QUANTUM BEAUTY EXCERPT
Chapter 1 - Dreams
Astra walks under a sky full of colors, colors she knows cannot exist or ones that are seldom permitted. She can feel the emerald grass with her bare feet. Sometimes she can even feel the cool touch of the rough ground where the grass is sparse. In the distance she sees the mountains that rise to rest among lonely clouds. A lone tower of emerald rises at an odd angle high up on the slope. It turns upon itself, spiraling into the sky. But she is not going to the tower today; instead she walks toward the village of domed houses constructed from loose wooden planks, fitted with precision. She runs her hand along the wall of the first house she passes, expecting to feel the grain of the wood, but instead she feels the cold of metal. She realizes that the house has been made to only appear like wood. The houses are painted in many colors, not as many as the sky, whose bands of colors appear as if cast from a prism under an ocean. Astra feels like she should be savoring each color, but they seem commonplace here and so she moves on.
In the center of the town, people gather in a wide circle. They too are attired in various robes and gowns of many colors. Astra finds she cares little for their gaudy dress, but still she catalogs each outfit, imaging what she would look like were she to don it. The people whisper to each other but she cannot make out what they say, for another voice drowns them out. In the center of the circle, the storyteller stands tall, telling his tale. Each stanza is punctuated by fluid gestures of his arms. Astra pushes through the crowd to get closer. She can only hear every few words, but she desperately wants to know what happens in the tale. The townsfolk are many, and it becomes harder and harder to push past them. Then she realizes that they are holding her. She pulls herself away, but more and more hands are upon her. They grasp at her dress first, and then at her libs through the fabric. She feels their cold hard fingers on her skin, pulling at it. A hand grasps the back of her neck, and she realizes it feels just like the wooden metal from which the town is built. Their faces press in on her, and as much as she wishes to turn away, everywhere she looks, a face with skin like wood stares back at her, without feeling, without empathy. But the most terrifying are the eyes of this face. They look at her and through her, lidless and cold, cold like reflections in ice.
Astra woke from the dream with a start. She immediately looked around to see if anyone had entered her chambers, as she always did. The expansive room was empty save for her sprites, which darted around on their usual errands. She rose slowly from the reclined chair and looked around again with her tired eyes. No one had come to disturb her. She breathed slowly and purposely, trying to wake herself further. She was still tired. It was becoming more and more difficult to find the time to rest. When the dreams had started a few years ago, she would dream a few minutes every week or two. Now, if she did not dream for an hour or two every day, she felt exhausted beyond measure.
At least her rank afforded her the privacy she needed for her dreams, and her station as Princess Isosceles granted her the rationale for her absences. It was well known in court that her sisters Cosma and Sola would disappear for hours on end. All suspected it was to wage their constant battles of intrigue and gossip, or simply to venture masked into the city common. And so no one questioned when the youngest of the sisters likewise could not be readily found. Hidden in her high tower, she was safe to sleep and dream.
On this day, Astra still felt the fatigue that invariably came with dreams. She thought the windblown air would serve to wake her and walked out to her gravity balcony. Its doors opened silently before her, revealing the bright day. Far below, the world of Galatopia had become a cold place of metal and plastic. At least it had in Astra's eyes. Every direction she looked, she saw a bleak white landscape full of angular buildings, stretching past the manicured clouds and efficient airways coursing with uniform transports. The oblong vehicles differed in sizes and functional adornments, but they seemed to have been born from one mother, all bearing the same silver skin and disdain for any decoration save that which would propel them on their errands. Nor did they deviate from their assigned places in the emotionless procession. For all their speed, they appeared like simple coded dashes on some primative display.
Other than the perpetual cold blue lights that dotted both buildings and vehicles, there was no color to the landscape. Far below her gravity balcony, Astra could see the world's citizens speeding along their scheduled and organized errands. Those that still walked on the nearest skyroads would look up and wave at their princess, but only for the proper amount of time before returning to their commutes, careful lest they fall too far out of sync with their meta-schedules.
Astra sighed and returned inside her chambers. The walls were bare and gleamed white, emitting a warm brilliance that bathed her with soft light. The omni-furniture stood ready, awaiting her slightest command to reconfigure itself into whatever arrangements she may desire on this day. Her sprites flew around her, some landing on her shoulders and some adjusting a rebellious lock of her dark hair. Others bore all four varieties of glowing ambrosia fruit and ever-full goblets of polynectar.
Astra's favorite and first sprite Iongen hovered near her ear singing a calm song as proscribed by the Canon. The microchine sprite was a golden-skinned expression of the perfection in design as enumerated in the Canon. Where her metallic skin shone through her diaphanous gown, it reflected the light of the walls so that she appeared to glow. Her artificial voice struck each note with measured perfection, while maintaining a certain element that was unique to her alone. No one would describe her voice as coarse, stilted, or mechanical. As the notes swelled, her eyes began to emit streams of light. Around her and before Princess Astra there formed images of captured light. These coalesced quickly into perfect representations of the characters of the Song Iongen performed.
"Genny, must you sing the same Song every day?" Astra asked the mechanical imp.
"Princess, I sing the Songs that are written in my soul," Iongen replied. She fluttered on her gravity wings in front of the princess to better address her.
"Can't you sing a new Song? One I haven't seen before? That would be wonderful."
"I am sorry, Princess, but I have sung for you all the Songs that are known. How could I sing a Song that is not known?"
"But there are so few Songs, Genny. Could you not make one up?"
"Princess, how could one make up a Song? They were all written long ago and inscribed in the Canon for all."
"My sister Sola made up a story about going to the gardens when she really wanted walk the city with Cosma."
"And your sister was reprimanded by your parents, bless their infinite majesties."
"She was. But still, it is possible to make up a story isn't it?"
"Why would one wish to ignore the laws, and morality itself, in order to create something new? Something that would be inferior in every way to the perfection of the Canon."
"Perhaps.... Oh, Genny, sometimes I just wish for something out of the ordinary. Every day is just so the same."
"You are young yet, Princess. You have not even had your debut at court. Once you come of age, such concerns will seem like yesterday's clouds."
"Even you, Genny, you say the same thing every time we have this conversation."
"How could I say anything different, Princess?"
Astra moved to one of the walls, which dutifully parted revealing a long hall lined with holoquins projecting all the approved fashions that her evergown could instantly replicate. All the patterns were gleaming white and bore only slight differences from one another in the cut of the bodice or the angle of the skirt. With a heavy hand Astra pointed to the holoquin bearing the design reserved for official court visits. The morning evergown she wore immediately tore itself apart into many white swatches that flew around her as they found their new assigned locations and joined themselves into the desired pattern.
Her evergown completed, two of the sprites lifted a mirror in front of her face as several others ran combs through her long black hair. Astra considered her features with the critical eye her sisters had taught her. Her nose was too small and her chin too curved. She worried that she would never lose the childish cast to her face. At least she did not have to worry about her eyes. They were large, emerald green, and always the focus of compliments.
Astra then looked again at her only successful rebellion, the dark locks that fell around her face. No matter how many nanochine fairies her father and mother would send with orders to recolor her hair the proscribed gold, Astra succeeded in capturing and disabling all. It had become a game for her and source of frustration for her parents. Every day, Astra looked forward to setting her defenses. She called her mobile forges to her. These squat, four-legged macrochines bounded to her, eager to create anything the princess may require, within the bounds of royal etiquette. But her requests were usually the same—more fairy guards to fill the borders of her quarters and watch for any intruders. Often she would call a crystal to her couch, and through its many lenses watched the fantastic battles that ragged on the microscopic ranges and landscapes of her chambers. For these fairy warriors could not be seen with the naked eye. As small as sprites were to Astra, the fairies were just as diminutive to the sprites.
Armed with plasma lances and ion blades, her watchful Nanoguard, as she had named them, would stand their posts with machine patience. On their armor and banners they bore the three white stars against a black pyramid that was her own heraldry. Invariably, her parents's fairies would invade, bearing banners of two white galaxies merging on a black diamond. Her parents's forces were without any strategy, attacking in predictable fashion along foreseeable avenues. After some early near-defeats, Astra had read all she could on large-scale tactics. She deployed her forces using all the stratagems of the ancient generals. Thousands of her Nanoguard died each day, but each day, the princess emerged victorious, her hair the color of night and the background of her heraldry.
Astra did not like to think about the other reason she kept her hair dark and such fastidious defensive formations. If not for her Nanoguard, her parents’s fairies would discover her dreaming in her chambers. And if she colored her hair as they wished, there would be no reason for Astra to maintain her guard, arousing their suspicions. Thinking about how her childish obstinace had, by chance, saved her from discovery, made her uneasy. What if she had never questioned her parents? Their faires would have found out her affliction, and then what? She put the thought from her mind. She told herself she was safe with her Nanoguard to protect her.
Her evergown in proper order and her hair set in acceptable fashion, Astra set out for lessons. The wide doors to her chambers sprang open well ahead of her long steps. The doors opened unto the clear blue sky high above Galatopia. No stairway connected the princess's chambers to the ground far below. Astra placed her bare feet in her clear sky slippers and set out, walking on the air itself down to the palace proper. She looked to the city far below as she walked on transparent steps created and destroyed by her psycho-science footwear.
As she descended from her tower, she saw her sisters far below her. She had to run down the imaginary stairway to join them. Cosma and Sola had descended from their own towers in a similar fashion. Their evergowns were identical to Astra's. Their golden hair, arraigned in the royal style, framed their faces. While all siblings shared similar features, as the eldest, Cosma's were the most developed and defined; her visage was like that of an appropriately-proportioned statue carved by an adequate craftsman. Cosma was also the tallest of the three, and let this show in her stride and manner. She had already come of age and would soon be expected to test for a position in court; her birth did not guarantee her ascension to the binarchy.
Sola walked by her sister, listening eagerly as Cosma described some aspect of galactic politics. Where Cosma appeared an icon of properly moderated and honed art, Sola gave of the impression that she was the work on an apprentice; her features only aspired to the balance of her elder sister. Strangely, her ungainly large lips and impetuously angled eyes did not dissuade the men of the court in pursuing her, sometimes preferring her company to that of her more perfect sister.
"Astra, there you are. Sola and I were just talking about the independence of the Far Houses. What is your opinion on the matter? Should the court take a stronger hand in their governance?"
Astra was quiet and Sola, always eager to please her elder sister, spoke.
"The binarchy should neither take a lesser role nor greater role." Sola said, quoting the rules of governance almost directly from the Canon. "The decisions of the royal couple, are by their balanced nature, perfect. However, they cannot consider all issues in the galaxy. As such, certain powers have been delegated to the nobles of the Far Houses."
"Sola," Cosma rebukedher sister, "you must give your sister a chance. Otherwise how will she ever find her own place?"
"My answer was correct, was it not?" Sola asked, pretending to appear insulted. "Besides, Astra only cares about her Songs."
"That is not true!" Astra said. "I think the governance of the kingdom is our highest calling."
"Then where do you think you will seek your office? The Royal Navy? The Panopticrats?" Sola asked.
"I'm still deciding. I still have years to decide," Astra said.
"Sisters, please," Cosma said, relishing the chance to play the diplomat. "We must bear a united front, as an example to the rest of the court. Now, if you will let me, I will tell you of my meeting with Lord Levian..."
The younger sisters listened as Cosma described her formal meeting with the young lord. As the eldest and presumed inheritor to the Infinite Thrones, Cosma spent most of her time studying for the various exams she would have to pass, as well as meeting candidates for her hand. No woman or man could rule Galatopia alone, only the most perfect couple, their minds synchronized and balanced, could attempt the grueling and painful mental challenges to claim the Crown of Duality. But Cosma did not speak of the trials ahead of her, instead she spoke of Lord Levian's hair and finely shaped arms. Sola listened with rapt attention, laughing at her sister's description of Lord Levian at the appropriate points.
Astra remained quiet, her attention drifting to the eventual decisions she would have to make. In truth, she had no idea which part of the government she would try to serve. A part of her wished that she could just live out her life alone dreaming in her tower, but becoming such a secretive recluse would be a blow to her parents, and no doubt be taken as an insult by her sisters. She soothed her disappointment with the thought that the Songs of the Canon had grown stale for her. She always wanted to see something new, something different. Her mind drifted to the lone emerald tower from her dream. What Songs do they sing there, Astra wondered.