Story art by Novae Caelum.
From the author: Michael set out with his wife to emigrate to the new world of Hale, but something went wrong in travel, and now she's fading from existence and even from his memories. All that's left now are her paintings, the art she taught him to create, and his desperation to keep her alive, if only in art and memories. | This story is set in the same universe as Good King Lyr, about 19,000 years before the events of that book, but it can fully stand alone.
Note: This story is set in the same universe as Good King Lyr and "An Understanding", a universe I collectively call The Kaireyeh Chronicles. It's an older story and a bit apocryphal, but was a great "aha!" moment for me in figuring out just how dangerous space travel by Kaireyeh really was, where the idea that eventually became the Aezthena might have started, and it all brought a lot of weight to my later worldbuilding in this universe. Plus, I'm a sucker for stories that are spread across a vast history with subtle interwoven Easter eggs.
While there might be some familiar names and places if you've read the novel and story above, this story is also a true standalone. It takes place around nineteen thousand years before the events of Good King Lyr.
The text of this story is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC-BY-SA).
In the gallery, sun streams through tinted glass onto furrows of paint on wrapped canvases hung on walls. Scattered neatly across the floor, pedestals bear sinewy copper nymphs and frames cradling smaller works; shadowboxes, graphite drawings, watercolors. This is the art of travelers from other worlds.
Michael studies only one piece, the same piece he has studied every day for forty-one days.
It sits on a hexagonal pedestal topped with purple velvet; a silver gilt frame, twelve inches by twelve, and within, on a sheet of cold-press watercolor paper, two-ply, is a portrait of a man he never knew and cares little about.
Bodies tide around him and the frame grows a shadow as the sun moves across the sky. The show ends as it always does, when the first sun sets and the second, a tiny too-bright spark, is left alone above the city.
Michael returns to his thirty-fifth floor apartment. He stares at the glass wall, but not out at the city. He sees the ghost of his reflection, and he watches the space beside it. It has been weeks and a thousand lightyears since he last saw her standing solidly next to him. He touches the glass, hoping for a feeling, even just a sense. But if she is there, this night he does not see her.
In the morning, he wakes to sunlight and colors and the sense of her. He cannot ignore it. He calls in sick to his work and doesn't care that his new boss will have words with him, or that his market accounts will suffer. She is here, and he must find her before she is gone.
First, he makes breakfast. Jalapeno eggs and hash with white cream. Pepper smoke burns his nostrils, but that is good, that is feeling. This was their meal. He lets each bite sit in his mouth and burn his tongue before it corrodes his esophagus and combusts in his stomach. Delicious hell.
Then, he washes his hands, and again, to remove all the oil so he will have a clean paper. She taught him that. He drags over her three-legged metal stool to the drawing table, set in perfect sunlight by the glass wall, just where she'd planned to put it when they'd first seen the brochures. He opens palates, gathers brushes, and fills the water cups--one for dirty, one for clean--and then fills a black mug that he places far to one side. He's made the mistake before of washing brushes in his vodka.
He sets out a fresh sheet of cream watercolor paper, two-ply, cold-press, what she always preferred. He begins to sketch, and then to paint. The second sun travels across the sky until it fades.
In the middle of the next day, Michael decides the painting is finished. It doesn't look like her, not physically, but she has taught him to capture the soul on changeable features. Her dun hair and sea blue eyes. The vivid sweep of her lips.
He cleans his brush in brown water, wipes it on a paper towel, forms the round back into its shape, and plunks it in the jar to dry. Then he creaks up from his stool, takes three or four steps back and stops.
He sees hair and eyes and lips and cheeks, and sees the spaces around them, all that are far too empty. He can feel her, still, in the sun motes of the air. He felt her while he painted. She has to be in the painting. He knows he painted her soul. Maybe, if he holds her feeling, the face will be there in the morning.
He takes the paper and hangs it on the clothesline with the others to dry. It's only afternoon, but his eyes are crusted and his hands are cramped. He stumbles to his bed and twists around so he can watch the painting. He watches it until his eyes close and he sleeps.
In the morning, the painting is blank. Michael struggles out of tangled covers and runs to the clothesline, looking for any sign of the pigment, any sign of the pencil lines he sketched first. But the paper is pure cream, without even a water-curl. He looks down the clothesline at all of his previous portraits of her--nothing. Gone.
No. Oh, no.
He shoves on pants and a shirt and almost forgets his shoes--he has to run back--and runs out into the corridor of his building and into the lift and wills it down, and catches the metro tube to the gallery, and has to wait on the front steps twenty-seven minutes while the staff take their time turning on the lights, as if the Sun Gallery needs them, and he's just standing here, waiting.
Don't they know that he is dying?
They open the doors, and he races in without a pass or a hello. He doesn't care if they chase him, which they do, but they recognize him and let him go. He's revered just enough as her husband. He is still her husband.
He skids into the Travelers' Exhibit and stops before his pedestal, but doesn't look at it yet. From the glass above, morning rays shine down and settle over the room. He takes a breath and tries to slow his heartbeat. He runs a hand over his rumpled shirt, he wants to be at his best for her.
Then Michael looks at the painting. It is still there. This portrait she painted is still there. She has not yet ghosted.
He sighs, so deep his knees creak, and he grabs at the velvet rope around the pedestal. It is not enough to hold his weight and he loses his balance, banging his elbow against the pedestal. It tilts, and the stand holding the frame slides. He watches through sun-thick air as the frame crashes to the marble floor and settles, painting side down. He stares at it in empty silence.
"Hey!" One of the gallery guards waves from the entrance. "Michael! What did you do?"
Michael picks up the frame and the painting. He turns it over in forced-steady hands. The painting is still there, but it is no longer a person, not really. Just a blur of tan and black and blue. She painted it while they waited, with the other travelers in the terminal, to board the ship and come to this world. It was her last work, her freshest.
Michael looks up at the gallery guard and sees a man with features on his face. He looks down at the painting and does not. He searches the bottom margin for her signature. The letters are blurred as well.
Michael holds the painting to himself, the edges of the gilt frame digging into his ribs. The room around him blurs, a different and wet kind of blur.
Slowly, he slides the velvet on the pedestal back into place and picks up the frame stand from the floor. He places the frame in its stand like a baby in a cradle. Or a woman in a grave. Soon, even the colors will be gone.
He says goodbye now, in silent vigil. He passes the guard on the way out and mumbles something about paying for the painting. The guard just stares.
Michael walks home. The sounds of people haze around him. Faces, faces. It is best he soon forget. But no, he must hold on to her. Feel her one more time.
He rides the lift to his apartment and does not look at the drawing table. He walks to the table beside his bed and from the drawer pulls out the two tickets. They are orange plastic cards, holo-stamped with names and faces and points of departure and destination. Michael Friedmann: Aijalon, Aijas System to Hale, Reven System. His face floats above the card. He looks at the second ticket and can just make out the name: Nevia Friedmann. There is still a name. No face. He brings the ticket to his lips and kisses it, and imagines warm lips beneath his, but that is just an imagining.
He sets the tickets back in the drawer and pulls out the contract. He has read it many times since he has arrived, and he wishes every moment he had read it more closely before. That he had fully understood. His name is on the bottom, signed. Hers is barely a shadow. His gaze drifts to the one section he has read so often now he can recite it from memory:
At Aesthen Corp, we travel by mind and soul. You understand that in rare occurrences, one or more passengers may be absorbed into the movement of mass through space. Should this happen to a passenger, you will not remember them, and you will forfeit your right to remember this clause in your contract.
He has held out for forty-two days. He is tired, and the headaches are getting worse.
Michael shoves the contract back in with the tickets and closes the drawer. He falls into his bed and doesn't bother to undress. He sleeps, and he dreams, a faint warm red memory.
Michael wakes to sunlight and wonders why there is a drawing table in his apartment. He is a market broker.
This story originally appeared in 1st and Starlight.