Excerpts from the Jeffersonian Republic project:
This page Copyright © 2019, Karl Leffler
Aurora, Part C: Stern Chase
Continued from the previous excerpt
10 Secondmonth 570JR
11 October 2365CE
Republic Astronomical Survey 2172
Aurora had been flipped stern-first, prepared to boost for braking. As the other ship began to accelerate, she flipped again and boosted in pursuit.
Through the faster-than-light Marsten Device, comm laser, maser, and radio too, Danner hailed. "Unknown vessel, this is Independent Starship Aurora, Solomon Danner commanding. Please respond."
The response, as to Sourdough II, was the targeting beam of a Marsten Detector. Still at three light-seconds, nothing a ship that size was likely to carry was likely to damage Aurora, if they could even hit her. The cruiser boosted on, while Danner turned to his wife and Third Officer. At his nod, she took her turn, her gynoid unnecessarily speaking the words she transmitted: "Samuel Pepys, this is Aurora. I am an awakened Artificial Person, a self-aware computer and ship. It has been theorized you are the same. Please, let us meet and talk." There was no change in the target's behavior, though its acceleration had kept building, past the five meters the Newton-class was known to be capable of, now approaching seven.
Obviously changes to the ship had been made. Jenny Blain and her husband Jack Epstein, flight engineers with and without credentials, kept studying the imagery, and found new structures bracing the grav-wheels against acceleration, probably also preventing their rotation. That suggested an organic crew, with its need for weight for health and comfort, was no longer aboard. They studied the exhaust spectrum of its single fusion torch as the boost kept climbing, now almost eight meters. Quickly running a simulation, Jenny determined how the original torch could have been modified for this new performance.
Aurora could boost at more than seventy meters, probably much more with her new Helium-3 torches, and soon the other ship would be in range of her Class Ten Marsten Guns... but Solomon had no intention of initiating hostilities against what might be his brother-in-law. The distance closed, and Aurora repeated her appeal: "Samuel, please, let me talk to you. I can help you. Repair you."
Holly Cates was at her weapons station, in Auxiliary Control. Her station also had access to sensors she knew how to use. She called, "Target ship is buildin' a Marsten Field. Looks like they're gettin' ready t' Transition."
Sarah, watching her navigation display, added, "They'll reach the Limit in twenty seconds!" Whatever was controlling that ship was now aware of the gravity well and could adjust for it.
"Samuel!" Aurora called. "What have you done with your crew?"
In a spike of energy, the ship was gone.
Jenny Blain knew what to do, and Solomon knew she didn't need to be ordered. In moments she had located the other ship's hyperspace wake, traces of energy which leaked through hyperspace into realspace. The data appeared on Sarah's screens as she worked, and Aurora prepared to follow.
Danner had taken the precaution of topping off fuel, both hydrogen and Helium-3, before leaving the Harmon system, including the carbon-nanotube reserve fuel bladder in Small Craft Bay 2; and another such bladder in one of the main cargo holds, fabbed during transit from Georgia. Using the Helium-3 power plants increased Aurora's range in the first level of hyperspace by more than half; she wouldn't need to refuel until after the next Transit. Seeing on his own displays that all preparations were made, he gave the word:
19 Secondmonth 570JR
22 October 2365CE
Republic Astronomical Survey 2175
The Newton class were equipped with Sixth Generation Marsten Drives. It was rare to find one that wouldn't drive even the largest ship at a hundred times lightspeed relative to realspace. Samuel Pepys was last known to have a speed of c129, and this much apparently had not been changed. Aurora's speed was reduced to match, lest she overrun the other ship and lose track of it.
The evident destination was another red dwarf, near in sequence to the same Republic Astronomical Survey. The same Explorer, E36 JRS William Clark, had mapped RAS2175 with the same minimal detail as 2172: six planets, none in the habitable zone; no particular asteroid belt, Trojan fields leading and trailing a gas giant in the fourth orbit, evidence of a usual cometary cloud.
As they had done at RAS1441, the first time they had tracked a ship through hyperspace, they watched for the other ship's Transition, then Transitioned some distance away, to approach more cautiously. Danner observed: "Tracking through hyperspace is rare and difficult. Hopefully who or whatever that is, isn't expecting it. Also hopefully, they'll be out of fuel and unable to Transition again soon."
The sun-hot flame of the other ship's fusion torch was soon located, braking on approach to the Trojan asteroids, the trailing group this time. At a distance of two light-hours the timing would be tricky; waiting for the light of the other ship's torch to go out would give them two hours' head start on refueling to escape again, and Aurora needed fuel of her own now. Plotting the target's deceleration curve, Danner made a guess, and ordered a Short Transit to within a few light-seconds of its supposed destination.
It wasn't there.
"It must be hiding," Prrg supposed, "behind a body from our perspective."
"I hope that's just coincidence," Danner answered, "and not because it- he- they, whatever, knows we're following. Let's find some ice, deploy the boats, and start fueling. As discreetly as possible, in case whatever that is is watching. Full sensor watch. Aurora, deploy repeaters for more angles." They were not husband and wife now, but Captain and Third Officer.
Since her last big refit, the installation of the Blain Drive and the replacement of her hydrogen-fusion torches with the new ones using Helium-3, Aurora had, with her Family's help, improved her methods for gathering both kinds of fuel. Her shuttles were sent to nearby asteroids showing promising spectra. Very small amounts of Helium-3 were found on their surfaces, slightly larger amounts in shadowed craters. Water-ice was extracted and electrolyzed for hydrogen, some of which would be tritium, which could decay into Helium-3, which decay could be accelerated with the proper particle bombardment and magnetic fields. The shuttles' tanks filled with these gasses and they returned to Aurora to empty themselves. It was not enough to fully refill Aurora's own tanks, but it would get them to the next system if necessary. Hydrogen was easier to gather and use as fuel than Helium-3, and in the worst case her torches and Drive could still run on hydrogen.
Aurora nosed up against a rock of her own, to shorten the trips the shuttles and robots were making, to gather as much fuel as possible before she had to move again. Repeater satellites, improved over the designs she had used over Chikar and Alpine, kept watch from a half-dozen other locations. They could be abandoned and replacements fabbed during the next Transit if necessary. The other ship - which could only be JRS Samuel Pepys but whose status or commander was still unknown - might reappear at any moment.
As Aurora continued her own refueling through her robot extensions and remote control of the shuttles, her Captain held another crew meeting. "I can see this devolving into a stern chase," he said, "hopping from one system to another, scrambling to refuel then rushing to pursue, over and again." He looked into Aurora's gynoid eyes. "Ninety-seven Citizens and Subjects of the Jeffersonian Republic are missing, and someone or something on that ship knows why. I intend to use whatever means are necessary to obtain that information." She nodded, with a hesitation so brief no organic life could have seen it. She wanted to meet what may be the only other being of her species... but she had sworn the same oath as her Captain, and keeping her word was one of the things that made her a Person. Turning to his Gunner, Solomon continued: "Holly, if you get a chance, disable, but don't destroy." Cates nodded her understanding.
Fourteen hours after Aurora's arrival, Pepys reappeared, boosting hard for the hyper limit - which was pretty close this time, as this group of asteroids had no large central planetoid, and therefore a shallower collective gravity well. "Recall shuttles," Danner ordered. "Prepare to pursue!"
At her Captain's gesture, Aurora attempted to hail the vessel again. "Samuel Pepys, this is Aurora. Please stop. Please, talk to me." Listening on all frequencies, she sent files of her own history, her awakening as a sentient being, her legal recognition as a Person. Again the only response was a Marsten Detector in targeting mode.
While trying to reach the other ship, she also brought her shuttles back to her small craft bays. Five Boat was in position to scoop up two of her repeater satellites on the way. A third was near enough to use its own propulsion to return to Aurora. The other three would have to be left behind.
Prrg was taking his turn in AuxCon, so Holly Cates was on the bridge. "Marsten Field buildin' again," she noted. "Out o' range o' lasers 'n' missiles." She was talking to herself as much as her Family. "Tens are too much." Captain Danner's orders were to not destroy the ship. Aurora's battle-prize Russian Class Ten Marsten Guns were overkill. "Tryin' the Six. Aurora, Ah'm ready t' go active on th' Detector."
Lieutenant Aurora held up her hand to the Sergeant Major and tried one last time: "Samuel, we need to know what happened to your crew. Please, you must tell me what has become of them." Still the other ship said nothing.
Aurora dropped her hand. "Goin' active," Holly called, as Aurora's own Detector illuminated the target for a firing solution. "Lock- firin'!"
The ship Transitioned a fraction of a second before the Marsten Gun's beam of faster-than-light particles arrived.
4 Thirdmonth 570JE
9 November 2365CE
Republic Astronomical Catalog 2179 had not been visited or surveyed by any official expedition, only studied from a distance as JRS William Clark passed through its stellar neighborhood. Yet another M-class red dwarf, this one was further from any star likely to have planets hospitable to Common Life, and was 6.2 light-years from RAS2175.
It had taken four hundred thirty hours to get here, at the same speed as Pepys, draining Aurora's Helium-3 fuel past the point where the Blain Drive could be used to reach another system. This fuel had been used for the Marstenspace Transit, due to its higher efficiency, and that there was enough hydrogen aboard to make one more Transit of up to seven light-years in the first level of hyperspace.
"No more talk," Danner said to his Family, not least his wife. "Evidence of kidnapping, suspicion of murder." Most of Samuel Pepys' crew had been declared legally dead in absentia, over the previous fifteen Terran years. Only a handful of their relatives still hoped. "If it even is a Person we've been chasing across three systems. Holly, you slice the whole drive section off if you need to." One shot from a Class Six Marsten Gun would do that, on the lightly-built Newton class. If a Marsten Field were active, the beam of particles would drop out of hyperspace to "mere" lightspeed, but still retain enough energy to cut through Samuel Pepys's thin civilian hull. Without the Field to protect the ship, the damage would be far greater, and Marsten Radiation would kill any higher organic life aboard - if there were any - and risk the same to an artificial intelligence. If they couldn't reach the ship at a range close enough for missiles, kinetic weapons, or lasers, Holly would have to make her shot with careful timing, waiting for Pepys to build a Field, then shooting before he could Transition.
Again Pepys was concealed behind an asteroid, again both ships rushed to refuel as much as possible. Again Aurora's repeater satellites had been launched, this time from her mass-driver missile tubes in the forward bulb, to reach wider dispersal and viewing angles without leaving exhaust plumes for Pepys to see. This also meant they couldn't be braked and would continue coasting until the situation was resolved.
Aurora had snugged up to an asteroid again, and kept her shuttles close this time. There would be no pursuit past this system. Danner would not risk stranding his Family in deep space with not enough fuel to even reach more fuel. Nearly every star had a system of material which could be used for that purpose, but the odds were stacking up and Danner was getting nervous.
Twenty hours after Aurora's arrival, again Pepys appeared, boosting at its new maximum, running for the Limit. This time, Aurora was ready. Shoving off from the asteroid, temporarily abandoning her own remotely-controlled shuttles and worker robots, she lit her own torches, quickly reaching an acceleration of 70 meters per second squared, dragging her organic crew down in their couches. Grbblb had developed a tolerance, but his wife Trllbl stayed in their quarters in a water chamber.
In minutes Aurora had cleared the asteroid group's shallow gravity well and, more finely tuned than any other ship, made a Short Transit to a point in space near Pepys's path, matching course and acceleration.
The Transition EMP had no obvious effect on the other ship; its Marsten Field had already risen in preparation for its own Transition. Holly Cates was ready, and in a good firing position. Sarah had put them less than sixty kilometers away, broadside to broadside, bringing all of Aurora's weapons to bear and offering a clean shot at the aft end of the central hull's "axle" around which the grav-wheels once spun.
Holly didn't need the Marsten Guns at this distance. With Aurora's help, she locked onto Samuel Pepys' stern and loosed a single pulse from a 19MW laser.
The shot struck true, burning through Pepys' thin plating in an instant, liquifying equipment and machinery within. That included the power connections between the ship's main fusion reactor, aft of center, and the Marsten Drive amidships. There was a small auxiliary plant in the forward section of the slim central hull, but it was barely enough for life support and realspace maneuvering. It could not power a Transition, much less a Transit of any distance. Meanwhile, the main reactor went into shutdown, taking Pepys' torch with it. The Marsten Field also collapsed and dissipated. The ship was now trapped in realspace and the chase was over.
The fight wasn't. Pepys' drive section hadn't been severed and the aft 5MW pulse laser was still attached. The power to it failed as the main reactor shut down, but batteries allowed a few shots, while the auxiliary plant powered the forward laser. Both weapons loosed shafts of coherent light at Aurora.
Aurora's Marsten Field had no effect on visible light, but the five-megawatt pulses could not breach her armor. Pepys targeted her bridge and her torches; both were too well protected, the shutters over the bridge viewports closed, the skirt over her realspace engines too thick to penetrate. Holly responded in kind, dialing down the power of Aurora's secondary lasers to knock out Pepys' weapons without wrecking the rest of the ship.
With the other ship now ballistic, Danner hailed it again. "Samuel Pepys, this is Solomon Danner, commanding Jeffersonian Republic Reserve Privateer Aurora." With a jab at his controls, he had activated that status before the Short Transit. "You or your crew are charged with evidence of kidnapping and suspicion of murder. You are ordered to surrender and prepare to be boarded."
Still there was no answer.
Continued in the next excerpt....