Clang! Clang! Clang!
The sound of a great bell echoed over the refugee camp on the border of Eastern Chad and the Sudan.
A voice, amplified but recognizable to all echoed over the makeshift shelters.
“This is General Ahmat of the Democratic Rebellion against the demon Nadjima. The Democratic Rebellion has negotiated with the Emperor of the Earth to provide water for the suffering people of Eastern Chad. The Emperor desires that no one should be hurt and prayerfully begs all to stay away from the new mountain until noon.”
Acyl Terap was at the south edge of the camp. As the echoes of the voice died away, he noticed a wavering in the air, and a cool breeze. Over the dunes, a haze a mile wide and hundreds of feet tall appeared. He started to turn and run, but the breeze compelled him. It tasted wet.
That wasn’t a sandstorm. He moved closer.
A white mountain appeared. It appeared to grow out of the mist.
No. The mist is going away.
The air echoed with sharp cracks, like rifle shots. Foot by foot, the mist receded, revealing the mountain, unlike anything he had seen.
Other refugees were shouting behind him, coming his way.
I have to get there first. That was the rule of the refugee camp. When the foreigners brought food and water, only the quick ones ate.
He ran, just ahead of the crowd. With each step, the mountain appeared more strange and more fearful.
There was another crack, and a cliff broke free and shattered to the ground.
Acyl was hit by a rock. It was blue, and it burned to the touch. He picked it up. Wetness trickled over his hand. He licked.
“Water! It is water!”
The growing crowd took up the chant, and rushed to gather the pieces.
A sharp crack sounded, and another large chunk fractured from the cliffside. Shards and frigid air blasted them. Shrieks and cries of pain were heard among the mist, but no one stopped gathering the precious cargo.
James sat with the rest of the football team, chatting about school. The Volunteer Fire Hall was filled to capacity. All the players of all the teams, plus their families were there for the Athletic Banquet. But the athletes had their own tables up front. Some of the cheerleaders sat beside their boyfriends.
James noticed Suzie trying to catch his eye, but he avoided eye contact. There were others here at the table with much more claim on her and he honestly didn’t care to get on her roller coaster again.
I could have invited Oriel, but wouldn’t that have been a disaster? Even if she had been just from another school, putting the local girls in the shade would make him a lot of enemies.
Coach Barlow had caught him in class rattling off correct French responses and questioned him about his much-improved accent.
“J’avais pratiqué dans les laboratoires de langue.” He had said, but he wasn’t sure she believed him.
He had eaten out five times with Oriel now. Even his sleep schedule was getting messed up, as he took an early evening nap and then woke up at midnight to have breakfast with her at a little place on Rue Malar, just a few blocks from the River Seine.
He knew a lot about her now. She worked at La Samaritaine, a huge department store overlooking the Seine, saving up for college tuition at EPITA, some kind of computer school.
With Oriel on his mind, the events of the Athletic Banquet were not as important as he had thought they would be. His season had been cut short, and he had no delusions about his statistics or placing in the Central Texas regional standings.
It was just a time to listen to his buddies and wonder what would happen to all of them in the near future. In the wrong hands, or even in too many right hands, teleportation would destroy the culture. He’d picked up one of those novels in the library, one where people kept their women and treasures constantly hidden behind mazes so that teleporters couldn’t get in to rape and loot. But not even that solution made sense with the spheres. I could steal anything in the world, as long as I had a vague idea of where to look.
The steak dinner came to a halt and the coaches began giving out awards. He was called to the stage, as part of the team. Individually, the coaches bragged on them. Coach Avery claimed great things for him in his senior year. At one time, he would even have believed it.
Dad! There was his father, sitting with his mother. He had his airline suitcase and one of the cooks was bringing him a plate. James waved, and his father waved back.
After the ceremony, he rushed back to join his family.
“I didn’t know if I were going to make it or not,” he said between bites. “I just finished a really huge project and I needed to refresh my energy anyway, so I took a last minute flight. I’ll have to go back tomorrow, but it’s worth it to see you up there.”
“You took a taxi here, and you need a ride home,” James supplied, relieving his father of having to make up a story. “Can I drive you?” His parents exchanged a look and he said “Yes.”
There were other people who were pleased to see Bob, and it took another thirty minutes before they were ready to leave.
“How are your projects going?” James asked, once they were in the car.
“Oh pretty well. I can’t tell you much. Security, you know.”
“I thought so. It’s good to have you home. I’ve got so much to tell you.”
“Yes.” James tried to make school sound interesting. It was hard.
“We were going to listen to the French President’s speech at the UN, but saw the Emperor’s announcement instead. That was a blast. You never saw so many politicians running around looking confused at one time.
“Dad, what do you think about the Emperor? Is he a crook?”
His father looked out the window for a moment.
“The way the world works, if he succeeds—if he avoids being caught or killed, then he is indeed Emperor of the Earth and everything he’s doing is legal.
“But if he’s captured, then he is just a crook.
“All the royal houses in the world came into being by force of arms. A man with the will to rule and the skill to survive became legal when the others gave up and acknowledged his claim. If the nations of the earth can’t stop the Emperor, then he is who he claims to be. It’s just a battle of will.”
James nodded, then added, “I’ve met a girl.”
“Anyone I know?”
“No. I just met her this week. She’s a big fan of the Emperor. Apparently there are quite a number of people who see him as the defender of the weak. She’s said that when the Emperor is in need of a French-speaking agent, she wants to join up.”
His father chuckled. “That would be pretty dangerous.”
“Because I don’t think the Emperor will survive. After all, he is just one man against the whole world.”
“But he has teleportation! And isn’t there more than just one man? What about that man in Eastern Chad?”
His father nodded. “Yes, he probably has an agent or two working for him. But still, even with all the automation in the world, he can’t be everywhere. A hundred unskilled minds can probably beat one man with a million computers. At the least, the Emperor has to sleep sometime.”
James frowned. “Then why would he do it? The Emperor could have kept a low profile for years, for a whole lifetime maybe, and still be rolling in wealth. Why did he announce himself to the world? ‘Hey look at me! I’m King of the Hill! I dare you to knock me off.’”
“He must have had a reason. A reason worth his life.”
James nodded. He’s trying to protect us. If we don’t know anything, then we aren’t accomplices.
Other questions bubbled up in James. “I’ve been wondering. The son of the king is a prince, but what about an emperor. What do they call his son? An emplet?”
Bob shook his head and chuckled. “I’m not really sure. It all varies by which nations have the Emperor. I think it’s still a prince, or maybe a crown prince. We’ll have to ask the Emperor when he is acknowledged.”