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Nick was elated. Fear was now gone from his mind. He avoided every shot that was aimed at him, and returned them with deadly precision, not even slowing down a second to see the bodies fall. He was invincible, he was a god; and most importantly, he was nearing his Goal.
And at last the Goal was there: Nick had come to the final door. There his happiness gave way to a sense of awe. It was from the room that lay behind that the Universe was ruled. Now was the time to see whether the code was worth its price...
``Parcere subjectis et debellare superbos.'' Nick stated, clearly and unnecessarily distinctly.
It worked: the door silently slid open and revealed the throne room. The latter had a definite air of grandness to it. It was very large and pretty much empty, painted in delicate shades of grey and deep blue; the lighting was very weak. One entire wall was transparent, and the night sky could be seen outside, the gigantic spiral of the Anecdar galaxy occupying most of it. It was not ordinary glass though, because a galaxy is too dim an object to be seen with the naked eye, even from the middle of it, whereas this sight was truly magnificent, exactly the popular image one has of a galaxy, huge and bright.
The Emperor's throne could turn around completely, and when Nick entered, the monarch of the Universe had his back turned toward the entrance and was contemplating Anecdar in all its nightly splendor. He appeared not to hear the rebel enter.
``All right,'' said Nick in a menacing tone, ``don't move.''
He pointed his weapon at the sovereign's head.
The Emperor answered in a cool, distant, tone.
``To spare those who submit themselves and to subdue the haughty. A very wise saying. So, young man, do you wish to submit yourself, or shall I have to do it for you?''
Nick ignored this bravado.
``Turn around, your Majesty. Slowly.''
``I can hardly do that without moving.'' objected the Emperor, sarcastically.
``Don't make me lose my temper!'' warned Nick.
The Emperor consented to turn around; he did not depart from his coolness, however.
``Oh, shouldn't I? And what might happen if I did?''
Nick had to admit that there was definite majesty in the Emperor's pose. He was truly regal, and the rebel was almost tempted to beg forgiveness.
``I would shoot you, of course. With due respect, your Majesty.''
``Ah... But you can't, you see: your weapon is not loaded.''
This piece of bluff is rather ridiculous, thought Nick. Does he really think I'll believe that?
``Tell that to the several dozen of your soldiers I shot down on my way here!''
``They're not dead. They're simply very good actors.''
This is getting more and more stupid, thought Nick.
``You see, young `rebel', you are in a trap. In fact, you are so deep in a trap that you do not even realize the trap is there. Now let me show you something.''
Before even Nick's highly trained reflexes could react, the Emperor had pressed a little button on the side of his throne; a side door slid open, and a dozen men entered the room. Nick was prepared to shoot, but when he recognized the faces he immediately lowered his gun.
``Marc! Kevin! Eric! Helen! Michael! What are you doing here? Have you been captured?''
``Oh no, they haven't.'' answered the Emperor. ``And that's the saddest thing for you. They are my agents. All this time they were my agents.''
``Impossible!'' exclaimed Nick. ``The Federation...''
The Emperor cut in, aggressively.
``But there is no `Federation'. Don't you understand that? The whole Federation of Rebels against the Empire is a farce! It does not exist! I made it up! Completely! There are no rebels against the Empire. Or rather, you are the only one.''
Nick was starting to feel very frightened. He turned toward his best friend.
``Marc. Tell me that's not true.''
``It is, Nick. I'm sorry.''
``But the academy...''
``Yes,'' mocked the Emperor, ``the glorious training days... the fun... the friendship... the dispute over Helen's love... the final marriage with her... the `fortuitous' meeting of Michael Vanadia... the solemn oath... the battles won... the hope and glory... the awards... the sorrows, also, over a friend lost... the victories and the defeats... all were false! All were my planning and my doing. You have been living a dream, young Nick. Only it wasn't yours... It was mine!''
That was all Nick could manage to say; he had left his useless weapon drop on the floor.
``To bring you here, alive. I knew you would rather have died than let yourself captured, so this whole masquerade was the best way to make absolutely certain you would arrive here unharmed. It was a brilliant idea of the Minister of the Provinces.''
At this point, Eric De Salthing broke in the discussion.
``Ah, but there is one more reason, your Majesty, which even you do not know...''
It was impossible to see whether the Emperor was surprised.
``The Federation is a farce,'' continued Eric, ``so much is true. However, this weapon here'' — he pointed to that which he was holding — ``is truly loaded.''
He tossed it to Nick.
``You see, there are true rebels, and Nick is not the only one. I am another. Kevin here is another. And above all, the Lord Minister of the Provinces is one. We are agents of the Unified Council of the Resistance.''
He let Kevin Henemon continue with the explanations:
``The UCR has existed for quite some time. We kept so secret that even the Emperor did not so much as suspect our existence; but we penetrated even the most secret of state secrets. When we learned about the Emperor's idea of the Federation masquerade, we saw our opportunity. How better could we disguise our identity as rebels than be acting as rebels in the Emperor's pay? And also, what better occasion might we have to enter the throne room itself?''
``So, Nick,'' said Eric, ``you may now shoot the tyrant.''
Nick was evidently overjoyed to have regained some of his friends, even if he was surprised to see that the ``truly faithful'' were in fact not his closest and dearest. Still, it was better than being alone in the world. He lifted the blaster toward the sovereign.
The Emperor's face, this time, was not nearly as calm as when Nick first had entered the room. Still, the dominant expression seemed to be more like sorrow than fear.
``I wouldn't advise you to shoot, young Nick. We have quite some more explaining to do.''
``Oh yes? Such as what?''
``Would you mind going up another level with me? There is still a lot that you don't know.''
``Don't listen to him!'' advised Eric. ``He's trying to trap you!''
The Emperor now turned toward Eric.
``Trap him? As I said, he's already in a trap. Though probably he doesn't understand what is going on, any more than you do. Now let me explain. There is one important element whose knowledge you lack, De Salthing, and that is why I am so interested by this young Nick in the first place.''
``What does it matter to us?''
``Oh, but it matters greatly! You see, I don't trust the Minister of the Provinces; he's a very good politician and that's why I keep him in office, but I wouldn't tell him a secret of this importance. So I just told him that I needed a way of capturing Nick alive. He came up with this ingenious scheme. I gathered that there might turn out to be some true rebels among the fake, so I took the liberty of asking my really trusted agents'' — he pointed to Marc, Helen and Michael — ``to make sure all the weapons were dummies.''
He let another moment of surprise pass, and continued.
``I can trust them absolutely: as a matter of fact, they know why Nick is so important. And they were selected to be his best friends. That is also why you couldn't engage them in your `Unified Council of the Resistance', De Salthing. You didn't engage Nick, either, because you were cautious and wanted to know more about him. Well, you couldn't have learned more no matter how much you tried.''
Obviously the Emperor was enjoying his effect. Now everyone, and above all Nick himself, wanted to know what the secret was.
``But before we get to that, may I ask, De Salthing, what you have against me?''
``But you are the Emperor!''
``That is rather insufficient, I am afraid. After all, for all this time I have been letting my Prime Minister and my Minister of the Provinces do all the actual governing, and the latter is one of yours and the former you are certainly in sympathy with...''
``Don't answer. It is true. I will tell you why you hate me, even without knowing it yourself: it is because I am not the legitimate Emperor.''
``I don't know how the people does it, but it just knows it when it's not being governed by the true Emperor.''
The — false — Emperor stood up and walked toward Nick, his crown in his hands.
``So, my nephew, I surrender to thee this crown which I had taken on my own head in safekeeping until thy coming of age. And I pray your Majesty to forgive me for the offences I have committed against you.''
Nick received the crown of the Universe on his head and all in the room kneeled. He was no longer alone. He had not lost his friends after all — and he had gained an uncle.
``Parcam subjectis et debellabo superbos.'' said he.
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