Ministry of Disturbance

by H. Beam Piper

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Sometimes getting a job is harder than the job after you get it--and sometimes getting out of a job is harder than either!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

The symphony was ending, the final triumphant pæan soaring up and up, beyond the limit of audibility. For a moment, after the last notes had gone away, Paul sat motionless, as though some part of him had followed. Then he roused himself and finished his coffee and cigarette, looking out the wide window across the city below--treetops and towers, roofs and domes and arching skyways, busy swarms of aircars glinting in the early sunlight. Not many people cared for João Coelho’s music, now, and least of all for the Eighth Symphony. It was the music of another time, a thousand years ago, when the Empire was blazing into being out of the long night and hammering back the Neobarbarians from world after world. Today people found it perturbing.

He smiled faintly at the vacant chair opposite him, and lit another cigarette before putting the breakfast dishes on the serving-robot’s tray, and, after a while, realized that the robot was still beside his chair, waiting for dismissal. He gave it an instruction to summon the cleaning robots and sent it away. He could as easily have summoned them himself, or let the guards who would be in checking the room do it for him, but maybe it made a robot feel trusted and important to relay orders to other robots.

Then he smiled again, this time in self-derision. A robot couldn’t feel important, or anything else. A robot was nothing but steel and plastic and magnetized tape and photo-micro-positronic circuits, whereas a man--His Imperial Majesty Paul XXII, for instance--was nothing but tissues and cells and colloids and electro-neuronic circuits. There was a difference; anybody knew that. The trouble was that he had never met anybody--which included physicists, biologists, psychologists, psionicists, philosophers and theologians--who could define the difference in satisfactorily exact terms. He watched the robot pivot on its treads and glide away, trailing steam from its coffee pot. It might be silly to treat robots like people, but that wasn’t as bad as treating people like robots, an attitude which was becoming entirely too prevalent. If only so many people didn’t act like robots!

He crossed to the elevator and stood in front of it until a tiny electroencephalograph inside recognized his distinctive brain-wave pattern. Across the room, another door was popping open in response to the robot’s distinctive wave pattern. He stepped inside and flipped a switch--there were still a few things around that had to be manually operated--and the door closed behind him and the elevator gave him an instant’s weightlessness as it started to drop forty floors.

When it opened, Captain-General Dorflay of the Household Guard was waiting for him, with a captain and ten privates. General Dorflay was human. The captain and his ten soldiers weren’t. They wore helmets, emblazoned with the golden sun and superimposed black cogwheel of the Empire, and red kilts and black ankle boots and weapons belts, and the captain had a narrow gold-laced cape over his shoulders, but for the rest, their bodies were covered with a stiff mat of black hair, and their faces were slightly like terriers’. (For all his humanity, Captain-General Dorflay’s face was more like a bulldog’s.) They were hillmen from the southern hemisphere of Thor, and as a people they made excellent mercenaries. They were crack shots, brave and crafty fighters, totally uninterested in politics off their own planet, and, because they had grown up in a patriarchial-clan society, they were fanatically loyal to anybody whom they accepted as their chieftain. Paul stepped out and gave them an inclusive nod.

“Good morning, gentlemen.”

“Good morning, Your Imperial Majesty,” General Dorflay said, bowing the couple of inches consistent with military dignity. The Thoran captain saluted by touching his forehead, his heart, which was on the right side, and the butt of his pistol. Paul complimented him on the smart appearance of his detail, and the captain asked how it could be otherwise, with the example and inspiration of his imperial majesty. Compliment and response could have been a playback from every morning of the ten years of his reign. So could Dorflay’s question: “Your Majesty will proceed to his study?”

He wanted to say, “No, to Niffelheim with it; let’s get an aircar and fly a million miles somewhere,” and watch the look of shocked incomprehension on the captain-general’s face. He couldn’t do that, though; poor old Harv Dorflay might have a heart attack. He nodded slowly.

“If you please, general.”

Dorflay nodded to the Thoran captain, who nodded to his men. Four of them took two paces forward; the rest, unslinging weapons, went scurrying up the corridor, some posting themselves along the way and the rest continuing to the main hallway. The captain and two of his men started forward slowly; after they had gone twenty feet, Paul and General Dorflay fell in behind them, and the other two brought up the rear.

“Your Majesty,” Dorflay said, in a low voice, “let me beg you to be most cautious. I have just discovered that there exists a treasonous plot against your life.”

Paul nodded. Dorflay was more than due to discover another treasonous plot; it had been ten days since the last one.

“I believe you mentioned it, general. Something about planting loose strontium-90 in the upholstery of the Audience Throne, wasn’t it?”

And before that, somebody had been trying to smuggle a fission bomb into the Palace in a wine cask, and before that, it was a booby trap in the elevator, and before that, somebody was planning to build a submachine gun into the viewscreen in the study, and--

“Oh, no, Your Majesty; that was--Well, the persons involved in that plot became alarmed and fled the planet before I could arrest them. This is something different, Your Majesty. I have learned that unauthorized alterations have been made on one of the cooking-robots in your private kitchen, and I am positive that the object is to poison Your Majesty.”

They were turning into the main hallway, between the rows of portraits of past emperors, Paul and Rodrik, Paul and Rodrik, alternating over and over on both walls. He felt a smile growing on his face, and banished it.

“The robot for the meat sauces, wasn’t it?” he asked.

“Why--! Yes, Your Majesty.”

“I’m sorry, general. I should have warned you. Those alterations were made by roboticists from the Ministry of Security; they were installing an adaptation of a device used in the criminalistics-labs, to insure more uniform measurements. They’d done that already for Prince Travann, the Minister, and he’d recommended it to me.”

That was a shame, spoiling poor Harv Dorflay’s murder plot. It had been such a nice little plot, too; he must have had a lot of fun inventing it. But a line had to be drawn somewhere. Let him turn the Palace upside down hunting for bombs; harass ladies-in-waiting whose lovers he suspected of being hired assassins; hound musicians into whose instruments he imagined firearms had been built; the emperor’s private kitchen would have to be off limits.

Dorflay, who should have been looking crestfallen but relieved, stopped short--shocking breach of Court etiquette--and was staring in horror.

“Your Majesty! Prince Travann did that openly and with your consent? But, Your Majesty, I am convinced that it is Prince Travann himself who is the instigator of every one of these diabolical schemes. In the case of the elevator, I became suspicious of a man named Samml Ganner, one of Prince Travann’s secret police agents. In the case of the gun in the viewscreen, it was a technician whose sister is a member of the household of Countess Yirzy, Prince Travann’s mistress. In the case of the fission bomb--”

The two Thorans and their captain had kept on for some distance before they had discovered that they were no longer being followed, and were returning. He put his hand on General Dorflay’s shoulder and urged him forward.

“Have you mentioned this to anybody?”

“Not a word, Your Majesty. This Court is so full of treachery that I can trust no one, and we must never warn the villain that he is suspected--”

“Good. Say nothing to anybody.” They had reached the door of the study, now. “I think I’ll be here until noon. If I leave earlier, I’ll flash you a signal.”

He entered the big oval room, lighted from overhead by the great star-map in the ceiling, and crossed to his desk, with the viewscreens and reading screens and communications screens around it, and as he sat down, he cursed angrily, first at Harv Dorflay and then, after a moment’s reflection, at himself. He was the one to blame; he’d known Dorflay’s paranoid condition for years. Have to do something about it. Any psycho-medic would certify him; be no problem at all to have him put away. But be blasted if he’d do that. That was no way to repay loyalty, even insane loyalty. Well, he’d find a way.

He lit a cigarette and leaned back, looking up at the glowing swirl of billions of billions of tiny lights in the ceiling. At least, there were supposed to be billions of billions of them; he’d never counted them, and neither had any of the seventeen Rodriks and sixteen Pauls before him who had sat under them. His hand moved to a control button on his chair arm, and a red patch, roughly the shape of a pork chop, appeared on the western side.

That was the Empire. Every one of the thousand three hundred and sixty-five inhabited worlds, a trillion and a half intelligent beings, fourteen races--fifteen if you counted the Zarathustran Fuzzies, who were almost able to qualify under the talk-and-build-a-fire rule. And that had been the Empire when Rodrik VI had seen the map completed, and when Paul II had built the Palace, and when Stevan IV, the grandfather of Paul I, had proclaimed Odin the Imperial planet and Asgard the capital city. There had been some excuse for staying inside that patch of stars then; a newly won Empire must be consolidated within before it can safely be expanded. But that had been over eight centuries ago.

He looked at the Daily Schedule, beautifully embossed and neatly slipped under his desk glass. Luncheon on the South Upper Terrace, with the Prime Minister and the Bench of Imperial Counselors. Yes, it was time for that again; that happened as inevitably and regularly as Harv Dorflay’s murder plots. And in the afternoon, a Plenary Session, Cabinet and Counselors. Was he going to have to endure the Bench of Counselors twice in the same day? Then the vexation was washed out of his face by a spreading grin. Bench of Counselors; that was the answer! Elevate Harv Dorflay to the Bench. That was what the Bench was for, a gold-plated dustbin for the disposal of superannuated dignitaries. He’d do no harm there, and a touch of outright lunacy might enliven and even improve the Bench.

And in the evening, a banquet, and a reception and ball, in honor of His Majesty Ranulf XIV, Planetary King of Durendal, and First Citizen Zhorzh Yaggo, People’s Manager-in-Chief of and for the Planetary Commonwealth of Aditya. Bargain day; two planetary chiefs of state in one big combination deal. He wondered what sort of prizes he had drawn this time, and closed his eyes, trying to remember. Durendal, of course, was one of the Sword-Worlds, settled by refugees from the losing side of the System States War in the time of the old Terran Federation, who had reappeared in Galactic history a few centuries later as the Space Vikings. They all had monarchial and rather picturesque governments; Durendal, he seemed to recall, was a sort of quasi-feudalism. About Aditya he was less sure. Something unpleasant, he thought; the titles of the government and its head were suggestive.

He lit another cigarette and snapped on the reading screen to see what they had piled onto him this morning, and then swore when a graph chart, with jiggling red and blue and green lines, appeared. Chart day, too. Everything happens at once.

It was the interstellar trade situation chart from Economics. Red line for production, green line for exports, blue for imports, sectioned vertically for the ten Viceroyalties and sub-sectioned for the Prefectures, and with the magnification and focus controls he could even get data for individual planets. He didn’t bother with that, and wondered why he bothered with the charts at all. The stuff was all at least twenty days behind date, and not uniformly so, which accounted for much of the jiggling. It had been transmitted from Planetary Proconsulate to Prefecture, and from Prefecture to Viceroyalty, and from there to Odin, all by ship. A ship on hyperdrive could log light-years an hour, but radio waves still had to travel 186,000 mps. The supplementary chart for the past five centuries told the real story--three perfectly level and perfectly parallel lines.

It was the same on all the other charts. Population fluctuating slightly at the moment, completely static for the past five centuries. A slight decrease in agriculture, matched by an increase in synthetic food production. A slight population movement toward the more urban planets and the more densely populated centers. A trend downward in employment--nonworking population increasing by about .0001 per cent annually. Not that they were building better robots; they were just building them faster than they wore out. They all told the same story--a stable economy, a static population, a peaceful and undisturbed Empire; eight centuries, five at least, of historyless tranquility. Well, that was what everybody wanted, wasn’t it?

He flipped through the rest of the charts, and began getting summarized Ministry reports. Economics had denied a request from the Mining Cartel to authorize operations on a couple of uninhabited planets; danger of local market gluts and overstimulation of manufacturing. Permission granted to Robotics Cartel to-- Request from planetary government of Durendal for increase of cereal export quotas under consideration--they wouldn’t want to turn that down while King Ranulf was here. Impulsively, he punched out a combination on the communication screen and got Count Duklass, Minister of Economics.

Count Duklass had thinning red hair and a plump, agreeable, extrovert’s face. He smiled and waited to be addressed.

“Sorry to bother Your Lordship,” Paul greeted him. “What’s the story on this export quota request from Durendal? We have their king here, now. Think he’s come to lobby for it?”

Count Duklass chuckled. “He’s not doing anything about it, himself. Have you met him yet, sir?”

“Not yet. He’s to be presented this evening.”

“Well, when you see him--I think the masculine pronoun is permissible--you’ll see what I mean, sir. It’s this Lord Koreff, the Marshal. He came here on business, and had to bring the king along, for fear somebody else would grab him while he was gone. The whole object of Durendalian politics, as I understand, is to get possession of the person of the king. Koreff was on my screen for half an hour; I just got rid of him. Planet’s pretty heavily agricultural, they had a couple of very good crop years in a row, and now they have grain running out their ears, and they want to export it and cash in.”


“Can’t let them do it, Your Majesty. They’re not suffering any hardship; they’re just not making as much money as they think they ought to. If they start dumping their surplus into interstellar trade, they’ll cause all kinds of dislocations on other agricultural planets. At least, that’s what our computers all say.”

And that, of course, was gospel. He nodded.

“Why don’t they turn their surplus into whisky? Age it five or six years and it’d be on the luxury goods schedule and they could sell it anywhere.”

Count Duklass’ eyes widened. “I never thought of that, Your Majesty. Just a microsec; I want to make a note of that. Pass it down to somebody who could deal with it. That’s a wonderful idea, Your Majesty!”

He finally got the conversation to an end, and went back to the reports. Security, as usual, had a few items above the dead level of bureaucratic procedure. The planetary king of Excalibur had been assassinated by his brother and two nephews, all three of whom were now fighting among themselves. As nobody had anything to fight with except small arms and a few light cannon, there would be no intervention. There had been intervention on Behemoth, however, where a whole continent had tried to secede from the planetary republic and the Imperial Navy had been requested to send a task force. That was all right, in both cases. No interference with anything that passed for a planetary government, but only one sovereignty on any planet with nuclear weapons, and only one supreme sovereignty in a galaxy with hyperdrive ships.

And there was rioting on Amaterasu, because of public indignation over a fraudulent election. He looked at that in incredulous delight. Why, here on Odin there hadn’t been an election in the past six centuries that hadn’t been utterly fraudulent. Nobody voted except the nonworkers, whose votes were bought and sold wholesale, by gangster bosses to pressure groups, and no decent person would be caught within a hundred yards of a polling place on an election day. He called the Minister of Security.

Prince Travann was a man of his own age--they had been classmates at the University--but he looked older. His thin face was lined, and his hair was almost completely white. He was at his desk, with the Sun and Cogwheel of the Empire on the wall behind him, but on the breast of his black tunic he wore the badge of his family, a silver planet with three silver moons. Unlike Count Duklass, he didn’t wait to be spoken to.

“Good morning, Your Majesty.”

“Good morning, Your Highness; sorry to bother you. I just caught an interesting item in your report. This business on Amaterasu. What sort of a planet is it, politically? I don’t seem to recall.”

“Why, they have a republican government, sir; a very complicated setup. Really, it’s a junk heap. When anything goes badly, they always build something new into the government, but they never abolish anything. They have a president, a premier, and an executive cabinet, and a tricameral legislature, and two complete and distinct judiciaries. The premier is always the presidential candidate getting the next highest number of votes. In the present instance, the president, who controls the planetary militia, is accusing the premier, who controls the police, of fraud in the election of the middle house of the legislature. Each is supported by the judiciary he controls. Practically every citizen belongs either to the militia or the police auxiliaries. I am looking forward to further reports from Amaterasu,” he added dryly.

“I daresay they’ll be interesting. Send them to me in full, and red-star them, if you please, Prince Travann.”

He went back to the reports. The Ministry of Science and Technology had sent up a lengthy one. The only trouble with it was that everything reported was duplication of work that had been done centuries before. Well, no. A Dr. Dandrik, of the physics department of the Imperial University here in Asgard announced that a definite limit of accuracy in measuring the velocity of accelerated subnucleonic particles had been established--16.067543333--times light-speed. That seemed to be typical; the frontiers of science, now, were all decimal points. The Ministry of Education had a little to offer; historical scholarship was still active, at least. He was reading about a new trove of source-material that had come to light on Uller, from the Sixth Century Atomic Era, when the door screen buzzed and flashed.

He lit it, and his son Rodrik appeared in it, with Snooks, the little red hound, squirming excitedly in the Crown Prince’s arms. The dog began barking at once, and the boy called through the phone:

“Good morning, father; are you busy?”

“Oh, not at all.” He pressed the release button. “Come on in.”

Immediately, the little hound leaped out of the princely arms and came dashing into the study and around the desk, jumping onto his lap. The boy followed more slowly, sitting down in the deskside chair and drawing his foot up under him. Paul greeted Snooks first--people can wait, but for little dogs everything has to be right now--and rummaged in a drawer until he found some wafers, holding one for Snooks to nibble. Then he became aware that his son was wearing leather shorts and tall buskins.

“Going out somewhere?” he asked, a trifle enviously.

“Up in the mountains, for a picnic. Olva’s going along.”

And his tutor, and his esquire, and Olva’s companion-lady, and a dozen Thoran riflemen, of course, and they’d be in continuous screen-contact with the Palace.

“That ought to be a lot of fun. Did you get all your lessons done?”

“Physics and math and galactiography,” Rodrik told him. “And Professor Guilsan’s going to give me and Olva our history after lunch.”

They talked about lessons, and about the picnic. Of course, Snooks was going on the picnic, too. It was evident, though, that Rodrik had something else on his mind. After a while, he came out with it.

“Father, you know I’ve been a little afraid, lately,” he said.

“Well, tell me about it, son. It isn’t anything about you and Olva, is it?”

Rod was fourteen; the little Princess Olva thirteen. They would be marriageable in six years. As far as anybody could tell, they were both quite happy about the marriage which had been arranged for them years ago.

“Oh, no; nothing like that. But Olva’s sister and a couple others of mother’s ladies-in-waiting were to a psi-medium, and the medium told them that there were going to be changes. Great and frightening changes was what she said.”

“She didn’t specify?”

“No. Just that: great and frightening changes. But the only change of that kind I can think of would be ... well, something happening to you.”

Snooks, having eaten three wafers, was trying to lick his ear. He pushed the little dog back into his lap and pummeled him gently with his left hand.

“You mustn’t let mediums’ gabble worry you, son. These psi-mediums have real powers, but they can’t turn them off and on like a water tap. When they don’t get anything, they don’t like to admit it, and they invent things. Always generalities like that; never anything specific.”

“I know all that.” The boy seemed offended, as though somebody were explaining that his mother hadn’t really found him out in the rose garden. “But they talked about it to some of their friends, and it seems that other mediums are saying the same thing. Father, do you remember when the Haval Valley reactor blew up? All over Odin, the mediums had been talking about a terrible accident, for a month before that happened.”

“I remember that.” Harv Dorflay believed that somebody had been falsely informed that the emperor would visit the plant that day. “These great and frightening changes will probably turn out to be a new fad in abstract sculpture. Any change frightens most people.”

They talked more about mediums, and then about aircars and aircar racing, and about the Emperor’s Cup race that was to be flown in a month. The communications screen began flashing and buzzing, and after he had silenced it with the busy-button for the third time, Rodrik said that it was time for him to go, came around to gather up Snooks, and went out, saying that he’d be home in time for the banquet. The screen began to flash again as he went out.

It was Prince Ganzay, the Prime Minister. He looked as though he had a persistent low-level toothache, but that was his ordinary expression.

“Sorry to bother Your Majesty. It’s about these chiefs-of-state. Count Gadvan, the Chamberlain, appealed to me, and I feel I should ask your advice. It’s the matter of precedence.”

“Well, we have a fixed rule on that. Which one arrived first?”

“Why, the Adityan, but it seems King Ranulf insists that he’s entitled to precedence, or, rather, his Lord Marshal does. This Lord Koreff insists that his king is not going to yield precedence to a commoner.”


“Then he can go home to Durendal!” He felt himself growing angry--all the little angers of the morning were focusing on one spot. He forced the harshness out of his voice. “At a court function, somebody has to go first, and our rule is order of arrival at the Palace. That rule was established to avoid violating the principle of equality to all civilized peoples and all planetary governments. We’re not going to set it aside for the King of Durendal, or anybody else.”

Prince Ganzay nodded. Some of the toothache expression had gone out of his face, now that he had been relieved of the decision.

“Of course, Your Majesty.” He brightened a little. “Do you think we might compromise? Alternate the precedence, I mean?”

“Only if this First Citizen Yaggo consents. If he does, it would be a good idea.”

“I’ll talk to him, sir.” The toothache expression came back. “Another thing, Your Majesty. They’ve both been invited to attend the Plenary Session, this afternoon.”

“Well, no trouble there; they can enter by different doors and sit in visitors’ boxes at opposite ends of the hall.”

“Well, sir, I wasn’t thinking of precedence. But this is to be an Elective Session--new Ministers to replace Prince Havaly, of Defense, deceased, and Count Frask, of Science and Technology, elevated to the Bench. There seems to be some difference of opinion among some of the Ministers and Counselors. It’s very possible that the Session may degenerate into an outright controversy.”

“Horrible,” Paul said seriously. “I think, though, that our distinguished guests will see that the Empire can survive difference of opinion, and even outright controversy. But if you think it might have a bad effect, why not postpone the election?”

“Well--It’s been postponed three times, already, sir.”

“Postpone it permanently. Advertise for bids on two robot Ministers, Defense, and Science and Technology. If they’re a success, we can set up a project to design a robot emperor.”

The Prime Minister’s face actually twitched and blanched at the blasphemy. “Your Majesty is joking,” he said, as though he wanted to be reassured on the point.

“Unfortunately, I am. If my job could be robotized, maybe I could take my wife and my son and our little dog and go fishing for a while.”

But, of course, he couldn’t. There were only two alternatives: the Empire or Galactic anarchy. The galaxy was too big to hold general elections, and there had to be a supreme ruler, and a positive and automatic--which meant hereditary--means of succession.

“Whose opinion seems to differ from whose, and about what?” he asked.

“Well, Count Duklass and Count Tammsan want to have the Ministry of Science and Technology abolished, and its functions and personnel distributed. Count Duklass means to take over the technological sections under Economics, and Count Tammsan will take over the science part under Education. The proposal is going to be introduced at this Session by Count Guilfred, the Minister of Health and Sanity. He hopes to get some of the bio-and psycho-science sections for his own Ministry.”

“That’s right. Duklass gets the hide, Tammsan gets the head and horns, and everybody who hunts with them gets a cut of the meat. That’s good sound law of the chase. I’m not in favor of it, myself. Prince Ganzay, at this session, I wish you’d get Captain-General Dorflay nominated for the Bench. I feel that it is about time to honor him with elevation.”

“General Dorflay? But why, Your Majesty?”

“Great galaxy, do you have to ask? Why, because the man’s a raving lunatic. He oughtn’t even to be trusted with a sidearm, let alone five companies of armed soldiers. Do you know what he told me this morning?”

“That somebody is training a Nidhog swamp-crawler to crawl up the Octagon Tower and bite you at breakfast, I suppose. But hasn’t that been going on for quite a while, sir?”

“It was a gimmick in one of the cooking robots, but that’s aside from the question. He’s finally named the master mind behind all these nightmares of his, and who do you think it is? Yorn Travann!”

The Prime Minister’s face grew graver than usual. Well, it was something to look grave about; some of these days--

“Your Majesty, I couldn’t possibly agree more about the general’s mental condition, but I really should say that, crazy or not, he is not alone in his suspicions of Prince Travann. If sharing them makes me a lunatic, too, so be it, but share them I do.”

Paul felt his eyebrows lift in surprise. “That’s quite too much and too little, Prince Ganzay,” he said.

“With your permission, I’ll elaborate. Don’t think that I suspect Prince Travann of any childish pranks with elevators or viewscreens or cooking-robots,” the Prime Minister hastened to disclaim, “but I definitely do suspect him of treasonous ambitions. I suppose Your Majesty knows that he is the first Minister of Security in centuries who has assumed personal control of both the planetary and municipal police, instead of delegating his ex officio powers.

“Your Majesty may not know, however, of some of the peculiar uses he has been making of those authorities. Does Your Majesty know that he has recruited the Security Guard up to at least ten times the strength needed to meet any conceivable peace-maintenance problem on this planet, and that he has been piling up huge quantities of heavy combat equipment--guns up to 200-millimeter, heavy contragravity, even gun-cutters and bomb-and-rocket boats? And does Your Majesty know that most of this armament is massed within fifteen minutes’ flight-time of this Palace? Or that Prince Travann has at his disposal from two and a half to three times, in men and firepower, the combined strength of the Planetary Militia and the Imperial Army on this planet?”

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