Borders and border crossings were the food and drink of transportation. It was part of the human fascination with protection of assets. Resources were life and planets were resources. Planetary governments kept very close tabs on what came onto a planet and what went off of a planet. Since a frontier was a vast multidimensional surface, stretched through space, impossible to survey and patrol, stopping illegal activity at a border was both a lost cause and a long-standing tradition.
The Mule II had been stopped in space from time to time for inspections by various authorities. Larry always thought that space rendezvous were stupid and dangerous, but planetary governments were often run by the most stupid and dangerous of people. Since the Outer Rim frontier was patrolled by armed scouts, an encounter was possible and it might involve a hazardous ship-to-ship rendezvous.
Drover was starting to feel sick to his stomach. Whiting had given him coordinates that were, Drover recognized, dangerously close to the Outer Rim’s Carillon Base. She wanted to travel past the likely locations of armed scouts, deep into Outer Rim territory. The specific star she provided, however, was recognized on the frontier as a Cephalopod star.
Larry tried to labor under the assumption that she was going to negotiate some kind of switch in the Cephalopod alliance that would weaken the Outer Rim’s position. He also thought that hijacking a freighter was not the right way to accomplish this. Larry tried to take some comfort in being a hostage, but even that explanation had a problem because there were no witnesses; no one saw the gun. He could plead hijacking, kidnapping or terrorism all he wanted, but she was a military officer, and her word would hold more weight than his.
Still, he nourished a tiny spark of optimism, hoping that she was simply smuggling; not betraying herself, him, Major General Johnson and the entire Core Planets frontier. Realistically, he might wind up in a brig, awaiting trial for treason. Or, he might wind up out of fuel somewhere. There was a chance that she would be exchanged as a prisoner of war, leaving him destitute and stranded; the Mule II grounded on planet it would never leave.
Larry was tentatively sipping a hot coffee in the tiny passenger wardroom that also served as an office. It had a small desk that folded into a wall, a table and a spare chair, plus some food storage cabinets. Larry hoped that the unease in his guts would quiet down. He knew it was simply a visceral fear. Having Whiting wandering around was making him jumpy and nervous; it was eroding his pilot’s cool, his most valuable asset when something went unexpectedly wrong.
Whiting had been looking at the storage areas around the Mule II. The cargo bays were vast, but easily searched. The passenger section had a few small sleeping areas, grooming and toilet areas, and storage lockers. These lockers were clearly for personal effects, and would be a too-obvious place to hide something.
She knew that Drover was in the small ward-room. She felt some guilt at pulling a gun on him, but every other part of the plan had seemed so hollow. With nothing to offer, she knew she couldn’t successfully negotiate in this situation. She also knew that any attempt to explain her plan would give away classified military secrets. She had felt a twinge of regret for using Larry; he was a good pilot. However, she knew that if she exposed him to General Johnson’s plans, then he would become an accomplice instead of a hostage. His life would be over if he knew what she was doing and he was caught.
Larry heard her climbing down the ladder from an upper deck. He took a breath, trying to get a distant perspective on the problem. He spun his drink in the cup idly, wondering what she wanted with him now.
“Where can I stow these?” Whiting called from the companionway.
Drover wondered what she had brought on board. He heard a thump.
“Stow what?” Larry shouted.
“My uniform,” she said. Drover almost dropped his drink.
He got up from the table and leaned out into the companionway. She was hopping on one foot, struggling out of her uniform pants. Once out of the pants, she stood around in her T-shirt and underpants, rooting around in a rucksack. She pulled out a handful of civilian-looking clothes. She threw on a skirt and a light jacket. She stuffed her uniform into the sack and then wedged the gun in on top.
“You’re out of uniform,” Drover said. He looked down at his drink; he didn’t want to stare at the too-stylish civilian outfit.
Whiting started opening one of the lockers that lined the companionway, looking inside. “And?” she said.
She’d had a chance to relax and bottle up her rage and frustration. She was calm, and cool; ready to take on the Outer Rim; ready to earn a reputation as an officer who took charge and got things done. Once she was done with this, she would have a successful military career. Her business and military failures would be behind her.
“Don’t you get summary execution for that sort of thing?” Drover asked.
She stopped looking in the locker, and looked down at him. She had an actual grin. She had lost the terribly intense frown of conflict. “Only if you get caught,” she said.
Drover nodded. He was aware that there were often exchanges of prisoners where the actual crimes were winked at. All sides would exchange spies in order to protect their own intelligence networks.
This landed solidly on one of the explanations Drover had been examining. He felt a wave of relief as he realized that this also explained why she pulled a gun on him. He could, in front of any veracity tester, say that he had been kidnapped at gun point. She had given him a perfect, solid alibi that he would believe down to the marrow in his bones. It was neither a staged cover story nor a flimsy web of lies. No, this was the complete story, impenetrable by any form of truth-seeking.
Larry was more than just relieved, he was almost joyful to realize that she was just spying, nothing more. The clenching tightness in his chest was gone; his stomach felt better. He could relax, catch his breath, and stop fidgeting in the cockpit.
Whiting saw his morose expression fade away. She nodded, her grin growing.
“So, where can I hide this?” she asked.
Larry looked at the label stenciled on the wall. “Under that seat,” he said, pointing.
There was a small monitoring station in the companionway, with a bench, display and some input devices. It controlled the pumping equipment located nearby. Larry lifted up the bench that formed the seat. The grinding drone of the adjacent machinery could be heard much more clearly. Larry looked inside. Since the machinery was accessible below the shelf, it wasn’t a good choice for a storage locker.
“Not that one. That’s repair access to—,” Larry glance up at the stenciled label. It had been amended by a maintenance crew, and was barely legible. “It looks like fuel. Or coolant.” It was hard to be sure without checking the computer display.
Whiting squeezed past him to another bench. This one didn’t have a display. It was the same standard companionway wall module, but a display and controls had not been inserted.
Larry watched as she lifted up the bench. This one was clearly a simple locker, with no access to machinery or ship’s systems. She bent over, pulled out two lubrication kits and carefully set these on the deck. Then she pulled out some used food plates and cups. These had obviously come from the near-by ward room. She looked at Larry and dropped them on the deck with a clatter.
“So,” he began, “am I still going to get paid?” Now that the hijacking was behind them, he wanted to minimize the cost of this side trip.
Whiting picked up her uniform and tossed this into the locker with some vehemence. The gun made a loud, ominous clunk in the locker. “You’ve been paid,” she said.
She reached into the locker and started arranging her bag.
“I mean for this side trip, too,” Larry ventured.
Whiting bent over, grabbed the two lubrication kits. She jammed these down on top of her bundle. It took some forcing to get it all to fit back into the small locker.
She looked up from her task at Larry and said, “You know, each day I find new things about you that I despise. You’re cocky and you’re greedy and you talk a lot. What else? That ancient music you listen to!”
She gave a final shove to the content and slammed the bench on them. The crash resounded through the ship.
Larry had reached his limit of polite deference to his passengers.
“This isn’t really my favorite working environment, you know. Military transport and gunpoint and behind enemy lines and all that!” He was waving his hands as he shouted. He’d splashed some of his drink onto the floor and wall of the companionway.
“You work the frontier, right?” Whiting asked, hands on hips, chin out.
“For money! You’ve changed this into a war zone.” “Take a breath,” she said. “You just have to learn to adapt.” Larry knew she could wear that kind of tough-as-nails attitude because she was a Marine. She had military forces to back her up. When he saw her in a civilian skirt and jacket, she looked like a business woman, and fragile. He reminded himself that she was still a Marine Lieutenant Colonel, and her attitude was her most important asset.
She bent over and picked up the plates and cups. She reached out with them. Larry juggled them in his arms, along with his drink, wondering what she was doing.
“Civilization is coming,” she said, coldly. “Clean these, stow them, and we’ll use them again. They don’t go in lockers. Got it?”
He looked from his armload dishes to Whiting. “Oh, no,” Drover said. “Don’t mind the gun! Just clean these dishes before I slice you from shoulder to tenderloin and put you in the smoker.”
Whiting turned and walked away.
Larry was starting to build up steam. “Oh, everything’s fine.” Whiting had reached the ladder and was going down to engineering. “We’re just going to fly toward enemy lines out of uniform!”
She glanced up at him just as she went below the deck level. Larry couldn’t tell if she was still grinning. He looked at the dirty plates. It was hard to say how old they were. He had to agree that they should be cleaned, but he couldn’t agree with having a passenger tell him how to manage domestic duties on his own ship. He looked back at the bench where she’d found them. He lifted the bench with his toe. The lubrication kits were perched on the bundle of clothes. Under those was the gun. She’d just dropped it in there. He wondered how much she trusted him. How far would she really go? Maybe she hadn’t armed the gun, and she didn’t trust him at all. Perhaps she was daring him to pick it up. He wondered what he would do with the gun. Force her back to Henry base, where he’d be arrested? He could see few choices. He realized that she had trapped him into watching her plan unfold. He was really just a passenger on her trip.
He recalled one of the ancient canal song recordings.
“The cook we had on board the deck stood six feet in her socks,
Her hand was like an elephant’s ear and her breath could open the locks.
A maid of sixty summers was she, most of her body was on the floor,
And when at night she’d go to sleep, Oh, sufferin’ how she’d snore.”
It was time, he thought, to try and get back to the Old Core Planets and away from the frontier. The trips would be shorter and safer, but we would also have to cope with more passenger problems. He took the plates to the galley.
Whiting climbed down to engineering. She found it very difficult to tell if Mo Lusc was draped over a console, or Mo had left its gown draped over the console. She also noticed a distinct odor. She had only caught a whiff of it when she first met Mo. Now, she was sure that she could identify a definite Cephalopod smell. Perhaps it was Mo specifically, or perhaps it was the Cephalopod version of the generic sweat and urine smell that always accompanied a troop of marines.
It was gloomy down in engineering. She tried not to flinch or jump when the pile of rags started stirring. Slowly, a lump rose in the middle of the console. The rags shifted around with a rustling until Mo Lusc’s eyes were visible, peering out from the shadowing depths of the rags.
There was a chime as Mo’s speech synthesizer activated.
“Were we watching? Were we monitoring closely? Did we monitor so closely we did not apprehend your approach?” It was hard to fathom precisely what Mo meant. The speech synthesizer was set to a very grating, high-pitched screech. The mechanical drone lacked any emotional content. Mo had gone through a number of color shifts; Whiting hadn’t known enough Cephs to work out any of the meanings.
Mo’s greeting was a version of a story Whiting had heard more than once. Caught napping at the engineering station, it claimed it was monitoring so closely it didn’t hear her come in. Whiting thought that it was not too different from any other marine.
“Are you having a good day, Light Colonel Whiting? Are your glands doing well today?” Whiting looked down for a moment. Yes, the jacket did make her chest look big. But that was no reason for talking about it. If Mo Lusc was human, it would be a complete jerk. If she had the military police to back her up, she would have it thrown in the brig if it continued talking about her chest like that.
“My glands are fine,” she replied, coldly. “I changed clothes, maybe that’s your problem.” It didn’t matter how she said it, she realized, any emotional content would be lost by the speech translator. She could be as rude as she wanted.
“You changed your display? Why? How will we keep track of all these mammals if they keep changing?” Mo’s synthesizer squeaked.
She wondered who Mo referred to when it said “we”. She wondered if there were other Cephalopods on board the ship. In several days of travel, she’d only seen Mo once. For all she knew, one of the cargo bays could be creeping with Cephs. The thought made her uneasy; she reached for the reassuring weight of her gun, and remembered that she’d set that aside. She was on a mission where she couldn’t rely on overwhelming Marine force.
Mo continued, “Were Drover and I speaking of your glands earlier? Did you speak of our glands?”
It took her a moment to understand this to mean that Drover had been talking about her chest with Mo. The thought of two species talking about their sexual preferences was both amusing and horrifying.
“Oh, you were?” Whiting said.
“Did Drover tell us that you had remarkable glands?” She looked down at her chest again, and then up at Mo, embarrassed. “That creep!” she said.
She was starting to find these two were intolerable. She was extremely fit, and was lucky to have genes that gave her a good figure. She found herself sliding away from amused and toward horrified that a Mammal and a Cephalopod would talk about her in any kind of sexual context.
“Do we often see mammalian glands?” Mo’s synthesizer began after a brief humming. “Did you adapt from a scavenger species?” Mo’s synthesizer hummed idly for a moment and then shut off.
She found this to be a dizzying turn of conversation. She knew that before humans had moved into space, they had descended from migratory great apes, but she didn’t recall anything about the prey-predator status. She’d heard somewhere that pre-humans were omnivorous scavengers, that was why we had to eat a varied diet; it was part of our chemistry. Space travelers or tree-dwellers, we were limited by our chemistry.
“I’d love to chat about evolution, but I want to use your sensors,” Whiting replied, cautiously.
She realized she didn’t know the first things about management interaction with Cephalopods. She’d need to get over her aversion to the smell and spend more time with Cephalopods if she was going to learn to motivate them.
Mo slid, or perhaps oozed, off the console. The motion started with some of the rags sliding off to one side. Then more of the rags moved over to join them. The head moved over to the side to join the bulk of the body. The eyes remained at the same height, and gazed up, unblinking, at Whiting. Then the remaining tentacles drifted off of the console to join the rest of the body. It looked like Mo was being poured off the console onto the deck.
The operational controls were a series of shallow disks and indentations; different patches glowed and pulsed in a variety of colors. A colored section flickered suddenly. One of Mo’s tentacles reached out and caressed a shallow depression. The flickering changed to a slow beat that alternated between three different colors. The area was vast, covering almost two full meters; farther than a person could comfortably reach. There was a faint trace of slime over the entire control panel. Whiting looked around for a set of human controls.
Mo’s speech synthesizer started to hum. “Can we exchange secretions now? Can you change your colors to perform a mating display?”
Whiting stepped back, staring at the Cephalopod. Her hand patted her thigh where her gun should have been hanging.
“Would you like to see some arousing displays that we have recorded? Have we recently acquired some from another trade vessel?” Mo asked. A tentacle wavered slightly, starting to move toward one of the lockers.
Whiting shook her head in disbelief. She needed to get the job done and get out of here before she lost her temper and started threatening the squid. Beyond the smell and Mo’s bad behavior, it was also too dark to work in this area.
“Okay, how about you drive?” she asked, pointing at the engineering console. She hoped that operating the sensors would keep the squid busy and quiet.
“Should we drive? Are we first officer-rated for a ship of this size? Perhaps you use an idiom for something else?” Mo asked.
This, at least, was a reasonably clear question. “Yes. You operate the sensors. I want an extreme range search for Outer Rim ship ion trails.” She wanted to add something like “you idiot”, but she bit it back. She had a mission to accomplish.
Mo Lusc oozed back onto the console. First, some tentacles moved over. Then, the head moved over the console. Finally, the remaining tentacles joined the rest on the console. Whiting couldn’t be sure, but it appeared that the length of the tentacles could change, also. Mo had been just under two meters while standing. But gathered on the console, Mo seemed much smaller. With the head in the middle, two batches of limbs reached only about a meter to each edge of the console.
A conventional video monitor above the engineering console flickered into life, showing the expected empty space surrounding the ship. Whiting peered at it as details were added during the sensor scans.
“Are we far beyond the base named Henry? Are we deep in the Mammal frontier? If we go further, we will be within range of the Outer Rim Carillon base?” Mo asked.
Whiting watched the display closely. Each sensor scan showed that they were alone in this region of space.
“How long before we make contact?” she asked. She glanced down at Mo, and watched the fabric rustling as it operated the sensor controls. She wondered how well it understood the Outer Rim’s encroaching on Core planets stars.
“Could we make contact in only hours if we go more directly?” Mo replied. Whiting wanted to think this through, but Mo continued, “Will they have guards? With weapons? Should we withdraw before they find us?”
“Out here? Are they that close?” she asked.
“Can we be too close?” Mo asked.
Whiting wondered at this. Too close for what? She was sure that Drover was no genius; all that he or Mo knew was a course to a specific location. She wondered if Mo meant that their course was too close to Outer Rim sensors, or the destination she’d given them was too close to Carillon base? Perhaps Mo Lusc knew more about the current state of Outer Rim navigation aids and sensor systems than her intelligence sources. What was too close?
An energy flux indicator started to flash. Something had altered the low background noise generated in the interstellar vacuum.
“What’s that?” Whiting asked, pointing at the display.
Mo’s head shifted around to watch her point. Tentacles rustled. The display shifted slightly to emphasize the change in energy density.
“Is that another sensor?” Mo asked.
“We’ve been spotted?” she asked. This was a contingency in her plan. She had looked at it as an unpleasant, awkward and difficult to manage contingency. She knew that getting away might require some real luck.
“Can it be worse?” Mo asked.
Worse? She wondered. What did Mo mean by worse? She didn’t know what a Cephalopod would define as the worst possible contingency on the frontier between warring Mammals. For her and her pilot, though, the worst situation was capture.