He also tried to ignore the two goon-brained, thimble-headed armed guards that stood on either side of him, glowering at him and wondering if they would get the okay to skewer him on their not-so-ceremonial pikes or else atomize his giblets with the Intergalactic Death-Ray pistols that clanked at their sides. The Emperor was convinced his public loved him but he took no chances with his friends in his court. The guards had huge golden Roman centurion-type helmets with red crests on top that stood up like scared birds.
Aurant, of course, had been relieved of everything considered even slightly dangerous while in the Emperor’s presence, including the key to his three-wheeled, two-seater, three-foot-by-six-foot government-issue Luxury Wondercar, Limited Edition. It needed a new battery.
“What’s that you’re saying, Auric?” asked the Emperor of the Earth, still giving Aurant the icy eyeball. “They’re no threat? They’re not going to attack us?” Aurant imagined the Emperor, now completely morphed, simian-wise, having his crown slip down over his head as he paraded down the street on the ducal tricycle. He shook the image off.
“No,” he said, “they’re no threat at all to us. Our intelligence has been bad, but that’s par for the course for government work.” The guards twitched their pikes, cheerfully hoping they’d get the word to poke several holes in Aurant’s gizzard for daring to contradict the Emperor. If nothing else, maybe they could get to whack him on the head. That always cheered them up.
The Emperor went harrumpf. The guards looked disappointed. “Our intelligence is just fine!” he snapped. “It’s overwhelmingly accurate that these aliens are going to attack us! We have to attack first! Just because you’ve been ambassador to these Yeckers doesn’t mean they haven’t been conning you for the last year! And the fact they were our allies for decades is irrelevant, since they decided to stab us in the back! All we want to do is impose freedom on them, in exchange for a small contribution to cover our costs! Horrible, evil, ungrateful wogoids!” He gave a mighty shudder, one of his gestures that caused adoring crowds to cheer wildly. “Eyestalks!” he gasped.
Inwardly Aurant sighed. Politicians and bureaucrats always gave him a crick in his brain. Outwardly he kept the poker face. “Actually, sir, they have one big eye and two big feet,” explained, knowing the words were going in the Emperor’s head and mostly wandering around looking for a place to stay. “But more importantly, it is my considered opinion, based on my year on the planet, that we would be making a grave mistake attacking the Yechs! They are not a threat to us. This would be an unnecessary war that would only drain us of blood and treasure.”
He saw no reason, due to the grim-faced, sadism-besotted thugs towering over him, to add to the jumble of words in the Emperor’s head that wars were almost always started by politicians for their benefit, but it was always the mass of people who fought in them, and, much of the time, many of them cheered as they were being used as cannon-fodder. It was a great money-maker for a few and poverty for the many if you could convince yourself -- and them -- it was for a noble cause and just about anything but a scam. Aurant, who had found that while individuals could be smart, masses were always just plain retarded, found it was a depressingly easy thing to do.
“Look here, Noric!” the Emperor’s scrunched features rearranged themselves angrily. “We’ve given these Yechoids plenty of time to come clean and prove they aren’t a threat! And they haven’t done it to my satisfaction! So we have to disarm them! It is my job, and has been the job of my ancestors for the last several hundred years, to protect this realm!”
The phone shrieked. The Emperor grabbed it and barked at it: “What? What’s that? The Transgalactic Cosmodemonic Weapons MegaCorporation needs a trillion to upgrade soldiers’ armor to hardened Play Doh? Don’t bother me with this trivial stuff! Have the Fed print up the money! And squeeze the taxpayers harder! They only need to eat once a day instead of twice!” He slammed the phone down. “Morons!" he howled. "Can’t do the simplest thing!”
The Emperor glared at Aurant, and Aurant contemplated the Emperor. Several seconds went by. Several hundred years of perpetual war for perpetual peace, Aurant thought. The phrase popped into his mind, gleaned from an old Earth novel, banned for centuries but one he had read on Yech!
“Your Enstupidated Holitude,” Aurant said carefully, “I spent enough time on Yech! to know the place very well. They’re not warlike, but they will defend themselves if attacked. And in that year, I learned a little bit about their weapons. I don’t know exactly what they have, but I do know about one called the Yech! Bomb. I don’t think it’s something we want to go up against.”
“Nonsense!” blared the Emperor. “We have the finest soldiers and weaponry in this section of the galaxy! Nothing can stand up against us!” He squinted again at Aurant, as if he was the most addle-pated oaf he had ever encountered. “We have to free the Yechners from under the yoke of tyranny!” he hooted. “We have to put an end to the hatred and resentment that threatens our great, peace-loving society! Our ultimate purpose is to spread freedom throughout the entire galaxy!”
“With all due respect, sir,” Aurant explained, “they are a free people. Free, peaceable, and wealthy, never attacking anyone, always successfully defending themselves when attacked.” Had it not been for the fact the Yechs! were three foot tall, not to mention the one big eye and two big feet, Aurant might have stayed. They reminded him of the wind-up walking eyeballs he had as a kid.
“Hallucinations!” the Emperor howled. “They are a vile, warmongering race! And we will put a stop to their attempts to conquer the galaxy, and impose peace and freedom on them, no matter how many of them we have to kill!”
His wave of rhetoric wafted the Emperor up from behind his desk, resplendent in his gold-braided, medal-bespangled commander’s uniform, as befitted the Leader of the Terran Democratic Republic. He reminded Aurant of a gem-encrusted Pomeranian. “Sometimes I wonder about you, Gorent! Defending aliens against your own race! Do you hate your own people? I suggest you change your attitude! Remember -- God, Country, Government! All me -- uh, all the same!” He glared up at Aurant’s six-foot-one from his five-foot-two. “I believe you know the way out!” he barked, and was gone in a jangling of medals. The goons continued to look disappointed at his still-intact innards. They gave him his key back.
“Your party hat,” one said to him on the way out.
Aurant adjusted his party hat on his head and snapped the rubber hand under his chin.
“Be cheerful,” quoted one goon.
“Be optimistic,” said the other.
“And we will win,” ended Aurant wearily, and the door slammed at his back.
“Why, hello, Mr. Aurant,” said a cheerful Barney, the attendant at Sroad’s garage, as he pulled in to park his car. “Car looks like it’s running better today.”
“Finally got a new battery for it, after three months of red tape,” Sroads said. The car was a go-cart powered by a lawnmower engine, one that started with a pull-rope once you put the key in. The whole thing was covered with a thin plastic shell. It buzzed like a cicada. He had no idea why the thing needed a battery, but figured someone somewhere in the government was making money off of it.
Barney was the new guy, having only been there two months. Joe, the old guy, whose joints Sroads could hear pop above the lawnmower engine, finally got to retire to a well-deserved, but surely thin, bunk in a barracks in an old folk’s home. Sroads hoped he had the top bunk and didn’t have to crawl under the lower one to sleep on the floor.
Barney puzzled Sroads. He seemed awfully cheerful, all the time. Today, his curiosity got the best of him. “Barney, can I ask you a question?” he asked cautiously.
“Sure,” said Barney, chomping a cigar between what was left of his teeth. The government had changed its tune on tobacco decades ago, figuring the sooner people died, the better for not paying retirement, which it didn’t give until anyone was 90. “I might not have any answers, though.”
“You work 12 hours a day, six days a week. You live in that little closet over there, and, as best as I can tell, sleep standing up. Yet you’re cheerful all the time. How do you manage it?”
“Well, I’ll tell you what,” said Barney, blowing smoke out from the space where his right eyetooth had been. “I ain’t a smart guy, and I ain’t ashamed to admit it. Being so dumb, I got drafted into the Space Marines for 40 years when I was 12. I spent 40 years in barracks and in foxholes and traveling with 10,000 other guys in starships all over space, killing people and seeing lots of soldiers disappear in rayblasts. And somehow, I made it back.”
Sroads didn’t say anything. He looked mighty impressed, though.
“Now maybe I only got one leg and one hand and this eyepatch and hardly any teeth and a plastic skull,” Barney continued, “but, you see, Mr. Aurant, I’m in heaven compared to the hell I was in. I got enough to eat and a warm space to sleep in a place that’s all my own, and I ain’t got people trying to kill me every second of the day and night. Am I bored? Nope. I had enough excitement to last me a couple hunnert lifetimes. I’m living a miracle right now. Does that answer your question, Mr. Aurant?”
“Yes, it does, Barney,” Sroads said.
Barney leaned forward confidentially, his cigar balanced between thumb and forefinger. “You want to know something else, Mr. Aurant? It was all a bunch of hooey.”
“Oh, hon, why do you even try?” asked his girlfriend, Teri-Teri Taurus, later, in his studio in Building 76, Floor 102, Hallway 4, Apartment 25. “You know you’re wasting your time dealing with the government. It’s always like one of those dinosaurs that has a T-Rex chewing on its tail and the message doesn’t get to its brain until 20 years later.”
“I had to try,” he explained. “You always have to try.” He looked around at the tiny apartment, the standard for government employees, Grade 23-B-145-E. Once the bed and the dining table were folded back into the wall, and the couch folded down, it wasn’t too bad, he concluded, although he did get tired of brushing his hair against the ceiling. Perhaps I should try a buzzcut, he thought.
“Sometimes you are just so naive,” she said. “Or maybe somehow you’ve managed to maintain your innocence after all those years working for the government. Those people. . . money, power, sex, that’s all they want, even if they always claim they’re trying to benefit the public. Fake altruism on the outside and lust on the inside. Barbarians!”
She burst into tears. “I hate it here! The year 2525 -- and look at this place. You live in a closet. I live in a closet. And it’s all the government’s fault. It’s always claiming we have to make more and more sacrifices, more wars, more taxes, more laws, more conscription, to protect our freedoms. What freedoms? The TV even comes on when the government wants you to see one of its broadcasts!”
“I know it’s awful, hon,” Sroads said apologetically. “I know it was better hundreds of years ago, when there was real freedom and not just the words, like it is today. I’ve even read people use to live in houses, with yards, and flowers. The cars even had four wheels and backseats.”
She sighed. Flowers! Real ones! A house with flower boxes in the window sills, a swing on the porch, more than one room with a bed that would actually stay in one place all the time and didn’t fold up into the wall...
Her dreams were rudely interrupted by the TV flickering on. Once, in a fit of pique, Sroads had kicked it and found it didn’t even leave a mark on the screen. He estimated it was six inches thick and apparently made out of the same stuff as the President’s body armor.
“Attention!” the speaker blatted. “This is an emergency! This is not a drill! Please take cover! The Supreme Imperial Patriotic Space Navy has just discovered a huge Yech! missile --”
“Uh oh, ” went Sroads.
“ -- heading toward the Earth! Please take cover immediately!”
“Nuts,” Sroads fumed. “I warned them, but, no, they didn’t listen. Now we’ve got a Yech! Bomb heading toward us.”
“The one you’ve been warning about?” Teri-Teri asked.
“That’s the one, and I doubt they’re anything good.”
“What are we going to do?’”
“Nothing!” Sroads plonked himself down on the couch and folded his arms. “There’s not a darn thing we can do about anything. Where would we hide, in my Luxury Wondercar, Limited Edition?”
Teri-Teri sat down next to Sroads. He put his arm around her. “If we’re going to get killed, it’s going to be together,” she said.
“Too bad I’m not a comedian,” Sroads said. “Otherwise I’d say I want to spend the rest of my life with you, which apparently is only going to last several more seconds.”
“Please take cover!” the TV continued to blare! “This is not a drill! This is an emergency!”
“Shut up!” Sroads yelled at the screen. “A man’s home is his hassle. . .I mean castle! For once, just leave us alone!” He heard a rumbling outside, coming from high in the sky. Everything began to shake. “Oops,” he said, “here they come!”
“Damned government can barely do anything right,” he muttered disgustedly, and kissed Teri-Teri one last kiss.
“J Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers,” she said dreamily.
“Who?” Sroads asked.
Then the missile hit.
When he opened his eyes, he found himself lying on his back staring up at a blue sky with a few white cotton-puff clouds drifting by. He sat up. Teri-Teri was lying by him, with a look of wonder on her face.
“We’re not dead,” she said in astonishment.
“At least we don’t appear to be,” Sroads answered. “If we are, it’s better than where we were.”
They were sitting in a grassy meadow, surrounded by wildflowers. The sun was warm and golden on them. There was a light breeze. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” he said. “Just where are we? What exactly did that Yech! Bomb do to us?”
“This is beautiful,” Teri-Teri breathed, exhilarated. Then she sang, “Yes, it's springtime, golden sunshine, and we're glad, my little love and I, now that summertime is nigh."
"Just an old song," Terri-Terri said. "It's a lot more pleasant than the propaganda the government piped in our headphones when we were babies in our cribs."
“I’m going to do something I’ve always wanted to do!” Sroads smiled. He took off his shoes and socks and wiggled his toes in the grass. “Ahh. . .never done that before.” Teri-Teri followed suit. Both lay back in the grass and went, “Ah. . .” again.
A shadow fell on them from behind. Sroads looked around. “Hey, Barney, you’re here, too!”
Barney smiled. Reaching behind his head, he fiddled with something. His Barney-suit split down the middle and fell into a heap at his feet. What was inside was three foot tall and had one big eye and two big feet.
“I’ll be darned,” cried Sroads. “It’s Fred!”
“Fred?” Teri-Teri wondered.
“Sure, Fred,” Sroads explained. “He was one of the officials on Yech! that I dealt with. What are you doing here, Fred, and what were you doing inside Barney?”
“There never has been any Barney,” Fred said. “That was just a disguise. Actually I’ve been a spy for the last two months, ever since we realized Earth was going to attack us.” He clucked and shook his head. “We had no choice but to use the Yech! Bomb. Your Earth government was most deaf to our overtures.”
“You did a pretty good job of being Barney,” Sroads said admiringly. “You sure fooled me.”
“What did you do to us,” Teri-Teri asked. “And where’s everything at?”
Fred’s one big eye looked apologetic, and he scuffed one of his two big feet in the grass. “Hard to explain exactly,” he said. “But let’s just say the bombs are Expanding Chronosynclastic Infundibulum Space-Time Bubbles that reset your planet to the beginning. What you might call your Garden of Eden? Your whole race gets a chance to start over, and maybe do it right this time. You might blow it again, but at least you have another chance. We’re not going to impose our culture on you. Wouldn’t work anyway. Goofiest thing I’ve heard in my life.”
“Look!” said Teri-Teri, pointing. “Look who it is!”
Sroads looked, and started chuckling. It was the Emperor, sitting nearby, looking at a flower in his hand. He looked up at them and gave them a child-like smile. “I can’t say I ever noticed flowers before,” he said. “They sure are pretty.” His head had expanded to normal size.
Sroads smiled. “I think there’s a good chance everything might work out this time,” he said. “We’ll see you in a little while, Fred.” He took Teri-Teri’s hand and together they set off across the meadow, through the grass and the flowers, to the castle in the distance.