Chapter 51 of The Empty City

By Andrew Looney

The Emperor of Mars lived in a very large apartment building in the heart of the City. The lobby of the building interfaced directly with the Digital Plateau subway station, located at the transfer point between the green line and the brown line, in the southeast corner of the downtown sector.

Dave and the Princess rode the escalator up to the lobby from the deep confines of the subway. The Princess stood on the step above Dave, facing him, and looking down the stairs as they moved up them.

"What have I told you so far about my father?" she asked.

Dave thought for a moment, and said "Not much. He's the Emperor of Mars, and you're the Princess. I guess you've said that the whole "Children of Mars" thing was his idea, too."

"Correct. Anything else?"

"Let's see. You've said his favorite tea is 'Emperor's Choice,' and I also know that he doesn't like noise when he plays Icehouse."

"Quite true. Anything else?"

"No, that's about it," said Dave, a bit vacantly. He'd become distracted, because they were approaching the top of the escalator, and the Princess didn't seem to be paying any attention. Would she stumble when the moving stairs met the stationary floor? Would her floor length skirt get caught in the machinery? Should he say something about the situation? If he did, but she was well aware of it, she might get mad at him for fussing too much. If he didn't, and she fell over, would she blame him for not warning her? Finally he decided to keep his mouth shut. She's probably ridden this escalator thousands of times, he reasoned, and she knows exactly how long the trip is. She can probably disembark safely even with her eyes closed.

"There's something else I should tell you," said the Princess, turning around and stepping off the escalator just as it came to the top.


"My father invented Icehouse."

Bombs exploded inside of Dave's skull. He stopped dead and stared at the Princess. After a lapse of silent seconds, he said "Wow. That's amazing."

The Princess shrugged her shoulders. "Nah, not really," she said.

They strolled through the lobby of the building, breezed past the desk, pointedly ignoring the sign that read "All visitors must sign in," and made their way over to the bank of elevators.

An elevator was open and waiting, and Dave started towards it. "No," said the Princess, pointing, "We have to get that one."

Dave asked why, but she didn't answer him.

Finally, the correct elevator came, and they got in. The Princess produced her keys and confronted the button panel. At the top of the rows of buttons was an unlabeled keyhole. She inserted a key into this hole, and the elevator doors slid closed. The little room lurched upwards.

When the doors finally opened again, they led into a well appointed living room. Dave, who had expected to see a hallway, was again taken by surprise.

"Your Dad has the whole floor? And a private elevator?"

The Princess gave out a sort of trilling laugh and sang, "Yes."

The elevator entrance was on a small landing in the corner of the living room. The Princess moved softly down the two steps and into the room. "Hello, Daddy!" she called out.

Someone yelled something from a distant room, but it was garbled and incomprehensible.

The Princess padded off toward the kitchen, but Dave walked around the room, looking with amazement at the decor.

The walls were covered with pictures of Mars. There were big blow-up photos, taken by spacecraft, and full color paintings of the classical Mars, its surface etched with canals. There were also numerous pictures of Martians and things of a Martian nature: various different visions of the tripod fighting machines of H.G. Wells, different interpretations of the cities of Mars described by Ray Bradbury, and numerous cartoons, drawings, and paintings of Little Green Men from countless different sources.

On one side of the room, some models sat on a kind of display table. A huge globe of Mars dominated the display, though similarly prominent were several recreations of the flying, stingray-shaped fighting machines from George Pal's film version of "The War of the Worlds."

The Princess called out from the kitchen, "You want something to eat?"

Dave snapped out of his daze. "Um, sure!" he called out, as he followed the sound of her voice to the kitchen.

It was a big kitchen, and it was loaded with food. If you could call it food. Nutrition didn't seem to be the Emperor's biggest concern. By the look of the cupboards, the fridge, and the trash, he seemed to eat mostly junk. The inventory included bags of chips, boxes of pastries, bottles of soda, and cartons of candy. The trash can overflowed with empty pizza and doughnut boxes, and the fridge was well stocked with leftover Chinese food in those little cardboard cartons. The freezer was full of frozen pizzas, TV dinners, and "Boil-in-a-Bag" style frozen foods. A couple of frozen "Ready-to-Thaw" desserts had also been shoe-horned into the freezer, and when Dave first came in he'd found the Princess setting a chocolate cream pie out on the counter to thaw.

"Disgusting, isn't it?" said the Princess.

"Guess his mom never made him eat his vegetables," said Dave.

"Take whatever looks good to you," said the Princess. "He makes a point of keeping plenty on hand for guests."

Dave nodded gravely and carefully surveyed the environment. He contemplated eating a couple of Ho-Hos but eventually took nothing except a Coke. The Princess put some water on to boil, and then, seeing that Dave was ready to move on, led him out of the kitchen and down the hall.

They passed several large, darkened rooms, working their way toward the back of the flat. Dave noticed that the view through the windows was vast and impressive, and figured that they must be on the top floor.

At last they located a well lit room, blazing like a lighthouse in the otherwise dark apartment. The Princess rapped on the doorframe and went in. "Hello, Daddy!" she chirped, and kissed her father on the forehead.

The Emperor of Mars was sitting before a computer terminal, typing away at something. The room he was working in appeared to be a study, the walls lined with bookshelves, each crammed with books. The Emperor himself was wearing a long robe, made of reddish brown cloth and marked here and there with thick black lines. After studying it a moment, Dave realized that it was meant to be reminiscent of the Classical Mars: a red body with canals described upon it.

Dave and the Princess stood in the doorway, waiting, while the Emperor basically ignored them, typing away at his computer. After about a minute, he seemed to reach an acceptable stopping place, and leaned back.

"Hi, kid," he said, "Who's this?"

"This is Dave," said the Princess, with a slight bow.

"OK," said the Emperor. He extended his hand to Dave, who took it and shook it. "Pleased to meet you."

Dave blurted out, "Is it true that you invented Icehouse?"

"Of course it's true!" said the Emperor. "Well, partly anyway. It was my idea, but a friend of mine had a hand in working out the rules."


"A guy we call Dr Cool," said the Emperor, enigmatically.

"Does he live here, too?"

"Oh, no, of course not. Actually, right now he's living in New York, though he rides his motorcycle down this way fairly often."

Dave's head was spinning. "This is amazing! I guess you guys are about the best players around!"

The Emperor gave a noncommittal grunt. Then he said, "We're OK. But just because we invented the game doesn't mean we're good at it."

"Well, I'd, just, um," Dave stumbled over his words. "I'd love to play against you guys sometime, even though, you know, I'm sure I'd lose."

"We can probably work in a game at some point."

"Wow! That'd be great!"

"Uh-huh. Did you see the Collection?"

"You mean the art out in the living room?"

"No, I mean the sets." He turned to the Princess. "Did you show him the sets?"

She shook her head, no.

"OK, then show him the sets! Then I hope you'll excuse me, I have a lot to do. Nice meeting you, Dave. I'll see about getting you into a game at some point."

With that, the Emperor turned back to his computer.

The Princess led Dave out of the study and into another room. This room was in the corner of the apartment and had huge picture windows on two walls. Dave had a dazzling view of the lights of the city below. Then the Princess turned on the lights and showed him the Collection.

Icehouse sets! On the non-window walls were shelves and shelves and shelves, each shelf covered with Icehouse sets, lined up for display. The Emperor had collected sets of every type, every material imaginable. Plastic pyramids in a huge rainbow of colors, wood sets of painted and stained colors as well as numerous exotic woods, machined metals of different hues, some anodized in bright shades, pottery and hand made clay pieces, and pyramids made of stone! Dave was particularly enchanted by a set made of polished malachite. There were sets with odd patterns painted upon them, plastic sets with strange things embedded in them, and even a set of candles in the shape of Icehouse pieces. Dave was truly amazed. The Princess heard her tea kettle whistling and silently disappeared. Eventually, overwhelmed and in a bit of a daze, Dave followed the Princess back to the kitchen.

She sat at the kitchen table, drinking tea. "Would you like Tea?" she asked.

"Um, no, I'm still drinking my Coke."

"The pie is still a little frozen in the middle, but we can go ahead and eat some if you'd like."

"Yeah, OK."

The Princess cut them a couple of slices of pie.

"Yeah, it's still kind of frozen in the middle," said Dave.

The Princess nodded.

A large black cat wandered in and ate a bit from a bowl on the floor in the corner.

Dave said, "Does anyone live here besides him?"

"No. Just him and the cats."

"But this place is huge!" said Dave.

"Well, he has a lot of stuff," said the Princess. "Besides, he sometimes has several house guests at a time, and he likes to have room for them."

After they finished their pie, the Princess indicated that they should go.

Dave asked if they should say goodbye to the Emperor, but she said, no, they didn't need to, they'd already been dismissed. So when the elevator came, they left without saying another word.

Copyright © 1991 by Andrew Looney.

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