The Fool’s Errand was not a tempting target for most pirate ships, and Grif was almost completely convinced they were the only ship in the system. That said, as they sat in orbit around Uru he couldn’t shake a vague sense of paranoia. They’d launched the fuel drones thirty minutes ago—four unmanned, cylindrical craft designed to dive deep into a gas giant’s atmosphere without being crushed like a grape, collect all the hydrogen they could, then return to the ship for processing. It would take another hour or two before collection was complete. Until then, Grif had nothing to do but keep the ship in orbit and twiddle his thumbs.
He was impatient to leave, but the ship needed fuel. He sighed and waited.
Most starships had the ability to process hydrogen into fuel. Hydrogen converters had been standard equipment on space-faring vehicles almost since the very beginning of interstellar flight: in the very early days of exploration, refueling with hydrogen had been the only practical way to support manned exploration. Gas giants were relatively common features of star systems, and if you could make it to a gas giant on a full tank you could collect all the hydrogen you needed, process it, then move on to the next gas giant on a full tank.
As governments grew, the tradition of using gas giants as refueling stations came into direct conflict with the tradition of people owning things and not wanting to give them away for free. Gas giants were declared “national resources” and leased to companies that harvested it, processed it, and sold it at prices far above what it actually cost to harvest and process. Most spacers were outraged at this—some traditions ran strong in space-faring communities, and one of those traditions was that “fuel was free.” Ships that were concerned with being legitimate choked down their outrage and paid for the fuel. Ships that played rather more loosely with the rules looked for systems that were poorly patrolled, where it would be possible to stop off at a gas giant and refuel before the owner of the planet had a chance to respond. This was particularly easy to do out in the fringe.
Grif yawned and tried to think of something he could do that would take his mind off waiting. A moment later he bolted upright as both Morgan and Faldyth started shouting at the same time.
“Incoming ships on sensors—”
“—receiving signals from multiple signature keys—”
“—two heading this way—”
“—keys are a mixture of Tylaris Barony and Alliance military craft—”
“—feeding data to tactical—”
Grif looked down at his tactical screen and saw seven dots appear on the outermost edge of the system diagram. A moment later a long string of numbers and letters appeared over each dot—the signature key for each ship—and a moment after that five of the signature keys were replaced with the make and model of that ship.
“Tylaris Barony warships,” Morgan reported. “Calibre class.”
“Two aren’t updating,” Grif said. “Why aren’t the last two updating?”
“We don’t know anything about them,” Morgan said. “There’s nothing to display. They’re Alliance, though.”
Grif’s vague sense of paranoia grew considerably more focused.
“Still collecting information,” Morgan said. “Hold on… there. OK, keep in mind there’s a three hour delay, but it looks like they just dropped outside the gravity well, and two are moving in. I have visuals on all seven, sending to your screen.”
Grif’s screen updated, dividing into seven equal panels, each displaying an individual ship. The Tylaris warships were clearly top of the line—definitely overkill in this system. One of the Alliance vessels was also obviously a warship, though he didn’t recognize the model. The other Alliance ship was unlike any ship Grif had ever seen, but it still looked strangely familiar.
“Anyone recognize the squat, oblong ship with the—”
“We have three more ships,” Morgan said. “Three more Alliance warships just dropped from tach near the weird one.”
"Grif..." Amys sounded distinctly unhappy. “We’re in an awkward position.”
“You mean orbiting around a gas giant and not emitting a signature beacon?” Grif laughed nervously. “Yeah, we might as well send them a message saying ‘hi, we’re just stealing your fuel, hold up a bit and we’ll be happy to pop off when we’re done.’ Also, Faldyth, do not send that message.”
“And we just got pinged,” Morgan added. His voice was calm and remote. Once upon a time Morgan had been a scientist, and that part of him had taken over, analyzing and reporting data, pushing everything else to one side.
Grif hit the intercom. “All hands, general alert. Ten ships just dropped at the edge of the system. They are Tylaris Barony and Alliance navy. Ktk, when do the drones come back?”
Ktk replied they would return in two hours.
“All right. Stand by.” Grif turned the intercom off. “Morgan, what are they doing?”
“I don’t have enough information,” Morgan said. “But what we’re looking at now is a few hours old, so whatever it is they’re going to do… they’ve already done it.”
“So they may already have seen us,” Faldyth said.
“You heard Morgan,” Amys said. “We got pinged. I guarantee they saw us. Grif, I don’t think we need to guess why they’re here.”
“No,” Grif said. “We don’t need to guess why. What they’re going to do about it… well, that might be worth a guess or two. Morgan, are they moving to intercept?”
“Don’t know yet,” Morgan said. “It’ll take some time to tell. Maybe half an hour.”
“Why so long?”
“It requires math.”
Grif sighed. “Well, get to it.”
The half hour crawled by. Grif tried to distract himself by tracking the progress of the fuel drones, but that only reminded him that he had to wait at least two hours before he could do much of anything. There was no point running until they had fuel.
Finally Morgan finished his calculations. “Two of the Tylaris Barony warships are headed this way. The rest of the ships are just… sitting tight. Not moving at all.”
“Really?” Grif asked.
“Yeah,” Morgan said. “I don’t get it. The Alliance warships have taken up positions around the unknown Alliance ship—I guess they’re escorting it—but the other Tylaris warships aren’t doing much of anything.”
“I wonder why they’re only sending two in,” Grif said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Two is probably enough,” Morgan said. “I’ve worked up a tactical assessment of those ships. Sending to your station.”
Grif looked at his screen as Morgan’s information scrolled by. He whistled softly. They were outgunned and out-armored—the Calibre class put the Kessler to shame. “Looks like the only advantage we have is speed. We’ll probably need that. They’re definitely closing?”
“Straight toward us,” Morgan confirmed. “Well, more specifically, straight toward Uru, and we’re the only interesting thing around.”
“I don’t know,” Amys said. “There’s probably an expensive cloning facility around here somewhere.”
“Yeah…” Grif frowned at his tactical display. “If they’re looking for that, they definitely won’t want us around…”
“So we’re expecting things to get rough,” Morgan said.
“Well,” Grif said, “something tells me they’re not here to talk.”
But why only two ships? That’s what bothered him. They didn’t need to send all five ships in, but why only send two? Not that it mattered—Grif had no intention of trying to fight. As soon as the fuel drones returned they were leaving the system in the opposite direction. There was no way the ships could catch up to them before they escaped the gravity well and hit tach…
All of a sudden everything clicked.
“Damn!” Grif said. Then, once again for emphasis: “Damn it all to hell!”
There was a brief silence on the bridge.
“…is there something you want to tell us, Captain?” Morgan asked.
“Amys,” Grif said. “You see the—”
“Yeah,” Amys said, “I see it. We are so royally humped right now.”
“See what?” Morgan asked, obviously confused. “I know I’m just a simple scientist, unfamiliar with your spaceman ways, but aren’t we going to run?”
“Of course we are,” Grif said. “But they’re going to catch us.”
“I don’t think we can win that fight,” Amys said. “We can’t put enough distance between us after they close—”
“—we’ll need to try, though,” Grif said. “Maybe we can manage a skip if they don’t—”
“Sorry,” Morgan interrupted, “but I thought I gave you all the tactical data. Grif, we’re faster than they are. We can outrun them.”
“The two ships coming after us aren’t the problem,” Grif said. “It’s the two ships that are hanging back.”
“I still don’t—”
“Morgan,” Amys said, “look at their position. They’re still outside the gravity well.”
“Ah,” Morgan said. “Yes, I see. They can jump anywhere we want to go…”
“…but we can’t jump anywhere,” Grif said. “Not until we leave the gravity well…”
“…because ATIDs don’t like gravity,” Morgan finished.
“Humped,” Amys repeated.
“We still have a shot,” Grif said, trying to sound more confident than he felt. “Amys, we’re not going to engage them directly. We’re going to try to stay alive long enough to skip out of range, then we can try to—”
“Grif…” there was something odd about the tone of Morgan’s voice that made Grif worry.
“Go ahead, Morgan.”
“I just discovered something interesting,” Morgan said. “I know what that fifth Alliance ship is.”
“Well don’t keep it a secret,” Grif said. “Misery and company, right?”
“Turn it on its side,” Morgan said.
Grif stared at the image of the mysterious fifth Alliance ship and started rotating it on his screen. He gaped—once he saw it standing with it’s nose pointed “up,” he recognized it immediately. The bridge and the engines obscured it a little, but if you removed them…
“A comm tunnel?”
It looked almost exactly like a comm tunnel. It was smaller than the ones he was used to seeing, and it was laying sideways to better distribute the mass as it was integrated into the ship. But if that’s what it was…
Grif shook his head. “That’s not possible. Comm tunnels can’t be that small. They can’t move.”
“Pretty sure this one can,” Morgan said. “Now that I know what to look for, I’m picking up all the right traces on my scanners.”
Comm tunnels were the exclusive technology of the Smit Barony. They controlled all faster than light communication in known space, and they guarded the secrets of that technology with ruthless efficiency.
“How did they do it?” Faldyth asked. “House Smit would never permit this.”
“That must be why they built it into a military ship,” Amys said. “It’s harder to sabotage a military ship.”
“Whatever they did,” Grif said, “I’m very unhappy with the Smit Barony right now. This is a hell of a time to lose your grip on a goddamn monopoly.”
“Even if we do get out of here,” Amys said, “That ship can call ahead. If they get a fix on our heading—which they probably will—they’ll be able to make a call to each likely stop along our destination and arrange for a welcoming party.”
“Humped,” Grif agreed. He pushed his chair out into the bridge proper, clicked it into place, and stood. “Right. Amys, we’re going to the Wardroom. Faldyth, tell Cyrus and Ktk to meet us there. Morgan, transfer the tactical map to the big table. Also, you have the conn.”
“Uh…” An expression of mild panic flashed across Morgan’s face. “Grif, I can’t fly this thing.”
“You can’t?” Grif frowned irritably. “I though you were learning.”
“I am learning,” Morgan said. “On a simulator. I’m not anywhere close to doing it for real. Not yet.”
“I can pilot her,” Faldyth said.
“Oh.” Grif was pleasantly surprised. “Good. Then you have the conn, Faldyth. Morgan, keep track of everything our very special friends are doing. Let me know the minute they do anything weird or untoward.”
“Weird or untoward,” Morgan said. “Got it.”
Amys stepped up beside Grif and they both headed into the lift.
“The bridge is yours, Faldyth.”
The door closed, and the lift hummed slightly as it descended.
“So…” Amys kept her voice calm and even. “What’s the plan?”
“Grasp at straws,” Grif said. “Roll the dice. Try to think of something clever. Don’t get killed.”
“I like the last part,” Amys said. “I’m not as sold on the first three.”
“Well obviously ‘don’t get killed’ is the most important one. Unfortunately, it hinges on the other three…”
They waited in silence as the lift took them further into the ship.
“I’m going to kill Dak,” Amys said finally.
“I want to be there when you do,” Grif said.