The lights were off. Aside from the moon and stars outside the window, only a digital clock gave any form to the darkness.

It was enough for Jekkrand Tramessor to see the figure on the couch, Authority blacks broken by the white shirt under his open tunic collar. The wolverine’s night-eyes weren’t the best – not like some on his force, who could read a book in a room like this, and that wasn’t even considering people with augments – but he didn’t need to see well to know something was gnawing at the panther. Nobody ever sat so still, in a slouch like that, whose mind was at rest.

The ragged sound of his breaths was almost reassuring. It at least told Jekkrand that the man was alive and conscious.

“Hey,” he announced, and the figure in the darkness sat up a little straighter. “Mind if I come in?”

There was a pause in that hoarse rhythm. “It’s your building, Chief.”

“And right now, this little section of it is yours,” Jekkrand replied. “Mind your eyes, I need a little more light.” He reached for the dimmer – he didn’t want glaring brightness, just enough of the night-lighting that he could see some definition.

He made his way to the chair opposite the panther’s couch, easing into it. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Wh-what’s there to talk about?”

Jekkrand had heard denials. He’d heard people who wanted nothing more than to be left alone – and some of them had been good people, people worth giving that space. But Lieutenant Tavri Gant’s voice was not like those. Under it was despair, yes, more of it than any man should have to bear, but there was also desperation. A plea.

“Your section liaison debriefed me half an hour ago. He said a high-priority low-urgency message made its way into his queue to send to SLA Personnel. Now, he didn’t even open the headers,” Jekkrand assured him, “but I think he, and I, and you all know what that’s about.”

The laugh that emerged from the panther’s mouth was the farthest thing from humour that Jekkrand had ever heard, in a long and checkered career with the force. “I’d have thought you’d be happy.”

“Lieutenant, it’s all my officers can do to keep local crime from spilling out of control. Until the Authority stepped in to assist with cross-jurisdiction crimes, I thought we were going to lose control of this colony. Why under any sun would I be happy at the thought of you turning in your blacks?”

“Because I screwed up!” Gant shouted, almost deafening after the hushed murmurs of moments before. “I had a clear shot on the bastard, and I missed, and he started shooting, and the next thing I knew three men and women – your officers – were down!”

“Lieutenant…” Jekkrand leaned forward, letting one big hand rest gently on the slimmer man’s shoulder. “They may be down, but they’re not out. Not this time. All of them made it through surgery, and all of them will be back on duty within a month’s time – back out there, facing risks that you and I both know are all too common around here. The only one anyone is worried about now… is you.”

“If I’d made the shot,” the panther objected, “none of them would have been hurt at all!”

“And if you hadn’t distracted him,” Jekkrand replied softly, “at least one of them – and maybe a lot more good people – wouldn’t ever be coming back to duty.”

In the silence, Gant just blinked at him.

“Your liaison released your scope camera footage to me, Lieutenant,” Jekkrand went on. “I saw what you had to work with. I saw, just as you saw then, his finger starting to squeeze that trigger. And I saw that you had to place a slug in an area five cents on a side. None of my officers, not even my own sharpshooters, dared to open fire, and they all had cleaner shots than you. But you took that chance, and you made his gun twitch at just the right time. Because of that shot, Constable Hossey will live to see her daughter’s wedding. And I saw just how crappy your angle was, Lieutenant. I saw how many things that slug could have hit. Some of them were living bodies – more of my people. Some of them could’ve turned the whole place into a hazard zone.”

He gave the panther’s shoulder a squeeze. “Maybe your shot wasn’t perfect, Lieutenant. But in spite of having the shittiest angle of fire of any of our long guns, you not only saw him start to fire, you had the nerve to take that impossible shot at the last moment. And maybe that slug didn’t hit your mark, but it earthed itself clean. That’s halfway to being a miracle right there.”

Jekkrand shook his head. “Maybe you could have made that shot. Maybe you could have done it differently. I don’t know. What I do know is that miss or not, you had the courage to take that shot when nobody else did. And because you did, one of my best patrollers will be able to go home to her family.” Another squeeze. “In my books, Lieutenant, you’re a hero, and you’re the best damn marksman I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. If I had you on my side, I’d walk unarmed into a hostage zone with five suspects, in the full confidence that my guardian angel would get me out alive. Maybe I’d go out on a stretcher, if you got dealt a bad enough hand – but I’d go in there and trust, know, that I wouldn’t be bound for the morgue.”

The panther didn’t respond, and Jekkrand sat back. “I’ll be passing my own report up the line soon. If I have my way one of the Emperor’s Own will pin a star right there.” He pointed at the breast of the panther’s tunic. “I don’t doubt the Authority’s psych crew will want to take a look at you before your resignation gets opened past the headers. If they let you go, and you don’t want to be put in that impossible situation ever again, I wouldn’t blame you for walking away. But I want you to know that all of us in this city’s police force are glad that you were there and that you took that shot. And whether or not you attend the ceremony, you deserve recognition for your courage.”

Jekkrand rose to his feet, and in the most open expression Gant had shown throughout this little interview, the panther’s eyes followed him. Jekkrand gave one last pat to his shoulder. “You’re a good man, Lieutenant Gant,” he praised. “Just because you’re not perfect doesn’t mean you’re not a godsend. Do what you need to do for yourself – but don’t throw your life away over this.”

Jekkrand departed, turning the lights back down behind him.