By D.A. Madigan

The prey had fled across millenia, but there are remarkably few planets that will support human life, and only Earth is truly comfortable for most of us. Phaedrus Imtohep was no exception; a great soldier, accomplished scholar, and competent wizard, he was nonetheless no shapeshifter, and I knew I would find him somewhere on our native world, within five thousand years in either direction of zero point, since polar displacement would have altered our native region's climate uncomfortably beyond those extremes.

I confronted him in a grog shop on a street named after a creature the locals rather blithely dismissed as mythical, and had to smile, as I wondered what my fellow troopers who had once ridden them into battle would think of that.

He looked up as I drew shadows over the already dim chamber he was in; the change in lighting was not so much one of intensity as of duration, since by moving us outside local linearity I had removed the torchlight's flickering quality, and red-shifted it about half an angstrom.

"Erberus," he said, wearily, and let the illusory façade slip off him, revealing his rainbow cloak and the accoutrements of his rank and power. "They let you off gate duty. I suppose I should be flattered."

"Lord," I said, inclining my head politely. "Heinubis wished to come after you himself, but the Throne forbade. Still, you are who you are... they could not send a mere sky-thane to apprehend you."

"No," he said, chuckling ironically. "The Throne would never wish to do me insult like that." His hands were scarred all over in minute, near microscopic hash marks; invisible to one without hunter's vision, but clear testimony to me of centuries wielding vibration weapons. He knew I was watching and kept them very still and very visible.

"The Throne," I said, "would never wish to slaughter some young, innocent, newly promoted sky-thane like that."

He smiled frostily. "No," he said, that same dry humor glinting in his tone, "that might cause... dissension." He smiled, briefly, then folded his smile and tucked it away again. "Especially if the young, innocent sky-thane actually listened to me before he struck me down."

I seated myself across the table from him, keeping my own empty hands palms up on the crude wooden surface. "I will listen to you for as long as you like, my lord. Feel free to sow dissension if you will." I did not smile, but I rarely do, when hunting. I am more humorful in my unreal life, of course.

His multispectral cape flowed about him restlessly, but he himself was still. Then, almost imperceptibly, he shook his head, and sighed. "The Throne is more than unjust, you know. And far more than merely tyrannical. Hekkaya's immortality is bought from the life energies of billions, and she provides only illusion in return."

A hunter should be shocked, of course, to hear the Throne referred to so familiarly, but I have tracked down eight great heretics prior to this. It is why, I suspect, these assignments now fall my way more and more. "You must admit, the illusion the Throne provides is better than our reality," I said. "The fact that you fled to another time would indicate, in fact, that you agree."

Phaedrus drummed the fingers of his left hand impatiently on the table top, then stopped. "There is no speaking to you, of course," he said, "but you surely know that if we awakened each sleeper and directed their efforts, our native region could be restored in two generations at most. The ecological damage is horrific, but we have the power to reverse and regenerate it."

I didn't answer, and he sighed. "But of course, why trouble ourselves or them? They're happy as they are, and if their life force provides immortality for the Throne, and the Throne's favorites..."

I did not let myself flinch at that. "The Throne may or may not be immortal; we cannot know. I am certainly not; my lifespan is no greater than any other mortal's."

He stared at me squarely. "Hekkaya does not drain your life force, or that of her other most faithful servants," he said. "You will live longer than the vast majority..."

I spread my hands. "Not if some heretic like you turns out to be faster than me," I said, and perhaps I did smile then, I cannot be sure. "It would not be meet for me to be weakened, given my duties. I'm sure you understand that. As a soldier of the court, your life forces were not drained either, and the illusory life available to you was one of the utmost luxury."

"But it wasn't real," he said urgently. "None of it was real, and yes, I grant you, the life you and I experienced was far, far better than that force fed into the sleeping brains of trillions of others, who experience less advanced illusory social contexts, with far less technological convenience available to them, and who must endure far more drudgery..."

"Yet," I reminded him, gently, "e'en the utmost, laborious tedium any of them experience is far more restful than the true fate you would condemn them and another generation to, in service of a revitalized planet we have no true need of."

He scowled. "Working to improve the lot of our children and grandchildren is the most basic human endeavor of all..." He waved one hand dismissively. "But I will not convince you. I see how anxious you grow to conclude this and return to your dreams. Very well, then."

I stood again, slowly, watching him. "I would not do you an indignity, Lord," I told him. "You may, if you wish, reach for a weapon."

He gave me a cold stare. "My reach against the speed of your soul-shard, Erberus? Would't placate what conscience you may have, to think you took me in self defense?" He sighed. "'tis beneath me to..."

He was very fast. Against anyone other than a hunter prime, armed with any weapon other than a soul shard, he might well have drawn and used his molecular mace with devastating effect, disrupting my metabolic lattice, perhaps lethally. To say his hand was a blur as he reached is an understatement; truly, it was far faster than my eye.

But not my soul.

The gem on my wrist winked once, a flash so brief that even had we been within the bound'ries of local space-time, no living mortal would have noted it.

Phaedrus' body, now untenanted, sat still for a moment. Then it slumped sideways in its chair and slowly came to rest, the chair's arm wedged firmly against his upper chest.

I scattered its atoms with a flick of my own molecular wand and stepped back across the millenia to the Court of the Throne, where another flicker took Phaedrus from the soul-shard mounted on my gauntlet and absorbed him into the vast crystal that hangs perpetually above the head of the Empress.

Around me hung the Commonweal, the people ruled by the Throne, whose security I serve, hanging in their own rainbow cloaks, pulsating lines of psyche connecting each of them to the Empress' crystal.

In between the hanging endless ranks of rippling sleepers, I could see others, like me, flickering into corporeal existence here on errands of their own. Some, like me, having completed their most recent tasks, floated up off the seared, endless plain where stood the Throne, and were once more enfolded in their own rainbow cloaks. They, like me, would enjoy dream lives of splendor and luxury.

"Well done," the Throne's voice came to me, as Phaedrus was absorbed into the riotous panoply surging through the infinitely faceted crystal hovering above her head. "Return, now, to your reward."

I felt my feet leave the ground.

I woke up and shook my head muzzily; it was full of vivid images that made no sense. Something about hunting someone through different time periods... a huge chair with a crystal floating over it and some cat headed woman sitting on it... I groaned.

These daytime naps never seem that restful to me, but I'd been tired.

I got out of bed, letting my feet slide down to the carpeted floor, and glanced at the digital clock on the wall. It was 4:22 in the afternoon; plenty of time to surf the 'net for a few hours and get caught up on some email, before that new TV show I liked came on at 8.

My stomach rumbled. I should order a pizza, or maybe Chinese food...

As I wandered out into the living room of my small but comfortable apartment, I reflected on just how astonishingly luxurious the vast majority of people who had ever existed in human history would find my day to day existence. I had a computer, the Internet, email, TV, a CD changer, a VCR... central heating and air conditioning, carpets on the floor, a lawful civilization that kept vandals from breaking in at will and stealing my shit... it was truly amazing.

And to think, there were a lot of people who actually lived BETTER than this, in the early 21st Century... although, to be sure, there were plenty who didn't have it so good, either.

Still, life was pretty sweet, all things considered.