WHEREIN A Message is Received and a Decision is Made
Cyrus sat at the Sensor station on the bridge of the Fool’s Errand, sighed, and took another drink from the bottle of Stellis he’d placed on Morgan’s console. He wondered when Grif would get out of the hospital; he wondered when they would leave. He worried, vaguely, about what they would do when they finally did, and how they would get out of Varkav alive for the second time. He occupied himself with “busy work” in an attempt to distract himself. At present he was going over the official ship’s inventory, making sure the declared items looked like a reasonable load of cargo for a merchant’s first run in an unknown port.
He was also trying to avoid Velis. Velis was, in polite language, a formidable woman. Other more pointed words sprang to mind before that—Cyrus wasn’t a particularly polite man—but he was trying to show restraint. Velis had all but accused Grif of trying to get himself killed in order to “weasel out of their arrangement.” He took another swig of Stellis and swore.
He pushed the problem of Velis to the back of his mind, only to find another problem had clawed its way to the front: the problem of what would happen if the Radiant Throne exercised its prerogative to board them, which it would.
At this point, Cyrus had no doubt that Grif was a wanted man in much of that part of space. They took precautions to disguise the Fool’s Errand, and the disguise would hold up under scrutiny. A fake paper trail and a false ship identifier claimed that the ship was called the Alo Minh—named, Grif claimed, after a girl he knew on some planet somewhere—and that Grif himself was a Captain Jobin Tax, duly registered with the merchant marines of the Nyst Barony. Baron Nyst didn’t pay much attention to the bookkeeping involved in maintaining his fleet, and was willing to let anyone use his name so long as they paid him for the privilege.
That only solved part of the problem, however. Every ship entering Radiant Throne space was boarded eventually. Once that happened, Cyrus figured, the presence of Velis and her people could prove to be something of a problem. It was obvious they weren’t ship crew, but they might pass as hired guards, if they hid their gadgets.
He considered trying to get in touch with Amys for more information on Grif, and decided against it. Amys’ message after they’d moved Grif to the MediCorp facility confused him. Grif was having his shoulder re-grown? And MediCorp refused to name the person footing the bill. Cyrus wondered if it was Velis using Alliance currency, but he couldn’t imagine why Velis wouldn’t mention it. Did Grif have any rich friends? It’s not the kind of thing Grif would spend money on, when prosthetic parts worked just as well—sometimes better—and were far cheaper.
The only part of himself Grif would ever pay to have re-grown was his liver, Cyrus thought, and he might not be able to afford what it would cost, at this point. He grinned, and toasted his captain before taking another drink.
Cyrus was sure this would come back to haunt them. Ktk had disagreed and put money on the line. So far, it looked like the bug would win. Cyrus didn’t mind. Money well lost…
The comm station beeped.
He hurried over to the station and looked at the incoming queue excitedly, hoping it was news of Grif. When he saw the message identifier, he frowned. It looked like a burst of data from a superluminal beacon.
“But there aren’t any…”
SL Beacons were placed at the edge of systems, just outside the system gravity wells, where ships were most likely to drop from tach. They didn’t send messages to ships sitting in port…
Curious, Cyrus forwarded the message to the nav station and hurried over, leaning into the terminal as he punched in the commands to display the data. It was a string of empty coordinates, he saw, and his confusion increased. Empty coordinates, and the object identifiers were full of meaningless…
Cyrus caught his breath. He read over each of the SL Beacon messages again, carefully, piecing together the object identifiers.
“That bitch,” he muttered. “That ruthless, sorry…”
Cyrus moved over to the comm station and keyed up the hailing sequence to the Grlashimargrak. He needed to start telling other independents what was going on.
The orange-yellow eye stalks and flattened head of Rask appeared on the station’s monitor.
“Cyrus,” he said. His voice was slower than usual, and looked like he was still recovering from the fight. “What’s going on?”
“Rask, I need to speak with captain N’grash. Right now.”
Something in Cyrus’ voice convinced Rask that no further questions were necessary. “She’s in her cabin. I’ll patch you through.”
“Thanks,” Cyrus said.
For a moment the screen went black, then N’grash’s face—what could be seen of it in the dim light of her cabin—appeared on screen. The image was mostly indistinct, but her eyes glowed red from the light reflected off the terminal screen.
“Cyrus,” N’grash rumbled. “Why have you called?”
“We have a problem,” Cyrus said. “Grif is in trouble.”
N’grash laughed gruffly. “This is not new information.”
“Baron Tyrelos is trying to hand him over to the Radiant Throne.”
N’grash froze. “Tyrelos?”
“I know,” Cyrus growled. “Hard to believe, isn’t it?”
“Nearly impossible,” N’grash said. “Tell me what you know.”
“Grif just sent us a message,” Cyrus said. “He used the identifier fields in the SL Beacon protocol to send a message to our navigator’s station.”
“What did this message say?” N’grash asked.
“It said ‘this-is-Grif-Tyrelos-sold-us-out-hunting-me-for-Throne-MediCorp-facility-first-city-tell-others.'”
N’grash shook her head slowly as a deep, low growl emerged from her throat. “You are certain this message is legitimate?”
Cyrus nodded. “Can you think of anyone else who would send a message directly to the Fool’s Errand using SL protocol?”
“No.” N’grash growled again, louder than before. “I find it hard to believe she would do this!” Her eyes narrowed in the monitor, and her ears flattened into the sides of her head. “Still, I do not believe you lie, Cyrus Mak.”
“Er… yeah, look,” Cyrus said, “you ought to know I wouldn’t joke about something like this.”
N’grash shook her head. “You are a liar and thief, Cyrus. Just like the rest of us. But no, you would not lie about this… and I have known Tester for too long to believe he would allow you to deceive me. I believe you.” She made a ragged, rasping sound that might have been a sigh. “It is difficult to accept that the Baron would violate her neutrality in such a fashion, however.”
“We’ve got to get the word out to other independents,” Cyrus said. “If we can get enough of them yelling for blood—”
“Wait,” N’grash said. “Wait before you warn the others. I must try something first.”
“Try what?” Cyrus asked.
N’grash hesitated. “I fear this is my doing. I must try to put it right.”
Cyrus frowned. “How is this your fault?”
“It is complicated, Cyrus Mak. It is very complicated. Stand by. I will contact you again.” The screen went dark as N’grash killed the link.
Cyrus stared at the darkened screen, sighed in frustration, then activated the intercom. “Ktk. Come on up to the bridge. I just won another bet…”