His Royal Majesty - The Eternal Emperor - hereby requests and requires that all his subjects join him at Arundel Castle on Prime World, March 15-17, to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of his empire. Special guests to include Sten, Alex Kilgour, Ian Mahoney and oceans of Stregg.
Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me; The carriage held but just ourselves and immortality. - Emily Dickinson
If I have any beliefs about immortality, it is that certain dogs I have known will go to heaven, and very, very few persons. - James Thurber.
HIS LUCK RETURNED. Along with health, bestowed by Imbrociano’s talents. The nerve rewiring was simple. The rehabilitation exercises torture. But it was worth it.
Richards rose from his chair and walked to the far end of his office. He was alone. He watched his progress in a mirror. Approved. Now, only a slight limp betrayed the lingering traces of his paralysis from the stroke. It had been easy to hide this from the public. Politics has long experience keeping those kinds of things hushed up. In FDR’s time, Kea recalled, few people were even aware he was bound to a wheelchair for life.
He walked back to his desk. Eased his fifty-nine-year-old bones into the soft chair. And poured himself a drink from a decanter on his desk.
It was Scotch.
He savored it. Just as he savored a few moments’ peace from the breakneck pace of his duties. Then he tensed as a headache twinged. His heart fluttered—was this it? But the pain fled along with fear. Thank God, he thought, that worry will be over soon. One way or the other.
Imbrociano was almost ready. Everything was in place. He only had to say the word and great, shadowy forces would be put in motion. Kea had worked feverishly to reach this point. Shifting staff. Pulling strings. Creating and collapsing whole bureaucracies. Covering his tracks in a hailstorm of governmental actions and decrees. Vast industries were at his disposal, with no one manager aware of what the other was doing. Starships had been flung here and there at his bidding. He had spun an elaborate, supersecret network, with cutouts and switchbacks and complex electronic mazes created by canny old spies.
During that time Imbrociano and her team had worked at equally as furious a pace. With the entire Federation’s treasury at their disposal as a budget.
Kea sipped his Scotch, letting the warmth tease the kinks in his side.
The first part of his plan to cheat death had been relatively simple. Imbrociano would build a walking, talking, thinking duplicate of Kea Richards. The second part—yet to be put into motion—was simpler still. Horrifically so.
He steered his mind away from yowling terror. He’d have to deal with it when the moment came.
The third part of his plan was vastly complex. To begin with, he’d had new improvements of the old model in mind. Tinkering with several genes to make his alter ego invulnerable to disease and aging. When the organism was in place, the aging process would be gradually reversed. He had picked thirty-five as the place to stop. Kea thought that had been the best time for him. His peak in many ways. With the process spread out over many years, his people would barely notice their President For Life shedding middle age like a snake its skin. In theory, the new Kea Richards would be able to go on and on throughout the centuries without wearing out. Virtual immortality.
“In practice,” Imbrociano had said, “I doubt very much this is possible. An organism—especially a thinking organism—is too complex. Vulnerable to many things we are ignorant of. Not just physically vulnerable, either. There is the psychological to consider.”
“I could go mad,” Kea had said. With no emotion. Imbrociano had only nodded.
“I could also be assassinated,” Kea had said. “Or, held against my will. Forced to do and reveal things.”
“There is that, too,” Imbrociano had said.
These problems had led to the key part of the grand scheme. An engineer at heart, Kea had started with a machine. A judgment machine. Fitted with powerful reasoning programs. Remote sensors to monitor the alter ego. Judging mental and physical conditions, as well as outward threats. The organism itself would have a bomb implanted in its gut. Threatened by torture, brainscan, or fatal attack, the bomb would blow with an enormous force. Killing all within its range. The same would happen if the judgment machine decided he was no longer mentally fit to rule the Federation. Kea called it the Caligula Factor.
He had no wish to become a tyrant who ruled over an endless hell.
He had been proud of himself for thinking of that. Proud of it still, he thought, touching up his glass with Scotch. It was his own secret gift to his forever kingdom. If he was absolutely honest with himself, however, he would have to admit he was a little broad in his definitions of mental disturbance. But during these fits of honesty, he had rationalized that his future self might require some leeway to survive. It was impossible to imagine all the circumstances he might face over the centuries. What seemed insane today might be expeditious in the far tomorrow.
The machine orchestrating all of this was contained in a completely automated hospital ship; a ship not only built with redundancy on redundancy, constructed with bus bars a meter thick when a centimeter would give a lifespan of decades, but given complete self-analyzing and repair capabilities.
He had hidden it where no enemy could ever find it—the alternate universe. The source of his AM2 operation.
He thought of it as N-space.
And just in case his enemies ever tracked the ship down, it was defended by the best weapons of this age. It was unlikely anyone who attacked would survive. The hospital ship would sit in readiness, waiting for the signal to call it into full life. At that signal, the ship’s robotic staff would build yet another Kea Richards—to replace the one that had just been… removed. The flesh would be grown from the genes Imbrociano was even now stockpiling from frequent biopsies. The mind—the id of Kea Richards—would be perfectly reconstructed as well. Right up to the final thoughts before… death.
“This will take time,” Imbrociano had warned him. “A little more than three years before the duplicate is constructed. You’ll have to be aware of these gaps.”
He had overcome the problem by having an elaborate library computer installed. It would constantly monitor every newsfeed and knowledge resource in the Federation. All this data would be fed to the new organism after the awakening—during tutorials. But he must be wary. The organism would be new. Untried. Imbrociano’s psych techs told him too much pure knowledge without practical experience could doom it before it started.
The return to power would be gradual. A ladder of experience. With awareness fed to him along with each step upward. And at any point, the judgment machine could decide the new organism was lacking in some way and destroy it… to start again.
Oddly enough, the easiest of all his tasks in preparing for immortality had involved the political.
Because his hole card was AM2.
When he died, the AM2 shipments would automatically halt. There would be no more for a usurper until Kea’s rebirth and return. Economic chaos would result A three-year power drought. The throne stealer would be so weakened, he would topple at a touch when Kea Richards rose from the dead.
A hero reborn.
It was a powerful legend to build on.
Kea looked up at the antique clock on the mantel. It was time to start.
Imbrociano was waiting.
He finished his drink. Replaced the glass on the tray and pushed the whole thing away. And he buzzed for Kemper—his chief of staff. They went over the things to be done in his absence. Last-minute legislative details. Appointments to higher office. That sort of thing. His staff was grudgingly getting used to his mysterious absences. He had slipped away regularly to add to that tolerance. Sometimes in his guise as the common engineer—Raschid. Sometimes with a few chosen people for a little stealth diplomacy.
“What if there is an emergency, Mr. President?” Kemper said dutifully. He knew the answer, but thought he’d be remiss if he didn’t ask. “How can we reach you?”
Richards gave him the usual response: “Don’t worry. I won’t be gone long.”
After Kemper departed, Richards pulled a bulky travel kit from a drawer. Then he pressed a stud beneath his desk. A panel swung away in the wall.. Kea plunged into the dark passage. The panel closed behind him. A short time later he was aboard a small spaceyacht, listening to the captain chatter with the first officer—waiting for tower clearance. He turned in his seat to see if Imbrociano and her people were comfortable. Imbrociano waved to him. Smiled. A sad smile. Kea waved back. Settled in for takeoff.
There was the shock of the thrust… a roaring in his ears… then weightlessness. Kea savored every sensation of the flight.
As if it were to be his last.
Imbrociano’s voice came in his ear: “Would you like a sedative?”
He turned to her. Motioned for her to sit next to him. She did. Her eyes were hollowed from lack of sleep. “I’d rather not,” Kea said. “Somehow… I don’t know… I want to be aware.”
“I understand,” Imbrociano said. “But we won’t reach our destination until tomorrow. Why not get some rest?”
“If this doesn’t work,” Kea said, “I’ll have a lot of time for that. Permanent rest.”
“You can still call this off,” Imbrociano said. “Really. I urge you to.”
“I’ve made up my mind,” Kea said. “There’s no need for you to feel guilt.”
Imbrociano grew silent. Picked at her sleeve. Then she said, “If it eases your mind any, there will be no pain tomorrow. No sensation. I’ll inject you with trancs first. So there will be no fear. The lethal dose will come next. You’ll inhale… and by the time you fully exhale, you’ll be… dead.”
“Reborn, actually,” Kea said with forced lightness. “Or, as some might say, exchanging one vessel for another.”
“But it can’t be really you,” she exploded. “Perhaps by casual definition, yes. It will talk, walk, and think like you in all matters. But it still can’t be you. The essence in each of us. That makes us individual. The soul.”
“You sound like a preacher,” Kea said. “I’m an engineer. A pragmatist. If it walks like a duck… talks like a duck… it must be Kea Richards.”
Imbrociano put her head back. Tired. Defeated. Then she patted his arm. Rose. And returned to her seat.
Kea felt genuinely sorry about what had to happen next. He fished out the travel case. Peeled away a small panel of material to reveal a depression. A heat-sensitive switch. He liked Imbrociano. Despite her stiff manner, she was genuinely human: afflicted with the curse of empathy.
His affection for her was the second reason he had chosen to alter the plan. The first reason was pragmatic. It was best to begin with maximum impact. A suspicious accident. Triggering finger pointing and political purges. Government in disarray. The cheers at his miraculous return would drown out many questions. Some of those he would get around with obscure hints of enemies in hiding. The rest he would erase by simply rewriting history.
He would have a long time to do it.
The second reason was pity. For Imbrociano. He could not bear to think how hurt she would be that he had lied to her. It was a terrible emotion for a person to be confronted with at the moment of his death.
Even worse than the betrayal itself.
He trusted her.
But he couldn’t take the chance.
Trust no one, an old king had once advised another. Not even me, your friend… Especially me! Ah, well. The decision had been difficult. But deadly necessity had won the hand. Yet he knew he would always mourn Imbrociano. Just as he would mourn others.
It was a king’s burden.
One he would have to bear.
He moved his finger to the depression in the case. When he touched it, the bomb would destroy the ship.
Everyone would die. Instantly. Except for…
He was suddenly sweat-soaked. His heart bruising his ribs with its hammering.
What if Imbrociano was right?
Yes… Your soul. Goddamned y—
Kea shuddered in a long breath. Blew it out. Drew another. He closed his eyes. And thought of the gentle curtain of fire billowing in the cosmic winds. He was floating through it now. Saw the particles leaping about as if they were alive.
Now? Should he do it now?
One more moment.
One more thought.
Kea sucked in stale cabin air. Oddly, it tasted sweet.
I will be the forever king, he thought.
The Eternal Emperor.
He pressed the switch.
NEXT: YEAR ONE
***** STEN #1 DEBUTS IN SPANISH!
Told in four parts, Episode One now appearing in Diaspar Magazine, the best SF&F magazine in South America! And it's free! Here's the link.
Sten debuta # 1 en español! Narrada en cuatro partes, Episode One ahora aparece en la revista Diaspar, la mejor revista de SF & F en América del Sur!
Relive the fabulous four-day Stregg-laced celebration. Alex Kilgour's Worst Joke Ever. New recipes from the Eternal Emperor's kitchen. Alex Kilgour's Worst Joke Ever. Sten's thrill-packed exploits at the Emp's castle. How to make your own Stregg. And, did I mention, Alex Kilgour's Worst Joke Ever?
Two new companion editions to the international best-selling Sten series. In the first, learn the Emperor's most closely held cooking secrets. In the other, Sten unleashes his shaggy-dog joke cracking sidekick, Alex Kilgour. Both available as trade paperbacks or in all major e-book flavors. Click here to tickle your funny bone or sizzle your palate.
The MisAdventures began humbly enough - with about 2,000 readers. When it rose to over 50,000 (we're now knocking at the door of 115,000) I started listening to those of you who urged me to collect the stories into a book. Starting at the beginning, I went back and rewrote the essays, adding new detail and events as they came to mind. This book is the result of that effort. However, I'm mindful of the fact, Gentle Reader, that you also enjoy having these little offerings posted every Friday to put a smile on your face for the weekend. So I'll continue running them until it reaches the final Fade Out. Meanwhile, it would please the heart of this ink-stained wretch - as well as tickle whatever that hard black thing is in my banker's chest - if you bought the book. It will make a great gift, don't you think? And if you'd like a personally autographed copy you can get it directly through my (ahem) Merchant's Link at Amazon.com. Click here. Buy the book and I will sign it and ship it to you. Break a leg!