Steve Rasnic Tem. A Letter from the Emperor. (Asimovs Jan 2010)

A deceptively affecting short story from Tem. The setting is a universe without FTL travel, but one that has still seen humanity spread across the vast distances. The word of the Emperor is law, but that word is only slowly spread – very slowly. Very, very slowly.

We see this through the eyes of Jacob, part of a two-man ‘reporter’ detail, who travel between planets relaying messages and news between each. In fact, he’s a one-man ‘reporter’ detail as his erstwhile college has commited defenestration, which is not a good thing in deep space. (Actually, he opened the hangar bay doors, so a window wasn’t involved and ergo not defenestration, but dangnabbit I do like that word!)

He has to deal with his sudden loss alongside the ship command AI’s interrogation of him about the incident, and in his making planetfall to a remote planet, we realise just how impossible it would be to maintain any kind of centralised command and control without FTL travel. Having had to deal with the cumbersome AI, he finds himself with an aged career diplomat, with fond, if very old, memories of having been close to the Emperor, from whom he is awaiting a message of congratulation on his retirement.

We see Jacob, who has his sleep regulated, and has the ship command whispering into his ear at every moment, and the diplomat, his own memory possibly tampered with in the service of the Emperor, and it all feels a rather hollow, futile life for each. However, there is a touching moment of deep humanity, which Jacob is able to dredge from somewhere. He fabricates a message from the Emperor (whose existence he has himself even begunto doubt), a message extolling the service to the Empire done by the diplot. That message draws on what Jacob had found in his ex-colleague’s diairies, who had clearly dreamt of a friendship between the two that was not there, and from one Li Po’s ‘Exile Letter‘.

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