Kyes had a dry, light, pleasant voice. It was somber now as he explained that Parliament had cast a unanimous vote urging the five lords to rule in the Emperor's place during this terrible emergency. None of them had sought this awful burden, and none of them certainly felt worthy of the trust beings everywhere were placing in them at that very moment.
But they had been convinced that for the time being there was no other choice. Order must come out of this awesome chaos, and they pledged to do their very best to govern wisely and fairly until the proper moment came—very soon, he hoped—when free elections could be held to determine how exactly the Empire was to be led without the presence of His Majesty, their martyred ruler.
Kyes said he knew this was a weak solution at best, but all of them had racked their brains for tortuous hours and could find no other way out. A commission was being set up—as he spoke, in fact—to study the situation and to make suggestions. He and the other members of the council awaited word from this eminent body of scholarly beings as eagerly as anyone watching and listening. But he had been told that what they were attempting to accomplish had never been done before and might take a great deal of time and reasoned debate.
Kyes counseled patience, then pledged he would carry on in the spirit of the great man who had rescued them all from the threat of enslavement under the Tahn.
One by one the others stepped up to make similar remarks—and to add a bit of detail, such as the date of the funeral, which would be vaster and richer than any funeral that had gone before. New honors were announced to be posthumously bestowed on the Emperor, and a year of mourning was declared. Sten palmed the button that blanked the screen and sat back to reflect.
He did not need his Mantis psywar training to know that he had just witnessed a power grab.
So. The privy council would reluctantly govern until free elections could be held. Sten had propped up a few despots in his time with similar empty pledges. He wondered how long it would be before the first coup attempt. And which one would eventually be successful. And then the one after that. And the other—on and on until the entire system collapsed. He supposed there would be constant warfare of greater and greater intensity for the rest of his life.
Ultimate power was at stake. He who controlled the Empire determined the flow of all the Anti-Matter Two—AM2—the fuel upon which civilization everywhere was based. It was the source of cheap power, the key to all major weaponry, and the sole practical means of interstellar travel. Without AM2, trade would be almost entirely reduced to intrasystem lumbering about on the infinitely practical but painfully slow Yukawa drive engines.
But there was nothing Sten could do about any of it.
The Eternal Emperor was dead. Long live the Emperor.
He would mourn him. Not as a friend. No one could call the Emperor friend. But, as—well, a comrade at arms, then. Sten got drunk and remained drunk for a month, switching from Scotch to stregg and back again—the Emperor's two favorite drinks.
Then he tried to get on with his life.
Sten didn't pay much mind to the chaos the Empire fell into. He only coppered his bets by purchasing all the AM2 he could lay his hands on, and it wasn't long before the shortages began and he was congratulating himself on his foresight. The why of the shortages didn't concern him. He assumed the privy council—in its infinite wisdom—had determined such a course to further line their already heavy pockets.
He dabbled a bit in business, found it far from his liking, then was reduced to an endless series of momentary enthusiasms. Not unlike the Emperor, who had a host of hobbies always in progress. He became a fair cook, although he knew he would never be the Emperor's match. He honed his skills with tools and building things. He took a fling at a few of the lusher fleshpots. When he wearied of that—a little too quickly for comfort, he sometimes thought—he explored and improved Smallbridge.
He and Alex corresponded, always swearing to get together soon, but soon never came. And as the controls on AM2 tightened, travel became more and more impractical, and before he knew it "soon" wasn't even mentioned in any of their letters.
Ian Mahoney—his only other real friend—quietly retired to the life of a military historian, then died in some silly accident. Sten had heard that he had drowned and that the body had never been found. He supposed there was some irony in such a meaningless death for a man who had managed to survive against impossible odds so many times before. But he didn't see it, or he was too depressed to examine it.
The final year of his self-imposed exile was proving the worst. His bleak moods were constantly on him, as well as a gut-itching paranoia. Whom he should fear, he had no idea. He had no suspects. But he became paranoid just the same. Every residence he set up on Smallbridge was enclosed with increasingly sophisticated and—he had to admit it—eccentric security devices, including some nasty, being-devouring plants he imported from some hellhole whose name he had easily forgotten. They had taken off like mad in the nonthreatening environment of Smallbridge. Every once in a while he had to set the perimeter on fire to keep the grove under control.
Lately, he had taken up residence in the northwestern sector of the second largest land mass in the temperate zone.
Temperate was a weak, nondescript word for this place beside the chain of four mighty lakes. The winds always blew fierce and cold there. The snow lay deep on the ground and bowed the trees of the forest for many months of the year. But for some reason it had a powerful attraction to him—just as it seemed to have for the being-devouring plants, which thrived in the cold, wet climate.
Sten had built several frontier-style domes in the cluster by one of the lakes. One was devoted to a kitchen and pantry where he prepared and stored food, butchered out a little game, or cleaned the strange, bullet-shaped but tasty dwellers of the lake. He grew vegetables in the hydroponic tubs that took up all of one side. The second dome contained his workshop and was crammed with tools and building materials of every variety. He also kept and worked on his weapons there, as well as the snooping devices he was always toying with. The last dome held his living quarters and gymnasium. He spent hours in the gym and outside in the cold, endlessly practicing and honing his Mantis skills.
He lined the walls of his living quarters with real wood cut from his own forest. He built bunks and cabinets and all sorts of things from the same material. When he was done, it looked so homey that he was pleased with himself. Still, something seemed to be missing. He scratched his memory until he came up with an "aha." It wanted a fireplace. After several smoky and tortuous attempts, he finally had it. And it was huge, big enough to take a two-meter log. It drew like clot and gave off a wonderfully cheery glow.
A woman who had stayed with him a few months said it reminded her of something she had seen before but couldn't quite make out. Sten pressed her, but all she could remember was that it had involved some item at a shop where "less expensive things" were sold. From the tone in her voice, Sten got the drift she meant garish and sentimental.
He was so lonely, he let it pass.
A week or so later, he was returning from some errand in the forest. It was a beautiful, gray day, and a light snowfall was drifting down from the skies and through the trees.
Sten hailed the dome, and the woman opened the door to greet him. She was framed in the doorway, with the glowing fire lighting her from behind, and Sten knew then what she had been thinking of. Because now he remembered, as well.
A long time before, his mother had extended her contract for six months to buy a muraliv. A country girl completely lost and out of place in the workshops of Vulcan, she had deeded half a year more of her life for what she believed was a work of art.
It was of a snowy landscape on a frontier world. He remembered the snow drifting down on the little cluster of domes, and the door that always swung open to greet the returning workers from the forest and field-and the bright cheery fire the open door had revealed. It was his mother's dearest treasure. In eight months, it had gone quite still.
Sten had unconsciously recreated the mural.
He made some excuses and hustled the woman on her way. It was silly to blame her for a slight she couldn't know she was committing, but he couldn't bear to have her around anymore.
That was when the gloom reached its absolute bottom. Month after month, he pricked at the wound. He didn't need the walrus-psychologist Rykor to tell him what he was doing. Sten knew. But he did it just the same. He even named the four lakes after his long-dead family.
The largest lake, where the domes were clustered, he named Amos, for his father. The next in the chain became Freed, for his mother. Then Ahd and Johs, for his brother and sister.
When that was done, he sat and brooded, hoping his condition was no more than a lingering fever that had to be endured until the viral tide shifted and the fever broke.
Five hundred miles to the north, a bright light winked into being and arced down through the night skies. It steadied a moment above the frozen ground, then sped toward the lakes and Sten's retreat.
Then a globe appeared, hanging amid the stars. Powerful jamming devices hummed into life, bathing Smallbridge in an electronic blanket that comforted and coaxed Sten's alarm system into believing all was well.
A light very much like the first separated from the globe, then sped off in the same direction.
A few klicks from the domes, the battered little space-boat came to ground, a black splotch against the snow. The port groaned open, and a dark figure exited. After dragging on cold-weather gear and snapping snowshoes to his feet, the man straightened, then hesitated, scanning the skies, an immense, bulky figure, sniffing the air for danger very much like a big Kodiak from distant Earth. Suddenly he saw a light pop above the horizon. It was the other ship, coming fast.
The man turned and hurried across the snow, moving like a nullgrav dancer despite his bulk. He scanned the ground ahead with a practiced eye, setting a zigzag course and not bothering to obscure his tracks. There wasn't time.
Occasionally—for no apparent reason—he sidestepped little pimples in the snow.
Behind him, he heard the other ship settle down, the frozen crust shattering under the weight with little pops and cracks.
At the tree line, the man spotted an almost imperceptible ridge. He stopped. Moaning in frustration, he moved in first one direction, then the other. But the slight ridge seemed to stretch without relief all along the outer edge of the woods. For some reason, the man considered his path blocked.
The port of the other craft hissed open and seven black figures tumbled out. They were already garbed for the terrain. Fingers flew in silent code. Agreement was reached. And they sped off in the man's direction. They moved in a ragged vee, with the tallest being taking point. They skimmed effortlessly across the snow on gravskis, keeping a fast, measured pace.
If anyone had spotted them, there would be no mistake about their business. These were hunters-after very big game.
Their quarry was kneeling beside a drift, his gloves off, digging gently around the ridge. His fists felt like heavy, unwieldy things. He had to stop now and then to pound them back to life against his coat. Behind him, the figures moved on.
Finally there appeared a silver thread so slender that it would be the envy of an arachnid. Snow dust hung from it. The man blew on the thread, puffing out warm moisture that collected and froze. When he thought it was thick enough, he pulled out a tiny little device with just-visible claws. He flipped open the back with a fingernail, revealing little programming holes. He inserted a pin in several of the holes, until the device gave a chirp indicating that it was alive.
The man clicked it shut, breathed a prayer, and slowly... so slowly... stretched it toward the thread.
A laser blast cracked the frozen air with its heat and blazed a furrow in the snow millimeters from one knee. The man winced but fought back the urge to jerk away or hurry. He knew that if he was wrong, worse things than a charred hole in his corpse would occur.
He had to get to Sten, before Sten got him.
The little claws gripped the thread. The man held his breath, waiting. Another laser blast cracked. The heel of one snowshoe exploded as the lased AM2 round detonated. Finally a chirp from the tiny device said that all was well.
The man plunged across the wire into the woods just as the marksmen found their range. A hole boiled at the spot where he had knelt one breath before.
As he disappeared, the hunting team surged forward, faster. Skimming around the pimples their prey had avoided, they leapt the wire and landed silently on the other side. The leader motioned and the vee divided and the hunters scattered into the woods.
Sten paced the room. He was edgy. He picked up an antique, leather-bound book and he stared at the title, but it didn't register. He dropped it back on the table, strode over to the fire, and poked it up until the flames were hot and leaping. He still felt a little cold, so he tossed on another log.
There was something wrong, but he couldn't make it out. He kept glancing at the bank of security monitors, but all the lights were calming green. Why did he have this feeling that he was being lied to? The hackles were crawling at the back of his neck. One part of his mind said he was behaving like a whiny old being: afraid of the dark, jumping at every noise. Ignore it, that part ordered. But the tiny voice of survival kept up its keening.
Sten palmed the override on the monitors and went to manual scan. Still green. He flipped from sector to sector. Nothing. Disgusted with himself, he put it back on automatic. Just for one heartbeat, the lights seemed to blink yellow, then went to steady green. What was that? He switched back to manual again. Green, goddammit! Then to auto. This time there was no telltale yellow as the lights stayed steady emerald. He must have been imagining things.
He went to the front door, slipped to one side, edged it open and peered out. All he could see was the empty expanse of snow, bright under the hanging moon. He had reflecting devices hidden in several trees within easy view. Sten studied them. He could see his shadow peering out from the edge of the door. There was nothing lurking on either side of the dome.
Feeling like all kinds of a clotting fool, he slipped a miniwillygun from its hiding place in a slot by the door, flipped its safety off and stepped outside.
There was not a sight or a sound out of the ordinary. Sten scanned the area, millimeter by millimeter. Nothing seemed remotely awry. He snapped the safety back on, telling himself that if he was that edgy, he might drop the damned thing and blow off a knee. Still, old habits die hard—and, sometimes, not at all. He slipped the gun into his belt, backed into the dome, and swung the heavy door shut, turning to the fire as inertia carried the door on greased hinges.