Excerpts from the Jeffersonian Republic project:
Aurora, Part LXIV: Hunting Trip

This page Copyright 2017, Karl Leffler

Continued from the previous excerpt
21 Firstmonth 562JR
16 September 2360CE
Sherrington System

At Mark's World, Brown's Flotilla had used kinetic weapons against the surface, killing tens of thousands, but they used them as cover and diversion for theft and kidnapping. There had been no landing by this enemy. They couldn't be called pirates, because there seemed to be no material goal to the attack. Danner theorized it had been a test, of weapons, tactics, and responses.
The enemy remained unidentified. After their first pass, there had been a second, after Northerner had Transitioned away, sweeping the system at lower speeds, mopping up. The enemy ships had Transitioned to change their vectors in hyperspace - a little-used tactic due to the energy requirements on the ship. The time and power needed to charge a Marsten Field, and then to Initiate a Transition, kept ships from popping in and out of hyper frequently, changing speed and direction each time. Usually minutes would be required between each Transition, to say nothing of the fuel costs. Judging by the small size of the ships, Danner figured they had a carrier, or at least a tanker, further outsystem to refuel and support them. Aurora and the Bluegrass Naval Militia ships had gone active with their Marsten Detectors and swept the system when they arrived, but found nothing that shouldn't have been there.
Thinking aloud on this topic with his Family, Danner's words started gears turning in Jenny Blain's head. She had already been thinking about the same problem, concerning quick response against relativistic weapons.

As more relief ships arrived from nearby systems, a few more survivors were found. Sherrington wasn't highly populated and there hadn't been many starships in the system to begin with; nothing showing a Marsten emission had survived, but a few asteroid mines and a few sublight shuttles had the presence of mind to go dark, waiting for the attack to end. Some had collected electronic signals, recorded encrypted communications, and got some poor imagery of the enemy ships.
They matched no known profiles. Danner suggested to the various investigators that the ships had been disguised with false panels and replaceable components, as he and Aurora had done with Khameleon during the Illyrian Civil War. Everyone's first suspect was the Flike... but there was no proof. And that raised more questions: did the still-primitive Flike have enough resources, or sophistication, of their own to mount such an attack? Were they allied with the Glautak Consolidation? Were there other powers still unknown?

About 200 hours after the first relief ships arrived, so did another: Valkyrie, commanded by Lorraine Harroldsdottir. Hearing of the attack and being in the area, she rushed to the scene, hoping for villains to hunt. The battlecruiser made orbit alongside Aurora and the two warships extended docking tubes to each other.
Danner was struck again, as he had been at their first meeting, by how petite Lorraine Harroldsdottir was compared to "typical" Asgardians - but perhaps that was the wrong word. "Compact" seemed more appropriate. Still pretty and feminine, the gengineered neo-Viking kaptein had real muscle, with speed and agility few natural Humans could match. A contest between her and Daisuke, for example, or Holly Cates, would have been very interesting. It was good that they were allies.
Harroldsdottir clasped Danner's hand. "It is good to see you again, kaptein," she said, "but I wish it were not under such horrible circumstances." Her brown face, normally cheerful and elfin, had fallen. Then she flashed to anger: "By Thor's Hammer, there is no honor or glory in attacking the weak or innocent! I have killed, but I have never murdered!"
He nodded agreement - though inside, he remembered the freighter he destroyed over RAS1441, full of pirates... and slaves. "We still have no clue who did this. Only guesses."
"The enemy made no landings at all, no demands or ultimatums? Not even a warning, or a declaration?"
Danner shook his head. "Nothing. Unless they were using some alien language which we're mistaking for encryption, but that's doubtful. The technologies appeared standard." Tracking the enemy through hyperspace, as Aurora had done from Mark's World, was out of the question. More than two thousand hours had passed, and Sherrington's stellar wind had washed away the ion trails which leaked into realspace, always faint to begin with.
Of Sherrington's two million, nearly half were dead. Few would have any useful information about the attackers. The most valuable, to the investigators, were the handful of survivors from off-planet, miners and the like - and more valuable, whatever they had recorded. Eventually a Shipfolk tanker was found in the comets, crippled by the enemy's second pass. Sherrington Provider IV had been snugged up against one of the iceballs, mining it for water and anything else it might have had. When word of the attack insystem came, they halted operations, but it took time to recover their crew, and also time to prepare the Marsten Drive for Transition. Just as their Field strength was approaching the necessary threshold, one of the gunships Transitioned within weapon range of the comet. A stream of kinetic slugs perforated the tanker, killing all aboard.
Before they died, they recorded the clearest image of an enemy ship.
Valkyrie was still not sentient, no other ship or computer was known to be, but her brain was as powerful as Aurora's otherwise. The two warships' combined power set to work analyzing all available data. As Danner had guessed, the enemy ships appeared to be altering their engine outputs and even broadcasting a masking signal. The tanker, though, had top-grade sensors, necessary to find veins of various gasses or other elements deep within a comet. These saw through the gunship's false panels, revealing the design beneath.
It matched no known design, but seemed to take elements from all the known races- meaning most of its systems were descended from Human inventions. Solomon Danner, formerly of the Jeffersonian Space Patrol Bureau of Ships, and his Engineer, Jenny Blain, were close enough to shipwrights, and helped with the analysis. None of the features matched exactly, but this fusion torch was of generally Monticellan layout, the hull's profile was reminiscent of Eyani construction, the Marsten Drive looked like it might have been built in the Russian Star Empire, the arrangement of RCS jets was a pattern the Caledonians preferred. "This is a new ship," Danner concluded, "purpose-built, not converted from a yacht or such. And I'm pretty sure it wasn't built in the Republic or any of the major nations."
"Flike?" Harroldsdottir asked.
"Maybe. Or maybe Glaut. Glub, Trillbil? See anything familiar?"
The Glautak and Glauteb couple waved their tentacles. "We are sorry, Solomon," Grbblb said. "Our former lives in the Consolidation had nothing to do with ships. All we know of them, we have learned from you and Aurora."
Hale, Melanie Martin's captain, observed, "These internal spaces look Human-sized... or maybe larger. That suggests Flike."
Cates put in, "You'll have heard the rumors that the Glaut are building ships for sale to the Flike. Could this be one of them?"
"Possibly," Danner said. "And we've encountered Flike raiders before. Disavowed by their Empire, but we know what that's worth. Still no proof though. Not enough for a declaration of war."
Hale put in, "Which may be why they chose Sherrington for their test. A small independent nation, outside the Republic's border, without defense treaties with larger powers."
"You mean they could get away with it!?" Sarah Heusner exclaimed. Her fur bristled like a cat's, and her fangs were showing. She wanted to sink them into whoever did this.
Danner turned to his Navigator and locked eyes with her. Not criticizing; if anything his expression was sad. Jeffersonians were not neo-Vikings and could not, under Republic law and the foundations of their culture, hunt villains for the sake of hunting. Her fur was still up, but she visibly regained self-control.

Jeffersonians could not set out to hunt villains, but they could be hired as mercenaries, or be invited along by others... like Kaptein Lorraine Harroldsdottir, Asgard Navy, Countess of Lower Dansheim and commanding officer of battlecruiser Valkyrie. "I've been h-mailing my cousin Abel," she said to Danner, "and our cousin King Lars. The King thinks highly of you and officially invites you to join our expedition - any of our expeditions, anytime. You'd get standard shares of prizes. For my part, a powerful ship and experienced crew would be very welcome at my back or my side."
Danner was hesitant. "I have a responsibility to my Family - different from yours." These Asgardian villain-hunters were as much Shipfolk Families as any others, though their goals and philosophies were different. "Our mission is commerce, not battle. Which is not to say none of my Family want to go. Holly's always ready for a fight, and I've never seen Sarah so angered."
As the news spread, Humans and Eyani both were moved, and enraged, at the image of the Eyani mother comforting a Human child and her own in her arms. Different species they might have been, but since the Liberation of Eyan more than a hundred fifty Terran years ago, they had been one people. At the Battle of Red Island, Lance Corporal Yuri Berov of the Sixteenth Legion had famously thrown himself on an Imperial grenade to protect Eyani refugee cubs, posthumously earning the Medal of Honor and a string of warships bearing his name. This Eyani mother, Elizabeth Cha'Gra, did not hesitate to take a Human child into her survival bubble in a crippled and air-bleeding ship, not knowing they were all doomed by radiation.
As a Republic Subject, Cha'Gra was to be awarded the Legion of Honor, the same non-military equivalent award Danner had earned after the Battle of RAS1441, since neither had been in uniformed service at the times. "I'll have to discuss it with them," Danner continued. "I'm sure they'd all go if I asked, but I don't feel I have the right to. More to the point, where would we go? The enemy still hasn't been identified. We can't just fly to Kmar or Glaudbd and start dropping rocks. That might be just what some third or fourth party wants us to do."
Harroldsdottir nodded. "Can you stay here a while then? In the hope of learning more?"

Danner agreed. Aurora represented that many more weapons to defend the system, though it was unlikely the enemy would return here; their test had been successful. Aurora was also that many more fabbers to make emergency shelter, tools, parts, clothing, medicines, that many more cryogenic chambers for critical injuries, that much more surgical and recovery space, one more ship that could Transition to the outer system to refuel others.
Word came from Patrol Central: the Relief of Sherrington was being recognized as an official humanitarian mission, and Aurora was getting federal pay for her contributions, through the Reserve Privateer Bureau. As had happened at Rllbtl, dozens more ships, mostly Reserve Privateers but several independents, gathered to do what they could. Interstellar Charities Inc. soon followed, with a few elements of their frequent partners, the Confederate Air Force, and as before, Danner gratefully turned over responsibility to them.
By h-mail, the strategic analysis continued. It was felt that the only reason to make such a weapon test on an inhabited system, where it would eventually be discovered and reported, was to test the responses of the target system, and of the bordering Republic. That suggested the weapons themselves, and the tactics to use them, had already been developed, and probably tested on uninhabited or lifeless worlds. That in turn suggested that a stockpile of such weapons, or procedures to quickly make them, also existed. The latter would be simplicity itself - pick a flying rock, make sure you knew how much it massed, and have a 'puter run numbers. Only the basic decency and sanity of the various sentient races had prevented them from being used in previous wars, just as the United States and Soviet Union had somehow avoided a nuclear exchange before the Escape.
Danner suggested there might be a coordinated wave of such attacks, designed to scatter the Patrol and expend resources. Even in the post-Terran age, when vulnerable infrastructures had been replaced with decentralization, planetbound societies remained interdependent and fragile. It wouldn't take many such strikes to tumble the gyros of a whole civilization. Nalat Yonn and his two fellows in the Triumvirate of the Lii Confederation, a Member State of the Republic, were brought into the discussion too. Oskran had suffered just such a bombardment and had needed millennia to recover; and their position between the Flike Empire and Glautak Consolidation made them a likely target of such attacks.

All the while, Aurora, networked with every other ship's computer in the Sherrington system, had been trying, it was feared in vain, to decrypt the enemy communications that had been intercepted. With modern encryption, the only real chance to decrypt was brute force and time. Aurora, however, had one advantage other computers lacked: she could think for herself, make her own deductions, even, though with difficulty, make a leap of imagination.
Having travelled with her organic Family for years since her awakening, she observed their thought processes, their problem-solving abilities, their sparks of creativity. She tried her best to emulate them. Here, she applied that potential to the signals captured from the enemy gunship which had destroyed Sherrington Provider IV.
Not to the signals themselves, transmitted to and from other ships in the enemy fleet, which could take years to break; but to the signals within the ship, displaying those messages in clear language on internal screens. Inspired by her Captain's fondness for history, and her Doctor, Ralph Vatelius' enthusiasm for pre-Escape culture and trivia, she had learned about Soviet listening devices deciphering the sound and timing of mechanical typewriter strikes in American offices, before the plain-paper, clear-typed documents were encoded for Cold War transmission. The details were far more complicated, but it was like holding an electronic drinking glass to the figurative wall, or peering through a computational keyhole. Stripping the electromagnetic recording layer by layer, trying to fit one piece or another into context, using all she knew of how ships and computers were constructed and operated, a little more than 130 hours after her arrival at Sherrington, she had what she believed to be a set of navigational coordinates.
Her own Family, Harroldsdottir and some of her officers, LCDR Hale of the Bluegrass Naval Militia, and what was left of the Sherrington government, gathered around screens in their various locations for her briefing. "I must emphasize," she said to them, "this data cannot be confirmed. I am... guessing."
"No one else has come up with anything," said Cro'Hr Reynolds, an Eyani and the last surviving Councillor of the Sherrington Triumvirate. Called away for business to another part of Sherrington VI, she had survived while all her family died in Sherrington City. She'd aged a decade in two thousand hours, and the hope of vengeance was the only thing getting her out of bed each morning. "We welcome your assistance, Lieutenant. Please continue."
She briefly explained the methods used to obtain the information, then displayed it. "The coordinates, if they are correct, are for a point in deep space, roughly three light-years from any known star or planet. My Captain, Commander Danner, theorizes they may have found a rogue planet to use as a base. If so it would be a cold body, practically impossible to detect from these distances. He alternatively theorizes that the point is arbitrary and random, simply a rendezvous for support ships to refuel and resupply the attackers, with nothing else there."
Danner was the ranking Jeffersonian naval officer present, and with Harroldsdottir deferring to the Republic majority, he took command - placing her second if necessary. "My plan is to approach the coordinates, exiting about a light-day out, as a fleet, then see if anything's there on passive sensors." The fleet would consist of Aurora, Valkyrie, Melanie Martin and the three Bluegrass frigates, and the cargoliner Jenny S., the other Reserve Privateer from Bluegrass. "If there is, the inverse-square law should keep us from being detected by them. Then we make a coordinated Close Transit, prepared to engage. If nothing's obviously there, we'll close in anyway and do a full active sweep as far as we can see. Maybe they dumped garbage or dropped a beacon. Danielson-" the captain of Jenny S.- "you'll stay back at the first exit point, watching. Your ship can't stand up to a real fight like the warships can. If something goes wrong, your job will be to report back." The woman nodded.

28 Firstmonth 562JR
24 September 2360CE
Interstellar space, three light-years north-coreward of Sherrington

It wasn't garbage, but a hulk, a ship stripped of engines and comforts, used only for storage. It didn't even have life support, just a small, well-shielded fusion pack to maintain the carbonan-lined slush hydrogen fuel storage which took up half its length. It only showed up on active sensors with a direct hull-paint. Its temperature was down in the low Kelvins, indicating it had been here for some time, but suggesting it had been accessed... a couple thousand hours ago. The other half of the hulk contained rations, bulk kinetic slugs, missiles, medical supplies.
"No beacon - they must have decent navigators," Hale observed.
"These aren't pirates," Danner replied - though pirates needed good navigators too. "This is something else." Something organized and disciplined - though pirates could be that also, as Brown's Flotilla had demonstrated at Mark's World and other places. The difference was, pirates operated for material gain. What did these people want? What profit was there in murdering a million innocent people and enraging billions?
With Aurora and Valkyrie standing guard, investigators dug into the hulk and its cargo. There seemed to be no surveillance or recording devices aboard - what enemy would expect to be found in the Deep Black? Still, precautions had been taken. On closer examination the hulk had never been a ship itself, but a ship-shaped cargo container - unmarked and generic. Jenny Blain suggested, "One of the gunships could have carried it through hyper, by clamping on and extending her Field around it." As Aurora had done with an asteroid in the Gambori system. "They'd lose speed, but they'd still get a hundred c easily, if their Engineers had any clue."
"They just left it here," he observed. "Do they have enough resources to abandon it? Are they planning on returning?" He called up a starmap. "There are four other inhabited systems within a distance that would make sense from here." Three independents and a Caledonian colony. "Who are these people? How long have they been doing this? How many more of these depots are hiding in the Black?" His eyes met those of his Purser, Daisuke Taniyama, who was once Takeo Nakayama. Could this be the Blood Rose? his look asked.
There were no manufacturers' marks on any of the supplies; they could have come out of any fabber in Known Space. It was the rations, unmarked though they were, that gave the next lead. The meat and plant matter, under close study by Ralph Vatelius in Aurora's sickbay/laboratory and comparison with her database, proved to be from Ude, another independent Frontier world eleven parsecs Galactic West - less than 1,900 hours Transit time for Aurora, over 2,000 for Valkyrie and the Bluegrass warships, more than 2,200 for most others. Little was known about the place - Terra-type of course, hospitable to Common Life, supposedly colonized by Humans about twenty Republic years ago. No one in the pursuit fleet had ever been there or met anyone who had. Entries in the Sailing Directions didn't exceed a few lines of text.

Jenny S. was not the right ship for the next job: investigation of a potentially hostile world, three Terran months' travel away. She deactivated her Reserve Privateer status and took Space Patrol contracts to bring survivors out of and supplies into the Sherrington system.
The warships took on fuel and supplies for their trip to Ude: antique hybrid "light" cruiser IS/JRS Aurora, neo-Viking battlecruiser Valkyrie; the Bluegrass Naval Militia ships of the Republic Space Patrol, destroyer BNMS/JRS Melanie Martin and frigate Osprey. Three more were forwarded from Sherrington: the antique but updated destroyer JRS Tracy Michaels, also a recognized Patrol reserve unit through the Confederate Air Force; and two more Reserve Privateers, cargotanker Julian, armed like a destroyer, and Farmington, a bulk freighter with a quartet of Class-6 Marsten Guns. Julian was the slowest at a still respectable c152, which Jenny Blain had just raised from 147.
As the ranking Jeffersonian officer, Danner remained in command, brevetted by h-mail to Captain. None objected. Danner's actions at Dakota, Mark's World and RAS1441, followed by his contributions to the Illyrian Civil War as a mercenary, were widely known. He still chose Harroldsdottir as second-in-command of the fleet, as she had as much or even more combat experience. She accepted without objection despite her higher equivalent permanent rank, as she was not accustomed to Jeffersonian doctrines and had less experience with fleet actions than Danner. She would be in command of any ground or boarding actions, being a proven leader of infantry, with Valkyrie's complement of 200 conventional and 40 power-armored troops, and four panzers. The four Griffin aerospace fighter-bombers Valkyrie carried were also very comforting to have along. The Asgardian designers had wisely made those compatible with Republic ordnance and support structures. They would fit in Aurora's centuries-old small-craft bays if necessary.
As the fleet was preparing to leave for Ude, an official announcement spread throughout Known Space:
"The unanimous Pentamvirate of the Jeffersonian Republic, in agreement with Tsarina Alexandra of the Russian Star Empire, President MacGregor of the Republic of Caledonia, High Chief Gr'Yun of the Eyani Nation, King Lars of Asgard, Queen Agnieszka of Illyria, and other nations to be added, hereby declare the perpetrators of the Sherrington Atrocity to be hostis sapiens generis - enemies of all sentient life. They are Outlaw, and when positively identified, their lives and property are forfeit without penalty to whoever chooses to take them, throughout any of these nations' territories, at any time."
Continued in the next excerpt....
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