The Core Planets military doctrine was to have a very mobile force of marines, able to either defend or assault as necessary. Rapid deployment was the essence of this strategy. Since time was one resource that was always in short supply, they strove to leverage time as the key to military victory, demanding more in less time than any possible adversary.
The Henry base was heavily defended by a large expeditionary fleet. The fleet was capable of prolonged travel through otherwise uninhabited space. It contained the makings of a complete, temporary base. While capable of almost anything, progress was faster when supported by resupply from an established base.
The flagship of the fleet was Colonel Williams’ ship, the Horicon. It was a large third-rate ship, commanding teams of lower-rated ships. These ships, in turn, were supported by the smaller frigates and tiny scouts.
Colonel Williams wasted no time in organizing a task force for the relief of Lyman base. He demanded lists of ships of various types. He knew the standard ratios of smaller ships to line-of-battle ships. He also knew the captains that were personal friends of Johnson, and those that were essential to the defense of the new Henry base. Of the remaining captains, he allocated the battle ships that, coupled with their supporting frigates and scouts would round out his allocation of ships.
Following Williams’ hastily organized force, there was vast second army of Cephalopods. These were drawn from the nations of Cephalopods who were aligned with the Core Planets, friendly to the increasing trade between Mammals and Cephalopods. Their most prominent leader was a Cephalopod called Hendrick.
Williams strode into the cramped mess area on Hendrick’s flag ship. It was large by Cephalopod standards, but tiny by Mammal standards. The ship held two or three pods, somewhere between a dozen and eighteen Cephalopods, was heavily armed, and highly maneuverable. Like Core Systems ships, the gravity drive systems dominated the interior space, leaving only narrow twisting corridors. The mess area had a high ceiling, but Williams still had to stoop slightly. A number of low platforms were scattered about, each platform held a depression, presumably for food.
There was a rich vomit-sweet Cephalopod smell throughout the ship. It turned Williams’ stomach, but over his years of Cephalopod contact, he had grown used to the smell, and now associated it with his alliance with Hendrick and their mutual preparations for defense against the Outer Rim incursions.
The atmosphere was a very different mixture than Mammal ships, and Williams had a supplemental nasal inhaler to feed a helium-nitrogen mix to dilute the high levels of oxygen in the Cephalopods used. The metal gas bottle seemed to weigh a ton, tugging his pants down. He was already dying for a cigarette, but he had been warned away from open fires in a Cephalopod ship.
Williams had brought five ordinary Marines with him. They stood in a small group in the mess area.
“Fan out and fall back when they enter. This is just for show, boys; Hendrick’s a good Squid. He can’t trust anyone who flies solo, he’s just a Squid.”
“Sir?” one of the marines asked.
Williams peered at the name plate. “Sure, Corporal Kaszluga, what is it?” “Sir, why do they have to stink so bad?”
Williams grinned. A tense chuckle passed among the marines.
“Your god-damned grunt sweat is killing me, marine; think what its doing to them.” The marines were polite enough to laugh at their commanding officer’s joke.
“Chemical weapons,” the corporal replied.
The others laughed.
“Squid, sir,” he said, stiffening.
“Semi-circle, on me,” Williams said, and turned to greet Hendrick.
Kaszluga moved the marines into a semi-circle with Williams near the middle. They shuffled for a moment, looking at each other. Williams realized he’d forgotten to bring a sergeant. The corporal looked at his men, shrugged, and they slid into nervous-looking at-ease positions.
Hendrick oozed in, followed by the rest of his pod. Williams and Hendrick both stepped forward, circled each other, touched finger tips to tentacles and fell back in with their pods. One of Hendrick’s fine “finger” tentacles was a foot shorter than the other and ended in an ugly knot of old scar tissue.
“Is this the crisis?” Hendrick’s synthesized chimed.
Hendrick’s head was dominated by several large scars. They ran from its back, covered by a gown, past the eyes and down through the tentacles to its beak. Only the puckered skin between the eyes and around the right eye could be seen; the left eye had been lost in a battle years ago.
“This is it. The Outer Rim has assaulted some of our transports. Several were captured, and at least one was subsequently released.”
“Will we attack now?” Hendrick asked.
“Our leader’s answer is still no. We will defend.” Williams knew that General Johnson was going to focus all available forces on his Henry base in spite of anything else that happened. He also knew that the forces remaining at Lyman base were unable to carry on an attack of any scale. What would become of Core Planets defense in this cluster depended on an old man focused on a personal empire.
“What do we defend?”
Williams pulled at his lower lip. “We defend the Lyman base. They will attack there first, cutting the Lyman away from Henry.”
There was a long, uncomfortable silence. The Cephs flickered among themselves. Williams looked around at them. In addition to a sergeant, he should have brought an intelligence officer who could help him understand the Cephalopod conversation. The conversation was obviously very important, but it was impossible to tell what they were talking about.
“Will you be blocked?”
Williams waved Hendrick off. He did not notice the flicker that passed among the Cephs in response to his gestures. “They’ll attack Lyman, we’ll flank them.”
“Will Caughnawaga be there?” Hendrick asked.
Williams shook his head and sighed. “This is no way to fight a war. You’ve got your own intelligence sources, you tell me if this Caughnawaga Squid will be there. We don’t have much time. I’m going, and you can go in convoy with us.”
Williams looked around at his troop of marines for support. Dutifully, they were staring down their Cephalopod counterparts. Williams caught the Corporal’s eye and nodded to him. The corporal looked back, blankly.
“Will Caughnawaga block your convoy?”
Williams shook his head again. “Listen, Hendrick, I’ve got ships for twelve hundred fighters ready to move. I’m asking you to help us.”
There was more flickering among the Cephalopods. Williams looked back at Corporal Kaszluga. The Corporal was watching the Cephs intently; it appeared that he was following part of their conversation.
“Have we always helped the mammals?” Hendrick asked.
It was as positive a response as a Cephalopod would produce in front of a Mammal. Williams would have liked their speech synthesizers to appear more definite.
When Drover and Whiting boarded the Horicon, they found it was absolute mayhem. Troops thundered down every companionway. Heavily armed marines, loaded with armor, supplies and equipment, raced from quarters to supply depots and from supply depots to marshaling points and from there to battle stations.
Whiting steered Drover away from the Horicon’s bridge. They squeezed down a couple of companionways filled with columns of marines. When the last troop had thundered by, Whiting grabbed him by the elbow and spun Drover around. She had a grip like a pipe wrench.
“Wife?” she said.
Larry shrugged. He looked around. There was no troop of marines to break up the conversation. He was trapped in the stare of those intense brown eyes.
“Summary execution,” he replied.
Whiting shook her head. “I don’t know which is worse,” she said.
Larry laughed at the idea of her involved in any kind of marriage. He could feel pity for anyone involved in a partnership with her. She was ruthless, and willing to wave a gun around to get her way. Any relationship with her would be very one-sided.
“It’s not like anything actually happened,” he said, even though that was not completely true. They’d worked together with only a nod and outfoxed the Outer Rim intelligence service. That was a kind of second-guessing intimacy that Larry shared with Mo, but very few people. If he forgot about her pulling a gun on him, he felt that he could almost trust her, even in a real crisis where they faced death instead of arrest.
“So, where’d you get that suit?” she asked, pinning him with an intense gaze.
Larry guessed that the question wasn’t casual. “Crailo, I think. You don’t like it?”
“I don’t think it will ever be in style again. And what’s that Sal thing with your key?” she asked.
Larry slumped; this was not going to go well. He specifically bought the suit because it had a classic cut, from the earliest days of the frontier expansion in part of the galaxy. Now she was classifying it as simply old. She didn’t like music. In particular, his newly purchased recordings of ancient of canal songs were something she’d complained about.
“You don’t want to know,” he said, looking away.
She squinted slightly at his evasive answer. “Why not?” Larry sighed. “It’s on your list,” he said, looking at the deck.
“What list?” she asked.
Larry shrugged and dug his hands into his flight suit pockets.
“Cocky, greedy, talkative,” he said, risking a glance at her. She might have been smiling or she might have been embarrassed.
“Which is Sal?”
She’d probably heard it on the flight deck in the music system. It was one of the better canal songs. There was some issue about the song coming a century after the original canal systems, but history of pre-spaceflight Earth was a complex and difficult subject.
“A song,” he said.
Larry looked again. She was definitely smiling. Larry hoped that even if he wouldn’t get to play the music at top volume again, they might spend less time arguing about it.
“I’ve got a mule and her name is Sal. Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal. She’s a—,” he started singing.
Whiting stormed off toward the bridge for a few steps. She turned back to Larry. “Now I know why I dislike you so much,” she said. She turned back down the companionway that led to the bridge.
“Oh, and you’re a real treat to have around, Miss Sweetness and Light,” Larry shouted after her.
On the bridge of the Outer Rim flagship, Champlain, Dieskau checked on the status of his attack plans. Almost everything in space interfered with communications. The dust cloud was almost opaque to most signals. When ships were propagating above the speed of light, most forms of signaling were slower than the ship itself. Scout ships were used to move between the fleet and the ships stationed in the dust cloud, relaying messages.
Dieskau had several intelligence officers on the bridge, as well as Linois, the captain of the Champlain. The Commodore of the fleet was absent, Dieskau noted, as was appropriate. The details of managing a fleet were endless, and Dieskau delegated them readily. Being Commodore called for an occasional ceremony and endless accounting for the ships of the fleet.
Colonel Montgomery, standing near Dieskau, flinched away in response to a communication. He covered his ear, the better to hear the message. When he had confirmed the message, he stepped up and saluted Dieskau.
Dieskau did not return the salute or look away from the situation display. “The trap is in position?” he asked.
Montgomery checked a note on his computer. “Yes, Baron Dieskau. The trap fleet has taken defensive positions.”
Dieskau nodded. He checked the time on the display. The plan was behind schedule by hours, perhaps an entire day. It meant that the ships’ crews would be tired, and not as effective as he demanded.
Dieskau turned to Linois. “This dust cloud is so perfect. I can so easily turn their defenses into my offenses.”
Linois looked over a Dieskau. Linois was several steps below Dieskau in rank, but above him in the complex social peerage of the Outer Rim. Dieskau was a skilled mercenary, but could not properly address Captain Linois, who was a Marquis. Linois preferred rigid adherence to a social hierarchy that gave him rank, privilege and wealth. He would never willingly lower himself by responding to a casual comment by a Baron, even the supreme military commander in this remote cluster of the Outer Rim.
In one of the message-running scout ships, Carillon Two, Soiros completed his scan of the planetary mass that drifted with the dust cloud. With a large number of Outer Rim ships moving through the cloud, it had already been scanned several times. Soiros was aware that a single Core planets scout ship, hidden by the planet, could alert the Lyman base, and tip the scale of the battle. More important than that, Soiros knew that if he found that stray scout, he would be more visible as a top intelligence officer and would certainly be promoted.
Kibber picked his way through the dust, minimizing damage to the scout ship. He was attached to Frigate Champlain Four. As part of that task force, his mission was to stay well away from the main part of the fleet, looking for Core planets ships entering the trap in the dust cloud.
Kibber opened up the ship intercom. “What’s on the planet?” he asked Soiros.
“They call it a pod rock,” Soiros replied. “Little indigenous life. They’re not using it.” Frank changed a channel on one of his displays to bring up a recording of the last survey pass of the planet. It had atmosphere and gravity; some water. Like most inhabitable planets, it had a wide variety of algae and unicellular slime.
“They’d have to be one desperate son of a bitch to put down there.” Soiros nodded in agreement. This was so impossibly far from his home planet that he had trouble understanding the distances involved. It had taken weeks to get here on carefully planned legs of his trip. Were he to crash here, he would never be rescued. If it came to a fight, he preferred death in space to the lingering death that would come from landing on that rock. Water was the critical factor, he knew, and ships could make water on many types of planets for extended periods of time. Eventually, however, systems would begin to fail, and death would slowly creep on those who survived the battle in space.
On the bridge of the Champlain, the situation display showed the almost perfect concealment of the Outer Rim fleet in the dust and debris cloud. The Champlain’s sensors, baffled by the orbiting detritus, picked up essentially nothing of the ships. With engines off and only passive sensors operating, the fleet was nearly invisible.
Dieskau knew that the most difficult part of ambush was waiting for the proper moment to project shock and terror through the approaching enemy. He was confident that his fleet had the necessary fire discipline to wait. He was also sure that the Cephalopods would cower, waiting for the Outer Rim to commence firing before they came out of hiding.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a nod from one of the communications officers. Linois caught it and sidled over to the console. With growing rage, Dieskau saw Linois holding a whispered conversation with the communications officer. Dieskau turned to stare at Linois with open contempt. While Linois was the captain of the ship, the bridge was his domain and Dieskau was only a guest; however, Dieskau was commander over the entire military operation.
Linois nodded to the communications officer and straightened up.
“Squid Caughnawaga, sir,” the officer said.
Dieskau found the awkward situation made worse by the difference in social position between Linois and himself. Dieskau forced himself to look at the communications officer and nod.
The squid’s image blinked onto a corner of the situation display.
“Caughnawaga”, Dieskau said as a greeting. The ambush was poised, waiting for the actual fighting to begin; Dieskau could barely contain his joy. “Your troops are deployed?”
Caughnawaga’s speech synthesizer was connected directly to the communication system; it chimed and then boomed with an inhuman volume, “Is the trap ready? Are we able hunters, willing to wait?”
Dieskau looked closely at Caughnawaga’s image. The question told Dieskau that they had a very complete picture of the situation. Dieskau had never characterized the ambush as a trap, it was a conclusion that the Cephalopods had drawn. He didn’t like having Cephalopod trying to confirm his battle plans. But it also meant that the Cephalopods tacitly agreed with that part of his strategy. That was the first step toward using them as an effective weapon, saving the Outer Rim from loss of ships or lives.
“We must turn our attention to the strike at Lyman, once we have struck down a few Core transports and your pod is armed with Core weapons,” Dieskau said. “Your Cephalopod attack will drive the Outer Rim and their Squid,” Dieskau had added before realizing that he shouldn’t use the derogatory term. “You will drive their Cephalopod allies,” he corrected himself, “from this cluster.”
Caughnawaga stood, swaying slightly. In the background, Dieskau could see the other squids in the pod. He could see that they were armored, even on their own ship. It made perfect sense, when Dieskau considered that their favorite attack mode was a ship-to-ship assault. The silence dragged out, while Caughnawaga’s image flickered a silent conversation among the pod in the background.
Then the Caughnawaga’s synthesizer chimed, “We do not fight our own.” It took a moment before Dieskau understood the enormity of this statement. Caughnawaga was announcing that there were other Cephalopods supporting the Core Planets, and Caughnawaga was using this as some kind of excuse from combat. Dieskau slapped the situation display. He strode across the bridge and back. The phrase echoed through Dieskau: they do not attack their own. Intelligence had failed, again, to understand the Cephalopod alliances. He had been assured that Caughnawaga commanded a large, completely independent force; he understood that the other prominent squid leaders, including Hendrick and Abenaki, were not allies with Caughnawaga. Dieskau was becoming very afraid that the Cephalopod alliances had shifted in some subtle way, exposing his fleet, and the Carillon base. Perhaps that was why Caughnawaga’s pod was not here on the bridge of the Champlain.
Dieskau could see other possibilities. There was a possibility that this was the first hint of the Cephalopods uniting against the Mammals. There was a chance that Hendrick and Caughnawaga were not completely independent. If they were only lords under some higher king, they may have been compelled to stay out of the Mammal’s fight. Dieskau wondered how he could confirm that these were really two factions within a shadowy federation of Cephalopod empires.
In another flash of insight, Dieskau realized that he may be the only person in the Outer Rim that understood the enormity of what Caughnawaga had said. The entire ambush was beginning to look like something the squids had engineered by cooperating with each of the Mammal empires. Dieskau could see a new career opening before him as the envoy between the Outer Rim and this hidden Cephalopod empire.
Dieskau focused on the display. “You will fight the mammals,” he said. He immediately regretted his querulous tone. He should give commands, not seek confirmation.
Dieskau turned to Captain Linois and gave the sign to end transmission. Linois nodded to the communications officer, who announced the end of the transmission. The Cephalopod vanished, leaving an emptiness where the situation display had been.