Captain Sir Louis Roberts, Deputy Director of the Office of Naval Information, was reading the hard copy of a secret file.
"STERLING, DENNIS AELLA, LT. Commander, INI, Retired."
Mr. Sterling had an interesting background.
His father was shot for Treason and his mother was permanently confined to a mental hospital. Little Dennis was given a new name and was made a ward of the Aledon Ducal household. He was also enrolled in the Regina Imperial Military Institute. A school for Imperial military brats.
How nice, thought Sir Louis.
Alumni of RIMI called themselves "Rimmies" and showed little if any respect for hereditary noble titles, apart from the Emperor of course, and generally acted as if the empire would disintegrate if it were not for their own exertions.
"'We serve the Imperium,' my ass!" Muttered Sir Louis.
Rimmies tended to speak of the Imperium as if they were a bunch of Ancient Terran witches who were speaking the name of their Mother Goddess in an arcane ceremony.
Perhaps, thought Sir Louis, there is really some strange, obscene, and probably illicit ritual being performed in the basement. Someone should look into that.
Upon graduation from RIMI, Dennis Sterling had refused the noble title that was offered to him and instead of entering the Naval Academy, had enlisted in the Imperial Navy as a common spacehand. After completing Officer Candidate School, Sterling served the remainder of his first term aboard a Lightning class cruiser, the Bard Refuge.
The truly interesting part of the dossier covered the remainder of Sterling's naval career.
After the completion of the Initial Intelligence Officer Training School, Sterling served in a number of staff and field assignments in Imperial Naval Intelligence. The field assignments included two years under cover as a crew member aboard the Emissary.
Sir Louis paused. The Emissary was a Lightning class cruiser that was surplus to naval requirements and was sold to Oberlindes Lines. Normally such ships were stripped of their primary weapons suites when they were sold to private entities. But somehow, the Emissary was delivered to a port beyond the Imperial frontier and thus was not properly demilitarized. The staff officer who was allegedly responsible for that particular screw-up had vanished without a trace.
In the view of Lord Admiral Santanocheev, civilian ownership and commercial operation of a fully armed cruiser was an open sore on the prestige of the empire and the navy. The flat refusal of the navy's regular intelligence organization to do anything about the Emissary was a factor impelling the Lord Admiral toward establishing his own private intelligence group, the Office of Naval Information.
Unfortunately, the Office's first attempt to solve the Emissary problem had failed.
The other problem with the navy's normal spooks was that after being surprised by the onset of the last war with the Zhodani, they were now crying, as if they were a bunch of Chickens Little, about an impending invasion of the Marches.
That the Zhodani would initiate another invasion so shortly after being beaten in the last war was in the Lord Admiral's view, simply ridiculous. The Lord Admiral said as much to a group of intelligence officers four years ago.
Lieutenant Commander Sterling was a member of that briefing team. Like his colleagues in INI, he was angered by the Lord Admiral's remarks. Unlike his fellow navy spooks he spoke his mind at that very moment.
Sterling had told Santanocheev that the Zho's would strike at any time that they damned pleased, and not at the time the Lord Admiral feels would be appropriate.
Sterling also stated, with a certain obscene embellishment, that the Lord Admiral was unfit to command a deflated rescue ball caught in a decaying orbit.
That particular outburst was a certain career killer. Sterling was allowed to gracefully retire instead of facing a general court martial.
That should have been the end of Dennis Sterling.
Within a month of Sterling's retirement, a man fitting his description and carrying an ACRS, the shortened version of the Advanced Combat Rifle, led a gang that broke into a prison camp on a world just outside of the empire and rescued two of the inmates incarcerated therein.
And then Sterling met and married Helen Spofulam. The Spofulams were virtually a criminal family in their own right. The dossier made no mention of any divorce though.
Sterling continued to work for the Spofulams, essentially as a babysitter for one of Old Hengabar's nieces. Even bringing that spoiled brat to Regina on that beat up piece of junk the IMS Chauchat, whereupon the crew immediately gets into a brawl with some local Bargerites.
Sterling, along with of one of Norris' pet Vargr, used His-so-called-Grace's influence to spring his crew from a local jail. Sterling also arbitrarily shot one of the civilians incarcerated at that jail. Sterling and his motley band had since disappeared into jumpspace for an unknown destination.
Traveling with a Vargr spy, Sir Louis pondered, Sterling is quite likely headed for the Vargr Extents.
Captain Sir Louis Roberts, upon finishing the file, had no further doubts as to how to carry out the Lord Admiral's command.
Captain Dennis Sterling of the Imperial Mercenary Ship Chauchat entered his own cabin to confront his ex-wife.
Helen was in the lower bunk. She had left room for Dennis to get into bed beside her. She held her teddy bear close to herself. This was the same teddy bear that she had when Dennis met her less than a handful of years ago.
It was on his first night out on Regina after he had rescued Sergei and Zinni from that barbarian gulag on Ruie.
He'd lost two members of the strike force. One was brought back in a low berth on the elderly Free Trader they had used on the mission. The other was deliberately left behind.
He had dumped his personal gear in his room at the Aledon family home, took a long shower, jumped into his beat up and virtually ancient Grav-speeder, and took off. After clearing the central control zone around the planetary capital, Dennis had switched to manual control and set course for one of his favorite spots for quiet contemplation.
There was a tree he used to sit under on a hill overlooking the old school grounds, but Dennis had no desire to be shot at by some poor kid pulling night sentry duty.
There was another place on Regina. It was a circular plateau topped by a ring of trees surrounding a rock-strewn grassy field. Big Bill Aledon had brought young Dennis there shortly after the boy was taken away from his mother.
It was at local midnight, and young Dennis had never been up that late before. They weren't alone on the plateau, it was spotted with small campfires, and one could hear the faint thumping of drums in the distance.
Big Bill and Dennis sat down on a large and flat rock. Big Bill then pointed up at Assiniboia, the large gas giant around which Regina orbited. There was a rust-colored cyclonic storm that appeared to be centered on its fully illuminated face.
"Some people call that The Eye of God." Said Big Bill.
To young Dennis the rust-colored spot did appear eyelike.
"There are some people who come here to seek the truth, and there are some people come here to speak the truth, no matter how unpleasant it may be."
Big Bill Aledon, the Duke of Regina, then told young Dennis the thoroughly unpleasant truth about his parents.
Dennis remembered asking Big Bill if he was going to be taken out and shot as his father was.
"Do you want to betray the Imperium?" Big Bill had asked.
"Do you want to serve the Imperium, and undo the damage that your father did to it?"
"Yes, sir. I do."
On the next day, Big Bill Aledon would officially assume legal guardianship of young Dennis.
In later years Dennis would return to that spot. What Big Bill, patriarchal fellow that he was never mentioned, was that there were also some people who thought the rust-colored cyclone on the face of Assiniboia was The Eye of The Goddess.
Dennis heard the distant sounds of singing, dancing, and drumming that night as he sat on the large flat rock.
As a child existing in the house of his natural mother, he had learned to hide his true feelings, lest he would be savagely beaten for speaking the unwanted truth. On active duty in the Imperial navy he found that emotional repression was sometimes necessary in order to carry out a mission, or even to survive an otherwise lethal mishap.
Now, for the first time since his departure from the navy, Dennis opened the personal emotional barrier he had erected and maintained over the last month. He allowed himself to feel rage. He screamed at himself, at the naval high command, and at the social-climbing buffoon who presided over the end of his career.
For those who served in Imperial Naval Intelligence, the truth was sacred. It was a holy object that one quested for, to convey to the defenders of the Imperium. And the truth was also something to be denied to the enemies of the Imperium.
But Admiral Santanocheev didn't want to know the truth, the virtually blasphemous piece of walking filth just wanted to punch his own career ticket and feel good about himself, never mind the long term consequences.
Never mind the Imperial Citizens whose lives would be damaged and destroyed in the next Zhodani invasion.
Dennis felt as if he were an Ancient Terran paladin who just discovered that the god he swore his life to serve was nothing more than a metaphysical bogeyman invented by a witch-doctor to scam free meals from a wandering tribe of goatherds.
Dennis wanted at that moment to be dead.
Under the Eye of the Goddess, Dennis now silently sat on the flat rock with his eyes closed, oblivious to his surroundings and to the Universe as a whole. He had not seen or heard the young woman who walked up to him.
"Hello Navy Guy." She said to him.
"What?" Dennis was startled.
He opened his eyes, standing before him was a young and dark-haired woman holding a teddy bear.
"You look like a navy guy." She answered.
The cloud of despair in which he was enveloped began to fade away from him. She was being nice to him. He felt that he had to answer her.
"I was, in a previous life."
"I heard someone screaming over here." She said.
"I'm afraid that was me." He answered with some embarrassment. "It's something I need to do from time to time."
There was also a time when Dennis would beat up the furniture while in a state of rage. That habit suddenly ended when a large sliver cut a diagonal gash across his right wrist. The scar from that little accident was still visible.
"Oh." She said. She then pointed over the nearest of the camp fires.
"Some friends of mine are getting married. Would you come back to the fire with me?"
He followed her back to the celebration by the camp fire.
At daybreak Dennis gave Helen a lift back to the place where she was staying on Regina. It was an abandoned manor house in an area that had been hit hard with kinetic ordinance by the Zho's during the Fourth Frontier War. It was only now that anyone was moving back into the area. She shared the house with some other disaffected young people, some of whom even had inherited noble titles.
One thing Dennis had noticed when growing up in the Aledon household was that the Imperial Nobility could be divided into two basic groups, workers and wastrels. Or as Big Bill would call them, workers and wankers.
Wankers were primarily focused on enjoying the privileges of noble rank. The idea of serving anything other than themselves, such as the Imperium, was virtually alien to them. And when wankers weren't throwing outrageous parties for themselves, they would swarm around the Aledon household like a cloud of locusts. Dennis was careful to not mention his own connection to the Aledon family lest he would be set upon by a pack of wankers.
Big Bill was also in the habit of describing many a wanker as, "a walking waste of mass and energy."
But the kids, generally of Solomani ancestry, who shared the old manor house with Helen were embarrassed and even ashamed of the titles they were born with.
Dennis stayed with Helen in the old house, he would tell stories about his own naval career. Or at least the parts of his career that weren't classified.
And the next time the Eye of the Goddess appeared again, Helen and Dennis were married in a ceremony on the plateau.
He stole his part of the ceremony from an old Terran video series.
"Will you follow me into fire, will you follow me into darkness, will you follow me into death?" He had asked her.
It was on the honeymoon that the relationship began to go sour. By the time the couple reached Capital, Dennis was ready to file for a divorce. This didn't stop Helen's uncle, Hengabar, from hiring Dennis. Old Hengie was surprised that Dennis survived as long as he did.
And now, years later, Helen looked up from the bunk in the captain's stateroom aboard the Chauchat.
"Hello Navy Guy." She said.
She was once again being the nice young lady that walked up to him that night on the plateau. If that had been her primary personality Dennis and Helen would still be married.
If he were to hop into bed with her now, the cycle of behavior that soured their marriage would begin again, with the same result. And Dennis was tired of this nonsense. He had once thought that he would rather be with Helen when she going through PMS than to ever have to speak with Lisa Holland again. That particular thought, like his marriage to Helen, was now an obvious error. And if there was one thing he wouldn't repeat, it was that particular mistake.
Dennis walked over to and hit the intercom switch.
"Code twenty-one, Captain's Cabin. Code twenty-one, Captain's Cabin." He commanded in the drill sergeant tone of voice.
The door to the cabin opened and about half the crew, who were apparently waiting outside for the command to enter, poured in and piled onto Helen. Doc followed the other crew members with nylon restraints and a backboard reinforced with steel tubing. This type of backboard was normally used to secure and move unruly mental patients about, and thus was standard issue on ships owned by Famille Spofulam.
Helen was now screaming in full furious rage.
"DANA, YOU PRICK!" Which was followed immediately by her very painful scream of, "OWWWW!"
When the crew finished strapping Helen face down on the backboard, Dennis gave the next order.
"Take her down to deck three, boys."
Dana silently gave Dennis her killer stare.
"And you too, Dana."
Doc followed the crew down to deck three to begin the freeze-down of Helen.
Ditzie had silently stood at the door as a witness to the whole proceeding.
If there was one thing that Ditzie should never be told, it was to act her own age. Although Ditzie appeared to be a normal eight-year-old girl, her actual age was well over a century in human years.
Dennis could sense a mental click when Ditzie the little girl switched to being Ditzamer, the personality with over a century of life experience.
"Uncle Hengabar is NOT going to like this." She said.
"Uncle Hengabar is on Capital." Dennis replied. "Cleaning up after the last mess that you made."
"I Made?" Ditzamer almost squeaked.
"Yes, your mess, my dear niece. I wasn't the one who dropped the whole FS marketing department down a black hole. You did."
"So what?" Said Ditzamer, "It's the Marketing Department. Nobody's going to miss them."
Dennis continued in his lecture voice.
"Nor did I virtually vaporize poor Mister Grimes, that was your doing my dear child."
There was nothing left of the poor fellow but a pile of ashes and a charred pair of combat boots.
"So the EMPAC still has a few bugs in it." Ditzamer petulantly replied. "It's not going to get debugged while we're out here in the Spinward Marches."
As far as Dennis was concerned, there was something fundamentally absurd with the concept of mounting a particle accelerator cannon on a Terran Elephant.
"And why," Ditzamer continued, "are we in the Marches instead of the Solomani Rim?"
"Do you remember the college town that used to be on the West Coast of North America on Terra?"
"Oh?" Ditzamer replied. "Now it's supposed to be my fault that thirty-seven hundred years of bad Karma finally caught up with Berserk-ly?"
Dana Wolfsburg had been in the middle of slowly consuming a triple mocha in her favorite coffee house when the sudden call came to take Ditzie off planet and out of the Solar System.
And Dana was still more than a bit upset about that.
"And then SOMEONE snuck in and blew up the Grand Mosque in Mecca." Dennis continued. "They STILL haven't found all the pieces of the Kabaa yet."
"WHAT!" Screamed Ditzamer. "You're accusing ME? Of THAT?!"
Ditzamer was now changing back into Ditzie.
"It's YOU, my dear Uncle, who's always going on and on about how Islam was such an out and out fraud!"
"Well, yes. But I still didn't blow it up." Said Dennis.
There were still an immense number of Muslims in the Solomani Rim. Staying out of that sector was definitely the prudent thing to do.
"And I know you're fond of this ship, "Ditzie continued to whine, "but do WE have to fly around in it?"
"Yes," Dennis replied. "Because the head of Tukera Lines, his wife the Duchess of Delphi, and virtually half of their corporate security force on Capital paid a visit on our Uncle Hengabar in order to read him the riot act about you."
The last Tukera starliner that Ditzie had traveled aboard barely made it into port and was ultimately cannibalized for parts and sold for scrap.
Dennis saw that Helen's teddy bear was still on the lower bunk. He recalled having to break into a Bargerite lair back on Regina in order to retrieve it. He reached over, picked up the teddy-bear, and handed it to Ditzie.
"Here," he said. "Would you please take this down to deck three. Your Aunt Helen always hated to sleep alone."
After Ditzie left, Daevagh stuck his head into the cabin and spoke to Dennis.
"You really hate sleeping on the top bunk, don't you?"