MAKING A COLLECTION
MAKING A COLLECTION
In the thirteenth year since his world’s creation, Irving Braxiatel went walking in his gardens. He surveyed the green, lithe ecosystem which he had built, painstakingly, from arid rock and dust.
This was a cultivated world, one that had never been allowed to run wild. Its trees and hedges, flowers and moss, and the worms and fungi industriously returning them to the earth; all had been planted meticulously, all were catalogued and categorised. They were as much a part of Irving Braxiatel’s Collection as the sculptures and paintings, the books and musical instruments, the stuffed specimens and the curios of technology.
On every side were walled courtyards and melodious fountains, secluded bowers and tree-lined walkways. Here were statues and trellises, pergolas and ha-has. There, in an ornamental pond, a shoal of sixty-year-old carp swam, a present from the Baroness of Nippon; and here, in a protective environment suit, walked a radioactive brown-dwarf dwelling plasma entity.
‘Good morning, Hass,’ Braxiatel said, and the encased gardener nodded a greeting to his master, before hissing and clanking on his way.
Braxiatel paused by a gentle incline on which rose-bushes grew. The grass was mottled by a patch of richer, darker green, a rectangle the length and width of a person.
Braxiatel gazed at it for a while. ‘I brought you here,’ he murmured. ‘Now you’ll never go home. I’m sorry about that.’
He inspected a nearby sundial. By the light of the Collection’s miniature sun – the light that Braxiatel himself had set in orbit around the tiny planetoid, dividing its days from nights with curt precision – it told him that the time was nearly half past eight.
‘The delegation will be here at nine,’ he told Hass, as the gardener lumbered up behind him.
‘Not a problem,’ said the Yesodi. Behind his face-plate glowing plasma roiled. Across the shoulder of his pressure-suit, he carried a spade.
Irving Braxiatel said, ‘Very well, then,’ and strode away towards the Mansionhouse.
Hass hefted the spade and began digging.
The delegation met Braxiatel in one of his mansion’s many rooms, striped dark-and-pale in their undertakers’ frock-coats, crisp white shirts, black ties. Mirrored sunglasses circumscribed their eyes.
The leader called herself Ms Schmidt, though it was understood by all that this was not her name. Tall, hatchet-faced and of an appearance that – in an era without anti-ageing fixes – would have placed her around fifty. She and Braxiatel could have been brother and sister.
Ms Schmidt, whose job was supposed to involve knowing to a considerable degree of accuracy who the humans were, would have been surprised to learn how far from the truth this was.
Braxiatel was famous as the richest man in humanity’s sphere of influence, and the four agents had heard numerous legends about his life and origins. Ms Kovacs and Mr Angove believed that he was a stooge, the frontman for a cartel of alien species determined to buy up humanity’s cultural heritage as a prelude to invasion. Mr Lohar, who had a romantic imagination, claimed that there were sightings of him dating back exactly a thousand years to 1609.
Entire planets – not to mention their populations – were said to worship Braxiatel as a god.
Schmidt introduced herself to the Collection’s owner, along with Ms Kovacs and their junior partners.
Braxiatel nodded, as if in mild disappointment. ‘Keeping up the traditions, I see.’
He took the delegation down into the chill of the cellars. In one of the vaulted chambers there stood a trestle table, bearing a long wooden box. Clods of mud and crawling insects were scattered across the table and the floor, and by a door which led up and out towards the gardens there stood a suit of armour.
Ms Schmidt nodded at the casket. ‘Open it,’ she told the men.
Braxiatel looked pained. ‘Is that really necessary?’ he asked, as Angove and Lohar set to work. ‘I assure you all the contents are present and correct.’
‘We need to check that,’ she replied blandly.
For now, Braxiatel was obliging the Institute, but his Collection was a hive of alien activity, a hotbed of fraternising and even miscegenation. In the long run, Earth had to stand alone, without such allies. This was the philosophy on which the Institute had been built.
‘You are aware,’ Braxiatel drawled, ‘of the provenance of the specimen?’
Next to Schmidt, Ms Kovacs said, ‘We know it’s a body, if that’s what you mean.’
With a shower of earth and woodlice, Lohar levered the lid from the casket, revealing the form within. None of those present allowed themselves the slightest squeamishness at the sight of its condition.
The patterned toga in which the body had been buried had shrivelled away, revealing skin the colour of earth. Emaciated by decay, the corpse was still visibly female. Its face was a nullity, the sunken eye-sockets conveying nothing whatsoever. The bunches of viciously barbed tentacles which sprouted from the wrists in place of hands told a more detailed story.
Lohar frowned. ‘This one sure looks human.’ He was young enough to value the Institute’s corporate ethics, first among which was that humans must not be used as assets. He peered at the wrists. ‘Modified, sure, but...’
‘Put the lid back on,’ said Schmidt. ‘Seal it. And don’t get jumpy. It looks human, but it isn’t. ’
There was, as Irving Braxiatel well knew, a lot of that about. ‘It does rather depend upon your definition, doesn’t it?’ he purred. ‘If our friend here wasn’t human, her ancestors most certainly were. Are, I should say.’
‘Definitions are for academics,’ Schmidt said. ‘We do what the Director tells us.’ Sure enough Lohar seemed untroubled now. Those of the Institute’s staff who possessed imaginations were not encouraged to apply them to their jobs.
‘Ah yes, your Director.’ Braxiatel looked pained, like a paterfamilias steeling himself to ask after the welfare of a long-disowned black sheep, cut off for misdemeanours altogether inappropriate to be mentioned in polite company. Rumour had it that Braxiatel and the Director were old friends; had gone to school together; had perhaps, if such a thing could be imagined, been lovers. ‘How is he these days?’
‘He’s good. ’ Schmidt shrugged. ‘Doing much better, anyway. He said to tell you Mrs Smith says “Hi”.’
‘Does she indeed? How nice.’ Courtesies over, Braxiatel became brisk. ‘Well, ladies and gentlemen, you have what you came here for – this one specified item, which my Collection no longer requires. Now you may return home. If I find that you’ve, let’s say, exceeded our terms, my lawyers will come down on you like the avenging angels of the Apocalypse.’
‘That’s understood,’ Schmidt said. ‘Given that you’ve been so accommodating over this acquisition, though, our Director wanted us to run some other potential purchases by you. Strictly above board, just like this one.’
Schmidt reached out, and Kocavs passed her the clipboard. The Institute loved its archaisms.
‘Whatever Smith wants,’ Braxiatel said, ‘it’s not for sale.’
‘I doubt it’s of much value to you,’ Schmidt said. She unclipped the sheet of paper and passed it to him.
Braxiatel’s mouth quirked downwards. ‘Well, the first item’s broken,’ he said shortly. ‘Irreparably so. It is entirely worthless now, I’m afraid.’
‘Any problem with us buying the remains?’ Schmidt asked.
‘I said it had been broken,’ Braxiatel said. ‘I didn’t say there were remains.’
Schmidt nodded. The Director had implied that number one would be a long shot. In itself the asset was unremarkable, but there was reason to believe that it had exceptional cross-compatibility with other systems. This made it rare enough to be worth making a play for, the Director had said.
Brightly, Kovacs said, ‘If the first one’s no longer available, what about the second? The later work, the... derivative piece?’
Braxiatel stared at her. ‘Lost, I’m afraid.’ His tone was brittle.
‘Lost?’ Schmidt frowned. The Braxiatel Collection did not ‘lose’ things. It was rare for it to part with any item knowingly, let alone fail to keep track of one of its assets. The Institute’s Head of Procurement, Mr Faber, had spent months trying to formulate a plan to obtain the posthuman carcass by the usual clandestine channels, before giving up in disgust and recommending that a legitimate approach be made.
Braxiatel’s look became sharper, almost predatory. ‘Oh, you’ve seen through my flimsy cover story? Very well, it was stolen. An inside job, I’m sorry to say. One of my staff had a personal interest in that particular... holding. I should have known to keep her well away from it.’
‘That would be Professor Summerfield?’ Kovacs asked shrewdly.
Straight away Schmidt knew that her opposite number had gone too far. ‘OK,’ she said at once, ‘no dice on number two. What about –’
She stopped as Braxiatel raised his hand and then deliberately balled his fist, crumpling the paper.
‘Hass,’ he said evenly, and the suit of brazen armour by the door creaked and steamed into life. ‘My guests are leaving now. Please arrange for their sole acquisition to accompany them to the spaceport.’
‘Mr Braxiatel, I didn’t mean –’ Kovacs said, but Braxiatel had already turned to leave.
‘My gardener will show you out,’ he called over his shoulder. The thick oak door to the Mansionhouse crashed shut behind him.
The gardener approached the four humans, leaving earthy footprints on the flagstones. Schmidt stared into what should have been its face, a mass of swirling plasma-tendrils, and shuddered.
‘Come with me, please,’ the alien boomed.
Encased in bronze, trapped behind glass. Another asset of Braxiatel’s Collection.
Within the hour the agents were on a scheduled flight to Earth space, the coffin safely sealed and stowed among the luggage. The Yesodi gardener, Hass, had accompanied them as far as their flyer, where spaceport security had met them for their journey to the port itself.
Ms Schmidt had the distinct impression that, old friend of the Director or not, Irving Braxiatel would not be welcoming further representations from the Institute into his ordered world.
Before the delegation had reached the departures lounge, they had paused at Left Luggage while Mr Angove reclaimed the contents of stasis locker number 69U. Schmidt wondered what kind of mind, seeking a locker number that would be easy to remember, would hit on that. The spaceport guards watched uncomprehendingly as Angove unlocked the door, decommissioned the stasis-field and retrieved a plain steel carry-case.
It was almost identical to the one he had deposited on their arrival in locker number 69Q, and which still rested there, as empty as when they had arrived. As far as Schmidt was concerned it, and the locker key now sinking into the mulch at the bottom of one of Braxiatel’s fish-ponds, could stay in their respective places till the Collection’s generators failed, the pond dried and the artificial sun plummeted into the planetoid.
This was a separate commission altogether from their official assignment. The carry-case was not part of the Collection’s inventory, and had not appeared on the list which Kocavs had shown Braxiatel. As far as Schmidt knew, only the four agents and their Director were aware of its existence.
Well, and the President, obviously. Strictly speaking, the Institute was not answerable to the civilian government, but Earth’s new head of state was someone it was not wise to antagonise.
While the agents were boarding their flight, Irving Braxiatel was once again walking in his gardens in the cool of the day. He gazed into the newly reopened hole next to the rosebushes, and he considered the loyalty of gardeners.
Once these gardens had been tended by a reptile, scaled and sibilant, speaking with a forked tongue, pruning his trees with pincer-claws. Although some of Braxiatel’s best friends had been reptiles, this had seemed somehow inappropriate. He had taken steps to fix the problem.
This self-contained, perfected universe, the Braxiatel Collection, of which this garden was both one component and a formal reflection, was built on and out of knowledge.
Here were deposited eye-witness records of past, present and future. Here were reports concerning worlds beyond imagining, and universes far beyond our own. And there were other types of knowledge here, as well. Knowledge of good and evil. Knowledge – if you knew exactly where to find it in the catalogue – of everlasting life.
The woman who had been laid to rest here had prized knowledge highly, and in the end she had discovered her own mortality. The man who had loved her had believed himself wise, and been altogether too fond of alerting others to the fact. Now both were banished from his private paradise.
There had also been another woman, and another man... but Braxiatel refused to think of them.
Now he lifted his eyes from the earth where the woman from the future had lain. The shining armour that held Hass was approaching, his spade’s blade glinting like a flame as the sun crawled towards its zenith.
Irving Braxiatel looked about him at the world he had made, and wondered.
Text © Philip Purser-Hallard 2007.
Bernice Summerfield series elements © Big Finish Productions 2000-2007.
Irving Braxiatel created by Justin Richards and © 1994.
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