The Artist, Perfect in His Craft

by Alter S. Reiss

Artatra stormed down the five hundred black marble steps to his laboratories and warrens.  It was utterly intolerable, the restrictions under which he worked.  That a mind such as his should be yoked to an unimaginative, plodding, stupid . . . well, not stupid, exactly.  That was the problem!  If the Presence in the Throne was stupid, it could be worked around.  The mind behind that mask was sly, it was well-ordered, and it knew far more than it rightly ought.  It was unimaginably worse than stupid—it was a functioning mind that lacked vision.

The draggers—they were perfect, absolutely perfect.  A work of genius, complete and beautiful.  Fifteen feet long, all muscle and sinew, with the armored strength of a crocodile, and the whirlaway speed of a hawk.  And their eyes.  Five eyes on independent stalks, each with fifteen types of ommatidia; perfect color vision, high into the ultraviolet and deep into the infrared; there was no form of invisibility that would fool them, no target that they would misjudge.  True, it was not the subterranean herd-beast that the Presence had demanded, but when results led in one direction, it was wrong to try and force them into another.  “Destroy them, and begin anew?”  Artatra could not imagine a worse crime.

He could, however, imagine a different crime.  He returned to his black-iron throne above the dragger cages, and called for a servitor, a worker in fine metals.  It was one of the red-skinned beasts that had been in the caves before they had been brought to the light of the Presence.  They were obedient, easily cowed, stupid little things, but they were sturdy enough for most work, and did as they were told.

“You shall produce a scroll of beaten gold,” he told it.  “Written in some obscure tongue.  Your native gabble will serve well enough.  It is to be a map—I shall give you charts to copy.  And in the cavern marked on those charts, this scroll shall indicate the presence of a . . . no, do not specify.  Too blatant a trap will be avoided.  Mention, though, a three-fold flower of crystal.  And reference also a stream of colored light flowing from it.  That should be sufficient.”

“Yes, majesty,” it said, in a quavering voice.  “How authentic, majesty, should—”

“Absolutely authentic!  And make haste; if it takes you longer than a day to produce this thing, you, and your mate, and all your offspring shall feed the draggers!”

It blanched; it bowed; it left with the charts that Artatra gave it.  And before too long, there was a scroll.  It was a beautiful thing; it translated the charts and measurements of the drones into poetry and light.  That was the mark of genius, to imagine a thing, and call it into being.  If he had not known how it came to be, Artatra would have believed it to be authentic—would have believe that he at last held evidence that the trefoil gem was no myth, and that he could seize it, and all its rumored powers.

He sent one of his servitors to conceal it in the passages that the Presence on the Throne was clearing.  It would be found, and it would be reported, and it was the perfect bait.  According to the legends, the trefoil gem would increase its bearer’s power ten-thousand fold.  It was not in the nature of the Presence to leave such a thing be, nor could it risk such an item falling into the hands of its servitors.  Artatra gave the orders, and the dragger handlers moved their charges out to where they needed to be, and released them.  It wouldn’t be long before the Presence learned just how wrong it would have been to destroy his beautiful draggers.

As he sat upon his throne, and waited for news to return, one of the red slaves came in, bowing and scraping.  “Mercy, majesty,” it said.  Artatra looked upon it, and frowned; they knew better than to come in unbidden.  “Mercy,” it said.  “But I did not know if you wanted it absolutely authentic, or to mark the three-fold crystal where you had it marked; I pray that I did right.”

It took a moment for the question to sink in.  “The trefoil gem is real?” he asked.  “You knew where it was hidden?”

“Majesty, yes, of course.  It is not far from where the scroll showed it.”  It produced Artatra’s charts, showed a chamber less than three thousand paces from where the Presence was headed.  “Did I do wrong?”

“You’ve earned a thousand deaths for not telling me sooner!” roared Artatra.  “Wait here, and you shall suffer for this on my return!”  If the Presence should find it before the draggers found him—but no.  Artatra headed down into the caverns.  The draggers had sat in cages at his feet for long enough to know they could not harm him.  And beside, he had the ultra-sonic whistle whose voice they could not bear.  He would be entirely safe, and soon, not only would the Presence be dead, he would have the trefoil gem.  Then the world would see what he could do!

After Artatra was gone, the slave shrugged, and turned to leave.  Another, who was cleaning the empty dragger pits, looked up to him.  “You do not wait?” it asked.

“No,” said the slave.  “I do not know how long he will look for the trefoil gem, whatever that might be, but I do know that the whistle he carries was not my finest work.  It will not stand up to prolonged use.”

Notes …

Alter S. Reiss is a field archaeologist and scientific editor, who lives in Jerusalem with his wife Naomi and their son Uriel. He likes good books, bad movies, and old time radio. Alter’s fiction has appeared in F&SF, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere.

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