Golgotha, Opening Gambit

Why me? thought Owen Deathstalker as he headed for the toilet yet again. He knew he wouldn’t really need to do anything once he got there, but his bladder wasn’t listening to reason. Not for the first time, it had ideas of its own. He was always like this when the pressure was on, and he had too much time to think. The afternoon before he’d made his first major speech at the Imperial Historians’ Convention, he’d spent so long in their toilets that they actually sent someone in to ask if he was all right.

Owen sniffed, stepped inside the starship’s single toilet, and pulled the door shut behind him. It wasn’t much; just a small steel cubicle with a gleaming steel bowl. Owen unzipped and aimed carefully. He didn’t want the others to think he was incredibly nervous. It was the waiting that got to him. He was hardly nervous at all during a fight. Usually, because he was too busy trying to keep himself from being killed to have time to worry. But beforehand, his imagination always insisted on picturing all the ways things could go horribly wrong in a hurry. And his current mission of heading for Golgotha, the most closely guarded planet in the Empire, in a golden ship built by inhuman beings who were once officially known as the Enemies of Humanity, had never struck him as being that sane an idea in the first place.

Even if it had been his idea.

But it had to be said the Hadenman ship was the best choice open to the nascent rebellion. His own ship, the marvelous Sunstrider, had been one of the fastest in the Empire, but he’d had to leave it where it crashed, deep in the deadly jungles of Shandrakor. And his ancestor Giles’s vessel, the Last Standing, had been ruled out very early on. A huge stone castle with a built-in stardrive was many things, but inconspicuous wasn’t one of them. The sleek golden ships of the Hadenmen, however, were everything the rebels needed, and more. Incredibly fast, powerfully armed, and so tightly cloaked there wasn’t a sensor display in the Empire sensitive enough to pick them up. In theory, anyway. The Hadenmen had been out of things for a while.

The one thing the starship hadn’t had was a toilet. Apparently, augmented men didn’t need such things. Owen hadn’t inquired further. He didn’t think he really wanted to know. When Owen had discovered he and Hazel d’Ark had been volunteered to represent the rebellion on this mission, he had argued long and loudly against the decision. And when he lost, as he’d always known he would, even before he opened his mouth, he had stated flatly that he wasn’t going anywhere with the Hadenmen until they installed a toilet. The Hadenman craft might be incredibly fast and powerful, but it was still a long trip to Golgotha, and Owen knew only too well what his nerves were going to be like.

So they’d added this cramped little cubicle especially for him and his nerves. There was no washbasin, rug around the base, or even a seat to lift. There was no toilet paper, either, but Owen had already decided very firmly that he wasn’t going to think about that eventuality. He looked at his reflection in the steel wall before him; a man in his mid twenties, tall and rangy with dark hair and darker eyes. Not exactly soft, but not the kind of person you’d be scared of meeting in a back alley, either. Owen sighed deeply, finished what he was doing, zipped up again, and left the toilet with as much dignity as he could muster.

Minimalist though it was, he preferred the look of the toilet to the interior of the Hadenman ship. Its layout had not been designed with human comforts in mind, like sense or logic, and some of its aspects were positively disturbing. Owen concentrated on getting back to Hazel, who was sitting cross-legged on the deck between two enigmatic protrusions of Hadenman machinery. She was busy dismantling and cleaning her new projectile weapon, and she spared Owen only a scornful glance as he approached. Hazel d’Ark was never bothered by nerves. Give her something destructive to play with, and she was happy as a pig in muck. Owen sank down beside her, being very careful not to touch anything.

There were no seats or rest stations anywhere in the ship. Instead unfamiliar inhuman technology filled the interior from stem to stern, with Hadenmen plugged into it here and there as needed. The augmented men were part of the ship, or it was part of them, and they ran it with their thoughts. Owen and Hazel fitted in where they could, and tried not to look too directly at the incomprehensible machinery. It made their eyes hurt. Lights came and went, of painful brightness and unfamiliar hues, and the angles of the larger shapes were disturbing, as though trying to lead the human eye somewhere it couldn’t or wouldn’t follow. Owen settled himself as comfortably as he could on the unyielding steel deck, and hugged his knees to his chest. The ship intimidated the hell out of him, and he didn’t care who knew it. He looked at Hazel, who was completely absorbed in what she was doing.

A tall, lithely muscular woman in her early twenties, Hazel always looked as though she was about to explode into action at any moment. Green eyes peered challengingly out at the world from under a mane of long ratty red hair, and her rare smiles came and went so quickly they were often missed.

As usual, she’d loaded herself down with weapons. Her disrupter hung in its usual place on her right hip, in its well-worn leather holster. Standard energy pistol, powerful enough to blast through steel plate as long as the gun’s energy crystal was fully charged. And provided you didn’t mind waiting the two minutes it took for the crystal to recharge between shots. Her sword hung on her left hip, the chased metal scabbard stretched out across the deck. Standard sword, heavy enough to do real damage, without being so long it became unwieldy. Scattered across the desk before her were the component parts of her projectile weapon. Actually, there looked to be enough parts to make several weapons. Owen had no idea the things were so damn complicated.

He had ambivalent feelings about the antiquated projectile weapons his ancestor Giles had provided from the Last Standing’s armory. They weren’t nearly as powerful or as accurate as energy weapons, but when they were pumping out several hundred bullets a minute on full auto, they didn’t really need to be. There was none of that waiting for two minutes between each shot nonsense with them, either. Hazel had all but fallen in love with the new (or more strictly speaking old) type of weapons, and sang their praises at every opportunity. She’d taken to carrying several of the guns and enough ammunition to bulge every pocket she had. Owen remained unconvinced, as yet. He carried a projectile weapon of his own as well as his disrupter, but he thought he’d wait and see how the gun performed in a continuous firefight before he made up his mind. Personally, he thought Hazel liked her new toys so much only because they had lots of separate pieces she could play with.

And finally, when push came to shove, he still believed in cold steel as the answer to most problems. A sword had no parts to go wrong, never ran out of ammo, and didn’t need to recharge for two minutes between use.

“You keep squeezing it dry like that, you’re going to flatten it,” Hazel said casually. “Never known anyone spend so much time in a toilet. Check your guns again. It’s very comforting.”

“No it isn’t,” said Owen. “There isn’t a single comforting thing anywhere in this unnatural ship, and that very definitely includes you.”

“You never cease to amaze me, aristo. I’ve seen you fight appalling odds and go charging into situations I wouldn’t tackle for all the credits in Golgotha’s Treasury. You come from one of the greatest warrior Families in the Empire, but every time we have to wait around for a bit, you get jumpier than a nun at a dating agency.”

“I am not a warrior,” said Owen determinedly, not looking at her. “I am an historian who is temporarily—and under extreme duress—being forced to act as a soldier of the rebellion. Personally, I can’t wait for the rebellion to be over so I can go back to being a minor scholar again, of no importance to anyone but myself and with no pressures apart from the occasional symposium. I still don’t see why I was volunteered for this mission.”

“Because it was your idea in the first place,” said Hazel. “Serves you right for being a smart-ass. If anyone shouldn’t be here, it’s me. I’m still not convinced any of this is going to work.”

“Then, what are you doing here?”

“Someone’s got to watch your back. Besides, I was getting bored just sitting around back there. A complete lack of human comforts, far too much talking, and no action of any kind. I need to be doing something, or I get cranky.”

“I had noticed,” Owen said dryly. “Trust me; the plan will work. It’s been discussed from every angle and subjected to intense analysis. Even the Hadenmen liked it. This mission is just what we need to start the rebellion with a bang. Something to make the whole Empire sit up and take notice.”

“Oh, sure. They can all tune in their holos and watch us getting our ass kicked in living color. Probably repeat it at prime time, with extra slow motion for the gooey bits.”

“I thought I was the nervous one?”

“You are. I’m just practical.”

“So am I. That’s why this plan is the best way to announce the rebellion’s presence. We can’t hope to win a head-on fight. They’ve got far more men and guns and ships than we have. So instead, we launch a lightning attack and hit them where it really hurts. In their pockets. With the Hadenmen’s help, we’ll slip right past Golgotha’s defenses unobserved, sneak our way into the main Income Tax and Tithe Headquarters, perform our little act of economic sabotage, and be gone before anyone even knows we were there. It’s really very elegant when you think about it. We transfer a whole bunch of credits to our preprepared rebel accounts, and then erase and scramble everything else.

“Thus, we not only kick the Empire and Church where it really hurts, and give a major boost to rebel funds, but we also make a lot of friends among the general populace when they realize the Empire won’t be able to tax them again until they’ve got all the records sorted out and reestablished. Which could take years. Hazel, could you at least try and look interested in what I’m telling you? You managed to avoid most of the strategy sessions, but you need to understand what we’re going to be doing down there.”

“No I don’t. Just point me in the right direction and turn me loose. If it even looks like an Imperial Guard, it’s dead meat. I was good in a fight before we went through the Maze, but I’m hell on wheels now. I’ve got all kinds of abilities I never had before, and I can’t wait to try them out.”

Owen sighed quietly. “We’re not just fighters anymore, Hazel. Like it or not, we’ve become important figures in the rebellion. If we can pull this off, we’ll become heroes, even legends. People will look to us for inspiration on how to strike back against the Empire, and they’ll join the rebellion in droves. The underground on Golgotha are committing a lot of their people and resources to help us in this, just because they believe in us. By surviving everything the Empire sent after us, we’ve become the hope of everyone who ever dreamed of being free.”

“If we’re their only hope, they’re in big trouble.”

“Maybe,” said Owen. “But whatever the truth of the matter, we have responsibilities now. If we do pull this off, it’ll be a sign that this rebellion has a realistic chance of succeeding. The people might believe in us, but the cold facts are that rebellions are extremely expensive to mount. Star-ships and rebel bases don’t come cheap. Remember how Jack Random had to deal and concede and make questionable promises to questionable people, to get funding for his wars? And he was the legendary professional rebel. He had to compromise; with the credit we’ll be lifting, we won’t have to.”

“All right,” said Hazel. “Assuming, for the sake of argument, that we do bring this off without being killed in horrible ways, what then? Turn pirate, and pick off Empire ships between planets? Last I heard, the Empire was handing out some really nasty deaths for piracy.”

“Didn’t stop you being one.”

“I’m not exactly noted for my career choices. So what’s the plan, Deathstalker? I can tell you’re just bursting to tell me.”

“That’s because it’s such a good plan. As you’d know if you’d attended the strategy sessions like you were supposed to.”

“Nag, nag, nag. Get on with it.”

“We start small, picking our fights carefully, and build success on success until we’re a viable force within the Empire. Then we call on the people to rise up against Lionstone. They’ve never dared in the past. Quite rightly, they fear reprisals. They also value their comforts too much. They think they have too much to lose. Unless their noses are rubbed in it, they don’t like to think about where those comforts come from, and who suffers to produce them. Our task is to change the way people think, the way they see the Empire. First we educate them, then we encourage them to rise up, and then we help liberate them. Classic strategy. If the Empire really understood the lessons to be learned from studying history, they’d ban it.”

“You’re really getting into this, aren’t you, Deathstalker? You’ve come a long way from the amateur scholar who just wanted the world to leave him alone.”

Owen smiled briefly. “The world insisted on being heard. I can’t go back to being what I was, much as I might like to. I’ve seen too much, done too much. But don’t ever see me as some kind of warrior or hero. I might have to play the part for the rebellion, but it’s not me. I’ll fight when I have to, and that’s it. And when it’s all over, and the fighting’s done, I’ll be only too happy to climb back up into my ivory tower and kick the ladder away. I’ve spent most of my life trying to be the scholar I wanted to be rather than the warrior my Family expected. Circumstances may compel me to act the hero, but circumstances change, and the moment I’m no longer needed, I’ll become an historian again so fast it’ll make your head spin. People watching will suffer from whiplash.”

Hazel sniffed, fitting her gun back together with calm, practiced fingers. “It’s fighters, not dreamers, who make things change.”

“I know what you want,” said Owen, just a little testily. “You think all of us who went through the Maze should use our special abilities to cut a bloody path straight through the Empire to Golgotha, so that you could strut right into the Imperial Palace and take on the Empress head to head. Well, you can forget that. The moment we step out into the open, Lionstone will step on us, hard, even if it takes half her fleet to do it. We’re not gods or superhumans. We’ve been given a few extra abilities, that’s all. Very useful abilities, but only if used in the right ways at the right times.”

“You’re no fun,” said Hazel. “What did the others think? I suppose they all wanted to pussyfoot around, too?”

Owen frowned. “Giles wanted to spend the next few years gathering data from a distance and develop hidden power bases throughout the Empire, before risking catching Lionstone’s attention. If we’d listened to him, we’d still have been sitting on our ass twenty years from now, wondering if it was the right time yet. He hasn’t been the same since he killed Dram. He’s gone all cautious and noncommittal. Jack Random wanted to raise an army on the strength of his name and fight the Empire world by world, like he used to. He had to be reminded rather forcibly that his old way hadn’t worked then and wouldn’t work now. Ruby Journey just wanted to kill someone as soon as possible. And the Wolfling … wanted to be left alone. So I’ve been making most of the decisions, of late, because everyone else was too busy sulking.”

“Maybe I should have got more involved, after all,” said Hazel.

“We all asked you at one time or another. You didn’t want to know. You were always off on your own somewhere, preoccupied with your own business. Whatever that might have been. Target shooting with your new toys, or trying to seduce a Hadenman, probably.”

“I was busy experimenting with the new abilities the Maze gave us,” Hazel said hotly. “You might be afraid of the changes it made in us, but I’m not. We’re all stronger, faster, fitter than we were, but there’s more to it than that. There’s a connection between us now, a mental link on some deep, basic level. It’s not esp. I can’t read your mind or anyone else’s. But we’re … joined now, in some new, primal way. Mind to mind, body to body, soul to soul. Anything you can do, I can do, and vice versa. For example, I can boost now, just like you.”

Owen looked at her sharply. Boost was both the gift and the curse of the Deathstalker Clan. For short periods he could become all but superhuman; inhumanly fast and strong, unbeatable with a weapon in his hand. A combination of mental training, engineered glands, and secret chemical caches deep within his body, boost was a jealously guarded Clan secret. It was also more seductive and addictive than any drug could ever be. Owen had learned to use it only sparingly. The candle that burns twice as brightly lasts half as long. Too much use of the boost would quite literally burn him up. Hazel knew some of that, but not all, and not nearly as much as she thought she did. Owen kept his voice carefully calm and even as he spoke:

“You must be mistaken, Hazel. The boost isn’t some esper phenomenon; it’s the result of inherited characteristics, physical changes in the body, and a hell of a lot of training.”

“And I’ve got it.” Hazel smiled triumphantly. “I’ve been practicing with it. You never told me it would feel so good, Owen. I hadn’t thought about physical changes being involved, but you’re probably right. So what? It just means my body has adapted itself as necessary. Interesting. I wonder what other changes I could make in myself, just by thinking about it …”

Owen leaned closer, so he could look her right in the eye. “You’re heading into dangerous waters, Hazel. We don’t understand enough about what’s been done to us to just experiment wildly. You’re jumping off the edge with no idea of how deep the drop is. We need to take this one step at a time, under carefully controlled conditions.”

“You’re just frightened of the possibilities!”

“Damn right I am! So should you! The Maze was an alien artifact, remember? Designed by alien minds for alien purposes. The last people to go through it ended up creating the Hadenmen. Every time you experiment blindly, you’re risking your very humanity. It’s important we take this very slowly, very carefully.”

“There isn’t time! The rebellion needs us now. You’re the one who said we had responsibilities, who keeps going on about how important this mission is. If we’re going to survive this mission and the ones that follow, we’re going to need every advantage we can get our hands on. If you’re not prepared to lead the way, stand aside for someone who is. Don’t you worry, aristo; once I’ve reached my full potential and I’m the superhuman you’re so afraid of becoming, I’ll take over the rebellion and you can go back to your books. You’re too soft to be a real warrior, Deathstalker. You always were. You still dream about that kid you crippled on Mistworld, don’t you? Let it go. She would have killed you without a second thought.”

“That doesn’t matter,” said Owen, still meeting her gaze with his. “She was a child, and I cut her down without thinking, without caring, because I was caught up in the thrill of battle. I won’t do that again. If I have to be a fighter, I’ll be the kind of fighter I choose to be, not the kind my Family or you might prefer. And I won’t give up my humanity in the name of necessity.

“I’m making the decisions in this rebellion because I’m the only one who’s studied wars and insurrections from the past, and how they’re won and lost. We’ll fight the Empire through sabotage and subterfuge, and by winning the hearts of the people. No innocents will ever die by our hand. And if you think people will flock to follow some strange, superhuman leader, you’re wrong. They’d scream for the Empire to hunt you down and kill you, just so they wouldn’t have to be afraid of what you might do. We’re going to attack the Income Tax and Tithe Headquarters as planned. It’ll be the signal for a new kind of war, a new kind of rebellion, where no one has to die unnecessarily.”

“Like I said. Soft. And still far too prone to lecturing people. I was hoping the Maze might have cured you of that, but apparently not.”

“Then why are you here, Hazel?”

“Damned if I know, Deathstalker. I was hoping I was in for a little excitement, but it seems I was wrong about that, too. Doesn’t matter. This is the start of the rebellion, and I’m not missing out on it. And if things do go wrong in your carefully worked-out plan, I’ll be there to save your ass with my inhuman powers. Fair enough?”

“You don’t understand, Hazel. I’m not afraid of the abilities themselves, just the price we might have to pay for them farther down the road.”

Hazel looked at him expressionlessly. “You’re a fine one to talk. You took that new metal hand of yours from the Hadenmen fast enough. They could have built all kinds of hidden surprises into it, and you’d never know till they activated them.”

Owen looked down at the gleaming golden artifact that had replaced the left hand he lost fighting a killer alien the Empire had brought to the Wolfling World. The new hand was perfect in every detail and responded to him just as readily as his real hand had. Though it always felt subtly cold. He looked back at Hazel and shrugged uncomfortably.

“It’s not like I had a choice. I needed a new hand, and I can’t trust regeneration machines anymore. Not after my treacherous personal AI programmed the last one with control words the Empire could use against you and me.”

“Ozymandius is gone, Owen. You destroyed him.”

“Doesn’t make any difference. Who knows what other surprises might be lying in wait for us in any other Empire machine we trusted our bodies to? I don’t trust the Hadenmen completely, I’m not a fool, but right now they’re the lesser of two evils. They can only mess with my hand, not my mind. Besides, they did a really good job on this hand. Full sensory analogues, and far more powerful than the original. And I don’t have to trim the nails on this one.”

“It’s still a product of the Hadenman laboratories,” said Hazel. “And I don’t trust anything that comes out of them further than I could spit into a hurricane. The last time the Hadenmen took on the Empire, it was as Gods of the Genetic Church, bringing transformation or death. Become a Hadenman or become extinct. Remember? You must have read about it in one of your precious books. And now here they are again, born again, and so polite and helpful and reasonable it’s downright spooky. I want to jump out of my skin every time one of them approaches me. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Owen nodded. He knew what she meant. They both looked silently at the augmented men running the golden ship. There were twenty of them, connected to their strange machinery by thick lengths of cable plunging into their bodies or immersed in gleaming technology like a man half submerged in water, their inhuman minds communing directly with their unfathomable technology on a level no human mind could understand or appreciate. Each Hadenman had a specific function aboard the ship and performed it perfectly, for as long as required. They did not suffer from boredom or fatigue, from inspiration or original thought. At least not while they were working. Perhaps off duty they were real party animals, but Owen rather doubted it. From what he’d seen of the Hadenmen as they went calmly about rebuilding their strange and unsettling city deep below the frozen surface of the Wolfling World, the augmented men had no attributes that were not strictly logical and functional.

The only Hadenman Owen and Hazel had known at all well was Tobias Moon, who’d traveled with them for a while, but he’d spent so long among humans that he’d acquired a surface gloss of humanity—or at least a very good copy of it. He’d worn out most of his energy crystals down the years, losing many abilities and functions along the way, and freely admitted he was only a pale weak version of the real thing. Still, it had to be said that even on his good days he’d been a disturbing son of a bitch. The glowing eyes and inhuman buzzing voice hadn’t helped, but it was in his mind that the real differences lay. Tobias Moon thought differently, even when he tried not to.

The augmented men who’d emerged from the Tomb of the Hadenmen, after Owen released them from their long restorative sleep, had moved like living gods. Their eyes blazed like the sun, their movements perfect and graceful. They still scared the shit out of Owen, even after the past few months of getting used to them. They called him their Redeemer and were always quiet and deferential to him, but Owen knew better than to warm to them. He’d studied the old records of their attacks on humanity. Seen the sleek golden ships running rings around the slower, clumsier human ships, blowing them apart with perfectly aimed weapons. Seen the tall shining figures stalking through blazing cities, killing everything that lived. Seen what happened to the humans they experimented on, the living and the dead, in the name of their Code of the Genetic Church. When you no longer have to worry about human emotions or restraints, you can do anything; and the Hadenmen had. They created abominations, seeking always an inhuman perfection of man and machine, a whole that would be greater than the sum of its parts.

They would have won the war if there had been more of them and less of humanity, but in the end they were thrown back, their golden ships outnumbered and blown apart, and the few survivors had fled back to the safety of their Tomb, hidden deep within the endless night of the Darkvoid, beyond the Rim of Empire. But they had come very close to wiping out humanity and replacing it with something altogether horrible. Owen remembered what he’d seen in the records, and all the politeness in the world wouldn’t make him forget what they had done—and might yet do again.

But none of that mattered a damn for the moment. He needed them. The rebellion needed them. And if he was to go up against the Empire, there were going to be times when he’d need an army of trained fighters to meet Lionstone’s armies. And that was where the Hadenmen would come in. Assuming they could be controlled or at least pursuaded to follow orders. Owen was under no illusions about the danger he’d reintroduced to the Empire. Given time, the Hadenmen might become a worse threat than Lionstone could ever be. Owen tried not to think about that too much, for the time being. It helped that he had so many other problems to worry about.

“Let’s talk of more cheerful things,” he said determinedly to Hazel. “Assuming we get past Golgotha’s defenses as easily as the Hadenmen have promised, this will be our first chance to make real contact with the underground. They’re practically the only organized rebellion left in the Empire. Mostly clones and espers, as I understand it, but with a great many useful fellow travelers; some of them quite influential. We need them on our side. Hopefully, kicking the crap out of the Tax and Tithe HQ will make a good first impression and convince them we’re a force to be recognized. Jack Random’s name should open a few doors. He’s given me the names of a few people he swears we can trust, but they could be years out of date. Or dead. He betrayed a lot of people when the Empire mind techs were working on him in their interrogation center. Which is not going to make him very popular in some quarters. His name could work against us as much as for us. Same with my ancestor Giles, the original Deathstalker. Having a living legend on your side is very useful in recruiting people, but there’s always the chance those same people will be disappointed with the reality rather than the perfect legend.”

“Assuming he really is the original Deathstalker,” said Hazel.

“There is that, yes,” said Owen unhappily. “He does seem to know a hell of a lot about what’s been going on recently, for someone who’s supposed to have been in stasis for the last nine hundred years.”

“So if he isn’t who he says he is, who is he? An Empire plant? A clone? Some madman with delusions of grandeur?”

“That’s certainly some of the possibilities,” said Owen. “But I had something rather more disturbing in mind. There’s always the chance he could be a Fury.”

Hazel looked at him speechlessly for a long moment, struck dumb by the very thought. The Furies were terror weapons created by the rogue AIs on Shub to act as their agents in the world of men. Creations of living metal within cloned flesh envelopes; identical to humans as far as the naked eye could tell, but capable of appalling havoc and destruction if detected. Unstoppable killers and merciless opponents. Luckily, the Empire hadn’t encountered too many of them down the years. An esper could spot them easily, and disrupters didn’t care how strong the Furies were. But there was always the possibility there were still some around, undetected, living their fake human lives, reporting back to Shub, and waiting for the order to destroy humanity from within.

“Do you have a reason for thinking Giles might be a Fury?” Hazel said finally.

“Nothing specific. It just seemed a little odd to me that with so many factions appearing to take part in the rebellion, Shub is the only one we haven’t heard from. Not that I’d give them the time of day if they had, but if I was them, I’d have an agent or two planted in the Court and the underground. Shub has a vested interest in knowing when the Empire is weak.”

“You’re right,” said Hazel. “That is a disturbing thought. If you have any more like that, feel free to keep them to yourself. I have enough to be paranoid about as it is. If you’re that worried, why haven’t you said anything before?”

“I haven’t any proof. And besides I wasn’t entirely sure of who might be listening. Or who I could trust. Personally, I think Giles is exactly who he says he is.”


“Because you have to trust someone.”

“Yeah,” said Hazel. “That’s what’s been bothering me.”

Owen sighed. “Life never used to be this complicated. There was a time when my most arduous decision of the day was which wine to have with my meal.”

Hazel smiled suddenly. “And you want to give up all this excitement, just to go back to that, and your dusty books?”

“Damn right I do. I want my old life back. I was perfectly happy being a minor historian, of no importance to anyone but myself. The best wines, first-class meals, every whim indulged and waited on hand and foot every minute of the day and night. No worries, no responsibilities I couldn’t safely delegate to somebody else, and absolutely no chance of being suddenly and nastily killed. I’d go back like a shot, if I could.”

“And leave behind all your friends? And what about me?” Hazel batted her eyes at him coquettishly. Owen winced.

“Please don’t do that. It looks almost unnatural when you do it. You needn’t worry that I’ll abandon you, or the others. I’ve seen too much of the suffering and injustice the Empire is built on to be able to turn a blind eye to it anymore. Millions of people bled and died and were enslaved, so that I and a few others like me could have our lives of comfort. I have sworn upon my blood and upon my honor to put an end to that, and I will see it through or die trying. I just don’t have any illusions about myself or how I came to be doing this. I’m nobody’s hero, Hazel. Just another poor soul caught between a rock and a hard place. Let us change the subject yet again. Was there anything new from Mistworld before we left?”

“Nothing helpful. Ruby and I knew a few useful people in Mistport, and Jack Random came up with a few more names, but they’re all still very suspicious of us. We didn’t make any friends on our last visit, and they’ve learned the hard way down the years to trust no one but themselves. They’re waiting for us to commit ourselves first. They want a sign; something bold and audacious, and above all, successful.”

“Fair enough,” said Owen. “This first strike against Golgotha should impress the hell out of them. Assuming nothing goes wrong and we don’t foul up. We only have one chance at this, and we’ve had no chance to practice. I have done my best to stop thinking about all the things that could go wrong; it just makes my head hurt and does terrible things to my bladder. I was never meant to be a warrior, no matter what my father wanted.”

Hazel looked at him for a moment. “Owen, you think about your father too much. You’ve told me how he tried to manipulate you all your life, through his schemes and intrigues and hidden agendas, but he’s dead now. It’s all over now. Let it go. You’re your own man these days.”

“Am I? He’s still pulling my strings, even from the grave! This is just the kind of magnificent heroic gesture he always believed in! I’m becoming exactly the kind of man he wanted, the kind of man I’ve struggled all my life not to be: a bully with a sword.”

Hazel sighed inwardly and wondered how many times they were going to have to change the subject before they could find something they could both safely talk about. There had to be something. “This Stevie Blue, who’s supposed to be meeting us dirtside; know anything about him?”

“You read the same reports I did. Apparently, he’s an esper clone, in fairly high standing in the Golgotha underground. Assuming we manage to get together, he’ll come back with us to be the underground’s voice in our planning sessions. Reading between the lines, I get the feeling he’s a bit of an anarchist, but it takes all sorts to make an Empire. Or a rebellion.”

“What do you expect to happen after we’ve won, and it’s all over?” Hazel said suddenly. “We’ve never really discussed this, any of us. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about bringing Lionstone down, but none at all discussing what we’re going to replace her with.”

“It’s all rather moot at the moment,” said Owen. “The odds are stacked against us surviving, let alone winning. But if we do depose her … Well, I suppose Parliament and the Company of Lords will put forward suitable candidates, and together we’ll choose someone new to become Emperor and begin a program of reforms. Clean up the corruption, work in a little more democracy here and there, and of course a pardon for all rebels past and present. Then we can all get back to leading normal lives again.”

“To hell with that!” Hazel said hotly. “We’re not going through all this just to settle for the same old same old, with some pretty new window dressing! The whole system is corrupt from top to bottom, and our only chance for real justice is to tear it all down and start again. No more Emperor, no more Lords, liberation for all clones and espers, full democracy and freedom for everyone!”

“Everyone?” said Owen aghast. “Clones, aliens, espers … everyone?”

“Damn right. It has to be for everyone. That’s what freedom means.”

“Sounds more like anarchy to me. Not to mention total bloody chaos. If no one knows their place, how can you achieve anything?”

“I have never known my place, and I’ve achieved quite a lot. You’d be surprised what people can do, given a chance.”

Owen looked at her thoughtfully. “Hazel d’Ark. The d’Arks used to be nobility, not all that long ago. Do I detect just a little overreaction here? By someone just a little ashamed of their aristocratic roots? Surely, Hazel, you must feel some loyalty to the Iron Throne?”

“Not one damned bit. The only soft spot I’ve got for the nobility would be a massive quicksand big enough to swallow the whole lot of them. I was never an aristo. I wasn’t born a d’Ark; I stole the name when I was on the run and needed some false papers in a hurry. Mainly, because I liked the sound of it. I didn’t want to risk my family finding me again or being sent back to them if I was rounded up.”

“You never talk about your family,” said Owen. “Don’t you ever miss them?”

“No I bloody don’t,” said Hazel. “If I never hear from them again, that will suit me just fine.”

Owen chose his words carefully. “Did they … abuse you in any way?”

“Oh, no. Nothing like that. They were just so bloody boring and nice I couldn’t stand them. Their idea of a wild party was a wine and cheese tasting where you spit the wine out. I had to get away, see the universe, taste some life before I got old and gray like them. You know how it is.”

“Yes,” said Owen. “I suppose I do. But I never had a chance to leave my Family. Too many duties and responsibilities. In the end they all left me, dying one after the other while I just stood by helplessly and watched it happen. There was never anything I could have done, but it didn’t stop me feeling I should have done something.

“The boost killed a lot of them while they were still children. Only a few in every generation survive its first onslaught. The price of our genetic gift. Which is why I am all the sons and daughters of my father’s line. I’m pretty much all that’s left of the Clan now. Apparently, they found some distant cousin to take over the Lordship in my place, but I’m the last of the direct line. When I die, my line dies with me. I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Seems to me we did as much harm as good down the years, but then I suppose that’s true of most of the Families. And above it all, my father, sacrificing me and everyone else in his endless schemes and intrigues … I never had a life of my own, ever since I was a small child. This mission is the nearest I’ve come to running away, to doing what I want to do instead of what my father planned. It feels very … liberating.”

He smiled suddenly. “You’re right. I do tend to lecture people, don’t I? One of the more socially acceptable vices of the scholar, I’m afraid. What were we talking about? Oh, yes, universal suffrage, even for the non-people. I really don’t think you’ve been thinking this through, Hazel. If all the clones and espers were to be freed and enfranchised, the Empire itself would collapse. Its whole economy is based on the exploitation of clones and espers. They turn the wheels that keep things moving. Without them, everything would just fall apart. Food and power distribution would be disrupted, businesses would be in chaos … Civilization itself could be threatened. Billions of innocents would suffer.”

“No one’s really innocent, if their lives of comfort are based on the suffering of others. If we have to tear civilization apart in order to put it back together again in a more just form, then that’s what we’ll do. Remember how horrified you were at how people lived on Mistworld? The appalling conditions and short brutal lives? Think how bad the lives of clones and espers in the Empire must be, if they’re prepared to risk their lives just for a chance to flee to Mistworld. They’re not second-class citizens, they’re not even slaves. They’re just property. Worked till they dropped, because there are always more to replace them. When I said tear it all down, I wasn’t kidding. Anything would be better than what we’ve got now.”

“I can’t argue with that,” said Owen. “I spent most of my life ignoring things I didn’t want to see; I won’t do that anymore. But there’s still the problem of the aliens. There are at least two new alien species Out There somewhere, not counting whatever created the Madness Maze, all of them at least equal to our own level of technology. Weaken the Empire too much, and they might just walk in and wipe us out.”

Hazel shrugged. “We can’t afford to think about all the possibilities, or we’d go mad. There’d always be some good reason why we should put things off. Lionstone has to fall if the people are to be free, and if you and I are to live in safety. AH we can do is take things one step at a time. We’ll worry about the aliens as and when they make an appearance. They don’t have to be enemies, you know. And anyway, you’re a fine one to talk; you’re the one who woke a whole army of Hadenmen from their Tomb. The only reason the Hadenmen aren’t still the official Enemies of Humanity is because the AIs on Shub are worse. I suppose you’ll be suggesting we team up with them next.”

“I would rather cut off my head with a rusty saw,” Owen said firmly. “The Hadenmen are a calculated risk. Shub, on the other hand, will settle for nothing less than the extermination of the human species. I may be reckless, but I am not stupid.”

They both looked up sharply as one of the augmented men approached them. Hazel surreptitiously turned her reassembled projectile weapon so that it tracked the Hadenman’s progress. Owen let his hand drift casually closer to his disrupter. The augmented man loomed over them, his movements inhumanly graceful, his eyes blazing so brightly Owen and Hazel couldn’t look at them directly. His face held nothing that could be recognized as a human emotion, and when he spoke his voice was a harsh, grotesque buzzing.

“We have left hyperspace and are currently in orbit over Golgotha. The ship’s computers have made contact with the orbiting security satellites and persuaded them that our presence here is entirely natural and unthreatening. Our cloaking device will conceal us from passing ships and planet-based sensors as we descend toward the surface. There will be no difficulties. You may prepare yourselves for the drop.”

“Thank you,” said Owen politely, but the Hadenman was already walking away. They weren’t much for small talk. Hazel pulled a face at the Hadenman’s departing back and then looked at Owen.

“So, are you ready for the drop or do you need to disappear into the toilet again?”

“I don’t think you could get another drop out of me if you used a siphon. Let’s get down to the cargo bay. It’s time to get this show on the road.”

“Damn right,” said Hazel.

* * * *

They made their way back through the hulking alien machinery, climbing carefully over it when there was no clear path around it. The gleaming metals felt uncomfortably cold, and some of it shimmered uncertainly, as though it wasn’t always there. Owen and Hazel gave the machinery as much room as they could, kept their hands strictly to themselves, and descended floor by floor to the empty cargo bay. The vast steel cavern was lined with thick-ribbed cables that curled around and over each other in eye-numbing confusion, but the only equipment set out in all the empty space were two standard gravity sleds and a small package of carefully prepared code discs to be fed into the Tax and Tithe computers. Owen and Hazel checked the sleds over thoroughly, just in case, and then settled down to wait. It wouldn’t be long now.

The sleds were really nothing more than a flat surface disturbingly like a coffin lid with an antigrav motor, a set of controls, two built-in disrupters, and a force shield to protect the rider from the wind. Pretty basic, but all they’d need. If nothing went wrong.

Owen hefted the computer codes in his hand. A very small package to do so much potential damage. Rather like Hazel, in fact. He smiled at the thought and looked across at her. She had her sword out and was polishing the blade with a filthy piece of rag. Owen was never entirely sure how he felt about her at any given time. He respected her, certainly, and admired her skill with weapons … She was one of the finest fighters he’d ever fought beside. And he certainly respected the fire in her voice when she spoke of freedom and justice, even if he didn’t always agree with her solutions. She’d come barging into his life like a runaway horse, saving him from almost certain death, and then proceeded to shake up and question everything he thought he believed in. And somewhere along the line, quite against his will, he’d fallen in love with her.

He hadn’t told her and wondered if he ever would. He was everything she claimed to despise, a naive aristo with more ancestors than sense. He liked to think she respected him as a fighter, but beyond that he had no idea how she felt about him. Besides, he was a Deathstalker. He had a duty to marry someone of his own station. Except … he wasn’t an aristocrat anymore. Lionstone had publicly declared him an outlaw and stripped him of every rank and privilege. Which meant he was free to do as he liked. And Hazel was brave and true, with a great smile and eyes to die for. Pity about her hair … She was smart and quick, and determined not to take any shit from anyone, least of all him.

He loved her, in a way that made him realize he’d never really loved anybody else. Cathy had been his lover for several years, but she was his mistress, which was really just another kind of servant. She’d been an Empire spy, and had tried to kill him when he was outlawed. He’d killed her without hesitating. There’d never been much love in his Family, particularly from his father, who was always busy somewhere else, so he’d learned to live without love. And then Hazel burst into his life, and everything changed. Sometimes he couldn’t look at her without catching his breath, and his heart quickened when she spoke to him. Her infrequent smiles could put him in a good mood that lasted for hours.

To be honest, he could have done without love. It complicated their relationship and distracted him from more important things. But, he didn’t seem to have any choice in the matter. He loved her, despite all her many faults, or even perhaps because of them. Even if he could never tell her. At best she’d laugh at him or tell him to go to hell. At worst, she might be kind and understanding as she said no, and he didn’t think he could stand that. He knew nothing of love or lovers, but even he knew hope was better than disillusionment.

An alarm sounded quietly through his comm implant, and he saw Hazel’s head snap up as she heard it, too. She put her sword away and climbed aboard her gravity sled, ready for business as always. Owen slipped the computer discs into an inside pocket, zipped it shut, and powered up his sled. A view from the ship’s sensors appeared before his eyes, patched in through his implant, showing the main landing pads stretched out below. There were ships everywhere, of all shapes and sizes, growing steadily larger as the Hadenman ship descended at speed. There wasn’t room anywhere for the Hadenman ship to set down, but that was all right. It wasn’t intending to land. Owen grinned. The plans called for the Hadenman ship to drop the cloaking about now. Then things should get really interesting.

They were almost on top of the starport control tower when the cloaking device shut off. People stopped believing their sensors, took one look at the huge sleek golden craft hovering right above them, and launched straight into a mass panic. There was a lot of screaming and shouting, and a great deal of running around and around in circles. Owen didn’t blame them. The last time Golgotha had seen a Hadenman ship this close, they’d come in force as the Enemies of Humanity, to wipe out the homeworld’s defenses. They’d come uncomfortably close, too, according to some suppressed records that Owen had happened across while looking for something else.

The visual feed cut off, and Owen smiled across at Hazel, who grinned back. In that much chaos and confusion, no one was going to notice two small gravity sleds. Owen gripped the controls of his sled firmly. Only a few more moments and he wouldn’t have time to feel nervous anymore. He hoped Hazel was feeling as confident as she looked. It would be nice if one of them was. The alarm sounded briefly in his ear again, and the great cargo bay doors cracked open below them. The temperature in the hold dropped sharply, and Owen could see bright sunlight through the widening crack. He raised his sled slightly so that it was hovering just above the floor. Hazel lifted hers, too, and moved in close beside him. The cargo bay doors opened wider, and now they could see the landing pads below. It looked a long way down. Owen took a deep breath and directed his sled down and through the opening doors. Hazel followed close behind. Together they dropped out of the belly of the great golden ship, and plummeted down toward the landing field.

The bay doors slammed shut behind them, and the Hadenman ship shot away, already pursued by half a dozen Imperial attack ships, firing everything they’d got. The golden ship’s force shields flared briefly here and there, but never even looked like going down. No one noticed two tiny figures heading silently for the ground, too small for the heavy-duty port sensors, too fast for the naked eye. The plan was very simple. The Hadenman ship would hang around, drawing attention to itself, while Hazel and Owen got on with their mission. It would take some time for the starport to come up with anything big enough to worry the golden ship. By that time the mission should be over, and the ship would return to pick Owen and Hazel up again. They would then depart at great speed, drop back into hyperspace, and be gone before the Empire could get its act together.

A very simple plan. Owen believed in simple plans. The more complicated a plan was, the more chances there were of something going wrong. He wasn’t worried about anything happening to the Hadenman ship. The strength of Hadenman force shields was legendary, and the ship itself was bulging with all kinds of weapons, some of which Owen didn’t even recognize. He’d made the augmented men promise to use their weapons sparingly and only in self-defense. It wouldn’t do to start the rebellion with a bloody Hadenman massacre. It would give entirely the wrong impression, and first impressions were important. The augmented men had nodded very politely and said yes and no and of course in all the right places. Owen had crossed his fingers and hoped for the best.

The sled’s force shield snapped on automatically as he dropped like a stone, protecting him from the rushing wind. Speed was all that mattered for the moment, to get out of the starport and disappear into the crowded city before either he or Hazel could be spotted. The pastel towers of the city loomed up before him, and he slowed a little so he could duck and dodge around them. The force shield snapped off, to conserve power. The wind whistled past Owen, cold and bracing, blowing tears from his eyes. He narrowed his gaze and concentrated on the map he’d memorized earlier. It wasn’t that far, but the route was tricky, particularly if you weren’t intending to follow the established traffic paths. Owen flashed past a floating red light and tucked in close beside a tower to avoid an oncoming tour bus. He had a brief glimpse of openmouthed faces from windows on both sides, and then he was through and in the clear again. He grinned and activated his comm unit on the shielded channel.

“Still with me, Hazel?”

“Damn right I am. You’ll have to do better than that to shake me.”

“I thought you said you hadn’t had much practice on a gravity sled before?”

“I haven’t. Half the time I feel like I’m riding a crashing elevator. But I can follow anywhere you lead, Deathstalker.”

“Wouldn’t doubt it for a minute, Hazel. We’re almost there, so stand ready to guard my back. Remember, they stripped these sleds down to basics for extra speed, which means we have only minimum shields. One good hit from a disrupter, and they’ll go down faster than a backstreet whore. So I’m counting on you not to let anyone hit us. On the other hand, please also remember we’re supposed to be the good guys here, so try not to kill anyone except the Imperial Guards. It’s important we make the right impression here.”

“Details, details,” Hazel said airily. “You concentrate on your map and leave the fighting to me. That’s how we work best.”

Owen felt a strong answer to that rising up in him, but he forced it down. He was going to learn to be polite and charming to Hazel if it killed him. He pressed on through the city, whipping back and forth between the towers and fighting the sudden updrafts. The city was only just waking up, still wrapped in early-morning light. The sky was a bloody red, painting the pastel towers with crimsoned shadows. There was hardly any air traffic yet, but that would change in a hurry once the sun was up and the business day began. The plan called for Owen and Hazel to get into the Tax and Tithe HQ, do the dirty, and get the hell out while the skies were still comparatively uncrowded. Owen piled on the speed, and the force shield snapped on again, giving his tearing eyes and numbed face a break. He and Hazel were on their own till they could land and make contact with the underground, and right now he felt very alone and extremely vulnerable.

He could feel Hazel crowding close behind him. He didn’t look back to make sure. He didn’t need to. All of those who’d passed through the Madness Maze were linked to each other now, in some deep fundamental way that none of them understood yet, but none of them doubted. It was a kind of low-level esp, an unquestioning certainty as to where the others were at any given moment. They couldn’t read each other’s thoughts, for which Owen for one was very grateful, but as Hazel had already proved, whatever gifts or talents one possessed, the others now had, too, as though they’d always had them. Owen could feel Hazel’s presence at his back. It felt reassuring. He whipped around a tower, so close he could have reached out and trailed his fingertips across the windows flashing past, and then, right before him, dead bang where it was supposed to be, was the Tax and Tithe Headquarters, in Tower Chojiro. Owen grinned fiercely and opened his secure comm channel again.

“Almost there, so brace yourself. And, Hazel, don’t use the boost unless you have to. There are things about it you don’t know. It’s … unwise to use it too often.”

“Nag, nag. You always were a bit of an old woman, Deathstalker.”

Owen decided he wasn’t going to answer that one, either, and made himself concentrate on Tower Chojiro as it loomed up before him. He cut his power and slowed steadily, but kept the force shield up. The sled’s built-in cloaking device was supposed to be keeping him invisible, as far as the tower’s sensors were concerned, but he didn’t feel like taking chances now he’d got this close to the objective. Tower Chojiro was the tallest and ugliest of the immediate towers, a gleaming monument of glass and steel, the Clan colors and signals clearly marked. It was also undoubtably bristling with hidden weapons and other nasty surprises. The Hadenmen had assured Owen on more than one occasion that his and Hazel’s sleds had been carefully adjusted so that they would slip past the tower’s defenses unmolested. But of necessity, there had been no way to test this in advance.

Owen shrugged mentally. It was a bit late to be worried now. Either it would work, or he and Hazel would end up spread across the tower’s energy fields like flies on a windscreen, and the rebellion would have to start somewhere else. Oddly, Owen discovered that he didn’t feel particularly nervous. The Hadenmen had assured him their devices would work, and he had no reason to distrust them. Not over that, anyway. Everything else, maybe. He took a firm hold on the controls, braced himself, and headed the sled straight for the top floor of the tower. The windows came flying toward him at incredible speed. Owen just had time to realize he must have passed safely through the tower’s force shields before the sled slammed through the toughened steelglass window, as though it wasn’t there.

The gravity sled screeched to a halt some twenty feet past the shattered window, and its force shield snapped off. Owen released his death grip from the controls and stepped down, just a little shakily. He looked quickly about him but the top floor of Tower Chojiro was deserted, just as it was supposed to be. There was a little furniture scattered here and there on the thick carpeting, all of it designed within an inch of its life, and just the occasional small painting on the walls. Originals, of course. Clan Chojiro were famed for their minimalist approach. Owen hoped it applied to their interior security systems as well, but he rather doubted it. His and Hazel’s entrance had to have set off all kinds of alarms, and since the interior weaponry hadn’t finished them off any more than the exterior force shields, the odds were that a large number of heavily armed men were currently on their way up to find out why. Of course, they’d have to start at the bottom and work their way up floor by floor, to make sure everything was secure. Which should take them some time. More than enough for him to deal with the computers and leave. Theoretically. He drew his disrupter and activated the force shield on his wrist. The oblong of glowing force formed instantly on his arm, its familiar low hum distinctly comforting. Hazel moved in beside him, a gun in each hand.

“Tax and Tithe is four floors down, right? Elevator or stairs?”

“Stairs, of course. The elevators can be overridden by the tower’s central computers. Didn’t you attend any of the briefings?”

“I leave all the heavy thinking to you, stud. Just find me something I can shoot at, and I’ll be happy.”

Owen decided there was nothing to be gained in answering that, and led the way out of the empty room and on to the stairwell. It was well posted and exactly where it was supposed to be, which cheered Owen up a bit. At least the intelligence reports seemed to be accurate. The stairwell was narrow, brightly lit, and looked as though it had last been whitewashed sometime in the previous century. After all, who used stairs anymore, except in emergencies? It was all deathly quiet, apart from the racket Owen and Hazel made clattering down the bare steel steps. No doubt the tower defenses were sounding all kinds of alarms, but that would be on the tower’s private security channel, and Owen didn’t have the time to search out which particular channel they were using that day. No doubt security changed it regularly. He would have. Hazel checked the lock at the bottom of the stairs, a simple combination mechanism, and sniffed disparagingly.

“This wouldn’t stop a ten-year-old on Mistworld. I’ll have it open in a few minutes.”

“No,” said Owen. “Let me try.” He bent over the lock, studied it carefully, and then entered a short series of numbers. The lock clicked open. Owen straightened up and smiled at Hazel. “You got the boost from me; I got breaking and entering from you. Somewhat improved by the Maze’s changes. Wonder what else we’ve got that we don’t know about?”

“This is getting spooky,” said Hazel. “At this rate, we’ll end up with more augmentations than a Hadenman.”

“Now, that is a disturbing thought. But it’ll have to wait. When I open this door, everyone in the room beyond is a target. We don’t have the time to deal with prisoners.”

“Suits me,” said Hazel. “Never did like tax collectors.”

Owen put his shoulder to the heavy steel door, and it swung open inward with surprising speed. Five technicians looked up, startled, and barely had the time to draw breath to cry out before Hazel picked them all off with separate shots from her projectile weapon. Owen quickly swung the door shut behind them, and everything was quiet in the computer room. He was glad he hadn’t had to use his disrupter to back Hazel up. Using an energy weapon in a confined space full of delicate equipment was rarely a good idea. He holstered his gun and leaned over the nearest body to make sure it was dead. He grimaced in spite of himself. Projectile weapons got the job done, but they were extremely messy. There was blood all over the floor and holes in the bodies big enough to stick his fist into. Disrupters tended to be much neater and cauterized their own wounds.

“Marvelous weapons,” Hazel said happily, studying the wounds she’d made. “Don’t you just love them?”

“Check they’re all dead,” said Owen flatly. “I don’t want any surprises while we’re working.”

“Oh, sure,” said Hazel. “You have a bash at the machines, and I’ll guard your back. What I know about reprogramming computers could be engraved on my left thumbnail.”

“It shouldn’t be that complicated,” Owen said hopefully, studying the terminals before him. “Jack Random and the Hadenmen worked out the programming between them. All I have to do is load the discs and let them run. If you’d like to cross your fingers at this point, feel free to do so.”

He pulled up a chair and sat down before the massive bank of computers that covered the whole wall before him. Together with the machinery scattered throughout the room, these computers were responsible for setting and collecting the many taxes of the entire Empire. Trillions of credits came and went at these computers’ commands every day. Decisions made here could be questioned by no one lower than the Empress Lionstone herself. That the Church of Christ the Warrior, quite possible the most paranoid religion of the time, trusted these computers to run its Tithing system as well, spoke volumes for the machinery’s efficiency and security. They distributed the wealth of the Empire, with contributions from the lowest to the highest. Even the Families paid taxes through their business interests. It took a lot of money to run the Empire and keep Lionstone in the manner to which she’d become accustomed. Everyone trusted the computers implicitly. Of course, they’d never come up against Hadenman technology before. Few had. Owen grinned broadly. The entire financial base of the Empire ran through this room, and he, a despised outlaw, was about to bring it all crashing down in ruins.

He entered the necessary codes, removed the package of software discs from his hidden pocket, and slotted them into place. He paused, just to savor the moment, and then hit the final entry key. Nothing obvious happened. The machines hummed on as before. But deep within the database, changes were being made. First, extremely large sums were being diverted from the Empire coffers into previously prepared rebel accounts. Billions of credits, soon to be chasing from one short-lived bolt-hole to another, until their provenance was hopelessly lost and confused. It seemed only fair and right to Owen that the Empire should fund its own destruction.

And once it had completed that little task, the program would then set about erasing or at the very least hopelessly scrambling every scrap of data in the computers. No record would remain of who paid what, or when. In short, utter chaos. There was no copy of the records anywhere else, for security reasons. Lionstone believed very firmly in centralization. Having things in one place made them easier to control. And who would ever have thought that the mighty Clan Chojiro’s extensive security systems could be defeated by two lowly individuals on gravity sleds, backed by Hadenman technology?

So once the news got out—and it would get out eventually—whatever the Empire did, a great many lesser people would suddenly find they were a great deal better off than they had been, courtesy of the rebellion. The Empire, on the other hand, would not only find itself suddenly short of working funds, it would also have to spend even more credits and man hours just trying to put together a picture of how badly off they were. It would be years before Lionstone could raise taxes again. And while the Empire was so preoccupied, the rebellion could get on with more serious projects.

“How long is this going to take?” said Hazel.

Owen looked back at her and shrugged. “Beats me. I did ask, but since no one’s ever done this before, no one knows for sure. Basically, we just hang around here till the computer spits out the discs, and that should be it. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take too long. Clan Chojiro’s security forces are undoubtably following standard procedure and working their way up the tower floor by floor even as we speak. They’ll stop to secure each floor as they go, but even so it won’t be that long before they come hammering on our door. Hopefully, the discs will be finished, and the underground representative Stevie Blue will have already made contact with us. Otherwise, we are in deep shit.”

“I love it when you talk technical,” said Hazel. She stopped and frowned suddenly. “What’s the password for Stevie Blue? I can never remember things like that.”

Owen paused, frowning. “Now, I knew it, until you asked me. What the hell is it? Oh, well, it’ll come back to me.”

And then they both stopped and looked sharply at the closed metal door. They hadn’t heard anything yet, but they both sensed something. Another gift from the Madness Maze. Owen moved quickly over to the door, eased it open a crack, and listened intently. From not all that far away came the sound of massed booted feet crashing on steel steps, drawing steadily closer. Owen let the door close silently and backed away from it.

“Company’s coming,” he said flatly, not looking at Hazel. “Lots of them. Either they’re not bothering to secure every floor, the cheats, or there’s a hell of a lot more of them than we were led to believe.”

“I knew this was going too smoothly,” said Hazel. “Well, let them come. I could use a little exercise.”

“Not for the first time, you’re missing the point,” said Owen. “If the security forces are already this close, how is Stevie Blue supposed to make contact with us?”

“Tricky,” Hazel agreed. “I suppose we’ll just have to kill all the security people, won’t we?”

Owen looked at her. “You’ve become altogether too cocky since we survived the Maze. We’re a lot more than we used to be, but we’re not unbeatable.”

“Speak for yourself, Deathstalker. We’re stronger, faster, and sharper than any damn security guards. We can take them. It doesn’t matter how many of them there are. You worry too much, Owen.”

He shook his head sadly. “Cocky. Definitely cocky. Unfortunately, since we can’t leave here yet, we have no choice but to let them come to us. Try not to get yourself killed, Hazel. I’d hate to have to start training another partner.”

Hazel glared at him. “First, we are not partners, and second, if there’s any training going on here, I’m the one that’s doing it. If it weren’t for me, you’d have been killed a dozen times over. I’ll do the fighting, you watch for those discs to reappear. Once they’re out we are gone.”

“And Stevie Blue?”

“Can save his own ass. Serves him right for being late.”

The sound of approaching feet was very close now. Owen hefted her two guns and stood facing the closed door. Owen hauled the dead technicians to one side, so he and Hazel would have room to maneuver, if they needed it. He got blood on his hands and sleeves, and wiped them thoroughly on the front of his jacket. He didn’t want his hands to be slippery if he had to use his sword. Feet crashed on the floor outside, and the door swung inward as three guards put their shoulders to it. They paused a moment in the doorway as they took in Owen and Hazel and the blood on the floor, and that moment was all Owen needed to aim his disrupter and fire. The energy beam blasted a hole right through the first guard’s chest and took out the man standing behind him as well. Hazel got the other one, her disrupter beam neatly separating the man’s head from his body. And that was when the rest of the guards came crashing in, convinced their opponents’ energy weapons could be useless now for the next two minutes. Owen and Hazel ducked down behind their personal force shields, and energy beams ricocheted around the room. Various pieces of equipment exploded and burst into flames. The guards put away their exhausted guns and pressed forward with drawn swords. And that was when Hazel lowered her force shield and opened up with her projectile weapon.

Explosive bullets tore through the men in the room, ripping them apart and throwing their lifeless bodies aside. Blood flew in the air, and the roar of the gun was deafening in the confined space. The guards could get through the door only a half dozen at a time, and the projectile weapon cut them to shreds while they were still struggling to get into the room. It had been designed that way, to make the room easier to defend against mass rebel attacks. The guards had no force shields—too expensive. They relied on numbers. And all too soon Hazel’s gun ran out of bullets and fell silent. Hazel swore briefly and holstered the gun. The guards came crashing in again, and Owen and Hazel went to meet them with cold steel in their hands.

Swords rang on swords, but though the guards outnumbered the outlaws a dozen to one, it was still no contest. The guards were already confused and demoralized, with so many of them already dead, and Owen and Hazel both had the boost. Owen’s smile stretched into a death’s-head grin as blood roared in his veins and thundered in his head. His enemies seemed to be moving in slow motion, and he cut them down easily and gloried in their deaths. He’d always been fast when boosting, but the Maze had made him inhumanly fast. The guards fell quickly, butchered like so many helpless animals in the slaughterhouse. And then there were no more targets, only unmoving bodies on the bloody floor.

Owen checked that the room was empty—apart from him and Hazel and the lifeless bodies—peered out the door into the empty corridor, and then dropped out of boost. He shuddered helplessly as the reaction hit him. For a few fleeting moments he had been almost a god, and now he was only human again, and it hurt. His muscles ached from the strain he’d put them through, and his movements seemed unbearably slow and sluggish. He breathed deeply, concentrating as he’d been taught, and his senses quickly returned. The Deathstalker Family had spent generations perfecting the surge of strength and speed that was boost, but even so the human body could stand it only for short periods. It burned up the nervous system with a remorseless appetite, and there was always a price to be paid afterward. And even above that, there was the terrible joy of the boost, wild and overpowering, more tempting and addictive than any drug could ever be. The boost: pride and curse of the Deathstalker Clan. And Hazel was caught up in it and burning so very, very brightly.

She hacked and cut at the dead bodies before her, laughing breathlessly, her face slick with sweat. Her eyes were wide and feral, fixed on some inner private Valhalla. Owen called to her, but she didn’t hear him. He moved toward her and she spun on him, sword at the ready, her grin terribly eager. He sheathed his sword, switched off his shield, and held out his hands to her, so she could see they were empty. Her head cocked a little to one side as he spoke to her soothingly. He took another step closer, and she lunged forward, her sword flying toward his gut. Owen tapped his boost, just for a second. Just long enough for him to sidestep so that her sword flashed past him, missing his side by less than an inch. He clamped his arm down hard so that the sword was held in place and hugged Hazel to him. She fought him fiercely, and Owen knew he couldn’t hold her for more than a few moments.

He held her blazing eyes with his and reached out to her through the mental link they shared, the Maze-given connection of the undermind. He couldn’t reach her with words, or thoughts, only the simple truth of his presence, who and what he was, and how he felt about her. Her mind was bright and dazzling, darting like quicksilver, sharp and deadly. Owen reached out to her, and slowly she responded calmly, inch by inch. Her eyes slowly cleared, and he felt the first faint stirrings of her own feelings before a barrier slammed down between them as Hazel cut off the link and dropped out of boost. She almost collapsed as her legs shook, and Owen held her trembling body close to him, until she had enough strength and control to push him away and stand alone. She took a deep, shuddering breath and nodded to him brusquely. He knew that was the only acknowledgment he’d ever get of what they’d felt and shared for a moment. Hazel’s hands were almost steady as she wiped the sweat from her face with the same filthy rag she’d used earlier to clean her sword.

“That … was something else,” she said finally. “I’ve never felt anything like it, and I’ve tried a lot of things in my time. I was so alive … I would have killed you, if you hadn’t stopped me. Is the boost always like that?”

“Mostly,” said Owen. “You never really ever get used to it. That’s why I only ever use it when I have to. Take it easy for a few minutes. It takes time for your body to replace the energy the boost burns up.”

“And you’ve lived with this most of your life?” Hazel looked at Owen with new respect. “You’re a harder man than you look, Deathstalker. I was once a plasma baby, addicted to Wampyr Blood. And the boost is stronger than any drug I’ve ever known. How do you stand it?”

“By using it only when I absolutely have to,” said Owen. “And I have had training you haven’t. It gets a little easier in time, but not much. I did try to warn you.”

“Yeah, you did.” Hazel turned away and looked at the dead bodies scattered and piled across the room. The floor was awash with blood, and she shuddered briefly before she was back in control. “You suppose that’s all of them?”

“I very much doubt it. This was just the first wave, sent in to check out the situation. Look at the bodies; they’re all wearing short-range sensors. Their superiors know exactly what happened here. Which means not only can we forget about having the advantage of surprise, we can also expect a heavily armed, much larger second wave. The experienced fighters. Things are about to get really interesting.”

He broke off, and they both looked at the closed door again. Someone was coming. They could feel it. Owen pulled the door open and stepped out into the corridor, his guns at the ready. Behind him, Hazel was quickly reloading her main projectile weapon. Owen moved slowly toward the stairwell. Someone was coming up the stairs, his unhurried footsteps loud and echoing in the quiet. Hazel moved in beside Owen, nudged him to get his attention, and mouthed One man? Owen shrugged, and they both moved forward to look down the stairs. The newcomer took his time climbing the last flight of stairs, and then came to a halt at the last corner, looking impassively up at Owen and Hazel. He was a tall, blocky man, with thick slabs of muscle and a patient, brooding face. His skin was dark, his close-cropped hair was white, and his cold eyes were a startling green. He wore no armor, only a long green kimono of the Chojiro Clan, decorated with stylized dragons, and he carried a long curving sword in each hand.

“Oh, shit,” said Owen.

Hazel looked at him. “You know this guy?”

“Unfortunately, yes. This is ex-Investigator Razor. Used to work for Clan Wolfe as their pet killer and intimidator, but given the Wolfes’ downfall and that extremely tacky dress he’s wearing, I can only assume he’s taken up a similar position with Clan Chojiro. If you know any good religions, now would be a really good time to start praying.”

“He doesn’t appear to have any guns. Why can’t we just shoot him from a safe distance?”

“One, he undoubtably has a personal force shield, and two, it might annoy him.”

Hazel put away her guns and drew her sword. “So we get our hands dirty.”

“Hazel, Investigators are killing machines; the best there is with any weapon you care to name.”

“So what do you suggest we do?”

“Anybody else, I’d suggest surrendering, but Investigators don’t take prisoners. So we’re going to have to fight him. Oh, shit.

“Will you stop saying that! He’s just one man. I’ll take first crack at him.”

“No you won’t. I will. You still haven’t recovered from boosting.”

“I can take him! Really!”

“Excuse me,” said the Investigator.

“You be quiet,” said Owen. “We’ll get to you in a minute. Hazel, I am taking first crack, and that’s all there is to it.”

“Since when were you in charge of this mission? If I want to take him, I’ll take him!”

“Hazel, this is really not a good idea!”

“Excuse me,” said the Investigator firmly.

“Shut up!” said Owen and Hazel, glaring at each other.

Investigator Razor shrugged, and surged up the last few stairs impossibly quickly, his two swords swinging in shimmering blurs. Owen and Hazel stood their ground, swords at the ready, and dropped into boost. Blood pounded in their heads, and strength burned in their arms like living flames. Razor hit them like a thunderstorm, his swords like lightning. The air was full of the ring of steel on steel as Owen and Hazel were driven back, step by step, unable to meet the sheer ferocity of his attack.

Razor left the stairwell behind him, moving implacably forward, until Owen and Hazel bumped up against the corridor wall behind them, and there was nowhere else to go. Owen and Hazel separated, and attacked him from two sides at once. Razor held his ground and stood them both off, his blades moving too fast to be seen. Owen ducked at the last moment, and a flashing sword cut a groove right into the wall where his head had been. Hazel lunged forward, hoping to catch Razor momentarily off balance, and then had to hurl herself to one side as a waiting sword leaped out to meet her. She hit the floor rolling and was quickly back on her feet, breathing hard. Blood soaked her left sleeve, but she ignored it, cushioned from pain and shock by the boost.

Owen had already realized they couldn’t beat Razor on their own. The Investigator had been trained to the peak of perfection in all the killing arts, and Owen didn’t have the expertise to match him. Neither did Hazel. But they did have the boost, and what the Maze had done to them. He reached out to Hazel through the mental link, the undermind they didn’t have to understand to use, and their minds touched. They threw themselves at Razor, attacking in perfect synchronization, two swords wielded by one concerted will. Razor fell back a step, and then another, but that was as far as he would go. Even joined, Owen and Hazel could only ever be his equal.

And there was no saying which way the fight might have gone, if Razor’s kimono hadn’t suddenly burst into roaring flames. He threw himself to one side, rolling on the carpeted floor to try and crush the flames, but they just blazed the brighter. The flames were already licking up around his face as he lurched to his feet and ran off down the corridor, but he never once made a sound. He disappeared around a corner, still burning, and was gone, and all they could hear was the departing echo of his feet.

Owen and Hazel dropped out of the boost and the mental link, and clung to each other as they waited for the reaction to pass. Hazel’s cut on her arm had been messy but minor and was already healing itself. It still took a while for the trembling to stop and their breathing to return to something like normal. When they finally let go of each other and looked around, they found themselves facing three women with the same face, smiling sardonically at them from the top of the stairs. Clones, Owen thought immediately. Presumably from the underground. They looked tough enough.

All three women were wearing battered leathers adorned with brightly polished lengths of steel chain, over T-shirts bearing the legend “BORN TO BURN.” They looked to be in their mid twenties, but their faces were somehow older, more harshly used. They were all short and stocky, with bare muscular arms, and their long dark hair was full of colorful knotted ribbons. There were splashes of color on their faces, too, perhaps to disguise how pretty they might have been if it weren’t for their cold eyes and determined mouths.

“Can we help you?” said Owen politely, not lowering his sword. He had a suspicion he was smelling strongly of sweat, but decided he wouldn’t bring it up if they didn’t.

“The seagulls are flying low tonight,” said the woman in the middle, meaningfully.

Owen looked at her and then turned and looked at Hazel, who looked back at him.

“The seagulls are flying low tonight,” said the woman in the middle with extra emphasis.

“Sorry,” said Owen. “Didn’t quite catch that. The seagulls are what?”

“Hold everything,” said Hazel. “Seagulls. That was part of the contact phrase, wasn’t it?”

“I don’t know,” said Owen helplessly. “I can’t remember. It’s gone right out of my head.”

“If I don’t start hearing an answer sometime soon, I am going to start shooting,” said the woman on the left.

“Angels!” Owen said quickly. “Something about angels!”

“Something something angels in the moonlight,” said Hazel. “I think.”

“Oh, hell,” said the woman in the middle. “That’s close enough. Be here all day otherwise.”

“We’re your contact,” said the woman on the left. “Sorry it took us a while to get here, but there are security guards all over the place, and we didn’t want to kill them all. It would only have attracted attention.”

“Fair enough,” said Hazel. “What happened to Stevie Blue?”

“We’re right here,” said the one in the middle.

“Right,” said the one on the right.

“All of you?” said Owen.

“Got it in one,’ said the Stevie Blue on the left. “I’m Stevie One, this is Two and Three. Don’t get us mixed up. We’re touchy about it.”

“I take it you’re also espers,” said Owen, putting his sword away. Hazel reluctantly sheathed hers, but kept her hands near her guns. Owen gave the Stevie Blues his best diplomatic smile, and vowed silently to do something really unpleasant to the divot who’d got Stevie Blue’s personal details wrong. “Nice work on the Investigator. I think he was prepared for everything except a sudden flash fire. Next time, feel free to reduce him to a pile of smoldering ashes. All right, let’s get down to business. The program’s in the machine and running. All we have to do is keep the hostile natives at bay until it’s finished, and then we can leg it. We’ve got a ship coming back to pick us up. It’s a Hadenman ship, but don’t let that panic you. They’ve been very reasonable. So far.”

The three Stevie Blues smiled in unison. “Anyone annoys us, they’re toast,” said Stevie One. “We’re pyros. Elfs; Esper Liberation Front. We kick ass.”

“And you’re the underground’s idea of diplomats,” said Hazel. “You’re going to be very popular at strategy planning sessions. I might just start attending them again.”

“The cyberats are running interference to keep this tower isolated,” said Stevie Two. “No one from outside will know anything’s happened till it’s all over.”

Owen frowned. “Computer hackers aren’t exactly noted for their reliability.”

“You can trust these,” said Stevie One. “If only because they know we’ll kick their ass if they screw up.”

“Right,” said Stevie Three.

Owen and Hazel suddenly turned away and looked thoughtfully at the stairs. Hazel drew her guns, and Owen turned back to the clones.

“Visitors are on their way.”

“You espers or something?” said Stevie One.

“Something,” said Owen. “The Investigator must have put himself out and alerted his people. Any minute now we’re going to be hip deep in security guards.”

“That’s not all,” said Stevie Two. “They’ve got an esp-blocker with them. I can feel my powers fading as it gets closer.”

“Wonderful,” said Hazel. “Can anything else go wrong?”

“Quite a lot, if we just stand around here waiting for them,” said Owen. “May I suggest we get the hell back to the computer room?”

“Too late,” said Stevie Three. “They’re here.”

The three clones drew their swords with the same quick, professional motion and moved to block the head of the stairwell. Owen and Hazel moved in beside them, guns at the ready, just in time to see a single tall figure step into sight at the final corner of the stairs below. He was dressed in jet-black robes and battle armor, looked to be in his early thirties, and was handsome in an unspectacular way. His dark eyes and slight smile were utterly cold, and just standing there with empty hands, he looked calm and confident and very dangerous. Stevie Two whistled softly.

“The Lord High Dram his own bad self. We should be honored. He normally only murders espers from a safe distance.”

“He can’t just blast and burn the tower this time,” said Stevie One. “The Empress would have his nuts if he let the Tax computers be destroyed.”

Owen and Hazel looked at each other thoughtfully. “That man is quite definitely dead,” said Owen. “I saw the body.”

“So who’s this?” said Hazel. “A clone? Does anyone at Court know? Or was the one we saw die a clone?”

“Are we supposed to understand any of that?” said Stevie One.

“I’ll explain later,” said Owen. “Assuming there is a later. “For the moment, just believe me when I say things just got a lot more complicated. The Widowmaker will be a major rallying point for the Empire that we hadn’t counted on. We have to get this information back to Rebel HQ.”

“I’ve got a better idea,” said Hazel. She raised her projectile weapon and let Dram have it point-blank. The stairwell echoed to the roar of the gun as bullets hammered into the steel walls over and over, but Dram’s cold smile never wavered. His holo image shimmered slightly, but was otherwise unaffected.

“You didn’t really think someone of my quality would come in person to deal with rebel trash, did you?” said Dram calmly. “The lower floors of this tower are now blocked off and occupied by my troops. There’s no way out, and nowhere for you to go. Surrender, and at least you’ll live long enough to stand trial.”

The Stevie Blues glared at him fiercely. Stevie One spat on the floor. “What makes you think we’d trust treacherous scum like you? You came to us pretending to be a man called Hood, and we trusted you. In return, you betrayed us to the Empire forces. Hundreds of good men and women died that day, just because they happened to be espers or clones. We’ll all die before we surrender to you.”

“Suit yourselves,” said Dram, and his holo image disappeared like a popping soap bubble. The steel stairs shuddered as a large body of armed men came crashing up them. Owen fired his disrupter down the stairwell, but the energy beam ricocheted away from an advancing force shield wall. The espers concentrated and boiling flames filled the stairwell. The force wall just kept coming, pushing back the flames, which were already beginning to die out as the esp-blocker drew nearer. The Stevie Blues looked at Owen and Hazel.

“Don’t look at me,” said Hazel. “I’m right out of ideas. How much longer does the program have to run, Owen?”

“Can’t be long now. A few minutes at most. But we can’t afford to be cornered in the computer room with it.”

“And we don’t have a few minutes, anyway. How about setting up a barricade?”

“Couldn’t hurt,” said Owen. “See, you can come up with ideas when you have to. Stevies, if you’d care to lend a hand …”

They dashed back into the computer room, grabbed everything blocky that wasn’t actually welded in place, and manhandled it out into the corridor. Between them they maneuvered the heavy equipment over to the top of the stairwell, and launched it down the stairs. The way was immediately blocked, and the enemy advance came to a sudden halt. Force shields were excellent at stopping energy blasts or bullets, but they had real problems coping with three hundred pounds of assorted wedged office equipment. The security guards stopped to discuss the matter, while Dram snarled at them acidly from below. Owen and Hazel grinned at each other, and at the esper clones, and then they all spun around at an unexpected sound behind them. It was the bell that signaled the approach of the elevator.

“That shouldn’t be possible,” said Stevie One. “The cyberats were supposed to have cut off the elevators.”

“Never trust anyone who has an unnatural relationship with his softdrive,” said Stevie Two.

“Right,” said Stevie Three.

They spread out before the elevator door, guns and blades at the ready. It was very quiet in the corridor. Owen’s hands were sweaty, and he wished he had time to dry them. The elevator chimed again, and the doors slid open to reveal a medium height impeccably dressed man with a heavily lined face and long, carefully styled white hair. He smiled at them all engagingly, and the Stevie Blues let out their breath and lowered their weapons.

“We should have known,” said Stevie Two. “If anyone could slip past an entire army of guards and just waltz in here, it would have to be you.”

“You know how it is,” said the newcomer, in a deep, resonant voice. “I do so love to make an entrance. Now, be a dear and introduce me to your friends. Guns make me nervous.”

“This aging reprobate is Alexander Storm,” said Stevie One. “Longtime rebel, adventurer, and gadfly by appointment. Hero of the rebellion, professional clotheshorse, and a general pain in the ass. We only put up with him because he’s so good at making the Empire forces look like pratts.”

“Right,” said Stevie Three.

“Couldn’t have put it better myself,” said Alexander Storm. He stepped out of the elevator and clapped Owen firmly on the shoulder. “I’m an old friend and comrade in arms of Jack Random. I’ve been semiretired for a while, you know how it is, but once I heard Jack was back in the thick of things, I knew I had to join him. It’ll be just like old times, fighting shoulder to shoulder again. I haven’t seen the dear fellow since Cold Rock. Not one of our better showings, I’m afraid. Still, it’s the thought that counts. Anyway, I contacted the underground, pulled a few strings, and here I am. The Stevie Blues will represent the clones and espers, and I shall speak for the other parts of the underground. Delighted to meet you at last, Deathstalker. Word of your exploits has spread far and wide. Everyone in the rebellion is delighted to see you following in your father’s footsteps. He’d be so proud of you. But then, Deathstalker has always been an honorable name. Great things are expected of you, my boy. You are the hope of humanity.”

Owen became aware of a dangerously quiet, fuming figure at his side. “This is Hazel d’Ark,” he said quickly. “I’m sure you’ve heard of her, too.”

Storm smiled at her dazzlingly. “Of course. The rebellion can always use another canny fighter. Tell me, Owen, how is Jack Random these days? Last I’d heard, he’d taken a hell of a beating at the Empire’s hands.”

“He’s … better than he was,” Owen said carefully. “Try not to look too shocked when you see him. He’s been through a lot.”

“Are we going to stand around here chatting all day?” said Hazel ominously. “Or is someone going to check whether the program’s finished running yet?”

The barricade filling the top of the stairs shifted suddenly, as someone underneath tried to move it, but it just settled itself more comfortably. And then an energy beam tore right through the mass of equipment, scattering fragments of molten metal in the air. The rebels ducked back and covered their heads with their arms. The security forces began dismantling what was left of the barricade.

“Let’s save the official getting-to-know-each-other session for a better time,” said Owen hastily. “I’ll check the program. You shoot at anything that moves till I get back.”

He sprinted down the corridor and into the computer room, and saw with relief that the program discs had finished their task and ejected themselves. He grabbed them, pressed the attached self-destruct, and watched with satisfaction as the discs were consumed in smoke flames. He wrinkled his nose at the smell and dropped the burning discs to the floor. Now, even if he or any of the rebels were to be captured, there would still be no way the Empire could reconstruct what the program had been. He ran back to the stairwell, where Hazel was spraying the disappearing barricade with bullets, to no obvious effect.

“Time to go,” Owen said briskly. “The program’s taken care of, and we have more than outstayed our welcome. Grab anything that’s yours or might be useful, and head for the roof. There are gravity sleds waiting there.”

“We can use the elevator,” said Storm. “The cyberats have control of it.”

“We’ll use the stairs,” said Hazel. “The cyberats’ commands could get overridden, and it’d be a damn silly way to get trapped.”

She headed for the stairs, without looking back to see if the others were following. Storm raised an eyebrow at Owen, as though surprised he wasn’t taking charge. He was the hope of humanity, after all. Owen shrugged sheepishly and hurried after Hazel. Storm and the Stevie Blues followed behind. Owen kept his gun trained ahead of him, just in case, but there was no one lying in wait on the stairs, and they reached the top floor without incident. The gravity sleds were waiting where they’d been left, for which Owen was very grateful. This would not be a good time to have to walk home. Hazel was already aboard her sled and powering it up. Owen took Storm on his sled, while the three clones insisted upon crowding onto Hazel’s.

The two sleds rose into the air and headed for the shattered windows they’d originally entered by. Energy beams stabbed the air around them as Dram and his people burst into the top floor, firing wildly. Owen and Hazel pushed the gravity sleds to full speed and shot away between the pastel towers, dodging and diving erratically to throw off the guards’ aim. The sleds had force shields, but the power needed to sustain them would quickly drain the sleds’ energy crystals of power they needed more urgently for speed. The Stevie Blues hung on grimly to the bucking gravity sled and fired back at their attackers. More guards appeared at the windows of other towers and opened fire on the sleds. Dram must have got the word out. Owen and Hazel darted in and out of the towers, fighting updrafts and dodging unexpected protrusions, and the energy beams came at them from every side.

A disrupter beam hit the front of Owen’s sled a glancing blow, blasting it off course. White-hot metal spattered across his hastily flung-up cloak as he struggled to regain control. The cloak burst into flames. Storm pulled it free from Owen’s shoulders and threw it overboard. It fell away, burning brightly, finally disappearing into the long drop. Owen fought the sled back under control, but its speed had dropped by half. Hazel dropped back to keep pace with him. Owen gestured for her to go on, but she shook her head stubbornly. Owen activated his comm implant.

“Hazel, will you please get the hell out of here! Dram will be putting sleds into the air anytime now.”

“Exactly,” Hazel said calmly. “You’re going to need someone to watch your back. We can’t let you die. You’re the hope of humanity, remember?”

He would have argued more, but they whipped around the side of a tower to find themselves facing rows of armed guards waiting for them on top of the next tower. Owen and Hazel cursed simultaneously and threw the sleds into a dive. Energy beams slashed past them, and one hit Stevie Two squarely in the back. The force of the blast threw her over the side of the sled. The other two Stevies screamed in unison as the burning body plummeted toward the distant ground. Owen sent his sled plunging after her, pushing its speed well past its recommended safety limits. The engine whined protestingly, but he ignored it. He overtook the falling body, swept the sled underneath, and then surged up to catch her. The burning body slammed onto the deck. Storm wrapped his cloak around her, to smother the flames. Red warning lights glared all across the sled’s controls, and Owen snarled back at them. He’d saved a life from the Empire’s venom, and that was all that mattered.

Hazel’s sled swept in beside him. Stevies One and Three were firing Hazel’s projectile weapons at the guards, driving them back under cover. Hazel gestured back over her shoulder, and Owen glanced back briefly. Imperial gravity sleds were coming up behind and closing the gap fast. Energy beams flashed past the rebels’ sleds, from behind and ahead. Warning shots fired, to show they’d got the range. Owen caught Hazel’s eye and pointed upwards. She nodded, and the two sleds darted straight up, leaving the sheltering towers behind. Owen activated his comm unit again.

“This is Rebel One to Golden Boy. I can’t come to you, so you’ll have to come to me. Lock on to my signal and get your ass here fast.”

There was no answer, but he hadn’t expected on. The two Stevie Blues were firing down at the pursuing Empire sleds, tears for their fallen sister streaming down their cold, set faces. Their guns ran out of ammo, and the espers dropped the projectile weapons to the deck and grabbed two more from Hazel’s belt. They opened up again, and one of the pursuing sleds suddenly erupted into flames and fell spiraling between the towers like a burning leaf. Owen and Hazel sent their sleds whipping back and forth over the towers, their Maze-amplified speed and reflexes enabling them to make decisions and pull off evasions their pursuers couldn’t hope to match, but still the Empire sleds came on, remorselessly closing the gap with their superior speed.

And then the great golden ship of the Hadenmen appeared out of nowhere right before them as it dropped its cloaking shields, filling the sky, gleaming brighter than the sun. The pursuing sleds took one look and did everything but throw themselves into reverse. A few fired off useless shots at the huge ship, but most just settled for shuddering to an unruly halt in midair. Owen glanced back over his shoulder and saw Storm looking up at the ship with his mouth open. Even the Stevie Blues had stopped firing at their pursuers. Owen grinned and flew up into the open cargo bay doors in the ship’s belly, Hazel right behind him.

“Get the hell out of here right now!” yelled Owen. “Go, go, go!”

The belly doors slammed shut, and Owen and Hazel landed their sleds. Owen slumped over the controls, exhausted, but made himself turn around as Stevie One and Stevie Three ran over to the sled. Storm was bending over the unmoving body of Stevie Two. He looked up as the esper clones reached him and shook his head sadly.

“I’m sorry. She must have been dead from the moment the beam hit her.”

Owen wanted to say something, but couldn’t. Stevie One nodded stiffly to him. “You risked your life to save her, even though she was just a clone. It’s not your fault she didn’t make it. We’ll never forget what you did, Owen Deathstalker. Wherever you lead, we’ll follow.”

“But now there are only two of us,” said Stevie Three quietly.

Stevie One put her arms around her and hugged her hard. After a while she let go, and the two Stevie Blues walked off a way to be by themselves for a while. Hazel came over to join Owen and Storm.

“Nice flying, Deathstalker. Maybe you are the hope of humanity after all.”

“You’re never going to let me forget that, are you?” said Owen.

“Listen, aristo,” said Hazel. “You need me to keep you honest. If you’re the hope, we are in deep shit. Hey, Hadenmen! Any chance of showing us what’s happening outside?”

A viewscreen appeared, hovering on the air before them. The planet was falling away below them, but a dozen starcruisers were coming after them. They were unusually large, bulky ships of a kind Owen didn’t recognize. He looked at Storm, who was biting his lower lip and frowning.

“The Empress’s new fleet,” he said quietly. “E class, all with the new stardrive. Reputedly even faster than the legendary Hadenman ships. It would appear we’re about to find out whether that’s the case.”

The Empire ships opened fire. Disrupter cannon fired in sequence, one after the other, so that the starcruisers could maintain a constant fire. The golden ship fired back, but the Empire ships were rapidly closing the gap. Owen assumed the Hadenmen’s shields were still holding—on the grounds everyone on board would have been breathing vacuum by now if they weren’t. And then the ship’s engines roared, and the viewscreen disappeared as the Hadenman craft dropped into hyperspace and was gone. Owen let out a long slow sigh of relief, and Hazel slapped him on the back.

“Told you we’d make it, aristo. Personally, I was never worried. Not for a minute.”

“Then, you should have been,” said Owen. “If those new ships are typical of the E class, we are all in real trouble. Think of a fleet of ships as fast as my old Sunstrider. We’d been relying on the Hadenman ships to give us an edge, but it would appear they’re not number one anymore. Which means, if we’re going to go head-to-head with the Empire, we’ve got to have ships with the new stardrive, too.”

“What the hell,” said Hazel. “We can worry about that later. The mission was a success. The Tax and Tithe computers are toast, and we got most of the contacts out alive.”

“We still lost one,” said Owen.

“It wasn’t your fault,” said Storm. “You tried. These things happen. I’ll go and have a word with Stevie One and Three. Offer them some comfort and a friendly shoulder to lean on.”

He bowed formally and moved away. Hazel watched him go. “These things happen! He’s going to be a real comfort, he is”

“I think we could both use a drink and some rest,” said Owen. “Perhaps you’d care to join me, Hazel? Or we could have a meal together. Would you like that?”

“Not really, no,” said Hazel. “No offense, Deathstalker, but let’s keep our relationship professional, okay?”

She smiled at him briefly, then strode over to Storm and the two esper clones, gesturing for them to follow her. Owen watched them go. He was sure he must have been turned down faster than that at some time in his past, but he was damned if he could think when. Things like that weren’t supposed to happen. He was a Lord, after all. And the hope of humanity.

“Nice try, though,” said the AI Ozymandius through his comm implant.

“Shut up, Oz,” said Owen. “You’re dead.”