Nancy Kress is best known for her Sleepless series, starting with Beggars in Spain, which explored the tensions of what we consider to be human strengths and weaknesses. This story, though very different, touches on some of the same themes.
The four vaults were nothing like I had imagined.
Art, even stolen art—maybe especially stolen art—is usually handled with care. After all, trouble and resources have been expended to obtain it, and it is considered valuable. This was clearly not the case with the art stolen by the Teli. Each vault was a huge natural cave, with rough stone walls, stalactites, water dripping from the ceiling, fungi growing on the walls. And except for a small area in the front where the AI console and a Navy-issue table stood under a protective canopy, the enormous cavern was jammed with huge, toppling, six-and-seven-layer-deep piles of . . . stuff.
Dazed, I stared at the closest edge of that enormous junkyard. A torn plastic bag bearing some corporate logo. A broken bathtub painted in swirling greens. A child’s bloody shoe. Some broken goblets of titanium, which was almost impossible to break. A hand-embroidered shirt from 78-Alpha, where such handwork is a folk art. A cheap set of plastic dishes decorated with blurry prints of dogs. A child’s finger painting. What looked like a Terran prehistoric fertility figure. And, still in its original frame and leaning crazily against an obsolete music cube, Philip Langstrom’s priceless abstract “Ascent of Justice,” which had been looted from 46-Gamma six years ago in a surprise Teli raid. Water spots had rotted one corner of the canvas.
“Kind of takes your breath away, don’t it?” Lu said. “What a bunch of rubbish. Look at that picture in the front there, sir—can’t even tell what it’s supposed to be. You want me to start vapping things?”
I closed my eyes, feeling the seizure coming, the going under. I breathed deeply. Went through the mental cleansing that my serene Dalo had taught me, kai lanu kai lanu breathe . . .
“Sir? Captain Porter?”
“I’m fine,” I said. I had control again. “We’re not vapping anything, Lu. We’re here to study all of it, not just rescue some of it. Do you understand?”
“Whatever you say, sir,” he said, clearly understanding nothing.
But then, neither did I. All at once my task seemed impossible, overwhelming. “Ascent of Justice” and a broken bathtub and a bloody shoe. What in hell had the Teli considered art?