A Rake by Starlight

A Rake by Starlight: Chapter Seven

A Rake by Starlight, by C. B. Wright

WHEREIN Our Hero Finds a Thing

An hour and a half later the body was stowed in their medibay, encased in a stasis field to prevent deterioration, and the squib was towed into Bay Three. The entire crew was on hand to see it: Amys, Morgan and Faldyth were standing to one side, talking with Cyrus, who was busy securing the crane he’d used to drag the squib into the ship. Standing near them were Cutter and Hari, Cyrus’ gunners.

Cutter was a lean man—tall for a Terran, but still half a head shorter than Cyrus. He was a mass of stringy, knotty muscles covered with lean, weathered skin. His face and shoulders were heavily scarred—he was, in fact, so scarred that he was one of the ugliest people of any race Grif had ever met. He was also, aside from being a competent gunner, a skilled doctor.

Hari Kosk, the other gunner, was not human, but Invagi shared so many genetic traits in common with humans that some scientists speculated they were an engineered race rather than one that developed naturally on their own. This was not a belief the Invagi shared, and scientists who attempted to broach the subject with them were quickly introduced to the finer points of Invagi emotive behavior. Invagi were heavily-built humanoids with spiny ridges around the face and joints, and their facial ridges changed size and shape depending on their emotional state. When all of their facial ridges were fully extended, it meant there was a chance the spines in their hands were also fully extended and were traveling toward a target faster than one could say “genetically engineered race.” At the moment, Hari’s ridges were only sightly extended, alternating low-high, low-high, and so on, suggesting mild excitement or curiosity.

On the other side of the squib, Ktk and its team were examining the hull, arguing over the best way to get it open without damaging the cargo. With it were Vod Hallik and Gurgan Sil, its engineers, and Mac’s group, who were listening to them argue over which tools had the necessary precision to cut through the hull safely. Vod was a slender, dark-skinned human woman. She was nearly hairless—a hygenic choice among many of the people on her planet, which lent her beauty an exotic flair. She was meticulously clean at all times, which was unusual for her line of work. Despite the fact that she was constantly delving into technology that was generally dirty, she always managed to appear spotless.

Gurgan, on the other hand, was almost perpetually covered in coolant stains, grease, and conductive fluid. He was a hulking brute of a man, slightly larger than Cyrus, but aside from a single topknot of hair that fell down to his waist he was nearly as hairless as Vod. The olive-skinned man was currently glaring at her, apparently offended by her suggestion as to where he could place his preferred cutting tool.

Grif leaned against the bulkhead and grinned openly at Vod and Gurgan’s back-and-forth. It was all sound and no fury—apparently at one point in the distant past their planets had been at war with each other, and culturally there tended to remain a strong level of friction between the two groups, but Vod and Gurgan had been working together and fighting together long before they signed on the Fool’s Errand. When they first signed on, Grif had assumed they were together… until Gurgan acted as Vod’s go-between when she first developed an interest in Cutter.

When it was Gurgan’s turn to evalute Vod’s choice of engineering tools—in terms that were equally unflattering as the ones she used—Mac’s group tensed, watching the exchange with a mixture of fascination and uneasiness. They weren’t quite keyed in to how everyone got along, and Gurgan had just called Vod something which would have resulted in the loss of a limb if anyone else—including Cutter—had used the term. All Vod did was laugh and jab Gurgan in the side, provoking a grin in return. They continued to insult each other in the gravest ways imaginable.

Grif walked around to the front of the squib, clearing his throat. “All right, we’ve all seen it. Now we have to get ready for the next bit.”

“What are we going to do?” Hari asked. His ridges extended and retracted in a repetitive wave that made it appear as though parts of his skull were revolving.

“Well we’re going to open it,” Grif said. “Obviously. But while we’re doing that, we’re also going to be doing a few other things. We still need to get to Uru and steal some hydrogen, like the hard-bitten criminals we are. Then we need to leave the system, for reasons I hope I don’t need to explain.”

“What about the corpse in the medibay, Skip?” Cutter had a low, easygoing drawl that never quite seemed to match the violence etched into his face. “I’d kind of like to get it out of the way. I don’t need the medibay for anything now, but… well, it is us.”

“True,” Grif said.

“And now that we’re smack in the middle of a political fight in the Trade Baronies,” Cyrus added, “the need for a reliable doctor with a fully accessible medibay just shot up dramatically.”

“Also true,” Grif admitted.

“Any thoughts on how we’re going to get out of this one alive?”

Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at Grif expectantly.

“Uh, well, I’m still working on that part. Ktk! Do you know how to crack that shell yet?”

Ktk replied that Vod and Gurgan were currently going over different approaches.

“Just break off the nose and drag it out,” Gurgan said.

“The thing is sitting in the damn nose,” Vod snapped. “’Breaking off the nose’ makes it more likely we break whatever the hell it is.”

“No breaking,” Grif said. “If anyone is going to break that thing it’ll be me. Vod, what’s your way?”

“We rip off the top,” Vod said. “Then we just lift it out.”

Grif thought it over. “I’m sold. Vod, that’s your job till further notice. Mac, you and your group help Vod with whatever she needs. Everyone else back to their stations.”

The crew groaned in protest.

“Out!” Grif made shooing motions with his hands. “I want to get off this rock as fast as possible. We need fuel! We need courses plotted! We need to leave them alone while they work! Out!”

The crew obeyed—reluctantly.

Back on the bridge, speculation ran rampant.

“So,” Morgan said, “is there already a pool on what the squib is carrying, or do I need to start one now?”

“I think it is money,” Faldyth said. “A secret cache of the old Baron’s private treasure.”

The reaction on the bridge was immediate and dismissive.

“All that fighting over money?” Morgan asked.

“Fighting over money is not unusual,” Faldyth noted. “It’s one of the more common reasons to fight.”

“But why would the old Baron’s doctor be fighting over it?” Amys added. “He’s already rich.”

“Not as rich as a Trade Baron.” Faldyth sounded defensive. “If it contained funds their side needed—”

“Sorry Faldyth,” Grif said, “but I agree with Morgan and Amys. If Stebil Tanz wanted to fight over money there are more convenient places to do it. Why travel all the way out here over something that mundane?”

“I think it’s secret tech,” Morgan said. “A prototype that only the old Baron and a select few knew about. Maybe the doctor thought it would give his side a tactical advantage. Or that it could be bartered to swing the support of another Trade Baron.”

“That makes more sense to me,” Amys said.

“I don’t think it’s technology,” Grif said. “Well, technically I do think it’s technology since I don’t think it’s money, and they’re carrying it in a big box, but I don’t think it’s technology in that way. I think it’s political. Maybe some kind of information the new Baron doesn’t want exposed to the world. Compromising videos, recorded conversations, that kind of thing. Whatever it is, the fact that it involves the old Baron’s doctor is very interesting.”

Morgan sighed. “You know, whenever you start to use that word…”

“Yes,” Grif said, “I know. Thank you for pointing it out again. But that doesn’t change anything: two factions of the Tylaris Barony are duking it out over mysterious cargo at the edge of known space. It’s damned interesting.”

“So now we are wading into politics,” Amys said. “I thought you were just interested in piracy.”

“I was. I am. I mean, yes, originally, it was piracy, but this is—”

Interesting. I know, Grif, but remember how you don’t like getting involved in politics? How did you describe it? Oh, right—you said it was ‘too messy.’”

“Well…” Grif shifted in his chair uncomfortably. “I’m sure I didn’t exactly…”

He couldn’t see Amys’ expression, but he could sense the eyebrow go up.

“Yes, fine, OK. I said that. And it’s true. It’s messy. But I have a notion…”

“Oh, Christ,” Morgan said. “I think that’s worse than you finding something interesting.”

“Think about this,” Grif said. “Think. Has it occurred to any of you that someone might be willing to pay an obscene amount of money for whatever’s in that squib?”

“Who?” Faldyth asked. “The rebelling faction? Perhaps, but they are going to lose eventually, and when they did we’d be tainted from doing business with them. The current Baron? He just tried to destroy it. Why would he want to purchase it?”

“If buying it and destroying it after purchase is easier than tracking it down first? They’ll buy it. But I don’t mean just them. There are plenty of crime syndicates who would consider this an opportunity. Or a Trade Baron. Or the Alliance, for that matter, if they think it’ll provide some cover for their newest member. Hell, even the Radiant Throne—”

“Yes,” Amys interrupted. “That’s the part that bothers me. Grif, have you noticed how all these potential buyers are… how shall I put this? They’re a lot bigger than you.”

“Yes they are,” Grif said. “Bigger. Nastier. Eager to flex muscles. And none of them really have any qualms about spilling a little blood, either… but most of them are businessmen first. If they want something, they’ll choose the most expedient way of getting it. Except the Radiant Throne, because all their agents are batshit crazy… but all the others are, historically, willing to consider mutually beneficial business arrangements. All we have to do is convince them that paying for it is mutually beneficial.”

“How do we do that?” Amys asked.

Grif shrugged. “Still working on it. Meanwhile, here we are. Aren’t you at all curious about what’s in that thing?”

“Sure,” Amys said. “But I’m not willing to get myself killed in order to find out.”

“Me either,” Morgan said.

“I agree,” Faldyth said, “and I further think that we—”

The intercom beeped.

“Saved,” Grif said, laughing softly. He switched on the intercom.

“So, Skip…” Vod tried to sound calm, but it was obvious she was pleased. “We just cracked open the squib. Thought you might want to be on hand for the grand unveil.”

“Yes!” Grif said, and almost bounced out of his chair. “Amys you have the bridge. I’m going to go see what the fuss is all about.”

“And then you’re going to tell us, right?” Morgan asked.

“Well, I don’t know. I wouldn’t want you to find it too interesting.” Grif grinned as the lift doors closed behind him.

When Grif entered Bay Three he saw Vod, Mac, Fyis, Adro and Sargrumshak standing on front of the remains of the squib. The top and sides of the craft had been stripped away from the front, all the way back to the engine, and stacked meticulously off to one side—Vod was supervising, after all. Only the base of the craft, and a meter and a half of the sides, were left. As he walked around from the back he could see the pilots chair in front of the engines, and some half-dismantled instrumentation in front of it.

Vod looked up, saw Grif, and waved him over. “You’ve got to see this, Skip.”

Grif walked up to Vod and looked over the edge of the dismantled hull. Nestled in the long nose of the craft was a heavy rectangular container about five meters long and three meters wide. It was a very rugged container, and the stamp on the metal read “Tyrelos Metallurgics.” The Tyrelos Barony specialized in materials designed to survive hostile environments, and the container had obviously been designed to withstand quite a bit of punishment.

“We haven’t tried to open it yet,” Vod said. She flashed a brilliantly white smile. “Figured you’d want to be here.”

Grif grinned back. “Good call. OK, let’s see what we’ve got.”

Mac and Fyis immediately hopped over the remnants of the squib’s hull and began working latches set all long the side of the container.

“It’s sealed up pretty tight,” Mac reported, “but it doesn’t appear to be locked.”

“Interesting,” Grif said. He watched the pair methodically work their way down the container, de-coupling latch, after latch, after latch.

“Not as interesting as all that,” Vod said, shrugging her shoulders dismissively. “The box is to protect whatever’s inside from physical shock, not from prying eyes.”

“Got it!” Mac yelled. Immediately Adro and Sargrumshack joined them, and with one of them at each corner of the container they pulled sharply. The lid came off, and they shoved the top over the side of the squib, letting it fall to the floor with a loud clang. Grif and Vod peered into the crate expectantly.

Grif frowned.

“Do you—” Vod asked.

“No,” Grif said. “No clue.” He walked over to the main door and turned on the intercom. “Cutter, come on down to Bay Three. There’s something here we need you to look at.”

“Any hints?” Cutter asked.

Grif looked to Vod. Vod shrugged.

“Not really,” Grif said. “It’s just a big…”

“Thing,” Vod said.

“Thing,” Grif repeated. “It’s a really big thing.”

There was silence on the intercom for a moment.

“OK, Skip,” Cutter said finally. “I’ll be right down.”

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