Signals from the Front: Visible Elements Chapter Four

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Visible Elements

Chapter Four

The palanquin’s treads bite into the ribbed ramp and ferry the machine into the warehouse. Its sensors paint the dimensions of the space in soft lines of warmlight on the screen. Vysha has no trouble navigating the palanquin around piles of crates and machinery to the area set aside for Sky Harvester’s commission. The first time they’d driven a palanquin had been awful; they’d felt cramped and blind. But after a few ventures into the upper city, Vysha got used to the flattened quality of the viewscreen images. The palanquin screen shows only a fraction of Vysha’s usual field of view of course, but otherwise it’s almost like seeing normally.

Cloth whispers as Vysha comes to a halt. They imagine Sky Harvester whipping a tarp off his creation. “Only this section is finished so far,” Sky Harvester says. His articulated feet shuffle, clicking too loudly on the metal floor. “Can you… see from in there?”

Vysha realizes that to him the palanquin is a windowless cone of metal. Even through the viewscreen, Vysha can only see the outline of a slab perhaps ten times longer than their body and twice as high. The ambient heat in the room is too evenly distributed to show detail.

“I will come out,” Vysha says. Before Sky Harvester can protest, they check that the translator is in place over their sensory bulb, then shunt the saltwater in the palanquin’s cabin into a storage compartment. Their arms wrap reflexively around their bulb as warm water gives way to air. Then Vysha cracks the hatch and slithers from the machine onto hard metal.

Smells of metal shavings and limestone dust scrape against their skin. For a breath cycle Vysha feels as helpless as any mollusc washed up on the beach at low tide—but this is not the first time they have known dry air. The Veert are littoral creatures, adapted to deal with the ebb and flow of tides, with fluctuating levels of salt and moisture. They reach for the remembered muscles in their footbody and flex them, opening the rudimentary lungs on either side of their stalk. Saline bladders moisten the tender alveoli, softening the first inhalation of terrestrial air. They close as many of the chemosensing pores on their skin as possible, focusing only on the gradient of alkali coming from the freshly carved slab. Vysha raises their flexible arms and touches pads to stone.

Sky Harvester’s commission is a bas-relief. Vysha traces the curves and dimples of embossed stone, slightly raised or recessed from the surface. Contrary to what many land-dwellers think, the Veert do have art: Curvestone and ripplestone decorate Traat’s interior walls, smooth basalt and limestone polished to a delight under their pads. The tactile art is beautiful as only Veert, with a sense of touch that can discern the finest grains of sand, can truly appreciate. This bas-relief is rough and jagged in comparison. Not meant for touch at all. Neither is it heatstone, carved to absorb and release warmlight over hours in pleasantly changing gradients. This is an artwork meant for light-seeing eyes.  

Disappointed, wondering what else they expected, Vysha makes the best guess their senses allow. “It is a… landscape?”

“It’s not finished, of course,” Sky Harvester says. He shuffles to their side and begins to point his pods at the carving. “It will be a panorama depicting the glorious battle of Banesh-114.”

Vysha recognizes the serial number: a nickel-iron asteroid brought into stable orbit for refining around Banesh, Teluk’s third moon. A hard-fought firefight kept the asteroid out of Terran hands, at the cost of Banesh-114’s orbital stability.

“These rhomboids will be Coalition ships.” Sky Harvester speaks rapidly, blindly eager to share his vision. “You see these diagonal streaks? That’s where the asteroid fragments plunged into the sea. I even sketched out the coastline below. If you look closely you can see…” A pause. “But you can’t, can you?”

His body temperature, rising in excitement, falters along with his words. It is like watching his happiness dim. For a breath cycle Vysha regrets asking this favor of the Rul. They’d known as they asked that the gap between them might be too broad to bridge; that his art might mean nothing to them.

Or not nothing. The form is strange, alien, but the context has a power Vysha cannot close their sense organs to. Boosting the tenuous morale of a populace at war, the Council has asked artists like Sky Harvester to create a visual history of that war—triumphant images that will no doubt be installed in public places, visible to all Teluk’s citizens. With something close to envy, Vysha wonders if Sky Harvester understands how much power he has been given.

     “I cannot see those things.” Vysha goes on before Sky Harvester can interject. “But I can see the honor the High Council has done you and the other artists. Your art will become part of Teluk’s history.”

“The Coalition’s defense against the Terrans will become history,” Sky Harvester corrects them, his simulated Bask voice lowering modestly. “We merely depict its results.”

It is the moment Vysha was waiting for. “I will make one,” they say. “I too will make a war commemoration for the city.”

Again that uneasy shuffle of pods. “I am not sure that translated correctly,” says Sky Harvester. “What do you mean you will make one?”

The Council rejected Veerten overtures for a treaty with the Expansion. Name notwithstanding, the Coalition of United Species recruited no Veert, with their inadequate senses, to fight in their fleets. The Veert founded Teluk: they were the first to discover the warm waterworld and establish coastal colonies, eventually opening the system gate to interspecies trade and commerce. The spitstone of Vysha’s ancestors unites the foundations of Anmerresh; their people are part of Teluk’s history. Yet sometime after declaring their war, the Council forgot that history.

They feel the anger again, flaring hot. Vysha is glad the Rul doesn’t have the eyes to see their spike in body temperature.

By his lightless silence, they can tell Sky Harvester has realized his mistake. His first dapples of renewed communication are tentative. “I did not intend offense. But there are no Veerten artists among the commissioned.”

“Then I will be the first.”

The Rul protests. Hundreds of artists compete for bids, yet so far the Council has granted only a few. And to a Veert least likely of all, Vysha intuits in the spaces between his words. Their art is dismissed as incomprehensible to creatures who see only on the higher spectra.

“What about presenting them a finished piece?” Vysha says. “The Council could not turn it away without looking at it.” They coil their arms in a sly gesture. “If, suppose, a commissioned artist were to vouch for me.”

An exasperated buzz sounds from Sky Harvester’s pods; one of the few voiced exclamations in the Rul language. “I cannot guarantee—”

“I ask for none.” Vysha raises their arms placatingly. “Only a space in your warehouse.” The gesture is painful. Their footbody and stalk are sheathed in a rubbery integument resistant to dessication, but the skin on their sensory bulb and arms is thin, innervated with thousands of nerve endings that make the Veerten sense of touch the delicate instrument it is. Moisture evaporates much faster from this thinner tissue than elsewhere; already the top layers of skin have dried and begun to flake off in the parched warehouse. Working in this environment will be difficult. But Vysha can think of no space large enough in Traat’s communal chambers.

“And the materials?” Sky Harvester asks.

“I will provide the materials. And the vision.” Vysha means it as a joke, but Sky Harvester doesn’t laugh.

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