by James Alan Gardner

Copyright © 1989, James Alan Gardner.

"And so it's good-bye to New Earth and <BINK> hello to Creche."

Inter-World Vac/Lines is such a mind-slogging Mom-And-Pop outfit that they think their good-bye/hello trick is cute. Halfway through the welcoming spiel from the burstingly mammalian Coffee-Tea-or-Kama-Sutra Flight Hostess...and speaking of sexual pandering, Inter-World, must we be so heavy-handed with the airborne pheromones in the cabin? I for one am more comfortable buckling up the seat belt when I don't have a pointlessly throbbing erection...halfway through the opening monologue with all its openly oozing female fecundity, they hit the cabin stasis field, and <BINK> it's six weeks later, we're dirtside on some colony where every particle of air has been through one lung too many, and Miss Wouldn't-You-Like-To-Know-If-I've-Been-Surgically-Enhanced is finishing off a sentence that started a couple of dozen light years ago. I mean, really, Inter-World, can't you see how smarmy the whole thing is?

No, you probably can't, you pitiful geckos.

It was with this lapse of taste in my mouth that your intrepid Art-Critic-cum-Role-Model-cum-Provider-of-Vicarious-Savoir-Faire donned the traditional leather jacket of his profession and sallied forth into the Vac/Port for a first recce of the fabled planet of Creche. I was not entirely surprised to find that a Vac/Port is a Vac/Port is a Vac/Port, all of modern semiotics notwithstanding. You have your usual gaggle of tourists from the colony one star system over, the ones with no particular idea why they're here, except that they just had to get off-planet or go mad, and this place was cheaper than Morganna's Semen-Sea Whack-Me World; and you have your traditional traders from your favorite alien culture that doesn't see in the visible spectrum, blundering around with incomprehensible accents, asking humans to read the signs to them; and alas, you have your mass of parochial flibberties who shouldn't be allowed to read our dear old Mind Spurs Weekly but do anyway, who have pilgrimaged to the V/P to maketh the Big Embarrassing Frenzy of Gratitude that J*O*N*N*Y! T*H*E! S*C*A*L*P*E*L!, Knower of Taste and Taster of Knowing, has deigned to descend upon their terraformed little Nowhere to partake of their pathetic drippy lives and report same to the Cosmos at Large (i.e. You, Devoted Reader, currently feeling superior to such hicks, for reasons that are more obvious to you than to Yrs Trly).

Still and all, the Creche mob of droolies were a touch outside the normal run: old as dry beavers, the lot of them. Of course This Reporter was aware of Creche's famed shortfall in the production of mewlies and pukies; but you don't snugly plug into the reality of a child-poor world until you wander into a Vac/Port expecting the usual horde of training bras, only to find that their ecological niche has been filled by the saggy-sack set. At least these post-menopausal minks weren't packing those sharp little tissue-sampling spatulas that the gigglers bring to scrape off souvenirs. (Honest-to-Boggie, kids, if you really want to impregnate yourselves with my DNA, break down and shell out the bucks to one of the fine mail-order houses that advertise in this very magazine. You get professionally-prepared guaranteed-viable sperm, a certificate of authenticity, and a hyper-sincere form letter produced by a state-of-the-art computer that fakes my signature better than I do; and I get to have an epidermis that doesn't look like a land-use map. Bargains all 'round.)

For all their greysies, the Raging Aging were still cut from the typical Scalpel-worshipping mode--each and every one of them was waiting to be discovered. Creche's idle idolizers came unto me bearing their children that I might bless them...said children being sketches and sculpture, mosaics and masks, tapestries, filigrees, etchings on flasks, holograms, cameos, prints wet and dry, ceramics and beadwork and oils, oh my!

Cherished Reader, perhaps you have recently heard Creche lionized in song and cinema as the Mecca of all artistic perfection. Mine own ears too had been visited by paeans to the planet's sublime accomplishments, which is why I felt it incumbent upon me to visit said colony-sized cathedral to Aesthetic Excellence and there do homage. Nevertheless, in those moments when I was besieged by the untalented Crechian unwashed waving their pathetic attempts at self-expression under my nose like whores who want you to smell their panties, it came to me that we must never forget every cathedral is surrounded by pigeons screaming for crumbs and crapping on the architraves. Thus endeth the gospel according to Jonny.

I was saved from the gaggle of gleanies by my contact on Creche, one Phillip Leppid, PhD, PhD, PhD (in Music History, Art History, and Pharmacology--the Three Graces). As those who claim to be au courant with the Contemporary Art Scene should know, the good Doctor-Doctor-Doctor is the man who first brought Crechian objets d'art to the attention of Those-Whose-Opinions-Are-Thought-To-Matter, in a gala showing last year at Buddenbrooks & Bleaks. Since that time, he has made himself buckets of booty huckstering the work wherever empty lives and full wallets are found. He is not Crechian himself--he hails from the hinterlands of a world named after some bottom-of-the-barrel Greek god who wouldn't have rated a pico-asteroid in the old Sol System--but Leppid is Creche's foremost Advocate-Slash-Publicist-Slash-Pimp, and therefore was the natural choice to serve as my Sherpa during my Ascent to the Peak of Human Ahhh-tistic Achievement.

When he sighted me foundering on the shoals of a blue rinse ocean, Doc Leppy (as I never heard him called the whole time I was there) waded in with heroic disregard for his own ship of taste, scattered the minnows with the indiscriminate barging of his 300+ pounds, and dragged me to the safety of his waiting Lava Cruiser Deluxe. To be accurate, the cruuz was a cherry red Ourobouros Devourer 4.3BSD from the Wildebeest Motor Works, with manual steering, a logarithmic tachometer, and two dangling wires where the anti-collision computer used to be. The upholstery was taut white, covered with the bleached hide of an endangered species that I probably shouldn't name here because it would earn Leppid a visit from ecological guerrillas with a nasty How-Would-You-Like-To-Be-Tanned-And-Sat-On attitude. Ah, what the hell, it was an alligator. (Sorry, Phil--the Public's Need-to-Know wore down my resistance. Anyway, what have you done for me lately?)

With Leppid at the wheel, we peeled out of the Vac/Port at a speed that didn't quite break the sound barrier but opened a hair-line crack or two, and one exit ramp later we were spattering through the local lava fields fast enough to throw up a peacock tail of molten rock directly behind us...except that it wasn't directly behind us all that often, because Phil was weaving like a tripped-out spider: hard to port, hard to starboard, through our own wake of stony slush, one grade A skidding doughnut that bid fair to roll us Ass-Over-Teacup o'er the burning plain, one six-G deceleration that buried our nose so deep in volcanic phlegm I found myself wishing I'd brought a periscope...and finally, I had to say, "Phil. Enlighten me. Are we out here taking evasive maneuvers from snipers, or are you just jerking around?"

"Come on, Scalpel," he grinned as he gave the wheel a twist that heeled us over far enough to scorch the door handles, "I read that piece you did on the Overdrive Overlords of Omicron II. They drove around like maniacs and you wrote the most glowing review of your life."

"It seems to have escaped your attention, Phil, but what the Overdrive Overlords were up to was performance art," I told him. "They did not drive like maniacs, they drove like artists. The distinction may be subtle, but I like to think it's important."

Leppid snorted as if he knew what I really meant to say.

"If you recall any fragment of the article," I insisted, "from the moment they made their commitment to Art, it became the most important things in their lives. They made sacrifices, Phil. They were willing to bleed for the Cause. Need I remind you that the couple who drove the Ballet of the Sand had abstained from Vigorous-Convexity-In-Voracious-Concavity for six wanking months because they thought the yearning would make the performance more poignant? And even though I am not of the school that believes celibacy is a non-consummation devoutly to be wished, I must confess that there were tears in the Scalpine Big Browners as I watched them dance. Yes the dancers were driving cars across salt flats, and yes they were smashing fenders and sideswiping each other at velocities most speedometers only dream of; but they were expressing deep things, Phil! Two souls locked inside metal hulks, trying to make contact, trying to come together, turning near collisions into ballet, and eventually using the cars themselves to make soaring gentle love.... Magic! Art! Spirit, Phil, greatness of spirit! The material is immaterial, the artifact is arbitrary. The heart, the soul, and the life of Art is the spirit. Is any of this sparking neurons, Phil, or am I just impersonating a tree falling in a forest?"

"Come on, Jonny, I know what you really want is to get a little wild."

I sighed deeply. The difference between a Sensitive-Critic-Known-Respected-And-Feared-In-All-Corners-Of-The-Galaxy and an Opportunistic-Boor-Who-Might-Have-Three-Degrees-But-Doesn't-Know-Titian-From-Turds is that one of us has eyes that see and ears that hear, while the other has an assortment of prejudices he waits to have confirmed. "Phil," I told him, "you are getting wild, the car is getting wild, and the lava is getting positively livid. I, on the other hand, am sitting here passively, save for the occasional reflexive jerk to prevent my skull from making forceful contact with the dashboard."

Leppid laughed loud and long at that, all the while playing Jiggle-Me-Juicy with the steering wheel. The world is divided into two groups: the people who listen to what you say and ponder it deeply in their hearts; and the people who think every word that issues forth from your mouth is utterly facetious, and can even write down your clever turns of phrase and quote them in articles, for Bog's sake, without it ever penetrating their brains that you are trying to make some kind of statement.

So Leppid pursued his attempts at wooing me by wowing me, until Creche's sun moseyed off to see if there was anything doing on the other side of the planet and the stars showed up to see what had changed since they left. At first glance, lava leaping in a cruuz looks even better after dark because of the weaving strips of black and flame, the fountaining of sparks, the gouting arcs of hot planet blood...but all that brucey imagery loses its charm damned fast if the smoky shadow you drive into turns out to be a jag of recalcitrant bedrock too pigheaded to melt. At last, even the good Triple-Doc had to admit that further monkeyshines in the magma were just a shade closer to suicidal than good taste allowed, so with tears in his eyes he called it a night.

We pulled up onto the highway at a spot apparently made for the purpose: something like a boat launching ramp, only gnubbly with flecks of dried lava dripped off by other hot-hot-hot-rodders who'd passed this way before. There was a bevy of Bloat-Belly trucks sharing the road with us, all coming from the Vac/Port and no doubt filled with the gewgaws of a hundred worlds, belched up from the cargo holds of the same Vac/Ship that had brought Your Obedient Servant. All of the trucks we passed were bot-driven, which was just fine with me--if Phil had seen one of those Bloaters under human control, I know he would have tried racing the rig in order to demonstrate his testosterone level to his captive member of the Press. (Ah, children, the world is full of people who want to impress the old Scalper with feats of derring-do. My advice is, derring-don't.)

Nascence City, the colonial capital, nestles halfway up the side of a volcano everyone swears is extinct (this surrounded by a lavid plain that seethes with fumaroles, geysers, and the like...suuurrrrre). You can see its lights winking, blinking, and nodding among the crags when you are down on the flats, but when the road actually begins climbing the mountain, your line of sight is blocked off by assorted igneous effusions that welled up some thirty million years ago--this geological travelogue courtesy of Nascence Alive!!!, one of those End-Every-Sentence-With-An-Exclamation-Point publications whose natural habitat is the top drawer of hotel night-tables.

The hotel in question was the Nascence Renaissance--redundant in name, and redundant to describe for those who have stayed at its kith and kin throughout our wart on the galactic arm. Squatting by the main highway, just inside the dome's airlock, surrounded with carefully tended greenery that would look more natural if it were plastic...anyone who has travelled on expense account knows that this same hotel follows you from city to city, running on ahead so it has time to put down its foundations and change its make-up in the hopes that you won't recognize it from the night before. Everywhere, the same covered entranceway, whether you drive up in a lava cruuz, sand-crawler, or gondola: so dark and shadowed by the overhanging portiere that they need lights during the daytime (globe-lights in simulated antique fixtures), and as you are helped out of your vehicle by a grizzled male in pseudo-military livery, you see assembling a battalion of bellhops who wash their ruddy cheeks each morning in a fifty-fifty aqueous solution of eagerness and cynicism. Professional small talk ensues momentarily; then, into a plush lobby befitted with oaken desk, crystal chandelier, and round-the-clock concierge (always a middle-aged woman who is the epitome of courtesy and dispatch, but whom you can tell was a Grade A heart- and ball-breaker in her day).

You can count on two artpieces in the foyer: one some sort of sunset, the other an historical motif, neither aggressively representational or abstract. The Nascence Renaissance held true to form on the first, with a hooked shag-wool tapestry of one (1) regulation red giant about to take its roseate leave behind a near-naked horizon clad only in a tastefully placed cactus. But what to my wondering eyes should appear on the wall above the neo-Victorian pseudo-hearth? Not the black-and-white Battle of This, nor the blue-study Treaty of That, nor even the sepia Discovery of The Other Thing: it was a layered assemblage of vertical mylar and buckram strips, the mylar a wispy mercurial foreground that tinselled several planes of fabric behind it (like a curtain of mist in a dream? a glittering spider web? bars of a gossamer cage?), and the stiff cloth backgrounds painted with dyes to give a textured three-dimensional picture of a nursery--playpen, cradle, toy box, stuffed animals scattered about the floor, dolls toppled over on a window seat, a closet with its door ajar and filled to overflowing with tiny carefully hung clothes.

At first, there was no one visible; but as I examined the work, I thought there was a small movement behind one of the nursery curtains. When I looked directly at it, nothing; but out of the corner of my eye, I caught a tiny quiver of motion behind the closet door, ducking out of sight too soon for me to see. Then in the toy box; then from behind a pile of dolls; then under the blanket tossed carelessly beside the cradle--the piece was alive with children peeking from behind every strip of fabric, but hiding too fast to leave more than the ghost of their passing.

"Computer-controlled," Leppid said at my elbow. "Hidden cameras keep track of your eye movements. You can watch all day and the little buggers will never be where you're looking."

"Could get bloody irritating after a while," I said.

"If it were done badly," he shrugged. "But it's not." And even though I was not kindly disposed towards the Doctor3 at the time, I had to admit he was right. The work had a subtlety and a sly naturalness that made it both haunting and haunted.

"Who's the artist?" I asked.

"Vavash," he answered. "Earth mother type--long straight silver hair, shapeless tie-dyed dresses, would rather wear glasses than have corrective surgery...a textbook classic. One of the First Colonists, of course. They're what make Creche what it is. Since the Rediscovery, a lot of lesser lights have settled here to bask in reflected glory, but no one of any stature. Most of the new immigrants are...well, the group at the Vac/Port were typical. Black Velveteers."

"We'll stick to the First Colonists," I said hurriedly.

"I thought you'd feel that way," Leppid grinned. "I've set up a visit to their retreat tomorrow morning. It's in the Upper City--poshly Spartan. Entirely state-supported too; the other colonists treat the Firsties like royalty. Not much interaction between old and new, except at official ceremonies. It wouldn't hurt you to be a bit deferential around them."

I gave him a look that was intended to wither his fat-beribboned carcass right in its pointy-toed shoes. He laughed and slapped me on the back as if I'd told a joke.
* * *

My internal clock was scarcely in the sleeping mood when I retired to my room, so it seemed like a good time to refresh my memories of the sordid history of Creche by looking up the colony in Auntie Agatha's Encyclopaedia of All Those Things You Should Have Learned in School, You Jam-Headed Git, But No, You Were Too Lazy to Apply Yourself and Now Look Where You Are...a reference work that I have recommended many times in this column, whenever I use it as a cheap expository device.

The First Colonists landed on Creche some sixty years ago, the vanguard of what was intended to be a grand colonizing caravan that would bring hundreds of thousands of other nouveau Crechi and Crechae to this toasty-warm lava-ball. For Reasons That Have Never Been Adequately Explained (i.e. a computer error that the damned sneaky machines managed to cover up before human auditors arrived), all of the subsequent colony ships were diverted to the beautiful planet of Mootikki, famed for its semi-sentient water spiders that eat anything with a pulse. Forty years passed before some minor functionary stumbled across records of the original Creche expedition and sent out a scout to peek in on their progress.

Creche had not done badly, all things considered. There had only been ninety people on the lead ship, but there had been a full complement of builder-bots, plus all the materials needed to erect a life support dome and get the food vats pulsating. In fact, with only ninety people to support, there was an embarrassment of supplies, and more than enough bot-power to keep the staples stapled.

All skittles and beer then...except for The Problem. As reported by the Crechians to the scout four decades later, no children had come. Hell yes, they had tried making babies, with a lusty devotion, and according to all medical analyses, they were fertile as Teenagers-Who-Think-It-Can't-Happen-To-Them; but something in the water/air/top-soil/Van Allen Belts was preventing Mr. Sperm and Ms. Ovum from producing nicens little baby Zygote, and year after year went by without those little feet a-patterin'.

Now our old friend Sigmund the Shrink would be cocky as a cigar to hear what happened next: the Creche colony turned to the solace of Art as compensation for lack of littl'uns. (Isn't that always the way? Every time you think Freudian psychology has finally achieved its own death wish and the world can move on to something loftier than the Poopoo-Weewee-Slurp School of Human Behavior, along comes some pack of clods giving their all to make the All-World Sublimation Team and you're right back in Libido-land. The human psyche is pretty damned anal-retentive about Freudianism.) Still, I thought to myself, the Crechians hadn't chosen either their situation or their hang-ups; the important question was what they had made with what they were given.
* * *

Morning arrived with an artillery barrage of photons on my eyelids and a cheerful computer voice saying, "This is your wake-up call, Mr. The Scalpel."

"I didn't ask for a wake-up call!" I bleared from under a pillow.

"This is a free service of the Nascence Renaissance Hotel. If there is any other service I may perform for you, I would be happy to comply."

A less-experienced traveller would have retorted with a suggestion both vulgar and topologically challenging; but I knew better. I once used a pithy colloquialism in response to an annoying hotel computer, and an hour or so later, room service was at the door with a huge agglomeration of feedscrews and suction pumps that was apparently capable of doing precisely what I'd specified. Not only did I have to pay for materials and transport costs, but there was a hefty fee for some custom molybdenum tooling that had had to be done in a low-G L5 colony.

I have to admit, though, the contraption did work as advertised.

Breakfast came with a complimentary copy of the Creche Colony Chronicle (alliteration is the soul of journalism). The front page was splashed with many of the same articles that had been slopping around on the stands the day I left New big surprise, since all the news must have come in with me on the Vac/Ship. However, there was one interesting tidbit: Miss All-The-King's-Horses-And-All-The-King's-Men Flight Attendant had apparently caused a major uproar by sneaking away from the Vac/Port and visiting one of Nascence's night spots. Oh, the outrage! A fertile female at large amidst the Barrens! The Colonial Cops had clapped her in irons posthaste and transported her in utter ignominy back to the V/P, there to remain in quarantine until her ova-rich ass could be kicked off-planet.

"Computer!" I called. "Do you do legal information?"

"I am fully prepared to make small-talk on legal matters, none of which should be construed to imply, suggest, or covenant that information imparted in such wise constitutes qualified advice from the Nascence Renaissance Hotel, which will in no way be held liable for any damages, costs, expenses, claims, actions, or proceedings that may result directly or indirectly from this little chat."

"Just confirm for me that women of child-bearing age aren't allowed on Creche."

"Human females below the age of fifty may not immigrate to Creche unless they are certified incapable of reproduction."

"And why's that?"

"For their own protection. Some factor in Creche's environment makes child-bearing impossible. The First Colonists do not want others to suffer the infertility that they themselves endured; and as the authorized colonial government, the First Colonists have benevolently forbidden off-planet women from subjecting themselves to such risks."

"What about men?"

"Men above the age of thirty are welcomed."

"But computer, I thought no one understood the sterility. How do the First Colonists know that men are safe but women aren't?"

"Have you enjoyed your breakfast, Mr. The Scalpel?"

"You didn't answer my question, computer."

"Did you notice how evenly we spread the marmalade on your toast? The Nascence Renaissance Hotel Kitchen-bots take great personal pride in attending to the smallest details."

"Am I to assume that I'm venturing into areas of the data banks that are missing, classified, or both?"

"The sauce on the eggs is a special invention of the chef's. He's won prizes for it."

Ahh, a quick prayer of thanks to Elizabeth of Hungary, patron saint of the hasty cover-up. It is a far far tastier sauce for a journalist's breakfast than some soupy pseudo-Hollandaise that probably came from the rear end of some bacterium.
* * *

By the time Leppid came to pick me up in his manic-mobile, I had rented a vehicle of my own: a docile town-car that understood it was a mode of transport, not a kinetic emetic. When Leppid got into the passenger seat, I believe he thought the car was a dragster incognito; all the way up to the First Colonist retreat, he was bracing himself for the moment when I would press some hidden button and go FTL. His face was red with nervous perspiration by the time we reached the front gates.

Now, Gentle Reader, if we are to believe the Weekly's demographic studies, you are likely to be an upper middle class inhabitant of one of the more frequented worlds, a youngish college-educated pseudo-intellectual who fancies him- or herself weird and unconventional, though you wouldn't know real weirdness if it bit you on the bum and short, you're a bureaucrat and probably a civil servant. As such, you have no doubt imagined the life you will lead when you achieve an elevated position in your oligarchy of choice--the dining room suites made of gold, the platinum bathroom fixtures, the black velour drapes speckled with diamonds arranged to mimic the local star map--and you believe that everyone who has Arrived will share your dreams of wallowing in a mud-pit of conspicuous excess.

The First Colonists owned Creche the way you own your monogrammed handkersniffs; but they had more Style and Taste and Class in their nostril hairs than the entire populations of several planets I could name. There was no showy Imported-Vegetation-Intended-To-Look-Lush-While-Not-Straying-A-Millimeter-Out-Of-The-Kidney-Shaped-Flower-Bed-Where-It-Belongs or Mansion-Built-To-Ape-Some-Blissful-Historical-Period-When-Culture-Was-In-Full-Flower-And-Peasants-Knew-Their-Place. Their retreat consisted of dozens of two-room prefab huts spread over a tract of unadorned twisted sheeny-black volcanic cinder, and a mammoth central building that looked like a Vac/Ship hangar and served as refectory, general store, and studio.

The plainness of the buildings was offset by a profusion of statuary: at the top of every rise, at the bottom of every hollow, on the side of every cinder slope stable enough to support weight. Just inside the gate (which opened automatically as we approached), we passed a life-size hologram of an ancient metal swing-set--at first sight, brand new, painted in bright reds and yellows, but aging rapidly as we drove forward until it was rusted and rotting; then back again, freshly reborn. A little farther on, a copper-green man and woman stood beside one another and a short distance apart, their hands held out and down as if they supported an invisible child between them. Not too far beyond that, a tree of dew-slick steel pipes supported a host of mirrored cylinders that dangled on silver cords and swayed in the morning breeze; within each cylinder, some light source gave off a golden glow that shone up on the pipes' wet sheen.

"Something's happening over there," Leppid said, pointing. Some twenty people were walking in slow single file across the slaggy landscape, following a pair of bots who carried something I couldn't make out. The humans were all old, in their eighties or nineties; even the bots were elderly, obsolete models not seen in the fashionable part of the galaxy for many years. One of the bots was playing a recorded flute solo through speakers that crackled with age.

Doc-Doc-Doc Phil and Your Ever-Curious Correspondent got out of the car to investigate. Walking across the gnarled terrain was an open invitation for the Gods of Twisted Ankles to give us a sample of their handiwork; but like most gods, they didn't exist, so we managed to reach the procession with tibiae untouched. The man at the end of the line said nothing, but nodded in recognition to Leppid and motioned for us to follow.

From this new vantage point, we could see what the bots were carrying: more perfectly polished than the finest mirror, the silvery ovoid of a stasis field with the size, shape, and probable functionality of a coffin. Perhaps the same stasis chest had housed one of the First Colonists on the voyage that had brought them to Creche--in those early days of Vac/Flight, travellers were wrapped in individual containers instead of the full-cabin One-Field-Immobilizes-All systems used now.

The parade stopped at the edge of a cloudy pool that thickened the air with the smell of sulphur. The bots tipped the coffin and stood it on end, as a plump woman at the head of the line reached into her apron and produced a copper wand with a ceramic handle. She touched the tip of the wand to the surface of the stasis field, and <BINK> the field popped like a soap bubble on a sharp toenail. Revealed to the gloom of an overcast day was the naked emaciated corpse of a woman in her nineties, liver-spotted hands folded over her flat-flap breasts. She had coins where most of us have eyes, and a small butterfly tattoo where many of us have small butterfly tattoos.

Suddenly, the woman with the wand proclaimed in a belly-deep voice, "There are some among us who have compared Life to Stasis. In our trip from birth to death, we are locked into a body that can be frozen with sickness or age or fear. If this is so, death is the moment of liberation, of release, of reaching our long-awaited destination. We wish our sister well in her new world."

The woman bent over the body and kissed the dead cheeks with that airy Two-Centimeters-From-Contact Kiss that was so much in vogue sixty years ago. The corpse accepted it in the spirit in which it was intended. Then the line began to move, and we all got a chance to scope out the bare-ass carcass and take what liberties we chose. As we filed along, watching others shake the deceased's hand, stroke her flanks, and so on, Leppid murmured to me, "The dead woman called herself Selene. She specialized in collage...very personal stuff. This whole thing is a surprise to me--I saw her a couple of days ago and she seemed very healthy."

"She wasted away pretty damned quick then, didn't she?"

"Oh no, she was always very thin. If you'd ever seen her work, you'd know. She often incorporated a photo of herself into pieces."

"Ahhh." Self-portraits have a long and noble history...Art will let you pick a self-indulgent subject as long as the self-indulgence stops before you get your brushes gooey. When I drew close and had my turn to pay my unfamiliar respects, I intended to give a quick smooch and walk on; but something caught my eye and held me there much longer than protocol required. Dim and camouflaged by the mottled old skin, stripes of stretch marks chevroned down both sides of her belly.

Esteemed Reader, there are only a few conditions that stretch abdominal skin enough to leave permanent marks. One of them is obesity, from which the scrawny Selene apparently had not suffered. The only other cause I know is pregnancy. And that was an enigma I pondered deeply as Selene's remains were remaindered into the steaming maw of the planet's digestive system.
* * *

In the main building, a retrospective of Selene's work had been hastily mounted on one side of the Dear Departed's studio: a collage of collage. A canvas covered with gears and gems and alphabet blocks...a volcano-shaped mound of plaster wrapped in wrinkled tissue paper dabbed with blobs of solder and melted crayons...the great bowl of a radar dish sequined with thousands of tiny dolls' eyes opening and closing in accordance with a cellular automaton schema described in an accompanying booklet...but no, no, no, it is not the Old Scalper's intention to describe too many of the Art objects of Creche. Quick jump to the earliest piece in the collection: by luck or deus ex machination, a life-size double photograph of Selene herself at twenty, front view and back view, in the buff. Titled Birth, Re-Birth, and its Consequences, it was the usual sort of work that early colonial artists seemed compelled to produce when starting off fresh on a new world: an assessment of who she had been and what she was now.

The two full-length photographs were black and white, very clinical, tacked to a corkboard backing. Every scar on the artist's body was carefully circled with red paint; black surgical thread connected each scar on the photos to an accompanying card that explained the circumstances surrounding the scar. (Judging from her knees, Selene had been one of those children who should not have been allowed to play on gravel.) And I know what you all have been wondering, and the answer is no--her taut little tum-tum showed nary a sign of stretch, hurt, or lesion.

"See something you like?" Vavash asked in an amused voice. She was standing by my side, watching me scrutinize the photo of naked young Selene, and I suppose she had attached lascivious motives to same.

"An interesting lead to my article," I said, wondering if I sounded convincing. "I arrive and immediately become part of a funeral. Later, I have the chance to see the same woman, sixty years younger. Contrast, irony, all that folderol."

"Oh." She seemed dubious.

Vavash was more or less the woman Leppid had described, and more rather than less. She was a head taller than I and a beefy bicep wider, the product of one of those Fringe Worlds that dabbled in Ubermensch breeding programs. For all her eighty years, her eyes were as clear as the cry of a hawk and her spine as straight as a teen-age erection. She was indeed wearing a shapeless tie-dyed dress, not to mention huge round spectacles, leather sandals, and a gold mandala on a chain about her neck. A na ve observer might call her an anachronism, a clichd throwback to the Stoned Age; but there was too much intelligence in her for anything so trite.

Vavash had been the woman who led the funeral, and to all appearances she was the First of the First. Frankly, the other First Colonists were a sorry looking lot: over half had already died of old age, and most of the rest were only a step away from Worm Chow. I doubted that more than a handful were actively working any more. A functioning studio is filled with more smells than a Fomalhaut Flatutorium--oils and turpentine and damp clay, hot metal and etching chemicals, tart developing fluid, fresh sawdust, and the crinkle of human sweat--but the studio building around me carried only the ghosts of effluvia past.

"Was this Selene's first work?" I asked.

"Earliest surviving, I would guess," Vavash answered. "She was fresh out of art school when she signed up for the Creche colony. I'm sure she had many student pieces, but I wouldn't think they were still around. Not on Creche, anyway. That's not the sort of frippery colonists were allowed to bring with them in the old days."

"So Selene planned to be an artist all along?"

"Oh, we all did. Creche was always intended to be an artistic commune. We called it a Second Wave colony. The very earliest colonies, the ones we called First Wave, were founded solely on economic grounds--which planets had the most valuable minerals, which were the cheapest to terraform, that sort of thing. The Second Wave colonies were an idealistic backlash--hundreds of special interest groups intent on setting up their own little utopias to show everyone else how it was done, and to hell with the materialistic bullshit. I know that I considered several other Art-oriented colonies before I decided on Creche."

"What distinguished Creche for you?"

Vavash laughed. "I had a boyfriend and he liked the name. That's the truth as seen from the objectivity of age. At the time, I would have sworn I made my decision for hard-headed ideological reasons, and my Tomas would have said the same thing. What distinguished Creche after the fact, of course, was that the few of us who landed here had forty years to work without outside interruption, and with so many surplus supplies that we never had to do any kind of non-artistic labor."

"You had everything you needed?"

"We had all the essentials, but we didn't have everything. We had very little technology beyond the basic terraforming machinery, for example. You can see that in our Art, of course...we work in media that are centuries old. And almost all the medical supplies and medic-bots were on one of the other ships. We were lucky that the standard decontamination measures had succeeded in killing all the dangerous micro-organisms the colonists might have been carrying. Back then, decontamination was seldom that effective."

"I guess you were lucky that you never had any children either," I said as off-handedly as I could. "Pregnancy can get very dicey, medically speaking."

I knew I was taking a bloody great risk in bringing up such a touchy subject. The First Colonists were the government on Creche, and Vavash was their leader. If she decided to have my head cut off and paraded around the Vac/Port on a pike...well, in place of reading my pellucid prose you'd probably be skipping over some unctuous obit on the late Scalpel, Jonathan The by that self-important Gretchen What's-Her-Name whose incoherent ramblings blight these pages when I'm away on assignment. (By the way, that picture they run above Gretchie's by-line isn't really her--it's just a stand-in. Our Valiant Editor is afraid that if he shows the Gretch as she really is, the Weekly will get popped for Harboring The Product Of A Genetic Experiment Counter To The Public Interest. Hi Gretchikins. Kiss kiss.)

But as you have probably guessed by now, Vavash did not choose to take extreme rancor. She simply stared at me with piercing eyes and said, "You are rude, Mr. Scalpel. I can't tell if you're being rude because you don't know any better, or because you intentionally want to provoke me. Which is it, Mr. Scalpel? Are you a pugnacious little brat or some scheming Machiavelli?"

"I'm an Art Critic, ma'am," I replied.

"And does that justify taunting a woman to her face?"

"Politeness is the enemy of both Art and Criticism, ma'am. It tries to color true perception, dilute strong emotion, and replace genuine compassion. To pursue bad manners is childish, to pursue good ones is emasculation."

"Are you quoting someone?"

"Myself," I said, wondering why it wasn't self-evident. "Look, how can you people call yourself artists if you don't read my column? Why would you let a Critic in your front gate if you didn't know that you could respect his judgement? I feel like I've just washed up on one of those islands where the local lizards have never seen a predator."

She looked me up and down once more with a critical eye. Suddenly, I had the impressions she was assessing me for my proficiency in the Slap-And-Tickle Disciplines. I knew the colonies that Vavash called the Second Wave were rife with the belief that Genital Interlock could solve any problem, from How-Can-I-Show-This-Cocky-Little-Punk-He-Doesn't-Know-Everything to Oh-God-I'm-Bored-And-Everyone-Around-Me-Is-Senile. I was rehearsing my standard speech #24 ("I'm sure it would be delightful, duckie, but I only review people on one Art at a time") when Vavash shook herself and said, "You are many things I dislike, Mr. Scalpel; but I believe you have integrity. Feel free to wander where you choose."

She left in a tie-dyed swirl. Leppid, who had a toady's way of hovering in the background whenever Vavash was near, came out from behind an installation piece (a mound of rag-dolls, each with a picture of Selene spiked to the chest with a voodooine hatpin) and mopped his brow, saying, "Ye Gods, Scalpel, I thought I told you to be deferential."

"You did. I ignored you."
* * *

We spent many hours touring the studio building, Leppid looming behind my shoulder, pointing out the obvious and the obnoxious, punctuating his every remark with a pudgy finger poking at my chest. For your delectation, a representative Leppidine diatribe, held in front of a trompe d'oeil picture of a shadow-bedecked wooden chair with a teddy bear carelessly sprawled on the seat: "See this, Scalpel? An oil painting. Colored pigment on canvas. Showing something you can immediately recognize. That sells, Scalpel, that sells on any planet, Fringe World, or colony you want to name. Why? Because Art consumers recognize it as Art. Yesterday you were saying that Art isn't a matter of artifacts, and you are exactly right. Art consumers--my Art consumers-- aren't buying artifacts, they're buying into the Human Artistic Tradition. And this Creche stuff, it's classic. Painting, sculpture, tapestry, illustration...that's what Art's been, for a thousand years. People know that. And they want to be part of the greatness. So you tell me why Inter-World is so chintzy with their cargo space that they're only allowing me eight cubic meters on this next flight out. At that rate, it'll take me decades to get a good volume of Creche's work on the market!"

Well, Precious Perusers, whatever there may be off-planet, there is a whacking great volume of work in the Creche studios, and it is quite beyond the capacity of this reviewer to critique a comprehensive catalog. Some of it is quotidian--all the time and freedom in the Bang-Crunch cycle won't wring masterpieces from the determinedly mediocre--but much of it is high quality stuff...if you like being chopped in the chin with childlessness. Wham, we don't have children; whap, we can't have children; powee, we'll never again see children.

How much Crechian work has actually found its way out to the World At Large? A tiny fraction of what is still on-planet. And on any given world, there would be at most twenty pieces, distributed over several collections. No one out there has experienced one iota of the cumulative impact of a sortie through Sterility Studio-land.

For example, empty cradles were an extravagantly popular theme, especially when embellished with some unplayed-with toy trying to look pathetic. Wooden cradles; macram cradles; molded glass cradles with marbles imbedded in them; wicker cradles fondly tucked up with bunny rabbit blankets; cradle sketches in pencil, charcoal, India ink, sepia, silverpoint; cradle paintings in acrylics, watercolors, oils, gouache, tempera, and several homemade concoctions that looked like crushed lava particles suspended in white glue; and this is not to mention all the collages, assemblages, and installations that managed to sneak in cradle-like objects amidst the battered packing crates and out-of-context clippings that traditionally provide the backbone for such works.

There were indeed pieces without obvious reference to barrenness--mirrored cylinders were very big, for example, and it didn't take someone of my keen intellect to make the connection with the stasis chests that carried the colonists to Creche--but there was no escaping the overpowering presence of the underage absence. It was a scab they couldn't help picking, psychological vomit they had to keep revisiting.

With brief stops for lunch and supper at the refectory (bot-staffed and culinarily uninspired), I ploughed on undaunted until we saw twilight through the skylight. In that whole time, I had encountered none of the other colonists; Leppid said they were probably holding some kind of post-funeral vigil for Selene in the hut where she had lived. Considering my usual working conditions, trying to do my job while sandwiched between artists and agents grovelling, picking fights, or both, I was quite chipper to be left on my own.

Naturally, I left what I hoped would be the best till last: Vavash's studio. Several times during the course of the day I had caught a whiff of it, a tingly tangle of herbs and chemicals with the fragrance of the back room of an alchemist's shop. When I stepped through the door, I immediately saw where the smells came from: vats of fabric dyes, extracted by hand from roots and leaves and flowers and seeds that Vavash must have brought with her and grown hydroponically over the years. Above the vats were festoons of freshly dyed yarn in long skeins as thick as my arm, cones of thread stuck on pegs, and wool bats hanging from hooks like fuzzy ping pong paddles. On the opposite wall were shelves all the way up to the roof, thick with bolts of felt and broadcloth and muslin. In one back corner, a spinning wheel stood beside a cherrywood loom with more pedals than a pipe organ; in the other, a sturdy table two fathoms long supported a gleaming new sewing machine with so many dials and levers and robotic attachments that it would probably qualify for full citizenship under the Mechanical Species Act. And in the middle of the room, Vavash had left a small collection of her work. It brought tears to my eyes.

Honored Reader, Genius is rare. True talent is sparse enough, but Genius...the kind of great Genius vision where every picture tells a satori.... Some psychologists would have it that inside every human soul, there is Genius waiting to spring forth in strength and passion and beauty; and some sentimentalists would have it that full many a Genius is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air. All I know is that billions upon billions of human beings have been squeezed from wombs throughout history, but there are less than a thousand whom we can scrupulously say had Genius.

Vavash had Genius.

And she had squandered it.

Doll clothes. A tapestry strung with toys. Empty cradles.

So damned close to being a profound statement of loss or yearning or bitter tragedy, but ultimately heartless...some step of emotion that wasn't there to take. Entirely new ways of combining textiles and dyes, ideas as eye-opening as pointillism or cubism or scintillism were in their day...but once your eyes had been opened, there was nothing to see. The visions of a human being who had stared into the depths of the Abyss, and then had decided to make floral wallpaper.

Empty cradles. Empty fornicating cradles. Vavash had the eyes of Genius, the hands of Genius, the brain of Genius. But not the purity. Not here. Not in these works.

"There has to be more," I said hoarsely.

"What?" asked Leppid.

"The woman's been working here for sixty years. She's done more than this. Where is it?"

"I think they have some storerooms in the basement here..."

"Show me."

Leppid was looking at me nervously, as if I were a bomb about to go off--not a bad assessment of my mental state. Keeping fidgety watch over his shoulder, he led me through bare cement corridors to a thick metal door. "I think it's down there. I've never been myself." He tried turning the knob. "No, no good."

"Get out of the way," I told him.

"You can't go down there," he said. "It's locked."

"Nonsense," I said looking at the latching system. It had been obsolete for centuries. "A lock is a security device. This old thing is just to stop the door from banging in the wind." I reached into my pocket and pulled out my namesake and totem, the most magnificent solidinum scalpel influence-peddling could buy. By grandiose claim of the manufacturer, it would cut through anything short of White Dwarf material.

"What do you think you're doing?" Leppid moaned.

"Vavash told me to feel free to wander where I chose."

"I'm not going along with this," the Doctoral Triumvirate muttered and stomped off. I suspected he was going to get Vavash, but I didn't care. I had got it into my head that I was being played for a fool. For some reason, Vavash had only put out her conspicuous failures for me to see. Perhaps she was trying to test my judgement after all. Perhaps she had been in a nasty mood one day and tossed together some bathetic Oh-Our-Terrible-Totless-Tragedy garbage to sell to off-planet yokels through D-D-Doctor Wouldn't-Know-Art-If-It-Carried-I.D. Perhaps someone else with hideous taste had chosen Vavash's display, and there were good and powerful works just on the other side of this door.

I started cutting. The scalpel upheld the family honor with speed and grace. In something under a minute, I was descending a long flight of steps into a darkened basement the size of a steel mill. Halfway down, I passed through an electric eye and a bank of lights turned on in front of me.

Blinking my eyes against the brightness, I saw a jungle of artworks, some packed in crates, some covered with tarpaulins, most just sitting out and gathering dust. They stretched off into a deep darkness at the far end of the cellars, where I could just make out a faint shimmery glimmer.

I walked through the silent collection, harsh overhead lamps turning on automatically whenever I approached the edge of the next darkened area. Flash, lights up on a flock of life-sized papier-mch pygmies, some standing up, some lying on their backs, one squat little androgyne fallen over onto a terra cotta jar whose rim was now deeply embedded in its throat. Flash, and there were long vertical racks that held canvasses slid in on their sides; I pulled a few out, saw stuccoed prickles of color in abstract patterns. Flash, and an echoing aura ignited in dusty stained glass, vases striped wine red and frosty white, engraved with tall slim men wearing the sharp-edged styles of long ago, casually embracing one another.

Flash, flash, flash, then Vavash.

Unmistakable. Unforgettable. Genius.

Utter simplicity: a tapestry hung from a tall wooden arch. A sun-crowned rainbow bursting upward in joyous fountain between the legs of a prone woman. Truth. Beauty. Purity. A clamping knot of hunger untied in my chest, like the release of doves at High Festival. Yes. Yes. In the hands of someone else, it would just be hackneyed vomit, trite images done to death by the sentimentality squad. But this...exquisite workmanship, flawless clarity, profundity in na vet, artless artless Art.

"Mr. Scalpel!" Vavash stood halfway down the stairs, one hand clutching the railing tightly, the other shading her eyes as she tried to catch sight of me amid the clutter.

"You've been hiding your light under a bushel, madam," I called to her.

She turned towards me and snapped, "Get out of my things." There were perhaps fifty metres between us; her voice sounded thin and shrill.

"I can't imagine why you've been keeping your best work down here in the dark," I continued. "Of course, it's blatant birth imagery, but why should that bother you? Humans have been expressing their feelings about pregnancy and childbirth since Adam had Eve. There's nothing to be ashamed of." I picked up a bulb-shaped basket made of bright ribbon woven on a wicker framework, and held it high enough for Vavash to watch me examining it. Through the vulva-shaped opening at the top, I could see an effusion of stylized flowers made of colored felt: cheerful, bubbly happiness embodied in fabric with love and spirit. "You know that this makes the rest of the work here look like bot-work."

"Leave that alone!" Vavash cried.

"Why should I?"

She glared at me with a hatred clear enough to see even at that distance. "You have the sensitivity of a thug!"

"That's it exactly," I snapped back. "Every critic is a thug, and we work for that merciless godfather called the Spirit of Art. A long time ago, old Art loaned you a wheelbarrel full of talent, didn't he, lady? But recent-like it seems you ain't been keepin' up the payments. So Art sent the Scalpel-man to chat wit' youse an' have a look-see how to get you back on the program."

"You're ridiculous!"

"If necessary," I answered drily. Vavash was still up on the stairs, bending over awkwardly in an effort to see me under the glaring lights. Her feet seemed cemented to the step. I said, "Why don't you come down here where we can talk about this more comfortably?"

"You come up here."

"Now why would a grown woman be afraid to come into a well-lit basement?" I asked conversationally. I turned my back on her and began walking toward the area that was still dark.

"Mr. Scalpel!"

"Is she afraid of mice?" I went on. "No, no mice in your standard Straight-From-The-Package terraformed ecology. Dust? No, regulation dome air filters make sure all dust is hypoallergenic. Things that go bump in the night? No, that's just childish, and there've never been children on Creche, have there?"

"Mr. Scalpel..."

The flash of another bank of lights, and there before me slept a herd of stasis chests...row upon row of glimmery mirrory cylinders, laid out with the care of a graveyard. The chests were less than half the normal adult size. In front of each chest was mounted a machine-lettered card. I walked among them in slow wonderment, picking up a card here and there to read: Samandha Sunrise, April 23, 2168. Jubilo De Fliz, June 12, 2169. Tomas Vincent-Vavash, October 3, 2165.

"So," said Vavash softly, "now you know."

She had approached silently, and stood now among her artworks, her body limp, her face old.

"I don't know anything," I answered. "Are they dead?"

"They were alive when they were put in," she said distantly. "That means they're alive now, correct? Time doesn't pass in stasis. Not a fraction of a second. Not even over all the years..."

"They've been in stasis for sixty years?" I asked in disbelief.

"Some. We kept having medical supplies, you know, no birth control or abortion. We'd try celibacy, but it got so lonely sometimes..."

"You just kept dropping foals and merrily putting them up in stasis?"

"Oh, it's very easy to be self-righteous, isn't it?" she said angrily. "Imagine yourself in our place. Imagine yourself with a world entirely to yourself, and being free, absolutely free, to follow your Art as you choose. No Philistines to question the value of what you're doing, no political system that feels threatened by your activities, no mundane responsibilities to weigh you down.

"And then the children come. In no time, you're up to your ankles in diapers and demands for your attention twenty-five hours a time to work, not even a decent night's rest, the incessant crying...and finally, one night when you're groggy with lack of sleep, and desperate for anything to make it stop, you think of the stasis chests that you have by the hundreds, and it's like an answer to a prayer to tuck the baby away for the night. Just for a few hours of peace and quiet. And the baby isn't harmed--doesn't even know that it was...shut off. And you take to doing it every night--you get a good sleep, you rationalize that the child will benefit from it too, you'll be more relaxed and attentive. And in the middle of the afternoon when you decide you want to get a bit of work done without interruption...after a while, you tell yourself it's all right, the baby's fine, if you take it out of stasis for an hour a day, that's enough. You can play with it happily, make that little bit of time, everything's fine...even if you miss a day once in a while when you're busy, when the work's going well. If you have a life of your own, you know you'll be a better mother....

"And you miss a day and a week and a month, and every time you think about it, you're filled with the most sickening dread, the most sickening paralyzing try to put it out of your mind but you can't, you want to make it right again but you can't, you tell yourself how simple it would be to plunge in and fix it, but you're just so paralyzed with the dread, you can't face it, you want it just to go away, and you scream at a bot to get the chest out of your sight, get it out, get it out...

"And when another baby's on the way, and you swear on everything you hold sacred that you will be good to this one, that you'll never make the same mistake, that you'll be so much stronger...I had five children, Mr. Scalpel." She waved at the silent chests. "They're all out there. Sometimes I have nightmares that I lost count, that I really had six. Or seven. I don't know why that terrifies me. Losing count. What would be the difference? But the thought is so...chilling...I don't know why.

"But..." She straightened up a bit. "Stasis is stasis, isn't it? The children are still fine. No harm done."

"No harm done!" I roared. "You stupid bitch! Don't you realize what's happened here?"

"The children haven't been hurt! When we're all dead and gone, someone will come down here, find them, and <BINK> let them out. They'll be fine. Famous even. They'll all be adopted..."

"Do you think I care about a pack of puking papooses?" I shouted. "What have these tabulae rasae ever produced but drool and stool? The harm was done to your Art! You're so obsessed with your little secret here, so wrapped up in your own culpability...before you tied yourself in knots, you were capable of masterpieces like that rainbow tapestry. You could have produced a legacy a hundred times more important than Five-Or-Six-Or-Seven brats, but all you've given us is this facade of empty cradles and dolls and shit! At best, it's the product of plain old-fashioned guilt over abandoning your progeny. At worst, it's some shoddy con game to get pity you don't deserve. 'O woe, we're so devastated at being childless, see how poignant our Art is, buy it.' What crap!"

"All right," she replied angrily, "I know it's had an effect on my Art. Don't you think it's made me sick too? Don't you have any idea of how debilitating such a mess can be? Run away, lie about running away, cover up the lie...God! The feeling that there's no way out of a hopeless snarl...."

"What you have here," I said quietly, "is a Gordian knot." Which (for you culturally bereft swine who are only reading this column in the hope that I'll savage someone) was a knot from classical Greek history, a knot that was touted to be impossible to untie. "And," I went on, "the way to deal with such knots is always the same, isn't it?" I pulled out my scalpel.

"What are you going to do?" she asked, taking a step forward.

"Do you know why Art Critics exist?" I said. "Because every polite community needs barbarians who aren't afraid to cut what needs cutting." And before she could move to stop me, I plunged my blade into the silvery static surface of the nearest chest.

My intention, Respected Reader, was to <BINK> open the chest, reveal the child within, and force a Reunion-Slash-Confrontation. Alas, stasis dynamics do not seem to be so clear-cut. In the time that has passed since the events I relate, I have discussed stasis fields with many learned physicists, and while they are apt to hem and haw about the point, they will eventually confess that we know little more about said fields now than when we were first given the technology at the historic Coming-Out Party sponsored by our Chums-From-Beyond. We know that the fields will co-operatively <BINK> off when touched with a standard-issue dispeller wand; we know that they will collapse under intense heat or pressure or magnetic fields; and we have recently discovered that they put up one roaring pig of a fight when you attempt to cut them with a magnificent solidinum scalpel that can purportedly cut through anything short of White Dwarf material.

Fluid silver energy flowed up the blade like a mercury cobra on a rope, swallowing my hand with a blisteringly cold mouth. I jerked away fast and tried to let go of the knife, but the nerves and muscles seemed to have stopped talking to one another in the neighborhood of my wrist and the silver kept coming up my arm. A snowfall of ice crytals cracked out of clear air around me as the temperature plummeted; it occurred to me that molecules in complete stasis would naturally gauge in at zero degrees Kelvin. Another moment and the zone of cold reached the concrete floor, riming it with frost. The floor shivered once, then groaned open in a wide cleft that snaked out underneath the field of silvery chests. Chests trembled on the edge; one began to tip in.

I tried to call out to Vavash but my throat wouldn't work. Slowly, ice in my veins, I turned in her direction. She was coming towards me, but I couldn't tell if she was moving fast or slow. Suddenly something hissed behind my back and a fist of sulphurous steam punched its way of a fissure in the bedrock. Hot and cold met like two hands clapping together thunderously in preparation for a cyclonic arm wrestle. Then, just when things promised to get really interesting, something silver swept up over my eyes and <BINK> I was in a clinic, surrounded by a team of white-haired medical types, poised to throw themselves on whatsoever wounds I possessed. Tongues clicking, they busied themselves with my knife hand. I couldn't feel anything from my shoulder down, and didn't want to.

"Don't move, Mr. Scalpel," Vavash said, her face looming into view above me.

"What happened?" I croaked.

"While I was showing you around the basement at our retreat, there was a small tremor and a minor geyser broke through the floor. You were injured. I managed to surround you with a stasis field and bring you to the Med-Center here for treatment."

"I see. Was there much damage?" I asked carefully.

"Some minor works that had been sitting around for a long time fell into a crevice," she replied evenly.

I looked at her sharply. She met my gaze without flinching. The doctors murmured about tissue grafts. I asked, "Were all the works in that area destroyed?"

"Yes," she answered bluntly.

"You don't seem to be affected by the loss."

"Mr. Scalpel, when one is forced to confront one's's been forty years since I stopped doing that kind of work. It was done by a different woman. I realized that I no longer had any feelings at all...for the works themselves. My anxieties were just residue that had been accumulating over the years. Now that the situation is resolved, I feel cleansed. <BINK> and my stasis has been dispelled. Isn't that what you wanted?"

My mind was clearing a little from the adrenaline rush of the panic that for me was only a few seconds gone. I wondered how much real time had passed since the stasis field swallowed me. I wondered what had happened while I was silver-sleeping. I wondered if my abortive attempt at cutting open a chest had really killed all those children. "How do I know that all of the works fell into the crevice by accident?"

Vavash smiled without warmth. "If you are going to play the part of Art's barbarian, Mr. Scalpel, I don't think you can afford to worry about such niceties. Neither swords nor palette knives can indulge in the luxury of a conscience. Or are you just a spoiled young dilettante who talks about devotion to Art but runs crying at the first little harshness?"

There was a bright fire in her eyes, a fire like none I'd ever seen before; but like all fires, it was terrible and awesome, powerful and pitiless.

Dear Reader, many before me have written about the first cave-dweller to tame fire; but none, I think, have considered the man who next entered the tribal cave and saw the blaze leaping wildly toward the ceiling. That man had to choose on behalf of the human race: whether to praise the Fire-Tamer's vision or denounce it as madness, whether to put the fire out or gaze at it in wonder. In the end, perhaps he could only run to his fellows and tell what he had seen.