In The Machine

I’m a little late posting this story — it’s been a busy week. But it’s still Friday and so I’m considering it on time. You may have gathered from my site that I both write and draw. My main occupation at the moment is as an illustrator. So this science fiction short story has a taste of verisimilitude to it, but lots of pure fantasy as well. Can an artist get too caught up in their work? Read on to find out.

The artist knows what he wants to capture. The artist knows the ebb and flow of life, can feel it through his practised eye and a steady hand.

What a load of bullshit. I get paid for what I do. I’m a professional artist. But you know what? Every fucking time is like the first time. You’re scared. You’re a fraud. How is it they pay you to do this? Why don’t they get someone who knows what they’re doing?

But they hire me. So they get me. And they seem pleased. Who can say why? Right, right, I should be happy and realize that I am skilled. I suppose so. I mean, sure, it rings of truth and logic but deep inside it doesn’t resonate. But I’m trying.

Like today. This guy dropped off these photos. Usually, I do individuals, portraits. Or a group, like a family. I work in watercolour. Direct to watercolour, no pencil here. I take photos and I filter it through my brain and eye and hand and come out with… something. Art is like seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. Do we gain such a deep perspective on the world in that action? Some do, some don’t. I guess we do it for ourselves and, if someone else does enjoy it, then all the better.

And they pay. I gotta eat.

Today I’m eating something different. These photos are not your usual fare. And the guy, he was the oddest little fellow I’ve ever seen to be quite honest. He wore a heavy trench coat and a wide hat, all grey. Now that I think of it his skin was a little grey too. Perhaps he has some weird skin condition, can’t be out in the light. Why else would he be wearing that get up when it’s 25 C and sunny? Fear of the sun, has to be. Quite the small guy too, fragile it seemed. And big eyes.

Anyway, these pics he gave me to go by… very abstract stuff. Symbols of some kind, like ancient runes or cuneiform. Whatever, it’s something different. Not the usual girlfriend, mother or, hell, even mistress. I don’t ask questions. I only paint. Today it’s abstract. I can deal with that.

What have we got? A stack of sixty Polaroids; I kid you not. Who shoots Polaroids anymore, aside from your vintage shop hunting, retro hipster in suspenders? And that was definitely not this scrawny twerp. Again, who cares. It’s money.

So sixty little symbols, all black on a white background. Some are solid, some thin lines enclosing shapes. One is an open rectangle with a dash, one a solid rectangle with an open circle. Others are triangles, open and closed. Decahedrons even. Lots of sine wave looking stuff. Stuff I haven’t seen since high school math. Other stuff I’ve never seen. The only instruction he gave me, aside from reproducing them in black on white — I use only the best premium, pre-stretched watercolour paper so no problem there — was to fill the open shapes with the primary colours. He was very insistent on that. It couldn’t be any blue or red or green. It had to be the average spectrum colours. I tried to explain to him that paint doesn’t work like that, that it’s subtractive, not additive. He told me to get as close as I could. I said, of course, that I would. I don’t question, I do the work. Keeps me in Cheetos.

And a damn load of Cheetos too. This job is paying fifty times, yes fifty, more than any usual gig. He said he needed it ASAP and wanted me to cancel my other gigs. I quoted a crazy price and, crazier still, he agreed. It was so much that I made the guy pay half up front. He didn’t blink. And he paid in cash. Didn’t even want a receipt. Sorry, Mr Taxman.

I’ve got my clean water, my brushes, my palette and my tubes of Cotman paint. So no more fucking around, let’s dig in. To be honest it’s a God damn easy job. Aside from that colour matching shit. But even that’s not bad. I’ve got a prism and it’s a sunny day. I’ll match as best as I can. Watercolour is nice like that too, being transparent. It’s luminous. But, yeah, an easy job. Reproduce a bunch of simple shapes.

I asked him was there any particular order, any particular arrangement. He told me, in his little squeaky voice… come to think of it that voice was rather odd, almost artificial. High and yet gravelly. Whatever, bundled up like that he probably had a cold. Didn’t want to shake hands either. That explains it then. Whatever. Anyway, he told me to do what felt right to me. Those were his exact words, whatever felt right. So, let’s see what feels right.

I shuffle the thick Polaroids so I’ll be surprised and lay them on the desk next to my easel. The top one is a wavy set of lines with a few dots, open all around them. I’ve already determined that I’m going to do the colours last. I mix a nice thick black in my palette, lots of it too; there are a lot of shapes. I take my liner brush, a nice thin Kolinsky sable hair job, and dig in.

Lines and dots, a swish here, a flick there. By the third photo, I’m into the zone, the groove, the flow state. Whatever name doesn’t matter. Time slips and falls away. It’s a marvellous experience. When I was a kid, sketching super-heroes and spaceships with a mechanical pencil, this feeling scared me. I stopped drawing one time and the room was buzzing. Only it wasn’t the room. It was a bee outside. Everything was silence except for that sound. Every breath I took, too, pounded in my ears. All my senses were so hyper-aware. It was amazing but, like I say, scary if you don’t know what it is. So I stopped drawing and moved around, trying to find someone to talk to. But no one was home and it took minutes to shake myself out of that state.

Now I fight to return to it every day. Some days it comes, some days it doesn’t.

Today is a good day. Each one is easier than the last. I don’t stop to think of where to put them. I just know. Before I know it I’m on the last symbol. Only they aren’t symbols any longer. They’re pieces of a puzzle that makes sense now. How is it I didn’t see it before? This rectangle fits into this set of dots, like the teeth on gears. And this set of lines flows into that set of lines. It’s beautiful.

The black on white is complete. I step back to inspect and, unbidden, a tear emerges from the corner of my eye and slips over the lid and down my cheek. My senses so engaged, so focused, I can feel its salty track until it runs into the corner of my mouth. Why? What is happening to me? I am elated, joyous. These pieces are the story of life, of everything.

I force myself, no, that’s wrong, there is no force now, no choice. I am compelled to continue. The colours. I set up the prism so that its rainbow pattern of split white light spreads across the wall behind my easel and desk.

The colours are streaks of brilliance. My God, isn’t the world amazing? All day, every day we live in this world of light rays, photons dancing on everything. And yet we don’t see the palette of nature, painting each and every object. Of course objects, trees, water, whatever, none of it has colour. The colour comes from what they reflect back from that white light. Everything has its own wavelength. The harmony, the mathematical symphony of physics astounds me. I never understood it before and now it seems so simple, so natural.

Mixing the colours is not a chore or task, it’s an honour. Like some religious sacrifice. I dip a large flat brush into one of the thin, watery pools on the palette. I let my feelings take over and put reds and blue and greens all over the image of the machine.

For that is what it is. A machine. I can see it now. I can almost see it moving. With each dab of paint, it comes into focus more. That gear, it is a gear, yes, wants to strike that other one, there. And that piston wants to thrust in that engine over there. I add the last spot of colour. I clean my brush and return it to its spot in the jar where I keep them.

Then I step back once more. The machine is alive now. And not metaphorically either. It’s actually moving. The shapes, those symbols, those gears and circuits and pistons are moving. Electrons are flowing down black pathways and nanotechnological machines, atoms in the elements of the pigments, are executing instructions of some kind. How do I know this? How is this happening?

The canvas is alive. It can’t be. But it is. Am I going crazy?

New colours are forming now as the primaries mix and flow and move through the machine. The whole palette is alive there now — secondaries and tertiaries slide and shift as I watch. What purpose can there be for such a machine? And the little grey man, what of him? What of everything?

An artist, that’s all I’ve ever been. Once I thought I could have been a damn good physicist. But that dream was dead on arrival. No funds for college. So I worked. And discovered joy in my brushes. And joy it was, I had no regrets. But maybe all roads lead to the same place eventually. Maybe science is art is life.

The watercolour paper is buckling. No, it’s melting in on itself, the colours receding, deepening into the easel behind. But not the easel, it’s a tunnel, a hole. I step to the side and look at the easel in profile.

It is fine, as it should be. I can look at its flat back and all is wood and lacquer. There is no hole punching through it, no distortion in its flatness.

But, returning to view the machine on the paper, the hole has increased and widened. The machine is moving and working, whatever that work is. The paper is large, three feet by three feet, the size the little grey man selected. And I can feel a pull now. What is that?

I want to move away from that tug and yet I want to leap into the painting too. I step toward it a little. The pull increases. The machine on the paper has moved now, formed a perfect circle, a cylinder reaching into a void. The centre of that void is pure black. The paint is pulsating, racing around the perimeter of the cylinder. It’s changing colour as it passes through various components. Those machine components were only pigment on paper moments ago.

I step toward it again. The pull is stronger still and increasing.

Is this the bee all over again? Has something snapped in my brain? Has all the isolation and days and days of seeking the flow state stretched something in my head until it snapped?

But it doesn’t feel wrong, it doesn’t feel bad. So I step forward again. Now my hands are resting on the easel, holding myself against that interminable tug. Is it gravity? What is the blackness in the middle of that swirling machine? Is it a black hole, sucking me to oblivion? Or to somewhere else?

The grey man was very short. His eyes were very big. He asked strange questions too. Was I married. Did I have family close by, or at all. Did I have close friends. I assumed he was just making conversation and yet… Now they seem very personal questions. Why hadn’t they seemed so at the time? Those eyes were very big. Big as saucers. They weren’t human eyes.

What have I painted? What will become of me?

The pull is getting stronger. My pelvis is being pressed against the edge of the table and I have to fight to keep my head out of that hole. My eyes are at its edge now. The lights of the machine are flying in my peripheral vision, faster and faster.

What is in that blackness? I have to find out.

Still gripping the edge of the easel I raise one foot and brace it against the edge of the table. I do the same with the other. If the easel was the floor — and with this artificial gravity tugging at me it could be — I’d be squat above it. All I have to do is jump in, let go and see what happens.

I take one last look around my studio. I live here. I eat here. I paint here. I am alone here, alone with memories of those I have loved and lost. Of lives I could have lived. I wasn’t unhappy but I was unfulfilled. There is nothing to lose. And so much to gain. Thank you, Mr Grey.

I leap into the machine, fitting easily into the large sheet of watercolour paper. Shifting lights and lines of the machine I have created from Mr Grey’s blueprint pass by. I am in my painting, in the machine. The blackness approaches.

What a dream is life. A waking dream of colour and light.

Finally, something new.

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