Signals from the Front: Visible Elements Chapter Three

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Visible Elements

Chapter Three

“A commission?” Vysha asks. The question pulses through their speaking organ in bursts of warmlight, which the translator strapped over their sensory bulb converts into soundspeech. The audible syllables of the interstellar Bask trade language reverberate in Vysha’s tympanum in a weird synaesthetic feedback: they perceive themself asking the question twice, once in lightspeech, again in soundspeech. Using a translator is disorienting, but it’s the only way to talk to non-Veert.

Warm freshwater swirls around the lower half of Vysha’s stalk. Their skin tastes herbs as their Rul friend, Sky Harvester, washes and separates the edible river weeds he brought to trade.

“Works of art to commemorate the Coalition’s noble resistance against the Expansion,” Sky Harvester replies. “The Council has graciously commissioned me to create one.” The words are in the mechanical Bask of a translator device, but Vysha can see the excited flashes of the Rul’s lightspeech scintillating along his pods. Like the Veert, Rul use precise bursts of radiation to communicate, though Rul lightspeech ascends into higher spectra Vysha can’t see. Only a smattering of what he says is in the perceptible range of warmlight.

Still, Vysha likes talking to Sky Harvester when the two of them meet on trading day. Even hobbled by the dull inflection of the translator, his speech has a poesy they have rarely encountered among other Veerten. His name, Sky Harvester, has the same dreamlike quality, as though it floats just above everyday life. All Rul names are like that, amalgams of traditional caste titles with the primordial elements of Rul cosmology: Star Catcher, Stone Dreamer, Fire Birther.

Sky Harvester interested Vysha from the first day they traded together. It had been a wet afternoon, the air moistened pleasantly by the penumbra of a passing rainstorm. Yet Vysha had sulked in one of the pools of upper Anmerresh’s water gardens, their stalk bent away from the crowds of Rul and Baskar weaving between stalls. The seaweeds and crustaceans of Traat’s sea farms were spread around Vysha, goods offered in exchange for freshwater plants and fish.

Traat’s rotating duty roster ensured all Veert shared trade duty equally, and it was less physically onerous than tunnel construction: the locks could lift a swimmer all the way to the water gardens. There was no need to travel in a bulky environment palanquin to keep from drying out.

Vysha almost preferred the barrier of a palanquin. They dreaded crossing the gradient where Anmerresh’s rivers became more freshwater than salt. More often than not, it was prelude to a day spent sitting in too-hot sun while Rul flashed painfully bright lightspeech at their sensory bulb, and Baskar fingered their produce and discussed its quality as though Vysha wasn’t there. They couldn’t decide which they disliked more: being treated like a mindless polyp or one that might be communicated with if a sufficiently strong light was shone on it.

Once, a Rul, trying to be friendly, slowly asked their name. Unsure if the slowness was condescension or merely the fault of the translator, Vysha gave the Rul the benefit of the doubt and answered her. But Vysha’s Veerten name was a long string of warmlight pulses detailing their generation, ancestry, and social group in the rhizomic organization of Traat. The translator hadn’t relayed any of that. Confronted with silence, the Rul retreated with a muttered “Forget it,” her pods bristling indignantly as Vysha coiled their stalk in embarrassment.

So Vysha hadn’t expected much when the bushy figure of another Rul had stopped in front of their stall. “Excuse me,” the shape said in simulated Bask. “Apologies if this is rude, but your stalk has a beautiful coloration.”

“It does?” Vysha had been too surprised to say anything else.

“You have a collection of small brown spots that show well against the tan. Like a dapple of pebbles against sand. My name is Sky Harvester.” He inclined his pods in a gesture of deference Vysha had seen Rul use among themselves. Awaiting a response.

“My name—” Vysha’d stopped, laughed. “Well, I’m not sure it would mean much to you even if I could get this garbage translator to work.”

It was not the most auspicious start to a friendship. Vysha still admires Sky Harvester for not shrugging his pods and moving on. After a moment of awkwardness, he’d said, “Can I call you Vysha?”

Vysha is Bask for “little pebble”. A name inspired by those darker dapples of coloration running up their stalk. Vysha can only approximate the idea of colors as the Rul know them; they think colors might be similar to gradations of warmlight, but senses they’re not quite the same thing. Vysha cannot see themself as Sky Harvester can see them.

Yet as their acquaintance developed into friendship, Vysha has come to appreciate Sky Harvester’s aesthetic sensibilities, for all that the senses on which they rely differ from Vysha’s own. They know from past conversations that the Rul has spent years honing his skills as a sculptor, exhibiting works to growing praise; to be selected for a Council-sponsored commission is an achievement that will cement his reputation and visibility.

An idea, still dimmer than the faintest warmlight pulse, flickers in Vysha’s mind. “Can you show me?” they ask, and the translator grinds out their words.

“Show you?” The water stills as Sky Harvester stops washing his bundle of weeds.

“Can you show me the commission you’re making for the city?”

“Vysha…” His soft bushy outline changes shape in their vision as Sky Harvester bunches his pods uneasily. “It’s in a warehouse near the Rul quarter.”

A dry part of the city, though Vysha senses that isn’t the reason for Sky Harvester’s hesitation. He too is aware of the gap that separates their ways of seeing. And Sky Harvester is an artist above all else, wary of having his work misconstrued.

“I’ll bring a palanquin,” Vysha says.

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