Chapter 32a

"Saving the world is the easy part. The aftermath is where things get tricky."
-King Arthur

Aahz and I were back in the conference room, sitting across the table from Ginghe and the others. I had finally won out, and we'd stopped at our place to get presentable before returning to the negotiating table. It appeared that our opposite numbers hadn't moved in the entire time we'd been away.

"And so," Ginghe said. "It would appear the problem has been successfully resolved." He began fastidiously stacking the various piles of paper scattered before him. "The Devan Executive Branch thanks you for your efforts. If we'll be needing your services again, we will of course be in touch."

"Aren't you forgetting something?" Aahz's voice was silky smooth, but there was just the tiniest edge lurking in it somewhere that made me want to take cover under the table.

"Oh... yes. The Department has ordered all criminal charges against you and your associates to be summarily dropped."

"Swell. What I was referring to, in fact, was the matter of our fee."

"Your fee. Well, gentlemen, as I... or rather, as the Executive Branch sees it, you were... assigned... specifically... to locate and quell certain centers of unauthorized labor-union activity. Yet, in your report just now you indicated, quite persuasively, that there was in fact no attempt at unauthorized labor organization. Since this was the case, our original agreement can be considered, and shall be considered, null and void. This is our final word on the subject." He saw Aahz's expression and raised a finger. "May I continue? Stories of your... prowess... are of course well known throughout this dimension. I have no doubt the two of you could inflict serious harm on both myself and my colleagues. However, if you so much as lay a finger on any one of us, you will be banned from the Bazaar for life."

"It would be worth it." Aahz rose. An expression of concern crept across Ginghe's face. Ollipo and Yuleen shifted nervously in their seats.

There was a noise behind the three of them, a sort of silent authoritative cough. Everyone around the table, even Aahz, paused and looked in that direction. The elderly Deveel looked back at us stonily, then crooked a long finger at the stripling sitting next to him. The youth leaned over, and listened nervously for a long moment. He then rose, whispered in Ginghe's ear, and scurried back to his position at the elder's side.

Ginghe straightened his garments with exaggerated care, and scribbled something on a piece of paper, which he carefully pushed across the table towards us, clearly wishing he was pushing it through a set of stout iron bars. And attached to the end of a very long pole.

"While the Department..." An almost subliminal glance over his shoulder "...stands by its original statement, it does acknowledge your recent efforts on its behalf... and what may have happened if your efforts were unsuccessful. The Department offers you the indicated figure, not as payment for any defunct agreement which may or may not have once existed, but as recognition for those services which you have recently performed."

Aahz and I both looked at the sheet of paper which lay before us. Aahz looked back up, sneering.

"This is..."

"More than we would make in a year of normal operation." I cut in. He turned his gaze onto me. I sighed at his expression and continued quietly. "I know, I know, I'm ruining our negotiating position. But I've had a very long week, Aahz, and I'm very tired. Let's just take the money and go home. Just this once. Please. We saved more than seven dimensions from, at best, ending up like Deva once did." I shot a glance at the other end of the table. "That's almost reward enough in itself. And even you must know they never intended to give us all of that money. If Penbrius hadn't been at the bottom of this whole mess, they would have found some other way to weasel out of it."

Aahz continued to stare at me for a long moment, then rolled his eyes and gave off a tired sigh of his own. "At least you said 'almost'. There's hope for you yet, kid." He faced the silent, tense, Deveels again and spoke more loudly. "We have a deal. But we'll take the money now. In gold."

Ginghe glanced again over his shoulder, and the elder Deveel nodded, once, almost imperceptibly. Then the President, (or whatever his title actually was) looked across the table at me, directly at me. For some odd reason, I suddenly expected him to wink, or smile. He did neither, but stared, his gaze like two force beams slicing across the room. Presumably he saw whatever it was he was looking for, since he broke contact, rose and silently left the room, the young flunky trailing along in his wake.

We returned to our palatial headquarters through the crowded streets of the Bazaar, carrying a very large bag of gold. When I wasn't worrying about being mugged, my thoughts kept drifting back to that last look the President had shot at me. I'd seen someone look at me like that before, recently... where...

I shook it off and looked at Aahz. While he would probably spend a few months, or more likely years, being deeply depressed at not getting the original sum under discussion, he began casting more and more speculative glances down at the burden he carried in a tight grasp. As we entered our front door, the gang, including Brockhurst and Snafyu, were all assembled in the front lobby, obviously waiting expectantly for us.

Aahz hoisted the bag in the air, and grinned ear to ear. Possibly even further.

"Let's all go over to Gus's place. Drinks... are on the Deveels!"

Everyone started cheering and clustered around us, shaking hands, and talking all at once, already reliving the exploits of the past few days. Tanda even gave me quick kiss on the cheek, a reward for which I would gladly have traded three similar bags of gold. I saw Snafyu standing diffidently off to one side and I stepped over to talk to him, grinning.

"Another new experience, Snafyu. Are you up to it?"

Tanda had found him some better-fitting clothes to wear somewhere, and he appeared to have straightened up a bit from his usual slouch. He regarded me gravely, then nodded. "Yes, Mr. Mag... Mr. Skeeve. I think I am."

I grinned again, and gave him a little push on the back of his new tunic to join the others. I started to follow him.

And stumbled to a stop.

Snafyu’s expression... or one a lot like it... As everyone else started trooping out the door, I managed to grab ahold of Aahz's collar and pull him back.

"Tell everyone I'll be there in a minute. There's something I have to do first." I grinned and gave a thumbs up, but unlike the others, it was half-hearted. If Aahz had been carrying even a slightly smaller bag of gold, no doubt he would have noticed, but as it was..

"Huh? OK, kid. But if you don't hurry, there won't be any strawberry milkshakes left." He grinned himself, turned and went after the others, still gleefully hugging the bag to his chest.

I immediately went to Aahz's room and started looking for...

The D-Hopper. For one insane moment I had considered attempting to do this under my own power, but I came to my senses and went looking for the tubular device. I found it stashed inside a cupboard along with some other objects I decided that were best not studied too closely. If Aahz had known what I was doing...

But he didn't.

It took a moment, but I found the setting for Gezirah, and punched the button.

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All Contents ©2000 Robert M. Cook