Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Eleven

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.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Ten

The Outer Rim’s military doctrine stated explicitly that a border was maintained by force. What followed from this statement of policy was the practice of putting a large force where they wanted to declare a border.

The Outer Rim strategists were deeply committed to their three-dimensional game of Go, where bases could be placed far from any kind of obvious support. But, if necessary, the intermediate support could be constructed to form an unassailable border. Executed well, it was punishing strategy. The Outer Rim’s government, involving royal dynasties, encouraged long-term planning.

The Core Planets’ challenge at Niagara had been met by a flurry of construction along the edge of the globular cluster that linked Niagara through a series of bases to the vast Outer Rim base called Webeck. The Webeck base included a habitable planet, with a ground side as vast as any Home World. Webeck, far into Cephalopod territory, was the center of military operations. A breakdown in Cephalopod relations could be met with overwhelming military force. It was also the base used to manage one part of the ongoing conflicts with the Core Planets.

Like Niagara, Dieskau’s Carillon base was supported from Webeck, supplied by a constant stream of freighters, patrolled by a fleet of warships. More important to the Outer Rim, however, was the current location of the heavily patrolled border with the Core Planets.

Once Major General William Johnson started building his Henry base, he had moved the Outer Rim’s perception of the border, pushing it back into Outer Rim territory, past a dust and debris system, almost to the Outer Rim’s Carillon base itself.

Soiros was an intelligence officer from the Home Worlds, newly assigned to Carillon base. He was a slave to the “frontier” fashions, humanized copies of the draped cloaks favored by the Cephalopods. Home World fashion houses exaggerated and modified the basic Ceph cloaks so they no longer resembled anything that Cephalopods actually wore. While they were all the rage in the Home Worlds, they were not practical for life on a small scout ship on the frontier. Soiros’ complex hairstyle didn’t hold up well on the frontier, either.

This was Soiros’ first trip to the frontier; his first opportunity to see Cephalopods. His journey began on a massive ship that could carry several of the tiny scout ships in addition to vast amounts of freight and passengers. The long-haul transport ship, almost as large as a frontier base, was fast enough to span the impossibly large gulf between the Home Worlds and Webeck in only three weeks of travel. The vast bulk was of the ship was completely loaded; it had been a cramped and uncomfortable three weeks for all the passengers. The ship had a small flight crew and little domestic support: trash accumulated everywhere, to be cleaned up on arrival. Life support systems, like plumbing for toilets, were hopelessly overloaded. Passenger amenities were minimal, making laundry a complex scheduling problem during the journey. At the end of a long trip, the passengers were uniformly irritable and dirty, and often sick.

The next two legs were on smaller and smaller ships from Webeck to Carillon. The passengers and cargo were jammed onto each ship, making them equally cramped and dirty. The journey on a small freighter from Webeck to Crown took a week, even though the distance covered was less than a tenth of the distance from the Home Worlds. The journey to Carillon was only half the distance from Quebec to Crown, but the convoy of tiny lighters and barges took another week.

Soiros’ first assignment was a patrol mission to examine stars for traces of Core planets contact. He had almost reached his limit of patience with small, dirty, smelly space craft. He was in desperate need of a bed that matched his actual height, and some way to fully wash all of this clothes as well as himself after five weeks of non-stop travel.

Soiros was expecting the actual mission to be an even more grueling hardship than travel from the Home Worlds to the frontier. The frontier lacked all of the amenities of the Home Worlds. There were no professional wash and grooming services. There were no restaurants. The live theater was almost exclusively amateur performers. Publications were brought in ships, and were six or more weeks out of date. Magazines and videos were poorly executed copies that had been compressed for transport and lacked the resolution and fidelity of an original. Even bits were precious in space travel, and highly compressed data took up less space in the hold of a ship.

Outer Rim patrol pilots were recruited from the frontier bases, where they learned the skills needed to navigate without the sophisticated infrastructure built up around the Outer Rim Home Worlds. Frank Kibber was a capable pilot who held onto the thread of hope that he could overcome his frontier heritage and advance through the hierarchy of Home World family titles and ranks. Frank’s flight engineer, Micha Nikos, considered the endless stream of titles and social positions to be worthless; merely coming from a good family did not make someone a suitable planetary governor or military general. Since their viewpoints were not directly opposed, it was a topic for discussion in their makeshift ward room.

“So, Soiros, how do you like the frontier so far?” Frank asked.

Frank, Micha Nikos and Soiros were crowded around the tiny table. It was their first common meal aboard the scout ship, a chance to stretch and relax.

“Are you aware,” Soiros began, “that there are no laundry facilities on a first-rate ship?” Frank and Micha looked at Soiros; Soiros nodded meaningfully, looking at his audience of two. Micha took an immediate dislike to Soiros. Micha found this kind of bald statement with no support, explanation or story was irritating. Micha didn’t want to satisfy Soiros’ demand for attention. He particularly didn’t like Soiros’ little knowing smirk; Soiros was waving his little story around like it was a precious secret that Micha should beg to learn.

“Of course,” Soiros added, “they were there when we left the Home Worlds, and stopped working about a week into the trip.”

Soiros was nodding in agreement with himself. Frank was wondering if there was more to the story. Micha shifted around on his chair, irritated. Frank was aware that besides clothing and hairstyle, Soiros had a recognizable Home Worlds accent; he wondered how obvious his frontier background would be in the Home Worlds.

“We do laundry in the head,” Micha said.

Soiros made a face of shock and disgust.

Micha was pleased with Soiros look of dismay. “What?” he said.

Soiros peered at Micha closely to see if he was joking or baiting him. “You do laundry in the head?” Soiros asked slowly.

“Well,” Micha began, and stopped. “Well,” he began again, “we rig a basket in the grooming stall, and switch the water to recycle. We put in detergents and run it for five minutes. Then we do two cycles of fresh for a minute followed by recycle for five. In the head.”

Soiros looked at him. “Water?”

“It’s what the head has plumbing for. We make it, you know. Not like the first rates that bring all of their water along. I don’t know why they don’t condense a molecule stream out of the engine exhaust. I mean, otherwise it’s wasted ions.”

“Wasted ions,” Soiros echoed. “Very resourceful.” Soiros looked at them intently. A smirk stole across his face. “You don’t have laundry machines?” he asked, as if Frank and Micha were complete idiots for not having included these.

Frank said, “They’d be too heavy. I think you’ll find, however, once you’ve had your clothes washed in pure water, you’ll never go back to laundry solvents.”

Micha stared at Frank, wondering why Frank was being so polite to this Home World buffoon. Micha could see that Soiros got a position in intelligence because of some family connections. No matter how well or poorly he did, he’d still be able to exploit his family for another position.
“Won’t my clothes be wet?” Soiros asked.

Micha smirked. Soiros glanced over at him in growing irritation.

“You’re quite right,” Frank interjected, as quickly as he could. “They are completely wet until we dry them. Tell him about the dryer,” Frank said to Micha.

“Yes, very wet, Soiros, very wet,” Micha began. “But we rig a drying rack in the ventilators. The air blows over your clothes, providing humidity in the ship’s air system, and drying the clothes. Nothing wasted.”

Soiros wondered if they realized how rude they were with this confused back and forth conversational style. He hoped that they would, in time, recognize that he had come from a well-placed family, which had given him many opportunities for learning and cultural refinement. He hoped that these men would make an effort to improve themselves, otherwise the trip would be an intolerable bore.

After a pause Soiros said, “Don’t you find the frontier to be a long string of unpleasant sacrifices?”
Frank nodded in agreement.

Soiros waited for an opportunity to detail the several sacrifices he’d made; since no question was forthcoming from the pilots, Soiros said, “You don’t object to all of the sacrifices you are forced to make?”

Frank shrugged. “Obviously, we’re not,” Frank paused to think of the correct phrase, “gentlemen of your quality. We don’t miss it if we’ve never known it.”
Soiros smirked with pride. Frank was encouraged by Soiros’s response. Micha shifted around in his seat.

A chime sounded.

They looked up at one of the displays. Soiros said “Excuse me,” and started to get up. Micha had to move out of his way. After Micha moved back, Soiros could squeeze out of the ward room and move to his intelligence work station.

Frank and Micha looked at each other for a moment after Soiros had left. After hours together, silence was comfortable and sometimes necessary.

“Pompous,” Micha said.

“Maybe just new to the frontier,” Frank said.

The intercom chimed. “I have two Cephalopod type two scout ships approaching,” Soiros said.
Micha looked at Frank. Frank nodded; Micha touched the intercom switch for him.

Frank said, “That’s typical, they often shadow us while scouting.” He nodded again, and Micha released the switch.

There was a silence. They looked at each other for a moment, wondering if anything else was coming.

“You assert that this is not an attack posture?” Soiros’ voice chimed over the intercom.

Frank looked from the intercom to Micha to the plates. “Would you?” he asked.

Micha nodded.

“Thanks,” Frank said.

Frank excused himself and struggled from behind the table. He climbed through a rotating connector sleeve from the service module containing their impromptu ward room to the bridge module. Soiros was seated at the intelligence work station. Frank climbed into the pilot’s seat.

Frank brought up the display forwarded by Soiros. It showed two Cephalopod scouts gaining slowly on Franks’s scout ship.

“Have you seen a Squid attack?” Frank asked.

“I have seen accounts and reports,” Soiros replied, coldly.

“They’re very aggressive,” Frank said. Clearly Soiros didn’t know very much, but Frank didn’t want to contradict him or lecture to him.

“And you consider closing with your ship to be passive?” Soiros sneered. He emphasized the “you consider”, as if Frank was rejecting hard-won wisdom on a whim.

“Uh,” Frank began, trying to choose his words carefully. “Their rate of close for attacks is higher. Almost full speed,” Frank began, but stopped; he was going to describe their braking maneuvers, but checked himself. He wondered if Soiros would see it as patronizing.

“Full speed?” Soiros scoffed. “How do they stop in time to make effective use of their peculiar close-combat weapon systems? That would be difficult.”

“They actually pivot the ship and use their main engines as brakes,” Frank said. “A good pilot will manage to halt just touching your hull. It’s a pretty solid bump, but they rarely break anything in the process.”

Soiros pivoted from his work station to look at Frank.

“Do you realize the fuel costs in using main engines as brakes?” Soiros said. Frank was starting to lose patience with Soiros; he didn’t invent the attack, the Squids did. Frank was just relaying what he had seen happen.

“Yes,” Frank said, trying to be patient. “Their exhaust plasma typically blanks out our sensors.”

Soiros snorted. “Are you ignorant of the proper filter settings?” Frank opened his mouth, but shut it before he responded. He knew that it wasn’t a matter of filter settings, it was a matter of overloading the sensors. But he didn’t want to confront Soiros directly, not on their first day together.

“Of course, you would be completely busy piloting the ship,” Soiros added.

While not true, Frank recognized that Soiros said it to permit him to preserve some degree of dignity. As pilot, he did outrank Soiros; but as a frontiersman, he was of a different social class entirely. Acutely aware of his own need to advance socially, Frank soaked up every nuance of Soiros’ persona.
“You call them squids?” Soiros began. “They are almost impossible to detect on this thing. If I didn’t have them on visual, I’d lose them.”

The frontier scout pilots had an informed opinion on the Cephalopod combat techniques. The Outer Rim central command, back in the Home Worlds, didn’t agree; consequently, military doctrine was almost completely useless in dealing with Cephalopods.

Cephalopod combat systems required ship-to-ship contact. In order to execute a ship-to-ship attack, Cephalopods made their ships very hard to detect. The Outer Rim chose to ignore this, covering the problem with official denials. No engineer would put their career at risk by improving or altering the Outer Rim ship sensors. Instead, they changed the training, altered rules of engagement and modified doctrine. Somewhere within the military command, the Cephalopods were not seen directly, but were seen through a lens of internal political rivalries.

“You can’t trust ‘em,” Frank said. “I say just cut them up for bait.” Struck by a sudden thought, Soiros turned away from his console. “Bait?” he asked. “Do you fish on the frontier?” He tried to conceal any kind of awe in his voice.

He had been open-water fishing on several game preserves, owned by some very important people. It had taken Soiros a moment to reconcile a humble frontier pilot with the special perquisites of the powerful and well connected. Soiros’ first thought was that Frank was from a well-connected frontier family; Soiros realized that he could not treat this pilot too brusquely without enduring some potential consequences.

“Fishing, hunting, absolutely,” Frank said, enthused. “Depends on what kind of crawly you find. On this one planet we used to hunt these things that had invented a kind of neutron particle beam. Cut you right in half.” Frank was warming up to a great story that many pilots were eager to hear. This might give them something to talk about. “We went hunting with our usual—.”
Soiros interrupted, “Hunting?”

Frank was unaware of the restricted, private hunting preserves held by the very wealthy in the Home Worlds. The most powerful regulated the various kinds of animals, managing this highly efficient protein source for their own use.

Frank continued, “Hunting, of course. So we went out with our—.” Soiros’ veneer of culture vanished as he shrieked, “Hey! Where’d the squids go?” He started adjusting controls. Soiros jabbed, pounded and poked at the filter settings, looking frantically for some sign of the Cephalopod ships.

“See what I said?” Frank asked, smiling and helpful. “The only good squid is whale bait.” The smile died on Frank’s face. The Cephalopods were, in fact, gone. Without changing course, the Cephalopods had vanished from the scout ship’s sensors.

Frank had seen this Cephalopod maneuver before; since the military hierarchy denied it, he had been accused of incompetence, neglect or worse. Superior officers typically dismissed it as just filter settings, calibration problems, or pilot error. Pilot work was lonely, drug abuse was common. Mistakes were possible. Frank wondered how Soiros would respond. Would Soiros accuse him of sabotage? Or would Soiros allow him to start the time-consuming search for the Cephs?

One corner of the pilot station had displays that were repeaters for the intelligence systems. Frank was pleased to see a number of the standard sensors flash by as Soiros searched for the Cephalopods.

“Well, they’re gone,” Frank said. He knew that the Outer Rim refusal to install appropriate sensors on the scout ships made them nearly impossible to locate. Frank also knew that there were unauthorized modifications that would improve sensor resolution enough to track concealed Ceph ships. Because Carillon was the central base for this cluster, no one would do the installation.

“Nobody just goes,” Soiros replied. He had lost his icy arrogance. He struggled with his sensors, trying to locate some hint as to where their ships were. “We’d best find them again or Dieskau will personally kick my ass back to the Home Worlds.”

“Friggin’ Squids,” Frank said. He was pleased to be included by Soiros, but dismayed that failure to find the squids might be counted against him.

“Okay,” Soiros began. He paused, adjusting something. “Okay. Now look at this. Those Squid bastards.”

They peered at their respective displays; Soiros triumphant, Frank doubtful.

The sensor location scrolled across the bottom of a display that just showed static background stars. They saw a Cephalopod scout ship flicker back into being from nothingness. It started as a small phase-shift in the background radiation. From nothingness, the background was slowly blocked by the shape of a Cephalopod ship. The phase shift continued, and the ship faded into another Outer Rim scout, flying in formation with them.


The second Cephalopod ship underwent the same transformation from nothing to something to a replica of an Outer Rim scout. Frank and Soiros stopped holding their breath. They sighed almost simultaneously. They glanced at each other. Soiros sneered his triumph. His agonizing journey to the frontier had finally paid off: he had information that he could exploit. Frank hoped that he now had a supporter, highly placed in the Home World social structure.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Nine

A base had a non-stop stream of barges and lighters that moved materials between ground side and space side. At some mature bases, the short-haul operation could be handled by independent operators who owned their single transport ship; other bases had large businesses that owned fleets of lighters. At the military-controlled fringes of the Core Planets, however, ground barges were non-existent. Transporters like Larry Drover needed to be both interstellar navigators, but also planetary pilots. Most navigators were terrible pilots, making every landing a combination of luck and courage. “Have a good flight and don’t bang into the rock too hard,” they cautioned each other.

Larry’s collection of ancient canal song recordings put the planetary operations in an ironic light. One particularly raucous song about a storm on a canal that threatened to sink the boat and kill the crew evoked a feeling of courage in the face of terrible dangers, but was all exaggeration. One of the historians noted that the size of the boat made it possible for the crew to wade to shore in the unlikely event of sinking in a canal. Another song lamented that “the Erie was a-rising and the gin was getting low, and I scarcely think we’ll get a drink ‘til we get to Buffalo.” On one hand, Larry thought it would be good to locate a route where the liquor supply was his biggest navigation hazard, and the worst accident would be an unscheduled delay. Larry also knew that competition was fierce, driving rates down to the minimum.

Drover and Whiting had threaded their way through the final administrative steps of the unloading operation, and returned to the last Mule II cargo bay. It stood vast and empty, squatting on the landing platform after having disgorged the endless series of shipping containers that comprised a mini-factory. The Mule II had two different styles of cargo bays, neither of which matched the newly standardized planet-side crew scaffold. Since the scaffold didn’t match the cargo bay gangway, they were forced to enter the bay through a maintenance hatch.

“One load, that’s it?” Larry asked, staring up through the scaffolding at the empty ship.

Whiting knew this would be one of her largest problems. She had tried to raise this point, but Johnson didn’t listen to her, or didn’t care.

“They’ll call when we need something else,” she muttered. It sounded hollow to her, but it was the best answer she had.

Drover shook his head in disbelief. “Probably ought to go back to the Core for another load. Is there anything to go back? I can’t afford to go back empty.” He knew he was whining, but the expense of flying a load of vacuum back to another base would make the trip a net loss.

Whiting looked around; with a scowl she said, “When do we leave?” “We?” he asked. “Leave ‘we’ out of this. Mo and I leave when we’re fueled.” Larry felt that if there was no military load, there was no no point in a military adjunct.

Whiting scowled even more. She was uncomfortable and the conflict she felt was written all over her face.

“Negative. I’m with you until this is over.”

She watched Drover climb up into the scaffolding, leaving her standing on the deck, feeling very small and alone. She knew that Pomeroy had identified her for this because she couldn’t refuse. Her failure would rid Johnson of someone he didn’t trust. Even a success might only set her up for more of the same treatment. Her world folded into a small, dark tunnel, blocked by a freighter pilot who wouldn’t cooperate.

“Joy unbounded. No load and now a passenger,” Larry shouted down at her. “I’m billing for this, I really am. I’m charging double. Plus freight; what do you weigh?”

Whiting climbed up into the scaffolding.

“You’re being paid. You’re on retainer,” she said; but it sounded just as hollow as everything else.
“It won’t even cover my fuel!” he said.

“Then buy it some place cheaper.”

“Yes ma’am, right away ma’am,” Larry recognized the stock military answers. “Maybe I’ll open a fuel depot out here on the frontier just for me. Maybe on that rock in your dust cloud.”

She looked up, scowling still. “I’m assigned to this ship. Can we move on?” she said. She hoped her voice wouldn’t crack. She was not doing well. She had to finish this mission and earn some kind of reputation for success; otherwise Johnson would throw her at more dangerous missions until she was killed.

Drover climbed out into the platform that was closest to the cargo maintenance hatch. He looked back down at the ground support equipment. The landing area was completely empty. Whiting crowded uncomfortably close to him on the tiny platform.

“Well, you can ride the cargo hold, because I’m not putting up with you on the flight deck,” he said.
Whiting sighed. In one smooth motion she tore out her impossibly huge side-arm, armed it and pointed it at Drover’s chest. There was barely room on the platform for the two of them separated by the gun. Slowly, Larry put up his hands.

“Put your hands down. You’re not armed, and you don’t stand a chance against me.” Larry started to put them down, embarrassed. “Sorry,” he said.

“I have orders. Now you do, too. Would you get in the ship, already?” Eyeing the gun, Larry shuffled back to the very edge of the platform. He found himself frozen by the malice it represented. He wondered if she would actually shoot him. With a wrench, he turned away, took a breath, regained his pilot’s cool distance, and climbed through the scaffold into the bay. As soon as he had both feet inside, he turned; but the gun was already inside the ship. Whiting’s arm followed, then the rest of her body. Drover stared at the gun.

Larry knew the weapon reasonably well. He had two on the Mule II. He knew that a frontier pilot had to be heavily armed, but the weapons terrified him. He’d forced himself to practice a few times with each of the various ship’s weapons. He didn’t like them and justified his dislike by quoting the high price of ammunition, the complex restrictions on almost every base, and the basic danger to the hull of his ship. Her gun was big enough that he was sure that it would not only kill him, but would also blow a hole through the bulkhead at his back.

“Keep moving, we’ve got a ship to fly here,” Whiting said. She felt like shouting her rage and frustration at this poor pilot, but choked back her anger. She wanted to fire a few rounds into the air just to make her position crystal clear.

“Look, I’m just a pilot,” he started. “You can’t—.” Larry stopped. Of course she could do anything she wanted. “I mean, this can’t be legal.” He didn’t see any response. “You’re a Marine. This is, I mean, this is hijacking.”

“Just shut up,” she replied.

She jabbed him in the chest. She found it gave her a vague feeling of guilty satisfaction. She shouldn’t enjoy this, but she was hurt by the position she was in, and she needed to share that pent up rage somehow. She certainly couldn’t talk about it to this pilot, but she could shove him around until he felt it, too.

Reluctantly, Larry turned away. He tried to put himself in his coolest frame of mind and walk to the flight deck. He couldn’t find a good reason why she needed to force her way onto his ship. Without a load or an order, he didn’t have to return to Lyman. She could get there via the constant stream of military flights. Her vague hints about Johnson forced Larry to conclude that she was doing something for which she didn’t have orders.

Whiting followed him toward the flight deck. He glanced back to confirm that she was following. The Mule II companionways were narrow and twisted around the various ship’s systems. Larry knew the Mule II reasonably well. Whiting, on the other hand, had seen only the flight deck. Larry ducked under a fuel coolant pipe that was routed through the companionway. Whiting, focused on Larry and her gun, wasn’t looking for low-hanging plumbing and cracked her head solidly against the metal fitting.

“Ow! Goddamn it!” she shouted, ducking and holding her head.

She hit the pipe with her left hand. She switched the gun and then punched a nearby section of wall several times. She wound up and kicked a locker door, leaving a sizable dent and springing the door off its latch.

“I hate this stupid ship!” she shouted, stamping.

“Low bridge, everybody down,” he said. “Please don’t wave the gun around, Lieutenant.” “Lieutenant Colonel,” she said, holding her head.

“Okay. Just don’t go busting anything important.” Pain had replaced some of her fierce scowl. Larry looked at the dented locker door. It had a standard location marker specifying the deck, side and relative position, plus a large temporary tag with one of Mo Lusc’s meticulous lists of common spare parts.

“Okay. That’s only storage for spares and stuff. I guess you can bash that up.” He looked at her, hoping that she would soften up a little.

“Listen, okay,” she said. She focused the gun back on his chest.

He could see that she was not relaxing her guard. She was still fiercely focused on what she had to do. Larry wondered if she recognized him as anything but the keys to a ship.

“Do I have your attention, now? I’m out of options here. You will take off, you will file a plan back to Lyman’s base, but I will give you different coordinates. Is that clear?”

She could feel the scowl in her forehead and the knot in her jaw. While she was not happy with what she was doing, she had a very specific mission, and she had to do it without actually revealing it to her pilot. She was giving him something the intelligence service called “plausible deniability”, an alibi and an excuse that would keep him safe no matter what happened to her.

Larry looked at her closely for a moment. He could see the strain.

“Out of options?” he asked. “I don’t think you’re ever out of options. Everyone needs a bail-out plan.” It was something every pilot knew.

“Well I don’t have a bail-out plan,” she said.

Whiting relaxed and looked at him coldly over the barrel of the gun. She had heard Johnson laying out her new career in the military, beginning with this mission. Larry could see that she had resolved something in her own mind. He didn’t know, but hoped that she’d changed her mind.

“Pre-flights,” she said. “Now.” She gestured with the gun. “Get us clear. Quickly.” Larry saw that she hadn’t changed her mind, leaving him with a far worse alternative: that she’d resolved her internal conflict and now felt better about shooting him. He started to edge down the hall toward the flight deck.

“I don’t have a lot of time,” she continued, “and there aren’t a lot of pilots. I don’t want to waste one.”

Larry found this chilling, but continued to hope that it was just hyperbole. He tore his eyes off the gun and scrambled around the corner. As he went up from cargo, past engineering, to the flight deck, Whiting followed him, calm and collected. The bruise on her head was a bright red.

Once on the flight deck, he climbed over the control conduit and dropped into the cockpit. He settled into his control station. He noticed that his palms were wet. He felt like he had to go the bathroom. This was no way to fly.

Whiting dropped into the jump seat. She powered up the communications panel. He looked around for a moment. She waved the gun at him to show her impatience.

“Why can’t you just leave me out this?” he said. He had lists, procedures, checks and confirmations. He had a call and response litany. He know that he couldn’t just go racing off into space because some Marine officer insisted that she didn’t have any time. For Larry, there was no procedure that he could hurry. Any mistake could start the cascade of events that could end in the slow death from dehydration or the quick death from asphyxia or one of the horrifying alternatives in between.

Larry flipped on his computer and got his lists ready. He turned on the intercom for engineering.

“Mo. Mo! You there?” It was not the call that he usually made. Larry wondered if Mo would pick up on it.

Larry took a breath and started again, “Ready for cargo-bay hookup?” He felt better about his, as it was closer to the right beginning for pre-flight checks.

The intercom chimed. Larry heard the squawk of Mo’s speech synthesizer, “Are we ready? Are we always ready? Is this the moment’s notice? Is the fuel all on board? Do we have enough?”

This was Mo’s veiled and oblique discomfort with the situation. Destinations were planned well in advance with fuel and food loaded on the last cargo bay to make sure that they would survive almost any contingency. With no formal planning, Mo was clearly uncomfortable. But Larry had no satisfactory response. Whiting had a destination that she was keeping secret. Larry was afraid to ask for details and have her start waving the gun around the cockpit.

“Rig for interstellar,” Larry snapped at Mo.

The intercom buzzed, “Were we rigging for interstellar? Are we in a hurry? Are we rushing as fast as our pods can,” Mo paused. “What is the word for our motility mode?”

This was a game they played, centered on Mo’s cut-rate speech synthesizer. Since the synthesizer lacked some common translations, and neither of them knew how to update the lexicon, they had invented some synonyms they could use. Larry was in no mood to reinvent a synonym. On a more relaxed flight, that conversation could go on a long time as they searched for a good alternative word. It was pleasant when they had nothing to do, mid-flight. Larry jabbed, punched and wrenched the controls that initiated the near-planet orbital configuration.

The ship announced that the cargo hatches were closed and sealed. Larry realized he needed to be cool and distant. He knew he couldn’t focus on parts of the problem. If he thought about the gun, or Whiting, or General Johnson, or his costs, he would miss something important.

Larry said, “There isn’t a word for your kind of movement. Just use the word ‘move’”. He had almost had his fill of the entire situation. He glanced over at Whiting still holding a gun, and exploded, “Just say, as fast as your stinking, clammy pods can move!” He felt the gun like a cargo manipulator clenching his chest, making it difficult to breathe.

The cargo bay announced that the fuel fillers where disengaged.

The intercom buzzed again, and Mo asked, “Are we ready to fly? Do we show green on all systems? What about the port side ion pump? Is the sensor still broken?”

Larry was sure this was on their “to be fixed” list. He should check the list. But Whiting was in an all-engines hurry.

Larry switched on the visual monitor for the port-side ion transfer system. He could see that the system was intact. In fact, with a close-up, Larry could see the “fix” tag they had put on the overpressure sensor. Several things around the ship were tagged for repair. This was a known problem, with a known solution.

“Override it,” Larry barked. “Let’s go.”

“Is this prudent? Is this wise? Can system failure breach hull integrity, leading to a loss of life support?” This was a direct quote from the fuel transfer system maintenance manual. Mo, obviously distraught, continued to read, “Does the controller weigh seventy-two kilos and requires six standard number four fasteners?”

“You’re rambling. Override the sensor; we’re leaving this star,” Larry said. He tried to project cool professionalism. He needed to get this flight back on course, and treat this launch like every other launch.


They started the pre-hookup call and response. They worked through the list. Each step was taken, each check made, each system verified. The words were spoken and they were the right words in the right order. They followed the book, and found it comforting and satisfying. It reduced the out-of-control feeling which Whiting had created. It put them back into the world they knew and trusted. Larry knew that had to stay distant from the problem, look over the whole situation to find a way out; if he focused on the gun, he could still be dead if he forgot to check the fuel.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Eight

The occupation of planets formerly controlled by Cephalopods was a difficult and complex series of negotiations. While most of the Ceph motivations were opaque to Mammals, it was clear that they coveted Mammalian weapons and flight technologies. The techniques for negotiation, barter, exchange and commerce seemed to have different meanings for Cephs and Mammals. The Cephs valued direct barter exchanges highly, but were suspicious of the more complex, longer-term business deals that made much of the Outer Rim operate smoothly. They didn’t like detailed terms and conditions, and seemed to consider a formal contract as a dangerous social problem akin to a criminal conviction.

Dieskau watched the heavily-armed delegation from the local planets, led by a Cephalopod called Caughnawaga, assemble on the bridge. Their large armor came in shapes that seemed to be fanciful variations on snail or nautilus shells. Caughnawaga’s armor had two snail-shell whorls over the slot for its eyes. Each of the Cephs on Caughnawaga’s left and right had knobs or small spikes over their armor. They were decked with weapons, ventilators, translators, and other equipment, all distinctly military. They stood, swaying slightly, in a Cephalopod semi-circle.

Even though the Outer Rim intelligence services had invested tremendous effort in analyzing numerous Mammal-Cephalopod exchanges, their guidelines were little more than vague, stereotyped platitudes and simplistic negotiating points. To civilians, this wasn’t surprising; the military intelligence services focused on military and political material. Government intelligence services considered business transactions too vague and broad to be used for serious study. Private intelligence companies avoided studying political statements specifically because they are derived from constitutions and other precedents, making them formulaic and derived from a simple, internally self-consistent world-view. The military guidelines on Cephalopod interactions were based on material that was broad, vague, self-serving, and relevant only to the process of governance.

Each of the Cephs had devices that contained an insignia or badge of some kind. Like many pieces of Cephalopod technology, it pulsed through a sequence of color and texture changes. They were often difficult to interpret, but some of the simpler displays like badges were comprehensible.

Baron Dieskau looked over at his situation display, watching at the disposition of ships and men defending his base. He was uncomfortable with the Cephalopod delegation and his own inability to decode their visual communication. While Dieskau hated to have secrets exchanged in his presence, the intelligence service had no guidance at all on Cephalopod side conversations. He didn’t know if he should insist that they stop their chatter or if he could exploit the side conversations.

When he turned from his situation display, the Cephalopods passed a message around the semi-circle. The color shift rippled through the group, echoed by each.

“What is it you want?” Dieskau snapped.

The color drained from them instantly. Then a series of quick messages ran around the semi-circle of Cephalopods. Dieskau was pleased at their response. Perhaps he had knocked them off guard for a moment.

Caughnawaga’s speech synthesizer hummed slightly, and then said, “We need Core Planets weapons.” The synthesizer was set to a low rumble, a little difficult to understand, but tolerable.

Dieskau found the answer unnerving. If the Cephalopods used Core Planets weapons against Outer Rim ships, there would be hopeless confusion. Cephs using Outer Rim weapons against the Outer Rim was easy to detect and punish. Giving the Cephalopods Core Planets weapons would permit them to raid the Outer Rim, and place the blame on the Core Planets. No one would be able to disentangle the resulting counter-attacks, accusations and threats. The request showed Dieskau that the Cephalopods had started to sort out the Mammalian politics.

“Weapons, is it?” Dieskau asked. “What have you to offer?” A flicker of conversation traveled among the Cephs. He watched to see if his question was something they anticipated, or if it put them off balance.

“You know we have nothing of value to trade,” the speech synthesizer hummed briefly, then went on, “You mine metal ores to fit your technology. We take other resources.”

The Outer Rim called them Sludge Farms. The Cephs engineered the bacteria, yeasts, and algae that blanketed most planets to produce sophisticated organic materials. Compared with Mammalian factories, Ceph chemical production was much slower but far cheaper.

Dieskau clenched his jaw for a moment, trying to decide which of the suggested offers he should use. “It is quite true that we use different resources. But you can help prevent the Core Planets expansion into your sector of this cluster.”

This was the standard request; the only one the intelligence service could identify that Cephalopods might respond to. Dieskau hated it as weak and vague. He also hated the implication that the Outer Rim border was negotiable.

The Cephs flickered among themselves. It was another brief conversation; too brief to mean anything. They appeared to be confirming the opening moves in their strategy. If this was their opening strategy, then Dieskau knew he needed to disrupt it.

“The Cephalopods are great fighters,” Dieskau said before Caughnawaga could respond. “That should be your exchange. If you take a Core Planet, the spoils would likely include weapons.”

Dieskau was gratified to see them flickering and changing color almost wildly. Several conversations seemed to break out among them. Color changes went unanswered. It looked like some colors and rhythms where repeated for emphasis. Tentacles began waving to get attention; perhaps this was the Cephalopod equivalent of shouting?

An enemy in disarray: Dieskau could not conceal his pleasure. He allowed himself a smile, realizing that he could laugh and dance for joy and they would have almost no concept of the real meaning.

Caughnawaga seemed to have gained control of the delegation. Some flash of communication originated from it and traveled around the group. One of the others originated a response, but it did not echo strongly around the group. Caughnawaga replied, emphasizing with a tentacle movement. This looked like an order. It echoed forcefully around the group of Cephalopods.

The speech synthesizer buzzed, then shut off. The Cephalopod flickered, and a message traveled around the group. Caughnawaga’s speech synthesizer buzzed again, “The new Mammal base has cannon?”

Dieskau was pleased the Cephalopods considered the heavy ion cannons as a possible prize in the coming battle. He noted that the word “mammal” had been inserted with a different tone and inflection. What original word had been revised? Interloper? Invader? Ally?

“Yes,” he replied, “you could even get cannon.” This response worked better than Dieskau had hoped. The result was a conversation even more heated than before. Dieskau watched with a horrified fascination. His ambitions, his future, his life depended on the exchange he was watching but could not understand. Colors, rhythms, patterns flickered around the group. Their tentacles twitched and moved.

Dieskau noticed that they did not turn to face each other. They always stood in a semi-circle. Even with some moving and adjusting, they kept Caughnawaga in the middle. Again, the conversation was stopped by Caughnawaga giving some kind of order, accompanied by a tentacle pulse or flicker.
“We can’t fight cannon.”

Dieskau was angry with them for such a cowardly rejection of his offer.

He leaned toward Caughnawaga to emphasize his point. “You must face their cannon, or you cannot get the weapons.”

Caughnawaga’s speech synthesizer buzzed, “What do you get when we get the base?” Dieskau fumed for a moment at this change in direction. He could not let them evade their responsibility of fighting for the weapons they wanted.

“I did not promise you would get a base,” Dieskau replied. “I promised I would help. I am here to stop the Core incursions into the frontier.”

Without a flicker, Caughnawaga said, “To secure it for yourselves.” This froze Dieskau for a moment. It was the actual Outer Rim strategy; something that the Cephs should not have known. Hearing this meant that their intelligence services had worked out the details of Outer Rim tactical maneuvering. Caughnawaga was no fool, and did not mention Outer Rim strategy casually or in error. This Cephalopod was probing for details. Disappointed, Dieskau realized that the real Cephalopod goal in this meeting was only to confirm their understanding of the Outer Rim’s strategic objectives.

“You mistake me,” Dieskau murmured, maintaining tight control. He recited the standard answer, “Our goal is to defend our existing trading posts, including this one. We do not wish to subdue what the Core terms ‘the frontier.’ It contains your home world, is no more frontier to you than the Outer Rim is a frontier to us.”

He’d said his piece, as guided by intelligence. This pat formulation seemed the only way to avoid any confirmation or denial that the he intended to take over a base. He hoped the Cephs would take that statement on defense to mean that there would be no immediate occupation of any Core planets bases by the Outer Rim. He knew that defense may require eventual occupation, but that burden was for the future governor of this cluster.

“We join in your attack and we keep the weapons from the fleet and the base,” Caughnawaga said.
This was good; very good. Dieskau was suddenly very tired. “Precisely.” Dieskau was confident that they had come looking for a captured base and all the weapons. He would let them leave with the assurance that they could collect weapons after the battle. He glanced around the control area: if the Outer Rim commanders did their jobs well, the Cephalopods would get almost nothing.

“How do you assure victory?”

Dieskau bristled at the use of the word victory. It meant that they were still treating this as an attack. He began to suspect that the pat assurances were just empty words to the Cephalopods, also.

He took two steps closer to Caughnawaga. Caughnawaga backed up and the pod reformed around it.

“I do not promise,” Dieskau insisted. “We must wait for the Core to make their attack and counter attack from our position of strength. Bring your pods here and await my orders.”

The Cephalopods seemed impressed, also. They had a conversation that ended with Caughnawaga saying, “It will take time to achieve the meeting.”

Dieskau was pleased with this result. If it would take them time, it meant they weren’t ready for this result. They would be put under strain to accommodate this Outer Rim plan. Dieskau needed them to measure the value of Core planets weapons against the costs of a Core planets attack. He needed them to be a committed ally, willing to make the first assault against the Core base.

His plan to make them see this was defense had suddenly jumped to the top of his priorities. Dieskau realized that he had to find or make a Core Planets incursion across the border. This, with a little assistance, would become a rumor that would percolate through the Cephalopods, changing their assessment of the situation. The manufactured threat of invasion would make them more willing allies in a defensive counter-attack. He turned and walked away to start the planning.


Colonel Montgomery watched Dieskau stride out of the control area. Dieskau walked away without waiting for the Cephalopods to agree or make any counter-offer. Montgomery looked at the guards, and the Cephalopods. He saw this as a kind of mess left by Dieskau for him to clean up.