Centurion's flight deck was immense.
As Grif stepped off the lift, onto the smooth alloyed floor, he didn't feel like he was on a ship; he felt like he was underground. The few times the Fool's Errand had berthed in an enclosed space, the facility had been underground, and Centurion's flight deck clearly borrowed from this design. The walls were a series of octagonal tiles -- in an underground facility they would have been wedged into the surrounding rock itself. The ceiling, which cleared the top of Grif's ship with at least twenty meters to spare, housed long strips of lights to provide general lighting, and track-mounted lights to provide greater illumination where necessary.
It wasn't the first time Grif had been on this ship, and the initial feeling of disorientation passed, replaced with all the sights and sounds of a starship: the metallic taste of air pumped through recycling filters, the low hum of the gravity induction field, and the faint sheen of light reflecting off the Maxwells as they kept the atmosphere on one side of the launch port and the vacuum of space on the other.
A crisply spoken command drew his attention from the ship toward the two squads of heavily armed Radiant Throne Marines, and he was again reminded how very easy it was to be distracted from impressive feats of engineering.
Commodore Mavis stood behind the marines, staring at Grif intently. Grif waited patiently, adopting an air of casual disregard as a contingent of marines broke away from the main group, surrounded Grif and his crew, and marched them toward Mavis.
"Captain Vindh." Mavis was all business -- whatever he was feeling, he didn't allow it to creep into his voice.
"Commodore," Grif answered.
"I am required, at this point, to ask for your cargo manifest."
Grif slowly lowered his right hand, revealing a small data chip. Mavis nodded to one of his officers, who retrieved the data chip, placed it in a reader, and handed it to the Commodore.
"Thank you, Captain," Mavis said. Then, turning back to the same officer: "search them for weapons."
The officer barked out an order and marines advanced on the crew, separating each and searching them thoroughly... but not excessively, Grif had to admit. They were completely professional about the job.
"Farming equipment?" Mavis looked up from the reader in surprise. "You're transporting farming equipment?"
Grif shrugged as best he could with his hands still raised above his head. "There's a market for it," he said. "And Varkav's equipment is almost as good as what you can get from Tyrelos. At half the price."
"I see." Mavis sounded unconvinced. "According to this manifest, you paid all cargo duties promptly and without complaint."
"That's because this is legitimate cargo," Grif said.
"It would seem to be..." Mavis nodded to another officer, who immediately ordered his men onto the lift and into the Fool's Errand. "And yet when one of our corsair's hailed you, you ran."
"Force of habit."
"They apparently intercepted onboard communications between you and one of your gunners concerning the best way to cripple them," Mavis continued.
"No, that's just a big misunderstanding," Grif said. "See, what happened was--"
"They're clean." The officer who supervised the search of the crew interrupted Grif in mid-sentence. "No weapons of any kind."
"Very good," Mavis said. "Captain, you and your crew may lower your arms. Including your... bug-friend's tentacles, I suppose."
Ktk replied that they were tails, not tentacles, but Mavis had no idea what it was saying. Grif didn't bother translating.
"So, Captain Vindh... your cargo is legitimate, your fees were paid in full... yet you ran at first contact from one of our military vessels. What am I to think? Is there anything else to declare? Perhaps you may have... omitted something from your manifest?" Mavis allowed himself a slight smile.
Oh, but he is enjoying this, Grif thought. Bastard.
"Yeah," Grif said. "Now that you mention it, I do have something to declare. This is an illegal search. This system isn't part of your empire, it's part of the Tylaris Barony—neutral territory, for your information, and declared so by your very own Emperor, who I think would be upset if some second-rate blanker—"
Something heavy smashed into the back of his head. He sank to his knees, gasping in pain. Marines grabbed his arms, keeping him from falling face-first on the floor.
"That is enough, Lieutenant." Mavis' voice sounded distant through the ringing in Grif's ears. "He is being impolite, but we mustn't overreact."
The marines hauled Grif to his feet and released him. He staggered slightly as he fought to regain his sense of equilibrium. As his vision cleared, he saw Mavis staring at him thoughtfully.
"It is true," Mavis admitted. "A crude word, even vulgar. But not wrong. God did not bless me with the divine telepath's gift. Then again, we are taught that the Apostle Paul, in his later years, found himself going blind... And though he prayed, God did not restore his sight. Even so, was he not one of the greatest of God's servants?"
"Couldn't tell you," Grif said. "That's something for you and the Earthies to talk about. Morgan and Cutter are Terran, they probably know more."
"I'm an athiest," Cutter drawled.
"And I'm a scientist," Morgan added. "I'll leave it to you to decide which one is worse."
"And astrology is really more my thing," Grif said.
"Indeed?" Mavis looked at Grif in mild surprise. "Disappointing. I was expecting a stalwart proclamation of atheism, like your crewman there." He gestured to Cutter with a wave of his hand. "And now I come to find that you are simply a star-worshipper."
"I didn't say that," Grif said. "I just happen to think it's a better con."
The lines around Mavis' mouth tightened. "I see. You seek to mock me, then. And not only me. Give a care, Captain Vindh: you mock a faith that sustains not only me, but nearly every man and woman that serves aboard my ship."
Grif's vision cleared just in time to see Mavis nod to someone behind him, and he felt a second sharp pain on the back of his head. He sank to his knees again, grunting in pain.
"Are you through, Captain Vindh?"
"Y... yes..." Grif's tongue felt heavy and swollen. He tasted blood in his mouth; he suspected he'd bitten it after that last blow. "No. This... this is not legal... Tylaris..."
"Yes, Tylaris," Mavis said. "Tylaris is under treaty with the Radiant Throne, its sovereignty momentarily secure. Yet you see, we are not quite in Tylaris space, Captain. If we were, your complaint might have more merit. As it stands, Baron Tylaris is fully aware of my presence here, and does not object to it. He knows the only reason we allow him his petty kingdom is because he has use to us. When that utility ends, we will retake what is ours. And it is ours, Captian Vindh. The Radiant Throne claims all. Everything falls under the shadow of our empire."
"Right..." Grif struggled to his feet, clutching the back of his head. "How does that work, exactly? Are you subletting some of that out to the Alliance of Free Worlds, or..."
Before he could finish the taunt he yelled in pain as the butt of a rifle smashed against the back of his head a third time. This time they didn't catch him; he fell forward, sprawling before Mavis' unmoving form. Before Grif could move, he felt the heel of a boot come down hard on the small of his back. Amys cried out in alarm, Cyrus bellowed with rage...
...and forty marines powered up their weapons in unison. Silence ruled the day.
Mavis knelt beside Grif's sprawled form, grabbed his hair, and forced his head up. Grif tried to focus and failed miserably.
"You should learn to hold your tongue, Captain Vindh." Mavis' voice was mild, almost soothing. "You shouldn't play the rooster when you're in no condition to crow." He let go of Grif's hair. Grif's head thumped loudly as it hit the deck.
Grif groaned and tried to get on his hands and knees. Someone grabbed his shoulder and offered a hand—Grif took it and struggled shakily to his feet.
It was Amys.
"I thought you said we shouldn't make them angry," she said softly.
"Tha' was the plan," Grif agreed, speech slurring slightly. "Apparently I'm improvising."
She grunted as she steadied his balance.
"I'm fine," Grif said.
"You're a liar," she murmured.
He leaned against Amys, waiting for his vision to clear. A minute later he heard the lift to the Fool's Errand descend. Amys tensed and swore softly.
"What?" Grif squinted. "Anything more than three meters away is a blur."
"They found something," Amys whispered. "One of the marines is waving Mavis over to the lift. They're talking about something—the marine seems pretty excited about it. And now... oh, hell. Grif, Mavis is smiling."
"Bring them here," Mavis called out.
The marines immediately separated Grif and Amys. Two marines grabbed Grif's shoulders and forced him over to the lift. They were lining up the crew as if they were participating in a revue.
Or a firing squad.
Mavis walked down the line, looking at each of Grif's crew in turn, before halting in front of Grif. Grif's vision had mostly returned at this point... there was a little halo of light around the peripheries, which gave Mavis the appearance of glowing ever so slightly.
"I'm afraid," Mavis said, "that my concerns regarding your cargo were wholly justified. I regret to inform you that you're carrying undeclared contraband on board your ship."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Grif said, trying his best to look innocent while eyeing the marines apprehensively.
Mavis laughed. "I do admire this quality, Captain. Playing your role to hilt, right until the very end! You are very good at what you do, Captain Vindh, but even the best make mistakes. It seems I've come out ahead in this venture: my men report that your ship is carrying roughly twenty tons of Varkavian whiskey. As this was not included in your cargo manifest—and as you have no permit to transport liquor out of our territories—I'm afraid it qualifies as illegal contraband." He made a tsking sound as he shook his head in mock sadness. "Apparently your rather ingeniously hidden extra cargo bays were improperly sealed."
Grif whirled around, stepping out of the line to face the rest of his crew, and glared at Ktk. "I thought I told you to seal those hatches!" he snapped.
Ktk replied wordlessly, emitting a sound that could only be described as "infinite frustration."
Grif reacted as if Ktk had spoken, however, and looked away in stunned amazement.
Commodore Mavis looked at Grif curiously. "What did your centipede tell you?"
Grif made a show of struggling briefly before giving in and speaking. "It said... it said the plates must have buckled when we dropped out of tach. We were running the ATID pretty hard. It was a rough drop." Everything he said oozed grudging defeat.
His crew took the bald-faced lie in stride. The only visible reactions were from Cyrus, who looked annoyed, and--to Grif's alarm--Doma. Doma looked confused.
Doma opened his mouth to speak. Cyrus reached over and smacked him in the back of the head without even looking sideways.
"Ow!" Doma cried out indignantly. "What the hell was that for?"
"For pissing me off," Cyrus said casually.
"No," Mavis said. "No, that won't do." He walked over to Cyrus and Doma, eyeing them carefully. "What was that for, Mr. Mak?"
Cyrus said nothing, face stoic. Doma whimpered.
Mavis, sensing weakness, zeroed in on Grif's nephew. "Young man? Is there something you wanted to add to this conversation?"
Doma began to stutter. Mavis waited patiently.
Grif swore silently. Doma was trying not to speak, but he was completely out of his depth with Mavis. Sooner or later--probably sooner, based on his current level of panic--Doma would crack and start babbling every thought that came into his head.
Which, as always, would screw everything up.
"Hey!" Grif nearly shouted the word, and as everyone turned to face him, he looked livid with rage.
"Wait just a damned minute..." Grif scowled, glaring at the entire crew suspiciously. "Did you say twenty tons?"
Mavis turned his full attention to Grif.
"Twenty. That's what you said, right? Twenty tons of..."
"Varkavian whiskey," Mavis replied impatiently. "I assume there is a point to this?"
"Hell yes there's a point to this. We started out with twenty-five!"
Grif took a step back from the line so he could face his entire crew. The marines didn't react, more amused than alarmed. The crew looked back at him uncertainly, except for Cyrus, who nodded slightly.
"All right," Grif said quietly. "We seem to be missing five tons of Varkavian whiskey. Anyone have anything they'd like to confess?"
"I counted twenty-five tons when we loaded it on to the ship. There are twenty tons now. So somebody tell me what happened to five tons of hootch!"
Again there was no response. Then slowly, sheepishly, Cyrus stepped forward.
"You!" Grif lunged forward, hands outstretched, grasping for the big man's neck. Cyrus stepped back as Grif was restrained by four marines and clubbed over the head--again--by a fifth.
Grif cried out this time, and fell to the deck, covering his head.
"It was just before we left port," Cyrus said sheepishly. "I had to pay off a... pay off a... well, I had to pay someone."
"You..." Grif struggled to his feet once more, but this time Amys knelt beside him and pinned him to the ground.
I guess she thinks if I don't stand up I'm less likely to be clubbed, Grif thought. All things considered... not a bad idea.
"You..." Grif didn't try to shout; it hurt too much to even think of shouting. "You paid her with five metric tons of high-grade liquor?"
Cyrus stepped back into line, looking nervous. Some of the marines chuckled.
"Gentlemen," Commodore Mavis interrupted, "as interesting as this little drama of treachery and betrayal is, I'm afraid it will have to continue somewhere else."
Grif put on a show of calming down, and allowed Amys to help him stand.
"It is far more important," the Commodore continued, "to determine what, exactly, will be your punishment." He began to pace back and forth. Grif watched him very carefully.
"We can't kill you," Mavis said. "Smuggling whiskey, even the rather expensive kind you are carrying, isn't punishable by death. Unfortunately."
Grif relaxed a little.
"And, alas, due to more pressing matters, the Radiant Throne can't afford to incarcerate you--especially when, as you have pointed out, there are delicate matters of diplomacy involved due to a treaty our Emperor has chosen, for the moment, to recognize.
Grif felt they were very nearly through this.
"I can, however, confiscate all cargo found on your ship, legitimate or otherwise. And I intend to do so." He nodded to a marine, who directed more soldiers into the cargo bay of the Fool's Errand.
"Hold on a second--"
Commodore Mavis cut off Grif with the wave of his hand. "I'm afraid I will not, Captain Vindh. Today you have lost. I suggest you come to grips with this unalterable truth, and carry it with you in your future endeavors. I fear it may harm your reputation somewhat... you can no longer claim to be the one smuggler in this region who has never lost cargo, I believe?"
Grif glared at him.
Mavis smiled. "I thought not." He turned to the marine standing on the lift, murmured a few words, then stepped away as the lift ascended into the Fool's Errand.
He strode purposefully towards Grif and stopped, regarding him silently. Grif stared back, biting his words. There was a lot he wanted to say, but in the end he decided he preferred not getting hit in the back of the head.
The corner of Mavis' mouth curled into a contemptuous smile. "I would be lying, Captain Vindh, if I claimed I'd never looked forward to this moment. And yet... now that it's here, I find it somewhat unsatisfying. Why do you think that is? Perhaps, in the end, I expected more from you..." he frowned slightly, then shrugged. "No matter. When my men finish their business you may return to your ship. If you attempt to restart your fusion drive before Centurion hits tach, your ship will be destroyed, no quarter will be given. Goodbye, Captain."
With that, Commodore Mavis walked off, leaving the crew of the Fool's Errand to watch as his men unloaded every piece of their cargo. They started with the legal cargo—the farm equipment was lowered using their own crane onto the deck, where it was carted off for impound. But the marines made sure to carry out the whiskey one crate at a time, and Cyrus seemed to wilt a little each time he saw another piece of precious cargo leave the ship.
When the last of the cargo had been carried out, they were permitted to return to their ship. It was a grim homecoming: Ktk, Gurgan and Vod went aft to the engine room, not saying a word, Cyrus glared at Grif then headed off with Cutter and Hari to their quarters, and Amys, Morgan, Doma and Grif headed up to the bridge.
At that point there was nothing to do but wait. The bridge crew sat at their posts in silence as Centurion's tugs towed the Fool's Errand out the ship, depositing her a reasonable distance away, then returned in haste.
Shortly after the tugs returned, the Centurion's hull rippled slightly as her ATID began to generate the ship's tachyon bubble. Her engines fired, and she moved in a slow arc across their view ports, gathering velocity as the distortion around the ship's hull continued to increase dramatically. Finally the distortion exploded outward for a fraction of a second, and the ship vanished from view.
Grif watched the distortion fade from view in silence, then pushed his chair along the rail until he emerged from the pilot's nest and into the bridge proper. Doma sat sullenly in his chair, still shaken from his encounter with Mavis. Morgan reported tersely that Centurion had successfully jumped to tach, but said nothing else. Amys stared at Grif thoughtfully.
"Well," Grif said, "that was interesting."
No one bothered to reply. Grif unstrapped himself from his seat and floated over to an empty console, activating the intercom.
"Ktk, bring the fusion drive online, then restore gravity. " He turned off the intercom before anyone had a chance to reply. He turned to Amys. "I'll be in the officer's mess, if anyone needs me."
He made it all the way off the bridge before he started laughing.