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Chapter 1.


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.

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