Of course none of the commanders sent their best if they could avoid it. Fraser dreamed of having six months—no, a full E-year before she could beat the new fleet into command unity. Even that long would be a miracle, and Fraser thought wistfully of what she had read about draconian disciplinary methods used on water navies.

And of course there were volunteers. Some eager for action, more because they had chosen to back the council in the purge. If the council fell, these officers could expect no mercy whatsoever from the inevitable courts-martial that would be ordered, courts-martial that, almost certainly, would be empowered to order the ultimate verdicts.

Fraser did what she could as the fleet bored on through nothing, running constant drills and even going to the extreme of ordering some ships' navplots slaved to their division leaders.

She was not pleased—but she felt quietly confident, without underestimating her probable foe. She had carefully analyzed the slaughter of Gregor's 23rd Fleet. It had been skillfully handled, but the tactics were more those of raiders than conventional combat forces. Plus the defenders of the Jura System had a fixed area that must be defended. Fraser planned to bring them to battle well clear of the system. She would divert half her reserves to hit the Jura worlds, Newton being the primary target. She would have to split her forces, but certainly the defenders would have to do the same. Once the rebel units were defeated, Fraser's fleet would land on Newton. At that point, her responsibilities would end—which she was very grateful for.

The orders the grim-faced men in the accompanying troopships had were sealed, but Fraser, if she allowed herself to think about them, knew what they were.

A com officer interrupted the silence on the flag bridge. "Admiral... we have an all-freqs broadcast. Source of transmission... Newton."

"All frequencies?"

"That's affirmative. Including our own TBS and Command nets. Also it's going out on all the commercial lengths we're monitoring."

"Jam it. Except for the Command Net. Ship commanders' eyes only. I have no interest in my sailors seeing any propaganda." An all-frequency cast could only mean that the self-styled Tribunal had reached its verdict.

"We... can't."

"Can't?" Fraser did not need to say anything more. That was a word that did not exist.

The com officer wilted, then recovered. "No. Broadcast strength's got too much power behind it. Only way to block the transmission is to cut the entire fleet out of external communication."

That was a chance Fraser could not take. "Very well. Scramble as best you can. Patch a clear signal through to my set."

"Yes, ma'am."

Fraser and the other ship COs and division commanders saw what happened clearly. Other screens on other ships showed murky, partial images and speech. But the specific details of what happened were not necessary and, in any event, were quickly word-of-mouthed by any sailor standing duty on a command deck.

The vid showed the inside of the huge auditorium chosen for the Tribunal's hearing. The three solemn-faced judges sat, waiting.

A door behind them slid open, and a Manabi floated out. On either side of the door stood two stocky small humans, wearing combat fatigues and slouch hats, chin straps in place below their lower lips. Both of them were armed with willyguns and long, sheathed knives.

An off-screen voice commented, "All beings witnessing this cast are recommended to record it, as said before."

There was silence. Then the Manabi, Sr. Ecu, spoke.

"This is the final hearing of the Tribunal. However, circumstances have altered intent."

Fraser lifted an eyebrow. That kangaroo court was actually going to find no charges against the privy council? Not that it would matter.

"This is not to say that a verdict has not been reached. It is the finding of this Tribunal that the beings—Srs. Kyes, the Kraas, Lovett, and Malperin—who style themselves as the privy council are indictable.

"This Tribunal finds that a conspiracy for murder was planned and executed by these named beings, as individuals and as a group. We further have found, in accordance with one of the so-called Nuremburg statutes, and so declare their council is a criminal organization.

"Other charges which have been brought up before this Tribunal, up to and including high treason, will not be found on.

"We therefore charge all courts and officers of the law, both Imperial and individual, with the task of bringing the afore-named members of the privy council to a criminal court, to defend themselves against the charges found.

"However, this finding is not the only or the most important purpose of this cast."

Ecu floated to the side and turned to face that door.

It opened.

The Eternal Emperor entered the courtroom.

There may have been pandemonium, or the sound might have been muted. Fraser did not know. Certainly there was a boil of chaos on her own bridge. Eventually she forced order on her own mind, ignoring the shock that all she believed and served was no longer true, and shouted for silence.

And silence there was. Sailors may have stared at their dials and controls—but all that existed was the words that came from that screen.

"I commend the members of this tribunal. The investigators, the clerks, the officials, and the judges. They have proven themselves my Faithful and True Servants, in a time when such loyalty has become a warrant of death.

"They—and others—shall be rewarded.

"Now, we face a common task. To return the Empire to its greatness. It will not be easy.

"But it can—and will—be done.

"The work in front of us must be accomplished. There will not be peace, there will not be order until the Empire stretches as it did before, giving peace, prosperity, and the rule of law throughout the universe.

"I thank those of you who remained loyal, who knew the privy council spoke out of fear, greed, and hatred, not in my name. But there are others.

"Others who for whatever reason chose to march under the bloody banner of the council. I order you now to stop. Obey no orders from the traitors. Listen to no lies or instructions. If you bear arms—lay them down. You must—and will—follow my orders. You will follow them immediately. There has been enough crime, enough evil.

"I specifically address myself to the misguided beings who are manning Imperial warships, on their way to attack this world and myself.

"You have two hours to obey. All ships of this criminal fleet are ordered to leave star drive and assume parking orbits in the system. No weapons are to be manned. At the end of this time, you are directed to surrender to my designated units.

"You are Imperial soldiers and sailors. You serve me—and you serve the Empire.

"Two hours.

"Any men, units, or ships failing to obey will be declared turncoats and outlaws and hunted down. The penalties for treason are very clear and will be meted with great severity.

"Surrender. Save your lives. Save your honor. Save your Empire."

The screen blanked. An audio came on, saying something about all physical attributes of the man who just spoke—the Eternal Emperor—being cast on a separate channel. Skeptics were invited to compare them with easily available public documents.

Fraser paid no attention. She served the Empire—and now, once more, with a vast relief, the Emperor himself.

"Flag! I want an all-ships link! Captain! On my command, stand by for secondary drive."

"We are going to—" someone on the bridge said.

"Serve the Emperor," Fraser interrupted.

The com officer shot her.

He himself died two seconds later, as Fraser's aide slashed Fraser's weighted baton across the officer's neck.

There were other guns and ceremonial knives out. A blast went wild and disabled the main drive controls. The flag bridge was a melee of mutiny—if that was what it was.

Secondary command centers never went on line—they too were in chaos.

The Chou Kung drove on, still under drive.

In miniature, that hysteria and devastation was the entire Imperial fleet as it kilkennied itself.

Some ships obeyed—and were attacked by others still loyal to the council. Other ships tried to continue the mission toward the Jura System. Still others managed to "disappear" into normal space and Yukawa drive. Division commanders snarled com channels, looking for orders, guidance, or agreement.

Then Sten attacked.

The Eternal Emperor had lied about the two hours of grace.

The late Admiral Fraser had correctly analyzed Sten's tactics in the raid on the AM2 convoy. The Bhor, the Rom, and the mercenaries were, indeed, more comfortable in single-ship or small-squadron attacks. She was also correct that the Tribunal's fleet would not be capable of a conventional defense against a conventional attack.

Sten found a third option. He deployed his entire fleet as a slashing cutting-out expedition, coming down on the Imperial units. His orders had been very simple: Attack any ship that is showing signs of fight. Hit them once—hard—and hold full speed. Regroup and reattack. If they go into normal space, go with them. Make sure they're either broadcasting a surrender signal or their main drive is disabled.

"Do not board. Do not close with and destroy. Ignore any ship obeying the Imperial orders.

"This is not a battle to the finish. Otho, I don't want any of your people playing berserker."

"What happens after they're broken?" a mercenary captain had asked.

"Sorry, Captain. There's no time for looting. I say again—no boarding. This whole damn mess is almost over. Let's not get anyone killed unnecessarily."

"What about Imperial survivors?"

"There'll be SAR ships put out. Eventually."

And that was how the battle was fought. Slice through... form up... hit them again.

Sten fought his ship—a cruiser—and three others. Time blurred. Each combat was different, each combat was the same. He gave his orders through a cold, clear anger.

The Emperor had returned.

Very well. So let's end it.

Eventually there was no one left still firing that was worthwhile shooting back at. Sten came back to himself, staggered with fatigue.

He looked at a chronometer.

The ship-day was nearly ended. He checked the main battlescreen. The scatter of indicators gave no sign that just hours before there had been a fleet to attack. It was, indeed, over.

So much for the nits.

Now for the vermin they had bred from. 

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

Poyndex noticed the tree had lost half its leaves. Like the privy council members who awaited him on the top floor, the rubiginosa seemed to be cowering at the news: The Eternal Emperor was back!

When he saw them huddled in their chairs, he realized that "cowering" was a poor description. Each of them had heard the executioner's song and was dying inside. Malperin looked half a century older. Lovett was a shrunken, pouch-faced little being.

The Kraa twins were the most changed of all. The one who had once waddled about in thick wads of fat had become a baggy, anorexic thing. Her skin drooped disgustingly. The once-thin Kraa had turned herself into a bulging pink ball, skin stretched tight around the new fat.

There was no question on any of their faces that the being who called himself the Eternal Emperor was exactly that.

All four beings leaped on Poyndex as if he were the last lifeboat leaving a hulled ship. He could barely make out the questions in the frightened confusion. "The Eternal Emperor...""... What shall we do..."

"... Where can we run..."

"... Should we fight..."

"... Can we fight..."On and on. They were working themselves into a suicidal frenzy. They were so hysterically afraid of the Emperor that they were ready to board ships and fling themselves onto his guns with all the troops they could command.

That was not what Poyndex wanted.

He soothed them and sat them down. He put on his saddest, most understanding face. "I think I know how to save you," he said.

They looked up at him, sudden hope in their eyes. Anything would do now. But Poyndex was not after just anything. He believed he had found his way back to power.

"I have not been charged with any crime," he said. "In whatever actions that were taken before I joined you, I had no part. Therefore, it should be no trouble at all for me to personally approach the Emperor."

No one protested, or warned him that it might be certain death, that no matter how blameless he might be, the Emperor was quite capable of killing any being vaguely involved with the privy council. Poyndex smiled to himself at that great showing of concern from his colleagues and friends.

"If you do not object, I'll offer the Emperor a deal."

Poyndex's proposal was simple. The privy council had lost, but they could still cause an enormous amount of damage and shed a great deal of blood. He urged them to retire to the emergency bunker that had been constructed deep under the rubiginosa tree. It was an ideal command center, plugged into every military channel. The bunker itself was constructed to withstand anything up to a direct nuclear explosion. From there they could fight to the death if the Emperor refused the deal.

Poyndex would point all that out to the Emperor. Then he would say that the privy council had no wish to cause so much harm if it could be avoided. In the interest of all the innocent beings of Prime World, they would agree to lay down their arms if granted their lives.

"No prison," the once-fat Kraa snarled. "Me sis couldn't bear the filthy thing."

"I'm not suggesting prison," Poyndex said. "I'm suggesting exile. Under the terms I plan to negotiate, you would be permitted to freely board your private ships and flee to the farthest reaches of the Empire. Beyond the frontiers, if The Emperor he wishes it. And you would be forbidden ever to return."

"Do you think he'll go for it?" Lovett whined.

Oh, yes, Poyndex assured. Yes, indeed he will. The Emperor, like Poyndex, was a practical man. Then he told them they ought to proceed instantly to the bunker. There should be no delay—in case the Emperor struck unexpectedly.

Poyndex watched the privy council members hurry off to the fates he had planned for them, like beasts to the butcher. 

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

The Kraas, always aware of that area of the human back between the third and fourth ribs, were the first to correctly analyze the subtext of the Emperor's transmission: "Clottin' Poyndex! Clottin' bassid set us up an' sold us out."

Why not? They would have done the same, had they the chance.

"Shoulda knowed," the now-fat one growled. "Sit here in this clottin' bunker, waitin' an' waitin' an' waitin'. We got no forces in space, th' air, or holdin' the ports."

Their screams of outrage were the loudest it had gotten in the privy council's underground retreat in days. The Kraas had spent the time since Poyndex had left on his "negotiating mission" gorging and purging. Malperin and Lovett found themselves together frequently—but with nothing to say. They might have been a pair of silent ghosts, haunting the cellars below the castle they once ruled from.

The guards and servants learned the art of swiftly and silently following whatever orders they were given and then disappearing into their own quarters.