I entered into a short story competition where you get 7 days to write a story with random genre, setting and character. First round, I got “sci-fi”, “audition” and “man with long fingernails”. At the very least, it was nice to finish something with the Falcon and our dedicated /lit/ shitposting group. 2500 words.
In the wake of a terrible interplanetary war, Manus is tasked with finding the worthiest pair of hands in the Earth Sphere. His Empress needs them for a statue that will secure peace in the Solar System.
Manus was not a vain man, but each supplicant that came to him was imperfect. His gilded office held three worthy citizens shortlisted by his assistant for their outstanding contributions to society. Manus steeled himself for the task ahead, hoping they did not smell too strongly of their labours. He beckoned them forward and took out his ruler and electrocallipers and began to inspect their hands, careful to mind the long fingernails expected of his position. He smiled blandly and began his assessment. He hovered the electrocallipers over each wrinkle, scar and hangnail, measuring and testing. The algae farmer’s hands were too coarse for his vision – the statue was not supposed to be rustic. The helium miner’s hands were missing a finger – the statue was not meant to be ugly. The broodmother’s hands were withered – the statue was not about the past, but of the bright new future for the planet. The people had sacrificed much in recent years to ensure peace in the wake of terrible military defeats to the Jupiter Sphere.
“Your names, citizens?” Manus said, his fingers poised over the dataslate’s touchscreen. Each recited their given names, their tithe grade and their sad little story of toil and trouble since the war began. The algae farmers’ hands were still stained green, and calloused from stirring the giant vats night and day. The miner disfigured himself in a tunnel collapse, but still turned in his share of the tithe. And the broodmother had raised a battalion of war orphans in her single human lifespan, without ever once seeking rejuvenation treatment reserved for elite workers. The dataslate had finished downloading the scans of their hands from the electrocallipers, and Manus matched them to their owners with a swipe of his long fingers.
Manus knew the pressure they were under: as Chief Technocrat he made the policy for the millions like them, planned the allocation of their production and returned to them the rewards of their toil… once he had taken his share. Yet he couldn’t help but sneer. This was a new age supposedly, so he held his anger for now. The Empress called all of Earth’s High Council together to for a very special announcement. She had seen a vision of mankind united once more on Earth, free of petty politicking and unfettered by the old ways. After the customary feast for the dozen or so members, she produced a sketch of a human standing proud and pointing to both the heavens and the earth. She tasked them to find suitable models for each element of the statue – Manus was to find the hands – and the Empress’s finest artisans would assemble them into a radiant whole. The only restriction was they had to come from the worthiest citizens, pure of form and purpose. So, Manus had suffered the intrusions of dozens of so called worthies over the last week, and all of them had been found wanting by him. But Manus could not fail the Empress’s vision.
The statue would be marble, or silver, or pure gold. The three in front of him were not fit to be immortalised with such reverence. He shooed them out of his office and shut the door. He walked to the curved window overlooking the capital, and saw the hubbub in the city he had worked in for twenty decades. It gladdened his heart to watch the serfs loading the algae biscuits into the space elevator. It would feed the helium miners on the Moon, who would in turn fuel the fusion reactors of Earth. And that would power the factories to launch the next expeditions to the Jupiter Sphere… and there would be new prizes to win for Manus. He tapped again on his dataslate, running the calculations: it would be a mere 5 years before Earth was on war footing again, if he kept pressure up on the serfs to produce. And that meant new holdings, new colonies and new wealth flowing into his pocket. Which meant another century of life from the finest of medical technology. He held his hands to the sunlight and thought: surely hands that shape history are worthy of being immortalised forever? He clawed his long fingernails around the sun and made as if to hold it. His hands were longer, stronger, smoother, sharper than anyone’s. If anyone was worthy, it was him. A plan began to form in his head. He took up the electrocallipers again and began to scan himself from wrist to the tip of his long fingernails.
When his shortlist was completed and submitted the Empress, Manus was not surprised to be called to the palace. In the gilded halls, he saw the throngs of ordinary people beaming to be in the presence of greatness, to taste unrationed food and breath unrecycled air. Here and there he caught glimpse of his fellow High Council members in the crowd, either waiting in the wings with their retainers and acolytes for the audition or sauntering through the milling serfs. There was the Labour Overseer decked out in the finest jewels and tailored robes found in the Earth Sphere, with a pair of dark glasses over her eyes. Manus knew she took a sample of everything that passed beneath her inspection. A bubble of fear surrounded the Grand Inquisitor, who was famous for sniffing out treachery and sedition. He noted with amusement the Grand Inquisitor had gilded around his nose – had be perhaps submitted himself as a model as Manus had? No matter, Manus thought, each organ of the state had a part to play, from the lowliest to the highest. Manus stretched his hands in front of him discretely – he had gone for the natural look and had his hands and nailed massaged, oiled and buffed for the audition. To further plump his chances, he selected the algae farmer, the helium miner and the broodmother as his shortlist, and they would be called together in front of the Empress, who would select the best. Manus sipped the wine delicately as he approached the three serfs, who knelt to kiss his ring of office.
“You are pleased to be here?” Manus said.
“Yes milord, oh yes. Such fancy things, and the chance to be before our Empress. They say she is a wise ruler and a woman of the people,” the algae farmer said.
“And such plans for change – I wonder what this statue will be for,” said the miner.
“I just hope she brings peace at last. I have raised too many orphans already, and I fear I am close to my end,” the broodmother said.
Before Manus could reply, a trumpet call went up in the grand hall to announce the Empress’s arrival. The room stood to attention and a hush came over the crowd. The Empress came through the double doors, flanked by two guards in golden armour. She lifted a hand in salute and the room applauded.
“Long live Earth, and her people!” the Empress hailed them.
“Long live Earth, and her Empress!” the people roared.
“We all know the body of man is greater than the sum of its parts. And so too is it with our Empire of the Earth Sphere. Each of us plays a part in the greater whole. That is why I have commissioned a statue composed of only the worthiest of our Empire,” the Empress said. A throne rose silently from the floor below her, and she elegantly parted her robes and sat down.
“Only one of you in each group will be chosen to continue to into my inner sanctum, where you shall be immortalised forever by the finest artisans in the worthiest materials. I call first the eyes,” the Empress concluded.
A stir in the crowd as the first group moved to the grand staircase – Manus saw a fighter pilot in his spacesuit, a watchmaker in his guild overalls, a painter, and the Labour Overseer swishing her robes as she walked. She flicker her eyes at Manus – she must have submitted herself as he had. Perhaps all the High Council had? Each bent in turn before the Empress as she made the final call, before picking the Labour Overseer. Her shout of delight went out over the crowd, and the Guards ushered her into the next room. The Grand Inquisitor was next to head up, along with a perfumer, a hunter and a baker. After a moment of deliberation, the Grand Inquisitor too was chosen from his group. Manus and the three serfs were next to be called, and he strode manfully forward. The throne filled his vision as he rose up the stairs, and he placed himself at the top of the queue. The three serfs filed behind him. The Empress waved him forward and Manus kneeled, presenting his hands. The Empress grasped them by the wrist and delicately traced them to the tips of Manus’ long fingernails.
“Such smooth and spotless hands. Unblemished by their long service, their many labours, and the blood spilled in Mother Earth’s name. Those behind you I know – they wear their suffering and triumphs. What do you do citizen? Why should I take your hands over anyone else’s?” the Empress said. Manus coughed, as if embarrassed. Surely the Empress knew what he had done for Earth – the extraction policies passed to wring those last few percentages from the serfs, the efficiencies gained in pensions and sick care by simply letting workers die on the job, and the ingenious plan of pushing excess population to the Jupiter front, before unrest consumed the factories. But this was a dance like any other – one had to put on one’s best face for the record.
“Your Highness, I am but a simple man who wishes to serve Earth in any way I can. Through my long life I have represented the worthy, guided them along the path of production and built your empire in the Solar System,” Manus said
“If I told you this statue would bring peace with the Jupiter Sphere and happiness to every man, woman and child on Earth, would you submit to my will?” the Empress said.
“Yes, I would your Highness. I remain your humble servant,” Manus replied, bowing, the tips of the long fingernails bobbing like the wingtips of a bird. What was a few days of posing in a lifetime of centuries? Anything was worth it to secure his fortune, and the next hundred years of medically-extended life.
“Then proceed to the next room – you have passed – join your fellow worthies,” the Empress said. The golden doors behind him opened, and the guards ushered him through.
In the next room was the Ambassador for the Jupiter Sphere accompanied by the Palace Guard. Off in the corner, two medical orderlies looked to be preparing for surgery. There was a human shaped cask in the centre of the floor. The inscription on the base read ‘Never Again: Jupiter-Earth War’. A terrible fear gripped Manus when he saw the scene. He tried to leave, but the guards seized him and threw him in chains. They dragged him behind a screen, where the Grand Inquisitor and Labour Overseer were already held. Manus was still unclear exactly what was happening, but he had a bad feeling that he betrayed himself utterly. And when the other High Council members arrived one by one, he realised they had indeed nominated themselves in their categories. And they had all won, picked by the Empress herself. With another fanfare, the Empress arrived into her chambers, and shook hands with the Jupiter Sphere ambassador. Then she turned to the assembled members of her High Council.
“I knew you would not be able to resist something like this. I knew you would continue to take, you who have already taken too much. For too long, you have profited without suffering the consequences of your failures. You thought yourselves untouchable, apart from the jockeying of power between you. But today I change that. Today I will break you and forge you into something worthy. Then we will have peace,” the Empress said. The cask began to raise itself upright, filling with a pinkish liquid. Manus recognised it as the amnion used in full-body reconstruction as he had once a century to extend his lifespan. It would sustain life and provide a scaffold for flesh almost indefinitely. The surgeons began swabbing the civil servants with disinfectants, dotting lines where the cuts would be made. The Labour Overseer was first to be strapped to the table, and the surgeons deftly removed her eyes, ignoring the screams. The Jupiter ambassador politely applauded as a sculptor took up the eye balls and pressed them into the mould. The Grand Inquisitor was next, and he steeled himself against the torture of the knife and saw, no doubt having wielded it himself if similar circumstances. But when the orderlies grabbed Manus, he cried out suddenly as if burned.
“Your Highness, why?! Was it because my work was not enough? Because I failed you?” Manus screeched. The orderlies clamped his wrists into a vice so the buzzsaw could make a clean cut without damaging Manus’ fingernails. The ambassador leaned forward with interest when Manus was brought forward. The Empress smiled.
“No Manus, you were most worthy of your position. As are the rest of your fellows. The only problem was you took too much. From Earth. From the Jupiter Sphere. And now they all want something back,” the Empress said.
“I can give them back the money! The mining interests! The summer house orbiting Mercury! Even the little dog!” Manus pleaded.
“Those things aren’t enough. We need a monument to ensure the High Council does not repeat its mistakes,” the Empress said as the buzzsaw whirred into life.
Just before the surgeon plunged it through Manus’ wrists, the Empress had the final word:
“Because together… we are better.”