Haines had something different. She had been stalking a contract killer for about a year—a professional. She didn't give a damn about a triggerman, but wanted to know who had hired him. She got him—and with enough evidence concerning the disappearance of a gang boss to get at least an indictment.

The young man evidently agreed with Haines as to the worth of the evidence. He offered to make a deal. Haines thought that a wonderful idea. She might not care, particularly, if underworld types slaughtered each other on a daily basis. But when they kept leaving the bodies out on the street to worry the citizens—then action had to be taken.

The man offered her something better. He confessed that he had killed Volmer. The word had been that the freako was an undercover type. There had been an open contract. The killer had filled it—and then found out later whom he had touched.

Haines wanted to know who had paid. The man named an underworld boss, now deceased. Haines punted him back to his cell, told him to think about corroborative evidence, and tried to figure out what it all meant. The assassin "suicided" in his cell that night.

"That's all she had?"

"That's all she had."

"So who terminated Volmer?"

"Perhaps his brothers on the privy council? Maybe Volmer wasn't going along with the program? I don't know—yet. But there was the first member of the council dead.

"Then Sullamora. Blown up with the Emperor.

"Something funny about that lone hit man, Chapelle. He came out of Spaceport Control. I did a little research on him, as well. Seems he felt the Emperor was after him personally."

"Yeah. I saw the livies, too. A head case."

"He was that. But he was set up to become one. Somebody—somebody who could have played with his career—arranged for him to get his face shoved in it every time he turned around. To this day nobody knows, for instance, why he suddenly lost his job and ended up on bum row.

"Spaceport Control. Ports, shipping—that was Sullamora's responsibility on the privy council. And now he's dead, too."

Sten started to pour himself another drink, then thought better of it and walked to the viewpanel and stared out.

"All right, Mahoney. You've got some interesting things. Maybe. And maybe you're a head case like this Chapelle. Maybe all you've got is that thieves fall out. A Mantis op on his second run could tell you that.

"Fill in the blanks. What happened next? And come to think about it, what happens next?"

Mahoney told them. About the time he had talked to Haines, he had started feeling a bit insecure. The council, he had realized, had not a clue as to the source of AM2. Mahoney thought it was a matter of time before they started rounding up the usual suspects and probing their brains for this had-to-be-somewhere secret.

"Brainscan's an uncomfortable feeling, I understand. Frequently fatal. So I died.

Laundered my investments by somehow getting swindled. Paid the swindler ten percent of the money he stole. Then I drowned. A stupid boating accident. There were whispers that it was because I'd lost my entire fortune."

Dead and invisible, Mahoney went to work. Part and parcel of his research was looking up all his old service friends, anyone who might have had any knowledge of the Emperor.

"Many of them still serve. And most of them think we are heading for absolute chaos unless the council is removed."

Sten and Kilgour exchanged looks. Removed. Yes.

"Then... then we have access to everything the Emperor left on Prime. I know-knew-that man. He would have hidden the secret somewhere. Hell, for all I know, in one of those glue pots he used trying to make a gutter."

"Guitar," Sten corrected absently.

"Because that's the only chance we have," Mahoney said. "Probably you were right. Probably I am quite mad believing the Emperor will return. Maybe that he ever did. Indulge an old man's eccentricity.

"But if someone does not do something-this Empire, which maybe it's done things wrong, and even some evils, has still held civilization together for two millennia and longer.

"If nothing's done, it will all vanish in a few lifetimes."

Sten was looking closely at Mahoney-a not especially friendly look.

"So you get me out of harm's way, get word to Kilgour. And all you want in return is for us to kill the five beings who happen to rule the known universe."

Mahoney chose not to see the sarcasm. "Exactly. No impeachments. No trials. No confusion. Which is why I wanted you, Sten. This is the linchpin to the whole operation. You've done it before. In clean, out clean-with five bodies behind you."

Sten and Alex sat, wordless, staring out the plate into deep space. They had told Mahoney they had to talk, then thrown him out of their quarters. There had not been much talk. They had capped the alk and called for caff.

Sten ordered his thoughts. Could he somehow take out the privy council? Yes, his Mantis arrogance said. Maybe. It was the "out clean" that bothered him. Sten had always agreed with his first basic sergeant, who had said he wanted soldiers who would "help the soldier on the other side die for his country."

The privy council had tried to kill him-and probably grabbed all of his wealth and pauperized him as well. So? Credits were not important. They could be made as well as lost. As far as the killing-once the shooting had stopped, Sten, who prided himself as being a professional, had bought narcobeers for his ex-enemies on many occasions.

Were the privy council members evil—which would somehow justify their deaths? Define evil, he thought. Evil is... what does not work.

Thus, another list:

Was the privy council incompetent? Certainly. Especially if one believed what Mahoney had said. Once more, So? The worlds Sten had lived in, from Vulcan to the Imperial Military itself, were more often than not governed by incompetents.

The Empire was running down. For a third time, So? Sten, veteran of a hundred battles and a thousand-plus worlds, could not visualize that amorphous thing called an Empire.

Another list. This time, a short one.

All Sten had known—like his father and his father before him—was The Eternal Emperor. That, in fact, was what Sten thought of when he considered the Empire.

He had sworn an oath. Sworn it twice, in fact. "...to defend the Eternal Emperor and the Empire with your life... to obey lawful orders given you and to honor and follow the traditions of the Imperial Guard as the Empire requires." The first had been administered after he had been cold-cocked by Mahoney, eons before, back on Vulcan. But he had retaken the oath when they had commissioned him.

And he had meant it.

If the council members had tried to kill the Emperor—and failed—would he have considered it his duty to hunt them down and, if necessary, kill them? Of course. And did he believe the privy council had killed the Emperor? Yes. Absolutely.

He thought of an old Tahn proverb: "Duty is heavier than lead, death lighter than a feather." It did not help.

That oath still stood, as did the duty. Sten felt somewhat embarrassed. He looked across at Kilgour and cleared his throat. Such were not things to be said aloud.

Kilgour was avoiding Sten's glance. "Ae course, thae's th' option ae findin't ae deep, rich hole, pullin' it in behind us, an' lettin' the universe swing," he said suddenly.

"I'd just as soon not spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder."

"Y'lack confidence, lad. We c'd do't. Nae problem. But if we did, m'mither'd nae hae aught to brag on, come market day. So. Empire-topplin' it is? Sten?"

Sten managed a grin. Better this way. Let the real reasons stay inside. He stuck out his hand.

"Nae, we c'n gie lushed wi' a clear conscience," Kilgour sighed. He groped for a bottle.

"Ah noo ken whae Ah nae lik't thae livies. Here's a braw decision made. In ae hotel flat by a fat man dressed like ae commercial traveller an' a wee lad resemblin't ae gig'lo. Nae a sword, gleamin't armor or wavin't banner amongst us, Whae a world." He drank.

"Nae. How filthy d' we scrag thae' bastards?" So Sten and Kilgour went into partnership with an ex-Fleet Marshal who both of them considered, privately, was a bit round the bend. 

CHAPTER SEVEN

The man stared at the screen. His hands remained folded in his lap.

"You have not begun the test," the Voice—for he had begun to capitalize it in his mind—accused.

"What happens if I fail to obey?"

"Information will not be provided. Begin the test."

"I shall not."

"Do you have a reason?"

"I have already taken it. Three—no, four sleep periods ago."

"That is correct. Test complete."

The screen blanked.

"All test results have been assimilated. Subject determined within acceptable parameters," the Voice said. Very odd. It was the first time It had spoken as if to someone other than the man.

"You are ready for the next stage," It told him.

"I have some questions."

"You may ask. Answers may or may not be provided."

"I am on a ship. Is there anyone else on board?"

"No."

"You are a synthesized voice?"

"Self-evident."

"You said moments ago that I was... within acceptable parameters. What would have happened were I not?"

"Answer determined not to be in your best interests."

"I shall try another way. What constraints did your programmer limit you to?"

"Answers determined not to be in your best interests."

"Thank you. You answered, however. Another question. Who programmed you?"

Silence except for ship hum.

"Answer will become self-evident within a short period of time," the Voice said finally. "Those are questions enough."

A previously sealed panel opened.

"You will enter that passage. At its end will be a ship. You will board and prepare yourself for takeoff. You may issue two orders, if you feel you know the answers. If you do not, recommendations will be offered.

"First. Should the machines be reactivated?"

"What machines?"

"The recommendation is that they should—given recent circumstances."

"Recommendation accepted. I guess."

"Second. Should transshipment begin? The recommendation is it should not until you progress further."

"Accepted. Transshipment of what? And whatever it is, how do I communicate with you?"

"Both answers will become self-evident. Proceed to the ship now."

The man walked down the passageway. At the end, as promised, was the entryway to a small ship. He entered.

Again, the ship was constructed for one person.

He seated himself in a reclining couch. Behind him, the hatch slid shut. He felt motion: stardrive.

"This is a final communication," the Voice said suddenly. "There are four separate automated navigation systems on this ship. Each of them is preset for a different destination. On reaching each destination that system will self-destruct and the next system will activate.

"Do not be alarmed.

"Do not attempt to interfere with this system.

"Your final destination and debarkation point will be obvious.

"Good-bye. Good luck."

The man jolted. The fine hair at the back of his neck lifted.

Good luck? From a machine? 

CHAPTER EIGHT

The Honjo were a small but firmly committed culture of traders. Their antecedents went back to the early days of the Empire. They populated a system some light-years from Durer, the site of one of the famous Tahn war battles. Their home base was a less than desirable cluster of stars and planets with little in the way of commercially important resources.

This was no hindrance to the Honjo. Their distant, oceangoing ancestors had plied the island trades, and they were ancient masters at the art of playing middlebeing for any product. Their ships were of their own design, although constructed in the factories Sullamora had once owned. They were light, a bit boxy, and made up for lack of speed by being able to deal with just about any atmosphere where there might be goods to buy or sell.

The Honjo were also among the most frugal beings in the Empire. Since their resources were so few, they stockpiled and guarded them jealously. Especially AM2.

That had been a minor source of irritation to the Eternal Emperor from time to time. Since the price was pegged on supply—which he controlled—he was always just a bit touchy about the large amount they kept squirreled away. Whenever he let the price drop, the Honjo were the first in line to buy more. But it was only a petty irritation, and after wrangling with the thickheaded beings a few times, he let it slide. The Emperor had learned that it was usually best to ignore eccentrics. The Honjo performed well as traders, they were mostly honest, and their system was so small as to be nearly meaningless.

One other thing about the Honjo. They were always quite willing to take offense. Especially when it involved what they perceived as their own property. In short, if pressed, they would fight. They tended not to think about the odds.

When the privy council considered the Honjo, they were all in agreement: When it came to larceny, the Kraas had chosen well.

"Me'n Sis sussed it out," the fat Kraa said. "The stingy clots keep it stashed in one place. So, all we's gotta do is send in a fleet. Blow the drakh out of 'em. 'N it's home again, home again, with enough AM2 keep us goin' for more'n a bit."

"I don't think we ought to be that direct," Malperin objected.

"No? Why the clot not? Them Honjo's right bastards, and everyone knows it!"

"Good plan, just a touch short on diplomacy," Lovett chuckled.

Kyes noted that the energy level in the room was far higher than it had been the last time. Was it just because action—any kind of action at all—was contemplated? Or was it the thought of armed robbery that was so energizing? Kyes and his fellow businessbeings had participated in countless forms of theft in their long careers. But it was always on paper—kept at a distance, with at least a cloak of respectability thrown over it by their legions of legal experts. This was real! And, Kyes had to admit, extremely exciting. He was as susceptible to the excitement as the rest.

"Try it this way," he said. "We send enough ships to do the job, just as our colleagues proposed. Except, we send one small craft far out ahead. Something lightly armed. And not too expensive...

"Then, we have the ship deliberately violate the Honjo cluster's borders."

"That'll piss 'em, sure," the skinny Kraa said. She liked where he was going. "Then we just waggle our arses, make 'em shoot..."

"And we retaliate! And boom! It's ours!" Lovett finished.

Everyone was pleased with the plan. Oddly, the Kraas had an important caution.

"We need a bleedin' alibi," the fat one said. "So's it don't look too planned out, if yer get me drift."

They did indeed.

"Perhaps we should stage some kind of economic summit?" Malperin suggested. They had never had one before-there was not much economy to contemplate-but they understood the connection.

"Here's what we do," Malperin said. "And we can achieve two goals at once. It's about time for a little good news."

There were murmurs of agreement about the table. The situation was deteriorating so quickly they were all afraid to look it straight in the eye. But as system after system drifted away from their grasp, it always remained at the edge of their vision, like a recurrent nightmare.