Commodore Hu Mavis stood on the bridge of the Centurion and watched the battle with interest.
The Alo Minh's response had been savage and unexpected--not that Mavis had expected her to go quietly, but he hadn't been prepared for the potency of her guns. How the presence of an ion cannon had escaped the Radiant Throne's inspections was beyond him, but somehow the crew of the Alo Minh had managed to conceal it. It was a fairly powerful one, considering the size of that ship, and while it wasn't enough to penetrate Centurion's screens it had nearly incapacitated the scout ship after the first shot. Mavis ordered the ship to pull back, and the Alo Minh had left it alone after that--it wasn't interested in the kill, it just wanted the ship out of the fight.
It made a beeline for the frigate next--a more evenly matched fight, in Mavis' eyes. Normally, he would assume the frigate would have the advantage, since it was designed with combat in mind, but he was no longer confident of this where the Alo Minh was concerned. And it seemed that the crew was very competent and combat ready.
A very dangerous brand of pirate indeed.
Mavis stared at the skull and crossbones staring back at him from the terminal at his station. They'd long since ceased transmitting that damnable signal, but he'd kept it on his terminal to remind him who he was dealing with.
He doubted they were actually pirates. Privateers perhaps… they were almost certainly working with the Alliance, considering what they'd gone to incredible lengths to steal. Mavis frowned in anger. He'd thought Captain Tax a reasonable and civilized man. This was, in hindsight, precisely what Jobin Tax had wanted. He wondered again who Tax actually was, and again the same name floated to the top of his mind. He dismissed the name angrily, refusing to believe that Vindh was capable of such a well-orchestrated heist.
When he saw the ship in combat, though, his doubts were themselves plagued by doubts. The pilot of the Alo Minh was exceptional, making it do things that would be difficult even in smaller vessels. The frigate was attempting to engage it as a larger ship--plotting an attack course, locking in guns, firing as it passed. The Alo Minh was behaving like a gunboat, or even a fighter craft. It was "dogfighting," always altering course at the last minute or attempting to move in a way that would give it a shot somewhere the frigate's screens were not.
Mavis kept in constant communication with the frigate, trying to advise her captain during the course of the fight, but the captain was clearly having difficulty adjusting to this style of fighting.
"Captain," Mavis said, trying to remain patient. "You must try to adopt the methods the Alo Minh is using against you, or you will lose this fight."
"Acknowledged, Commodore," the captain replied, "but this ship isn't built to do that. I've never even tried that before--we might just break into a--hold on a moment."
The Alo Minh was advancing on another strafing run. The Captain barked orders to intercept, and then shouted more orders as the Alo Minh abruptly changed course so that it was beneath the frigate, firing at her belly. Damage was minimal--it was an attack from one of the smaller guns--but it made Mavis wince regardless.
"Captain, you must change your tactics to accommodate theirs," Mavis insisted.
"With all due respect, Commodore, it's not that easy," the captain replied. "We weren't trained to do that. We don't know how much stress we can put on our ship before she cracks."
Mavis was forced to admit the captain had a point. Most ship captains didn't try to fly their ships as if they were fighter pilots…Tax did.
"No," Mavis said softly, "not Tax. You know very well who this is."
He stared at the skull and crossbones sitting on his monitor, and then at the battle map.
Mavis wondered why Vindh was working for the Alliance. It wasn't his style. "When will we engage the target?"
"Two minutes," Ando Fargus replied.
Mavis nodded. "I want screens up around the gravlock. Everything else should be pulsed as usual. Ready weapons, launch fighters."
Mavis raised his voice so that it would be picked up and transmitted to the frigate. "Captain, I am about to strengthen our gravlock. It should affect the target's mobility. Take advantage of the opportunity, and shoot to disable."
"Understood," the captain replied.
"Mr. Fargus, when we are within range..."
The captain changed tactics, fighting defensively, never letting the Alo Minh--or, as was very likely, the Fool's Errand--close in, but never trying to go for the kill himself. It was a smart tactic, though Mavis half-feared it would make Vindh suspect something was amiss.
"Open a channel to our target, please," Mavis commanded.
"Aye, sir." Katryn Valdyrs keyed in a command. "The channel is open."
"This is Commodore Mavis. Captain Vindh, this is your last chance to stand down."
Ando Fargus looked up at Mavis in surprise when he said Vindh's name.
"Sir," Valdyrs said, "we're getting a reply."
"On my terminal, please."
The skull and crossbones shifted, and was replaced by the smirking face of Captain Grif Vindh.
"Hello Mavis," Vindh said brightly. "Been a while."
"Stand down, Captain, or I will destroy your ship."
"Much as I'd like to continue this discussion," Vindh said, "I'm kind of busy. Trying to escape, you know. Vindh out." With that, the terminal screen went blank.
"They've killed the transmission," Valdyrs said.
"So it seems," Mavis agreed. "Mr. Fargus, are we within range?"
"Twenty-eight seconds to go," Fargus reported.
"When we are within range, I wish that ship immobilized."
The Fool's Errand--for he was quite certain that Vindh was piloting his own ship--was getting more and more aggressive in its attacks on the frigate. Mavis suspected that Vindh was becoming more and more desperate. The Centurion was only seconds away from entering the fray, after which the fight would be most assuredly finished.
Suddenly the Fool's Errand began to list and move erratically.
"We hit her," the captain of the frigate reported. "I thought we only grazed her, but we set something off. She's definitely having difficulty maneuvering."
"Good work," Mavis replied. "Now disable her completely."
"Commodore," Fargus said, "our sensors are picking up massive explosions coming from the underside of the Alo Mi--er, the Fool's Errand."
"What?" Mavis walked over to Fargus' station and peered at his terminal.
"We're still studying it, but it looks like the hit triggered a chain reaction of some sort. Possibly damaging the fusion drive. There's some structural damage, and a lot of radiation pouring out the side."
Mavis stared at the readout on Fargus' terminal and thought quickly. "Are they trying to hail us?"
"They're not doing much of anything."
"Sir," one of the sensor techs reported, "It appears as if the power plant has been damaged. Their screens have dropped, their guns have no power, and they're not moving."
"Are you sure?" Mavis asked.
The sensor tech shook his head. "All that radiation is making specific readings difficult. We're getting heat readings but we can’t find any people--the radiation is washing it all out."
"How fortunate," Mavis said. "Prepare a boarding party."
* * *
It was getting hot on the bridge of the Fool's Errand. Grif was sweating.
"Is it working?" Morgan asked yet again. As always, Grif shrugged.
"They haven't blown us out of the sky yet," he said. "Ktk, how's it going down there?"
Ktk replied that it was quite warm.
Grif drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair impatiently. "Come on, Mavis," he muttered.
"What's taking so long?" Bennet asked.
"Mavis," Grif said. "He's torn between pride and paranoia. I'm hoping pride wins out."
"We got something," Morgan said, sitting up straight in his chair. "Looks like Centurion is sending out a boarding party."
"Finally," Grif said. "And the gravlock?"
"Still on and pulling us closer."
"Pretty close at this point," Morgan said.
Grif nodded. "OK, let's get ready to move this thing. Cyrus, is Hari ready down there?"
Hari's voice came back over the intercom. "Ready to go. Just point me in the right direction."
"OK... Ktk, I'm going to count down from five... if you could release a nice bright wave of radiation out of that engine on 'one,' I'd appreciate it. Morgan, do a quick--very, very quick--scan at the same time, just to give us our position and basic targeting info."
Morgan nodded. Ktk said it was ready.
"Right... five... four... three... two... one."
"Scanning," Morgan said. "Information acquired, sending to you now..."
"I've got it," Grif said. "OK, let's get ready to move. Ktk, get ready to turn off the fireworks. Amys, after we take out the gravlock we're going to have to skip out. Ktk, do we have enough power for that?"
Ktk replied that they did, but it was worried about interference from Centurion.
"It's not that big," Grif said. "Anyway, we're not going to have much choice in the matter. Amys, you see where I've got to move this bucket to take out the gravlock. I need two courses from that point."
Amys nodded, frowning. "What about the screens? I can't do both."
"Just set 'em to pulse," Grif said. "When I give the order."
He looked around at his bridge crew. "Are we ready for plan B?"
Amys and Morgan groaned. Over the intercom, Cyrus swore loudly, and Ktk made a noise that was definitely a sign of distress.
"Don't call it plan B," Amys said. "Just call it... improvisation."
"The boarding vessel is getting closer," Morgan warned.
"Right," Grif said. "Then let's get started, on my mark."
He sat up in his chair and put his hands on the controls.
"They're pulling us in," Morgan said.
"Good," Grif said. "Now!"
The Fool's Errand shuddered as the fusion drives roared to life. The tactical screens blinked as Morgan began feeding Grif real-time information. The view ports flickered in time with the screens, and Grif felt a blast of cool air as the life support systems returned to normal.
The Fool's Errand was, fortunately, pointing towards Centurion. Mavis had used the gravlock to turn the ship around so that the radiation spewing out the engine was pointing away from the larger ship. Grif grinned as his ship streaked toward the larger vessel.
"The boarding craft is breaking off its intercept course," Morgan reported.
"Good," Grif said. "Now if I can just move us close enough so that--"
The fire of laser cannons impacted against the screens and the world went dark for a moment as they went to full strength in order to absorb the blast.
"Not good," Grif muttered. "We really need to see..."
The screens lowered momentarily as the ship moved out of the field of fire of those particular guns, and then the world darkened as others hit them.
"How are the screens holding up?" Grif asked.
Amys broke from her calculations and glanced up at another part of her console. "They're about half done in," she said.
And then the screens returned to normal.
"Excellent," Grif said. "We've flown under their field of fire. Mostly."
They were very close to the ship's hull, and Grif turned their own ship so they were flying along the hull as if it were a large, metallic planet.
"They're opening the fighter bays," Morgan reported.
"Bound to happen sooner or later. Amys, how about those courses?"
"Almost done," Amys said. "Ask me after you've taken out the gravlock."
"Hari," Grif shouted. "You ready?"
Hari's voice sounded relatively calm over the intercom. "Ready, Skip."
"OK, well, we're nearly there..."
The Fool's Errand shook, and streaks of light arced past the starboard view port.
"We were hit," Morgan said. "Screens took most of it though."
"No, one of her fighters. There's a whole mess of 'em back there."
"Morgan," Grif said, clenching his teeth, "if you could be a bit more precise than 'mess,' I'd dearly appreciate it."
"Uh... twenty-five. But only a few are close enough to target properly... for the moment."
"That is a mercy..." Grif changed course sharply. "Hari, we're almost there, hold on, I'll get you in position."
Grif turned the ship over, so that the Centurion was now hanging over them. Centurion's screens pulsed on , and she looked like a large black blot in the night sky.
"Screens are up," Grif heard Hari mutter. "This will be interesting."
"Can you make the shot? The Fool's Errand is too big to fly under them..."
"Don't worry," Hari said. "I don't have to be too accurate with these..."
The Fool's Errand shuddered again as more laser fire impacted into the hull. Ktk chittered angrily.
"Amys, turn the aft screens on full," Grif said. Amys sighed, annoyed at the distraction, and hit a control absently. The shuddering stopped.
"We're almost there, Hari," Grif said.
"Don't worry about me, Skip, I've got it," Hari said. "Just keep us from blowing up!"
Grif grinned. "Well, all right. But only because you asked nicely..."
"We're almost there," Morgan said. "Twenty seconds. And it looks like they're trying to head us off at the pass..."
The tactical screen showed a contingent of fighters bearing down on them, trying to cut them off.
"We're not changing course, dammit." Grif snarled as a burst of canon fire narrowly missed them.
"Ten seconds," Morgan said. "Eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one..."
"Slugs away!" Hari shouted.
The fighters were upon them.
Grif pushed down on the controls, and the Fool's Errand dove away from the Centurion's hull. The fighters swarmed after them, all jockeying for a position to fire.
"Amys I need that course now!"
"Sending!" Amys shouted. "Sent!"
Grif looked at the coordinates and changed course. "Ready--drop screens!"
The screens dropped, and view ports were filled by a swarm of angry fighters. Grif yelped in surprise and jammed his thumb down on the switch that activated the ATID.
The view ports went gray. The gray disappeared. They were hanging in empty space.
Grif sighed in relief.
"Pretty good skip," Amys said. "We're almost to the second set of coordinates."
"I'm slowing her down," Grif said. "Morgan, where's Centurion?"
"About ten minutes out," Morgan said. "And… no gravity wells."
Grif heard a whoop from the intercom.
"Good shot, Hari!" Grif said.
"You bet your ass it was a good shot," Hari said. "It was a great shot. It was a fantastic shot!"
"That's my crew," Grif said. "Humble to the end. OK, folks, time to go." Grif eased the ship into the proper course and heading, and activated the ATID. Once again, the view ports went gray.
A ragged cheer erupted from the bridge, and Grif sat back, sighing in relief.
"We made it," Grif announced. "We're on course for the Tylaris system."
"Then there's only one thing left to say," Cyrus said gleefully. "Pay me, bug!"