Excerpts from the Jeffersonian Republic project:
This page Copyright © 2018, Karl Leffler
Aurora, Part LXXIX: The Loose End
Continued from the previous excerpt
5 Sixthmonth 566JR
4 September 2363CE
The ship had worn many names.
In 482JR she had been born San Pedro in the shipyards of Wilson's Colony, not far from Aurora's own birthplace. She had been designed as a typical cargoliner, for passengers and containers and some capacity for bulk items. Her first job had been under the star of her birth, hauling the rich resources of Wilson's System to where they were needed, returning with whatever foodstuffs or commodities made economic sense. For thirty-three Republic years, twenty-one Terran, she had served her owners and her crew well.
In 515 she had been deemed old and surplus, and sold at auction to a smaller company which put her to similar work. They had renamed her Southlocke Transporter. She had traveled far, from Anvil to Dakota and many of the worlds between, carrying metals and wheat and processed fish and sometimes even Alexandrian neoprawns as Aurora would do at the start of her own merchant career.
Southlocke Transportation Co. had gone out of business in 529. Southlocke Transporter had been sold again, to a small independent company who renamed her Salisbury, after a city in Old England on Old Terra. The Albion Freight Company had only lasted four Monticellan years and in 533 she was sold again, to a company based on Crunch. The Pavonis Drayage Corporation renamed her Pavonis Horizon, and expensively refit her with a Sixth Generation Marsten Drive and many other improvements. For eleven years she had done odd jobs, carrying ores and commodities between stars and the worlds around them.
In 544, the year after Solomon Danner had saved Rockville from destruction and discovered Aurora in Mothball Orbit, the PDC had been acquired by a conglomerate, broken up, and their assets liquidated. The ship was one such asset, sold again at auction, now to a Shipfolk Family who were just taking the plunge into the Black and away from their planetbound lives. They renamed the ship Stellar Independence and set out for opportunities on the Frontier.
In 546 they came limping back to the Central Worlds, selling what was left of their ship to a dealer and resettling on Monticello. She lingered in a Mothball Orbit of her own, high above Tau Ceti II, for a year and a half, until in early 548 she was bought again, by a rapidly-expanding charter service who needed all the hulls they could get. Cryoliners Inc. had been one of the leading companies in the cryocolonist boom, but had been outdone by later competition, merging three times in the next seven Republic years. The ship had been renamed each time: Ceti Conveyor; Bonnie J.; Magic Carpet IV; Elsa.
In 553 the division that had been founded as Cryoliners Inc. was broken up and sold off, and the ship found herself on an auction block again. A subsidiary of Edo Freight Corp. bought her and named her Tateyama Maru. She was put to work between Terra and New Texas, carrying Superbeef for luxury restaurants in Old Nippon.
The operation had cut too many costs, and after another ship had been lost in a docking accident, with four crew and fifteen on the station killed, the subsidiary had been broken up. Seppuku had fallen out of fashion centuries before, but one member of the upper management had performed the ritual, after penning an apology to the families of the lives lost, in which she claimed sole responsibility for the company's corruption.
In 556 the ship was sold again, to a group of former Space Patrol personnel, who intended - perhaps inspired by Aurora's fame and success - to become a Reserve Privateer, seeking fortune and adventure across the stars. They made modifications of their own, mainly in weaponry, defenses, and more powerful realspace engines for better maneuvering.
Unfortunately, they didn't have Lucky Sol for a captain, and prize money or mercenary contracts or even plain merchant work were not enough to keep them flying. So, quietly, a little at a time, they had turned crooked - a smuggle here, a swindle there. Eventually they became outright pirates.
They had renamed their ship Winsom.
Aurora had arrived in the Danforth system over a hundred hours before Haldred. While waiting for her client to return to realspace, she had explored the system, gathering data on behalf of the approaching colonists. The third, second and first planets of the system were broadly comparable to Venus, Mercury, and another Mercury - they would be of little immediate use. There was only one gas giant, more than a light-hour out, but with plenty of moons; not a full asteroid belt, but thick clouds of them at the gas giant's Trojan points - resources for millennia, once the Danforthers built their own ships. In the orbits between and beyond, smaller, colder, rocky planets - Danforth V, the next one out from the target, might eventually be suitable for Terraforming.
Danforth IV had three small moons with negligible gravity; the three together added up to less tidal force on their primary than Luna did for Terra. The outermost was the smallest, obviously a captured asteroid, and mostly metal. Aurora had sent Two Boat, with several of her robot extensions and some equipment aboard, to land on the object and build something.
During the voyage from Layden, Aurora had waited at each fueling stop for Haldred to catch up, then waited longer for the colony ship to refill her tanks. Winsom knew where they were going, and got there first. She had lingered at Altoona, to confirm their timing; she had been detected there, but not positively identified before Transitioning away on the final leg. Solomon Danner, however, made an educated guess.
Winsom lurked in Danforth's outer system, waiting and watching. She watched as Aurora arrived, waited for Haldred to follow. From her distance she could not see the shuttles land for the first explorations, but the glare of Haldred's torch could be observed even by Winsom's instruments.
Some fifteen hundred hours after arriving, Winsom's crew saw a boost phase, followed by an outgoing hyperspace Transition, which they interpreted as the escort vessel, the deadly Aurora, leaving the colonists to their fate. After cautiously waiting another hundred hours, they finally made their own Transit, emerging six light-seconds from the new colony, to finish what they had started at Layden.
Haldred's Marsten Drive had been unshipped in orbit, before the vessel entered atmosphere. Now it was thrown back together, by Jenny Blain, the greatest living genius in the field of hyperspace technology, her engineer-without-credentials husband, and the best damn Engineer's Mates flying.
The Drive was installed on the automated orbiter left behind by the robot ship which had claimed the world for the corporation which sent it. The orbiter was now, under the contract by which the claim on the world was sold, the property of the colony - their own first ship. It was becoming common practice to take the Drive from the landing ship and fit it to the robot, while fabbers - every colony effort had fabbers - made whatever other additions were necessary. The corporations which sent the robot ships were factoring this into their competition, making the orbiting transmitters more capable for future use.
Bits of asteroid were tacked on to increase the "ship"'s mass, so its Transition would have a convincing electromagnetic signature. Aurora's two largest shuttles, with fusion torches of their own, were mated to the assembly - they wouldn't be going far, and would soon return. The flares of those torches would add to the illusion.
Winsom took a 520km orbit, and as she came over the horizon as viewed from Haldred's landing site, she sent a coded signal. This was one of the possibilities Danner had considered. As she had at Ude, Aurora impersonated the recipient and gave a convincing reply.
Victor Bunn's possessions and records had been seized as evidence, on Danner's authority, under charges of conspiracy to attempt, and actually attempted, murder. Aurora had defeated his encryption quickly, as she had done for Michael Aliewicz' at the end of the Illyrian Civil War. The necessary response code had been easily found. "What kept you?" her impersonation of Bunn demanded. "That gunboat left days ago."
Winsom's captain was a Human woman of African-American descent, her curly black hair cropped to a close-fitting helmet. Her face wore a sneer of contempt she did not bother to conceal. "That 'gunboat' outgunned us twenty to one, and her crew has more combat experience than half the Republic Navy. I wanted to be sure she was gone."
The impersonation tossed its head in dismissal. "You know what you have to do now?"
Winsom's captain sighed in frustration. "Yes, for the hundredth time."
"Make it a hundred and one! Repeat back to me your instructions, again!"
With another sigh, she said, "You will declare a 'state of emergency'. Trouble between your factions, food shortage, plague, natural disaster, whatever. Under your emergency powers, you'll 'invite' us in as 'peacekeepers'. Then we have a base to operate from, and you have the enforcers you need. Eventually we take other ships, branch out."
"You needn't put it in such crude terms," Bunn's glowering face said on the screen. "I am establishing order and security for my republic, my people. You have a unique opportunity to be a part of history-"
"Oh please, not another speech!" Winsom's captain exclaimed.
"Bunn" grimaced at the screen. "You know where you're supposed to wait?"
"Yes," Winsom's captain snapped, "on the second moon. You know, if you'd chosen a less-powerful escort we could have taken them too, could be making more progress even now. But no, you had to get 'protected' by one of the deadliest ships in the galaxy!"
"Bunn" tossed his head again. "You know I don't care about military matters. Take your place and wait. It may take a few days for the 'emergency' to arise. That is all." Aurora closed the channel.
Winsom's captain was convinced. Complaining about their tardiness, then ordering them to wait, was very much in character for Victor Bunn.
On her Captain's orders, Aurora had deployed more probes, and stealthed satellites, throughout the system, to watch for Winsom's arrival. It was a thing she might have thought of for herself, eventually; but she was still learning how to be Human, how to make leaps of imagination and deduction... how to expect worse of people. She filed this data away for future reference, along with the lessons from Ravenna and Endicott and Dakota, from Mark's World and Adda, from Illyria and Sherrington and Ude.
One such satellite was in a Lagrange point near Danforth IVb, the colony's second moon. This one watched Winsom settle down for landing on the moon's far side, so the flare of her engines could not be seen from the planet - not that anyone there was looking.
From the far side of the third moon, Aurora lifted.
By her Captain's foresight and intuition, Aurora had ordered the extensions of herself to build a rough and simple landing cradle for Aurora. Danforth IVc's gravity was less than half a meter; she settled gently into the cradle, stern first, with OMS rockets and RCS jets. It was the first time she had ever touched another celestial body - the first time she had landed on anything. A few cables were thrown out to steady her as she towered 161 meters above the metallic rock's pitted and dusty surface. Then she and her Family waited.
When it was clear Winsom would not be moving for a while, Aurora waited for the moons' orbits to hide her actions from the pirates, then slipped her moorings and kicked herself free of the little moon, shaping her own orbit for interception. Fifteen hours later she appeared above Winsom's position and lit her fusion torches to hold station. A channel was opened:
"Vessel Winsom, this is Solomon Danner, commanding Jeffersonian Republic Reserve Privateer Aurora. You are under arrest for robbery, fraud, and conspiracy to commit piracy against Subjects and Citizens of the Republic. Surrender or be destroyed."
Winsom's system security was better than the murderers of Sherrington, but not that much better. It hadn't taken long for Aurora to breach the other ship's firewall and shut down her systems- except for communication and, at her Captain's pleasure, life support. The crew might choose to self-destruct, manually breach a reactor's containment or detonate a missile's warhead... but they didn't.
With Four and Five Boats away, pretending to have been their mothership departing, One, Two and Three Boats took positions to loose missiles on Winsom. Prrg and Holly Cates deployed from the latter in their power armor to accept the crew's surrender.
They found sixty-three Humans, all darker of skin, all with Terran-American accents. They exuded an air of almost feral hostility. When Aurora's boarders opened their helmets, some muttered racial curses - "spic" and "lizard".
With her reptilian brother watching her back, Holly exited her armor, and clad only in the underlying bodystocking, turned to the one who had called her a name. "I claim insult," she said, grinning like the Great Snow Leopard of the Frontier planet Alpine. "I demand satisfaction. Apologize, or defend yourself."
The pirate responded with the ancient two-syllable phrase, adding an ancient third. Holly backhanded his face - not even with her full strength. Blood flew, and a tooth, which clacked against a bulkhead before falling slowly to the deck. The pirate kept his feet for a moment, then crumpled, unconscious. She glared at the rest, who had taken a step back in the second moon's low gravity.
Then she glanced at her hand. The bodystocking's glove had protected her skin, it was soft armor itself, but there was a small biohazard on it now. Prrg's suit helpfully sprayed disinfectant. She smiled at him and reentered her own power armor, then said, "Take us to your leader."
Continued in the next excerpt....