“So,” Grif said, leaving the noisy din of Dyorbid’s behind him as he stepped out onto the walkway, “I think that went rather well.”
Amys fell into step beside him, saying nothing. Cyrus, Ktk, and Morgan followed, Morgan trailing behind as he watched Ktk and Cyrus argue over the merits of the latest Tachyon Induction Drive from Tylaris Drive Mechanics, the ATID 515. Ktk was saying it didn’t see the point in releasing a newer drive that was larger than the previous three models when the primary selling point for the 500 and 510 was size and weight reduction.
Grif glanced at Amys and raised an eyebrow. “You’re quiet.”
“Right…” Grif shook his head and sighed. “Well, I still think it went rather well.”
“It went as well as we could’ve hoped,” Amys said. “There’s plenty of time for it to go wrong.”
Grif snorted. “True enough. But I’m trying to think positive, happy thou—”
His voice broke off as he stopped so abruptly that Cyrus almost ran into him.
“Oi!” Cyrus swore as he twisted his body to avoid knocking over his captain. “Hey, Grif, watch where… you’re…”
He let his words trail off as he noticed Amys ease into a combat stance. When he realized why, his eyes narrowed and he reached for the knife tucked into his belt.
A middle-aged human male dressed in gray, clean workman’s overalls stood about three or four meters away from Grif, staring at him with a polite, firm smile. The man was flanked by two other human men—both dressed in the same gray overalls, both considerably larger than the man in front. And looming over all three was a Nengit, reared back on his hind limbs, his four upper limbs flexing menacingly.
“Well,” Grif said, “that didn’t take long.”
Dyorbid’s was located near one of the Common Transit Gates—entrances used by shuttles that ferried crew and passengers from ships that were forced to “dock” at a fixed point in space above the domed city, either because they couldn’t afford the fee for a private dock or they were too large to fit. The one near Dyorbid’s was used primarily by lower-income passengers and crews that worked on the cheap, and while this part of the city wasn’t particularly wealthy, it was crowded. But the crowd on their street was thinning rapidly. The man in front took a step toward them as the two men behind him spread out, one stepping out into the street a bit to get a better view of the whole group. The Nengit didn’t move, his crablike face glowering menacingly.
“Er…” Grif looked at the quartet closely, sizing them up. “Hi.”
“Captain Vindh.” The man in front nodded, brisk and businesslike. “Our employer would like a word.”
Grif frowned. “Who would that be, exactly?”
“Yidoc Messhik,” the man said.
The name provoked an immediate reaction: Cyrus swore, Amys hissed in alarm, Morgan’s mouth dropped open and Ktk began to rock back and forth as its vocal plates rubbed together to make an unhappy screeching noise. Grif gave a tight smile, one shoulder twitching as the name of Tyrelos Station’s most notorious crime lord seemed to echo over the quickly-emptying street.
“What kind of word does Messhik want to have with us, exactly?” Grif asked, keeping his voice polite and conversational.
The man in front frowned. “The kind that involves you and him sitting in the same room, talking.”
“Right.” Grif nodded sagely. “And does it end with us leaving?”
The smile on the man’s face was not pleasant. “It always ends with the other guy leaving.”
“You,” Grif said, “are a very comforting man. I bet you get sent to all the hospital visits.”
He turned to Amys. “I guess I’m going to go have a little talk with Mr. Messhik. See what he has to say.”
“We’ll see what he has to say,” Amys corrected.
“Er…” Grif glanced from Amys, to the four waiting figures, then back to Amys. “No. I need you minding the store.”
Amys narrowed her eyes, considering her options. Then, reluctantly, she nodded.
“Right.” Grif turned back to the man. “I’m at your disposal, sir. Wait, no, I’d prefer not to phrase it that way. How about ‘oh, it seems my schedule has mysteriously opened up, shall we?’”
The unpleasant smile twisted into a somewhat less disturbing smirk. “Sure thing. Follow me. It’s not far.”
Amys, Cyrus, Ktk, and Morgan stayed put until they saw Grif and the others turn around a corner and disappear from sight.
Amys scowled. “Hell.”
“It’s just a talk, right?” Cyrus sounded more hopeful than certain. “He’s good at talking.”
Ktk wondered what Messhik wanted to talk to Grif about.
“If I had to guess,” Amys said, scowl deepening, “I’d say it had to do with the price of success.”
* * *
“I’m glad we had this chance to meet. I’ve wanted to for some time.”
Yidoc Messhik was the oldest Invagi Grif had ever met: the folds and wrinkles on his face made his facial spines droop, giving him the appearance of a man covered in tufts of patchy, but very sharp, hair. Physically he appeared very frail—but his eyes were very sharp. Those sharp eyes were scrutinizing Grif intensely.
“I’m flattered,” Grif said, “but there were easier ways to do it.”
“Not for me.” The old Invagi smiled slightly, leaning over the dark marbled surface of the desk that separated them. “I told my people I wanted to meet you, and voila—here you are. And I find, Captain Vindh, that when I tell people I plan to drop by, they are very suddenly and unavoidably called away.”
“With surprising regularity,” Yidoc noted.
“Yes, well, there’s also the whole ‘being afraid you’re going to kill them’ thing.”
Yidoc’s mouth twitched into something close to a smile. “Yes. There is that.”
Grif took the moment to review everything he knew about the crime lord. Old, but obviously pretty sharp. Likes to get his way. Dislikes people who get in his way…
He shivered at the last thought. Nobody in his position actually liked people who got in their way, but that was something people made a point to say about Messhik. Grif remembered a few of the stories he’d heard about people who’d crossed Messhik in the past, and decided there was a legitimate reason he’d been singled out.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Grif said. “I’m flattered you wanted to see me, and only too happy to oblige…”
“Are you?” Yidoc asked sharply.
“Well, no,” Grif admitted. “By ‘flattered’ I mean ‘very deeply concerned,’ and by ‘only too happy’ I mean ‘I figure this is the only way I’ll be able to avoid becoming another unpleasant story people tell about you.’”
Yidoc’s smile grew more distinct. “I find your honesty refreshing.”
“I figured it was even odds. Why did you want to meet with me? The only reason I can think of is very bad for me.”
“You haven’t crossed me or encroached on my interests,” Yidoc said.
“That’s the one. Well, I’m relieved to hear it, but it makes the meeting all the more mystifying.”
“I don’t know why,” Yidoc said. “Surely you must have expected something like this eventually. You’ve managed to attract quite a bit of attention over the last few years, Captain Vindh. You’ve generated interest.”
Grif shifted his weight in his seat, trying to hard to make it look like he wasn’t squirming. “I’ve had a few interesting stories—”
“That’s one way to put it,” Yidoc said. His smile didn’t grow any larger, but the amusement was plain in his voice. “Last year, around the same time Baron Tylaris died, you and your crew managed to smuggle some very expensive, very illegal anagathics out of Radiant Throne space.”
“That was one of the interesting stories,” Grif said.
“Indeed. You all became very rich. I confess, when I heard about that I was tempted to arrange a meeting right then and there. But then you found yourself mixed up in a coup against Baron Tyrelos, organized by—of all people—her brother…” The tone of his voice made it clear he had trouble believing that Raphael Tyrelos was capable of organizing a rebellion against his sister.
Grif sighed. “Another interesting story…”
“Very interesting,” Yidoc agreed. “But not nearly as interesting as the one a few months later, when the Radiant Throne put a sizable bounty on your head, since you apparently decided to go back to the place where you’d originally stolen the anagathics, in order to steal something else.”
Grif winced at the memory. “Not as interesting a story as it sounds.”
“Quite the contrary,” Yidoc said, “it is a fascinating story simply because none of the parties involved—not you, not the Throne, and not the Alliance intelligence agency you were apparently coerced into working for—will tell anyone what it is.”
Grif raised an eyebrow.
“Oh yes, I’m aware of your sponsor for that job,” Yidoc said. “I actually know Alef Halge. Not very well, for obvious reasons, but we do run in similar circles…”
Grif thought about it for a moment, then nodded. There were similarities between a top secret black ops squad and a well-established organized crime family.
Very sharp circles. Constantly spinning, razor-sharp circles, always going for the exposed bits.
“As soon as I realized you’d been strong-armed into your brilliant second heist by the Alliance, some of the other bits fell into place. Rumor has it you own a charter to trade, in perpetuity, with federal ports in Alliance space. True?”
Grif nodded reluctantly.
“Such a thing is very rare for someone in your position to simply be awarded. It has the potential to make you a very rich man. Yet you’ve never used it—it’s been a year, and you’ve never once gone into Alliance space. Why is that?”
“Maybe I don’t like honest work,” Grif said.
Yidoc snorted. “Try not to insult my intelligence, Captain Vindh. You are no more averse to honest work than I am. You simply don’t like being constrained by it. No, I think it more likely that you want to avoid the bureaucratic trail you’d be forced to leave behind if you traveled in Alliance space. And you certainly wouldn’t like the mandatory locks and restraints that would be put on the weapons on your ship.”
“True,” Grif said. “I don’t like that at all.”
“And well you shouldn’t,” Yidoc said. “Especially since someone who wanted to collect Radiant Throne’s bounty would find it relatively simple to track you through that bureaucratic trail. Better to operate out of Trade Baron space, even if the work doesn’t pay nearly as well—you’ll have all your resources on hand to bring to bear, here. How many bounty hunters have you had to deal with, so far?”
“…a few,” Grif admitted.
“At least fourteen, that I know of.”
Grif shrugged. “There’s a down side to success.”
“True,” Yidoc said, “but allow me to suggest that some kinds of success prove to have more of a down side than an up side, especially if you don’t have the infrastructure to support that success.”
“Infrastructure?” Grif stared at the Invagi warily. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, Captain Vindh, that you have become a victim of your own success. It has propelled you to new heights. You have moved into a much larger playing field, and you don’t have the resources on hand to play in that field effectively.”
“Ah,” Grif said, nodding once. “You want to offer me a job.”
“Yes,” Yidoc said. “I want to offer you a job.”
They sat in silence for a moment.
“I think this is the part where you make it clear I don’t really have any choice in the matter,” Grif said. “I understand that’s traditional.”
This time Yidoc smiled fully. “No threats, Captain Vindh. To be quite frank, I don’t expect you to accept. Not today. Far more likely that you would pretend to accept, and then mysteriously disappear at first opportunity.”
Grif had to admit that did sound like something he’d do.
“No,” Yidoc said, “All I want to do is present my case and make my offer. It’s a good offer. I’m confident you’ll take me up on it, eventually.”
“I see,” Grif said warily. “Well, as long as I’m here, I suppose hearing your pitch couldn’t hurt.”
“Then let’s get to it,” Yidoc said. “You have a remarkable talent for crime. Certain crimes, at least. As far as smuggling goes, you’re considered one of the best among the independents, and even some of the affiliated smugglers speak well of you. I could use someone with that kind of skill… as well as for some of the other talents you’ve shown.”
“Your guys do pretty well without me,” Grif said. “I don’t see how I’d improve your margins, no matter how theoretically good I was at the job.”
“Not if I used you on general runs,” Yidoc agreed. “I would take you and your crew on as specialists. Not full time—you’d be free to pursue your own interests between jobs. You would essentially be held in reserved, called up only for, shall we say, sensitive assignments.”
“Right,” Grif said.
“There are advantages to being part of a large, protective family,” Yidoc said. “I can’t promise you blanket protection from the Radiant Throne—at least, not at first—but I can see to it that bounty hunters leave you alone. In time, I’m confident I can come to an accommodation with the Throne as well.”
Yidoc eased back in his chair and steepled his fingers, his drooping facial spines twitching in unison.
“So… you’re offering some degree of independence, a lot of money, and protection from the Radiant Throne.”
“And the prestige that comes from working with my organization,” Yidoc added. “I’m not content with hiring common thugs, Captain. I prefer to work with the best. Your reputation would benefit from that.”
“I have a pretty good reputation right now,” Grif said.
“Well…” Yidoc considered how to respond to that. “Let’s just say that in some circles, people question whether your cooperation with the Alliance was actually forced.”
Grif stiffened. “What?”
Yidoc shrugged. “There are those who believe you are operating as a… well. As a privateer, I suppose. A criminal at the behest of the Alliance.”
“That’s a damn lie,” Grif said. “I did what I had to do to keep my ship, and that’s the end of it.”
“It is an admittedly small group at present,” Yidoc said, “but these kinds of rumors have a tendency to grow over time. Aligning yourself with my organization would put an end to such whisperings very quickly…”
Grif forced himself to remember where he was, and who he was talking to. Don’t make an enemy you don’t have to make.
He took a deep breath, keeping his voice steady. “It’s a very generous offer, Mr. Messhik…”
“I already know what you’re going to say,” Yidoc said, chuckling softly. “I don’t expect you to accept today, Captain Vindh. All I want you to know is that the offer exists. And you may find, in time, that you will need access to resources you can’t get on your own. When you do, I want you to contact me on my private line. We’ll take up this conversation again.”
“That’s it?” Grif frowned. “I mean, I know you said you wouldn’t, but I sort of expected you to threaten me anyway.”
“I could, if you like,” Yidoc said. “I could tell you that I’m a man who is used to getting his own way. I could tell you that I’m a patient man, but that my patience has limits. And then I could launch into a story about another rising star who tested the limits of my patience, and then explain why the body was never found.”
“I’d… prefer you didn’t,” Grif said.
“That’s what I thought,” Yidoc said, sighing wistfully. “Nobody seems to enjoy hearing that story as much as I enjoy telling it.”