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.
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.