Excerpts from the Jeffersonian Republic project:
This page Copyright (c) 2016, Karl Leffler
Aurora, Part LI: A Time to Steal
Continued from the previous excerpt
3 Thirdmonth 558JR
Novy Krakow was a den of infamy.
Originally settled by the Terran Empire, it had seceded at the outbreak of the Empire's war against the Jeffersonian Republic. Admiral Jeffrey Hansen had declared independence and neutrality, and enforced it with the Imperial Navy task force stationed there, which he had worked for years to stack with his chosen officers.
At the end of the Republic-Empire War, Hansen had been assassinated by Imperial holdouts. His subordinate, Captain Trevor Aldritch, had seized the reins, declared himself King, and established a strong constitutional monarchy.
This had functioned well until a dispute over a newly-settled world arose between the Kingdom of Novy Krakow and the Russian Star Empire - which had been founded in much the same way, by secession from the Terran Empire. The Russians smashed Novy Krakow and the Aldritch reign collapsed. His line and many of their subjects made exodus to Illyria. Agnieszka was his direct linear descendant and heir. Technically Stefan had a higher claim in line of succession, but had forfeited it by murdering all other contenders he could, including his father, an uncle and two brothers.
But over a century earlier, Novy Krakow fell to anarchy. The planet was carved up by warlords, former nobility under the Aldritch reign, generals and admirals, or simple opportunists strong enough to keep what they seized. For decades the world had been a pit of slavery, murder and piracy. The Jeffersonian Republic, and other nations, made occasional expeditions to rescue some victims and punish some offenders. Holly Cates had participated in the last such, as had Sergei Fellows, now the Jeffersonian ambassador to the Lii Confederation on Oskran.
That last raid had been among the most substantial, knocking out the worst warlords, freeing thousands of slaves, and setting up a puppet government whose continued existence depended on keeping the peace, preventing piracy and combating slavery. The Republic wanted stability for the world but could not let itself be seen as imperialistic. Nor did they want a prolonged Occupation, as Solomon had explained to "Anna" during the Transit from Illyria to Sylvan. Rather than taking over, the Republic had planted the seeds of eventual rehabilitation from within.
Detmund the Golden had been left as king of the planet, more than twenty Monticellan years ago. He was allowed autonomy, not required to pay tribute or taxes to the Republic, so long as more-or-less-yearly Inspectors found no evidence of piracy or slavery. The blonde giant of a man took his role seriously enough, keeping discipline in his Army and Navy, publicly hanging rapists and slavers, sending looters to indenture, mounting the occasional anti-piracy patrol in his own and nearby systems. His subjects didn't call him "Good King", but they sometimes called him "Fair".
Still, a planet was a big place, and Detmund's hand did not reach everywhere, nor his eyes see. Crimes did still occur at, or originate from, Novy Krakow. Many was the little unnamed village where people could be quietly bought and sold, where cargos stolen from murdered crews were traded or liquidated. The Republic Investigators Corps, the only thing near a police force allowed by the Founders, had dug deep but not found Detmund complicit. Between Detmund's geniune lack of resources and avoiding the double-edged horror of Occupation, little could be done.
One such village was halfway up a mountain at sixty-two degrees south latitude. They came and went, scattering from Detmund's army and setting up in a new place as necessary. The King's Navy couldn't be everywhere either, and smaller starships could slip past the orbital patrols to make camouflaged planetfall before being tracked. This village had been in operation for about two thousand hours, and its leaders were thinking about moving again. The place pretended to be aboveboard, with no open display of their crimes. Gestures and code phrases were used to access other services.
The crew of Independent Starship Dandelion had not come for slaves, or pirate loot. They had come as thieves.
Their Captain was a roguish-looking man, average of height and build, with curly black hair and beard. His eyes were near black as well, though his skin was fair. He called himself "Bronson, Ted Bronson," as he clasped forearms with the Nikar behind the bar in the village saloon, applying pressure with his fingers just so. His smile was bright but incomplete, missing the upper-left canine. A vertical scar marked his forehead over the right eye, which it skipped over, briefly reappearing on the cheek before disappearing in the beard.
The Nikar returned the gesture. "Trmm Hrrg Nnt, at your service," the being replied, his scales flashing in silver roundels. "I'm told you're looking for a tourist guide."
"Yes," Bronson answered. "The wife, she wanted to see the Palace as long as we were here." The Captain gestured to the woman at his side. The two were of a size and color, but she was even more muscular than he, handsome enough but something less than feminine - not that Nikar eyes could tell. They both wore plain shipsuits, one-piece multi-pocket utility coveralls which doubled as spacesuit underwear, in gray-green. Their ship's logo, a dandelion seed in flight, rode on their right shoulders. No flags or other insignia were visible.
"Access to the Palace is difficult these days," Nnt said. "Expensive."
Bronson smiled while placing a hand in a pocket. Metal clinked. "What's your favorite color?"
Nnt swept an arm to a curtained doorway behind the bar. Once inside, the Nikar produced a white-noise device and switched it on. "I must say, Captain Bronson, when Ta'Nuf contacted me I thought she'd been drinking. You plan to steal century-old Aldritch-dynasty relics from within the Palace itself? You are insane!"
"Quite possibly," Bronson agreed with a smile. "But you don't have to come with us. All we need from you is information. For which-" Bronson produced a leather pouch which clanked musically on a table- "we have brought your price."
Nnt opened the pouch and counted twenty mounces, "metric ounces" of 25 grams each, rhodium. They were minted by four different governments and at least three other places, but were all of an acceptable weight and purity. "Yesss," the Nikar hissed, his cultivated Human accent slipping as the ingots tumbled through his scaled fingers. "And the other part of our agreement?"
"The Aldritch Eye," Mrs. Bronson said. That was a sapphire of exceptional size and quality, one of the few surviving regalia of King Trevor's reign. Left behind in the scramble to flee anarchy, legend said it had been pried out of Trevor's cold dead hands. It was still used in ceremonies by Detmund and his predecessors. "If it's there."
"My sssourcccce- ahem. My source confirms it was present some thousand hours ago." Nnt produced a data chip and handed it over. "Here is everything I have. Plans, both ancient originals and fresh reconstructions. Guard schedules, as many codes as could be obtained. Hence my price; if you are successful - or even if you are not - all of this information will become worthless as they make changes after."
"If we're right," the Captain said, "we'll make twelve, maybe fifteen times as much as we paid, even at fence rates. If we find the right collectors, more yet. Your cut will be enough to... heh. Imagine."
Nnt looked the couple over. They seemed like ordinary tramp crew, not master thieves. "The first part of our agreement is fulfilled," he said, "and I eagerly await the second. But... I do worry. Are you certain you have the skills to perform this task?"
Mrs. Bronson chuckled. "That's how the hubby and I met," she said, leaning over to peck the man's cheek. "You've heard of the Tsarevna's Rainbow?" This was an artifact from the Russian Star Empire, a necklace made for one of the Tsar's daughters. It totalled something over four hundred carats of rubies, sapphires, emeralds, amethyst, and diamonds, set in no less than two hectograms of gold.
"That was stolen four years ago!" Nnt exclaimed. "Never recovered- no!"
"She gave me this, that night," Captain Bronson said with a grin, jerking a thumb at his facial scar. "I knew then I'd found the right woman."
"I took some convincing," the woman added. "He gave me a couple scars too... then he started talking. Said if we didn't work together we'd trip the alarms and neither would profit. Smart fellow."
"After a job like that, I would have retired," Nnt said. Even his reptilian face showed amazement.
"We decided to invest instead," the Captain said. The couple turned so the shoulder patches with their ship's logo could be seen.
"Like I said," Mrs. Bronson added, "smart fellow. Shame we had to break the thing up for sale, though." Her mouth quirked in a smile as she reached up to tuck some hair behind an ear... where shone chips of diamond, ruby, emerald, sapphire and amethyst, set in gold. "It was gorgeous."
Dandelion's crew had come down from their ship in a SkyTruck medium shuttle, battered and mismatched but spaceworthy. This they concealed in some hills outside Krakow City, wherein they took rooms at a scruffy-looking hotel that preferred cash and didn't ask a lot of questions.
They gathered in the Captain's room to examine the data and make their plans. Also on the job was a slightly-built Human female, brown of hair and eye, and an older man who might have been her father, graying but very fit.
The older man said, "The Aldritch legends were secret, told only to those of the blood. Naturally some were overheard by servants and may have been distorted over the generations, but some were specific enough I think they can be relied on."
He began pointing out features in the holomap Nnt had provided. "Despite the code phrase Nnt used, visitors to the Palace are welcome. Tourism has started coming back under Detmund's rule, at least here in the city. Some come for the sense of danger I expect. There's a group tour scheduled twenty-seven hours from now. We can walk through the front gate. The Aldritch Regalia is one of the advertised stops, with the vault open for pictures."
"We'll do that for reconnaissance," the Captain observed, "though I've no desire to shoot my way through a crowd of tourists."
"No," the young woman agreed. "We'll have to go another way...."
Forty hours later, the four of them, dressed in full-body black skinsuits, climbed into a sewer outlet nearly two kilometers from the Aldritch Palace. Their hoods blocked the stench of sewage, the full coverage and hydrophobic treatment reduced forensic evidence. Their visors projected and received ultraviolet light, as infrared might trigger heat sensors further on, though they received that too. Walking upright in the three-meter-diameter drain, they began hiking toward their goal. Besides night-vision, their visors gave them inertial navigation, with their reconstructed map of city and Palace overlaid. Sewer intersections were off by only a few meters, and the computers told them they were heading in the right direction.
The drains were of cast polycrete, expected to last about five hundred Terran years. So far they seemed to be as advertised, but it was here their first problem arose: Squatters. Large chambers had been built for storm surges which rarely came. Shanties arose instead, lit by stolen electrical power from the city above. The first one they encountered was crude, simple, with only a few lamps and glowstrips and open flames.
The maps guided them to a side passage where they could bypass most of the people. Their visors passively showed them the glow of sleeping forms, to be carefully stepped around or over. Warned by Nnt's information package, they carried knockout gas, which they sprayed in the faces of those awake enough to notice their party.
Another half-kilometer, and they found a larger shanty, this one apparently with its own fusion pack, powering lights, climate control, and water purification. Nnt's data had warned them of this too; it was generations old, "founded" by one of the petty warlords who arose at the Aldritch reign's fall and still ruled by his heirs, literally under Detmund's nose. A truce had been made with Detmund after the last Republic punitive raid; Lord Berthold kept peace below as Detmund's puppet, just as Detmund did for the Republic.
Still, the thieves could not let their presence be known. Again side passages were used, the four making their stealthy way around the outskirts of the underground village. The knockout spray left behind an odor of cheap liquor, which would rarely be questioned. Twice they had to use needlers, pistols throwing darts of the same compound, which would dissolve and leave no identifiable trace.
After a half-hour's quiet travel, the drains reducing in size with each intersection, they reached the point the legends spoke of and began their search. Ultraviolet lasers were used, first to network their visor computers together, then to scan the surface of the sewer tunnel for anomalies.
Cast into the polycrete surface were markers, section numbers, dates of installation. The computers mapped and highlighted them on the thieves' visors. The markers had been made by inserting character blocks, like an old-fashioned printing press, before the pour. Variance in the blocks caused the letters and numbers to be slightly uneven relative to the tunnel surface.
Examining the options, the young woman stepped up to the tunnel wall and pressed two such letters in the same block: "T", then "A", the King's initials.
There was a click, and a thud, and a rush of air, and what appeared to be a casting seam was revealed as a Human-sized door.
The passage had no power; its builders intended it to be available for centuries, usable even if the city's power failed. The door, purely mechanical, was well-fitted and swung open with little resistance. The four entered and pressed the door shut behind them, to disappear among the polycrete. The inside latch was large and obvious, meant more as an emergency escape route to the sewers. The reverse was to be used only in secret, concealed from those, like the four thieves, who sought to invade the Palace undetected. They intended coming out the same way.
The passage began to climb. Their visors told them they had reached the surface, then gone higher, up stairs of more polycrete, into the Palace itself. This path had been forgotten, perhaps not used since it had been built; King Trevor had not been saved by it. It had been well-sealed; there were no cobwebs, or the native equivalent on this planet. The air was stale and without their suits they could not have breathed. Finally the passage ended, with a door different in shape from the one far below, bearing an identical latch.
The four thieves spent some time listening, with sensitive devices, looking through the walls with a passive thermoscope, and making sure their suits were clean, that they would leave no traces. Detecting no occupants or activity, they carefully opened the door and found themselves in a lavatory adjacent to the Royal Bedchamber.
Even monarchs had to go to the bathroom.
Leaving the door propped open, not knowing where its secret release was, they exited the lavatory and there was King Detmund, with his wife Queen Maryam, asleep in the Bedchamber itself. A different knockout gas was used here, leaving no odor or hangover, simply ensuring they would not awaken for hours. Nnt's information package had told them there were no alarms in the Bedchamber.
The next problem was the corridor outside, where a pair of the King's Guards stood always on duty. According to Nnt's sources, servants in the Royal Household, the shift change would be about... now. Through the door they could hear it, the commands and responses spoken softly to not disturb their rulers. They waited another seven minutes for the communications check, an odd number meant to throw off thieves like themselves taking advantage of the schedule.
When their suits told them the acknowledgements had been sent, the Captain opened the door. Mrs. Bronson and the older man smoothly stepped through and gassed the two guards, catching them to prevent clatter as they fell. The thieves' visors began a countdown of 19 minutes - the shortest known of the random times checks were made.
The Royal Vault was thirty meters down the hall; they'd seen it in the tour the day before. Two more Guards stood watch there, with a long approach - they couldn't be reached unseen. Again, Mrs. Bronson and the older man made the play, leaning around the corner leading to the Guards and shooting them with their needler pistols. These did make noise as they fell, but it couldn't be helped.
The Captain and the young woman rushed forward to the Vault's door. With the older man giving her a lift, Mrs. Bronson reached up to attach a device to the only camera covering the approach, giving it a loop of the Guards at their station, then joined the older man in defensive positions with their needlers in case of reinforcements.
The Vault was also purely mechanical, of the same philosophy as the secret passage, to be accessed even if power failed. The live guards had been considered security enough, and there were no alarms on the contents. The young woman spun the combination, then nodded to the Captain, who turned the locking wheel and heaved the door open.
Twenty rhodium might have seemed like a lot, but not for the combination to a vault holding the crown jewels of an entire planet. They'd got their money's worth.
There was no time for celebration. The four hadn't said a word to each other since entering the sewer. The young woman and the Captain entered the Vault and began stuffing bags with relics, starting with the Aldritch Eye.
The young woman hesitated, staring at the huge sapphire, for just a moment, before dropping it into her sack.
More loot was gathered: Bars and coins of gold and platinum, jewelry worn by the Aldritch Queen and Princesses, a ceremonial sword, the pistol said to have been found, locked empty, beside King Trevor's corpse - and the Crown, the first Crown of the Aldritch Dynasty, bearing the scars and bloodstains of a Terran century of violent hand-changing. The sacks were of memory-plastic, collapsing to a compact form but becoming rigid at the touch of a button. When the first two were full they were socketed into clamps on the harnesses worn by Mrs. Bronson and the older man. The Captain and young woman then rigidified the other two, setting them on each others' backs, and began filling those.
When the four thieves had all they could carry they dragged all four drugged Guards into the Vault and locked them inside. They made their way back through the Bedchamber, into the lavatory, and through the secret door, which they welded shut behind them. The seam took advantage of the regular slabs of marble used to construct the Palace. The route they took might never be discovered.
Down the stairs they went, back to the sewer door and the polycrete tunnels, using a vacuum cup to pull it shut, but here they changed course. Rather than work their way past the shanties to the entrance they'd used, they went further upstream, laboriously for another kilometer, the tunnel now barely a meter wide, forcing them to drag their loot behind them.
The Republic, and later Kingdom, of Novy Krakow had been established with less technology than the Jeffersonian Republic. To the present day ground traffic remained common, with the necessary streets and city layout to accommodate it. At the side of one such the thieves reached a storm grate, and after extending fibercams to check for witnesses, popped it open. At an intersection half a block away was the groundcar they'd bought the day before, with gold coins and no questions.
Piling in with their loot, the older man drove, calmly, out of the city to where the SkyTruck had been hidden. They lifted, and an hour later docked with Dandelion in high orbit. The starship immediately switched off lights and transponder and boosted for the hyper limit. Nowy Krakow traffic control protested; then, as the theft was discovered and alarms raced through the city, demands were sent to stop, a Navy warship vectored to intercept.
By this time Dandelion had reached nearly three light-seconds from the planet, from which distance even a tramp freighter could safely Transition to hyperspace. In a flash of energy she was gone.
The ship emerged near the sun, ejected the SkyTruck and any evidence it carried to immolate therein, and returned to hyperspace. It then travelled a light-day from the system, Transitioned to realspace, changed course, Transitioned to hyper again, went two light-days in another direction, returned to realspace, then took in and scrubbed clean the false panels giving her a different color and shape, including the ones carrying her name and dandelion-seed logo. Even her fusion torches were quickly exchanged for spares they'd carried, from a different manufacturer, so her exhaust spectrum would no longer match. Again, and yet again she repeated the maneuver, to throw off pursuit in the unlikely chance someone in the Novy Krakow Navy could detect a hyperspace wake before it faded.
The thieves had never intended to split their take with Trmm Hrrg Nnt, but felt no guilt; the Nikar had his twenty rhodium, and should have warned his sources to leave already. Later they'd receive news reports of the incredible theft, baffled investigators, appalling lack of evidence or suspects, curiously nonlethal methods. The one clue they'd left, the device attached to the camera near the Vault entrance, had dropped to the floor and incinerated itself on a timer, leaving only a scorch mark on the polished marble. The skinsuits and loot-sacks, even the gray-green shipsuits and shoulder patches Captain and Mrs. Bronson had worn, had gone into the ship's recycler, broken down to elements and used for reaction mass. Mrs. Bronson's earrings, reminiscent of the Tsarevna's Rainbow (the theft of which this crew had nothing to do with), had been broken to components, chips of gemstones and a blob of remelted gold, in bins containing hundreds more the crew had taken as payment in their travels. The loot itself was safely hidden with these in the ship's own vault - all but one piece, for which the rest had been misdirection.
Once safely in hyper toward their real destination, the young woman shed the disguise she'd worn on Novy Krakow. It probably hadn't been necessary - she'd interacted with no one there, and the thieves' bodysuits had concealed their features from any cameras they'd missed - but now she returned, again, to her true appearance. Her straight brown hair was again a bright wavy copper, her eyes a sparkling blue.
The young woman's Family gathered around her. Just as Dandelion had become the Russian-built cargoliner Khameleon, Captain Ted Bronson's black hair and eyes had returned to Solomon Danner's brown and blue; Mrs. Bronson had regained Holly Cates' hidalga coloring. Commander Sir Bogdan Plebanek shed his false wrinkles and gray hairs - the extensive repairs made to his body on New Israel had amounted to a rejuvenation treatment, turning his biological clock back about twenty Terran years. He reveled in his restored health and youth.
The sapphire, nearly ten centimeters across in a traditional Round Brilliant cut, was actually synthetic. It had been made under contract, with what had been at the time cutting-edge Jeffersonian technology - not for the gemstone itself, for artificial sapphires had been made more than a century before the Escape. The stone's secret was deep within.
As the others watched, Princess Agnieszka Elaine Caroline Lorentz Kordylewski Aldritch, descendant of King Trevor the First and Rightful Queen of Illyria, took the Aldritch Eye in her bare hand. Disguised mechanisms sampled her DNA, and finding it worthy, for the first time in more than a hundred years, shone with a blue-white glow.
Continued in the next excerpt....