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.