The Lone Sniper stepped off the monorail car at the upper commercial level of the New Victoria Arcology. He walked around the corner into the restaurants section to find that his intended destination was roped off with yellow warning tape and swarming with local police. To avoid calling undue attention to himself, he casually continued to walk past the establishment.
As he walked by, the Lone Sniper caught part of a conversation between two policemen, the first being a short fellow with beady eyes, the other a much taller and dark-haired man who wore Lieutenant's bars and spoke down to the first officer with an Imperial Capital accent.
"No Baldrick," said the Police Lieutenant, "our presence here could not possibly be the result of a psychic transmission. Psionics have been outlawed in the Imperium for three centuries, and it's a bloody good thing as well, otherwise we would all be speaking in Zhodani."
The Lone Sniper continued to walk down to the Astroburgers at the far end of the restaurant section and ordered a Big Bang Burger combo with spiral arm fries and a galaxy size diet cola.
In answer to a question asked by Dennis, Aramanx Jack replied, "the rest of my force should be here in six days at the earliest. You're welcome to join us for this ticket."
Even though the Emissary had enough firepower to vaporize every Vargr corsair in the sector, with gigawatts to spare, operations against their ground bases required the use of soldiers with rifles, grenades, and other personal implements of destruction. This meant that Sergei had to hire mercenaries for the job. Aramanx Jack just happened to be available for this ticket, the Imperial mercenary term for a mission contract, at the just the right time.
"I have to say that I am tempted," said Dennis. "The problem is that my involvement in this matter is part of the fight between House Aledon and the Santanocheev faction."
Aramanx Jack, having once been a troubleshooter for Big Bill Aledon himself, understood completely.
"If it's a family matter, then I'm in," he said.
If there was one thing Dennis was reluctant to do, it was to turn down an offer of assistance from Aramanx Jack.
Sergei had a question.
"If this Lakidgussar piece of shit is still working for Santanocheev's crowd, how does he keep in touch with the home office?"
"The naval attache is one of Freddy's people. Dennie and I were planning to have a quiet little chat with him."
"Perhaps," Said Sergei to Dennis, Jack, and Daevagh, "all three of you gentlebeings should pay him a quiet little visit."
The proprietor of La Gondola was brought to the police station in the administrative level of the arcology to answer some questions about the incident. After about two hours of questioning the police had decided to let him go. However, instead of escorting him to the elevator lobby on the administrative level, the police sent him out to the unlit grav-vehicle landing stage.
Parked on its skids on the landing platform was a plain white General Products van. Standing in front of the door opened into the lighted interior of the van in his dirtside blues with his hands crossed in a Sterling-like fashion was Commander Eneri Achter-Alterman of Imperial Naval Intelligence. Standing next to Eneri was a fortyish blonde haired woman who looked like she could have been a centerfold of the month about two decades ago. She also wore navy dirtside blues and had the rank of Lieutenant.
"Hello Luigi." Eneri said in a level tone of voice.
Luigi spun around to escape and bumped straight into another man. The other man was more than a full head taller than Luigi and wore a fully buttoned shirt, a great kilt, boot socks and combat boots, all of which appeared to be blacker than the space between the galaxies. The man looked down to Luigi with dark steel grey eyes in the thousand-meter stare mode.
"Say hello to Lance," said Eneri. "He and I went to school together with Lieutenant Colonel Lisa Holland of the Imperial Marine Corps."
Luigi spun back to face Eneri, at this point he forgot to use his well-practiced mock mafiosi's accent.
"But I've already spoken to the police!"
"We already know what you have told them," said Eneri, who was working very hard to not let his anger effect his own voice. "And I must confess that I simply don't believe a word of it at all. But then the local police are not allowed to use the more direct and intense methods of interrogation. We, on the other hand, can use such methods, and in your case I'm dead certain that we will."
Lance grabbed Luigi from behind by the collars of his shirt and coat.
"Now," said Eneri, "you have a choice. You can go into the van with us," Eneri then gestured toward the edge of the landing platform with was lit by the windows in the skyline of the planetary capital beyond, "or you can go over the side."
The landing platform was fifty stories, or about one-hundred fifty meters above ground level. Luigi would have made a major impact upon hitting the ground.
"And I must confess," said Eneri, "that at the moment I'd prefer that you would go over the side."
They decided to take Chauchat's gig to the surface of Pandrin. Other than Aramanx Jack and Dennis, who were wearing black Combat Environment Suits that were configured for ninja operations, the other seats on the gig were occupied by Vargr members of Emissary's crew with Daevagh in the pilot's seat for this trip.
Dennis adjusted his ninja suit and then dozed off.
Norris, the Duke of Regina strode into the underground System Operations Command Center at the Imperial Navy base. He was followed by Dennis, in a slightly beat-up suit of Marine recon armor and carrying his ACRS, and the Marine Provost Marshall with a squad of marines in full assault armor.
Grand Admiral Santanocheev appeared to have blown a fuse when Norris entered the room, he stood up and started screaming at the top of his lungs.
"What is the meaning of this?"
Norris cooly ignored him, walked over the senior staff officer in the room, presented a printed document, and spoke with a tone of absolute assurance.
"By the authority of this warrant issued by His Majesty, the Emperor Strephon, in accordance with Imperial Edict Ninety-Seven, I am assuming command of all Imperial armed forces in the Spinward Marches."
Santanocheev was now screaming out, with obscene embellishment, a denial of Duke Norris' authority.
"Admiral Santanocheev," Norris spoke with a stern tone of voice, "you are relieved of all duties." Norris then turned to speak to the Provost Marshall.
"Colonel, would you please remove this person from my command post."
Colonel Duglashvilli, the Marine provost marshal for the navy base on Regina, looked like he was enjoying what for anyone else would otherwise have been an unpleasant task. He proceeded to personally handcuff Admiral Santanocheev and then dragged him, kicking and screaming, out of the underground System Operations Center.
"I should think," said Norris with some bemusement, "that Steel Joe is enjoying this job a little too much."
Dennis laid his ACRS on a convenient table and unsealed and removed the helmet from his suit of Marine recon armor.
"I wouldn't say so." Came the reply from Dennis. "But then I am a bit biased." Dennis had not shaved since the Chauchat had dropped into the Regina system the previous day.
"Well yes, I know," said Norris. "Lord Windhaven?"
"Yes, Your Grace?"
"As of this moment you are back on active duty with the rank of full Commander."
"Thank you, Your Grace."
Dennis flipped up the faceplate of his helmet so that the head-up display was visible and with the fingers of his right hand began to manipulate the tongue operated switches that were used in the place of a trackball or a mouse in the user interface on powered armor. As Dennis was entering commands into his suit, Norris spoke again.
"I keep forgetting to ask," he said, "where DID you get that suit?"
"Birthday present." Said Dennis.
"Uh, huh," affirmed Dennis. "It was that or a prototype high-energy weapon. I took the suit."
Norris did not have to say that he wasn't surprised.
With one last press of a button the surface of the recon suit changed to display a regulation camouflage pattern, the name STERLING in two-centimeter letters right under the lower neck seal, and the dirtside insignia of a navy commander.
As the senior staff officer in the SOCC-Regina began to verbally give Norris an update of the overall situation, Dennis walked over to an NCO seated at a computer interface station.
"Chief," Dennis read the woman's name off of the embroidered tape on her dirtside uniform, "Jackson?"
"I need an update on an eye-enn-eye dash-six facility."
"Aye, aye sir." Chief Petty Officer Jackson's fingers began their dance over the keyboard.
"Which facility, sir?"
Jackson's fingers froze in midair.
"Is there a problem, Chief?"
"My Lord," Chief Jackson spoke slow and softly, "Windhaven House was raided by a Zhodani Commando force about a week ago."
And then Dennis woke up in his seat on Chauchat's gig. Dennis made a mental note to himself to talk to someone at Windhaven House, possibly Cheryl, about this last dream.
"Has anyone ever told you that you snore?" said Aramanx Jack, who was already strapped into his grav-belt.
"I shared a cabin with a Marine Lieutenant on the Gash," said Dennis as he stood up and began to snap his own grav-belt into place. "She insisted that I sleep in the upper bunk."
"And you didn't hot bunk with her?"
In the Imperial Navy and Marines the term "hot bunk" had two meanings. The first was the practice on the more cramped vessels of enlisted crew members taking turns sleeping on a bunk. The second meaning was essentially sexual in connotation.
"No," said Dennis.
"She wasn't hideous, was she?"
"No, Sir John," Dennis used Jack's proper name with a slight tone of annoyance, "she was a classmate of mine at RIMI that I spent the better part of ten years imparting a generally bad impression upon."
Dennis stepped to the forward end of the gig.
"How are we doing?" Dennis asked Dav.
"We're about eighty klicks out from the downport."
"Good," said Dennis. "Don't get your jaw broken in any bar fights down there."
Dav was briefly puzzled.
"I'm sorry," Dennis said. "I keep forgetting that you guys usually don't use your hands."
Dennis and Jack adjusted their grav-belts to permit a gentle fall to the ground. Then they lowered their night vision goggles over their eyes as Dav dimmed the interior lights.
When the iris valve in the cabin floor opened, Dennis dropped through feet first followed by Aramanx Jack.
Lisa reentered consciousness in a bed in what to her appeared to be a room in the naval base hospital. Light from the local sun infiltrated through the window blinds. For a moment she sat silently and attempted to sense the presence of minds beyond the walls.
Nothing, she thought, the room must be shielded.
Lisa decided to try something.
"Computer," she said, "where am I?"
"ROOM FIVE-ZERO-NINE IN BUILDING GAMMA OF THE REGINA IMPERIAL NAVY MEDICAL CENTER."
Part of Building Gamma was used by Department Six as a testing and training facility when Lisa had been called in for testing seventeen years ago.
Let's try something else, she thought.
"Computer," she spoke again, "bring up arr-enn-enn on the video screen."
The video screen that covered a third of the opposite wall began to show the morning news and happy chat program from the Regina News Network. On the screen was the image of a swarm of police and emergency service vehicles hovering near the base of the New Victoria Arcology. Lisa found the manual volume control and turned it up to listen.
"Police officials have no explanation," said the anonymous voice of a news drone, "as to how Mister Fercotti could have gained access to the police landing stage before falling one hundred fifty meters to his death."
Too bad Luigi, Lisa thought, you shouldn't have let those goons into the back room.
In room 512, three people were watching Lisa on the room's video screen. One was Captain Sir Louis Roberts, who at the moment had a bruise under his left eye, a regrettable necessity if he was to keep the rest of his anatomy legally covered.
The other two people, wearing the uniforms of staff doctors was a bald man who was wearing a pair granny glasses, and his red-haired sister. Both Cosmo and Nation Plankwell were in fact medical doctors, and more important, they were both highly talented psions with no sense of moral restraint.
"I can assure you Captain Roberts with absolute confidence," said Cosmo, "that when my dear sister and I are finished with Colonel Holland, they'll have to keep what's left of her in the basement of Windhaven House."