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.