Two royal heirs from different racial and cultural backgrounds. One is a visionary leader of an outcast race, determined to unite his people and reclaim their ancestral homeland. The other was long thought dead after the royal family was massacred during a planetary invasion. The recent evidence that the heir still lives, threatens to disrupt the smooth running of the Empire.
David Held, a top agent in the Imperial service, is sent to find and protect the missing heir from agents of the occupying forces, desperate to consolidate their hold on the conquered planet and prevent the heir returning.
The trouble is the Empire (nearly) always fights by the rules. To avoid technological contamination of a less advanced society, Held is denied his usual array of hi-tech equipment and even has his memories altered to fit the local environment. Faced with an enemy unconstrained by such ideological considerations, he has one hand tied behind his back.
As the fates of the two young heirs become increasingly intertwined, can the race to find the one, help to fulfil the ambitions of the other? Or will both be destroyed by a ruthless enemy who has no qualms about bringing advanced warfare to a pre-industrial society?
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What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I have always loved Science Fiction. I would love to travel the stars and see if there really are Earth-like worlds out there. If not exactly Earth-like, worlds that we could adapt to or terraform to our specifications. So I try to create worlds that are a little bit different but still recognisable. And then I create the characters to exploit those differences and interact with their modified environment.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I had an existing special agent character, a sort of “Stainless Steel Rat” stereotype and I thought, “What would happen if I take away all his hi-tech toys and place him in a pre-industrial society where he has to live by his wits?”
The other main characters are not pre-formed. They grow and develop as the story is told and, in fact, the identity of the missing heir is not discovered until late on in the story.
The psychic blast reverberated through all corners of the empire and for the few seconds it lasted, the universe was a sad place. The outpouring of grief was so intense that grown men stopped in mid-stride and women and children burst into tears for no reason other than the intensity of the emotion that suddenly hit them. Telepaths everywhere instinctively strengthened their shields yet still cringed from the sheer power of the outburst. The whole of the known universe felt an almost personal loss but only one in a trillion had any inkling of what really had just happened.
Some hours later, four of those more knowledgeable people were standing around a Stellar Display Tank on the Imperial planet of Galgos.
Khan, the head of the Imperial Secret Service, opened the discussion.
“So the babe survived the crash after all.”
“Is there any other possible explanation for this phenomenon?”
“You’re the Chief Scientific Advisor. You tell me.”
The scientist shook his head. “Until four hours ago I would not have said it was possible, a mental blast of that power. Not even for a member of the Ystrad royal family. The scream originated from a planet in the region of space where we know the escape ship was headed after the attack on the royal palace. But the Navy searched that whole region.”
“We did.” Space Admiral Wei, the third member of the quartet said, fiddling with the controls on the display. It was the most powerful model display tank, capable of showing stellar and planetary objects down to asteroid level. It could even indicate the status of ships and satellites in a particular region of space, if there was a suitable information source such as a local navigational beacon, to upload the information.
“This is the region where we think the blast originated. It was 25 years ago but I’ve scanned the records. We searched every inhabited and uninhabited planet in that entire region but we found no trace of a crash site.”
“Well obviously you should have looked harder.”
“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” Khan intervened. “Recriminations at this stage are not going to move us forward. What are the damage estimates?” he said, turning to the fourth member of the group.
“Reports are coming in of casualties on every Imperial planet; industrial accidents, traffic accidents, major transport problems. All due to momentary loss of concentration. On top of that, we have severe casualties among the telepathic community. Anyone who didn’t get their shields up in time suffered trauma and several hundred are in shock induced comas. We don’t have the full figures yet; the reports are still coming in but the damage will run into billions.
“Whoever or whatever caused this has to be found and stopped. The Emperor is concerned at the moment but if it should happen again…. He will be looking for heads to liberate from shoulders, if you understand me.”
Khan tried to calm the situation. “You will have to manage the Emperor. You’re the Chancellor. It’s part of your job description.
“None of us are in a position as yet, to guarantee anything about a recurrence. But every psychologist I’ve spoken to in the last couple of hours, has agreed that this was grief probably caused by a singular traumatic event rather than an on-going situation.
“I asked them to hypothesise and extrapolate based on the Ystrad baby scenario. Assuming that the baby survived the crash, and all the evidence seems to be pointing that way, he would have needed help to survive this long. We know that one of the family’s retainers escaped in the craft with the baby. We can only speculate that something has happened to either the boy himself or to his guardian.”
“You refer to him as a boy but it’s been 25 years since the Belsi attacked Ystradis. The boy will be a grown man by now.”
“That’s not necessarily so”, the chief scientist said. “We don’t know everything about the Ystrad physiology; they’re quite a secretive race. But we know they are very long lived, much longer than most other races and develop to maturity or adulthood over a correspondingly longer timespan. Coupled with that, the consensus of opinion among the telepathic community is that the outburst had childish overtones of fear and loneliness as well as the massive feeling of sadness and loss. I don’t think we’re talking about an adult Ystrad here. I think we’re talking about a child who has just lost the guardian who’s been looking after him for the last 25 years.”
“Then we have to find this child,” the chancellor stated, “if he is still a child, and restore him to his people before anything else happens to him that might trigger another outburst. How confident are we about the child’s location?”
“Reasonably confident. Telepaths are not scientific instruments and everybody was caught unawares by this blast. Nevertheless we’ve triangulated best estimates from as many telepaths as we can and we’ve narrowed down the possibilities to only three star systems. Two of the three contain no habitable planets and the escape craft they used could not have sustained life in a hostile environment for as much as one year let alone twenty five. The third stellar system has one planet in the Goldilocks zone, the habitable zone around the star. That has to be the favourite. They could have exited the escape craft and mingled with the local population. I understand the differences in physical appearance are not that great”
“And you surveyed this planet at the time of the search, admiral?”
“We did; and found no trace of a crash site. However, the land mass of the planet is mainly concentrated in the southern hemisphere. Most of the northern hemisphere is ocean. If the escape craft came down in the ocean, there would be no trace of a crash site to find.”
“So your excuse is that they splashed down in the ocean and somehow managed to swim to shore. Is that it?”
“It is not an excuse, chancellor, but it is a viable theory. We know that the type of craft they were using had some aquatic capability. They would not have had to… swim very far.”
“I see. And the native population. What stage are they at?”
“Unfortunately this is one of the original Terran colonies that was lost after the collapse of the First Expansion. With the loss of contact, the civilisation regressed. When it was rediscovered about 150 years ago, it was a feudal state. Castles, warlords, definitely pre-industrial. Probably no more than 0.5 on the Kardashev scale.”
“So we can’t go in and mount a full scale search without contravening at least three Galactic Non-Intervention laws.”
“Not a chance. The Department of Exo-Affairs has slapped an interdiction on the planet. Absolutely no contact. However, the situation is even more complicated than that.”
The other three all looked at Khan. “How so?”
“We believe that we have located, at least on a planetary level, the missing heir to the throne of Ystrad. Technically their uncrowned king since the demise of his parents. If we have done that, the Ystrad, being a telepathic race, will also have done so and probably more easily and quickly than we did. They will undoubtedly mount a search and rescue mission regardless of any Galactic Non-Intervention laws.
“And it gets worse. The Ystrad are a scattered race following the capture of Ystradis by the Belsi, in the conflict from which the baby fled. However, the restoration of their king would provide a rallying point for their people and could lead to a renewal of the war with the Belsi and an attempt to retake their home planet.
“The Belsi, on the other hand, will do everything in their power to prevent this. Now the Belsi are inherently a non-telepathic race but they will have access to telepaths and it will not take them long to find the location of this planet. Once they have it, they will be down there in numbers, trampling everything and everybody in their way to find this Ystrad prince and eliminate him.
“So we now have not only the possibility of technological interference with a pre-industrial society but the real risk of an inter-racial conflict being waged on the surface of this planet in the middle of a primitive and innocent people.”
“Oh shit”, muttered the chancellor. “Do we have to tell the Emperor?”
“That’s your call, of course,” Khan said. “But I don’t see how we can keep the lid on this, particularly if it does break out into open conflict.”
“So what’s to be done?”
“I suggest that the first thing is to get the Emperor to summon the Belsi and the Ystrad ambassadors and read them the riot act. Tell them the boy is under his personal protection; make him a ward of the Imperial court or something. If he puts on one of his really scary performances it might slow them down a bit, or at least make them think twice about putting troops on the ground.
“The second thing is to seal off the planet as far as we can. They will still try to put some people in there even if they don’t send in troops. Admiral Wei, can you put a blockade up around the planet?”
“Not that would be totally effective. You can commit as many ships as you want to a planetary blockade and a determined smuggler or blockade runner would find a way through. They always do. The best I can do is to put up a network of early warning satellites with a warship there to monitor the signals and intercept what he can.”
“Okay then. The third thing is…. We’ve got to find this youngster and before anybody else does. And that means we’ve got to put our own people on the ground.”
“And break a few galactic laws ourselves?”
“It won’t be the first time and I doubt it will be the last. Of course it would probably be best not to draw the Emperor’s attention to this part of the plan. Plausible deniability and all that.”
“How will we identify the child from the native population? For a start, what age would the boy be or, at least appear to be?”
“That’s very difficult to say with any degree of confidence. The exo-team who have been studying the race say that the rate of development of a young Ystrad is heavily dependent on environmental factors: suitable food supply, secure family environment, education and training, peer group pressure etc. With the possible exception of the food supply, most of those other factors have either not been present or not been ideal. Best estimate is that he will appear to be in his low teens, possibly as much as 15/16 but no more and he could be very much younger.”
“Great. That narrows it down to most of the male children on the planet. So how will we identify this particular one?”
“Well, the boy is probably going to be a loner. He may be able to physically pass as one of the natives but he will not belong to any family group. However, I would suggest the most profitable course would be to look for telepathic leakage. The native population is very definitely non-telepathic. The evidence of this blast shows that the boy is not in full control of his own ability and is unlikely to be able to fully shield himself. If we use people who are capable of tracking telepathic ability, he may give himself away.”
It was the chancellor who voiced the suspicion that had been growing as Khan relayed all this information.
“Uh, Khan. How exactly do we know all these details about the local population?”
“Well… I do have some low-level assets on the planet. Locals who file regular reports but without any understanding of why, or who they’re reporting to. Useful as contacts for the people we will have to send in but no more than that.”
“So, do you have any agents suitable for this assignment?”
“Yes, of course. We have to treat this as a priority task and I have three or four agents who could handle it. All of them have some telepathic ability, either natural or trained and all of them are capable of dealing with a mission of this… sensitivity. I will just have to pull them off their current deployments.”
“Won’t a team of agents increase the risk of drawing attention to themselves?”
“They won’t be a team as such. I will have to send them in as individuals, working on their own. Scatter them across the continent to provide maximum coverage. I will alert the local contacts to help but it’s a huge area to search. What worries me is the risk of technological contamination. All of my people are trained in the latest weapons, devices, technological gizmos, anything that will give them an edge. And none of which they will be able to use on this planet. They’re going to have to go in bare-arsed.”
“Do we have a choice?”
“No regrettably, I don’t believe we do.”
“Well I may be able to help there,” the CSA broke in. “We’ve had a team working for quite some time now on deep memory implants, suppression and substitution of memories and we’ve been making a lot of progress. I believe we’re at a point where we could take one of your agents, suppress their technical training and knowledge and graft on a set of skills, training and experience that would be appropriate to let them blend in to the society on this planet.”
“How effective is it?” Khan asked.
“Oh it definitely works. We’ve conducted trials where we’ve taken a couple of volunteer scientists and retrained them in a completely different field. The trial subjects were able to work and converse with colleagues in their new non-scientific fields as though they had worked there all their lives.”
“And is it reversible?”
“Definitely. In fact that’s really the only problem we’ve encountered; occasional memory leakage. We’ve run some of these tests over extended periods and the new implants have stayed stable throughout. However, sometimes weeks or months later, something triggers one of the suppressed memories and it comes bubbling back to the surface. The trigger might be a sight or a sound, or even a smell. It’s completely unpredictable. Even then it doesn’t affect the implanted memories. It just causes a bit of confusion in the subject’s mind.”
“You’re saying that you could take my agent, suppress his technical training and knowledge, retrain him as a farmer who would blend into this primitive society and the only risk is that in two months’ time he might suddenly remember how to disassemble and clean a multi-phase repeating laser rifle.”
“Ah… yes. Something like that.”
Khan looked around the room at the others.
“Gentlemen, it appears we have the bare bones of a plan here. We have to find this boy, this heir to the Ystrad throne and protect him from the Belsi. Chancellor, I’m relying on you to scare the living daylights out of those ambassadors and keep their people off that planet. Admiral, I want that blockade up and running as soon as possible, to the best level that you can achieve. And I will go and roust out some agents for reassignment.”
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