Demons of the Past: Revelation

Now on the run, branded a rebel and a murderous psionic, Varan’s hope to save the Empire rests on his own determination and still-untested powers, two alien scientists with their own agendas, the mysterious trader named The Eonwyl… and his friend Taelin Mel’Tasne’s, one of the Five Families.

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One Against an Empire

Only a psionic can survive battle with another psionic. And human psionics become megalomaniacal monsters. These two truths were drilled into everyone in the Reborn Empire. But…

Commander Sasham Varan had survived a Zchoradan psionic attack… and because of this, Prime Monitor Shagrath brought him into a top-secret project to create a stable human psi. Then a chance flaw in the treatment shows Varan that Shagrath is no hero, but a malevolent, inhuman being bent on the destruction of the Empire. With the help of “Vick”, the alien scientist who invented the psionic treatment, Varan manages to escape, and send a single, cryptic message to Taelin Mel’Tasne, one of the Five Families and Varan’s best friend.

Now on the run, branded a rebel and a murderous psi, Varan’s hope to save the Empire – and perhaps the Galaxy – rests on his own determination and still-untested powers, two alien scientists with their own agendas, the mysterious trader named The Eonwyl… and Taelin Mel’Tasne’s faith in his friend.

Chapter 1.

Varan:

 

With a whining screech the compact long-range fighter disintegrated just as my finger was on its way towards the button that would have triggered the same event. Fortunately for the continuity of fighter, finger, and the rest of me, the ship and its contents instantaneously reformed, now normal-space matter instead of whatever matter-analogue they existed as in T-Conversion space. A crystal-perfect Downbreak, no sign of waveform binding which sometimes delayed or even locked-up the automatic conversion. Not that such was a major disaster, but they would cause me to overshoot, and given that in this case accuracy was the point…

A proximity alert screamed. Startled, I glanced around, my exsheath’s automatics overlaying the critical data at appropriate points in the view. My course vector calculations were supposed to bring me out close to Tangia—Border Outpost Seven on the Zchoradan border—but the likelihood of being that close was…

…Apparently on the close order of one, for this voyage at least. Torline’s Swords, it wasn’t more than six hundred thousand kilometers away! On a cosmic scale I was practically already inside the Station. I spoke into the D-Comm. “Tangia Station, this is Lightshard-class fighter 779702-1, designation Myssath, arriving for deployment as directed. Greetings and the grace of the First World upon you.”

The answer over the comm was shaky and not nearly as professional as regs would prefer. “Grace of the First World my ass! Are you trying to commit suicide, Myssath? Because if you are, I can arrange an execution! Do you have any idea how close you came to being blown straight to the Fall?”

I winced at the tone and shook my head, though he couldn’t see it. Unfortunately, his overreaction wasn’t going to help. “None at all, unless the automatics screwed up and let you shoot a friendly ID transponder. Even the Ternam didn’t have time to scramble and launch, and I see from my display that the nearest patrol ship would have had to use skip-missiles just to reach me.”

I heard him start to speak, cut him off. “And before you try to tell me it was illegal, allow me to point out that we are in a state of emergency and this is a designated combat zone; it is therefore required of me that I use my best judgment in approaching the deployment area so as to minimize my effective exposure to the enemy during transit. As a combat as well as an engineering officer, it is also within my authority to test the alertness of your response by an unscheduled test, as long as it does not cause a threat to the station or personnel.” And this wasn’t entirely my idea either, but I can’t say that to you.

“Engineering… Who are you?”

“Commander Sasham Varan, Imperial Navy, 211290125. I should be expected.”

“Oh, chiss.” He tried to say the curse quietly, but the acoustics and instrumentation in Docking Control were obviously excellent. He apparently decided that as he’d already been sharp with me that he might as well finish expressing himself. “Showoff and an Advocate at heart. I’ll just state for the record that in my opinion, your “best judgment” is exceedingly poor, no matter what your rank or your record is.” He shifted to an official tone of voice. “Welcome to Tangia Outpost, Commander Varan. Take Docking Port Three at the Hub.”

“Thank you, Tangia.” I couldn’t really blame him for his reaction; when you’re on the border in a war zone, unexpected ships popping up at point-blank range are the stuff of nightmares. But it was nice to know I still had the piloting touch. Calculations always had to be nudged by gut instinct, and some people had it and some didn’t.

Myssath floated easily through the docking port meant to accommodate far larger vessels—up to moderate-sized warships, in fact, or middling size cargo transports—and I guided the little fighter to one of the small docking linkages inside the huge Hub. I noted the usual assortment of vessels I’d expect at such a station—thirty Ternam Ralyeh fighters, that’s three flights in standard deployment, a couple of Rellin-class warships—small but pretty powerful—and five Marjaav patrol boats, plus a few cargo ships. One caught my eye, though I could only make out a part of the outline; I saw a long, sleek central body with what looked like an upswept arc around it, a design I’d only seen in documentaries and the very few Atlantaean warships I’d seen in the Fleet, and the sharp, bold color scheme of whites, blacks, and bright highlight colors indicated a private vessel. Who in Torline’s name would fly a ship like that? I wondered, but I had more pressing issues—namely, making sure I didn’t mess up the dock-and-lock.

Once I felt the station’s fueling and maintenance connects lock onto Myssath, I detached the fighter’s systems from my Exsheath and folded the contact plates under my main uniform. General-use Exsheaths could go on over one’s clothing fairly well, and most civilians would do it that way, given the discomfort and certainly inconvenience involved in putting on a tailored skintight; however, the skintight Exsheaths were more responsive, supplied more accurate and nuanced multisensory feedback, and were thus far more useful in critical applications such as small vessel control and powered combat suits. Still, I was looking forward to getting out of the thing; after several days, even with the self-cleaning capability of the Exsheath system, it felt sticky and unpleasant.

A Guard in full power armor was waiting at the exit ramp for me. I glanced at the Guard’s rank wheel. “Well, White Sergeant, what did you think of my Downbreak arrival?”

“Frankly, sir, a brain-dead Zchorada could have done better.”

While I had expected some annoyance over that stunt, I admit to not having been prepared for direct insults. “What was that, Sergeant?”

The Guard reached up and detached the squat helmet. “I said you fly like a wounded windwailer, Varan.”

It was my turn to be stunned; the red-gold hair, falling slightly sideways over the perfect sculpted face and looking down at me with a broad grin, was …

JEARSEN!” I would’ve given her a hug, but that’s pointless with the object of your hug in powered armor. I settled for a bow and full Six-And-One. “Torline’s Swords, it’s good to see you.”

Her smile, as recruiting-poster bright as I remembered, widened, probably from hearing that old expression again. “When I heard you were coming, I made sure I’d be on-shift around when we expected you. Decided to upset everyone at your new assignment already, I see.” Diorre Jearsen’s voice, too, was as warm as I remembered, which took a bit of the sting from her jibe.

“Not everyone, I hope.”

“Well, when the prox alarms screamed, you probably annoyed everyone off-duty…” The reproving tone hadn’t changed either. I remembered that from the very first days, when she’d been assigned as my roommate in Arctic Survival and she’d had to pound lessons into a not-too-bright Mada‘s head.

I winced. “Oh, yeah. That was maybe…”

“… not so smart,” she finished.

I sighed. “Well, I was told to test the reactions to a close proximity Breakdown by Admiral Jin Khardan when he signed my transfer. Probably should’ve thought out the exact approach better, but it was a Family request.”

Jearsen’s eyebrow quirked upward. “Admiral and one of the Five Families? I guess you didn’t have much choice, then. Never mind, we’ve got plenty of hotshot pilots who try similar tricks; they’ll all get over it, especially when they find out we’ve finally got a decent engineer who really understands combat craft. Don’t get me wrong, Master Stett-ich-alat is a very good overall engineer and she does her best, but I know you’ve got the touch with combat systems.”

“I had no idea you were on Tangia. How long are you here for?”

“They just renewed my assignment, so probably at least as long as you are.”She led me out into Radial 3, the silky gray of the E-steel set off by murals, alert screens, decorative archways inlaid or painted on the wall. “You know the layout?”

“Tangia hasn’t been modified much, as I understand it, so it should be pretty much the standard Outpost design—Hub, Inring, Midring, Outring, with seven Radials and Verticals, right?”

“Not quite. They doubled the number of Radii and Verticals, to make it easier for people to access any part of the station. I’m not sure if that is necessarily a good thing—it means if the Zchorada manage a boarding action the chances are a lot better that they can reach a major intersection and spread out rather than be confined—but it’s a fairly simple change to get used to.”

Tanye it,” I said, deliberately using the ancient word for “Fall” and emphasizing my accent, “the seven radii stood for the Seven; changing that is just asking for trouble.”

She laughed, knowing that I was making fun of myself. “Reactionary religious fanatics like yourself are the only ones that have trouble from it, and it’s all in your head.”

“Laugh while you can. Mark my words, trying to double the Seven will just lead to a doubling of the Fall. And I’ll be saying ‘I told you so’, as the Galaxy collapses about us again.”

She cracked up again at my exaggerated glower. “Oh no! The Prophecy is upon us!” This time we shared the laugh.

As we took another turn she looked down at me again. “So, Sash, have you been keeping in practice with your Tor skills, or has all the work commanding ships and getting heroic been keeping you too busy?”

“Never that busy, Diorre. How about you?” Diorre Jearsen had actually been one of the few people I knew who knew as much, or more, about that ancient and rare martial art form as I did.

She gave me a twinkling smile and a wink. “I’ll still take you three falls out of three, my little roommate.”

“Sooo, you’re past Water Vision, are you?”

Ha! Got her, I saw the blink. “You’re at Water Vision? You’re catching up way too fast. I was sure I’d be ahead of you.”

“I managed to find a Master, on Meletta.”

“Not old Botan Juraisa? I studied under him about ten years ago and thought he looked about ready to keel over.”

“He looked about the same five years ago, when I studied with him. But I guess he knew his stuff. Not too many do. Finding a Tor master seems to get harder every single year. I don’t understand why.”

“Remember how Canta kicked you all over the station when you first met?”

“What? We were almost even!”

“Well, maybe, but you looked a lot worse coming out of it—”

“He started it by tripping me and I fell straight into my lunch, which to this day I can remember was whipped kuma, plainsrunner steak in sweethot redfruit sauce, and Ice Surprise! Of course I looked worse—did you ever try to get redfruit out of a velasilk uniform?”

She giggled. “Well, no, because Sergeant Helkoth assigned both of you to the laundry after that stunt. And we’re off the point. Sad to say, disciplines like jai-ye, zairaka or sevateem get people to the arm-breaking level a lot faster. Tor is a hell of a lot of philosophy and study. Remember how sinking long it took to learn just Fast Center and White Vision, and how that’s just plain nothing compared to spending months staring at your own hands before you finally understand Hand Center. So jai-yeshi like Canta get more common, and we get less common. But hell, when we retire, we can try to change that. How about opening up a Temple?”

“With an unbeliever like you?”

“I may not believe in your Eternal King Torline, but I do believe in the art named after him. And you’ll need a competent instructor in the place.”

“Okay, that’s it. I will beat you three times out of three this time. Tomorrow?”

“You’re on. And then dinner?”

I could see that we were nearing the Command area and therefore running out of time to talk, so I nodded. “Probably more than one, we’ve got years to talk out. Station Monitor’s named Frankel, according to my orders—I’m betting he’ll be with the Station Commandant, so I can do my required check-in with him and the Commandant at the same time. No Family representative?” I asked.

“None that I know of,” Jearsen said slowly. “But given they’re the balance between the other two, one could be here and watching without us knowing.”

That was true enough; the Families—the Five, the Five Hundred Greater, and the Fifty Thousand Lesser, had the authority and sometimes the inclination to do things behind the scenes rather than out in the open. Our friend Taelin, being one of the Five himself, had told us a lot about how that vital third and balancing part of the Imperial government worked.

Familiarity of the Monitor’s name struck me belatedly. “Would that by any chance be Nissen Frankel?”

“Why, yes, it would be.” She grinned. “Took you a minute, didn’t it?”

“Well, I’ll be sunk with the Towers. So he actually made it! I’ll have to congratulate him. Last time I knew, he was a Lieutenant on my cruise on board Severiasti about eight years ago, and I knew he was putting in for Monitor, but you know how selective that service is.”

“Given their job is to watch everyone else, that’s not surprising. That’s a good thing, overall, him being our Monitor.”

“Oh, I think so. We always got along great. I know it won’t be the same with him as a Monitor, but I’m sure it’ll be easier than having someone I don’t know at all. So who’s Tangia’s Station Commandant?”

“That would be Navy Commodore Tels, with Guard Captain Mika-Sasada Toh as Guardsman liaison and director.”

Her tone when she mentioned Tels’ name made me glance up sharply at her. “Problem?”

Her hands spread in a seesawing motion. “Maybe. Tels is pretty pompous at times, and a real regulation-addict. Drives some of us nuts. The real problem is that he’s only got a little combat experience—decent tactical instincts but I just don’t know if he’s ready for something to happen out here, with our minimal equipment on their frontier. But he’s reasonable when you manage to get his attention, usually. So, I guess, he’s not really so bad. I think we’ve both served with worse—what was it you said about your commander on Notorri’s Pride, what was his name, Thodan Mistril?”

“Niaadea’s Name, don’t remind me of that walking remnant of the Fall. I think what I said was that I’d rather give myself naked to a Zchorada psispy than serve with an incompetent overbearing self-important patronage-supported tzil like that ever again.” At least, I thought to myself, I made sure Mistril wouldn’t be a problem for anyone else after I sent the evidence to Taelin. It was good to know that once someone had the courage to speak up against incompetence or worse that the Empire acted, and quickly, to fix the problem.

She giggled again, an incongruous sound coming from someone who even out of her armor was a head taller than me and wider across the shoulders. But it was a sound I knew well and it made me feel at home just hearing it. “I’m on second flight shift; if you can get Tels to put you on the same shift, we can get together tomorrow at around dinnertime.”

“Done.” We had arrived at the Commandant’s office, so Diorre and I exchanged the Six-and-One again and she headed off to her next duties. I watched her go, a grin on my face. It was nice to see an old friend again. Then I wiped the smile off, put my best Mada “serious officer” face on, and entered.

Chapter 2.

Jearsen:

 

She looked fondly at Varan. He hasn’t changed a bit.

Perhaps in pure matter of fact that wasn’t exactly true, but she was hard-put to find a difference. The Mada officer’s hair was still pure black (slightly matted with damp after their sparring session and the subsequent quick shower), his skin still the dusky brown, and his wide, uniquely gray eyes still as direct and, well, innocent as ever. Maybe there were a few little lines at the corners of those eyes that hadn’t been there back when she’d met him in the Winter Survival camp on Wyllas, a slight increase in the width of shoulders and mass of muscle on his lean frame, but all in all, he didn’t look as though twenty years had done much to him. Admittedly, twenty years wasn’t all that long—anyone in a decent civilization could expect at least a couple hundred—but she knew very few people who passed that length of time without any significant change.

They touched glasses and then exchanged them. “A friendship renewed and returned.” Both drank—Varan had selected Seele’s Icedraught for the traditional toast, and it blazed a trail of burning frostbite down her throat. “Whew! That tastes the way an open tent flap felt on Wyllas.”

“That’s the idea. We’re here to reminisce and talk over all the stuff we never get to talk about. Though I think we’ve rehashed that particular one often enough.”

“What, are you saying you’re getting tired of talking about how we saved Taelin Mel’Tasne’s life?”

“Well, to you, yes. It’s not like I could surprise you with it, and it’s a lot more fun when Taelin’s here to start the conversation. Besides, then it’s inevitably followed up by how you saved my life, or at least an awful lot of my bones from being broken by that tzil Morno, and then we run through the other various ways in which we helped each other, we talk about Canta and how that was such a surprising change—”

“Oh, speaking of Master Guardsman Remin Canta, have you heard?”

“Heard what? Last time I got to talk to him at all was about four years ago.”

She nodded in understanding. With it taking six months for a message to cross the Empire in many cases, it wasn’t hard to fall out of touch with even a pretty good friend like Canta. “He’s got himself a command, finally.”

Varan’s face seemed to light up. “It’s about time! Where?”

“Bretanisith—he’s got the entire Assault Guards force.”

“I think I’m jealous. Guarding one of the major vacation paradises in the Empire. There’s a cushy assignment.”

“After his last few, I think he’s earned one.”

The dark-haired head nodded emphatically. “I can’t agree with you more. He could have retired after that last one, but he came back; glad they’ve given him a bit of a plum assignment.”

“So,” she said, as their meals were brought out, “what about you? We didn’t get much chance to talk the last time—I don’t even think you gave me the whole scoop about what you did during the last war.”

A faint darkening of the already dark cheeks showed Sasham Varan’s usual reaction to being asked to talk about himself; aside from silly showoff stunts like the one that he did when he arrived, Sasham usually seemed more interested in talking about others than drawing attention to himself, which was probably why most people let him get away with the silly showoff stunts in the first place. “Well, I guess the best way to put it is that I visited Uralia twice.”

She felt her eyebrows rise involuntarily at that. “Twice?”

“I was one of the liaisons with the Ptial, so when they did that thunderstrike maneuver straight to the homeworld they dragged me along for the ride. Then…”

Vorces, let me guess—the Ghek’Nan.”

She saw the dark face pale slightly and shudder. “Yes. You?”

“Only from a distance, worse the luck. I never got any close action, just bombardment.”

The gray eyes held hers. “Don’t complain; you were lucky. I don’t know how I got out of there alive. More than half my flight …didn’t. The pictures don’t do the things justice.”

There was actual fear in his voice; that stunned Diorre momentarily. Oh, she remembered hearing him afraid, but only when something happened. Afterward was after for Sasham Varan; he didn’t dwell on the past or let it bother him. “Sasham, sounds like it kinda got to you. I mean, I’d heard some stories, but not from anyone I knew.”

He leaned back, thinking, eyes distant. “Maybe it’s because I’d seen Uralia before. Okay, it was being bombarded and the Uralians themselves were never particularly fancy in their civilization, but … it was still something a sane creature would live in. This… this looked like the worst nightmares of some psi-fried chiller scripter. The Ghek’Nan seem to radiate fear; there’s just something, I dunno, horrid about them that pictures don’t get across.”

“Psionic?”

He gave a short laugh. “Oh, no. You can bet the Monitors and civilian science corps were all over that, to make sure. Torline’s Swords, the very idea of a Ghek’Nan with psi powers…” he shuddered.

Time to change the subject. “Speaking of old sword-swinging legends, you sure have been keeping in practice.”

He grinned at the compliment. “I had good teachers, including a certain tutor when I was at Wyllas named, um… Jearsen, I think the name was.” He gave her a Six-and-One. “And you haven’t fallen behind yet. Neither of us fulfilled the tale we tried to tell on that match, but you got me two of three.”

“You’re probably better than I am, Sasham.”

“Oh, really? Then why was I the one bowing out of the ring two of three?”

“You don’t take it seriously.” She held up her hand before her friend could begin to argue. “I don’t mean that you don’t take the art seriously—Gods, no—but that you don’t take the fight seriously. You don’t take joy in beating the living hell out of someone even with the safety fields and gear, you’re just out there to have some fun. Unlike me or Canta or Helkoth, who find some of the fun in showing we can beat the living hell out of someone. Your inner killer doesn’t come out to play; he only comes out when …” her voice softened, “… when other people need him.” She saw him give an embarrassed shrug. “I think if you want to know what you can really do, you’ll have to be in a real fight, not just a mat-contest.”

Sasham seemed to consider it. “You might be right, I guess. But in that case I guess I’ll keep getting my rear end kicked around the mat-ring by you for the next few years. Better than getting in another real fight. Those get people killed.”

That is worth a drink to.” They tapped and exchanged glasses again and grinned at each other. The shared smile cut off as the sharp whistle of Perimeter Alert snapped them both to attention. The entire restaurant went silent and watchful. Minutes ticked by sluggishly. Finally the cheerful chime signifying Vessel Identified rang, and conversations put on hold slowly fumbled their way back to normalcy. Diorre slowly sank back into her seat, letting out her breath. “Every time I hear that, I’m sure it’s going to go to Enemy Approaching.”

“Not surprising, what with how close we are to the border and all.” Varan gave the almost-crossed-arms, closed-eyes bow of the Believer to the air, murmuring a traditional prayer of thanks to Torline and Niaadea that it was, in fact, just a false alarm.

Diorre couldn’t quite repress her fond smile at that familiar, and so very Varan, gesture. Many of those who believed strongly in the legend, rather than just the traditions, of Atlantaea and its Eternal King and Queen, Torline and Niaadea, could get under her skin pretty easily—especially the Repentants, those who believed that the mythical collapse of the ancient galactic civilization had been due to some terrible failing on the part of humanity on the now-lost homeworld.

But Sasham Varan was one of the Seekers, who believed that the Fall of Atlantaea had been due to some mystical enemies—referred to in The Book of the Fall as demons—and that it was their destiny to seek out the homeworld and eventually confront the demons again, so that Atlantaea would be reborn. More importantly, Varan didn’t push his beliefs, he simply lived them. They were as much a part of him as his hair and eyes, a tradition of faith handed down in his family for generations beyond count.

She grinned again as he opened his eyes. If all the Believers were like him, I’d almost wonder if there was something to it all.

He didn’t seem to notice her glance, still thinking about the alarm. Varan shook his head ruefully. “You know, you’d think the Zchorada would just have let it drop, after we worked together so well during the Uralian Conflict and Ghek’Nan Extermination. It’s not like we ever did anything to them they didn’t do to us first.”

Probably not, she thought—though she had occasionally heard rumors that, for instance, the colony world the Zchorada had attacked might originally have been theirs—but she had never seen any real proof of it. And there was no point in even starting a debate like that with Varan unless she had all the facts; he was one of the most completely patriotic men she knew, and for all the right reasons. She sighed and shook her head. “No telling why, I guess. And the Zchorada are well-known—even among their allies—for being stubborn and difficult to negotiate with.”

Varan took another sip of his drink and grinned wryly. “Easier than Uralians. Did you know they basically couldn’t surrender or retreat? Truth, swear it on the Towers. Even when they knew it was all up. At most they’d try to maneuver around to get a better strike angle or something. That’s one piece of evidence in favor of their being artificial soldiers designed by some lunatic. Normal creatures don’t act like that.”

“No, I didn’t know that. The Ptial aren’t like that, right?”

“No, of course not. Though they’ve got their own… quirks. I don’t know how they got such an advanced civilization when they still settle their governmental differences through honor combat.”

“We fight duels too.” Though it’s frowned upon in many circles these days.

“Oh, sure, but it’s light-years different. They have personal honor duels, but they also have those kinds of contests for their leaders. It’s like if someone didn’t like the Emperor’s policies, they could just challenge him to combat and, if they won, they’d be the Emperor.”

Diorre blinked. She remembered, vaguely, hearing rumors to that effect, but they’d seemed so far-fetched. “You’ve seen this?”

“Yes, I have. I was on Ptial for a couple years all told. It was… interesting.” The way Varan paused it seemed that there was something he wasn’t sure he wanted to discuss—or maybe regulations said he couldn’t.

Okay, easy enough to change the subject. “So, now that you’ve done your inspection of Tangia, what do you think?”

He shifted courses easily, showing she’d judged right. “I think there’s at least three major upgrades and changes we can make to the defenses and offenses of this station, and I know how we need to go about it. And—” he broke off, staring off slightly to the right of her shoulder.

She turned. While there were a lot of people in the restaurant, and quite a few in that direction, she didn’t need to ask who Sasham Varan was staring at.

The young woman wasn’t classically beautiful, although no one would ever call her plain, with even, sharp features seeming chiseled from the tanned flesh and a tall, slender body, trained and flexible, in a mostly-white skintight shipsuit. It was, however, her hair that drew the eye—a mane of hair that seemed to stand up of its own accord and with the colors of a sunburst—pure white just above the forehead, shading through yellow and orange to crimson and deep red, the red hair cascading down to the middle of her back. That hair added nearly fifteen centimeters to her already impressive height.

“That isn’t…”

She nodded, somewhat annoyed by his distraction but understanding it. “Yes, that’s the Eönwyl.” She had, somehow, forgotten the stir that had happened a week ago when the mysterious trader and her eponymous vessel had arrived at the station. Ten years ago she’d appeared amid rumors, which grew into tales, and eventually into full-fledged mythology; by now some of them claimed her ship was an Old Atlantaean patrol vessel (even though, if true, it would have been claimed by the Imperial government so fast it would send shockwaves through empty space), or that she herself was a revived Old Atlantaean, and other similar nonsense. Still, the rumors probably served her well, and there wasn’t much doubt she was a very competent trader and one who had protected herself well enough against pirates, border-raiders, and others.

She saw a flash of minor enlightenment on his face. “So she’s the owner of that ship! I wondered who could possibly have a ship that looked like that.” His face clouded. “What’s she doing here? I thought she was on the Watch list, at least.”

“You listen to too many rumors. She may not like officials, and have her own quirks, but when she does business, she’s honest, fast, and she keeps her mouth shut. The Empire’s even used her as a courier a couple times when they needed something sent fast but not by proper channels.”

“Torline’s Swords, she’s younger than I thought. She can’t be more than what, twenty-five?”

“Twenty-six, maybe. When she first showed up she was younger than you were when we met.”

His eyes were still following the Eönwyl as she went to her table. “That must be a hell of a story, how she ended up the owner of a free trader’s vessel at something like enlistment age.”

“And no one knows the whole story. Just rumors. Now would you mind unsticking your eyeballs from her, or are you going to go over and ask her to take your measure privately?”

“Hey! I’m sorry. I was just curious. You don’t usually get to see legends walking around a border station.”

“No, no, I’m sorry, that was sharp of me.” Very weirdly sharp of me, she thought. I sounded almost like…

The thought that followed seemed to be simultaneously the most outrageous thing she’d thought for years, and the most obviously true thing she’d ever thought. …almost like I was jealous.

“Diorre?”

“Huh? Oh, sorry. I was…”

“Distracted. Yeah, I noticed.” Varan’s gray eyes seemed fixed on hers with an unusual intensity. Oh vorces, I hope he didn’t think… or what? What do I hope? “Funny, isn’t it.”

“What’s funny? You’re not smiling, either.”

“I guess I mean odd, not funny. Strange. I was just thinking about how we first met. I was the only Mada trainee in the entire class, so you Guards made sure I got embarrassed from the start.”

She sighed inwardly with relief, but was there maybe some disappointment? No. Not worth risking the best friendship I’ve had in twenty-odd years. “By making you orbit the entire table until you got the last chair left, and I started it, by cutting you off from the first chair.” She wasn’t entirely proud of that, but then she had been only twenty-one herself. “And then Helkoth made you the class brain because you came from Korealis and knew Arctic already like the back of your hand.”

“And got me to embarrass Canta in that very first class. Oh yeah, I remember that. You have no idea how uncomfortable that was.”

She laughed softly at the old story. “I think I do. But what’s odd about it? Nothing we haven’t discussed before.”

“Well, it was right after that we got our room assignments, and then I had to face the fact I was rooming with the Guard that started the whole mess.”

“Well, yeah. And? Sasham, I don’t think it’s ever taken you this long to get to whatever your point was.”

The gray gaze dropped away, then returned. “Well, it’s just funny; aside from thinking you looked like a perfect Guards’ recruiting poster, I never thought about how you looked. I mean, not much, and not for long, we were too busy.”

She found herself sitting very still.

“And… well, when you snapped at me for blanking to the Eönwyl’s interference, I suddenly looked at you and …” he took a deep breath, “… well, I wondered why I’d ever looked away.”

That unknown danger she’d just backed off from was suddenly face-to-face with her. “Sash, I…” Falling Towers, Guard, that’s an eloquent answer! Talk to him!

He saw the conflict. Or maybe just had the same conflict himself. “I don’t want to risk what we already have, Diorre. But… I just never thought about whether we might be something more. And that’s what was odd.”

“Neither did I,” she heard herself say. “Sasham, I don’t want to risk that either. But I don’t want to just avoid the idea. Gods, that would be stupid, if there’s something more there. Maybe we just need to think about it. For a little while.”

“That’s … probably a good idea.”

She tapped his glass, and they exchanged once more. The drink went more slowly, she staring into eyes the color of storm clouds and steel. “Yes… Yes, I think it is. Target practice tomorrow night? Range Two?”

He laughed, with notes of genuine amusement and relief mingling. “There I will most definitely whip you three times out of three.”

“I’ll take that as a ‘yes, Diorre, please show me how a Guardsman can always outshoot a wussy Navy boy.’ then.”

“You are on, Sergeant Jearsen. And loser buys the drinks tomorrow.”

“Done.” She stood; this was the time to go, before that discussion resurfaced. She wasn’t ready. And neither was he.

Maybe tomorrow…

Chapter 3.

Varan:

 

“And that makes it three for three,” I said with some satisfaction.

Diorre burst out laughing. “Okay, Sash, I’m well and truly beaten. Couldn’t you have let me win just one?”

“I might have, if it hadn’t been for the ‘wussy Navy boy’ bit. The pride of the service required I put a Guard in her place.”

“Very impressive,” a clear contralto voice said from behind us.

I was startled to see the Eönwyl there. “Thanks very much. How long were you watching?”

“Just the last target exchange. I hope I’m not intruding, but I wanted to get in some practice myself.”

“What about—”

She anticipated the question. “Section Three’s taken up with practice for the Fallday tournament, and there’s a squad drilling in One. This is the only one open for general practice.” Her voice was clear, crisp, precise—as defined and definitive as her looks.

I glanced at Diorre; she didn’t seem ready to go yet, and neither was I. And there was a certain discussion we might, or might not, continue. Still, this was a public area, and …”It’s not like there isn’t space for a lot more. You want to join us?”

“Well… if it’s not a great bother.”

Diorre shook her head. “No, it’s fine. Triples?”

“You’re using slugthrowers?”

“We were last round, but if you prefer energy—what’s your pleasure?” I switched on the coding screen, set up a Triples Contest round.

“I was going to use my own pistol. It’s a customized Toknul-5.”

“You’re kidding”. Diorre’s tone echoed my thoughts. “That’s a rannai. I thought those were pure military and enforcement issue.”

“Free traders like me run into… difficulties. The Empire will sometimes allow for that.” The Eönwyl began checking her weapon; the Toknul was a beautiful design, smooth and streamlined, crystal highlights picked out on a mostly black background with a three-jewel status indicator.

I shook my head in bemusement as I readjusted the target parameters and got out my own service pistol, a Madaran .500F, solid and Mada-standard issue for heavy sidearms for the past ten years. Both it and the Eönwyl’s Toknul were rannai—a name that originally meant something like “dragon’s breath”—weapons that fired plasma packets jacketed in dimensionally-stabilized electromagnetic fields that only slowly decayed (“slowly” being a relative factor) until and unless they hit some solid surface or a strong electromagnetic or dimensional generator field. Against unshielded targets they were devastating, and even shielded ones could be worn down by a barrage. Larger versions formed the basis of a lot of space-based weaponry.

Diorre snapped her fingers in dismissal. “Fine, use your overkill. I think I’ll use my Nova.”

“You’ll lose this round for sure then,” I warned her.

“I know that, but it’s more challenging and I’m already buying the drinks anyway. I can’t penetrate targets set for rannai fire with the Nova unless I get the focus close to maximum effectiveness, so I have to be a lot more accurate.”

“You both ready?” the Eönwyl inquired.

“Whenever you are.”

“Trigger sequence in three, two, one…”

In the first exchange of shots I knew I was in for a hell of a contest. Jearsen’s bounced off her target—she had red—three times before she managed to get the right combination of aim and pressure to blow through the shield. But the Eönwyl’s target seemed to explode barely after it left the launch slot, clearly ahead of my own shot. The next exchange the Eönwyl again fired before I did, but she missed her target with the first shot and I didn’t. She did nail it well with the second, but by then I was on my third target. “Nice,” she said, shattering her third so quickly that I swore she must have been lining the shot up before it was even visible. Jearsen had just killed her second.

“You too,” I returned, as I detonated my fourth. A chip from my target caromed into her fourth, and she missed it with another incredibly fast shot and had to line up again.

The rapid-fire Triples duel continued, Diorre trying her best but falling behind and the Eönwyl and me trading the lead with almost every launch. The targets came from randomly-chosen slots and you had to shoot only your own target or you lost a point.

The Eönwyl was fast, faster than anyone I’d ever seen on the first draw. I wasn’t even sure that a Ptilian warrior would outpull her on the first shot. Her second shots she had to judge more, though—if she missed on the first I always beat her out. What I lacked in that preternatural speed I made up for in accuracy—I didn’t miss one in the whole thirty-target sequence. Admittedly, that was good even for me, but I didn’t mind a little luck.

The mysterious trader put her gun down to cool and offered me a bow-and-palm, which I accepted. “Impressive, Commander. Really quite amazingly impressive. And you too, Sergeant,” she said, as Jearsen finished. “You couldn’t keep up with that weapon, as you knew, but I think you managed to destroy almost every target. A skip-laser against shield-hardened targets… that’s good work. I could get jobs for both of you, if you’re ever looking.”

I accepted the compliment. “Thanks. But I think I have the best job in the Galaxy already.”

She nodded, but her noncommittal expression showed that she probably didn’t agree. “Perhaps slugthrowers this time?”

“Sure.” As we changed setup again, I glanced over. “Mind if I ask you something?”

“Yes, it is my real name. And that of my ship. No, I won’t confirm or deny anything about where I came from. It is natural and no, no one else in my family has hair like that, I don’t know why. It’s not an Atlantaean vessel, that’s silly; it is definitely non-standard though, and the hull is pre-Imperial, and that’s all anyone’s going to know about her without either buying her or tearing her from my dead hands, which you will find very difficult to arrange. Not anything, but I am quite flexible in what I will take as a mission. Seventeen, ten privateers, one Marjaav patrol boat, three Zchoradan Swarm patrol fighter-boarders, one Uralian troop-carrier, a security cruiser for Wissalat Enterprises, and one that I never could identify and didn’t stick around to examine the pieces of the wreckage. Three contracts that I know of, and six freelancers are dead so far trying to collect. Is your question covered in any of those?” She reeled off the list with a weary practiced air that still held a note of amusement.

“Well, some of my questions are,” I said mildly.

“Well, in that case, yes, go ahead. I don’t guarantee answers.” She smiled, brilliant blue eyes twinkling at me as if to say really, I’m not quite that snappy.

“Do you have something against the Navy? No offense.”

She locked in a clip, seeming to consider her answer. “Yes, and no. As a group of people doing their job, I don’t, really. I don’t like particular jobs they do, or the overall organization that they’re responsible to.”

“But you’ll do jobs for the Empire yourself, or so I’ve heard.”

Jearsen set the target parameters and sequence for another Triple, but I could tell she was listening.

“Certainly, but unlike you—or the Guards—I get to choose those jobs. I don’t have to do something that I think isn’t wise, proper, or legal. And yes, I do think that the Empire does things that may fail in all three categories. I have personal experience.”

“What? If you know of a violation by any official, you should report it and get it redressed. You’re talking as if just being in the Service is going to eventually put me in the position of being a criminal or something.”

“It hasn’t yet?”

Jearsen triggered the sequence, and I was so confused by the Eönwyl’s question that I missed the first two targets and was playing catch-up with both women. “What in Torline’s Name are you talking about? Of course not! The Mada Oath specifically commands… damn, that one spun tricky…commands that all of us consider the demands of our consciences and the law, not disregard them just because someone gives us an order.”

She seemed, surprisingly, a bit quieted by that. Several target exchanges came and went, and I managed to narrow the lead by one target. Diorre, now that she was using an evenly-matched weapon, was doing very good, staying almost even despite the trader’s still-incredible reaction speed. “And there aren’t any people who would ignore that Oath?”

It was my turn to pause a bit, and almost miss another target in the bargain. “A few spoiling kuma in the case, sure. But they get caught, and when they get caught they get kicked out, jailed, or shot, depending on just how bad they’d gone.”

I wasn’t sure I liked the faint smile I caught at the corner of her mouth, but it faded and she didn’t say anything until the Triple finished—with her and Jearsen just a split-second apart, and me far in the rear—I’d dropped back one more from the distractions.

“And those spoiling kuma, so to speak, never get high enough to keep from being picked off?”

I definitely didn’t like the smile this time. “Never,” I said emphatically, and to prove how focused I was I took out the next two targets faster than she could even with that preternatural speed. “That might happen—does happen—in other star nations, and even on individual planetary governments. But the Imperial system’s too big, and too balanced. Look at how it’s set up. You have the main Imperial government—the Emperor above everyone, of course, but then the Services—Guardsman and the Navy, with divisions of each for the exploration and to watch over and assist the local peacekeepers, down to individual planetary governments. Then there’s the Families, whose job is to watch us and—especially at the level of the Five—can automatically force publicity onto the entire system, overriding any codes if necessary. They come from the civilian side—though some of them do take shifts in the military.”

She’d passed me and Jearsen had almost caught up, so I paused to give myself some breathing room. “The Five, the Greater Families, and the Lesser Families, all chosen from the best and brightest for centuries… and then you have the Monitors, who are conditioned to follow the law—voluntarily, like my friend Frankel who happens to be the Monitor for this station. They can’t break the law, and they can’t let people slide for anything except the most minor infractions. And believe me, I’ve seen people try. They have the power to investigate anyone if they can get the local authorities to approve it—and if someone doesn’t approve, they’d better have a good reason.

“And there’s all the other interconnections, checks and balances… no, Eönwyl. The Empire’s made up of people, yes, and some of those people go bad, yes, but there’s no way for the worst of them to get to the top. Even if one of them did, the others would catch him pretty quick. We might not hear about it, I admit… but they’d deal with it.” I looked at her directly as I shot my last target just from what I saw out of the corner of my eye. “You should know I actually know people in the Families, too. So I know something about what they’re like.”

She nodded, conceding at least that this wasn’t an argument worth continuing. “Well, Commander, Sergeant First, it’s been a very interesting session. I think I was intruding, however, and perhaps one of the other ranges has opened up.” She smiled, this time a quick but friendly flash of white without a trace of irony or cynicism. “I’m sure we’ll meet again. Thank you.”

After she left, I shook my head. “That was interesting. She’s definitely pretty strange. Sometimes sounded almost treasonous.”

“It’s not treason to dislike the Empire, Sasham.”

“No, no, but … oh, never mind. I just don’t like seeing someone going off who’s clearly so sour on it for some personal reason.”

She laughed. “Because your family has been Mada for time out of mind.”

“Since before the Fall.”

“You’re crazy, you know that? Thousands of years ago. Before the Empire as we know it was founded. You want me to believe your family was serving continuously for that long, and you remember it? There’s tradition, and then there’s religion.”

“Okay, I’m crazy, but that’s what our tradition says. And speaking of crazy… I was thinking about yesterday.” I wanted to get to that subject before I lost the courage.

“Oh…. So was I.” She looked… shy, which was almost silly, what with her being several centimeters taller and older both.

“Well…”

“Umm…”

I suddenly found myself laughing. “Listen to us, for Torline’s sake! You’d think we were two kids again, not even sure what we were asking!” I took her hand between mine. “Diorre, I think we’re strong enough to keep what we have no matter what.”

“Of course we are,” she said, laughing too. “So maybe we should see what else there is.” She pulled me to her.

I’ll always think of target ranges as romantic.

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