“What exactly is going on out there?”
It was the seventh or eighth time Morgan had asked the question. In that space of time, he’d moved from irritation, to anger, to confusion, and had finally settled comfortably into a state of utter bewilderment. Grif couldn’t blame him. The repetition was starting to wear thin, but it was a legitimate one to ask. Station Authority wasn’t making any sense.
“No clue, Morgan. The best I can come up with is ‘general bureaucratic incompetence,’ but I’m pretty sure that’s not what’s going on.”
Faldyth gurgled in frustration, then muttered something in her language that Grif vaguely recognized as a curse. “You haven’t been listening to their general broadcasts, Captain. I am…” she paused, trying to choose her words carefully, then gurgled again in disgust. “I am hard pressed to find an explanation other than general incompetence. Every instruction they give steps on or works against an instruction they give to another ship.”
“I doubt Tyrelos Station has ever had to deal with this amount of traffic before,” Amys said. “Not all at once, at any rate. It could be that they’re just not equipped to handle this kind of exodus.”
“Is that what you actually believe?” Grif asked.
“Hell no,” Amys said. “They’re doing this on purpose. I just can’t figure out why.”
Grif pushed his chair back, emerging from the Pilot’s Nest and into the bridge proper. “OK, let’s try to work this out.”
Morgan half-turned in his seat, staring back at Grif with a frown. “Trouble?”
“There’s no scenario where we aren’t in trouble right now,” Grif said. “I’m trying to gauge how much, and how close. Set up a tactical display of Tyrelos Station and the immediate area.”
Morgan nodded and keyed in a few commands. The front of the bridge filled with a holographic display of Tyrelos Station. The domed city immediately shrank as the tactical view zoomed out to include all the spacecraft in orbit around the station.
Amys shook her head. “That’s a lot of people trying to leave.”
“Yeah,” Grif agreed. “Just like us.”
He thought that over for a minute.
“Actually, that might be useful. Morgan, take out the station from the display. Actually, remove everything from the display that isn’t a ship of some kind.”
Morgan shrugged. “Sure thing. Give me a minute.” He ran through a number of options on his console, and one by one things winked out of the display: the station, occasional asteroids, communication arrays, until all that was left were ships floating in space.
“OK,” Grif said. “Replace the ships with dots. I don’t care what they look like for the moment, I just want to see where they are.”
Morgan shrugged again, and seconds later the ships floating in space blinked out, replaced with tiny white dots. Grif studied the mass of dots hanging over his bridge carefully.
“Amys… does that look like anything to you?”
Amys’ brow furrowed. “Not… quite. Something’s poking at me, though.”
“Yeah… Morgan, how many of these dots are Station Authority ships? Make those blue.”
Moments later some of the white dots turned blue.
Grif stared at the blue and white dots for a few minutes, then shrugged. “I got nothing. Amys?”
Amys shook her head. “There’s definitely a method to all this, but I can’t figure out what it is. Most of the Station Authority ships are on the outside. That makes sense—they’re trying to control how and when people leave, and they’re best positioned to intercept on the outside. But the distribution is off.”
“Yeah,” Grif said. “It’s like they’re not trying to cover all the exits. Look at the ships sitting up there.” He pointed to a region of space where there were no Station Authority dots at all. “If any of those ships wanted to make a break for it, they’d have a fair chance. I mean, it’d involve flying at full speed through the proto-ring and maybe getting a few holes punched through your hull, but you could pull it off.”
“I notice that we’re not in that part of the cluster,” Amys said.
“I noticed that too. Damn the luck. We’re a lot closer to the Station Authority boats than I really want to be right now. But you know, now that I look at it, it’s as if they’re expecting certain groups within the cluster to try to make a break for it over others.”
“Right,” Amys said. “But why.”
Grif shook his head. “I have no idea.”
He stared at the white and blue dots on the tactical display for another minute. “We need more information. Faldyth, please invite Baron Tyrelos to the bridge.”
Faldyth nodded, then turned her attention to the part of her station that dealt with in-ship communication.
“You want to tell Faldyth and me and what’s going on?” Morgan asked.
“Yes,” Grif said. “Unfortunately I haven’t the slightest idea. That’s why I’m calling in an expert. Amys, I don’t want to have it come to this, but if it looks like we’re going to boarded, I’m going to choose running away instead.”
“Right,” Amys said. “Any direction in mind?”
“Yeah,” Grif said. “Through the ships, over to the far side. Just pick the path with the greatest chance of us running into someone and we’ll go with that.”
“OK,” Amys said. “Plotting a course to Plan B.”
Uttering the phrase Plan B had an immediate and unpleasant effect on Morgan and Faldyth. Faldyth stiffened, emitting a low hiss of displeasure. Morgan started cursing under his breath, repeating the words over and over like an obscene catechism. Grif sighed: every crew had their superstitions, and the crew of the Fool’s Errand believed that “Plan B,” whatever it happened to be at the time, was cursed. It was a belief that seemed to bear out, historically.
“Let’s just call it ‘Plan A and a half.’”
The tension eased a bit when the door to the lift opened, and Baron Minerva Tyrelos stepped onto the bridge. To Grif’s annoyance, she wasn’t alone: Lieutenant Adyt and Stebbil Tanz were with her. He considered ordering them off the bridge, since they hadn’t been invited on, but quickly decided against it.
Adyt was sticking with his Baron because someone had tried to murder her, and it was the only thing he could think to do at the time. Grif didn’t like Adyt much, but he understood the impulse. Adyt locked eyes with Grif, and there was no disguising the defiance there.
Grif nodded slightly. Some of the defiance faded. Adyt nodded back.
Tanz was another matter entirely. He was trembling, his eyes were wide and bloodshot, and he flinched at every sound and sudden movement. He was on the verge of cracking up, and he was sticking with the baron because he couldn’t think of anything else to do.
The best thing to do about Tanz, right now, is ignore him completely, Grif decided. So he focused his attention on the baron, who was by all appearances utterly unconcerned with their present circumstances.
The baron stepped forward, looking around the bridge with interest. “I’ve never actually been on a Maximillian before. I didn’t realize the bridge was so big.” Her gaze came to rest on the white and blue dots projected out of the tactical display. “What can I do for you, Captain Vindh?”
“I need your expert opinion,” Grif said, and gestured to the holographic display. “Those dots are ships. The blue ones are yours, the white ones are everything else. What am I looking at?”
The baron frowned slightly as she stared up at the display. “I’d like a few more details before I answer.”
“Ask Morgan. He’s our tactical wizard.”
Morgan nodded once as the baron turned her gaze to him. “Morgan. I recognize you from the bar. Are all the white dots ships trying to leave the system?”
“No,” Morgan said. “Most of them are. But there are some ships that are traveling in-system, some going to Moji, some to Selur, a few heading out to asteroid claims. Some aren’t going anywhere—they’re in orbit around Tyrelos Station, either too big to dock or not willing to pay docking fees. And a few are new arrivals. They’re probably wondering what the hell is going on.”
“Very likely.” The baron sounded amused. “How can you tell the status of each ship?”
Morgan shrugged. “Every ship is broadcasting its navigation plan. It’s a little noisy out there right now, but we can handle it.”
Baron Tyrelos nodded. “All right. This is what I’d like to see: please display all ships whose navigation plans declare they are leaving the system in red. Similarly, display ships declaring they are travelling in-system in… green, I think. Ships that are incoming, and ships that are in stable orbit around Tyrelos Station and do not intend to leave, should be yellow.”
Morgan turned back to his station. “Can do. Give me a few minutes to sort all that out.”
As Morgan worked Grif saw white dots fade into different colors. The majority of them were red, and most of red dots were motionless, with only a few moving slowly in seemingly random directions. The green dots—the smallest of the groups—weren’t moving at all.
But all the yellow dots were moving.
“Did you get those colors right?” Amys asked.
“Yes.” Morgan sounded a little defensive. “They’re right.”
Amys glanced at Grif, then turned to Baron Tyrelos. “You said yellow was for the ships who were arriving or staying.”
The baron nodded silently, studying the display.
“So why are they moving?”
“I can answer that,” Faldyth said. “Station Authority is relocating the ships in orbit to make more room for the ships trying to leave.”
“Do you know where they’re being moved to?” the baron asked.
Faldyth shook her head. “I’m only picking up the explanation. The course changes are sent directly to the ships in question.”
“That’s fine. This will be fine.” Baron Tyrelos continued to study the display carefully, nodding to herself occasionally as she did. Finally, she turned to face Grif.
“The good news,” she said, “is that I’m almost certain Sonim thinks I’m dead.”
“That’s good news,” Grif agreed.
“The bad news,” the baron continued, “is that they’re looking for a patsy.”
“Oh,” Grif said. He thought it over, and his expression darkened. “Oh. Shit.”
“They’ve decided not to accuse anyone staying of being a traitor,” the baron continued. “That’s uncharacteristically sentimental of Sonim, but he can probably see the tactical advantages of it. People will expect the terrorists to run, and catching them as they try will be exciting and satisfying. The ships going in-system will probably be left alone, simply because if they’re going to Moji or Selur they’re doing so for business reasons, and the Barony will not want to lose that income. Among the ships heading to other systems, there are some they absolutely cannot offer up as a sacrificial lamb. I suspect they’re deliberately slowing down the exit process in order to give them more time to sort out the VIPs from the expendable ships.”
“Let me make sure I understand,” Grif said. “Sonim plans to select one of the ships trying to leave the system, accuse them of blowing you up with a nuke, and I’m assuming have them executed for the crime?”
The baron nodded.
“Fun,” Grif said. “You said some ships were VIPs. What are those?”
“Sonim has a very important logistical problem,” the baron said. “The Barony lives and dies through shipping. We make machinery and alloy that has to be delivered to our customers, and if they aren’t delivered on time we suffer financially. The death of the Baron changes nothing: the Tyrelos Barony has to be open for business at all times, at all hours, in order to stay solvent. So ships carrying Tyrelos cargo, whatever that cargo may be, must go through.”
“Ah,” Grif said. “They have to be allowed to leave because the Barony has to stay solvent.”
“On top of that, there are ships that don’t profit us directly—they aren’t carrying our cargo—but that are associated with business interests and relationships Sonim will want to maintain. They’ll also be left alone.”
“What happens they figure everything out?” Amys asked. “I mean, once they know who they have to let leave, and who they can keep and screw over with impunity, what’s the next step?”
“The next step is that they start letting ships leave,” the baron said. “Suddenly things will be moving again. Everyone will feel a rush of relief. Progress will be made. Station Authority will begin issuing course corrections and instructions to clear up the current mess and all the while their favored ships will begin heading out of the system. Once the favored ships have left, I expect there will be an excited news broadcast about a breakthrough in my murder investigation, at which point Station Authority will start boarding the ships that are left. Not every ship will react kindly to that. That’s why they’re moving the yellow dots out of the way.”
The baron laughs bitterly. “They’re trying to minimize friendly fire.”
A grim silence settled over the bridge.
“So I don’t want to come across as arrogant,” Grif said, “but I think there’s a pretty good chance we’re on the shortlist of People Station Authority Would Really Like To Screw Over.”
Faldyth made an unhappy gurgling sound.
“Maybe they won’t notice us?” Morgan sounded more hopeful than certain.
“Not likely.” It was the first time Adyt had spoken on the bridge, and everyone—even the baron—looked at him in surprise. He colored slightly, but otherwise kept his composure.
“In hindsight,” Grif continued, “we’d probably have been better off not leaving. Once they’d already bagged themselves a scapegoat we probably could have left without any problems. As it stands, I think we’re a good candidate for a boarding party.”
Stebil Tanz mumbled something, twitched, and looked down at the floor. He wiped his forehead with his sleeve, his hand shaking the entire time.
“Captain…” the baron stared at Tanz with obvious concern.
“Right,” Grif said. “Uh… Lieutenant Adyt, would you please take Dr. Tanz down to sickbay? I think Cutter might be able to help him.”
Adyt blinked. “You do?”
“Temporarily,” Grif said.
“Go,” the baron said, nodding.
“Yes ma’am,” Adyt said. He put his hand on Tanz’s shoulder, shaking him lightly to get his attention. “Come with me, doctor.”
Tanz blinked rapidly, then focused on Adyt. “Where… where are we going?”
“Sick bay,” Grif said. “Cutter’s going to dope you senseless until this over.”
Tanz focused on Grif a moment, processing what he said. Then he relaxed.
“Thank God,” Tanz said.
Everyone watched him leave in silence.
“So here’s a thought,” Grif said. “Baron, what would it take to convince Station Authority that we’re one of the VIPs? They won’t kill us if they think it’s going to cost them money, right?”
The Baron thought it over. “In our current situation? I don’t know. You’d need someone stationside, with access to the bureaucracy. There’s a lot of paperwork involved.”
“Right.” Grif turned back to the holographic display. “Someone stationside. With access to the bureaucracy. Probably someone with a lot of resources they can bring to bear, or favors they can call in. At the very least, bribery will be involved.”
“Grif…” Amys’ eyes widened in alarm. “No.”
“Yeah,” Grif said. He stood, stretched, and looked around the bridge. “It’s a bad plan. If ever there was a Plan B…”
“Grif.” Amys narrowed her eyes and stood up to face him. “You can’t.”
Grif shook his head helplessly. “Swear to God, Amys, I can’t think of anything else to do. Can you?”
“We can run,” Amys said. “Right now. I’ve the courses plotted.”
“If we have to,” Grif said. He stood, fished through his jacket pockets, and finally drew out a small card.
“This is better than running, Amys. Short term, anyway. Long term it’s probably, uh, not. We’ll throw ourselves off that cliff when we get to it.”
He walked over to Faldyth and set down in front of her. “Call that number. Route it to my station. Video at my station only, but feel free to pipe the audio to the rest of the bridge.”
Faldyth gurgled in a mix of anticipation and fear. “This is a Tyrelos Station connection.”
“Yeah. You’ll go through an open channel initially, but I’m pretty sure the other side will route us to something secure in short order.” He settled back in his chair and started sliding it back down into the nest.
“Who am I calling?” Faldyth asked, as she began setting up the connection.
Grif sighed, feeling himself age as he exhaled. “Yidoc Messhik.”