Moments of Light

by Toby MacNutt

Drifting in the void of space felt much like swimming in the sky had felt at first. It was darker, colder, pinpricked by starlights near and far, not flooded by any near sun – but it had that same overwhelming sense of vastness, vacancy, disorientation. Lyuko was adrift. As ever, ze held to the light.

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The open air on the arid planetside felt much thinner than water, offering strangely little resistance. But the light – the light in this strange land flooded into the emptiness, pouring down through the untrustworthy atmosphere in a relentless flow. It eddied over the sediment, catching on little stones and crumbly plants. In its shallows, it was buffeted by a sweeping current of air, a fierce movement, but still too insubstantial to affect the passage of photons. The light was pervasive and abundant. Lyuko would need all hir skill to coax subtlety from this dense light; ze might as well be working with stone.

Everything else was thin here: dry, stretched, brittle. The drysuit skin felt just as thin; and the layer of pressurised moisture it circulated within flimsy at best. Wandering uncompressed under the atmosphere, the planet’s residents seemed in danger of spindling clear away, twisting off into the pale dome of sky and vanishing, surfacing into still-emptier space. Lyuko had declined to stay any time in the cities. They were spindly, too, reaching ever upward. Once the drysuit had been fitted and tested – would its membranes stretch finely enough? could Lyuko still feel the sun’s caress? could ze breathe, would hir skin stay moist? – and the hoverpack air-swimming technology had been procured, ze had gone straight to the open plain where the installation would be sited.

Little scrabbling creatures moved on the earthfloor below, nervous of the pressing heat of noon light. Lyuko preferred the hovering ones: little buzzing, diaphanous things that schooled and shimmered. Here, they were more graceful than ze could be; there was no elegance in this artificial propulsion technology, no finesse, not like true fluid movement. It was all artifice, and quite cunning at that, but lacking in artistry.

As ze began to carve and channel the light, the little creatures below took notice. Their lives were lived in total thrall to the sun’s will; that will was now being bent. As shadow-paths formed, they were traveled by many day-shy, tiny, earthbound feet. Concentrated sunspots heated sluggish blood. Lyuko was left alone by the sentient species, at hir request. Their presence highlighted too keenly the absence of familiar faces. With the little schools and solitaires, the hunters and hunted, the stealthy and the bold, Lyuko was alone – but ze was not lonely.

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In Voushato’s seas, isolation had been rare. Solitude was easy to find, with free motion on three axes in the open water. But from the moment a new life budded from its parent, the colony was omnipresent, pooled together by the twin currents of genetics and time.

Lyuko grew out steeped in sculpture. Hir parent was a currents-artisan, twining temperatures and salinities through the delicate coral structures grown by hir budmates. Kouso was a master of hir craft, and hir first budding was widely celebrated. The colony hoped for a successor, another artist of extraordinary calibre from the same vaunted stock. Kouso nurtured Lyuko, garlanding hir with water-woven ribbons, creating still spheres and tumbling rills for hir to play inside once hir bud had cleaved. In these delicately shifting seas, Lyuko flourished: ze had the same fine skin-senses as all members of hir colony, and hir parent’s eye for balance and beauty.

On a sleeping seamount, the coral architects trained a delicate, bone-white latticework into a swirling, tapering cone. Its lacelike branches spiralled upwards, their perforations converging in seemingly random clusters to form the shell’s scattered portals. Kouso was channeling the waters in a counter-spiral. The cool and heavy deep-sea currents called up from far below were the scaffold through which sweeter, lighter waters wound. Scattered pearls of stillness would lead swimmers to the entryways.

As the work approached completion, young Lyuko spent more and more time at the site, often within the living coral shell. The interior was unformed, ambient water, disturbed only gently by the hushed murmur of movement beyond the lattice. It was light-dappled, but increasingly dim as the bulb slowly grew closed. Lyuko was dissatisfied.

Ze let hirself rise, barely buoyant, into the tapering tip. A little broken, blue light flickered down to meet hir. Ze reached for it, watching it play over hir skin. It tickled. Lyuko giggled, tugging away reflexively – and the light came too. Ze could see the coral’s new growth clearly, now softly gleaming. Intrigued, Lyuko pulled again, and blue light blossomed within the bulb. Ze rolled it, spun it, and webbed the walls in soft blue lace. It was more pliant and responsive to hir touch than water alone had ever been.

Kouso was surprised, but overjoyed: hir child, a sculptor not of currents, but of light. The colony had never seen the like.

Lights bloomed in the deep. Threads of sun laced the colony’s habitats, gracing them with illuminating warmth. In time, the offworlders came, sealed inside their sinking stone. They had an offer: a trip through the dark beyond the sun, to sculpt a spectacle of light and heat in a world without a sea.

Lyuko accepted.

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The offer came, after the installation, to leave the bright, dry planetside: not for the watery embrace of Voushato, though, but for the unknowable currents of deep space. The contract was for an even larger sculpture. It would bend the merest whispers of distant starlight into an artificial lantern-moon, glowing gently down upon a habitat structure that slowly orbited a dead star. It would be a masterwork, a piece of such scale and subtlety that Lyuko could hardly envision it.

There were many questions to address. Could the drysuit be adapted for vacuum? Would Lyuko still be able to work the light under its enhanced protections? How would the galactic complexities of orbit impact the availability of light over time? If the sculpture were ever unlit, it would unravel as if it had never been. Higher theories of mathematics and engineering were needed than Lyuko could natively supply. In between consults, ze questioned hirself – hir skill, and hir courage.

Ze was still questioning as the shuttle launched. Gravity pulled at Lyuko through hir drysuit; it felt as if ze were puddling into the floor. Ze subconsciously adjusted for buoyancy, as one would if lost in Voushato’s benthic zones, but couldn’t equalise against the pull. Panic rose as the g-forces did.

But it was not Lyuko’s first time in flight; ze had felt this before. And there would be worse things to fear, skin-to-skin with the abyssal expanse of deep space.

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A fortnight into the topside installation, Lyuko’s drysuit broke.

Not broke; slitted. Dry light was so rigid and the desert sun so strong that Lyuko carved it like shell, like bone. A stray shard sliced right through the thin material of the drysuit, and moisture hissed out as heat blazed in, scraping, shrivelling. The desert suddenly seemed very wide, and very, very empty.

Part of Lyuko’s awareness diffused outward, as if escaping with hir vital moisture. Ze saw hirself sink through layers of light toward the mottled, terra-cotta earth, body curling around the leak in the suit, trying to hold it shut. Ze reached camp. Containers scattered – rations, bedding, communications gear. Lyuko drifted, losing coherence. How long would hir spirit have to wander, before it found water to rest in? Who would finish hir sculpture?

Physical-Lyuko, far and tiny below, found the emergency kit amongst the mess and slapped a sealant patch on the drysuit. Ze snared the intubation line and hooked in, replenishing hir waters with a solution nearly but not entirely unlike Voushato’s own. Ze opened hir eyes; there was dry dust settling around hir body, in which it would seem ze resided once more. Hir belongings were scattered, but hir suit was intact and refilling. Ze would live.

From that point on, Lyuko was more careful of the light’s glittering edges, and the patchkit stayed ever at hir side. The work grew into a searing, floating mandala. By day, the loops in the sky glowed bright enough to scorch the eyes – but below, the work was present in its inverse. Lyuko had wrought a labyrinth of shadows. Its paths were broad enough to allow one adult of the local species to walk, but not to pass another. Heatwaves mirage-warped the spaces between the shadows, blurring any view but the one ahead. There was a passing-space at the center – perhaps a place for refreshment, Lyuko would suggest, as well as contemplation – and then another path wound away, back to the ordinary, sun-soaked plain.

At night, the aerial sculpture was another work of art altogether. Its solar loops caught the low-angle shimmer of distant light; they shone in glimmering arabesques, writhing through the cool, quiet dark. The sinuous waveforms of Lyuko’s homeworld were strange in this place. Ze was pleased, quietly, to be able to show this species something of a sea they’d never know. It had been a long, dry stay. Ze was ready to go home – or so ze thought, until the offer came to swim the void.

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Hanging in the darkness of space, Lyuko contemplated hir position. The drysuit-turned-voidsuit was working, keeping hir body from bursting in a flurry of frozen crystals. The suit thrummed, quietly warm. There was no other sound. Below, the habitat glittered faintly; somewhere behind hir, the ship and crew allotted to hir maintenance waited at a discreet distance. This would be no solo mission – it couldn’t be. These aliens must be hir colony, now. Ze could feel the urge to bud; perhaps hir someday-offspring would carry the stars in their bodies, speak alien tongues.

Lyuko could feel the stars, distant as they were. With no atmosphere, nothing but voidsuit, between hir and their light, they prickled hir skin. Building these faint threads into anything substantially visible to the unseen lives below would take a long time, perhaps a lifetime. They must be gathered, combined, bounced one off another in resonating ricochets until each bright bundle was ready to be socketed into place. First ze would build the grid, the scaffold, the lantern-frame. Kouso had used the dense water of Voushato’s depths as foundation for hir works. Lyuko planned instead to use light from the densest of the stars – a neutron star, thousands and thousands of light-years distant, further even than home.

Here, Lyuko could move once more with perfect ease, with hir native grace. Ze reached – the suit provided coordinates, offered hir a guidance overlay. Ze switched the system off, and felt for the light ze needed. It buzzed against hir skin, tight and cool and ancient. Lyuko held the light, rolled it, spun it. It floated in space as easily as a light-line would have floated in one of Kouso’s still-spheres. Ze placed the thread, gossamer in the darkness, and turned back to the star for more.

The work began.

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Toby MacNutt lives and teaches in the state of Vermont. Eir short fiction and poetry has been published by or is forthcoming from The Future Fire, inkscrawl, and Through The Gate. When not writing, ey works in textiles and dance. You can find out more at tobymacnutt.com or say hello to @tylluan on Twitter.

“Moments of Light” (© Toby MacNutt) was published in Issue 2 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.