Velis Enge leaned back in her office chair, blearily rubbing the sleep from her eyes as she forced herself to finish reading the mission debrief. She thought back wistfully to her days as a field agent, complaining about having to write them. She smiled briefly—relishing the irony—then forced herself to pay attention to her work. When she finished, she placed the data tablet down on her desk with a sigh and reached for the lukewarm cup of coffee on her desk.
Her desk. It bothered her that she’d come to think of this as her desk—and the office space they’d rented out in short notice as her office—in so short a time. It galled her there was nothing to do about it. They needed to stay here, on Garinon Station, until they could figure out where they actually needed to be… and it looked like that process was going to take much longer than expected. The problem was, they still didn’t know where they actually needed to be… or where it was happening… or, in any practical way, what was going on.
Too many dead ends.
She thought back to the few times she’d met Rolis Tylaris. He hadn’t made much of an impression: a pretty boy, she’d thought at the time, with emphasis on boy. Someone very much interested in indulging himself with little interest in anything else. She’d assumed his interest in the Barony was simply self-indulgent avarice, his desire for something his father clearly had no interest in letting him have. Obviously, he’d played her. She didn’t bother beating herself up about that—everyone got played eventually, there was always someone out there who was a better liar than you were—in fact, she was more than a little impressed at how thoroughly Rolis managed to play the part.
She thought of Mogra, his father, and how, over time, she figured out that he had a tendency to very convincingly act completely uninterested toward the opportunities and events that interested him most. If he appeared to be ignoring what was happening in a meeting, it was a good bet he was actually paying attention to everything, down to the tiniest detail. It seemed his son had been paying a lot more attention to his father than anyone—including his father—believed.
Never assume. Good advice, though impossible to follow—everyone operated off of assumptions, especially the ones who believed they didn’t.
“Rolis Tylaris… who are you fighting, and why?”
The door to her office (her office, damn it all to Hell) buzzed once. She sighed, gave verbal assent for the door to open, and tried not to look annoyed as Bennet stepped into the room. When she saw the expression on Bennet’s face, she set her feelings of annoyance and frustration to one side.
“What’s going on?”
Bennet nodded toward the flat panel set into the wall next to her desk. “Turn on the local news.”
She raised an eyebrow, but pressed a button on her desk. The display sprang to life, showing a picture of the domed city of Tyrelos Station. Beneath the picture were the words TRADE BARON MINERVA TYRELOS ASSASSINATED WITH NUCLEAR DEVICE.
Velis listened to the broadcast in silence. When the broadcast started to repeat itself she turned it off. Bennet stood in silence the entire time, watching her closely.
“Sit.” She gestured to one of the semi-comfortable chairs facing her desk.
“Well,” she said, voice dry, “this complicates things a bit.”
Bennet nodded. “A war on two fronts is always worse than a war on one.”
“True,” Velis agreed, “but you can a make a strong argument for this taking precedence over whatever Rolis is trying to do.”
“Maybe you can,” Bennet said. “I don’t see it. We knew this kind of unrest was possible when we lit the match. Instability comes with regime change. It’s a package deal.”
“True.” Velis leaned back in her chair, trying to keep track of all the possible outcomes of this latest disaster. “But not all instability is created equal. The higher ups were betting that despite the instability, regime change would be good for the Alliance in the long term. That’s not the case any more.”
“You think this is going to hurt the Alliance?” Bennet asked. “I don’t see that, either. They’re not exactly at the top of the pile as far as Trade Baronies go. Pretty much the opposite, in fact.”
“Money isn’t everything,” Velis said.
“Try telling that to a Trade Baron.”
“Yes, I know, but it isn’t. Bennet, The Tylaris shipyards might make the best ships in known space, but when they want those ships armor plated, who do they buy their alloys from? Tyrelos is ‘poor’ because the type of tech they make is expensive. It’s hard to get the raw materials they need, hard to process and refine those materials, and hard to turn them into a finished product. You always want your ship to have a Tylaris drive. And, if you can afford it, you want a Tyrelos hull surrounding it.”
“Granted,” Bennet said, “but—”
“And they are right next to Throne space.”
Bennet closed his mouth abruptly. His brow furrowed. “Right.”
They are right next to Throne space the same way the Tylaris Barony was right next to Alliance space. And the Throne has coveted them for as long as the Alliance coveted Tylaris. I’m not specifically familiar with our operations there, but I know Alef has worked very hard to ensure that Tyrelos’ declared neutrality stayed neutral.”
“I see it now,” Bennet said, nodding slowly. “And you think the Throne will see this as an opportunity.”
“They’d be idiots not to,” Velis said, “and we know they aren’t idiots. I don’t think they’ll invade, they’ll just… offer their support to whoever steps up to grab the reins. Once they get a toehold, the foot will follow. It’s just a matter of time.”
Bennet stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Is it? The Trade Baronies don’t like outside interference. The Radiant Throne would risk provoking the ire of… all the rest of them.”
“That was the same argument we raised when the Tylaris job was dumped in our lap,” Velis said. “It was considered an acceptable risk then. It might be considered even more of an acceptable risk now, since there’s precedent for it.”
She didn’t bother hiding her anger. She’d thought the Tylaris regime change operation was a mistake when Alef had first told her about it, and time had proven her right. The people over Alef’s head usually made better calls than this. The fact they got this one so very wrong rankled.
“So you think this should take precedence over our original mission?”
Velis shrugged. “You could argue both ways. Our original focus is into whatever is prolonging the instability in Trade Baron space. Resolving that is a good thing. But this… Bennet, this could be the thing that tips everything over. If the Radiant Throne gets a toehold in Trade Baron space, how will everyone react? Nobody will like it. The Alliance will see it as retaliation for claiming Tylaris. The Trade Baronies will see it as an assault on their sovereignty, and will push back against both of us. Eventually it’ll lead to a war between the Alliance and the Throne. Nobody gets out of that one.”
“That’s a worst-case scenario,” Bennet said. “We don’t know things will break that way.”
Velis snorted, shaking her head in grim amusement. “There’s no track record for optimism in this mess. Not so far.”
“Well,” Bennet said, “I don’t know if this makes everything better or worse… but there’s a chance we might not have to decide between dealing with the Tyrelos mess or the Tylaris mess.”
Velis narrowed her eyes. “What does that mean?”
Bennet leaned forward in his chair. “Captain Vindh is involved. Somehow.”
Velis stared at Bennet, expressionless. He shifted in his seat uncomfortably.
“We received a very brief transmission from our sources on Tyrelos Station. It wasn’t much more than ‘we’re still gathering data, please stand by’ but it did say The Fool’s Errand was in port when all this went down. It also mentioned that a few weeks ago he had a clandestine meeting with the Baron herself… and then met with a local crime lord named Yidoc Messhik.”
“Oh, good.” Velis shut her eyes and tried to think. “So he was involved in the latest incident Rolis is trying very hard to cover up, and he met with one of Mogra’s biggest Trade Baron allies weeks before someone blew her to bits.” She opened her eyes. “Where is he now?”
“The message didn’t say. We’re expecting a full report soon.”
Velis sighed. “I really didn’t want to go off half-cocked on this.”
Bennet smiled slightly. “But we’re going to anyway.”
“I don’t see any way around it,” Velis said. “Grif got himself thrown into the middle of something, and we either want him to succeed, or we don’t. It’s too much to hope we won’t care either way.”
“Why is that?” Bennet asked.
“Past history,” Velis said, choosing not to elaborate. “We need to figure out what he’s doing. If we know the link between Rolis and Minerva we might figure out a way to keep the Throne out of Trade Baron space.”
“Right…” Bennet tensed slightly. “How exactly are we doing that, Major?”
Velis suppressed an amused smile. “You are going to assemble a team. You will find them. You will question them. You will assess the situation. If you feel, based on your understanding of events, you need to take action before consulting with me, I will back your play.”
Bennet took a deep breath. “Understood.”
“I’m… compromised in this matter,” Velis said. “I can’t trust my judgment, so I’m going to trust yours. I know I can do that.”
“Any specific directives on the use of force?” Bennet asked.
Velis thought it over. “There’s a chance he’s an ally. If he is, he’s going to be a very reluctant one. Force will need to be kept to a minimum until you get a chance to question him. Killing anyone in his crew will guarantee that he won’t cooperate with you for any reason.”
“All right,” Bennet said.
“But again—use your own judgment. Alef ordered me not to kill him, and since you’re working for me, that order stands. But there are times when you have to choose between your orders and your objectives. I’ll support whatever decision you make.”
Bennet stared off into space for a moment, collecting his thoughts. Then he stood. “I’ll assemble my team. We’ll head out to Tyrelos Station and start following his trail. If there’s anything in that report that might shave off some time…”
“I’ll make sure you get it,” Velis said.
Bennet nodded again. “All right. We’ll probably leave sometime tomorrow.”
“Good luck,” Velis said. She watched him leave, waiting as the door slid shut and locked after him. Then she called up her private terminal and began composing a priority message for Alef Halge.