Everything was finally going right for Dennis Sterling.
He was piloting an open-topped air/raft, an anti-grav flying descendant of the ancient Terran Jeep, over the verdant farmlands of the Northern Continent of Regina. The waning crescent of Assiniboia, the large gas giant planet that was Regina's primary, dominated the southern part of the blue sky that was a normal characteristic of a standard pressure oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere.
Dennis was not the slightest bit concerned with local environmental trivia, because at that moment he was not alone.
Lisa reclined in the passenger side seat of the air/raft, she wore a flawless white blouse, slacks, and sandals. The thought did not occur to Dennis that this was an odd choice of attire for an outing in the countryside. She had let her hair grow out to shoulder length, the light brown strands floated in a virtual aura in the wind around her head which would occasionally drift down to cover her dark orange sunglasses.
Blessed be the one who is the light of my existence, Dennis thought as he looked over to her.
Dennis thought he heard a child's voice from the back seat.
And then he woke up.
Captain Dennis Sterling had been taking a nap in the pilot's seat on the bridge of the Imperial Mercenary Ship Chauchat. For the second time is as many weeks Lisa had appeared in one of his dreams. He could still hear the child's voice. It was Ditzie.
"I'm sorry," he said to her, "what did you say?"
"Uncle Dav asked me to tell you that dinner is ready."
Everyone aboard the Chauchat, human or not, was a virtual aunt or uncle to Ditzie. Dav was Lieutenant Commander Daevagh, an intelligence officer of the Vargr species in the Imperial Navy, who at present was on a mission while masquerading as a civilian.
Daevagh was also at the present time the only decent cook, other than the overworked First Officer and Chief Engineer Dana Wolfsburg, on board the Chauchat.
"Tell Uncle Dav that I'll be right down."
When he was once again alone on the bridge, Dennis stared at his reflection in the forward window that separated him from the infinite grey depths of jumpspace.
Lisa was in his dreams again.
It originally took the better part of five years for her to disappear from his dreams after Dennis joined the Imperial Navy.
After the encounter on the High Port station and having to sit at the same table during Norris' intelligence briefing Lisa had returned to his dreams like a summons from a tax collector.
It would be so easy, he thought. Just to step out of the airlock and float past the fringe of the protective energy field`that was generated by the jump drive and let his component subatomic particles come apart in the formless grey void. He would never have to think of or dream about her again.
The best thing Dennis could do when one of his negative moods hit him was to simply sit, do nothing, and let it pass.
He needed to play some music. Something old, really old.
Dennis unlocked the controls for the audio system and called up a set of files from the ship's memory.
Accompanied only by a piano, the voice of a woman who was dead more than three and a half millennia drifted out over the bridge.
Listen as the wind blows
From across the great divide
Voices trapped in yearning
Memories trapped in time
My voice may be trapped in yearning, Dennis thought. He couldn't imagine Lisa being in any way emotionally frustrated.
Through this world I stumble
So many times betrayed
Trying to find an honest word
To find, the truth enslaved
The story of my life, he thought. Refusing to kiss Admiral Santanocheev's backside, by telling the social-climbing piece of garbage what he wanted to hear instead of the truth, was a certain career killer for Dennis Sterling, who was formerly a Lieutenant Commander in naval intelligence.
Into this night I wander
It's morning that I dread
Another day of no way out
The path I fear to tread
The iris valve into the bridge opened. Daevagh stepped through with a floating tray. He stopped to listen.
"Sarah...someone...old Solomani?" Dav asked.
"McLachlan...Sarah McLachlan" Dennis replied. The computer began to play the next file in the programed sequence.
On the tray was a thirty-centimeter beef sausage and pepperoni pizza and two traditional brown bottles of beer. Dennis picked up one of the bottles.
"Spook pizza." Said Daevagh. It was the kind of pizza that was good but didn't call unwanted attention to those ordering and eating it.
Dennis took a sip from the beer bottle. It was the good stuff, definitely not one of the common commercial brands.
"Where are you hiding this?"
"I'm not hiding it." Dav replied. "I asked Ditzie to hide the good stuff. It's a game for her."
"I'll have to remember that."
"Oh," Daevagh continued, "Ditzie wants to help us."
"Help us on what?"
"Swell." Dennis groaned.
Lisa was in a suit of Imperial Marine reconnaissance armor and carrying a gauss rifle on the grounds of the Regina Imperial Military Institute, the co-ed boarding school for navy brats near the planetary capital. To students and alumni it was unofficially known as Rim-Job High, even though the curricula covered all the primary and secondary grades.
Why she was in powered armor on the grounds of her alma-mater was a mystery to her.
You know the drill, she thought, get down and look around.
Observe. Orient. Decide. Act. Repeat often and as necessary.
As she turned around Lisa saw the old primary school building.
I must be in a dream, Lisa thought, that building was torn down more than thirty years ago.
There was a group of children, who appeared to be about seven years old, outside the old building. With one exception they were all wearing the school uniform. The one exception was a confused and frightened boy in old civilian clothes.
I remember this day, Lisa thought, it was the first day of the second grade for her.
The frightened little boy was Dennis Sterling. Lisa could also see herself as she was on that day.
So why. Lisa mentally asked herself, am I in full powered battledress here and now?
On top of a hill overlooking the old building was a group of hardwood trees, said to be oaks from Terra itself. At the base of one of the trees sat someone in powered armor.
Lisa bounced up the hill. The armored suit at the base of the tree was the current pattern Marine Recon battledress, but the chamaeleon surface was set to the black and gold parade colors of a unit that had been disbanded centuries ago, the Surface/Extravehicular Reconnaissance force of the Imperial Navy. The SURFER teams, as they commonly known at the time, had been disbanded by the Empress Arbellatra after the Imperial Civil War.
The rank on the armored suit of the SURFER was Lieutenant Commander, the nameplate read STERLING.
The SURFER took off his helmet and looked up at Lisa.
"Hello Lisa." Dennis said.
"What are you doing here?" She asked.
"We serve the Imperium." He replied.
Lisa heard a faint rhythmic buzzing sound which came from no discernable direction. She was checking her suit controls for a malfunction when she woke up alone in her bedroom.
The simple low-tech alarm clock that she picked up on a mission twelve years ago was buzzing. Lisa had been taking an afternoon nap in anticipation of a long night ahead.
Lisa reached over to the clock to shut off the buzzer, she then sat up on her bed.
As a child Lisa discovered that her dreams and nightmares would sometimes carry a premonition of a future event. She would dream about being in a particular class and weeks or months later she would be hit by the sense of deja-vu when she actually sat in that very classroom. Over the last year Lisa's own nightmares were of a massive Zhodani battle fleet above her homeworld, disgorging swarms of nuclear missiles and shock troops in powered armor onto the verdant surface of Regina.
Surprising as it was, the dream about Dennis Sterling was merely strange and disturbing instead of being terrifying. However, Lisa never needed a prescient dream to know that a basic dinner and show date, let alone a long term relationship with Dennis, would turn into a major disaster.
Lisa stood up and walked over to the personal terminal on her desk. She began to enter what she remembered of the last dream into her diary.
On the bridge of the Chauchat Dennis and Daevagh finished their pizza.
"Boss?" Said Daevagh.
"Yes?" Replied Dennis.
"If I may make a suggestion, there is an ancient piece of Solomani technology that you may find useful."
"I believe that it is called a mattress. I also believe that you have one or two of them in your cabin."
"I also have an ex-wife in my cabin."
"Have you unfolded the upper bunk for her."
"Yes, but she won't sleep on it."
"Well," said Daevagh, "why don't you sleep on the top bunk?"
Dennis stared at Dav.
"After all," Dav continued, "there aren't any drill instructors on this ship who'll dump you out of the top rack for sleeping too long."
"That would be a surrender to Helen."
"And sleeping on the bridge isn't?"
Dennis silently pondered this answer. It would not be the first time he had backed away from what appeared to be a good moral position, if only to save his own life.
"You could," Dav said, "stick her in one of the low berths."
Four cryogenic stasis units, commonly called low berths, had been installed during the refit of the Chauchat by the current owners.
"Perhaps I will." Replied Dennis. "If we can't dump her on the next planet."
Not likely, Daevagh thought. There was a rather hot civil war in progress on Efate, the planet at the end of the present hop through jumpspace. Dennis may as well freeze his ex-wife right at this moment.
"So, how did you end up marrying Helen?"
Dennis thought about the answer to that question.
"You are familiar with the theory of Maneuver Warfare?"
Maneuver Warfare was the body of tactical and operational doctrines developed and used by the armies of the second and third surface empires of the Germans on pre-spaceflight Terra.
"Yes." Dav replied.
"You do understand the concepts of surfaces and gaps?"
"I went to the same Officer Candidate School that you did." Replied Daevagh with a bit of annoyance.
In Maneuver Warfare a surface was usually a unit or terrain feature that was difficult or impossible to attack. A gap was usually a unit or terrain feature that was relatively easier for the attacking unit to assault.
"Sorry, but I need to use an analogy for this. After about ten years of making a bad impression on Lisa Holland, she had become something of a flat surface to me. Whereas Helen at the time I met her appeared to me to be a gap."
"I see." Said Dav. "So how does the concept of the schwerpunkt relate to this?"
"Oh?" Replied Dennis. "Is that what you call yours?"
Captain Sir Louis Roberts, Deputy Director for Special Operations of the Office of Naval Information, was standing at attention before the desk of Lord Santanocheev, the Sector Admiral of the Spinward Marches. The Lord Admiral held up a holographic data crystal.
"Captain, this is a dossier on a traitor and enemy of the navy and the empire." The Lord Admiral handed the data crystal to Captain Roberts.
"Because of his present political and social connections," the Lord Admiral continued, "he will have to be disposed of in a deniable fashion."
"Disposed of, my Lord Admiral?"
"Terminated." Replied Lord Admiral Santanocheev. "Terminate with extreme prejudice."
"Yes, my Lord Admiral."
Captain Sir Louis Roberts saluted, took three steps backwards, did an about face, and marched out of the Lord Admiral's office.
The Lone Sniper woke up cold, soaking wet, and naked on an elevated slab of polished black granite.
The last thing that he remembered was waking up in a hospital regeneration tank after falling from a navigational light tower at a landing field on Regina. He was fortunate to have fallen flat forward into the shallow pool of muddy water just beyond the concrete base of the tower. What was not so fortunate was that the depth of the water at the point of impact was only fifteen centimeters.
The Lone Sniper sat up and looked around. He was in a glow-strip lit tunnel that appeared to have been roughly melted out of a nickel-iron asteroid. Next to the slab he sat on was an open standard Imperial regeneration tank.
A hunchback entered the chamber, his thinning blonde hair raggedly fell from his pallid forehead to his shoulders. He wore a male human domestic servant's uniform that had clearly seen better days.
"Jello," the hunchback said to the Lone Sniper, "the Master is gratified at your recovery and wishes to see you...now!"
Still naked, the Lone Sniper followed the hunchback through the tunnels of the nickel-iron asteroid.
A Zhodani scout ship dropped back into normal space with an intense flash of blue light. It was a needle like vessel with curved aerodynamic control surfaces that appeared more decorative than functional. The bridge of the scout ship was a bubble-like structure near the bow which often reminded Imperial humans of the bulging eye clusters of terrestrial insects.
Within the bridge of the scout ship the pilot, the lone surviving crew member, slowly stirred himself to action.
It gradually became clear from examination of navigational sensors that instead of reentering the Zhodani Consulate, the scout ship had mis-jumped to a subsector close to the Imperium.
Being a Zhodani, the pilot didn't know any curse words.