The Outer Rim’s military doctrine stated explicitly that a border was maintained by force. What followed from this statement of policy was the practice of putting a large force where they wanted to declare a border.
The Outer Rim strategists were deeply committed to their three-dimensional game of Go, where bases could be placed far from any kind of obvious support. But, if necessary, the intermediate support could be constructed to form an unassailable border. Executed well, it was punishing strategy. The Outer Rim’s government, involving royal dynasties, encouraged long-term planning.
The Core Planets’ challenge at Niagara had been met by a flurry of construction along the edge of the globular cluster that linked Niagara through a series of bases to the vast Outer Rim base called Webeck. The Webeck base included a habitable planet, with a ground side as vast as any Home World. Webeck, far into Cephalopod territory, was the center of military operations. A breakdown in Cephalopod relations could be met with overwhelming military force. It was also the base used to manage one part of the ongoing conflicts with the Core Planets.
Like Niagara, Dieskau’s Carillon base was supported from Webeck, supplied by a constant stream of freighters, patrolled by a fleet of warships. More important to the Outer Rim, however, was the current location of the heavily patrolled border with the Core Planets.
Once Major General William Johnson started building his Henry base, he had moved the Outer Rim’s perception of the border, pushing it back into Outer Rim territory, past a dust and debris system, almost to the Outer Rim’s Carillon base itself.
Soiros was an intelligence officer from the Home Worlds, newly assigned to Carillon base. He was a slave to the “frontier” fashions, humanized copies of the draped cloaks favored by the Cephalopods. Home World fashion houses exaggerated and modified the basic Ceph cloaks so they no longer resembled anything that Cephalopods actually wore. While they were all the rage in the Home Worlds, they were not practical for life on a small scout ship on the frontier. Soiros’ complex hairstyle didn’t hold up well on the frontier, either.
This was Soiros’ first trip to the frontier; his first opportunity to see Cephalopods. His journey began on a massive ship that could carry several of the tiny scout ships in addition to vast amounts of freight and passengers. The long-haul transport ship, almost as large as a frontier base, was fast enough to span the impossibly large gulf between the Home Worlds and Webeck in only three weeks of travel. The vast bulk was of the ship was completely loaded; it had been a cramped and uncomfortable three weeks for all the passengers. The ship had a small flight crew and little domestic support: trash accumulated everywhere, to be cleaned up on arrival. Life support systems, like plumbing for toilets, were hopelessly overloaded. Passenger amenities were minimal, making laundry a complex scheduling problem during the journey. At the end of a long trip, the passengers were uniformly irritable and dirty, and often sick.
The next two legs were on smaller and smaller ships from Webeck to Carillon. The passengers and cargo were jammed onto each ship, making them equally cramped and dirty. The journey on a small freighter from Webeck to Crown took a week, even though the distance covered was less than a tenth of the distance from the Home Worlds. The journey to Carillon was only half the distance from Quebec to Crown, but the convoy of tiny lighters and barges took another week.
Soiros’ first assignment was a patrol mission to examine stars for traces of Core planets contact. He had almost reached his limit of patience with small, dirty, smelly space craft. He was in desperate need of a bed that matched his actual height, and some way to fully wash all of this clothes as well as himself after five weeks of non-stop travel.
Soiros was expecting the actual mission to be an even more grueling hardship than travel from the Home Worlds to the frontier. The frontier lacked all of the amenities of the Home Worlds. There were no professional wash and grooming services. There were no restaurants. The live theater was almost exclusively amateur performers. Publications were brought in ships, and were six or more weeks out of date. Magazines and videos were poorly executed copies that had been compressed for transport and lacked the resolution and fidelity of an original. Even bits were precious in space travel, and highly compressed data took up less space in the hold of a ship.
Outer Rim patrol pilots were recruited from the frontier bases, where they learned the skills needed to navigate without the sophisticated infrastructure built up around the Outer Rim Home Worlds. Frank Kibber was a capable pilot who held onto the thread of hope that he could overcome his frontier heritage and advance through the hierarchy of Home World family titles and ranks. Frank’s flight engineer, Micha Nikos, considered the endless stream of titles and social positions to be worthless; merely coming from a good family did not make someone a suitable planetary governor or military general. Since their viewpoints were not directly opposed, it was a topic for discussion in their makeshift ward room.
“So, Soiros, how do you like the frontier so far?” Frank asked.
Frank, Micha Nikos and Soiros were crowded around the tiny table. It was their first common meal aboard the scout ship, a chance to stretch and relax.
“Are you aware,” Soiros began, “that there are no laundry facilities on a first-rate ship?” Frank and Micha looked at Soiros; Soiros nodded meaningfully, looking at his audience of two. Micha took an immediate dislike to Soiros. Micha found this kind of bald statement with no support, explanation or story was irritating. Micha didn’t want to satisfy Soiros’ demand for attention. He particularly didn’t like Soiros’ little knowing smirk; Soiros was waving his little story around like it was a precious secret that Micha should beg to learn.
“Of course,” Soiros added, “they were there when we left the Home Worlds, and stopped working about a week into the trip.”
Soiros was nodding in agreement with himself. Frank was wondering if there was more to the story. Micha shifted around on his chair, irritated. Frank was aware that besides clothing and hairstyle, Soiros had a recognizable Home Worlds accent; he wondered how obvious his frontier background would be in the Home Worlds.
“We do laundry in the head,” Micha said.
Soiros made a face of shock and disgust.
Micha was pleased with Soiros look of dismay. “What?” he said.
Soiros peered at Micha closely to see if he was joking or baiting him. “You do laundry in the head?” Soiros asked slowly.
“Well,” Micha began, and stopped. “Well,” he began again, “we rig a basket in the grooming stall, and switch the water to recycle. We put in detergents and run it for five minutes. Then we do two cycles of fresh for a minute followed by recycle for five. In the head.”
Soiros looked at him. “Water?”
“It’s what the head has plumbing for. We make it, you know. Not like the first rates that bring all of their water along. I don’t know why they don’t condense a molecule stream out of the engine exhaust. I mean, otherwise it’s wasted ions.”
“Wasted ions,” Soiros echoed. “Very resourceful.” Soiros looked at them intently. A smirk stole across his face. “You don’t have laundry machines?” he asked, as if Frank and Micha were complete idiots for not having included these.
Frank said, “They’d be too heavy. I think you’ll find, however, once you’ve had your clothes washed in pure water, you’ll never go back to laundry solvents.”
Micha stared at Frank, wondering why Frank was being so polite to this Home World buffoon. Micha could see that Soiros got a position in intelligence because of some family connections. No matter how well or poorly he did, he’d still be able to exploit his family for another position.
“Won’t my clothes be wet?” Soiros asked.
Micha smirked. Soiros glanced over at him in growing irritation.
“You’re quite right,” Frank interjected, as quickly as he could. “They are completely wet until we dry them. Tell him about the dryer,” Frank said to Micha.
“Yes, very wet, Soiros, very wet,” Micha began. “But we rig a drying rack in the ventilators. The air blows over your clothes, providing humidity in the ship’s air system, and drying the clothes. Nothing wasted.”
Soiros wondered if they realized how rude they were with this confused back and forth conversational style. He hoped that they would, in time, recognize that he had come from a well-placed family, which had given him many opportunities for learning and cultural refinement. He hoped that these men would make an effort to improve themselves, otherwise the trip would be an intolerable bore.
After a pause Soiros said, “Don’t you find the frontier to be a long string of unpleasant sacrifices?”
Frank nodded in agreement.
Soiros waited for an opportunity to detail the several sacrifices he’d made; since no question was forthcoming from the pilots, Soiros said, “You don’t object to all of the sacrifices you are forced to make?”
Frank shrugged. “Obviously, we’re not,” Frank paused to think of the correct phrase, “gentlemen of your quality. We don’t miss it if we’ve never known it.”
Soiros smirked with pride. Frank was encouraged by Soiros’s response. Micha shifted around in his seat.
A chime sounded.
They looked up at one of the displays. Soiros said “Excuse me,” and started to get up. Micha had to move out of his way. After Micha moved back, Soiros could squeeze out of the ward room and move to his intelligence work station.
Frank and Micha looked at each other for a moment after Soiros had left. After hours together, silence was comfortable and sometimes necessary.
“Pompous,” Micha said.
“Maybe just new to the frontier,” Frank said.
The intercom chimed. “I have two Cephalopod type two scout ships approaching,” Soiros said.
Micha looked at Frank. Frank nodded; Micha touched the intercom switch for him.
Frank said, “That’s typical, they often shadow us while scouting.” He nodded again, and Micha released the switch.
There was a silence. They looked at each other for a moment, wondering if anything else was coming.
“You assert that this is not an attack posture?” Soiros’ voice chimed over the intercom.
Frank looked from the intercom to Micha to the plates. “Would you?” he asked.
“Thanks,” Frank said.
Frank excused himself and struggled from behind the table. He climbed through a rotating connector sleeve from the service module containing their impromptu ward room to the bridge module. Soiros was seated at the intelligence work station. Frank climbed into the pilot’s seat.
Frank brought up the display forwarded by Soiros. It showed two Cephalopod scouts gaining slowly on Franks’s scout ship.
“Have you seen a Squid attack?” Frank asked.
“I have seen accounts and reports,” Soiros replied, coldly.
“They’re very aggressive,” Frank said. Clearly Soiros didn’t know very much, but Frank didn’t want to contradict him or lecture to him.
“And you consider closing with your ship to be passive?” Soiros sneered. He emphasized the “you consider”, as if Frank was rejecting hard-won wisdom on a whim.
“Uh,” Frank began, trying to choose his words carefully. “Their rate of close for attacks is higher. Almost full speed,” Frank began, but stopped; he was going to describe their braking maneuvers, but checked himself. He wondered if Soiros would see it as patronizing.
“Full speed?” Soiros scoffed. “How do they stop in time to make effective use of their peculiar close-combat weapon systems? That would be difficult.”
“They actually pivot the ship and use their main engines as brakes,” Frank said. “A good pilot will manage to halt just touching your hull. It’s a pretty solid bump, but they rarely break anything in the process.”
Soiros pivoted from his work station to look at Frank.
“Do you realize the fuel costs in using main engines as brakes?” Soiros said. Frank was starting to lose patience with Soiros; he didn’t invent the attack, the Squids did. Frank was just relaying what he had seen happen.
“Yes,” Frank said, trying to be patient. “Their exhaust plasma typically blanks out our sensors.”
Soiros snorted. “Are you ignorant of the proper filter settings?” Frank opened his mouth, but shut it before he responded. He knew that it wasn’t a matter of filter settings, it was a matter of overloading the sensors. But he didn’t want to confront Soiros directly, not on their first day together.
“Of course, you would be completely busy piloting the ship,” Soiros added.
While not true, Frank recognized that Soiros said it to permit him to preserve some degree of dignity. As pilot, he did outrank Soiros; but as a frontiersman, he was of a different social class entirely. Acutely aware of his own need to advance socially, Frank soaked up every nuance of Soiros’ persona.
“You call them squids?” Soiros began. “They are almost impossible to detect on this thing. If I didn’t have them on visual, I’d lose them.”
The frontier scout pilots had an informed opinion on the Cephalopod combat techniques. The Outer Rim central command, back in the Home Worlds, didn’t agree; consequently, military doctrine was almost completely useless in dealing with Cephalopods.
Cephalopod combat systems required ship-to-ship contact. In order to execute a ship-to-ship attack, Cephalopods made their ships very hard to detect. The Outer Rim chose to ignore this, covering the problem with official denials. No engineer would put their career at risk by improving or altering the Outer Rim ship sensors. Instead, they changed the training, altered rules of engagement and modified doctrine. Somewhere within the military command, the Cephalopods were not seen directly, but were seen through a lens of internal political rivalries.
“You can’t trust ‘em,” Frank said. “I say just cut them up for bait.” Struck by a sudden thought, Soiros turned away from his console. “Bait?” he asked. “Do you fish on the frontier?” He tried to conceal any kind of awe in his voice.
He had been open-water fishing on several game preserves, owned by some very important people. It had taken Soiros a moment to reconcile a humble frontier pilot with the special perquisites of the powerful and well connected. Soiros’ first thought was that Frank was from a well-connected frontier family; Soiros realized that he could not treat this pilot too brusquely without enduring some potential consequences.
“Fishing, hunting, absolutely,” Frank said, enthused. “Depends on what kind of crawly you find. On this one planet we used to hunt these things that had invented a kind of neutron particle beam. Cut you right in half.” Frank was warming up to a great story that many pilots were eager to hear. This might give them something to talk about. “We went hunting with our usual—.”
Soiros interrupted, “Hunting?”
Frank was unaware of the restricted, private hunting preserves held by the very wealthy in the Home Worlds. The most powerful regulated the various kinds of animals, managing this highly efficient protein source for their own use.
Frank continued, “Hunting, of course. So we went out with our—.” Soiros’ veneer of culture vanished as he shrieked, “Hey! Where’d the squids go?” He started adjusting controls. Soiros jabbed, pounded and poked at the filter settings, looking frantically for some sign of the Cephalopod ships.
“See what I said?” Frank asked, smiling and helpful. “The only good squid is whale bait.” The smile died on Frank’s face. The Cephalopods were, in fact, gone. Without changing course, the Cephalopods had vanished from the scout ship’s sensors.
Frank had seen this Cephalopod maneuver before; since the military hierarchy denied it, he had been accused of incompetence, neglect or worse. Superior officers typically dismissed it as just filter settings, calibration problems, or pilot error. Pilot work was lonely, drug abuse was common. Mistakes were possible. Frank wondered how Soiros would respond. Would Soiros accuse him of sabotage? Or would Soiros allow him to start the time-consuming search for the Cephs?
One corner of the pilot station had displays that were repeaters for the intelligence systems. Frank was pleased to see a number of the standard sensors flash by as Soiros searched for the Cephalopods.
“Well, they’re gone,” Frank said. He knew that the Outer Rim refusal to install appropriate sensors on the scout ships made them nearly impossible to locate. Frank also knew that there were unauthorized modifications that would improve sensor resolution enough to track concealed Ceph ships. Because Carillon was the central base for this cluster, no one would do the installation.
“Nobody just goes,” Soiros replied. He had lost his icy arrogance. He struggled with his sensors, trying to locate some hint as to where their ships were. “We’d best find them again or Dieskau will personally kick my ass back to the Home Worlds.”
“Friggin’ Squids,” Frank said. He was pleased to be included by Soiros, but dismayed that failure to find the squids might be counted against him.
“Okay,” Soiros began. He paused, adjusting something. “Okay. Now look at this. Those Squid bastards.”
They peered at their respective displays; Soiros triumphant, Frank doubtful.
The sensor location scrolled across the bottom of a display that just showed static background stars. They saw a Cephalopod scout ship flicker back into being from nothingness. It started as a small phase-shift in the background radiation. From nothingness, the background was slowly blocked by the shape of a Cephalopod ship. The phase shift continued, and the ship faded into another Outer Rim scout, flying in formation with them.
The second Cephalopod ship underwent the same transformation from nothing to something to a replica of an Outer Rim scout. Frank and Soiros stopped holding their breath. They sighed almost simultaneously. They glanced at each other. Soiros sneered his triumph. His agonizing journey to the frontier had finally paid off: he had information that he could exploit. Frank hoped that he now had a supporter, highly placed in the Home World social structure.