The museum escort Christopher had requested arrived just as he was winding up a self-guided tour of the Earth exhibit. Staring at Monet's Waterlily Pond, he was lost in a passion more intense, he suspected, than any he had expended during either of his two brief marriages.
The painting been reframed, but was otherwise unchanged since the last time he had seen it, fifty years before. As he gazed at its placid flowers and vibrant willow leaves, Christopher even began to imagine that the grooves time had left on him--age, injuries, bitterness--were just as superficial.
Same man, different frame. He could do this.
Leaning heavily on his cane--museum air exhausted him, even here--he tore his gaze away from the shimmering canvas and faced the Tsebsra museum guide. It looked like a badly executed balloon-animal: a tubular sac of tight, rubbery skin balanced on lumpy legs. Stringy eyestalks dangled from the bulb at its top, while the bottom of its body tapered into a long, rubbery tail decorated with blue stripes. The markings meant it was young, probably still ungendered. It wore a floor-length apron printed with its museum ident and, at the moment, it was standing almost upright. The pose could have been reminiscent of a praying mantis, if only the insect had been bleach-white, headless, and lacking its four upper limbs.
As the guide approached, a faint chime sounded in Christopher's left ear. "Museum staff member, late adolescent, name on ident equates to Vita," said his protocol software in a smooth, feminine voice. He had named the program Miss Manners--Em for short. "Posture indicates polite, professional interest and includes appropriate respect due an adult of your years. Vita is curious about the camera you are carrying."
Christopher smiled at the guide.
"Your expression has been interpreted by Vita's proto and it appears receptive to conversation."
So. Converse. He opened his hand to fully reveal the camera, which had captured a shot of the Monet on its tiny screen. "Just didging some postcards for the grandkids."
The alien speech was a series of intestinal-sounding gurgles, almost like water boiling on a stove. There was no variation that Christopher could hear, but the translation came through Em immediately. "It looks different from the ones I've seen before. Bigger."
"It's antique. Like me."
"Would you like me to take a shot of you with the painting?"
"Sure," he said. At that, one of its feet whipped up with alarming speed to snatch the device out of Christopher's hand; its tail slewed around to balance its body weight and its spine bent into an S-curve. Thus contorted, it was able to drop an eye-stalk directly on the scanner. Heart pounding, Christopher grinned into the lens, resisting an urge to wipe the palms of his hands on his hips. It snapped the picture quickly and returned the camera back.
"It would be polite to look away now," Em said, so Christopher turned back to Monet. The guide sidled up close and then shifted away. It had probably been advised to widen the space between them to a more human-appropriate distance.
"Do you have many?"
"Three boys, four girls."
"Ah. So they're all grown?"
"No. Humans are gendered at birth."
"Vita appears mortified," reported Em. "You should have corrected it more gently."
"My apologies," the alien said.
He shrugged--let its software interpret that.
He had first seen this painting eighty years earlier, when he was in his teens. He had seen digital prints of it when he was even younger, of course--Monet was inescapable. Even so, Christopher had never understood the big fuss until he'd taken a school trip to the National Gallery.
He had been fooling around with his mates, ignoring the tour, aggravating his teachers and the guards before finally ducking the group altogether. In search of a place to smoke, he had rounded a corner and found the Monet. Recognition had stopped him, nothing more--he paused, frowned, noticed that it was different from the digitals he had seen. Prints couldn't do justice to oil; couldn't communicate the singular way these paintings glowed. Monet's luminous sunlight on water had crept up on him like a pickpocket. He barely noticed when it made away with his heart.
"This was painted around 1900 A.D. as you reckon time, at a population cluster in Europe called Giverny. Monet had a house there. He painted this garden many times..."
"France," he growled.
"Giverny is in France."
A pause. "Are you all right, sir? My proto believes I have upset you."
"Upset?" he managed. "Nah, just older'n hell."
"It would be perfectly understandable if receiving instruction in your home culture from an offworlder..."
What? Made me want to gut you?
"I just need to sit down," he said, retreating to the cushioned bench in the middle of the room. This gallery was built to look like an authentic Earth museum--off-white plaster walls, smooth hardwood floors, ceiling lights angled to spotlight each work. Furniture, thank Christ, to ease the aching feet of contemplative patrons. The paintings were displayed too close to each other, though, crammed practically into a collage that extended from floor to ceiling. There was a mishmash of periods and styles: Andy Warhol's soup cans cuddled next to an amateurish painting of a dog. This was, in turn, located beneath Sir Stanley Spencer's Saint Francis and the Birds and above an Ansel Adams photograph of an American mountain. Only the Monet had any space to itself, and that was probably because there was extra security hidden in the wall on which it was mounted.
"Grandkids made me promise to snap 'em the damned painting," he puffed.
A bubble of fluid jittered beneath Vita's skin, indicating--according to Em--surprise. "You didn't come... it wasn't your wish to see it?"
Keep a lid on your emotions, old boy, Christopher lectured himself. "Don't go for the impressionist stuff, and I saw it in London once anyway. I'm more of a sculpture man. I came for the Tsebsra sculpture."
"I see. Then... you don't like it at all?" Vita's eyestalks quivered. "The way it glints? The shades of green..."
"It's all right. You do like it, I take it?"
"I think it's wonderfully natural," Vita gushed. "Tseb work is so formal and mannered. I visit it every day, as soon as I come in. My parents brought me, the day it arrived."
"When was that... ten years ago, surely?"
"As your time is reckoned. The Nandi sold it to the museum after..." Vita shut up abruptly and Christopher didn't need Em for once to tell him the pause was an awkward one.
"Oh. The Lloyds of London thing?" He managed to keep his tone off-hand. The National Gallery had lent a Nandieve museum the Monet and a quartet of other paintings. The aliens had paid a ludicrous sum for the loan. A sweetheart deal, or so it must have seemed to the Gallery's perpetually underfunded curators.
Unfortunately, failure to check the fine print of cultural difference led to disaster in short order. To the Nandi, the word 'loan' implied an indefinite term of visitation. They refused to return the paintings.
The Gallery spent fifteen years trying to get Waterlily Pond back. They were deep in negotiations when some bright bulb in Gallery management decided to put in an insurance claim, asking to be compensated for the value of the time the painting had spent offworld. Reasonable enough, perhaps--but when Lloyds cut the cheque to the museum, the Nandi claimed this made the painting theirs. The next thing anyone knew, they had auctioned it off to the Tsebsra.
Fumbling in his vest pocket, Christopher produced a case of small gelatinous tablets, selecting a marked placebo and pressing it under his tongue. He massaged his left armpit gently, pretending to work out a pain that wasn't there. "You only get two heart transplants these days before they list you as inoperable," he commented to Vita, figuring that the bunching of its many eyes indicated interest in his movements.
He'd guessed wrong. "Personal medical information is not discussed openly here," Em scolded, but before it could tell him how to apologize, Vita piped up, forcing it to translate instead.
"It's okay. We're not all as rigid as the protos are programmed to say we are." A previously invisible fissure opened under the eyes, revealing an immense empty space bordered by sharp black ridges. "I'm not offended."
"Thanks," he said. "I forget I'm not home. Get to be my age, it's more or less a license to be rude."
"Absolutely. No family is complete without a cantankerous retired war-" His turn to stop short: he had almost said veteran, and soldiers were never allowed here.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Vita is alarmed," Em reported.
"Warhorse," he said. "It's a saying. It means I'm old meat, child. Unfit for dogs."
Its head expanded slightly and a grinding sound issued from its throat. "Noise equates to a laugh, tone denotes relief," reported Em.
It and me both, Christopher thought. What was wrong with him?
"I came to see the Spine," he said finally, getting to his feet. "Would you take me?"
"Are you feeling better?"
"This way, then." Tail swirling, it crooked a toe in the direction of the exit. Christopher got one last hurried glance at the water lilies and then they were gone.
Outside the authentic human museum with its authentic humidity-controlled air, he felt himself reviving. They passed into an ornately carved walkway, lined with windows and meant to communicate with the sensitive feet of the Tsebs, a lumpy obstacle course of knobs and gaps. Christopher's ankles ached as he struggled to traverse it without falling. Just another hurdle, he told himself, like ducking the police or smuggling his false ident out of humanspace. He'd been retired for twenty-four years when the boys approached him for this job. Until a minute ago, he would have sworn he remembered his business.
His cane twisted unexpectedly at the apex of the arch, causing him to wobble. He had braced it in what looked like a knothole, but the knot was mobile, rotating against the force of his weight. Vita caught his elbow with one foot, swung its tail around an upward-thrusting piece of walkway, and heaved in counter-balance. Its grip was weak, and Christopher could feel that the Tseb's strength would never hold his full weight.
Between them, though, they managed to keep him upright. Vita moved his cane to more solid ground. Christopher offered solemn, mumbled thanks. After that, the alien stood closer to him.
Coming off the bridge, Em instructed him to keep his eyes right, towards the ocean. Christopher looked left instead, to a massive hill that rose like a bell-curve from the beach.
"That is one of our burial mounds," Vita said. "Look away."
"I thought you were a bohemian, Vita. Hard to offend?"
"Vita's expression has turned playful. It is receptive to this conversation," Em said. "However, the topic chosen is highly improper."
"You want to know about the mound?"
"Why not? I didn't come five thousand lightyears for Andy Warhol or the damned cuisine."
"There isn't much to tell. When we feel that our spirit is about to break with the physical plane..."
"Is that supposed to mean when you die?"
Its head contracted, the skin wrinkling momentarily before expansion somewhere else in its body took up the slack. "Die, yes. When we are dying, we go to a mound and climb as high as we can before weakness overcomes us. It is a last chance to measure the worth of our lives."
"What if you're too sick to get there?"
"Someone takes you to the base of the mound. If you are very respected, they may even carry you up."
"But not always?"
"Nobody can return from a dying place."
"So you heft your troublesome old Uncle Pete up the hill--"
A loud rush of Vita's internal fluids startled him so badly he stopped speaking.
"Sound equates to a giggle," Em said.
"Carry someone up, watch them die... and then you stay until you starve?"
"Yes." Vita paused; Em reported it was afraid of being overheard. "In that case, the measure of worth is not by how high you climb, but by how long you survive."
"I suppose that makes sense."
Light steps behind them made them turn simultaneously, continuing along the lumpy walkway like the well-behaved pair they weren't. He glanced Vita's way and offered a conspiratorial wink just as a trio of eye stalks swiveled his way in a gesture that, according to Em, meant almost exactly the same thing.
He kept his voice lowered. "Say, what if you’re too sick to be moved?"
"The effort is always made."
"Even if it kills you?"
"We are sun people, Christopher. It is unconscionable to fail to die out of doors."
They stepped out of the walkway and into a darkened gallery. "So what if I was to seize up in here?"
Another alarming giggle. "You're not a sun person."
"Good. I'd hate to--"
"Do something unconscionable," he finished quietly. His eyes adjusted to the dimness and he saw he was in another three-dimensional nightmare--a floor of knobs, lumps and potholes. Little orifices covered the outer wall, soft and penetrable, intended for Tseb tails. The ceiling was low and the air smelled sickly sweet, laden with alien pollens. Dark shaggy moss like the hide of a buffalo covered the nooks and crannies. A few cameras were tucked here and there in the corners, but overall security was lax. The Tsebs were a civilized people, after all. They had nothing to fear from their own. As for the few human terrorists who had made it through their security screens, they had been ordered--just like Christopher--to destroy the Monet.
Vita was still savoring their rebellion against decorum. "I promise you can die right here, Christopher, and nobody will hold it against you."
Instructed by its proto, it awkwardly made a heart-crossing gesture with one upraised foot. "I swear."
"What if I was one of you?"
It was quiet for long enough that he wondered if he had gone too far, but at last the translation came. "That depends."
"If it was instantaneous, unexpected, painless--you would be forgiven," it said. "If not... if you knew you were dying, if you tried to get to the sun and failed, or you didn't try..."
"Big time transgression, huh?"
Its gesture equated, Em said, to a vehement nod. "Everything associated with your death would be shunned."
"Your culture only takes forgiveness to a point, then?"
"You have to draw the line somewhere."
"Indeed," he agreed. "Quite so."
He let Vita slide back into the proper tour, narrating the history of the Spine as they descended down through the treacherous footing of the gallery. They passed shelves of fungus, tiny statues etched from eggshells, ornately carved crystals and black scrolled wands made of a substance called sea root. Everything was three-dimensional, tactile. Feigning awe, Christopher touched things that felt like peanut butter, dead flesh, adhesive tape, cold steel. He snapped the occasional historical treasure with his too-bulky camera and asked dozens of questions.
There wasn't a flat surface anywhere. The Tseb didn't do two-dimensional depiction. Probably that was why human painting fascinated them so.
Art you can't touch. Daft primitives.
Down and around, hobbled by the lumpy floor, he was genuinely winded by the time they arrived at the Spine.
It was a single glowing sculpture within a massive subterranean chamber, a giant-sized, abstract depiction of the Tsebsra body. Indentations in its belly suggested femininity without insisting upon it; faded bands on its tail hinted at both maturity and youth. It was delicately curved, less knobby than the grotesqueries which had preceded it in the upper galleries.
A pair of Tsebs were lounging at its base, running their feet over the structure, their sluglike pouches extended to lick the surface. They tucked back in when Vita appeared with Christopher, moving back through the exit without a backward glance.
They were alone.
Good. Fewer witnesses, less trouble. He detached the bottom cartridge of his camera and surreptitiously affixed it to the wall beside the door.
"Vita's sound equates to a contented sigh," Em reported.
Christopher hadn't heard anything.
Looking up to the bulging top of the statue, he realized he was disappointed. This was the Tsebs' Mona Lisa. He had hoped to understand its beauty. He had come so far...
"Come on!" Vita gripped his arm, urging him closer. They worked their way to the edge of the sculpture and the alien's tail stretched out to roam over it lovingly.
Christopher touched the cool surface. Visually it was seamless, a single white structure made of unidentifiable material. But under his fingers the texture and temperature varied: parts of it were woody, others metallic, still others plastic. Towering above them, the statue's shadow was washed out by the steady golden light emitted from six light globes which encircled it like a wide halo.
This thing predates Columbus and Shakespeare, Christopher thought. It has been sitting here since before my kind invented the printing press.
Nothing. His old heart refused to be moved.
Vita hissed; Em chirped a translation. "When I was new-hatched my parents brought me here. I climbed all the way to the top. The holds look worn down from here at the bottom, but the effect is intentional. You'd be surprised how firm they are! When you are very young, Christopher, you can sit on the top, inflate your sacs, and leap down."
"That's a long way to fall," he said.
"Oh, it's perfectly safe. Inside the coiled tail is a soft moss, and as babies our bodies are very light. Craket the Maker intended it this way. She felt it was important for the Spine to speak to us differently at the various stages of our lives."
He squinted at the bulb at the top of the sculpture. "It's a long way up. Weren't you scared?"
"Terrified. I had to be coaxed down. My parents were deeply shamed."
"Sorry to hear it."
"I am the better for it. Many of my kind only come to see the Spine once or twice. The embarrassment brought me back again and again. It remade my soul."
"I see," Christopher said.
"Perhaps you should take a rest. I think it would be comfortable if you wanted to sit here."
He looked at it dubiously. It was about as high and thick as a park bench, even reasonably flat, but streaks of dried saliva were flaking away where the other Tsebs had been licking it.
Gentle white toes closed on his scarred elbow.
"Are you all right? I know I said it was acceptable for you to die indoors but you would alert me if you were unwell, wouldn't you?"
"Old man's prerogative," he murmured. The grip on his arm tightened and he leaned against it experimentally. Vita gurgled.
"Sound denotes physical exertion," Em said.
He let himself fall.
He landed atop the alien, tangling a leg and an arm over its twisting body. One of the bumps in the floor caught him in the kidney, a blinding, sudden pain that dulled his awareness of Vita beneath him, bucking and squeaking. Liquids in its body compressed under his weight and its thin skin stretched against him. The sounds it made, according to Emm, equated to surprise and minor pain.
"Christopher? Are you all right?"
"Yeah," he grunted. "Sorry. I'll get off you in a sec--just need my pills. Are you hurt?"
"Just pressed," it said. "Your body is so warm! How do you stand it?"
"Cold blood," he muttered. Then, opening the packet of tablets, he bounced the golden globs down the length of the white body.
"Bloody hell," he said, maintaining the façade for one more second. Then the tabs reacted to the room's ambient moisture. They popped, releasing a gelatinous payload which bound the Tseb to the floor of the chamber.
A chatter like rocks grinding together from the body beneath him.
"Vita is alarmed."
He rolled off it, backed away. The jelly splotches spread and welded it down--tail, toes, body. It tugged at one with its foot and tore a hunk of skin away. Fluid the color of motor oil flowed into the fuzz that covered the floor.
"Stay still," he ordered. "You'll injure yourself."
Retrieving his cane, he leaned hard against the Spine and caught his breath. Vita was still wiggling on the floor.
"Don't move," he said again. The web packet from his camera had already expanded to seal the room's only entrance, encasing it in a gelatinous webwork. It wouldn't seal them in for long, but he didn't need long.
"What are you doing?"
"Causing a diplomatic incident," he said, unpacking the cane.
"What do you mean?"
"Some chaps I know wanted me to destroy the Monet. You see, people back home have been sitting around with their thumbs up their arses for rather a long time, as we reckon it, doing squat about getting the painting back from you."
The cane was filled with three different harmless fluids, all under pressure. His mates had thought he would spray it over the paintings in the earth gallery. One two, game over. Instead he unpacked its tripod and took careful aim at the top of the Spine. He started the mechanism that would mix the chemicals into an acid. A single green droplet hissed from the tip of the device.
"Squeal denotes pain," Em said.
He looked at the child. Vita was struggling against its bonds again, and a great hunk of its leg had been torn open.
"Listen to me," he told it. "Those capsules were meant to hold a human. Your skin is obviously very delicate. You must lie still... you're going to be seriously injured if you don't stop."
Vita shuddered once. Little fissures bled at the edges of the jellies that bound it to the floor.
"All right," Vita said. After a moment, when it had clearly stopped moving, Christopher returned to his destruction of the statue. The cane beeped, indicating that the acid's mix cycle was complete. He took careful aim at the top of the Spine.
Strong toes gripped his knee then, hurling him backward, off-balance. He fell, tangled in the grip of Vita's bleeding leg. The cane, still in his hand, rained droplets of acid over them both. He closed his eyes, covered his face. His jacket caught most of it, although he could smell his hair burning.
"Don't do this, Christopher," Vita pleaded.
"It's too late." He struggled to free himself without tearing Vita's skin further, wincing as its body gurgled beneath him. The acid was blistering long sticky lines near its eyes, the flesh running like melted cheese. Finally he rolled off of her, propped himself up on his elbows. Taking aim from down on the floor, he began to spray. He laid the acid on the Spine in a straight, consistent layer, just like paint.
Vita yanked his leg and hissed; Em translated. "Stop!"
He struggled to breathe. "The general idea was that by destroying the Monet, you see, we would punish both your museum and the people in my government who let it go. The boys had whipped up these clever gadgets they thought I could slip into this place. They wanted an old man, preferably one who had one toe in the crematorium anyway. But the Earth exhibit is too well protected." Acrid smoke burned at his eyes, the first chemical reaction of acid burning the statue. "Besides, that painting means more to me than my own mother. You might say it remade my soul."
"You haven't got one," Vita whispered.
"I was going to tell them to stuff their job. But someone else would have gone, don't you see? And what if I was wrong? What if they did destroy it? It would have been a pointless sacrifice. Cutting off our nose, as they say. I even considered warning the authorities, just to save the painting."
"Sound equates to a contemptuous snort," Em said.
"But then I thought--if we're going to take all these lovely toys halfway across the galaxy, why not put them to real use? Punish the guilty, I reckoned, instead of the innocent."
Drops of water dribbled down from the ceiling, an immense and sudden profusion of moisture. Striking the acid, it sizzled and steamed. Christopher saw that the Spine was discolored, but not destroyed. The damage was probably reparable, and the acid was being dispersed by the fire system. He was failing.
There was nothing more he could do; he was out of weapons. The boys had tried to build a bomb into a hearing aid or a proto, and all they'd done was blow the tester right into a coma.
He'd come all this way, and at best he would have scared them.
"Vita requires immediate medical attention." Em gave the words a plaintive tone.
"All right, all right."
The grip on his knee had loosened, and he managed to stand upright again. The cane's payload was half used, and so he spent the rest of the cartridge spreading acid on the door seal. Security must be outside by now, trying to cut their way in... there was no reason not to help them now.
"Bring a doctor," he shouted.
He spared a last glance for the intact Spine and then, finally, forced himself to look down. The knobby floor around Vita's body was filled with golden blood and water, and its struggles were weakening. It had torn itself apart trying to stop him.
And the funny thing was he'd never been the sort who could bear to see someone who was hurt--even scratched--but he could look right at Vita. It was like seeing a movie monster, a stop-motion death-scene. Before he retired, he had bombed a shuttle full of Tsebs over Earth's lost paintings. He had lain awake nights, imagining they died like humans. Now...
"They're coming," he said. "Hang on."
"Sound denotes great pain."
Take its mind off it, he thought. "I had a part-time job when I was a kid," he said. "Guided museum tours in my home town. I worked slow days only at first--they wouldn't trust me with whole groups, just the random wandering tourist. I'm tempted to think that's what your job here is like, Vita--that we have that much, at least, in common."
"We have nothing in common," Em translated. "I'm not like you."
"I wanted to stay on with that museum, but nobody at home wanted to look at paintings anymore. It's all digital home galleries and knobby bric-a-brac. There was no job for me." He knelt, lifted a flap of Tseb skin and tried to press it back against the wound. Frothy orange foam was seeping from its throat.
"Why are you telling me this?" Vita asked, twitching away from the hand he'd clapped over its injury.
"Distraction," he said.
"From what? Your desecration?"
He glanced at the Spine again, mottled with faint black streaks where the various materials merged. "It didn't work."
It laughed bitterly. "You're saying that because you think I'm dying."
"No," Christopher said. He didn't insult it by apologizing. "You'll be fine. I'm trying to take your mind off the discomfort."
"Do you mean pain?" If its body language showed a reaction, Em didn't catch it.
"Chattering at me like a scatbug doesn't help."
"They'll be through the door in a minute. I didn't know your skin was so delicate, Vita--"
"Shut up." With that, the alien wound its toes along a hold in the floor and tried to pull itself to the blockaded exit. Pieces of its innards unraveled, stringing along the lumpy floor. Its tail tore loose, lashing the Spine with fading vigor.
It was within a yard of the exit when he finally heard Security breaking through the acid-weakened blockade with a cutting tool. Their faces filled a small gap in the webbing, and then they desperately tore at the rest of it, trying to open the gateway for Vita. One of them extended its tail through the hole, dangling it like a rescue rope.
They weren't fast enough. The injured guide had stopped moving. Air blatted, escaping the tears in the rubbery white skin as if it was a deflating life raft. Vita's body shrank, and then went still.
After a moment, the guard's tail retracted to the other side of the door. Tseb eyestalks crowded the opening. Four or five of them stared at Christopher through the shredded jelly of the once-blocked entrance.
"It was only meant to immobilize," he said.
There was no response. He threw away the cane and put his hands up. Didn't they have protos?
"I'm unarmed now," he said.
No reaction. They actually backed up the corridor, away from him and out of sight.
"Aren't you going to arrest me?" He rubbed his face, was surprised to find it wet.
Silence. He looked at the knobby, impassable floor. His cane, disassembled and empty, would never hold his weight again. "Hey. You cops. Going to cart me off or not?"
A chime, suddenly, from Em. "You are located in a dying place. Please leave the chamber and surrender yourself to the authorities."
"What the hell?" He opened his mouth to shout again and then realization hit. They wouldn't come in. Their art treasure was sealed away, ostracized by rigid beliefs and the blood of a child. They were going to leave Vita's body here to rot with its beloved Spine.
And who was he to be offended by that?
When another minute passed and they still didn't come after him, Christopher heaved his body over the base of the Spine so he was inside the curve of its tail. He lay inside, head and legs raised by its height, and found that it fit him just right. The mossy floor was blessedly comfortable, just as the tour had advertised.
"Something soft to land on," he murmured, settling in. His leg was aching from the pratfall he'd taken onto the lumpy floor and both feet were throbbing. He kicked off his shoes, waggled his toes in the warm, moist air.
One last lump pressed into his hip--the camera. He took it out, set it to slideshow, and projected images onto the curvy white interior of the Spine. Warhol. Spencer. Malta. A fake Picasso. A Bill Reid sketch. The Monet. Himself, posing for fake grandkids. Vita. The Mound. Vita again.
"Expression equates to a friendly smile," Em said.
Christopher tore the proto speaker out of his ear and flipped back to the paintings.
After a couple of hours, he started to get hungry.
This story originally appeared in Asimov's.