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A Question Of Taste
by Darrell Whitney

"Is not!"

"Is too!"

"Is not!"

"Is too!"

"Ahh, reasoned debate," chuckled Malvin Somerset, art critic for Mota News Online as he watched two shoppers arguing the merits of a piece. "Our civilization has come so far."

In truth, life on the planet Mota in AW 1280 was very good in many ways. The controlling computer, Mother Brain, made certain that every citizen had food, water, shelter, power, and a regular stipend of meseta for personal use, making it possible to live without working. Unfortunately, this left many hands idle and many minds bored, eager for stimulation. Thus, the new showing by the Native Motavian sculptor, Grik, was greeted with great enthusiasm by the citizens of Oputa.

Somerset's companion at this event, a perky young woman with a bright smile and vacant eyes, looked back and forth, trying to take in all the sights at once.

"Isn't it wonderful, Mallie?"

He knew very well that she meant the lights, the glitter, and the gathered stars of Motavian society, but unable to resist tweaking her, he responded in his professional capacity.

"Well, I am quite impressed by Grik's juxtaposition of metal and stone, reflecting the impersonal side of modern life, with the impermanence lent by his use of organic elements. Indeed, the inherent changeability in the bio-structures as each day progresses presents a new face to the viewer each day, a dynamic element not present in his earlier work."

He could all but see the glaze forming in the girl's eyes.

"But please, you can hear me ramble on tomorrow when I make my broadcast. I'd like to find out what you think of things." Somerset waved at a piece set on a clear plastiglass table near the door to the studio's back rooms.

Dutifully, the girl went over to take a look.

"I don't know, Mallie," she said, studying it critically. "I'm not sure I like it. It feels creepy." The piece was entitled "Sun on the Desert Sands," an irony since Mota's deserts had been turned to green fields by Mother Brain's Climatrol system. Somerset found it disturbing as well; he had a feeling it was meant as a kind of wordless lament for the artist's race's lost home environment.

Before the critic was forced to admit that his escort had managed to catch the disquieting essence of the sculpture without the hundred-meseta words of the art trade, the door opened and a Motavian woman bustled out. Like the rest of her race, she had blue fur, red eyes, tufted ears, and a short beak; Somerset recognized her as Grik's wife, Pylla. In her hurry, she left the door open, and both Palmans couldn't resist a glance through.

"Oh, wow, what's that?"

Somerset peered through the door and saw what his escort had meant. Sitting out on a counter was another sculpture, a round stone platter with a metal rim rising from it and an orangey-yellow organic substance inside.

"I like it," she continued. "It looks like the sun, all bright and happy."

"I agree, my dear. It's a brilliant work. A companion piece to 'Sun on the Desert Sands,' perhaps. It shows how, enclosed safely within the shell of Mother Brain's protection, society can exist in perfect happiness."

Since more than one person had recognized Somerset from his broadcasts, it was not surprising that several prospective buyers were listening carefully to the critic's words. Two men, one a ranking government official and another a mercantile tycoon, came over to take a look at the sculpture.

"Magnificent!" breathed the official.

"Superb!" agreed the trader. "Where's Grik? I'll offer him five thousand meseta here and now."

"Then I'm afraid you're out of luck," replied the government man in that offhand fashion some people used when matters turned completely serious, "because I propose to offer ten thousand."

"Then I'll just have to counter with fifteen."

"Twenty for me, I daresay."

Somerset was too much of a newsman not to take notice. It was the kind of thing that would make a great story--"Bidding War Erupts over Undisplayed Piece at Art Showing." Nor did it hurt his pride that it was he, Malvin Somerset, whose favorable opinion of the piece had initiated the interest.

"You won't get the best of me that easily, Blaine. Twenty-five thousand meseta!"

Chuckling, the official said, "I let you put one over on me at that showing two months ago, Marden. I shan't let it happen again, not even if it costs me, shall we say, thirty thousand?"

They hadn't exactly been speaking in whispers, and something of a crowd had gathered around to see what the fuss was about. The artist and his wife eventually came over.

"Hey, what's going on?" Grik asked.

"This door was inadvertently left open--"

"Sorry," Pylla chirped.

"--and there has been quite a bit of interest in that piece," Somerset explained, waving his hand towards the sculpture in question.

"I'm willing to offer thirty thousand meseta for it," Blaine said expansively.

"Oh, I'm sorry; that's not for sale," Grik said.

"Please don't say so," Somerset urged. "It is truly among the body of your greatest works, perhaps even your top three. The combination of forms, colors, and textures makes it positively unique among the great sculptures of history."

"But it's not even--" the artist began, but was cut off when his wife stepped on his hindpaw.

"Best not to argue with the customers, dear. If Mr. Blaine thinks it's worth thirty thousand meseta, who are we to say no?"

Grik's ears drooped unhappily, but he went ahead and made the sale. His ears were still drooping when the showing was over and all the guests were gone.

"Grik, dear, what's wrong?"

"I spent two days baking that guyvera-root cake." He looked up at Pylla with heartfelt sorrow and added, "I was really looking forward to having it for supper tonight!"

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