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|Gallery story universe|
I've never been much of an artsy sort of person. But when I saw the "grand opening" notice, and especially the "admission free" notice right under it, I figured I might as well take a look inside the gallery. I had nothing much else to do that day.
It seemed that lots of other passersby had had similar thoughts, since the surprisingly large number of people wandering around inside the cavernous building looked like a complete cross-section of the persons on the street. It couldn't have been the weather, and this building wasn't on the way to anyplace else in particular... in fact, I couldn't remember ever being out in this part of town before. It had always seemed like such a run- down neighborhood. The artist must have been attracted by the low property values.
I was surprised to discover that every one of the huge number of paintings in the gallery had apparently been done by the same person; no name was listed for any of them, but it was all obviously done in the exact same photorealistic style. It was just as surprising considering the incredible array of subjects covered. The paintings were grouped into rooms by theme, and I had already gone through rooms devoted to nature scenes, barnyard scenes, all sorts of people in all sorts of situations, scenes of myths from around the world, prehistoric panoramas...
I stopped in one room, my attention caught by the theme of this particular grouping. It was all science-fiction stuff; spacecraft, other worlds, and lots of different aliens. I was somewhat surprised to see this sort of thing outside of an SF convention; even after all the mythological paintings I'd seen, I had thought this mysterious "Artist" person was probably fairly mundane. Or, at best, only into fantasy mush. But this stuff was really good. It seemed odd, then, that there was only one other guy in this room, and he didn't seem interested in the paintings at all.
After walking slowly down a row of increasingly dark and disturbing pictures, glancing at each in turn, I came to several that were obviously attempts to copy H.R. Geiger's style. There were a set of paintings with scenes that could have come straight out of Aliens, a sequence set on some sort of large station or spacecraft that supposedly illustrated the life cycle of the monster. It was just different enough from the original that the artist would probably be able to avoid a copyright lawsuit. I curled my lip slightly. I'd never liked Geiger.
"What do you think?" The man who had been standing idly behind me spoke up, nearly giving me a heart attack. I recovered quickly, though.
"The paintings are really good," I replied. "Excellent detail, everything is so realistic. Well, except these ones of course."
"What's wrong with them? It looks just as realistic as the others," the man questioned, sounding puzzled and upset.
"Yeah, the picture's fine. But I've never bought the idea of these sort of super-predator monsters, in real life they wouldn't be a match for those space marines there. The monsters are just flesh and blood, after all. The marines have technology, weapons, training, strategic planning..."
"I would never paint something that's unrealistic," the man cut me off, the strength of his reaction to my negative comment surprising me. "After all my effort...! Oh, you'll see. You'll see just how tough those things are!"
"Huh?" This guy was the artist? "What do you mean, it's-" I was abruptly cut off by a brilliant blue light; I turned to find its source, and saw that it was somehow radiating from the picture before me. "What..." I raised my hand to point, and cut myself short yet again. My hand was glowing too! My whole body was!
Then there was a strange sucking sensation, the light rushing through me, and then falling...
"...Ah!" I let out a small yelp as I found myself someplace else. It was dark, dingy, metallic... I strangled another yelp and froze as there was a sharp inhalation of surprise behind me, and the sound of a gun being cocked. Freezing probably saved my life.
"Turn around!" A harsh voice hissed. Slowly, I did so. It took me a moment longer, but it finally sank in; I was in one of those spacecraft corridors portrayed in the paintings, and I was standing at the gunpoint of one of those very space marines I had mentioned only a moment ago. He was obviously terrified, and probably quite trigger happy as a result. I wasn't exactly feeling secure myself right then. If I was somehow in the same place as those marines were, then that meant...
"Who're you?" The marine demanded.
"Dave Bellhop," I answered immediately, then winced at how loudly I had spoken. I switched to a whisper. "My god, are any of those things around here?" My mind was racing, and I had a terrible suspicion about what the artist had meant when he said I would see how deadly the subjects of his painting were. It made no sense, of course, but that didn't stop me from breaking into a sweat...
The marine nodded fearfully, obviously more concerned about possible alien monsters lurking in the shadows than the young university student that had just appeared in the corridor next to him. Perhaps he thought I was a colonist, or whatever the local civilians were supposed to be around here. "Detectors showed one lurking around here somewhere, but I've lost track... it could be anywhere." Shifting his assault rifle to point slightly away from the center of my chest, he drew a pistol and handed it to me. I took it numbly; this was all happening far too fast for me to keep up with. "Listen, we've got to get back to the control deck. The remaining crew are holed up there. We're going to start blowing hatches soon, I think. C'mon." Hardly being in a position to argue, I meekly started to follow him as he turned and began heading back up the corridor. I have never been so terrified of the slightest shadow or noise in my life.
I had only taken a few steps when I got a terrible prickly sensation on the back of my neck; something terrible was about to happen, I just knew it. My stomach knotted in tension and I began sweating even harder; I detected a growing acrid smell. "Wha-" I began to whisper a question, but it turned into a surprised and terrified grunt as I staggered and doubled over. The sensation in my gut wasn't quite pain, but in my current emotional state...
The sensation quickly began to pass, and I was able to glance up at the marine in front of me. He had stopped and turned to face me again. His gun was raised and his eyes were wide. "My god," he whispered.
I tried to straighten up and ask him what was happening. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as I noticed his trigger finger tense and begin to pull.
Reflexively, I dropped below the barrel just as the gun went off. The snap of the bullet through the air just inches over my head was shockingly clear; this guy was trying to kill me! Even now, he was trying to correct his aim and draw a bead on me. Faster than I could think, I continued my dive to the floor and slammed into his legs. He didn't topple, but I hardly had time to register the fact let alone feel disappointment or concern. Instead, I leapt back to my feet directly under his rifle, snatching it out of his hands as I passed. The marine screamed and finally fell back, landing on his rear. I stood there holding his gun, extremely surprised and confused.
"What..." I rasped, then tried unsuccessfully to clear my throat, "What the hell..." I trailed off into a groan as the strange twisting prickling sensation washed over me again. I hunched over in pseudo-pain.
Then there was the roar of a confined explosion, and I jerked back in a flare of real pain; the bastard had been carrying another pistol! He'd shot me! With a scream I turned and ran, trying to get away from the maniac and hide. He fired several more shots, which I managed to dodge with incredible luck, and then I dove into an open hatch in the wall that was just large enough for me to fit through. Inside was some sort of Jefferies tube or ventilation shaft; I scrambled along it as fast as I could manage. I didn't stop until I had raced around several turns and intersections, well out of his line of fire. Then I stopped long enough to think again.
I felt a sudden surge of fear as I realized where I was hiding; there was supposed to be an alien monster on the loose somewhere in here, after all. But behind me was a much more certain monster, a homicidal maniac with a gun. I took a moment to examine my wound, wondering how bad it might be and if I'd need immediate medical attention for it, but after one look even in this dim light I realized I had a problem beyond any medical science I knew of.
My clothing had somehow become tattered and burned over my entire body, but over the bullet wound in my abdomen it was completely eaten away; a fuming greenish ichor was smeared on my badly bruised skin. I reached up to touch it, and discovered that the skin on my hand was just as badly discolored. That dark purple coloration wasn't the result of a bruise. And I had claws...
I felt the strange sensation wash over me for a third time, and I cried out more in fear than in anything else; I now had an inkling as to what was actually happening to me. My suspicion was confirmed as I watched my skin darkening and changing before my eyes, segmenting and changing texture; I was becoming the monster I had been so fearful of just seconds earlier.
All I could think to do was to keep calm and avoid panic. It didn't help anything, of course; after two more surges of change in rapid succession, the last of my clothes disintegrated and I struggled to find a comfortable position in the duct as the shape of my body altered. The knobs and ridges on my bony exoskeleton made it difficult, and my long whip-like tail... eaugh! I shuddered and closed my eyes, not wanting to look at myself any more.
At least I still had eyes; Geiger's original version didn't have any, and I was having enough trouble adapting to my new senses as it was. Eventually I opened them again and tried to take stock of my situation rationally. Although my clothing was a total loss, and I couldn't have worn it even if my sweat and blood hadn't destroyed it, I still had the gun I'd take from the marine. And the shot I'd taken was already virtually healed over. I was in good shape, at least for now. The question was, could I survive the marines' future attacks?
I hissed in anger. It seemed that the Artist had set me up to either kill the humans and see the error of my statement, or die to confirm my belief. And all over a stupid little criticism... I realized I was drooling at the thought of getting my hands on him and tearing him apart, and my angry hissing turned into a small sob. I didn't want to be a monster! Forcing the thought out of my mind, I wiped my chin and tried to regain a little dignity and self-control. I had think of a third option...
Reluctantly, and rather clumsily at first, I picked up the marine's gun and crawled deeper into the ductwork. It was dark and narrow, but in my new body it somehow felt safe and inviting. I wanted to find someplace to sit and think for a while.
It wasn't long until, following my new instincts, I came upon an area where the walls were increasingly coated in an organic resin. Of course, this is their lair... I fingered the gunk nervously, not so much repelled by its appearance as by the fact that my body must somehow be able to produce the stuff. There must be all sorts of unpleasant habits I'd have to get used to now...
At least I'd become fairly well adapted to my physique already, and I had to admit that it felt great. I was strong, light on my feet, fast, perfectly balanced... as I grew more confident with my abilities I tried going moving, rocketing through the ductwork traveling on all fours; the bursts of speed left me panting through the breathing vents on my back and drooling more acidic saliva all over the place, but the rush was incredible. Eventually I reached a full-sized corridor with its walls completely coated in alien goo, and climbed out of the duct to stand upright and stretch my new limbs to their fullest. Despite my appearance and the danger I was in, I felt wonderful. If I could just get the marines to look past that appearance, perhaps work out some sort of a truce...
Suddenly, my superacute senses sounded an alarm and I spun to see another alien coming down the corridor towards me. My heart hammered in sudden fear and I glanced around for a place to run. But I hesitated, and then realized that despite its fearsome appearance it seemed quite nonthreatening; it was just walking in my direction, not chasing or attacking. Of course, it sees me as one of its own kind, I realized. Trying to look nonchalant, and feeling a little silly about it considering the circumstances, I leaned against the wall and waited for it to approach. I breathed a huge sigh of relief as the thing walked past me with barely a flicker of acknowledgment. I had no idea what it was doing or how intelligent it might be, but its mere presence still gave me an unsettling bit of information. There were more of those things infesting this station or whatever it was I was on.
It seemed that I was caught up in a battle for survival no matter what I did, and I was on the wrong side. Nervously, I continued moving deeper into the alien hive's tunnels. It was probably safer in the hive right now, as long as I didn't give myself away to the aliens somehow...
When I stumbled onto the royal chamber I nearly wet myself, or whatever it is I did now to go to the bathroom. It took me a moment to remember that none of the monsters present were paying any special attention to me, not even the incredibly threatening queen perched on her organic pedestal in the center of the room; I recovered my feigned nonchalance and tried to mosey across to another exit as if that was where I'd intended to go all along. It seemed to be working, but I remained jumpy until I rounded a corner and got out of sight again. I let out a huge sigh of relief when I found a private alcove to collapse in immediately afterward. The sort of monster I'd become didn't exactly mosey very well, but my exaggerated tail-swinging gait hadn't seemed to arouse any suspicion.
These things were obviously well-established, there had been hundreds of egg pods clustered on the floor in there. Even if I didn't do anything, just stayed hidden in this corner of the hive until the battle resolved itself, I probably wouldn't survive; the marines would have to blow this whole place up to clean it out. Or, quite possibly, the humans would be wiped out instead... I didn't like that option at all, despite the fact that the aliens seemed to accept me as one of them. I didn't want to stand by and watch people being killed, didn't want to live like this forever...
I'd never felt suicidal in my life, but the idea of finding a great big bomb to carry into the queen's chamber and then not come back out again certainly crossed my mind right then. But I shuddered at the idea of that outcome too. I really didn't want to die either, not even heroically. It seemed that I was stuck. I had no ideas, and if I asked either side for help with my problem I'd certainly be killed. The marines would undoubtedly open fire at the merest sight of me, and if I could somehow make the other aliens understand who I was they'd probably kill me too. If only there were some way to talk to the marines without exposing myself! But I couldn't even produce a whisper, not too surprising considering that I did most of my breathing through vents on my back now. My airways simply weren't designed for speech any more...
I would need to find some sort of acid-resistant paper and something to write with. Or better yet, a computer terminal with a standard Hollywood Operating System that would allow me to intuitively send typed email to wherever the humans were holed up. I doubted that any of these single-minded killing machines had tried anything like that before; it should at least give me an unbiased fresh start to reason with them, as well as keep me out of direct line of fire. I grinned, probably a terrible expression to behold on a face like mine; my depression was quickly lifting as my mind began to work again.
With a solid goal in mind at last, I roused myself from my comfortable alcove and quickly headed back out into the corridors that were still uncoated by alien secretions. It felt more dangerous out there, no doubt due to my new instincts or something like that, but I doubted the gunk lining the hive's tunnels was terribly good for any electronics that might be buried under it and digging through it to reach a keyboard might arouse suspicion from my "hivemates".
Despite my fear at the risky road ahead I felt a certain sense of irony. I was an Alien, a biological killing machine, but I was also using technology and trying to think strategically; no matter which 'side' won this little war, the artist would be proven wrong. Assuming I survived, and didn't wind up locked in a lab somewhere for the rest of my life, I hoped that perhaps someday I'd make it to Earth again to tell him that. I also hoped he took losing an argument a little better than he took criticism of his work...