Teabox Tales - Artistic License
Something about the summer heat and mugginess always gives me awful writer's block. Oh dear.
I wrote this story based on a Reddit writing prompt by U/Tssmn which can be found here.
I'm actually quite happy about how this one turned out. I liked the opportunity to stretch my speculative and imaginative muscles.
Without further ado, I give you "Artistic License."
“It is an honour.” The creature said, a sort of distant tinny gravel to their words like the sound of a parrot imitating speech.
They were a chitinous mountain of a thing, twelve feet tall, all sharp edges and armour plating. But they had a friendly enough face, with a glint in their beady eyes and a smile on their serrated mandibles. Their ship had docked with mine quite unexpectedly, and now they were taking me to something their kind had built.
“No, no. The honour is all mine.” I replied. “It’ll be nice to see the earth again. Or at least some facsimile of it.”
The creature clicked their mouthparts together like castanets. “No expense has been spared. This is no mere facsimile, human. This is the real thing, reborn.”
“I’m surprised you were able to manage it. I mean, so little survived.”
They gesticulated briefly with a many-jointed limb. “Oh, we have our ways. You forget, we have the canvas pictures. The last great treasures of earth.”
“Well, a picture may be worth a thousand words, but y’know… It’s not science. Not fossils. Not DNA. They’re not even photos, they’re paintings.”
“I’ll admit we’ve had to do some…” The creature made a strange little noise with their throat. “Some speculative reconstruction.”
“Artistic licence, you mean.”
They made the throat-clearing noise again, this time far more deliberately. “Speculative reconstruction.” They insisted.
We landed on the artificial planetoid not long after. The creature made a big show out of disembarking the ship, insisting that I wore a blindfold as I stepped down the metal walkway and onto the ground.
I played along because I was a guest. I felt so stupid until my feet touched solid ground.
That moment will live with me forever. It had been so easy to forget the sensation. I felt this rush, so intense as to almost be indescribable. Something I didn’t know I had been longing for had been given to me, and for just a moment it was as if my home planet hadn’t burned away to nothing all those years ago.
I had grown so used to constant motion; the reverberation of my boots on hollow metal, the ever-present buzz of computers in the walls, and being pushed and pulled any which way by an artificial gravity system that didn’t always do quite what it was told. But now my feet were on solid ground, and all seemed right again.
“Can I remove the blindfold, human?”
“What? Uh…” I was awestruck.
They took my gibbering as a yes, and I soon felt the scratch of clumsy little claws pulling the fabric from my eyes.
The first thing that struck me as I adjusted to the brightness was vibrant colour. My field of vision seemed to be divided in half across the middle; rich summery blue on the top and verdant green on the bottom, almost like the world was a giant flag. It was not just as I remembered it, but the way I remembered it being when I was a child, bursting with vitality and primal joy.
“Is it to your liking?” The creature asked.
“To my liking?! This is… This is amazing!”
Then the creature turned their head to the side and made the throat-clearing sound again.
“What?” I asked.
“And the… Fine details?” They said, just a little bit sheepish. “How accurate are they?”
My first impulse was to drop to my knees and examine the grass. I ran the thin green blades between my fingers and frowned just a little. Though it felt just right underfoot, it didn’t quite hold up to my hand’s scrutiny. It was the texture, too floppy in some places and too rigid in others.
Then I found a daisy, picking it and rising to my feet once more.
I twirled the stem between my fingers and examined the flower. Though it looked right from a distance, it was all wrong up close. It was almost entirely lacking in detail, like it was made of plastic. I touched the centre, and it was hard like a little yellow ball bearing. And the petals were rigid, almost sharp. This was not a daisy at all!
The creature tapped its claws together. “Well?”
“Look.” I replied. “It’s a good attempt, and it looks the part from a distance, but this grass… These flowers… It’s all a bit uncanny.”
“Oh.” The creature seemed a little bit deflated. “Well, tell us what needs improving so we can fix it.”
I handed the daisy to the creature, who accepted it gingerly in one of their claws.
“This is supposed to be a flower, not a little plastic cocktail umbrella. It’s supposed to be soft. And the middle bit, see? The yellow bit. It’s supposed to have a sorta bumpy, spongy texture.”
The creature bought the flower close to one of their eyes and studied it intently. “Our scientists weren’t sure what these organisms were, these flowers. But they were all over the canvas pictures, and in so many colours and breeds, so we knew they were important. But tell me, what purpose did they serve?”
“What do you mean? They were just there, and we cultivated them because they were pretty.”
“Yes, yes. I know that. You gave them to your mates in a big bundle or put them in a bowl with fruit. But what were they, biologically?”
“Well… I’m no expert, but… They had pollen on them. The bees took the pollen from flower to flower and helped them reproduce.”
The creature dropped the flower in shock and backed away. “It’s a genital?!?”
I laughed, just a little bit. “Yes. I suppose it is.”
“You gave bundles of severed genitals to your mates as a token of affection? I’m sorry, human. That’s barbaric!”
“No, no. It wasn’t like that. It was romantic. We didn’t think of them as genitals.”
“But that’s what they were, though.”
“We humans were masters of cognitive dissonance.”
“Clearly.” They replied dryly. “That’s quite enough flora for now, let’s go and see some fauna.”
My eyes widened. “Fauna? You have animals?”
“Animals are hard, so they’re not perfect yet.” They said. “So many fiddly inside bits.”
The creature led me out across the meadow at a leisurely pace. It was nice enough, and the weather was pleasant, but the longer I spent in this world the more I realised how lacking it was. In all the excitement and conversation, I hadn’t noticed the sheer quietude of it all. Eerie. Silent, bar the dull thud of our footfalls.
The earth had never been silent, not even for a moment. There had been the calls of birds, the rush of the wind, the rustle of leaves. Distant voices; talking, laughing, singing. Music, so much music. I hadn’t heard music in so many years.
The memories were coming back to me in grief-filled floods, and this sterile petri dish of a world was not helping. Though I said nothing to the creature, my mood was starting to sour.
We eventually arrived at a wooden fence; the edge of a penned-in pasture. The creature leaned on it and made a whistling sound, calling something. Multiple somethings. Big somethings with lumbering gaits and terror in their eyes.
“Horses.” The creature said. “Except, we think we’ve gotten something wrong. They keep dying.”
There were three of the unfortunate creatures, each differing slightly in anatomy.
One of them, a white one, had legs so thin that it could barely stand. Its skull was so twisted that its eyes were practically on the front of its face, and its nostrils were mismatched; one a huge cavern and the other a pinprick.
Then there was a bay horse, snuffling its face on the ground like it was trying to graze, but unable to eat anything. Its head was too small, and its muzzle was bizarrely shortened.
Finally, there was a dappled grey one. It looked at me intently, and I looked back. It appeared relatively normal. Healthy, even. Then, quite without warning, it reared back up onto its hind legs. It stayed there, standing bipedally like a statue, moving its head as if scanning the horizon.
“Ah hah.” The creature said proudly. “We have a lot of pictures of horses doing this. It was a defensive behaviour, helping them get a better view of their surroundings to protect their nests from predators.”
“No! This is just… all wrong!” I said. “They only reared up for a second, they couldn’t stand!”
I gave them a conciliatory pat on the back. “It’s not your fault. All you had was still pictures, you couldn’t know how they looked in motion.”
The bay horse made a low groan before careening over. It was dead.
The creature raised their limbs in frustration. “Horses are so hard! I hate them! All the... stupid gristly bits and…”
“No, horses were just like that. Finnicky beasts. They were famously hard to draw, so all the paintings you have just look a little bit bad.”
“So, what did they look like?”
“Like this, but just… less so. I never liked them, they freaked me out. Did you know that their legs are technically fingers?”
The creature pursed their mandibles together. “I think.” They said slowly. “I think our world can do without horses.”
“It’s for the best.” I replied. “Do you have any other animals?”
The creature’s eyes sparked just a little. “We have birds. I’m quite proud of these, as we actually got them to fly.”
“You did?” I replied, trying my very best not to be sarcastic.
They turned their great armoured head skywards and gave a whistle. There was a noise from a distance, not the flutter of wings but just a sort of clatter. A flock of huge, spinning things blew towards us as if carried by the wind.
The creature held out an arm for one of the spinners to land on, perching on a singular foot. It was not a bird, not in the slightest, more like a gigantic sycamore seed. A great V-shape.
It had no head to speak of, and surely no spine. Just two great wings covered in downy black fur. But these were not the flapping wings of birds. These were blades, like the blades of a helicopter; built to gain lift through cutting the air.
My mouth fell open.
“Oh no.” The creature said. “Don’t tell me we’ve got it wrong again.”
“Very wrong. These… These things don’t look like any animal I’ve ever seen.”
“But it works, though.” They replied, flexing their arm coaxingly. In a great burst of exertion, the bird extended its leg and threw itself into the air, before spinning to catch the wind on its wings. It flew away in a graceful yet entirely unbirdly manner.
“See, it’s good at flying.”
“It doesn’t have a head. How does it eat?”
“It doesn’t. It has a charging cable.”
“A charging cable?!”
“Well, it’s better than starving to death.”
“That’s not the point. Surely you know that’s not what birds look like.”
They folded their arms, rapping their claws against the hard plating of their midsection. “We had very little pictorial data to go off of, and what we did have wasn’t very detailed.”
“Come off it! There are paintings of birds!”
The creature seemed to shrink. “Well, it’d help if they weren’t painted so small and far away.”
“Oh.” I said, a realisation seeming to drop into place. I remembered being a small child and drawing in crayon. A big yellow circle for the sun, my family and I as stick figures, my cat as a little orange blob, and then birds. Distant birds represented by a shape not unlike a letter V. “I see what you’ve done. That’s not what birds looked like, it’s a… It’s just a symbol to represent them.”
“So, what did they actually look like? How wrong were we?”
“Well, you see…” I said. But then I paused. I could give the obvious explanation of course; that a bird was a thing with two legs, two wings, a pretty singing voice, and a fondness for worms. But what good would that do for my alien companion? What could prevent them from making more of these horrifying creatures?
“You know what a vertebrate is, yes?”
“Vertebrate. An animal with a spine. Yes.”
“And while earth vertebrates varied massively in appearance, you know that a great deal of them conformed to a general sort of body plan, right?”
“Right. Tetrapods; two hind limbs, two front limbs, and a head.”
“And birds were tetrapods.”
“Yes, from all we know.”
“So why the hell did you make these… these things?!”
The creature huffed. “When you say it like that it makes us seem silly.” They waved their limbs and lurched forward. The great flock took wing, whirling high into the sky and over the horizon.
I watched them all disappear, saying nothing.
“We thought we could bring it back. The earth. Undo what had been done.” The alien sighed.
I extended an arm and patted them on their great chitinous back. “You can’t, believe me. You can repair what has been broken, but that’s an act of creation in itself. You’re making something new.”
“Hmm.” The creature’s face contorted into a look of contemplation. “Maybe this doesn’t have to be a perfect facsimile. Maybe it’s fine as an... An abstract. I shall talk to my peers about these acts of creation. What was the phrase you used? Artistic…”
“Artistic licence.” I said.
The creature exhaled, their breath a great satisfied purr. “Artistic licence. I like that.”
“And promise me you’ll get rid of the horses.”
“Those beasts will be the first things to go.”