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.