By Andrew Looney

Far away from Earth there is a huge planet with a purple sky, rings (like the ones around Saturn), and close to 100 moons, 7 or 8 of which are rather large but most of which are small and non-spherical, looking rather like baked potatoes. This planet is the location of the Imperial City, Capital of the Empire and the site of the Imperial Palace of the Emperor of the Universe.

Among the many rooms and chambers of the Imperial Palace is the Court of the Universe, a vast, high-ceilinged chamber in which the Emperor of the Universe himself holds audience with his subjects and from which all of his Imperial commands and decrees are issued. Delegates from planets near and far come to the Court of the Universe to bestow gifts upon the Emperor, plead for assistance or mercy, and participate in various negotiations.

At one end of the Court of the Universe, under a huge imperial banner, is the Emperor's throne. It is situated atop a small platform, about 3 feet above the rest of the floor of the chamber. The throne itself is more like a couch than a traditional throne, built more for comfort than for decoration. The upholstery is very plush and soft, like crushed velvet but more durable.

A small instrument panel protrudes from the right arm of the throne, bulging with buttons and sporting a tiny video screen. This little instrument panel allows the Emperor to remain in constant communication with his most important advisors and highest ranking cabinet members. It also allows him to play video games when the proceedings in the Court become boring to him.

It was upon this very throne that the Emperor of the Universe sat, one day, listening to a rather tiresome presentation by a delegation from the planet called Broximus 13.

The people from Broximus 13 valued ceremony above all else. Early in the afternoon, they had paraded in, wearing long robes and carrying many symbolic props and items of regalia; after 3 hours and many long speeches and curious gestures, they finally managed to present the Emperor with a fancy silver goblet. Giving him this chalice appeared to be the main point of the entire exercise; undoubtedly, by presenting him with this cup, the people of Broximus 13 were paying some high respect to their galactic leader. The Emperor yawned, hoping they'd be done soon.

It began to look as though the ceremony was wrapping up. The Emperor pressed a button on his little console and his schedule for the rest of the day popped up. He only had one other appointment, which was completely unimportant, so he decided to call it a day. One of his duplicates could handle the rest of the day's business.

I should explain at this point that several duplicates of the Emperor exist to stand-in for the Emperor in exactly this sort of situation. They are not clones, but ordinary people chosen because of their natural resemblance to the Emperor and then groomed to look and act exactly like him. A special team had been appointed to search the Universe for anyone who was of the same basic height, weight, hair color, and so on, as the real Emperor. Anyone who matched well enough was then given a series of aptitude tests to determine if they could play the part of the Emperor convincingly, even under fairly intense cross examination. Of course, the reason for these tests was kept secret, and if a candidate didn't measure up, they never found out why they'd been tested.

Once a candidate was approved, he underwent cosmetic surgery to make him look exactly like the real Emperor. He was given intensive voice training to make him sound like the Emperor, and he drilled and drilled and drilled until he could mimic every aspect of the Emperor's behavior down to the tiniest detail. And then, when he was finally ready, he began actually standing in for the Emperor.

Taking the real Emperor's place in the Court of the Universe is actually only a small part of the duties of a duplicate Emperor. Usually they spend their time on the road. The real Emperor almost never makes personal visits to his subjects; when the Emperor of the Universe cuts the ribbon at a new spacecraft assembly building or attends a state dinner in a local planet's capital city, it is usually a stand in rather than the real Emperor.

The Emperor sat up in his throne and cleared his throat. On hearing this signal, a small secretary robot, stationed in front and to the left of the throne, announced, "The Emperor requires a brief recess. Court will re-convene in 5 minutes."

The Emperor then stood up and stepped through some curtains that concealed a doorway directly behind the throne. Behind the throne was a small staging area, kind of like a dressing room. The Emperor tossed his fancy new silver goblet onto a big pile of jeweled scepters, framed certificates, and robes of honor, and then pushed a button on the wall. "Duplicate #2, get in here," he said.

After a moment, the door zipped open and the Emperor of the Universe found himself looking at an exact carbon copy of himself. "I'm ready to take over," said the duplicate Emperor.

Suddenly the Emperor of the Universe found himself looking down the gun-barrel of a tiny hand held laser pistol. "Hey!" he shouted. But before he could say or do anything else, the pistol fired and the Emperor collapsed on the floor. The faint smell of burnt flesh drifted up away from the Emperor's dead body and was expelled from the room by the Imperial palace's air conditioning system.

The duplicate Emperor acted quickly. He rolled the dead Emperor over on his back, pulled the necklace he wore up over his head, and placed it around his own neck. This necklace was a simple timepiece on a chain; however, all of the Imperial guards recognized this simple adornment as the mark of the real Emperor. It was a very closely guarded secret that only the real Emperor wore this medallion.

Next, the duplicate Emperor pushed a button on the wall and yelled out, "Guards!" Almost instantly, the door zipped open again and a pair of burly guards rushed in. The Emperor sighed heavily, tossed the laser pistol onto the dead body, straightened his shirt, and said "Duplicate #2 just tried to assassinate me. Fortunately, I managed to turn the tables and kill him instead. Take his body away. But don't let anyone know about this - it should be obvious that the security of the Empire demands that no one find out about any assassination attempts, nor that anyone find out that we use duplicates of me."

The guards saluted. "Yes sir! We understand completely, sir." They quickly started dragging the body away. "Oh, and beef up security around here!" shouted the Emperor. "Don't EVER let one of the duplicates get in here with a laser pistol like that again, or I'll have you both shot!"

The guards stumbled all over themselves in their attempt to bow and scrape and apologize and promise that it would never happen again.

"All right, all right!" shouted the Emperor, waving his hand, "just get out of here!"

When the guards were gone, the phoney Emperor breathed a sigh of relief. Even though he'd practiced that little scene again and again and again, it was hard to believe that it had come off so smoothly.

Next, the fake Emperor pushed a button on the wall and said "Duplicate #4, get in here."

After a moment, the door zipped open and the self-appointed replacement for the position of Emperor of the Universe found himself looking at an exact carbon copy of himself. "I'm ready to take over," said the duplicate Emperor.

"Fine," said the new Emperor. "The delegates from Broximus 13 are still in there. After they leave, I've got an appointment with a troop of Galactic Girl Guides. I'm supposed to congratulate the kid who sold the most cookies this season. Here," he said, grabbing the silver goblet off the top of the gift pile, "give her this. You know the routine. After that, you can close down the Court for the day."

"Yes sir," said Duplicate #4. He took the goblet and walked swiftly down the hall towards the throne room.

The new Emperor of the Universe tingled with excitement and fear as he stepped into that special elevator that would take him down to "his" private chambers for the first time. As a stand-in Emperor, he had never been permitted to enter the private quarters of the real Emperor; and yet, having suddenly taken the Emperor's place, he needed to act as though he were intimately familiar with a place he'd never seen before.

Accompanied by the quiet chime of a bell, the elevator doors finally opened and the replacement Emperor stepped out into a room seen only by a handful of people in the entire Universe. The first thing he noticed was a couch, and he strode towards it as casually and normally as he could. He flopped down on it with a sigh. He was nervous, so he tried to reassure himself. He'd been over this a hundred times. He knew everything he needed to know - how the Emperor dressed, how he acted, how he walked, how he talked, even how he sat in a couch. All he had to do was be careful and not slip up.

He was so intent on finding something familiar in the unfamiliar surroundings and using it to become acclimatized that he failed to notice someone else in the room: The Empress.

"Hello, dear," said the Empress. She was sitting in front of a big computer console, and she had never looked away from it during the Emperor's arrival.

Stay calm, the pseudo-Emperor told himself. "Hi," he said. His imitation of the real Emperor's voice was perfect, if he did say so himself.

"Anything going on upstairs?" she asked.

"No, not really," said the Emperor. "The delegation from Broximus 13 gave me a fancy silver cup."

"Uh-huh," said the Empress.

"And one of my stand-ins tried to kill me."

At this, the Empress turned away from her screen and gazed seriously at the Emperor. "How?"

"He pulled a laser pistol on me when we were trading places."

"What happened?"

"I killed him. I grabbed his arm and forced the pistol out of his hand and shot him with it."

"Oh, what a shame. So how many duplicates does that leave us with?"

The fake Emperor thought for a moment and then said "Three."

"That's not very many," said the Empress. "Maybe we should start grooming more."

"That's probably a good idea," said the Emperor. "So... how was your day?"

"Well, I've just about finished figuring out the numbers for the new tax law, and it looks like we will need to use the military option on the third moon of Kornansis. Oh, and we're getting rid of Archduke Timpis, he's just not working out."

On hearing this, the Emperor's brain turned itself inside out. New tax law? But my instructions always said that when the subject of taxes came up, I was to say that no changes would be made for the next 7 years! And a military option for Kornansis? I thought we were spearheading a peace initiative! And Archduke Timpis is out? We just brought him in, and I'd always been told to say how pleased I'd been with his work!

Fortunately, the Emperor maintained his cool. He just nodded casually and said "OK."

He had known for a long time that the rarely seen Empress of the Universe had a great deal of power. Often, when he was standing in the wings, as it were, and watching the real Emperor in action, he could see him consulting her on various issues. Also, sometimes when he stood in for the real Emperor, he'd get last minute policy instructions directly from the Empress. But even so, he'd always thought that the Emperor had most of the power and that the Empress was simply a very important advisor. All at once the truth hit him: The real Emperor was a figurehead too, only he had a little bit more inside information than the rest of us ever got. The real power is down here.

With a heavy sigh, the Empress leaned back in her chair. With a single, well practiced sweep of her hand, she pulled her long brown hair out from between her back and the back of the chair and flipped it out so that it was free. She tipped her head back, and her hair dangled in the air, reaching almost to the floor. "What do you want to do about dinner?" she asked.

"Umm, we could have Stiglivarian Waffles," the fake Emperor timidly suggested. These delights were one of the most popular foods in the Universe at this time, so it seemed like a safe bet.

The Empress looked surprised. "I thought you didn't like Stiglivarian Waffles," she said.

The new Emperor nearly panicked inside, but his years of practice at pretending to be the Emperor did not let him down. "Well, I'm always at these State dinners where they serve them, and I've got to be polite and eat whatever they serve, so I guess I've developed a taste for them." The false Emperor congratulated himself. His explanation was perfect. He'd often seen the real Emperor eat the waffles - in fact, he'd eaten a healthy number of the waffles himself, while standing in for the real Emperor.

"But I thought that's why you hated them," continued the Empress. "Didn't you say you'd had them at public functions so often you'd gotten sick of them?"

The faux Emperor's mind raced. This is gonna be harder than I thought! his mind screamed out at him. But his mouth was working faster than his brain. What was it saying? He listened carefully to his mouth as it spoke, wondering if what it was saying would be convincing or would give him away as a fake.

"Well, I guess I've started to like them again."

The Empress shrugged. "Hmm. Well, it doesn't matter, because I really don't feel like having waffles tonight."

The Emperor felt a small surge of relief. She seemed to accept his explanation, and better still, she'd left the topic hanging, which meant that he could fire a question back at her and thus get the focus away from him. "Well, then, what sounds good to you?"

The Empress scrunched up her face. "I don't know. None of the usual stuff sounds good. You want to go out?"

Be agreeable, the new Emperor told himself. Go along with anything she suggests. Otherwise, you risk giving yourself away. "Sure," he said, "That could be good."

"Where should we go?"

The Emperor shrugged. "Wherever you want to go," he said. After the Stiglivarian Waffles incident, he wasn't going to assert himself about anything.

"Well, let's get Tina down her and find out what she thinks," said the Empress.

Tina? thought the Emperor. Who's Tina?

The Empress pressed a little button on the wall. After a moment, a soft female voice chirped out through the intercom. ""Hello-oh!"

"Hello-oh!" chirped the Empress in response. "We're down here thinking about dinner, you want to join us?"

"Sure! I'll be down in an couple of minutes."

The Empress turned back towards her console, apparently content to ignore the problem of dinner until Tina arrived to complicate the decision making process. The Emperor took this opportunity to look around the room, casually and yet frantically, in an attempt to quickly get his bearings.

The fake Emperor knew that the Emperor's private quarters were located very deep underground, in order to provide him with some protection against nuclear bombardment. But being deep underground meant that space was at a premium.

The room he was in appeared to be a combination living room and office, with a lot of electronic equipment imbedded in the walls, some of which was for work and some of which was for entertainment. Beyond this room, through some curtains, the Emperor could see a bed chamber. It abounded with pillows and sported a really big bed. Adjoining both of these rooms was a bathroom, which included a very big tub, set into the floor. The bathroom seemed to feature a lot of polished marble. On the other side of the living room/office was a small kitchen area, at the back of which seemed to be a large and well stocked pantry.

Suddenly the elevator chimed and Tina jumped out. She was young and attractive, rather short and distinctly skinny. She was dressed entirely in black, with her outfit including black socks, black shoes, a black jacket with black buttons, black earrings, a black digital wristwatch, and a black ribbon in her hair. She immediately sat down on the couch next to the Emperor, rotated 90 degrees so that her back was against the arm of the couch, and put her legs into the Emperor's lap. "What's up?" she said, brightly.

The Emperor really had to struggle to avoid blowing everything and giving his real identity away. Who is this Tina? he wondered. Is she our daughter? Or a cousin, perhaps? Maybe she's our "youthful ward" (whatever that means). Or maybe she's my mistress! But why would my wife invite my mistress to dinner with us? Oops, the Empress has been talking, what's she saying?

"I don't really care," said Tina, in response to whatever it was that the Empress had asked.

"What about you?" said Tina to the Emperor.

The Emperor shrugged. Be noncommittal, he told himself. "I don't really care, either," he said.

"I suppose we could just go to the Henderson Diner," said the Empress.

"Yeah, OK." said Tina. "We haven't gone there in a while. Why not?"

"Sound all right to you, Emperor?" asked the Empress.

"Uh, sure!" said the make-believe Emperor. "Whatever you girls want to do is fine with me."

Tina looked quizzical. "Never mind about him," said the Empress. "One of the duplicates tried to assassinate him today."

"Oh, really? Well, then, you must be feeling kinda stressed out." With that, she sat up and started massaging the Emperor's neck and shoulders.

Ah-ha! thought the Emperor. She's my masseuse! That explains it.

"I think I'll change clothes," said the Empress, wandering off into the bedroom. "I'll be ready to go in a minute." On returning, she'd put on a a one-piece jumpsuit, split up the middle, one side being black and the other side, white. "Ready?" she asked.

Tina and the Emperor asserted that they were as they climbed out of the couch. The three of them then hopped onto the waiting elevator and rode up to the surface. From there it was a very short walk to the ATM machine.

During the ride up, the Emperor was a bundle of nerves. He had no idea where the Henderson Diner was, much less what the codes for going there were. Yet he might easily wind up in the position of being expected to operate the ATM machine, which would give him away in a second. His only hope was to somehow talk either Tina or the Empress into operating the machine.

Fortunately, the Empress did the work without complaint and without asking the Emperor for help. When they turned the corner and stood before the ATM machine, the Empress pulled out her own card and inserted it (with the magnetic stripe down, of course).

Although many ATM machines have been installed on Earth, few of Earth's natives understand their true purpose. In reality, "ATM" stands for Automatic Teleport Machine.

The Empress punched in her pin number, and then punched in the code for the Teleport Hub at Alpha Centauri 4. The machine spit out her card, and then it displayed the words "Please take your receipt." She checked to make sure that Tina and the Emperor were standing close enough and then pulled the paper tape out of the machine. And instantly, they were standing in front of an entirely different ATM machine, far away on Alpha Centauri 4. (It's impossible to go directly from the Court of the Universe to the planet Earth; you have to go via the Alpha Centauri Hub.)

The Teleport Hub was a vast arena filled with ATM machines. The Emperor gazed up through the huge glass dome at the green liquidy sky above them. All around him, he saw beings of all shapes and sizes hunkering over ATM machines and then vanishing into thin air. And then, he too vanished.

And then they were on Earth, standing in front of an ATM machine on a desolate street corner. It was night. They were in a city. The air was cool, but stirred by a warm breeze, and the pavement under their feet was wet. Across the street a brightly lit diner beckoned to them. The Emperor wondered if he should lead the way over to it, since the two women were still standing by the machine, but then he realized the reason why: The Empress was now using the ATM machine to withdraw some native cash.

The Emperor took a deep breath. The air tasted funny here.

Before long, the little group was seated at a booth inside the diner. They all ordered food, and then dessert, and then coffee. Tina and the Empress sat across the table from the Emperor and they chatted about a wide variety of things, many of which the Emperor didn't comprehend.

Meanwhile, he puzzled over Tina's role in the whole thing. On the one hand, she seemed to be little more than a very close companion of the Empress. But on the other hand, even though the Emperor had never met or even heard of this Tina person, she seemed to know quite a bit about important Imperial affairs.

Suddenly the Emperor realized who Tina must be. The Minister of Propaganda!

The public's knowledge of the Minister of Propaganda was that he was the Emperor's top political advisor and one of the most powerful men in the entire Imperial Government. However, no one seemed to know exactly who the Minster of Propaganda really was. He never made public appearances, and photos of him were simply not available. In fact, the Minister of Propaganda was so mysterious that it was widely rumored that no such person actually existed - he was nothing more than a product of propaganda himself.

During his tour of duty as a stand-in Emperor, the new Emperor had never seen any indication that the Minister of Propaganda was as important in the Imperial government as the public thought he was. He very rarely attended the cabinet meetings (which the duplicates were usually allowed to attend or at least watch later on tape) and when he did, it was only by listening in on the intercom and occasionally making a few comments.

Now I get it, said the Emperor to himself. She doesn't work for me, she works for my wife. That's why no one knows much about her. The Emperor was very pleased with himself for figuring all of this out. He sat there in the booth smiling to himself.

"Shall we?" said the Empress, leaving some Earth money on the table and standing up.

A few minutes later, they were back in the Emperor's private chambers. The Emperor was a little bit surprised that The Minister of Propaganda had tagged along on the elevator trip down, but he figured she still had some business to discuss with the Empress.

The Empress stretched, and then yawned. "I assumed you'll be taking a bath as usual?" she said to the Emperor.

"Yes," said the Emperor. Great! he thought to himself. Finally, a clear indication of what I'm supposed to do!

"Well, don't take too long," said Tina, placing her arm around the Empress's waist, "because we're going to bed."

The Emperor's brain nearly jumped out of his skull as he walked stiffly into the bathing chamber. He undressed and slid into a waiting tub of hot water, tingling with anticipation as he imagined what was going to happen after he finished his bath. In the other room he could hear noises - talking, laughing, moaning. He quickly finished up with the bath, dried off, slipped on a robe, and went into the bedroom.

It's true! He said to himself as he crawled into bed. It's really true!

In the morning, he felt like a new man. He was the first to wake up, lying there between the two women. He felt magnificent. The events of the day before were etched into his mental history book, and now the transition was over. His plan had worked flawlessly. He had successfully assassinated the leader of the entire universe and taken his place. The benefits of his new position were incredible, and they would be his for a long, long time. I AM the Emperor, he told himself. Yesterday, he'd felt nervous and afraid. But now, on this fine morning, he felt confident and powerful.

He got out of bed, put on a dressing gown, and went into the kitchen. He poked around, looking for something to eat for breakfast, thought about what the old Emperor used to eat, and selected accordingly.

An hour later, he was dressed in the usual outfit of the Emperor: A purple velvet shirt with an open collar and a big letter "E" embroidered in white on the left breast, along with loose black velvet pants and, of course, the timepiece on a chain.

The Empress and the Minister of Propaganda were still asleep, so he decided not to bother them and rode up to the surface in his own private elevator.

"Well," said the Empress, when the elevator doors finally closed behind the new Emperor, "What did you think?"

Tina yawned, partly because it was morning and she was sleepy, and partly because this was her response to the question. Then she shrugged. "He was OK, I guess. Better than some, but nothing to write home about."

The Empress nodded in agreement. "But remember, this was his first night. Often they get better after they've gotten a bit more comfortable and self-confident."

Tina stretched, like a cat. "Yes, that's true," she said. "I suppose we should at least give him a week or two before we decide to give up on him and let the next one move up the ladder." She smiled wickedly as she said this, and then they both broke out in laughter. Tina shook free of the sheets and rolled over on her stomach. The Empress sighed contentedly, and reached over to caress Tina's naked back.

Copyright © 1996 by Andrew Looney.

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