Excerpts from the Jeffersonian Republic project:
Aurora, Part XII: The Dream and the Nightmare

This page Copyright © 2021, Karl Leffler

Continued from the previous excerpt

Resumed from the first excerpt of this story

Johnson Station, Fourth Republic of Texas
500km orbit, Terra, Sol System

Danner waited for Blain to speak; she had earned his patience.
While waiting he reflected on the past seven years, four Terran. They had returned to Terra several times, each time exploring some new-old facet of Humanity's grandmother: Angkor Wat, the Pentagon Ruins, Tranquility Base. This trip, they'd docked at Johnson Station, operated by the Fourth Republic of Texas. Like Alaska, the old American state had been granted independence after the War, and while miniscule in astrographic terms she was big enough for her own purposes; and the Republic of Texas Navy was well-coordinated with the Jeffersonian Republic Space Patrol.
The crew had become a family indeed, and Aurora was more home than any they'd known. She had visited half the worlds in the Republic, from one side of the Frontier to the other. She'd carried cargo of every description, passengers of every kind; three children had been born in her, two of them named Ralph and one of those a Chikaran. She'd escorted colony transports, stood guard above new worlds while their defenses were constructed, and even fired her guns in anger, as she was built to do, at raiders who would raid no more. She'd salvaged wrecks, a macabre task even when, as usual, the entire crew had been rescued; it was disturbing to see a ship dead, when Aurora was so very alive. She'd helped survey newly-discovered systems where thinking beings hoped to live; Vatelius made a fair science officer at need, Danner's endless self-education often helped the research, and Grbblb displayed a constantly-growing intellect as well. With Blain's adjustments, and the carbonan fuel bladder in Craft Bay Two, Aurora had streaked past c160, finding good pay as a Frontier courier no one dared intercept; in half an hour Blain could switch settings for c133 and tremendous range. They'd had ups and downs with finances, fads like their latest cargo coming and going, gambles on luxury items booming or busting, but they'd never been in debt, to anyone for anything, and Danner still wasn't a bus driver; rarely had they made the same Transit back-to-back. It wasn't always easy and it wasn't always fun, but it was always worth the trip. To some degree, for every member of the family, it was a dream come true. For Danner, it was exactly what he'd wanted to do all his life.
Doctor Vatelius still had no good news for Blain's genetic anomaly, or the possibility of regeneration for Grbblb. He cautioned them against both false hope and giving up hope; breakthroughs came in their own time and no one else's, and he assured them their samples were in the best possible hands on nearly every Central World. For his own part, Ralph had indeed “stuck” with Aurora, and had made peace with his family regarding their expectations; he lived his own life now. He had his assignations on shore leave, but was careful indeed to not bring trouble to his Captain's airlock. He had a good thing going and knew it.
Prrg's status among the Nikar was ambivalent: on Gnop he had, decades ago, renounced what rank he held from his aristocratic clan when he first took to the stars; but among Nikar who had left their world, and especially those who had become Jeffersonians, he was a celebrity, often asked for advice or intercession in a variety of matters. Citizenship meant fealty to the Constitution first, not to any one race, and Prrg was true to that principle, but did what he could otherwise. He knew that in many ways his was a backward race, slow to accept the many advances, material or otherwise, Humans had brought to the stars. He stayed with Aurora for many reasons, and one of them was her habit of taking him to more of his people.
Sarah Heusner had standing offers of navigator's berths from over a dozen individual ships and three commercial lines, but she was too much Shipfolk to work for a big company, and too much a part of Aurora's family to consider leaving for another. She did know how to enjoy her shore leave though; even since her days in Flying Flea, she had broken as many Eyani hearts as Ralph had Human, and had triggered one brawl in Hopper's Place above Gudrun. She still felt guilty about that.
Many of those hearts had been broken by her freefall or low-weight dances, set to Epstein's music. When the ship's finances were low, The Auroras, including Clancy on pipes, Hlossh as drums and Grbblb as backup vocals, could always raise enough for rooms and meals; if there was an Eyani crowd to behold Sarah, they could easily raise enough for port fees. Epstein hadn't won his freight-handling patent, but he'd made some money consulting between Transits, and his name was known to dockmen on thirty worlds. Like Sarah, he had several standing offers, but was not inclined to leave; how many cargomasters had helped design their ship?
Hlossh's people were oviparous and seasonal; the concept of sex for its own sake was alien to them. They did take permanent mates, but he had none. However, if he happened to be near a Boksi community in season and between Transits, he disappeared underwater for a few days. He was well-thought-of on Kshir; he and Cates had a small side-business, directing surplus weapons and other materiel to rebels in the holdout dictatorships. They'd helped bring down two, and the last was in mid-collapse according to the latest news. Otherwise, he'd been a spacer for so long he didn't know what else to be, and didn't care to. As he'd told Jenny that day in the Kraken, he'd been looking for a home, and had found it.
Gunner Cates had found what she was looking for: Rarely the same world twice in a row, something new on every trip... and to be honest, enough action to suit her, whether blowing a raider out of the sky, clearing a path for passengers or cargo through some gang's turf, or – not much different – “explaining” treaty obligations and a Citizen's rights to foreign police (there were no “cops” in the Republic, but the Republic was not the only Human star-nation, just the largest – and best). Prrg had his dueling, and Holly had her own hobby, which she'd indulged since the rank of Corporal. There were three planets where she had an unofficial but very real deathmark; historically cops, like any other gang, took no one's side but their own, even when the colleagues they were defending should have been hung from streetlights. Which in one case was exactly what she'd done with the child-raping bastard.
Daisuke Taniyama had still not revealed what drove him to the stars; he was always taciturn, except when expertly haggling a cargo's price or a passenger's fare. He had proven himself the best purser anyone aboard had ever known, pathologically honest and precise with the ship's funds. He'd long since set up a ship's bank, backed in real metal to the last gram, in a vault sharing space with the missile magazine, one of the best-protected compartments aboard. He rarely took leave, despite constant invitations from the others, but he was unquestionably part of the family – and though he never said as much, Danner suspected he had nowhere else to go.
Clancy had published a cookbook – actually three, for Eyani, Boksi and Nikar – the proceeds directed to his very-extended family in Ireland. He was working on one for Glaut but as yet there were no customers, and only one judge. In previous berths, he had disliked dealing with passengers; but those had been company ships, answering to shareholders and boards of directors and soulless bureaucrats of the kind Prrg enjoyed dueling. Aurora was different, just stepping aboard her made one feel the truth of it – and Danner chose his fares with care. Clancy too had standing offers from other ships, but the Lady in White had won his heart as much as Danner's.
Social upheavals in the Glaut Consolidation were mounting. There had been demonstrations, brutally suppressed with hundreds killed – or worse, as Grbblb had been – by government forces, but each atrocity only swayed more Glaut to anti-government sentiment; their race did have a family structure, and thousands of years of conditioning were now battling thousands of grieving parents and children, more and more infected with Jeffersonian ideals. Grbblb was a celebrity now too, albeit a forbidden one. Like Prrg, his first loyalty was to the Constitution of the Republic, followed very closely by Aurora; but tied for second place were his people, whom he wanted to become his compatriots. He sent what aid or messages of encouragement he could, but made no mention of his hope for regeneration; he wouldn't use that weapon until it was real.
Jenny Blain had largely recovered from her loss of a decade ago, and was, as Hlossh said the day he'd applied for his berth, the best damn Engineer flying. Sometimes she was still shy, uncomfortable conversing or operating outside her area of expertise. In seven years, though, she had come to trust Danner completely, and knew she could tell him anything. He had helped her through her near-relapse over five years ago; she had pinned his ears back, rightly, when he had been about to do something very stupid with the main engines a year later.
In her eyes now, he saw nothing tragic or disastrous for herself or the ship, but still something... serious. She was waiting, but not for him.
The hatch to the next ring-section opened, and Grbblb entered. Even after seven Republic years it was a little unnerving to watch him move, his boneless body possessing a grace which could only be called fluid. Danner felt a spark of old anger when he saw the scars of his Engineer's Mate's missing limb and eye; even if it had happened before they'd met, it had happened to one of his crew. He wouldn't at all have minded turning Cates, and Aurora, loose on those responsible.
“We have a line on a charter,” Jenny finally said.
Danner's eyebrows rose. The “I-don't-know-how-to-say-this” look, because she'd found something that was Aurora's reason for being? “What is it,” he asked jokingly, “a traveling circus?”
“Glaut refugees,” Grbblb stated.
Danner set down his mug of cider and gave them his full attention, his expression sober. “Go on.”
“I would have spoken with my brother Hlossh,” Grbblb said, “but he is away with the cargo shuttle, and the message reached me as your car was approaching. I was... uncomfortable bringing the matter to you myself, and asked Jenny for help.”
“What sort of refugees?” Danner asked.
“Families,” Jenny said. “With children. Some are orphans. They can't pay much.”
“I will pay,” Grbblb said at once. “I have saved my wages.”
“No.” Danner uttered the word with a finality which echoed through the compartment. As Jenny's expression changed from disbelief to horror, he went on, “No one's paying me a gram, not for this trip. You'll have to convince the rest of the crew, they might want to sit this one out; we can drop them off somewhere and pick them up on the way back.”
Tears sprang from Jenny's eyes. “You...!” She rounded the table to hug him, as the big brother she never had. Grbblb laid a tentacle, always so surprisingly warm, on each of their shoulders.

“So spill,” the Captain said later, with the entire crew assembled in the same dining compartment. “Which world and when?”
“Rllbtl,” Grbblb answered. “My own world, and as soon as possible. The violence there is increasing. Many of the refugees have been maimed as I was... am. They will need treatment.”
“I can state with confidence,” Vatelius said immediately, “that I'm the best Glaut doctor in the universe. Be a shame to let all that skill go to waste. I'm in.”
“You couldn't keep me out at gunpoint,” Hlossh said, a pincer-arm around his blood-brother's nonexistent shoulders.
“How many?” Danner asked.
“At least two hundred. There are thousands, tens of thousands, but that is what I have been told of the one group I have details for.”
“At least you're small folk, compared to us,” Jack Epstein said. “Hlossh, you 'n' me 'n' Glub can make over the whole aft ring with water like your compartments. Maybe the main holds if necessary, you don't actually need open air to breathe, right? Oh, and I'm in too.” The Bosun jerked a thumb at Grbblb. “He's my shipmate.”
“I'm in,” Cates said. “Sneaking out under the noses they ain't got, or burning our way through fascists who cut up their own people. Either one'll please me.”
“The Glautak rulers have no honor, to so abuse their people,” Prrg stated. “Perhaps I can impart some.” He began idly flipping one of his throwing knives with his tail.
“Where else will I be finding more people to try me recipes?” asked Clancy. “And I'm a fair hand with a rifle if need be.” There was a rare light in his eyes; the Irish also had a tradition of honor and battle, and had known oppression.
“Where Aurora goes, I go,” Sarah stated. “Period.”
“That leaves you, Daisuke,” Danner said to the Purser.
The nikkei looked up from his 'puter as though distracted. “Oh! Yes, I am going, of course. As Sarah says.” He held up his 'puter. “I know of some coastal land on New Israel which may be available for resettlement. I was sending an h-mail to the owner. I'm sure an arrangement can be made within your people's means, Glub.”
“My friends,” the Glaut said, trembling with emotion. “My friends!”

“It's a long way to Rollbottle,” Sarah pointed out. “Eight-three light-years. Fifty-five hundred hours, even with our Drive.”
“The high-speed settings, Captain?” Jenny asked.
“Yes, and any more you can coax out of her.”
“That cuts it to forty-five hundred,” the Navigator said, “but we can't carry enough fuel for a nonstop Transit, not at that speed.”
“No,” the Engineer confirmed, “even with the bladder." There were few materials which could contain slush hydrogen, and Aurora had only so many compartments so equipped. "And we'll have to stop somewhere for water anyway, won't we? For the passengers? Or is that necessary, Glub?”
“It is not strictly necessary,” Grbblb answered, “but it would be a tremendous comfort, especially to those who are injured.”
Danner said, “We'll add that mass as near the end as possible so Jenny can get us more speed. Jack, prepare holds 3 and 4 for seawater from....” The Captain examined the holomap Sarah had projected. “Let's say Gambori, and fire up the cleaner 'bots from our neoprawn runs to keep it fresh. And get to work on the aft ring. No other cargo this trip, use what cubic you need.” The Bosun nodded and looked to Daisuke, who was making a list on his 'puter. The Purser nodded back. Danner went on, “I'm thinking we'll need sealocks on the internal cargo hatches?”
“Way ahead of you, Chief,” Epstein said, tapping his temple.
“Jenny, we'll stop for fuel along the way as needed, you and Sarah whip up a flight plan and we'll have tankers waiting for us.” Engineer and Navigator nodded. “What else do we need, food?”
“I'll be taking care of that,” Clancy assured, “before we undock this day.”
“The same chandler due here soon,” Ralph answered, “should have what I need. I have it already, I'll just need more. We might have to use the forward holds to expand sickbay.”
“Get with Jack on that, make sure they're available. Now, it's still going to be a long trip,” Danner reminded the crew. “Glub, will there be any refugees left by then?”
“If not these, there will be others. To save any would be a victory.”
“Situations can change in so much time,” Prrg pointed out. “They may not let us in.”
“They damn well will,” Cates stated. “And back out again. Our Lady can take on the whole damn Glaut Navy.”
“Please, friend Holly, not so,” Grbblb protested. “Reprisals-”
“We'll do it Glub's way,” Danner said. “Unless they shoot first, then I'll turn you loose, Holly.”
“O-kay, Cap'n!”
“Me 'n' Grbblb'll get to work on the shuttles too,” Hlossh said, “to get them up to the ship. They're all built for water landings if needed. Maybe we can stage out to sea someplace, away from the cities, they make their way to some island or something and we pick 'em up there.”
“Take a look at my Corona too,” Danner added, “it's submersible, and that could matter if there's any sneaking to be done. We can't fit many inside, but maybe we can rig lines or a net for towing.”
“In forty-five hundred hours, we can fab a bunch more Glaut sea-thrusters, right brother?” Hlossh asked Grbblb.
“Yes, brother. We will work on those as time allows. My friends, thank you again. The Consolidation may condemn you-”
“I condemn 'em right back!” Cates exclaimed, and the crew snarled in agreement.
“All right people,” Danner said, “let's get to work!”
Five hours, thirty-seven minutes later, Aurora undocked.
Continued in the next excerpt....
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