Grif leaned back and stared at N'grash doubtfully. "Really. A Sword."
"A Sword," N'grash repeated. "He is known as the Viceroy. You are in danger, Tester."
N'grash's people had a tradition of labeling everyone they knew. It was, N'grash claimed, an attempt to know the essence of another's soul. Grif's soul, it seemed, was hard to label--or was non-existent, as N'grash occasionally claimed--because she was never satisfied with any label she chose. When they'd first met she called him "Trickster," then "Jester." She found neither label satisfactory, and would occasionally replace it with a new one: "Mocker." "Liar." "Madman." "Fool." Lately she had taken to calling him "Tester," because, she said, he insisted on testing the boundaries of everything and everyone he met.
"The Viceroy?" Grif frowned. "Never heard of him. Name's a bit ostentatious, though, isn't it? Nothing like a little hubris to start off your day..."
A low growl of frustration escaped N'grash's throat as she leaned forward, half-rising out of her chair. "This is not a joke, Tester. I know of this one--not personally, but by reputation."
Grif fell silent. N'grash had surprisingly accurate sources of information, and her sense of humor didn't lend itself to pranks along these lines. If N'grash was telling him this, it was because she had a strong reason to believe it was true: and if she had a strong reason to believe it was true, it probably was.
"The Viceroy..." N'grash made a growling, gurgling sound deep in her throat. "He is very dangerous."
"That was implied when you said he was a Sword," Grif said.
"He is dangerous, even among Swords," N'grash snapped. "He is rumored to report directly to their Emperor. Very powerful. His sorcery is very strong."
Ggrlsha were not, as a rule, psionically gifted, and tended to view the trait as a form of dream-magic. Which, as far as Grif was concerned, wasn't really too far off the mark.
"All right," Grif said. "I believe you. But why me?"
N'grash's laughter sounded like a hundred dogs barking at the same time. "Your recent success, Tester. They wish to know how you broke into Ur Voys, and the Viceroy plans to... extract the information."
"Well," Grif said, "that's... just... perfect."
N'grash stared at Grif silently, trying to work out what he meant. Finally she added "there is a rumor that he will arrive here."
Grif closed his eyes and swore softly. "When?"
"Soon," N'grash said. "Surely you expected this?"
"No, not really." Grif stood, stretched, and started to pace the small room, agitated. "I figured Mavis would want to kill me, but honestly I didn't think much farther than all that damn money falling into my lap."
N'grash laughed again. "Foolish," she said. "But understandable. The lure of that wealth would make many throw caution to the wind."
The way she said it implied that she did not consider herself part of that group.
Grif sighed. This was the last thing he needed right now. If he could put it off until this current mess was over and done with, he'd deal with it then. Or he'd be dead, which would also solve the problem.
"You need to run," N'grash said. "To Alliance space, where it will be easier for you to move than it will be for a Sword. Perhaps he will give up. Perhaps you can fake your death. I do not know. I know I would regret to see you killed."
"Me too," Grif muttered. "Unfortunately, I'm otherwise..." he let the sentence trail off, then shrugged. "I just can't."
N'grash snorted in frustration. "Do not think you can fight him," she said. "Even the Amazon would fall against him in a fight."
"I've never seen Amys lose a fight," Grif said.
"She would lose this fight," N'grash insisted.
"Well, look, I don't want to fight him." Grif threw up his hands in frustration. "I... look, do me a favor. Spread it around that I'm going into Alliance space to follow a big score. If anyone asks what, just tell them you have no idea, but add that I'm pretty excited about it."
N'grash stared at Grif thoughtfully. "You are planning to return to Throne Space," she said finally.
Grif didn't reply.
N'grash shook her head slowly. "I suppose you will refuse to tell me why."
"I'd love to tell you why," Grif said. "Can't. If I get back alive it'll be one hell of a story."
N'grash said nothing. Grif fidgeted.
Finally N'grash nodded. "Very well, Tester. I will tell your lie."
Grif sighed in relief. "Thanks," he said. "That should buy me a little time..."
N'grash nodded again, stood, and turned to leave.
"Hold on a minute," Grif said. "I want to tell you something else. Unrelated, but important."
N'grash turned back to look at Grif.
Grif closed his eyes and, for a second, felt uneasy about what he was going to say. When he opened his eyes, uncertainty was replaced with resolve.
"The Alliance killed Baron Tylaris."
N'grash went rigid, her ears standing on end. "If you jest, Tester, it is in poor taste..."
"Not joking," Grif said.
"They claim he died from tainted meat," N'grash replied.
"The meat had help," Grif insisted. "Look, N'grash, I don't have any proof. None. But I'm almost one hundred percent certain. And if I'm right Tylaris isn't going to be a particularly friendly place for people like you and me. More you than me, though..."
"Yes," N'grash agreed. "I will think on what you say, Tester. I will think on it very carefully."
"All right," Grif said. "Thanks for the warning. I'll be careful."
N'grash snorted. "You will not," she said. "But perhaps now you will at least be watchful."
Grif grinned. Together they stepped back out into the main room.
Morgan, Amys and Bennet had moved to a larger table in the middle of the room, joined by Cyrus and Ktk and some of the crew of the Grlashimargrak. N'grash's crew were mostly non-humans from high gravity worlds. One of them, a Nengit, was arm-wrestling Cyrus. To Cryus' credit, he wasn't losing too badly.
When Grif and N'grash reached the table, Cyrus relented. The Nengit, Rask, raised one arm in victory as the other three flexed.
"You're a showoff," Cyrus said, grinning.
"And you are buying the next round!" Rask rumbled.
Grif sat down to join them, trying to put N'grash's warning out of his mind for the moment. He waived the waitress down for a drink.
"Stellis," he said, ignoring the way Amys wrinkled her nose in distaste. "A strong one."
"OK handsome," the waitress replied. Grif shifted uncomfortably. Amys, Morgan, Bennet and Cyrus laughed, while Ktk chittered its amusement.
The waitress looked to Cyrus. "Can I tell him now?"
Cyrus nodded, grinning.
"Tell me?" Grif looked from Cyrus to the waitress, then back to Cyrus. "Tell me what?"
"My name," the waitress said. "Your big friend offered me a hundred standard if I flirted with you and told you my name was Velis. My real name is Ela."
The entire table roared. Grif, caught between a grin and a glare, fixed his eyes on Cyrus. Cyrus laughed so hard his face turned bright red.
"Oh, Cyrus," Grif said, smiling broadly, "you are going to pay for that."
"Sorry Grif," Cyrus said, wiping tears from his eyes as he gasped for breath. "The minute I saw her, I couldn't resist. It was... beautiful."
"Brilliant," Amys agreed. "Absolutely brilliant."
Ela looked at them in confusion. Grif stood, turned to her, and bowed.
"I'm sorry, my dear," he said. "It seems my friends have used you as an unwitting pawn in their mind games. Perhaps at some point in the future I can make it up to you--"
"It will have to be at some point in the very near future." A loud voice cut through the din of the bar. "Because after that, Captain Vindh, you won't have much of a future to speak of."
Grif flinched. Everyone at the table stared at something behind him. He turned around.
Standing at the entrance was a group of roughly twenty humans. The term "human," in this case, was used loosely. The Kung were known for three things: their skill at robotics, their enthusiastic embrace of slavery as a commercial venture, and their tendency to replace parts of their body with machinery. The man who called Grif's name was very tall, nearly as tall as Cyrus, and half metal. He had a slightly oversized, nasty looking metal arm protruding from his right shoulder socket, and a sensor mount where his left eye should have been.
"Slavers," Cyrus muttered in disgust.
"Ah," Grif said. "Captain Orrith. How wonderful to see you."
"You've got a lot of nerve, coming back here," Orrith said. His right eye narrowed.
Grif looked around the room. The other patrons in the bar were slowly moving back against the walls.
"Nerve is sort of what I'm known for," Grif said. "How's the Dominion running these days? Hope you got it fixed up after that little--"
One of the other men--Burek, the Dominion's engineer--started forward angrily. Orrith held him back.
"You got lucky," Orrith growled. "For some reason, I didn't expect you to play pirate on my ship!"
"Funny," Grif answered cooly, "for some reason I didn't expect you to believe I'd hang about and do nothing when you tried to sell my nephew into slavery."
"I was going to sell him back to you," Orrith spat. "I'd no quarrel with you, Vindh. It was just business. Then you attacked my ship and made off with my cargo."
"Well, that was the difference," Grif explained. "For me, it wasn't business at all. It was just personal."
"Now it's personal for me," Orrith said. "I want your blood, Vindh. After your blood, maybe I'll take your ship. Or your woman," he added, leering at Amys.
"Oh, please." Grif rolled his eyes. "Amys hasn't been 'my woman' for years, and if you really feel like losing that other eye, by all means try--I think it would be fascinating to hear a man your size shriek like a little girl."
Amys sauntered up to Grif's left. She made a slight motion with her hand, and a vibroknife appeared at her side, buzzing softly.
N'grash padded up to Grif's right and growled in a low tone. "Leave, Orrith. I cannot afford what it will cost to clean this bar of your blood."
The low hum Grif heard behind him meant Dyorbid had activated the old-model plasma rifle he kept behind his bar. "Get out of here, Orrith," Dyorbid boomed. "I told you before--you and your crew are no longer welcome here."
Orrith smiled contemptuously and made no effort to leave.
"Right..." Grif's hand moved slowly to his holster.
"Three hours, fifty minutes," Cyrus said. "Pay me, bug!"
A flash of silver arced across the room over the top of Grif's head. Another flash of silver, this time in the other direction, as Amys threw her knife. Then the room exploded into a frenzy.
Grif smelled the telltale scent of ozone and threw himself to the ground as heat seared across the back of his neck. The table to his right erupted in a white-hot ball of plasma, and Grif rolled away, desperately trying to avoid the splash.
"Dammit, Dyorbid!" Grif backed up against another table and struggled to get his pistol out of its holster. The latch was caught.
Orrith swore in pain as Amys' knife tore through his shoulder, then swore again as the knife burrowed deep into the man behind him. Tables overturned, and beams of energy streaked across the room, hitting other overturned tables. The crowd not directly involved with the fighting panicked and surged for the exits.
Amys crouched low, two more knives in her hands. N'grash leaped halfway across the room and landed on a Kung slaver, ripping into his face with her claws. Grif worked his pistol out of its holster and started in surprise as the table he'd been leaning against shattered, crushed by the now-limp form of a slaver. Grif thought he heard Cyrus say "sorry."
Grif crawled across the floor, looking for another table. He saw Ktk leap across the room, heedless of enemy fire, and land behind the tables the slavers had erected as barriers. It grabbed three of the slavers by the neck with its tails and swung them around, nearly effortlessly, using them as clubs against their comrades.
Grif saw Orrith fighting four of Dyorbid's bouncers. He got up into a crouch and raised his weapon.
"Get down!" Bennet shouted.
Something heavy hit Grif from behind, knocking him back to the ground. Another blast of plasma lanced past, destroying yet another table and spraying semi-molten alloy throughout the room.
Bennet pulled himself off Griff and grimaced. "Sorry."
Griff rolled to the side as a chair crashed on to the floor between them, then bounced away. "That's OK," he said, checking his gun to make sure it wasn't damaged. "Thanks."
"Don't thank me," Bennet said, lashing out with his foot. A slaver grunted in surprise and fell to the floor. Without hesitating, Bennet jabbed an elbow to the slaver's exposed neck. "Your sister will kill me if you die early."
Grif laughed, then yelped as one of Ktk's makeshift clubs landed on top of the slaver Bennet had just incapacitated. Grif noticed he was still alive; his gaze shifted from the fallen man to his pistol, then he shrugged and pulled the trigger. The pulse hit the side of the slaver's head, killing him instantly.
"Not sporting," Bennet said. "Not very sporting at--"
An alloyed boot smashed down on the small of his back. Bennet's eyes widened in pain, mouth working wordlessly. The alloyed boot kicked Bennet in the side, then stepped over him toward Grif.
Grif looked up and saw a slaver, skin mottled with splotches of chromed metal.
"Er... hi, Patch," Grif said. "Long time."
Patch didn't reply. Grif scuttled backward across the floor, raised his gun, and fired. He missed; a light fixture on the ceiling exploded in a shower of sparks. He fired again, and the shot went wide, burning into the wall with a hiss. The third shot missed Patch's head by a matter of centimeters. Patch didn't so much as flinch.
"Steady," Grif muttered, forced himself not to panic, took aim, and pulled the trigger.
Son of a bitch.
Grif tried to roll away, but Patch was faster: he leaped through the air, and an alloyed boot landed directly on Grif's left elbow. Grif heard something crunch. Ice cold pain rushed through his arm.
Patch laughed. Grif heard something whistling through the air, then felt a crushing pain in his side as something hit him. Turning onto his back, Grif saw Patch holding a heavy, chromed baton in his hand.
Patch raised the baton again, then grunted in surprise as another one of Ktk's discarded clubs smashed into him. Grif scrambled to his feet, bending his left arm gingerly. He could use it, but it hurt like hell. He expected it would be pretty useless as soon as the adrenaline wore off.
Patch shoved the body off him and got to his feet. Grif stepped back and stumbled over the remains of a chair. He kept to his feet, and jumped to the side as Patch swung his baton, narrowly missing Vindh's head. Grabbing the baton at both ends, Patch charged: Grif felt the air leave his body as Patch slammed him against a wall. Grif was pinned against the wall by his neck.
He clawed at the baton, but Patch was too strong. He kicked. His foot hit something solid: not Patch, but Dyorbid's bar. A few bottles still stood upright on the counter top.
Patch laughed. "You're turnin' blue, Vindh."
It was getting hard to see. Grif reached out with his left arm, trying to ignore the pain. His fingers closed around the neck of a bottle, and he swung it at the slaver's head with all his strength.
The bottle didn't break. It bounced out of Grif's hand and fell to the floor, bouncing two or three more times before resting under a barstool. Patch swore and dropped his baton as he bent over, clutching his head. Grif picked up the baton and swung it overhead, bringing it down on the back of Patch's skull. Patch fell.
Grif bent over, coughing up blood, and tried to remember how to breathe.
He was out of the main fight for the moment. The firefight had ended and turned into a huge, chaotic melee. Grif saw Amys, briefly, dancing between two slavers as one fell, a look of mute surprise frozen on his face. He didn't see N'grash, but he heard her: she was howling, a fierce, feral sound, and cries of fear and alarm followed wherever the sound went. Cyrus towered over the melee, bleeding from gashes in his arms and face, but showing no signs of tiring.
"Oh, good," Grif said. "Everyone is doing well but me."
"Very true, Captain Vindh," Orrith said.
Grif looked up. The slaver captain stood behind the bar. One arm hung uselessly at his side, but the other arm--the cybernetic one--held Dyorbid's plasma rifle.
He could easily fire that thing one-handed, Grif realized.
"I thought Amys killed you," Grif said.
Orrith sneered. "You wish."
"Yes," Grif said. "I really do." He felt his legs buckle, and he slumped back against the wall, sliding slowly down to the floor.
Orrith fired once into the air, scarring the ceiling with a bolt of plasma. The room quieted as he re-trained the rifle on Grif.
"I have Captain Vindh in my sights," Orrith warned. " I suggest you stand down."
Ktk released it's last club, body falling to the floor with a wet thud. Cyrus glowered, but didn't move. Amys dropped her knives on the floor, expressionless, and N'grash remained perfectly still, watching. Other crew from the Grlashimargrak reluctantly threw various weapons to the ground. Rask folded both sets of arms and glared.
"Good," Orrith said. He smiled at Grif, revealing chromed teeth. "Captain Vindh, I find myself facing something of a moral dilemma."
"Shocking," Grif said. "And by 'shocking,' I mean 'isn't it shocking that you know words with more than one syllable?'"
Orrith's smile froze in place. "Perhaps I could allow pleasure to overcome my business ethics. Just this once. I'm not convinced you'd draw much of a price, at any rate. Perhaps, after your mind was wiped, you could be sold as a plaything. Or might be set up to stud a merchant's private stock..."
The slaver's gaze drifted to Amys. "She, however... she will fetch a fortune. The reconditioning process will be expensive, but worth every standard. She will be highly sought after as a bodyguard..."
Grif noticed the plasma rifle dip slightly.
Orrith glanced at Cyrus and Ktk. "The rest of your crew is something of a mystery. Cyrus might fetch a fair price as a laborer. The bug, however... there is no market for bugs. We might as well kill it now."
The plasma rifle dipped even lower.
"Get bent," Bennet said.
Orrith frowned as he tried to locate the unfamiliar voice. "Who said that?" The sensor in place of his left eye glowed blue in the dim light as he scanned the crowd. The plasma rifle shifted a little to the left.
Bennet lifted his head off the spot where he'd fallen. "Over here... Orrith, is it? And I said 'get bent.'" Bennet glanced at Grif and gestured slightly to his left. Grif nodded.
"Who are you?" Orrith demanded. The plasma rifle drifted even further left.
"That's not important," Bennet said. "At least, it isn't important right now..."
On the word "now," Grif dove to his right, trying to reach a table. Orrith's attention snapped back to Grif, firing hastily. The table exploded, and Grif screamed as plasma and metal shrapnel tore through his left side.
A dark object shot away from Bennet, slid across the floor, and landed in Grif's good hand. It was a pistol. As Orrith brought the plasma rifle to bear, Grif gritted his teeth, sat upright, and shot first.
The pulse hit Orrith in his damaged shoulder, staggering him. Orrith's shot went wild. Grif forced himself to stand as he fired again, hitting Orrith in the chest. Orrith roared in pain; he tried to re-aim his rifle but his metal arm twitched erratically.
Shouting in a mixture of agony and rage, Grif ran toward the slaver captain, pulling the trigger of his pistol over and over again, as fast as he could manage. Orrith fell back, disappearing behind the bar, and with a final rush of adrenaline Grif leaped over the top of the bar, firing into the slaver's motionless body the entire time.
He didn't stop shooting until the gun was empty. He fired pulse after pulse until the only sound in the bar was the "charge depleted" buzz the gun emitted each time he pulled the trigger. When he finally came to his senses he realized the entire bar was watching him in stunned silence.
Breathing heavily, he fumbled with the gun as he tried to put it in his holster. He missed the holster entirely, and the gun clattered uselessly to the ground.
"I think he's dead," Grif said.
"I think so," Bennet said, gingerly picking himself off the floor.
Grif looked at what was left of the Dominion's crew. "We win," he said. "Get out."
A wave of pain and nausea washed over him. The next thing he knew he was staring at the ceiling. Bennet, Amys, and Cyrus stood over him, looking concerned.
"I don't feel very well," Grif mumbled.
"That's all right," Bennet said, "you look terrible."
Grif tried to laugh, and wound up gagging instead. "Am I on fire? I feel like I'm on fire..."
Someone said "plasma." Amys frowned.
"Grif," she said, "we need you to stand up. Now."
Amys' face blurred slightly. Grif squinted. "Yeah? Uh, no thanks..."
"Grif." Amys' voice grew sharp. "This is important. Stand up."
There was something in her voice Grif couldn't place. She sounded... worried. Something in the back of his head reminded him he usually paid attention when she sounded like that. He tried to sit, but the attempt made him gag. He rolled over on to his side and vomited.
"No," he said, "I really don't like that plan. At all."
"Grif..." Amys sounded more than worried, now. The part of Grif that wasn't numb from pain was surprised to discover that she actually sounded frightened. "Grif, we have to get you out of here..."
"Right..." Grif took a deep breath. "Well, I'm pretty sure that's a good idea... but if you don't mind, I think I'll pass out first."
Then he passed out.