Ancillary buildings, such as rec halls, offices, bars, and so forth, were built over the kilometer-square warehouses. Ramps—some powered, some not—swept up from the ground level to the spider-web steel frameworks that held the secondary buildings.

The Convenanter sat three levels above the ground. To reach the bar required traveling one cargo ramp, one escalator, and then climbing up oil-slick stairs. Despite that, the Convenanter was usually crowded.

But not in the night.

Not in the rain.

Godfrey Alain moved into the shadows at the top of the escalator and waited to see if he was being tailed.

Minutes passed, and he heard nothing but the waterfall sound of the rain rushing down the ramps to the ground far below. He pulled his raincloak tighter around him, still waiting.

Alain had left his hotel room in Fowler. Four other rented "safe" rooms had given him momentary safety, a chance to see if he was followed, and a change of clothes. He appeared to be clean.

A more experienced operative might have suggested to Alain that he should have tried less expensive costuming; his final garb and his final position, a warehouse district, made him a potential target for muggers.

But Godfrey Alain was not a spy; the skills of espionage were secondary to him. To most of the Empire, he was a terrorist. To himself, his fellow revolutionaries, and the Tahn worlds, Alain was a freedom fighter.

What Alain was, oddly enough, was less a factor of politics than population movement. The Tahn worlds having originally been settled by low-tech refugees guaranteed that the Empire left them alone. The Tahn worlds being what they were—a multisystem sprawl of cluster worlds—guaranteed no Imperial interference. But the Tahn's lebensraum expansion also was a guarantee that sooner or later the Empire and the Tahn would intersect, as had happened some generations before when Tahn settlers moved from their own systems to frontier worlds already occupied by small numbers of Imperial pioneers.

The two very different cultures were soon in conflict, and both sides screamed for help. The Tahn homeworlds could not provide direct armed support, nor were they willing to risk a direct confrontation with the Empire.

The Empire, on the other hand, could afford no more than token garrison forces of second- and third-class units to "protect" the Imperial settlers from Tahn colonials.

The Caltor system Alain was born into was on one of those in conflict. Since the Tahn settlers ghettoed together socially and economically, they were guaranteed an advantage against the less united Imperial inhabitants. But the Imperial pioneers had Caltor's garrison troopies to fall back on and they felt that Imperial presence lent them some authority.

Such a situation breeds pogroms. And in one such pogrom Alain's parents were slaughtered.

The boy Alain saw the bodies of his parents, saw the local Imperial troops shrug off the "incident," and went to school. School was learning how to turn a gravsled into a kamikaze or a time bomb; how to convert a mining lighter into a transsystem spaceship; how to build a projectile weapon from pipes; and, most important, how to turn a mob into a tightly organized cellular resistance movement.

The resistance spread, from pioneer planet to pioneer planet, always disavowed by the distant Tahn worlds yet always backed with "clean" weaponry and moral support; always fought by the Imperial settlers and their resident "peace-keeping" troops; always growing.

Alain was a leader of the resistance—in the fifty years since he had seen his parents dead in the ruins of their house, he had become the chief of the Fringe Worlds' liberation movement.

And so he went by invitation to his home worlds as the representative of a huge, militant movement. Going home—to a political and ideological home he had never seen, the Tahn worlds, turned Alain into a lost man, because the Tahn system—those worlds the fringe worlds would unite with if his movement was successful—were not at all what he expected.

The government-encouraged population explosion was part of his disenchantment, as were the rigid social customs. But the biggest thing was the very stratification of the Tahn society. Coming from a pioneer world, Alain felt that any person should be able to rise to whatever level he was capable of. Intellectually he knew this was not part of Tahn culture, but what grew in his craw was the populace's acceptance of the stratification. As far as he could tell, the warrior had no intentions of becoming nobility, the peasant had no interest in the merchant class, and so forth.

It was the classic confrontation between a man from a culture which is still evolving and a society that has fixed on a very successful formula.

That was the first problem. The second, which he had been reminded of at gut level during the Empire Day celebration, was that, if the Eternal Emperor desired it, his revolutionary movement could be obliterated—along with the Tahn settlers Alain's freedom fighters moved and lived among.

Six months before, Alain had made very secretive overtures to an Imperial ambassador-without-portfolio. Initially, he had wanted to discuss a truce with the Empire, and with the fringe worlds that the Empire supported. And, over the months, the concept of truce had evolved.

Alain's final proposal, to be put before a direct representative this night, was broader. He wanted not just a cease-fire, but a slow legitimization of his people and his movement, recognizing the fringe worlds as an independent buffer zone between the Tahn worlds and the Empire itself.

Alain had only discussed the proposition among his oldest friends and most trusted advisors. It would be all too easy for Tahn intelligence to learn of the proposition, proclaim Alain a counterrevolutionary, and arrange for his death.

It would also be convenient for some of his long-term enemies on the Imperial side to have him killed. Alain was not afraid of dying—nearly fifty years as a guerrilla had blanked that part of his psyche out—but he was terrified of dying before his plan was in front of the Emperor.

The meeting had been most secretively arranged. Alain had been provided with false credentials, authorized "at the highest level," and arrived as just one more tourist to see the Empire Day display and sample the exotic life of the world that was home to the Court of a Thousand Suns.

Sometime during the Empire Day festivities, he was passed instructions on where the meeting was to occur, but the handoff was so subtle that even Alain was unsure how or when the time-burn message came into his pockets.

He felt relatively secure about the meeting, which had been set at a ship-port dive. It might prove fatal to Alain to have met with an Imperial representative in the long run, but it would certainly be damaging to the Emperor himself if anyone were to know his representative was meeting with a terrorist, especially a terrorist who had been the unsuccessful target of two Mantis Team assassination runs.

There were no followers.

Alain walked lightly up the stairs. His hand on the projectile pistol under the cloak, he checked behind him once again. Then he went down the ten-meter-wide catwalk of pierced steel plating. Alain could see the ground, long meters below. On either side of the catwalk hung the structural-steel plating which supported offices and small industrial shops. Gaps yawned between them.

The only overhead on the catwalk was also over the only lit building, a bright red bar faced with pseudo wood. Its holographic display morosely blinking The Convenanter.

He moved quite slowly down the catwalk, slipping from shadow to shadow. He saw no one and nothing outside the bar.

The man was diagonally across the catwalk from the Covenanter, on the open second floor of an unfinished warehouse. He stood well back from the window, just in case anyone was scanning the area with heat-sensitive glasses.

For two hours the bomber had been alternately sweeping the catwalk with light-enhancing binocs and swearing at the rain and his stupidity for taking the job—just as he had every night for three weeks from two hours after nightfall until the Convenanter closed.

This is a busto bum go, the bomber thought not for the first nor the five-hundredth time. Showed what happened when a man needed a job. The clots could sense it, and crawl out from the synth-work every time, somehow knowing when a real professional needed a few credits and didn't have much choice how he got them.

The bomber's name was Dynsman, and, contrary to his self-image, he was quite a ways from being a professional demolitionist. Dynsman was that rarity, a Prime World native. His family did not come from the wrong side of the tracks, because his older brothers would have torn those tracks up and sold them for black-market scrap.

Dynsman was small, light on his feet, and occasionally quick-minded.

All else being normal, Dynsman would have followed quite a predictable pattern, growing up in petty thievery, graduating to small-scale nonviolent organized crime until a judge tired of seeing his face every year or so and deported him to a prison planet.

But Dynsman got lucky. His chance at real fame came when he slid through a heavy traffic throng to the rear of a guarded gravsled. When the guards looked the other way, Dynsman grabbed and hauled tail.

The gravsled had been loaded with demolition kits intended for the Imperial Guards. The complete demo kit, which included fuses, timer, primary charges, and the all-important instructions, had zip value to Dynsman's fence. He had sadly found himself sitting atop a roof and staring into a box that he'd gone to Great Risk—at least by Dynsman's scale of danger values—to acquire. And it was worth nothing.

But Dynsman was a native Prime Worlder, one of a select group of people widely thought capable of selling after dinner flatulence as experimental music. By the time he'd removed three fingers, scared his hair straight, and been tossed out of home by his parents, Dynsman could pass—at a distance, after dark, in a fog—as an explosives expert.

Soon Dynsman was a practicing member of an old and valued profession—one of those noble souls who turned bad investments, buildings, spacecraft, slow inventory, whatever, into liquid assets—with more potential customers than he had time for. Unfortunately, the biggest of those turned out to be an undercover Imperial police officer.

And so it went—Dynsman was either in jail or in the business of high-speed disassembly.

He should have known, however, that something was wrong on this job. First, the man who had bought him was too sleek, too relaxed to be a crook. And he knew too much about Dynsman, including the fact that Dynsman was six cycles late on his gambling payment and that the gambler had wondered if Dynsman might look more stylish with an extra set of kneecaps.

Not that Dynsman could have turned down the stranger's assignment at the best of times; Dynsman was known as a man who could bust out of a dice game even if he was using his own tap dice.

According to the gray-haired man, the job was simple.

Dynsman was to build a bomb into the Covenanter. Not just a w/ta/w-and-there-goes-everything bomb, but a very special bomb, placed in a very particular manner. Dynsman was then to wait in the uncompleted building until a certain man entered the building. He was then to wait a certain number of seconds and set the device off.

After that, Dynsman was to get the other half of his fee, plus false ID and a ticket off Prime World.

Dynsman mourned again—the fee offered was too high. Just as suspicious was the expensive equipment he was given—the night binocs, a designer sports timer, a parabolic mike with matching headphones, and the transceiver that would be used to trigger the bomb.

Dynsman was realizing he was a very small fish suddenly dumped into a pool of sharks when he spotted the man coming down the catwalk toward the Convenanter.

Dynsman scanned the approaching figure of Alain. Ah-hah. The first person to come near the bar in an hour. Expensively dressed. Holding the glasses in one hand, Dynsman slid the headphones into position and the microphone on.

Down on the catwalk Alain stopped outside the Covenanter's entrance. Another man stepped out of the blackness—Craigwel, the Emperor's personal diplomatic troubleshooter. He wore the flash coveralls of a spaceship engineer, and held both hands in front of him, clearly showing that he was unarmed.

"Engineer Raschid?" Alain said, following instructions.

"That is the name I am using."

Across the street, Dynsman almost danced in joy. This was it! This was finally it! He shut off the mike, dropped it, and scooped up the radio-detonator and the sports timer.

As the two men went into the Covenanter, Dynsman thumbed the timer's start button. 

CHAPTER SIX

TEN SECONDS:

Janiz Kerleh was co-owner, cook, bartender, and main waiter at the Covenanter. The bar itself was her own personal masterpiece.

Janiz had no poor-farm-girl-led-into-trouble background, though she was from a farming planet. Fifteen years of watching her logger parents chew wood chips from dawn to dusk dedicated her to finding a way out. The way out proved to be a traveling salesman specializing in log-snaking elephants.

The elephant salesman took Janiz to the nearest city. Janiz took twenty minutes to find the center of action and ten more to line up her first client.

Being a joygirl wasn't exactly a thrill a minute—for one thing, she could never understand why so many people who wanted sex never bothered to use a mouthwash first—but it was a great deal better than staring at an elephant's anus for a lifetime. The joygirl became a madame successful enough to finance a move to Prime World.

To her total disappointment, Janiz found that what she had figured would be a gold mine was less than that. Not only were hookers falling out of Prime World's ears, but more than enough amateurs were willing to cooperate for something as absurd as being presented at Court.

Janiz Kerleh, then, was on hard times when she met Chief Engineer Raschid. They'd bedded, found a certain similarity in humor, and started spending time in positions other than horizontal.

Pillow talk—and pillow talk for Janiz was the bar she'd always wanted to open. Twenty years' worth of dreaming, sketching, even putting little pasteboard models together when the vice squad pulled the occasional plug on her operation.

Paralyzed was probably the best way to describe her reaction when Raschid, a year or so after they'd known each other, and sex had become less of an overriding interest than just a friendly thing to do, handed her a bank draft and said, "You wanna open up your bar? Here. I'm part owner."

Raschid's only specification was that one booth—Booth C, he'd told her to name it—was to be designed somewhat differently than the others. It was to be absolutely clean. State-of-the-art debugging and alarm devices were delivered and installed by anonymous coveralled men. The booth itself was soundproofed so that any conversation could not be overheard a meter away from the table. A security service swept the booth once a week.