The work of aesthetics is the aesthetics of work.
—Principles of Graphene Cultivation,
by Johanne St-Pierre, Vol. II
Makoto adjusted the angle of his scalpel’s electron beam, exhaled and made the cut. A fingernail-sized section of the airship’s graphene skin peeled away to join the miniature airship attached to its exterior like a soap bubble.
This was neither Makoto’s only bonsaiship nor his first. But it was and would always be the most precious to him. He had made the first cut nearly a year before, on the day of his husband’s death. It was a tribute to Reuven, nearly perfect, nearly complete.
And what then?
He waited a few breaths, pulling his mind into awareness of his pulse and the dull hum of the ship and the cramp in his right leg. He crouched in an access-bay that was just big enough to admit one person: a technician, a spacewalker, a ship’s artist.
Makoto left the tear open just long enough to let the big ship’s atmosphere into its little doppelganger. Enough to maintain the bonsaiship’s pressure. It didn’t take much; the little ship was so small he could have held it in his arms. In Venus’s thick atmosphere, floating was as easy as dying.
Graphene heals its scars. There is no maker’s mark on a bonsaiship, no graffito or epigraph. The evidence of the artist is purely in the shape of the art.
—A Guide to Shipcraft, by Abdul Ahmed
The catalyst coating on the airship’s skin kept the ship and its inhabitants alive. It also fed and constrained Makoto’s art.
He could never cease making his cuts, because the catalyst would never cease drawing carbon out of Venus’s atmosphere to grow it into layers of atom-thin honeycomb. The airship’s protective skin must renew itself; not even graphene could stand up to Venus forever. It was Makoto’s task, as ship’s artist, to draw small amounts of graphene off over the course of years, to create tears on the airship where new carbon atoms could find their places.
Reuven, his husband, had been his alternate, and Makoto had been his. In case something were to happen to one of the ship’s two artists.
And something had happened: a cardiac arrest, only a few months after their arrival on Venus. Reuven had come to the death planet carrying death within him.
Reuven had just retired when Makoto met him. He had written two books. He had not wanted to go back to Venus for a second tour. But Makoto was still learning the craft and Reuven loved Makoto. So they had come to Venus so Makoto could know what it was to be a necessary artist.
Soon, perhaps after the next cut, Makoto would free this bonsaiship. Over time its skin would weaken. It would drift downward to destruction in the inferno of Venus’s lower atmosphere.
He sealed with catalyst the tear between the giant airship and the bonsaiship that clung to it.
In every proportion, a bonsaiship must be an homage to its stockship. The smaller the object, the greater the challenge of capturing imperfection in all its details.
—A Grey Garden, by Donna Aude
On the last day of Reuven’s life, Makoto had been in a sour mood. He and Reuven had recently arrived, and the lack of real sunlight and real air had made him irritable.
It had been easier for Reuven, who had done all this before and was a philosopher besides. Makoto had, from the moment they came on board, heard time whirring past his ears. The ship and its scientists depended for their lives on his and Reuven’s art, an art he had practised only in simulations and simulacra back on Earth. He had feared failure and he had wanted to get on with things. To let the failure come and have done with it.
Reuven had tried to help, placidly, infuriatingly.
It’s easier for you, Makoto had said. You have your philosophy. You have your books. I’m just a glorified mechanic.
Well, you can always borrow a book.
He had suspected, always, that Reuven saw Makoto the way Makoto saw himself: an amateur, a dabbler, a fake. Reuven would never give him the satisfaction of denying it, of answering the question Makoto lacked the courage to ask.
Makoto tried to pull himself back to the moment, to himself, alone with his work. He cocked his head and looked out. The small window’s graphene coating darkened the view, like the windows of the Greyhound bus that had taken him overnight to New York seven years before, to hear Reuven Stern lecture on the principles of graphene art.
The night that had set both their hearts ticking.
His nearly transparent bonsaiship was a monochrome darkness against the fiery clouds.
The bonsaiship was too symmetrical.
The long oval was perfect, like the cinched part where he had used robotic clamps to guide the graphene’s course. But the back fins lacked, on one side, the slight angle downward that the bigger airship possessed. It was too perfect.
One more pruning could add weight to that side, and complete the bonsaiship. He was allowed two cuts per day; any more would weaken the airship’s skin.
Reuven’s last kiss seemed to linger on the back of his neck. Makoto could still feel the wetness of it; still feel his skin shuddering, his body shaking Reuven off as if a kiss were a mosquito.
Atoms nestle/ wait for disturbance
—Dimension Weight: Poems of Pruning, by Anna Harris
The electron scalpel chafed his palm. Makoto ached to crawl out of the cramped skinbay. But if he went back to his quarters now, he would spend the night rehearsing the cut he had not yet made.
Makoto sliced the graphene.
As it curled and morphed and joined the little ship’s skin, Makoto’s breath seized, just for a moment, for as long as it took to see that he had cut too much, and to understand that he had made a serious error.
The bonsaiship’s right fin dipped too far. The little ship was complete and wrong.
He wanted to race back in time, to fix it. Or to destroy it. To ball it up and throw it into the skies to burn.
Instead he closed his eyes, and focused on the little bubble of pain and guilt that seemed to stop his throat. He forced himself to let the stale air fill his lungs, and pass out again. Mistakes happened. Mistakes were the time to apply his training.
What was right? What was best? To rework the entire ship, using robotic arms and clamps to adjust the proportions throughout, to add graphene in the right places? The work of weeks, months perhaps. The graphene skin renewed itself slowly.
Or to let the bonsaiship go, an imperfect replica of imperfection?
He wanted to get on with things. The moment felt right. But he distrusted that instinct. It seemed indistinguishable from laziness. The coward’s way out of this work of a year, this work of grieving.
He closed the hatch that allowed him to access the airship’s skin from the inside. He forced himself to crawl out of the access-bay, to walk, to think. Reuven, he thought, I miss you. I miss your counsel and your kisses.
He walked back to his quarters after all and made a cup of good tea. He took Reuven’s reader out of a drawer, wiped the screen with a cloth and turned it on. The screen flickered to life.
I have never seen a perfect object but I have seen perfect art. What is permanent?
—Koans and Aphorisms, by Reuven Stern
The scientists onboard appreciated Makoto’s art; it renewed them. And they were kind to him—because of Reuven, he thought. They gathered when they could, to witness the unmoorings. There were only a dozen this evening. Makoto had not given them much notice; he had not planned on today being the day for Reuven’s bonsaiship. But it was the day. It was time.
If the scientists noticed that this bonsaiship was not precisely like its airship, they did not say so.
Makoto was content with his choice. If this was to honour Reuven, let it be a flawed message in a flawed bottle, like every beautiful moment of their marriage. This was his art, his alone, his aloneness manifest.
He would begin a new ship tomorrow. He had no choice. Art kept the ship alive, kept it forever changing to survive.
Makoto took a moment to silently dedicate his flawed ship, made with a year of daily cuts, of healing and cutting again, of raw juddering fits of memory and long cold stretches of forgetting.
His scalpel sent a beam of light precisely at the seam between the airship and the bonsaiship. The graphene responded to the signal and uncoupled. The bonsaiship drifted into the deadly skies of Venus, as a dozen scientists clapped.
Story copyright © 2014 by Kate Heartfield
Artwork copyright © 2014 by Vivian Gu
Kate Heartfield is a newspaper editor, columnist, and fiction writer in Ottawa, Canada. Her stories have appeared recently or are forthcoming in places like Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, On Spec, Postscripts to Darkness, and Flash Fiction Online. Her story “Their Dead So Near,” written from the point of view of an Ottawa cemetery, appeared in Issue 1 of Lackington’s. She is working on a historical fantasy novel. On Twitter, she is @kateheartfield.
Vivian Gu is currently a psychology student at McGill University. Originally from Vancouver, BC, Vivian enjoys crafting, designing, pilates, and puns. She’s an avid music lover and foodie, and will drop a pretty penny for a good vegetarian meal. Vivian works primarily with mixed media, often incorporating acrylics, watercolours, ink, and pencil into one piece. She finds inspiration in the details, and enjoys expressing the subtleties of human emotion and connection through artwork