Every painting has a story behind it. Most just aren’t recorded. I know the story behind this one, that I’ve had for nearly thirty years now, because I was there when it was made. This wasn’t just luck. It was made for me.
I was at a science fiction and gaming convention in southern Indiana. Things like games and costumes get a lot of attention but if you’ve never been to one you might not know they also sometimes have an art room. Artists would bring various works or paint them right there at the convention. I sat and watched one artist paint a ringed planet and a distant star for half an hour and finally asked him, “Do you mind being watched?”
“If I minded being watched I wouldn’t be painting out here,” he replied.
The last night of the convention there was always an art auction and I’d bid on a few things, never winning because I was easily outbid. An older guy who knew me was sitting behind me. Finally he leaned forward and said, “Chris, would you like a painting?”
“Sure,” I said. That was why I’d been bidding.
“I’ll see what I can do,” he said, and left.
The guy knew me because he knew almost everybody. He was one of the convention organizers. And yet I really didn’t give what he’d said any further thought until the next morning when I was on my way to breakfast and he grabbed me.
“Come on, they’re in the art room,” he said.
What was in the art room? Since it was the last day as far as I knew everything was being packed up, but one of the artists was in there sitting at a table painting the nebula you see in the picture. A couple of the other artists were watching him.
“Hey,” one of them said, “can I add something?”
The painting was passed on to the other artist, and then a third one decided to add something. And then they all signed it, which generated a lot of excitement and envy.
I didn’t realize it but this was the first time these three artists, who were well-known in science fiction circles and in high demand for book covers and other custom work, had ever collaborated on anything. It was also the first time anyone knew of that multiple artists had ever collaborated on a single work at a convention. This generated a lot of interest and a lot of envy. I was getting offers on the painting even before I left the room.
All these years later it’s not that valuable. The next year, and in the years that followed, it became a tradition at the convention for several artists—sometimes as many as five or six—to collaborate on a single painting that would then be auctioned off for charity. That made my little painting a lot less unique and less valuable. I still like it. It has a couple of subtle details that make me laugh.
It’s those details that made me think it needed something else. The story behind it is interesting, but it needed another story.
The TMA-114s were designed for speed and efficiency, not maneuverability, with a curved design pared down to the very basics. The base held the highly compact sulfur compound that propelled the ships at high speed, and also earned them the nickname “silent but deadly”. The bulging middle was all storage space, well-protected and reinforced, while the narrow neck held all the control systems. At the rounded top sat the single occupant’s quarters and the instrument panel, both of which the engineers had argued against. They were certain, in that special way only engineers, gods of their technical domains, could be, that there was no need. It was a straight shot from the mining fields of Ceti Alpha V to the freight yards just outside the star’s gravity well, and a computer could handle the minor adjustments needed to keep each ship on course. But delendium is unstable stuff even under ideal circumstances, and even though it cut into their bottom line the bigwigs insisted on a human presence in each ship.
Captain Walker had made so many runs she only had to look at the clock to know where the ship was. On the starboard side a few asteroid fragments of Ceti Alpha VI hung lazily against the Kraken Nebula. On the port was the planet’s former moon, now a minor planet spinning in a tight elliptical orbit. The three craters on its far side were mysterious in their depth and regularity but had never garnered any real scientific interest. Shippers had nicknamed it Sixteen Tonner, from an old Tellurian ballad. She leaned back in the seat and had started to drift off when the klaxon sounded.
“Malfunction,” she thought. The ships were aging and small things went wrong all the time, usually in the kitchen or sleeper, but on one trip the entire navigation system had fizzled. The engineers assured her this was not a problem since there was no reason she’d ever need it.
She was checking the overhead panel when she saw Sixteen Tonner pass in front of the window, moving at an impossible speed. Impossible. She checked the scanner but it only confirmed what she’d just seen. The moon was moving upward relative to her ship, and moving fast, as though being lifted by some invisible hand. She expanded the display and watched, fascinated. The only thing she could think that could cause that sort of movement was a black hole, but there was no radiation, and nothing else in the system was affected. It had already climbed high above the ecliptic plane and was moving backward. Then suddenly it dropped and changed direction. She drew a line with her finger. If it stayed on its present course it would hit the ship. And her. And enough delendium, the scientists said, to punch a hole in the fabric of space.
She opened the mic. “Shipyard, I have an emergency. Please respond stat.”
Static. She couldn’t tell if they were receiving or if she’d be able to get their reply if they did. No one ever thought to check the com array because no one ever needed it.
Sixteen Tonner was accelerating now, fixed on its collision course.
Walker flipped through the screens, looking for manual control, and trying to remember the training from more than five years ago, training that hadn’t been very thorough because of the engineers’ assurances that no one would ever need it. She tapped the screen and waited. And then heard one of the neck jets fire. She tapped again, starting a second one and pushing up the level. Slowly the course changed. She went back to the display and watched as Sixteen Tonner glided by, just kilometers away, spinning so fast those three craters looked like black stripes.
She switched back to auto and let the system self-correct the course. Periodically she’d go back and look at the display, watching how, against all laws of physics, Sixteen Tonner simply slid back into its orbit.
She planned to have a long talk with the engineers when she got the freight yards.
Deep in the Kraken Nebula an energy surge welled up and rippled through the background of space. Had any instrument picked it up it might have interpreted it as a voice speaking a single word.