Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Sixteen

Stellar orbit extractions were no less complex that stellar orbit insertions. They took care, planning, and meticulous attention to detail. It took three completely separate lists, three litanies of call and response simply to make the Mule II ready to leave the base. The first list was used to put a temporary patch on the hull breach the Cephalopods had made. They put a flexible breach mat over the hole, welded a replacement panel outside and sealed off the airlock that was damaged.

The post-repair readiness list took an eternity. Whiting chafed at the delays. She had first-hand information, direct from Dieskau, and she needed to get back to Lyman base. She knew that Larry needed to focus on the lists and make sure that everything worked, and worked perfectly. All she could do was pace around the crew areas of the ship. She was balanced at the edge of triumph; success was in sight beyond her outstretched fingers. If she could get back in time, she would have had a solid, indisputable accomplishment, putting her career on a better track.

Larry’s checklist called for a meal, pre-flight shower and cleanup of the ship. Larry paused before starting this. He realized that the additional hour or two of delay would be a serious problem to Whiting. Grudgingly, he skipped these steps in the checklist. They would clean up, shave, get fresh clothes, and eat once they were on their way.

Larry worked out a flight plan that returned them to Henry base at a leisurely pace. Rather than beat out of the gravity field like they were racing the clock with a load of perishables, they opted for a wider course, a more relaxed angle of attack, and two more tacks than were really necessary. Mo even eased back some of the mass-trimmers on the gravity foil so they would look like they were struggling instead of racing. They could easily alter their trim and pick up speed once they were over the frontier and away from the Outer Rim.

They were escorted by two Outer Rim scouts. No sooner had they left the base than a small pod of three Cephalopod ships joined the scouts. The Cephs had been loitering near the base, possibly in a lower orbit. It was only visible as three Ceph ships for a moment; Larry had such a brief view that when the display starting showing two Outer Rim ships he assumed that he’d misread the cluttered display.

Once Larry realized what he’d seen, he switched his sensors through a device that Mo had added to the Mule II. It showed the hazy outlines of the field disturbances created by the passing of the ships. Among the various field disturbances from gravity, radiation and solar winds, he could pick out all five ships that tailed him.

They took turns using the head; Whiting was pleased to hear that passengers went first. After they had a chance to clean up, Larry went to the ward room and unwrapped a large meal. It was a more-or-less standard in-flight meal of sandwiches and dried fruit with a high-carbo dessert.

While Larry was unwrapping his food, Mo oozed in to eat, also. Mo’s food was kept in a separate refrigerator. Larry purchased special Cephalopod meals, since most Mammal food was indigestible. Larry found the Cephalopod food-service industry to be a burdensome expense with no tangible value; Mo’s expensive packaged meals still required a great deal of additional preparation. Larry didn’t know if the preparation time was caused by the narrow Cephalopod diet, or if Mo was just a homebody that liked to fuss around in the galley. Larry also had to admit that it was possible that Mo was a Cephalopod gourmet, preparing meals that were wonderful by Cephalopod standards, but stank like rotten fish to Mammals.

Whiting had put her uniform back on, and was carrying her gun prominently on her thigh. She was quiet while she ate. She had been subdued during the hours of repairs and pre-flights; during most of the time that Larry and Mo worked, she either paced or sat in the navigator’s jump seat, just staring at the blank display.

She worked her way through most of the sandwiches, eating like she was under orders to eat. She mostly just stared at the dish cleaning unit. Mo was draped over the counter-top, a huge mixing bowl gathered in a knot of tentacles. Mo would generally settle onto the bowl to eat most of the meal. Then Mo would climb out of the bowl, holding it in some tentacles while wiping up the leftovers with others.

Most passengers found the Cephalopod dinner ritual alarming or nauseating. Whiting didn’t seem to notice.

“You okay?” Larry asked.

Whiting scowled at him. “Fine, you?” she growled.

Larry recognized her reply as a conversation stopper. However, the Mule II was too small a place for a bad attitude. Larry knew that crew problems could never be kept secret; they had to be shared in order to make cooperation possible. Crew didn’t have to like each other, but they had to cooperate. Hidden emotion made interactions too difficult; suppressed feelings had a way of exploding at critical moments, making a risky situation dangerous.

“It’s not like I’m xenophobic or anything,” Larry began. He paused until she scowled at him, “but you probably want stay out of Mo’s fridge.”

Whiting’s scowl shifted slightly. To Larry, that was a good sign, she was willing to engage in a conversation.

“Mo’s food is still alive,” he added.

It was hard for Larry to say it with a perfectly straight face. Whiting looked at Mo’s giant mixing bowl with a mixture of horror and revulsion. Larry could tell from her response that he had pulled it off perfectly.

She looked back at him, still revulsed.

“What?”

Larry shrugged, stalling until she started to think about it.

With a sigh and rustle of fabric, Mo shifted around a bit on the counter. The speech synthesizer chimed. Larry didn’t even look, or he’d break his serious character and laugh out loud.

“Are the spices more pungent when they’re fresh?” Mo’s squeaked.

Whiting relaxed a fraction. “Oh, ha, ha, ha,” she said cynically. “So like the spices are plankton or something?”

That was a big step. Larry relaxed and glanced over at Mo. Mo made a big wipe of its bowl and waved the tentacle with an elaborate flourish before reaching up under the gown.

“Rotifera, I think,” Larry said. “But some people have allergies.” Whiting also relaxed a little bit more. She stopped hugging herself and put both arms up on the table. She sighed. She grabbed the last half-sandwich lying in the food-service tray. Larry pointed at it as she took it.

“Uhh,” he said, unsure how to address this. “That’s mine.” He was pretty sure there’s been an even half-dozen, and he’d only had two.

“What?” she said, looking down at the sandwich.

Larry pointed down at the tray. “Look, it was on my side.” Whiting scowled briefly. “Stand down, it’s mine.” Larry noted that she was feeling more confident and had recovered some of her old fire.

“Listen, the whole military thing is wearing thin,” Larry said.

Whiting threw the sandwich half back onto the tray. She stared at him for a moment.

“What is your problem, flier? I did not pull rank,” she said, barking like a marine sergeant, “I’m the passenger.”

Larry sat back. He wasn’t sure how to respond. To his ears, she’d used every nuance of her command presence to intimidate.

Mo’s tentacle reached over and picked up the sandwich from the tray. They both turned to look. Mo wiped the big mixing bowl with the sandwich, cleaning out the last morsels. The tentacle reached down under the gown. The sandwich disappeared with a slurp.

Larry smiled and nodded. “Apt metaphor, champ,” he said.

Mo had summarized the entire political, military and economic situation in one smooth motion: while the Mammals bickered, the Cephalopods were gathering the spoils of war. This was what Larry liked about Mo.

Larry gave Mo the thumbs up, and said “Thanks.” He turned to Whiting and said, “Sorry.”

Whiting looked down at the table for a moment, but didn’t say anything. She jumped up and started gathering the plates, cups and service trays. She reached over to pile them in the cleaner.

Larry stood up, also. “No, I’ll get those,” he said.

Whiting hunched over the cleaner, taking out clean dishes from the last time anyone had run the machine. Larry glanced at a clipboard that hung in the galley to see if he’d run it before they were captured or not.

“No,” she said, “I’ll do it. I need some time to work out what we do now.” Larry watched her stack dishes in the locker for a moment. He edged out from behind the table.

Whiting turned, smiling. “I told Dieskau what he wanted to hear — you saw it — when I said the force was small, he was on it like a squid on fish.”

She looked around awkwardly. Mo flapped some tentacles as a wave of color wriggled between the eyes. Larry recognized it as a kind of chuckle or giggle. He’d seen Mo laugh at a variety of things, usually practical jokes. Mo often turned that color during their little “live food” routine.

“It’s okay,” Larry said. “Mo doesn’t mind.”

Larry knew that Mo thought most of the squid metaphors to be accurate descriptions of Cephalopod life. Common phrases included “like a squid on fish”, “as poor as a squid” or “as crowded as a squid picnic.” Mo had assured Larry that they were far from insulting; in some cases they were a source of intense pride.

Larry nodded. “So, we’ll go warn Johnson that his shiny new Henry base is doomed?” Whiting smiled again. This was her condescending smile, more of a smirk. “Not Henry. No, Dieskau’s aiming at the primary base at Lyman. We’ve got to warn Lyman.” Larry edged out in the hall, but paused to think for a moment. The only help that Lyman could get would be from Henry base. Lyman needed ships before they needed a warning.

“Umm,” Larry said, turning back into the ward room.

“What?” Whiting asked.

Larry edged back into the galley and leaned across the table.

“What can Lyman do?”

Natalie stared at him. He got the impression that she was not happy to hear Larry’s opinions.

“They’re going to need all the help they can get,” she said, coldly.

He took that as confirmation that there was no other help in the cluster. She knew it as well as he did.
“So why not just go straight to Johnson?” he asked. “Save a trip.” This was his point. He hated to be circumspect about bringing it up, but he was sure she would pull rank and demand he take her all the way to Lyman.

“What do you know?” Whiting asked. “Simms is responsible for Lyman base. He’s got to request Johnson to help him out. We go to Lyman base.”

Larry went back out into the hall. He was having trouble getting her to change her course. A spaceship that didn’t turn properly often needed additional momentum. Larry stepped back into the galley, hoping for inspiration. He saw Mo push the mixing bowl toward her on the counter top, then ooze onto the deck.

“So, we fly all the way down to Lyman, then back to Henry to get a fleet together and back to Lyman to — what? Bail out the survivors? Yes ma’am, right away ma’am.”

Whiting sighed and looked away for a moment. She clenched her jaw hard, her lips in a narrow line.
“Fine!” she exploded, waving her hands as she shouted. “Fine! Go to Henry base! Just quit talking about it!”

She started slamming the dirty dishes into the washer.

Larry pointed at Mo. Mo, behind Whiting’s back, switched to match the color of her uniform. Larry put up his hand. Mo put up a tentacle. They gave each other two variations on the pilot’s thumbs-up signal. They were ready to fly.


The Champlain was Dieskau’s flag ship. It was the largest of the fleet of ships stationed at Carillon base; only a third-rate ship, but still several ratings above the lowly frigates, smallest of the fighting ships. While a frigate only had a single defensive ring of weapons, the Champlain had three interlocking rings. Each of the rings had more weapons and heavier weapons than a single frigate. The military theory held that the Champlain could take on a several frigates. As a practical matter, it could only take on two, depending on the energy and enthusiasm of the enemy commanders.

Dieskau strode through the halls and connectors of the Champlain base, pursued by several of his most trusted intelligence officers. Soiros, sent from the Home Worlds of the Outer Rim presented a bit of a problem to Dieskau. Dieskau suspected that Soiros was sent as an internal spy to report on his activities. He knew that he had to treat Soiros with every courtesy due to his family’s position at court. However, Soiros was not a very competent agent. He had misunderstood the value of the captured freighter. He had almost mishandled the entire situation.

“My Baron,” Soiros began, “with respect, this freighter and his wife and — uh — squid have seen our preparations.” Soiros was uncomfortable with the word. In polite company in the Outer Rim Home Worlds, they were now called Teuthis; the overly broad Cephalopod was considered too anthro-centric.

Dieskau continued walking, as if Soiros had not spoken. Suddenly, Dieskau stopped and pivoted. Soiros almost collided with the Baron.

Dieskau bent down to Soiros’ face. “Who better to increase their confusion than one of their own? Intelligence, intelligence. We misdirect them. How can you miss the perfect elegance of this?”

Soiros backed up under this onslaught. Kibber, who knew better, had already stepped to the side.

“Will they be trusted, my Baron?” Soiros stammered.

Dieskau turned away in disgust. Then he turned back and closed with Soiros again, shouting, “They were sent to spy! They will report what I have shown them! It is their duty!” Dieskau backed a small step away from Soiros. “It is their duty to sow disarray so I can rip them apart.”

Dieskau whirled and charged down the hall, Soiros and Kibber following.

There were a number of officers waiting at the bridge of the Champlain. It was much smaller than the central command station of the Carillon base. However, it was a spaceship bridge, and it was the center of the fleet that would push the Core Planets back to the Old Core bases, and out of this cluster.
Dieskau was pleased at the rapidity of the deployment. He hadn’t indicated any pleasure, instead barking at each of the officers in the last few ships that were made ready to fight. These were thorough dressing-downs, done in private, hinting at dereliction of duty and the possibility of a court-martial for each and every one of the command officers involved in such poor performance.

He glanced over at the situation display to be sure that all ships were reporting a status of in-progress. There was a complex hierarchy of appointed commodores to organize a fleet. From the third-rated Champlain, through the frigates, there were three separate tiers of command, two of which Dieskau found useless. Socially, however, he had to create enough command positions to please the royal court.

The bridge communications officer leaned over to receive word from one of her staff.

“We’re ready, my Baron,” she said. She nodded toward a situation display that showed an almost complete wall of green status icons. Some flickered and a few were not green, but these were the inevitable, minor technical problems associated with waging war on the frontier.

The Baron nodded in agreement. He stood for a moment in thought. He looked back at the communications officer. She motioned for him to step to his left and back a pace. He frowned at her, and refused to move. She leaned over to her staff member who ordered the cameraman to move.

The camera lights came on, a monitor showed the face of the baron. A technician adjusted some lights onto the Baron’s new position. The communications officer opened the communications channel and announced that the Baron’s address to the fleet would commence momentarily.

She paused for a few seconds so that the commentators and news relay people could add finish their introductory remarks. Dieskau began pacing. After a few seconds, one of the staff gestured a count-down and pointed at the Baron.

Dieskau paced off camera and then back on camera. He looked up at the cameraman, the bridge crew and the entire fleet on the situation display to his side.

“Commanders. Our moment of trial is upon us. The Core Planets have failed to fully construct their advanced base at Henry. During their retrenchment at Lyman we will cut them in half and defeat them in detail. First at Lyman, then mopping up the unsupported Henry. We will achieve two advanced outer rim bases. The glory of this will reverberate down through the millennia.”

On cue, the bridge crew began to cheer. Throughout the fleet, Dieskau was absolutely sure that the cheering had begun. He had a situation display to show the status of even this carefully planned move in his defense of the Outer Rim’s bases.

Dieskau waited for his cue, then stepped down from the communications area to the navigation and control area of the bridge. This was merely a formality, but it was an essential part of the exercise. When she pointed and him, Dieskau turned to the Commodore of the fleet. “Make way, if you please,” Dieskau said. The Commodore opened his command and control channel and relayed the order to the various officers in charge of fourth rate ships and smaller fleets of their own support ships. These officers, in turn, relayed their orders.

Linois, the captain of the Champlain itself, standing next to Dieskau and the Commodore, waited until the Commodore told him to make way. He, in his turn, commanded the Champlain’s bridge crew to make way. The commands, the announcement, the motion of the fleet were an elaborate, carefully planned and staged theatrical production. It raised the curtain on the actual attack. This small play within the larger drama would be broadcast through the fleet, everyone who was off duty would see it. Every officer would comment on Dieskau’s speech; the most energetic would memorize it.

Most of the men and ships had been mobilized in waves and were waiting at a rendezvous point. Some had been waiting; others would rendezvous there with the fleet surrounding the Champlain. When the Champlain arrived, there would be a grand maneuver to put the fleet into a formation for advancing on the Core Planets’ base at Lyman. As with other theatrical productions, the communications staff would be present, and the cameras would be rolling.


Orbital mechanics are complex. A fortunate solar system has well-spaced planets that don’t collide with each other. The odds against this are long. Planets condense chaotically around a randomly selected attractor in a cloud of stellar dust. Adjacent dust may join or separate to make a moon or another planet. Dust can collapse to planetary masses in a well-ordered system, or it can fall into an out-of-balance assembly of rocks on collision courses.

Unlike billiard balls, planetary collisions can follow innumerable evolutionary paths. Sometimes the orbits shift and synchronize and the solar system stabilizes. Sometimes commonly, a planet gets accelerated away from the original star and travels through interstellar space as a navigation hazard; the other orbits gradually adjust to the missing mass. Most commonly, one or both of the planets are torn apart; and the debris takes on a life of its own, settling into an orbit, making communication unreliable, and high-speed transit by spacecraft almost impossible.

John White’s Amsterdam was the newest ship in a convoy of freighters picking their way through the dust band surrounding a lonely star that defined the disputed frontier. The convoy of freighters was flanked by a token patrol of scouts. The scouts would provide no real defense against any but the most casual Cephalopod piracy.

The Amsterdam was, being new, still enduring shakedown problems. The first trip after manufacturing or refit was always termed a “trial”; after the trial, the ship was certified spaceworthy, and insurance rates dropped to an acceptable level. John White’s Amsterdam never seemed to get beyond trials.

John White hailed Laura Jane of the Rotterdam. The Rotterdam was of the same line of ships as the Amsterdam, but much older. It was made by the old management of the shipyards, and reflected different standards of quality and workmanship. The shipyard paid Laura a small fee to convoy with John and act as a reservoir of spare parts for him.

“This job is killing me,” John White announced to Laura.

“You should get a real ship,” she replied. She had a mixed feeling about White’s ship. She was generally pleased with the Rotterdam’s performance and ability to take on and discharge a load. While she was accepting some pay from the shipyard, she had also told John rumors of another sister ship, the Zaandam, which had broken up during a difficult orbital maneuver, killing the crew.

“Tell the galaxy,” White said. “I’ve had more breakdowns than I can afford to fix.” Laura had spent years working out from under the terrible debt of an under-insured ship. A landing pilot had managed to damage her previous ship, but the insured value of the ship was less than the total of the remaining payments. After the insurance settlement, she still owed millions. It had taken her almost a year to refinance a new ship with the burden of paying off her previous ship. It was a painful lesson in the business of being a pilot.

Laura’s flight engineer signaled her; she brought up the status display. It was an anomalous shift in gravity, somewhere in the dust cloud. Stars, when they cooled, might collapse and concentrate mass, often creating gravitational waves that rippled through nearby space, making ships difficult or even dangerous to operate.

She switched to the ship’s intercom. “What’s this?” she asked.

“Beats me,” her flight engineer said. “It started suddenly, and has been pretty steady for a while now.”
She looked, but could see nothing except a sudden, steep change in the gravity gradient.

She switched back to ship-to-ship communication. “Hey, check this out,” she said, and forwarded a stream of coordinates and filter settings that White could use to see approximately what she was seeing. Maybe he would recognize something. Even if he didn’t recognize what was happening, he could try to prevent further damage to his poor ship.

When she brought the display back into focus, something tugged at the back of her memory. It was something she’d seen; something common. She couldn’t exactly place it. Mentally, she stumbled through a number of the most common observations, but nothing matched this. And yet, she was sure she’d seen this before, and knew what it was. Something had a large volume, but lacked the expected mass and created a clear ripple in the gravity gradient.

She thought she heard an “Oh, my god,” from John White. The communications channel went dead. She did a quick check on the system. Her end seemed to be working correctly. She assumed that his had just failed. She flipped through some sensors to be sure that his ship was still there.

Then something started drifting into focus. It was intended to be difficult to detect. In Laura Jane’s decade as a pilot, there were few things she hadn’t seen. One of the things that she had never seen before was a Cephalopod attack. This was her first and last view of Cephalopod scouts clearing the path for the Outer Rim attack force.

There is a moment when it is too late to maneuver; when ships are too close to avoid a collision. This was the moment when the Cephalopods became visible. Their ships stopped transmitting background radiation from space and became solid, massive objects with separate existence.

She felt, more than heard, the thump of the Cephalopod attack. This was not a simple arrest. This was murder and looting. The ship’s life support systems were destroyed in the first salvo of fire. By the time Laura and her flight engineer had struggled into their personal pressure suits, she was so weak from lack of available oxygen that she had made the fatal mistake of not checking one of the seals. She had quietly asphyxiated when she stepped out of the equipment locker to the bridge deck.

Her military adjunct had asphyxiated trying to locate his pressure suit in the passenger compartment. The entire pod of Cephalopod’s boarded her ship, located her flight engineer trying to patch the damage to the primary life support. They shot him. His blood bubbled in the vacuum of space, leaving pellets that coagulated and clung to any surface they bumped against.

John White’s Amsterdam was attacked simultaneously, and suffered the same fate. John, his flight engineer, his military adjunct and several passengers were slaughtered, the bodies pushed out of the airlock into space. The Cephalopods then examined the cargo in minute detail.

The Cephalopods also pounced on the two Core planets scout ships. These were attacked far more carefully. The hulls were not casually punctured, but the airlocks were carefully opened. These ships had powerful weapons; weapons that could project damaging force at huge distances. The Cephalopods saw this technology as perhaps the most precious gift the mammals brought into Cephalopod space.


The attack was so instant and so vicious that no transmission, no emergency beacon, no straggling ship escaped the convoy. The near-by bases were left in ignorance of what had transpired. The immediate loss of life, the penetration of Core planets space, the isolation of the Henry base were all accomplished in complete secrecy.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Fifteen

An Outer Rim base, like an Outer Rim ship, was a collection of reusable components, making it a sprawling contraption. The many elements of the base where people lived needed the acceleration of gravity. Rather than use a set of gravity fields generated by engines, the sections rotated. To prevent creation of too much angular momentum, sections had to rotate on different axes with flexible couplers to allow crew to move from section to section. A base was an elaborate, dynamic sculpture, never in the same position twice.

The Carillon base was one of the most remote outposts of the Outer Rim. It had the Outer Rim’s standard defensive arrangements, involving two surrounding shells of plasma cannons. The outermost guns were essentially offensive; they could cover vast distances, preventing ships from getting anywhere near the base, except in numbers that would overwhelm the gun’s rate of fire. The inner shell had short-range guns that were a final defense of the base. Even though the base itself was armored and manned against ship-to-ship assault, the guns were the primary defensive measure.

The Outer Rim’s simple defensive design was not adopted widely by the Core Planets. For some reasons, lost in secretive political squabbles, the Core Planets bases rarely used canon. The Core military policy involved large local militia and a large, mobile marine force trained and recruited from the heart of the Old Core worlds.

An Outer Rim base was an immovable object opposed by the Core Planets’ irresistible force. The endless stalemate bled resources off into the vacuum of space.

Drover had been confined in a sleeping tube with simple situation displays that showed distances and times and no additional details. Mentally, Larry could walk through the approach sequences and the docking sequences even though the artificial gravity masked much of the maneuvering. Larry was confident that he was could give a good accounting of himself and get away without too many problems. Whiting, however, would be another story. He needed something plausible to explain her on his ship.

There was a small possibility that she had evaded capture. Since the ship was leaking where the Cephalopods had breached it, she would be dead before long. If she did anything to close off or repair the breach, they’d know she was aboard. If she did nothing, the ship would drain quickly, and she would be dead by now. He hoped she had been captured.

When docking was finished, Larry lay in his claustrophobic sleeping tube for another hour or so before the door creaked open. Several Outer Rim guards stood outside with guns, stunners and prods. They weren’t wearing biohazard isolation suits. Larry was relieved at being able to avoid the scrubbing and quarantine that some systems insisted on. Harsh cleansers were used as a punishment against freighter pilots who had somehow managed to violate planetary authorities’ dominions.

Larry slid out of the tube. He was marched out of the scout ship and through a baffling sequence of passages, connectors, stairs, lifts, and hallways. He had never been in an Outer Rim base before. He tried to remain distant from any danger, and register the course they followed. Sections had names, there were color-coded signs. He recognized some of the symbols and words, others were obviously technical and he tried to memorize them as he passed.

The guard in front stopped. He entered a code, inserted a key, and placed his thumb against a reader. The door chimed an opened. Larry looked at the guard. The guard looked at him. Larry slouched where he stood, wondering what they would do.

Someone kicked him in the back of the knees, knocking him to the floor. Someone else grabbed him and dragged him into the room. He was kicked in the stomach for good measure. The guards backed out of the room. Larry lay on the floor until his breathing recovered.

There was a tiny table or desk with a computer and two mismatched chairs. There were food and drink wrappers on the desk. The place was a mess, filled with the detritus of long occupancy by a temporary tenant. There was a surveillance camera on one side, protected in a thick, reflective dome. Larry tried to relax and run through the route they had followed to get to this room from the scout ship. He doubted there was any chance to run back to the ship and fly away, but it was something to do instead of fretting or worrying.

Larry wondered where the head was. Could he bang on the door and get escorted to the head? Was there a head behind a wall panel in this room? Larry wondered why they had left a computer in the room with him. Was it some kind of test or trap?

Over an hour later, the door chimed and slid back, revealing another crowd of guards. To minimize his cooperation Larry continued to slouch in his chair. Mo Lusc oozed in, and the door slid shut with a quiet groan.

Larry was baffled by the turn of events. Typically, everyone was interrogated separately. An hour was plenty of time to interrogate Mo and Whiting. Something must have distracted the Outer Rim intelligence service from talking with Larry. Larry wondered what Mo or Whiting said that made them so interesting.

Mo oozed over toward the Larry. Larry swept the papers and cups onto the floor. He picked up the computer and put it onto the other chair. Mo oozed onto the table, eyes about Larry’s sitting height the whole time. Mo’s tentacles drooped off the table, and its gown covered most of it. Mo carefully faced away from the camera.

Larry picked up his chair, stepped carefully around and put it down so Mo’s head blocked the camera completely. Mo’s two index tentacles slid out from under his gown. Slowly, it flashed a couple of the interrogatory colors. Larry couldn’t tell them all apart, but he knew it was one of the “how much?” or “how long?” questions. Mo emphasized it with a small tentacle wave. Larry shook his head and mouthed “nothing.” Mo dropped its tentacles.

Mo’s synthesizer chimed as it switched on. “Have we eaten? Have we had any water? Is our saline level dropping? Can we endure any more such Outer Rim hospitality?” Mo rippled and slouched down a little lower. “Are you omnivorous? Can you metabolize anything?”

Larry was really in no mood for small-talk. He was afraid of what might happen to them. He wanted to know something about his situation. He wanted to know if he would be tossed into an Outer Rim jail; what they were doing with Whiting. He also knew that hey needed to get their stories to match.
“Yes, most plants, animals and—” Larry couldn’t remember the other basic kingdoms or even food groups, “—stuff. Why?”

Mo was quiet and undemanding as a flight engineer. Mo did, however, did talk about strange things. Larry found it irritating to be talking about food. They needed to focus on what they were doing, and what they were going to say.

“Did we adapt from a predator? Did you adapt from a scavenger?” Mo’s synthesizer squeaked.

Larry sighed, and realized that he was losing his pilot’s cool. Mo was on the right track. Larry’s focus was fixed on details of situation; he needed to throttle back, relax and broaden the scope of his vision. He needed to remain professional and treat this like any other in-flight problem. He decided to look at this as a merchant flight crew negotiating with the Outer Rim patrol. It wasn’t about him; it was about freedom to trade on the frontier.

Larry took a close look at Mo. There was something oddly wrong.

“Adaptation has its limits,” Larry said, realizing that Mo was saying two things at once. Mo was trickling some other color that Larry didn’t know. The trickling was a pulsing that meant something like “Cephalopod”, but the color was wrong.

“I mean, the last time you ate mammal meat, it gave you the worst gas.” The stink had overpowered the life-support air filters. Larry was not sure where or how Cephs used the head. But he was sure that Mo had been disabled for a day from an experimental meal of beef, potatoes and nori seaweed salad.
“Do we kill when we are hungry?” Mo said, showing the same odd sequence of colors.

The door chimed and creaked open. Larry looked up. Mo’s entire body swiveled around on the table with a rustling of fabric and squishing of tentacles. Mo gave a little ripple and the gurgle of the ventilator resumed. Larry wondered if Mo had been resting on its ventilator. Larry knew he’d be upset if he was hungry and sore. Larry wondered about the predator and scavenger business; was Mo trying to explain its feelings?

An Outer Rim intelligence officer strode into the small room from a doorway that bristled with guns. There were three guards outside the cell, with no room to fit a fourth into the hallway. Larry felt honored at the amount of effort the Outer Rim was devoting to Big Mule Freight Hauling, LLC. Larry looked over at Mo and saw that Mo was clutching the table, reaching underneath it. Larry was about to chalk it up to anxiety, until the thought came to him that Mo was keeping itself back from killing something.

The officer was short, chubby and wearing something that looked vaguely like a Cephalopod gown. It was a bag of mis-matched fabric, draped over everything. Unlike Mo’s, there were arm-holes. Also, unlike Mo’s, it was not pieces stitched together, but fabric printed to look like pieces stitched together. The intelligence officer looked at the computer sitting on the remaining chair.

“Could you move this please?” he asked. He had the prominent accent of the Outer Rim Home Worlds. Unlike a pilot’s flight suit, where name tags where common, this faux-Ceph look provided no place to even hang a name tag. However, his computer had a neatly stenciled “Soiros”.

“Sure,” Larry said. He leaned over the table and picked up the offending computer. As casually as possible, he dropped it on the floor with rewarding thunk.

“That’s Outer Rim military equipment. Don’t make things worse for yourself by destruction of property.”

Soiros appeared earnest in his admonishment. Did he really think Larry was overly concerned about a computer when an Outer Rim scout had punctured his hull and possibly drained off all of his atmosphere?

Larry stared at Soiros with open hostility. He felt that a rotten attitude about this infringement of his rights would be appropriate for an otherwise innocent flight crew. Mo wriggled around to peer at Soiros also. Larry noticed that Mo had changed color to match Soiros’ fight suit. And, he couldn’t be sure, but Mo’s seemed to have shifted its head to put the eyes more forward.

Soiros opened his computer. “Who is Natalie Whiting?” he asked. He had a kind of knowing smirk that irritated Larry.

“Natalie?” Drover blurted, grinning. The idea of her as a woman and a civilian was suddenly made concrete by hearing her name. It brought to mind a more pleasant image than the gun-toting Lieutenant Colonel in the marines.

Soiros scribbled. “You don’t know her?” he asked.

Drover realized he was revealing the wrong story. He needed to change course and keep ahead of them in the maneuvering. He needed to treat this like armed pursuit and try to shake them off. He needed to appear committed to a turn in one direction, but take the least-expected turn in a radically different direction.

“She’s uhh —” he started.

“She’s?” Soiros said, scribe poised above the computer. Larry judged that Soiros was ready to hear how little contact they had. Briefly Larry toyed with dropping hints on stow-away or secretive passenger.

“My wife,” he said. He had an immediate doubt that this would work out as a course.

“Your wife,” Soiros repeated.

Larry counted Soiros’ response as indecision over a course change. “Sure,” he said, gaining confidence that he was on a tack that Soiros hadn’t expected.

Soiros wore his incredulity on his sleeve. Larry could see him wrestling with this unexpected information. It didn’t fit Soiros’ expectations, so there was a long period of digesting and forming a new explanation for them. There was a flurry of scribbling in the computer. Larry leaned back in his chair, relaxed and gaining confidence by the minute.

“She’s not listed on the crew roster, and that’s not what she stated.” Soiros was obviously pleased with this.

Larry tried to avoid moving at all. He felt a little tremor of fear run through him. He took a breath, slowly. He shifted in his seat, rolled his eyes and let out a huge sigh.

“She’s new,” he said. Just drop off a hint, Larry reminded himself, make them ask for everything.
“A new wife,” Soiros repeated.

“New to transport ships,” Larry said. This was like a little course adjustment, to see how closely they were following.

Soiros stared over the computer at Drover, scribe poised to write something. Larry encouraged Soiros with a “you know” look, as if everyone knew about new wives on transport ships. Soiros was completely baffled. Larry judged the time was right to pour on some power.

“She’s not listed as crew because she’s family.” Larry looked closely at Soiros, this had no effect, so he continued “Family aren’t documented. But she wouldn’t know that, so she made up some lame story.”

Larry leaned back and studied the table for a moment. He didn’t want to look gleeful. He wanted to look concerned. He hoped that this intelligence officer was simply a military type, who had no idea about the civilian trade regulations.

Mo’s synthesizer hummed, “Do the treaties demand documentation of families? Must we show cargo, health, crew and flight plan?”

Larry nodded. Mo was with him, and that added weight to this story he was spinning. He was confident that they could fix this problem and resume their journey.

“Yes, flight plans,” Soiros said. “We’ll address that next. Natalie Whiting, wife.” He scribbled for a bit. “Anything else you’d like to say?”

Drover didn’t like that leading question. It was the standard question that invited an incriminating explanation with details that conflicted with the story so far. This could be difficult, since he didn’t know what she’d said. He could guess that she claimed she was a passenger, and she had no idea they were off course. If she claimed their original flight plan as their destination, Larry Drover was in a galaxy of hurt. If she claimed some other random destination, then there would be an endless delay sorting out what had really happened among the three conflicting stories.

Larry sighed. Distance, he thought, distance. He needed to know what pat explanation they trying to confirm or refute. If he could figure that out, he could take another radical course change.

“Doesn’t she have nice glands?” Mo squeaked. Larry glanced up. Mo was staring down at him. Their eyes met and Mo’s color softened a bit. “Is she free from swelling and diseases?” Mo said, turning back to Soiros.

“That’s my wife you’re talking about, there,” Larry said, trying to suppress his glee. Thank you, Mo, he thought. He wondered if Mo recognized his discomfort or was just bored.

“Do you speak for this Squid?” Soiros asked.

Larry sat up in his chair, starting at Soiros. He looked meaningfully at Mo and then back to Soiros. Larry was looking for a suitably outraged response to this casual deprecation of Mo Lusc, Flight Engineer. He wanted to say that Mo spoke for itself, until he realized this was probably some kind of official governmental anthro-centrism.

“It appears to have a speech synthesizer,” Soiros said, scribbling furiously on the computer. “I suppose you can provide documentation,” he added.

Larry sighed. He didn’t want to cooperate with the idiotic mistreatment of Cephalopods. Then he realized that Soiros was starting to take a new tack, one that would lead him further from the truth. Larry nodded as he saw the possibilities of wrestling with the officials over Mo’s status, and ignoring the real issues that surrounded the boarding of his ship on the wrong side of the frontier.

Soiros’ computer chimed; he hit a key in response. A moment later, the door chimed and creaked open. A guard came in waving a gun. Two others stood in the hall.

Soiros picked up his computer and hurried out of the room. Drover looked at the guards. The one in the room looked at Drover and smirked. Mo oozed off the table, and did its peculiar inchworm walk out into the hall. Larry eased up off the chair and followed Mo out the door.

As Larry reached the guards in the hall, he waved at the trash on the floor of the room. “Could you clean this dump up while we’re gone?”

One of the hallway guards prodded him with a gun. It was good to be a civilian with a suitably civilian story. Clearly, they had captured her, and she had stuck to her civilian cover, or the interrogation would have been very different. He wondered how Whiting had fared. More important, he wondered where they were going in this base. Larry assumed that engineering and support areas would be near the center, while command and residential areas around the outside. That’s was his experience with the way Core Planets’ bases were configured.

Larry and Mo were led back part of the way they had entered. Then they took a different branch at a complex junction. Larry was not completely lost, but he wished he had a better sense of where the star was and what the usual orientation of the base was. Then he realized that Outer Rim bases involved moving components, and there wasn’t a good frame of reference.

The guards fanned out in front of a door. One of them pushed the control and stepped back, leaving Larry and Mo to step into the room.

It was a small, spare conference room. It had a long table, chairs and some display equipment. There were numerous Outer Rim insignia and logos around the room. The table and even the chairs had symbols of the various royal factions and households.

Whiting sat, erect and focused on a tall, gangling, intense man pacing back and forth on the far side of the table. Whiting glanced at Larry. Larry felt a wave of relief at seeing her studying this Outer Rim officer. Larry clamped down on his private joy, nodded and slouched into the nearest chair. Mo oozed in and stood around for a moment, then started heading for the table. Larry thought it best if Mo didn’t drape over the table, so he put a hand on Mo to stop it. Mo paused, then backed into a corner, eyes on the man as he paced. The Outer Rim officer didn’t favor the elaborate hair styles of the Outer Rim nobility. Neither did he shave his entire body according to military regulations. He had a rather complex mustache and was thin to the point of looking almost sickly.

The door at the other end of the room chimed. Soiros and some other intelligence types sidled in, bowed quickly and set up their computers near the pacing man. Only Soiros wore the Ceph-like draped outfit. One had a conventional flight suit; he looked like Kibber, the pilot, stripped of his armor. The other wore civilian clothes. They left the senior officer plenty of room to pace. Larry noticed that The Pacer didn’t return their bows.

Three Cephs rattled in behind the intelligence types. They were heavily armed and armored in gown-like coverings of Aramid-reinforced ceramic plates. Carrying odd assortments of weapons and gear, they stood in a semi-circle and conversed in a silent exchange of colors and gestures. One had two small snail-shell whorls above the eye-slots on its armor. The other two had armor covered in small knobby bumps; this showed that represented different planets.

The pacing man suddenly stopped and peered at Whiting and then at Drover and Mo Lusc.

“As regional commanding officer, I am forced to spend my precious time determining your guilt on the charge of aiding and abetting enemies of the Outer Rim. What do you have to say?”

He looked at Whiting for a long moment. He looked at Drover. Larry wanted to say that if they were taking up too much of his precious time, he should just let them go. The man looked at Mo briefly. He looked back at Whiting. She was shifting around, obviously thinking.

Larry had seen her remain very cool when they were captured. He hoped she could remain cool. He decided to try a little misdirection, perhaps they would change course and follow him instead of her. He sighed, and sat up straighter, as if he was planning to say something. He looked around at the gathered Outer Rim officials and their Cephalopod allies. He bit his lip.

Out of the corner of his eye, he thought that Whiting had glanced at him.

“We were looking for a load,” she said before he could say anything. All eyes jumped over to her.

Kibber stared hard at Drover. Larry slouched back down in his seat, and looked over at Whiting. The Pacer stared hard at Whiting.

“Here?” The Pacer asked. “On our side of the frontier?” He looked at Drover and Whiting again. “After carrying war materiel for the Core Planets? Are you stupid?”

Drover nodded vigorously. What else could he do but agree? Whiting looked at him and then looked back at The Pacer.

“We only had time for a short hop before —” she started, and ran out of power. She left the rest hanging, as if she said too much; as if she might blow whatever cover story she had concocted for herself.

She looked around the room. Larry caught her eye, and gave her the “go on” face. He was certainly interested in what she had to say. It could be very interesting. He didn’t want to jump in, because he might contradict something she’d already said.

The Pacer, as Larry expected, was too impatient to wait for her. “Before what?” he asked.

She looked at the table. “I can’t say.”

Larry was incredulous, wondering what kind of story she was spinning. Wisely, she was begging them to ask more questions. The intelligence officers were watching her; Soiros had a goofy-looking smirk of triumph. It was hard to say what the Cephalopods were doing; they continued to talk amongst themselves. Larry couldn’t see Mo without turning in his chair.

“Come,” the big man said, walking toward her. He leaned on the table to get closer to her. “Let’s not be coy. I have your ship. I can examine your orders.”

This simple truth was chilling. Now that they had the Mule II, they could hold them indefinitely, taking an extraordinarily long time to extract information from the ship’s manager. Even if the Core Planets tried to complain, they would be told that Drover was obstructing ordinary border patrols and that would be largely correct.

Larry nodded in agreement with Mr. Pacer. Whiting looked up with a kind of shocked expression. “You wouldn’t,” she said.

Larry wondered what she was navigating toward. They held this ship. They’d already torn open the hull. Why wouldn’t they dismantle the manager to get some data? This base had all but one of the guns in this cluster, and that one gun was hidden somewhere in the Mule II; it wouldn’t do anyone much good.

The big man stood up suddenly. He turned to Soiros. “Break into their manager and extract their orders.”

Soiros gave a sort of bow. “Yes, Baron Dieskau.” Larry took another look at The Pacer. This was the famous Baron Dieskau; the commander who controlled the Carillon base and enforced the frontier. This was the same Baron Dieskau that Johnson, Whiting and the entire Core Planets military command was trying to get rid of.

Soiros took out a communicator. Larry took out his key. Larry waved it around so that Soiros would look his way.

“Ahem,” Larry said to get Soiros’ attention. “Throttle back there. Don’t break into anything.”

Soiros was so pleased he smiled. He set down his communicator with an elaborate flourish. He looked over at Dieskau. Dieskau glanced down; Soiros gave him a small bow. It looked like Soiros was taking credit for something and hoping Dieskau noticed his good work.

Since Whiting had scrambled the orders, the data was mostly junk at this point. Stumped by the damaged data, they’d probably let him go as an incompetent businessman.

“Okay. Okay,” Whiting said. “We’re going to be moving loads from the new Henry base back to Lyman Base.”

Drover stared at her. Baron Dieskau stared, too. Soiros switched from smug to lost. Dieskau leaned back, trying to appear more thoughtful than incredulous.

“Moving back to Lyman?” he asked. It sounded more like a statement than a question.

Whiting looked over at Larry and then at Mo. She looked down at the table, not at Dieskau. “Withdrawing,” she said. “Sure.”

Dieskau was staring hard at Whiting. “Abandoning Henry?” This was definitely a question.

Soiros was frowning and scribbling. He was not happy with this turn of events. She’d changed course, and no one was able to catch up with her. It was a brilliant tack, perfectly timed.

Larry slouched down even further. “Well, yeah,” he said. Dieskau glanced at him, dismissively, and went back to staring at Whiting. Larry continued, “They don’t ask me to critique their strategy, but we moved out to Henry and now, I guess we’re packing ‘em up and moving ‘em back. Seems like a big screw-up if you —”

“Yes,” Dieskau interrupted. He started pacing again. “Total disarray,” he said. He whirled suddenly, almost pouncing on Soiros. The Cephalopods started flickering in synchronization as they absorbed what Dieskau was saying. “Withdrawal always leads to what? Confusion and low morale. Of course. How would you feel if you retreated from the frontier without having fired a shot? A very nice advantage.”

Dieskau took a few steps, stopped and stared at the Cephalopods. A quick message passed amongst them, then the pod of three shifted slightly so they could all focus on Dieskau. Dieskau stared at them for a long moment. Everyone watched him.

Dieskau half turned to Soiros. “Get them out of here,” he said.

Soiros looked mortally wounded. He looked like he had been stripped of rank and title. “The materiel, my Baron?”

Dieskau didn’t look at him. He turned back to stare at the Cephalopods. “Their ship was empty. Turn them loose.” Nothing happened. Dieskau whirled on the other intelligence officer. “Now.”

Kibber hopped up. Soiros sank into his chair.

Kibber pushed Whiting out of her chair. He herded her over to Drover. Once they were crowded against the door, he hit the control. The door slid open. Kibber turned Larry, Natalie and Mo Lusc over to the three guards in the hallway. The guards stared blankly at the four of them.

Kibber looked at the guard with the most complex insignia. “Get them out of here.” The guard looked blankly at Kibber. “Sir?”

Kibber was clearly exasperated with the guard’s blank look. “Get them off this base,” he said, building up to a good shout. “I don’t care what you do. If you have to, put them back on their ship and get them an exit clearance!”


Larry nodded at Kibber approvingly. Kibber shoved him into the other guards. One of the guards punched Larry to the deck.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Fourteen

The complexity of space travel meant that people had to specialize in order to manage the endless details. Adding to the complexity was a need for everything to have a backup or spare or both. Designers of spacecraft tried to assure than no pair of failures could cripple a ship or put the crew or cargo in danger. Even though a ship was highly automated, two crew were required to act as each other’s backup systems.

Larry liked Mo as a flight engineer; Mo had fascinating stories of Cephalopod civilization, laws, governments, their silent visual music, even their mating. Mo understood the ironies of their life as freighters. They shared a studied distaste for the endless quest for material wealth, but still worked to maximize the profit of each trip. Mo and Larry also found word games to be a good way to waste the boring days and weeks of a long flight. Mo’s speech synthesizer lacked a suitable technical vocabulary, and Mo, for whatever private reason, refused to buy any upgrades. They would work out synonyms and aliases for some of the more obscure topics the synthesizer couldn’t process.

While Mo and Larry talked often, they rarely did this eye to eye. Larry did not like the odor that followed Mo Lusc around. Mo was not a mammal; Larry found that he would get anxious when he was near Mo for extended periods of time. Many people were uncomfortable around squids, but could only whisper that it was simple fear. Anthro-centrism was considered to be another of mankind’s many evils, and admitting fear of squids was a kind of species bias that was unacceptable to many.

Larry had led Kibber down to the heart of the ship’s engineering areas. Mo had quarters here, somewhere, and took care of the vast power plant and foils that moved the ship. The area smelled of lubricants, ozone and Cephalopod. Larry had to remind himself that Mo felt the same way about the flight deck, and Larry’s Mammal smell.

The engineering maintenance area was the first stop. Larry looked at two workbenches, each with a separate project. Mo was, generally, rather neat. There was a worn ion gate controller surrounded by parts and tools. It was a used unit that Mo was in the process of refurbishing. The other project was a Ceph innovation that would better trim the forces on the gravity foil by placing a mass beam a short distance to leeward.

Kibber jabbed Larry with the gun. “Nothing stupid or you get cut into handy single servings.”

Larry poked around on the benches, lifting parts and tools. Most of the equipment was covered with a fine layer of dry lubricant. Even if there were a weapon, Larry thought, what would be the point in using it? There are two backups on the Outer Rim scout ship. It would be a short, pointless victory.

“What’s that?” Kibber asked.

Larry looked over; Kibber pointed his gun at a scallop shell. Larry found Mo’s use of shells to be gruesome; he likened it to a Mammal using a human skull or a rabbit’s foot.

Larry picked up the shell and poured out the key. In addition, there were two very tiny gold bracelets and a piece of coral. The bracelets were jewelry that Cephs wore on their tentacles. Larry was confident the coral was something Mo chewed on. He threw it back into the shell as quickly as he could.

Kibber backed out of the doorway, gun trained on Drover. Larry was out of alternatives. They had to go back to the manager console and extract the required paperwork. He hoped that Whiting was finished doctoring the records.

The engineering console squealed with the Cephalopod version of a warning beep. A sequence of colors pulsed across one corner of the display. Larry thought he recognized “fuel”, but the rest was a flurry of motion. The colors were mild, so it was a status message and not a serious warning. Since the ion intakes were blocked, the main fuel system was shut down. Larry could only conclude that Mo was fixing one of the fuel shunts or cleanouts; it was an odd thing do to while being boarded.

“What’s that?”

Larry stole a glance at Kibber, trying to avoid looking at the gun. The question wasn’t rhetorical; Kibber appeared like he expected an answer. While Kibber was clearly a pilot, it appeared that he couldn’t read the Cephalopod images.

“I guess you’re messing with my fuel cleanouts.” The pilot looked over the console for some other indicators. Larry watched closely for agreement. What he saw was blankness, leaving him confident that Kibber was baffled by the Ceph console.

Kibber backed out of the doorway. Larry forced himself to look away from the gun; he glanced at the ion gate controller Mo was repairing. It was an incongruous pile of tools. Rather than Mo’s usual neatness, this looked like Mo had hastily poured out the entire toolbox of large gauge plumbing wrenches onto the workbench. Mo must have scrambled and left a mess. Larry hoped Mo had a good plan, and he could respond when Mo took action.

“Are we ready yet?” Kibber asked.

“Gosh, I hope so,” Larry replied. He realized he was staring at the workbench. “I’ve got deliveries to make, you know.”


Whiting found herself dragged up out of the conduit into a different crawlspace, horsed over a very hot piece of equipment and dropped into a small closet or locker. The operation was painful, terrifying and brief. She’d been banged into walls and equipment and scraped through a very narrow place by Cephalopod tentacles.

Once in the locker, she slid down into the corner. An access lamp provided enough light for her to see. A tentacle covered her mouth gently. She resented the idea that she would scream. She was a marine officer. She was not going to start screaming. When she got her gun out of her rucksack, she was going to start shooting.

A patch of fabric dropped down from above. It was Mo’s gown. Mo dropped into the locker with a squish and a rustle of fabric. Mo lifted several tentacles and started waving them back and forth. It took on a color that matched Whiting’s outfit. It waved and swayed gently. Whiting realized that this was intended to be comforting. She moved back and forth, holding up her hands to parallel Mo’s movement. She took a deep breath.

Behind her came the faintest squish of Cephalopod tentacles. As Mo shifted around in the locker, she saw the pupil of its eye open from a narrow wavy line to a broad horse-shoe shape. She looked up at the crawlspace they had dropped down from and saw the tips of two other tentacles reaching over the edge, pursuing her. The other Cephalopod had both of them cornered. Had Mo helped it by dragging her into this locker?

Trying hard not to shout, she hunkered down, trying to wrestle her side-arm out of her rucksack. The locker was small, her gun was too large to easily slide out of the small pack, and she was sitting on part of the pack.

As she struggled, she saw Mo Lusc, with a studied slowness, reach up over her head for a valve mounted in a control panel. The tentacle wrapped around the valve and when it unwound, the valve spun. Somewhere behind the control panel a piece of machinery groaned into life. The pursuer’s two tentacles continued down into the locker, feeling for her Mammalian warmth. Four of the other Ceph’s larger tentacles appeared at the opening of the crawl space. She knew that the head would appear momentarily; she needed her gun.

There was an emphatic slap of solenoids from inside the control panel. Steam began spraying somewhere behind the crawlspace access. She and Mo watched the tentacles start thrashing around. There was a thin squealing or hissing from the other Cephalopod. The two long tentacles convulsed within the locker. More tentacles appeared at the crawlspace opening, but twitched and spasmed, unable to grab onto the edge of the locker.

Whiting finally freed her gun. She pointed it up at the opening. Gently, Mo Lusc pushed the gun away, then touched a switch with a flashing red indicator. There was a sudden crackle and a flash of discharged energy.

The pursuer stopped twitching, went limp and the tentacles fell back down into the conduit, slipping down out of sight. There was a powerful smell of ozone and burned, rancid squid. Whiting’s hair had a static charge that made it cling to the walls of the locker. Her gun, and possibly her computer began beeping warning tones.

Mo oozed forward, toward the crawl space. Whiting got to her knees behind Mo, her gun trained on the opening. She was waiting for the head and eyes to appear. She had never shot a squid, but had been told that a Cephalopod was only vulnerable at the lowest hanging part of their elongated heads. The marine riflemen all knew that shooting a squid between the eyes only wounded its stomach.

Several of Mo’s tentacles dragged the other Cephalopod out of the crawlspace and dropped it on the floor of the locker. A small piece of machinery, probably a cutting tool dropped out of the mass of dead tentacles. Whiting put her gun back in the rucksack and picked up the Cephalopod weapon.

Mo reached over and took the weapon away from her. She noticed that Mo held it a different way than she had. Perhaps she’d been pointing it at herself. The weapon vanished up underneath Mo’s gown. She struggled up to her full height, and stood for a moment looking at the two Cephalopods. She wondered what the other attackers would do. For that matter, she wondered what Mo would do. Mo dragged it away from the crawlspace.

She took out the ship’s manager key and showed it to Mo.

“Where’s the management computers?” she whispered.

Mo’s speech synthesizer chimed as it activated. There was no volume control, so it was impossibly loud in the tiny locker. “Where are management computers? Why do we need management computers? Who is to say why we kill? Are they in the third passage forward; second door port? Were we brave to penetrate unknown space so rashly?”

Whiting pushed out of the locker into the hallway. Whiting thought she was beginning to understand the endless use of “we”. Squids traveled in pods; no Cephalopod was ever alone. She could see that Mo identified with this squid. Was Mo was siding with the Mammals? Or was Mo merely opposed to these particular Cephalopods?


Larry had slowly picked his way back to the ship’s office, knowing that a longer delay would lead to real trouble. He dropped the key into the reader, and started the computer. The screen started pulsing through a complex sequence of colors. The colors pulsed and swooped through a range from a white just tinged with pink to a deep green-brown that looked like algae. There was a lazy but definite beat to the display. It was musical, lyrical and hypnotic.

Kibber leaned over to look at the computer for a moment. He stepped back as much as was possible in the tiny office. He whacked Drover hard with the barrel of his gun, almost knocking him out of the chair.

“Ow! Is that necessary?” Larry said, trying to get back into the chair.

“I’m sick of this crap!” Kibber said. “Get moving.” “It’s Cephalopod porn,” Larry said.

It was the silent music of the Cephalopods. It was a visual display that pulsed and swooped through a number of common themes. Larry recognized a few of them. Others he could guess at from the context of the “song.” Larry had seen images of pods of Cephs, doing displays like this in unison, as well as displays that were more complex, apparently some kind of harmony.

Drover hit a key to stop the display. He located the basic management records for the ship. He hoped to avoid manifests as long as possible.

“Health certificates, right?” Drover said. He started locating his health certificates.
“And freight manifests,” Kibber replied.

“Every load of manure from one worthless rock to another?” The pilot jabbed Drover in the shoulder with the barrel of his gun. “Yes, every stupid load.” Drover looked over the keyboard. He hoped Whiting had finished her task. He had no idea if he was going to succeed or fail in this. He was venturing into the unknown, completely trusting his future to someone else; it was not a good feeling. His palms were sweating as he typed.

The manifests, sadly, appeared untouched. It looked like Whiting had not managed to change them. Perhaps she wasn’t familiar with this particular system. He needed to buy her a little more time.

He checked the overall activity of the computer system. He could see that she was working in the manager computer locker itself. She was using his key. He didn’t realize he’d let out an audible “hmmm” until he was jabbed in the head by Kibber.

“What now?” Kibber asked.

“Nothing, just hmmm,” Drover said, looking around.

He could see that the computer was doing some kind of work. He pulled up the information a second time. His orders all had dates about a decade in the past. Each time he looked, the order history changed again. First it was a decade in the past. Then all of the product classifications changed. He hoped she would get to the manifests soon. Drover heard Kibber step back. “How about this? I’ll count to three, and if you can’t produce manifests I’ll—”

Larry cut him off with “Throttle back, Ace.” Larry knew that the step back was to move the gun into position. He tried to force his mind away from the gun and onto his role as aggrieved businessman. He dreaded actually looking at the manifests, but he wanted to stall for a moment longer. “I got your manifests; it’s the orders that are screwed up.”

Larry tried to look at some other order information to see what else Whiting was doing. He heard the weapon shifting around. A pocket opened. He heard the faint chirps of a computer. Larry recognized that he was at the end of his stall. That part of the flight plan was complete. He was adrift at a waypoint without a new course.

“Fine, let’s go,” the pilot said.

Larry heard a computer drop into a pocket. There was a rattle as the weapon moved around behind him.

“Go?” Larry asked.

“Yup,” the pilot said. He took a breath and recited, “You’re under arrest for transporting restricted materiel onto an Outer Rim planet in direct violation of Outer Rim Systems laws and treaties. You and your ship will be held by the Carillon until the matter is resolved by the regional military commander.”

Larry spun around in his chair. Something had gone terribly wrong. He was sure that the pilot hadn’t even looked at any of the manifests. It usually took hours or days to determine that there were irregularities; this pilot was not following any of the standard inspection procedures. Larry’s stomach sank as he realized that this was a simple hijacking with a veneer of legitimate border inspection.

Kibber waved his gun. “Bring the key. Let’s go. Call your pet squid.” Larry sat in the chair at the computer, trying to find a calm indifference. He tried to slouch. He wanted a moment to focus on his role as the aggrieved pilot.

“It’s not a squid, it’s a Cephalopod,” Larry said, trying to ignore the gun.

“Where I come from, it’s bait. Round it up, so we can move.” Kibber waved the gun. Slowly, Drover climbed up out of the chair. He reached down and grabbed the key; there was nothing more he could do. He hoped that Mo or Whiting had some plan.

Larry ducked past the gun and out into the companionway. Sprawled in the narrow space was a dead, naked Cephalopod. Was it Mo? Had Mo been caught and killed? Larry tried to look closely, but he had never seen Mo without some kind of gown or other. He wasn’t sure if Mo had any distinguishing characteristics; Larry had to admit that all Cephalopods looked alike to him.

Larry backed away from the tentacles. Kibber and the gun started to come out of the office.

“Freeze!” Kibber shouted.

Larry looked up at the incongruity of the command. He wasn’t going anywhere, and the squid was already dead. Larry noticed that Mo was standing silently further down the hall, on the opposite side of Kibber. Kibber entered the hall, pointing the gun down the hall one way at Drover, then the other way at Mo Lusc. Larry peered at Mo. Mo’s cowl slid back a little, and Mo showed one word, very prominently. Larry thought it was “quiet” or “silence” or something like that. Larry nodded.

“What the hell did you do to my squid?” Kibber asked, waving the gun at Drover.

Larry slouched, shaking his head trying to suppress a grin. He was desperate to remind Kibber that they were together the whole time, but he was also afraid of the violence escalating any further. Clearly, the pilot was ignoring Mo as just an ignorant squid. Just as clearly, Mo or Whiting had killed the other squid.

Mo’s synthesizer hummed, “What did we do? Why would we climb into a fuel cleanout vent? Are we crew on a freighter? Do we understand the risks?”

Kibber waved the gun at Mo, then back to Drover. Larry’s face fell when he realized that Mo had probably changed the plumbing somewhere and opened a valve for the superheated chemical spray used for fuel cleanout. It was an exceptionally cruel death. Larry recognized a depth to Mo’s malice that was suddenly intimidating. Mo had probably, in cold blood, used some kind of bait to lure a fellow Cephalopod into a trap and murdered it.

“A fuel cleanout? Stupid squid,” Kibber said, and kicked the tentacles sprawled there.

The most chilling part of the murder was that nothing was at stake for the two Cephs; they were mere passive observers to a Mammal border dispute.

“It’s a Cephalopod, one of your allies,” Larry said.

“It’s a dead ‘pod. It stopped you from running; that’s enough. Move forward, with the squid, both of you,” Kibber shouted.

Larry could see that Kibber was focused on his own little part in the political drama; he was going to deliberately ignore the questions raised by the dead Cephalopod. Larry looked past Kibber; Mo did nothing except change color quickly when Larry looked. Larry had no idea what Mo said, so he shrugged. Kibber started motioning with the gun.

Larry climbed over the dead Cephalopod and ducked under the gun. He sauntered up next to Mo, and put his arm around Mo’s head. He could hear the faint whistle and gurgle of Mo’s respirator, and smell the vomit-sweet stink of Cephalopod. There was a hum from the speech synthesizer, but Mo said nothing. Larry wasn’t being affectionate, or even supportive. He was pretty sure he was irritating pilot Kibber by leaning on a live Cephalopod.

The pilot brought up the gun. “Down to the cargo bay we opened,” he said.


Larry turned and walked. Mo oozed along behind him as he led the way back to cargo bay two.