"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-FIFTY-FIFTH DAY OF THE ONE-THOUSAND-ONE-HUNDRED-SIXTH YEAR OF THE THIRD IMPERIUM."
In the bed across the tiny cabin from the state of the art shipboard workstation, Dennis Sterling, the Captain of the former Imperial Navy Ship Chauchat opened his eyes and once again embarked upon a long, and on this particular morning, a very painful ascent to consciousness.
The ship's computer proceeded to list the messages awaiting the captain's attention. Most of the messages were status reports from each of the departments aboard ship. There were also the usual complaints about the quality of the food served by the ship's galley, as well as the usual griping about the rationing of toilet paper from members of the crew. The computer then listed the messages originating from outside the ship, such as bureaucratic missives from the orbital port to which Chauchat was docked, along with the flood of advertising that slipped past the increasingly ineffective junk mail filtering program. The computer then mentioned the yet unopened message from the Imperial Naval Intelligence service.
"Yow!" This caught Dennis' attention.
How, he asked himself, did he forget about that message?
As the ship's computer repeated its morning wake-up call Captain Dennis Sterling, clad only in a pair of black boxer shorts, rolled out of his bed and promptly impacted upon the floor of his cabin.
Oh, he now recalled, he had been drunk last night.
Unlike many employees and members of the Famille Spofulam clan, Dennis personally abhorred, and unless there was cause for a major celebration, normally avoided entering into a state of chemically induced intoxication. He had no use for the impairment of cognitive and motor skills, but what really and truly bothered him was the unavoidable aftermath of being drunk. Being hung over, the splitting headache and the intense physical feeling of nausea.
And Dennis Sterling absolutely, really, and truly, hated being hung over.
"Beware of strong drink," he vocally quoted a long dead wet navy officer from Ancient Terra, "for it may cause you to shoot at tax collectors...and miss."
Dennis crawled across the cabin and climbed into the chair of the workstation and ordered the computer to decrypt the message from INI. His personal password for the decryption program was the name of an ancient Terrestrial cartoon character, a gruff and rather sarcastic sword wielding aardvark.
The text of the decrypted message was very short:
I WILL BE AT IESA GATHERING AT OSHKOSH ON REGINA ABOARD SPLENDID STOP DO DROP IN STOP HAVE BEER STOP SIGNED NORRIS
With the elbows firmly planted on the desk, Captain Dennis Sterling rested his head in his hands and groaned.
Unlike the Core Sector branch which would meet on an annual basis, the Spinward Marches branch of the Imperial Experimental Shipbuilders Association held its gatherings at the small city of Oshkosh on the planet Regina during the even numbered years of the Imperial calendar.
Parked on display at the landing field was a virtual fleet of prototype, customized, or restored starships and landing craft. In the war-birds area there were virtual squadrons of restored fighters and scout ships, one craft allegedly dating back to the Second Empire.
There were even two ships named Stormbringer. One was a Broadsword class mercenary cruiser, the class with was often known as the "Happy Fun Ball" because of its roughly spherical hull, and which because of its poor streamlining had to have been very, very, very, slowly brought down into Regina's atmosphere in order to land. The other was a custom built and very well armed merchantman which showed signs of having undergone recent repairs and which displayed two small crossed-out skull symbols under the pilot's side of the cockpit windows to indicate the confirmed kills of two pirate vessels.
There were two ships that towered above and dominated all the other vessels on display. The largest was INS Splendid, a battle cruiser of the REGAL class, and at present the flagship of the Regina Subsector flotilla of the Imperial Navy. The Splendid was a well streamlined arrowhead that rested upon the landing legs at her stern. Every standard hour, on the hour, her chameleon surface would change, alternating between the natural hull metal and crimson parade colors of the Imperial Navy, and the nearly perfect ebon surface she wore when engaged in combat.
The other vessel, which was nearly as tall but not nearly as massive as the Splendid, was the Rodham. It was the personal transport of Delphine, the Imperial Duchess and Planetary Matriarch of Mora.
Sitting at a card table within the shade of the Splendid, Lieutenant Commander Daevagh took another sip of navy coffee from his cup, glared at the elongated finned cone that made up the metallic crimson and gold form of the Rodham, and once again thanked the Creative Ruling Consciousness of the Universe for yet another uncountable time that the dried-up old bitch who was the Rodham's primary passenger wasn't here on Regina.
Daevagh was a Vargr, a member of a race which was created through the process of genetic engineering over two-hundred millennia ago. Presumably by the same ancient power that abducted from Terra the hominid ancestors of the Vilani, the Zhodani, and scores of other minor human races, and subsequently deposited them on worlds all across what was now called Charted Space.
Modern Vargr were the descendants of eolupus, the dawn wolf of Terra, that had been modified to have an upright stance, a proper set of hands, and a fully sentient brain. Though as Daevagh would sometimes times say of the brains of some of his fellow Vargr, not quite sentient enough.
The Rodham, which reminded Daevagh of an early conceptual illustration of a multi-stage rocket designed by the legendary Terran naval architect Werner Von Braun, was a unit of the Augustus class of cruiser transports. This class was usually favored by the highest ranking civilian members of the Imperial nobility, such as archdukes as well as those nobles who aspired to archducal rank.
Active and retired military nobles, including Emperor Strephon, usually preferred to travel aboard proper warships when they were on official business or on holiday.
The present military designation of the Augustus class was at best charitable, firepower and maneuverability had been sacrificed in favor of the comfort of the passengers and the ability to jump out to six parsecs.
No real naval officer, not even a Vargr, thought Daevagh as he took another sip of coffee, would be caught dead aboard one of those things.
Two civilians approached the shadow of the Splendid, Daevagh stood up and walked over to meet them. One of the civilians was a follically deficient human male clad entirely in black apart from a insignia naval rank lapel pin, his being that of former Lieutenant Commander. The other civilian appeared to be an eight-year old human female child in a sapphire-blue dress with the small initials "FS" monogrammed in gold.
"Daevagh, you old mutt!" Said Dennis. "What are you doing here?"
"Oh, His Grace sent me down to wait for you."
Dennis introduced his niece to Lieutenant Commander Daevagh and then continued. "Last I heard, you were spooking around in the Extents."
Because of the presence of a psionic thought police force, the life expectancy of an intelligence officer operating in the Zhodani Consulate was absolutely zero. It was only possible to indirectly gather intelligence on the Zhodani by spying on their allies in the area known as the Vargr Extents. As a result, almost forty percent of the Vargr-race naval officers in the Spinward Marches and Deneb Sectors had some experience in working for Imperial Naval Intelligence.
"My cover was blown," Daevagh replied. "My tail got a bit singed on the way out."
Ditzie looked around at Daevagh's tail. "It looks okay to me," she said.
Seated at a naval surplus card table set up in the shadow of a twenty D-ton landing boat, four crew members of the Chauchat enjoyed a rare opportunity to play a nice game of poker. There was no compartment aboard ship, apart from the containment chamber of the fusion reactor, that the Captain's niece could not enter with or without permission. Every attempt to hold any kind of a card game was invariably joined by Ditzie, who would invariably clean out all the other players.
Dana Wolfsburg, Don the Khan, and two other crew members had the task of babysitting the landing craft while their Captain and his niece made a dirt-side social call. Each of the four had an 11.4-mm semi-automatic pistol and two spare 7-round magazines hidden under the black field jackets they normally wore while outdoors on a planetary surface. Hidden by a red and white plaid tablecloth and attached by Velcro to the underside of their card table were four cut-down 7-mm Advanced Combat Rifles.
Yes, shotguns were traditional for this particular task, but the Captain was a rifle guy.
Don the Khan was holding a pair of nines and a pair of sixes when he noticed a group of identically clad humans slowly moving along the line of parked landing craft.
"Mon Chef Artificier," the Khan said to Dana, "Bargerists at six-o-clock."
Dana laid her hand face down on the table and turned to look at the approaching group.
"I'd say they're from the Orthodox Sect." She guessed from the style of their leather and blue denim attire as well as their full beards and long braided hair." Before her operation Dana could have passed as a male member of the Conservative Sect.
Originally known as The Angels of Hell, the Bargerists were one of the strange cults that appeared in North America after the Second Terran World War. The Bargerists would ultimately follow the wave of Terran conquest and colonization throughout the former Vilani Empire and virtually ruled several worlds during the dark age between the fall of the Second Empire and the founding of the Third Imperium.
Bargerism was not as much a way of worshiping a divine power as it was a way of life defined by the prophet Barger. They usually accepted human converts, especially female ones. Though as a rule the Orthodox Sect normally treated their women as chattel and despised transsexuals, whereas members of the Reform Sect were often too sexually deprived to care about gender status or prior medical history.
Bargerists living in the Third Imperium usually supported themselves through various legally questionable activities and often hired themselves out as mercenary soldiers, though as mercenaries they were not terribly effective or reliable.
The group of Orthodox Bargerists continued to slowly make their way up the row of landing craft.
By mutual agreement the four crew members closed out their present hands, Dana took the pot with a full house.
A Ranger from the Ministry of Natural Resources noticed the iridescent shimmer that was characteristic of a chemical spill on the surface of one of the lakes in his patrol zone. As he flew over the lake he saw the submerged outline of the type of landing craft that was normally carried by close escorts of the Imperial Navy.
It was probably a smuggler, the Ranger thought, he would have to call it in to headquarters.