“I’m sorry sir, he paints what?”
“Gravity,” said the old man. “A difficult choice.”
Mr. Chopra was not interested in lucidity. A habit reflected, I thought, in the kind of artists he sponsored. Worse, he was a minimalist. A product of his mother’s Jainism, perhaps.
“Please elaborate,” I said. “Sir.”
“I will show you. Come.”
He grabbed one of the steel bars and pulled himself along. After a moment, I followed. It was my first time in orbit, and I found everything to be new and exciting. Mr. Chopra, I could tell, wasn’t comfortable propelling himself forwards using his arms. Not a strong man, I had realized quickly. On Earth, he gave an impression of great power and vigor.
Up here, there was no room for lies. All was stark and sterile and definite.
His room was bigger than the one I was crammed into with Tim, and slightly more comfortable. Two paintings were fixed to one wall. “This,” said Mr. Chopra, gesturing towards the larger one.
A powerful sense of motion and depth hit me at first glance.
The picture showed a man in a grey suit in the act of falling down, painted against the colorful background of a graffitied wall. A closer examination showed that the violent sense of movement had been achieved by a clever and subtle distortion of the background. I thought I got it. The subject of the painting wasn’t the man, it was the act of gravity.
“What do you think?” said Mr. Chopra, abruptly.
“An artist with a very fine understanding of space and time,” I said. “Does he always paint people falling down?”
“People, things. Buildings collapsing. Met him when my old headquarters was demolished. Skinny white boy in the crowd. Never took a video of it, drew from memory. Clever.”
I nodded. Say what you liked about the Mr. Chopra (and people certainly did), but for all his ruthlessness in business matters, he had a sweet spot for young artists. Provided they were talented, of course. I hadn’t yet got to know Gabriel Lundgren; I had taken the first shuttle with Tim and Onyeka, and then had been busy sorting out the tax exemption forms. The artists had arrived two days ago. I knew Gabriel as a kind of specter, a tall colorless creature with long limp blond hair, floating about, staring dreamily at everything with vague surprise. He signed whatever I put in front of him without reading the contents.
“Talk to him,” Mr. Chopra ordered me. “Him. The Ikebana girl. The other one will be fine.”
“I create,” Brant corrected, when I implied that he ‘painted’. “I’m interested in the act of creation, which is not defined by the tools. I don’t think of what I do as simple painting. The parameters set by the tools do not interest me.”
Gabriel was looking rather bemused. “But don’t you paint?”
I thought Brant Siddiqui was an ass, but Gabriel was one of nature’s innocents.
“I capture the moods of the sky with what tools I am allowed, yes, and my paints are created from nature, by myself. I need to feel that I have control over the colors from the start, that they’re mine. The creation of the paints is the soul, the true heart, of my artistic process.” He shot me a look like I had farted or something. “I find it extremely crass, even vulgar, when natural scenes are painted using materials that hurt the Earth Goddess.”
That sounded rehearsed. But he didn’t have quite the flare with words that he did with a brush. Unfortunately for me, Brant was an amazing artist, particularly given the self-imposed limitations of his palette. Crushed leaves and flowers and berries didn’t yield colors even half as vivid as what you got in a basic paint box. Didn’t seem to matter. Brant Siddiqui could read the sky like I read a book, and put the sky down on paper like I (and possibly he) could never write a book.
And, fine, it wasn’t a bad example he was setting, being an important member of the Anti-Pollution art movement. He was a good person, essentially. If only he never spoke, I could like him.
“Well I’d-I’d,” Gabriel’s hands twisted. “I’d like to paint you.” He didn’t look anyone in the eye, and now he was cringing, feverish blotches of pink appearing on his cheeks.
Brant’s eyes went wide. “You what?”
“I want to – to, you’re, up here, you’ve,” he waved an arm desperately. “I can’t paint the absence of gravity.” He looked like he was about to cry. “I tried, but -”
I’d learned to read his body language over the past few days, and I thought he was angling himself towards me, begging help.
“You think having Brant as a subject will help you?” I prompted.
“He’s so full of gravity!”
I wanted to laugh. Brant’s didn’t seem to be sure whether he should be offended or not. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked, in a tone I knew would just send Gabriel even further into his shell.
To my surprise, Gabriel found some coherence from somewhere.
“You’re so – you’re anchored. All the time. The – the things you say about the,” he cringed again. “Earth Goddess. I think it helps you be – I think you’re sure of who you are, it creates a sort of – illusion of gravity.”
“That’s,” for once Brant was at a loss. “Uh, sure, fine. Whatever. You can paint me, if you like.”
Gabriel nodded, looking at his hands that just kept knotting together.
“Why does he do it?” I asked Captain Nantakarn, later. “What’s the point of all this?”
He angled his head slightly and smiled. A calm man, Nantakarn. Yeka had told me his story. The Captain’s (large) family was entirely dependent on the salary he got working for Mr Chopra. The man himself just wanted to be a Buddhist monk.
On Earth leave, Nantakarn lived in a monastery in the Himalayas and was, in fact, a monk. When Mr. Chopra sent for him, he would walk sedately down the mountain, take a few buses across Nepal, and someone would meet him at the India border with a SmartCar.
Apparently the Captain had received Ordination twice, but each time he left, he went back down to being a novice. A Buddhist Sisyphus.
Still, the peace and gentleness hung over him like a shining cloak. “A complex question Ranbir, I’m afraid. And I do not possess a great understanding of Art.”
“It’s not really about Art, is it?” I said, tentatively.
“Ah, no. Not entirely. He possesses great acumen for business, my old friend Rajesh Chopra. Yes. A forward thinking man.” He nodded gently for a few seconds. “The Chopras isolated a profitable niche in the space exploration industry. Space toilets, Ranbir. The fundamental reality of existence that comes in many forms. Lunar and Mars colonies will need toilets.”
“But there won’t be Lunar and Mars colonies for a long while, sir,” I said, growing uncertain. “I’ve read the feasibility studies, it’s – an interest of mine. Off-world colonization is too expensive and lacks any immediate benefit. The money’s better off being poured into population control and farming and carbon capture.”
He was giving me a strange, knowing smile. “Yes. Exactly. A depressed civilization. Pollution and disease, too many mouths to feed, there is not much room for dreams. Young people look to feasibility studies for inspiration, not the stars.”
“So Mr. Chopra thinks that – sponsoring Space Art will bring the romance back to off-world colonization?”
The Captain shrugged. “Perhaps.”
The view of the Earth amazed me the first day, and the next and the next. Yeka was in the observation deck when I had my break.
“How are your babies doing?” she said, as I strapped down into the comfy chair beside her.
“They’re not my babies,” I said, half-heartedly. “Gabriel is painting Brant. Well, he’s trying to. Brant keeps giving him advice.” Yeka grinned. “They were arguing about the role of perspective in Space Art when I left. I hate artists.”
“So does our boss,” she said. “That’s why he hired you to deal with them. You know, your predecessor quit when the last Anti-Poll guy we had up here couldn’t find any biodegradable materials, and used his own feces for a sculpture.”
I shuddered. “You don’t think Brant -”
“Oh God no. He wouldn’t get his manicured hands dirty.” Yeka smiled. “He’s not that bad, you know. I helped him with the physical training. You should get to know him better. Can’t keep this job if you hate the artists.”
“I like Gabriel and Hanako!”
“You barely notice Hanako. Tim’s been giving her beta blockers. You didn’t know, did you? She’s not handling the trip very well.”
Nonplussed, I said: “why didn’t Tim tell me?”
“He’s not obliged to tell you. Your job is to ensure that the artists trust you and will confide in you. Right now, Ranbir, you’re doing a fantastic job of judging them.”
“I’m an art critic! Judging them is what I do!”
She gave me a long, cool look. “Not anymore.”
“It’s so unfair!” Hanako said, when I finally cornered her. At least I spoke Japanese, that had to help a bit. “The others can paint something! What am I supposed to do?”
“Well, that’s not really true, is it?” I said. “Gabriel has no gravity and Brant can’t make his paints. I think you’re just being overly sensitive.”
She clutched the steel bar and glared at me. “You don’t understand!”
“This is the opportunity of a lifetime! Chopra-san chose you because he thinks you’re creative and resourceful. Billions of people will see your work with his patronage!”
“Do you have any idea of the pressure? Do you? My teachers and my family will be – be ashamed of me, be so disappointed, if I don’t manage to do a damn flower arrangement without any damn flowers!”
I found myself glaring back at her. “Since when is ikebana about flowers?”
It was truly hard to concentrate on tax forms when Gabriel and Brant kept bickering about the symbolic value of self-made paints versus the basic advantage of having a professional in charge of making your creative tools. They had been fighting for days.
I had been worried that Gabriel might slip off into depression before, but now he seemed angry enough to survive the trip.
The taxes were surprisingly interesting, in a way. There’s a sentence I never expected to say. But I had ended up reading the notes pages about measures to discourage space tourism by the rich, while simultaneously helping business owners’ who needed a large crew up here. Basically the more people per meter of spaceship, the lower your hydrogen tax. And that was in addition to the break you got by buying larger quantities. I knew that most people thought that the world could only be shaped through taxes and fines, but… gods. They really did take Neo-Tax Culture seriously over at International Space Revenue.
“I’ll use it to represent humanity,” she snapped, when I flattened myself against the wall. “It will be the heart of the arrangement.”
“All right, all right…”
“I think it’s an interesting idea,” said Tim, cheerfully snapping the scissors. “What are you going to make out of my hair?”
Hanako blinked, making the mental switch to English. “I will make stem. Only Gabriel’s hair for flower. Yeka’s hair is moss. Ranbir’s hair,” she waved a hand uncertainly. “Leaves. In ikebana not many flower.”
“Sounds great,” said Tim, and started chopping off his hair.
I wasn’t sure if it was the best idea I’d heard, but she was trying, and that was the important thing. Now if Brant found a sky of some sort in Space they’d all at least have projects to keep them busy.
When she was gone, Tim yawned and carded his fingers through the uneven spikes of hair he had left. “It’s amazing. I’ve done this trip six times and they always think of some damned thing. Old Mr. Crapper’s right, people get more creative the less they have to work with.”
Tim was… Tim, and it seemed like a good opportunity.
“Do you reckon Mr. Cra – Chopra’s doing this to inspire off-world colonization?”
Tim stared at me for a moment, and then he grinned. “Captain Holiness told you that, eh? Well, he’s not one for malicious speculation. You should have come to me for that.”
“I have now.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” said Tim, strapping himself back into his bed. “I think the old guy’s a titan among men. And doesn’t stint on my salary either, which leaves me very kindly-disposed towards his little ideas. How-ever,” Tim was the only person I knew who said ‘however’ in ordinary conversation, and he always rolled the word around in his mouth. “I’ll tell you this, my young disciple. You and I might be fine with sterilization now, but when Chopra was a kid, it was like a banner over your head saying ‘my own parents kicked me in the balls.’ He was the second son. You’re opening your mouth without thinking, that was before the international One Child Policy. Law said that only one kid would be allowed to reproduce, and his parents took the runt of the litter and sent him off to the operating table.”
Tim made me a little uncomfortable, but I always wanted to hear his nonsense. “What’s that got to do with it?”
“Well, elder brother went and squandered his inheritance and life over some Spanish dancer, and then lost custody of his kid. Young Rajesh was the one who took the little shop selling to private explorers, and made it NASA’s own supplier. I think it’s like, validation, you know. Guy misses the kid he never had, and made a toilet empire instead. The toilet empire is his child. Internalizing my wisdom, cadet?”
“With only mild confusion sarge.”
“Don’t give me cheek, cadet. It’s symbolism, or projection, or… other big words that’ll convince you that I know what I’m talking about. No, no, really. Take the pretty Hanako. Just your ordinary ikebana artist. But take away her – stuff, materials, her metaphorical little swimmers – and she gives birth to some Space Art bullshit that’ll shoot her like a speeding bullet into fame and fortune. Losing one thing, an important thing, can make you – you know, more inclined to create, be greater than you would have been with your balls functioning correctly, as it were. Metaphorically. This whole endeavor is Chopra trying to convince himself that he wouldn’t have been the aforementioned titan amongst us puny humans if he’d never been sterilized.”
I tried to imagine a world where sterilization was a stigmata and not a responsibility. “Was it really such a big deal, back then?”
“Yeah, it was pretty bad. And abuse, strictly speaking, sterilizing a child without consent. But they were desperate by then. We’re still desperate, I suppose.”
He reached for his blanket. I stared at the ceiling. “Ah, well, an interesting theory,” I said, diplomatically. “My thanks, sensei.”
Tim sighed. “At least this trip made one person happy.”
“Brant. He’s having the time of his life, getting to move around without his prosthetic legs. Don’t blame him, I’ve seen those things.”
“And it’s funny, but Gabriel insists that Brant was the one who brought gravity up here with him.”
I heard Tim shift in his bunk, and then he turned off his lamp. “Well, Brant was probably the one who noticed gravity the most.”
“He said he chose me because I’m a beautiful African woman! And as such – I quote – the closest approximation available to the true form of the Earth Goddess’ first children! I think the bastard called me -”
“Artist, Yeka, deep breath! He’s an artist and therefore we ignore his personality… quirks. Anyway, can I be offended that he doesn’t think my ginger pee isn’t as good as your African Eve pee?”
“You can’t be offended about anything, Tim,” I said. “Look at yourself and just assume anyone who says or implies anything bad about you in any way is telling the truth. What’s Brant going to do with your pee, Yeka?”
“Freeze it and shatter it and use the fragments to represent the stars. The sharpness of the fragments is supposed to convey the absence of sky, apparently. Or something. I think that’s what he said. I was too busy wanting to knock his stupid racist head off.”
Tim wandered over to the glass and stared down at the planet, the swollen blue green view that always made my heart contract.
“It’ll be utter rubbish, you know,” he said, quietly. “The art always is, but when we go back down to that funny little planet, the critics will rave about it all and people will flock to see it.”
“Maybe it’s good,” I said. “Maybe we’re philistines.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Maybe. Probably.”
“That’s why he does it, dimwit,” said Yeka, moving to Tim’s side. “Mr. Chopra feels helpless because he can’t produce an heir to take over his business -”
“-Empire of Crappers ruled from the Porcelain Thro -”
“Shut up! I mean, that’s got to be it, yeah? The business he spent years building up like his – his own child – passing to his idiot nephew, who just wants to be a ballroom dancer. The – imagine the feeling of helplessness! He’s torturing the artists by making them feel it too.”
“They don’t seem helpless,” I said, with a flash of sympathy towards Mr. Chopra.
But Yeka wasn’t done.
“Everyone’s helpless against the – the – I mean look, just look. That planet down there. It takes your breath away. Every – every time, doesn’t it?” I could see the blue-green reflected in her dark eyes… just for one fanciful second, anyway. “You could be the greatest artist in the world, but there aren’t enough words, or enough colors in a paint box.” She appealed to me, with an intense expression like a priestess in the midst of a ritual. “The artists come here thinking they can make sense of it, but no amount of talent is sufficient. That’s our planet. That’s the greatest truth there is, the deepest and most helpless of all feelings, and you can’t express it to someone who’s never been here. And when you’ve built your life around trying to make everyone feel what you feel… this place is heaven and hell for an artist.” She sighed. “Poor things, really. And we’ve got Brant collecting pee. It just makes me feel so small…”
“It’s probably better than not being able to create anything,” I said, with a rush of irritation.
“And our Ranbir is a self-obsessed jackass,” said Tim. He patted my arm. “It’s good. Hang onto it. Don’t ever let the grandeur in.”
“I hate artists,” I muttered, turning away from the grandeur to go find my boss. “And ginger psychiatrists. And people with sterilization issues.”
I don’t know what possessed me to ask.
His fierce eyes had a hint of amusement in them. “Why do you think?”
Well, I should have anticipated that. Mr. Chopra always asked for people’s opinions. I didn’t know what he did with them.
I looked at him, really looked at him. A stern, old creature, often kind to me, and I thought it was a shame that his particular combination of genetics wouldn’t be passed on. He seemed lonely, against the darkness that arced over the shining hemisphere of the Earth.
“Tax exemption,” I said.
He grinned, suddenly, and I sagged in relief. He patted my shoulder. “You’re right, beta.”
I knew it, I knew it was some mundane, stupid reason….
Mr. Chopra sighed, gazing down at the heartbreaking splendor of the planet. “I love being up here,” he said, very quietly. “This place… it can be kind, in its cold way. But the hell-tax on hydrogen makes it more expensive for me to take a holiday by myself in orbit, and bring only the crew.”
“But you get a tax break if it’s a project by the Chopra Arts Foundation, because it’s a non-profit organization.”
He nodded. “I like them,” he added. “The kids’ art. Call it – what’s that phrase of Timothy’s now? – hm, yes, pseudo-philosophical bullshit. It is. But it’s the way of youth.” He shrugged. “They’re bright things to have around.”
“Yeah,” I said, as the sound of Gabriel and Brant having yet another argument floated down the corridor. Hanako hadn’t left her room in days, and Yeka said she was surrounded by human hair while deep in meditation. All of it, just for a moment, seemed very small and warm.
Sathya Stone studied in England and currently lives in China.