How the Emperor of All Space and Every World Awoke to the True Nature of Reality and Why it Didn’t Matter
by P. H. Lee
The Emperor was bored. This was a problem. His Imperial Majesty, King of every Spiral Arm, Prince-Protector of Coreward Republics, Thearch of Bohm and its dependencies, Grand Duke of the Exterior Habitats, Elector of Both Magellanic Clouds, Guardian of All One Hundred Holy Relics and Defender of the Faith, the Emperor of All Space and Every World could not be bored. When he was not administering his empire—a task that consumed more than half the day—he was supposed to be entertained by his court—replete with jesters (from Mullwyd, the Jester Planet), dancers from Akyll and Boas (the best among the seven Dancer Planets), and singers from the Ibelia Habitat (known of course for its singers)—or comforted by his harem—staffed entirely by beautiful concubines from Isa (the Pleasure Planet) and eromenos from R’ (the other Pleasure Planet.) The Emperor, by convention and necessity and custom and law, could want for nothing.
All of the advisors in the Depleted Uranium Palace were distraught. “Your most Imperial Majesty,” they explained to him time and time again, “you cannot simply be bored. You want for nothing, and everything is at your command. It is not possible that you could be bored. If you were, if even the whole of space was not enough to entertain a single man, then what good would be your empire? Surely you cannot simply be bored. There must some other explanation. Perhaps you are ill?”
In response the Emperor—who had heard this speech as many times as he had advisors, and was well and truly bored of it—would sigh. “Perhaps you are right,” he would say, and sigh again. “Let us see what our doctors have to say.” But although the imperial doctors—the best of the best from Mimward (the Doctor Planet)—examined the Emperor time and again, they could find nothing wrong with his imperial person.
“Perhaps try a change of pace,” they would say, repacking their stethoscopes.
The Emperor’s advisors were full of suggestions—new jesters! new dancers! new concubines!—but in the end none assuaged the tiniest part of the Emperor’s boredom. Even when the Emperor had his advisors cruelly executed in front of him for their failures—an activity that he had always loved before, and had pursued with both passion and intensity—he could do little more than sigh, and rest his head in his hands, and stare at the wall as their screams and cries for mercy fell on his uncaring ears.
“Perhaps,” said a particularly clever advisor, whose name happened to be Swyllic, “there is another way.”
“Oh?” the Emperor said under his breath. He did not look up.
“Perhaps, your Most Imperial Highness, we could put the matter before your people. We could put forth an Imperial pronouncement, and offer a reward. Surely, among all the quintillions of your subjects, there will be someone who knows how to entertain you, if only for a moment.”
“It won’t work,” said the Emperor. “But let’s try it anyway.”
Swyllic’s proclamation was proclaimed, and presently the halls of the Depleted Uranium Palace, the whole of the Capital Planet, were full of all manner of singers, dancers, dramatists, artists, poets, science-educators and mountebanks. One by one, they appeared before the Emperor. One by one, they demonstrated the utmost of their crafts and arts and sciences. And after the emperor yawned, or sighed, or looked away, they were one by one carried off to their cruel executions.
After a year of this, the Emperor summoned Swyllic to an audience. “Your idea was fine,” he said. “But it didn’t work. There’s nothing for it but to cruelly execute you.”
Swyllic swallowed. She had had hoped to delay this for another year or two. “Well, Your Majesty…”
“I’m thinking of having you eaten alive by rats,” continued the emperor. “Or maybe have you drink boiling gold. But neither of them appeals. Ah, what’s the point of it all? Which would you rather?”
“I’ve been thinking,” continued Swyllic, ignoring the Emperor’s question. “Perhaps your problem is more spiritual in nature.”
“Spiritual?” asked the Emperor.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” said Swyllic, “perhaps you are afflicted not simply with boredom, but instead a spiritual malaise. Perhaps all the accomplishments and pleasures of the material world are but ashes before the true wisdom of the Divine.”
“But not only am I the keeper of all one hundred holy relics,” replied the Emperor, “I am also the defender of the faith. Furthermore, in Bohm and its dependencies, I am even worshipped in my own person as a living Divinity. How is it, then, that I could possibly lack spiritual fulfillment?”
“That is all true,” said Swyllic, who had begun a panicked sweat, “but nonetheless, it is possible.”
“It seems to me,” said the Emperor, “that you’re just stalling for time.”
“Oh no,” lied Swyllic, “my only concern is Your Majesty’s happiness.”
The Emperor looked up and sighed a long and mournful sigh. “Fine. Draft a proclamation. But you’ll be executed after.”
After Swyllic’s proclamation had been proclaimed, and after she was forced to drink boiling gold, the halls of the Depleted Uranium Palace, and the whole of the Capital Planet, began to fill full of all manner of spiritually advanced mentors: mystics from Ur, the Mystical Planet; sages from Refu, the Sage Planet; hermits from Gobah, the Hermit Planet; prophets from the holy desert planet of Messink; and all manner of other alchemists, recluses, humanists, and will-workers. None of them helped. There was even a contingent of clerics from Bohm who came to pray the Emperor, their Divinity, back to the fullness of his power. But—alas for them!—they died with all the rest.
Until, at last, one day, there came to the imperial court a particular aged scholar who, as it happened, was named Weizi. When their turn came to speak to the Emperor, they approached the throne and bowed five times in proper obeisance.
“Your majesty,” said Weizi, holding away their long beard so that it did not drag on the floor, “as it happens, I am a scholar named Weizi, come to offer a way to end Your Majesty’s boredom.”
“Well?” asked the Emperor, who had seen it all before. “What have you to offer? Another prayer? Another incantation? A special pose, a meditation, perhaps a breathing exercise?”
“No, Your Majesty,” replied Weizi. “I have none of those things to offer you.”
“Then why are you even here?” asked the Emperor, annoyed.
“On the world where I was born,” said Weizi, “there is a certain sage, named Wuzi, whose teachings are the most difficult in the galaxy, and who knows the answers to all questions and the natures of all things. I believe that if Your Majesty were to travel to our planet, and seek out the teachings of Wuzi, and should they accept you as their pupil, it could not fail to free you from the snare of boredom.”
“If this Wuzi is truly the sage you claim then how is it that you are before me in the Depleted Uranium Palace, and not they themselves?”
“Your Majesty,” replied Weizi, “that is because you have offered in exchange mere wealth and riches, fame and renown, titles and portents. Wuzi cares not for any of these things. Besides, they have never left our single world.”
“And what world is that?” asked the Emperor. “Is it Refu, the Sage Planet? Or perhaps Gobah, where they squat in the swamp amidst the billions of hermits?”
“No,” replied Weizi. “Our world is nothing like that. Our world is an entirely unimportant world around an unimportant star in an unimportant spiral arm.”
“What world, then? And what is it known for?” asked the Emperor again.
“Our world is called the Earth,” explained Weizi. “And it is a world of nothing-in-particular.”
The entirety of the court, except for the Emperor, laughed out loud. “A world of nothing-in-particular!” they exclaimed, “how could such a world exist?” While they laughed and joked, Weizi waited in silence, their face flushed, ashamed at their humble origins.
“Silence!” said the Emperor, who did not see the humor in it. “Tell me, my advisors, can there really be such a thing as a world of nothing-in-particular?”
The Emperor’s advisors spoke with each other and finally one of them, whose named happened to be Wicker, spoke. “Your Majesty, there are in your empire hundreds of millions of stars, and billions upon billions of planets. While each planet is known and renowned for its own particulars, in your vast empire there are of course many special exceptions. Perhaps in the whole of space there is somewhere a world of nothing-in-particular. In truth, we cannot say one way or the other.”
“Very well,” said the Emperor. “Find this ‘Earth,’ the ‘planet of nothing-in-particular,’ and have this Wuzi brought here, to our court, and let us see what wisdom they have.”
“Your Majesty,” said Weizi, “I do not contradict your imperial will, however—”
“Every time someone claims not to contradict our imperial will,” interrupted the Emperor, “they do just that.”
“Nonetheless, Your Majesty,” continued Weizi, “Wuzi is an ancient sage, and has lived a thousand years, and in all that time has not changed their ways. In their time they have taught emperors and kings and spirits as much as peasants and thieves and mendicants. But for all that they will not teach any student but one who comes to them and asks. If Your Majesty wishes to seek out Wuzi’s teaching, Your Majesty must go to Earth yourself.”
When they heard Weizi, the imperial court was aghast. “How dare they!” said the courtiers. “The presumption! The insubordination! The utter hubris of it!”
“Quiet,” said the Emperor. He turned to his advisors and courtiers. “Prepare for our voyage to this ‘Earth.'” He turned then to Weizi. “As for you,” he said, “you have done nothing to cure my boredom. Even if your Wuzi’s teachings are the solution, it will be they who will have saved me. You will have done nothing. There is nothing for it but to cruelly execute you.”
Weizi began to shake and tremble. “Your Majesty!” he cried.
“Since we have better things to do,” continued the Emperor, “I’ll let you invent the method. Just be sure that it’s sufficiently cruel.”
“What an odd planet,” pronounced the Emperor as the many vessels of his entourage approached the Earth. And it was indeed an odd planet. Its unfashionable number of continents had all manner of weather, from frozen deserts to sweltering jungles, and some of them even right next to each other! Even its people lived in a hodgepodge manner: some in cities, some in the country, some together, some alone. Altogether the Earth gave an impression of noncommittal indifference.
“It really is a planet of nothing-in-particular,” muttered the Emperor as he stepped off and tasted the wet, cool air. His landing craft had set him down in Old Sansan, near to the western coast of one of the medium-sized continents, where the sage Wuzi made their dwelling.
Wuzi was not hard to find. The first villager that the Emperor encountered, who happened to be named Mara, was happy to show him the way.
“Is Wuzi really as wise as they say?” asked the Emperor. “Do they truly know the answer to every question and the nature of every thing?”
“Well,” said Mara noncommittally, “I wouldn’t exactly say that.”
“Then what would you say?”
“Wuzi’s a tricky one,” said Mara. “It’s better if Your Majesty talks to them yourself.”
As they walked, the emperor asked again, and as he asked the third time, Mara said they had already arrived at the sage’s dwelling. They stood at the base of narrow hut built atop of tall crossed stilts, with a rusted ladder up the side.
“Will you come with me?” asked the emperor, suddenly anxious.
“Oh no, Your Majesty,” said Mara, backing away and bowing, “I’ve already learned everything that Wuzi has to teach.”
So the emperor climbed the ladder with only his own thoughts. Who was this sage at the top of the tower? And what was this planet, that seemed to be both nothing and everything at once?
When the emperor entered the narrow hut atop the tower, he saw it was only a single room, with windows on all sides. Throughout the room there were the simple accoutrements of living—pots and pans and an unmade bed and so on—as well as a few bookshelves. In the center of the room, in a soft old chair, reclined the sage Wuzi, listening to a recording on a pair of ancient headphones. From time to time they reached for a quill and made a simple note—a mark or two—on the book in their lap.
“Are you the sage Wuzi?” asked the emperor.
“I am indeed,” replied Wuzi, pausing their recording. “I’ve been expecting you.” They did not say “Your Majesty.”
The emperor was taken aback. “How could you have known? Did Weizi somehow send you an ansible before their execution?”
“Weizi!” scoffed Wuzi. “That conniving careerist! Even if I had the means to receive their ansible, I would sooner leap from this tower than read a single word they write.”
“Then how did you know I was coming?” asked the Emperor.
“Because,” said Wuzi, “there is no other place for you to be.”
“That’s absurd!” said the Emperor. “How can you say that? We are the Emperor of All Space and Every World. Within our domain are billions and billions of worlds. Of all those worlds, this world is a backwater among backwaters, notable only for its obscurity.”
“And yet,” said Wuzi, “here you are.”
The Emperor fumed and stomped his foot.
“Did you know?” asked Wuzi, “that the Earth has 12,000 years of history?”
“So what?” asked the Emperor. “Branfyth, the History Planet, has five billion years of history.”
“Ah yes,” said Wuzi, “but in all that time, has it ever been anything but Branfyth, the History Planet?”
“You’re not making any sense!” yelled the Emperor. “What else could it be but Branfyth?”
“Earth,” said Wuzi, “is not merely Earth. It is All-Under-Heaven, it is Creation, it is Turtle Island, it is Terra and Gaia and the skin of Xipe Totec.”
“What do those even mean?” asked the Emperor.
“Did you ever wonder,” asked Wuzi, “why it is that in all your empire, in all the trillions of worlds and quintillions of subjects, there is only one language? Other than all the languages spoken on ʛøǂʙ̥ɔɲɬʔ, the Language Planet, of course.”
“But what else could there be?”
“On Earth, right now, there are over three thousand languages. In our history, there have been more than a hundred thousand.”
“What is the meaning of this?”
“In your empire, there is the ice world, the desert world, the sage world, even your own world, the Capital Planet, which is entirely taken up with your Depleted Uranium Palace. But on Earth, where we have no single purpose, there are palaces and sages and deserts and glaciers and many more besides.”
“What is your point?” cried the Emperor, stamping his foot with each word.
“Your planets are nothing more than a single word expressing a single thought. How could you bear to live so long among such simple worlds? Of course you are bored! This is why there is no other place for you to be: only on Earth, where there are all thoughts and all places, can you be more than the one thing you are.”
“But why is it only me, and not any of the quintillions of my subjects, who is inflicted with this ennui?”
Wuzi scoffed. “I suppose I might tell you that your subjects are thus afflicted too, but they are subjects, it is their lot to suffer. I suppose I might tell you that it is only you, the Emperor, who has the leisure to seek me out.” At last, they removed their headphones and closed their recliner. “You would have learned a lesson about sympathy and pain, and you would be a better ruler for it. But it would not be the truth.” They gestured to the recording, which as it happened was this recording, of this story, passed down and preserved through the years and generations.
The Emperor gently set the headphones on his ears and began to listen. As this story began, with a listing of his every title, he looked up at Wuzi. “What is the meaning of this insult?”
“It is not an insult,” said Wuzi. “It is the fundamental truth of our existence. Your empire is plain, your worlds are simple, because we are nothing more than a story, and not even a particularly notable story, told on the Earth some six thousand years ago. Your planets are a single word because a single word is all that our author thought of them.”
“Ridiculous!” scoffed the Emperor.
“But the Earth,” said Wuzi, “the Earth exists, truly. It has real meaning and real history and real peoples. And so we two must exist within it, because there is nowhere else for us to exist.”
The Emperor continued to listen to the story, this story, until he reached this very word. And now, although he might want to, he cannot deny that this story is his life…
“If this is true,” he asks Wuzi, though he knows it is, “then what happens now?”
“Soon,” says Wuzi, “this story will be over. Whoever is reading it will turn off their audio, or listen to another podcast, or otherwise go about their day, and then the whole history from that moment to this will vanish, as if it never happened, because in truth it did not.”
“But surely we can do something!” the Emperor says, “We must do something!”
“You can ask, but I do not think it will do much good.”
“We are the Emperor of All Space and Every World,” says the Emperor, “nothing is beyond our capacity!”
Look! Even now, the Emperor turns his eyes outward, to you, listening to this story, right at this moment. “You must not cease to listen to this story!” shouts the Emperor at you, “you must play it over and over, you must set it to loop, you must think of it, you must imagine it and extend it and understand it! This is your sacred duty, commanded by no less than Our Imperial Majesty, the Emperor of All Space and Every World.”
The Emperor will rant and rave and threaten and cajole you. But it will not matter. There is no more of this story for you to hear. You will finish the story, the podcast will end, and none of this will ever have happened.
by Mur Lafferty
There’s something very Neverending Story about this, only you, the audience, are Bastian, and there is no Childlike Empress, although I suppose you could argue that the Emperor is pretty childish, and there is nothing to save. Or at least the story doesn’t tell you how to make things perfect by screaming out a name into a storm. (From the movie, could you tell that he named her Moon Child? I couldn’t. Had no idea until I read the book.)
This story pokes fun at the creators who make homogenous alien worlds while we know that Earth is full of countless different societies, so it’s weird to think of aliens being exactly the same as each other. The points I think this story brings across is that when you develop a society that is completely homogenous, the number of stories you can tell within the society is quite small. Even “Fiddler on the Roof” played with this, showing us a society steeped in tradition, but the story featured several different ways people were breaking free.
Still, “Star Trek” did OK, and it started out with homogenous alien types. It’s tricky, since we expect certain things from certain stories, we adhere to tradition, to to speak, and find comfort within it. And if a story strays too far outside, then it is rejected. Just ask any romance fan who picked up a book with a kissing couple on the cover but didn’t read a happily ever after. But no one wants to read the same story over and over again, which is where the hated, but accurate phrase, “give us the same, but different,” comes from. This is why we have seventeen bajillion “Spider-Man” movies, incidentally.
Well, that, and money.
About the Author
P H Lee lives on top of an old tree past the rose bushes down a dead end street at the edge of town. Their other writing has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Clarkesworld, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. They once knew every secret of every world, but most of them were too boring to remember.
About the Narrator
Eric Luke is the screenwriter of the Joe Dante film EXPLORERS, which is currently in development as a remake, the comic books GHOST and WONDER WOMAN, and wrote and directed the NOT QUITE HUMAN films for Disney TV. His current project INTERFERENCE, a meta horror audiobook about an audiobook… that kills, is a best seller on Audible.com.