In the Electric Museum (Chronicle)
He nearly passed it by, but it was a museum and he'd always made time for those. The entrance was completely open, with no door, coathangers, service desk or any concession to living human beings that might enter. Ruebin looked around to see if there might be any kind of billing or ticket sale, but there wasn't even a kredit reader in sight.
There was, however, a plaque on the wall. It was made of a whitish, translucent material that looked like plastic but gave off a ringing sound like glass when Ruebin knocked on it. On its surface, presumably with a laser, had been etched the logos of several prominent Caldari corporations, including most of the ones from the three major blocks. The names stood out in stark black on the plaque's creamy surface, as did the smaller lettering below that denoted the museum had free admission courtesy of this coalition of Caldari corporations. Through the entrance corridor he could see machinery in various states of disassembly.
Ruebin felt at once intrigued and disappointed. The sign outside had said "Electric Museum", which wasn't very promising but did at least offer the hopeful possibility that this might be some kind of modernist art exhibit. That hope was now extinguished, and since this was a Caldari museum there would be no signs of the Gallentean vagaries, the dignified and terrible Amarr designs, or the Minmatar rust-or-die approach. On the other hand, since this was purely a Caldari place, Ruebin figured he might get a little kick out the unavoidable jingoism and touches of propaganda that would be scattered about in the exhibits. Besides, on his trips he always went to any museum he could find, not so much out of any kind of appreciation for the history or theory of art, but purely out of aesthetic enjoyment. He loved seeing what other people had created, and revelling in the myriad layers of meaning and coherence that he as a layman could just barely make out. The glimpse and promise of surface wonders were far more appealing to him than a headlong plunge could ever be.
He went in. The main entrance opened into a large, square room beset with low pillars. On top of each pillar stood a piece of machinery. Some of them were encased in glass cages, and some were held in place by long wires that hung from the ceiling. Ruebin didn't recognize any of them, so he wandered over to the nearest pillar. On one side it had a small touchpad with the Ishukone logo and several buttons.
He pressed a button, and the pillar's top surface lit up, illuminating the complex interweave of metal and plastic it supported within a glass cage. An unseen projector inside the cage cast purple letters on the glass, running through the item's history and intended purpose. Another projector cast off a neon-green light that, through reflections in tiny, carefully placed mirrors at various points in the glass, illuminated various sections of the module according to whatever text was being displayed. Ruebin pressed an arrow on the touchpad; the purple text scrolled to the next page, and the green lights shifted and illuminated another section of the metal part. In larger museums, Ruebin knew, they had proper 3D imagery and would often show a translucent, rotating image of the item, floating above the actual unit. This place apparently didn't have the budget.
For a lark, Ruebin pressed a tiny, ridged button on the touchpad's side. Immediately the display ended, and tiny buttons began appearing on the touchpad, from its surface like little buds trying to bloom in frozen earth. A small card reader shifted out on the touchpad's side, and voice asked him to press his ID card up against it, adding that once he'd done so and proven his blindness, the glass walls would withdraw so that he could put his hands on the module while listening to its description. Ruebin backed away silently and proceeded to the next room.
Once there, he heard a voice that at first sounded like it were coming from another of those blind-assisted tours, but after a while he found it contained far too much emotion to possibly have been recorded for a museum exhibit. It came from a room nearby, so Ruebin stalked through. He was met with a bobble-headed vision like a cotton picker at harvest, and the gripping smell of knitted sweaters and comfortable perfume. A gaggle of senior citizens were clustered around a short old man, all watching him with rapt attention. There were a few others closer to Ruebin's age, including a pair of young men who looked thoroughly bewildered to even be there, but the whiteness of hair was overwhelming nonetheless. The man stood beside a pedestal and was extemporizing on its design with the heat of an Amarrian preacher.
"This, now, this thing here was created by Nugoeihuvi corporation, Noh for short, and even though it's fifty years old it absolutely epitomizes their design philosophies. See these curves here on the outer casing, how they're moulded to the wings of the module so that it radiates as much heat as possible without risking structural instability. And notice how each pipe leading into the main combustion chamber is elegantly bent around the titanium spindles, so as to give them increased stability without interference with their operation. It's beautiful engineering."
The man's voice was impassioned, his speech rapt and clear. He kept it under practiced control, modulating his words for effect, but you could tell that he wanted to break out, to speed up and let it flicker in the air like a whip.
Ruebin made his way close to the group. He was a little taller than the old women and could make out the curator's face and upper body. The man, whose nametag identified him as Entrye Chrare, had his eyes tightly shut and was leaning down in rapture; so far down, in fact, that he was actually pointing upwards at the pedestalled module beside him. His skin was old and wrinkled, and his clothes bore witness to countless trips through the dusty corridors of oily mechanical history.
It occurred to Ruebin that the museum's title was a misnomer. There was nothing electric here except for the curator's delivery.
"All right, we've wrapped up this room. Is everyone ready for the," Entrye paused dramatically, "special exhibition?"
The group tittered with excitement. Ruebin smiled, and stepped a little closer. Nobody seemed to have noticed him so far.
"Excellent. We'll head over, then. I'll take us through a few side routes along the way, maybe point out one or two things." Entrye set off, the old ladies and Ruebin following on his heels. Ruebin tried to stay close to the men his own age, but nobody seemed much to mind his presence there anyway.
They passed through four rooms, each one containing a dozen pedestals displaying more mechanical equipment. All rooms were marked with Caldari corporate logos, usually followed by sponsorship information and a short thank-you note from the museum. Entrye threw off a comment here and there.
In the Hyasyoda room: "See that prototype warp core stabilizer? It may look like a radioactive nutcracker, but that particular brand was an amazing innovation back in its day."
Passing through the Lai Dai corridor: "That is one of the first cruise missile launchers the Caldari ever produced. Lai Dai nearly went bankrupt perfecting the design, only to see it appropriated by everyone else and mass-produced a year later."
Stopping in the small Wiyrkomi foyer: "For ages the Seituoda people persisted in stamping, etching or otherwise marking a rather strange, homemade family logo on the inside of each module. Ostensibly it was supposed to look like a Caldari vessel firing off an oversized torpedo, but they discontinued its use when someone pointed out that when viewed from a certain angle, the logo looked pornographic."
And then they arrived at the special exhibit.
A sign on the door declared paid entrance, and the entire group came to a halt, the bobble-headed old women all digging around in their pockets and purses for their ticket receipts. Ruebin wondered whether to split, but before he could come to a decision the curator's tremulous voice thundered over them, "Don't stop! Forward go, full blast. Follow me, everyone."
The group, shocked into obeisance, immediately stormed after the guide and into the room. Ruebin followed on their heels, giving an apologetic smile to a disinterested guard.
Inside the room were two long rows of pedestals, running perfectly parallel, each holding a single module. The pedestals were the same type as Ruebin had seen all over the museum, but the designs of the display items were markedly different. Where elsewhere there had been sharp, crisp lines and unembellished designs, here there were soft curves, smoother surfaces and clearly some rather complex, almost convoluted constructions. There were big "Don't touch" signs posted on the walls, but as the items weren't even covered in glass cages Ruebin couldn't stop himself from running his fingers over one, trailing its arches and coils. When he looked up, he saw that the curator was staring at him, and quickly put his hand back into his pocket.
As the curator returned to guiding the group through the designs, Ruebin's thoughts drifted away. He couldn't help but notice how every module in this room, at least so far as he had seen, was so much nicer and more intricately made than anything he'd seen outside. He looked around to see if there were any explanations for this, plaques with details and such, but the only things he saw were the Kaalakiota and Sukuuvestaa logos on either side of the room. Upon closer inspection, he noticed that one row was solely Kaalakiota items and the other Sukuuvestaa modules.
Ruebin felt a sense of cognitive dissonance. He'd been to so many museums in so many places that although he'd had no formal education in art history he still considered himself perfectly able to discern styles of art, even among similarly designed pieces. And to him, these two rows seemed as if they could've been transported in from another world. They looked positively Gallentean.
"Who made these?" he said, half to himself.
"Two CEOs," the curator responded. "Well, one CEO and one CFO. They're from the days when KK and SuVee were still developing their business practices, getting a feel for how they could best ingratiate themselves with their customers. This was one of their attempts; only one product line out of many, but quite distinguishable. Turns out they couldn't do it by kindness and concern, so they ended up changing their tactics somewhat."
Ruebin hesitated. He hadn't realized that he'd been spotted by the rest of the group, who had apparently been watching him when he inspected the modules. All eyes were on him now.
"Shall we move on, young master?" said the curator, not unkindly.
"Yes, please. Thank you. Sorry," Ruebin said, and followed the group. They walked slowly through the room, the curator pointing at each item in both rows and expounding on it. Most of them he compared to known works of art, paintings and sculptures and suchlike, and mentioned that these module designs had clear signs of emulating them. It surprised Ruebin, who had never seen the Caldari go much for the softer, more expressive side of art. Minimalism, symbology and, these days, militarism were much more their thing.
And then, as if crossing over to a different era, the modules changed. The softness became hard and unyielding; the smooth curves turned to chiseled angles; the kind, matte surfaces turned specular and confrontative. It was subtle, and wouldn't have been noticed by the casual observer, but to Ruebin, veteran of endless museum trips, it was unmistakable. He stopped in his tracks, speechless.
The rest of the group marched on, the curator's recitation continuing uninterrupted. They went on for a pillar or two before the curator apparently noticed the absence of the group's youngest member. He cast around for Ruebin, noticed him and half-shouted, "Did I miss something in my explanations, young man?"
"I'm not sure," Ruebin said. "I may have missed it. Could you please tell me what happened here?" He waved a hand at the first modules of the new, cold design.
"Oh, nothing much," the curator replied.
"Nothing much? It's like another world!" Ruebin said in astonishment.
"It's the past, my boy. It often feels that way. If I may ask, what exactly are you talking about?"
Ruebin explained. The curator shrugged and said, "Be that as it may, I'm not sure I see any less value in the later modules. If it's any help, the people responsible were deposed, and there was a sea change in values."
"What do you mean?"
The curator walked over to him and, in all defiance of museum rules, placed a paternal hand on the module in front of them. He put his other hand on Ruebin's shoulder. "I mean that the people who designed the old modules, the ones you find so appealing, were the main participants in quite a serious scandal. It involved company funds, or the misuse of those funds, rather. They chose to step down rather than be put on trial."
Ruebin was stunned. The thought that the originators of these beautiful things had been corrupt was nearly incomprehensible to him. But something nagged at the back of his mind. "Hang on. They were a CEO and CFO. How'd they get into designing modules?"
"It's not uncommon for the heads of a company to get involved in the design," the curator replied. "After all, the modules are often the company's signature pieces, representing it on the quite lucrative capsuleer market. Some CEOs take a personal interest in the process. And besides," he added, "the module's appearance isn't connected to its function. I daresay you could make a, well, a shield booster that looked like a hat, if you so pleased."
"I didn't mean to criticize it so heavily," Ruebin said, feeling a dozen pairs of nearsighted eyes trying to focus on him. "I'm not a philistine."
"My dear boy, I never said you were!" the curator replied with a smile. "You've got quite the inquisitive mind. So much so, in fact, that I'd be happy to discuss this with you after the tour is over."
Ruebin opened his mouth to politely refuse the offer, but something in the curator's eyes stayed his words. Instead, he nodded, and said, "One question. Who was it that gave away those two?"
"Good question," the curator said, and whatever glint in his eyes turned a fraction more apparent. "As I said, one of them was a CFO of SuVee, who was second in command. The informer was his superior, SuVee's CEO, a man named Kishbin."
"He was ratted out by his boss?"
"Indeed he was."
"The man must've hated him. Was it because he was working with KK's CEO on this?"
"After a fashion," the curator said. "The museum will be closing soon, and I really must finish guiding these pretty young things through the halls of culture."
Ignoring the delighted giggles from the old ladies, and the eye-rolling from the men, the curator continued, "If you're interested, see me here after we close. Tell the guards you're waiting for me."
The museum was even quieter now, with the lone sound coming from cleaner bugs floating over the dirtied floors. The guards had either seen the exchange between Ruebin and the curator, or simply did not care. They left him completely alone.
At first Ruebin constrained himself to pacing the exhibition room, but when the curator didn't return, he ventured back into the museum proper. The modules seemed different now, less relics of a bygone era and more subtle indicators of a real past with real people. It occurred to Ruebin how often he forgot this on his museum trips, how often he assigned to the things he saw a mental shelf in the present time, forgetting entirely that the people who created them had been real humans. Not ghosts, not ethereal entities that created art from void only to disappear into it themselves, but real people with souls and bodies as real as his was now. Ephemeral, perhaps, in the grand sceme of things, but not ethereal.
"What did you think happened?" someone said.
Ruebin spun around. The curator had walked up soundlessly, and now stood there, hands in pockets, a faint smile on his wrinkled face.
"The CEOs? I don't know. I know it wasn't corruption."
The curator raised an eyebrow. "Why's that?"
"First off, I find it hard to believe that anyone who created the things I saw could be an evil person. I know that's naive, it's horribly naive and simplistic. It's what a child would say. But it's a gut feeling."
"Gut feelings are sometimes right," the curator said. "Or at least point you in a better direction than common sense alone. Especially in art."
They walked towards the exhibit room.
"Second, the things are much too intricate. If the guys intended to use them as a ruse, to distract customers from business problems, they'd have been better off putting less effort into each design, and pumping out more types instead. Flashy, quick, eye-catching."
"What if it wasn't a ruse for the public, but the stockholders? A money sink, to divert attention from their scamming?" the curator asked.
"Well, you know the story better than I, of course. Even so, it wouldn't make sense. If you're skimming off the top, you want to make sure that fingers get pointed elsewhere once the company runs into problems. Otherwise, all you've accomplished is ensuring that you'll be the first one whose books get audited."
"Good point," the curator said, and nothing more.
Once they got to the entrance they stopped and stared at the pieces in silence. At last Ruebin said, "I think it was communication. I don't know how, but that's what it looks like. Not competition, seeing who could outdo whom, but a kind of mutual building, an escalation towards some aesthetic heights, an upward spiral of beauty, and ye gods, I'm sounding like such a pretentious art critic right now ..."
The curator laughed. "I've heard worse. At least you're speaking from the heart, and not trying to impress me."
Ruebin walked into the room. "So what was it?" he asked without turning to look at the curator. "What drove them to it, and what caused their fall? Come to that, what were their names?"
The curater walked up to him. "Their names were David and Yonate, and I believe you're the first person in a long while to ask that question. As for who the two men were, you won't find it in the history books. They were lovers."
"Mm, they were. David was CEO of KK, and Yonate was CFO of SuVee. They kept it secret for as long as they could, but something happened that made them change their minds, or at the very least get careless about it. Those modules were their testimonials to one another, and to their love."
"No wonder they fell from grace," Ruebin said. "It would've been completely unacceptable to ... well, to everyone."
"It was," the curator said.
"Amazing." Ruebin walked over to one of the modules, seeing it in a completely new light. "What caused the fall? Oh, wait, you said. SuVee's CEO, Kishbin."
"That was so."
"Must've been annoyed. His second in command, so desperately in love with the CEO of a rival company that he started moulding company policy, with an excuse about attracting customer attention."
"Not only that," the curator said. "The modules were actually a modest success, which doubtlessly aggrieved him even more. He certainly did his best to keep KK at bay. Story has it he even resisted a mutual publication deal, financing and such, by demanding that David come up with a hundred units of some quite rare minerals."
"Nobody said, but legend has it that David procured two hundred, which was apparently no mean feat."
"It ended up with Kishbin going after David rather harshly, to the point that David had to use shadow stocks to maintain control of his company, putting himself out of Kishbin's reach."
"Which didn't help once the allegations of corruption came out."
"Amazing," Ruebin said. "So what we're seeing here is the destruction of two men, and the story of what happened after Kishbin finally had his way and got rid of them."
"Yes. Yes, I suppose you might say that."
Ruebin turned to him. "You don't sound entirely convinced."
The curator remained silent for so long that Ruebin thought he was going to ignore the question. Then the curator said, "No, I'm not. Not at all."
It was now Ruebin who kept silent, waiting for the curator to voice his thoughts.
The old man walked over to one of the modules, ran his hands over it and sighed. "I don't think Kishbin was trying to ruin them. I think he was trying to save them from their own self-destruction. The poor men couldn't be together, couldn't do anything, and eventually it got to them. They took it to a level they shouldn't have."
"A kind of flaunting, at the whole world."
"Showing it without showing it."
"Putting yourself in a position where you can advertise it, even if nobody realizes who you are or what needs you have."
"I would certainly say so, yes."
"Although it would be eternally frustrating if they didn't understand," said Ruebin, "so you would have to step up your efforts. Try to attract more attention. Send out signals. All the while trying to gain approval for what you're doing, even as you flaunt it as the taboo you know it to be."
The curator hesitated a little at this. "Yes, I think that's an apt description. You're certainly adept at getting into their heads."
Ruebin rubbed his eyes. "Not nearly as much as you, sir."
"How do you mean?"
"Look, I should probably leave."
"No offense. I mean, it's quite nice, having been given an insight into all these people, and I'm sure your motivations were good, for the most part. But I'm straight."
The curator opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out except a croak. His cheeks flushed. Slowly he raised one hand and pointed at Ruebin. "You," he said at last. "You, you, you little shit!"
"Look, there's no ill will here. Let's speak with honesty. And like I said, I appreciate the tour, I do."
The man advanced on him, hand still held up. "Get out," he said, his voice echoing off the walls. "Get out!"
"All right, I'll go," Ruebin said, holding his hands up. "Sorry it wasn't what you wanted."
As Ruebin rushed out, the curator put his hand out towards one of the pillars, as if to steady himself. Unfortunately, in his disarray he missed and leaned on the module itself, which began to slide off the pillar. The last Ruebin saw before heading for the exit was a split second of the curator's small, spindly frame trying to claw back the mass of steel and wires, followed by a loud crash.
"So much for self-destruction," Ruebin said to no one in particular, and left the museum.