6980 words, short story
The Empress in Her Glory
Fruits ripen and worlds ripen.
If not taken at the right moment, any ripe prize falls from its tree and rots away, and nothing is gained.
That was how They looked at the situation.
Call them “alien.” The word isn’t ridiculous, yet by the same token, no label does justice to their origins or far-reaching powers. And after four and a half billion years of slow, often irregular growth, the Earth was deemed ripe. In the parlance of universal laws, that little orb had grown just soft enough and sweet enough. That’s why They came. That’s why an ordinary day in late June came and left again, and in those hours, by invasive and ephemeral means, every aspect of human existence was conquered.
The new rulers were few, less than a hundred, but they were an experienced, well-practiced partnership. Avoiding sloppiness and haste, they followed their occupation with months of careful study. This was a new colony, one realm among ten thousand thousand scattered about the galaxy, and their first job was to understand the world’s nature. Out of that collection of meat and history, failure and divine promise, they had to select one good leader—a human face and mind to be entrusted with the administration of what was theirs.
At fifty-eight, Adrianne Hammer ruled an empire of cubicles and computers as well as an impressive stockpile of Folgers Classic Roast. She was sharp-minded and quietly demanding of her seven-person staff. Weighing data from multiple sources, she was paid to make honest, unsentimental guesses about the future. Economic growth and downturns were predicted. The odds of storms and plagues and various medical breakthroughs had to be rendered as numbers. Hers was one minuscule department inside a major insurance conglomerate, but while other departments often duplicated their work, Adrianne and her team were unusually competent. Which is to say that the eight of them were correct a little more often than their competitors.
She was a widow. People who barely knew Adrianne knew that much. Her husband had struggled for a year against liver cancer. His prognosis was poor but never hopeless, and he might have survived. There were good reasons for optimism. But the man must have been too terrified to face his difficult future. One morning, Adrianne kissed him before driving to work, and the man subsequently drank half a bottle of quality wine and then jabbed a pistol under his fleshy chin.
As a rule, humans enjoy tragedies that involve others. They also believe suffering lends depth to the afflicted. Years after the event, co-workers still spoke about the police coming to deliver the awful news. It happened to be a rainy day. The poor lady was sitting alone in the cafeteria. The officers sat in front her and beside her, speaking slowly, and she seemed to hear them. But shock and pain must have left her numb. With a flat, unemotional voice, she asked, “Where did it happen?” Her husband shot himself at home. “But what room?” Inside the home office. “Who found him?” A delivery man looked through the window, called it in. She nodded, eyes narrowing. “Which gun?” she demanded. “And how bad is the mess?”
That’s when a bystander took hold of her hands, urging Adrianne to shut her eyes for a moment, to collect her wits.
She had one child, a grown boy already living in a distant state. Husband and son were the only people pictured on her work desk, and in keeping with a spirit of relentless honesty, neither photograph was flattering. The dead Mr. Hammer sported a beefy, rounded face dominated by an alcoholic’s bright nose. The son was an ugly fellow needing a comb and a smile. People on Adrianne’s staff knew about her life. She wasn’t particularly secretive, no. But there was a persistent story, popular in the other departments and divisions, that she was a cat lady. Didn’t she look the part? Except Adrianne didn’t keep any pets, and she didn’t suffer from mothering urges, and despite some very confident rumors, she also didn’t quilt or garden or ride cruise ships. She wasn’t unattractive, and so acquaintances imagined male friends. But except for a few dinner dates and a couple change of sheets, she never dated. Men and romance were difficulties best left behind. Alone inside the tidy, cat-free house, Mrs. Hammer filled her private hours with activities that mirrored her official job, She stood before a tall desk, in the same office where her husband killed himself. To her, the world was one giant and splendid puzzle, and like the best puzzles, it was built out of simple repeating pieces. Her passion was to search the Internet for odd papers and unexplored pools of data, reading everything interesting as slowly and carefully as she could, and when she was ready—but only when ready—she would weave conclusions that were often a little more true than every other half-mad opinion on the Web.
Adrianne Hammer was a blogger.
Regularity. Reliability. Those were qualities she demanded of herself, and her tiny audience had always appreciated the results. She posted every Sunday, and the only postings missed were because of one bout of swine flu, and before that, her husband’s messy suicide. Thousands of people had her tools and intellect, or they had better. But brilliance likes to be focused. The average genius wants to fall in love with some narrow cause, a topic that generates passion and that she can master better than anyone else. And the most powerful minds often ended up being driven by the rawest, most predictable emotions.
But this human didn’t suffer from a narrow focus.
In fifteen years, that lifelong Republican had successfully predicted elections and civil wars as well as giving shrewd warnings about which stable nations would fail to rule effectively. She warned her readers about stock bubbles and the diminishing stocks of easy petroleum. China was on the precipice of ten environmental disasters. Russia was a rotted husk. She studied SARS and MERS and then successfully predicted the onset of GORS. Climate change was a growing maelstrom worth visiting every couple months, and with a perpetually reasoned tone, she warned her careless species to watch out for even more serious hazards. Comet impacts. Solar flares. Nuclear war between small players and firestorms born from mistakes made in North Dakota.
In one popular posting, she wrote about the Singularity. “I can only guess when the day comes, but self-aware computers are inevitable. In fact, synthetic intelligence is more likely today than it was yesterday. And it’s a little more plausible this afternoon than it was just this morning.”
At the heart of every posting was the inescapable truth: The future was chaos smothered inside more chaos. Even at her best, Adrianne cautioned that no marriage of learning and insight can envision what comes in another ten years, or in some cases, in another ten seconds.
Yet even the most difficult, disorganized race had to have its winner.
And Adrianne Hammer was among of the quickest of the best.
The invisible lords made her one candidate among twenty-three. Each human was secretly examined, every life measured against an assortment of ideals. Adrianne was fifth on the list, and she wouldn’t have climbed any higher. But her son called her at home one evening. Intoxicated, plainly furious, the young man began by telling his mother that she was a bloodless bitch, unloving and ugly.
Adrianne reacted with a soft sigh, shaking her head.
The son’s rapid prattle continued, insults scattered through recollections from childhood. Old slights and embarrassments were recounted. One cold, wicked parent had destroyed the young man’s future. Didn’t she see the crimes? Didn’t she understand what a miserable mess she had made of his little life?
Once and then again, she said her son’s name. Quietly, but not softly.
The tirade finally broke. Then he muttered, “Dad.”
She nodded, apparently unsurprised by the conversation’s turn.
“Yes,” she said.
“You should have known,” the young man said. “Of all people, you should have seen it coming. Why didn’t you sense what he was planning?”
“Because he didn’t give clues.”
“Dad didn’t have to kill himself,” her son said. “He wasn’t that sick.”
She said, “Honey, he was very ill. And that doesn’t matter now.”
“It does matter.”
“Not after the gunshot,” she said. “That’s why people kill themselves. One action, and everything else is inconsequential.”
Both stopped talking.
Forty seconds passed.
“I wasn’t there,” her son complained.
“Poor Dad was alone.”
“We’re all alone, honey.”
By a thousand means, the Earth’s new owners studied the woman’s pain. They watched the candidate open her mouth and close it again. They measured her breathing, her heart. The electricity running along her wet neurons. They even tried to read her thoughts, which was difficult with most humans and quite impossible with this specimen.
To their minds, opacity was a noble quality.
“After he shot himself,” her son began.
“At the funeral—”
“You were angry at him. Because he used the .357. Because he aimed up and made a mess in the ceiling, and you’d have to find someone to come pull out the bones and make patches and then paint. That’s why you were angry with him.”
“I wasn’t angry,” she said.
“Yes you were.”
“No, I was reasonable frustrated,” she said. “You’re always the furious one.”
“Don’t fucking say that.”
Eyes narrowed. Adrianne fell silent.
Her pulse was slow, regular.
“You see everything, Mom. You should have predicted this.”
Just then, Adrianne’s heart rate elevated. Slightly.
“You could have taken precautions,” he said.
“It was my mistake,” she agreed. “I underestimated your father’s fears, and overestimated his aversion to violence.”
Her son sobbed.
Honesty was easy for the woman. “I always assumed your father would drink himself to death,” she said. “Which perhaps was how he made himself sick in the first place.”
“Listen to yourself.”
“I always do.”
“You don’t care. You make an awful mistake like that, and it’s nothing to you.”
“One error among thousands,” she pointed out.
The young man said nothing.
Adrianne’s pulse had returned to normal.
“Do you miss him, Mom?”
She said nothing, apparently giving the problem some thought. “I miss you,” she said at last.
Her son broke the connection.
Adrianne set the phone down on the desk, and after a sigh and seven seconds of introspection, she glanced up at the patched, repainted ceiling. Then she returned to work, crafting a long, tightly reasoned blog about thorium reactors, their blessings and why they were coming too late to the discussion.
Those watching came to one enduring conclusion: This was an exceptionally tough-minded, determined beast.
Which was why a month later, without warnings or the barest explanations, an obscure blogger was given complete control over the secretly conquered world.
At work and at home, Adrianne wielded tools that she didn’t understand. The web crawlers and other bots gathered data and then filtered it for her eyes. But even the most competent expert wouldn’t have noticed the unique bots added to her account. That small event happened early on a Saturday morning. Waking at ten after five, as usual, she discovered e-mails and classified reports from mainland China. Asking for origin reports, the new software told reasonable lies about failures to encrypt and a nameless hacker who must have let her cleverness sit exposed for too long.
This week’s blog was supposed to focus on a renewed US space program.
Adrianne read and reread the translations, slept five hours, and finished her research on Sunday morning. The blog was written in two hours, which was quick for her. Instead of railguns, she described the secret fissures inside the Three Gorges Dam and how the Chinese government was doing nothing of significance, nervously hoping that their wildest worries would prove without merit.
At the moment of publication, the empress had 709 scattered followers.
Sunday evening was unremarkable, and the next two days were pleasant enough. Wednesday seemed to offer more of the same. A courtyard was adjacent to the cafeteria. Adrianne sat in the shadows, eating a peanut butter sandwich and small apple and then two Girl Scout cookies bought from a colleague’s daughter. Thin Mints. Arguably the finest cookie in the history of humankind.
“How bad?” a bypasser asked.
“They still don’t know,” his companion said.
“How many people live downstream?”
The men were past, gone. The final cookie was half eaten. That very calm woman took a moment to examine her tooth marks in the bright black chocolate. Then she finished the cookie and the last of her low fat milk, and she disposed of the trash and used the restroom, returning to her station two minutes before one o’clock.
Every monitor in the office showed the Chinese flood. The giant dam didn’t just split open. It had failed catastrophically, dissolving into rubble and a wall of filthy black water that was slashing through the nightbound countryside, and it wouldn’t stop flowing until wreckage was washing up on American shores.
That portion of the future was easy to predict.
Other parts were less certain.
Most humans would have been traumatized, and many would have mentioned their brilliance or dumb luck. But no, Adrianne had a project to shepherd along. Her department was trying to calculate the likely changes in life spans in the Western world. Insurance companies never stopped making these assessments. Until now, she had been enjoying a productive week, discovering speculative works in places that normally didn’t share ideas, including several interesting reports about a small start-up in France working with anti-aging drugs.
Adrianne was the only person in the office who had found the anti-aging references. Which was bothersome. Her staff was badly distracted, but she sent one of her boys chasing the French story, expecting and even hoping that he would follow the crumbs to the same destination.
But he didn’t, no.
“I’m not finding anything, ma’am. Where am I supposed to look?”
Adrianne drove home as usual. The evening news was filled with videos of cities being gutted, churning waters filled with animal corpses and human corpses. She stayed awake past midnight, just after a light-water reactor and various storage facilities were inundated. The disaster had reached a new level of appalling. By five o’clock the next morning, her time, martial law had been imposed across China, and there were rumors of a major shake-up in Beijing.
The Chinese civil war remained weeks in the future.
Arriving late to work, Adrianne found one of her boys standing beside her desk. He smiled nervously. The young man looked happy yet uncertain, rocking from foot to foot. His voice cracked when he said, “Hello,” and then he laughed at his obvious terror.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
Her voice broke. Just a little, in places only she could hear.
The man tried laughing again. But he couldn’t make himself. “I don’t read it a lot,” he confessed.
“Read what?” she asked.
“Your blog.” He sighed. “But I did see something . . . I don’t know . . . it’s been a couple years. And you were right.”
“China. It was ripe for environmental disaster.”
At that moment, Adrianne would have been hard-pressed to write any coherent opinions about Chinese futures. The flood was enormous, but good things might come from this. Sometimes chaos supplied the fuel to make meaningful changes, destroying corruption, ensuring stability for hundreds of millions of survivors.
“You were right,” he repeated.
Finally, she saw what was obvious. “You didn’t read my last article. Did you?”
“No, ma’am, I’m sorry. Like I said, I don’t get to it much.”
Adrianne felt sick.
“Why? Should I become a follower?” He was nearly a boy, years younger than her son. “I’ll read it right now. How’s that?”
“No,” she said.
Loudly, almost shouting.
He blinked. “Okay. You’re right. Work first.”
Adrianne’s hope was to cross the day, to finish these hours and escape back home and then make some accommodations to this very unlikely coincidence. But the peace only lasted until ten in the morning. People from other departments began to stop outside the office. Familiar, nameless faces came to look at the slender woman with the neat gray hair and out-of-fashion glasses. With caution and nervous wonder, they stared, and then she would glance up and they would retreat. Then one bold lawyer asked how she could be so right about this goddamn mess. And suddenly her own people were demanding explanations. Adrianne had no choice but some species of honesty, and then nobody was working. Everyone inside her office and throughout the complex began to read and reread a few thousand words predicting the century’s largest disaster.
Adrianne took her lunch home and called in sick.
By evening, with the help of two cocktails, she checked her blog. The comments went on and on, many in Chinese. And she had just under fourteen thousand followers, the number rising every time she refreshed.
Someone had fed her the information.
That was the first and still obvious explanation. She kept imagining the Chinese dissident, crafty and out of reach, and with that bit of false-knowledge in hand, Adrianne wrote her next blog—a careful piece using bits of new research. With words and tidy graphs, she reminded her readers that hydrocarbons were common, both in the world and across the universe. But being common didn’t matter. Most of the world’s oil was too expensive to lift out of the ground, and what could be lifted was often too expensive to refine, and the energy gained at the day’s end was approaching the grim fulcrum where the modern world couldn’t afford to pay its bills.
The topic was familiar. She had investigated peak oil many times. But she had more followers now, a lot of new heads to absorb her thinking, and that’s why she wrote the piece, expecting that a few of her readers would appreciate and maybe even welcome her calm logic.
Fifty-eight years of life gives a person experience with insults and curses. But what surprised Adrianne was the intimacy of the threats—violent words coupled with images from people who didn’t simply doubt her numbers and good sense, but who wanted to come her house just so they could cut off her head, to claim it as a trophy they would nail to their truck hoods or use in ways far worse than that.
She slept badly for a week. And while awake, every stranger deserved small anxieties.
Yet nothing evil ever came to her door, and everything that was good proved to be excellent. Adrianne’s staff rallied around her. Unfit men in their thirties and forties acted as unofficial bodyguards, and without fanfare, the youngest member of her staff—a girl in her mid-twenties—broke company rules by bringing both a Taser and pepper spray into the office.
That next Sunday, Adrianne published a brief, dense blog about magneto-inertial fusion engines—the best means for opening up the solar system. And inside the piece, she included schematics plucked from what looked like a NASA website.
Her followers had reached eighty thousand.
The rocket blog was followed by a long, complicated piece about increasing lifespans and why that was a damnable trend. Long-term environmental successes would never be possible if too many bodies were prepared to live comfortably in the increasingly overheated world.
By then, her followers’ comments had dropped by half, insults by one third, and she had the carefully plotted data to prove it.
By then, the Chinese civil war was underway, and feeling invested in that particular horror, Adrianne suggested a solution. Like an innoculate into a sick body, she proposed that one of the peripheral Chinese enclaves could supply a new paradigm. Taiwan was offered, then dismissed. Too much history. Hong Kong had its potentials, but it didn’t have the necessary freedom of motion. So instead she voted for the distant and very wealthy city-state of Singapore. Its authoritarian leaders and billionaires were Chinese by heritage. They could broker deals and supply guidance that wouldn’t end the strife today, but in another couple years, perhaps with only fifty million dead from war and famine, some new normalcy could be established.
Adrianne’s final Monday at work was pleasantly forgettable.
Plus one long meeting.
Then home and a light dinner, one drink and idle reading, and bed.
On Monday, Ghawar was the greatest oil field on the Earth. But early Tuesday, Adrianne’s time, a series of prolonged earthquakes rolled across northern Saudi Arabia. By Wednesday morning, virtually every oil well in the region had seized up and died. The spot market for crude was driving towards three hundred dollars. An initial explanation, full of panic and half-informed conjecture, blamed the greedy Saudis. An ocean of oil had been removed from the Ghawar field, and the strata must have been pushed too hard. Despite sound geologic evidence that this was impossible, an entire region had slumped, and the world was several million barrels short of oil today and tomorrow, and always.
By Wednesday evening, the Prime Minister of Singapore was opening public talks with three of the main combatants inside China.
Thursday morning saw a news conference from France. An upstart medical firm was going to sell expensive compounds that could only be described as elixirs, and lifespans would soon triple.
But the blogger at the heart of it remained surprisingly unnoticed. Only half a dozen news crews sat on the street outside Adrianne’s home. With her phone off and drapes closed, it was possible to believe that her life hadn’t changed. Then came Friday morning, and a team of MIT engineers announced that the design for a novel rocket propulsion system, posted on a small blog, was not from any governmental database. Or commercial database. Nor any other reasonable source. Yet A. Hammer’s documents contained quite a few interesting features, some invoking the newest ideas about energy in the universe, and it might be possible to build a prototype star-drive within the next five years.
By then, the world was plunging into its Grand Depression.
But those financial horrors were augmented by promises of endless life and easy commutes to the other worlds.
The raging chaos had a center—one quiet woman barely known a month ago.
Adrianne escaped her house through the back gate, taking a cab to work. Nobody in her office was pretending to work. They watched the news together, the door left mostly closed. A manager and two security people arrived before lunch, and Adrianne was ushered into the largest conference room. Every important person in the corporation had gathered to stare at her. Several of them remembered to thank her for her long service. Then the CFO offered her a worried smile and a substantial buyout.
Everybody adored her work, but she was too much of a distraction.
Twenty million followers were just the beginning. Adrianne was going to have advertising revenues flowing from her blog, and she had her buyout package, plus savings and numerous offers of cash for appearances on news networks and talk shows. With those prospects and a numbed resolve, she began the long walk back to her office and the cubicle, ready to wish her people the best before heading off into this unforeseen life.
But stepping through the door, an idea took hold.
Seven others watched the old lady make coffee for everyone. The Folgers was brewing, and she sat with her back to her desk, in a pose they had never seen before. She didn’t look regal or even particularly confident. No, nothing was special in her appearance, save for the weariness of great events, and they felt sorry for the lady, even while wondering which of them would end up in charge. She looked at each face. Then she gave the carpet a long stare. Somebody thought to pour coffee into eight mugs and everyone had their share and there was sitting and more silence, except out in the hallway where someone had slipped indoors. A supporter or an enemy: The invader’s goals were never known. Security noticed the interloper and tackled her, and when the screaming was finished, Adrianne looked up at the ceiling. Quietly, soberly, she said, “There’s no reasonable set of factors that can make this possible. What’s happening. To me and to the world. I don’t know why, but I seem to have a pipeline to things I don’t understand.”
Nobody could disagree with that assessment.
Then she surprised them, saying, “If somebody has to wield this kind of influence, why not me?”
It was the first inkling that their boss saw the potential.
“But I need a staff,” she said. “A well-paid, familiar group of people who know me well enough not to take offense when I’m lost in work.”
The girl with the Taser said, “Oh. You want to hire us.”
“And later, others,” Adrianne admitted. “But you’re my nucleus.”
Every head nodded.
There. It was agreed. They would leave work together, after tendering their resignations.
“Nothing about this is reasonable,” Adrianne continued. “But this world is built on unreasonable coincidences. Until we understand what’s happening, I’m going to be the Empress of Everything. And for as long as I have the job, I should at least try to do my best.”
Her house was abandoned. There was no choice in the matter. Adrianne lived for three days on the Taser girl’s sofa, writing a sharp blog delineating recent history and her apparent, surprising hold on some form of cosmic power or blunt magic. Whatever this was. Her hostess suggested adding a little personal noise to the piece. “So people think they know you.” But it was Adrianne who gave the post its signature moment. Mentioning the horrors of liver cancer, she added a quick request for people to send a few dollars to one of several appropriate agencies. And by the time she slipped out of the girl’s apartment, nearly a hundred million dollars had appeared in the welcoming coffers. With a flood of unexpected gifts choking the blogger’s PayPal account too.
That next week was spent in anonymous hotel rooms, talking strategy, giving possibilities flesh and shadow. Her people did their best to keep the media at bay, scaring off senators and business leaders as well. And they also found a recently constructed, never occupied warehouse complex, far from the city but close to highways and a high-grade optical cable that could be secured.
Only the president was given access to the world’s boss. There were three long, very exhausting conversations. The last talk was a face-to-face session. Adrianne was touring the warehouse, preparing to sign a long-term lease on the facility and a power commitment from an adjacent windmill farm. A security firm still needed to be hired, and her team was interviewing remodelers. Apartments would be installed in back, and because nobody knew where this madness would lead, plans were being drawn up for a school and playground for children, a swimming pool for everyone, and a bar for the ruling class.
In those two phone conversation, the president tried charm. But charm had proved useless. Ready to unleash stronger tactics, his helicopters landed on the empty parking lot. Flanked by high-ranking civilians and officers in dress uniforms, he met the empress in the front office. With a careful blending of rage and authority, he defined his level of scorn. Adrianne listened silently. Then he invited his aides to talk about various legal actions that might be appropriate. She interrupted with a raised hand, which amusingly was enough to stop every voice. Everyone stared at her. “Which laws have I broken? I would very much like to know,” she said. Then the ranking general outlined what his people would do if faced with a dangerous power trying to usurp the nation’s security. “Except that sounds like war,” was her response. “And I don’t approve of war. If I can find the words, I intend to make every army in the world obsolete.”
That brought a chill, and more rage.
Sensing failure, the president returned to charm.
“You’re a registered Republican,” he pointed out. “I’m assuming you voted for me.”
“No,” she said. “I’ve never voted for national candidates.”
“But you do vote, correct?”
“Only for local candidates. Bond issues. I have a tiny but real chance of making an impact. But I can’t pretend to have a role in presidential races.”
The man needed to pause, giving himself a chance to recalculate.
“Come over here, sir. If you would.”
He joined her beside a laptop.
“I’ve been working on a new blog. In fact, I intend to publish in the next few minutes.”
Some prior briefing came to mind. “It’s Saturday. I was told that you put these things out on Sundays.”
“Except I don’t have a normal job anymore. And with the change of fates, I think I need to embrace a more ambitious schedule. Which makes this is a good day to begin.”
Keys were pressed. The unpublished text appeared.
Stepping back, she said, “Read the piece, if you wish. Sir.”
The blog spoke about the dangers inherent in the aging nuclear fleets. Adrianne was arguing that the only wise course was to put the weapons to bed, today if possible. But she was afraid that people wouldn’t change their natures until they received a good clear warning. So at the end of the piece, she had written, “I want to see one of their swords pull itself out of its scabbard.”
The president hadn’t finished reading the piece.
“Lady, what are you talking about?” he asked.
She didn’t answer. Her heart pounding, she clicked the publish button and stepped back. “I don’t understand what’s happened to me,” she said, quietly but not quietly. “I can make guesses. I doubt if anyone can decipher what’s true, not in the short-term. But there are clues. If you look hard. With the Three Gorges and the stardrive, I was fed information of something already happening. Which is one phenomena. But I wrote about oil. On my own. And whatever this power is, it needed time to make preparations before the quake struck, before we started this overdue collapse into economic ruin.
“Sir, I have a sense,” she said. “My very strong intuition is that simple directions are more likely to lead to immediate effects.
“Consider this blog a test. Both of us need to know. What marvels do I have in this hand?”
Moments later, an alarm sounded.
An Air Force general turned away, muttering into a sat-phone.
Voices spoke of “the football.”
“It’s ours and it’s launched,” someone cried out.
The president looked ill, looked simple, his face drained of blood and most of its life. He glared at Adrianne. He stared numbly at his own hands. And then someone said, “No, the missile broke apart after launching. It’s down. It over.”
Adrianne turned to her people.
Then looking at the visitors, she said, “I have six blogs written. They’re waiting on servers around the world. If anything unseemingly happens to me or to any of my people, those pieces get published automatically. And you don’t want those ideas getting loose on the world. Believe me.”
They believed, at least enough to retreat.
Then the Taser girl asked, “Is that right? Six blogs waiting to kill the world?”
The Empress didn’t seem to hear the questions. She seemed intrigued by the details in the her own tiny hand. Then to the hand, in that calm dry voice, she said, “By tomorrow, there will be. Now let’s get to work.”
Eventually she would be known as Adrianne the First. But in those early years, she was the Hammer, a respected and feared and often scorned entity sitting in a warehouse in the bleakest bowels of Ohio. She appeared on television when she wanted, which was rare. Her speeches and occasional interviews proved nothing except that she was no public speaker. And where the lowliest princess—some creature born with a good name and small inheritance—would have carried her head high, Adrianne became more and more like she had always been. Chilled. Collected. Long of thought, careful with words. Not the smartest person in a room, but the entity most likely to see exactly what was happening and what the next step needed to be.
During her brief, busy reign, she oversaw a thousand projects. Not every initiative was a success. Some were close to disasters, in fact. Urging Egypt and Jordan to annex the Palestine enclaves proved horrific, and her plan for paying the Jewish populations to emigrate to Canada was only a little more productive. But approaching her mid-sixties, Adrianne saw lifespans expanding and the first eight flights of the infamous Hammer Drive. Words carrying her name triggered changes in tax codes worldwide. Small, tidy rebellions began and ended with her words, various authoritarian regimes swept away, and she was better than anyone else when it came to picking the most deserving winners. And more importantly, she was very quick to admit errors and change paths.
No, the lady wasn’t loved, but that didn’t stop people from building temples in her honor.
Her rational mind was the largest force among many, but the public talked about her magic for saving lives that she had never noticed.
Her stoic personality never failed. Early on, she told her core group that she was an agent in a very mysterious game. Aliens, machines, or demons from some unmapped dimension: Explanations were numerous and useless and why bother? But she accepted that she was too old to benefit from the new elixirs, and even if she lived a million years, she was still human. In other words, she was going to run out of good advice.
“Ten or twelve years from now,” she guessed.
She was wrong by a factor of two.
A very good guess, in other words.
On an ordinary Wednesday, she published a small blog about the desperate need for rain in northern Mexico. It was one of the little gifts that she gave to single places, and she didn’t expect instantaneous results. But that same day, in Capetown, a half Zulu and half Boer fellow published plans for a machine that would suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere—a simple and quick device powered by sunlight and the earth’s heat.
His machine was authentic.
Her rain never fell.
She retired, but not without some difficulties. Within a week, this woman who cared nothing for pomp and spectacle had little to fill her time, and perhaps that’s why she ended up in a serious depression. Returning to her old house, she drank. She slept too much. And then she didn’t sleep at all, weeping for no reason.
The tumor was discovered three months after she became an ordinary citizen.
Surgery was a possibility, but with the likelihood of significant brain damage. She refused. Radiation and various forms of chemo would be stopgaps, prolonging life by weeks at most. She considered and decided otherwise. On their own initiative, three of her original team flew to Capetown, attempting to meet with the new emperor. Their plan was to argue for a special blog, perhaps a call for a new cancer-fighting agent. The right words written in the proper order, not unlike a magical chant, might lead researchers to find a miracle hiding inside some little tropical plant. But the emperor refused to see them, much less consider their request. And hearing about the trip and the verdict, Adrianne sighed, saying, “Wisdom and kindness. They’re not the same word spelled with different letters.”
There was still money in the coffers.
Doctors and cooks and maids and more doctors arrived and then left the house again, following complicated schedules.
And the original seven disciples took up residence in the nearby houses, complete with spouses and kids and at least one mistress.
Adrianne left her doors unlocked.
Her balance wasn’t worth trusting anymore, and she hated the chore of seeing who was calling.
One day, a boy from another neighborhood invited himself inside that famous house. He was curious what brain cancer looked like. It looked like an ordinary old lady sitting before a small desk, watching a thousand solar panels opening like giant flowers on someone’s desert. It looked like a dull thing to watch, and he said so.
The woman turned slowly, looking at him and then looking back at the monitor.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“Sitting,” she said. And she began to laugh, one hand touching the back of her skull. He thought she was strange and left.
She didn’t notice her solitude.
Then another boy said, “You should lock your doors.”
Adrianne turned to discover what she assumed was the first boy. Except he had grown up in the last few moments. Grown up and grown heavy too, and his hair had left him and then come back again. The new hair was paler and thicker than natural, which was common with these treatments.
Thirty years had passed in an instant.
This was a very interesting disease, she thought.
But no, that face wasn’t the same face, even with the added decades. She almost remembered the face and its name. But then with a hurt tone, the new visitor said, “I’m your son. I’ve come to see you.”
That seemed enough reason to stand.
The legs proved strong, at least for the moment.
“I heard the news,” her son said.
“There’s always news,” she said. “What are you talking about?”
“Your health,” he said.
“Is there something I don’t know?”
“Oh, Mother.” The man blinked, shrinking down a bit.
“You mean this growth.” She tapped her head and laughed again. Twice in one day. She was practically a giddy little girl. “Yes, it’s going to kill me. But probably not today.”
The conversation stopped altogether.
Casting for words, she fell into cliches. “How is your life, son?”
“Well,” he said, happy for the prodding. “I’m doing well. Sober three years, and very rich.”
“Exceptionally rich, thanks to you.”
“Sober, I meant.”
But the man with the fresh hair didn’t want to dwell on old weaknesses. “It’s amazing what people give you, particularly when they learn that your mother controls the world and everyone on it.”
Honest thoughts came to Adrianne.
She worked hard, and her mouth remained closed.
The man was wearing both fine clothes and a smug smile, and he was watching her. But his thoughts were on the move. Feeling strong enough, he stopped smiling. “This is where he killed himself. Isn’t it?”
She said nothing.
He looked at the ceiling. Then he stepped past her, touching the desk. The earlier desk was gone, too big and too bloody for the room that she had wanted. Maybe he didn’t remember the original furniture. She refused to clear up these matters. What she wanted was to be left alone . . .
But this was her only child.
Mindless, uncaring pressure on neurons. Pressure bringing emotion. Is that where this sudden trickle of tears was coming from?
Her son didn’t notice.
Again, the smug, rich-man’s smile.
“I was sorry when you lost the job,” he confessed.
“But it’s all right,” he said. “Our relationship is still valuable.”
“Is it?” she asked, wiping one wet eye.
“You often talk to our overlords,” he said.
“I don’t,” she said.
“But they don’t know that. And I’m very convincing.”
She approached the office door. Wanting something. To send him away, or flee for herself?
The awful man kept talking.
“In fact, I’ll sometimes claim that I can talk to them too. The powers in charge. Not so much that I have to prove anything. But you know, it’s crazy what smart people believe, if you give them any excuse.”
Her son blinked, straightening his back.
“Help me,” she said. “Would you do me one enormous favor?”
“Wait,” she said.
Waiting was an easy favor, easily accomplished.
She returned with the handgun and bullets, and his first reaction was to warn, “Guns are illegal now. You made it so.”
“I did,” she agreed. “Maybe somebody should arrest me.”
He watched her load one chamber.
“Now,” she said. “Kill me.”
“That’s the favor. I’m sick. I’m going to get sicker and die horribly. But according to euthanasia laws—my wise laws—I can implore another person to end my suffering by whatever means I want.”
“Mother . . . !”
“And I don’t want to do the chore myself. So if you would.” She shoved the gun into his hands, aiming the barrel at her chest. Then, as if having second thoughts, she said, “No, wait. Let me sit, and we can catch the bullet and the spray with pillows. I’ll get my pillows out of the bedroom.”
The heavy man dropped the gun and ran away.
The disturbance was finished.
Alone, Adrianne unloaded the one bullet, placing the weaponry into a closet. And exhausted, she sat at the desk, watching a live view from a probe launched last month and already halfway to Neptune.
And someone else came to visit.
The first boy was back, an older sister holding his hand.
“This is her,” he said with conviction. “That’s our Empress.”
Adrianne didn’t have the legs to stand. That’s why their faces were at the same level when she said, “Yes, it’s your empress. Sitting in her glory.”
She laughed hard.
The children laughed with her, to be friendly.
Touching her head once more, she said, “The monster inside my head. It’s pushing at the best nerves.”
“A talent for comedy,” she said, her laugh growing dark and slow. “That’s what the gods give you, if they want to be kind, right before you die.”
Robert Reed is the author of nearly three hundred published stories, plus more than a dozen novels. He is best known for his Great Ship stories, including The Memory of Sky. And for the novella, "A Billion Eves," which won the Hugo Award in 2007. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska with his wife and daughter.