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The Death of Cassandra Quebec

I came to Sapphire Oasis in search of experience, or so I thought at the time. I had made my home on Nova Francais for almost two decades, the last few years a repetition of cafe-life, parties and second-rate exhibitions where even my best crystals failed to sell. I was getting old and lonely and my work was suffering, and some vague desperation drove me to Earth to experience that which I might synthesize, through my skill, into art.

The famous crystal The Death of Cassandra Quebec was being exhibited for the first time in ten years, and I made this my excuse to revisit the planet of my birth. I took a bigship through the interstellar telemass portal to Timbuktu and caught the mono-train north to Sapphire Oasis.

I had seen many a lavish illustration of the colony – had even admired Tyrone's famous hologram of '37 – and as a result I was overcome with a sense of déjà vu at first sight. The oval oasis, perhaps a kilometre from end to end, was surrounded by a great leaning series of golden scimitars, their hilts planted in the sand of the desert, their arching blades supporting the pendant globes that comprised living quarters and spacious studios with views across the artificial lake.

That first night I dined alone in the revolving restaurant on the island at the centre of the oasis. I ate synthetic gazelle and yam, with chutney and Moroccan wine. The panorama was magnificent: beyond the illuminated orbs of the individual domes, and the fringe of surrounding palm trees, the desert extended in dark and sultry swathes the size of Europe. Across the dunes to the south stood the telemass portal. As tall as a mountain, its blank interface was braced in a glowing frame like a hexagon of colossal fluorescents.

It was through this portal that I and a thousand other tourists had journeyed today from Nova Francais, and tomorrow it would be opened to the world of Henderson's Fall, 61 Cygni B. The talk in the dining room was of nothing else but Nathaniel Maltravers, and his arrival tomorrow evening at Sapphire Oasis.

I ordered a second bottle of wine.

As I drank I thought about another famous artist, a woman this time. Cassandra Quebec had inspired more women than just myself to seek expression through the medium of fused crystal. She was the artist who had shown the world her soul, who had taken the fledgling form and proved it as a legitimate means of self-expression. At the height of her career she was the world's most celebrated artist. Then she spoiled it all by announcing her betrothal – I was young; I wept when I found out – to the minor laser-sculptor Nathaniel Maltravers. A year later she was dead.

I finished the second bottle and contemplated a third. I had known when I booked the bigship to Earth that Maltravers – who was indirectly responsible for his wife's death, after all – had decided to return to Sapphire Oasis for the twentieth anniversary commemoration of her passing, but I had not let it put me off the idea of making the trip. Tomorrow, I would visit the Museum of Modern Art and request a private viewing of the Maltravers/Quebec crystal.

I retired early and lay on my bed, staring at the stars through the dome. A party was in progress on the lawn beside the lake, one of the interminable soirees that gave the place more the air of a luxury resort than that of an artists' retreat. Artists, their rich patrons and guests, mixed with a social ease I found enviable; snatches of cultured conversation drifted to me through an open vent in the dome.

Unable to sleep, and reluctant to join the gathering below, I took refuge in a memory-tape. I placed the crown – more like a skull-cap – on my head and selected a tape. As I shed my own identity and slipped into the programmed persona, I could not help feeling a twinge of guilt at my escape. Memory-tapes were a spin-off from a device known as mem-erase, illegal on Earth for almost two decades. Mem-erase – the process of self-selected amnesia to which I had once been addicted – had been proven to have certain adverse psychological side-effects. Not only had their private use been proscribed, but even law enforcement agencies, who had used mem-erase to access the minds of suspected criminals, had been denied its advantages. As a result of the ban, the simulated scenarios of memory-tapes were viewed in some circles with a certain stigma.

I selected the ersatz memories of a fictitious vid-star, lay back and for the next hour lived a life of success, fame and love.


I awoke early the following morning, booked some time alone with the crystal and strolled along the palm-lined boulevard to the museum.

On the few occasions when the crystal had been exhibited in the past, I had been loath to experience it – the mere fact of Cassandra Quebec's death had been painful enough, without subjecting myself to the emotional reality of it. But twenty years had passed since the incident; I was older and perhaps wiser now, and I considered myself ready to have the experience.

Not that I was without misgivings. I held, perhaps irrationally, a fierce dislike for the man who had married Quebec and who was ultimately responsible for the accident that killed her. Added to which, Maltravers' production of the crystal had elevated him from the minor artisan he was to the status of a world celebrity. Perhaps what had prevented me from experiencing the crystal before now, quite apart from the emotional trauma I would have to undergo, was the thought that I would be participating in the metaphorical aggrandizement of man at the expense of woman.

That morning at breakfast in the revolving restaurant I had been invited to the table of a group of Hoppers – rich artisans and their hangers-on, who skipped the globe from one artists' colony to the next. They were shrill and opinionated, and I sought the protection of silence, offering nothing to the debate about Maltravers and the reason for his return. I heard one claim that he was returning to seek artistic rejuvenation from the locale of his wife's horrific death; another, that he intended to end his life here, as befits the artistic temperament.

The truth, I suspected, was neither. It was my guess that Nathaniel Maltravers was staging the spectacle of his return for no other reason than that, in the years since Cassandra Quebec's death, his own artistic and popular success had floundered. The dozen or so 'major' works he had released upon the universe had flopped abysmally. His return was probably nothing more than a cheap ruse to gain publicity.

The Death of Cassandra Quebec remained his first and last great work.

The museum, which housed the crystal and a thousand other works of art, was an onyx cathedral raised above the desert on flying cantilevers and approached along a sweep of gently ascending steps. It was cool and hushed within, and I took my time and strolled towards the crystal wing. I paused at the arched entrance, showed my pass to the security guard and stepped inside. The chamber was empty; I was quite alone. Before me, in pride of place in the centre of the room, was the crystal – in fact a thousand alien stones fused into one faceted, centimetre-thick disc perhaps two metres across. Visually, it was a mere swirl of colour, a coruscating vortex of argent and indigo. Only to the touch would the crystal discharge the stored emotions of its creators.

I must have heard a hundred different reports about Cassandra Quebec's death, and staged and re-staged the tragedy in the theatre of my mind. I was on Nova Francais when I first read about the accident; the article was in a journal almost two years old, and the shock of the news was compounded by the fact that I had learned about it so late.

Her arrival at Sapphire Oasis, with her husband and new-born baby, made world news. It was her first public appearance since the birth of her daughter; the film of their approach in an open-top vintage Mercedes, smiling parents and babe-in-arms, is famous – a scene imprinted on the collective consciousness by the tragedy of the events that followed. The fact that the instrument of her death was travelling with them makes the short clip all the more grotesque. As a wedding present, Quebec had bought her husband a bird-like alien known as a Pterosaur from a newly-discovered planet in the Serendipity Cluster. It was an ugly, featherless creature, had a beak like a scythe and was reputedly empathic – a suitably bizarre pet for the world's most famous couple. It could be seen perched on the back seat, maintaining its balance with edgy adjustments of its vast, leathery wingspan as the automobile swept through the gates of the colony.

Quebec and Maltravers argued often during their first year of marriage. It was reported that their differences of opinion, because they were artists, were all the more vituperative. Maltravers, the rumour went, was jealous of his wife's talent and success; Quebec, for her part, despaired that her husband's constant envy would prevent him from ever attaining greatness for himself.

The one known truth of their relationship was that, however violent their arguments, their rapprochements were just as intense. They were hailed, in media hyperbole, as the planet's greatest lovers – how jealous I felt when I read this! – and as evidence the news-media offered up the fact that, as well as sharing a bed, they also shared a studio.

It was in this studio, three days after her arrival at Sapphire Oasis, that Cassandra Quebec met her end,

They had argued. Quebec was part-way through a crystal that would stand as testimony to their love, and as such it had to contain everything, their imperfections and flaws of character as well as their strengths. Maltravers was loath to subject himself to so public a scrutiny, and his protestations which began their final argument were overheard by their daughter's nurse.

They were in the studio, facing each other across the sun-lit chamber. The volume of their recriminations was noted by several other artists, who paid no heed as this was nothing new between the husband and wife. The nurse reported that she had glimpsed the alien pet, flapping in agitation beside Maltravers, before she departed to attend the crying child in another part of the living quarters.

According to Maltravers, they had reached an impasse in their disagreement, a temporary cease-fire, and Cassandra remained staring at him from across the work-strewn room. Maltravers admitted to feelings of anger, and it was this anger, experts testified at the inquest, that the Pterosaur must have picked up.

Before Maltravers could move to stop it, the Pterosaur left its perch, swooped across the room and attacked his wife with claws like sickles. Maltravers fought it off, but so savage was the attack that within seconds Quebec was lacerated beyond recognition. He realised – he said later in sworn testimony – that his wife was dying and that nothing, not even the latest surgical techniques, could save her.

The events that followed were bizarre to say the least.

Beside Quebec was the fused crystal, empty but for touches of her love for Maltravers. What he did then, in his grief and regret and overwhelming sense of loss, was to lift his wife and place her on the slab as if it were a catafalque, and then lay his brow against its faceted surface and impress upon it his turbulent emotions. She died in his arms minutes later, and the crystal recorded the moment for eternity.

For three days the world's media vilified Maltravers as a monster, until the coroner reported at the inquest that nothing could have saved Quebec. Then his agent released the crystal, and over the next year or so public opinion swung in Maltravers' favour – the vilification turned to sympathy and appreciation.

In the silence of the Museum I steeled myself, stepped forward and laid my palms on the crystal's surface. Warmth ran up my arms, the warmth of Quebec's love for her husband, with which she had begun the work. This joy lasted only seconds, though, for as I moved my hands from the edge of the piece towards its centre, pain swamped me, physical pain – the scream of every nerve slit through and through again. Beyond this, on some deeper sub-strata of the crystal, was Quebec's bewilderment, and then her sudden comprehension as she realised what was happening, that life was ebbing from her, that everything she had ever experienced, the hate and the joy and the everyday miracle of existence, was draining away, becoming faint as she approached the terrible point of total annihilation. Her end was a crescendo scream of terror as oblivion descended.

Then my touch encountered Maltravers' pain at his loss. The howl of desolation that communicated itself from his soul to the crystal, and then to my senses, was almost more unbearable than the pain of Quebec's death – for it continued long after her dying, a lament of grief for his wife, a scream of despair at the realisation of his existence without her.

Unable to take any more I tore myself away, and the sudden cessation of pain was an exquisite relief. I had no idea how long I had been standing before the crystal, so captivated had I been by the raw human emotions. I realised then that I was in tears.

As I made my way slowly from the Museum, I knew that I no longer resented Maltravers. The act of creating the crystal had been instinctive, born of pain and the need to share his grief, and not the opportunistic bid for fame I had assumed for so long.

Within a week of his wife's death, Maltravers took his daughter and sought refuge on the colony world of Henderson's Fall, as if by doing so he might distance himself from the pain of the tragedy.

And tonight he was returning to the source of that pain.


That evening I attended the party thrown by the President of Mali to welcome Nathaniel Maltravers to Sapphire Oasis. It was held in the President's own dome – he dabbled in photo-montage – with a view across the desert to the telemass portal, through which Maltravers was due to arrive at midnight. The dome was packed with eager guests: I recognised the two dozen or so serious artists who made up the nucleus of the Sapphire colony, faces familiar from Earth to the furthest settled world. Also present were the flamboyant Hoppers, attendant sycophants, and sombre-suited officials from the countries of Northern Africa and Europe.

I drank by myself beside the alcohol dispenser and thought about returning to my own dome. There was an atmosphere of excitement and expectation about the gathering that smacked of voyeurism. I was on my fourth drink when I admitted that the only reason I was here was to see for myself how the passage of years had treated Maltravers, and perhaps learn the real reason for his return.

At twelve we spilled out on to the balcony and marvelled at the exhibition of interstellar son et lumiere enacted to the south.

Until its activation, the portal was nothing more than an illuminated hexagonal frame, through which could be seen a continuation of the starlit African sky. Within minutes all that had changed. The frame flickered, as if affected by a power-drain; then a thunderous report rolled across the desert, and the scene through the portal was transformed. The guests gasped and applauded as an alien landscape appeared: a busy spaceport, distant blue mountains, and binary suns in a pink sky. As we watched, a bull-nosed bigship eased its way through the interface and entered the atmosphere of Earth. The ship came to rest on the apron of the spaceport at the foot of the portal.

We returned inside. As the flier carrying Maltravers raced across the desert towards the oasis, the conversation in the dome had about it a charged expectancy. I kept to myself by the dispenser; around me, guests quipped, exchanged stories and looked frequently to the gates in anticipation of Maltravers' arrival.

I was thinking about my experience with the crystal that morning when a sudden hush fell upon the company. I stared through the diaphanous, curvilinear wall of the room as the flier slipped through the gates and settled beside the lake.

Two figures climbed out, were met by the President and his entourage, and disappeared into the scimitar shaft that supported the dome. The conversation started up again, self-consciously, all eyes on the entrance. Seconds later the door opened and applause rippled through the room.

I can recall very little about Nathaniel Maltravers as he made his entry – I was too intent on watching the person who entered with him. While the guests flocked to congratulate Maltravers on his return, I had eyes only for his daughter.

Corrinda Maltravers surprised me on two counts. The first was that I had never thought of her as a young woman – if I thought of her at all, it was as a babe-in-arms, a cipher in the tragedy, untouched by the passage of time. The second was that she was as beautiful as her mother.

Maltravers moved from one group of guests to the next, and his daughter followed in his wake. This was the first time she had returned to Earth since the tragedy, and she appeared shy and bewildered at the reception. She was small, slim, wore a black tube dress that left her shoulders bare, hugged her hips and finished just above the knees. I caught only a glimpse of her large green eyes and isosceles face – so painfully like her mother's – before she disappeared into an admiring throng of guests. I wondered how long it would be before she found herself waking up beside the next self-professed Picasso.

My reverie was interrupted by the arrival at my side of Maltravers and the President of Mali. They sipped their drinks and the President regaled Maltravers with a short history of his country.

Nathaniel Maltravers was in his middle-fifties, tall and silver haired, with the well-groomed, distinguished appearance of someone who has foregone the life of an artist for that of a sybarite. I could not reconcile the man beside me with the artist who had suffered the anguish of his wife's death and communicated it so harrowingly.

Then I noticed the distant, blitzed look in his grey eyes. I recalled the report that, during his self-imposed exile on Henderson's Fall, Maltravers had taken the easy way out. Before the possession of mem-erase became an offence, he had duly self-administered the process of wiping from his memory the entirety of his stay at Sapphire Oasis. His only knowledge of the tragic event was what he read in factual accounts, stripped of all emotion and pain.

Now he glanced my way, his eyes measuring me for size in the places he thought important. His gaze was less lecherous than professional, as if he were seriously considering me as a prospective model.

"Aren't you Eva Hovana?" he asked. "The creator of the Persephone crystal?"

I admitted that I was; it was an early piece and not one of my best.

"If I may say so-" he smiled "-I have always found your work rather derivative."

I was quick with the riposte, and immediately regretted it. "At least I don't get other people to do my work for me, however derivative it might be."

Stung, he moved off instantly. "As I mentioned earlier," he said to the President of Mali, "my next piece will be influenced by my obsession with symmetry."

The President hurried him across the room. "Ah... meet my friends from the Council of Europe..."

I escaped on to the balcony.

I gazed out over the body of water, glittering in the moonlight, and wondered what was keeping me at Sapphire Oasis. After all, I had experienced the crystal I had come to see. I was contemplating a trip to Europe when I sensed someone beside me. I felt a hand on my arm, and turned.

Corrinda Maltravers stood before me, even shorter than she had seemed in the room, almost childlike. She had quickly withdrawn her hand when I started, and now regarded me uncertainly.

"I'm so sorry. My father... he-" She gestured.

I smiled. With her shock of sun-bleached hair, her green eyes, she was so much like the picture of her mother I had kept at my bedside during my uncertain youth.

She smiled in return, relieved at my acceptance. "My father hates women and artists. It's bad luck if you happen to be both." She had the habit of emphasizing certain words as her mother had done.

I shrugged. "I can live with the hatred of men," I told her, and cursed myself for being so obvious.

She regarded me shyly. There was a diffident look in her eyes that could not be what I believed it to be. "I think your best work is the Goddess of Lesbos," she whispered.

My stomach fluttered. "You do...?"

There were a thousand questions I wanted to ask her, about herself, about her mother... but I was frightened of being seen to be too forward, too eager.

Maltravers called her name and Corrinda almost winced.

"I must go. I'll see you again?" She smiled shyly. "I really meant what I said about your work..."

She slipped through the sliding door with a small wave and disappeared into the crowd.

I decided to remain at Sapphire Oasis for a while.


Over the next few days I saw Corrinda on a number of occasions; but she was always with her father and it was obvious that she felt she could not leave him to join me although, I thought, she gave the distinct impression of wanting to do so. Or was I kidding myself? I was pushing forty and desperate, still searching for that which most people have either found at my age, or have given up hope of ever finding. Besides, I had to admit that it wasn't Corrinda I was attracted to; rather, I was obsessed with Cassandra Quebec and the tragedy of her death.

However much I tried I could not bring myself to start work. I had brought with me several small crystals in various stages of completion, with the notion of dabbling with them should no new project inspire me. Not only did nothing come to mind, but I found it impossible to complete the crystals already begun. My thoughts were too occupied with Maltravers, his daughter and the death of Cassandra Quebec. I was afraid of corrupting the unfinished work with my turbulent and unresolved emotions, and reluctant to begin a fresh crystal, perhaps on the subject of Quebec, for fear of being unoriginal. It had all been done before, and how might I bring some new and stimulating insight to the drama?

I spent more and more time beside the sparkling oasis, sipping long drinks and wondering whether my assumption the other night as to Corrinda's preferences had been nothing more than a drunken fantasy. Certainly, she did not join me as I sat in full view with my drink. But then, I told myself, perhaps this was because her father was in evidence so much of the time.

Maltravers spent a few hours each morning in his studio. Around noon he would emerge, showered and suited, and hold court in the bar. He had found himself lionised by the clique of Hoppers, and had proved himself a competitive drinker and an able raconteur. From my lounger by the water, I took the opportunity to watch him as he drank and illustrated his spiel with expansive gestures. I recalled the way he had eyed my body at our first meeting, and during the course of the next few days I realised that he was likewise sizing up the women in his crowd.

He soon found what he was looking for. Within a week of his arrival he was escorting a willowy Nigerian Princess, a laser-sculptress with a penchant for scarlet gowns that emphasized the absolute ebony of her flesh. They spent the mornings in his studio, afternoons in the bar and the evenings partying at various other oases scattered about the desert. I heard one rumour that they were creating a crystal together, another that they were producing a sculpture.

As much as I disliked seeing a beautiful and talented artist used by him, it did have the advantage of keeping Maltravers occupied and out of the way. I lived in hope that Corrinda might take the opportunity to seek my company.

Then one evening as I watched the sun set and the moon rise, and was contemplating whether to go to the bar for another drink or to return to my dome, a shadow fell across my outstretched legs.

Corrinda smiled uncertainly. "Miss Hovana...?"

"Eva, please. Won't you sit down?"

She perched herself on the edge of the chair across the table and gave a shy smile in lieu of words. She wore a spacer's silversuit, chopped at shoulders and thighs. I could not help but notice, on the tanned flesh of her limbs, white scars like tribal striations.

In mutual nervousness we both began speaking at once. We stopped, and I said, "Please, you first."

She shrugged, reddened. She seemed younger than when we first met. "I just... I wanted to apologise for not meeting you sooner. I was working."

I reached across the table and took her hand. "Working?"

She reacted to my touch with characteristic nervousness. "Didn't I tell you that I'm an artist?" she whispered.

"An artist?" I was surprised and delighted.

"Shhh! Not so loud – if it ever got back to my father... You see, he hates women and artists. What do you think it's like being his daughter?"

I made a small sound of commiseration.

She looked up from our hands. "That's what I wanted to see you about – my work. I've just finished a piece. I... I was wondering, would you like to see it?" She watched me with eyes so soft it seemed they could be bruised by rejection.

I said that I'd like nothing more, and she led me around the curve of the oasis, talking earnestly by my side in relief at my acquiescence. She took me through the lounge of her father's hanging dome and into her bedroom.

"I must keep it in here," she explained, hardly able to meet my gaze, "so that father doesn't find out. There's no telling what he'd do."

She stood beside an angular object covered by a silken sheet, and unveiled it so shyly that she might have been uncovering her own nakedness. "What do you think? Honestly?"

I approached it slowly, aware of some choking emotion in my throat. It was a sculpture in some kind of glowing, off-world wood; perhaps half life-sized, it was of a naked woman seated on the ground, hugging her shins.

Corrinda was watching me. "It's you," she said in a small voice.

I touched the wood, caressed it. I wanted to cry, and yet did not want Corrinda to see me doing so – which was ridiculous. I wanted to cry because Corrinda had produced in the carved representation of myself all my loneliness, all my desire to want someone who wanted me.

The invitation was obvious, but I was too scared to trust her. She was so young, I told myself, while another voice asked what did age matter beside the fact of her compassion.

I bit my lip in a bid to stop the tears, turned to her. "And your father would put an end to this?"

"He's ruled by his hatred. Success makes him jealous."

"You should leave him!"

"He wanted me with him when he returned. He said that by returning here he could come to terms with what happened – then I will leave."

"You must hate him," I said.

Corrinda looked away.

In the silence that followed, I heard a sound from beyond the open door: the leathery creak and swoop of wings. I recognised the shape that flapped across the lounge and alighted on the back of the chesterfield.

I screamed.

Corrinda took my arm. "It's okay, Eva. It's not the same one, and anyway it's quite tame."

"But even so-!"

"I know. It's sick. But, you see, my father is quite insane."

She reached out and pushed the door shut. "We'll be alone for the rest of the night," she said.


For the next week, at every available opportunity, Corrinda would leave her father's dome and visit me, and we would make love on my bed beneath the arching dome. I blessed each minute that Maltravers spent in the company of the Nigerian, creating his work of art.

The day before the twentieth anniversary of her mother's death, Corrinda sat cross-legged beside me on the bed. I stared at her naked body, her torso a sun-browned canvass on which a pattern of pale striations had been inscribed. Some incisions were more recent than others, and the tracery of mutilation was too symmetrical to be the result of an accident. I wondered what had driven her to this masochism that masqueraded as art.

I stared through the dome at the clear blue sky. It was as if all week our love-making had been a rehearsal for what we had just shared. I had gone as far as I could, taken carnal knowledge towards an intimacy beyond which only a verbal declaration of love remained. Perhaps my circumspection, my refusal to match with words the physical commitment I had shown, communicated itself to Corrinda.

She traced a scar on her thigh, and said, "Do you love me, Eva?"

I made some tired remark to the effect that we hardly knew each other, and that when she was my age she would come to doubt if anything such as love existed.

"I'm sorry – that's cynical. I like you a lot, Corrinda. Perhaps in time..."

For so long I had hero-worshipped Cassandra Quebec that, having her daughter, I could not be sure if the girl I wanted to love was no more than an illusion of my fantasies, a substitution for the love that was impossible.

"I love you," she whispered.

I kissed her projecting knee. I wanted to tell her that she longed for a mother, and as I was both the right age and an artist... I glanced across the room at the statue, now installed in my bedroom, and convinced myself that even this was her subconscious grieving for her mother's absence, with myself as the transferred subject.

Ours was a union born of tragedy, and I kept asking myself how such a union might succeed.

I said: "Tomorrow we could visit the Museum of Modern Art. We could experience your parents' crystal."

Corrinda regarded me with a shocked expression. "My father would never allow it."

"Why are you so imprisoned by your father's wishes?" I asked harshly.

Corrinda just shrugged, ignored the question. "I've read about the crystal, Eva. I want to experience it, to understand what my father went through. Then I might come to understand what makes him like he is. I might even be able to sympathise with him, instead of hating him."

"Then come with me tomorrow."

She shook her head. "He wouldn't like it."

In the silence that followed I realised that it was because of her father that Corrinda was so pathetically shy, her experience so circumscribed.

She changed the subject. She leaned over me and stared into my eyes. She could see, in my distant, shattered pupils, the tell-tale sign of addiction.

"You've used mem-erase!" she declared.

I told her that I had used it often in my twenties.

She shrugged. "But why? What did you need to erase?"

"Oh... I suspect periods of unhappiness, old lovers... Of course, I can't remember."

"But didn't you know it was dangerous?"

I shrugged. "Not at the time," I told her. Mem-erase was withdrawn from sale only when it was discovered that memories could never be truly erased. They were just blanked from the conscious, pushed into the subconscious, and could resurface at any time as trauma, psychosis.

"Have you ever thought of replaying those memories, reliving those affairs?"

"No, I haven't. I always thought that if they were sufficiently terrible for me to erase in the first place, then perhaps I shouldn't relive them. Then again, perhaps I was mistaken. How can I claim to be an artist if I can't face my past and make something of it?"

Corrinda smiled timidly. "Would you erase me from your memory?" she asked.

I pulled her to me. "Of course not," I said, and I wondered how many times I had made that promise in the past.

I touched the scars that covered her body. "You still haven't told me, Corrinda."

"Please, Eva," she said, and would say no more.


That evening, as the sun sank beyond the dunes of the Sahara and a cool night breeze tempered the heat of the day, the entire colony turned out to witness the ceremonial unveiling of Maltravers' latest work of art. There was a full moon shining, and above our heads the bulb of his studio hung like a replica of the ivory satellite. There was no sign of the great work, and I was not alone in wondering just what form it might take. Corrinda had chosen not to join me; she said that she absolutely hated her father's latest production, but had refused to tell me why.

There was a patter of applause as Maltravers appeared on the balcony, resplendent in white suit and cravat, and gave a short speech. His latest creation, he claimed, represented living evidence of his contention that all art attempted to attain the symmetry of nature. I found the monologue vain and pretentious, but I had to admit that it did have the desired effect of creating a considerable air of anticipation.

He came to the end of his speech and gave a slight bow, the minimal courtesy suggesting a certain contempt for his audience. The Nigerian joined him on the balcony. She wore a vermilion gown, fastened at the throat and gathered at the crotch to form a pair of voluminous pantaloons.

Maltravers kissed her hand and, as we gazed up in expectation, he stepped behind the woman and unfastened the choker at her neck. The gown whispered down the black curves of her body to reveal her terrible nakedness.

She struck a demure, Junoesque pose and the crowd gasped.

Her flesh had been sliced and flensed, the incisions opened, pulled back and pinned to reveal the inner organs in their precise, geometrical arrangement; the kidneys were displayed in positional harmony, the lungs likewise. The muscle of her abdomen had been turned back to form an elliptical orifice, through which could be seen the opalescent coils of her intestines. Her arms and legs had also undergone the depredations of Maltravers' scalpel: the ebony skin was scored and folded in a baroque series of curlicues and scrolls, repeating the motif of red on black.

But Maltravers' ultimate abomination – or master-stroke, depending on one's point of view – was the woman's heart. It perched between the orchids of her segmented breasts and throbbed like some grotesque alien polyp.

I recalled the scars on Corrinda's body and almost retched.

Maltravers stepped forward and took the woman's hand. She twirled. "The Symmetrical Goddess," he announced.

The stunned silence extended itself for several seconds, and then someone whooped and clapped, and immediately the acclamation was taken up by the rest of the crowd. Maltravers and his model disappeared into the dome. Minutes later they strode out across the lawn, and there was a mad scramble to be the first to congratulate the pair.

I took refuge on the patio outside the bar and anaesthetized myself with alcohol. I alone seemed to understand that Maltravers' macabre violation of the woman's body had its source not so much in his desire to create new and outrageous art, but in some deep-seated psychological need known only to himself.

It was not long before my thoughts returned to Corrinda. I recalled her scarred body – her diffidence, which amounted almost to shame, at my insensitive questioning – and her refusal to attend the exhibition. I pushed myself unsteadily to my feet. I wanted suddenly to find her, to comfort her as best I could.

A party was raging in Maltravers' dome. The guests filled the various levels with a buzz of conversation, debate as to the man's genius and the occasional burst of laughter. I pushed through the groups of drinkers and searched for Corrinda, my desire to be with her increasing with every passing minute. I felt a surge of panic take hold of me, as if fearing that Corrinda, provoked by the extent of her father's latest perversion, might take it into her head to do something stupid. I wondered how much she hated Maltravers...

I found myself on a small, railed gallery overlooking a sunken bunker of loungers, which in turn overlooked the darkened desert. The mutilated Nigerian stood on a coffee table in the hub of the bunker, striking a series of extravagant posses. Light flashed off her exposed internal organs. "He took my heart," she was saying drunkenly to a posse of admirers, "and did with it that which no man has ever done-"

I was overcome with revulsion and hurried around the circular gallery. The only place I had not yet looked for Corrinda was in her bedroom. I was about to make my way there when, across the lounge, I saw a door swing open and Maltravers stagger from his studio. His sudden appearance silenced the gathered drinkers; he became the focus of attention as, in evident distress, he pushed his way through the crowd. He paused at the rail, breathing heavily, saw his model and hurried down the steps into the bunker. He grabbed the woman by the arm, dragged her from the pedestal and pushed her across to the outer membrane of the dome. The circle of admirers hastily evacuated the bunker; already, a crowd had gathered along the gallery rail opposite me. I stood directly above Maltravers and the woman, and I alone overheard what followed.

"Where is it?" Maltravers sounded all the more menacing for the low pitch of his question. He still gripped the woman's patterned arm, and she grimaced at the pressure and raised a hand, palm outwards, as if to protect herself from a blow.

"I have no idea what you're talking about!"

I noticed that, for all the violent intimacy of the assault, Maltravers could not bring himself to regard the woman. Her organs were highlighted, the line of liver and kidney duplicating the overhead fluorescents – but Maltravers stared past her at the desert outside, as if ashamed of his creation.

"You were the only person in the studio when I opened the locker." He was shaking with rage. "Where is it?"

Pinned inelegantly to the wall of the dome, the woman nevertheless affected disdain. "Where is what, exactly?"

Then he brought himself to regard her. He hissed something too low for me to hear, and the woman looked shocked. I could guess, from my knowledge of his past, from his haunted eyes, the reason for his secrecy.

I pushed myself from the rail and hurried through the dome to Corrinda's room. I opened the door without knocking and slipped quickly inside.

She was curled on her bed in the foetal position.

I paused by the door. "Your father still uses-" I began.

She looked up and stared at me through her tears. "After every session with the Nigerian and me," she whispered. "He didn't want to remember how much he enjoyed cutting us up..."

I could barely make out her words. She seemed traumatised, present only in body. Her eyes stared through me.

Then I saw the mem-erase crown beside her on the bed.


"I had to!" she said. "I had to know what it was that made him do these things. I knew he was ill, but I didn't know why." She struggled into a sitting position, picked up the crown and held it out to me. "So I took this and accessed his past."

I accepted the crown. The access slide was set at its very first programme. I looked at her.

"I replayed his memory of the death of my mother." She began to cry. "Take it! Access it for yourself!"

From another part of the dome I heard Maltravers, calling his daughter. Corrinda looked up at me and smiled a terrible smile. I quickly kissed her and hurried from the room, at once eager to learn the reason for Corrinda's horror and yet dreading what I might find. I left the dome as dawn touched the desert sky. The party was breaking up, the revellers leaving and making their way around the curve of the oasis.

In my own dome I poured myself a stiff drink, and then another. I sat down, picked up the mem-erase crown and re-checked the setting. I placed the crown on my head, connected the probes and pushed the slide to activate the programme.


Instantly, I was inside his head. I saw what Maltravers had seen that day twenty years ago, experienced everything he'd heard and said. But his thoughts, as they were not my own, remained in the background, blurred and indistinct, full of nebulous anger.

He was in the studio, facing his wife – oh, so much like Corrinda! – across a floor littered with slabs of crystal, frames and crystal-cutters. The Pterosaur, hunched and menacing, regarded him down the length of its scythe-like bill.

Cassandra stood in shirt-sleeves next to her fused crystal, sunlight falling on her golden hair. "I don't understand your objection," she was saying. "The crystal will show my love for you. I want you to collaborate-"

"I want no part of it. It's your crystal, not mine."

"But you're part of me. How can the crystal be anything other than both of us?" She stared at him. "Are you frightened? Is that it, Nathaniel? You don't want the world to see you as you really are."

Maltravers turned at a sound from the door, and the nurse hurried away to tend the crying baby before he could find the words to censure her.

He slammed the door and turned to his wife.

"How can you talk of love like that, after what you've been doing?"

Cassandra stared at him, stricken. "What do you mean?" It was barely a whisper.

Maltravers tried to laugh, but the sound he made was desperate. "How did you think you could keep it from me?"

She was staring at him, shaking her head.

"How long has it been going on? Before we came here?"

Cassandra was silent for a second, then said, "Two days – no more. I met her here. But she means nothing to me."

(Paralysed, on the edge of consciousness, I screamed.)

"Then why have an affair with her?" Maltravers cried. "It isn't even as if... as if she's a good artist. Christ, the woman's third-rate. She isn't even as good as me!"

(I wanted to hit the release stud, retreat into the safety of ignorance; but some other part of me, fascinated and appalled by this vision of the past, would not allow me so easy an exit.)

"Oh, Eva's much better than you, Nathaniel. That's what attracted me – her talent. But, please believe me – I don't love her. It was only a physical thing, an infatuation."

Maltravers' anger welled; I could feel it massing in my head like a thundercloud.

"Then if you think she's so good, why don't you stay with her!"

The Pterosaur hopped from foot to foot in agitation. At any second, I thought, it would swoop across the room and tear Quebec to shreds.

"Because I love you!" Cassandra yelled through her tears.

"I don't want your love – I want your respect for the artist I am."

She broke; the walls of her reserve crumbled and she was no longer able to lie. She bent almost double and screamed at him.

"But, Nathaniel – you are no artist!"

His anger exploded, rocking me.

I knew, then, what was about to happen. I suddenly understood the reason for Corrinda's terrible smile.

The Pterosaur remained on its perch.

Maltravers rushed at his wife.

He lifted a crystal-cutter and in a blind rage attacked, slashed at her again and again as she stood before him and offered no resistance.

(I tried to shut out the vision as Cassandra Quebec was transformed before my eyes into a lacerated carcass – but the image played on in my head.)

Then Maltravers ceased his attack and Cassandra slipped to the floor, and realising what he'd done he fell to his knees, and his remorse swamped me. He saw the crystal, and something – perhaps some insane idea that this was the only way to immortalise his wife and her talent – moved him to lift her and lay her to rest on the slab of crystal. She died and gave her dying to the world, and Maltravers was overcome with a weight of guilt and regret that I was slowly coming to realise was my burden also.

I hit the release, tore the crown from my head and sat staring through the dome, weeping at the new order of reality revealed to me. Then I realised what day it was – the twentieth anniversary of Cassandra Quebec's passing – and something, some vague and disturbing premonition, reminded me of Nathaniel Maltravers' obsession with the symmetry of art. I could see, across the oasis in Maltravers' studio, the evil flapping form of the Pterosaur. I pulled myself upright and staggered from the lounge.

I crossed the lawn in a daze of disbelief. I seemed to take an age to reach Maltravers' studio, aware of the terrible fact that my affair with Cassandra Quebec had brought tragedy upon two generations.

Just as I, denied the emotion of grief by my use of mem-erase all those years ago, had been brought here by my sub-conscious for motives of its own – to empathise with Quebec's death on its anniversary, to fall in love again with her through the medium of her daughter? – Maltravers too had been delivered here by his subconscious for its own sinister reasons. He hated women and artists and – as Corrinda happened to be both, as well as a substitute figure for his wife – what greater act of artistic symmetry might there be than a second celebrated Nathaniel Maltravers' crystal, twenty years on?

I came to the scimitar support of Maltravers' dome and, sobbing with desperation, hauled open the door. I ran inside and up the escalator, numbed by the knowledge of what I might find.

I was crossing the lounge when I heard Corrinda's scream from the direction of the studio, and my relief that she was still alive was tempered by the knowledge that soon, if her father had his way, she would not be. I heard Maltravers' curse, and the din of things being overturned from within the room. I reached the communicating door and tried to yank it open – but it was locked. Corrinda yelled my name, pleading with me to hurry, and I called in return that I was coming. Through the frosted glass I could make out two indistinct figures circling each other with extreme wariness, and above them the Pterosaur in flight.

I scanned the lounge for something with which to smash the door when I heard another cry: Maltravers, this time – though whether in victory or defeat I could not tell. Then silence. I hefted a carved statue, pitched it through the glass and stepped in after it.

The scene that greeted my eyes was a grotesque tableau, the aftermath of tragic events played out to their conclusion. Maltravers lay on his back on a slab of crystal, his throat slit and his torso, from gullet to abdomen, opened to his spine. Beside him, Corrinda braced herself against the faceted crystal, as if in exhaustion or in silent prayer.

Still gripping the crystal-cutter, she stared at me with eyes burning like emeralds.

"He attacked me," she whispered. "He had it all planned, the crystal set up..."

Only then did I notice the rip in her one-piece and

the bloody gash across her stomach. She stared at the cutter as if seeing it for the first time, then dropped it and reached out to me. "Eva..."

"After all I've done?" I said.

"I need you!"

As I took her in my arms, the Pterosaur swooped through the air, alighted on Maltravers' corpse and began picking at the bloody remains.

Corrinda looked at me and, together, we reached out to the crystal and experienced Maltravers' death. We shared his initial shock at the realisation of his end, and then his profound relief that his jealousy and guilt were drawing to a close. We experienced his macabre satisfaction in the symmetry – not quite that which he had planned – that the crystal would come to represent.

Then, in a subtle underlay of emotion, I became aware of Corrinda's contribution to the crystal. I felt her joy that at last she was free, her delight in the irony of creating a work of art at her father's expense.


I came to Sapphire Oasis in search of experience, or so I thought at the time.

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