Authors: Garth Nix
First published in 2012
Copyright © 2012 by Garth Nix
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher.
The Australian Copyright Act
1968 (the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or ten per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act.
A Cataloguing-in-Publication entry is available from the National Library of Australia
ISBN 978 1 74175 861 0
Cover artwork by Larry Rostant
Printed in Australia by Griffin Press
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
and all my family and friends
game designer and software engineer,
illustrator and graphic designer,
who with me worked on the online game Imperial Galaxy,
which was based on this book well before
I finished writing it
and also to
ROBERT A. HEINLEIN
HAVE DIED THREE times, and three times been reborn, though I am not yet twenty in the old Earth years by which it is still the fashion to measure time.
This is the story of my three deaths, and my life between.
My name is Khemri, though this is not the name my parents gave me. I do not know who my parents are, and never will, for I was taken from them as a baby.
This is one of the secrets the Empire keeps well. No Prince may ever know his or her parents, or the world of their birth. Even trying to find out is forbidden, which just about sums up the paradox of being a Prince. We have vast power and seemingly limitless authority, except when we try to exercise that power or authority beyond the bounds that have been set for us.
It’s still about a million times better than being an ordinary Imperial subject, mind you. It just isn’t everything that I thought it was going to be when I was a child, a Prince candidate being carefully raised in considerable ignorance in my remote temple.
So I’m one of the ten million Princes who rule the Empire, the largest political entity in recorded history or current knowledge. The Empire extends across a vast swath of the galaxy, encompassing more than seventeen million systems, tens of millions of inhabited worlds, and trillions of sentient subjects, most of them humans of old Earth stock.
It is Imperial policy that all these mostly planet-bound yokel types know as little as possible about the apparently godlike beings who rule them. Even our enemies—the alien Sad-Eyes, the enigmatic Deaders, and the Naknuk rebels—know more of us than our own people do.
The ordinary folk think we’re immortal. Which is natural enough when they typically have something like their grandfather’s grandfather’s grandmother’s nice commemorative stereosculpture of a good-looking young Prince on the family mantelpiece and then they see the same Prince handing out Grower of the Month awards at the annual harvest festival or whatever.
It would be the same Prince too, because while we’re not actually immortal, if we get killed we do mostly get reborn into an identical adult body. It’s a technical difference, I guess.
And it’s only
reborn. Our enemies know that we do not
come back from the dead. To have died three times like me is no big deal for a Prince of the Empire. There are others who have died nine, twelve, twenty times and still walk among our ranks. There are even Princely societies where you have to have died a certain number of times to join. Like the Nine Death Lifers. Bunch of idiots if you ask me. All suicidal for eight deaths and then super cautious afterward? Who’d want to join that society?
Particularly since you never know if you
going to be reborn. It’s up to the Emperor, and every now and then a dead Prince’s name just vanishes from the lists without explanation, and if you’re dumb enough to make inquiries, you meet a lot of blank-eyed priests who don’t know anything and a weird kind of absence of anything about that dead Prince if you directly ask the Imperial Mind.
But before I get into my whole life story and all, let me take you through the bare facts of my childhood. I am presuming you’re not an Imperial Prince, which you’d better not be or I’ll have wasted all the careful preparations that are supposed to make this record detonate with a ridiculously large antimatter explosion if it is accessed by any kind of Princely sensory augmentation.
I guess not recording it in the first place would be more secure. But I have my reasons.
So. I would have been close to a year old when I was taken from my parents. Though I have no recollection of my early life, it is likely that I was born on a typical Imperial world of the outer quadrants, a planet once marginal for human life but long since remade by the trinity of Imperial technology: the machines of Mektek, the biological agents and life-forms of Bitek, and the wide-ranging and powerful mental forces of Psitek.
This is important, because if there’s anything that makes the Empire what it has become, it is these three teks. Sure, the Sad-Eyes have better Psitek, but then we kick their parasitical little guts in with Mektek and Bitek. The Naknuks have taken Bitek further than we have, so we do them in with Psitek and Mektek. The Deaders . . . it’s a bit hard to know exactly what their primary tek is since they always blow themselves up when they’re beaten, but certainly the trinity of teks works against them as well.
All Imperial tek is managed and controlled by priests, who are divided into orders that worship different Aspects of the Emperor. They serve Princes in all technical roles, but it’s worth remembering that they also get orders directly from the Imperial Mind. Princes forget that sometimes, usually to their cost.
Okay, where was I? Getting taken from my parents. Here we go.
On a day like any other day, my parents would have had no knowledge that by nightfall their infant son would be gone forever.
The first sign would have been a gathering darkness, a vast shadow too sharp edged to be a cloud. Looking up, they would have seen an Imperial battleship glide across their sky, an enormous, jagged flying mountain of rock dotted with structures built to the fashions and whims of the Prince in command.
Under the shadow of the ship, bright spots of light would suddenly spark, thousands and thousands of them, that a moment later would fall like brilliant rain.
They would know then, I suppose, my parents of long ago. Imperial battleships do not drop thousands of mekbi troopers on rural villages without reason.
Sometimes I wonder what my parents did as the first wave of troopers descended, and the wasp-ships launched as well, spiralling down to establish a perimeter to make sure no one tried to evade the opportunity of giving their children to the Empire.
I suppose they did nothing, for nothing could be done. But unlike most other Princes, I know something about ordinary children. I have seen parents and their children together when they are not awed or terrified by the presence of a Prince. So I know that the bond between them is stronger than Princes— who have no parents and are not allowed to have children—can imagine. So perhaps they tried to escape, desperation driving them to flee or hide.
But with a perimeter established and search squads armed with advanced scanning tek, there could be no hope of evasion. My parents must have eventually joined the lines of people waiting for the troopers to check everyone against the census while the Priests of the Aspect of the Inquiring Intelligence mentally investigated any anomalies. Maybe there was a Sad-Eye infiltrator lurking inside a host body, or a Naknuk spy, or some small domestic criminal or terrorist, but these would be rare excitements. Mostly it would be routine.
Then, finally, at the head of the line, my parents would meet the Priests of the Aspect of the Weighty Decision Maker, priests with glittering eyes, blue fluid swirling behind the transparent panels in their shaven skulls, all attention focused on the approaching couple and their child.
The genetic testing would have taken only a few minutes, using Bitek viral assays and ultrascopic Psitek scan. Then the terrible news, presented as an opportunity for joy and delight in being able to serve the Empire.
‘Your child is accepted as a Prince candidate.’
Sometimes I think about what it must have been like for my parents to hear those words. I also wonder what choice they made next, for the Empire in its great compassion does allow such parents one choice.
Not to keep the child, of course. The Empire needs Princes and so must take the candidates. But it does allow the parents some small mercy. They can be made to forget they ever had that child, their memories thoughtfully rearranged by the Priests of the Aspect of the Emperor’s Loving Heart, before they are physically relocated to another world to begin anew.
Or they can choose death. As with all Imperial justice, this is done on the spot. It would be fast, faster than they might expect. Mekbi troopers stand behind the parents when they state their choice. Accelerated muscles and monofilament blades act upon the mental command of the presiding Prince, and it is all over in a moment.
I do not think of my parents often, for there is no point. But I do have some reason to hope that they chose memory erasure and a new start, and that somewhere out among the far-flung stars they live still and have new children. Children who were not taken away to be made into Princes.
That is how I became a Prince candidate of the Empire and embarked on my candidacy, being shipped from temple to temple as each stage of my remaking was successfully completed.
For Princes are made, not born. The genetic testing is merely to see if we have the potential for all the meddling that is to come, and a reasonable probability of surviving it.
I don’t really remember the first decade of my candidacy. I only know what I was told about it later. For many years I was kept in a dream state, in a bath of Bitek gloop, my mind directly stimulated with educational and developmental programming, while viruses rewrote my DNA and changed and improved every part of my body.