EletiofeThe Future of Work: ‘ars longa’ by Tade Thompson

The Future of Work: ‘ars longa’ by Tade Thompson


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Where are you?

I’m on Earth.

Standing on soil? I … why? Is it an artist thing?

On the Earth. The planet.

Really? Wow. Quaint.

I’m afraid I can’t pay you a lot.

What can you pay?

I show him.

That’s a lot less than I expected, but I’ll make it work.

He is beautiful. I see him and I hear woodwind instruments. The symmetry of him, the curve of his neck … I must take some sketches, some studies. There’s an elegance, a grace to his every motion. He has that post-racial skin tone, but I can use it.

How long will it take?

For you? About 40 minutes. For me, years. I’m leasing your image for your entire life span. Extrapolation into the past, projections into the future.

What kind of artist are you?

Visual. Don’t worry, this won’t steal your soul.

Why would you think I’d believe in that?

I pause at this, thinking the mood is going off. Change tack.

You and I can never speak again after this.

I know.

You can quit. There’s a backout clause added to—

Let’s get it over with.

I don’t know if he is standoffish because he wants to keep the contact professional or because he is a dick. I shouldn’t care, but I do. I need his image. I want it beamed across the cosmos to me. I send him the funds.

Sci-fi writers imagine the beguiling, troubling future of work.

As soon as I get the ack I send my files to his device. His personal server is anything but. He uses a distributed model, borrowing fractions of storage space from thousands of devices between him and me. A common commercial model, inherently unsafe, plagued with backdoors for security forces, but I’m used to this. I order his printer to start work. Even through the link I can hear the engine warm up.

Do you mind if I play some music?

He shrugs. His hair rolls down his shoulders in static waves, bouncy like they have in commercials. Careless good looks, probably used to people fawning over him. I’m fawning over him.

I gather my pigments while he readies the machine from components the printer spits out. As he works, I spend 15 minutes doing several five-minute studies, then half an hour drawing a reasonable pose from life or something like it. By then the Rig is up in his living space.

The blood samples first, analyzed on site, beamed after.

I have a likeness of him that I am pleased with, but to get others pleased is a different matter. He, in turn, is great with the gestures and stillness. He has, as he said, done this before. At the 40-minute mark, I wonder if he is, as I requested, fully human. It’s all well and good for an android to take a position and shut down motor functions. There’s no art in that. I want the old ways. That’s why I’m on Earth, in spite of the emptiness.

Desolation doesn’t bother me. My first work was a 30-foot ice sculpture on Hippocamp, Neptune’s smallest moon, laser-carved from orbit. I was, or thought I was, the hot new thing. Carving a Christmas Island head on a distant moon seemed fresh back then. Now it seems kitsch and everything I’m trying to get away from. A dry spell took the eye of the art universe away from me, and my agent stopped pinging after a while.

The profits from the Neptune Ice caper dwindled to nothing. I stopped hopping space stations and made landfall, shedding a number of substance addictions at the same time.

Earth, with its gravity and its pea soup atmosphere and its crowded orbit. Other ringed planets have lanes of ice and dust. Earth’s rings come from space junk, which seems impossible until you factor in humanity’s inability to act in its own best interests. Even now, Quarantine only “advises” respirators, but what they mean is respirators would be mandatory if our elected leaders weren’t fucking cowards afraid of an ignorant but loud and loyal electorate. Quarantine is more interested in thought crime than corporeal contamination these days, anyway. Into this festering cradle of humanity I came, hoping it would be compost for my stalled imagination.

If I can finish this project before I die of any number of lung cancers, maybe I’ll be back on top again.

I send my sketches of Sampson and a concept document to my old agent—you never know.

The bloodwork is already compiling, and the Mirror Rig on my side starts throwing up images and hints of emotion. In his sleep, arms around him, Sampson’s mother and father. He absently strokes the crook of his mother’s elbow. He is 2. I steal the moment, slapdash, with the idea of fixing it later. Now I just want to be infused with the raw feeling. I can replay it later. I scribble notes on the sketches. My shorthand floats on faux-plasma in front of me.

I forget to eat and collapse more than once. A good sign. A bad one, too.

I can never see the faces of his parents.

At 7 Sampson falls up from an escalator when artificial gravity fails. He breaks his skull and femur against a space station ceiling. His head fracture is more aesthetically pleasing, so I paint that.

I see his first kiss, a girl called Burns Wiley, not the girl he likes. Burns is a rebound from the one he likes who does not like him. I do not paint the kiss. I paint his face while he looks at the other girl.

In the night I watch a space junk shower—swarms of decommissioned cheap satellites from megaconstellations exiting the graveyard orbit, burning up in re-entry. I watch it lying on my back on a rock plateau in Jos, a small joint in my hand.

I am intensely lonely here. I find it difficult to talk to people, always misreading signals. It’s not them, it’s me.

What are you doing, Jordana? Intriguing sketches.

New project. Portraiture.

Cute model. I think I fucked him once. Are you drinking?

No. Clean.

When can I get it?

A year, two.

And you want an advance?

Can you get me one?

I am a magician, Jordana. I can get anything.

I see why Sampson’s parents are absent. They died. In violence.

It’s mesmerizing and I have to focus on his face, but from what the Rig is telling me paramilitaries attacked their abode and a mass killing ensued. They were not at war. This is business-related. Who owns the station versus who thinks they should own the station. I focus on the sadness of Sampson’s face. There are no tears. No words either. He’s mute. Processing? How long for?

Concentration. There is nobody as beautiful as this man. Not so symmetrical as to seem perfect, yet perfect in his asymmetry.

Sampson is 16, and he is training for spacewalking. All the space station teens have to learn. Legally. It’s like how on many planets some islands make swimming lessons mandatory.

He lets go of his umbilical tether. He causes panic in his instructor, but there. That’s a moment of happiness and … freedom. I blow it up to 6 feet. I look at him life-size.

I don’t know it yet, but this will be the fulcrum of the work.

I need to see what you’re doing, Jordana.


Just a taste. For the funding.

No, you’ll jinx it. I don’t want your psychic vomitus all over it.

I need to see it, Jordana.

You’re a magician. You can weave your spells without seeing it.

I don’t let him see it.

Sampson travels. You don’t see that very often. Even with the fastest drive, it takes a few years from one habitat to the next, and Quarantine is interminable. They always make you wish you had stayed the fuck home. People live and die in their own stations for the most part.

In the ship, Sampson looks like an exquisite corpse because of the lighting and his stillness.

I missed something. Both parents did not die in the massacre. Mother did, but father was seriously wounded and required care afterward. Sampson, wiping dribble off his father’s mouth, assisting him to shit, washing him, watching him waste away. Cheap android assistant, broken down, repeating a phrase from the code, can’t afford to repair or replace, insurance invoking an obscure clause. I paint nothing from this era.

Everybody wanted me once upon a time. I went to openings to endorse shit, the person to be seen with. I enjoyed it. I was alive and real, instead of the shadow artist I have become. I can’t stand to look at the surface of Hippocamp now.

Bad air day, full respirators. Most people stay in, but if your livelihood depends on it you have to go out. I see them shambling along to their farms with their cheap oxygen tanks and duct-taped visors. Nigerians don’t play. Earth may be a waterlogged steaming mess, but those who are stuck here make do. Thrive, even.

I can create here, and that’s what matters. I am a curiosity to them, but they bring me food and check to make sure I’m alive in my dwelling. They do this by creating a racket and waiting for me to complain. Then, when I do, whomever it is nods and slouches away.

Gi y i àbi.

me vyé no

I don’t speak Berom or Hausa, but I’ve picked up a smattering of Eggon, enough to ask for where the bus stop is. It took me a while to realize this noise was neighborliness. I had been contemplating moving elsewhere.

Sampson’s father’s bullet wound never heals. It discharges pus till the day he dies. Sampson lives with the purulence, with the cleaning, the smell of it, the disposal of pads, the tissues, the wound dressings.

When his star rises it’s evanescent. For a brief moment he’s everywhere, then nothing. The buying public tires of his features. Bookings thin, then dry up. There is, after all, a galaxy of talent out there. Dominance is possible, but rare. Beauty is cheap and stardom is not a career, it’s an interlude.

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I have what I need from Sampson, and I have the bare bones of my work. I’m excited at the prospect of what I could make of this if I’m patient and diligent. I do the work, but I’m curious about my sad-eyed model. The Rig can extrapolate into the future using data from the subject’s past. It’s illegal to disclose in most jurisdictions, and for good reason. If they disclose to the people around them certain futures become self-fulfilling. People die or commit suicide. It’s messy, so it’s outlawed.

I check the data and there’s not a lot, which means one of two things: faulty machine or the subject is projected to die young. I’m alarmed, but I play it.

Sampson travels, face grim. I sketch the features. Not seen that particular expression before. He has a knife that he made himself. He attacks someone, a man, a symbol from his past. Killed his parents. Revenge, then. Sampson had no chance. He is cut down by bodyguards and bleeds out.


I repeat it, then sit in the dark.

Outside my window, clear night, no moon.

I can’t get the image of Sampson dying out of my head. It’s not pretty like when he broke his skull in the artificial gravity incident. I don’t draw it.

But he is still alive.

So what? I can’t warn him.

Besides, it’s a possible future. Might not come to pass.

Yes, it will.

I sketch a local landmark. A bronze statue to a forgotten hero. Nobody here can tell me who it is. Nothing written, yet at some point this woman was so admired that the community put money together to immortalize her features. Homo sapiens. Fickle about our prime apes.

Pain day.

I tough it out. My fingers won’t move, my back is on fire, even when sitting still. I won’t take the pills. They dull me. I’ve been offered a lateral spinal cordotomy, but killing neural pain pathways seems … wrong. Don’t we need pain?

Fuck, it hurts. It fucking hurts.

I can’t work.

Better, but I have that frazzled nerve feeling. I can’t think. I spend my days looking at Yoshitoshi reproductions, mostly his horror work. Drinking off the neck stump of a severed head type stuff.

The people around me bring boiled bark and the finest weed in the solar system. The agbo calmed me. They thought I was dying.

Once, we only had one planet to supply art to. It was easy to get attention. Now, humanity is countless worlds. There is no way to get the attention of the consumer short of dying, and even that doesn’t always work, and when it does, it’s only for a short time. One artist faked her death to bump her sales, but the market was indifferent. She stepped out of an airlock without a suit and died for real.

Sampson tries to kill the people who killed his parents. The moment plays over and over, steps outside time in my consciousness. His flash in the pan is over, or else how could I have afforded him?

I call. I’m not even afraid when I do it. I send pings and broadcasts, but he’s nowhere to be found. He may have placed a block on communications from me, which is standard Rig protocol, which is what I should have done, which will count against me when Quarantine comes for me. The proprietors of the Rig will be snitching already. All for nothing.

I go for a walk, clear my head, talk to strangers who don’t speak any of the languages I speak. They’re puzzled. As it gets dark, I return home. I’m going to destroy the art. My heart isn’t in it anymore.

People waiting for me at home, and I think it’s Quarantine.

I’m wrong.

This is good.

I’m sorry, you’ve wasted your time. I’m not selling.

Are you insane? I’ll make us both rich with this.

You’re already rich.

There’s your problem, Jordana. You don’t know basic financial matters. The frontier of “rich” is infinite.

Get out.

Don’t be rude.

Get out. I didn’t ask you to come. In fact, I asked you not to come.

I try to shuffle them out, try to snatch my work out of determined hands. My legs give way and I am suddenly on the floor, looking up at someone who will definitely put me back down if I try to rise.

I’ll save you from yourself, Jordana. Whether you like it or not, whatever weird ideas you have about penury. I’ll save you.

He leaves with my work and his goons. I’m crying, but silently.

Quarantine never comes for me, and I suppose that’s some comfort. Nobody wants to be incarcerated on Earth.

Months later, I get a small video clip from Sampson via intermediaries. He doesn’t say anything, he just looks into the camera and smiles, a reassuring timestamp in the right-hand corner of the screen. He nods in thanks, then the video goes black.

He can’t acknowledge anything, of course. That would be a crime. I don’t know if he killed anyone or just didn’t go forward with his revenge. He seems happy, and that’s … that’s something.

Payments start coming in for his portrait. I have never seen the displayed artwork that bears my name and puts me back in the eye of the art universe. I’ve given no interviews.

I will live out my days low-tech, on a farm in Jos. Then I too will be forgotten.

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