(Sten No. 3)

By Allan Cole and Chris Bunch


UK Cover Of Sten 3 - The Court Of A Thousand Suns


The banth purred at the quillpig, which, unimpressed, had firmly stuffed itself as far as it could into the hollow stump.

The banth’s instinct said that the porcupine was edible, but the six-legged cat’s training told it otherwise. Meat was presented by two-legs at dawn and dusk, and came with gentle words. The quillpig may have smelled right, but it was not behaving like meat. The banth sat back on its haunches and used a forepaw to pry two needles from its nasal carapace.

Then the animal flattened. It heard the noise again, a whine from the forest. The banth looked worriedly up the mountain, then back again 

  in the direction of the sound before deciding.

Against instinct, it broke out of the last fringe of the tree line and bounded up the bare, rock-strewn mountain. Two hundred meters vertically up the talus cliff, it went to cover behind a mass of boulders.

The whine grew louder as a gravsled lifted over the scrubby treetops, pirouetted, searching, and then grounded near the hollow stump.

Terence Kreuger, chief of Prime World’s police tactical force, checked the homing panel mounted over the gravsled’s controls. The needle pointed straight up the mountain, and the proximity director indicated the banth was barely half a kilometer away.

Kreuger unslung a projectile weapon from its clips behind his seat and checked it once again: projectile chambered; safe off; ranging scope preset for one meter, the approximate dimensions of the



banth’s chest area.

He checked the slope with a pair of binocs and after a few seconds saw a flicker of movement. Kreuger grunted to himself and lifted the gravsled up the mountain. He’d already missed the banth once that day; he was less than pleased with himself.

Kreuger fancied himself a hunter in the grand tradition. Time not required for his police duties was spent hunting or preparing himself for a hunt, an expensive hobby, especially on Prime World. The Imperial capital had no native game, and both hunting preserves there charged far more than even a tactical group chief could afford - until recently. Kreuger’s previous hunts had been restricted to offworld, and mostly for minor edible or nuisance game. That was well and good, but provided Kreuger with little in the way of trophies, especially trophies of the kind that the gamebooks chronicled. But things had suddenly become different. His friends had seen to that. After thirty years as a cop, Kreuger still prized his honesty. He just rationalized that what his new friends wanted wasn’t dishonest: look at the benefits!



Three weeks away from Empire Day madness. Three weeks on a hunting reservation, expenses paid. Tags for four dangerous animals - an Earth rhino, a banth, a male cervi, and a giant ot.

He had already planned on which wall each had would be mounted. Of course, Kreuger did not intend to mention to his soon-to-be admiring friends where those trophies had been taken.

The gravsled’s bumper caromed him away from a boulder, bringing Kreuger back to the present. Concentrate, man, concentrate. Remember every bit of this day. The clearness of the air. The smell of the trees below. The spray of dust around the gravsled.

Kreuger guided the gravsled up the slope, following the homing needle toward the sensor implanted in the banth.

Below, a second, one-man sled coasted through the trees. Clyff Tarpy did not need binocs to follow



Kreuger’s sled. Contour-following, he lifted his sled after Kreuger.

The banth was cornered.

Ahead of him to the right, the ground fell away steeply, too steeply for even his clawed legs to descend. To the left was a sheer cliff. The banth huddled behind a boulder, puzzling.

Kreuger’s gravsled landed just outside the nest. Weapon ready, Kreuger moved forward.

Again, the banth was perplexed. The whine had been the cause of a loud explosion and searing pain earlier, the pain that sent the banth fleeing through the forest toward the mountains.

But the smell was two-legs. Two-legs, but not familiar. Had the banth done something wrong? The two-legs would tell him, feed him, and then return him to the warmth of his pen.



The banth stood and walked forward.

Kreuger’s projectile weapon came up as the banth walked into view. No errors now. Safety off, he aimed.

The banth mewed. This was not his two-legs.


Kreuger spun, the banth momentarily forgotten. He had not heard the second gravsled land behind him.

From five meters, the barrel of the weapon was enormous. Tarpy allowed just enough time to pass for terror to replace the bewilderment on Kreuger’s face. And then he fingered the stud. The soft metal



round expanded nicely as it penetrated Kreuger’s sternum, then pinwheeled through the tac chief’s rib cage into his heart. Kreuger, instantly dead, sat down on a small boulder before slowly toppling forward onto his face.

Tarpy smiled as he took a think chunk of soyasteak from his beltpak and tossed it to the banth. “Eight lives to go, pussycat.”

Tarpy took a small aerosol can from his pak, and, backing up, erased his footsteps from the dusty rock. He paused by Kreuger’s gravsled long enough to shut the power off and disconnect the beacon. The longer it took to find the body, the better. Tarpy mounted his own sled and nudged it back down the hill.

The banth’s tail whipped back and forth once. He did not like the smell from the strange two-legs. He picked up the slab of soyasteak, sprang over the rock wall, and went back down the mountain. He

  would eat on the ground he was familiar with, and then perhaps unravel the puzzle of the other soyasteak, the one with needles that walked.




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Last Revised: January 29, 2011