Note: The titles of Books 1, 2, 3, and 4 are Parisian slang for various parts of the guillotine. The "bascule" is the board on which the condemned man is laid; the "lunette" is the circular clamp fitted around the man's neck; the "mouton" is the cutting blade, plus its eighty-pound weight; and the "declic" is the lever the executioner hits to drop the blade.
The title of Book 5, "The Red Mass," comes from a phrase used by a French deputy during the Terror of the a.d. 1790s, one Monsieur Amar, in a letter inviting his fellow deputies to witness an execution "to see the Red Mass celebrated..."
—AC and CRB
The banth purred at the quillpig, which, unimpressed, had firmly stuffed itself as far as it could into the hollow stump.
The banth's instinct said that the porcupine was edible, but the six-legged cat's training told it otherwise. Meat was presented by two-legs at dawn and dusk, and came with gentle words. The quillpig may have smelled right, but it was not behaving like meat. The banth sat back on its haunches and used a forepaw to pry two needles from its nasal carapace.
Then the animal flattened. It heard the noise again, a whine from the forest. The banth looked worriedly up the mountain, then back again in the direction of the sound before deciding.
Against instinct, it broke out of the last fringe of the tree line and bounded up the bare, rock-strewn mountain. Two hundred meters vertically up the talus cliff, it went to cover behind a mass of boulders.
The whine grew louder as a gravsled lifted over the scrubby treetops, pirouetted, searching, and then grounded near the hollow stump.
Terence Kreuger, chief of Prime World's police tactical force, checked the homing panel mounted over the gravsled's controls. The needle pointed straight up the mountain, and the proximity director indicated the banth was barely half a kilometer away.
Kreuger unslung a projectile weapon from its clips behind his seat and checked it once again: projectile chambered; safe off; ranging scope preset for one meter, the approximate dimensions of the banth's chest area.
He checked the slope with a pair of binocs and after a few seconds saw a flicker of movement. Kreuger grunted to himself and lifted the gravsled up the mountain. He'd already missed the banth once that day; he was less than pleased with himself.
Kreuger fancied himself a hunter in the grand tradition. Time not required for his police duties was spent hunting or preparing himself for a hunt, an expensive hobby, especially on Prime World. The Imperial capital had no native game, and both hunting preserves there charged far more than even a tactical group chief could afford—until recently.
Kreuger's previous hunts had been restricted to off-world, and mostly for minor edible or nuisance game. That was well and good, but provided Kreuger with little in the way of trophies, especially trophies of the kind that the gamebooks chronicled. But things had suddenly become different. His friends had seen to that. After thirty years as a cop, Kreuger still prized his honesty. He just rationalized that what his new friends wanted wasn't dishonest: look at the benefits! Three weeks away from Empire Day madness. Three weeks on a hunting reservation, expenses paid. Tags for four dangerous animals—an Earth rhino, a banth, a male cervi, and a giant ot.
He had already planned on which wall each head would be mounted. Of course, Kreuger did not intend to mention to his soon-to-be-admiring friends where those trophies had been taken.
The gravsled's bumper caromed him away from a boulder, bringing Kreuger back to the present. Concentrate, man, concentrate. Remember every bit of this day. The clearness of the air. The smell of the trees below. The spray of dust around the gravsled.
Kreuger guided the gravsled up the slope, following the homing needle toward the sensor implanted in the banth.
Below, a second, one-man sled coasted through the trees. Clyff Tarpy did not need binocs to follow Kreuger's sled. Contour-following, he lifted his sled after Kreuger.
The banth was cornered.
Ahead of him to the right, the ground fell away steeply, too steeply for even his clawed legs to descend. To the left was a sheer cliff. The banth huddled behind a boulder, puzzling.
Kreuger's gravsled landed just outside the nest. Weapon ready, Kreuger moved forward.
Again, the banth was perplexed. The whine had been the cause of a loud explosion and searing pain earlier, the pain that sent the banth fleeing through the forest toward the mountains.
But the smell was two-legs. Two-legs, but not familiar. Had the banth done something wrong? The two-legs would tell him, feed him, and then return him to the warmth of his pen.
The banth stood and walked forward.
Kreuger's projectile weapon came up as the banth walked into view. No errors now. Safety off, he aimed.
The banth mewed. This was not his two-legs.
Kreuger spun, the banth momentarily forgotten. He had not heard the second gravsled land behind him.
From five meters, the barrel of the weapon was enormous. Tarpy allowed just enough time to pass for terror to replace the bewilderment on Kreuger's face. And then he fingered the stud. The soft metal round expanded nicely as it penetrated Kreuger's sternum, then pin wheeled through the tac chief's rib cage into his heart. Kreuger, instantly dead, sat down on a small boulder before slowly toppling forward onto his face.
Tarpy smiled as he took a thick chunk of soyasteak from his beltpak and tossed it to the banth. "Eight lives to go, pussycat."
Tarpy took a small aerosol can from his pak, and, backing up, erased his footsteps from the dusty rock. He paused by Kreuger's gravsled long enough to shut the power off and disconnect the beacon. The longer it took to find the body, the better. Tarpy mounted his own sled and nudged it back down the hill.
The banth's tail whipped back and forth once. He did not like the smell from the strange two-legs. He picked up the slab of soyasteak, sprang over the rock wall, and went back down the mountain. He would eat on the ground he was familiar with, and then perhaps unravel the puzzle of the other soyasteak, the one with needles that walked.
The man in the blue boiler suit had his long knife against the throat of Admiral Mik Ledoh. With his other hand, he forced the Eternal Emperor's Grand Chamberlain closer to the edge of the battlements, "Either our demands are met immediately, or this man dies!" His amplified voice echoed across the castle's stonework, down the 700 meters of emptiness and across the parade ground.
One hundred meters below and to the right, Sten checked his foot/handholds. His clawed fingers were barely clinging to mortar notches in the stone. One foot dangled over emptiness, the other was firmly braced on the face of Havildar-Major Lalbahadur Thapa. Sten's willygun was slung from a clip-strap on his dark brown combat suit. Snapped to one arm was a can of climbing thread. At its end was a grapnel.
From above them the terrorist's voice came again: "You have only seconds left to reach your decision and save this man's life!"
Sten's left hand went up and out, stretching for a new hold. At first he thought he had it, then the mortar crumbled and he almost came off. Sten forced his body away from its instinctive clutch at the wall, then inhaled deeply.
"Kaphar hurinu bhanda marnu ramro," came the pained mutter from Lalbahadur below him.
"But cowards live longer, dammit!" Sten managed as he one-handed out, lifting both feet clear. Then his climbing boots found a hold, and Sten was momentarily secure. Breath... breath... and he once again became a climbing machine. Below him, Lalbahadur and the rest of the Gurkha platoon moved steadily up the vertical granite wall toward the two men above them.
Five meters below the parapet. Sten found a stance—a protruding knob of rock. He touched the second can of climbing thread attached to the swiss seat around his waist, and a spidery white line spat out, touched the rock facing, and bonded to it.
Sten motioned outward then toward his waist, signaling that he was secure and could belay the rest of the troops below him. From a third can, on the rear of his harness, a thread descended to the Gurkhas below.
Lalbahadur came up into position, on a single line to Sten's immediate right.
Sten paid no attention. He touched the nozzle of the thread can on his arm, and allowed about fifteen meters of thread, the grapnel at the end, to reel out. He freed one hand from the wall and weaseled it into the thread glove clipped to a carabinier sling, then began rhythmically swinging the grapnel back and forth. Suddenly he cast upward.
The twenty-gram-weight grapnel flickered upward and then caught, spinning twice around the muzzle of an archaic cannon which protruded from the crenellation above him.
Sten clipped his special jumars on the thread and snaked upward while the man in the boiler suit was staring out, into the lights. He never saw Sten lizard up, past the cannon and onto the battlement.
"We have waited for enough time," the voice boomed, on cue. The knife arm came back for the fatal stroke, and Sten came out of the shadows low, coming straight up, one clawed hand slamming into the man's face and a blocking hand snapping into the knife.
The man in the boiler suit staggered away, and the Chamberlain tottered for a minute on the edge of emptiness, then caught his footing. The man with the knife recovered, long blade ready.
But Sten was already inside his attack, double-fisted hands swinging. The strike caught the terrorist on the side of his head, and he dropped limply.
Behind the battlements, the other terrorists spun toward the threat. But they were far too late. The Gurkhas swarmed up from the darkness and came in, 30-cm kukri blades glittering in the spots. And, once again, the cry "Ayo Gurkhali" rang around the castle, a battle cry that had made thousands of generations of violent men reconsider their intentions.
To a man, the terrorists were down.
Lalbahadur checked the downed men to ensure they were, indeed, out. NaikThaman Gurung unslung the rocket mortar from his back and positioned it. Sten nodded, and the mortar bloomed fire as the round lofted up, out into blackness, and then curvetted down to thud onto the parade ground far below.
Gurung bonded the line that ran back from the mortar, impacted far below in the parade ground to a battlement, then grinned at Sten. "We barang now, Captain."
"Platoon up," Sten shouted. "By numbers—move!"
The first to go was Thaman. He attached jumar clamps to the thread that reached more than 700 meters down to the parade ground, swung his feet up, and was off, whistling down the near-invisible thread to safety.
Sten saluted the Chamberlain. "Sir."
Admiral Ledoh grimaced, shoved the ceremonial cocked hat more firmly on his head, took the pair of jumars Sten handed him, and then he, too, disappeared down the thread.
Sten was the next to go, freewheeling off the tiny clamps toward the solid concrete ground. He braked at the last minute, took his hands from the jumar handles, hit, and rolled twice.
Behind him, Lalbahadur and the others descended the thread, hit, recovered, and doubled into platoon formation. Admiral Ledoh, a bit breathless, took two steps forward and saluted. Above him, the Eternal Emperor applauded. Following his cue, the half a million spectators filling the grandstands that lined the five-kilometer-long parade ground broke into cheers—applauding as much for the "terrorists," who were taking their bows high above, as the Gurkhas, Ledoh, and Sten.
Ledoh broke his salute and puffed toward the steps that led to the Imperial stand. By the time he'd made it into the stand itself, the Emperor had a drink waiting for him. After Ledoh shuddered the alcohol down, the Emperor asked with a grin, "Who had the idea of that stupid hat?"
"I did, Your Majesty."
"Uh-huh," the Emperor snickered. "Howinhell'd you hold it on down that Slide for Life?"
"A superior, water soluble glue."
"It had better be. No way am I going to live with that—that—bedpan attached to the head of someone I must see every day." Without waiting for a response, he added, "Have another drink Mik, for godsakes! It isn't every day you play Tarzan."
The second order was followed quickly and thankfully.
The Emperor was celebrating an invention of his own. Empire Day.
He'd begun the ceremony more than 500 years earlier to celebrate winning a war that he'd since forgotten.
The premise was simple: Once a year, every year, all Imperial Forces put on a display, on whatever world they happened to be assigned to, with everyone welcome.
There was, of course, more purpose to Empire Day than just a parade. There was a second or tertiary purpose to almost everything the Eternal Emperor did. Not only did the display of armed might reassure the citizens of the Empire that they were Protected and Defended, but also, Empire Day served to discourage potential Bad Guys from developing Evil Schemes, at least toward Imperial Interests.
The most massive display on Empire Day occurred on Prime World. Over the years, Empire Day had become the culmination of a two-week-long celebration of athletics and the arts as well as of military might. It was a cross between Saturnalia, Oktoberfest, the Olympics, and May Day. For that one night, the Imperial palace was thrown open to everyone, which by itself was a major encouragement.
The Emperor's main residence and command center on Prime World, the palace, was set in a fifty-five-kilometer-diameter circle of gardens. The fifty-five-kilometer measure was significant, since that was the line-of-sight horizon limit on Prime. The Emperor was not fond of stumbling across people whose presence he had not planned on.
At the center of the circle of manicured and wildly varying parklands was the main palace itself, possibly the ultimate motte-and-bailey design, occupying an area six by two kilometers.
The "bailey" consisted of high, fifty-degree-banked walls that vauban-vee-ed back and forth, from the main entrance gate toward the palace itself. The walls were 200 meters high, and buried within was a high percentage of the Emperor's bureaucracy. They were not entirely nuke-proof, but it would take direct hits to wipe out the structure, and the Emperor could continue operations even if his palace was completely sealed off; decades worth of food, air, and water were tanked below the walls for his staff.
The palace itself, a large-scale copy of Earth's Arundel Castle, stood at the far end of the five-kilometer-long parade ground that made up the center of the bailey.
Even more so than the bailey walls, the castle had been built on the iceberg principal. Imperial command barracks/living quarters tunneled underground below the castle itself for more than 2,000 meters.
The castle was faced with huge stone blocks behind which were nuclear-blast shielding, and meters of insulation. The Emperor liked the look of Earth-medieval, but preferred the safety and comfort provided by science.