cowed, received one of the severest reprimands of his life before being freed. In passing, he learned that the Cetians considered it a very grave crime to renege on one’s proffered word. Justified or not. And that is exactly how they interpreted his absence from his previously pledged performance. He was stunned when Ettubruté revealed the amount of the fine that he had had to pay to free him (and which naturally would be withheld from his pay) ... and worse yet when he found out that, if he repeated this act, the punishment would be his expulsion from the planet as creatura non grata... with confiscation of all salary earned on Tau Ceti.
Evidently, being a foreigner was an enviable condition only on Earth. In the rest of the galaxy it simply meant that you were shit. Especially if it had to do with a foreigner not belonging to one of the more powerful races like the Grodos and the Auyar. Not even ignorance of the local law excused his disobedience.
“Dura lex, sed lex” Moy pronounced solemnly - - a harsh law but the law - - as he advanced with solemn step back to his tent. He could not permit himself a creative block, as things now stood. He would perform. “The show must go on,” he muttered. Although what he really wanted to do was to scream “Shit!” at the top of his voice.
He didn’t do it because at that precise moment he could not remember how to say it in Latin... and because, since he had learned that the living being most fluent in the language of Virgil was not a human but a segmented Guzoid from Regulus who needed to use a synthesizer to recite the Eclogues, his respect for the beautiful dead language had suffered a rude shock. As had his humbled human pride.
He lifted his eyes to the city clock, the gigantic holographic image that floated above the highest buildings of Nigando, like an oblong and strangely colored cloud. A few minutes still remained before the show.
With these Cetian clocks there was no way to be certain. The image lacked numbers or hands: it was just a large bar with sections that changed color as the time passed.
At first Moy did not want to believe that the clock had much more than purely decorative significance, like some Earthly analog sphere. He smiled skeptically every time he asked a Cetian the time and the native, after looking at him with scornful superiority, raised his eyes to the sky and informed him, to the nearest second. There must be other, hidden clocks... that one was a pure hoax.
But he soon learned that it was not.
The sensory acuteness of the Cetians was extreme. Visually, every inhabitant of Ningando could distinguish between ten or twelve shades of red that the most subtle human painter or decorator would think were identical. There wasn’t a single one whose auditory ability would not put a human musician with so called “perfect pitch” to shame. The Cetians could distinguish not only an eighth of a tone, but even a hundredth... A circumstance which made their language especially complex, since the intensity and modulation of their messages sometimes contained as much information as the message itself.
Moy’s human pride had been severely taxed by all this. As if it weren’t enough to feel less than invisible circulating among hordes of gorgeous, supremely sexy Cetians who ignored him completely, from that moment on he could not respond to any Xenoid criticism that claimed that the Earthling arts were lamentably primitive and crude. Especially if the critic were a Cetian.
For a race with such a polished sensibility, the Mona Lisa and Guernica would have seemed only painful jumbles of blotches of primary colors. Like almost all representative art... Not for nothing that almost all of their art was purely abstract, coldly mathematical. Who would want reflections of reality when one could not help but be conscious that they were only that... reflections, always imperfect, fatally flawed?
“There they are, the poor souls...” Moy mumbled sarcastically, arriving at his stage, and he felt better.
Perfection was a double-edged sword. Those gorgeous humanoids were denied forever the simple pleasures of schematic drawing, the ecstatic distortions of caricature, the vibrant color of expressionism.
Even Moy had begun to suspect (and it was no small consolation) that he was the only living being in Ningando capable of appreciating in all its magnificence the harmonic orgy of colors and forms which was the city. For its inhabitants, the skyline had to be a collection of coarse and futile attempts to achieve an impossible ideal esthetic. The Cetians’ predicament was too sad for words: they were so perfectly endowed for the search for beauty that they could never find anything sufficiently beautiful to fully satisfy them.
Even the Colossaurs, who were not known for their artistic capacity and whose vision was limited to black and white, must be better acquainted with esthetic delight than the sophisticated Cetians...
“Speak of the devil and he appears,” Moy mumbled, making out a reddish shell which approached the stage form the other direction.
The enormous bulk of Ettubruté made its way through the motley multitude of Cetians like a red-hot knife cutting through butter. Not even in the carnival confusion of the Day of Union was it possible to confuse him with a masked Cetian. It was not the armor nor the size of his limbs, which after all could be imitated with prosthetics... it was rather a certain grace, crude and indefinite, but very self-assured. Strong, brusque, very different from the fluid elegance of Cetian gestures.
Besides, it would have been in very bad taste for a native to disguise himself as a Colossaur. They employed them as police and guards, jobs that they themselves considered low and dirty. They looked down on them. For every Cetian, Ettubruté or any other of his race were the epitome of vulgarity, bad taste and crudity. Uncouth rustics without breeding, exhibitionists who disdained even the most basic nicety of clothing, insisting on displaying the wrinkled crimson surfaces of their armored plates.
Although, in the final instance, for a Cetian a Colossaur was always preferable to a human, Moy himself thought with acid irony. Better the honest hick than the clever savage...
Moy also knew that, beneath their refined exteriors, the brutal power of the Colossaurs, their vigorous and elemental culture, cast a strange spell over the sophisticated and decadent Cetians. Ettubruté had taken him once to an exhibition of pornography (totally clandestine, of course) put on by several of his kind. Nine tenths of the public were natives of Tau Ceti. Later he learned that holorecordings of this type were the second most lucrative trade between Colossa and Tau Ceti. And although the spectacle did nothing for Moy (it reminded him of armored tanks trying fruitlessly to make love) the Cetians were smitten. They screamed the whole time, touching one another in a veritable collective frenzy which Moy found much more appealing than the show itself. Beautiful bodies twisting and contorting themselves languidly, trying in vain to imitate the formidable gestuality of the Colossaurs...
“Calm down,” he said to himself, feeling the onset of an erection. He smiled, shaking his head. It had all been an aberration. But it wasn’t unusual... In truth, his sex life over the last months had not been a very normal affair. Even for an Earthling accustomed almost from birth to the idea of having sex with any more or less humanoid being (and at times not even that) coming from the depths of the galaxy.
His ideas of what constituted pornography and/or obscenity had changed a lot in these months of his tour. Although he still enjoyed much of the same impolitic humor of his youth (like the classic: “The Aldebaran Ambassador to Earth wishes to lodge a formal protest against the public exhibition of holofilms on the subject of budding and twinning among the Pacific corals, as he considers them decidedly pornographic and, as such, injurious to the morals and tastes of tourists who visit the planet...”), he now understood what Freud had said so long ago: In sexuality, totem and taboo are very relative terms.
Fortunately for him...
The sexual price was one which, although not explicitly included in the clauses of his contract with Ettubruté, he had always known he had to pay. It was not just his occasional “relaxation sessions” with the Colossaur (which he had almost come to enjoy), but other things beside.
Like the especially humiliating soirees at the homes of some rich collector of native art that wanted to verify if it was true what they said about the savageness of the humans. Or finding himself scrutinized on all sides, naked as a newborn, by a circle of inscrutable Guzoids that had bought one of his works.
“Comes with the job,” Moy muttered. At least, if he ever got tired of his performances, he could always earn his bread and butter as a male social worker. Although it was a strictly prohibited occupation on Earth... but then, it only stood to reason that there must be an even more flourishing black market. And more dangerous...
“Ready? Preparing self. Soon now.” The hoarse voice of Ettubruté woke him from his reverie. “Not looking well...” There was a worried tone in the Colossaur’s voice, and his porky little eyes deeply hidden in their armored sockets closely studied Moy’s face.
“Careful, brute. Everything’s going as usual,” Moy sighed, and he gave him an affectionate punch on his red armored shoulders. “Get to the console. These guys are very punctual...”
Once the Colossaur was at the controls, Moy peeked through the folds of the synthplast at the entrance of the tent and sized up the exterior.
There was his public. Dozens and dozens of Cetians wearing every class of costume, chatting excitedly, patiently awaiting the start of yet another Day of Union show. Some of them already would have seen it and returned to enjoy it again. Others, curious from their friends’ stories or from the short ads on the holovision (hopefully, since those ads had cost an arm and a leg), had arrived, bringing with them a certain skepticism, to see how much of what they had heard was actually true. Or more likely with the hope of making fun of the stuttering attempts at art by a race as inferior as the human race.
Moy felt the familiar sensation of acid rising in his esophagus. They were all bloody vultures masked as birds of paradise. Beautiful and colorful plumage, but hungry predators under all their finery. And he was the dinner they had come for.
He was now ready. He had already reached the emotional state he needed to execute his performance. Emptiness already bit at his entrails. And rage and envy and pride.
He sighed. Lifelessly raising a hand, he gave the sign to Ettubruté. Immediately the air of the strong fan ruffled his short hairs. He advanced.
Then the charges exploded.
The size of the explosives was calculated to the milligram. The four synthplast walls which had been the tent crumbled into a cloud of particles which the very strong gust of wind from the fan scattered in a sort of upside down snowfall.
A little more explosive and the shock wave might have harmed the public. A little less and the shards of synthplast would have been too large for the fan to blow away, and they might also have wounded the spectators.
Ettubruté knew his job better than anyone.
Moy cleared his throat to begin his theoretical discourse, improvised each time from some basic fundamental ideas, but flavored by the particular emotional state of the day’s crowd. He passed his eyes over the sea of luxurious disguises and...
Surprise. There was Kandria with her father, more beautiful than ever. Her presence cheered him up and intrigued him: How had she gotten to Ningando? Had her Multisymphonies been successful?
Or perhaps she was looking for him?
Hope rang in his heart like a bell.
She saw him and greeted him respectfully. He smiled.
Her father, the cold humanoid, also saw him but didn’t move a muscle.
Strangely ashamed of the admiring look she had given him, Moy could not bear to show his face to her on the stage. He felt like a trained animal, a sad buffoon. He thought once more of suspending his show.
It was all a farce. He was not an artist, but a poor mercenary...
The silence grew. The courteous Cetian public waited. Moy remembered the amount of the fine he would have to pay for not performing, and, screwing up his courage, he began.
It all seemed only another strained delay...
“Praised be the Day of the Union, and long life and prosperity to Nigando and its people.” He had practiced the phrase a thousand times and had even resorted to hypnosis to memorize it. A few phrases in their own language, without translators, was just the trick to win any crowd over to your corner from the beginning. “But you must forgive me if in the midst of such happiness I feel afflicted. I am very sad... because art is dead.” Ettubruté had just activated the cybertranslator. As always, Moy pondered whether a dead appliance was capable of grasping and reproducing all the fine esthetic and emotional nuances of his speech. He guessed not, but there was no alternative but to trust that it could achieve it... at least partially.
“Art is dead. And its murderers are the holoprojections, the chromatic layout cybersystems, the musical harmonization programs, the virtual dancing simulations and all the technological paraphernalia whose only goal seems to be to render obsolete not only the artist’s ability but also his presence.” He was bent over theatrically, as if defeated by the circumstance. This was the signal for Ettubruté to initiate the sequence, activating all the systems.
“But the artist refuses to be dispensed with! I refuse to drop out of sight!” He jumped back, with a savage expression, and the Cetians drew back slightly.
Moy suppressed a smile: they were getting what they had come for. The savage human. The crazy primitive. The gentle naïf, totally subconscious, unembellished.
“The artist cannot die. Because every artist has the immortality of Prometheus. Because he dies in each one of his works, because he gives up a piece of his life with each creation. Because each piece of matter that sprouts transformed by his hands snatches one moment more from the relentless grip of entropy.” And Moy turned around to face the machine as it began to unfold.
As always, he marveled for a second over the inexorable and lethal beauty of the device which he himself had designed. Straightening up and growing like the hood of a colossal cobra or the ominous shadow of a dragon, the mechanical articulations slid silently one over the other. Until the archetypical figure of a cross was formed. Rising threateningly and enormously over the human silhouette. As if waiting.
Moy turned to face the public.
Pity that they could not catch the Christian reference...
“The artist can and must die in, or rather for, his work. The artist is obliged to deconstruct himself in his work.” He noticed with the same old satisfaction the brief second that the translator paused over the word “deconstruct”.
Deconstruction. He could have included that term in the cyberglossary... but he liked to know that he, a simple human, son of one of the least sophisticated cultures in the galaxy, could bring the most perfect of the technologies of his masters to a halt.
“The artist is a repeating antenna. A funnel. He captures and devours the pain of the world and pours it into his works.” And he stepped back, as if unstaged, which was the agreed upon signal.
The machine, like a carnivorous metaloplastic flower, leaned up and trapped him.
The Cetians stiffened, shocked, as its connections and harnesses wrapped the human’s limbs, like the tentacles of a gigantic Polyp. Then he was lifted several meters above the stage, without any visible effort.
“The artist’s works are his clones and his children. They are the flesh of his lacerated blood, his message. His cry of anguish to a world which will no longer listen to any other voice but that of pain and blood!” Moy let out a heartrending scream.
The first five bleeders clamped onto his neck, thighs and forearms, locating the veins with millimeter precision. Moy felt the lash of the pain, almost immediately masked by the analgesics with which the thin needles were greased. He made a grimace; good, nobody’s perfect. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, or a performance without a touch of pain.
The negative pressure regulators kicked in, and five spurts of scarlet liquid jumped in precise arcs. First splattering the stage, then falling into tiny crystalline containers that sprouted from the machine, until they overflowed. Then the hemorrhage ceased.
Moy closed his right hand in a fist.
“The hand may be denied, replaced with mechanical appendages. But no device can equal the fertile pain of that hand which creates, holding the brush.” He tensed and inhaled deeply. Another dose of analgesic was injected into his body.
The semicircular blade sprouted as quickly and certainly as a hatchet-blow, lopping off his hand and launching it through the air. Another mechanism caught it before it fell. It connected electrodes to his convulsing nerves and placed a brush between the fingers.
The writhing hand traced meaningless lines over the canvas which was on the platform, dancing in uncontrolled paroxysms. Each time more slowly, before finally coming to rest.
As usual, the spectacle sparked some murmurs in the polite assembly. But Moy knew that the spell was cast. They were his public. His slaves. He had them in the palm of his hand. He could do with them as he pleased.
“It is not the fragile and perishable body of the artist which transcends it. Who cares about the hand which draws the line, if its genius lives in the line itself?
Feeling the subtle creeping through the interior of the leg of his pants of coarse fabric, Moy relaxed his anal sphincter to allow the nanomanipulators to penetrate. He recited a yogic mantra to stave off nausea while these tiniest of mechanisms climbed in a zigzag through the loops of his intestines.
“Often, faced with the apparent perfection of the work, it does not matter to anyone whether a hand, a claw, a tentacle, or a pincer was the author. Some believe that art is art, whether from a Da Vinci, a Sciagluk or from a computer.” The crowd shook their heads from side to side, agreeing.
Moy hated the abstract and icy compositions of Morffel Sciagluk. A mere three-dimensional imitator of Mondrian, in his opinion. Mentioning his name served a single purpose: the majority of his audience hadn’t the vaguest idea of who Leonardo was. Nor “The Last Supper” nor “The Mona Lisa”.
Through the veil of the analgesic drug, he felt the diffuse pain of the nanomanipulators penetrating through arteries and capillaries, through muscles and tendons. Mobile threads the width of a molecule weaving their spider’s web inside the building of his body. When the tickling reached his left arm, he swallowed hard. The analgesic wave which invaded his nervous system convinced him that Ettubruté was watching over him and that he could safely pass on to the next level.
“But only the flesh and blood, the mind and the organic manipulator, can give birth to art. And if there is no such union... no art is possible...” He relaxed, waiting.
As always, the explosion surprised him almost as much as the audience. Although less, thanks to the pain.
The accumulation of meticulous, volatile molecules inside his left arm collaborated in an explosion that dispersed bones, tendons and fingers in a spectacular, bloody cloud. With a calculated manipulation of force fields, the pile of remainders of what had just recently been his arm remained floating for several seconds, without scattering. Until Ettubruté cancelled out the antigrav effect. Then they fell to the stage, to the riotous applause of the already eager spectators.
Taking advantage of the pause, Moy sought the eyes of the half-breed girl. There was admiration in them... and horror. Good. Now she was just as much his as the others were. Or perhaps more so.
He strained his ear to check whether Ettubruté had already connected the mechanical womb. It was not needed yet; they had had the best existing commercial model and the process of synthesis was very quick. But it was always comforting to know that if something unexpected happened, anything, then...
He tossed that idea from his head and continued.
“Art is always self-mutilation. It is the deliberate extraction of one’s most private interior landscape: one’s dreams.”
A semicircular pendulum of the thinnest blade (a reference to a story of Edgar Alan Poe’s that those Cetians would never catch) swung three times and then slit open the artist’s abdominal cavity with surgical precision. The bleeders automatically inverted their function, and not a drop of blood blocked the audience’s view of the organs.
Earlier, the nanomanipulators had injected different colors into each organ, and Moy’s insides were a living symphony of exposed, pulsing colors. The analgesic drug coursed through his veins, keeping him from either losing consciousness or being driven completely insane before the culminating moment. But the sensation of being open, defenseless, strangely empty was something that was independent of the pain. And it was infinitely more unsettling.
“Dreams are the untouchable substance of life, sensory breadth and volume of the work of art. That which is projected beyond the narrow material framework.” Moy closed his glottis and concentrated on breathing through his nose.
The pressurized hydrogen was diffusing into his intestine. The loops previously washed by the nanos inflated. Phantasmal, semitransparent, rising from their places like the spirals of a horrible larval serpent. Surprising plays of lights shone through the interior, courtesy of the gas.
“Although the light of art is always ephemeral, that light is the life breath of the artist. His soul, which is extinguished in each work.”
A nano punctured an intestinal loop and the hyperflammable gas escaped with an audible hiss. Then a spark lit a flare, and in an instant Moy’s body was wrapped in a burning cloud.
But for only a second. Any longer would have been hazardous….could have burned his skin and flesh. The volume of hydrogen was calculated to the cubic centimeter.
“And every criticism, every exegesis, each interpretation of a work is an introspection, a voyage inside the person who bore it and dressed it in the flesh and skin of concept.” Reaching this point, Moy always lamented not being a woman. His uterus smashed apart, this bit of his speech would have greater effect.
Still, the vision made quite an impression.
The blades of the flayers ripped his epidermis, and the folds of skin flapped in the breeze like macabre tatters. Bloodlessly. The surface capillaries were almost empty; the bleeders functioned at full capacity, shuttling the vital fluid to the essential organs.
Moy felt dizzy and almost blacked out. But the neurostimulant that coursed through his system revived him in a flash. He smiled, pleased. Ettubruté was one hundred percent attentive to all his vital signs. And now he heard the dull hum of the mechanical system completing its task. Everything was going fine. As always.
“After the flesh and blood of the emotions, the skeleton of theories and plans remains to be discovered, the subtle structure of sex and power in mixed layers.”
In perfect synchronicity, the muscles were first cut from inside, then the bones broken with an audible crunch, and both the artist’s legs fell onto the stage. There they kicked spasmodically for seconds, before lying motionless.
Several liters of blood escaped from the cut femoral arteries, spurting out the strangely empty legs of his pants. Then the nanos blotted them up. This was not a mistake, but another well-calculated effect with no major consequences. With his body reduced for all practical purposes to his head and trunk, Moy simply did not need that much fluid. Furthermore, that blood might otherwise overload the bleeders.
Moy breathed deeply, reciting a Tibetan prayer.
Pain does not exist. Pain is an illusion.
I exist. I am real.
“What remains of art without the hidden alphabet of sex?” he howled.
With his shout, the nanos cut the bloody rags which had been his pants, and his sex raised itself erect, as if daring death. It was not an artificial overpressure of blood in the cavernous bodies, nor an opportune dose of hormones. Moy was aroused, as always. It was the old irony. Eros and Tanatos.
The proud exhibition lasted only a few seconds.
Moy relaxed. Now, the most difficult…
His erect member exploded in a cascade of blue liquid. The nanos sliced off the testicles from inside and let them fall in a dull bounce on the platform.
Once the effect of the analgesic overpowered the pain and the searing emptiness that burned in his mutilated groin, Moy breathed more easily. Now the worst had passed. What remained was more impressive than painful.
Kandria watched him with authentic admiration. He needed to take advantage of the girl’s state. They were going to have a lot of fun together yet…
“It is the sacrifice, the artist’s breath that gives creative flight to his work.” Moy swallowed.
The system of artificial oxygenation was set in motion, exchanging the vital gas with CO2 in his red corpuscles without his lungs’ intervention. The nanos penetrated into his bronchia and more hydrogen was injected in his pulmonary tissue. The pendulum returned to cut again, now his thorax, and his bloated respiratory organs emerged like balloons.
They lifted his tortured body higher over the plaza, as if fighting to break his restraints. They finally managed to, and he floated freely over the plaza.
More applause, now almost frantic.
Contemptuously, Moy mused that they must know nothing of human anatomy, nor of elementary physics. It was entirely obvious that the volume of air dislodged by the hydrogen in his lungs was not sufficient to lift his body…even without arms and legs. Only the antigrav field carefully managed by Ettubruté made this extraordinary spectacle possible.
He swallowed hard again. Without air in his lungs, only the careful pumping of the pneumatic nanomachine situated in his larynx allowed him to continue speaking. And he continued to worry about how ridiculous he would appear if the device failed.
“But always, inexorably, after the final brushstroke the artist falls once more toward hard reality!” Moy closed his eyes, and the chill of another dose of analgesic calmed his veins.
His lungs exploded with another flare and his body plummeted from its height. Down below, the machine awaited him, unfolding sharp points and blades, like the fangs of a terrible shark.
Poe’s other horror: the pit. A skilled intertextuality wasted on all those Xenoids totally ignorant of human culture.
Even so, the public screamed.
The fall seemed haphazard, but it was carefully managed by antigrav fields. Several spikes impaled the remnants of the artist’s body. One ran through his ear. Another entered his cheekbone and left through his ocular socket, bursting his right eye.
“It is not the external vision of this world of illusions which matters for an artist! There is much more than that!” Moy shrugged and felt his veins relax with the last great dose of analgesic. The prelude to the end.
His left eye popped from overpressure, spilling its vitreous and aqueous humors, one dyed green, the other purple. And it hung dangling from its optical nerve like a wilted flower.
“The essential thing, the thing that no machine can imitate, is the incorporation of the artist into the universal, the final annulment of the ego that he suffers in his creations!” Moy relaxed for good.
“Alea jacta est,” he thought -- the die is cast -- and he welcomed the darkness.
The nanos that had penetrated into his brain suddenly shut off the blood and glucose to his neurons and struck their principal synapses with well calculated electric shocks. Moy smoothly lost consciousness.
Clinically, he was already dead, even though his heart kept beating. None of the audience had noticed that the thing which the machine maintained before them was a corpse. This was indispensable for the final act. No analgesic drug could ever reduce the supreme agony of that end.
The pneumatic nanomachine injected pressurized air into Moy’s larynx, modulating the tremendous and posthumous scream which the vocal cords produced until it tore them apart.
The prelude to the apotheosis.
The explosive charge in his heart blew apart and, a fraction of a second later, the silenced mass of his brain.
The two most important organs in the body dispersed in fragments. The spikes and edges of the machine fell upon the remains, like a hungry hyena. They danced their frantic choreography chopping the remains of the body like the molars of a gigantic cannibal. And when there was nothing left to chop, they rose up, shaking, threatening, as if seeking another victim.
The recorded voice of Moy was then heard, deeply resonant:
“The world is a machine. Devouring art, it devours its creator. It is always hungry for blood, pain and art… and there are always artists willing to serve as its food. That is life, and that is history. It is a grand cycle.”
And the machine folded itself slowly, deliberately. The lights came up and the applause exploded, more furious than ever.
Most of the audience left. Muttering, overcome with emotion, anxious to get back outside, back to reality.
Kandria stayed behind. With watery eyes, she argued with her agent-father, first heatedly, then violently. She wished to see Moy to congratulate him… it had been simply perfect.
The Centaurian thought that she shouldn’t praise his competence too highly. And that this Moy was not adequate company for her. That they might get involved in a relationship that would distract her from her artistic path. That he was her father and that she should obey him.
They argued until Kandria, angrily disengaging herself from the Centaurian, escaped into the multitude, without looking back. The father-agent smiled: this was just another form of respect.
Calmly, he followed her. Leaving, his large eyes with their purple pupils found the small eyes of Ettubruté, and the two agents exchanged a knowing look and shrugged their shoulders.
Yes, these human artists were very difficult to deal with. Whether they were children or friends-slash-lovers… One often had to be firm with them, for their own good.
The Cetian art dealers and collectors and those of other races flocked to the platform like flies to the smell of a fresh corpse. The Colossaur, cold and professional, attended to the offers and organized the auction quickly and efficiently.
The large canvas which was the platform with Moy’s limbs and viscera stuck to it was sprayed with epoxy resin by an automatic mechanism. The instantly drying substance formed a fine transparent layer that would shield the work from time and putrefaction.
After a quick bid by two Grodos, an Auyar bought it for 70,000 credits in cash. Next he offered a half million credits for the machine, but Ettubruté would not be budged. No, it was not for sale. And he refused to entertain any propositions with regard to it.
The Auyar made another offer. Magnificent…
Ettubruté’s tiny eyes glowed greedily.
Well, he would have to consult with the artist…
A hologram of Moy taken at the start of the performance, with a succinct biography in the syllabic Cetian alphabet, was projected over the site which the stage had occupied. The public that remained, as if unwilling to tear themselves away, applauded again. For 15 credits, those interested could acquire a copy of the document. A complete holorecording of the performance for 150.
There were more than fifty buyers. The presentation had been a rousing success.
Moy, of course, would not know this until an hour later. When the auto-cloning was finished and he could make use of his new body. Ettubruté, solicitous, told him everything, helping him out of the mechanical device hidden under the stage.
In spite of the news, Moy did not feel better. He coughed many times to expel the mucilaginous pseudoamniotic fluid of the mechanical womb from his lungs. His skin and body felt disgustingly sticky and there was a horrible taste in his mouth. All his muscles trembled. He urgently needed a shower and to eat… and to sleep.
These cloned rebirths exhausted him more and more every time.
“Having sold very good. Your debt be finishing,” the Colossaur said, encouragingly. “Having a very interesting offer from an Auyar. Paying much.”
“Forget it. I’m not going to Auya. I don’t trust anybody who refuses to show his face, and I enjoy my memories too much to let them erase them.” Moy refused, blinking to clear his vision. Despite the high-speed cloning, this changing his body twice a week had its drawbacks. It always cost him six hours to fully adapt to his new anatomy.
“Not being in Auya, but here in Ningando,” the Colossaur insisted. For Auyar diplomatic personnel. The erasure of the memory being only… partial. The contract lasting a month. Eight thousand credits per presentation… not counting the benefits for selling of final canvas.”
Moy whistled: it was almost five times the usual fee for these presentations. The Auyars had money, yessiree.
“Well, that changes everything,” he smiled. “With those profits, we two could retire. I suppose you told them, ‘yes, how charming,’ eh, brute?” He struck his pectoral plate, playfully.
“There being detail,” Ettubruté explained, almost shyly. “Asking daily presentations and twice on weekends, or there no being contract.”
“Great cosmos of shit …,” Moy mumbled, swallowing while he performed some quick mental arithmetic. There would be nine per week. 36 deaths and resurrections per month. At 8000 each… plus the canvases. It was a tempting offer. But all those auto-clonings…
All that bother, half his time adapting to a new body… and the possibility of brain damage from abusing the process, which was a not a trivial possibility.
But on the other hand… he could return to Earth in triumph like a king to make the art he wanted without ever having to worry about whether it sold or not.
Two pans of the same balance.
And they weighed the same. It was difficult to decide.
Without knowing why, he thought of Jowe. He would never find himself in a situation like this, but…Moy would have liked to have known, what would Jowe do in his place?
“You think it would be worth it, brute?” He looked at Ettubruté.
The Colossaur looked at him for a long while and shrugged his shoulders. “I not risking anything. Being your life. Deciding you. Believing that being able to get better price from the Auyar? They being firm in negotiating…”
“I will try it, but eight thousand is pretty good,” Moy sighed. “Listen, did you see the girl… that Kandria? The human-Cetian half-breed? Didn’t she wait for me?”
Ettubruté looked at him slowly, for a long time. “No,” he grumbled at last, looking away. “Leaving almost immediately. Discussing with father-agent the possibility of doing something similar. Different opinions.”
“Ah. So the girl’s a thief,” Moy said, and something inside him burst. Suddenly the world seemed the color and flavor of cinders. “Well… I think I will accept that offer, brute.”
The enormous claw of the Colossaur rested delicately on his shoulder. “Moy,...” for the first time in months the agent pronounced his name, “you… you… being able to… so many times?”
“It will be a snap,” Moy answered, unconcerned, but distantly. Like a robot. “You know something, brute? Life is shit. We should cook up something special, if these Auyar are going to pay so well. And before that little half-breed and others start to imitate me. I’m the first, the original. That has to be clear. The others are just trying to steal my thunder.”
“Maybe,” the Colossaur ventured. “What having in mind?”
“Something more… spectacular.” Moy spoke and felt as if his mouth were not his own. “Maybe use acids. Or poisons. Or nanocharges to launch my teeth through my cheeks, one after the other…” He clicked his tongue. “You could think of something too, brute! You already know as much about human anatomy as me, I think… Oh, and you know something else, brute? I think I once told you about a friend I had on Earth, a certain Jowe… a brilliant guy. Well I just had a very great idea: with all that money, when I return there, I am going to find him, wherever he is… You’ll help me, right, big guy? After all, we’re both in this together…”
The Colossaur stopped for an instant and Moy kept walking.
Ettubruté watched him walk away. The artist kept talking. Excited, gesticulating, not even noticing that he was all alone. Making his way among the Cetian pedestrians, who eyed him strangely. Some pointed at him, shaking their heads unfavorably. Others, probably witnesses to his performance, respectfully yielded their right of way to him.
“Yes... in the end, you and I are together in this, Moy,” the Colossaur muttered, so low that the artist, much further ahead, could not notice his perfect command of Earthen grammar.
Nor that the agent’s porky little eyes gleamed with a suspiciously moist shine…
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