Excerpts from the Jeffersonian Republic project:
Aurora, Part LXV: Blood Trail

This page Copyright 2017, Karl Leffler

Continued from the previous excerpt
8 Fourthmonth 562JR
22 December 2360CE

As before at the supply hulk, Danner's ad hoc fleet exited hyperspace a light-day away from Ude, the fourth planet of a G4 star, to collect passive sensor data. The inverse-square law and the vastness of space cloaked them from the potential enemy. With Sarah Heusner issuing fleet navigational data, as she had done during the Illyrian Civil War, the seven warships emerged within minutes, and one and a half light-seconds, of each other, after more than two thousand hours in hyperspace and more than thirty-five light-years' distance. Secure laser communications were established, and the ships did not move to close their formation; the plume of a fusion torch might draw attention where a burst of static from a Marsten Transition wouldn't.
The planet had never been formally visited by the Republic Astronomical Survey and the Exploration and Colonization Service, but discovered by an independent party, which had then made public notice of their claim. That happened all the time, and there had been some abuses, but as Danner had said to June Bigelow of the freighter Heritage, the Space Patrol was not a police force. Any force which could police every independent planet would be a greater evil, and was explicitly prohibited in the Jeffersonian Constitution.
Passive scans revealed little: no ships in orbit, no Marsten emissions, no EM radiations strong enough to reach a light-day. Ude had two moons, about half and a third the size of Luna, and orbiting a little closer. Tides would be complex. The genetic markers for the rations found in the hulk had been contributed years ago by an international nonprofit organization, who maintained a database for food-safety reference, as not all Common Life could eat all the same food bases. The Republic Space Patrol bought a license to include the data in the Sailing Directions. The most detailed entry in those, after giving its long numeric string of galactic coordinates, said:

UDE (oo-day)
Stellar type: G4
Planets: 11
Asteroid belts: 1, between VII and VIII
Cometary cloud: Nothing unusual reported
Navigational hazards: None reported
Habitable planets: IV
Claimant: Ude Expedition, LLC, 544JR
Orbital facilities: Unknown
Moons: 2
Inhabited: Unknown
Surface conditions: Survivable to unassisted Common Life
Political structure: Unknown
Economic system: Unknown
Imports: Unknown
Exports: Unknown
Population: Unknown
Native life: Unknown

It was good the cargotanker Julian was along, because the fleet would be spending a lot of fuel. Jenny Blain had been working on a way to quickly charge a Marsten Field, to enable Marsten Guns to intercept relativistic weapons with only seconds' warning. She'd come up with large capacitors, fabbed in Aurora's shop from materials taken from the Sherrington system's moons and asteroids. Fuel would be spent to energize them before a Transition, then a lesser amount to keep them charged. It wasn't a new idea, but fuel costs and internal space requirements had kept it from being implemented other than experimentally. If there had been another War, the concept might have been developed further. Now it looked like there might be one, and orbiting weapon platforms were being built this way, all along the Frontier.
The system also enabled a ship to make back-to-back Transitions, only seconds apart. That was the original idea, in the experiments performed about a hundred Republic years earlier, as a tactical advantage, but the state of the art then made it impractical, and then the Long Peace made it unnecessary. Fortunately Aurora was low on cargo and could use her hold space to store the capacitors, and she already had a reserve fuel bladder in Small Craft Bay Two. Likewise, anticipating cargoes that would need their own power sources, her internal power grid had been much improved during her first refit under Danner's command, at Wilson's Colony. It was simple to take power from the cargo holds and feed it into the ship instead.
Osprey and the destroyers were too small, Valkyrie too important as backup, and the Reserve Privateers, despite their tacked-on armament, were not warships and therefore were unsuitable for the next maneuver. With those ships standing by to come to her aid, Aurora made a more traditional Close Transit, two light-seconds from the planet, prepared to instantly escape back to hyperspace before reaching the hard Limit - which for Aurora was much closer to the surface than any other ship. She Transitioned on a course that would bring her into a standard 400km orbit without using her torches overmuch for braking - but only used two of her four, and pulsed them randomly. Telescopes from the surface would see only her stern, and the blinding fusion light.
Blain could have adjusted the cruiser's Drive to create a more powerful EMP, to disable any enemy ships or equipment with a Danner Maneuver, but none had been detected. Instead she adjusted it to minimize such effects on the chance there were sublight communications to be used. As she neared the planet, Aurora began hailing, generically, on common frequencies. She had changed her transponder and took the name of one of her long-departed sisters. Emulating her organic siblings and other people she had observed, she pretended to be a Human female, and a frightened one: "Independent Starship Diana hailing any station. We've suffered multiple systems failures and we're kind of lost. Running low on fuel. Our fueling gear and fabbers are down. Is anyone there?" Her transponder flickered convincingly, and her transmission faded likewise.
While waiting for a reply, Aurora's eyes stared, in many spectra, at the planet Ude, searching for signs of industry, population, technology, reporting each to her Family as she discovered them. There was a small settlement inland, on a lakeshore, with Human-looking prefabricated buildings, and landing pads for small ships on the other side of the lake. Elsewhere around the planet were what appeared to be primitive native villages, where rivers came together or met oceans. It was noteworthy that no mention had been made in the Sailing Directions of a native sentient species.
Aurora also listened, and soon overheard radio communications between what sounded like Humans on the surface. She relayed those as well:
"What the curse? We're not expecting anyone."
"You hear what she said? Lost. Maybe we should go bring her in, you know what I mean?"
"She sounds pretty...."
"You stow that, Haskins. Bell, get Number 14 ready. We're about to get a free ship, a fixer-upper. I'll talk to them, now the rest of you shut up."
The same voice then returned on the frequency "Diana" had used. "Starship Diana, this is Ude traffic control. Are you declaring an emergency?"
"Oo-day?" Aurora replied. "Where the hell is Oo-day? Never mind! Yes, I'm declaring an emergency! I don't know what's wrong, all the computers are showing me garbage and our reactors could scram at any moment! Can you help us into orbit?"
"Affirmative, Diana. We'll have a ship meet you as soon as possible. Your course looks close enough for orbital insertion. Continue your braking as long as you can and alert us at once if your thrust fails. When did the trouble begin?"
Aurora, with help from her Captain, who had served on sloppy merchant ships for years before discovering her, spun a tale of being swindled at some Frontier world, framed for theft, fleeing the backwater "law", and suspecting her ship had been infected with a computer virus, either by the swindler or the dirtside "government", if there was any difference. "I had to eyeball the Transit and feed it into my wrist 'puter. I didn't even know there was a planet here! Are there any computer specialists there? I'm afraid we're all out of our depth where that's concerned," the sentient, self-programming computer lied.
"Don't worry about a thing, Diana. We'll take good care of you."

The ship from Ude, presumably "Number 14", came alongside just as "Diana"'s torches failed and she "desperately" burned OMS rockets to make orbit. The voice presumed to be "Bell", not bothering to use telescopes or look out the viewport during his approach, suddenly realized he was alongside a Republic Navy Reserve cruiser, with very big guns aimed very precisely at him. "Holy-! Trawley, it's a Republic warship, it's a trick!"
Aurora, however, with faster reflexes than any organic being, had already taken over the other ship's systems. "Number 14" became an extension of her own 31-kiloton body, and Bell's transmission was not sent. Instead, she simulated his voice and gave a false report: "It's a tramp freighter. Looks repairable. Too big to land, but probably not much crew. They shouldn't give us much trouble." Likewise, video from "Number 14"'s cameras was overridden with a convincing simulation of a ship not unlike the cargoliner Jenny S. from Bluegrass.
The reply came: "Good. Stick them in a parking orbit. See if you can keep them friendly for a while, we need to know where they came from in case someone comes looking, but gas them or space them if you have to."
"You got it."

Meanwhile, Prrg and Holly Cates had been shot from Aurora's missile tubes in her forward bulb, in Mobile Infantry entry pods. Hoping the people on Ude - "Trawley" for example - weren't looking too closely at their screens, they plunged through the atmosphere, and about the time Bell lost control of "Number 14", they touched down outside a prefab shack with a pair of yellow aircars parked outside, where "traffic control"'s transmission had come from. A kilometer away were five landing pads, two occupied by the same kind of ships as "Number 14"... and similar in size and shape to the one imaged by Sherrington Provider IV. Aurora's scans proved the internal arrangements were the same. The murderers had been found.
This information was shared with the First Officer and Gunner as they were still freefalling though Ude's atmosphere. Having reached the surface in their power armor, they approached the shack with stealth that would have been surprising to someone unfamiliar with Jeffersonian standards of training. Thermoscopes let them locate and pre-target the three people inside. Bursting directly through walls on opposite sides, they shot all three with stunbolts, then quickly restrained them before the effects could wear off.
One, presumably the leader, Trawley, was found at a command desk with multiple screens and holotanks. Another, probably an assistant, was adjacent. Other voices heard on the radio were being pinpointed for further attention, while their frequencies were jammed.
The third person in the shack was a Human woman, chained to a bed. After snapping the slave's bonds with her armored gauntlets, Holly Cates opened her suit's helmet and locked eyes with Trawley, still in pain from the stun charge and now bound. Prrg likewise opened his helmet, revealing his reptilian face and carnivore grin. The duellist and former adventurer grabbed Trawley by the throat and lifted him one-handed. "You're going to talk," Cates said with deceptive calm, "or my brother here is going to eat you one small piece at a time. While you watch." Prrg wouldn't, of course, but Trawley didn't know that. Nikar were still rare and misunderstood away from their homeworld, Gnop.
Trawley actually put up some resistance. "We're an... independent world!" he choked out. "You have no... jurisdiction!" The Republic's Star and Bars flag was visible on the power-armor suits.
While Cates gently restrained the woman in case she became violent against her rapists or tried to commit suicide, she also projected from her suit an image of her Captain. "I am Solomon Danner," the image said, "brevet Captain of the Jeffersonian Republic Space Patrol. There has been a terrorist attack on the Sherrington system. The Republic and allied nations have, in absentia, declared the perpetrators hostis sapiens generis. Evidence links them to this world. The ship you sent to steal mine matches those involved in the attack." Having sent a signal by Marsten Device, the rest of the pursuit fleet made their own Close Transits, at little more than one light-second, and with a vector that would bring them to orbit quickly. The holographic Danner turned to the just-freed slave. Gently, he asked, "Goodwoman, where are you from?"
"The Yellowbird," she said quietly. Cates did not loosen her grip. Having dealt with Brown's victims, from Mark's World and earlier, she knew the woman would need much care and caution. "They took us...."
Aurora, quickly checking her records for the ship's name, provided, "She is a Republic Subject, my Captain."
Danner's image turned back to Trawley. "That makes it Republic jurisdiction." As if prima facie evidence of piracy, slavery and rape didn't make it every civilized nation's business. "Now you have a few options, Trawley. I can feed you to my First Officer. I can hand you over to the Asgardians I have along, for a Blood Eagle. I can have you hung by the neck right there, and I mean the hoist, not the drop. Or, if you talk, I can give you the nitrogen." Room-temperature nitrogen was, as far as could be seen, the least-painful method of execution yet devised for Common Life, causing a near-instant loss of consciousness and brain-death in minutes. A lot of criminals had sung for that alternative.

So did Trawley. "We were hired," he said, turning away from Prrg's yellow eyes and fifty teeth. Danner watched by hologram. "We don't even know by who.
"I've been on the account pretty much all my life. Bellamy's Reavers, the Harrison Gang, even Brown's Flotilla for a while. I got traded to the Seven Axes a few thousand hours before... that was you? Yeah, before you wiped out Brown."
Beside Danner in holoconference, Lorraine Harroldsdottir stiffened at word of the Seven Axes. As Danner looked the question, she said, "Renegade Asgardians. Old-style Vikings. They're all marked for the Blood Eagle, if we ever catch them."
"I'll let you question him further," Danner replied, "but I gave my word he'd get the gentle way out." She nodded. Danner turned back to the pirate, rapist, slaver and murderer. "What's the name of your current outfit? How many are there? How many here? Where are the rest? Where did these ships come from? Who hired you to murder a world?"
"Our employers call us Group Twelve. We've got people from all over, lots of different outfits. A couple hundred here on the surface, keeping the... your word, Danner? The nitrogen?"
"My word. If your answers satisfy."
"The people. The natives. Keeping them in line. Slaves."

During her approach, Aurora had seen evidence of settlement - preindustrial. Judging by thermal signatures, pre-iron, possibly bronze or copper, certainly little past stone. Now that she was in orbit, closer telescopic examination found agriculture, irrigation, stone structures, some of considerable sophistication. Unmistakably, evidence of a sentient race and a civilization.
She dropped drones, of the same kind as JRS Meriwether Lewis used to investigate the states of Oskran before choosing to make Contact with the Lii Confederation. Easily disguised as native bird-analogues, they recorded images, atmospheric samples that would indicate technology levels, even language samples, which Aurora began building a translation program for.
The Udese people were somewhat Humanoid in shape, averaging about 1.6 meters. They were not attractive to Human eyes, with deep flaps of flesh in their faces, and bulbous torsos and abdomens. They were mammalian, but the females had a single breast between chest and belly. The society seemed ordinarily patriarchal at its stage of development. Through her drones, Aurora quickly learned the basics of their cultures, governments, and religions.
Obviously a couple hundred pirates couldn't enslave a whole world. They'd taken over a few villages near their landing, played the "gods from the sky" card, and put the slaves to work harvesting food, which was fed into fabbers to make unmarked rations. The government which claimed the villages formed an army and attacked and were massacred. Their king was forced to sign a peace-and-tribute treaty at the point of a plasma rifle.
"One sidetrack after another," Danner complained.
"I have First Contact training," Cates said, "but I never used it. Well, this would be Second Contact anyway, and under the circumstances, that can be trickier." This was a job for specialists... who were thousands of hours and dozens of light-years away. Cates and Danner both had the necessary training, at least the basics. The Republic had no particular noninterference directive, and if she had, the pirates would have shattered it.
"When we have time for it, I'd like to be in on that," Sarah Heusner said. Danner looked at her with a little surprise, and she went on, "I can explain a little Eyani history. There are parallels." And... Danner had been detecting more bloodlust, lately, than his Navigator normally showed; a need to do something against the horrors she witnessed, the same as she suffered in infancy. Trying to heal Ude's wounds might help fill that need. He nodded.
"Back to the point, though," the Captain said. "Trawley, give me those answers before I break my word and give you to the Udese." They were just beginning to smelt a little copper, but they had obsidian blades.
The pirate gulped and resumed. "The leader of Group Twelve is a man named Sakami. I think he's a go-between for the real employer. I have no idea who that is.
"Sakami said we were being organized, that it would be a new age of piracy. He gave us these ships, thirty of them. Right now most of them are scattered, Sakami gets orders and passes them on, they go hunting in small groups. We used twenty at Sherrington. How'd you track us down...? I guess that doesn't matter."
The genetic food markers entering the database must have been a slip-up by whoever took this world, or a subordinate. Maybe there was a visitor who was too strong to seize and murder, who bought some food and continued on their way, unknowing, then later were interviewed by the non-profit food surveyors. "Why the attack on Sherrington?" Danner asked.
"Orders, that's all I know about that. Look, I wasn't part of that, I stayed here!" Keeping slaves. But that still wasn't quite as evil as murdering a million people for no apparent reason.
Trawley went on, "Sakami didn't say, but I got the feeling it was part of some big plan. Against the Republic, against... civilization. Like there was someone above him who wanted to just... tear everything down."
Danner's eyes turned away from the holoreceptors, to meet Daisuke Taniyama out of frame. "How much authority do you have here?" he asked Trawley.
"I'm third in line on Ude. Brand, Mike Brand, he's second, then John Morton. They're both out with the ships, Transits away from here. Then Sakami, over Morton. We don't see him much."
"If you order all your forces here to surrender, will they obey?"
Danner's hologram turned to Harroldsdottir's. "Captain, you should probably start your landings." Harroldsdottir's elfin brown face split in a cheerful white grin.
"Hey... Danner." The hologram turned back to the monster, Trawley. "One other thing. Everyone in this... whatever it is, they're all Human. And the bosses, they're all Asian. Especially Japanese. Does that mean anything?"
Danner stared, expressionless. "Trawley, you're a monster, and you're going to be executed for your crimes. Before that happens, you're going to be handed over for one interrogation after another, until you've been sucked dry of everything you know. But when that's done and you've no more to tell us, you have earned the nitrogen. On my word and before these witnesses."
The pirate, slaver, rapist and murderer had enough lingering shreds of humanity to shed a tear.
Continued in the next excerpt....
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