Grif Vindh, Captain of the Fool's Errand, peered over the navigation console display and frowned. "Damn it all," he said, "it did it again. What the hell is wrong with this thing? The screens don't even try to drop."
"Not a problem on my end." The frustration in Cyrus' voice was evident even over the intercom. "The gun is sending the drop code."
This was Grif's third refit. He remembered hating the first two—the first when he'd been the pilot on someone else's ship, the second shortly after he'd purchased the Fool's Errand—but he'd largely forgotten why. Now he remembered: buying and installing new technology was easy. Trying to get new technology to integrate properly was nearly impossible.
"That's all very nice," Grif said into the intercom, "but there is a problem down there, Cyrus, because your guns also keep sending the fire code at exactly the same time."
A storm of vulgarity erupted from the intercom as Cyrus investigated the problem.
Grif and Morgan were on the bridge running a simulation with Cyrus, who was in the main gunnery bay. They were trying to get their new screens and sensors to communicate properly with their new guns. This was important: firing an energy weapon into your own screens was not only tactically unsound, it was professionally embarrassing. At that moment professional embarrassment was winning by a wide margin.
"Oh, hell," Cyrus said, "this is a ruddy mess. It's just going down the checklist without waiting for a response from sensors. Morgan, are the sensors even working?"
"Don't be idiotic," Morgan snapped. They'd been at this for hours, and this was Morgan's first refit—his patience was badly frayed. "Shipboard sensors are working just fine. They are detecting that the screens are up and sending out the lock-flag just like they're supposed to. They're even receiving the drop code your idiotic guns keep sending... but they can't pass that on in time when your guns send a fire code at exactly the same time!"
"Well it's not exactly the same time," Cyrus said. "It's a hundredth of a second after. Like I said, it's going down a checklist."
"Does the checklist have an entry for 'wait for the sensors to tell us the screens have dropped before firing the gun?'" Morgan asked.
"Of course it—er..." Cyrus' voice trailed off. A moment later, in a more subdued tone: "let's try this again."
Grif grinned in spite of himself, and hunched over the Nav station once more. "Screens dropped! Fantastic! This calls for a drink. Or maybe ten... wait. Cyrus, are your guns still firing?"
"No." Morgan and Cyrus answered simultaneously.
Grif sighed. "The screens aren't coming back up."
Once again profanity erupted from the intercom.
Morgan pounded his console in frustration. "I can't believe we paid money for this! Technology is supposed to work."
"That's exactly the kind of nonsense I'd expect to hear from a scientist," Grif said. "Cyrus, do you figure you need to look at the screen code?"
"Maybe," Cyrus said reluctantly. "Ktk would get through it faster, though."
"Ktk is trying to bring our fusion drive online," Grif replied. "And I'd rather it focused on that. I like not exploding."
"I've been going through targeting code all morning," Cyrus complained. "We need another programmer on board."
"We need a comm specialist first," Morgan insisted.
"I know, I know," Grif said.
"I'm serious. I can't patch communications to sensors and do both any more. We've got a military-grade sensor array now. It's complicated."
"I know," Grif repeated. He turned his attention to a log of the last simulation and tried to determine what prevented the screens from coming back up. "It's not like I'm putting it off or anything. There just hasn't been a lot to work with around here over the last month. All the good people have already signed on to other ships, and I don't want another Doma."
"Well who would?" Morgan asked. "Except Velis... maybe."
"If you say so," Grif muttered. "I never understood what drove her to motherhood in the first place. But I guess we can ask her in a day or two. When I told Halge we were starting systems integration he said he'd send the team down soon."
"Ah... yes." Morgan looked uneasy.
"Nervous?" Grif tried not to grin.
Morgan didn't respond: he was staring at the data scrolling across his screen, tugging at his beard thoughtfully. "Grif, we're testing screen segmentation, right?"
"... yeah..." Grif glanced over at the summary display for the screens. "12 segments per axis. And we're trying to get segment 9-6 to drop, if that's what you're going to ask next."
"Wasn't going to," Morgan said. "I think I just figured out one of our problems. Sensors were reporting all segments were up—even 9-6—when you reported they'd dropped."
"But they dropped," Grif protested. "Well, the simulation reported they'd dropped."
"I believe you," Morgan said. "The simulation display reported it to you, but the segment didn't report its changed state to the internal sensors. As far as internals were concerned, all screens were up."
There was a short silence. "Are you saying that because the screen didn't report that it was down, it didn't know to bring itself back up?"
"That makes sense," Cyrus said. "The segment would wait till it was given an all clear before coming back up. And before you ask, Grif, yes. The gun sent the all clear properly."
"It did," Morgan said. "But internal sensors didn't send it to the screens."
"Well why not?" Grif asked irritably.
"Because the segment didn't report that it was down," Morgan said. "The sensors discarded the message as irrelevant, because the as far as it was concerned, all screens were up."
"I hate this," Grif said. "I hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate this. I want to find the bastard in the Tylaris Shipyards who came up with this idiotic—"
The intercom buzzed. It was Hari.
"Grif, we have a slight problem in Bay One." Hari sounded quite upset.
Grif frowned. "What kind of problem is that?"
"Well. Your sister is here."
"That is a problem," Grif agreed, "but let her in anyway."
"With about thirty people," Hari added.
Grif sighed. "I'll be right down."
He stood, looked over at Morgan, and took a deep breath. "Here we go. Wish me luck."
"Keep your head down," Morgan said.
When Grif reached Bay one he saw Hari standing at the top of the loading ramp with his arms crossed, glaring down at Velis, who was glaring back. Behind Velis was a large group of humans, all dressed in dark, nondescript clothing.
Hari turned at Grif's approach. The ridges on his face and arms were quite extended.
"I'll handle it, Hari. Go up to the bridge and see if you can help Morgan figure out why the screens aren't working right."
Hari nodded, gave Velis a final venomous look, and stalked off to the bridge.
Grif looked out at the small army assemble in front of him. Along with Velis and her sizable contingent of people, there were also large bundles of gear and a number of sealed containers on grav carts.
"Sorry, Sis," Grif said. "We didn't expect your group to be so... elaborate."
Velis nodded coolly. "Permission to come aboard?"
Grif stepped to one side, clearing the entrance. "Permission granted."
Velis barked an order and the others began loading their cargo onto the ship. Grif watched the sealed containers curiously, wondering what was inside them. When the last container had been brought into the cargo bay and placed carefully on the floor, Velis walked over to Grif with one of her men in tow.
"This is Lieutenant Commander Bennet Jax," Velis said, indicating the man to her right. "He is my second-in-command for this mission, and will be acting as a liaison between your crew and my team. He will also be briefing you on the mission objectives, and assisting you as necessary."
Bennet Jax was a young man, not more than twenty-five. Grif thought he looked like a male version of Amys—slim, dark-haired, coiled and ready to strike. He did not, however, seem particularly dangerous at present.
Of course, that's the trick, isn't it? Grif thought. A spy isn't very effective when the first thing you think when you see him is "gee, he looks really well-trained and rather dangerous..."
"Hello, Captain," Bennet said, extending his hand. "A pleasure to meet you."
Grif shook his hand. "Welcome aboard the Fool's Errand. Let me know if you or your people need anything."
"Well," Bennet said, "we need an operations center, and a space to set up some equipment we brought along. Do you mind if we use this cargo bay?"
Grif shook his head. "Not a good idea. We're going to be searched when we get into Throne space, and I want to be carrying a full complement of cargo when we do. But there are plenty of empty rooms on the decks where your people will be berthed, and some are modular and can be made quite large. You can probably find something workable up there. How quickly can you break everything down once it's set up?"
"Why?" Bennet asked.
Grif shrugged. "Like I said, we will be searched when we get to Throne space, and Radiant Throne Marines are usually pretty thorough. They'll question anything that looks out of place, and they are particularly sensitive to anything that might look like Secret Spy Equipment."
Bennet chuckled. "Noted," he said. "Well, we can break everything down pretty quickly, and it looks very nondescript when we do. Any idea when we'll be leaving?"
Grif shook his head. "We're integrating systems now," he said. "We installed a new fusion drive and ATID a few weeks ago and today the fusion drive is going fully online. Finally. Some of our other systems are being... less cooperative."
"Can I help?" Bennet asked.
"Can you read integration code?"
"I can, actually," Bennet said.
Grif looked startled, then hopeful. "Velis, I'd like to borrow the Lieutenant. If you don't mind..."
Velis nodded. "Commander, please assist Captain Vindh in this matter. I will remain here and get everything set up." She looked at Grif questioningly. "Do you have an estimate as to when we'll actually be ready to leave?"
Grif shrugged. "Two weeks, maybe, if everything goes well. Month and a half if every single thing under the sun goes horribly wrong. And even if we can take off in two weeks, we'll probably still need to make adjustments before we actually head out. This thing you want stolen... please tell me there's not a ridiculous time frame that goes hand in hand with the sheer impossibility of the task."
"No," Velis said, "that will fit. I'll tell Halge. Once we get settled in, those of us who have shipboard experience will be made available to assist you, if you think that will be useful."
Grif blinked. "Yes," he said. "I'm pretty sure it would." He managed to keep the all-consuming paranoia and suspicion out of his voice.
"Meanwhile," Bennet said, "let's see if I can do anything useful now."
Grif turned back to look at Bennet, shrugged, and headed to the lift. "I hope you can," he said. "We've been running weapon simulations, and we finally got a screen segment to drop when the gun fires, but it won't come back up. Something's not talking to something else."
Bennet laughed. "Systems integration is hell for custom ships, and from what I hear this ship isn't even close to a standard configuration."
Grif grinned in spite of himself. "You won't find many Maximilians that are. These ships were made to be tweaked."
"I'm looking forward to seeing what you've done with her," Bennet said. "Well... not everything. I suspect there are parts of this ship neither one of us wants me to know about."
"Careful," Grif warned. "Keep talking like that and I'll be forced to like you."