"Last I heard," said Captain Dennis Sterling of the Imperial Mercenary Ship Chauchat, "cheeseburgers still aren't kosher."
Sterling was having lunch at a Carl's Restaurant (Billions and Billions Served) within the main terminal complex of Efate's downport with Captain Alan Macdonald of the Imperial Navy. Al had been Dennis' section commander aboard INS Bard Refuge. Captain Macdonald was also a furball flier. He was the commander of the Tigress-class dreadnought Lioness.
"How observant of you, sir," Macdonald replied. "The last that I heard, you were still an atheist."
According to stories told in his own family, Captain MacDonald's ancestors had somehow ended up in the ancient Terran nation of Scotland after the surface empire of the Romans had sacked and demolished the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
"I also heard," Al continued, "that you've seriously cheesed off a bunch of Barger-boys."
"Well you know how the Orthodox Bargerites are, they basically believe that they own the whole damned Universe and all the human females therein."
"So the fight was about women?" Al asked.
"The dispute was about my ex-wife." Dennis gravely replied. "And THAT, is the one subject I'd rather not discuss."
"Uh, right," said Al.
Lisa woke up.
The room that she was in was being flooded through the windows with the neon pink light that was reflected off the bottoms of the clouds hovering above the eastern horizon. Lusor, the system's primary, slowly began to peek through the forest that covered the horizon.
Lisa was lying alone in an Empress size bed in a guest room of Windhaven, a manor house on Regina that had been abandoned by the original owners and subsequently taken over by Department Six of Imperial Naval Intelligence after the Fourth Frontier War.
Lisa put on a navy blue robe over her navy blue nightshirt and slipped her feet into a pair of navy blue slippers. She thought, for yet another uncountable time, that with all the Marines working in Department Six that there would be at least one item of hospital clothing is this facility in Imperial Marines Maroon.
Downstairs in the dining room of Windhaven, Lisa found her older sister Cheryl having breakfast. Cheryl was on the staff at the facility and wore a light-blue nurse's worksuit.
"Good morning Sunshine." Cheryl said to her younger sister. Lisa remained verbally and mentally silent as she sat down at the table with her tray.
"Another dream?" Cheryl asked.
"Yes." Said Lisa.
"Him." Lisa replied with a cold tone of voice.
"May I see it?"
Lisa and Cheryl linked their hands and their minds.
In the dream Lisa and Dennis were having another argument.
Lisa, who was the viewpoint, was in the left-hand seat of the red-lit cockpit of the Gau-Eight's gig as it slowly passed over the moonlit desert planetscape. The light reflected from the two moons of Algine had flooded out all but a handful of stars in the night sky.
"Even if powered armor was being made in your present size, I still wouldn't want you going out on the surface with us." Said Dennis from the shotgun seat.
"Oh, you're just being a Solomani." She replied.
"Lisa dear," Dennis continued to argue, "every known sentient mammalian species in Charted Space has a well-documented aversion to sending their pregnant females into harm's way."
"Well it's your fault that I'm in this condition."
Lisa was roughly midway through her current pregnancy, and it clearly showed through the customized vacc-suit that she presently wore with the helmet off.
"Well, yes." Dennis said with a light note of sarcasm. "But I'm also dead certain that you were in the room when it happened too, my dear."
Lisa frowned as she nudged the control stick back as the gig approached a line of sand dunes. As the gig passed over the dunes, the initial target of the expedition became visible. It was the shattered and partially buried metallic arrowhead form of a Gionetti-class cruiser of the Imperial Navy.
"Stand up!" Dennis shouted to the back of the gig as he moved his seat back away from the control panels. He wore a suit of Marine recon armor with the helmet off. The surface pattern was set for desert-nighttime. The three other members of the landing party wore near identical patterns on their own armor.
Lisa brought the gig to hover at full-stop.
"He was my friend." She softly said to him.
"And he is," Dennis softly replied, "for all practical purposes, my brother. One way or another, we'll bring him back."
Dennis leaned over to kiss Lisa.
Cheryl broke the link.
"Yuck! Does he really kiss like that?" She asked Lisa.
"How in God's Name should I know?" Came the reply.
Al was now telling Dennis about the other local groups that were involved in the Efate insurrection.
"There's also supposed to be a Popular Front of Efate."
"Really?" Said Dennis. "Who's that?"
"I think that's him over there watching the holly."
Watching a local grav-ball game on the holovision tank at the far end of the restaurant was a scruffy old man who vaguely reminded Dennis of a short grey-haired Welshman.
"Uh-huh." Dennis mumbled. Surely Al had to be kidding.
Dennis decided that now would be the time to bring up the subject that he wanted to talk to Al about.
"So, I understand that Santanocheev had you guys really hopping about a year ago."
"Hell, Dennis," said Al. "You know damned well that the real navy is supposed to be ready for action on short notice. Unlike you spooky types in Naval Intelligence."
"Well, yes," Dennis mumbled.
"But I'll admit," Al continued, "it's more than a bit annoying to be, as you put it, hopping about to make our Lord Admiral look good to his superiors."
"What I heard," said Dennis in a near whisper, "is that your Battle Squadron received a warning order to prep for a mission in the Vargr Extents."
Al leaned over to whisper as well.
"What we were told was that a Vargr corsair band may have acquired a major warship, forty-thousand-plus D-tons with a spine-mount weapon. And we were to prepare to go in to hunt it down and kill it."
"It's also my understanding the word on that came through the Office of Naval Information," Santanocheev's private spook shop, "and not through the proper INI channels," said Dennis.
"Yes that's what I . . . " Al hesitated, stared into space for a moment, and spoke in a whisper to Dennis again.
"That was about the time someone attempted to hijack the Emissary, wasn't it?"
"Yes." Replied Dennis.
Al was stunned at his own thought.
"That son-of-a-bitch . . . "
"Yes." Said Dennis. "That well-bred son-of-a-bitch has never cared about the price of his own ambition, as long as he doesn't have to pay for it himself."
"But there's only one more step up for him in the navy hierarchy." Which was the position of Grand Admiral of the Imperium.
"Yes, by our law there is." Said Dennis. "But I'd hate to think what would happen if that bastard ever got within pistol range of His Majesty."
The first time a Grand Admiral of the Marches came within pistol range of the Iridium Throne. He murdered the reigning Empress and seized power for himself. He was followed by another sixteen Admirals who seized power by assassination or in fleet action before another Grand Admiral of the Marches could bring her own forces to the Imperial Capital in order to bring an end to the madness.
"Is anyone doing anything about this?" Al asked.
"If there were anything being done to correct the present situation, I would not be at liberty to discuss it," Dennis replied.
Al was speechless.
"Al, I'm afraid this will have to be one of those conversations that never happened."
"Wow," Cheryl softly spoke, "pregnant and married to him."
Lisa remained silent.
"You don't want that to happen?" Cheryl asked.
"No. I don't."
"He told me that he'd given up on you."
Lisa was surprised to hear that.
"When . . . did he tell you that?"
"Right before he left the navy." Cheryl replied. "When he saw his mother before she passed on."
While she was alive, Sterling's Mother was known at the Windhaven facility as the thing in the basement.
"May I see it?" Lisa had to ask.
"It'll put you off your breakfast."
Lisa was a bit annoyed.
"I've been through The Grinder. I saw actual combat before being transferred to Department Six. Nothing, my dear sister, is going to put me off of my breakfast."
"Right . . ." replied Cheryl.
Lisa and Cheryl joined hands and linked their minds again.
Lisa began to see a mental image of Lieutenant Commander Dennis Sterling in his navy dirtside blues walking ahead of Cheryl, who was the viewpoint, down a glowstrip-lit and white painted concrete corridor. Both of them carried psi-shield helmets under their arms.
"No," he said, "I think it would be best if I didn't run into Lisa again. I spent the last two decades trying to forget about her. I even went as far as to throw out my copy of the RIMI class yearbook."
Cheryl was shocked to hear that.
"Trying to speak to Lisa on any terms," Dennis continued, "was the emotional equivalent of repeatedly banging my head on a flat surface. And I'd rather not do that again."
There was a gray steel door at the end of the corridor. Dennis and Cheryl donned and switched on their psi-shields, she punched in a four-digit number into a keypad next to the door. There was a loud metallic click, and the door slid open.
On the bed in the white padded room was a bloated mass of flesh barely wrapped in a soiled hospital gown. A tangled and filthy mass of white hair covered her head. She was staring into space. The eyes showed no sign of human consciousness. She was mindlessly rubbing her hands on her . . .
Lisa broke the link.
After about a minute Cheryl spoke.
"He actually stood there looking at her eyes for about a minute with his thousand-meter stare."
"Navy guys like . . . Him," Lisa replied, "call it the thousand-klick stare."
Lisa silently stared at the food on her tray for another minute and then looked up."
"FLAT SURFACE?" She burst out. "That . . . bastard!"
Dennis returned to his cabin aboard the Chauchat, he laid his filter mask on the desk and dropped down onto the bunk. He was tired and a short nap really felt like a good idea. And then someone knocked on the door.
"Enter." He growled.
The door slid open and Dana walked in.
"Boss," she said, "we have a serious problem."
Dennis sat up.
"What is it?"
"There's still no penguin on the rec-room holovison tank."
Ditzie had kept the last penguin that he had purchased, from Lisa's gift shop, in her room.
"So? Go out and buy one." Dennis replied.
"The material condition of a starship is ultimately the Captain's responsibility." Said Dana. "And the tainted atmosphere on this planet will ruin my complexion."
"Dana, I have news for you." Dennis groaned. "You are not a goddess."
"I'm not?" Dana replied in shocked tone of voice.
"No, you certainly are not."
"Well we still need a penguin," Dana replied in a miffed tone of voice. "And Ditzie wants to help."
Dennis turned towards the door to see Ditzie standing there with her child-sized filter mask in hand, and smiling her cute little girl smile.
"Okay." Dennis surrendered to the inevitable. At least he wouldn't have to run into Lisa again.
Later, in the privacy of Cheryl's office, the sisters resumed their conversation. Lisa told her sister about the first encounter on the High Port.
"When Dennis walked into my shop up on the station, he was broadcasting his thoughts to anyone who could listen."
"What was he thinking when he saw you?" Asked Cheryl.
"'Oh bugger me.'" Quoted Lisa.
"So," Cheryl asked, "when did Dennis begin to appear in your dreams?"
"After the meeting on Norris' flagship. During the meeting, when Norris spoke, he would be focused on Norris. But whenever Norris took a break from the briefing, he . . . Dennis, would dredge up his regrets about me."
"And other possibly related thoughts." Lisa added.
"There was fuzzy memory of something, fire and darkness, he was asking someone a question."
"We can try to bring that memory into focus," said Cheryl.
Lisa and Cheryl linked once again. The blurred second hand memory in Lisa's head was now clear to both of them.
Dennis, the viewpoint, had taken shelter behind a shattered wall within what appeared to be a prison camp. The night was well illuminated by flames rising out of the guard towers and the camp guard's barracks.
"Would you die for her?" Dennis firmly asked a young Imperial nobleman who was wearing the local prison uniform and was standing next to the viewpoint in the shelter of the wall.
"Yes." The young nobleman replied with the voice of absolute mortal certainty.
Dennis, the paladin unhorsed and excommunicated, felt sympathy for the young nobleman.
"Then we'll help you get her out." Dennis said.
Dennis then drew his 11.4-mm auto-pistol from his shoulder holster and handed the weapon to the young nobleman along with the two spare magazines that he normally carried.
One of the mercenaries in the rescue force, obviously ex-army, began to loudly, and with obscene embellishment, object to making the attempt to rescue the young nobleman's girlfriend from the women's section of the prison camp.
"I ain't here to rescue no bitch!" He yelled out at Dennis.
The mercenary also began to raise his 7-mm ACR to his shoulder to shoot at the viewpoint.
Dennis quickly snapped off a four-round burst from his ACRS from the hip level, wounding and knocking down the mutineer.
Dennis then moved the selector switch of the ACRS to the single-shot position, firmly planted the stock of the weapon into his right shoulder, aligned the amber dot in the optical sight with the head of the mutineer, and depressed the trigger. There was a flash at the muzzle . . .
Cheryl broke the link.
"Dear God . . . " She said softly.