A View From a Hill (Short Story)

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Michael McConway’s Science-Fiction based short story. Photo Source: Fresh Eye Solutions.

Michael McConway, Contributor. 

On the former Earth colony of Dohs, ancient traditiostates that the Earth surname Baxter originated in their antiquity as Bauxt, the malevolent rain God who brought an end to drought at the beginning of the harvest season only with great Dohsian sacrifice. As the planet made social, technological and scientific evolution and discovery, the sacrifice became reinterpreted as symbolism, an offer of sacrifice in spirit rather than in body. But I, James Fanshawe, consulted evidence which proved beyond doubt that the old legend, although neglected as superstition by the Dohsians, has not been neglected by Bauxt himself.       

By the time I had graduated from Oxford University with a first in the History of Art, in the heady summer of 2300, time travel technology had lost both its novelty and its staggering unaffordability, and thus to forge a noted career in art curation, one had to commute in the time vortex. After eight years curating in the Enlightenment period at the Ashmolean Museum (three of which I spent in appalling digs when my vortex manipulator was stolen by a pickpocket), and a decade at National Gallery in the first Victorian era (which people always confuse with the steam punk Victorian period in the 22nd Century, an infuriating misconception, as absolutely no works of merit were produced under the tyrannical fist of Queen Vicki VII’s ruthless censors), I decided that despite the negative impact it would have upon my career, I would return to my own timeline in 2318, for Apple upgrades on vortex usage are absolutely extortionate these days. 

Three weeks later, with hardly the time to properly hang my genuine replica of the Mona Lisa (as the first curator in my class to access one of the early vortex manipulators, I managed to twist Da Vinci’s arm into painting another for me before the poor man was inundated with opportunists), Colonel Patten, an old and moderately tolerable rowing friend of mine, popped his head around my office door one evening as the light began to fade and the shadows indiscriminately engulfed the priceless collection, only relinquishing their grip in the warm glow of the early morning retreat.  After struggling to manoeuvre a large tattered canvas onto an easel facing my desk, he slumped into my expensive Louis Ghost chair, and in the emerald tinged light of my table lamp, a wave of shock dumbfounded me as I confronted a withered ghost of his former ebullient self. Acute insomnia had cultivated deep stress lines under his clouded eyes, wisps of grey hair hung lifelessly where a dark unruly mop had once resided, and his fingers were riddled with inflamed hacks which extended to the ever twitching, yellowed tips, clutching as they were at an unwieldy paper bag. Once a stout and popular society soldier, I was saddened to see Patten had been demoted to an empty shell.  

Although I’d never laid eyes upon it before, the painting seemed more familiar than the wasted figure of Archie Patten, but inspired a far greater feeling of naked revulsion. That scene, renowned in all its gory red and rustic tones, and rendered upon cheap canvas with broad brush strokes and vulgar, shapeless dabs, depicted the massacre at Duneane Hill, on the Earth Colony planet of Dohs, which had won its independence some ten years ago. Brigadier Henry Baxter, a decorated campaigner, and staunch opponent of the decolonization wave which gripped the outer earth colonies due to his business interests in forced labour there, had provoked conflict with a native Dohsian religious sect during demobilization movements on a designated holy day in the early harvest season, and the ensuing riots between worshippers at the church on Duneane Hill and Baxter’s cut throat mob left 705 dead and 1,517 wounded. The subsequent war crimes trial at the Haig sentenced Baxter to life imprisonment, little consolation for countless Dohsian families whose religious and personal liberties, which had been so hard won by two decades of peaceful political agitation, had been robbed in mere moments by the illegal arsenals collected by Baxter and his cohort.  

After suffering a litany of Patten’s small talk and the pungent nicotine escaping his laboured draws on a smouldering cigarette, he cautiously hauled the contents of his bag onto my cluttered desk. A nostalgic dip into the past, or so I thought, for he had laid before me an ancient vortex reality headset, once popular among painters who wished to make a new study of a long-demolished Roman abbey or medieval cathedral from the comfort of their studio. Cost-effective in its heyday, it consisted of a miniscule vortex manipulator with a complicated arrangement of minute looking glasses which reflected an image of the past into the headset for the eager viewer in the present.  

Baxter squirmed in his seat as he began his tale, “when we first incarcerated Baxter at the Tower” he stuttered, “we gave him one luxury to occupy him and placate his ego, for in those early weeks we were sure he was going to inspire a riot.” “Never a keen painter, a request for that very same headset that sits before you came as a surprise, and an anonymous, wealthy benefactor was willing to pay for it.” My mouth hung agape as I listened with incredulity. Surely after all that negative press, all that sympathy for those Dohsian victims, no-one on the home world, never mind the colonies, was willing to indulge Baxter’s newfound painting obsession.  

Patten shook his head wearily, and with a reassuring drag on his cigarette, he continued. “We restricted his access to a view of his homestead as it was when he was just 10 years old, and he delighted in boasting to the guards that he was going to display it in the National as ‘A View from the Banks of the River Sailé.’ But one turbulent night, the convicts of Cluain Meala smuggled a crate of arms into E-wing in a laundry basket and slaughtered the unsuspecting guards, and as the inmates corrupted our IT system with an imported virus and my battalion were drafted in to suppress the escape attempt, Baxter managed to override his headset restrictions, accessing a view from the Hill at Duneane.” As I gazed with horror, I could see where Baxter hastily tinged the night sky on his canvas a characteristic Dohs purple, populating the warm River Sailé with a more tepid, viscous liquid and bloated Dohsian corpses, reworking it as the jagged gully running along the hillside at Duneane, and extended the eaves of his home cottage to more closely resemble the burnt-out shell of the little church perched atop Duneane.  

After a moment’s repose to steady my nerves, I plucked up the courage to question as to how the painting came to be polluting the admittedly musty, but certainly not unfriendly atmosphere of my humble office. “When we quelled the riot, I personally saw to it that Baxter had not escaped in the chaos. All the signs were positive, for the door was locked from the outside. With the electronics scrambled, we kicked the door down, to find this hideous, corrupted, half re-painted canvas and the vortex reality headset on the floor below. Baxter was nowhere to be seen. No way of escape, a sealed room from the inside with no windows or points of access, and when we discovered the camera above his door had escaped the computer virus, we examined the footage inch by inch, with no sign of any movement over that threshold all evening. Of course we had to hush it up. If the papers got hold of this, it would be misconstrued by the Dohsian ambassador that I had allowed Baxter to escape and all diplomatic relations would be severed.  It was only this evening, three months later, in the evidence room at the barracks I remembered that these old headsets retained the last image the painter saw, so that he could start his next day’s painting with the opportunity to make small changes and progress from his work the day before. Take a look for yourself.”  

Patten handed the headset over slowly, and holding it up to my face hesitantly, after the familiar period of adjustment, I recoiled in horror. There was the graphic image of the ensuing massacre at Duneane so garishly rendered in Baxter’s canvas, as the rain drowned any Dohsian worshipper lucky enough to escape the human blades, but wait; in the second stained glass window of the church, there stood an elderly convict in full uniform, his face twisted into a sadistic smile. And as full realisation dawned upon me, Patten frantically rooted for old clippings in the maw of his paper bag. “Look” he urged, “Dohsian press doesn’t circulate in Earth’s new media as frequently since decolonization. Each clipping, which I obtained from the Duneane archive with some difficulty, describes some unexplained massacre at the beginning of the harvest season in rural regions of the Southern hemisphere on Dohs, all instigated and perpetrated by forces unknown; subsequent enquiries falter and explanations fail to explain these killings at every hurdle.” Patten piled scrapbook upon scrapbook of headlines to that effect upon my desk, and as I furiously scanned through them, with my sense of uneasiness increasing and the gorge rising in my stomach as each massacre was laid bare before me, Patten coiled into his chair, exhausted.  

“I’ve only got three months to live”, he whispered, rivulets of tears flowing out of the deep ridges and lines which grew under his eyes, streaking his cheeks. “It’s Cancer. We must never allow this to get out-not for my sake-but for the sake of the sanity of the Dohsian people. Baxter would be seen in the eyes of every middle-aged introvert, every outspoken politician, every inconvenient and indispensible individual in Dohsian society, and they’d hang more innocent suspects searching for him than the total lost in the atrocities these clippings describe. I want you to look after these when I’m gone and keep my secret.”  

And thus Patten and I engaged in a heated argument, and I protested that by highlighting the problem, Baxter could and would be found and prosecuted. But he was right. Better to leave well alone than to uproot every Dohsian man, woman and child, and begin a witch hunt in every town and village, the flames from which would not be extinguished until half the population had stoked its inferno. Patten and I approached the problem from the same perspective. What had happened here was something beyond humanity itself-his crimes, his escape, his indefatigability. And thus, this is the story of how I came to believe an old legend and acquire A View from a Hill. The headset, and that confounded canvas, languish in a corner at the National Gallery where the shadows very rarely retreat, night or day, and thus Baxter’s crimes against both the Dohsian people and humanity are forgotten, at least, until the beginning of the Dohsian harvest season.                                        

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