Grif opened his eyes to see a hauntingly familiar white ceiling.
He tried to sit up and was stopped, once again, by something gripping his left side. He looked to his left and saw a machine completely covering his left arm and side.
"Deja vu, Captain Vindh?"
Grif looked up to see a very familiar doctor standing in a disturbingly familiar doorway.
"What the hell?" Grif croaked, and struggled to free himself.
"No!" The doctor hurried forward in alarm and gently pushed Grif back down on the bed. "It's all right, Captain. Just let the machine work. This time we won't be interrupted."
"What the hell?" Grif repeated, grabbing the doctor by his coat.
"Yes, I can imagine it's a little confusing." The doctor looked down at Grif's hand and sighed. "But everything is all right. You're no longer wanted by Station Authority. The Baron herself pardoned you and your friends. All very unfortunate... it seems you were caught in the middle of some kind of coup."
Grif's eyes widened in alarm.
"Which failed. And hopefully this time I'll be able to fix you up without any interruptions."
Grif released the doctor and looked around the room. "Amys," he said. Once again, his throat felt very dry.
"Your lady-friend? Very resilient woman. I think she's waiting in the lobby, if you'll hold on a moment." The doctor studied the monitor at the foot of Grif's bed, checking his vital signs for anything out of the ordinary.
Grif waited in silence, trying to be patient. Then a very distressing notion occurred to him.
"Please," he said, looking around apprehensively, "tell me... this isn't the... same room, is it?"
"What?" The doctor looked up, distracted. "What? Oh. Oh, no... no, this is a different room. Yes, that would be disturbing..."
The doctor turned and left the room. Grif lay on his back and stared at the ceiling, trying to relax. The door opened again, and Grif looked up to see Amys, face slightly swollen and bruised, arm in a sling.
Amys smiled. "You don't look as bad as I thought. Feel like you've been here before?"
Grif chuckled nervously. "I'm not sure how paranoid I should be right now."
"Only your standard level. They dropped all the charges. We were apparently caught in the middle of something."
"A bit above standard, actually," Amys said. "We chose the wrong week to visit."
"What about Bennet?" Grif asked. "Is he--"
"He's fine, recovering back on the Fool's Errand. He said to tell you he thought he'd sit this visit out, and hoped you wouldn't take it the wrong way."
Grif laughed weakly.
"He also said," Amys added, "that he would sit on your 'confession' for a while."
"Oh yes," Grif said. "That's... uhhh... good. Very good."
"I told him what you told me," Amys said. "That you found a way in. Remember?"
"Well he wants to hear your plan, and if he likes it he'll play ball."
Grif sighed in relief. "Better than I expected."
"Yeah," Amys said. "Surprised me. I guess he's only half a bastard."
"And the Sword?" Grif asked. "What happened to him?"
Amys started to reply, hesitated, then shrugged.
"Amys? The Sword..."
"I heard, you," Amys said. "They couldn't find the body. At least, that's what they told me."
"They couldn't find it? It was lying on the ground next to me."
"Well, I thought it was, too, but now that I think of it I don't remember it after you passed out."
"Well," Grif said, "that's a shame. I prefer confirmed kills."
"Yeah," Amys said. "Me too. I never saw anyone fight like that before. Bennet and I didn't really have a chance... and, you know... we're good."
"Yeah..." Grif stared at the ceiling, starting to worry. "Hey, as long as we're on the subject of bad news, what's the deal with Station Authority? I gather they dropped the charges, but still... if they're going to hold a grudge we'll probably have to find another place to--"
Before Grif could finish, the door opened and three people entered the room--two human, male and female, and a Vage. Grif thought the Vage was male, but it was tough to tell for certain.
"Hello Amys," the woman said.
Grif looked at the three newcomers suspiciously. The male human was an older man, thin with gray hair and a distinguished air. He wore a Station Authority uniform, but Grif didn't recognize the insignia on the shoulder. The woman was dressed simply and somewhat severely--which did little to disguise the fact that she was at least half a decade younger than Grif and stunningly attractive. The Vage, standing behind the other two with a deferential air about him, was taller than the woman and shorter than the man. He looked like a bipedal fish in a suit.
Amys saw the expression on Grif's face and cleared her throat cautiously. "Grif... this is Baron Minerva Tyrelos, Lord Sonim Makar, and Chancellor Muringyne."
"Captain Vindh," the Baron said, "I'd like to start off by saying..." She hesitated, peered at him curiously, and then turned to Amys. "Is he all right? He seems... is he on medication?"
Amys frowned. "He's all right. Just confused. Grif, snap out of it."
Grif blinked again. "Sorry," he said. "I... I'm sorry, Baron, I just--ah..."
Grif steadied himself, took a deep breath, and smiled. "Hello Baron, lovely to meet you. I'm sorry it had to be under such awkward circumstances."
The corners of the baron's mouth twitched slightly. "Captain Vindh, I'd like to start off by saying that on behalf of Tyrelos Station, we would like to offer our apologies for the dangerous situation you found yourself in earlier. We take our declaration of neutrality seriously, and the breach of security that nearly ended that declaration has wounded us grievously."
"Thank you," Grif said. "I was a little... er... that is to say, at the time I wasn't very--did you say breach of security?"
The man--Lord Sonim, Grif supposed--nodded gravely. "Someone attempted to hand you over to the Radiant Throne and make it appear as though the Baron herself had authorized it. I myself was unaware of this treachery until the Baron discovered it. It's quite unfortunate that you were an unwitting pawn in their game."
Grif looked from Lord Sonim to Baron Tyrelos, expression blank. "I'm confused," he said. "Are you telling me you had no intention of ever handing me over to the Throne?"
The Baron shook her head. "That was never my intention."
"Then why did you pay to have me transferred from MedCommons to MediCorp? And pay to have my shoulder reconstructed?"
"That..." The Baron hesitated. "We'll discuss that in a moment. Suffice to say that I wanted to talk to you, and it seemed best that I speed our meeting along."
"Unfortunately," the Baron continued, "someone very close to me used his access to forge an order to Station Authority, authorizing you to be handed over to the Radiant Throne. In a way I am in your debt, Captain. If you hadn't escaped when you did, the traitor would've leaked news of your fate after the fact--and our reputation as a neutral system would be ruined."
"We thought that was uncharacteristic," Grif said dryly. Amys nodded.
"Well, it's behind us now," Baron Tyrelos said.
Grif stared at her, fascinated. She tried awfully hard to make herself look older and less attractive than she really was, but she was obviously striking...
Amys coughed. Grif realized he was on the verge of undressing the Baron of the Tyrelos System with his eyes, and suddenly found the machine connected to his left arm immensely interesting.
"So if it's not top secret information, or anything," Grif said, forcing himself to sound only mildly interested, "who was the traitor? Who do I have to thank for all this fun we've been having?"
Nobody answered. Baron Tyrelos looked at the floor, lost in thought.
"Uhhh... sorry," Grif said. "It's not really my place, I was just --"
"The traitor was Lord Raphael Tyrelos," the Baron said softly, still looking down at the floor. "My brother."
Lord Sonim placed his hand on the baron's shoulder and squeezed it gently. The baron clasped his hand, apparently grateful. Grif saw her stiffen slightly.
"I see," Grif said, voice neutral. "Well. I'm sorry to hear that."
"Don't apologize," the Baron said. "It wasn't your fault."
There was an awkward silence.
Finally, the Baron turned to Lord Sonim and smiled. "Sonim," she said, "I'd like to speak to these two in private. Would you be so kind?"
Lord Sonim bowed stiffly. "Of course, my Baron. I will try to determine exactly where your brother went." He turned to Grif and Amys, bowing slightly to each in turn. "My apologies for your travails. I hope the rest of your stay is more pleasant."
"I will accompany you," the Chancellor said. It was the first time Grif heard the Vage speak. He found the voice slightly unsettling.
Lord Sonim nodded, turned and left the room. The chancellor bowed to the Baron, nodded at Grif and Amys, and left.
The Baron waited a moment after the chancellor left the room, then turned back to Grif. "Now we can talk without interruption."
"Oh?" Grif looked at the Baron warily. "So this is something important?"
Baron Tyrelos laughed sharply. "You are a pain in the ass, Captain."
Grif relaxed slightly. He felt he was on more familiar ground.
The Baron walked over to Grif's table, looking at him and frowning thoughtfully. "This entire mess started," she said, "because you--"
She stopped and her frown deepened as she glanced at Amys.
"Anything you need to say to me, you can say in front of her," Grif said. "We're thick as thieves."
"Hey," Amys protested.
"Independents, then. Thick as independents."
The Baron frowned, studied Amys for a moment, then shrugged. "Very well. But I warn you both not to repeat this conversation. This entire mess started because you said something very interesting to Captain N'grash, who passed it on to me."
Grif frowned. "What did I say to--" His eyes widened. "She told you that?"
"She tells me a lot," the Baron said. "I find it useful to know what's going on in the world of the... 'Independents.' When she told me one of her colleagues was claiming that Baron Tylaris was murdered by the Alliance--"
"What?" Amys looked at Grif sharply.
The Baron smiled slightly. "Thick as thieves, are you?"
"And when were you going to tell me this?" Amys snapped.
"The same time I was going to tell you about that damn Sword," Grif snapped back. "When we were in a private place, where certain parties wouldn't overhear."
Amys frowned. "You're sure?"
"But that's insane."
"Pretty insane," Grif agreed. "But I'm pretty sure."
"What makes you so sure?" the Baron asked sharply. "N'grash said the same thing, that you were absolutely convinced of it. And that when you were like that, you were usually right. Do you have any proof?"
Grif grinned. "No proof. But I'm pretty sure. Just like I'm sure you're lying about your brother."
The baron gripped the side of Grif's bed tightly. "Please explain yourself," she said.
Grif half-shrugged. "You're not a bad liar, Baron, but I'm much better. You were putting on a show. Not just for us, but for… what's his name? Sonim. I don't know about the fish, Vage are hard to read."
The way Baron Tyrelos stared at Grif made him wish he'd kept his mouth shut. He wondered if the medicine being pumped in through his arm was making him stupid.
"We'll talk about that next," the Baron said. "For the moment, tell me about Baron Tylaris. What about his death made you suspicious?"
"What didn't?" Grif replied. "I mean, he's the single richest man in known space--sorry, he was the single richest man in known space. He can afford the best... and suddenly he's accidentally poisoned by improperly prepared food?"
"Circumstantial," the Baron said dismissively.
"There were Alliance operatives on the planet just before his death," Grif continued. "Not just diplomats, but the kind that play for keeps."
Baron Tyrelos looked confused. "How do you know--"
"Not important right now," Grif said. "I also know that one of those operatives was sitting in the same bar I was when the news of Baron Tylaris' death showed up on vid. And unlike any other person in the bar, he was completely uninterested in the broadcast. Like it was old news..."
The Baron stared at him thoughtfully. "That's still circumstantial."
"Sure," Grif agreed. "I said I can't prove it. But I put it all together, and it screams 'externally enabled transfer of power.' Everyone knows the old Baron wasn't interested in joining the Alliance, but everyone knows the Alliance was trying to court him just the same. If he wasn't going to budge, well, what about his son? Comes across as a weasel to me. Maybe easier to convince? I don't have proof, but I'm right."
Baron Tyrelos sighed, then nodded reluctantly. "You might be right. I received word today that the new Baron Tylaris reached a tentative accord with the Alliance of Free Worlds."
Grif blinked. "Well. I thought it would take a little more time than that."
"It's true. They will be joining the Alliance as an autonomous member."
Grif shook his head. This was a coup for the Alliance. The Tylaris Shipyards were considered the best in the known worlds, and that alone was a boon to any government. Add the natural resources of the Tylaris planets, and the other corporations that made their home in Tylaris space... the Alliance had increased its economic power enormously.
"I can't believe it," Amys said.
"Believe it," Baron Tyrelos said bitterly. "Mogra would never have considered such a thing--what would he get from the Alliance that he didn't already have? He liked his independence. But Rolis..."
The disdain in her voice for the Baron's heir was plain for all to hear. "He has never had a taste for power. The trappings of it, yes, but not the care and nurture required to maintain it... 'indolent' and 'lazy' are the words I'd use to describe him."
"The Tylaris Trade Barony, part of the Alliance," Grif murmured. "Well... that's sure going to shake up the Independents." Even as he said it, he wondered exactly what would happen. The Independents--smugglers, pirates, and legitimate businessmen not tied to any particular trade company--favored Tylaris Prime as their home port. It had been a free port in the truest sense of the word, and a haven for all sorts of transactions that would almost certainly be forbidden by any kind of Alliance membership. Even autonomous membership, which allowed a local governing authority the most independence from the Alliance, carried with it some mandatory laws governing interstellar trade that had to be enforced. Most of the Independents--Grif included--would no longer consider Tylaris Prime their home.
"What do you think will happen?" the Baron asked.
Grif looked at her curiously. She was staring at him with a very neutral, guarded expression--an expression, he decided, of someone trying to determine whether to call or raise the stakes.
"Dunno," he said. "Independents will be looking for a new place to congregate. Baron Cedoris, maybe, though he's a little too enthusiastic about slavery for my taste--drink too much, run out of money, wake up God knows where--"
"What about here?" Baron Tyrelos still wore a guarded expression, but her eyes gleamed.
The Baron nodded.
"Well," Grif said, "I, personally, am very fond of the Tyrelos system--when I'm not a pawn in some unseen political game, that is--but I don't know how well it would go over with the Independents as a whole."
"Why not?" The Baron asked. "We already get some of that traffic."
"Yes," Grif said, "but it's a very specific subset. Miners, mostly. People looking to shop the exotics market. Slavers who don't want to give Cedoris a cut. But it takes a certain amount of trouble to get here, and your shipyard facilities are... well..."
"... not so good," Amys said.
Grif nodded. "They're all right for what you do, but they're a bit sparse for most needs."
"Not to mention," Amys added, "that you don't have a single planet in your system that could be considered habitable without environmental controls. A lot of the Independents who flocked to Tylaris did so because they could sell their goods and enjoy a little R&R."
"The shipyards can be improved," the Baron countered.
"And the planets?" Amys asked. "'Come relax in our highly corrosive atmosphere' is not exactly a compelling lure…"
"Are you serious about this?" Grif asked. "You really want to become the new watering hole for the Independents in the Baron systems?"
Baron Tyrelos nodded. "The Barony needs to expand its interests."
Grif glanced at Amys. She was openly skeptical.
"But you seem hesitant, Captain Vindh," the Baron noted. "And you have something of a reputation among the Independents--certainly N'grash seems to think highly of you, which I consider both unusual and telling. If I can convince you..."
"Well, you don't need to convince me," Grif said. "I already come here, fairly regularly. But as I said earlier, Tyrelos attracts a certain element, an element which I've been accused of belonging to. A scurrilous accusation, and wholly without merit, of course."
Amys rolled her eyes.
"There are two big things working against you right now," Grif said.
"I'd like to know what they are."
"Well, first... you're right on the edge of Throne space. That makes a lot of Independents nervous. Tylaris was right on the edge of Alliance space, and they're usually considered the lesser evil. If the Throne suddenly decided it was time to annex the Trade Baronies, yours is the first they'd move in on. And because you're, well, I'm sorry, but it's true--because you're considered the weak Baron, people sort of think it's bound to happen any year now."
Baron Tyrelos digested this news without appearing too offended. "I see. And the other reason?"
"Well... your recent political troubles are sort of going to feed into that general perception."
"But the troubles are over, Captain Vindh," the Baron replied. "I certainly hope you aren't carrying a grudge. My brother has fled the system, and he certainly won't be allowed back in..."
"Right," Grif said. "OK."
"Why Captain Vindh," the Baron said, smiling a little more noticeably, "if I didn't know better I'd say you didn't believe a word I was saying."
Grif sighed. "We've already been through this, Baron. If you want me to go along with the story that your brother tried to depose you, that's fine. But you're lying, through your teeth, and to be completely honest the fact that you've either framed your brother or--and here's an interesting idea--that you and your brother are working some angle together doesn't do much to convince me that this is a politically stable environment."
The Baron didn't reply.
"It just doesn't fit," Grif continued. "I've actually met Lord Raphael--of course he calls himself 'Dannig' when he's slumming--and if ever there was a man who was thoroughly disinterested in power, it's him. He's a lot like Rolis Tylaris... Though… not in the insulting way you're obviously taking it right now--"
The Baron's body stiffened, and her face was tight with anger. "My brother is not an idiot."
"No," Grif agreed. "Not an idiot. Let me rephrase. Your brother enjoys the good life a little too much to want the work involved in running this place. And might I add that you defending a man who, according to you, tried to depose you only makes it more obvious that you're making the whole thing up."
Baron Tyrelos relaxed slowly.
"If I had to guess, I'd say that you suspect Lord Sonim."
The mask fell from her face completely. "How--"
Grif grinned. "Well there you go," he said to Amys. "I seem to be on a roll."
"Grif," Amys said, "shut up."
Baron Tyrelos looked from Amys to Grif and shook her head in exasperation. "You are too perceptive for your own good, Captain. If I didn't want you on my side as badly as I did, I'd probably try and have you spaced, just to keep you quiet."
"Oh, don't worry," she said. "I've no intention of actually doing it. Like I said, I want you on my side."
"Your... side?" Grif asked suspiciously. "Look, I try not to get involved in--"
"Too late." The Baron discarded her severe demeanor for an instant and smiled. "Captain Vindh, you know entirely too much not to be involved."
The expression on Amys' face alternated between "I told you so" and "if she doesn't kill you, I will."
"There are people in Station Authority who still want you dead," Baron Tyrelos said. "Whether you were set up or not. You killed friends and colleagues of theirs, after all. They aren't coming after you because I ordered them not to. If I am usurped, the person who takes my place will certainly not be as disposed to keeping you alive."
Once again, Grif felt as if he were on familiar ground--this time, it was not comforting. "You know," he said, feeling the walls close in around him, "you are much better at threatening people than you are at lying."
"Much better," Amys agreed, voice tight.
Baron Tyrelos smiled, looking radiant. "Why thank you, Captain Vindh. I'm so glad we understand each other."