Waterfall

by Amy Sisson

This work first appeared in Khimairal Ink (September, 2007).

Hope Chatterjie will be known as the greatest artist of the twenty-third century, perhaps even the entire Third Millennium. Her name will forever be linked with Waterfall — not surprising considering she spent six years of our lives, and billions of other people’s credits, creating it.

And my name will forever be linked to Hope’s. I was her model, her muse, and her wife. And, of course, her widow.

#

I met Hope in 2287, when I was an art student in Paris. My advisor, Randall, had taught Hope briefly several years before, and had managed to get tickets to the inaugural performance at the Chagall Institute of Arts on the moon. He even paid my passage there in addition to his own; he’d always been very generous to me.

Hope had designed the dome over the Institute’s main hall. I had never seen anything like it, or her. I’m not sure which was more spectacular.

When the dedication began, the dome was transparent, showing a sky brilliant with stars. The performance had been carefully timed to coincide with the lunar sunrise. There was even a live orchestra, although later showings would use recorded music.

We sat in plush grey chairs with soft headrests made even more comfortable by the low gravity. The music began, and as it built slowly in a crescendo, the chairs gradually reclined until we were looking straight up into the dome. At the music’s climax, light exploded over the horizon, so very different from Earth’s diffused sunrise. The dome protected our eyes, of course, but it also absorbed the sunlight, mastered and re-emitted it in patterns that cascaded over the dome’s surface so quickly we could not analyze but only absorb them. The images pulsed and throbbed with the music, colors melting together and exploding apart. During one movement I thought I saw flower-like patterns, each petal consisting of a Mandelbrot set. When the performance ended, the audience sat stunned for a moment before erupting into applause that continued for several minutes.

At the fête that followed, Randall and I sipped champagne while I tried not to stare at Hope. Her flawless coffee-brown skin and black hair were set off by a traditional silk sari of an orange and yellow design that mirrored a thematic movement from the dome display. She moved through the crowd, accepting congratulations with a professional smile. Once her eyes met mine and I looked away in confusion.

When she finally reached us, Randall kissed her cheek and turned to introduce me.

“Hope, this is Lisanne Tanizaki, one of my most promising sculpture students,” he said. I shook hands with Hope and murmured something polite and inadequate. She smiled and continued to hold my hand as she leaned towards me.

“I would like to paint you,” she said softly.

“You paint?” I said without thinking, and then felt stupid. Most trained artists grumbled about the few painting classes they were required to take. I specialized in digital sculpture, creating three-dimensional holo-displays indistinguishable from physical sculpture except by touch. I had certainly never thought of painting as particularly relevant to my work.

“I paint every day,” Hope said. “Well, almost. I try to take paints and canvas with me when I travel, but sometimes I can only manage a sketchbook and charcoal pencils. Drawing and painting are so fundamental to all forms of art. Most of my multimedia work starts with ideas I’ve gotten while painting.”

“I see.”

“You are very beautiful,” she said. “I would like to paint you first in kimono, pouring tea perhaps. Or as a warrior. Something about your cheekbones….”

She couldn’t stay with us for long; she had obligations to the Institute’s benefactors. But before the end of the party, an Institute employee approached me when I was alone for a moment and discreetly handed me a keycard.

“Ms. Chatterjie asked that I give this to you,” he said impersonally. I blushed and thanked him.

When she finally came back to her suite, I was lying, naked and wet with anticipation, on a pile of blue and green cushions I’d arranged on the floor. She looked at me without speaking, and I could see her trying to decide whether to paint me or make love to me.

We made love.

When we woke several hours later, Hope ordered an elaborate breakfast from room service. “Compliments of the Institute,” she said, smiling at my reaction to the fresh fruit arranged so beautifully on the heavy, plain white china. I couldn’t imagine what it had cost. I moved to pick up my dress before sitting down. “No, darling, you don’t want to put your gown back on now,” she laughed. She went to a closet and chose a red silk robe with intricate black trim.

I put it on. She reached out to adjust the neckline, opening it slightly to reveal a hint of my breasts. “Beautiful skin, and with the black hair…” she said, tilting her head to one side for a moment. “Now, darling, come and eat. Tell me, what did you think of the performance?”

“Oh, it was… wonderful,” I said, wishing I could think of more appropriate words. “I… the way the patterns melted and merged and diffused… it was like being behind a waterfall, I think, like seeing everything through a thin curtain of water.”

“Yes, yes,” she said. “I was thinking of using water in my next piece. I wasn’t satisfied with the dome; the edges were too sharp, too crisp. I thought perhaps moving water between sheets of glass….”

“I love the water,” I said. “I grew up outside of Sydney, and I miss the ocean, living in Paris. I took a cruise once with my parents, and when we were in the middle of the ocean I imagined the whole planet was covered with water. It was wonderful.”

“Yes,” she said, absently stirring her tea. The spoon made a delicate sound against the cup.

After breakfast, I called Randall and told him that Hope had offered to give me some painting lessons, and I would be delaying my return trip to Earth for a few days.

#

Hope was the most passionate person I had ever known. We couldn’t see each other every day during those first months, because she was working in London and I was only able to get there from Paris on the weekends. But the visits were wonderful. I modeled for her, the sessions turning into lovemaking more often than not, and before long the simple act of posing was enough to arouse me.

Exactly six months after the day we met, Hope took me to a gallery opening — Nitja’s three-dimensional weavings — and then to dinner. That was unusual; she normally liked to mingle at the after-parties for hours. When we finished eating, she ordered champagne and presented me with a small velvet box.

The ring was stunning: a large, off-center opal of blue and green, with layer upon layer beneath its translucent surface. A trail of tiny diamonds, evoking a sparkling wave crest, spilled out from one side.

“Darling, I want you to be my wife,” she said. “Be with me all the time, not just for these visits. Please say yes.”

“Yes,” I whispered. I looked back down at the ring but it swam in my vision. Then I laughed at myself for crying. “Hope, this is exquisite.”

“It’s a waterfall,” she said. “To commemorate our lives together, and my new project.”

“Waterfall?”

She explained, and I was astounded.

#

Living with Hope was more difficult than I had expected. She was possessive, demanding. But she was a brilliant artist, and at first it wasn’t too difficult to overlook her flaws.

Although based in London, Hope was rarely in one place for more than a few days at a time, and she insisted I accompany her everywhere. I left art school, promising Randall I would finish my thesis project within the year.

It took three. Even though Hope received royalties from the Chagall performances, she needed that money to court possible sponsors for Waterfall. So I began doing freelance work to fill in the cracks, turning corp logos into clever sculptures for display in headquarter foyers. I also helped Hope design the preliminary models for Waterfall.

It was exhilarating to work with her. I had never experienced that level of excitement in my own work. And she was incredibly astute. She wouldn’t pitch her idea to anyone except an Index 1000 CEO, and only if they signed an airtight nondisclosure agreement. She gave them timelines for feasibility studies, financial breakdowns with projected returns on broadcast and merchandising rights, and even actuarial tables for insurance purposes. And of course she showed them the holo-model we’d created together.

#

The first time I caught Hope in bed with another woman — or girl, rather; she couldn’t have been over twenty — was right after I presented my thesis work in 2290. Randall was at the showing, of course, beaming like a proud parent. Hope was there too, and I could tell that in spite of the attention she was getting, she was uncomfortable being the artist’s partner rather than the artist.

The reviews of my work the next morning were generally positive, though I was annoyed that they all mentioned my relationship with Hope. Nonetheless, I felt heady with success.
That is, until I walked into our bedroom late that afternoon and found Hope asleep, her long limbs entwined with those of the girl. I watched them for a moment, noting the beautiful picture they made together. Then Hope woke up.

“Darling!” she cried. The girl blinked, still half asleep. I ignored her. As Hope shooed the girl out of bed and into her clothes, I simply stood there, cold and dignified, and admired my performance as if from outside myself.

“Do you want me to go?” I asked tightly once we were alone. “I certainly don’t want to hold you back.”

“Darling, no!” she said. “I love you! You’re my muse, you know that. She didn’t mean anything; she was modeling and I got carried away. I’m so sorry, darling, it won’t happen again.” She approached me where I stood against the bureau, arms folded tightly against my chest. Her hand reached out to stroke the line of my cheek, the line she had painted so many times.

My performance and I both dissolved into tears. By then she was hugging me, although I still hadn’t unfolded my arms.

“Darling, shhh, I’m sorry. Shhhh,” she whispered against my hair. She sounded so sincere that I couldn’t help believing she could make things right again.

The second time I caught her, it was a boy. Beauty isn’t gender-specific, of course, and Hope always made love to beauty before painting it.

After that, I learned to avoid catching Hope in bed.

#

In late 2292, the preliminary work for Waterfall was done and we left Earth. I hated to go. I’d never had any desire to be a spacer, and I knew that the work pace would only become more frantic during this last year. By the time we left, there were eighteen artists and techs on the project. Most of the artists were young, and they knew this project would make their careers. It was obvious they worshipped Hope.

The Anna Christine felt claustrophobic with twenty of us on board. But once we arrived at Denali-D, the view was breathtaking, and not entirely unfamiliar. It was a blue planet like Earth, with white patterned cloud systems that seemed frozen in place for hours at a time. The only thing missing was land, although there were small polar ice caps. Whenever I had a few minutes to myself, I watched the planet out of one of the ship’s tiny windows, imagining patterns in the clouds and trying to think of ways to portray clouds and waves in a moving holo-sculpture.

Once we’d established our work routines, our pilot went down to obtain samples of Denali-D’s atmosphere and ocean water. The scientists confirmed what the preliminary probes had already told us; although the atmosphere was a littler higher in oxygen than Earth’s, it was well within safe limits. Harris, the marine biologist, had cataloged several dozen species of small marine life by that time. It was unclear if any of them would be dangerous to humans, although it shouldn’t have mattered because we weren’t there to go swimming.

Hope apparently thought otherwise, though I didn’t find out until after the fact. She made the pilot fly her to the surface along the equator and hover a few meters above the water, and then she actually jumped in. Even worse, she made the pilot fly away and leave her there alone for fifteen minutes. When he brought her back up to the Christine she was covered with an angry rash. She’d been nude when she jumped in, of course. Without a life vest of any kind. I wanted to kill her.

“Goddammit Hope!” This was far worse than her infidelities. “You could have drowned, you could have been eaten by something, you could have been poisoned. You have been poisoned!”

“Oh Lisanne, it was beautiful!” Hope was radiant despite the rash. She waved her hand, carelessly dismissing my concerns as well as the doctor’s attempts to examine her. “It was so warm and salty, I floated without any effort at all. Now I know this place, really know it. Don’t be mad, darling, I had to do it.”

After that, Hope became even more obsessed. We worked longer and longer days, pausing only when corporate reps showed up to check on us and to look for ways to squeeze more money out of the project. Hope always put on her gracious-artist-hostess persona, introducing the reps to the marine biologist, the meteorologist, the nanotechs, and the artists.

After they left, she drove us relentlessly. One of the nanotechs, Kathlyn, left the project after one of Hope’s tantrums reduced her to tears.

“This is never going to work! I’m going to be ruined because of you, you stupid bitch! I need the cascades to happen within seconds, not minutes! Milliseconds! And how many times do I have to remind you to allow for the currents?”

She screamed at me, too, when I had trouble getting the models to match her internal vision of Waterfall. Once, after she had snapped at me one too many times, I huddled in a chair in the common room. There was no real privacy on the Christine, of course, but everyone was working and it seemed unlikely anyone would bother me there.

A hand on my shoulder made me jump. Harris, the marine biologist, tall and thin with kind brown eyes. Something about him had always reminded me of Randall.

“It’ll be okay,” he said. “It’s almost over.”

I nodded miserably. He handed me a tissue, sat down next to me, and rubbed my arm as I composed myself.

“You’re very patient,” he said. “You must love her very much.”

We sat for a while, then I got up and followed him back to the main workroom.

#

Ships began to arrive at least a week before the event, when the meteorologists were running the final tests to perfect the dissipation of Denali-D’s cloud cover. That had been the hardest part to get past the environmental experts; even though we were only going to suppress the clouds for a short time, it was difficult to project exactly how long it would take for the normal weather patterns to reestablish themselves.

Waterfall took place on New Year’s Day of 2294. For hours beforehand, shuttlecraft flitted back and forth between the orbiting ships and the floating observation towers. Three hundred meters high, held motionless against the currents and wind by stabilizers, the towers were scattered across the planet’s dayside, far enough apart that none could be seen from any other. The seats in each tower were arranged so that the observers had a completely unobstructed view to the horizon they were facing, a horizon made purely of water, with different hues mixing where the currents came together and drifted apart.

Others watched from ships in orbit or from under a dome on Denali-D’s small moon, but their view would be much different than ours, particularly since we couldn’t do anything about Denali-D’s polar caps. Hope had grudgingly planned the designs around them.

It began. From hidden speakers in the towers came the sound of waves overlaid by a fluted melody so soft that it was barely discernible. The wind was too strong at that altitude to allow open-air platforms, but tiny air vents had been built into the towers. When the vents opened, the smell of salt water and the unfamiliar air, sometimes like Earth’s, sometimes not, drifted in as softly as the music. Hope and I sat together facing west in the main control tower on the equator.

At several points halfway to the horizon, the ocean seemed to explode with colors that spread rapidly outward as the quadrillions of nanobots with which we’d seeded the ocean carried out their programmed sequences. As far as we could see, the entire world changed before our eyes, then changed and changed again. The water made the colors shimmer with life.

I reached over to take Hope’s hand, but she was busy fussing with a console at the back of our compartment.

The cascades became more complex, more defined. Suggestions of images raced from our tower to the horizon and back so quickly that they lulled the mind into adding its own patterns to those on the water’s surface. We had created this vast thing of beauty. I have trouble believing it even now.

Just minutes later, Waterfall ended with patterns comprised of every shade of blue and green visible to the human eye. My throat tightened as I thought back to that first time on the blue and green cushions in Hope’s suite on the moon. That last sequence of Waterfall was for me.

The final images dissipated gradually as the nanos unobtrusively dismantled themselves into the ocean’s component elements. Aside from the multimedia recordings that would be released within the next few months, Waterfall was a one-time show.

#

After the party, Hope and I lay spoon-fashion, her body curled around mine, on the largest, most comfortable bed I’d been in for over a year. The sponsor had put us up in an executive suite on their flagship liner for the days immediately following the performance. Again I thought back to the Chagall party on the moon, and the first time Hope and I made love.

Hope took my left hand and held it up in the dim light, and ran her finger over my opal and diamond ring.

“It’s over,” she said, her voice full of wonderment and sadness.

“Tomorrow we can start making plans,” I said, even though I was sleepy. “Maybe you can paint me. You haven’t done that in a long time.”

“Mmm hmmm.” She put my hand back down and pulled me tighter against her.

#

Hope suggested I go back to Earth on one of the corp liners and start looking for a place to live while she stayed behind to oversee the holo and vid edits and the tear-down of the observation towers. I agreed, eager to find our first real home together. Money was certainly no object by this point. We’d kept Hope’s flat in London, but I wanted to go back to Australia. I wanted to capture in my work the dichotomy of Australia’s stark red centre and languid coastlines.

Five weeks later, I was in the Sydney ’port, having just arrived to look at a couple of properties our real estate broker had found. I wove through and around the disembarking passengers, eager to escape the crowds and the incessant ’port announcements. But something on the edge of my consciousness made me hesitate, made me slow my steps gradually until I finally stopped in front of one of the massive newscreens.

Hope’s beautiful face, larger than life.

“…small scout craft with two technicians from the Waterfall project. Initial reports seem to indicate that the ship somehow skimmed too close to the Denali sun, causing the pilot to lose control….”

Images — whether on the screen or in my mind, I don’t know — cascaded over me. Hope accepting an award. Our wedding portrait, which all the nets had carried within hours of the ceremony. The final blues and greens of Waterfall, fading so gradually that I hadn’t been able to isolate the exact moment the performance really ended.

It was several minutes before I was recognized as the widow whom the newscasters were even then beginning to discuss with great sympathy.

#

I had thought the announcement of Hope’s death was the worst moment in my life, but the worst came later, when mourning was far from over but had at least become familiar. I was celebrated as Hope’s widow, her muse, the love of her life. I missed her terribly, but the unflagging public attention almost made me feel like she was still with me.

The feeling didn’t last. Seven months after the accident, the corporate sponsor delivered Hope’s personal effects from the Anna Christine to me. It shouldn’t have taken that long, of course, but there weren’t many ships traveling between the Denali system and Earth now that Waterfall was over. Among her clothes — the beautiful sari she’d worn at the Chagall opening — were her notepad and a small box.

I opened the box to find a ring, a glowing yellow stone surrounded by tiny orange and red gems spiraling outward from the center. I tried it on, but it was too big for my ring finger.

I used Hope’s general password to activate the notepad, and a file name immediately caught my eye: Sunrise. It had its own password, which wasn’t like Hope at all. I started trying passwords, using the first name of every artist I could think of who had worked on Waterfall. The file opened on the fifth try. Audrey. Which one was she? I closed my eyes and saw a slight, pretty young woman with auburn hair and green eyes.

Hope’s voice came out from the notepad, bursting with enthusiasm. “Sunrise! The Waterfall technology could be adapted for a sun’s outermost layer, or maybe the colors could well up from within somehow. The technology doesn’t even exist, but there must be a way. I’ll find a way–” I closed the file. It was dated only a few days after I’d left for Earth.

And that was the worst moment, the moment I realized. If Hope hadn’t died, if she’d had a little more time, the entire world would have seen me discarded, a muse who lasted the length of a project and no longer. Hope would have filed for divorce, would probably even have married Audrey. It was almost more than I could bear. But how could I ever tell the world that I wasn’t Hope’s eternal muse after all? Most likely even Audrey didn’t even know yet. She probably thought she was just another of Hope’s well-known flings, flings that supposedly never threatened the great artist’s wife.

In the end I told no one, not even Randall, who is my closest friend and for some time has wanted to be more. I couldn’t decide whether he would understand my silence. It’s true that I’ve had some success with my art, but the requests for my work have always been outnumbered by invitations to accept awards on Hope’s posthumous behalf, to speak at exhibits given in her honor.

To tell the truth now would be to give up that part of my identity that is intertwined with hers, and it’s the only thing I have left of her. I ask myself whether I would have fought to keep her or whether I would have let her go with my dignity intact.

I wish I knew.

More stories like this by topic: , ,