There were two competing theories about the difficulties involved in superluminal navigation.
The first, popular in universities and laboratories, stated that all things were measurable, and as far as navigation was concerned, all measurable things could be measured to any required accuracy. It was, according to this theory, simply a matter of finding the numbers and entering them in the correct order. The second, popular on the bridge of most space-faring vehicles across the known galaxy, stated that every tool was finite in scope and fallible in operation, making any of those measurements prone to error.
Grif Vindh, captain of the Fool's Errand, was an experienced pilot; as such, he favored the latter theory.
It wasn't that he felt superluminal travel was inherently unsafe--it was unsafe in theory, but in practice he felt it was safer than anyone had a right to expect from an engineering end-run around the laws of physics that enveloped a ship in a field of artificial space and time, hurtling it through the galaxy at speeds the universe would just as soon pretend didn't exist. Of course, on those statistically rare occasions when something did go wrong, the results were usually catastrophic... and catastrophic results was one of Grif's three least favorite phrases, right up there with honest government official and mandatory tax on imported goods.
But the danger of a catastrophic result folding Grif and his crew into five or six more dimensions than they really ought to have was the kind of thing that could be monitored and avoided in most instances. What bothered him a little more was that from the time they jumped to tach to the time they dropped out they were flying blind. He had to trust his on-board instrumentation to keep track of their direction and relative speed. He had to trust that the superluminal beacon sitting at their destination was functioning properly, that it was sending them accurate drop coordinates, and that it wasn't sending another ship the same drop coordinates at the same time. He trusted his ship and his crew enough that he didn't expect a fumble on his end.
What really bothered him--and bothered him every trip he took, all the way back to his first jump as a stowaway--was that when a ship was in tach it was completely engulfed in a solid, uniform, mind-numbingly dull gray field. It was an effect that someone had once, in a fit of misguided poetry, called "The Gray Wake." Grif preferred "The Gray Wall of Infinite Boredom," but the other name was the one that took.
The gray was ever-present: the "Pilot's Nest," set forward from the rest of the bridge and sunk into the deck, was encased in a bubble of transparent alloy that provided the pilot a magnificent view… when the ship wasn't surrounded by endless gray nothing. That gray nothing gave Grif the impression that he was hanging in the middle of oblivion.
He sighed, then pushed his chair back along its guide rail until it locked into the far position, taking him out of the nest and into the bridge proper. Immediately he felt the bridge crew tense: the click of his chair entering the bridge meant their captain was going stir crazy.
Grif looked at his crew, the older, white-haired man sitting to his left, and the dark-haired beauty to his right -- both trying their best to ignore him -- and sighed again.
The white-haired man sitting to his left shifted at the mention of his name, but didn't look up.
"Shouldn't we be getting a beacon signal right about now?"
"I don't know." Morgan made no effort to disguise his annoyance. "I'm a sensor tech. Ask your navigator."
Amys tensed slightly. Grif grinned and allowed himself to be momentarily distracted by the curve of her neck.
"Amys?" he asked hopefully.
Amys exhaled, letting the breath escape through her teeth in a slow hiss. "Grif," she said, "you are being a pest. More so than usual. It stopped being charming about five are-we-there-yet's ago."
"Er. Yes. Sorry," Grif said.
"Honestly, I'm on the verge of mutiny. And I think the crew will support me."
"Yeah..." Grif sighed again and leaned back in his chair, staring at the bulkhead ceiling as he scratched at the stubble on his face. "Mea culpa. Our daring escape was a little more daring than I would have liked. I'm a little on edge."
Amys laughed sharply. Morgan grunted in agreement.
"... and I'm looking forward to making that daring escape official so I can gloat and caper. With glee."
Amys relaxed, smiling slightly. "That will be fun to watch. Once we get there."
"Which brings me back to my original question. Morgan, shouldn't we be getting a--"
Morgan's station beeped.
"Hold on," Morgan said. He tapped a few keys at his station and hunched over his datascreen. "Superluminal beacon confirmed. Amys, I'm sending it to your station."
"An end to monotony!" Grif happily slid his chair forward until it had descended into the nest and was locked securely in front of the pilot station. "It'll be good to see stars again!"
"Thanks, Morgan..." Amys scanned through the list of available drop locations supplied by the beacon. "Selecting drop coordinates."
"Stars," Grif continued, "and planets. And, of course, centers of commerce. Never forget the centers of commerce."
"Got it," Amys said. "Sending drop location to communications."
"Sending coordinates," Morgan replied. And a second later: "drop location confirmed and reserved."
The SL beacon would no longer give out that location to other ships. In theory, at least: three years ago an SL Beacon in the Timur Barony began sending out the same drop location to every ship trying to enter the system, and the resulting unpleasantness took a year and a half to clean.
Grif figured it would be another ten to fifteen years before anyone would have to worry about that happening again.
"Sending drop location your way, Grif." Just after Amys said it, Grif heard his station beep, and information flashed across his screen. He began to make the adjustments needed to bring the Fool's Errand out of tach and into the spot his navigator had chosen.
As he worked he activated the ship's intercom. "Heads up, crew. We're coming out in... uh..."
"Twenty minutes," Amys said.
"Twenty minutes," Grif repeated. "Everyone get ready. Ktk, how are the engines?"
Ktk, a hyper-intelligent member of an unpronounceable race from an unpronounceable home world, was his chief engineer. In its clicking, grinding manner of speech it explained that the tachyon drive was damaged: they'd pushed it to go faster than it was designed to go, and while Ktk could keep it in tach at present they wouldn't be able to use it again unless it was repaired at a decent spaceport.
"No problem," Grif said. "We're going to Oasis. We'll have the best the Tylaris Shipyards can offer before we'll have to run her hot again. Smooth sailing, wind at our back, no worries from here on out."
His pronouncement was greeted with silence from the other end of the intercom. Eventually Ktk replied that it had heard such assurances in the past, and they'd often proven premature.
"Hey." Grif glanced up from his station and glared at the intercom. It was voice-only, but old habits died hard. "Where's the trust?"
Ktk described an occasion when a promise of smooth sailing led to a sudden firefight and desperate chase through the upper atmosphere of a gas giant.
"... yes," Grif admitted, "that was a little more interesting than I'd have liked, but we're dropping into friendly space this time."
Ktk described an occasion when entering into friendly space had resulted in their immediate arrest and arraignment for murder.
"Also an unfortunate incident," Grif agreed. "And a case of mistaken identity."
A booming laugh echoed over the intercom, as Cyrus Mak, Grif's chief gunner, joined the conversation. "That's because we were using a stolen signature key that matched his ruddy ship! That you bought from him."
"I still say that was a good deal. Anyway, prepare for drop in seventeen minutes. All hands, strap in: clean getaway is imminent."
A second later, almost reluctantly, he added: "Doma, get on the bridge."
Minutes later the bridge door opened. A gangly, sullen kid floated on deck, glaring at Amys and Morgan before gliding over to a station on the starboard side of the bridge.
Doma Enge was Grif's nephew, a fact Grif tried to not to dwell on overmuch. They bore a certain physical similarity: both were of similar height and build, both had dark hair and eyes, but in countenance they were very different. Grif looked disheveled; he sported a fine layer of stubble that never quite coaxed itself into a beard, and always appeared to need more sleep. Doma, on the other hand, obviously spent a great deal of time grooming himself, not always to his advantage.
Doma looked down at his station and frowned. "It's turned off."
Morgan ignored him. Amys frowned as she focused on her navigation panel. Grif gritted his teeth.
“The Comm station isn't on," Doma repeated.
"That's right," Grif said. "Sit down."
"But I'm supposed to be the Comm officer!" Doma's voice took on a slightly higher pitch. "I can't be the Comm officer if the Comm station is turned off."
"Just strap in," Grif said. "I re-routed communications to sensors. Morgan is taking care of it."
"You can't do that!" Doma screeched in a mixture of petulance and righteous indignation. "That's my job!" His voice carried a thin, whiny edge that burrowed into a spot right behind Grif's left eye and started kicking.
"It was your job," Morgan said, voice calm. "Until you accidentally broadcast our in-ship communications to the ship we were trying to get away from at the time."
"That was an accident," Doma protested.
"... and now I'm doing your job and my job," Morgan finished.
"It was an accident!" Doma repeated, and his voice continued to kick, kick, kick, kick, kick...
"Yes," Grif agreed, "it was an accident. You'll notice that Morgan actually used the word accidentally when describing it. I don't really think it was a situation where you said to yourself 'hey, wouldn't it be really neat if I broadcast a conversation between my captain and his gunner discussing the best way to target the engines of a Radiant Throne corsair directly to the ship in question?' No, we're all absolutely convinced your incompetence is undeniably involuntary."
"I'm just saying," Doma muttered.
"If I thought you'd done it on purpose, I'd have spaced you on the spot. Your mother be damned."
Doma's face reddened. He opened his mouth, ready to retort, when suddenly Grif launched his chair back along the rails; it emerged abruptly onto the bridge proper with a loud crack. He swiveled the chair around to face Doma and glared at him.
"Strap in, Doma. And don't touch anything."
Glowering fiercely, Doma pulled himself into the now-defunct Communications station and strapped himself in to counter the sometimes awkward effects of zero gravity.
"Ten minutes," Amys said.
"Don't see why I can't touch anything," Doma muttered. "It's turned off."
"Because," Grif said, "you might turn it back on." With that he swiveled his chair back around to face front, and slid down the guides back into the depths of the pilot's nest.
Minutes passed in blissful silence. Doma shifted in his seat, staring at the dark, lifeless controls in the station before him, then turned to look at Amys and Morgan, each intently monitoring their controls. Craning his neck, he could peer down the track into the pilot's nest and just make out the top of Grif's head.
“If I'm not supposed to touch anything, I don't know why I should even be here,” Doma complained.
Morgan chuckled. “Grif's probably got money in the 'Amys kills Doma before we reach Tylaris' pool.”
Doma glared at the back of Morgan's head, and glanced nervously at Amys. She smiled like a predator, all teeth and no warmth.
Doma cleared his throat, and took a different tack. "We're going to get caught, you know."
Morgan snorted derisively. "If we are, then we'll have you to thank for it, won't we?"
"OK, sure, blame me," Doma said. "But that doesn't change anything. They almost had us in a gravlock before we hit tach."
"Which is what we wanted," Amys said in a businesslike, even-toned voice. Grif knew that voice: that was the voice of a very dangerous woman who wanted to hurt someone very badly, and was exercising all her self-control to prevent it.
"That's right," Grif said. "I wanted them powering up the damn thing so they'd have to take the time to power it down before they could follow us. You don't go firing those things in tach. Not unless you want to get crushed like a grape. Or turned into a fine layer of carbon paste spread out on a bulkhead wall. Or wind up a drooling vegetable with one too many corners. It gave us a head start, see? And we're dropping into neutral space, so even if they caught up to us there's not a damn thing they can do about it."
"If they do," Doma said gravely, "they'll probably kill us."
"Doma." Grif resisted the urge to push his chair back out into the bridge again. "As much as I personally admire your innate optimism, my executive officer is about two seconds away from tearing you to pieces." Grif heard a slow, even release of breath and revised that estimate downward. "Remember what I told you about self-fulfilling prophecies?"
Doma glanced at Amys nervously, then turned to look at the lifeless Communications screen, pouting.
"And for God's sake," Grif repeated, "don't touch anything."
After a minute of blissful silence, Amys reported they were eight minutes out.
"Right," Grif said. "Time to play captain."
He reactivated the intercom. "Eight minutes to drop. All stations report."
Cyrus Mak was the first to report in. "Fine down here. Main cannon overheated, but we got it off line and secured. Cutter and Hari are looking into why... if we run into trouble we'll have to rely on the turrets."
"No trouble," Grif insisted. "Why does everyone always think there's going to be trouble? Don't you dare answer that question, Doma..."
Doma muttered something under his breath.
The voice that replied was human and female: Vod Hallik, one of Ktk's engineers. "Everything's OK, Skip. Ktk's running a few last minute checks. It wasn't kidding about the Tach drive, though... we're kind of hoping you'll let us upgrade instead of patching this one up. Gurgan's even been going through old Tylaris catalogs..."
"We'll see. We have to sell our cargo first. All right, all hands stand by."
"Seven minutes," Amys reported.
Doma, Morgan and Grif sat in silence as Amys counted down the time. At 30 seconds, Grif began the sequence to disperse the tachyon field.
Space travel is the sublime art of hurtling through a nearly empty void, and narrowly missing everything in it.
Grif had no idea who was responsible for coining that phrase--the Earthies he knew insisted it was someone named Voltaire--but it always seemed appropriate at this point.
"Five, four, three, two... mark."
The gray field disappeared immediately, and stars burst into view as the real universe replaced the artificially generated one. Grif felt a slight sensation of vertigo as the tachyon field disappeared, and they dropped completely into reality.
"And we're in," Grif said. "Good work Amys."
"Of course it's good work," she said. "You worry too much."
"Uh... Skip..." Morgan was typing at his console furiously. "We're being hailed by the... ah... SL Beacon. General audio."
"Right." Grif straightened in his seat. "Patch that in, would you?"
"Unidentified ship, this is Superluminal Beacon 274, please identify yourself and state your purpose."
"Return channel open," Morgan said. "Wait--hold on--there. Return channel open."
"What's the matter, Morgan?" Doma sneered. "Having trouble with communications?"
Amys spun in her chair and glared at Doma furiously. Doma realized that he'd spoken while the channel was live. He shuddered.
"... unidentified ship, I didn't quite copy that. Is everything all right?"
"Everything's fine," Grif said. "Superluminal Beacon 274, this is Cargo Vessel Fool's Errand. We request entry into your system."
"Copy, Fool's Errand. Please transmit your Signature Key for authorization."
"Morgan," Grif prompted, and Morgan keyed in the transmit code that would send out the data key that uniquely identified their ship. A few seconds later, the voice said, with a bit more warmth, "Fool's Errand, system entry is granted. Welcome back, Captain Vindh."
"Acknowledged, Beacon," Grif replied. "And thank you. Morgan, kill feed."
"Feed is dead," Morgan announced.
Grif slid his chair back out into the bridge. "Doma, I'm getting tired of--"
In a blur of motion Amys propelled herself out of her chair, shot up to the bulkhead ceiling, and shot toward Doma. Doma, still strapped to his chair, squawked in alarm as her left arm lashed out and grabbed his neck, jerking his head back as she swung herself around behind him. A hum filled the air as a knife, blade vibrating thousands of times a second, hovered only inches from his now-exposed neck.
"Doma." She spoke softly, but the anger was plain in her voice. "When the captain opens a comm channel, only the captain speaks. Unless he's given you leave to do so. Nod if you understand."
"If you ever do that again, I will cut out your tongue with this knife. Nod if you understand."
Amys lowered the knife, patted him once on the cheek, then floated back to her station. Grif slid his chair back down into the pilot's nest without comment.
The next few minutes were devoted to restoring ship's gravity. After a general announcement from the captain, the crew set about securing anything that might shift when the gravity plates were activated. This largely consisted of taking sealed containers and placing them in larger containers, then strapping themselves back in to their chairs once more to make sure unexpected gravity spikes didn't cause injuries. The bridge crew was secured relatively quickly, then a report from Cyrus announced the gunnery crew was secure as well. It took a little longer for the engineering crew to report because, as Cyrus liked to say, "there's never a clean way to fix something proper." Eventually Ktk announced the engine room was secure.
"Right." Grif settled back into his chair. "Morgan, ready?"
"Grav plates online and ready. Nullifier plates online and ready."
"All right. Gravity on in five... four... three... two... mark."
The floors emitted a soft hum as the gravity plates came to life. The ceilings groaned slightly as the nullifer plates did the same, preventing the ship's gravity from extending beyond the hull. Grif felt a slight jerk as he pulled deeper into his chair, and heard a dull thud as Doma, who was apparently unable to pay attention to a countdown, wound up banging his head against the deactivated communications console.
Morgan and Amys laughed. Grif grinned, but didn't join in. That had happened to him his first time out.
Of course this wasn't Doma's first time out.
The grin disappeared. He would never have suffered this level of incompetence from another crew member. The only reason Doma was still alive at this point was because he was family. Grif, as a rule, hated family... but they were still family.
"Amys, set a course for Tylaris Prime," Grif said, removing the chair restraints and stretching. They'd been in zero gravity for more than a week, and while the calcilate supplements in their food negated any potential effects on bone density and muscle mass his muscles still ached for a while when gravity was restored.
"Nothing unusual on scanners," Morgan reported. "The only other ships in the vicinity are the warships guarding the SL Beacon."
Grif turned on the intercom. "This is your Captain speaking. Looks like we're in the clear. I need a drink."
Over the intercom Grif heard Cyrus shout "Pay me, Bug!"
Grif laughed. "Bet against me again, Ktk? You should know better than to--"
The entire ship lurched violently. Grif was thrown from his chair, his shoulder hitting the top of the pilot station as he landed face-first against the viewplate.
"What the hell?" he shouted.
"We are in a gravlock!" Morgan's voice was tight and animated, not quite shouting but definitely vigorous. "A ship just dropped from tach... I don't understand, it's right on top of us, and--holy hell, that's a Battlecarrier."
Grif choked. He pushed himself back over the pilot's station, climbing back into his seat, ignoring the throbbing in his shoulder. He noticed the intercom was still on.
"Battle stations!" He snapped the order as he strapped himself back into his chair. "I want gravity off and I want it off now. Ktk, we are in a gravlock. I need you to boost the fusion drive so we can wiggle out. Morgan I need tactical."
A flickering holographic display of the immediate region of space appeared in front of each station on the bridge, showing the Fool's Errand in the center. "Above" and "behind" their position was a ship so large that it completely filled the default view of the display.
"They found us," Doma whispered. Or he would have whispered, if the intercom hadn't been on.
"Shut up, Doma," Grif said.
"We're going to die," Doma continued.
"I said shut up, Doma. Right now." In his mind Grif repeated it's not him it can't be him this has nothing to do with him there's no reason he'd wind up being involved this has to be some kind of--
"Dammit!" The tone of Morgan's voice escalated from 'animated' to 'alarmed.' "Grif, they just broadcast their signature key. It's the Centurion."
--son of a bitch.