Viktor Hung Su looked down at his watch. Technically, his shift had finished ten minutes ago, but he was in the middle of a job. Something had left a nasty scratch in the Throne Ship’s hull, so deep it had stripped right through the gold cladding to expose the steel surface beneath. The repair work was fiddly and time-consuming, but he wanted to get it right. Viktor was young, but he was skilful. He took great pride in his work, and this had not gone unnoticed by the bosses. In a year or two, he hoped, they might grant him the rank of Craftsman. But that would only happen if he continued his good work. They would be watching him closely.
Hung Su checked his oxygen supply before pulling out the polishing machine from its holster. He had filled in the damage with a repair fluid that hardened quickly under vacuum. It left behind a slightly crusty surface that, once polished, looked indistinguishable from pure gold. This was a temporary repair; tomorrow at the workshop he would begin the process of shaping a piece of real gold to the precise dimensions of the cut. Once it was complete, the filler would be scraped out, and the solid piece hammered in.
Leaning forward, Hung Su applied the polishing machine to the surface, dragging its tip repeatedly back and forth along the line of damage. The machine smoothed away the imperfections, and a mist of golden flakes puffed out into space.
Something flashed in his peripheral vision. Lifting the machine from the hull, he turned to look. A ship had appeared suddenly in the nearby space, just a few hundred metres out from the First Ship of the Realm. Hung Su flinched and closed his eyes, bracing himself for a barrage from the First Ship’s defensive systems. But nothing happened, and after a few seconds he raised his head to look again.
The intruding vessel was disc-shaped, curved on both sides like a lentil, and silvery in colour. Spinning rapidly on its axis, it wobbled slowly towards the First Ship’s docking port, though it had no visible means of propulsion. Viktor stared in amazement as he realised what he was looking at.
An Imperial Scoutcraft. Hung Su had never dreamed he would see such a thing in real life. According to legend, these vessels could move at the speed of light, and they did so easily. That was supposed to be impossible, of course, and Viktor knew that. But now he was looking at one, and he was not so sure. An Imperial Scout had returned. He was fortunate indeed; this was a once in a lifetime event.
Hung Su forced his attention back to the Throne Ship, and completed the job to his usual high standards. Then he packed up his tools and hurried back to the waiting shuttle that would take him and his shift-mates across to the First Ship, where the Scoutcraft had now docked – and where, just possibly, they might catch a glimpse of it – or of the Imperial Scout himself.
Fifteen minutes later, they too were docked and preparing to disembark. Though the voyage had been brief, Viktor had managed to exhaust his workmates with excited chatter about the return of the Scoutcraft. The subject did not interest them, it seemed – they were older and more cynical, and held out little hope of good news. After a long day’s work, the other men were keen to return home to their wives and children, and the small comforts of familiar things.
Hung Su was amazed by their disinterest. He thought at first that they did not understand, and launched into an explanation: the Imperial Scouts were sent far ahead of the main fleet to survey distant star systems. Even at light-speed the scouts took decades to reach their destinations, where they would carry out a brief survey before turning back and heading for home. Total mission time for an Imperial Scout was around fifty years – and sometimes much longer. Victor could not comprehend how a Scoutcraft could support even a single crew member for so long. It was such a small vessel – where did they store all the rice? All the water? He had no answer to these mysteries. But he was not surprised that sometimes, the scouts did not return at all.
His crew-mates were aware of all this, but they allowed Hung Su to talk about it anyway. He was young and soon he would learn, they thought – and he meant well. So they listened patiently, though they did not bother to feign interest. When the doors slid open and they all got out, the men went home to eat. Only Hung Su wanted to know about the Scout. Only he went to look for him.
The First Ship of the Realm was, in effect, the gateway to the Throne Ship. Armed guards were posted at regular intervals around the edges of the docks, and the area was heavily patrolled. This was no place for loitering. But Viktor was a certified member of Imperial Throne Ship Maintenance Squad (Tertiary Division), External Section 14; his security clearance gave access to the Throne Ship’s ‘Reception Area and Diplomatic Amenities’ – known informally as the docks. And besides, he was on good terms with the guards. He might be young, but Hung Su had connections. He had guanxi.
The Scoutcraft was nowhere to be seen – presumably it had been grabbed already by some specialist team and wheeled away for maintenance. But while looking around the reception area Viktor spotted Toby Wan Lung-Bei, one of the Imperial Guards with whom his guanxi was particularly strong.
“T-dawg,” said Victor, approaching. “Howzit, bro?”
“Aaaii. You see the Scout come in? Whoa!”
“Seen him, man.”
“Naah.” Wan Lung-Bei pointed. “But he’s over there.”
Viktor turned to look. In truth, there were few amenities in the reception area – diplomatic or otherwise. There was, however, an overpriced noodle bar. Sitting outside, munching slowly away, was a gentleman with a morose look about him and a small, pig-tailed hairdo. “No fucking way. That’s him?”
“Naaah! Too young, bro. Far too young!”
“That’s him.” Toby shrugged. “Whatever, man.”
“No way,” said Viktor, scrutinising the noodle-eater. “Hey, bro! Let’s go talk to him.”
“Dude! How can I? I’m on duty!”
“Shit, man. Aaiii, I’ll go talk to him. Laters, aaaii?”
“Aaiii – laters.” Toby held out a fist towards Viktor, who bumped it with his own. The two then performed a long and complex handshake known only to cool people. They eventually parted company, Wan Lung-Bei continuing on his rounds while Hung Su made his way to the noodle bar where the Imperial Scout still sat, eating overpriced noodles with an air of sadness.
Viktor was hungry and he had no wife, but he had enough money for a portion of Pork Special Lai Fun with Happy Sauce. It was ready in moments. He picked up the food and went outside to find a seat. The Imperial Scout looked up as he passed by, and Hung Su was ready for him.
“Alright, boss?” he said. “How’s tricks?”
The Scout looked surprised for a moment. Then he smiled. “I see times have changed. But I am well, fine sir.”
“Cool, man,” nodded Viktor. “Cool.” He shovelled noodles into his mouth. “You’re the Scout, right?”
The Scout saluted crisply. “Imperial Scout First Class, Captain Olych Feng Mu-Liang.”
“Whoa!” said Viktor. “That is cool.”
“And what is your good name, sir?”
“Me? I’m Viktor. But dig this – I’m just a dude. An ordinary citizen, more or less. I’m a maintenance man for the Throne Ship. Viktor Hung Su.”
Scout Feng considered this. “An ordinary citizen,” he said. “It is good to meet you, Mr Hung. Under most circumstances it is unlikely our paths would cross. So I must tell you now, sir – in advance – that I shall be unable to divulge to you any details whatsoever of my mission. Such details, sir, are for the Emperor’s ears alone. I doubt you would wish to embarrass me, therefore, by making any such enquiries.”
“Naaah, man! I swear down.”
“Thank you. I had expected to meet with the Emperor immediately upon my return. But he is indisposed. So while I wait I thought I’d have a bite to eat.”
“For real.” Victor nodded. “You been travelling.”
“Yes,” said Feng. “For real. Now perhaps, sir, I may ask you a question?”
“Tell, me, please – what is the name of the current Emperor?”
“Waaaah!?” replied Viktor. “You don’t know? It’s the Emperor Donglong. Of the Huifu Dynasty!”
“It’s the Restoration, yo.”
“What became of the Xinyang? Of the Empress Xiong Ying?”
“Xiong Ying?” Viktor wracked his brains. His knowledge of Imperial history was vague at best. “Was she the one that got eaten by a pig?”
“Never mind,” sighed the Scout. “How are your noodles?”
“Not bad.” Viktor shrugged. “Bit pricey though, you ask me. You want the best noodles, you know what to look for? A dude with a wok, man. Those guys are the best.”
“Hmm.” Feng nodded. “Perhaps you’re right. I’m not enjoying these anyway. I’d better try again with the Emperor. What was his name again?”
“Calls himself Donglong. The Eastern Dragon.”
“Ah, yes. Of the Huifu Dynasty.”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“Thank you, Mr Hung.” The Scout bowed. “I hope we shall meet again.”
“Laters,” said Viktor, returning the bow. “Respect, aaaii?”
“Aye,” said Captain Feng. “Respect.” He got up and walked slowly across to the far side of the docks to approach the Imperial Reception Centre. The guards recognised him from earlier, and after a brief exchange they let him through. He pushed through the doors and went up to the front desk, where sat a small sharp woman with greying hair tied back in a bun.
“Yes?” she said.
The Scout bowed. “Auntie,” he said. “I am Imperial Scout First Class, Captain Olych Feng Mu-Liang. I have returned from my mission, and must report to the Emperor at once.”
“So you said earlier.”
“I was told the Emperor was indisposed,” said Captain Feng. “Is that still the case?”
The woman fixed him with a withering gaze. “You’ve got a noodle stuck on your chin.”
“I am sorry,” said Feng, hurriedly wiping it off. “I meant no offence.”
“No.” The woman laughed. “But you looked very silly. Imagine if you had gone in to see him like that!”
“Yes, how embarrassing.”
“It’s lucky for you I said something,” said the receptionist. “Otherwise… fffwwch!” She made a slashing motion across her throat. “Who knows? Anyway – let me check.” She picked up a brush and made a few strokes on a sheet of smart parchment. The brush hovered as she awaited a response.
Feng coughed. “For a stray noodle,” he said, “the Emperor would have me killed?”
The receptionist stared at him blankly. “Well. Maybe not.” She shrugged, then looked down at the parchment, where words had appeared. “His Majesty will see you now. Please make your way to the Imperial Shuttle at Gate 2.”
Captain Feng bowed low. “Thank you, Auntie. You are too kind.”
Feng arrived at Gate 2 to find the Shuttle waiting for him. It was of a type he had not seen before – an elongated tetrahedron, its smooth gold finish marred only by the characters engraved upon its hull: The Plum Trees Of Home. The Scout smiled. This was surely a literary reference of some kind; he was not familiar with literature, but Captain Feng was impressed.
The craft’s entrance was blocked by three guards. Two drew their swords as he approached, while the third stepped forward to examine Feng’s credentials. Satisfied, he stood up straight and saluted: “Sir! Welcome Back Sir!”
The other two hurriedly sheathed their swords and followed suit: “Sir! An Honour Sir!”
Captain Feng returned the salute. “Thank you.” The guards stepped aside to let him pass, and he entered the Shuttle and sat down. The seat was large and comfortable; Feng sank into it gratefully and strapped in. A sleek-looking mochibot glided over to offer him a cup of tea and a sweet snack, which he accepted. The doors slid closed, an announcement from the pilot warned of sudden acceleration, and the craft was launched.
It did not take long to reach the Throne Ship; Feng barely managed to finish his tea before it was time to get out. He was greeted at the doors by a group of nine Palace Guards; swords drawn and pointed toward his neck, they checked his identification before finally waving him through. The Scout stepped off the shuttle and made his way forward to ascend the gilded steps that led to the Imperial Palace.
An official robed in the indigo silk of the Imperial Court stood waiting at the top, flanked by a dozen bodyguards. As Captain Feng reached the top, the official waved a hand; the guards, who had been reaching for their swords, let their arms drop back to their sides.
“Sir!” The Scout saluted. “Imperial Scout First Class, Captain Olych Feng Mu-Liang, sir!”
The official bowed. “Yes, of course. My apologies.” He straightened up to look Feng in the eye. “I am Imperial Chief Overseer for the Great Concern of The Future, Grand Prefect Milosh Qian Tun.”
Feng bowed low. “I am honoured, sir.”
“Welcome back, Captain. I trust your mission was a success?”
“Regrettably, sir, such information is for the Emperor’s ears alone.” Feng coughed. “No offence.”
“Offence?” Qian laughed. “Of course not.” He lowered his voice. “Loyalty is the highest of virtues.”
Captain Feng nodded.
“Come,” said Grand Prefect Qian. “The Emperor awaits.”
Upon a raised platform in the precise centre of the throne room, nestled among red and gold silks, upon a golden throne sat the Emperor Donglong. His heavenly buttocks rested on a vast cushion fashioned from the soft belly-fur of a dozen tiger cubs, and stuffed with tiny pellets of hair from the golden-tailed woolly monkey. Both creatures had been extinct for centuries – since even before the Imperial Fleet had set off from its ancestral home in ancient China – and were remembered now only by scholars of ancient history. But the Emperor Donglong had no interest in historical trivia; he was a serious man.
He reached forward to pull a small lever built into the Throne’s armrest; in the far wall of the Throne Room, two small sections slid aside to reveal a doorway, before which a pair of distant figures kowtowed.
“Rise,” commanded the Emperor. He spoke quietly. Hidden microphones picked up his words and converted them into powerful, booming tones.
The two men scrambled to their feet. “May His Imperial Majesty live ten thousand years!”
It wasn’t clear which of the men had spoken. Probably both of them, Donglong decided.
“Grand Prefect Qian,” he said. “You will approach the Throne.”
“Yes, Your Majesty!” replied Qian, walking fast. He kept his head bowed. When he came within a few metres of the Throne, he dropped to kowtow again. His forehead made an audible thump as it hit the gilded floor.
The Emperor touched another control on the Throne, muting the sound system. “That’s him?” he asked. “Captain Fun?”
“Yes, Your Majesty. Captain Olych Feng Mu-Liang. Imperial Scout First Class.”
“Feng Mu-Liang,” repeated the Emperor. “And what is your opinion of this man?”
“He appears loyal, sire. He has said nothing.”
Donglong nodded. “And what do we know of his mission?”
“The records indicate that Captain Feng was sent to reconnoitre a star system approximately twenty-eight light-years from our current position; a system designated Prospect 37. That was in the year 261, under the Empress Xiong Ling of the Xinyang Dynasty.”
“What? That’s almost sixty years ago!”
“Yes, Your Majesty. Fifty-six years, to be precise. Twice twenty-eight years – the distance from here to there. Distance equals time, sire.”
The Emperor did not like to be reminded of mathematics. He glared disapprovingly at the top of Grand Prefect Qian’s head, still pressed to the floor. “But this man looks to be in his thirties.”
“Yes, Your Majesty. As you will recall, sire, the faster one moves through space, the more slowly time will pass – from the point of view, that is, of the moving observer – ie, the Scout inside his craft. From our point of view – which in relation to the near-luminal velocities achieved by the Scoutcraft may be taken as a stationary reference frame – some fifty-six years have passed. But from his point of view—”
“Enough!” barked the Emperor. He had switched the mics back on, and his voice boomed threateningly around the room.
Grand Prefect Qian whimpered in terror, and he began to shake violently. “Forgive me, Your Majesty!” he begged. “I meant no disrespect!”
Donglong ignored him. “Imperial Scout Feng,” he said, more quietly. “Come here.”
The Scout walked forward to kowtow before the Emperor.
“Look at me.”
Feng raised his head. “I am honoured, Your Highness.”
“Captain Feng. I congratulate you on your safe return.”
“Thank you, Your Highness.”
“And the successful completion of your mission.”
Feng paused. “Your Highness—”
The Emperor cut him off. “Tell, me, Scout Feng; how long have you been gone?”
“By whose reckoning, sire?”
“How dare you!” thundered Donglong. “I ask the questions! You answer them! Is that clear?”
“Yes, Your Highness,” replied the Scout. “Six days. By my reckoning. But according to my calculations—”
“Do not speak to me of your calculations,” warned Donglong. “I am not interested.”
“Very well, sire.”
“His Majesty is wise,” ventured Grand Prefect Qian.
Again Donglong ignored him. “So, Scout Feng. You were sent on this mission by the Empress Xiong Ling, is that correct?”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“What was she like? Was she very beautiful?”
“They say she was beautiful.” Donglong smiled. “My father married her, you know. After you left. But she was a sorceress; he didn’t know it at first, but later on he became suspicious. Then one day he caught her at it – performing magic spells, putting curses on people. She was controlled by emotion… Pure evil. He had to put a stop to it – and he did. Right away.”
Captain Feng stared at him, aghast. “The Empress Xiong Ling? Evil?”
“I’m afraid so. But don’t worry – she’s long gone. Things are much better now.”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“Tell me, Captain Feng; what did you find, on your successful mission to Prospect 37?”
The Scout gave Grand Prefect Qian a sidelong glance.
“Milosh Qian Tun is my trusted advisor,” said Donglong. “You may speak freely.”
“Prospect 37 is a binary system,” began the Scout, “consisting of a main sequence F-Type star co-orbiting a white dwarf with an average separation of about 40 AU. There are seven major planets: four gas giants, two ice giants, and one large ocean world. There are many thousands – indeed, millions of smaller bodies, most of which I was unable to catalogue in detail. Of particular interest is the—”
“Stop,” said the Emperor. “You are boring me.”
“My apologies, Your Highness.”
“I am not interested in scientific mumbo-jumbo. That sort of thing does not impress me. Be concise, Scout Feng. Try not to waffle.”
Captain Feng nodded. “Yes, Your Majesty.” He hesitated. Without further mumbo-jumbo, it was not easy to continue. “There are—”
Grand Prefect Qian spoke up. “If I understand Captain Feng correctly, Your Majesty, the system contains no rocky planets suitable for human habitation.”
“That is correct,” said the Scout. “But—”
“But nothing!” bellowed the Emperor. “Do not make excuses. You have failed.”
“But Your Majesty! The ocean—”
“Grand Prefect Qian! Get this man out of my sight!”
“At once, Your Majesty!” cried Qian, rising from the floor. “Security!”
“Fifty-six years we’ve been waiting!” thundered Donglong. “And now he turns up empty-handed. Lazy bastard! Give him forty lashes, and send him back out there! I want a fucking planet! Qian! Why is this man still here? Get rid of him, I said!”
“Please!” cried Feng. “Your Majesty!”
Three Imperial bodyguards came running up. Two grabbed the Scout’s arms and began to drag him off. The other drew his sword. Taking great care never to point it towards the Emperor, he waved it at Feng in a threatening manner.
“Your Highness! I believe—”
“Silence! One more word, and I will cut out your tongue!”
The guards dragged the Scout from the Throne Room and down the Palace steps to a small courtyard fringed with peach and cherry trees; there he was tied to a post and flogged. His punishment was supervised by Grand Prefect Qian, who made sure it was completed efficiently and to the proper standard. Afterwards, he personally untied Captain Feng from the post and summoned the Imperial Physician to treat his wounds. Qian boiled water, and when the doctor was finished he sat down with Feng to drink tea, and to give him his orders.
Captain Feng reached out gingerly to take the proffered scroll. Despite the physician’s efforts, he was in a lot of pain. His back would heal rapidly, he knew; but right now it felt like it was on fire. Even the smallest movements made it worse. But Feng was a soldier, and this was not the first time he had been flogged. He knew better than to make a fuss. He had clenched his teeth and got through the whipping without screaming once. His ancestors would be proud.
He unfurled the scroll and read through it carefully before setting it down on the small table in front of him. He took a sip of tea, then looked across at Grand Prefect Qian, who was watching him carefully. “An M-Class system,” said Feng. “Forty-one light-years distant.”
Qian nodded. “A red giant.”
“Grand Prefect Qian, I am confused. I have just returned from Prospect 37 – have I not?”
Feng nodded. “Please forgive me; I thought I had mis-remembered. But now I find this hard to understand. In over half a century, we have made so little progress?”
“In all that time, only one other Scoutcraft has returned to the fleet.”
“Grand Imperial Scout Captain Semyon Zhuang Yu-Yi.”
“Zhuang?” Captain Feng spilled his tea. “Really?” Zhuang was a legend; by the time of the Empress Xiong Ling, he’d already been forty years overdue. The title of Grand Imperial Scout had been awarded posthumously; by then he had been gone for almost a century, and was presumed long dead.
Qian smiled. “Quite a surprise.”
“What happened to him?”
“He miscalculated. Overshot his destination by several light-years, we believe. As a result, he was unable to determine the correct location of the fleet. It took weeks of searching before he found us. Sixty-one years! He was in a bad state by all accounts – dehydrated, half-starved. He had even begun to hallucinate.”
“The poor man! Did he find anything?”
The Scout shuddered. “How awful.”
“Yes. I don’t like to think about it.”
Something occurred to Captain Feng. “You sent him out again, didn’t you?”
“Before my time, I’m afraid.” Qian sipped his tea. “That responsibility fell on the shoulders of Grand Prefect Wing, my predecessor.”
“You sent him back out. To Prospect 38.”
“No, Captain Feng. Not I.” Qian put down his cup. “Wing did his duty. No more.”
“Zhuang did his duty, too.”
“Indeed, Captain.” Qian wagged a finger. “He did his duty.”
Feng signed. “As will I, sir.”
“As will you.” Qian nodded. “Good.”
The Scout was silent for a moment; thoughtful. “Grand Prefect,” he said. “I have made a full report of my findings at Prospect 37. I trust you will find the time to study it carefully. It is an interesting system, sir.”
“Yes, Captain. I’m sure it is.”
“There are life-forms, sir. On the ocean world. Fish.”
Grand Prefect Qian laughed. “What?”
“They may be edible, sir.”
“I believe so, sir. It’s all in my report.”
Qian nodded. “I see,” he said. “Well, it all sounds very interesting. Thank you. It’s been an honour.” He got up. “Now, I’m afraid you will have to excuse me. I have another meeting. Best of luck, Captain, and I hope your wounds heal quickly.”
“Thank you, Grand Prefect.”
“Now get some rest. You leave tomorrow morning.”