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The four Grumpfers had been sitting at their table for nearly an hour, making the kind of rude noise their species liked to make, tossing back liters of the rum-based liquor their species liked to drink, and emitting increasingly acidic aromas as the ethanol in their blood sifted into their lungs and breath. So far they’d mostly behaved themselves, which for Grumpfers meant leaving the glassware and condiment bottles unbroken, but I knew it was only a matter of time before something went diagonal. My best chance was that my shift would be over and I would be long gone before that happened, or that the two Yavanni playing bouncer at the door would handle the situation.

As my father used to say, Chance is a funny thing. A fat one and a slim one are the same thing. Unfortunately, the way luck was breaking for me these days my chances here were likely going to run to one or the other.

It started almost exactly an hour after they first lumbered in, as if they’d set their watches for the occasion. One of them made the same kind of obnoxious-sounding comment all four had been tossing around the table, but this time someone apparently took offense. Two seconds and an angry roar later, with a multiple clatter of kicked-back chairs, all four of the big aliens were on their feet, two of them glaring across the table at each other, their fists bunched, while the other two looked on like they’d been roped in as observers or seconds to the challenge.

I looked at the door. The Yavanni were watching the standoff closely, but neither was making any move to intervene. At the bar Josmith, the bartender, was trying hard to pretend he wasn’t there. Zayli had disappeared, either done with her shift or else gone to ground in the back room. That left only one person standing between the Grumpfers and a brawl that could completely wreck the tavern: the waiter who’d spent the last hour serving them.


It wasn’t my bar. It wasn’t my furniture. Ergo, it wasn’t my problem. I was glancing around the room, picking a good spot to ride out the coming storm, when one of the standby Grumpfers pulled an orange-edged card from the aggressor’s shirt pocket, waved it in front of the offended party’s eyes, and then slapped it down on the table in front of him. Carefully, trying to be as invisible as Josmith and the sorry excuses for bouncers, I took a couple of steps forward and craned my neck to look.

It was, as I’d already guessed from the orange border, a med-warning card. The particular disease label was typical opaque medicalese, but one of the profile icons was all too familiar: a warning against overserving him with alcohol.

A second later the aggressor snatched the card back from the table and shoved it back into his pocket. But I’d seen enough. Never mind that the law said he was supposed to present that card before he so much as ordered. Never mind that his buddies knew perfectly well what would happen if he drank too much. The crucial point was that I’d served the drinks, and barring a long, leisurely tour through the Commonwealth’s legal system I was the one everyone would blame.

And with that, unfortunately, it was my problem.

“Gentlebeings, please,” I said, hurrying forward. I had a standing plan for handling drunks, which usually worked out pretty well, and right now it was the only card I had. Unfortunately, I’d never used it on even a healthy Grumpfer, let alone one with a medical condition, and I had no idea whether or not there would be any unpleasant side effects.

But if the coming fight resulted in any injuries, I’d be on the hook for those as well as for illegal alcohol service. At the moment, keeping my skin and internal organs intact trumped any fears over what might happen to the Grumpfer. “Please,” I said again. “I think I have a way to resolve this.”

The two antagonists stopped their snarling and all four aliens stared at me. Probably astonished that a puny human would dare butt into their argument, but I didn’t care about the why as long as they stopped. “I apologize if the rumakaf isn’t up to your usual standards,” I continued. Holding my hands together, the left hand over the right, I surreptitiously loosened the hidden access panel just below my inside left wrist. The six knockout pills were nestled together in the little hollowed-out space behind the wrist; pulling out two of them with my first two right-hand fingers, I transferred them invisibly to my left-hand palm as I pulled my hands apart.

“The rumakaf is not the problem,” the offended party growled.

“Caleb’s Drinkhouse always stands behind its products,” I said, ignoring the interruption. I picked up the aggressor’s glass with my right hand and sniffed the contents. “It smells all right to me.” I transferred it to my left hand, my fingers holding the top of the glass as I let the pills drop into the liquid. “Tell you what,” I added, offering the glass to him. “Finish up, and the next round of drinks will be on me.”

One of the bystander Grumpfers stiffened and tried to reach across the table. But the aggressor was too fast. Before his friend could reach him he’d put the glass to his mouth and downed the contents. He slammed the glass back on the table—there it was, finally: the broken glassware I’d anticipated ever since they came in—and opened his mouth to resume his side of the argument.

He never got there. For a moment he remained standing upright, his mouth open, nothing coming out. Then, his knees unlocked and, almost in slow-motion, he collapsed straight down onto the floor.

As my father used to say, My friend and I had words, but I never got to use mine. When dealing with Grumpfers, not having to argue or even talk was always the best outcome.

For another moment the other Grumpfers just stared at him. Not a long moment, but long enough for Josmith to abandon his safe spot behind the bar and come trotting toward me. As if that was the signal the Yavanni at the door had been waiting for, they unglued themselves from their own sections of tile and likewise came clomping over. “Puke, what’s going on here?” Josmith demanded.

“It’s Roarke, not Puke” I corrected him. “And I don’t know.”

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” he demanded. “You were here. You were serving them. Why don’t you know?”

“Because I don’t know,” I repeated, putting on the bewildered expression I’d gotten a lot of use out of over the years. “He was drinking, and then suddenly he collapsed.”

“Did he, now?” Josmith said, his own expression a sort of sarcastic suspicion that settled onto his face as effortlessly as my bewilderment settled onto mine. “You wouldn’t have helped the process along, would you?”

“How?” I countered, holding out my bare hands. “You were standing right there. I just picked up his drink and handed it to him.”

“Mm.” Abruptly, he squatted down and pulled the card from the Grumpfer’s pocket. “And what is this—?” He broke off, his eyes going wide, the sarcasm vanishing from his face. “The hell? Roarke—did you see this?”

So he could remember my name when he wanted to. “What the—? That’s a serving limiter,” I said, jabbing my finger at it like we’d just spotted the Rockabay emerald. “Where did—when did—?”

“Like you’ve never seen one before,” Josmith bit out, straightening up and shoving the card at me. “You telling me you didn’t see this?”

“Of course not,” I snapped back, trying to figure out if his anger was real or if he was just playing to the audience. Loudly proclaiming our innocence would help us if the Grumpfer or his buddies decided to call a badgeman. But it wouldn’t help as much as—

“You’re fired,” Josmith snarled.

—as kicking me out.

“That’s not fair,” I objected. As he turned and started to hand the card to the nearest Grumpfer, I snaked out my left hand and plucked it away from him. He made as if to grab it back; I took a step backward and peered closely at it. “He’s supposed to show this to me before he orders. It says so right here on the card. It’s not my fault.”

“I said you’re fired,” Josmith repeated, his voice suddenly gone very quiet.

As my father used to say, When a man goes all quiet, he’s either deadly furious or is trying to lure you into range for a sucker punch. Either way, run. “It’s not my fault,” I repeated, my voice just as quiet.

He held out his hand. I put the card back in it, and for a moment we faced each other in silence. The corners of his eyes wrinkled a little, and it occurred to me that he might have heard stories of my past.

But even if I’d felt like taking this further, it was pointless. It wasn’t my bar, it wasn’t my business liability that was on the line, and it clearly wasn’t my business anymore. Not even on an hourly basis.

I gave each of the Grumpfers a polite nod, just to look professional about it, then turned, walked past the two Yavanni, and headed into the back room.

Zayli was still nowhere in sight. Just as well. I rolled down my shirt sleeves and collected my jacket, info pad, and wallet from my locker. I grabbed one of the kitchen pads and tagged today’s shortened hours so the boss could send my final wages into my account. Slipping on my jacket, stuffing my hands into the pockets, I shouldered the back door open and walked out into the city. The spaceport where the Ruth was currently berthed was a good five kilometers away, but busses cost money, and I was out of a job, and anyway right now I felt like walking.

Besides, the man following me looked like he could use the exercise.


The wind was at my back as I approached the Ruth, so I wasn’t surprised to find Selene waiting for me at the open entryway, her long pure-white hair glistening in the sunlight and waving slightly in the breeze. “You’re early,” she said in the soft, delicate voice that went so well with her soft, delicate Kadolian features.

“Ran into a bit of a situation,” I said, starting up the ramp toward her.

“Not a good one, I gather?” she asked. Her deep-set gray cats’ eyes flicked over me like she was looking for knife wounds or plasmic burns. Probably she was, if only from force of habit.

“Well, the good news is that I didn’t get hurt,” I told her. “The less good news is that I got fired.”

Her eyes’ vertical pupils widened visibly, despite the bright sunlight beating down on us. Her nostrils flared, then contracted almost shut, then flared again. Surprised and upset. A wonderful combination to come home to. “What happened,” she asked, reaching out her hand to me.

“Let’s talk about it inside,” I said, leaving my hands in my pockets. She stepped back through the entryway into the airlock as I reached the top of the ramp—

“Gregory Roarke?” a voice called from behind me.

I turned. The man who’d been following me was standing at the foot of the ramp, looking up at us. He was a large man, half a head taller than me, with a bulk that I’d assumed was fat but which I saw now was mostly muscle. He was wearing a plain brown overcoat over a suit that looked to be in the same price range as my entire modest wardrobe.

And now that I finally had a good look at him, I realized I’d seen him before. “Do you really have to ask?” I countered.

His forehead furrowed. “Excuse me?” He waved a hand before I could answer. “Never mind. Can I come up? We need to talk.”

My first, fleeting, thought was that he might be a lawyer, here to rain subpoenas and summonses on me. But I’d known a lot of lawyers in my time, and none of them had been built like that. “What’s on your mind,” I asked, heading down the ramp toward him.

His lip might have twitched as I approached. Probably he’d hoped to have this meeting out of the public eye. But the twitch might have been my imagination. “I’m looking for a croquette,” he said as I stopped in front of him. “I’m told you’re one of the best.”

As my father used to say, Never laugh at someone bigger than you are unless he’s just told a joke. But I couldn’t let that one pass without at least a smile. “I believe there’s an Old French café a few blocks west of the spaceport,” I offered helpfully.

This time the forehead furrowing was accompanied by a narrowing of his eyes. “Excuse me?” he said again, his voice a shade more menacing.

“Sorry,” I apologized. “It’s a common mistake, but it still amuses me. Croquette, with the emphasis on the second syllable, is a French dish. Crockett, emphasis on the first, refers to those of us in the Association of Planetary Trailblazers.” I raised my eyebrows. “I’m guessing you don’t know much about us?”

The forehead smoothed, and he gave me a small smile. “Ah,” he said. “Mea culpa. Yes, this is the first time I’ve looked to hire a crockett.”

Mea culpa. Latin. With all the languages of all the peoples across the Spiral, there wasn’t much call for dead languages these days. Maybe he was just a well-muscled lawyer.

Though given how aggressively the Patthaaunutth and their fancy Talariac Drive were working to monopolize the Spiral’s shipping, Patth might soon become the unofficial lingua franca, kicking English into the dustbin of dead languages right beside Latin.

“So are you available?” he asked.

“Absolutely,” I assured him. “But I have to tell you that I don’t come cheap. Especially not at this particular moment.”

“Oh?” He peered up at the Ruth, shading his eyes with his hand. “Trouble with your ship?”

“Nothing an infusion of money wouldn’t fix.”

“In that case, you definitely need the job,” he said. This time his smile looked a little more genuine. “Ever hear of the Bonvere cluster?”

“I don’t think so.” I half turned. “Selene? Check the library for the Bonvere cluster, will you?”

“Certainly,” she called back down, pulling out her pad. “A minute, please.”

“Interesting,” the man said, his hand once again shading his eyes as he looked at Selene. “You don’t see many Kadolians these days.”

“You never did,” I said. “They’ve always been rare. Not sure anyone even knows where they came from.” I cocked an eyebrow. “I’m surprised you recognized her.”

He shrugged. “You were on my list of potential crocketts. I did a little research on you.”

“Research is good,” I said. “Next time, you might also want to take a quick run through the pronunciation guides.”

For a second his face went rigid. Then, he smiled again. “Touché.”

I smiled back. More Latin, or possibly French. “Did you enjoy your drinks?” I asked.

“My drinks?”

“The ones back at Caleb’s,” I said. “You came in about twenty minutes after the Grumpfers. Zayli was your server, though if you’d stayed much longer her shift would have ended and I would have taken over. You were still sitting there when I got fired, but were already outside ready to follow me when I finished my last bit of paperwork and left. Did I miss anything?”

For a moment he seemed to be considering whether or not to lie to me. Then he smiled again. He seemed to like doing the smiles, though he really wasn’t very good at it. “I don’t suppose you’d like to tell me what I was drinking?” he asked.

“It was a pale amber something,” I said. “I never got close enough to identify it, but given you had two glasses and aren’t showing any effects I’m guessing it was a light cognac or possibly Germania ale. Also light, of course.”

“Of course,” he said. “You’re quite observant.”

“Comes with the territory,” I said. “Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to get your name from the charge tally.”

“Well, we should rectify that.” He stuck out his hand. “Call me Geri.”

I should have known this was coming. People who sprinkled dead languages into their conversation also tended to like old-world gestures and customs. Handshakes were one of those.

Unfortunately, there was nothing I could do about it. Reluctantly pulling my right hand out of my pocket, I took the proffered hand and shook it. His grip was strong but not overwhelming, the grip of someone who’s confident in his strength but knows when and where to use it. “Geri what?” I asked, letting go and returning my hand to its pocket.

“Just Geri,” he said. “My employers like to keep things loose.”

“Ah,” I said. That kind of secrecy wasn’t common, but it was hardly unknown, either. “I assume you represent one of the big developers?”

“There’s big, there’s small, and there’s small but rising,” he said. “Mine is one of the latter.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Which isn’t to say we’re not well-funded. There are a couple of planets in the Bonvere cluster we think are ripe for development and colonization. A clean survey from a reputable crockett and we’ll be ready to move.”

“Sounds interesting.” I half turned my head. “Selene?” I prompted.

“The Bonvere cluster is a group of eight neighboring systems with promising spectral data and planetary reflectives,” Selene called down. “A Commonwealth survey team did oxy/water confirmation fly-bys of six of the systems sixteen years ago, but the records don’t show any follow-up visits since then.”

“Probably because Lacklin happened,” Geri said. “That system was opened up for exploration and claims right on top of the Bonvere fly-bys.”

“Yes, I remember Lacklin,” I said, nodding. “The aftermath wasn’t very pretty.”

“No, but for a while it was the shiny pebble of the Spiral,” Geri agreed. “Pulled a lot of attention that direction.” His eyes shifted to something over my shoulder. “Especially from them.”

I turned to look. Walking toward the port’s exit as if they owned the place were three Patth, wrapped in their usual gray hooded cloaks, the electronic implants in their mahogany-red faces glinting in the sunlight. Behind them walked four Drilies, with a frog-eyed Ihmisit port official bringing up the rear. “Must have just inaugurated a new ship,” Geri said. “Usually they only run two pilots to a ship these days.”

“Unless it was one of the larger corporate transports,” I pointed out. “They still put three pilots on some of those.”

“What, with Drilies as the crew?” he countered scornfully. “Not a chance.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said, studying the squat, gorilla-armed aliens, their prehensile neck tentacles currently draped across their shoulders. “I heard a rumor a few years back that the Patth were considering licensing the Talariac to other species. The Drilies were supposedly at the front of the line.”

Rumor and supposedly being the key words,” Geri growled. “Do you seriously think the Patth would let their monopoly go to slub-buckets who look like that?”

“They may not look like the ancient Greek gods, but they’re smart enough,” I said, wondering vaguely why I was defending the Drilies. They’d certainly been a pain in the butt to me more times than I cared to remember. “Besides, those tentacles would be a perfect place to implant Talariac locking gear.”

“Hardly,” Geri said. “You want to get hold of Talariac gear, you’d have to chop off a Patth pilot’s whole head. With a Drilie, all you’d have to do is slice off the tentacles.”

“Which would also probably kill him.”

“What’s a little murder if there’s a stolen Talariac at the end of the rainbow?” Geri asked with an icy sort of casualness. “I’m just saying that with a Drilie at least you wouldn’t need a bone cutter.”

“Sure,” I said, feeling my stomach churn. Even my own dislike of Drilies didn’t go that far. “So are you hiring us to take a look at one of the Bonvere planets?”

“One, or possibly all of them,” Geri said. “How long would that take?”

“For one, three days’ travel each way and two more for the survey,” I said. “All eight, you can add another two to three days each.”

“Sounds reasonable,” Geri said. “I’ll call my partner and we can be aboard whenever you want. I assume you’ll first need—”

“Whoa,” I interrupted. “Selene and I travel alone.”

“Not if you want me to pay to get your ship fueled and your drive brought up to code.” He smiled. “Like I said, I checked up on you.”

“How very thorough of you,” I said. “Did all that research happen to mention that a Gemini-class ship is designed for a crew of two?”

“So you and the Kadolian can bunk together.”

“There’s not enough room in either of the cabins for two people,” I explained as patiently as I could. “There’s a dayroom foldout, but it will also sleep exactly one person.” I gestured up and down his bulk. “With someone your size, even that would be pushing it.”

For a long moment he gazed at me. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the three Patth and their entourage pass by, still looking like they owned the port. Eventually, inevitably, they probably would. “Fine,” Geri said at last. “I’ll tell my partner I’ll do this one solo. What do you need to get the ship ready to go?”

“Like I said: an infusion of money,” I told him. “Twenty thousand commarks ought to do it.”

He raised his eyebrows. “That’s a lot of engine work.”

“That also includes our fee for eight systems.”

“Ah,” he said, nodding. “Better. What if we only do one?”

“You’ll be due a refund.”

He considered, then nodded. “Good enough. What’s your timeline for getting out of here?”

“Four days, maybe five,” I said. “Another two thousand would drop that to three.”

“Yeah, I get it,” he said, looking around. “Alien ports. Got to love them. How much to get us out of here tomorrow?”

“An extra twenty.” I considered. “An extra thirty would probably have us ready in six hours.”

“Tempting,” he said, pulling out a wallet. Inside were a collection of gold-edged certified bank checks. He selected four of them and handed them to me. “We’ll make it twenty. I’ll be here this same time tomorrow. Here’s my number.” He slipped a business card onto the top of the stack.

An actual, physical card, on top of the Latin and French and the handshake. He definitely was pulling out all the classic stops. “We appreciate the business,” I said, glancing at the card and then peering at the checks. Ten thousand commarks each, all right. “What if the ship isn’t ready by then?”

“Just make sure it is,” he said, a hint of threat in his tone. He looked up at Selene one last time, then again offered his hand. “Tomorrow.”

“See you then,” I said, giving his hand another brief shake.

He turned—not the precise spin of an ex-military man, but a good copy of the global-awareness movements of a trained fighter—and strode off toward the exit. I kept watching, and twenty paces later he pulled out his phone and started talking into it.

Selene was putting away her own phone when I joined her at the top of the ramp. “The tech department?” I asked.

She nodded. “They said they’ll get started as soon as you deposit the money.”

“Did you emphasize the need for some of that legendary Ihmis efficiency?” I asked, handing over the checks and nudging her backwards off the ramp into the less visible airlock.

“I did,” she said, taking the checks. “I’ll get these scanned across.”

“In a minute,” I said, touching her slender arm to stop her as she started to leave. “Pull up Grumpfer dehydrogenase syndrome, will you?”

There was puzzlement in her pupils, but she merely nodded and got out her pad. A moment to key it in— “It’s a group of diseases that make Grumpfers ultra-susceptible to alcohol,” she said, looking up at me. “Is that why you got fired?”

“Let’s find out.” I pulled my left hand out of my jacket pocket and held it out. “I held his med-warning card for a second right after he’d touched it. Well, right after Josmith touched it, anyway,” I amended. “Sorry.”

“Not a problem,” she assured me. Taking my hand in both of hers, she held it to her nostrils and began slowly inhaling, taking each fingertip in turn, then working her way down to the palm. Once she held the hand to her eyes, her long eyelashes gently beating and then sampling the nearly undetectable odors clinging to the hand’s artificial skin. I kept still, waiting for her extraordinary sense of smell to do its job. “Three humans touched the card,” she said slowly. “You and Josmith and another I don’t recognize. Also, two Grumpfers.”

“Right,” I said. “Did one of them have this dehydrogenase syndrome?”

“No,” she said, still inhaling. “Both were completely healthy.”

“So it was a frame-up right from the start,” I growled. “Our mystery man probably gave him the card with a promise that he and his buddies could go into Caleb’s and drink for free for the next hour.”

“Josmith cancelled their bill?”

“Don’t know—I left before he finished with them,” I said. “But probably.” I offered my right hand. “Our friend Geri. Was he the third human?”

She did a quick sniff of my palm where I’d shaken Geri’s hand. “No.”

“You sure?” I asked, frowning. “He was in the bar watching. He’d have been the perfect one to—oh,” I said with a sigh. “Right. Check those bank checks.”

Her pupils twitched in a frown, and she brought the bank checks up to her nostrils. Again, a single quick sniff was all it took. “That’s him.”

“So; Geri’s partner,” I said. “No money, freshly kicked out of my job; and then Geri conveniently happens by looking for someone to check out these Bonvere worlds. I do so like a well-constructed trapbox.”

“But why get you fired?” Selene asked, her eyes frowning. “Why not just come here and hire you? Did they think you were that attached to life as a bar server?”

“If they did, they’re fools,” I said. “On the other hand, I’ve never yet seen a fool with that much money.”

“He had more than these?” Selene asked, holding up the bank checks. “I couldn’t see into his wallet from here.”

“Lots more,” I assured her. “If all the checks were the same denomination as those, he could probably buy any ship in the port and still have enough left for a nice vacation somewhere.”

“Then why?” she persisted.

“No idea,” I said. “But I’m sure Geri will let us in on the joke somewhere along the way. Be sure to have a good hearty laugh ready to go.”

I gestured her toward the bridge. “In the meantime, go scan those in and get some work crews out here. I’ll start running the rest of the checklists.”

I looked back out at the port grounds. Geri and the Patth group were long gone. “Geri said we’d better be ready to go when he gets here,” I added. “I’d just as soon not find out if there was an or else attached to that request.”

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