Excerpts from the Jeffersonian Republic project:
This page Copyright © 2021, Karl Leffler
Aurora, Part XXXIII: Mark's World
Continued from the previous excerpt
25 Secondmonth 553JR (2355CE)
“Reserve Privateers - Patrol - anyone - please, help us! Mark's World is under pirate attack!”
Aurora had Transitioned to realspace at the traditional ten light-seconds from Mark's World. Moments later she was bombarded with messages. For the fourth time in her life and the second in earnest, the ship sounded her alarm for Reserve Privateer Activation.
“It's three ships!” Cates announced from her tactical console on the bridge. “One's bigger'n us! No transponders or IFF and they're tradin' shots with friendlies!”
“Battle stations!” Danner ordered. “Prepare to engage! Sarah, intercept!”
The cruiser's torches lit and hauled crew and passengers down into their acceleration couches. Normally, after exiting hyperspace, a ship would have its bow pointed away and its torches toward where the planet would be in its orbit, boosting to decelerate for interception. Passengers had been secured for Transition, and had been instructed in emergency procedures upon boarding, so none were injured when Sarah flipped the ship over and boosted toward the planet instead.
Aurora's wasp-waist profile allowed at least half her main guns to bear on a target from nearly any bearing, except directly ahead or astern, when only the fore or aft pair would be clear. With even a slight angle she could engage with a full broadside, eight Class-6 Marsten Guns, or the same number of heavy pulse-lasers when the FTL particle beams were overkill or otherwise uncalled for. “Hostiles confirmed,” Cates said. “One near twice our mass, th' other two 'bout ten kilotons each. One o' those'll be in range in eighty seconds-”
Aurora lurched and rang with a Marsten Beam hit - the first time in her long life she had been struck by an enemy. “Gods!” Cates exclaimed. “That's at least a Class-12!” Danner could see on the tactical holotank how the ships were arranged - the largest and one of the smaller near the planet, the third farther out, by coincidence near Aurora's exit point. He began to get a notion of their strategy.
“Evasive maneuvers, deploy countermeasures! Damage report!” Danner demanded as Sarah began jinking her 31-kiloton sister and Cates launched vapor-and-dust dispensers meant to disperse enemy beams.
“Aft bulb hit!” Blain responded. “C-turret jammed, number five Marsten Gun out of action!”
“Damn good shooting for pirates,” Danner observed bitterly. “Did that come from the big one?” A Class-12 could reach ten light-seconds but hits at that distance, against a moving target as small as a ship, would be wild luck.
“No, the nearest one,” Cates answered, “but that's still a quarter-light-second farther than our Sixes can-” the ship lurched again as another beam annihilated the countermeasure cloud, some of the energy scattering through Aurora's Marsten Field to reach the hull. Reading her displays, Cates observed, “Class-13 - on a ship that small? That's insane!”
“They probably have just one or two guns,” Danner guessed, “set up as attack boats to neutralize defenders while the big ship launches landing parties. Slow firing rate while they charge the capacitors. Sarah, note their timing and get us in range! Holly, fire when ready!”
“Twenty seconds-” the Gunner replied, while Sarah, using all her skill as a Shipfolk pilot, jinked the ship on her massive RCS thrusters again - and the third enemy beam, though narrowly, missed.
Sarah was wearing a VR headset, mild lasers projecting images directly onto her retina. Combined with her Shipfolk upbringing, she had a superior three-dimensional sense. Without words to or from the Gunner, Sarah bent Aurora's course, keeping her rolled to bring the #6 gun on the jammed third ring-turret to bear, while the ship herself continuously tracked the target with the rest of her guns. Presently Holly called, “Broadside- FIRE!”
For the first time since the Battle of Wilson's Colony centuries before, Aurora fired all her main guns at an enemy. Five of the seven faster-than-light particle beams hit, smashing through the pirate's Marsten Field and slicing the ship apart. A fusion bottle lost containment and became, briefly, a Teller-Ulam bomb. The flash was visible two seconds later, but Aurora had already dropped her armor shutters over the bridge viewports when Danner called her to battle. Holly announced, “Target destroyed!”
Danner ordered, “Prepare for Short Transit! Get us in there!” The other two pirates were still more than eight light-seconds away, only theoretically possible for even Holly and Aurora with only their Class-6 guns.
Without prompting, Aurora had gone to combat mode, squawking a Patrol/Navy IFF and changing her designation from IS to JRS. That would matter in a few seconds. From AuxCon, Prrg called, “Transit ready!” Following practiced scenarios, he had taken over navigation while Sarah handled piloting.
“Brace for Transition, engage!”
Aurora dove into and burst out of hyperspace again. This Close Transit was at 1.8 light-seconds, a bit inside the accepted combat limit, but her crew knew she could go much closer. The Transition Effects were barely noticeable in comparison to their action over Dakota. Suddenly she was surrounded by ships, the big pirate twice her own mass and its lighter escort, and a dozen others, locals or transients like herself, throwing everything they had at the pirates. One bulk freighter, Pelham Star according to the tac display, took a terrible blow from the escort gunship, lurching off her own course and plummeting toward the planet, hurling off atmosphere, dead and dying crew, and horribly few escape pods. A small tanker shattered and flashed before Danner could even read her name. Danner ordered, “Kill that gunship!”
As the words left his mouth the enemy turned their attention to Aurora. The escort, as Danner had guessed, was fitted with a pair of Class-13 Marsten Guns with a low rate of fire, but with a proper warship suddenly appearing in their faces the crew abandoned the next target in their sequence and used their emergency capacitors to fire both at Aurora. Every warning light on the bridge lit while decompression alarms wailed throughout the ship. “Hull breaches, frames twenty and sixty-six!” Blain reported. “We've lost a torch and B-turret is not responding!”
“Firin'!” Holly called. After the hyperspace exit, the jammed C-turret did not bear, but she still had A- and D-turrets. Their four guns bored through the pirate gunship and sent it to join its mate.
The main pirate ship had been using its own guns for surface bombardment, recovering its landing craft, and loot, while her escorts kept the defenders at bay. Now the last pirate, decades ago sold for scrap and much-reconfigured, lit her torches and began racing for the hyper limit. Ironically it was a retired Caledonian battlecruiser of the same class whose secondary guns were now Aurora's main battery. “Stop them!” Danner ordered, knowing there would be captives, slaves, on board. “Cripple their Drive!”
“Tryin'-” Holly answered, firing her remaining guns singly as Sarah turned the ship to pursue. “Damn it! I'm makin' th' hits but they're not gettin' through!” Among the pirate modifications would have been heavier armor and a stronger Marsten Field, for just such moments. Meanwhile, the battlecruiser's own guns, from Sixes like Aurora's own to the original Class-14s, returned fire, battering at Aurora's Field and armor, smashing the light cruiser's weapons and equipment.
A missile would have been pointless; though it could have penetrated the Field, it couldn't have caught up in time. Holly kept firing, knowing she was doing some damage, until her last beam passed through the realspace the pirate no longer occupied.
The pirates had made their escape.
Mark's World was a Republic Territory on track to qualify for Membership. Settled about halfway through the Second Wave, she had a population of nearly eighty million.
Markston, her largest city, was a smoking ruin. Tens of thousands were dead from indiscriminate use of Marsten Guns and kinetic-energy weapons against the surface, hundreds of thousands injured, a million or more homeless, damages estimated in tons of currency-metal. Such devastation hadn't been seen since the Terran Empire's War of Unification, when the UN fleet had bombarded Israel and Switzerland.
The pirates were tentatively identified as the flotilla of Roger Brown, a Human leading renegades of all kinds, thought to be operating much further out on the Frontier. This had been a deep-penetration raid against a world that had thought itself secure. They had gone for three selected targets: The primary currency reserve, a cooperative vault complex containing the precious metals and other such commodities of nearly twenty different planetary and interstellar banks; an orbital fabbery making Marsten Drives and various other ship components; and a school. Each target had been hit efficiently and ruthlessly. The pirates certainly had inside information, diagrams, codes. Probably a Markser taken prisoner elsewhere in space, or simply one with a grudge against his birth-world, had given up the information. The raid may have been in planning for months or years.
One of the escorting gunships had arrived days before the attack, her weapons concealed, ship and crew disguised as a simple tramp not much different from Sarah Heusner's Flying Flea. They had taken a normal orbit, sent down normal shuttles, even conducted normal business while also conducting reconnaissance and coordinating with their insiders before departing to fetch their fellows. Who those insiders were might be unraveled eventually, based on the information used, but the traitors had either escaped with the pirates or been murdered and discarded by them at the end of their usefulness. After taking all they could from their chosen targets, the pirates destroyed them with high-energy weapons. Pieces of the orbital factory, and dead ships caught in the attack, were still raining on populated areas. Aurora's remaining weapons were kept busy trying to reduce the damage, breaking up the debris into smaller pieces that would burn on entry, could be deflected to safer impacts by other ships' weapons, or would cause less harm wherever they fell.
Mark's World had the typically-limited Jeffersonian government, a Constitution compatible with the Republic's, and a planetary (Territorial) Triumvirate. Of those, only Councillor Frederick Morris had survived. He was on screen with Captain Danner now, medics still tending the stump of his left arm. “Captain,” Morris asked through his pain, “what is your status?” Aurora was now the most-powerful, and least-damaged, ship in orbit.
Which wasn't saying much. “We can fly and fight,” Danner answered, “but not much of either. Minor injuries to the crew, nothing of note. A couple passengers more serious, they're being offloaded now. Most systems are intact but we're about out of fuel, we've lost three of eight Marsten Guns and four secondary lasers, we have only one boat left and we'll have to cannibalize its twin to keep it flying. One of our torches is down too. Armor severely degraded, we would not survive another such engagement.” One of the pirate battlecruiser's Class-14 guns had shot completely through Aurora, wrecking three sections of the forward grav-ring: Clancy's galley and berth, the Transit/orbit dining compartment, and the auxiliary dining space next to Vatelius' berth, which had also been badly damaged. Clancy now held a personal grudge for the loss of his property, but his cause paled next to the Marksers'.
“Captain Danner...” Morris swallowed. “Can you pursue?” It was, barely, possible to track ships through hyperspace, through skillful use of the Marsten Detector, which was to radar what the original Marsten Device was to radio. Jennifer Blain, who could hold a whole Drive schematic in her head the way John Browning could a pistol's, was one of the few people who could read a Detector well enough to sniff out a “wake” of hyperspatial turbulence – and that only if it was fresh.
Danner was taken aback. “Councillor, we're a wreck. What you're asking is above and beyond.”
“Captain, they've taken prisoners.” The man's voice shook. “Forty-four children that we know of. At least a dozen adult women.” The school had been a private academy catering to the planet's wealthier families. Ransom demands were expected, along with the traditionally gruesome proof-of-possession. The pattern was, these would be delivered by capsule from a ship making Close Transits in and out.
Danner closed his eyes and dipped his head. “Damn.” Unseen, he heard his crew shifting behind him.
“Danner, yours is the only ship with a chance of catching them. They can outrun everything they can't kill and kill anything they can't outrun – except you.”
Danner held up a hand to stop Councillor Morris. He turned to face his crew. “Well?”
“I have them,” Jenny pronounced, clenching a fist, eyes blazing as they stared at her engineering station, now linked to Ralph's science console and Aurora's sensors. “But the trail will fade in hours.”
“I want a rematch,” Holly stated with heat from her weapons console, “but you're right, cap'n, we're a mess.” None of the other crew showed hint of not wanting to chase down a heavily-armed pirate cruiser in a battered antique half its size.
Danner asked the person who really counted. “Aurora?”
“My Captain,” she replied, “you ask whether I wish to fulfill my purpose in life, my very reason for being. Let us go.”
“Weigh less heavily than my duty. To my fellow Persons.”
Danner, all the crew, made a little gasp. There it was: Aurora had claimed sentience, self-awareness, personhood. The very first of her kind. Danner caressed his console, tenderly-
-and turned back to Morris with fire in his eyes. “Fuel, parts, replacement armor, ammunition, and volunteer repair crew. Fast.”
“Yes- yes, of course! At once!” Morris waved frantically off-screen with his remaining arm.
But Danner continued: “Councillor, you know Republic policy. We won't negotiate. If we have to destroy them- even with hostages aboard....”
Morris nodded solemnly. “That is understood, Captain,” the Councillor stated for the official record. “We know there are fates worse than death. We ask an end to their suffering, one way... or the other. Do what you must.”
Danner spoke, knowing Aurora would automatically route his words correctly: “All hands, all passengers, this is Captain Danner.
“Aurora is activating as Reserve Privateer. We will pursue the pirate ship.
“All cargo is being offloaded, as are the wounded passengers. Anyone else who wants off, assemble amidships for boats to Mark's World.
“Trained volunteers to crew vacant stations will be very welcome. Input your qualifications at any console, or simply speak directly to Aurora. I emphasize, volunteers only. We will be going in harm's way.”
Meanwhile, Danner's conversation with Morris had been... accessible by Mark's World's population. The mother of one of the stolen children owned an orbital foundry. She had stacks of armor plate floating toward docks before Danner had finished his damage report. The brother of one of the missing women flew a heavy freight shuttle, and knew the foundry woman; he diverted at the same time, without ceremony dumping his ore cargo to a parking orbit to make room for the armor. A Shipfolk family on a tanker working the comets and back, with dirtside relatives among the killed, made a Close Transit, pushing the hard Limit; they Transitioned bent and leaking and with half the family unconscious, but their adolescent prodigy navigator brought the ship perfectly on station to refuel Aurora, wiping blood from her own eyes off her displays. Every, every ship in reach with a compatible weapon emptied their magazines and spares lockers into shuttles or containers and sent them to Aurora.
Two hundred thousand Marksers transmitted their military records or shipwright resumés. Cates and Aurora ruthlessly sorted, first by those who could reach the ship in time, then by those whose service, and therefore training, were most recent. Figuring in nine volunteers from the uninjured – or rather, less-injured – passengers, she chose another thirty and warned that any who weren't aboard in two hours would be left behind.
Epstein led Hlossh in securing their supplies, lashing them with monofiber, carefully padded with mats woven of similar material, to the hull once the holds were full. The volunteer crew would perform repairs in Transit, making EVAs in hyperspace, something not done, except in rare and choreographed exercises, since the Republic-Empire War. A dealer in Markston, without word or comment, sent his personal Fontaine aircar to replace One Boat, a pair of brand-new Type 347 shuttles to replace Two and Three, and a pair of Type 318s to replace Four and Five. Packed inside them was everything that would fit and made some kind of sense, from the arms shop across the plaza.
Piloting one of the 347s was a young woman, wearing the badges of a Patrol-trained nurse and surgical-assistant, and the two bars of a Navy/Patrol Lieutenant, Junior Grade. Her large brown eyes were filled with sorrow and rage, and no one needed to ask why. Coming through the airlock she asked bluntly, “Where's Vatelius?”
“Here,” Ralph answered, raising his head from tending a wounded passenger who had volunteered as a cargo handler. The Monticellan had his own share of fame now, as both doctor and scientist.
“I'm Delilah, your new assistant. I'll take over sickbay while you hunt them.” Without further word, she bent to take over the treatment. After a moment, Ralph nodded and turned back toward his science station on the bridge.
His ship-sister Jenny needed help with the sensors. All his other work would wait.
Aurora's four main reactors, and the torches they fed, could be cross-linked in case of damage. Warship designers, particularly Jeffersonian, were professionally paranoid, spending many an hour imagining the improbably-catastrophic- and then building against it. Even with Plant Two down, Blain reported they could make 50 meters acceleration in realspace, and at least c140 in hyper. With the ship's three auxiliaries, each more powerful than some liners' primaries, adding their output, Aurora could nearly make her “normal”, famous, speed – and by the end of her first Transit Jenny expected to have the damaged plant repaired. Even wounded, there were few ships in the galaxy who could outrun Aurora. The pirate cruiser wasn't going to be one of them.
Continued in the next excerpt....