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Tuesday, April 15, 2014


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.

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