The Return of the Emperor
by
Allan Cole and Chris Bunch

Note: The titles of Books One, Two, and Three are the official ranks Augustus won from the Roman senate to become Emperor. Princeps means "Leading Man." Imperator, "Military Commander." This word is the Latin root for Emperor. Pater Patriae means "Father of the Fatherland."

The title of Book Four translates as "We About to Die Salute You." It was the famous cry of the gladiators as they paid respects to their emperor before engaging in the bloodbaths of the ancient circuses.

BOOK ONE
PRINCEPS

CHAPTER ONE

The ship bulked monstrous. Each of the decahedron's sides measured nearly a square kilometer.

There was but one man on board. He floated, motionless, in a shallow pool that curved in the center of one compartment. His eyes opened. Blue. Incurious, like a newly born child. Some time passed.

A valve activated, and the liquid drained out of the pool. One side dropped away. The man sat up and lowered his legs to the deck, moving slowly and carefully like an invalid testing himself after a long time bedridden. The deck was warm.

He might have sat there for a moment, an hour, or a day before a voice spoke. It came from everywhere.

"There is food and drink in the next chamber."

Obediently the man pushed himself to his feet. He swayed, then recovered. On a low stand beside the pool/ bed was a blue coverall. He glanced at it briefly, then walked to a wall. It was smooth and blank except for a circular palmswitch. He touched the switch.

The wall became a screen. Vid? Imaging radar? Computer simulation?

Outside lay space/not space. It was black, and it was all colors. It hurt the man's eyes. He palmed the switch once more, and the screen became a wall.

Still naked, he padded through a doorway.

A table was set for one. The dishes were covered. The man lifted one cover and scooped food up with his fingers. He chewed, then swallowed. His expression was still unchanged.

He wiped his fingers on his thigh and walked into another compartment, where he saw a reclining chair with a steel-gleaming helmet on it. Odd tendrils curled from the helmet.

The man sat down and put the helmet on.

There were other people in the room. No. He was outside. He was wearing clothing—some kind of uniform. The other people were all smiling and laughing and trying to touch him. He let them. He heard himself saying words he did not yet understand.

He noted one person amid the throng. He had a very pale face, and his eyes gleamed. The pale-faced man stretched out his hand to shake. Suddenly he drew something metal-shining from his clothing.

The man felt blows in his stomach. Felt himself falling backward. Felt pain. Pain rising until... until everything stopped.

The man took off the helmet. He was back in the compartment, back in the reclining chair.

The voice spoke again. "E-time since deactivation: six years, three months, two days."

The man's expression changed slightly. A thought drifted through his mind: Wrong. Five years late. Then the thought was discarded as meaningless. What was "late?" He rose.

"You have ten ship-days before departure."

The man nodded once. He returned to the mess compartment. He was hungry again. 

CHAPTER TWO

It was a quiet little planet in a nondescript system overseen by a dying yellow star. The system had no particular history, was well off any major trade or tourist routes, and rarely had any visitors.

Many E-years before, an Imperial Survey Mission had made a desultory study and found little of interest. The science officer had duly noted that it was about .87 E-size, had commensurate gravity, E-normal atmosphere, and sat three AU from its sun. The climate was tropical to subarctic, and the planet supported any number of thriving life forms. The top predator on land was a shy, catlike creature that proved to be of no danger to anyone.

There were also "No beings of higher development observed."

The planet was dubbed Survey World XM-Y-1134. And for several hundred years, that was its sole name—although it was unlikely anyone ever asked.

It got a proper name of sorts from a restless entrepreneur who built a mansion in the temperate zone for himself and his hangers-on, then briefly toyed with the idea of turning it into a remote resort. To this end, he had constructed a state-of-the-art spaceport. Whether or not the idea had merit, no one would ever learn. The entrepreneur lost three or four fortunes and came to an obscure, rather sad end.

But the planet didn't mind. It hummed and wobbled busily about its orbit as it had done for several billion years, scratching its fur against a cosmic stump every few hundred millions of years or so—and wiping out any life-forms that had become too prolific and giving another group a start.

The planet's new name was Smallbridge. The source for that name was buried along with the entrepreneur and his conceit.

Sten liked it fine. He had spent more than five years exploring Smallbridge's beaches, marshes, broad plains and deserts, forests and ice floes, sometimes with eager companions, sometimes alone. There had been a few adventures—and more than a few trysts with lovely women. But nothing had stuck. He had encountered no one like the steel-willed Bet of his youth. Or the relentless Lisa Haines. Or the fiery gambler, St. Clair.

In the last year or so, he had found himself just going through the motions of living. He had fallen into a dark mood he couldn't shake.

During rational moments, he would rouse himself. Give himself a good talking to. Call himself all kinds of a rich fool of a clot.

He had everything any being could want, didn't he? Gypsy Ida, his old Mantis teammate, had seen to that. He and Alex Kilgour had exited the Tahn POW camp wealthy beyond their dreams. While they had languished in the Heath slammer, Ida had rolled their ever-growing back pay into one investment after another until the result was two not so smallish fortunes.

Besides the money, Kilgour wound up with the poshest estate on his heavy-world home of Edinburgh.

Sten got his own planet.

Thanks a clot of a lot, Ida. Now, what?

Come on, don't blame the Rom. As Mahoney would have said: "Don't be kicking over the milk the cow gave." Mahoney would have reminded Sten that he had plucked him off the factory world of Vulcan, a young Delinq half a breath from being brain-burned. Mahoney would sneer and point out that Sten had crawled through the mud and worse to rise from the ranks as an infantry grunt to a deadly Mantis operative to commander of the Emperor's personal bodyguard to hero of the Tahn wars—and finally to admiral. He would brush over the oceans of gore Sten was personally responsible for and tell him that he was still a young man and just needed to pluck his finger out and get back to business.

But Mahoney was dead.

Sten's old boss, the Eternal Emperor, would have laughed at him, poured a double shot of stregg to put blood in his eye, and sent him off to face a suitable enemy. It wouldn't matter much who the enemy might be. It would be enough that the beings were threatening the peace and security of an empire that had thrived for nearly three thousand years.

But the Emperor, too, was dead.

The last time Sten had seen the Emperor, he had sworn to the man that his career in the military was over. This despite promises of many honors and much important work to come in the aftermath of the Tahn conflict that had nearly bankrupted the Empire.

The Eternal Emperor had scoffed and said Sten was just weary, and understandably so. He said to look him up when he tired of the peaceful life. The Emperor had estimated it would take no longer than six months.

It was one of those rare times when the Eternal Emperor had been wrong. Almost six months to the day, Sten had looked up from blissful idleness in his mansion at Smallbridge, patted the curvaceous naked form nestled against the pillow next to him, and whispered "no clottin' way" to his absent boss.

A week later, the Eternal Emperor had been assassinated.

It had been one of those stupid things that Sten had dreaded when he commanded the Emperor's bodyguard. No matter what precautions were taken, there was no such thing as absolute safety for a man as public as the Eternal Emperor. Even the fierce loyalty of his Gurkha guards was not complete protection. The little men with the long, curving knives who had kept the Emperor's foes at bay for nearly thirty centuries were helpless under certain circumstances.

The Emperor had returned to Prime World the conquering hero. Billions upon billions of beings across his far-flung empire had watched on their livies as he stepped from his royal ship and advanced across the tarmac to the phalanx of waiting gravcars that would whisk him home to Arundel.

Tanz Sullamora, the great ship-building industrialist and most trusted member of his privy council, was at his side.

Sten remembered watching the screen in the mansion's vidroom. The newscaster's voice was hoarse from describing the triumphant return. The schedule, he said in a raspy whisper, called for no ceremonies at that moment. The Emperor would board the waiting craft and head for a well-earned rest. In a week or so, a grand celebration of the victory over the Tahn was planned. Beings from all over the Empire would gather to honor their leader. There would be no recriminations, it was said, even against the shakiest of the Emperor's allies.

Sten didn't believe a word of that. He knew his boss too well. There would be a purge. But it would be swift, sure, and hardly a bubble of interruption as the Emperor turned his attention away from war and back to the business of being the chieftain of the greatest capitalist system in history.

But it would still be a good show. The Emperor was master of dazzle and triple speak.

Idly, Sten noted the small group of spaceport employees gathered far to one side of the screen. They were drawn up in what was obviously a receiving line, waiting to shake the hand of the Emperor. Sten was glad his old boss was heading in the opposite direction. Not that there was any real danger. What would be the point of attacking the Emperor now that the war was over? Still... His instincts always fought his common sense in such situations. Once among the press of flesh, it would be impossible to totally protect the man.

Then he saw Sullamora catch the Emperor's attention and nod to the waiting line. Sten let out an automatic groan. Tanz would be pointing out, he knew, that the spaceport group had been waiting for hours to greet their ruler and should really not be disappointed.

Sure enough, after a moment's hesitation, the Emperor's party turned toward the assembled group. They were moving fast. The Emperor obviously wanted to get this bit of duty over with as quickly as possible. The Gurkhas hustled on stubby legs to keep the shield up.

Then the Emperor was going down the line in that smooth, graceful way he had among his people: the charming, fatherly smile fixed on his young features; the tall, muscular body bounding along from being to being; one hand coming out to shake, the other going for the elbow for a warm double-grip that also moved the greeter swiftly aside, so the next hand could be taken.

Sten had seen a blur of motion. What was happening? He heard the distinctive crack crack crack of pistol fire. And the Eternal Emperor was falling back. The camera swirled into mass confusion. Then it cleared—but just for a moment.

He saw the Emperor lying on the tarmac. Sten's heart was still. His breath caught somewhere in his chest. Was he... dead?

Then the screen turned to pure burning white, and Sten heard the beginnings of a mighty explosion.

Transmission was cut.

When it was finally restored, Sten had his answer.

The Eternal Emperor had been assassinated.

By a madman, it was said. Some malcontent named Chapelle, who had acted alone out of some insane motive—revenge for an imagined slight, or ambition for an odd sort of immortality.

Along with countless billions of other beings, Sten had been a numb witness to what followed.

It was inconceivable that the Emperor was gone. Although there were few who believed that any living thing could be immortal or even close to it. There were a few odd cells—usually particularly virulent things that destroyed their host, hence themselves—that could theoretically live forever, as well as a few dwellers of the seas and upper atmospheres. But that was nit-picking. For all things, to be alive meant eventual death.

For human beings, this was particularly so. And the Emperor was a human being. There was no dispute on that and never would be.

But as long as anyone could remember he had always been there. Whether one agreed or disagreed with his policies, the Emperor was a comforting and permanent presence. Even the most bitter and radical scholars gnashed their teeth as they tracked his reign back century after unbelievable century. It was no accident that the word eternal was the official preface to the Emperor's title.

It was also something one didn't dwell on. An ordinary human might live for two hundred years if he were lucky. To think of someone vastly older was frightening.

Sten had personally known the man a great deal of his own allotted span. In apparent age, the Emperor was no more than thirty-five or so. His eyes were youthfully bright. He even made occasional mocking references to his great age. But there was little the Eternal Emperor didn't mock. Nothing was holy to him, especially himself.

Sometimes, however, Sten had seen him overtaken by a great and terrible weariness. It had happened more often toward the end of the Tahn debacle. Deep lines would be etched on his features, and his eyes would suddenly grow so distant that anyone looking believed for a moment that the man had seen and been places far beyond any being who had ever lived. And somehow one was sure he would remain long after one's own memory was lost in distant time.

Two days after the assassination, the members of the Emperor's privy council had, one by one, mounted the stage hastily set up in the great grounds around the ruins of Arundel Castle. Only one member did not appear; Tanz Sullamora. Faithful servant to the last, he had died in the explosion that had also wiped out everyone within the one-eighth-of-a-kilometer kill zone. Why Chapelle had found it necessary to set off such an enormous explosion after he slew the Emperor, no one could say. Except that it was the act of an insane man. All else remained part of that mad puzzle, because Chapelle himself had been one of the first victims of his actions.

The five lords of industry stood before the vast throng assembled on the grounds. Prior to their entrance, it had been explained in great detail exactly who and what they were.

There was Kyes, a tall, slender, silver being, who controlled most things involving artificial intelligence. He was a Grb'chev, a vastly bright race, and appeared to be the chief spokesbeing of the privy council. Next was Malperin. She ruled a gargantuan conglomerate that included agriculture, chemical, and pharmaceuticals. Then there was Lovett, scion of a great banking family. Finally, the Kraa twins—one grossly fat, the other painfully thin—who controlled the major mines, mills, and foundries in the Empire. Besides Sullamora, there had once been another member of their group. But Volmer, a media baron, had died in some silly mishap just prior to the end of the war.