"Centurion is hailing us," Morgan reported.
"Damn the Centurion!" Grif snarled. "Ktk, engines! Morgan, get me the SL Beacon. Better yet, get me one of those warships!"
Grif felt a sudden release as the grav plates deactivated, then a slight tug above and aft from the Centurion's gravlock. That cut away as the nullifier plates kicked in, preventing the gravitational pull of the beam from crossing the hull into the ship.
Over the intercom, Ktk reported that it was a bad idea to try and push the fusion drive at this point in time.
"I don't care if it's a bad idea," Grif said. "Until we're presented with a good idea, we're going to go with the only idea I have at the moment. Get on it!"
"This isn't fair," Doma whimpered.
"For once," Grif said, "I agree with you."
They no longer felt the initial jolt of the gravlock, but the tactical display showed that the Fool's Errand was slowly being pulled toward the much larger ship. Ktk announced, somewhat reluctantly, that it had managed to boost the fusion drive, and Grif wasted no time.
"Get ready for a rough ride," Grif said. "Amys, I need slingshot patterns now." He keyed in a command and the ship shuddered as her engines opened up.
Escaping a gravlock wasn't an easy process, but it was possible. Unlike planetary gravity, which came from a source so much larger than a ship that precision wasn't necessary, a gravlock was a single beam that was aimed at its target. When the target moved, the beam had to follow, and if the pilot was creative enough it was possible to use the gravlock as a slingshot to increase the force and speed of a ship to break free of the artificial gravity well. It was a difficult and risky maneuver, but the more power a ship had to put into it the better its chances.
Grif saw a flash of blinding white energy streak across his viewplate. "They just fired a warning shot," Morgan announced.
"How do you know it was a warning?" Grif was only half-aware of what he was saying as he set in the courses Amys fed him. "They could just be really bad at it..."
"No, they sent a message saying 'That was a warning shot. We encourage you to answer our hail.'"
"I don't want to talk to them! I want to talk to the Tylaris warships!" Grif uttered a few choice curses against the Centurion as he saw warning lights flash on his console. Ktk was right; pushing the fusion drives had been a bad idea. They wouldn't last long. He abandoned his attempt to escape the gravlock, and settled for resisting its pull just long enough think of something else.
Even if we got out of the gravlock we wouldn't be in any condition to fight. If those bastards from the Barony would just--
"One of the warships has responded to our hail," Morgan announced.
"Put it through!" Grif ordered. I hereby rescind and apologize for any comments or insinuations I may have made concerning your familial status.
A small screen on Grif's station blinked, and the image of a heavyset man in the green-and-gold uniform of the Tylaris Royal Navy appeared.
"Captain Vindh, yes?" The man stared at Grif politely through the screen.
"Captain," Grif said, "we are in desperate need of assistance here."
The captain nodded gravely. "What is the nature of your emergency?"
Grif blinked. He heard Morgan swearing softly behind him.
"We're... uh... being detained by a Radiant Throne Battlecarrier. Perhaps you noticed it on your sensors."
"Yes," the captain replied politely. "I admit it startled us when it first appeared. Apparently it managed to hack into the beacon--we have no idea how it managed to do that from tach, mind you--and locate your drop point."
"That's all very interesting," Grif said, "but we're in a bit of a hurry... because we're being detained. By a Radiant Throne Battlecarrier. In Tylaris Barony Space. Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I thought governments took a dim view when other governments violated their sovereignty."
The captain shook his head. "I'm afraid you aren't in Tylaris Barony space yet, Captain."
"The hell we--" Grif interrupted himself, frowned, and muted the communication for a moment. "Morgan?"
"Of course we're in--wait." Morgan muttered something indistinct, then swore. "Technically he’s right. But he's splitting an awfully fine hair."
Doma whimpered softly and began to hyperventilate.
Grif unmuted the channel. "Can we assume, then, that no help will be forthcoming?"
An expression of genuine regret appeared on the captain's face for a moment, then smoothed out into a mask of professional disinterest. "I'm afraid we are unable to interfere in the affairs of foreign powers," he said.
Son of a bitch.
Grif unceremoniously killed the channel.
"Centurion is hailing us again," Morgan said. "And she's powering her main weapons."
"All right!" Grif snarled. "Put the bastard on."
The display on his station blinked again, and another uniformed man appeared.
Grif tried his best to smile. "Commodore Mavis. What a pleasant surprise."
Commodore Mavis was a well-preserved, middle-aged man who carried himself with poise and confidence. He was arrogant, which Grif hated, but he was also very smart... which Grif hated more. Mavis stared out from the screen with a look of mild, polite disinterest.
"Captain Vindh," Mavis replied. "The pleasure is mine, I assure you. If you would be so kind as to deactivate your fusion drive and lock your ship's weapons, we'll pull you into our hold and search your ship very, very thoroughly."
As disinterested as the Commodore appeared to be, the smugness in his voice was infuriating.
"Well, Commodore..." Grif forced himself to sound unconcerned. "If you'll look at your charts, I believe you'll find we're solidly in Tylaris space. The Radiant Throne has no jurisdiction here, and--"
"The Radiant Throne has jurisdiction everywhere," Mavis said. "That men hide from the truth that the Lord God burned into the very stars is regrettable, but ultimately irrelevant. And I think you'll find your claim of being 'solidly' in any kind of space is optimistic, even for you. My communications officer has already contacted Baron Tylaris and explained the nature of our operation. He has voiced no objection."
Grif heard Morgan swear, again, under his breath.
"At any rate, Captain Vindh, you are in no position to practice the finer arts of diplomacy."
Morgan swore one last time, and muted the communications feed. "Centurion has locked its main cannon on us," he reported. "Needless to say... that won't be a crippling shot."
Grif considered his options, then punched the intercom. "Ktk, take the fusion drive offline. Cyrus, take our guns offline, lock them down."
"Roger that." Cyrus was clearly unhappy with the development. Ktk emitted a series of untranslatable clicks and ticks--it was swearing, Grif decided, though he couldn’t determine precisely who or what was being pilloried--then announced that the bet was still in play.
"Morgan, resume audio," Grif said. A moment later a message flashed beneath the image of Commodore Mavis, reporting that audio had been restored.
"Is everything all right, Captain?" Mavis asked politely. "We lost audio for a second, I was concerned you might be having some difficulty."
"Our engines are powering down, Commodore. We are also taking our guns offline. The entire process will take about an hour to do safely. I insist we be given that hour."
"Of course," Mavis agreed. "We will, naturally, be monitoring your progress with interest. Should you attempt to jettison anything during that time, please inform us of what and why... otherwise, we will be forced to assume it is contraband and act accordingly."
Grif scowled. "We have no intention of jettisoning any of our cargo."
"I am glad to hear it. When we have determined your engines are powered down and your guns locked in place, you will be brought into Centurion's primary flight bay. You will then be requested to exit your ship, which will be subject to a full search. Civility requires that I say I hope, when all is said and done, that I won't be forced to execute you on the spot. End communication."
The monitor went dark as Centurion killed the feed from their end.
"That... could have gone better," Grif said.
Amys and Morgan said nothing, patiently waiting for orders. Doma moaned hopelessly, sinking his head into his hands and rocking back and forth in his chair.
Grif took a moment to assess the situation. He examined a number of different possible actions and outcomes, looking for the best way out... when he made his decision he punched the intercom.
"We have about an hour before they pull us onto their ship," Grif said. "Cyrus, Ktk, get to Bay Two now."
"What about the guns?" Cyrus asked, confused.
"Cutter and Hari can manage," Grif said. "And Gurgan and Vod can bring the drive off line without Ktk. Go to Bay Two and unseal private storage."
"Then re-seal it. Poorly. Make the seam visible enough for the inevitable search party to find, if they put any effort into looking. Pile a bunch of crates on top of it, though. We don’t want to make it too obvious."
"You’re going to give up the cargo?" Morgan sounded puzzled.
"You want us to do what?" Cyrus was much more than puzzled, he was furious. "Grif, tell me you’re not about to roll over and expose your belly to that--"
"The Captain gave you an order," Amys snapped.
Cyrus fell silent.
Ktk uneasily pointed out that Mavis and his men were going to search for smuggled cargo.
"I know," Grif said.
Ktk added that Mavis’ men would very likely discover the bays if they were not fully sealed.
Ktk stated that it was looking forward to making a profit from this venture, and it didn’t see how that would happen if they effectively gave up their cargo to the Radiant Throne.
"Noted," Grif said. "Trust me."
Ktk fell silent, considering. Eventually Grif heard Cyrus grunt, say "aye, Captain" in a bitter, angry tone, and that was the end of it.
Grif pushed his seat along the rail until he emerged into the bridge proper. He glanced at the others; the expressions on their faces were about what he expected. Amys was troubled and thoughtful, Morgan was confused and scowling, and Doma was gaping at Grif in mute wonder, as if someone had punched him in the face then kissed him square on the mouth.
"Hope you know what you’re doing," Amys said.
"Me too," Grif said.
"You’re insane," Doma whispered.
"As for you…" Grif turned in his seat and glowered at Doma. "You will say nothing. Nothing at all. Not a single thing to any Throne officials, soldiers, janitors, interns, anyone. If you do anything other than stutter, stammer, or look like you’re going to have an accident in your shorts... I will tell your mother exactly what you did on Grenaris."
Doma’s eyes widened slightly. He coughed, grinned meekly, and tried his best to look innocent. "Grenaris? What? I didn’t--"
"And send her the pictures."
Doma’s voice failed. He turned white as a sheet.
"Oh, yes, I found them." Grif said. "Actually, Cyrus found them. And showed them to Cutter and Hari, who gave them to Ktk, who showed them to Vod and Gurgan, and then gave them to Amys… who proceeded to critique them, rating each by creativity, poise, athleticism, and enthusiasm… and who then gave them to me."
"You scored high in enthusiasm," Amys said.
Doma looked from Grif to Amys. "I…" he hesitated, closed his eyes, and took a deep, ragged breath. "I’ll keep quiet."
"Good." Grif nodded. "If you’re a good boy and don’t screw this up, you’ll get ‘em back."
Doma whimpered softly.
"Oh…" Grif grinned wickedly. "Pay attention to those critiques." He leered at his navigator, who smirked in spite of herself.
Doma blushed furiously.
Twenty minutes later Cyrus reported that they had successfully un-hidden the hidden cargo. Grif sent them back to their stations. Thirty minutes later, Cyrus reported in again, this time announcing that all three guns were locked down. Fifteen mintues after that Ktk reported that the fusion drive was powered down and off line.
"Right," Grif said. "Morgan, Get Mavis on the line and tell him that--"
The ship shuddered suddenly.
"Centurion is pulling us in," Morgan reported tersely.
"Well, never mind then. I guess he figured it out."
"Guess so," Morgan said. Grif noticed something unusually hostile in his tone.
"What’s eating you?" Grif asked.
"Well I don’t know," Morgan said, voice dripping with sarcasm. "We go to all this trouble to smuggle hootch out of Throne space and now we’re about to hand it over to them without a fight. To Hu Mavis, of all people. We’re a hair’s breadth from friendly space and why the hell didn’t you show me those pictures?"
Grif blinked in surprise. "What?"
"Everyone else on the ship got a chance to take a look," Morgan said. "What’s the deal?"
"I… thought you wouldn’t be interested," Grif said.
"In what? Ridiculing Doma?"
"Hey!" Doma protested.
"Point taken," Grif said, "but it was kind of childish. I figured you’d find it beneath you."
"Well I wouldn’t!" Morgan snapped.
"Well I’ll remember that next time!" Grif shouted.
"Good!" Morgan shouted back.
"And I’ll make sure you look at them before I hand them back to Doma!"
"Hey!" Doma protested again. "Don’t I get a say in that?"
"No," Grif said.
"Not really," Morgan agreed.
The Fool’s Errand was a large ship. Maximilian class frigates were originally designed to be naval gunboats and troop transport vessels. When they were first commissioned, they were the largest ships capable of flying through planetary atmosphere without having to rely on antigravity plates to withstand re-entry. Thirty years later they were still the third-largest ship capable of such.
The RT Centurion, a Radiant Throne Battlecarrier, made the Fool’s Errand look like a small toy.
The gravlock pulled the Fool’s Errand ever closer to the Centurion. Soon the bridge viewports were filled with the Centurion’s hull--nothing distinct, just the dull gleam of alloy blocking out everything else.
"Damned big," Morgan muttered.
"Yeah," Grif said. "Ever been inside one?"
Morgan shook his head.
"Damned big inside, too."
"Funny thing to see in Trade Baron space," Amys noted. "Warship like that in an area they’re not actually at war with. Seems a little wasteful."
"Mavis really hates Grif," Doma said. "A lot."
"Yes," Grif replied. "Thank you, Doma. Remember: stuttering, stammering, accident in your shorts. Nothing else."
Doma fell silent.
"Besides," Grif continued, "the fact that the Radiant Throne built a flotilla of those things tells me that they don’t consider excess one of their Seven Deadly Sins. I mean, just look at it. It’s bigger than most space stations. And it moves. With all the mass it transfers when it jumps to tach… hell, it could probably make it to the core in a month."
"Doubt it," Amys said.
"It’d be fast, that’s all I’m saying. And they have more than one. Twenty or thirty, last I heard. I can’t wrap my head around how much one of these things would cost."
"Well," Morgan observed, "they are the second largest government in known space."
"Yeah…" Grif stared at the ever-growing hull of the Centurion and frowned. "Here’s a thought: when they pull us on board, and Mavis’ men are pointing their guns at us, how about we not mention that the Throne is only in second place, hmm?"
Morgan thought it over. "Good point," he conceded. Something beeped on his station, and he turned his attention to one of his screens. "It’s Centurion. Mavis wants to talk, I guess."
"Oh, for…" Grif closed his eyes and counted to three. "Put him on the big one."
A large tactical screen at the fore of the bridge, currently tracking the Fool’s Errand’s position in relation to Centurion, shifted to display Commodore Mavis looking on in smug satisfaction.
"Captain Vindh, I am launching a number of towships to guide your vessel into Centurion’s main flight bay. We expect the process to take roughly half an hour. I must request that you and your crew exit your vessel as soon as I give the order. Come out unarmed, with your hands raised above your heads, and do so slowly."
"I know the drill, Commodore. And please remind your boys that Ktk has no hands that actually reach over its head. I’d hate to revisit that particular misunderstanding."
Mavis smiled slightly. "Of course. I would hate for anything to happen to your pet centipede."
Grif suppressed a scowl. "Right. Vindh out."
Morgan killed the channel as Grif punched the intercom. "As soon as we’re secure in Centurion, go to Bay One. You know the drill. Cyrus, please leave all your weapons behind." He cut off the intercom before Cyrus had a chance to protest.
Four towships emerged from Centurion and quickly attached tow-lines to the hull of the Fool’s Errand. It took longer than expected--forty-five minutes in all--before the Fool’s Errand finally came to rest. Two minutes later the entire crew was assembled, waiting to disembark.
Cargo Bay One was cavernous and dimly-lit. Loading cranes hung from the ceiling, locked and secured in harnesses, and crates of cargo lined the walls. Grif looked around the bay in annoyance. While the bay was carrying more cargo than many of the smaller independent trading ships could hold, it still looked sadly empty compared to what it could manage.
They’d left in a hurry.
The crew gathered at the far end of the bay next to the fore lift, which would lower them out of the Fool’s Errand and on to the Centurion’s flight deck.
Amys stood to the left of the lift platform. Her long black hair, usually pulled back and wrapped into a bun when they were operating in zero gravity, had been let out and pulled back into a simple ponytail. She looked a little bored, but Grif noticed she’d pulled a strand of hair from her ponytail and was absently twirling it around her finger. He considered flashing her one of his "you worry too much" grins, but ultimately decided against it. She could usually tell when he was lying.
Standing next to her was Morgan, scratching his pepper-gray beard and trying not to look worried. Beside Morgan, Doma looked ready to faint.
Grif caught Doma’s attention, mouthed the words stuttering, stammering, and shorts, then moved on.
Cyrus Mak stood to the right of the hatch, shifting his massive form impatiently and glowering at Grif as he approached. He was a giant of a man with long, dirty-blonde hair pulled back into a rough ponytail. His thick beard and twice-broken nose gave him a mean, thuggish appearance. Cutter and Hari stood to his left. Both were considerably shorter than Cyrus, but they looked no less disreputable: Cutter was a mass of stringy, knotty muscles, and had the distinction of being the ugliest man of any race Grif had ever met. Hari was Invagi, and like the rest of his race was a heavily-built humanoid with spiny ridges around his face and joints. At the moment the spines on his face were partially extended--he was nervous and trying to keep his emotions in check.
Grif looked at everyone and frowned. "Where’s the bug?"
The faint hiss of the interior hatch opening announced the arrival of Ktk, Vod and Gurgan. Ktk didn’t transmit anxiety the way other races did, but the constant staccato chitter coming out of its mandibles indicated it was unhappy, and its three prehensile tails twitched in agitation. Vod, a slim human woman with dark skin and practically no hair on her body, and Gurgan, a hulking man almost as large as Cyrus with olive skin and a single topknot of dark hair at the top of his head, followed their chief looking vaguely discontent.
"Well," Grif said, "here we all are."
Cyrus scowled and muttered something under his breath.
Grif ignored him. "let’s get this over with."
They all filed onto the lift platform, crowding to the edges to give Ktk enough room to scuttle in between them. Grif slid in next to the control pad and pressed a button. The lift shuddered a moment, then died.
Grif frowned and hit they key again. Again, the lift shuddered momentarily and died.
Grif punched another key next to the lift--the key that controlled the external intercom--and cleared his throat nervously.
"We’re all here," he said. "We’re coming down now, with our hands over our heads. Please don’t shoot us."
He pushed the first button again. This time, the lift didn’t even shudder.
"Isn’t it supposed to, you know…" Grif gestured vaguely.
"Unlock it first," Amys said.
Grif looked down at the control pad and noticed that the exterior locks were still in place. "Right." He keyed a short code into the control pad and with a click the locks smoothly retracted, allowing the lift to descend. "Thank you, Amys. Now… hands up, everyone. Let’s try not to make them angry."
He raised his hands over his head; his crew, with varying degrees of reluctance, followed suit. Moments later they stepped onto Centurion’s flight deck and into the line of fire.