The event was variously called "artillery competition." "cannon carry," or "impressive silliness." The object of the competition between the two teams was fairly simple. Each team was to maneuver one mountain gun from where it sat, through the obstacles, to a site near the Imperial stand. There it was to be loaded, aimed at one of the targets, and fired. The first team to complete the exercise and strike the target won.

No antigrav devices were allowed, nor was it permitted to run around the obstacles. Instead, each gun had to be disassembled and then carried/hoisted/levered/thrown over the blocks. The competition required gymnastic skills. Since each team was moving somewhat over a thousand kilograms of metal, the chances of crushed body parts was very high. Nevertheless, qualification for the Cannon Carry Teams was intense among Imperial Artillerymen.

That year the competition was of particular interest; for the first time the finals were not between two of the Guards Divisions. Instead, one team of nonhumans, from the XVIII Planetary Landing Force, would challenge the top-ranked men and women of the Third Guards Division.

Another reason for spectator interest, of course, was that the cannon carry was one Empire Day event that could be bet on. Official odds were unusual: eight to five in favor of the Third Guards. However, actual betting ran somewhat differently. Prime World humans felt that the nonhumans, the N'Ranya, were underdogs, and preferred to invest their credits accordingly, non-humanoids felt somewhat differently; preferring to back the favorites.

Sometimes the gods back the sentimental. The N'Ranya were somewhat anthropoidal and weighed in at about 300 kilos apiece. Plus, their race, having developed as tree-dwelling carnivores on a jungle world, had an instinctual eye for geometry and trigonometry.

Working against the N'Ranya was a long tradition of How a Cannon Carry Should Work. The drill went as follows for the Guardsmen: The gun captain took the sight off, doubled to the first obstacle. Waiting for him there were two men who'd already secured the gun's aiming stakes. They literally pitched the gun captain and sight to the top of the wall. He helped his two men up, then went on toward the second obstacle.

By this time the gun had been disassembled into barrel/ trail/carriage/recoil mechanism and was at the foot of that wall. Ropes were thrown to the first two men, and they became human pulleys and the guns went up the wall. Other men free-scaled that wall, grabbed the guns, and eased them down to the other side.

The N'Ranya, however, were more simple. They figured that two N'Ran could lug each component, and worked accordingly. Each part of the gun was bodily carried to the obstacle and "thrown" to two more N'Ran who waited at the top. Then it was dropped to two more on the far side.

And so it went, clever teamwork against brute force. The N'Ran moved ahead on the net lift, since the carrying N'Ran, without bothering to hand off their parts, simply swarmed up and over the net.

The Guards, on the other hand, went into the lead on the steel spider by uniquely levering the skeleton structure up and moving the cannon underneath it.

By the time the two teams staggered over the last obstacle and began putting the gun back together, the Guards team was clearly ahead by seconds.

The N'Ran barely had their cannon assembled when the Guards gun captain slammed the sight onto his gun and powder monkeys slotted the charge into the breech.

All that was needed for the Guards team to win was for the aiming stakes to be emplaced and the gun laid and then fired. Obviously this competition fired somewhat out of "real" sequence.

And then the N'Ran altered the rules. The gun captain ignored the sightstakes, etc., and bore-sighted the gun. He moved his head aside as the round was thrown home, then free-estimated elevation. The N'Ranya dove out of the way as their gun captain toggled off the round. It hit dead center in the target.

Protests were lodged, of course, but eventually the bookies grudgingly paid off on the N'Ranya champions.

At the same time, orders were circulated within the Guards Divisions that recruiters specializing in artillery would be advised to spend time on the N'Ranya worlds.

Tanz Sullamora wasn't happy with things, especially since his Patriotic Duty had just cost him a small bundle.

When he'd heard that for the first time ETs were to be permitted to compete in the cannon carry, he'd been appalled. He did not feel that it was good Imperial policy to allow nonhumanoids to be publicly humiliated on Empire Day.

His second shock was finding that Prime World betting was heavily on the N'Ranya. Patriotism required Sullamora to back the Guards team. It was not the loss of credits, Sullamora rationalized. It was that the contest had been unfair. The N'Ranya were jungle dwellers, predators just one step above cannibals. Of course they had an unfair advantage. Certainly they would be better at carrying heavy weights and so forth. The Emperor had better realize, Sullamora sulked, that while nonhumanoids were a necessary part of the Empire, they certainly should understand how far down the ladder of status they were.

Which inexorably brought to Sullamora's mind where he was sitting. After all he'd done for the Empire, from charitable contributions to funding patriotic art to assisting the Court itself, why had he not been invited to the Imperial box for Empire Day? Or even assigned a box that was close to the Imperial stand, instead of being far down the first circle, almost in the second-class area?

The Emperor, Sullamora thought, was beginning to change, and change in a manner that, the merchant thought righteously, was indicative of the growing corruption of the Empire itself.

Tanz Sullamora was certainly not enjoying Empire Day.

Of course, one major set piece was always planned for Empire Day. And, of course, each year it had to be bigger and better than the previous year's.

Fortunately the current celebration didn't have much to worry about. The previous year, the set piece had been assigned to the Eighth Guards Division, who planned to display the fighting prowess of the individual infantryman.

To that end, McLean units were taken off gravsleds, half powered, and lightened to the point that a unit could be hidden in one soldier's combat rucksack. The end result—a flying man; flying sans suit or lifebelt.

In rehearsal it looked quite impressive.

The plan was for the Eighth Guards to pull one massive Swoop, with each soldier functioning as a cross between a tiny tacship and a crunchie.

The Eighth Guards, however, forgot to check on the weather. Prime World was windy. And the normal twenty-gusting-to-thirty winds that blew across the parade field were magnified by the enormous ground's own weather effects. The end result was many, many grunts' being blown into the stands in disarray—not bad for them, since many made valuable instant friends—some bruised egos and bodies in the second area of seating, and an enormous gust of laughter from the Emperor.

That gust of laughter blew the Eighth Guards to the Draconian Sector, where they were spending morose tours keeping that group of dissident pioneer worlds in something approaching coherence.

This year, it was Twelfth Guards' turn in the barrel. And, after she spent considerable time in thought, the commanding General found a unique way to do a massive display. Laser blasts lanced into the arena and ricocheted from pre-positioned surfaces to bounce harmlessly into the atmosphere. Explosions roared and boomed. And then elements of the Twelfth Guards fought their way back into the arena.

The Emperor nodded approvingly; very seldom had he seen anybody schedule a fighting retreat for display.

Antennas went up, and signalmen began flashing. From over the horizon tacships snarled and realistically strafed the area just behind the parade ground.

Pickup ships snaked in as antiaircraft fire boomed around them (lighter-than-air balloons, painted non-reflective black and set with timed charges). The ships boiled in, grounded, and, in perfect discipline, the troops loaded aboard. The pickup ships cleared, hovered, and suddenly the air just above the parade ground hummed and boomed and echoes slammed across the field. Screams rose from the stands, and the Emperor himself almost went flat—then reseated himself, while wishing he could figure out how anybody could fake a maser cannon.

Then the stars darkened and two Hero-class battle-wagons drifted overhead, their kilometer-long bulks blackening the sky. Lasers raved from the two battleships, and missiles flamed from the ships' ports. Eventually the "enemy ground fire" stopped, and the pickup ships arced up into the heavens and into the yawning bays of the battleships. Then the ships lifted vertically, Yukawa behind them, and suddenly vanished, sonic-booming up and out of Prime World's atmosphere.

The crowd went nuts.

The Eternal Emperor poured himself a drink and decided that the Twelfth Guards would not go to Draconia.

Godfrey Alain watched the battleships vanish overhead and shivered slightly. In his mind those same battleships were lifting away from the ruins of his own world. His private calculations showed that such an invasion was no more than a year away. Death in the name of peace, he thought.

Alain had faced Imperial Guardsmen before, both personally and strategically—he knew the might of the Empire. But, somehow, seeing those battleships and the smooth efficient lift of an entire division of 12,000 struck more immediately home.

And I'm the only one who'll keep that invasion from happening. The Tahn will not do anything. My own people will just die. And my cause will be lost for generations to come.

Alain was not an egotist. All projections showed that he was the only one who could stop such an invasion.

Unfortunately, Godfrey Alain had less than twenty-four hours to live.

Everyone loves clowns and acrobats. Almost a thousand of them filled the parade ground. Doing clown numbers:

A new group of "drunk soldiers" deciding to salute the Emperor, not knowing how to do it, and building toward a fight that built toward a pyramid display, with the "drunkest" man atop the pyramid saluting perfectly and then doing a dead-man topple to spin through three tucks and land perfectly on the balls of his feet.

Men in barrels, rolling about and narrowly avoiding destruction; tumblers, spinning for hundreds of meters on their hands; gymnasts using each other, themselves, and sometimes, it seemed, thin air to soar ever upward in more and more spectacular patterns; boxers, who swung majestically, missed, and went into contortions of recovery to get back to the mock-fight; crisscross tumbling, with bodies narrowly missing other bodies as they cartwheeled over and over.

The crowd loved them.

The announcer's text said that the thousand clowns were part of the "Imperial Gymnastic Corps," but that corps never existed. Of those present, only the Emperor knew that the display of clowns was as close as his Mantis Section men—the superelite, superclassified commandos that did the Emperor's most private and dangerous skulking—could get to any kind of public display.

Besides, the children—which included the Emperor—loved that part of the evening.

In normal times, Dr. Har Stynburn would have attended Empire Day from a private booth. At the very least, it would have been in the second circle. More than likely he would have been a guest in the first area, a guest of one of the important people who were his patients.

But those were not normal times.

Stynburn sat far to the rear of the landing field in one of the uncushioned, unupholstered seats that were reserved for the Prime World residents themselves.

Residents. Peasants.

Stynburn was surely a racist. But the gods have a certain sardonic sense of humor. The entire row in front of him was filled with longshoremen: octopod longshoremen. Not only that, but drunk octopod longshoremen, who waved banners, unspeakable food, and even more unspeakable drink in Stynburn's face.

Still worse, the longshoremen expressed enthusiasm by opening their tertiary mouths, located atop their bodies, gulping in air, and then emitting it suddenly and explosively.

Stynburn had, he thought, expressed polite displeasure after one longshoreman had inadvertently shoved a snack that looked like a boiled hat into Stynburn's face. Instead of agreeing, the longshoreman had asked if Stynburn would like to be a part of Empire Day, and wound up two pitching tentacles to provide the means.

He ran fingers through his carefully coiffed gray hair—like his body, still young, still needing neither transplants nor injections.

Stynburn consciously forced his mind to another subject, and stared at the holographic screen across the way. The screen showed close shots of the clowns as they moved toward Stynburn's area, then a momentary shot of the Emperor himself, rocking with laughter in his booth, then other celebrities in their very private booths.

Stynburn was not feeling at his best. As he'd moved into the arena, carefully looking and thinking anonymous, he thought he'd caught a glimpse of the man he had hired.

He was wrong, but the moment had upset him. How did he know that the man was in fact on his assigned post? Hiring professional criminals for a job was valid, he knew, but he also knew through experience that they were extremely unreliable.

Stynburn's train of depression was broken as a security guard came through the stands and told the longshoremen to pipe down or get thrown out. The guard continued up the steps, but paused to give Stynburn a sharp glance.

No, Stynburn's mind said. I know I do not belong here. It is possible that I do not look it.

But continue on, man. Do not stop, for your own life.

Stynburn was not exaggerating. Years before, other surgeons had implanted a tube of explosives where his appendix had been, and a detonator between his shoulder blades. All it took to set off his suicide capsule—and to destroy a twenty-meter-square area—was for Dr. Stynburn to force his shoulders back in a superexaggerated stretch.

But that would not be necessary; the guard continued up the steps and Stynburn forced his eyes back onto the arena, and his mouth to produce very hollow laughter at the antics of the clowns.

Icy fingers tailed up Marr's fragile spine, an instinct that had saved generations of Milchen from death in the long-ago days of Frederick Two. His heart fluttered, and he pulled slightly away from Senn.

"What's wrong, dear?"

"I don't know. Something is... I don't know."

Senn tried to pull him closer to comfort him. Marr shook his head and rose to his full slender height.

"Take me home, Senn," he said. "It doesn't feel like a party anymore." 

CHAPTER FOUR

The sniffer stirred as Sten approached the closet, micro-gears whirring and throbbing like a small rodent. The security bot hesitated a half second, filament whiskers quivering, and then scuttled inside, its little metal feet clicking on the floor of the closet.