Malperin proposed that they release a canned study, showing that the steadily dipping economic curve had bottomed out and was at last turning upward. Simultaneously, they would convene the privy council for the Economic Summit, a summit they would claim would set the course of the Empire for the next six or seven years.

They would play up the summit as the most important event since the death of the Emperor. Full media coverage. Pull out all stops. She also suggested where such a summit could be held, for maximum suspense.

It would be staged on Earth, in Tanz Sullamora's old fishing camp, now revitalized for the use of the council for their most private meetings.

There they would convene, innocently contemplating things of great and holy importance-the public good. At that moment, the Honjo would make their unprovoked attack on the defenseless Imperial ship.

The Kraas figured the booty would fill a spacetrain ten or fifteen kilometers long.

"That's a lot of clottin' AM2," the skinny one said.

Kyes agreed. It certainly was a clottin' lot of AM2.

Mahoney bounced into Sten's suite, happily singing/humming what he remembered of a medieval ballad: "Let me something my eyes... dah... dah... dah dah dah day, on the something green hills of Earth..."

He crossed to Sten's video display and booted up the news menu:

NEW COURSE FOR EMPIRE

The drop:

BIG 5 TO CONVENE

ECONOMIC SUMMIT

AT HISTORIC RETREAT

Sten read the story closely, Alex hanging over his shoulder.

"We would appear," Sten said, "to have acquired a Target Opportunity."

Mahoney beamed. "Never could figure why the black hats think there's safety out in the boonies. Maybe because they're usually ex-city punks?"

"Ah dinna ken either," Kilgour said. "But gie me a moor w' a wee rock to skulk behin', an' hae f'r a rest, an' Ah'm as happy ae a butcher wi' his mallet."

"That's it," Sten said. "Now... let's kill us some politicos!"


CHAPTER NINE

The privy council's announcement was the trigger for the final meeting of Ian Mahoney's "conspirators." They had a single target and a time to hit it.

The "conspiracy" had already gone on far too long for Mahoney's comfort. As a rule of thumb the less time passed and the less those involved had to meet in any covert operation, the less likelihood that operation would be blown or self-destruct. He mentally put both conspiracy and conspirators in quotes. Because while his plan would ensure that anyone involved was for the high jump if it was exposed, there really was not much to it.

Mahoney had, in his "research," looked up many of his old compatriots, as he had told Sten. Once he was conveniently deceased his secret wanderings from galaxy to galaxy had increased. His purpose was simple. Once contact was made with one of his old service acquaintances, the formal dance began. Mahoney set out trying to lead each of them down the primrose path to murder.

Did they agree that things were going to hell in a hand-basket? If so, did they think something could be done about it? Should something be done about it? Should something be done about it by the acquaintance? Would he or she be willing to participate?

That leading took time—too much time. All too often danger signals went off in Mahoney's spook-circuited brain, and he broke contact.

What he wanted from each of those serving high-ranking officers and/or civil officials was roughly the same. If the privy council were to be rendered suddenly powerless, what would the officer do? Ideally, Mahoney wanted that officer to mobilize any forces under command to:

1. Maintain public order.

2. Disarm or otherwise deactivate any armed forces still loyal to the privy council, starting with the council's own security apparatus and private armies.

3. To control the media and prevent access to privy council loyalists.

4. To support the formation of an interim caretaker government. Mahoney was fairly vague on what that would be—he thought perhaps a loose federation headed by those members of Parliament who had not been corrupted by the privy council, representatives of dissident systems/galaxies, and others yet to be discovered. The federation could be headed up by the utterly incorruptible Manabi.

Possibly. Mahoney kept saying that "first we have to catch the rabbit." The conversation tended to stop there—very few wanted to know the exact mechanics of how the privy council was to be "rendered powerless." Knowing the bloody-handed intelligence chief in front of them, they had a fairly good idea it would not be something as civilized as house arrest.

Once—and if—the privy council was dealt with, whatever government replaced them would be operating under two very clear orders: first, to slow the Empire's slipping into chaos; and second, to find the AM2.

Mahoney had a single rule about what the caretaker government would not be: military. He didn't think, on reflection, that Ian Mahoney would make that bad a king, nor would some of his longtime friends. And that was exactly why the military would not be allowed near the government, not if he himself felt a bit of the slow crawl of power-madness in his own soul.

But all this took time. Not only because the solicitation toward what, after all, was high treason had to be done carefully, but also because of the incredible layers of bureaucracy between a leader and the people. Mahoney had always prided himself on his own lean and mean command. Anyone serving under him could have near access to the boss. Now he wondered, after having spent hours and days waiting in antechambers for an old friend to even be aware he was out there, if his own machine had been that lean and mean.

Time passing increased the dangers, as did Mahoney's failures. He tried not to blame anyone who wanted no part of the operation. There were those who simply felt the military had no place in politics. Others believed the problems were temporary—that eventually the privy council would improve. What was happening was merely the inevitable chaos of a war's end worsened by the death of the Emperor. Still others did not think the privy council was doing that bad a job—considering the circumstances. And still others had been coopted by the council. And, Mahoney grudged, there were those—even in his own profession of soldiery—who were moral or physical cowards.

Other than Sten and Kilgour, Mahoney told no one about his private belief that the Emperor would return. Their enterprise looked insane enough without adding proof of psychosis.

He ended with about a thousand beings he felt could be depended on. Now would be the final—and for most of them only—chance to gather for their final plans.

Such a meet was a terrible risk, but Mahoney knew he had to prove to his fellows that there was, in fact, a conspiracy beyond coded transmissions and one dangerous old man. He had reduced the threat of exposure—he hoped—by setting the meeting not only in plain sight, but also near the heart of the beast. It was in the system of Klisura, an entirely military group of worlds. Sten himself had gone through Guard training on the system's main world, years and years gone.

One smaller world had been set up for war games centuries earlier. War games without soldiers, without ships—what Mahoney had heard had been called in ancient times a "kriegsspiel." A map exercise, now played with computers and battle chambers. This particular game had been suggested by Fleet Marshal Wentworth, a longtime and completely trusted compatriot of Ian's.

Obviously, so that Mahoney's compatriots could assemble from their Empire-wide posts with as little suspicion as possible, the game had to be universal. It was that.

GIVEN: the current status of military forces (radical disarmament following the end of the Tahn wars); the current economic environment (lessened AM2 fuel availability); and the present political situation (worded more subtly, that a great percentage of the Empire felt the privy council were incapable of leading a goat to a garbage dump).

SITUATION: A sudden, large-scale threat to the Empire, up to and including full war.

REQUIRED: Possible military responses for the first two E-years of such an event.

In short, the game would refight the beginning of the Tahn wars, as if the Emperor were not present and AM2 was available only in limited quantities.

Such a large-scale exercise, even though it involved nothing but troop commanders, had come to the attention of the privy council. They thought the idea of a new, massive bogeyman coming out of nowhere slightly absurd, but there was merit in their military leaders accepting a far more limited future. At first they grudged that the game would be played with a realistic logistical scenario, but eventually they realized that their soldiery should know—even though it was uncomfortable—just how limited the AM2 actually was.

That did mean they required the assemblage and the game itself to be held under the tightest security, which played exactly to Mahoney's desires. Kyes even thought there might be some interesting, if quite minor, concepts developed during the game.

Their hope was bolstered when they learned that Wentworth proposed to include civilians as well as military. The civilians—all of whom, of course, were properly clearanced—included retired military, experts in logistics, and even a handful of rather dreamy-eyed techno-prophets. Kyes was a bit surprised and pleased that the military, which he had always thought as rigid in its thought patterns as any computer, was capable of welcoming outside input.

So the admirals and generals, fleet marshals and intelligence specialists, with their aides and assistants gathered on Klisura XII. As did the civilians, including one elderly, cheerful human male who claimed to be a morale specialist. Mahoney chose the cover name of Stephen Potter.

The game would in fact be played out—and played again two or three more times, with different participants. This first game would be composed of Mahoney's conspirators, the following games played by the innocent, who would never know they were providing the most elaborate cover for Mahoney's schemes. It would have been more ideal if it could have been played just once, with the innocent sheep giving cover for the wolves. But too many people knew Ian Mahoney, and he understood there was no way he could keep those in the conspiracy who were inevitably hesitant, skeptical, or wavering in line if he were not there in person to share the risk.

Other arrivals trickled in, gray, quiet beings without faces. They were ex-Mercury Corps operatives, technicians, recruited by Mahoney. They were intended to secure the security.

Mahoney assumed that when the world had been screened by the privy council, part of that had included bugging everything. He was correct. But it was a simple matter for his own techs to find the bugs and key them. None were destroyed—although Mahoney thought it appropriate that some of them were reported to the proper authorities. The proper authorities expressed dismay and disconnected those bugs.

The rest were left in place and fed false information. Sometimes they were given blank time, as if nothing were happening in that particular chamber. Others were fed meetings that had been prescripted and then voice-synthesized, so that General X would be discussing with his staff whether or not transports would be available to move his units, and how much of their basic equipment load could be carried; whereas in fact General X was sitting with Ian Mahoney, talking about how many of his troops could be depended upon, once The Day was announced, to move out and seize barracks held by one of the Kraa twins' private thuggeries, and how many would have to be sent on leave or confined to barracks.

There were a few counterintelligence agents in attendance. They were quickly ID'd and beeped, their movements tracked constantly. Only one agent found anything suspicious, and he was skillfully terminated before he could either report or get off world.

Mahoney was disappointed in his enemies—he had seen and run better CI when he was an assistant patrol leader in the Imperial Youth Corps.

Sten and Alex held well in the background. Both of them were quite hot—especially Sten.

All of the conspirators were told when the operation would be mounted. They were further instructed to have their troops on standby on that date, with those orders to be issued as unobtrusively as possible.

There were a few who wanted more. They had faith in Mahoney, to be sure, but they were beings who took very little just on faith. For them, Sten would be trotted onstage. To some, he was little more than a hero of the early stages of the Tahn wars. But the fact that an admiral would be willing to lead, in person, the raid on Earth seemed to satisfy them.

The most suspicious, generally, were those high-rankers with some intelligence background or training. For that reason, most of them had heard of Sten or known him—if not by fiche, then by reputation. In their eyes, he was a thoroughly acceptable head of the murder squad.

Near the end of the gaming Sten collected Mahoney and took him to an ultraclean room. Quite baldly he asked the fleet marshal if he really believed that all of these beings would swing into motion as ordered when ordered.

"Of course not," Mahoney snapped. "As your pet thug might say, I'm mad but I'm hardly daft.

"Assuming you carry out your end... prog: seventy-five percent follow their orders and we'll not only have the murderers dead, but the transition of power will be painless.

"Fifty percent... it'll be a little bloody. But I still think it'll come off. That's assuming those who get the collywobbles don't try to stop us.

"Less than that...

"Less than that, lad, and you'd best have the luck of the heavens and be in excellent running condition.

"Now, Admiral. You're in motion. Collect your assistants and start putting them through whatever rehearsals you need."

As he and Alex slipped offworld, Sten ran his own prognostication. He had even less faith than Mahoney that the conspiracy, in its entirety, would succeed. There were too many people involved, too much time had passed, and Sten had damn-all confidence in any conspiracy when the conspirators had a vested interest—no matter how loudly denied—in the state. Generals and admirals made lousy dissidents.

But as far as his and Alex's end... the murder in a ditch?

Just less, he calculated, than fifty-fifty.

Hell, for a Mantis operative, that was a sure thing. So very well. Eliminate the privy council, and what would happen, would happen. That was for others to decide—after the bodies stopped bouncing.

It was a pity Sten had never met Brigadier Mavis Sims—and never would. 

CHAPTER TEN

Sten was in a thoroughly crappy mood. He shut down play function and removed the helmet. Repressing the urge to punt it across the room, he glowered out at the rain.

Clottin' poor mission briefing, he thought. Suicide run for sure. Sten was in a rotten mood—the intelligence data he had fed into the interactive livie machine gave him no more or less details than many, many missions he had already run and survived.