Dickson, Gordon - Alien Art

By Irene Rodriguez,2014-06-05 23:00
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Dickson, Gordon - Alien Art


Copyright ? 1973 by Gordon R. Dickson

e-book ver. 1.0

To my mother, Maude Dickson


The annunciator on the hotel room door chimed.

"Who's there?" asked Lige.

    There was no answer. Lige did not move. He had been buying native art too long on these backward, newly settled worlds to open his hotel room door without knowing who wanted in. Also, he was pushing eighty now; and he was willing to miss an occasional deal rather than take risks.

    "Who's there?" he repeated. "Speak into the annunciator -the black circle on the door."

    "Mister," said a voice from the door, "I'm Cary Longan. I wrote you about some carvings a friend of mind did. . . ."

    It was the right name. Lige put a twenty-second hold on the hotel security button by his phone and pressed it down. In twenty seconds he could find out enough to decide whether to flick it back up or let it sound.

    "Open," he told the door. It slid aside and let in a typical New Worlds backwoodsman. The dress varied, as usual from planet to planet, but the smell was always similar. Wood-smoke, sweat, assorted native odors. This woodie was young, young and-stringy.

    "Mister, I'm Cary Longan," the woodie said, as the door slid shut behind him. "I was to remind you your full name was Lige Bros Waters, you said in the letter."

    Lige reached out and flicked the security button off hold.

"Come on in," he said. "Have a seat."

    Cary Longan looked uneasily about the hotel room. It was a room that had cost Lige less than half an interworld unit a day. Its carpeting was woven of native fibers, the walls were coated with a single color, and there was no such thing as a float chair in sight. The furniture sat heavily on thick legs, and was built of wood and fabric.

    But the woodsman glanced about as if in a palace. He had recently shaved and carefully washed. But under the bony jawline, his thin neck was shadowed with uncleansed grime. In his leather and woolen clothes he looked half-starved and feral, a smoke- and dirt-stained whipcord of a man imprisoned by unfamiliar barriers to land and sky. In his hands he carried a homemade wooden box about ten inches on a side.

    "That's all right," Lige said. "Come on, sit down. I pay for the room-people who come to see me can do anything I invite them to, here."

    Cary came forward. He perched on the seat edge of a heavy, fabric armchair facing the bed on which Lige was sitting and passed the box into Lige's hands. Its weight was surprising. Lige almost dropped it. "They're in there," Cary said.

    "The carvings your friend made?" Lige fumbled with the box, discovered that the top slid aside, and opened it. Within were a number of reddish-brown rocks, very heavy for their size. Lige took them out one by one and lined them up- there were six of them-on the bedspread.

    He picked them up and turned them over, examining each again. He looked at Cary.

"What is this? A joke?" he said.

    Cary was leaning forward from the waist, painfully tense in his waiting. But when Lige spoke, the tension dissolved in puzzlement.


    "These-" Lige jabbed a forefinger toward them. "These are carvings?"

    "Sure, mister," said Cary. "The ones I wrote you about. Charlie made them."

    "He did?" Lige stared hard at Cary, but Cary still looked only puzzled. "Did you see him carve them?"

"Some," said Cary. "Some he did when I wasn't there."

"Carvings of what?"

"Of . . . ?"

    "When you carve something," Lige said, patiently, "you make a shape like something you're looking at, something you know. These carvings are made to look like certain particular things, aren't they?"

    "Things? Oh, sure, mister." Cary lit up. He reached out and easily picked up the closest of the rocks, holding it lightly between thumb and middle finger. Lige had needed to cup it in his hand to lift it comfortably. "See, this here's a fool hen sitting on its nesting hole."

    "And this. . . ." He put down the first rock and picked up the one next to it. "That's a bitch swamp rat ready to have little ones . . . and this's a poison thorn bush mudded up for winter. This is a-well, it's a sort of a house Charlie lives in, himself. . . ."

    He went on through the row, identifying each one. Lige stared at him a moment, then picked up the rock Cary had put down last and turned it over in his hands, looking at it from all angles. Cary waited, patiently but tensely; but when Lige exchanged the rock in his hand for one of the others, Cary got up suddenly and paced softly over to the room's one

window, to stand looking out.

    Lige put down the last piece of rock he had picked up and glanced over at the back of this man who had brought it, and the others, to him. Cary still stood, looking out. Beyond him Lige could see, through the transparent glass, a view of the park across the street, where voting booths were being set up, and beyond, the downtown buildings in Arcadia's Capital City. In every direction were the walls and tops of eternally new-looking, poured-concrete structures with glass pane windows. Except for the primitive nonvideo windows, it looked hardly different than any city on any other planet, except for those on the oldest and richest worlds. Bright scrolls of advertising signs filled the spaces among and above the buildings with color.


    Lige sighed inwardly. The promise of the signs was no less than would be delivered-although few of the native Arcadians would realize the full meaning of that delivery. All these new colonial worlds were alike-ready to sell their souls to industrialize in the hopes that they would become like Earth itself, or Alpha Centauri Four. Actually, the best they would ever achieve would be a cheap imitation of the richness of those older planets with their unbeatable head start. And the price would be deadly. If the man by the window could manage to stay alive until he was the age of Lige, he would live to see this Arcadia of his with the greater part of its natural resources plundered or destroyed, its atmosphere polluted, its native vegetation and wildlife killed off-all as the price of becoming, at best, a third-class industrial world.

    For a moment the finger of temptation touched Lige. He was getting old, and he had never made that lucky find, that rare discovery those in his line of work always dreamed of stumbling upon, someday. It might be there was some truth to what the woodie said. It might be that the million-in-one chance was fact; that somewhere up-country, and soon to be lost forever on a world determined to go industrial, was a talent such as the field of art had not seen before-a talent that could make its own name, and Lige's as well, if Lige could discover it. But to hope for it was a foolish gamble. . . . Lige made up his mind. He spoke.

"Mister Longan."

Cary turned swiftly.

    "Mister. . . ." His voice slowed at the expression on the other man's face. "Something not right?"

"I'm sorry," Lige said. "I can't buy these things."

Cary stared.

    "But they're carvings," he said, "and you buy carvings, mister! The ad said so. Your letter said so-your letter I got right here. . . ." v

He began to fumble inside his leather jacket.

    "Sorry, no," said Lige. "Never mind the letter. I know what I said. But I don't just buy anything that's been carved. I buy art. Do you understand?"

    Cary stopped searching under his jacket and let his hand fall helplessly to his side.

"Art. . . ." he echoed.

    "That's right. And these aren't art," Lige said. "I'm sorry. But if anyone told you they were, he was playing a trick on you, or your friend-what's his name? Charlie. . . ."

"Charlie. Well, that's what I call him. But, mister-"

    "There's no art here," said Lige, firmly. "I buy art pieces to sell them to other people. Other people wouldn't buy these . . . pieces of yours and Charlie's. Maybe you can see them as representations of something; but I can't and my buyers wouldn't. They'd see them just as rocks-rocks that had been carved, maybe, but not into anything recognizable."

"Mister, I told you what they were-each one."

    "I'm sorry. Maybe it's because I don't know the originals they were carved to look like-the fool hen, or whatever," said Lige. "But neither would the people who buy from me. Try to understand, Mister Longan. For me to buy it, your friend would have to make a carving of something I could recognize as a carving." Cary's face lit.

"Like a man?" he said. "How about a carving like a man?"

    "Yes," said Lige. "That's a very good example. Now, if Charlie had carved something in the shape of a man-" "He did! He carved me, mister, long gun and all. Full size. It even looks like me. You'll buy that?" Lige sighed, aloud this time. "Well," he said. "I'll look at it. Bring it in." Cary looked anxious.

    "Can't hardly do that. It's pretty heavy, being full size. Maybe you'd come look at it. It's just a couple hours' fly inland."

Lige shook his head with a touch of relief.

    "I'm sorry," he said. He got to his feet and started putting the stones back into their box. "I'm leaving this afternoon for a couple of stops on the other habitated world in this solar system of yours."

The look on the woodsman's face made him add, rashly:

    "I'll be back in ten days to pick up handicraft on your Voting Day from the people coming in. If you could have it here then, I could look at it."

    "How much?" The words trembled on Cary's lips. "What price might you pay for something like that?"

    "Impossible to tell." Lige hefted the heavy box and passed it into Cary's uneager grasp. He spoke briskly. "It could be anything. Two cents, or two thousand interworld units. We buy outright or sell for you on consignment, expenses plus a forty percent commission. Now, I've got to get at my packing-"

    "One thing, mister," said Cary, resisting the slight pressure with which Lige urged him and his box toward the door, "I had to borrow money for an outfit to bring these here carvings to you. I was counting on selling them to have money for ... I mean, I got to pay back, and it takes money besides to hire an airboat to fly back in and fly out with that big carving. If you could lend me just a little cash. ..."

    "Sorry," said Lige. He spoke over Cary's shoulder to the hotel room door. "Open. Forgive me, Mister Longan. I really have to pack. I can't lend you anything. It's not my money; it's the money of the company backing me. I have to account for it. Now, if you don't mind. . . ."

    Cary let himself be pushed out. The door closed in his face. Numbly he went down in the elevator and past the people in the street-level register area. It was not until he found himself on the sidewalk outside that his mind began to work again. He went down the street to look for a public phone booth.

    When he found one, he searched in his pocket for a smudged list of numbers and dialed the first one.

    "Harry?" he said, when the party answered. "Cary Longan here, Harry. Listen, I need an airboat to fly upcountry and back, just one day. Going to make two thousand big units, Harry. Only thing is-"

    "Hold it. Wait a minute," said the voice at the other end. "Are you talking about credit? Because if you are, Longan, forget it. You get a boat for cash-that's it."

"But listen, Harry-"

    The phone went dead as the connection was broken from the other end of the line.

Cary dialed the second number.

    Fifteen minutes later, his wide shoulders bent with defeat, Cary abandoned the phone booth. Still carrying the box, he walked on, aimlessly. After a while it began to register on him that he was out of the hotel area and into a section of small shops carrying farm goods and equally small bars-in the back section of the City. He passed one bar as the door opened and a man in a neatly pressed, slightly stained, white suit lurched out.

    Cary cat-stepped lightly aside to avoid being blundered into and went on. A few steps later, however, his pace slowed. He stopped and went back to the bar entrance. For a moment he hesitated there, shifting the box from one arm to the other. Then, he went in.

    Within, it was dimly lit, dark after the day-bright street. There was a bar all down one side with a long row of dispensers behind it, lit from below. The rest of the room was full of tables: slick, darkly gleaming tables. Cary, who had hesitated a second just inside the door, breathed out a little in relief and went forward to find a gap between empty seats, halfway down the bar.

    The bartender, a heavy man, came along the other side of the bar to meet him.

"You aren't too high-priced here, mister?" Cary asked.

    "No, we're not too high-priced, cousin," said the bartender, sourly, looking at him. "You found what you're looking for, unless you want to buy some packages of booze and take them back out in the scrub."

    "What I was hoping for-'' Cary put the box carefully on the bar, "was a length of weed."

    "No weed. We don't like the customers spitting green all over the floor in here. You got money?" The bartender's voice sharpened.

    "Money? Sure, mister," said Cary. "I just felt like a chew, is all. Give me a double-your cheapest booze and a beer."

    The bartender turned away to fill the order. When he brought the glass and shot glass back, he thumped them on the bar in front of Cary, who had been fingering cautiously through a pouch he held in one hand.

    "Fifteen cents, interworld-that's two dollars, local. Right, mister?" He fished out a single bill and dropped it on the bar. "I give you a five."

    "Script!" said the bartender disgustedly, looking at it. But he picked it up, turned to feed it into the slot below the dispenser from which he had drawn the booze, then turned back to slide three one-dollar script bills at Cary. Cary picked them up cautiously and tucked them away before tossing down the booze and beginning to nurse the beer.

    "Mister. . . ." he began, but the bartender was already off down the bar serving another customer.

    Cary drank, and ordered again. And drank and ordered some more. The jagged, painful edge of hurt inside him at not selling Charlie's small carvings began to be blunted. A warm fog seemed to fill the room.

    "Again, mister," he said to the bartender. As the other brought the drinks back, Cary patted the box before him on the bar. "You see this, mister? Guess what's in there. Carvings, that's what. Want to see one-"

    "Forget it, cousin," said the bartender, taking the five Cary dropped on the bar before him. "You showed them to me twice already."

    He turned and spoke down the bar. "Rocks. Carved, he says, by some damn animal-one of those swamp otters, upcountry. That's all I got to do, is look at rocks!" He turned away, shoved the bill into the slot below the dispenser, and started off down the bar. The warm fog cleared, suddenly.

"Mister," said Cary. The bartender went on. "Mister!"

    The second time he said it, his voice was loud enough to quiet the hum of other voices in the now clearly seen bar.

    "What's the matter with you?" the bartender said, turning and coming back up the bar to him. "We don't like shouting in here-"

    His voice broke off in a gasp. His heavy body was jerked suddenly, halfway across the bar by one thin, hard hand clutching his jacket. Another thin, hard hand materialized only inches before his face, holding a dark brown, six-inch thorn.

    "My change," whispered Cary. "You were going to cheat me, mister."

    "Don't-don't scratch me with that!" The bartender yammered slightly, his jaw unhinged by fear of the poison thorn. "I got your change. I just forgot, that's all-that's all."

    His hand came forward and dropped three one-dollar script bills on the bar. Cary let him go, gathered in the bills with his free hand, and backed to the door. All at once he was alone, outside on the sidewalk.

    He looked about him, surprised. Night had fallen while he had been inside; but the artificial lighting made the street as bright as ever. No one was in sight.

    He pinned the thorn back under the collar on his jacket and let out his tightly held breath with a sigh, relaxing. With a surge, the amount he had drunk took hold of him again. The fog did not move back in; but the whole street and its facing buildings seemed to take a sudden wild sweep halfway around him, then steadied again.

    "Yeaaaahooo!" he yelled suddenly, tossing the box in the air and catching it.

    Clutching his box, he reeled off down the street into a blur of gleaming concrete and more brilliantly gleaming signs.


    A jar, as if he had been dropped from some small height onto a hard surface, jolted Cary back to life. For a moment he felt nothing; and then a wave of nausea and a splitting headache took possession of him. He struggled to open sticky eyelids and looked up to see what seemed to be two men and a young woman. They were standing over him in a building that seemed to be a warehouse piled with trail goods.

    "All right, men. Thank you," the woman was saying, crisply, in a voice he knew. "It's a Prayer Day, so I can't tip you. But come back here tomorrow after four in the afternoon and I'll give you thirty percent off on anything you'd like from the stock you see around you."

One of the men grunted.

"Took," he said. "We should've known, Jass."

    "I beg your pardon!" The female voice sharpened. "Orvalo Outfitters has been in business twenty-three years and I'm an honest, religious city woman. If I say you'll get thirty percent off, that means an actual thirty percent off. Go check the lowest price from the other outfitters on what you'd fancy, then come back here and tell me. I'll give you thirty percent off that. You're being paid in dollars, pards, for a penny-rate job. It didn't take you five minutes to carry him here for me!"

    "What if we don't have the spare cash to buy-" one of the men began, grumblingly.

    "Then sell the discount to someone that has!" she snapped. "Do I have to think for you as well as reward you? Any more objections?"

Muttering, the two went out.

    "Mattie," muttered Cary, mostly to himself, "you know you're going to make money, even at thirty per-"

    Panic suddenly hit him. He jerked himself up in a sitting position, for the second completely forgetting the nausea and the headache, and stared about.

"My box!"

    Then he saw it, on the floor within arm's length. With a gasp of relief he gathered it in and hitched himself backwards, so that he could sit, half-reclining against a pile of knapsack frames. Pain and sickness returned. He closed his eyes against them.

    "That's right!" said Mattie's voice. Painfully he opened his eyes to see her standing over him. "You were holding it there under a truck-loading dock where you'd passed out. And the carvings are still in it! I can guess what that means. You couldn't even wait to see that buyer before getting drunk."

    "Mattie. . . ." He rolled his head in negation against the hard edges of the frames that supported it.

"Don't tell me!" she snapped.

    He shook his head weakly again, staring up at her. She was a tall, dark-haired girl of about his own age, with brown eyes in a tight-lipped, severe but almost beautiful face. She seemed to waver like an out-of-focus image to Cary's bloodshot eyes, 'as she stood above him, in a plain and rather stiff white suit-dress, white gloves, and holding a book bound in silver cloth. Sermons for the Day read the title on the cover of the book, in fiery red letters that gave the illusion of flaming and flickering as he watched.

"Mattie, how can I tell you if you don't let me talk?"

    "Just answer me one thing!" she said, fiercely. "You saw the art dealer?

Yes? No?"

    "Yes!" he said. "That's what I'm trying to tell you. . . ." The room swam about him suddenly, and the headache was like an ax blade between his eyes. "Mattie ... I got to have a drink."

She snorted. "From me? Not likely!"

He managed to fight back the discomfort enough to speak.

    "I saw him, I tell you. I stopped by here first, too. Go look in the delivery bin below the wall slot of your office. I slid my guns and gear in there to keep safe, early this morning."

She breathed through her nose at him.

    "If you're lying again. . . ." She whirled about, and he heard her heels tapping away through the warehouse and up the three steps onto the glazed, different-sounding floor of the outer office. The heel sounds ceased. Then they began again, coming back toward him. She appeared back over him, carrying the not-inconsiderable weight of his backpack, rifle, and handgun, which she threw down beside him with a crash.

    "All right!" she said. "So you came by here. And you saw him. Why've you still got the carvings, then? He wouldn't buy after all, was that it?"

"Mattie, listen ... I need a drink real bad."

    "You're not getting one from me," she said. "Even if I wanted to, it's a Prayer Day. I won't handle liquor on a Prayer Day. You talk-or I'll call the marshal's office to have you kicked out of town."

    "No, Mattie. Listen. . . ." Cary licked parched lips with a dried rag of a tongue. "He took them ... on consignment. He didn't have any place to carry them. He's coming back in ten days to pick them up."

    "On consignment!" she cried. "That means you won't get paid and I won't get my money for maybe two months!"

"Not that long, Mattie-"

    "I don't care! Two months is too long!" Her face was furious. "I need that money now, Cary. The New Worlds mortgage is going to be voted on in ten days. In a month, the factories and projects this world will get from remortgaging itself will already be building-"

    "If there's enough people who vote to renew the mortgage-" began Cary.

    "There will be!" she flashed. "Do you think a few woodies like yourself can stop the march of progress?" "Aw, Mattie."

    "Don't aw-Mattie me! Do you think a world like Arcadia is finished up, just because it's paid back the original mortgage its colonists signed, just to get them here and give them the bare essentials of survival?"

"But it's our world now, Mattie," Cary protested.

    "Our world! Our mudhole! Look around you-" She threw out an arm furiously, pointing here and there about the room. "Do you think this is civilization? Earth had this much of things back in the nineteenth century, when stars were just little things going twinkle, twinkle in the sky-"

She broke off, suddenly.

    "Oh, what's the use of talking to you?" she said, wearily. "You like a wilderness world. Well, I don't. And I want my money. When the new mortgage goes through, the money from it will finance an industrial expansion on this world like no one here's ever imagined. And I'm going to buy shares in the new industries with every cent I can raise. By the time you get shot to death, or die of some fever out there in the muskeg swamps, I'll be well on my way to being rich, with a decent roof over my head, and some decent appliances to make life livable, and my own private aircar. It's the first real chance for me or anyone else on this world since it was first settled, ninety years ago-but you don't understand that."

"I understand, Mattie," he said.

    "No, you don't!" she said. "You don't understand anything but booze and that crazy swamp otter-"

"He saved my life!"

    "I know!" she blazed at him. "You've told me. He saved your life. He carves rocks. What's that got to do with me, and how I've worked and slaved and sweated and held a job days while I tried to run this place nights and keep the business going? I've scrimped and saved and cut corners, and worked two shifts to get that money I lent you to bring those carvings down here and sell them! That script you drank up last night was my script! And I want it back!"

    Guiltily, he fumbled inside his jacket and came out with his money pouch. She snatched it out of his grasp before he could open it and tore it open herself. She held it upside down; only a few local coins fell out.

    "Well, I'll take your gear and guns for part of it!" She kicked savagely at his property on the floor beside him. "And I'll get a judgment against you for the rest and have you bound put to the City labor force, with your wages coming to me. There'll be ditches you can dig and errands you can run, if nothing else-"

    "Mattie, listen!" Desperately, he broke in on her. "You didn't let me tell you. The statue-he'll pay cash for that!"

    She stared down at him with his pouch still held out in the air upside down. A single, crumpled script dollar floated down from it, ignored.

"What statue?" she demanded.

    "You know-the statue of me Charlie made," he said. "I told you about

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