All of the crew had been affected by the audit, and when Hari, Vod, Gurgan and Morgan came back, Captain Vindh filled them in as quickly as he could, starting with the all-important disclaimer "first of all, it's not my fault..."
They took the news stoically, except for Morgan who flinched at the mention of Velis' name.
"She's here?" Morgan kept his voice even, but he pulled at his beard nervously.
"Sorry old man," Vindh said. "She's not only here, but she's stopping by for a visit tomorrow night."
"Wonderful," Morgan said tonelessly. Ktk thought if he tugged at his beard any harder he would be in danger of actually pulling out tufts of hair.
They all agreed that the best course of action that night was to get as drunk as possible.
Cyrus decided to stay on board to commiserate, and to be on hand the next day "to help handle the trouble she's going to bring with her." They all gathered in the Wardroom and drowned their sorrows with a considerable amount of Stellis (in both the green and blue varieties), as well as some other more exotic and substantially more toxic concoctions that Hari and Gurgan brewed in a spare cabin near the engine room.
Ktk opted not to drink that night. The giddy silliness that inebriation inflicted on it seemed inappropriate to the situation, and it wanted to think... and, perhaps, get a little more information on Captain Vindh's sister. It scuttled over to Cyrus, whose infamous tolerance for alcohol made him only slightly drunk. Cyrus looked up from his glass, grinned half-heartedly, and toasted.
"Missed you, bug," he said, slurring his words slightly.
Ktk replied that it had missed Cyrus as well, and was sorry he wouldn't be able to buy his ship.
Cyrus waved his drink dismissively. "Grif says not to worry just yet. I figure I'll wait a day or two before I start mourning... If Grif does what Velis wants--whatever the hell that might be--I'm pretty sure we'll get our money back. I don't trust her, but she's absolutely reliable when it comes to blackmail and extortion."
Ktk looked at the others in the Wardroom. Gurgan was telling a story that had Grif, Amys and Hari in stitches. Cutter and Vod were sitting apart from the others, and it looked like they might head off somewhere more private soon. Ktk leaned in closer to Cyrus and asked him to explain the situation between Captain Vindh and his sister.
Cyrus frowned. "Right. You weren't with us back when all that started."
Ktk replied that it had never actually heard of Captain Vindh's sister directly. It knew Doma, of course, and as a result hadn't thought highly of Vindh's extended family, and had decided Vindh felt the same way.
Cyrus chuckled. "That's about right. But it wasn't always that way. He and his sister were close once."
Ktk observed that this was obviously no longer the case.
"No it isn't," Cyrus agreed. "I don't know exactly what it was that soured them. I never actually met her until after the falling out..."
Cyrus emptied the rest of his glass and tilted his head back, thinking. "Grif had just bought the Fool's Errand," he said. "He'd had her for not more than a year. I was the engineer then, and other than Amys it was a completely different crew. I don't think you ever met any of the others. Anyway, one day Grif tells us we're headed off to Allied space, to Kinnar. That's where he's from. His sister was getting married, and he was looking forward to seeing her. So we set down on Kinnar, and he and Amys go off together. They were quite the pair back then..."
Cyrus shrugged. "The rest of us, we settled down for some extended R&R. Imagine our surprise when a few days later they come back, Morgan in tow, and we immediately head out to Trade Baron space. He didn't talk about what happened. He just said his family could burn in hell for all he cared, and he never wanted anything to do with them again for as long as he lived."
Ktk asked if Amys or Morgan had ever talked about it, and Cyrus shook his head. "I asked Amys about it once and she said, and I quote, 'Cyrus, I like you, so don't ask me again.' Morgan just muttered something about trust. I couldn't get him to say anything else."
"After that," Cyrus continued, "Velis would show up from time to time to yell at Grif and make demands. Mostly he tells her to go to Hell. We thought when he took Doma on board she'd ease up, but he just left, didn't he?"
Ktk wondered if the trade-off was worth it.
"Hmph. Hard to say."
At that moment Captain Vindh and Amys erupted into howls of laughter as Gurgan began to impersonate Commodore Mavis on the flight deck of the Centurion. It was an uncanny impersonation, even though Gurgan was considerably larger. Ktk and Cyrus turned to watch, and the conversation ended.
* * *
The next morning a representative from the shipyard called to announce that, regrettably, technicians would not be arriving to continue their work on the refit. The shipyard was more than willing to work pending successful completion of the audit, she stated, but they would wait until then before continuing.
"These things have been known to take months," she explained. "And we have, unfortunately, found that some people are tempted to leave before we can be assured of payment."
"Of course," Grif said pleasantly. "We'll let you know when that's taken care of."
The woman smiled indulgently. "No need, sir. The auditors will notify all your creditors when it's finished. I suspect we'll know before you do."
Grif forced himself to smile wider. "Outstanding," he said. When the viewscreen went dark, he let his smile fade into a scowl and turned to Amys. "Someday..."
"Kill her later," Amys said evenly. "Get our money back tonight."
"But I want to--"
"I know what you want," Amys said. "Get our money back first."
At 1900 the entire crew was sober, dressed, and armed to the teeth.
"I don't know what she wants," Grif said to his crew, "but she won't be coming alone, and the people she works with are dangerous. So we need to be dangerous too. Amys, you and Cyrus work out some contingency plans."
Amys nodded. Cyrus grunted in agreement.
Velis arrived at 2100 sharp.
The Fool's Errand was too large to fit in a traditional hanger, so it was berthed outside near the hangars. It was a well-lit area, and they saw Velis and her entourage as they emerged from the central hub of the spaceport complex. They were hard to miss: eleven humans traveling in a group, nine obviously armed.
"To the teeth," Morgan confirmed. "Weapons are secured but not concealed."
It wasn't a comforting thought.
"I don't think I like these odds, Skip," Cutter said.
Grif, Amys, Cyrus, Cutter, and Gurgan were standing in a small lounge fore of the cargo bays, watching Velis and her entourage through a video feed Morgan had routed to one of the monitors.
"Me either," Grif agreed. "Sure would like to know how she convinced the Baron to freeze a paying customer's assets."
Everyone nodded. Most people who lived in Trade Baron space preferred to have as few ties to the Alliance and the Radiant Throne as possible. Close alliances with either upset the balance of power, and it compromised markets: if a Trade Baron was neutral it could do business with the Alliance and the Throne alike. As soon as a Trade Baron chose a side, however, it had to give up one or the other... not to mention it hurt the home industries that catered to the smugglers, pirates, and other criminals who considered the Trade Baronies safe havens.
Baron Tylaris was the largest, richest, and most powerful of the Barons: if he chose a side, it would throw the other baronies into chaos as they struggled to adjust to the changes.
As Velis' entourage neared the ramp leading into the exposed underbelly of Bay One, she called out an order and they came to a stop. After a moment, Grif realized with some surprise that they were actually waiting to be invited in. Grif glanced at Amys in surprise and saw her staring at him in confusion.
"Is she being polite?" she asked.
"Can't be," Grif said. "She's my sister. This has to be some sort of trick."
"They're just standing there," Gurgan said. "And... who is that?" He pointed to a figure standing to the right and immediately behind Velis.
Grif studied the figure for a moment before answering. "He's the one in charge," he decided. "Look, he doesn't have the physique that the guards do--Hell, he looks much older than Velis--but he definitely has that 'I'm in charge' vibe. And you see how my sister is deliberately putting him behind her? She's ready to take a shot for him if it comes to that."
"Will it come to that?" Amys asked the question, but everyone looked at Grif.
"I hope not," Grif said. "I'm pretty sure you'd survive that fight, Amys, but I don't know if I would. Unless I ran away and hid--which, now that I've said it out loud, is actually a pretty good plan..."
Amys snorted. "You're many things, Grif, but you're not a coward."
"You know it hurts me when you say things like that," Grif said. "It really hurts. Right here." He tapped his chest solemly.
"Right," Grif said. I guess it's time to say hello."
The lounge connected to the cargo bays via a short, wide hallway. Grif walked down the hall, flanked by Cyrus and Gurgan, both carrying plasma rifles. He hesitated a moment at the door, then keyed it open, stepping into Bay One and into the warm, dry air.
Bay One was in the process of being rebuilt, and was missing half of its deck. Grif, Cyrus and Gurgan walked to the edge of the deck and looked down the ramp at Velis and the rest of her entourage. The armed men tensed slightly at Cyrus and Gurgan's weaponry, but made no move to their own.
"Hello, Sis," Grif said. His voice was casual and vaguely friendly.
"Grif," Velis replied. She didn't sound nearly as friendly, but she did manage to keep the greeting venom-free.
"I see you brought company."
Velis nodded. "I said I would." She turned her head and gestured slightly to the older man standing behind her. "This is Alef Halge," she said. "My boss."
Grif looked at the older man. Alef nodded his head in greeting, and looked at Grif with as much interest as Grif had in him. Alef had gray eyes... cybernetic, Grif thought, though he wasn't completely certain.
"Good evening, Mr. Halge," Grif said. "And to the rest of you. Won't you all come in?"
The invitation extended, Velis relaxed slightly and turned to her guards. "Wait here," she ordered. "Alef and I will go in alone."
The guards stood down without protest. Velis and Alef walked up the ramp and into the cargo bay. Grif turned, gestured, and led them into the ship proper, Cyrus and Gurgan trailing Velis and Alef.
"There's a meeting room one deck up," Grif said. "We can talk there."
They walked down the corridor and re-entered the lounge. Amys and Cutter were no longer there. Grif crossed the room, opened the lift, and they all stepped inside.
Alef Halge looked around the lift and nodded to himself. "Large," he said. "Your ship is bigger than I thought it would be."
Alef's voice was strong and clear. He sounded far younger than his age, but other than that Grif couldn't pick up anything. He appeared to be interested in the size of his ship and that was it.
"She's about as big as a ship can get before you have to rely on antigravity and shields to fly in the atmosphere," he said. Despite his current situation and his predisposition do dislike the man, he couldn't resist talking about his pride and joy. "They originally designed her to be a troop transport, so the size of the lift and the hallways are a lot wider than you usually find."
"How large is the crew?" Alef asked. "If you don't mind me asking."
"She can hold up to sixty," Grif said. "We manage with less."
"Less?" Alef pressed.
Grif hesitated, wondering why Alef wanted to know, then shrugged. "Usually ten," he said. "We're down one at the moment."
"Nine crew," Alef said. "Remarkable."
The lift stopped. Grif stepped out, and Velis and Alef did the same. Cyrus and Gurgan started to follow, but Grif shook his head. "I'll be fine. Just... stand by."
Grif led his guests down a hallway and stopped midway in front of a door. "Here we are." A moment later the door slid open and they emerged into a conference room.
It was fairly standard as far as such rooms went: one long table in the middle of the room, chairs placed around it, spaced evenly. A large screen was set into one wall, and computer terminals were placed between every pair of chairs.
The air was musty and stale. "We don't usually use this room," Grif explained. "We prefer the Wardroom. Usually everything in this level is turned off to save power."
Alef nodded as he entered, Velis following. Grif closed the door behind them, waited for them to sit, and chose a chair directly across the table, facing them. Then he waited.
The silence stretched on for a few minutes. Alef Halge looked at Grif with an immense amount of interest, but seemed completely satisfied with the silence. Velis looked subdued, though Grif noticed her jaw was set determinedly.
Eventually Grif lost patience. "Come on. You went to a great deal of trouble to freeze my assets and put me and my crew in a great deal of financial peril. The least you can do is tell me why."
Alef inclined his head in acknowledgment. "I'm sorry, Captain Vindh, but we felt--"
Grif snorted. "Sorry? Sorry my--well, I don't know, maybe you are sorry, Mr. Halge, though I'll bet my ship that Velis enjoyed every minute of it, and she's not one for regrets. But that's completely beside the point. It happened--whether you're sorry for it or not--and I want my money back. My sister promised to tell me how, so here we are. Please feel free to jump in with the specifics at any time."
"Tell me, Captain..." Alef leaned back in his chair, looking casually about the room. "How exactly did you break into Ur Voys? I'm very interested in the specifics of that."
Grif stared at Alef dumbly. "What?"
"Ur Voys. On Varkav. Of course, you know this, since you broke into it in order to steal a rather valuable quantity of WU-961, which you later managed to smuggle past one of the most brilliant tactical minds of the Radiant Throne Navy, and ultimately sold to someone here, becoming quite rich in the process.
Grif looked at Alef carefully. The old man folded his hands across his stomach, smiling slightly.
"What do you want?" Grif asked.
Alef shrugged. "We were very impressed when we caught word of your success, Captain. Specifically: when we heard that one man--you--had broken into one of the most secure medical facilities in the Radiant Throne territories and walked out with one of their most prized products we were very deeply impressed indeed. What we want, Captain, is for you to repeat your success."
Grif frowned. "You want anagathics? Doesn't the Alliance have its own facilities for that?"
"Captain Vindh, you are a perceptive and clever man. You are also, I believe, an extremely intelligent man, so understand me when I say that playing dumb will not work with me."
Grif's frown deepened. "All right. So what do you want, then?"
Alef leaned forward, placing his hands on the table, and peered into Grif's eyes with his strange, gray stare. "What we want, Captain, is for you to return to the Ur Voys medical facility on Varkav and break into it again."
Grif stared at Alef in disbelief: an unguarded, genuine reaction that Alef ignored completely.
"The Radiant Throne has something we want," Alef said. "We want it very much. And apparently you are the only person we know who seems to have any chance at all of getting it for us."