Unfortunately, the second objective obscured the first for more than a year. If the Emperor had been alive, he would have howled over their folly.

"They tried that with the Seven Sisters," he would have hooted. "How much oil do you really have, please, sir? Don't lie, now. It isn't in the national interest."

The council would not have known what the Seven Sisters was all about, or the terrible need to know about something so useless and plentiful as oil. But they would have gotten the drift.

When asked, each member lied—poor-mouthed, as the old wildcatters would have said. The next time they were asked, they were just as likely to inflate the figures. It depended upon the political winds about the conference table.

What about the rest of the Empire? After they had been treated so niggardly, what would the truth gain the council?

Actually, the first outsider who had been questioned soon spread the word. Hoarding fever struck. There was less readily available AM2 than ever before.

Adding to the council's dilemma was a whole host of other problems.

During the Tahn wars, the Emperor constantly had been forced to deal with shaky allies and insistent fence sitters. When the tide turned, all of them swore long and lasting fealty. That, however, did not remove the cause for their previous discontent. The leaders of many of those systems had to deal with unruly populations, beings who had never been that thrilled with the Imperial system and became less so during the war.

Peace did not automatically solve such doubts. The Eternal Emperor had just been turning his attention to these matters when he was slain. The problems would have been exceedingly difficult to solve under any circumstances. It was especially so for his self-appointed heirs. If those allies of the moment had not trusted the Eternal Emperor to have their best interests at heart, than who the clot were these new guys? The council ruled by Parliamentary decree, but most beings in the Empire were cynical about Parliament. They saw it as a mere rubber stamp for Imperial orders. The Eternal Emperor had never discouraged that view.

It was one of the keys to his mystique.

The Emperor had been a student and admirer of some of the ancient czarist policies. The czars were among the last Earth practitioners of rule by godhead. They had millions of peasants who were brutally treated. The czars used the members of their royal court as middle beings. It was they who wielded the lash and kept the rations to starvation level. The peasants did not always submit. History was full of their many violent uprisings. But the peasants always blamed the nobility for their troubles. It was the noble corpses they hung on posts, not the czar's.

He was a father figure. A kind of gentle man who thought only of his poor subjects. It was the nobility who always took advantage of his nature, hiding their evil deeds from him. And if only he knew how terrible was their suffering, he would end it instantly. There was not one scrap of truth to this—but it worked.

Except for the last czar, who was openly disdainful of his people.

"That's why he was the last," the Emperor once told Mahoney.

It was just one of those little lessons of history that the privy council was unaware of. Although if they had known of it, it was doubtful if they would have understood it. Very few business beings understood politics—which was why they made terrible rulers.

Another enormous, festering problem was how to deal with Tahn.

To Kyes, the Kraa twins, and the others, it was simple. The Tahn had been defeated. To the victors go the spoils, and so on.

To that end, the privy council had gutted all their systems. They had hauled off the factories for cannibalization or scrap, seized all resources, and beaten the various populations into submission and slave labor. They also spent a great deal of credits they didn't have to garrison their former enemy. The rape of the Tahn empire produced an instant windfall. But before they had time to congratulate themselves for their brilliance, the privy council saw all that gain going over the dike in an evergrowing flood.

The Eternal Emperor could have told them that tyranny was not cost efficient.

An economic miracle was what the Emperor had in mind. At least, that was how he would have portrayed it. Certainly he had reprisals in mind. The purge would have been massive and complete. He would have wiped out all traces of the culture that had bred the war-loving beings.

But he would have replaced it with something. The will to fight would have been harnessed to the will to compete. Aid every bit as massive as the purge would have been provided. In his thinking, such single-minded beings as the Tahn would eventually produce credits in such plenty that they would soon become one of the most important capitalist centers in his empire.

They would have made wonderful customers of AM2.

Which brought the dilemma of the privy council to full circle.

Where was the AM2? 

CHAPTER FIVE

Kyes saw the storm warnings before his ship touched down at Soward.

Prime World's main spaceport was nearly empty. A five-kilometer comer was a jumble of tugs, and from the pitting and streaks of rust on their bulky sides, they looked as if they had been idle for months.

The few liners he saw were pocked with the viral scale that attacked all deep-space ships and ate steadily away at them if left untended. He saw no work crews about. The once vital, bustling heart of the Empire looked like an ancient harridan who had lost even dim memories of lovers past.

A glistening phalanx of military vehicles was waiting for him. They were in stark contrast to the degeneration afflicting Soward. The tall, silvery being with the red mark of his kind throbbing angrily on his smooth skull slid into the seat of his official gravcar. He motioned the driver to proceed.

As the gravcar and its escorts hummed toward the entrance, they skirted the gaping black roped-off crater torn out by the bomb blast that had taken the Emperor. There had been a serious proposal to build a memorial to the Eternal Emperor at the site. Kyes himself had pressed the measure—as a gesture to the being whose memory he and his colleagues based their own authority upon. There had been no argument. Funds had immediately been approved and a designer set. That had been during his last visit, more than a year ago. As yet, not one iota of work had begun.

He was greeted by more squalor as they cleared the port gates. Empty warehouses. Closed businesses, boarding hanging from the vacant eyes of their windows, where gleaming goods had once enticed an affluent population. Unlicensed beggars and crowds of idle beings eyed him as he passed. A shambling tub of a lout, wearing the rags of a loader, glared at the flags of office fluttering on Kyes's transport. She looked him straight in the eye, then spat on the broken pavement.

Kyes leaned forward to his driver. "What's happened?" He waved at the desolation around them.

The driver needed no further explanation. "Don't bother yourself with them, Sr. Kyes," she snarled. "They're nothing but slackers. There's plenty of jobs, but they won't take 'em. Just want to suck on the public tit. Now they're whinin' and groanin' 'cause decent, hard-workin' folks are tellin' 'em: 'No work, no credits.' If the Eternal Emperor—bless him—were still around, he'd straighten 'em out fast."

The driver stuttered to a stop as she realized that Kyes might take her comments as criticism of the privy council. Then she recovered. A toady's smile wreathed her broad face.

"Not that alia yuz ain't doin' best ya can. These'r terrible times. Terrible times. Wouldn't take on yer job for a fistful a credits. I was tellin' me hub just the other..." The driver droned on. Condescension heaped upon forced humility. Kyes shut her out. He also made no objection to her talking, much less the language. It marked her as on the payroll of the Kraas. There were few things the twins even bothered being subtle about.

The reason Kyes was on Prime World after so long an absence was that he had been called to an emergency session of the privy council. The chief of the AM2 commission was scheduled to reveal the full details of his committee's study on the fuel situation. More to the point, he was to spell out exactly when the search for the Emperor's hidden resources was to be concluded.

Kyes hoped there would be better news here than the depressing report he had received shortly before he left for Prime World.

A crucial mission had been blown. That a number of military operatives had been killed in the process didn't concern Kyes. An important confidant of the Eternal Emperor's—one Admiral Sten—and his longtime aide, Alex Kilgour, had eluded the net spread for them.

The idea that had launched the hunt for all of the beings who had been close to the Emperor had not originated with Kyes. Possibly it had been the Kraa twins'. It didn't matter. Kyes had immediately seen that it could be a shortcut solution to his own dilemma. Round them all up, put them under the brainscan, and voila! All the Emperor's secrets would come tumbling out.

It had taken many, many months to lash that idea into action. Kyes had done the lashing. His plight was far more desperate than the others. It still amazed him how much inertia had to be overcome when dealing with a five-member ruling board. He and his colleagues were used to running their own shows, without compromise or consultation. But finally, the Mantis teams had gone out and quickly returned, prey kicking and mewling in their nets. The result: Zed. Zero. Not one tip or hint on the source of the AM2... or anything else.

Kyes had analyzed the long list of suspects, and more and more he had come to admire just how close-mouthed the Emperor had been. Although his analysis came after the fact, it became apparent that only a very few beings might be able to help. None of those had been among the Mantis teams' catches. Two individuals stood out.

One was retired Fleet Marshal Ian Mahoney. He was officially listed as dead. Kyes had reason to doubt that. He had several reasons. The most important was the gut feeling he got studying the man.

The Mercury Corps files pertaining to Mahoney revealed an exceedingly canny individual who would have no difficulty at all in staging his own demise and remaining out of sight for as long as he thought necessary. The only flaw Kyes could find was his unwavering loyalty to the Emperor, a flaw that made Mahoney potentially dangerous—if he was alive. Assuming the death was a cover, that could suggest only one motive for Mahoney's actions: The fleet marshal suspected the privy council of assassinating his old employer.

The second most likely suspect was Admiral Sten, a man who had once commanded the Imperial bodyguard, the Gurkhas—who, oddly, had all resigned their positions immediately following the Emperor's death and returned to their homeland of Nepal on Earth. Sten had been an important but shadowy figure during the Tahn conflict. Kyes had also personally reviewed Sten's files. There were enormous gaps. Very strange. Especially since the gaps seemed to have been ordered by the Emperor himself. Adding to Kyes's suspicions was that the man had suddenly become enormously wealthy, as had his companion, Kilgour, although on a lesser scale. Where did all that money come from? Payoffs? From the Emperor, himself, perhaps? For what purpose?

Kyes added one and one and got an instant six: Sten must be among the very few that the Emperor had entrusted with his secrets. When the admiral had been located in his distant exile, Kyes had demanded that a crack team be sent to capture him. He had gotten gilt-edged assurances that only the very best would be sent. Obviously he had been fed a sop. After all, how good could those Mantis beings have actually been? Wiped out by one man? Clot!

Kyes had packed his steel teeth for this meeting. Some heavy ass-chewing was in order.

Out on the street, Kyes spotted three beings in dirty orange robes and bare feet. They were making their way through the motley crowd, handing out leaflets and proselytizing. He couldn't hear what they were saying from the soundproof comfort of his car, but he didn't need to. He knew who they were: members of the Cult of the Eternal Emperor.

All over the Empire, there were countless individuals who firmly believed that the Emperor had not died. A few thought it was a plot by his enemies: The Emperor had been kidnapped and was being kept under heavy guard. Others claimed it was a clever ploy by the Emperor himself: He had deliberately staged his death and was hiding out until his subjects realized just how terribly he was needed. Eventually, he would return to restore order.

The cultists were at the absolute extreme. They believed that the Emperor was truly immortal, that he was a holy emissary of the Holy Spheres, who wore a body for convenience to carry around his glowing soul. His death, they said, was self-martyrdom. An offering to the Supreme Ether for all the sins of his mortal subjects. They also firmly believed in his resurrection. The Eternal Emperor, they preached, would soon return to his benign reign, and all would be well again.

Kyes was a kindred spirit of the cultists. Because he, too, believed the Emperor was alive and would return. Kyes was a business being, who had once disdained all thinking based on wishes rather than reason as a weak prop for his mental and economic inferiors. But that was no longer so. If the Eternal Emperor were truly dead, then Kyes was lost. Therefore, he believed. To think otherwise was to risk madness.

There were ancient tales of his own kind that directly addressed the issue of immortality, or, at least, extremely long life. They were part of a Methuselah legend, based on the fatal flaw of his species.

Kyes—and all of the Grb'chev—were the result of the joining of two distinct life forms. One was the body that Kyes walked about in. It was a tall, handsome, silvery creature, whose chief assets were strength, almost miraculous health, and an ability to adapt to and absorb any life-threatening force. It also was as stupid as a tuber.

The second was visible only by the red splash throbbing at his skull. It once had been nothing more than a simple, hardy life form—which could be best compared to a virus. Calling it a virus, however, would not be accurate, only descriptive. Its strengths were extreme virulence, an ability to penetrate the defensive proteins of any cell it encountered, and the potential for developing intelligence. Its chief weakness was a genetic clock that ticked to a stop at the average age of one hundred and twenty-six years.

Kyes should have been "dead" already, that fine brain nothing more than a small, blackened ball of rotting cells. His body—the handsome frame that performed all the natural functions of the Grb'chev—might continue on for another century or so, but it would be nothing more than a gibbering, drooling shell.