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Chapter 4.


The red target shimmered and exploded just a split-second before the blue. I was, unfortunately, blue. "And that," Diorre said gleefully, tossing back her red-gold hair, "makes it even, Navy Commander Varan."

I tried to look offended, but found myself laughing instead. She deserved a little triumph there, as usually I beat her soundly in Doubles Targets. "Yes, it certainly does, Guard Sergeant First Jearsen." Then I pulled her head down the necessary few centimeters and kissed her. "And you can't even taunt me into getting more competitive. Not now."

"No?" she said, straightening her pearl-grey uniform slightly. "But I liked our little competitions, Sasham. Maybe this change in our relationship wasn't for the—"

I put my hand over her mouth. "Torline's Swords, don't even joke about that. Unless you don't feel the way I do."

From the warm twinkle in her eye I suspected she did, but she answered, "I don't know. How do you feel?"

I began running through the setup for the next set of targets automatically. "You just want to hear me babble. Fine, I don't mind, even if I do sound like an over-romantic script. How do I feel? Like the entire universe is precisely right for the first time. As though I'd only seen the world in grays and someone had finally shown me color. I feel like I'd just stepped out my door and found that I was living on the First World."

She giggled, a somewhat incongruous sound coming out of someone ten centimeters taller and wider across the shoulders than I was. "Hey, power down that drive, Sasham. Isn't that close to blasphemy or something for you Believers?"

"Only the Repentants. I'm a Seeker, so Atlantea," I made the Sign of the Towers, "is something to be remembered with joy and love. And I love you, Diorre."

"I love you too, Sash. Now start the next round!"

I shook my head, grinning, and set the target countdown. I still found it hard to believe that we were actually together—and in the same thought, I found it harder to believe we hadn't been together from the time we were roommates… Torline's Swords, was it really almost twenty years now? How the obvious can escape you…

The first target nearly escaped me, flying from one of the many indistinguishable slots on the left side of the target range. Training reflexes saved me from total embarrassment, but I had to shoot twice before I actually took it out—the first was a graze and the target's shielding, set specifically for rannai weapons, shrugged it off. Jearsen, less fogged by sentiment, had nailed hers almost coming out of the launch gate.

Time to focus, Sasham Varan. You may be in love with her, but she's in love with you too. Don't make it a weakness on your side; she wants the same competition we had as friends. Use your own strength, clear your mind. I brought up the White Vision of Tor—that should be enough to keep me focused.

My aim and reflexes steadied and I started taking out the targets with my accustomed speed and accuracy, gaining the fractional seconds I'd lost to Diorre. We were ten targets into the thirty-target sequence when a chime came from the Tangia Outpost comms. "Notification, Commander Varan and Sergeant First Jearsen: Armor and Tactical Training Area is now available."

We both slapped at the cancel pad so fast she ended up smacking my hand, which got there first. "Ow! I guess we're both in a rush."

"No surprise there, given how hard it is to get slots." She spoke up to the comm units. "Notification acknowledged. We will be there by… 21:20."

"Reservation entered for 21:20. Exclusive?"

"No, as long as we both have first choice of slots. I want riot control and peacekeeper scenarios."

"Why does that not surprise me?" I commented. "Peacekeeper competency evals, huh?"

"You got that target first shot, anyway," she said with a slightly taunting grin. "I'm not coming up second now or ever."

"Planning on retiring to planet-side Peacekeepers?"

She laughed. "Retiring? Not for a while yet. But whenever I do retire, I'm going to be able to pick my berth."

"Commander Varan, your reservation?" the comm reminded me.

"Sorry. I want a full combat slot. Powered armor training in close quarters."

"Slot reservations entered."

"I knew that was why you were dragging that huge case around. Well, come on, let's go!"

"Power down a second, will you? Remember how cramped the dressing rooms always are in there? I'm going to take a quick shower and sheath up right now. In fact, I think I'll put on the armor too."

"That's a good idea. I'll join you."

I held up a hand. "If you do, we will never make it by 21:20. Maybe not by 29:20, even."

"I meant in wearing my armor over there, you one-track-minded Navy."

"Of course you did." My tone did not—quite—agree with my words. She maturely made a face at me and went to change in a separate room. I ducked into the shower and then, dried, pulled on the Exsheath and dressed in my uniform over that. The Exsheath would be able to interlock with the armor through the uniform; it had connect pads designed for just that purpose built into the uniform.

By the time I got the armor itself on, Jearsen was waiting at the door of Target Range 3, looking impatient. Non-powered E-steel and spun carbon-fiber armor is pretty light and efficient at protecting you from most low-powered weapons, not to mention easy to put on and take off.

The powered armor I was wearing, by contrast, made me nearly 30 centimeters taller than my usual height and almost 20 wider. It was clumsier, though surprisingly nimble for something that large due to the integrated Exsheath controls, and required practice to move in efficiently. With my past experience in combat, I figure that everything, even powered armor suit warfare, degenerates to hand-to-hand eventually, so I practiced a lot to be able to move well in any situation—null-G, ordinary uniform, powered armor, or non-powered.

Still, I guess we made a somewhat odd couple as we exited the training area, me ducking slightly as I passed through. "Which way?"

"Radial to Outring, then follow the curve of Outring to Tac Training," Jearsen said promptly, suiting her actions to words.

"You sure? That's the long way."

"I'm sure. Fallday rehearsals, remember."

"Oooh. Yeah. Midring and Inring will be mobbed. Outring it is."

A good choice. With the civilians preparing their own celebrations and the Navy and Guards busy preparing for the usual contests and displays, Outring was practically deserted. Oh, there would be people still on duty in the critical areas—Tangia (more formally known as Border Outpost Seven) was in a potential war zone, sitting on the Zchoradan border of the Empire, so vigilance was still required—but Outring was the least important in terms of station integrity, except in cases of boarding actions.

Just as we were approaching the intersection of Outring with Radial One, the buzz of Perimeter Alert sounded. We both twitched reflexively, but continued; there were incoming ships arriving on a regular basis, so the alert would sound, you'd hold your breath for twenty seconds, and then the cheerful chime of Vessel Identified would sound and you'd be back to normal.

Except that only five seconds after Perimeter Alert, the entire station echoed to the scream of Enemy Approaching.

I cut in the tactical displays on my helmet; from the corner of my eye, I could see Diorre putting on her helmet so she could do the same. I coded in my clearance and spoke into the comm. "Base Control Central, this is Commander Varan. Orders?"

"Commander!" There was relief in Lieutenant Rington's voice. "Commandant Tels is on the way, but right now we're still clarifying and you're ranking in contact now."

"Understood, Central. I am ranking until Commandant Tels or Monitor Frankel arrives there. What is the situation?"

"Three Zchorada warships, Commander, with other possible spikes, range is one billion and closing fast. They're generating a lot of DD interference and it's being echoed."

"Echoed? Chiss. They've seeded the area, probably using civilian transports as cover for the drops. Can we do a saturation fire in the local region to clear the perimeter?"

"Negative. The major echoing is not that close, and we have civilian vessels still trying to maneuver Hubward. Hold—oh, DEMONS of—"

I didn't quite hear the end of Central's curse, because it was at that very moment the far wall blew in and then out, taking atmosphere with it in a screaming devil's wind. Armor doors slammed down on both sides of Outring and a short distance down Radial One.

"Say again, Central! We have a blowout at Outring One! Repeat, we have a blowout in Outring One!"

"Confirmed, Commander! It's a breaching unit, maybe twenty, thirty troop capacity, locked right on."

"Torline's Swords…" I muttered. No one laughed at the old fashioned expression. There wasn't much to laugh at. In a few minutes thirty Zchorada would come pouring through the hole in Outring—right into our laps. "Central, I need reinforcements, and I need them now. There is absolutely no one here other than myself and White Sergeant Diorre Jearsen."

"Oh vorces," I heard the Lieutenant mutter. "Auto-lockdown has sealed the area off. It will take time for the Guard detachment to armor up and—" his voice dissolved in a hail of static. I heard another few words that carried no comfort "…ree more breachings in Out…" and then nothing.

I looked at the dark, yawning hole in the wall fifty meters away, as we backed down Radial One. "I think we're it, Diorre."

"Well, that's just wonderful." Even our minimum-range personal comms were hashed with interference. The Zchorada had planned this one well.

I raised my Madaran .500F, the pistol absurdly small in the armored hands, and began firing into the hole. I couldn't see anything yet, and if I kept up fire in those close quarters it might slow them down. My suit's main weapons worked better with designated targets, and I wanted to save the power; I'd be needing it all later.

Jearsen suddenly bolted past me. Without taking my eyes from my shadowed target, I shouted, "What is it?"

"This is Radial ONE, Sasham! What's in the storage area in Radial One Outring Sector?"

I felt a tiny, tiny bit of relief and hope start to come back. "You'll need my code." I transmitted a one-use code to her key transceiver. "Hurry, this toy won't hold them off long."

"If it will last five minutes," she said, "I'll have something better for you."

The door to the secondary armory slid open at her code.

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