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Short Fiction: "A Fiendish Portrait"

AeternisJun 11, 2021, 1:43:11 AM
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This short piece was written in 2018 and posted to my short fiction blog in October of that year under the title "Libbie's Gallery."  It's one of the many pieces in the series in which I explore the livelihoods of people who are the setting's "Average Joes" who have brief encounters with the strange and mysterious to which spacers and frontier explorers have become somewhat accustomed.

Libbie's tangential experience with the strange and ghostly creatures reported in the outlands of the planet of Maribel gives no proof that this creature is real. This is by design - like the Gossamers of Håkøya and dozens of other mysterious tales, the encounters in Maribel's back-country generally leave little in the way of hard evidence.

Just like our modern world, planets of the Angels' Reach have their share of myths, legends, cryptids, conspiracy theories, and so on. I do not claim that all such phenomena are entirely real in the setting, though generally speaking most are not deliberate frauds. Some reflect fleeting encounters with real, reclusive life in the setting, others are misinterpreted non-living phenomena, and some are the result of human imagination running rampant in the idle hours of Frontier dwellers.

(Banner art by Marco Badanai. This image was the inspiration for the piece, though my mental image for the painting diverged somewhat into the Lovecraftian as I wrote and developed the piece.)

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“Very interesting.” 

The words, spoken quietly, caused Libbie to jump in surprise. She had been reading an explorer’s unexpectedly gripping account of his escape from a burrowing predator on one of the many worlds of the Frontier and hadn’t seen the speaker enter her shabby little store. 

Hurriedly stowing her slate reader, Libbie sat up and spied the speaker, an old man, between the racks of synth-canvas paintings and rolled up paper prints. He was standing in front of one of the larger pieces in the dusty gallery, one which Libbie had deliberately set up in an out of the way corner, lest it scare away timid clients. 

Like most of her other wares, the big painting was done traditionally, with oil paints not too different from those used to paint the long-crumbled masterpieces of the Age of Lights in Earth’s pre-interstellar epoch. The only thing different about the modern compositions was the use of synthetic canvas and modern paints which would not crack or fade for centuries. This, Libbie considered quite unfortunate; the big canvas was her least favorite item in the gallery, and she doubted it would ever sell. 

As if noticing Libbie for the first time, the old man beckoned her toward him. Though she humored the gesture and moved out from behind the counter, she marked him as unlikely to buy the painting or anything else. His clothing was even shabbier than her dingy little art gallery, and his white hair, wildly unkempt, stuck out from under the brim of a quaint wide-brimmed hat. He was, she suspected, one of Maribel’s old hands; a man who had seen the colony in its hardscrabble youth as a young man, before the big colonization push that had quadrupled the planet’s population in twenty years. Some of the old hands were quite wealthy, but most had little money, and subsisted on the products of the broad swaths of back-country land to which they held title. 

Libbie sidled around the counter to approach the customer and the huge painting, suppressing a shudder as she did so. Perhaps she had misjudged the old man, and he would buy the painting, ensuring she never had to look at it again. She would be only too happy to part with it at a steep discount. “Can I help you, sir?” 

“Possibly not.” He looked up for the first time, his piercing crystal-blue eyes seeming at odds with his threadbare appearance. “What can you tell me about this painting?” 

Libbie shrugged. “Not much beyond what the information placard says, I’m afraid. The artist lives here on Maribel, but he’s a bit reclusive. I bought a batch of paintings from him, and this is the last original I have in stock. It's probably his most… striking.” Libbie doubted her half-hearted sales pitch was having any effect; the old man could certainly tell she did not like the painting. 

Her dislike had nothing to do with the work’s quality – Libbie knew that it was among the most skillfully-done paintings she had ever hung in her little gallery – it was the nightmarish subject matter. Libbie had dealt in shock-value art since her first day in business, and her shop even at that moment carried a few darkly erotic canvases that would make even a Temerity District prostitute uncomfortable, but none of that had ever bothered her like this piece.  

Libbie had never put her finger on precisely why the horror depicted emerging from the rust-hued fog in the middle of the painting bothered her so much. Its slavering, toothy maw, three dead, hollow eye sockets set in a skull-like head, and bestial claws seemed all the more chilling on a very human-like frame. The figure’s only raiment was a tangle of heavy chains draping its limbs. The half-shrouded landscape around the figure suggested an impossibly titanic stature. As imagined horrors went, it was hardly the most blood-curdling ever devised, but that rational knowledge never made looking at the canvas any easier. 

“I would have liked to see the others by this artist.” The old man shook his head. “They all sold, you say?” 

“Yes.” Libbie rallied, remembering the profits she’d earned from the other paintings. “I have authorized prints of the others in the back if you would like. They’re a bit less... grim.” 

“No, that’s all right.” The old man pointed back to the painting. “What can you tell me about him?” 

“The artist?” Libbie shook her head. “Not much, sorry. He signs his paintings with Cyril O., but that’s not his real name. He lives somewhere out past Archer Bay.” She only knew this much because the artist had shipped the pieces from a local post station in that area. He had no public credit account, at least none he wanted associated with his artistic pseudonym, and Libbie sent him his share of sale proceeds in packages of hard credit chits to the same post station. “He likes his privacy. if I had to guess, he’s only a part-time artistic genius.” Genius he was, Libbie knew; but she also suspected psychosis. 

“Yes.” The old man’s voice had become distant and bored. “But I didn’t mean the painter.” 

“Who then, sir?” 

“The subject, of course.” The old man replied. “I haven’t seen the old boy on my holdings in some time. I was wondering where he’d gone.”

Libbie was silent for several seconds, processing this. The old man, seeming to understand her shock, offered a faint smile. “Well, perhaps that’s for the best, miss.” He sighed, then turned and headed for the door. “Good day.”