The bridge was absent its usual cheerful banter as they closed in on the two craft.
“Grif…” Amys kept her voice deliberately neutral. “Since we have the time I’d like to go over a few charts with you.”
Grif almost smiled in spite of himself. She didn’t want to argue with him in front of the crew. “Don’t worry about making a scene, Amys. We’re all friends here. Speak up.”
Amys paused, considering whether to take him up on his offer. Then she decided.
“Grif, are you out of your goddamned mind?”
“I think you’ll find a lot of different opinions on that topic.”
“No,” Amys said. “No, you’ll find pretty much the same opinion no matter who you asked. There will be a lot of different qualifications and clarifications and nuanced responses, but by and large anyone who spends any time with you will eventually believe that you are out of your goddamned mind.”
“So it was a rhetorical question,” Grif said. “Well. That’s no fun.”
“I mean I was hoping for a chance to at least defend my sanity, but if everyone already believes I’m nuts—”
“What is the one thing you hate more than anything else in the world?” Amys asked.
“Taxes,” Grif said promptly. “No. Wait. Tariffs. I mean, I do hate taxes, but tariffs are a lot more—”
“Politics,” Amys growled.
“Well that’s usually the root of both,” Grif agreed.
“So why are we getting involved in this?”
Grif sighed, made sure their heading was set, then pushed his chair all the way back along the rail until he emerged into the bridge proper. Amys stared at him, her expression a mask of tightly controlled anger.
“This isn’t politics.”
“Not five minutes ago you said—”
“I said they were involved in politics,” Grif said. “They are two Tylaris Barony ships trying their damnedest to blow each other to pieces in the name of politics. Yes. I’m pretty sure of that. We, on the other hand, are not engaging in politics. We’re engaging in far more respectable behavior.”
“What behavior is that?” Amys asked.
“Piracy. Look, Amys, I couldn’t care less why those ships are here. It’s probably political, which makes me a little crazy, but the fact is that those are two new ships, all alone in the middle of nowhere. One just crippled the other, and probably took fire on its own. It’s wounded. There’s blood in the water, Amys, and we’re the only ones around to taste it. Are you suggesting we pass that up?”
“Yes!” Amys’ eyes flashed. “Stay as far away as possible from the Tylaris Barony. Don’t let anyone think you’re playing their political games. There’s no profit in that, there’s just—”
“This isn’t politics.” Grif let a little anger creep into his voice. “This is opportunity. Tylaris ships are valuable. Tylaris tech is valuable. If nothing else, what we scavenge off the carcass of those two boats—”
“I've identified them, by the way.” Morgan cut in smoothly, voice casual, as if he were completely unaware that they were arguing.
“OK,” Grif said. “What are we dealing with here?”
“The crippled ship is a Suntz class armed cargo transport. The other ship is a Kessler class gunboat. Sending spec sheets to all combat stations.”
Grif heard something ding at the pilot’s station. He slid his chair back into the pilot’s nest as a fresh stream of information scrolled up one of his screens. He read it quietly, pursing his lips thoughtfully.
“Wow,” Amys said.
Suntz transports were cargo ships designed to operate in high-threat areas. They were heavily armed, heavily armored, and quite capable of fighting off most pirate sorties. Kessler gunboats were top-of-the-line military craft: the darlings of the Tylaris Navy. They were very good at tearing things to pieces. Both ships were very well-equipped. Grif wouldn’t have wanted to tangle with the Suntz if it had ever come down to that. The fact that the Kessler had taken it out with little apparent effort didn’t thrill him.
“So Grif...” Morgan’s voice was still casual. “Can we take that thing?”
“Yes,” Grif said.
There was a short pause.
Grif frowned. “Maybe.”
“What does that mean?” Morgan pressed. “Is that a ‘I’m saying maybe because there’s a chance but I haven’t worked out the odds’ or is that a ‘I’m saying maybe because I don’t want to say no in front of Amys?’”
“If you’d asked me last year I’d have said no way,” Grif said. “But we did the refit, then we did the other refit. We’re not running with standard parts. Our main cannon can punch through their hull if we can get the shot. And no matter how fast that gunboat might be, I can outfly it.”
“Our main cannon is pretty impressive,” Morgan said. “The Tylaris Barony agrees. They put four of them on the Kessler.”
“Well it won’t be an easy fight,” Grif admitted. “We might die a horrible, fiery death.”
“That’s our captain,” Amys said. “Optimism and sunshine.”
“Hey, that was sunshine! Sunshine in space is pretty much the standard for fiery death.”
Faldyth gurgled unhappily. “For some reason I imagined this job would be quieter.”
“Boy did you call that wrong,” Morgan muttered.
Grif turned on the intercom. “All stations report.”
“Gun Bay One,” Cyrus said. “Should we focus on the cargo ship at all? Or just the gunboat?”
“Good question,” Grif said. “Morgan?”
“The cargo ship is out of the picture,” Morgan said. “The only way it poses a threat at this point is if you run into it.”
“Right,” Grif said. “I don’t have any plans to do that. Cyrus, stick to the one that can actually shoot back.”
“Well, then, Gun Bay One ready.”
“Gun Bay Two.” Cutter Finn’s laconic drawl came through clearly. “Ready.”
“Gun Bay Three.” Hari Kosk, the third gunner, sounded a little bored. Invagi didn’t always express emotion the same way humans did, so Grif wasn’t sure if he was actually bored or if his emotion wasn’t translating through the intercom. “Ready.”
Ktk checked in to state that other than their low fuel supply, the engines were in good shape.
The intercom clicked again. “Uh, Mac here.” Mac Wallen sounded a little nervous. “We're... just... hanging out in general quarters till you need us.”
“We’re turning off gravity in a minute,” Grif warned. “Don’t start anything messy.”
“I’ll tell Sar to put the paints away,” Mac replied. “He’ll be disappointed.”
Grif grinned. He heard Morgan laughing softly. “You do that.” He turned the intercom off.
“I like him,” Morgan said. “Amys, you trust them yet?”
“No,” Amys said.
Grif could practically feel Morgan rolling his eyes. “What’s it going to take?”
“It’s nothing personal,” Amys said. “I don’t mistrust them. We just don’t have any history yet.”
“Faldyth is new, too,” Morgan pointed out. “You trust her.”
“Faldyth was part of Dak’s crew for years. She’s been vetted.”
Faldyth emitted a satisfied gurgle.
“We can talk about the new guys later,” Grif said. “Let’s focus on why this gunboat is bothering me.”
The bridge fell silent.
“Didn’t we just have that argument?” Amys asked.
“I don’t mean conceptually,” Grif said. “I mean tactically. This gunboat is bothering me tactically. It’s bothering me very, very much.”
“OK,” Amys said. “Why is this gunboat bothering you?”
“Because it’s really good at blowing things up, and we qualify as a thing?” Morgan offered.
“No,” Grif said. “Well. Yes. But also, it’s not doing anything. We’ve been closing on it for hours. We’re thirty minutes out. If they haven’t noticed us at this point their sensor tech is incompetent. But they’re just… sitting there.”
“Hold on,” Morgan said. He keyed in a command. “Well they’re not just sitting there. There’s something shuttling between the transport and the gunboat. It’s too small to see with any detail on my sensors, but I think it’s a boarding craft. I think they sent out a boarding party. It’s returning to the gunboat.”
“OK,” Grif said, “that’s interesting.”
“And now they’re doing something else,” Morgan said. “They’re getting ready to fire.”
“That’s stupid,” Amys said. “We’re thirty minutes out. There’s no way they’d be able to—”
Energy erupted from the gunboat and sliced through the damaged ship.
“That seems a bit petty,” Grif said. “Does anyone else think that was petty?”
“They obviously don't want anyone else boarding it,” Amys said.
“Yeah. Like I said. Petty.”
The damaged ship shuddered from the attack, and the gunboat opened fire again. This time their guns targeted their already damaged engines.
“Bad call,” Grif said. “They're too close to the—”
The cargo ship's fusion drive exploded, engulfing it in a bright halo of light. The engine incinerated in the blast, and a third of the hull was ripped to shreds, sending shards of alloyed metal flying. The gunboat was caught in the blast, and for a moment it went opaque as its screens tried to absorb the full force of it. A moment later the screens fell, and the ship's hull buckled from the force of the explosion.
“Morgan, what do you see?”
“Analyzing it now,” Morgan said. “Uh, well, the gunboat’s in pretty bad shape. Hull breaches in multiple locations. Port cannon is gone. There's a lot of heat venting out of the fusion drive. I’m feeling a lot better about this fight.”
The ship tried to turn, shedding a good portion of its outer hull in the process.
“That’s pretty pointless,” Amys said. “No way it can outrun us. If it tried it’d probably fly apart, and there’s no way it’ll hold together if they try to jump to tach.”
“Tricky ethics here,” Grif said. “They’re basically crippled. It’s usually sporting to radio and offer assistance, isn’t it?”
“You’re not going soft on us, are you Grif?” Amys asked.
“I’m just asking a question. At this point going after them sort of feels like kicking a dog. I like dogs.”
“They’re not flying a signature key,” Amys said. “They don’t deserve mercy.”
“Uhhh… Amys,” Morgan said, “we’re not flying a signature key either.”
“I never said we deserved mercy.”
“No, Amys is right,” Grif said. “They blew up another ship to keep us from boarding her. No self-respecting dog would do something like that. I doubt they’d accept our assistance anyway.”
“I think you’re right,” Morgan said. “I’m noticing some very interesting energy readings from the gunboat’s engines. I think they’re going to blow the ship.”
Grif stared at his screen. “I don’t see anything.”
“You’re not sitting at my station. I’m getting all kinds of fascinating wavelengths over here, and it’s telling me that the ship is going to—”
Tiny flashes of light burst forth from what was left of the hull around the gunboat’s engines. The tiny explosions expanded, growing in intensity, until suddenly the sides of the ship split open, then the entire ship was torn apart.
“Ship blew,” Morgan said.
“So it did.” Grif stared at the spot on his screen where the ship used to be. “Amys, set the screens to flicker. I expect we’ll have tiny bits of gunboat bouncing off the hull eventually.”
The view started to strobe as the Fool’s Errand’s screens turned on and off in rapid succession, giving the ship some protection while also allowing the sensors to work at a reduced capacity.
The intercom clicked to life. “Grif, what’s going on?” Cyrus sounded annoyed. “Am I going to get to shoot anything or not?”
“Not.” Grif looked at the remnants of the destroyed gunboat and sighed softly. “It wouldn’t share.”