Place: New Bangkok, planet Barbary
Julian glanced from Heckle to Mac and back. "Surely, he didn't mean everyone. That is, Verin's a professional, with centuries of weapons experience. And Ness is a soldier while Corny apparently had frequent need to use his pistols. Certainly, Shax isn't history's best shot, but he does well in close combat."
"While me and Heck are non-combatants." Mac's frown made Heckle want to smooth the creases from his forehead but now wasn't the time. "That it, Parallax?"
Heckle flipped his wings onto his back and tried to think taller. "I…I fired the big gun."
"So you did. Cracking good job of it, too. All right, Mr. Numerus. Let's see this lovely new toy the captain gave you." Julian stopped his pacing and stretched out a hand. "Not that it's a toy, of course."
Heckle bounced on his hooves and handed the box over. Captain Shax had said Julian was to assess and instruct everyone since they were docked planetside outside New Bangkok. From what Heckle understood, they were safer here than anywhere else in the quadrant right now—the perfect time to take stock.
"Ah. I'd wondered but didn't get a good look at the Yule party." Julian lifted the shining red pistol in both hands. "Haven't seen one in years."
"It's an antique?" Mac crowded closer, obviously intrigued now.
"Oh, no, no, no. State of the art. But they're usually custom jobs. I do wonder where Shaxy picked this one up." Julian replaced it in the case. "Dual ordinance Trema is what you have here. Capable of firing plasma charges or projectiles with equal accuracy. Enormous stopping power for such a small weapon." He flashed his brightest smile. "Shall we go?"
"Now?" Heckle's squeak echoed down the corridors and he clapped a hand over his mouth.
Julian's eyes sparkled. "Or you could call my assistant and make an appointment. Now's fine if it's convenient for you gentlemen."
"Not me." Mac took a step back, shaking his head. "This is for Heckle. Concentrate on him."
"Heckle, you take that arm." Julian hooked an arm through Mac's and waited until Heckle had a hold on the other. "His demonic highness said everyone, yes? Or are you suggesting that I can't handle more than one at a time?"
"Never that, Agent Parallax," Mac said with his rumbling chuckle. "I'm sure you're an unparalleled multi-tasker."
Unparalleled Parallax… Was Mac making some kind of pun? That wasn't really a pun, was it? Heckle couldn't ask now, though. The conversation had moved on and he'd lost the chance to ask. That didn't make him as anxious as it used to. It didn't bother him when Julian flirted with Mac, either. Julian flirted with everyone. Except Verin, who acted like he hated Julian. Heckle was pretty sure they just liked snarking at each other.
A quick tube ride from the spaceport, the range was bigger than Heckle could've imagined. Made sense, he imagined, since crime lords and syndicates controlled the city domes of Barbary. Lots of bodyguards and mercenaries who had to keep up on important skills. Still, he thought the grenade launcher firing lanes were kind of overkill.
Julian signed them in, procured a plasma pistol for Mac and registered Heckle's pistol with the range master, who fussed and cooed over it like it was a cute kitten or something. I guess if weapons are your job, it is pretty cute.
"All right, gentlemen. Have either of you been on a firing range before?" Julian asked before they entered the lanes.
"Been a long time," Mac admitted.
Heckle shook his head.
"Quick review of rules, then." Julian waved a hand at the people firing at targets. "Weapons ranges are, for those of us in the industry, sacred spaces. You may have rivals from several sides of a conflict here today but no violence will happen here. Somewhat ironic, I know. But no one breaks the rules because no one wants to be banned."
"We won't shoot anyone," Heckle blurted out.
"I know, my dear imp." Julian patted his shoulder. "I want you to feel safe, too. Weapons stay in their cases until you are in your lane. Muzzle pointed downrange at all times. If you hear cease fire on the comm system, weapons down on the bench. Easy enough?"
It wasn't much to remember. Heckle managed a nod, excitement and anxiety warring in his stomach. Most of the anxious little knots were old ones. Leftover fear that someone would yell at him for touching things he had no right to. But this was his weapon, given to him by his captain and today, an interstellar government assassin was his instructor.
Mac leaned down to give him a soft kiss before they separated to side-by-side lanes. "Just do your best, little bit. You'll be fine."
Heckle waited in his lane, struggling not to fidget with his pistol's case, while Julian got Mac set up and practicing. So much to watch, but Heckle focused on Mac and how all this worked. There were holo targets at the ends of each lane, adjustable, it looked like, so they could appear closer or farther away. The silhouette shapes disturbed him a little—Heckle didn't want to think about shooting people until he had to—but Mac seemed to take it in stride. He took his five shots, put his pistol on the bench (muzzle facing downrange) and checked the screen on his right.
Three of five, the computer stated in a cheerful voice while the screen showed the hits, two on the torso, one clipping the shoulder.
"Not bad at all, sir, for claiming to be rusty." Julian beamed and clapped Mac on the arm. "Keep at it. Remember, center mass. Heads are too chancy to aim for."
"Unless you're you," Mac said with a sidelong glance at Julian.
Julian's smile only widened. "Exactly. Unless you're me."
He came to help Heckle next, showing him how to load and unload both plasma charges and the metal-tipped projectiles, then how to switch between ammunition. When it came time to fire, Heckle's nerves had almost vanished.
"Both hands, my dear," Julian cautioned as Heckle raised the pistol. "The only person I know who can fire accurately with a pistol in either hand is Verin, but you don't need to be like him. Steady. Use your wings for balance if you like. Site down the barrel like we practiced. Breathe in. Breathe out. Fire."
Heckle depressed the trigger button, surprised when the pistol didn't kick back much. The projectile hurtled down the lane and put a hole through the center of the target. He readjusted, aimed and fired four more times in rapid succession before he put the weapon down properly with a little huff of relief.
Five of five, the computer voice chirped. But when Heckle checked, only one hole showed on the target.
"Hmm." Julian stepped closer and tapped on the screen. "Computer, enlarge please."
Still, it showed only one hole. "What did I do wrong?"
"Wrong?" Julian turned to him in astonishment. "Oh, sweetheart, you couldn't be more right. That's five shots placed nearly one on top of the other. See here—the tiny bits of ragged edges, here and here? That's the only evidence that you even fired five times."
Heckle blinked at the shot group and shivered. "I did that?"
"Did what, Heck? How'd you do?" Mac leaned around the lane divider.
Julian's smile was amused and maybe a little shaken. "Well. Ah, let's just say that if Heckle weren't otherwise engaged, I'd hire him to be my bodyguard."