A Rake by Starlight

A Rake by Starlight: Chapter Nine

A Rake by Starlight, by C. B. Wright

WHEREIN Our Hero Senses a Limited Opportunity and Resolves to Act Now

The Wardroom of the Fool’s Errand was Grif’s second-favorite room in the ship.

As part of a military vessel it had been the officers lounge and mess, but when he first bought the ship it had been entirely gutted. Grif spent a great deal of time and money trying to restore it to its former grandeur, and to a large extent he had succeeded admirably. A year ago, however, they had to gut it again—in order to prevent one of the greatest heists in modern history from being blown apart by a simple, overlooked detail. Putting the Wardroom back together had been an all-consuming project for Grif, and it was only very recently—in the past few months—that the room felt right again.

The floor was covered in a dark synthetic material that looked very close to polished wood tile. The paneled walls were also faux wood, and the standard ceiling light panels were replaced with globe lights. The light was softer and worked well in the space, giving the room a more refined, less sterile feel. The Captain’s Table stood in the center of the room, smaller tables were set against a bulkhead wall, and on the opposite side was a bar that Grif always kept well-stocked.

At the fore bulkhead was a large panoramic viewport. When the ship was in tach, surrounded by the dull gray field of the artificial universe it was traveling through, the viewport was opaque and displayed random images stored in the ships memory—including any entertainment a member of the crew purchased, or (more frequently) bootlegged from an unofficial source. When they were in real space, the view port was usually transparent, giving everyone in the Wardroom a magnificent view. Couches and chairs were set up around the viewport to make the most of that view.

The Wardroom was available to the entire crew, of course—rank aboard the Fool’s Errand was mostly informal, with the exception of Grif as ship captain and Amys as executive officer. It was where everyone went to relax, to socialize, and to drink.

Grif stood behind the bar pouring a glass of Stellis, a thick, semi-viscous alcohol that came in two flavors, green and blue. Stellis was a cheap and strong drink, popular on many ships because it was a cheap and strong drink. Tonight Grif was drinking green, which was the cheapest and strongest of the two. When Amys walked in he immediately pulled out another glass from under the bar, then set a bottle of Scotch on the table next to it. She smiled slightly, walked up to the bar, opened the bottle and poured.

They drank in silence a while.

Amys stared down at her drink, brooding; Grif took the opportunity to stare. He always liked looking at her. She was beautiful, which was never a bad thing, but what he liked—what he’d always liked—was how completely aware of herself she was. She moved, spoke, and acted in a way that radiated self-possession, self-control, and self-awareness. It was something he’d found irresistible when he first met her. Time and experience had forced him to develop some resistance, but he still liked it.

“Stop with the eyes,” Amys said, the corner of her mouth curling into a half-grin. “The crew will talk.”

“Ha!” Grif grinned, and raised his glass of Stellis in a toast. “If the crew decides we’re on again, they won’t be talking. They’ll be cramming themselves into that squib and flying it as far away from this ship as they can manage.”

Amys grinned back. “We should start the rumor. I’d like to see that.”

“Of course they’d have to put it back together, first,” Grif said. “I wonder how long that would take.”

“Faster than you’d think,” Cyrus rumbled, entering through the Wardroom door and heading to the bar. “Also, we figured out how to convert the vacuum suits and loading crane into a makeshift escape pod. Just in case. Oi, Grif, is that Stellis I smell?”

Grif set a third glass on the table. “I think it’s just the smell of engine coolant mixed with despair.”

“Same thing.” Cyrus took his glass and helped himself to the green. “So, I hear we’re royally screwed.”

“It’s funny exactly how appropriate that phrase is,” Grif said. “Amys is trying really hard not to say ‘I told you so.’”

“I don’t need to say it,” Amys said. “All I need to do is stand here and drink my Scotch. Eventually you’ll say it for me.”

“You see,” Cyrus said, “this is why so many people think you’re married.”

Amys and Grif stared at him.

Cyrus shifted uncomfortably. “…did I say that out loud?”

Amys and Grif continued to stare at him.

Cyrus took a quick drink of his Stellis, coughed, then cleared his throat uneasily. “Well. I guess I’ll be on the couch, by the viewport, pretending the last thirty seconds never happened.” He flashed a sheepish grin, raised his glass in a quick toast, then hurried to the other end of the room.

Amys watched him flee, then turned back to Grif. “Still happy about poking your nose into this mess?”

“Yes, actually,” Grif said. “I’m almost giddy.”

Amys frowned slightly.

“I’m serious,” Grif said. “I’ll admit, I didn’t think this was going to turn into something with stakes quite this high, but I think I have a pretty good Plan A.”

“If you say so.” Amys didn’t sound convinced. “What is it?”

“Well,” Grif said, “I want you to hear the entire song and dance.”

“There’s singing?” Amys arched an eyebrow. “You should have opened with that. I can hardly wait…”

Grif grinned again, then downed the rest of his drink.

There were usually two kinds of meetings in the Wardroom. If the meeting required a level of formality, they took place at the Captain’s Table. If it didn’t, everyone gathered around the viewport with a drink. This meeting was at the viewport. The crew started wandering in half an hour before it was supposed to start, helping themselves to the bar before settling in to one of the couches. Five minutes before start the entire crew was lounging in front of the viewport, talking idly among themselves, trying not to appear too curious as Grif looked on.

Any ship that engaged in smuggling on a regular basis—or any other kind of criminal activity, for that matter—needed a tight, well-knit crew to be successful. Most of Grif’s crew had been together for a long time, and it showed in the way they acted. They had long-running jokes and asides, and half-finished sentences that spoke volumes in fragments. Amys, Cyrus, Morgan, Cutter, Hari, Vod, Gurgan, and Ktk were all falling into their usual routines when they were together, and it was obvious they were as much family as they were shipmates. Faldyth was still a little apart from the rest, but they knew her from Dak’s crew—she was a well-liked second cousin. Mac and his people were still settling in, but there were signs that they were getting more comfortable. They still sat a little apart from the rest, but they were joining in the conversations now, and sharing in some of the jokes.

Still, Mac’s group was the potential weak link. Especially now, especially with this.

Grif let them all talk for a while, listening mostly, joining in occasionally. Then, when the conversation lapsed, he started the meeting.

“So!” He smiled at them brightly. “I understand the latest rumor is that we’re screwed.”

Royally screwed,” Cyrus said.

“Well, you’re not wrong. But before I get into the specifics… Cutter, please explain to everyone exactly what it is we found.”

Cutter was sprawled on the floor, his back against one of the couches, arm curled loosely around Vod’s waist. “Sure thing, Skip.”

He launched into an explanation about what a synaptic map was, and exactly whose mind it was storing. Grif suspected most of the crew already knew this by now—it was a small crew, and there weren’t many secrets worth keeping—but Grif wanted the recap. It set the stage for what came next.

“So,” Grif said. “We managed to get a copy of the old Baron Tylaris’ brain. And now we know why an official Tylaris gunboat was attacking an official Tylaris cargo vessel: this thing is probably the single most important development in the civil war right now. It could end the entire thing tomorrow… or it could make the entire fight a thousand times worse.”

The crew exchanged uneasy glances.

“No offense, Grif,” Hari said, extending his facial spines in confusion, “but I don’t get it.”

“OK,” Grif said, “look at it this way. A year ago Mogra Tylaris died of ‘improperly prepared food.’ That’s what was put on the official autopsy. The richest and arguably one of the most powerful men in civilized space dies because his regular cook is out sick, and the replacement cook is incompetent. Do any of you really buy that?”

No one said anything.

“Neither do I,” Grif said. “I happen to believe the rumor that Mogra was assassinated by the Alliance.”

Cyrus, Cutter, and Hari nodded thoughtfully. Morgan, Vod, and Gurgan looked doubtful. Mac’s group played their cards close to their chests, but Fyis grinned fiercely for just a moment—that tell again.

Ktk asked what made Grif believe the assassination rumor.

“Well,” Grif said, “you’ve met my sister.”

Ktk chittered unhappily.

Of all the governments in known space, the Alliance of Free Worlds was probably the most qualified to represent sanity, decency, and all the best parts of civilization. It was a Republic; its leaders were democratically elected by the core member worlds, and they formally recognized a code of ethical behavior and a respect of liberties that made them look, for the lack of a better term, like the good guys. They also had a secret black ops division that ignored pretty much all of that and had no qualms assassinating anyone they decided was a threat.

Grif’s older sister was a member of that secret black ops division. She made most of her colleagues look like pacifists.

“She was on Tylaris Prime for at least a month before the Baron had his unfortunate food incident,” Grif said. “And we know she had a large black ops team with her at the time. We know because… you know. They blackmailed us. Very effectively.”

“That’s an understatement,” Cyrus said.

“It all lines up too neatly,” Grif continued. “The old Baron didn’t want to join the Alliance. The old Baron dies. The new Baron joins the Alliance before the old Baron even has a funeral.”

Ktk admitted the timing was suspicious.

“But why is the civil war still going on?” Morgan asks. “Rolis should have won by now. The rebels are businessmen—it has to be obvious that they’d make more money supporting the Baron than they would opposing him. And when the Alliance decides to get more involved… well, there’s no way the rebels can win without a hell of an ace stashed away somewhere.”

“They have one,” Amys said. “The synaptic map. They could clone a new Mogra Tylaris.”

“That’s right,” Grif said. “I don’t think Mogra ever intended to have his son inherit the Barony. I think he intended to have himself inherit. After he died he was going to activate his clone, then he’d step in and take over. Again.”

“He was going to be his own heir,” Morgan said thoughtfully.

Grif frowned. “Er… sort of.”

“That would make his clone Rolis’ older brother,” Vod said.

“No…” Grif shook his head. “Mogra’s clone would be… Mogra’s twin brother. So he’d be Rolis’ uncle.”

“I don’t think so,” Morgan said. “If Mogra’s clone was legally equivalent to his brother, Rolis would still inherit. He’d have to essentially be recognized as Mogra himself in order to have any claim to the Barony.”

“I find this talk confusing.” Sargrumshak was the first of Mac’s group to chime in, and as usual the Grgrlsha was direct and to the point.

Ktk noted that the cloning process Cutter described sounded like a crude replica of a piece of its own reproductive cycle.

“Well… that’s… just a little disturbing,” Grif said. “I really didn’t need to mix images of the Baron being cloned and bugs having sex.”

Ktk replied, rather crossly, that it had said nothing about sex whatsoever, and failed to see what mammalian copulation had to do with the matter at hand.

“Nevermind the sex and bug talk!” Cyrus said. “I’m tryin’ to get my brain around what this means…”

“It means we’ve stumbled into something very dangerous for the new Baron,” Grif said. “He’s claiming to be the legitimate heir… and he probably is, as long as that clone isn’t activated. But if the clone is activated, the rebel group becomes the loyal supporters of the legitimate Baron, Rolis becomes the pretender and would-be usurper, and the Alliance winds up looking like a prat.”

“Is this something we can sell?” Cyrus asked.

“This is way too big for us to sell,” Amys said. “No fence we’ve ever dealt with has the reputation or the resources to handle a copy of Baron Mogra Tylaris’ brain. We’re independents. We don’t deal with any of the players who could get a handle on this.”

Grif didn’t reply.

Amys narrowed her eyes. “Do we?”

“We know one,” Grif said. “And she might not kill us.”

She?” Cyrus shook his head. “Sorry, Grif, but most women you know wind up wanting to kill you eventually.”

Amys laughed. “Not this time. I know who he’s talking about. He just might have a point.”

“Why thank you, Amys.” Grif grinned widely. It was the grin she liked. “Coming from someone who has wanted to kill me on a semi-regular basis, I appreciate the vote of confidence.”

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