By Julie Frost
"You have got to be kidding me."
"Trust me, it wasn't my idea." Jenna, my immediate supervisor at Watchdogs, Inc., leaned on the wall in her office and crossed her arms, glaring at me.
"I do security work, not babysitting," I said, crossing my own arms and glaring right back.
"After that last disaster, you're lucky you still have a job, Fitz." She shook her head. "The big bosses wanted you specifically for this one."
Blaming me for my principal getting shot when they wouldn't even let me carry a weapon seemed unfair. At least he hadn't been killed, and I'd taken out the people ("things" would have been a better word, everything considered) that were after him with my bare hands, almost dying myself in the process. I called that a win, but I guess people in high places were still pissed. Now they were sending me off on another job where I couldn't carry a lethal weapon. "Easing me back in," my ass. Maybe someone had told them about the nights I still woke up screaming.
But work was work. Even though tagging along behind a little team of artsy-fartsy types while they analyzed the culture of our new alien friends wasn't exactly my idea of a rip-roaring good time, I still had to eat. Paying off the sensory enhancements, which I credited for saving my life during the cluster-foxtrot my previous assignment had turned into, would be a bonus.
"How's your implant?" Jenna asked. She seemed genuinely concerned, but the big bosses had probably sent her fishing for information about the chip that kept my brain from ODing on input that the humans weren't really designed to receive. I'd heard rumbles that they blamed the enhancements for the screwup.
"It's fine, for God's sake," I said with some irritation. "I'd be dead if I didn't have them, and so would that Mears dude. I saw their heat signatures before I saw the actual bad guys. Tell the big bosses that."
"Okay, okay. Look," she said, "just go down and enjoy the pretty pictures, okay? There's nothing dodgy about our hosts or the job; the bosses want to get you started on something easy your first shot out of the box after the last fubar."
"So, what's my function? If there's nothing dodgy and I can't carry a weapon, why bother sending me?" I was still grouchy.
"You've got those manly muscles, and you're not stupid. Bad things can happen even when no one intends them to." She shrugged. "Not for us to question why; we just go where we're paid to."
That was so. I didn't have to be happy about it. "Yeah, I've seen pix of these critters. My so-called muscles aren't gonna be much use against them."
"Fine." I grunted. "Yay, artwork." I hoped I'd be able to stay awake.
I got stuck on a shuttle with two kids—PhD wannabes, according to their files—and a professor. Daniel, the male student, and Stepanov, the female prof, looked me up and down once and then ignored me. I was furniture to them, and that was fine. We humans were still tiptoeing around alien species; very much the new kid on the intergalactic block, we didn't want to ruffle any feathers. Or tentacles, in this case. This was our first cultural expedition to the planet Mahndinia, and it needed to go smoothly, though the government mucky-mucks had looked each other over and decided we could get along.
I stifled an eyeroll as the girl student came over and sat beside me. There was one in every crowd. This one had her mouse-colored hair pulled back into a ponytail, and she hadn't sprung for the surgery that would have made her glasses unnecessary. "Sorry about them," she said, jerking her chin toward her colleagues. "They can be almighty snobbish at times." She had a soft drawl that she hadn't acquired in this sector. She stuck her hand out. "I'm Meredith. My friends call me Merry."
"Fitz," I answered, engulfing her tiny hand in my huge one and feeling suddenly awkward. "You, uh, ever been on one of these art things before?"
"I did my Master's thesis on hidden imagery in the Gwifaldian sculptures." She shrugged, but I could tell that her casual disinterest was hiding a case of the wibbles—her scent, soap and jasmine shampoo, got slightly stronger, while her cheeks were flaming red to my thermovision. "This is the first time I've been one of the first, though."
"That's something I don't get," I said. "Why send down a couple of students and a professor for the very first cultural expedition? You'd think they'd want people more...experienced?"
"Maybe they want fresh eyes on it." She grinned. "I'm not looking a gift horse in the mouth."
"Well, I'm just supposed to hang back and make sure nothing bad happens." To either the art students or the Mahndinese. I reflexively checked my stunner. "Not much for the museum scene, myself." Other than nose art on interstellar fighters, I'd never really been interested in paintings.
"We might be able to find something you like in this one." She smiled. "The Mahndinese used to be a warrior race before they found enlightenment."
And turned into a bunch of wimps, was my unspoken thought, but I wasn't going to say it out loud. The fact that they were a peaceful race now was lucky for us; their technology far outstripped ours.
"It'll be fascinating to see how their art has evolved since they quit fighting each other." Merry waved her hand at her compatriots. "Daniel, the other student?" Daniel had a pony-tailed mohawk and a goatee, which meant he looked exactly like I thought an art student should look. "He's a conspiracy theorist; he doesn't believe they've actually gone peaceful at all. It'll be nice to be able to rub his nose in the artwork." She leaned over and whispered, "I got a sneak peek at some of it. It's amazing."
I didn't know what could be "amazing" about art done by creatures who bore so little resemblance to us humans, but I guessed I was going to find out. The shuttle slowed and shook a little as it came in for a landing.
Before we touched down, Stepanov gave a little shriek. "What are you doing with that?" she asked, pointing at my stunner.
I looked at her like she was an idiot, which, to my mind, she was. "I'm a security guard. It's a little extra security."
"Good god, leave it here. We can't offend the Mahndinese by going to their museum armed to the teeth."
Great, she was one of those. But she was also the boss. Reluctantly, I took it off and set it on my seat, shaking my head and hoping I wouldn't need it. The Mahndinese were supposed to be peaceful, but I'd only believe it when I saw it.
We landed, and I let the others go out first. A representative from the museum met us at the bottom of the ramp. I hadn't realized the things would be so big—its bulbous body towered a good half-meter over my two-meter-tall frame. The Mahndinese had tentacles everywhere; they used four for locomotion, five more as arms and hands, and a few smaller ones scattered around their bodies for...I didn't want to think about what. Their three eyes were at the tips of flexible stalks with a trio of tentacles above each of them that served as eyebrows. This one smelled like a combination of seaweed and rotting strawberries. It kind of creeped me out, but then, I'm the type that avoids eating calamari.
The Mahndin observed us for a moment, waving its tentacles in a complicated dance while purple highlights flashed off and on in the folds of its olive-green, hairless skin. The harness it wore jingled as it spun around and rumbled, "Follow me, please," through a lipless slash of a mouth.
"Isn't she fabulous?" Merry whispered to me as it ushered us toward a conveyance on a rail in the street.
Daniel shot her a dirty look and muttered something about "consorting with Neanderthal Philistines," so I shot him a dirty look in turn. He hadn't meant me to hear him, and he turned red and walked a little faster.
"How can you tell it's a she?" I asked.
"The harness," Merry said as we got into the car. "They don't have secondary sexual characteristics like we do, and even without the harnesses they can tell each other apart, but the arrangements of the buckles and decorations are unique to the sexes."
She started to sit next to me, but the prof, frowning, drew her aside and had a low conference with her. I caught "not supposed to makefriends with him" and "reminds me of my brother" before Merry pulled away and sat beside me anyway, shaking her head. "Elitist prigs," she mumbled.
"Hey, if you're gonna get in trouble..."
She waved her hand. "I'm a scholarship kid that worked my ass off to get here. They can go whistle for it." That explained the glasses, anyway. "And Professor Stepanov didn't pick me; the committee did. She's lucky the committee picked her, in fact."
I was finding Merry kind of fetching, after my initial annoyance with her had faded. She was a lot more like a real person than I'd expected her to be. Maybe she'd go for a drink—
I squashed that thought flat. The ivory towers of academia and the low-down dirt of security work had no truck with each other except in situations like this. Wouldn't be fair to bring her into my world, and I wasn't smart enough to be in hers. This was a job. Plain and simple. No socializing with the natives.
We stopped in front of a slug-colored building made of some kind of unnaturally smooth aggregate, and the Mahndin took us through a door too tall for humans and into an echoing chamber, before handing—tentacling?—us off to a colleague and leaving with another complicated wave of her limbs.
"I am Nomalli, the director of the museum," the new Mahndin said. It was practically identical to the other one, except for its harness and its smell, which was more like seaweed and rotting meat; I assumed it was male. I sure couldn't tell from the voice. "I trust your journey was pleasant?"
"Pleasant enough," Professor Stepanov said, glancing down her nose towards me. "Thank you for letting us see your museum on such short notice."
"It was, as you say, no problem," Nomalli said. We exchanged introductions, and he blinked at me and twitched his eyestalks before escorting us onwards. "The museum begins in the center," he said while we walked, "and goes outward in a spiral, starting with our most primitive works and ending with our most modern, and encompassing painting, sculpture, holos, and...other forms." He let out a wet cough, rolled his tongue out, and examined what was on it by dipping one eyestalk down before popping it back into his mouth. His tongue had suckers on the bottom of it. I shuddered.
Nomalli led us into the first chamber and gestured around. "These are ancient paintings on the walls of sea caverns. The original cave walls were excavated and brought here..."
His voice faded to a drone as I tuned him out. I wasn't here for an art lecture, I was here to make sure nothing untoward happened to my charges.
Not that there was much chance of that. They'd shut down the museum for us, and the paintings and sculptures and things were no threat. The only problem I was going to have was staying awake.
At least, that's what I thought until something skittered across the corner of my vision.
When I turned my head to look directly at it, nothing was there. However, I could have sworn that it was about knee-high, shaped a lot like our hosts, and holding some sort of staff.
Nomalli didn't act like he'd seen anything unusual, and neither did anyone else. I almost thought I was imagining things, until I saw it again as we left the room. It leaned on the staff for a few moments, and then blipped out of existence. This time I saw it for long enough that I could tell it was registering with my infrared detectors, but none of my other senses. A twinge of pain nipped me between my eyes.
I remembered Nomalli's remark about "other forms" of art and thought this must be one. Resolving to pay better attention, I looked around the next chamber with more interest. This one held ancient, simple sculptures carved from wood and molded from clay. Most of them were obviously creatures native to this world, but some of them were aliens we'd encountered in other places, and a few were unrecognizable.
Daniel asked about them, and Nomalli managed to convey a shrug. "No one knows," he said. "They may be alien life forms from long ago, or they may be representations of the old gods. Our ancestors didn't leave a written record behind; all we have is their art."
More infrared beasties populated this room. Some of them were Mahndinese, and some of them were other aliens. They warred with one another, enacting scenes of violence and bloodshed that no one but me, apparently, could see.
All but one. It stood there, observing, holding a staff, its tentacles drooping. I wanted to ask Nomalli about it, but I was furniture and not supposed to get involved, so I kept my mouth shut—and my eyes open. The twinge of pain worsened, and I rubbed my forehead.
Room by room, the art became more elaborate. Wood and clay sculptures gave way to stone, bronze, and holographs. The paintings had complex colors out of the spectrum of normal human vision. Abstracts became prominent, although they didn't dominate. Some of them were in colors that made my stomach queasy, and a few looked...not quite abstract, although I couldn't make out what they really were, and the hairs on my arms stood on end when I looked at them. I wished that Merry had the same enhancements I did, because she'd enjoy this tour a lot more. She was enthralled enough anyway, but she didn't even know what she was missing.
Most of the works depicted scenes of war. Even the subjects of ordinary portraits were armed to their pointy teeth, and the children had weapons as well. Images of quiet home life were practically nonexistent. And the Mahndin with the staff was in every room. He got slightly bigger each time, and I noticed that he had three extra tentacles over each eye. All he did was watch.
The next-to-last exhibit held a huge painting portraying an epic battle in a civil war that had taken place on land, sea, and in space. This work combined the mediums of stationary paint and the moving infrared creatures, which played out their scenes and then snapped back to their original places to start over again.
The painting beside it showed the aftermath. Wrecked boats, vehicles, spaceships, and bodies were strewn about a harsh and blasted landscape, and the infrared Mahndinese were nowhere to be seen. However, in the upper part of the painting, the Mahndin with the staff was outlined in ultraviolet paint. Even though our species were vastly different, he had been drawn in such a way that I felt the crushing weight of his sorrow, and I wondered if he was supposed to be some sort of religious figure. The three extra eye tentacles reinforced this impression. The pain in my head became a definite ache.
Of course, I didn't know if the Mahndinese even had a religion. Most species did, interestingly enough—and a lot of them were pretty similar. "Who's that in the top part of the painting?" I blurted. "I keep seeing him."
Professor Stepanov shot me a withering look, curling her lip. "There's no one in the top part of that painting. Please excuse our security guard," she said to Nomalli. "He seems to have forgotten his station."
"It's quite all right," Nomalli answered. "Some of our pieces have an...interesting effect on certain of our visitors." He gestured around the room at the rest of the art. "These works represent our last, and hopefully final, civil war, a scant fifty cycles ago. We nearly destroyed ourselves as a species, and we are still rebuilding. Coming to the conclusion that wars were unhealthy for us wasn't much of a leap in logic. We have applied ourselves to peaceful pursuits ever since, as you will see in our concluding exhibit."
As Nomalli led us onward, Merry hung back and touched me on the arm. "Are you all right? Stepanov was pretty nasty."
"Like I care what someone like her says." I rolled my eyes.
"What did you see?"
"Eh, nothing." I rubbed my forehead again. "Trick of the light, probably."
"If you're sure..." She was concerned, and it was cute.
"Positive. Look, here we are in the crowning glory of the Mahndinese culture." I smiled through my headache. "Don't worry about me; go examine your stuff."
Nomalli droned on about turning the weapons of war to peaceful purposes and coming together for the good of all Mahndinese, and I tuned him out again. The art in this room was a huge leap in both beauty and execution above anything we'd seen before. The colors in the paintings, the textures of the sculptures, the clarity of design, with everything lit just so, all combined to nearly dazzle me. They'd really knocked themselves out to put this together.
As one of Nomalli's eyes swivelled on its stalk to follow me, I stepped closer to a painting showing an underwater city. Something was off. On the surface, the picture was a happy scene of Mahndinese going about their daily lives in pursuit of whatever it was they pursued. And yet...
The artist had used colors outside normal human spectrums to show something completely different. Everyone in the painting was actually dead, killed in some awful way. Tentacles ripped off, bodies eviscerated, heads cleaved in half—this was not a pretty picture.
Everything else in the room was the same. A pastoral holo of a farmer plowing a field wasn't so pastoral when I realized that he was plowing bodies. Children weren't playing in that statue over there, they were killing each other and using eyeballs and body parts as missiles.
The centerpiece of the room was a life-sized infrared depicting the ghostly Mahndin with the extra eye tentacles. He was nailed to a board, and his skin was bruised, scraped, and cut. Surrounded by Mahndinese who were jeering and pelting him with stuff, his expression was one of long-suffering and, somehow, contentment. The infrared scene ended with him dying before it started up again from the beginning.
Peaceful purposes, my ass. And I was the only one who could see it. The ache in my head had turned into a definite thumping.
Nomalli was winding down. An assistant came in, carrying a painting. "Please allow us to present you with this gift of goodwill," Nomalli said. "We commissioned one of our finest artists to paint this in anticipation of your arrival. I hope our species can come together in the interests of all sentient beings. Outward appearances to the contrary, I think you have found, through our art, that we're not so different from one another."
"I'll say," I muttered, eyeing the painting. It portrayed a group of Mahndinese and a group of humans, seemingly coming to some sort of agreement over a table. Closer examination proved that the leader of the humans had her throat sliced open, and the rest of them were wearing chains.
The others had no idea what was really in that painting. Merry bounced with excitement. Daniel appeared to still be slightly skeptical, but looked like he was more than halfway sold. That guy would never make it in security work; he wasn't nearly suspicious enough if his conspiracy theories could be allayed by a simple present.
Stepanov's expression was smug. "Thank you for the lovely gift," she said. "I'll convey your message to our leaders. I'm sure we can come to an accord that will be beneficial to both our peoples."
God, I wanted to throw up, and not just because my head was pounding. I decided to play the part of the bored security guard, and rolled my eyes. "Are we done? Can we go now?"
Stepanov muttered "nekulturny Cro-Magnon" and gathered Merry and Daniel in her wake. I followed, with my headache fading as we left the museum. My write-up was going to be really interesting.
Jenna shook her head. I stood in her office, facing her across her desk. "I can't possibly file this report, Fitz. The higher-ups would crucify me."
"Better than having our entire species wiped out by big ol' treacherous squids."
"Lots of people have examined the painting they gave us. None of them have seen what you say you did in this ridiculous report." She pushed it back across the desk at me. "Fix it. Or I'm not responsible for what happens to your job."
"Experts with the same enhancements as you looked at the painting. In fact, Stepanov has the same enhancements you do. They're not seeing it." She sighed. "Either your chip is malfunctioning, or something else is going on with you, Fitz. Do I need to send you back to the shrinks?"
A sliver of self-doubt nibbled at me. I was positive I'd seen all that stuff, but...maybe I'd merited Stepanov's glare when I asked about the ghost in the corner of that one painting. I'd just thought she couldn't see it; but that an art professor was enhanced was pretty logical. I grasped a final straw. "Can I see the painting they sent back with us again?"
Jenna pursed her lips. "Honestly, Fitz, the only reason I've indulged you this far is because I feel bad about how the last job went." She ran her hand through her short-cropped hair. "But if you do, and it's fine, will you modify this damned report?"
Her conditions for seeing the painting made me uneasy, but I needed to look at it one more time, if only to convince myself that I wasn't going crazy. "Fine."
Somehow, she managed to get us in to see it that day. It stood on an easel, in its own naturally-lit room, and I stared at it helplessly. She planted her hands on her hips and cocked her head. "Well?"
"Jenna, I swear—" But it was no good. The hidden images in the painting were gone. If they'd ever been there at all. My shoulders slumped, and I shook my head in defeat. "Yeah, okay."
Sleeping was never easy for me in any case, so when the door to my quarters opened late that night, I woke up with my hand on the blaster under my pillow. Before I could bring it to bear on whatever had invaded my room, one of those damned Mahndin squids leaped in and landed on my chest.
The thing was incredibly fast and even bigger than the ones I'd previously met, and it wrapped tentacles around my arms and legs, holding me immobile. Another tentacle wrapped around my throat, and still another shoved its way into my mouth and down my gullet.
I couldn't move. Couldn't breathe. I gagged, trying unsuccessfully to bite down, but my jaw didn't have enough leverage. The Mahndin tasted like day-old fish left in the sun.
I'd learned their secret, and now I was going to die for it. My last thought was that maybe Jenna would believe me now—
And I came truly awake, gasping, sitting up in my bed in a cold sweat. I barely made it to my bathroom in time to vomit into the recycler.
I didn't fall asleep for the rest of the night.
Merry requested me specifically when she went back to Mahndinia to have a closer look at the artwork the next day. I grudgingly accepted, torn between wanting to know if I'd been seeing things that weren't there—and never wanting to go back. The nightmare still haunted me.
She sat on the floor in the very last room, taking notes and making sketches, while I prowled around like a caged and hungry bear. The works that had featured extra, hidden elements were missing those elements, and the niggling doubt about my first impressions exploded into full-blown wondering if I was crazy. And the headache was back.
Except...the centerpiece was still there, in the middle of the room, and Merry couldn't see it. And I had no way to bring it to her attention. "Hey, Merry, have a peek at the invisible artwork. Isn't it interesting?" Yeah, that'd go over real well.
I wandered around the infrared, looking at it from every angle. It was roped off, and probably alarmed, so I couldn't get as close to it as I wanted. For a piece of artwork made of heat, it was amazingly lifelike and heartbreaking. I felt bad for the Mahndin nailed to the board; he seemed so resigned to his fate that I wanted to reach in there and save him myself.
Merry noticed me circling the ropes. "Fitz? What are you doing?"
"Oh. Um. Nothing." I shrugged, elaborately casual.
"I'm sorry." Her expression was contrite. "You must be awfully bored here with nothing to do but wait for me."
"Nah, it's fine." I gave her a grin and sat beside her. "Would rather be bored than otherwise. Especially since they still won't let me bring weapons in here."
She swatted me playfully. "Peaceful people, now, remember?"
"Yeah, I guess so." But the infrared sculpture in the center of the room gave the lie to that.
"You will not stop us."
The infrasonic voice echoed in my head. I'd gone to sleep not long ago, and my room was completely black. Not a glimmer helped my enhanced vision pierce the darkness, but it felt as though the room was spinning around—possibly as a result of the infrasound, which'd had that effect before.
"Your race will be subjugated, like others before. One more in a long line of conquests."
"You saw what we allowed you to see, no more or less."
"I'll tell my boss," I croaked.
"She won't believe you. And this is your burden, and your nightmare. To tell, and be thought insane, and possibly institutionalized—or to not tell, and live with the knowledge that you may have prevented it somehow."
"Why me?" My anguished cry echoed around the room.
"You are a test subject. Nothing more. Be grateful we aren't testing you more thoroughly." A flash of light gleamed off a wickedly sharp surgical instrument before winking out.
I twitched awake in a cold sweat, with a scream clawing from my throat behind clenched teeth.
The next time Merry took me down, the centerpiece was gone, replaced by a combination solid- and holo-sculpture that nearly took my breath away with its beauty. Whatever you wanted to say about the Mahndinese, I had to admit they could do art that even I could appreciate, even if I couldn't quantify why it was so pretty. It just...was. And I didn't even know what it represented; it was just this huge abstract thing. Pain bloomed behind my eyes again, but I was starting to get used to it—maybe even welcome it.
"D'you mind if I poke through the other exhibits?" I asked Merry.
"Oh, go right ahead." She waved her hand. "The only reason I'm inflicting this on you in the first place is because the officials insist. What's going to happen to me in an art museum?"
I could imagine plenty of things, but she was only a scream away if she needed me. I wasn't planning on going far.
Just into the previous room, in fact. I wanted to see if the ghostly extra-tentacled Mahndin was still in the aftermath painting.
And now I definitely thought the whole thing might be a figment of my imagination. I was getting really tired of whoever it was playing peek-a-boo with me.
If they were. I sighed. Maybe the infrared sculpture had been put in the wrong room by mistake. Maybe the Mahndinese were as kindhearted as they wanted us to believe. Maybe I hadn't really seen what I'd thought in the gift painting. Maybe I was projecting—security work on the rougher edge of the universe had turned me into a suspicious bastard, expecting violence at every turn. Maybe Jenna was right and I had cracked, seeing things that didn't exist and attributing nasty motives to a peaceful people.
Maybe I did need to go visit the shrinks.
I hadn't seen a single weapon any of the times I'd come down to the planet, after all. The museum security guards weren't armed, and the Mahndinese thronging the street in front of the museum didn't have so much as a knife on them.
This job had me imagining things. Ghosts. Because, really, who made infrared sculptures? Yeah. No maybes about it; I did need to visit the shrinks.
Delayed-onset post-traumatic stress, they said. They fiddled with the interface chip for my enhancements, made faces, and booked me on the next ship home to Earth.
I sat in the passenger waiting lounge, listening to music and zoning out on prescribed happy pills. I felt a tap on my shoulder, and there stood Merry with a shaky smile on her face. "Fitz, I heard you were leaving us." She shifted her weight back and forth, and I got the impression that she didn't want me to go. "You'll never guess. The Mahndinese sent you a special present."
A jolt of unease shivered down my spine. "What sort of present?"
She handed me a small abstract painting. "This. They said the artist painted it just for you. Isn't it fabulous?"
The paint swirled over the canvas in a riot of color. Shades that humans were never meant to detect coiled across it, drawing my eye towards the center, where a tiny, ghostly image of the extra-tentacled Mahndin resided. The headache returned, and I greeted it like an old friend.
The picture was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.
I was stunned. How in the world could I ever have thought that the Mahndinese wanted to harm us? Something in the back of my brain screamed a warning, but I shoved it aside. My subconscious had gotten me into enough trouble already.
The Mahndinese were conquerors, yes, and heroes. They would do what was best for all of us. I could see that now.
And I continued to believe it at home in the hospital, staring at my painting—even when their warships filled the sky over Earth, and ultraviolet and infrared beams lanced down, incinerating people and buildings.
Creating another kind of Mahndinese masterpiece.
About the Author
Julie Frost lives in the beautiful Salt Lake Valley with her husband, her son, her dog, and her cat. When not writing, she enjoys birdwatching, photography, and going to science fiction conventions. You can follow her on Livejournal at http://agilebrit.livejournal.com/