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Tuesday, April 8, 2014


A transport ship was often the single asset of a very small business. The business, in addition to the ship, had a few employees who operated the ship, taking on freight and dropping it off. The business was managed via a small computer network to track the income and expenses, and plan loads and routes. It was separate from the vast and sophisticated flight control systems that moved the ship. Management of the loads, profitable operation of the business of transport was perhaps the soul of a ship. Without this management, a ship was just a machine.

Larry Drover looked from the Mule II computer key to Lieutenant Colonel Natalie Whiting. Boots thumped in the companionway below him. The ordinary ship sounds had been silenced. Drover couldn’t hear the whistling sound of a leak, but he still had to equalize the pressure in his ears by pinching his nose and swallowing. Whiting jutted her jaw to equalize, staring hard at him as he settled on a decision.

“Password is Sal. Sierra-Alpha-Lima,” he said. It was a line from one of the ancient music recordings, “I’ve got a mule and her name is Sal.” Larry thought it was appropriate for the Mule II to be named Sal.

Right below him a distinctly human voice boomed. “This is an Outer Rim freight inspection stop. Prepare to present manifest and health inspection certificates.”

Even though they were over two meters apart, Larry leaned over toward Whiting. “Don’t screw this up,” he whispered.

She smiled. “Or what, face summary execution for spying?” She was right. He didn’t have too much to worry about on that account. She had far more to lose than he did. She was out of uniform on the frontier. He was merely off course.

The boots began to thump on the stairs. Whiting moved away down the companionway.

The ship’s annunciator said, “Hull is leaking at panel one-four-kilo. Pressure drop in cargo bay two.” The ship was falling apart. Even if they could get rid of the Outer Rim inspection, they may not get far before the ship’s life support failed.

The Outer Rim officer must have heard Larry and Whiting moving and whispering. “Halt! This is an Outer Rim freight inspection stop.”

Drover knew that he was out of options. He flipped the key toward her. It fell short, slid along the floor, and under a table covered with the exposed workings of a broken food reconstitution unit. Whiting dived for it, rolling under the equipment there.

Drover turned around, intent on slowing or stopping the inspection. He didn’t even finish his turn. A huge man in an impossibly elaborate Outer Rim military pilot’s uniform pointed a large rifle straight into Larry’s face.

“Halt. Are you the pilot of this craft?”

Larry heard a faint rustle of clothing. He didn’t want to move or even look. If this Outer Rim officer was focused on him, then Whiting would be safe. That was the best Larry could hope for.

Larry stole a glance from the gun to the pilot and back to the gun. The pilot’s tag said Kibber. Would the pilot shoot him if he didn’t answer? Probably not, Larry hoped; they were just boarding a freighter that had strayed over the border. Larry focused on his story for a moment: he was on his route, and didn’t know he’d crossed the border.

He looked from gun to pilot again. He brought his assumed role into sharper focus. He had every right to be here. It was the Outer Rim scouts who were out of place. That might start a good long argument; giving Whiting plenty of time to destroy documents. Larry started working through his opening line for a moment. Involuntarily, he started waving his hands, as if he were speaking. Kibber looked at his hand; Larry realized that it was obvious he was stalling.

“What the hell have you done to my ship?” Larry began. “Did you force open a hatch? You know I could report you to the—.”

“Report? To who?” Kibber said, silencing Drover. “I am the authorities out here.” He had a vague Outer Rim Home Worlds accent. He sounded more like he was from the frontier than anywhere else. “You’ve crossed into the Carillon cluster. We need to see your manifests and health certificates.”

The Outer Rim officer was wrong, in an abstract way. There were trade conventions which might apply if Larry were attempting to rendezvous with a base. Larry was no space lawyer, but he was confident that Kibber was in the wrong. Since Kibber held the gun, and had disabled Larry’s ship, Larry could see that legal arguments were weak.

“You know I have rights,” Larry said, trying to keep up his role of wronged freighter.

Kibber didn’t even pause to think about Larry’s protest. “And I can slice you into bite-sized chunks, shoot you through the waste disposal into the deep freeze, and inspect at my leisure.”

There really wasn’t anything Larry could say after a threat like that. He needed to get this officer away from Whiting and the key. He turned to go back to the cockpit.

The officer readied the gun. The priming capacitors started charging with a thin, high-pitched whine. It was an ominous sound. It was almost as though weapon’s designers had built a threatening sound to warn people of potential violence.

Drover sauntered toward the cockpit. The implied threat wasn’t the real problem, and had to be ignored. He had to keep his cool, aloof distance so he could find and solve the real problem.

“Halt!” the officer said. He was not commanding; he seemed to be warning. There was an odd edge to the pilot’s voice.

Drover tried to glance over his shoulder casually. “I just need to get my key.” 

“Okay,” the officer said. “Take it slow. Save yourself some pain.” 

Drover led the pilot slowly down the companionway. He carefully held each of the handgrips, as if the ship were passing through zero gravity during a maneuver. It dragged out the short walk for as long as Larry could dawdle.

When they had gone around the corner, Whiting did her best Marine Corps low-crawl down the hall-way. She didn’t want to be seen from the stairwell, so she kept to the floor of the ship. She had been to the boot camp for officers; she knew some basic combat techniques. For her, fitness fell somewhere between self-discipline and self-punishment. It was also a way to reject the prevailing images of exaggerated beauty via cosmetic surgery. For a fleeting moment, she felt elated, happy to be Natalie Whiting; her personal and business failings were behind her, and she was doing something that she was uniquely qualified to do. The hours of self-punishment with weights and treadmill were transformed from penalty to preparation. She was the only person who could do this job.

After crawling around a corner, she heard a faint clang from somewhere nearby. She had felt the tremor through the flooring. She froze to the floor. She didn’t dare move; it might call attention to her. She rolled her eyes around as much as possible, to see if there was anyone coming. She heard nothing more, and, more important, she felt nothing through the floor.

She started to get up. She had Larry’s key, this meant that Larry could lead the pilot on a wild goose chase around the ship looking for another key. She had to hurry to the office as quietly as possible, and beat Larry to the manifests and shipping history.

Before she could get up, she heard a something else. It was a faint squish or ooze; the unmistakable slime sound of Cephalopod movement. She froze, lowering herself slowly back to the floor. She positioned her head facing out into the companionway.

A section between two vertical lockers eased open. It was barely five centimeters wide. Whiting could roll her eyes up and see the wall section swing open slowly and silently. There was a rustle of fabric. A Cephalopod tentacle reached out into the companion way. Fabric swung out to cover the tentacle. From what Whiting could see, it was Mo Lusc’s gown. She relaxed a faction. She could hear the faint whistle of a respirator as tentacles moved out into the companionway. The wall section closed silently. With a faint rustle of fabric, the tentacles worked their way down the companion, right past Whiting.

She was sure that Mo would be able to see her. But it oozed past, ignoring her completely. She had no idea what Mo could be doing. Certainly Mo was aware they had been stopped and boarded. Why would Mo sneak around behind the Outer Rim boarding party? While it was possible that Mo had allowed them to get caught by Outer Rim scouts, she couldn’t explain why Mo would then ignore her if it was selling them out.

She got to her feet and took a quick look around. A few steps ahead was the bench that had the lubricating kits and her gun. The plan to pose as a civilian had sounded good in the conference room on Lyman Base drinking strong coffee and talking about potential problems. But faced with actual problems, she was more comfortable being armed.

Slowly, she lifted the lid of the locker. She took out a lubricant kit and set it gently on the deck. She heard the small ringing clank of Aramid-reinforced ceramic armor. All of the marines wore it, and the sound was as familiar as the national anthem and the marching cadences they sang. More quickly, she took out the second kit and set it on the deck. She heard the rattle of power packs and the clank of armor coming from the stairwell.

She grabbed her bag and slowly lowered the locker cover. On her toes, she scooted back to the pump access locker that Larry had shown her. There was a faint breath of steam escaping. The grinding of the pump had changed to a choked whine. The computer flashed a message; most likely it confirmed that the ion intakes were jammed.

She opened the access panel. The sound of the pump was much clearer. She heard the clank of ceramic armor plates again, much closer. Since there was no sound of boots, it must be an armored Cephalopod sneaking around the ship. She climbed down into the locker. There was a small maintenance lamp lighting the inside, and access to the interior structure of the ship.

Quietly, she swung a leg over and found a foot hold. She climbed in and lowered the locker cover. Once the cover was closed, the machinery was quite loud. She put her ear against the front panel, hoping to catch the clank of armor or weapons. She glanced down at her watch. She estimated that she should wait a full minute before moving. She was going to force herself to be patient and wait until the armored person or thing passed by.

She didn’t have to wait more than 20 seconds before she heard a clank of armor outside in the companion way. The clank was loud, loud enough to be heard clearly. She relaxed a little. After the last sound, she waited another 20 seconds. It was a bad guess, but she had to balance her need to get to the ship’s manager first against a need to stay away from everyone else. It was a race between the conflicting constraints of speed and stealth.

The air was hot. She was sweating from the tension and fear to begin with. The ordinary life support air circulation didn’t help in closed equipment areas. The smell of lubricants and adhesives permeated the locker.

Her twenty seconds were up. Slowly, she lifted the lid of the locker she was hiding in. She looked down the hall toward the stairwell; it was clear. Slowly, she turned the other way. She froze when she saw two Cephalopods standing in the companionway almost on top of her. They were draped in armor plates, toting huge weapons. Tentacles wee visible; they were not being overly cautious.

She saw a flash of color pass between them. She must have made a noise. Perhaps a smell had alerted them. They both spun around, weapons bearing on her almost immediately. She dropped the locker cover and hunkered down into the machinery below. She shifted slowly, stretching out along the plumbing and connectors, hoping they would not follow her.

She heard the rattle of armor as they oozed up to the locker. She put the key in her mouth and pushed her backpack out of the locker space into the plumbing conduit. The conduit was small, but she could low-crawl into it. It had safety lights ahead. She took a quick look around for alternatives. Since lights were provided for human access and repair, she was sure she wouldn’t be trapped.

She shoved the pack ahead and wormed as fast as she could through the tangle of pipes and wires. Light started to grow around her. She froze. More light meant that they had opened the locker. She desperately wanted to look back and see what was happening. Midway between fight and flight is freeze: do nothing to give away your position. She wished she could stop breathing so hard and stop sweating. They would hear the rasp of her gulped breaths. They would smell her sweat.

Whiting knew she had to keep her focus on the real target of removing the records in the ship’s manager. She had to get away from these squids and help out Larry, or they would be arrested and imprisoned. These squids were only a distraction from her real mission.

Larry thought that it was unwise to lead the pilot too far from the direct path to the office. For a moment, he considered leading the scout pilot all the way down to the gravity foil and then back up to the management deck. Then he realized that Kibber might carry out his threat of causing pain. The ship was probably ruined; a dead freighter would be of no real importance to the Outer Rim. Larry opted to simply go slowly and give Whiting a chance to run down to the manager ahead of them. Hopefully, she would have removed or corrupted the files by the time Larry found another key to the computers.

The ship’s office was used to transact the little bits of official business that bracketed each flight. Contracts were signed, food and fuel purchased, and manifests finalized. Since Larry spent most of his time on the flight deck, the office area was a clutter of old manuals, paper copies of files, and a computer terminal; it had food wrappers and dishes piled in unlikely corners. Larry wondered what Whiting would say if she saw this clutter of junk. There was also some equipment here which needed repair. Larry moved a remote actuator control off of the desk, and stuffed it into a cabinet. He couldn’t remember if it worked. Worse, he couldn’t remember why it wasn’t down in engineering.

Larry picked up some of the dishes and put them in a different cupboard. The pilot stood in the doorway with his rifle trained on Larry. This was not a casual menace; the pilot had the rifle up and was sighting in on Larry’s chest. Larry realized that he looked like he was rooting for a hidden gun. He froze. He felt his chest tighten. His stomach turned. He felt sweat immediately under his arms. Slowly, he spread his hands. His breathing was shallow and rapid, and he felt dizzy. He took his eyes off the gun; staring at the pilot’s boots, he stepped back away from the desk and computer. He stood in the middle of the room, hands out, fingers spread.

When Larry risked a glance up at the scout pilot, he pointed the gun at the computer terminal. Larry nodded; looking at the terminal, he sat down slowly. He pushed some of the keys and moved the pointer around. The computer’s only response was a warning statement that the key was required. Gingerly and carefully, Larry moved a bowl off of the computer’s key reader.

“Hmmm — needs a key,” Larry said. He glanced up at the pilot. The gun was still pointed at his chest. The pilot was not relaxing his guard for a moment. Larry wondered how many of these stops Kibber had made. Larry, certainly, had been stopped before by various kinds of authorities. The level of belligerence and caution varied widely. Kibber was somewhere in the middle on both scales.

Larry looked away from the gun for a moment. “Mo has one. It’s down in engineering.” 

Larry glanced up at the gun. Kibber stared through the sights at Larry. Larry looked up to Kibber’s face. Keeping his eyes on Kibber, Larry got up from the chair. Kibber relaxed the gun and moved back into the companionway so Larry could squeeze by. Larry knew that he could take a long walk down to engineering. He also knew that finding Mo’s key could be difficult, slowing things down even further.

Whiting knew that she stood no chance against a Cephalopod in a plumbing conduit. She’d seen Mo Lusc move between wall sections that were only centimeters wide. She shoved her pack ahead of her and started crawling as fast as she could. She needed to get out into the hallways where she could make an attempt to outrun it.

She found a darker opening on her right. She had no idea where she was in the bowels of the ship. She smelled the faintest odor of Cephalopod. Perhaps she’d found a passage down to engineering. Perhaps Mo Lusc’s Ceph smell might mask her Mammal scent. She was afraid that her trail of sweat would be unmistakable.

In the darkness, she heard a faint rustling above her. The Ceph smell was much more intense. Either there were no access lights, or they’d been turned off. She hoped that the darkness would hide her successfully.

She had never touched Mo Lusc, or any Cephalopod before. Larry had said they were clammy, but Mo insisted that Cephalopod’s were warm blooded. This thought flashed through her mind as she was grabbed by Cephalopod tentacles and lifted up from the conduit area into an even darker space. She was wrapped tightly enough that she could barely breathe.

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