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All one ever gets to see of Ernelion on television is just a thousand or so square kilometers centered around the old Senate buildings. The luxurious mansions and palaces, the immense gardens and parklands, the universally famous “Confederation square”, the Academy — all those remain within the bounds of the so-called Imperial Sector. Yet there is much more to Ernelion than this one district. Ernelion, capital of the Empire, is the nerve center of the universe, pulls the strings that move the galaxies; but that does not mean that all who live there have one such string in their hands! All play a role to some extent in the ruling of the Empire, yes, and all are proud of it. But that role is sometimes very remote; Ernelion needs men to look after it, were it only to take care of the parks and to make sure that Confederation square is as clean as it might be when the television comes. Had things gone their way, real estate prices would have everywhere reached the astronomical height of two hundred and fifty million per square meter that is average in the Imperial Sector, and labor would have to be brought daily from the surrounding planets at a high price. But the Imperial Government have avoided this by drastically reducing immigration — and have made sure that the Imperial Sector be surrounded by lower-class suburbs where the necessary labor force could be found at little cost.

This Suburb, as Ernelians call it — note the capital S and the singular —, is not poor; in fact, anyone in the Anecdar galaxy is certainly far wealthier than the wealthiest peasants of the Alekarnian province. But it inevitably appears so in comparison with the the insolent wealth of the Imperial Sector. Anyhow, poverty is not the prime characteristic of the Suburb: it has been the Imperial Government's policy to maintain it in a state of almost complete lawlessness. Whereas an Alekarnian peasant who steals from his fellow is almost sure to be caught and tried on the hour, thousands of crime go daily unnoticed in the Suburb on Ernelion. This is not because the police are unable to keep control: they manage very well when it comes to collecting taxes; the population of a single planet, no matter how large, or of a whole galaxy in fact, is ridiculously small in comparison with the numbers of the Fleet. It is just that the Government don't consider it worth the effort: guards on Ernelion are better employed in protecting the mayor's house than a couple of street urchins for whom a replacement can always be found in the vast human reservoir of the Provinces. Perhaps also there is a more sinister scheme behind this; “let the toughest survive” is reputed to have said the Vice-Secretary of State for the Proximal Galaxies to the newly elected mayor of Ernelion. Some rumors have it that the Government are in collusion with one of the many mafias that dominate the Suburb — though what they would stand to gain by this the rumor does not say.

Naturally, riots are bound to occasionally appear here and there: some agitator or political demagogue starts promising hope and glory, and a few days later rebellion sets in. The authorities, aware of their own superiority, generally choose to ignore it, and indeed it most often peters out in a week or so without having wreaked much havoc. Resorting to violence was necessary on few occasions, but then it was violent indeed — hundreds of thousands of innocent people were massacred by the army who considered it safer to kill everybody and think later. On the whole, Ernelians are too conscious of their privileges to be eager to revolt. When the wildest dream of half the population of the universe is to set foot on the planet on which one lives, one does not complain too readily that this planet is more like hell than heaven.

“Liberator of Worlds” — as he had himself called — was such a creator of unrest, who claimed to champion Freedom and Democracy. Every evening after work — he was employed by the central food market of Ernelion — he would take a stand in one of the main squares of the Suburb, and improvise a speech on the political situation of the Empire. He would say many great words, speak of wondrous things yet to be, and the audience would go home and dream of a better world. Liberator of Worlds was different from the many before him, however, in that he was gifted with intelligence, deftness and charisma; even better, he was also young and handsome. So he met increasing popularity; and that meant increasing danger. Liberator of Worlds was careful not to stretch his luck too far: he avoided criticizing any higher than the mayor of Ernelion, or at any rate the Procurator of Anecdar.

One day, however, he went further than he intended, and found himself calling the Lord-Minister of the Provinces a “squalid swine, bursting with arrogance, and wallowing in obloquy” — a pretty phrase, but moderately dangerous. And, sure enough, the meeting was hardly over when he found himself facing a squadron of elite troops commanded by a captain of the Imperial guard. He was asked — very politely — to follow.

“I must warn you, said Liberator of Worlds, that if you execute me, or in fact if anything happens to me, riots will start throughout the Suburb, and in three days the entire planet will be put to fire and the sword. All of us are prepared to die for our freedom. And even if we don't achieve our goal, you will have lost a great number of lives and a considerable fortune.”

It sounded rather lame, he thought, but it would have to do. He hadn't had the time to find a better wording for his ultimatum.

The captain's face remained emotionless.

“I am not competent to take any decision in this matter. My orders are to take you do someone who is. Now if you will please follow us, sir.”

“May I know who the person in question is?”

“I am not authorized to disclose that information to you, sir.”

Four men held Liberator of Worlds still while a fifth one blindfolded him. He was led into something which he assumed to be a car. It was useless to attempt anything: there seemed to be a guard watching each of his fingers. At least it was flattering to know that he was worth one whole squadron.

When, after an hour or two of travel, the self-proclaimed hero's blindfold was finally removed, he was standing in a very large and magnificent room, presumably in the Imperial Sector. A huge picture window occupied the western side, and it was ablaze with the rays of the setting sun. Dazzled, Liberator of Worlds had to close his eyes. He had just had the time to see that, apart from himself and the captain who quickly left, there was only one person in the room, rather short, presumably a young man, whom Liberator of Worlds could not identify against the sunlight.

“I was about to serve myself some tea.” said the man, point-blank. “Would you like some?”

“Not before I know what will be done to me.”

“Oh, that! No harm, I can assure you.”

“I hope so. For your sake.” replied Liberator of Worlds, with a trace less confidence in his voice than he would have wished. He then repeated in substance the threat he had made to the guard captain.

“There will be no revolt, do not worry.” said the other in a completely calm tone. “When your followers discover that you are a traitor, your rebellion will disappear as quickly as it had appeared.”

“That I am a traitor?… I do not understand.”

“That is how they will see it. Of course, we know better.”

The man paused a few seconds, and condescended to explain:

“I thought it would be a shame to waste you. You seem to be rather intelligent, and you might be worth something.”

He came out of the light so Liberator of Worlds could see him.

“You see, I am even considering offering you a seat in my Government. Perhaps you could take the place of lord Ambrosius Kittel, Minister of the Provinces, whom you have so harshly criticized.”

Liberator of Worlds had fallen to his knees.

“I beg Your Majesty's forgiveness, Sire. I had not recognized…”

The Emperor merely smiled, lifted him with one hand, escorted him to the door, and opened it.

“Think upon what I have said. Good bye, my friend.” There was a distinctive stress on the last word.

When the door closed and Liberator of Worlds turned around, he found himself surrounded by a hoard of journalists. Television cameras and microphones were pointed at him.

“Your Excellency! His Majesty has called you his ‘friend’. Is it true that you are to be appointed to the Government of the universe?”

And in a half-whisper, the journalist added:

“Five million for your exclusive interview, Your Excellency.”

Liberator of Worlds finally understood the situation he was in. The alternative was simple: he could decline the Emperor's offer and return to the Suburb — to be perhaps executed, perhaps accused of treason, at best die as a hero. Or he could be one of the most powerful men in the Universe — and with power came wealth and fame.

He had never left Ernelion: here was his chance to do so, and visit the Empire. Here was his chance to do so many things he had always dreamt of. At the cost of treason.

“That is right, sir.” he finally said. “The Lord President of the Council should soon announce my nomination as Minister of the Provinces.”

David Madore

Last modified: $Date: 2002/06/17 22:41:44 $