She lagged a little, or they did; a second too fast or too slow, or a centimeter too far to the left, or a step that was off by a hair. She was a better dancer than both—more accomplished than the ghost, which was a projection of her last attempt, and more graceful than the mirage, which was a recording of the dance of the real princess of Mars. But perfection for its own sake wasn't the goal, it never was. The goal instead was to match perfectly the imperfection of the original.
Sunday checked her score. Sync-rate a little above 92 this time, nowhere near her best. She sighed, and as she usually did for motivation, she watched the princess die again.
Oh, thought Sunday, as everyone around the princess's body mourned, if only I had been there, and she felt that old sadness well up in her again, the same sadness that made a ritual of it all, had codified that last dance into the thing she practiced now. She'd seen it many times before, from every angle, sometimes from the princess's viewpoint, sometimes from that of a bystander or a guard, sometimes from one of the assassins themselves. There was always something new, whether it was noticing how some of the bystanders had seen the assassins arrive too early, or how some of the guards had ran, but some had not, and so on. She sometimes thought of it as peeling a banana, to reveal the creamy flesh underneath, the soft tragedy of the whole affair.
There were two stages to the dance. First was the introduction, that sequence when the princess would enter the hall, talk to five people (and always the same five people), and make her way to its middle with thirty-seven steps, beginning with the left foot and ending with the left foot. She would take three key glances on her way there, one to her right at the Danean ambassador, one a brief look down at where she was stepping, and the last at her partner and husband-to-be, who was later accused of orchestrating her assassination in the first place. It was said by some that with this last glance, she'd ascertained his purpose, as malevolent as it had been, and had chosen to give the audience this last dance—the magnificent, charming dance—as a parting gift. Sunday doubted this, of course. She'd seen the assassination enough times to remember how the princess's eyes had widened with shock. There had been no warning there. But still, the rumor was certainly salacious enough to believe, and the conspiracy accumulated as such, fabrication growing despite the unlikeliness of them. Such were the speculations of people unconcerned with the art inherent in the princess's fall, more concerned with the expiation of it, the death, tawdry interests that made of the work a spectacle. Perhaps it was due to these people that the first stage was sometimes just called foreplay, a term she resented as an obscenity, something rooted in slang employed by people who only craved to relieve the emotions of that original assassination, those for whom dramas and reenactments and simulations were not enough, for having experienced it before meant it was forever sullied.
Anyway, Sunday was horrible at it. She just couldn't nail down the little things, the lead-up to the second part of the two-stage dance. Like how she had to do the entry into the hall, and bow at a precise angle, but stumble 0.734 seconds into the bow, but only a little, and recover in precisely the same fashion that the princess had; that was one of the harder feats, and there were a few dancers who'd become famous for perfecting its emulation, giving it the kind of impeccable imperfection it deserved. It was considered so very human; was the princess not the most human dancer of them all? To capture that moment of falling and not-falling, of fallibility and frailty—it was art. No robot or sim could replicate it. They could do it, to be sure, yet the doing was not the art.
She was always falling at the wrong time or not falling at all, or forgetting to bow, or as was often the case, so eager to get to the good parts that she had to rush through and ruin the whole illusion. And there was the nightmare of everything that came after it, the glances, the covert looks, the prim steps, even the weight of the man next to her that she had to account for, that personal gravity of social influence which dictated how she had to move, just like the princess had all those years ago. So much nuance, so much boredom. She always skipped it now, having given up on ever perfecting it, though she knew that by giving it up she'd given up on ever competing with the best dancers. That hurt, more than she was willing to admit. The competitions where dancers danced alone on the stage—no accompaniment, no music, just the body alone posing, walking, dancing. In the very best one could glimpse the princess herself, a ghost of her projected through these expertly trained avatars, who stumbled when she had, who flourished where she'd flourished, who were perfect in all the ways the princess herself had been so imperfect.
But, Sunday told herself, I do it for the joy of it, anyway. That's enough.
The part she loved—the part she lived for—was the second stage, the dance itself. The movement, the motion, the sweep of it. Moments where she lost herself and emerged as if she'd become one with the memory. The mirage her, and herself the mirage, and then she would blink and the synchronization would be lost, as she became conscious of what she was after.
There was a time when she'd practiced all day, and impulsively had let loose all her ghosts, so that attempts one through thirteen all danced at once, and they had been so very lively and so very imprecise, not just against the movement of the princess but against each other. She'd watched, sullenly, as they flailed around: one always off by three seconds, another a little less but not much less, and so on, sometimes too fast, sometimes too slow. She'd watched the princess die again after that, a few more times in a row, sometimes as the shooter, sometimes from an alcove or a perch on the wall, once from the point of view of a bullet flying through the air at a speed 500x slower than the norm. From there she had seen the princess open her mouth; and that had been all she could do, the very last thing she had ever done, before the bullet pulped into her. Sunday had gotten up shaking—she'd never felt that way before, like she'd expurgated some precious thing she'd never known about and would now never know. And then she had danced, as if through failure and sweat she could purge again the emotions that she'd built up through watching the murder, or with toil regain what she had purged before, the precious thing whose name she could not recall but whose nature felt distinct and whose absence—though its presence was impossible to remember the nature of—whose absence, nonetheless, was keenly felt.
So she danced. As she danced she thought of how the princess had taken that first step out of the hall. Before her had been arrayed all the representatives of humanity, and in the audience had been professional flashers, swarming her with light as if it was a century prior. She'd been dazzled. Or at least, Sunday had been dazzled. She didn't indulge herself with the princess's viewpoint too much, but when she did, it always stunned her, the fierce adoration of it, the centeredness of it. As if the world, in that instance, had revolved around her instead of a succession of gravities.
When Sunday had been little, she'd watched it happen over and over. The aftermath of it had never been censored and she'd seen the limbs somewhat collapse, the body no longer endowed with will, the will having left the shattered ruin of the head and the brain. As she danced she found herself occupied with that memory, something she'd rarely recalled in her adulthood, that initial experience of processing the princess's death, the shock and awe of it: the shock that she'd died, the shock—and awe—that so many in the solar system could care, and care so utterly. And soon every step the princess had taken had been analyzed, along with every man and woman in attendance, and there were many theories as to who'd been truly responsible despite the summary execution of the assassins involved. But that was beyond Sunday's interest. She was interested in the princess herself, or when she was honest, she was interested in the moments leading to her death, the dance, the leaving, the dying. How Sunday had resented her parents for not being better people, more important, not the princess herself! For that moment she'd craved to not only be the princess but to be with her and to be related to her, as much of that platform as she could get, and she had nothing but the same mote which everyone else received, the slivers which were never enough and whose sustaining was fed by a drip-feed of information punctuated by reports of more summary executions as the murderers and assassins received their just punishments. When the last of them had been destroyed, their world had celebrated by a burning of an effigy, a thing cunningly wrought of the same genes and cells of the murderer herself. It had screamed and they had cheered as the flesh melted and turned to dust and nothing afterward.
Damn it, thought Sunday, when she was done; she'd lost track of time and progress and now she had finished a full six seconds ahead of the actual thing. So she watched the ghost and the mirage dance with and against each other, one slightly ahead of the other. After six seconds it was over, the end a staggered thing, and she was so frustrated that she indulged herself again and watched the assassination—seeing how the princess had died there, once from so high above that the people below were ants, and once from behind so that when the princess died she saw none of it, witnessing only its aftermath. And for the third viewing, she watched it through the eyes of one of the assassins; Sunday allowed herself to feel the weight of the gun, and felt the trigger, how the finger pulled it, past tautness and into release.