Years earlier Sten and Alex, on one of their Mantis team missions, had run through Farwestern. They found its cheerful anarchy to their liking. Most especially, they fell in love with a small planetoid named Poppajoe. Poppajoe was jointly owned by a pair of rogues named Moretti and Manetti. Having acquired fortunes elsewhere under almost certainly shadowy circumstances, they had discovered Farwestern and decided that there was their home. The question was: what service could they provide that wasn't available? The answer was luxury and invisibility.
They reasoned that there would be beings passing through who would want to be well taken care of and might prefer that their presence not be broadcast. This applied to criminals as well as to executives on their way to make a deal best kept secret until the stock manipulations were complete.
Moretti and Manetti had thrived in peace. In the recent war they had doubled their fortunes. Now times were a little hard. Not bad enough to drive them under, but ticklish. They survived because they were owed so many favors by so many beings, from magnates to tramp skippers.
There were still people who needed the shadows. Moretti and Manetti catered to them. All room entrances were individual. Guests could dine publicly, or remain in their suites. Privacy was guaranteed. Their food was still the finest to be found—fine and simple, from Earth-steak to jellied hypoornin served in its own atmosphere and gravity.
When Sten and Kilgour had run across Poppajoe, they had made a very quiet resolution that if things ever got Very Very Hairy, this would be their private rendezvous point.
As Sten's ship entered the Farwestern system, neither he nor Mahoney looked particularly military. As a matter of fact, neither looked particularly anything.
Beings frequently go to too much trouble when they decide, for whatever reason, that they would rather not be recognized as themselves. All that is necessary—unless the person is unfortunately gifted with the face of a matinee idol or an abnormal body—is to appear (A) unlike who they really are; and (B) like no one in particular. Dress neither poorly nor expensively. Eat what everyone else is eating. Travel neither first class nor steerage. Try to become that mythical entity, the average citizen. Mercury Corps called the tactic, for some unknown reason, a "Great Lorenzo."
Sten and Mahoney were now businessmen, successful enough for their corporation to have provided them with fuel and a ship, but not so successful that they had their own pilot, and the ship was a little rundown at the edges. Three days' work at a smuggler's conversion yard had turned Sten's gleaming white yacht into just another commercial/private—but only as long as no one looked at the engines or the com room, or figured out that some of the compartments were much tinier than they should have been, and that behind those bulkheads were enough arms to outfit a small army.
Mahoney had worried that the ship could be traced by its numbers. Sten was glad to find that his ex-boss did not know everything. The ship and every serial-numbered item on it was trebly sterile—another product of Sten's professional paranoia that was now paying off.
So they arrived on Poppajoe and were greeted by Messrs. Moretti and Manetti as if they were both long-lost cousins and complete but respected strangers.
Poppajoe may have been surviving, but Farwestern was not. Commercial travel was a trickle. Between the fuel shortages and the cutbacks in the military, even Imperial ships were a rarity. A lot of orbital stations had sealed their ports, and their people had gone dirtside to one of Farwestern's planets or moved on.
"But we will make it," Moretti explained. "We're like the old mining town that struck it rich. A group of йmigrйs moved in and discovered that no one likes to do his own washing. They were willing to provide the services. Eventually the minerals played out and the miners headed for the next strike. However, the laundrybeings stayed—and all became millionaires doing each other's laundry."
He found that quite funny. Sten did not. What he saw, and had seen from the time he and Mahoney had fled Smallbridge, was the slow grinding down of the Empire. He had felt it going on even in his isolation on Smallbridge, but witnessing it was another thing. Beingkind was pulling in its horns—or was being forced to. Entropy was well and good as a thermodynamic principle. As a social phenomenon it was damned scary.
Mahoney gave him as big a picture as he could—which was hardly complete, he admitted. Worlds, systems, clusters, even some galaxies had slipped out of contact. By choice, rejecting the hamwitted leadership of the council? By war? By—barely conceivable—disease?
As Sten well knew, AM2 had been the skein holding the Empire together. Without the shattering energy release of Anti-Matter Two, star drives were almost impossible to power. And of course, since AM2 had been very inexpensive—price determined by the Emperor—and fairly available—depending on the Emperor, once more—it was easy to take the lazy way out and run anything and everything on the substance. Interstellar communications... weaponry... factories... manufacturing... the list ran on.
When the Emperor was murdered the supply of AM2 stopped. Sten had found that hard to swallow the first time Mahoney had said it. He was still having trouble. Back on Smallbridge, he had assumed that the privy council—for profiteering reasons of their own, as well as base incompetency—had merely been keeping the supply at a trickle.
"Not true," Mahoney had said. "They haven't a clue to where the goodies are. That's why the council wanted to pick you up—and anybody else who might've had a private beer with the Emperor—then gently loosen your toenails until you told them The Secret."
"They're clottin' mad."
"So they are. Consider this, boy. The entire universe is bonkers," Mahoney said. "Except for me and thee. Heh... heh... heh... and I'm slippin' away slowly if you don't find a bottle and uncap it."
Sten followed orders. He drank—heavily—from the bottle before handing it to Ian.
"Ring down for another one. If your prog circuits are DNCing now, it will get far worse."
Again, Sten followed orders.
"Okay, Mahoney. We are now on the thin edge."
Mahoney chortled. "Not even close yet, boy. But proceed."
There was a tap at the door. "Y'r order, sir."
Mahoney was on his feet, a pistol snaking out of his sleeve. "A little too efficient." He moved toward the door.
"Relax, Fleet Marshal," Sten said dryly. "It's open, Mr. Kilgour."
After a pause, the door came open, and Alex entered pushing a drink tray and wearing a disappointed expression.
"Did I noo hae y'goin't frae e'en a second?" he asked hopefully.
"You gotta do something about the way you talk, man."
"Thae's some think it charmin'," Alex said, mock-hurt.
Sten and Alex looked at one another.
"How close did they get to you?" Sten asked.
Kilgour told them of the near-ambush and the battle in the icy streets.
"Ah'm assum't," he said, "frae the fact th' warnin' wae in gen'ral code, nae whae Sten and I hae set up, y're responsible f'r tippin' me th' wink."
"I was," Mahoney said.
"Ah'm also assum't, sir, thae's reason beyon' y'r fas'nation wi' m' girlish legs an' giggle. Who d'ye want iced?"
"Quick thinking, Mr. Kilgour. But sit down. You too, Admiral. The debriefing—and the plan—will take awhile. You'll guess the target—correction, targets—as I go along. The suspense will be good for you."
Mahoney began with what had happened to him from the day of the Emperor's funeral, when he had looked at the Council of Five standing on the grassy knoll that was the Emperor's grave and knew that he was looking at five assassins.
He hesitated, then told them the impossible part. After the funeral, he had gone into the Emperor's study, dug out a bottle of the vile swill the Emperor called Scotch, and planned a quiet, private farewell toast. Stuck to the bottle was a handwritten note:
"Stick around, Ian. I'll be right back."
It was in the handwriting of the Eternal Emperor.
Mahoney stopped, expecting complete disbelief. He got it, masked on both men's faces by expressions of bright interest—and a slow shift by Sten toward Mahoney's gun-hand.
"That's—very interesting, Fleet Marshal. Sir. How do you suppose it got there? Are you saying the man who got assassinated was a double?"
"No. That was the Emperor."
"So he somehow survived getting shot a dozen or so times and then being blown up?"
"Don't clot around, Sten. He was dead."
"Ah. Soo he ris't oot'n th' grave't' leave ye a wee love note?"
"Again, no. He must've left instructions with one of the Gurkhas. Or a palace servant. I asked. Nobody knew anything."
"Let's ignore how the note got there for a sec, Ian. Are you listening to what you've just been saying? Either you're mad—or else you've joined up with that cult that goes around saying the Emperor has lived forever. And remembering six years plus is a long time for you just to be sticking around. Which is how long it's been."
"Neither one—or maybe I am bonkers. But will you keep listening?"
" 'Mought's well. Whae's time't' a clottin' hog?" Kilgour said. He poured himself a drink of quill—but still kept a wary eye on Mahoney.
Mahoney went on. He had made his own plans that day. He was going after the privy council.
"Did you consider maybe they'd think you were the type to carry a grudge?" Sten asked.
"I did—and covered my ass."
Mahoney put in for early retirement. The privy council, in the mad rush to get rid of the bloated and incredibly expensive military after the Tahn wars, was more than willing to let anyone and everyone out, few questions asked. Sten nodded—that was exactly how he and Kilgour had been able to slip into retirement and obscurity.
The council was especially happy to be rid of Mahoney, who was not only the Emperor's best-loved Fleet Marshal, architect of victory, but also once head of Mercury Corps—Imperial Intelligence—for many, many years.
"But I didn't want them to think I was going to create any mischief. I found a cover."
Mahoney's cover, loudly announced, was that he planned to do a complete biography of the Eternal Emperor, the greatest man who ever lived. That plan fit quite well into the council's martyr-building.
"What I was, of course, doing was building my stone bucket. Hell if I knew what I would do with it—but I had to do it."
Mahoney dived into the archives—he planned to spend a year or so researching The Early Years. By then he figured the council would have lost interest in him, and he could go for the real target. A little sheepishly, he told Sten and Alex that he had always loved raw research. Maybe—if things had been different, and he had not come from a military family—he would have ended up poking through archives trying to figure out The Compleat History of the Fork. Or something.
He was not the first, the hundredth, or the millionth person to bio the Emperor. But he discovered something interesting. All of the bios were crocks.
"So what?" Sten asked, disinterested. "If you were up there on the right hand of God, wouldn't you want everybody to make nice on you?"
"That is not what I meant." Mahoney said. He had seen a pattern. Biographers were encouraged to write about the Emperor. However, they were mostly of the type who would work hard to either find Deep-seated Humanity in Tamerlane, or else write a psychological biography of the poet Homer.
"Let's say there might have been a great number of sloppy historians. But somehow their work was still encouraged. They won the big contracts. Their fiche were picked up for the livies. And so on and so forth.
"I'm telling you, lads, no one was really encouraged to look at source material—what hasn't somehow, and I quote, vanished in the mists of time, end quote."
"So what was our late leader trying to hide?"
"Damned near everything, from where he came from to how he got where he is. You might spend a lifetime daring insanity trying to make sense out of the seventeen or eighteen thousand versions of events, each of them seemingly given the Emperor's imprimatur.
"I'll just mention two of the murkiest areas, besides where the clot the AM2 is. First is that the son of a bitch is—or was, anyway, immortal."
"Drakh. No such animal."
"Believe it. And the second thing is—he's been killed before."
"But you just said—"
"I know what I just said. He's died before. Been killed. Various ways. Several accidents. At least two assassinations."
"And you won't accept a double."
"I will not. But here is what happened, at least concerning the incidents I was able to document: First, the Emperor dies. Second, there is, immediately afterward, a big goddamned explosion, destroying the body and anything around. Just like that bomb that went off after Chapelle killed the Emperor."
"Every one I can find. And then—the AM2 stops. Wham. Just like that.
"Then the Emperor comes back. As does the AM2. And things start back to normal."
"Ian, now you've got me playing loony games on your turf," Sten said. "Okay. How long does he usually vanish? Not that I am believing one damned word of what you are saying."
Mahoney looked worried. "Accident—perhaps three or four months. Murder—as long as a year or two. Maybe time enough for people to realize how much they need him."
"Six years an' more hae gone noo," Alex pointed out.
"But you still believe the Eternal Emperor is gonna appear in a pink cloud or some kind of clottin' seashell in the surf and the world will be happy and gay once more?" Sten scoffed.
"You don't believe me," Mahoney said, pouring himself a drink. "Would it help if I let you go through the files? I have them hidden away."
"No. I still wouldn't believe you. But set that aside. What else did you get?"
"I worked forward. And I got lucky, indeed. Remember your friend Haines?"
Sten did. She had been a homicide cop, and she and Sten had been up to their elbows unraveling the strange assassination plot that had inadvertently sparked the recent Tahn wars. She and Sten had also been lovers.
"She's still a cop. She's still on Prime. Homicide chief now," Mahoney told Sten.
He had gone to her for permission to access the files on Chapelle, the Emperor's assassin. He'd had the highest clearances—volume one of the biography had been published to great acclaim. "Complete tissue, of course," he assured them.
"Anyway, your Haines. She's still as honest as ever, boy."
Mahoney had asked some questions—and one day Haines had gotten the idea that the ex-Intelligence head was not in his dotage, indulging a private passion.
"She said the only reason she was doing it is because you'd spoken well of me. For a, ahem, clottin' general. You remember a young lad named Volmer?"
Sten did. Volmer was a publishing baron—or, more correctly, the waffling heir to a media empire. Part of the privy council. Murdered one night outside a tawdry ambisexual cruising bar in the port city of Soward. The released story was that he had been planning a series on the corruption around the war effort. A more cynical—and popular—version was that Volmer liked his sex rough and strange and had picked up the wrong hustler.