"Just stay in a holding pattern. Either he's who I want, in which case he might have more firepower'n we do, or he's not. Do me a favor? You hear shootin', scamper right on in. I'm getting too old for another body reconstruct."
"Yessir. We're ready."
Mahoney reached over the pilot's shoulder and picked up the com mike. "November Alpha Uniform, November Alpha Uniform. This is the John Stuart Mill, inbound for landing."
A voice answered. "Mill, this is November Alpha. Landing beacon triple-cast, apex two kilometers over field. No winds on field. Land as arranged. Potential client plus two others only. Any other crew remain in ship. Please observe these minimum safety precautions. I will meet you at the main house. Out."
Mahoney clicked the mike twice to indicate that he understood. He grinned at the pilot. "Please, eh? Perhaps he is my boy."
The ship set down in the center of the small, paved field. The port opened, and Mahoney climbed out.
It was hot, dry, and dusty. To one side of the field stretched scrub desert and then low mountains. On the other were vast stretches of white-fenced, very green pastures. The air was very still. Mahoney heard a bird-chirp from a nearby orchard, and, from the pastures, the hiss of irrigation equipment.
He walked up the winding road toward the scatter of buildings. Pasture... white fences... barns there. Chutes. A breeding establishment? He saw a very old quadruped—an Earth horse, he identified—grazing in a field. No other animals.
He walked past metal-sided sheds, their doors closed and bolted. Stables. Empty. There was a low wall, and a gate standing open.
He entered and walked through an elaborate garden that looked as if it had gone too long without enough maintenance. There were three robot gardeners at work, and a human near them. The man paid him no attention.
Hard times, Mahoney mused. It takes credit to keep a horse ranch going.
He was, however, impressed. He had seen no sign whatever of security devices, guards, or weaponry. But unless he was completely lost, they were there.
A man stood in front of the main entrance, waiting. He was a bit younger than Mahoney. Not as tall. Stocky. He looked as if he worked out on a fairly regular basis. Not an ugly man, not a handsome man. He wore an open-neck shirt, expensively casual pants, and sandals.
"Sr. Gideon," he greeted. "I am Schaemel. Please come in. I have refreshments."
The sprawling house—not quite a mansion—was decorated with heavy furniture made of real wood and leather. The paintings on the walls were old and all of realistic subjects.
"Each year," Schaemel observed, "I manage to forget how hot and dry New River is in late summer. And each year I am reminded. That is a wine-fruit concoction. It is refreshing." He indicated a punch bowl containing ice and a milky liquid. Mahoney made no response.
Schaemel half smiled. He ladled punch into a tumbler and drained it. Mahoney then got a drink for himself.
"So your corporation's getting whipsawed, Sr. Gideon. A hostile takeover on one side, a union organizing on the other, and you think the union's a setup. Everyone's playing dirty and you need an expert. Excellent presentation, by the way."
"One thing I particularly admire," Schaemel continued, "is your attention to trivia. John Stuart Mill as the name for your yacht, indeed. Perhaps a bit too capitalistic—but nice, regardless."
Mahoney's hand brushed his pants pocket, and, back in the ship, the alert light went on.
"I'm very, very glad," Schaemel said, "that it was you who showed up. I have been waiting for some time for something like this—or something else.
"I certainly never believed the stories of your suicide, Fleet Marshal Mahoney... I believe that was your rank when you 'retired.' Spies suicide—not spy-masters."
"You are quick," Mahoney said. "So can we drop the 'Schaemel' drakh, Venloe?"
"I thought that identity was safely buried. But then, I thought I was, too."
Mahoney explained: how few real professionals there were; how fewer were not involved with a government, megacorporation, or military; and lastly Venloe's characteristic MO.
Venloe looked chagrined. "And all these years you think you never leave a trail. Tsk. I am ashamed. So how am I to make amends for having engineered the assassination of the Emperor?"
"You assume I'm not here to nail your guts to a tree and chase you around it half a dozen times. The Emperor was also my friend."
"So I have been told. And I have heard stories about you... preferring field work on occasion. But if you just wanted me dead, you would not have bothered to introduce yourself before the bangs began. Direct confrontations can produce contusions on both sides—and you are hardly a young hero any more."
"Not correct," Mahoney said, and the easy casualness vanished for a moment. "If I weren't after bigger bastards I well might've shown up and personally cut your heart out."
"Careful, Mahoney. You corrected me on one of my errors, I return the compliment. We do not take things personally in our trade. It can be suicidal.
"But since that is not on the agenda, may we change the subject? You may tell whatever troops you have for backup they can relax."
He walked to a desk and put his hand flat on what appeared to be a blotter. "My own people are standing down."
He seated himself and indicated that Mahoney do likewise. "I could probably guess what you want. But tell me, anyway. I assume it has something to do with this ludicrous Tribunal I've heard bruited."
"It is. We want you to testify as to the conspiracy. Publicly."
"Me? On the stand? That would be a new experience. Hardly good for my future employability."
"Times don't appear to have been that good, anyway," Mahoney said, looking pointedly out the window at the empty stables.
"The circumstances of my last assignment have forced me to be most careful as to who my employer is. I have turned down some very lush deals because of my supreme egotism in trying for the biggest target of them all."
Venloe ignored Mahoney's sarcasm. "Say I agree, however. I stand up in a courtroom and say—say exactly what? That I was hired by one Tanz Sullamora after having performed tasks satisfactorily for him previously? That I located and developed the asset Chapelle and positioned him? And all the details around that? Perhaps. But is that all?"
"Of course not. Sullamora's dead. Nobody gives a clot about him. We want the others. Kyes. Malperin. The Kraas. Lovett."
"Tsk. You want what I cannot give."
"But you will."
"You misunderstand. I cannot provide such details. I could testify that it is my moral belief that the rest of the privy council was part of the conspiracy, certainly. But proof? Sullamora never mentioned their names to me. I never met with them, nor with anyone I thought to be their direct representatives. Don't glower, Mahoney.
"I can offer evidence. My presence here. I fled Prime, of course. But I returned to my home of over twenty years rather than vanish into a new identity and a new part of the universe where I was a complete unknown. Obviously I did not collect my payoff; obviously I have not gone to anyone looking for it. Now, if those bloody-handed idiots on the privy council had any idea that I was Control for that touch, don't you think they would have arranged my disappearance or cooption? More likely the former?"
Mahoney held his poker face. But he did not like what he was hearing.
"So, Mahoney, as I said, I am not your smoking gun, nor do I know where it might be. I will reluctantly offer you a deposition as to my knowledge—but that is all."
Venloe got himself another tumbler of punch and waved the ladle in Mahoney's direction. Mahoney shook his head, no. Venloe went back to his chair.
"Impasse, is it not? You can kill me... try to kill me. But you certainly cannot get out alive. You said you were after bigger bastards—I assume you want to see them gotten."
"Not quite an impasse," Mahoney said. "You are going to pack, and you are going to return with me to Newton. You may be telling the truth, you may be lying. We will find out, for certain."
"Brainscan? Never. People have been known to die—or to be scrambled—under the cap. If that's the choice, I'd rather fight and conceivably die here."
"You won't get dead. Or brainburnt. The scan will be done by Rykor. She is—"
"I know of her. The best. But, I confess, somebody wading through my soul gives me shudders."
"The poor clot who'll do the wading through what you call a soul is the one who'll get the collywobbles."
"Let me consider," Venloe mused. "If I say no, and somehow both of us survive the ensuing... discussion, what will happen next? Certainly you will somehow leak the word of my existence to the privy council, expecting them to clean up tracks that are not even there.
"Exactly what they would do. Imbeciles. I do not like this option.
"On the other hand, I go with you. Accept brainscan. Testify. Perhaps your Tribunal will succeed and somehow the forces of"—Venloe's voice oozed sarcasm—"truth, justice, and the Imperial Way magically triumph, and the council falls. Or, what is more likely, their own ineptitude will destroy them.
"In either event, I am quite safe. Protected, in fact. I might not be able to follow my own trade, but I would certainly be kept in the style to which, off and on, I have become accustomed."
Venloe was telling the truth. A political assassin, unless he was killed in the first moments after the assassination or was proven absolutely to be a lone maniac, would be coddled until his death by the state. Whether he talked or not—the hope was that sooner or later he would choose to tell all, even if at that point in time the only beings interested were historians.
Venloe thought, in the hot dry silence. "Very well. I shall assemble my security beings and disarm them. Call for your escort to come in now. They can help carry my luggage to your ship. We have a bargain." He held out his hand, palm forward. Mahoney just stared at it. After a moment, Venloe got up and left the room.
Solon Kenna had been in an observatory exactly once before in his life, and that time he had been young, drunk, and lost. Now he found them fascinating-or at least this particular one, on this particular night, looking at this particular projection.
He looked once more at the screen, reassuring himself that delirium tremens had not finally set in.
They were still there, hanging in a parking orbit around Dusable.
Alarms had cacophonied when the fleet was reported. Kenna turned pale and Tyrenne-elect Walsh even paler when told what it probably was and meant. Ships. Many, many ships. Somehow the privy council must have decided that the defeat of Tyrenne Yelad was injurious, and sent the guard.
Dusable's handful of customs patrol ships launched and swept toward the waiting fleet, loudly proclaiming peaceful intent on every band com-able. In the lead ship was Walsh, representing his system.
Kenna had immediately scuttled for shelter. Deep, deep shelter that would rapidly involve plastic surgery and departure.
There was no response.
And no one had ever seen ships like them-although they were clearly of Imperial design.
A ship was boarded.
And then the celebration began.
The ships were robots-robot freighters. Each of them-and the fleet reached out to forever-held enough Anti-Matter Two for one world's full consumption for one year, at maximum peacetime use.
Dusable, in ten years, or fifteen, had never seen that much AM2. And where the clot had it come from?
Kenna crept out of hiding and went to the observatory to verify that Walsh and his crews had not suddenly discovered hallucinogens-and then he realized.
Christ, Christ, Christ, he thought.
That Raschid was connected, he certainly knew. That he was-somewhere-a being of clout was also a given. But that he was-no.
Kenna stood and turned around. He looked up at an old portrait on the wall, part of the dedication plaque of Imperial Observatory Ryan/Berlow/T'lak. The picture was a standard royalty pose of The Eternal Emperor.
It was also, of course, a perfect image of Raschid.
Kenna had heard and even used the old political phrase: "Who was with me before Chicago?"
"I was," he muttered. "I was. We all were."
Times were going to be very, very good for Dusable and Solon Kenna. He guessed that the son of a bitch was immortal.
He considered the suddenly changing future and what it might portend, especially for the recently elected Walsh. Next election... the hell with it. For now. The next election was not for some years.
He then considered finding a church and praying to any god in particular for giving him, Kenna, the brains to realize what was going on before it went on.
But he brought himself back to reality-and treated himself to a bottle.
Mahoney knew he was in serious trouble.
Rykor came to him in her gravchair, rather than wanting to see him in her chambers or, if matters were very cheery, around the huge, deep saltwater tub that stood in for the frigid arctic waters, crashing storms, and looming icebergs of her home world.
Rykor, from her whiskers to her vast blubber to her flippers, resembled, at least to Mahoney who had so dubbed her, a walrus.
When Sten had come up with the idea of the Tribunal, Mahoney had immediately started finding the tools. One of them was Rykor, formerly one of the Empire's chief psychologists. He found her in bored semiretirement. Liking Sten, having vast if a minority appreciation for Kilgour's sense of humor, liking Mahoney, and-not to be admitted-something beyond the boring sanity of her own race, she had agreed to join in the hunt.
"Well?" Mahoney asked without preliminaries after Rykor's huge gravchair hove into his quarters.
"Quite interesting, this Venloe," Rykor began. "Quite beyond the pale. A truly amoral being. I have read of such but never experienced one. My empathy glands remained inactive throughout the entire scan."
Rykor's empathy glands, located near where humans have tear ducts, automatically responded to the plight or pain of any being under her care. So she seemed to weep while possibly suggesting the most dire fate for a patient.
"What do we have?"
"First, Venloe's health-"
"Hopin' he's dying in convulsions and realizing he'd best stay healthy as a horse, I don't want to hear about his health. I assume excellent. GA."
"I think we-that is, you and I-should prepare an 'Eyes Only' fiche from this scan. His profile is a textbook one and, properly censored and edited, is a valuable contribution to psychology. For you... some of the operations he was involved with in the past, you might find interesting and instructive." She whuffled through her whiskers thoughtfully.
"What about the big one?"
"Oh, he is guilty, just as he says. Interesting how precisely he analyzed, with no formal training, Chapelle, and was able to pull his strings without ever an error.
"And Sullamora was Venloe's employer and paymaster. But that is all."
"Nothing? Not one goddamned memo he happened to see over Sullamora's shoulder from the others? Come on, Rykor. Just one thing. The council all got drunk and sang 'We'll be glad when you're dead, you rascal, you.' Anything."