Amys watched the bridge hatch close on Grif as he doubled over with laughter. The laughter, muted but still audible, faded as the lift took him to the lower decks.
Morgan stared at the hatch as Grif's laughter faded, replaced by a largely uncomfortable silence. "Huh."
Amys frowned thoughtfully.
Morgan glanced at Amys, clearly perplexed. "Do you think he's all right?"
Amys hesitated, then shrugged.
"Of course he's not all right," Doma said, forgetting where he was, who he was talking to, and abandoning anything that could reasonably be attributed to a survival instinct. "He was clubbed in the back of the head with a gauss rifle at least five times..."
"Shut up, Doma." Amys reminded herself of the kind of trouble Grif would get into if she killed his nephew.
"Well he did," Doma protested. "And we just lost a fortune in cargo!"
"Shut up, Doma," Amys repeated, eyes glittering.
"But... he... hey, this isn't my fault! He's the one--"
"Doma." Morgan interrupted Doma in mid-stammer, voice calm and soothing. "While I personally think it would be wonderful if your lack of self-preservation provoked Amys into gutting you from stem to stern, Grif has this funny rule about us not killing you. So for God's sake... just shut up!"
Doma closed his mouth, turned around in his chair and sank into a deep pout.
A few minutes later Ktk announced it was restoring gravity. Much to Amys' disappointment, Doma remembered to brace himself properly.
Amys stood, testing her weight against the newly restored gravity, and tugged at her ponytail absently. Morgan and Doma looked up questioningly.
"I'll be right back," she said. "Morgan, monitor communications and contact Grif if anything important comes in."
Morgan nodded and returned his attention to his station. After an intense but brief internal struggle, Doma looked away without asking any questions. Amys smiled in spite of herself; for an instant Doma had looked exactly like Grif when his curiosity was killing him. She made a mental note never to tell Grif that.
Amys took the lift two decks down, and when it opened she stepped into a short hallway that ended at a door bearing the sign "Wardroom."
The Fool's Errand had originally been commissioned as a troop transport, and amidships above the cargo bays there was a large galley and general mess designed to feed a company of soldiers. The Wardroom was nicer, as it had been designed for use by the ship's officers, and the crew used it for all meals.
Amys opened the door and stepped into the room. It was well-kept, and still maintained much of its elegance from its service as an officer's mess. It was large, with a higher than average ceiling, and at the far end the bulkhead sported a panoramic viewport that could either display a projected image--very popular with the crew when they were in tach--or fade to transparency, as it currently was, providing a magnificent star-filled view.
The room was tiled, rather than sporting the standard monochrome metallic floorplates common in most of the ship, and tiles were dark colors intended to replicate the effect of a polished wood floor. The walls were also designed to resemble faux wood panels, and globe lights, rather than the ceiling mounted light panels, lit the room in a softer, more ambient light. There was a master table in the center of the room, smaller tables set against the wall, and to Amys' right there was a bar which Grif kept well-stocked. Behind the bar, Grif was preparing a drink: a glass was set on the bar in front of him, and he was wrestling to uncork a bottle of something.
He didn't look his best. The back of his head was puffed and swollen from the repeated beatings, giving his head a slightly misshapen appearance, and the front of his face was bruised from all the times he'd used it to stop his fall. When he looked up and saw her, he grinned--the grin she liked, not the other one--and immediately reached under the bar and set another glass beside his.
Amys shook her head. "You know I don't drink Stellis."
Grif laughed. "Not Stellis this time. This is a bottle of that whiskey Mavis thought he confiscated."
Amys shrugged, nodded, and walked up to the bar as Grif filled first her glass, then his own. He grinned again and raised his glass in a toast. She smiled slightly, returned the toast, and drank.
It was good whiskey. It was smoky with just a hint of wood. On Varkav they made their whiskey the old fashioned way, in real wood caskets and with real fire. Modern distilleries spent fortunes trying to mass-produce this natural taste quickly, some with more success than others, but the distilleries on Varkav had yet to be beaten.
Amys watched Grif closely. He was a masterful liar, but she'd known him long enough to figure out when he was playing an angle. At the moment he wasn't even trying: he was in a genuinely good mood, confirming something she'd suspected for a while.
"So," she said, "what did we really smuggle out of Throne space?"
Grif grinned wider. "I knew you'd sort it out. When?"
Amys smiled. "When you ordered Cyrus and Ktk to expose our cargo I thought maybe it was decoy. When you were winding up Mavis on Centurion's flight deck I was convinced. So are you going to let us in on the secret now, or will you wait till Cyrus loses his temper and tries to strangle you?"
Grif laughed. "Fair point. Once Ktk brings the fusion drive back on line, bring the crew here and I'll do the Big Reveal."
Amys sighed. "I suppose that means you're not going to bother telling me now," she said.
Grif just winked, and took another drink.
Two hours later, the crew assembled in the Wardroom to find that Grif had set out a glass for each them. Each glass was filled with Varkavian whiskey. It was one of their traditions: after each successful job their Captain would pour them a drink, and they'd toast to their victory.
Grif leaned against the bar, coldpak held to the back of his head with his left hand as he held aloft his glass in his right, and motioned for the others to take theirs. Nobody moved.
Finally Cyrus spoke. "If this is a joke, it's in pretty bad taste."
"No joke," Grif said. "Drink. You earned it. And good thinking on Centurion, Cyrus. 'Owed someone money' indeed!"
Cyrus scowled. "Fat lot of good it did," he snapped. "And really, the victory toast? We lost everything!"
"No we didn't," Grif replied, and winked. He set his cold pack and his drink down on the bartop, kneeled down behind the bar and started rummaging around.
"The hell we didn't!" Cyrus wasn't exactly shouting, but he was getting there. "Fifty thousand a ton--fifty thousand! That's a million standard we sank into that whiskey, plus another fifty thousand in legit cargo just to cover it up. And it got confiscated because, for some damned reason, you wanted them to find it!"
Grif popped his head up from behind the bar, expression grave.
"For the record," he said, "no one ever wants twenty tons of high quality whiskey forcibly removed from their ship. I had plans for that hootch--plans that involved drinking. I'm not saying I could actually drink twenty tons, I'm just saying that it would have been the greatest challenge of my career..."
Grif ducked his head back behind the bar and the rummaging sounds continued. "Now if I could just find it..."
Cyrus shook his head and turned to Amys, hoping for a more sympathetic ear. "We put a lot of our own money into that haul."
"I didn't," Doma said. "I didn't trust him."
Cyrus' scowl deepened. "Well, for once it looks like the boy was less abysmally stupid than usual."
"Yes, I--" Doma stopped in mid-sentence, working through what Cyrus had just said. "Hey!"
Grif ignored all of them. Boxes appeared on one side of the bar as he discarded them each in turn, muttering "no, not this one, this isn't it, what the hell, I know I put it here somewhere" as he did so.
Ktk suggested that it could have been worse, and they were probably lucky to still be alive.
Grif stopped his search and popped his head back up over the bar. "Oh, Mavis didn't want us dead. He wanted us very much alive. He wanted us to know he'd finally caught us, and we'd lost."
"Too bad we didn't." He grinned, then ducked back behind the bar and resumed his search.
Cyrus opened his mouth to retort, hesitated, narrowed his eyes and frowned. "What's going on, Griff?"
Hari also frowned, the ridges across his face extending and retracting in confusion. "I feel pretty thoroughly beaten."
"Of course you do." Grif dragged a plastic foodstuffs container out from behind the bar, opened it, and began looking through the contents, examining their labels and discarding each in turn. "You should. It looks to you like he won. And if it looks to you like he won, Hari, you can bet it looks to him like he won, which was the important part. Now where the hell is it...?" Abandoning the container, Grif dove back behind the bar. The rummaging noises continued.
"What didn't he win?" Morgan asked, bewildered. "Was it the part where he took our cargo, or the part where he humiliated you and ended your streak? And exactly how do you manage to store so much hootch behind that bar when there's so much other crap back there as well?"
"Hold on a second," Grif said. "I just need to find... oh. Huh. I don't remember putting it there..."
Grif popped up from behind the bar carrying a green medium-sized container. He placed it on the far end of the bar and gestured toward it with a flourish, beaming.
The crew looked at the green container uneasily. Finally, Ktk asked what was in it.
Grif grinned. "I'll show you."
He wrenched off the lid. Inside it were a number of sealed gray packets, all neatly stacked on top of each other. He took one out and casually threw it to Cyrus, who caught it and looked at it suspiciously.
"Your bonus," Grif said. "About seven hundred thousand standard, if you can find the right contact. It's worth a hell of a lot more than that, but it's so ridiculously illegal I doubt you'll find too many people willing to fence it for what it's really worth. And one for you... and you... and you..."
Grif tossed a packet to everyone in the room. When he threw one to Doma, it bounced off his head and landed on the floor by his feet.
"Ow!" Doma rubbed his forehead furiously as if Grif had thrown a rock at it.
Grif rolled his eyes. "Don't be so dramatic. And pick that up. It's worth a lot of money."
Doma looked down at the packet and wrinkled his nose. "It's a food ration."
"See, that's what I'm talking about." Grif sighed and shook his head. "You'll never be any good at smuggling with that attitude."
"What? It's a food ration." Doma bent over to pick it up, and held it out for everyone to see. "Look--it even says on the front: 'Food Ration: One Meal, Standard Fare.'"
Cyrus didn't look angry now; he looked confused. "Hell, it is a food ration," he said. "What's going on, Grif?"
"Wealth," Grif replied. "Wealth is going on. We are all going to be incredibly stinking rich by the end of the week."
"... from food rations?" Cyrus looked at Grif like he'd sprouted wings out of his ears.
Vod leaned in to Gurgan. "He's gone and lost it," she muttered.
Gurgan nodded in agreement. "I always wondered when. Not 'if,' mind you, because it was only a matter of time--"
Amys sighed in exasperation. "Come on, people," she said, raising her voice slightly. "Think about this. Grif is a smuggler. Everyone here except Doma is a smuggler. Smugglers lie. Connect the dots."
Cyrus stared at his food packet, turning it over and over in his large hands, thinking. A moment later his eyes widened with surprise: when he looked up at Grif he was grinning with excitement. "This isn't a food ration, is it?"
Grif grinned back. "Nope."
"The whiskey was a damned decoy!"
Grif's grin widened. "Yep."
"It was the most expensive decoy we've ever used mind you," Cyrus said, "but you wanted to make Mavis think he'd found something worth confiscating... and then stop looking."
"Yes!" Grif's grin threatened to split his face in half. "And he fell for it perfectly."
Cyrus stared at his packet intently, as though he were trying to see through the wrapping by force of will alone. "Grif... what the hell is in this thing?"
"Ah, Cyrus, that's a good question. Bit of a story there..."
The crew relaxed. Some of them went to get their drinks, all of them settled in various chairs in the room. All except for Doma, who decided to try, without much success, to open his packet to see what was inside.
"You see," Grif said, "Varkav is a very interesting planet."
Cutter sprawled into one of the seats at the master table, then snatched Vod's arm as she drew near, pulling her into his lap. "I hope your story is a bit longer than that," he drawled.
"Hah. Yes." Grif leaned against the bar. "Very interesting planet: you know about the whiskey, you know about the underworld-run and wholly illegal 'entertainment network,' you know it's a port of call for a lot of the big ships in the Radiant Throne Navy..."
"Usually for the above-mentioned reasons," Gurgan chuckled.
"Well, yeah," Grif said. "I mean, they're all sailors, aren't they? Anyway, there's also Ur Voys."
The room fell silent. Doma, struggling to rip open the synthetic fiber packet with his teeth, stopped in mid-tug and stared at Grif in surprise.
"Yeah," Grif said, "that Ur Voys. The heavily-guarded, impregnable 'medical facility' that makes pharmaceuticals for the Emperor and her favorite children."
Cutter cocked his head to one side and raised an eyebrow. He was the ship's doctor, and had legitimate medical training. "Psi-drugs? Not much of a market for those..."
No, not psi-drugs," Grif said. "Surely you don't think the Emperor and her psychic inquisition devote all their time to taking drugs that increase their psychic voodoo, do you? No, there are perks that come with that kind of power. Like access to WU-961."
Cutter lapsed into stunned silence. Everyone else looked at Grif in blank incomprehension.
Grif sighed. "Well, at least Cutter got it. What say, sawbones? Maybe you'd like to fill everyone else in?"
Vod turned in Cutter's lap and looked down at him questioningly. Cutter shrugged. "Anagathic," he said. When he saw the term didn't register, he added "it slows down your aging. Only works on humans, though; sorry, Hari, Ktk."
"Not just an anagathic," Grif said. "One of the most potent anagathics ever created."
Doma immediately spat the synthetic fiber packet on the floor and pointed to it. "That?"
"Oi!" Cyrus swore. "This packet has immortality pills in it?"
"No such thing," Grif said. "But each dose of this thing will slow the aging process for a very, very long time. I think you age a month per decade, so long as you get a regular injection every year or so. It's high-grade stuff. And we've got a hundred packets of it. And I've got a buyer willing to pay five hundred thousand standard per packet for a minimum of seventy, though he's willing to buy more."
Ktk observed that paying five hundred thousand standard per packet would total a sum of fifty million standard, assuming all of the packets were sold, which seemed unrealistic.
"Oh, this guy is for real all right. Why do you think I wanted to berth on Tylaris Prime? The Tylaris Barony is the richest of the Trade Baron systems, and our buyer oozes money wherever he goes. And he's vain--he definitely wants what we have. So here's the deal: each of you gets to keep one packet as a bonus. You can do whatever you want with it... use it yourself if you want, or sell it yourself, or throw it into the package for this buyer. If you do the latter, you keep all the profit from the sale of your packet. Everything else is divided the usual way: half between us, half back into the ship."
The crew sat in stunned silence, mouths agape, as the realization that they were all about to become filthy rich started to sink in. Finally Cyrus reached over and hit Ktk in its carapace, beaming widely.
"PAY ME, BUG!" He bellowed. Ktk chittered in laughter.
"All of us?" Doma asked hopefully. "What, me too?"
"Oh yes," Grif said. "Especially you, Doma. Think of it as your severance package."
"Wow, that's... er... my what?"
"Severance package. Because you're fired."
"Fire--what? Wait... what?"
"Don't be so surprised," Grif said cheerfully. "You're a barely competent Comm Tech on a good day, and you don't have many of those. On a bad day you're a ruddy nightmare, and you have a lot of those. You hate this work, and we... well... fill in the blanks. But this way you get to leave with more than two million standard in a bank in the Tylaris system. You're set for the rest of your life, kid, assuming you don't piss it away... though I warn you that's a family trait."
Doma considered the situation. Finally, he shrugged. "OK."
Grif looked pleased. "Well, that's out of the way then."
"As long as I get my pictures back."
Grif laughed. "Oh, those. Well, all right, but I have to show them to Morgan first..."
"WHAT? NO, I--"
"Later, Doma," Grif said. "Right now we're reveling in wealth."
The reveling lasted a while. Grif had managed to conceal eight bottles of whiskey from the Radiant Throne, and the crew decided they were honor bound to ensure those bottles were never recovered. Grif leaned against the bar, grinning madly as he watched his crew celebrate their success.
Amys walked up to the bar, smiled, and kissed Grif on the cheek. "So why didn't you tell anyone?"
"Well..." Grif struggled between telling an obviously ridiculous but clever lie and telling the truth. "Three reasons. First, I wanted to see the expression on everyone's face. Priceless, by the way. Second, I didn't want everyone jumpy on Varkav, since I didn't know if any of those telepathic sociopaths who think they're God's Right Arm were hanging about. And third, even if telepathy weren't involved, if Doma had known about this he'd have found some way to screw the whole thing up."
"That's true," Amys agreed.
They both looked at Doma, slumped over in his chair, passed out from too much whiskey, and shook their heads.
"It was better to keep you all out of the loop," Grif continued. "Because of the telepath issue. They notice things. If we were all walking around with 'this is the big one' rolling around in our heads, one of those sons of bitches would have picked up on it, no matter how cool we were playing it. I wanted to minimize that."
"But how did you get your hands on them?" Amys asked.
Grif hesitated. "well... that's complicated. Some other time?"
Amys let the matter drop and went through the container, counting ration packets.
"I'm pretty impressed with the disguise, though," Grif said. "If I do say so myself. Nobody pays attention to a box of one hundred food packets these days, especially not marines who have already uncovered a huge cache of illegally transported whiskey."
"Wait," Amys said. "How many did you say?"
"One hundred. Nice, even, metric number. Makes the math easier. I think that--"
"Ninety," she said.
"What? Oh, right, if you include the bonuses, but if you throw that in they--"
"I've already counted them," Amys said. "There are ninety in all."
Grif shook his head. "No, there are a hundred, dammit. Hold on a minute."
Grif sifted through the container, counting quickly.
"Well I'll be damned. Ninety."
A look of confusion settled on his face, which was then replaced by a look of concern, then of genuine alarm. "How would they...?"
"What?" Amys stared at Grif intently. "Are you saying that ten packages of one of the most illegal and highly-sought-after substances in known space are missing?"
"Yeah," Grif said. Then he frowned. Then he started to laugh. "Five million standard... talk about an expensive meal!"
"Please do tell," Amys said.
"This is rich," Grif said, still laughing. "I knew I hadn't put the container where I found it. Those marines... someone must have swiped a few rations, you know? For the road? Probably thought it would be a nice break from the food they serve in Centurion's mess.
He grinned. "Imagine his surprise when he opens the packet and realizes it's not food. Imagine Mavis' surprise when he finds out what it really is!"
Amys grinned in return.
"And hey," Grif added, "it's not like we'll be hurting for money. Ninety packets, if we sell 'em all to this guy... that's 45 million standard. From one job. I think that's a new record for independents."
"Bloody hell!" Cyrus swore, hitting the table as he overheard the last piece of that conversation. "Five hundred thousand for each of us, pure profit, and then half of 40 million between the lot of us."
Vod laughed, kicking her feet on the table as she rested her head on Cutter's shoulder. "That's 20 million to spend on the ship! You know what that means, Gurgan."
Gurgan blinked a few times through the haze of the whiskey that had built up around him, then slammed his fist down on the table, shaking his head so his topknot swung around the room. "UPGRADE!" he bellowed.
"That's right!" Vod said happily. "New tachyon drive!"
"New weapons!" Cutter chimed in.
"New fusion drives," Gurgan continued, "and maybe screens!"
Ktk, Cyrus, Vod, Gurgan, Cutter and Hari chattered excitedly about ways to upgrade the ship. Grif looked on, the throbbing in his head almost completely forgotten as he basked in the glow of victory. He and Amys stood at the bar drinking in silence as they watched everyone's plans unfold.
"I do have one regret," Grif said eventually.
"Oh?" Amys looked at him questioningly.
"I'm not going to be there when Mavis realizes my reputation is still intact."