Excerpts from the Jeffersonian Republic project:
This page Copyright (c) 2016, Karl Leffler
Aurora, Part XLIX: Loyalty
Continued from the previous excerpt
Bogdan was given a plain gray shipsuit and his old clothes were sent to the shuttle's recycler. Any lingering nanites wouldn't survive. A larger wardrobe would be fabbed for him aboard Aurora. His new garb could not conceal or even hold all his weapons, so he left most in bins in the shuttle, wearing only a railgun pistol and a simple cutlass. Aurora's 'bots would carry them to his quarters later.
Two Boat returned to Aurora, where Bogdan was subjected to more scans in case the portable Examiner had missed something, which it seemed not to have. He was escorted to the salon, guarded and observed by Aurora's robots, while the Family gathered to hear his story. Clancy brought his real Irish whiskey.
"They used me," Bogdan rasped. "They let me escape and have been following me, for years, hoping I would lead them to... her. And now I have." Even though the nanomarkers and transmitters had been destroyed, it would be simple to deduce where Bogdan went... but Danner had an idea about that.
"Stefan will find us a tough nut. How did you find us?" Danner asked, while pouring another finger for the broken man.
"After I escaped, and acquired a comm, I compiled a list of all the ships... she... could have reached. There were twenty-two. Yours was the fourteenth. I set the comm to search for mentions of any of them. You seem to be famous....
"I have experience in surveillance, so it wasn't difficult to follow you from the docks. You had no reason to expect I, anyone, would. I hoped to find a discreet place and time to contact you. I had no reason to expect you would recognize me....
"The person who helped me escape - one of them, I suppose - put me on a ship as cargo. Once in hyperspace I did labor, cleaning, menial. They left me at Calabar.
"Once there, I did... whatever I could to survive. I went to... dark places. Wagered the only thing I had, my life. I killed... for money... for other people's sport. Long odds, on a man with one leg, one eye and half a hand. But I trained with your Marines, before. New Israelis." Anna, Delilah and Sarah had been taking a girls' day, and were now in hiding, but the rest of the crew had returned on Aurora's call. They all nodded; there were two New Israelis in their crew. Jack Epstein had held his own in every brawl he'd joined, and Daisuke could open a profitable dojo if he were inclined. The Old Israeli martial arts, like krav maga, had blended with those of Old Japan for generations. Only the cheapest schools didn't teach at least part of them to children. Republic Marines learned considerably more. Frontier backwaters would have seen little of it, and their brawlers would not have been prepared.
"Soon I earned enough for... these." Bogdan gestured at his leg and eye. "Then for fare to another world, and another. Work... sometimes more of the same. Sometimes my training as a Royal Guard, investigation, surveillance. Sometimes a courier... smuggler. Though I understand that's not often a crime in your Republic.
"But always, I tried to find... my Queen. Never realizing I was leading the enemy to her.... Three times they found me, on one world or another. Staged, I realize now. I escaped or defeated them too easily. They must have planted the devices during those.
"Captain, I am grateful for your kindness. When may I present myself to Her Majesty?"
Danner locked eyes with Plebanek and held his gaze for a moment. The broken man was beginning to put himself back together, and did not look away. "I'll make arrangements," Danner told him. "It may be some days."
Meanwhile, the Family's Three Hot Chicks, Anna, Delilah and Sarah, had hopped a shuttle planetside, not rented but bought a trio of used Hoppers, and got deliberately lost in South Continent's mountains.
The Hayama Hopper was a single-seat aircar introduced nearly fifty Monticellan years earlier. In another century or two it would be as legendary as the Epsilon Automotive FlyCycle, a transonic two-seater whose market share the Hopper was taking ever larger bites out of. Neither was big enough to mount fusion power, but had nearly unlimited range as long as water and sunlight were available.
Someone from pre-Escape Terra couldn't tell by looking, but both vehicles were covered with photovoltaic panels masquerading as a glossy finish. Solar power technology had grown immensely since the tax-funded scams just before the Fall of America. Without bureaucrats regulating every step of every process, and cronies wasting any real progress made, someone figured out how to make them work. Legend had it, that someone was the Founder himself, Kurt Vetter, but like Sam Colt, he'd hired the actual technical work done after outlining the concept.
The electrical power was used to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen, for vehicle fuel, breathing air, even rocket fuel. It had been standard equipment on nearly every ship and personal vehicle built in Known Space since the end of the War, at least as an emergency backup. It was also good for distilling safe drinking water from any liquid that claimed to be "water". The Hopper was Republic-made, and its filters could be cleaned with a random stick, without damage, in about a minute. They needed to be replaced every decade. Or three. It was only half as fast as a FlyCycle and could carry less cargo, but fleets of them had been sold to courier companies and something over twenty million, so far, to individuals. Some were used for nothing more than commuting to work, like old Terran road scooters. Others, by nomadic curmudgeon loners who lived out of them, wandering across a planet as they willed. It was like a touring motorcycle, which flew. Hayama Corp. didn't make anything else, and didn't make a lot of changes-for-change's-sake. They were too busy meeting the demand.
Upon Aurora's warning, the girls had ducked into a restroom and changed their appearances again. Anna was now blonde, Delilah had blue eyes and light-brown hair, and Sarah had changed her fur to a Water Tribe gray, with a Harness configured to match. Then they'd stopped at an outfitter and loaded up on supplies, basic 250-hour survival kits - factory made by a hundred companies, international standard in lifeboats, they spent only two minutes grabbing them off the store's shelves and tossing coins at the checkout 'bot.
The used-vehicle dealership had been a short walk away. Sarah, with Shipfolk experience, and Anna, now a trained Engineer's Mate, looked them over and picked what they felt were the best three, again paying with metal and leaving no record. Kurt Vetter had prohibited vehicle registration, as an instrument of government control, at the Founding. The last person to bring it back had been Thaddeus Webb, whose weathered skull still decorated the New Alamo. Now the prohibition served to throw off pursuit, if any, by assassins hunting Agnieszka.
So, the three had at least eight local days of supplies. They were armed too; each had a midsword, while Sarah and Delilah carried the usual M437 plasma pistol, which could be recharged indefinitely from the Hoppers - that was a feature Hayama had added a long time ago. Anna wore her Model Forty-One slugthrower with three 13-round magazines and a fortieth round in the chamber. These were worn openly, even on a Central World like Monticello; Article VIII, Section 2, was explicit, and was another reason for "governor" Webb's skull being on a spike. They would have drawn a few looks... before the raid on Mark's World. After, parents were pulling their children out of schools that didn't advertise armed teachers.
They didn't really feel hunted, but took Danner's warning seriously. They voted for Delilah to pick a direction, then followed her through valleys and canyons, taking holos as they went, stopping here or there for fishing or hunting - like a Terran bear, their Eyani sister Sarah could swat fish out of a stream. She helped the others make spears of their midswords, which they used to bring down a wild grumper, similar to a Terran boar. Thus they conserved rations, ammunition and power and made no loud shots to give away their position.
They were on communication silence, their transmitters disabled, but their receivers set to silently accept anything in range, alerting them with vibration or screen text. By the third day, they'd heard some sport hunters at least forty kilometers away - they changed course to get even more distance. They were waiting for a coded "all clear" burst from Aurora.
What they got instead was detailed text instructions for rendezvous and extraction. Anna blushed at the authentication - Solomon reminding her of something that happened in the little grove of trees, in the O'Neill Cylinder over New Halifax. Ganging their three 'puters together for transmitting power, they aimed at a certain star at a certain time and sent an acknowledgement which anyone could mistake for a burst of static from a sunspot or lightning strike.
Two days later, and having crossed the 320km Western Channel non-stop, they sold the Hoppers to a dealer outside Cincinnati, donated the remains of their kits to a charity second-hand store, and bought an old Lancer four-seat aircar from another dealer. This they took to orbit, then beyond, shutting down lights and transponder, after a final burn coasting to rendezvous with Five Boat, one of the big Type 318 freight shuttles. The Lancer fit, if tightly, in the cargo bay. Now they could establish secure laser communication with Aurora.
Solomon's warning, relayed without detail by Aurora, had told them only of a potential threat, not even saying toward whom. During Transits the Family had discussed scenarios and responses - several of the crew as individuals, and all as a family, had made enemies. When Aurora sent the code signal for "run and hide", they did. Now they learned why.
Anna/Agnieszka was shocked speechless for long minutes, while Solomon told her all he knew. "Ralph checked him physically, and he poses no such threat we can't handle, but there's still a possibility of brainwashing, programming. Naturally he wants to meet you. I don't want him to see you, or even know we're in contact, until I have your input."
Agnieszka sat before the screen, staring at nothing, processing these events. Finally she said, "Please show me live video of him." As Aurora did so, she gasped in sympathy and horror.
Solomon asked, "Can you give me something to ask him, for authentication?"
"Yes," she answered. "Ask him how many peaches I took from the tree."
A minute later Danner replied, "He said four. Then he said he took one for himself and winked at you."
The young woman dabbed at her eyes. "Solomon-" she broke off, turning her face away. When she looked back her eyes were dry, and Anna Nowak, the woman Solomon Danner had been falling in love with, was gone. "Captain," she said formally. "I must ask for certain preparations."
Pain shot across Danner's face. He bowed his head and answered, "I understand."
17 Thirdmonth 557JR
IS Aurora, Tau Ceti system
Agnieszka gave her instructions to Aurora, who passed them on to the crew. After her years of hiding, after all that Bogdan had suffered, she needed to perform her first official acts as Queen in the right way.
Bogdan had been quartered in one of the passenger berths. Aurora had fabbed an Illyrian Royal Guard uniform for him, while Jenny, Ralph, Glub, Hlossh and Trllbl rebuilt his prosthetics. They were still crude by Republic standards but were hugely improved over the back-alley junk he'd bought on Calabar. In time they'd be replaced by cloned parts, already growing in Aurora's sickbay, and he'd be a whole man again. His teeth had already been reconstructed, synthetics that would outlast the rest of him, and his facial scars, if not yet erased, were at least muted.
Bogdan was exercising his newer leg, performing kata, when Danner chimed his compartment's hatch. Upon opening, the captain said, "Armsman. Your Queen approaches, within the hour. Please prepare yourself, and await her in the salon." Bogdan blinked, opened his mouth, then closed it, snapped to Attention, and saluted. He then turned away to bathe and dress.
Presently he exited the lift in the crew's spin-weight salon, in the forward grav-ring. He was directed to a seat to await Agnieszka. All the crew were turned out with formal wear, the veterans in Navy Whites or Marine Blacks, even Sarah wearing a Navy Harness with her Reserve Warrant Officer insignia.
A few minutes later the lift approached again. As it opened all stood, while Jack Epstein blew on his Bosun's whistle and announced, "Illyria, Arriving!"
All stopped, and stared, as she made her entrance.
Aurora had fabbed for her new clothes, a military dress uniform, partly Jeffersonian in cut but in the crimson-white-and-gold of Illyria. Despite her diminutive size, she projected a command presence, something honed by Holly Cates' lessons but naturally within her, dormant no more. On the tunic's breast she wore only her two Jeffersonian awards, the Navy Combat Action Ribbon and the Pentamvirate Unit Citation, the latter bearing the clasp with Aurora's centuries-old hull number, CL63.
At her right hip she wore the same 10.4mm slug pistol she had made for herself in Aurora's shop, as an Engineer's Mate... now polished and engraved. At her left rode two spare magazines, and the Jeffersonian M12 midsword Solomon Danner had given her the hour she came aboard, now also embellished.
There was a final change. She had returned to her natural appearance. Her eyes, flashing like sapphires. Her hair, glowing like a sunset. Nestled there was a crown, little more than a tiara, of simple elegance in silver and gold, cast from coins given by every member of her adoptive family, with her personal coat-of-arms engraved by Trllbl's skilled tentacles. It had been made by them in secret, years ago, after learning her true name. Solomon, wordlessly, had placed it on her head with his own hands minutes before. Much passed between their eyes... until he dipped his head and looked away.
Two of Aurora's robots flanked her, ready to intervene if Bogdan made a threatening move. Indeed, as he stared, open-mouthed, his right hand moved to the hilt of the crude cutlass he wore at his left hip. He drew the blade, but the robots made no move; they were fast enough, if needed.
Bogdan took a lurching step forward, then another, looming over the young woman - then fell to his knees, his artificial one clanging on the deck. He turned his weapon, presenting it to his Queen, the hilt near her right hand, the cutting edge toward himself. Tears rolled from his remaining eye yet again.
"Your Majesty," he hoarsely said. "Command me."
She took the cutlass in her hand, raising it before her. She spent a moment examining it, before handing it to the robot to her left.
As confusion and fear crossed Bogdan's face, she said to him, "That weapon was not worthy of you." She held out her hand to the robot on her right, and in it was placed another sword - longer, slimmer, straight, somewhere between broadsword and rapier. It had been forged by the hands of every member of the crew, from a scrap of Aurora's armor mangled in the Battle of RAS1441. Like the crown, it had been made in secret, to be gifted to her should she ever reclaim her throne. Jenny had given it to her when she came back aboard, with a very un-royal hug. Now, Queen Agnieszka drew the blade, and the embellishments were breathtaking in their understatement, exquisitely tasteful, proving this was a weapon meant to be used.
"Bogdan Plebanek. Since Our very birth you have been in service to Us. In times of peace and of hardship. Against Our own resistance and misunderstanding. You have sacrificed-" The young Queen's voice broke. "So much. You have been broken on Our behalf." Tears welled in her own eyes.
"You shall be remade." She rested the blade on Bogdan's left shoulder, then his right, then raised it before her again, while proclaiming, "In the name of God and by Our power as rightful Queen of Illyria We Knight thee, and name thee Commander of Our Royal Guard and Our personal Champion." Reversing the sword to hold its hilt toward him, she commanded, "Rise, Sir Bogdan, and receive your Queen's gratitude for your ultimate loyalty."
Continued in the next excerpt....