The Tesserae

An ancient planet of white sands, gray mountains and large acacia trees was searching for other beings in the universe. It was a matter of life and death and a matter of time. Resources were running out, and the herds of dromedaries that mined, traveled, ploughed, and provided meat were on the verge of extinction. The humanoids of this planet would not be able to build spacecraft without external help. They lacked the workforce and technology. They had, however, built gigantic radio machines with cathode ray boxes and screens that could read signals from the other side of the galaxy. These could not detect life, but it was hoped that they would perhaps find traces of other cultures sending out signals. During the days when the last handful of dromedaries were sick with plague and dying, a radio operator saw something appear on her screen. At first, it seemed nothing more than a crude and abstract mosaic. Gradually, her eyes saw the shape of a camel. Symbols appeared on the fringes of the picture. The machine showed the camel performing various kinds of work on a planet not unlike her own. Other mosaics were soon discovered. They showed humanoids made of tiny squares of light walking down endless hallways and through trompe l’oeil mazes to elude serpents, beasts or other menacing humanoids. Some of the humanoids characters would travel, and maps would acquire more shape and definition. These scenes were often interrupted, and the mosaic would seem to return in time to what she had seen at the beginning, when the camel was first starting its workday or the flickering tesserae of the humanoids were starting off on their exploratory quests or entries into combat. To summarize, the mosaics were like a more angular, moving version of the pictographs and cave paintings on her own ancient planet. It was hard to say what they meant. Only two theories occured to her. The first was that whoever made these mosaics did so to preserve something of their history and literature, and this was all that remained, since the radios of her planet could not pick up anything else. Her second theory was a bit more complex. She wondered if each mosaic were a smaller world within a larger world. In this theory, the beasts and humanoids made of flickering tesserae were not representations—they were the actual beings of this other planet, trapped in very short cycles of time that always repeated but never resulted in a fulfilled dream or completed quest. She mourned these lost souls of cubist light, and wept for her own.

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