A Catechism for Pride
11 am GMT, change-over time, and behind the chest-high desk, Tony's hands danced while the girls either side dealt with incoming calls, their sweet faces and voices promising the world to prospective guests, here in the hotel that orbited it.
His fingers flicked across the thick-air pads to total bills, finalize favors, arrange Earth concert tickets, deliver discreet funds to bank accounts that didn't officially exist, and to work the suite sensors, the corners of his gaze waiting for the green 'vacant' glows.
Above the desk, his know-all-tell-nothing smile focused on the very famous Californian film director before him.
"Tony, mate," said the director in a poor Cockney accent, "it was a pleasure, as always, doing business with such a diamond geezer as your good self."
"Nah," said Tony, "the pleasure was all mine, Mr. Robertson. I just hope the old trouble an' strife believes you really was in Hollywood on business these past three days."
"Trouble and strife?"
"Trouble and strife--wife."
Mr. Robertson laughed. "Good one! Must remember that. Has my bill been taken care of?"
"I've been in contact with your private accountant, sir, and not even the F-Bleedin'-I could find where this little bundle of dosh came from."
"You got my card, right? Give me a call when you . . . "
"I'll do that, sir, when I . . . "
Watching Robertson disappear into a blow tube, he thought bitterly of the thousand other cards he had, all from the rich and famous, none he'd been able to call in yet.
Just after 2 pm GMT, a late arrival approached the desk, steering two bags before him--a long haired, bearded, scruffily-dressed man in his early forties.
"Welcome, sir," said Tony, "to Hotel Orbit One. Can I have the name you've chosen to use while staying here?"
"Ralph Green; it's my real name."
"As you wish, sir. But we keep no records of our guests, in any case."
He decided to tell Ralph about the hotel's facilities and watertight privacy policies, even though no guest would ever book a room without being aware of them; he just wanted to check for reactions, gain a feel for the man's predilections.
But Green did not respond. So Tony lowered his voice and said, "As I'm sure you're aware, sir, this luxury floating gaff has been declared outside the legal jurisdiction of every country on Earth. Which in layman's terms means you can, for instance, call on the services of our lady--or gentleman--escorts in complete confidence." Was there a brief flicker of interest? "Also, of course, we are unique amongst hotels in that each of our rooms has low-to-no-grav capability should you wish to, well, you know . . . " Yes, that definitely got the eyelids twitching, but then it usually did.
So, he deduced, although Green might look like a hippy dipstick, he needed his nuts shelling as bad as the next bloke.
He passed over the key pad and Green pressed his thumb into it, programming his door.
"Obviously," said Tony, "we don't scan our guest's luggage, but I do have to ask if you're carrying any banned substances; sorry."
"Aside from a few clothes," said Green, "all I've packed is a formation maker and several gallons of organo-plastics."
"Are you an artist then, sir?"
"I plan to be."
"Well, enjoy your stay. I see you're with us for two weeks." He lightly emphasised the 'two', hinting at the great cost of such a long stay.
Green studied Tony carefully for several moments, then said, "Your desire for personal information about your guests is transparent to me. To save you probing me any more, I'll tell you this much: I've had two careers, the second in engineering, both of which made me a lot of money. After quitting the second, I traveled the world, and now I want to be an artist. Okay?"
Tony held up his hands. "No offence intended, sir. May the creative spirit be with you. But don't forget to relax, too, while you're here. We have nine bars, each representing a different empire from Earth's history."
"Really?" said Green. "Does that mean I can get a Storm trooper Cocktail in the Third Reich saloon?"
The man smiled at last, even if it was at his own joke, and Tony relaxed a little, although it bothered him he couldn't quite get this strange bloke's number.
Days passed and he didn't see Ralph Green in the bar, or anywhere else for that matter, which meant he'd remained in his suite--becoming an artist.
Tony continued to work the thick-air pads behind the desk; flirted just enough with the female guests, and one or two of the men; helped rich people relax by losing fortunes pointlessly in the casinos; kept the staff sweet, and overall did what his father used to call 'the business'; but it continued to bother him. Ralph Green bothered him.
He'd recognized in Green a singularity of purpose, but at the expense, it seemed, of the qualities Tony possessed--charm, humor, cunning--all the soul-warming phony stuff that others wanted to be around. In his deepest instinct, he knew they had complimentary talents and needs.
So he waited for the right moment, and in the meantime satisfied the guests and recorded the movements of staff--engineers coming and going, one of the escort girls quitting a week from today. . . .
Then, around 8 pm GMT, five days into Green's stay, one of Tony's monitors showed the artist finally appearing outside his suite before sauntering into the British Empire Bar, looking mighty pleased with himself.
Immediately, Tony ran a series of remote tests on the hotel's plumbing system, complex enough to allow him to fake a potential leak. Hotel rules dictated he checked its status before calling the plumbers, so he went alone to Green's suite.
He used the master key to open the door, then slipped inside. The small lobby shone with odorless polish, testimony to the cleaning bots. He entered the darkened main living area, knowing its dimensions, the shape of its roof, how the walls bent towards the outer, transparent, wall which was the hotel's glittering prize: several million stars undimmed by atmosphere. He waved his key at the sensor and, when artificial light flooded the room, gasped.
Filling the centre space, almost reaching the fifteen-foot high ceiling, Ralph Green's creation smashed into his senses, bypassing rational thought and filling him with dark wonder.
The extended, molded, contoured and graceful lines of the abstract forms drew the eye initially to her head which formed an arc at least six feet wide, fine blonde hairs waving thinly like sparse desert grasses. Her neck spiraled tightly four or five feet between her chin and the greatly exaggerated torso, which itself stretched twelve feet or so across the shoulders, tapered to about a fifth of that at the waist. By comparison, the breasts only gently shadowed the chest, but the nipples stood out hard and dark red. No arms protruded from the shoulders but the legs left the torso at a ninety degree angle, before turning by the same again, their toeless feet planted flat and wide to support the whole. It should have repulsed him but its unsettling proportions only sparked his blood.
At the bottom of the torso no pubic hair nor genitals interrupted the smooth lines yet the flesh pulsed slightly and for reasons not entirely obvious, he felt aroused. He forced his gaze to the thing's eyes which, in all the surrounding deformity, looked disturbingly human. Although just organo-plastic formations, the light on their surfaces seemed to link directly to the pulsing flesh at the crotch, as if a soul could be born in them if only he could find a way to screw her.
He forced himself to look away, noting the formation machine in the corner, surrounded by organo-plastic pots, about half of them empty and neatly stacked. The cleaning bots stood, low and wide and shining brightly, next to the machine, as if in awe of its ability to produce solid forms at the will of its master.
He wondered how much debris they must have swallowed from Green's work and, with that thought, realized why the thing had been made here. Not just because of the automatic cleaning systems but for the low-to-no-grav facility. Organo-plastic would not, like stone or steel, naturally stand while the artist shaped it. It also possessed some of the qualities of real flesh and bones, in that it wobbled and shifted and bent. . . . So, in low- or no-grav conditions, such a huge form would be much easier to balance until every part fitted exactly right and it could stand in normal gravity, as it did now.
He looked at it again, this strange, shimmering thing, desperate for his lust to break into its body, and recognized genius.
He ran to his office and slipped a card into the plasmaphone.
"Chris Robertson's office; how can I help?"
"My name's Tony Hitchings. Can you please tell Mr. Robertson I have something important to show him?"
The screen blanked for a few seconds then Robertson's face appeared.
"Tony, mate! What can I do for me old mucker?"
"Mr. R, I've discovered an artist who's the real dog's bollocks, believe me. I'm representing him but if you could organize a showing of his work, I'd be happy to share any commission with you."
"Got a sample?"
Tony took from his pocket the crystal that would get him fired if the hotel owners saw its contents, and pushed it into the phone. "I took this 3D just now. . . ."
Again the screen blanked and he tried not to grind his teeth with impatience, hoping when Robertson opened the 3D in life-size mode, the full effect would transfer. The animated image would show the throbbing crotch, the fine, waving, blonde hairs and the shining eyes, but it couldn't produce whatever invisible lust-inducing chemicals Green's statue might secretly emit.
Finally, the screen fired up again. "Tony, I just showed your 3D to a friend in Milan--Gianluca Cassi--owner of a big gallery there. He wants to know how quickly you can get your artist to him. Even if he only has this one piece, Cassi reckons it's brilliant enough to make your man the find of the twenty-first century."
"Glad he agrees," he said. "I'll get him to Milan as fast as I can."
Robertson nodded. "I'll see you there; we'll talk business then. Nice work, mate."
He switched off the phone then went straight to the British Empire bar, keen to make his lie good. He made his way across the large room filled with rough wooden furniture and plastic replicas of eighteenth century warships, sailors and anchors. He'd always found these a little unconvincing and now, in comparison with Green's piece, they seemed totally lifeless.
It took him a few minutes to reach the bar, however, on account of all the punters who wanted a word, slipped him cash for an errand, or just insisted on shaking his hand. When he finally arrived, he found Green talking to a young woman he recognized as a professional escort. He ordered a drink then turned to the couple, catching Green's attention.
"What a surprise, Mr. Green," he said. "I didn't expect to find you here. Look, there was a small problem in your suite earlier but I'm pleased to say it's been fixed."
Green whispered something to the girl who gave Tony a dark look before slipping into the crowd. Green moved closer, expression cold. "What problem?" he said.
"We had an alarm--a water pipe in your bathroom. You weren't in so I had to check it; but it's okay, there wasn't an actual--"
"You went into my rooms?"
He grinned. "It's brilliant, mate. I've never seen nothing like it before."
"Really? And what do you know about art?"
"Enough to show a 3D of it to a friend who does know."
Green turned away to stare into the distance, face tight. Tony took the opportunity to buy drinks, handing a large whiskey to Green.
"I take it you want to be my agent," said Green, apparently calm again, "but how do I know you can really help me?"
"The friend I've just spoken to is Chris Robertson and he loves it."
"But Chris Robertson is a movie director, isn't he?"
"Which is why he's got a good eye for the visual. Me and him have already arranged an exhibition for you in Milan, at Gianluca Cassi's gallery."
"Cassi? By God, you really do know the right people."
Tony swallowed the rest of his drink and ordered two more. "Believe me," he said, "I know hundreds of big-shots who'll want to help with your career once they get wind of how good you are."
They drank several more whiskeys and Ralph Green gradually seemed more normal, less driven and remote. He even smiled warmly at Tony's Cockney patter, and talked about his own colorful life. Yet a certain watchfulness never left his eyes and, just after they'd agreed to make this their last drink, he said, "Okay, Tony, I now believe you want to be part of my work. Here's what I want you to do: resign tomorrow; tell them you're leaving a week from now. You and I can use that time to work out the details of our arrangement."
"Yeah, I guess so . . ." Resigning without giving a month's notice would probably mean never working in the hotel business again, but then what the hell--this was a real caper at last, wasn't it?
In fact, he felt a little hurt when, rather than do its utmost to persuade him to stay, the management simply informed him they had any number of qualified replacements on Earth, ready to start immediately. They said he should enjoy his last week in the hotel--payment for which would use up all his severance money--that it was undoubtedly the last he'd ever spend in one, at least as an employee.
Yet, as he prepared to knock on Ralph Green's door, he felt elated. He'd been up till nearly dawn, but had finally worked out what to say to make Green sign a contract which would provide Tony with a big enough percentage, even after Robertson took his cut, to become a real player at last.
He raised his hand to the bell-patch but paused. For deep beneath the glare of his new enthusiasm, a darker twinge tried to catch his inner attention, small details he'd missed that he'd normally mull over. But he made himself slap the bell and the door slid back, Green letting him in.
He walked into the living area to find the artist and the formation maker and the pots, but no statue.
Green, seeing his frown, said, "I dismantled it; packed it into one of my bags."
"How did you do that without mucking it up?"
"Built connecting tubes between the joints, that sort of thing. Did you resign?"
"Yes, and apparently I'll never work in this business again."
Green wore blue overalls covered in dark stains. "But that's okay because now you're going into the agenting business, right?"
He couldn't quite place the angle of Green's smile. "Well, I'm a wide boy and you're a bleedin' genius, so I reckon we'll make a pretty good combination."
"And the bottom line is?"
He'd anticipated they'd talk some more before getting to the details of a contract, but Green's expression was unequivocal. "I take forty per cent," Tony said, "which sounds a lot, I know, but look what I've already done for your career--"
The buzz of a cleaning robot approaching from behind cut off his spiel.
"I adapted it," said Green, as Tony felt a sharp pain in his ankle. "It's just injected you with a powerful anesthetic. You'll be paralyzed within a few seconds, but still conscious."
He managed to say, "Why?" just before his body ceased to feel.
"If you'd said twenty per cent, I might have negotiated, but forty just proves what I always suspected about you. Which, if it's any consolation, is not that you're greedy. No, money for you is just a means to promote your unfulfilled but rapacious pride."
Green walked to the formation maker and worked the diagramming pads. "I know you think you're a real jack-the-lad, Tony, but you were very careless in not finding out what my first profession was, or what I did when traveling the world."
Tony lifted into the air, the area immediately surrounding him now without gravity. His stomach may well have lurched but he couldn't feel it.
"I was a surgeon," said Green, "a very good one, but I got a little bored fixing anyone who happened to be broke or ill. I mean, what's the point in helping air-heads to live longer?"
The formation maker whirred and lengths of flesh-colored organo-plastic tumbled from the back of it.
"So I went traveling to learn about shamanism--the real thing, not the antiseptic crap you get from some New Age wanker in Californian called Running Sore, waving a feather, claiming to be in touch with the dead. I went to Siberia and . . . well, you don't need to know the details; let's just say I learned quite a bit about the human spirit and how to channel it."
Tony drifted upside down, turned horizontal, as if floating in a dream.
"Got it yet?" said Green, opening a steel tool box and taking out an electric saw. "Surgeon, engineer, shaman and now, artist."
Tony thought he did get it: Green was a full-time nutter, but he couldn't even nod his head to that effect.
The sound of the saw rasped into his thoughts and the following hours and days passed in a storm of blood spray and bone shrapnel, of breaking and stretching and twisting, and, when the anesthetic periodically wore off, excruciating pain.
Green floated around him in the no-grav zone, cutting and suturing and molding. Most of the time, clouds of floating blood droplets obscured Tony's view of the carnage. But Green had to turn on the gravity from time to time, while holding up Tony, or what he'd become, to allow all the blood and flesh and bone to fall to the floor. Then, the bots went to work, quickly making the room shiny and odorless again.
He often lost consciousness which was a blessing, if only because he didn't have to listen to Green droning on about how his life's work would be a permanent reminder to the world of the seven deadly sins. As he'd said, Tony was guilty of the worst of them: pride. He wanted to be better than others, apparently; he wanted to be famous; he wanted to be special. . . .
Actually, if it had been possible, he would have told the loony that all he wanted was to be himself again.
At the end of the week, he regained consciousness again to find himself looking down at Green from somewhere near the ceiling. Nothing floated around him, so he guessed the gravity was on and he must be finished, balancing by dint of sheer bio-engineering genius. From the corners of his gaze, he saw vast flesh-coloured limbs in unnatural shapes: the new him.
Green smiled. "Cassi will be pleased I now have two pieces," he said. "We're leaving soon, Tony, mate. I just need to dismantle you for the travel bag."
While being sculpted, he'd had plenty of time to figure out what he should have noticed before, if his greed--or pride or plain old prattishness--hadn't got in the way. Such as the fact the escort girl due to leave for Earth must have been the raw material for Green's other piece. But, crammed into Green's bag, in total darkness, now with no anesthetic so fully wracked by the multiple pains of his broken bones and twisted nerves, still unable to scream because his voice box no longer existed, his greatest torment was the realization he would never again move of his own volition, never again be able to fix, arrange, manipulate or dance.
The pain eventually sent him back into unconsciousness. When his mind finally returned, darkness still surrounded him, yet now he had the sensation of standing, of being one piece again. He thought he heard rustling in the dark, and the sound of creatures breathing. But any such noises faded beneath the new shape for his pain--an incredible, gnawing, hunger. Never had he felt so empty, so in need of sustenance, his entire being a hollow ache. But just as he realized that ordinary food would never satisfy him, light exploded and he found himself high, near the ceiling. Dozens of people stared back at him: people in suits, in metal fashion wraps, in dark glasses, all with expressions of genuine awe at the sight of him. Green was amongst them, of course, standing next to Robertson. He couldn't even laugh at his own ineptness--yes, caused by pride--in having told Green the names of his contacts before the contract was signed.
As the audience regained its senses to study him closer, the hunger faded a little. The pain of being nothing reduced with each nod of appreciation, each expression of amazement followed by discomfort as they recognized in themselves an unwelcome but amazing empathy with the sculpture's screaming desire for attention. Yet it didn't quite satisfy his need and, as the event wore on and people turned their attention finally from the creation to the creator, he realized he would never, ever, have enough, and that Green had arranged it so.
To his right, another flare of light and Green's other piece appeared. The audience quickly left for their new kick and Green left, too, winking at him as he passed by.
He looked at the lights and remembered what Green had told him back in the hotel, as he shaped him into a modern masterpiece--that his skin could photosynthesize, turn light into food. So, whenever a spotlight hit him, he would be fed.
Of course, what he really needed was the light and the adulation, but one would never be enough, while the other would fade eventually, to leave him eternally wanting more.
Some time around the fifth country on Green's world tour, madness finally took his mind away from the torture of fame so close but never to be his. Then, all that remained of him was a catechism for pride: self in darkness; hunger for the light of recognition; tearing pain of reformation; fame unearned; hunger worse than before, forever . . .