ON THE WORDS OF ANCIENTS

This story first appeared in the December 2003 issue of Aoife’s Kiss.

 

 

     The Emperor gazed out the window of his throne room, looking out at the sprawling lights of the largest city in the galaxy.  “Are you familiar with ancient literature?” he asked without turning around.

     I was somewhat taken aback by the question.  I was his most trusted aide.  He knew more about me than he knew about himself, or so it seemed.  “My Lord,” I said in my usual subservient tone.  “You know that I am well versed in all of the literature of the last millenium.”

     He laughed a short, deprecating laugh.  “No, Francis,” he said, turning slightly so that I might see his slight hint of a smile.  “I meant ancient literature.”

     “I’m not sure I understand, my lord.”

     He turned to face me, his ceremonial robes fluttering to catch up with him.  “You can drop the formalities, Francis,” he said, motioning in his flamboyant way to encompass the whole room.  “It’s just us here.”

     There was a pause.  I wasn’t sure if he was waiting for me to say something or not.  I decided not to.

     “I’m talking about ancient literature, Francis.  You know, Old Earth stuff.”

     I was stunned.  I didn’t know what to say, and my expression must have conveyed my confusion because the Emperor of all the Galaxy laughed.  He laughed so hard he almost fell over.  I didn’t find it so funny, but it wasn’t my place to question the most powerful human alive, so I laughed with him.

     “I had much of the fiction of Old Earth downloaded to me several years ago,” he said once he’d regained control of himself.  “Not all of it.  Mostly what was popular during their twentieth and twenty-first centuries.”

     I was totally lost in the conversation and he had said that I could drop the formalities, so I did.  “What are we talking about, Anson?”

     “We’re talking about this,” he said, motioning out the window.  If it was clarity I was seeking, I wasn’t finding it.  The Emperor just barely managed to contain another series of hysterics.  I was glad.  I wasn’t sure I could fake it this time with him.  “You see, Francis, there was a group of writers that often talked about the possibilities of a galactic empire like we have today.”

     Things were starting to take on a shading of form for me now.  “As a race,” I said, “we’ve always looked to the future, my lord, but you can’t fault those writers for making bad predictions.”  I was very pleased by my ability to anticipate where the Emperor’s line of thought was taking us.

     He started laughing again.  “Quite the contrary, my dear Francis.  You see, they were right in their predictions about us.”

     Clarity was now gone.  I didn’t say anything.

     “You see,” he said, suddenly serious, “many of those authors predicted that a galactic empire would become decadent over time and collapse in upon itself.”

     I didn’t like where this was going.  “But, my lord, the problems we’re having are just temporary.  Surely you don’t believe they’re…”

     “The beginning of the end?  Yes, Francis.  I think they are.  I think it would be fair to say that I will be the last of the Galactic Emperors.”

     “But, my lord, I don’t see how the Empire could collapse in such a short time.”

     The Emperor smiled, and for a moment, I was afraid.  “It can if we help it,” he said.

     There was no longer any chance of clarity.  My life, the universe, everything had just been tipped into the direction of N-space.  There was no hope in getting out of this…except I might be able to kill myself.

*

     The man was mad, there was no doubt about it, but how does one go about telling someone they’re mad, or telling someone else that someone they know is mad.  That seems like it would be difficult no matter what, but how does one do that when the mad man is Anson III, Emperor of all humanity?  It seemed pretty simple; you didn’t, at least not if you wanted to stay alive.  Granted, Anson III was one of the fairest and most just emperors the galaxy had seen in centuries, but death would have to be the result of such an accusation.  The Emperor had an image to maintain.

     There was a knock at my door, a welcome knock.  Something to bring me out of my troubled thoughts.  “Enter,” I called.

     The door slid aside and the Emperor walked in, unaccompanied.  So much for forgetting my problems.  “Where are the Royal Guards?”  I asked with as much consternation as I could force into my voice.

     He laughed that deprecating laugh again and waved his hand before him as if there was an annoying insect, as if that were even possible in the Royal Palace.  “Francis, you worry too much.  What do you think would happen if I were to be assassinated?”

     “It grieves me to even think the thought, my lord,” I said, lowering my head to face the ground as I had been trained from my youth.

     With more force than I thought possible, the Emperor grabbed my arms.  “Look at me, Francis.”

     I allowed my eyes to stare into his.  What I saw frightened me more that I thought anything could.  I wasn’t looking into the eyes of a mad man.  There was a cold, calculating sanity staring back at me.  I suddenly wished the Emperor was mad, but now I knew he wasn’t.

     “We’ve known each other since we were children, Francis.  You were the one I studied with.  You were the one I told my secrets to.  You were the one that took my beatings.”

     I continued to look into his eyes, remembering the past we had shared together.  It was my shoulder this man had cried on when his father had died.  Anson had always wanted to be Emperor, but it was in that moment when he truly realized what it would take for him to be Emperor that he suddenly lost interest.  What was driving him now?

     “Francis, you are my friend.”  I thought he might cry, but he seemed to have found the strength that allowed him to be the great Emperor that he was.  The strength that often disappeared when it was just us.  “You are probably the only friend I have in the whole galaxy.”  He turned away from me and walked to the window.  I knew he was hiding his emotions, and I didn’t know what to say or do.

     Minutes passed.  The Emperor stood as solid as a statue, only the slight movement of his shoulders and the rustle of his robes showing that any life was left.  Finally, he sighed and turned to face me.  “The first stone is in motion,” he said, a slight smile appearing.  “The beginning of the end is upon us.”

     I shook my head, feigning stupidity.  I knew what he meant.  “I don’t understand, my lord.”  I couldn’t call him by name, not when he was being an ass.

     “My friend,” he said with the devilish smile I remembered from those moments in our youth just before he would do something that would get us both in more trouble than we ever thought possible.  “We leave at sunrise.  Make sure you’re packed.”

     With that, he strode from the room with the regality that had been programmed into him.  I knew that sunrise would start him on a path of trouble.  I also knew that I’d be packed, ready to leave.  What were friends for, after all?

*

     Space travel never changed.  Long periods of intense dullness broken up by a few intense seconds of terror as we passed through Null Space; a point in the universe that did not exist, and yet still connected all other points of the universe.

     Even after millennia of space travel, the human race was yet to figure out what Null Space, or N-Space as we called it, was.  The Creton, the race that had given us N-Space technology, said it had something to do with consciousness, but their minds were so alien to us, it was impossible to even figure out their greetings, let alone what they meant by consciousness.

     The void of N-Space flashed briefly around us and I saw Emperor Anson III beginning to smile again; the smile that in the past had warmed my soul now scared the hell out of me.

     The ship was effused with a purplish light.  I gazed out the porthole upon the gasses of a nebula.  I began to shake my head, fearing the worst.  I turned to face the Emperor.  “The Creton?”  I asked.  I’d meant for it to be a question, but it sounded more like an accusation.

     The Emperor turned to face me, his smile widening.  “Are you surprised?”

     “Not really,” I said with a sigh.  Again I wished that the Emperor was mad, but if he was enlisting the aid of the Creton in his insane plan, then I knew he was completely sane.  You see, no mad man would even dream of approaching the Creton.

     “Wait here,” the Emperor said, getting up and walking towards the communications cubicle.

     “My Lord, I…”

     “Francis, I’m asking.”

     I knew what that meant.  He was using our friendship to get me to do his bidding rather than using his position.  I wasn’t going to have any of that.

     “My Lord, I must protest.  Contacting the Creton is unacceptable.”
     He smiled.  I was really starting to hate that smile.  “I’ve already contacted them.  I’m just here to finalize things with them.”

     I was speechless in my amazement.  I could tell that he was hiding something from me, but before I could think of anything to say, he was gone.  I thought about following him to the communications cubicle, but that would have meant my death, friend or no friend.

     After nearly half an hour, the Emperor returned with his ever-present smile.  “We can go home now.”

     “What did they say, My Lord?”

     “Not much.”

     I looked around, making sure there was no one else in the cabin with us.  “Anson?”

     He patted my arm in the way an old man pats a younger man’s arm; we were both 30.  “I did most of the talking.”
     “And?”

     He took a deep breath.  “Let’s just say that I have pulled the first loose string in the tapestry.”

     I had an idea what he meant, but I decided not to push him.

*

     Two years passed and I began to see the tapestry fraying.  Small rebellions began to pop-up on the edges of the Empire.  The Emperor continually told the court that there was nothing to worry about; that things on the rim would not effect the center.  To me, he was more than happy to report that his plan was working.  I just went along with the whole crazy thing because I couldn’t think of anything better to do; at least I couldn’t think of anything that wouldn’t get me killed.

     In those two years, I had the Emperor’s literary files downloaded to my brain.  I couldn’t see why he so enjoyed the stories, but I could see where he was getting his ideas.  Still, basing the destruction of an empire on the writings of a few who had lived more than four thousand years earlier seemed crazy.  Of course, I was still convinced that the Emperor was not crazy.

     I was standing at his side in the throne room when the scientists came before the Emperor.  All of them looked terrified and pre-occupied, but I could tell that it wasn’t because they were standing in front of the most powerful man in the galaxy.  This was something else.

     “My Lord,” one of the men said, absently scratching at the neural link on the side of his head.  He was a short man, only standing six feet tall, and he had a very pale complexion; probably descended from domers on some inhospitable planet that hadn’t yet been terraformed.  “There’s a very serious problem.”

     The Emperor nodded, seemingly uninterested.

     “My Lord,” there was a short pause, “the galaxy has shifted.”

     I stepped back as if I’d been slapped, but the Emperor appeared nonplussed.  “Go on,” was all he said.

     “The rotational speeds of the arms have changed relative to one another.  It’s as if the forces holding the galaxy together have weakened.”

     The Emperor still seemed unconcerned.  “Is there anything we can do?”

     “No, My Lord.”

     “Then why worry?”

     “My Lord,” the man sputtered.  “We’ve never been able to understand what gives the galaxy its cohesiveness, but we do know that it’s losing that cohesiveness.”

     “Then you’d better go back to your labs and figure out why,” the Emperor said with a wave of his hand.

     There could be no argument, even though it was clear that all of the scientists wanted to argue.  I even wanted to argue, but I held my tongue.  It could wait until we were alone.

     Once the scientists were gone, the Emperor turned to look at me and there was a gleam in his eye.  I felt my stomach shrivel and convulse.  I’d never imagined that destroying the Empire would take on such a dramatic touch.  Of course, I’d never imagined it would mean destroying the galaxy.

*

     A few days later, the Emperor insisted on a stroll through the garden.  “We can leave the guards behind.  The garden is the only place I can tell you everything.”

     Somehow, I doubted that he would reveal everything to me until after everything had already happened.  I wasn’t even sure he’d reveal it to me then.

     “As you wish, My Lord.”

     Once outside, I took a moment to appreciate the night sky.  I rarely did that anymore.

     “Breathtaking, isn’t it?”

     “Yes,” I agreed, momentarily forgetting who I was talking to.  Anson may have been the Emperor of all human worlds, but that power was nothing compared to what I was looking up at.  Billions of stars, in places flowing together to form single luminescent objects that defied description.

     A sudden high-pitched tone, something like an over-tuned aircar, caught my attention.  Shaking my head, it was gone.  Probably just my imagination.

     “My Lord, what do you know about the changes in the galaxy?”

     Expecting one of his chuckles, I was surprised when I didn’t get a response.  “My Lord?”  I asked, turning to face him.

     The Emperor of all the human race lay on the ground, not moving.  “Guards!”  I shouted.

*

     His eyes blinked open with a confused expression that didn’t seem appropriate for his face.

     “Welcome back, My Lord.”

     “How long have I been out?”  His voice was the sound of tree branches rubbing together.

     “Nearly eight days.”

     He sat up suddenly, grabbing his head as he began to regret his movement.

     “Easy, My Lord,” I said, trying to push his shoulders back towards the bed.  He resisted.  “The sonic charge disrupted most of your organs.  Some of them are still regenerating.”

     He slapped my hands away with more strength than I imagined he had.  “To hell with my organs.  We have to leave.”

     “That’s not a good idea.”

     “We have to.”

     “No.”

     His eyes burned as he glared at me.  “Who are you to tell me what to do?  I’m the Emperor.”

     “And I’m your friend,” I said, trying to keep the anger out of my voice.  It wasn’t like the Emperor to use his position against me.

     “Friendship won’t mean anything if we don’t go now!”
     “But the doctor…”

     He grabbed my jacket with more strength than he’d had when healthy.  “The future of the Empire depends on it.  We go now.”

     I thought he’d decided to destroy the Empire, but I didn’t argue.  I never did.

*

     Another space flight.  I hated them, but this time the Emperor seemed less than comfortable.

     “Nothing to smile about?”  I asked, knowing that I could get away with a bit of impudence from time to time.

     “Do you remember reading about the Rintho?” he asked.

     I thought he was trying to avoid the question, but I certainly remembered the Rintho.  They were an alien race we’d fought to their deaths seven centuries in the past.  The human race had wiped them out, but not before the Rintho had unleashed their deadliest weapon.  As the war neared its end, and the Rintho were certain to lose, they dropped bombs of a kind we’ve never figured out into several main sequence stars.  The stars began to consume hydrogen at an accelerated rate, and cast off their outer layers, quickly forcing them into their red giant phase.  Several human planets were wiped out, including the Earth.

     “Yes, I remember them.”

     “They were powerful, weren’t they?”

     “Yes,” I answered with obvious confusion.

     “No, they weren’t.”  He turned to face me and he was pale and shaking.  “Any minute now, we’re going to translate into Null Space, and I’m not sure it’s going to be there.”

     I obviously didn’t understand.  “I didn’t think it was ever there.”

     He tapped his temple softly.  “Null Space is the mind and consciousness of the Creton.  They will Null Space, therefore Null Space exists.”

     Now I knew I didn’t understand.  “You mean the Creton are destroying their minds?”

     “No, just closing them off to us.”

     “We’re not going to be…”

     “…able to travel interstellar space anymore?” he finished my question for me.  “No, the Creton have learned all they want from us.  When we’ve developed more, they’ll let us back in.  They might even let us see more.”  He reached over and put his hand on my arm.  It was the touch only long-time friends could share.  “Francis, every time we pass through Null Space, the Creton take a small piece of our minds for study.  Now, they think we need to evolve, and I agree.”

     “Are they…”

     “…gods?  No, just very advanced beings that have been in the universe almost since the beginning.”

     I felt my pulse quicken as we began what we hoped would be the transition into Null Space.

*

     I stared up at the plain looking gas giant our little moon was orbiting.

     “That was once the most beautiful object to the human eye,” the Emperor said from my side, pointing up at the planet dominating the sky.

     I shook my head.  “Our eyes have evolved that much?”  I said, making sure not to say “My Lord.”  He was just Anson now, although everyone still treated him like royalty.

     “No,” he said with a laugh.  “It looks much different than it did then.”

     I tore my gaze away from the dull planet.  He was no longer the Emperor, so I could now say what was on my mind.  “Why’d you do it?”

     “The stories are in your head,” he said, as if that answered everything.

     “Yes, I know the stories, but you’ve destroyed the Empire, the human race’s greatest creation because of stories written by people who never even left Earth.”

     Anson laughed, the heartiest laugh I’d ever heard from him.  “Do you really think that the Empire was the greatest thing we’ve ever created?  It’s because of that kind of thinking that we had to kill the beast.”

     “I don’t understand.”

     He smiled.  “Governments should not be the best that a people can do.  We were capable of more, but we didn’t know it.  Most of us didn’t know it.  I did, and so did a few others.  Together we moved what we needed here.  The Creton had contacted me years earlier about their no longer needing us.  I came up with the perfect solution for both of us.”

     “How many people are going to die because of this?”

     “Not as many as you might think.  They can’t get to other star systems, so they can only fight amongst themselves.”  He pointed at the bloated red star coming up over the horizon.  “We had to return to ourselves.  This place will be the birth of a new humanity.”

     He mumbled something similar to that the night before when he’d insisted I look at the burned up cinder of a planet through the telescope.  It didn’t make sense then, and it still wasn’t making sense.  My confusion must have been scrawled across my face.

     “Do you know where you are?” he asked me with a wicked smile that I imagined the snake had had in that very ancient fantasy story.

     I accessed the database in my brain for an answer that I thought would match the sarcasm I was feeling.  “Terminus,” I said.

     He laughed.  “No, but I like your choice.  This is Titan.”

     The name didn’t mean much to me as a planet.  I knew other meanings, but they didn’t seem fitting.

     “That,” he said, pointing at the bland gas giant, “is Saturn…used to be the ringed planet before the solar winds blew the rings away.  That cinder I had you look at last night was the Earth.”

     I suddenly understood what the Emperor meant.  I knew why he’d done what he’d done, but at what cost?

     Apparently the Emperor was mad, but he was also human.  Maybe they were one and the same.

 

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