WHEREIN a Business Partner Transitions Into a Very Expensive Client
Baron Tyrelos stared at the Station Authority newscast, taking in the images flashing by: the remains of the Second City Bellows, the gritty particulates of the incinerated debris hanging in the air, Station Authority forces cordoning off the area, and one brief image of Lord Sonim Makar and Chancellor Muringyne being ushered into a secure area by Station Authority units. That last image was, she knew, standard emergency protocol—she’d signed and authorized it herself—but it made her angry. Angry, and more than a little frightened.
“Adyt!” She heard her voice, but didn’t quite recognize it. It sounded calm, in control, and revealed nothing of the seething mess of emotions she was trying to force her way through.
The Lieutenant immediately stepped forward. “Baron.” He was all business. He knew what this was, and had been chosen for her personal detail precisely because he could be trusted when the time came.
And that time is now, the baron thought. Damn it all to hell.
“Reach out to the others—only the ones we know are loyal. Find out what happened, and report back. Do not attempt to contact the chancellor, he’s going to be spending a lot of time with Sonim for a while. He’ll contact us when he has opportunity.”
Adyt hesitated, glanced meaningfully at Captain Vindh, then left the wardroom.
The Baron cursed inwardly. The secrecy surrounding this business arrangement had probably saved her life, but it also placed her in a very precarious position. She stared at Vindh, weighing her options. He was, by all appearances, focused on the news program, and part of him probably was… but he struck her as a perceptive man, and there was little chance he didn’t hear Adyt’s orders. Amys Sif, his executive officer, wasn’t even pretending to be distracted: she was staring at the Baron, every muscle tense, waiting for orders.
And willing to take matters into her own hands, if orders don’t come in time. Careful, Minerva.
Baron Tyrelos turned to Captain Vindh and smiled weakly. “I don’t suppose an appeal to patriotism will do much good.”
Vindh snorted, still staring at the broadcast. His XO laughed outright—a short, quick, bark of a laugh—and relaxed slightly.
“I didn’t think so.” The baron kept her voice dry. “Captain Vindh, I find myself in a very awkward situation. I would like to extricate myself from that situation before we resume negotiation.”
“Yeah…” He smiled grimly. His eyes were still locked on the news broadcast, but she knew he wasn’t really watching it.
He’s trying to figure out what his best move is. And he hasn’t decided whether or not that involves handing me over to Sonim.
Sonim was behind this—she had no doubt of that. He was the one who would profit the most, at least politically, from something like this. He would swoop in and restore order and the soldiers would be loyal to him. He wouldn’t even have to worry about who would oppose him in a coup. No coup would be necessary. She was dead.
“Who died?” He asked the question casually, almost off-handedly.
A lot of people died, but he wasn’t asking generally. He meant who died in your place? The baron felt her throat tighten as one fist clenched.
She took a deep breath, forcing her voice steady. “Aloris Fellik. One of my officers. She’s a stand-in for public functions.”
A moment later, she added: “Was. Was a stand-in.”
“How did you pull it off?”
She took another breath, not wanting to answer the question, not wanting to dwell on it. “She’s my height, my build, we share some features… enough that she might be mistaken for a cousin. She used a subdermal mask and a subvox.”
Vindh nodded. A subdermal mask was expensive, requiring surgical implants that forced someone’s facial muscles to expand and contract into different shapes and contours. If it was used on someone whose basic facial structure was similar to another’s, it was possible to create a very convincing duplicate.
“Subvox. Interesting. She spoke in your place as well?”
“Very convincingly,” the baron said. “She was good. She could even trigger some of the voice-activated systems in the palace.”
“Would she fool Sonim?”
“She had in the past,” the baron said. “A few times. Never prolonged encounters, just a brief exchange of words. If it had been more than that, he certainly would have learned the truth. But yes, she fooled him.”
“Are you sure?”
Baron Tyrelos glared at him. He was still not-staring at the broadcast.
“Yes,” she said, voice tight. “I’m sure.”
“Because if I were Sonim,” Vindh said, “and I were planning a coup, I wouldn’t want to kill you.”
“You wouldn’t?” The tightness in her voice dipped into derision. “Your hypothetical coup is an unusually merciful one, Captain Vindh. Popular wisdom seems to be that a coup is more effective when the former head of state can’t do anything to stop it.”
“Oh, I’d kill you eventually,” Vindh said. “Well, probably not me. Probably a lackey. But killing you cuts me off to a lot of resources I’d want to have on hand in my new despotic regime. I imagine you have more than a few bank accounts, private store rooms, and secret records caches that require some kind of biological key—a DNA sample, a voice command, optical recognition. That kind of thing.”
Baron Tyrelos frowned as she thought it over. “It might be nice to have that kind of access, but it’s not necessary. Once he becomes Baron he has access to all the resources the Tyrelos Barony has… which is more than anything I’d be able to squirrel away.”
“He might not be interested in your money,” Vindh said, “though if so I sort of have to wonder what kind of man he really is. But I’m not assuming your assets are confined to your ‘rainy day’ and ‘run like hell’ accounts. Maybe you have secret files on all your board members—files he could use to keep them in line. You’ve been Baron for a while. He has to suspect that you have a few trade secrets hidden up your sleeve. If he kills you outright, he doesn’t get to see them.”
Baron Tyrelos shook her head, annoyed. “But if he doesn’t kill me, he doesn’t get the job.”
“He can have the best of both worlds,” Vindh said. “If it were me, and I knew you used a really good body double, I’d kill the body double in a very public manner, declare you dead, secretly imprison you, then extract all the information you had in your head as quickly and as efficiently as I could. Then I’d kill you.”
The baron blinked in surprise. “You would?”
Vindh thought it over, then shrugged. “My sister would.”
That caused his XO to laugh again.
Baron Tyrelos forced herself to think it over. “Too complicated, too little reward. Captain Vindh, Sonim wants the barony, and any barony—even mine—is already a considerable prize. The extras would be nice, but they’re not worth making the primary goal more complicated. He wants to be Baron: he’ll focus on that. He’ll focus on the most effective way of getting that. With me out of the way, all Sonim has to do is get the board to appoint him Baron.”
Vindh nodded slowly. “Which means the simplest, most direct solution is to kill you in such a way that almost demands he step in to save the day.”
The baron gestured to the news feed. “And detonating a bomb at a public event where I am a guest fits that bill perfectly. No, Captain Vindh, if Sonim was behind that bombing—and I am absolutely certain he was—it was because he believed that Aloris was me, and that he had killed me.”
Vindh nodded again.
“It also means,” she said, “that since Sonim thinks I’m dead, it’s very unlikely that he’s actually looking for me. I’m not sure how long that advantage will last, but I would very much like to take advantage of it.”
He turned to face her. She could almost see him running the numbers, calculating the odds. And then she saw the moment he made his decision.
“We’re leaving,” he said. “Everything’s in chaos right now, and it’ll take a while for Station Authority to lock the place down. Independents are going to making a mad rush for the exit for as long as that window stays open, and we need to make that window. We can take you and the soldiers you have stationed outside, but we can’t wait for any more. As soon as my crew come back—and I guarantee you every last one is making a beeline for the Errand right now—we’re casting off.”
Baron Tyrelos blinked in surprise. She was even more surprised to see his XO nodding in agreement.
“It’ll cost you,” Vindh warned. “We’re not working for free. But I’m pretty sure you can cover our fees for moving dangerous cargo using one of those secret accounts that Sonim apparently doesn’t care about.”
“Dangerous cargo?” Despite their current situation, she found the label almost amusing.
“If you have a better description, I’d love to hear it. With the understanding that it’ll probably cost you more.”
The baron nodded. “Dangerous cargo it is. Thank you, Captain.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” Vindh said. “We still have to get out of here.” He turned to his second in command. “Amys, take a headcount and get a status on the crew that haven’t returned yet. We’re not leaving anyone behind, but I want everyone in their stations and ready to go as soon as they arrive.”
His XO nodded. “Cutter, I’m pretty sure we’re going to need to sober some of them up.”
The lean, scarred doctor grunted in acknowledgment and stood. “I’ll prep the injectors.” He nodded once to the Baron, then he and the XO left the Wardroom quickly.
“Doctor Tanz,” Vindh continued, “I’m taking you with us free of charge.”
Baron Tyrelos saw the older man start in surprise, then shake his head.
“Kind of you,” he said, “but I’d rather not get involved in a second coup. Meaning no disrespect.” He shot an almost-guilty glance at the Baron. “But the one I’m in is difficult enough.”
The baron sighed. She’d hoped to use Tanz as a resource—she was convinced they’d be able to help each other, in the long run—but she couldn’t blame him for wanting to stay clear.
“Yeah, that’s very nice,” Vindh said, a bit of bleak amusement showing through, “but your presence is compulsory.”
It took a moment for Tanz to realize what the captain was saying. “Look here, Captain Vindh—”
“Shut up, Tanz.” Despite the abrupt dismissal, the amusement in the captains voice grew stronger. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t trust you. You’ve already tried to screw me over once. I’m not saying I don’t understand why, I’m just saying the only possible reason you’d have to not want to come along is to try to get Station Authority to storm the place in the hopes you get the synaptic map back. It’s the best play you’ve got right now.”
Tanz closed his mouth abruptly, lips thinning, eyes narrow.
“I’m not offended or anything,” Vindh continued, “but your plan probably won’t work. Sonim strikes me as the kind of guy who’d probably off you and keep the synaptic map for himself. Even if it did work, it wouldn’t work out well for me. I like being not dead. So I’m going to keep you around until I can give you a deal we both like better.”
Tanz gripped the arms of his chair, hands shaking with sudden rage. Then he relaxed, closed his eyes, and sank back with a sigh.
“I can’t argue your logic,” he said. “You’re probably right about Sonim.”
The baron had her doubts, but she saw no reason to share them. There was no point in resorting to the truth when the argument was already going her way.