“Hyperspace has opened to us the last great frontier, the vast reaches of deep space where no human has ventured. Let us explore it together in a spirit of mutual cooperation. Wars come and go, countries rise and fall, but the human spirit endures. We have an opportunity here, today, to be something better and more difficult than before, to bring about a new golden age of peace and prosperity for our children, and our children’s children. Let us not squander it. Begin the countdown!”
-- Fleet Admiral Peter Lawson of the newly-formed United Naval Space Fleet, speaking at the launch of the first wave of Explorer Ships, circa 2069.
High in orbit over Mars, the Martian Space Industries-owned Solus Planum Shipyards churned out yet another MSI1077R Starliner destined for faraway places—its sole purpose in life to provide high-speed transit to other worlds for some seven-hundred passengers of all means and manners.
Far, far below, an identical starliner – sleek and styled roughly after the twentieth-century Concord – taxied to its assigned runway at the Syria Planum Spaceport, primary launching point for all commercial traffic into and out of Mars. Accelerating, the starliner lifted off and ascended toward the dusty blood red heavens.
Exiting the atmosphere, the vessel began its thirty lightyear journey, speeding two young idol hopefuls to their new lives…
Exiting hyperspace with a thunderclap, the sound immediately swallowed by the vast emptiness of space, the starliner approached its destination, a shining jewel of a planet called Aida; the entertainment capital of the human empire among the stars. On-board, the passengers collectively exhaled, happy their forty-hour journey finally neared its end.
Reclining in her economy class window seat, Isla Ainsworth yawned a yawn so big it threatened to swallow the starliner whole. In the next seat, her best friend Anise Kendall snoozed peacefully against her shoulder, her face locked into a perpetual smile even while asleep.
As starliners and other large interstellar vessels were prohibited from exiting hyperspace too close to a planet, Isla passed the time with some music and a romance novel read on the display of her sleek white phone, waiting patiently for atmospheric entry.
Soon, a degree of light made its way through the window beside her, indicating closer proximity to Aida. On the other side of the aisle, a baby cried. A couple further up argued in a good-natured sort of way. One of the stewardesses wandered up and down the aisles, offering some final drinks and snacks.
And a certain hint in the recycled air indicated a general need for shower cubicles on these long-distance starliner trips. Stuck in a tin can with hundreds of other people for forty hours made the atmosphere a little ripe every time.
Pressing her face to the reinforced plastiglass window, her emerald green eyes reflected back at her, Isla saw they weren’t far off. She poked her best friend unceremoniously in the shoulder. “Wakey-wakey!”
Anise opened her eyes and sat up. “Mm? Oh, morning.” She stretched and glanced out of the window. “Nearly there?”
“Yep.” Isla laughed quietly at her friend’s glowing features. “Not long now.”
Anise fitfully played with her loosely bunched twin ponytails, held in place by cobalt blue scrunchies and currently swept forward over her shoulders to rest on her chest. Martian naturals were occasionally born with a vivid fulvous tone to their hair, close to a pure orange shade, a peculiarity first noted several decades after the initial settlers colonised the Red Planet. It was rare but considered a sign of immense good fortune, and Anise’s hair was a particularly fine example.
As much as she loved her hair, she was less enamoured with her skin, which leaned towards ivory white. Living in great domed cities where sunlight was a premium resource made natural tans close to impossible to achieve, unless you fancied an unhealthy dose of solar radiation with a side order of asphyxiation.
By contrast, Isla was as bronzed as a Greek Goddess. Originally Earth-born, her hair ran to a delectable coffee brown, straight and held in a neat ponytail reaching to below the base of her neck. The emerald eyes gave her an oddly piercing gaze compared to her otherwise soft features.
Having spent six months on Earth with her mother recently, staying at her British country home – enjoyed largely outdoors taking walks or playing sports – her skin had an almost terra-cotta tone. Anise had been green for several weeks upon her friend’s return to Mars. The tan had faded a little now, but Isla still looked distinctly un-Martian.
An announcement came over the speakers that they were preparing for atmospheric entry, and would all passengers kindly fasten their seatbelts. Anise awkwardly leaned across her best friend, straining against the belt so she could gaze out of the window as they descended. Her own sapphire blue eyes watched with interest as the intense heat faded out to reveal the azure skies of Aida, the place they would call home for the next four years… and maybe longer.
“What’s that?” Isla asked. She pointed out at a needle-like tower rising high into the sky, reminiscent of the Space Needle on Earth.
“Let’s see…” Anise followed her friend’s pointing digit. “Oh, that’s the Tower of Babel.”
“Well, technically it’s called The Babylonian, but everyone calls it the Tower of Babel as kind of a joke. It’s because people mostly speak Universal Basic here. Lots of different languages on Aida, so having a single language everyone understands is super helpful.”
“Good thing we learned UB in school, huh?”
Anise sat back. “Well, it’s a derivative of English so you’d probably be able to get by to some degree even without learning it. But yeah, we’ll have no problems.”
“I bet that place looks amazing at night. We should visit!”
“Maybe we can take a wander into the city tonight?”
“Mm, maybe wait a day or two? Hyperlag isn’t fun,” Isla said, shuddering at the thought.
The hyperspace equivalent of jetlag, hyperlag tended to be considerably worse thanks to time zones being measured across lightyears of space rather than mere regions of a relatively small planet. It was quite possible to end up in an entirely different month of the year, or even a whole other season, while travelling between worlds.
An understated groan escaped Anise’s lips. “Something to look forward to, haha. We can try and make time on the weekend? Gives us a few days to settle in, then.”
Isla indicated with a wave of her hand this was fine. “Sure, probably best to learn our way around the academy first, anyway.”
They could make out the ground in some detail now, the enormous metropolis of Aida’s capital region situated on the coast, skirted by a sizeable mountain range on one side and vast open plains on the other two. Golden beaches stretched around a large bay on the city’s northern side, some several dozen miles across, and all around the outskirts stood giant hangars and industrial areas, housing not only much of the city’s production capability, but movie sound stages, studios, and lots.
The starliner gradually descended towards a spaceport on the edge of the city furthest from the bay, landing and taxiing over to one of the terminal buildings. Upon exiting into the cavernous structure, they retrieved their luggage and made their way outside to be greeted by a bright and sunny Aidan midday afternoon.
Anise took a deep breath of genuine air. “Smell that? That’s real air! Not the recycled stuff we grew up with.” She puffed her cheeks out a few more times, taking in huge gulps of the sweet scent of a true atmosphere.
“I just got back from half a year in Britain…” Isla pointed out.
“You just had to burst my bubble, didn’t you?”
Her best friend’s downcast face resulted in a laughing Anise. “It’s okay! I always wondered what it must’ve been like. Seems I’ve been missing out.”
While the Martian colony domes used a combination of living plants and trees judiciously placed everywhere possible to create a breathable atmosphere, plus a manmade system of filtration and recycling for simple efficiency and reliability, it was no substitute for a planetary atmosphere.
“I hope you’ll be okay now we’re here.” Isla’s voice was filled with concern.
“Allergies and things?”
“Oh. It’s possible I might have some issues, but I had myself checked for all the common stuff we’re likely to find here, no problem. Thanks for worrying, though! Now, shall we take a walk?”
Isla hefted her suitcase. “Aren’t we meant to be checking in at the academy first?”
“Sometime today, sure, doesn’t have to be right now. We’ve only just arrived, we’ll never experience this first day again, we should enjoy it!” Anise added in a vehement ‘I’m not taking no for an answer’ tone.
“Mm… okay, sure! Which way’s the academy? Might as well walk in that general direction.”
Anise had a brief consultation with her phone, revealing that the academy was to the north, nestled in the bay they had seen on arrival. “Looks like it’s straight this way, directly north.” She pointed along the street.
“That way’s north? So if we kept walking we’d eventually reach the top of the world. Top idols!” Isla said, pointing a finger skyward theatrically.
Anise giggled at this. “I think it’ll take us a bit more work than that to reach top idol status!”
Isla whistled in surprise. “More work than walking thousands of miles to the north pole? Wow, being an idol is harsh.”
“I’m glad you’re finally starting to understand,” Anise said, smiling as her best friend’s expression turned terrified. “Becoming an idol feels like the easiest thing ever, doesn’t it? And in a way, it is. But you’ll learn soon enough how much hard work goes into becoming a successful idol.”
“I’m looking forward to it. Sort of.” Isla grasped her friend’s free hand and they wandered up the street, taking in their new surroundings. The buildings seemed to have been built with some sort of unifying theme, one she couldn’t quite put her finger on. “Don’t the buildings here all look really familiar?”
Anise gave her friend an abridged history lesson. “You’re probably thinking of the Art Deco period? We learned about it in school.”
“When Aida was originally settled, Earth was in kind of a renaissance period after the Resource Wars. People were looking for ways to modernise old styles, and that general aesthetic bled through into some of the new colonies.”
“So these buildings are, uh, Arteko?”
“Art Deco, Isla, try to keep up,” Anise said with a sigh that was too theatrical to be serious. “A lot of the architecture here has an Art Deco-inspired style. Curved surfaces, gold, silver, bronze, lots of angles, geometric shapes, gorgeous windows, you name it. I always loved this style.” Certainly compared to home, she thought. Mars tended towards heavily utilitarian designs for simple practicality’s sake.
Isla had a lopsided smile on her face. “When did you become an expert on this?”
Anise graced her friend with a smug grin. “When I learned everything I could about Aida, when else?”
“Naturally.” Isla gave a low laugh and changed subject. “Our things should already be at the academy, right?”
“Yeah, everything will have been delivered by now.”
A single suitcase and one carry-on bag wouldn’t be enough for an extended stay of four years, so they had arranged for several additional packages to be sent on ahead with all their other clothes and essentials.
Isla stopped and stared at a nearby taxi stand. Parked there were several dozen yellow taxis, hovering vehicles with enormous brass grills at the front and vertical fins at the back. It seemed the already familiar Art Deco motif extended not only to architecture, but infrastructure and vehicles, too.
Anise appraised the sleek vehicles hovering a few inches above the ground, blending high tech and traditional design aesthetics into something for the modern age. “Amazing, isn’t it? It’s 2177 and Earth still uses wheels. They really do live in the past.”
Isla giggled. “They’re not that bad, though some places outside the big cities do still use wheeled vehicles.” Her best friend tended to think of Earth in roughly the same terms someone from a big city might think of people in the sticks; that they all used ox and cart and had no concept of modern technology.
Their home on Mars, by contrast, largely employed an efficient system of tube and conveyer transports for everyday use; space limitations precluded the very idea of one car per person, meaning neither girl had seen many cars.
The taxis were just the start of this technological wonderland. All around them people hustled and bustled, holographic signs painted a thousand pictures, hovering cars zoomed through the streets several inches from the road, and efficient magnetic monorails effortlessly slid along overhead.
Stopping at the entrance to a side street paved in an almost satin-finish red stone, Isla cupped a hand up to her ear, listening intently over the sounds of the city. “Is that music?”
“By the sounds of the song and her voice, I’d say it’s Hot Stuff,” Anise said, eyes closed and an expression of concentration on her features.
“You think all cute girls are hot stuff,” Isla muttered.
Anise emitted a loud snort at this. “I mean that’s the idol’s stage name, Isla.”
“O-Oh.” Isla coughed. “A-Anyway, let’s go check it out, I haven’t seen a live performance by an idol before!” She trotted up the side street, her cheeks flushed, partly embarrassed at being tripped up, partly at the simple idea that she was transferring into a prestigious idol academy, yet had never seen an idol perform before.
Anise followed, walking past shop fronts filled with fancy fashions and stylish shoes. “We might have to come back here one day soon. Some nice stuff I’d like to check out,” she muttered, receiving a vague affirmation from Isla.
At the end of the street, they appeared on a wide road running beside Capp River, the largest tributary on this landmass, winding through the city like an inebriated snake.
Here, they took a jaunt over the nearest footbridge they could find, a black metal affair with the already familiar Art Deco style again rearing its head. Down another side street and they emerged in a park approximately the size of a football pitch, with trees and bushes dotted all about, and a network of gravel paths edged in a variety of Aidan and Earth-based plants and flowers, all manicured to perfection.
To their right, nestled in a thicket of trees, stood a stage; a hemispherical dome, with rigging all around the top of the cavernous structure allowing for lighting and sound to be adjusted during live performances. Before the raised concrete foundation upon which the dome stood, concentric stone seats graced a grassy incline, virtually every one equally graced by a human posterior.
Running up to the rear of the seats, Isla stared at the stage and its current occupant. “She has green hair!” she yelled over the sound from the dome.
Anise followed her friend’s pointing finger to the girl dancing onstage – who seemed to be around their own age – who did indeed have vivid lime green hair, falling to the small of her back. “She does, you’re right,” she yelled back.
“But it looks really natural,” Isla added.
Unlike dyed hair, which generally looked unnatural as anything, this girl looked like she had been born with green hair. The flame orange outfit she wore accentuated it further, making her seem summery and vivacious.
“It’s simple nanotech, just fiddles a bit with your follicles so they produce amazing colours by tweaking the melanin. Totally safe,” Anise explained during a lull in the sickly sweet pop music.
Isla held a hand up to her temple. “I always get sudden headaches when you start talking science.”
Puffing her chest out, Anise beamed. “And that was the cliff notes version!”
“How much of this stuff do you actually understand?” Isla asked as they watched this cute idol having the time of her life.
“I get the theory behind most of it, but the actual technical stuff? Very little, I’m not so good at maths and equations and things.”
“Better than me, at least.”
“That’s not hard. Oh, while I remember, have you decided what sort of idol you want to be?” Anise asked, unconsciously tapping a foot in time to the beat.
A minor furrowing of her brows gave Isla’s answer more eloquently than words. “Not yet. I’m a bit confused by it all, to be honest.”
“That’s why the academy exists, nothing to worry about. You can spend a little while figuring out what you want to do.” Anise pointed at Hot Stuff, currently involved in an acrobatic routine, dancing back and forth, doing flips and handstands, and receiving much applause. “Something like her, maybe?”
“I feel dizzy just watching her!”
Anise laughed. “You don’t have to worry about that, most idols use dance routines while they perform, but Hot Stuff really goes the extra mile. She was originally an athletic gymnast hopeful.”
“Wow… so she gave that up to be an idol?” Isla asked, aghast.
“She did. Look at her face.”
Isla did so, noting the perpetual smile was both genuine and pleasure-filled, albeit also sweat-streaked. “She looks so happy!”
“That could be you, Isla,” Anise said, rubbing her friend’s arm. “Come on, we should get moving.” Strolling back to where they originally turned down the small shopping street, they got back to their jaunt towards the academy. Anise raised a hand, pointing up to one of the many holographical billboards dotting the buildings. “See up there?”
Her friend zeroed in on the displayed image.
“Pretty, isn’t she?” Anise continued. “She’s what’s known as a pure idol. Or sometimes Personadols, because of the masks idols tend to wear in public. She focused on the most basic and arguably most important aspects of being an idol; personality and looks.”
Isla was transfixed. The young woman on the billboard advertised some new lipstick or other, but that wasn’t important; no, Isla was fixated on the girl herself. Her hair was midnight blue with a hint of deep purple, reminiscent of a twilight sky. Long, wavy, and reaching to her waist, it appeared to sparkle when she moved, like a miniature galaxy of stars. And her eyes? Bright blue with a hint of pure white, almost moon-like, contrasting beautifully with her hair.
Since Isla had shut down, Anise filled her in on the details. “She’s called Cassiopeia Luna, though that’s just her stage name. Never found out her real name, it’s not exactly widely advertised. Beautiful, isn’t she?”
“Amazingly beautiful,” Isla breathed. She did a double take as something registered. “Hang on, you mean even you don’t know her real name? You’re slipping, Anise.”
As an avid fan of all things idol-related, Anise prided herself on her knowledge and became mildly irritated when some juicy piece of information eluded her.
She let out a gentle sigh. “Believe me, I want nothing more than to know her real name. It’s like an itch I can’t seem to reach, it kind of gets under my skin and…” She paused to theatrically scratch her arms a few times, hoping to get the point across. “Gah… yeah, really annoying.”
“I’ve never seen you this defeated before,” Isla observed.
“I love idols, and that means knowing everything it’s possible to know about them. It’s no different to a starship lover wanting to catalogue every ship in existence. All the specifications and how they were used, whether they’re still in active service, special models and limited manufactures, everything. Or a stamp collector, or coins… everyone has their quirks. This is mine.” Anise gave an indifferent shrug.
“So finding out Luna’s real name is the challenge you’re setting yourself while we’re here?”
Anise grinned. “You bet! Anyway, Luna made her way by focusing almost exclusively on being a pure idol, a Personadol. I reckon you’d do well going that route, too. Maybe add in your love of racket sports as a side interest.”
“I’d like to include sports in some way, that’s for sure,” Isla said, nodding.
Anise’s grin widened further. “You could be a tennis idol!”
“I’m not actually joking. Idols can be pretty much whatever you want. There are quite a few who play tennis at pro or close to pro level.”
Isla tilted her head. “Really?”
“Luna, for one. She plays tennis and badminton, though not professionally. At least, not yet. I suspect she might do that one day, though.”
“I’d love to play her,” Isla said, hobbling a bit because her feet were complaining at all the walking. She considered herself to be reasonably proficient at racket sports, most-especially tennis, but had no illusions as to the level of players she might face here on Aida.
Anise had to bite down on her tongue to avoid saying ‘play with her, more like’, figuring she should probably keep that sort of thing to herself for now. “The academy is pretty flexible, it’s not like a regular school. We’re free to focus on whatever we like for the most part. The academy is just there to facilitate that.”
Isla came to an abrupt halt. “Well, I’ll think about it some more when we get there. For now I think finding a taxi is a really good idea, my feet are killing me.”
“I was just thinking the same.” Anise again consulted her Phone of Many Things and located a nearby taxi stand, where she bundled Isla into one of the waiting vehicles and asked the driver to take them to the academy monorail.