When Amys, Grif, Morgan and Bennet entered Bay One they saw Cyrus and Ktk standing by the lift, arguing.
"Six hours," Cyrus insisted.
Ktk chittered in disagreement, insisting it would be at least twelve.
"All right then," Cyrus said. "That's the wager--six hours or less, I win. Twelve or more, you win. Anything in between is a draw."
"What are they betting on?" Bennet asked.
Grif shrugged and looked at the group. "Only six of us? I expected more enthusiasm. This is as close to shore leave as we'll get in a while..."
"It's Hari's turn to stay on board," Cyrus said. "Cutter, Gurgan and Vod are keeping him company."
"OK," Grif said. "Let's go."
Tyrelos Station was actually two separate cities sharing the same location. The first city, built before the dome was erected, was tunneled into the rock itself and consisted of sealed, airtight buildings leading to an underground complex that delved deep into the rock. The second city appeared after the dome had been built and there was no longer a need for self-contained environments. The second city was more traditional in design, with buildings that rose high into the air instead of deep into the ground.
Most of the city infrastructure was located in the first city. Everything Grif found interesting was located in the second.
Grif, Cyrus, Amys, Ktk, Morgan and Bennet were in the second city, slowly making their way out of the transport hub that serviced Docks 71-80 and into the city proper. The view was spectacular. The dome provided a clear view of Obin, including some of its more prominent storms, and a swath of what appeared to be stars (but were actually fragments from the proto-ring) spread across the sky like a shining belt. The second city had no true day or night cycle: light that came through the dome was reflected off Obin, which was always visible, and bathed the city in a state of perpetual twilight. Most of the city supplemented this natural light with light fixtures, but some parts did not. Those were dangerous neighbourhoods, and people who had to walk through them didn't do so alone or unarmed.
The second city was filled with noise: noise from business storefronts advertising their goods, noises from tinned music pumped in through speakers outside of bars, noises from the air cars and grav sleds racing through the air, and noise from the citizens and visitors all talking, laughing, arguing, and occasionally spilling blood.
They made their way to a Metroline terminal and waited for the bus to appear. It did, eventually, floating a few meters over the ground traffic and slowly coming to rest on the loading platform. It was only partially full, and they were all able to sit together in the middle of the bus.
"Where are we going?" Bennet asked. He looked dazed, apparently overwhelmed by the chaotic nature of the city.
"Bar," Grif said. "Good place to relax. And do business."
"Relax and do business?" Bennet asked, raising an eyebrow. "Odd combination."
Ktk replied that perhaps Bennet needed to find more enjoyable work.
Bennet stared at it blankly.
Bennet looked at the others for a moment, then shrugged apologetically. "We don't run into too many of them in Alliance space, and when we do they're wearing voxes. Perhaps if Ktk would agree to wear one for the rest of this trip, my people could--"
Ktk chittered angrily.
"Ktk doesn't like them too much," Cyrus said. "Says they make it sound too cheerful all the time. Besides, we understand it just fine."
"Ah, so you all speak, ah, 'bug' then, do you?"
"Well... we understand it," Grif said. "Bugtalk is pretty tedious when it comes to sentence construction. It's a binary language that starts with the total sum of all knowledge and drills down through it until it isolates the specific thought or concept the bug is trying to say."
The Metroline bus settled down onto a boarding platform and opened its doors. Grif, Amys, Morgan, Cyrus, Bennet and Ktk left the bus and headed down the street.
Dyorbid's Tavern sat near one of the poorer ports in the city. The port that didn't offer dedicated umbilical connections to starships: it employed a number of ferries that went back and forth between the ships berthed in the area, picking up and depositing travellers as necessary. Grif looked up through the dome and saw perhaps 30 or 40 ships docked there.
"Hey," he said, squinting at one of the ships floating beyond the dome, "does that look like the Dominion to anyone else?"
Amys looked up. "Where?"
Grif pointed. "Just to the right of Obin's third band. See? Three engines."
"Hell," Amys said. "I think you're right. It does look like the Dominion."
Cyrus looked up, squinted, and nodded in agreement.
"What are you looking at?" Bennet asked.
"Kung frigate," Cyrus muttered. "That means slavers."
"Come on," Grif said, and entered the bar.
Dyorbid's was dark, crowded, humid, and seedy. A constant murmur of voices filled the air as people talked to each other hunched over small tables. Dim glow-globes dotted the tables, weakly illuminating the tables they rested on but going no further. The music was canned, of course--Dyorbid was too stingy to pay live musicians, and none of the patrons were interested in that kind of entertainment, anyway--and the drink, while potent, was cheaply made. It was the kind of place, Grif was fond of saying, where a glass of Stellis was considered a "classy drink."
Dyorbid was tending bar, his four, thick yellow arms all moving, all apparently engaged in performing completely separate tasks. He looked up when Grif and his crew entered and nodded briefly, blue-gray eyes atop long yellow stalks swaying gently as he did. A few other regulars noticed them as well, and one or two raised a glass in greeting.
"All right. Cyrus, Ktk, find someone with cargo to sell," Grif said. "Legit cargo. I'll find a table."
Cyrus nodded, and followed Ktk as it scuttled up to the bar to ask Dyorbid what he knew. Grif threaded his way through the crowd of patrons until he came across a table that a waitress--human--was just beginning to clear. Grif sat down hastily, grinning at the woman as she finished wiping down the table. She smiled back.
"What can I get you, handsome?" The waitress asked.
Amys sat next to Grif, smirking. Morgan chuckled and took the chair to Grif's left, leaving Bennet to sit in the chair facing him.
"A glass of something that won't kill me outright," Grif said. "Dyorbid still have any of that god-awful gin?"
"I don't know," the waitress said. "I'm pretty new. But I'll be happy to check. What about the rest of you?"
Amys ordered whiskey--the only thing she was willing to drink here, she claimed--and Bennet, apprehensive, did the same.
"Carumjak," Morgan said when it was his turn. "I'll take the bottle."
The waitress shuddered. "Your funeral, pops." Then, turning back to Grif, she said "I'll check on that gin for you." She winked, smiled slyly, then made her way back to the bar.
"It's about time Dyorbid actually hired an attractive waitress," Morgan said. Grif laughed.
"Well, hold on," Grif said, "let's be fair. The Murdec who worked here a few months back was very attractive... to other Murdecs."
"She had a thing for you too," Amys said, still smirking. "I think that's why you like it here--all the waitresses swoon over you."
"If they all looked like her," Grif replied, "that would be the only reason I'd need."
Morgan laughed at that. Bennet smiled slightly.
"The problem," Grif said, "is that Nengit like their females big-armed. And they tend to assume everyone else does too..."
"Speaking of that," Morgan said, looking around, "where is Hilda?"
"Got married." The new waitress had returned with a glass of whiskey for Amys and Bennet, a bottle and a glass for Morgan, and a glass of gin for Grif. "She's on her honeymoon... that's why I got hired, I guess. Dyorbid was a little short-handed." She laughed at her own joke.
"Hilda got married?" Morgan asked, surprised. "Who's the lucky groom?"
The waitress shrugged. "I never met her, how would I know him? Anyway, they're taking a honeymoon. Back in a month, I hear. Hope I can keep this job when she comes back..."
Grif smiled. "Well, I'll put in a good word for you," he said. "Miss, uh..."
"Velis," the waitress said. "Velis Sark."
Grif's smile froze on his face. Morgan blinked. Amys choked on her Whiskey.
"What was that?" Bennet asked.
"Velis," the waitress said again. "Hey, are you all right?" She peered at Grif closely. "You look a little ill..."
"I'm... fine..." Grif said with a pained expression on his face. "It's just the gin..."
"I'm not surprised," the waitress said. Leaning closer, she whispered, "just between you and me, the drinks here aren't very good."
She smiled, straightened, winked at Grif again, and then went to check on another table.
"Shut up," Grif said.
Amys burst out laughing.
"Oh, for..." Grif looked from Amys to Morgan, who was now red-faced and wheezing, and then at Bennet, who was grinning broadly.
He sighed. "Of all the possible names in known space..."
"Aw." Amys patted Grif on the cheek in mock sympathy.
"For some reason," Morgan said, still wheezing, "I don't see the rest of the night going quite the way Grif was planning."
"Drink your poison," Grif growled.
Morgan continued to snicker as he opened the bottle and poured a brackish-colored liquid into his glass. "To Grif and Velis," he said, raising his glass. Amys raised hers in response, and they both toasted their scowling captain.
Morgan drained his glass without so much as wincing. "How can you drink that?" Grif asked, looking for a chance to change the subject. "It'll kill you, you know."
"Yes," Morgan said agreeably. "It's vile, and if you drink more than a glass or two--well, four or five, in my case--you'll die on the spot. But it grows on you."
"Well keep it away from me," Grif said. "I don't understand why everyone calls me the crazy one when you drink that stuff like it was water."
"Well, that's easy. You're the one who--" Morgan stopped in mid-sentence as he focused on something behind Grif. He frowned. "Grif," he said, gesturing with this glass. "The news..."
Grif turned in his seat and found that a wall screen had been activated. It was a news program, and as an Invagi woman stared out from the screen with a grave expression on her face, an overlay read "SPECIAL NEWS REPORT--TYLARIS PRIME." A picture of Baron Mogra Tylaris and his son Rolis were displayed in the upper right-hand corner of the screen.
"Died today at the age of sixty-eight," the Invagi woman was saying. "Official cause of death is reported to be a fast-acting blood infection as the result of eating improperly prepared food. Baron Tylaris was known to be particularly fond of exotic foods, specifically vokh intestines. Tylaris officials reacted with shock and dismay to the announcement."
Grif was stunned. "Baron Tylaris is dead?"
The Invagi news anchor continued talking. "The Tylaris Barony is the largest of all Trade Baron empires, and is famous for its advanced shipbuilding facilities. At this time it isn't known whether the industries that make the Tylaris Barony so powerful will be affected by his death--"
There was an uneasy murmur as the patrons in the bar considered the prospect of upheaval in the Tylaris systems.
"--but in a short statement made earlier today, Rolis Tylaris, heir to the Tylaris Barony, claimed there would be no immediate changes to the day-to-day operations of his father's holdings."
The screen cut to a picture of Rolis, a thin, foppish man with a weak chin and watery eyes. "My father did much to secure the success and prosperity of this Barony," he said in a clear, thin voice.
Amys snorted. Baron Tylaris wasn't thought of as a particularly driven man--very canny, but he'd preferred to set things up once and leave them to run themselves, while he indulged himself with various vices.
"I intend," Rolis continued, "to see to it that the Tylaris Barony becomes even greater than the one my father built. In his name and in his memory, I can do no less."
The image of Rolis disappeared, replaced by the Invagi anchorwoman behind her desk.
"Other than that statement, delivered a short time ago in front of the Tylaris estate, the only other comment from the new Baron Tylaris was an expression of shock and dismay that his father was taken at such a comparatively young age."
Grif looked around the room. Everyone looked shocked and a little worried. Whenever a Barony went through a succession of power, even under the most benign circumstances, there was almost always an attempted coup. These things were usually done as discretely as possible. The source of a Trade Baron's power was business, after all, and disrupting that business in order to gain power was counter-productive--but the independents, not directly tied to any of the Trade Baron businesses, were usually in danger of getting caught in the middle of such things.
The only person who didn't look concerned, Grif noticed, was Bennet. In fact, he thought, Bennet didn't even look particularly surprised: he was watching the newscast with an expression that might be considered casual to most, but to Grif screamed "poker face."
Grif frowned. Bennet looked at him for a moment, then looked away quickly, examining the room in apparent bored disinterest.
The newscast switched to a short biography of Baron Tylaris' life, and the patrons turned their attention back to their tables, each table buzzing excitedly.
"Improperly prepared food," Morgan said, turning his gaze back to his companions. "I can't believe it."
"No?" Grif asked. "Why?"
"Well..." Morgan frowned. "The Baron always hired the best, didn't he? That was his thing. I can't believe he'd hire a cook who didn't know how to prepare his food properly."
"Accidents happen," Amys said. "If you're going to eat something that kills you--or drink it, for that matter," she added, gesturing to Morgan's bottle of Carumjak, "sooner or later you'll pay for it."
Morgan looked at his bottle dubiously. Then he shrugged, grinned and filled another glass, raising it into the air. "To the Baron," he said.
Grif and Amys raised their glasses. "Hear, hear," Grif said. "To the Baron."
Bennet, Grif noticed, did not join in the toast.
"Still," Grif said slowly, "it seems kind of strange, don't you think? A man in his sixties isn't particularly old--especially when you're one of the richest men who ever lived and can afford the best doctors in the--"
"Tester," said a gravelly voice by his ear.
Grif turned and saw a black, indistinct shape standing in front of him. His eyes slid around the edges of the creature. The only noticeable feature on it was the slightly luminescent set of goggles it wore somewhere near its head. Grif grinned.
"N'grash," he said. "Captain N'grash--good to see you. Come and join us."
"No, Tester," N'Grash said, "we must talk. In private. It is important."
N'grash was the captain of the Grlashimargrak, a vessel that engaged mostly in piracy, though she also dabbled in smuggling from time to time. She and Grif had been friends for years, and if she said she needed to talk to him privately, he was certain it was important.
Grif looked at the others. "I'll be right back," he said. "Go check on Cyrus and Ktk, see if they've found us any cargo."
Grif followed N'grash deeper into the bar.
N'grash was Ggrlshan, a carnivore race from a high-gravity world that was nearly always dark to the human eye. Their fur partially absorbed most light, which made them very hard to see clearly in a dimly lit room. Short and powerfully built, they had evolved from a race of predators and still displayed many of the same instincts and mannerisms.
There were many back rooms in Dyorbid's. N'grash had reserved one in advance and stepped inside, motioning for Grif to follow. She closed the door behind them and pulled herself up on a chair next to a table. Grif sat down across from her.
"What's up?" Grif asked. "I have to say, this isn't very encouraging..."
"It is not, Tester..." N'grash's expression was unreadable in this light, but she sounded concerned. "It is bad news. Very, very bad news."
Grif felt a twinge of uneasiness.
"You are being hunted," N'grash said. "By a Sword."