Excerpts from the Jeffersonian Republic project:
This page Copyright © 2021, Karl Leffler
Aurora, Part LXI: Gambori
Continued from the previous excerpt
For background material, see
Aurora's first business trip,
the Relief of Rllbtl,
Daisuke Taniyama's family history,
an encounter at Terra,
and Aurora's previous meeting with an Asgardian ship
For nearly half a thousand hours Aurora and her Family had stayed at Oskran. The ship's weapons had turned back invaders and helped build the Lii Confederation's defenses. Her crew had helped teach the Lii people to defend themselves.
There had been no formal declaration of war from any of the states on Oskran, or from the Republic. The People's Establishment of Lanos, The Nuce Republic, and the Kingdom of Ganhol had not so much stopped their seaborne predations as been denied their prey. Trade and travel to or from those nations by Lii had been halted, and all other Lii sea or air travel was escorted by either the Lii wet-navy or orbiting Republic warships.
The Kingdom of Narloof, on the other hand, had purchased their own Marsten Device in synchronous orbit, and some breeding fabbers to make personal computers for public sale. Their king, Ronton IV, was busily pushing reforms through his parliament, hoping to become more palatable to Republican tastes and commerce. The remaining three kingdoms were, slowly and with obvious reluctance, following suit. One of those, Yabag, was on the verge of revolution, but neither side in that internal conflict was aligning itself with the Lanos/Nuce/Ganhol axis. The Jeffersonians and Confederates were watching, but staying out of it.
More Jeffersonian warships had arrived to bolster Lii's defenses, and by extension Oskran's, whether the theocrats of Ganhol denied reality or not. The latest detachment included the heavy cruiser Serapis, destroyers George R. Solens, Yamakaze, and Caraen, and the light carrier Ranger with two squadrons of Lightning-VI fighters and one of Thunderbolt-IV bombers. That might not be much against a task force from the Glautak Consolidation, but it was overkill against any other likely threat. The Republic didn't bother sending ground troops; Lii would provide those. They were Jeffersonians now, and catching up to galactic standards fast.
Aurora and her crew were wanderers. They could not stay.
Nor were they required to. They'd volunteered their time and knowledge out of patriotism, but as inactive reservists, retirees, or civilians, the government could only call them to service under congressional declarations of war or emergency, which had not been made.
Promising to keep in touch by h-mail (and to be available for remote consulting as well), the Family made their goodbyes and, again, departed.
28 Thirdmonth 561JR
Their next destination was Gambori, where many Glaut refugees from Rllbtl had settled. A Frontier world and Republic Territory, her people couldn't yet pay Daisuke's prices for crel fruit and brandy, but did buy a few spare fabbers Aurora had duplicated during Transit.
Gambori was a wet world. Tectonically active until "recently" in geologic terms, she had no continents by the Terran definition, but chain after chain of volcanic islands. The largest was little bigger than Britain. Mining was difficult here, with water seeping in at every turn, and they did import some rarer elements, but there were enough other bodies in the system to provide for their needs. Aurora earned a fee for extending her Marsten Field around one such asteroid and jumping it more than a light-hour from its own distant orbit, to one over Gambori itself, saving thousands of hours of realspace transit time and bringing its metals closer to where they were needed.
The Glaut refugees, unlike those on Oskran, rejoiced in their freedom from the Glautak Consolidation's oppression and, like Grbblb, embraced their new nation with fervor and a willingness to work. With Grbblb's own example from New Israel, they were forming militias and working toward acquiring and crewing armed ships. Since Dr. Vatelius and Engineer Blain made the breakthrough in Glaut regeneration, the many refugees who had been mutiliated by their former government had been healed. Those were even more patriotic, seeking to repay the people who restored the hands and eyes brutally stolen from them.
Like Oskran, Gambori was potentially under threat from the potential Glautak/Flike alliance. The Space Patrol could only spare one destroyer and one frigate at the moment, but there was word of a destroyer squadron on the way, and Reserve Privateers came and went often. The asteroid Aurora brought in was expected to provide raw materials for up to three over-armed corvettes, attack boats similar to those used by the pirates over Mark's World, to carry single Class-10 Marsten Guns and several capital missiles on external racks. At Oskran, a third of the homes in the city of Arriod, and half the homes outside it, contained modern military arms for militia duty. On Gambori, and especially among the Glaut demographics, very nearly every home contained such arms, and people who were trained and practiced in their use. No Jeffersonian Glaut would ever be taken back to the Consolidation, to slavery by another name, alive. They swore, to their outlawed and nearly-forgotten gods, to slaughter anyone who tried.
When not acting as a rebel Glautak celebrity or militia consultant for the local Glaut population, Grbblb, his wife Trllbl and blood-brother Hlossh took the opportunity to visit Gambori's seas. Their last visit, during their voyage to Rllbtl to evacuate refugees, had been brief, and only to collect seawater for the victims' comfort during the voyage. Now, as they had done at Hlossh's homeworld Kshir, they had time to really explore the place.
There were no battlefish here to pair-hunt, but a large bottom-dwelling crustacean served. It was pentaradial like most other Gambori native life, and had been proven to not be sentient. Up to seven meters across, its five mouth-tipped limbs constantly reached for food. When found, a barbed tongue-tentacle whipped out of each mouth to entangle the prey and draw it in for disassembly in the chitinous jaws.
Its size was at the limit of what biologists thought was possible for exoskeletal life. Named simply "starcrab", they were never seen out of water. They were purely aquatic, and even if they could breathe air, they would collapse and suffocate under their own weight on the surface. Underwater, though, they were apex predators.
Their meat, though a disconcerting green when cooked, was as flavorful as Terran crabs, popular with and non-poisonous to most Common Life. Hoping for export markets, Gambori had been trying to farm them for years - but with difficulty. They were territorial and cannibalistic, rarely coming together except for mating, and that with caution. Each had to be expensively kept in its own, sturdy cage, and the cages had to be kept well separated, or one starcrab would entangle another and pull it through the bars a piece at a time. On the other hand, since Gambori was a newer colony, still with a low population even after the Glaut refugees, there were almost no restrictions on hunting or fishing, unlike the culturally-important battlefish on Kshir. Aurora could take some as gourmet cargo, if a useful amount could be gathered.
Now it was Grbblb and Trllbl performing the pair-bonding hunt. Though already married under Jeffersonian law and Glaut custom, Grbblb had been pleased with the blood-brotherhood ritual Hlossh had performed with him on Kshir. The ritual was also used for business or political alliances, or marriages. Consulting with local Glaut, Humans, and Water Tribe Eyani, Grbblb and Trllbl learned tactics for taking a starcrab without being taken themselves.
The ideal way to harvest a starcrab was to immobilize all five limbs, then drive something through the central braincase. Projectile weapons, typically explosive- or gas-tipped spearguns, could be used, but risked wasting meat. The starcrab was surprisingly fast for its size and mass and could easily kill a Human-sized vertebrate. Normally they were hunted by groups of six to ten Humans or Eyani with breathing gear. Glaut usually needed a team of twenty or more to take even a smaller one intact, and several Glaut had been maimed or killed, even eaten, in the attempt.
As the local Glaut learned why the married couple from Aurora wanted to do it without help, they reacted with some alarm... then began discussing adopting the practice for their own subculture, if it worked. A submersible came to observe, carrying all of Grbblb and Trllbl's ship-siblings, with another three dozen spectators, in its armorglas hull. These included the mayor of the Glaut community on Gambori, Liberation, and several priests of the largely forgotten Glaut religion.
Aurora, with her Family's help, had built yet another extension of herself - an aquatic battle robot. Vaguely shark-shaped and designed with laminar flow, it could reach a speed of 150 kilometers per hour, rivaling the pre-Escape Spearfish torpedo used by the British Royal Navy. It was armed with repeating spearguns, and retractable tentacles of its own, mechanical snakes or centipedes with articulated segments, ending in manipulators which included a variety of tools and a gripping force of some tons. For deployment, it could fit in Two or Three Boat, the pair of Type 347 medium shuttles, with the passenger seats removed. Constructed of titanium alloys, it was highly resistant to corrosion, and well armored.
In this guise, Aurora watched over her most fragile organic siblings... but at a respectful distance. She understood what the ritual meant to them and would only intervene to save their lives. Some high-functioning computers had been programmed with Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, but Aurora, born centuries ago as a warship, had received them only as "guidelines". Reborn and awakened, she was writing her own moral code.
Grbblb and Trllbl's weapons were sharp knives to cut tongue-tentacles off themselves, and forked spears - as many as they could carry. From opposite sides, the pair approached the starcrab, each extending a spear to get it to react and extend a tongue-tentacle, ideally at the same time. Then, as quickly as they could, they would drive their spears into the seabottom, anchoring the tentacles and retreating before engaging the next limbs. If they were too slow, the tongues would retract to attack again, or worse, those from adjacent limbs would entangle them.
A starcrab outmassed a Glaut by fifty or more to one, and in this ritual, effectively outnumbered them five to two. If opposite sides weren't anchored at the same time, preventing the creature from pivoting around a single point, the roles of hunter and prey would be quickly reversed. Before beginning, Trllbl and Grbblb had explained their intentions to the spectators, and demanded that only their sister, Aurora, be allowed to intervene. No one else would be fast enough or strong enough anyway.
Having found a starcrab of about four meters' span, they began the ritual. Each of the couple poked at one of the starcrab's limbs. The animal groped with its crushing pincer-mouths, but the Glaut snatched their spearpoints away before the jaws could close. The starcrab had approximately human-equivalent eyesight - perhaps in several million years it would evolve toward sentience, as the Boksi and Glaut had done - and this part of Gambori's seas had exceptionally clear water. Five eyestalks waved around the central spire, which rose from the carapace like the spike on an ancient pickelhauber helmet. Bi- or trinocular vision let the starcrab triangulate on its prey from any direction. Grbblb and Trllbl kept an eye on each other, coordinating their attack, trying to get the beast to react to both of them at once.
Finally a tentacle-tongue lashed out. Its barbs brushed against Trllbl, and she cried in pain- but quickly raised the fingers of one of her own tentacles in a signal that she was all right. Her gray-green blood misted the water, though. The starcrab caught the scent and lunged toward her.
Grbblb thrust with his spear, and the forked tip glanced off the predator's armor. He thrust again and got one of the tines into a mouth, spilling the creature's own green blood. Now the starcrab lunged toward him.
Tentacles whipped out again and again, toward one or the other of the hunters, but never both at once. Finally Grbblb took a chance and, signaling his intention to his wife, anchored the next tongue to come toward him.
Trllbl reacted, stabbing her spear into a mouth as her husband had done. Another tongue whipped out and she nimbly caught it in mid-water between the tines of her spear, giving it a twirl to trap it like spaghetti on a fork, then thrusting the spear into the sea floor.
On the other side, Grbblb readied another spear to take up slack in the tongue he had already trapped - and a third, from the next limb, lashed out to wrap itself around his soft, boneless body, barbs sinking into his flesh. It was the Engineer's Mate's turn to exclaim in pain.
But Grbblb had tentacles of his own, and the beast had not entangled all of them. One curved around, grasped the hilt of a molecular-edged knife, slashed, and the barbed tongue went limp around him, though its hooks still held it to his skin. The remains retracted into the pincer/mouth/limb. He retreated to work the severed appendage out of him one barb at a time, in a cloud of his own gray-green blood. His wife made to assist but he waved her away, using "hand" signals with the fourfold digits at the ends of a Glaut's tentacles to tell her to prepare for the next attack.
They each moved one limb to the left of the ones they had trapped. This placed Trllbl between the two that had been anchored - the rough inner surface of the spears' tines caused pain and made the starcrab reluctant to tear itself free. But this position was little safer than Grbblb's. He had shortened the tongue of the chitin-armored limb he was attacking now, but another, unharmed, was still free to his left. The starcrab could pull itself loose, as others had done. Glaut, Eyani and Humans had died hunting these creatures with greater numbers.
They repeated their attacks, trapping two more tongues counting the shortened one, but one worked itself loose and swung at Trllbl. It didn't wrap itself around her but knocked her tumbling, the barbs raking her skin and spilling more blood. But now three of the beast's five limbs were anchored. Recovering, Trllbl reengaged, thrusting with renewed strength to recapture the escaped tongue.
That left one, which Grbblb made short work of; and now the other four were straining against their anchoring spears. Grbblb raced to use more spears to reinforce the anchors, while signalling Trllbl to make the kill.
The starcrab used a gill-like apparatus at the base of the central spire, between the eyestalks. Reversing one of her spears, to use the opposite, single end, the Glauteb thrust with her tentacles and body like a Terran squid using its natural water jets, and with that momentum guided the spearpoint deep into the vulnerable breathing hole, toward the brain.
She missed. Hurt and enraged, the animal heaved, tearing three of its anchored tongues loose and sending Trllbl tumbling again. Tongue-tentacles, barbs extended, reached toward her.
Grbblb charged, reversing a spear of his own. With the three-dimensional sense of a being who had traveled in space for years, his aim was true, into another gill opening, through the tough armor.
His spear was closer, but still not fatal. The starcrab bucked and thrashed again, tearing its last two tongues free... but now it seemed confused, stunned. "Together!" he called to his wife.
As one, they thrust deep into two more gill-holes, and felt their spears meet deep inside the creature. It gave a mighty heave, its meter-and-a-half-long limbs flailing... and was still. Its eyestalks drooped, lifeless, while green ichor rose slowly from its gills.
Husband and wife embraced, with the tentacles their government had ripped from them, and which their brothers and sisters had restored. The spectators cheered, and the legend of Grbblb the Liberator grew.
Republic-flagged ships weren't the only ones present at Gambori. There were several independent one-world nations within a few Transits, and they brought in some of the rare elements that weren't quite economical to mine in the Gambori system, while taking away organics for space habitats and food bases; sea farming had been the dominant industry on Gambori for many years before the Glaut influx. Now the molluscoids, true amphibians and many of them experienced in such work, pitched in to double and triple and even quadruple the farms' output, and like Dakota, Gambori was becoming a major food supplier in the region.
Some ships, however, didn't come for duty or commerce, but for adventure and opportunity. One such was Gungnir, named for the spear of Odin and a near-sister to Lorraine Harroldsdottir's Valkyrie.
Gungnir's captain was Abel Bjornsson, and looked like Eric Linfarger must have in his youth - well, they were probably distantly related. A huge man, over two meters tall, his skin was as dark as Linfarger's, but instead of Eric the Bear's bulk, he had the physique of a champion bodybuilder. As did his colleague Lorraine Harroldsdottir, he wore light armor and personal weapons, and was not in Asgardian Navy uniform except for miniaturized rank insignia on one shoulder: four gold bars on black, the ancient and international symbol of a ship's captain.
He shared Eric's cheerfulness and energy and enormous white smile. Solomon Danner could tell the Asgardian was making an effort to not cause injury with his handshake. Asgardians were even more accepting of genetic engineering than Jeffersonians. "Danner!" he boomed, "And Aurora! All of you! Welcome aboard Gungnir!" As before, with Harroldsdottir at Elysium, Bjornsson technically outranked Danner in official service to their respective and allied governments, but they were social equals as commanders of their private ships.
Aurora largely ran herself now and rarely needed an organic crew on watch, so all of her Family had come through the docking tube the two ships extended to each other. "Thank you for your invitation, Kaptein," Danner replied. "I see your ship is a little different from Valkyrie."
"Yes, the same concept, but a different shipyard." The captain led them to the Viking battlecruiser's spin-weight. Gungnir shared Valkyrie's egg shape and general dimensions, but her two counter-rotating grav rings were of a single level, more than twice the width of those in Harroldsdottir's ship. Their armament was comparable, Class-12 Marsten Guns, heavy lasers, and international-standard missile tubes/mass-drivers. Their combat complements were the same, a company of conventional infantry, a platoon of power-armored, drop-capable Mobile Infantry, a platoon of panzers and a flight of aerospace fighter-bombers.
The Family and the Viking kaptein settled down in the compartment which served as the ship's equivalent of a Viking mead hall, and which appeared to be a round-the-clock buffet, at least while the ship was at ease in orbit. Roast meat of several kinds was foremost, with fresh bread, all the vegetables or fruit one could want, and actual vats of mead, at least three varieties, into which people would dip their drinking horns or steins. Filling vessels, the group chose a table and sat down to eat and talk.
"We've all heard of your feats," Bjornsson said. Raising his voice, he exclaimed, "Any person who kills pirates and frees slaves is welcome on my ship and at my table!" Other members of Gungnir's crew, mostly Human with a few Eyani, raised their drinks and shouted in salute. Aurora's crew returned the gesture. Abel placed all of Aurora's family on a first-name basis with him. "What brings you this way, Solomon?"
Danner and his shipmates spent some time retelling their tales, and hearing new ones in exchange. Like the other Asgardians they'd met, Bjornsson was more thoughtful and sensitive than his exterior suggested; when one of his crew made a comment about romancing the Queen of Illyria, Bjornsson glared and the man fell silent. Having caught up, Danner asked how Gungnir came to Gambori.
"More pirates, Solomon," Abel answered. "Since you destroyed Brown's Flotilla, several smaller operations have been vying to fill the vacuum. And that reminds me! Some of the information we gained should be of interest to you." Able tapped his wrist 'puter and spoke commands. "For over a century we've been creating a database on pirates, slavers, and raiders of all kinds, in cooperation with your Space Patrol and the navies of several other nations. My friend Lorraine set up an alert in that database, for anything having to do with this symbol."
Abel Bjornsson's wrist computer projected an image of a wakizashi, black, marked with a stylized red rose in full bloom.
Bjornsson sent a crewbeing to fetch it from Gungnir's storage, while Daisuke asked Aurora to send one of her robots to his quarters, for the one Sven Bjornsson (no relation) had given him at Elysium. "Its owner was killed in battle," the kaptein explained, "by that man there, in fact." Abel pointed to a surprisingly small redheaded Human, who nodded and raised a stein. The Family knew the type - they lived with one, in their Purser, Daisuke. The kind who could cut a bigger man to pieces before he could swing his sword a second time.
"It was a single ship," Abel went on, "converted from some cargoliner taken decades ago. Over time and previous owners, it had been armed, and equipped with a variety of landing shuttles, which were also armed. They had perhaps four hundred fighting beings, mostly Humans, a few Eyani and Nikar, a couple Zaggarish. Another hundred or so to run the ship.
"We heard about them hitting Lipstein's World and set out after them. We caught up at Kaiming. A Close Transit and a few good shots crippled their ship, just as you did to Brown at that empty rock. Then we started launching landers of our own.
"It only took a single squad to mop up the ship." Bjornsson waved a hand in dismissal at the ease of the task. "They weren't fighters. We freed a good eighty slaves there. Recruited a few of them, after.
"I led the rest to the surface." Asgardian warriors led from the front. Earning a place in Valhalla was the whole idea. During their time with Harroldsdottir at Elysium, Aurora's crew had learned that the captain, XO, navigator and engineer took turns staying aboard to command these Viking battlecruisers, while the others sought foes to slay. "Kaiming, you know, is a new colony, only about thirteen thousand." Jeffersonian, and Asgardian, gene therapy had repaired the damage done to the Chinese gene pool by the Terran Empire's bio/chemical genocide, centuries before... but there were still fewer ethnic Chinese alive today than there had been before the War of Unification. "Scattered around farms and homesteads. Only one real town, barely three thousand together.
"The pirates landed all around the town. Killed a few men, took some of the women and children hostage to force the rest to load food onto their shuttles. At Lipstein's World, they then killed the rest of the men and anyone else they didn't take for entertainment. They were approaching that stage when we arrived.
"We jammed their communications as soon as we Transitioned, so the ground troops didn't know we'd crippled their ship. I think some of them thought our landers were their reinforcements." Bjornsson's black face split in a white grin. "That was a good moment.
"With that advantage, we hit them fast enough that there were few hostage situations - and my troops practice that kind of shooting." The hostage target, a hostile with a "no-shoot" target concealing part of it, had been a training tool since generations before the Escape. Modern ones could be holographic or robotic, and could shoot back with stunbolts.
"I split their leader's head with my axe and my people finished off the rest. We kept a few alive for interrogation.
"Gungnir can't think for herself, like you can, Aurora, but her computer is powerful. We had recorders going the whole time of course, and she has subroutines for image-matching, to help expand our database. Ah, here it is now." The crewbeing, a young female Eyani of mostly Water Tribe descent, had returned with the wakizashi, while one of Aurora's small robots approached with the other from Daisuke's quarters. "Gungnir flagged the item for further investigation."
Daisuke compared the two shortswords. They were not identical, but very close. Both were made in the traditional Japanese way, by folding multiple layers of steel over a core of iron. Wherever his brother was, he had employed a real swordsmith. "What did the interrogations reveal?" he asked.
"Very little, I'm afraid," Bjornsson replied. His 'puter displayed images of the wakizashi's former owner, while sending copies of the relevant files to Daisuke's device. "He was called Trent Hardin, and he'd joined this band of pirates about six years ago. No one could say where he had come from. Apparently he'd never said. The sword might not even have been his originally."
Daisuke disassembled the two wakizashis and compared their parts. Aside from the stylied rose on the hilts and scabbards, they were unmarked, but Daisuke could tell they had been made by the same hand. "I would like to purchase it. It may be of use in the future."
"The man who killed its last owner sold it to ship's stores, and I make a gift of it to you. Lorraine told us the story. I hope it will help you find justice someday."
"Thank you, kaptein." Daisuke bowed in his seat.
After their meal, Bjornsson took the Family on a tour of Gungnir, and then Danner invited the kaptein and a few others the Viking chose for a tour of Aurora. "My friends," Bjornsson asked later, "have any of you ever been to Asgard?"
"I have," Cates answered, "in an exchange program with the Marines. But that was a long time ago."
"Were you on one of our ships?"
"Yes, Muninn. A small ship, but a handsome one. She was old even then, but kept in excellent condition." After years traveling in Aurora, far older and lovingly maintained, that was high praise.
Bjornsson smiled widely. "I remember her fondly. I commanded that ship some ten years ago. She's coming up as surplus soon and I intend to buy her for my own. If not for my own retirement, should I be called to Valhalla, then for my daughter's future. My friends, I invite you to my world! Your cargo will sell there, for good prices. Gungnir shall accompany you, we are due home for rest and refit."
Danner and his Family were happy to accept.
Continued in the next excerpt....