Dennis was still snoring as Lisa rolled out of bed, picked up her nightshirt from the floor and pulled it on. She walked over to the window and moved one of the louvers of the vertical blinds. Through the gap Lisa could see the floodlit form of the Moot Spire. Hovering beyond the spire, with its windows glowing like cities on the night side of a heavily populated planet, was the spherical form of the Emperor's Palace.
"Lisa," said Dennis from behind her, "there are some things that we have to talk about."
Lisa turned around to find that in addition to the first Dennis who was still snoring in bed, there was now another Dennis, appearing as he did in the observation lounge of the Splendid, standing in the room.
"I'm dreaming." Said Lisa.
"No. You're actually having a vision." Replied the standing image of Dennis. "Unlike a proper dream you can have some control over what happens."
"Could I tell you to go away forever?"
"Yes, you could." Said the standing Dennis. "And you would never see me ever again."
"Go away!" Lisa commanded.
"Of course," said the standing Dennis, "you will never see the chap you're actually married to or your children ever again."
Lisa stood silently. The standing Dennis continued to speak.
"There are some things that you need to see and decisions that you must make tonight."
"What are you?" She had to ask.
"A shadow in the back of your head. Part of the noise you picked up during that meeting on the Splendid." Said the standing Dennis. "I have to be your guide for this vision thing that you're presently stuck in."
"So," said Lisa as she pointed at the other Dennis who was still snoring in bed, "what's his role in this vision?"
"I would say a source of background noise." Said the standing Dennis. He picked up a pair of shoes and tossed them over to Lisa.
"Put them on." He said.
"You'll need them."
"Why not conjure up a full suit of Marine assault armor?"
"Do you really want one?" the standing Dennis replied.
"Yes." She said. "I really want one."
Dennis raised his left hand and snapped his thumb and middle finger. Lisa's vision briefly blurred and she almost lost her balance. The Head-up display in her suit came on and Lisa regained her balance. She appeared to be wearing the suit she used for practice and annual battledress qualification.
The Dennis who standing was still wearing his normal black civilian ensemble.
"Aren't you going to change?" She asked him.
"No." He said. "I'm supposed to be the tour guide from Hell."
"No shit." She muttered under her breath.
Lisa followed her guide into the living room. She asked another question of him.
"So," she said, "are we really going to be married?"
The holotank in the living room flickered into life. The image in the tank showed the Emperor Strephon, acting in his capacity as the chief magistrate of Capital, performing the ceremony. Dennis, Baron Windhaven, wore the dirtside dress uniform of a Commander in the Navy Reserve. Lisa was shown in a traditional Solomani pattern wedding dress with a veil.
"You and the real Dennis could be." Said the shade of Dennis. "If you wanted to."
"I don't." She said.
"Then it won't happen." Said Dennis the Tour Guide. "After his private trip through hell with Hellie Spofulam, he would rather take a dive into the photosphere of a red supergiant before having another go at marriage, even with you."
"That would be nice." Said Lisa.
"This isn't an Ancient Greek tragedy," the Tour Guide continued, "where you have to do some horrible thing no matter how hard you try to avoid it."
"I already have a perfectly good marriage."
The Dennis who was standing glanced through the door to his snoring counterpart lying in the bed.
"You're certain of that?" He said.
"Dead certain." She said. "I have another question for you."
"You?" she said. "I'd love to." She pointed at the avian figure perched on top of the holotank.
"Why is that penguin made out of super dense hull material?"
"It was Dana's idea," said Dennis, "you'll have to ask her about it yourself."
Lisa followed Dennis out the front door of the flat. Instead of a high level corridor of the Famille Spofulam corporate headquarters tower, they were now on the ground level of the burned out shell of Windhaven House on Regina. Lisa's feet crunched on some broken glass as they walked toward the rear of the structure.
They passed the charred remains of a set of Zhodani battledress. It had taken several hits from a laser rifle before the fire swept through this part of the building.
"The Zhos are going to hit Windhaven during the next war?"
"Yes, about a week before Norris finally takes command from Freddy the Twit." Said Dennis. "Any psions that the Zhos catch on this site who refuse to return to the Consulate with them will be killed on the spot."
"Why don't you tell Norris about this?"
"Because this is your vision, my dear," said Dennis, "my real world counterpart is at this very moment off hunting down the walking piece of garbage who tried to hijack the Emissary."
"And who would that be?"
"Showa Lakidgussar." Came the reply. "Remember him?"
"Yes." Said Lisa. Lakidgussar was a very disrespectful junior engineer on the Gæsh eighteen years ago.
"I never did properly thank you for dealing with him back then." She said.
"If I hadn't, your troopers would have." Said Dennis. "Don't worry about it."
Lisa now followed Dennis down the steps to the basement, there was no fire damage below the ground level and the emergency lights were on.
Laying face down over a pool of dried blood at the bottom of the stairs was a week old human corpse in a woman's staff uniform. The local carrion eating insects were just beginning their feeding frenzy on the corpse.
The woman appeared to have tumbled down the steps after she had taken a burst in her back from a four-millimeter gauss rifle. On the floor next to her body was an identification badge lying face down, Lisa bent down to pick it up.
It was her sister Cheryl's ID badge.
Dennis remained silent as Lisa sat down on one of the steps and stared at the badge. After what seemed to be an eon, Dennis spoke up.
There was no reply.
She was barely able to reply.
"There's one more thing that you will need to see."
"What is it?"
"There's another thing in the basement." He answered.
Lisa stood up and followed Dennis down the concrete corridor to the room that once held his Mother. The door was already open and lights in the room were on.
In the room, kneeling next to the bed, was a figure in a suit of Marine recon armor with the dirtside field insignia of Navy Commander. On the bare mattress in a soiled hospital gown was an emaciated woman whose scalp was covered by a light gray stubble. She was suffering from the final stages of dehydration.
The figure in the Marine armor set his ACRS down on the floor and removed his helmet. It was an unshaved, older, and very weary version of Dennis.
He removed his gauntlets. He then took her right hand in his own and with his left hand lifted her head slightly in order to look into her eyes one last time. He then softly spoke to her.
"I'm sorry." He said.
As tears quietly began to run down his face, Commander Dennis Sterling said nothing more and remained motionless until the woman had stopped breathing. He then gently set her head and right-hand back down on the mattress and picked up his ACRS. He rested the muzzle on the top of his larynx and aligned the barrel with his brain stem. He spoke one last time before pulling the trigger.
"We serve the Imperium."
The body of the older Dennis slumped forward over the remains of the woman.
"Dennis?" Lisa asked her still breathing tour guide.
"Yes?" He replied.
"Who would you do that for?"
Dennis pulled a multi-tool out the lower left pocket of his field jacket and unfolded a short blade. He then stepped over the corpse of his future self, reached over, and cut the identification band from the dead woman's left wrist. He then stepped back and handed the ID band to Lisa.
Printed on the band was her own name, her rank, and her Imperial Marine Corps serial number.
If there was one thing that Petty Officer Third Class Gordon could not pass up, it was the opportunity to strike a superior officer and get away with it, especially a Marine officer. It was, of course something he couldn't talk about to anyone else in the dirtside barracks.
Gordon had stepped back into his room after taking a shower when he was grabbed with a large hand and thrown across the room.
He heard the door slam shut and then the lights came on. Standing over him were a man and a woman in ninja suits. Blocking the door was an even larger man who was also in a ninja suit.
"Tell me Gordon," said Eneri Achter-Alterman, "do you recall offhand what the penalty for striking a superior officer is?"
Of course this was only the first of many questions.
Lisa stared at her own ID band while her guide returned his multi-tool to his jacket pocket.
"Why?" She said. "Why this?"
"Why would someone try to drive you to madness?" Said Dennis. "Because a straightforward homicide would raise questions that your present opponent would not be able to answer."
"Then tell me," She almost whispered, "what event am I supposed to prevent?" Lisa raised the volume of her voice.
"Who is my opponent and what does he want?"
"You've already seen the answer." Said Dennis. "It was a shadow in the back of his mind."
Dennis the tour guide stepped back through the door, Lisa followed him.
They were now in the Throne Room in the Imperial Palace on Capital. Sitting on the Iridium Throne was a new Emperor.
"Santanocheev?" Lisa almost sputtered. "Him?"
"No," said the tour guide, "he really doesn't have a problem with a deniable homicide. Not for the most part."
"How could he do this?" Lisa pointed at the throne.
"Freddy?" Said Dennis. "He couldn't, he had to be pushed into this." Dennis pointed to a figure in the dress uniform of a grand admiral approaching the throne.
Louis Roberts, who was now the Grand Admiral of the Imperium, stepped forward, drew his four-millimeter gauss pistol from its holster, and emptied it at full-auto into Freddy the Barracks Emperor. He then picked the circlet from the corpse's head, wiped it with a handkerchief, and placed it on his own.
Lisa was stunned.
"Another civil war." She whispered.
"Worse than the first one." Dennis replied in his own whisper. "Far worse than the first one. It won't only be admirals with a terminal case of power lust this time." Dennis the tour guide started to walk toward one of the exits. Lisa again followed.
"This time it will also include every politician with an ideological axe to grind, or who sees him or her self as some kind of savior."
Dennis was now walking down a corridor in the palace as though he knew it as well as the decks of his own ship.
"Some will seek the throne for themselves, others will cut out their own states from the body of the Imperium. And all they will create..."
Dennis stepped onto one of the balconies of the palace.
"...all they will create, is ashes."
Lisa stepped up to the rail at the outer edge. Before her lay the shattered remains of the capital city of the Imperium. Nowhere among the ruins was any sign of life. No greens or browns or any other organic coloration.
There were only the dead shades of gray.