The night was like most on the desert planet Motavia, cool and dry, providing respite from the heat that rolled off the dunes and the hard-packed earth. A breeze whistled through the streets of Zema, bringing with it a faint hint of grassy plains and rolling wooded hills, things buried deep in the Parmanians' racial memory, things from their own home planet no one had known in the thousand years since it had been blasted into drifting fragments.

The wind plucked at the long, dark cloak and close-fitting headcloth worn by the side street's sole occupant. Such garb was common among travelers, but the prevailing color was white, to throw back the glare from the burning eye of the sun, Algo. The man's dark cloak, a charcoal-gray like the clothing beneath, suggested that he was up to no good. The dark color would blend easily into the shadowy corners of a town where night-lamps were few and far between, the headcloth made it difficult to see his face even in good light, and the cloak confused the eyes of onlookers by blurring the outlines of his figure, making it hard to accurately describe his build.

The stalker was a pragmatic man and he had learned his lessons well in the art of stealth.

A jingling of metal on metal caught the man's ear, and he shrank back into the shadows at the corner of a house. The sound grew nearer and nearer, until a figure turned the corner and the stalker saw a woman in stiff leather armor wearing a weapon-harness. This latter was what caused the noise, rings and buckles clashing against one another and against the hilts of long daggers. This was a prosperous neighborhood, and patrolling guards were assigned to the area to watch for thieves and troublemakers.

The stalker hoped the patrols were made up of town guards; if the local owners had paid for them, they were getting conned. He could eliminate this one almost effortlessly through several different means. Her sheer ignorance made his fingers itch to do just that.

The stalker let her walk on obliviously, though. Unlike her, he was a professional. That meant refraining from pursuing visceral pleasures while on the job. Even if he concealed the body--which would itself waste time--she would no doubt be missed when she didn't arrive at some rendezvous point or back off shift, and who knew if that was in five hours or five minutes? No, if he took it upon himself to punish her for her incompetence he would be no better than her.

Once the guard was a sufficient distance away, the cloaked man left the cover of the shadows and slipped on down the street, until he came to an alley between houses. In this affluent area, it was not a narrow passage but a broad lane, giving plenty of space between the walls. The stalker felt open and exposed, and he was glad that his goal was around the back of the house.

The building had a walled-in garden around back, testifying to its owner's wealth. Like the house itself, the wall followed the current fashion in architecture by being studded with crenelations at regular intervals. These made laughably easy supports for ropes and other tricks of entry. Unlike roof-mounted ones, though, the merlons on a fence-top were often deliberately designed to be flimsy and to break off if pressure was applied. Since this was a ten-foot wall, using one for support could lead to a nasty fall, and the crash of breaking stone and brick falling to the street might attract all kinds of attention. There were better ways.

The stalker took a thick baton tipped with a claw hook out from under his cloak. The unusual width of the shaft was soon explained when he shook out the collapsible sections and his eighteen-inch baton became a six-foot poke. A few quick twists of the sections locked them into place. He then reached up, hooked the claw tip over the top of the wall, and began to climb, using his upper-body strength to haul himself up hand-over-hand. Nearing the top, he braced himself with his feet and released the pole with one hand long enough to reach under his cloak and retrieve a thick leather pad that was fastened to the inside back. This pad he flipped over the six-inch depth of the wall's top. Its purpose was to insulate his body from the shards of broken glass, fixed swordlike blades, and other unpleasant surprises that were often used by security-conscious homeowners. Only then did the cloaked man pull himself up the last length and swiftly slither across the wall, bringing the pole with him. He moved as quickly as possible, so that his own weight would not rest on the pad long enough for it to push down on the cutting edges hard enough to slice through.

He landed lightly inside the garden, on soft green grass, and hooked the pad down with the climbing pole. He saw no guards, no dogs in the back yard; the garden had no additional protection besides the wall. No lights shone from the rear windows of the house. The stalker put away the tools of his trade and crossed the garden in light steps, walking only on the grass or the crushed-gravel path to keep from leaving telltale prints in the dirt edges.

Most Motavian windows were narrow, too narrow to admit a person, because they were often left open to draw in fresh air and restricting their size was the only way to discourage thieves. Because the back windows of this house looked out into a closed garden, though, they were much larger, to give panoramic views and let in more light. They were closed by glass panes, but those could be opened while stone walls could not.

The stalker knew the position of the room he wanted and went there at once. Selecting a window, he equipped himself with a titanium-tipped cutter he had obtained in Molcum from a clever Native Motavian. This device not only used the extraordinary metal only the blue-furred native race knew how to refine, but fixed by suction to a central point on the pane and pivoted on a ball joint to cut out a circle of glass without risk of the cut piece falling and shattering loudly. The stalker could not help but smile at his memories of the inventor, who had not cared what purposed his device would be used for, instead solely enjoying the intellectual challenge of fulfilling the cloaked man's request. The cutter worked easily, and the stalker carefully put the cut piece aside. He slipped his hand through the window and turned the lock.

The intruder did not open the window at once, however. Instead, he put his hand through the hole again and felt along the frame until he found the wire. Opening the window would release the tension and trigger an alarm. Simply cutting the wire would have the same effect, only more dramatically.

The cloaked man was prepared for this as well. He unwrapped a small packet of waxed paper and removed a sticky globule of resin, which he pressed against the windowframe. Gently, so as not to send out vibrations and defeat his purpose, he pressed the wire into the resinous gum until he was confident it was held fast. Then, he cut the wire below that point, and when he was secure that his countermeasure was holding and he would not have to beat a hasty retreat, swung open the hinged window.

The room he entered was a kind of trophy hall, where valuable collectibles were displayed. Some were historic pieces while others had intrinsic value due to precious metals or gems, and yet still others were works of art valued for aesthetic reasons. Even a few of the smaller, less valuable pieces slipped into a pocket could make for many weeks of comfortable living. Once again, professionalism stayed the stalker's hand. He was here for a purpose, not to indulge in recreational theft.

He scanned the room and found his target at once, a metal-banded wooden case inlaid with jewels. The contents of the case did not interest the stalker; what he wanted was on the outside. He turned the case and noticed that one of the stones on the back had a faint ruddy glow of its own. Placed at the back it was impossible for a casual visitor to notice.

Now things would get interesting.

He got out a pouch which was lined inside and out with thin strips of metal and set that down next to the case. Next came the gauntlets, thick gloves whose fingers and palms were likewise metal-plated. He hated the clumsy things with a passion but recognized that they were necessary. Lastly he took a thin, pointed metal probe and began to pry the glowing gem free of its setting. At first his efforts were resisted, due in large part to the way the gauntlets inhibited his movement., Eventually, though, he felt the stone come free.

The reaction was instantaneous and explosive. With a thunderous boom, a bolt of searing red light launched itself from somewhere in the room and struck the jewel even as it was still coming free from its setting. The stalker felt the searing heat, and his eyes danced with sparks. The case was badly damaged, but he didn't care; he had what he'd come for.

He dumped the gem into the pouch and sealed it shut, then removed the gauntlets and put them away. The pouch went into a pocket, as did the melted remnant of the probe just in case it could somehow identify him. He knew the noise would wake the sleeping household and that this room would be their first destination, but he also knew that it would take time for the residents to clear their sleep-fogged brains and realize that the explosive sound had come from inside the house and needed investigation. He had to make haste but not be sloppy.

The stalker went back to the window, climbed through it, and closed it once again. The missing glass and cut wire wouldn't pass overlooked by even a casual search, but if the first people on scene had to fetch lamps and then if their attention was initially captured by the results of the firebolt, he might gain a minute or two's time before someone turned their head and noticed the window, whereas if he'd left it open it would not give him even that slender margin. When seconds were priceless, spending three to gain sixty was definitely a bargain well struck.

Crossing the garden again, the stalker saw the blossom of light in more than one window. Luckily it was not a full moon, so that if someone looked outside the intruder wasn't likely to be seen. In the shadow of the wall he took out his climbing pole and the leather pad once more. There were no shouts yet, no hue and cry. He was locking the pole into its extended position, though, when he heard the growl.

Dog.

No fat, playful mutt to frolic with the children before the fire, this one. Not even a barking watchdog. This was a hundred and twenty pounds of pure fighting beast that went on the attack at once. Someone's first reaction to the explosion of sound had been to loose the animal, reflexively, just in case.

The stalker got the climbing pole up fast in both hands, and as the dog leapt for his throat he caught it under the forelegs to maintain separation and twisted, using the animal's own momentum to fling it aside. It hit the grass and rolled to its feet unhurt, but the maneuver had bought the stalker time.

Some men in his position would have fought the animal with the staff or drawn another lethal weapon. This was not the stalker's way. Beasts had a nasty tendency to fight on even after taking mortal wounds unless actually killed instantly, and he couldn't risk that. He needed something quick and safe. Besides, he respected the owner of this house--a high, bladed wall, alarmed windows, and a dog that was not for show were signs of one who took his security seriously. The animal itself was a creature of lethal efficiency. Only the bungling amateur raised the stalker's disgust and contempt, the desire to crush out.

The cloaked man whipped a tiny blowpipe to his lips and with a puff of breath spat a tiny dart into the animal. The paralytic toxin, distilled from shrieker spores, took effect almost at once.

In another instant the stalker was up and over the wall. Again he stowed the climbing pole and pad, suspicious items to be seen carrying, and slipped away into the night. Even through the metal pouch he could feel the glowing stone burning like a second sun against his chest.