Excerpts from the Jeffersonian Republic project:
Aurora, Part CXII: Entanglements

This page Copyright 2019, Karl Leffler

Continued from the previous excerpt
3 Fifthmonth 572JR
25 April 2367CE
Oskran

The aftermath of the Lanos invasion of Nuce played out over the next few days. Ganhol did not partake of the spoils; they too dropped out of their axis, dissolving it, and descended to civil war. Reconnaissance showed "faithful" and "heretics" slaughtering each other in every way. Meanwhile, Lanos began devouring Nuce, all too literally. Lii news programs censored themselves, not showing the most graphic horrors, but a few survivors and fugitives still in Nuce had Net access, and sent videos by satellite.
Ganhol, Nuce and Lanos occupied the northern continent, arranged west to east; a vast stretch of wilderness, not reclaimed since the Fire, covered the land bridge which connected to Lii on the largest southern continent. It was across this wilderness the swarms of "refugees" had come, and into it the Great Moat had been carved. Yabag, still tangled in their own civil war, was a subcontinent island nation to the east, while the other three recognized states occupied another continent to the west. Two other continents had been effectively depopulated by the Fire, and no recognizable civilization existed on them, even after more than two thousand Terran years.
The Space Patrol had increased its Oskran detachment. While Shrakor-class frigates continued emerging from the shipyards orbiting Lii, and a couple light cruisers would be available in a few thousand hours, the Republic had previously sent a heavy cruiser, a light one, a light carrier, and three destroyers. The light cruiser, Vincennes, had done much of the work of digging the Great Moat by orbital bombardment. Some of this had necessarily required firing into masses of "refugees" consisting mostly of males of fighting age. That ship and crew had been rotated out, but another heavy cruiser, Salem, had been sent, along with four more destroyers. Several tankers and freighters who were also Reserve Privateers had accumulated in the Oskran system, finding steady work under federal contract, to supply the Patrol's presence while tensions in the region remained high.
Still, all this added up to little more than a speed bump, in the face of the armada reported at Kmar, the Flike homeworld. More ships were on the way - the fleet carrier Constellation out of mothballs and being refit during Transit, her fabbers never resting; dreadnoughts Yamato and New Texas, and another dozen destroyers - but they were as many thousands of hours away as Lii's own new light cruisers were from completion. Danner had been informed that the Blain Drive was being fitted to all combatant ships of the Space Patrol, but its existence had to be kept secret, meaning its use had to be avoided.
Spies, meaning Flike traitors, sent reports from Kmar infrequently. Sources fell silent; new ones were recruited to replace them. The same was happening on the worlds of the Glautak Consolidation, not least Rllbtl, whose people had a taste of what the wider galaxy had to offer, in contrast to the oppression they suffered at home. Escape Island had been closed years ago, but handfuls of Glaut still smuggled themselves offworld in cargo containers, through independent merchants who ignored the Republic's trade embargo... or who were actually hired by the Republic for the purpose, sometimes without knowing. Their reports said the Alliance naval buildup was continuing, as were training exercises. Estimates were, in about a short Monticellan year, the combined fleet would be ready. For exactly what wasn't clear, but ONI was making educated guesses, and moving resources accordingly.
While the Republic continued its own buildup at Oskran, Aurora continued her secret reconnaissance mission deeper into space.

14 Fifthmonth 572JR
8 May 2367CE
Sidonia

Rllbtl was on the far end of the Consolidation's seven stars, relative to Oskran. The nearest Glaut world to what was now Republic space was named Brrbbr, less than six Terran light-years away. Aurora wouldn't be going there; she was too high-profile to violate the embargo. Instead she headed now for Flike space. Kmar was nineteen such light-years from Oskran. Between was an independent world, Sidonia, mostly Human; and the first Flike colony, Dgad.
Aurora had loaded trade goods at Oskran; crel fruit and the wine and brandy made from it, raw materials, fabbers, serving robots. Sidonia was a newer colony and didn't have much infrastructure yet. Fabbers suppressed trade in manufactured goods, eventually, but luxury items like real furs and authentic wood couldn't be printed on anyone's desktop.
Sidonia was presently the most distant Human colony from Terra. Calling itself a republic, it only looked like one on the surface, functioning more as an oligarchy under the control of the Founding Families from the first colony ship. Still, there wasn't much oppression here; and the nearness of the Flike colony inspired the Sidonian government to seek friendlier relations with Jeffersonians, the backpressure from which steered them toward reforms.
Aurora delivered a handful of passengers to this world too - but not new colonists. More wanted to leave, hearing rumors of the Flike/Glaut buildup. Unfortunately for them Aurora was going the other direction. Purser Taniyama and Cargomaster Epstein kept abreast of ship movements in their area, and helped arrange passage. There was tension here; the oligarchs didn't want to give up their power and perks, while the people propping them up expected their government to provide for the common defense. A protest march was underway, peaceful but enthusiastic, as the crew visited the capitol. Banners read "Membership NOW", "Safety in numbers", and "You can't eat cake if a Flike is eating YOU!"
The Sidonian Navy consisted of one old destroyer, Caledonian surplus, and three "frigate" conversions used mainly as revenue cutters. Some of the Flike dreadnoughts carried Class-20 Marsten Guns, with Fields and armor strong enough to survive several hits from their own weapons. No ship under the Sidonian flag could even scratch their paint. Some of the oligarchs were awakening to the threat, addressing the protesters; one, Alice McKinley, openly endorsed their Membership petition and signed her own name with a flourish.
If Sidonia did apply for Membership, that would be one more drain on the Space Patrol, the defederalized Regular Navy. Reserve Privateers would have to take up the slack, and few of them had been built as true warships like Aurora. Solomon remembered his father's words on Alexandria. The Jeffersonian Republic Navy hadn't existed as a concentrated force since the end of the Republic-Empire War, two and a half Republic centuries ago. There were individually-powerful units, like the dreadnoughts and carriers being brought out of mothballs, and there were some collections of ships which might be called task forces, like the Home Fleets of the Central Worlds, but the shell of protection they offered the Republic was thin and brittle against a real, organized threat.

23 Fifthmonth 572JR
19 May 2367CE
Dgad, Flike Empire

Aurora had never visited a Flike world before, nor had any of her Family. Flike were not welcoming toward offworlders; there were no percentages of non-native races here, as there were in Jeffersonian space.
There wasn't a lot of trade between the Republic and the Empire. There was no sanction, yet; the Flike just didn't like other people. Still, worlds in Republic space produced things Flike would pay metal to buy, not least fabbers, and kinds of meat they hadn't tasted. To excuse her visit, Aurora's crew had searched the net for market opportunities. Real ones existed on Dgad, and Solomon had chosen them.
As a world, Dgad was not too different from Terra or any other Common Life planet; gravity 12.2 meters, near-standard atmosphere, cold and wet or hot and dry in one place or another, a widely-evolved variety of native life. Above it, however, was more evidence of the naval buildup: four Glaut-built destroyers, and a light cruiser to lead them, which Solomon speculated had been built at Kmar with Glaut technical assistance.
Aurora, using her own Transition EMP like an active Marsten Detector pulse, had scanned much of the system. The resolution wasn't as good as a real Detector sweep, but that would have been considered a hostile act. She saw a concentration of objects several AU away from Dgad, which did not match any charted asteroid belts or Trojan clouds. At her Captain's order, she used a mass driver to silently hurl a stealth probe in their direction. Coasting without acceleration, it would take thousands of hours to arrive; but if any other Republic-flagged vessel entered the system, the probe would see its transponder and dump whatever it saw by tightbeam burst, to be forwarded automatically to ONI, perhaps even without the other ship's knowledge - if whatever the things were hadn't moved on before the probe arrived; but that too would be useful information.

Their merchant contact on Dgad was named Mrakh, one of the few Flike who had the stomach to deal with any other sentient race. He seemed friendly enough, though Danner thought he saw Mrakh licking his chops at the sight of Trllbl, who had chosen to come down to the surface with her husband Grbblb. Aurora quietly informed her Family of rumors that surplus populations of Glauteb, the Consolidation's lower caste, were being sold to the Flike as food, supposedly under false promises of colonization. Maybe that was anti-Alliance propaganda, but considering the things they'd seen on Rllbtl, the things done to both Glaut members of his crew, Danner thought that it maybe wasn't.
Several suppliers on Sidonia had been selling out, liquidating all assets before emigrating away from what could be a war zone at any moment. Aurora had taken advantage, and was filled to bursting with fabbers, 'bots, 'puters, industrial elements, and several kinds of meat in cryogenic storage. Most of this would be saved for her next stop at Kmar, but some containers were emptied here, as the currency vault within her missile magazine filled, and credit transfers were transmitted across the galaxy to the Family's various bank accounts. Aurora carried a small fortune, but larger ones existed less-tangibly elsewhere, so the loss of the ship would not bankrupt the Family.
Leaving aside the implications of the ship also being their home, their sister, and their Captain's beloved wife.

One of Mrakh's subordinates was named Ghardd, and was also a contact... for Frashkra and Karrok, who quietly slipped away from Five Boat, blending into the local population. For the next several hours they had clandestine meetings with members of the Flike Resistance, touching bases and making plans. Flike-style currency was received in exchange for Republic metals, and a couple spare plasma pistols and wrist-'puters. Their next contacts, on Kmar, had been discovered and executed; new ones were assigned. Solomon didn't need or want to know the details, fully understanding operational security.
While waiting for the exiles to return, Aurora's Family tried to play tourist - but the chauvinistic Flike did not offer such attractions. It was unclear whether Mrakh knew about or shared Ghardd's treason, but the merchant was pleased with the goods Aurora had delivered, and boasted to the Jeffersonians how he would be marking up the prices for outrageous profits. He sent one of his sons, Tarkag, to escort the Auroras, showing what few sights were to be seen on Dgad.
Flike digestive systems were robust, and could process meat that would poison and kill much other Common Life. A meat market was visited, with considerable distaste on the part of Aurora's Family. Some of the product was kept penned, alive, to be slaughtered and eaten fresh at picnic tables. Others were hung on hooks, buzzing with the equivalent of flies or crawling with maggot-analogues... which some Flike thought added flavor and extra nutrients.
Another market sold females. Some had been given hormones to artificially induce mating heat. To Human noses, they stank; to Eyani, they stank more. To Flike, the pheromones were a drug, resulting in... public displays which even Aurora's well-traveled crew found embarrassing. Flike females weren't people, under any accepted definition, but their treatment still looked like abuse to Jeffersonian eyes.
A third market sold weapons, and rented the use of a rather old and dilapidated fabber. Copies of galactic energy weapons were on display, but Jack and Jenny and Holly indicated distrust of their safety, if they had come out of that fabber; a misaligned crystal, a power-guide out of spec, and a plasma pistol became a plasma grenade. More traditional weapons were also for sale, daggers and axes and spearheads with or without shafts. A blacksmith's hammer-and-anvil, near-universal among sentient life, could be heard in the back of this shop. Eyani history had battle-claws, Nikar the short-pike, Humans a variety of sword styles, but traditional Flike handweapons had little to make them unique; nature had given them enough.

Hours after the exiles' departure, Aurora received a call from Frashkra, which she forwarded live to her husband's earbud. "Solomon-Captain, something has gone wrong. I need your help. Can we meet, discreetly?"
"I don't know," he answered, "can we?" He looked at Aurora. Tarkag didn't seem to understand American, Aurora was translating or not as necessary, but it was not wise to underestimate potential enemies or allies. American Sign Language was used by many spacers, when radios couldn't or shouldn't be used. Modifications had been made over the centuries to accommodate non-Human hands. He signaled to Aurora, who in turn asked Frashkra, through her encrypted link, whether the exiles could make it back to the shuttle. As a living computer, her gynoid didn't need to visibly or audibly speak.
Frashkra knew he could speak plainly, on the devices Aurora had provided. "It is Ghardd. He is badly wounded. The Emperor's Claws followed us from our meeting. There were two of them, we killed them and hid the bodies, but we must leave this place before more come."
Through sign language, through Aurora, Danner asked, "Does Mrakh know about Ghardd?"
There was a pause, and Frashkra answered, "He suspects. Ghardd does not think Mrakh turned him in. He thinks Mrakh deserves a warning. And, Solomon-Captain... Ghardd has family here. A female, two cubs. They live here in the town. Can we get them out?"
That was damned inconvenient... but Solomon Danner would not abandon people who helped his nation, if he could help them. "Yes," he answered aloud.

Ghardd, Frashkra and Karrok were about a kilometer away here in the settlement, named simply enough in what translated to "Dgad Town", which had grown around the spaceport which had grown around the first landing. Leaving a meeting with other Resistance members, they had noticed followers, and pretended to separate. Ghardd had drawn the pursuers' attention, ducked into an abandoned residence; the Emperor's Claws, the Flike equivalent of Gestapo, entered to apprehend him. Instead Ghardd had been bait for an ambush. The exiles joined him and fought it out, killing both the secret policemen, but all had been wounded, Ghardd most seriously, a leg broken, and an artery in his left arm severed. Karrok had fashioned a tourniquet, but the limb would be lost without prompt treatment. Ghardd could not walk, and carrying him in his obvious state would draw too much attention.
Aurora monitored frequencies; the Claws seemed to have not called for backup or to report. Flike backwardness and unfamiliarity with technology would save Ghardd. An empty shipping container happened to be aboard Five Boat, having been used to deliver Mrakh's new goods. A pair of Aurora's robots could carry it. There was another piece of luck: night was falling.
Danner and company pled fatigue, thanked Tarkag for his time, and returned to the shuttle. There, Holly and Prrg quickly kitted up - light passive body armor, not their conspicuous Mobile Infantry suits; blades, pistols, and a few grenades, of smoke, gas, and fragmentation. Solomon went with them, equipped the same. Aurora's gynoid did too, her shining pale-gold hair and matching swords hidden under a cloak, as they all wore.
"The first moon will rise in twenty minutes," Aurora declared. A half-dozen of her sensor spheres - these black instead of her usual white - floated overhead, with sound-cancellation for their lift and drive fans. These linked imagery to her Family's augmented-reality visors and lit the darkened streets of Dgad Town for them like day. The group, two Humans, a Nikar, a gynoid, and two robots carrying the container, marched. Ralph and Delilah stayed aboard the shuttle; they had served as combat medics before, they were willing to again, but this time Solomon ordered them to stay out of harm's way. Sarah, the best pilot, began preflighting the shuttle.

The rescue party separated and approached by different paths, each guided by Aurora, to not draw attention as a group would. Just as full dark began to be broken by one of Dgad's moons peeking over the horizon, they converged on the abandoned house. If "house" was the right word; typical of Flike architecture, it seemed little more than a rain shelter, with hardly anything that could be called a wall.
Frashkra had learned many things in the years of his imprisonment, and his fellow exiles had followed his example. Good first aid had been applied to Ghardd's wounds, and the arm might be saved if he could reach Ralph and Delilah soon enough. Likewise the leg had been set and splinted, but between pain and blood loss, Ghardd was barely conscious and could not move under his own power. Frashkra and Karrok helped Ghardd into the container, then the party split again, each member taking a different route, while remaining close enough to reconverge if they were attacked.
The wisest action for Ghardd's well-being would have been to return immediately to the shuttle and Doctor Ralph, but a Flike female and cubs were problematic; they couldn't simply be told to follow unknown aliens or robots, things could not be explained to them. The party made their way as discreetly as possible to Ghardd's home. His female was typical, dog-smart or a little less; his children were bundles of reflexes, the son not yet possessing reason, the daughter never to; a Flike away at work kept such penned, if servants could not be had. Ghardd attempted to calm them, but the scent of his blood and his own pheromones of pain and fear drove them near panic. Soon they would begin howling, and that would be bad.
"I can sedate them," Aurora offered, "and they can be loaded into the container with Ghardd." Both her gynoid and her spheres carried needlers, which could project slivers of toxins lethal or not. During Transit, researching with the help of her ship-siblings Ralph and Delilah, and testing on her passengers Karrok and Frashkra, she had devised knockout drugs for Flike, loading them in her devices before landing on Dgad.
{Do it,} Ghardd mumbled from the edge of consciousness, and she adjusted dosages for the smaller bodies and shot all three.

The party stayed together this time, making their way back to the shuttle, the pair of robots lugging the container, while Aurora's spheres kept watch. On Clearsky, all had noted how naturally stealthy Flike were. Aurora had only moments to warn her companions, through their visors, of the sudden attack.
Eight of the Emperor's Claws erupted silently from shadows thrown by the rising moon, charging in pairs from four directions. They wielded blades, and their own claws.
Aurora's spheres went into action, launching needles - lethal this time, but even those took deadly moments to have effect. Two of the attackers went down, twitching. Aurora's swords came out, katana in her right hand, wakizashi in her left. She had been studying under her ship-brother Daisuke. Her molecular-edged Sakaguchi blade passed through an iron shortsword, leather clothing, flesh, and bone with nearly-equal ease. A third Claw was decapitated.
Solomon was a bit of a small-arms enthusiast and had a modest personal collection. Instead of his usual M437 he had chosen an 11mm caseless chemical-driven slugthrower, integrally suppressed and comfortably subsonic in this world's atmosphere. Since the attack in the hotel room on Chikar, he'd been practicing with his ship-sister Sarah. His pistol made one coughing headshot, then another. That was five down. The last's claws brushed Solomon's cloak as he fell.
Holly carried an M12 midsword, one of Aurora's engraved models first built years ago as souvenirs for customers, to replace the family heirloom she had handed down to her nephew on his enlistment. Her Asgardian-engineered reflexes let her - barely - duck under a comparable weapon swung by one of the Emperor's Claws, then chop her own blade onto the back of the enforcer's neck. Flike were tough; a Human would have been beheaded. Even her enhanced muscles could not cut all the way through with a conventional blade, but she struck deep enough to sever the spine, resulting in the same effect.
Prrg had armed himself with the short-pike traditional to his species, and his throwing knives. With the former he batted aside an iron dart, thrown shuriken-style by his own attacker, returning the gesture with the latter by way of his prehensile tail. The Claw closed with Prrg, who ran him through the heart with the pike's blade. Mortally wounded, the Flike's middle-limb grasping-claws reached for Prrg, who held him at bay with the pike shaft, then whipped his red-striped tail around to seize the enemy's slashing claw-tipped hands until he died. Prrg plucked the throwing knife out of the Flike's chest as the body collapsed.
The last Claw had gone for the shipping container and the fugitives within. Frashkra and Karrok, wounded though they were, put themselves between him and their fellow Resistance member. This last enforcer produced what looked like Jeffersonian midswords in each hand, hurling one end-over-end at Karrok, striking him in the abdomen. For his own weapon, Frashkra had chosen a club made from a leg bone of the jagasaur female he and Karrok had killed on Clearsky. The Emperor's Claw was fast and skilled, but as he usually did, Danner had ordered the grav-rings extended during Transit to simulate the weight of the next planet they would visit. Frashkra had brought his sparring robot along, and practiced with Karrok too. As the Claw charged him, the dense bone knocked the Claw's blade - a crude local copy of the ancient M12 - aside, chips flying. That was with Frashkra's left hand. His right had been fitted with Eyani battle-claws, which he sunk into his enemy's neck.

Aurora reported no more enemies in the vicinity, and while Flike often hunted at night, they were not particularly nocturnal. The silent battle had taken less than a minute, in a part of town with few residences and no passers-by at this time of night. No alarm was raised, no transmissions detected. With a jerk of his head, Danner ordered the party back to the shuttle. They covered the remaining half-kilometer quickly, together, and Sarah lifted off as soon as the cargo hatch began to close.
Karrok had a sword in his guts, the tip coming out the other side. It seemed to have missed anything vital, so Ralph decided to immobilize it and leave it in until the patient could be transferred to Aurora's sickbay. Instead he went to work on Ghardd; the arm had been without primary blood flow for most of an hour. Quickly he set to repairing the artery, while Delilah assisted with all the wounded.
Ghardd, fading in and out of awareness, begged that a warning be sent to Mrakh the merchant, in case the Claws identified Ghardd and investigated his associations. Aurora did so, making what appeared to be a handwritten note in the Imperial script and delivering it to his desk by one of her spheres when he wasn't looking.

"Never simple," Captain Danner griped over the shuttle's engines. "Why is it never simple."
Continued in the next excerpt....
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