“In my opinion, it’s vitally important to look at this picture in complete silence.”
“And why is that, Mr Murdock?”
Calvin joined Murdock, who stood in front of a reproduction of a painting of a parade. A man in black, wearing horns and a devil mask, accompanied two dancing women. They wore white dresses, and masks that made their faces doll-like and lifeless. Another man carried a banner with a huge laughing, mocking, face on it. Many of the crowd around the dancers wore masks too, some skull-like, some bird-like.
“Well,” Murdock opined, in his best art critic voice. “Goya had gone deaf by the time he painted this. So he witnessed this parade without the music and the song and laughter that we can’t help but imagine when we look at it.” He peered closer at the picture. “I can’t help thinking that without sound then the dancing, cavorting, capering, whatever you want to call it, becomes much more sinister.”
Calvin looked at him for a while.
“You have an interesting perspective.”
Murdock shrugged. “I do sometimes see things differently from other people.” He grinned. “And indeed sometimes things other people can’t see at all, which leads to some tricky explanations.”
“Ah, yes, I can imagine.” Calvin glanced over at a computer console on the wall where his scanner data was downloading into a storage chip.
“You know it seems odd for a painter to live underground,” Murdock said. “All the artists I’ve known have wanted to be out in the light.”
Calvin shrugged. “I don’t paint what’s outside. My art dealer would prefer it if I painted pretty views of Jupiter, but… I don’t.”
“So you do sell your work?” Murdock asked, surprised.
“Oh, yes. Definitely.” He smirked. “Every six months I send off the pictures to Mars and my dealer sells them. Mostly to corporate clients, apparently. They buy ones that match the colour of the carpet.” He laughed aloud now. Murdock frowned at him.
“What’s so funny?”
Calvin just laughed some more, shook his head, not explaining. Should have the room next door to me back home, Murdock thought.
“Can I see your pictures?” Murdock asked. Maybe that would tell him what was so funny. Calvin studied him for a moment, and then smiled a worrying smile.
“Why not? I’d like to see what your interesting perspective makes of them.”
Hannibal had reached the operations room, to find damaged control panels, but no sign of who had damaged them. He gave the panels a quick glance and knew they were well beyond his ability to repair. Anything more technical than changing a battery and he called BA.
He called BA now, who reported he’d secured the route he’d taken and was now close to operations. No opposition so far.
“Okay, see you in a minute. Face, report.”
Still no answer. Damn.
“BA,” Hannibal said. “Head for Face’s route, meet you there.”
It could just be a broken communicator, Hannibal thought. On the other hand, it could be trouble. He scowled. When was it ever just a broken radio? He ran from the operations room.
“Hannibal!” Face’s voice erupted from the communicator as Hannibal left the room. He was yelling and panting. Hannibal could hear more noise in the background, scuffling, a fight. “Kyle’s here, he got –”
“Give me your position,” Hannibal ordered.
“Level two, section –” The sound of a blow cut him off.
“We’re coming, Face. BA?”
“On my way,” BA’s voice sounded jerky, running already.
“Hannibal!” Not Face’s voice this time, but Joy’s. “Hannibal, there’s a ship approaching!”
“Is it Kyle’s?”
“I’ll know in a second.”
Presumably when it opened fire, Hannibal thought. He pounded up some steps and spoke into his communicator.
“Sure wish our matter transporter worked about now, huh, BA?”
He got no answer.
“Joy, if you’re attacked, get the ship out of there.”
“But, Colonel –”
“That’s an order, Captain. You can come fetch us later. But if we lose the ship, we’re screwed. Get ready for take off now.”
“Hannibal!” Face’s voice again, but not over the radio this time. Hannibal spun around to look down a corridor. A hundred metres away Face struggled with a man that Hannibal recognised in a second as Kyle.
“Face!” Hannibal ran down the corridor. A plasma beam scorched the wall inches from him and he hit the floor as Kyle fired again, then pulled Face around in front of him, a pistol jammed up against Face’s head.
“Back off, Smith, or he’s dead!”
Face struggled as Kyle dragged him backwards. Kyle raised a communicator and Hannibal stared. Wait, Kyle had one arm around Face’s neck, one hand holding the gun and… another one holding the communicator? What the hell?
“Get me out of here!” Kyle shouted into the communicator. Hannibal realised at once that he intended to beam out and take Face with him.
“Drop the gun!” A yell came from the far end of the corridor behind Kyle and BA loomed out of the darkness, rifle ready. “Let him go.”
As Kyle looked around, Face’s elbow rammed into his guts. He doubled up and staggered back as Face pulled away from him and turned to attack him.
“No, stay back!” Hannibal yelled. Just in time, as Kyle shimmered and vanished in a sparkle of light.
Hannibal scrambled up and ran to Face. BA came pounding up the corridor towards them.
“Face! You okay?”
“You should have shot him!” Face shouted, his face pale, fists clenched.
Hannibal scowled. Well that would be nice and all, but he wanted Kyle alive.
“Hannibal,” Joy’s voice came over the radio again. “Kyle’s ship is leaving!”
“We’ll be there in two minutes.”
He didn’t need to tell the other two to start moving. BA ran, Face following. Hannibal brought up the rear and the three of them ran flat out in the direction of the docking port. “Keep it on sensors as long as you can, Captain. I want you to take off the second we’re inside.”
He shut up then, saved his breath for running. In a few minutes, they were pounding along the tube and diving into the airlock.
“Computer, close outer airlock door! Disengage docking tube.” Hannibal shouted then hit the intercom button to call the flight desk as the airlock door rumbled closed. “Captain. As soon as you get a green light on the airlock door, get us out of here, we’ll be on the flight deck in a second.”
Face and BA stood by the inner door, looking ready to claw it open. A second later the light on the outer door showed green and the inner door hissed open. They ran, grabbing at the walls and then at the rails of the stairways as the ship bucked under them, blasting off the surface.
“BA, engine room,” Hannibal ordered. “Give me every drop she’s got.” BA ran off to the engine room and Hannibal, with Face at his heels ran to the flight deck.
Calvin led Murdock through a door into a larger room, a studio. Several large canvases and many smaller ones were stacked against the walls. A couple, works in progress, sat on easels.
They were all rather similar abstract works. Murdock walked over to one a couple of metres wide and almost as tall held on two easels. The picture was a field of rich kingfisher blue. Subtle variations of tone and hue kept it from being simply a wall of colour, but Murdock could see why office decorators would buy this stuff by the square metre and match it to the décor. It appeared no more than decorative.
Murdock looked away at another picture, but as he did, he thought he caught something out of the corner of his eye. He looked back at the blue painting and frowned, wondering if he’d imagined it. Turning to Calvin, he found the man watching him speculatively
“Is this painted over something else?” Murdock knew artists sometimes reused canvases, painting over old pictures.
“Why do you ask?” Calvin asked.
“I don’t know. I thought I could see something else.” He shrugged. “It’s probably my eyes. They’ve been weird since the war.” He glanced at the table beside the picture. Several pots of near identical looking blue paint sat in a row. A small forest of brushes, ranging from large flats to small round ones stood in tubs behind the paint.
“Do you know about the bees and the flowers, Mr Murdock?” Calvin asked.
“Yeah, my grandfather told me about that stuff when I twelve.” Murdock grinned and Calvin clicked his tongue and folded his arms. “Sorry,” Murdock said, the grin becoming sheepish. “Go on.”
“Bees can see in the ultraviolet. When we look at a flower, we may see only a pure white petal. But the bee can see patterns, lines and dots invisible to us.”
Murdock nodded, remembering being taught that at school.
“Yeah. Because the bees and the flowers have evolved a sort of symbiosis.”
“Or perhaps a relationship of mutual exploitation?”
“Yeah, I guess that’s another way of putting it,” Murdock conceded. “And what’s this little natural history lecture got to do with art?”
Calvin opened a box that sat beside the paint and the brushes. From it, he took a set of goggles and handed them to Murdock.
“These allow you to see in the ultraviolet. You need to press that button on the side.”
Curious as hell now Murdock put the goggles on. He faced the blue painting and pressed the button Calvin had pointed out.
A second later he gasped and tore off the goggles. Oh my god, that was… He closed his eyes, not even wanting to see the blue any more, not knowing what was really there, on top, embedded, underneath, whatever. He didn’t know how it worked and didn’t care to.
“Mr Murdock?” Calvin’s voice sounded concerned. Murdock turned away from the picture and only then opened his eyes.
Murdock handed the goggles back to Calvin. “I, wow, yeah. Thing is, I’m really not supposed to see things like that. My doctors wouldn’t approve at all.”
Calvin stared at him and then looked chagrined. He put the goggles into a pocket of his tunic.
“I understand. I apologise if it upset you.”
“Upset?” Murdock said. “Yeah, that’s, ah… a word.” He shivered. And he imagined those pictures on the walls of boardrooms and executive meeting rooms back on Mars and Earth, looking all abstract and innocuous and underneath… He shivered again.
“So, um…” Murdock waved a hand at the pictures. “Stuff you saw in the war?”
“Saw?” Calvin said. “Saw. Well, that’s, as you say… a word.”
“Right,” Murdock said, unconsciously taking a step backwards, and then looking around at the other canvasses in the room.
The colours were unquestionably beautiful. One, a glowing orange, seemed to radiate heat and made you want to plunge into the one beside it, into deep sea green, to cool off. Another blue one, looked like the bluest summer sky you ever saw. The blue sky of Earth that Murdock still dreamt of flying in.
They made him feel sick.
Joy turned as Hannibal and Face ran onto the flight deck; a relieved grin replaced her anxious look.
“Peachy,” Hannibal said. “Face, weapons station. You still got him on scanners, Captain?”
“He almost went out of range, until we took off,” she reported. “We’re just about keeping up now, but he’s at the limits of scanner range.”
“We need to get him back in visual range,” Hannibal said. “More speed, BA,” he ordered over the intercom. BA didn’t respond. Probably had his hands full. Hannibal glanced at Joy. He and Face could handle things up here and she was an engineer. “Captain, go assist BA.”
“Right, Colonel.” She jumped up and ran.
“Face, soon as Kyle’s in weapons range target his engines.”
“Right, Colonel,” Face said. Hannibal grinned.
“Is there an echo in here?”
“Huh?” Face looked up from his panel.
“Never mind, stand by to fire.” He bent over his own panel and looked ahead out of the view port. The ground, worryingly close rushed by underneath them. Rock and pointy bits of certain death reached for them. Craters and fissure waited to embrace them. For the second time Hannibal wished he’d sent Face to see Mr Calvin and brought Murdock along to fly them instead.
“There!” Face pointed. “I see him. Ready to fire.”
A second later Hannibal saw it too; Kyle’s fleeing ship a distant speck.
“Wait for it,” Hannibal ordered. Too far off to get an accurate fix. They needed to cripple the ship, but still leave it able to land, as opposed to spreading it across a hundred kilometres of rocky surface. “Faster, BA,” he said over the intercom.
“You’ve got all the juice we can spare,” BA said.
“Shut off life support to everywhere but the flight deck and engine room,” Hannibal ordered him. That extra bit of power to the engines might just make the difference.
“Man, you crazy,” BA said. But Hannibal glanced back and saw the light on the door control panel go red as the door sealed.
“We’re catching up to him,” Face said. He looked up. “One small problem with that though. He’s powering weapons.”
“Better fire first then,” Hannibal said, grinning. Face grinned back.
“You got it, Colonel.”
And Kyle got it as Face fired on Kyle’s ship, plasma beams striking out.
“Shit!” Face scowled. “He’s got good shields. Minimal effect.”
Hannibal frowned too, watching another shot sizzle on Kyle’s shields. They flared but held.
“Incoming!” Face called, as beams spat from the back of Kyle’s ship.
Without his seatbelt, Hannibal would have been thrown to the floor by the impact. Only the force shields kept them from being destroyed.
“We’ve got damage,” Face reported. “And shield power is down fifty percent.”
“BA, get us more power to the shields. Face, hit him again!”
Face fired again, but so did Kyle. This time Hannibal evaded one of the beams, but the other caught them a glancing blow on the underside of the ship and Hannibal groaned as the lights went out and all of the panels flicked to black for a moment. They came back a second later as the power automatically rerouted.
“We’re falling behind,” Face reported.
“BA, give me more engine power!” Hannibal demanded.
“Listen, man, you can have more engine power, or you can have more shield power, you can’t have both.”
“Hannibal,” Face said. “We’re faster, but he outguns us and he’s got stronger shields.”
Hannibal muttered under his breath in disgust. They could catch up, but they’d be shot out of the sky if they did. They could stay back out of weapons range, but Kyle wouldn’t just lead them back his base. He’d turn around and come after them. Damn, Hannibal hated being outmuscled.
“He’s firing again,” Face called.
“BA, extra power to shields now.” He made another evasive manoeuvre and the shots passed over them harmlessly. Kyle’s ship pulled ahead as the extra power to the Chicago’s shields drained power from her engines. Hannibal’s console fretted over the nearness of the ground, flashing a “proximity warning” alarm at him, so he climbed high enough to make that go away. Kyle’s ship vanished from sight. Hannibal sighed and called the engine room.
“BA, chase is over. How bad is the damage?”
“I’d prefer to set down for repairs,” BA said. “Be tricky to do ’em in flight. Won’t take us longer than a couple of hours.”
“Okay,” Hannibal said, his voice subdued. “I’ll find us some place to land.”
“Colonel,” Joy said over the connection. “Once that’s done we should go back to the power plant. Those repairs are still needed.”
“No,” Hannibal said. “Kyle and his creeps could come back anytime.”
“But, Colonel –”
“No. We’ll pick up more people and come back later.” Hannibal had made his choice. She stopped arguing and Hannibal closed the intercom, started looking for some flat ground to set down.
“Kyle’s vanished from sensors now,” Face said. He looked up when Hannibal didn’t answer.
“Sorry, Face. Thanks. Good shooting there.”
Face shrugged. “Didn’t help us much.”
“We’ll do better next time,” Hannibal said. Kyle may outmuscle them, but Hannibal knew for sure he couldn’t outwit them. He remembered something suddenly that he’d not had time to ask about.
“Face, was I seeing things back at the power plant, or did Kyle have three arms?”
Face shuddered. “You weren’t seeing things. Freakish, Hannibal, freakish.”
“I guess his chip really did fritz out.” He shook his head and sighed. “And to think I missed lunch with Maggie for this.”
Face looked at him. “Lunch with Maggie, huh?” He grinned and glanced at his watch. “Well, maybe we’ll get home in time for dinner.”
“You think so?” Hannibal heard the hopeful tone in his own voice and wanted to laugh at it himself.
Face did laugh at him, more a chuckle. “A little smitten, eh, Hannibal?”
“Smitten?” Hannibal laughed too, liked the word. Yeah, he was a little smitten. “I walked her home last night, and well, maybe she’s smitten too.”
“Oh yeah?” Face’s eyebrows went up. “Some, ah, action, Colonel?”
“Face!” Hannibal said, in mock outrage. “I would never talk about such things. I mean if for example, purely hypothetically you understand, I got a kiss I would never blab about it.”
Face laughed. “Right, of course not.”
“Glad that’s understood.” The red light on the door changed to green as life support was restored to the rest of the ship. “Okay, go help out BA. I can see a nice garden spot for us to land. Touchdown, two minutes.”