Time had slowed to the customary crawl. The audience of small faces there to watch him die held perfectly still like a little lawn of voyeurs on a hot day. To his left, a crier held out a black-sheeted scroll on which silver letters described his crime and his fate. The crier's lips were moving in ritual form, listing out the accusations of treason, murder, piracy, even slavery for that fool Snaoia asha-usan's use of genetically engineered soldiers. He was offered the blindfold, rejected it. The rope was placed around his neck, the noose cinched tight, the line pulled taut.
The platform dropped just a bit. Not enough to break his neck, just enough to strangle him. The crier spoke the ritual words: Thus dies all treason: exhausted and suffering. He exhaled all the air he could, tried to inhale, and couldn't. He knew he was going to die, could feel his body fighting it. He tried to fight the fight, couldn't. He had not eaten anything in two days, had not drunk water since last night. He would not foul himself dying. But it was hard. His chest felt as if it would explode. He could see air, could see people breathing, but his body pulled down on his head, the rope pulled on his neck, he kicked and fought and struggled against the binding at his wrists. He was blacking out, he was passing, he was dying...
He awoke with a gasp, sat up in his bed, looked around. "Where am I?"
"You are in Her Majesty's Royal Museum of History, sir." A mel stood about four meters away, on the opposite side of a brass rail lovingly polished.
He looked around. On his side of the railing he seemed to be in a small room, four meters by five, appointed with a bed, a handsome, flat desk, and a small dining table. A padd and some papers waited on the desk. His bed was a comfortable enough affair, and his clothes... he was dressed in the semi-formal garb he wore for private affairs back at his Ducal Palace. A plate with fruit, cheese and a pitcher of water awaited him.
He grabbed the pitcher directly and drank deeply from it, the memory of thirst strong in his memory. Then he looked over at the mel. "The Museum of History. So, this is my first day of Anlestin's punishment? I'm not even Duke Conta siss-Talek, then, just a recording, a hologram." Even as he said it he felt absurd. Of course he was Duke Conta siss-Talek!
The mel by the railing asked, "Do you feel like the Duke?"
He paused to consider. Yes, actually, he felt just as he remembered. Slightly better than usual, actually, as if he had slept well. "I do."
"Then you may as well behave as you feel. And no, this is not the first day of your punishment. It is the Pendorian year 5012, and you have been repeating this experience-- this selfsame experience-- every day for the past four millennia."
"Who the Hell are you?"
"Your memory, sir."
Siss-Talek regarded the other mel carefully. "My memory?"
"Yes, sir. Although you were stripped of ninety percent of your holdings, the ten percent left over was still quite substantial. Sufficient to purchase a trust fund that has maintained a retainer for you into eternity."
"I see. And since I am 'instantiated,' I take it that I'm still 'of historical interest.'"
Siss-Talek walked across the room to the banister and placed his hands on the railing. He reached out and found his progress impeded. It wasn't painful, but it did sufficiently restrict his movements and soon he was unable to push further. "An effective prison."
"In more ways than one."
"What is your name?"
"Frenah siss-chaeshmel, sir. The Duke's Memory."
"And what am I to remember?"
"It is not that you are to remember anything, sir. You have been repeatedly grilled over the millennia by students interested in who you are and what you sought to accomplish with your civil war. Rest assured that everything Duke Conta siss-Talek-- yourself-- might have had to say on the day of his execution, you have said, repeatedly."
Siss-Talek looked at Frenah, probing for any hint of sarcasm, but there was none. Frenah was just telling the truth-- Anlestin had given him a chance to tell his story, and apparently he had told it. Over and over again. For four thousand years. He had been resurrected and "terminated" over a million times, if his numbers were even vaguely accurate. His dream had been a memory of his death, what had truly happened that day. He had died. His body, his hearts, his brain-- all dead and buried.
"Was there... a state ceremony? Was I buried?"
"As a noble, my lord, but with the ceremony of a commoner. You had many... fans... but not among those in power."
"A small cult built up around you. Common folk would come to visit you every day. Now, however, you are usually left alone for most of the day. We have few children in the world now, and when we do they still only visit Museums of History when forced to do so. A few people will stroll by. Fewer still will speak to you. You have full access to the media, however, so you may enjoy that. On very rare occasions, the media wishes to have full access to you."
"Over the years, you have attempted to communicate with yourself. To send messages to yourself tomorrow, in the hopes that together, bit by bit, you may build up a repertoire of work to address the outside world. I am here to tell you that yesterday you looked at such work, and tomorrow I will tell you again. I have, over the centuries, helped you publish three books."
"You're not a llerkin, then, are you?"
Frenah shrugged. "The term is ambiguous, sir. I am an instantiation of the llerkin Frenah siss-caeshmel, a loyal retainer to your household. I have been programmed by my source to be doggedly loyal to you and your achievements and to never get bored with my assigned role."
"I see. And this... is real." He gestured.
"Oh, yes, this physically occupies the territory of the Queen's Museum of Royal History, sixteen slais from the Palace."
"And those who come through?"
"Will be as difficult to classify as am I."
"I see." He sat down. "Forgive me if this is all a little hard to take. What's happening right now?"
Before Frenah could speak, the door behind him opened up. A tall, reedy mel walked through. He bowed. "Good morning, your Grace. A pleasure to see you, as always. I am the current curator of the museum. We will be opening in five minutes."
"Thank you," siss-Talek said, bowing in response. He turned to Frenah.
"Right now is a bit hard to describe, sir. There are no major conflicts to speak of and only few minor skirmishes worth mentioning. The Pendorian Way is the way of most of the explored galaxy-- approximately eight percent of the total galaxy. The Terrans have mostly moved off to Unity, and although llerkin remains llerkin, the physical population has dropped to one-tenth of what it was in your era. There is an electronic population in the many billions, but many of them are solipsistic, so the active population is mostly unchanged. By 'solipsistic' I mean that the dataverses they occupy are so rich and varied and complex by themselves that for them to come out into our world would be a bit of a disappointment; they would have had to exhaust the dataverses they inhabit first, which is a bit hard when multiform AIs are constantly varying it in more ways than reality alone can provide."
"I don't suppose there's any way I can visit those?"
"But I'm an AI now, dammit."
"Actually, you are technically a monothread ELF: a robot with a llerkin-like consciousness and a micro-housing projector."
Siss-Talek looked at Frenah. "We've had this conversation before."
"Yes. There are variations in it from day to day; we are both complicated and subtle, and dance around the issues at different rates as I try to bring you up-to-date."
"Are you bored?"
Frenah smiled slightly. It was the first real emotion the Duke had seen on his face. "It is not possible for me to become bored, your Grace."
Siss-Talek examined the beautiful felt and hammered gold of the wall panels. "I die again at the end of this day."
"You won't notice it. You'll fret for the last half-hour or so, rage perhaps; it depends on your experiences in the day. And then you will be gone, to be replaced by another copy of you tomorrow, starting with your awakening from the hanging."
Siss-Talek put his hand to this throat. The memory was so fresh, so real. Well, that had been part of Anlestin's diabolical punishment as well. He could remember the execution. It had been only an hour ago or so that he had faced his executioner, had seen the Queen one last time. He had spent the morning hungry, angry, afraid. He was mel enough to admit that he was afraid to die.
Except he wasn't dead. "Escape?"
"Is not possible," Frenah said. "Believe me, your followers have tried. Your projector is remotely informed and powered, your actual instance runs within a protected segment of AI Reeds, and if there are physical copies of your Bracing their location is a state secret of the highest security."
The duke's attention was distracted by a scuffling sound outside, doors being opened, the muffled sound of distant voices. "There is one, ah, other thing," Frenah said.
"You have a groupie. A young man, rather lovely actually, who comes every evening. This has happened from time to time. Her Majesty has put a very definite limit on how long he can have his attentions before being banned from the museum."
"How long has he been coming?"
"Several years now. At your rather consistent request, he has been allowed to spend the hour after the museum closes with you." Frenah surprised him by throwing one leg over the barrier and stepping into the room with him. "On this side of the barrier, your grace, you are as real as flesh." Frenah held out his hand, and the Duke grasped it. "The Queen was cruel, perhaps, but not viciously so."
"How many times has this happened? This groupie?"
"This groupie is new. But you have had well over a hundred lovers since your execution."
"And I don't remember a single one. I don't know of anything about the Duke that has lived here in this room, every day, for... Did you say four thousand years?"
"Yes, sir, I did."
The duke tried to imagine it. The room looked clean and bright and shiny, as if it had been built yesterday, an ensconcement fit for the soul of a nobleman. "What am I working on now?"
The day passed without much in the way of visitors. In the late afternoon, a party of three came by and siss-Talek found himself conversing with them. They turned out to be lawyers, of all things, discussing the moral and legal standing siss-Talek had within the current system. He learned that he was unique: the only "non-Purposed," "instantiated," "sacrosanct thread" in the known galaxy, whatever that meant. That the punishment he had been granted was to this day argued about as either too cruel or insufficient. Nobody was sanguine about it. He learned that it was the sacrosanct thread designation that granted legal rights-- except in his case. He was the exception, and therefore an object of fascination to legal scholars. Historians had had their fill of him, but the law still had to deal with him on a regular basis. More so now than in the past, when the notion of "consciousness" and "sacrosanctity" possessed boundaries less distinct than at any time before.
When they left, he was about to make notes about the meeting in their journal when Frenah suggested he search for those terms first and, surely enough, there were other comments from other visits with other law students. "When you have re-lived the same day a million times," Frenah said softly, "You have time to do the same things over and over."
The duke bit his upper lip in anger. "This truly is the underworld, isn't it?"
"In more ways than one," Frenah agreed. "About three hundred years after your execution, the entire Museum was moved underground. The roof was made into a park, it saves energy, no need for natural lighting for the kinds of presentations made here, that sort of reasoning."
He stared at Frenah for a moment, then shook himself and went back to reading, making notes along the way. Notes that he would read tomorrow. Notes he wouldn't remember writing. Notes he would need to be told that he wrote. He dictated this all to Frenah, who nodded and assured him that it would all be done as he said. "Except that tomorrow, you will be dealing with a new copy of me, a new instance, who will want to do things his way. My way? As I did this morning."
"Yes, sir," Frenah said. "It is not as if you are wasting your time, however. You are still doing what it is you wish to do. It merely takes more time than it used to."
"And I die soon..." He glanced up at the clock. "One day later... four centuries later... again... as Anlestin wanted it." He grabbed the glass of wine he had been drinking from the desk and hurled it at the wall. "Damn that bitch!"
"What?" Siss-Talek whirled at the sound and turned to see a young mel, perhaps no older than nineteen years, standing at the edge of the banister, in the viewing compartment of the display.
"Forgive me, my lord. My name is Karly Shian-talek. You asked yesterday that you be permitted to see me today."
Siss-Talek stared. Karly was beautiful. He wore common clothing, the kind that might be found on a gardener or a merchant, but underneath that siss-Talek could see the lines of a youth, almost a child, and most certainly male. He felt his jaw set with hunger as he glanced up and down at the thin young mel that presented himself. "I... I can understand why I did so."
Karly smiled. "May I enter, sir?"
Siss-Talek nodded. "You may."
Karly leaped over the railing as if it weren't there, and siss-Talek understood. Of course in wasn't there for Karly. It was meant to keep him in, not to keep others out. He had a moment of anger as he realized just how controlled, how dictated, how meaningless his existence had become. Anlestin's revenge was complete, he thought, in his despair. He wondered if he had ever experienced it before.
Of course he had. Yesterday. And the day before. And even the day before that. He just couldn't remember any of it because those memories had been erased. No, not erased. They had never been recorded in the first place. He was an instance of the Duke on the day of his death. Just as yesterday's Duke had been. Unchanging, unremembering. It was worse than forgetting.
So that was Anlestin's real penalty, he thought. To be a thinking, planning, scheming creature, and to be unable to have thoughts, plans, and schemes, and to know it. To be frustrated in one's dreams, and to experience it every day, and to be unable to do anything about it. To know that the suffering came yesterday, and would come tomorrow, and to be unable to help himself.
Siss-Talek looked down at his clenched, shaking hands, and righted himself. "Forgive me," he said. "I was merely thinking."
"Yes, my lord."
"You have seen that before."
Karly nodded. "Not yesterday, but the day before, you did that very same thing as soon as I arrived."
The director of the Museum walked past. "Your Grace? The museum will be closing in five minutes. Mr. Shian-talek, remember our agreement."
"I do remember, Director."
"Allow me a moment," said siss-Talek, who walked around to the desk and put some finishing touches on the papers he was writing on, organizing them, annotating them. It took appreciably longer than a moment. When he looked up, Karly was sitting, watching him with an earnest grin. Since he had been arrested two months ago, since the war had begun, actually, he had not had the time or the energy to put into the mundane activities of chasing after a catamite or two, and Karly was certainly a beautiful specimen of young melhood. Well, if this morsel was going to be put into his cage, he was going to accept it. What more could Anlestin do to him? "Come sit in my lap, boy," he said.
Karly eagerly leaped off the settee and into the siss-Talek's lap. He was taller than the Duke had first thought from the distance, but he was comfortable in the Duke's arms all the same. "The fires of nobility still rage within you, sir," Karly said softly.
"And in nobody else?"
"Now?" Karly laughed. "You joke sadly, sir. There is no nobility anymore. They are all dissolved away into their pleasures, their realms, their own nonsense. They have no passions worth mentioning, no interests worth pursuing. Only you, sir, still have the true desires: to rule men, to make llerkin great again. Why should the Pendorians have reign over the stars, and not llerkinkind?"
"Do they control us?"
"Worse, sir. They have subdued us with trinkets and pleasures."
The Duke understood why Karly was allowed into this place. He was to be a trinket and a pleasure. He was here to be what he hated, to stand close to the fire he earnestly hoped would one day consume him.
That split between what he was and what he wanted fueled the Duke's desires. He pulled Karly down to his mouth and kissed the boy, hard, domineering. It was what he wanted, it was always best when most of the populace was willing, and if he could dominate just one willing boy, then it would have to do to satisfy him immediately.
The Duke slid his hand under Karly's shirt and felt the soft scales of youth there, the hard body of muscle. Karly had the light green hide of a Northerner, but the Duke could forgive him that. It made him wonder if Karly wasn't planted for him. Probably not, he thought; it was more likely that Karly was simply the best choice among a group of males vying for his attention. Who made that choice? Frenah?
But now Karly was in his lap, squirming, and the Duke responded as well as any mel to that kind of temptation. He had never quite understood those in his group who had had more common pleasures, for surely the taking of one of the male sex, of dominating a potential rival and equal, was worth any number of weak females. Youth was always a temptation, for a young man was a passionate creature, forward looking, seeking his own domination. To take such a man was worth much.
"My lord," Karly sighed as their kiss broke. The Duke's erection pressed up under Karly's legs, making them both aware of its liveliness. "Frenah?" he said.
"Dim the lights and... leave us be."
"Of course, sir." Frenah stepped over the railing casually and walked away. The lamps dimmed behind him, leaving the studio only enough illumination for seduction as he disappeared into the enveloping darkness beyond.
The Duke turned to Karly. "You understand what I am about?"
"Oh, yes, sir," Karly breathed. "I have known for years. I dreamed of you before I was granted permission to come to you. To be granted one brief moment of pleasure with you. I know it is no more than a cup of warm water to one in frigid Hell, but... it is all we have to offer each other."
"Did you make that up yourself?"
"No, sir," Karly said. "You did."
"Mmmm." The Duke lifted Karly up in his arms, surprised to find that he was strong enough to do so, and carried the boy over to the bed in which he had awakened from one nightmare to find himself in another. He lay Karly down on the bed and began opening his formal shirt, untying the bow at his side and pulling open the folds underneath, detaching the stuffy cravat from the collar and tossing it aside. "By Zhal, you are a morsel worth dining upon."
Karly only replied with "Oh!" as the Duke's mouth kissed his chest and worked its way down to his belly. He unclapsed the boy's pants and shoved a hand down into his shorts. His hand brushed against the delicate flesh of the boy's erect cock and he closed around it, stroking it gently. "My Duke!"
The Duke straddled the boy's waist, kneeling above him. "Unclothe me," he ordered.
Karly's fingers flew to the bottom of his shirt and worked its way up the buttons hidden under a seam of red cotton. The vest and shirt had only landed on the floor when Karly already had the Duke's trousers open, his cock jutting out from his body, eager for the boy's attention. And Karly's eager attention was already on that waving wand. "Suck."
Karly pushed himself up onto his elbows, then bent over to take the Duke's cock into his mouth. The boy's mouth was a masterpiece and his skill provoked a deep and powerful response within the Duke. He grabbed the boy's head to steady himself but let the boy have his way, sucking deep on his cock, taking it down his throat. The Duke groaned with immanent satisfaction as the boy's tongue wriggled along the underside of his cock. When the boy lunged deep, his tongue would strike out and lick at the sensitive skin between the Duke's legs.
The Duke growled and shoved him back to the bed, then pounced on the boy and kissed his neck hard enough to raise a welt. "Yes," Karly hissed. "Yessss..." Siss-Talek tore Karly's pants down over his knees, down to his ankles, and the boy kicked them off. Siss-Talek was frustrated with his own need, but he had to have this boy positively roaring before he took his final moments. He made his way down the boy's belly to his cock once more, exposing it to his eyes. It was handsome in its own way and he licked and sucked at it like a toy, like candy, like a joystick with which he could rule at least one subject. Karly squrimed as his mouth surrounded that sweet cock, sucked it down. Fellatio often lacked clarity as to who was on top, but for the Duke there was never doubt-- receiving or giving, he demanded control. Karly's legs shuddered with the threats of immanent relief, his torso tightened, and the Duke relented. "Now, boy..."
"Yes, oh yes." The Duke put his hand under the prominent curve of Karly's pelvis and pulled him over onto his belly. His pants were still about his ankles, restricting his movements, and his shirt obscured his back, leaving only his small, tight-looking ass exposed. The Duke let his eyes wander over that beautiful, round shape and he anticipated bouncing off those muscled round hemispheres. Karly's legs were artful sculptures, muscles intersecting in flat planes supporting bone and lust.
The Duke's own lust rose within him, hard and predatory. He straddled Karly's ass and let his cock lie in the glen between those green, firm hills, as he lay along the length of the boy's body. "You want me to fuck you, don't you?"
"Yes, sir," Karly gasped. "Oh, blessed Zhal, you must!"
Duke siss-Talek stroked his cock against Karly's flesh. "How badly?"
"Anything, sir. Without lube, without spit if you must, just... just do it. Now, please!"
He growled as pushed himself up just enough to spit onto his hand and make his cock a little slicker, then pushed his cock down to find Karly's asshole. Karly gasped and pulled himself forward a bit, his instinct to get away momentarily overriding his perverse desire for the Duke's cock, and then he eased back even as the Duke plunged into him. He whimpered softly, a sound so honeyed the Duke's attention was momentarily washed away by the sound of it. He found his breath and pulled back, only to shove his cock deeper into Karly's willing body. He withdrew slowly only to enjoy the sensations of flesh and blood wrapped around his cock, then crushed his body down atop Karly's, pressing the very breath from the boy's body. He held the boy there, enjoying the sensation of inflicting on another what the Queen had done to him. But he wanted the boy to come back tomorrow... didn't he? Wouldn't he?
He reared up angrily. The Duke let the boy breathe only so that he could ravish the whimpering, desperate body ecstatic in its surrender to his strength, his power, his Goddess-granted nobility. That was something that bestial, nest-robbing whore of a queen could never take from him. The passage of centuries mattered not!
His pleasure was a sure thing, an absolute thing, a divine right, and he took it with authority. Karly gave up to his nobility because that was his duty as a subject. His cock was truly a staff of kings! This boy was his vessel, suitable to his needs! He assaulted Karly's willing ass until he felt the immanent moment, that one brief second when he must surrender to the higher power of Zhal herself, and he came, injecting his lust deep into Karly's body where it would rest, wait, become a part of the boy.
Karly groaned in his own pleasure, although whether he had actually climaxed or not was of little interest to the Duke. He had had his way. Carefully, as if trying to avoid soiling himself further with this contact with the rabble, the Duke lifted himself off Karly's spent body and sat down on the bed next to the boy.
Karly rolled over, his eyes filled with tears. "Forgive me, my lord."
"Mmm," the Duke grunted. "For what?"
"For being so little to you. I cannot... be more than what I am. A simple servant to your daily needs, but... no more."
"What more would you be?" the Duke asked.
"Your rescuer. I so wish..."
The Duke's mood darkened. "As The Duke's Memory said, many have tried. I understand few have succeeded."
Karly nodded. "Some were executed for their treason. I would risk it all to have a man as majestic as you once more at will--"
The Duke shook his head. "I have had one more day to live since my hanging. Someday, the law will change."
"I will pray to Zhal for that day."
"I believe you will. Will you come--"
The room was empty but for him. For a moment, he cried. It happened often this way. The months since he had been coming had been useful ones, and he was grateful to Frenah that he had been allowed this time with the Duke. "Someday," he whispered.
"Such dreams are dangerous," Frenah said softly, emerging from the darkness.
Karly said, "I know. May I return tomorrow?"
"For as long as you like. The current King's Chamberlain is not too concerned with Duke Conta siss-Talek, and the current curator has done with setting time limits. Now, if you become canon and start to spoil the experience, he may change his mind. And what will you do if the Duke stumbles upon your on-line journal?"
"Live with the consequences, I guess. And know that tomorrow, he will be no wiser. In that, perhaps, his ignorance is a blessing." He smoothed out the sheets, pointlessly making the bed that the AI that maintained and firewalled The Duke's Thread would reconstruct in the morning for the next instance. Then he began dressing. "Is there to be no freedom for him?"
Frenah shook his head. "No."
"I as well."
There was a cough behind them, and the Director stood there. Karly pulled his vest back over his shoulders and bowed to the director. "Thank you sir."
"And thank you, Messers. Shian-talek and siss-chaeshmel, for your productive contributions. But it is time for both of you to go. The doors will be locked in five minutes. Goodnight."
"Goodnight, sir," Karly said. Frenah merely nodded, then disappeared. Karly walked out into the night alone.