Excerpts from the Jeffersonian Republic project:
This page Copyright © 2016, Karl Leffler
Aurora, Part XXVI: Reserve Privateer
Continued from the previous excerpt
Hyperspace Transit, Oskran to Dakota
“Report readiness for departure,” Danner ordered. Sarah had already placed the orbital parameters on his display, and while not in the same class as her or Prrg, Danner was a navigator too and could read the information easily. Their minimum-energy window, breaking orbit on the correct tangent for hyperspace insertion, was in three minutes. The crew answered in turn-
Epstein: “Cargo and boats secure.” The shuttles were locked in their bays, their own major thrust axes aligned with Aurora's, and Epstein's freight-handling system had slashed the family's insurance rates; there hadn't been a damage claim filed against Aurora since... ever.
Clancy: “Passengers secure.” Once Aurora was on course and her acceleration had steadied, they would be free to move about the ship, but for the orbital exit they had been instructed to remain in their quarters; the little freefall guide Sarah had written years ago was as useful as always.
Blain: “All engines ready, Drive ready.” Aurora carried one set of four primary fusion reactors, and three smaller auxiliaries. In realspace, each of the primary four powered a fusion torch for direct thrust; the usual standard of a mere ten meters per second squared acceleration would not come close to straining them, and she carried fuel to maintain that rate for nearly five hundred hours. When the time came to Transition, the torches would be shut down and these reactors' output would be redirected to create the Marsten Field.
Hlossh: “OMS and RCS ready.” Blain had long since delegated the orbital manuevering and reaction control systems to her Engineer's Mates. These subsystems used more ordinary reaction mass, or the simple hydrogen/oxygen reaction, to maneuver the ship away from obstacles, to a position and distance where the fusion torches could be lit without destroying anything behind them. Aurora did nearly all the real work, leaving Hlossh, Grbblb, and even Blain herself little to do but watch displays. But they were ready to step in, always and instantly; Aurora was still a warship, and her crew kept themselves trained in combat and emergency procedures.
Cates: “Weapons secure.” Jeff Cooper had been a Marine too, and the Four Rules he wrote decades before the Escape applied as much to the Class Six Marsten Gun as to Holly's sidearm.
Prrg: “Checklist complete. All stations and systems reporting ready for departure.” Prrg was not on the bridge with his Captain, but in the aft bulb, in Auxiliary Control near the Marsten Drive, from where he could also take over navigation. There had been debate, during the refit, of eliminating AuxCon to maximize cargo space, but Danner wouldn't have it; he said it would be like declawing a cat. Aurora was born and bred as a ship of war, and removing part of her warfighting ability, the capacity to sustain damage and remain operational, he felt would be a mutilation worse than the damage itself. Blain was in AuxCon as well, while Hlossh was taking a turn at the Engineer's station on the bridge; her husband Epstein, Clancy, and Taniyama acted as Assistant Gunners in AuxCon during such times, while Cates ran the main tactical console forward.
“Oskran Control,” Danner transmitted. “IS Aurora, Charlie Lima Six Three, requesting clearance to maneuver to hyper.”
“Aurora, this is Oskran Control.” The Jeffersonian notion of traffic control was one of mutual consent, not forced compliance under threat of government violence and theft. It worked itself out, and had for centuries. Danner was actually talking with an AI installed in the station still being constructed over Oskran. This had neither authority nor power to halt or to punish; Jeffersonians had left such thuggishness behind, three and a half Terran centuries before. The AI was programmed, or personnel were hired, for efficiency, to view traffic as a three-dimensional kinetic puzzle to be solved, to help ships move instead of controlling their movement, and pilots and captains understood it was in their own enlightened self-interest to comply. “Clearance granted. Your exit course is 282 mark 52, relative to polar beacons. Be advised, five items traffic, consult your display.”
Heusner: “Course plotted and laid in. Traffic identified and marked.”
Danner: “Acknowledged, Control. Traffic is marked.”
“Aurora, this is Oskran Control. You are clear to depart. Fair journey.”
“Thank you, Control,” Danner replied. “We'll be back. -Sarah, take us out.”
“Aye, Captain. Aurora, manual control, please.”
“Control is yours, Sarah.” Aurora's voice was supposedly neutral, but Danner thought he could detect a trace of... amusement?
After a few minutes thrusting away from other traffic on OMS, Aurora lit her torches and boosted at ten meters for the Oskran hyper limit, the traditional ten light-seconds for a Terra-type world. From an initial orbital velocity of about seven kilometers per second, she would boost for almost seven hours, reaching a speed of about 250kps at a distance of three million kilometers, relative to Oskran, before Transitioning to hyperspace. Her next stop was the Frontier world Dakota, which they'd already visited on the way out.
Aurora now began the long flight back to Republic space, moving by stages toward New Israel and their absent brother. Among her passengers were fifty-three Alran – only four of them from Lii – seeking new lives and opportunities offworld. About half would be debarking at Dakota for farm work; there was already an expatriate Alran community there, many of them escapees from Lanos, Oskran's collectivist nation.
Seeing the crew regularly armed, even during normal shipboard duties, several of the Alran, most of whom could be called refugees, asked about purchasing weapons for themselves. Danner left the matter in Cates' hands; she declined to sell Aurora's few actual spares, and certainly nothing from her own collection, but she did start using the spares, and quickly-fabricated dummy weapons, for training, for a small fee. With Danner's permission, Cates and Hlossh set one of Aurora's onboard fabbers to make a run of standard midswords from the metal stocks she usually carried to make spare parts, and these were sold to the passengers at little more than cost. At a suggestion from Daisuke, each was marked with Aurora's name, number, and logo, and another few dozen were run off for future sale as souvenirs from a famous ship; and Cates & Hlossh's old arms-dealing side-business looked for a good deal on a quantity of used pistols. As for more powerful weapons, Dakota was a Republic Territory and there were arms shops anywhere the Star and Bars flew. Some of the workers' future employers would issue weapons; there were ranches on Dakota too, and a variety of native predators and vermin to attack either herd or crop. Cates' training would make them more competitive in the labor market.
The Alran refugees would also have a path to Citizenship. Dakota had a planetary militia, too, rather a better one than worlds of her population usually enjoyed. She was on the Frontier, just on the Republic side of the Flike world Kmar, and while no raiders had yet trod her surface, some ships had been taken from several light-seconds out, usually just after Transtitioning to realspace on arrival. The DPM boasted two full platoons of Mobile Infantry, each of which outclassed the entire regiment of conventional mech/air troops also on the rolls. The MI didn't have a proper transport starship, but the Triumvirate was shopping for one; they could foresee the need to go fetch a ship back from hostile territory. (The funding campaign was in full swing, and upon arrival the crew would be amused by the campaign signs. The Dakotan taxpayers felt, rightly, they should have a say in how the ship was named. The most common was "Vote for Ruthless Bastard!") They did have a half-dozen high-boost-to-orbit ships for rapid reaction, and a squad or three of MI were usually on duty atop the elevators.
Taniyama had deliberately left some cargo space available when leaving Oskran. Another reason to stop, again, at Dakota was for a cargo of grain for the Central Worlds, again a luxury strain as was Aurora's specialty. The mere two kilotons she had room for might be transshipped to Terra or Marseille for gourmet chefs and resorts; or it might sell in smaller lots at any of the many other worlds along the way. Clancy would set enough aside for some years' supply for crew and passengers.
Hundreds of hours of Transit later, their biomatter waste delivered in partial payment for their outgoing cargo, more passengers boarded – locals seeking more than the endless cycle of seasons, businessbeings seeking investments or customers, youths off to earn their Citizenship offworld. This was the life of a commercial starship – one port after another, most of her life spent underway, new faces forgotten as much as remembered, cargoes blurring together. Aurora was more fortunate than most; she had no fixed route or schedule and could, usually, go where her captain willed.
But sometimes, the universe had other plans.
Dakota Territory, Jeffersonian Republic
The ship's business at Dakota was concluded, she was fully fueled and provisioned, her crew and passengers and cargo were aboard, and she once again prepared to depart one world for another. She had docked to Fargo Station, only 300km, rather than either of the elevators which reached to synchronous orbit; after the expense of their construction the elevators were inexpensive to operate, but slow, and there were only the two of them, equatorially opposed. Ten minutes before breaking orbit, however, for only the third time since her rebirth nine Monticellan years before, her communications override alarm sounded.
“Alert,” Aurora called to her crew, “Alert. Reserve Privateer Activation. This is not a test. Repeat, this is not a test.”
The crew, at their various stations forward or aft, variously froze a moment in surprise - but only a moment. Cates was taking her turn in AuxCon and immediately brought her tactical systems live, releasing the first safeties on the missle tubes and point-defense clusters, directing the capacitors for the energy weapons to begin charging; more steps were required to connect that energy to the weapons themselves, but they could be drained later if there was nothing to shoot at. Sarah shifted her navigation system to tactical mode, tied in with Cates, to help identify targets. Blain and Hlossh began to put the maneuvering systems on a war footing, while Epstein, Taniyama and Clancy raced for the first, second and third ring-turrets, to manually take over at least one Marsten Gun or heavy pulse-laser each, should their controls be severed. Vatelius, and his robot assistants who were extensions of Aurora, prepared sickbay to receive casualties - and his personal weapons to repel boarders. Prrg was not formally trained as a warship commander, but if the worst happened and the bridge was lost, the crew had confidence in him, and he had always done well in simulations, even in realspace maneuvers against other RPs and the occasional Regular Patrol warship.
As First Officer, Prrg alerted the passengers to the potential emergency, while his Captain responded to the alert. Aurora was her own comm officer and had long since learned that job very well. “Aurora,” Danner said, “open the channel.” When the ship indicated on Danner's display that she had done so, the Captain announced, “Solomon Danner, commanding Reserve Privateer Aurora, CL63, responding to activation. What's the situation?”
A middle-aged, matronly-looking woman appeared in Danner's display. “A cruiser?” she exclaimed. Any captain who flew in Republic space was familiar with the Patrol's hull classification system. “Gods be thanked! Aurora, this is June Bigelow, captain of freighter Heritage. We're eleven light-seconds out and under attack!” Aurora indicated she'd received the location and vector data Bigelow had just sent, as well as their transponder signal, and furthermore a fix on their Marsten Device FTL transmission. “It's two ships, about a kiloton each, they jumped us right after we Transitioned! They're targeting our engines!” A crash could be heard, and sparks flew in the background as Heritage took a hit. “They got our torch, we can't boost! All we have left is OMS-” Another crash. “That's it, we're ballistic! RCS can't hold them off forever, they're maneuvering to board!”
“Heritage, are you armed?”
“Small arms only, Aurora. No ship's guns at all!”
Sarah and Grbblb had crafted a superb user interface, which Aurora herself had constantly tuned with feedback from everyone who used it. The ship indicated she was guiding the passengers to refuge in her forward cargo bays, which were already armored as pistol ranges for recreation; the grav rings, containing both crew and passenger quarters, had already been retracted and locked in readiness for departure; OMS, torches and Drive were ready to engage; Prrg had plotted a Close/Short Transit from the edge of Dakota's hyper limit to Heritage's location; Sarah was ready to pilot Aurora to the hyper limit, the real limit of about .6 light-second from Dakota's surface, at 70 meters boost. Danner was already unfolding his pressure suit from its storage beneath his acceleration couch, which was tilting back to place legs above head in anticipation of the heavy boost, forcing more blood into the brain to forestall blackout. More of Aurora's robots were laying out the hardsuit armor shell; this wasn't power armor like the Mobile Infantry, but it would turn most small arms and more generally protected the soft inner suit from breaches. He could see his crewmates on the bridge doing the same, and knew the others, and the passengers, were also, throughout the ship, though most of the passengers wouldn't have armor, and many of them didn't have their own suits at all, having to use Aurora's emergency equipment. Human suits fit Alran well enough, even the plumbing, but there were other nonHumans at Dakota, and those passengers would likely have to use the rescue bubbles if their compartments lost pressure; but Aurora carried enough for everyone.
“Heritage, hold as long as you can. We're on the way, ETA four-zero minutes.”
“Hurry, Aurora, they're closing!”
“Dakota Control, emergency,” Danner continued, Aurora automatically switching channels. “This is Reserve Privateer Aurora. Clear all traffic. We will be boosting on torches and performing a Close Transit.” The Code Duello Nuevo prevented ships from abusing the temporary authority of an RP. People were held accountable for their actions, and there was no "qualified immunity" to hide behind.
But there was no question of legitimacy this time. “Aurora, Dakota Control, we copy,” the response came instantly. Dakota used real people for traffic control. “We're already on it. Go get 'em!”
Aurora played some of the comm chatter between Dakota Control and ships near her own position. “Ace of Hearts, Dakota Control. New course 24 mark 102, fast as you can.”
“Dakota, Ace of Hearts, we're moving.”
“Annoula, Dakota Control, new course 17 mark 19.”
“Dakota and Aurora, this is Annoula, don't wait for us. We're an ore barge, we can take the torch-wash and the EMP, just go!”
“Aurora, Dakota Control. Be advised, OTV5, Mobile Infantry Transport, departing Tower Two with one squad, but they're sublight, you'll be there hours sooner.”
“Dakota, Aurora, acknowledged,” Danner answered. “Be advised we have two MI in our crew.” Prrg had never been a Marine, instead joining the Patrol for a single enlistment to earn his first Citizenship, but Sergeant Major Cates had been training him and herself for seven years, since they bought their armor with profits from their first few commerical runs.
“Armeria, Dakota Control, new course-”
“Solomon,” Prrg called over the ship's intercom, “We have a problem.”
“Go ahead, Prrg.”
“Several of our passengers are unlikely to survive high acceleration. Three are Chikarans, others are elderly. Twenty-two all together.”
Danner nodded to himself. “Can any of them pilot Five Boat?” He didn't want to be short a crewmember before even starting a ship-to-ship action. He'd rather throw his biggest and best ship's boat over the side than any member of his family, all beings he knew and trusted.
“Yes, at least three are qualified.” Prrg and Danner knew each other very well, and both leapt to the obvious solution.
“Stuff 'em in and cut 'em loose, and any others who want off before we get busy. But fast, friend, fast.”
“Underway.” Prgg hadn't waited, knowing his Captain. “Estimate five minutes.” With the familiarity of years of intimate contact, Danner could feel the vibration of Bay 3's door rolling open seventy meters behind him; a small airlock tunnel would connect the Type 318b passenger shuttle to the ship until the last instant, when one of the passengers would pilot it to a safe distance. Or Aurora would; she had capacity to spare, and her shuttles were nearly as much a part of her as the robots who made sandwiches for the crew and made beds for passengers and were carrying Holly and Prrg's personal MI-style power-armor to their positions. “Other passengers are volunteering to man vacant battle stations.”
“Outstanding, accept.” Aurora was back in Republic space, if just barely, and most Jeffersonians earned their Citizenship through military service. Aurora and Cates would be doing most of the actual shooting, if there was any to be done; sentient organics were used only as backup in case damage broke connections. These people would be qualified, trained, and if their interaction with Aurora's family was not as smooth and efficient as could be desired, it should at least be correct; the bridge and AuxCon interfaces were personalized, but Danner ordered Grbblb and Aurora to keep her battle stations standardized to the Patrol for just such occasions.
“Five Boat is away,” Prrg reported. “We are clear to maneuver.”
“All hands, brace for acceleration! Sarah, hit it!”
“Boosting now!” Sarah lit her sister's torches right there from low orbit, an action which would bring blood challenges from an entire hemisphere any other time, but today brought only cheers. The boost built steadily, and very smoothly; Aurora was a finely-tuned instrument and Sarah was a four-handed virtuosa. Danner sank into his accel couch as his weight built, and built, until it was seven times normal. He could feel the flesh sagging from his face, breathing was a terrible effort, he didn't dare move more than fingertips over the controls he'd memorized years ago.
The burn lasted thirty-seven minutes. Fourteen of the remaining passengers lost consciousness at their stations or their refuge in the forward hold. None of Aurora's crew did.
The Fifth Generation Marsten Drive had been introduced shortly after the War. In addition to having much greater speed and range, it had eliminated most of the Transition Effects suffered by organic sentients - nausea, hallucinations - and had further reduced the practical hyper limit, a function of a planet's gravity well. The Sixth Generation came out sixty Monticellan years ago, increased speed still further, and had greatly improved efficiency in a reduced size, but scientists believed the hyper limit had been reached.
There had been experiments, before and after the War, to find that limit. Ships had been lost, and crews too. The Empire had opened the War with Close-Transit Attacks on New Israel, where it “succeeded” in three years of occupation and two-way slaughter; and Wilson's Colony, where it narrowly failed due to the Seventeen, students who sacrificed themselves to intercept missiles aimed at High City, and where Aurora herself had a small role in repelling the invasion. The usual limit was two light-seconds, 600,000km. Any closer risked injury to the crew and damage to the ship.
At 180,000 kilometers from Dakota's surface, the fusion torches cut off. Crew and passengers felt hurled forward against their restraints. “All hands,” Danner called shipwide, “brace for Transition!”
Jennifer Blain had tuned Aurora's Marsten Drive as finely as any of those historical experiments. She knew what her 31-kiloton sister could do, precisely. Eyeing her displays, watching the representation of Dakota's gravity well and the strength of the building Marsten Field, she waited for the right moment, and by her own hand Initated the Transition.
And then she screamed.
Those who had lost consciousness during the boost were lucky; they had no clear memory of the sensations the others felt. Danner had never experienced a Close Transit before, but had read about them, and had a spacesickness bag to his mouth already; it was needed. Sarah Heusner had grown up on a ship with a Fourth-Generation Drive and had built a tolerance, but that tolerance hadn't been tested for nearly a decade, and never so harshly. She howled like an orak and nearly broke her couch restraints. In AuxCon, Prrg's claws raked through his couch padding to scrape and screech on the underlying plastic. Gunner Cates voided herself, but her suit was designed for it and she hardly noticed.
The bridge controls and displays sparked with overloads, or simply went dark. Danner thought he heard Aurora say something, distorted, even in pain. She shuddered and bucked and groaned with stresses. It seemed to go on forever.
But a Transit of little more than ten light-seconds, at over 160 times lightspeed, took only an instant. Aurora emerged within a startling forty kilometers of Heritage and her attackers. The EMP of her Transition swept everything outside a protective Marsten Field to a distance of half a light-second; despite her captain's boast, the ore ship Annoula was left powerless at the other end of the hyperspace tunnel Aurora had just drilled. Heritage and the two raiders, either not expecting or too busy to prepare for Aurora's exit, convulsed, lights flashing and RCS jets firing randomly.
Heritage was a 50-kiloton bulker with a capacity of nearly twice that mass in grain. She was a regular between Dakota and several nearby Frontier or Second Wave worlds, where edible crops had not yet taken adequate hold to feed their populations. Unusually, she was unarmed, though as his brain began to function again Danner could see where pulse-lasers had once been mounted; probably Bigelow had to sell them during financial straits in the past, or they'd been stripped by a previous owner and she'd had neither time nor funds to replace them.
As the EMP effects dissipated, all three of the other ships fell dead in space, except for Heritage's position lights, which were by ancient practice hardened. Aurora's arrival had by its nature halted the attack. The attackers had not managed to board, though Danner could now see where Bigelow had managed to ram them on RCS thrusters alone, an impressive feat of spacemanship with Heritage's vastly greater bulk and vastly lesser power-to-mass ratio. If Heritage had a working OMS, she could have shattered the raiders; if her torch had not been disabled she could have incinerated them. That was why raiders often targeted those systems first. They'd left the Marsten Drive intact so they could Transition out with their prize, repairing the captured ship's realspace engines later; pirates didn't care about the 10-light-second custom. They would have been lurking there for dozens, perhaps hundreds of hours, having crept into the system ballistically from beyond the detection range of a Transition. Sometimes they were ferried into a system by collaborators, or hostages, using a mother-ship's inbound Transition so they had no need to hide or disguise their own.
The attackers were similar but not sister ships. As Bigelow had estimated, they were about 1,000 tons each, meant for direct landing on a planet with atmosphere, but thanks to Bigelow's desperate maneuvering neither would survive entry without orbital shipyard work. On the other hand, Heritage's RCS fuel was likely completely gone by now; she'd need a lot of help just to reach port.
Running lights weren't the only part of a ship hardened against EMP. All but the most trivial Jeffersonian electronics usually were, a tradition the industry adopted before the War and which contributed to its outcome, but only a few systems could survive a hyperspace exit within forty kilometers. Backup sublight radio was one of them. “Heritage,” Danner called - whatever Aurora may have suffered in the Transition, she indicated she was in good health now - “this is Aurora. Do you copy?”
“Gods and demons, Aurora,” came the shaken reply. “Your navigator's insane.”
“Captain Bigelow, we have your attackers under our guns, but it looks like they're out of fight for the moment. See you in a few minutes.”
“Thank you, Captain Danner. Thank you. Bigelow out.”
“Nothing we... can't handle,” Blain responded from her bridge station. She was paler than usual, and moving sluggishly, but she was coherent. “Mostly computer glitches.”
“Captain,” the ship answered, “I have... experienced pain. But I think I am all right now.”
“Let us know if anything seems wrong. Ralph, casualties?”
“Just my underwear, Sol. Let's please not do that again soon, right? Waiting for reports on passengers but I don't expect much.”
Unknown to Danner for the moment, Cates was mentally drafting a new Standing Order for his approval. She and Prrg had their own power armor, but at present they were both in AuxCon, and a hit there could take out both the ship's only real combat troops. It had never come up before, but she would suggest that henceforth, during alerts or maneuvering where they would customarily have heightened readiness, she and Prrg would be separated, and have their armor to hand. “One o' the attackin' ships is tryin' t' restart,” the Gunner replied. “Should Ah stop 'em? Ah have a clean laser shot at where their power source oughta be.” Cates' own excitement was bringing out her New Texas twang. It had been a long time since the Marine had seen this kind of action.
“Make it so, delicately. There are questions.”
On his display Danner saw the enemy lurch and vent atmosphere... and at least two crewbeings. “Aurora, freeze display. Back three. -Enhance G2.”
They were Flike.
It would take a few minutes for Aurora to come alongside Heritage, on OMS only now that the crisis had passed. “Holly,” Danner ordered, “I want you to carefully knock out their weapons and engines, with minimal collateral damage.”
“Can do.” The faster-than-light Marsten Gun's side-effects were devastating to living beings nearby, like Heritage's crew and surviving raiders who would be asked questions; which was why Aurora carried a variety of more conventional weapons. Lasers didn't roar like pre-Escape naval rifles, but there was a snap and faint vibration as their capacitors, bigger than pre-Escape naval artillery shells, discharged. Holly was a craftswoman, and set to work methodically. As her target rolled in reaction to one hit, it brought the next target into her sights.
Danner used the time to ask for a more detailed report from his crew. “Chief,” Epstein said, “a lot of our cargo got squashed during boost. Most of the crel is ruined, even through cryo. Lot of breakage on that Alran artsy stuff too.”
“Regrettable,” Danner replied, “but expected. Save what you can, make a detailed report, get with Daisuke, and we'll submit a claim to the RP Bureau, losses sustained while acting in official capacity.” That was established precedent. If it hadn't been, there would be a lot less incentive for any shipowner or captain to seek Reserve Privateer status.
“How about the rest?”
“Grain and fabrics don't care. I think most of the crel brandy survived too.” Because he had repacked it. “But I think the cryo frames in Holds One and Two might have warped, I can see a temperature rise in there. Not that it matters now, it's crel soup anyway.” Chikaran products, while usually of excellent craftsmanship, were not known for durability among the weight standards of most Common Life, with an average homeworld gravity twice what the Chikarans had evolved in. Combat acceleration and a Close Transit were far beyond their capacity. There was no market for Chikaran military equipment; they imported.
“Do what you can. Ralph?”
“Minor injuries, bruises and sprains, and some messes to clean up from Transition Effects. Under control.”
“Good. Jenny, Aurora?”
“No structural damage I can detect,” Blain answered. What little color she had was returning.
“I feel well, Captain,” the ship said. “That was exciting!”
That may have been the first time Aurora had openly expressed an emotion. Danner smiled. “I hope you won't be disappointed if we don't have more such excitement. Anyone else?”
“The ship Ah hulled ain't goin' nowhere,” Cates put in from AuxCon, “and the other ain't tryin', though there's prob'ly survivors on both.”
Presently Danner docked his Corona aircar to Heritage; Aurora was standing off in a good firing position in case the raiders had any fight left. Sarah was in command, Clancy on tactical, while Cates and Prrg, in their power armor, prepared to board the raiders if necessary in Four Boat, whose cargo bay was easily secured for prisoner transport.
Bigelow met Danner at the airlock, and took his hand in both of hers. “They would have killed us all,” she told him. “That's their pattern.”
“I'm glad we could help.”
“Now we just need to finish them off!”
“You know better than that, Captain.”
Bigelow released Danner's hand. “Huh?”
“They probably will be executed by due process, but they should be interrogated first. Dakota's sending a squad of MI, sublight. They'll be here in five hours.” Aurora had passed on to Danner that OTV5 was boosting at 55 meters and would be turning over to boost the opposite way for a zero/zero intercept. Aurora had shed her 162 kilometers per second, away from Dakota, and acquired another 230kps toward the planet to match Heritage, when she exited hyperspace, making the Transition Effects, and EMP, even more powerful.
“No, finish them now!”
“Captain Bigelow, I would have expected better of a sister Captain. You know the Patrol may be able to track down their base.”
“That's been tried, they've moved out already! That's their pattern too!”
“You've been attacked here before?”
“This is my first time, but I've seen three other attacks, from too far away to help.” Danner didn't question this; Heritage was unarmed, could make 12 meters at best, and would maneuver like the grain freighter she was. She wouldn't be racing to anyone's rescue. It was remarkable that Bigelow had managed to keep the enemy from docking with only attitude jets, rolling and pitching madly. He could see internal damage as a result, warped panels, loose items smashed against bulkheads by the wild accelerations. He'd be complimenting Bigelow's piloting, or at least her fighting spirit, in his report to the RP Bureau.
“Well, they're not getting away. We've crippled them both.”
“Should just burn them all now,” Bigelow insisted, though more subdued.
“I sympathize. More than you might believe. But I have a duty.”
“To your 'laws'?” Bigelow sneered. She crossed the Frontier, flew on the edge of Republic space and beyond, regularly. She knew the truth about 'laws'.
“Not necessarily. To justice, and like you I know there's a difference. Seriously, Captain, even if we can't locate their base, I've already identified the pirates as Flike. The Patrol, the Republic, needs to know how official their actions are, whether these are simply renegades or a prelude to war.”
“That's what it'll take! We should go to war with the Flike!”
“You may not be wrong, but I am commanding an official Reserve Privateer of the Patrol, and in that capacity I must do things in certain ways. I have to keep my ship's status, after all.”
“And the next time the Flike take a Republic ship?”
“I must cold-bloodedly refer you to Article One, Section Five of the Constitution. The Patrol is not a police force, and what free person wants a cop on every corner? It's been tried that way, that's why the Founders left.”
“Huh.” Bigelow couldn't help but nod, though bitterly. “At least you're talking straight, instead of weaseling around. I thank you for that.... Is there any way we could get some help with repairs?”
Danner gestured to Jenny Blain, floating behind him in the airlock. “This is my Engineer, the best you're likely to ever meet. We'll help all we can.”
Bigelow gave her head a clearing toss. “Thank you again, Captain.” She offered her hand again, and again Danner took it.
The attacking ships - Aurora determined from their architecture and her databases that they were both Flike-owned, though one had been New Texas-built 93 years earlier - were drifting away from Heritage. They had auxiliary power only; Holly had skillfully pithed them, knocking out main power, weapons, and all propulsion except attitude jets. They had been rebuilt for piracy, re-engined and heavily armed, but now they were little more than lifeboats. They would keep until the Dakota Militia arrived, and Danner would leave them to the professionals; he'd done his duty, neutralized the threat, and had no need to further risk his own ship or crew. Congratulatory messages were already streaming in from Dakota and ships in the system, and a collection was being taken for Heritage's repairs; the contributors knew it might be them next time.
Danner had some pointed suggestions on how to spend it. Blain and Hlossh were already marking wreckage for Bigelow's crew to start clearing; most of Heritage's engineering department had been killed by the engine hits. “Captain Bigelow,” Danner said as they watched the progress, “is there any reason your ship is unarmed? Especially when operating in this region?”
“Money, Captain, always money. You know how it is - or maybe you don't, with a ship that fancy: Get a little ahead on one run, then something breaks and there goes all your profit.”
Oh, Danner knew, all right. He'd crewed ships just like Heritage before the stars aligned for him one day at Delta Pavonis. But- “You had to sell your guns?” That bordered on the tragic.
“Never had any to sell. The Harry is all the ship I can afford, and the bankers still own a third of her.” She scowled. “Probably more, after today. Somebody else sold the guns, a long time ago.”
“I see she's Monticellan-built.” Danner had inspected many a ship while still in uniform, and could read their architecture like a neon sign. “What is she, seventy? Eighty?”
“Seventy-nine,” Bigelow nodded. “Got her at auction twenty-two years ago. One run led to another and I ended up out here. And now what can I do? Insurance only goes so far. At least I was empty, so I won't have loss claims against me, but on the other hand I have nothing left to sell.” Heritage would normally have been bringing in manufactured goods, things Dakota's agrarian-oriented infrastructure couldn't economically produce at home, but sometimes you just couldn't get a cargo before you had to leave. “And I've lost half my crew.”
“Were you close to them?” Danner asked gently.
“Well- not particularly. That's another problem I've been having, trying to find reliable spacers. I've had different engineers on each of the last four Transits.”
“I can see that,” Jenny couldn't resist saying. “I think it'll be easier for me to reset your Drive to defaults and tune it from scratch, than decipher these notes.”
Bigelow nodded and grunted agreement. “Me and Tarrant-” Bigelow's first officer, business partner, and co-owner- “are the only real regulars, everyone else comes and goes. I barely get to know them before they cash out, drink their pay, and end up on some other ship when they sober up.”
Danner nodded; what Bigelow described was true of a lot of ships and spacers, as he'd seen, even as he'd been sometimes, between leaving the Patrol and finding Aurora. “You know there's a collection being taken for you.” Bigelow ducked her head; charity corrodes the soul. Danner didn't mention he'd already pledged a kilogram of rhodium from his personal account. Aurora carried her own precious metals and plenty of them, but the family had business and personal accounts with banks on several worlds, and those had branches on several more, and h-mail could authorize transfers from one side of Known Space to the other in a couple days. “Jenny?” he called. “How about it?”
Blain, Danner and Bigelow were all aft, surveying the damage. The Flike fire had breached the hull in several places there, so they were all suited. “Her Drive's okay,” Blain answered on suit comm, “and with Captain Bigelow's permission I can give it a tune-up.” Few Engineers could keep a Marsten Drive as finely tuned as Jennifer Blain. Bigelow's, a Siv male named Vocc, wasn't one of them, and he wasn't there anymore. “The real problem is the torch. OMS we can replace out of our own spares, though I don't think that'll be necessary, they only hit the bells and the motors themselves seem intact, they went into auto-shutdown when they detected the damage. They're standard modules-” Heritage carried two OMS engines, flanking the central torch; Aurora carried eight, between her four torches, and could boost harder on OMS alone than Heritage could with her single torch at maximum- “and someone at Dakota should have them in stock.” Tugs were on the way too, several hours behind the Dakota Militia.
“Yeah,” Bigelow put in, “there's shipyards at both elevators. I can get some used units there. But what about the torch?”
“Looks like the Flike were using a constant-beam laser,” Blain answered, illustrating with a laser pointer. “Burned through the hull like it wasn't there-” Aurora was a warship, with real armor; Heritage was a soda can by comparison- “split the thing open along nearly half the length, at least a third of the coils are severed and the rest look cooked. The feedback scrammed your primary reactor and there might be damage there, we'll know in a few minutes.” Heritage had only one primary fusion plant and a single small auxiliary. “Your auxiliary seems okay, but the torch's gimbal is fused.” That meant Heritage could steer poorly if at all, even if her torch were intact; OMS would quickly run out of fuel trying to compensate. The auxiliary fusion reactor could have given at least some boost from a functioning torch, but there was nothing left to direct its energy to. “I'm sorry, Captain Bigelow, but it's scrap. It'd cost more to repair, both money and time, than to replace.”
“Dammit,” Bigelow whispered. All this time, Heritage - and Aurora and the two pirates, who had matched vectors - had been coasting toward Dakota. Bigelow usually boosted at seven meters, three below Human standard, and had plotted her Transition - she was her own navigator, common on such independent, low-budget freighters - with an exit speed calculated to bring her to synchronous orbit over Dakota with that rate of acceleration. In which case the ship would have been boosting with her torch facing the planet, to decelerate, and end up where the planet would be, nine hours after entering realspace. Now all four ships were ballistic at about 230 kilometers per second, Heritage's velocity when her torch was destroyed. OTV5's vector was actually plotted to catch up to the pirate ships as they went by the planet. Which would be in less than four hours. There was no risk of collision; Heritage's transponder was easily reset after the EMP, and the whole system was aware of the attack. The planet would not be where the ships were going at this speed. On the other hand, it would be a long, hard boost later to get back to the planet, unless something could be rigged now.
“Jenny,” Danner asked, “are you thinking what I'm thinking?”
“Aurora,” Blain asked her sister, “how are you feeling?”
“I feel good, Jenny,” the ship answered. “Shall I prepare to tow Heritage?”
Danner wondered if Aurora had been changed by the Close Transit. Perhaps the shock had finally initiated her journey to sentience? Rachel Marsten herself hadn't understood what happened in a Transition; her successors had more data but no more conclusions. And during the Transition, Danner had... seen things. He'd read about the Transition Addicts, though they'd mostly died out generations ago. “Affirmative, Aurora,” Danner answered. “Sarah, maneuver to towing position and prepare to deploy cables. Captain Bigelow, your ship's schematics?”
“Gods bless you, Captain,” Bigelow said softly as she turned to an engineering terminal. Heritage would still reach Dakota in only hours, instead of days.
One cannot simply tow one spaceship with another from straight ahead; the towed vessel would be directly in the exhaust of the towing ship. Getting behind and pushing was common practice, but Aurora wasn't built for it; Blain and Epstein could probably rig an adequate bumper, but they had no time if they still wanted to reach Dakota on the current orbit. Fortunately Aurora had symmetrical thrust; her four torches could be gimbaled far enough outboard so their exhaust would be angled away from the ship's centerline, not unlike Goddard's first experimental rockets, or the escape towers of the Apollo missions. Heritage, having only one torch, could not tow another ship this way. Aurora would not be able to boost at full efficiency, as her thrust was being dissipated instead of concentrated, but she had plenty of thrust to spare.
The tow cables were monomolecular fiber. This was not a new idea, having been written of by several science fiction authors decades before the Escape, but it took some decades after to actually invent them. They were a major component of orbital elevators like Dakota's, and High City's, often sheathed in weaves of the same material for safety; the naked wires were sharper than Taniyama's wakizashi and practically unbreakable. Under Blain and Epstein's direction, Heritage's crew scrambled to attach them without slicing their ship or themselves open.
Heritage creaked and groaned under nearly thirty meters of boost. Ships had been towed this way before and the methods for attaching the cables without sawing through the ship had been established. With Aurora providing the brakes, the cruiser and freighter arrived near enough to Tower One for the regular Dakota tugs to finish the job, at about the time OTV5 was delivering a squad of power-armored Marines to mop up the pirates.
Dakota's population was less than twenty million, but it seemed half of them had come to Tower One to fete Aurora and her crew. It took another thirty hours to get free.
As Aurora boosted for Dakota's peacetime ten-light-second hyper limit, Solomon Danner discussed the incident with his crew. “We got lucky.”
“We sure did, Cap'n.” Holly Cates had partied hard - she was still an attractive woman and would be for decades to come, and had no trouble finding company among Dakota's celebrants - but her expression now was not due to a hangover. “That was too easy. It always has been.” Aurora had now fired her weapons in anger three times since her rebirth, in comparable incidents across the Republic; the first while escorting a colony ship, the second while delivering a cargo to a world on another part of the Frontier. Not once, in nine Monticellan years - not once in more than two Terran centuries of her existence - had she been struck by enemy fire.
In the first incident, the pirates had been waiting behind Ravenna's fourth moon and attempted to take the colony ship as she and Aurora approached. The pirates, evidently not realizing what Aurora was, fired a Marsten beam across their bows and transmitted a demand to surrender. Gunner Cates responded with a single shot from a single Marsten Gun from one and a half light-seconds. It took forty hours for Vatelius to positively identify the residue as Human. They still weren't sure where the ship was from, except that it was Human-built; not that it mattered, as pirate ships were nearly always stolen, often several times in succession, and heavily altered with whatever weapons and parts could be found.
The second time, the tactics were very similar. This time, three pirates emerged from Endicott's beautiful ring system, loosing a spread of missiles. Aurora's point defense shot down all eleven, even the eight which wouldn't have come anywhere near her. Moments later Cates had crippled all three ships, as she had done with the two above Dakota. One of those suffered an internal explosion minutes later and was last seen entering atmosphere in an unsurvivable fashion. The others, one built by Humans and the other by Boksi, both over a century old, had been crewed by renegades of every race, even a Bwor. Danner hadn't known any of the weird, flattened people had made it off their high-gravity world in a non-official capacity; still very primitive, Bworhome was a Republic Protectorate. In this latter case, the world beneath the action had enough government to turn the prisoners over to. Danner would have been fully justified in executing them all, on prima facie evidence of piracy, one of the Big Nine crimes specified in Article One of the Constitution as justifying deadly force in response; but as he'd explained to Bigelow, there were always questions. In that second incident his restraint had proven wise, as the Endicott Militia learned enough to find and destroy a pirate base further outsystem, also freeing nearly sixty slaves.
“Someday,” Prrg contributed, “we will face a real enemy. One who can do us real harm. Even us.”
Cates nodded. “Over toward Galactic West there's talk of a pirate fleet with three heavy cruisers, or equivalents. We have quality, and plenty of it, but like that genocidal filth Stalin said, 'Quantity has a quality all its own.'”
“Well.” Danner nodded slowly in agreement. “More simulations. Contact Patrol Central for their latest scenarios. Your new Standing Order is approved, by the way, Holly, about you and Prrg.”
“Order noted,” Aurora commented. They had already broken Dakota orbit - again - and were settled on the long boost phase they'd planned on fifty hours before, so the ship's status was relaxed; and besides, Aurora was on watch. She never blinked, much less slept.
“I'll send an h-mail now,” Holly said, rising from her seat in the bridge's ready room to return to her station. “Should have a packet waiting for us at Illyria.”
The next world was 590 hours away.
Hours later, once they had Transitioned and settled into Transit routine, Prrg asked Danner how he felt about exercising authority as a Reserve Privateer for the first time.
“Frankly, friend, it makes me queasy,” Solomon answered. “A shipfolk family is one thing. But this kind of power... very few people are fit for it.”
“So I have seen, on Gnop, with my own eyes,” Prrg confirmed. “On Kshir as well. Power is a poison, and the most addictive drug.”
“I could feel it, pulling at me.”
“That you resisted – that you even recognized the 'pull' – assures me I have chosen the correct captain. For my part... I am content to be your subordinate. My place in the universe is clear to me and I am comfortable in it; you are...” here Prrg made the popping noise his race used for wry laughter- “...the Chief of my Clan, and the only person from whom I must take orders. I do not crave power for its own sake. Nor do you; which is why we became friends, long before we became family.”
Danner shuddered. “I'm just glad it's over.” He'd always wanted to command a ship, his ship. That was power, yes, but of a different kind from what he'd had to exercise above Dakota. Giving orders to others only appealed to him in the context of commanding his own ship. Acting as an enforcer of laws, or nearly so in this case, made him very uncomfortable; Jeffersonians had learned, at the cost of blood, that "laws" were usually wrong and their enforcers were often evil. He hoped he would never be called to such power again.
But he feared he would be.
Continued in the next excerpt....