This short story is set entirely on the emperor's personal flagship/palace, which is a monumental ship full of courtiers and all the panoply of the ruler of the solar system.

He keeps a single member of a subject people as something of a court jester; this is apparently a sad representative of the benighted people of the northern hemisphere, most of whom were killed in a nuclear war that saw the balance of power shift to the southern hemisphere.

As they travel through space the captain informs them that there is an unknown object on radar. The emperor is curious and the northerner convinces the emperor's people this might actually be an artifact from outside the solar system, so something truly alien.

The emperor now must have this object, so an effort is duly made to bring it aboard. As the object nears, the captain observes that it has streaks on it as though it had made re-entry even though it is now deep in space. The captain is disturbed by this, but can't find a plausible excuse not to bring it on board.

The captain goes to the emperor to report that it is being brought onboard. At the same moment he sees the glee in the northern's face he realizes that not all weapons used in the global nuclear war were aimed down.

The time frame I believe I read this is early 1990s; could have been an anthology or a magazine. Perhaps one of the There Will Be War anthologies?

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    Arrgh, I've read that story. But I do not remember the name. The emperor has a hobby of collecting ancient space probes floating in the void. The jester (who the emperor forces to wear the uniform of the defunct army he is from) convinces the emperor the object will be a priceless addition. The protagonist figures out what is going on, but keeps his silence.They know that the object will explode when brought aboard, killing the emperor and everybody in the ship. Commented Aug 14, 2020 at 22:45

1 Answer 1


This is “The Whirligig of Time” (1974) by Vernor Vinge. Originally published in Stellar 1, Judy-Lynn del Rey ed.

Description from Wikipedia:

The story opens with a description of an attack on the unidentified losing side of a nuclear exchange. Ballistic missiles rain down on military installations, while smuggled bombs destroy cities. Over the next centuries the winning side of this conflict forms an oppressive solar system wide empire. The rest of the story is set in space on the occasion of the imperial heir's 18th birthday celebration, at which the emperor and most of the aristocracy is present. During the party, a descendant of the losing side (who is employed as a "pet" slave/jester by the prince) alerts the ship's captain to an interesting object orbiting Earth, knowing the prince's penchant for collecting space debris. The captain is instructed to divert towards the object, and soon realizes that the object is a nuclear weapon from the original war. He decides not to change his course or inform others of this, believing that his death in the collision will be worth the elimination of the empire's elite to free the solar system from its tyranny.

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    I have The Stars at War (vol. 1 of Imperial Stars) so that's where I read it. Confusion with the There Will Be War series is easy, since they're both Pournelle/Carr military-SF anthology series.
    – DavidW
    Commented Oct 16, 2020 at 22:42

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