In the darkness between the stars, humanity has survived.
Earth is a distant memory, distorted by legend and scholars of ancient history. For thousands of years it was a paradise, they say, with natural riches beyond measure. A benign and beautiful wonderland. Then, quite suddenly, the planet started to malfunction. The water became poisoned, the crops failed, and all the animals began to die. Soon, the last remnants of humanity were forced to abandon their dying homeworld, and seek their destiny elsewhere.
Out here, in the vastness of space, the Long Yu Fleet searches for a place to call home. With many blaming the destruction of the Earth on troubles brought by democracy and the corruption of traditional values, society has returned to Imperial rule.
The Emperor’s Throne Ship occupies a space in the centre of the swarm. The gilded surface of its vast pagoda glints in the dim light of a thousand distant fusion drives. Surrounding it, but separate – like a moat around a castle of old Earth – spins a wide flat ring bristling with high-powered defensive systems: the First Ship of the Realm. With their drive systems precisely synchronised, the two craft maintain relative position as they move through space. From time to time, the First Ship fires its attitude thrusters, and blue light flashes from the surface of the golden pagoda at its centre.
Closer in, minuscule imperfections in the Throne Ship’s smooth, gilded hull resolve themselves into individual members of a round-the-clock maintenance crew, the size of a small army, responsible for maintaining the pristine appearance of the old home of the Imperial Court.
The topmost level of the pagoda is dominated by a vast window, extending across three of its four sides to furnish the Emperor with a direct view of the surrounding volume of space-time. A twelve-man crew is deployed here, clad in ill-fitting vacuum suits with skins patched over and over, their control panels and breathing tubes corroded with age and repaired with sticky tape.
The crew crawl inch by fastidious inch along the length of the window, cleaning and polishing the reinforced glass. Pock marks – caused by the impact of microscopic dust particles and other interstellar debris – are repaired immediately. Nothing can be permitted to obstruct the Emperor’s view of the stars; to allow such a thing to happen, whether by accident or inattention, is a crime punishable by death. To do so intentionally is unthinkable; unheard of. What punishment could be appropriate to such a disgraceful act is hard for the human mind to imagine. It is fortunate that, during the passage of over three centuries, the situation has never arisen.
From their vantage point on the Throne Ship, the repair crew can look out at the surrounding fleet, where streaks of light reveal the flight paths of supply craft and personnel transports as they shuttle between the larger, slower vessels. Chief among these are the vast cropships, each orbiting the central hub on a wide, predictable trajectory to mark out the Twelve Great Spheres. Out there, the peasants grow rice and beans. Out there is the Empire.
Some say it was better in the old days, when the conditions of life were not regulated by machines, but varied naturally with the seasons. But no one really knows what things were like back then, on some tiny planet in a star system at the outer rim of the galaxy.
There are many good stories about life in the old days. Some may even be true. But these stories are different.