WHEREIN Familiarity Breeds Aggravation, and Strong Desire to Drink
Garinon Station was the primary port of call in the Garinon System. Before the Tylaris Barony had joined the Alliance, it served as a major hub for goods coming out of Trade Baron space. Its fortunes dimmed a little when Rolis Tylaris brought his barony into the Alliance, but it had done its best to adapt by diversifying its interests. Politics had become its latest product—specifically, services catering to political think tanks. Garinon Station had created an entire industry around hosting conferences, debates, conventions, lectures, and forums around the most important issues of the day. It appeared to be working: almost overnight the Garinon System was the place to go if you were a think tank or political group.
It was the perfect place, Velis thought, for a bunch of spies masquerading as diplomats to meet.
Stepping through the disembark hatch, she noticed the subtly different quality of the air as she entered the terminal. The difference was mostly in her head, she knew, but there was something about recycled shipboard atmosphere that she disliked, and although the air recycling systems on a space station were essentially the same, she thought it smelled cleaner. She counted herself lucky that her psychological aversion to space travel was so trivial—some people suffered far more severe symptoms, and had to be medicated when they were forced to travel—but it frustrated her that she had it at all, and it doubly frustrated her that as soon as she believed she was breathing the air coming from Garinon Station she started to relax.
Grif would never let me hear the end of that, she thought. And then she gritted her teeth as she forced it out of her head.
Bennet was waiting for her at the end of the terminal, along with a few other agents chosen to represent the “welcoming delegation.” Her cover story, at least for the moment, was that Ambassador Enge would attend a conference on something called “Innovative Mercantilism” and she would have to spend at least a day and a half sitting through interminably boring presentations from people who would prove themselves remarkably ignorant on mercantilism in general. She doubted she would hear anything remotely approaching innovative.
Bennet Janx, along with the rest of his group, was dressed in a diplomatic tabard and long sirwal that identified him as part of her delegation. He adopted a stooped, slumped posture, making him look slightly shorter and considerably softer in the baggy clothing, which was why he was wearing it. He’d also added a touch of gray to his dark hair, making him look older than he was, and had done something to his eyes to make them watery. When he wasn’t trying to look like anything else, Bennet looked like an unsheathed blade, ready to cut—tall, lean, every movement precise, no motion wasted. Here, he looked like a calm, put-upon mid-tier diplomat who was more worried about keeping to a schedule than getting enough sleep.
“Ambassador.” Bennet was even altering his voice, making it sound thinner and higher-pitched. Velis suppressed a frown—if he was going to this much trouble to obscure his appearance here, it meant he was worried that someone else might already be watching them. It was best, she decided, to follow his lead.
She nodded once and sighed. “I still need to collect my luggage. Have one of your people see to it. I’m exhausted. I hope I have enough time to get to my rooms and rest a little before the conference begins.”
Bennet made a show of steeling himself before answering. “The suite we’d reserved is no longer available. There was a problem with the ventilation, I believe. The hotel didn’t give me the details. Your new suite will be ready in about an hour.”
The room had been bugged. Interesting.
Velis clucked in annoyance. “Well, I suppose I could do with something to eat. We can go over my itinerary then.”
Bennet nodded. “I’ll send some men for your luggage. I have a sled waiting.”
Velis nodded again. Bennet turned and walked toward the back of the terminal hub. Velis followed as two of the other “diplomats” left to get her luggage, and two more closed in behind her.
The gravity sled was an enclosed antigravity vehicle, designed to seat five with a space for luggage on the roof. The driver was already seated, and Bennet stood by the back seat as Velis climbed into the middle. It was a tight fit—she sat in the middle, with Bennet to her right, another agent to her left. She finally recognized the man climbing into the passenger seat: Garyn Sev, one of Bennet’s regulars. She didn’t recognize the man to her left, or the driver.
Bennet waited until all doors were shut and the lift had started moving down the wide terminal corridor before he spoke. “The sled is clean, and we’re running an audio mask. We can talk freely.”
Velis nodded, resisting the urge to shift to get more comfortable. Nobody in the back seat was comfortable. It couldn’t be helped. “Who is it?”
Bennet shook his head. “We don’t know. I wasn’t expecting this. Not here, not yet. We found the surveilance nodes in the dividing walls of the suite this morning, so Bera manufactured a maintenance issue—waste disposal—and we’re preparing the new suite now. It’ll be clean.”
“Dividing walls,” Velis said.
“Yeah,” Bennet said. “They had to tear down the old walls and put the new ones in. They didn’t have a lot of time to do it, and the work was flawless. We only found the nodes because Sev was paranoid and decided to check for them specifically.”
Velis glanced at the man sitting in the passenger seat.
“Smit Barony tech,” Sev said. “Really high-end stuff.”
Velis raised an eyebrow. The Smit Barony was best known for its almost exclusive control over ATID Comm Tunnels, which made communication across the vast distances of space feasible, but they specialized in communications equipment of all kinds, including surveillance equipment. If it was “really high-end,” as Sev claimed, then only a few organizations could afford to use it.
“Do we think it’s the Throne?” Velis asked. It was her first choice—the Empire of the Radiant Throne was the biggest threat to the Alliance’s continued existence.
“I don’t think so,” Bennet said. “I think it’s—”
“We’re here,” the driver interrupted.
She hadn’t noticed when they left the terminal corridor and entered into one of the primary traffic spokes that led from the terminals to the station proper. They were about a third of the way down the spoke, she thought, and they were pulling into a recess along the spoke wall, where many other vehicles were parked, almost filled to capacity. The sign over a door set into the farthest recess said PHILLIUS’ ROOST.
Velis felt the gravity sled slow and pull into one of the few empty spaces left. “It seems a little crowded for our needs.”
“We have reservations,” Bennet said, “and Phillius specializes in privacy.”
Phillius’ Roost was a restaurant and nightclub that managed to be casual enough to appeal to the common traveller while adding just enough elegance to justify its expensive prices. The main floor of the restaurant was cheerfully crowded, and focused primarily on human and human-compatible cuisine—there were other, more private sections that served dishes specific to other races that were considered aesthetically unpleasant. At the moment most of the population on the main floor was humanoid.
The driver stayed behind, and Bennet led the rest of the group down into the main floor where he spoke quietly to one of the greeters, who nodded and disappeared into a back room. A few minutes later they were seated in a small private room off to the side of the main floor. A waiter took their orders, returned quickly with a light lunch, and left the room. When the group was finally alone, Bennet locked the door. Sev immediately opened a side panel on the wall, revealing a small terminal, and keyed in a command. The air in the room shimmered for a moment, and then the sound of the restaurant receded to a low hum.
“It’s safe to talk now,” Bennet said. “Phillius has a privacy contract with the Smit Barony.”
“Oh,” Velis said. “That’s expensive.”
Bennet made a face. “It is. And the cost gets passed on to his customers, I’m afraid. But at the moment this is our best option.”
“Agreed,” Velis said. “Fill me in.”
Sev continued to monitor the wall terminal, making adjustments to it occasionally, as Bennet introduced the other two agents. Emil Host was a small, sharp-eyed man, clean-shaven with a receding hairline. Vidur Cind was heavyset, dark-haired, with a thick, well-groomed beard.
Velis studied Vidur for a moment. Vidur Cind was a Kung name, which was unusual to find in the Alliance. The remnants of the Kung Protectorate were scattered across known space, mostly having devolved into slaver tribes operating in the Trade Baronies and in the fringe planets. Comparitively few Kung families emigrated into Alliance Space, but the ones who did mostly kept to themselves. It was unusual for someone with a Kung background to take any interest at all in government service—but here he was, and Bennet obviously trusted him.
She turned her attention back to Bennet. “You were about to tell me who you thought was behind the surveillance.”
“Rolis Tylaris,” Bennet said. Host and Cind nodded their agreement.
Velis furrowed her brow. “He’s not supposed to know we suspect him of anything.”
“He’s also supposed to be a shallow, stupid man who’s only interested in being rich,” Bennet says. “I think he takes after his father more than anyone realized. Including his father.”
“All right,” Velis said. “Why does he know we suspect him?”
“This is the tricky part,” Bennet said. “I don’t think he specifically knows we suspect him. I think he’s expecting us to suspect him, and he’s watching us in order to get advance warning of when that happens. Something happened very recently that forced him to expose himself more than he wanted. He knows it’s a matter of time before we catch wind of it. I don’t think he realizes how quickly we did, but he knows it will happen. So he’s got his eyes open. And of course he’ll be looking for any scenario where you’re involved.”
Velis nodded. Rolis knew who she was and what she did. She was the reason he was Baron Tylaris, instead of Baron Tylaris’ unimportant son.
“Tell me about this incident.”
Vidur Cind reached into the folds of his tabard and pulled out a flat, rectangular box that he set in the middle of the table. He nodded to Sev, who momentarily abandoned his place at the wall terminal to dim the lights in the room. Cind touched a corner of the rectangle and a holographic projection appeared over the table, bearing the seal of the Alliance of Free Worlds. A moment later it updated to show the tactical map of a star system.
“Oobachi?” Velis asked. “That’s an Invagi word, isn’t it?”
Bennet nodded. “It’s a fringe world system, claimed by the Tylaris Barony.”
“Whose tactical map is this, and how did we get it?”
“One of ours,” Bennet sid. “The warships Iolanthe, Thespis, and Mikado responded to an emergency call from the Voltaire. The Voltaire is one of our prototype comm tunnel ships. Naturally they responded with due haste.”
The tactical map updated to show six ships at the system’s edge, then three more—the Alliance warships, Velis assumed—appearing in relatively close proximity.
“Voltaire was on a test run, accompanied by five Crusader-class Tylaris ships,” Bennet explained. “The test was interrupted when the Tylaris ships intercepted a priority broadcast from another Tylaris ship in distress. Because they were the closest vessels, they responded. Because the Voltaire wasn’t yet combat-rated, it went with them rather than be left alone. And, as per procedure, it informed the closest Alliance vessels that it was in need of assistance. That’s how they got involved.”
“What were they responding to?” Velis asked.
“The Tylaris ships claimed a Kessler gunboat was pursuing a pirate into the Oobachi system and stumbled into an ambush. There are a few problems with the story, but it held together enough to satisfy the Alliance responders. They dropped just outside of the Oobachi gravity well and began scanning the system. They eventually detected substantial amounts of ship wreckage, as well as a lone craft not emitting a signal beacon. The Alliance ships took a defensive posture around Voltaire while two Crusaders went in to intercept. The other three hung back, intending to jump to tach to intercept if the target attempted to leave the system. They escaped anyway.”
The tactical map moved forward in accelerated time. Velis saw the two Crusader vessels nearing the gas giant the ship was in orbit around, then saw gravity readings spike sharply around the ship as it accelerated toward the edge of the system farthest from the other vessels. The increased gravity around the ship made it impossible for any of the vessels to jump close enough to it to make an interception practical. The ship jumped to tach and disappeared from the screen.
“Clever,” Velis said. “Uncomfortable, but clever. But what makes you think this is something the Baron doesn’t want us to know about?”
“The way he reacted to everything afterward,” Bennet said. “He formally apologized for interrupting the test and sent us a full report of the incident.”
Velis blinked in surprise. “He did?”
Bennet nodded. “A very thorough report. Sent before we even had a chance to ask through proper channels. Which satisfied everyone who was officially involved, but it set off every alarm I have.”
“Yes,” Velis said. “Never trust a man who gives you the whole story before you even ask for part of it. What was he hiding, I wonder?”
“We’re looking into it. I suspect it has something to do with the insurrection. I’m waiting on a few reports that I hope will add a little clarity. But…” Bennet hesitated, looking uncomfortable. “There’s something else.”
Velis waved her hand impatiently. “Don’t hold back on my account, Bennet. I need to know everything.”
Bennet took a deep breath. “The ship that escaped was a Maximillian-class transport.”
Velis glanced up at Bennet sharply. “What?”
Bennet nodded. “No signature key, but—”
“That doesn’t mean anything.”
“Not on its own, no,” Bennet said, “but the maneuver they pulled… that was unusual. Unusual enough to make me wonder. So I had Host look through any traffic and commerce records we could find for Oobachi, just in case.”
Velis turned to look at the small man with the sharp eyes.
In a voice every bit as sharp as his eyes, Emil Host said “there are no records specific to Captain Vindh or The Fool’s Errand. There are, however, many records for a Captain Dak Wallace, and his ship The Long Haul. They do semi-regular runs to a mining colony there. Captain Wallace is a known associate of Captain Vindh. They used to be regulars at a popular spot for independents on Tylaris Prime, but since recent events they’ve both relocated to Tyrelos Station.”
The Tyrelos Barony was a small and comparatively poor Trade Barony located right on the edge of Radiant Throne space. Velis had been there before… and she’d been with Grif at the time.
Velis eased back in her chair and felt a small, sharp pain stabbing at the base of her temples. “I agree with your assessment.”
“Whatever’s going on,” Bennet said, “it looks like Captain Vindh is involved somehow.”
Velis exhaled sharply, closing her eyes. “I think we need something worth drinking,” she said. “I assume this Phillius can accommodate us for that as well?”
“It comes standard with the privacy package,” Bennet said.