Varkav was an ugly planet.
The planet was, geologically speaking, very young. Plate tectonics had not yet separated the single land mass into multiple continents, but when it eventually did no one was certain exactly where those continents would go. There was only one ocean, and the pangea-like land mass covered so much of the planet that there was a debate in some circles as to whether it actually qualified as an ocean, or if it was a vastly oversized sea. The concentration of land gave the planet, in Grif's eyes, a misshapen and unbalanced appearance, as though it were teetering in space, liable to tip over at any point. The continent was riddled with muddy rivers and brackish lakes, giving it the appearance of being covered in blemishes and cobwebs. The final indignity, Grif decided, was that some particulate in the atmosphere filtered out bits of the spectrum of light, giving everything on it a drab, brownish tint.
"Ugly, ugly, planet," Grif said. "Best whiskey anywhere."
"Amen," Amys agreed.
Amys had just guided the Fool's Errand into a long-range orbit around the planet. It would be a long-range orbit until the Radiant Throne permitted them to descend into a standard orbit, and then--hopefully--to land on the planet itself. Each step of the way would require they be searched. Each search would be thorough.
Grif wanted a drink.
"It really isn't very pretty at all," Bennet said finally. "Is it as dreary as it looks?"
"Actually," Grif said, "most of the people who live there seem rather happy."
Bennet frowned. "Some kind of telepathic mind control? I knew Swords were powerful, but--"
"Don't be idiotic," Morgan said, glancing up from his station to glare at Bennet. "No telepath can control a planet."
"Cut him a little slack, Morgan," Grif said, grinning. "Remember back when you were part of the Alliance? You thought the Radiant Throne was a land of misery, with men and women in chains, and weekly hymn-filled torture sessions."
"So it's not like that?" Bennet asked.
"Well. Sometimes." Grif turned his attention back to the planet. "I mean, when the Throne decides it's time to make their displeasure known, then yes, there can be quite a bit of that sort of thing. But Varkav isn't exactly a rebellious planet. It has its criminal underground and illicit entertainments, but that doesn't make the population more likely to rebel. In fact I think it has the opposite effect. And, of course, the bloody fantastic whiskey. That's a source of planetary pride, and rightly so."
"So they're actually happy?" Bennet shook his head. "The reports I read tend to omit that fact."
"They don't dance in the streets," Grif said. "But it's a prosperous planet, there's not a lot of poverty, and one thing I'll grant the Throne is that they take care of their poor, so even the poor aren't all that bad off. Religious duty and all that."
Bennet shook his head again. "It's sounds like some Alliance worlds, actually. I still don't know why none of this is in our reports."
Grif laughed. "They probably thought it was politically inconvenient to admit that there are worlds in the Radiant Throne that aren't depressing shitholes. Of course, all that comfort comes at a pretty hefty price. Ruled by telepathic religious zealots, immediate execution for daring to say anything that might be construed as treasonous… church on Sundays…" Grif shuddered.
"But the whiskey is fabulous," Amys said.
"Amen," Grif agreed.
"Still, it just doesn't seem right that--" Bennet trailed off and turned his attention to his console. "We're getting a message from Varkav Orbital Command. Instructions for standard orbit."
Grif frowned. "Interesting. I thought they'd search us first. No matter, send them to Amys so we can get that part over with. Assuming everything goes well we should be able to land in a few days."
Bennet forwarded the instructions to Amys' console. "What if things don't go well?" he asked.
"Well," Grif said, "in that case I won't have to bother coming up with an exit strategy. They'll just blow us out of the sky."
At that moment Morgan looked up from the sensors and turned in his chair to face them. "Grif."
Grif looked at Morgan. "What's wrong?"
"We have a problem," Morgan said. "Centurion is in standard orbit around Varkav."
Grif sighed. "Well, we knew it was possible, that's why they gave me this face…"
"There's another battlecarrier in orbit as well. The Sentinel."
Grif's eyes widened. "Two of those things? Damn it all to hell."
"It gets better," Bennet said. "Centurion is hailing us."
The bridge fell silent.
Grif gritted his teeth. "Put him on screen at my station. This is going to be so much fun."
The terminal screen at Grif's station flickered. The image of Commodore Hu Mavis stared cooly out at him.
Grif cleared his throat. "This is Jobin Tax, Captain of…"
"Captain of the Alo Minh," Mavis cut in smoothly. "Yes, I know. I also know that you are registered as a merchant in the Nyst Barony and that your Maximilian-class starship has passed through one thorough search and one superficial follow-up. I'm afraid, Captain, that I will need to take up more of your time."
Grif slid smoothly into character and nodded in a polite and unconcerned fashion. "Of course," Grif said. "My ship, my crew and I are at your disposal."
Mavis raised an eyebrow. "Well, I see you are courteous," he said. "That is encouraging."
Time stretched out uncomfortably as Grif watched Mavis think.
"Well then," Mavis said, "I see you have entered standard orbit. That means, if I am not mistaken, that Varkav Orbital Command is arranging another search of your ship. A thorough one, I believe, that will require all hands assembled. A dreary situation, to be sure, but unavoidable I think. Pardon me a moment."
Mavis disappeared from the viewscreen, and Grif heard Mavis speaking--he couldn't quite make out the words, only that it was a question followed by a series of commands. A moment later, Mavis returned, looking pleased.
"I have learned," Mavis said, "that your ship was scheduled for a search in fifteen hours, but I believe I can expedite matters for you. I have spoken to Varkav Orbital Command and arranged to have my own men search your vessel in six. I hope that is acceptable."
Grif swore silently, but forced himself to show no expression. "Of course," he said. "Thank you for taking an interest. I would like to reach the surface as soon as possible."
"I'm happy to oblige," Mavis said. "Have your crew assemble in the cargo bay where the Nadir lock is located. All crew unarmed, of course."
"These things are inconvenient, I know," Mavis said. "And this search could take a while. Since I am interceding on your behalf, Varkav Orbital Command will want assurances, so this search will be… thorough."
Grif heard Amys shift uneasily from the pilot's nest.
"Good," Grif said. "I am eager to satisfy any concerns the Radiant Throne may have."
"I'm sure all concerns will be satisfied." Commodore Mavis smiled slightly. "These searches are tedious," he added. "That's regrettable for your crew, but I see no reason you should be expected to join in it. The search will take place roughly the same time that dinner is served for command staff on the Centurion. Would you care to join us?"
Grif bowed his head. "I would be honored," he said.
"Then it's settled. Our transport will see to it that you are delivered safely here, and you will be taken back after dinner. Everything should be settled by then. Mavis out, I look forward to your company." The image of Mavis blinked out.
"End of transmission," Bennet said.
"Damn it all to hell!" Grif shouted.
"Do you think he knows?" Morgan asked.
Grif punched the intercom. "All staff not currently locked in a closet to the Wardroom, now. You too Velis." He turned off the intercom and hit the console in frustration.
"What's wrong?" Bennet asked.
Grif forced himself to calm down. "We're humped, is what. Amys, once our orbit is stable and you're sure nothing's going to crash into us join us in the Wardroom, OK?"
"Sure thing," Amys said. He could hear the worry in her voice. "Won't be long."
"Good." Grif stared out the bridge viewport into the starry sky. He didn't see Centurion in that part of space, but he could feel Mavis breathing down his neck. "Morgan, let's go. You too, Bennet."
He stalked off into the lift without bothering to wait.
* * *
When Amys stepped in to the Wardroom she found the rest of the crew staring at Grif as he wandered around muttering to himself. Gurgan glanced at her and shrugged his massive shoulders--he had no idea why they were there. He looked worried. Actually, every person in the wardroom looked worried except for Velis, who looked impatient.
Amys cleared her throat softly. Grif didn't respond, but Velis looked up and sighed in relief.
"She's here," Velis said. "Mind telling me why the rest of us are?"
Grif didn't break his stride. "Velis, how good are your people at remodeling?"
Velis frowned. "What kind of question is that?"
Grif stopped and turned to face her. "I'm not kidding. Just imagine, hypothetically, that you had to… remove someone. And it was messy. You can clean up after yourself, yes? Make it look like it never happened?"
Velis frowned. Amys could see the reluctance on her face--she didn't like revealing any information at any time, she never had. But Velis also knew Grif, had known him longer than anyone else on the ship, and could tell Grif wasn't asking the question just for the hell of it.
"Yes," Velis admitted.
"Well we need some of that," Grif said. "Sort of. Cyrus, we need to figure out how to make the Fool's Errand disappear."
Cyrus looked at Grif blankly. "We already did that. She's not the Errand, she's the Alo Minh."
"Not on the outside!" Grif snapped. "On the inside. Five and a half hours from now, Hu Mavis is sending his men to search this ship from top to bottom. His men. And if he doesn't send men who have already been on board the Fool's Errand, then he's a goddamn fool. And while Mavis is many things, he is not a goddamn fool..."
Cyrus looked around the Wardroom, eyes wide. "Oh hell."
"He has people who have been on your ship before," Velis said.
Grif nodded. "All that trouble to create a new signature key and it didn't occur to me to disguise her on the inside."
Amys caught her breath. She hadn't thought of that either.
"They're going to have to expect a certain amount of similarity," Cyrus said. "A Maximilian is a Maximilian is a Maximilian when it comes to floor plans. The cargo bays are different, but all the things they might use to identify her--type of guns, make and model of fusion or tach drive--those have all been replaced. And we've already switched over to the dummy crew manifest and cargo manifest, so when they access the ship records they won't find anything suspicious there either."
"They don't need to," Grif said. "All they need to do is see this room."
"They searched the entire ship?" Velis looked at Grif. Grif nodded. "So they've been in each cabin. They've been in here. They've been in all the places where the crew decorated. And you're afraid someone will remember something."
"I'm afraid of it," Grif said. "Mavis is counting on it. We need to tear the Wardroom down…" his voice trailed off. Amys could see how much it pained him to say that. "We need to tear it down. They came in here and actually removed some of the WU-961 from behind the bar… if those guys are involved in the search they will definitely remember this room."
"I can do that," Cyrus said. "Some of the luxury cargo we took on at Tyrelos could be swapped out for some of this stuff. Hari and Cutter can help me with that."
"I can handle the rest of it," Velis said briskly. "We're going to have to move you all around for a while, trade out some of your belongings. Redecorate. When we're done none of your rooms will look the same."
Grif sighed. "OK," he said. He turned to the crew. "You heard her. Whatever she says goes. If she says that Cyrus and Amys are an item, then God help us all, but--"
Amys laughed. "We get it, Grif. But you're going to have to do something to your quarters, too."
"Do what?" Velis asked.
Amys shrugged. "It needs dressing up. His quarters are pretty spartan."
"Oi," Grif protested. "They're clean."
"I'll have someone add things that are more suitable for Captain Tax," Velis said.
Grif sighed. "All right then. If anyone needs me I'll be sitting in my cabin, sobbing like a small, helpless child." He left the wardroom, still muttering to himself about Mavis and cons. Amys thought she heard him say "we are all going to die" before the door closed behind him.
Velis looked around the room. "Cyrus, you're going to take care of this room?"
"All right. The rest of you go back to keeping the ship from crashing into the planet," Velis said. Amys tried not to think about how much she sounded like Grif when she said it. "We'll take care of your cabins and the other public rooms. It should only take a few hours, you'll have some time before the Throne arrives to acclimate yourself to your new environment. Bennet, round up our people. We have work to do."
* * *
A few hours later Amys left Morgan in charge of the bridge and stopped by Grif's cabin to see how he was doing. She found him sprawled out on his couch, lights dimmed, drink in hand, staring at the ceiling. Amys frowned--Grif couldn't afford to be drunk right now.
"I'm not drunk," Grif said. In the dim light he looked even more like Mavis than usual. "I've had a sip. Maybe two."
"OK," Amys said. She looked around the room. "Have they done anything to the cabin yet?"
"Not yet." Grif gestured with his drink-hand to the kitchen. "The bottle's mostly full. No reason you can't have a drink. Unless you're still on duty."
"No," Amys said. "Morgan's driving."
"God help us all," Grif muttered.
Amys grinned, walked over to the kitchen and saw the bottle on a counter-top. She found a glass and poured herself a drink. "So," she said cheerfully. "Worried about this dinner?"
Grif laughed, a hint of hysteria seeping through. "A bit. He's got to be suspicious. He has to be. He wouldn't go out of his way to personally search a ship if he didn't think it was me. He's going to try something to trip me up."
"You'll be fine," Amys said.
Grif laughed again.
Amys sighed and walked back into the living room. "Lights full," she said.
The lights in the room increased. Grif shouted incoherently in protest and flung an arm over his eyes.
"That's your fault for not removing my voice from the control list," Amys said. She pulled Grif's legs off the couch, forcing him to sit, and plopped down at the end. "Isn't it time you did that?"
"I'm not holding a torch," Grif grumbled. "I'm just lazy."
"How long have you been sitting in the dark?"
Grif dropped his arm slightly and peeked over his elbow. "Since I left the Wardroom?"
"Jesus, Grif." Amys hit him in the side, hard enough to hurt. "Get over it."
"Ow!" Grif twisted in an attempt to avoid the blow, then rubbed his side furiously--without, Amys noticed, spilling the drink in his other hand. "What the hell was that for?"
"I'm trying to be nice," Amys said. "But we don't have a lot of time."
"You can say that again," Grif muttered.
"I get it," Amys said. "Really. I get it. This is a lousy situation, easily the worst we've been in, and you're going to have to pull off the con of all cons to keep us all alive. But putting aside that this is at least partially your fault--"
"Putting it aside… we can't afford to have you crack up now. Pull yourself together and do what you do best."
"Sneak out before she wakes up?"
Amys laughed. "No, the other thing."
"I'm not going to seduce Mavis."
Amys laughed harder. "Get cleaned up. You have a dinner engagement."
Grif sighed, nodded, and put his drink down on an end table. "I hate this damn face."
"Yeah?" Amys grinned. "I hate this hair. You don't hear me crying about it."
"You don't have to cry. You can kill anyone you want just by moving your little finger."
Amys grinned wider, and wagged her little finger in Grif's direction.
"Fine, fine," Grif grumbled. "Time for Jobin Tax to charm Hu Mavis and the command staff of the RTS Centurion with his manners and superior breeding."
"That's the spirit."
Grif walked into his bathroom. A moment later he re-entered the living room to say "lying!"
"Lying," Grif repeated. "That's what you meant. When you said I needed to do what I did best. You were talking about lying."
"Yes," Amys said. "I was."
"Ah, well, there you are," Grif said. "I thought you were talking about seduction. Lying makes a lot more sense in this context. Still, it's essentially the same thing in the end…"
"I'm leaving now," Amys said.