Learning to Paint

Sandra was as surprised as anyone when she failed her compulsory exam, but she supposed that’s why they had randoms to begin with. By the time you realize you’ve caught Degen, you’ve probably infected your whole settlement. The moment that red light came on they rushed her into Level 5 Quarantine to await confirmation.

Presently, this is just what she received; confirmation. She was infected with Degen. She’d be dead in under 72 hours. She was 19 years old.

She’d come to Varuna on a grant as a research assistant—she’d hoped to become a xenoarchaeologist, but that wasn’t going to happen now. Degen was a rare and poorly understood disease that had taken out a number of settlements throughout the Kuiper Belt. Dr. Krantz, a local specialist, didn’t even talk of a cure; only of her comfort.

“Are there any hobbies you’ve always wanted to try but never got around to?” asked Dr. Krantz. “Perhaps a musical instrument, or pottery, painting, perhaps—”

“Painting,” said Sandra, her voice steady. “I think I’d rather enjoy that.” She was given an easel, a towering stack of canvases, and more brushes and tubes of paint than she would have used in a normal lifetime, let alone three days.

Sandra had no natural talent for painting or anything like it. She had a lively imagination, but translating the images in her head to the canvas required hands that could do the interpreting, and hers hadn’t the fluency for the task. Her first painting was supposed to be a self-portrait, but it could have just as easily been a cubist landscape or some sick blurry lili pads. She tried again and was astonished with the immediate improvement. She was sick indeed.

Degen was a neurological disease. It caused the brain to kill existing and forge new neural connections—to rewire itself—at random, or at least to begin with. It led to rapid degeneration, hence the name, but an unusual side effect was a tendency toward directed savantism. As the brain lost the ability to direct the body’s heart rate and temperature and metabolism, it put all its energy into mastery of the task at hand. By the end of the first day, Sandra had abandoned the canvases all together and made a convincing replica of The Creation of Adam on the quarantine chamber’s ceiling.

Sandra stopped sleeping and eating, partially as a pragmatic choice, but just as much out of forgetfulness. She’d become all-consumed by her painting. She made intricate fractal designs on her own body and covered the walls in projections of 11-polytopes that would later lead to insights about protein folding. Eventually she painted over the ceiling with a flat midnight blue. The walls were blue, and the floors. Her bed and the plastic partitions and soon her body, too—first the outside, then within—until her entire being was consumed by midnight blue.

Sandra couldn’t tell if her eyes were closed or not, and it was very beautiful.

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