Excerpts from the Jeffersonian Republic project:
Aurora, Part XCVI: No Stone Unturned

This page Copyright 2019, Karl Leffler

Continued from the previous excerpt
28 Fifthmonth 569JR
11 July 2365CE

Solomon awoke, again, in pain.
More pain.
Things were broken this time - teeth, ribs, fingers... perhaps the left arm. Chikarans, with opposable thumbs on their feet, had never developed Human-military-style boots. Prisca had used a stunwand, both as itself and a bludgeon; and the butt of Solomon's own pistol. Danner wheezed, and coughed blood. Must control coughing, he thought. Prevent internal injury. Too much and he could puncture a lung, on the ribs he could feel grating inside him.
Now his life was in danger. These wounds, especially in the cold cellar and without treatment, could kill him. She will come. He clung to that, with certainty.
Prisca loomed over him - only possible because Solomon was flat on the cellar's dirt floor. He was pretty sure he knew what a sadistic grin looked like on a Chikaran face, now.
"Good," the communist said. "Not dead yet." Prisca spoke American, the official language of the Jeffersonian Republic. He would have learned it as a matter of course, growing up on a Member World, but he still had an accent, and Solomon had heard him speaking what he presumed was fluent native Southern Chikaran, with his subordinates. "You can still be of use to us." Again, two other Chikarans flanked Prisca. Solomon was pretty sure one was the same who had snipped off his finger. Again, they had copies of the M437, and kept them trained on him.
News reports had identified Prisca and several of his band, so this time the leader was in frame as one of the others held the camera. Also in frame was a post-Contact wrist-'puter, projecting a recent news report, as proof-of-life. Prisca grabbed Solomon by the hair and pulled his head up. Danner's right eye was swollen shut, and the left wasn't tracking too well. Concussion, he thought. Stay awake. It was all he could do to suck the thin Chikaran air past his broken nose and teeth.
"This alien attempted to escape," Prisca lied to the camera. "It has been appropriately punished, and will continue to pay for its crimes against fairness and equality. An additional gragg of platinum must be provided on the first day of every kimei-" a Chikaran month-equivalent- "if you wish it to remain alive. Instructions will follow when you announce that the payment is ready." At Prisca's gesture, the henchbeing turned off the camera.
You compound your mistake, Danner thought. You give her time. She will use it well.
But not too much of it, I hope.

She got the idea from Bogdan.
Commander Sir Bogdan Plebanek, Illyrian Royal Guard, had been captured and tortured during Stefan's Usurpation. Released, probably on purpose, nanotech tracking devices had been placed on him, releasing microscopic markers for specialized sensors to follow.
Nanites in the wide Chikaran ocean would have been nearly impossible to find, but there were other methods. Aurora, taking over the container yard's fabber, quickly built more drones, attaching them to the outside of the container, shaping and painting them to blend in with the container's battered surface. When the submarine arrived and grappled the ransom money aboard, several of these, barely two decimeters wide and a tenth the thickness, detached from the container and bonded to the submarine's hull.
Aurora didn't have time for fancy programming, and even burst transmissions couldn't be risked. The drones simply released a marker dye at intervals, each on its own mechanical, non-electronic timer, staggered for release over a greater period, dropping off when empty. The dye was only visible in ultraviolet, reflecting the light of Chikar's sun or lamps carried by what sought it: other drones, disguised as the Chikaran seagull analogue, released from Three Boat at the same time as the container, tracked the dye. Within an hour Aurora had a base course for the submarine. One Boat, her Captain's personal and submersible aircar, stood by. Sarah, the best pilot, was at its controls, while Grbblb in his amphibious power-armor would be its passenger.
Two Boat, piloted remotely by Aurora, carried the aquatic extension she had made for herself at Gambori. It raced ahead of the submarine's projected course, beyond detection range, and dropped its passenger. The sharklike thing quickly acquired its target and followed... but took no action.

Aurora could already reason deductively, and was learning to imagine. Consulting with Chikaran Investigators, devouring Chikaran culture and history and architecture, she guessed that the prison her Captain was being held in was a rural cellar of pre-war construction, adapted for its current purpose.
She calculated the time between the attack on Dawn and the release of the video. If they had access to post-Contact transport, the enemy could be anywhere on the planet, or even off... but she guessed they hadn't gone too far. With drones disguised as birds, she began exploring, and surveilling, farmhouses, ranches, homesteads, some lying empty for over a century since their abandonment during Chikar's world war.
It was a large haystack in which to search for her precious needle.
She narrowed her search to those showing any sign of recent habitation or activity, signs of vehicles driving or flying to or from them. Again, there was no system of satellites or cameras to spy on the Chikaran people; such a thing was anathema to the Jeffersonian way of life - but there was little preventing her from using her own eyes in overflight. She eliminated places with females and children present; Prisca and his band would not want to be observed. Likewise working farms and ranches and such were cut from her target list.
She had a hunch. She directed her birdlike drones toward Old Carra, and the poisoned ruins downwind of the murdered city.

{Comrade,} Lomta said to Prisca, {I think we should move him.}
Earlier Lomta had suggested moving their hostage, and Prisca had refused, feeling there was too great a risk of discovery, by that thing in orbit, or escape, by the giant Human known to be a warrior. Now the alien was crippled from Prisca's beatings, and it was only a matter of time until the abomination somehow found them. {We move at night,} Prisca decided, {using all the vehicles. They will go to multiple locations, to confuse pursuit. We'll change vehicles along the way. We'll have to get off the mainland, onto the submarine.}
Four ground vehicles and three aircars scattered from the abandoned farmhouse, on the very edge of Old Carra's death zone. They went in all directions, some turning randomly, some toward other of Prisca's safehouses, others nowhere in particular. Other vehicles had been staged by others of Prisca's band, stolen in preparation, their owners' tracking devices found and disabled; there was no system of vehicle registration in the Republic, unacceptable as government overreach. This was one of the few times some people regretted its absence.

The last groundcar left just as one of Aurora's bird-drones arrived. The vehicle was out of place, near the death zone. The drone pursued, and Aurora's sensors were drawn in its direction.
Aurora searched the Net for a match on the vehicle's description, and found a notice of theft and offer of bounty. Aurora's eyes found heat signatures from seven vehicles near the death zone, where no one wanted to go, all moving away from a central point. She directed one of her FlyCycles to that point, with a Humanoid robot aboard. Even at transsonic speed - supersonic, in Chikar's thinner atmosphere - it would take more than half an hour to arrive.
She had deployed her own signal-repeater satellites in lower orbit, shaping their paths to avoid Chikaran traffic while still giving her a closer view of the surface. Not built for surveillance, with only afterthought cameras aboard, they were inadequate to track seven targets, some now reaching more populated areas, parking lots, where many vehicles came and went at all hours, where people milled and got lost in crowds, and what few eyes she had could not win the shell game, as the shells multiplied from seven to dozens. That is another shortcoming I must address.
Meanwhile, the FlyCycle arrived at a pre-war farmhouse near the death zone. There were signs of recent use, residual heat on the ground and in the building, wheel tracks and landing gear impressions - wire mesh on a cellar door. Kicking it open, her robot found the cell in which her Captain had been imprisoned.
But she had another hunch... and she still had one firm lead.
Now she observed the airspace around where she knew the submarine to be. Her aquatic body had gathered data, engine and mechanical sounds, matched them to databases and manufacturer's specifications - which led to another theft report, years old, for a vessel which would fit its description. Now she knew the submarine's performance: fusion powered, range and endurance limited only by the needs of its organic crew, its maximum speed and depth capabilities. She knew the vessel could be operated by a dozen, could carry fifty or more in addition to cargo.
She noticed an aircar crossing the coast, changing course repeatedly, heading far out to sea. Zooming in, matching images, she found it was a Monticello Motors Corona, the same type as her own first One Boat... which she knew to be submersible, and which would barely fit in the submarine's cargo bay. Checking the Net, she found a recent theft report for one of those as well. She watched as the aircar changed direction again, and again, until it was set to intercept the submarine.
If she had teeth, she would have bared them.

She held a war council with her Family. She needed their help, their organic minds, their imaginations, their not-in-the-book solutions. "I am highly confident," her Human hologram told them, "that our Captain is being transferred to the enemy submarine. This presents an opportunity to not only rescue him, but apprehend his abductors and recover the ransom. However, there is great risk to our Captain's safety, depending on our method of attack. I request your assistance in formulating a plan."
Holly had the most experience as a surface combatant, followed closely by Prrg. She said, brainstorming aloud: "Direct attack at sea... force a boarding, submerged or surfaced... knife to his throat... fail." She turned to Prrg.
The reptilian said, "Follow the vessel. It has to make port eventually, if only for food. Attack there, perhaps when some of the crew has departed, and where the vessel cannot move freely. Ideally, catch them in the process of moving the Captain, our best chance."
Grbblb added, "More of Aurora's extensions are becoming available, and we still have five shuttles. We can preposition assets at likely ports."
"I have already placed bird-drones at most ports likely to be used. However, if the enemy is watching my shuttles, they could be forewarned of our movements."
"Rent or buy another shuttle, discreetly?" Ralph suggested.
Urtol, Reeti's daughter and Horek's niece, had been invited to the conference and was attending via hologram. "I have three vehicles you may use however you wish. One is orbit-capable." She was furious at the communists who murdered her uncle and may yet have done the same to her father, and at the insult to her family business and reputation. "No, four- five. My husband has a Type 323 he uses for his hunting-guide work. That one is not obviously associated with you or Dawn."
"Thank you, Urtol," Aurora answered. "I gratefully accept your offer."
Grbblb wondered, "What if they are watching traffic? Would they not notice a rapid approach from orbit or suborbit?"
Prrg said, "That is a risk we must take. Hopefully they will choose a busier port where such traffic would not be out of place."
"We will have to adapt our plans to circumstances," Aurora noted. "I am grateful for your help, my brothers and sisters. I am still learning how to think 'out of the box.'"
Prrg could not grin as a Human would, but after years of living together, his Family could see the expression even on his crocodilian face. "You are doing well, my sister... and we are all here for you, and for him."

Another local day and night had passed, and the submarine, presumably with Danner aboard, was approaching the northern coast of the Southern continent. The nearest port was Ulav, which hadn't been hit directly in the war and had greatly expanded from a smaller coastal town since.
Reeti's daughter's husband's Type 323 shuttle, with all passenger comforts removed, was stuffed full of power-armor: Holly Cates, Prrg, and Grbblb. This filled the craft to capacity, with Holly and Prrg having to lay flat in their suits... but Holly was a Mobile Infantry veteran and Prrg was an experienced mercenary and their Captain was in danger. The shuttle boosted hard for a direct suborbital hop a quarter of the way around the planet. There was enough similar traffic above Ulav that this did not draw attention.
The shuttle came down five kilometers away from the submarine's projected course, then submerged, and began swimming slowly toward where the submarine was expected to dock. Aurora's spheres and bird-drones flew out of the shuttle before it dived, and made their way in the submarine's direction - as did one of Aurora's best Humanoid extensions, which had ridden in the passenger seat beside Sarah Heusner.
Neither Aurora nor her Family had informed the Investigators Corps of the submarine or its destination. Republic policy was clear, and Danner himself had demonstrated it: it was better to let hostages die, or even to kill them, than to go down the path of ransom and appeasement.

The stolen submarine had been renamed The Evener and her captain was named Jikel and he was not happy. Fuel was not a problem, nor was breathing air, with fusion power and centuries of Human technology to draw upon, but the poor old girl was falling apart otherwise. A leak had sprung in the aft personnel hatch from a careless crewman damaging the seal, limiting her dive depth, and the portside pump-jet drive was threatening to unbalance, reducing her speed. Both could be repaired with the onboard fabber, but they'd run out of the necessary alloys after fixing the starboard pump-drive. Add to that electrical problems, corrosion on alloys which were supposed to never corrode, and now the meal-fabber's software was crashing, with results that would have been humorous if people weren't starting to go hungry. The builders, taking modern technology for granted, had not bothered adding a traditional galley, or much in the way of food storage; the mining submarine was intended to operate in concert with surface ships, to which her crew would return at the end of each shift. Now The Evener was showing the strain of long, independent operations for which she was never intended, and she needed a good long stay in a shipyard to be put right.
Of course they had the money now, gragg of platinum aboard, transferred to balanced compartments within the hull; the container had been discarded, on principle, in case of tracking devices. But would Prisca release any of those funds for maintenance of a vital asset for the cause? Not likely - he seemed to consider personal weapons and a new suit of clothes more important.
Jikel had doubts. Especially since the propaganda wave on Chikaran media, documentaries on the failures of collectivism in Human history, visual adaptations of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. What if the Humans are right? he wondered. What if it's been tried this way before, and never worked?
Never worked... except for a handful on top, like Prisca and "Napoleon", becoming the very villains they claimed to be working against.
And how am I supposed to get out of this? Jikel asked himself. Word had come of another doubter, in the farmhouse, summarily executed by Prisca's enforcer, Lomta. His own executive officer, Dohaj, seemed a true believer, and probably wouldn't hesitate to put a knife in Jikel's own guts, for a chance at promotion. I joined the Eveners, accepted command of this stolen ship, convinced my crew to serve, because they promised fairness, because we wanted to help our families. Poverty still existed on Chikar, mostly in the South. Jikel had lost one child to a fever which could have been cured in an hour in the East; propagandists blamed profiteers and alien bigots, and Jikel had believed them. Most of his crew had similar tales. Now his family, and his crew's, were being obliquely threatened by Prisca and his followers, to keep them in line. The question isn't whether I've made a mistake, he realized, but how big a mistake I have made.
Then there was the Human hostage, Solomon Danner, who seemed to have done more for freedom and equality, by his own hand, than Prisca ever imagined doing. The Human is captain of a ship too, Jikel thought. Chikarans, like Humans and like the other Common Life races, also had a tradition of brotherhood among captains, respect for their ships and for each other, going far back to their own age of sail. The way Prisca treats him....
Jikel was not happy at all.
Still, he was captain of his ship, and nothing went on aboard without his knowledge and permission. He went to visit the prisoner.
He was being kept in a storage compartment, locked from the outside and with two armed guards at the hatch. A camera had been installed too, and Jikel knew it. "I will see the alien," he said to the guards - landlubbers, from Prisca's gang of thieves and thugs. Jikel had already established his authority as captain, with these visitors to his domain. They hesitated, but briefly. One unlocked the hatch while the other stood back, his copied Human pistol pointed into the compartment. They fear him, Jikel thought, even beaten and in chains.
Jikel had seen video of Solomon Danner slaughtering pirates with both hands. They are right to.
Jikel entered the compartment. The Human was curled on the deck, probably still in pain from Prisca's last beating. "So this is the thing that's worth four gragg of platinum," Jikel said. He spoke American, the Human Republic's language, with less accent than Prisca; so did his crew, gathered from seafarers across the impoverished South. "I had wondered what was stinking up my ship." Outside, the guards snickered at each other, entertained by someone sharing their bigotry.
Jikel knelt down, bringing his face closer to the alien's. "You don't look so superior now," Jikel said. "You don't even look so big." Jikel bent closer still. "Why, I'd bet I could finish you off myself, bare-handed." He reached out and grasped Danner by the chin, turning the Human's head this way and that, examining a strange and frightening creature which had lost its mystery.
As he reached for Danner's face, he showed the Human the thing he was holding between thumb and finger, out of sight of the guards and the camera. As he grasped Danner's chin he slipped the thing into the alien's mouth.
Continued in the next excerpt....
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