Chapter 1

Out of the Frying Pan?

My breath was coming in huge gasps, and I was struggling to stay on my feet. I daren’t look back lest it cost me the slender lead I had over my pursuers.

Suddenly there was a zimmer beside me. The door on my side tilted up and a voice called out, “Get in, quick!”

My strength was failing rapidly, but I managed to kind of roll into the seat. The door closed with a hiss of compressed air, and the zimmer shot off.

I lay back in the seat trying to calm down. When my breathing had slowed to the point where I wasn’t gasping, I looked over to the pilot’s seat and was surprised to see a teenaged boy. He was wearing an imperial guard uniform: a close-fitting royal blue flight suit with red trim at the neck and wrists, bearing the imperial family’s coat of arms in the centre of the breast and the guard logo on each shoulder. The IG was a discrete branch of the military, charged with protecting the imperial family and imperial interests. It wielded enormous power. Not only did it provide the imperial family’s bodyguard, it was involved in surveillance and espionage. As if that wasn’t enough, it also had legal and administrative functions monitoring the running of the Empire. I knew the guard was comprised of elite troops. They were experts in hand-to-hand combat, guerrilla warfare, infiltration techniques and just about everything else… so, how did this teen come to be wearing the uniform? For that matter, how did he come to be piloting a very expensive zimmer? I vaguely heard him talking to someone, then heard him say, “Got him.”

He turned to me. “Hello, I’m Darm,” he said, smiling.

“Echo,” I said.

He grinned. “Yes, I know who you are. We’ve been looking for you. I’m glad I spotted you before the scallies caught up with you.”

“So am I,” I said. “I think,” I added, as I wondered whether I’d escaped the frying pan only to fall into the fire.

Darm chuckled. “Don’t worry, you’re safe now. Just bear with us for a little while. We’ll be docking soon. We’ll get you to a medic, and when he’s finished with you I’ll take you to see the procurator and he’ll explain everything.”

I gasped. “The proc– the procurator?” He was the most important person in the federation apart from the imperial family. It was common knowledge that you only got to have an audience with the procurator if you were a high-ranking official, or you’d assassinated the emperor or something. “Crikey, what have I done?”

Darm laughed. “Relax, there’s nothing to be concerned about. Adam will explain everything.”


“The proc. His name is Adam.”

That only deepened my foreboding. How did this kid, who looked to be my age—fourteen—come to be on first-name terms with the man who was next to the most powerful man in the federation? What kind of mess had I landed in now?

My thoughts were interrupted as the zimmer changed direction and attitude. I looked out and saw that we were descending rapidly to a narrow beach. There was a line of huge rocks on our left, with raging ocean waves breaking against them. On the right was an unbroken solid rock cliff, probably a hundred metres high, which seemed to go on forever into the distance. I braced myself for a rough landing, thinking our approach angle surely meant we were going to crash. To my relief the zimmer levelled off a few metres above the sand and we skimmed along the beach.

A challenge came over the cabin communicator. Darm replied and was given clearance to dock. I grabbed my seat tightly as he made a sudden loop out over the rocks and the sea and then turned back towards the cliff. Now I could see that there was a narrow opening a few metres above the sand. I braced myself again as, without slowing, Darm skilfully manoeuvred the zimmer through the opening, executed a quick turn to the right, rotated the craft on its own axis and reversed into a parking bay.

I breathed a sigh of relief as the zimmer settled into its charging pod. My body desperately wanted to relax, but, despite Darm’s assurances, I was fearful about what lay ahead. “What now?” I managed to croak.

Darm grinned. “They’re sending a tube car for us and we’ll go to see the doc. Wait a moment and I’ll help you out.” He flipped a couple of switches and the doors lifted up. He stepped out and walked around to my side of the zimmer.

“Here, give me your hand,” he said, reaching out to me.

I stuck my feet out on the floor of the hangar and Darm steadied me as I stood. I was glad he was there because my legs felt like jelly. Suddenly everything seemed to be spinning around and I felt myself falling. I heard Darm yell to someone as I lost consciousness.

The Crown Prince

My brief blackout was apparently a reaction to the stress of the chase and relief that I had been rescued. Darm and another pilot had wasted no time in getting me into the tube car to rush me to the medic. I woke up on the way there. The doctor examined me thoroughly and asked a lot of questions. Eventually he pronounced me fine. “You don’t have any injuries, and there’s nothing wrong that a good feed and a sound sleep won’t fix.” Darm then took me to a small dining room where I ate the first good meal I’d had in many days. He told me to take my time eating, but there must have been a certain urgency because the moment I finished he hustled me off to the procurator’s office.

“So, Echo, how are you feeling now?”

The procurator was not the scary heavyweight I had imagined him to be. He did possess a deep, booming voice, but he was warm and friendly, and I felt at ease immediately.

“Much better, thank you, sir.”

“Good, good.” He paused, tapping his fist against his chin.

“Now, the doctor has ordered a couple of days’ complete rest for you, so I won’t keep you long, and then Darm can take you to your accommodation.”

I nodded.

He continued. “You are an important man, Echo.”

What? That was news to me. I had grown up in an orphanage. I’d lived there and attended school there until about ten days earlier, when armed men burst into my classroom and snatched me and several other students. We were bundled into a skybus and taken to what seemed to be an abandoned factory. Once there, we were separated. I was taken to a room where they sat me on a stool and a big, fierce-looking man asked me a heap of questions to which I had no answers.

“Who are you?”

“Echo Menier.”

“No! Echo Menier does not exist.” He tried a different approach. “Where are your parents? What are their names?” he demanded.

I told him I thought my parents were dead. I barely remembered them, and as far as I knew I had no living relatives. All I knew of my mother and father was what I’d been told at the orphanage, and that was precious little. They had left me at a day care centre while they went on a business trip. They never returned from that trip and I had been placed in the orphanage. I was nearly four years old then. I didn’t even know where we had lived, although I had vague memories of a large house. It was almost as if my family, my home, and my previous life had been erased.

“Where did you live before the orphanage?” the fearsome man shouted.

“I don’t know!” I cried. “I hardly remember my parents or my house, and I have no idea where we lived.”

“You lie!” he thundered.

“No!” I yelled. “I don’t know!”

He hit me then—an open-handed slap to the side of my head with his huge hand. I lurched, and fell off the stool. I was taken to a tiny room and locked in. The room had a folding bed and a chair, and became my home for more than a week, as near as I could calculate. A small window high up in the wall told me whether it was day or night and that was my only way to mark the passing of time. I was allowed out for meagre meals and to use the toilet. With nothing to read or otherwise occupy the time life became boring and tedious.

Periodically, someone took me to the interrogation room and the same man shouted the same questions at me. I gave the same answers because they were the only answers I knew. I couldn’t tell him what I didn’t know, but he continued to refuse to believe me. Several more times I received slaps that knocked me to the floor.

One day there was a different man waiting in the interrogation room. He was quieter, but just as insistent. “It will be much easier for you if you tell me your real name.”

“I told the other man. I am Echo Menier.”

“No,” he said. “That is a false name. The names you gave for your parents are not real either. Thomas and Amélie Menier do not exist.”

The man’s words confused me but I didn’t have time to dwell on them. The interrogation continued. Like the first man, he wanted to know where my mother and father were, and where we had lived before they ‘dropped from sight’. He wouldn’t believe that they were dead, and he wouldn’t believe that I did not know where our home had been.

For my part, I was despairing. Who were these people? Why were they asking these questions? I had no idea. I could not understand why they would not believe me, and nothing I said convinced them that I didn’t know anything. I just wanted to go home to the orphanage.

Two days later the quieter man took me out in a skyrover and flew me around the city, apparently hoping that I would recognise my old neighbourhood. It was ten years since my parents had vanished, and the city had surely changed significantly in that time. The only landmarks I recognised were places I knew from living at the orphanage. We traversed the whole metropolitan area several times, allowing me to view the suburbs from various approaches. Nothing helped. I still didn’t recognise anything but major landmarks and the area around the orphanage.

The man became increasingly agitated. He began shouting at me.

I shouted back. “Why won’t you believe me? I don’t know anything!” Something snapped within me. I burst into tears. The skyrover was a six-person craft; the man was in the pilot’s seat and I was sitting beside him in the front passenger seat. He was close enough that I could touch him. Through my tears I lashed out, pummelling him with my clenched fists.

That distracted him enough that he let go of the controls momentarily and the craft dipped and went into a spin. By the time he realised what was happening and grabbed the wheel again we were perilously close to the ground. We slammed into the brick wall of a building with a sickening crunch. The pilot’s side took the brunt of the impact and the man slumped in his seat. The craft hit the ground with a jolt, fortunately landing the right way up. Emergency escape power kicked in and the whole canopy popped off.

I was stunned, but otherwise I wasn’t hurt. The pilot appeared to be unconscious. I scrambled out, and saw a group of half a dozen boys running towards the crash site. At first I thought they were coming to help, but there was something about them that didn’t look right.

“Oh, no! They’re scallies!” I cried.

I took off in the opposite direction, hoping I could outrun them. Scallies were loose bands of teenaged petty criminals who roamed the city, scavenging for food and sometimes attacking people and robbing them. For them, anyone travelling in an aerial craft would be a good catch, since they were likely to be wealthy. The plebs travelled in electric buses, or in tube cars that ran under the streets.

Two of the scallies chased me. I guessed the others had gone to check out the crashed vehicle. After several blocks I was beginning to tire and my lungs were burning. In the distance I could see a metropolitan peacekeeper post. If I could get to that I would be safe. I’d probably be in strife for being out without my orphanage identification tag, but at least I’d be free of my pursuers. It sounded like the scallies were gaining on me. Would I make it before they caught up?

Then, suddenly, Darm and his zimmer appeared, seemingly from nowhere.

The procurator’s voice shook me out of my reverie, “…but we didn’t realise who you were until a couple of days ago. And then all hell broke loose as we tried to find you. We had teams of guard personnel out searching, and all peacekeepers were on alert. Fortunately, Darm was in the right place at the right time and he was able to pick you up and bring you here.” He looked at Darm and smiled. “At least someone was on the ball!”

What was he talking about?

“To save time, I’ll leave it there for the time being, but Echo… well, actually, Echo isn’t the name you were given at birth. Your real name is Lucien, and your family name is Döhm.”

That got my attention. Surely everyone knew that the Döhm family was one of the most powerful and influential in the federation. They owned a vast commercial empire, and seemed to run everything. My history class had studied the family dynasty, which had its origins around the middle of the 19th century. It had even lent its name to the city where it originated, Döhmstadt, in what was then the German Empire. The family’s star was already rising by the time Donte Döhm became head and set up the present company in the middle of the 21st century, when space travel was just taking off, as it were. Donte made a fortune transporting materials to new colonies, expanded into building new settlements, and then established a network of passenger transport routes to ferry settlers around the colonies. Successive generations had built the business up, and more than a hundred years later, with its headquarters now in the federation’s capital, the company was involved in manufacturing and real estate and its influence had spread far and wide. While the corporation was huge the family members were reclusive, and no one seemed to know much about them. Was the procurator saying that I was part of that family? How could that be possible?

“Echo… Lucien… I’m sorry, son, but there’s no easy way to say this. You are head of the family. You have been since your parents died.”

“Wha–” My mind reeled. “How… um… but… I…” I took a deep breath. “Are you serious?”

The procurator smiled. “I’m very serious. You are the head of the Döhm family, and the sole owner of the Döhm Corporation.”

I must have blacked out again, because the next thing I knew I was lying in a soft bed. Darm was sitting in a chair beside me.

“Hi, how are you feeling?”

“Um, confused?” I croaked.

Darm gave a delightful little giggle. “Well, I suppose that’s understandable. You’ve had an eventful day. Would you like a drink, or something to eat?”

“I’d love a drink, thank you. My throat feels like sandpaper.”

He left the room, saying he would be back in a moment. I sat up and looked around me. The room was huge, at least compared to the bedroom I’d shared at the orphanage, and it was rather sumptuously furnished. The bed was huge, too, big enough for several people. A large window looked out to a courtyard where a fountain played in a pool surrounded by colourful flower beds. It looked inviting.

“What is this place?” I asked, when Darm handed me a glass containing a blue drink. Or perhaps the glass was blue. Whatever, the drink tasted good.

“We’re in the imperial palace, in the crown prince’s apartment, and this is his bedroom.”

“But, why… um…” I struggled to find the words I needed. “Won’t he be upset that I’m in his bed?”

Darm giggled again. “Echo, I am the crown prince,” he said, gently. “I’m happy for you to stay here until we get everything sorted out.”

I stared at him. My life was getting weirder and weirder. A week or so earlier I was happily living in an orphanage. (Perhaps ‘happily’ wasn’t the right word, but it was the only life I had known, really, and I was treated well, so I guess I was as happy as I knew how to be.) Then I was kidnapped by armed men, interrogated by weirdos, flown around the city several times, involved in a crash, and rescued by a knight in shining armour, who, I now found, was the crown prince. On top of all that I was supposed to be the head of the Döhm family.

I lay back and closed my eyes. “Please tell me all this is a dream. When I wake up I’ll be back in the orphanage, won’t I?”

I felt Darm’s hand on my shoulder. “You need to sleep, Echo. When you wake up you will still be here, and I’ll explain everything that’s happened. I’ll be in my sitting room, which is right next door. If you need anything, just call me.” He gave my shoulder a gentle rub. “Oh, the bathroom’s just through the door behind the bed.”

That was the last thing I remembered. When I woke next it was almost dark, and I needed the bathroom urgently. I threw back the quilt and swung my feet out of the bed and stood up, suddenly realising I was naked. That didn’t worry me because I hadn’t worn anything to bed for years, but I wondered who had undressed me, and why. I was still tired, though, and couldn’t be bothered thinking about it, so after using the toilet I went back to bed. The fountain in the courtyard was lit from beneath by coloured lights shining up through the water, and I remember saying, “Wow! That’s beautiful.” I must have gone to sleep again as soon as my head hit the pillow.

Darm was sitting by the bed, reading documents in a crimson folder, when I woke and stretched. It was broad daylight.

“Whoa, how long have I been asleep?”

Darm looked at his watch. “Oh, about eighteen hours.” He grinned. “I wonder what made you so tired?”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “Rack off!”

Darm giggled. It was a cute giggle, but ‘cute’ didn’t seem appropriate, somehow, not when I remembered that he was actually the crown prince. “Oh no! Sorry, I don’t think I’m supposed to tell the crown prince to rack off.”

“Hey, don’t sweat it. When you’re in my position people tend to watch what they say, and hide what they’re really thinking. It’s a nice change to be told to rack off.” He giggled again.

I looked over at him. He’d changed clothes since I last saw him, and was now dressed casually. In his flight suit, although he had been open and friendly, he had looked and sounded very businesslike. Now, leaning back in the armchair beside the bed, he looked relaxed and just like any other teenager. He was very attractive, with his medium-length dark hair and blue eyes and a smattering of freckles on his nose and cheeks, but I forced that thought from my mind. After all, he was a member of the imperial family and I was a lowly orphan (at least, I still thought of myself that way, despite the procurator’s astounding claim from the day before), and we could never be friends.

“Hungry?” Darm asked.

Before I could answer, my stomach rumbled. We both laughed.

“I’ll take that as a yes, shall I?”

I nodded. “I feel like I could eat a horse.”

“Hmm, I don’t think horse is on the menu,” he replied, solemnly, then chuckled. “But Chef does a nice line in bacon and eggs for breakfast. And he usually has freshly squeezed orange juice because I prefer that to tea or coffee.”

“Wow! That’s a nice old-fashioned breakfast. We need your chef at the orphanage. We get cardboard and plastic there most of the time.”

Darm laughed. “I don’t think Chef has heard of those reconstituted meals. I have those when I’m out on a guard mission, but I eat well when I’m at home.”

“The orphanage serves up reconstituted food all the time. I suppose they have to watch expenses, and it must be cheaper than fresh stuff.”

“Well, it’s certainly easier to prepare—you just stick it in the wave cooker and it’s done in a few seconds.” He paused. “I guess you would like a shower. There should be clean towels in the bathroom, but I’ll just check.”

He got up and headed for the bathroom. I was about to get out of bed when I remembered that I was naked under the covers.

“Uh, Darm, what happened to my clothes?” I asked as he came back into the room.

“Oh, no! I forgot, sorry! Your pants and shirt were ripped, and everything was pretty grubby, so I threw them out… but I was so intent on making sure you were all right that I forgot to get you some fresh ones.” He slapped himself on the forehead. He went over to a door I hadn’t noticed before. It opened into a huge walk-in wardrobe. Darm disappeared inside and came back out with a bathrobe. “Here, put this on for the moment,” he said, holding it out to me. I took the robe from him and he put a hand over his eyes. “I promise I won’t look!”

I laughed. “It’s a bit late for that, isn’t it? Unless it wasn’t you who undressed me and put me to bed.” I got up and pulled on the robe.

Darm blushed, and smiled sheepishly. “Sprung!” he said. “Yes, it was me. Sorry, Echo, I wasn’t being pervy. I just thought you would be more comfortable without your torn and dirty clothes.”

“Don’t sweat it,” I replied, using his own expression. “Modesty isn’t an option in the orphanage.”

He blushed again, and looked flustered. “Ah, well, um, I’ll sort out some clothes for you while you’re in the shower.”

Twenty minutes later I was squeaky clean, and dressed in pants and a shirt similar to those Darm was wearing. He found my shoes and I put those on. I would have spent hours in the shower—it felt wonderful after more than a week of having to make do with a quick rinse with a face washer—but Darm hurried me up because he didn’t want to keep the chef waiting.

Over breakfast we chatted amiably. Darm asked me about life in the orphanage, and what I remembered of my parents and life with them. I was able to tell him lots about the orphanage, but very little about my mother and father. He told me about his life, which turned out to be remarkably similar to mine in some respects. He had school every day just as I did. He commented, wistfully, that he sometimes felt like he was an orphan, too, since he didn’t get to spend enough time with his parents. “They often have ‘matters of state’ to attend to,” he said, putting ironic emphasis on that expression, “and I sometimes have official stuff I’m expected to do, too. I don’t see them as much as I’d like to.”

“Oh, that sucks,” I said.

“Yeah, but I get to do fun stuff, too,” he replied, “like rescuing orphans from the scallies.”

I’d just taken a mouthful of food. I spluttered, trying not to spit it out as I laughed. Darm laughed with me.

“So, I’m just ‘fun stuff’, am I?” I said, trying to sound offended.

Darm’s face reddened. “Sorry,” he said, contritely. “I was just fooling. You’re not just fun stuff. You’re an important person in your own right.” He paused, then added, “And to me, it seems.”

I looked at him. I realised I was feeling very comfortable around Darm. Somehow, I felt closer to this boy, whom I’d known for less than twenty-four hours, than I did to any of the kids I knew in the orphanage—and I’d grown up with a lot of them. There, we were thrown together by circumstances. We had to get along together or life would be unbearable. Darm and I had been thrown together by circumstances, too, but I thought there was definitely something different between the two of us, something that was not present in any of my friendships with orphanage kids.

Apparently Darm felt it too.