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"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."
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.
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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