Lisa was standing guard in another dream.
Her scarred suit of Marine assault armor had the external surface set in a mottled multi shade gray. She held her gauss rifle in the port arms position. Behind Lisa the lifeless planet's dim red primary appeared to sit motionlessly on the horizon and cast long shadows over the landscape. Her own shadow ran over the frost covered ground to the edge of the cliff, beyond which there was total darkness in the shadow cast by the meteor-scarred cliff.
Lisa could hear the muffled roar of the wind through the helmet of her suit. She felt the chill of the planet's thin and unbreathable atmosphere penetrate her suit.
Lisa mentally sensed a familiar and unwelcome presence close to her. She turned around and watched as an individual in a suit of Marine recon armor with the surface set for black and carrying an ACRS walk up behind her. It was Dennis.
"Does the abyss really stare back?" He asked her.
Lisa did not answer him.
Dennis took a position to her left at the edge of the cliff. He faced the abyss with his ACRS in the ready position.
"Go away," she told him.
"We serve the Imperium," he replied.
Lisa stood silent and stared at him for what seemed to be a minute. Then she asked him a question.
"What do you really want?"
Dennis quoted a verse from an ancient coffeehouse song.
"'I want to live as an honest man. To get all I deserve and to give all I can. And to love a young woman who I don't understand.'"
Lisa said nothing. She and Dennis simply stood guard at the edge of the cliff with the muffled roar of the wind the only sound they heard until she woke up.
It wasn't every day that the Imperial Mercenary Ship Chauchat received an escort out from the planet to the jump point, especially when the escorting vessel was a furball.
Al Macdonald, the Captain of the Lioness, was as surprised about his orders as Dennis was about his.
"Damn," said Al, "you really do piss people off."
"I seem to have a natural talent for that," Replied Dennis.
From her seat in the navigator's station on the bridge Ditzie eyeballed the spherical form of the Tigress-class battleship that was flanking, along with a swarm of heavy fighters, the Chauchat to starboard.
"It needs work," she said.
"Well, yes," said Dennis from the pilot's seat. "She's only a first line tech-fifteen dreadnought, there are bound to be some deficiencies."
Dennis continued to speak.
"Of course, it's not every day that we're ordered to leave an entire stellar system. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"
"Nope." Replied Ditzie.
"Nor would you know anything about the bomb that went off in Akbar and Jeff's gift shop in the main terminal last night?"
Dennis had been called in by the local Marine Provost Marshall to answer some interesting questions about the bombing.
"I can't say that I do," replied Ditzie.
Gosh, what a surprise, thought Dennis.
"And then there are all those people, about a couple dozen or so, that the Marines caught trying to sneak into the landing bay. The Provost Marshall was not at all happy about that."
"Too bad." Ditzie replied with a note of petulance.
"And we still don't have a penguin for the main holotank."
"And whose fault is that?" she challenged Dennis.
Dennis gave Ditzie the thousand-klick stare again.
"Oh. Right," she said sheepishly.
The Lioness and its group of fighters vectored away to starboard. Chauchat received clearance from system control to make a jump.
Dennis keyed the intercom switch.
"All hands, prepare for jump . . ."
Under an inflated dome at the Marine stockade, there were three clumps of civilians. A band of Bargerites, a gaggle of people in red robes with shaved heads, and a small group in black turtleneck sweaters and black pants.
"It's your fault that we're in here with the raw meat," whined the leader of the turtlenecked group.
"Why don't you administer the personality test to them?" Ensign Juan Enleshkaadshar of the church's Star-Org whined back.
"Oh, you think you're SO funny," snapped the leader. "Just for that, you get to do all your O.T.-levels all over again."
The leader paused, and then spoke again.
"The Commodore is not going to like this."
"Well what does the Commodore like," said the Ensign, "apart from underage girls?"
"THAT'S IT!" screamed the leader. "You are now a suppressive person! Get away from us before I exteriorize your ass!"
The former Ensign walked away from the turtlenecked group; perhaps some of the red robed folk would talk to him. No one else in the black clad group spoke up, they were already assigned by the mission leader to the church's Reformation Project Force as a result of their being caught by the Marines. They didn't want to make their own personal situation any worse.
In a pressurized G-speeder parked on a hill overlooking the Marine stockade two Zhodani agents were killing time by performing a language drill. The drill quickly turned into a gripe session.
"I want to go home," said the shorter and balder of the two.
"Just what would be accomplished by going home?"
The next sentence had to begin with a word starting with the letter K. The shorter Zho went into brain-lock.
"Loser," said the taller of the two agents.
Juan Enleshkaadshar, no longer an Ensign in his church's Star-Org, walked over to the group of man and women in the red robes. They were sitting in a circle, clapping their hands, and singing an ancient Terran folk song. Two of the men were abusing their harmonicas. He caught last verses of the song.
All along the watchtower.
Princes kept the view.
While all the women came and went.
Barefoot servants too
Outside in the distance.
A wildcat did growl.
Two riders were approaching.
The wind began to howl.
"Hi," said Juan. "Why are you guys here?"
The leader of this group started to tell Juan about the pre-contact Terran Prophet Charlie and the coming of Helter Skelter.
Now that the Chauchat was in Jumpspace, Daevagh needed to speak to Dennis. He knocked on the Captain's Cabin door.
"Enter!" Dennis yelled.
The door slid open and Daevagh stepped in.
Dennis was sitting across the lower bunk with his back against the wall. The screen over the desk across the cabin was showing what appeared to be a documentary program.
"What are you watching?" Dav asked.
"A recent episode of a Solomani documentary series," said Dennis. "It's called 'Man's Crisis of Identity in the Latter Half of the Twentieth Century.' The subject of this episode is the question of whether Yoko Ono was actually a fifth Beatle, or just a talentless and inscrutable bore."
This was almost completely beyond Daevagh's comprehension.
"So which was he?" he asked.
"She," said Dennis. "I personally favor the talentless bore point of view."
"I must confess," Dennis continued, "that I've found a roll of duct tape, a high quality audio headset, and one of her early recordings to be quite useful when questioning a prisoner."
"Um . . . okay," said Dav.
"Did you need to speak to me about something?"
"It can wait." Said Daevagh as he slowly backed out of the Captain's Cabin.
Juan Enleshkaadshar was now speaking to some of the Bargerites.
"The Commodore believes that Ditzamer Spofulam is the reincarnation of Xenu."
"So you were gonna waste the little bitch?" asked the biggest of the Bargerites.
"No, that wouldn't work," said Juan. "Xenu would have come back in another body."
Some of the Bargerites grunted and nodded in agreement.
"We were going to grab her and stick her in a low berth in a secure location so she wouldn't drop her present body."
"Uh huh," said the lead Bargerite.
"So why are you guys here?" asked Juan.
"Sterling wasted some of our brothers on Regina."
"He's also wasted," Juan pointed over the red-robed group, "some of the Family, over there."
The leader of the Bargerites snorted.
"Who cares about them?" he said.
Good point, thought Juan.
At a corsair base in the Uthe Subsector, the GHavueng DHorr settled on her landing legs. What was left of her scarred surface coating showed the loud red-yellow-black parade colors of a Vargr Corsair. Her two drop tanks had been shredded in her last fight and dumped. The landing craft, a standard gig found aboard an Imperial close escort, was also wrecked in the last fight.
GHavueng DHorr had begun life as the Imperial Cobra-class escort Dened Three-Step; upon privatization and conversion to a Crusader-class mercenary transport she was re-christened Lionheart. Unfortunately, the Lionheart had been betrayed by two of her engineering staff to the corsair band known as the Kforuzeng. She had been operated, with increasing difficulty, by the Kforuzeng as a privateer for the last eleven years.
Taezarr, the corsair base commander came out on an air/raft to meet the captain and his special Imperial Human passenger.
"What happened to you?" Taezarr asked Captain Fougzueng, in Gvegh, their native language.
"We were ambushed by some race-traitors," said Fougzueng.
"Why am I not surprised?" said Taezarr. He turned to the human and spoke in Galanglic.
"Lord Marc Oberlindes has increased the price on your head to a full million Imperial Credits."
"No shit," said Showa Lakidgussar. "I'm not the least bit surprised."
As far as his hosts knew, Lakidgussar was the sole survivor of a group of crew members who attempted to hijack the Emissary and sell her to the Kforuzeng. What was not known to his hosts was that Lakidgussar was an agent of Santanocheev's Office of Naval Information whose mission was part of a plot to advance his patron's position in the Imperial naval hierarchy. His naval officer's salary still accumulated in Lakidgussar's personal account on Regina.
"You are not concerned?" Said Taezarr.
"Of course I am." Said Lakidgussar. "There isn't anything I can do about it right now."
Lakidgussar looked around at the battle-scarred buildings at the corsair base.
"What a dump," he said to Taezarr.
"The base was raided by Imperial Marines dropped out of a Kinunir-class frigate, the one they call the Gash, about twenty years ago," replied Taezarr. "We try not to repair the buildings too openly. The Pinks . . . er . . . the Impies might notice and hit us again."
"Good idea," said Lakidgussar. He barely concealed a smirk.
"You know something about that raid?" asked Captain Fougzueng.
"Just some rumors I heard when I was in the navy."
Lakidgussar was actually an engineer aboard the Imperial Navy Ship Gaesh eighteen years ago when she dropped her Marines on the corsair base. The naval spook in charge of the mission had given Lakidgussar a bloody nose when he had insulted the spook's bitch, the Marine troop commander. But he didn't want to mention that to his hosts.
"My father was killed in that raid," said Taezarr. "I would like to hear some of those rumors."
"Yes," said Lakidgussar. "Of course."
Captain Fougzueng spoke up.
"Can I move my ship into the hangar for repairs?"
"No," said Taezarr. "We have a Zhodani scout-ship in there."
Both Lakidgussar and Fougzueng stared at Taezarr.
"We found it drifting in the system." Said Taezarr. "There was one survivor of the crew on board."
"So are you going to ransom him to the Zhos?" asked Fougzueng.
"No," said Taezarr. "The Zhodani Consulate is not known for their tolerance of our business. I was thinking of selling the Zho and his ship to the Impies."
Lakidgussar briefly thought about sending a message up the rat-line to headquarters. And then he thought of a better idea.
"Why don't you," he said, "quietly contact the Imperial Naval Attache on Pandrin?"
Taezarr briefly considered the idea. "I will think about it."
Captain Fougzueng spoke up again. "So what about my ship?"
"We have some camouflage netting," said Taezarr. "If you can set the surface of your hull to green or brown it would help."
"There should be an old Terran camo pattern in the shipboard files," said Lakidgussar. "It's called Woodland."