In the end it took three weeks to bring the Fool's Errand completely back on line. Bennet proved to be an enormous help in that regard--even Ktk was impressed with his speed and skill. Meanwhile, Velis' people set up their command center in the general mess. All but one of the sealed containers were unsealed: according to Cutter, they were medical equipment.
When Grif asked Velis about them, she confirmed Cutter's guess. "You remember Halge said we could alter your appearance, right down to your DNA?"
"Nice," Grif said. "What about the one still in the box?"
"Not important," Velis said. Something in the way she said it convinced Grif to drop the matter.
Eventually Grif declared the integration a success. "We're going to have to take her up sooner or later to shake everything out," he said. "I don't think we're going to get much more out of these simulations."
Ktk agreed, stating the Fool's Errand was completely space worthy as far as it was concerned.
"Excellent," Grif said. "Bennet, please tell my sister that we plan to take off in a few hours."
"That reminds me..." Bennet shifted uneasily. "Ah... Major Enge has asked me to inform you that she will be on the bridge when we do."
"Of course she did," Grif said. "She was beginning to worry me, what with her respecting my position as captain, and talking to me in complete sentences and everything. I'm actually relieved."
"...if it's all right," Bennet added, "I'd like to be on the bridge as well. I've been working on your ship for weeks and I'd really like to see what she can do."
Grif considered it. "How are you with ship communications?"
"I'm all right," Bennet said. "Your comm station is pretty standard, I don't think I'd have any problems."
"Well, we're short a comm specialist for the trip. If you don't mind doing the work I don't mind you being up top."
Two hours later Grif, Amys and Morgan were at their stations, going through a pre-flight check. When Bennet and Velis arrived, Bennet sat at the comm station. Velis sat in an extra seat near the door, at the far end of the bridge.
"Hello Sis," Grif said, sliding his seat out of the nest and into the bridge proper, swiveling it around to face her. "Welcome to the bridge. Lots of familiar faces here today. You know Amys, of course. And Morgan."
Velis looked at Morgan and nearly smiled. Morgan sat rigid in his chair. He'd done his best to avoid Velis entirely; he'd been very successful up to this point.
"Hello Morgan," Velis said. "You look well."
"Velis," Morgan said. That was all he could manage; he abruptly turned in his seat and devoted his attention to his station.
"This is going to be the best trip ever," Grif muttered. Then, in a louder voice, he added "Bennet, we filed a flight plan with spaceport authority about an hour and a half ago. Let me know when they approve it." With that he descended back down into the Pilot's Nest.
Liftoff was a resounding success. The Fool's Errand left atmosphere without incident, all instrumentation responded perfectly, system-to-system sensors had no issues communicating with any of the shipboard systems. Only minor tweaks were needed once the ship reached orbit, and a few hours later Ktk announced it felt the Fool's Errand could forgo further flight tests, and actually make the jump to tach.
"All right," Grif said. "Amys, set a course for Tyrelos."
"Tyrelos?" Velis frowned and shook her head. "That's not in throne space."
"No it isn't," Grif said. "It's a Trade Barony. A small one, just outside Radiant Throne territories. We're making a side-stop: we need some supplies for our cover story, and we need information. Tyrelos Station is the perfect place for both."
"Course ready," Amys said. "Transferring."
Grif saw the coordinates flash across his screen, and punched in the first leg of their course. "Right. We'll be out of the system in a few hours, then we'll be in tach for a few days."
Half an hour before the jump to tach, Grif asked Velis if her people were trained to handle zero gravity.
"Most of them," Velis said. "Why?"
"Oh, well. We turn off gravity before we jump to tach and don't turn it back on until we drop."
The peculiar quality of the silence that followed prompted Grif to turn around in his seat and gaze up into the bridge proper. Velis stood at the end of the rail leading down to the Pilot's Nest, staring at Grif with no expression on her face whatsoever.
"Er..." Grif shifted uncomfortably. "Is there a problem?"
Velis continued to stare at Grif, not blinking.
"OK," Grif said, "I'm starting to get the feeling that you don't approve."
Velis didn't reply.
"Look," Grif said, "our ship's gravity is older tech, and we don't have any redundant systems for the nullifier plates. We don't want one of those plates failing in tach. Gravity spikes are bad."
"I know," Velis said. "What I want to know is why you didn't bother telling us this until now?"
"Well..." Grif started, but Velis cut him off.
"Never mind," she said. "We need some time to secure our equipment more... securely. I'll need Bennet."
Without another word she turned and left the bridge.
"Uh... Captain..." Bennet sounded a little sheepish. "If you don' t need me for anything at the moment, I think I'd better--"
"Go," Grif said. "And God have mercy on your soul."
Bennet hurried off the bridge.
"That poor bastard," Grif said.
"He seems all right for a spook," Morgan observed.
Grif punched the intercom. "This is the Captain. Jump to tach has been delayed until further notice." Switching the intercom off, he pushed his chair back, entering the bridge proper.
"Sure," he said. "Bennet's great. Seriously, I like him a lot. And I expect I'll keep liking him right up to the point where he turns on us."
"Oh, come on," Morgan said. "I mean, sure, he works for Velis, but..."
"And Velis," Grif said, laughing. "What do you all think about her, eh? I mean, she's almost polite. You think her boss ordered her to play nice? I bet it's killing her. I'd almost enjoy it if I weren't waiting for the other shoe to drop."
"That other shoe is causing me a great deal of concern," Amys said. "They outnumber us, know you. There are thirty of them."
"Five of them are scientists," Morgan noted.
"Oh, well, that's all right then," Amys shot back sarcastically. "Take away the five scientists, and we have only twenty-five of Velis' hand-picked agents. That'd be an easy fight. Grif, if Velis really wanted to, she could take the ship."
"Yeah." Grif frowned. "Not a happy thought. I don't think she wants to, though. She wants this... thing. Whatever it is. Hopefully we get some clarification on that. Anyway, you know how she works. She won't turn on us unless she thinks we're going to do something that keeps her from getting the thing. As long as she thinks we're cooperating we should be OK."
"Sure," Amys said, "but Velis' definition of 'cooperative' is quite a bit narrower than mine..."
"There is that," Grif admitted. "So... what do you guys know about these agents? I've been focused on integrating the damn computers and haven't had much chance to be social."
"It's just as well," Amys said. "They're not very friendly. They keep to Deck One, for the most part. Cyrus and Ktk convinced two of them to play a round of cards. Ktk says they aren't particularly good at cheating."
Grif chuckled. "Spies who can't cheat. I'm sure they'll go far."
"They don't do anything," Amys continued. "They stay in the rooms Velis picked out... they don't even really try to snoop. Except for Bennet, and he's not technically snooping since he asks first."
"Eh. Not exactly," Grif said.
Amys raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"
"Ktk found a few things the other day," Grif said. "When Bennet was helping us integrate our systems, he... showed some initiative."
"Initiative?" Morgan said the word as if he were using the proper name for a deadly, quick-acting contact poison.
"He bugged the ship," Grif said. "Ktk was impressed. Bennet didn't even try to hide it--actually, according to Ktk the way it's set up he made it very easy to disable... but not without alerting someone first."
"Who?" Morgan asked.
Grif shrugged. "Bennet, I guess. Or whoever he's assigned to monitor what we're doing."
"He didn't try to hide it?" Amys was having trouble digesting the concept.
"Yeah. According to Ktk he did everything but provide us a printed manual on what it is, how it works, and how to disable it. If you look at it one way, it's actually very polite."
"I guess so," Amys said. "What if you look at it the other way?"
"Oh, well," Grif said. "When you look at it the other way, I'd like to throw him out the--"
"I'd much rather you looked at it the first way," Bennet said as he entered the bridge.
They all turned to stare at him. He smiled slightly.
"There are parts of my job that I don't really like," he said. "They're necessary, but they're not... how I'd prefer to do things. Necessity is a bitch, and sometimes you have to be Necessity's son."
"Clever," Amys said, body tense. Not tense, Grif corrected--coiled.
"Sorry," Bennet said. "I guess now is a bad time for humor. Before you try to shove me out the airlock, let me lay our cards out on the table."
Amys looked at Grif. Grif waved for Bennet to continue.
"Thank you." Bennet leaned against the bulkhead wall. "I don't know what your history is with the Major--I mean, I know you're family, and that you don't like each other, but I don't know the specifics. I do know that you got strong-armed into this, and if you're like her at all, you hate being strongarmed into anything. You got a raw deal, and everyone knows it. Hell, to be honest, a lot of us even feel bad about it. Sort of."
Grif smiled sardonically.
"No one expects you to like your situation," Bennet continued. "We'd be a little worried if you did, to be honest. But that also makes it hard to trust you. I mean, we did blackmail you into doing the impossible a second time, and even with your track record, the odds aren't promising."
Amys glanced at Grif. Grif waited for Bennet to continue.
"So we're monitoring you," Bennet said. "I made it easy to disable, because once this is over--assuming we all survive--you can take it out and go on your merry way. But if you disable it before we're done... we're going to assume you intend to do something we will find very inconvenient, and react accordingly. Don't think it hasn't occurred to us that if you wanted you could seal off Deck One, pump out all the oxygen, then dump our dead bodies and equipment out into space.
"We'd probably keep the equipment," Grif said.
Bennet shrugged. "I expect you would. Anyway, I hope we understand each other."
"Good." Bennet nodded, then sat at the comm station. "The Major wants you to know we've secured our equipment, and you can turn off gravity at any time. Also, once we're on our way I'd like to brief you on your objective."
"Wonderful," Grif muttered. He slid his chair back down into the Pilot's Nest, and turned on the intercom. "This is the Captain... after a fashion. We're killing ship gravity in one minute. This is your first and last warning..."
* * *
The jump to tach occurred without incident, and after a quick systems check Grif and Bennet made their way down to the conference room. Velis was waiting for them, already seated.
Grif floated up to the ceiling and pushed off to land next to an empty chair. He strapped himself in and wondered which of them would start the show.
"I understand you and Commander Bennet had a little chat," Velis said.
"Oh yes," Grif said. "Quite informative."
"Good. Then you know where things stand."
"Let's talk about what I don't know," Grif suggested. "For example, I don't know what you want me to steal. Knowing what you want me to steal actually improves my chances of stealing it. So let's all assume I'm suitably intimidated and move on to the matter at hand."
Velis narrowed her eyes. "Fine," she said. She nodded sharply to Bennet, who settled in the chair to her right.
Bennet reached into a vest pocket and retrieved a data card. He plugged it into the terminal; all terminals in the room activated, each screen showing a picture of the planet Varkav from orbit.
"Look familiar?" Bennet asked.
"The main planetside port is Ovorid Station," Bennet continued, "which I assume you are also familiar with. There are civilian and military sections."
"Yes," Grif said. "There's also a space station in orbit for the really big ships. The ones that aren't atmosphere capable."
Bennet nodded. "Varkav is a major economic center for the Radiant Throne. The population lives in reasonable comfort... as long as you ignore that they live in a dictatorship ruled by power-mad telepaths."
"Yes..." Grif said. "Ignoring that. Can we skip the history lesson and get to the useful information? Or, if you like, I could take over and discuss the elaborate underworld of sin-infested 'pleasure dens' that are technically illegal but mostly ignored by the church. Because, if I remember correctly, the planet's Bishop is a loyal customer."
"Fine," Bennet said, "I'll get to the point..."
The viewscreens blinked, and the image of Varkav was replaced with an image of a complex of buildings that disappeared into the side of a mountain. Grif looked at the picture closely.
"Ur Voys," Bennet prompted.
"Is it?" Grif asked. "Huh."
Bennet looked at Velis in confusion. Velis looked suspicious. Grif started laughing.
"What's so funny?" Velis snapped.
"I don't know what kind of reaction you were fishing for," Grif said, "but I'd never seen an overhead shot of it until now. I don't even really know where on the planet it is..."
"How did you manage to get in and out?" Bennet asked.
"Don't change the subject," Grif snapped.
"I'm not--fine." Bennet took a moment to collect his thoughts. "Ur Voys is more than a medical facility. It's called a medical facility because it's most famous product, WU-461, is manufactured here. But it's also has rather extensive research facilities, very sophisticated facilities. In one of those facilities--we're not sure which, but we suspect in one of the lower levels--is this."
The aerial image of Ur Voys dissolved into what looked like an artist's sketch of a strange coin.
Grif looked at the coin suspiciously. "That?"
"That," Bennet confirmed.
"It looks like a traintube token," Grif said.
"It's a little bigger than that." Bennet keyed something into the terminal and measurements appeared above the sketch. "It's very thin, three centimeters thick, but it's forty centimeters in diameter. Notice the markings on it..."
"Hey, yeah," Grif said, leaning closer to the viewscreen, peering at the patterns that splayed across the face of the image. "What language is that?"
"We don't know," Velis said.
"You don't--" Grif looked up from the screen and looked at Velis. "Uh... what is this thing?"
"We don't know," Velis repeated.
"You don't know, or you're not going to tell me?"
"We actually don't know," Velis said. "No idea. But it's important that we have it instead of the Radiant Throne. So you're going to steal it for us."
"Fine," Grif said. "How heavy is it? Forty centimeters in diameter, three centimeters thick... what's it made out of? Metal? Rock? Plastic?"
"We're not sure about its composition," Bennet said. "Most of the information we have was reported before it was transferred to this facility, and the reports were pretty brief. It's heavy, but we don't know how heavy exactly. Our contact reported it took four soldiers to lift it and place it on a grav plate. We brought something that can be used to transport it, once it's been acquired..."
"But what is it?" Grif persisted. "I mean, all right, you don't know exactly what it is, but you have to suspect something, or you wouldn't be interested. So what is it? Some kind of new technology? A new energy cell?"
"All speculation is classified," Velis said, "and not relevant to your job. Just steal it, Grif. Steal it, bring it back to us, and then we can both move on with our lives."
Grif sighed. "Fine. You don't want to tell me, you don't have to tell me. I'm going to need a few things, though."
"Of course," Bennet said. "What do you need?"
"First," Grif said, "I'm going to need every piece of intel you have about Ur Voys. The... er... method I used last time will probably not work this time around, and I'm going to have to approach this as if I'd never done this before. I need all the information I can get."
Bennet nodded. "Done. I'll get you a data card with our intelligence on Ur Voys and some of the other facilities it deals with regularly."
"Good," Grif said. "Second... Alef told us you guys could change our appearance, down to the genetic level. We're going to need that, too. I expect Captain Grif Vindh of the Fool's Errand is probably a wanted man in the Radiant Throne these days, and his crew is likely in danger as well... and I'm pretty sure they have my DNA at this point."
Bennet nodded again. "That's why we brought our medical equipment. We figured you'd need new identities. We're already working on new appearances for each of you... except for Ktk, I'm afraid. He's going to be a problem."
"It," Grif corrected. "It won't be a problem. We'll be able to keep Ktk out of the way. What about Hari?"
"Invagi aren't a problem," Bennet said.
"Good." Grif unbuckled himself from his seat and pushed gently, rising out of it and floating up to the ceiling. "I guess that's it then." He pushed off from the ceiling and propelled himself to the door. "We should be in tach for another few days. Bennet, I'll need you on the bridge in a day or so to start looking for the SL Beacon."
"All right, Captain," Bennet said. "Until then, we'll be attending to other matters."
"Fine." Grif opened the door and pulled himself out.
* * *
When he arrived back at the bridge, he found Morgan and Amys at their posts, radiating casual disinterest.
"Oh, hello Grif," Amys said innocently. "How did the meeting go?"
Grif snorted. "As if you didn't know," he said. "I guess Velis forgot to tell Bennet Cyrus and Ktk had already hacked into those terminals. Or she didn't care."
Amys grinned. "Fair enough. Not very helpful, were they?"
Grif rolled his eyes. "'Here's what it looks like. It's heavy. We brought a suitcase.'"
"I especially liked the part where they admitted they didn't know what it was, but they wanted you to steal it anyway," Amys added.
"Oh yes," Grif agreed, "that was brilliant. This is the best the finest minds in Alliance Intelligence can come up with: 'we don't know, and all our guesses are classified. Now go get it for us.'" He shook his head. "At least I know what I'm looking for now."
"I think I know what it is," Morgan said.
Grif and Amys looked at Morgan in surprise.
"You do?" Grif asked.
Morgan nodded, scratching his beard thoughtfully. "I think it's a Promethean artifact."
Amys rolled her eyes. "Terrans... I swear. You have Prometheans on the brain..."
"Look, Morgan..." Grif shook his head, grinning. "No offense to your previous profession, but you've yet to convince me that these 'Prometheans' even existed. I mean, they're sort of the fairy godmother of astrophysicists and biologists, aren't they? Someone says the Invagi are too close to humans biologically to have actually developed that way, and suddenly they were 'engineered by the Prometheans.' Someone maps out a star system with five life-bearing planets all in perfectly stable orbits, and it's because the 'Prometheans engineered the system.' If I had one standard for every planet that was deemed 'Promethean-engineered' because it had too few climates, or too many, or not enough species, or not enough fossilized remains to suggest ancient life--"
"You call it the fairy godmother," Morgan interrupted, "but we call it a theory to explain something that needs explaining."
"The religious types have a similar explanation," Grif replied, "but they're honest enough to call it God and not try to turn magic into engineering. I swear, you Earthies find the remains of one long-dead alien civilization on one of the planets in your main system, and you think you've uncovered an intergalactic conspiracy as old as time..."
Morgan sighed. "Well it predates human life on earth, for one thing. And so far no other civilization has found one. And there are only a few racial home worlds that have any evidence of serious evolutionary activity..."
"I'm too sober to have this argument again," Amys said.
Grif winked at Amys. "How drunk would you have to be to have that argument again?"
Amys laughed and didn't answer.
"All right," Morgan said amiably. "I know, it's a crackpot theory to everyone who isn't Terran, and it makes us look like a bunch of arrogant sons of bitches because we're claiming to be one of the origin worlds for most of the sentient life in the galaxy. I get that. I still think it's a Promethean artifact... and I'd be willing to place a wager on it."
That caught Grif's interest. "Oh really."
"You never bet," Amys said.
Morgan shrugged. "I'm willing to bet now. And because I'm such a rich man, I'm willing to bet quite a bit. Five hundred thousand standard."
Grif blinked. "That's a hefty bet over something you can't prove."
"Shows what you know," Morgan said cheerfully. "When a scientist says 'Promethean' we're just using a placeholder to refer to something we don't know anything about. All I have to do is prove the artifact predates the earliest space faring civilizations. A few tests will determine that. If it does, then I collect."
"You're on," Amys said.
"I'm in, too," Grif said.
The intercom crackled to life. "I want in on that bet," Cyrus said. "Though Hari and Cutter here are too chicken. Well... Cutter is Terran. I think he actually agrees with Morgan."
The intercom crackled to life again, and this time Ktk chittered that it would not take the bet, since it agreed that Morgan's theory was plausible.
"And, uh, me and Vod aren't willing to bet against Ktk," Gurgan chimed in. "The only guy who ever has any luck with that is Cyrus."
Grif laughed. "Is there anyone on the ship not listening in on this conversation? All right... well, Morgan, the stake is fixed at one and a half million standard."
"I can cover it," Morgan said, grinning.
"Right... you're one of the thrifty ones. A terrible trait for a ne'er-do-well, I might add. Oh..." Grif looked around the bridge warily. "For those of you who may be listening in... This bet is restricted to CREW ONLY. Bastards."
Morgan laughed. "I will be vindicated," he said.
"We'll see," Amys said, and returned to her station.
Morgan nodded. "That we will. It's going to feel good taking your money, Amys. And yours, skipper."
"Quiet, you. You're just guessing. The Prometheans were your life's work. You see them everywhere. As far as I'm concerned you have absolutely no proof--"
"Well... not quite." Morgan looked smug. "I do have one small bit of proof."
Once again, Amys and Grif looked at him in surprise. "Well now," Grif said. "This changes the odds a bit. Spill."
Morgan shrugged. "The markings on that thing they want you to steal? it just so happens that I've seen one of those symbols before..."
Grif and Amys gaped at Morgan.
"Where?" Grif demanded.
Morgan grinned from ear to ear. "Just outside of New Berlin," he said. "On Mars. The remains of that long-dead alien civilization you mentioned earlier."
Grif allowed this new piece of information to sink in. "If this is true," he said slowly, "then I've just lost a lot of money."
Grif grinned. "Fair enough," he said. "This could prove to be the best bet I ever lost."
"Odd that you noticed that," Amys observed. "I wonder if Velis' people have made the connection..."
The bridge door opened, and Velis Enge stood in the doorway, face white.
"Morgan, I need you to come with me," she said. "Right now."
Amys looked from Velis to Morgan, and then turned to Grif.
"I guess not," she said.