The chain of events is started by David Ware, an agent of the Federacy Survey Service secretly observing the humanoid inhabitants of Bilbeis IV, living in a Bronze Age culture. The agent is greatly impressed with Sabium, the Queen of a local city state, who is a highly efficient administrator, very benevolent and beloved by her people, and also very progress-mined, actively promoting and rewarding technical innovation and new knowledge. Discovering that the Queen is terminally ill with cancer, the Earth agent breaks the Survey Service's most fundamental rule, the Rule of Non-Interference. He pretends to be a healer from a distant part of the planet and administers a Federacy medicine. Though the locals are not quite the same as Earth humans, the Queen's life is saved. The agent's career is ended, and he is made an example of how not to behave. However, he feels that it was well worth the price, admitting to himself that he is in fact in love with the Queen, though she would never know of it.
1500 years later, another Federacy ship visits the planet. Expecting to find the ancient Interference to have had no more than a local and brief effect, they are shocked to discover that the medicine did not just heal the Queen - it made her immortal. After 1500 years she is still very much around, worshiped as "The Goddess" and heading a world-wide benevolent and progressive theocracy.
Though the result was quite beneficial to Bilbeis IV and its inhabitants, it could be disastrous to the Survey Service, which would be seen as having grossly "interfered" and substantially changed the entire culture of an entire planet. This could play into the hands of a powerful political lobby which long sought to curb the Survey Service or close it down altogether. The current head of the Survey Service is completely ruthless in seeking to suppress the incriminating information, resorting to all available means up to and including serial murder. The central portion of the book is in effect a science fiction spy thriller, with a very perilous game of interplanetary hide-and-seek played by young anthropology students who got accidentally involved.
The final section returns to Bilbeis IV where "The Goddess" outwits a Federacy expedition visiting her court, one of whose members tries to assassinate her. The book ends with the Goddess determined to gain space technology and pay the next visit herself - and seems likely to achieve just that.
The name "Survey Service" for the galaxy-spanning organization is shared with the otherwise very different universe of Space Commodore John Grimes, created by A. Bertram Chandler .
Table of Contents Edit
- Second Survey
- The Report on Bilbeis IV
- David Ware, a 12th-century-FSY agent of the Survey Service, who makes a controversial breach of procedure. (All henceforth POVs are set in the 27th century.)
- Discreet individual, a contract killer.
- Roupen Hovannis, the security chief of the Survey Service.
- Paulina Koch, the Chairman of the Survey Service.
- Magda Kodaly, a Survey Service agent, part of the team that first discovers the scope of David Ware's consequences.
- Stavros Monemvasios, a graduate student who is drawn into a web of conspiracy.
- Sabium, the immortal Queen-Goddess of the Helmandi Empire.
- Van Shui Pong, a broadcast journalist from Hyperion Newsnet.
- "Bluff", another story set in an extraterrestrial Bronze Age society visited by human space travelers from the future of OTL.
- Crosstime Traffic Series, about an organization from a highly developed culture, set up to secretly send agents into various less developed cultures, who must hide their origin and find some cover story within the local culture. However, it involves alternate timelines, rather than other planets.
- "Vermin", a short story involving a multi-planet human "Federation", which also warns about the consequences of interference with a primitive alien society.