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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Twelve

The biggest obstacle that prevented the forced boarding of a spaceship was a matching speeds. Few ships are designed for delicate maneuvering; they are built for storage and transport of equipment or people. The bulk of military operations were conducted from fighting ships that would bombard a fixed base in orbit or on a planet’s surface. Even on a planet with large surface bases, control of the orbiting bases was generally enough to win control over the planet.

The most fearsome ships, however, were the specialized craft used to force entry into an orbiting base. There were a variety of strategies for shooting away defenses, forcing open a docking area, and discharging armed marines to subdue the defenses from within the base. In principle, these strategies could also be used to force entry onto another ship. While a base could withstand substantial damage, boarding a ship was as likely to destroy the ship as it was to control it.

“Uhh, Mo?” Drover squawked over the intercom. Whiting looked up at the audio system mounted on the ceiling of the Mule II’s engineering area. She wondered if Drover was still in the ward room or had gone back to the cockpit. She could faintly hear one of his ancient music recordings warbling in the background. That usually meant he was in the cockpit.

“Are we operating the sensors at extreme range?” Mo replied. Mo shifted around slightly on the engineering console. The gown rustled as it moved.

“Listen, Mo, I think we’ve got squid scouts, real close.” The video monitor that Whiting had been watching jumped to a different display. The short range gravity sensors showed two small lumps of mass very close to the ship.

“Are they allied with the Outer Rim?” Mo asked. Whiting wondered how Mo could conclude anything from the indistinct mass readings on the sensor display. Did Mo suspect an Outer Rim alliance, or did Mo know something about these particular Ceph ships?

“Give me some speed, Mo, all we got.” There was an edge to Larry’s voice. It was not the edge of fear that Whiting had seen when she pulled the gun. This was the cocky, self-assured attitude she’d seen back at Lyman base when she’d first met him. This was a pilot who had confidence in his ship and his ability to stay out of trouble.

“Are we almost empty? Do we have minimal inertia?” Mo responded.

Mo lifted up a little bit higher, and tentacles moved around the console more quickly.

“Do we need to brace for acceleration?” Mo asked.

Whiting wondered what that meant, when the ship took a sudden lurch. She fell back against the lockers. While she doubted he could outrun Cephalopod attack ships, an empty freighter would have considerable power.

“I’m going up to the cockpit,” she said, pushing her self off the lockers and struggling out of the engineering area.


The ship’s narrow companionways made it difficult for two people to pass each other. However, under acceleration, the narrowness made it easier to move comfortably around the ship. The additional gravity of acceleration was called “heel”, as if a space ship were a wind-powered sailing vessel. The side of the ship that appeared to be sloping downhill was called “leeward” according a long-standing tradition. By bracing a hand on the leeward wall, she could scramble along safely.

Whiting clambered up through the Mule II to the flight deck. The apparent angles of some of the ladders between engineering and the cockpit made the ascent challenging. While they appeared to lean back at impossible angles, the climbs were short, and there were plenty of railings to hold. She slipped through the entrance to the cockpit and dropped into the jump seat next to Drover. He was a cyclone of furious activity.

“Hold on,” Drover said.

The ship lurched. For a moment, the ship was falling. Old cups and pieces of paper sprang from every corner of the cockpit. Cases for music recordings flopped out from where they’d been stashed and floated around. There was another grinding sound, and the ship lurched again. Everything that had become airborne during the fall crashed onto the deck and slid across the floor. The ship appeared to be leaning the opposite way.

“Probably shouldn’t have done that,” Drover said. Whiting watched him hammering at the controls of his ship with ruthless intensity.

The intercom squeaked some message from Mo Lusc.

Larry hit the intercom control and said, “Sorry, Mo, I won’t do it again.” Larry leaned over to Whiting and said, “I popped off a gravity overtorque preventer.” She had no idea what he did, but it was clear that it was a trick reserved for dire emergencies. She had been in combat before; her adrenaline had started pumping, and she could see that Larry was working almost at his limit.

“How are we doing?” Whiting asked.

“Another crappy day on the frontier,” Drover said. It was the mantra of the freighter pilots.

Drover made a sudden course change. Cups, papers and recording cases slid across the deck again as the ship leaned further against the gravity foil.

“Can we get away?” Whiting asked.

Drover operated the docking maneuvering controls in several common sequences. He needed to roll the ship around to get the main engines aligned with their course. He also needed to trim the gravity foil as close as he could to the prevailing field. “I don’t think so. They got the drop on us,” he said. He made several small changes in the ship’s orientation. One of Whiting’s displays showed that two more ships were now pursuing them. The time to impact numbers were counting down slowly as they gained. “I wasn’t even looking for Cephalopods out here.”

Whiting glanced over at Drover. “Why not?” she asked.

She knew that this had been Cephalopod territory. These stars had changed to Core Systems territory when treaties were worked out under tremendous political and military pressure.

For a moment, Whiting began to wonder where Mo’s alliances might lie. Had Mo alerted Cephalopod scouts? Was Mo Lusc working for the Outer Rim, under cover on a Core Planets freighter? Whiting had heard the oft-repeated theory that the Cephalopods were not interested in the nuances of the Mammalian struggles for supremacy, making them essentially neutral and therefore trustworthy.

Larry made another extreme course correction. Some cups rolled around on the deck. Whiting climbed more solidly into the jump seat and strapped herself in. She could see that there were two Cephalopod ships and two outer rim scouts in pursuit.

“I think they moved the border when we weren’t looking.” He fumbled with the ship attitude control for a moment. “I hate that kind of crap.”

He had to shape a course as far from the attacking Cephalopod ships as possible, and away from the pursuing Outer Rim scouts; he had to keep away from the Outer Rim frontier; and he needed to maximize his speed. He couldn’t juggle them all at once except by simply going with his gut. There was no procedure, no right answer for this problem.

Whiting knew that the Core Planets intelligence community had echoed with rumors that Cephalopod alliances were more subtle and complex than the military planners thought. Anyone who dealt with Cephalopods in business and politics knew that they were clever, aggressive and ambitious creatures. In the Core Planets’ democracy, however, the vast populace was fed a story that was politically expedient. The story involved Cephalopod honor and unshaken support of the Core Planets. The story, however false, became its own reality through endless repetition by political leaders. Once they had convinced themselves that the voting population believed it, then the political leaders were forced to act as though the story was actually true. The twin mantras they had to adopt were “perception is political reality” and “politics shapes perception.” It was part of the closed ecosystem of lies that lay at the end of all great empires.

The actual situation hit Whiting hard. Johnson had coerced her into gathering Outer Rim intelligence. Focused on the Outer Rim, she hadn’t expected Cephalopod duplicity. The clash between the oft-repeated story and the actual situation on the frontier was disheartening. It gave her an empty, sick feeling. She began to see that she had both been systematically lied to and had been part of the systematic lie.

“We’ve got to report this situation to Henry Base. How much speed can you get?” Drover eased the ship through a turn. It gracefully straightened up and then the shift in gravity made it lay over on the other side. A slow graceful turn preserved momentum, but gave the pursuers a chance to change course, also.

Drover glanced over his shoulder at her. “I don’t think we can shake them.” Whiting leaned toward him with a real, pleading intensity.

“They moved the border! I have to get the word out,” she started and looked down at the navigation console for a moment. “Johnson backed me into this; if I don’t get this back, my career is ashes.”
Larry took his eyes off the console to glance at her.

“Look, this is not really a career thing; it’s a survival thing.” Larry said.

“No, you look! I need this mission to be a total, unquestioned success. I need this promotion. You need to get some cargo for this stupid ship? If you help me make Colonel, I’ll pack the holds of this thing with so much trading metal you won’t be able to leave orbit without a tow.”

Larry looked closely at her. In her own brusque way, she was begging him, a freighter pilot, for her future in the military, politics and business. While her vague promises of wealth were tempting, he found naked desperation impossible to refuse.

“They have guns and—,” Larry said.

He felt, rather than heard, the collision of the two spaceships. A pursuing Cephalopod ship had attached to the Mule II. Larry started examining the various situation displays to see where he had been hit. If they had attached to a cargo bay, the usual defense was to evacuate it. Once they’d cut their way in, they’d still have meters of vacuum before they got to the core of the ship.

The intercom squealed. “Can we disengage from a boarding pod? Do we have a hull,” there was a long humming, then “macerator?”

Macerators were a kind of Cephalopod weapon that ground a hole through the armor of another ship, releasing atmospheric pressure, and killing the inhabitants. They also had defensive macerators that were movable and would destroy boarding pods. Of course, they were part of Cephalopod ships, and the Mule II was a completely human invention.

“Stay with us here, Mo. Cephalopod ships have hull defenses like mandibles and macerators. All we got is a shell,” Larry replied. He couldn’t remember what a Cephalopod mandible did, but it was some kind of important weapon.

“Why do we have shells?” the intercom squeaked. Larry was relieved. He cracked a quick smile in Whiting’s direction. She looked puzzled, perhaps angry. There wasn’t time to tell her that in a crisis where Mo was upset or confused, it lapsed into a dialect that its cheap translator couldn’t process. Just when communication was most essential, Mo might fall silent. It was frustrating, but Drover had worked with human engineers that were similarly useless in a crisis. If Mo was still talking, that was a good sign.

“We discarded them,” Mo continued, but was interrupted by a scraping sound. Something was grinding on the hull. The sound reverberated through the ship. Each individual rasp shook the entire structure, popping loose lockers open. Pieces of trash popped out of unexpected corners in which they’d been wedged.

The intercom buzzed randomly. Mo had lapsed into a language that could not be translated. Larry assumed it was laced with invective or curses that could not be translated. He’d also heard that it was actually a native language, different from the widely used trade language that the translators recognized.

“Mo!” Larry shouted. “Out loud, Mo, baby. I’m not getting anything here.” Larry tried to locate the exact point of contact between the ships. The attachment had been done expertly. It was in a spot blind to many of the exterior sensors. Larry cycled through several maintenance views, looking for something out of the ordinary that would indicate the attempted hull breach.

The grinding and scraping accelerated slightly. Then there was an ominous change in the background hum of the ship. The quiet but omnipresent drone of the engines began dropping in pitch. The drone separated into chord, each voice dropping slowly through the audible spectrum until it passed out of hearing. Then came the endless silence of space. This was the solid, palpable silence that lived at the edge of every pilot’s nightmares: stranded in space, engines silent, waiting for the food and water to run out so the slow painful death from dehydration could begin.

“Oh, no you didn’t,” Larry said. He erupted in a sudden sweat; his hands started shaking.

Whiting asked, “Can they board us?”

The question was rhetorical. Larry looked over at her. She looked worried, but she wasn’t crippled by it. She looked like she was spinning through alternatives and options, waiting for some input to help choose amongst them. That was a comfort to him. If she could keep her distance and look for solutions, she could be helpful getting them through the crisis.

“They can, now. They jammed our ion intakes or maybe cut our fuel. Either way we’re adrift. Look.”

Larry brought up the primary navigation display. Whiting didn’t even glance at it. He switched to a simple time and distance to go display, but she didn’t look at this either. She was looking hard at Drover. Larry flinched away under her intense glare. He located the engine intake status display and brought that up. She glanced at it in a perfunctory way. She was thinking, but she wasn’t thinking about his ship.

Larry wondered for a moment about piracy. Piracy was usually about the cargo. Sometimes pirates could be mislead into taking some but not all of the cargo. If they were unfamiliar with this older model of ship, they could be misled. Larry grinned for a moment at his own bad idea: he had no cargo.

The ship shuddered again. The sound of twisting metal echoed throughout the hull. Every surface carried the sound. Larry could feel it through the pilot’s seat, the armrests, even the flight control panel.

Drover and Whiting looked at each other. Larry felt helpless, wondering what would happen next. He could see that she was looking to him for some kind of guidance.

There was a sharp clang of metal being punctured. The sound drifted up from the cargo holds.

“What’s happening?” Whiting whispered.

“It’s a Cephalopod weapon. It hooks onto an access hatch and bites it open.” “Bite?”

Larry glanced up at her for a moment. She was serious; she didn’t know what the Cephalopods were doing or how they worked.

“They have large shears that punch through and the cut the metal.” Larry held up his hand to make a beak with this thumb and fingers. He made a biting gesture with the beak. “They bite through the hull. If we’re lucky, they bit through a cargo bay.”

She nodded her understanding of what might happen if they were not lucky. The ship’s vital life-support areas would be punctured. Their atmosphere would leak away into space; before long, the lack of oxygen pressure would leave them unable to act. Then the hard, cold vacuum of space would claim them.

Whiting unbuckled herself from the navigator’s jump seat.

“Where are you off to?” Larry asked.

“To get my gun,” Whiting said, climbing out of the cockpit.

“Do you know how many Cephs are down there?” Whiting turned.

Larry swiveled around and fixed her with a stare. Whiting stared back.

“When a squid takes a dump, the other five wipe their asses, too,” Larry said slowly. It was true of every Cephalopod group he had seen. He never understood, and still didn’t understand why Mo was alone.

“What?” Whiting asked, “There’s six of them?” “At least,” Larry said.

Another clang echoed through ship. This was followed by a grinding tear of metal.

The ship displays started flashing red. The annunciator chimed an alert, “Pressure dropping. Hull is leaking at panel one-four-kilo.”

Larry couldn’t place one-four-kilo immediately. He brought up a display with structural information, and started searching for panel identification. It didn’t take much of a pressure drop to cause discomfort. Sometimes small problems in the life-support would cause painful pressure changes. Drover equalized absent-mindedly while he searched the display for the panel closest to the cephalopod entry.

Drover found panel one-four-kilo about where he expected to find it. They had indeed clamped on over the ion intakes. They were tearing though an airlock door that was used for maintenance and repair work.

Drover pointed this out to Whiting on the display. “One-four-kilo is a companionway,” he said. When he looked up at her, she was rubbing her ears and jaw, eyes pinched tight shut. She was in tremendous pain.

“Equalize,” he said. She glanced up at him and then winced away in pain. “Pop your ears.”

Drover preferred to pinch his nose and swallow. He demonstrated this for her. She nodded, weakly, then jutted her jaw. She tipped her heard from side to side and wagged her jaw up and down. This equalized the pressure in her ears, eliminating the pain.

“Core planets Freighter Mule Two,” a voice said. “This is Scout Carillon Two. We are boarding through the forward starboard bay.”

“You bone-bag!” Larry shouted. He hit a key and said, “Thanks for giving me a hole big enough to park a planet in!”

“Give me the key to the ship manager,” Whiting whispered.

Larry stared at her in disbelief. What did she want with the ship manager? It was the computer for all of his business records; it had schedules and inventory information, navigation logs and order forms for food and fuel.

“Give me the key,” she whispered, intently.

Drover continued to stare. First she abducted him, then she gave him a course into enemy territory. Now she wanted the key to the ship manager. He was already in a very dangerous situation. She could only do him more harm.

“Give you the key?” he asked, at his limit with her. “Are you—” “You want them to turn your manifests over to the Outer Rim? You were carrying enemy contraband!” “Mule Two, prepare to produce your shipping manifests and health certificates.” Whiting took him by the hand. Larry unbuckled his webbing with his other hand. She hauled him out of the cockpit into the companionway. His feet moved slowly; he couldn’t see a good reason to leave the cockpit.

“It’s the Outer Rim. We’re off our flight plan!” Whiting said, dragging him.

“I’m off my flight plan because you hijacked me,” he said, following her down the corridor to the space used as a management office.

She turned and put her face close to his. “You didn’t cooperate,” she hissed.

There was a bump that knocked both of them off their feet. The ship annunciator said, “Cargo bay two breached.”

Drover had fallen on Whiting. He was embarrassed and rolled off of her. She had wanted him to fly an expensive cargo ship around without a load, how could be cooperate? He couldn’t afford to just ferry her around; this wasn’t her personal ship; he wasn’t her personal pilot. In fact, it wasn’t even his ship. He had charter bills to pay. And now they had been captured by Cephalopods and were about to be boarded by the Outer Rim.

“I thought you were sneaking over to the other side,” he whispered.

Whiting made a sour face. She looked completely surprised by his suggestion.

“Like some kind of double agent?” she asked, leaning on her elbow.

Larry looked at her and shrugged. Was there a sign that he missed? Had he overlooked something she’d said? Was he just na├»ve? He looked along the companionway for a moment.

“I don’t know,” he started. “I just — you pulled a gun,” he stammered, “and I—.” From far away, an amplified voice echoed through the ship. “This is an Outer Rim freight inspection stop. Prepare to present manifest and health inspection certificates.” It sounded like a human. It wasn’t a Cephalopod speech synthesizer.

Drover and Whiting scrambled to their feet. They walked to the end of the flight deck companionway. Whiting turned the corner toward the stairs. Down there was cargo bay two, at least one Outer Rim officer, panel one-four-kilo, a hull breach, and possibly some Cephalopods.
Drover grabbed her shoulder. “Not that way, the other way.” He steered her toward the manager office.

They could hear someone moving up the steps in the companionway.

Whiting looked over her shoulder. “The key,” she hissed.

Larry took out the key card from his pocket and looked at it. Was it right to turn this over to her? On one hand, she had put them in jeopardy in the first place; her secret course got them boarded, and the boarding may have destroyed the ship. On the other hand, if he could stall them, she might be able to obliterate their freight hauling records. On a squid’s next hand, if she was just going to turn him over to the Outer Rim, she’d probably have been more pleasant about it. As he stood, for a moment, a further thought popped into his head: Why would do all of this just to get Larry Drover arrested? No one would stage such an elaborate plan to simply give the Outer Rim an empty cargo ship; he had no choice but to trust her.

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