Then came the announcement, on the special wavelength set aside:
"This is the Eternal Emperor.
"I have been approached by an emissary of the traitorous privy council. They wanted conditional terms for their surrender.
"I reject these, in the name of civilization and the Empire itself. There can be no negotiation with murderers.
"I demand immediate, complete, and unconditional surrender.
"Citizens of Prime World—"
At that point the Kraas had begun screaming. No one in the com room heard the details of what else the Emperor ordered. It was nothing surprising: Prime was declared under martial law. All military personnel were to report to their barracks and remain there. Officers and noncommissioned officers were to maintain discipline, but no more. All ships to ground and remain grounded or be fired upon. Police were instructed to keep public order—without violence, if possible. Rioters and looters would be punished...
Until the end:
"Imperial forces will be landing on Prime within the hour."
Impossibly, the Kraas' howls became louder.
Trapped... clot that... out of here.
One of them was on a com to the capital city of Fowler's main port, giving hurried orders to the commander of their "yacht"—a heavily armed ex-cruiser—and its two escorts, ordering preparation for immediate takeoff.
"Why?" Malperin wondered in a monotone. "There is nowhere to run to."
"Clot there ain't! There's allus a back door!"
The other Kraa broke in. "Even if there ain't, damned sure rather go down fightin' than just waitin' f'r th' butcher's hammer!"
And they were gone.
Lovett started to pour a drink. He put the glass down, unfilled, and sat. He stared at Malperin. The silence returned.
A flotilla of tacships were the first to scream down and across Soward's launch grounds. Other flotillas provided Tac Air over the rest of Prime's ports.
The lead tacship's exec/weapons officer reported three ships, drives active.
"All elements... Fairmile Flight... Targets as indicated and illuminated... Goblin launch... Fire!"
Non-nuclear medium-range missiles spat out of the tacships' tubes, homing on the Kraas' three ships. Three blasts became a single fireball belching up thousands of feet.
And Mahoney ordered in the fleets.
Sten, as per orders, was the first to bring his in. Destroyers and cruisers hung over Soward and Fowler. He brought his own battleship and its two fellows down onto Prime—flashthought: A bit different than when I skulked out of here last—and behind them the assault transports landed, and armor and troops spilled out.
Kilgour tossed Sten his combat harness, and Sten buckled on the webbing that held the heavy Gurkha kukris and a miniwillygun.
He would command the assault on the council's bunker himself. The Eternal Emperor had given him explicit orders: he wanted the Kraas, Malperin, and Lovett—alive if at all possible. He did not want to see, he added, the work of Sten's Tribunal wasted.
"Admiral." A screen was indicated.
Five armored gravsleds pulled onto the field about three kilometers away. Four were standard squad combat types; the fifth was a command unit.
"Ah think w' flushed some ae them," Kilgour said, mentally plotting their intended destination, that fireball that had been the ready-to-lift ships.
Before Sten could issue orders, a tacship bulleted across the field, scattering area-denial cratering bomblets. The blast flipped two of the sleds out of control, and a third lost power and slammed, nose first, into the smoking, newly dug ditch.
Two were left. Their pilots spun them through 180 degrees, back the way they had come.
But Sten saw that their exit had been sealed, not by Imperial forces or bombing, but by a screaming, boiling mob. Armed and unarmed. Human and alien.
The gravsleds fired into the mob. Beings fell and were shattered. More replaced them.
The squad gravsled was disabled and grounded. Someone, somewhere, had found, stolen, or seized an anti-armor weapon and fired. The blast disintegrated the gravsled-and sent its attackers spinning.
The command sled changed course once more, this time toward the grounded Imperial ships.
It never made it.
Sten saw the flash as a homemade incendiary landed on its top deck and fire poured down into the McLean intakes. The sled shuddered to a halt. Sten saw the rear ramp drop and then-
He thought he saw two beings come out: one enormously fat, the other looking like a skeleton wearing a tent. Their hands were upraised, and they were shouting something.
And then the mob poured over them.
Sten turned away from the screen.
"Ah hae i' recorded," Kilgour said. "We'll need ae frame-b'-frame f'r an' ID an' confirm't thae wa' th' Kraas. Thae'll be nae enow lef f'r th' autopsy."
Sten nodded, still not looking at the screen. "Let's go, Mr. Kilgour. I want the courts to have somebody to bring to trial."
The assigned Imperial troops were no better or worse than the rest of the Empire's units Sten had faced lately. It did not matter-Sten had already assumed inexperience and formed his spearhead from the mercenaries.
He assumed they would have to fight their way through the streets of Fowler to the privy council's headquarters-but they did not. The riots and the revenge had already swept through the streets they took: overturned gravcars and -sleds, some burnt-out; improvised barricades; bodies, some uniformed, some not.
Burning and burnt businesses and buildings.
Three times bodies dangling from street lamps.
But nothing they had to stand against.
Surprisingly, there was order, of sorts. Civilians directed traffic as best they could—what little traffic there was. More civilians patrolled the walkways.
The sergeant commanding the combat squad in Sten's assault gravsled stuck his head out of the hatch, shouted a question to one of the civilians, and received an answer.
"Cult a' the Emp, sir. Helpin' pave the way, sir."
Sten thought the cult practiced nonviolence. Perhaps the bruised man he saw being frog-marched by three large women had tripped and fallen downstairs. Or maybe there would be a confession to make later.
He heard the sound of firing as his assault force closed on the council's headquarters.
There were bodies in the mottled brown of the Imperial Guard and riddled gravsleds in front of it. Sten dismounted and was greeted by a sick- and worried-looking captain, a young woman who could not decide whether to cry or swear. It had been the first time she had led a unit into combat—and the first time the unit she had so carefully knitted together took casualties.
She neither cried nor swore—but professionally made a sitrep. The council had guards inside the building—there. Four antitrack launchers sandbagged there and over there. Snipers and rapid-fire weapons upstairs in the building itself. All orders to surrender had been ignored.
Sten thanked her and issued orders. She was to pull her company back. Make sure the area was sealed—nobody out but, more importantly, nobody in. Especially not another lynch mob.
The captain watched in awe as Sten and Kilgour issued a string of orders to their mercenaries and Bhor troops.
You get good, Sten thought, when you're doing it for the fortieth or four hundredth time around and you're armored against seeing your people get killed.
He brought up a company of heavy tracks and used them to bulldoze barricades and smash through the buildings around the headquarters to provide firing positions. Heavy weapons were readied, and fire was opened against the snipers and crew-served guns.
"Th' wee antitrack launchers," Kilgour said. "Ah hae their medicine ready."
Kilgour had ordered snipers—the best an' y' ken who y'be, dinnae be tryin' t' t' smoke me—into flanking positions.
As Sten ordered a gravsled to move forward, he sensed Cind moving in close to him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her scanning the confusion for hidden danger—danger against him.
The antitrack crews aimed—and were sniped down. More of the council's—soldiers? secret cops? private goons?—ran to replace them.
Willyguns cracked, and the new gunners never made it. A third try... and volunteers suddenly got scarce.
Alex shouted orders, and Sten's hand-picked squad doubled into the lowered troop ramp of a heavy track.
"Y' dinnae hae't' be knockin't," Alex ordered the track commander. "An' gie y'self a bit ae coverin't fire. Go!"
The track ground forward, turrets flaming. Its tracks clawed over one of the abandoned antitrack launchers, and then the multiton monster exploded through the entrance of the council's building, into the huge atrium.
The ramp banged down, and Sten and his "arresting officers" came out. He noticed the green-encrusted fountains and what must have been some kind of tall dead tree in the atrium's center. The tank had felled the tree as it slid to a halt before the troops dismounted.
Sten glanced at the small map case he held. "Bunker entrance is... over there. Move slow, dammit! Don't end up makin' history by bein' the last one dead."
Good advice, Sten thought. Listen to it. A dead admiral being the last casualty of this... war? Revolt? Insurrection? Whatever might rate more than a footnote.
They went down and down, into the bowels below what had been the privy council's proudest construction. Cind and Alex kept close to Sten as they moved from cover to cover like cautious snakes.
There was no need to be careful.
There was no resistance.
Malperin and Lovett were found sitting in a room. They did not seem to hear Sten's orders.
Cind stared at the two beings, at the husks who had once been her rulers. Sten thought he saw pity in her eyes.
Kilgour repeated Sten's orders.
They finally responded to his growls. They stood when Alex told them to, were strip-searched for weapons and suicide devices without protest, then followed the arresting squad back up and out.
It almost seemed, Sten thought, as if they were secretly glad it was all over.
He wondered if their apathy would continue past the moment when the trial began.
"Sit down, Sten," the Eternal Emperor said. "But pour us both a drink first."
From long habit as former commander of the Emperor's personal guard, Sten knew he was at ease when drink was mentioned. But being "At Ease," and being "at ease" were difficult under the circumstances. It had been many years since he had a shot of stregg with the boss. And in those times, Sten had thought that the word "Eternal" was merely a symbolic title, if he thought of it at all.
He noticed, however, that when the Emperor took his drink, he only gave it an absentminded sip. Sten did the same.
"I won't thank you for all you've done," the Emperor said. "The words would seem silly. At least to me."
Sten wondered what was up. The Emperor, despite his pose of informality, was being damned formal. That usually meant he had a surprise up his sleeve. Sten hoped it did not involve him. He saw the Emperor frown at him slightly, then look at the barely touched stregg in his own hand. The frown vanished, and the Eternal Emperor tossed it back in one swallow. He slid the glass across the table for more. Sten drank his own down and redid the honors. He felt the stregg light its way down and spread out its warmth, but he still felt no more at ease.
He wished like clot he could ask the Emperor how he did it. Where had he been for all those years? What had he done? And why in clot wasn't he dead? No, best not ask. The Emperor was jealous of his secrets.
"The last time we talked together," the Emperor said, "I was doing my damndest to give you a promotion. You turned me down. I hope you aren't planning on making that a habit."
Oh, clot, here it comes. Sten braced himself.
"How does head of Mercury Corps sound?" the Emperor said. "I'll raise its command grade and give you a second star. How does that sound, Admiral?"
"Retired admiral, sir," Sten said, gulping. He had to get it out fast. "And I hate to seem ungrateful and all, but no thanks. Please."
Sten saw the cold look knot the Emperor's brow. Then it eased slightly.
"Why?" It was a one-word command.
"It's like this. I've spent my whole life soldiering. In public service, if you will. I've been rewarded far more than I could have ever dreamed. I was nothing. A Vulcan Delinq. Now, I'm an admiral. And you want to make it with two stars. Thank you, sir. But no thanks.
"I have to start making my own life. Find a place for myself in the civilian world. I was confused before. Maybe I still am. But only a little. Because I'm looking forward to it. It's time for me to start doing the usual, dull human business."
Sten thought of Lisa Haines, and how undull his life might have been if events had not intervened. The whole time he had spoken, he had kept his eyes down. Now he looked up to see the Emperor glaring at him, eyes white steel.
"I'm not doing a good job of this, sir," Sten said. "I'm not explaining very well. It's not something that comes out easy for someone like me."
He said no more. The Emperor would let him know if more was welcome. The glare shut off. The Emperor chugged half his drink, then lifted his legs up on his desk and eased back in his chair.
"I understand," he said. "I'm asking you to make a big sacrifice. Actually, another big sacrifice. But I don't think you realize the situation."
He finished his drink, leaned over, and hooked the bottle with a finger, poured, and shoved the stregg back to Sten. They both drank—and refilled.
"But look at the mess we're in," the Emperor continued as if there had not been a halt. "Beings are starving. Millions have no work. Just about any government you look at is near collapse. Just getting the AM2 to the right places and fast is going to be a nightmare. Much less all the other troubles I see ahead. Now what am I going to do about all this—without any help?"
Sten shook his head. He had no answer.
"So why is it a big surprise when I ask someone like you—with all those years of public service, as you said—to stay with me now? Where else can I get that kind of experience?"
"Yessir," Sten said. "I see your point. But—"
"But me no buts, young Sten," the Eternal Emperor said. "Look. I'm not asking for me. I'm asking for your Empire. How can you refuse? Tell me that. How can you look me in the eye and refuse to help?
"But don't answer yet. Forget Mercury Corps. I have a better idea. I'm making you my chief troubleshooter—with some kind of fancy plenipotentiary sort of title. Help me out with heads of state, tricky negotiations, and any kind of major crisis situation.
"And for your first job, I want you to help me out with the Bhor. I want to do something special for them. They've been my most loyal subjects. They were your idea way back, if I recall."
"Yessir," Sten said.
"So. They're going to have a big celebration in the Lupus Cluster. Honoring my return and all and the victory over those clots who wanted to be my enemy. I want you to go there for me. To the Wolf Worlds. Be my representative at the ceremonies. I can't think of a being they would appreciate more. Can you?"