Signals from the Front: Visible Elements Chapter Six

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Chapter Six

Vysha meant it when they told Sky Harvester they would provide the materials: at the end of each day-cycle, when their work shaping the tunnels under the seabed is done, Vysha comes to the warehouse and spends more hours exuding spitstone from the glands in their footbody into a sealed acetone-filled basin. In air or saltwater, the spitstone would dry in seconds to a concrete-like hardness; the acetone and lack of oxygen keep the organic cement soft and workable.

The metabolic demands of producing spitstone leave Vysha weak and torpid. Vysha spends more than one night-cycle in their palanquin, consciousness draining away to the steady swoosh of the vehicle’s water tanks.

More tiring than the material production is the aesthetic work of sculpting. Creating a representation of Vysha’s people that will be comprehensible to the thousands of eyes that will absorb its reflected light. Vysha floats in the rejuve pool long after their siblings have gone torpid, footbody almost too tired to grip the floor. Thinking.

A bas-relief is out of the question. Vysha knew that as soon as their pads touched Sky Harvester’s piece. The illusion of depth and perspective in such a sculpture are beyond them. Nor can Vysha rely on Veerten ways of sculpting. They must blend the two ways of seeing, find the place like the velvet ribbon of shore where the land meets the sea. The place where the Veert and the other people of Teluk feel the same ground beneath them.

When not working or making spitstone, Vysha wanders. Anmerresh is a city of artists. Its walled gardens, colonnades, and canals boasted paintings and sculptures long before the war made art a propagandic necessity. They run their pads over the freestanding sculptures, sensing possibilities in their shapes: a thin column like a branch of seaweed, a jut of stone like the lip of one of Traat’s windows.

Disappointment follows just as quickly. Too many possibilities contained in a single point of contact. The shapes could mean anything. Only by draping their arms over the sculptures can Vysha form even a hazy image of what the pieces represent. Vysha embraces the cool stone standing in a shaded garden and imagines seeing, like touching something with their whole body at once.


Vysha toys with form, shaping chunks of soft spitstone with two arms while the other wipes a treated cloth over the cement to keep it pliable. As they work, Vysha turns their memory back to those three-dimensional sculptures, remembering the curves and angles impressed into their pads. On a good day, Vysha is convinced their pads are every bit as perceptive as the most sophisticated terrestrial eye. On other days, their senses seem incapable of creating anything but amorphous blobs, wastes of spitstone. On these days Vysha turns guiltily away from these failures, proof that their energies would be better spent digging tunnels. Some days the loss of confidence is enough to make Vysha stop work for hours at a time, retreating to their palanquin and its console to catch up on news of the war or to message the Veert in their cohort.

Vysha misses their cohort—they did not count on how this project would isolate them. Even when they see their cohort at the seastack, Vysha is too reluctant to discuss their art with them—they fear the others would not understand it. This has never been the case with anything before. Vysha asked themself once why Sky Harvester never told them about this side of being an artist, the sacrifices involved in accomplishing the work. Eventually, Vysha realized the very difficulty of the task is the answer: had they known at the start how isolating and draining it would be, they might have been discouraged from pursuing it. They learn to push through bad days like hard-packed sand, that continuous, incremental work is the best cure for the doubt. There is no cure for the loneliness.

Yet Vysha keeps pushing against the current. Because, slowly, they have recognized that all their failed experiments are still attempts to realize something. What they imagine is less than an image, more than a warmlight impression. It is a weight, like the press of ancient sediment, whose only release is through their pads into the mass of spitstone coming into some as-yet-unknowable form under them.


Later on, Vysha will wonder if it was Basalt who told the others where to find them. Of course, it is the nature of Traat to spread rumors as a fast current spreads scents; yet Vysha is startled to open the warehouse doors on a collection of palanquins. As warmlight greetings enfold their sensory bulb, Vysha realizes their cohort has also longed for their presence.

Though the day is overcast and damp, it takes much coaxing for the others to venture from their palanquins. Vysha suspects curiosity is a factor: from inside the palanquins, their sculpture must look as mysterious as Sky Harvester’s bas-relief. Even Vysha is not sure what it is—at this stage the piece is a vaguely columnar shape taller than Vysha.

Heard you were working on something important; came to help. Must be important for you to tolerate this dry place, one of them says in answer to Vysha’s question. Among their cohort, everyone uses an informal declension that elides individual pronouns; after Bask’s rigid insistence on a singular subject, it’s like relaxing into warm sand.

Is a sculpture, Vysha says, flattered and nervous. Elder gave permission. You can touch it. The boldest of their cohort stretches forth an arm and traces the wet spitstone; the rest follow the first one’s example.

Don’t recognize the form, the Veert who first touched it says. Feels like neither ripplestone nor heatstone. What will its function be?

The temperature drops all along Vysha’s stalk in their sudden anxiety. They remind themself these are their cohort—the Veert Vysha was raised with from hatching onward. The commission is theirs as much as it is Vysha’s.

Is a new form, Vysha says. A sculpture meant to reflect light and be understood by land-dwellers as well as Veert.

Questions engulf them in a babble of pulses. Vysha answers them one at a time: no, the Council didn’t invite them to make the commission; yes, that is all spitstone; no, Vysha doesn’t know yet what it will be.

Not used to this sort of thinking, Vysha admits with some embarrassment. Neither Veerten art nor language is suited to the visual mode the land-dwellers seem so fond of.

Many arms return to the sculpture in renewed interest, trying, as Vysha has for so long, to imagine what it could be. Their stalks glow with intense concentration, suggestions flashing around the warehouse.

At last one of them asks, Could it be Traat?

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