Light reflected from the fully illuminated face of Assiniboia flooded the forest beneath the motorcade. Four Air/Rafts, manned by soldiers in full armor, formed a flying perimeter around a G-limousine.
Lisa Holland was wearing the dress uniform of a Lieutenant Colonel in the Imperial Marine Corps, she brushed some imaginary lint from the sleeve of her uniform and complained to the naval officers who were the other two passengers of the limo.
"We are going to stand out like the proverbial sore thumb."
"Lance would have been a commissioned officer too if he hadn't insisted on being on the rolls of an elite regiment. You know I can't play favorites." Said Norris Aledon, the Duke of Regina. "Especially with the Huscarles."
The 4518th Lift Infantry Regiment, generally known as the Huscarles, had been the household troops of House Aledon since the end of the Imperial Civil war. Although it was carried on the Army's list of regiments, the 4518th LIR was trained and equipped to Imperial Marine standards.
Norris, Lisa, and the other passenger Commander Eneri Achter-Altermann were graduates of an institution known to its alumni as "Rim-Job High." They were on their way to the retirement party for Gunnery Sergeant Lance Couronne, who was also a fellow alumnus of Rim-Job High.
The civilian fellow that Lisa married wasn't interested in attending the party, and there was no way that her children could be brought to any such gatherings where the adults would consume intoxicants and sing ancient Army, Navy, and Marine Corps songs.
Not even if the lyrics were printable.
Lieutenant Joni Stratton of Department Six of Imperial Navy Intelligence was dressed to celebrate. It was her last night on Regina's High Port station and she was going out to party.
"Oh baby, set me free!" She said as she checked herself out in the mirror.
Joni wore a short-sleeved black dress, the hemline was two-thirds of the way up her thigh and the décolletage was positioned just right. The internal supports in her dress had been designed by a friendly naval architect. Joni had spent the better part of a standard day listening to the fellow talk about how all the Kinunir-class "Battle Cruisers" presently in service should be replaced by real warships as he crunched the numbers and drew up the pattern for the dress.
The architect's own personal tool was really nice too.
Yow! She thought at the remembrance of that encounter.
Lisa had to speak up on a certain subject.
"Norris, is Mister Sterling on a secret mission for you?"
"Lisa, you know damned well that his name is Dennis," Norris replied. "And what gave you the idea that he's back on the job?"
"First, the suddenness of his departure after that impromptu class reunion that you staged. He sent his First Officer back into the high port buy as much chocolate as possible. That woman, at least she appeared to be a woman, bought out my remaining stock of the stuff."
Lisa had closed out the flower and gift shop that she was running on the station as cover for a surveillance mission. Unfortunately, the subject of the surveillance had stepped out a convenient airlock without the appropriate attire.
Thus, ending the mission.
"Dana Wolfsburg, I met her," said Eneri. "Dennis had her show me the modifications that Famille Spofulam made to the Chauchat. I'm doing a sidebar on it for Selling the Gazelle."
"You're still working on that article?" Lisa asked.
"Yes, I am." Eneri answered somewhat petulantly.
"Well I'm not surprised that...Dennis...would be hooked up with a...woman...like that." Lisa continued.
"Lisa," Eneri spoke up, "you, of all people should know that Ms. Wolfsburg is nowhere near his type, not even if she was born a proper girl."
Eneri had also discovered, the hard way, that Ms. Wolfsburg had absolutely no sexual interest in men whatsoever.
Lisa turned to Norris.
"And another thing Norris, I haven't seen a certain staff officer of yours for about two weeks."
Norris remained silent. Lisa continued to speak.
"I also heard that Commander Daevagh was last seen with your virtual brother."
"Lisa," Norris replied, "you of all people should know that information concerning ongoing operations is only given out on a need to know basis."
"And why," Norris now inquired, "are you now worked up about Dennis? Right now?"
Lisa now had to answer.
"I had a vision. It was a dream, of my being in his head, after his return from a mission."
The interior of the limousine was silent for about a minute, and then Norris spoke.
"He and Dav are on a mission. I'm sorry Lisa, but you really don't need to know about it."
I could take it from your head right now, Lisa thought, Branj isn't here to protect you.
Norris suddenly stared at Lisa as if she had transmitted that last thought to him.
Oh Hell, she realized, she did.
"Oh my..." Lisa blurted out. "Norris...I'm sorry..."
"Lisa," he calmly replied, "I think it would be a good idea for you to skip this party, and go home."
When Lisa's husband woke up at the break of day he found Lisa curled up on the sofa in the living room, still sobbing.
The Lone Sniper, still cold and naked, was led into a large chamber cut into the nickel-iron asteroid.
It appeared to be some manner of throne room. There appeared to be about two-score people, both Humans and Vargr. They were, regardless of species or gender, dressed in the male pattern of formal wear that was in fashion about five hundred years earlier. All who were present on the floor wore black armbands upon which was emblazoned a gold lightning bolt. The same lightning bolt was overlaid on the black Imperial Sunburst emblazoned on the huge gold banner hanging behind the replica of the Iridium Throne sitting on the raised platform at the end of the chamber.
Standing next to the throne was a young redheaded woman who wore a gold-lame jacket over sequined shorts and black corset.
The occupant of the throne, who was presumably the host of this gathering, stood up and began walking toward the Lone Sniper.
He, at least the Lone Sniper thought it was a male, had hair that resembled a large black hairball on steroids. He wore what five-hundred years ago would have been a regulation female pattern navy jumpsuit, except that it was made of black silk and lacked sleeves and legs. What wasn't lacking on the jumpsuit was the insignia of rank, in this case that of a Grand Admiral of the Imperial Navy. Also visible were the suspenders which held up the black mesh stockings that covered a pair of shaved legs which ended in a pair of ladies black shoes with stiletto heels.
The host of the gathering wore a feminine pattern of makeup, with an absurdity of effect that was analogous to the result of attaching a missile guidance system that was accurate to half a meter to a twenty-megaton fusion warhead.
The host held out his black-gloved hand in a gesture of greeting and spoke to the Lone Sniper in a cultured voice.
"How do you do. I think you've met my faithful handyman."
Like most sentient beings, Commander Eneri Achter-Altermann hated to be awakened suddenly. Especially after a good, long, and apart from Lisa not being there, very fun party. He fumbled a bit as he reached for the phone at the night stand.
"Hello?" He attempted to say. A familiar female voice replied.
"En'ri, we have a problem." Said Lieutenant Stratton of Department Six of Imperial Naval Intelligence.
So what else is new? Eneri thought to himself.
"Joni, do you have any idea what time it is?"
"About zero-six-hundred at your location."
Eneri opened his eyes, waited for the clock face to unblur, and saw that the Lieutenant was correct.
"Okay dear," Eneri said, "what happened?"
"I need to do a direct transmission on this."
Oh bloody Hell, Eneri thought, transmitting a thought or mental image from an orbital station to someone on the surface was a generally difficult task at best. Eneri then sat up on the edge of his bed and closed his eyes.
"Okay dear, I'm ready." Eneri said. "Do it."
Joni had walked into a bar-restaurant on the station and had stumbled onto a meeting between Louie Roberts, one of Santanocheev's stooges, and the Captain of the close escort Springbok. Screwy Louie handed a data crystal to the Captain.
"You are to hand carry this to the Military Attaché at the Imperial Consulate on Pandrin as soon as possible. You are authorized to drop your external tanks on this mission."
In eavesdropping on this meeting, Joni had caught some idea of the contents of the message. It was an order to an ONI operative in the Uthe Subsector to kill Dennis Sterling.
Eneri was stunned.
"Did you get it?" Joni asked.
"Yes dear. Yes, I got it."
Eneri paused for about a minute after Joni disconnected, and then punched in a com-code.
Norris answered after four rings.
"Do you have any idea what time it is?" He groaned.
"About zero-six-fifteen, sir."
Eneri could hear Norris groaning again over the com-line. Eneri continued to speak.
"Sir, we have a very serious problem."