Nominated for the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novella!
God-Emperor Kairominas is lord of all he surveys. He has defeated all foes, has united the entire world beneath his rule, and has mastered the arcane arts. He spends his time sparring with his nemesis, who keeps trying to invade Kai’s world.
Except for today. Today, Kai has to go on a date.
Forces have conspired to require him to meet with his equal—a woman from another world who has achieved just as much as he has. What happens when the most important man in the world is forced to have dinner with the most important woman in the world?
On the three-hundredth anniversary of my birth, I finally managed to conquer the world. The entire world. It had made for a rather memorable birthday present, though admittedly I’d been placed into this world with the intention and expectation that I’d someday rule it.
The next fifty years had put me at risk of boredom. After all, what did a man possibly do with his time after conquering the world?
In my case, I’d developed a nemesis.
“He’s planning something, Shale,” I said, stirring the sugar into my tea.
“Who?” Shale was the only man I knew who could lounge while wearing full plate armor. He hardly ever took the stuff off; it was part of his Concept.
“Who do you think?” I said, sipping the tea and leafing through the letters on my desk, each sealed by a daub of dark red wax. The two of us sat on a large flying stone platform with chairs and railings like a patio’s. I’d Lanced us a barrier over the top to ward off the rainstorm thrumming outside. The Grand Aurora shimmered above—visible even through the stormclouds—illuminating the ground beneath us and painting it faintly blue.
The occasional crashes of lightning from the storm highlighted a hundred other platforms flying in formation around my own. They carried a small retinue of soldiers—only six thousand—as my honor guard.
Thunder shook us. Shale yawned. “You really need to figure out weather, Kai.”
“I will eventually.” These last fifty years spent studying the practical application of Lancing had been most productive, but controlling the weather—at least on a grand scale—eluded me.
I sipped my tea. It was growing cold, but at least that I could do something about. I undid the buttons on my right sleeve, exposing my skin to the blue-violet light pulsing from the sky. The Grand Aurora encircled the entire world, and even the mightiest storms did little more than churn its mother-of-pearl shimmering. The Aurora defeated storms; that was how I knew I’d someday be able to do it too.
I entered Lancesight, and everything around me dimmed. Everything but the Grand Aurora. I basked in its warm light, which I could suddenly feel striking my skin with a pulsing rhythm. I drew the power in through my arm, then sent the energy up out my fingers and into the cup.
The tea began to steam. I sipped it and left Lancesight as I cracked open one of the letters. The seal was imprinted with the symbol of my spy networks.
Your Majesty, the note read. I believe it necessary to inform you that the Wode Scroll has once again—
I crumpled the paper.
“Uh-oh,” Shale said.
“It’s nothing,” I said, dropping the piece of paper and doing up my sleeve. It wasn’t from my spy networks at all; Besk simply knew I opened spy reports first.
The platform shook in another peal of thunder as I looked through a set of reports, each with my imperial mark at the top.
“You can’t make this thing go any faster, can you?” Shale asked.
“Be glad we don’t have to do this the old way.”
“The old way? Like . . . on a horse?” Shale scratched his chin. “I miss that.”
“Really? The sore backsides, riding through the rain, getting bitten, finding food for the beasts . . .”
“Horses have personality. This platform doesn’t.”
“You’re just saying that because it’s part of your Concept,” I said. “The dashing knight riding on horseback, winning the hands of fair maidens.”
“Sure, sure. I had quite the collection of hands. Couple of arms, the occasional foot . . .”
I smiled. Shale was now happily married with five children. The only maidens he spent any time with were the ones who called him Daddy and begged him for sweets.
I continued looking through reports. The next was the preliminary sketch for a new set of coins to be minted later in the year, bearing my image. It was mostly right, depicting my strong features and hair that curled regally to my shoulders. The beard was too big, however. I wore mine neat and squared, kept at a modest finger’s length, to present a strong image. The thing in the picture was far too bushy.
I made notes on the sketch, then continued on, ignoring the crumpled-up note I’d thrown on the floor. Besk was far too clever for his own good. I needed to fire the man and hire a stupid chancellor. Either that or hack Besk and rewrite his Concept.
Rewriting Concepts was a pain, though. And, truth be told, I was terrible at hacking, which was why—despite centuries together—I’d never gotten around to changing Besk. It wasn’t, of course, because I was fond of the chancellor. The troll-like man never did what I told him. I ruled literally billions of people, and only this one ignored my will.
“Here,” I said, holding up a report to Shale. “Look at this.”
Shale sauntered over, armor clanking. “Another robot?” He yawned.
“Melhi’s robots are dangerous.”
“You just yawned. You don’t need to say it.”
“Yawn. Whatever happened to the big quests, Kai? Hunting dragons, searching out magical swords? All you do these days is study magic and duel with Liveborn from other States.”
“I’m getting older, Shale,” I said, looking over the report again. My spies had overheard some of Melhi’s men in a Border State bragging about this new robot of his. I shook my head. Melhi was still smarting after what I’d done to him at Lecours, a different Border State we could both access. He’d been so certain his armies would overwhelm mine.
“Getting older?” Shale laughed. “What does that have to do with it? You’re immortal. Your body is young.”
I couldn’t explain it to him. The quests he referred to—building a kingdom, searching out hidden treasures and secrets, uniting those who would follow and conquering those who would not . . . Well, those had been what I’d needed as a youth. They’d made me into the person I was, the person who could rule an empire.
That empire pretty much ruled itself these days. We had imperial senates, diplomats, ministers. I was very careful not to step in unless something grossly stupid needed straightening. In truth, I relished nights spent in my study, experimenting, meditating. Only occasional government functions—like the one earlier today, where we’d commemorated the fiftieth year since the unification of the world—drew me out.
Well, that and the attacks by Melhi.
The churning rain outside suddenly vanished, and the heavens grew bright. The Grand Aurora was still there, but it now hovered in a sky that was blue instead of stormy grey. We’d reached Alornia. I stood up from my desk, walking to the edge of the platform, and watched the near-endless streets of the city blur beneath us.
At least here, at the center of my power, I could stop the storms. Eventually, I thought to myself. Eventually I’ll be able to do it without an Aurorastone affixed to the middle of the city.
Alornia was a place of bulbous golden domes atop finger towers. The platform slowed in its preplanned course and swung down over the city, trailed by the hundred platforms carrying my honor guard. People waited below to watch us pass; my movements were matters of national record. And so, cheers roared beneath us, as if a stream to carry us along.
I smiled. Perhaps I should get out more. At my side, Shale rested his hand on his sword, watching those below with narrowed eyes.
“Nobody’s going to be able to hit me from all the way down there,” I said, amused.
“You never know, Kai.”
The platform descended toward the palace, which sat on the hill at the center of the city, and docked at the side of my large tower, becoming a balcony again. I strode off and into my study as a group of servants in vests, loose pants, and bare chests trotted out onto the balcony and lifted my desk to carry it after us.
Shale stretched, clinking. “That trip seems to get longer every time.”
“It would probably be more comfortable without the armor.”
“I’m your bodyguard, Kai,” Shale said. “One of us has to be ready. Remember when those sky nomads tried to pinch you?” Shale smiled fondly, in the way a man might while remembering a youthful romance. “Or that time when we got trapped in the Tendrils of Sashim?”
“Sure do. You carried me . . . how far?”
“A good fifty miles,” Shale said. “Lords. That was . . . that was over a hundred years ago now, wasn’t it?”
I said nothing. Shale didn’t age—long ago, he and I had discovered a secret draught of long life in the hoard of the dragon Galbrometh. These days, I wondered if that draught had been placed there specifically for me to find, so I’d have an acceptable reason for not aging. I hadn’t known the truth of my nature until I’d reached fifty, the Wode’s Age of Awareness.
Shale stretched again. “Well, best to remain vigilant. It’s when everything is calm that you need to be most alert.”
“Most certainly. Thank you for your help today.”
“Yeah. Yeah, it’s a good thing I’m around, eh? Anyway, I’m going to go check in with Sindria. See what the kids are up to, you know?”
“Good idea,” I said, watching the servants carefully arrange all the items on my desk. Did I have time to file those reports . . . ?
No. I needed to get moving. I walked toward Shale, who was opening the doors that led to the hallway. He gave me a questioning look.
“If I’m quick,” I explained, “I might be able to get down into the lab before Besk can—”
Shale pulled the door all the way open. Besk stood outside.
“Ouch,” Shale said. “Sorry, Kai.”
Besk raised a single painted-on eyebrow. He was like one of those statues that people carved on the outsides of buildings. Limbs that seemed too long, robes too stiff, face expressionless. Long ago, I’d shared a drop of my draught of immortality with him. He’d haunted me ever since.
He bowed. “Your Imperial Majesty.”
“Besk,” I said. “I’m afraid the daily briefing will have to wait. I had some very important mental breakthroughs regarding Lancing that I absolutely must record.”
Besk regarded me for a long, unblinking moment. He carried a distinctive piece of slate in his fingers. As large as a book, yet incredibly thin, there was nothing else like it in the empire. To the side, one of the servants helpfully carried in the crumpled paper I’d left on the balcony, then set it on the desk, just in case it was important.
Besk’s eyebrow rose another notch. “I will walk with you to the lab then, Your Majesty.”
Shale gave me a farewell pat on the shoulder, then clanked away. He’d faced assassins, terrors, and rebels without flinching, but even after all this time, Besk made him nervous.
“You may wish to consider giving Sir Shale a leave of retirement, Your Majesty,” Besk said as we began to walk.
“He likes what he does. And I like having him around.”
“Your will is, of course, law.”
“Yeah. Unless the Wode is involved.”
“In over a century of rule, this is the only time the Wode has called upon you.” Besk held up the piece of slate he carried. The Wode Scroll, the only official means of communicating with the outside.
The Scroll was filled with words, none of which I wanted to read. From the little I saw, however, the tone of the Wode’s letters was growing more forceful. I had been ignoring them too long.
We walked for a time in silence until we eventually left the corridor and stepped out onto a wall-walk between towers. I shouldn’t be so hard on Besk, I knew. He was acting according to his Concept, and was loyal in his own way, even when he was disobedient.
Below, a cheer went up, and I raised a hand absently toward my subjects. Was that a band playing? The Grand Aurora shimmered in the sky, though—for once—its light failed to comfort me.
“Is it such an onerous task, Your Majesty?” Besk asked. “The Wode requests of you only one day, to go and perform a task most people would consider pleasurable.”
“It’s not the task itself. It’s the nature of being . . . summoned like this. What good is it to be emperor if someone else can just call on me as if I were a common cupbearer or messenger boy? It undermines everything I’ve done, everything I’ve accomplished.”
“They merely ask you to do your duty to your species.”
“What duty has my species ever done to me?”
“My lord,” Besk said, stopping on the wall-walk. “This is most unseemly of you. I’m reminded of the child you were, not the king you have become.”
I tried to walk onward without him, but my shoes felt as if they were filled with lead. I stopped a few steps ahead of him, not looking back.
“It is your duty,” Besk repeated.
“I’m a brain in a jar, Besk,” I said. “One of trillions. Why can’t they bother one of the others?”
“It has been determined that you have accomplished great—”
“We’ve all accomplished great things,” I said, spinning and waving my hands toward the city. “That’s the point of all this. How many of those trillions of others are living lives just like mine, in Primary Fantastical States?”
“The programming allows—even requires—that each State be individually tailored.”
“It doesn’t matter, Besk,” I said. Lords! I hated thinking about this.
The Wode had only interfered with my life twice. First at age fifty, to inform me that my reality was a layered simulation.
And now to demand that I procreate.
“It’s meaningless,” I said, stepping up to Besk. He wasn’t of the Wode, of course; I’d never actually met any of them. He was a part of my reality, my State. But he, like everything else in the entirety of my existence, would serve the Wode if required. They controlled the programming and, if pressed, they could change anything in this world—anything but me myself—to force me to obey.
Lords, how it hurt to think about that.
“The requirements are inane,” I continued. “They need my DNA to create new Liveborn humans? Well, fine. They can take it. Stick a little needle or whatever into my jar and withdraw it. Simple.”
“They require you to interact with a woman, Your Majesty. The precepts say you must choose her, and she you, and then you must meet one another and perform the act.”
“Our bodies are just simulations. Why must we meet?”
“I do not know.”
“Bah!” I stalked off the wall-walk and back into the palace.
Besk followed. “I’ve ordered the hunting range filled with wild draklings, Your Majesty. The most vicious we could find. Perhaps destroying them will put you in a more fond mood.”
“Perhaps,” I said.
Even thinking about the Wode turned me into a child again; Besk was right on that count. I’d commanded armies of thousands and I’d single-handedly forged an empire that spanned continents. But this . . . this made a spoiled brat out of me. I stopped inside the stairwell.
“I do not know all the reasons for the rules, my lord,” Besk said more softly, stepping up and resting a hand on my shoulder. “But they are ancient, and have served your kind well. XinWey’s Doctrine states—”
“Don’t lecture me,” I said.
He fell silent, but . . . damn it . . . I could hear his voice in my head. He’d read off these rules to me often enough.
XinWey’s Doctrine states that the most essential morality of mankind is to create the greatest amount of happiness among the greatest number of people while using the least amount of resources.
Turned out, the best way to create greatly satisfied people using minimal resources was to remove their brains when they were fetuses and attach them to simulated realities tailored to fit their emerging personalities. Each Liveborn received an entire world in which they were the most important person of their time. Some became artists, others politicians, but each had a chance for supreme greatness.
All of this took only the space required for a box about the size of a melon—simulation machinery, brain, and nutrient bath all included. Incredibly efficient. And . . . to be honest, I didn’t resent it; hell, I loved it. I got to be an emperor, and while the simulation gave me opportunities, each step—each grueling quest or accomplishment—had to be my own. I’d earned this life.
Thinking of the millions upon millions of others who had done the same, though . . . that unnerved me. Were there millions of Besks, and millions of Shales, millions of mes, all living beneath a Grand Aurora?
Everything else in my existence had taught me I was unique, important, and powerful. I rebelled at the idea that I might just be another person.
“It will not take long, my lord,” Besk said. “Choose one of the women from the list—the Wode ranked them for you with compatibility projections—and send her a request to meet. Perhaps you could dine together.”
“A woman from their list,” I snapped. “A Liveborn woman, with her own world to rule. Lords, she’ll be insufferable.” The closest I ever wanted to get to another Liveborn was across the battlefield in a Border State, and it had taken me some time to warm even to that. My first meeting with Melhi had—
“My lord,” Besk said. “The wall.”
I started, realizing that something had changed the stone wall of the stairwell. Words were appearing in the stone, as if chiseled there, each line sinking in a trough.
CHILD EMPEROR. I HAVE CREATED A NICE SURPRISE FOR YOU.
“Melhi, you snake! How did you hack my palace? You’re violating the precepts of engagement.”
THE PRECEPTS ARE ONLY WORDS. SO ARE SCREAMS. I WILL HEAR YOURS FOR THE INSULT YOU GAVE ME.
“My spies already told me of your robot, Melhi. You should stop sending those. They never work properly in my State.” I didn’t mention that I’d been surprised at how well they did work. Far better than Lancing would have worked in his State, where the laws of physics were different.
YOU WILL SCREAM, CHILD. YOU WILL SCREAM.
I entered Lancesight. Here I could see the Grand Aurora even through the stone of the palace—but I stepped backward anyway, into the doorway, where the Aurora’s light could strike me directly. I drew strength into my arms from that warmth, then pushed it from me in a wave. With Lancesight, I could see the core workings of all things, the very motes of energy—or thought, or whatever they were—that made up my reality.
I could also see Melhi’s hack. It manifested as tendrils of red creeping like venom into my palace. Filled with strength, I cut him off, destroying the tendrils. They hadn’t been strong—he couldn’t accomplish a powerful hack without running afoul of the Wode’s protective programs.
The wall’s surface returned to normal. I melted the stone there for good measure, recast it into a new shape, then blinked my eyes back to my ordinary vision.
“Lords, but that man needs to learn to let go of a grudge,” I said. “He’s never going to beat me. Surely he has to see that by now.”
“Indeed,” Besk said. “He does seem to boorishly continue the same stubborn course, without maturity, and without careful consideration of the best path. Wouldn’t you say?”
“That’s quite enough, Besk.”
“I try to be topical when possible, Your Majesty.”
I took a deep, calming breath. It didn’t work. “Fine. Fine, whatever. Pick one of the women from the list. We’ll meet, get this over with, and I’ll return to my life.”
“Which one do I choose?” Besk asked. “The one the Wode thinks is most compatible?”
“Lords, no,” I snapped, walking away. “Pick the one on the bottom of the list. I might as well have an interesting time of it.”
This is the end of the excerpt. Perfect State will be released as an ebook on March 31, 2015.