The Stealth Star motto is, “Safety does not exist, but courage does.” While I sit in my space pod, about to land on what the Concord of Trading Star Systems has designated as Rediscovered Unknown Planet Omega 12774, I repeat that motto to myself, because I cannot afford to feel any fear right now. Fear is a nervous reaction that gives energy to the muscles at the expense of taking energy from the thinking centers in the brain — and I will need my mind to be at its sharpest when I face these potential hostiles. The planetary scan of Omega 12774 showed signs of electronic technology, but no star ships or long-range communications. It is possible that the humans of this planet might have that unpleasantness which every Stealth Star loathes: a mix of technological progress and political retrogression which is the precondition for hostile soldiers capable of taking on our star technology.
The space pod penetrates the atmosphere; I jerk back in my seat and then slam forward as I crash into the ground below. I open my pod and see a vast stretch of stagnant brown fields around me. The brown extends outward in all directions, like a sea of mud. A few faded, half-alive trees sprout in the distant horizon, their frail green branches sagging down like the skin of an old woman. I am several miles from the perimeter of what showed up as the largest collection of life-forms on the planetary scan. My hope is that it is the capital city; I also hope that the leaders of this society’s social cooperation (assuming that the natives cooperate, and have leaders) will reveal themselves as kind, benevolent, freedom-loving organizers who will welcome the opportunity to trade with other planets — there’s nothing wrong with being naïve enough to wish for good luck, is there? I set my visual scanner on long range and begin to run toward the city on my technologically enhanced legs.
Fear is a nervous reaction that gives energy to the muscles at the expense of taking it from the thinking centers in the brain — and I will need my mind to be at its sharpest when I face these potential hostiles.
I come to the top of a hill and the city is spread out before me. It is not what I had expected. The planetary scan detected sophisticated electronic technology, but this city looks like something out of a picture book of Origin Earth’s dark ages. The wooden buildings have thatched yellow straw roofs, a few squat structures are built from red stone bricks, and various open squares dot the streets. The city blocks are broken up by narrow unpaved dirt roads laid at random. Humans, hundreds of them, bustle about in the streets, and a crowd of people fills some sort of marketplace beneath rainbow-colored tents on the western side of the city — but the goods they are trading appear to be live animals, mainly chickens, pigs and goats, as well as bags of corn and wheat, and the most valuable goods up for sale are small iron tools or jewelry made of glass and crystal. The people are dressed in clothes that are little more than rags. The colors are dull shades ranging from midnight black to smoke gray. These people are emaciated, dirty and haggard-looking, their skin stretched tight across hungry bones and their eyes sunken into their faces. I see no energy, no excitement, no smiles. Nowhere do I see anything resembling electronic technology — but wait!
At the far side of the city, on the other side of a series of building-covered hills, I can see a massive stone castle. Its shadow cuts across the city like a knife. I see glittering red lights emanating from the small windows in the castle’s upper towers — bright lights, unmistakably electric lights. I run a visual scan and see that the castle is full of technology; there are laser guns mounted on turrets around the castle’s outer walls, the scan detects the electromagnetic outline of super-computers, and small nuclear generators are buried in the castle’s lower levels. So! This civilization is ruled by someone who takes the technology for himself and gives nothing to his people. I sense that a conflict between the Stealth Stars and the ruling power inside that castle is inevitable.
I use an optical mirage device to make my star armor look like peasant’s rags, and I descend into the city. The computer in my brain quickly decodes the language of these people, which is derived from the Post-English that was spoken in this part of the galaxy before the Apocalypse. I walk into a building with a sign above the door proclaiming “Bet’s Inn and Tavern.” Inside I am greeted by an attractive young woman with long blonde hair that shimmers as though it were made of gold; her healthy glow has not been dampened by the dirt in her hair or her missing teeth or the numerous stitches desperately holding together her moon-gray dress.
“Hello, good sir. A traveler, are we? Yes? Well, if you’ve got the gems to pay for it then there ain’t no better place than Bet Matil’s Inn and Tavern. A bed and a good meal will be three blue gems, yes? And you, well, have the gems? Good, good!”
“I am from distant lands,” I say to this woman, presumably Bet, “and I would like to talk to you, to educate myself. What is the name of this city, and this land? And who lives in that castle? I might like to visit there and meet the leaders of your city.”
Three men sitting at a nearby table playing some form of dice game hear me, and the men laugh heartily.
“Don’t no one gets to go into that castle, what?” one of the men says with a grin. He has a long copper-red beard and a face so round and red that it reminds me of an apple. “Nobody,” he continues. “That castle is the home of our beloved leader, Prince Regisoph. That’s the Prince’s Tower, Tower Regisoph. This city is Rej, and our lands and farms, as far as the eye can see, that’s Rej too. Where do you come from, good sir, the fairy tale lands across the ocean, not to know this? One of the fair folk, are you?”
“Rej” appears to mean “power,” and “Regisoph” “wise and powerful.”
“I’m a human being, same as you,” I reply in a friendly tone. “So, this Regisoph is a Prince? And his father is King, I presume?”
“Father?” one of the men says, and they explode in raucous, wheezing laughter. This man who just spoke smiles at me with mirth; his teeth are yellow and rotten. “Prince Regisoph has been Prince for hundreds of years. It’s been so long that nobody around here can remember the time before he ruled. Ah, legend says that those were dark times, before the Prince’s enlightened rule. Bah! Let’s not dwell on the horrors of legends. You rolled a four so you owe me four, Jerem!”
“He has ruled for centuries? Then the Prince is not human?” I ask. No known alien species inhabits this part of the galaxy. And anti-aging technology capable of extending human life beyond 150 years is virtually impossible for people at the level of technology detected by my scan of the castle.
“Oh, he’s human, all right, although no one really knows for sure since he never comes out of the Tower and the public isn’t allowed to go inside his Tower. We haven’t seen him for over a hundred years,” Bet says. “But everyone knows that he’s human.”
“The Prince remains hidden,” I muse. “And what makes him such a great man, in your opinion? What is it about his rule that is so enlightened?”
“The Prince’s greatness?” Bet replies. There is a strange intensity in her pale grass-green eyes, a look of glowing exuberance, and I suddenly realize to my horror that she is proud to be among those ruled by her Prince. “Why, he’s made everyone equal! We all get the same number of gems at the start of each month, as our allowance, regardless of how much work we did, so that the farmers up north can’t hog all the gems just because they produce so much and we artisans and shopkeepers and innkeepers of the south aren’t so lucky. We get our gems, and we trade them during the month, and then at the end of the month they go away and we get a clean slate and a new set of gems. Some of the ones up north grow mighty rich in the later weeks, but it all goes away — pow! — it all goes up in smoke at the end of the month. It isn’t fair for the north to be rich while the south lives in poverty. Why shouldn’t we take their gems away from the northerners, at least after they’ve had an entire month to play with them? They say that equality is a great thing, so why shouldn’t the north suffer along with us southerners? Why shouldn’t I share my pain with you and with everyone else? We are all given enough gems to buy the things we need to survive — and really, do we need any more than that? The Prince’s way is better than the unrestrained greed of our ancestors, or so the legends say. And if you can’t trust the Prince and his wise men’s legends then who can you trust?”
The space pod penetrates the atmosphere; I jerk back in my seat and then slam forward as I crash into the ground below.
“Um, yes, the Prince certainly seems to be wise,” I reply in a voice that hides my revulsion. So, the land of Rej is ruled by a technology-hoarding tyrant named Prince Regisoph who has enacted a scheme of socialism to keep his peasants from acquiring enough wealth and technological progress to challenge his rule. The people live in misery and poverty and filth, while the Prince (and his soldiers, I’m sure) have all the benefits of modern medicine, entertainment, and the other wonders of electronics — and the Prince’s propaganda has his people believing in the justice and virtue of being ruled. These people seem like good-natured, hearty folk, who could prosper and trade with the rest of the galaxy if they were allowed to know the miracles of capitalism and free trade. But for the people to be freed I must defeat Prince Regisoph. Can one single Stealth Star agent do it? To be a Stealth Star you really do need to have a death wish.
Bet tugs on my arm. “Come, good sir, I’ll show you to your room. And what did you say your name was, by the way?”
“Anth Benj,” I reply, translating my name into its rough equivalent in the Rejian language.
“Anth,” she says, as if to see how my name feels upon her lips. She guides me up a narrow, creaking wooden staircase and into a small room with a straw mat for a bed on one side across from an open window. A warm, soothing wind is blowing in from outside. The window has a view of a few wooden hovels across the street, but above it I can see a wide cloudless emerald-green sky with four white-gray moons visible. Then Bet motions for me to sit down on the bed, and I comply. She smiles at me with a strange, mysterious, purposeful look.
“I listen better than those men down below, and I can tell that you’re not keen on the Prince,” Bet says. “You might be dressed like a Rejian, but your face don’t look like us and your voice don’t sound like us. You are . . . different. I know you must be an ambassador or herald from the lands beyond the ocean, sent to parlay with our Prince. But before you go storming into the Tower, there’s something about the Prince that you should know.”
I am shocked that this woman so easily decoded my disguise. The Rejians are surprisingly clever. We can always use clever people in the Concord, and there are special jobs reserved for people who can think and analyze new situations quickly. In fact, when I look at Bet I can almost picture her cleaned and clothed in the crisp white uniform of a star pilot. But then I smell the odor of horse manure wafting in through the window and the daydream fades.
“What?” I ask.
“There is no need for you to hate the Prince, Anth Benj, because, you see, I am Prince Regisoph,” Bet says.
“I think I’m having a translation problem. Say that again?”
“That’s right. I am the Prince,” Bet says. “So please, don’t oppose me. I am willing to listen to you. Rej can reach an agreement with the lands beyond the ocean.”
“How is that possible?” I ask. Could I have been so lucky as to stumble upon the ruler here, so that I can duel her one-on-one right now?
The planetary scan detected sophisticated electronic technology, but this city looks like something out of a picture book of Origin Earth’s dark ages.
“I keep my identity a secret, but I am the ruler who sits in the Tower,” Bet says. “I rarely even enter the Tower now, but my desires are the law in Rej. So stay in my city for a while and see what it has to offer, and look at our good things and what works before you condemn me for my problems and my flaws. Quick to judge is quick to die, as the wise men say. Don’t be reckless in changing everything to suit the tastes of some strangers from across the sea.”
“Well…” I say. “Then I assume that you know where I really come from?”
“Yes, of course,” she says. She heads for the door, but then looks back over her shoulder and gives me a coy smile. “You come from the fairy world beyond the ocean. I serve chicken stew for dinner at the eighth chime, so be sure to come down, Anth. I look forward to seeing you!” Bet vanishes down the stairs.
This is weird! Is Bet really the Prince, or do these people have some sort of psychological complex in which they become insane and identify with their ruler? I must learn more. I search the rooms next to mine, and in another room I find one of the men who had been playing dice downstairs, the man with the apple-red face. He sits at a table, counting his winnings from dice — a set of small gemstones, some green and some blue, and one red. He holds the red gem in his hands, a look of intense pride lighting up his eyes.
“Excuse me? May I come in?” I ask.
“Ah, the stranger!” the man says when he notices me. “My fellow traveler. I am Jerem, and yes, come in, come in, more is happier! I too am a stranger in this city, you know. I am from a northern farm, here to sell our chickens, but, ah, yes, lady luck, what? Lady luck has blessed me as much as the chickens! It seems so wrong that these gems will all be gone so soon, so soon, so soon . . .”
“Yes, it is a shame,” I agree.
“Shame, yes, but it is what we want, after all,” Jerem says. “I feel greed, yes, but it wouldn’t be fair to all the other good people for me to own too many gems and for them to have none. Wouldn’t be right.”
“Yes,” I say, continuing to observe the brainwashing effect of the Prince’s propaganda. “Speaking of which, could we talk about the Prince? I have some more questions that Bet didn’t quite answer.”
Jerem’s eyes become secretive and shifty. He coughs nervously. “The Prince? Why would you want to talk about the Prince with me? It’s not like I am the Prince in reality and I pretend to be a farmer.”
“No, of course not,” I say. Then a thought occurs to me. I do a quick visual scan of Jerem with the scanner implanted in my left eye, and my fear is confirmed: a small neuro-computer is implanted in Jerem’s brain with an internet feed broadcasting to a remote signal. I adjust my scanner to scan through the walls and sweep the entire building, and everyone here, all the Rejians, have brain jacks. But they seem oblivious to the computers in their brains, just as they seem ignorant of all the technology in the Prince’s Tower. What is going on here?
"Ah, legend says that those were dark times, before the Prince’s enlightened rule. Bah! Let’s not dwell on the horrors of legends!"
“Well, what? What? You seem like an honest chap, so I have a confession to make,” Jerem says, and my scanner detects activity in Jerem’s brain computer. “I am the Prince. Yes, I am Prince Regisoph. Best not to hide it. But don’t tell my wife, she’d be furious. Anyway, this is my city and my land and my Tower, and I’m bloody well proud of it. So don’t mess it up. That’s all I’ve got to say.”
I say goodbye to Jerem and return to my room, sit on my uncomfortable bed, and think things over. Clearly this used to be a society of sophisticated electronic technology. But their ruling class, led by someone named Prince Regisoph, took away all of the technology, barricaded themselves in the Tower, and left the people to starve in poverty. In order to ensure that the public would not revolt and storm the castle the Prince installed computers in all the peasants so that he could centrally control their thoughts and preempt any dissidence. The neural interference from the Prince’s brain computers manifests itself as the peasants’ insane belief that they are really in control of the society, that they are the Prince. The rulers in that Tower are absolutely, incorrigibly evil. I cannot tolerate the thought. I must set the people free.
You don’t become a Stealth Star unless you have a love of freedom that burns like a wildfire, unflinching bravery in the face of the unknown, and a mastery of modern star technology — and also (I am afraid to admit) a tendency toward performing acts that border on suicide. Because when the Stealth Star Corps sends you out as the spy-scout on a mission to see what has become of the humans on a rediscovered planet that hasn’t been heard from since the Interstellar Apocalypse, 10,000 years ago . . . you might never return.
We Stealth Star scouts explore to see if newly rediscovered planets have evolved economic and social freedom or decayed into tyranny and dictatorship, and to evaluate whether the newly explored planets might become trading partners and join the Concord. Some of the time the humans are peaceful and happily sign up with the Concord — but most of the rediscovered planets are primitive and barbaric. I lost my best friend Charl when he was dropped onto a planet that turned out to be the home of a society of cannibalistic cyborgs. I also led the team of Stealth Star soldiers who wiped that planet out after Charl’s final broadcast warned us that the cyborgs were developing star ships and planning to become space pirates. I am primarily a scout but I do have experience as a warrior.
Stealth Stars are spies and soldiers, but we’re not an army. We are not affiliated with any government, and we are staffed entirely by volunteer recruits. We believe that everyone has the right to freedom. The interplanetary trade associations (mainly the Concord but also some of the smaller groups) donate to us happily enough, because we keep space clear of the space pirates and planetary dictators who like to blockade trade routes. But our real motive is not economic; it is political. We aim to spread the ideals of freedom to every planet so that everyone can enjoy the reality-given rights of life, liberty, and property. Our critics within the Concord call us crusaders, but we believe that every war we fight is a war of self-defense. We are like soldiers hired by oppressed peoples to free them from dictatorship, except that we work on credit and take payment once they join the Concord. No, they didn’t actually tell us that they wanted us to rescue them — but how could they while their voices were silenced by their rulers? We give to the peoples of the outer planets precisely what they want, what they would choose if they were free to make choices.
I send a long-range communication to the local Stealth Star mother ship and wait for night to fall. Soon the city of Rej is enshrouded in darkness and illuminated only by the four pale moons and a nearby constellation of stars in the night sky. I set my star armor in stealth mode and sneak up to the outer wall of the Prince’s Tower. With the protection of my stealth mode and its cloaking device the castle’s cameras cannot detect me as I scale the outer walls. I use a laser-razor to cut a hole in the stone wall and slide myself through.
The inside of the Tower is as amazing and resplendent as the city below is ugly and base. The place is a spider’s web of interconnecting rooms and hallways, and each room is filled with banks of super-computers from floor to ceiling which blink with constantly changing red and blue lights. The rooms buzz and crackle with electrical energy. Floating guard robots hover up and down the halls with laser rifles at the ready, but the guards cannot see through my stealth cloak and they float past me, oblivious. I see no humans anywhere in these rooms. I scan the area and detect the largest source of electromagnetic energy, which I assume is the central control station where the leaders will be. It is at the top of the highest tower.
For the people to be freed I must defeat Prince Regisoph. Can one single Stealth Star agent do it?
I snake my way up the various stairs and ramps that riddle this Tower, and eventually I reach a set of double doors. Their gold lettering proclaims “Prince Regisoph.” My scan reveals that the door is made of solid plastic-steel laced with synthetic diamond — difficult to make and impossible to cut. Clearly the Prince does not want to be interrupted by unexpected company. It is a shame for him that Stealth Star technology is up to this challenge and I am about to ruin his day.
I clamp an antimatter mine to the double doors and retreat around the corner of the nearest hallway. The mine goes off; the physical matter in the doors is destroyed by the antimatter and implodes into nothingness. I run down the hall, exit stealth mode and enter attack mode, and draw a laser gun in each hand. I am about to face the worst military power that the Prince has to offer. If I die, my death will be worthwhile. I switch on my attack scope and activate the cameras in the back of my head so I can see in three hundred and sixty degrees. My body armor can withstand most armor-piercing rounds and my lungs have implants to filter most poisonous gasses, but there is no telling what deviltry the Prince may have waiting. I run into the middle of the room, my heart racing and my nervous system at its peak, ready to fight and willing to die . . .
There is no one in here.
“Hello?” I ask.
“Hello,” a strange, hollow, mechanical voice answers.
I look around and see that the word “Hello” is lit up on a large computer monitor on the far side of the room. A huge bank of super-computers fills the other side of the room — the electromagnetic activity I picked up. But my scanner detects no human beings. I am alone.
“Who are you?” I ask.
“I am the Project Prince Regisoph computer interface operating system. Please state your identity, user.”
This society was able to achieve what we of the Concord, even with all our scientific marvels, could not: artificial intelligence. “So, you are Prince Regisoph!”
“Negative,” the computer replies. “User, are you an integrated user with a damaged integration device? Please state yes or no.”
“Integrated? What do you mean?”
“Invalid response. Background presentation loading. Please wait.”
This computer is not talking as if it could think. It is speaking like a mindless automaton. What in the Universe is going on here?
Suddenly the screen is lit by the image of an old man dressed in fancy green robes. “Greetings, people of the future,” the image says.
His robe is various shades of deep green, and he wears a spiked crown glittering with accents of diamonds and gold. He has a triumphant, fanatical gleam in his little brown eyes, almost like a young man recently converted to a new religion, but his face is aged with the wrinkles of years of thankless toil. “I am Grego, Prime Chancellor of Rej — or, at least, up until now I was, as soon there will no longer be any need for me. It is to be hoped that nothing has gone wrong and we have created the utopia we wished for. But to meet any problem that may arise, we are encoding this message explaining Project Regisoph, so that repairs can be made by people who understand the plan.”
“What plan?” I ask. But of course the recording of Grego cannot hear me.
“In order to create a truly democratic society we must have a system that counts the votes of the public’s desires and enacts the will of the people into law. Our politicians have become hopelessly corrupt and inefficient, so we are automating the process of politics. As an infant, each human will be fitted with a mental interface connection. The interface will examine the person’s desires and count them as one vote. The Tower computer will tabulate all votes from the integrated brains of the voters, and the robot drones will then act out and enforce whatever is the political desire of the majority. If the people want capitalism, then there will be capitalism; if they want socialism, then the Tower will provide socialism. If the people want all the technological advances that we have discovered then technology will be distributed; but if they grow weary of technology and long for a simpler, more natural era, then technology will be taken away from them.
We give to the peoples of the outer planets precisely what they want, what they would choose if they were free to make choices.
“The system has no limits and will do whatever the public wants it to do. We leave it to the people themselves to decide the substance of the ideal society. We today are merely giving them the procedural form of that ideal. For all our faults, at least we will know that the people will get what they desire; the world of tomorrow will be what everyone wants.”
This is ghastly. Bet and Jerem and all the others really are Prince Regisoph — but it now seems apparent that if everyone is the ruler then everyone is the slave. Democracy is a Concord ideal, but only a republican democracy in which the rights of individuals are held sacred and inviolate against the will of the majority. The Rejian people want their stone-age socialism, so they get it, but what they want is bad for them. I laugh for a minute, realizing the irony: the socialist dissidents within the Concord often complain that they know what’s best for the planetary citizens and that therefore the socialists should make everyone else’s economic choices for them — yet here I am thinking with absolute certainty that I know what is best for the Rejians and I should make the choice of capitalism for all of them. Still, irony aside, that is what I believe — isn’t it? I had thought that I wanted to kill Prince Regisoph. But Prince Regisoph is Bet Matil. I want to save her, not kill her. So what do I really want to do?
“Computer, deactivate. Terminate Project Regisoph.” It’s still my job as a Stealth Star to bring freedom to the planet. This is worth a shot.
“Negative. Project Regisoph can be terminated only by a majority vote of the integrated users. User, you have been identified as a threat. Activating protection procedures.”
My calm is immediately replaced by panic: the walls slide open and swarms of guard robots rocket into the room. I drop attack mode and return to stealth. The robots lose me on their scanners and can’t detect me. They sweep across the room and go right past me. I consider shooting a missile into the Regisoph super-computer control center, but I hesitate . . . there are probably backups throughout the Tower, and my sensors detect self-destruct nuclear mines hidden in the command center that, once activated, might destroy the entire city, or continent.
But what really stops me is this: if the people want to be ruled by Prince Regisoph, if that is actually what the majority of Rejians desire, then I could raze the Prince’s Tower to rubble and they would simply rise up and build another Tower in its place. Maybe you can’t force people to be free when they want to be slaves, any more than you can force a people to be ruled when they insist upon freedom and give their lives to win it. The battle for the freedom of this people will be won out there, out in the streets and in the minds and hearts of individual men and women, not here in the Prince’s Tower. Prince Regisoph will die once the Stealth Stars convince the people down in that city that capitalist freedom, ownership of property, and free trade are superior to their socialist nightmare. It’s my new job to educate the Rejians about the happiness that comes from trade and technology. To try, anyway. I had thought that when the Stealth Stars liberate a planet, we give the people precisely what they want — but now, in retrospect, I realize that the truth may be a bit more complicated.