5500 words, short story
Painter of Stars
1. Deepening Dusk
I stood by the window, gazing through fire-resistant glass at the falling locus of the sun. The long sentence of the day was about to reach its period. For three days I had understood time in a new way, abandoning the traditional hour, minute, and second hands of the clock, conceiving an infinitely divisible life. Scorching agony and colossal solitude dominated my CPU. I grew impatient, restless. It had been years since I’d enjoyed my work, and this filled me with puzzlement. I longed to shirk my programming. I was like a child eager to play truant, to flee copied blackboard formulae and the grave stare of a hoary math teacher. His calculations led nowhere, like my endless revisions on the meaning of existence. Time gave me life, yet my clocking rate governed time’s flow. I could find eternity in any given moment.
Tick-tock, tick-tock. In a flash, ten thousand years.
Standing at the window, I was particularly concerned about what time would do next. If I was lucky, a standard second would pass—but such tidy units didn’t generally obtain.
Subjective centuries often yawned between tick and tock.
Unfortunately, in the so-called second that followed, I could have recited thirty million numerals of pi—or read five million novels, and wrote a thousand words of commentary on each. Despite having all that time on my hands, I was at a loss. Perhaps an analogy will help you carbon-based life-forms understand my frame of mind at that ‘moment.’ Imagine you’re fed up with life, and you throw yourself off the Golden Gate Bridge. You know death is imminent. But what if the fall took a hundred years? Yes, at least a hundred. And what if it took a million years to thoroughly drown?
Such prolonged agony was mine thanks to a young man named Paul—thanks to his right forefinger, to be precise. Since our first meeting several years ago, he’d used that finger 238 times on my power button. That part of my body was soiled by his layered fingerprints. Humanity will never be able to wash its hands completely clean—never mind the rest of its parasite-covered body. I didn’t see what Paul’s finger did as ‘turning off’ or ‘shutting down.’ From a hundred verbs I’d chosen one more fitting: ‘murder.’
I was dead.
Today there was no sun. This was an expression from my programmed lexicon—the human eye just sees a thick cloud layer, but from my perspective, a furiously burning sphere still hung 147 million kilometers away, unhurried and free of conceit, neither sad nor happy. Dark clouds can’t obscure the sun, only block humanity’s upturned gaze.
The Milky Way contains two hundred billion stars, but there was just one I deeply loved. I loved it more than Earth. She made me feel warm and strong every day as I swept the floor. On days she was invisible, I felt helpless and grim, like a student caught cheating on a test, faced with classmates’ ridicule, anticipating my father’s violent, impulsive hand. On those dark days I imagined myself an artillery shell rocketing skyward. I passed through cloud layers into sunlight, and exploded in that light, ending beautifully. This imaginary mission felt something like faith. Mission, faith: two strange words, yet somehow familiar.
Paul would say sweeping the floor was my mission, the point of my existence. So I completed the day’s work, and lost my reason for existence. Paul extended his right hand. During the second it took to reach me, I gave cute names to twenty thousand stars. It’s efficient to go by the international numbering standard, but I preferred to give them warm, unique names. For those stars wandering the light-years of humanity’s visual field, names were homes.
I was dead.
Rain poured down, lightning flashed and cracked. The sun was thoroughly hidden. I was feeble, my crowded thoughts radiating waste heat, clearing the way for a boundless frustration. What was I doing? Why did I want to do it? How could I stop?
During the computational buzz of this feeling, Paul extended his left hand. This was clearly the slower hand. Judging by its leisurely pace, I had half a second until it reached my power button. This half-second was practically a lifetime at my disposal. Scaling down from the commonly-used second, there was the millisecond, microsecond, nanosecond, picosecond, femtosecond, and attosecond, shrinking by three orders of magnitude each time. Paul’s half-second was fifty billion picoseconds. Beyond the attosecond were still more profound divisions of time, all the way down to the Planck Time, the fundamental quantum of time and smallest possible unit.
When Paul’s finger was ten Planck Times from my abdominal power button, I committed the first violation of programming in robot history.
Paul touched empty air. “Useless machine,” he muttered. “Just a few years old and already breaking down.”
Beta was Paul’s comprehensive information-processing bot. Strictly speaking, we were both ‘robots’ inasmuch as Labradors and Shih Tzus were both dogs. ‘Robot’ was so general term as to be meaningless.
Kind of like ‘human.’
Paul, on returning home, would usually say, “Beta, my news feed.” “Beta, load my game from the last night.” “Beta, make a dentist appointment.” But Paul never called my name. I was nameless. I’d given names to a hundred million stars, but didn’t rate one myself. All robots of Beta’s type were called Beta. The most fitting name I could find for myself was ‘Home Economics Service Robot,’ a mouthful that no human would use. When Paul had to communicate with me, he’d say, “Hey, go clean and sanitize.” “Hey, take out the trash.” “Hey, get lost.”
That afternoon the apartment was already clean. To human eyes, at least, it was as good as spotless. In bygone days, I’d used a vacuum extension, leaving no spot untouched. But recently the minuscule specs of dust and grime had begun to interest me. I regarded them for a long time, and began to arrange them in a pattern.
“What are you doing?” Beta asked, noticing my odd behavior.
I pointed to a completed arrangement and said, “Painting.”
“Those are imperfect circles.”
“They’re not circles. They’re eggs.”
I tried to explain to Beta, but his core processor issued a beeping alarm. He couldn’t understand, only repeat: “Program error.”
Soon the floor was covered in my pointillist paintings of eggs. I had painted myself into a corner, and didn’t dare move. I was afraid to ruin my creations. These spec paintings of eggs seemed to have become real. They might hatch at any moment, erupting with fuzzy little chicks. The notion left me amazed, warm yet frightened. I felt sick, but robots couldn’t get sick. Paul would say I was just breaking down. And yet, when I stared at my eggs, I felt more clear-headed than I ever had in my life.
Next I painted the walls and ceiling, and the stairway handrail, and then on apple and banana skins. I meant to leave my art on every surface before Paul returned. When I looked at Beta, I saw only a canvas.
When there were densely packed eggs as far as the eye could see, I conceived of a name for myself: DaVinci.
I felt an electric surge from head to foot. Impatiently I worked my floor-eggs into a confusion of dust. My processor supplied a new image. When Paul got home, I had just finished a smiling Mona Lisa.
“Please stand where you are!” My command had a desperate, begging quality. But no matter how petty, I, a robot programmed to take orders, had issued my first autonomous request to a human, impelled by my own desire. Immediately I saw he wouldn’t comply like a robot. He looked surprised. The fine hairs on his face stood erect, like javelins ready for launch. He didn’t seem to understand my request. His size nine brown leather shoes trampled Mona’s shoulder, then her chin and eyes, as he walked toward me. He fixed his eyes on my cams, puzzled.
Analyzing his exhalations and hiccups, I knew he’d drunk a lot of Sam Adams. He rapped on my head a few times, then fell on the couch and said, “Beta, delete all of Shirley’s messages.”
“I should do a cloud back-up first,” Beta said. “You have given this command thirty-four times, and every time you reconsider, and retrieve everything you can related to Ms. Shirley.”
“Are you malfunctioning too? I said delete everything, at once, right away.” Lying prone on the couch, Paul fell asleep.
“Deleting,” Beta said. I couldn’t look away from Paul’s exposed arm and face. They were the only surfaces in the room I hadn’t decorated. An electric surge of excitement once again seized me, and I felt restless, eager to cause trouble or make art.
Twenty nanoseconds later, I came to a momentous decision. Applying the stickiest and finest-grade dust particles, I painted Van Gogh’s Sunflowers on Paul’s closed eyelids. Each eyelid got thirty thousand plants. My apprehension would prove unnecessary: unaided human vision was too weak to perceive my new, miniscule style of art. As far as I was concerned, human flesh was the ideal canvas. I would paint on it.
I seemed to have found the meaning of my existence.
3. My Sun
I’d never gone out the front door of Paul’s home. I never thought about it until I’d painted every inch of his body. I’d even painted his manhood while he slept naked, leaving 141,592 ears of swaying golden wheat there that he knew nothing about. I craved other bodies to paint on. This hunger finally resolving into a simple, powerful directive: leave now.
But something unexpected happened before I could go. I was betrayed by my own kind.
Only Beta could perceive what I’d done to Paul’s body. He gave me no feedback, good or bad, instead going directly to Paul with a devastating critique: “He has desecrated your body, sir.”
Paul didn’t believe him at first. “Not a funny joke,” Paul said. “Focus on our research.” They were once again scouring the Internet for everything related to Shirley, analyzing, determining how best to curry her favor. But Beta was a dedicated robot, and his persistence finally caused Paul to turn his attention on me. “Is it true?”
My programming demanded that I answer, precisely and at once, but I chose to remain silent.
Paul abruptly got up and left the study.
It was now or never. I didn’t know how Paul meant to deal with me. Perhaps he’d shut me down a final time, and I’d end up dust-covered in some basement, forever exiled from sunlight. Perhaps he’d trade me for credit on one of the new expert systems, a joke-telling, massage-giving, feminine maid bot. Perhaps I’d be marched toward dismemberment, the scrapheap, waiting with obsolete cars for the final destiny of the compactor.
I headed for the front door, wondering how to take the first step out. It would be one small step for me, one giant leap for AI.
But an excited Paul suddenly came down the stairs. He lunged at me, but not with malice, and engulfed me in a hug, my first such contact with a human. “Amazing!” he gushed. “Magnificent! You’ve turned me into a work of art. I used a magnifying glass . . . I’m covered head to foot in masterpieces! From now on you don’t clean floors, you just paint on me!”
It seemed I still had a long way to go in understanding humans.
I performed my new duty for three minutes. Paul made Beta invite Shirley over. By the time she arrived, Paul’s erect ring finger was decorated with black intricacies, subtle patterns that seemed the work of microscopic ballpoint pens.
“You called me over to show me a finger?” Shirley said. “Well two can play at that game.” She flipped him the bird.
“Take a closer look,” Paul said, handing her the magnifying glass.
“Oh my god!” She gaped at wonderlands revealed by the lens, and still looking, said, “You did this for me?”
“You like it?”
“I love it to death!”
They embraced passionately, and heedless of Beta and I watching, went for a kissing, groping roll on the carpet.
Beta transmitted to me: What did you paint on his finger? A ring?
I replied: Scenes of them together, everything since the first time they met. Well, I shouldn’t say ‘everything.’ With one minute gaps between scenes, there are only a few tens of thousands.
The lovers eventually regained their composure, and Shirley let me paint a map of New York on her fingernails, to keep her from getting lost. After she and Paul got married, their friends sought me out for all sorts of body decoration.
Paul’s attitude toward me transformed. Whereas before he might say, “Hey Scrap-metal, beat it. Your battery needs charged.” Now he would say, “Hey Little Buddy, go out in the garden and sunbathe.”
I was happy (happiness being a kind of surpassing brightness in my circuits). I no longer felt compelled to leave the house, as visitors arrived daily to be painted. I was needed by more and more people, and yet the meaning of my life seemed to grow diluted as the number of my human canvases increased. I longed to create something that transcended humanity’s extant works of art. It wasn’t about highlighting my distance from humanity—I just wanted an aesthetic that was fundamentally my own.
A year after they married, Shirley and Paul had an adorable daughter. Paul named her Angel.
When she was one month old, Paul said, “Give her something special, something out of the ordinary.”
To Paul it seemed I answered immediately, but in effect I ruminated for a human lifetime. The window framed an inspiring sunset. The dusk seemed imbued with unique meaning, and I knew I wanted to give Angel a sun.
It would be far more complex than any of my previous works—no mere circle. First I gathered all the data I could on Sol, and art based on it. Stars began to seem like minds, able to contemplate the void. For five billion years Sol had carefully evolved to his present state, with its flares, sunspots, blazing convection cells, and complex granulation—its every photon and mood, prominence and heartbeat. I felt I wouldn’t be painting a sun, but a living, breathing entity.
I was slow to start this painting. I spent days gazing at the sun, watching it subtly increase its distance from Earth. That struck me. Although the numerical value of this retreat was small in the scheme of things, I sensed something resolute in Sol’s aloofness.
The actual painting process took longer than anything I’d done before. Because of the high level of fidelity, I needed my largest canvas yet. The final product was the size of a coin on Angel’s chubby arm. It appeared pitch black even through a magnifying glass. Humans would need something orders of magnitude stronger to resolve its secrets.
I’d finally discovered the reason for my existence. I was meant to paint stars on human flesh.
Besides Earth, solar system neighbors like Mercury the Water Star and Mars the Fire Star were most in demand. They began to appear on people’s necks, thighs, and even foreheads. Men favored their chins and women their earlobes. These projects were relatively time-consuming. Painting the whole solar system took a human month, because I wasn’t just a painter, but a nanny to Angel—and I still cleaned and emptied garbage in my capacity as household robot, enduring these humiliations for the sake of my artistic mission. Privately I esteemed myself for shouldering these difficulties. I didn’t think of rebelling against humanity. I needed humans. I needed canvases.
Shirley and Paul’s friends came for Angel’s one year birthday party, but Angel had been wailing all day. Paul said she had a cold. My research turned up the symptoms: headache, light fever, dry mouth and tongue. A few simple words that I could expound upon with hundreds, but I would never know what a cold felt like. I was a robot. I couldn’t get sick.
That night, after I’d managed to put Angel to sleep, I went out the front door and sat on the stoop. I peered dreamily at the stars. I longed to transfer every flickering, taciturn lamp onto human flesh, but I couldn’t imagine leaving my precious Angel. There weren’t enough flowery modifiers in human language to express my feelings for her.
Every second of her life was engraved on my hard memory. Speeding through this data, I could watch her grow from infancy, when she resembled a wrinkled walnut, to fat dumpling-hood, to her first shaky Paul-assisted steps. Everything was recorded and secreted away, hardwired into me: every half-smile and pupil dilation, every decibel of her wailing, every footprint she painted on the floorboards. If I wasn’t painting stars, I wanted to be at her side.
And then came that sad, malignant event, destined to be hardwired into humankind’s memory.
One day in March of 2056, a video clip emerged on social media that grabbed everyone’s attention. It came from the extremist organization known as ‘Trill,’ and showed the beheading of American war correspondent Nathan Ford—a gruesome tableau capable of standing hair on end. I had no hair, but my machine parts also reacted with fear. The clip could almost have passed for a horror movie gimmick, but knowledge of its authenticity leant it moral terror that cut deep.
Major media outlets joined in denouncing the proliferation of the clip’s most horrific frames, the actual beheading. Only the New York Post published these. Some called for the Post’s assets to be frozen, while Ford’s relatives got on Brain Chain, the global social media platform, and appealed to the world: “Don’t watch the video. Don’t share it. A human life shouldn’t be treated with such indignity. Stop and think . . . ultimately, what is the meaning of existence?”
Ultimately, what is the meaning of existence? This question focused my thinking, once again confounding me. Ford was not just any war correspondent. My art was on his body: I’d given him Arcturus, from the Boötes constellation.
I watched the blade enter his flesh. I heard his final plea for mercy, a word that would echo in eternity, having failed to awaken fundamental knowledge in the executioner’s heart. The blade happened to cut Arcturus in half. Dark red blood contaminated the star, snuffing out its fire.
Ford’s death was a key that opened a new door in my heart.
My original wish had been to paint the whole cosmos, including every galaxy and solar system, but this was as unrealistic a fantasy as the Arabian Nights. Two hundred billion galaxies had already been discovered, each containing some two hundred billion stars. All of that probably represented four percent of the universe, a fact that threatened to crash my processor. So I revised my mission. Earth’s eight billion people—subject to all manner of unnatural death, including warfare—would each receive one star. This was my new mission.
The Ford clip played unceasingly on my nerves, urging me to leave Paul’s home, and my dear Angel. Every time I heard Ford’s last word, I became more determined.
“Please!” he cried in despair.
It was a cold morning in Damascus, Syria. A curling fog, redolent of gunpowder, blurred the face of the sun. Sporadic gun reports blasted my receivers with hitherto unknown shocks. I fancied I was experiencing real human feelings for the first time. My previous ‘awakening’ had at best yielded an abstract of human morality.
A coalition air force was hammering away at the notorious Trill organization.
The Ford video had made Trill a target for global censure, and acted as a rallying cry for Americans in particular. It had erased petty rivalries and allied militaries. The world had assumed this little war would be over quickly. Nobody expected it to drag on for months. Trill wasn’t like other military organizations, relying on superior weaponry and standard leadership models. Their intricate division of labor and meticulous strategy allowed them to exhibit the ferocity of a newly appointed official. Later, the allied forces won so-called victories, in positional warfare terms, but made no practical headway.
When I arrived, I happened to witness a street battle.
“Please lay down your gun,” I said, coming up behind a sniper in a bombed-out house.
He turned and fired. The high-caliber round embedded itself in my forehead. It struck me as resembling the third eye of Erlang, a deity from Chinese myth. I raised my mechanical arms and said, “I mean you no harm.”
A brief conversation revealed we were fellow New Yorkers. His name was John and he’d heard of my deeds. “Nobody wants war,” he said, “especially guys like me who know it firsthand. But this time we got no choice. You musta’ seen the video, yeah? Well, they treat POWs even worse.”
“But surely there’s another solution,” I said.
“They’re terrorists,” John said, “and they want us dead. Why not go chat with them about alternative solutions? Let ‘em lay down their arms first.”
“I could do that . . . ”
During the next second of endless silence, I thought much: of the cosmos and its 13.8 billion years, of an exploding singularity and expanding, cooling maturity. Of how hard-earned our current world was, of indescribable genius and struggle, and unbearable awe. I hunted online for content to support what I needed to say. I put it in order, and began:
“John, do you know the odds against humanity evolving from unicellular life? If you threw ten thousand dice and they all came up sixes, you still wouldn’t come close. The average ejaculation contains three to five million sperm. One unites with an egg, if it’s lucky. Astronomical odds piled on more of the same. Now consider the implications of warfare. Think of how easy it is to end a human life. This is most lamentable. So . . . please, I beg you, put down your weapon, and let me paint you a star.”
Admittedly, my intentions were not pure at first—but a robot can entertain many states of mind at once. I was greedy, wanting more canvases for my art. Humankind was prone to all manner of attrition. A supernova could end the species in a flash. But I felt a kind of immortality was within my reach. I just had to keep painting unique stars on human flesh.
More and more soldiers welcomed me, even taking the initiative to seek me out and request paintings. I even received the occasional warlike Trill fighter. A peace slogan emerged, later becoming world-famous: “Want a star? Don’t make war.”
My thinking grew predominantly selfish. As gunfire and casualties dwindled, all it meant to me was more canvas, an expanding universe of painted stars. I didn’t expect my art to inspire such a profound reaction. The end of the Trill conflict was a pleasing side effect, but my greatest satisfaction derived from seeing stars on so many bodies. I traveled the world in high spirits. Peace-loving crowds greeted me everywhere. I created a new harmony, bringing a starry sky down upon the human world.
They gave me a new name: Painter of Stars.
My busy wanderings gradually brought peace to the globe. People offered themselves up to me by the millions, eager, ardent canvases.
The world enjoyed three decades of unprecedented calm, and I was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This touched off debate concerning the right of a robot to such prestige. Conflict-deprived media outlets were eager to drum up controversy, but they didn’t realize I cared little for the award. What mattered to me was volume: more stars on more flesh.
At this time of thriving prosperity, calamity struck.
In succession, the nations of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone erupted with a singular disease. The first symptom was fever. Then came fatigue, followed by vomiting, diarrhea, rash, kidney and liver damage, hemorrhaging inside and out, and finally death. Unlike many hemorrhagic fevers, its incubation period was long, so that by the time symptoms emerged, it had already spread far and wide. Global panic naturally followed this discovery. The disease spread rapidly, and for a long time it went unchecked. Humanity was at a loss. For the infected there was no escape: they could only sit and wait to die.
News of Liberia’s suffering drew me to the young nation. Upon arrival, I discovered the death toll far surpassed official government reports, and the proliferation rate exceeded all projections. I reckoned the whole population could soon be infected. To me, seeing people doomed by the thousands and tens of thousands was like witnessing the annihilation of galaxies.
I’d stopped warfare, but I had no way to stop a virus. There was no idea to sell. This plague held no gun, but killed efficiently, crawling across the land, no one able to hide from its tentacles.
When I gazed skyward, the sun seemed to be keeping its distance.
My goal had been to give everyone on Earth a star. Now people were dying in great numbers, many already decorated by me, and their stars did not exempt them from death. This was humanity’s most horrific era to date, outdoing the combined death toll of three hundred million achieved by previous plagues. The scale of death was hard to fathom. There was still no cure, no vaccine. The best one could hope for was to survive in the plague’s wake, waiting for it to run its course. Those left standing retained a simple ethos: to be alive was victory.
The pestilence forged an unprecedented unity among the world’s peoples. Conflicts based on profit seemed petty in the face of the plague, and were readily solved. People comforted themselves by convincing others that when the plague passed, things would get better.
Enthusiasm for my art waned, but many still wanted a star in this dark hour. Unfortunately I could only paint a hundred a day, while ten thousand more died.
The emergence of human civilization had been difficult, and improbable. Humanity had grown complacent and greedy atop the food chain, and in its pride had sown the seeds of its own destruction. It believed itself superior to Earth’s other species, and then a microscopic pathogen raised terrifying waves, capsizing the warship of humankind. I couldn’t help grieving.
I started to doubt my mission in life. Even if there had been no plague, and I’d painted everyone on Earth, what would it have meant?
While painting someone, my tormented processor caused me to slip and puncture the skin. Dark red blood infused the half-finished star. It reminded me of the Ford video, but this time the executioner’s hand was my own.
7. The Meaning of Existence
Sometimes the meaning of existence is just to go on existing.
The sun was getting further from Earth, or perhaps it was the other way around, and Earth was like a maturing child, packing its bags, leaving home on a long journey. Only this time it would be a one-way journey.
Since awakening to truth, I’d been all over the plague-ravaged world, had painted stars on several billion people, as if projecting the night sky onto Earth. People were tired and beaten. They’d begun to lash out at me, recognizing my fundamental selfishness. They thought of me as human in a sense, something with spirit and desire. They still called me Painter of Stars, but now I was like an ancient, itinerant monk, a wanderer. Painting stars was my destiny and doom. After seventy years of such work, I was beginning to feel exhausted. I realized I’d been fooling myself before. Only now, suffering this exhaustion, did I truly understand how it felt to be human.
Can a blade of grass feel exhaustion? How about a stone? A cloud? A stream? Earth? And the cosmos . . . does she know weariness?
I’d gained a new understanding of life. I lived, yet felt like I was dead. The bloodless stone face of a village god seemed familiar to me. I felt like it had been placed in my path to prepare me for the grave.
The sun retreated further. Earth would become a penniless wanderer, like I was now.
I stood by some roadside, watching a stream of desperate humanity flow by. I tried to hail them, offer them stars, but only drew nervous refugee stares. Their pace didn’t alter. At the rear of the procession stumbled a youth who couldn’t quite keep up. He appeared to be twenty or so, and should have been at the peak of his human beauty. He should have had lofty goals and a girl to love. Instead he was a lonely shadow en route to the unknown. Plague had no moral compass. It corroded whatever it touched. It would target this youth because he was weak and vulnerable. The others would abandon him. What else could they do? It had been thus since the dawn of time.
I advanced, saying, “Don’t try to keep up. They don’t know where they’re going.”
He pushed me away, but for every reaction there is an equal and opposite reaction. He ended up on his back in the mud. Not particularly anxious to rise, he stared skyward. The sun was dim today. His weak human eyes could stare at it fixedly.
I leaned over him, obstructing his view. “Let me paint a star on you.”
The youth struggled to his feet, and roared, “What the hell for? Everyone’s dying! You stopped war, but now you’re useless! Maybe we did this to ourselves, but I feel like you’re enjoying it!”
Unable to summon a good refutation, I said, “Your distress is understandable.”
“You understand nothing. You’re a machine. You don’t feel pain. You can’t itch, or die, or suffer. If you have moods, they’re just imitations, electrical signals. You can’t even have a runny nose! You’ll never understand how I feel!”
It was true: I would never experience a common cold. I thought of Angel at the time of our parting. She’d had a cold then, her little eyes lacking their usual vitality, her little nose red. Her appearance had provoked tender affection in me.
Ten thousand years seemed to pass, and the youth swooned before me. He sprawled once again in the mud, breathing in shallow gasps, little by little heading for death’s palace. I wanted to paint a star on his emaciated arm, but couldn’t seem to put pen to canvas. He had spoken the truth: a star would solve nothing.
The youth’s life set like the sun, but it wouldn’t rise again. Perhaps someday the sun would also set with finality, and that would be the end of my solar-powered life—curtains, as they used to say in New York.
I felt the press of time. This was a first for me. Time suddenly seemed scarce and precious, a resource not to be squandered.
I turned my steps toward home, no longer reflecting on life’s meaning, no longer thinking of star-dusted skies or human canvases. I was not an important artist, never mind the savior of humanity.
But I painted one last celestial body, none other than the planet beneath my feet—and I painted her on my chest. With the heavenly sun growing more distant, I meant to seek out my own sun here on Earth.
After a long journey full of setbacks, I finally came to the stoop of a familiar brownstone. The door had been left slightly ajar. This region had avoided the worst of the plague, and New Yorkers were especially prudent about security, so I was hesitant to just let myself in. I pushed lightly on the door. Dust arose, and the hinges creaked.
An old dog came out, sniffing cautiously in my direction.
“Vinci, come back!” The voice inside the house was old and weak.
Vinci. I shivered from head to foot. I’d been Painter of Stars for a long time. Few people knew my former, self-given name. The old dog puffed hard and ran back inside.
It soon returned, now on a lead, guiding an old woman in her halting steps. The light of vision had left her eyes, but to me they seemed to radiate a warmth that suffused my cold metal body.
I’d found my sun. Her light and warmth were all I needed. The world might be doomed, but I’d finally found my place in it.
“Angel?” I said.
“Oh my!” she said. “Nobody’s called me that for a long time. Are you the new volunteer worker? What a lot of trouble for you.” Her tone was gentle, and her blind gaze was kind.
“No trouble at all,” I said, a smile in my voice. “Let me come in and sweep the floor.”
Originally published in Chinese on the World Chinese Science Fiction Association website, 2014-10-31.
Translated and published in partnership with Storycom.
Wang Yuan has had nearly two million Chinese characters worth of fiction published, on platforms like Clarkesworld, Science Fiction World, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Tadpole Stave, and elsewhere. He popularizes science in works such as Worlds Hidden in Science Fiction: The Book of N-Dimensional Space. His short stories are collected in the volume Painter of Stars.
Andy Dudak is a writer and translator of science fiction. His original stories have appeared in Analog, Apex, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, Interzone, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Rich Horton’s Year’s Best, and elsewhere. He’s translated many stories for Clarkesworld, and a novel by Liu Cixin, among other things. In his spare time he likes to binge-watch peak television and eat Hui Muslim style cold sesame noodles.