Very few people had ever heard of the Star Fire Gallery before the dragon came. Why should they? Star Fire was merely an obscure art store on the ground floor of a dingy office block in a city whose inhabitants were much more interested in oil and money than art.
On a hot and dusty evening in midsummer, Star Fire hosted a preview of Mortality, "An exciting, dynamic exhibition of the work of Avior, brilliant emerging Canadian sculptor." The showing did not go well. Most of the guests gulped down the wine, refused the cheese, and left in haste.
On Sunday the Herald art critic denounced the exhibit in words rarely found in a family newspaper; "obscene," "revolting," and "perverted" were among the mildest of the adjectives. When the gallery opened at noon, TV crews were on hand to film the lineup of curious patrons waiting to get in, and collect their reactions when they came out.
By Monday religious leaders were pontificating and the national press had picked up the story, slanting it to poke fun at the lack of artistic sensibility in an overgrown western cow town. One prestigious paper pointed out that a similar showing by the same artist in Toronto had gone without comment, not mentioning that the paper itself had ignored the event completely.
One journalist "revealed" that Avior's real name was Mabel Bonalde; she had been born in Venezuela and now lived in Saskatchewan. Ms. Avior, reached by phone, retorted that Avior was her true name, "Mabel" had been her mother's mistake, but a showing in a backwoods redneck desert like Calgary had been entirely her own stupidity. She then hung up.
By Tuesday picketers were parading outside the gallery, and local politicians were leaping on bandwagons, demanding action in the name of public decency. The mayor, while decrying any hint of censorship, floated a trial balloon about a court injunction. Even members of the faculty of the College of Art, who normally proclaimed their collective willingness to die for the cause of freedom of artistic expression, had trouble defending Mortality, although most of them did. The public shuddered in disgust and showed up in droves. At times the lineup stretched three blocks.
On Wednesday a passing motorcyclist threw a hammer through one of the plate-glass windows. Four people sustained minor cuts and the police closed the gallery in the name of public safety. At 6:10 that afternoon the building was sprayed with gunfire and--according to the later inquest--hit with an incendiary device. The gallery itself burst into flames, which spread to neighboring buildings before fire trucks arrived. Most workers had already gone home and the rest escaped unharmed, but one body was recovered from the gallery and two more from the street outside.
Details of the attack should never have been in doubt, because two TV crews happened to be on location and caught it all. Unfortunately, what they filmed was too fantastical to be credible, although it was dramatic enough to make every news broadcast in the world. Both cameras showed an assault by masked, armed men being repulsed by a dragon, a bright green, flame-blowing dragon of enormous size. Where it came from or went to, nobody could explain.
By Thursday the Star Fire dragon was an international sensation, with the world's most respected newspapers running headlines normally seen only on supermarket tabloids.
On Friday it was learned that the three bodies recovered had been "humanoid" but not homo sapiens. The authorities also announced that all three corpses had disappeared from a locked morgue before they could be properly examined. Thus was a new conspiracy theory born and the "Star Fire Aliens" joined their dragon in the pantheon of the inexplicable, right up there with the Bermuda Triangle and Roswell, New Mexico.
Fade back to Wednesday, at about six o'clock...
"Look at this one, dear," said the socialite with the blue rinse, pointing to a piece labeled "Screaming Head. Mixed media, $3,750.00." "You really ought to buy this to use as a centerpiece at your dinner parties."
"It would certainly cut down on the food bills," agreed the fat one with the botulin face. "I think this one would look quite splendid in your hallway, right next to that gorgeous plump Renoir of yours: 'Famine 17. Mixed media, $3,900.00.' What sort of media is she mixing, do you know? They all look so gruesomely lifelike."
"No, dear. They all look so dead-like. That's the trouble."
Laughing, they advanced to Child's Arm with Doll, which they inspected with righteous revulsion.
The two over-fed, over-dressed women were the only visitors in the gallery, the door to which was still locked and police-taped after the incident with the motorcyclist and the hammer. Long-time clients of Enid's, they had demanded a special viewing to see what all the fuss was about, but were obviously not in a buying mood. Since they had to know that Enid was in the office and could overhear what they were saying, they obviously did not care who knew their opinion of Avior's work.
Avior herself was clearly visible in a corner, repairing minor vandalism to Fire Walker, from which someone had stolen three toes. Simple hand-modeled wax could replace the exposed bone. Lacking the supplies and tools she had back home in her studio in Saskatchewan, she was having trouble giving the remaining flesh the correct charred look.
"You think that's her?" Blue Rinse demanded in an offensive stage whisper.
"Odd-looking type," retorted Botox.
"What d'you expect? Lord save us, look at the time! Henry will be waiting."
The two headed as one for the side door, which led to the elevator lobby. Enid came scurrying out of the office to escort them. Hypocrisy flowed like water. "So kind of you to let us in." "Very happy you could come." "Such interesting pieces!" "Roger the guard will let you out." Enid closed the door behind them, checked that it was locked, and came over to Avior, pulling a face.
The gallery was a single hall, about forty feet by twenty, but mirrors and the reflective one-way glass on the office made it seem larger. Plinths supporting Avior's sculptures were grouped around and between four big concrete pillars. Two plate glass windows--one presently covered with plywood--flanked the street door. Only a very shrewd dealer could stay afloat in the shark-infested waters of fine art, but Enid was as sharp as a chisel, catering to both the avant-garde who shunned anything in the least bit representational, and the bourgeoisie who hankered after still lifes or smoky mountains. Normally she exhibited a few traditional pieces in one of the big windows and more abstract works in the other, while the main space was given over to one-person exhibitions.
"I am so sorry, dear," she said. "Awful people. More alimony than brains."
Avior straightened up, wiping her hands on a rag. "You're sorry? I'm the one who should apologize. But I did warn you that you wouldn't sell a single piece all week."
Enid was small and meek-seeming. Thick glasses expanded her blue eyes, a mask of innocence concealing a razor sharp mind. She smiled. "But all this publicity is worth thousands to me. I still wish you'd included a few of your more, um, conventional pieces."
"No." Avior bent to tend Fire Walker's wounds again.
They had known each other since their student days. They were not friends, for Avior could never be close enough to anyone to be a friend, but their acquaintanceship went back far enough that Enid could argue with her.
"The crowds will be even bigger now. The glaziers will be here first thing in the morning, and the extra security guards. You'll sell everything you show, dear--everything in your other style, I mean."
"No! I told you I never mix them. You said you wanted these."
Years of dealing with artists had taught Enid to endure insanity with patience. She nodded understandingly and patted Avior's shoulder, which made the sculptor twitch with distaste. She hated being touched. And being called "dear."
"Very well, dear. Are you about done?"
"Almost," Avior said. She looked over at the boarded window. "Dying Gaul looks more like Rare Hamburger. I want to see what I can do for him. Is that possible?"
Enid hesitated only a moment. "I'll tell Roger you're here. But don't stay after dark, dear. No drapes on the window, remember. You know how to turn on the alarm when you leave?"
A few moments after Enid departed, Avior walked across to take another look at Dying Gaul. Her version of Epigonos's classic warrior had taken a lot more killing than the original, so that many of his internal organs were on display in putrescent color. Now falling glass had killed him several times more. These new cuts had not bled, and the internal mechanism they displayed was of wire, plaster, and papier-mâché.
"I think they got you for good, this time, love," she said sadly, picking glass slivers out of his braincase with tweezers. Gaul had always been one of her favorites. There was no way she could repair him until she could get him back to her studio, but why even bother? No one ever bought any of her interesting pieces.
The works that Enid had called conventional, meaning commercial, Avior thought of as day jobs. She earned a living by sculpting busts of pompous benefactors and deceased founders and casting them in bronze. She also had several celebrity heads that she could take more castings from and sell for absurd sums: Churchill, Kennedy, Elvis, people like that. God, how she hated bronze! It drove her crazy with boredom. The only art that excited and stimulated her was what the paper had called, "obscene, revolting, and perverted."
"Excuse me?" said a man's voice.
Cardiac arrest! Avior dropped the tweezers and almost jumped clear of the floor. A man and a boy were standing in the middle of the hall, and she had no idea how they could have gotten there. Roger would have phoned from his desk to tell her if she had visitors and he would never have let them into the gallery unattended. They were armed with long poles, and were no doubt here to finish what the hammer maniac had started...
But she knew them! The tall young man was Rigel Somebody, and his boy companion was Izar Something. She could not place them, although they resembled each other enough to be related, and there was an odd familiarity to their features. Where and when had she met them, and how did she know their names? She was usually hopeless with names.
"Rigel!" she said. "You scared me!"
They both wore jeans and white tee shirts, and they had the same peculiar coloring--hair and eyebrows a startling flaxen white against deeply tanned faces, and eyes that at first glance seemed blind, because the irises were white also. They were both laden with jewelry, rings and bracelets. They had to be brothers, for Rigel was not old enough to be Izar's father. Where had she met them before? Rigel was as tall as she was. No, he was barefoot, so he must be even taller--six-five or so.
"Sorry," he said, with a shamefaced smile. "We'll only stay a few minutes, and we certainly mean you no--"
"Doggy!" Izar yelled enthusiastically. "Is this real?" He ran across to Road Kill 9, trailing his pole, which was longer than he was.
"No, they're statues," Rigel said. "Sculptures. Watch what you're doing with your staff. And remember your ears!"
"Breathe slow," the boy said cheekily. "Oh, look at this! Wow!" He dashed over to Flayed Giant and stared up at it in admiration. He might be fourteen, but he was behaving more like a very tall nine-year-old.
"Please excuse him," Rigel said, still smiling. "You obviously have a fan there. Listen, Avior, I want to tell you a few things about myself. If they sound familiar and you want to hear more, you can ask me anything you'd like--anything at all. If what I say doesn't interest you and you want us to go, then we'll leave at once. Poof! You say go, we're gone. OK?"
She nodded, still racking her brains to place him.
"Everything I say may apply to you, but won't necessarily. Well, here goes…My name is Rigel, but that wasn't what my mother named me. I have no navel, because my umbilical scar healed completely, without a trace. Being male, I don't need nipples, so I don't have any." He smoothed the cotton on his chest to prove that. "My face grows no hair. I have some musical talent, and obviously you're an artistic genius. I'll bet that you dance beautifully, too. My eyes match my hair just like Izar's match his."
Hers did too. She glanced at the office's reflecting window, saw three tall people. White eyes, black eyes. White hair cut very short, her black Afro.
"I can walk on broken glass in my bare feet," he said. "I never get sick and I heal incredibly quickly. I like to swim several times a day."
Avior pushed Dying Gaul aside so she could perch on a corner of his plinth. It fitted! All of it! How had Rigel learned so much about her? She swallowed hard and nodded.
"Sound familiar, some of it?" He was grinning now, seeing her reaction. "I go to sleep at will. I find this room unbearably hot, because my comfort level is ten or twenty degrees colder than humans'." He watched to make sure she had caught that last word. Then his gaze went past her. "Izar!"
Izar said, "Whoops! Sorry, Rigel." He was down on the floor, peering up at the underside of Born of Woman.
Avior felt certain that she had caught a glimpse of...of something that she was not supposed to have seen. Something on Izar's head. It wasn't there now.
"Well?" Rigel said, leaning slackly on his staff but watching her closely. "I have ordinary human ears, although they're set a little too high, and I have ordinary human teeth." He flashed them in a mock grin for her to admire. "But that isn't always the case with my kind. Most of us are very tall by human standards, but not all. Now, am I boring you? Scaring you? You want me to leave and take my horrid little buddy with me?"
She concentrated on that long staff he carried. It was finely crafted of some type of burnished wood, decorated with metal bands and emblems in a style she had never seen before, and she had thought she had seen all styles. She was avoiding his question and he was waiting. She glanced at the window again. His face and hers had a vague similarity, something about the eyes. What he was hinting would explain so much, but it also dragged up unendurable memories.
"What did you mean by your 'kind'?" Her words came out in a whisper.
"I am what they call a halfling, or tweenling." He was perfectly serious now. "I inherited a mixture of human traits and..." He paused.
"Well?" This time she almost shouted.
He glanced around to see where his young friend was. "Elfin. They don't like that word. Never call them 'elves' to their faces. They call themselves starborn or starfolk, but they're the inspiration for all the legends about elves, and they've been around as long as humans have. They must be terrestrial in origin, but they don't live on Earth. A halfling is the result of crossbreeding between a starborn and a human, usually a male elf and a human female. If you want to see what a purebred elf looks like, I'll ask Izar to stop dissembling. He's making himself seem human, when he remembers. It's not easy for him yet, because his magic is just starting to grow in, so he'll be happy to stop doing it. Before you answer, though, remember that Izar is definitely not human! Once you've seen him, you won't be able to deny the truth any longer. And whatever you do, you mustn't laugh at him. He's only an imp yet, but the starborn can be just as nasty as humans can; he could hurt you."
Avior rose to her feet so she could face this madman eye to eye, black to white. He didn't look crazy, but he must be madder than any hatter. She was trembling, but the only way to escape danger was to face it. Ignoring it let it destroy you from the inside out. "Show me that belly button you don't have."
He shrugged, leaned his staff against his shoulder, and pulled his tee shirt up and his belt down a few inches. No navel. No belly hairs, either. She'd thought she was the only freak without a navel. He was a nice kid and she would just have to trust him.
"Let's see the real Izar, then."
"Izar?" Rigel called, tucking his shirt in.
The boy had almost finished his tour of the exhibition. He was sniggering at Chronos Devouring his Children.
"What? Come and see this, Rigel! This is really schmoory!"
"In a moment. First you come over here and let Avior get a proper look at you."
Izar arrived like a missile. He grinned hugely. "Stop dissembling, you mean?"
"Can you just show her your teeth first?" Rigel said.
"Sure!" The boy grinned again, but this time he revealed a mouthful of ivory daggers. Avior recoiled with a gasp.
"They look just like shark teeth, don't they?" Rigel said. "Or wood saws. You can see he's no vegetarian at any rate. There's a school of thought that says the starfolk are human nightmares made real. Ready for the rest?"
She gulped and nodded.
"I've been trying to diss one ear at a time," Izar explained without removing his leer, "but I can't, yet. Hang onto your hair, lady."
His ears jumped to the top of his head. They stood erect, pointed like cats' ears, but pink, hairless, and enormous, each as large as a grown man's hand. They also sported six or seven jeweled studs along each rim. The fuzz on his head--more like short fur than hair--had taken on a faint rainbow sheen, like oil on a puddle or the play surface of a CD. His eyes, too, twinkled with rainbow fire.
Avior clasped her hands over her mouth to block a scream and Rigel caught her arm to steady her.
"All right?" he asked, looking worried.
No, but she shook him off furiously. "This is real?" she whispered. "Not just some cruel, horrible trick you're playing on me?"
Izar turned his ears outward, then inward, and grinned even wider.
"It's real," Rigel said. "I was born on Earth too. I didn't discover what I was until about three months ago, so I know how much of a shock this must be. The point is, Avior, halflings like you and me don't belong here on Earth. We don't fit properly in the Starlands, either, because we're not pure starborn. But the Starlands are better, believe me! At least people will know what you are and you won't need to hide it. If you want a taste, we can take you there and show you. I swear I'll bring you back here any time you want--after an hour, a day, whatever. I have the queen's word on that. The change is instantaneous. We just...Izar, where is your reversion staff?"
The boy stopped grinning. "Oops! I left it over here, I think." He tore off toward Born of Woman, looped around that plinth and kept running. "Or maybe over here..."
Suddenly Rigel yelled in alarm, leaping at Avior and hurling her to the ground with himself on top. Automatic gunfire roared through the gallery, shattering glass, ricocheting off concrete, and pounding the inside of her skull. The lights went out in a shower of sparks from the circuit box on the wall while lines of bright holes sprouted across the plywood shutter. Glass shattered everywhere, clattering down on the tiles. Sheer noise seemed to shake the building.
It was ten minutes past six.