When Kyes had thrown his lot in with the other members of the privy council, it was not power he sought—but rescue. Riches had no attraction to him. It was life he wanted. Intelligent life.

He cared nothing for the AM2, although he whispered not a hint of that to his colleagues. To reveal his weakness would bring his doom. When the Emperor had been slain and the desperate search launched for the source of the Emperor's never-diminishing fuel cache, Kyes had been looking equally as desperately for something else: What made the Eternal Emperor immortal?

At first he had been as sure of finding it in the Emperor's classified archives as the others were of locating the AM2. But it had proved to be equally as elusive.

When the murderous act had been committed, Kyes had been 121 years old. That meant he had just five years to live. Now a little more than six years had passed—and Kyes was still alive!

In the intervening years he had become a near-hysteric about his mental powers, constantly aware of the clock that was running out. Even the smallest lapse of memory sent him into a panic. A forgotten appointment plunged him into black moods difficult to hide from his peers. That was the chief reason he had stayed away from Prime World for so long.

He had no more notion why he continued to live than he had of the Emperor's greatest secret. No being of his species had ever survived beyond the 126-year natural border.

Well, that wasn't absolutely correct. There had been one, according to that myth—the myth of the Grb'chev Methuselah.

It was during the prehistory of the intertwined life-forms that the legend began. All was conflict and chaos during that long, dark era, the story went. Then along came an individual who was entirely different from the others. The being's name had been lost, which put the reality of his actual existence in extreme doubt but made the legend more compelling.

According to the myth, the being declared his immortality while still an adolescent. And in the hundred or more years that followed, he became noted as a wandering thinker and philosopher who confounded the greatest minds of his time. The year of his deathdate, the entire kingdom took up the watch, waiting daily for the heralds to announce his demise. The year passed. Then another. And another. Until his immortality became an accepted fact. That first—and only—long-lived Grb'chev became the ruler of the kingdom. An age of great enlightenment dawned, lasting for many centuries, perhaps a thousand years. From that time on the future of the race was ensured—at least that's what the tale-tellers said.

The last part of the legend was what interested Kyes the most: the prophesy that someday another Methuselah would be born, and that immortal Grb'chev would lead the species to even greater successes.

Lately Kyes wondered if he might be that chosen one.

But this was only during his most hysterical fantasizing. More likely, the extra span he had been allotted was due to nothing more than a small genetic blip. In reality at any moment he would "die."

If he was to have any future, Kyes would have to seize it himself. He would find the secret and become the new savior of his kind.

Kyes looked out the window. The car was moving through a working-class neighborhood of tall, drab tenements facing across a broad avenue. The traffic was mostly on foot. The AM2 squeeze prohibited public transport, much less the boxy little flits favored by the lower middle class. Kyes saw a long line snaking out of a soya shop. A tattered sign overhead pegged the cost at ten credits an ounce. The condition of the sign mocked even that outrageous price.

Two armored cops were guarding the entrance of the shop. Kyes saw a woman exit with a bundle under her arms. The crowd immediately began hooting at her, clawing at the package. One big cop moved tentatively forward. Kyes's car glided on before he saw what happened next.

"... been like that ever since the food riots," the driver was saying. "Course, security costs somethin' fierce, so the prices gotta go up, don't they? But you can't make folks understand that. I was tellin' my hub—"

"What food riots?" Kyes burst through.

"Dincha hear?" The driver craned her neck around, gaping in amazement that a member of the privy council was somehow not in the know.

"I was advised of disturbances," Kyes said. "But not... riots."

"Oh, disturbances,"! the driver said. "Much better'n riots. That's what they was, all right. Disturbances. Musta had twenty, thirty thousand lazy, filthy types disturbin' drakh all over the place. Cops went easy. Didn't kill more'n half a hundred or so. Course, three, four thousand was shot up some and..."

Furious, Kyes tuned out the rest. He had made his views quite plain to his fellow council members. Prime World and all the beings on it were to be handled like gossamer. As the heart of the Empire, it was the last place shortages of any kind should show up. When he had learned of the "disturbances," he had made his views even plainer. But the Kraas and the others assured him that all was well. There had been a few small glitches in the supply system, that was all. The supplies and the peace had been restored. Right! It wasn't the lies that disturbed Kyes so much—he was a master dissembler himself. It was the plain wrongheadedness of the matter.

If the privy council could not keep matters under control a few kilometers from its own front door, how could they possibly succeed in ruling a far-flung Empire? And if they failed, Kyes was doomed to something far worse than any hell they could imagine.

A second immensely irritating factor: If things were really so awful that basic foods were out of the reach of the local populace, then why were the members of the council flaunting their own wealth?

He groaned aloud when he saw, ahead of him, the spire needling up over the tall buildings of the financial district. It was the newly completed headquarters of the privy council.

"Amazin' as clot, ain't it," his driver said, mistaking the groan for a belch of admiration. "You fellas done yourself proud with that buildin'. Nothin' like it on Prime. Specially with the Emperor's old castle wrecked by bombs and all.

"I know yuz ain't seen it yet, but wait'll ya get inside. You got fountains and drakh. With real colored water. And right in the middle they put in this great clottin' tree. Called a rubiginosa, or somethin'. Probably sayin' it wrong. Big mother fig. But the kind you can't eat."

"Who's idea was it?" Kyes asked-dry, noncommittal.

"Dunno. Designer, I think. What was her name? Uh... Ztivo, or somethin' like that. But, boy did she charge an arm and two, three legs. The tree alone's gotta be fifteen, twenty meters tall. Dug it up from someplace on Earth. But they was scared it'ud shrivel up and blow away if they brought here direct, like. So they seasoned it. On three four different planets. Spent a big bundle of credits on it.

"Musta worked. It's goin' crazy in there! Picked up another two meters, I heard, in the last two-three months. Why, that clottin' tree's the pride and joy of Prime World, I tell you. Ask anybody."

As the gravcar slowed, Kyes saw a crowd of beggars push forward. A wedge of club-wielding cops beat them back. Certainly, he thought. Ask anybody. Go right ahead.

The AM2 secretary's report was a dry buzz against glass. On the table before him was a one-third-meter stack of readouts, the result of many months labor. He was reading-syllable by maddening syllable-from a prйcis not much slimmer. His name was Lagguth. But from the glares he was getting from the members of the privy council, it was likely to be changed to something far worse.

Kyes and the others had gathered eagerly around the table. This could possibly be the most important listening session of their lives. So no one objected a whit when Lagguth's aides hauled in the mass of papers. Nor did anyone raise a brow when the preamble went a full hour.

They were in the second hour-a second hour to a group of beings who habitually required their subordinates to sum up all thinking in three sentences or less. If they liked the three sentences, the subordinate could continue. If not, firing was a not indistinct possibility. After the first hour, the AM2 secretary had gone past firing.

Executions were being weighed. Kyes had several nasty varieties in mind himself.

But he had caught a different tone than the rest. There was real fear beneath all that buzz. He caught it in the nervous shufflings and newly habitual tics in Lagguth's mannerisms. Kyes stopped listening for the bottom line and started paying attention to the words. They were meaningless. Deliberate bureaucratic nonsense. That added up to stall. Kyes kept his observation to himself. Instead, he began thinking how he might use it.

The Kraas broke first.

The fat one cleared her throat, sounding like distant thunder, loomed her gross bulk forward, and thrust out a chin that was like a heavy-worlder's fist.

"Yer a right bastard, mate," she said. "Makin' me piles bleed with all this yetcheta yetch. Me sis's arse bones'r pokin' holes in the sitter. Get to it. Or get summun else in to do the gig!"

Lagguth gleaped. But, it was a puzzled sort of a gleap. He knew he was in trouble. Just what not for.

Lovett translated. "Get to the clotting point, man. What's the prog?"

Lagguth took a deep and lonely breath. Then he painted a bright smile on his face. "I'm so sorry, gentle beings," he said. "The scientist in me... tsk... tsk... How thoughtless. In the future I shall endeavor—"

The skinny Kraa growled. It was a shrill sound—and not nice. It had the definite note of a committed carnivore.

"Thirteen months," Lagguth blurted. "And that's an outside estimate."

"So, you're telling us, that although your department has had no luck in locating the AM2, you now have an estimate of when you will find it. Is that right?" Lovett was a great one for summing up the obvious.

"Yes, Sr. Lovett," Lagguth said. "There can be no mistake. Within thirteen months we shall have it." He patted the thick stack of documentation.

"That certainly sounds promising, if true," Malperin broke in. She stopped Lagguth's instinctive defense of his work with a wave of her hand. Malperin ruled an immense, cobbled-together conglomerate. She did not rule it well. But she had more than enough steel in her to keep it as long as she liked.

"What is your opinion, Sr. Kyes?" she asked. Malperin dearly loved to shift discussions along, keeping her own views hidden as long as possible. It was Kyes's recent surmise that she actually had none and was waiting to see which way the wind blew before she alighted.

"First, I would like to ask Sr. Lagguth a question," Kyes said. "A critical one, I believe."

Lagguth motioned for him to please ask.

"How much AM2 do we have on hand right now?"

Lagguth sputtered, then began a long abstract discussion. Kyes cut him off before he even reached the pass.

"Let me rephrase," Kyes said. "Given current usage, current rationing—how long will the AM2 last?"

"Two years," Lagguth answered. "No more."

The answer jolted the room. Not because it was unexpected. But it was like having a death sentence set, knowing exactly at what moment one would cease to exist. Only Kyes was unaffected. This was a situation he was not unused to.

"Then, if you're wrong about the thirteen months..." Malperin began.

"Then it's bleedin' over, mate, less'n a year from then," the skinny Kraa broke in.

Lagguth could do no more than nod. Only Kyes knew why the man was so frightened. It was because he was lying.

No, not about the two-year supply of AM2. It was the first estimate that was completely fabricated. Thirteen months. Drakh! More like never. Lagguth and his department had no more idea where the Emperor had kept the AM2 than when they started more than six years before. Motive for lying? To keep his clotting head on his shoulders. Wasn't that motive enough?

"Stay with the first figure," Kyes purred to the skinny Kraa. "It's pointless to contemplate the leap from the chasm when you have yet to reach the edge."

Both Kraas stared at him. Despite their brutal features, the stares were not unkind. They had learned to depend on Kyes. They had no way of knowing that from the start, his personal dilemma had forced him into the role of moderate.

"Sr. Lagguth believes it will take thirteen months to locate the AM2 source," Kyes said. "This may or may not be the case. But I know how we can be more certain."

"Yeah? How's that?" Lovett asked.

"I have a new mainframe about to go on-line. My scientists have been working on it for a number of years. We developed it specifically as a tool for archivists."

"So?" That was the fat Kraa, the blunter of the two—if that were possible.

"We plan to sell it to governments. It should reduce document search time by forty percent or more."

There were murmurs around the room. They were catching Kyes's drift, and all he was saying was true. If there was a lie, it was only in his real intentions.

"I propose that Sr. Lagguth and I join forces," Kyes said, "assuring us of meeting his stated goal. What do you think? I am quite open to any other suggestions."

There were none. The deal was done.

As for the other matters—the blown Mantis mission to capture the admiral, the terrible conditions Kyes had witnessed on the streets of Prime World—they were left untouched. Kyes had gotten what he wanted.

Only one other thing came up, and this fairly casually.

"About this clottin' two-year supply business," the skinny Kraa said.

"Yes?"

"Me 'n Sis, here, think we oughta try and stretch it."

"More rationing?" Lovett asked. "I think we've just about—"

"Naw. Don't be puttin' words in me mush. Drakh on that."

"What then?"

"We take it."

"From whom?" Kyes could not help but be drawn in by the fascinating discussion.

"Who gives a clot?" the fat Kraa said. "Somebody that's got a whole lot of it, that's who. Can't be that many."

"You mean steal it?" Malperin asked, also fascinated. "Just like that?"

"Why not?" the skinny Kraa said.

Yes. They all agreed. Why not, indeed? 

CHAPTER SIX

Sten's first step, once clear of Smallbridge, was to go to ground. Mahoney had a planned refuge—which Sten rejected. Sten had his own very secure hideout. Where—he hoped—Kilgour, if he had been warned in time, would meet him.

The hideout was Farwestern, and there Sten saw firsthand the effect the dwindling of AM2 and the privy council's incompetence at managing what fuel there was.

Farwestern had been—and to a degree, still was—a shipping hub near the center of a galaxy. At one time it had provided everything a shipper could want—from shipyards to chandleries, recworlds to warehousing, hotels to emergency services, all cluttered in a system-wide assemblage of containers. "Containers" was about the most specific description that could be used, since the entrepreneurs who had gathered around Farwestern used everything from small asteroids to decommissioned and disarmed Imperial warships to house their businesses. Almost anything legal and absolutely anything illegal could be scored in and around Farwestern, including anonymity.