A freighter was an engineering comprise that balanced available mass, velocity and the cost of operation. Since speed was costly, there were often limits to performance. The Mule II was designed to work best with an extremely large, dense load, carried in external cargo bays. When it was empty, it was overpowered for the scanty mass and momentum; the pilots called it “tender” and difficult to fly.
Only hours ahead of the attacking Outer Rim fleet, Larry pressed the Mule II to make as much speed as an empty freighter could safely make. Acutely aware of the procedures for getting an empty ship to propagate through space at these velocities, Larry also knew that too much stress on critical components would be fatal. If something broke, he would be forced to put one foot in the grave by flying on a backup system.
With Natalie’s urging, he set the Mule II to the speeds that freighters were capable of, but rarely achieved. The trim of the gravity foil put the apparent gravity at an angle that made walking through the companionways difficult. Loose equipment dropped out of lockers, cups and plates skittered across the deck. As the ship strained, doors no longer opened or closed properly. The background drone was augment by groans and clangs and the ship’s structure responded to the stress.
Mo seemed to enjoy the challenge; Larry could characterize it as enthusiastic. Mo provided a number of fine adjustments to foil shape and engine tuning that gained tiny bits of additional speed and improved the ship’s handling. A number of these were the kinds of subtleties that Larry had heard pilots describe, but never had an occasion to try.
While big speed was fun in empty space, it made the approach to Henry Base something that required care. Larry broke out the stellar orbit insertion list early. This was insertion three hundred two, logged behind Lyman Base and Henry Base. Some careful calculation gave them an orbit that would bleed off the tremendous energy and park them right on Henry base.
The ship-to-base signal was weak from this distance. “Approaching ship Mule Two you will provide approach codes or you will be fired upon.”
Larry turned to Natalie. “Final warning?”
She checked the navigation as well as communication status displays. “I guess they don’t have full power communications yet,” she said with a shrug.
The cockpit annunciator chimed on. “Weapons Lock,” it said.
“Now is not a good time,” Larry shouted at the console.
“Throttle back, ace,” Natalie said quietly. “What day is it?” “Who’s at the navigation station?” Larry snapped. Flying at this speed was not done casually. An armed base that demanded approach codes only compounded the list of possible problems. A military adjunct who didn’t know the codes piled on yet another hazard.
“Sorry,” she said. “Juliet Echo Romeo Kilo.”
Larry opened the communications channel. “Juliet Echo Romeo Kilo,” he said.
There was a prolonged silence. Larry and Mo worked to keep the ship in the narrow window of their insertion course. Larry had checked every system. Nothing was at the breaking point, yet. However, he knew that nothing failed gracefully. If anything were going to fail, it was going to fail catastrophically, and when they were under the most stress at the worst time.
“You’re cleared for an approach to Henry Base,” the communicator announced.
“Marvelous,” Larry said. “As if we have any choice at this point.” Once he had the approach lined up correctly, the laws of physics to bring the ship to the inevitable stop. No amount of heroic effort would change the outcome; braking was just a consequence of following procedures.
Natalie opened the communications channel. “This is Lieutenant Colonel Natalie Whiting with a code yellow immediate priority message for General Johnson.”
Larry risked taking his eyes off the navigation displays to steal a glance at Natalie. She was sitting at attention, applying her ferocious intensity toward getting her message to the base in time.
“Lieutenant Colonel Whiting, we can’t patch code yellow messages.” Whiting banged the console with her fist. She kicked the panel under the navigation station.
“Easy, hon, easy,” Larry said without looking. “That’s important stuff there.” “Those sons of bitches!” she shouted at the console. The turned the communication channel back on. “Right. Schedule a face-to-face as soon as we’re docked and cleared.” She banged the console again with her fist, knocking a panel loose. It flopped down in front of her; she cursed and banged it shut.
“You don’t have to wait for Mo and me to lock everything down,” Larry said, trying to give her some assurance.
“It’ll still take hours to get docked,” she said.
Larry could only nod his agreement. They both saw the same navigation display with time-to-go counters for a long series of maneuvers.
Dieskau’s flag ship, the Champlain, had her bridge restored to a more conventional command configuration after the publicized start of the attack. The communications crew had left, taking their lights, cameras and microphones. The fleet Commodore was working through the endless tiresome details of keeping all of the captains on station. Linois, captain of the Champlain, acutely conscious of his very visible position in the fleet, hovered over every bridge crewmember, addressing his executive officer with a quiet, venomous wrath that made the crew cringe.
Dieskau was using the bridge for a meeting with Caughnawaga and its personal group of Cephalopods. Several marine sentries had been added to the bridge area and surrounding connectors. Several more had accompanied Caughnawaga, outnumbering the Cephs two to one. Discreetly, the sentries were deployed in an inner and outer perimeter around the Cephs. The outer perimeter stayed out of sight, but held their weapons armed and ready, the inner perimeter stood at ease.
Dieskau’s situation display depicted the fleet in a projection that showed every ship in relation to the dust cloud; beyond the dust it showed Henry Base and Lyman Base. Dieskau watched as the fleet made the dust cloud into a hazard that would separate the two Core Planets bases.
Dieskau didn’t look up at the Cephalopods as they entered; instead he reached into the situation display space, as if to touch the projection of Lyman base. He knew they were talking amongst themselves. He knew they were waiting for his briefing to find out where their forces would be placed in the coming attack.
They had led the way from Carillon, cleaning up stray shipping, assuring a quick and secret attack. Dieskau had noted that the Cephalopods took twice as many ships to execute their mission because of the looting and piracy. Every captured Core Planet ship was boarded and stripped, slowing the fleet’s progress to a crawl.
“It is so elegant,” Dieskau began, hoping they were off guard. “One of the keys to victory is mobility. Out fleet will pounce on their Lyman base when it is most vulnerable.” Dieskau pointed at the space in the dust band between Lyman and Henry. “When they are in disarray, we will have a focused attack.”
Dieskau was disappointed. The Cephs flickered briefly, as if this was approximately what they expected to hear. It looked like they were proceeding with their own strategy.
Caughnawaga’s speech synthesizer chimed as it started up for the first time. “Do the Core Mammals have space-based plasma cannons around this Lyman base?”
Dieskau sneered, hoping their intelligence service had told them about Mammal facial expressions. “Plasma cannons? Of course. One cannot defend a base the size of Lyman without them.”
Dieskau had been distressed to see that this was one of the lessons the Core Planets had finally started to learn. Traditionally, Core bases were defended by orbiting battle ships. While ships were maneuverable, their size also made them more vulnerable. Canon were small targets, hardened against most weapons, and immensely powerful. Here on the frontier, in close contact with the Outer Rim, the Core Planets engineers were starting to learn the kind of base construction techniques that made Carillon almost invulnerable.
The new Henry base would, if allowed to progress to completion, be the twin of Carillon. Dieskau didn’t want to attack such a formidable fortification. The Lyman base was larger than Henry, but more vulnerable. The few cannon in place meant only a limited number of casualties.
Dieskau could see that the Cephalopods already knew that cannons defended Lyman base, and were prepared for his confirming answer. A tentacle slipped out from under Caughnawaga’s armor and reached up into the situation display. The tiny tip flicked to the new Henry base and then darted back under the armor.
“This base, Henry; are their cannon operational?” Caughnawaga asked.
Dieskau peered closely at the group of Cephalopods. Were they about to propose an alternate attack plan? He knew they were afraid of the cannons. He was incensed that they expected to get Core planets weapons, but weren’t willing to fight for them. Dieskau found that his patience was wearing thin; he was beginning to consider conducting this attack without any Cephalopod support.
“Through their captured spies, we know they will abandon that base,” Dieskau said.
“And,” Dieskau reminded himself, “we gave released two prisoners to sow doubt and dissension at that base.” The base’s ships, fearful of an attack, would come pouring out, to be snapped up by Dieskau’s fleet. A panic evacuation, Dieskau knew, would eliminate any possible risks of conducting an assault against well-prepared defenses.
Dieskau started pacing. “This was precisely the point, you stupid squid,” he wanted to shout. But Dieskau could see that the reason for this question was the Cephalopods desire for easy victories, even when they had had no strategic value. He’d seen the Cephalopods hunting stragglers; they engaged in piracy and pillage, not useful warfare.
Dieskau stopped, and whirled on Caughnawaga. “You are missing the strategic objective. We must crush the Core! Glory and honor demand a total defeat, starting with their primary base.”
Dieskau saw barely a flicker among the Cephalopods. He realized they had expected this; they continued to manipulate him. He was frustrated by having to fumble around, looking for some bait, some reward that would put them into his attack plan.
“Lyman base is far from our agreed frontier. It is irrelevant. Henry base is weakest. We will attack it.”
“Irrelevant?” Dieskau echoed to himself, “Irrelevant to what?” He was baffled by these Cephalopods who seemed to make war their hobby. Every time they chose the path of least resistance, it pushed their frontier back one more star system.
“I will not have separate factions,” Dieskau growled, advancing on Caughnawaga.
Caughnawaga oozed back a step. The other Cephalopods moved to close up the semi-circle with Caughnawaga at its center. The Cephs talked amongst themselves, drawing still closer together.
Dieskau stepped back and slumped down in his seat at the situation display; he realized he was reduced to waiting for the squids to drop their carefully maintained discipline and provide some intelligence that would give him an advantage again. Dieskau looked at Montgomery, hovering at the edge of the bridge.
Montgomery looked from Dieskau to the Cephalopods. He waited to be sure he had the correct signal. A simple look meant their plans were set, a nod meant they had a small emergency, a cough meant they had an agreement. Dieskau turned slowly back to the situation display, and stared at it, morosely.
The signal was clear; Montgomery stepped up to the Cephalopods.
“As you can see, Dieskau’s plans are set; if you have any questions, you can take them up with the frigate captains that you will accompany.”
Montgomery heard the gurgling and squishing of the squid ventilators. He could smell their alien reek. He could almost touch their clanking armor. He wanted them out of this ship. They were dangerous animals, and could not be trusted. Montgomery was sure that Dieskau was risking the entire Outer Rim frontier by trying to ally with Cephalopods. He was relieved when the Cephs oozed off the bridge to the sounds of a ceremonial salute by the marine sentries.
Dieskau stared at the situation display.
“They want the wrong base,” he said. “So be it.”
The Lyman base had been a bold extension of Core Planets space. It had met only token resistance when it was built. Until they started building the Henry base, space beyond Lyman was uncivilized by the Core Planets Network. Lyman was staffed with experienced officers who knew what the regulations meant. More important than that, they knew how to use the regulations to punish those who were disruptive and reward those who were successful.
The construction and support of General Johnson’s Henry base, however, made it difficult to keep a spotless base and support continuous supply and patrol operations. The permanent staff was stretched to its limits. Even the maintenance staff was unable to keep up with the endless press of people passing through the base.
One of the base conference rooms had been pressed into service as a situation room to correlate intelligence on the locations of Outer Rim patrol ships. Folding tables had been placed around the edge of the room for the intelligence officers. Their computers and paper notes were everywhere. They didn’t have a situation display projector, so they posted paper notes on the walls.
General Johnson reinforced his strategic plans by refining them down to the essential message for his marines: “Mission 1: Secure Henry Base.” Posters were placed everywhere, it was part of the message of the day displayed on all the computer monitors. While it set a simple, clear priority, it also meant that domestic duties were low priority; conference rooms and companionways were cluttered with trash that was never completely cleaned up.
Larry had docked the Mule II in record time. Whiting had fidgeted through the final approach. Once they were on the docking pier, she started pacing while Larry and Mo rushed through the litany of shutting down the Mule II.
The starboard-side stern cargo airlock was the one that had the most accessible boarding platform. They met in the companionway at the airlock door. Mo was wearing a shore-going gown, different from the gown it wore while flying. Whiting had put her military uniform back on. She seemed to have done her hair, and piled on additional jewelry.
She stopped and squinted at Mo very hard for a moment. She looked over at Larry and then back at Mo.
“You know,” she began, “I don’t think they’d want to talk to Mo.” Mo’s speech synthesizer chimed as it powered up, but Mo said nothing.
“It’s nothing personal,” Whiting continued. “They just don’t understand Cephs; so they don’t use them as an intel source.”
Larry watched Mo shift around under its gown. Maybe the eyes had projected forward more. There was a color there. It was toward the amusement color, but not solidly on “funny”; maybe it was “ironic” or something more subtle.
“How can they gather intelligence when they discount us as sources?” Mo squeaked.
Whiting shrugged and looked embarrassed. “I have my opinions, but you don’t have to follow us around all day. Everyone wants to talk with me. To those bone-bags, you’re just another squid.”
“Maybe it’s your breath?” Larry said.
“Is out ventilator filtered? Do we retain our volatile organics? Do we change our filters every 4 days? More under heavy usage?” Mo squeaked.
Larry leaned down toward where he thought Mo’s ventilator was concealed.
“Do I hear a leak?”
Mo shifted around under the gown. There were several loud gurgles.
“Can we go?” Whiting asked. “We’ve got more important things to do than service its ventilator.”
“Is this the finest lightweight ventilator available? Was it not custom fit?” Mo squeaked as they climbed through the airlock to the platform.
Whiting and Drover went directly to General Johnson’s office. From there, they were directed to the intelligence situation room for her mission debriefing with the entire intelligence unit. The more common protocol for post-mission debriefings was to work one-on-one with an intelligence officer. Johnson felt that this was too important to waste time while one officer posted minutes from the interviews for the other officers to read.
Colonel Williams owned a vast network of agricultural domes scattered throughout a nearby cluster. His business focus was narrow, and because he specialized, he was able to optimize profits. He was quite wealthy, and used this wealth to fund a large number of charitable causes. He had started several educational foundations to raise the overall level of technical skills on the frontier. Johnson put Williams in charge of a fleet centered on the Horicon, as well as having him head up the intelligence unit.
General Johnson and Colonel Williams met Whiting and Drover coming down the hallway to the situation room. Johnson and Williams greeted them in the hall. Williams took a big drag on his cigarette then stuck out his hand to Whiting.
“Natalie, how’re you doing?” Williams asked.
“Very good sir,” she said, first saluting, then shaking his hand.
Williams chuckled. “Oh yes, military, that’s right.” “Sir, this is Larry Drover, the freighter pilot.” Williams took a step back to look Larry over from head to foot. Larry didn’t like this kind of examination; he felt like he was a Cephalopod on display. He waved.
“How’re you doing, son?” Williams asked, sticking out his hand.
Larry shook Williams’ hand. Johnson nodded at the door. Larry stepped out of the way; he wouldn’t open a door for any military officer with working fingers. Whiting gave him a brief scowl. The brand-new door whooshed open when she hit the switch.
In the situation room, the intelligence crew were grinding away at their computers. When Johnson, Williams and Whiting strode in, one of the crew looked up and shouted, “Officer on deck.”
The intelligence crew were standing and saluting as Larry walked in. Larry waved; he had moved up from thieving freighter pilot to valued intelligence asset. There was probably no real money involved in any of this. However, when the curtain was finally dropped on this show, Larry realized that he might be able get a permanent position with one of Johnson’s or Williams’ companies. He was beginning to think that a steady job, lower in pay, had the advantage of fewer risks.
“As you were. Carry on,” Whiting barked.
Larry slouched into the nearest chair. Whiting, Williams and Johnson stood near the intelligence crew. One of them seemed to be the designated recorder. A microphone was stretched out from her computer.
Johnson leaned over to the microphone and said, “We’ll just begin with the classified portion of the briefing, and catch the supporting comments later. You told the Outer Rim what?”
Whiting, looking at Johnson and Williams, replied crisply, “We were withdrawing.” Johnson made a face of disgust. Williams took out his cigarette and leaned toward the microphone, getting ready to say something.
Johnson cut him off. “Why in the heavens would you say that? I would never leave Henry base.”
Whiting stared at the “Mission 1” poster over Johnson’s shoulder. “To prevent reinforcements.”
Larry drummed his fingers on the conference table, then said “If we’re busy abandoning Henry, he won’t wait to get reinforcements before he attacks.” Natalie had explained it, and Drover had seen the compelling logic; she had baited a trap that this Baron Dieskau couldn’t refuse.
Williams leaned across the table to Drover. “Who the hell are you?” First impressions last the longest, Larry reminded himself. He kept his pilot’s calm, almost icy demeanor. He did sit up a little straighter in his chair.
“Drover, Larry Drover. Pilot,” Larry said. Whiting didn’t look at him. “We doctored our books to make it look like we were supporting a retreat.”
Williams dismissed the explanation with a puzzled look. Larry slouched back down in his seat.
Williams took out his cigarette, “We?” he asked, waving it at Whiting and then drover. “Tell me this,” he continued, looking carefully at the nearest intelligence agent. “How is it you got away? Damned convenient of the Outer Rim to let you go with information about their plans.”
“I’m a civilian; they can’t hold me,” Larry said. He hadn’t thought too much about why they were free, but he was confident that the Outer Rim needed to maintain an appearance of honoring the trade tariffs and treaties.
Williams sneered, triumphant. He pointed his cigarette at Drover, “But Whiting is not.” He looked around at the intelligence staff to be sure they understood his triumph of impeccable logic. Gloating, Williams stepped part way around the conference table to more closely examine Whiting from several angles. She continued to stare at the poster. Johnson gaped, and the intelligence crew either nodded their agreement or scribbled on their computers.
“I told them we were married,” Larry said. There was an instant silence, followed by renewed scribbling. Whiting turned to stare at him with a ferocious scowl. Her business-woman calm and marine-corps discipline fell away and she showed a flash of real anger. “Worked didn’t it?” Larry asked her.
With a snort, Whiting snapped back to staring at the poster. Williams arched an eyebrow, surprised; he took a long, slow drag on his cigarette.
Johnson nodded and pulled on his chin. “If they attack, we’ll be hard pressed. Their fleet’s almost as big as ours. And we haven’t finished our defenses. We’ll have to hurry.”
Whiting nodded, ever so slightly. “He’s going to attack Lyman.” “And how can you be so sure of that?” Williams asked, waving his cigarette at her.
Larry was tired of Williams’ endless deprecation of their story. “What’s your problem? He said he would,” Larry said.
“Who said?” Williams asked Whiting. Larry slumped lower in his seat.
“Dieskau,” Whiting said. “He interrogated us. He let slip his conclusion that Lyman Base would be demoralized and in disarray. I concur with Pilot Drover. They’ll attack Lyman Base.”
Williams rolled his eyes. He took a drag on his cigarette, caught the eye of one of the intelligence agents, nodded and winked. Larry wondered what, if anything, he could do to knock the smirk off Williams’ face. He wished he was carrying a side-arm like Whiting.
“Of course,” Johnson said slowly. “If he thinks we’re withdrawing, essentially defeated by the difficulties of building a base here in the frontier,” he trailed off, pulling his chin and thinking.
Williams continued to smirk at various of his intelligence crew. He turned to Johnson, and waved his cigarette, making a circle in the air. “So this incomplete advanced base should support a Core base like Lyman? That’s a reach. I think it’s a terrible waste of ships and marines.”
Drover straightened in his seat; he almost stood up. “No, it isn’t,” Larry said.
Williams turned with a sudden vehemence and said, “Have this man arrested!” Many of the officers looked, but no one moved.
Whiting turned to face Williams, waving her hands to emphasize her point. “He’s planning a Lyman attack,” she said.
Williams, incredulous, looked from Whiting to Johnson. Johnson had stopped pulling on his chin.
“I think I can give you ships for twelve hundred men to take down to Lyman.” Williams looked around at the intelligence group. They were watching Johnson. One officer reached down and turned off the recording. She packed up the microphone. To her, the interview was over and Johnson was giving orders.
Williams stared in open hostility at Drover. Larry slumped down in his chair. This was what Whiting wanted to do, mobilize the forces. Williams probably recognized that his strategy was being set aside in favor of hers. Larry realized that he had just seen a significant shift on frontier politics. A piece of his old frontier had been knocked into a new orbit. One consequence was that he would have to be very careful about trying to get contracts with any of Williams’ companies.
Williams looked back at Johnson. He crushed out his cigarette slowly and carefully. An idea occurred to him and he brightened up, almost grinning.
“He’ll have started his attack by the time we arrive.” Larry saw Whiting blink and glance around, recognizing that this was probably true.
“I guess you’d best hurry,” Larry said.
Williams kicked a chair out of the way and started across the room toward Drover.
“Sir, if they are fully engaged attacking Lyman, we’ll hit him on his exposed flanks,” Whiting blurted. Williams stared down at Drover for a moment, then turned back to look at her.
General Johnson said, “Lieutenant Colonel Whiting, you’re attached to Colonel Williams for this, since you’ve got the first-hand intel.” Whiting grunted. Williams nodded. They looked at each other, sizing each other up. “As are you, son,” General Johnson continued. “You’re in the Marines, now.”
Larry’s heart stopped. His stomach turned; he broke out in an instant sweat. His career had suddenly become very dangerous. Being assigned an adjunct, and then having the adjunct hijack his ship was the worst situation he’d ever been in. It was worse than the most inefficient and corrupt bureaucratic problems he’d ever seen. The subsequent attack by Cephalopods, boarding by the Outer Rim, interrogation by their supreme commander, and release to be a pawn in this military campaign was beyond anything he’d ever heard of; it was enormous and incomprehensible. All he had wanted was a profitable load. He had hoped to avoid being shot at and dying in some forgotten rock on the frontier. Now he was either in the Marines where it was very likely that we would be shot at, or he was going to die in some forgotten prison on the frontier.
“Hey, I’m a private hauler. I’m just a businessman,” Larry stammered.
It was hard to be sure, but it looked like Whiting rolled her eyes.
“So was I,” Johnson replied. “But you want to keep in business, you’d best adapt to your new situation.”
Larry didn’t want to adapt to this situation; it wasn’t his problem, it wasn’t something he understood, and it didn’t look like it would ever be profitable. He was too shocked to see any graceful exit.
Williams lit another cigarette. He took a huge drag, exhaled slowly, nodding at Whiting the whole time.
“Okay, Lieutenant Colonel, let’s hurry up and find this Outer Rim fleet that’s supposedly attacking Lyman Base.”
Williams, waving his cigarette, lead Whiting and Johnson to the conference room door. Drover sat, slouched in a chair. He was petrified by being put into harm’s way through a casual word from General Johnson. He didn’t want to travel anywhere near ships engaged in combat; nor did he know if General Johnson really had the authority to conscript him on the spot.
Williams punched the door control. Nothing happened. Williams sighed and grimaced at General Johnson. It was as if to say, “all this time and effort and the doors don’t open.” Williams jabbed the button again, this time the doors whooshed open.
As Williams, Whiting and Johnson strode out, someone shouted “Attention!” and the intelligence crew jumped to their feet.
Larry slouched up out of his chair. He followed the officers out of the room. The intelligence officers all saluted. Larry turned, waved and said, “Keep the faith. Peace.”