"It shouldn't matter," Grif muttered to himself. "Space is space, right?"
He stared out from the Pilot's Nest into the region of space where they'd dropped and tried to remind himself that some of the stars he was looking at weren't even in Throne space.
"Morgan, you're a scientist."
"Was," Morgan corrected. "Was a scientist."
"Right. In your formerly scientific opinion, how would you define space?"
"How would I define space?" Morgan had, apparently, been expecting the conversation to go in a completely different direction.
"It's the big empty thing with all the stars in it."
Grif grinned. "Thanks for clearing that up, old man."
Morgan grumbled to himself.
"How long have you been doing this?" Amys asked teasingly. "Fifteen years at least. And you still need someone to explain space to you?"
"Just thinking, is all," Grif said. "I mean… space is pretty much the same wherever you go. A little more radiation here, a stronger gravity well there… and the stars you see aren't actually where you are. I mean, I know this. But… still. It feels different."
No one replied.
It was, Grif knew, a completely irrational feeling… but from the second they dropped from Tach, everything around him felt… oppressive. It was a trick of the mind, but a distinctly successful one.
"We have bogeys," Morgan said. "Closing fast."
Grif's focus snapped on the tactical display in front of him as Morgan transferred the information to his station. Three ships on an intercept course. "Are we being hailed?"
"Negative," Bennet said. "Not yet."
"I have a visual on the ships," Morgan said. "One Radiant Throne frigate, two short-range warships. All well armed, no big surprise there."
Grif punched the intercom. "We have contact," he said. "All personnel to stations. Ktk, time to hide. Velis, are your people ready?"
A moment later Velis' voice came through the intercom speakers, brisk and businesslike. "All personnel in position. Our gear is broken down and stowed. They'll find it, but they won't know what it is, and they won't care."
Grif hoped she was right. "Good. All hands: when I give the order we switch to our cover identities and we refer to each other by those names at all times until I give the all clear. The Radiant Throne is very good at what they do. Never assume they're not paying attention to you. Out."
He turned off the intercom and slid his chair out of the Pilot's Nest, into the Bridge proper.
"Amys, take the wheel."
He unbuckled himself from the chair and pushed off toward the Navigation station as a blond-haired, apple-cheeked Amys floated toward him. Grif forced himself not to grin at her appearance. She detested that face, and while that amused Grif to no end there was little to gain in provoking her.
Grif strapped himself into the Navigation station and waited, staring at the distorted reflection of his own altered face off the console in front of him. He heard the click of the pilot's chair as Amys slid down into the Pilot's Nest. Then everyone waited.
A moment later Ktk reported that it was secure in the hidden compartment in Bay Three and would wait for the all clear before communicating again.
"I'm getting the signature beacon of the frigate," Morgan reported. "It's called the Redemption."
"Of course it is," Grif muttered.
"They're hailing us," Bennet reported.
"Patch them through to my station. Tight shot, my face only."
A screen on the navigation console blinked on. Grif saw a young Throne officer staring at him from the other side. Grif suppressed a grin as the officer's eyes widened in surprise when he saw the similarity between Grif's new face and one Commodore Hu Mavis.
"This is Jobin Tax, Captain of the Alo Minh," he said, affecting a bored but polite and slightly aristocratic tone. "We are a merchant vessel from the Nyst Barony, and have all proper papers. Our ship and crew are at your disposal."
He smiled slightly.
The officer cleared his throat and collected himself. "Captain--Tax, is it? Lieutenant Gannet, Captain of the RTS Redemption. We don't have a record of your ship."
Grif nodded slightly. "This is our first trip into Throne space. We hope to make many more."
Lieutenant Gannet shook off the last vestiges of shock and nodded crisply. "Your ship identifier lists you as a merchant vessel."
"Yes," Grif replied. "My communications officer is transmitting our declaration of cargo to you now. We are at your disposal, captain."
Grif made a point of identifying the man by his title instead of his rank--it was exactly the kind of thing, he thought, that would improve the officer's disposition toward him. It worked: Lieutenant Gannet relaxed slightly and smiled politely.
"Thank you, Captain Tax," Gannet said. "Always nice to see cooperative outsiders. So long as you follow our protocols and don't resist our attempts to ensure you're following them, you should have no difficulties in the Empire of the Radiant Throne. There is, however, one bit of unpleasantness, which I apologize for in advance. I'm afraid I must insist upon searching your vessel."
Grif nodded without hesitation. "Of course. As I said, we are at your disposal."
Lieutenant Gannet nodded again. "Very good, Captain. We don't insist that your crew assemble, but make it clear to them they are not to interfere with our search. During the search, if you are so inclined, I'd like to invite you on board."
"Thank you captain," Grif replied. "I'd be honored to accept."
The Lieutenant smiled warmly. "Very good. Docking should commence in five minutes. We will use the apex lock. Gannet out."
The terminal screen blinked out.
"That seemed to go well," Bennet said.
"Sure," Grif said. "They'll have the captain separated from his ship if anything goes wrong. It's perfect. And by 'perfect,' I mean 'this is the perfect time for something to go horribly wrong.'"
"They're moving in," Morgan said. "Hope this works."
"Me too." Grif stood up from the Navigation station and stretched. "Good news is, if we get through this with flying colors we'll be searched less in the future, and those searches will be less thorough. Until we get to Varkav, anyway." He clicked on the intercom. "This is your Captain speaking. I want gravity back on before they dock, which is soon, so do it now. Put on the new faces and don't interfere with their search. If they ask you questions, answer the way you rehearsed it. And don't panic."
"You know," Bennet said, amused in spite of himself, "my people have had to lie before."
Grif laughed. "I suppose they have. But I'm being paranoid." He punched the intercom again. "Welcoming party at the apex lock."
The Fool's Errand had four primary airlocks: the apex lock, located at the top of the main section of the ship, the nadir lock, located in Bay One at the bottom of the ship, and port and starboard locks. Grif and Morgan arrived on the top deck to find Cyrus standing next to the apex lock, nervously stroking the contours of his new face.
"Everyone mind your manners," Grif said. "Let's greet our guests."
The apex lock consisted of two rooms. The outer room contained lockers with vacuum suits and monitors that reported on the status of the inner room, which was a sealed, cylindrical enclosure. The walls of the inner room consisted of reinforced plasteel windows, allowing the three to look into the currently empty space. A light over the reinforced sliding doors that led into the inner room radiated a solid green.
Cyrus walked over to one of the monitors and looked at the controls. "Nothing yet," he said.
Grif nodded. "Turn on the intercom."
Cyrus flipped a switch on the monitoring station.
"What's the status on the Redemption?" Grif asked.
A moment later Amys replied. "They've matched our position and are extending a boarding tube from their nadir lock. I estimate another minute."
Grif, Cyrus and Morgan waited in silence until they felt a faint vibration shake the ship.
"The tube has connected," Cyrus reported. "Creating a seal now."
"Raise the platform," Grif ordered.
"Right," Cyrus said. "Depressurizing."
Ship-to-ship boarding was a complicated affair, even when both parties were willing participants. It was theoretically possible for the Redemption to fill their boarding tube with atmosphere, and for the Fool's Errand to open the entrance to the apex lock and let them in. In practice, this could be dangerous--if the Fool's Errand's setting for one standard atmosphere was even slightly mismatched with the Redemption's, the change in pressure could break the seal of the boarding tube. It was safer, and considered standard practice, for ship-to-ship transfer of personnel to be handled in vacuum, with the people involved properly suited. Most airlock software wouldn't allow the outer hatch to open unless the inner chamber had been decompressed first.
The solid green light over the doors began to flash yellow. The monitors showed the air pressure in the inner room drop, and when the room was a vacuum the flashing yellow light became a flashing red light.
"Please tell the Redemption that we are ready to receive them."
Moments passed, then the intercom crackled to life. "Redemption reports that they are ready to board," Bennet reported.
Grif nodded to Cyrus. "Open the top," he said.
Cyrus keyed in another command and the flashing red light became a solid red light. Looking through the windows, Grif saw the ceiling of the inner chamber slowly slide open.
Surrounding the opening was the boarding tube--a thick, translucent tube rising up and away from the chamber. Encircling the opening were armed soldiers, all in armored vacuum suits bearing the insignia of the Radiant Throne.
"Raise the platform," Grif said.
The floor of the inner chamber began to rise. Grif watched it rise past the window, obscuring more and more of the room until the only thing he could see was the hydraulic lift that supported it.
"They're lowering it," Cyrus said.
Grif saw the lift descend, and as the platform lowered, he could see the Radiant Throne marines--rifles ready--waiting patiently. One of the suits bore the insignia of a sergeant.
When the platform returned to its normal position, Cyrus closed and resealed the ceiling, and then began the sequence that slowly restored atmosphere to the room. The solid red light began to blink, then blinked yellow, then turned to a solid green.
"Here we go," Grif muttered. He nodded, and the double doors separating the outer and inner chamber opened with a hiss.
Grif, Morgan and Cyrus stepped back as the soldiers entered the outer chamber. There were fifteen in all, Grif noticed, and while ten stood watch, five began to remove their gear. The sergeant reached up and removed his helmet. He was an older man with short, gray hair. He looked at Grif and nodded politely.
"Captain Tax," he said in a gravelly voice, "If you'll suit up I'll take you up to the Lieutenant."
Grif nodded and turned to Cyrus. "See that the crew cooperates with these men completely and without hesitation," he said.
Cyrus nodded once. Grif walked over to a locker and began to climb into a vacuum suit. Unlike the military grade equipment the Radiant Throne marines had, his suit wasn't armored, nor did it have servo-assisted motors in its joints. It was a little large and a bit too heavy for his comfort, but after running a brief check he found it was working properly.
Grif motioned to the sergeant and stepped into the inner chamber. The sergeant nodded, replaced his helmet, and followed. Cyrus closed the hatch with a hiss, and the solid green light over the door blinked yellow, then red, then turned solid red. The ceiling opened up, and Grif stared up into the translucent lining of the tube. Far above him he saw the Redemption's airlock.
The floor rose silently up to lock into the exterior of the ship. The sergeant motioned to Grif and walked over to the side of the boarding tube. Lining the tube was a row of man-sized platforms locked into guides that ran up toward the other ship. The sergeant stepped onto one, grabbed a handhold, and motioned for Grif to do the same. Grif stepped onto the platform next to the sergeant's and grabbed a handhold that rose up from the platform's base.
As if on cue, the two platforms rose slowly up the tube. Grif saw the nadir lock of the Redemption grow larger above him.
The nadir lock of the Redemption was similar to the apex lock of the Fool's Errand, but considerably larger. Grif and the sergeant stepped off of their lifts and onto the nadir lock platform, which raised them into the room. The room filled with oxygen, and eventually the red light filling the room changed to a normal color. The sergeant immediately took off his helmet as a door on one side of the room opened. The sergeant moved toward the door and Grif followed, fumbling with the locks on his vacuum suit.
They emerged into the outer chamber, filled with rows and rows of armored vacuum suits. Two armed guards in Radiant Throne marine uniforms stood at attention.
Grif removed his vacuum suit and stood patiently as one of the marines searched him for weapons. Satisfied, the marine nodded to the other.
"Please follow us," the marine said. "Lieutenant Gannet is waiting for you in his office."
The other said, "Sergeant, the Lieutenant wants you back down on the Alo Minh, overseeing the search."
The sergeant nodded and put the helmet back on his suit.
Grif followed the two guards down a long corridor and into a lift. They didn't speak, and he waited in silence as the lift opened into another long hall. At the end of the hall, they stopped, and one buzzed a control to the right of a closed door.
The door slid open, revealing a small, orderly office. At the end of the office was a small, metal desk, and on the other side of the desk was Lieutenant Gannet.
"Come in," the Lieutenant said.
Grif stepped into the room. The marines started to follow, but Gannet motioned them to stay where they were. "We'll be fine," he said briskly. He waited until the door had closed, and then motioned to a chair. "Please have a seat."
Grif sat, trying not to look concerned. Lieutenant Gannet reached underneath his desk and pulled out a bottle and two glasses.
"Would you care for a drink, Captain? I have some Varkavian whiskey, I understand many in the Trade Baronies are quite fond of it."
"Please," Grif replied, trying his best to sound well bred.
The Lieutenant filled both glasses and offered him one. Grif took the glass and sipped politely.
"I was looking at your crew list," Gannet said, indicating a small stack of papers to his left. "You have an unusually large crew for a trading ship."
"Yes," Grif said, and he allowed a hint of regret to creep into his voice. "There are certain… events in the Baronies that made it necessary to supplement our standard crew with armed guards. I don't know if you've heard, but Baron Tylaris is dead."
Lieutenant Gannet nodded. "I believe I heard something about it. But you are from the Nyst Barony, are you not? I don't see how it affects you..."
"It is complicated to people who don't live there," Grif said. "When someone that powerful dies, everything in Trade Baron space shifts. We expect an increase in piracy in that region, eventually, but even now there are… instabilities. The guards are mostly to protect our goods while we are in port, sadly. They are professionals and will give you no trouble. I've already told them to allow you to inspect all their equipment, including weaponry, if you so order."
The Lieutenant nodded thoughtfully. "I'm afraid I may have to do that, Captain. But I do find your explanation satisfactory."
It was, in fact, a wholly reasonable explanation. Just before they had left Tylaris Station they'd heard about a cargo ship that was waylaid by thugs while in port. Station Authority intervened to drive them off, but two of the ship's crew died in the fight.
"We are under orders to search every Maximilian-class vessel that enters the system," the Lieutenant said apologetically.
"Oh?" Grif asked, unsurprised. "Problems with pirates?"
Lieutenant Gannet looked at him sharply for a moment. "Why do you ask?"
Grif shrugged. "The Maximilian class is popular among pirates and smugglers for the same reason that it is popular with traders. It is easy to modify. The Alo Minh, for example, was recently refitted with a tachyon drive that takes up significantly less space than the one she came with."
Grif sighed, smiling tiredly. "Unfortunately, the trade-off for captaining a Maximilian is that you come under closer scrutiny from governments. When you said you were under orders to search Maximilian-class vessels, I assumed it was pirates."
"Smugglers, actually," the Lieutenant said, obviously satisfied with Grif's answer. "One, to be specific."
"Ah," Grif said. "I ask, only because I've not been here before... does this mean we are likely to be searched often? I will certainly comply, but I'm concerned with the delay..."
"It is the duty of the military, in service to our Emperor, to ensure the safety of our Empire," the Lieutenant said. "I'm afraid that it may be necessary, yes. But I'll report that you cooperated with us fully, and that may speed you along."
"Thank you, Captain," Grif said.
At that moment something on the Lieutenant's desk beeped. Gannet touched something next to the monitor sitting to his right and said "report."
"The search is complete, sir. Nothing to report."
"Understood. Assemble your men and return to Redemption." The Lieutenant stood. "Well. That is good news for you, Captain. We'll uncouple our ship and allow you to continue to Varkav. Welcome to the Glory of the Throne. I hope your trip is profitable."
Grif stood and bowed slightly. "Thank you, Captain," he said courteously.
Grif was escorted back to the nadir lock, put on his vacuum suit, and made the long trip back to the Fool's Errand. When he emerged into the outer chamber of the apex lock, he found Bennet and Morgan waiting for him. Grif pulled off his helmet and grinned.
"That went well," Bennet said.
"Yeah," Grif said. "Kinda makes you want to get overconfident."
"So their captain isn't suspicious?" Morgan asked anxiously.
"No," Grif said. "Nice man. I hope they don't demote him when they inevitably learn the truth."
"Or kill him," Bennet added.
"Yeah... that would be a shame. He's a very courteous Lieutenant. Guess they haven't ground his spirit to dust just yet."