Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 18
Stories
Trinity County, CA
by Peter S. Beagle
The Mystery of Miranda
by David Simons
Forcing Coin
by William T. Vandemark
The Quanta of Art
by Adam Colston
How About It, Roomie?
by Chase Guyman
Bonus OSC Story Serialization
Eye for Eye Part Two
by Orson Scott Card
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

The Quanta of Art
    by Adam Colston

The Quanta of Art
Artwork by Jin Han

The man stood on the far side of the gallery, in front of one of my favourite paintings; Gova's Sensate -- a wall-encompassing canvas of spiralling reds, blues, and yellows.

Beside him, on the polished basalt floor, crouched a large black dog, its coat glistening like burnished ebony. Silhouetted against the painting, the man seemed like a traveller poised to step through the twisting vortex.

I checked the time.

"I'm sorry, sir," my voice echoed off the marble walls. "The gallery closes in five minutes -- and pets are not allowed."

The dog -- or what I'd thought was a dog -- stirred. A long feline tail uncurled; heavy muscles flexed and bunched across lion-like shoulders as it first stretched, then rose.

It was no dog.

"Mr Chasin," the man said, without turning from the picture, "does not like being called a pet. Eh, Mr. Chasin?"

"No," the beast said -- its voice deep, yet muffled -- as it swung round. "But I am forgiving."

I stepped back, my heart thumping -- it was a panther.

Its lower jaw had been subtlety altered, flexing oddly when it spoke. A ridge of pink tissue nosed through the black fur around the top of its enlarged skull.

Padding silently towards me across the floor -- every inch the predator on the hunt -- its breath rumbled in and out.

"What . . .?"

I stumbled back -- my legs threatening to give way on me -- heading towards the gallery's central service desk. My thoughts split between the beast and a bolt gun I kept stashed for hanging pictures.

"I apologise, in advance, for anything I may do," the beast growled. "I have no wish to harm you, but you must know that this man controls me completely."

As the back of my thighs bumped against the edge of the hardwood desk, the beast stopped. It settled onto the floor and watched me.

"It's true, Mr Whistler -- what he said. I stuck a compliance node in his head."

I glanced at the man; he'd followed the beast over.

He was old, Afro-Chinese, perhaps sixty-five or so, grey-haired, tired clothes, yet a sly smile under a broad, scarred nose.

I slid sideways, round the desk, to the other side and tentatively lowered myself into the chair. "D . . . Do I know you, sir?" The bolt gun was inches away -- the urge to wrench open the drawer was strong.

The man ignored my question. "Mr. Chasin owed me money and tried to run away." He reached out and stroked the black fur on top of the beast's head. "He was a fool. Some black-market surgery . . ." The man's finger traced the ridged of pink tissue encircling the beast's head. ". . . and now he serves me, whether he likes it or not."

"Who are you?"

"Hei Long." The man made a small bow. "Just a simple business man."

"W. . .well, Mr. Long, if you call back during business hours we can discuss whatever it is --"

I jerked backwards in my chair as the beast jumped up and put its front paws on the desk. Its stiletto-like claws scraped splintery grooves in the soft wood as it watched me with unblinking pale eyes. Large, curved teeth glinted in its half-open mouth. For an instant, I pictured them tearing out my throat.

"We will talk now. Yes?" Hei Long said casually.

"Okay, okay." I nodded, leaning as far from beast as the chair would allow.

The beast dropped back to a watchful crouch on the floor.

Hei Long walked slowly around me the way a serpent encircles a mouse before burying its fangs.

"You have children, Mr. Whistler?"

"Yes. I have a son, Justin, but I don't see --"

"What's he like? He's a good son?"

"Yes, he's a good, honest boy. Studying molecular design in Jinglang University. But, I don't see what that --"

"You're a lucky man, Mr. Whistler. A good son is good fortune." Hei Long nodded. "So, your son, he told you he owes me money, yes? He admitted he is gambler, but not good one? He told all this to you, yes? Like a good son?"

I froze.

I'd not spoken to Justin for a week, and he'd certainly mentioned nothing like that. He'd asked for money, though.

"Justin doesn't gamble, he --"

"Oh, he gambles, Mr Whistler, and he owes eleven and a half thousand sys-dollars. I have a holo of him in my casino." He tossed a data chip onto the desk and arched an eyebrow. "You don't believe me?"

I looked at the data chip.

Eleven and half thousand dollars?

I shook my head. "No. I'm not doubting you -- it's just that . . ." I trailed off. How had Justin had got himself entangled with a man like this Hei Long? I couldn't believe it. Eleven and a half thousand sys-dollars was a chunk of money -- it would hurt -- but I could pay it. It was better than this predator having his hooks in him.

"I'll pay what he owes. Then we're done." I triggered the swiper-tech embedded in the desk; colourful icons swirled into existence just under the wood grain. "If you'll give me your account details --"

"Keep your money for the moment, Mr. Whistler. I want a service instead."

I looked up. "What sort of service?"

"Easy service for you." Hei Long cocked his head to one side. "I know a man, an artist -- he owes me money, lots of money -- much, much more than your son. It is in my interest that he succeeds -- he can't repay money if he's a poor artist, yes? You understand?"

"Yes, but I can't just make someone famous. It depends on their skill --"

Hei Long's hand was a blur; pain exploded across my cheek and nose.

He jutted his scarred face forward until it was only inches away -- not a flicker of emotion crossed it -- it could have been carved from stone.

"Oh, he's skilful, but no matter; you make him famous, Mr. Whistler." His lips barely moved as he whispered. "Or I'll send your son back from Jinglang in small pieces." He pursed his lips. "We clear?"

I just nodded. I didn't trust myself to speak. His words didn't seem real, like lines from a holo-drama. I felt the insane urge to laugh at him, but the steel in those eyes stopped me cold.

"Here is the artist's address. He will expect you tonight -- eleven p.m. My details are on the back. You will contact me when you are done."

Hei Long spun a small white card through the air to land precisely on the table. "Good evening, Mr Whistler."

With a quick bow, he turned and left.

My cable-taxi clattered along rigid struts suspended above Ratak Street's night-market while a river of humanity weaved through the countless stalls twenty feet below.

Clutching the thin metal side of the swaying taxi with one hand, I punched the info menu on the egg-like taxi's nav-display. It bleeped shrilly, showing the artist's studio on nearby Gala Avenue, just off Ratak Street. The taxi clattered slowly onwards along the metal filament, swaying gently back and forth.

I ejected the white card Hei Long had given me from the nav unit and turned it between my fingers.

Violix. It was an odd name -- reminded me of violins. Already I sensed the artist had nothing to offer. If he'd had something original, I would have heard whispers. I would have remembered the name.

Damn Hei Long. My reputation could take the battering -- I could present a six-year old child as an art prodigy and people would still buy the stuff, but it irked me.

I reminded myself that all I had to do was see the artist's works, present a little show, and Justin and I would be out of the gangster's clutches.

It was that simple. I hoped . . .

Cable changers clanked overhead, guiding the taxi round the corner. After a few moments on the new cable, the taxi shuddered to a halt, hissed, then sank slowly to street level.

A small holo of the taxi-owner swirled into life on the taxi's main display; the man bowed. "Fourteen sys-Dollars, Sah-Si."

I keyed over the dollars with a swipe of my thumb, then stepped onto road.

Gala Avenue was a hotchpotch of architectural design. Most buildings were built from brightly painted baulks of local sumza wood, intricately carved and shaped by laser mills into three-dimensional jigsaws that could be slotted together in a few days, but would last centuries.

The mills boasted they could cut any design, and the residents on Gala Street had apparently tested this claim. Replica Cambodian temples jostled with medieval Japanese towers.

Wedged between a faux-Indonesian long-house and a scaled-down Venetian palace, lay a simple grey cube of concrete, its lower windows cracked and dark. Out from fractures in the concrete façade snaked gatorweed vines. Its blood-red flowers were the only splash of colour evident on the otherwise drab, dilapidated, and decidedly unoccupied-looking building.

The skies opened like a sluice and the nightly downpour of warm rain decided the issue for me; I sprinted into the warehouse.

It was worse inside.

I shook the water off my jacket and looked around.

The place was fetid and dank. Water dripped in an almost endless stream down the lobby stairwell. I angled the card towards the dim light and checked; it was the right address. Outside, the rain drummed against the decaying door relentlessly.

"M . . . Mr. Whistler? Is that you?" An amplified voice echoed off the bare walls.

I glanced about for a sensor strip.

"Yes?"

"G . . . good, yes. I'm Violix." The voice suddenly faded, became quieter, as though the man had walked away from the microphone. "The lift w . . . works, or you can take the stairs. The fourth floor."

I glanced at the ancient looking lift -- a simple, latticed metal cage of some ancient design: paint peeling off in jagged curls; rust crawling across its surface.

I grunted; nothing could entice me into that death-trap. I headed for the stairs.

As I heaved myself up the last few flights, a wheeze developed in my throat, and I clutched at the handrail like a lifeline.

I paused at the top to get my breath.

The studio's door was overkill. It resembled an old-fashioned bank's safe. The foot-thick circular metal door lay ajar, supported on a massive set of hinges. Beyond the door hung a bead curtain, through which light sparkled.

I smiled to myself. The guy must be painting on gold bars to warrant a door like that -- no living artist needed that much security.

I stepped over the circular door's raised edge and pushed through the bead curtains.

I sniffed. The air was different -- it was dry, cooler and conditioned. Blinking neon signs from the street market below shone up through a row of windows along the left. Pulses of blue, pink and violet danced along the edge of the ceiling like distant fireworks.

"Mr. Violix? Are you here?"

"Yes, yes, I'm here." His voice came from the dark shadows beyond the spotlight. "Step into the light, Mr. Whistler, so I can see you."

A strange request, but I stepped forward, shielding my eyes with my hand. "Where are you?"

A dark shape behind the light backed away as I advanced.

"Yes, yes. I'm here. That's f . . . far enough, Mr. Whistler."

The figure shifted slightly in the shadows, as though examining me. "Do you have any untreated eyesight problems, Mr. Whistler? Astigmatisms, colour bli--"

"No." I snapped. "I could hardly do my job if I did, could I? Now, are we to play games, Mr. Violix, or will you show me your paintings? That's why I'm here, isn't it?"

"Yes, yes. All business, eh? Very well, if you turn around, I will illuminate the first picture for you."

As I turned, a spotlight illuminated a section of the wall behind me. A canvas hung there -- a random mess of colour splurged upon a white background.

I walked closer.

It was just a mass of colour; swirls and splatters that followed no shape, design or pattern. It was bright, vibrant, and full of energy; it wasn't bad -- in the style of Jackson Pollock -- but it was nothing new. It was derivative drivel.

My professional persona took over.

"Well, Mr. Violix," I chose my words carefully. "Your style is good, but it isn't really --"

"Mr. Whistler, you must look at the painting a little longer, before deciding. I believe it will begin to resonate with you in a most unique way."

It was his insistent tone that reminded me of the fact that Hei Long wanted me to give this guy a break -- no matter what. My opinion counted for nothing.

I sighed and turned back to the picture.

After a moment I noticed that there seemed to be structure within the apparently random image, a structure that I hadn't perceived before.

I leaned nearer.

It was almost as though the picture had re-organised itself on some level. The sensation of change grew as colours flickered and shifted before my eyes. Flashes, as though a light had pierced the canvas, made me blink.

The effect pulled . . .

. . . lying on my back in a cot, watching the yellow curtains flapping in the gentle morning breeze. The house was quiet, but outside, birds sung. The dawn light was that tinge of violet glimpsed only on rare summer mornings in northern countries.

All around -- even within me -- I sensed the infinite possibilities of the universe poised to be unleashed. Anything could happen, but most definitely, something would.

I grabbed my foot and began to chew on my toe. It was a moment of perfect happiness.

"Turn back, Mr Whistler . . . b . . . back to me, back to the studio." A faint voice cried from downstairs.

My father? I twisted in my cot and . . .

. . . the world lurched as two realities meshed for a fraction of a second -- the way fighting dogs blur -- and then there was just the studio.

I struggled to breathe and my heart pounded like a trip hammer.

"What the -- what the hell was that? What did you do to me?"

"I . . . it is a singular experience, isn't it. That particular painting has a light immersive quality; hence you could still hear my voice."

"That wasn't what I asked."

"It was the picture, Mr. Whistler. I am able to paint beyond the quantum-level, beyond quantum string end-points. I can spin through specific energies from other dimensions and unfold realities so accurately that echoes from the multi-verse permeate through, infusing my brushstrokes with the images, emotions, and s . . . senses that I wish to convey. An oil and impasto medium for a trans-dimensional experience, so to speak."

I barely followed the explanation, but shook my head towards his shape beyond the spotlight. "It's impossible -- no man can paint . . . trans-dimensionally."

Already, the validity of my own experience was in doubt.

"So true, Mr. Whistler." There was a scraping sound and Violix shuffled out from the shadows into the light. "But then I am barely a man, anymore."

I gasped.

His body-shape was obviously humanoid, though swathed in a dark, floor-length robe. Black tubes ploughed in and out the anaemic skin of his chest and neck like flesh-eating worms.

His head, except for a thin lower section of his right jaw, was encased in a flexible metal. Tiny sections flickered open, and small devices poked out and retreated away like tiny, nervous mammals scanning for predators.

Optics and metal filaments of varying lengths jutted from his eye region like a nest of insect antenna. They swivelled, reacting to every movement I made.

Instead of a left arm, Violix's had a set of metal tentacles that hung together by his side like a single arm. His other arm ended in a set of metal claws.

Violix flexed the grippers spinning them outwards, into a set so fine, I barely saw the tip.

"As you see, I have been modified somewhat skilfully, but ultimately, illegally. Banned nano colonies inhabit my body and brain. Alien technology has been inserted using illegal surgical techniques. The g . . . genius that did it has since died -- it was his finest work, he said. Others disagree. Alas, my very existence," Violix murmured, "is a crime."

Alien artefacts? I stepped back -- the man was delusional.

"Mr. Whistler, there is no need to be alarmed. I am not infectious, nor do I intend to harm you. Please -- I would like you to continue to review my work, just as you'd normally do."

"Why have you done this too yourself?"

I couldn't comprehend the level of self-mutilation this man had voluntarily heaped upon himself.

Violix raised his claws near his face. A medium-sized set of shiny grippers slid out, clicking around a small metal knob near his jaw and then rotating it at high speed.

A jet of pressurised gas hissed out. The gripper-hand reversed the direction of spin to close the valve.

"Why Mr. W . . . Whistler? It is no s . . . simple vanity, I assure you." Violix chuckled, although the effect was more of a shudder as his body clanked and clattered. "But, I will answer your question. In a way, it is why you are here."

He waved his gripper arm and spotlights brightened around the studio, illuminating ten, hanging canvases.

"Within these canvases lie the reasons for my changes. Why I have ruined my b . . . body." He shuffled towards me, one of his legs dragging behind him. "Come see the next picture. You'll like it."

The tentacle-arm reached towards me. The individual tentacles were kept tightly together, but the tip splayed into three finger-like sections.

Instinctively, I twisted away from it.

Violix paused and dropped the tentacle by his side.

"F . . . forgive me. I forget how my appearance affects people."

I felt strangely guilty. "I just wasn't expecting it."

He nodded his metal head. "Of course not. This way." He pointed with his tentacles toward the next picture. It seemed the same as the previous one, although, if pushed, I would have said it had more red.

Each individual brush stroke or splatter appeared finer. The whole picture had a much more powerful level of detail and that seemed to immediately make me want to . . .

. . . touched my lips against hers. From the corner of my eye, I saw the sunlight flickering, as the long dry grass stems waved in the breeze.

Valentina slipped her tongue into my mouth and wriggled under me. My heart felt like it would explode.

It had been her idea to meet in the fields. She was in the year above me at school -- a year older at fifteen and had been the object of my unrequited desire for two years. But then I'd shot up and girls began to take an interest. I remembered Valentina saw me one day in town as she got out of her parents' car, looking every inch the perfect teenage model. She'd smiled as I walked past -- a slow smile, a special smile -- and I knew; she'd noticed me -- really noticed me.

I could have kissed her forever -- the moment was the most beautiful I'd experienced -- but, then she pulled away and leaned forward, her soft cheek brushing against mine.

"I love you, Viol," she whispered, her breath tickling my ear.

I knew then, we would never, ever . . .

. . . the world tore apart as something spun me into a strange room. A metal creature stood before me. Metal tentacles gripped my shoulders.

"Who . . .? What? Damn you . . ." I shouted as I tried to thrust the creature away.

"Mr. Whistler? D . . . do you remember me?" The creature's mouth was a flickering metal hole.

"What . . .?"

I stood there gasping as knowledge crashed into place, like a fledgling planet bombarded by asteroids.

"Yes, I remember now." I glanced at the painting, suddenly fearful of its power.

The girl had called me Viol.

Violix?

"Are these experiences from your life? Did you know Valentina?"

"Yes, though the image you experience is filtered and interpreted by your particular perceptions. That was the first time I kissed my wife, Valentina. We met as teenagers, and --"

"Well, Mr. Violix, I can tell you that your pictures are entirely unique. I can guarantee --"

He raised his tentacle arm. "But you must see them all, Mr. Whistler. You must understand why you are here. I insist."

I shook my head. "I can't." My heart was still fluttering like a small bird's. "I'd be dead from exhaustion. It's far too powerful an experience."

Violix nodded and glanced at the next picture. "When I paint these pictures, first I form the basic image with paint. Then, I delve beyond the quantum strata of the impasto -- I uncurl space and twist open reality itself -- and, as glimpses of other dimensions bleed through, I am drawn into each world. Some I select, some I refuse. I create a blend of the elements without being aware of it. I experience the events as though living them for the first time. All the time, I am unaware that my hand still paints upon the canvas." He tapped a small, flashing, bulge on his head. "If it weren't for these psychic stabilisers, I would be quite mad, for I forget my life here -- completely. I am hopelessly lost in the pictures. So, Mr. Whistler, I quite understand your difficulty." He held out his grippers; a set of small pincers clasped a pair of green-lensed spectacles. "These will reduce the immersion by . . ." His tentacles waved vaguely in the air for a moment. ". . . about fifty-six point four percent."

I reached out tentatively and took hold of the edge of the spectacles. Violix snapped open his grippers with a click.

They settled comfortably on my nose. Turning, with growing excitement, I looked into the next swirl of oil paint.

The colours pooled and formed shapes again, but I felt removed, distant . . .

". . . so what do you have to say for yourself?" my father asked.

He stood behind his heavy dragon-wood desk, his back to me, looking out his window at the distant storm clouds. Littered with scraps of paper and scruffy-looking novels, it looked nothing like the place to run a business empire from. But it was, and he did.

"I worked hard this year. I did."

"Your exam results say different. They say that no university will take you unless I build them a new library or something. Which I won't. I think you spent too much time with Valentina and not enough on your work."

I looked at the ground. It was true.

He continued. "Mmm. Well, I hope it was worth it. If you're not going to university, you can work your way up. They will expect you at the office on Monday morning. You may go."

I left with my head bowed and . . .

. . . turned back to the studio. It still made my stomach lurch as the one reality collapsed behind me and another bulged into being.

"That was your father?"

He nodded, his metal face unable to reveal any emotion, but his silence said it all. The pictures -- the experience, the emotional content of them -- wove me closer to Violix than I had possibly dreamed.

I saw a person behind all the machinery.

Violix lead me through the next few pictures. His marriage to Valentina, their deepening love.

I leaned eagerly towards the next picture, but Violix's gripper-hand gently stopped me.

"This one will h . . . hurt, Mr. Whistler." He removed his hand from my chest.

. . . The pulse rifle's butt struck me a glancing blow across my cheek and everything dimmed.

I was dazed, but able to re-focus after a moment. I saw the barrel of the rifle inches away from my right eye.

"Move an inch and my pal will kill your wife while you watch."

The man's face was covered in a layer of false skin. Close up he looked like a surgical disaster story, but over the low-res security holo, he'd looked like the janitor -- I'd let him in.

"Viol!" Valentina screamed as they manhandled her past me and out to a skim-car pulsing hard outside.

"Do what they say," I shouted. "Don't worry. I'll get you back."

The guy with the pulse rifle leaned over and grabbed my collar, while pressing the barrel of the gun one-handed against my cheek.

"If you want her back you'd better ask Daddy for a million sys-dollars or --"

He laughed, the false skin of his face twisting into a grotesque parody of a smile, "-- the only thing you'll get is her heart with my knife through it. Get me?"

I nodded.

"Play straight with me and everything will be fine, boy. I promise."

The butt of his rifle was a blur as it struck again . . .

. . . I spun away as a gout of blood erupted from my nose.

Violix's tentacles caught me before I fell. Blood dripped onto the floorboards in great drops. I lifted my head. A metal tentacle hovered near my face holding a tissue.

"Thanks." I took the tissue and dabbed my bruised nose.

"You don't need to see the other pictures, Mr. Whistler. I realise now that it would be a form of t . . . torture to inflict them all on you in such a short time."

He turned away and limped across the creaking wooden floor towards part of the studio still in shade.

"But --" I glanced at the picture and back to him. "What happened to her? I have to know."

Violix paused midway across the studio.

"Her fate was already decided." Violix half-turned. "I went to my father for the money. He said it was foolish to pay it, said that only thirty percent of victims were returned alive. Those that were had their minds ransacked by the security services, so those kidnappers were always caught. It was a strategy that effectively dissuaded the majority of kidnappers from keeping their word and returning victims alive."

"So he wouldn't pay?" I prayed I was wrong.

"No, he paid it in the end. But he suggested we hire a member of the Third-Eye Clan."

"The Third-Eye Clan?"

"An illegal group of intuition-enhanced operatives my father used for industrial espionage and the like. I turned him down. I thought he wanted to avoid paying the ransom -- I didn't believe him, and we argued. I trusted the kidnappers instead."

I felt my eyes fill and I tried to blink the tears away. "But they didn't, did they?"

"No. They killed her."

Grief took away my breath and tears ran down my face. I'd known Valentina -- I'd spoken to her, loved her, and held her. I had memories of her stretching back for years -- memories that lived in me, like my own.

I wiped away my tears.

"After the payment had been made, I received her heart in a parcel. It was carefully connected to a micro-life support system. There was a note." Violix paused. "It read, 'As agreed, her heart in perfect condition.' I guess they thought it was a big joke."

"What did you do?"

"We hired a Third-Eye operative who found the kidnappers within twelve hours and killed them. We recovered her body and laid her to rest. Then I left. I'd trusted a snake -- a murderer. I hated myself."

His words resonated terribly with me and I thought of the trust I placed in the serpentine Mr. Long. I knew I was being incredibly naive.

Violix continued. "I left and wandered the world, fought in wars; gambled, but always searched."

"What for? Redemption?" I felt his agony and guilt.

"I suppose. I wanted her to never be forgotten. Then I met the creature who altered me -- living in the Southern Wastelands in a cave. He showed me how to immortalise her." He lifted his tentacles and snapped them together like a whip. "It was my way out."

"So you painted the pictures?"

"Yes, it's the story of her through my eyes -- my only way of telling it, I suppose." He turned and his optical sensors twitched as though he was peering first into one of my eyes, then into the other. "But I needed you. I told Mr. Long you could make me famous and then I could repay him. He got you to come to me."

"Why?"

"The pictures need to be shown -- you own the b . . . best gallery in Chola. Valentina will live in the hearts of all that see these paintings -- like she lives in you. They will be changed by knowing her. Of course," he laughed, "you will need to manufacture more spectacles." He turned and limped to the darkness in the corner. A spotlight glowed into life, revealing a huge canvas leaning against the wall.

"I have just a single picture to complete."

"A final picture?"

I walked towards him, my eye immediately drawn to it. The picture swirled with crimsons and oranges -- splatters of green. The effect of the twisting colours reminded me of the Gova's Sensate -- messier, but similar.

"Please." He held out his grippers. "Come no further. It is too dangerous. This is my most powerful piece. Within it lies my death. It's taken me ten years and multiple s . . . surgeries to survive what I have thus far painted. Still, the neurological damage has been extensive. I have waited to paint the final few strokes -- and tonight I can. You must destroy this picture after I am dead." He pointed with a tentacle to a can of solvent on the floor.

"You were the last piece of the jigsaw, Mr. Whistler."

"You're not serious? You can't do this." I started forward.

"Stop," he said. "It's not safe to be near me while I paint."

From under his cloak, tentacles snaked out and grasped the edge of the canvas. His gripper hand extruded smoothly and a set of pincers picked up a fine brush, which he delicately dipped into some crimson paint from a palette on the floor.

He turned and looked at me.

"It is the right way for me to die. In this picture, I fight back when the k . . . kidnappers come; I defend her." He looked at the floor. "It's a fiction, of course. But it's the one I want to believe as I die."

He turned back to the picture and beams erupted from his eyes. Metal flaps across his head opened and lasers folded out and traced flickering patterns across the surface of the picture. He began to move the brush, slowly at first, but then faster and faster. Energies swirled and coalesced; strange three-dimensional shapes spun into being. Shadows from other realities pushed through in rainbow-like nimbuses, bulging from the surface of the picture. The gripper arm blurred as it spun across the canvas.

Then everything stopped, like a switch was turned off.

Violix's tentacles retracted, the devices slipped away into his head, and for a few heartbeats he just stood there. Then he slowly toppled sideways in the silence.

I leaped towards him and caught him, lowering him gently to the floor.

I wept for them both.

For how long I didn't know.

The lights from the night market below marked the passing of time with their multi-coloured tattoo across the ceiling.

Mixed with the tears was a dawning realisation that I couldn't dare trust Mr. Long.

I had to call him, to tell him what happened, but I didn't dare trust him.

Glancing at the deadly painting, I pulled out my satcom from my pocket and inserted Hei Long's white card.

"You finished, Mr. Whistler? Already?"

I nodded at the small holo. "You'd better come over."

"Yes? Okay, I am nearby. Five minutes."

I paced the far side of the studio as it dawned on me that I was contemplating murdering a man. But once the painting was destroyed no one would ever know.

I looked again at Violix's crumpled body.

He'd suffered for years because he'd lost Valentina and blamed himself -- he'd had a way out, but hadn't the courage at the time to take it.

I clenched my jaw; that wasn't going to happen to me.

Something scraped behind me and I spun round.

"So, are you making plans, Mr. Whistler?"

Hei Long and the black, panther-like beast, Mr. Chasin, stood by the entrance to the studio.

"What . . . I . . . What do you mean?"

Hei Long pointed to the pictures as he walked across the wooden floor towards me. "Plans for the show for the paintings, of course. What else? You like them? Where is the painter? Violix?"

I had to be very careful. "The paintings are unique, Mr. Long. They will command a high dollar value and will only go up over time. Especially now --" I pointed to the far side of the gallery, to the dark shape on the ground by the easel. "-- that the artist is dead."

Hei Long turned back, his eyes narrowing. "What did you say? Dead? This isn't true, he --"

"He killed himself. He wanted to be with his wife, Val --"

Hei Long waved his hand dismissively. "Yes, yes. I know all about Valentina. He was obsessed with her. Never let her go. Fool." Hei Long turned and looked at the body. He stood there for a moment.

"He owed me much money. Did you help him?"

"No, I didn't. I --"

"But you didn't try stop him, did you?" Hei Long looked sharply at me, as though weighing something up. "His debt transfers to you. Now it is your debt, Mr. Whistler."

My heart accelerated. "But what about our deal?"

"New deal now." Hei Long pursed his lips and arched a scarred eyebrow. "Is this a problem for you? Perhaps I should speak to Justin?"

Why didn't he just take the paintings and be done with it? Every fibre of my being wanted him to take back those words, but it was too late. He wasn't going to just let me go. Not now, not ever. He would own and use me the way he owned and used Mr. Chasin.

Any doubts I'd had about what I needed to do vanished.

I shook my head. "No, no. Leave him out of this."

"Sensible." Hei Long glanced back at the body. "How did he do it, then?"

"I don't know." I lied. "He just toppled over and stopped moving. He had a last message for you." I felt like an assassin loading a weapon. "Something he asked me to tell you."

Hei Long snapped his head round, his sparkling eyes narrowed as they searched mine. "A message for me? Yes? What did he say? What was the message?"

His glinting eyes seemed to see through me.

I cleared my throat and ploughed on. "He said to tell you that his final painting was for you -- to clear all debts between you. His greatest masterpiece, he said. It's the one there." I lifted my hand.

I could have been pulling a trigger, not pointing a finger.

"To clear all his debts? He actually said this to you?" Hei Long turned and looked across to the picture.

"Yes, that's what he said."

"Then, I look." Hei Long walked a few step across studio before stopping. He stood there looking at the distant picture for what seemed like minutes. Then he glanced at the body on the floor.

"Powerful picture, I think."

I willed him to walk closer, but instead he spun on his heel and looked at me, a smile curling his lips. He tapped his toe a few times on the floorboards.

"You know what my name means, Mr. Whistler?"

I shook my head, and swallowed.

"It means Black Dragon." He shook his head. "Not my real name, but people have called me that for years. The Chinese think dragons can become a man, if they want to. They think I'm a dragon. Know why?"

"No," I mumbled.

He smiled slowly. "It is impossible to trick a dragon, Mr. Whistler. You stink of lies."

I stepped away. "I haven't tried to trick you, Mr --"

Hei Long's eyes blazed. "Shut up."

An electro-knife mysteriously appeared in his hand. The glistening re-curved blade slid out, buzzing like a muted bee.

"I think you look in picture instead, Mr. Whistler."

I shook my head, my heart hammering. "I can't." I had nothing to lose. "You have to believe me. Violix said the painting was just for you." I waved at the other pictures. "I . . . I . . . I've only just looked at five of the pictures. My heart can't handle any more. It would kill me."

I rubbed my chest to illustrate.

Hei Long seemed amused. He smiled. "You've got a weak heart all of sudden, eh?"

"No. It's been weak for some time."

The beast jumped to its feet and padded across to the picture. Hei Long smiled. "Then Mr. Chasin will look for me. Anything happens to Mr. Chasin and I will cut out your weak heart, followed by your son's. Fair?"

I nodded barely hearing, knowing I was just delaying the inevitable. My mind cast desperately for ways out of the net I felt enclosing about me.

I glanced at the studio door. For a second I considered making a dash for it.

Then I remembered that Hei Long controlled the beast and manipulated it against its will. I felt a surge of guilt.

I turned back.

But the beast was already turning away from the picture -- unscathed.

I blinked.

It walked back and looked first at me, then at Hei Long. "It's just a picture. Nothing special."

It didn't make any sense.

Hei Long lifted an eyebrow. "So you weren't lying, Mr. Whistler. I'm not normally wrong." The electro-blade slid back into the handle and quieted.

He walked to the picture and stopped. He shivered, then glanced over his shoulder at me.

"I'm curious why he gave it to me, now." But his eyes were already milky and blood dripped from his ear lobe to the floor -- he appeared not to notice.

He turned back to the picture.

It was like looking back in time to the moment I first saw him: silhouetted before Gova's Sensate in my own gallery. I'd thought, at the time, that he'd looked like a traveller about to step into a vortex.

When the small tremor started in his left foot and spread up his leg and I knew he was travelling the vortex for real.

His torso shook and within moments his whole body vibrated, his arms flailing about like a rag doll's in a hurricane.

He gasped and blood sprayed in a fine mist, then his back arched like bow.

For a brief instant his whole body tensed and was motionless -- a statue balanced perfectly on its toes. Then he crumpled to the floor, his life spent.

I stood there swaying for a moment, hardly daring to breath.

The beast looked at me. "He's dead. I can't feel his thoughts in my head anymore."

"But how? I don't understand . . ." I said. "You didn't die. Why --"

"Perhaps you have to see the colours for it to work. I have panther eyes." The beast stretched. "He could make me do most things, but differentiating a red from a green, wasn't one of them."

I nodded, remembering Violix asking me if I had any colour blindness.

Later, as I poured the solvent onto the picture and the impasto sloughed onto the floor, I realised something: Hei Long had died with Valentina's arms around him, his life of villainy forgotten, erased by the power of the picture.

I felt the pinch of resentment and a pang of jealousy.

It was too good a death for him.


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