First Welcome
rating: +18+x

The new guy shifts uncomfortably in the sweltering jungle of the lobby. His skin glistens in the harsh light. The New York Stacks run five hundred metres under Central Park, and the heating is as temperamental as it is unsuitable, perpetually and wholly regardless of the weather above or the state of its inhabitants below. Not without a sense of humour, they have deemed it fit to grace its entrance with twin decorative cacti; in full completion of the joke, both have seemingly wilted.

And now the chief inhabitant strolls between the dead plants with her pumps clacking on the concrete, tablet in one hand and oversized winter coat in the other. She has long since learned not to sweat in the treacherous climate of the Stacks, and her shoulders are bare and dry. She is not an old woman — almost fresh-faced, even — though she holds herself with the rigidity of some certain years, and her gaze sears from behind her darkened shades.

"Doctor Livingstone, I presume?" the newcomer can't help but ask with a smile.

The doctor smiles back, teeth ablaze: "Never - never try that line on me again. Please."

"Agent Matthias Wilkinson, doctor," offers the younger man, undaunted. "Is it always this hot?"

"No, in other parts of the complex it's positively freezing." She glances up and down at the newcomer, frowning at his scuffed leather loafers. "What's important isn't us, anyway. It's the stuff behind the glass."

She pauses, expectantly, waiting for a question. When none comes, she gestures behind her. "Follow me," she scowls, marching off into the infinite rows of fluorescent-lit racks.

Around them, Agent Wilkinson glimpses traces of steel frames, blank canvases, dark red curtains. But the doctor marches down the row faster than he can concentrate, clack clack clack, and he has no choice but to follow.

"This used to be general archival," introduces the doctor, "but it's all digital now, so right here, we put the stuff we can't turn into softcopy in any good conscience."

Yes, the legendary stuff behind the glass. Agent Wilkinson's read the docs, read of the endless canvasses and metal frame and drawings on old paper and leather and bloodstained writhing skins — and more! — that line the delicately climate-controlled glass-fronted walls of the Stacks.

Five thousand square metres of art, art, art — raw, uncurated, and most importantly anomalous art. Sure enough, they lunge at him now from both sides, magnified in the cloistered space: landscapes behind glass, dead-eyed portraits, men and women and dogs and seascapes and empires. Haphazard and labelless, resembling more than a yard sale than any Foundation archive he's ever seen.

"This row we're on is low-priority. Mostly alt-history and some technicalities like Samothrace. See that right there?" The doctor stops in front of a vast expanse of white, masts rising from the deep, entangled in lines of thick black rope receding into the spray. "Authentic Turner. Shame about the leviathan, or this would've been hanging upstairs in the Met by now. You like galleries, Agent Wilkinson?"

"I majored in film in Toronto. That kind of counts, I think. Why?"

"Let's just say you're gonna have to get used to the view on your way in. Your new office, I mean. Follow me."

They make a hard left and U-turn into an adjacent row. The doctor resumes introductions, pecking on her tablet and pointing out the occasional highlights: the alt-histories give way to anachronisms, spaceship Old Masters, submarine tapestries. Here, a serene Caravaggio, with a face full of cogs. Dimly lit, in a sealed wooden case behind thick glass, an anatomical study of something indistinctly humanoid done in red chalk.

They pass walls of steel, soft voices, faint sounds of rattling — "The living wing, you won't believe how many of these clichés we have hanging around, and there's still deep storage - " and again they turn, swirling Impressionist walls of colour, paint cannibalising paint in a live cornucopia, and - "all done by the same guy, now, my favourite part," whispers the doctor as they push past double doors twice as big as a man into —

— walls and walls and walls, panels of horizontal glass reflecting grass blades sunlight twigs leaves and Agent Wilkinson flinches as from five directions at once come eyes, ears, a massive paw!

He reaches out to steady himself, and his palms meet a solid cool surface. The room is smaller than he realises. The illusion breaks, revealing flattened planes of iridescent shimmer.

The doctor laughs. "Neat trick, don't you think? We found this from some random art wizard you've probably never heard of down in SoHo. I had them install it exactly as she exhibited it. Couldn't have it any other way, you know?" The doctor's grin continues into the next room.

"Just another corner to the main office," she promises. She disappears behind a rack of vibrating Rothko clones when something behind the glass catches his eye.

"Hang on a minute," he puzzles.

"Something you fancy? Lemme see."

She perks her head back around the corner and begins to enter the catalogue number into her tablet, but stops in sudden recognition. "Ah. The forgeries. Nothing much about them, I'm afraid. Though it does look like a hundred-percent genuine Monet, doesn't it?"

"I suppose so." He squints at the blank canvas. The four trees stand taller in his mind's eye, and he remembers spontaneously a line overheard in a gallery as a student - if he'd been around half a century later, he'd have been labeled one of the Abstracts - yes, an Impressionist amongst the knife-edge liminality of the abstracts, always shifting, always searching - halfway between dream and history…

Subconsciously, it is highly possible that the trick fails somewhere inside him, as in the fractal cat hologram, or Turner's white-on-white masts. But if it does, his eyes do not catch it.

It failed to catch its artist's, after all.

"Come along, now. Plenty of time to pick favourites later."

The doctor's voice snaps him out of his trance. He peels himself away and moves on. But not without a little backwards glance or two, once with his eyes, another from the back of his mind. There's just something about that, some spark or composition of it that catches in his head, snagging at the back, refusing to let go.

He shakes the feeling off. Ahead, the doctor is holding the door open for him to a small prefab set into the compound's wall.

"You seem… moved," observes the doctor.

"What? Oh - no, it's nothing."

She shrugs. "Nothing wrong with having a favourite so soon. I'm a Turner fan, myself."

"I guess not." Perhaps it is the mood of it, of finding something familiar in a mass of foreign images. Or maybe something more, maybe even the sheer untouchable moreness of it… He turns around, and the fluorescent-lit corridor stretches before him, glass throwing light into his eyes like a halo, and behind the glass the art, the ensouled art, shimmers.

"Doc, this is one hell of a neat place we got here."

The doctor, he senses, is an old soul, despite her looks. A little jaded, a little bored, with that tight-lipped grimness he's seen in so many fridged researchers and grizzled benchwarming agents — but there's something in her voice too — that same snag in the back of her head, he guesses — when she smiles and nods back. "Fucking hell, it is. Come, I'll show you around the office."

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