Simpson will do anything for his art. In a quest to truly understand color, Simpson buys the Alter Ego of a blind man, and begins to explore. Soft yellows, rich reds, decadent browns, and black: every color and no color all at once. But the deeper he delves into feeling color through the sightless Alter Ego, the closer he comes to losing himself. If he hasn’t lost already.
“Stained Black,” by Hugo-award winner Kristine Kathryn Rusch is available for free on this site for one week only. It’s also available for $2.99 on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and in other e-bookstores.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
In a world stained black, he felt colors as objects: blue as an ice cube, red a burning coal. Simpson stepped out of the blind man’s body and into his own.
“I’ll take it,” he said.
The body arrived in a wooden sarcophagus, an ironic touch that sent shivers down Simpson’s back. He directed the delivery workers to his studio. They gaped at the ceramic tiles, the marble colonnades, and the large white walls where he had hung his paintings. Sunlight streamed into the eastern windows, illuminating the workers as they set the box down. Simpson memorized the moment. Maybe this time he would use the image, although he suspected he would not. His beautiful studio was sterile; anything he painted in it looked washed-out and dull. The problem was neither the light nor the studio. The problem was that he had conquered his art without understanding it.
He tipped the workers generously and told them to find their own way out. Then he watched from the studio windows as they headed, empty-handed, to their van. His wealth was still too new for him to be careless with it. Part of him suspected that one day he would wake up to find everything missing—the spectacular house, the wonderful furniture, and his paintings. Taken because he no longer deserved them.
The sunlight warmed his face, and he leaned into the heat. Perhaps yellow felt that soft and gentle. But he didn’t know. The feeling of yellow rested in a blind man’s body, hidden in a black box.
Simpson knelt beside the sarcophagus and ran his hand across the figure carved in the wood. The carving, with its widely-spaced eyes and high cheekbones, looked vaguely Egyptian. Near the foot of the cover was the name of the house he had purchased the body from. Perhaps the manufacturer had thought that black was somber. But black was poetry. Black absorbed all light, becoming and hiding all colors.
His fingers found the tiny depression, and the coffin clicked as it unlocked. He threw the cover back. The pungent odor of mothballs mixed with formaldehyde assaulted his nostrils and sent another shiver through him. The manufacturer played on his expectations of death. Simpson knew that the body couldn’t have been preserved in such an archaic way, but the smell brought out fears as old as time. Before him lay someone who was dead. And he would climb into that dead body and use it as if it were his own. Perhaps the mixture of repulsion and curiosity was what had made these Alter Egos so popular.
The blind man had bold features: a strong nose, high cheekbones, and eyebrows that slashed his face. His body was longer than Simpson’s which had caused Simpson some problems in the store. The blind man was wearing a linen suit that seemed to accentuate his pallor, made him look as if he had been dead for a long time.
Simpson reached down and touched the blind man’s cool hand. This body held secrets to color, secrets that could save Simpson’s art. Color. Maybe colors could be scents, too. If they were, mothballs mixed with formaldehyde were purple, bright purple. Too vivid to use any way except alone.
He had been cautioned not to lift the body out of the box, and he guessed that the main circuitry rested not in the body but in the coffin itself. He flicked a small switch at the base of the blind man’s left ear, rested himself against the edge of the coffin as he had been taught, grabbed both hands and closed his eyes. He wasn’t completely sure how the transfer worked, although he knew it had something to do with electronics that simulated nerve impulses. His consciousness followed a path laid out by the circuitry into the blind man’s body. Contact with the coffin kept Simpson’s own body functioning until his consciousness returned.
“The transfer,” the clerk had said, “is like changing clothes. You don’t think about the actual movements, for that will confuse you. You simply take off one skin and step into another.”
Simpson took off his body and stepped into the blind man’s. He had a brief sense of entering something that was no longer alive, that had resonances of animation. The new skin seemed to crawl around him, and then the feeling passed as the body accepted him. The odor of mothballs and formaldehyde grew stronger, and beneath it, he could smell the pine of the box. The house seemed to creak as it settled, and he thought he heard the whisper of synthetic blood as it started coursing through the veins. Then he opened the sightless eyes and saw lacquered darkness.
The world became textured. The wood-smooth side of the sarcophagus, the soft linen of the blind man’s jacket, the soothing warmth of his own abandoned hands—living but lifeless—resting in the blind man’s palms. Simpson sighed and sat the body up, afraid to do anything wrong.
They had offered him lessons, of course. Disabled was stylish this year, now that the strangeness of walking about in someone else’s body had dulled. The manufacturers could easily have fixed the eyes, but there was more profit in marketing imperfect bodies. The lessons, which would have taught him how to read braille and operate the sonar shield around the blind man’s body, cost twice as much as the body itself.
He refused to take them, but not because of the price. He was afraid that the lessons, which would have taught him to see without eyes, would have destroyed the colors.
Slowly, he moved his own hands aside and grabbed the edge of the coffin. He knew that six meters to his left stood a small table with a house phone. If he moved carefully enough, he might be able to find it. He stood and lifted the blind man’s leg out of the box. The foot fell heavily on the hardwood floor, but no pain registered in Simpson’s mind. He marveled at the circuitry which could hook up some degrees of feeling, but not others. Placing the weight on the outside foot, he brought the other foot out and down.
“Well, Simpson,” he murmured to himself and stopped. The voice startled him. It was an octave too low. He added what he had originally intended as an admonition, but which suddenly became an experiment in sound: “To work.”
To work. He lurched forward, determined to find the phone. He couldn’t paint in a blind man’s body, but he could feel and remember. Suddenly the table banged against the thighs. Simpson reached down and grabbed the phone before the table fell over. He set the table upright and then touched the damaged area, wondering if reconstituted corpses bruised.
He picked up the receiver, placed the fingers on the buttons, and counted over until he found the correct one. In the brief moments between depressing the button and his secretary’s response, Simpson remembered that his voice would sound strange.
“Sir?” Piercy’s voice didn’t sound normal either. It was a shade too metallic as if the phone were processing the tones differently.
“I’m trying the new body. Send a model to me, would you? One I haven’t seen before.”
Simpson hung up the phone and stood in the silence of his studio. The sunlight falling on the blind man’s face felt no different than it had when it fell on his own, but he knew if he reached far enough into the blind man’s vision, he would discover what yellow felt like. Yellow. Yellow was smooth as a petal on a daffodil bathing in the sun. Poetic, but not the blind man’s image. More Simpson’s, like formaldehyde and mothballs. Yellow. He reached it. Yellow—
A knock echoed throughout the studio, and the glimmerings of a vision disappeared from his head.
“Come in!” The way Simpson used it, the blind man’s voice was rough. The doors clicked open. Too late he wondered what the model would think when she saw Simpson’s body lying half-in and half-out of a sarcophagus.
Heels tapped against the hard wood, growing closer.
“I’m sorry—? Simpson started, but she interrupted as if she hadn’t heard him speak.
“How ghoulish.” Her soft voice was filled with sarcasm, not disgust. “You’re the third artist I’ve seen with one of those things.”
“I should have warned you.”
“Warned nothing. But I can tell you it won’t do any good.” Her heels slid across the floor slightly. “What do you want, nude?”
He nodded, glad that she was professional. “Why won’t it do any good?”
“Because you see with your brain, not your eyes.” She paused. He heard fabric snap and rustle. “The last artist, Teague, did a before and after. Me through his eyes, me through the corpse’s eyes. He got halfway through the second one before he quit. Waste of three days for him, but I made good money.”
A zipper opened, and after a moment, her shoes clattered to the floor. He heard fabric rustle once again before her rich, feminine scent—soap mingled with skin oils and a light dusting of sweat—drifted over to him.
“Where do you want me?”
“Over here.” He held out the blind man’s hands.
“Lighting’s poor,” she said suspiciously. “And you aren’t set up.”
“I can’t paint in this body. It’s blind.”
“Then what do you want me for?”
He could feel rather than hear the slight change in her mood. “I want to paint what a blind man senses.” The silence grew as he realized he couldn’t explain what he was trying to do. “I want to touch you and listen to you, then paint you as I imagined you to be.”
“Weirdest job I ever had,” she muttered. “I’ll do it, but the minute you try something, I’m gone. And I’ll bill you for my full fee.”
“Fine,” he said.
“Private parts are private.”
Her bare feet whispered against the wood as she walked over to him. He turned toward the sound, and she grabbed the wrist (why couldn’t he think of it as his wrist?), placing the right hand against her shoulder. Simpson concentrated.
“Christ, your hands are cold.” A little shudder ran through her.
He slid the palm down her arm, over her elbow to her forearm. Nothing, just the smoothness of skin, the warmth of a woman mingling with her smell—
He suddenly realized he was getting aroused, but the body wasn’t. There was no physical change, no warm yearning in the groin. He noted the fact with interest, then reached for the color: brown, dark and smooth like soft, expensive chocolate. He could almost imagine how she would taste, bitter and sweet at the same time.
Suddenly, he felt another presence in the body, as if a hand had reached into his clothes. The blind man’s body stirred and began to swell. It had to be a belated response to Simpson’s arousal, but the body wasn’t supposed to work that way. Only Simpson’s consciousness had been transferred, not his brain. He controlled the body’s movements like a puppeteer controlled his marionette—only there were certain strings that weren’t hooked up. It cost more to get a body that functioned like a real human body, that allowed its wearer to eat, sleep, and make love.
The body’s arousal became more insistent. Simpson could feel the physical changes, throbbing with an urgency of their own. He took his hands off the model, hoping that she couldn’t see the erection straining against the pants. “Thank you.”
“That’s it?” she asked. “Five minutes of touchy-feely, and we’re done?”
“That’s all.” He had to let her go. If he continued to touch her, he couldn’t be responsible for the body. He didn’t have enough control over it.
“I’ll get my full fee, won’t I? I mean, I’ve never been touched by a dead man before.”
“I’m not dead,” Simpson said as he clasped the blind man’s hands together. The body trembled with the strength of its desire.
“No, but that—thing—you’re in is.” Her voice moved from him as she walked back to her clothes.
“It’s like wearing a mink coat. Or alligator shoes.”
“I’ve heard that one before.” The zipper closed. “That’s the line they feed you when they sell it to you. Why else would someone pay so much money to own a corpse? It’s disgusting when you think about it. Twenty-five years ago, that thing would be rotting in the ground. Makes me wonder what kind of people sell their bodies for this.”
Slowly, the body’s arousal was going away and so was the sense of another presence. Simpson felt a small thread of relief. “I’m not paying you for your opinions.”
“Did you ask where they got that body?” she asked, ignoring him. “I heard that some funeral parlors are selling them and burying empty boxes. I was planning to get cremated, but now I don’t know. I just hope I die of some awful disease so they can’t make me into one of those things—?
“I’d like to get to work,” Simpson said. He didn’t want to hear any more. He needed this body. He didn’t care where it came from or how disgusting it was. The model started walking away, without putting on her shoes.
“You know,” she said. “The worst thing is the rumors. They say that sometimes reactivating the body brings the soul back, like the person was too strong to abandon his own body. Could you imagine what it would feel like to crawl into someone else’s body and then realize that you’re not alone?”
Simpson shivered, although the body did not. “We’re through now.”
“I want to see the painting when it’s done.”
“Fine,” Simpson said to get rid of her. He had to get the body back to the sarcophagus before he could start painting. He waited until the studio doors closed before starting across the room, arms extended before him. Perhaps it would have been better for him to crawl. Everything was on the floor, nothing above waist height. If he tripped, the body would fall and could get damaged. And he wouldn’t know, since it didn’t feel pain.
He shuffled forward until the toes hit something. Wood. The sarcophagus. Bending over, he felt the edge and then the interior of the box. He put the legs in first and then the torso. Before he laid the body down, he reached for his own hands. When they rested in the blind man’s hands, he tried to step out of the body. Suddenly, he was stuck like a child trying to take off a pullover. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move. Someone was pushing against him, other arms getting in the way of his. He tried to remember if he was supposed to flick the switch before getting out. But that made no sense: the circuitry had to stay on for him to survive. He tried again and stepped into nothingness as something grasped at him. An instant later, he was in his own body.
Light stabbed at his eyes, and his right leg ached. The blind man lay in his coffin, his skin turning a pasty white as the synthetic blood settled on his back side. It looked as if it were dying again. The model had been right; the body’s hands were cold. Simpson pulled his own hands away and flicked off the switch.
He was resting in a stream of light. Simpson imagined that it looked like a medieval religious painting. A man bent over a coffin, the corpse lying serenely, and the light, the blessing from God, bathing them in purity. Only this was no blessing from God. If God did exist, then the Alter Egos were manufactured by God’s competitor.
The idea startled him. He rarely thought in religious terms. As he stood up, he put the image out of his mind. His body was cramped from lying in one position so long. But he had no time to baby himself. He had a painting to complete.
Dierdre set the painting in the center of the gallery and stood back to admire it. “It’s nice to see you doing good work again, Robert,” she said.
Simpson walked over beside Dierdre to check the lighting. The painting was good, better than anything he had done in a long time. He had painted it in browns against a cream background. A woman’s narrow waist, high breasts, broad shoulders, and slender face rose from a vat of dark chocolate. Her stance was coy, seductive, and her eyes were sensual instead of innocent. He had titled the painting Dark Chocolate.
“Have you any more?” Dierdre asked.
He shook his head. “I’ve only just started to work again.”
Dierdre frowned. “I’ve always said artists should not have money. It ruins their work.”
Simpson ignored the remark. He knew where the money would go if it didn’t line his pockets. “Am I ruined? I thought you said this is good.”
“It is.” Dierdre tucked her hands in the pockets of her dress. The orange garment set off her deep tan and dark hair. “It looks like you’ll be one of the lucky ones. You can paint no matter how you’re living, but I’ve known artists who have had a choice: eating or painting. Look at Teague. He did his best work ten years ago.”
“I hear he’s bought an Alter Ego.”
Dierdre wrinkled her tiny nose. “One of those corpse things? Poor man. When an artist starts using a gimmick, you know he’s almost through.” She started down the watercolors aisle toward her office and then stopped. “You know, if you could do a color series, we might do a show. Title them Royal Purple or Majestic Magenta or something.” And then she smiled, apparently realizing how close to a gimmick her suggestion was. “Actually, give me a half-dozen of anything—good, that is—and we’ll put something together.”
Simpson watched her walk, her orange dress swaying with each step. He was halfway through another painting, mothballs exploding out of a jar of formaldehyde in a splash of purple. But watching the orange flare in the soft light of the gallery, he realized there were so many colors he hadn’t felt yet. And even yellow, which he had felt, still eluded him.
He looked again at his latest painting, standing alone in the center of the room. The browns were deep and sensual, but they lacked. He had not painted chocolate with its warm smell and bittersweet taste. What he had done was paint chocolate’s shell, the way it appeared to the untrained eye. He wanted something richer, something so real that the patron could touch the painting and be surprised that the liquid didn’t stain his fingers.
Simpson stared at the vat of chocolate, and the longer he stared, the closer he came to an understanding. Color was more than light reflecting a certain point on the spectrum. Color was too sensual for mere sight. The blind man had taken color to another level. And Simpson had gone with him.
Yellow: warm and sticky as a pan of boiled milk.
He painted a white cow, outlined in black, kicking over a pail. Yellow liquid spilled across the canvas, streaming upward, becoming daffodils, becoming sunlight.
The blind man’s body shivered. Simpson felt battered as if the shivers pummeled him inside of the skin. He had to escape while orange still eluded him.
Green: cool and scratchy as freshly mown grass.
He painted trees in twilight. Green ran like sap down their trunks, growing brighter until it exploded vividly on the bottom of the canvas.
The blind man’s breath came in irregular gasps. Simpson craved air. Something was suffocating him. He had to escape before reaching magenta.
Pink: the wet/dry kiss of a cat.
He painted a Persian against a black background, eyes closed, her tiny tongue a brushstroke of hot pink.
The blind man’s eyes dripped tears. Simpson felt overwhelmed by sadness, as if someone else’s melancholy were clawing at him. He had to escape without touching lavender.
Black: he had yet to experience black. But he wanted to. Black was all colors and no color. One morning, when sunlight filled the studio, he climbed into the blind man’s skin and reached for black, although the world was black. Putting on the blind man terrified him, for it seemed as if Simpson’s control of the body lessened each time he activated the body. Simpson suppressed the fear. The model had placed that suggestion in his head. And besides, artists had to take risks for their art. He opened himself up to black and color, light on the visible spectrum receded, red-shifting; however, he felt it instead of saw it—as if he dove into a flaming pyre. Then a blue shift, cooling him. And then the colors were sucked away and replaced by a presence, the blind man himself giving Simpson a tour of the blind man’s mind.
Simpson tried to scream, but he couldn’t. He no longer had control of the blind man’s body. The blind man held Simpson and taught him what color really was.
The blind man felt color because his world, stained black, contained all colors, stored them and hid them and paraded them out for Simpson one by one. In such darkness, in such blackness, color did not exist. Color was a guess based on description supplied by a friend. Color was a combination of scent, temperature, and sound that changed with each passing moment. Color was light reflected, but not seen. Simpson finally understood: in a world stained black, color was fiction.
The realization frightened him, and as his mind panicked, the body’s lack of response terrified him even more. He was trapped in the blackness, with feelings that were not his own. He tried to take off the blind man, but he got stuck in the limbs. They wrapped themselves around him, cutting at him, strangling his mind until colors exploded in his head, remembered colors—the blue of sunlight on a lake, the red of early morning dawn, the yellow of a single daffodil against the green of a meadow. He was an artist. Someone who dealt in light and color, who turned experience into drops of oil on a canvas, who made life more vivid than it had ever seemed.
An artist was useless to a blind man.
Unless their consciousness shared the same body.
Unless the blind man wanted to see.
Simpson scrambled, fought as he tried to untangle himself from a body that wasn’t his. The blind man was absorbing the images from Simpson’s mind, seeing, for the first time, what colors really were. Simpson could feel himself being sucked in by blackness, drowning along with the light.
And he could feel the blind man reaching for remembered life. They had given Simpson a body that malfunctioned. The blind man’s consciousness had returned with each activation. Simpson’s presence had given the blind man an incentive to start living again. And the blind man had the advantage—he knew how to use his own body. He had been hiding from Simpson the entire time.
Colors exploded. Light exploded. Simpson could feel the blind man’s greed as the blackness engulfed them.
The blind man posed beside his first painting.
“Mr. Simpson,” the photographer said, “please rest your arm on the frame.”
The blind man lifted Simpson’s arm and propped it against the metal corner. Fortunately, he was a quick study. Simpson’s body would have lost its skill if the blind man hadn’t had the foresight to probe the artistic side of Simpson’s consciousness as well. Poor Simpson. His consciousness was trapped in a corpse in a sarcophagus stored in the attic. The blind man had wondered if Simpson still existed after the circuitry had been shut off. The blind man certainly wasn’t going to turn the body back on in order to find out.
The blind man turned his attention to the painting. Titled The Users, it had sold first at the opening and for the highest price. A simple portrait, reminiscent of medieval religious painting, of a man leaning over a sarcophagus, sucking the darkness from the corpse as the corpse sucked light. And all around them, sunlight separated into a halo of color, winking like stars along the spectrum, in blues, reds, yellows, and greens.
“Stained Black” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Published by WMG Publishing
First published Amazing Stories, November 1988.