Grif shifted in his chair, looking from Velis, then to Alef, then back, trying to find some clue as to what they were thinking. Velis was, for the moment unreadable. She sat still, gaze unfocused, as if she were only partially paying attention to the conversation. Alef, on the other hand, was watching Grif carefully... very carefully, with an intensity that made him shiver. Alef's eyes glinted in the light, and Grif thought, once again, that they had to be cybernetic. He wondered what it was like to view the world through the lens of a machine--for that to be the only reference available.
Alef watched, and waited.
"I..." Grif rubbed the back of his neck, trying to get the hairs to lie down. "I don't understand..."
"...what I mean?" Alef interrupted. "Surely you're not going to deny it. Not here. We've already heard the story at least four times--all slightly different, of course, but all essentially telling the same tale: Grif Vindh, Captain of the Fool's Errand, made off with a fortune in anagathics stolen from a planet fairly deep within the borders of the Radiant Throne. And not only that! He managed to outsmart--brilliantly, I might add, assuming that part of the story is accurate--one of the sharpest officers in their fleet."
"Actually," Grif replied, "I was going to say 'I don't understand how you found out about this so quickly.'"
Alef simply smiled.
"It's been a month! I mean, I expected the story to travel--I wanted the story to travel--but these things take time, and most of the people I know don't travel too deep into Alliance space..."
Grif suddenly realized who it was who had told them.
Velis allowed herself the faintest hint of a smile.
"Even when he's not here, he still manages to screw everything up. That little son of a--"
The smile vanished. Grif coughed nervously and let the sentence trail off.
Alef nodded agreeably. "Yes. Doma. He, ah, didn't exactly volunteer the information willingly, if that's what you were thinking. But his mother couldn't help but notice that he had, very suddenly, become a very rich young man. A bit too rich for his own safety, in fact. And once Velis learned exactly how the young man had become so dangerously rich, she realized we had a way in. You."
Grif scowled. "I'm not interested in being your spy or your thief," he said. "And besides, there's no way I'd make it in a second time."
Alef shrugged. "it's a better opportunity than we've had in some time," he said. "We tried sending our own agents. Very good ones. We believe they are all dead."
Grif rolled his eyes. "You have a funny way of selling this idiocy. Your super-spies get killed and you think I can help you? You're insane."
"There is the matter of all your money. One call from me and I can guarantee it won't be yours anymore. Which means, among other things, that they'll take your ship..." Alef looked around the conference room. "That would be a shame. It's a wonderful ship."
Grif narrowed his eyes.
"You're a hard worker, Captain Vindh," Alef continued. "Not an honest one, but a hard worker nonetheless... and this ship is the fruit of your labors..."
Grif clenched his fists under the table. It took every ounce of will not to attack the man right then and there.
If Alef noticed, he didn't show it. "If you are reasonable and cooperative, then you will be able to make this ship even more impressive. If not..."
"I get it," Grif said. "I do. I get it."
"Good." Alef settled back in his chair, watching.
The only sound in the room came from the air ducts circulating the air. Grif stared at a spot on the table, ignoring Alef and Velis as he tried to think things through.
It was a bad situation. The Alliance of Free Worlds, at least in theory, was a relatively benign organization: it was interested only in protecting its member worlds, and getting more worlds to join them. In practice, it mostly lived up to that reputation, but it was huge. There was too much to keep track of, so for the most part it didn't bother, giving each system enormous latitude in how it conducted its business. Alef's organization took advantage of that inattentiveness, and by keeping out of the government's eye was able advance the Alliance's interests with a ruthlessness that would make the average despot squeamish.
This wasn't something Grif found morally offensive, but at the moment he did find it damned inconvenient.
Alef wasn't bluffing, Grif was certain of that. They would bankrupt him without hesitation, and Grif would be in serious trouble. Bankruptcy was a very serious crime in the Tylaris Barony; the Fool's Errand would be taken from him, and he'd very likely be imprisoned... probably shipped off to a penal colony.
Grif didn't want to go to prison, and he didn't want to lose his ship.
"You're going to have to sweeten the pot," Grif said.
Alef raised one eyebrow ever so slightly above the other. "Am I?"
"Yes. My options are either to go back into Throne space and probably get myself killed on a suicide mission, or go bankrupt and probably get myself killed on a penal colony. I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't... but if I don't, I'll have the satisfaction of not doing what you're trying to make me do. As I see it, you need to do two things: you need to explain to me exactly what you will do to help me and my crew survive, and you need to show me exactly how I'm going to profit from this."
Alef stared at Grif thoughtfully, then nodded. "Fair enough."
Grif chose not to comment on Alef's concept of fairness.
"First," Alef said, "you won't be expected to do this alone. We don't trust you to do it on your own, to be honest--it's more likely you'd make a run for the independent worlds."
"True," Grif agreed.
"You will be taking some of my agents with you," Alef continued. "A fair number of them, actually, as well as a complement of specialists who will want to see the item as soon as it's recovered. This will place a great deal of resources at your disposal, Captain. You will have doctors who can alter your appearance--even down to the genetic level, if necessary--as well as a full array of drugs tailored to resist the effects of Sword-rated telepathy. And, of course, a number of highly-trained agents who will be there to assist you in achieving your objective."
Grif considered this. The Ministry of Dirty Tricks excelled at dirty tricks; that might give him an edge.
"Also," Alef added, "Major Enge will be accompanying you... no, she won't be taking command of your ship. We're relying on you to get us there, get the item, and get everyone away. But she excels at this kind of work, and despite your obvious distaste for each other, I think you'll find her an asset."
Family again, Grif thought. If we're lucky we'll kill each other before we get to Varkav.
"As to your payment..." Alef hesitated. "We can't pay you directly. There is an ocean of red tape surrounding the exchange of currency to non-citizens, and it is... difficult to navigate, even for us. However, there are other means of compensation that a man in your position can find just as rewarding."
"Oh?" Grif asked. "Do tell."
"I am willing," Alef said, "to offer you a license, in perpetuity, to trade in the capital system."
Both Velis and Grif stared at Alef in amazement.
"Are you serious?" Grif asked.
"Are you insane?" Velis demanded.
Alef immediately focused on Velis. His expression did not change, but to Grif's astonishment Velis immediately backed down. She clenched her jaw in protest, but stared down at the table and remained silent.
"Yes," Alef said. "I am quite serious. And it's a relatively simple thing for me to do. This is not the first time I've had to rely on outside expertise to accomplish a goal, and we have developed a very robust system of rewarding our... contract employees without drawing undue attention to the transaction."
Grif whistled softly. Being granted a license to trade in the capital system also gave the merchant the right to trade at any federal port on any planet in the Alliance territories. It was an expensive license, but a lucrative one... most of the merchants who could afford such a license owned fleets of ships, not just one. And a license in perpetuity was, essentially, a charter--an officially recognized right to transport goods in the AFW that would never have to be renewed, and could even be passed on as inheritance, or given away as a gift.
A trader could get very, very rich with a license like that.
"Of course," Alef said, "you wouldn't be exempt from the laws of the Alliance... your ship would have to be cleared for entry into the Alliance core worlds, and if you were caught breaking any laws, your license would be revoked... which would be the least of your concerns. But that is my offer. If you accept, I will have it drawn up and properly registered before you depart for Varkav. I trust that will be acceptable?"
It was a hell of an enticement. The odds for success were terrible, of course... but if he managed to pull it off...
"You must think there's no way in hell I can pull this off," Grif said cheerfully. "If I were a betting man I'd put my money on this being an elaborate plan to get my sister killed before she qualifies for retirement."
"Still," Grif said, "that's quite an offer." He stood up, leaned over the table, and stuck out his hand. "Guess we'll find out if I can pull it off."
Alef stood and shook his hand firmly. "Very good, Captain Vindh. I will see to it that this unfortunate audit is put behind you as quickly as possible. I suggest you continue with your repairs. As soon as they are complete, we'll contact you. Please... don't try and leave before we do."
"Right," Grif said. "While I understand your concern, I assure you: my greed is much stronger than my cowardice."
Alef smiled slightly.
"Well," Grif continued, "I'm sure you're a very busy man... assassinations to arrange, secrets to steal, small planetary governments to destabilize... if you could just tell me exactly what it is you want us to steal I'll be happy to brief my crew while you go off to slam the door on some other poor sod's balls..."
Alef shrugged. "I don't have that information."
Grif narrowed his eyes. "What do you mean, 'you don't have that information?' You don't know what you want me to steal?"
"You'll be given a full briefing on everything we know about it," Alef said. "But we don't know much."
"Because usually," Grif said, "people who want to steal something specific actually know what it is..."
"We do have some theories."
Grif closed his eyes and counted to three. "OK! No problem! We'll just... be flexible, or something..."
He opened the door to the conference room and found Hari, Cutter and Vod trying to look casual.
"Can I help you?" Grif asked?
Hari and Vod looked down. Cutter adopted an expression of vague disinterest. "What do you mean, Skip?"
Grif snorted. "This is the most disappointing attempt at eavesdropping I've seen in a long time," he said. "If you really wanted to hear what was going on you should have hacked into the desk terminals, like Cyrus and Ktk did."
"Pay me, bug!" one of the terminals said.
Velis muttered something under her breath.
"As long as you're listening in, round everyone up so we can meet in half an hour," Grif shouted over his shoulder. "If you'll follow me," he added, indicating Velis and Alef, "I'll be happy to show you out."
He led them back to the cargo bay. Before he turned to leave, Alef shook his hand one last time.
"We'll contact you soon," Alef promised.
"Take your time," Grif said cheerfully. "The refit should take another month at least. Though you may want to have your team assembled by then, since after the refit we'll be integrating the systems, which means taking off and flying around to a bit. I suspect you'll want your watchdog--I assume that's you, Sis--around for that."
Alef nodded. "Very well. In a month, then. Oh, and your financial situation should be cleared up in about half an hour."
"Outstanding. So long, then..." Grif waved them away, then watched as Alef and Velis walked off the cargo bay and down into the spaceport, where their escorts were still waiting patiently by the ship. He continued to watch as they made their way back to the central hub of the spaceport. It wasn't until the last of the guards had disappeared into the building that he allowed his cheerful demeanor to crack.
"Damn it all to hell," he muttered. He leaned against the bulkhead wall and forced himself to remain calm. Finally he stood, forced himself to grin, and made his way to the Wardroom.
The crew was waiting for him when he entered. Every one was grinning like a madman.
"You look like a pack of idiots," he said. As if on cue, they bombarded him with questions:
"Is it true they're going to give you a charter?"
"Are we really going back to Varkav?"
"Are we working for the Alliance on this run?"
"Will we get our money back now?"
"Do you really think this is a good idea?"
Grif held up his hands, and the crew fell silent. "In order: I guess so, unfortunately, I'm trying not to think about it, soon, and hell no, it's a terrible idea. But... well. Penal colony."
Everyone murmured in agreement.
"All right... look. This mission is practically impossible. It was hard enough, ah, doing this the first time, and there's no way that trick is going to work a second time. If we get caught... we're dead. Especially if we're caught with a ship full of Alliance spies... which, apparently, we will in fact have. So if you want to bail out, do it now... with my blessing. You should be getting your money back in another ten, fifteen minutes or so."
No one said anything.
"Seriously. No hard feelings. Seriously."
Cyrus shifted and looked around awkwardly. "It's decent of you, Grif," he said. "But... you know... a charter like that is worth as much to a crew as it is to a captain..."
Grif raised an eyebrow.
Cyrus coughed. "Ah, well, what I'm saying is... you've managed to pull this off once--and, well, sure, it's dangerous... but it's you. If it were anyone else, I think most of us would pull out... but it's you."
"But Cyrus, you were about to buy a ship..."
Cyrus shrugged. "A few years working on a ship with a charter to the AFW Capital system and I'll be able to afford something much better than that Hummingbird," he said. "Think about it! How many independent traders have you heard about with one of those things? Hell, even the merchant fleets have to renew their licenses every ten years or so, and that's not cheap. That's good for a reputation..."
"Besides," Hari added, "we'll be the first choice for anyone in these parts trying to smuggle things into the Alliance."
"And besides," Cyrus said, "it's you."
Ktk chittered in agreement.
"Er... right." Grif looked at the group, decided they were serious, and shrugged. "Well, Cyrus, I'm happy to have you back... but I sort of gave Cutter your spot."
"He can have it, Skip," Cutter said. "I'll take my old spot back. I hate working that damn gun, and Cyrus is a much better engineer. He'll keep our guns in shape."
Hari nodded in agreement.
"Well... welcome back, Cyrus." Grif clasped the giant man's hand, and slapped him on the shoulder. "Cutter and Hari will bring you up to speed on what they've ordered to beef up the armaments. Get started on that in the morning. For now... get out of here. Go have fun."
There was a general cheer at the prospect of fun, then everyone shuffled out of the Wardroom as they went to confirm that their money--an integral part in their plans to have fun--was theirs once more.
Amys stayed behind, staring at Grif thoughtfully. Grif guessed where the conversation was going and reached for a glass and bottle.
"Maybe," Amys said, "you ought to tell me the story of how you managed to pull this off the first time."
"Ah," Grif said. "That." He pulled out a second glass and set it next to the first.
"Yes," Amys said. "That." She drew up to the table and watched as Grif poured.
"Eh, well." Both glasses full, he set the bottle aside and raised his in a toast. "I told you it was a long story."
"No," Amys said, "you told me it was complicated." She raised her glass in return.
"Oh! Well, that's much more accurate. It's not very long at all, to be completely honest."
"I'm really not going to like this," Amys muttered.
"Oh, that depends," Grif said, grinning the grin she didn't like. "How do you feel about irony?"
"I don't like irony," Amys said. "You like irony. I like you, so I tolerate irony. Up to a point."
"Yeah..." Grif frowned. "Well, due to the... specifics of how I managed to get the anagathics, this little venture is considerably more complicated."
"Oh, God." Amys downed her glass and reached for the bottle, filling it again. "How bad is it?"
"Well..." Grif put his glass back down on the table. Amys noted, with some concern, that it was not empty. "Look, there's a lot I did on that run that was, if I say so myself, absolutely brilliant. I mean, I played Mavis perfectly--he would still be completely clueless if one of his boys hadn't swiped a few 'rations.' And one of the things I've always believed is that a good smuggler takes his opportunities when he sees them, and that capitalizing on a situation that presents itself is as good as making it happen on your own..."
"Grif." Amys raised her voice slightly, impatience and concern rising. "What are you trying to tell me?"
Grif hesitated a moment. "I... may not have stolen the anagathics."
"You..." Amys frowned. "You may not have stolen them?"
"Well, no, I mean, I stole them. But, ah, not in the way everyone thinks I did."
"What are you talking about?" Amys asked in exasperation. "Nobody knows how you stole them. You won't give anyone a straight answer."
"But there are assumptions," Grif said. "Obviously. Otherwise we wouldn't be in this mess right now. And I didn't do anything to discourage those assumptions, because I figured it'd be good for our reputation, but the assumptions aren't true."
Amys said nothing.
Grif cleared his throat. "So... everyone assumes I found a way into and out of Ur Voys," he continued. "And that I stole the anagathics from the Ur Voys facility directly. That's... not the way it happened."
Amys' brow furrowed slightly. "Are you trying to tell me," Amys asked, "that you didn't actually break into Ur Voys? At all?"
Grif nodded. "That's right. I didn't have to."
Amys nodded slowly. "So... how exactly did you manage to come into possession of one of the most expensive and illegal substances in the civilized worlds?"
"Well," Grif said, "it's... hm. They sort of fell off a truck."
"Fell. Off a truck."
"Yeah. I stumbled onto one of the Ur Voys delivery routes, and I just happened to be standing there when it--"
"Fell. Off a truck."
"Hard to believe, right? So you can see why I don't want Velis to know--"
"FELL OFF A TRUCK."
Grif noted, with some alarm, that the glass in her hand was trembling.
"Well, that's an oversimplification, really. The truck sort of flipped over two or three times then erupted into a white-hot ball of plasma and flame, and the boxes that weren't incinerated were thrown in every direction, so 'flew out the back' is probably more accurate. Calm down..."
Amys twitched, set her glass down on the bar, and started twirling a strand of her hair. "Calm down? Grif, I don't know whether to laugh at the insanity of it all or beat you senseless. You just got us hired by the Alliance's Black Ops division because you're the only person they know who's ever done this successfully, only you've never actually done it!"
"This wouldn't bother you nearly as much," Grif said, "if you only appreciated irony more."
Amys made an incoherent noise in the back of her throat, which Grif translated as "I am actively refraining from killing you now."
"Look," Grif said, "the actual story--that I just happened to stumble into a situation where I could walk off with ridiculously expensive contraband that everyone would assume had just been incinerated--that is unbelievable. That's the kind of story that makes people ask 'hey, Grif, what are you hiding?' and then resort to all kinds of unpleasant tactics to get an answer. As ridiculously implausible as it sounds, 'break into Ur Voys' was the most believable option, and if people believed I did that, the only thing they'd assume I was hiding was my explanation of how."
Amys thought it over. "I need another drink," she said finally.
Grif relaxed a little. "You and me both," he said.
"You are a bastard," Amys added.
"Fair enough. But I promise you, if I'd known the Alliance was going to get wind of this, I'd have thought of a much less self-aggrandizing lie."
"They wouldn't have believed it," Amys said. She filled both glasses. "Well, Grif... this is going to be one interesting run."
Grif laughed sharply. "Interesting. Yes. Well, look on the bright side: you don't actually have to do the break-in. If this little job goes bad--which, let's be honest, it probably will--you have a shot at getting out alive."
Amys handed Grif his glass. "Let's not be honest," she said. "it doesn't suit you."