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The Emperor Finn had invited Joseph Wallace to join him for dinner, so of course Joseph Wallace went; but he wasn’t at all happy about it. Not least because invited wasn’t really the right word. It was much more like commanded, with distinct overtones of or else. Joseph spent a long and anxious time wondering what he could have done to be singled out for such an honor. People rarely got to see Finn socially these days, and of those who did, it had been noted that a significant number tended not to come back. No one ever asked what happened to the bodies. It wasn’t wise, or healthy. But one couldn’t say no when the Emperor said yes, and there wasn’t any point in running, so Joseph sucked it in, put on his best bib and tucker, made sure all his affairs were in order and that his will was up-to-date, and went to the palace.

The court and the Imperial Palace weren’t what they used to be. There was an air of doom and decay and even purposeful neglect to the place of late, and Joseph’s skin prickled and crawled as he walked the darkened corridors. Most of the lights weren’t working, and some had been openly smashed. There were guards everywhere, standing stiffly to attention at every other door and break in the corridors, all of them Church Militant fanatics in full body armor. They wore swords and guns, and watched Joseph pass with hot, suspicious eyes. As the official head of the Church Militant and Pure Humanity, Joseph shouldn’t have had anything to worry about, but he knew better than to try his limited authority here. These were Finn’s creatures, loyal in body and soul, sworn to live and die in his service. He was their father, their only love, their adored god.

Even so, there were still security cameras and all kinds of sensors tucked away in every nook and cranny, watching the guards as well as the corridors they guarded.

Things grew worse the farther in Joseph went, and his breathing grew fast and shallow as he followed the familiar path to the dark heart of the new court. There were severed heads nailed over doorways, stinking of cheap preservatives. Joseph thought he recognized a few of the faces. Once he passed a row of hanged men, with blackened faces and protruding tongues, the nooses sunk deeply into the stretched necks. The last one was still swaying slightly. Unexplained bloodstains smeared the floor and walls, as though some monstrous dog had been marking its territory. And sometimes there were screams, and other disturbing sounds. All symbols of the Emperor’s power and authority, and perhaps his state of mind.

Joseph walked on through the shadowy passages, carefully looking neither left nor right, and just the discipline of doing so meant he was sweating hard by the time he reached what had once been King Douglas’s private quarters, since commandeered by the Emperor Finn for his own use. Two large and muscular guards at Finn’s door put Joseph through a full body search with handheld scanners before reluctantly letting him pass. They knocked on the door for him, and pushed it open. The smell of a good dinner wafted out, but Joseph didn’t feel any less uneasy. He took a deep breath, arranged his features becomingly, and walked as casually as he could manage into the lair of the Beast.

The reception room was unfurnished except for the dinner table, and the surroundings were practically austere. No visible comforts or luxuries anywhere. The floor was polished wood, no carpeting, and the walls were bare. The lighting had been turned down only pleasantly low, and the table was covered with all kinds of food and wine, with settings for two. Joseph allowed himself to relax just a little. It seemed he was expected to last the length of the meal, at least. Finn came around the table to meet him, smiling warmly.

“Joseph, dear old thing, right on time! Dinner’s ready, come on and tuck in! And when dinner’s done, we’ll have a nice little chat, yes?”

Any appetite Joseph might have had disappeared with those last words, but he smiled bravely as Finn took him by the arm and led him to his place at table. Finn chattered on amiably enough, about nothing in particular, while Joseph examined the dishes laid out before him. It all looked very good, enough to make even an experienced gourmand like Joseph sit up and take notice. His mouth actually began to water a little. He unfolded his napkin, still bearing the old Campbell family crest, and allowed Finn to pile up both their plates with a little of this and a lot of that. The Emperor finally settled down into his chair, facing Joseph across the table, and gestured imperiously. A nondescript little man in a page’s outfit appeared out of nowhere, and Joseph jumped despite himself. Finn chuckled easily.

“Relax, Joseph; he’s just the food taster. The kitchen has all the latest scanners, but a wise man doesn’t place all his faith in tech. My taster checks everything before I try it. Marvelous fellow. He’s a clone I had specially made from a famous chef, able to identify every ingredient from the merest taste, and preprogrammed with knowledge of every poison in the Empire. Doesn’t leave much room in his brain for anything else, but we all have to make sacrifices. Well, everyone but me, naturally.”

The food taster tried a little bit of everything from Finn’s plate, considered for a moment, and then bowed and left the room as silently as he had arrived. Joseph looked at the food on his plate.

“Isn’t he going to taste mine?”

“Don’t be silly, Joseph,” said Finn. “Who’d care if you got poisoned?”

“But . . . you are our beloved Emperor!”

Finn raised an eyebrow. “I said relax, Joseph. You’re not in public now. Feel free to speak your mind on all things.”

Yeah, right, thought Joseph, but had enough sense not to say it out loud.

They ate for a while in silence, Joseph studying his Emperor as closely as he thought he could get away with. Finn looked as robust and handsome as ever, in good health, and certainly there was nothing wrong with his appetite. He smiled frequently, clearly enjoying his food. He used his fingers as often as his cutlery, stuffing the food into his mouth. Joseph didn’t even try to keep up. The main meat course in particular took a lot of chewing. The meat’s flavor was pleasant enough, but unfamiliar. Joseph cleared his plate finally and considered a second helping, and Finn was right there, piling up his plate again.

“Good, isn’t it?” Finn said cheerfully. “Enjoy it while you can; supply is limited.”

“It’s a bit gamey,” said Joseph, chewing thoughtfully. “I can’t say I recognize it. Is it some new import?”

Finn grinned. “You could say that.”

“What is it?”

“More like who, actually. We’re dining on the last of the alien ambassador from Chanticleer. He’s lasted quite a while. I’ve had him roasted, fried, and broiled. I think fried was best; went very well in a nice bed of rice.”

Joseph’s stomach churned, and it was all he could do to keep his face calm. There had been rumors about what had happened to the bodies of all the alien ambassadors Finn had executed, but . . . He stabbed a medium-sized piece with his fork, and ate it carefully. Finn was watching. Joseph swallowed the mouthful eventually, and poured himself more wine with a steady hand. Finn was still chattering away.

“I’ve eaten at least some of all the ambassadors. Seemed a pity to let them go to waste, and I do so love new experiences. In this job, you have to take your fun where you can get it. I think the Trall’Chai was the worst, though I tried it with every seasoning I could think of. You just can’t help some people.”

The meal ground interminably on, through many courses, including a pudding so sweet and sticky that Joseph couldn’t force down more than a few mouthfuls before giving up, but eventually the meal came to an end. Finn summoned servants to clear the table, and then got up and escorted Joseph into the next room, which was just as austere, if not actually spartan. Finn poured two large glasses of brandy, and saw Joseph settled into one of the oversized chairs in front of the fireplace before sitting down himself. Joseph sipped his brandy cautiously and waited for the other shoe to drop.

“At ease, Joseph,” Finn said finally. “You’re not here to be reprimanded or punished. I’m actually very pleased with you. My people tell me you’re doing an excellent job as my First Minister. Firm discipline, clear policy with no exceptions, and lots of purges to keep everyone on their toes. It must keep you very busy, though, being in charge of the Church Militant, Pure Humanity, and the Transmutation Board. Are you sure I’m not working you too hard? I could always have some of your responsibilities passed on to someone else . . .”

“No, thank you, Your Majesty,” Joseph said quickly. Power and influence were the only ways to keep safe these days, and Joseph had no intention of giving up any of it. There’s no one more dangerous than an ambitious second-in-command. “I am happy to serve Your Majesty to the full extent of my abilities.”

“Are you? That’s really very sweet of you, Joseph. And do call me Finn. No need for all that formality among friends in private. Of course, if you ever slip up in public I’ll have your nuts off in a trice. Standards have to be maintained. Where was I? Oh, yes . . . you’re here, Joseph, because I need someone to talk to. Someone on my level, that I can be frank and open with, without reducing them to hysterics, or having to have them executed afterwards. After all, what’s the point in achieving things, or triumphing over your enemies, if you haven’t got anyone to boast about it to? Gloating’s very little fun on your own.

“I used to have Brett Random and Rose Constantine, and later Tel Markham; but they all ran away and left me on my own. Never did understand why. And after all I did for them, the ungrateful little shits . . . They betrayed my trust. You wouldn’t do that, would you, Joseph? No, you’re not the sort to frighten easily. I feel I could talk to you, tell you things I couldn’t tell anyone else. You should know better than most, there’s no fun in doing awful things unless you have someone around who can appreciate the subtleties.”

And Joseph Wallace, who, as head of the Transmutation Board had wiped out whole species of aliens for being too intelligent, nodded and allowed that he did indeed understand better than most. Still . . .

“You are the Emperor,” Joseph said cautiously. “Surely there must be any number of people you work with who could—”

“Zealots and fanatics are no fun at all,” Finn said firmly. “Far too polite, and no sense of humor. Now, you sit and listen while I talk, and we’ll get along famously. Try and chime in with the odd appreciative comment from time to time.”

So Finn talked and Joseph listened, and rather to his surprise Joseph was genuinely fascinated. There was a lot more going on inside Finn’s head than most people ever realized.

Finn had made himself Emperor because it amused him. Partly because now he was greater than King Douglas had ever been, and partly to rub everyone’s nose in the fact that he was in charge now, and had absolutely no intention of sharing power with anyone. And yet, now that he was Emperor, Finn was just a bit at a loss as to where to go next. He lived in austere, almost spartan surroundings, with only the most basic comforts because lesser pleasures just didn’t do it for him anymore. He still satisfied his various appetites to excess, wherever possible, but they were fleeting things. Only power and success really pleased him now, and power was an addictive drug. The more you had, the more you wanted.

And, much to Finn’s chagrin, instead of tearing down the Empire and pissing on its ruins, as he’d always intended, Finn now spent most of his time working hard to keep the Empire strong and united, so that it could fend off the coming Terror. Finn had always understood about priorities.

Joseph knew all about the Terror. Knew a great deal more than most, in fact, which was why he slept so badly. The Emperor had raised him to the highest level of importance in what remained of the civil government, which meant Joseph saw all the latest reports on the Terror as they came in. The bad news was that the Terror was still coming, and the Empire had no way of stopping it. The good news . . . well, there wasn’t any good news. They couldn’t tell the people that, so Joseph made lots of public appearances, saying vague and reassuring things in a loud and confident voice. (The Emperor didn’t go out in public much anymore, rather to the civil government’s relief. The Emperor couldn’t be trusted to stick to the script these days, and some of his casual remarks could be downright distressing.)

“Do you have any family, Joseph?” Finn said suddenly.

Joseph’s heart jumped painfully in his chest. Any other time, he would have taken a question like that as a veiled threat, with emotional blackmail lurking eagerly in the wings, but Finn seemed genuinely interested in the answer.

“I have a wife, a mistress, two sons,” said Joseph. “The usual.”

“Ah,” said Finn sadly. “I have no one. I was an only child, and my parents died young. I always thought that was very selfish of them. There was a time when Douglas and Lewis were my family, in as much as anyone was . . . I didn’t think I’d miss them, but I do, sometimes . . . Tell me about the sightings, Joseph. The Deathstalker sightings.”

“Just gossip,” Joseph said easily. “There are rumors, but nothing worth listening to. People saying they knew someone who claims to have seen Lewis walking the streets of the Parade of the Endless. Or sometimes it’s Owen, or one of the other legends. It’s always a friend of a friend who sees these things; nothing you can pin down.”

“Not anymore,” said Finn. “Two of my Paragons have been killed, right here in the city. And the word is, a Deathstalker did it.”

“Impossible,” Joseph said quickly. “My people have this planet sewn up tight. There isn’t a ship that even passes by that we don’t know everything about. Can’t you ask the ELFs controlling the Paragons who did it?”

“The possessor was the uber-esper Screaming Silence,” said Finn, his mouth moving briefly in a moue of distaste. “And unfortunately none of the uber-espers are talking to me at the moment. This would worry me if I was the worrying sort, so it’s just as well that I’m not. Besides, Lewis wouldn’t sneak back in. Not his style. He’d think it was beneath him, the fool. No, he’d send a formal challenge first, and a chance to surrender honorably. He never did understand the possibilities in treachery. Lewis has his own fleet now, after the debacle on Haden, and when they come calling we’ll all know about it.”

Joseph was surprised to hear Finn discuss the matter so calmly. When the Emperor first learned that the fleet he’d sent to Haden to kill Lewis and his companions had not only failed to do so, but had actually gone over to the rebels’ side en masse, people could hear the Emperor screaming his rage all over the palace. Servants had run for their lives, and even some of the guards. Finn had only just started to come down when reports came in that his supposed allies, the AIs of Shub, had also betrayed him and seized control of the Madness Maze, and that had set him off again. The purges that followed had been particularly vicious and far-reaching, and next morning all over the city there were men and women hanging from lampposts.

Finn took in Joseph’s anxious face, and laughed quietly. “Don’t panic, I’m over that now. The loss of Shub is a set-back, but I had made plans, just in case. I have secret allies and hidden super-weapons, just waiting for my call. I’ll blast the Shub homeworld into so much radioactive dust, and my loyal fleet will blow the rebel ships apart like so many rotten apples in the night.”

Joseph nodded quickly. With anyone else, he would have dismissed such talk as mere bravado, but this was Finn. The master of schemes within schemes, and secrets within conspiracies. He might just mean it. Greatly daring, Joseph raised what was normally a forbidden subject.

“And . . . Owen? Do you really believe the reports? That the blessed Owen himself has returned, and joined with his descendant against you?”

“I ask you,” said Finn. “Does that even sound likely?

Dead is dead. I should know; I’ve ordered the deaths of millions of people, and none of them have ever come back to complain. It’s just rebel propaganda. Wish I’d thought of it first . . .”

“Only . . . there are rumors,” Joseph said carefully. “Entirely unconfirmed reports, of course, but still . . . there are those who say that the blessed Owen himself has taken control of the fleet over Haden . . .”

“If Owen Deathstalker really was back,” said Finn, “we’d know. He wouldn’t need a fleet. He’d be right here, banging on my palace door and asking for me by name, and I would be hiding under my bed and wetting myself. No, when Owen bloody Deathstalker comes back, the skies will open and he will descend surrounded by angels. And I personally will believe that when I see it, and not before. Actually, I’d almost welcome his return, if he said he could stop the Terror. I could probably deal with Owen.”

Finn leaned back in his chair, brooding quietly, lost in his own terrible thoughts, and Joseph took the opportunity to study his Emperor quietly. Finn still had the same classically handsome face, but it was deeply marked now with lines of strain and worry, and his eyes were just that little bit too bright. He looked . . . like a cornered animal—desperate, focused, and still very, very dangerous. For all his sudden rages and vicious temper, Finn could still be calm and rational when he had to be, and his grip on power had never been tighter. Being second-in-command to such a man was never going to be easy, but Joseph had faith in his own abilities to survive, if nothing else. All the terrible things he’d done, or ordered done, had all been done in Finn’s name. Joseph’s position might well be more than a little perilous, but sometimes all you can do is ride the damned tiger and cling on with both hands. And if nothing else, it was an exhilarating ride. . . . After all, Finn couldn’t live forever. No matter how much time he spent with the notorious Dr. Happy. No, eventually Finn would fall, and then a wise and prepared man might easily step in and take over. . . .

“I want transmutation engines put into orbit around Logres,” Finn said abruptly. “No need to activate them— not just yet. No, their presence alone will serve to remind everyone who’s in charge here, and take their minds off all these ridiculous rumors about a returned Owen. The engines will also serve as a warning to Lewis and his damned fleet of what I’ll do if they dare challenge my position here.”

Joseph looked at him uncertainly. “You’d really threaten to destroy Humanity’s homeworld?”

Finn smiled easily. “Threaten? My dear naïve Joseph, I’ll wipe this whole planet clean of everything and everyone before I’ll give it up. Which brings me neatly to the other reason I invited you here. Talk to me about Usher Two. How are the preparations going?”

Joseph swallowed hard and made himself concentrate on the unfortunate planet identified as being next in the Terror’s path. Usher II was an industrial world, specializing in the production of starship engines and all the tech that went with them. The entire planet was given over to these factories, serving the starship needs of the whole Empire. And since the Empire’s scientists still didn’t fully understand the nature of the tech they’d reverse-engineered from the alien starship that crashed on Unseeli so very long ago, most of the work still had to be done by hand. Human hands. It was far too delicate work to be trusted to computers. The AIs of Shub provided automatons for the really dangerous work, but even those operated under human control. All the factories on Usher II were currently running twenty-four hours a day, shift after shift, trying to build up a surplus to cover what would happen if and when the planet was destroyed.

“Just when I need all the ships I can muster,” Finn grumbled, “to face off Lewis and his treacherous fleet. Tell me there’s some good news, Joseph, if you like having testicles.”

“The evacuation is going . . . better than expected,” Joseph said carefully. “But still very slowly. We were relying on Shub to send many more automatons, but they never turned up. We know why now, of course. And the human technicians can’t be allowed to leave until the very last moment. We’re holding their families under guard, to . . . concentrate the minds of the technicians on their work. Everyone is very motivated—and those who aren’t get turned into examples of why not being motivated is a very bad idea. But . . . eventually, we’re going to have to let them leave. We’re going to need their expertise, afterwards. They will of course have priority for the evacuation ships. The rest of the population is expendable, though of course no one’s told them that.”

“Not really good news, but a brave effort,” said Finn. “I had hoped the new tech we confiscated from the humbled alien worlds would come in handy, but we haven’t really come up with anything worth the having. I always assumed the shifty alien bastards were keeping things from me, because that’s what I would have done, but apparently not. No major weapons kept in reserve, no secret doomsday devices; I’m disappointed in them, I am really. And what little new tech we have grabbed, my scientists, my supposed brilliant experts, are having trouble even deciphering. Only one piece of information really came up trumps: an entirely theoretical plan for transforming a sun into a supernova, and channeling its energies as a weapon. My people are building it even as we speak.”

“You mean . . . something like the Darkvoid Device?” said Joseph, when he could trust his voice again.

“Not really on that scale, unfortunately. Basically, the idea is we use the device on one of Usher Two’s binary suns, turn it into a supernova, and then direct all the energy produced into one single blast aimed at the Terror’s herald, as soon as it comes in range. My people aren’t entirely sure the energies can be controlled, or even aimed properly, but . . . nothing ventured, nothing gained. I’m sure it’ll be very pretty to look at. As long as you’re not actually on Usher Two, of course.”

“A poor man’s Darkvoid Device, that we’re not even sure we can aim properly?” said Joseph. “Finn . . .”

“As long as we can turn it on and off, that’s all that matters. Don’t flap, Joseph.”

“But even if the weapon works, we still won’t be able to save Usher Two. There’s no way it could survive having one of its suns go boom.”

“As long as it stops the Terror, I really couldn’t give a damn,” Finn said cheerfully. “Still, in the event the weapon does work as planned, but still doesn’t stop the Terror, we’re going to need a backup plan. And that’s where you come in, Joseph. Have you moved the transmutation engines into position, as I ordered?”

“They’ll be in orbit around Usher Two by the end of today. All hidden behind sensor shields, of course. They’ve been preprogrammed to transmute the entire planet and everything on it into the most appalling mess our scientists could conceive. The planet will be poisonous on every level, highly radioactive, and possibly even unstable on the quantum level. Theoretically, the Terror shouldn’t be able to consume Usher Two without being poisoned itself. However, I feel I should point out that if the Terror decides to simply avoid the planet, and keep on going, that entire quadrant will be a no-go area for thousands of years afterwards. Maybe even hundreds of thousands.”

Finn sighed. “Do I really need to explain the concept expendable to you again?”

Joseph nodded stiffly. “Since use of the transmutation engines will inevitably mean the death of Usher Two’s population, the plan is being kept strictly need-to-know. It’s a pity we can’t salvage some of the factory tech first, but that would rather give the game away.”

“You worry far too much about things that don’t matter, Joseph,” said Finn. “Perhaps . . . if we were to destroy Usher Two before the Terror got to it, and then kept on destroying every other planet in its path, the Terror might die of starvation. Or at the very least take the hint and go somewhere else.”

“I think we’d probably run out of planets before it ran out of hunger,” Joseph said carefully. “Besides, think of the billions of lives that would be lost. There’s a limit to what the people of the Empire will accept.”

“Is there?” said Finn. Joseph couldn’t meet the Emperor’s gaze. He started to change the subject, but Finn pressed on. “Let us understand each other, First Minister. I protect the Empire because it’s mine. Mine to play with, mine to enjoy, mine to destroy when I’m tired of it. Not the Terror’s. I’ll find a way to destroy the Terror, and then . . . Oh, the things I’ll do. The people will wish the Terror had taken them.”

“Perhaps you need . . . a distraction,” said Joseph, just a little desperately. “Something to take you out of yourself. I’ve been talking with some of your other advisers, and it occurred to us that since you are the Emperor now, you really have a duty to wed, and produce an heir to carry on your line. If you would allow us to . . .”

“No,” said Finn. “That won’t be necessary. After me, there will be nothing.”

* * * *

The Rookery had become the last safe haven for rebels on Logres. As a result, that rogues’ paradise and city within a city had become impossibly overcrowded, and was actually threatening to burst at its seams. The Rookery had become the last place you could run to where Finn’s agents wouldn’t pursue. For the moment, at least. The hidden rotten heart of the Empire’s most famous city was now an incredibly dangerous, violent place. The original occupants of the Rookery were finding it increasingly difficult to prey on outsiders, as of old, due to the Emperor’s murderously strict martial law, and so they had taken to preying on each other. And most especially on the newcomers, who quickly learned that the only safety lay in numbers. The Rookery had become a bad place to be a man alone. And yet still the people came, because as bad as the Rookery was, everywhere else was worse.

Everyone in the Rookery had lost someone to Finn’s people, or knew someone who had. There was a lot of sullen anger in the crowded streets, and in the smoky overpriced taverns, but as yet it had little focus. The Emperor was just too strong, too big a target for their beaten-down spirits. Its only expression so far had been the Rookery’s turning against all those who had helped Finn in his rise to power. The agents provocateur had been burned out of their clubs and sent running through the streets, to be hunted down like dogs. Everyone else who’d worked with or for Finn Durandal was now being very quiet about it, for fear of being denounced as a spy or informer. Just the rumor was enough to raise up a mob baying for blood, and broken bodies soon blocked the gutters. Everyone expected the Emperor to order an invasion of the Rookery at some point, but no one was doing anything about it. There were no meetings, no plans, no defenses. No one trusted anyone.

Douglas Campbell, who had once been a King, and Stuart Lennox, who had once been a Paragon, now worked as masked bravos for hire, protecting the flea-trap hotel they were staying in from all the many predators of the streets. Masked bravos were a common sight in the Rookery these days. Lots of people had good reason to conceal their identities. Douglas and Stuart wore simple leather masks, and cheap but serviceable clothing. They’d sold the better clothes they arrived in to raise the money to acquire the single hotel room Douglas and Stuart and Nina Malapert now lived in.

The Lantern Lodge was one of the oldest surviving hotels in the Rookery, and looked it. The squat ugly building was dark, damp, and extremely run-down, and no one had spent money on it in generations. The outer stone walls were blackened with layers of soot and grime, the windows did little more than let the light in, and there hadn’t been any lead on the roof in living memory. It was sweltering hot in the summer and bitter cold in the winter, and every room came with hot and cold running rats. Not to mention bedbugs. (At first, Douglas had thought the single bed came with a built-in vibrating mechanism, and was seriously and loudly upset when the truth was made clear to him.) But it was a room, and rooms were hard to come by, so no one complained.

Douglas and Stuart worked as the hotel’s bravos for free bed and board. It wasn’t much, but it was better than a lot of people had. There were those who had to fight every night to protect their place in a doorway, or a cardboard box. Nina was doing marginally better. She was working with a few other rogue media people to put together a rebel news site, tapping briefly into the main media feeds to try to get a little truth on the air now and again. There wasn’t any money in it yet, but Nina had great hopes for the future. There were quite a few ex-media people in the Rookery, since Finn’s people had taken complete control of all the official media. There were no shows anymore, just constant propaganda. There were riots in the streets on the day The Quality was taken off the air, but Finn had just had his people use the rioters for target practice, until they got the message and slunk off home. But a lot of newspeople had brought their technical knowledge to the Rookery, and the rebel news site was already up and running. Unfortunately, it took expensive and hard-to-get tech to keep it on the air, and keep fighting its way through the official censor’s firewalls, so there was always a problem with funding. It wasn’t as though they could sell advertising space.

Douglas and Stuart had been on duty outside the Lantern Lodge entrance since first light, and now it was nearly midday. It had been drizzling for hours, a cold, numbing persistent fall that soaked everything and everyone. The sewers were overrunning again, and the stench in the street was almost unbearable. The heavy gloomy day settled over everyone like a bad mood. People slouched back and forth along the narrow streets, heads down to avoid eye contact, in pursuit of work or a room or anything that might bring in a few credits. Times were hard. There was damn all left to steal, and rats were becoming a delicacy. But crowded as the street was, everyone gave the two masked bravos outside the Lantern Lodge plenty of room. Douglas and Stuart had demonstrated their willingness to protect the hotel on many occasions, in a professionally violent and disturbingly thorough way that had impressed even the hardened denizens of the Rookery. Which was why the two men were just a little surprised to observe a small crowd of heavily armed men heading in their direction. The dozen or so men moved like professional fighters, and while they hadn’t drawn any weapons yet, there was something about them that suggested their appearance was only a matter of time.

“You know them?” Douglas said quietly to Stuart.

“Some of them. Brion de Rack’s men. Protection racketeer. Pretty much everyone around here pays off de Rack, just to be left alone. But he usually targets the bigger businesses, not dumps like this.”

“Maybe he’s branching out. How do you want to play this?”

“Oh, the usual,” said Stuart, resting one hand on the pommel of his sword. “Reason first, escalating quickly to extreme violence.”

“Sounds like a plan to me,” said Douglas.

The dozen or so thugs and bullyboys came to a halt a respectful distance away from the two masked bravos. The street rapidly cleared as everyone else suddenly remembered they had urgent business elsewhere. Window shutters slammed together up and down the street like a round of applause. Even the drizzle seemed to hold back, as though anxious to see what would happen next. One of the men stepped forward to face Douglas and Stuart. He was taller than most, and bigger, with a layer of fat over his muscles to show he was one of the few people in the Rookery still eating well and often. He wore a long, heavy leather coat, decorated all over with steel piercings. A row of human scalps had been stitched to one sleeve as trophies. He wore splashes of bright color on his face, under a flat, dark, wide-brimmed hat. He smiled easily at Douglas and Stuart, but it didn’t touch his eyes.

“Step aside, boys. My business is with the owner.”

“We don’t step aside,” Douglas said calmly. “It’s bad for our reputation. You want to talk to the owner, you talk to us first.”

“Now, that’s a very unfriendly attitude. You don’t want to hurt my feelings, do you?”

“We’re not paid to be friendly,” said Stuart.

“All right. I will go that extra mile, to avoid unnecessary trouble. The name is Sewell. I work for Brion de Rack. This is his territory. You live in his territory, you pay him tribute. That’s just the way it is. In return, we make sure nothing horribly destructive happens to your property. Or, indeed, you. Nasty things pretty much nearly always happen, if you’re not de Rack’s friend.”

“We’re a bit small fry for de Rack, aren’t we?” said Douglas.

“Times are hard. Now, you’ve made a good showing, honor is satisfied, so stand aside.”

“The old protection racket,” said Stuart, and there was something in his calm, quiet voice that made Sewell look at him sharply. “A loathsome little scam, when all is said and done. Based on terror and intimidation, and a façade of invulnerability. Unfortunately for de Rack, and you, my partner and I don’t intimidate that easily. We’ve faced much worse than you, in our time.”

“We’re here to protect the hotel from scumbags like you, Sewell,” said Douglas. “And we take a real pride in our work. So walk on. Or we’ll step on you.”

Sewell looked at them for a long moment, apparently unable to believe what he was hearing. He wasn’t smiling anymore. “Listen, leather faces—this is de Rack’s territory. He owns it, and everyone in it. You only live here because he allows you to, and if you annoy him, you don’t get to live here anymore. And an insult to me is an insult to him.”

“What a marvelously time-saving scheme,” said Stuart.

“That’s it,” said Sewell. “You just can’t help some people. Drop your weapons on the ground, kneel down and say you’re sorry, and we’ll let you off with a beating. Make us work for this, and we’ll cut you open and see what color your guts really are.”

“We don’t do kneeling either,” said Douglas. “Bad for the reputation, and the trousers. Makes the knees go all baggy. Now push off, fart face.”

Sewell’s face darkened, and he turned to his men. “Kill them. And make it messy.”

He was about to say something more when Douglas drew his concealed disrupter and shot Sewell in the chest. The energy beam punched right through the man, throwing his dead body back into his men. They scattered with cries of alarm, like startled birds, and Sewell measured his length in the gutter. The front of his leather coat was on fire. The thugs finally thought to draw their own weapons, but by then Douglas and Stuart were among them, swords in hands. The bullyboys tried to make a fight of it, but it had been a long time since they’d had to deal with anything but frightened and dispirited people. They didn’t stand a chance against two ex-Paragons. Douglas and Stuart cut their way through the pack with vicious skill, moving fluidly and easily and protecting each other’s backs at all times. They worked well together. Their swords flashed brightly in the gloom, like rays of hope, and blood pooled on the ground, hardly dispersed at all by the slow drizzle. Bodies fell with cut throats and gaping wounds, and did not rise again. And quicker than anyone had thought possible, it was all over. Douglas and Stuart stood together, blood dripping thickly from their blades, hardly even breathing hard. The sole surviving thug stood with his back to a wall, looking at the two bravos with wide, horrified eyes. Douglas and Stuart turned to look at him, and he quickly dropped his sword on the ground and raised his shaking hands in the air.

Who are you? What are you? No one fights like that!”

“We are Douglas and Stuart, bravos for hire, and that’s all anyone needs to know,” said Douglas. (He and Stuart had tried using false names when they first arrived in the Rookery, but they kept forgetting them, or confusing who was supposed to be which, so they gave them up. Douglas and Stuart were common enough names.) “In case you’re wondering, we let you live because you’re going to carry a message to de Rack, and the message is: Leave us alone. Leave the Lantern Lodge alone. Pretend this unpleasantness never happened. That way we can all hope to live long and profitable lives. Be persuasive, because de Rack wouldn’t like the alternative. Really he wouldn’t. Now go away, and don’t come back.”

The thug was off and running the moment he was sure he’d got all of the message. A muffled chorus of boos and jeers followed him from behind the shuttered windows. Stuart gave a cheerful bow, and then he and Douglas went through the pockets of all the men they’d killed. Hard times bred hard ways, and credit had no provenance in the Rookery. When they were sure they’d got everything worth the having, Douglas and Stuart returned to their post at the front door and counted it up. There wasn’t much. People slowly emerged onto the street again, to steal the dead bodies’ clothing. Douglas sighed heavily.

“I hate this place. People shouldn’t have to live like this.”

“It’s the Rookery,” said Stuart. “They do things differently here. They always have.”

“Not like this. It’s never been as bad as this.”

They watched as the growing crowd squabbled over the dead bodies’ few remaining possessions. By nightfall the bodies would be gone too, and it was wise not to ask where.

“Like rats in a graveyard,” said Douglas.

“Even rats have to eat,” said Stuart.

Douglas sniffed loudly. Stuart looked at him. He’d been trying to help the disturbed, brooding Douglas ever since they’d come to the Rookery, but the man who had once been King, and lost everyone and everything he ever believed in, didn’t want to be helped. This was the most Stuart had heard Douglas speak in days—probably because he seemed to come alive only when he was fighting. And even then, the Campbell fought with precision rather than passion. Stuart kept trying to draw him out, but Douglas seemed unwilling or incapable of thinking about the future. As though just getting through each day was hard enough. The man who had once been King now seemed tired all the time, physically and spiritually. He was drawing further and further inside himself, despite everything Stuart or Nina could do to help.

“Things shouldn’t have to be this way,” Douglas said again, and Stuart was surprised and pleased to hear some honest emotion in the Campbell’s voice. “We ought to be doing . . . something, to help these people. We took an oath as Paragons, to protect the people. Remember?”

“Yes,” said Stuart. “I remember. I wasn’t sure you did.”

* * * *

Some hours later their relief arrived to take over, and Douglas and Stuart went inside for their only meal of the day. Their replacements were just ordinary muscle for hire from the local hiring house. No one special; the house just sent over whoever was available. The two bruisers nodded respectfully to Douglas and Stuart as they disappeared inside the hotel. The lobby wasn’t up to much—paint-peeling walls, sawdust on the floor, and no chairs. Nothing to encourage anyone to linger. Just a battered old reception desk, where the staff were protected from the customers by a heavy metal grille. There was an elevator at the back, but its operation was a sometime thing, and did not inspire confidence. Douglas and Stuart climbed the five flights of stairs to their single shared room. They didn’t disturb the handful of ragged forms who’d paid to be allowed to sleep in the stairwells.

Nina Malapert was already there in their room, laying the food on the table, which was a bad sign. She was only ever back this early when her day’s work had gone really badly. The way she bashed the battered crockery about was confirmation enough without the frustration evident in her scowling face. She nodded briefly at the two men as they sat wearily down at the table. It wasn’t a big room, and with the table unfolded it took up most of the available space. Dinner was boiling on a hot plate set perilously close to the only bed. (Douglas and Stuart shared the bed. Nina had made a nest of blankets for herself in one corner.) There was only one window, smeared with the debris of years.

Douglas and Stuart took off their leather masks and dropped them on the table beside their plates. Their faces felt hot and sweaty from the leather, despite the early evening chill that had worked its way into the room. Douglas Campbell was still a handsome man, with his noble brow and great mane of golden hair, but more than ever he looked like a wounded lion brought down by jackals; a great man brought low by too many losses and the unbearable weight of unrelinquished responsibilities. Stuart Lennox looked much older than his years warranted. A stern young man with a drawn, almost gaunt face, his gaze was always a little distracted, and he rarely smiled anymore. And even Nina Malapert was no longer the happy, bubbling, free spirit of old. The demon girl reporter who laughed at danger and would dare anything for a scoop wasn’t exactly gone, just suppressed by the weight of life in the Rookery, but it did seem she didn’t smile nearly as much as she once had. Her tall pink mohawk bobbed angrily as she ladled out the meal.

Douglas watched Nina bustle about, and tried hard to feel . . . something. It was difficult for him to feel anything much, anymore. His family was dead, his friends were gone, his responsibilities taken from him. He felt lost and unfocused without them. He wasn’t a King anymore, or even a Paragon, but he didn’t know how to be anything else. So mostly he just went through the motions, getting through the day until he could finally go to bed and lose himself in sleep. He looked at the discarded leather bravo’s mask beside his plate. Sometimes he thought that was his real face now. He could feel Stuart looking at him, and stared at the mess on his plate so he wouldn’t have to look at Stuart. He knew the earnest young man only wanted to help, but Douglas didn’t want to be helped. He wanted to be numb, so he wouldn’t have to think or feel or remember.

According to the official media news sites, Anne Barclay was dead. Killed by falling debris during Douglas’s daring escape from the court. Another old friend hurt, and gone, because of him. Nina tried to tell him you couldn’t trust anything on the official sites these days, that it was all Finn’s propaganda, but that was just Nina being kind. At least Lewis and Jesamine were still out there, somewhere, avoiding capture. Douglas hoped they were happy, at least. He desperately wanted somebody to be happy, out of the mess he’d made of things.

He looked at his dinner. It wasn’t up to much, but then it never was. Stringy meat and potatoes, with lumpy gravy. Douglas pushed it about a bit with his fork.

“What’s the meat?”

“Best not to ask,” Nina said briskly as she sat down next to him. “And you really don’t want to know what’s in the gravy.”

“Is there pudding?” said Stuart, hopefully.

Nina gave him a withering look. “What do you think?”

Stuart had a plate of ropey-looking vegetables, boiled within an inch of their lives. He never touched meat. The others never said anything. They knew why. Once Nina would have insisted on their saying grace first, but they had all fallen far beyond a state of grace now. The three of them sat and ate for a while in silence. It was food and it was fuel, and that was all it was. Outside in the street, there were occasional shouts and screams and sounds of violence, but then, there always were.

“I heard a rumor today,” Stuart said finally.

“Now there’s a surprise,” said Nina. “This whole place runs on rumors.”

“This one was about Clan Deathstalker,” said Stuart. “Word is, a handful of minor cousins escaped the slaughter on Virimonde, and might be coming here.”

“I’m sorry, Stuart,” said Nina, putting a hand on his. “But I was there, remember, with poor Emma? I saw them all die. No one escaped.”

“Some of them could have been offplanet,” said Douglas, not looking up from his food.

“Perhaps,” Nina said kindly. “There’s always hope.”

“Poor Lewis,” said Douglas, pushing his food about the plate. “The last Deathstalker. I wonder if anyone’s told him yet. Can’t help feeling sorry for him.”

“Even though he stole the woman you loved?” said Stuart.

“She was never really mine,” said Douglas. “I never really knew her. There wasn’t time. I thought we’d have all the time we needed to get to know each other after we were married. Now . . . I think perhaps I only loved the image—the diva and the star. Maybe that’s why she fell for Lewis. Because he was the only one who cared for the real her.”

He made himself eat the rest of his meal. Stuart and Nina would only look at him if he didn’t, and he didn’t know how much more of their worrying about him he could stand. He supposed there would come a day when he’d be so hungry he’d be able to wolf it all down without tasting it; but he wasn’t looking forward to that at all. Nina checked they’d all finished and then bustled around the table, gathering up the plates and keeping up a stream of chatter. She was trying to be motherly and supportive, but truth be told she wasn’t very good at it. Douglas gave her extra marks for trying anyway. And then he made himself concentrate as he realized she was saying something about a new step forward in her attempts to set up a viable rogue news site.

“A whole bunch of new media people have turned up in the Rookery! First-class techs, the loveys—just what we needed. I mean, yes, I’m a reporter and all that, but I never did understand the science side of things. Up till now it’s been the blind leading the deaf and trying not to electrocute ourselves. These new guys got out of the city just ahead of Finn’s people, and they’re keen as mustard to get some payback by helping us set up our site. Pretty soon we’ll be able to tap into the official news feeds whenever we feel like it. And I’m going to be the face on the screen! Nina Malapert, presenter and superstar! Mummy will be so proud.”

“But what are you going to say?” said Stuart. “People will watch for a while out of curiosity, but you’re going to need something dramatic to show them to keep their attention.”

“Well, I’ll tell them how bad things are here in the Rookery!”

“They won’t care. They’ve got their own problems, living under Emperor Finn. You need to offer them something they don’t know.”

“Like what?”

“Hope,” said Douglas.

Nina and Stuart both looked at him quickly, but he was gone again, lost in his own bitter thoughts. Nina patted him gently on the arm, and took the dirty plates over to the far-from-hygienic sink in the corner. Stuart surged suddenly up onto his feet, glaring at Douglas.

“Damn you, Douglas, you make me sick! How much longer are you going to sit around feeling sorry for yourself? This isn’t your personal tragedy! People are dying every day under Finn. Your people! Finn murdered your father, took over your throne, and named himself Emperor! What does it take to move you? To make you a man again?”

Douglas looked up, and what was in his eyes made Stuart fall back a step. And there was no telling what might have happened next if the mood hadn’t been suddenly broken by shouting from the street outside. Someone was calling for Douglas and Stuart by name. They looked at each other, and then they went over to the window and cracked it open as far as it would go. Nina squeezed determinedly in beside them. Down in the street, the protection racketeer they’d let go earlier had returned, with a whole new crowd of friends and associates. Big, brutal-looking men, loaded down with weapons and body armor. The two bravos for hire who should have been guarding the hotel were already dead, their gutted bodies hanging from lampposts. The hotel owner, his wife, and their three small children stood inside a circle of drawn swords, clinging to each other. The ringleader of the gang was looking up at Douglas, Stuart, and Nina. A large man, a fat man, in an area where most people went to bed hungry. He wore the very latest fashions, but a thug in silks is still a thug. He was smiling cheerfully.

“Well, hello up there! I’m Brion de Rack. These men work for me. So did the ones you killed, but I’m not one to bear a grudge. Does an organization good to have the deadwood trimmed, now and again. You have surprised me, gentlemen, and that’s not easy. Now do be good boys and come down and talk with me. Or I’ll kill your present employer, and his family, while you watch. Slow and nasty and very messily. What’s it to be, gentlemen?”

Douglas and Stuart drew back from the window and looked at each other.

“Well?” said Stuart. “What is it to be?”

“We don’t owe them anything,” said Douglas. “Don’t even know them. But . . . if we back down from scum like these, we’ll never get any peace.”

“Oh, silly me,” said Stuart. “I thought we might go down because innocent people needed to be rescued. Because it’s the right thing to do.”

“Don’t push your luck,” said Douglas. “I’m really not in the mood.”

“But we are going down?”

“Yes, Stuart,” Douglas said, smiling suddenly. “We’re going down.”

“I’m going to get my really big gun,” said Nina.

“You’re going to stay in the background,” Douglas said sternly. “Because you never know when an unsuspected backup will come in handy.”

“Oh, poo,” said Nina. “I never get to have any fun.”

* * * *

Back behind their anonymous leather masks, Douglas Campbell and Stuart Lennox pushed open the hotel front door and stepped cautiously out into the main street. Crowds had already gathered, watching from a safe distance. De Rack and his men were waiting. The thugs and bullyboys reacted strongly when they realized Douglas and Stuart both had energy guns in their hands, but de Rack gestured easily, and they quieted again. Up close, de Rack looked even bigger, and uglier. Stuart couldn’t help feeling that de Rack was the one who should have been wearing a mask.

“It really is very simple,” the big man said easily. “I can’t have two such excellent fighters as your good selves working as independents. Not in my territory. Might give people ideas. Dangerous things, ideas. And there’s always the chance you might end up working for one of my enemies. A successful businessman such as myself acquires enemies, like a dog has fleas. So, you’re going to work for me. I pay good wages, there are all kinds of fringe benefits, and you have job security for life. Because whatever happens in the Rookery, I’ll always be here, taking my cut.”

“And if we don’t feel like signing up with a small-time thug with delusions of grandeur?” said Douglas. “If, in fact, we say Go to hell?”

“In that unlikely event, my men will kill the hotel owner and his family in appallingly inventive ways, set fire to the hotel and burn it down, and kill anyone who comes running out of the flames. And finally my men will torture you to death right here in the street, as an example of what happens to those foolish enough to defy me.” De Rack shrugged apologetically. “A waste of good potential income, I admit, but business is business. You should feel flattered, gentlemen. I don’t usually have to pressure people to work for me. But there’s something . . . special, about you two. I can tell. Ex-military, right? Seen a lot of action, but couldn’t fit in with the Durandal’s new goody-goody regime? I thought so. You’re not just muscle, you’re muscle with brains, and I can always use people like that. I need quality, and you wouldn’t believe how rare that is in the Rookery, these days.”

“Maybe you just weren’t looking in the right places,” said Stuart. “Or maybe you wouldn’t know real quality if you fell over it. Would you really kill everyone in this hotel, just to save face?”

“Of course!” said de Rack. He gestured expansively at the crowd that had gathered out of nowhere to watch the free entertainment. “A man is only as good as his word, and if that word is a threat, so much the better. Discipline must be maintained. But don’t look on me too harshly, dear friends. I’m just a businessman, doing what it takes to get along. People . . . don’t matter here. Only power. The strength to take what you want, when you want it, and keep it.”

“And to hell with everyone else?” said Stuart.


“Things . . . shouldn’t be like this,” Douglas said slowly.

“Welcome to Finn’s Empire,” said Stuart. “Welcome to the world he made because there’s no one left to stop him.”

“Someone should do something,” said Douglas.

“If not you,” said Stuart, “then who?”

“Excuse me,” said de Rack, “but I was talking. Ignore me again and I’ll have my men teach you a lesson in manners.”

“Oh, hell,” said Douglas. His voice still sounded tired, but somehow he seemed to be standing straighter and taller. “It never ends, does it? There’s always work to be done. No matter how weary you are.”

“We can rest when we’re dead,” said Stuart.

“I wouldn’t put money on it,” said Douglas. “Nina, you’re on.”

Nina Malapert stepped elegantly out of the hotel front door, holding the biggest handgun anyone present had ever seen. And while everyone was still gaping at her, Nina shot de Rack neatly through the chest. The energy blast blew him apart like a rotten apple. Even as the charred and smoking pieces were still flying through the air, Douglas and Stuart charged forward, sword in hand, and hit the men guarding the hotel owner and his family. The thugs and bullyboys didn’t even try to make a fight of it. They knew professional fighters when they saw them. Most just turned and ran, booed and catcalled by the watching crowd. Douglas and Stuart cut down those who didn’t run in no time at all. And as quickly as that, it was all over. The hotel owner shook Douglas and Stuart by the hand, over and over, babbling his relief and thanks. His wife and children regarded the two bravos with wide, worshipful eyes. The crowd was applauding loudly. Some even cheered. Protection racketeers had friends only when they were on top. There was also a clear element of surprise in the applause. Heroes were rare in the Rookery at the best of times, which these most definitely weren’t.

Stuart shook thick drops of blood off his blade, and grinned at Douglas. “Feels good, doesn’t it? Doing what we were meant to do.”

Douglas laughed briefly, a harsh resigned sound. “All right, knock it off. I’m back. It’s time to wake up and get involved again. For better or worse, the rebellion starts here.”

Nina shrieked with delight, and did her happy dance right there in the street. “Yes! Yes! An exclusive for the new news site!”

* * * *

Back in their room, sitting around the table with their masks off, Douglas and Stuart and Nina plotted revolution. They all spoke loudly, interrupting and cutting each other off, their faces flushed with excitement and anticipation. They all felt more alive than they had in months.

“So,” said Stuart. “How exactly does the rebellion start here?”

“I thought I’d take all the people here in the Rookery and raise them up into an army I can set at Finn’s throat,” said Douglas. “Not the best material, I’ll admit, but you work with what’s available. So, I’ll talk to them, inspire them, fire up a sense of grievance and injustice, and then whip them into a fury and—”

“Never work,” Nina said flatly. “In the whole history of the Rookery, no one’s ever been able to get all of them to agree on anything. That’s why most of them came here in the first place; because they couldn’t get on with anyone else.”

“She may be loud and irritating, but she has a point,” said Stuart. “Nothing less than a full-scale invasion of the Rookery by Finn’s army would ever unite these people into a common cause, and Finn’s far too smart to do that. He knows all he has to do is wait, and they’ll turn on each other.”

“An invasion . . .” said Douglas. “That’s what we need, right enough. And Finn just might do it, if we scare him enough. But first, we need to get the people here on our side, and under our command. I think . . . I’ll start with Random’s Bastards. They’re the celebrities of this appalling place. They’re fashion setters, trendsetters; where they lead, others will follow.”

“Yes, they’re celebrities,” said Stuart. “And that’s why they’re never going to follow two masked bravos from nowhere. We’re good fighters, and perhaps even local heroes now, but so are most of the Bastards. All they care about is fame and money, and we can’t offer them either.”

“They care about who they are,” Douglas said slowly. “More importantly, they care about who their ancestor was. Give them a chance to be heroes and legends like the glorious Jack Random, give them a chance to follow an outlawed King into battle against a corrupt Emperor . . . to live the lives they’ve only dreamed about . . .”

“Douglas, you can’t!” said Nina. “Trust me, dear, this is a really bad idea. You show the Bastards your real face, and they’ll be lining up to betray you to Finn for the reward!”

“Damn right,” said Stuart. “They may be Random’s spawn, but they know nothing of honor. And if there’s anything they hate worse than an ex-King, it’s an ex-Paragon. Or have you forgotten you spent most of your earlier career putting these scumbags behind bars?”

“The enemy of my enemy is my ally, if not my friend,” Douglas said calmly. “We just have to demonstrate to the Bastards that Finn is much more of a threat to them than they realize, and that we’re the only people who can lead a rebellion against him. I’ve always found inspired self-interest to be a great motivator.”

“You’ll be a dead motivator the moment you take your mask off,” growled Stuart.

“We are going to see the Bastards,” Douglas said firmly. “Have faith, my children.”

“I’m taking my really big gun,” said Nina. “And my best pair of running shoes.”

* * * *

So, a few days later, Douglas and Stuart and Nina—two masked bravos and a demon girl reporter—attended the next scheduled meeting of Random’s Bastards. It wasn’t difficult to track them down. This wide selection of men, women, and not a few alien hybrids, who claimed to be descendants of the legendary professional rebel Jack Random, always came together once a month to boast and brag about all the marvelous things they’d done, and argue fiercely over their various claims to lines of descent from Jack Random. Their favored rendezvous was a squalid little tavern down on Hell Street, the Three Cripples. An appalling place in practically every way, but the drink was cheap and the owner was prepared to overlook the inevitable bad behavior in return for the regular booking.

Douglas and Stuart and Nina looked distastefully at the stained walls, slumping roof, and windows that were blacked out for extra privacy, and stepped carefully over the bubbling open sewer to get to the main entrance. The place was already packed wall-to-wall, and the bouncer at the door tried to glare them away. Nina showed him her really big gun, and the bouncer decided there was room for just a few more after all.

Inside, the smell was worse, if anything. The air was thick with a smog of various illegal smokes, and there wasn’t a chair or a stool to be had for love nor money. The crowd jostled together amiably enough, shouting at each other to be heard over the awful din. Nearly all of the men, women, and humanoid creatures were armed with weapons of some kind. The waitresses were all Madelaines (a popular clone franchise knockoff), and they circulated as best they could through the heaving press of bodies, dispensing drinks and bar food of dubious provenance. Douglas and Stuart forced their way through the crowd with heavy scowls and vicious use of the elbow, while Nina brought up the rear.

“How the hell are we going to get their attention?” said Stuart, shouting right into Douglas’s ear.

“Same way we did with de Rack,” said Douglas. “Nina, if you wouldn’t mind . . .”

Nina didn’t mind at all. Grinning broadly, she kicked a few people in the shins to make some room, raised her very big gun, and blew a hole right through one wall. The clamor broke off abruptly as everyone present fought to draw their weapons or locate the nearest exit. Nina carefully lowered her gun. Douglas jumped up onto the nearest table and smiled calmly about him.

“Everyone relax, it’s not a raid. Some of you may recognize me and my two friends as the ones who killed de Rack and broke up his protection racket. We did it because . . . people shouldn’t have to put up with shit like that. Just as you shouldn’t have to put up with shit like this. Look at you—the descendants of a hero, a legend, and you’re reduced to hiding out in the Rookery, denied your true destiny, unable to fulfill your potential. Unable to prove yourselves worthy of the legend of Jack Random. I’ve come to show you a way out. A way to change your lives forever.”

And he took off his leather face mask. For a long moment no one moved, held in a shocked silence, and then a great roar went up from the crowd as they recognized Douglas Campbell. One thought was in all their minds as they looked on the ex-Paragon and ex-King, and that thought was Money! The massive reward Finn had put on Douglas’s head, preferably no longer attached to the body, would enable them to live like Kings. (There was another, smaller reward on Stuart’s head. Finn could be sentimental that way, sometimes. He didn’t want Stuart to feel left out.)

The whole crowd looked at Douglas with hungry eyes, and then surged forward as one to drag him down. Stuart and Nina defended both sides of the table with kicks and punches and the occasional head-butt. Nina in particular proved especially adept at dirty fighting. Douglas looked calmly out over the uproar, not even bothering to draw his sword or his gun, even when the clutching hands came very close to his legs. He raised his voice again, and almost despite themselves, the Bastards quieted to hear what he had to say. He was Douglas Campbell, after all, and his reputation went before him.

“You must know my friends and I will kill a hell of a lot of you, before you can drag us down. I was a Paragon and a warrior long before I was a King. My friends are warriors too. You’re ready to fight and die for money, but not for your freedom? What would Jack Random think of that? He was the professional rebel; you’re just professional lowlifes. And not very successful ones, of late. Either you find the guts to fight back against Finn’s unjust rule, or pretty soon there won’t be any Random’s Bastards. He’ll pick you off one by one, and your heads will decorate rows of spikes outside the palace as an example to others. And Jack Random’s extended line will die with you. I never gave you any reason to love me, but at least I respected you. Finn’s law is harsher on you than I ever was. He’ll kill you all, because of the legacy of freedom and justice you represent. Your only hope lies in rebellion, and for that you need a leader everyone will follow. And that’s me.”

A slow murmur moved reluctantly through the packed crowd. He’s not wrong. Times are bad. Bloody Church Militant everywhere. Can’t make a decent living anymore. Finn’s a swine, all right. Probably couldn’t trust him to pay the reward anyway. When the Campbell was a Paragon, you always knew where you were with him. He was vicious, but fair.

“You have to do this,” said Douglas, and the muttering stopped at once. They were all listening now. “You have to do it, for your pride and your freedom. I know there have been uprisings before, and Finn stamped them out with cruel, terrible tactics. He doesn’t have to care about being popular anymore. But those earlier rebels were a bunch of amateurs. No common cause, no discipline, no leader. You are all practical, professional rebels, and practiced fighters, and . . . you have me to lead you. You only have to look around you to see what the world has become—what the Rookery has become. You were always rogues, but you had your pride. Now look at you, reduced to preying on each other for pocket change. You don’t have to be like this. You don’t have to live like this. You are Jack Random’s legacy, a part of the legacy of the Great Rebellion, of Owen Deathstalker and his allies. And now the time has come for you to be worthy of them. Don’t wait for the Durandal to send his fanatics in here to clear the place out; be the rebels you were born to be. Rise up!”

And Random’s Bastards roared their approval and cheered him till the room rang with the power of it. Stuart and Nina couldn’t believe it. Hardened criminals who’d steal the gold teeth from their sleeping grandmothers, who’d worked every con and scheme known to man, stamped their feet and hammered their hands together till they ached. It probably helped that most of them were broke and bored and more than ready for a little action, but Douglas had offered them their pride back again, and maybe, just maybe, there was some of Jack Random in them after all.

Douglas got down off his table, and introduced Stuart Lennox and Nina Malapert to the crowd. The Bastards nodded respectfully to the ex-Paragon, and to Nina’s gun, but really they had eyes only for Douglas. He carried on talking long into the evening, mixing the inspirational with the practical. Declaring a rebellion was all very well, but there were details to be worked out. Luckily between them the Bastards knew everyone in the Rookery, or at least everyone who mattered. They knew exactly where Douglas should go next, to best spread the message beyond the Three Cripples. They were all quick to reassure him that there were lots of people in the Rookery who hated the way things were, and were only waiting to be given a focus and a leader. They wanted their old devious lives back, and were ready to fight for them. The Rookery had always been full of fighters. They would follow Douglas because they knew him—as a Paragon and as a King, and as one of them, brought low by the hated Finn Durandal.

More meetings followed, at carefully chosen venues all across the Rookery, followed by open rallies attended by first hundreds and then thousands of eager listeners. Everyone wanted to hear Douglas speak, as he rallied and cajoled and inspired them with thundering words and the power of a simple truth: that they had the power to change their lives, if they were only strong enough to seize it. Douglas reminded them of how far they’d fallen under Emperor Finn, and they roared their rage. Their anger had been silent and diffused for so long only because no one had dared to stand up and put it into words. Douglas gave them back their pride, and they loved him for it. And finally he stood on a simple stage in an open square, facing hundreds of thousands of eager listeners, and he knew it was time.

“Let the word go out!” he said, his voice echoing in the silence of devout attention. “From now on the Rookery is a no-go area for all of Finn’s creatures! His authority has no power here. His overbearing and unjust rule stops at our borders. Any one of his people comes in, they don’t get out again. No more taxes without representation. No more executions without trial. No more Church Militant bullyboys telling you how to run your lives. No more Emperor Finn sneering at you because he thinks he doesn’t have to be afraid of you anymore. He thinks he’s broken you. It’s time to prove him wrong. We’re kicking his people out and taking the Rookery back! Then the Parade of the Endless! And finally all of Logres!

“Because if not us, then who?”

And after that the cheers and roars of approval and determination were so loud, Finn must have heard them, even in the dark heart of his usurped palace.

* * * *

One man in particular felt his life change forever when he saw Douglas Campbell reveal his true identity in the Three Cripples that first night. Tel Markham, who had once been a member of Parliament and a mover and a shaker in any number of secret organizations, but who now washed dishes for a living in the filthy back kitchen of the tavern. He ate scraps of food left on plates, and fought the rats and other vermin for it too. His once proud clothes were filthy rags, and he slept in a doss-house, standing up in a line of men supported by ropes under their arms. The doss-house owners packed them in, for greater profit, and often the shared warmth of the packed bodies was all that kept the sleepers alive through the cold nights.

Tel received a small remittance from his mother every month, supplied on the understanding that he wouldn’t try to contact her, or come home. He had made the family name a disgrace, she said, and he had failed to look after his brother Angelo. (He’d always been her favorite.) It had been Tel’s refusal to murder his brother on Finn’s orders that had brought him low. Tel was aware of the irony, but he didn’t have much use for humor these days. His mother’s money kept him alive, just. He had to stay alive. There were people he had to be revenged upon.

Seeing Douglas alive had filled him with new hope. He followed the Campbell from rally to rally, listening to the man speak, and watching the crowds. He needed to be sure Douglas was the real thing. And finally, when he heard the crowd roar at that last great rally, he hugged himself tightly in his rags, and laughed and laughed. He decided it was time to introduce himself. He went to the Lantern Lodge hotel one evening, slipping in through the kitchens because there was no way they’d let the likes of him in through the front door. There were guards posted, but he dodged them easily enough, and sneaked up the back stairs to Douglas’s room. And then he hesitated at the door, afraid to knock. He’d fallen so very far from what he once was. And even when they were both men of power and influence, King Douglas had never had much time for the member for Madraguda. How would Douglas react to this shrunken thing of rags and tatters at his door? Tel shuffled his feet uncertainly, raised his hand to knock and then let it fall again. He started to turn away and then the door swung suddenly open, and a large fist grabbed him by the shoulder of his filthy tunic and dragged him inside.

“Told you I heard someone sneaking about,” Stuart said cheerfully. “Probably a spy or informer. Though now I’ve got him, I’m not sure what to do with him. I just hope my inoculations are still working.”

He thrust Tel forward onto his knees before Douglas, and ostentatiously wiped his hand on his arse to clean it. An unexpected surge of pride brought Tel’s head up.

“I am no spy or informer! Finn has no greater enemy than me! I came here to offer you my services!”

“Well, thanks very much and all that, but I don’t think we need our boots cleaned at the moment,” said Nina, wrinkling her nose fastidiously.

“You don’t recognize me,” said Tel, his eyes fixed on Douglas. “Hell, I wouldn’t know me, looking like this. I’m Tel Markham, once the honorable member for . . .”

He broke off as Stuart surged forward and set the edge of a knife against his throat. “Markham!” he spat. “One of Finn’s creatures, then and now! Oh, God is good, now and again, delivering our enemies into our hands. Move your boots back, Douglas. You don’t want to get blood all over them when I kill him.”

“Wait! Wait!” Tel was so panic-stricken he could hardly breathe, but he kept his gaze locked on Douglas. “I was one of Finn’s people, yes. Emphasis on the was. He ordered me to kill my brother Angelo, but I refused, so he turned on me. I had to run here, leaving everything behind, just to save my life. And then he killed Angelo anyway, so it was all for nothing after all. No one in this room has a better cause to hate Finn Durandal than me.”

“Don’t put money on it,” said Stuart.

“Why should we trust you?” said Douglas. He seemed genuinely curious.

“You shouldn’t,” said Tel, still acutely aware of the knife at his throat. “You shouldn’t trust anyone in the Rookery. Finn seeded the whole place with his people long ago. But I know his secrets. I can identify his traitors, tell you of his plans. You only think you know how evil he is. You have no idea of who his allies really are, and the terrible things he intends to do. You need to know what I know. Keep me around. I can be useful. In the end, you’ll learn to trust me. I’ll advise you, follow you, fight beside you.”

“Why?” said Douglas.

“Because Finn killed my brother.”

“Ah,” said Douglas. “Yes. Family obligations. I know all about those.” He nodded to Stuart, who reluctantly took his knife away from Tel’s throat.

Tel rose slowly to his feet, awkwardly conscious of what a ragged and filthy picture he presented. It had been a long time since he could afford to care about his appearance, but he wanted, needed, Douglas to remember him as the man he was, not the creature he’d become.

Stuart wrinkled his nose. “Damn, Markham, but you stink! And to be that noticeable in a dump like this is something of an achievement. If you’re going to spend any time with us, you need to take a bath. Urgently. There’s a tin bath on the ground floor. Tell the owner I said you could use it, and that he’d better scour and disinfect it afterwards. Hell, scrub it out yourself! We all have to use the bloody thing. God, sometimes I think I’m only fighting this rebellion for a return to decent plumbing.”

“First things first,” said Tel, just a little diffidently. “I belong to the landlord of the Three Cripples. He owns my contract. I can’t work for anyone else unless you buy me out. I shouldn’t even be here, really, even if it is on what I laughingly refer to as my own time.”

“Slavery’s illegal,” said Douglas. “Even in the Rookery.”

“Lot you know,” said Tel Markham.

Stuart sighed heavily. “I guess I’d better pay another visit to the Three Cripples.”

“You do that,” said Nina. “And I think I’ll force open the window while you’re gone.”

* * * *

In the end, both Douglas and Stuart went with Tel to the tavern. Douglas talked to the landlord, and offered the man a fair sum to release Tel from his contract. The landlord, sensing which way the wind was blowing, immediately claimed Tel was utterly irreplaceable, and that he couldn’t run the tavern without him. He then demanded an utterly unreasonable sum to break the contract. So Douglas knocked him on his arse, right there in front of his customers. Slavery is illegal, he declared loudly. As of right bloody now.

“You know,” said Tel, as they walked out of the tavern, “that isn’t going to be a terribly popular sentiment in some parts of the Rookery. The tradition of indentured servitude goes back a long time here.”

“Tough,” said Douglas. “My leadership of this rebellion comes with a price, and the price is morality. The Rookery will become better than it was. The people will become strong again. They have to. Because the weak and uncertain won’t stand a chance against Finn’s fanatics.” He looked around at the small but attentive crowd that always appeared when he went out in public. “Wouldn’t you all like to feel good about yourselves again?”

“Don’t you condescend to us, aristo!” said a lady of a certain age with too much eye makeup. “We weren’t all born to wealth and privilege! We’ve had to make our own way. We fight Finn for our interests, not yours!”

“I could shoot her,” Stuart said quietly.

“Don’t tempt me,” murmured Douglas. He smiled easily about him. “Your interests are my interests, and vice versa. We have a common cause, bound together by need and destiny.”

He bowed courteously to the woman, and walked on. Stuart and Tel followed him. Stuart scowled.

“What the hell did that mean?”

“Beats me,” said Douglas. “It sounded good, though. When in doubt, baffle them with rhetoric. You know, things were a lot easier when I still had Anne to write my speeches for me. Look, what matters is getting the rebellion started. We can argue about what it’s for after we’ve won.”

“Those sound an awful lot like famous last words to me,” said Stuart, and Tel nodded solemnly.

“I wonder if Owen had these problems,” Douglas said wistfully.

They trudged along, Tel hanging back just a little. He had clean clothes now, and could stand to be downwind of himself at last, but he still didn’t feel worthy to walk beside Douglas yet. His pride had been very thoroughly beaten out of him while working at the Three Cripples, and it was slow coming back. He’d spent most of the past few days rehearsing in his mind all that he remembered of Finn’s plans and secrets and vulnerabilities. He could name a whole shitload of traitors, double agents and deep-cover sleepers in the Rookery, but he needed more than that to make himself valuable to Douglas. He couldn’t afford to be used and then discarded. He needed to attach himself to Douglas, make himself a part of the Campbell’s staff, so that when the rebellion was over and Douglas returned to power, Tel Markham wouldn’t be left behind in the poverty he’d so narrowly escaped. For Tel, Douglas Campbell was a rising star; someone whose coattails he could ride to security, if not glory. He needed to be secure, to launch his revenges.

“So, where are we going now?” Stuart said. The omnipresent drizzle had become a driving rain. It was always wet and miserable in the Rookery these days. Stuart was pretty sure Finn had arranged it with the weather control people.

“We are going to the alien sector,” said Douglas. “Nina is meeting us there. She’s made contact with a very useful alien hybrid called Nikki Sixteen, who claims she can get us an audience with the leaders of the alien presence here in the Rookery.”

Stuart sniffed. “Are there enough of them here to make it worthwhile?”

“Oh, you’d be surprised at the size of the Rookery’s alien contingent,” Tel said immediately, seizing the chance to show off his local knowledge. “All kinds of aliens and hybrids end up here, for all sorts of reasons. Either because they’re political or religious refugees, or because they’ve acquired tastes for human pleasures or concepts that wouldn’t be tolerated back on their homeworlds. The Rookery has always been a cosmopolitan kind of place, and very tolerant when it comes to unnatural vices. You wouldn’t believe what some of these aliens get up to.”

“Yes, I bloody would,” said Stuart. “Nothing about this place surprises me anymore.”

“Some of the aliens are remittance people,” Tel continued. “Paid to stay away from home and family. Because they backed the wrong cause, or got too friendly with the wrong individuals. Being part of a rebellion to overthrow Finn and his xenophobic allies could go a long way towards buying them a ticket home again. But you’re going to have to be very careful, Douglas; all these different species have their own needs and agendas, and they’ll only go along with you for as long as your needs coincide with theirs. Right now, all you have in common is a hatred of the Emperor.”

“Right now, that’s enough,” said Douglas.

The meeting place turned out to be an abandoned, boarded-up swimming baths, in a grimy, especially run-down area of the Rookery. The chipped and stained walls were covered with sprawling alien graffiti, in a dozen different pictographs. Douglas could read a few of them, and was sure Finn’s mother had never done any such thing. Nina was sheltering in the recessed doorway, wrapped in a heavy cloak. Her pink mohawk drooped damply to one side.

“About time you got here, darlings. This place gives me the creeps, and it’s not exactly a salubrious neighborhood. The only reason it isn’t crawling with muggers is because something’s been eating them, and I don’t know what the smell is but I just know it’s going to takes ages to get it out of my clothes. And watch where you tread, because things go eek if you don’t, and I really hope they’re only rats. Nikki Sixteen brought me here, and then couldn’t leave fast enough, which tells you all you need to know about this area. Do we really need to be here, Douglas, sweetie?”

“Yes.” Douglas studied the door behind her. The swimming baths had been in a good location once, back when there had still been prosperous places to live in the Rookery. Back then, the baths had been the center of what passed for polite society. And while the building as a whole might be crumbling and the windows boarded over, the main door was a single great slab of veined marble, held shut by heavy lengths of steel chain, with massive padlocks. The padlocks hung open—showing they were expected, if not necessarily welcome—but clearly the aliens took their security very seriously. Douglas gestured for Nina to stand aside, and she stepped reluctantly out into the rain. Stuart moved quickly forward to block Douglas’s way.

“I go first, Douglas. Always. Now you’re the leader of the rebellion, I’m a lot more expendable than you are.”

“No one’s expendable, Stuart,” said Douglas. “That’s what the rebellion’s all about.”

“I still get to stand between you and all danger, Your Majesty. So hold your ground here, while I open the door and then throw Tel in to check for traps and ambushes.”

“I don’t find that at all funny,” said Tel. “Does anybody find that funny?”

“I think it’s a bloody good idea,” said Nina. “I never trusted you, even when you were just a politician. You’ve got shifty eyes.”

Stuart pushed the door slowly inwards, and the hanging chains rattled loudly. A cloud of stinking steam wafted out that had them all wincing and pulling faces. The steam curled slowly around them, moist and heavy and unpleasantly warm. It was rank with unfamiliar elements that brought tears to the eye and a nasty taste in the back of the mouth. Stuart braced himself, and stepped forward into the gloom beyond the door. There was an uncomfortably long pause, and then he reappeared again.

“No one around. The lighting gets better as you go further in, but the steam’s everywhere. I’d say it was all clear, but it manifestly isn’t. We’re being watched, I can feel it. The air smells like the Devil’s armpit, but it seems breathable enough. There are freshly daubed signs on the walls to point the way. It’s not too late to call this off, Douglas. These aliens have no cause to like or trust humans anymore. Especially not a King who in the end couldn’t protect them.”

“That’s not fair!” said Nina.

“Yes, it is,” said Douglas. “I was their King too. It was my job to protect them.”

Nina scowled unhappily, and looked back at Stuart. “Nikki said there’d be someone in there waiting to meet us.”

Stuart shrugged. “No sign of anyone. Or anything. Do we go in, Douglas?”

“Of course,” said Douglas. “We need them.”

He allowed Stuart to lead the way back in, but wouldn’t let him draw a weapon. Diplomacy first, he said. Funerals after, Nina muttered as she and Tel brought up the rear. The door slammed itself shut behind them, which surprised nobody. The tiled walls ran with moisture, the original patterns and designs mostly worn away. The ceiling dripped constantly, but was still a relief after the driving rain. The tiled floor was covered over with a thin gray slush that might or might not have had a purpose, but made the footing distinctly treacherous. The steam billowed more thickly around them the farther in they went, and left a distinct chemical taste on the back of the tongue. Freshly painted arrows, in what might have been alien blood, pointed the way.

They splashed carefully along a series of narrow corridors, following the signs and keeping a wary watch on all sides. Stuart insisted on keeping a few yards ahead of the others, so taut now that he was practically vibrating with tension. Douglas made a point of appearing carefree and relaxed. Nina and Tel huddled together for comfort, both clearly wishing they were somewhere else. They began to hear sounds up ahead. Slow, heavy impacts of something large moving ponderously through the corridors. Groans and hootings and strange clicking clacking noises. Splashing sounds, the gurgling of running water, and the steady rush of thick liquids moving through concealed pipes. The steam was getting thicker. And finally they came to what used to be the main swimming area.

The pool was huge, and full of chemically treated waters, in which swam the larger aliens. In its heyday, it would have taken a thousand human bathers to fill the pool, but now it held barely a hundred large and languorous forms. The steam and the water hid most of their details, for which the humans were frankly grateful. The aliens were large bluish-gray shapes, bulbous and undulating, with long barbed tentacles and rows of great staring eyes. They could never have appeared at Parliament, except as holos. Other aliens shared the waters, drifting slowly here and there and rising up to study their visitors. There were scales and carapaces and slick furs, limbs and tails and protuberances that made no sense at all. Down at the bottom of the pool floated great flowering masses with exaggerated sense organs and trailing roots.

All the aliens who could tolerate Logres’s gravity only if their weight was to some extent supported by the water were in the pool. More species stood watching on the marble floor around the pool—some humanoid, some reptiloid, some fungal, all of them glistening wetly from the steam. And a few shapes so frankly nightmarish even Douglas couldn’t stand to look at them for long. Some held edged weapons, some carried energy guns along with a sprinkling of devices that Douglas couldn’t even recognize. For a long time, the humans and the aliens just stood and looked at each other.

“I have never felt so unwelcome in my life,” whispered Nina. “And I’ve been around.”

“You are our guests,” said a roughly humanoid shape moving forward through the steam to stand before them. It was covered in overlapping silver scales, like a body armor—even the elongated head. Crimson eyes burned balefully behind the silver helm. “I am Toch’Kra, of the Maggara. I speak for the community. Which one of you is King Douglas?”

“That would be me,” said Douglas, pushing Stuart gently but firmly to one side. “Nice place you have here. Very . . . moist. Ingenious use of the pool, to help with gravity.”

“The steam helps too,” said Toch’Kra. “We pump it full of the elements necessary for our survival. We cannot speak of what it will do to your lungs.”

“It’s all right,” said Nina. “We’re not staying.”

“I was once King,” said Douglas. “But Finn stole my throne. Now I am a hunted fugitive like you.”

“Not quite like us, human King. You can at least leave this place, and walk the city. We are trapped here. Once, many of us made up the various alien embassy staffs. We were proud to come here, to Logres, to be part of the great adventure of Empire. We believed we had immunity and protection. Instead, we were hunted down like animals, and those unlucky enough to be caught were butchered, and then eaten or displayed as trophies.”

“I’m sure he’d like to do the same to me, if he could,” said Douglas. “We have a common enemy. I’m here to suggest an alliance against him.”

One of the great shapes lurched half up out of the water, made deep hooting noises, and then fell back again. Water surged up over the side of the pool and soaked the legs of the humans. They stood their ground. They knew they couldn’t afford to appear weak. Toch’Kra nodded to the shape.

“He says, what use can we be? Many of us are dying, from lack of food and proper trace elements. From your oppressive gravity. From the accumulating effects of a hostile environment. And some are simply withering, so far from home or hope or sanity. Most of the support tech designed to maintain us here had to be abandoned when we fled our embassies. Why have you come to us, human King? You have your own people to fight your battles. Most of us couldn’t survive outside these walls.”

“I’m here because you are my people too, and I won’t abandon you,” said Douglas. “This is your rebellion as much as ours. Finn must be brought down, and the old order returned, and for that I’m going to need all the help I can get. Nina. Nina . . .”

“Oh! Yes!” Nina tore her gaze away from the long crooked shape moving slowly across the ceiling, leaving a shiny trail behind it, and concentrated on Toch’Kra. “I’m setting up a rogue news channel and communications site. I’m pretty sure we could punch brief messages through to your home planets. Could they send reinforcements, or other help?”

“No,” said Toch’Kra. “The last reports our embassies received told of human ships quarantining our planets. No one allowed offworld. And there is the constant threat of the transmutation engines. We dare not move openly until Finn’s power has been clearly broken. We have learned to be a practical, paranoid people through our contact with Humanity.”

“Don’t blame us all for Finn’s actions,” said Stuart. “I don’t think he is human, anymore. If he ever was.”

“Fight beside us,” said Douglas. “Set an example for your peoples to follow. Take revenge for what has been done to you. After all, what have you got to lose? Whatever happens in the rebellion, it’s got to be better than hiding out here and dying by inches.”

“True,” said the alien. “Our life here is not so precious that we are keen to prolong it. But neither will we throw our lives away to no good purpose. We remember you, King Douglas. You swore to protect us. You failed. Why should we listen to you now?”

“Back then, I couldn’t even protect myself,” said Douglas. “I was just a man on a throne, betrayed by people I had every reason to trust. Things are different now. I have a cause, and an army, and you can be a part of that. Revenge . . . can soothe many an old hurt.”

The alien studied him for a long moment with its unreadable silver face, and then it turned away to talk with the others, in the pool and out. The untranslated barks and squeals of alien speech filled the steamy air. Eventually Toch’Kra turned back to face the humans.

“Even if we were willing to fight, what help could we be, when most of us couldn’t survive in your environment?”

Douglas nodded thoughtfully, but inside he was grinning broadly. He had them, even if they didn’t know it yet. They’d stopped asking why, and moved on to how. “There is much you can do. There are many places you can go that humans cannot. Service tunnels, sewer access points, waste disposal outlets, and all the other places humans can’t survive without heavy tech support. And there are people here in the Rookery who can build you whatever tech support you need, to move around freely. You supply the plans, they’ll supply the tech. There are people here who can build anything, especially if it’s illegal. So, what do you say? Are you with us?”

“There are many species here,” said Toch’Kra. “We do not all share the same goals, ways, or even the same concepts. Some of us are as alien to each other as we are to you. But we will discuss the matter. Many of us understand, or have learned, the need for revenge. I think, when the discussion is over . . . we will follow you, King Douglas.”

There wasn’t really much left to say after that, so Douglas bowed courteously to Toch’Kra, and then to the pool, and led his people back out of the baths. Behind them rose the sound of loud debate, in a dozen inhuman languages. Nina shuddered briefly.

“I swear, I will never eat seafood again.”

* * * *

The great esper Diana Vertue, once known as Jenny Psycho, once dead but now alive again, strode through the streets of the Parade of the Endless as though she owned them, heading for the Rookery. She was broadcasting a powerful telepathic aversion meme, so that everyone else looked everywhere except at her. She passed a gaggle of Church Militant peacekeepers with malice in their eyes, bored and looking for trouble, and Diana was tempted to do something hilariously appalling to them, but decided reluctantly not to. She didn’t want to attract attention. Not yet, anyway. The city wasn’t how she remembered it at all, and she didn’t care for the feel of the streets. There was an overlying pall of gloom, fear, pain, and repression, leaking from a million untutored minds, and yet there was more to it than that.

Diana stopped by the Victory Gardens, to stand before the statues and graves of Jack Random and Ruby Journey. The statues didn’t look much like the people she remembered, but she was used to that. The few representations she’d seen of herself had been nothing short of laughable. She’d never had that big a bust in her life. She sighed quietly, remembering. It had been a long time since she and Jack and Ruby had boarded the old Deathstalker Standing, the ancient stone castle that was also a starship, to go into one last desperate battle against the armies of Shub, and then the massed forces of the Recreated. And a long, long time since she’d found them lying together, stone-cold dead on the cold stone floor, side by side as they had been in life. Forensic evidence suggested they’d murdered each other, but Diana Vertue suppressed that. The people didn’t need to know everything about their heroes.

She smiled briefly. She’d never thought she’d miss the blustering old rogue and the coldhearted bounty hunter, but they had both done amazing things in their time. People these days seemed . . . smaller, somehow. Less colorful. She concentrated, and a rain of rose petals fell silently upon the statues. And then she looked round sharply as her open mind seemed to catch an echo of an old familiar presence, a sense of power upon the air, not long ago at all.

“Owen?” she said, wonderingly.

But of course there was no reply. Owen Deathstalker had been dead and gone these past two hundred years, and the Empire was a lesser place because of it. She’d always admired the Deathstalker, with his honor and his courage and his dry, sardonic wit. She never told him that, of course. She didn’t want him to get bigheaded. But after he was gone, she wished . . . she wished she could have just sat down with him, once, and talked. She liked to think they would have had a lot in common. She missed him; but then, so did everyone.

She could still remember the powerful inhuman voice, coming from everywhere and nowhere, to tell them all that Owen Deathstalker was dead. Dead, like Jack and Ruby. Hardened soldiers, who’d taken everything Shub could throw at them and never once flinched, had stood around her crying their hearts out for the loss of the one man they’d all revered. The one who’d been the best of them all.

He’d made the rebellion possible. He’d made winning possible. Even though he’d always known heroes died young and bloody and far from home.

And yet . . . his presence seemed to permeate the Victory Gardens, even though he had no grave there. He had been here, and recently. She knew it like she knew her own name. She grinned briefly, her heart rising. She’d found a way back from the dead; maybe he had too. The Deathstalker had always been one for pulling a miracle out of the hat at the last possible moment. She left the Victory Gardens and headed for the Rookery again, and her heart and her step were a lot lighter. She felt better about the day, and her mission. She was going to hook up with Douglas Campbell and lead him back to greatness. He needed her. Even if he didn’t know it yet.

The overpowering pressure of the city’s oppressed minds still hung about her like a dark cloud, but Diana Vertue was learning to see through it. Touched and transformed by the Mater Mundi, in her time she had been one of the most powerful esper minds living, and now that she was back her strength was rapidly returning. Strange lights glowed in her mind like paper lanterns with horrible faces. The ELFs, abroad in the long night of the soul. Elf had been a proud name in her time, a force for justice, and Diana hated these new ELFs all the more for making the name an obscenity. She could sense thralls everywhere, human minds suppressed and silently screaming, so the ELFs could run their bodies from a distance. She’d expected that, but the sheer numbers staggered her. She was pretty sure the Emperor Finn didn’t know there were this many thralls in his capital city. Maybe she should send him a note.

It was clear she’d come back from the dead not a moment too soon. The ELFs were spreading their influence, and growing in power. The more people they could control and drain, the more powerful their minds became. Diana had to wonder if Finn knew that, as well. She increased the power of her mental shields, just in case. It wouldn’t do to have the enemy know she was back, just yet.

She paused by the window of a store and studied the display of vidscreens interestedly as the regular (approved by Finn) news channel was shouldered aside by a rogue news broadcast from the Rookery. Nina Malapert’s beaming face replaced the meaningless smile of the regular newscaster, and her voice rang out clear and happy and entirely unworried, like a breath of fresh air in a slaughterhouse.

“Hello again, sweeties! It’s Nina Malapert back again, the voice and face of the coming rebellion! Guess what? King Douglas is back, and boy is he ever mad at Finn! Right now the true King is putting together an army that’s going to drag that so-called Emperor off his stolen throne, and he wants you to know that things are going to start happening very soon now. Expect open displays of sedition, rebellion, and just plain crankiness all over Logres and especially in the Parade of the Endless. The rebellion is under way, that’s official, and you heard it here first! And now, here’s a whole bunch of news stories that Finn and his creatures don’t want you to know about.”

There then followed a long series of news stories about things that Finn had ordered done, or was planning to have done, most of which were supposed to be strictly secret. Some of them even surprised Diana. More stories followed, about all the things that were going wrong because Finn couldn’t be bothered with everyday problems, so his people didn’t care either. And even more stories about the foul-ups and general ineptitude of Finn’s rule. Diana was just starting to enjoy herself when Nina’s face and voice were suddenly swept from the screen by the news station’s superior tech. A message appeared, saying Service Will Be Resumed, so Diana set off for the Rookery again.

It was good to know Douglas Campbell had finally got off his regal arse, and was back in action again. She’d been wondering whether she’d have to jump-start his motivation for him, and some of the ideas she’d come up with had been particularly unpleasant. But then, as Diana Vertue or Jenny Psycho, she’d never hesitated to do the necessary thing—no matter how distasteful, or who might get hurt, including herself. She had learned her lessons well, in the old Empire torture cells of Silo Nine, also known as Worm-boy Hell.

The rebellion needed a figurehead, and she’d always known it couldn’t be her. She might be an official legend, but people needed a leader they could feel comfortable around, and preferably one who didn’t have the word Psycho as part of her name. No one ever doubted her abilities as a fighter, but she’d be the first to admit she’d never been a people person. No, Douglas would do fine. With the right backup and guidance.

She strode confidently over the border and into the Rookery, and the Church Militant guards on duty didn’t even try to stop her. She dropped her aversion meme to allow herself to be seen, and her power crackled on the air around her. The guards couldn’t run away fast enough. Some were even crossing themselves as they ran. Quite a few innocent citizens also took to their heels, on both sides of the border. Diana Vertue smiled. It was good to know she could still make an impression. She stopped and looked around her.

She needed to make a different kind of impression now. Something dramatic, to announce the return of an old legend. It took her only a moment to reach out with her mind and find a thrall, a nondescript little man lurking inconspicuously in a doorway. Diana walked right up to him, froze his legs when he tried to run, and then blasted the possessing esper right out of the thrall’s mind. The ELF mind fled screaming, and the no-longer-possessed man fell forward onto his knees, shaking and sobbing but purely himself again. He tried to babble his thanks in between the tears running down his cheeks, but Diana had no time for that. More thralls were coming. She could feel them all around her, their thoughts buzzing like angry wasps from a disturbed nest. There were lots and lots of them, heading right for her. Diana smiled. She was just in the mood for a good workout.

Possessed men and women came running at her from all directions, their faces twisted with the rage and passions of the possessing minds. Some had edged weapons, some had only their bare hands, but they all had murder on their ELF minds. Diana Vertue was their oldest enemy, and they would stop at nothing to kill her again. They pushed other people out of their way, striking out blindly, their gaze fixed on Diana as she stood before them, smiling calmly. She waited till they were almost upon her, and then summoned up her power. Psionic energies surged and crackled in the street around her, and her presence flowered like a rose made up of thorns. She was Diana Vertue, Jenny Psycho, the first human uber-esper. She had touched the minds of the AIs of Shub and brought them back to sanity. She fought the Recreated to a standstill. She had been betrayed and murdered, lived on in the oversoul, and now was back again, to deal with unfinished business. Let the thralls come. Let them all come. She was Diana Vertue, her time come round again, and she would show these miserable new ELFs what power really was.

Only she never got the chance. The thralls came charging down the street, and boiled out of the side alleys to surround her. They called her name in angry vicious voices, and boasted of the terrible things they were going to do to her. Diana Vertue gathered up her power, and then stopped, astonished, as a dozen young women in brightly colored silks appeared out of nowhere. They materialized in a protective circle around Diana, lightning crackling in their hands. They wore black roses in their hair, and tribal patterns painted on their faces. They struck the same impressive pose and glared haughtily at the stunned thralls. They gestured grandly, and a psi storm of exploding energies roared up and down the street, picking up thralls and throwing them away, tossing the helpless bodies around like rag dolls. The ELF minds screamed with rage and fear, but they could not stand against the power of the newcomers. The twelve women gestured almost contemptuously, and the possessing minds were thrust out of their stolen bodies, and sent howling off into the night.

The psi storm slowly abated, and the air grew settled again. Up and down the long street, over a hundred men and women sat shaking and crying and holding each other, free at last. The air had that clean, focused feeling that follows a thunderstorm. The twelve young women turned as one to face Diana Vertue. They were all grinning broadly and looking very pleased with themselves. Diana nodded slowly.

“All right, I’m officially impressed. Now who the hell are you?”

One of the women stepped forward. “I am Alessandra Duquesne, and we are the Psycho Sluts! Defenders of the right, avengers of the downtrodden, and arse-kickers supreme! We modeled ourselves on your legend, and swore to do your name honor by performing feats of great glory!” She stopped for a moment to get her breath, and Diana cut in quickly. She knew a long speech coming when she heard one.

“Yes. I’ve heard of you. Headstrong young troublemakers, too impulsive to follow the ways of the oversoul, and far too powerful for your own good. I thought you all left with New Hope, in the Icarus Working, and were on your way to Mistworld?”

The Psycho Sluts exchanged smug glances, and sniggered amongst themselves. “We never really got on with the oversoul,” said Alessandra. “We were always far too individual, and proud of it, to settle comfortably into the mass-mind. We left the oversoul to come to the Rookery, just before New Hope headed off into orbit and exile. We wanted to stay and fight. There’s always been a rogue esper presence here; minds too crooked or strange for the mass-mind. We fit in just fine. We earn our keep sniffing out thralls and blasting them free, but we’ve never seen so many in one place before! They really do want you dead, don’t they?”

“What do you want with me?” Diana said bluntly.

The Psycho Sluts look at each other, caught off guard. “Well,” said Alessandra, “we want to be your army! We always worshiped your memory, your take-no-prisoners, kill-them-all-and-let-God-sort-them-out policy towards the bad guys, and once we learned you were back in the flesh, we’ve been waiting for you to come here. We want to work with you, to spread terror and destruction in your name! The rebellion starts here! Well, actually, it’s already started, and Douglas Campbell is leading it, but of course now that you’re back—”

“No,” Diana said immediately. “The Campbell is King. He leads. I came here to support him, and if you want to work with me, so will you.”

The Psycho Sluts considered this, and then shrugged, pretty much in unison. Diana looked from one eager young face to another. Had she ever been this young, this gung ho? She sighed quietly. She wasn’t at all sure she needed or wanted the support of a bunch of wannabe loose cannons, but they’d probably do less damage to the cause in the long run if she kept them where she could keep an eye on them. So it seemed she had her own personal army, whether she wanted one or not. She wondered fleetingly if Owen ever had to cope with problems like this. Still, she was glad she had something to bring to Douglas, apart from her own rather controversial legend.

“We know where there are more thralls!” said Alessandra, almost jumping up and down on the spot in entirely unsuppressed excitement. “Let’s kick some more ELF butt before we go to see Douglas!”

“Yes,” said Diana. “The more people we can free from ELF possession, the better.”

“That too!” said Alessandra.

* * * *

And so, Diana and her newfound friends the Psycho Sluts went, eventually, to meet with King Douglas and his people. He wasn’t an easy man to get to see, these days, and Diana had to perform a few minor miracles and wonders to get her due attention, but once people realized she really was who she said she was, they couldn’t pass her on fast enough. Just as well. No one stopped Diana Vertue when she was on a roll. Douglas, Stuart, and Nina met with her in their hotel room, which had somehow become the center of rebel operations, despite its cramped size. The Psycho Sluts stood guard outside the door, putting the wind up the regular guards. Everyone had heard of the Psycho Sluts, who, when they really got going, could cause more property damage than an earthquake. There was talk of getting up a collection to send them to help out another planet. Any other planet.

Diana studied the three dubious faces sitting on the opposite side of the table, and smiled easily. “Hi, I’m Diana Vertue, and you need my help.”

“Yes,” said Douglas. “When Jenny Psycho appears on the scene, people usually do.”

“I haven’t used that name in well over a century,” said Diana, giving him one of her best scowls. “And if you’re wise, you won’t either. In case you didn’t know it, this whole area is infested with thralls, reporting everything you do to the Emperor. You don’t have strong enough esper minds here to detect them, let alone deal with them. So, you need me.”

Douglas nodded slowly. “And those awful young ladies currently lurking outside on the landing?”

“They call themselves the Psycho Sluts, in honor of me. And no, I didn’t get a say in the matter. They’re rogue espers. They mean well.”

“Psycho Sluts,” said Nina. “Doesn’t the name alone just inspire confidence?”

“All the legends who could have returned to back me up, and I had to get Jenny Psycho,” Douglas said heavily. “No offense . . . Diana. Tell you what, I’ve got to address an important rally in about an hour. Why don’t you and your people tag along, and if you spot any thralls in the crowd, show me what you can do. All right?”

The look on Diana’s face made it clear it wasn’t all right in any shape or form, but she nodded briefly. Even legends had to prove themselves. She waited down in the lobby with the Psycho Sluts, who amused themselves playing rat croquet with their psychokinesis, until it was time for Douglas and his people to go to the rally. The Psycho Sluts nodded cheerfully to Douglas, who did his best to avoid their eye. They worried him. They moved to form a protective circle around him as they walked through the streets. People gathered along the way to cheer and wave, and Douglas smiled and waved royally back to them. Stuart watched the crowds warily, one hand always near his gun. Nina filmed it all with her floating camera, for later broadcast. Diana ignored the surroundings, conserving her strength. She knew the real trouble would start at the rally, where the ELFs could do the most damage.

The rally was being held in an open square, and a large crowd had gathered there to listen to Douglas Campbell. The Psycho Sluts opened up a corridor through the crowd for Douglas to make his entrance, and he strode briskly through the crowd and leapt up onto the simple wooden stage. The crowd cheered loudly, and Douglas stood proudly before them, looking every inch the King in exile. He didn’t even wait for the cheers to die away before getting stuck in. He spoke well and fluently, haranguing the crowd and raising their spirits, inciting them to rebellion. He could talk of the poverty and harshness of the Rookery because he’d known them himself, and he could talk of the Emperor’s treachery and evil because he’d known them too. His speech might not have had the ease and polish that Anne Barclay’s writing would have given it, but no one doubted that everything he said came from the heart. They had to fight back, he said, they had to rebel. Because things were only going to get worse, because already far too many people were suffering unjustly, because it was their duty and their right. When your back’s to the wall, there’s nowhere to go but forward, he said, and the crowd roared his name like a battle cry. Soon they were applauding his every statement as though it were an article of faith.

The Psycho Sluts stood arrayed before and around the stage, defying anyone to get past them, while Diana moved unobtrusively through the crowd, quietly noting the location of each and every thrall without letting them know they’d been spotted. They were gradually infiltrating the crowd, in ones and twos, smiling and applauding so as not to seem out of place, but someone else looked out through their cold eyes. When they thought there were enough of them, they began interrupting Douglas’s speech with boos and jeers and catcalls. A few tried to shout Douglas down with insults and obscenities. The crowd around them shifted uneasily, angry but not yet ready to act themselves. They looked to Douglas to see what he would do. And Douglas just raised his voice, silenced the heckles with his rough and ready wit, and kept on going. He’d suffered worse in Parliament.

The thralls fell silent, linked minds, and lashed out with a combined telepathic onslaught, catching everyone by surprise. The ELFs weren’t usually strong enough to generate their power through their thralls. The crowd staggered back and forth, clutching at their heads as a razor storm of unbearable thoughts roared in their minds. Vile sights and sensations overpowered their senses, plunging them into Hell, and the ELFs enjoyed every moment of it. A group of thralls nearest the stage seized the opportunity to attack Douglas directly, under cover of the confusion. They lunged at him with drawn swords, but Diana had seen enough. She lashed out with her mind, blanketing the whole square, and the telepathic attack shut off abruptly as every single thrall collapsed as one. Diana turned the thralls nearest the stage upside down and shook them, just for the show of it, before blasting out the occupying minds. The crowd quickly returned to normal, and looked around for their savior. Douglas grinned down at Diana from the stage.

“All right, you’re hired.”

* * * *

The Emperor Finn Durandal was not at all happy about being roused from his sleep at such an early hour of the morning, but since the only people who had this particular private comm number were the ELF leaders, he supposed he’d better answer it. Somehow he just knew it wasn’t going to be good news. He sat slumped on the side of his bed, yawning and rubbing at his eyes, and finally activated the viewscreen built into his bedside table.

“This had better be important,” he growled.

The scowling face on the screen was unknown to him, but he expected that. The ELF leaders never showed their true faces; they only ever spoke through their thralls. Even after all this time, Finn had no idea who the ELF leaders really were—one of the many things that had been bothering him lately. The possessed face on the screen looked distinctly upset, which pleased Finn somewhat. If he wasn’t having a good time, no one else should either.

“We have been attacked,” the ELF leader said flatly. “A psychic assault of incredible power. Many of our people are still recovering.”

“Who the hell could do that to you?” said Finn.

“Diana Vertue has appeared in the Rookery.”

Finn blinked a few times. “That’s a good trick,” he said finally. “Considering she’s been dead for over a century.”

“That doesn’t mean anything where she’s concerned. She was an avatar of the Mater Mundi, and even the uber-espers were scared of that force. Diana Vertue is back, and she has sided with the Campbell. You should have let us kill him long ago.”

“Possibly,” said Finn. “But I did so want him to suffer first. Very well, kill him, if it will make you happy.”

“We can’t. He is protected by Diana Vertue and her army of rogue espers! Already they have cost us hundreds of thralls. Our presence in the Rookery has been almost wiped out! You have to do something!”

“I am doing something,” said Finn, just a little testily. “I never thought you and your thralls would be enough to stop Douglas from putting together a rebellion, once he came out of his sulk. He always did have a way with words, along with that damned charismatic personality of his. So I’ve been preparing my own little army, to fight specifically in the Rookery. I always knew I’d have to deal with the ungrateful little bastards someday. The Rookery has finally become too dangerous to be allowed to exist. I’ve been reluctant to sign their death warrant . . . partly because there was always the chance that I’d need their special talents again someday, and partly because I’m a sentimental old softy, but . . . Get your remaining people out of the Rookery. I’m going to send in my very best fanatics, to cleanse the place with fire and steel. I will tear down the buildings, and raise a mountain of skulls.”

“You’d better,” said the ELF.

The viewscreen went blank. Finn stuck out his tongue at it. He sighed, stood up, and rang for his servants to come in and dress him. No point in trying to get back to sleep now. Not when he had slaughter and devastation to plan. He ordered a series of calls to his generals in the Church Militant. If he didn’t sleep, no one else got to sleep either.

* * * *

Pure Humanity and the Church Militant had become one church and one philosophy, under the benevolent guidance of the very practical Joseph Wallace. The shock troops of the Empire now worshiped Finn directly, and natural selection among the faithful, bolstered by numerous purges, had produced an army of implacable zealots and fanatical soldiers. They would die for Finn, though of course they would much rather kill for him. He was the Chosen One, the Defender of Humanity, their day and their night. And they were his attack dogs.

There were thousands of them, armed to the teeth, their heads boiling with battle drugs and virulent propaganda. They were the righteous, and mercy and compassion and all such weaknesses were not in them. They gathered at the boundaries of the Rookery and then marched in by all the entryways at once, singing their awful hymns, and killing everyone they saw. They shot down men, women, and children, and cut down those who didn’t run away fast enough. They set fires and planted explosives in buildings. Their lord had said that not one stone should remain standing upon another, and not one heathen soul should be left alive to see the coming day. They did not care, or falter. They were doing God’s work, and it felt fine, so fine.

Men, women, and children lay dead and dying in the streets, and the Church Militant soldiers marched right over them. Fires burned brightly against the dark, and explosions sounded in the night like the heavy footfalls of an avenging God. Anywhere else in the city there would have been nothing but panic, and people running blindly, but this was the Rookery, and the people here were made of harder stuff. Word passed quickly of the invasion, and all too soon the Church Militant advance ground to a halt in the face of implacable opposition. Men, women, and children came running from all directions to block the invaders’ way, all of them armed with some kind of weapon. More people gathered on the roofs, to rain down debris on the enemy. There were snipers with energy guns at the higher windows, and fast-footed youths darted out of alleyways with improvised grenades.

In the Rookery it was truly said: Any man against his neighbor, but every man against the outsider.

Douglas, Stuart, and Nina worked tirelessly through the endless hours of the morning, organizing the rebel forces, sending people to fight where they were most needed. Diana Vertue and the Psycho Sluts struck the armed forces again and again, darting in and out in vicious hit-and-run tactics, leaving death and destruction in their wake. Even some of the aliens emerged onto the streets, for a chance to strike back at their persecutors.

The Rookery rose up, combined at last into a single great force with a single aim. The Emperor had made himself their enemy, a threat to their homes and their lives, and they would never rest again till they had brought him down. The people surged through the streets, throwing themselves at the invaders in wave after wave, howling a hundred different battle cries in a single enraged voice. The end result of generations of people who had had to fight for everything in their lives. Guns blazed and swords flashed, and the Church Militant soldiers fell in their dozens, and then in their hundreds, and finally in their thousands. The people of the Rookery came from everywhere at once, to drag the fanatics down by sheer force of numbers. The Rookery rose up, savage and unrelenting, and all in a moment the invasion became a rout. The Church Militant abandoned their weapons, their orders, and their faith in Finn and themselves, and in ragged groups they ran for the Rookery boundaries. Of the hundreds of thousands of proud and arrogant zealots who’d marched into the Rookery, only a few hundred made it out alive.

Nina Malapert got a lot of it on film, and broadcast every bit of it on her rogue news site, with the tech team using all their ingenuity to keep it on the air for as long as possible. All over Logres, and on worlds across the Empire, people watched as Finn’s authority was challenged, and thrown back in his face. They saw the blood and the bodies, and whole families slaughtered by the Church Militant troops, and then they watched as Douglas Campbell and Stuart Lennox fought back to back against impossible odds, and never had those two looked more like heroes.

Finn’s censors shut down the broadcast, eventually, and there was nothing left but blank screens, all across the Empire.

In the Rookery, the people gathered up their dead, treated the wounded as best they could, and put out the fires. They didn’t feel much like celebrating. But at least now there was no doubt over whose side they were on. They stopped pursuing the troops at the boundaries only because Douglas sent messages to call them back. He knew they weren’t ready to go head-to-head with Finn’s armies. Not yet. Hot tempers subsided into cold, bitter anger as the people of the Rookery counted their dead and added up the damage. And hard-hearted and harder-headed men and women, who would never have come together for something as nebulous as a cause, now found themselves united in an aching hunger for revenge.

And on worlds all across the Empire, and most especially on Logres, people regarded their blank viewscreens, and looked at the Emperor Finn and his shock troops in a whole new way.

* * * *

Finn was furious. He raged back and forth in his palace communications center, trying to summon up more troops, but most of his armed forces were posted as occupation troops in cities all across Logres. It would take hours to bring them all to the Parade of the Endless, and then, who would control the cities they left? . . . Finn had attack sleds, battle wagons, and even starcruisers at his disposal, but again it would take hours to call them in. Finn kicked out at the furniture—and any of his staff who didn’t get out of his way fast enough. He couldn’t understand how it had all gone wrong so quickly. How a rabble of outcasts and criminals could have wiped out his elite troops so easily.

Douglas. It had to be Douglas.

Finn drove everyone else out of the comm center, and called on the ELFs for help. A large enough army of thralls might yet save the day for him. Suicide troops, driven on by outside minds, could still overrun the Rookery’s defenses. But none of the ELF leaders, or the uber-espers, would take his calls. Finn sat down slowly in the empty room, his thoughts whirling madly, unable to settle. For the first time in a long time, he wasn’t the one driving events, and he didn’t know what to do. He must have missed something, but what? What?

In the end, after it had been quiet for too long, the comm staff sent for Joseph Wallace. He calmed everyone down as best he could, with soothing words and rousing platitudes, and then he stuck his head gingerly round the door of the comm center. Finn was still sitting in his chair, thinking, ignoring flashing message lights on consoles all around him. Joseph decided this wasn’t the moment to inform Finn that uprisings were breaking out on planets all across the Empire, inspired by what people had seen happening in the Rookery. Joseph gently closed the door, and quietly began giving orders in Finn’s name. Security people came and went, putting together a depressing picture of what was happening everywhere at once. Joseph authorized vicious reprisals and clampdowns, but as fast as rebellion was slapped down in one place, it sprang up in another.

Alarms sounded in the comm center, but Finn turned them off. The noise made his head hurt, and he needed to think.

* * * *

If he’d known what was going on with the ELF leaders and the uber-espers, Finn would have been even more disturbed. Behind the scenes, an even more bitter struggle was going on, with no quarter asked or given. The ELF leaders and the uber-espers had finally erupted into open war over who controlled the movement. Both sides had been secretly amassing great armies of thralls, to feed their power and back their play, and after what had happened in the Rookery both sides had decided that the time had come to break free from Finn, and go their own way.

It was an esper war, fought on mental battlegrounds, largely unnoticed by the rest of the world at first, but nonetheless vicious and deadly for all that. The huge thrall armies were living power sources, reservoirs of mental energy that both sides could tap into as they fought their war. Telepathic battles raged back and forth as minds clashed with minds, on eerie inhuman landscapes created just for that purpose. Minds crashed and splintered, and esper attacks sometimes spilled over into the material world, in outbreaks of weird weather and probability fluctuations. Psi storms sleeted through the surrounding areas, destroying all unshielded minds in their paths. The two sides raged back and forth, neither strong enough to entirely overwhelm the other. But neither side would back down, and so the psionic pressure built and built, until finally the energies spiraled entirely out of control and blew one whole section of the Parade of the Endless apart in an explosion so loud and bright the echoes could be felt all over Logres. (Finn later blamed the explosion on rebel saboteurs. Because he had to say something.)

The esper battle ended in a stalemate, with neither side gaining or losing ground, and so both sides retreated to lick their psychic wounds, and prepare for future battles. Both the ELF leaders and the uber-espers were determined to stand alone now, and follow their own destiny. They didn’t need Finn anymore. They would rule Humanity on their own terms, and to hell with all alliances of convenience.

* * * *

Finn crushed the uprisings, eventually. It cost him time and money and manpower, far more than he could afford, but he had no choice. He had to maintain control. Planet by planet, city by city, the rebellions were stamped out with gun and steel, and a slow sullen silence fell across the Empire, every bit of it now under strict martial law. Rebel bodies hung from lampposts in their hundreds, in every city, and heavily armed and armored troops walked the city streets, looking nervously over their shoulders.

The Rookery was strictly off-limits. No one went in, and no one came out.

Finn was more worried about the loss of his ELF allies. None of them would talk to him anymore, and all his contacts seemed to have disappeared underground. He’d relied upon their support for too long; his spy organizations were lost without their telepathically gained intelligence. Finn told Joseph Wallace that production of esp-blockers was now to have priority over everything else, but couldn’t explain why. Unfortunately, it turned out you couldn’t manufacture esp-blockers without the required esper brain tissues, and the cloning of esper tissues had always had a high failure rate. So mass production was going to be a slow, time-consuming process. (Joseph delivered that message over the comm, from a safe distance. He still didn’t entirely trust Finn’s temper.)

The Emperor had other problems too. He went to see Elijah du Katt, in his new laboratory set within the palace. (Finn had decided to keep his remaining allies close at hand, wherever possible.) There was only one du Katt these days. The Elijahs had tried to assemble their own power base and a new clone underground, and Finn couldn’t have that, so he personally shot all the Elijah du Katts except one. He neither knew nor cared whether the remaining du Katt was the original or not. It didn’t really matter.

Ostensibly Finn was visiting du Katt to discuss the problems of cloning esper brain tissues, but as always Finn had an ulterior motive. The recent uprisings had demonstrated very clearly that he had a shortage of manpower, especially now that he didn’t have the thralls to back him up any longer. He needed soldiers—armed men who would do what they were told without question. And he didn’t have the time to find and train and indoctrinate them. So, the obvious answer was an army of clones. To produce such an army would require a huge protein base, but luckily there was no shortage of dead bodies lying around, just waiting to be put to good use. And this new army would be programmed to know no fear, and absolutely no independence. They wouldn’t turn and run, like those so-called zealots he’d sent into the Rookery. Finn’s blood still boiled at the thought of his men running from a bunch of outcasts and cheap grifters. He would have cheerfully called in his fleet and scorched the whole area from orbit, but there was no way of doing that without taking out the whole of the Parade of the Endless. He was still thinking about it, though.

Finn expounded his plans for a new clone army at some length to the sole remaining and somewhat subdued du Katt. He strode up and down between the shining brand-new equipment, his ideas growing more extravagant by the moment. Du Katt just sat there, shaking his head slowly, until Finn told him to stop it. Du Katt wrung his hands together in front of him to stop them from shaking.

“To produce the number of clones you require, on the time scale you propose, presents us with . . . certain difficulties, that no amount of tech or funding will overcome. Your Majesty, the end product will almost certainly be . . . damaged goods.”

“Be specific,” said Finn, fiddling with a nearby piece of delicate and expensive equipment, just to watch du Katt flinch and twitch.

“Well, Your Majesty, the end product will almost certainly have physical defects, including but not limited to, a certain amount of brain damage.”

“Sounds like a plan to me,” said Finn. “Soldiers too stupid to rebel, and too dumb to do anything but follow orders. I can live with that. I’ll take two million, to begin with. And use the cell samples I brought as the base for their genetic structure.”

“Whose cells are they?” said du Katt.

“Mine, of course,” said Finn. “I have decided I want children. Lots and lots of them.” He laughed, and clapped the shaking du Katt on the shoulder. “Congratulate me! I’m going to be a father!”

* * * *

His next visit was to another laboratory he’d had moved to the palace, for security reasons. The owner hadn’t wanted to move, but it’s amazing how persuasive a gun pointed at the groin can be. And so, that renowned drug dealer, alchemist, and complete head case Dr. Happy now worked exclusively for Finn, in a brand-new lab with every convenience money could buy. Much to the sorrow of his many other customers. It had to be said that Dr. Happy wasn’t entirely the man he’d once been, before his long sojourn on Haden, in the proximity of the Madness Maze. But there was no denying he still possessed the most unique scientific mind in the Empire. And these days the good doctor labored tirelessly on a single project: the rebuilding of Anne Barclay.

Anne had been very nearly killed by the wreckage that fell on her during Douglas Campbell’s daring escape through the roof of the court. Anyone else probably would have died, given how long it took to get her to a regeneration tank. But the tank kept her hovering on the edge of death, while Dr. Happy turned his twisted mind to the problem. Finn had instructed Dr. Happy to go to any lengths to save Anne, so that was exactly what he did. What he could not cure or repair, he replaced or rebuilt, no matter how extreme the measures necessary. He worked wonders, pulling Anne back from the brink of the grave again and again, but unfortunately he couldn’t resist the impulse to re-create her in amusing ways. The good doctor had been influenced by his prolonged proximity to the Madness Maze, and it showed in his work. He had also taken to using himself as a test subject for all the new drugs he developed, on the grounds that the only way to fully understand the effects was to experience them firsthand.

One of the drugs killed him. Another brought him back. Or so he said. Either way, the end result was that Dr. Happy was now a walking, rotting corpse, within which his slowly decaying brilliant mind misfired from time to time. Implanted tech from dubious sources and a whole series of experimental new drugs kept him going, but his flesh continued to slowly mummify despite all his best efforts to rejuvenate it. Dr. Happy didn’t care. He savored the sensations of decay through preternaturally sharpened senses, and boasted that his new outlook on life—or rather death—gave him all kinds of new insights.

The sight that greeted Finn, as he entered the heavily guarded laboratory, would have shaken and sickened anyone else. Gone were the days of shining new tech and pristine equipment. The shadowed chamber was packed with animal cages and stank like a slaughterhouse. Experimental animals peered dolefully from the cages, while others lay scattered across the lab tables in various states of completion. Dr. Happy had been taking them apart and putting them back together in interesting new combinations, to see what would happen. Mostly they died, but he said he was learning a lot in the process.

Finn strode unhurriedly through the lab, peering dubiously at the latest assemblies pinned to the tables, and then looked up as Dr. Happy came tottering forward to greet him. The good doctor wore nothing but his chemical-stained lab coat over his emaciated, rotting body. Dark blotches covered the gray skin, and occasionally pale glimpses of bone showed through. Most of his white hair had fallen out, his sunken eyes were as yellow as urine, and his lips had drawn back from his teeth, turning his permanent smile into a rictus. He moved in sudden darting flurries, never still for a moment, filled with some terrible, remorseless energy.

“So good to see you again, Finn! Yes! Yes! Oh, happy day . . . We’re making progress here, definitely making progress. Don’t look at the rabbit; I never expected it to work. The other head was just a whim. You’ve come to see Anne, I presume? Yes, yes, I know, no time for chat. I see ghosts, you know.”

Finn paused, and looked at Dr. Happy. This was a new turn. “Ghosts?” he said carefully.

“Oh, yes. Spirits of the dead, restless souls of the departed, that sort of thing.” Dr. Happy spun round in a circle, flapping his bony hands as though shooing things away. “They’re always floating round the lab, getting in the way. Pestering me, when I have better things to do.” He looked fixedly at nothing for a long moment, his head cocked on one side. “They’re quiet, for the moment. I think you frighten them. I’m pretty sure some of them are people I came back from Haden with. You remember.”

“The crew of the Hunter, and the scientists of Haden,” said Finn. “The people you poisoned and drove insane.”

“It’s not my fault they weren’t strong enough to tolerate the miracles I fed them! I would have made them superhuman if they hadn’t all died on me. People have no stamina these days. I blame late toilet training, myself. You don’t think they blame me for their deaths, do you? How very unfair. But you’re here to see Anne, aren’t you? Come and see, come and see. I’ve made such marvelous progress since you were last here. You won’t recognize the old girl.”

“That had better not be true, for your sake,” said Finn, but Dr. Happy had already lurched away, and was pottering about his lab. He was heading towards the living quarters at the back, but he kept being distracted by various chemical distillations and computer displays. He gave his gene splicer an encouraging pat in passing, and beckoned imperiously for Finn to follow him. Finn sighed, and did so. The line between genius and madness was thin enough at the best of times, and being dead probably didn’t help. He followed Dr. Happy on his erratic journey, pausing now and then when the good doctor stopped to talk to people who weren’t there. More of his ghosts, presumably. Finn tried hard to see something, but couldn’t. He hated to miss out on things. Dr. Happy whirled round abruptly to face Finn.

“Now, this is interesting! This spirit claims to be you, come back in time from the future, after you died. I’d probably be able to understand him better if he didn’t have his head under his arm.”

Finn made a mental note to get as much work out of Dr. Happy as he could while he still lasted. “How are you getting on with your new version of the Deathstalker Boost?” he said, loudly and clearly.

“All right! All right! No need to shout! I’m dead, not deaf. The ears are still attached, see? And the Boost is going very well, thank you. I’ve already produced a viable prototype, and given it to Anne.”

“You’ve done what?” Finn said sharply. “I told you I wanted to test it myself first.”

Dr. Happy looked at him with his sunken eyes, and twitched his stiff fingers nervously. “There was no time, no time! Anne needed my Boost, if she was going to hold together. You have to remember, most of what I’ve done to her is extremely experimental. No one else could have kept her alive as long as I. I’ve used old Hadenman tech, Wampyr tech, and even some new options that came to me during my time with the Maze. I had no choice but to make her into a cyborg, after the appalling damage she suffered.” He paused, considering. “I have to admit, I’m not always sure how or even why some of it works, but we learn by doing, after all. Still, tech implants, miracle potions, and my loving care can only do so much. Often the very things that keep her alive are at war with each other in her poor abused body. The Boost should make all the difference. I have the highest hopes for it. Come and see, come and see!”

He pottered off again, and Finn followed him to the back of the lab. The living quarters were kept separate from the rest of the lab by a single door of solid steel. It was kept locked at all times, as much to keep Anne in as everyone else out. Dr. Happy spoke his name into the voice lock, and the door ground slowly open. Beyond it lay a comfortable enough room, with every amenity but no windows. Anne was standing before the full-length mirror again, studying herself. Her new self—or what had been done to it in the name of survival. Finn had offered to remove the mirror, on the grounds that it only upset her, but Anne had wrecked the room in protest, even denting the steel door, so he never mentioned it again.

Anne stood awkwardly. She was still learning how to walk and move smoothly in her new, altered form. She wore no clothing, so she could see herself more clearly. Tech implants bulged crudely out of her flushed pink skin, thrusting out sharp and curved edges. One arm was longer than the other, and the power unit in her back gave her a slight hunched look. Her body bulged in the wrong places, to contain everything that had been put into it. Long raised edges of scar tissue trailed paths all over her body, like the map of a new route into Hell. She moved jerkily, without grace, and often her hands broke things without meaning to. Sometimes she broke them deliberately, out of rage and frustration. Her hair had grown out gray from the stress, and her face was gaunt and tired. Her eyes had the golden gleam of the Hadenman, and when she spoke her voice was a harsh painful buzz. She didn’t look away from the mirror reflection when Finn entered, but when she spoke it was for him.

“I was beautiful for such a short time. I wish I’d enjoyed it more. Still, at least now the outside finally matches the inside.”

“You’ve been brooding again, haven’t you?” said Finn. “What have I told you about that? You have nothing to blame yourself for. Besides, beauty is in the eye of the be-holder.”

Anne tried something like a smile. “It takes one monster to appreciate another. There’s something new in me now, isn’t there?”

“Yes,” said Finn. “It’s a variant on the old Deathstalker Boost. It will make you stronger, faster, and hopefully a little more stable.”

Anne turned with awkward suddenness to face him. “Yes. I can feel it, like lightning in my veins. I feel . . . strong. I could probably knock down that stupid door of yours now, if I wanted. But where would I go? I don’t sleep anymore, you know. I don’t need to. Just as well, really. I had bad dreams.”

“You’re alive,” said Finn. “I promised you I wouldn’t let you die.”

“My Boost is actually an improvement on what the original was supposed to be,” said Dr. Happy, tottering in circles around Anne, and running his stiff fingers over the tech eruptions in her body. “My Boost is a continual thing, never stopping. You will never lose the benefits it gives you. My dear, you are practically superhuman. Of course, my Boost does have a regrettable tendency to burn up the host body, hence the new flush to the skin, but the various tech implants should balance that out.”

“How long will she last?” said Finn.

Dr. Happy shrugged jerkily. “How long have any of us got? She’ll certainly outlast me. And you too, if your ghost is to be believed.”

“Why have you done all this?” said Anne, staring at Finn with her golden Hadenman eyes. “Why is it so important to you that I live?”

“To prove that even monsters aren’t monsters all of the time,” said Finn.

“I miss James,” said Anne. “I want James. Make me another.”

Finn frowned. “I think the people would know he was a clone this time.”

“Not for them. Make another James for me.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Finn lied. He was wise enough to know that Anne needed a reason to go on living, but still selfish enough to want that reason to be him. A part of him was quietly sad that she couldn’t see the lengths he’d gone to, just for her.

“I’m tired,” said Anne. “Tired of the pain, of the changes. Of not being human.”

“The Boost will change that,” said Finn. “And there are still many useful things you can do with your life. Perhaps I should let Douglas know what’s happened to you. He might like to come and visit.”

“Yes,” said Anne. “I’d like to see Douglas again. One last time.”

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