This article was originally posted to the pre-magazine Freelance Traveller web site in 2003, and reprinted in this form in the January/February 2020 issue.
[Author’s Note: A core assumption is that the Imperium has a “nice and friendly” image with the general public at large which often clashes with the mundane and often harsh reality of day-to-day business and government. All my players have to read this if their characters are in any position to understand how things really work.]
The following lecture is delivered by Professor Sir Achmed Rollins every year to every new class of law students at the University Of Efate.
Good morning, and welcome to Imperial Government, also called Admiralty Law 101. Most of you probably took a basic political science course before you got into law school. I’m sure your professors told you all about how each planet has a marquis or a count, who looks after lots of barons and knights, and has to answer to a subsector duke, who has to answer to a sector duke, then to an archduke, then the Emperor. How nice. You probably learned all of that in your basic education too, with a nice digibook that had pretty pop-up holograms of nobles telling other nobles what to do.
Nice, pretty, and neat, wasn’t it? Too bad it’s all rubbish.
Oh, stop acting like you're really shocked! You didn’t think the things they taught you as an undergraduate were meant for you to take seriously, did you? Well, they were, but only until you graduated. They spoon-fed you that claptrap because it’s easier for fresh-faced children, right out of primary school to learn. It is so much like Newtonian physics, incorrect on grand scales but useful for most purposes. These are little white lies that are much-needed for shaping your minds for real learning later on, which is why you are here in law school right now.
Don’t get me wrong, the Emperor is the supreme authority in the Imperium, and barons must obey archdukes when an archduke really thinks it’s necessary to trifle with such a minor member of the peerage. I am not suggesting at all that Imperial authority is a sham, far from it. There will be no treason tolerated in this classroom! There won’t be any tolerance for ignorance either, of course. I’m here to tell you how power really works in the Imperium.
Forget those puny little top-down chains of being that the little, uneducated people call “hierarchies” and “pecking orders.” Those only work in the military. They have to, because without a clear chain of command all those soldiers, spacers, and marines will be fusion fodder for the Zhodani and the Vargr. Government, Imperial government that is, is different from a lift infantry battalion, though.
Remember, boys and girls, that communication in the Imperium is no faster than a jump. That means no command, whether it’s from a small company’s manager or from an archduke, can travel faster than six parsecs in a week or so. Four parsecs per week is a more practical speed because that’s how fast x-boats go. Typical far-trading vessels go half that speed.
All that means an order from the Emperor on Capital will take months to reach us here on Efate. Archduke Norris can get to us much quicker from the domain capital on Mora, maybe a few weeks. If he happens to be at his fief on Regina or Alell, he can reach us in two weeks at the very most.
But what is a noble going to give orders about? That noble has to know what the situation on the planet is first, right? Can the Emperor declare war on he Sword Worlds if he doesn’t know what is going on there? If it takes two or three months for the news from the Sword Worlds to get to Capital, then it takes twice that much time for the Emperor to respond to anything hostile the Swordies might do. Knowledge might be power, but the longer it takes for a noble to know anything, the longer it takes for him to do anything. Sure, the emperor commands a whole Navy, but what good is that if it takes him six months to send them to deal with a specific problem?
More locally-located nobles can react to developing situations much more quickly because they are so much closer to the action. Even quicker are planetary governments. If a planet has high enough technology to support its own planet-wide satellite and data networks, a planetary governor can react to any situation immediately if he has the will to do it and no pesky legislature or judiciary standing in his way. No, I am not saying that dictatorships are good or that checks ands balances are bad! I am saying that in the Imperium, all real power is local power.
But what does the Imperium govern anyway? Why, it’s “the stars and the space between the stars,” of course! We all know that doesn’t mean vacuum, interstellar dust, and the like, but the activity that takes place off planetary surfaces. That activity, of course, is trade. And where trade takes place when it’s not on a planetary surface is when the cargo is on board a merchant vessel, especially in jump. Those 170 hours spent in jump are the precious hours where wealth is created between worlds, and the authority over this is all the power that matters in the Imperium during peacetime. In a star system, there is the local Starport Authority director, and there are planetary or system governments plus locally-located Imperial nobility to consider. In jumpspace, there aren’t always nobles on starships, but the undeniable authority on any ship at that time (because no higher authority can communicate with a ship in jumpspace) is the ship’s captain.
So we can look at Imperial power in practical terms by weighing authority against distance. This is something young lawyers, what you people will be if and when you ever graduate, need to understand in order to be good lawyers. At the very top is the Emperor, Strephon himself, but you will never meet him. Next there are the archdukes, who have all the power of the Emperor but are close enough to their charges for their power really to matter. The dukes rank under the archdukes and because they usually live within one jump of their entire area of responsibility, they have more real power than archdukes. But guess what? None of this matters at all when you’re aboard a ship in jump space; in that situation, the captain is the supreme being, and the only supreme being who matters. He or she has more power than Strephon ever will. Misunderstand what this means and you won’t survive your first interstellar voyage.
Now some of you might be shocked to hear all this. Maybe you are wondering why everything works so well, or seems to work so well, if everything that matters is in the hands of barons, marquises, petty dictators, and ship captains. My dear pupils, it often doesn’t work so well. The more you travel the more you will understand this. Where it does work, and where the power of the Emperor really is felt in the actions of a marquis on planet who is able to react to a developing situation in time, is where there is loyalty. Loyalty alone is what gives higher nobles faith in their inferiors to do their bidding, and to act in the interests and the of the honour of the realm.
Professor Sir Achmed Rollins is the chair of the Admiralty/Mercantile Law program at Olav hault-Plankwell School of Law, university of Efate.