It’s a long story, but bear with me. I’ll tell it as quick as I can.
I first saw the painting in an old beat up shop on Triton. I wasn’t sure what it was about it that caught my eye, but there was something there.
Yes, the painting is important. Yes, I know you want answers, but you have to understand where it began! Please just bear with me.
So, the painting. Something that made it stand out from the rest of the assorted knick-knacks in the trashy art-noveau shop. I didn’t realize it back then, but looking back it was probably because it felt… authentic. It looked, real, you know? Triton is a playground for the rich, so most art pieces were made by people with lots of money and no skill, or by servants who might have skill but had little education or time. There are all sort of styles and disciplines, but most paintings frankly aren’t very good. You can tell they’ve been drawn by beginners. The art scene here was burgeoning though, as some millionaires had realized that being a patron of arts and culture made them shine just a little brighter at society gatherings. So there are some real treasures out there, generated by those who get paid to paint by people who don’t understand art.
Still, most of what is produced is trash. This painting though, it wasn’t. It depicted a mining crew, four miners in old fashioned space suits with antique power drills in dusty tunnel lit by halogen lights. The painting strokes were rough and from up close it became a mishmash of colour. But viewed from a distance it worked. The mishmash separated into bleak dimly lit rocks and worn patched suits. A small plaque on the frame simply said “Lunar excavation”.
I bought it without thinking giving it much thought. After all, I was just another schmuck on holiday. I had hoped to pick up an art piece or two that might make me rich once the artist became famous and this one looked better than anything else in the shop. Besides, it was cheaper than most other things in the shop as well, though that was probably because the price tag had fallen off. It must have been in there for a while collecting dust, because the shopkeeper seemed surprised when I handed it to him. Though he didn’t seem to be much of a shopkeeper anyway, judging from the state of his shop. After some haggling we settled on a fair price and went our separate ways.
No, I don’t remember the shopkeepers name. Yes, I still have the receipt somewhere at home.
When I got back to Mars after my vacation, I put the painting in my study and promptly forgot about it. It took me a month to completely unpack after my trip since work had been building up while I was away. The painting with its big frame was carefully packed in the bottom of my biggest suitcase, so I only got it out once everything else was put away. Looking at it again, I couldn’t help but smile. It was a nice painting, but I was hardly going to make a fortune off of it. It didn’t even have a signature, so even if the artist did become famous I’d have a hard time proving its worth and making any dough off of it. I decided to hang it on the wall in my study, resigning myself to slaving away at the office for 30+ more years instead of becoming rich off a well timed purchase.
I think at this point things had probably already started happening, but I simply hadn’t realized it yet. I hadn’t looked that thoroughly at the painting when I bought it, so anything out of the ordinary wouldn’t have registered. I had been sleeping badly since I got back, but I had a huge backlog at work and stress always makes me toss and turn so I didn’t think anything of it.
The next few weeks life went on normally. Our office was busy with a big project and it felt like I could never get enough sleep. Out of pure stress I started doodling in the margins of my notebook at work, especially during those long tedious meetings where absolutely nothing was decided. While I sat politely, listening to things that didn’t concern me, I traced simple stick men and the houses, the kind of things that any kid could draw. But as they say, practice makes perfect. After a few weeks the doodles weren’t just stick figures, but tiny little men and machines.
It actually fit well into my life. Due to my long hours at work I didn’t have much spare time and I’d never really been a social person. I’d always felt vaguely frustrated when I left work, not because I enjoyed it immensely but because I felt as if I was wasting my precious spare time in front of the entertainment center at home. My colleagues went to the gym, or on dates, or to their hobbies. I’d tired hobbies, and dating as well for that matter. But it never quite worked out. I never quite had the energy to keep doing an activity for any longer period of time. Here, on the other hand, I had something to do that could be done on the monorail, at home, or at work. Something that actually felt interesting.
No, I’m not a loner. I’ve always had friends and I work well with colleagues. I just like spending time on my own as well. Yes, I’m getting to the point.
After doodling for a few weeks I bought some actual pens and papers for my flat. In the evenings I’d sit down and try out sketching landscapes and people. I quickly discovered that I was good at drawing mechanical things, probably since I work as an engineer. Or at least that’s what I thought back then. I’d sketch gliders and spaceship as well as everyday objects around my apartment without any trouble, but landscapes and people were much harder.. I wasn’t bad at landscapes or people either, but it felt as if I couldn’t quite get the finishing touches right. With equipment it felt natural, and it looked good.
Another few weeks passed as I learned to draw better and better. Stress at work had started to ease up, but I didn’t sleep any better. It was at this point that I started having nightmares. Most nights I’d wake up terrified and drenched in sweat, but I could never remember what it was that frightened me so. During the day I’d have a flash every now and then, and recall bits and pieces. Yellow eyes staring at me, or the sense of being trapped in a confined space. Feelings of impending doom and panic. Perhaps on some level, I already knew.
It was when I lost my sketchpad that things really started happening. I’d been drawing more and more hand held equipment because it seemed so easy. The last thing I had worked on was a large power drill. I’d seen a picture of one in one of the technical magazines in the breakroom at work, and felt inspired. It was a big thing, the kind you handle with both hands and use when you want to drill out holes for charges during civil construction. It was pretty intricate, more so than anything I had drawn before. But despite some early failed sketches I’d pushed forward and managed to finish a pretty detailed sketch that I was happy with one night.
The next morning, I couldn’t find my sketchpad. I usually sketched on the transport on my way to work in the mornings, but I was in a hurry. Leaving it behind meant I had nothing to do during my commute, but I didn’t want to be late either. Even though the worst stress was over, things were still tense at work, tenser than they normally are. Coming in late wouldn’t have looked good, so I left without the pad.
I hadn’t realized how much the sketchpad actually helped pass the time and alleviate small stress. I drank too much coffee and worked on my projects as best I could, but I felt distraught, frustrated. I couldn’t wait to get home and look for it. Being without the sketchpad almost made me feel physically ill, I needed something to draw on.
When I came home, I started looking. But the pad was nowhere to be found. At least not anywhere I normally used it. Abandoning my preferred method of looking where I might have left it, I started searching the apartment methodically, room by room. Eventually I found it, lying on the floor of the study beneath the painting. At first I didn’t even look at the painting, I just picked up my sketchpad and felt relief as I started flicking through it. That’s when I noticed that the last sketch was gone. The page was empty, the power drill nowhere to be seen. Frustrated, I looked around for the missing page. Somewhere in the back of my head I felt vaguely worried about how my sketchpad had ended up here and how the page might have come loose, but then I saw the painting and forgot all about that. That’s when things really began to change.
Yes, I’m getting to the point. But it’s important that you understand, so that we don’t waste any more time than we have already!
On the painting, two of the miners were no longer working. Instead, they were leaning against the tunnel wall, relaxing. The third was leaning in against the rock in front of them, pushing into it with a brand new power drill. He was using my drill to smash through the rock their old drills had barely been scraping, and fragments of stone were flying in every direction. I blinked and looked again.
No question about it. The space suits were still old and worn. The tunnel was still lit by the same ancient halogen lights. Everything in the painting implied that this was an old mining operation, something done before the first war when humanity had just stepped out into space. And yet, they were using a modern day fusion pack powered power drill that tore its way through the brittle lunar rock.
And where was the fourth miner? I distinctly remembered there being four miners, but I could only see three now. It’s not like could have walked off, right? I mean, he was painted on! But so were the others and they had moved as well. It took me a few moments to realize that one of the shadows on the floor was man-shaped. It was hard to make out in the old lights, but a shadow like that would be thrown by someone standing right about where I was.
At this point, I figured something was wrong with me. You know, the situation at work had been getting to me, the fact that I had been sleeping lately had pushed me to a nervous breakdown. I mean, paintings don’t come alive, right? Oil canvases don’t just magically start changing, and even if they did I doubt they’d absorb my sketches! I just couldn’t deal with all of it, I didn’t know what to do. So I went to bed.
Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? No, I’m not making a crazy plea, I’m just telling you what happened!
Believe it or not, it solved my sleeping problem. I slept like a baby for the first time in over a month. When I woke up, I was refreshed. I went to work without my sketchpad, I got loads of work done. Didn’t need any coffee, didn’t have trouble focusing, felt great. It was as if the sun had been hiding behind some clouds and now it was back out, shining all over me. People were smiling at me, all the tension was gone. Everything was right, you know?
And for about a week I felt great. I told myself that I had been hallucinating, that the painting was just a painting. I’d had some sort of mental freakout, I’d crashed and burned, but now I was back on track. I didn’t sketch, I didn’t have nightmares, I was living it up.
But then I started slipping again. I started doodling on all sorts of papers at work, even papers that weren’t mine. The tension was back in the air at work and it felt as if I just couldn’t do anything right. My sleep became troubled again and I started feeling more and more tired. And I knew why. God help me, somewhere inside me I knew that the power had run out.
You see, a power drill like that needs a fusion power pack. And that pack doesn’t last for ever, and it isn’t really meant for that kind of work anyway. You’re supposed to drill a few holes for explosives, not tunnels beneath the lunar surface. With that kind of constant use, the battery is going to last a week tops. Then it’s going to die and the power drill becomes a useless piece of metal, an object instead of a tool. That meant the miners were back to using their old drills. They weren’t going to be happy about that. They weren’t going to be happy at all.
I tried to tell myself that I was just imagining, it was just a painting. But as the days passed, things just got worse and worse. I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t stop doodling, I didn’t sleep at all at night. When I nodded off on the monorail on my way to work I’d wake screaming and drenched in sweat. I couldn’t sit still at meetings, and coffee did nothing to keep me alert.
So eventually I gave in. I know I shouldn’t have, but it was just so hard. After a particularly gruelling day I took a deep breath, and walked into my study to take a look at the painting. Sure enough, the power drill lay discarded and the miners were back to using their old drills Well, three of them anyway. The fourth was standing much closer to the frame, looking right at me. Or that’s how it felt at least. I mean, his face was obscured by the visor so I couldn’t see his eyes. Logically, he should have been looking at something outside the frame of the painting, not into my study, but I knew what was going on. He was waiting. Waiting for a replacement.
I knew then what I had to do. Sitting down on the floor, I took out my sketch pad and started sketching out a power pack. For good measure, I drew an instruction manual as well, and a second drill. I felt silly, leaving the sketch pad on the floor and locking the door behind me, but within minutes I was feeling better. I’d barely made it to the couch before I fell asleep, finally getting some rest.
The next weeks were great. I guess I was already a little bit crazy by then, but I’d accepted that reality was different now. No, I’m not pleading crazy, I’m saying I guess I was a bit crazy. Just listen, will you? There’s not much more to tell and then we really need to get going. Well, you at least.
Anyway, during the days I felt great, and in the evening I sketched for my miners. Yeah, I had started calling them miners, because I guess that’s what they were. My little diggers, working away while I supplied them. At first, I just drew a few powerpack to keep them happy. But then I started thinking about where they were and what they were doing. There were now two of them using power drills, and it looked as if they had made some good progress. They were farther into the painting, widening the tunnel. Maybe they’d be even happier if they all had drills?
And that really got me going. At first, I just drew equipment such as shovels, new floodlights, pickaxes and so forth. But looking at the guys working hard made me realise that there was other stuff they could use as well. Modern suits for instance, that you could move more easily in. Some fold-up chairs for their breaks. Beer and liquid steak that fit into the feed port of a modern suit. Books, video players and even a lunar rover so that they could get back to wherever their base was when they were done.
As the painting filled up with knick-knacks that improved their quality of life it took on a strange and confused character. The tunnel, the ground, the pieces of rock were all still in the original style. But the miners in their suits, the new chairs, the lunar rover halfway out of frame were all much sharper, pencilled objects on an oil background. The floodlights gave off a stronger light, bleaching the oil painted rocks and revealing more of the tunnel walls. The styles didn’t fit at all, but somehow I thought that was about right. The painting had turned my life into a mess, and then made it much better. Perhaps once I had added enough to the painting, I could return the favour and make it better than it once was. Perhaps that was why I was supposed to do this. For a while I really thought that I was doing something good, and that the end result was going to be that we were all happy.
But then they started uncovering the gate. I had never really considered what the miners were digging for, other than some vaguely conceptualized “moon minerals”. But with the power drills, the new suits and all the other equipment I had provided them with, they were breaking rock, digging deeper into the painting and uncovering what they were looking for all along, what they were excavating... The gate.
At first I thought it was just some discoloration in the painting, perhaps my sketching starting to spread into the oil painting, or the new light sources giving the rock a weird hue. But as more and more was uncovered, I realised that something was wrong. The gate didn’t look like the rest of the painting, but it sure didn’t look like my sketches either. It was as if someone had painted a light green oval door in watercolours, and then painted over it with oil. And with the help of my pencil sketches, the miners were now uncovering it.
I still slept well, I still felt great physically. But now I also felt afraid. On some primal level, I knew that the gate was bad. There was something seriously wrong with it, something inside it that wasn’t meant to be let out. Something dangerous. The thought of the door opening terrified me, but what could I do? It wasn’t as if I could take back the equipment I had already drawn, and the miners had enough power packs to work for several months even if I drew no new ones.
At work things were still great. But now I realised that they were suspiciously great. I stopped doing my job, and simply let others take up the burden. But they didn’t mind. They seemed positively pleased to just see me, and to handle my workload. It didn’t matter if I attended meetings or not, I still only got great feedback and glowing reviews from my manager. The smiles that had seemed so earnest now seemed false, mechanical... forced. The message was clear. As long as the painting flourished, my life was easy. No matter what I did, I’d feel good, sleep well and be treated well by everyone I met. And if it didn’t, well. Things could go bad very quickly.
I fretted for a week or two, weighing my new great life against whatever was being dug out. The miners had gotten far enough to uncover the entire gate now. It was an intricate construction, though the details in watercolour were hard to make out. You could see that there were ornaments, letters and symbols drawn all over it. But it was too far into the painting to make out what they were. After uncovering the gate the miners had wasted some time trying to go around it, but it seemed it wasn’t that simple. Wherever they made a hole, more of the green watercolour metal shone through. This wasn’t just a gate, it was a prison gate. Whatever was on the other side was not meant to get out.
And yesterday, as the miners started wearing their power drills down against the gate and it began buckling under the assault, I finally realized that the painting had to be destroyed. My life might turn into a living hell again, but whatever was trapped inside needed to stay there. Just slashing the canvas seemed to be the easiest solution, but I considered burning it as well. I slept on it last night and went to work this morning, determined to end all of this when I came home from work.
And... well, you know the rest. The thing inside must have sensed my intentions. When I came home, my door was open and my apartment torn apart. On my couch, a dead man lay with a pickaxe lodged in his chest. As I told you when you brought me in, I had never seen him before. There was blood everywhere, and my fingerprints were all over the bloody pickaxe that had been buried in his back. I can’t explain that. I may have touched the picture of the pickaxe when I drew it though. Perhaps that was enough? I don’t know how the rules work for things that come back.
Anyway, I knew I was being set up even before I heard the shouts from your officers, coming conveniently to investigate the reports of screaming and fighting only after I had come home. How was I going to explain myself? Should I have told them that the dead man and the blood was a setup, that there was a thing in a painting that had to be stopped? There was no explaining that. So I knew I had to act fast.
As the officers came running into my hallway, I ran to my study. I was desperate to get to the painting before it was too late. I didn’t have a knife, or a lighter, or anything but I figured I could just rip the thing apart. All it would take was my fist through the canvas, and the whole thing would be over. But your officers had spotted me and the neutralizer knocked me off my feet just a few tantalizing steps from the painting.
The last thing I saw going down was how the scene had changed. Three of the miners were still working at the gate, while only the suit remained of the fourth, crumpled on the dusty tunnel floor.. I guess he didn’t want to bring it with him to my apartment. There was a small hole in the gate, a breach in the smooth metal. And I could see the face peering out through it. Yellow eyes, just like in my dreams. Yellow eyes, and green skin! There’s an Arilou in the painting. I don’t know why it is locked in there, but there must be a good reason! And you need to go back to my apartment and destroy that painting now! I’ll happily go on trial for manslaughter, murder, anything. Just send an officer back to my flat to break that painting before the hole is too big and I’ll confess to whatever you want!
Please? It’ll be too late soon...