Aboard a ship on approach vector to Regina High Port, a slightly overweight man with a basic Picard haircut and bushy mustache sat in the pilot seat of a vessel which for the most part resembled an old Cobra-class close escort, and thus it carried the ID code of one. His attire, from the sunglasses through his shirt and down to his leather and canvas dirtside combat boots, was all black, as were the two dice which he fingered in his left hand in a Queeg-like fashion.
Dennis Sterling, formerly of the Imperial Navy, was going through another of the mood swings that had periodically plagued him since his abrupt departure from the service of the Emperor.
From time to time, especially before entering a possible combat situation, he would repeat some verses of a song that was on the soundtrack of an ancient two-dimensional Solomani war movie:
Come on baby take a chance with us
Come on baby take a chance with us
Come on baby take a chance with us, and meet me in the back of the blue bus tonight...
For the pilot of the Chauchat, another negative emotional nightmare was almost over.
"Uncle Dennis," came a high pitched (as if she were on extreme stimulants) female voice over the intercom, "are we there yet?"
"Almost, dear child." he replied.
It was at times like these that he wished he had a gun, though not the one that this ship was originally named after, for it would most certainly jam. As long as he only wished for an implement of self-destruction, and not actually grabbed one, he would be okay.
It was at this moment that the ship's chief engineer and first officer stepped through the iris valve onto the bridge and planted herself in the navigator's seat. She was almost a head taller than Uncle Dennis, her shoulders seemed a bit too broad, the hips a bit too narrow, and the voice a bit too deep. Her attire, from her big floppy beret and sunglasses to her boots matched her own raven black but slightly thinning hair. The special passenger called her Auntie Dana even though she wasn't really a proper aunt.
"Captain," she addressed Uncle Dennis, "the port authority has accepted our counterfeit ID code."
"Uh, hum." He replied.
"Our primary target is definitely at the station."
"Uh, hum." He repeated himself.
"And your niece," Dana said with dispossessive emphasis, "wants to go shopping."
"Gosh," Dennis said as he shifted himself to face Auntie Dana, "what a bloody surprise."
"And the penguin on our rec-room holotank needs to be replaced."
There are traditions which persist for thousands of years, for the Vilani it was the dimming of the ship's interior lights prior to entering jumpspace; for the Solomani it was the penguin on the holotank. There was a great amount of learned speculation about the origin of this particular tradition, none of which was firmly conclusive.
"Well we certainly aren't space-worthy without a penguin on our holotank."
After he docked the ship Dennis stood up and brushed some crumbs off of his shirt.
"Dana, watch the shop, okay.?"
"Aye, aye." She replied. "What if Mister Herman from the Customs Service shows up?"
The chief gunner stood guard with a shotgun at the docking port of the ship usually known as Chauchat. He resembled a pony-tailed and somewhat stout Mongol in a black slouch hat and shipboard jumpsuit with a pair of sunglasses casually stuffed in the left breast pocket. The name on his birth certificate was Temujin but everyone on board called him Don the Khan.
A debonair looking gentleman sporting a Nehru jacket and a kian-skin briefcase strode down the docking tunnel to the ship's airlock.
"Good Morning sir, I'm Gani Kashgugan, purchasing agent for the Forboldn Project here at the Upport." The gentleman presented his business card to Don. "I wish," he continued, "to speak to the captain of the Diamondback." Diamondback was the false ID that the Chauchat was presently operating under.
In a voice that was more audibly polished than Kashgugan's, Don replied, "I am sorry sir, but our captain is presently indisposed." The captain was in fact shopping with his niece on the promenade deck of the high port.
"Would you please inform the captain that I wish to speak with him as soon as possible."
"I will sir, good day."
As Kashgugan strode away down the docking tunnel Don noticed a figure at the far end of the tunnel. It resembled a certain Solsec-thug-wannabe that the captain and most of his in-laws wanted to see dead.
Unfortunately, Don the Khan couldn't get a clear shot at him.
Meanwhile, on the promenade deck of the Regina High Port, Dennis spotted the item he was looking for. There was a cartoon-ish looking plush toy penguin on display in a small shop that sold flowers, candy, and plush toy animals. The shop was located next to the entrance of an inter-deck stairwell, it was called "Lisa's Flower Loft."
Lisa was also the name of the first girl to turn Dennis Sterling down for a date when he was growing up on Regina. His luck hadn't improved significantly since then. According to the last information that he had on her, Lisa was now a suburban hausfrau down on Regina, she could not possibly be running a flower and gift shop on a space station.
Absolutely out of the question, he thought. Right?
His niece also spotted the toy penguin, "can we buy it Uncle Dennis?"
He turned to her and replied. "Only if you promise me that you won't blow it up like you did the last twelve."
"But I didn't blow them all up!"
From a dark-haired girl who appeared to all of eight years old wearing an "I (symbol for heart) H.E." tee-shirt this was a bit hard to believe.
"They blew up all by themselves!"
Dennis stood motionless and looked down on his niece with the thousand-klick stare.
It was at this time that his personal com-unit beeped. Dennis saw the com-code displayed on its tiny screen and answered it using his code-name. "This is MAGICIAN, go."
"This is PRIESTESS," said Dana over the com, "do we have to use the code names?"
"As long as I'm out in public on this station, yes, you have to," he answered with a tone of annoyance. "What is it you're calling about?"
"There was a bit of walking spam who wanted to talk to you."
"Right, go on."
"And Target Bravo was sighted at the end of the docking tunnel, the Great Khan couldn't get a clear shot at him."
"I'll keep an eye..." Dennis noticed that his niece was now in the flower and gift shop. "I'll get back to you, MAGICIAN out."
His niece appeared to be talking to a female human clerk in the shop. As
Dennis strode into the shop the clerk stood up and
turned to face him.
Oh bugger me, he silently thought to himself.
There was once a girl whose name, face, and voice, Dennis Sterling wanted to forget. He wandered about deep space, inside and outside the service of the Emperor, for more than two decades and even survived a brief marriage into a family of genetically engineered sociopaths, and still he couldn't forget her.
And of all the flower shops, on all space stations, orbiting all the planets of the Third Imperium, he had to walk into hers.
On the bridge of the Chauchat, Dana stood the watch. She was keeping track of the other ships docked at the high port, in particular the one known to her and the other crew as Target Alpha, the Cobra-class close escort Tri-Fang. The departure of a detached-duty scout from the station was, as far as she was concerned, a non-event.
In a flower shop on the promenade deck of the station, the Captain of the ship usually known as Chauchat faced an emotionally embarrassing situation.
"Dennis?" Asked the proprietress.
"You do know that my answer is still 'no'?"
At this moment the captain's com-unit beeped, much to his relief.
"I need to get this." He said as he stepped out of the shop.
"This is MAGICIAN, what is it now?"
"Target Alpha has departed the station," Dana replied, "it looks like he's going after a scout/courier that's headed for the surface."
Great, Dennis thought, what else could go wrong?
"Roger that," he answered, "warm up weapons and sensors, prep for departure, and call system traffic control and ask if they require assistance."
There was a pause, and then Dana replied. "You think we can keep our mission legal?" At least this time, she thought.
"Affirmative, and use the goddamned code names." Dennis fumed. "I'll board ship A-SAP, MAGICIAN out."
Dennis stepped back into the shop to find that both his niece and the toy penguin were now gone.
"Oh, Bloody, Hell." He vocalized
To ordinary eyes Customs Team Supervisor Herman was a living and breathing manifestation of the Imperial Starport Authority's worst nightmare, a dirty customs officer. Of course he wasn't the only dirty officer, his entire "special task force" was in on his schemes.
But that wasn't all.
Herman was born and raised on a world that was occupied by the Zhodani during the Fourth Frontier War, his propensity toward corrupt and thuggish behavior was discovered through routine examination by the thought police. The Zhos could have cured him, but instead looking to the long view as they usually do, they programmed him to seek out a position of authority and to abuse it to the detriment of the Imperium.
In addition to accepting payments for ignoring small but illegal packages, Herman would allow arms and ammunition to be passed on to members of the anti-Imperial terrorist groups known as the Ine Givar.
And if a kilo or more of illegal psi-drugs were found on a ship carrying production machinery, which would raise the local level of technology on a frontier world, resulting in the confiscation of ship and all cargo? Well that was really too bad.
Of course a gang of corrupt customs officers must keep up appearances. If the supply of smugglers who were unwilling or unable to pay the bribes demanded of them was too limited, then evidence must be planted and innocent sentient beings sacrificed for the good of the gang. This too would also be to the long term detriment of the Imperium.
And a close escort operated by a member-by-marriage of a well-known disreputable family and docked at the station under a possible false ID code was simply too good a target for Herman and his gang to pass up.
After checking their weapons and the "evidence" bags, Herman and his crew left their ready room and proceeded to the docking tunnel of their prospective victim.
At the same time, the Captain of the Diamondback, a.k.a. the Chauchat, found that his niece and the plush toy penguin they were shopping for had disappeared.
"Uh, Lisa?" He said to the proprietress of the shop.
"Did you see where my niece went?"
"Oh, she paid for the penguin and left already."
"Should I call station security?" Lisa asked.
"Um no...I can...no...I can call them." He replied.
Like hell he would, there were too many bent customs and security officers on this station, at least one of whom wanted him dead and who wouldn't also mind hurting other members of the family.
"Um, bye." Dennis said as he stepped out of the shop and onto the promenade.
The situation couldn't possibly get worse, he thought, right?
Before Dennis could make a call on his com-unit, the station's collision alarm sounded. Massive blast doors closed off the sections of the promenade from each other. When he attempted to call his ship, a computer generated voice told him that all private communication was suspended for the duration of the emergency.
"Bloody wonderful." Dennis said to no one in particular.
Chief Engineer Dana Wolfsburg was still stuck on the bridge and unable to contact the captain, she could, however, talk to the Regina system's traffic control.
"DIAMONDBACK, SYSTEM CONTROL, YOUR OFFER OF ASSISTANCE IS ACCEPTED, YOU ARE CLEARED FOR EMERGENCY DEPARTURE ON VECTOR ZERO- SIX-FIVE BY ZERO-NINER-ZERO AT FOUR GEES, EYE-EFF-EFF SQUAWK THREE-ZERO-THREE-LIMA-BRAVO. BE ADVISED THAT A PLANETARY NAVY CRUISER IS EN-ROUTE TO YOUR VOLUME."
"System Control, Diamondback," she replied, "acknowledge clearance for emergency departure." She switched to ship's intercom. "Status on weapons and sensors?"
"SENSORS ARE UP, WEAPONS ARE HOT, MAIN REACTOR IS AT FULL POWER." Came a reply.
It was a bloody good thing that Dana was also a fully qualified pilot. "All hands, undock in ten seconds..." she sounded the maneuver warning alarm, "five, four, three, two..."
Herman's strike team had entered the docking tunnel to Diamondback, the ship that he suspected was really the Chauchat, when the iris valve snapped shut ahead of him and trapped the strike team in the docking tunnel. Through the iris valve he could hear the ship's separation from the docking tunnel followed by the sound of explosive decompression.
Herman looked out of the viewport overlooking the docking bay and saw the bodies of three of his team bouncing off the ebon hull of the departing close escort. The raid that should have been an opportunity to gain revenge and bureaucratic brownie points was now an unmitigated disaster.
Dennis sat alone on a bench in a sealed off section of the promenade deck. He was unable to communicate with his ship, he wasn't even able to buy a cup of coffee. There was no one in this section of the station that could talk to...except...except Lisa.
A pleasant conversation with her was an exercise in emotional humiliation for him. As if he wasn't already sufficiently emotionally depressed.
Dana sat in the pilot's seat of a ship presently named Diamondback. She wished for another uncountable time that the Captain was sitting here, but he was last seen shopping with his niece back on the station. Undoubtedly having fun.
"TAKE THIS YOU SOLSEC MAGGOTS!!!" Came a deranged voice from across the aether. The voice belonged to one of the loonier members of Famille Spofulam clan, the family that the Captain had married into. Granted, the general level of sanity in that particular family was questionable in the best of times, but this fellow was way over the line. He was also in command of the Tri-Fang, an old Cobra-class close escort which was named for a creature found on a planet where the animals exhibited trilateral symmetry. He was creating something of a mess, much to the embarrassment (if such a thing was possible) of the FS clan.
The Captain's relatives preferred to clean up their own messes, sometimes with extreme prejudice. "CONN, GUNNERY, I'M TRACKING A THREE-MISSILE SPREAD INBOUND."
"Burn them." Dana ordered.
Then each of the two fusion guns fired double pulses in sequence and were followed in turn by the discharge of the two triple beam laser turrets. The three incoming missiles were gone.
"CONN, GUNNERY, I HAVE A SOLUTION ON THE TARGET."
"Match bearings and shoot!" Dana replied.
As the chief gunner was locking the particle accelerator barbette on the target, a razor straight bolt of lightning split the starscape and impacted on the Tri-Fang.
The planetary navy had arrived. This party was now over.
On the High Port, Customs Team Supervisor Herman was using his personal override codes to move through each of the sealed sections of the station. The other members of his special team had been caught on the wrong side of a pressure door and were now dead. The navy EVA team that would be sent out to recover the bodies would certainly find on their remains the contraband that was to be planted on a ship as false evidence. The presence of contraband material would be very difficult to explain. Herman's career as an abusive bureaucrat was over; if he was lucky, the Imperial Starport Authority would have him taken out and shot. Perhaps he could hook up with the Ine Givar.
Herman rounded a corner and found the niece of the Captain of the so-called Diamondback. This was too good an opportunity to pass up, a final act of revenge against the family that had thwarted many of his schemes. He was going to hurt the little girl and her toy penguin too.
"Hello," he said in the smooth tone of an Imperial bureaucrat. "I'm Customs Team Supervisor Herman, are you lost?"
"Hi," she said, "I'm Ditzie."