Excerpts from the Jeffersonian Republic project:
This page Copyright © 2019, Karl Leffler
Aurora, Part CII: Attrition
Continued from the previous excerpt
RAC2509 was a K-class "orange dwarf" similar to Alpha Centauri B, cooler and dimmer than Sol, but warm and bright enough to host Common Life. The second of ten planets was of Terran pattern, but colder. Two moons caused tides which created pools from which life eventually crawled. Its biosphere was composed of forms comparable to those in Terra's distant past, analogues to dinosaurs and varieties of predators and prey, most of which stayed in the tropical latitudes, avoiding the colder regions to the north and south.
RAC2509-II was a Common Life world, with a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere of a pressure and temperature sufficient for liquid water to stand on the surface. There was much debate about why so many planets had developed such environments, why so many life forms in the known galaxy could live in the same environmental range, why they could eat many of the same things, including, in extremis, each other. There were Progenitor cults, inventing ancient gods to worship, who in ages past had strewn the seeds of life across the stars. Christians, in turn, pointed to John 14:2 as proof of their God's great design.
Onto this raw and primitive world had fallen four shuttles from JRS Samuel Pepys. The ship had six shuttle bays, and had carried six shuttles, but they had not been one to each bay: there had been three Type 300 freight shuttles, one of which had been aboard Heinlein for repair and another wrecked in the meteor strikes at RAC2464. One bay was usually kept empty for cargo, or to accept shuttles from other ships. One held a pair of Type 323 small shuttles, while the last held a Lancer aircar belonging to one of the professors aboard.
Arthur Fields, at the point of robot-held guns, drove the thirty-one surviving passengers into these craft and ejected them above RAC2509-II, no longer caring what became of them. Twelve, including the three children, had taken the Type 300. Eight had taken each of the small shuttles, and the last three the Lancer.
One of the 323s had undetected damage to its heat shield. The heat of entry burned through and the shuttle scattered into flaming pieces. Perhaps the passengers had time to scream. Professor Maribeth Hollings thought she was a good pilot. She wasn't good enough to land her aircar from orbit, without ground guidance, through a squall.
The twenty remaining landed the last two shuttles near each other, in a clearing with a river running through it. Few supplies had been stored in the shuttles; again, the philosophy had been to operate near the support and comfort of an Explorer. The standard emergency rations were soon depleted. Donna Mailer, the child injured in the meteor strike at RAC2464, lost her left arm above the elbow, and consumed most of the medical supplies during recovery.
Some of these survivors met the stereotype of pampered academics, ivory-tower elitists with few skills and little experience in surviving the real world. Others, however, had earned their Jeffersonian Citizenship through military service. True, most of those had done so in the "softer" Space Patrol or Navy Reserve, specializing in technical or administrative fields, but Professor of Archaeology Hu'Kah had been a Marine. He had never fired a shot in anger against a sentient being, but had defended himself from predators on the wild Frontier during his time in the Exploration and Colonization Service. Almost ninety Republic years old, he had spent many of them in alien wilderness. He knew how to live rough, with little or no technology as college students understood it.
Besides, he had family on Eyan whose Tribe still slept in mud huts and hunted with flint-tipped spears. Inspired by the light of space stations and starships orbiting above him, he had clawed his way out of that forest with decades of hard work, assimilating to Jeffersonian culture, learning the American language and eliminating his accent, earning his place in the Republic's society - and, for a while, the rank of Captain in the Regular Marines, once commanding one of the few standing companies of infantry in the First Legion. Hu'Kah took charge of the survivors, organizing them and their few resources, teaching them how to live without 'puters and 'freshers and fabbers.
There had been no response to their last desperate radio calls to Samuel Pepys. Not that they wanted to return to the nightmare ship and its madman, but they had begged him to at least tell others where they were. Fields hadn't. That much became obvious as days dragged to months. After Pepys disappeared again, no artificial signals of any kind were heard, and neither shuttle had a Marsten Device. Not even sure what system they were in, they knew they were at least a dozen light-years from any chance of rescue... which had no idea where to look.
The two surviving shuttles had landed intact and remained operational, though fueling was time-consuming; there was an emergency electrolytic rig aboard the Type 300, but its capacity was small, its rate of production of usable hydrogen for fusion fuel slow. Fuel was transferred from the 300 to the more efficient 323, and reconnaissance flights were made, including one to orbit, to at least partly map their new world. They had landed at forty degrees south latitude, at the edge of the temperate zone. A more promising location was found further north, warmer, with more water and sources of food. It took four of the local twenty-six-hour days to fuel both shuttles enough for the trip. They couldn't tell if Fields had ordered the computer to dump all but the minimum amount of fuel, or if the shuttles had simply been neglected after their last use.
Hu'Kah directed the building of shelters, the setting of traps for fish-analogues, snares for the things which filled the niches of rabbits and squirrels - as his father had taught him. Plant life was gathered and tested and some was found to be edible. This much, at least, was within the capabilities of some of the survivors; it was in fact their job, to examine a virgin planet and determine its suitability for colonization.
Those who spent their careers gazing at computer screens which displayed visual- or radio-telescope data proved less useful. Ivan Roskov, who specialized in studying the compositions of comets, walked into the trees to relieve himself and was stung by what the castaways named a scorpion-bat. Its toxin paralyzed him, its ultrasonic call brought the rest of its flock to drain him of blood. When he was found the following day the equivalents of hyenas and vultures had had their turns, and the food chain was down to the insectoids. Ra'Mat, a linguist who had been part of the Heinlein group in case of First Contact, decided to climb a tree like she used to do as a cub on New Texas. A limb gave way and she broke her neck. Her loss struck Hu'Kah particularly hard; they had been growing close.
He turned hard in response, limiting the activities of the eighteen who remained. No unnecessary risks or excursions. No one to go anywhere alone, or unarmed. Personal weapons had of course been confiscated by Fields, through his robots, during the second Transit; they had been jettisoned with corpses. Unknown to Fields and unreachable by the passengers until too late, the Type 300 carried one old MkLVIII plasma rifle and a single OcuCorp Model E pulse-laser pistol. Both were older than Hu'Kah. These could be recharged from the shuttle indefinitely, but neither shuttle carried a fabber; they couldn't be duplicated, nor could new power cells be made. Only one was included with each, seventeen shots for the pistol, thirty-six for the rifle. There were also two midswords, civilian derivatives of the ancient M12.
Hu'Kah remembered how to knap flint. Spears were made, and axes, and as the months passed, bows and arrows. The castaways learned which animals to hunt for meat, how to make clothing and shelter and gear from their hides, how to make fire, to cook meals, to make tools from wood and stone and bone and sinew.
Donna Mailer's little brother George caught an infection from something, and most of the antibiotics had gone to save his sister the year before. He died painfully. Donna, overcome with grief and misplaced guilt, ran sobbing into the forest. Her parents followed. None was seen again.
Something like an alligator erupted from a stream and Ty'Jum, the Eyani cub, disappeared in its jaws. Her father Ty'Ram dove into the water with a dagger made of the sharpened bone of a thing like an antelope. The animals of RAC2509-II used blood not unlike Human and Eyani. The water turned two shades of red and Ty'Jum's mother Ur'Hab had lost both her child and her mate.
Despite the death and horror, there was wonder and beauty in this untamed world. A cave system was discovered, with fantastic crystal formations. A fruit was found which could easily become an export item; experiments with fermentation were conducted. A magnificent cascade descended to a sparkling pool a day's hike from their camp. Migrations of avian life darkened the sky; when they landed in their breeding grounds, their mating calls were a haunting symphony.
There were more practical discoveries too. The Type 300 shuttle carried surveying gear, analysis tools, forgotten by whoever had used it last; this world had gold, silver, probably platinum. Iron and copper were abundant; the latter was soon being smelted, the former attempted. There was oil, coal, natural gas; usable lumber, analogues to wheat and rice and barley and corn and beans and gourds. Pre-industrial ovens were made, and so was bread. This would be a rich and prosperous world, someday.
There was enough storage capacity in the shuttles' computers to record everything they learned about their world, which they named Limbo. Journals both personal and scientific were kept, and the act of doing so reminded them they were civilized, kept them above the level of animal survival. Novels and plays were begun, abandoned, resumed. Houses, or at least huts, were built; there were no new faces, and time apart from the old was needed. The 300 became their City Hall, the 323 its annex.
Years passed. The shuttles hadn't flown in several of them, and wouldn't without much work, but their systems still functioned. Every once in a while water would be poured in, electric power from the fusion packs or solar panels was applied, hydrogen was produced, and the reaction continued. Hot, clean water was also made, so people could shower and bathe and wash clothes; this improved morale and helped fight disease. The castaways still clung to the faintest hope of rescue. They constantly broadcast a beacon and distress call, crosschecking with receivers in the two shuttles to be sure it was going out.
For twenty-nine local years this continued, though more people were lost: to sickness, storm, wildfire, predators, stampede, poison. Finally only six were left: Hu'Kah and Ur'Hab, who had found some solace in each other; Krrd, the sole Nikar of the party, young and fit and adapting to this difficult life more easily than to the stellar physics he had been studying; and three Humans. Eldest, and effectively second in command after Hu'Kah, was Yvonne Johnson, biologist, born and raised on Crunch, the meteor-battered mining world in the Lone Star system, seventy Terran years before the disaster, and the closest thing they had to a doctor. Harold Trace was a Monticellan-born botanist, whose skills had helped them all avoid starvation, whose farm now gave them a safety margin if hunting was poor while also warding off scurvy and the like. The last was one of Hu'Kah's archaeology students, a young man from Albion by the name of James Lascomb.
23 Thirdmonth 570JR
4 December 2365CE
Aurora emerged from hyperspace four light-seconds from the surface of RAC2509-II - having previously Transitioned a light-minute above the ecliptic and scanned the planet and its surroundings with the Marsten Detector. Aurora could survive an accident like the one which had finally ended Samuel Pepys' flight, but it was best to not suffer one at all.
Boosting at a standard ten meters, it took some hours to reach the planet. Aurora's electronic ears had by that time heard the looped recording. It had been updated over the years, as their numbers dwindled. The message now said:
"My name is Hu'Kah, formerly Captain of the Jeffersonian Republic Marine Corps, and Professor of Archaeology on the Heinlein Expedition of 542JR. In 545 we were betrayed and marooned by Arthur Fields, who went insane and hijacked the research ship JRS Samuel Pepys. All the crew and half the passengers were murdered by him. This world, which we have named Limbo, has killed most of the rest.
"As of 570JR there are six survivors: myself, Ur'Hab, Yvonne Johnson, Krrd, Harold Trace, and James Lascomb. Our population is of course unsustainable, but we can survive here. We have learned much about this world and have recorded it all in the computers of the shuttles which are broadcasting this signal. This message will be updated on what the shuttle tells us is Independence Day on each year of the Monticellan calendar... or when we lose someone. If there has been no update for more than a year, something has finally killed us all.
"We hope you find us, or remember us, someday, and that Arthur Fields, if he survives, is brought to justice. This message will now repeat."
Excitement grew as they approached. Soon they were in synchronous orbit above the transmission's source. Solomon opened a channel and said: "Survivors of JRS Samuel Pepys, this is Solomon Danner, commanding Jeffersonian Reserve Privateer Aurora. You have been found."
Continued in the next excerpt....