Years and names are useless; they tie him to a calendar that means nothing to him or his kind. Still, if they must be put in place, he is–or will be–Robert, Lord Drake, and the date, by the reckoning of the people he’ll have the most contact with, is the midfifteenth century. But that name, those dates, lie ahead of him: for now, he stands on a starship far above the surface of the small blue planet whose future he’ll shape.
They call themselves Heseth, his people; the people of the sun, as the people of the world below him might someday call themselves Terran, for people of the earth. Every race the Heseth have encountered across the span of aeons and galaxies has been quite literal in their naming of themselves. Not even the Heseth themselves are immune to it; they’re called the people of the sun for the never- darkening sky at the heart of a galaxy where they began. Even now, light burns at the back of his mind, reminding him where they came from and what it is they seek.
That, of course, is simple: they seek to survive, as do all living organisms. Their world has long since burned away, making their home the stars. They might once have searched for a new place to live, but every race learns a certain reality: there are no habitable planets so remote that they cannot be found and stripped to their core. Hydrogen to power starships is easily found, but the ships must still be built of something. All people with an eye toward exploration search out asteroids and planets from which to mine and shape their starships, and so any world that might suit settlement is also ripe for ruin.
They are a people of tremendous psychic power, the Heseth, their talent an extension of will born of large bodies meant largely to withstand dry hot places under myriad suns. Graced with less physical dexterity than other races, they found different ways to take their sentience beyond its rudimentary development. Their communication is largely silent, but shared by all; only the deepest intimacies are spoken aloud, made private between one person and another. That gift has given them the easiest method of draining a populated planet of its resources: infiltration. They hide amongst its peoples, shaping them as they develop and raising them up to be unknowing slaves.
They cannot do this in their natural forms; the point is subtlety and intrigue, making a game out of conquering. There’s little enough by way of entertainment between the stars, and so their plots are as much a way to provide a show as they are to develop resources. The creature who will become Robert Drake wasn’t yet born the last time the Heseth queens conquered a world, but he has the memory of it, as do all his brethren. It’s a time- consuming pursuit, taking generations, but it’s more interesting than brutality, and safer for a people whose strengths don’t lie in warfare. Besides, their enemies are far behind them, and interstellar distances are great: there’s very little risk in taking a slow path toward victory. They’ve lost a world or two in the past, when their enemy has come on more quickly than expected, but that, too, is part of the game; there’d be no purpose if there was no challenge.
Challenge, though, is one thing; terrorising a young race of people is something else, and anathema to their ends. His natural form would cause horror amongst peoples unable to keep peace between themselves, much less understand a creature birthed on another world. The truth is, any young life- form fears that which is different, even strangers of its own race.
And so to conquer, a plan was devised to take away the fear. It takes generations to splice the genes just so; to make a creature who is human in form and figure but retains a handful of Heseth markers. Loyalty, bred in the bone; psychic talent, vastly diminished by the new body but present; ambition to see his queen’s race survive and prosper above all else.
He- who- will- be Robert leaves his viewpost, the blue planet long since memorised, and takes himself to the laboratories where scientists work to create that new life. There are already vats filled with mistakes, kept to study; they’ve been working at this for almost a human century, and it may be that long again before they succeed. It’s time in which the chosen study the world they’ll be entering, though by now they know most of what they need to: it’s brutish, cold, and ripe for direction. The earth’s wise men look to the stars and search for answers in science, and it’s that ingenuity the Heseth intend to fan.
One of the geneticists becomes aware of his presence and turns to greet him. They have no need to face each other to make the other welcome, but making eye contact connotates particular honour. Within a moment everyone has turned to make that same greeting, and for an instant he feels he’s already left them; that he’s already become alien to his people. In so feeling, he sees them through human eyes.
They’re delicate monsters, light catching silver scales and turning them to a host of shimmering colours that negates uniformity. They’re sinuous beings, able to move with or without the help of many legs that are used as grasping appendages as well as for locomotion. They’re creatures of cartilage and chitin, narrow chests coming to a rigid point from whence a long neck curves back and up into a slim, slit- eyed head. The queens have great and wonderful horns curling above their eyes, and the oldest amongst the males have similar, but smaller, protrusions.
Humans might call them dragons.
They’re not, of course, not at all; they have neither wings nor breath of fire, but there’s a certain pleasant grandiosity to the name. Robert- to- be likes the idea that a human legend will be birthed into mortal form to walk amongst them. He acknowledges his family’s greeting, then takes himself away again: being watched over by one who is meant to change is distracting, and he has no wish to agitate them as they work. He’ll come back in time; they, and his queen, will be the last thing in this life he’ll ever see.
It will be worth the pain, when the moment comes; worth the long slow years of growing up in a human body, which is one of the necessities of this plot. They’ve never been certain if these created infants have personalities of their own, and rather than risk it, the chosen leave their first bodies behind when the geneticists are satisfied with their creations. They’re guided by their queen’s gentle touch into a new form, and there is no reversal: the journey is honor and death sentence both.
But Robert- to- be embraces it gladly, because if he succeeds in shaping this world–and the Heseth have rarely failed–then he will become a father to the next generations of his people. His genetic legacy will live on, a true prize indeed for a ship- bound race that must breed selectively and rarely in order for the whole to survive. It’s a chance worth any risk: he’ll die locked in human form, but his memory will live on, and his children will know his name. There is, in the end, little else that drives a man, and Robert Drake is satisfied with his fate.
From the Trade Paperback edition.