Excerpts from the Jeffersonian Republic project:
This page Copyright © 2016, Karl Leffler
Aurora, Part VII: Taking Care of Business
Continued from the previous excerpt
With the core crew finally assembled, Danner led them all to the ship and set them to work, after settling them in rooms at a dockside hotel – Aurora's refit would take months, even with all the advances made since she'd first been built. At present, the crew's work consisted of trying to keep up with Blain as she inspected what seemed to be every rivet, bolt and weld in the spaceframe and hull, every connector on every centimeter of cable. This crew would be plank-owners in truth; with most of the ship laid bare, they could touch her very bones, personally inspecting compartments no living eye had seen for over three Republic centuries. No crew would know their ship better.
For his part, when not following along, Danner returned to the bridge, at this point the only pressurized compartment, now with the Glaut in tow. “You say you're good with computers?” he asked the amphibian several days along.
“Yes, sir,” the molluscoid answered, still shy from what Danner guessed – correctly – had been his time as an outcast, and still instinctively wary of an entire crew made up of vertebrate predators which outmassed him by an order of magnitude – except for his friend Hlossh, who was also his world's most successful predator. But now the alien was warming to a favorite subject. “I was... excited, when I discovered the advances Humans have made in the computer sciences. Your people advance more in a year than mine do in generations. Is it true some of your computers have achieved consciousness?”
Danner looked at the Glaut steadily as he replied, “That's why I've brought you here now, Gr- ah... say, friend, most of us can't pronounce your name. Would you mind if we called you something else?”
“Some of the others have begun calling me 'Glub'. I would not mind, sir.”
“Well Glub, to answer your question, we're not really sure. There have been experiments, carefully contained, but results have been inconclusive. Some computers, ships or city AIs, have sometimes acted in... certain ways which suggested self-awareness and even free will. I've researched this. Can you guess why?”
“You are concerned that Aurora may someday become sentient, sir.”
“That's partly right. I'm partly concerned... and partly hopeful. I don't know much about your religion, Glub, except Jeffersonians like myself think very poorly of it, and I suspect you've reasons to do the same. Do you believe in souls?”
A Glaut's eyes were black, apparently unmoving, and as yet Danner could read no emotional cues from something that looked like a medium-small octopus. Glaut didn't change color as Terran equivalents did for camouflage, and there was scientific debate as to how such a relatively weak and vulnerable species survived the long evolutionary road to intelligence. After a time, Grbblb said, “I have spoken with Steward Clancy, Purser Taniyama, and Bosun Epstein, who have shared with me some of their religious beliefs. Friend Hlossh has discussed his religion with me for some time now. Before we met Humans and the other races of the Republic, my people did not have the concept of a soul, yet I find it interesting. Are you suggesting that Aurora has a soul, sir?”
Danner also paused before replying, then looked away while he spoke. “Humans have built ships and taken them on long voyages throughout our recorded history. As these ships grew larger and more complex, my people came to believe they had some existence of their own, beyond whatever lifeless parts had gone into them. Ships of exploration which overcame great difficulties to bring their crews safely home, ships of war who fought on though mortally wounded. This is superstition of course, with no basis in science. But many believe. I believe ships have souls. I believe Aurora does.”
“And if this soul awakens, as through her computer, you wish her to be whole, not forced into existence by artificial means, or prevented from awakening. Yet you are also concerned that such an awakening might endanger your crew, or the ship herself.”
Danner turned to look at Grbblb again. “You're more insightful than your species is given credit for.”
“I was not maimed by accident.” Grbblb wiggled his stump, and waved a whole tentacle at his missing eye. “I was a heretic, a rebel. I believe that every one of my people has natural rights – what your Republic's Declaration of Independence describes as 'unalienable' rights, which your Constitution partially enumerates. I was arrested for the crime of distributing copies of those documents among my people. My government mutilated me in punishment and expected me to die. If not for a chance meeting with Hlossh, I would have.
“Captain Danner, your people are a very disruptive influence on mine. Revolution is brewing among the Glaut, if very slowly, stirred in large part by your remarkable Constitution, which is beyond anything my ancestors imagined. In time, my people may be indebted to yours for our very... souls. Tell me what you require and I shall do all in my power to make it so.”
It had been well over three hundred Terran years since the Escape, and computer technology, processing speeds, storage capacity, had continued to grow for all that time. As Danner had told Grbblb, there had been deliberate experiments with self-aware artificial intelligences, but only in the last few decades had some computers shown signs of spontaneously awakening. As far as hardware was concerned, Aurora had all she needed compared to the other examples, but no one knew what triggered the process.
Danner carefully explained what he wanted to Grbblb. He could add routines to allow Aurora to accept voice commands and respond with an artificial voice, but he was to make no changes to the computer's operating system, and under no circumstances was he to make even the slightest change to the antique original computer, or to disconnect it even temporarily, without Danner's permission. Grbblb made it plain he understood perfectly.
In a quiet aside to Cates, Danner directed the gunner to help the maimed amphibian arm himself. Before his conversation with Grbblb, Danner had disliked Glaut government. Now he hated it.
Later that day, Cates found Grbblb in the hotel corridor and hailed him. “Glub?”
“Yes, Gunner Cates?”
She chuckled. “You can call me Holly. Glub, this whole crew are Jeffersonian Citizens, Full or Provisional.” Sarah Heusner was still technically a Subject, but Cates had taken her Oath and begun the screenwork for Aurora's Reserve Privateer status. “You'll be a Provo too, once Aurora passes inspection and begins operating, and after you take some tests, and the Oath. I'll be administering those for the whole crew.” As a Permanent Citizen, Cates was legally entitled to do so, and genuinely qualified.
Grbblb was silent, apparently staring at Cates – it was hard to tell with those immobile black eyes.
“Anyway, one of the marks of a Citizen is the bearing of arms. 'Citizens own weapons, slaves don't.' Captain Danner has asked me to help you arm yourself. He's already had me pick out a nice selection for the ship's arms locker, and once we find one that works for you it'll be a simple matter to deduct its cost from your pay. I'm storing them in my room for now,” she said, gesturing down the corridor. “I've taught a lot of people how to shoot a lot of things for a lot of years. I've never taught a Glaut before, and I have no clue yet how you're going to wear a holster, but I'm sure we can figure something out together.”
Grbblb was silent for a time, then closed his three remaining eyes and trembled. “Glub?” Cates asked in concern. “Are you well?”
Still trembling, the Glaut opened his eyes and answered shakily, “I... am well, friend Holly. I am more well than I had realized. I shall try to be a good Citizen.”
The publicity-driven discounts from Constitution Shipyards were saving Danner a lot of money, but he could still see it running out soon, and turned his attention toward Aurora generating her own revenue. With the Republic's minimal government, there was little red tape involved in buying, refitting and operating a private warship, and even less in running her as a business; with cheap energy and all the universe for resources, taxes were at the lowest rates in Human history. Except when operating outside the Republic, Danner and his crew could keep what they earned – and as Citizens aboard a Republic-flagged ship, even including Grbblb once they got underway, by treaty most foreign taxes did not apply. He gathered the crew at their hotel to discuss possible jobs.
Passengers and freight were easy to come by, someone was always sending something to another world or wanting to go there themselves; the net made it easy to gather several cargoes and passengers heading the same direction at the same time, but profit for an independent ship was marginal at best. The larger operations diffused their costs by operating in bulk and on fixed schedules.
“What about courier work?” Danner asked. “Specific cargoes to specific worlds instead of the heavy freighters on regular schedules?”
“The courier market is very tight,” Taniyama noted. “Almost impossible to break into. Most such are subdivisions of the larger freight companies, who use specialized high-speed craft for the purpose. They profit little if at all, but any losses are offset by their regular operations, and they draw in more customers. Their only real selling point is speed; the companies keep one or a few such ships at each port so they're always ready.”
“I'm estimating a cruising speed of c130,” Blain interjected. “That's with normal fuel consumption.”
The rest of the crew turned to stare. “That's a bold statement,” Danner replied calmly.
The woman blushed a little. “Well I did build the things for a living. We won't get that speed right away of course, it's a brand-new Drive and they always have to be tuned, but I'm confident I can deliver in a few months at worst. We'll start out with at least c100. Later, once I've really gotten to know her, I'll bet I can break one-fifty, but that would cost a lot more fuel.”
“What would you need to do that?”
She ducked her head in embarrassment. “Well... if we happen across another Sixth-Gen Drive someday, with a ship attached or not, a spare to experiment on without hurting Aurora....”
“We could store an unshipped Sixth-Gen Drive in any of the main holds,” Epstein contributed. “And still have cubic left. And that's just one of four main holds. Wouldn't be hard to disguise it either.” At Danner's raised eyebrow, the bosun went on, “I've been dockman and cargomaster both. Not much smuggling in the Republic 'cause there's not much illegal here. But I haven't always flown in Republic space.” The New Israeli smiled thinly.
Danner smiled more widely in response, and swung his eyes across the rest of the crew. “Let's all remember that, when we're not forgetting it was ever mentioned. The Drive's a long shot, but we'll keep an eye out.”
More seriously he continued, “As for the other thing, Jack, just remember this: I'm the Captain. This is my ship and I'm responsible for everything that happens in her. So if you're smuggling something, especially something illegal enough somewhere to make us a great big profit and maybe get us shot at... tell me about it first. I'm a Jeffersonian and I don't much care about some other country's damnfool laws, but I hate that kind of surprise.” Bosun and Captain grinned at each other in happy understanding.
“Well, Captain,” Hlossh put in, “If you're looking for decent profit, ship live neoprawns to Kshir. We can't get enough of them. The planet's mostly Republic territory, and all the rest of the system is, so we use the same money. The things just won't breed on Kshir, even if we bring them and keep them in Alexandrian water, something to do with the planet's magnetic field, though they survive all right otherwise. I have a cousin who would love to set up an aquarium we could refill once in a while. If we pack the holds full, or near enough the things don't die in Transit, everybody profits. Then someone else on Kshir gets the same idea and we have more customers. Then there's the Boksi communities on other worlds.”
“That's the kind of idea I'm looking for,” Danner said with a nod. He could see the gears already turning in Epstein's head as to how to handle such a cargo. “But what can we get from Kshir to sell somewhere else? And if we're going to Alexandria to load prawns, what can we get here that will sell there?”
“Weapons,” Holly Cates put in, “for the revolutionaries in those last few Kshiran provinces. Not exactly what you asked for, but I know a gal dirtside here who's been sitting on some old MkLIXs for years, and I know a guy at Alexandria who could convert a few hundred of them for Boksi use in a day, if we called ahead. We could fit that cargo in one of the shuttles and leave the main holds for the prawns.” Hlossh splayed his eyestalks in appreciation, and Danner told him and Cates to inquire as to prices.
“How about medium-sized freight jobs?” Epstein suggested. “With the changes we're making, we can ship twelve, maybe fifteen Standard Kilotons.” This was a cargo-handling term, derived by formula, representing a standardized estimate of a ship's cargo capacity, not solely based on either mass or volume. The figure Epstein quoted was half the deadweight mass of the ship, which was very good indeed considering she'd been built as a warship, not a freighter. “And that's just in the holds that're meant for it, not counting less-delicate or smaller items we can cram into other compartments, the small-craft bays, the shuttles, even hang outside the hull in containers. I've overheard a lot of customers wishing they could hire a ship for a courier run for just that size load, without breaking up the shipment on several smaller flights from the big companies' fast-boats – and paying a lot more for it – or buying cheaper space on a scheduled run but then waiting for the rest of that ship to fill. Somebody's gotta want something that size to go from here to Alexandria about the time we'll be ready to fly.” Danner nodded his approval and directed Epstein and Taniyama to look for such a load.
“Thinking longer-term,” Prrg added, “she is still a light cruiser, and armed like one, or will be again. That is a selling point in these times, with raids increasing along the Frontier. We could hire on as a colony ship's escort.” Not all the raiders were from Nowy Kraków. Some were renegades from every nation, not least the Flike, who had begun acquiring their own Drives second- or third-hand. Something would have to be done about that someday.
Danner pointed out he wasn't looking for action, but Cates reminded him that action went looking all by itself, then asked, “What raider would be dumb enough to attack a genuine warship, even one Aurora's age? Those ring-turrets are kinda obvious, and even neobarbs can see she's carrying modern guns. Besides, protecting colonists is exactly what she was built for.” This last point carried more weight with Danner's romanticism.
Blain suggested she could hire out herself and her Mates as short-term technicians to supplement the ship's income, reminding her crewmates she was an accredited General Technician. Clancy offered the same service as chef – he'd been demonstrating his skill already at meetings like this one. And the discussion went on.
So did the refit. Epstein took his tasks seriously, finally able to apply the concepts he'd treasured for years, and Danner could see the sense in most of them. He was concerned about loss of structural integrity with the radical enlargements of the internal spaces and the cargo hatches leading to them, but Epstein assured him he was making no changes at all to the spaceframe, and the partitions between the new compartments were being well-armored. The bosun was a pretty good engineer himself, and consulted closely with Blain about distribution of mass, stresses linear and lateral; together they reconfigured the trim system, which shifted ballast throughout the ship to keep her balanced. That technology was older than the Republic, used by the Founders' companies in their spinning-wheel stations above Terra before the Escape.
Weeks flew by, filled with activity, and soon Aurora began to resemble a complete ship again, her bones covered over in fresh alloys and composites, the new guns swung into position, the small-craft bays completed and tested. Amid more publicity and celebration, she was rechristened – through all her years and owners, her name had never changed – and launched again from her birthplace, Dock 49, literally reborn.
More weeks were then spent in fitting-out, lighter tasks which did not require the full spacedock – which for a time would be a special place, which CS could charge more for. Now in free synchronous orbit some distance from High City, a tanker laid alongside and filled Aurora with air and water and fuel. The shuttles, all but Danner's Corona still needing work, were docked in their bays; Blain, Hlossh and Grbblb set to work on them between their other tasks and soon had them flying. Furnishings were installed, Clancy's dream galley was stocked, the crew picked out the compartments they wanted. While this went on, the grav-rings spun, extended by balanced sections on cables for greater weight and more comfort, serviced by collapsible elevator cars which rode those cables between ring-section and ship; this had been an original feature of the Adamant design, to improve crew health and morale on long missions, and would be another selling point when carrying passengers. Each section of the rings also served as a lifeboat.
In time live tests were made, Aurora moving under her own power at last, on speed and maneuvering runs through Wilson's System, making her first short Transitions to the asteroid belts, both for Drive integration and gunnery practice. At last the day of the Patrol inspection arrived, and Danner faced... a version of himself. LCDR Eppo was a Siv male, but had the exact same job Danner had fled years before. He didn't know the Siv, but the bird-man knew of Danner, and Aurora. The ancient term was 'fanboy'.
“By the egg, by the Egg, by the First Egg! What a ship!” The lieutenant commander darted from one compartment to the next, ticking items off his checklist, taking far more holos than required for official records. “These new torches must be capable of at least 60 meters acceleration!”
“Seventy,” Blain said proudly. “That's as far as we've tested. I expect she'll do eighty if she has to.”
“Even the Maerca destroyers can only do 63! Those primary Marsten Guns are the most powerful ever fitted to a ship this size, your secondaries alone outgun most modern destroyers, and your point-defense array is a work of art!”
“Thank you kindly,” Cates replied.
Eppo was literally flying through the ship, his race's vestigial wings carrying him easily in freefall. “This bridge! You can actually look out the window! I see the shutters are as well-armored as any other point on the hull. Your computers are absolutely state-of-the-art, and I've never seen a more efficient interface!” Grbblb said nothing, but Danner was learning enough about the Glaut, or at least this Glaut, to know he was pleased. Eppo was actually taking holos of himself with the bridge viewports as backdrop.
“Your galley is as fine as any luxury liner's, except in size. Just looking at it makes me want to cook something!” Clancy beamed.
“Brilliant design in that partitioned craft bay, BuShips has been contemplating such a thing for years. I might get a promotion for bringing them images of one in use!” Danner and Blain winked at each other.
“The same goes for your cargo holds, whoever's responsible for that load-securing system might want to seek a patent.” Epstein preened and turned to Taniyama, who had mailed the Republic Patent Office on his behalf weeks ago.
“Your power and control grids may be even better than the Patrol's, well-protected, redundant and automatically re-routing. By today's mass standards she's only a destroyer but she's armed like a modern light cruiser and protected almost like a heavy. Every system aboard is simple and robust, with at least two backups. I once passed a battlecruiser into the Register which couldn't claim the combat survivability I've seen here today. I will be making a detailed report to my superiors, with a great number of recommendations.”
Flapping to a stop in the middle of Main Hold 3, Eppo turned and faced the crew. “Captain Danner, Engineer Blain, gentlebeings, I have never inspected a finer ship. By the power vested in me by the Jeffersonian Republic Space Patrol Bureau of Ships, I hereby accept Independent Starship Aurora into the Patrol Register as a Reserve Privateer, and issue this-” Eppo's specialized 'puter extruded an etched cermet hardcopy- “Certificate of Spaceworthiness to operate and conduct commerce without restriction in realspace or hyperspace throughout any territory subject to Republic jurisdiction.” Eppo flapped forward to shake hands, or equivalents, with each crewmember in turn. “And I thank you for the privilege!”
Finally they were underway!
Almost. They had a plan, Hlossh's idea of taking neoprawns from Alexandria to the Boksi homeworld Kshir, but Danner wanted every leg of every trip to pay, at least to start.
Alexandria and Wilson's Colony were four hundred hours apart for an average ship, and it was another 520 from Alexandria to Kshir. Not that these were technical problems. Blain gave assurances she could cut that time, and Clancy declared he could feed twice the crew for three times as long without repeating himself. Aurora had been designed for a crew fifteen times this size, and Transits lasting months, using technologies and methods developed for nuclear submarines decades before the Escape.
297 Mark Fifty-Nine plasma rifles were sold for a pittance; once learning of their destination, Cates' friend would have given them away if not for the need to uphold her miserly reputation. Hlossh gave assurances they would sell on Kshir for a measurable profit; Danner, still angry at Grbblb's government and transferring that anger to the Kshiran holdout provinces, made clear he would be satisfied if they profited a single gram on that cargo. The entire load would make the trip in one of the Type 208 shuttles, ready for immediate delivery to Cates' other friend for conversion to Boksi use at Beta Station, Aurora's first destination as a living ship since her rebirth.
Meanwhile, bosun & purser had found their medium-sized cargo for Alexandria, a shipment of light but bulky textiles spun from the fibers of a particular tree which could not be grown anywhere but Wilson's Colony. Guaranteed buyers or trans-shippers would be waiting; the profit would be modest but real. Epstein's freight-handling modifications proved their worth immediately when Aurora was brought to a loading dock in another part of High City; the biggest delay was caused by spectators, many of them dockmen like Epstein, coming to see the Last of the Adamants.
Danner did not advertise passenger space for this first trip. To begin, he wanted Aurora, and her crew, all to himself.
At 15:37 MST on 12 Fourthmonth 543JR, Aurora Initiated her hyperspace Transit from Wilson's Colony to Alexandria.
Continued in the next excerpt....