The Celestrian Empire

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The duke had always thought that the room was larger than it should have been. The first generation of colonists had decided that to really embody the "Ming spirit" they had to create something truly grandiose. The pavilion was a strange blend of Chinese pagoda and neo-Gothic palace, which would have jarred the eye if it wasn't already dazzled by the slick and weighty coat of gold.

The duke sighed, leaning his head on his hand. The occasional flickers of fear the partygoers shot towards his throne bothered him. His father wouldn't be bothered - but then again, his father was relaxing on a pleasure beach in Shanyang, having abdicated the world for another century. He'd be back to reclaim his throne, in time. Meanwhile, his son would be the one to navigate Gongji's future, the agitated people, the endless chorus of cousins and grand-nephews who he had all betrayed at one point, and who had all at one point betrayed him.

A serving-girl brought him a plate, but he waved it away. Her hands had trembled. Was it him they feared, with his slight frame and twitching hands? Was it his office, with the grandeur and power it came with? The memory of his father? Or was it just the mask, that piece of lurid grotesqurie that mocked its ancient models? He didn't know. It didn't matter. The others danced, with hidden faces, looking towards his altar.

His hand fingered something in his palm. It was a small thing, with a definite weight to it. His plans had been complicated. Everything was intended to go off like the ticking of a clock, but there was a stoppage in it - one that would have to be dealt with, and fast.

This stoppage was dressed in black, a crane mask over dark red eyes.

People don't see one another. They don't see the passions, heartaches, the theologies and philosophies of others; only translations, filtered through language, bias and perception. A beautiful piece of music to one is a cacaphony to another, because of the context in which each of them exists.

China is a country, a concept, a civilisation or whatever you want to define it as. It has existed in one form or another for millenia. Over the long march of time, it has developed intricate, complex societies, with their own turmoils, debates, crises, developments, changes both slow and fast in the constant transformations of history.

But when the Europeans came, and viewed it through their own lenses, all this complexity became a monolith. The translation of culture altered the image. They could not see the subtleties, the philosophy, the thoughts and traditions that went into methods of rule or forms of verse.

China had to be the Other, so it was cast as barbaric, "lesser" through specific forms of cruelty that wouldn't have been out of place in Europe only a generation before. All struggle, beauty and comradeship was annihilated in lurid tales of slow-slicing and pigtailed servants. A society of absolutism, where people were not people but the end-points of chains of power, leading back to an emperor whose majesty was only rivalled by decadence. A state where history had stopped centuries ago.

"Celestria is built on air." Mary's matter-of-fact voice was at odds with her odd phrasings. Tsukiko had noticed this, in the months they'd spent together; a certain deliberate disdain that would occasionally twist into whimsy. It was like Mary had learnt how to close herself off, rather than being born to it. It interested her. When this was all over, she hoped to know the other woman better.

"It's a kingdom built on an absent ideology. Money is what greases its wheels; the rest is just so much void. They care about appearance - not for the sake of taste or understanding, but simply to overawe their slave-class and foreign dignitaries into despair. The court protocol, the tawdry art and the diamond pavilions - these are all facsimiles, edificies. And once you're past the edifice, it's easy to spot the cracks."

She spread a set of blueprints across the table. The lines interlaced with each other over the cracked surface, weaving complexities that dazzled Tsukiko. Mehmed just whistled.

"Is that a Tiger Maze?" he asked, hands twitching in excitement.

Mary nodded. "The void beneath the image. A line of distorted reality that spins our dimension into a spiral, trapping all whose minds have not been attuned to it within. You'll be trapped forever without even realising it, your life stretching out forever in a forgotten kind of hell. Your identity will shift, merge, dissolve but never end. It's very Celestrian; an edifice of security that does more to enhance the mystique of the ruler than keep your vaults secure."

The three were silent for a moment. Starlight shone down through the windows, washing over them. Each was illuminated in turn as the autopilot twitched the ship, just slightly.

"So how do we get in?" Tsukiko said, quietly.

"Thankfully, quite simply. The Ducal and Foundation archive, aside from a demonstration of the Foundation's need to cling to power, is also connected to the Grey Pavilion, one of the summer-halls of the Duke. He is holding a party there for the usual crowd of Celestrian elites, famous skyfarers and Imperial businessmen they want to defect. If we get into the party, getting to the maze will be easy. And as it happens, I still have some contacts in the Foundation here. Shouldn't be too hard to get a few spare invites."

"And getting past the maze?" Mehmed asked.

"We need an approved person; someone whose mind has been attuned to the maze's tricks. A simple brain-scan, plastering a veneer of their mind on your own. You could hide a scanner in a button, they're so small nowadays. Anyone who works in the archive will do." Mary smiled - the kind of smile Tsukiko knew well. She'd seen it on too many people. The kind you saw on someone who lived for the thrill of movement, the chase, the strenuous work in the last mad panicked hours.

"Yes, keep smiling," came Mehmed's dry voice. "Absolutely nothing could go wrong with this plan."

The image of China most Europeans possessed was, then, not an edifying one. But in every society, when people get bored enough, they start looking abroad for inspiration. Or at least, they look deep into those images of the Other that they themselves have conjured. And so one group of rich trillionaires, dissatisfied with the high taxes and bland centrisms of the Empire's propaganda arm, came up with an idea. Wouldn't it be so much better, so much more civilised, to become an Orientialist Despot? To rule, with an infinite number of eastern servants at one's command, ready to satisfy every whim and desire that any Westerner could want. Their world was a just world, after all; it simply needed to become fact.

The movement ripped through the Empire's elites like wildfire, and soon enough, a capital flight began as more and more companies and investors emigrated to a new society on the edge of space. Palaces were built, twice as gaudy and thrice as ignorant as the Brighton's exoticised east. Wives were given harems to look after, a newfound status mixed with a new kind of oppression. Dress, bureaucracy, music, palaces - all modelled on what they had once thought China was, but serving them, their needs, their desires, their mindsets.

Gold dazzles. Tsukiko was dazzled. The room was moving, spinning, twisting around in a colour designed to blind. She forced herself to focus on the here-and-now.

There was a chandelier above her. It was the only constant in all of this. The room was square but the roundness of this solid, central thing gave it a peculiar feeling. Like it was the axis of the world. She put a hand to her head, and fought her way towards the edges of the room. Her mask was of a rabbit.

The people were talking all around her. They were whispering in English - why was it English? Why were they all white, or wearing skin-grafts that made them look like - she shuddered. She wanted to spit. She remembered China, the real China, before all this. They'd transferred her before too long, and she was glad. She'd been lucky. Nowhere near Nanjing, or the burials, or the Unit. She had always wondered if she'd have the moral fortitude to face them. She'd gone to Midway and encountered a different kind of horror.

What she remembered of the place was people, some hungry, some angry, all honed down to survival. They were not the caricatures they'd told her about. Just people trying to scrape by, heads half full of common sense and half full of the centuries of tradition that all nations suffered through. People trying to work out how to make something new and what to preserve of the old, even as the rice-fields burnt.

But here, now, the grotesque masks leered. She had to get out. She had the image, she'd done the mind-graft in an immaculate cubicle while a woman wept in the next stall, crying and crying and crying, and there was Lord Hong-Cousins discussing labour protests in Shanyang and the Northern independence suppression by our Brave Boys who understood the value of their own slavery and the chandelier span and the Duke was staring at her on his throne and-

And there was the door. Two tigers emblazoned over a green circle, crisscrossing lines within it. A tiger maze.

It is not difficult to see through the charade of this plan. These men of means created a state where there was no regulation, no law but that of unrestrained competition. The Emperor and his bureaucracy existed to service these hundreds of thousands of corporate entities, savaging each other in endless drives for more bodies. And those bodies had to be of a certain type - Chinese, Japanese or Korean in descent, just to add an extra spring of authenticity as the divide between rich and poor took on yet more racial coding. Who they were, where they came from, the specificity of their cultures and experiences didn't matter; as long as they looked close enough to the storybook villains the "Celestrians" had grown up on.

It was a horror show. Even the Empire's autocrats balked at some of the stories that came from their informants. Promises of dignity and a living wage would entice workers from the Coal Chain. They would travel untold lightyears across the sky, only to be locked inside slave-pits and demented harems. The rich had their every desire catered to, justified by the "restoration of ancient cultures". There was none of that, of course; just occasional artistic exhibitions which only the elites could see, where spiritual artifacts or crafts of searing passion were repackaged as the birthright of white Americans and Englishmen who fancied themselves the true Chinese.

The emperor danced, stamping on the subaltern as he pillaged their souls.

Was this all? Tsukiko frowned.

There was a corridor, made of wooden oak. Two identical doors were at the end of the passage. Portraits of notables of Gongji lined the wall, tall white faces in mock-Qing robes. She walked forwards, considered, and chose the left one.

There was a corridor, made of black steel. Yes, this felt right. Attuned. This was good. She walked forward, past the portraits on the walls showing Imperial notables. Strange that they would be here, but she supposed this place was meant to diorient. She turned twice, and saw two doors. She chose the right one.

There was a corridor, made of pine. Two identical doors were at the end of the passage. Sculptures of notables of Gongji lined the wall, tall white faces in mock-Yuan robes. She relaxed. This was right. She was almost there. She walked forwards, considered, and chose the left one.

There was a gullet, made of the flesh of a swan. A hole into its stomach lay at the end. Saliva and blood lined the sides. She walked forward, slipping and sliding as she descended. The oesophagus split into two. She chose the upper passage, sliding through a darkness until-

There was a corridor. She knew this one. The one in her childhood home, sliding doors shifting to and fro across every surface. She chose one on the left. She was glad to be near the end. Why was she wearing a rabbit mask? Hadn't she come in with a crane?

There was a corridor, made of glass. A child was being beaten all around it for doing things that it should not have done. She didn't have to look. She walked to the end and opened a corridor onto a door onto a corridor onto a-

There was a corridor, made of wooden oak. Two identical doors were at the end of the passage. Portraits of notables of Gongji lined the wall, tall white faces in mock-Qing robes. She walked forwards, considered, and chose the left one. Why was she crying? Why was she despairing? She was a-

She was at a party, and hating it. The walls were black, a jet pavilion of Lord Cartwight's own design. There was the usual array of dignataries and notables; the usual stuff Foundation operatives had to suffer these days. The 50s had been better, but time moved on. The Soviets had recently revealed a new kind of dimensional weapon, and so the British were smarming up to their shady clan even more than usual. So here she was, in Scotland, listening to this bore of a man drone on about his views on her field.

She was exhausted. She didn't have much more to give. A prize physicist being steered around the party by sweaty men with design contracts who thought of her as just a name, or a body, or the prestige factor that their own geniuses could take. She excused herself, went to the lavatory, shut herself in a cubicle and wept.

A face appeared over the side of the next cubicle. An Oriental woman - was that the right word? She didn't know. She had never met someone from that far east, except through correspondence. Her face was hard, but kind. Weathered, that was the word.

She wiped her eyes. "I'm sorry," she murmured. "Don't be," smiled the other. "I'm Tsukiko, Hisakawa Tsukiko. You're Mary Bosworth, aren't you? We corresponded by letter, talking about the anomalous properties of antimemetic apes in northern Borneo. Are you OK?" "Oh yes I'm quite alright" she responded, wondering why she was Mary. She got up, opened the door, stepped into a corridor, stepped through a door, and-

And the Duke was sitting in front of her, mask over his face, smile on his lips.

"Hello, Tsukiko," he said. "I think we'd better have a talk."

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