Until the day's Imperial summons.

When Sten entered, saluted, and reported, the Emperor had been sitting, completely still, behind his desk.

Long moments passed before he spoke.

Sten had been expecting several things to be said. None of them were right.

"Captain, are you ready to go to war?"

Sten blinked, found that all his potential responses sounded dumb, and stayed silent.

"I will make a prediction, Captain. Ex Cathedra Eyes Only. Within five E-years we will be fighting the Tahn."

The Emperor took slight pity. "At ease, Captain Sten. Sit down."

Sten was somewhat relieved. He didn't figure that the Emperor ever busted somebody out of the service if he allowed the clot to be seated first.

"Well, Captain? Your thoughts?"

Sten was perplexed. Like any professional military man, he truly believed the somewhat contradictory line that a soldier's job is to avoid war.

The Emperor seemed to be slightly prescient. "It's gonna be a bitch when it comes.

"By the way. No way am I wrong. Intelligence says that every Tahn shipyard has converted to warship construction. The Tahn are buying up every particle of AM2 they can get, no matter what the price.

"Also—and I'm keeping this off the vid—there've been a whole clottin' group of skirmishes with my normal patrol ships around the Tahn worlds. Aw hell. Why am I lying to you? Every spy ship I send in they send back full of holes."

The Emperor then took out a flask from his desk. Sten felt slightly more relieved—first sit down and then maybe a drink. Maybe he would keep his captain's bars. "The reason I have been avoiding you, Captain, is that this whole sorry-ass mess is something I've been trying not to think about.

"So anybody who had anything to do with it was on my drakh list, frankly. Being an Emperor means never having to say you're wrong if you want things that way."

He poured into two small metal cups, and Sten recognized the smell of Stregg.

"This stuff gets to you after a while," the Emperor said, but he made no move to offer a cup to Sten. "Remember when we got loaded on Empire Day?"

Sten did.

"Remember what I told you?"

Sten remembered.'

"Well, I took the next step for you." The Emperor took from his desk drawer a set of orders and tossed them on his desk.

"Don't bother reading them now. You're reassigned. Flight school. Oh yeah. By the way. That chubby thug of yours?"

"Sergeant Major Kilgour?"

"Him. You wonder where he is?"

Sten had. Alex had disappeared most mysteriously a month or two earlier.

"Yeah. I lifted him because he was actually applying through channels to get married. To some cop or other.

Clottin' idiot. Neckbreakers like him shouldn't ever get married. Anyway, he's now learning how to make like a big bird, too.

"Also he ain't a sergeant major anymore. I kicked him up to warrant officer. If he's gonna be in the clottin' navy, at least he won't have to put up with their silly class system."

The Emperor picked up and fingered his cup. "Captain, you might want to return to some kind of position of attention."

Sten was standing, locked and rigid in an instant.

"The other thing"—and the Emperor reached into his desk yet again and took out a small blue box—"is you're now a commander. Here's your insignia." He shoved the box across to Sten. "Now, pick up that cup."

Sten obeyed.

"I'm gonna call the toast—it's to you, Commander. Because no way I'll ever see you again."

The Emperor stood. "To your health, Commander Sten!"

To Sten, the Stregg tasted very odd indeed.

Haines was running all this input—less the Emperor's certainty of imminent war, which Sten had not mentioned—as Sten finished his beer, went back into the boat, and got another.

"Another thing I picked up," he went on after he sat. "You're going to get some kind of promotion, too."

But Haines was considering something else. "So you're going to go off and become a junior birdman. When?"

"That's the rest of the good news," Sten said. "It seems, uh, I've come into some money." Ida's illicitly acquired and invested funds had finally caught up with him, and Sten was sitting on more credits than he believed existed.

"Also me and you're on long leave before we report to our new duty stations."

Haines smiled, took a sip of her drink, and then winked. "Hey sailor. You want to fool around?"

Sten started laughing and knelt beside her. She pulled him down, and he felt her breasts and her lips, and then there was nothing but the blinding warmth of the sun itself. 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

CHRIS BUNCH is a Ranger—an airborne-qualified Vietnam Vet—who's written about phenomena as varied as the Hell's Angels, the Rolling Stones, and Ronald Reagan. ALLAN COLE grew up in the CIA in odd spots like Okinawa, Cyprus, and Taiwan. He's been a professional chef, investigative reporter, and national news editor of a major West Coast daily newspaper. He's won half a dozen writing awards in the process.

BUNCH AND COLE, friends since high school, have collaborated on everything from the world's worst pornographic novel to over fifty television scripts, as well as a feature movie. This is their second novel.