Captain Vindh took his sister's message the best he could: he panicked.
"She's where?" Vindh looked like an animal with a leg trapped in a snare--an animal, Ktk noted, that hadn't quite decided to chew off its own leg, but also hadn't ruled out the possibility of chewing off someone else's.
"Here?" The Captain began to pace up and down the Wardroom floor. "Good God, Ktk, are you sure that's what the woman said?"
Ktk retold the entire story, including Cyrus' message about the diplomatic vessel and battlecruiser in orbit around the planet, and the diplomatic seal Captain Vindh's sister used when transmitting her message.
Vindh slumped into a chair and leaned on the table, staring at his hands. "Amys."
"I know, Grif."
"Amys, we have to find a way to get out of here."
"I know, Grif."
Ktk noticed that Amys, though not as expressive as the Captain, was not doing anything to dismiss or downplay his reaction. Ktk explained to them both that the refit would take another month to finish, and the Fool's Errand was grounded until then.
"A month?" Captain Vindh stared at Ktk sharply.
Ktk clarified that it would take a month assuming everything went without incident.
"Oh, we have an incident right here," the Captain muttered. "My psychopathic sister is in orbit around this planet... looking for me."
He stood, clenched his fists, and began to pace the room again. "I need a stiff drink," he muttered. "A stiff drink, and a heavy gun. A stiff drink, a heavy gun, a new identity, and a working ship--"
Ktk suggested that perhaps it might be prudent to simply meet with her. Captain Vindh stopped pacing abruptly, and he and Amys both stared at Ktk as if it had suggested they go swimming in deep space stark naked.
"Are you crazy, bug?" Vindh's expression indicated he wasn't sure if Ktk was trying to make a joke. "I'm not going to meet with that woman! I have no idea what will turn up missing if I do!"
"Or who," Amys muttered. Vindh nodded vigorously.
Ktk expressed doubt that his sister could really be that bad, no matter how strained their relationship.
"Strained?" Captain Vindh looked up at Ktk in disbelief. "Strained suggests that with great amounts of time and energy it's possible to dance around any kind of substantive conversation that might provoke conflict. Strained implies that by walking on eggshells it's possible for two people to have a civilized, if chilly, conversation. Strained assumes a relationship where polite conversation is difficult, but still possible. Our relationship isn't strained, Ktk--it's the kind of relationship a man in an unshielded envirosuit has with a corrosive atmosphere. You breathe just fine for a while, and then suddenly your flesh is exposed... and it burns, Ktk, it burns..."
Ktk wasn't convinced.
"Dammit bug..." The Captain searched for words. "Dammit! She really is that bad. She's--well--Amys, tell it how bad she is! I'm too busy panicking."
Amys opened her mouth to speak. "She--"
"No, nevermind, I'll tell it," Captain Vindh interrupted. "Ktk, my sister may very well be the single most evil creature currently knocking about the galaxy."
The plates behind Ktk's mandibles produced a sound that was the bug equivalent of a dubious snort.
"Evil," the Captain insisted. "Pure evil, extracted from the evil residue left behind by thousands of evil carcasses, distilled into its purest essence and then molded into the form of my dear sister. And by dear I mean dear God, run away!"
Ktk turned to Amys and asked her to give it a clearer, less obviously biased opinion.
Amys thought it over. "He's understating it a little," she said finally.
"Evil!" Vindh continued. "And not only evil, but she's got a position in the Alliance's Diplomatic Corps... at least, that's what they call it. 'Ministry of Dirty Tricks' is closer to the truth. Black ops, black bag missions, all the Alliance's dirty work done in secret to keep their reputation intact. You don't get where she is without having skeletons in your closet--skeletons, I might add, that you seek out in order to add to your collection. And sometimes you steal them from someone else's closet! Or, if you're feeling magnanimous, you look after them for a colleague who is sick. Or on sabbatical."
Ktk had never heard of the "Ministry of Dirty Tricks."
"Of course you haven't." Captain Vindh went to the bar, poured himself a glass of Stellis, and set the glass down on the bartop without so much as taking a drink. "They don't officially exist, after all. The Alliance are the good guys, right? They'd never have an elite corps of thugs who secretly disappear anyone the government finds too inconvenient to deal with openly. Officially they're just a branch of the Diplomatic Corps, called the 'Office of Information Management' or something ridiculous like that. Unofficially they do all the dirty work that needs doing. All on the dark, so the politicians can keep yammering on about the high-minded ideals of the Alliance without looking like pack of barking, bloodthirsty lunatics."
"She practically runs the place," Amys added. The Captain nodded in agreement.
Ktk wondered why she would be looking for Grif.
"Well I don't know that, do I? I haven't heard from her in years, except for the occasional message she'd send through Doma. And now she shows up--in Trade Baron space, no less--and demands to see me? I don't know. I do know that there's a little piece of my mind that is screaming Danger! Run Away! And it's a piece of my mind I usually listen to. Which means I've got to find a way to avoid it, or--"
The intercom beeped. Captain Vindh sighed in irritation and punched it on. "What?"
"Uh, Skip..." Cutter’s usually easy drawl was slightly uneasy. "... some lady claiming to be your sister just hailed us, and is demanding to speak with you."
Captain Vindh's face drained of color. "Tell her I'm not here," he croaked.
A second later, Cutter's voice said "Uh... Skip..."
"What?" The Captain sounded like he might snap at any moment, and Ktk unconsciously skittered away from him.
"... your sister said if you don't talk to her right now she'll de-orbit the moon and crash it into the planet."
Ktk asked if that was an idle threat.
"Yes," Captain Vindh said. "She wouldn't actually cause a planetary catastrophe just to get my attention."
"Um, Griff..." Amys said, looking uncomfortable.
"Unless she'd already planned to cause a planetary catastrophe for some other reason, and decided to kill two birds with one stone." Captain Vindh swore at the top of his lungs and hit his head once against the paneling over the comm terminal, hard. Then he sighed. "Cutter, I'm on my way."
Amys followed after Vindh, and Ktk followed them both in a mixture of curiosity and dread. He had never seen Vindh act this way before, not even when hunted by Commodore Mavis.
When they arrived on the bridge, the grim face of the woman Ktk had seen earlier glowered out of the comm terminal. Cutter sat at the comm station, trying his best to look nondescript.
Captain Vindh's earlier agitation had all but vanished, replaced with a casual disdain. He smiled slightly as he looked at the image of his sister. "Velis. What a pleasant surprise."
The similarities between them were obvious, mostly around the eyes and cheekbones. There were differences: Velis was obviously older, and had a wider build. Her hair was lighter than the Captain's, nearly blond, while his was almost black. Her eyes were pale blue, his were dark. But they carried themselves the same way--aloof, confident, even cocky--and they stared at each other with exactly the same expression of caution and calculation.
"You and I have a few things to discuss," Velis said. Her clothes were simple in design but obviously expensive, and she wore the purple sash of the Alliance of Free Worlds Diplomatic Corps.
Captain Vindh stared at the purple sash and rolled his eyes. "Look, Sis, I'd love to talk, but I'm really busy. I'm in the middle of a ship refit, I'm trying to hire a new crewman... so let's get this over with. The sooner you tell me your demands, the sooner I can ignore you and go back to my business... and you can go do... whatever it is you do..."
Velis frowned. "I see you're still an idiot," she said, "which doesn't surprise me. What does surprise me is that you're still alive. Well, I take that back: it doesn't surprise me as much as it annoys the hell out of me."
Captain Vindh smirked. "Glad to know some things don't change. So you came all this way to tell me that I ought to be a good little brother and get myself killed to preserve the family name? I ought to point out that you're the black sheep of the family, not me."
"I'm the white sheep. The only one. But as much as it might please me to urge you to kill yourself to try, in some small way, to restore a tiny piece of our family's good name... that isn't why I'm here." Her frown deepened, as if she were about to say something she disliked very much. "I'm here... to hire you."
Captain Vindh blinked.
Amys' eyes widened. "What?"
Captain Vindh looked at Amys and then back at Velis. "I'm with Amys on this one. What?"
Velis did not smile. "I'm serious. I'm here to hire you."
"There it is again," the Captain said.
Ktk confirmed that it heard his sister say, twice, that she wanted to hire him.
Captain Vindh looked at his sister's image in disbelief. "You want to hire me?"
"I don't want to hire you." The look on Velis' face fully supported that statement. "I am hiring you. As soon as that ship of yours is ready to go..."
Amys sat in the navigator's station and swiveled her chair so that her back was to the main screen. Everyone in the room clearly saw her mouth the word "no."
Vindh nodded slightly in response. "Well," he said, "that's an interesting offer... but I'm going to have to tell you to get bent."
"I'm not surprised," Velis said. "But you're hired anyway."
"No, I'm not."
"We'll be by tomorrow to give you more details."
Captain Vindh allowed a hint of annoyance to creep into his voice. "Didn't you hear me? I said there's no way in hell that I'm--"
"There's a message coming your way," Velis interrupted. "Take it, and then we'll talk."
"What are you talking about? There's no--"
The comm station beeped.
"It's important," Velis said. Her previous agitation had vanished completely. "You really must take this call. I'll hold."
Cutter leaned over the comm station and looked up the ID of the caller, then swore. "It's from House Tylaris, Skip."
Captain Vindh's eyes widened slightly. Amys frowned. Vindh looked back up at the main screen, where his sister sat patiently, the faintest trace of a smile etched on her lips.
"Sis... I think I'm going to put you on hold now," he said.
"Cutter... put the other call through." The Captain's voice shook slightly. Ktk couldn't help but feel a little uneasy. The Barony never dealt directly with independent traders--there wasn't enough money in it. They were more than happy to act as a port of call to anyone who cared to use their facilities, of course, but their direct attention was reserved for the big trading units, the smuggling syndicates, and the crime lords. Not small timers, even ones who had pulled in score as staggeringly successful as theirs.
The main screen shimmered slightly as the picture changed from the figure of the Captain's sister to that of a thin, balding man with a wispy beard. "I must speak with Captain Vindh," the man said in a soft voice.
"Vindh here." The Captain cleared his throat nervously. "To what do we owe the distinction?"
"Ah, yes..." the man picked up a digital tablet bearing the official seal of House Tylaris and waved it in front of his face. "Captain Vindh, I am serving you notice that we have frozen all your assets in the Bank of Tylaris Prime, pending audit."
Cutter swore. Amys swore. Ktk ground its vocal plates together and swore. Captain Vindh stared at the comm screen, gaping. It took a great deal, Ktk noted, to render the Captain speechless; apparently freezing his assets and threatening an audit met and exceeded that standard.
"This isn't necessarily something to be concerned about," the man continued. "We conduct them from time to time, especially on our new accounts and larger accounts. Since you have both a new and a large account, it was only a matter of time..."
"I'm being audited?"
"As I said, this isn't necessarily something to be concerned about. We'll let you know in a week or two."
The Captain gripped the back of Cutter’s chair so tightly his knuckles turned white. "A week or two?"
"Sometimes more," the man said. "But a week is about average. Your account will be suspended until the audit is finished, of course. By that time we'll let you know if your assets will remain. Your creditors have agreed to defer any payment you might owe until after the audit has completed."
"My credit--wait, what? You've already talked to my creditors?"
"It's standard practice to notify them first. At any rate, should we have any questions we insist you make yourself available."
"Of course," the Captain said in a hollow voice.
"Very well then. Thank you for your cooperation in this matter, and have a pleasant evening."
The screen went dark.
"What just happened here?" Cutter asked.
"Hold on," Amys said, and swiveled around in her chair to face her Navigation station. She called up a personal terminal and accessed a few files. "They're auditing my account too."
"What?" Cutter opened a private session on the comm station and followed suit. "Hell's Compass, they're auditing me too."
Ktk had already started accessing its account at a spare terminal on the other side of the room. It found that it, too, was being audited. It read through the various reasons given and after doing some quick calculations determined that none of the stated reasons made any sense.
There was absolutely no way the Tylaris Barony would ever consider auditing every account above a certain size just because it was new. The Bank of Tylaris Prime was specifically for people who wanted a Bank that didn't stick its nose into its customers business. Ktk said as much.
"Yeah," Captain Vindh said. "It's just their excuse. Damn her. Damn her! Well played, though. But damn her!"
"Yes," Amys agreed. "We're right in the middle of a refit. If they cancel that account, they'll take the ship. And probably throw you in jail."
Vindh shuddered. "Tylaris Penal Colonies... no thanks. Cutter, put my lovely sister--and by 'lovely sister,' I mean 'wouldn't it be lovely if something terrible happened to my sister?'--on screen."
Cutter hit a key. The main screen came back to life, with Velis once again looking down on all of them.
"All right, Sis," the Captain said. "You have my full, undivided attention."
"Good." Velis sounded quite satisfied. "So nice to have a little cooperation around here. If you keep being that helpful I'm sure we can smooth out any problems that may have come up in the last, oh, five minutes or so."
"Just tell me what's going on, Velis."
Velis laughed. "Oh no," she said. "Not on this channel. I'm coming planetside, and I'm bringing friends. We'll be by tomorrow night, 2100 hours. Don't bother coming to greet us, we know exactly where you parked." With that, the main screen went dark.
"That is one mean lady," Cutter observed.
"Bloody hell!" The Captain shouted, and stalked off the Bridge.
Ktk moved to follow, but Amys waved it off.
"Let him go," she said. "He... needs to be alone for a while."
Ktk asked if he was going to spend some time in quiet introspection as he tried to make sense of the tensions in his family dynamic.
"No," Amys said. "This is Grif we're talking about."
"He's going to get drunk," Cutter explained.
* * *
Grif stormed into the Wardroom, fuming. He saw the glass of Stellis he'd poured himself earlier, still sitting on the bartop, and downed it quickly. Stellis was cheap, strong, and hit hard: Grif poured himself another before the first glass even registered. That went down just as quickly, and by the third he was starting to calm down, just a little, as the tingling in his fingers began to numb.
He downed the fourth glass just as the door to the Wardroom opened. Cyrus Mak, face expressionless, strode into the room.
Grif turned unsteadily and attempted a halfhearted grin. "Cyrus, you picked a hell of a time for a visit. You wouldn't believe what just--"
Cyrus' hand shot out and his fingers wrapped, vise-like, around Grif's throat.
Cyrus shoved. Grif flew across the room and hit the wall hard. Stars exploded around him.
Cyrus moved quickly, much faster than normal for a man his size, and grabbed Grif's neck once more. He lifted Grif easily, pinning him to the wall.
Cyrus' hand tightened until Grif could barely breathe.
"I trusted you," Cyrus said.
Grif tried to reply, but could manage no more than a desperate gurgle.
"I trusted you, Grif. You said we'd split half the take among the entire crew..."
"We... did..." Grif, gagging from the force of Cyrus' iron grip, tried desperately to struggle free.
"Aye, we did." Cyrus' eyes narrowed. "And then you had the balls to report me to the Baron!"
"Oh, you didn't?" Cyrus' voice was harsh, his grip unrelenting. "Who knew I was saving up for my own ship? Who tipped off the authorities about my account and my record? Why did you do this to me?"
"I... didn't..." Grif gasped again.
"Who then?" Cyrus shouted. "Who did this to me?"
"My..." Grif clawed desperately at Cyrus' hands, gasping for breath. "My... sis... ter..."
Cyrus' eyes widened. He loosened his grip, and Grif slid to the floor, gasping and coughing.
"Your sister?" Cyrus asked, face blank.
Grif nodded, still coughing and gasping for air.
Cyrus slumped down on the floor next to Grif.
"She got me too," Grif said.
"Bloody hell," Cyrus swore again.
"Yeah. And Cutter, and Amys, and Ktk. Vod, Hari, Gurgan and Morgan too, I'll bet."
Cyrus sat next to Grif in silence as Grif slowly recovered from this throttling.
"Why?" Cyrus asked plaintively.
"She... wants me to do something."
"What?" Cyrus looked at Grif in confusion.
Grif shrugged. "I don't get it either. She says she wants to hire me for some kind of job. I wouldn't trust her to save my life--hell, I wouldn't trust her to save Doma's life--but she's hinted that if I take it she'll stop the audits."
Cyrus mulled over that information. "I see," he said.
"She's coming by with some of her, ah, associates tomorrow night. 2100."
They sat against the wall in silence for a bit.
"Sorry I almost killed you," Cyrus said.
"Honest mistake," Grif replied. "There's Stellis on the bar."
Cyrus retrieved the bottle and came back to the wall, sitting down in the same spot. He took a swig directly from the bottle, and passed it to Grif. "You taking the job?"
Grif took the bottle and shrugged. "I guess I'll know tomorrow night."
Cyrus sighed. "Well, at least I know you didn't screw me out of that ship. I should have known. But I couldn't think of anyone else who could have... and it... damn it Grif, I was so close! I went a little crazy."
"What ship?" Grif asked.
"Hummingbird. Good condition, drive needed work. I was going to sign the papers soon. That's when I found out about the 'little problem...'"
"Right." Grif took another swig of Stellis and handed the bottle back to Cyrus. "Don't worry too much. The guy told me that during these things all creditors agree to wait until the audit clears up before moving on. So if I play nice with my sister and Velis is true to her word, you still might have a chance to sign those papers..."
Cyrus considered it, then shrugged. "All right. I won't write it off just yet. But what if you tell your sister to get stuffed?"
Grif grinned. "Then I guess you'll start choking me again."