Grif Vindh, captain of the Fool's Errand, woke up to discover two things: first, his head felt as if a Nengit were jumping up and down on it with all four of its legs, and second, someone in the room was shrieking at the top of his lungs. The second item contributed greatly to the discomfort of the first, and it took nearly half a minute before Grif had regained enough of his wits to figure out who was shrieking and why.
"Oh, for the love of--Hari!" Grif tried to shout over the din but found the exertion of raising his voice was also painful, and he resorted to the largely impotent tactic of clutching his head and desperately wishing the alien would stop.
Drinking with other races was an uncertain proposition: while every sentient race in the known galaxy was familiar with the rituals surrounding the act of getting drunk, the specifics weren't always the same. The substances varied, for one, which meant that precautions needed to be taken when different races decided to get drunk together, lest someone inadvertently down a glass of something fatal. Another potentially less fatal detail, though in this specific instance it was difficult to keep that in mind, was that different races recovered from their rituals differently... and when they were all recovering at the same time, and in the same location, it often led to unintended conflict.
Invagi, for example, had very similar drinking customs to humans. They drank the same kind of alcohol humans did, got drunk from basically the same strengths and quantities, and when they woke up the next morning they felt generally the same level of discomfort. There were, however, two notable differences.
First, Invagi possessed a vestigial hive mind, the remnants of which allowed most Invagi to influence and be influenced by the emotions of other Invagi. This meant that when one Invagi woke up after a heavy night of drinking, the distress he or she felt would be sensed, very slightly, by any other Invagi in the room. If the other Invagi were feeling a similar level of distress, then that link would be increased, feeding back on itself, until either one of the Invagi was able to fully regain control of his faculties and break that link, or until someone else was able to break the link for him.
Second, and of more immediate importance, was that while Invagi did get hung over, they didn't experience discomfort from loud noises. This meant that, as far as hangovers were concerned, they had no cultural taboos against shrieking in agony at the top of their lungs.
"Damn it, Hari!" Grif gave up trying to will the sound away, and forced himself to pick his head off the table and look around the room. He was in the Starglow... thinking back, he dimly remembered being there the night before, celebrating with his crew. There were other people as well--people everywhere, he saw, people strewn about the large room as though they'd all succumbed to poison and died where they stood. This was not too far from the truth, in Grif's opinion: getting drunk was, when done properly, a process of intentionally poisoning yourself and just barely surviving. He rubbed his eyes, looked at the mass of people passed out over tables, in chairs, and slumped on the floor, trying to find Hari.
He found most of the rest of his crew: Cyrus was snoring peacefully, leaning back in a chair balanced precariously on two legs, his own legs propped up on a table and his head pressed up against the wall. Cutter and Vod had passed out in a corner by one of the gaming tables. Gurgan was lying on his back, spread-eagled on the floor. Ktk was draped over the bar, tails twitching slightly as its vocal plates ground ever so slowly in the bug equivalent of a snore. Amys was slumped over the table beside him, across from Dak Wallace, captain of the Long Haul, who had been trying to drink her under the table again.
The shrieking stopped abruptly, and Grif sighed in relief as the room grew silent... only to curse once more as the shrieking resumed, with three other voices joining in. There were other Invagi in the room, and that damned vestigial hive mind was making their hangover a group effort.
Four Invagi belting it out was almost too much to bear. Grif swore as loud as he could and staggered to his feet, knocking Amys out of her chair and on to the floor in the process. He squinted, trying desperately to find at least one of the Invagi in order to resolve the matter with a swift kick, but his vision was still a bit blurry.
The keening continued, and other people in the bar were starting to notice. Rather, they were waking up and gripping their heads in pain, some cursing, some screaming in their own right.
An energy weapon discharged. The screaming stopped abruptly, and the room was quiet once again. Unfortunately, it also smelled of ozone and burning flesh.
"Hari." Grif's voice was hoarse and ragged. "Hari."
He heard someone grunt directly behind him. Turning around he saw the bar, and peering over the edge he saw Hari laying down behind it, staring up at the ceiling, the ridges on his face fully extended.
"Hari. Did someone just shoot you?"
Hari frowned, considering the question. "I don't think so."
"Good," Grif said. "Now get a grip, because we're all well-armed and our ability to make decisions is pretty poor at the moment."
"Right," Hari said. "Thanks for not shooting me, Grif."
"Uh, speaking of that..." a familiar voice, possibly one of Dak's crewmen, sounded equal parts sheepish and concerned. "We need to call a medic."
"Evory." Dak didn't bother to raise his head off the table, or even open his eyes, but his voice was loud enough to be heard throughout the room. "Did you shoot one of the Invagi?"
"It was Rost," the crewman Evory said, "and I only shot him in the leg."
Dak sighed and pushed himself up into a sitting position. He was a slightly heavyset man with short, black hair and well-trimmed black beard dyed with streaks of white. He nodded at Grif, then turned around in his chair to face the room, hitching his elbows on the table to keep him upright.
"Captain Vindh," Dak said, "when you rented the Starglow for the night and morning you purchased the full package, didn't you?"
"Uh..." Grif didn't actually remember renting the Starglow. "Hold on a second." He reached into his vest pocket, pulled out a datacard, and started scrolling through its history.
"Yeah..." Grif read the contents of the ticket displayed on his datacard in mild astonishment. "Apparently I did. Full medical and everything. That was... unusually thoughtful of me."
"Yes it was," Dak agreed. "Emory, please stand."
From the other side of the room a lanky, straw-haired human reluctantly staggered to his feet.
"Yes, si--" Emory's reply was cut short as Dak Wallace shot him in the leg. Dak favored slug throwers, and everyone howled in protest as the sound echoed through the room.
Everyone except for Amys, who eschewed protest in favor of kicking Dak's chair out from under him. Dak fell backwards, hitting his head on the edge of the table as he slid to the floor. She kicked his hand sharply, and his gun skittered across the floor.
"I'm trying to sleep," she said.
Dak swore, laughed, then swore again as he prodded the back of his head. "Damn it all, woman, I'm bleeding," he said.
"Don't shoot people," she replied.
"They weren't people, they were my crew," Dak said. He picked himself up off the floor, wincing as he probed his wound. "Kenner."
"Yessir." Another human stood up even more reluctantly than Emory.
"Captain Vindh has procured full services for everyone this morning," Dak said. "See to it that Rost and Emory get medical treatment, and then send the medic my way."
He picked up his chair and sat back in it, staring at Amys ruefully. She climbed back into her own chair and punched Grif in the arm.
"Ow." Grif rubbed his arm absentmindedly.
"That's for knocking me off the table," Amys said. "Did I win?"
"Win what?" Grif, still rubbing his arm.
"Drinking. With Dak." Amys pulled her fingers through her hair, trying to get it into some semblance of order.
"Oh." Grif thought back. He had a vague memory of blurry people doing blurry things. "I think... maybe a tie? I'm not sure whose head hit the table first, but..."
"A tie." Amys looked disappointed. "I'm slipping."
Grif grinned suddenly, eyes twinkling. "Old age," he suggested.
The room fell silent. Everyone near the table put aside their personal discomfort and gaped at Grif. Low, urgent whispering emerged from the silence as a number of the more coherent revelers exchanged bets as to how long Captain Vindh would live after Amys tore his throat out of his neck with her bare hands.
Captain Dak Wallace, the only other conscious person at the table, slowly rolled his chair away from the impending carnage.
Amys stared at Grif steadily, the way a snake might stare at a mouse it was about to swallow whole. Then she grinned, threw her head back and laughed loudly.
"You bastard," she said, still laughing. "I hate you so much."
The urgent whispers turned into confused mutters as the gamblers realized no one had actually bet on this particular outcome.
An hour later most of the revelers had recovered enough to drag themselves into chairs. They put themselves to work trying to solve their most pressing problem: figuring out exactly what had happened the night before.
A number of people complained they were missing money. A certain amount of this was expected, and in response someone called for the List. The List was a computer record of what possessions everyone had entered the party with, and what possessions had been lost in bets and contests. The List had been a standby of every serious celebration this group had thrown for years, and had prevented a number of potentially serious feuds as a result. The List provided everyone on record a summary of what they had lost, what they had won, and a brief description of why. Some of the bets were minor, and it had been mutually agreed when the List was instituted that no bet would go beyond a certain cap, so no one would wake up the next morning to find they'd lost their starship in a card game.
There had also been at least one gunfight. There was scoring on the walls, a number of people beyond the two Captain Wallace had just shot discovered they had been treated for wounds, and Wallace announced he had two empty clips of ammunition in his pocket.
Ktk reported that no one had been killed, but would say nothing more: it, like all bugs, did not get hangovers and never suffered memory loss from alcohol. It did, however, get drunk, and when it did its inhibitions disappeared and would behave in a manner it would later describe as "unreservedly silly." The crew of the Fool's Errand then turned to one of their favorite post-revelry games: trying to pry out of Ktk what embarrassing things it had done the night before. Ktk, as always, refused to play, but Morgan found a particularly interesting entry in the List that, when shared with Grif, forced the issue.
"Cutter," Grif said, "the List says you made a bet with Ktk last night. And that you won."
"Could be," Cutter said. "It ain't hard to win a bet against the bug." He scratched at the scars that scrawled across his face, frowning as he thought about it.
"Cutter, think carefully. Were you... riding Ktk around the room last night?"
There was a short silence.
"Think maybe I was, Skip."
Ktk pleaded for someone in the room to kill it.
The morning shift arrived, looking at the group of dirty, stained, and thoroughly hung over spacers with mild surprise, but they went about their business and left their patrons to rally themselves as best they could manage. Eventually everyone recovered enough to eat, and Grif discovered to his surprise that he had prepaid breakfast for everyone in the room. The crew gathered at Grif's table joined by Dak Wallace and two other captains: Piko Tan, human captain of the Burly Forager, and N'grash, g'grlsha captain of the Grlashimargrak.
Captain Tan was an impossibly thin man, nearly emaciated. Grif thought he looked like a dessicated corpse that, after having been brought back to life, disliked it so much it went on a hunger strike in protest. Captain N'grash, like the rest of her race, was hard to describe because they were only slightly visible in the spectrum of light humans could see. To Grif she looked like a short inky blot with rows of very sharp teeth.
"What I wish to know," Dak said, pushing a cup of coffee out of the way as he leaned forward for emphasis, "what I wish to know is exactly how you did it. How did you manage to get into that damned medical lab?"
Everyone at the table looked at Grif expectantly, and in a moment he noticed the rest of the room had quieted down and the others were staring at him as well.
Grif looked from Dak to the others at the table, then at the rest of the patrons in Starglow, and shrugged. "There was this girl..."
The room erupted in laughter, which he waved off good-naturedly.
"No, it wasn't like that..." Grif's explanation was interrupted by a wall of jeers and catcalls.
"All right, well, maybe it was a little like that." The catcalls turned into cheers and whistles.
"Well, if you must know, it was exactly like that!" Grif finished, and the crowd roared their approval--except for Amys, of course. She just frowned thoughtfully.
It was times like this, Grif thought, when her lack of gullibility was damned inconvenient.
"Anyway, it's not the most interesting story in the world, except for the part where we all got filthy stinking rich," Grif continued. "Rich enough to retire to a long life of comfort and lavish decadence."
"Is that what you're going to do?" Piko Tan's voice was deep and vaguely omnious. "Are you going to retire?"
"Hell no," Grif said. "You know me better than that. It's business as usual. We're going to refit the old girl first, but after that the Fool's Errand will be back to her usual tricks."
"Then what?" Dak Wallace looked at Grif appraisingly. "You made more money on this one job than most independents will make in their entire careers, Vindh. I expect even the big outfits will notice, eventually. What are you going to do with all that money?"
Grif looked around the Starglow, then pulled out the datacard that listed everything he'd purchased the night before.
"I'm going to piss it away on frivolous nonsense, apparently," Grif said.
Two hours later the revelers had recovered enough to head out. One by one they headed out into the bright sunlight, cursing as they did, until only Grif's crew were left. Finally Cyrus Mak shifted in his chair and turned to Grif. He looked troubled, and Grif thought he knew why.
"Grif..." Cyrus hesitated and frowned, looking for words. Cyrus had been wrestling with something most of the morning. Grif recognized it for what it was: loyalty struggling against ambition. It was something he'd struggled with himself, once.
"Cyrus," Grif said, keeping his voice light. "You don't seem too worn down by last night. Bastard."
Cyrus grinned nervously. "Yeah. Look, I want to talk to you about something."
The rest of his crew stopped what they were doing and listened intently.
"So talk," Grif said cheerfully. He tried to ignore how much he hated this moment.
"Well." Cyrus took a deep breath. "I guess it's no secret, I always wanted to captain my own ship."
Grif nodded. "You made it clear when you signed on."
Grif smiled. "It's OK, Cyrus. I'm not going to be offended. You just pulled in two and half million standard from a once-in-a-lifetime run. That's enough for a down payment on a good ship."
Cyrus blinked rapidly.
"Oi, don't be such a baby," Grif laughed. "I knew it was going to happen sooner or later. You'll be welcome on the Errand, either as crew or a guest, but always a friend. Just make sure you get a good crew. If you need names, ask me first."
Cyrus nodded. He turned to the others and said his good-byes, one by one, clapping Ktk awkwardly on its carapace. Amys kissed him on the cheek, and he reddened slightly. That done, he sighed and turned back to Grif.
"Pleasure serving with you, Captain."
Grif nodded. "Free skies, Cyrus."
"Aye. Clear landings..."
With that, Cyrus turned, headed for the exit, and stepped through the door.
"Bloody hell! Who turned on the sun?"
The door closed behind him.
Everyone was silent for a moment. Grif sighed. "Well, Cutter, you came on after, so you've got his spot."
Cutter nodded grimly, not particularly happy with the idea. Vod, sitting to his right, leaned in a little and squeezed his arm. Cutter smiled a bit, then looked at Grif questioningly. "You want me to look for a third gunner, Skip?"
Grif sighed again. "I guess so. You'll also need to oversee the weapons refit."
Cutter made a sour face. "Guess I'll have to learn to shoot that damn gun. Cyrus was the only one of us who ever got the hang of that thing."
Ktk added that with Doma gone they might also be able to hire someone who actually knew how to use the Comm station.
"That would be nice," Morgan said. "It's a bit rough to do handle the scanners and communications at the same time..."
"Sounds fine to me," Grif said agreeably. "And Ktk... you, Vod and Gurgan need to figure out exactly what new toys we're buying. Remember, we've got twenty million standard to spend on her. Spend it right."
Ktk chittered in agreement.
"Well," Morgan said slowly, " I guess I'll take a shower then. With real water, damn it, hot water." With that he got up and walked unsteadily to the door.
Cutter and Hari left next, discussing possible replacements for the guns and for Cyrus. Then Ktk, Vod and Gurgan left, arguing over which tach drive was a better investment. Amys and Grif sat alone in the bar.
"Well," Amys said.
"Well," Grif agreed.
"You stink," Amys added.
Grif frowned and sniffed at his clothing. He gagged. "I'm not even going to ask why," he said, "because I'm not sure I want to know. I swear, Amys, I'm going to almost remember last night for the rest of my life."
Amys smirked. "If you really want to know I expect we could check Starglow's cameras."
"Oh, no," Grif replied. "We can't." He held up his datacard. "This thing says I paid extra to have the cameras turned off. The official reason listed is 'to avoid unnecessary blackmail attempts.'"
Amys grinned. "Always thinking ahead." Then, sobering, she added "I think Cutter is going to have some difficulty replacing Cyrus. You know, I don't think he really wants the job."
"Yeah," Grif agreed. "I'm not real excited about it either. Nothing against Cutter, but I hate that Cyrus is leaving. I mean I wish him all the best, and every success, but... dammit. He's a good gunner, and a good technician too. And he never bet against me. Now who's going to keep the bug in check?"