' I'd retired, gentlemen, and not a moment too soon. I was tired from all that running and work was doing my head in. I was ready for a rest.
'There was all that travel, which I didn’t mind. I like a good cognit, but the quiet time between planets always made my companion cross and impatient to be somewhere, anywhere. So I’d just find a quiet place and try to ignore his muttering.
'Then there were all those new worlds. It’s always interesting, but I often wished we weren’t there to work but just to gander. Ah, but there’s always something wrong. There’s planets where you got a backache from the gravity, or the air smelled of your Uncle Gurney’s dirty feet, or the local micros were off your injects definitions so you’d have swollen eyes and a runny nose for your entire visit. Of course, this last only happens on pleasant worlds with compatible ladies. Go to the quarantined swamp moon of bug planet Infestia and you’d feel great.
'I’m sorry, but you already look puzzled. Let me put this in context for you…'
They’d taken the Doctor first, assuming he was our leader. The princessnapped while we waited and I smiled when she shifted in her sleep and rested her head on my shoulder. I suppose I drifted off myself, because I was alone when they came for me.
I was marched down a short corridor to what I assumed was an interrogation room. The Doctor and the princess were seated off to the side and three of our captors stood in a semi-circle around an empty chair. One of my guards said, 'Here is the final prisoner,'and departed.
The leader turned a bland face to me and said, 'Please sit comfortably'.
I glanced at the Doctor and he winked and tapped his watch. I drew a deep breath of the stuffy air and sat.
'Hullo,' I said, 'I understand you have a few questions?'
A human would have blinked.
'Why, yes, of course. While we regret infringing on your personal freedom we must insist on your complete cooperation.'
'Certainly. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, eh?'
'It is most urgent.'
'Well, I’d better get started, then.'
'Yes. Place your hand on the verifier, please, and state your true name for the record.'
'I am Peter Gulliver Unstoffe of Darwin Colony.'
'Verified. How long have you been an associate of the Graff Vynda-K?'
May the saints preserve us from the obstinacy of robots and logicians.
'I have never been an associate of the Graff. We’ve already been over this a dozen times. Look, the only way to make you understand is if you let me tell you how we all came to be here. Then maybe you’ll believe us and we can stop wasting time. Shouldn’t we be finding this thing you’re looking for so we can avert disaster? Just stop asking questions and let me talk.'
'You will be brief and to the point?'
'Then you may proceed.'
So I relaxed, collected my thoughts and told them all about my impending retirement.
That’s when the leader, whose name-tag read, ‘Hello! I am Bob Sunny Day! How may I serve you?’, interrupted.
'A thousand pardons, Mr Unstoffe, but given the potentially calamitous outcome of recent events, may we ask that your narrative be rather less digressive?'
'What? Oh, sorry. Garron used to say I rambled too much.'
'We mean no offence, we assure you. It’s simply that we are unable to determine the importance of your prior travels, interesting though they may be. To regrettably be blunt, is this relevant?'
'Yes, it is relevant. I mean, you fellows don’t seem inclined to take us at our word, so I have to tell you the whole story with all the details. If any of us are going to survive this mess you need your property and the Doctor needs his. If we can’t convince you we’re your friends and not your enemies, well, you know what’s going to happen. The Doctor says we have time, so I’m going to tell this story the way I want. Now let me get on with it.'
'Very well. Taking into account the potentially vital nature of your narrative, you may get on with it in the manner you prefer.'
Okay, then. Anyway, the best and worst thing about travelling was the natives. Always a roll of the dice. All those new people with their strange customs, some of them thinking their way is the only way and everyone else is a deluded alien to be patronised or executed. Or they’d be primitives who’d never heard of aliens and you’d have to pretend to be one of them. Sometimes they’d be nice, you know? That made it hard to work. But usually they were mean, and that made it satisfying…
'What is the nature of your business, Mr Unstoffe?' Bob Sunny Day interrupted.
'Eh? What was our business? Oh,um, real estate. My master Garron was a real estate agent and I was his apprentice. We found and sold buildings, space stations, cities and sometimes even planets to our clients. It was good money, usually, but sometimes it was unreliable. A client would change his mind, or the locals would object to their sacred landmark being owned by an off-worlder or the native bureaucrats would suddenly materialize and start waving permits and licenses and local tax decrees...
'I can see you don’t understand. I wouldn’t expect you to, you being robots and all. No offence. I can see you’re fine robots, but I doubt you’re programmed for greed. Greed is what it was all about. ‘Greed spins the galaxies,’ Garron used to say.
'It works like this: The client wants his property but doesn’t want to pay a single opek more than his personal appraisal tells him its worth. We want his money and at minimum operating cost to ourselves. And the galactic and local governments see money exchanging hands and say, “Hey! We’ll have some of that!” like the unconscionable extortionists they are and by the time we’ve fired rockets our millions of credits are barely enough to cover our modest expenses.'
'Is there not a component missing from your business plan? What of the owner of the property? The party designated, the seller?'
'What’s that? The seller? Oh, yes, of course, the seller. You mean the owner of the property? How could I forget them? They got their cut, too. Everybody got a cut.
'That’s why we travelled so much, you see. It’s the government and their stranglehold on the free market. Institutional greed, wringing profit from the independent businessman. Greedy buyers and of course sellers. We had to keep working just to stay afloat, year after year, voyage after voyage, world after world.
'And then we made it. Our big score. The likes of which honest realtors like ourselves can only dream. Due to the generosity of a grateful client we found ourselves the legal, new owners of the Indomitable Prince, a squarish, ugly cruiser packed with lawfully won plunder, as defined by the Levithian Martial Codex.
'By the way, you comprehend your mistake, don’t you? Do you understand, now? The ship was the property of the Graff, true, but then the ship legally passed on to Garron. When you asked Garron if the ship was his he was speaking true but he wasn’t confirming he was the Graff. Do you understand? Garron is not the Graff.
'Bob Sunny Day silently conferred with the others. I couldn’t hear them, of course; it was all head-to-head, but someone had had the bright idea of giving them body language. So it was like watching a holo with the sound off. Bob What A Deal and Bob Sunny Day were agitated, endearingly animated like veteran Rift Users. Bob Name Your Poison stood still and just looked back and forth as the others talked, like an attendee at a ping-pong match.
Then Bob What A Deal turned to me and stated, 'Please forgive our apparent distrust but this remains to be determined. The person you refer to as Garron identified himself as owner of the Graff’s vessel. Our boarding party was rendered unable to correlate our archival footage of the Graff with your Garron. Therefore the matter is not closed. As we have said, all you must do is present this Garron or his remains and we will be satisfied.'
'The verifier seems happy with it,' I said.
He frowned in a blandly apologetic manner. 'I’m afraid the verifier’s circuits are still preoccupied with the Doctor’s testimony. He was most excessively forthcoming, though I note he is pleasingly silent now. The verifier will render its verdict in time.
“Now, please continue.”
Where was I? Oh, the plunder!
My head still spins at the thought of it. Cyrrhenic silk banners, intricately woven by the trained spiders of the Boric delta. The Singing Spear of Sven Venison. The personal battle robes of the Gyronese Emperor of Contention. Choice volumes from the psychic library of the artificial rings of Thoomba. And the art! There was a Gleick, a Vincent van Breda, two Johnsons and a Giggins. All this, mind you, in the very first compartment we peeked into.
Garron clapped my shoulder and I cringed. I’d been shot there that morning, just before the cave-in. I guess I should add that Garron took a couple of souvenirs himself. I knew he’d milk them for all they were worth. Anyway–
He tutted apologetically and carefully clapped my other shoulder and said, 'My boy, this is it. My days of struggle are behind me. With the credits I’ll get for this lot I’ll be able to return to Earth and buy Hackney Wick! What am I saying? I’ll buy the Earth! I wonder if it’s for sale?'
'I’m sure you’ll find a willing seller,'I said.
'That’s the spirit!' he said. 'Oh! A comment. Don’t worry, lad! I’ll see that you are well provided for. This ship, for instance, should fetch you a princely sum in scrap.'
'Well, there are those who may have taken exception to the Graff’s activities, after all. One can hardly slap a coat of paint on her and expect to sell her on the open market. I expect there would be questions.' He frowned. 'So many tiresome questions.'
'You may be right.' I said. 'You know, Garron...'
'I know that tone. Please refrain from thinking, boy.'
'Some of these treasures meant a lot to their owners...'
'We are not giving anything back!'
'Give back? You wound me, Garron! I thought perhaps a few discreet enquiries as to the possibilities of rewards for the safe return of certain state treasures...'
'Oh, I see! My apologies. I thought you were going soft on me again. Let me think on it, boy. You may be right, but there’s something to be said for dumping this junk in one big lot and letting someone else deal with the details. The question is, who can we trust? There’s the Smith-Kazar’s on Fulcrum 5...'
'No, Gentile Smith said he’d put a rake in your skull the next time he saw you, remember?'
'Oh, that’s right. We’d best not go there. What about the Castigones?'
'That’s a wonderful idea, Garron. Thinking of visiting Henco’s daughter while we’re there?'
'Oh, the alluring yet clingy Belinda! I see your point.' He pondered a moment. 'I wonder how our boy’s doing?'
'Garron, I once saw Henco eat a fried Dalek. Let’s think of someone else.'
'You’ll get no argument from me. Oh! There’s Shintaccus on Globe 22...'
'Bounty on both our heads.'
'Curses! The Grindovinian estate? I hear they’re going places.'
'Yes, they all went to maximum security.'
'Phestus Phobos! There’s always the market on Phestus Phobos...'
'Where they’ll slit our throats at the merest hint of the extent of our treasures.'
'The duty-free depot on Happy Harbour?'
'Infiltrated and liquidated by you-know-who.'
'You don’t mean...'
'The legendary Mongoose himself.'
The Mongoose, by the way, was Alliance Security’s greatest undercover agent. No one had the slightest idea who he was but everyone feared drawing his attention. Anyway...
Garron sank into a nearby chair, defeated.
'Oh, Unstoffe! We simply don’t know enough honourable criminals! Where are we to dispose of this junk without being killed for it?'
Bob Name Your Poison spoke for the first time. 'Excuse me. Did you just admit to consorting with criminals?'
'What’s that, Bob? No, I didn’t say criminals. Must be a faulty translator. You should get that looked at: might be a sign of serious malfunction. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”, my old Da used to say.
'I said, antiquities dealers’ of course. Oh, don’t give me those blank looks. Antiquities is a cut-throat business. It’s almost as bad as real estate. To continue?'
Garron went off to mutter. I double checked the docking clamps on the ships and set the cruise control on our ship. We left the odd orbit of Ribos with no destination in mind. I wished old Binro was with us and hoped the gods of Ribos weren’t religious. After all, surely they knew the stars weren’t ice crystals.
I turned my thoughts to practical matters. Garron would think of something eventually so I might as well do something useful.
I started the inventory of compartment one, growing more excited with every find. The Graff’s taste in treasures ran to the martial –no surprise there –but it must be said: the man had taste. This wasn’t a random cache of loot; these items were artifacts, treasures that had history. I could happily have rummaged through the collection until the end of my days.
But business is business. It would be useful to know what the items would fetch, so I sent a few discreet inquires over the hypercable. After the first few responses I revised my opinion of the Graff. He may have had taste but he was a fool. The contents of this compartment alone would have bought him an army; he never needed Ribos and its jethrik mines at all. And this compartment was one of eight.