Grif shifted in his seat, glancing at the tactical display nervously. It was blank. It shouldn't be blank, he thought.
"Anything on the sensors, Morgan?" Grif tried to keep the concern out of his voice.
"Big rocks, floating through space," Morgan answered gruffly.
Grif grinned. Since he'd been commandeered by Velis, Morgan had been in a foul mood. He has no one to blame but himself, Grif decided. That's what happens when you notice a detail that all of the resources of a major galactic spy organization have managed to overlook.
"Stupid spies," Morgan muttered.
Bennet, manning the communications station on the other side of the bridge, ignored him.
"Right," Grif said. "Well... please let me know if any of those rocks float in our direction. Ever been to Tyrelos, Bennet?"
"No," Bennet said. "Haven't done much in Trade Baron space. What's it like?"
"Nice place," Grif said. "Lots of interesting people... Morgan, pay attention."
A piece of rock about half the size of the Fool's Errand could be seen off the starboard side. It wasn't in danger of crossing the ship's path, but it also hadn't shown up on the tactical screens.
"What? Damn. Sorry." Morgan bent over the sensor station, frowning.
Grif sighed. This wasn't the time for him to be missing important data. Tyrelos Station was located in the middle of what once had been a moon of Obin, the system's gas giant. It had been torn apart by Obin's gravity relatively recently—"relatively" in terms of astronomical events, not human history—and the debris was in the process of forming a ring. The proto-ring was classified as "heavily concentrated," which meant that if you could see it through a view port it was probably too late to alter course to avoid it. It was a difficult area to navigate.
On the other hand, it was an excellent area to set up a mining operation, and ore extraction was one of Tylaris Industries' strong suits.
"Keep your eyes on the rocks, Morgan, that's all I'm asking right now," Grif said.
Morgan nodded. "Sorry Grif. I haven't quite figured out how to filter out all the extraneous information. It's a little crowded on my screen..."
They continued on in silence for a few minutes.
"The one thing I do know about Tyrelos," Bennet said, "though only because I just looked it up... there are no habitable planets in this system."
"Yeah," Grif said.
"Isn't that unusual, in this day and age?" Bennet asked.
"A little," Grif said. "Most people prefer to settle in systems that are easy. But Tyrelos Industries, they don't do easy. They specialize in hostile and exotic environments, ore extraction, mineral processing, and ridiculous feats of engineering. Wait till you see the capital..."
"You'd think a Trade Baron would find a more profitable system to claim as their own," Bennet said.
"I think House Tyrelos considers it a long-term project," Grif said. "Apparently there are minerals and gasses they extract from Obin that go into their more exotic alloys that they can't find anywhere else. At least, not easily... but you're right. This system is a bit of a money pit."
If Baron Tylaris was the richest and most powerful of the Trade Barons, Baron Tyrelos was the poorest. Tylaris owned four planetary systems, all with multiple life-bearing planets rich in natural resources; Tyrelos claimed one system only, with merely two colonized planets, neither of which could sustain life. While the Tyrelos system was rich in resources—perhaps, some speculated, one of the richest areas in known space, particularly for rare alloys and minerals—those resources were found in very inhospitable places: asteroid belts, planets with corrosive atmospheres, planets too close to the sun to sustain any permanent settlement, and frozen comets with temperatures nearing absolute zero.
The difference in fortune between the two Baronies was so pronounced, and their names were so similar, it was inevitable that Baron Tylaris and Baron Tyrelos would become the object of some sport. Tylaris was known as the man who had more than he deserved: he was rich because it was easy for him to be rich. It required little work to prosper on his nearly perfect worlds, some said, so his wealth came with little effort or risk. Baron Tyrelos, on the other hand, was thought of as someone who had to work very hard to earn what measure of profit she could... perhaps harder than what was warranted or fair. Thus Tylaris was known as the indolent layabout who did nothing and was rewarded for it, and Tyrelos as the hard worker who barely managed to eke out a profit at the end of the year. They were the embodiments of unearned success and undeserved struggle. As a result the Trade Baron systems had a saying: "the distance between luxury and hardship can be measured in two vowels."
In other words: life, by and large, wasn't fair.
Grif muttered a frustrated curse as his tactical screen blinked and a number of new objects appeared—far enough to compensate for their presence, but close enough to suggest they'd initially slipped Morgan's notice. "Amys..."
"Got 'em," Amys said. "Course adjusted." The tone of her voice suggested she wasn't happy with the last minute update either.
"Sorry..." Morgan muttered.
The bridge door opened. "Whoever you are," Grif said, keeping his eyes on his station, "you've picked a bad time to talk."
There was a brief pause, then someone said "right... sorry, I was just—"
"Do I know you?" Grif interrupted.
"Um, well Captain, we sort of met—"
"Evard, what are you doing on the bridge?" Bennet asked.
"Evard." Grif repeated. "That's a Terran name, isn't it?"
"Yes sir," Evard said. "Ganymede, born and bred."
"Bennet, is everyone in your group an Earthie but my sister?"
Morgan chuckled. Earthie was a mildly derogatory term for Terrans. It was specifically used to describe Terrans who believed the Sol system was the birthplace of the entire galaxy minus four, but since most of the rest of the galaxy believed every Terran held that view, it was often used to describe the whole lot.
"Evard is from Ganymede," Bennet replied cooly.
"Planet Potayto?" Grif asked. "Why no, it's planet Potahto, thank you very much. Evard! What do you want? We're sort of busy."
"I... er... wanted to talk to Doctor Todd."
Grif frowned. "Who?"
Morgan grinned. "he means me, Grif. remember? My previous life, back to bite me on the ass."
"Oh yes," Grif said. "Well—rocks, Morgan, you need to tag the rocks—well, uh... Evard..."
"Lyle," Evard said. "Dr. Evard Lyle."
"I wasn't fishing for you name, Evard," Grif said, punching in a new course to avoid a five hundred metric ton asteroid that was closing rapidly. "I was distracted by my attempt to avert the imminent destruction of my ship."
"Oh..." Evard sounded embarrassed. "I'm sorry Captai..."
"Look, Evard, I'm sure 'Doctor Todd' will be happy to talk to you after we've reached port, but right now he is supposed to be looking for rocks."
"I'm working on it!" Morgan protested.
"Well I know they're out there," Grif said, "because I keep seeing them FLY BY MY WINDOW. Of course, if I relied on my tactical display, I'd think I was flying through deep space. Silly of me to expect technology to assist me in this particularly difficult—"
Grif heard Amys swear, then swore himself as he received a new burst of navigation data that forced him to alter course very suddenly. The ship shiddered as her nullifer plates tried and failed to compensate for the extra intertia. Evard cried out in alarm, and Grif heard something hit the wall.
Grif punched the intercom, gritting his teeth. "This is your captain speaking," he said. "Sorry about that last bit, but you see, my sensor tech is BEING AN IDIOT."
He heard Morgan cursing under his breath.
"You all right there, Evard?" Grif asked.
"Uh. Ow." Evard sounded a little dazed. "I think I'll just... look for Dr. Todd later..."
"Good idea," Grif agreed.
"Look, Grif," Morgan said, "sorry about that, but these sensors—"
"Are still new," Grif said. "Yeah. I get that."
"So maybe if we slowed down a little—"
"Slowed down?" Grif asked.
"Yeah, just a little, and—"
"Slow down," Grif repeated. "now there's a thought. Amys, what is the slowest we've ever traveled through the proto-ring?"
"About this speed," Amys said. "But—"
"And was there ever a time when we went slower than this? In the Fool's Errand, I mean?"
"No," Amys said, "but I think Morgan has a—"
"And, let me ask you all this... is the speed and generally fearless nature of our approach to Tyrelos Station a topic of pleasant conversation every time we berth?"
"Grif," Amys said, clearly annoyed, "our reputation will mean nothing if we wind up—"
"Smashed into atoms, yes, I very much agree," Grif said. "Which is why I'd like Morgan to concentrate just a little bit more one the—"
"Rock!" Amys shouted.
Grif saw a rock out his view port. A moment later it appeared on tactical. Too damn close.
Grif yelped, then punched the intercom. "Cyrus!"
From the forward view port, the bridge crew could see a lance of brilliant yellow energy slam into the rock, breaking it up into thousands of smaller pieces.
"Screens, Amys!" Grif shouted, and a moment later the view ports went dark as the screens came up to full power.
The Fool's Errand shook as the screens were pounded by rock fragments moving at very high speed... but the screens held, and the ship managed to avoid the larger bits of rock that might have been a more serious threat.
Grif slowed the Fool's Errand down to a quarter its original speed. "You win," he said, shaken. "Morgan, take all the time you need."
Cyrus' voice came in through the intercom. "Grif, did we actually slow down?"
"Yes," Grif said. "It's Morgan's fault."
Ktk announced over the intercom that Cyrus owed it.
"Damn," Cyrus swore ruefully. "Grif, how could you do this to me?"
Amys laughed. "How many times has Ktk won betting against the Captain? Four, maybe five?"
"Every bug has its day, I guess," Grif said. "Uh... Amys... better check to see if anyone had a claim on that rock."
"Right." Amys accessed the navigation logs and waited. "No claim reported as of one month ago. That's the last time we updated the charts."
Grif sighed. "We'll have to report it, then, and hope for the best."
"What are you talking about?" Bennet asked.
"If you destroy a claim to avoid hitting a rock you have to reimburse the claim holder," Amys said.
"Yeah," Grif said, "and they usually inflate the worth of the rock quite a bit."
For the next twenty minutes they traveled in silence. The slower speed was, apparently, exactly what Morgan needed: there were no more issues with rocks. Grif relaxed slightly.
"Morgan, are we close enough to get a visual of Tylaris Station?"
"Should be," Morgan said. "Especially with this new rig."
"Put it on the main display," Grif said. "Bennet's never seen it."
"Sure," Morgan said. A moment later: "Bennet, welcome to Tyrelos Station."
The display shifted, and Bennet gaped. "Ridiculous feats of engineering indeed..."
Tyrelos Station was huge. There was no other word to describe it.
It was a city built on one of the largest remaining rocks in the Obin proto-ring. It covered roughly a third of the rock, making the word "city" seem somehow inadequate. If it had been built on a planet it might have been mistaken as a land mass from orbit. The metropolis was everything you expected to see in a city, but cubed: towering buildings, sprawling urban complexes, elaborately designed parks, streets, houses, monorails, shops, offices... all enclosed in a transparent dome that glinted from Obin's reflected light.
The dome was a marvel of engineering, and one of the crown jewels of Tyrelos Industries. It was a transparent alloy that was strong enough to deflect the inevitable proto-ring rock collisions without, it seemed, so much as leaving a scratch. That alloy was in high demand for military-grade starcraft; even the Tylaris Shipyards preferred it when they could get it.
Apart from the city, but connected to it through a series of transport tunnels half-burrowed, half-engineered into the rock, were the Docks. These served as the landing, refueling, loading and unloading platforms for visiting ships. The transport tunnels gave the Docks direct access to the city. Ships that couldn't afford them had to simply float in space, accessing the city via a fleet of ferries that shuttled passengers to and fro daily.
Grif pushed his chair back along the rail just far enough to catch a glimpse at the look of amazement on Bennet's face, grinned, and slid back into his station. "Told you the capital was impressive."
"How do they get the dome to stay up?" Bennet asked.
"Beats the hell out of me," Morgan replied. "Ktk has a theory. It tried to explain it to me once, but I couldn't keep up with the math. It's impressive, though."
Bennet nodded in wordless agreement.
A short while later Bennet reported Tyrelos Station was hailing the Fool's Errand.
"Audio please," Grif said.
"Fool's Errand, this is Tyrelos Station Authority. Captain Vindh, good to see you in Tyrelos again."
"Thank you Authority, I'm here for supplies and will berth a few days. I can arrange to pay four days in advance. I authorize the transfer of funds from my standard account."
"Please wait while we verify the transaction." A second later the voice continued, "your transaction has been approved, Captain Vindh. Please follow the flight path we are sending your way. Your ship will be berthed at Dock 78. Enjoy your stay, Authority out."
"Always so professional," Grif said. "You'd never know half those guys were on the sauce."