Amys, Cyrus, Ktk, and Grif stood around the Captain’s Table, watching a holographic display of their tactical situation as they all frowned deeply. Well, the humans were frowning—Ktk ground the plates set behind its mandibles, a low, throbbing, grinding sound that communicated displeasure. It was the bug equivalent of a frown.
The holographic display was split into three views: the first showed the Fool’s Errand in orbit around Uru, the second showed the seven ships sitting motionless outside the system’s gravity well, and the third showed a large-scale tactical map with the Fool’s Errand, the seven ships outside the system, and the two that were closing in.
“So,” Grif said, “here’s our basic problem: they’re sending two ships in after us. We’re faster than they are, so we can avoid them if we exit the system at a full burn. I’m going to assume that’s what we want to do, based on the likelihood of them probably not wanting to talk.”
Nobody spoke up to agree with him. It wasn’t necessary.
“Unfortunately,” Grif continued, “it doesn’t really matter that we’re faster than those ships. As soon as we get close to leaving the system the reserve ships can skip in to any corner of the system they like and close. Amys did a few quick calculations and they can get close enough to fight before we can get far enough out of the system to jump to tach.”
“So we’d have to fight them,” Cyrus said. He didn’t sound terribly excited by the prospect.
“For a while,” Grif said. “Not long enough to win, just long enough to get out of the system. Five, six minutes if we fly in a straight line, but that’s not going to be practical. They’ll be trying to get at our engines, and we’ll be countering to prevent it. It’ll be at least fifteen minutes, if I take chances. Can we survive fifteen minutes? Cyrus? Ktk?”
Cyrus laughed bitterly, then shrugged his shoulders. “She’s a good ship, Grif. She can take a few hits and keep going. But those damn ion cannons… I don’t think the screens will soak that up for long, and once they drop they’ll be peeling back bits of hull like nothing.”
Ktk said a direct hit to the engines from an ion cannon would probably make jumping to tach impossible.
“OK,” Grif said. “I can’t say I’m surprised. Can we disable them or slow them down enough to even the odds a bit?”
Cyrus shrugged again. “If we hit them with our cannon, yeah, we can hurt them. The other turrets will likely be useless. Missiles might be effective. Hari’s pretty good at piloting those. They have a better shot at getting through their screens, but not their armor. I’d feel better if it were only one ship we were going up against, but we have two Barony and four Alliance ships ready to deploy wherever we go. Sorry.”
“No need to apologize,” Grif said. “It’s my fault. When I was refitting her, I never asked ‘what if I suddenly find myself in a situation where I might have to take on as many as eight warships at the same time?’ Poor planning on my part.”
Ktk worried about the comm tunnel.
“Yeah.” Grif shook his head. “Last thing I ever expected to see. I mean, that’s just unfair. Even if we do hit tach, they’ll call ahead. There are only a few places we can reasonably jump to, and it’s not like you can turn in tach. So that’s our situation. I’m open to suggestions.”
Nobody said anything.
Grif waited another moment, then nodded. “Yeah, that’s what I came up with, too.”
“Sorry, Grif,” Cyrus said. “We’re in a pretty bad spot.”
Amys tried to sound positive. “We’ve been in bad spots before. It wasn’t too long ago that we were being chased through Radiant Throne space by a Battlecarrier.”
Ktk noted they almost didn’t make it out of the system alive.
“Stop being negative,” Amys said.
Ktk amended that it was positive they almost didn’t make it out of the system alive.
“It’s only because Mavis cheated,” Amys said.
Commodore Hu Mavis, one of the top officers of the Empire of the Radiant Throne’s Imperial Navy, was everything Grif detested in a person. He was intelligent, adaptable, and innovative—qualities Grif found very inconvenient in people he didn’t like—and was wholly opposed to lawlessness of any kind—a quality Grif found very inconvenient in people who were intelligent, adaptable, and innovative. A year ago Grif and his crew were on the run, trying to get far enough out of a system to make the jump to tach. They should have escaped; they were too far away for Mavis’ ship to reach them in time. So Mavis cheated: he used his ship’s gravlock to create an artificial gravity field around the Fool’s Errand, making the jump to tach too dangerous to try.
It was brilliant, in a “how-come-nobody-ever-thought-of-that-before” kind of way. He was pretty sure that low-level gravity dispersion was going to become a standard part of modern naval warfare in the very near future.
Grif frowned thoughtfully.
“I don’t really have any ideas either,” Amys said finally. “I’m terrible at being an optimist. I’d rather be drunk instead.”
“Not me,” Grif said, staring hard at the tactical display on the Captain’s Table.
“You wouldn’t?” Amys looked at him skeptically.
Grif’s attention snapped back to Amys, then his gaze drifted over to the bar wistfully. “Afraid not. We need to be sober for this.”
“Sober for what?” Amys asked.
Grif took a deep breath. “I have a plan.”
Everyone looked at him. He grinned.
“It’s incredibly dangerous,” he said. “It’s one of those crazy things that people talk about in bars but don’t actually try because being alive is good.”
“Oh, Christ,” Cyrus muttered. “One of those.”
Grif kept his voice as bright and as cheerful as he could manage. “Afraid so!”
Amys raised an eyebrow. Grif’s grin widened.
“Ah, hell. It’s the grin I don’t like.”
“Look,” Grif said, “It’s time to face some unpleasant truths. My original plan was to stay in orbit around Uru until we were refueled, then to leave the system quietly before anyone showed up. Well, someone showed up. At this point I think we all need to recognize that Ktk won a bet.”
“Second, this means we’re operating on Plan B.”
Amys and Cyrus looked startled. Ktk’s mandibles emitted a high-pitched, keening sound. Grif did not have a good track record when it came to “Plan B.”
“And what is Plan B, Grif?” Amys kept her voice steady and her expression calm, but she brushed away a loose strand of hair that didn’t exist.
“It was a fun life,” Cyrus said. “A bit short towards the end…”
“Plan B involves complicated mathematics and extreme physical discomfort,” Grif said. “Well, flip that around. The extreme physical discomfort comes first.”
“Well that’s a relief,” Cyrus said. “There’s nothing like physical suffering followed by calculus.”
* * *
Three and a half standard gravities were no fun, even when strapped into a chair. Grif gritted his teeth and forced himself to reach for the intercom. “All stations report.”
“We’re ready,” Cyrus said. He doesn’t sound particularly uncomfortable at all, the bastard. “Hari’s not feeling well, though.”
“My spines hurt,” Hari said. “It feels like they’re going to break off.”
“Really?” Grif asked.
“They won’t,” Hari said. “It just feels that way.”
“What about you, Cutter?”
“Turret chairs are mighty comfortable, Skip,” the Texan drawled.
Grif grinned. It felt more like a lopsided grimace. “Engine room!”
Ktk replied that both Gurgan and Vod were in their quarters until further notice. It didn’t feel they would be able to perform their duties safely, since engineering required mobility, and the gravity was too high for them to move freely.
“What about you?” Grif asked.
Ktk acknowledged the gravity was uncomfortable, but it could manage. Its basic structure gave it enough stability that mobility wasn’t an issue. Also, it had recruited Sargrumshak to assist in engineering. The Ggrlsha was used to high-g environments.
“Good plan. General quarters report.”
A moment later Mac answered, voice thick with fatigue. “You know how to make a tour memorable, Captain.”
Grif laughed. “You’ll thank me later. I don’t know why, exactly.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
Grif turned off the intercom. “How long?”
“Half an hour,” Amys said. She sounded tired.
“OK,” Grif said. “Morgan, how are we looking?”
“The ships are still just sitting there,” Morgan said. “I don’t know what that means.”
“Are they still pinging us?”
“Every ten minutes,” Morgan said. The stress from the gravity actually made him sound his age.
“At least they’re paying attention,” Grif said. “And if they’re paying attention, that means they’ve noticed a big spike in gravity. They’re calculating how far it extends, and they’ve discovered that it extends beyond their effective weapons range, because gravity waves are annoying like that.”
“About that,” Morgan said. “We’re also attracting debris. Nothing dangerous at this point, but did you know that this is a colossally bad idea?”
“Yes,” Grif said. “It is Plan B. That’s where we are now.”
Faldyth moaned unhappily.
Grif felt a flash of concern. “You all right, Faldyth?” Vage were far more comfortable in lower gravity environments.
“I… will… be… fine…” Faldyth said with difficulty. “But… it… is… painful…”
“Just hang in there,” Grif said. “Thirty minutes and we’re done.”
“How did you get this idea?” Amys asked. “This is crazy.”
They were flying with their internal gravity jacked up and their nullifier plates turned off. With the nullifier plates off, the gravity plates created a well that extended far beyond the hull of the ship. It weakened the further it got from the ship, but it was still strong enough to keep the ships at arm’s length. They would have to drop much farther out from the Fool’s Errand than their weapons could reach, which meant Grif and his crew could still outrun them.
“Mavis,” Grif said. “You and Ktk, talking about Mavis.”
“Ah,” Amys said.
“If he can cheat, I can cheat, too.”
“I like his way better,” Amys said.
“So do I,” Grif said. “Got a gravlock on you?”
Amys didn’t reply.
Something beeped urgently at Morgan’s station. “We just lost a gravity plate on Deck 5.”
Grif sighed. “This is going to be an expensive escape.”
“Optimist,” Amys muttered. Grif laughed.
They continued on in silence. Occasionally Grif heard a gravity plate moaning as it buckled from strain. Morgan reported the loss of three more plates.
“Amys, how are those calculations?”
“Finished,” Amys said.
“I hate this plan,” Amys said.
“Well I’m not particularly fond of it,” Grif said. “I just can’t think of anything clever and safe.”
“We don’t have to be clever.” Amys didn’t bother to hide her annoyance. “We just have to run.”
“No, we have to be clever. They have a comm tunnel strapped to a back of a goddamn space ship, Amys, and they have people who know how navigation works. They can guess where we’re going, and they can call ahead—you said it yourself.”
“Fine,” Amys snapped. “We have to be clever. I just wish we weren’t trying so hard.”
They began the preparations for the jump to tach.
They couldn’t actually jump while they were pumping out all that gravity. When an induction field collapsed, the results were both unreliable and reliable: unreliable in that you couldn’t always predict how the collapsing field would interact with the physical universe, and reliable in the fact that the interactions, whatever they were, were always fatal. They were planning to do everything but jump, switch off the gravity, and jump as soon as they could afterwards.
“As soon as they could” was not, unfortunately, the same as “immediately.” Ktk warned over the intercom that after the gravity cut off there would still be a delay before they could activate the ATID.
“I expect that will be a fun time,” Grif said.
Ktk pointed out it might be enough time for some of the ships to skip to their position and engage.
“Could be,” Grif agreed, “but it’s risky for them. They’ve got a few hours delay, remember? They’re not going to see us turn off our gravity the moment we do it. If they skip too soon they’ll turn into cosmic origami when they drop.”
After a brief pause, Ktk admitted it had forgotten about the delay. Grif thought it actually sounded embarrassed.
Grif shook from the effort of operating the ship in the increased gravity. As close as they were to the end of it all, he still felt as if he were on the verge of collapse.
“Ten… nine… eight… seven… six… five… four… three… two… one… go.”
The subtle hum of the gravity plates silenced, and the unending pressure stopped. Grif felt his arms and legs tingle. His chest ached. He heard Morgan swear thankfully, and Faldyth muttered something in her own language that sounded distinctly relieved. Amys sighed contentedly.
“OK, gravity is off, course is laid in. Ktk, tell me when.”
Once again they waited in tense silence. Finally Ktk reported they were ready.
“All hands get ready…” Grif keyed in the sequence to jump. The ATID came online. The normal universe disappeared as the ship surrounded itself in a field of infinitely dull gray. “And we are in tach.”
“Glad that’s over,” Morgan said.
“Not over yet.” Grif stretched, then slid his seat all the way out into the bridge proper. “We still have to do the clever part. Faldyth, get Ktk to the bridge. We need it to steer.”
“Aren’t you the one who said you couldn’t turn in tach?” Amys asked.
“Yes,” Grif said. “I also said this was one of those things people talk about in bars, but don’t actually try.”
“’Because being alive is good,’” Amys said.
“That too. I was being very literal when I used that description. I actually heard people talking about it in a bar. It was something Ktk and Morgan were arguing about.”
Morgan turned in his chair and stared at Grif in horror. “You’re going to do the induction field thing?”
“Yeah,” Grif said.
“Grif,” Morgan said, panic rising, “we were drunk. We were very, very drunk.”
Only astrophysicists really understood how tachyon induction fields worked. The people who used them regularly were generally uninterested in the specifics of how the field created a discontinuity between the artificial universe “inside” and the regular universe “outside.” It was enough to know that it did work, and that the discontinuity was a reliable, unchanging number that applied to the entire ship equally.
This reliability was good. It was the difference between getting where you wanted to go, and being reduced to a line of briefly incandescent dust many hundreds of thousands of kilometers long.
It was, however, theoretically possible to sacrifice reliability and manipulate the ATID to bend and warp the field, making it asymmetrical. The field’s asymmetry would make the whole discontinuity asymmetrical, which would in turn distort the ship’s relationship to normal space, which would cause it to change course. If you were very good at math, you could predict what kind of asymmetry was needed to create a specific course correction, and deliberately point the ship somewhere else. If you were not very good a math, the induction field would collapse while you were in tach.
That’s why Grif was letting Ktk drive—it was better at math than anyone else on the ship.
Ktk floated on to the bridge, chittering nervously. It looked somewhat ridiculous in zero gravity, but it was quite adept at navigation, extending it’s centipede-like body straight and using its tails to push itself along and stabilize itself when necessary, and its hundreds of tiny legs could stick to surfaces when it absolutely needed to.
Grif unstrapped himself from his chair and pushed away to the ceiling, sighing with relief at being able to float. Ktk passed under him and descended into the Pilot’s Nest without bothering with the chair at all. Ktk wore a restraint harness around its body, and hooked that into the sides of the nest to give it a measure of protection above and beyond the ship inertials.
“So Ktk,” Grif said, “my basic understanding of this is that if you do it right we won’t notice anything, and if you do it wrong death will be pretty quick, and we won’t notice anything.”
Ktk replied that was generally accurate. The level of precision required to make a tachyon field disperse both asymmetrically and slowly was far beyond the skill of anyone it knew, beyond itself, though it thought Grif’s nephew had the best chance of doing it accidentally.
“Great,” Grif said. “Then I’m getting drunk.”
“And I’m getting drunk with you,” Amys said.
Ktk recommended that everyone get drunk, since it was possible this was the last chance anyone would get before they were torn apart and scattered through space. Morgan and Faldyth got up from their stations and floated over to the lift to join Grif and Amys.
“Bug makes a hell of an argument,” Morgan said.
“It is not a pleasant argument,” Faldyth agreed, “but a sale is a sale.”