Docking is an art form, different from the cold science and engineering of space flight. Once the list of procedures is over, once the litany of call and response has verified that docking is possible, the pilot has to use a nicety of judgment and experience to bring a ship to a docking pier. Something large, like a rated ship of the line, or a base, simplified the docking maneuvers; the tremendous inertia provided a relatively fixed frame of reference for computing speed and course. Something small, like another scout, which could actively maneuver to get away, was another matter entirely.
Mo, however, knew about close assault. It was the Cephalopod tactic of choice; Cephalopod ships had mandibles and manipulators to attach to another ship, force an opening, and board. Lacking the appropriate tools, a Core Planet Scout could not easily force an entry. In spite of the problems, they had no choice: their scout was leaking and they were pursued. If they didn’t board this Outer Rim scout, they would be shot out of the sky long before they took up a defensive position on the planet. Mo picked a section of the ship that was blind and eased their speed to nearly match. Under Mo’s direction, Larry steered them in.
If the Outer Rim ship would only cooperate, docking would be done slowly and gracefully, with the ships just nudging up against each other. As it was, the Outer Rim ship kept turning away. Larry realized that there would be no gentle contact. He was going to have to bang the ships together hard, damaging both ships; Mo would have use perfect timing to lock the two ships together.
There was an emergency docking checklist. It was mercifully short; merely verifying that the hard dock mechanism would deploy at all. There was no reason to check any other systems or any alternatives in an emergency; when there were choices, it wasn’t an emergency, it was merely a problem.
Mo kept their speeds closely matched; Larry was able to anticipate most of the other pilot’s moves and closed in steadily. Mo would have but seconds to both deploy dockside manipulators, and mate up the hatchways once Larry banged the ships together.
“You’re with me Mo?” Larry called.
Mo’s synthesizer chimed an assent.
“Contact in five, four, hold on — you bastard!” Larry said, trying to maintain speed.
The Outer Rim scout had jinked, and Larry had to increase speed to catch them and then slack the foils completely to drift in the last few meters under inertia alone.
“Contact in four, three, two, and one!” There was a solid crunch of ship-to-ship contact. Alarms began sounding. There was a groaning creak from the Horicon Scout as the hull settled into a new position. The lurch knocked Natalie out of her seat, leaving her clinging to her console.
The annunciator said, “Hull Breach in Four Bravo Two. Pressure Dropping.”
“Now you notice,” Larry replied.
It was not news; the atmosphere had been leaking since they’d been shot. It did, however, provide some satisfying comfort to Larry. The ships were docked; the only damage was to widen an existing breach. Larry felt a wave of relief now that they were docked and had an escape plan. The ship continued to groan and creak as Mo used the manipulators to adjust their position. The atmospheric leak moved from a whistle to a rushing of wind.
Whiting stood up. “Inertial frame off for boarding,” Whiting commanded.
Larry grabbed a hand-hold and released the inertial frame that provided them with a usable gravity. Just as he hit the switch, he remembered that he should have checked the orientation indicator first.
The floors, the console seats, and tabletops in the ship suddenly let go of what they were holding. Everything fell to the ceiling: pencils, computers and drink cups all bounced around. Larry flopped forward into the webbing belts that held him in the pilot’s seat. Whiting grabbed at the weapons console for a moment and rolled onto her back on the ceiling. Mo drooped down from the engineering console. Some tentacles moved down to the ceiling, and it gracefully oozed to a new position, standing upright. Mo’s head was tipped to the side as it read the upside-down displays.
“Thanks a lot, Mo,” Larry said, struggling out of his seat. “You docked us upside down. Now what?”
Whiting scrambled out of the cockpit into the upside-down hallway.
“We board her,” she said over her shoulder and disappeared around the corner.
Larry scrambled after her. She had run down to a secured area on a lower deck. Larry heard the too-loud POP-POP-POP of a side-arm. Another alarm sounded somewhere in the ship, wailing away at the new problem that had arisen.
“Can we find the dorsal lock?” Mo squeaked through the ship’s intercom.
Larry looked up, but that was floor. He looked down at the ceiling on which he was walking for the speaker grille. He walked up to an intersection, leaned over and shouted into the grill.
“Dorsal port or starboard?” Larry said to the grille. There was no answer.
Larry shrugged, thinking that there must be only one dorsal lock. He continued looking down at the ceiling. He hung his head right down between his knees to get his bearings in the upside-down ship. He took a few wrong turns before he found the central stairs. Fortunately, there was no decorative ceiling; it would have made a difficult ramp in the inverted ship. He struggled over the wiring and plumbing that snaked along the ceiling and climbed to the dorsal side of the ship.
Mo was standing by the airlock, head tipped sideways, peering at the upside-down controls. Whiting bounded along the corridor carrying two huge marine-corps rifles. She leaned one against the wall and carefully checked the other. She worked the action and ejected a round of ammunition. It clattered onto the ceiling and rolled around for a moment. Larry gaped, realizing that she was planning to kill the people on the Outer Rim scout ship.
Whiting held out the rifle. Larry took it and looked at it. His palms were wet, making the grips on the rifle slick. He’d fired side arms, but never a rifle. Mo’s tentacles reached over and gently lifted it out of Larry’s shaking arms. Larry was a pilot, not a soldier. He could help them, but that was all, he wasn’t sure he wanted to be a part of the killing.
Whiting checked her rifle quickly, ejecting another shell onto the floor. It rolled down until the two ejected shells lay side by side.
“Open it up,” she said.
The ships were only held by docking manipulators. There was no hard seal, because the Outer Rim scout ship didn’t provide the right kind of connector.
“There’s no seal,” Larry said. “It’s a goddamn vacuum.” Whiting looked up from her gun.
“It’s an emergency exit,” she said. “We do an emergency exit into their ship.” Larry held out his hands to emphasize his point. “And they shoot us!” “If we deny them a target, can they shoot accurately?” Mo’s synthesizer squeaked.
Larry turned on Mo. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Whiting walked down the corridor and opened a locker. Since the door was sideways, it was difficult to work the handle. When she did get it open, the contents poured out onto the ceiling. There were a number of hull-repair supplies, including a stiff plastic mat that could be used to stuff a hole and prevent further leaks, adhesives and some welding supplies.
Whiting kicked the supplies away. She set her gun down, bent over and released the hinge pins from the locker door. She had done close assault before, and knew how it worked. The most important part of a forced entry was a distraction that allowed you to shoot them before they found and shot you. She’d had a brief assignment to a unit that specialized in it; she’d pinned a medal on a man who’d been the high-risk point man on many assaults, and was revered by his unit for his tremendous luck and courage.
Mo oozed over and took the door from Whiting.
“May I have the honor?” Mo asked.
Whiting picked up her gun. Mo oozed back to the airlock door, armed with a flimsy locker cover. Mo handed Larry the gun.
Larry put a hand on her shoulder to make sure she was paying attention to him. “Have you done this before? For real?”
Whiting looked up at him, squarely in the face. “Nope,” she said.
Larry could see that she was calm and confident. She had followed her own checklist, and she was ready for the next step. There was no doubt in her eyes that a Lieutenant Colonel, a pilot and a Cephalopod flight engineer could take control of a Core Planets scout manned by professional fliers and marines. Larry could see few choices: the Horicon had been destroyed, along with the Mule II, and the scout they were standing in. Out in space, the battle raged, and the Core Planets ships were being systematically destroyed. At least two Cephalopods were waiting to board this scout ship as soon as it moved away from the Outer Rim ship.
“I’ve abandoned ships twice,” Larry said, still holding her shoulder and trying to match her ferocious intensity. “Keep trying to shout ‘hup-hup-hup.’ Keep your eyes shut; wait till your tears thaw before you open them. This will kill you skin.”
“Don’t get mushy on me, pilot,” she said, impatient to get started.
Larry gave her shoulder a squeeze; he leaned over sideways to work the controls. The inner door creaked open. Whiting slid in, pointing her gun. Mo oozed in, clinging to the locker cover, with almost nothing showing but tentacle tips. Larry slouched in behind them, dragging the rifle. Larry located the emergency controls. He worked the manipulator to open the Outer Rim ship’s exterior lock door, started the oxygen pump for their lock; a small reminder bell chimed.
“Outer door’s open on their ship. Stand by for the deep freeze.” They all grabbed handles inside the airlock and took huge, shuddering breaths. The Mammals needed to hyperventilate and saturate their blood with oxygen. The usual procedure was three big breaths and then jump. Larry and Natalie looked at each other closely in the airlock and took their breaths together, counting as they did it.
Larry hit the emergency exit control as they started inhaling on “three”. The lights switched to red, an alarm sounded, a loud motor whipped open the outside door. The air rushed out of the lock, blowing loose bits of trash from their ship against the Outer Rim’s airlock door. They could see the various manipulators that held the ships together.
Mouths open, but making no noise, Whiting and Drover jumped across the gap into the other ship. They tumbled onto the floor of the Outer Rim lock and grabbed onto the nearest handle. Mo threw the locker door; a finger tentacle followed, wrapped around a handle, and Mo squirted in behind it.
Larry knew that the hardest part was getting the airlock closed once they were inside. The controls were hard to find; the cold was paralyzing and fatal after only moments. You could risk opening your eyes, but they could be damaged when your tears froze. Before Larry could find the control, Mo pulled the handle and the Outer Rim scout airlock door slapped shut. A whistling started and warm air started to fill the locker. As the pressure moved up they could hear each other feeble gasping out their last of the “hup-hup-hup” that ventilated the expanding gasses from their lungs. As the pressure climbed, it became impossible to breathe out any more, and they could breathe in great gulps of air.
Larry lay on the floor, eyes shut. Shivering, Whiting climbed to her feet. Mo had put the locker door against the wall and oozed behind it. Whiting hit the interior control, opening the airlock door. It hissed faintly as the pressures equalized. She tried to tip Mo and the door out into the companionway. Mo was too heavy for her to move alone.
Whiting kicked Drover as he lay on the floor. He looked up at her, blank for a moment. He didn’t know what the plan was, or what he was supposed to do. He was having trouble catching his breath. He had heard her “hupping” as the pressure came up, but now all was silent and cold.
“Hold it right there,” came a heavily accented voice from the corridor. It was an Outer Rim marine, guarding the entrance to the ship. Larry was sure the marine was armed; ready to burst into the airlock and start shooting. The plan came back into focus; Larry struggled to his feet and helped Natalie push Mo out into the companionway.
Mo and the locker door cracked into a locker across from the airlock. Larry shut the airlock door and Whiting looked out the view port. There was a very long pause as the Outer Rim marine considered the locker door that had been thrown onto his ship. Whiting and Drover held their breath. Larry jumped when the marine fired. He didn’t see the locker door get blown down the hallway by the impact of the exploding bullets.
Whiting ducked down below the view port. She waved at Larry, who scooted over next to her to squat in front of the door. She picked up her gun, and placed it against her shoulder, pointed down at the floor. She was relaxed, waiting. Larry was sweating, and still couldn’t catch his breath.
The door opened. They squatted, facing a marine in an Outer Rim uniform, holding an impossibly huge rifle. Whiting didn’t move. Larry almost fell over backwards.
Suddenly, tentacles enveloped the marine, hauling him backwards toward the door across from the airlock. The marine screamed, arched, and writhed, trying to get away from Mo Lusc. He tried swinging his rifle, but his arms were pinned. He dropped the rifle and tried to grab his knife, but Mo pinned his forearms, also. He tried to scream again, but it was only a whimper, and then he collapsed to the floor, blood pooling around him. He was not dead, but was rapidly dying. He moved, feebly, but could do nothing to help himself. Larry and Natalie had sat on the floor, watching his death agonies at the hands of a Cephalopod.
Mo oozed out of the equipment locker opposite the airlock, gliding over the dying Outer Rim marine. Whiting stood up, rifle at the ready. Larry sat, staring.
“Are we not warriors?” Mo asked. The parts of Mo that were visible were bright red. As Larry stared Mo faded to match the color of the walls.
“I thought you were a pilot,” Larry began, but trailed off.
“Bridge,” Whiting commanded.
Larry got up off the floor. They were not done. There was more killing before they were safe. After that, they would have to get out of the ambush, away from the Outer Rim, away from the frontier.
Larry looked blankly up and down the companionway. Whiting had gone left. Mo followed her. Shaking, Larry held the gun against his shoulder, vaguely like Whiting had done and started to follow Mo.
“Don’t ever get pissed at me, please,” Larry said.
“Would I attack my own pod?” Mo asked.
Whiting had a vague sense of how an Outer Rim scout was laid out. She knew that they had docked on the relatively fixed drive module. There was a connector to an interchangeable crew quarters module. Her only option was to sprint though the crew quarters. Only if there were more than three or four people on the scout would they be in real danger.
If she didn’t secure this ship, her crew were dead. Two ships had been shot out from under her; she had reached a state of ruthless desperation to keep Larry and Mo alive. Even if she did secure this ship, she still had to control the retreat; otherwise the entire Core fleet was dead. She kept the rifle on her shoulder, at the ready. She looked down the barrel: anyone she saw, she saw through the rifle’s sights. The only thing she had left were the people she had to protect; empty of everything else, she would kill anyone that stopped her.
The crew module seemed deserted. She didn’t waste time in a search; she merely paused to listen and then sprinted. At the end of the crew module was a multi-junction. She paused to look around for a moment. There was no noise, no smell of sweat or armor lubricants. She had to edge up to the connector, checking for opposition from each of the incoming hallways. She could see that taking a look down one hall would expose her to fire from another hall; she started to sweat as her heart raced. Larry and Mo were depending on her. They needed her to secure the cockpit.
As she edged along the wall toward the junction, she saw that one section was attached to the slowly rotating flight deck. She decided to simply leap for that section, put her back to the wall, and defend herself against anyone who tried to stop her.
She jumped, but no one opposed her. She climbed up into the slip ring, and onto the rotating flight deck. Once oriented, she edged along the wall so she could see the entrance to the cockpit.
“Roger that, we’re trying to locate the intruders now,” the pilot said. His accent was from this frontier cluster.
She heard a switch operated. There was small change in the background humming of the ship. Whiting caught her breath, quietly breathed in and out. She reminded herself that she had no choice; only her crew would leave this ship alive. She took the four steps into the cockpit as quickly as she could without actually running. She jammed the rifle into the pilot’s head, knocking him forward in his seat.
“Let’s go. Now,” she said.
The pilot spread his hands. He waved his fingers slightly, and with purposeful slowness, he took off his headset and set it on the console. He held one hand clearly to the side and used the other to unclip his harness. Slowly, he eased out of the seat.
The cockpit was roomy by Core Planets standards. Whiting backed up a step to let the pilot pass. She stared through the sights at his chest until he paused. She knew it would make it very hard, but she looked up at him to make sure he saw that she was serious about killing him if he didn’t keep moving.
She recognized him as one of the intelligence officers she had seen on the Champlain. He backed up a step and then turned to duck out of the cockpit. More than one Marine Corps rifleman had told her never to look a target in the eyes; that made it harder to kill them. Once the pilot turned away, she tried to imagine him as just an Outer Rim uniform. She could kill a uniform. She would kill anyone that threatened Larry or Mo. Mission, mission, mission, she reminded herself.
She followed the pilot closely, rifle on her shoulder at the ready. Out in the corridor, he paused and started to turn. Whiting flipped on the targeting laser as the pilot turned, waiting for the heart to move into position.
“Okay,” Larry said, slowly. Focused on the pilot, she didn’t recognize the voice at first.
With an effort, she took the gun from her shoulder and looked past the Outer Rim uniform. Larry slouched in the doorway, rifle drooping toward the pilot’s feet. Mo’s head was visible in the connector.
“Brig,” Whiting said. “Move it.”
The pilot was slowly relaxing; his hands dropping slowly back to his side. He shook his head.
“Scouts don’t have brigs,” he said with a surly confidence.
“Our fleet is going to want him,” Whiting said. “We can’t guard him.” Larry looked at her. She seemed to be thinking out loud; Larry assumed that she was looking for advice on how to secure him.
“Can we secure a Mammal with cable clamps?” Mo squeaked.
Larry looked at Mo. It had eased into the connector, and was eyeing the pilot closely. Cable clamps would be a very painful restraint, but would be effective.
“Cable clamps,” Larry said. “You’re scaring me, Mo.” Larry frowned, wondering where they would find clamps on this ship. He thought about asking the pilot. The pilot stood between them, watching the conversation. He thought that the pilot was Kibber, who had captured them only a few days ago. While ironic, there were few enough scout pilots that the odds of this meeting were pretty good.
“Whatever,” Whiting said. “Make it fast, there’s still armed resistance in engineering.” Mo’s tentacles reached over and eased the gun from Larry’s arms. Larry looked around at Whiting, Mo and the pilot, crammed into the passageway.
“Which means what?” Larry asked. “We fight our way into engineering to get the cable clamps? Or we spend an hour searching for them? What the hell are you doing here, Lieutenant Colonel?”
Whiting squared her shoulders, put her rifle back up on her shoulder and focused on the Outer Rim pilot’s name tag. It was completely menacing; the pilot backed against the wall. Larry flinched away from her.
“You listen to me, pilot: your job is to secure our prisoners. If that means—” The explosion from Mo’s gun cut her off, blasting the pilot’s brains onto the passageway wall. Larry ducked away from the shot, Whiting flinched back from the sprayed gore. The dead pilot’s body dropped impossibly fast to the deck as a lifeless heap of bones. Blood gushed through the head onto the deck; the body groaned quietly before it lay still.
“Mo!” Larry shouted.
Mo shifted the weapon around in its tentacles. Its head shifted around so Mo could look down where Larry crouched.
“Was it a Mammal from the other pod?”
Back pressed against the wall, Larry slid up to a standing position. Mo’s eyes stayed glued on his. Larry’s legs were suddenly weak, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to stand without leaning on the wall.
“You shot him in cold blood!” Larry shouted, trying to impress the enormity of this kind of murder on Mo.
“Are we Cephalopods?” Mo asked. With no inflection in the voice synthesizer, Larry had no idea what Mo meant. Mo had cold-blooded ancestors; is that what the phrase really meant? Or, was a Mammal just vermin to a Cephalopod?
Whiting put a hand on Larry’s shoulder. Very quietly, almost tenderly she whispered, “It’s done. We’ve got to secure engineering.”
She stepped over the body, heading for the exit from the bridge deck. She looked closely at Larry as she passed him.
“Drover. Let’s go,” she said.
She glanced over at Mo, who was also turning to go.
Larry clutched at Mo’s gown, his hand pulled back as if he was going to punch the Cephalopod. Whiting knew it was a common response to the stress of combat. She put one arm on Larry and her back against Mo; she tried to catch his other hand before he hurt himself or Mo.
“Drover! Larry!” she shouted. “Larry,” she said as he stopped trying to reach past her to punch Mo.
She ducked her head around to look him in the eyes. Once he focused on her, she stood up and moved away from the body behind her.
“They were shooting at us, remember? Where you there? We’re just one ship trying to rejoin our fleet,” she said. “Down in engineering there’s still someone ready to kill you. But I’m here, and we’ll kill him first.”
She relaxed her grip on his arms. She patted his arms. “You got it?” she asked.
Drover’s sigh was almost a sob.
“Sorry,” he whispered. “I’ve seen ships destroyed before, but I’ve never seen a person killed.”
Whiting gave him a hug. Immediately, she regretted it. It was not a professional Marine Corps response to the stress of combat. She felt genuinely sorry for this poor pilot that was doing everything he could for her. She owed him her life; and she had to clear out the ship as part of paying him back.
Mo pressed the weapon into Larry’s shaking hands. Larry looked at the body again. He picked up the weapon and put it against his shoulder. He turned it toward the body, but the idea of shooting a person was still too new and raw. He flinched away to follow Mo and Whiting.
Larry and Mo eased down the companionway on the engineering deck. Larry held the gun up, but his hands were still weak, and he wasn’t sure he could actually shoot anything unless it was right in front of him. At a branch in the corridor, Mo eased forward, stretching out until only the eyes were looking around the corner. Mo waved Larry and Whiting up. They went around the corner, and Larry recognized the more typical look of the engineering area. There were large control modules on the walls; he could hear the whir of pumps and controllers.
They crept down the hallway to the stairs leading further down into engineering. Mo oozed forward to look down the stairwell. Mo’s tentacles dripped over the edge and Mo dropped silently down to the next level. Larry followed reluctantly down the stairs. Whiting waved and stayed on the upper level looking for an alternate route down.
Larry was alternating between confidence and despair. Perhaps there was only a scout crew of three, now reduced to one. They might be able to intimidate him into submission. On the other hand, they could be oozing into a trap.
Larry heard footsteps running. They had come to a section of hall that led to a junction, with an open doorway on their left. Mo paused in front of the doorway, holding up a tentacle so Larry would stop. Larry noticed the color change; Mo had a definite stop and wait color. Larry thought he heard something that was not the predictable whir of machinery. Very low, right by the floor, Mo stretched out, reaching just its eyes around the doorway. Mo suddenly jumped back, almost knocking Larry over. An explosion ripped a hole in the door frame where Mo’s eyes had been.
Larry backed up. The scout’s crew were defending engineering, waiting for an attack. Mo had turned red, the blood red of the marine. They heard more running foot steps. Whiting skidded through the junction at the other end of the hallway. She looked at the two of them for a moment, then held up one finger, and pointed around in a big circle, pointed at herself and pointed back through the junction. Then she held up five fingers. Then she held up a fist and pumped it up and down once.
Larry shrugged at the coded message. He wasn’t a marine. He waved and smiled. He was relieved she was still leading them. Whiting put her gun at her shoulder and ran back out through the junction.
There was a sudden POP-POP-POP followed by a deafening explosion from somewhere inside the room on their left. Smoke and bits of plastic flew out the doorway and swirled down the corridor. This was answered by a very different POP-POP followed by more explosions. The acrid smell of high explosives filled the hall. Mo grabbed the rifle out of Larry’s shaking hands, oozed to the doorway, pushed the rifle around the corner and started firing. Mo fired at least eight rounds into engineering; smoke and heat poured out of the doorway.
“Hey watch it champ, you still gotta fly this thing!” Larry shouted.
Mo paused, ducked, rose up, and continued to look over the gun perched awkwardly in its arms.
“Did the mammal shoot first?” Mo squeaked.
Mo oozed through the door.
“You can’t plead self defense, you stupid clam,” Larry shouted from the hallway “it was his ship!”
“Clear!” Whiting shouted from somewhere else in the ship.
Mo oozed back out into the hallway and waved to Larry. Mo was fading from blood red to a more neutral color. Larry could feel his heart pounding. He had to go to the head and take a huge crap before he did anything else.