Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Seven

Having just arrived from Lyman, General Johnson’s staff lead him through an inspection tour of the current status of Henry base construction. Johnson, Pomeroy, Phineas and Eyre had piled into a staff vehicle to drive through the various planet-side construction projects. Johnson’s staff was well aware he preferred sales calls over military briefings. They all tried to treat Johnson like he was a customer who purchased components and services to create a product.

General Johnson’s first plan was to ship all of the construction materials for his new Henry Base from his Lyman Base. This proved to be a logistics nightmare when Johnson couldn’t organize enough ships able to take materials to an uncharted planet. He fought for weeks with his superior officers and the Core Planets government. Not even the civilian transportation brokers could support the kind of military base construction that General Johnson had in mind.

The final plan, after months lost in squabbling, was to ship miniature factories to the planet, build construction materials there, and assemble the final base on site. This required military supply lines and support until the base could be self-sustaining. Someone had to manage the thousands of troops confined to small orbiting transport ships.

Jammed into the transport vehicle with Johnson and the other officers, Pomeroy shuffled through a stack of reports. Pomeroy would juggle the presentations based on Johnson’s mood.
“The MP’s on the Horicon had to arrest two marines and two freighters. The marines are in the brig awaiting court martial,” Pomeroy read.

Johnson looked befuddled, confused by the news.

“Jailed? What the hell for?”

“Drugs. Fighting. The usual problems, sir.”

“Our marines?”

“Yes, sir. Lieutenant Colonel Cole reports that the Horicon is dangerously overcrowded,” Pomeroy read from his notes.

Johnson looked at the small cluster of officers wedged into the vehicle. They looked at him, blankly. The blankest of them was Lieutenant Colonel Pomeroy. Pomeroy was a professional pessimist, a lawyer by training and wealthy enough to purchase a Lieutenant Colonel rank. Pomeroy had made himself General Johnson’s personal assistant. He tried to execute as many of Johnson’s orders as he could, and act as the funnel for information presented to General Johnson.

“I want you to get the freighter pilots out of here. Send them all back to Lyman base. Clear this cluster out,” Johnson said.

“That was our original, uhm, plan,” Eyre began. “We couldn’t get the beacons installed according to your first schedule.”

“Beacons?” Phineas asked; he was partially aware of what Eyre was driving at, but preferred to try and embarrass Eyre by dragging out his elliptical answers.

“We were going use military transport ships. But they require a better-established navigation infrastructure that we have available to us.” Eyre said, scratching his head, irritated at explaining the obvious.

“So?” Phineas asked.

“Basically, after we tried to work around the problem, we’re stuck with civilian transport,” Eyre blurted.

Pomeroy looked at Johnson to see what Johnson’s opinion was of this contradiction.

Johnson fumed, “That’s the god-damned Core planets government for you! Attack the Outer Rim at Carillon. But no supplies to build a working base. How are you supposed to carry out an attack with thousands of marines and attack ships without a base?”

The officers stared blankly. The plan as they understood it from the Core Planets Government Network was just that simple: move all of the men and ships up to Carillon and blast it apart, forcing the Outer Rim to retreat. General Johnson, however, insisted on building Henry Base midway between the Core planets Lyman base and the Outer Rim Carillon base. While he was weak on military strategy, he knew when people were agreeing with him; he had created a group of command officers, lead by Pomeroy, who supported his every whim.

Since no one said anything, General Johnson started talking again. “Okay, then, cut their fees. If they can’t afford drugs, that’ll keep them quiet.”

The officers looked at each other for a moment.

“Last time we tried that, sir, we had trouble meeting our shipping schedules. We couldn’t find approved shippers or complete negotiations in time,” Eyre said. Everyone looked at him waiting for him to finish talking. “Basically, no one bids on the contracts,” he added. He started to say something more, then stopped.

“Advertise more widely, find some sober, reliable pilots,” Johnson said.

“Sir, this is the frontier. There aren’t many pilots that have the skills to fly out here,” Eyre drawled, bored of explaining the obvious to his superiors.

“Only the most incorrigible bastards. Bastards!” Pomeroy nodded, agreeing with the General. “Sir, if you want, I could—.” The vehicle lurched to a stop. They’d arrived at an agricultural dome. The dome’s outer airlock door slid open, and the vehicle rolled in. The airlock was long and low, to support eventual construction of a rail system for moving food around on the planet surface.

When the vehicle started roaring down the echoing tunnel, Johnson said, “Well, we can always court-martial the freighter pilots.”

There was an uncomfortable stirring among the officers.

“Sir, they’re civilians. They’re not subject to the code of military justice. Since this is occupied frontier, there aren’t any civilian authorities. Basically, we can only cancel their contracts,” Phineas said.

Phineas, a business partner of Johnson’s, had an engineering background and could understand the sometimes incomprehensible technical jargon of engineers. He considered himself pragmatic and careful, able to weigh the facts and make a rational judgment. Eyre, an engineer, found him pessimistic, opinionated and distrustful. Johnson had lured Phineas into military service, making Phineas one of the few junior officers who could oppose Johnson directly.

General Johnson looked closely at Pomeroy for the first time during the meeting. It was as if Johnson was trying to remember something.

“Sir, I could always—” Pomeroy began, struggling for some kind of action he could take.

The vehicle skidded to a stop again. They could see a cluster of construction workers standing around, idle. A military officer stood near by, disgust painted all over his face. They could see that he was lecturing his aide, who was busy scribbling notes on a small computer.

“If I may, sir, when we’ve finished the base, we won’t need the freighters. We just need a short-term solution,” the Pomeroy said.

“Exactly!” Johnson shouted. “That’s obvious. What’s the solution to their endless drunkenness and thievery?”

Johnson stared around at his staff with unconcealed vehemence. There was no answer. Johnson eased out of the vehicle, Pomeroy and the others following.

Colonel Edward Cole had been waiting for Johnson to arrive. Cole was a crisp, career military officer, and fuming over something. His real strength was in handling the complex tactical details of real combat. After a number of decisive victories as a junior officer, he had earned command of the frigate Whitehall. He was big and athletic; a competitive weight-lifter, able to clean and jerk more weight than men half his age.

“What the hell is this, Bill?” Cole asked, looming over Johnson.

Pomeroy tried to slip between the two men and mediate the conversation.

“Command and control, Ed,” General Johnson said, nodding at his own wisdom. “Command and control.”

Cole shook his head. “Command and control? For an advanced support base? What the hell are you building here? A capital city?”

“Ed, I know you want to press a rapid attack, but we’ll need support,” Johnson said.

Eyre and Phineas joined the other three men. Eyre started to speak, but Pomeroy silenced him with a gesture. Eyre scowled at Pomeroy, but kept silent.

“This isn’t support, this is colonization,” Cole shouted. “I don’t see how this will move the Outer Rim back to their original borders.”

Pomeroy waited for an indication from General Johnson. Johnson looked at the expectant faces surrounding him.

“Your job is defense,” Johnson replied. “Captain Eyre is in charge of construction.” Cole shook his head in disbelief.

“Do you know what these men are doing?” Cole asked.

Johnson looked around blankly. He could see that it was an agricultural dome; there was nothing growing yet. It was clear to him that they must be installing the rest of the agricultural equipment.

Pomeroy prompted Johnson, “I believe they’re finishing this Ag dome, sir.” Cole didn’t even look at Pomeroy. “No,” he said to Johnson. “They’re doing nothing. Do you know why? We don’t have the materials to keep them busy.” Cole looked around, and the vast, empty dome. “We’re too far into the frontier to build a base like this,” he said.

Johnson frowned; his staff looked uncomfortable. Even Pomeroy knew that materials were scarce and expensive, but Pomeroy would never confront Johnson. Phineas agreed with Cole, but found it hard to make the case crystal clear to General Johnson that he was expending mountains of money and accomplishing almost nothing.

Compounding the problem was the novelty of the base’s design. It was Eyre who had put forth an idea for a fortification that was radical by Core Planets standards. Johnson had embraced Eyre’s vision of creating an exact copy of an Outer Rim bases; an Outer Rim base that Core Planets considered impregnable.

“It’s those freighter pilots,” Johnson said. “They are the laziest and most ignorant people I’ve ever had the misfortune to command.”

Cole had reached his limit. He waved both hands at Johnson, shouting, “Read the mail! Stop all this construction. What are you actually doing to push the outer rim of Carillon base?”

Johnson shook his head. He had more to say, but Pomeroy leaned in between Johnson and Cole.

“Sir, we’re surveying the Outer Rim preparations.” Johnson backed up, nodding in agreement. Pomeroy, given some space, pushed his way between Johnson and Cole. Pomeroy raised an eyebrow, glanced around and gave a discrete nod to Cole.

Cole shook his head. “Who? Did you send Williams in the Horicon?” Pomeroy looked at the group of workers and whispered, “We aren’t patrolling in force, sir.” Pomeroy gave Cole another knowing look and a nod toward the workers.

Cole peered at Pomeroy, incredulous.

“What the hell are you doing?” he bellowed at Pomeroy.

“It’s simple, Ed,” Johnson said, stepping around Pomeroy. “We’ve sent Whiting undercover to gather intelligence.”

Pomeroy sighed at Johnson’s inability to maintain any confidential information. Cole didn’t waste time listening to any more. He stormed off to his own vehicle. Johnson’s staff heard him bellowing orders to his driver to get him back to the landing pad so he could get on the Whitehall, and off this base. The group of construction workers stood, staring idly at Cole’s vehicle and Johnson’s flock of officers.

“I tell you, without this supporting base, we can’t press any kind of attack. We’d have to fuel and victual ships for a very long flight. And if the Outer Rim ships evade us, we’d chase them all over this cluster until we were out of supplies,” Johnson said to no one in particular.

“They have a base” Phineas began, ready to rehash the argument.

“That’s not the point!” Johnson bellowed. “What if their force isn’t located at the base? If we attack it, we could be trapped between their base and their mobile units.”

Phineas was frequently stumped by Johnson’s line of thinking. He agreed with Johnson, since any other position was career suicide. But it was clear to Phineas that the Core Planets could fuel and victual ships, send them all the way to the Outer Rim base, and probably destroy it. This would leave any Outer Rim ships effectively stranded in the heart of a Cephalopod sector. A new Core planets base was neither necessary nor even useful. It was just a distraction.


Their tour was over; they piled into their vehicle. Phineas knew that they would return to the orbiting base and look for ways to solve the immediate construction problem. He wondered how long Johnson would ignore the real problem of encroachment on their borders.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Six

Interstellar travel is a matter of propagation through empty light-years at a speed well above that of light. The vast size of the galaxy still made for long, long periods of cramped discomfort. For most of any trip Larry Drover was wedged into a ship’s narrow cockpit, making sure that complex systems continued to operate. Either he was monitoring the expenditure of energy to build velocity, or he was watching the consumption of energy to reduce velocity, or he was simply waiting to change over from one mode to the other.

Larry found the quiet of the cockpit unnerving. Ordinarily he would be blasting music from the powerful speakers that he had added to the cockpit. Flight rules clearly barred passengers from the bridge or engineering areas. Whiting, however, climbed into the cockpit like she was authorized to fly. She had watched the pre-flight litany of call and response between Larry on the flight deck and Mo Lusc in engineering. Once they were away from Lyman, she promptly fell asleep. Larry assumed that the military had different flight rules and tried to ignore her.

The hours a pilot spent jammed in the cockpit could be pleasant idleness or vacant boredom. To prevent the dangers of boredom, Larry had spent time and money on hours of rare and obscure music. He had purchased whole libraries of compositions, performances and critiques. He also had computers for simulation, composition, analysis, and synthesis of music. He was an avid collector but not a musician; he absorbed relatively little of what he listened to.

The recordings produced by the entertainment industry were banal, nearly identical popular songs, intercut with canned banter and stock interviews with music personalities from another side of the galaxy. Larry found that odd and unusual recordings were far more entertaining than the undemanding commercial fare.

While Larry preferred to play the music through a set of speakers installed on the bridge of the Mule II, with Whiting dozing in the navigator’s jump seat, he thought it more polite to leave the music off. He was working his way through some ancient, low-resolution recordings of pre-spaceflight folk songs. He preferred to listen through the collection once, then listen to the various articles of analysis and criticism, then listen to referenced selections. This made the recordings sound fresh and unusual far longer. While most music criticism seemed to be vacant academic posturing, it was a mental break from the technical tedium of flight operations.

Larry had worked out a solution that would put him into a good orbit around the star that held the incomplete Henry base. The difficult and exacting work of bringing the ship onto that course had just begun.

The computer’s annunciator burbled to life. “Weapons Lock,” the synthesized voice intoned.

The incongruity between the threat of attack and the calm announcement were not half as grating on Larry as the faulty procedures. Whoever set up the procedures at the Lyman base must have also written the orders for Henry.

“Can you just leave me out of this?” Larry shouted at his console. Getting shot at would make the trip unprofitable.

“Yell a little louder, that always helps,” Whiting said, clearly irritated at being waked by Larry’s outburst. She stretched and rubbed her eyes.

“Who plugged you in?” Larry asked.

“I was just having this great dream that I was being drowned by a pod of intelligent squids. And then I woke up in this nightmare,” she said.

“Next time, you can walk,” Larry replied.

Whiting stared at him, but didn’t say anything. Larry hunched down into the pilot’s chair and tried to get his ship back on course for Henry base. He’d taken his eyes off the instruments for too long, and they’d wandered away from the ideal orbital approach.

The intercom chimed on. Mo Lusc’s synthesized voice squawked feebly. The bandwidth of the intercom and the Cephalopod speech synthesizers were very badly matched. It took some experience to interpret the sounds.

“Can we land? Do we need military approach codes? Will they shoot if we don’t have the codes?” Mo’s questions were a badly garbled mess. Whiting scowled at the noise.

Larry switched on the intercom; “I’ll check with the gunslinger,” he said.

“What the hell was that?” she asked.

“It’s Mo Lusc. It wants to know if we need a military pass code to land at this base. It thinks they’ll shoot us.”

Larry looked defiantly at Whiting. She stared back, a scowl forming slowly.

“Patch me through,” she said suddenly, grabbing the navigator’s headset from the small cabinet overhead.

Whiting fussed with her hair to settle the headset properly. She put it on like a pilot, as if it were a hat or earring.

Larry switched her into the communication system. Mo Lusc’s speech synthesizer was connected directly to the external communication, and it sounded much clearer and far more impressive. Larry’s headset microphone was also modulated to remove the droning machine noise of the cockpit, and provide a slight reverberation, as though he was standing on a stage in an empty auditorium.

Mo Lusc continued talking, not knowing that Whiting was connected. “Should we trust a military officer? With external glands? Where is the rest of her uniform?”

Larry hunched over his controls, embarrassed at Mo’s rambling.

The base traffic controller came on the channel, his signal warbling and weak from the huge distance. “Again, approaching ship Mule Two, you will provide approach codes or you will be fired upon.”

Whiting answered immediately, “Bravo India Tango Echo.” Base traffic control paused for a moment, and then answered, “Mike Echo. Bay three has been prepped. Welcome to Henry Base, Lieutenant Colonel Whiting.” “And the hired help. Don’t forget us,” Larry said. What bothered Larry was the conflict between military’s depending on freighters and regarding them with casual contempt. Freighters were universally treated as potential spies or traitors.

“Ma’am, is everything under control?” the base traffic controller asked.

“I’ve got a civilian pilot who doesn’t know when to shut up,” she replied, leaning out of the navigator station to stare at Drover.

“Larry Drover, Pilot. I’ve got your factory right here.” He grabbed his crotch in the ages-old gesture of defiance.

Whiting sighed. Larry didn’t look, but he was sure she was staring at him with intent to intimidate.

The base traffic controller replied, “Pilot, can you stay off this channel? This is a restricted space.”

Larry smashed the communications control, cutting off base traffic control.

“Those arrogant sons of bitches! I drag their stinking factory through the dust cloud to this stinking hole of a planet and they tell me to keep off of a standard working channel?”

Whiting leaned out of the navigation seat to talk directly to Drover, pushing the microphone away from her mouth. “It’s the frontier.”

Drover sighed and slumped down in the pilot’s seat. There were Outer Rim military bases only a few days flight from here. These stars were more properly Cephalopod territory. It was a complex, shifting frontier, made dangerous by the parallel escalations of commerce and military might.

Whiting leaned back in her seat. She opened the communication channel and said “Over and out.”

Both the Core Planets and the Outer Rim used the euphemism “trading mission” to describe their encroachment on the Ceph stars. As the trading mission blossomed, it required more elaborate supply lines. Then the government would find it necessary to protect the traders against piracy by the Cephalopods. This would lead to active combat in an effort to “pacify” the Cephalopods.

Drover leaned out of the pilot’s seat to look directly at Whiting. “They’re just star systems and planets. Not much different from the systems in the Core.”

She leaned over from the navigator’s seat. “These are undeveloped planets.” “Undeveloped by us. Mo Lusc is from this cluster,” Larry said, sneering on the ‘undeveloped.’ “These are settled home worlds to them.” “Things change. Anything could happen out here,” she said, clearly working through a standard list of cautions she used with every pilot and subordinate in the military. She said it without real enthusiasm.

Larry looked at Whiting. She looked like she was in pain. He assumed that she was uncomfortable with the subject.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Party line coming through loud and clear. Adapt or die.” Larry slumped back into the pilot’s chair to begin preparing to land the cargo bays. He pulled out his personal computer, located the appropriate checklist and began the ritualized call and response. Surface imaging showed that the planet was relatively advanced, with plant life growing on the land. Life here had advanced beyond the various types of slimes and bacteria that covered almost all inhabitable planets.

Since so few planets had any kind of life, the usual rule was to build surface bases where possible and orbiting bases where the surface was inhospitable. The very rare presence of advanced surface animals did not always stop surface bases from being built; habitat destruction would ensure a base’s safety against all but the most intelligent, determined and dangerous animals.

This planet’s surface included folded mountains and deep valleys; gouged by glacial erosion near the poles, and filled with meandering rivers near the equator, the surface showed an advanced climate cycle. The cargo landing site was at the southern end of a narrow lake midway between equator and pole, perhaps 300 kilometers from the nearest ocean, assuring mild weather.

Landing the first of the cargo bays was always a challenge. It was almost impossible to ignore the scenery on a new planet. As a cargo bay dropped, the base’s structures grew into visibility. From discolorations at the end of the lake, the smoke plumes from the various combustion-based power plants emerged. Then the pits from mining operations and the vast agriculture domes began to appear.
Closer to the surface the denser atmosphere made the bays more difficult to fly. Larry could resolve medium-sized structures like the landing fields. The beacons were marked clearly on the control displays, but visual confirmation was an important step in the litany of landing. Once these medium-scaled details were visible, the small-scale detail showed up in a rapid sequence. The dormitory buildings and various factories became visible; then the machines moving about on the surface to tend the space craft.

Larry guessed that the surface weather must be benign. The structures were open, with visible surface transport vehicles instead of tubes. The atmospheric pressures and gravity were endurable, but the gas mixture had too much oxygen to support surface animal life. It did, however, support abundant, primitive plant life, making it a very pretty planet.


Once the sight-seeing was over, the second cargo bay was much easier to land. As he stepped through the litany of landing, Larry began to wonder why they were spending so much time and effort creating a planet-side base that would only be abandoned when the attack on the Outer Rim was complete.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Five

While the basic mechanisms of space travel were universal, the engineers of the Outer Rim and Core Planets took different approaches to the construction of the useful parts of the ship around the gravity foil. Core Planets engineers kept companionways and crew compartments small, with numerous hand-holds to help crew cope with abrupt changes in apparent gravity as the ship maneuvered.

Outer Rim ships, on the other hand, relied on complex rotating compartments to stand in for the acceleration of gravity, giving them a fixed sense of up and down. During close maneuvers around stars and planets, or in interstellar space, the ship felt more stable to the passengers.

The Outer Rim bases, like their ships, were complex, open, composite structures. The Outer Rim engineers did not seek to maximize the internal volume available. While less efficient, they were far more comfortable than the Core Planets structures.

To hem in Core expansion, the Outer Rim military planners started creating a web of bases separating the two empires. The design was as open and flexible as one of their bases or ships. I would box out the Core Planets and leave the Outer Rim easy access to large, unexplored regions of the galaxy. In addition to Core Planets expansion, the Outer Rim planners found themselves trying to establish territory around the indigenous Cephalopods as well as heavily armed but non-aligned humans. Henry base was only one of many battle lines at the edge of the Outer Rim’s empire.

A small but daring fleet of Outer Rim ships circled the Outer Rim’s Duquesne base. The bombardment of the Duquesne defenses was relentless. The Duquesne cannons fired innumerable high-pressure ion bursts. Every Core Planet ship was damaged; some continued to attack in spite of visible holes in the hull. Streams of junk streamed out of more than one Outer Rim cannon platform. The Core ships were in constant motion, ruthless, and expertly managed.

The vast Carillon base was a virtual twin of the Outer Rim’s base at Duquesne. Baron Dieskau, who controlled Carillon, was grateful that the battle for his base would be very different from the battle at Duquense. Unlike most of the military officers throughout the Outer Rim, Dieskau was a career soldier who was not appointed to his post because of his title or hereditary rank. Beyond the basics of studying military strategy and tactics, he had refused high-level appointments based on his title as Baron, taking low-level assignments where he had put in long, hard hours of labor to make a military campaign work efficiently. The royally appointed Governor of the cluster had courted him for the position of supreme military commander of the Outer Rim’s most vulnerable frontier base.

Dieskau was a tall man with an intimidating intensity. He leaned into every word and gesture, pushing people back. He was loud, and expected to hear a “yes, Baron” at the end of every sentence. He was not in good physical condition; endless worry and his natural intensity gave him a sickly thinness.

In the control station of the Carillon base, Dieskau and Colonel Montgomery watched the transmission from Duquesne. Colonel Montgomery was a well-bred scion of a family of moderate, relatively new, nobility. If his uncle had more influence in the Outer Rim royal court, he could have been a General, or assigned to a squadron closer to the heavily contested border between the Core and the Outer Rim. As it was, his lack of position at court was reflected in a station on an outpost impossibly far from royal notice.

Montgomery was a few inches shorter, with endlessly elaborate hair and beard. He was not fat, but neither was he in good physical condition. He was a soldier in title only. Habituated to a life of wealth, he drank and ate far more than he should and relied on cosmetic surgery to create a veneer of health.

Dieskau nudged an intelligence officer, motioning at a different part of the display. The officer changed the transmission’s point of view.

“It is well managed. A very well managed attack. These ships here, do you see them? Pause.” The transmission paused with a sudden, voluminous silence. Dieskau pointed out a cluster of ships. The intelligence officer highlighted the cluster.

Montgomery was uninterested; when Dieskau paused the transmission, this only increased his irritation. “These are mere skirmishes, Dieskau. The real war is being fought elsewhere!”

“Baron,” Dieskau corrected him. Dieskau motioned to the intelligence officer to resume the transmission. The intense bombardment almost drowned him out as he continued.

“These ships are clearly following the lead of this frigate. Commanded by some very clever Lieutenant. I’ll have this analyzed, but I think this particular Lieutenant has traded ships several times during the attack, retiring damaged ships and pressing the attack again. He will return covered in glory, if he survives.”

The transmission played; Core planets ships threaded between the cannon blasts. A blast and a sudden flare showed where a cannon emplacement was destroyed by concentrated fire from several Core planets ships. Dieskau nodded approvingly.

“He’s a Core planets officer,” Montgomery said, resentfully.

“He’s an opponent. Some day we may face him. You know, if he survives, he may be put in front of those people for an elected office.” Dieskau sneered at the word “elected.” It was common opinion that the endless elections of the Core planets republics were a kind of circus to coerce the weak-minded billions into following their natural leaders.

The noise level from the transmission increased as the attack peaked in ferocity. The General defending Duquesne was begging for assistance. The Core Planets had finally pierced through their defenses. Soon, the final defense would involve hand-to-hand combat throughout the corridors and companionways of the base itself.

“Turn it off,” Dieskau said, walking away from the display.

Montgomery watched him pace around the control station. The station was not so much a “room” as a central nexus for all of the interconnections of the base. A number of halls and connectors branched out of the area. The intelligence and management crews had their workstations here. It was the equivalent of the bridge on a warship. From this place, Dieskau controlled the base, the cluster’s fleet and all of the frontier between Outer Rim bases of Niagara, Duquesne and Acadia.

“What about our units at Duquesne?” Montgomery asked, making no effort to hide is resentment of Dieskau’s callous study of the attack.

Dieskau smirked at Montgomery. “The Core Planets have attacked the Duquesne and the Acadia. The Niagara and the Carillon will be next,” Dieskau said, shouting over the din of the battle. “We must look to our own defenses.”

Without looking to the intelligence officer stationed here, Montgomery reached over and switched off the transmission himself.

In the sudden quiet, Dieskau looked closely at Montgomery. “They won’t destroy the Duquesne, you know. They can’t. They haven’t planned for it.” Dieskau moved back to the situation table, he leaned over it to get his face close to Montgomery’s. “They have no reserves — and no nearby bases from which to resupply. When they finally beat down the defenses, they won’t be able to hold the base. It’s sad, really. Such a waste of life for no useful outcome to either side.”

Montgomery glanced at the intelligence officer standing beside Dieskau. Montgomery wondered if he noted the disloyalty of Dieskau’s words?

Dieskau reached past the intelligence officer to punch some controls and bring up a series of command menus and options, setting up an engagement scenario. When the scenario started, the Duquesne was surrounded again by Core planets forces. Brushed aside, the intelligence officer sighed, almost pouting.

“Now, if I were attacking Duquesne, I’d have staged some support here and here.” On the display, additional ships were put into position to support the attack. Montgomery stepped back from what could be reported as a treasonous conversation.

Dieskau moved around the situation table, pursuing Montgomery.

“You look shocked. Have you not thought these things through? They’ll take Acadia, you know.” Dieskau followed Montgomery.

Montgomery continued to back up. “The Outer Rim military leaders might be — you know — suspicious of you plotting the downfall of one of our frontier trade outposts.”

Dieskau stopped stalking Montgomery around the control station.

“Plotting?” Dieskau started laughing. “You think that because I am a mercenary that I’d sell myself to the Core, just for money?” Dieskau’s laugh was a cold bark with no real mirth. “This is a matter of honor and glory. And it is a matter of stopping the Core’s advances.”

Dieskau went back to the situation table. He motioned to the intelligence officer, who resumed operation of the controls. The planning display that showed the attack on Duquesne vanished. The Duquesne was replaced by a cartographic display showing the Carillon and an extensive dust and debris star system. Beyond the dust system were marked several Core planets bases. Between the Carillon and the Core bases, a number of colored sectors materialized.

“And now to the problem we must solve. What is the most important key to victory? Intelligence. Colonel, you will deploy scouts between our base and this gas or dust cloud here.”

Dieskau looked up at Montgomery. Montgomery had not given a crisp “yes, Baron.” Instead, he had gaped at Dieskau.

“Yes,” Dieskau acknowledged, “we will be pushing the border toward their new base. Border skirmishes will convince that horrid Squid, Caughnawaga, that war is inevitable. Now go.”

Montgomery stood up straight, staring with open enmity at Dieskau. Colonel Montgomery was a Lord and his uncle was a Chamberlain at the Imperial court of the Outer Rim. He could not be talked to like he was some kind of common-born soldier impressed into the service from a prison planet.
Dieskau smirked at Montgomery. “Questions?” he asked.

Dieskau’s social affront was compounded by the monstrosity of using Cephalopods as allies to fend off the Core Planets attack. Everyone knew they were double-dealing, lying, stealing, primitive creatures. Montgomery glared, outraged. He had heard a rumor that the imperial court was growing suspicious of Cephalopod loyalty. Dieskau grinned.

“How can you trust those Cephalopods?” Montgomery asked.

Dieskau closed with Montgomery, hissing in his anger, “Don’t patronize me. You don’t like me. I’ve been brought in to command your troops and you chafe. Am I right?”

Montgomery recognized that his question had hit Dieskau hard. It appeared that Dieskau’s reckless calm could be upset by any threat to his strategic plans.

Dieskau closed in until his and Montgomery’s faces almost touched. He fumed quietly, “Do your duty and your cause will be advanced. Nothing I do can help me. If I lose, I die. If I win, the glory I earn will give you a governorship.”

Montgomery grinned in triumph as he saw Dieskau’s vulnerability. As a mercenary outsider, Dieskau would get nothing from his victories but money. The real reward was power and control; this would be doled out to the various noblemen attached to the military command. Since this made Dieskau bitter, it left him open to manipulation.

Montgomery smirked triumphantly. He smile faded as he said “It would be a frontier outpost.”

Dieskau sighed and leaned on the situation display table. “A time will come when this is not frontier. You will have created the legacy that will make your heirs wealthy. Humor me.” Dieskau looked up at Montgomery with unconcealed enmity. “Ready your men.”

Montgomery smirked at Dieskau as be began to consider ways in which Dieskau could be manipulated.

Dieskau straightened himself. His moment of weakness was past. He resumed a new level of fiery intensity. “Now,” he said.

Colonel Montgomery looked around at his personal staff. He wondered if they, like him, were considering their own futures and how their actions would be judged by someone far away in the Outer Rim Home Worlds. If Dieskau was going to provoke a border skirmish, it was crucial that they consider the appearance of every move they made. Montgomery wondered if the patrols would be ordered to escalate from minor civilian problems to more serious military confrontations.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Four

The loading and docking spaces around the edge of a planetary base are always crammed with every kind of store and supply.  Most material is either coming or going, but while making the transition, it has to exist somewhere.  The Material Handlers and Shoremen ran these parts of the station with a ruthless and sometimes senseless command over their small dominions.

While Larry had to determine how his ship was loaded, he disliked the endless confrontations with the petty dictators of the loading docks.  It may have been his ship, but it was their loading dock, and their trump card was control over the cargo Larry needed.  Larry preferred leave his flight engineer, Mo Lusc, in charge of the ship’s loading.

Mo Lusc was a Cephalopod; this gave it a power over the Mammals working on the loading docks.  As with most pilots, it was born on a base far from any of the Cephalopod home planets.  As a Cephalopod pilot, it had worked on the Cephalopod frontier, in and around Mammals for much of its life.  While most Cephs felt that the Mammals should be either ignored or destroyed, Mo Lusc was one of the Cephs that were fascinated by the powerful and sophisticated ship systems the Mammals used.  Mo had cashed out of a transport pilot’s job, struggled through Mammal flight school, and worked its way up from deck hand to flight engineer.  Mammalian health rules made it impossible for Mo to qualify as a pilot, even though Mo was far more capable than most Mammals.

Mo never strayed far from the ship.  Even after years of contact, it was as uncomfortable around Mammals as Mammals were around Cephalopods.  Cephalopods were the kind of novelty that was featured in news broadcasts and comedies.  Reporters were often seeking the “Cephalopod viewpoint”, as if a single creature spoke for an entire species. Simply being a Cephalopod gave Mo a kind of power over dockhands.

Whiting strode through the loading areas as if all work should stop when she was on the deck.  While a few people in this area where military types, who did stop and salute, most were civilians who stared as she passed.

Drover jogged to catch up to Whiting.  “What’s at Henry?” “A planet,” she said.

“Why that planet?” he asked, dodging a loader completely covered with advertising stickers and logos.  Some were for beer or cigarettes, but most were for various brands of prophylactics.

Whiting stared a loader to a halt.  It had the name “Big Mamma” stenciled on the stern. The driver was a gigantic woman who stared back with a contemptuous incredulity.

“Staging,” she said, walking away from Drover.

“Why not stage your attack from Lyman base?  Everything’s already here.”

Whiting looked Drover up and down. “Did General Johnson ask you to share your strategic insights with me?” Whiting walked away before Drover could say anything.  Drover dodged behind the “Big Mamma” loader.

When Drover caught up again, he said, “Everyone knows there’s one of those D. and D. star systems in the way.”

“Dust and debris is good cover,” Whiting replied without turning.

“Without a super-massive planet to clean up, it’s just one huge navigational hazard,” Larry said.

Whiting cut in front a loader that skidded as the driver slammed on the brakes.

“What’s to prevent the Outer Rim from using it for an ambush?” Larry shouted.

Whiting looked over her shoulder, as she said, “That’s why you have a military adjunct.”

“You?” Larry said.  Whiting stopped.  Larry realized the rudeness of his response.  “I don’t mean,” he began, waving his hands as he grasp for an answer.  “I mean, you’re not a fighter escort,” he said.

She started walking again.  “So, how are you going to help?” he asked.

She stopped completely; Larry almost bumped into her.  She turned slowly; he could see that she was working on something.  A horn beeped from a loader near-by, Larry didn’t dare look away from her intense stare.

She scowled briefly, and began “General Johnson,” then stopped.  She scowled a bit more, leaned closer to him, and murmured, “Look, I’ve got the whole Core Planets military backing me; just do what I tell you.”

A horn beeped again.  She locked her gaze on him for a moment longer, turned and marched away.  Larry didn’t like the idea of anyone else being in command on his ship. He was particularly suspicious of anyone who appeared to be concealing something.

“Well,” he said to her back, “what if I don’t?”

She dodged around a large case of provisions, and stopped at the airlock door, waiting for Drover.  When Larry caught up, she looked down at the door controls.  Drover looked down at the controls, realizing that he was supposed to open the door for the Lieutenant Colonel.  Instead of opening the door, he turned to a pile of rags heaped in the corner.  He was not going to be part of her pod of junior officers.

Drover nudged the rags with his foot.  The rags began to stir.  With a rustling sigh of fabric, the pile of rags grew from heap on the floor to the lumpy form of a standing Cephalopod.  The rags formed a kind of hooded cloak, covering all but the peering eyes at the front of the long, drooping body and the cluster of legs oozing around on the deck.

Whiting stepped back, hand on her gun.

The Cephalopod’s eyes were large and had U-shaped pupils.  The bulk of the body was behind the eyes, under the hood, and it drooped down in back, half-way to the floor.  In the front, the space from eyes to floor was a cluster of various types of tentacles.  Most were undifferentiated and used for “walking.”  Two particularly long “finger” tentacles were used like Mammal hands.  A few were specialized for eating or reproduction and hung among the legs.  Somewhere under the cloak a ventilator gurgled quietly.

Mo shuddered and stretched tentacles to impossible distances.  The speech synthesizer clicked on with a three-tone chime.  “Are we ready?  Do we think we’re ready?  Do we have a passenger?  Is it supposed to be so lumpy?  It is healthy?”

Mo’s head flexed forward to stare at Whiting.  Whiting backed up another half a step in the narrow corridor.

“I’m a female.  We’re built this way.  External glands.”

Cephalopods could, to a limited extent, hear without help.  To speak, however, they used speech synthesizers.  They often set the voice parameters to a high-pitched squeal.  The standard explanation was that they couldn’t properly hear lower frequency sounds.  Larry found it debatable, because they were very sensitive to the endless stream of mechanical vibrations in a working ship.  People who lived with Cephalopods knew that they preferred a distinctive sound, and would adjust their speech synthesizers to create voices that were distinctly inhuman.  Drover was quite sure that the synthesizers were fun gadgets as well as fashion accessories.

Mo chimed.  “Oh, glands is it?  Why do only females have glands?  Are they retractable? Prehensile?  Defensive? Do Cephalopods have external glands?”

A tentacle popped out and started to lift Mo’s gown.  Larry batted the gown back down.

“You two can swap secretions later,” Larry said.

Whiting opened the door and strode into the lock.  Drover jogged in behind her.

Mo chimed, “Secretions?  Does she have healthy secretions?”

Whiting turned to Drover.  “What is that?”

Larry looked back at Mo’s huge horse-shoe pupils.  Larry turned back to Whiting.

“Mo.  Mo Lusc.  Mo, this is Light Colonel Whiting.”

The patch of Mo’s mottled skin between its eyes shifted color to match her uniform, then her hair and finally her eye color. Mo chimed, “Light Colonel?  Is that a Core Planets rank?”

“Mo Lusc,” Whiting said.

“Mo Lusc, get it?  It’s clammy. Touch it.  Go ahead.  It doesn’t mind.”  Larry lifted part of Mo’s gown.

Whiting walked away.

Mo chimed, “Do you use an idiom?  Are we molluscae?  Do we have a high metabolism? Are we great fighters?”

“You are ass kickers,” Larry said, over his shoulder.

Mo dropped down to chest height, spreading tentacles in front and behind.  As ripples passed through its carpet of tentacles, Mo oozed forward.  It followed Whiting into the airlock with a hiss of fabric and a faint gurgle from the Cephalopod ventilator hidden somewhere under the gown.

Mo chimed, “Do we have an ass?”

Larry followed Mo and Whiting through the airlock.  The Outer Rim and the Core Planets Network were flexing their muscles in a Cephalopod star cluster.  Larry wondered if Mo had just provided an apt summary of the future for both Mammal empires.