The Tyrelos Barony was the poorest of all the Trade Baronies, by a fair margin. It specialized in mining and processing high-grade alloys and in ruggedizing equipment to survive in exotic and hostile environments. Tyrelos Metallurgics was a premier manufacturer of artificially enhanced starship hull alloys, and Tyrelos Environmentals had no competitors when it came to top-of-the line closed environment systems. Tyrelos Mining Endeavors was one of the top-tier mining endeavors in known space, and along with the high-quality equipment they sold to the industry at large, their mining expertise was sought after by worlds who had precious materials but lacked the resources to mine them.
All these industries were in high demand and very successful. At the same time, their profits were needed by the Barony to sustain itself. The Tyrelos Barony was unique among the Trade Baronies in that every planet in the Tyrelos System was uninhabitable, some of them aggressively so. All the technology and know-how from the various Tyrelos corporations was needed to create enclosed cities, protected environments, and artificially habitable zones for its citizens. This was an expensive process, and after expenses, the Barony enjoyed only a modest profit.
Of course, modest is a relative term: what the Tyrelos Barony considered modest was considered staggering to pretty much every other corporation that wasn’t a Trade Baron. But if total accumulated wealth could be translated into power and influence, the Tyrelos Barony had significantly less than its neighbors.
What it lacked in comparative wealth, however, it more than made up for in sheer ambition. And nothing captured this ambition better than Tyrelos Station, its capitol city.
Tyrelos Station was built on Rock 4J527-E, one of the many billions of rocks that were slowly being smashed to bits as part of a proto-ring coalescing around Obin, the system’s single gas giant. It was a marvel of technology and engineering, described as one of the “man-made wonders of known space,” and it more than earned the description. It was, by a substantial margin, the largest enclosed city floating in space, a bona-fide megapolis, with a population far greater than many of the capital cities in the Alliance core.
It wasn’t simply enclosed, it was domed, and it wasn’t simply a dome, it was a transparent dome, made of one of Tyrelos Metallurics’ rarest and strongest alloys.
Grif and his crew were fond of the domed portion of the city—called the “Second City” by locals, a distinguishing it from the “First City,” the portions of the city that delved deep beneath the rock’s surface. The Second City was generally a festive place: the dome provided a clear view of Obin’s stormy, cloud-covered atmosphere, and the reflected light from Obin’s surface perpetually bathed the city in twilight. It always felt like the night was just beginning, and the Second City’s business took that feeling to heart. The city bustled: people were everywhere, stacked on top of each other in layers upon layers of businesses, residences, government offices and recreational facilities. Even the poorer, more dangerous parts of the city teemed with people, and the air was filled with grav sleds, metroline buses, and other transport craft. Music piped out of various businesses bombarded the pedestrians walking past the storefronts, all competing for their attention.
There was always something interesting going on in the Second City. Sometimes, it wasn’t even a particularly dangerous kind of interesting. It never closed, it never slept, it never even hit a lull.
Dyorbid’s was a bar located in one of the run-down parts of the city. It was located close to a Common Transit Gate—a hub where ferries deposited people from starships that were too large to dock to the city by connecting to one of the ports scattered across Rock 4J527-E, or else couldn’t afford the fees. Many independents chose Dyorbid’s as their watering hole, and it was as much a source of side commerce and shady dealings as it was a place to spend your money and get drunk. It was run-down, but the drinks were strong and it was open around the clock. Dyorbid, a stocky six-armed nengit with little patience for anyone who disturbed his home, treated all his patrons exactly the same way: requests for a tab were met with the business end of an old-model plasma rifle, and a gruff but polite request to repeat the question.
Amys, Morgan, Cyrus, and Grif were sitting at a table in the far end of Dyorbid’s where they had a clear view of both the front door and the door that led to the private rooms in the back. Amys and Cyrus were drinking beer. Grif was drinking Stellis Green. Morgan was drinking Carumjack, a drink that was usually fatal after two glasses. He’d had at least five, and seemed impervious to its effects.
Ktk was also with them, but had excused itself when it noticed another bug scuttle into the bar. The bug homeworld was on the other side of Alliance space, and most didn’t travel this far away from it.
“What did Ktk say the other bug’s name was?” Cyrus asked.
Grif shrugged. “Didn’t. Don’t think Ktk recognized it. However, if I were to guess, I’d say there’s a 50-50 chance of it being either ‘Ktk’ or ‘Tkt.’”
Amys snorted. “That would be a one hundred percent chance. It’s either one or the other. Genius.”
“Nope.” Morgan set the empty glass of Carumjack down on the table and wiped his mouth. “There are at least eight possible short-form names a bug can have.”
Cyrus, Grif, and Amys looked at him skeptically.
“Binary,” Morgan said. “Bug language is binary. In essence, the ‘k’ sound is ‘1’ and the ‘t’ sound is ‘0.’ So Ktk’s short-form name is ‘Five.’ ‘Tkt’ would be ‘Two.’ You’ve still got 0, 1, 3, 4, 6, and 7 to account for.”
“Maybe,” Grif said, “but I’ve only ever met Ktk’s and Tkt’s.”
“Same here,” Amys said. “I mean, I haven’t run into a lot of bugs, but every single one was either Ktk or Tkt.”
Morgan shrugged. “That’s where the theory falls apart. But it should be possible.”
“But isn’t that like sayin’ it’s possible for a Terran to have the name ‘chair?’” Cyrus protested. “The first syllables of a word are general identifiers.”
“That makes no sense,” Amys said. “That assumes bugs only recognize seven types of nouns, and that only two are proper nouns.”
Ktk stated that Amys was almost correct.
The four humans were so wrapped up in their argument over bug language that they hadn’t noticed Ktk and the other bug approach.
“Stealth bugs,” Grif said, grinning as he shook his head. “Some day you lot will unleash your private armies of stealth bug warriors and take over the galaxy.”
The second bug asked Ktk what the human was talking about. Ktk replied that Grif was making a joke that simultaneously complimented their race’s martial prowess. The second bug noted that it was hardly difficult to be stealthy in a bar as noisy as this one, especially when most of the customers were actively trying to dull their senses with alcohol—an observation Ktk agreed with, but added that sapien humor was subtle and it required more time among them to understand.
“I think that’s the first time my humor has ever been described as ‘subtle,’” Grif said, provoking a laugh from the other humans at the table.
“Back to the subject,” Amys said, scooting over to make room for Ktk and the new bug. “How am I ‘almost correct?’”
Ktk explained that the pidgin nameforms other races used for bugs shortened the name to two syllables because that seemed to be easiest for more races to pronounce. A complete word, however, required at least four syllables, which resulted in fifteen categories of nouns, four of which were the beginnings of proper nouns for bugs.
Morgan frowned. “Only fifteen? What happened to the sixteenth?”
The second bug explained that “Tttt” was a null set, and wasn’t used at the beginning of nouns.
“That makes sense,” Grif said. “I mean, I don’t suppose you get too many people naming themselves ‘nothing.’”
The second bug asked how it was possible that the four humans were able to understand the bug language so readily, yet not understand the basics of bug grammar.
“That’s computers for you,” Cyrus boomed good-naturedly. “When Ktk first signed on we all spent a few months under a neural box learning to understand how it talked. Get a computer to stimulate the language centers of the brain and feed you languages, and you can eventually translate them pretty well… but you don’t necessarily understand how they work.”
The second bug remarked to Ktk that its crew were very courteous to even attempt to understand their language. Its crew required it to wear a vox when it was on duty.
Ktk made a sound that was the bug equivalent of a disgusted snort.
“So, Ktk,” Grif said, “are you going to introduce us?”
Ktk apologized, and added it had intended to do so, but got distracted by their conversation. It introduced the other bug as Ktk, a sensor specialist aboard the Vogleod, a merchant ship newly based on Tylaris Prime.
Everyone stared at the second Ktk.
“So,” Amys said flatly. “You’re both Ktk.”
The first Ktk asked, rather crossly, how many people there were in the galaxy named “Amys.”
“I don’t know,” Amys said. “How many people at this table are named Amys?”
The second Ktk suggested that they refer to it as “Ktkk” instead.
“I can do that,” Cyrus said, looking relieved. “As long as we don’t run into three or four more of you, at any rate.”
“Yeah,” Grif agreed. “I’m not sober enough to keep track of that many bugs in the same room.”
Ktkk replied that it hadn’t seen any bugs since it had left Homeworld. Not until it saw Ktk in this bar.
“What are you doing out here?” Morgan asked. “It’s unusual to see bugs anywhere, but this particularly out of the way for you.”
Ktkk explained that this was changing: more bugs were becoming interested in exploration, and there were even groups who were setting up colonies in the fringe worlds. Ktkk was curious about other worlds, and signed with an Alliance merchant ship to go exploring.
“Who’s your Captain?” Grif asked.
Ktkk replied that its captain was a Terran human named Lehs Marr.
“Terran,” Grif said, mouth twisting into a grimace.
Morgan grinned. Grif was notoriously anti-Terran—more specifically, he disliked certain Sol System claims about their place in the cosmos. Terrans claimed, rather aggressively, that they were the origin point for all human races in known space. Grif claimed, equally aggressively, that Terrans were self-centered prats who swaggered too much and talked too loud.
Both Morgan and Cutter were Terran, so Grif’s bias was louder than it was strong. Still, it made for interesting arguments from time to time.
“At any rate,” Grif said, “welcome to Tyrelos Station. It’s nice to meet another bug. Your species is extremely fun when you’re drunk. I could tell you some stories about Ktk here.”
Ktk stated it would prefer that Grif didn’t.
Amys gently nudged Grif in the side with her elbow, then nodded to the front of the bar. Grif looked over and saw a lone, hooded figure step through the door. This wasn’t unusual for Dyorbid’s—many people preferred to keep their face hidden while they did business, and some races simply couldn’t breathe the air—and no one else gave the figure a second glance. Grif, however, noticed the hodded figure staring at them. When he raised his drink, it nodded slightly.
“Contact,” Grif said.
Cyrus finished his beer and stood up. “I’ll get the room. Nice meetin’ ya, Ktkk.” He stomped off through the door leading to the rooms in back.
Ktk explained to Ktkk that they were about to engage in a business transaction, apologized, and asked that they be excused.
Ktkk replied affirmatively, and suggested they meet again at a later date. Ktk agreed, and Ktkk scuttled off.
“Ktk, help Cyrus prep the room,” Grif said. Ktk nodded, a strange and unnatural motion it picked up from humans, and scuttled off after Cyrus.
“Should I go back to the ship?” Morgan asked.
Grif shook his head. “I told our contact to expect all five of us. I just want Cyrus and Ktk to make sure our room is legitimately private.”
Dyorbid had a policy that forbade the use of listening devices, but that didn’t actually stop people form trying to use them.
They watched the hooded figure walk up to the bar and order a drink. The figure stood in front of the bar for a minute or two, holding the drink but not drinking from it, then finally crossed the room to approach Grif’s table. Beneath the hood was a respirator that completely obscured the figure’s face.
“Captain Vindh.” The respirator distorted the figure’s voice, making it impossible to tell anything about the person behind it. “I believe you are expecting me.”
“I guess so,” Grif said. “Let’s go to the back. More privacy. My crew is making sure of that now.”
The figure hesitated, glancing from Grif, to Amys, to Morgan, then nodded quickly.
“Right.” Griff stood. “Follow me.”
Amys and Morgan fell in behind the stranger as Grif led them into the back of Dyorbid’s. They walked down a long, narrow, dimly-lit hallway lined with more doors. Near the end of the hall he stopped and placed his palm against a slight indentation in a sealed door. The door hissed, slid open, and revealed a spacious room with a long table in the center. Cyrus and Ktk were there, Cyrus sitting at the table and Ktk standing beside it.
“We’re good,” Cyrus said.
Grif nodded, turned, and ushered the others in. The robed figure stopped in the doorway, staring at Cyrus and then at Ktk, head tilting thoughtfully to one side.
“I did say there’d be five of us,” Grif said.
The figure shrugged, nodded, then stepped inside. Grif placed his hand on a depression to the right of the door, and it slid shut behind them, hissing softly as it sealed.
“Have a seat,” Grif said. “Cyrus and Ktk have confirmed the room is clean.”
The figure walked over to the table, but did not sit. “There are many ways to listen in on a conversation. Bugging a room directly is just one of them.”
“That’s true,” Grif agreed. “That’s why Cyrus brought a thing.”
The robed figure stared at Grif. “A… thing.”
Grif nodded. “Cyrus?”
“Technically,” Cyrus said, “it’s three things.” He reached into his jacket and removed three tiny spheres from an inside pocket. He placed them on the table so that all three touched each other, and when he removed his hand they rose into the air, spinning in a tight circle.
Grif pointed at the revolving spheres. “Thing.”
“It disrupts communications,” Cyrus said. “It’s a pretty good model. Anyone trying to listen through the wall is just going to get a mess of garbled sound.”
The robed figure stared at the whirling spheres, reached into its robes, and pulled out a sphere of its own.
“I do not mean offense,” the figure said, “but I would feel more comfortable with this.”
It placed the sphere on the table and withdrew its hand. Immediately the sphere rose into the air and began to rotate on its own.
Cyrus whistled softly.
“Cyrus?” Grif asked.
“That,” Cyrus said, “is a much better thing.”
The robbed figure nodded, then sat down at the table.
“Great,” Grif said. “They’re not going to cancel each out or anything, are they? That would be kind of awkward. No? Then let’s get this thing started.”
Grif sat next to Cyrus, directly opposite the robed figure. Amy sat to his left, and Morgan sat next to Ktk at the end of the table.
“So you know Amys already,” Grif said. “This is Morgan, Cyrus, and Ktk. You can trust them as much as you trust me. For whatever that’s worth.”
“For whatever that’s worth,” the hooded figure repeated. “That is the question, isn’t it?”
The figure drew back it’s hood, pulling it away from the respirator mask, then fumbled with the latch at the side of the mask, pulling it off with a quick tug. As the mask drew back, Morgan’s eyes widened in shock. Cyrus swore softly, and Ktk chittered in disbelief.
Staring back at them was Minerva Tyrelos, Baron of the Tyrelos System.