Excerpts from the Jeffersonian Republic project:
This page Copyright © 2021, Karl Leffler
Aurora, Part LXVI: Blood Oath
Continued from the previous excerpt
8 Fourthmonth 562JR
22 December 2360CE
Valkyrie's troops made short work of the equal number of pirates and slavers on Ude. "Anticlimactic," Harroldsdottir complained an hour later, as she cleaned her axe. There was blood on her face and it wasn't hers. The battlecruiser's Navigator had taken his turn commanding the ship in orbit while the rest of the command staff earned their points toward Valhalla. "I hardly worked up a sweat!" Though her ship included a platoon of power-armored Asgardian Mobile Infantry, equal to Republic Marines, she preferred to fight barefaced with only light passive armor, and handweapons.
"I'm formulating a theory," Danner answered; he had landed too, along with Sarah Heusner, to begin the work of repairing the damage done to Ude and the Udese. Aurora kept her own watch in orbit as usual, though the rest of the Family stayed aboard and technically Jenny Blain, as Engineer, would be in command. "'Group Twelve', Trawley said they were called. That's a discomforting number. I'm guessing there are several such operations, gathering food, fuel, other resources, feeding them into a larger organization. Connect that dot to what your King told us, about the Blood Rose." Daisuke Taniyama had landed too, in hope of finding more evidence leading to his murderous brother. He usually possessed the traditional self-discipline of the Japanese people, and gave no outward reaction to the name. "Probably each group doesn't know anything about the others - a cell system. I'm wondering how big this outfit is and I'm afraid I won't like the answer. You might," he said to the villain-hunter.
Harroldsdottir gave a half-smile. "Target-rich environment," she said. But the smile faded: "Not that I want a galaxy full of pirates. Some people have to be left alone to make nice things for me to buy with my battle-prizes." The Asgardians were a pragmatic people, and far more intelligent and civilized than their outward bloodthirst would suggest. They also didn't object to pleasures and luxuries. Even in battle, Lorraine wore emeralds. Compared to the Jeffersonian services, their uniform standards were... often very non-uniform.
About half the pirates had been killed outright, usually hand-to-hand by Asgardian blades and laughing wielders. Landers had dropped a platoon here, a squad there, wherever Aurora had detected a transmission, or wherever Trawley had sold out his fellows in hope of a gentler death sentence. The remainder had surrendered, or been incapacitated and captured. Aurora was conducting many of the interrogations herself, with her own robot extensions brought down from the ship. Every day, she seemed more Human, less a machine.
Two Asgardians had flown to Valhalla, a dozen or so wounded. Asgardians were mostly Human and most of the rest were Eyani; Vatelius and Howell had landed with them, as combat medics. Grunts everywhere, throughout history, loved their medics and Corpsmen, whatever they were. The Asgardians slipped the pair of healers enough coins to weigh them down. Now the pair were examining the Udese, learning what they could, in what time they had.
Updates were sent to Patrol Central, where they were being handled carefully. The State Department was throwing together a diplomatic team to make official relations with the Udese, and the groundwork for that was being laid by Danner, Cates and Heusner now. A pair of destroyers, some of the fastest the Patrol had, were being readied for a speed run to carry them to Ude.
Danner feared this might be the strategy of whoever was behind this new wave of piracy and terrorism - spreading the Republic's resources thin, forcing more defense spending, destabilizing all of Known Space. Could one man be driving all of this? Could Kazuo Nakayama be so different from his brother?
10 Fourthmonth 562JR
25 December 2360CE
There were three villages within a dozen or so kilometers of the little spaceport the pirates had built. Simultaneous landings liberated them all at once. The freed slaves were suspicious of more armed Humans - not that flint spears and boiled leather could do anything against modern armor and handheld pulse-lasers. On the other hand, the severed heads of the village overseers, presented as gifts to the Udese, went a long way toward gaining trust. The Asgardians' translating devices, loaded with the language file Aurora had generated, told the natives to be patient, that the leaders of these new sky-people would address them soon. Danner chose one of the villages and Aurora's extensions projected him by hologram to the others, with some of the slavers visible, chained, at his feet. Aurora translated live as he tried to express concepts in a way a stone-age people could understand:
"My name is Solomon Danner. I represent my nation, the Jeffersonian Republic. I command the ships that brought my friends to this world, whose light you see moving across your sky.
"Beside me is Lorraine Harroldsdottir, who commands one of those ships, and also leads the fighters who have freed you from slavery. She represents the Kingdom of Asgard, a nation different from but friendly to my own.
"Also beside me is Sarah Heusner, who steers my ship across the stars. She is of my own nation. Long ago her parents were killed by criminals like those who first came to your world. She can understand what you have suffered and help you to overcome it.
"Also at my side is Holly Cates, a soldier of my nation and the master of my ship's weapons. She has fought before against people like these who have harmed you.
"You are free. There will be no more tribute, no more punishments. The hostages taken to force you to work are being returned to you now. The treaty forced on your king is broken and no more.
"We are not gods, and those who hurt you are not gods. We are people, like yourselves. Our tools and weapons give us powers that may seem like magic, but which can be explained.
"These other people, who enslaved you, are criminals and enemies, liars and thieves. Surely your own people have warred with each other in your history, one tribe or nation against another, gangs of thieves and killers preying on the innocent. So it is with us, and other people among the stars.
"These people committed a terrible crime on another world, and we hunted them here, to find them committing more crimes against you. If you wish, some will be turned over to you for punishment, but others we must keep for questioning, and punishment under our own laws.
"Others of my people will come to this world, to make peace with you and perhaps to offer commerce. This may be a year or more from now, for they are far away and must travel a great distance. You will not be forced to accept any such trade or treaty. If you wish, you will be left alone.
"We cannot restore to you the people and wealth you have lost. We can, and we have, stopped those who were harming you. We do not offer apology for crimes committed by others. We do end those crimes and remove those criminals from your world. We shall do all in our power to protect you from future criminals." Ude would become a Protectorate of the Jeffersonian Republic, like Bwor, the high-gravity world with its strange, flattened people.
"We have established a base near the village of Tinnak, and my government has given me power to make peace and treaties with yours. We will remain here for several days, and any who wish may meet and speak with us. I intend to leave your world in peace as soon as that is practical. Others will take my place if your people wish it, and if you do not, we will not.
"I repeat, we are not gods, we are not masters. You owe us nothing, not fealty or labor or tribute or worship. You may see light from our ships in the sky, but we will not interfere with you unless you invite us. Those ships will be guardians of your world, protecting you from other criminals such as these. Tools and instructions for contacting us will be provided." Ships would have to be left here. The other ships of Group Twelve would return for more supplies, and might even repeat the Sherrington Atrocity to destroy evidence and witnesses.
"We welcome friendship and trade with all people, and invite you to meet and talk with us in peace."
Later that day, three of the locals arrived at Danner's fabricated office - he was effectively the Jeffersonian military governor of the world, for the moment. They appeared to be dressed in formal wear, bearing some resemblance to Greco-Roman togas. Through Danner's earbud, translated by Aurora, their leader said, "I am Prec. I am headman of Tinnak village. We offer thanks for freeing us." The trio prostrated themselves before Danner.
"Rise, friends," he said at once. "We do not require submission. Please, take seats, eat and drink from my table." Local furnishings and refreshments had been acquired. The Udese may not have iron yet, but had discovered gold, which Isaac Asimov called "the first metal". "Here with me is Lorraine Harroldsdottir, leader of the fighters from Asgard, and second in command of our fleet. These are some of her subordinates." Two Humans and an Eyani, wearing light personal armor, with Viking fighting axes, knives, and modern pistols on their harnesses. "This is Prrg, second in command of my own ship." Which was usually pronounced 'purg' in American English. "He is of my nation, but comes from a different world and people. Likewise, this is Glub, a member of my ship's crew, among many other things. He also is of my nation, an outcast and rebel from the world of his birth." He left out Aurora, projecting her 1:100 scale image as usual. Aliens from the sky with magic weapons were enough for the stone-age Udese to swallow without trying to explain a self-aware starship and Artificial Person. "I include these people in our meetings to show you how different kinds of people can live together in peace and cooperation, and also to show you that there are many different kinds of people. Friend Prec, who are your companions?"
"This is Yurk, the Elder Wiseman of our village, and Sanx, our chronicler." All were male. The latter carried what appeared to be a wax tablet and bone stylus, and a satchel containing more. Danner caught a glimpse of pictograms on the tablet. Aurora's hovering remotes caught more, for translation at need. "We come to talk of peace and trade."
"That is good," Danner replied. "But first, have all your hostages been returned?"
"Yes... all who survived. My own daughter...." Human-like tears rolled down Prec's ridged face. "You have returned my greatest treasure to me." Prec's body language showed he wanted to prostrate himself again.
Danner poured him some local fruit-wine, from a local clay jug, in a local gourd-cup. Aurora's eavesdropping suggested that doing so with his own hands, in his own "house", would be a great gesture of friendship to the locals, without losing status. "Those thanks more rightly belong to my friend Harroldsdottir," he said.
"But I do not require them," she said. "My people seek battle to please our gods, but we do not prey on the innocent, and only slay the evil. To do so in the sight of our gods is thanks enough for us."
Yurk, filling the conversational gap opened by Prec's emotions, said, "We note that you are dressed differently, and bear different marks. We have many questions about the... worlds? you come from. We do not wish to offend by asking."
Danner nodded. "There is no offense. There are questions and answers enough for lifetimes. Our own wisemen will have as many questions of you. We will leave more of our machines here, which will answer some of yours." He gestured to a kiosk, fabbed by Aurora, which contained a Galpedia archive, and communication links to a Marsten Device which would be left in synchronous orbit. The same kiosk held an AI teacher, and would also be used to contact the orbiting ships, and later station, of the Space Patrol, during Ude's time as a Republic Protectorate. The same arrangement had been made at Bwor.
Danner continued, "Briefly, I can tell you I come from the Jeffersonian Republic, or simply 'the Republic'. Mine is the largest and strongest nation we know of. Our center is very far from here, but some of the stars you see in your night sky are the suns of other worlds which bear my nation's flag.
"I am a merchant, taking my ship from one such world to another, trading goods or carrying passengers. I am also a reserve officer in my nation's Navy." The Udese knew about ships, or at least boats, had built some of bundled reeds and tied logs, understood the concept of a national Navy. Aurora, with hundreds of tiny drones eavesdropping across the planet, had quickly assembled a good Udese dictionary and used appropriate words to describe the ideas. "I was drawn into this series of events by chance, and called back to service under my nation's laws. By the oaths I swore to those laws, I was required to intervene. Harroldsdottir and her warriors heard of the attack on that other world and came to join us, in search of evil men to slay for their gods."
Sanx, the chronicler, and apparently the youngest, abruptly asked, "What happens when they run out of evil people?" Prec and Yurk glared in criticism at the breach of protocol.
Harroldsdottir smiled and nodded to show there was no offense. "That is a fair question, and you are not the first to ask it," she said. "It is unlikely to happen, among all the worlds we have explored. Our gods will punish us if we harm the innocent."
Another Udese male approached Danner's fabbed office-shack on the run. Harroldsdottir's neo-Viking warriors, standing guard outside, crossed spears in his path. "State your business," one said to him through his translator.
"The King! King Hran of Jellakk desires audience with the people from the sky! The King approaches!"
Danner was only too pleased to go up the chain and get things done. Hran and his entourage approached in the local version of palanquins. Hran, having recently seen his people enslaved by aliens and freed by other aliens, made a show of paying a small gold bead to each of the porters, where Danner could see it.
A herald announced, "Hail Hran the Wise, King of Jellakk, master of the Two Valleys and the Eastern Sea!" All the Udese present knelt.
The Jeffersonians and Asgardians did not, but offered military salutes. "Welcome, King Hran," Danner said. "Please enter my house and eat from my table." Aurora had picked up that phrase, the local Udese hospitality tradition, through her eavesdropping drones. Like the wine he had poured for Prec, it bore much cultural weight here.
After preliminaries, Danner repeated what he had recently told the Tinnak village leaders. He then said, "I saw you paying gold to the porters who carried you here. That is good. The laws and gods of my nation and the nation of my friends, these warriors, hate slavery in all its forms." Danner placed an emphasis on those last few words.
Hran seemed a bit uncomfortable at that, but hitched up his spine and answered, "My kingdom has outlawed slavery. Yesterday, the day after you freed us from it. We did keep slaves, until the first people came from the sky. Having been made one myself, the taste of it sickened me, and I decreed that it shall be no more in my kingdom. There are other kingdoms on this world who still keep slaves." Hran made the Udese equivalent of cocking an eyebrow at Danner.
"I am pleased by your words," the Captain/Governor/Ambassador said. "My nation does not trade or treat with the keepers of slaves. If the rest of your laws are acceptable to ours, Jellakk is likely to be the first nation on this world which my nation will make peace and commerce with."
Hran's body language showed relief, then eagerness. "Will that commerce include your magic weapons?"
Danner smiled at the other being's forthrightness. "Probably. In time. This machine-" he gestured again to the kiosk- "which will allow you to exchange messages with the leaders of my nation, will be left here, and will answer many of your questions in greater detail. I expect your wisemen will crowd around it. More such machines are being made. We can deliver one, or more, to your capitol."
Jumping ahead to what he guessed would be Hran's next question, Danner continued, "My nation does not offer military alliance or assistance against whatever enemies you have here - not without much study and deeper understanding of your world and people. It would not be good to ask for such a thing so soon in our relationship." Hran drew his head back, affronted... then bobbed it forward like a pecking bird, an Udese nod. Gesturing to the Asgardians in the room, Danner went on, "These warriors, my friends, are of a different nation, with different laws. We are allies against criminals such as those who came here before us. These warriors sometimes fight for gold. You may bargain with them separately." Captain and Countess Lorraine Harroldsdottir would prevent conflict with the Jeffersonian Protectorate of Ude.
Hran made the pecking-bird gesture again. Then he asked, "Are you not a warrior?"
Knut Henriksson, an Asgardian platoon leader, stepped forward to answer. "Solomon Danner may not be a warrior in our way, but he would be found worthy in the eyes of our gods," Henriksson said. "We fight with blades and muscles. He fights with ships, and wits. He is different, but no less a warrior than I." Henrikkson nodded respectfully to Danner. Asgardian skalds had made songs of Danner's and Aurora's actions at Mark's World and RAS1441. For artistic use, they called the latter Adda, for the numbers of the letters in the Latin alphabet. The name was entering common use across explored space, as the Battle of Adda.
Danner returned the other man's nod, then turned back to Hran. "I command a ship of trade. Though I have fought battles and expect I will again, I do not seek war. My nation's laws, and my place under them, require me to fill this role, speaking with you on your world, at this time. By choice I would be buying and selling goods with your people, then travelling to the next world, wherever that might be."
"How many worlds are there?" Hran asked, and there was a breath of wonder in his voice, even through the translator. Danner was reminded of the herald giving Hran the cognomen "wise".
Danner took a beat to consider his answer. "The numbers... are very large. My nation claims one hundred four worlds, beneath ninety-two suns. The stars you see at night are some of those suns. Some are claimed by other nations. Others have no worlds at all, or none that people can live on. In more than five hundred of our years-" Aurora inserted the equivalent in her translation- "we have explored perhaps four hundred suns. Your own wisemen may say that the number of stars in the sky are like the blades of grass on the plains, or grains of sand on a beach. That is a fair description."
Even across the species barrier, Danner could see the thirst for knowledge in Hran's eyes. This King would rather have been a scholar himself. "And all these suns, all these worlds... there are other people upon them?"
Danner nodded. "Many. Kiosk, please display a map of the Republic." The machine did so, and Danner pointed out Ude's position relative to Asgard and major Jeffersonian worlds. Aurora, linked to the kiosk while she was in orbit, helpfully rotated the display to show constellations the Udese had named. Then Danner expanded the map to show the whole galaxy, with the Republic and all of Known Space shrinking to a colored dot within it. "This is all we have visited, after four or five of your lifetimes. This image shows only our own galaxy. There are more galaxies in the universe than there are stars in this one galaxy. There are terrors and wonders and treasures beyond counting, yet to be discovered."
Danner contemplated Hran, as the Udese stared at the map. "King, I can see that you are a person of learning and wisdom, with a thirst for knowledge worthy of the greatest scholars of my own people." As Hran's eyes returned to meet Danner's, the Captain waved a hand to cut off the kiosk's display. "As a gift and sign of friendship, I will see that one of these machines is delivered to you personally... but I must warn you how tempting this knowledge can be. Like strong drink, or your world's kanba leaves." Similar in many respects to Terran coca. "I find myself drawn into this role as ambassador for my nation, contrary to my desires. I suspect being king was not something you wished for, yet the duty has fallen upon you, and I can see you take that duty seriously, as a wise leader should. I would advise you to strictly control and limit your use of this machine, lest it distract you from that duty, thereby bringing harm to your kingdom."
Hran drew back his head again, thinking. "Your words are bitter medicine. I must swallow them. ...I might say it would be better if the machine were not given to me... but knowing that the knowledge existed out of my reach... that would be a greater suffering. My children will make much use of this great gift, and become wiser than I. For that, you have my true thanks."
The King stood, and produced a small obsidian knife, and a small clay cup. With it he nicked a fingertip (the Udese had four fingers and dual opposable thumbs on each hand, and base-twelve math). As a drop of blood fell into the cup, he announced, "Solomondanner, Lorraineharroldsdottir, you and your fellows have freed my people from slavery. Whatever your nations may decide, I swear my house and my blood to eternal friendship with you and yours."
Danner and Harroldsdottir rose from their seats, repeating the gesture. Two drops of Human blood fell into the cup and mingled with the King's. "So shall it be," the Captain said, and as one of Hran's attendants sealed the cup in a leather pouch, King and Captains placed their uninjured hands on each others'.
Danner offered Hran one further gift: A couple orbits in his Steeltown Aerospace Apogee aircar, the captain's gig, Aurora's One Boat. Forewarned, the King, his son and heir, and two daughters made use of the motion-sickness bags provided, when thrust ended and freefall began- then forgot all discomfort as the splendor of their blue-white world swirled below them, and stars uncountable above. The Udese people, or at least four of them, had gone from the stone age to the space age in a single day.
Ralph Vatelius, Aurora's doctor and the geneticist who co-discovered the solution to regeneration for the Glaut species, took samples of the kanba plant, and many others from around Jellakk. "One never knows where the next great cure will come from," he said to King Hran, in company with the Royal Physician and various Jellakkan scholars. "Most really important scientific discoveries are by accident. This one might become a source of trade and profit for your people." Vatelius was also provided with a recently-executed criminal - a collaborator with Group Twelve's slavers, who paid him with local women to rape. The cadaver would form the core of Udese medical knowledge in Republic databases. Once fully scanned, the remains were cremated, mixed with clay, fired for solidity, and dropped far at sea, in the Jeffersonian tradition for disposing of criminals.
Charles Clancy, Aurora's Steward, Chef, and sometimes co-Purser, found another potential export item on Ude. "This fruit of yours, durnot. I see you've already made wine of it. That is a thing you can sell to many people among the stars, for gold." After giving tips on winemaking and dropping hints about distillation, Clancy gathered samples of various foodstuffs to experiment with. The fish seemed particularly flavorful, due to trace elements in Ude's seas. Those might be toxic to some galactic species, but a selling point to others.
Jenny Blain's first career was designing and building Marsten Drives, the faster-than-light engines which carried people to the stars. Now, with her husband, a self-taught engineer in his own right without credentials, she found herself teaching the stone-age Udese of Jellakk how to smelt copper, bronze, iron, and eventually steel. "In time," she said to the assembled Royal Artificers, "many lifetimes, you would have discovered these things yourselves, as we did, and travelled beyond your sky by your own efforts, as we have. Now, in much less time, perhaps in your own lifetimes, it will become a common thing, as much as travelling from one village to the next."
Holly Cates had been accepted as an honorary Asgardian - and for all anyone knew, one or another strand of her designed DNA was related to someone aboard Valkyrie. She and Henriksson gave some informal training to the Jellakkan Army, formations, spear-and-shield techniques, the concept of massed archery. Soon they would have iron to replace obsidian and flint, and Jellakk would become the leader of the Udese arms race.
There was no avoiding the cultural disruption. To Hran and his advisors, Ambassador and interim Governor Danner recommended several documentaries stored in the kiosk/library/teacher machines being left behind throughout Jellakk, to help them ride the coming storms.
It was a few hundred hours after Ude's liberation that the ships of Group Twelve began to return.
18 Fourthmonth 562JR
4 January 2361CE
Aurora and her Family had prepared. Aurora could impersonate several different people at once, including Trawley and Bell.
Trawley had given up command codes, names, lists, protocols, schedules. He had been promised that he would die in his sleep, his cell sealed and flooded with nitrogen without his knowledge. It was hard to imagine a gentler price for his crimes.
Ships 14, 11 and 23 had been captured, the latter two on their pads. Harroldsdottir had assigned prize crews to 11 and 23 and had them in orbit now, while Aurora retained remote control of 14. If it came to it, she'd get full prize value for that one, having captured it essentially alone - but by pre-Escape standards she was already a millionaire, after prizes from Mark's World and Adda, where she became a legal Person.
These enemy ships were identical, with single Class-9 Marsten Guns in their spines and single Class-4s on either side, which could also be trained aft. The relativistic weapons were deployed by simply hanging onto them, Transitioning at the desired fraction of realspace lightspeed, and firing attitude jets while letting go. Each ship had large manipulators to hold four kinetic slugs against the hull, well inside the Marsten Field, for that purpose.
Trawley had given up all the keys he had, which weren't all that were used by the enemy, but which led to others they hadn't thought to secure. Some logs and transmissions had been decrypted, but navigational data used biometric keys, and there was no uncoded reference to anyone ranked above Sakami.
Aurora and Danner were surprised by the ease with which Aurora could take over the terrorists' ships, considering the heavy encryption their communications used. That was a potential blind spot and weakness to exploit. It also suggested the ships were being built by one hand, and modified by another.
Coded Marsten transmissions gave warning of the ships' return. Thanks to Trawley, the correct responses were sent to prevent suspicion. Three ships were approaching, and were all expected to land.
Valkyrie tucked herself in near the smaller of Ude's two moons, putting it between her and the incoming terrorists, hovering on her torches so the gravity of neither moon nor planet would pull her in. Hale's detachment from Bluegrass, along with the CAF's antique destroyer, landed on the smaller moon, prepared to boost over the horizon and attack. Aurora resumed her guise as tramp freighter Diana, deploying thin false panels that would still give a solid return by radar or Marsten Detector. Julian and Farmington likewise changed their transponders and pretended to be prizes brought to Ude by other pirates. Ships 11, 14 and 23, in orbit, would give a sense of normalcy and security.
And it worked. Ships 6, 16 and 19 Transitioned at three light-seconds and maneuvered for sequential entry and landing. Each thundered down to landing pads on the other side of the lake from the control shack where Trawley had been captured. Once the dust had cleared and the heat of their landing had faded, they opened hatches, dropped ramps, and began hooking up to refuel. A fusion pack had been dug in beside the lake, running electrolysis on the water to produce hydrogen for the ships. The air of Ude itself was adequate for breathing atmosphere and was simply compressed in the ships' tanks.
These three predators had brought a prize of their own, Loring, a small cargoliner from a small independent Frontier world, which was directed to a parking orbit alongside 23... which was full of Asgardians. A pirate named Cork, commanding 16 and second in command of the returning detachment, boasted to his planetside fellows of the women and girls- and boys- captured aboard. "There's one pair, twins, brother and sister. Redheads! I'll let you look, but I'm keeping them for myself!"
Cork emerged from Number 16 with the children literally in tow, on leashes and collars. They were perhaps eleven Terran years old, moving with the listlessness of minds broken by abuse which they were powerless to stop or escape. He began leading them toward the control shack and the barracks beyond it.
As he arrived, Holly Cates, in her power armor, came around a corner of the shack, plunged an armored gauntlet into his chest, pulled out his still-beating heart, and showed it to him before he died.
Sarah Heusner, battle-claws extended and her own fangs out, waded into the rest of the unsuspecting crew, snarling like a leopard. With the agility of one raised as Shipfolk, she stood on her two hind legs alone, using all four hands to slash and thrust and smash the monsters. Blood flew. Around the scene, Asgardian warriors rose from concealment and charged, blades flashing, pirates screaming and falling, often in pieces. There weren't many shots, and those were precise from the Asgardians, or wild and wasted from the pirates. Females or younger Asgardians, less threatening in appearance, took charge of the pirates' captives, leading them away to safety. More Asgardians stormed all three landed ships, mopping up.
Starships were built with their decks oriented to the direction of boost from their realspace engines, so when landed they formed towers with multiple levels. Aurora had twenty decks, Valkyrie fifty-three. Ships slightly larger than Aurora had been built for landing, but she hadn't, and her size was near the limit; Valkyrie was much too large for it. Trying to set the Asgardian battlecruiser down would cause as much surface damage as an early atomic bomb.
These gunships were designed the same way, though at only two kilotons, there were only six decks. While Aurora, centuries old, had been built with her controls at the very bow, modern warships like Valkyrie had their "bridge" deep inside for protection against battle damage. So it was with these little gunships, with a Combat Information Center in the ship's spine, just forward of the fusion plants and the Marsten Drive.
Lorraine Harroldsdottir led her own detachment into Number 6. Aurora had overheard that Sakami was aboard, and he was wanted alive. The returning ships were low on fuel, having enough to land safely but not enough to lift again - the crews knew it and didn't even try. Besides, Aurora had found her way into their computers. First she had shown and told the pirates what they expected, to lure them in. Now she showed them nothing.
At the front, Harroldsdottir chopped her way through one compartment after another, one terrorist and the next. Her axe looked like it could have been borne by the raiders of Lindisfarne, but its bit was of a cermet composite like her ship's armor, and the shaft was a synthetic that could deflect rifle bullets or support tons. It rose and fell, and blood painted decks and bulkheads.
One pirate drew a pistol whose plasma bolt smashed into her armor, and was diffused through the conductive grid in the layer below. The charged particles ablated her breastplate, and the reaction staggered her. Another hit in the same spot would penetrate.
Solomon Danner, at her heels in pursuit of Sakami, leaned around her and put a plasma bolt of his own in the pirate's center of mass. Another pirate charged from his side, swinging a huge wrench used for adjusting landing gear. Danner ducked it and with his left hand thrust his midsword into the enemy's throat. That one dropped, gasping and twitching, spinal cord severed.
Daisuke Taniyama, at his Captain's side, likewise carved his way through pirates and slavers, his murdered father's wakizashi flickering and blurring, its molecular edge severing clothing and bone with equal ease. His left hand was filled with the Model Forty-One slug pistol, barking occasionally. Everyone in the assault party wore active hearing protection. Many of the pirates didn't, and the muzzle blasts in confined spaces further disoriented them.
Aurora had control of the internal hatches, and therefore control of the people in each compartment. Since the ships were grounded in a breathable atmosphere, she couldn't simply open them to vacuum or reduce pressure a lesser extent to cause loss of consciousness, but she could prevent movement by anyone who hadn't already left the ships; and she could open a particular hatch exactly when her friends and Family needed it open.
The CIC hatch snapped sideways into its bulkhead recess, and fire poured out, bolts and beams and bullets. The assault party had stood wide, and one of the Asgardians flicked a flash-bang grenade into the compartment. A moment after it detonated, another leaned over and hosed everything with a modified plasma rifle, tuned to fire stunbolts, lower-energy packets which would cause small local burns and electric shock. Set to automatic, the warrior emptied a fifty-three-shot power cell, then leaned away from the opening for a comrade to repeat the effort. The first weapon's "barrel", the waveguide which contained and shaped the charges, glowed yellow.
Trawley had provided a description of Sakami. He was found, half-conscious and floundering from the stunbolts, alive.
One of Aurora's 15-centimeter remote spheres had shot him with a sedative needle and he had been dragged out, then bound, spread, on a bunk in the barracks near the comm shack where Trawley had been captured. Once secured, Aurora shot him again, with an antidote, and the questioning began.
"I will tell you nothing," the terrorist said. "And under your Jeffersonian laws, your 'civilization', you cannot make me." Which wasn't entirely true - Republic law was a little vague on torture, especially of duly declared Outlaws.
To which point, Danner, at the side of the bunk, countered with, "We have testimony that you passed on orders to attack Sherrington with relativistic weapons. That makes you hostis sapiens generis - enemy of all sentient life." He gestured to Lorraine Harroldsdottir, her compact form still coated with pirate blood. "Including Asgard." The historical Blood Eagle may have been mythical, but the one practiced by the neo-Vikings of Asgard was real. Next to Danner, Taniyama showed a face of stone, toward a monster who might know where his murderous brother was.
Sakami smiled, and said, "One Zero Zero Seven Six."
Before the last syllable left Sakami's mouth, Taniyama shouted "DOWN!" and tackled his Captain, pushing him to the floor. Lorraine was on the other side of the bunk. She couldn't be reached in time-
The explosives implanted in Sakami's chest detonated.
Blood flowing from ears and nose, Danner struggled to his feet. Taking inventory, he seemed intact, and he knew Vatelius' nanites could repair the hearing damage.
Taniyama was dazed and bleeding from several wounds, but conscious and waving Danner away. That was nothing Ralph couldn't fix.
Lorraine Harroldsdottir was a genetically-engineered Asgardian warrior, faster and stronger than normal Humans, experienced in dozens of hand-to-hand fights. What she lacked was an understanding of Old Nipponese culture, and the traditions of seppuku and kamikaze.
She had a few moments of awareness left. "My axe," she whispered, but Danner read her lips through the ringing in his ears. "I've lost...."
Her axe was somewhere across the room, with the rest of her. Danner knelt by her side, and her blood soaked his clothes. He drew his midsword and placed it in her remaining hand, then lifted that to her chest. Their eyes met and she smiled.
"Takk, Kaptein," she said, and flew to Valhalla, a weapon in her hand.
The doors and windows of the barracks had been blown open. Outside, smoke and flame poured from the three grounded ships. Whatever implants Sakami carried had triggered destruct charges in their CICs, wrecking all the data Aurora had not yet been able to decrypt, and killing several Asgardians aboard, examining their prizes. The same had happened with the ships in orbit. All those systems were separate from the ones Aurora had been able to take over, lending weight to Danner's theory that the ships were being built by one party and used by another. Danner would later learn of a Marsten Device hidden in the outer system, which sent what was probably a warning to the rest of Group Twelve, before Osprey hurried out to disable it.
Harroldsdottir's warriors rushed in and gathered around her. Howell and Vatelius were with them; Delilah gasped and sobbed and turned away in horror, then knelt with her husband by Daisuke.
Harroldsdottir's XO, Commander Nilsson, knelt and dipped his fingers in the pool of her blood, then drew them across his left cheek, mimicking her famous scars. The others followed suit, forming a line.
Nilsson rose and faced Danner. "Commodore," he addressed Danner, for such he was in the Illyrian Navy. "We thank you for sending her to Valhalla armed." Danner nodded solemnly, still kneeling at his friend's side, his hand on hers, over the sword he had given her in her last moment. To arrive at Odin's feast hall empty-handed was shameful to Asgardians, and risked being barred entry.
Danner had done a great service to Asgard, and Nilsson would spread that word. "The trail is broken," Nilsson continued, nodding in the direction of the burning ships. "Our respective governments will take over... but someday one of us will find this enemy. If it is you, we beg you to call upon us, so we may have our vengeance."
Solomon knew the words. Standing, the two men clasped forearms, and their friend and leader's blood on their hands cemented his oath:
"In the name of Odin All-Father, of Thor his son god of thunder, and of Tyr god of justice, I so swear."
The two men embraced, as only brother warriors could.
Ship Number 6, the one Sakami had returned in, was chosen for a final purpose. Repaired just enough to fly, it was loaded with Lorraine Harroldsdottir's worldly goods, coins of precious metal from every surviving member of Valkyrie's Family and Aurora's, her favorite foods, the emeralds she loved - gold artifacts made by the Udese, native flowers she had said she liked. King Hran laid those around her body with his own hands, weeping for the alien woman who had broken his kingdom's chains.
The pieces of the Asgardian Countess had been gathered and put back together as well as they could be. She had been dressed in her best clothes, her Asgardian Navy uniform and rank, her finest ceremonial armor from her quarters aboard Valkyrie. Her own axe had been found and was in her belt, and Solomon Danner's midsword, bearing Aurora's centuries-old ship's badge, was in her hand, where Danner had placed it. Similarly arranged at her sides were those of her followers who had died in this battle.
Sakami had been shoveled into a bin and placed at her feet, along with every pirate and terrorist she had personally slain since coming to Ude. Their shades would be her servants in Valhalla. The other neo-Vikings aboard likewise rested above their own kills.
As her followers sang an ancient Norwegian funeral dirge, many crying openly, the ship was launched, on a course for Ude's star. The molecules and atoms of Lorraine Harroldsdottir's body would be returned to the universe that created them, and in a million years or a billion, would live again.
Continued in the next excerpt....