PETROGLYPHS • by Damien Krsteski

When their ships landed on the porous soil of Blue-and-a-Rock, the hatchlings rushed out to preserve the petroglyphs.

They moved like a flood: overrunning the fields and valleys of the moribund world, clogging up the caves, prodding with claws and feet at the remains of that which had so recently ended. Gales scattered the hatchlings across beaches where they drank the waters and sated themselves with sand; waves pushed them outward to distant islands and open seas; maelstroms pulled them down to dark ocean depths.

Their fluttering eyes made recordings of the remains, sending descriptions of the petroglyphs back to their ships for archiving. They spread and trawled the world and cataloged, until on the bottom of the deepest trench in the Panthalassa, curled up in its shell, they discovered a survivor.

A creature.

The hatchlings reeled.

They screamed, screeched, retreated to their ships.

Rocks had fallen and rivers had dried up and lakes had soured, and yet, against all odds one mollusk had endured. The hatchlings argued, blaming one another for this oversight: one camp pointing to the initial assault team as the single point of failure, and another to the post-cataclysm scanning party who should have identified the survivor and sent a second wave of destruction washing over the planet. When all blame was cast and the hatchlings tired of arguing, they turned to the problem at hand.

The hatchlings were an art colony, destroying worlds in the name of beauty before they preserved that civilization’s petroglyphs as frescoes. And now, for the first time life, squirming there to ruin art like smeared paint on canvas.

So, what to do?

The road forked: abandon planet and search for another world to beautify, to disassemble and re-make; or study the lifeform and learn from the mistake, making sure they’d never be presented with such a conundrum again. They debated and argued and even fought, but one thing was certain—Blue-and-a-Rock was rotten, stinking, never to please their aesthetic sensibilities.

Which made the choice easy for more than ninety-nine percent of the colony, who retreated back into their ships and sprang to orbit, this ugly world zooming out and away, quick to be forgotten. But the curious and intrepid few stayed.

Erecting a wall around the surviving mollusk at the bottom of the Panthalassa, a bubble permeable only for the minutest of molecules, they protected themselves and shielded the life form, and they studied. The besieged creature seemed barely alive, swaying in the abyssal currents, not feeding, not communicating. Once the hatchlings felt they’d cataloged the entire range of the survivor’s behavior over time, they sent a straw-like polymeric chain through the bubble to prod the poor thing.

It shuddered. Clutched the seabed and froze.

The hatchlings braced themselves, waited for Blue-and-a-Rock to revolve round its star a few times, but nothing more happened. Stuck to the seabed, the sole survivor taunted the hatchlings with immobility.

Again the polymeric straw poked through the bubble, and then poked through the outer shell of the mollusk, and the hatchlings sucked out a drop of matter from the creature.

And with it, back to the ships, back to their laboratories they convened.

To their surprise, they discovered the sample to be inorganic: a dense clump of matter folded over itself many times over, whose very atoms were alive, quantum bits dancing and calculating.

The hatchlings translated the mathematics into what their own machines could understand, and they extrapolated the calculations.

It was an encyclopedia.

The ultimate tale of a world teeming with life, under assault and destroyed from above, an unexpected extinction event wiping out everything alive and ceasing all movement; a retelling of what had turned Blue-and-a-Rock from Life to Still Life; a last effort to self-preserve, the world and the intelligent life that once inhabited it pulling back, folding into itself, fetal and weeping, molecules braided with other molecules into complex threads and into a tapestry of life and evolution that wove itself before the hatchlings who watched, mute, this world’s story.

And maybe it was because they were the curious few, and maybe it was because they were the intrepid few, but what they saw in Blue-and-a-Rock’s story was beauty of a different kind, a breathing, moving, flowering and blooming beauty, a branching-out and ever-growing and complex one, but beauty nonetheless.

They were few. It didn’t take long to reach a decision.

With the mollusk’s story as blueprint, they rebuilt the world strand by strand and nucleotide by nucleotide, back the way it was before their arrival.

Still Life to Life. Frescoes to creatures.

When finished, they took the story-turned-seed with them and admired their rebuilding effort from the world’s orbit, then winked out into the dark of space.

Breathing, moving, blooming, flowering, Blue-and-a-Rock was a work of art.

Damien Krsteski writes science fiction and develops software. His stories have appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, New Myths, Metaphorosis, Mithila Review, The Future Fire, and others.

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