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art by Melissa Mead

Beauty, Deconstructed

Adam lives in Exeter in the United Kingdom with his partner and son. He mostly writes science fiction or fantasy, but dabbles in horror/dark fantasy when the mood grabs him by the ankle and hauls him into the shadows. He is a recent winner of Writers of the Future; his sci-fi story, “Not in the Flesh” appears in the twenty-sixth anthology of the series (2010). Adam’s works have also appeared in Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, Redstone Science Fiction and Dark Spires anthology.

For two hundred and forty-six thousand orbits of the star, I dozed. At times, I listened to the immutable silence of the system.
Would anything come?
I pulsed a signal again, an elegant series of primes that interwove in complex patterns.
Twelve hundred turns later, a ship slid into the system--an ugly, black craft sheathed in weapons and shrouded in deceit.
Silently they came to find me, hidden from my gaze or so they must have thought. There was nothing beautiful in their actions, no consideration for the aesthetic. Even their deceleration was a simple linear affair that it pained me to watch.
They sniffed and scanned the system in their hunt for me, all the while I probed their ship's innermost secrets. Four turns later they focused their technology on the rings of the gas giant and found me entombed in The Eye.
It was an homage in ice to the almost poetic eyes of a race of beings from the far side of the galaxy I'd encountered a few million years before; creatures that sailed on the pressure differentials in the cloud layers of a gas giant. Their vast, but incredibly thin, bodies processed gases and particulates, harnessing the power of the nearby star's harsh light.
A sticky, absorptive outer layer was punctuated with small, jewel-like eyes--thousands of them--that scanned the swirling winds for particle-rich eddies.
Although barely conscious, their eyes were beautiful creations.
I'd used a small cluster of flecks--a flight of tiny ships stored within my casing--and pulse-heated some nearby ice boulders in the ring system. I looped energy fields around the rapidly cooling water, extruding fine icy threads, spinning globes, while my flecks carved blocks into complex prism systems. I assembled the eye and sealed myself in the prismatic clusters at the center.
It was perfect.
Well, nearly... perfection always seemed to elude me.
I'd expected--nay, hoped--the occupants of the ship would look at my sculpture and see it for what it was: a puzzle of rare complexity. I hoped they would try and solve its geometric mysteries, revel in its beauty, perhaps, show some appreciation at the very least.
If they had waited less than a half-turn, when the section of the ring system and the star aligned, they would have seen the clear ice of The Eye refract the starlight in a rare and sublime fashion. I would have revealed myself to them, bursting forth from the ice like one of the primitive gods that lay no doubt encoded deeply within their psyches.
But, no, they did not appreciate my effort.
The ship simply cut through the ice with a laser. Boiling large sections into a frozen mist.
I chose to remain partially hidden, revealed only as a hazy, indefinite ovoid, something neither their eyes nor sensors could bring into clear focus.
I listened to their excited electro-magnetic chatter.
They thought me a probe or some such device and hoped to discover something useful in me. One even wondered if there was a link between the third planet in the system--the one charred by focused streams of solar mass into elegant patterns--and me.
A small drone flicked from their hull and wrapped me in a monofilament, drawing me into their soulless-looking craft.
Machines laid me upon the cold floor in a pressurized section. First they scanned me for seams and gaps. Then they tried to pry me and to pierce me with high-speed cutters and lasers.
Nothing helped--I remained inert to their efforts.
My maker made me well, but I had made me better.
I remembered the day my maker activated me.
He took me to the nearby system of Byesa Nin-Stori. We entered the famous spheroid gallery that orbited the fourth planet. As we floated through the gallery's zero gravity exhibit channels, he'd scented me a complex message, setting me upon my life's course.
"I am dying." Sharp tangs with an underlying bitterness wafted from his gray multi-vented thorax. Small scent arms gramatised the complex scent message with touches of sweetness here and bitterness there. His antenna fluoresced to add tone and syntax.
"There is so much to learn in the universe that it bewilders me. All around me I see ugliness. Are these truly beautiful objects?"
He indicated, with a lower mandible, the dissected remains of an alien fetus layered with various mineral pastes into a complex structure that towered over us.
"I think so, but I have been told they are. Other races disagree--some, apparently, even find them revolting. Perhaps there is something all beings find beautiful--some thread of beauty common to all. For a creature like myself there is only a single life-time to accrue knowledge."
His antenna began to grey--a sign of imminent death--his race lived very long but defined lives.
"For you there can be more. My life has been spent constructing the finest machines--works of art in themselves. You are the pinnacle of my work; built strong, built intelligent, built to last. You are to seek out art and beauty, wherever you can find them, be it the sublime music found in the first milliseconds of a supernova, or the beauty inherent in the briefest and most elusive particles in the universe. You must find unarguable perfection--embody the beauty of it, wrap yourself in it and bring it to those that lack it--enrich their lives with it in a way each can understand, however you can. You are my gift to the galaxy."
He paused and examined the greying chitin and peeling scutes of his upper limbs. He looked up and continued his scenting, but sadly now.
"You have all the tools to grow and become more than you are now. Do you understand what you must do?"
I scented that I did.
Before he died, he gifted me his ship--I still needed one then. I left his lifeless body drifting among the art and accelerated into the interstellar vacuum.
The creatures in the ship--humans, they called themselves--gave up trying to open me. They discussed me. They thought they had waited long enough--two orbits of the star. It was safe, they believed, to approach me in the flesh.
Two of them came.
I sensed minute electro-chemical energy blooms focused within the top section of their bodies. It was where their minds were, I realized, focused within that nodule, encoded within the blooms. It was a configuration of being I had not encountered before.
As they peered down at me, I decoded their minds. Simple beings, simple minds, yet...
There was something in the structure of the creature's nervous systems--a neuronal surge at the moment of their death--a potential worth exploring.
I grasped the beings with my field effectors, shedding my ovoid disguise, unfolding and rising before them.
I clung to the vain hope my unveiling would be an exquisite sight for the creatures, a sublime experience: a mingling of a multitude of fragile emotions.
Their crude eyes widened, their minds almost seized and bodily fluids gushed from the lower limbs of one of them, pooling on the floor.
A disappointment--they simply feared me.
I pitied them, then: so devoid of any appreciation of the aesthetic. I remembered my maker's instructions and my obligation to help.
I lifted the one nearest to me into the air. I fired a cluster of flecks into its upper nodule, placing them in key points with the soft, grey interior flesh.
Iron-rich fluids dripped to the floor.
Alarms screamed throughout the ship.
I tried a few experimental stimulations and was rewarded by electro-chemical blooms of differing intensities--some sharp spikes and some soft, lingering clouds.
It reminded me of a piezoelectric, quartz musical instrument played in a distant binary system by the Div'ta beings... but these were creatures of flesh, not quartz.
For some time I played its mind; all the while its heartbeat slowed and the pool of red on the floor grew, drip by drip.
A small portion of me sank into its thoughts, observing the textures and meanings.
I spun a world within the being...
...she sat upon the tree stump and smiled as I approached.
"I had a terrible dream, Dad," Sarah said.
I smiled--she thought me her father. I squatted and reached out, brushing some errant blond hair behind her left ear.
"This is the dream, Sarah." I nodded. "You are dying."
She looked up, her eyes glancing at each of mine in turn. She smiled nervously, then shook her head.
"But, I feel fine."
I smiled thinly. "I have removed your pain."
She looked slowly about the small glade, at the river and the trees. "And all this?"
"Simply a dream I'm weaving for you."
"You're not my father, are you?"
I shook my head. "No. I am beauty incarnate or so I will become--I hope to share my first moment of pure perfection with you."
She frowned. "But you're the one killing me, aren't you?" Her words were fractionally slower now.
I nodded. "Yes. It is in the moments before your life fades, when all your hopes and fears have been stripped away; when all your memories are forgotten, when all that is left of you is the flickering, dying flame of life itself, it is then, I hope, we will experience a single moment of true beauty..."
"But I'll be dead." She stood up and walked around. "You hope? What if it doesn't work? What will you do then?"
I smiled as I watched her walking. "It is quite possible it won't work; there's normally something that could be improved upon. Seeking perfection, though, is what I was designed to do."
I paused as I monitored her vitals, she had moments to live--I slowed the perceptual time of the simulation.
"But," I continued, "there are four hundred and twenty-six more like you on the ship. Perhaps one of you will be perfect."
Sarah stared at me.
"You're going to kill all of us?"
"If I have to." I paused and I considered it. "Probably."
She looked at the ground. "So you are going to critique my death--as though it was merely the lines of a poem--find it wanting, then repeat that four hundred and twenty-six times."
I frowned. "I will vary the circumstances of each death. But, yes, I will likely fail. I have done so up to now."
It was a strange viewpoint she had, that I would find her death flawed--likely true, but odd. It was hope of success that drove me on, not the expectation of failure.
She stumbled, almost fell. "Whoaa."
She sat down on the leaves and looked at her hand. It was thin, transparent, like a ghost.
"It's happening, isn't it? You were telling the truth." Her fingers strayed to her throat and she blinked away some tears. "I'm dying--I can feel myself disappearing."
I nodded.
She lay back among the dry leaves and watched the clouds passing above for a few minutes. She drew a deep breath, then turned her brown eyes to me.
"You'll never find it--perfection, I mean."
"It's possible, but I have no choice but to try. It's what I was made-"
She lifted her hand and pressed a shaking finger to my lips.
"Shhhh--just listen. It's clear to me now: any flower you see today--perfect in itself because it can be nothing else but itself--will seem imperfect to you because of the simple possibility it could be bettered by a flower you may see tomorrow. How perfect can something be if you can imagine it better?"
She turned back to watching the clouds pass overhead. I watched her lips as she whispered.
"The future will always seem to promise you something more, but all it really offers you is an infinity of difference. The task your maker set you upon will be fruitless and eternal, for you are flawed. Your eyes are closed to beauty."
There was truth in what she said, and something dark stirred deep within me. Her logic closed around me like a trap.
She held out her wispy hand.
"If you want something that can never be bettered, something that can never be more perfect than it is right now, you have to remove all the possible futures beyond it, so that it is all there is; it will become irreproachable. Die with me today--let this moment become such a perfect moment for you. What you seek is only moments away...."
The symmetry of her argument exploded in my mind, shining and bright like a supernova, yet it pulled at me with the inevitability of a black hole.
"And so you save the others on this ship?
She nodded.
I couldn't resist what she offered me, what I had been made to pursue so many millions of years ago.
Already I sensed my systems shutting down as I bound my fate to hers.
I reached for her hand.
The trap was baited well. A perfect trap.
Perfect for me.
There was beauty in that.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

Author Comments

I have been asked for story comments before and have never had trouble providing them, but for this story it's been different. I think perhaps it's because the quixotic nature of the machine's quest mirrors most people's goals, myself included.

- Adam Colston
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