Ebur Tosk arrived at the Fool's Errand carrying nothing but two bags: one for his clothing and medicine, and one for the tools of his trade. The clothing he stashed in his cabin, the medicine in the medibay, and the equipment he handed off to Velis' people. He had four receptors with him, which were promptly examined in order to find the best way to hide them.
He was greeted with hearty enthusiasm by the crew and polite aversion by their passengers. The crew knew him, and they were quite happy to associate with him (when he was on his medication), but the passengers--all Alliance government officials--didn't trust rogue telepaths. The only officially recognized telepathic organization in Alliance space was the Order of Charlemagne, and they didn't associate with criminals.
The Fool's Errand left Tyrelos Station as soon as Velis received approval from Alef. Morgan, now familiar with the sensors, had no difficulty guiding them out of the proto-ring. After that it was a matter of waiting for them to get far enough out of the system to safely make the jump to tach.
And, of course, to anticipate and plan for unwanted attention.
Grif was in the Wardroom, staring out through the now-transparent panoramic viewport when Bennet came in carrying a digital slate.
"How attached are you to your appearance?" Bennet asked Grif.
Grif frowned. "Moderately?"
"Well I've had my people come up with new physical and DNA profiles for you," Bennet said. "It won't be permanent, but while it lasts the Radiant Throne won't know who the hell you are. You won't match any of your current DNA records. I assume they have DNA samples of you somewhere."
"Safe assumption," Grif said. "Tell me more. What do you mean 'while it lasts?'"
Bennet shrugged. "The procedure isn't permanent. We don't completely replace your DNA, just the types of DNA that are normally collected by law enforcement. It takes a while for your body to notice, but as soon as it does it’ll replace the artificial chains with your real genetic code. And of course if they decided to do something invasive they'd probably bypass all our hard work and find your real DNA immediately."
"Comforting," Grif said.
"Yeah," Bennet agreed. "The good news is, that's the hard part. Altering your appearance is easy. They won't even be able to detect a surgical procedure. I've got a list of recommended changes for you and your crew, if you're interested."
"I am," Grif said.
Bennet handed Grif the slate. Staring at the screen, he saw the names of crew. Tapping each name in turn, he saw a before and "projected after" image of each.
"You're making Amys a blonde," Grif said. "You're going to pay for that. She's incredibly vain about her hair."
"That's why she's going to be a blonde," Bennet said. "With extremely short hair."
"And Cutter!" Grif exclaimed. "No scars! He's almost attractive."
"We didn't actually do too much to his appearance," Bennet said. "We just took the scars away."
"He's going to want them back, after."
"Why?" Bennet asked.
Grif shrugged. "I don’t actually know. I think he likes them. He’s a real doctor, you know; he could get rid of them himself, if he really wanted to. Cyrus will still stand out. I guess you can't make him a foot and a half shorter?"
Bennet laughed. "Not on a temporary basis," he said. "But look at yours. I think you'll appreciate it."
Grif tapped his name and examined the after picture.
"Odd," Grif said. "It looks like…"
His voice trailed off, then he burst out laughing. The "after" picture bore an uncanny resemblance to Hu Mavis.
"Not a joke," Bennet said, grinning in spite of himself. "Actually our analysts think that if you run into him--which is entirely possible, considering where we're going--this will give you an edge."
"Looking like him will give me an edge?"
"You won't actually look like him," Bennet said. "If you stood side to side, you'll look like completely different people. What we did was give you a strong family resemblance. People who know him will think you're related to him. They'll wonder if he has family outside the Imperial Throne. And according to the workup we did on him, he'll respond, on some level, the same way. He'll be predisposed to like you, assuming you play it right."
Grif thought about it. "I could do that," he said. "It'd be a hell of a good con. I think I know how to play it. But Bennet… don't show this to anyone. I want to see their faces when they see mine…"
* * *
"All right, sit still. I'm taking the bandages off now."
Grif's face started to itch immediately after the bandages were first applied. He'd coped with the torment the best way he knew--he got drunk--but the next morning he was faced with the combined torment of itching and hangover. Now he was waiting as patiently as he could manage while Bennet unwrapped layer after layer of medicated bandages, as most of his crew stood by waiting to see what he would look like.
His face felt cool air and the itch grew maddeningly stronger. The only thing he could think about was scratching. It was driving him crazy...
"There," Bennet said, removing the last bandage. "Let's take a look."
Everyone was staring at Grif in amazement. "So it took?"
"It's creepy," Cutter said.
Grif grinned. "Let me see!"
Bennet handed him a small mirror, and Grif peered into it intently. Staring back at him was a thin-faced man, with an aristocratic bearing and a high forehead.
He did look like Mavis… like a brother, or a cousin.
Grif laughed. "Well, I'm a lot uglier than I used to be," he said. "But I'll be damned if that's not a great job. Thanks Bennet. I'm pretty sure Mavis himself wouldn't recognize me."
"It's incredible," Cyrus said, voice muffled under his bandages. He'd just finished being wrapped. "Bit spooky though. How does it feel?"
Grif suddenly remembered the itching, and started to scratch. "It itches like hell." He stopped in mid-scratch and looked at Bennet worriedly. "It's OK if I scratch now, right? I mean, I won't reshape it or anything?"
Bennet shook his head. "It should be fine."
"Good," Grif said, relieved, and scratched furiously.
"Oh, hell," Cyrus muttered. "Now my face itches."
"Drink," Grif said. "Drink a lot."
"Good idea," Cyrus muttered, and wandered off.
Morgan looked at Grif apprehensively. "Do I have to do this, Grif? I'd really rather keep my face."
"Everyone who has ever come into contact with Hu Mavis has to do this," Grif said.
"Ktk isn't doing it."
"That's because Ktk is going to be locked in a box with a stark raving mad telepath."
"Oh, don't be such a baby," Grif said. "You'll get it back. "
Grif strolled out of the medibay and traveled up the lift to the bridge. Amys sat in the pilot's nest, back to him.
"Hey," Grif said, grinning. "Turn around. You gotta see this."
"Do you feel like a new man?" Amys asked sardonically. She slid the chair full back, turned around, and yelped when she saw his face.
Grif grinned. "I’m officially my own worst enemy."
"That's…" Amys struggled between alarm, distaste, and amusement. "That's just… wrong."
"Wait till you see what he has planned for you."
Amys frowned. "I've seen it. I'm going to kill him."
"Wait till this is over," Grif said. "I don't want to look like this for the rest of my life."
"Fine," she said reluctantly. "He lives. Are you going to look like this the whole time we're in Throne space?"
"'Fraid so," Grif said, grinning again. "Anyway, I'm here to relieve you. Scat."
Amys left the bridge, shaking her head.
The next day, Cyrus had his bandages taken off, and Morgan had his put on. Cyrus' new face was decidedly uglier--thicker features and more thuggish in general. Or, as Gurgan put it, "even more like him."
The day after that, Morgan took his bandages off, which provoked quite a different reaction. He'd shaved his beard for the surgery, and that plus the new face made him look much, much younger.
"He's a child!" Grif exclaimed, gaping.
"Funny," Morgan said, "I still feel too damn old..." He looked into the hand mirror and sighed.
"I miss my beard," he said finally. "My face is cold."
One by one the entire crew except Ktk was subjected to the same treatment, each bearing it with varying levels of stoicism and grace.
They made the jump to tach without incident. After the jump, they set about changing the ship identifier. When they were done, the Fool's Errand was temporarily gone: in her place was the Alo Minh, registered trading vessel of the Nyst Barony, captained by one Jobin Tax. After that, the only thing left was to secure Ebur.
Grif, Cyrus, Cutter, Hari and Ebur gathered in Bay Three and set up the stasis cylinder that would house Ebur until they reached Varkav. Ebur looked at the cylinder apprehensively.
"Come on," Grif said. "You know it has to happen. Suck it up and get inside. The sooner you do it, the sooner you'll be coming out the other end--two million standard richer, I might add."
Ebur shook his head. "I don't want to wake up in this thing," he said. "I'll go crazy."
"You won't wake up in it," Grif promised. "We turn the stasis field on before we close the top. Next thing you know, we're there and Ktk is leading you to the room. Then you get to go crazy!"
"You are not helping."
"In," Grif commanded. "Just think of the money. The money, Ebur."
"All right," Ebur sighed. "Apologies in advance, for when I'm... you know..."
"Batty?" Cyrus suggested.
"Nuts," Cutter added.
"Trying to get us all killed," Hari offered.
"Yeah," Ebur said. "Nothing personal."
"It's OK," Grif said. "We'll all laugh about it later. Get in the damn can."
Ebur lay down in the cylinder, trying to get comfortable. "I'm ready," he said.
Grif reached down and activated the stasis field. Ebur's body shimmered as the field engulfed it, freezing it in time.
Cutter performed a quick diagnostic. "He's OK, Skip," he drawled.
"Thanks, Doc," Grif said. "How's the new face? Itching stop yet?"
Cutter frowned, passing a hand over his now-smooth face. "Never itched for me," he said. "Vod hates it. She says I'm ugly now."
Cyrus guffawed and slapped Cutter on the back. "I'll trade you."
"Right," Grif said. "Let's secure this thing and stow it."
They closed the top, locking it down for good measure. Cyrus, Grif and Hari placed it in the concealed hold.
"Well," Cyrus said. "That's that."
Grif nodded. "Time to do the impossible. That SL beacon should be coming in any minute now."
As if on cue, the intercom crackled to life. "Captain Vindh, we're getting a message from the SL Beacon," Bennet's voice said. "You're needed on the bridge."
"Well," Cyrus said.
"Right..." Grif took a deep breath, walked over the wall, and activated the intercom. "Acknowledged. All hands, prepare to drop from Tach... right into the middle of Throne space."