It is not easy to be an outcast in the Dead Empire. Imagine a machine as complex as the world, constructed of a million cogs of brass and light and flesh. Imagine yourself as one of those cogs. Imagine trying to escape, as the teeth of other gears hold you in place. Imagine me.
When I was sixteen years old, my mother received an Imperial order. This was a rare occurrence in our small, ill-regarded slum. Of course, the Emperor sees all, so there's no reason he wouldn't have just as much a plan or purpose for the beggars and servants of my home than for high-born lords and ladies, but it never seemed to work out that way. Indeed, we had only the one Tube winding down from the upper levels of the city, bringing us the occasional summon or command or edict from the Imperial Bureaucracy. Our neighbor had received one a few years earlier, ordering him to change his name from Jessup to Michael, which he promptly obeyed. The next year, a friend of his addressed him by the old name, violating the order. He was not seen again.
So you can see, I think, that my mother was in no position to argue when the Tubeman came to our little shack and handed her one of those famous crimson envelopes. She reached to open it, but the Tubeman walked past her, and handed it to me. My mother (name: Maria Hent, Imperial Designate 604432Q, servant) made a sound in protest, but quieted at the Tubeman's warning look. He was not a cruel man, by any means, and had lived in our village his entire life (save the time he spent at the Imperial Academy), but he was still a member of the Bureaucracy, and he was law- and honor-bound to place the letter in the proper hand. My hand.
Unlike many of my young friends, I was an avid and able reader, and so it was very little trouble to decipher the black ink, placed with a firm and even hand, on the red envelope. "Alistair Hent, Imperial Designate 700000X. Open immediately." And so I did.
"Dear Alistair," (the letter read)
"I have waited, I think you can agree, a fair amount of time before sending this letter. Sixteen years is more time than many get, and sixteen more that I was, at first, inclined to allow you, given the severity of your crimes. Please know that I wish you no ill-will, re: your scheduled execution, and I hope that the feeling can be considered mutual.
That being said, I have no choice but to present you with, charge you, and convict you of the following treasonous acts, to be committed at undisclosed later dates:
The destruction of the Tube station at the Imperial district Quez17" - this being the slum where I had spent the previous, significantly less eventful, twelve years of life - "via jury-rigging of the letter redirection systems, destroying several vital Imperial orders in the process,
Evasion of an Imperially appointed Tubeman in the execution of his sacred duty,
The stealing of said Tubeman's Imperial vestments, and the impersonation of him thereof,
Various and sundry offenses against the Empire, to be detailed at future as they become relevant to the case at hand, and, most pressingly,
The destruction of the Dead Empire through the unlicensed and unauthorized use of the controlled substance known as 'Free Will'.
Those official charges are written in the most painfully dry of language, aren't they, my boy? In any case, I'm afraid it's all true, and the sentence, as you've probably gathered, is death. And so, my Imperial order is this: Hand this letter to the Tubeman, and let him lead you to the prison, where we can get this messy business over once and for all.
The Dead Emperor.
PS: No sneaky lying to the poor man and running off, eh? Be good."
There are many benefits to living in a society ruled by a man several years dead. There's no danger of him acting out of self-interest, no chance of him using his power to woo women or steal funds or what have you. You might think it would leave his orders horribly out of date, but that's easily fixed by only picking emperors imbued with the gift of prophecy, and only letting them issue orders for the period after their deaths. I had not, until now, known that the Dead Emperor was quite so whimsical in his writing style, of course. And I had never imagined that I might someday be named the enemy of a being who controlled armies, cities, and, it had always seemed, the threads of fate itself.
The Tubeman was looking at me, curiously. In a day or two, he would receive an order confirming the letter I had gotten, to ensure that I had not attempted to defy the Imperial order.
Unless, of course.... And the idea would never have come into my mind, you understand, would never have even dared to suggest itself to me... That I could lie. Disobey the order. Wait a few hours, and sabotage the Tube. I'd have to be clever to do it (I was clever), and I'd need a disguise (like his clothes) to escape afterward...
But it could be done. Would be done, even, if the crimes I had been charged with were accurate (and they always were). Had the Emperor expected me to simply give up my life? Did he think his subjects so servile? Or was this what he had expected or wanted, all along? It does not pay, I have found over the years, to second-guess the mind of a man who can see the future. But I held to the one truth I have desperately gripped these many years... I wanted to live.
I smiled at the Tubeman. "It says I'm to be given a tour of the tube station, m'lord. Right now."
He frowned at this, reached for the letter, but I held it back. Imperial orders are for ONLY the addressee, and not even the Bureaucracy is allowed to look at them. Shrugging, he turned away, gesturing me to follow. I took a moment to kiss my mother goodbye (not that she knew), and then followed along, already looking for weaknesses in the system.
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