Now the four waited.

That underground chamber would be the assembly point for the assault.

There were two final members of the team: N'Ran, huge-three hundred kilos average-somewhat anthropoid beings who had become the Empire's best artillerymen. During the Tahn wars, inevitably some N'Ran became curious, adventuresome, and Mantis. Sten was delighted to have them along. Not only could they easily tote the Phase One elements of the attack in one hand, but they would be his weaponeers, as well.

Mahoney did a double take when Sten said he was using two N'Ran. "Apes? No, lad. They'll not be taken for bears either."

Sten pointed out their cover. Centuries before, there had been absurd legends of a creature called Big Foot. If spotted, they would be legendary creatures. Sten made sure, when he arrived in Coos Bay, that the legend was reactivated and told his two mythical monsters to lie low but leave chubby footprints if they must. The two N'Ran were waiting, living rough in the forested mountains near the Umpqua.

Sten panted back from his run in a different mood entirely. He considered his work and found it good-or at least acceptable. Privately he thought the odds might even be better than fifty-fifty. He was ready. Then he felt a crawl down his spine and shivered. The weather? Perhaps. But he instantly began a complete run-through of his plans for the nineteenth time.

Four days before The Day the rest of Sten's accomplices arrived-provided by the privy council itself.

Sten's accomplices were the Imperial media. The privy council wanted the maximum amount of publicity from their assemblage. The members handpicked the loudest, dumbest pseudojournalists they could find, journalists guaranteed to lap up every communiquй from the council as gospel. Legitimate reporters were not encouraged to apply to the press pool.

The council was pleased by the interest. The members thought it was because they were starting to turn the tide of public opinion. They did not realize that the interest was due to their seclusiveness. When a leader hid in what was dubbed by vid people "The Rose Garden," anything he said or did was of note and had nothing to do with whether the public thought him either an angel or an Attila.

The "press" streamed onto Earth. Immediately, they were disappointed. They would not be allowed inside the estate. They were given quarters in hastily thrown-up military campaign huts. Their superiors started snarling. Report. Report what? The council has not arrived yet. Report anything.

A real reporter or analyst might have filed "What Might This All Mean" pieces, or just filed background. Not the hacks on Earth. They surged out, looking for stories. Stories to them meant "color": the Benevolence of the Late Tanz Sullamora; the Little Known Estate he Kept on Earth Where he Communed with Nature and the Eternal Emperor; The Sadness of his Death.

That well soon ran dry, and the hacks became desperate. The Beauty of Oregon (tourist trade would be sure to go up). The Unusual Creatures of Earth. The Colorful Folk of the Rugged Seacoast. On and on. Some ass even wanted to interview Sten, without the foggiest as to a newspeg. He was declined, with a smile.

Every gravsled that could be rented was—from the shattered city of San Francisco north to the glacier regions. They dripped vidcams, engineers, and reporters, and were everywhere.

Imperial Security pulled in its horns and disregarded any satellite, aerial, or sensor intelligence from anywhere except the immediate compound. When the privy council arrived that would take care of things. They would have those damned people back in one place, being spoon-fed whatever the council wanted them to have. Certainly there was no particular reason to overload the sec-computers with meaningless data.

Thirty-six hours... Sten moved.

A single, completely meaningless code word was broadcast. Mahoney would receive it—and know the team was on its way in. From then on, until they accomplished the mission, there would be no contact possible. The signal was picked up in the hills and ruins, and his team was in motion. With one exception: Kilgour. That crawl up Sten's spine was still there. He gave orders.

Kilgour was detached from the hit team. Ten beings would go in instead of eleven.

Alex gave a good imitation of ground zero after a multi-KT warhead impacted. He slammed the table—and the two-inch-thick hardwood shattered. Kilgour recovered. His face went back down the spectrum from purple.

"Why?"

"I want you on the back door. That's an order."

"Y'no ken. Y'r no an' adm'ral, and Ah'm no a warrant. Nae more. Laird Kilgour ae Kilgour deman's—and will hae—an explanation."

Sten explained. He felt as if someone were watching over his shoulder.

"Best we abort," Kilgour suggested. "Ah'll no argue wi' invis'ble clottin' spirits. Or replan."

"No time for that," Sten said. "And I don't have any better ideas. I don't see what's wrong with what I've got—logically. Abort? When will we have another chance?"

"A' these years," Kilgour said, hurt. "An' y'll noo gie me th' chance't' keep you frae gettin' dead." Then he tried another approach: "M'gun'll do more i' th' fray than back i' th' clottin' RP."

Sten did not answer.

Alex stared at Sten for a long time. "Thae's the feelin? Strong, is't?"

Sten nodded.

Kilgour sighed. "Best y'd be right, lad. I' you're wrong-you an' me'll hae a dustup a'ter th' extraction i' you're not."

He stamped out into the rain.

Sten and the others made their way to the bunker in the Emperor's camp. They left thin cover stories behind-they would be in, out, and gone within forty-eight hours, so an elaborate story was not needed. Or else...

A ship had entered Earth's atmosphere a day earlier, planetfall calculated to occur in one of the inevitable, momentary holes in the satellite coverage. "Ship" was not a correct description. Two tacships had been slaved together.

Just off the Oregon coast the ships were separated. One was allowed to rest on the bottom, fifty-plus fathoms down. Its controls were set to respond to a transponder in the hands of an angry, worried, and now-scared Kilgour, hidden near the beach.

The pilot of the second ship received a signal. He surfaced and opened a hatch. Dum and Dee darted in, and seconds later, F'lesa flopped into the ship. F'lesa had found all that could be discovered from the water, and Sten could not chance any transmission from Dum and Dee's vidcams, no matter how useful they might be as aerial warning devices.

The tacship submerged. Some time that night, taking advantage of another hole, it would escape Earth's atmosphere.

The mission was hot and running... 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

The sensor/transmitter was the equivalent of a moron with a megaphone. It, and a power pack, were planted in an eons-old satellite in high orbit over Earth, part of the sky junk that made navigation on- and offworld so interesting. A tech had boarded the satellite just days after the summit had been announced. He positioned the bug, turned it on, took a moment to marvel at the primitive machines—clottin' light-optic computers—and was gone.

The transmitter waited, ignoring the flurry of ships approaching the planet. Too small. Too few.

Then it woke. Ships ... many ships... many big ships.

It bleated twice on the assigned frequency, then fused into a solid lump of plas.

Sten shut the receiver down and tossed it into the pile in the center of the bunker. "Our customers are on the way. Shall we?"

The team grabbed packs and headed for the ramped tunnel. All of them wore phototropic uniforms that would also give some shielding against pickup by thermal sensors. They weaseled their gear, including the long, heavy cylinders in padded, shoulder-strapped cases, into the open.

Havell touched a button, and a dim light shone from his notepad as he checked the satellite sked. "Clean for an hour and a half. Then we've got an overhead and an Eye."

"Still-use overhead cover," Sten ordered.

Valdiva whispered a question: "These, umm, bears you mentioned? Are they nocturnal?"

One N'ran rumbled a laugh. "No... but hugging contest... interesting."

Hugging? The bear would place third. Not to mention, Sten thought, what other instruments of death they were carrying. The cylinders with their sights and mounts-plus each being carried a combat knife, a single-shot completely suppressed projectile weapon, three types of grenades, and heavy, short-barreled "shotguns," drum-fed weapons that scattered highly explosive AM2 pellets as their charge. An excellent weapon for a barroom discussion.

Sten looked back at their hidey-hole and decided, not for the first time, that he was a perfectly lousy burrowing animal. If he had to buy it, he would prefer it be in the open.

They started off into the darkness.

In ten hours an incendiary charge in the pile of discarded gear, ration tins, and civilian clothing would go off. All of the team members, excepting the N'Ran, had worn membrane gloves since they had arrived on Earth, so not even the primitive fingerprint system could ID them. Their quarters in Coos Bay had been swept Mantis-clean. There could be no DNA or any other identification in the postbang investigation.

Each team member wore a vital-signs pack on his or her belt. Any change in the bearer-such as death-and the pack would detonate. There would not even be a corpse to autopsy.

With the exception of the cylinders, it was all perfectly normal gear for a Mantis mission.

Brigadier Mavis Sims had taken the same oath as Sten. But she chose to interpret it differently.

She could not remember having slept since she returned from the phony kriegsspiel and being recruited for the conspiracy.

There were five generations of Simses who had served the Empire. The family motto, just a touch embarrassing in its blatancy, was "Faithful unto Death." None of the Simses had abandoned that faith.

Now, deep in the heart of another sleepless, echoing night, Brigadier Sims decided she would not shirk it, either.

The atmosphere in the communication room of the main lodge had gone from high-pitched excitement to nervous boredom. Military techs had bustled about for hours as the Imperial fleet approached the Honjo system. The members of the council had literal front-row seats as the maneuvering commenced. A dazzling array of impressive commands were fired at the fleet commander. Responses, terse and warriorlike, crackled back. One entire com wall was ablaze with winking red and green lights marking the progress.

It was one helluva good show-to start with. But then the routine absolutely necessary for any large-scale action began to drag. And drag. And drag. There were endless countdowns at each stage. Then the clocks were reset again for another crucial juncture.

By the time the fleet had parked, pulled on its stealth cloak, and started baiting the hook for the Honjo, the privy council was considering canceling the whole thing for lack of interest.

Not for the first time in the past two hours, Kyes compared the action to the few combat livies he had seen. He could understand now why the livie makers steered well clear of any hint of reality. In a livie, all that was needed was a maximum three-minute conference of the warrior brass to set the target. That would be followed by a "what it all means to us" scene, in which each character mused on his or her lifelong goals and objectives. If he or she was warm and cuddly, the character was usually doomed. If cynical and bitter, that character was sure to see the light in the gore that followed. Then entire legions of fleets would be launched in blaze of fast-cutting action. The formula would require a momentary victory, followed by a setback in which all seemed lost. And finally the bravery and cunning of the heroes would conquer all.

Kyes did not like livies. But he liked this show less.

He stirred slightly as the little tacship crossed the invisible line that marked the beginning of Honjo territory. At any moment there would be a loud protest broadcast by the prey, backed up by a small, heavily armed patrol to warn the tacship away.

The plan was for the tacship to ignore the warning. If that went on long enough, the Honjo patrol would certainly fire. Then the wrath of the Imperial fleet would descend on the helpless Honjo to repay them for their temerity.

For a long time, there was nothing at all.

The Kraas sent out for more food. The big banquet table had already been emptied twice. Most of it had been drunk or devoured by the twins. They ate until even the skin of the fat one was stretched to bursting. Then they excused themselves, so that the obese one could help "Sis" into a lavatory. Loud sounds of vomiting followed. Then the two exited, the thin one flushed with effort and glowing with saintly joy at her after-the-fact temperance.

At first, Malperin, Kyes, and Lovett had been revolted. But the second time around, they became oddly fascinated. It was certainly more exciting than what was going on up on the big com board.

As the waiters were hauling in more supplies, a voice crackled out. A Honjo voice!

"This is Honjo Center to unknown tacship. Please identify yourself."

The tacship was silent, and the excitement in the com room came sparking back. Each of the five leaned forward, waiting.

"Honjo Center, to unknown tacship. You are in violation of our borders. Turn back. I repeat, turn back!"

Still no response, just as according to plan. On the big screen, they could see the tacship moving inalterably on. Another flurry of warnings came from the Honjo, with similar negative results. They could see the small patrol now. A tech whispered to Kyes that the monitors showed that they had gone from alert to full armament. Any moment, a missile would be fired.

Then there was a loud, unconscious groan. Against all predictions, the Honjo patrol was retreating!

"Unknown tacship," came the voice of the Honjo commander. "Be warned! We are recording this violation of our sovereignty. And it shall be immediately reported to the proper authorities."

"Wot's bleedin' happening?" one Kraa burst out. "Why don't the bastards shoot?"

"Clottin' cowards," the other screamed. "Fight, you drakhs. Fight!"

Despite that odd cheering section, the Honjo did just the opposite. The patrol sensibly turned tail and ran.

The council members were mortified. Techs ducked their angry glares about the room, looking for someplace to set responsibility.

"What will we do?" Lovett hissed.

"Clot 'em. Let's go anyways!" the fat Kraa said.

"I don't know," Malperin said. "Are you sure we ought to? I mean, doesn't this change everything?"

Kyes thought it did—but he was not sure. They were so close. The patrol was tiny, the fleet waiting. All that AM2 just sitting there. Maybe...

At that moment, the com screen blanked. Then the startled council members found themselves staring at Poyndex, their chief of Mercury Corps.

The colonel made no excuses or apologies for the interruption. His face was pale. His manner, bloodless. "I have been notified that an assassination team is at this moment in place and prepared to strike.