Grif ran his hands over his newly restored face carefully, examining his reflection in a mirror.
"It looks like me, right? I mean, it is my face, right?"
"Yes, Grif," Morgan said. His voice was muffled from the bandages that still covered his face, but it was obvious he was tired of the question. "It looks just like you."
Amys peered at him and frowned.
"What?" Grif looked at his face again. "What? What's wrong?"
"I don't know, but it's not right."
"Dammit!" Grif swore. "I knew it."
"Oh, that's what it is," Amys said. "No stubble."
"What?" Grif ran his hand across his chin. "Oh. You're right. Well, that's a relief." He peered at his chin worriedly. "It will grow back, right? They didn't, ah, do anything to damage it, did they?"
Amys rolled her eyes.
"Christ, Grif, you are so damned vain," Morgan grumbled.
"Hey," Grif protested. "You didn't wind up looking like Hu Mavis for more than a month... actually, I'm sort of surprised you want your old face back..."
Morgan muttered darkly.
Grif grinned. "I'm going to the bridge," he said.
Amys fell in step beside him.
"How soon till we can jump to tach?"
"Soon," Amys said. "I need to check, but I think an hour, hour and a half."
They entered the lift, and Grif keyed the sequence for the top deck. "And those ships?"
"Only three moving to intercept, it looks like. A frigate, a scout ship... and Centurion." Amys grinned. "They're not going to make it in time."
Grif laughed. "It's a shame... you know, he's never going to know for sure it was me. So unfair."
The lift door opened, and they stepped out onto the bridge. Bennet was there, manning communications, and Cyrus--his head wrapped in bandages, just like Morgan's--was sitting up at the pilot's station.
"Any news?" Grif asked.
Cyrus pushed the pilot's seat back into the bridge proper and got up. "Nope."
Grif sank into the chair and pushed it forward, sighing happily. "My face, my ship. Life is good."
Amys sat down at her station and checked their position. "We can jump to tach in 30 minutes," she said.
"Guess I'll head down to the main gun," Cyrus said. "Just in case Mavis pulls a fast one. Grif, I want you to know that I've put down quite a bit of money on us getting away with this."
"You bet we will get away with this, or we won't?"
Cyrus grinned. "You know me."
"Good man. And may I hazard a guess as to the identity of the poor fool who bet against me?"
"Not much point in guessing," Cyrus said. "Same two and a half meter tall bug that always does."
Grif shook his head and punched the intercom. "Ktk, you realize that if you actually win this latest bet with Cyrus, we're all going to die, right?"
Ktk replied that every time it had lost a bet it had also survived, and that it really considered the process less of a gamble, and more of a tax to ensure its survival.
Grif laughed. "How long till we jump, Amys?"
"It's still thirty minutes, Grif."
Grif sat back in his chair and drummed his fingers against one of the arms impatiently.
Time stretched on.
Grif distracted himself by tracking the progress of the three Radiant Throne ships that were bearing down on them. The frigate and scout would engage in forty to forty-five minutes--it looked like the scout would probably edge out the frigate in terms of speed. The Centurion was another fifteen minutes behind, though it was presently moving faster than either of the other two ships.
It was going to be close.
"Funny that they only dispatched three ships to intercept us," Grif noted.
"Not that funny," Amys said. "We've got too much of a head start. Why dispatch half the fleet sitting in-system when none of them can reach us?"
"And Centurion could handle us on her own," Cyrus added.
"True enough," Grif agreed. "It just seems strange. We break into one of the most secure facilities in Throne space, make off with some kind of weird artifact from an advanced civilization, and at the end of it all, three lousy ships are sent after us."
"Centurion is hardly a lousy ship," Cyrus said.
"Well, all right--one lousy ship, one middling ship, and one admittedly grand and imposing ship. My point is, well, we've had bigger crowds chasing us over smaller matters. It's almost, I don't know, anti-climactic."
"I'm all for anti-climactic," Bennet said. The rest of the bridge crew agreed heartily.
"I suppose," Grif sighed.
"We're outside the gravity well," Amys reported. Grif heaved a sigh of relief.
"Good," he said. "Now we can get the hell out of here."
Amys smirked. "What happened to 'anti-climactic?'"
"That was just talk. I prefer it when people don't shoot at us."
"Speaking of which," Cyrus said, looking uncomfortable, "I really am going down to the gunnery bay now."
Grif nodded. "Good idea, though we should be jumping to tach in about ten minutes. Amys, you have that course laid out?"
"Feeding it to your console now."
Grif saw coordinates flash across his screen, and he began setting everything up.
As Cyrus headed out the bridge door, Grif turned on the intercom. "This is your captain speaking. We'll be jumping to tach in ten minutes, and disabling ship's gravity in five. Please secure everything in that time, including yourself. General countdown to zero-G begins in four minutes. Vindh out."
With that, he shut off the intercom and returned to laying in the course. "Morgan, they're not going to get close enough to shoot at us, are they?"
Morgan ran a few computations on his station. "No."
"Just what I want to hear," Grif said. "Then we sit in the bubble for a few hours, and poof, Tylaris System. Drop off the cargo, get paid, and with any luck never see Velis and Company again--no offense Bennet."
"None taken," Bennet said. "But how do you know the Major isn't going to double-cross you?"
There was a brief but uncomfortable silence.
"Well," Grif said finally. "You know how to throw water on a perfectly cheerful fire. But I'm pretty sure she won't."
"Well first of all, despite the fact that under many circumstances you're a fairly decent chap, you work for her... if she was planning another coup you wouldn't be asking that question. And second, she wouldn't go back on the guarantee she gave me when you lot were in the brig. Not her style."
"If you say so," Morgan muttered.
"Don't mind him," Grif said, "he just has more reason than most to mistrust her."
"Oh?" Bennet looked at Morgan curiously. "You two have a history?"
"You could say that," Morgan said. "I almost married her."
Grif punched on the intercom. "Zero G in one minute. All hands strap in." As he spoke, he began to fasten himself to his chair. The other members of the crew did the same.
Cyrus, Cutter and Hari reported in that they were secure. A few seconds later, Ktk, Vod and Gurgan did the same. Half a minute later Velis called up to announce that her people were secure as well.
"Excellent," Grif said. "Zero G in twenty seconds." The countdown continued, then at zero there was a strange shifting sensation, and the hum of the gravity plates fell silent.
"Gravity off," Amys reported.
"Good," Grif said. "Let's get ready to jump."
The next five minutes were spent going over the course in excruciating detail, running down all ship systems and making sure that it would be safe to activate the ATID. The ship began to slow its velocity, so that when it hit tach it would achieve the best possible superluminal speeds.
At one minute to go Morgan swore loudly. "Gravity just jumped up a tick in our vicinity."
"What?" Grif looked at his instruments and swore in turn. "I'll be damned, it did. It just went up a hundredth of a G."
"And it's climbing," Morgan reported. "Slowly but surely."
"Dammit." Grif looked at Amys. "Are we ready yet?"
Amys shook her head. "It's too dangerous now."
"The hell it is," Grif said. "At a hundredth of a G there's a little bit of risk, but not nearly as much as waiting for those ships to get close enough to open up with their guns."
"A hundredth of a G is pushing it, Grif," Amys said. "I don't want to be crushed like a grape when we turn that thing on."
"Me either," Grif said. "I also don't want to be blown out of the sky by an ion canon. Or anything else for that matter. We've done a hundredth of a G before--it's not fun and we'll have to fix up our ship after, but I'd rather do that than--"
"Grif..." Morgan was staring down at his console, shaking his bandaged head. "We have a fairly significant problem."
"We're talking about that right now, Morgan..."
"No, Grif, shut up a sec. Do you know why gravity just jumped up a tick?"
"Uh..." Grif thought. "Now that you mention it..."
"It's the Centurion," Morgan said. "They've activated their gravlock."
Grif felt his face go slack and his jaw drop. "That bastard. That sneaky, sneaky bastard."
Bennet looked at the others on the bridge in confusion. "What? What just happened?"
"Mavis just screwed us," Grif said. "Morgan, what's the ETA on the first two ships?"
"How?" Bennet asked. "I don't understand. What about the gravlock?"
"About ten minutes before they can start missing us close enough for us to notice," Morgan said.
"Ten? You said fifteen earlier."
"Hello?" Bennet was obviously confused. "Sorry, I don't mean to play the ignorant farmboy here, but my experience on a starship is strictly limited to working a com station."
"We weren't slowing down then," Morgan said. "We slowed down to jump to tach. They didn't."
"Son of a bitch," Grif swore, and opened up the fusion drive. "Can we outrun them?"
"The frigate, yes," Morgan said. "The scout ship, no. The Centurion... no."
"Dammit." Grif sighed and turned to Bennet. "Mavis has activated his gravlock. Normally, this would be no big deal because Centurion is too far away for the tractor beam to be strong enough to actually pull us in. But it is apparently close enough to create an artificial gravity well."
"Which is bad," Bennet finished.
"Oh yes," Grif said. "Very bad. Because we can't outrun her."
Grif activated the intercom. "This is your captain speaking," he said. "Red alert. Battle stations."
Ktk, Cyrus and Velis immediately responded, each wanting to know what the hell was going on.
"It's just a little setback," Grif said, trying to sound unconcerned. "It seems that Commodore Mavis has hit upon the brilliant idea of using a gravlock to set up a little gravity well around us--we can't jump to tach, and we can't outrun him."
"What?" Cyrus sounded aghast.
"Is there anything we can do?" Velis asked.
"Afraid not. Just sit tight. Uh, well, belay that--any of your people with shipboard experience, send them to engineering. Ktk can set them up to deal with damage control, if necessary."
"You're going to fight the Centurion?" Velis asked in disbelief.
"Well it's not what I'd like to do," Grif said.
Ktk replied that this was a terrible time for it to win a bet.
"You haven't won yet," Grif snapped. "We're going to engage the enemy in..."
"Nine minutes," Morgan said.
"Nine minutes. Get ready. Vindh out." Grif switched off the intercom.
"What are your orders, Grif?" Amys asked.
"Captain," Bennet broke in suddenly, "Centurion is hailing us."
"Great," Grif said, "just what we need. Morgan, set up our tactical map."
Morgan keyed in a command and a battle map appeared above the fore view port.
"Uh... about the Centurion hailing us," Bennet repeated.
"Not now," Grif said. "Just ignore them. However, if you would be so kind as to patch the intercom to the gunnery bays and the engine room. We're going to need them on all the time now."
Bennet nodded and hit a few keys. "Done."
Grif nodded in return. "Cyrus, Ktk. Can you hear me?"
"Yes," Cyrus said. Ktk replied that it could.
"Good," Grif said. "Cyrus, we think the scout is coming in first. We're going to forgo formalities and try to take it out first thing. The frigate is going to be more of a problem, and I don't want to deal with both at the same time if I can avoid it."
"All right," Cyrus said. "What about Centurion?"
"We have another..." Grif looked at the data scrolling past his screen. "... fifteen minutes or so before we have to worry about her."
"That's your plan?" Amys asked, incredulous. "You're going to fight?"
"My plan was to jump out of here before they caught us," Grif said. "Mavis sort of screwed that up. Now I'm forced to improvise. We can't go anywhere as long as that gravlock is fixed on us, we can't outrun the Centurion, it's going to catch up with us eventually, and the closer it gets, the stronger the gravlock... until eventually it will be able to tear us apart, if that's what Mavis wants to do. So basically we're going to have to take it out."
"What, the Centurion?" Cyrus clearly didn't like the sound of that.
"No, not the Centurion," Grif said crossly. "What do you think I am, an idiot? No way we can take out Centurion. Hell, I doubt an Alliance battleship could take out Centurion. We do need to disable its gravlock, though."
"How are we going to do that?" Bennet asked.
"No idea," Grif said. "It all depends on what Mavis does when the Centurion gets here. But I think we might be able to give it a little nudge in the right direction... Ktk, we may need to, ah, misrepresent ourselves a bit. Smoke and mirrors, if you get my meaning."
Ktk replied that it understood perfectly, and would get the men Velis had sent down to engineering to set everything up.
Grif sighed. "Well, I suppose it was too much to ask to keep you guys in the dark as far all my dirty tricks are concerned," he said to Bennet. "But it's annoying. There are only so many ways to make a secret hold, and the Radiant Throne knows one arrangement, and the Alliance knows another."
"Look at it this way," Bennet said. "If we die, your secret will be safe."
"Hm," Grif said. "When you put it that way, I don't mind sharing. Cyrus..."
"Do we have any slugs on board?"
"Get Cutter or Hari to load 'em up."
"The scout ship is coming into range," Morgan reported.
"All right," Grif said, "let's get this over with. Amys, man the screens."
The stars lining the view port began to blink in a strobe effect as the ship's defense screens started to pulse, affording the Fool's Errand some protection all over the ship while still allowing the ship's sensors to collect some information. As they closed in on the craft Amys would begin to manipulate the screens with more precision, activating some shields on full and leaving others down, moving the shields around to protect critical systems while leaving untargeted parts open. It was risky, but allowed Morgan to collect as much information as possible.
"The scout vessel has activated her screens," Morgan reported.
"And Centurion is still hailing us," Bennet said.
"All right," Grif said. "Put them through. But audio only--no picture on our part, and no return audio--just let them know we're listening."
After a short delay, Mavis' voice came through loud and clear.
"Captain Tax," Mavis said, "this is Commodore Hu Mavis of the RTS Centurion. You will lower your shields, power down your weapons, and consent to be boarded. If you do this, if you surrender now, I give you my word that no harm will come to your crew."
Grif rolled his eyes.
"If you don't, however," Mavis continued, "I give you my word we'll disable your ship and execute the lot of you."
"Such a diplomat," Grif said. "Morgan, what are they doing?"
"Centurion is still closing. The frigate is still closing. The scout is hanging back. Waiting, I guess."
"Right... Cyrus, the scout in range?"
"For our main gun, yes," Cyrus said. "But it's got screens up on the side facing us."
"It's a scout ship," Grif said. "Its screens are nearly useless. Don't target it yet, they might pick that up. But get ready to do so when I give the order."
"Captain Tax," Mavis continued, "I must insist that you acknowledge this transmission. Failure to do so will be taken as a declaration of hostility."
"Oh, I'll give you a declaration all right..." Grif snarled. "Bennet, Amys needs to use your station for a moment."
Bennet looked surprised, but stood up and backed off. Amys got up and sat in the comm station.
"Are we doing what I think we're doing?" she asked.
"You bet," Grif said. "Transmit the Jolly Roger on all channels."