A high-pitched whistle shrieked over the Gaesh's intercom.
"GENERAL QUARTERS, GENERAL QUARTERS, ALL HANDS MAN YOUR BATTLE STATIONS!" Declared the voice of a senior petty-officer.
Junior Lieutenant Dennis Sterling of Imperial Navy Intelligence rolled out the upper bunk and fell straight down to the deck and impacted with a load thud.
Captain Dennis Sterling of the Imperial Mercenary Ship Chauchat woke up with a jerk in the lower bunk his own cabin.
At least Lisa wasn't here to laugh at him this time. She was continuing to occupy a significant place in his dreams. This wouldn't be so damned annoying if in the thirty-five years he had known her that he had kissed her at least once.
Dennis rolled over in his bunk and attempted to return to sleep.
"GOOD MORNING, CAPTAIN," said the feminine yet clearly artificial voice which emanated from the private terminal in the Captain's stateroom.
"IT IS ZERO-SIX-HUNDRED HOURS IMPERIAL NAVIGATIONAL STANDARD TIME ON THE ONE-HUNDRED-EIGHTY-NINTH DAY OF THE ONE-THOUSAND-ONE- HUNDRED-SIXTH YEAR OF THE THIRD IMPERIUM. CHAUCHAT WILL RETURN TO NORMAL SPACE IN THE PANDRIN SYSTEM IN TWO HOURS AND ELEVEN MINUTES."
Oh goody, thought Dennis. He hoped that the Emissary was still in system. He wanted to talk to Serge and Zinni before travelling further into the Uthe Subsector.
As Dennis stood up and walked over to his private washroom to take a shower, the ship's computer began to list the messages awaiting his perusal, including the usual complaint about toilet paper rationing.
I don't care if it is bloody traditional when that ancient cult film is shown on the holotank, thought Dennis, the ship's toilet paper will not be thrown about the common area when Doctor Scott makes his entrance.
If nothing else, the ship's holotank now had a penguin on top of it. This had taken a bit of old-fashioned horse trading. In exchange for a liter of Wanderer Blau from the ship's stores, the commander of the naval base at Pixie had found that one item in the base's spare parts storage facility -- a PENGUIN, DECORATIVE, MARK 23 -- was found to be unserviceable. The penguin was then sold for scrap to an agent of the Famille Spofulam Corporation, in this case a Dana Wolfsburg, and was very quietly installed aboard the Chauchat.
Before the penguin could be locked down in place Dana had to make repairs to the common room walls. Ditzie generally preferred to use TDX, a gravitationally polarized explosive, for popping the holotank penguins. The blast effect of TDX was focused in a plane perpendicular to the local force of gravity, which had the effect of scarring the walls of the common room while leaving the holotank undamaged.
"It was company business, dear." Lisa said to her husband as she strode across the master bedroom to the bathroom. "I'm not shagging the bloody bastard."
Company business, Lisa thought, what a lovely euphemism.
Lisa had returned from Windhaven and was back on the job. She was out of Dennis's very nice if otherwise empty bed and was dropped straight into the struggle between Imperial Naval Intelligence and Admiral Santanocheev's Office of Naval Information. Lisa's new role in the ongoing feud between the two spook services was causing her to feel as if she had been dropped into a pool of unprocessed sewage.
In the master bathroom Lisa stripped off the dark-blue dress she had worn for dinner with Captain Sir Louis Roberts, one of Santanocheev's wanna-be spooks. She briefly thought about taking the dress out to the range in the morning and vaporizing it with a plasma gun.
No, no, no, she thought again. Just wash the damned thing very thoroughly.
If nothing else, Lisa needed a very long and hot shower, to be promptly followed by a very long and hot bath.
Lisa stood alone in the shower and allowed the warm water to flow over her. What would be really and truly nice, she thought, would be some way to wash away the memory of the psychic stench given off by some people from her mind.
The stars reappeared in the forward view ports as the Chauchat dropped back into normal space in the Pandrin system.
Daevagh ran a sensor sweep of the planet and the Oberlindes orbital station.
"Yes," said Dav, "the Emissary is home."
"Good." Dennis replied. "Send the message."
Dav tapped a temporary graphic key on his user interface.
"Done." He said. "Do you really think they'll help us?"
"Yes." Replied Dennis. "Sergei had the misfortune of having been born the heir of a merchant family, the guy's really a paladin at heart."
Dennis paused to take a breath. He then continued.
"Serge and Zinni lost some friends and other good people when our target tried to hijack the Emissary. I'm dead certain that they will help us."
Daevagh was continuing to run sensor scans.
"Well hello," he said.
"What is it?" said Dennis.
"A Gazelle-class close escort in orbit," said Dav. "Her ID code says she's the INS Springbok."
"What the hell is she doing out here?" said Dennis.
"Shall I make a discrete inquiry?" said Dav.
"Yes," said Dennis. "Do that."
Eneri Achter-Altermann and Joni Stratton, in civilian attire, were sitting together on the sofa and sipping coffee in Lisa's living room.
The living room holotank was tuned to one of the local news channels. The host of the program, an abrasive fellow who was sincerely loathed by virtually everyone who saw themselves as caring and compassionate individuals, was holding forth on the final subject of tonight's program.
"What is going on with the Angels of Hell?" Said the Abrasive Host. "On the evening of the one-hundred-fifty-fifth day of this year three individuals in black combat environment suits and ninja hoods shot and blasted their way into the residence of a group of Orthodox Bargerites and carried off an old teddy bear. The three assailants were described by survivors of the attack as a Vargr and a full sized human, both with sawed-off rifles and grenades, and a skinny dwarf who carried a sack of demolition charges."
Lisa stepped out of the shower and put on her Marine Corps maroon bathrobe before walking into her living room.
Where did you get that dress? Lisa thought when she saw Joni, Do you realize how ridiculous you look wearing a low neckline like that at your age?
I like it, Joni thought back to Lisa.
Well it's certainly better suited for Mata Hari duty, Lisa mentally replied.
Eneri sensed something in the air between the two women.
"Could you two please keep it verbal?" he said.
Joni frowned at him.
On the holotank the Abrasive Host was introducing the two panelists on the topic. The first was a white haired retired Colonel from the Unified Army of Regina who was now a commentator of political and military affairs, and the other guest was a rather shaggy student of esoteric conspiracy theories.
"They only wounded some of them?" said Eneri. "That would be a bit sloppy if it was Dennis."
Lisa just had to cut in on Eneri.
"If it is Dennis," she said, "it's because he's buying his own ammunition."
"It's a long story," said Eneri.
"A very long story," said Lisa. "He usually was a parsimonious bastard when it came to spending his own money."
On the holotank the conspiracy theorist was putting forth the idea that the old teddy bear was, up to this time, an unknown totem animal of this particular Orthodox Bargerite sect. The retired Colonel told the conspiracy theorist that he was full of something that was bleeped.
"So," said Eneri as he turned to face Lisa, "how did dinner with Screwy Louie go?"
"I'd rather eat overaged field rations with Dennis Sterling during a raging thunderstorm," said Lisa in a sudden fit of sarcasm. She then continued to speak in a level tone of voice.
"Commander, will you please tell His Grace that he is correct in his suspicion concerning the origin of the order to kill Lord Windhaven?"
Lisa had confirmed through reading the surface thoughts of that pathetic spook wanna-be that Admiral Santanocheev had ordered a hit on Dennis Sterling.
Eneri and Joni stood up to leave the flat.
"I will do that," said Eneri. "Good night, Colonel Holland."
Lieutenant Commander Daevagh was having a quiet lunch with Lieutenant Maia Oarfolk, the captain of the Imperial Navy Ship Springbok, in the local Carl's Restaurant on the orbital station. Daevagh slowly nibbled away on a Giga-Giga-Burger as he listened to the Lieutenant.
"Commander, it's just an unscheduled courier run," she said. "I don't see what the big honking deal was."
"Captain Oarfolk," Dav addressed the Lieutenant by her job title rather than her rank, "you delivered a data crystal to the naval attache here on Pandrin. The naval attache works for the so-called Office of Naval Information."
"I'm supposed to be worried about this?" she replied. "Your so-called intelligence organization, Commander, failed to predict the last war."
"The last war with the Zhodani was the result of an accidental encounter," Daevagh began to lecture the Lieutenant.
"The result of which," Daevagh continued, "put the Zhos about ten standard years behind their original schedule. The next war, the real one, starts about a year from now."
Daevagh took another bite from his burger and then continued his dressing down of Lieutenant Oarfolk.
"Now the Gazelle is a fine ship for hunting down ethically challenged merchants, but when confronted by a real warship it makes a rather pathetic cloud of debris. The question you must ask yourself is, do I trust and cooperate with the real spooks, or do put the fate of myself and my crew in the hands of a bunch of bootlicking poseurs who don't care what happens out on the sharp end as long as they are able to advance their own careers?"
In this dream Lisa felt a light breeze blowing through her hair as she stood on the rooftop landing pad of a skyscraper. She could see the spherical form of the Emperor's Palace floating above the ground beyond the Moot Spire from where she stood.
From behind her Lisa heard a far too familiar voice speaking to her.
"May I take your bags for you Ma'am?" said Dennis Sterling.
Lisa turned. Dennis was wearing an old grey tee-shirt with a frayed collar, patched green and brown camouflage trousers, and a very well worn pair of running shoes.
"No," Lisa said as picked up her Marine Corps duffel bag and a large black kevlar suitcase. "That shouldn't be necessary."
"I'm supposed to be a gentleman," said Dennis, "I need the practice."
Lisa handed him the suitcase.
Speaking of practice, Lisa thought to him, are you doing your drills?
Yes Ma'am, Dennis mentally replied. We serve the Imperium.
Dennis and Lisa entered the Famille Spofulam corporate tower and took the lift two three floors down to his flat.
The luggage was dropped in the living room and Lisa followed Dennis into the kitchen.
"So where's Ditzie?" Lisa had to ask.
"With Uncle Hengie," said Dennis. "Probably blowing up a planet somewhere."
Oh really? Lisa thought.
In the kitchen a silver-plated robot, which was about the size and shape of an ancient Terran basketball, hovered over a covered saucepan and an open pot of boiling water. Dennis walked over to the stove and dropped some spaghetti into the boiling water. He then stirred the sauce and tasted a bit of it.
"Hmmm . . . Almost there," he said. "So how long to do you need a place to crash?"
"I don't know." Lisa replied. "What are your plans for the next fifty years?"
Dennis had to stop and think about that one.
"Oh, just a number of missions for commerce and government," he replied flippantly. "Mom once told me that I will be killed in action fighting an insane artificial intelligence."
Lisa could sense that Dennis almost believed his mother's prophecy. Lisa silently sat down at the table.
"Maybe you should stay at the palace," said Dennis.
"I can't impose on them," she said softly.
"It's nowhere close to an imposition."
"But what?" Dennis interrupted her. "You're not begging for a knighthood or a title and a fief, though God knows you deserve one. You only need a place to stay until your husband pulls his head out of his own terminal orifice."
"Lisa, you are simply not capable of the kind of courtier-shit that Norris and His Majesty have to put up with on a daily basis. Strephon and Iolanthe have damned few real friends as it is. If nothing else, they'll let you stay over as a favor to House Aledon."
Dennis turned away to stir the spaghetti.
Dennis, Lisa thought to him, what do you want from me?
He turned back to her to answer.
"What I want may not be good for you in the long run."
It was at this point in the dream that Lisa stood up, walked over to Dennis until their noses were almost in contact, and then in a soft tone of voice replied to him.
"Do not tell me what I may or may not do."
She then embraced and kissed him.