Earth and Empire

Please note that this story is being written. Being written means that not only more material gets added at the end, but also the already written paragraphs get occasionally modified. Generally not in an essential way (I have a definite plot in mind, so I know where I'm going), true, but you must still be warned that whatever you read is subject to change without notice.

Last modification date: $Date: 2000/01/15 01:34:04 $

It was a dark and stormy night, the ultimate cliché of the horror story; I had dozed off in front of a ridiculous science-fiction movie, and the television set was showing the last images of Doom in the Galaxy. I was awoken by a loud knock at the door — pardon another cliché.

“When will the Universe be old enough and civilized enough to learn the use of a doorbell?” I silently complained to myself as I hurried towards the door. “Now who can be knocking at such a late hour? The god of the storm perhaps? Is the film so lousy that even he cannot stand it?”

But as I opened, I found myself facing a handsome young man, more like a god of the sun than of the rain. A soaking wet sun god looking positively miserable is a cute sight indeed.

I tried to make up my mind as to the most discreet way of pointing out the existence of the doorbell, and I was about to say something like “Excuse me, I couldn't hear you because of the thunder,” but my visitor started talking before I could.

“I am looking for a Doctor Huyghens. Are you that person?”

“I am. What do you…” I stopped. Rather awkwardly (and probably blushing a little), I said: “Why don't you come inside? It… ahem… seems to be raining.”

He stepped forward. Somehow he looked even more out of place within the house than under the rain: now he was standing a bit stupidly in the vestibule, and dripping water all over my… never mind.

“I'll be making some coffee. In the meantime, please have a seat and make yourself comfortable.”

As I waited for the water to boil, I took advantage of the fact that he was looking elsewhere to study him in more detail. Physically he looked so exactly like a Greek statue that I figured he might have some difficulty walking out of a museum without setting all the alarms off. He wasn't very tall, however — probably just below 165 centimeters. He was definitely under thirty.

“Chris,” I chid myself, “you had better watch out: you are about to fall in love.”

He was rather oddly dressed. He wore a beige tunic of some sort that went down to his knees and that seemed to be waterproof — but for some reason he had chosen to get soaked rather than put the hood on. He had a pair of short black boots on, made in a thick but soft leather. He wasn't wearing any pants.

What appealed to me most was the look in his eyes. Resolute and youthful. He seemed to be staring through the wall, peering in some unknown distance. The fact that a quiff of his hair was hanging in front of his left eye did not appear to bother him in the least.

All this didn't give me a clue as to why this particular adonis should have chosen to knock on my door on this particular night. But the coffee was now ready so I would soon know.

“My name is Ergan Jurnol,” he said, as he accepted the cup I offered him. “No sugar, thank you.”

“And mine is… Oh, but you know it already. Ergan Jurnol did you say? What kind of name is that? German perhaps?”

It only then struck me that English was not this young man's native tongue. He spoke it very well, certainly, and with almost no accent — just a trace of a difficulty when pronouncing the letter ‘r’. But the language was unmistakably foreign to him. He talked slowly and deliberately, even somewhat theatrically.

“No it is not German. But I will get to that. Professor Huyghens…”

“The correct title is ‘Doctor,’ in fact. But I would prefer you didn't use it.” I hastened to add: “You can call me Chris.”

“As you wish. Doctor Huyghens — excuse me — I have a most fantastic story to tell you. I pray you — I beg of you — that you suspend your disbelief while I narrate it. Afterwards, I will furnish all the necessary proofs, but for the moment, I will ask you to pretend that you accept my words as true.”

“Very well. I will do so. I hope it is an interesting story, though.”

“I trust you will find it considerably fascinating.”

“I am all ears then.”

“It is simple. I am an alien.”

There was an unmistakable emphasis on the last word. However, it wasn't the sort of emphasis one would expect: Ergan had said that sentence as though it were supposed to explain a mystery rather than, as the case was, constitute one.

“An alien? What exactly do you mean by this? An extra-terrestrial being from outer space?”

“Precisely. I was born six hundred and fifty kiloparsecs from here, in what you call the galaxy of Andromeda, and which we call Anecdar.”

“Well,” I said doubtfully, “I have promised not to doubt your words. But I will nevertheless point out that you look remarkably human to me.” And I added with a wink, “Very good-looking, as a matter of fact.”

“Oh, there is no doubt about that… I mean, that we are human. We are of the same species as you. And this planet — the Earth — is the planet we evolved on. We seem to have left it very recently — I mean in terms of biological time. About twenty-five of your centuries ago. In fact, our oldest language is closely related to what you call the Dorian dialect of ancient Greek.”

“So what you are telling me is that around the sixth or fifth century B.C., a group of men left the Earth and set out to colonize the stars?”

“That is correct. How it happened, we do not know. It may be related to your stories about the lost continent of Atlantis. Our legends tell us little more: ‘And the God Empedocles took His Chosen People with him and led them away from the Former Abode to the New Sun and its country.’ That sort of rubbish.

“Some of your thinkers have speculated on what would have happened to mankind if the ‘Ionian spirit’ had won. It has been claimed that, had the intellectual Renaissance that flourished in the islands of the Aegean sea around the time of Democritus had not been swept away by the School of Athens, then Earth would not have known its middle ages; that you should certainly be on the way to the stars by now. Well, it appears that the Ionian spirit did win, and that mankind has left for the stars. We are the descendants of those who have left.”

“You are correct,” I commented, “I find your story wholly fascinating. Please continue.”

“Exactly how Empedocles, or whoever it was, discovered the technique which we now use to cross interstellar distances, we do not know, and probably we never will. This technique, though, is as alien to your present technology as it is from that of the Greeks of the time, so I suppose it is not so extraordinary. How Empedocles managed to actually solve the engineering difficulties of building a spaceship, that is far more mysterious.

“And even more incredible is the fact that a complete sample of all the Earth's living species, animals and plants alike, must have been brought along by the settlers. Indeed, no living form found on Earth is unknown to us; even the lost dodos still exist on many planets. When you consider that the dodos did not live on any lands known to the Greeks at the time, you have a small measure of the problems with the historians will have to solve in future years.

“But I digress. A group of settlers left the Earth, by whatever means they had found, and must have erred for a long time in the vastness of the Cosmic Ocean, looking for a habitable planet. With no computers to help their search, that must have taken an enormous time. But in the end they found it. We now call it Ernelion, and it is in the galaxy of Andromeda.”

“Indeed. Tell me more about this planet, Ernelion. Is it the only planet you have colonized, or are there others? Perhaps the whole galaxy which you call Anecdar?”

“Doctor Huyghens. We have colonized more than one planet. We have colonized more than one galaxy. We have colonized the entire Universe. All the galaxies, one hundred billion of them, are ours; all are united under one rule, under the authority of the Government on Ernelion. Ernelion — and in fact the whole galaxy of Anecdar — is the Capital of the Universe.”

“So you must be very many.”

“Roughly ten to the twenty-four. While your civilization has known a long and painful dark age that ended only five or six centuries ago, ours has flourished. We have been experiencing for the last two millennia — at least — the rate of technological advance, and the population explosion, that you have known in your last hundred years. With the entire Universe to colonize, our birth rate has been very high. Only in the last thirty years or so has it begun dropping back to an equilibrium value.”

“And it is in the course of this conquest of space that you have rediscovered the Earth. By chance?”

“By chance, it would seem. That was some two or three years ago, and since then we have been studying you, learning about your civilization, your languages, your customs…”

“And now, at last, you have decided to make contact; so you have been sent to Earth. But why come to me?”

“Ah, but there you are wrong. I have not been sent to Earth. The official ambassador will arrive here in six months' time. He will land with great pomp and circumstance in the city of Geneva, and he will summon an extraordinary meeting of the general assembly of the United Nations there. He won't come knocking on your door in the middle of the night — of a very rainy night — Doctor Huyghens.”

“Very well. But who are you then?”

Ergan winked conspiratorially.

“I am a rebel.”

“A rebel? Against whom?”

“Doctor Huyghens, I have told you that the entire Universe was united. I did not tell you, however, under what form of government it is united. It is an Empire. And it is ruled by an Emperor. One million million million million human beings are ruled by just one man.”

Too much Star Wars, I thought. So I said:

“Oh. And I suppose he is a very old, very ugly and very evil man, this Emperor?”

Ergan seemed amused at the thought. He looked at me very intensely, and answered:

“He is sixty-five — if you call that very old. He is very ugly, as a result of a rare disease contracted some years ago and which our physicians are unable to cure; he stands near death, in the last stages of his coma. As to being evil, even I would not claim this. He has been a benevolent and enlightened sovereign, and so were, in fact, most of the Emperors so far.

“The Empress Mother is nominally the regent in charge. In fact, she leaves all the affairs in the hands of the First Minister, who is certainly an intelligent man. And as for the successor to the throne, well, the Heir Apparent is twenty-seven, definitely good looking and, I trust, not too evil either — something we will know with certainty in less than a year according to the doctors.

“No, I am sorry to say, we do not have precisely what you describe.”

“What is the problem, then? Would you be Emperor in the Emperor's stead? You are yourself probably twenty-seven, certainly extremely handsome, and seemingly not too evil.”

Ergan blushed — something which made me happy.

“I want no such thing. I want no Emperor at all. I want a democracy. You see, we have had enlightened rulers so far, but that will not last forever. Sooner or later, a madman will accede to the throne. You know how much havoc your Gaius Caligula, or Nero, wreaked. Now imagine that the Emperor of the Universe is truly Emperor of the Universe and not just of the Roman Empire. And ask yourself what a man who was ready to burn a city for his pleasure might do to an entire planet — perhaps even to a whole galaxy. Now you understand the cause of our rebellion.”

“I do. But what have I to do with it? What can I do about it? In fact, what can the Earth do about it? There are seven billions of us to a…” I calculated rapidly, “septillion of you.”

Truly, I do not know. But I know — I feel — that something can be done. And something must be done. Quickly. In six months, the armed forces of the Empire will be invading the Earth. The Government on Ernelion probably won't even be informed about it: what care they for one planet those who rule the Universe? Or perhaps they will, since after all this is the Original Home of mankind, and you will get a lot of publicity. A rare honor it is for a planet to attract the Imperial Court's attention. Real estate prices on Earth will reach astronomical heights, and all of you will become fabulously rich; possibly rich enough to buy an entire planet each, for those who are willing to leave this one. In any case, the invasion will be a very peaceful one — but it will be ethnocide nonetheless. Within a generation, every trace of the culture specific to Earth will have disappeared.

“Now that is what I fear the most. The Earth, you see, is as of yet an external force to the Empire. Size is unimportant; an external force is what we need in order to change the political situation on Ernelion. I do not know how this can be done, but I know how it can not be done, and that is by letting the Earth be completely absorbed in the gigantic mass of the Empire.”

“All right. Now tell me where I come in.”

“Doctor Huyghens, you are widely recognized on your planet as the most intelligent person on it. You are the universal genius, you have the most complete mastery of all the science and culture of Earth that I could hope. You are a unique chance. And I am taking a unique chance. Doctor, I beg of you — I implore of you — that you come with me to the Capital of the Universe. I do not know the solution to my problem. I do not even know how it starts. But I do know where. It starts on Ernelion. For that is where all roads begin, and also where all roads end.”

At that point, I had totally forgotten that I did not believe a word of all this. It is not often one gets a formal invitation to visit the Capital of the Universe, and I was determined not to miss that opportunity.

Unfortunately, I had also totally forgotten that it was pouring rain.

* * *

At last we came to the ship, which Ergan had “hidden” in the middle of a small clearing in the forest. How surprised I felt at seeing a real spaceship was nothing in comparison with how upset I felt at it not being like I had expected it.

What? No saucer-like aerodynamic shape? No blikenlights? No guardian robot? Not even a slight buzzing sound? This was bitterly disappointing. The ship, as a matter of fact, was just a very dull, unadorned cube of a material somewhat reminiscent of ceramic — though it was hard to tell under the glare of the orange sodium light we had brought with us. I estimated that its side must be around ten to twelve meters. It was sitting still in the air, a few inches above the ground. I would have liked to say that it was hovering there, but actually it wasn't even doing that, it was just sitting still, somewhat stupidly, as though it hadn't noticed that it was supposed to fall.

Ergan stepped closer to the side of the cube, and a rectangular opening appeared in it, starting from the bottom edge and moving upward so as to form a reasonably sized doorway. This was done in total silence, and without even the slightest trace of a suggestion as to where the vanishing material might be going. It just seemed to sublimate out of existence. I was standing too far from the doorway and the light of my lamp was shining in the wrong direction for me to get a clear view of what lay beyond. Ergan stepped in and fiddled with something that must have been on the wall near the door, and the inside was flooded with a cold white light. I approached and observed.

“Good heavens!” I exclaimed, “Is this truly the interior of a flying saucer?”

In the center stood the majestic figure of Athena Pallas in the form of a marble statue that would have made Phidias proud. Around it was a delicately organized little garden, complete with its pastel-colored rocks and even a minuscule pond. Apart from this, the ship was generously furnished in comfortable enough looking chairs. And there were also four busts in the corners. But in the way of control panels or navigating equipment, or such items, there was nothing.

“If you will come this way. Mind the step, please.” Ergan recommended solicitously.

“I see that your people have not lost the fine artistic taste which we shared twenty-five centuries ago. I must say, however, that I find this starship quite different from my expectations of it. I had awaited sophisticated computers…”

“The ‘sophisticated computers,’ as you call them, are here. It's all in the walls, you see.”

Ergan deftly moved his fingers along the side of the door, and I saw that there was no light switch there, contrary to my first conjecture. Rather, it seemed to be a computer keyboard of some type. As Ergan was typing, the inner walls of the room lost their dull white color, and became black but covered with luminous marks of all kinds: navigation charts, calculations, programs, communication screens, complicated words in an alphabet I couldn't understand, everything one ought to find in a good science-fiction movie. It was obvious that the walls were all huge flat computer screens, and tactile ones at that.

“Or would you rather have a nice scenery?”

Ergan pressed the screen a few more times, selecting an entry from a rather long list, and we were surrounded by great oceans — vast expanses of flowing purple — and we could even hear the sound of the waves beating on the shore. There were two suns in the sky above us.

“Some people find space travel stressful. This… background image helps them relax. It also helps one adjust to the fact that one will most likely find a very different time of day on arrival. But you, of course, will want to see what lies around us.”

So he fiddled with the controls some more, and the ship around us seemed to vanish completely. It gave me a start as I saw myself, Ergan, and even the statue of Athena, all standing still in midair. I noticed, however, that the walls weren't simply transparent, and that the stars above our heads shone with unnatural intensity.

“Artificially enhanced image. Strongly gamma corrected.” Ergan explained. “That will permit us to get a clear view of the galaxy as we leave it. It is truly a gorgeous sight. Now, are you ready for takeoff?”

“I won't get any readier with time, at any rate. Won't we need some food or some such thing?”

“Food? What a strange idea. These ships, Doctor, will take you around the Universe in less than an hour. There aren't many places you might want to eat while getting to. Now, just a second.”

He typed a few commands on the computer, which, he told me later, roughly translated as

(set-course! (planet 'arekion-six) 'most-pleasant)
(set-duration! (/ (* 5 60) time-conversion-factor))

“We're off. I set the destination to the planet Arekion VI, which is the capital of this galaxy. We're not going to Ernelion right away because we have to get you a new identity first — and some new clothes. That will be more conveniently done on Arekion. Anyway, we'll be there in precisely five of your minutes; we will first emerge from the disk of the Milky Way and then plunge back into its bulb, following a large semicircle. Our maximal speed will be tach ten point nine, or eighty billion times that of light.”

Even as he was speaking, we were moving, in total silence. We started out rather slowly, but our speed increased exponentially and pretty soon the shape of the Earth was clearly visible and moving away rapidly. Then the sun too became smaller and smaller. After it had disappeared into the void and become a luminous dot among other dots, for some time nothing remarkable happened…

But then, the stars started shifting. The faintest ones were drifting by, then the large bright shapes of the familiar constellations unformed themselves and the volume of space became truly apparent. As individual points became a blur, the vaster sight of the spiral arm emerged from the cloud of light. At last, the mighty span of the entire galaxy revealed itself, and at the peak of our journey, we were seeing it straight on, admiring its majestic spiral structure.

Then we began plunging back into the bulb of the Milky Way. That part wasn't nearly as impressive as the first — probably because the fact that we were slowing down instead of accelerating made the process appear unreal.

Finally, we settled in orbit around a planet, which we approached from the night side, so that I could not examine it well. Its star (the little I saw of it before we disappeared into darkness) was similar to our sun in all appearance — but what was fascinating was how densely crowded the night sky seemed, in this central region of the galaxy.

“We will be landing in no time. How did you like the trip?”

This sudden comment by Ergan brought me out of my rêverie. I looked up, and he had to repeat his question.

“I must admit that the show was spectacular. I have never seen anything of the sort. I am truly impressed. But I am quite aware that it was only a show.”

“What do you mean by this?”

“Several things. In the first place, you have shamelessly admitted that we went far beyond the speed of light — billions of times the speed of light, was it? Now that, as we both know, is impossible. Not even for reasons having to do with relativity, but simply for the fact that at an acceleration sufficiently small as not to crush us to bare dust, it would take all those five minutes to reach even — tach minus three — the thousandth part of the speed of light. Let me moreover point out that to reach this albeit small velocity in five minutes, the necessary power would exceed by far that of a very large nuclear power plant, even assuming the ship weighs nothing but the two of us. And I generously leave aside all questions concerning stray ions which would frizzle us in no time — I am willing to believe you have adequate shielding. But the most important point is that of aberration: at speeds even comparable with that of light, our view would be very much distorted to a small window in our back — and I am too kind in forgetting about the redshift — do you not think that at nearly a hundred billion times the speed of light there would be some kind of deformation in the view?”

Ergan seemed amused by all this.

“I am not a physicist, Doctor, but I am told there is one explanation that will answer all your questions.”

“Yes. That you have been showing me a film. A very impressive film, with full four-pi-steradian view in stereo-vision, but a film nonetheless. Just like the ocean you showed me previously.”

“It is almost that. As far as I understand it, there is a second component to displacement besides ordinary speed — we call that component etherspeed. It incurs no inertial effects whatsoever, does not demand any energy to produce, beyond the small differences in potential energy from one point to another; it does not carry any momentum, is not subject to any sort of relativistic effect, not even aberration of light. It behaves like teleportation, but a continuous kind of teleportation rather than just a punctual leap. In fact, in its effect it is no different from viewing a film — except that we finally reach our destination, as you shall soon see.

“Actually, there was a small component of ordinary speed to our journey, produced by just the acceleration needed to maintain a feeling of gravity within the ship as we were in the void. I am surprised you left out that objection, by the way. More precisely, the artificial gravity did a linear interpolation between the initial gravity of Earth and the final gravity we will be feeling in a moment on Arekion VI — so you don't notice the small difference.”

After that, I fell silent. What could I say?

* * *

We landed — in the night part — and when we came out of the ship I had to admit that Ergan had not lied: we were definitely no longer on Earth. The platform where we had landed was some kind of spaceport. The floor was covered with painted lines going in all directions, presumably to mark the landing plots. Various signs bearing glyphs in some unknown script — but definitely derived from the Greek alphabet — surrounded us. A very large one stood out amid the lot, and on it I could quite clearly make out the name of the planet which Ergan had told me (except for the numeral which was strangely indicated).

Around us, people were walking or running across the platform. Most of them were clad in similar fashion to the way we on Earth dress our astronauts. Since I knew that that kind of suit was unnecessary on the spaceships, I thought for a minute that the atmosphere might be unbreathable; but that was stupid: we ourselves were breathing without problem. One of them approached Ergan, and exchanged a few words with him, very respectfully. I concluded that they were the spaceport staff. Since Ergan had recommended that I remain quiet, I did not enquire further.

My guide and I boarded some sort of car. I must admit that I did not pay too much attention to it, since I was too much involved in trying to see all I could of the city around us. Unfortunately, a city at night, even an alien city seven kiloparsecs from home, looks exactly like a city at night, with a lot of lights and especially a lot of dark. I did get the impression that it was very white and very clean, being mostly made of the same creamy ceramic material as the outside of the ship. The buildings all looked brand new — probably a false impression since even very advanced civilizations have a history. The architecture was a weird mixture of the classical Greek, the (mostly fabulous) middle eastern, the Aztec and the contemporary. Parks were relatively abundant, I noted.

The city wasn't terribly tall. It utilized its height to its full, however, with bridges running in all directions at many different levels. And also, it was prodigiously big. Indeed, the car, which was computer driven, accelerated to a very considerable speed, probably around eight hundred meters per second, in a few minutes — I was all but crushed to my seat. And even at that velocity, it took us over a quarter of an hour before we reached our destination.

When we got out of the car, in front of a very large and very imposing monument of some kind, a whole line of the people I had seen at the airport formed between we and it; the same men with uniforms and a helmet that hid their face. It only then occurred to me that they were guards of some kind.

“Who are they?” I whispered to Ergan.

“The armed forces of His August Majesty, the Emperor of the Universe.” my guide answered — not whispering.

“Good heavens! Are we being arrested? Is this a prison?”

“Arrested? Of course not. They are my personal bodyguards. This is where I live.”

“Bodyguards? But I thought you were…”

The blank look on my face must have been particularly funny, and Ergan certainly did have a good laugh at it.

“A rebel? I am indeed a rebel. (Do not look so worried, they cannot understand English.) And I am also… Oh, I guess I forgot to tell you. Sorry. I am a patrician, Senator of the Empire, and Peer of the Realm.”

* * *

“All right,” said Ergan. “I suppose I owe you an apology.”

“What you really owe me,” I replied, “is an explanation.”

We were comfortably seated in the very large building which Ergan had surprised me by revealing that it was his house. The inside of the salon was very much what was to be expected from what I had already seen of the spaceship and of the city as a whole: quite beautiful, but of a cold, crystalline, kind of beauty — and entirely too large and white. The drink I was offered, on the other hand, satisfied me entirely, despite its absence of alcohol: it was of an opaque, sparkling red, quite sweet and fruity but very refreshing.

“Well,” said Ergan, “not only peasants can rebel, you know. I happen to be of one of the oldest lineages in the Universe. My grandmother was minister of Education in the government of His Late Majesty Ereston IV Lektar. I am myself member of the Imperial Senate. But, under the name of ‘Fire Thief,’ I am also the vice-president of the League of Anor, a universal alliance of all rebellious movements, terrorist or otherwise, who seek to bring an end to the monarchy.”

“And are not those two functions — Senator and rebel — somewhat contradictory?”

“Why should they be? My republican opinions are well known in the Senate. It is perhaps a difference between our culture and yours, that among our people, political enemies can tolerate each other without seeking war and destruction. The Imperial Government do not know that I am member of the League, but they cannot fail to suspect it. Yet none would be so bold as to attempt a trial against me, and the Emperor would never allow a condemnation without a prior equitable judgment.”

“The political situation you describe,” I pointed out, “seems enviable. The existence of a Parliament, the belief in the presumption of innocence…”

“I do not claim the contrary. Yet the Senate is not truly democratic. The power we have is small, we cannot overturn the Government, and the First Minister is named at the Emperor's fancy, not necessarily among the ranks of the senatorial majority. The way we are elected — more named than elected to say the truth — is also far from fair, and gives too much power to the central provinces. Despite all this, what I fear most is the future, because the Senate's existence is guaranteed by no constitution: the Emperors have always known that any such fundamental law would be a limitation of their absolute power, and have never consented one.”

“Tell me another thing. I suppose that as a Peer of His August Majesty's Empire, you must have a proper honorific. How am I to call you?”

“Help me!” exclaimed Ergan. “If I tell you, you will take your revenge of my calling you ‘Doctor’ so often. To say the truth, I have many names and titles. My favorite one is ‘Fire Thief,’ my code name in the League of Anor: it refers, of course…”

“…to the hero Prometheus,” I interrupted, “who stole the fire of the gods and gave it to mankind. Naturally.”

“Correct. But I would rather you didn't use any of my titles and just called me ‘Ergan.’ In return, I will call you ‘Chris,’ Doctor.”

I laughed, in a desperate attempt to make it seem that my broad smile was one of humor rather than of happiness.

“Another thing,” I asked, “you said that this is your home. It is indeed as luxurious as I might have expected for a noble Patrician, but I find it lacking in just one thing: apart from the guards outside, I did not see any servants. Should a Senator's house — nay, palace — not be bursting with activity and animation? Do you really live here alone?”

“I have more than one dwelling place. And, although none comes even close in opulence to the courts of all prefects, governors and viceroys, you will find them well furnished indeed. This one is my most private abode, my ‘meditation's retreat.’ I have announced to all that I would be absent for a few days, and they know what that means. You definitely have some learning to do in the ways of the Empire. But in the mean time, I propose we both go to bed.”

Naturally, I did not sleep that night. Who would have slept on one's first night in an alien city, anyway? But my main reason for not sleeping was rather different: Ergan's last sentence was to be understood in the way I had hardly dared to, and I had a Peer of the Realm with me in bed.

* * *

The next days were but an eerie dream, from which I kept fearing I would wake up. I went from bewilderment to bewilderment, each new moment bringing its load of surprises.

I had officially become Cherestin Huigar, born on some unknown planet of the Alekarnian province, citizen of the Empire and equal to all others before His Majesty. The language of the Universe, which bore no other name than the laconic “new tongue,” I learned in no time at all: its extremely logical structure and grammar — it seemed as though a computer scientist and a mathematician had conspired to create it — and its vocabulary descended from ancient Greek (which I speak fluently) made my task very easy. I could not say, however, that I became quickly versed in the ways and customs of the Empire, but that, as Ergan pointed out, was of no importance. Indeed, the backwater provinces of the Empire, such as that where I was supposed to come from, although theoretically under the same One rule as the galaxy of Anecdar, had such different (and “barbaric”) manners that the obscurity of the planet on my birth certificate was sufficient to explain all the lack of education I would soon be revealing to the Universe. As for the reason to my sudden appearance on one of the most fashionable planets in the sector, we followed the advice that “the closer to the truth, the better the lie; and the truth itself, when it can be used, makes the best lie of all” — namely that I was Ergan's current love affair.

After a couple of weeks during which I stayed in Ergan's home all the time, the moment came for my first tour outside since my coming. We wandered in the upper-class parts of the city. I was unhappily aware that I acted all the more like a tourist as I desperately tried to avoid it. I was continually turning around to see whether such or such a lady or gentleman was indeed staring at me in astonishment; the truth of course was that though the ladies and gentlemen in question might be interested in Ergan, whose presence on the planet was an honor to it, I myself might as well be made of glass for all I mattered.

And then — all my efforts in trying not to look like a tourist crumbled to nothing. We had been strolling along a walkway bordered with uninterrupted buildings on either side, thus blocking our view, and the wall on our left came to a sudden stop. I hadn't noticed it because I had been turning my head to the right to stare at an elderly lady who walked away with dignity. Now, lo and behold, as if a curtain had been drawn away, the whole core of the city became visible to me, and I could not but remain there and gape at the new sight.

I had previously only seen a dim and nightly glimpse of the distant quarters of the city, where the buildings are low and unremarkable. Now under the glare of the midday sun I was viewing in its full glory the heart of a galactic capital. This center was built around a lake, whose width was very little where we were, allowing us a clear view of the opposite bank, which had the appearance of an island. What I had not realized was that we were high in the air, perhaps a hundred meters above the surface of the lake. Facing me, thus, was a huge void with water under it, and beyond, the dramatic mass of the skyscrapers, and the bridges connecting them that spanned the air majestically.

I had, as a child, been impressed by the sight of Manhattan from the shore of Brooklyn. But the memory of it faded and seemed pale before this new mass of architecture “sustaining itself as if by miracle in mid-air, glittering in the red sunlight with a hundred oriels, minarets, and pinnacles; and seeming the phantom handiwork, conjointly, of the Sylphs, of the Fairies, of the Genii, and of the Gnomes.”

One tower stood out amid the lot: it was conical shaped, and at roughly three fifths of its height a thin torus surrounded it, connected to the tower by even thinner bridges, so that the gleaming ring appeared to be floating in the air. Other bridges, wider but never massive, some of them roofed, connected the tower to the neighboring edifices; one large helical walkway circled the building four times while getting closer to it, and finally joined it at one quarter of its base, thus providing access from the ground level. The whole structure was not off-white like most of the city, but rather it was covered with gold paint. At the tower's feet, on the lake side, was a large parkland, whose grassy hills and sparkling streams were a pleasant contrast to the futuristic cityscape.

Ergan observed at my awe with merriment, and mimicked the voice of a tourist guide:

“The seat of the Deliberating Assembly of the Galaxy. This building, and most of the ones around it, house the many public services, offices and departments that keep the galaxy running. Immediately behind the tower, so you cannot see it, there is a wide avenue, the Procurator's Way, that leads to the palace, another architectural marvel. The tower is nearly four hundred meters high, in your units.”

“Do I find it impressive merely because I'm an alien?”

“No. Provincials usually react like you do.” Ergan's tone was blasé. “Those who have seen Ernelion find it very cheap. A paltry replica of the original buildings, the seat of the government of the Universe. Actually, it's not so bad, but it's far from original: half of all galactic and sector capitals have the same layout. Oh, and for more tourist information, the legend has it that all, including the artifacts on Ernelion, are copies of the Tower and Castle in Godshome, abode of the immortals. Or some such rubbish.”

“But,” Ergan added, “I shall soon take you to his Excellency's palace, and you will have plenty more occasions to act as a provincial there.”

Lord Itherun Ganthar, Procurator of the Milky Way was, I soon learned, a long-time and private enemy of Ergan's. One of those people of whom might have been said, “with enemies like these, who needs friends?”

I had been told something of the administrative division of the Empire. The Universe was divided in eighty provinces, each ruled by a prefect. Those provinces were in turn divided into around fifty sectors each, ruled by a governor. The sectors were made up of quadrants, with a viceroy at their heads, the quadrants of divisions, governed by a consul, the divisions of regions, governed by an tribune, and each region contained around a hundred galaxies, with a procurator at each one's head. There were administrative divisions beyond the galaxy, namely sections and districts, and officials at their head, ædiles, provosts and mayors (of individual planets), but Ergan visibly considered it below his dignity to try to mention them, and only with great reticence agreed to find English names to translate the terms used to designate them. Yet by reflecting that each one of these procurators ruled thousands of times more people than the Earth had ever had, and that there were a hundred billion procurators in the Universe, I had a slight and frightening notion of the size of the Empire.

Woa… I know this ends rather abruptly. Don't worry though, this story isn't finished. It will be, some day — but I can't predict when. Be assured that I have a definite plot in mind, though, so I know where I'm going. Now be patient… and use your imagination.

David Madore