Fyis sat in her booth, stared into her drink and grinned.
Adro sighed inwardly. It wasn’t her happy grin: this was her game face, the face she made when she was snarling defiance against a universe she was absolutely convinced was out to get her.
“What’s up?” He set his drink down on the table and slid in beside her, not bothering to wait for an invitation.
He smiled very slightly, ignoring the nickname, and nudged her with his shoulder. “Liar.”
Fyis sighed, mouth twisting in annoyance. “Fine, something’s up. We’re stuck here.”
Adro looked around the bar. “What a terrible place to be.”
“You know what I mean.”
Adro went on as if he hadn’t heard. “Cheap drink, food doesn’t kill you, and we’re literally right next to the ship in case something goes wrong.” He glanced out their booth window. It overlooked the spaceport tarmac, and he could see the Fool’s Errand towering over most of the other ships. “I can see why you’re upset.”
“You know what I mean,” she snarled. “We’re also not doing anything. They still don’t trust us.”
Adro shrugged. “We’re getting there.”
Fyis opened her mouth to protest, but Adro waved her off. “We are, Fyis. We’re getting there. They used us to bag the snipers back on Tobanth, didn’t they?”
Fyis glowered, but nodded.
“And Cyrus and Ktk took Mac and Sar to do the pickup. That’s definite progress.”
“It’s not progress when Cyrus does it,” Fyis said. “Cyrus has liked us pretty much since day one. It’d be progress if the Captain did it. It’d be real progress if Amys did it…”
Adro sighed, then took a drink to keep from diving into all the old arguments. The look on Fyis’ face was enough—she knew. She knew she was dwelling on it, and she didn’t want to, and she couldn’t stop. Fyis had a lot of admirable qualities, and one of them was tenacity… but it was a double-edged sword for her. There was no point piling on; it was better to help her work her way out.
“Look,” Adro said, “you’re right, obviously. She’s the last hurdle. And we’re not really in until she says we are. I completely agree with you on that.”
Some of the frustration etched into Fyis’ face eased. Just a bit.
“But she and Cyrus are friends, right? I mean, they and the Captain are in it thick together. They go all the way back, at least as far back as their ship. So as much as you think she doesn’t trust us? If Cyrus didn’t like us, she’d trust us even less.”
“Yeah…” Fyis twirled her glass around, watching the liquid swirl around.
“So we already have a leg up, compared to some random hire,” Adro said. “Someone she trusts is in our corner. That’s a good thing.”
“Not quite.” Fyis raised a single finger in protest. “I mean… it was a good thing. It was a good thing when we first signed on. It moved us forward, and that’s good, and the fact that he still trusts us keeps us from sliding back, and that’s good. But he’s taken us as far as he can, right? He’s not going to be moving us any more forward. We’re past the point where people vouching for us helps. And we’re running out of time.”
Adro looked at her blankly. “Time? What are you talking about?”
Fyis stared down at her mostly-untouched drink. “Nothing I haven’t already said.”
“Ah.” Adro nodded slowly. “Well, you’re right about that, too. This is a lousy job to still be the new kids.”
“And it’s getting lousier,” Fyis said. Then, in a much lower voice: “Messhik?”
Adro flinched involuntarily. He glanced around the bar—nobody bothered looking at them, let alone listen to them, but the name carried it’s own entourage of paranoia everywhere it went. “Yeah. That’s… bad.”
Fyis smirked as she raised her glass. “Here’s to understatement.” She drank; Adro joined her.
Fyis set her empty glass down on the table, then used her sleeve to wipe the corner of her mouth. “I figure it’ll take one more thing. One complication. If we get one more complication Amys is going to decide they can’t afford to trust us, and she’ll tell the Captain to cut us loose. It won’t be personal, but we’ll screwed anyway.”
“Disagree,” Adro said, gesturing with his nearly empty glass. “I figure it’ll shake out like this: something will happen.”
Fyis waited for him to continue. He didn’t.
“Something?” she prompted.
Fyis raised an eyebrow. “Want to be more specific?”
Adro thought it over. “Something tense.”
Fyis stared at him for a moment, then laughed. “You are terrible at being specific.”
Adro leaned back, smiling slightly. “I want to keep my options open. Maybe replace ‘tense’ with ‘dangerous.’”
“You’re useless, Junior. Anyone ever tell you that?”
The smile turned into a grin. “Just you, every day of my life since the first we met. Look, I don’t know what it’ll be. Not specifically. But it’ll be… let’s say, ‘bad,’ and it’ll put everyone’s back against the wall, and we’ll have to either go all-in with the rest of the crew, or cut bait and run. That’s what Amys is waiting for.”
Fyis sighed, pushing her glass away as she stared gloomily out the booth window. “I guess you’re right. That’s a hell of an audition, though.”
“Hey, look at the bright side,” Adro said. “Considering everything that’s happened so far, it’s bound to happen sooner than later.”
Fyis snorted. “Happy day.”
“Could be worse,” Adro offered.
Fyis grimaced. She stared out the booth window in silence for a moment, then her eyebrows shot up. “You’re right.” She jerked her head toward a group of people walking past the bar.
Adro eyed them. They were six humans, an equal mix of men and women, each dressed in a simple gray uniform, each wearing light, high-tech body armor. A shoulder patch depicting a pale, featureless face was sewn into the fabric of each right sleeve. They were all armed with sidearms. Two openly carried rifles.
“Huh,” Adro said. “Who are they?”
“Bounty hunters.” Fyis watched them walk past the booth window, relaxing a bit when they didn’t stop at the bar door. “Good ones. They’re called ‘Gray Company,’ and work a lot of the fringe worlds. Worked a job for them once. They’re pros.”
“Never heard of them,” Adro said.
“No reason you would. They don’t operate openly in Trade Baron space; the barons get twitchy about mercenaries snatching up potential customers.”
Adro eyed them. “They don’t look like they’re here to unwind.”
“Yeah,” Fyis said. “They’re probably on a job. They’re being a little obvious about it, though.” Her gaze drifted left. “…and so are they.”
Adro adjusted his gaze to match, and saw four men—two human, one Invagi, and one hulking six-armed Nengit—dressed as if they were about to set out into the wilderness: sturdy work pants with lots of pockets, bulky vests with lots of pockets, and full backpacks. All wore holstered sidearms. All were walking briskly behind the Gray Company humans.
“Who are they?”
“Raddan’s Rangers,” she said. “They’re really good. They specialize in bringing in the really hard cases.”
An uneasy feeling stirred in the pit of Adro’s stomach. He couldn’t put a finger on why. “Looks like they’re following the other group.”
“Yeah,” Fyis agreed. “Gray Company brings the Rangers in, sometimes. Sucks to be whoever they’re after.”
As they watched, they saw another group emerge from the street leading to the spaceport tarmac. Two women—one Invagi, one human—and a male Vage, all dressed in black-and-gold jumpsuits, led a squad of heavily armored figures carrying rugged pulse rifles. The Invagi woman saw the other two groups, called out to the others, and hurried to catch up to them.
“Um…” Adro glanced at Fyis. “More bounty hunters? Do bounty hunters usually need mechanized infantry? It seems a little excessive.”
Fyis shook her head. “Those aren’t bounty hunters.” Her voice was very quiet. “Those are Radiant Throne soldiers.”
Adro felt his throat tighten. “Throne?”
“Yeah…” Fyis stared at the mercenaries, then at Raddan’s Rangers, just moving past their window, then up the street to where the Gray Company humans had just disappeared from view. “Hey, Junior, did the Captain ever say where he was going to be spending the day?”
“No,” Adro said, “but we’re all supposed to check in, just in case there’s trouble.” He couldn’t stop staring at the Radiant Throne soldiers. “That’s not their regular uniform, is it?”
Fyis made an impatient sound in the back of her throat, then reached into her jacket to pull out a thin, flat screen. “You’ve only ever seen marines.” She waved a hand over it once, then checked her messages.
Adro glanced at her. She was staring at her comm, her face drained of color.
Fyis looked up at him, eyes wide. “The Red Shield. His last update was they checked in to the Red Shield.”
“What’s that?” Adro asked.
“That,” Fyis said, “is a bounty hunter bar.”
“Uhhh…” Adro watched as the other two groups halted, waiting for the Radiant Throne soldiers to catch up. “There are bounty hunter bars?”
“It’s a damn chain,” Fyis said. “The Red Ticket is always a bounty hunter bar. Get the tab, I gotta call Mac.”
Adro nodded wordlessly, fumbled through is pockets, and dropped some money on the table.
“Mac.” Fyis had the comm on a private channel—good practice in a public space—so he couldn’t hear the other half of the conversation. “Yeah, I know you’re busy, now shut up and listen. You need to finish the thing and tell Cyrus we have a problem. The Captain’s at the local Red Shield, and a squad of RT ground-pounders just joined up with two high-class bounty hunter outfits outside our booth window. He’s been made.”
She listened for a moment. “Yeah, OK. Standing by.” Then she turned off her comm and turned to Adro, grinning fiercely.
“Good news, Junior. Looks like we’re going all-in.”