A day later they received word from Varkav Orbital Command that they were cleared to land on the planet's surface. They landed without incident and were searched once more without incident. That past, Grif decided it was time for Ebur to wake up.
Grif, Amys, Cyrus, Cutter and Bennet entered the secret hold in Bay Three to find Ktk had already assembled the bed where Ebur would spend most of his time. Cyrus and Bennet opened the stasis cylinder, and when Cutter turned it off Ebur shivered, then opened his eyes.
Grif grinned at him.
"Well come on," Ebur said, annoyed. "Quit toying with me. Turn the damn thing on already."
"Already did that. Welcome to Varkav. Now it's time to strap you to a bed and have Ktk shock you for a month and a half."
"Great!" Ebur said. "The best part of the job is when I get to be tortured by a bug."
Ktk replied, somewhat crossly, that it wasn't particularly fond of the experience either.
"What's the pool this time?" Ebur asked.
"Oh, no," Grif said. "That'd influence the outcome. We'll tell you after."
"What pool?" Bennet asked. "What are you talking about?"
"We always bet on who Ebur will get to first," Cyrus explained. "It's trickier this time around, because of the extra crew."
Ktk added that it had bet on Amys trying to kill Grif at some point.
"Stop giving Ebur ideas," Grif ordered. "But yeah, I've got money on that too."
"Hey!" Amys protested.
"Well I do," Grif said. "He's done it to you before. More than once. Must be some sort of secret urge."
"I stopped secretly wanting to kill you years ago," Amys insisted.
Cutter helped Ebur into his bed, and began applying the restraints.
"That doesn't look like much fun," Bennet observed.
"Better than what you lot had planned for him," Grif said. "Ebur's a trooper, though. That reminds me, Ebur, I have a question that needs your expertise."
Grif quickly told Ebur about the Sword, and the incident on Tyrelos station where the Sword read his mind.
"What I want to know," Grif explained, "is whether or not the Sword would have been able to read what I was thinking when I came up with the plan."
Ebur frowned. "Let me get this straight. The Sword was rifling through your mind, forcing you to remember specific pieces of information?"
Grif nodded. "Files and reports, yeah."
"And you came up with this idea while you were reliving one of those memories?"
Grif nodded again. "That's right."
Ebur shrugged. "Then you're safe. There's no way he could have known what you were thinking at the time."
"But he was reading my mind!"
"Sure," Ebur said. "He was reading it in a very specific way. Trying to recreate a memory at that level of detail is very specific work, and it's a different part of your mind. He probably felt when you made that connection, but he wouldn't have known what it was. At most he knows you thought of something, but he wouldn't know what."
"Well," Grif said, "that's certainly a load off my mind. Now I can focus on all the other things that are very likely to get us killed."
"Glad to help." Ebur grinned. "Now could you all get the hell out? I'm trying to go insane here."
Grif spent the next few days playing Captain Jobin Tax, working through the mundane licensing and permissions issues needed to buy and trade cargo. He loathed doing it by the book--the last time they were in port Grif had simply bribed the man he was dealing with now--but it was necessary to maintain their cover. After a few days he received grudging permission to allow his crew to reach preliminary trading agreements with merchants on the planet. No transactions could occur until the paperwork was finished, but it allowed the crew out of the spaceport. Cyrus, Cutter and Vod went through the motions of talking to businesses and arranging for the sale of their cargo, as well as looking into buying new cargo. Meanwhile Bennet and some of his agents nosed around looking for a way into Ur Ados.
By the end of the week Jobin Tax had successfully navigated the treacherous waters of Varkavian Bureaucracy and won a license to trade on the planet. On the same day Ktk informed the crew that Ebur was starting to rant.
"He'll start trying to kill us soon," Grif explained to Velis. "That's the fun part. Found a way in yet?"
"I think so," Velis said.
"Maybe." Velis paused. "We may have an agent on the inside."
"Inside what? Ur Voys? Ur Ados? I thought they all died."
"So did I," Velis said. "We tried to use Ur Ados as a staging area to get a team into Ur Voys. The team was discovered and executed, but our first agent--the one who'd been assigned to scout out Ur Ados--was still in place. The team was never linked back to her. Everyone in Ur Ados was investigated, of course, but she kept her cover intact by destroying anything that might incriminate her, including all her communications equipment. She hasn't been able to contact us since."
"You didn't have a safe house on Varkav?"
"We did," Velis said. "It turned out to be… unsafe."
"Bennet was able to make contact today," Velis continued. "We think she can get us in. But I'd like to extract her when we leave. Is that all right?"
Grif was surprised she asked instead of demanded. "Er… yes, I suppose."
Velis nodded. "Good. I'll have Bennet give you the rest of the details when they're all worked out."
That evening Bennet, Velis and Grif sat in the conference room, looking at a picture of a grim-faced young woman on a terminal screen. The name SYTHE, MEAGHAN appeared on the bottom.
"She'd be pretty, if she didn't look like she expected to be killed at any moment," Grif said.
"Deep cover work can do that," Bennet said. "You get twitchy after a while."
"So how is she going to help you get in?" Grif asked.
"There's not a lot she can do directly," Bennet said. "She was sent in ahead of the main group to look around, get a feel for security measures, that sort of thing. She works in the waste treatment and disposal plant at the facility. Hazardous materials are processed there, get turned into your basic sludge, and then get dumped into an artificial lake... of sorts."
"A lake 'of sorts?'"
Bennet wrinkled his nose. "I wouldn't call it a lake, exactly, because it doesn't hold water, exactly. What it does hold gets recycled. As a thickening agent to a lubricant, I think."
"So how is that going to get you in?" Grif asked.
Bennet hit a terminal key and the picture changed to a rough schematic of part of the facility and some of the nearby grounds. "We go in through the 'lake.' Travel up the slough and into the hazmat treatment facility."
"You're going to climb up a radioactive sewer?"
Bennet nodded. "It's the glamor of the job that keeps me coming back..."
"I assume you have something to protect you from the hazardous waste as you're, ah, wading through it?"
Bennet nodded again, and Velis said "we brought some equipment with us. Sneaking into places usually requires wading through something repulsive, these days... that's actually the easy part."
"Easy," Grif repeated. "OK, if you say so. When are you going to try to pull this off?"
"Sythe will be doing maintenance on the treatment systems in four days, so that's when we go in. Any alarms we inadvertently trigger will be written off as simulations. The tricky parts happen before, when we try and sneak into the 'lake' without anyone noticing us, and after, when we sneak around the base hoping nobody notices us."
"Well... can you do it?"
"Yes," he said finally. "It's our best shot."
Grif shrugged. "All right," he said. "You guys are the experts here. Tell us what we need to do on our end to help you--if there is anything--and we'll do what we can."
"Just give me an idea of what robots you want us to attach the receptors to," Bennet said. "We'll have to take care of the rest."
"Sure," Grif said. "I'll get you a list."
Over the next few days Grif felt uneasy, tense, and irritable. He kept running down the list of everything that might go wrong. It was a long list, and when he'd gone through it a second time it was nearly evening. He wasn't hungry, but he decided it was probably a good idea to eat something, and he made his way to the Wardroom.
As he neared it the door opened, and Hari flew through the air and smashed into the wall. Gurgan followed, bellowing in rage, fists clenched tightly.
Grif reached for the comm badge on his sleeve and clicked it on. "Ktk," he said. "Gurgan is trying to beat Hari to a pulp."
A second later Gurgan blinked, shook his head, and sheepishly helped Hari up off the floor, muttering an apology.
"The fun begins," Hari said, wincing as he massaged a spine running along the side of his head.
"Yeah," Grif said. "Yay for us."
Fights broke out continuously over the rest of the evening. Velis nearly killed one of her own people before Ktk shocked Ebur into submission. Afterward she placed herself in the brig.
On the fourth day Morgan, Cyrus, Bennet and four other agents hired a ground transport and loaded it with cargo. By all appearances they were getting ready to deliver it to one of Cyrus' buyers, but there were a few crates that held something else: the equipment Bennet and his men needed for their task. Late that morning, seven men drove out of the spaceport. That afternoon, only two returned.
"Nobody noticed them leave," Cyrus said. "Now we wait. Everyone still alive?"
"Yeah," Grif said. "Cutter tried to saw off Vod's arm with a surgical tool earlier today. I suspect she'll make him pay for that later."
Cyrus laughed in spite of himself. "How long till we can put Ebur on his other meds?"
"Two more days," Grif said. "But if you think about it, thing's have been going pretty easy so far--"
Cyrus hit him in the stomach. Grif doubled over, gasping for breath, then fell to the ground as Cyrus smashed him in the back. A heavy boot came down hard on his side, then again. He dimly heard Amys shout "Ktk!" into her Comm badge, and then Cyrus was picking him up, peering into his face.
"You all right there Grif? Er… sorry."
"I... need... a... drink..." Grif gasped.
"He's fine," Amys laughed.
The night passed without anyone else getting hurt. It was close--Cyrus saw Vod reaching for a laser torch while she and Gurgan were doing some work in the engine room, and contacted Ktk just in time to prevent Gurgan from losing his head--but by and large, people began to recognize the warning signs that Ebur was trying to pry into their heads. Night fell, and Grif returned to his brooding about Bennet and his men. Had they moved into Ur Ados yet? Had they been detected? Would they get out all right?
Bennet wouldn't return to the ship until tomorrow afternoon, when they would meet up with Morgan and Cyrus and come back in the ground transport they'd rented for the cargo. If all went well, the following morning they could start giving Ebur the new meds.
Grif spent that evening in his cabin, brooding and drinking in equal measure. Once again, he started to go through the List Of Things That Might Go Wrong. There were just too many...
The cabin door beeped.
"Who is it?" Grif asked.
"Sif, Amys," the door answered.
"Open," Grif said. The door opened, revealing Amys.
"Hey Amys," Grif said. "What's up?"
"Hello, Grif," Amys said softly, smiling slyly.
"What--?" Grif stopped and frowned. He glanced at the comm badge, dangling out of his jacket pocket, hanging from the back of a chair across the room. "Damn..."
Grif lunged for his jacket. Amys stopped smiling.
She leapt across the room toward him, face twisted into a mask of fury. She hit him in mid-air, sending him sprawling to the floor, then kicked him in the face as he tried to get up. He fell back and hit his head against the wall, hard.
In a haze of red and purple, Grif tried to force himself to think. Amys straddled him, snarling. All he could see was the comm badge hanging from her belt.
In desperation he grabbed at the badge and activated it.
"Ktk," he shouted, trying not to slur the words. "Gack!"
Something very sharp sliced through his body, and everything went dark.