Sofokles Solomo Shipwright was waiting outside the massive doors to the Empress’ throne room and hoped he wouldn’t have to wait another three years. He had only stood and waited here once before, when he had delivered the ship for the Crown Consort of the Empress as part of Herocles’ team, decades ago.
Now he remembered the vacant black eyes of the Honor Guard and their threatening weapons - meant to look traditional, but featuring latest technology without a question. He remembered the texture of the doors, the black and blueish stone arranged in a dizzying pattern which seemed to shift over time. He remembered the silence - there was no conversation here in the antechamber, just the next supplicants waiting in line and the Honor Guard looking at nothing in particular.
Despite the latent excitement of the upcoming meeting with the Empress, the Shipwright was almost bored - there was nothing more to do, the exact ritual and procedure had been drilled into his memory the last weeks and he could run the program without a second thought. The only little worry that remained stood behind him about five steps, Aodeklan Aureus, the new ship’s Aestheticist. He had faltered in the rehearsal time and time again, improving little in the weeks of training, forgetting his words and his lines and the correct way to move. Only in the last two days had he made fewer mistakes, and the only rehearsal that went flawless was the master rehearsal a couple of hours ago. The shipwright could see him lose his nerve in the presence of the Empress and wondered how to handle the situation.
Aodeklan’s work on the ship was outstanding, his impressive vision that manifested itself in the chambers and decoration was awe-inspiring even to the Shipwright who had seen it every day for the last couple of years. Every line had a purpose, every color evoked the right emotion at the right time; for every surface the Aestheticist had required a material that fitted in all haptical properties and also had the correct sonic responses. But for some reason, he had stumbled in the rituals and in the recitals until the Shipwright thought he even detected a hint of annoyance in the otherwise calm facade of the Court Teachers.
Failure was not an option, not only for the delay of the monetary reward, but for the embarrassment that would encloak him and his team, wasting the time of the Empress, losing face in front of the Infinite Ruler.
When he heard the low, singing sound of the gong and the stone doors parted, the Shipwright mumbled a quick prayer before he moved. In lockstep, they entered the Hall of Stars - the Shipwright, the Principal Architect, the Ion Master and the Aestheticist.
The throne hall was a vast cathedral of translucent arches, light and darkness sparkled and shifted at every movement as if they had walked into a kaleidoscope. It was hard to determine what was inside and what out, for beyond the glass walls, the sun was setting in a blaze of orange hues and red fire, while on the opposite side, there were already stars sparkling in a black sky. But were there walls? One couldn’t be sure. The Shipwright knew that it wasn’t really the end of the day, so that the sunset was an illusion and he knew that it had been like this during the last visit as well. Did it ever change? Since no one was allowed to talk about their audience with the Empress, the Shipwright could only guess whether the Hall of Stars always looked like perpetual dusk. Maybe the Empress lived on a different time schedule, or changed the time of day on a whim?
With calm and even movement, they approached the throne at the far end of the Hall, past the vast array of statues and busts - generations of artists, poets, architects and shipwrights rendered in a mixture of marble and holograms. The constantly changing light made it difficult to guess the distance to the throne. It seemed they didn’t approach it at a constant speed - it varied in size and sharpness, which made the Shipwright slightly dizzy. A thought came back to his mind, that he had tried to count his steps the last time, but failed to do so, the numbers maddeningly jumbled after a while. He had deduced that some powerful psychoelectric forces were being used, all to make the whole meeting-the-Empress experience more powerful, or maybe to protect her, or maybe both.
The throne itself was a golden stepped pyramid, etched with writings and decorated with a host of plants, flowers and corals which eased the mind. Seated upon the seventh step there was the Empress, the Infinite Ruler, the Mother of the Sun and the Moons. She was dressed in a deceptively simple white tunic, her black hair artfully interwoven with several jeweled bands, smooth skin and full lips. Her eyes were alert, but not without a certain predatory - yet ageless - gaze. For a short moment, the Shipwright marveled that someone had to be responsible to keep Her Majesty’s beauty flawless all the time. What kind of life might they lead?
The protocol took over and he bowed deeply, as did the three others, beginning the formalities. Because the whole procedure was planned and structured, honed by millenia, there was no need for introductions. The Shipwright suspected that there was a host of advisors exchanging information with the Empress at all times, but the woman seemed to be fully present. One rumor suggested the existence of some entity called the Solar Duke, who might be the Empress’ right hand, but he or she wasn’t present, at least not visibly. The Shipwright waited until the Empress had looked at all of them in turn and indicated with a slight nod that he might begin.
He stepped forward and began his ode.
Daughter of Time! Hear our bid,
humbly, as we speak to you,
We are but a faint cry
O! To be in your presence, Infinite Queen!
You! Who made us a home!
Among the stars
Spreading humanity to prosper
In the vast emptiness of eternal space!
You! Who commandeered the Ark!
from the bounds of the planet,
Delivering a future for millenia to come!
You! Our radiant ruler!
Made of stardust and cosmic rays,
Plucking us from misery and doom,
To raise us as your children in perpetuity!
O! Sister of Creation!
Accept this token of our crafts,
This machine of perfection
This celestial vessel, let it catch your light!
As build by me,
Sofokles Solomo Shipwright
For the grace of my Empress
So shall it sail eternally
Over the inner worlds
In their abundant organic beauty
Over the isolated salt worlds
With their azoic heat blasted canyons
Over the ringed gas giants
Their richness in minerals and promise
Over the plutonian rim worlds
Which long to see your brilliant radiance
From our home world
It shall sail to the depths of space
And back again.
The Shipwright felt the excitement in his last words, immense pride on the completed task. He even imagined the hint of a smile on the Empress’ face, ever so mysterious. To him, it was the pinnacle of praise. All the uncertainty vanished: they would deliver their odes perfectly and it would please the Empress. He was certain. The woman then fixated the principal architect, who began at her nod. His voice seemed to lose itself in the cathedral, so he spoke up as he recited his ode.
Daughter of Time! O, Golden Regent!
As the rays from the stars illuminate your beauty
So shall your new ship grace your holy being
As it moves through the silence
As it bridges the oceans of stillness
As it carries you to distant worlds
Under the fire of the sun.
Helinea! O, Great One!
As the Argo sailed past Charybdis,
So shall our creation shield you from harm
As it blazes through the atmosphere
As it becomes your cocoon
As it is the chariot
That you steer as Helios did.
O! Sol Invictus!
As I, Architect Arvakr, Ninth of this name,
Have labored, so I wish to earn your grace,
Today and Forevermore.
The Principal Architect fell silent. Traditionally, his part was the shortest and the words varied little, sampled from a myriad of years, in which Shipwrights and Architects had presented ships to their respective rulers. The Ion Master came next, his poem the most unusual, spoken in short, shot-like sentences.
Let this ship
Across the chasm
(The Ion Master’s words were now more sung than said at this moment)
Singular in Space
Bending The Seconds
Inverting the Flow!
Collimated Laser Beams
Charged by Fission!
Releasing the energy
Of a million suns!
I, Ion Master Tervile Aint-Kaëns,
Have formed the equations
To my will
So this vessel will shoot
With Aethon’s breath
Like a dart
Across the heavens!
Silence rang like a bell in the epic hall of the Empress once the Ion Master had finished. The only one left to complete the ritual was the Aestheticist. The Shipwright hoped that everything would go according to the last rehearsal. It had to be perfect. He longed for the approval of the Empress and wanted to finish this task. It all depended on the last poem. The Empress regarded the Aestheticist for a long while, resting her dark gaze on his features. He remained calm, meeting her inquiring stare with his chin slightly raised. The Shipwright felt his skin crawl, there should be deference, avoidance, submission. The Aestheticist displayed none of this, worse, he almost seemed to radiate defiance, as if he knew he had the upper hand. The woman on the throne seemed to enjoy this mute exchange. Was that a slight and sly smile playing on her lips? The Shipwright couldn’t interfere, it would violate all protocols and be a swift cause for their immediate dismissal. He kept quiet, subduing the voices that urged him to speak out. He tried to sink into a meditative breathing state. After the Empress had finally given her nod, the Aestheticist began to speak.
As darkness falls on planet’s side
And as we face the midnight skies
Then from the western shore so bright
Your star captures our greedy eyes
The Shipwright almost yelled out. Almost. Not only was the Aestheticist not keeping to the rehearsed words, he was also inventing a new poem! It was most peculiar, spoken in a measured manner and the syllables rhymed every second line. He was ruining everything, he was jeopardizing the whole enterprise. But as the Empress didn’t stop the recital, the Shipwright could only listen, frozen with terror and shame.
An ember flare, a fiery spark
Behold the moon’s white silver shine
Emerging from the sacred dark
A goddess on the wings of time
Terror turned to anger. This was a transgression on the most serious level, an affront of tradition. A sacrilege in slow motion. The Shipwright didn’t know what punishment awaited them, how the Empress would react. How dared he! The trust, so slowly built toward the designer, turned to ashes. Not even his brilliant work would save them now. Yet the poem continued, the words cruelly unpredictable.
Firm as the light of life her grip
Shrouded in a cerulean hue
Our holiest Empress leaves her ship
That I, Aureus, build for you.
He smiled at the Empress. Next to the Shipwright, the Architect shifted uneasily, also trying to control his discomfort. This was unheard of, far beyond the point where bravery turned into stupidity. It could mean a fast end to all them; those thoughts were already forming beneath the surface, threatening to overwhelm the Shipwright. He stood in cold sweat, all his confidence evaporated. There was surprisingly little reaction from the ruler, she seemed thoughtful, but not exactly angry. Surely she would be merciful? Could she admonish them for the breach of protocol and still let them go? In the perpetual sunset that flooded the throne hall, time seemed to crawl to a halt. Until the Empress nodded again, a small motion of the chin. Preparing her verdict. Her voice and the golden sunlight seemed to be one and the same as she said: “This has pleased me. Sofokles Solomo Shipwright, I accept your offer. You shall be rewarded richly and fully. Arvakr, Ninth of your name, I accept your offer. You, too, shall be rewarded richly and fully. Master Tervile, your offer is also accepted. Your reward will be rich and full. Leave now, may you go in peace. All except Aodeklan Aureus. Your display of courage was most unusual. It shall not go unrewarded. You shall take a new position as my First Aestheticist, responsible for the decoration of the Throne Hall and my private chambers.”
As the Shipwright left the great hall, he dared to turn around to look at the slight figure of the Aestheticist one last time. Not bad for a mere human, he thought. Not bad at all.