The villain won. It is that simple.
By means fair or foul (but of course mostly foul), he has crushed the opposition, defeated all his enemies, and established absolute control over a domain that is, now and forever, entirely defined by his whims.
Has he conquered the world? Perhaps his accomplishment is nothing that insignificant. Perhaps he has overcome a galactic empire or perhaps, through deals with the devil, established an absolute hegemony over the entire universe.
Whatever the stage, his will is absolute.
You need to jettison any vague hopes you have that by the end of this story one of the bejeweled walls of his throne room shatters inward in a colossal explosion and a dashing hero emerges from the smoke, declaring the end to this reign of terror; and you need not look forward to the ensuing battle where despite the existence of super-scientific weaponry it somehow comes down to that hero and this villain winding up on some catwalk, trading sword-thrusts as well as badinage while the groundlings gaze upward and dare to hope.
That will not happen.
That might have happened in the distant past, but it did not end the way the groundlings might have hoped, and the hero who was the last chance for the forces of good fell clutching his belly wounds and was for all his troubles rewarded with a pike for his severed and confused head.
The villain won, and while this sucks, there will be no sequel establishing another band of merry heroes who burst in through the same wall and recapitulate that battle with happier result. It ain’t happening, not ever. And what follows is the establishment of a status quo and daily routine, that the Despot will know, free of karmic retribution.
What is his kingdom like?
One: The Counting of the Eighty-Two
The Despot rises to lilting birdsong in the tree outside his window. It is always birdsong, not any summons from a courtier, not any gentle urging from a grand vizier; he has learned the hard way that being woken up by a fellow human being is annoying and that before he has his morning coffee, he is so mad that he might wind up with one less courtier or vizier. It is not that he objects to starting out each and every day with a murder, but it is unpleasant to him to start each and every day with a summary execution. Better to let the birds rouse him and to this end he has established his castle in a region with mild weather, and landscaped the courtyard directly outside his window with trees that attract birds of particularly beautiful tone, whose soft celebratory calls to one another run no risk of irritating him.
His bed partner of the night before does not wake quite so easily and so lies face down on the pillow, snoring softly, ass up. Because that person is the property of the Despot and did not have any choice whether to come to bed or not, we will not provoke protests of sexual politics by specifying that person’s gender, though we will allow that the Despot has had both as well as a multitude of variations, some created just for the day. That this raises questions of consent is of course to instantly answer them. We are not talking about a nice guy here. We are talking about a Despot. A stinking son of a bitch bastard. It is a matter we must put aside as soon as we acknowledge it. We will not dwell.
He slips his feet into a pair of slippers and pads across the bejeweled tiles to the door, which he does not open, which he knows to be guarded on the other side by two unsleeping, unmoving servants who he does not summon. The Despot does not engage in any governmental work before his morning bath. But he does go to the table beside that door, where there is a little golden bowl set to catch a little card that always pops out of a slot in the wall while he still sleeps. It is his morning reassurance of the size of his kingdom. He takes the card, which is constructed of exquisite quality stock, and glances at the number formed by decals of glittering diamond.
That number reflects the total number of all the souls who remain in the universe, which is to say all the souls who owe him groveling worship: a sum derived by a painstaking nightly census, throughout the depth and breadth of his land.
That number is eighty-three.
Two: The Philosopher in the Dungeon
The question for those of you encountering the Despot’s daily routine for the first time must be “Eighty-Three? That’s how many people are left in the universe?”
Yes. Those are how many people are left alive.
To establish his empire the lord of everything cut a brutal swath we need not disturb ourselves by recounting. But even as he won, he contemplated just how much work it was going to be to rule an unwieldy dictatorship over god alone knew how many government offices and god alone imagined what labor problems and god alone knew how many problems with supply chains, and he figured that this was going to be so much work that it would ruin any satisfaction he derived from being in absolute charge and in the place where the fabled buck stopped. So he hauled out a paper and pen and calculated just how many people he actually needed to rule over, in order to enjoy a despot’s lifestyle. With so much of the necessary ravaging of resources a process that would only get worse as those resources ran out, and so much of the work of a despot involving the care and feeding of the masses that would never appreciate him, and whose use of those resources would never cease to irritate him, and especially keeping in mind that he had an unstoppable robot army anyway, he seized the opportunity to get all those people out of his way, and somewhere he didn’t have to think about them, while ruling over a small population hand-chosen for their obedience and servility. They live in the small village outside his castle, in huts, or in small rooms inside the castle, on beds of straw. A few live in chains in the dungeon, because you can’t have a proper castle without that kind of thing. But even they are people selected for being philosophical about their position in life, and they scream like torture victims only because they know it’s their assigned purpose.
One of the prisoners in question is a savant once known as Professor Roderick J. Helmsman, who wrote books about the meaning of life that conflict with the current officially accepted meaning of life, which is serving the Despot. He wakes to the same bird song the Despot wakes to, and immediately sets about concocting a premise that can entertain the Despot during the scheduled afternoon session with sharp sticks. What, he thinks, if all the world exists in a tunnel under a bridge? This is transparently ridiculous. All the world does not exist in a tunnel under a bridge. But he can present this to the Despot as a reasonable premise, and the Despot will laugh at him, and this will occupy a few minutes of scorn and ridicule, and it will keep the Despot happy. We cannot prove it isn’t, sire. But think how much it explains! To which the Despot will offer some variation of, You’re an Idiot. The more that happens, the less the sharp sticks happen.
The Professor readies himself for the back-and-forth, licking his lips in anticipation of the gruel he will be fed, afterward. It is his life now, and he is actually close to happy with it. He gets to participate in energetic debate over ideas. And there is another blessing, just as terrific, which he holds to his breast as the one great validation of his life.
To wit: he is, beyond a doubt, the world’s foremost philosopher.
The Despot bathes.
He does not have to bathe. Honestly. He could just allow himself to gather filth until his very presence is sickening. He could declare that this odor he carries with him is imperial, order it bottled and require his followers to wear it. He has considered it. But the truth of the matter is that he is not one of those people blind to their own odor; he knows when he has become intolerable and so he maintains his cleanliness with a fervor that would astonish the mother who, once upon a time, screamed herself raw just trying to get him to use soap. That was a childhood phase, one he got over. Now he uses soap, and we will not disturb you by specifying what those soaps are made of, and how the perfumes they carry are collected. Nor will we spend much space describing the hour he spends in the golden tub, large enough for ten and filled with a soup that is ninety percent water and ten percent lotions designed to render his skin multiple flavors of magnificent. Honestly. It is decadent, or would be if anybody but himself were allowed to have it.
He sits in his bath, above a mosaic created by the world’s greatest sculptor, who upon completing it was obliged to slit his own throat to ensure that he would never create anything else. The water falls from the gaping mouth of the figure who represents a crucified man; not the crucified man who much of the world once worshipped, but some random guy, clearly not him, but again some other guy entirely, whose execution in the courtyard had struck the Despot as particularly artful and deserving of immortalization in the form of the Despot’s shower. Now captured at three times the size that was his in life, he is nothing more than the possessor of a mouth vomiting forth the water of his executioner’s daily cleansing. This is not the future he had spent his life picturing for himself but more than he died thinking he’d have. On particularly cruel days the Despot listens to the sounds of the execution on the speakers, but today he contents himself with Vivaldi, which relaxes him as much as the sounds of brutality pleasure him. He is aware what this has to say about his sanity, but sanity is an outdated premise, and has been for some time, with him as the baseline. He is now, by default, the ordinary guy, and everybody else has the problem; so much so that he sometimes doesn’t bother getting out of the tub at all.
The ghost of a feeling pursues him.
He does not realize it is boredom.
Four: The Spare Parts
There is a little-used closet in a little-traveled hallway in one the darker regions of the castle where if one tugs on one disreputable-looking mop, a sliding panel opens to reveal an oval portal beyond which an infinitude of tiny little figures trudge endlessly through a landscape a little like a pea-soup fog in an amphitheater where the music being played is eternal discordant feedback.
They are everything that lives in the universe, outside the tyrant’s immediate neighborhood where the lucky eighty-three still labor in corporeal form; and available to him should he ever decide to replenish the numbers that fall from obsolescence and his frequent temper tantrums. From time to time, the despot sees that he is running low and lets his major-domo know that he needs some more, and that loyal servant comes to this place and inputs the castle’s current needs, an action that leads to the data of the selected individuals being transmitted to the basement’s meat printer, where in short order they slide into the tray, naked, blinking away the amniotic fluid, and ready to serve.
Travel into that portal, if you could, and make your way past all the billions jockeying for position under the selection funnel, and past all the trillions who have given up out of despair of ever getting close, and past the many others who just mill to and fro thinking about how nice it would be to breathe air again, and past those few who remain rebellious and sing songs of defiant community left over from the war, and still further, and you would eventually get to a distant hill occupied only by the specter of a girl named Amantha, who has big brown eyes and pigtails and a grimace that could have bent iron. Of her you need only know that she was once the Chosen One who was humanity’s only hope at defeating the despot while it was still possible. There is no chance, whatsoever, of her ever being decanted.
Five: The Major-Domo’s Stamp Collection
The Major-Domo is a fellow who under the old regime had the job of scheduling the various meeting rooms where the empire’s tens of thousands of bureaucratic functionaries did their highly important work, and making sure that there were never any cases of two committees showing up at the same room at the same time, something that would have been bad. There are no committees now and there is no need for meeting rooms to have them in, but there can be a need for a fellow of not much imagination who will relay the Despot’s orders to the people responsible for carrying them out, without adding much of a spin of his own. Hence the Major-Domo, a fellow who benefits from his elevated place in the regime in that he gets to wear comfortable clothes and eat satisfying food, even if most of his work hours are spent idle, waiting for the next time the Despot needs anything. To keep himself entertained he takes care of his stamp collection, which he keeps in a massive volume that is almost always at the center of his desk, open to the latest blank page. The Major-Domo finds endless satisfaction in this hobby, mostly because he has been ordered to do so, and it needs to be said that it would be significantly more interesting were this a universe with more than one place in it, and in those places more than one celebrated person who could be commemorated on a stamp, and of those stamps more than one variation, and if any of them were rare, and if there were in fact mail. There is not, and there aren’t, and there aren’t, and there isn’t. So there are just a series of identical stamps that get issued by the regime at the rate of exactly one a day, and every day the Major-Domo seizes that day’s printing, takes his bounty back to his desk, peels the paper loose of the adhesive, and pastes the latest addition to his valuable collection in the square on the center of the page, where it belongs.
Sometimes, the Major-Domo dares to think that a little variety would be nice.
But he never speaks up.
He has no ambitions of a future existence as a spigot.
Six: The Loyal Opposition
Does no one oppose the Despot, at all?
There are two. We will spend some time with both.
The first lives in a hut about the dimensions of a hill country outhouse, so small that its sole occupant can sleep in it only if he rests the structure on its side, and positions himself inside in the manner that evokes a corpse inside a coffin. This is a little act of rebellion he can get away with. In daylight hours his hut and home must remain upright. He is able to leave and wander about, which is kind of pointless, as the hut exists on a random patch of earth so isolated that it might be on another planet, or on this one, but so remote that nothing of worth can be seen from its front door. His footprints on the desert floor, undisturbed by wind, testify to just how far he has wandered from his hut before thirst and hunger drive him back, to the sole place where food and water and shelter are provided. They peter out after about a kilometer. But he cannot just stay in the hut and so he daily emerges, wanders about for a while, and goes back. He must leave because it is only when he is absent that these necessities of life are delivered, by some means unknown to him, perhaps teleportation.
His only contact with another human being is when the telephone rings.
It is an old-fashioned phone, attached to his bare wall by flexible coil. If he is close enough to just grab the handset from where he is seated, he waits until it rings twice before reaching out to grab it. If he is not, he races there from wherever he is and cries, “Hello? Hello!” hoping that this is the call delivering the mercy he has hoped for.
Most days, the conversation goes something like this:
“Hello, worm. It’s your lord and master.”
The man in the hut can hear splashing. He suspects that the Despot is in the bathtub. This is an irritation to him. He does not have a bathtub. He washes with sand. It has given him a gritty complexion. A bath would be better. It wouldn’t even have to bubble. In the meantime, he wishes that the Despot did not call him from the tub. Mental images intrude.
“I was just calling to see how you’re doing.”
“Did you receive the extra turnips I sent for yesterday’s lunch?”
“Were they okay?”
“I might send an apple tomorrow. Would that be appreciated?”
“Or something to read.”
“Oh GOD yes.”
“I’m not saying I will, you understand. It’s just something I’ve been considering.”
“Well, that’s about all I have time for. I hope you remain comfortable.”
“Thank you, sire.”
“And thank you, your majesty.”
There is a click.
The man in the hut hangs up the phone and realizes what he has realized every day for some years now, since he was overthrown from his own little fiefdom, by that voice on the other end: that the Despot has left him with no option other than loving him. In his isolation, it is all he has to love.
This is one of two epiphanies he keeps returning to.
The other is that he has not actually lost his royalty. This land he now occupies belongs to himself alone, to the exclusion of every other living being. He is still master of it. No one tells him what to do, not even that distant voice. He is King. He is just a king with fewer options, that’s all; no options, really.
It is just a shame that he so completely despises turnips.
Seven: What About Love?
One key symbolic duty of a king or emperor is to sit on a throne. Why? A throne is just a chair, and upon looking at it one feels no envy for that chair that is based on anything but the power it symbolizes. It is a high-backed solid thing and it is uncomfortable as hell. Every peasant has a more comfortable place to sit, even it’s only on soft grass. But the king, the emperor, the despot must spend at least part of every day on that throne.
This is a throwback to the time when people came to their kings with petitions, with arguments, and with messages from distant lands; people who needed to be reminded that the king was higher than them, that in bringing such matters to his attention they were challenging god’s representative on Earth.
None of this is relevant to the time of the Despot. There is nobody empowered to petition him, nobody who would ever think of petitioning him, and no faraway kingdoms that have messages to send him. Additionally, he is not god’s representative on Earth. He is god on Earth. These are subtle distinctions, but they matter, insofar as that for him, there is no ceremonial value in sitting on a throne. Any edict he might have to impart from there has already been communicated.
All that makes this the most boring of the castle’s rooms. It is a pain in the ass — given the nature of the throne, literally — for the Despot to spend at least an hour every day here, contemplating the Great Things that are his job to contemplate. He used to spend eight hours a day here, adjudicating the petty controversies that embroiled his lords and ladies, before deciding that it was too much trouble and getting rid of his lords and ladies. His actual time on the throne has since contracted to that mere hour, and it is still too much time for his liking, an interruption in the fun stuff that dominates the rest of the day. He resents the necessity and so, it must be said, commits most of his horrific atrocities in the hour immediately before this interregnum and the hour immediately afterward.
What you need to know is that unknown to his uncanny powers of perception, this room is a hotbed of passion.
Protocol demands that a throne be flanked by guards at attention. There are two, powerful figures in gleaming armor, each of whom stand at equal distances from the throne at their midpoint. They do not stare blankly ahead, but instead stand a little turned toward the Despot, in what he perceives as full attention paid to his every whim. When he leaves this room for the day, they remain in that position, immobile, never called to duty, never relieved except for a single break in the morning and another in the afternoon, at which point they march out separate exits and do what they need, before returning to the same positions, which they hold until they return to their assigned cells early at night.
All that time, they gaze on each other.
They are men denied all other company, all the benefits of a social life, all the blessings of family; men who are silent by command, devoted to this duty to decree, and so their opposite numbers, across the elevated platform that bares the throne, are all they have. In the absence of all else, an unspoken empathy has developed between them, an understanding that has blossomed into adoration. The Despot has commanded them to this duty and they obey him every day, to the point of never actually crossing the invisible line marked by the throne, and doing the explicit things they dream of from morning to night, but aside from that one hour where he sits between them and glowers in the ways that strike him as required of the monarchy, an hour they both spend stewing with frustration, they are making passionate love in the way that only they can, with the long stares that to every other observer seem empty but that to them the closest thing they have to consummation.
It is possible that if the Despot died, they would have nothing real to say to each other, or worse would set up housekeeping only to discover that they get on each other’s nerves.
But until then, they are between themselves the romance out of a storybook, the grand passion that would be forbidden if the Despot ever suspected, even for a moment, that it was taking place at both sides of him.
Look, the cheek of the one on the left twitches. Look, the eyebrow of the one on the right arches. That was a sonnet. That was everything. That was an act of lovemaking to end all love stories.
How lucky they are.
Eight: The Doctor
The Despot does not spend all day in the bath, as it happens. He has a Doctor’s appointment. This is a joke of a sort in that a man as important as the Despot does not need to make appointments for anything. If it occurs to him in the middle of the night that he needs to see a Doctor, he can just shout, “Doctor!” and the man responsible for his medical care will be summoned from his own bed, or from wherever he happens to be, to tend to the Despot’s every need. The Despot can do this hourly, if he desires, and there were days when he was sufficiently pissy to let his Doctor get all the way home before summoning him again, every twenty minutes, just to demand a full exam on the occasion of his latest sneeze. It finally grew old. Now he sees the Doctor weekly. It is something to do, even though he hates Doctors so much that he has otherwise exterminated the entire profession except for this one highly learned practitioner.
The freedom to talk back to the Despot makes him, along with the man in the hut, the closest thing the Despot has to an organized opposition.
“Why,” the Despot says, “have I had stomach upset these last four nights?”
“Because you persist in eating the fruit of the Deraxis tree.”
“Of course I eat it. I like it.”
“Yes, but it does not like you.”
“Is that a joke?”
The Despot does not like jokes.
“No, sire. It is just that your particular stomach is sensitive to Deraxis. It is okay for you to have once in a while, but it possesses a compound that builds up in your system and ultimately produces a condition akin to an allergy, that . . .”
“Stop using that scientific mumbo-jumbo. I do not trust it.”
“If you prefer, sire, it’s bad for you and you should not eat it.”
“That sounds awfully like an ultimatum.”
“It is the truth.”
“You do not get to define truth. I am the end-all and I get to define truth.”
“The truth is that the fruit of the Deraxis will result in more accidents like the one you had at the meeting of the high council yesterday.”
“I was not the only one.”
“Nobody else was suffering your symptoms. They just felt obliged to have similar accidents lest they be accused of not following your example.”
“I will not be denied my Deraxis!”
“I have consulted the botany texts and confirmed that the fruit of the Pfistali tree is almost identical in flavor to the fruit of the Deraxis, and that your blood tests reveal that you are almost certainly not sensitive to it all. Import the Pfistali into your greenhouse and you will be able to delight in that flavor as much as you wish, for as long as you wish, without accumulating any more unpleasant memories like yesterday’s. I beg you, sire, make this slight adjustment in your diet, so that we may all benefit from your leadership for many years to come. Please.”
“You are an impudent fool.”
“I am your Doctor, sire.”
“Do you know what happens if I ring this bell?”
The Doctor knows what happens if his lord and master rings the bell. He understands that he can be executed at any time, for even the slightest infraction in an existence where anything he does is an infraction. He also knows that he will also be executed at once if any point his lord thinks that he is not performing his duties with special vehemence, and indeed he never gets out of his own cell without thinking of one doctor who came before him, who failed to institute the dietary restrictions that would have spared the Despot a bad case of gout. And so he only replies, “Yes, sire.”
“Damn you. Speak to the chefs. Make the necessary adjustments.”
“Yes, sire. I will do as you wish. Will there be anything else? It did not seem to me that this was the main reason you summoned me.”
The Despot has also been having some potency problems of late, but has been working up to admitting it.
Nine: The Cuticle
It is on his next visit to the chamber of ablutions that the Despot, sitting on the more useful of his two thrones, discovers a little needle of flesh protruding from between the nail of his index finger, and the surrounding flesh. He puts pressure on it and discovers, without much surprise, that it is painful to the touch. He is aware of this medical condition. It is chronic. Every couple of months one of his fingers chooses to torment him this way, which to him seems to testify to some ungodly petulance on the part of the universe he rules utterly; a rebellion in the form of fleshy documentations that there are things that he cannot control. He tries to amputate the stiff needle with his thumbnail, which he keeps slightly long, but it is not sharp enough, and he cannot reach the silvery clipper from where he sits, as it on the other side of the sink. It will be some time before he is done with his current evacuation—damn the Deraxis, and damn the Doctor for being right about it—and so he commences to doing what long and painful experience should have taught him is an option he should avoid at all costs, nibbling. The little needle is so tiny, so delicate, really, so fiendish a torture mechanism that he is actively irritated by not being the guy to think of it, that it is almost impossible to get a dental grip on it, but soon enough he manages, and for the next few seconds grinds those teeth with fervent malice, hoping to make the needle part; but is tough, and it continues to vex him, until in a fury of absolute loathing he clamps his teeth down hard and rips the offending flesh free.
Almost at once, he is aware of his tactical mistake. The unwanted needle has come free, yes, but it has taken with it a strip of healthy and desired flesh, and the raw place he has unearthed now stings, as it has on every previous occasion in his life when he attempted to do such a pettily stupid and self-destructive thing.
It will hurt worse now.
And it is worth nothing, this lesson that he is grandiose to acknowledge to himself: that he has become a god over men, the grand ruler of all who live, and the master of all he surveys: but he is still human, and this kind of shit still happens. No edict, no command, no imperial snit will ever free him from it.
Ten: To the Rampart
It is with this in mind that the Despot climbs to the highest point in his castle, on a glorious day when the sun shines and the air is sweet, when the birds sing and the clouds when present form only the best tableaus in the blue sky they inhabit, and he knows that everything he perceives, from the village far below to the rolling hills on the horizon, is all his: that whatever whim overcomes him today, it will be provided as soon it is voiced; and that there is no threat to him, anywhere, not so far as the eye can see.
He feels a deep abiding melancholy. It starts early, these days. It is often still present even as he crawls into bed. (And thinking of bed, he suddenly remembers that he has not dismissed his concubine, who will now stay within the sheets until ordered otherwise, all day if necessary, a past edict that once satisfied the Despot but now seems, somehow, both too much and not enough; pitiful is the word.) The real problem, of course, is that the being who controls everything also controls nothing, not even himself. There is no pushback. No reason to get out of bed. No purpose, really.
And yet, what are the options, really? Is he to relinquish some portion of his power, and then devote himself to capturing it again? This would at least have the benefit of giving him something to do, but even assuming he can commit the same crimes, win the same wars, and arrive at the same place, he would at the end of all that struggle be where he is now, wandering alone through a world where everybody else is just a pawn to be manipulated, a doll to be positioned in some manner that once pleased him. When that happens he will face the same difficulty he faces now, which is to say that he has created what once he would have thought a paradise, a universe that is entirely beholden to him, that is such a well-ordered machine it runs with perfection without his constant guidance, and again leaves him with nothing to do.
It occurs to him that it would still run even if he leaped from this high place and allowed the ground to shatter him. Nothing would change.
He gnaws on his fingernail and he glares up at the clouds and it occurs to him for just a second that alongside the one that looks like a fish and the one that looks like a dog is one that looks like a slightly more transparent spot in a sheet of otherwise frosted glass, through which the eye of the burning sun glares with even less empathy than he has shown his own worshipful subjects. But then he blinks and the illusion is gone and he finds himself standing atop the little stone barrier between himself and a shattering drop. The vertigo assaults him. He screams, I know you’re there! He screams, I know what you’ve done to me! And though he does not know why he screams these things, feels the truth behind him, an understanding that just barely eludes him, as he wobbles atop the parapet, capable of falling either one way, or the other.
And Meanwhile, Above the Clouds
The true ruler of the universe clucks with an emotion that is not even remotely related to pity.