The place: Chronopolis
The serving girl enters my sanctum hesitantly, cautiously; the rustling of the silk of her outfit--what there is of it-- is the only indication of her entry.
"My lord?" she calls, her voice shaky with trepidation.
"Yes?" I ask, knowing full well why she is here.
She enters the bath area, sees me lounging comfortably in the vast, marble tub, and turns slightly, reddening in embarrassment. She nearly drops the tall stack of books she carries.
"Ah. Yes. Put them... there."
Quickly she lowers her stack of leather-bound tomes down beside the other three piles resting against the side of the tub. She straightens, smoothing her long, straight, black hair--clearly one from the time of my fascination with Mantis. "Will...will you require anything else, lord?"
I glance at her again, then replace the bookmark in my worn copy of Blainey's The Causes of War and set it aside. "Fool," I mutter. "To believe that war can be quantified... reduced to mathematical formulas... Ha!" I toss the book across the room, its pages flying out and fluttering about. "No academician can appreciate the simple thrill of conquest... of subjugation and power for its own sake..."
The girl has backed away; she all but trembles in fear at my outburst.
I start to apologize, then consider the possibility of such an action and nearly laugh out loud. With an impatient wave I brusquely order her away.
She had expected me to want more from her, but I am simply not in that sort of mood at the moment.
Other thoughts have intruded upon my serenity.
I've sought answers where I always have-- in books; in the accumulated wisdom of generation upon generation of thinkers and do-ers. Men of letters and men of action. And in all this time... nothing.
My greatest ally.
My greatest enemy.
The very thing that has allowed me to conquer much of the universe, epoch after epoch...
...also denies me the chance to enjoy it... to rule over that vast domain...to sit in one place for any length of...
And because of this situation, I've been forced to make certain... choices... during my career as a conqueror. Choices I would not have had to make, were I but immortal.
But because I am, at least at this point in my life, for all my personal and political power, quite mortal, I've been forced to compromise... to delegate... to turn over the governance and management of vast tracts of my empire to others.
Giving anything that is mine away is abhorrent to every fiber of my being. But the simple fact is this: A creature with a finite lifespan cannot rule an empire that is unbounded by space and time.
Because I cannot be in all places--and times-- at once, I have had to let others rule in my stead.
An unavoidable situation, yes. And now, I am paying the price for it.
Rising from the tub, I pull a thick towel from the rack and dry myself. My armor--my costume, my suit, call it what you will-- lies on a nearby table, and I have donned it in short order. Everything fully in place, I walk to the doorway on the far side of my sanctum, and reach out a hand for the knob.
And I hesitate.
"Bah," I growl. "I am Kang. This...inconvenience...will be disposed of as surely as anything else that annoys me."
I open the door.
And he lies there, in the storage space, where Thomas said he had left him. Slowly, he rises, pain clear in his movements. Stumbling out into the room, blood still spilling slowly down the front of his suit, he gazes up at me again.
"I needed time," I reply. The pun is so obvious to both of us that no notice is given by either. "Time to think... to consider the information you've brought."
The eyes bore into mine, but the weakness is clear. All too clear. Pathetic.
"You still refuse to tell me the name of this great menace?" My fists clench in anger. "This tremendous threat to my dominion and my person?"
"I... I cannot... He... He did something to me... I am unable to..."
"Silence." He disgusted me. So weak. This was some possible future of mine? Ridiculous!
"But-- but you must do something--immediately...!"
"Oh, I shall."
The air around my right hip sparkles and shifts, and a large-barreled weapon appears there. I take it in my gloved hand and aim it directly between his eyes. My finger squeezes the trigger.
The scream and the crash come from behind me, and I whirl.
The serving girl has returned, and now her tray of food lies spilled across the floor. Her hands are over her mouth, her eyes wide.
"He-- he was you!"
I nod impatiently. "Yes. And?"
"And... but..." She clearly fights to gather her wits, such as they are. "What-- what if that had been... an earlier you?"
A reasonable question, I admit to myself. But with two serious flaws. "Had that been an earlier me, I would have remembered this encounter from the other side," I reply evenly. "And had it been an earlier me, I would likewise not be here, speaking with you, now."
Dumbly, she nods.
"Therefore, he surely told the truth before. He was a future me. But weak--beaten." I lift a goblet of wine and sip. "Unacceptable. He deserved to die."
"But... but, if that was you, in the future..."
"Then I shall take immediate steps to change that future." I finish the wine, savoring its final drops. "That was a rogue future. He was clearly deranged." I snort. "It will most assuredly not be my future."
"Indeed not, sire," comes the voice, just ahead of the tall figure who sweeps into the chamber behind the girl. "You are dismissed," he tells the girl, and she practically flees out the door.
I set the goblet down. My sidearm sparkles and fades away. "Yet you believe some of what he said, don't you, Thomas?"
My Grand Inquisitor steps forward, his long, navy cloak swirling around him. He purses his lips, his dark eyes meeting mine. "I think there could well be a danger close to you, majesty. Though, of course, you are quite right that you will not meet your ultimate fate the way that poor wretch did."
I nod-- more the fool me, I suppose, in hindsight.
"It was fortunate I found him first, though, sire, while you were away," he continues. "Deranged as he clearly was, he could have posed a grave danger to your person. Two days of inquisition from me, though..." He smiles a wicked, tight smile. "Well, I believe I extracted all the useful information possible from him."
I nod. "So--what have you learned?"
"That he knew too much." Thomas Torquemada raises a hand, snaps his fingers. "But it no longer matters."
Soldiers pour into the room.
I whirl. "Wha--?"
They surround me.
"You-- you dare?" My face surely conveys shocked outrage. "I am your absolute master! You cannot take up arms against me!"
"You are no longer their master, I fear," Torquemada informs me. "They are mine now. Mine--as is your entire empire." He smiles that smile again. "As it has been for quite some time, actually."
As my own troops level their weapons at me-- weapons I provided them, trained them to use-- Torquemada leers at me, and begins to laugh...
KANG WILL RETURN