High City, Wilson's Colony, Jeffersonian Republic
She'd been ferried to Wilson's aboard a modern heavy freighter with three other ships; Aurora, by far the oldest, still carried her Third Generation-Improved Marsten Drive, capable of only c40, while the current Sixth Generation pushed all but the largest ships well above 100 times lightspeed, with enormously greater efficiency. But her Drive was inactive anyway. She'd been a dead ship for over a hundred years, changing hands a dozen times since finally being decommissioned years after the Republic-Empire War. Most of her past owners had never even looked at her. On arrival she was towed to dock, an airless, powerless hulk.
She would not long remain so. During the hyperspace transit, Danner had donned his pressure suit and begun exploring his – his new ship. He had entered every compartment, often having to force hatches jammed by a century of neglect. The Transit from New Texas to Wilson's Colony only took 350 hours but he had spent nearly every waking one aboard, discovering, imagining, planning, falling in love. Sometimes he simply sat, or floated, in the bridge, staring through the alumiglas at the shifting colors of hyperspace until nature forced him or his suit warned him to return to the freighter's life support.
But mostly he worked. Starting at the bridge, he began repairing control and power connections, booting the antique computer long enough to carefully save every scrap of data before replacing it with a state-of-the-art system. He had not chosen a ready-made AI; Aurora already had a soul, he quickly came to believe, and giving her a new artificial voice, however convincing, would have felt like making her into a Frankenstein's Monster. He had misgivings enough, superstitious though he told himself they were, about replacing the CPU. The manufacturer suggested that this model, over time and with upgrades, might grow toward AI naturally.
He performed the first of those “upgrades” himself, reconnecting the original computer as an auxiliary. The difference in capacity was staggering, but if ever she awoke, he wanted Aurora to be whole.
Too soon and none too soon the freighter exited hyperspace and delivered her cargo at High City. Two of the other ships were destined for breakers, and Danner sadly saluted them as they were towed away; the third, like Aurora, had a chance to fly again.
By this time Danner had, at least temporarily, restored power connections through most of the ship (the freighter crew moved ships for a living, and energy was cheap in the fusion age; a power feed from the freighter was included in their service), got many of the hatches and lifts working, partially recharged the ancient batteries, and had started tinkering with life support, though she still held no atmosphere. She needed a lot of work, most of which he knew he couldn't do himself, but some things he could not allow to be done by any other hand. He carefully sealed the bridge and firewalled the computer. The shipwrights would have plenty else to occupy them.
Danner knew High City well, in some ways too well. Most of his service with the Patrol had been here, in the military shipyards, as a BuShips inspector and liaison – literally, a bureaucrat in uniform. He loved ships, had been fascinated with them since childhood on his native Alexandria, spending hours in his backyard glued to his optic, watching them come and go at Beta Station. He had a love-hate attitude toward his job: being in and around ships every day, rarely going anywhere in one. Thinking back, he was sometimes surprised he'd stayed in the service as long as he had. Now he was on the other side of the desk, explaining to a CS shipwright what he wanted, what he needed, and what he could do without. He liked it much better this way.
Days passed and the work began. Seeing it well underway, Danner tore himself away from her and set out to build a crew. Even with modern automation, he figured he needed about a dozen – Aurora's original complement, including an air group and a half-platoon of Marines, had been 152. A civilian vessel was naturally crewed and operated differently from a Patrol warship, but he'd been working merchies for years, had risen to second mate on a sloppy tanker and a mediocre liner, first mate on a quality freighter; he knew what to look for, and when to grab a good spacer when he stumbled into one.
The Hungry Kraken was ancient, nearly as old and just as famous as Lisa's Arms at Monticello's Central Terminal. Opened in 83JR during the construction of Tower One (High City was officially founded, and named, when the Tower became operational on the Centennial) to serve the builders, the tavern quickly attracted the crews of the ore freighters bringing raw material from the system's asteroid belts. Some historic brawls between spacers and builders ensued, most of them ending with the sides buying each other rounds. The Kraken's staff had always kept the disturbances from getting out of hand, and the whole point of the Escape had been to get away from government meddling – every few weeks there was another classic bar-fight, now between spacers and shipwrights, but no one dared shut the place down; that would cause a real riot.
Once, in 131, a local bureaucrat had issued an order to close. The result was known as the Kraken Rebellion and was still used as a precedent by Constitutional scholars. The bureaucrat had very nearly gone out the airlock, a hand had been on the button; a cooler head prevailed, and three thousand, with separate but comparable grievances from throughout the city, had marched on City Hall. Pitchforks were hard to come by in an orbital city, and torches were impractical at best in freefall, but the residents had plenty of rifles, most with bayonets, and instructed that the bureaucrat's entire department be abolished. Within forty hours the personnel, every one, transferred outsystem to avoid duels; most changed their names and at least one defected to Terra and the UN. With the bloody example of New Texas' short-lived "Governor" within living memory, High City's mayor resigned, relocated, and retired. His interim replacement dismantled three-quarters of the city government the day he was sworn in, and secured landslide reelections to the end of his term limit.
As the city grew, the self-contained module which housed the Kraken was always moved to the edge, as near the docks as possible. Since the city now hosted hundreds of individual moorings, competition had long since grown for the privilege of hosting the famous tavern, and a swarm of smaller establishments tended to follow it. In 460 years it had moved seventeen kilometers, relative to the Tower, and grown in size by a factor of eleven. 180 years ago it had acquired its own wheel, providing about ¼g. Since the day it had opened, it had been the best place in the system for ships and crews to find each other. Now it was the best in the Republic.
The Hungry Kraken was situated in Sector 29 this decade, mated to a kilometer-wide, 20-meter-diameter torus, a freefall docking tube studded with shops of every description, many of which had their own wheels spinning at whatever angle was convenient, from a distance looking like toadstools on a circular log. Danner's coin-operated robocart wove through the crowds of residents, workers, customers and tourists, its electromagnetic treads clanking softly along the hull, sometimes making a full spiral around the tube's inner circumference. It stopped at the tavern's entrance and Danner floated off, and the cart's light lit barely long enough for another traveler to drop her coin in with a nod and a smile, clanking away.
The sign was the original hand-carved, hand-painted wood, designed in pre-industrial tradition, showing a purple cartoon sea monster with a dozen tentacles bearing drumsticks, tankards, and tableware. The tavern's four-meter main hatch at the wheel's hub was open, but Danner knew it would slam shut in an instant in case of a breach, and the rest of the wheel – the rest of the city – was as well-armored and redundant as Aurora. It was still disconcerting, though, to find that the whole wheel, 120 meters in diameter and fifty thick, was one empty space, half the outer side made of artificial diamond, showing a dozen ships and half the city and a limb of the planet below as it rotated twice a minute. The outer rim was floored with moveable tables, easily shoved aside to make space at need; more tables clung to the inner wall like barnacles, the perceived weight decreasing with their relative height. The hub, four meters in diameter and stationary relative to the city tube, was uncovered structural members inside the wheel, allowing people to pass through; but outside it extended another hundred meters into space, with 30 small docking ports for shuttles, ship's boats or aircars, usually all full. Customers and staff bounded through the air in a chaotic centuries-old ballet.
Danner stepped inside and took hold of the vestibule to get himself into the frame of reference. He'd never come here while in uniform, but had spent a lot of time and money in the Kraken while off-duty. Since he became a real spacer he'd had fewer opportunities, but the compensation was to finally reach the stars – and every star men called home soon had a place like the Kraken.
The sounds and smells were always changing and always the same. A thin haze of newbacco and stranger smoke filled the outer edge of the wheel, while the aroma of foods and beverages from dozens of worlds filled the rest. Against the far wall, with the universe as backdrop through the diamond window, a pair of women and guitars were belting out “Banned from Argo”, half a hundred shipwrights and spacers clapping hands and thumping tables in time, bellowing the chorus, snapping coins at their guitar cases in a Coriolis game. Shapely waitresses – and equally-handsome waiters – sailed to and fro with meals and drink. A spacer reached out to fondle one of the girls, who couldn't have massed forty kilos; she spun, braced expertly, and slapped him hard enough to send him tumbling into the next table, which fortunately was unoccupied or Danner might have seen the start of the latest brawl. The spacer's table-mates guffawed, one spinning a hectogram ingot of silver toward her in apology; she snatched it from the air, slipped it into a pocket and winked. A dozen Siv raced each other around the hub, their vestigial wings joyously useful in the low weight; the management had installed slalom poles a century and a half ago. A lone Flike, all claws and fangs and muscles under a leathery hide, with a table to himself by the inner wall, pulled on his hookah and tore at a half-rib of raw superbeef while he watched the bird-people wistfully. Four tables over, three round-headed Chikarans, two smooth-shelled Boksi and an enormous Zaggarish played good-old-fashioned Human-style poker as a Nikar waiter, his scales a dashing pattern of blues and golds, brought their orders: three half-liter beers, one 10-liter beer, and two bowls of live Alexandrian pseudoprawns. A pair of Eyani, six of their eight total hands joined, passed Danner on their way out, their eyes only for each other.
Smiling, Danner found what he was looking for and with an expert leap plummeted from the freefall hub toward a spot on the ¼g deck. One flapping Siv squawked her indignation, two Human waitresses would have spilled their trays if they hadn't been designed with simple magnets before the Declaration of Independence, and a drunken Eyani cartwheeled in surprise, all six limbs comically splayed. Danner thumped to the deck, bending his legs and grabbing the edge of a table to perfectly cancel his momentum.
The man seated at the table looked up in annoyance, which quickly changed to elation. “Sol Danner!” he exclaimed, rising to wrap hairy arms around him. “Sit down, boy, have a drink! Gods it's good to see you!” The bear of a man released him and waved at a passing waitress, calling for a pitcher of sparkling mead. “Tesla brand, mind you now, nothing less!”
“It's good to see you too, Eric,” Danner said, grinning widely and trying to conceal the pain from the crushing embrace. Eric Linfarger was huge, over two meters tall and well-rounded, straining the seams of his old gray shipsuit, black as space and bald as a Boksi with an enormous curly beard just starting to turn white. Some of his bulk was honest fat, for Eric liked his luxuries, but the rest was honest muscle, for he'd been a working spacer for longer than Danner had been alive.
Linfarger was getting too old (and big) to ship out now, and besides he had a family, seven children by two wives (their wedding had been lovely, if expensive with three families to feed, and reunions were cheerful catastrophes) and an ever-increasing number of grandchildren, probably one or two greats by now. He'd had to settle down but had stayed near the action, becoming the go-to man for putting crews that fit into ships that were worthy of them. Five prospects were gathered around the table even now, two women, one man, a Chikaran (Danner never could tell their genders apart) and a Siv neuter (these were brown; the males were white and the females yellow).
“Just a minute, Sol, I'm almost done with these folk. Drink up when it gets here.” Eric busied himself with his 'puter, taking the five spacers' oaths of contract; his fee would be deducted from their first pay and transmitted by their ship's purser. They were signing on together, in the liner Daffodil out of Kursk for Marseille – a good ship and an easy run, soft berths if they had what it took to keep them. If they were at Eric Linfarger's table, they did.
Eric was sixth-generation Necessitan. One might ask why anyone would emigrate to the icebound planet Necessity but his ancestors had their reasons, getting in on the post-War Terraforming boom. The rest of the Linfarger clan was still there, landowners and captains of industry.
Eric hated snow.
The mead arrived and Danner took a moment to appreciate Necessitan culture. Colonized by accident over a century before the War, rediscovered only three years before hostilities, the descendants of the survivors of Botany Bay III, the Republic's third “safety valve” dissident ship, had gone more than a little Norse in their way of life. Properly he should have been drinking from a bull's horn after spilling a sacrifice to Odin, but this stuff was too good to waste. It was like drinking sunshine, and exports had gone a long way toward bringing Necessity's economy up to speed. Eric may have loathed his birth-world's climate, but he brought the planet's best aspects with him.
The five spacers thumbed their contracts, shook hands with Eric, nodded to Danner, and went off to arrange transport to their new ship. Eric pressed a button on the table and its privacy screen rose silently around them. “Looking for a berth, Sol?” he asked. “I can get you first mate on Boudicca, she'll be out of refit in a month, I could get you in there tomorrow and Ing would be happy to have you. Or Sigrun, my cousin's ship, he'll be retiring soon, you could be captain in a year – no, even sooner. Though, with what I heard you got from that salvage op in September Rose, you could almost buy your own ship!”
Danner paused a beat for effect, looked Eric straight in the eye, grinned, and said, “That's exactly what I did.”
Eric's eyes went wide, and after a moment he whooped with glee, bounding over the table to give Danner another crushing bear-hug, threatening to break ribs with his back-pounding. “Congratulations, boy!” he bellowed. “Your own ship, by Thor's flaming beard! Even I never managed that! And at your age, by the gods I'm jealous! What ship is she? Tell me all!”
“I will if... you stop... squashing me!” Danner said, laughing between gasps.
Eric returned to his seat, his black face split wide by a brilliant white smile. “Come, tell me, what's her name?”
“Aurora,” Danner said with pride.
Eric seemed to know every ship flying and every member of their crews, but this brought him up short. “Aurora?” he asked. “Aurora....” The crew-fixer sat quietly, staring at nothing but eyes flickering as if he were reading invisible ledgers. “By Loki you've stumped me!” he said, flipping his 'puter on. Danner smiled and waited. “Aurora.... No, that one went to the breakers in 529... this one? No, renamed Salvador in 492, broken 508.... Ah, here- no, destroyed in collision 461.” Eric looked up at Danner, who silently grinned. Linfarger returned to his search. “438? Sold and broken. 401? Taken by pirates from Nowy Kraków, destroyed by Russian Navy in the Kursk system, 419. 372? Sold and broken. 350... broken. 334... broken. 303... captured by Imperials at the 1st Battle of New Israel, destroyed by Haganah four months later. 251... sold and broken. 221....
Eric glanced up at Danner again, cocking an eyebrow. He continued: “Adamant class cruiser, first commissioned 221. Decommissioned 279, Mothball Fleet. Recommissioned and reclassified light cruiser with her sisters, 294. Training duties, system guard... Battle of Wilson's! She was here, got some licks in against the Impies the day the War started, shares credit for killing a destroyer! Post-War– more training; decommissioned 350, Mothballed again. Sold 352. Sold again 371... and again... again... 481... 526... 543-”
Eric looked up at Danner a third time, his jaw dropping. Danner smiled again, eyes steady. “Last of her kind,” Eric whispered. “Last of the Adamants!” He stood and raised a glass. Danner followed suit. They touched glasses and drank. “By all the gods in Asgard,” Eric pronounced, “I must see this ship!”
“She's... beautiful,” Eric breathed. The big Necessitan loved ships as much as Danner himself, and the Adamant was considered by enthusiasts to be one of the handsomest and most romantic designs ever flown.
Only a true enthusiast would find her beautiful now, all her weapons absent, half her bones showing as the entire power-distribution system was upgraded, her grav-rings bundled aside in pieces for refurbishing, her realspace engines gone altogether awaiting modern replacements, shipwrights swarming over and through her; a less romantic soul would have seen maggots devouring a rotting corpse.
“Yes,” Danner answered. “I know.”
His last berth had been as first mate of September Rose, a well-run freighter out of New Texas, usually carrying superbeef to Monticello, manufactured goods from there to Adams' World, then specialty lumber back to the Lone Star System, Delta Pavonis; a quiet, modestly-profitable triangle. On the last such run, as they were returning to New Texas, a tug pushing an ore barge out of Crunch with a full load had been hulled by an uncharted rock swarm. It was a freak accident, impossible to plan against; the crew of three had been killed instantly and the stack, still boosting at ½g, had been thrown off course, threatening to impact the planet very near the second-largest settlement. After a brief discussion with his crew, Captain Kodobatsu had Transitioned halfway across the system and matched acceleration with the derelict, at which point Danner had volunteered to take the ship's boat across, essentially ramming his way aboard, wrecking the boat, and his escape plan, in the process. Making his way to the tug's shattered bridge, he patched together emergency controls with spares he'd brought, and with Crunch's atmosphere licking at the hull Danner had righted the combination and guided it to a stable orbit.
Among the 70-kiloton cargo had been 98 tons of platinum-group metals and 14 tons of gemstones. Danner's share of the salvage rights had been even larger than his captain's, the town of Rockville raised a statue of him, the residents named children after him, and now he was here in Constitution Shipyards, watching a brand-new Sixth-Generation Marsten Drive being eased into the hull of his very own ship.
“Eric,” he said, “I need an Engineer. One who cares.” Neither man took his eyes from Aurora.
After some time, Eric said, “I know someone. But there's a problem.”