They'll be thinkin' Ah'm armed. But noo wi' this. Imperial issue an' all. He knelt, pistol in right hand, left hand cupped around his right, left arm just behind the elbow on his knee... breathe in... out... hold... squeeze.

The willygun cracked. The bullet was a 1-mm ball of AM2, shielded by Imperium. AM2—spaceship power. The round struck one of the suited men in a leg—and the leg exploded. AM2 was not a conventional infantry round.

B'dam, Alex thought in some surprise. Moren' one hundred meters an' Ah hit somethin'. Sten'll nae believe it... Four left... Now the gloves were off. Return fire spattered around him. Kilgour assumed they were using more conventional weapons—and still trying to take him alive. One block up was his street.

The wire was knotted securely to a lamppost, half a meter off the ground. The Mantis operatives were bounding, ten meters to a leap, up the rise toward him. Alex went down "his" street at a run. At a skate, actually.

The narrow alley was at a fifty-degree angle—and icy. There was no way anyone could walk, let alone run down it. Kilgour could not—but he used that cable as a steadying ski tow in reverse, swearing as he felt the insulation sear his hands. He braked, stumbled, nearly skidded, and recovered.

Two Mantis operatives were leaping down the alley toward him. They touched down—on slippery, fifty-degree ice. Even as the pseudomusculature kicked in and they rebounded, their feet had gone out from underneath them. One man smashed into a wall, then skidded, motionless, toward Kilgour. The other man pinwheeled in midair, out of control.

Kilgour shot him through the faceplate as he tumbled past. Then Alex was going back up the way he came, hand-over-hand.

He heard a suitjet blast over the storm and went flat, rolling onto his back. One operative came over the roof-top. Y' panicked and let the power save you, lad. An' noo you're hangin' thae, like a braw cloud. Alex shot the cloud three times in its center. The suit's drive stayed on and rocketed the tiny near-spacecraft straight up and away into the sleet clouds.

One more. One more. Show yourself, lad.

Nothing.

Not knowing—or caring—if the final operative had cracked, had gone to aid his downed teammates, or had lost control of his suit, Alex went up the rest of the way to the High Street. Now all he had to do was get out of the city, offworld, and make his way to a very private rendezvous point, one known but to one other being in the universe.

Wi' m' left hand. Wi' m' left hand in m' sleep. Wi' m' left hand in m' sleep croonin't ae lullaby to a bairn.

And Alex Kilgour vanished from the planet of Edinburgh. 

CHAPTER FOUR

The getting of power had always been a complex thing with complex motives. Socio-historians had written whole libraries on it, analyzing and reanalyzing the past, seeking the perfect formula, saying so and so was the right course to follow, and such and such was obvious folly.

Kin mated with kin to achieve power, producing gibbering heirs to their throne. The threat of such a succession sometimes assured the parents of very long and royal reigns.

Kin also murdered kin, or kept them in chains for decades.

Genocide was another favorite trick, one of the few foolproof methods of achieving majority. The difficulty with genocide, the socio-historians said, was that it needed to be constantly applied to keep the edge.

Politics without murder was also favored—under special circumstances. Power was won in such a case by constant and unceasing compromise. Many voices were heard and views taken into account. Only then would a decision be reached. A little artful lying, and everyone believed they had been satisfied. Everyone, in that case, was defined as beings of material importance. A leader only had to make sure those same beings had sufficient bones of imagined progress to toss to their mobs. The rule, there, was that if one had too little, the prospect of more was usually enough to satisfy.

There were other methods, but they tended to follow the same paths.

The most certain way, those historians agreed, was to possess a commodity that beings desired above all else. In ancient times it had been food or water. A well-placed road might accomplish the same end. Sex worked in any era, given the proper circumstances. Whatever the commodity, however, it had to be kept in a safe place and guarded against all possible comers.

The Eternal Emperor had had AM2. It was the ultimate fuel and the cornerstone of his vast Empire. In the past, he had merely to turn the tap one way or the other to maintain complete control. His policies had been supported by the largest military force of any known age. The Emperor had also kept the AM2 in a safe place.

More than six years after his assassination, his killers were unable to find it—and they were about to lose the power they had committed regicide to claim.

Even if they had possessed the key to the Emperor's AM2 treasure chest, it was likely the privy council was headed for disaster.

Times had not been kind.

In the aftermath of the Tahn wars—the largest and most costly conflict in history—the Empire was teetering on the edge of economic chaos. The Eternal Emperor's coffers were nearly bare. The deficit from the tremendous military spending was so enormous that even with the highly favorable interest rates the Emperor had bargained hard for, it would take a century to significantly reduce it, much less pay it off.

When the Emperor was still alive, Tanz Sullamora and the other members of the council had strongly proposed their own solution. It involved freezing wages below the pre-Tahn rate and creating deliberate scarcity of product, forcing sharp increases in the price of goods.

And a hefty surtax on AM2.

Through those means and others, the debt would be quickly paid, and corporate health assured for the ages.

The Emperor had rejected those proposals out of hand.

When the Emperor rejected a thing, it was law. With no appeal.

His Majesty's postwar plans called for a directly opposite approach.

The late, never lamented Sr. Sullamora had detailed the Emperor's views to his fellow conspirators without editorializing:

Wages would be allowed to rise to their natural levels. The war had been costly in beingpower—especially, skilled beingpower. This would result in immediate higher costs to business.

Prices, on the other hand, would be frozen, putting goods within easy reach of the newly prosperous populations.

Of course, the war had been a tremendous drain on supplies. To alleviate that, the

Emperor fully intended to temporarily reduce taxes on AM2—immediately—making goods and transportation cheaper.

In time, he believed, a balance would be achieved.

Where the lords of industry had once seen a future of sudden and continuous windfalls, they now faced a long period of belt-tightening and careful management of their resources. Unearned perks and hefty bonuses would be a thing of the past. Business would be forced to compete equally and take a long-range view of profitability.

That was unacceptable to the privy council. They voted no—with a gun.

The vote had not been unanimous. Volmer, the young media baron, had been horrified by their plan. He wanted no part of it, despite the fact that he disagreed with the Emperor as much as anyone on the council. Although he had no talent for it, Volmer was a fervent believer in the art of persuasion. But he had always had whole battalions of reporters, political experts, and public relations scientists at his command, constantly feeding his enormous media empire. All that was inherited, so talent wasn't necessary.

Like most heirs, Volmer believed himself a genius. It was his fatal flaw. Even such a dimwit as Volmer should have been able to cipher the precariousness of his situation when he broke with his peers. But the bright light of his own imagined intellect had kept that fact hidden.

The elaborate plot that ensued claimed Volmer as its first victim. The architect of the plot was the Emperor's favorite toady, Tanz Sullamora.

For most of his professional life, Sullamora had licked the Eternal Emperor's boots. For decades, he saw his ruler as a being without visible fault. Certainly, he didn't believe him to be a saint, with gooey feelings for his subjects. He viewed the Emperor as a cold and calculating giant of a CEO, who would use any means to achieve his ends. In that, Sr. Sullamora was absolutely correct.

He erred only by taking it to the extreme. Business was Sullamora's faith, with the Emperor as the high priest. He believed the Emperor infallible, a being who quickly calculated the odds and acted without hesitation. And the result was always the correct one. He also assumed that the Emperor's goals were the same as his own, and those of every other capitalist in the Empire.

To their complete dismay, many others had made the same assumption. But the Eternal Emperor's game was his own. It was his board. His rules. His victory. Alone.

As for infallibility, even the Emperor didn't think that. In fact, when he planned, he assumed error—his own, as well as others. That's why things mostly worked out in his favor. The Eternal Emperor was the master of the long view. "You tend to get that way," he used to joke to Mahoney, "after the first thousand years."

The Tahn war was the result of one of the Emperor's greatest errors. He knew that more than anyone. But the conflict had been so fierce that he had been forced to be candid—to Sullamora, as well as to others. He started thinking aloud, running the logic down to his trusted advisors. How else could he seek their opinions? He had also revealed self-doubt and admitted his many mistakes.

That was a terrible blow to Tanz Sullamora. His hero was revealed to have feet of definite clay. The corporate halo was tarnished. Sullamora lost his faith.

Murder was his revenge.

To protect himself, he kept the actual details of the plot secret. He guarded his flanks by demanding that his fellow conspirators equally implicate themselves. They had all fixed their prints to documents admitting guilt. Each held a copy of the document, so that betrayal was unthinkable. But the particulars of Volmer's murder, the recruiting of Chapelle, and the subsequent death of the Emperor remained unknown to the other conspirators.

The members of the privy council watched the events at the spaceport unfold on their vidscreens along with the rest of the Empire. And there were no more fascinated viewers. They saw the royal party veer to the receiving line at Soward. They cheered Sullamora as their private hero. They waited in anticipation for the fatal shot. The tension was incredible. In a moment, they would be kings and queens. Then the Emperor died. Mission accomplished!

The explosion that followed surprised them as much as anyone else. The bomb might have been a nice touch. But it was inconceivable that Sullamora would commit suicide. The council members assumed the madman, Chapelle, was merely making sure of his target. Oh, well. Poor Sullamora. Drakh happens.

Although it meant there were more riches to divide, they honestly mourned the man. As the chief of all transport and most major ship building, Tanz Sullamora could not be replaced. They also badly needed his skills at subterfuge, as well as his knowledge of the inner workings of Imperial politics. His death meant that they had to learn on the job.

They didn't learn very well.

The Emperor had stored the AM2 in great depots strategically placed about his Empire. The depots fed great tankers that sped this way and that, depending upon the need and the orders of the Emperor. He alone controlled the amount and the regularity of the fuel.

Defy him, and he would beggar the rebel system or industry. Obey him, and he would see there was always a plentiful supply at a price he deemed fair for his own needs.

The privy council immediately saw the flaw in that system, as far as their own survival was concerned. Not one member would trust any other enough to give away such total control.

So they divided the AM2 up in equal shares, assuring each of their own industries had cheap fuel. They also used it to punish personal enemies and reward, or create, new allies. Power, in other words, was divided four ways.

Occasionally they would all agree that there was a single threat to their future. They would meet, consider, and act.

In the beginning, they went on a spending spree. With all that free fuel, they vastly expanded their holdings, building new factories, gobbling up competitors, or blindsiding corporations whose profits they desired.

The Emperor had priced AM2 on three levels: The cheapest went to developing systems. The next was for public use, so that governments could provide for the basic needs of their various populaces. The third, and highest, was purely commercial.

The privy council set one high price to be paid by everyone, except themselves and their friends. The result was riches beyond even their inflated dreams.

But there was one worm gnawing a great hole in their guts. It was a worm they chose too long to ignore.

The great depots they controlled had to be supplied. But by whom? Or what?

In the past, robot ships—tied together in trains so long they exceeded the imagination—had appeared at the depots filled to the brim with Anti-Matter Two. Many hundreds of years had passed since anyone had asked where they might come from. An assumption replaced the question. Important people knew—important people who followed the Emperor's orders.

Like all assumptions, it rose up and bit the privy council in their collective behinds.

When the Emperor died, the robot ships stopped. At that moment, the AM2 at hand was all they possessed. It would never increase.

It took a long while for that to sink in. The privy council was so busy dealing with the tidal wave of problems—as well as their own guilt—that they just assumed the situation to be temporary.

They sent their underlings to question the bureaucrats at the fuel office. Those poor beings puzzled at them. "Don't you know?" they asked. For a time, the privy council was afraid to admit they didn't.

More underlings were called. Every fiche, every document, every doodle the Emperor had scrawled was searched out and examined.

Nothing.

This was an alarming state of affairs, worthy of panic, or, at least, a little rationing. They only panicked a little—and rationed not at all.

They were secretive beings themselves, they reasoned. It was an art form each had mastered in his or her path to success. Therefore: An emperor had to be the most secretive creature of all. Proof: His long reign—and their momentary failure at figuring his system out.

Many other efforts were launched, each more serious and desperate than the last.

Real panic was beginning to set in.

Finally a study committee had been formed from among their most able executives. The committee's objectives were twofold. One: Find the AM2. Second: Determine exactly the supplies on hand and recommend their disposition until objective number one had been reached.