Birth of a Painting
by Charles Lens
translated from Hungarian
by Zsuzsa Lena
He had to eat. Ploriatan was going to increase the ship’s gravity, which always made him sick. It was going to push him into the moon chair in front of the control panel, and induce a nutritious IV. He was not really looking forward to it.
Black canvas, with reflectors shining on the other side: this is how he saw the universe. It spread beyond the walls of the glass cabin, a mysterious cloth holed by countless yellow points of lights. They were waiting for him indifferently..
The prologue of a Koonz story came to his mind. It bore the title “Mask” and told of an arachnophobic girl who was cleaning up the cellar. She imagined that evil spider eyes were watching her every move in the darkness.
He reckoned that having such thoughts marked the beginning of his going mad. He kept his brain trained with certain thoughts, and spent a lot of time contemplating his feelings and senses. He tried describing them in various ways, thinking that he had never been so creative.
From time to time the Artifical Intelligence of the cabin would start operating, and he realised that he was spending more and more time awake. It was getting more difficult to bear the loneliness, and his hope of finding peace slowly began to vanish.
The cabin could determine precisely when it had to provide him with the basic necessities. If it did not supply him with oxygen, he would die instantly. He could suffocate, but starving to death would be the most miserable option. If it could, Ploriatan would choose to suffocate him, but that was not its task. By all means, it had to protect the live organism.
When it came to life, people would imagine Ploriatan to be a purring, flattering cat, but its loyalty resembled much more a dog’s. It started projecting a colourful hologram onto the walls of the cabin. It depicted monks in orange clothes, who were praying in Lotus position in a monastery garden.
Far away, snow-covered mountains were visible. The hologram mirrored them on the walls of the cabin in rainbow colours. The central computer gave a pleasant “Om” sound, and hundreds of tiny lamps lit up, making the cabin even brighter. Now it was shining like a gem in a black jewellery casket.
Ploriatan was keeping an eye on him, observing all his bodily functions, noticing every tiny change. During the last awakening it had noticed a malfunction of movement, which was caused by the lack of gravity. The best way to observe him was keeping him awake from time to time, but this required a lot of energy. It needed to rest.
The survivor glanced at the Earth calendar, which was projected after the chanting monks by kind Ploriatan. The calendar informed him how much time has passed since the tragedy. The human had to hold on something, in order not to lose touch with reality. He needed the calendar and the chanting to stay awake, even if partially.
The survivor of course knew what would happen. From lack of movement, he would first lose his limbs, followed by his organs. He would die a miserable death. How funny, he thought, Ploriatan is going to kill me with love.
The AI ran a complete, detailed analysis of the bodily functions, and concluded it would have to let the limbs go in order to prolong the survivor’s life. It also had to insure the oxygen supply while it was awake, but suddenly it fell asleep. It did so too fast and, after a low hum, its lights went out. The hologram calendar started to tremble and disappeared. He stayed alone in screaming silence, blackness engulfing him. The jewellery casket turned pitch black.
He knew that Ploriatan’s death meant his death, too. Secretly, he hoped for a quick death, rather than starving until he would die. He felt his stomach rumbling and his guts twisting.
Suddenly he heard a hum coming from the control panel. Ploriatan was going to wake up, he realised. It had probably discovered a piece of meteorite or something else close enough to endanger his capsule. It was going to analyse the situation soon, and he was excited to hear about any anomaly.
According to the calendar, he had been drifting in spice for half a year, in utter loneliness, accompanied only by a computer which could take care of him, without understanding what it was like to suffer. He would die very slowly. His eyes would still move after he lost his eyelids, and his heart would beat once a minute. He dreaded this prospect.
Earlier, he had written a letter. It was not a will. He wrote down facts. It was an emotionless report. The dry text was very different from the letters that a boy had hidden in a plastic box behind a hatch in the cabin, together with some envelopes. According to the notes the boy was named Peter. He was 11 and travelling with his sister Emily on the dock 96. His sister was four years older, and she teased him about his stamp collection.
The survivor was often wondering what the boy was like. He should have become a writer, he thought. Even shortly before his death, he would describe the events in detail. He was still writing when the huge mothership was shaken by an explosion.
He described the turmoil after the explosion until he was writing with his last breath. The survivor thought Peter was a mature boy who was able to understand what was going to happen. He knew that he was going to die, but he claimed that he wouldn’t miss his life, but he would miss his beloved parents and sister. His last lines went: Emily, I already miss you...
The boy must have been hiding in the cabin before the ship broke in two. He probably went back later to help his parents and sister. He was a hero, a great one, the survivor concluded. His portrait should have adorned a stamp, he thought.
There were similar stamps on board. A self-portrait of a famous painter, a still life, and one with a man and a boy. The survivor had found them among the papers. He took the one with the portrait and glued it onto an envelope, as if he were going to post it soon.
In the envelope was a letter in which he described the details of the tragedy and bade farewell to his loved ones, should he not survive. He put it into the box where he kept his papers and put the box into the service panel. If anyone found the cabin, the reader would learn what happened to the freight ship number E-2400 after it had left Earth in the year 2044.
Again, Ploriatan woke up, but the humming noise was missing. The survivor suddenly saw something spiralling in mid-air, appearing from nowhere. Countless threads came from it, whirling like Medusa’s hairs and accompanied by countless ciphers, equations and complex formulas.
The survivor did not have the slightest clue what was happening. He could not put a ring on it, no matter how hard he tried. He was floating in the cabin in a vertical position, tilting his head and looking at the forest of the numbers.
After a minute he could not concentrate. His thoughts were running wild as he tried to proceed. He had difficulties moving his body; he thought that the absence of gravity would kill him after all. He moved through the hologram, but Ploriatan did not react.
He sometimes imagined that the AI would provide him with many years to come, and grow a web between his fingers, which would make him fit for flying. He would have a much worse fate than the girl from the novel, he thought. However, his eyesight did not let him down, even after so much time spent in darkness.
He jokingly thought how it would be, if ET lit up the cabin. He would surely have headache, he reckoned, and it really happened as he looked in the direction of the brighly shining something. It was not only a headache: he felt as if something has stabbed a dagger in his eyes.
It took him several minutes before he looked at the apparition. It was still twinkling, adorned with red, blue and green dots of light, just like a Chrismtas tree. He could not stand it any longer: he had to close his eyes.
Suddenly he bumped into something. He was sure that he reached the walls of the cabin, but when he opened his eyes, he realised that the surface was different, strangely smooth. He felt the smell of glue and heard steady footsteps. He rolled over, and wondered why it felt so easy to move his limbs, completely forgetting the new environment.
With this sudden burst of new energy, the survivor rose to his feet. He realised that he was firmly standing on solid ground; he was not floating anymore.There was gravity in the room. He reckoned that Ploriatan must have woken up and generated gravity. But there was no Ploriatan, no cabin, and no darkness.
The room was achingly bright. He had to blink and felt pain in his temples. The vivid pain was real; he was sure hat he was not hallucinating or dead. The headache and the room, which was rather a hall with its four-metre high walls, were real. The walls were perfectly sleek and windowless, as though somebody did not want the light to break in anywhere. Though there was no sign of lighting, the hall was immensly bright.
In the middle of the hall stood a bulky table. It was divided into two by some wire mesh. The survivor heard the steps again, but this time they were double.
The boy with his stern face walked past him and looked at him relentlessly. “Why did you put the stamp on it? It is worthless now.”
The man who was leading the boy by the hand did not pay attention to the survivor until he and the boy had reached the far end of the table. He had the boy sit down and waved at the survivor.
The man had a pale face which was framed with curly red hair covering his shoulders. He had huge, dark bags under his eyes, apparently a sign of sleeplessness. Despite this, the man was moving swiftly.
The survivor looked at the figures as though they were ghosts. He was sure he had gone mad and was having hallucinations about the painter and the boy. It could have been that way, because he glanced at the stamps quite often, but he remembered the Medusa-like apparition and the mysterious glow. He was not going mad after all.
Meanwhile, the artist sat down, took a pencil and started to draw the boy. He was apparently using the mesh to get the proportions right. The boy glanced at the survivor, the painter at the boy, and the survivor at both of them.
Then he pulled himself together and hurried to the boy. He knelt down and said, “You are Peter, aren’t you?”
The boy did not answer. He just looked the survivor straight in the eye.
He took the boy’s cold, fragile hands and put another question to him. “Peter, what happened? Where are your parents?”
The boy kept looking at him. The painter was working feverishly.
“Is Emily also here?”
The boy shook his head. “They’re not here. They are elsewhere. We are here.”
The survivor frowned. “And where are we?”
The boy slowly turned his head but kept his eye on the survivor. The painter glanced at the boy, lifted his pencil, made some moves and continued drawing.
“We’re by him.”
“But who is he? What does he want?”
“He just wants to draw us. Don’t stir.”
“Why does he want to do that?”
“He said you shouldn’t have stuck the stamp on the envelope. He says that he got stuck here because of that. He wants to draw us so that he can leave.”
“Does he talk to you?”
“Yes. He says there is nothing to do here. Nothing to draw or paint. The envelope is so matte, so smooth, there’s nothing else.”
The envelope... The survivor felt a shot of adrenaline in his body. He felt immense heat surrounding him. His skin seemed to burn. This hall is the envelope, he mumbled. That is why there isn’t anything else here. It was the painter who had been in the envelope all along. He had created him with his mind, as he did with the boy. When the medusa, an anomaly, appeared, it enclosed them all in the box.
Black holes can appear anywhere in the endless universe. Already in the 2000s there were theories that claimed that time was not infinite. Time could no longer serve as a measurement of life. Somehow the box had saved them from absorption, but it also meant that they were stuck in it.
“He said he can leave once he has drawn us. We won’t be able to move, we will be in in his picture...”
“Does he think he can go if we stay here?”
The survivor envisioned the box, the envelope, the stamps, as if Ploriatan projected them. He could see the self-portrait, the still life with the vase and flowers, and the one in which a man was kneeling before a young boy.
Copyright © 2015 by Charles Lens