It was a bright and sunny morning in the startown district outside of Luck Gibson Starport on Regina. The Lone Sniper walked into Native North American Joe's Smoke Shop. He had not had a decent smoke since he fell off that damned radio tower.
He had a usual and well-practiced purposeful stride which he could not use because his own terminal orifice had not yet fully healed. He grabbed a six-pack of Old Frothingslosh from the cooler and asked the clerk for two cartons of M & T's.
"Marin and Thomas?" Said the clerk. "We're all sold out of those. Bunch of Bargerites bought 'em all before they lifted off in that old converted Cobra of theirs. Be another month before we get more of 'em"
In his dream it was supposed to be a simple business trip.
Dennis was taking Chauchat out for the first time since Ditzie and Dana put her back together. She was one of the few privately owned warships that had not been taken over by the Domain government to enforce the quarantine. Instead, the Navy of what was now called the Regency had a mob of engineers and naval architects take her apart for examination as part of their advanced warship design program.
Dennis had hovered so closely to Dana, Ditzie and the other members of the Famille Spofulam engineering staff who were involved in reassembling the Chauchat that Ditzie felt compelled to ask her Uncle Dennis to back off.
And when Ditzie asks you to back off, it's usually a good idea to do so.
Chauchat was now outbound from Trin and clear of the rings surrounding the planet. The original plan was for Dennis to jump back to Mora and meet Lisa and Ditzie at Norris' new residence in the Giayachi archology. When the reports of a major vampire ship incursion in the Deneb sector reached Trin, it seemed prudent for Dennis to return to Mora ahead of schedule.
But the Universe, as always, had other plans for you. Dana once said to Dennis that the Universe, "exists to hurt you, that's its job."
Lucky girl, Dana was back on Mora with the rest of the Famille Spofulam engineering staff.
In the field of stars that filled the cockpit windows there was an intense flash of light, the point of light that the flash was centered on then flared brighter, and then it died.
A starship or a system defense boat and about a dozen people aboard it had just died under the guns of a vampire. The vampire in this case was a battleship whose main computer and control systems had been taken over by a sentient and malevolent virus. A weapon that had one of the claimants to the throne had unleashed indiscriminately during the final death throes of the Third Imperium.
Dennis pressed down on the intercom switch.
"This is the Captain. I need a status report from all sections."
All stations aboard the ship and the pilot of the ship's gig reported that they were ready, the pilot of the gig also declared that he was ready to launch. Then one of the assistant gunners started whining over the intercom.
"Do we have to go into this fight?"
Ahead, through the cockpit window, another ship died in a flash of light and fire.
"Yes, we have to." Dennis replied to the gunner. He then thumbed the channel for the ship's gig.
"Launching on the count of ten . . . nine . . . eight . . ."
With a loud clunk, the gig and its single beam laser entered the fight against the vampire battleship.
It was at this point in the dream that Dennis noticed an ethereal figure sitting in the navigator's seat on the bridge.
He thought that he had seen her somewhere before, perhaps in a history book. She was Solomani, about thirty-five standard years old with sun streaked blonde hair and sad sapphire colored eyes. She wore a navy blue jacket over a white blouse and pants. She had a large multi diamond ring on her left ring finger. She made eye contact with Dennis as he looked at her. Dennis had absolutely no recollection of her stepping aboard the CHAUCHAT.
In the sky ahead two more ships died.
"You're a long way from home aren't you?" Dennis asked her.
She nodded in reply.
"It's time for me to go now, isn't it?" He asked.
Once again she nodded.
"No shi . . . no kidding." Dennis replied. His less than dear mother had warned him that he was going to buy it this way. He then thumbed the intercom switch again.
"Fire control, do we have a solution on the target yet?"
The assistant gunner was still whining about the risks that Dennis was taking.
"No one gets out of this life alive." Dennis said in reply.
Dennis then woke up in his cabin.
He had taken an afternoon nap. It was now time to dress for dinner. Sergei and Zinovia Oberlindes were expecting him, Daevagh, and Ditzie aboard the Emissary for dinner.
Lisa Holland had enough. Enough of the bureaucratic nonsense, enough of the interagency infighting, enough of the mental contact with the corrupt and depraved, and enough of the terrifying visions of the future. She was especially tired of those visions involving her former classmate Dennis Sterling. However refined a gentleman he was in the present, he had left a sour impression in Lisa's mind when they were growing up and Lisa wanted nothing more to do with him. No matter how blissful the visions of a future life with Dennis were, Lisa was not about to dump a perfectly good husband to pursue that future.
As a child Lisa had dreamed of serving the Imperium. That dream had become a nightmare and her service a burden that she could no longer bear.
The first order of personal business on the morning after her dinner with Screwy Louie was to see Norris. Because of their virtual abandonment by Grand Admiral Santanocheev, the regular naval intelligence officers now looked to Norris as their de facto leader.
Norris was in his working office, a comfortable cubbyhole just off of the official audience chamber which was packed with papers and old hardbound books, and furnished in a style that could be described as old and beat-up naval surplus.
"I wish to retire from the Emperor's service at the earliest possible date." She told him.
"Okay." Norris said.
"You're not objecting?" Lisa said.
"What good would that do?" Said Norris. "I've seen the thing that used to be in the basement at Windhaven. I wouldn't want you to end up like that."
Lisa sensed that Norris was holding something back.
"There's something else going on?" Said Lisa. "Isn't there?"
"You're right. There is." Said Norris. "I don't know if you've heard anything about this but to the best of my knowledge not one alumnus of RIMI has received a promotion in the Navy and the Marine Corps since Santanocheev took over as the Grand Admiral of the Marches. In general anyone who's seen as putting duty above loyalty to the grand admiral and his swarm of brown-nosers is getting the short shrift."
Lisa just stood silently. She had heard some rumors about RIMI graduates being denied promotion, and about her fellow alumni resigning their commissions or taking early retirement.
"You know," said Norris, "if the damned Zhos would wait just another year, all they would be facing in this sector would be a very expensive pile of junk under the command of a bunch of obsequious twits."
After a pause Norris spoke again.
"I've already sent a message to His Majesty requesting reinforcement of our forces in this sector, and for the sacking of Santanocheev. After you're officially retired from the Corps I want you to go to Capital in person and speak to His Majesty for me on this matter."
Lisa was stunned to hear this.
"I know," said Norris, "I could ask Dennis to speak for me, but he does tend to get a little bit abrasive at times. Will you promise me that you'll think about it?"
"Yes." Lisa said. "I will."
"Uncle Denniiiie!" Said Ditzie in a clearly annoyed tone of voice from the door of the captain's stateroom. "You know the color of the shirt is not supposed to be the same as the jacket!"
Dennis chose to wear a black turtleneck shirt with the black zippered Nehru jacket and black pants. The basic pattern was copied from a suit designed by the pre-contact Solomani costume designer Sylvia Anderson. Of course Ditzie was correct that the color of the shirt should not match the color of the jacket.
"I like it this way." Dennis replied.
Dennis tended as a rule to take a Zen minimalist approach to formal dress. He generally thought of the flowing capes, the pseudo-Martian collars and the Art-Deco shoulders and sleeves that were the height of current Imperial fashion as being more than a bit absurd. There was one moment when Dennis failed to maintain his composure when one of the Emperor's twin nephews appeared at an Imperial Court function in an ensemble that appeared to have been stolen from the personal wardrobe of the fictional Emperor Ming of Mongo.
Ditzie was wearing a sky-blue dress with black dress shoes and white socks. On the dress she wore a gold pin that replicated the lettering on her favorite tee-shirts with a laser grade ruby that was cut and mounted to form the heart symbol.
"Yes, Uncle Dennie?"
"The Emissary is a very old ship." Said Dennis. "If I'm not mistaken, she may be older than you are."
Ditzie had spent the last eleven decades taking an unholy concoction that radically slowed her growth and prevented her from aging. Dennis suspected that if the formula were ever leaked out, Uncle Hengie and several other people could find themselves on a one-way trip to an Imperial prison colony.
"So you don't want me to touch anything on board because it might break?" Said Ditzie.
"Correct." Dennis replied. "Nor are you to ask Captain Oberlindes for permission to fire the spine mount particle accelerator."
"What?! How am I supposed to have any fun?"
For a brief moment Dennis had a vision of what would happen if Ditzie ever stopped taking her special medicine. In about ten standard years, possibly sooner, she would have more suitors of both genders than she would know what to do with, at least initially. She did have routine access to a plasma cannon and also knew the locations of several perfectly good black holes.
Lisa took off early from her office at Department Six. She felt that she needed a long soak alone in her bathtub, and by God she was going to have one.
Her favorite audio music channel was playing over the speakers in the master bathroom. The only light sources in the room were the five candles that she had lit before entering the bathtub.
The music channel began to play a recording of a live performance of a pre-contact Solomani song. The opening bars were played on piano and then a woman began to sing, not in Imperial Galanglic but in Old Terran English with a Celtic lilt in her voice.
When the dark wood fell before me
And all the paths were overgrown
When the priests of pride say there is no other way
I tilled the sorrows of stone
I did not because I could not see
Though you came to me in the night
When the dawn seemed forever lost
You showed me your love in the light of the stars
Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me
Lisa felt that she had heard the song somewhere before. When she tried to raise the relevant memory she was suddenly hit with a vision.
This song, Dante's Prayer, would be played at the memorial service for Dennis.
In the two decades since Ditzie had stopped taking her special medicine she had grown into, as Dennis once put it, a very well constructed young lady. Dennis did find it necessary to explain some of the facts of life to her.
"It's not the appearance of incest that bothers me," he said. "It's the fact that back in school Lisa was always a better shot than I was, and I'm absolutely in no hurry to find out if that's still true."
When the news of the Rape of Trin reached Mora, Ditzie, who was a hot pilot in her own right, had taken her personal yacht, a two-thousand ton monster with a hundred-ton particle accelerator fitted as a spinal mount weapon, to personally investigate. Avery, who had grown up since Dennis and Seldrian brought him back to Mora on the Arrival Vengeance, had gone along for the ride, much to the annoyance of Norris and Seldrian.
"The ship's gig survived." Avery said. "The pilot had maintained a sensor lock on the mother ship."
Ditzie and Avery played the visual record that they had found of Chauchat's final moments for Lisa, Norris, and Seldrian.
Apart from the light given off from the thruster plates and the firing of the particle and fusion cannons, Chauchat was invisible against the moving starscape.
Lisa sat in silence as the details of the battle were discussed. Dennis had used the ship's lasers and fusion cannon to kill as missiles fired by the vampire battleship as possible. He had fired the particle beam on the vampire itself.
"How," asked Seldrian, "could a weapon that small have an effect on a battleship?"
Ditzie answered the question.
"If you pump enough energy into a target, it will die."
Of course if one pumps enough energy into a target, it will if possible, shoot back.
The visual record showed an internal explosion, caused by a hit from a spine mounted meson gun, ripping Chauchat apart. The recording ended when an intense flash of light caused by the containment failure of Chauchat's fusion power plant blinded the gig's visual sensor.
Lisa consciously returned to the present time. She chose to remain seated in the bathtub.
Dear God, she thought to herself, perhaps I should kill the damned bastard myself.