Some of the conference rooms of the Henry Base had been heavily used from first days that the base had been habitable. People had moved through the conference room continuously for months. The intelligence group had moved into the room to reduce the time spent walking from office to office. The construction of the ceiling had never been finished, nor had the room been cleaned on any regular basis.
With Cole gone on the Whitehall, Phineas was the senior-most officer in or around the Henry Base who would still confront Johnson. Once the cannon positions were aligned with the most likely direction of attack, he had gone back to the base itself to brief Johnson and try and direct the remaining defenses.
The basic attitude of denial was something he found intolerable. His shuttle had been idled waiting for traffic to clear. He was unable to get any meaningful status from anyone. There was an eerie official silence from the Henry Base staff.
Phineas found that operations at the base were intolerable, and when he was finally allowed to dock and disembark, he told General Johnson to make a direct announcement that Williams had been ambushed, that the fleet was returning to Henry Base for resupply and they had the materiel needed defend themselves against the Outer Rim indefinitely. It was a simple, clear message, Phineas thought. It would firmly establish the priorities for defense.
“I can’t do that,” Johnson had replied after the briefing.
Phineas stared, incredulous.
“I’m not here to defend this base. I’m here to drive the Outer Rim out of this cluster.” Phineas looked at Pomeroy and the flock of assistants that followed Johnson around.
“Well, sir, if you don’t defend this base, you’ll finish your career in an Outer Rim brig,” Phineas said.
Johnson stared around at his supporters.
Pomeroy looked from Johnson to Phineas. “I think the General is looking for you to support our primary mission,” Pomeroy said.
Phineas put his fists on the table and leaned across to close the space between his face and Pomeroy to just inches. “Is there a poster on that wall that says that we have to secure this base?”
Pomeroy looked around at the other members of the command staff. There certainly was a “secure Henry base” motivational campaign. It was posted everywhere; it was part of every briefing, every plan, and every operation. Pomeroy had to agree with Phineas. Disagreeing with Johnson was a career risk, but at this point, Johnson wasn’t leaning in any direction. Pomeroy slumped as limp as a flag without a wind.
Phineas stood up straight.
Johnson looked at him. “What else can we do?” he asked.
Phineas shook his head. There was little else they could do. They had made a difficult choice in sending Williams out to relieve the forces left at Lyman base. Now they were paying the price for that decision. Deep in his heart, Phineas hoped that luck was on their side, and sending Williams out had both weakened Dieskau and lured him to the still powerful Henry base.
“We can stop them if we maintain fire discipline,” Phineas said. “We can’t waste a shot. We need to hide our capability until they are committed and their entire fleet is in range.”
Johnson scowled; he didn’t like this. Pomeroy was glad that Johnson was finally showing a preference. Since the ambush, Johnson had been lost, directionless. The first returning ships had upset him. Johnson had done nothing but wander from meeting to meeting since Cole’s presentation of the tactical situation. When Cole had departed, Johnson had listened impassively to briefings by Phineas and Eyre on the defensive preparations. Pomeroy’s fear of leading in the wrong direction, left him unable to take any action, either.
“Allow them to close?” Johnson asked. “It’s such a risk.” Phineas didn’t answer. He turned away in disgust. He paced across the small conference room, all eyes glued on him.
The door chimed and creaked open. The marine standing just inside the door stepped into the opening see who was trying to get in. Over the marine’s shoulder, they could see a small knot of civilians in the corridor. One of the heads leaned in, trying to get past the sergeant standing at the door.
“Johnson! General Johnson” the civilian shouted.
“Halt! You’re not authorized,” the marine barked, blocking the freighter.
Pomeroy recognized him as Boone, one of the freighter pilots. It was hard to see past the marine, but Boone seemed to be the spokesman for the group in the hall.
There was a quick movement; Boone’s elbow appeared between the marine and the door frame. Suddenly Boone was beside the marine and the marine stumbling against the wall.
“General Johnson. We need launch clearances,” Boone said, breathlessly. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
The marine started to shove Boone back out into the hall. Boone twisted away from the marine without even looking. The marine stumbled again, barely moving Boone.
Johnson stood up. “Those Cephalopod traitors will hunt you down and kill you,” he said with a sudden vehemence. “You’ll never make a landfall.”
Pomeroy knew that this was contrary to the official propaganda position; it was, however, what intelligence had been reporting. Johnson seemed to have trouble keeping to the official position statements. Pomeroy was going to clarify the statement for the freighters when Phineas stepped in front of Boone.
Boone was bigger than Phineas, but Phineas was far more intensely determined. They were both remarkably muscular for pilots and career officers.
“You’ll goddamn stay is what you’ll do,” Phineas ordered; Boone flinched back half a step. “I don’t care how bad it is, I won’t have a panic.”
Boone looked closely at Phineas. “Colonel Phineas, it’s no good,” he pleaded.
Phineas relaxed. He dropped his brusque command voice. “Get to your ship, stick to official channels and don’t listen to a load of crap from who knows what source.”
Boone looked over Phineas shoulder at the rest of the command staff. Johnson looked at Boone, as if seeing him for the first time.
“Panic?” Johnson asked.
Boone looked back at the knot of freighters behind him in the hall. There was a weird shaking of heads and looking around. Phineas could see them shuffling around, looking at each other, but also looking away. They looked to Boone for support, but he was looking to them. Phineas saw some whispering, and he could see the expressions on their faces clearly. They were trying to justify running from the base; hoping that the Outer Rim and the Cephalopods would be more merciful in empty space than they would be at the base.
“Panic is fatal,” Phineas said, through Boone to the knot of freighters in the hall. “Discipline is all we’ve got! I’ve got six fully operational plasma cannons.”
Boone was not impressed. The other freighters paused a moment. The whisperer at the back of the group said something.
“Six of eight?” Boone repeated.
Phineas tried to see the instigator who had prompted Boone. Phineas knew that people who panicked were spreading fear like a virus around the base. He disliked someone who wouldn’t stand up and say they were terrified, but would sow doubt and dispute in those around them.
“We’ve got surface guns to support the space guns. Every crew is standing by with anti-personnel loads. We’ll stop them,” Phineas said to the group.
He heard a mutter in the conference room. He turned around as Johnson squinted at him.
“Anti-personnel?” Johnson asked. “That’s just slaughter.” Phineas had talked it through with his gun commanders, and anti-personnel rounds had given them the confidence to brave the brunt of the attack waiting for the perfect chance to unleash the full fury of their guns. Phineas knew that men would flip back and forth between fight and flight almost at random. The anti-personnel loads had bolstered their fragile morale.
Phineas took a step to the side to address the freighters as well as Johnson. “After their victory in the ambush, a few lost ships won’t even slow them down. If we don’t kill their people as fast as possible, they’ll overrun this base in a heartbeat.”
Phineas looked around at the command staff and the civilians. Boone backed out of the room. The freighters held a whispered conference in the hallway and then bolted down the corridor. Phineas was outraged at their cowardice. They weren’t marines, but they could still spread fear among the troops. Phineas shouldered past the marine to see which way they ran.
“Sergeant,” he shouted, “arrest them.”
The sergeant, only too happy to punish Boone, sprinted after them, yelling into his radio to organize the MP’s and cut them off.
The corridor was already in mayhem. Phineas realized that the freighters were not the cause of the panic; they were only a symptom of a wave of panic already in full flood. There were people everywhere; the number of civilians amazed Phineas. He saw knots of soldiers, clusters pilots and fliers and civilians, all moving through the base in different directions; there were collisions, blockages, arguments and fights.
Someone running down the hallway bumped into Phineas and ran off with a brusque “watch it.”
Phineas looked back into the conference room. His worst fear was internal panic and a lack of discipline. He had hoped to prevent it, but it had already happened. In the conference room, all but Pomeroy and Johnson had left. It looked like Pomeroy was presenting some kind of plan to Johnson.
The contrast between the turmoil in the hall and the irrelevant planning in quiet conference room struck Phineas as a metaphor for the tactical situation. Out-of-touch officers were trying to manage an attack, while their troops fell into chaos.
The Kaydeross had managed to shape an orbital solution in spite of two Cephalopod ships attached to them. It was a dangerous and highly eccentric orbit. The cockpit crew had made contact with the planet, and was slowly edging toward a smaller orbit, and ultimately making a landing. However, they had to rid the ship of an infestation of squids before the hole in their hull made the ship into an orbiting coffin.
First Hunter could easily make use of the architecture of a Mammal ship. Bony Mammals left large gaps and openings, clearly for their own access. First Hunter, without armor, could fit between equipment sections and move freely through the structure of the ship. The only complication was identifying hidden structural bulkheads that prevented access.
First Hunter’s armor had an elegant scalloped ridge that ran from front to back. It was a common style in its birth pool. The pod agreed to leave the armor standing by their entrance as a distraction to any Mammals that might counter-attack. First Hunter carried only a medium-sized mammal weapon that could be pushed through the openings.
Second and Third Hunter agreed to move down a wide, open corridor, carrying the largest and bulkiest of weapons. First Hunter slid through an access panel, and felt its way through an unlit open space between the ceiling and the deck above. The space was narrow, dark and very dusty. It had some electrical conduits and lighting fixtures, but access was quite good.
First Hunter heard the tramp of bony mammal feet, and the scrape of something heavy. Clearly the mammals were moving things around. Perhaps they had an even larger weapon that they were moving into position. It may be bad for Second Hunter, but in the long run it would be good for the pod if First Hunter could secure that weapon.
First Hunter reached an equipment bay that lined the wall. Just beyond the equipment, First Hunter could hear the mammals making low barking or groaning noises. The device in the equipment bay was mostly silent; it made a low erratic clicking as it cycled through its assigned task. First Hunter could visualize the situation in the hallway clearly.
First Hunter needed to move right, over another equipment bay. First hunter probed around looking for an opening large enough to fit the mammal weapon. The weapon, being rigid, required some care in selecting a route. While it was often easiest to drop down into equipment bays and move under the flooring, there were often unexpected obstructions that made it complex to manage a bulky mammal weapon. If Second Hunter and Third Hunter kept them occupied, there would be time to explore for an optimal route. But pressure was continuing to fall. They needed to take control of the ship quickly before they were forced to retreat and put on pressurized armor.
There was some more noise from the mammals. There was a scrabbling around then the BOOM of a weapon being fired. There was an explosion and the acrid smell of their explosives filled the air.
There wasn’t enough time. First Hunter pushed the mammal weapon as quickly as possible. Noise was not an issue. They needed to get past these mammals to move toward engineering and gain control of the ship. First Hunter dropped into the equipment bay that was behind the mammals. The opening to the bay whistled faintly as the atmosphere rushed past it.
There was more scrabbling around and a weapon boomed again. The explosion shook the equipment bay. First Hunter hoped that Second Hunter had survived; otherwise the pod would be weakened.
It took a moment to get braced inside the equipment bay. First Hunter released the catch and opened the lid slowly and silently. This was the riskiest part of the attack: if a mammal was posted in reserve, then First Hunter would be killed. There was no noise; they did not have any reserve. Pushing out the weapon only required a tiny opening. First Hunter twisted it into a firing position. It was a painful position, balanced between head and mouth, two legs on the wall inside the cabinet, two legs holding the door, four legs holding the weapon solidly. One finger probed outside to be sure that all was in position; the other finger operated the firing trigger.
The mammals were relatively quiet, but the thin metal door transmitted the low humming of their armor. First Hunter adjusted the weapon and then lay down a barrage of fire. After firing two five-round bursts, First Hunter sprang from the equipment bay to be sure they were all dead.
It was hard to be sure, but there seemed to be bloody remains of two mammals. Once out in the hall, First Hunter fired more carefully to be sure that they were completely dead. The mammal weapon was heavy and difficult to hold at an attitude that permitted accurate sighting. However, the first few rounds could be used for ranging, and the rest would have full impact. With mammal blood and bones everywhere, it was a glorious victory. They had two more weapons. The scraping sound had been two hardened portable shields. They would help in the final assault on engineering.
First Hunter looked down the corridor. Someone was sheltered behind a turn in the hallway. There were blood and legs from a Cephalopod. Why did they still hide?
First Hunter realized why they hid and flattened onto the deck; at that moment a mammal fired, blowing an opening in the ceiling just over First Hunter’s head. First Hunter held up the weapon and fired down the hall at the Mammal reserves. Part way through the fully automatic burst, First Hunter heard the shout of a dying Mammal. First Hunter stretched up tall and took a close look. A piece of armor coated with blood rolled into the hallway.
First Hunter looked back. Third Hunter announced that Second Hunter had not been fast enough. That meant the legs and blood were all that was left of Second Hunter. The pod was weaker by one hunter, but stronger by two weapons. Third Hunter agreed to bring up the rest of the pod. They would switch weapons, grab the shields and form up for an assault on engineering.
Dieskau paused a moment before entering the bridge of the Champlain. They were closing in on the Henry base too slowly. This was his ninth major campaign. What if this was his first mistake; his last fight? Combat, by definition, lacked boundaries or limitations that made it possible to have a fixed, standard approach. Mankind’s history provided many examples, but no simple recipe. Dieskau was a military leader precisely because he was a student of the history of human warfare. Even so, he knew there was always the chance of something unexpected that would escalate to fatal consequences. He stepped up to the sentry, hoping that this was not his last fight.
The sentry placed his weapon on the deck and opened the door to the bridge. Dieskau looked in. The captain, Linois, was moving the fleet carefully forward, but Dieskau needed more speed to prevent the base from being well-defended. They needed to fall on the base when the disarray from the retreat was at its peak.
Dieskau took a seat at the situation display. He brought up the tactical map. It looked very clear that the defenses had been badly beaten down. The remaining Core Planets force was small, concentrated in a narrow area. It was also obvious to Dieskau that the Cephalopods had completely dropped out of the attack. Their ships were everywhere except the line of attack. The IFF system could not discriminate between Cephalopods aligned with Caughnawaga, and those aligned with the Core Planets ally, Hendrick. The Cephalopod forces appeared to have dissolved into a number of small, irrelevant battles as well as piracy and looting of disabled ships.
Dieskau fumed as he concluded that the cowardly squids had failed to attack, or even prosecute the battle with any aggression or discipline. He could see his own fleet falling into two factions: those who would pursue the Core Planets forces and those who would retreat. He had heard enough from Montgomery and Linois to know that they were cowards also. He was outraged that anyone could think it possible to achieve the reward of victory without the risk of battle.
Dieskau stood up and paced across the bridge. He looked over the XO’s shoulder at the helm, the weapons systems, life support, defensive measures and stores. His fleet was struggling, but victory was assured. The Outer Rim and Core forces had been approximately equal, but Dieskau’s ambush had torn the Core Planets force apart.
“We need to make more speed,” Dieskau said to the officer of the watch.
The officer of the watch was the second Lieutenant, who was not as sure of his position on the ship as the first Lieutenant. The first Lieutenant would have executed Dieskau’s order with only a quick nod from Linois. The second Lieutenant looked at Captain Linois for confirmation. Linois stepped over to Dieskau.
“Yes?” Linois purred.
“We need to fall on their base before they can organize their defenses,” Dieskau said.
Linois nodded, as if he agreed. “My Baron, their defensive line is holding.” Dieskau realized he didn’t know enough about Linois. Clearly, he had a well-placed family to be given command of the vast and powerful Champlain. He was ambitious, or he would not have taken frontier duty. What weakness did Linois have; Dieskau needed to know how he could exploit this captain.
“Push through their line. We must engage the Whitehall destroyer as quickly as possible.” Dieskau leaned into Linois to emphasize his point. Linois did not back up, but stood, staring up at Dieskau.
Linois nodded vaguely, but neither acknowledged nor refused. He stood and stared back at Dieskau. Dieskau recognized that Captain Linois may be the actual leader of the faction that opposed direct action; this made Montgomery the spokesman for Linois. As Dieskau considered, he kept his gaze locked on Linois.
There was a chime and the marine sentry barked, “Squid requesting entry, sir.” Dieskau had insisted Caughnawaga be present on the bridge so he could pit Linois and the Champlain against the Cephs. Dieskau hoped that he could make the assault on Henry base into a point of honor between them; the first one to the base would be free to take possession, the second one would be publicly humiliated by a round of bad publicity through the fleet and through the cluster. Dieskau would break the career of anyone reluctant to carry out his plan to the fullest extent.
Dieskau nodded his permission to Linois to admit the Cephalopods to the bridge. Linois scowled slightly, but shook his head. Dieskau was taken aback for a moment by this tacit refusal. It was, technically, Linois’ bridge, and Dieskau could be seen as exceeding his privileges by inviting squids to a meeting on the bridge. It was, more importantly, an opportunity for Dieskau to show Linois who was the supreme military commander of the cluster.
Dieskau, still holding Linois in his weapons-lock gaze, shouted over his shoulder to the sentry, “Send our Cephalopod allies in.”
Dieskau clenched his jaw hard, careful to say nothing. He didn’t see the sentry look to the bridge officer, or the bridge officer look to Linois. He did see Linois nod, followed a long moment later by the slap of the sentry hitting the control and the door grinding open. Dieskau hoped that Linois was gaining a clear understanding of his position in the fleet; there would be no dispute or disrespect among his officers.
The Cephalopods oozed onto the bridge. They were heavily armed. The indicators and status displays reflected off their armor. Dieskau noted that Caughnawaga seemed to have shifted the personnel in the leadership pod. One of its two lieutenants had been replaced. A new Cephalopod, wearing armor with a scalloped ridge going from front over the top and down the back, had joined the pod. Dieskau wasn’t sure which squid had been replaced, but he took this as a sign that the Cephalopods were disappointed with their performance in this assault and had rearranged their leadership. Dieskau was gleeful at this positive turn of events.
Caughnawaga’s speech synthesizer chimed on. “You called for our attendance.”
Dieskau looked closely at the Cephs. They were silent, showing muted colors reflecting the bridge crew uniforms. Dieskau concluded that they were merely looking around, perhaps whispering among themselves.
Dieskau turned to the situation display. He made an elaborate gesture of presentation. The ships were carefully color coded, with the Outer Rim in prominent red, and the Cephs in an ambiguous yellow.
“You observe the Core Planets fleet,” he began, “hemmed in, surrounded, being destroyed by the Outer Rim fleet?”
A quick message passed among the Cephs. Caughnawaga’s vast U-shaped pupils gazed at Dieskau. The new squid, with the scallop ridge, turned and moved closer to peer at the display. Caughnawaga, without looking, along with the other squids oozed to adjust the gaps and keep the spacing between them even and precise.
“Why do you ask for confirmation of the obvious?” Caughnawaga replied.
Dieskau suspected that they knew how much he hated their sluggish indolence. Their tacit admission of failure to aggressively pursue the Core Planets infuriated him. He saw it as the first step toward justifying their cowardly strategy; it might be followed by a refusal to see any advantage in leading the assault on Henry base. Dieskau began to see their agreements as simple lies, uttered to lure the Outer Rim into early action, weakening them through a premature fight with the Core. It was very possible that the Cephalopods would turn on the Outer Rim.
Barely able to contain himself, Dieskau leaned close to Caughnawaga. He could hear the low gurgle of the ventilator. He desperately wanted to pull his side arm and show these squids real fear.
“Where are your ships?” Dieskau hissed. “Where are the hellish squid? Why do they stand aside from the fight?”
A message flicked among the Cephalopods. Dieskau realized that he was falling into a position they had opened for him. He was going to be surrounded by his own allies. Once surrounded, he would be in great danger.
“We claim our spoils of victory from fallen ships and the planet.”
Dieskau took another step forward. “You filthy scavengers!” he shouted.
This had the desired effect. A color flashed among the three of them. The scallop-shell Ceph turned away from the situation display. The group closed up and backed away from Dieskau, still flickering a small message amongst them. Dieskau was pleased at this; all of their statements about being mighty hunters had led him to suspect that they despised their own history as scavengers.
“You are not engaging the Core Fleet,” Dieskau said, pursuing them.
“We do not choose to engage the other Cephalopods,” Caughnawaga’s synthesizer chimed.
This was unexpected: Dieskau had to admit that there was a possibility they were dealing with a federation of separate Cephalopod states or nations. The squids were behaving as if the various factions were separate but still had a common loyalty to some overarching organization that was of little military power, but huge social or political influence. Dieskau was angry with how own intelligence service for failing to alert him of this multi-layered political organization. Dieskau would never suspect that the Outer Rim intelligence service implicitly understood them as mere animals and was blind to anything subtle or complex about squid behavior.
Dieskau started pacing on the bridge. He didn’t notice the Cephalopods spreading out and shifting to cover his pacing.
“They’re my enemies!” Dieskau shouted. “You will destroy all of my enemies, or there will be no peace between us.”
This did not have any useful effect. The Cephs seem to have anticipated this, also. A perfunctory message flickered. They stood for a moment as Dieskau paced.
“We take the straggling Mammals,” Caughnawaga’s synthesizer chimed. “We do not fight our own.”
“Of course,” Dieskau thought, “you would not attack your own.” The more important question was the nature of the Squid intelligence. Did Caughnawaga already know of the tribe that was supporting the Core Planets? Was this really a master plan of this shadowy squid government? Dieskau dismissed the possibility was that they didn’t know until the moment of the ambush; they decided at the last moment to renege on their alliance. Instead, he began to suspect that there was a larger conspiracy within the Outer Rim that doomed this enterprise to failure by tempting him to make the wrong squid alliances.
Dieskau concluded that he had been misled. Since he was on the Champlain, Linois’ intelligence service had altered reports, briefings and conclusions to put Dieskau into this position. A small corner of Dieskau’s still rational mind could see that this kind of deception was impossibly large to coordinate and execute. That small corner was drowned out by the paranoid fear and rage that consumed him.
Dieskau slammed the situation display. The bridge crew startled. The Cephalopods pulled their tentacles back under their armor.
This setback meant that Dieskau had even more to do. He realized that he could never control a single cluster. He needed multiple fleets from which to choose loyal officers and punish those who were too cowardly or self-serving to follow his plans. He needed forces in multiple clusters to help him locate enemies of the Cephalopods; these enemies could be pitted against Caughnawaga, creating a new balance of power that he could control. His mistake was to limit his strategy to a single, isolated frontier star cluster.
Dieskau stormed off the bridge. The sentry saluted; when Dieskau looked at the solider, he realized he needed to begin a final assault on Henry base that would succeed without Cephalopod support. Once he controlled Henry and Lyman, he could begin planning to destroy his real enemies: Linois, Caughnawaga, Montgomery.