His mood may have been caused by the rain. Here in this forested province called Oregon, the sun seemed proscribed. The degrees of weather ranged from overcast threatening rain through drizzle to downpour to here comes another storm. He sort of wanted a drink. But he and the other team members were now temperance clots until they extracted.

Kilgour broke Sten's mood. Pushing the door to their rented A-frame—(a building Sten suspected had been made from real wood)—he said cheerily, "Oop an' away, boss. Y're gettin' fat an' sloppy sittin' here. Time f'r th' old pant-an-wheeze."

Sten pulled on running shoes, grabbed a rainproof, and they went out into the streets of Coos Bay. The village itself might have been the root of Sten's depression. Old—thousand-year-type old—ruins were one thing. But buildings only a couple of hundred years gone were different. People had lived there before it became a hamlet of rotting, collapsing buildings and shattered streets.

The city, Sten had been told, had once had nearly twenty-thousand inhabitants—farmers, loggers, sea-shippers. That must have been long ago. Now there were less than a thousand. A few fished, some were artists who made their credits off-Earth; there were a few tribal groups existing on their own, internal economy; and other residents catered to the sprinkling of tourists who arrived intent on the area's big game, a fish they called the salmon. They raved about its fighting qualities and wariness.

At first Sten thought they were talking about some woodsy predator before he realized. He found the salmon tasty, just as he did the area's crabs, oysters, bass, and a very ugly fish they called a sturgeon. Fishing could be worthwhile, he thought. Short-fuse an explosive charge, toss it in a pool, and you had dinner for a platoon. But these people used line as thin as a climbing thread, hand-constructed bits of plas supposed to resemble insects, and a casting rod. Often they merely had themselves photographed with their catch and then released it. Very odd.

"Which way today, boss?"

"Doesn't matter. Ruins, rocks, and trees in any direction."

Kilgour waved a direction arbitrarily and they ground into motion—starting up a hill, of course.

Run a klick, walk a half kilometer, run ten kilometers. A half hour of exercises, then run back. Standard Imperial dictates for combat troops.

Sten thought further on this depressed province of Oregon. Historically, he had read, it had always been an area of future dreams and present depression. But its current state of decline had three causes: the inhuman—to Sten, at least—climate; the constant drain offworld of its young people who couldn't find work at home; and finally The Eternal Emperor.

That last factor was only three hundred years old. About twenty-five kilometers north of Coos Bay was the mouth of the Umpqua River. The Emperor had decided he wanted to go salmon fishing. He put political influence to bear on the province's politicos. They granted him the river in perpetuity—from headwaters to where it rushed into the ocean. That had cost several fortunes in bribes and promises.

From there it got expensive. Little by little, the residents of all the towns along the river and its tributaries were cozened and bribed to move. They were compensated richly—but still...

Once there had been a small town—Redspurt, Reeds-port, or some such—at the mouth of the Umpqua. Now it was a ghost town. There were other ruins along the river that had once been inhabited—Scottsburg, Umpqua, Roseburg, and so on.

The Emperor was the Emperor, Sten knew. But for some reason that demonstration of Byzantine power put his teeth on edge. But it was not his to question why, he thought as he crested the hill. More important—up the Umpqua river was the Emperor's old fishing retreat. And, kilometers beyond that, was Sten's target.

In the days when the late Tanz Sullamora had idolized the Eternal Emperor, he had aped everything about his ruler that he could. The Emperor fished... very well then, so would Tanz. But where the Emperor was happy with solitude, the redwoods, and a place to pitch a tent near salmon-fat rapids, Sullamora was miserable. His fishing camp became a lavish country estate, with every sophisticated convenience the plutocrat could afford. Sullamora could not chance the laughter that would come if he simply decided that Earth, fishing, and the wilderness was a busto idea. When the privy council's conspiracy began, Sullamora's estate was a perfect neutral ground/ safe house to plot from.

Sullamora may have been splattered into molecular pulp but the validity of his estate continued. That was the target—and there were only a few days left before the privy council arrived. Sten was ready.

Knowing the target and area, he started putting his team together. There was no problem with available, completely trustworthy Imperial gangsters. With the Tahn wars ended, the Mantis squadrons were far overstrength. And those soldiers had not chosen Mantis because of their pacifistic nature. They went looking for adventure. It was simple for Mahoney to sieve for availables. Those he chose were completely known quantities. If there would be betrayal, it would not come from any of them. All knew

Mahoney's reputation as former head of Mercury/Mantis. As a good percentage had prewar service and had magically survived the decimation of the war against the Tahn, Sten was a known and near-legendary commander.

The first question he had for the purported Earth-specialist Mahoney assigned to him was who or what were the natives like? Earth-human. Any ETs? None to speak of. Sten grimaced. That would cut the available pool of talent way down.

He asked the specialist about local fauna and got a bland reply of the "usual oxygen-based food chain." Sten punted the "expert" into outer darkness and put Kilgour into research mode. Kilgour had talents beyond lethality. It did not hurt that he had once served with a Guards ceremonial detachment on Earth itself, before he had found a happy home in covert wet work.

While he waited for Kilgour, Sten began thinking of the Delicate Art of Murder, Multiple Variety. The easiest way to take care of the council would be a missile. Limited-yield nuclear or conventional—to him it didn't matter. Either way, it wouldn't work. First, the privy council would have the skies and space beyond saturated with warships. It was unlikely a missile would get through. Even if it did—Sullamora's retreat would almost certainly be shielded. And Mahoney had requested no survivors.

What about a ground-to-ground? Launch the missile from a safe range, infiltrate a controller to line-of-site of the lodge, and let him guide the bang on home. Unlikely.

It was doubtful the council would put on a public show without covering itself with every possible ECM device.

So it would have to be, Sten thought, the classic Four-H technique: Hit, Hatchet, Hand grenade, and Haul. Or as Kilgour somewhat indelicately dubbed the style: "Ambush, Axes, an' Arse'oles."

Then his Mantis conditioning cut in. Sten found himself running through fiche of Antique Weapons and Tactics. And, as so often before, he found his plan. A blast from the past—literally. His era's security specialists knew all of the sophisticated techniques going and guarded against them—and frequently forgot to wonder if someone might show up with a bow and arrow instead of a laser.

Kilgour reported, laden with fiche, tapes, and even a few antique natural-history books. They went to work. Within two days Sten had found enough Local Critters to enable him to start handpicking his team. Now they were in place, scattered up and down the coast of Oregon. Ten beings for the Kill Team, three on Intelligence & Recon.

Two of them had gone first—an E-type humanoid male and female. Claiming marriage, claiming retirement, they purchased a dockside cafe/bar. Cover names: Larry and Faye Archuler.

A third human, claiming to be a wandering artist, drifted into Coos Bay and took a casual labor job on one of the boat-hulled gravsleds used for sportfishing, when he wasn't wandering the hills with his tri-pad. He was actually a nearly competent sketch artist who was fascinated with river wildlife. Cover name: Havell.

Then Sten and Alex had arrived. Sten was now a hard-driving and -driven entrepreneur who had suffered a nervous breakdown. He was accompanied by a male nurse—Kilgour. The story Alex had told in the drinking houses—whining under his breath but sipping caff—was that his boss believed his ancestors came from this section of Old Earth. Kilgour added, however, that he personally considered this obsession just part of his breakdown. Sooner or later, he would decide that the ancestors had come from elsewhere, and they would move on.

Being the head of a successful corporation, even if on medical sabbatical, meant that Sten had to keep in contact with his company. That justified a rather elaborate com. Given the entrepreneur's secretiveness, it also justified his use of code. The code was a fairly available business encryption that Sten assumed the privy council's cryptographers had cracked. But the arrangement of the code groups, as well as the groups themselves, kept Sten in contact with Mahoney and Conspiracy Central. The com was poorly antennaed, and Sten's signals, fortunately brief, blanketed the area, to be received by his teammates.

That corporation really existed. Whatever Sten ordered would be done by the officers of the company. The code was also skillfully rewritten to be believable. Sten, like anyone else who had ever had cipher training, had heard the story of the code that had been blown when the criminal requested five and one half elephants.

Kilgour, while spreading the cover story through the village, had also ID'd the two men who were Imperial Security. One was a village constable, far too knowledgeable to be what he claimed to be. The other was a barkeep who was overly curious. Neither one warranted termination.

Four other men and women of the hit team were living in the ruins of that town at the mouth of the Umpqua. They were highly visible: Montoya, Valdiva, Corum, and Akashi. They claimed to be members of the Cult of the Emperor, making a pilgrimage to every place the Eternal Being had blessed with the presence of his glowing soul. So of course they had to journey upriver to his fishing camp. They did. Some days later, they were seen camping where the Eternal One had cast his fly rod, by one of the Imperial river wardens. They refused to leave. The warden brought in reinforcements. The robed cultists smiled, bowed in surrender to the wardens, boarded the gravsled, and were unceremoniously dumped in Reeds-port.

A few days later they were back performing their ceremonies. The warden, a little worried, made some vid calls. He discovered that the cult was completely harmless. The late Eternal Emperor had, in fact, considered them beneficial if aberrant, since their beliefs encouraged charity and good works as well as the Emperor as godhead. Just run them out, came the Warden's orders. When they return, run them out again. You can jail them if you want—if you find a jail in your part of the wilderness. I wouldn't bother, the advice from his superior went. Eventually, from what I've read, they finish whatever rituals they're performing and move on. The warden, who hated the idea of being any kind of a policeman, chose to ignore the cultists.

He had received an inquiry from the Imperial Security station at Sullamora's retreat. Overhead surveillance had seen the cultists. The Security officer heard the explanation, laughed, and disconnected.

The warden became used to the four. They would wave at him in a cordial manner as he passed on patrol. Once he saw a battered gravsled leaving the fishing camp, but it was empty, and he could see no sign of the gravsled having brought any supplies or building materials that would suggest the cultists were settling in for a long stay.

Then they vanished. The warden found himself almost missing the robed men and women, but he was more interested in trying to photograph a pinniped he had never seen before. Seal? Sea lion? He did not know, and the few reference materials he could access gave him no hints. He spent time trying—without success—to take a picture that could be sent to a museum for identification.

The mammal, he assumed, seemed to range from the mouth of the river all the way up to where that estate began, and where he was forbidden entry. He hoped the trigger-happy Security goons at the retreat would not shoot "her"—for so he romantically assumed the creature to be. He hoped she had brains enough to dive if she spotted any of them.

The multisexed creature, in fact, had approximately twice the intelligence of the warden. Cover name: F'lesa.

The warden had no interest in flying creatures, mammalian or avian. He paid no attention to the two batlike creatures flashing around close to Sullamora's estate. Nor did he spot the tiny vidcams hung around their necks. The two "bats" were beings that, though stupid, were found useful by Mantis for aerial intelligence, putting up with their stupidity. They could talk, but their language consisted of half-verbal, half-instinctual squeaks. Their names were, of course, a problem. On the Imperial payrolls they were carried by service numbers. Mantis troopers gave them paired nicknames—Frick and Frack, Gog and Magog, etc. Sten had worked with a pair of them before. These two: Dum and Dee.

Sten used their aerial intelligence to begin building the "model" of the target area. It would not, in fact, exist; it would be part of the interactive helmet system. Before shipping for Earth, he had already found every vid that was available of the estate. There was not much.

Kilgour managed to ferret out some old gillies who had worked for Sullamora back when he was convincing himself that fishing was fun. That gave them more data. Still not complete, but enough so each team member could put on a helmet, keyed to respond only to him, and "practice" the attack. Each being's moves were recorded, fed into Sten's central record, and cycled back out. Even though the helmets gave multisensory input, it was still strange. Charge a fence... feel the barbed wire in your hands. Climb it. Shoot a guard. Round a corner... and everything would go blank, no record available. A few meters farther on, the simulation would recommence. It was off-putting. Fortunately the combat-experienced Mantis operatives had learned to accept these partially complete rehearsal systems. It was the best they were likely to get, could well improve as more data became available from F'lesa, Dee, or Dum, and was far more secure than actually building a full-scale model for real physical practice.

The cultists, however, grew bored with the dry runs. But they had nothing else to do. They were, in fact invisible—invisible to any above-ground or aerial observer, scanning on any length known. The cultists "ceremonies" had been elaborate. They had dug a slant tunnel ten meters down, then built a large chamber. Into that had gone the weaponry and gear from the gravsled shipment. No one was happy that the sled had even been seen by the warden as it left, but accidents happened.