caterpillar cave painting

Several little feathers fluttered in the playful wind: some cat’s pigeon hunt had been successful that day. The cat was nowhere to be seen, though. The only thing disturbing the serenity of the cheerful morning was a couple of flying machines in the sky. Two featherless silver birds, they glided above the grassland, leaving a subtle white trace in the sky.

Their destination was one of the floating cities cloaked in antigravity shields and slowly travelling around the world with the wind. The city had many places they could dock in, so many, in fact, that all its long sky piers, spiky and thin, made it look like a giant snowflake.

One of the flyers landed sooner than the other. Safely caught up by the invisible energy web of one of the piers, it was slowly moving along it now, right into the city’s heart where it could park.

Their flyer parked and secured, the passengers opened the doors and stepped out of their machine onto the city’s hexagon-paved street. Both were women, neither bore any signs of what their ancestors called “old age” but you could easily tell which one was a young adult and which one had been living for centuries. With “ageing” defeated and natural repairing mechanisms fixed by scientists, humanity could now enjoy perfect health and forever youth. Yet still, time managed to leave its mark on everyone: by perfecting a person’s features over years. A human’s face now went from adorable blurriness of a baby to terrifying beauty of an ancient giving everyone under a hundred an unmistakable “uncanny valley” feeling.

Mirovega, the oldest among the two women that were standing now beside their parked flyer, must have been over two centuries old. But Luchana, her companion, was just in her early twenties. Like a curious puppy, she trustfully followed her elder guide to the biggest tower in the city, golden in the light of the young morning sun.

The city was very quiet and seemed almost empty. No wonder: few people lived on Elder Earth. There must have been a hundred citizens at most in this gigantic floating thing.

It was Luchana’s first visit on the legendary planet she secretly named Serenity World. The young woman grew up in a Martian colony, a noisy and crowded place under a sitall dome. There, only your own tiny capsule “room” could be a place where you could feel truly alone for a while. And even then, there were a lot of sounds to keep you company: distant conversations and laughter, noisy oxygen filters, doors creaking, footsteps… But there, there, on Elder Earth, silence reigned over everything. Luchana had experienced such serenity only in a soundproof meditation cabin before and she hadn’t been visiting it often.

“May I ask where we’re going, Mirovega?” asked Luchana, very carefully.
“You may,” was the answer. It made Luchana shiver; the elders’ voices were as terrifyingly perfect as their faces. “This building is the Central University of Elder Earth. A council of scientists decided that your special abilities are worthy of a closer investigation. Don’t be afraid, my dear, they won’t hurt you. They just want to talk to you in person.”

Luchana sighed. She thought that getting some answers would calm her down a bit. So much for her hopes!

What was her family thinking now? Mirovega had taken their child away without any explanation, just by the elder right. Months had passed for them since that day without any news. What were they thinking now? Were they… mourning their loss? The very thought was sickening. Why would elders need Luchana anyway? What was so special about her, a 28-year-old girl? Even Mirovega, who is over 200, is just a young apprentice here, on Serenity World.

Luchana followed her guide into a transparent elevator. It lifted off and started moving up the great tower's wall with a gentle whirring sound accompanied by a beautiful melody coming from invisible speakers. The elevator was moving so slowly! Unbelievable for a Martian (on Mars, there was a long queue by every machine, so speed was essential) but so very normal for an elder who had nowhere to hurry and could simply enjoy the view.

Was Mirovega enjoying the view? There was no way to tell with that perfect, impenetrable face of hers bearing such an uncanny resemblance to a porcelain mask.

The elevator's doors opened into a long, lavishly decorated corridor with high ceiling and tall, narrow windows of stained glass. The walls here were plain white turned into a rage of colours by the sunrays seeping inside through the thick coloured glass. That was where Luchana saw another dweller of the celestial city, a man so ancient he made Mirovega look like an adorable baby. He must have been over 400. People that old usually have some unusual eye colour like golden or bright orange, crimson, emerald… This man's eyes were vibrant purple and had an alien-looking slant to them. He greeted Mirovega cordially and gave Luchana a long, thoughtful look that made her wish to run away in panic.

Finally, they reached the end of the corridor and stopped by a tall, narrow door. It slid to the side with a sweet sound of a bamboo windpipe disturbed by a whiff of wind. Mirovega gently pushed Luchana forward and closed the door behind her. Now, the little Martian was all alone in a beautiful, alien place. The girl's heart was pounding heavily. She made a deep breath and kept walking. There was a short, narrow corridor behind the door. It turned left and opened into a spacious room that someone had designed to look like an indoor garden. A tiny waterfall filled the room with merry bubbling sounds; dozens of neat bonsai trees looked like a fairy forest with decorative mosses instead of grass and a narrow winding path dividing the beautiful composition in two. There was a golden autumn on the left side of the room and a green summer on the right.

A soft antigravity chair floated above the floor. Luchana wanted to sit in the wonderful outlandish device but hesitated for a moment, unsure whether the likes of her were even allowed to touch anything there.

“Hello, Luchana,” she heard a strange voice behind her. “Please, do take a seat. Be my guest.”

The young woman slowly turned around to meet the source of that voice, both uncanny and sweet.

Gasp! The creature that had greeted her was clearly not human!

The figure clothed in a plain white jumpsuit resembled an ancient grotesque statue. That… person’s limbs seemed unnaturally long and bent as smoothly as if they had no joints but were made of soft plastic, like a doll’s. There was no way to tell whether the creature was male or female or both. Their head was as grotesque as it was lively, as expressive as it was alien, with pitch-black, shiny inhuman eyes.

Their nature now revealed, the wonderful creature no longer tried to restrict their voice so it would sound human; when it spoke again, it was in music, so powerful that it made the little guest tremble.

“Do I sound less uncanny now?” asked the alien creature. The voice, triggered by the music, was now coming from Luchana’s mind. It was the voice that read to her, chastised her, made stupid jokes, sang silly songs, helped her learn, annoyed her, consoled her… it was Luchana’s inner voice, as simple as that.

Luchana felt her legs giving way. She would have fallen if it weren’t for the well-programmed antigravity chair that had caught her up.

“Don’t be afraid, child,” Luchana’s inner voice kept translating the wonderful music. “I won’t hurt you. My name is Airanei. You and I, we are sisters.”
“Yes, my dear. I’m not even much older than you are.”
“I don’t understand…”
“Of course, Luchana. This is why I’m here: to explain everything to you.”

Airanei summoned another floating chair for herself and sat in it, making herself comfortable. That moment, her inhuman body looked so gracious it was almost beautiful. She was a bit like… a cat? Or maybe a climbing vine? Or… a poisonous snake? The iridescent imaginary echo in Luchana’s mind could not decide on a single associacion.

“Do you have butterflies on Mars?” asked Airanei. And it was a spot-on question!

Mars’s gravity is only ⅓ of Earth’s. That’s why everything that walks is taller there and everything that flies is way bigger, butterflies included. You have to visit the only Martian zoo in the Central Hub after waiting in a long queue but the sight is worth both the journey and the wait.

Luchana had visited the zoo only once in her life but remembered that day like it was yesterday. The ice now broken between the “sisters”, Luchana was talking non-stop of the beautiful Martian butterflies now and Airanei listened to her oh so patiently!

“Ah, it is indeed beautiful, to see you talk and smile like this!” she said finally and asked another question, “Tell me, were there any axolotls in your zoo?”
“Oh yes, there were several of them!” Luchana beamed. “They were so cute!”
“And their adult forms? Were there any?” Airanei went on to the next question.
“No…” Luchana’s smile faded for a moment, replaced by a thoughtful expression, but flashed again very soon, ” Oh, but I did ask why! The zookeeper told me that Martian Ambystoma subspecies had completely lost its ability to metamorph. Our axolotls can never become adults. It’s a good thing that they can still reproduce without reaching adulthood! Or we wouldn’t have them in the zoo. Mars is still ages behind Earth when it comes to cloning technologies.”
“Neoteny is an interesting thing, is it not? Sexual maturity in an animal that is still in a larval state, as the formal definition goes. ” Airanei gracefully rested her alien head on her hands. Her movements were so perfect and smooth that she resembled an underwater creature - a mermaid! - now. “Axolotls are babies in the world of amphibians yet they can reproduce. Imagine if caterpillars could do the same: reproduce without ever becoming butterflies.”
“That would be sad…” Luchana lowered her eyes. “Butterflies are so beautiful.”

Airanei moved her floating armchair closer to Luchana’s.

“You are looking at the butterfly form of your species, little caterpillar,” she said suddenly.

There was a moment of silence when Luchana desperately tried to say something but failed every time.

“I know it’s a lot to take in,” said Airanei, her voice a soothing, almost humming melody. “You don’t have to believe anything I say right now. The council of scientists will show you proof when we leave this room: all the tests, all the papers, all the research. Your questions will be answered. All of them.”
“How…” Luchana gasped. “How come we are sisters?”
“Ah, this.” The human butterfly’s eyes blinked as if in a slow-motion movie; a gesture of understanding. “You see, most humans have lost their ability to morph into our species’ final form, adult form, and have fallen into the neoteny trap, just like your Martian axolotls did. There is no way back for them. But very few, rare individuals, still possess the genes that can start the process. They’re sleeping, those genes, inactivated by DNA methylation and other reversible processes. Reviving them was impossible in the past but it is possible now with modern technology.
“I have these genes. As do you.”
“Special abilities...” Luchana whispered. “Mirovega said that I had been summoned to Elder Earth because of some special abilities I have. Did she mean... this?”

“Mirovega doesn’t know about the Butterfly Project. Few people know. It’s a revolutionary thing, too big and too shocking to be announced right now.
“For ages, humanity strived to prolong life and youth of every human being but now we see that it is a dead end. You saw the oldest immortals with your own eyes, little sister.”

Luchana nodded.

“We need to remember how to fly again.” Airanei smiled. “Metaphysically speaking...
“Little sister,” she said suddenly. “The council will give you all the detailed scientific proof later, but now, let me show you what a human being is capable of in their final, adult form. Would you like to see that?”

Luchana hesitated but only for a brief moment.

“Of course!” she said in one deep, passionate breath, her eyes shining.
“I knew you’d like that!” Airanei gave her a smile, so alien yet so beautiful and sweet.
“Do I have to prepare myself? What will it be like?”
“Ah, dear sister! It’s not something you can ever prepare for. What will it be like? I’d say it will be like magic.”

(written on February 23, 2003 - the ending changed on November 7, 2020)

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English is not my native language.
If you see an error or a typo, please, tell me. I will fix it.