The human race has spread out from Earth and into the solar system, but not yet the galaxy beyond. There are self-sustaining colonies on the moon and on Mars, and in countless numbers of orbiting habitats. Many of these are independent states in their own right.
Into this come an alien race who call themselves the First Breed. Because their skin looks as if it is covered by thousands of rust flakes, humans come to call them Rusties.
After more than a year of observation — though many suspect the Rusties have been watching us for much longer than that — the Rusties deliver an invitation. They say their race is very similar to ours. They say it is only a matter of time before we learn how to travel faster than light between stars. They say that if our races continue to go their separate ways, we will inevitably become rivals.
They say they have a world they would like to share with us, called the Roving. Every human nation is invited to send a delegate to the Roving, to submit a bid on behalf of their nation to develop the world jointly with the Rusties. The Rusties will ally with the Earth nation that most closely matches their own interests. Delegates must travel on their own ships: the Rusties will take responsibility for getting them to the Roving and back to Earth again.
The delegation fleet leaves for the Roving. The smallest ship in the Fleet is His Majesty’s Starship Ark Royal, commanded by Michael Gilmore and carrying King Richard’s own son, Prince James, determined to secure the bid on behalf of the United Kingdom.