Baron Minerva Tyrelos was very young for a Trade Baron. Because common medicine was able to extend the lifespan of humans by decades--and uncommon medicines were able to extend it far longer than that--that youth frequently worked against her. When her father died, and she assumed the title of Baron in his place, it was accepted by the corporations and holdings of Tyrelos Industries on a procedural level... but she quickly learned that many of her father's closest allies within the barony had difficulty thinking of her as anything other than a child. It didn't help that many of those allies remembered when she had actually been a child, or that she was considered beautiful... and therefore, for some reason no one could explain to her satisfaction, weak and malleable. In less than a month, the new Baron Tyrelos realized that her board of directors intended her to be a figurehead only and were maneuvering to effectively dismantle the organization her father had built.
The board was very surprised to discover that she had other ideas. It took years, but in the end opposition gave way to grudging respect, and eventually most of her enemies became her most outspoken admirers. She was a very hands-on baron, had learned the ins and outs of the businesses she controlled and kept abreast of the latest developments in the corporations and research and development firms working within the barony. She knew what her barony was doing, and she knew where it was going. She kept on cautiously polite terms with the larger crime families that operated in her space, and maintained polite but distant relations with the Radiant Throne and the Alliance of Free Worlds.
At any given time she usually knew more about what was happening in her space--especially in her city--than anyone else.
This, however, was not one of those times.
Baron Tyrelos stood in the middle of the Tyrelos Station Operations Center, listening to one of her officers update her on the status of a fugitive who had gone on a killing spree in one of the city hospitals.
"Why is this happening?" She demanded again.
The Baron didn't like losing her temper. Under most circumstances she tried to maintain a crisp, businesslike demeanor. At the moment her demeanor was slipping.
The officer shifted uncomfortably in place. "Reports are inconsistent. Apparently not all of the Station Authority units were using the proper comm channels. We evacuated the hospital and are pumping it full of gas."
The Baron narrowed her eyes. "Do we have an updated body count?"
"It is still holding at eighteen dead, another twenty wounded," the officer answered. "We expect another report any minute..."
"I want that man caught," she seethed, "and then I want him executed. Immediately."
"Perhaps I might make a better suggestion, my lady?"
The Baron turned to see her Chancellor, flanked by two Station Authority officers, approaching.
Chancellor Muringyne was Vage: a mottled icthyoid, complete with webbed feet, webbed hands, and a set of vestigial gills. They evolved from aquatic creatures (or, if you believed the Terran scientists, were engineered out of an aquatic species) but were now an oxygen-breathing race. His eyes glistened with excitement.
"I have, yes, I have hit upon an interesting piece of information about our fugitive," Chancellor Muringyne said, beaming happily. "It appears the Radiant Throne has an interest in this one, yes, and is willing to pay a bounty to have him handed over."
"Not interested," the Baron said brusquely. "That bastard attacked my men without provocation, and I will send a message that such actions will be dealt with immediately and without hesitation or mercy."
"I understand," the chancellor said soothingly--as soothingly as he could manage in the strange tones of his race--"but handing him over to the Radiant Throne would not be an act of mercy."
"Oh? What is their interest in Vindh?"
"I do not know the specifics of their interest, but I do know that it is a Sword who has offered this bounty."
The Baron shuddered. "A Sword? What the hell did Vindh do?"
The chancellor shrugged. "Who can say what terrible things a man capable of murdering in a hospital would commit in other places? But it must have been something big, to attract this Sword's interest. He is... known in some circles..."
That information made the Baron uneasy. She began to pace across the floor, thinking hard. "I don't know, Mur... we're neutral in the affairs of other governments. If people learned I was extraditing--"
"This one violated your laws, Baron... he certainly has no expectation of protection now, nor would any expect you to protect him, after what he has done."
Baron Tyrelos nodded slowly. "That's true. But--"
Just then the door to the operations center opened, and Baron Tyrelos' brother ambled in.
Lord Raphael Tyrelos was her younger brother by a space of five minutes. While they bore striking physical similarities, he was her opposite in almost every respect. Where she was severe, he was opulent; where she practiced restraint, he indulged in nearly every excess he could find. He was also completely uninterested in having her job, which meant that--unlike other members of her family--he was completely trustworthy. They were close, as twins commonly were, and he refused to use her titles in public, which she found infuriating.
"Ah. Min." He jogged over to her, nodding a greeting to Chancellor Muringyne as he approached. "You have a message on a private channel, and I think you need to hear it."
Baron Tyrelos looked up at her brother in annoyance. "I'm busy, Raphe, or didn't you--"
"I think it is very important you talk to Captain N'grash," he insisted, looking at her meaningfully. "She was quite... agitated."
Baron Tyrelos frowned at her brother, thinking.
"Who is this 'N'grash,' my baron?" The chancellor asked politely.
"An independent," Raphael said, still smiling. "Does a bit of reporting for us from time to time. A good contact... with good information." He looked at his sister expectantly.
"Fine," she snarled. "If you'll excuse me, Chancellor, I've been meaning to have a few 'words' with this one anyway... I'll be back in a moment."
She whirled and stalked toward one of the conference rooms. "I want ABSOLUTE PRIVACY!" She yelled, and sealed the door behind her.
"It is a very good thing," the chancellor observed, "that these doors do not slam."
"We should get her at least one," Raphael said. "Poor dear. She so desperately wants to slam them."
Minerva Tyrelos growled in anger as she sat in front of one of the terminals and keyed in the commands needed to access her private, secure feed. Finally the terminal screen shifted, and the barely visible head on Captain N'grash glared out at her.
"You have got a lot of nerve, Captain," the Baron snapped.
"And you are showing your true colors at last," N'grash growled menacingly.
"Your source of information seems to have turned into a homicidal--"
"When the independents learn that you violate your own neutrality for profit--"
"What?" Baron Tyrelos drew back, stung by the remark. "How dare you threaten --"
"This is not a threat, Baron. It is not safe to berth in a place that claims neutrality but is on the take from the Radiant Throne!"
"I am not--"
"Or perhaps it is both? Perhaps you decided to hand Vindh over to the Sword because you already knew about the conspiracy to kill Baron Tylaris. Am I next then? I warn you, others are already hearing of this betrayal--"
"But I didn't--"
"No!" Captain N'grash roared in rage--a frightening sound, even on the other end of a terminal, and the Baron edged back unconsciously. "Captain Vindh is a trusted colleague, Baron, and he managed to send us a message after avoiding your first attempt to hand him off to the Throne. Do not expect me to take your word over his... that will not happen."
"Wait!" Baron Tyrelos' gruff demeanor vanished, and was replaced with an air of bewilderment and confusion. "Captain N'grash... I don't know what you're talking about."
N'grash hesitated. "Baron, very recently Captain Vindh's crew received a message from him."
"Oh really?" The Baron wasn't sure how to react to that claim. "My people are monitoring all communications out of that hospital, N'grash. I seriously doubt he could have--"
"You would not detect this transmission unless you were specifically looking for it, and would not understand the specifics of how the message was transmitted unless you have crewed on a ship."
"All right," the Baron said. "Assuming he did send a message. What did it say?"
"That you'd sent your guards to hand him over to the Radiant Throne, and that we should tell others. I assume he means to tell others you are violating your own neutrality."
"But I haven't," Baron Tyrelos protested. "I didn't even know the Throne wanted him until a few minutes ago!"
"Then you deny sending your guards to hand him over?"
"My only interest in Captain Vindh was in regards to the information you gave me. And if I'd known he would start killing my men--"
"He would not have killed your men," N'grash snarled, "if you had not tried to hand him over to the Throne!"
"I did no such thing!"
"Then someone else did," N'grash pressed. "Someone with the knowledge and authority to do so."
Baron Tyrelos shook her head. It didn't make any sense. It just wasn't possible...
N'grash stared out from the terminal in silence, then made a gurgling hrmgh sound in the back of her throat. "Baron." The Grgrlsha was no longer angry, her voice was calm and thoughtful. "If you did not order Grif handed over to the Throne... who did?"
Baron Tyrelos stared at N'grash's image for a long time as she thought about everything the Ggrlsha captain had said. "N'grash, I need to look into this. If what you say is true, someone is working against me."
N'grash nodded. "I will wait," she said. "But if this is a trick--"
"No trick, N'grash. I will be in touch."
She ended the transmission and angrily slammed her fist down on the table. "What the hell is going on?"
N'grash's accusation didn't make sense, and that bothered her. The captain had done work for her in the past, and she was, in the Baron's opinion, a reliable source. The idea that Baron Tylaris had been murdered by the Alliance was preposterous--at least, it was until N'grash had mentioned it, at which point it became worth looking into. N'grash had a good head for these things.
Was this worth looking into as well? If the Ggrlsha was right, and someone in her organization was making deals with foreign governments without her authorization... that would be an act of treason. And if the deal involved Captain Vindh, the traitor was very high in her organization.
Baron Tyrelos shook her head. What was she thinking? She knew her people, and they were loyal. Perhaps N'grash didn't know her friend as well as she thought...
The terminal beeped. Baron Tyrelos looked up and saw that she had a saved message in her account. It was from Dr. Faron, her physician--the physician she'd assigned to look after Captain Vindh.
She pressed play, and Dr. Faron's face appeared on the terminal screen. He looked very annoyed.
"Minerva." He sounded as annoyed as he looked, she thought. She looked at the time of transmission--approximately thirty minutes ago. "I don't pretend to tell you how to govern, but I must protest the mistreatment of a patient while under my care."
Baron Tyrelos felt her heart sink.
"Captain Vindh only had three hours left in his treatment--was it really so important to unhook him now?"
"Damn," she muttered. "Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn..."
"And another thing," he continued, voice getting a bit sharper. "You didn't tell me he was a prisoner. If we had known we never would've allowed his friends the opportunity to visit, and we would've insisted on armed guards the entire time we were treating him, for our protection. That's pretty standard. Again, I don't want to tell you how to govern, but your guards were being pretty rough with the man... and with me."
The image of Dr. Faron sighed. "At any rate, I want to lodge a protest at his treatment. He looked pretty confused, and his arm is in terrible shape. It's regrown, but it was still knitting--it can very easily be broken, bruised or sprained. It's your money, Minerva, but it seems like a waste to me. If you wanted to treat a prisoner you should have taken him to your prison facilities. They do have a pretty good medical bay there..."
The image of Dr. Faron disappeared.
"Dammit." Baron Tyrelos dismissed her account with an angry press of a button, and then stalked over to the door, waiting impatiently while it opened.
The door hissed open, revealing the operations center. "Pull back your men," she commanded, stepping into the room. "If Vindh is spotted, keep tabs on his location, but do not move in, do not apprehend. And do not kill."
"What?" The chancellor looked at her in surprise. "Are you serious, my Baron?"
"Yes I'm serious. Raphe, get your ass in the conference room. We need to talk. You too, Muringyne. Now."
The Chancellor blinked, looked at Raphael, and shrugged elaborately. "As you wish, my Baron. "
"I'll... just... be in the conference room then," Raphael said.
Baron Tyrelos looked at the rest of the people in the operations center. "Remember--do not engage. Stand by for my next order."
"Yes milady," the communications officer said, and began transmitting the orders to the guards in pursuit.
She didn't speak again until the Chancellor and her brother had entered the room and she had closed and secured the door behind her. Then she swore so loudly and fiercely that Raphael jumped in surprise.
"I smell a rat," the Baron seethed.
The chancellor's gills twitched in confusion. "A rat?"
"She means a traitor," Raphael said. "At least, I assume she means a traitor, unless we've branched out into some kind of unpleasant genetic research that--"
"I mean a traitor," the Baron said impatiently. "Someone has seen fit to violate the neutrality of this Barony in my name, without my authorization."
Raphael and Muringyne looked at each other doubtfully.
"How do you come to know this?" Muringyne asked. His vestigial gills worked rapidly--a sign of agitation on his part.
"From my personal physician, is how..."
Baron Tyrelos told the two of them of her conversation with N'grash, and then about Dr. Faron's message. When she finished, the chancellor looked stricken.
"This is not good at all," the Chancellor said. "If what the doctor has reported is true, then we are in grave danger. Someone among us has no compunction about violating our declaration of neutrality. If this becomes common knowledge, many of the independents will refuse to do business here."
"And we get a fair amount of business from the independents," the Baron finished. "I know. More importantly, I had already taken an interest in Vindh."
Raphael raised an eyebrow. "Sis?"
"Not that kind of interest, oaf. You're the libido in our family. My interest is irrelevant at the moment, however--Captain Vindh is wanted for questioning by the Radiant Throne, they put a bounty on him, and it seems someone I know has decided to collect on this bounty in my name."
"Hold on a moment," Raphael said, looking at Muringyne suspiciously. "Weren't you trying to convince Min to hand the man over to this Sword when I walked in?"
Chancellor Muringyne held up his hands in a placating manner. "It is reasonable to have suspicion," he said, "but I advised taking Captain Vindh alive only after I learned of the bounty... and I believed, at the time, that he'd attacked our guards without provocation."
"Relax, Raphe, it's not Muringyne," the baron said. "He has no authority to command the guards."
"Hmmm." Raphael looked at the chancellor thoughtfully. "All right, then. Who?"
"Someone with the authority to command the guard in my name, obviously."
Raphael nodded and grinned slightly. "That puts me on your list."
"It would, if you ever displayed any interest in anything other than wine, women, and song."
"And gambling," he added. "Don't forget the gambling."
"It is unfortunate," the chancellor said, "that we cannot trust the ones who are armed."
The room fell silent as the realization of what he said set in. Finally, Baron Tyrelos broke the silence, asking the question the others wouldn't say aloud.
"Is this a coup?"
Raphael looked down at his hands and said nothing.
The chancellor, however, shook his head. "I do not think so," he said. "Not yet. I believe it is a sign that one will come, perhaps soon. But because this was done in secrecy, I feel they are not yet ready."
"A deal in secret... with the Radiant Throne... good God, is the Throne backing this?"
"Perhaps," the Chancellor said. "Or the traitor is simply trying to foster good relations with the Throne. It's hard to tell. I suggest we spend more time trying to discover who the traitor is."
"Lord Sonim." Raphael smacked his forehead in disbelief. "It's got to be Lord Sonim."
Baron Tyrelos shook her head. Lord Sonim was the High Commander of Station Authority, and had been a good friend of their father's. "What reason would he have? He was a friend of father's, a good friend..."
"He has the authority to do it," Raphael pointed out. "He can go up to a guard and bark an order and it will be followed. No one would even question by whose authorization--who would believe the two of you were working at cross purposes?"
"But motive! What motive would he have?"
"He's not the Baron." Raphael peered at his sister, judging her reaction. "Look, Min, not everyone is like me. Some people actually want to be the one calling the shots. I don't pretend to understand it, but it's true. And Sonim... well, he's a man with big dreams, strong opinions, and a general sense of entitlement. And, if I may say so, he never quite adjusted to you being Baron, instead of just the Baron's little girl."
Baron Tyrelos flushed. It was true... Sonim had always treated her the way an uncle might treat a favorite niece, and hadn't been comfortable when that relationship changed.
"Raphael has a good point," the Chancellor said, "but I would caution, my Baron, against leaping to any conclusions at this point. We do not know that it is Lord Sonim, and if it were not, we would lose a powerful ally if we made a false accusation. And we have no idea who else might be involved. If we were to say the wrong things in front of the wrong people--"
"I see your point," the Baron said, sighing heavily. "But what do we do about the current situation?"
Chancellor Muringyne hesitated. "The wisest course would be to leave Captain Vindh to his fate."
The baron looked repulsed by the idea. "No. Absolutely not."
"Consider, my Baron... if we work to save the man, your enemies will suspect that you have uncovered their plans. We do not yet know who is involved, and whether they have gained the loyalty of your men. It is safer for you if--"
"I said no." Baron Tyrelos' voice was firm. "Ignoring for the moment my immediate distaste for the idea of letting him be a patsy... if Vindh dies, N'grash will tell the independents that we have violated our neutrality, and they will be less inclined to stay."
Muringyne blinked rapidly, and his gills pulsed with discomfort. "Yes, that is true."
"Well, what then?" Raphael looked at both of them expectantly. "I mean, we can't just tell Sonim to call off the guards--we do that and he can use it to turn the guards against you..."
"You're assuming he's the one behind it," the Baron said. "And you don't know that, Raphe."
"Whoever it is--whether Lord Sonim or someone else entirely--it does not matter. They would use such a thing against you without hesitation," Muringyne said. "They would whisper in the ears of your men that you care nothing for their safety, that you allow murderers to go unpunished, that their spouses and orphaned children have no recourse under your rule. Without the loyalty of your guards, you would be vulnerable to a great many dangers, and it would make their play for power, when the time came, that much more effective."
Baron Tyrelos leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes while she massaged her temples slowly. Her life was getting more complicated with each passing minute. "So what do we do?"
"We do what we must," the Chancellor replied. "We must find a way to resolve this quietly, in a way that leaves all sides beyond reproach. We must look as though we responded to this crisis appropriately, and we must also look as though we are unaware of treachery within our ranks. The best scenario would be one where we preserve our neutrality of the independents as well, though I'm not sure how we can manage all three."
The three sat in silence.
"Oh hey," Raphael said. "Here's a thought."
The other two looked at him curiously.
"What if you didn't uncover the conspiracy that they're running--but you uncovered another conspiracy altogether?"