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How Beautiful It Is
The water was still. Still and perfect. A mirror, a meticulous rendering of the world, immaculate enough to be the world itself. Lit silver by submerged spotlights, dusted with the stuff of stars, an image of idealistic truth. The colors were drowning in silver and shadows.
The water was still until her fingers touched it. Ripples shot across the silver reflection, fracturing it like a weak bone. She moved her hand and the ripples moved with it, feeding on her energy. They were great silver mountains now. They broke the landscape at will. Her long fingers went back and forth, back and forth.
Eventually, she got tired of the water. She lifted her hand and held it in front of her face. Drops fell from her fingers onto the green tiling under her feet. The textured tiles split the drops into amorphous little puddles. Without the silver light, the water looked black.
She looked back at the ornamental pond. The ripples had faded, leaving just a ghost of a quiver. She could see again, not perfectly, but she could see. There were stars in the sky, hovering at the edge of the East. Fire still brushed the West; it seemed close enough to touch. But the stars remained frustratingly distant, as she expected they always would. Better that way. The stars were great things, but they could die. Everything could die.
Beneath the stars was a ragged frame of green leaves. New leaves, just unfolded from their spring buds. They tossed in the light breeze, rustling softly. She fancied she could smell their vibrant scent on the evening air. They stood out with unnatural clarity against the sky, catching the glow of the waterlights, circling the pond like a benevolent cage. She wished they were half as strong as they seemed.
The bench’s roof caught the edge of her vision, black tile jutting from a wooden structure painted a deep, soft blue. She had sat there many times during her life, marveling at how perfect her ancestors had kept the glazed paint, or talking with her mother or one of her siblings, or watching the sunlight or starlight or dusklight or waterlight glint from the edges of everything. Maybe she had brought a friend. Maybe, when she was younger, much younger but not too much, she had cried. Or maybe she had brought her tablet, settled herself, and begun to write.
Beneath the roof was her face. It was an appealing face, with strong, quick features. She had dark brown hair that fell in curls around her pale cheeks. Her nose was a bit on the large side, her eyebrows heavy. When she was mad, those eyebrows would lower over her eyes like looming thunderclouds. Her eyes themselves would be the lightning, crackling with sparks of fury.
Today, those eyes were calm. They were shadowed banks of snow, soft and motionless. Her face was relaxed. It was a paralyzed kind of relaxed, the kind that suggested something deep inside of her had died. It hadn’t, no, not yet, but she still didn’t know why she was calm. People told her she could stay calm when no one else had a sliver of a chance, and she supposed this was what they meant. It rather scared her. Sometimes she wondered if she were falling into insanity, although she knew that wasn’t true. She knew it was the world that had fallen.
She had a name and a title, but they weighed her down. Here, at the pond, she was simply herself. She was a nineteen-year-old kid who had made a mistake in the name of morality. She was a teenager who had learned the hard way how to stick to what felt true. She was a dreamer and a sister and a friend, and the weirdo who liked to sit on the little blue bench and write on her tablet when she wasn’t working on her schooling.
Her schooling. What good had that been in the end? All of the accelerated programs, all of the money, all to make her into the one thing she didn’t want to be. There were few things more terrible than being made into something false. When she thought about that, she wondered what she was really rebelling against.
She got to her feet. She had been crouching for a long time, and her hip joints popped as she rose. She winced and stretched, raising her arms to the sky. The bench stood across the pond from her, sturdily bolted to the green tiles. It looked like it wouldn’t move if the apocalypse itself--
It looked like it wouldn’t move if someone took a breakgun to it, which they wouldn’t be doing anytime soon. A bird chirped from the lower branches of a border tree and took wing, fluttering to the edge of the slanted roof. It looked at her, whistled once, ruffled its red feathers, and flew away.
She watched it until it was out of sight. When she turned to leave, she could hear its song drifting through the dusky air. It was a cheerful song.
Her footsteps echoed from the enclosing walls as she walked away from the pond. Her shadow began to fade. The trees came closer, hiding the stars and the sunset. The tiles disappeared. A beaten dirt path appeared beneath her feet. Her shadow was gone now, and she was going with it, fading to one tall silhouette among a hundred others.
It didn’t last long. The trees stopped at the wall. The wall was made of Clearstop, the stuff of nobles, but she could still see it if she squinted the right way. The gate, of course, was completely visible. It was made of regular reinforced gray plastic, and it stood there like a guard, staring at her with its single red light. That gate used to scare her when she was a little kid. She’d thought it was some sort of magical boundary. You’d cross it, and something would be changed when you came out on the other side. Now she felt that old dread once more, and it was with reluctance that she reached for the unlocking panel.
The moment her fingers touched the panel’s surface, the gate began to hum. The red light turned green. A moment later, the entire gate slid into the ground, leaving a gap which a gray piece of plastic quickly sealed. She stepped through the opening and immediately heard the hum of the gate rising behind her. She almost looked back, then stopped herself.
She continued to walk. There was grass here, great long stalks of it that brushed her knees. There were trees, too: big trees. Her mother had ordered the automated gardening service to let them grow freely, and, after only a few years, they towered over the family’s land. She could hardly believe they had been small once, and she had been able to climb most of the way to their tops without risking her neck. Now she could barely see where they ended. They would have crowded each other out if they’d been planted close together, but the gardening service had taken care of that as well. Their leafy crowns dotted the lush hills like stars against the night sky. The hills themselves rolled peacefully into the distance, and she could see where the sunset still painted their crests in orange.
She walked. She could have called a car, but she wanted to feel the air on her face, to sweep through the long grass, to watch the stars and watch them alone. She had to appreciate all of her chances, now that she had finally done the thing. Or not done the thing. Maybe the best way to put it was that she had decided to say she wouldn’t do the thing. Either way, it all came out the same. She wanted to walk.
A light appeared on the horizon, moving closer with frightening speed. She started, then relaxed. It didn’t look like a search flyer. But still...
She decided to risk a little technology. They could probably detect sensory enhancers, but it wouldn’t make any difference if the light really belonged to a searcher. She touched a black band on her wrist. When it buzzed, she whispered, “Visual.”
The word sounded too loud in the silent air, and she winced. She’d kept her enhancer on voice confirmation mode ever since her brother had made himself so dizzy he couldn’t move after he’d accidentally thought-triggered it. It seemed safer, but now she wished she’d just left the thing with the safety off.
It didn’t matter. Now she could see the flyer, outlined in streaks of infrared, and she could tell it wasn’t a searcher. A while ago, just a year ago, she wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference, but she’d seen enough recently to know which was which. Even the best disguised searchers wouldn’t look as flimsy as this one.
She lifted her finger, and her normal vision took over. The light soared on, passing almost directly over her head before disappearing in the direction of the pond. She began to walk again, a little shakily. She couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened had that really been a searcher. Would it have been looking for her? Most likely. But what would she have done if its big light had come on, blasting into her face as it landed in front of her? What would she have done if ten members of the Coalition Guard had come sprinting from the inner compartment and leveled their guns at her? Would she have panicked? Would she have run? Would she have cursed at them? Would she have shut up and gone without a fight?
She didn’t know. That worried her.
The sunset was gone. The stars blazed like cool, distant fires. They made her think of all the times she’d watched them with her siblings when they were all young. It had been hard to be young, but now she missed it more than anything. Being young meant being powerless, and being powerless meant being trapped. But it also meant being isolated, unaware, and ignorance was precious. To a point.
She reached the top of a particularly tall hill as the last light faded from the West, and there she stopped. Ahead of her, her parents’ estate spread across a shallow valley: six small buildings and one large one, all prettily painted and gilded and maintained. They sat in a circle with the biggest building at its head, directly in front of her. Small paved roads stretched from each one, meeting in a miniature square with a fountain at its center. The stars sparkled above them, and she thought they looked like diamonds.
She sighed. She looked from the stars to the buildings and back again. Then she spoke.
“How beautiful it is.”
She watched for another moment, then spoke again.
“How beautiful it is.”
The same words, but a different tone. The first time, her voice had been soft, almost reverent. Now it carried a hint of incredulity. A hint of shock.
“How beautiful it is.”
More shock. Confusion. Frustration and anger. Disbelief.
“How beautiful it is!”
Her head thrown back, face turned to the stars. Fists clenched. She was shouting, and she barely knew why. She was furious, uncomprehending and enraged and helpless. She was the little kid again, crying on the bench. She had to be dreaming. She was completely awake. She didn’t know what to do.
“How beautiful it is!” she screamed at the sky. “You hear that? You hear how beautiful it is? What do you think you want to do with that, huh? You see that, and what do you want to do with it? What does that make you want to do, seeing something as beautiful as that? What do you think you’re doing? What do you think you’re doing?”
She fell silent, breathing hard. Whoever that speech had been meant for wasn’t paying attention. Whoever that speech had been meant for was probably eating dinner in bed and watching the news: the horrible, horrible news.
She descended the gentle slope to the estate. Her building was closer than the others, which was why she had come from this side instead of using the all-purpose path. She approached it on cautious feet, looking from side to side as she made her way to the back door and touched the lock panel.
The door opened soundlessly. She entered the dark foyer and passed through without a pause, walking down the front hall and up two flights of stairs. Her room was on the top floor. Its door slid open at her approach, and she stepped inside.
She saw a one-way window filling a wall, facing the hills. A great, cushioned bed covered with a blue quilt. Walls painted green, with designs etched in gray around the edges. A large desk in one corner, with her black tablet on top. Ambient light, turning on as she brushed her hand over a switch on the wall. An expansive closet. A huge set of electronic books in an ornate shelf. A heated gray rug on the floor.
A phone on a small table. As if on cue, it began to beep.
She looked around the room. She hesitated. Then she went to her desk and picked up the tablet. With her other hand, she grabbed a few electronic books. She placed them all carefully on the bed.
She hesitated again. Then she went to the phone. She looked at the caller screen. She picked it up.
“Lady dio Palladon.”
It wasn’t a question. She didn’t treat it as one.
“Yes. What do you want?”
“You know what you’ve done.”
“What are the charges?”
“You have refused an order directly from the Coalition Center itself. You have continued to refuse when told of your error. In doing so, you have weakened national security and suggested a potential for treason. In addition, investigations conducted after your disobedient statement reveal an extremely high probability that you supported several anti-Coalition uprisings. In the face of said evidence, we are forced to arrest you immediately if you confirm your refusal.”
A prepared statement. They had been ready for her.
“I’d like to rephrase that,” she said evenly. “First of all, I did support the uprisings, and I’m proud of it. They were more like peaceful protests until your people showed up, but call them whatever you like, I’m in favor of everyone involved. And as for my ‘disobedient statement,’ try this version. Your Coalition Center ordered me to join planning for the Great Bomb. I said we might as well just kill ourselves with what we have now. The Coalition said we needed to use it on the Gatherlands and I’d be a traitor if I didn’t use my brilliant brain on it. I said ‘Fine, then I’ll be a traitor to you and loyal to humanity.’ The Coalition said it would come to get me, but it would give me one last chance first. I went home. And here we are. So who’s being disobedient to whom?”
A pause. Then, “Lady dio Palladon. With only a small punishment, you may change your mind and obey the Coalition. If you refuse, we will be forced to--take measures against you.”
“Great. See you then,” she said, and hung up. She turned to gaze around the room once more, absorbing it as she had the pond and the hills and the stars.
She would be able to contact her family soon enough. That wouldn’t be a problem.
She began to smile. Now she knew what she would do. That was one fear off of her shoulders.
She went to her bed and picked up the books and tablet.
She faced the door.
“You can’t make me,” she said. “I won’t let you.”
She went to the door. She turned out the lights. She left. Then she got the flyer.