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SWC A17 - Synthetic Beauty

Arisia'17 Student Writing Contest - 1st Place Winner

Synthetic Beauty

By Annie Colby-McKeon

Everybody knew her.

 It was as though she had some kind of halo, some kind of aura. The whispers preceded her entry to a room--hissing, croaking, like cats, like crickets--and when she left, they swelled in tempo, an eerie, noxious chorus. Rumors passed from mouth to mouth, things said in hushed tones but never straight to her face. It was not merely enough that she was the Director's daughter. It was not anything so trivial that served to raise her to mythic status.

It was that she was Chosen.

 Jax often thought (privately, to himself, of course) that her presence at the Academy made everything useless. He was not alone in this thought. Clustered along one side of the dining hall, watching her suspiciously, as though they expected themselves to be prey, the lot of them felt one singular, collective ache. Their own inadequacy was something that twisted inside all of them, every day, every day they saw her escorted to class with armed guards, her gait floating, ethereal. Every day, when she trained for the solstice in the courtyard, her motions fleeting and graceful, like a bird's quick flight. It was as though she had screamed it in their faces: you are not good enough.

They were all perpetually playing for second, and the knowledge of that alone was enough to blow a hole through their already patchy lives. It was a sort of madness that took hold of them, something fevered, building in the blood. The desire for perfection felt like a knife blade in their hearts, cutting, twisting, slicing deeper and deeper with each breath they took.

Her superiority was multi-fold--she did not just have one virtuous quality, she had them all--and so their quest for her brand of perfection was similarly multilayered. They had different methods, different approaches, but any way they sliced it, the goal was the same; to attain the Chosen's level of perfection, one had to make sacrifices.

She was beautiful by anyone's standards; dusky gray skin, big violet eyes that seemed to pull you in, lips so red they put blood to shame. And so Jacinda had to be beautiful too--slender and tall, with long, impossibly thin legs. Thin, thinner, thinnest, once fleshy arms turning to long bones,

She was smart, and so Casimir had to be smart too, running himself ragged every night, studying, trying desperately to outmatch her, outrun her. Sometimes he went for so long without sleep that he dissolved into fits of hysterical exhaustion, twitching in a frenzy of over-caffeinated fervor and muttering bits of old Earth poems under his breath.

She was powerful, and this was it--this was what held Jax in suspension, what speared him through the heart, what captivated him and kept him awake at night, staring at his ceiling in a daze that was half sleep and half something darker, something more sinister. Powerful--and power was something you were born with. You could try, you could strain, you could kill yourself trying, trying, crying, reaching for the power until your blood vessels burst from the effort. Power. She had it. Jax didn't.

It was eating him from the inside out. He was not the only one.
"It's all crap." They were in Jax's dorm room. All of them were sprawled in what were sort of considered their personal positions of leisure, strewn across the furniture like so many abandoned toys.

That was Jacinda, her legs braced up against Jax's headboard, her feet flexing, the muscles under her skin swimming like eels. "I mean, seriously."

Casimir raised his head from his permanent position over his physics textbook and looked at her through dull eyes. "Which part?" he asked.

Jacinda made a sharp barking sound in the back of her throat. "You're kidding, right?"

Casimir's mouth puckered. "I wasn't, but please continue your mockery. It's humbling."

"Hm." Jacinda shifted restlessly and rolled until her long, skinny legs were braced against Jax's wall. Her bony feet were rumpling his posters but he couldn't manage to care.

"It's not like any of us are going to be anything, you know?"

 Jax, crouched on the corner of the mattress, was close enough to Jacinda to see the tendons in her neck flex. Casimir made a rough, throaty noise and turned a page, paper rustling. "Fair enough," he said, delicately. "But what can we do?"

That was the problem. They knew they were ineffectual. They were useless, and they couldn't do anything about it. She would forever beat them--without even trying--and they would be left forever failing to live up to an impossible standard, no matter what they did.

It was spring, just barely, the time when the air just carried the barest edge of winter's bite. The planets were carried in their circular orbit, spinning, still locked in their endless revolution, the force of which was sufficient enough to cause no small amount of tension among the students and faculty of the academy alike. When one looked at the sky one could make out the effect of the planetary shift, gradual but still there.

Next year was the year the Chosen would align the planets once again. Next year was the year they would graduate. Next year was the year of the schism, the year the planets in their orbit began to drift. Next year, they would lose it all.

This knowledge served to awaken a sort of vivid madness among the students. Every week, it was different; another girl escorted off campus, muttering to herself and chewing on her fingernails, her eyes wild. A boy, wandering barefoot and half-naked through the courtyard, his eyes cloudy with pilfered opioids. It was something in the air, something that foamed and purred and built inside of all of them.

The snow was beginning to melt off, and the summer crew was slowly trickling in. In the town square the vendors were beginning to set up shop, advertising silk and tea and sugar from the moons of far-off worlds, their voices high and fluting.

The carnival came to town.

It blew in out of nowhere; suddenly, the tents were in the square; jugglers, clowns, acrobats, and the sword-swallower, her ring-studded fingers glittering as brightly as her blades.

Jax often liked to wander through the carnival, absorbing it all. The lights, the colors, the sounds, the smells. The plethora of life available fascinated him utterly. The variety. It was an assault on the senses, and against his better nature, he loved how anonymous it made him feel, like he was nothing and no one, a ghost in the machine.

Jax would never admit it, but his favorite part of the carnival was the freak show. He was fascinated by oddity, by the way it made him feel as though there were more to his life than just work. The freaks: the girl with backward-bending knees, the boy with two heads, the four-legged man; they were symbols of something greater and more wondrous than Jax could ever imagine.

He would remember this later with a sort of stunning, crystalline clarity. He was at the fair. He was wandering. He'd just bought a paper cup of roasted nuts and was eating them slowly, one by one, wandering among the freaks. The sword swallower was on break, and was smoking by one of the big tops and eyeing him curiously, her big green eyes narrowed.

From the corner of his eye, he saw her.

It was like seeing a ghost. She was wearing a log dark cloak that fell to the ground and hid every part of her but her face, which was pale and bloodless, like the moon obscured by clouds. Her wide purple eyes were bright, but cold, like distant stars.

His mouth formed her name. He wasn't even aware of calling her until her head jerked up.


Fear filtered through her eyes; they were like a kaleidoscope, flickering through the different colors. Blue, purple, green. Fear, anger, horror, and then she took off running, her long cloak flying out behind her like a pennant.

He didn't know why he ran after her, really. It wasn't like a conscious decision, wasn't like brushing your teeth or playing the fiddle. It was like lightning in his blood, like fire, like an electric shock.

It was not easy.

The carnival served as a kind of labyrinth, a maze. He lost sight of her more than once, weaving through the tents, her slender shadow weaving in and out of the brightly striped tents. He bumped into people more than once, tripped over tent posts, apologized profusely. It felt as though there were a string attached between him and her; he had to follow her. He had to.

He caught up with her in the woods that lined the campus, just far enough away from the carnival to no longer be able to hear the music. She had stopped running a while ago, and was standing by the edge of the trees, waiting for him, her hood casting her face in shadow.

He was panting by the time he caught up; he had to double over to catch his breath. "I didn't know you came to the carnival," he gasped when he could speak.

She looked at him for a long moment before she turned away, hiding her face. Her hands, stark against the fabric of her robe, were white and clenched. "It makes me feel like a stranger," she said, flexing her fingers. "I like it."

He was so surprised that he forgot he was out of breath. He didn't realize he was staring at her until she looked away from him sharply, her motions birdlike. "A stranger," he echoed dubiously. "Why would you want to feel like that?"

Her mouth puckered, those ruby lips forming a bud. Her voice was bitter, like acid. "Would you want my life?" she demanded.

It was one of those rare moments when Jax was actually struck speechless; he gaped at her, open-mouthed, until she pulled the hood of her cloak across her face and turned away from him, her posture closed. When Jax found his voice, he was curiously breathless, like the air had been sucked out of him. "You-but your life is perfect."

At that she laughed, sharp, the same vitriol as before. This was a creature Jax had never seen before, a new Ione. She shifted, restless, throwing off her hood. Her bare scalp gleamed in the dim light. "Perfect," she snorted. "Right. What the hell do you think I'm destined for? I have my moment of glory and then I'm gone. Disposable." She made a gesture like squishing something between her palms. "They use me once and then what? Marry me off to some fat old dignitary?" Morose, she shook her head and ran her palm across her skull. "I'll die at thirty with some infant on my hip and three more pulling at my skirts, waiting on my husband hand and foot."

This image struck Jax as simultaneously wonderfully quaint and horribly sad. He could not manage to fit Ione into this idea; she was too much. Too much life, too much power, too much godlike beauty. One did not come to the Academy to become a housewife. One came to the Academy to be a god. None of them had ever considered the possibility of anything approaching a conventional life. They were the elite. And yet . . . what did happen to the Chosen? After they set the planets back into balance, where did they go?

By the look on her face, Ione could tell that Jax had never considered this. Her voice softened. "You don't want my life, Jax, believe me."

She moved to leave and that was too much, for him, too fast; he moved to grab her wrist. "Ione."

She jerked like he'd slapped her and, in her sudden movement, lost her balance on the wet grass. She staggered, trying to keep her feet, but the combination of wet ground and long cloak conspired against her and she fell, throwing her arms in front of her face to protect herself and landing rather roughly upon a large, sharp, rock. She was pushing herself back to her knees when she froze.

Kneeling beside her, Jax saw what she saw, and quite suddenly everything rocketed rather quickly into place.

Her wrist had been gashed open by the sharp edge of the rock. Instead of blood, however, what leaked out of her cut was clear and thin, like water or syrup. And there, buried deep within her wrist, a flash of metal. Like an engine, like a scaffold, like the casing of an android.

"Ione," Jax said, not entirely certain of what he was trying to say this time. The world suddenly felt tilted, like the ground beneath their feet should have been uprooted. "Ione."

Her wide purple eyes were bulging, glued to the tear in her wrist. As she moved to prod it with her finger, her skin tore further, exposing a series of bolts and rivets, and she let out a wild cry, scrabbling to her feet.

"Ione," Jax gasped, but she was already running, her eyes wild and frantic, like a trapped deer. This time, Jax did not follow. Instead, he wandered back through the carnival, his hands in his pockets, feeling as though he'd been clouted very hard in the back of the head.

The sword swallower was waiting by the front gates, her mouth puckered. "Your friend all right?" she asked.

"Hm?" Jax looked up at her and then back at his feet again. He knew his ears were twitching but was powerless to stop the embarrassment coursing through his veins. "Uh. She's fine." He felt strangely as though he and Ione had done something shameful, something dirty.

"Mmhm." Up close, the sword swallower's eyes were slit-pupiled, animal. She smirked at Jax, revealing teeth that were small and pointed, and scampered to stand beside him, her hand on the sword sheathed at her hip. "You tell her I said hey?" She extended her hand and that was when he saw that what he had thought were the rings on her fingers were actually metal joints, holding the parts of her chrome fingers together. Robot's hands, beautifully engineered and shining in the dim lights.

It was later when he was in his room, thinking, knocking around, crashing through the dimensions in his head, when it occurred to him to begin to wonder about what this meant for all of them, for everyone else in the academy.

Did they have a chance? Now? And at what cost to Ione?

As though he had summoned her, suddenly, there was a knock at the door and there she was, like the moon, rising in his room, a tornado, a supernova, a black hole opening up, filling his life with shadow. She was so beautiful, like the sky or the stars or something otherworldly. As a child Jax had been out into space to see the creatures that swam through the empty places there, the things that had no name but were well-known nonetheless, for their beauty and grace if nothing else.

Ione was like them: simply, lovely.

Her eyes, when she looked at him, were haunted. She was haggard, like she hadn't rested, and looked weary, beaten-down. Her hands, when she brought them to her face, were shaking.

"They built me," she said.

"Built you--" he began, but she wasn't finished. She was restless, twitchy, moving fast.

"They commissioned me and they built me because they needed me. I'm not real." She ran a hand across the back of her neck. Her voice was a smoker's, scraped and raw. "I--I'm a machine."

Jax considered this. "Does--does that matter? Can't you still do your job?" He stared at her, at her eyes, at her hands, none of it real, all of it beautiful. "I mean--what do you want to do?"

Her eyes were vacant. The synthetic beauty was profoundly lovely, but the inside was dead, hollow. "I want to be real," she whispered.

Something possessed him then. He reached for her--there, he could touch the stars--but she jerked away, stood, reached for the door.

"I--goodbye, Jax," she said shortly, and then she ran, a shooting star.

She was always running, always, and so it was no surprise to him, then, that the next morning the carnival was gone and so was she, like ashes in the wind.

He liked to picture it sometimes, later, and with no small amount of fondness; there she was, her purple eyes, her cloak, waiting outside the big tops at midnight. And there was the sword-swallower, her iridescent hair and her pointy teeth, holding out her metal hand and saying, "You're one of us, girlie."

And later he would picture her on some stage showing off the metal under her skin and he felt an odd sort of bittersweet joy, the sorrow of something lost and the joy of something gained, all at once. Like the death of a star; beauty was lost, but something equally lovely was born.