The Gods in Their Galleries
by Rick Kennett
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
“Spiders? What spiders?” Naomi Napaltjarri, a twenty-something wearing high-viz work clothes, stared wide-eyed at the younger woman in the seat beside her.
The truck had growled down the hill from the landing pad and onto a flat, yellow plain, and was now passing in among an array of steamships lying like so much scattered scrap: freighters, tankers, liners. Some were upright, and some were on their sides, and some were so collapsed into themselves it was hard to tell what they’d been. Scaffolding adorned a few, and figures wearing bright safety vests moved about their decks.
“This whole plain was inhabited by creatures part tarantula, part lobster,” said Naomi’s passenger. She wore black military fatigues sporting a red ball insignia on the sleeve and epaulettes on the shoulders, though she’d introduced herself simply as Cy De Gerch. “When I was here two years ago, I made friends with one after killing it sort of by accident.”
“After?” said Naomi.
“It had the ability to regenerate. That’s why I called it Lazarus.”
“Spiders...“ said Naomi again. “There’s no native animal life on this planet... at least not on this plain. I mean, we’ve been here months.”
“When I was here they were wandering all over this plain and sometimes clambering over me as I slept.”
A look of revulsion crossed Naomi’s face.
“You looked surprised when you picked me up at the landing pad,” said Cy. “Were you expecting someone older than nineteen?”
“No, it’s just I thought I recognised you.”
“Here we are!”
* * *
The truck stopped beside a freighter sitting upright in the yellow soil. Hull plates petalled inwards from a hole punched amidships. Cy peered up the rust-streaked side, at the corroded deck railing, at the mottled superstructure: a dead ship fast aground on a vast and flat plain. Seeing this ship again was like revisiting a dream streaked with nightmare.
Naomi got out, looked up and shouted, “Hello!”
Foreshortened figures in coveralls of blue looked down from the deck above. One, a hefty man with fair hair, leaned over the railing, smiled and waved. “Is our tomb-finder here?” he called down.
“Yes,” said Naomi and gestured at Cy alighting from the truck.
The demeanour of the group on the deck abruptly froze. They stared down with shock and confusion, and the two women stared up, Cy with uncertainty, Naomi with a knowing smile. Then the faces pulled away from the railing and footsteps rang on ladders within the hull.
Naomi turned and motioned to Cy to follow her. “The guy who waved is Zhores Roxbury, our metallurgy specialist. He’s...” She stopped as she realized Cy wasn’t with her. In fact, she was still by the truck, staring up at a basketball hoop fixed to the side of the ship. “What’s the matter?”
“You shouldn’t be doing that.”
Naomi looked at the hoop and looked again at Cy. “Playing basketball?”
“No, interfering with the integrity of this ship. It’s wrong.”
Three or four faces peered around the edge of the hole in the hull, then quickly whipped out of view again as Zhores Roxbury emerged from within, looking a little more composed than he had a moment before. Eyeing Cy carefully, he said, “Why is it wrong?”
“Because all the ships on this plain are an artwork.”
The man took a slow breath, then smiled at Naomi. “Didn’t I tell you?”
“Zhores thinks that, too,” Naomi said. “That this whole plain is a massive piece of art. Though whose art exactly is still up for existential debate.” She turned to the burly man. “It seems you have another supporter.”
“And it’s apt,” he said, “that support should come from the ghost that haunts this vessel.”
“You’ve seen me as a ghost?” said Cy. “In this ship?”
“At various times we’ve all seen you at various points about the ship.”
Cy glanced sidewise at Naomi. “So that’s why you recognised me.” Then to Zhores: “Yes. By coincidence this is the very ship I used as a shelter when I was marooned here.”
“Some thought you a ghost,” said Naomi. “But I’ve always suspected you were a time image, though it was quite a shock to meet you in reality.”
“You wear the same kind of clothing you’re wearing now,” said Zhores, “only ragged and dirtied.” He peered at the insignia on her fatigues. “Yes. Lieutenant. Martian Star Corps. Astrogation and heavy weapons, if I read your badges aright. I expect you were marooned here round about the time of the killing spree over at the neighbouring Electra B system.”
“Which is why I’ve been sent here to advise you on the cryogenic tomb in the west,” Cy said, belying her navigational skills by pointing due south, “while my frigate is undergoing refit in Electra B. I mean, why give me shore leave when I can be doing something else? As to the ‘killing spree’... the Terran Star Corps, supported by our own small fleet, repulsed a Xenoid offensive at Electra B and secured this double star system. If we hadn’t stopped them here—”
“Yes, yes, they’d be on Earth now,” said Zhores. “And they’re welcome to it. Overcrowded and self-obsessed. That’s one of the reasons I’m out here. That’s why a lot of us are out here. Eventually Mars will be despoiled the same way, once your people’s terraforming projects bring the planet back from the dead.”
“What do you see my ghost doing?” Cy asked cautiously.
“You look... lost. You look haunted. Yes, a haunted ghost. How esoteric, if that’s the right word. I don’t know. I’m a metallurgist, not a philosopher.”
“I’d never have guessed,” said Naomi.
“Metallurgy gave credence to the artwork theory,” Zhores continued. “All the ships we’ve so far examined were built from the same material: a combination of iron and an isotope of carbon we’ve not yet identified. And all in the exact same proportions as if they came out of the same smelter. Naomi is our marine historian, among other things; by her account they all exhibit similar techniques of design. And as that geologist said... you know, whatshisname, the fellow you were bouncing around with a while back...”
Naomi’s nose twitched. “You mean Ansel? The creep who went back to Earth and his wife?”
“Yes, Ansel the Creep. He said the surrounding geology was all wrong to have ever contained a body of water; that this plain could never have been a sea bottom.”
Cy looked back at the basketball hoop bolted to the hull, then up at a technician drilling into a deck railing. “If you consider it art, why do you allow it to be treated like this?”
“Because I’m not precious about it,” said Zhores. “Using bacterial probes and nanotech injections to investigate and discover is more important. As someone once said, ‘The art of a people reveals its soul.’ This could be the key to understanding the civilization that made it.”
“Or not,” Cy countered. “Sometimes art has no purpose beyond its own existence; you know, art for art’s sake. Or, as someone else once said, ‘All art is quite useless’.”
Zhores’ face lit with surprise. “How is a Martian naval officer acquainted with ideas like that?”
“I try to be more than just a component in the war machine.”
“Do you know who said, ‘All art is quite useless’?”
“I don’t try that hard.”
“Didn’t he write The Importance of Being Earnest?”
“You’re not just a pretty face with a killer instinct.”
Cy looked at him askance, unsure she’d been complimented, criticised or both. “About a year ago, I was dragooned into an interpretative production of Earnest put on by the patients and staff of an Earth-side psych clinic.”
“Trauma Disorder therapy?”
“Something like that.”
“Don’t tell me you played Lady Bracknell?”
Cy rolled her eyes. “That gorgon! She was played all too well by the clinic’s administrator.”
“So you were one of the girls hoping to marry the fictitious Ernest?”
“No. I was the fictitious Ernest.”
“So, how did you come to your own conclusions that all this is an artwork?”
“By what I found in the west. Apart from the cryogenic tomb, there was the impact site and the fungi funerals.” She stepped through the hole in the hull, leaving Zhores and Naomi to exchange looks before following her inside.
They caught up with her on the deck above, standing at the hatchway to an empty cabin, staring into it, lost in thought. “This was my home for many days.”
“What was that about impacting funerals?” said Naomi.
“I found the impact site of a crashed alien craft in a fungus forest. Its dead crew were in a cryogenic tomb nearby. Some of the fungus growths re-enacted the removal of the bodies from the crash as part of its pollination cycle. Four grey dwarfish creatures with bulbous heads marched down to the shore with two more on stretchers. Then it exploded with spores.” She threw up her arms. “Whoosh!”
Cy entered the cabin. Zhores, following her in, said, “How did you end up marooned over here in the Electra A system, five light-days away from where the battle happened?”
The Martian considered a moment, then said, “Do you know what the Gartino Experiment is?”
Naomi’s expression was blank, but Zhores looked as if he were rummaging through memory. He said, “A Martian military genetics project, isn’t it?”
Cy nodded. “Basically I’m a genetically engineered piece of ordnance designed to meld psychically with a ship’s weapons system.”
“Do you? I barely understand it myself sometimes. My frigate had been the first Martian ship to join the mostly Terran fleet gathering at Electra B for the expected Xenoid invasion. While we waited, scratching ourselves, Terran Command decided to see how well a piece of Martian biological ordnance slotted into the fire-control of their own ships. So the cruiser McMurdo Sound borrowed me for a war game with another Earth ship, Moreton Bay, and we jumped out here to Electra A, where we were ambushed by three Gloop ships.”
“Gloop ships?” said Naomi.
“Xenoid ships. The enemy. McMurdo was ripped apart, though we got a few hits in first. Only six of us survived.”
“Jeez!” Naomi whispered. “I can’t imagine what it must be like to be in a space battle.”
“It’s very...” Cy stopped, conscious of being about to launch into gleeful descriptions of blood and thunder. “It’s like my few sexual experiences with males: brief and woz that it?’ Anyway, we managed to scorch the three Gloop ships, though McMurdo was destroyed and Moreton Bay’s subspace gear was smashed. She’d have to return to Electra B through normal space, take maybe eight or nine days. Which was all right for the five other survivors, but I was needed back aboard my own ship now.
“So it was arranged for me to hitch a ride with a troopship evacuating a garrison station on the edge of this system. Out here and unsupported, it was now deemed too vulnerable. A shuttle collected me but, returning to the garrison, it was attacked by a podship, something like an armed lifeboat from one of the Xenoid ships we’d fought. The shuttle crashed here, and I was marooned two weeks or more.”
Cy stepped to the cabin’s one porthole and studied the wrecks littering the plain. “Do you know if there’s another freighter like this one with a deck-house aft showing laser damage?”
Zhores nodded. “There is another ship similar to this, about ten minutes’ walk away. But its deck-house is undamaged.”
“They must’ve fixed it.”
“Who must’ve fixed it?”
“Your artists. I’m guessing they’re the ones who took the spiders away.”
“Spiders?” said Zhores.
Cy repeated the story of the spiders she had found roaming the plain, and Zhores repeated the fact that no spiders had been found among the wrecks.
“Then the artists must’ve taken them away,” said Cy matter-of-factly. “Personally, I believe they were gallery curators.”
“Who burnt the deck-house?”
“I did. The longer I was here the more certain I got that I was being watched. One day I got sick of it and gave them something to watch by letting loose with a laser.” She brandished an index finger. “If you’ve found no burnt deck-house, then either it never happened or this site is maintained and I was being watched. But is it still being maintained? Are they still watching?”
Zhores caught himself glancing over his shoulder.
“A moving map appeared in the palm of my hand the morning I left here for the survival cairn. It erupted out of my skin and showed the way to a beach about eighty kilometres away, where I found the raft I’d originally drifted in when the shuttle sank. I’m sure both the map and the raft it led me to were deliberate efforts by the artists to hurry me out of their artwork.
“There was a spider secreted in my bag, put there to keep an eye on me. It was Lazarus, the spider I told you I’d accidentally killed with an iron spike days before, and it came back to life. I knew it was the same spider, because it had a scar on its back where the spike had pieced it. It travelled on top of my head.” Quite unconsciously, she placed her hand atop her scalp, fingers splayed.
Zhores, taken aback by this, said, “Um... how about we go shoot some hoops.”
Cy shrugged and lowered her hand.
At the hoop affixed to the hull, she treated the game like a fire-control problem: fast numbers in her head, mass, force, trajectory. At five metres, at six metres, at seven metres, she chalked up goal after goal with mechanical regularity.
Zhores and Naomi, soon joined by others of the crew, watched from the sidelines, at once impressed and disconcerted.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Rick Kennett