Excerpts from the Jeffersonian Republic project:
This page Copyright © 2017, Karl Leffler
Aurora, Part LXIII: Atrocity
Continued from the previous excerpt
21 Fifthmonth 561JR
1 July 2360CE
For her outgoing cargo, Aurora's family bought personal weapons and armor.
All but the poorest people on the poorest worlds had access to fabbers and could make their own of very nearly anything, but Aurora specialized in luxury, custom, or otherwise non-standard goods. This cargo would have the cachet of being made on Asgard by actual Asgardian craftsbeings. That would attract collectors, connoisseurs, followers of Asatru, or simply customers who needed something they knew they could bet their lives on.
The cargo was comprised of Viking-style swords, spears, daggers and axes, plain and decorated; Eyani battle-claws, likewise; and a variety of armor components, from a variety of materials, for a variety of species. The cargo was taken on speculation, with no fixed destination or expected customer. Someone would buy it somewhere, eventually, either all at once or a piece at a time. Aurora, the business, wasn't hurting for money.
She also took passengers from Asgard - failed immigrants, admitting defeat, lacking the strength, physical or emotional, to survive the neo-Viking life. These were bound for Bluegrass, a neighboring world colonized shortly before the Asgardians split from Necessity. The Bluegrass expedition had looked over the world that would become Asgard and considered it too hostile - but that was over a Terran century ago. As neighbors they were friendly, with Bluegrass being a Republic Territory. Much of Bluegrass' population came from would-have-been Asgardians, and there were many blood ties between the two worlds.
There had never been a pirate raid on either world. As "Vikings-lite", Bluegrass had one of the most heavily-armed populations in Known Space - and the thought of attacking Asgard was impossibly insane. It was fortunate that the current flavor of the Norse religion had been interpreted for self-restraint. It could be a bad day for the galaxy if the neo-Vikings ever ran out of pirates to hunt.
4 Sixthmonth 561JR
18 July 2360CE
The stars which warmed Asgard and Bluegrass were less than two parsecs apart, only three hundred hours for Aurora at 171 times lightspeed. Bluegrass' primary orbital station, Knox, was a stack of three spinning wheels, 350 meters in diameter, simulating the planet's surface acceleration of 9.94 meters, just a touch heavier than Terra. Aurora was a little small by modern standards and could dock there easily.
Some eighty hours later, another ship made a Close Transit at about two light-seconds. Aurora was only slightly affected by the Transition EMP; she and her Family had been strengthening her defenses for some eighteen Monticellan years. This EMP, though, was far more powerful than it should have been at such a distance. Knox Station, and other nearby ships, suffered a variety of system failures. The sentient starship undocked and nudged herself away from the station with her attitude jets. The station's airlocks - well, most airlocks in Known Space - were designed to fail closed, with mechanical or EMP-hardened overrides.
Without being ordered - she was her own Third Officer - she brought herself to General Quarters and began recharging her Marsten Field for combat and defense. On Danner's command screen she flashed a query, asking if she should activate her Reserve Privateer status. There was one other in the system, Jenny S., but the EMP had hit her hard and her transponder showed her main reactors had scrammed - she'd been born a cargoliner, not a cruiser. Danner poked the holographic icon with a finger and Aurora's transponder code changed from IS to JRS. "Show me the approaching ship," Danner ordered. Holly Cates was already swinging Aurora's weapons and telescopes to track it.
It was a simple bulk freighter, not too different from Heritage, which they'd encountered at Dakota. The gravitational shear of a Close Transit had opened seams and she was leaking atmosphere.
What little she had left. She'd been shot to ribbons.
She gave no transponder signal, but her profile was found in Aurora's records, soon confirmed by her optics: Northerner, last listed on a four-point route, food from Gambori, gene treatments from Asgard, manufactured goods from Bluegrass, and finally metals from Sherrington, an independent system some five parsecs away. She wasn't expected back for another seven hundred hours. Now she was powerless, drifting, and there was a slow tumble, probably imparted from the venting air. Her course would not collide with anything - like Heritage at Dakota, Northerner wasn't pointed at anything that would still be there when she arrived. But the ship had to be caught, to prevent future hazards, to rescue any survivors, and to find out what had happened.
Danner quickly realized only his ship could do it... and it was a thing he'd done twice before, at Dakota and over Crunch in the Lone Star System. For a moment he remembered the early days, assembling what would become a Family closer than the one he'd been born to, telling Holly Cates he wasn't looking for action, and her replying that action went looking all by itself.
The passengers from Asgard were stuffed into Four and Five Boats and cut loose near the station, in case Northerner was some kind of trap. Then, taking his biggest sister's controls in his own hands, Danner flipped Aurora away from Knox, lit OMS engines to reach a safe distance, then lit the fusion torches and boosted at fifty meters, more than five Terran gravities, for the Transition point Sarah Heusner had already plotted.
This time, Aurora's Close Transit began at a bit over a full light-second from the planet - still closer to the hard Limit than any ship not tuned by Jenny Blain could go, but less wrenching than the one which probably awakened the ship over Dakota. The cruiser emerged about 1,300 kilometers from the freighter. That generated an EMP too, probably knocking out any systems left active on the derelict, but the inverse-square law, and Aurora's finely-tuned Drive, made it only a burst of static to Bluegrass.
Northerner looked even worse up close. She'd been hit with Marsten beams, Class-6 at least. There were gashes in her hull, three or four compartments deep; at least one went all the way through. Of her two fusion torches, one was obviously wrecked and the other probably was too, judging by the locations of the hull breaches. Of the six boats she had apparent space for, five were missing and the last was smashed to scrap in its bay.
The abnormal strength of the Transition EMP was soon explained: the ship's Marsten Drive had been severely damaged. One of the twelve Marsten Devices making up its design was gone, and two more were obviously non-functional. Jenny Blain declared it impossible that a ship could even Transition with such a crippled Drive. Later, after study, she'd downgrade her assessment to "miracle".
At least Northerner was coasting instead of boosting. That made the job far simpler than ore barge C484 over Crunch. Closing to a hundred meters and matching velocity, Danner directed his crew, in the three smaller shuttles, to contact the freighter's hull with their extended landing gear and use their engines, with Aurora's computational help, to cancel the other ship's tumble. With that done, Holly Cates and Prrg, in their power armor, EVA'd to gain access. The docking ports were wrecked too.
It was short work to find and activate an emergency, all-mechanical airlock. The Mobile Infantry armor had omnidirectional sensors, and Aurora showed the rest of the Family what the boarders saw, and everything around them, in a live-feed hologram in her tactical display tank.
As the 'lock's inner door cycled, the first thing to be seen was an Eyani, mixed-Tribe, Republic Subject Shipfolk Harness. He had been dead for hundreds of hours, probably from brain damage from Marsten radiation from the damaged Drive. He'd spent most of those hours in atmosphere, until the stress of Close Transit had vented the compartment. Cates and Prrg, in their careers as Marine and adventurer, had seen some things, but this was near the end of the scale. Other members of their Family had to look away.
Aurora reported that her sensors found only a few active systems. The main computer was down so she couldn't access Northerner's records or internal sensors, but her own could "see" or "hear" a few electrical signals, small motors and the like, and one small auxiliary fusion plant, recently scrammed by Aurora's Transition, just big enough to run a Sixth-Generation Marsten Drive. What few systems the ship had left were running off batteries.
She directed her organic siblings to Engineering. This proved to be another horror - a female Human crewmember, also killed by Marsten radiation, probably the ship's Engineer, strapped into her acceleration couch at her station, in her spacesuit, as the compartment had already been breached. The suit was still running, hooked into the ship's power and life support by umbilical, still trying to recycle its miniature environment for its weeks-dead occupant. Her gloved, lifeless hand was still on the control to Initiate the hyperspace Transition.
Watching on Aurora's bridge, Danner turned to Blain and grimly asked, "We're not going to find anyone alive, are we?"
"I can't imagine any shielding that could...." Ashen-faced, she shook her head. "No. They were all dead the moment the switch was thrown."
Recalling the boarders, Danner ordered the three smaller shuttles to take towing lines from Aurora for attachment to Northerner, and prepared to bring the freighter in.
The Bluegrass Territorial Militia took over the investigation, once Aurora and local tugs had brought Northerner within convenient range of Knox Station. They welcomed the aid of a ship and crew of Aurora's experience.
First, the ship was swept by the militia with help from Aurora's drones, finding a total of seventeen crew in various compartments and twenty-three passengers in rescue bubbles in one of the cargo holds. Nine were children, some of the passengers, others of the Shipfolk Family. The Eyani mother clutching two infants, one her own and one Human, was the worst. Sarah Heusner, orphaned by raiders at New Eyan and raised by Humans, sobbed aloud at the sight. It was at least a consolation that they would have died instantly, their brains shut down by Marsten radiation when the mutilated Drive made its Transition. It was obvious everyone aboard had suffered that fate.
Once everything had been imaged and the victims had been removed, Grbblb and Sarah soon had the ship's main computer online, but the log revealed little. Northerner had reached the Sherrington system on schedule, picking up some miners on VIII on the way in, then making orbit at VI. The last several formal entries were routine.
The flight recorders told the story. There had been no time to make proper log entries. Ten pirate gunships, two or three kilotons each, had made a Close Transit... at better than twenty percent lightspeed.
The gunships had used their own Marsten Guns, Class-8 or larger, to engage targets of opportunity as they streaked through the system, but that hadn't been the real terror. They had released slugs, kinetic weapons, simply rocks gathered, probably, from the system's own asteroids, to strike Sherrington Station and several ships in their stable, predictable orbits.
More than twenty had struck Sherrington VI's surface. Some appeared to be deliberately targeted on population centers. Others were ocean strikes, to raise tsunami on purpose.
"Gods and demons," Danner breathed. "World-killers."
In the three and a half Terran centuries since Humans broke the light barrier, only once before in all recorded history had relativistic weapons been used or even tested: at the Second Battle of Terra, a strategic raid in the middle of the Republic-Empire War. Those had been much smaller, and carefully targeted, only one striking Terra's surface, at the Imperial Palace in Ajaccio, Corsica. The Terran Empire, it was learned after the Jeffersonian victory, had planned to use them in retaliation but never got the chance, with the tremendous damage done to their navy throughout Sol System by the same raid. Like the Battle of Midway, it had been the turning point of the naval war, buying the Republic priceless time to rebuild and reorganize after the Empire's own sneak attacks on Monticello, Wilson's Colony, and New Israel. Then, like the United States after Pearl Harbor, the Republic could build ships faster than the Empire could destroy them, while the Empire couldn't replace their own losses.
This was different. While released at about the same speed, and targeted with similar precision - any wrist 'puter could figure those orbits - these kinetic weapons were much larger, and aimed at noncombatant targets with little military value.
Northerner had been maneuvering from one end of the station to the other, to exchange cargoes, when the attack struck. Pieces of the station battered the freighter, but her crew - Captain Daniel Forsham commanding - immediately began boosting for the hyper limit, while trying to dodge the debris. The Navigator, Daniel's son Timothy, quickly plotted the return Transit to Bluegrass, the nearest inhabited system, and set it to run automatically the moment the Engineer and Daniel's wife, Alicia Malik, Initiated the Transition.
Moments before they reached the Limit, the gunships, still speeding past the planet, had spotted her and engaged with their Marsten Guns, shredding the hull and near-wrecking the Drive. As compartments were breached and lost atmosphere, the crew donned their suits and the passengers huddled together in the cargo hold in their survival bubbles. Possibly unaware of the extent of the Drive's damage, and with nothing to lose anyway, Alicia threw the switch and killed everyone aboard with Marsten radiation. The program her son had laid in carried their corpses through about a thousand hours of hyperspace Transit, dropping them at the edge of Bluegrass' gravity well. If Alicia hadn't sacrificed herself and her Family, hundreds or thousands of hours more might have passed before the attack was discovered.
Until the moment of Transition, Northerner's sensors recorded the pirates engaging every ship or orbital platform that showed any sign of life. Sherrington Station, twin 270-meter wheels, had shattered as though nuked. On the surface, Sherrington City, population eighty thousand, was a two-kilometer-wide crater. Coastal towns had been washed away. It was evident they wanted no witnesses. This was not piracy, it was genocidal terrorism, possibly the third greatest single act of mass murder in all the histories of Known Space, behind the Vloss and Chikaran nuclear wars. It was beyond chilling to think this was the dawn of a new age of warfare.
But why had it been done? And by whom?
Sherrington had been independent - one supposed any survivors still were, technically. But a crime of this magnitude was everyone's concern, no matter what flag it occurred under. Bluegrass was a Territory of the Jeffersonian Republic, and Solomon Danner commanded a Reserve Privateer of the Republic's Space Patrol. Beyond moral obligations, he had a duty and the authority to make a report directly to Space Patrol Central, at Monticello Station. It would be a day or more before the report would be received, routed through Marsten Devices, and a similar time before replies could be expected. He sent it directly to Admiral Huang, director of the Reserve Privateer Bureau, marked urgent and confidential. For the public, he, his Family and the Bluegrass Territorial government were keeping the details under wraps, saying only that Northerner was the victim of a pirate raid at Sherrington, making no mention of the high-energy weapons used there. It would cause panic.
Countermeasures were being pondered. At those speeds, and with a Close Transit attack, defenders would have only seconds to respond - which was the idea behind the Second Battle of Terra. The only practical method seemed to be an automatic system, which would immediately engage, with faster-than-light Marsten Guns, aimed by faster-than-light Marsten Detectors, any object on a collision course above a certain velocity. Sarah, Grbblb and Aurora quickly wrote just such a subroutine and shared it with the Bluegrass government. Solomon included it with his message to Huang, and copied it to several other people he could trust to not spread panic: Admiral Maet of the New Israel Home Fleet, Sir Stanislaw Lipinski at Illyria, King Lars at Asgard, Councillor Nalat Yonn at Oskran... his father, the "retired" Commodore from Naval Intelligence; Eric Linfarger of the Confederate Air Force.
If there were to be more such attacks, the subroutine might have to be active constantly, on every ship with a Marsten Gun, everywhere. The time required to charge the Field to power the Guns was another problem. Resources would have to be spent keeping multiple ships or weapon platforms active at all times, to provide coverage from all directions. Solomon directed Jenny Blain and Aurora to look into a solution, capacitors perhaps, some way to quickly raise enough Field strength to enable the Guns - maybe even a bomb-driven weapon, like the "bomb-pumped" lasers proposed near the end of Terra's Cold War, a generation before the Escape.
Meanwhile, a relief effort was being organized. There had been no direct communication from Sherrington - probably the attackers had killed every ship or Marsten Device they could reach. The Devices were usually in orbit, relaying by more conventional means to short-range networks. Aurora and the Bluegrass government sent out a public alert now, saying only that there had been an attack on the Sherrington system, probably by pirates, probably including surface bombardment. The truth, and the panic, would come out soon, but if anyone was still alive on Sherrington VI, decent people had to go to their rescue.
Bluegrass had a bit of navy, four frigates and a destroyer, along with support ships. Jenny S., recovered from the EMP, would serve as a transport for relief personnel and supplies. The local destroyer, Melanie Martin, named for a Silver Star recipient in the Republic-Empire War and an ancestor of Bluegrass' founder, was Danner's first choice for flagship, her crew being familiar to the other ships in the area; but the ship's captain, LCDR Brandon Hale, asked Danner and Aurora to take the job. They'd done that before too, over Rllbtl.
Three of the frigates remained behind, in an evenly-spaced orbit, with the interception subroutine running and their Marsten Fields and Guns fully charged. Marsten Detectors actively swept all surrounding space for threats. Knox Station's fabberies were busy making weapon platforms to take over the constant guard duty.
13 Firstmonth 562JR
6 September 2360CE
Jenny S. was the slowest, only 140c, the same as Northerner. Her drive was Sixth Generation, but not Improved like the others. The fourth Bluegrass frigate, Osprey, could make 156. She, the cargoliner, Aurora and Melanie Martin arrived as soon as they could in what was left of Sherrington, with more ships to follow. The system had a population of about two million, most on the sixth planet, outposts on V and VIII and some moons and asteroids.
There was no response from hails to any of the outposts. Osprey darted out to each to make sure - they'd all been hit. Two survivors were found in a lifeboat from one of the asteroid mines, about three hours after they'd eaten the last of their rations.
Sherrington VI was a nightmare. The enemy, whoever they were, really had destroyed every Marsten Device in the system, probably with homing weapons like the anti-radar missiles used across Terra, pre-Escape. Sublight radio and video were full of desperate people begging for help. Aurora easily overrode all frequencies for her captain:
"This is Solomon Danner, commanding Jeffersonian Reserve Privateer Aurora, CL63, with relief ships from Bluegrass. The Republic Space Patrol is aware of the attack on your world. Help is on the way. We will be making our first landings fifteen kilometers upriver from Sherrington City. Others will follow as we learn more about your situation.
"The locations of all your broadcasts have been mapped and we will get to each of you as soon as we can, but our resources are limited. If possible, shelter in place and help each other. Meanwhile, please keep these frequencies clear for use by relief personnel. The following frequencies will be monitored for your calls for aid-" he listed them. "We understand many of you are in immediate need of medical aid. If we don't reach you, it's because we can't reach everyone at once.
"Pray to your gods, and help each other and yourselves as best you can. We are doing all we are able." Danner had Aurora set the message to repeat.
Continued in the next excerpt....