2946-10-16 - Tales from the Inbox: Libbie's Gallery
Not every member of this audience is an interstellar professional.
This seemingly obvious fact often slips my mind, as the goal of Cosmic Background from the beginning has always been to provide variety entertainment for spacers, largely about spacers. However, it is quite true that there are a number of faithful viewers and readers of our content for whom the events described are impossibly distant from their everyday life, farther from their world than even fiction could be.
It is from this side of the audience that Libbie A. brings the story which encouraged her to sell her storefront art gallery in the growing market of Maribel and move back to the Core Worlds. Evidently, after encountering an eccentric denizen of that world and a macabre painting, she decided the Frontier was not sufficiently tamed for her liking.
I find it likely that this story is the result of a psychological warfare campaign by one of Libbie's business competitors, but she is convinced that the man she met was being honest with her. I have seen stills of the painting in question, and can find no records of creatures such as the one depicted on the canvas - I have placed the image Libbie provided on our datasphere hub, and have done my best to do it justice in simple text here, knowing that many of our readers can't access the Centauri datasphere or any of our major mirror hubs.
The word, spoken quietly, caused Libbie to jump in surprise. She had been reading an explorer’s unexpectedly gripping account of his escape from a burrowing predator on one of the many worlds of the Frontier, and hadn’t seen the customer enter her shabby little store-front.
Hurriedly stowing her slate reader, Libbie sat up and spied the old man standing in front of one of the larger pieces in the dusty old gallery. Like most of her other wares, the painting was done in the old style, with oil paints not too different from those used to paint the long-crumbled masterpieces of the Earthbound Age of Lights. The only thing different about the modern compositions was the pigments fixed to the canvas – the synthetic colors would not fade with age, not even after the canvas itself crumbled to dust.
As if noticing Libbie for the first time, the old man waved her closer. She marked him as unlikely to buy the piece; his clothing was even shabbier than the little store-front she passed off as a local artists’ gallery, and his white hair was wildly unkempt, sticking out from under the brim of a quaint sun-hat. He was, she suspected, one of Maribel’s old hands; a man who’d seen the colony in its hardscrabble youth as a young man. Most of the old hands, holding agricultural lands around the world’s original colonial settlement, had been hit hard by the relocation of the main spaceport halfway around the world to a more favorable location. Their holdings were still vast by most standards, but they were, other than the value gained from working the land, all but worthless.
“Can I help you, sir?” Libbie asked, sidling around the counter to approach the customer. She realized as she did that the man was examining her least favorite piece in the gallery, and suppressed a shudder. Penniless old hand or not, she hoped he would buy the painting, if only to ensure she never had to look at it again.
“Possibly not.” He looked up for the first time, his piercing crystal-blue eyes seeming at odds with his threadbare appearance. “What can you tell me about this painting?”
The gallery attendant shrugged. “Not much beyond what the placard says, I’m afraid. I’ve sold a few other paintings by the same artist, but this is probably his most… striking.” Libbie doubted her half-hearted sales pitch was having any effect; the old man could almost certainly tell she didn’t like the painting. It wasn’t that it was of poor quality – it was truthfully among the best paintings she’d ever hung in her gallery – it was that the horror depicted emerging from the rust-hued fog in the middle of the piece. Its slavering, toothy maw, three dead, hollow eye sockets set in a skull-like head, and bestial claws seemed all the more chilling on a very human-like frame, restrained by great chains. Libbie had dealt in macabre and even sadistic paintings before without letting any of them get to her, but this one piece had managed to break her usually professional treatment of the art she sold.
“I would have liked to see the others by this artist.” The old man muttered. “They sold, you say?”
“Yes.” Libbie rallied. “There are images on our datasphere hub, if you are curious.”
“No, that’s all right.” The old man shrugged. “What can you tell me about where he lives?”
“The artist?” Libbie shook her head. “Not much, sorry.” The signature on the paintings was for one “Ciril O”, but the reclusive Ciril never came to Libbie’s gallery directly. He shipped the pieces directly, and received his sale proceeds by the quaint method of sending credit chits to an anonymous mail stop in one of Maribel’s more inhospitable regions. “He likes his anonymity; if I had to guess, he’s only a part-time artistic genius.” Genius he was, Libbie knew; but she also suspected he was a sinister one.
“Of course.” The old man agreed distantly. “But I didn’t mean the painter.”
“Who then, sir?”
“The subject, who else?” The old man replied, as if this was obvious. "If he's back, it would do to steer clear of the place."
Libbie was silent for several seconds, processing this. The old man, seeming to understand her shock, offered a faint smile. “Nothing? Perhaps that’s for the best, miss.” He sighed, then turned and headed for the door. “Good day.”