VIRTUOSO • by Gustavo Bondoni

Everyone on board was well aware of the honor we’d been conceded. Nothing could match the thrill of watching a true artist at work, and no artist in living memory was comparable with Ternse.

I’d seen holograms of his work, of course. Every museum worth its salt had a wing dedicated to the reproductions of the man’s genius. Once, I’d been on the fourth planet of the Rampor System during the apogee festival, and they’d had a life-size, real-time projection of his celebrated piece “Juna II” in orbit around the planet. It had been a breathtaking experience.

But to be on the same ship with him, watching as he created his latest masterpiece from inside the bridge which doubled as his studio, was staggering.

Ternse fiddled with a lever, his anterior tentacle delicately entering infinitesimal corrections as he placed another cube. The location of each cube had been carefully calculated to create the image in the artist’s mind. What that image was we wouldn’t know until the work was complete, of course.

The cubes themselves were another source of mystery. They were blocks the size of mountains which were inert enough to be lowered through the atmosphere and not ignite even when the locals hit them with an unexpected nuclear strike. Yet they exploded with dazzling color and brightness when the show began.

What were they made of? Speculation ran wild in all the best art journals, but the only thing that everyone agreed on was that there had to be at least some phosphorous or magnesium in there to create the characteristic brilliant burn. But even this was guesswork, since they were built in deep space by robot workers in a secret location.

The block he was lowering, a blue cube, was placed at the mouth of a river. We switched our attention from the monitor that showed the view from orbit, to the live feeds from the cameras embedded in the surface of the cube itself. These were showing the descent of the cube onto flat terrain that seemed to be peppered with small rectangular irregularities.

On closer inspection, the irregularities resolved themselves into primitive dwellings, small houses suitable for four or five sentients with some larger edifices sprinkled among them. The buildings were interconnected by a perpendicular grid of roads, packed by some sort of archaic land vehicle, nearly immobile due to the density of the traffic.

I wasn’t worried by the irregular terrain chosen. Long experience had taught us that the cube was heavy enough to create a flat area beneath it–or at least flat enough that the cube’s actuation would not be affected by strange angles.

So we were free to rejoice. This would be a singular occasion. Ternse himself had often been quoted as saying that a plentiful biosphere was one of the main ingredients necessary to create rich color and a slow, majestic unrolling. And everyone knew that biospheres that supported intelligent life were often the richest around.

I felt a twinge of envy for the sentients on the ground. They were going to participate in one of the greatest spectacles in galactic history. They were in for quite a show.

But then, even at this distance, so were we. The cube we’d been watching had been the last. Ternse was ready to begin.

Without a word, he dimmed the lights of the bridge and began the performance, tentacles working so fast as to be nearly invisible. But we had little interest in the movement of his arms–the true wonder would be visible through the enormous front viewscreen.

The white poles of the blue-green planet in front of us began, slowly, to glow red. Ternse’s tentacles moved subtly and the equatorial band became a bright, nearly electric blue. Suddenly, dazzling copperish-yellow bands seemed to sprout from the entire surface of the planet as yet more of the mysterious chemicals in the cubes reacted with the oxygen in the atmosphere. Mushrooms of infrared clouds, delightfully vivid, danced through it all.

Abruptly, unexpectedly, there was deprivation. The heat from the reactions had boiled a surface layer from the oceans, and the opaque steam dampened the bright colors. Reds became pink, yellows paled to insignificance. The beautiful infrared disappeared. We felt the loss like a physical blow.

The artist let us suffer for a few moments, driving home the poignancy of the dullness. But water vapor is also a reactive force if the quantities are known and its properties are correctly used.

And we were in the hands of a master. A few swift movements of a single tentacle liberated something deep within Ternse’s cubes and immediately the entire surface was covered with roiling dark purple waves. Dark patches and light patches intermingled, giving the impression of a stormbound planet-wide sea of deep violet which even invaded the near ultraviolet, in an almost obscenely erotic shade.

And just as we were wondering if he would cross the line into wavelengths forbidden in polite society, a blinding white shaft seemed to bisect the purple ocean.

At first I believed that the light had come, unbidden, from deep space, to complete the masterpiece. But then I realized what was happening: the artist had chosen that precise moment to begin the explosion of the planet’s crust. Directed, with masterful precision, into shafts through the roiling violet sea.

Slowly, the force of the chemical reaction overwhelmed any possibility of control, and the white sphere of incandescent rock expanded through the violet light, turning it mauve and then causing it to disappear altogether as the planet exploded.

We watched entranced until the last sparks died in the oxygen-deprived vacuum, and it was only when Ternse turned to address us that we broke out of our stupor.

“I call it Sol III,” he said.

We call it a masterwork.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer based in Mexico, Buenos Aires, and too many airports and hotels. His writing spans everything from literary fiction to silly comic fantasy to creative nonfiction.

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