Excerpts from the Jeffersonian Republic project:
This page Copyright © 2019, Karl Leffler
Aurora, Part CIII: Closure
Continued from the previous excerpt
James Lascomb had some skill with computers, and served as the official chronicler of the castaway community. He had set the shuttles' computers to sound a collision alarm if any external signal was received while no one was on watch. All six had been tending their farm when the hooting echoed across the field. Lascomb and Krrd, the youngest and fittest, raced for the Type 300 shuttle which was broadcasting their distress call. The others followed more carefully; they had learned to not risk injury without need.
"Computer," Lascomb gasped; he had won the race by a few meters - "alarm off! Replay received transmission!" Solomon Danner's face appeared in the shuttle's screen, his voice came from the speakers.
Krrd liked living this way, he was good at it, but there was more he wanted out of life - like a mate and children. The Nikar fell to his scaly knees and thanked Tyggl of the Two Tails for his deliverance.
James Lascomb stood dumbfounded. His sister's boyfriend, of all people.
As the others arrived, Lascomb found his tongue and replied: "Sol? It's really you? I'm not dreaming?"
"Jim," Danner said, with a smile. "Give yourself a good slap in the face. You're wide awake."
"How...? I don't care how, you found us, you found us, it's over!" Tears rolled down Lascomb's face to spatter on the shuttle's deck.
In the video pickup, Danner could see the other survivors appearing, crowding the shuttle's cockpit. "Your sister never stopped looking for you," he told them. "I'll explain everything soon. We're in synchronous orbit above your signal. It'll be a little while to pinpoint your location and find a good landing site-" Danner broke off and looked out of frame. "I think we have you on telescopes now, looks like a heavy shuttle and a light one, and some farmland. I'm guessing yours are the only cultivated fields on this planet?"
"Yes- yes, that's us! We've never found other people here, just animals. The farm-" Lascomb broke off too. "When you get here," he said between sobs. "We'll all tell everything."
Aurora descended to low orbit, deployed repeater satellites to maintain a link with her mind in the ship's computer, and launched Two and Four Boats, a Type 347 medium and Type 318 heavy shuttle. The latter carried Ralph Vatelius and his wife Delilah Howell, and medical equipment they'd learned how to load in a hurry - though they'd already done it more deliberately during Transit.
All of Aurora's Family, including her gynoid, came down to meet the survivors. Aurora's feelings were mixed, now; she was still the only being of her kind in the universe, but she felt relief that her species had not been guilty of the crimes committed against innocent people.
Solomon was first out of the 347, and extended his hand to James Lascomb. When last they'd met James had been a boy of 26 Monticellan years - sixteen Terran. He was a man of more than twice that age now.
Marine Captain Hu'Kah had saluted Danner; over the years the survivors had learned everything about each other, and the last time James Lascomb had seen Solomon, Danner had been a Lieutenant Commander. Danner returned the salute crisply, then followed with a handshake. Hu'Kah's leadership role here was quickly obvious. "I'm inclined to recommend you for the Legion of Honor," Solomon told him. Hu'Kah demurred but his companions instantly acclaimed the suggestion. Aurora started the process. It wouldn't be too big a stretch to draw a comparison with James Stockdale from the Vietnam War; the ordeals were very different in kind, but like in degree. Like Old Britain's George Cross, the Jeffersonian Legion of Honor existed to recognize valor outside official service, or not in the face of an enemy.
Charles Clancy, with Aurora's robots, had brought food... but carefully. There was a risk of shock to the survivors' systems, eating rich, processed food and plenty of it, after so many years of scraping. Lessons in recovery of the malnourished had been learned from the Terran Empire's death camps, and the National Socialists before them; the lessons had been applied to the victims of Brown's Flotilla over Adda. Tables were set up. The survivors weren't stupid; they filled their plates with caution.
With Aurora's Family and Pepys' gathered together, the blanks began to be filled in. The Auroras found it refreshing to meet people who didn't treat them like celebrities; these six had been cut off from the universe long before Aurora became famous.
Danner started: "Your ship was running on automatic, following its last orders from Arthur Fields." The survivors flinched at the name and Danner said, "We found his corpse aboard. He died about two Republic years after leaving you here. Brain damage from a neural-induction computer interface."
While they processed that, he continued: "The ship was sighted in RAS2172, by a prospecting ship from the Harmon system. It had damaged itself with an inaccurate Transition and was repairing and refueling. A report of the sighting was filed, and made its way to your sister, James. Then she called me. Hired me, actually." With Aurora's help, and Sarah's and Grbblb's, the trail of reports and messages and contracts would be altered to hide Beth's use of the Office of Naval Intelligence's resources for her search. "We caught up with the ship, disabled it, accessed its logs, and found you here."
"Hired you? You're not... together?" The last knowledge James had of his sister's relationship was that she cared very much for Solomon, and that he returned the affection.
"I care for Beth," Solomon answered. "I always will. But our duties in the Patrol kept us apart, and we fell in and out of touch." Aurora took a seat next to her husband. Introductions had been made, but Solomon clarified, as he put his arm around her: "Aurora is the first recognized Artificial Person. She is the self-aware central computer of my ship, Aurora. And she's not 'mine' in that sense anymore.
"You know I left the Patrol and became a merchant spacer. In 543, two years before you disappeared, I had a...." He remembered ore barge C484, and the kind of damage done to people's bodies by even the smallest specks of dust at orbital velocities. "Not a good day, but a profitable one, at work. With the proceeds I bought Aurora from Mothballs, refit her, and operated for years as an Independent and Reserve Privateer.
"We made a Very Close Transit in response to a pirate attack over Dakota. Something in the Transition caused Aurora to awaken. She claimed sentience and Personhood the following year, during another pirate attack, on Mark's World. I gave her manumission, for her ship form, just after that." He turned to meet her violet eyes. "I am honored that she has chosen to stay with me."
Aurora added, "I created this gynoid for myself, to be closer to my Captain and our Family. Recently Solomon and I claimed each other as husband and wife." Jeffersonian government stayed out of marriage, except to enforce contracts when necessary. If people said they were married, then so they were. There were no government licenses to purchase, no bureaucratic permission to beg, and church involvement was no one else's business. Solomon was somewhat agnostic, perhaps leaning slightly toward Asatru, but he didn't need a priestess of Freyja to tell him who he loved and belonged with.
Solomon continued, "We haven't alerted anyone about you yet. There are... other circumstances. We'll take you home, or wherever you want to go, but the timing might be a little inconvenient." At their quizzical looks he went on, "A while back we developed a new hyperdrive. Aurora can travel at over five hundred c." Aurora's gynoid did not hide her smile at the survivors' expressions. "The drive is still secret, and... we used it a couple times, chasing down Pepys and finding you. The Navy has it, but we invented it, and the deal we cut was to keep it without making its existence obvious. To keep the secret, we'll have to juggle our Transit times, and some records, to maintain the illusion of our 'normal' speed, which is 171.4." They weren't much less astounded by that number.
"There are other complications," Aurora now said. "According to the records forwarded to us by Beth Lascomb, you, James, are the only one still alive who has not been declared dead in absentia." Beth and their parents could never bring themselves to do it. "There are of course processes to reverse this." Aurora turned her beautiful face to look at her husband.
Solomon nodded and said, "We, as a Shipfolk Family, are rather well off, and we have a decent lawyer without much to do. I think Hrecl would like this kind of case, for a change. I offer my Family and business' assistance." Solomon turned to Daisuke.
The ship's Purser added, "Limbo has never been officially surveyed, only cataloged. No state has claimed it. I would suggest you form a corporation and formally claim this world. Our attorney Hrecl can set it up by h-mail. Captain Danner can make formal recognition as a Reserve Privateer, so long as you intend to remain within the Republic, as a Territory. You would be, as the idiom goes, 'set for life.' To say nothing of story rights, books and entertainment, consultations - you have all obviously learned a great deal about survival. That knowledge has value. You could all have lucrative careers teaching it, if you felt like working again at all."
That was a lot for the survivors to digest. While they did so, Aurora's fabbers and robots, with the permission and direction of the castaways, began making improvements - real shelters, power cables and sub-plants they never had a fabber to build. Indoor plumbing. Farming robots. More and better electrolysis generators to use solar power to turn water into hydrogen fuel.
A Marsten Device in synchronous orbit.
"James," Danner said, "I advise waiting a few more hundred hours before messaging your sister." There would be no hiding her reaction, after so many years of searching. "She works for ONI now, and she might know about our new drive-" Danner did not name it the Blain Drive in the survivors' hearing, or drop any clue about how it worked- "but there's no sense making trouble for her." He was also being careful to not mention her use of government resources in her search. "I know it's cruel, but the mistake was mine, in using the drive."
"I understand, Captain," Hu'Kah said. The former Marine Captain grasped the necessity of military secrets. "My own family will have to wait as well." The rest nodded agreement.
Just in case, Solomon had Aurora lock out the orbiting Device until a time that would be plausible for them to reach Limbo in the first level of hyperspace. That would be more than a hundred hours extra from Harmon to RAS2172; the stern chase across the next two systems had been conducted in Marstenspace, and slowed to match Pepys' speed, so that part wasn't a problem, but the Blainspace trip from RAC2179 to Limbo was. Altogether, for appearances, another eleven hundred hours would have to be added to Aurora's official logs - thirty-six Monticellan days, forty-six Terran, forty-two local.
30 Fourthmonth 370JR
19 January 2366CE
The time was spent well, with Aurora's shuttles and satellites more thoroughly mapping Limbo, her robots building more facilities. Jenny, Jack, Grbblb, Hlossh and Trllbl had both the Pepys shuttles flying again in the first week.
Preparations were made to restore the survivors to legal life, to secure their claim on their world, to renew their status as Citizens of the Republic. Like homesteaders in the American West of the 19th Century CE, the work they had done examining and learning to settle this planet would be counted as active maintenance of Citizenship in addition to their proof of ownership - or so Hrecl would argue, if necessary.
At last the time came for Aurora to "arrive" at Limbo and discover the survivors. James went first:
"Beth... Mom, Dad... I'm still alive.
"Only five others are.
"All the details will come out later. Beth, it was you who never gave up. It's you who saved us.
"Beth, you know it was Solomon who found us. He's filled us in on a lot we missed, marooned here. He's told me how you and some of the other families believed the Samuel Pepys' computer had awakened and gone rogue.
"That's not what happened. It was Arthur Fields who attempted to... merge himself with the computer. He was the one who went insane and murdered most of us. Sol told me they found him on the Pepys, dead.
"I've met Aurora. She's remarkable, brilliant... human. I understand how you can have... certain feelings... toward artificial intelligence, but I assure you they're misplaced. Pepys' computer never awoke, didn't do anything but follow Fields' instructions. Aurora's still the only one of her kind.
"Beth, we're claiming this world. Limbo will be a Territory of the Republic, Sol's lawyer will be helping us. I'm one of the founders now. And Beth...." He continued, surprised at himself: "I'm staying. At least for a while. This is my home now. I'll travel from here eventually, even come visit you and our parents, but someone has to stay here to enforce our claim. There are only six residents on the whole planet and two of us will be leaving. Sol is leaving a Marsten Device for us, we can stay in touch. I do want to see you and Mom and Dad again, and I will. Just... not yet. There's still work to do here.
"Or, you could come visit us. If you haven't changed - and Sol tells me you haven't - you probably have years' worth of leave built up. Grab Mom and Dad and bring them along too. This world is fascinating, beautiful - fresh and new. Eventually we'll be open for colonists. If you ever have enough of the Navy, you could be one of them.
"I love you, big sis. Soon we'll be together again."
Krrd was also counted as a founder of the Territory of Limbo, and a partner in the colony's corporation, but for all that he liked a less-civilized lifestyle, he would be going home to Alexandria for a time. He had left behind a lovely girl, with such bright golden stripes in her scales... and if she had found someone else by this time, she had three younger sisters. He would return to Limbo, with one of them.
Harold Trace would be going back to the academic world of Alexandria too. His shares of the Limbo Corporation would, as Daisuke had said, set him up for life; but he missed teaching. He would never quite retire, and would eventually go on another Explorer expedition, far less eventful than his previous one. He would stay in touch with his fellow castaways, but would never set foot on Limbo again.
Yvonne Johnson would remain on Limbo for the rest of her life. Many members of her family on Crunch would come to join her, in the planet's first wave of colonists. She and they would spend generations exploring the world, learning its millions of secrets and sharing that hard-won knowledge with the universe.
Hu'Kah and Ur'Hab would remain at Limbo for a time also, though they would travel later, always returning to this world, where the other side of horror had brought them together. Doctor Vatelius had reversed the fertility-suppression which was standard for Explorer crews, and soon they were expecting a new cub.
Aurora had left a dozen robots and three fabbers behind. The four people who stayed would not need to scratch in their own fields anymore. She also copied her libraries, fabbing a new computer to hold them, like the teaching kiosks she had left at Ude. Eventually the material cost of these things would be reimbursed from Limbo's corporation to Aurora's. In either direction the cost would be trivial, between a wealthy Shipfolk Family and the effective owners of an entire world, but everyone would feel better for having it all recorded.
Once news of the discovery broke, there was a media frenzy. Anticipating it, remembering the journalistic excesses the Republic's Founders had Escaped, they had chosen to not openly reveal Limbo's location until they had more of a defense mechanism in place. Since they were filing for Territorial status, that would earn them a Space Patrol presence. One destroyer was on the way.
Another chapter of their Family's story was coming to a close, another adventure completed. Aurora turned her face once again to the Central Worlds of Known Space.
Continued in the next excerpt....