Like most Maximilian-class vessels still in use, the Fool’s Errand had originally been a troop transport. Maximilians were moderately successful in that role, but it wasn’t until after the line was decommissioned and the surviving ships were auctioned into the civilian world that they found their true calling as general purpose cargo ships. Maximilians were rugged, reliable ships that could function in planetary atmosphere without requiring anti-gravity or specialized shielding. They were also easy to modify: to most people familiar with the class, “Maximilian” meant “custom job.” Its reliability and versatility made it an ideal mid-line merchant and cargo ship, and was especially popular among successful independent merchants. It was also popular among smugglers and pirates, though some claimed that “a successful independent merchant” was, by definition, one or the other.
Grif loved his ship.
The bridge of the Fool’s Errand kept to the original floor design. The main area was rectangular with rounded edges, terminal stations lining the bulkhead walls. Two sat at the fore of the bridge: the sensor station to port, navigation to starboard. The port and starboard bulkheads were also lined with terminals, four to a side, though only one—communications—was active.
In the middle of the bridge, a ramp sank down into the “Pilot’s Nest.” The Pilot’s Nest sat below and forward of the bridge proper, encased in a transparent alloy that gave the pilot a magnificent view. It was the kind of view, Grif thought, that suggested very strongly the bridge was designed by a pilot. He’d heard far too many people criticize the Pilot’s Nest as impractical and dangerous, especially for something originally intended to be a military craft. Better to place the pilot’s station in the middle of the ship, was the common refrain, and simply surround the pilot with sensors and screens. Any pilot worth his salt could fly the ship just as well, that way, and they’d be far better protected.
To which Grif could only reply “that’s not the point.” Any pilot who spent any amount of time in the Pilot’s Nest of a Maximilian immediately understood the point.
Grif loved his ship.
Amys sat in the navigation station, tying her hair back into a tight braid—far more practical when they ultimately switched over to zero gravity than the loose ponytail she usually wore planetside. At the sensor console was a tall, thin older man with short-cropped gray hair and a neatly trimmed gray beard. Morgan Todd looked more like a scholar than a ruffian—in fact, at an earlier point in his life he’d been a Terran archaeologist of some reknown.
At the communications station was a wide, rubbery-looking alien that looked like a mildly surprised bipedal fish. The alien race were known as the Vage; the alien in question was named Faldyth.
“I’m still not sure how we made out on this one,” Grif said. “Though there’s no question Dak definitely came out ahead.”
Faldyth made an unhappy gurgling sound in the back of her throat. “Captain Wallace did not swindle you. If he’d lied to you about any of the particulars, I would have known.”
This was true. Faldyth had served on Wallace’s ship, the Long Haul, for years before signing on to Grif’s.
Grif released the catch on his chair and slid it backwards. It moved smoothly out of the pilots nest, traveling up a set of rails that brought it into the bridge proper, where it clicked into position. “I’m not saying he swindled me. I mean, we are friends. He wouldn’t do anything to actually try to get me killed or make me go broke. The ambush thing, that’s a minor detail. Something I’ll use against him to force him to buy us a round of drinks.”
Amys laughed sharply. “That’ll give me a chance at redemption.”
Every time Dak and Amys wound up in the same bar they invariably tried to drink each other under the table. Amys almost always won, but lately they were ending in ties. This bothered her a lot.
“If you do not believe he set you up for the ambush,” Faldyth asked, “then why are you angry at him?”
Grif laughed. “I’m not angry at him. But he convinced me to ‘do him a favor’ by taking on a run he oh so conveniently couldn’t take because his schedule was ‘too tight’ and neglected to mention his client only paid in Tylaris Barony company script.”
Faldyth’s nearly lidless eyes widened, then she released a wheezing, gurgling laugh that, toward the end, resembled an elongated, phlegm-congested cough.
Grif grinned. “See? I mean, it’s terribly rude, and he will pay. But I have to admire it. That bastard.”
“I never knew,” Faldyth said. “We were always paid our shares after we returned to Trade Baron space, and always in standard.”
“Well I don’t get it,” Morgan said. “What is Tylaris Barony company script? Is it worthless?”
“Well, no,” Grif said. “It’s not worthless, exactly. Lukh’s running a mining town that was chartered by the Tylaris Barony. They get paid in company script, and the only way you can get full value for it is if you use it in a Tylaris Barony system. Nobody else will take it these days.”
“Ah.” Morgan nodded thoughtfully. “Politics screws everything up. Again.”
There was a time when Tylaris Barony company script would have been accepted anywhere in Trade Baron space. The Tylaris Barony was the largest and richest of the Trade Baron systems, and had been, until recently, one of the most influential. Where most Trade Barons focused on a single area of commerce, the Tylaris Barony were well-placed in several—and on top of that, the Tylaris Shipyards were universally regarded as the best ship-building facilities in known space. But politics, as Morgan noted, had screwed everything up.
A year ago Baron Mogra Tylaris had died of apparent food poisoning. His son immediately announced that the Tylaris Barony was joining the Alliance of Free Worlds, a nominally benign Democratic Republic. This occurred much to the dismay of the Empire of the Radiant Throne, a complicated and significantly less benign theocracy, and immediately threw the Baronies into political chaos.
One of the side effects of this was that Tylaris Barony company script was no longer welcome anywhere but in the Tylaris Barony.
“Why didn’t you just refuse payment and keep the cargo?” Amys asked, slightly annoyed that Grif had actually agreed to take the payment.
“Who are we going to sell a processing plant to?” Grif asked. “Unloading that thing would be a bigger pain in the ass than going into Tylaris space to exchange the script for useful currency.”
“I guess,” Amys said.
“Besides,” Grif added, “Lukh threw in a few tons of raw ore. His way of saying ‘thank you for realizing my former second in command was an idiot and also for not killing my men.’”
“That was decent of him,” Amys said.
“I didn’t get that, either,” Morgan said. “I mean, I’m sure they’re doing quite well, but isn’t that what they came to mine? Lobbing it off on us doesn’t make a lot of business sense.”
“It makes an enormous amount of business sense,” Grif said. “The Tylaris Barony isn’t going to start paying attention to them until they start making serious money. Until then, they depend on independents for trade and materials.”
“And they can’t afford to have a reputation for trying to knock off the people they do business with,” Amys finished. “We’re being bribed.”
Morgan thought about it. “Four tons of Herrendium-R is a pretty good bribe.”
Grif nodded. “That’s another reason I accepted the script.” With that he released the lock on his chair, and slid down the rails, back into the Pilot’s Nest. He flipped a switch at his console, activating the shipboard intercom.
“Ktk! We’ll be leaving orbit soon. How are we on fuel?”
Ktk, the ship’s engineer, was a two and a half meter tall hyperintelligent centipede. In its clicking speech, it reported that they had enough to get back to the refueling depot in Tuleraine, but not much farther than that.
“Well, that’s not what I wanted to hear,” Grif said. “We can stop by Uru and scoop up some hydrogen if you like.”
Ktk replied that the gas giant was technically property of the Tylaris Barony, and that skimming hydrogen from it would make them liable for a refueling tax.
“You’re forgetting the part where we’re hardened criminals and there’s nothing they can do about it.”
After a short silence Ktk agreed that having a little more fuel would be nice.
“Right,” Grif said. “Amys—”
Before he could say anything else a course to Uru appeared in one of his displays.
Grif grinned. “You know me so well. Morgan, let’s keep our eyes open. It would be really inconvenient if this was the day the Barony decided to start policing the system.”
Morgan chuckled. “Yeah.”
The intercom crackled and Cyrus Mak’s voice broke in. “Money on getting away scott-free.”
A moment later Ktk replied that it would take that bet.
“Once again, the bug bets against its captain,” Grif said cheerfully. “I should start putting money on that.”
“No one would bet against you on that,” Amys said.
The crew prepared to break orbit and worked their way up to 3% lightspeed in relatively short time. The Oobachi system was small, and it wouldn’t take more than a day’s travel to Uru, and then, once refueled, another day to get far enough out of the system gravity well to make the jump to tach.
“Grif…” Morgan’s voice was less bored than usual. “Got something odd here.”
Grif frowned. “Odd how?”
“I’m picking up radiation.”
The Fool’s Errand was equipped with military-grade scanners, which meant that, along with superior range, it was able to detect wavelengths that standard sensors could not.
“Well… sure,” Grif said. “Uru’s probably going to be pretty busy in that respect.”
“Not Uru,” Morgan said. “This isn’t like that. I’ve seen it before: it looks like a damaged fusion drive.”
Grif’s frown deepened. “Are you sure?”
“Well, no. I won’t be sure until I actually see a ship with a damaged fusion drive. But I thought you should know.”
“Yeah…” Grif sighed, flipped on the intercomm, said “stand by,” then flipped it off again. “OK, start looking. And when you find it, put it on monitors.”
Minutes passed. Grif could hear Morgan working furiously at his station. Then, suddenly, Morgan exclaimed “got it!” and a monitor at Grif’s station blinked to life. There were two ships: one had a very badly damaged drive and was venting both fuel and radiation into space. The other, the aggressor, looked like it was preparing to board.
“Pirates,” Grif muttered. “That’s awkward. Faldyth, are you getting any communication from either ship?”
“Too far away,” Faldyth said. “But there is something strange. Neither one is emitting a signature key.”
A signature key was a unique identifier carried by every ship in civilized space. Any ship that wanted to do business needed one, and any ship that didn’t have one was usually considered hostile. Even in Trade Baron space, where rules were malleable and bribery made it possible to overlook a multitude of sins, the lack of a signature key was grounds for immediate attack with no quarter given. Every reputable shipyard embedded a signature key in every vessel they built as a matter of course—and every disreputable shipyard offered services that allowed a crew to disable a signature key or even switch over to a false identity.
“That’s standard practice for piracy,” Grif said, “so I don’t—wait. Did you say neither one?”
“Correct,” Faldyth said. “Neither the victim nor its attacker.”
“Grif…” Amys’ voice was tense. “Look at the ships.”
Morgan had managed to get a pretty good picture of them now. Grif raised an eyebrow.
“Yeah,” he said. “They look pretty new. That’s unusual out here.”
“More than that,” Amys said. “Look at their colors.”
“Huh? What are you…” Grif stopped in mid-sentence as he saw the markings on both ships. “Son of a bitch.”
“They’re both Tylaris ships.” Morgan shook his head in confusion. “That doesn’t make any sense. Those are active service ships, not pirate ships. Why would one Tylaris ship attack another?”
“Because politics makes people crazy,” Grif snarled. “And we’re getting a full frontal of crazy right now.”
He stared at the screen for a few minutes, weighing his options. “Amys. I need an intercept course at maximum burn.”
Almost immediately his terminal received the new information.
“It’ll take about four hours,” Amys said. “But we’ll definitely need to refuel after that.”
“Thanks.” Grif turned on the intercom again. “Crew. Morgan detected two no-sigs fighting it out near the gas giant. It looks like they both might be in-service Tylaris ships. We’re claim jumping. Intercepting in… four hours, three minutes.”
He took a deep breath. “Turn off our signature key. Battle stations.”