Excerpts from the Jeffersonian Republic project:
Aurora, Part XCIX: Astronomical Odds

This page Copyright 2019, Karl Leffler

Continued from the previous excerpt
Danner having sent a message ahead, the other ship was waiting for them at Harmon III, the habitable world.
Sylvester Carenas was the ship's captain, his wife Nan the chief engineer, their five children and their own mates and offspring the rest of the crew. The ship was a little freighter, about eight kilotons, eighty-one meters long, sixty-four in diameter, and modified for prospecting and mining. She spun her entirety for artificial weight, though at only thirty-two meters radius, that wasn't much, little more than three meters at 3rpm. With such a short radius, this often led to uncomfortable Coriolis effects, so they usually spun at only 2rpm, resulting in just 1.4 meters perceived acceleration. There were a pair of extendable pods, like the two rings of eight Aurora carried, which could exceed the Human-standard weight of ten meters, but they were big enough for little more than sleeping. Prolonged living in lighter weight risked bone and muscle loss, and the Carenas Family took supplements to offset this, while boosting in realspace for longer periods than other ships with better weight accommodations. Sourdough II could enter atmosphere and land on a Terra-type world, though she didn't often, usually docking to orbital stations for cargo transfers.
She was not a perfect ship, but she was theirs. The Carenases made their living scraping whatever valuables they could out of asteroids and comets, and making occasional tanker runs to fuel other ships. They weren't prosperous, but they were independent, out of debt, and rightfully proud of it. They were all counted as citizens of the Republic of Harmon, under the old American-style definitions... which Aurora's crew found inferior, though they didn't say so, to avoid insulting their guests.
There were twenty-two members of the Carenas clan aboard Sourdough II. Aurora docked nose-to-nose with the other ship in a free orbit, dwarfing it. All were invited aboard Aurora, but four stayed with Sourdough; Danner's Family had grown spoiled, accustomed to trusting their ship to take care of herself with no one else on duty. There was a meal, in the passenger dining compartment which had been moved to the aft grav-ring years ago. Clancy made up trays and Aurora sent her extensions to deliver them to the Carenases who had stayed behind. Those robots then brought those people into the meeting, by hologram.

"It was a routine trip," Captain Carenas began, "as 'routine' as rockhounding ever is. We've been working that patch for a couple years now, loading up on metals, rare gasses, what-have-you, returning here when full. Not as glamorous a life as yours, but it suits us." He seemed a little defensive at this, surrounded by Aurora's luxury and power.
"That's hard work," Captain Danner responded, sincerely. "Not many people have the guts and the brains to do that kind of work and stay independent."
Sylvester sat a little straighter in his seat, smiling faintly, and continued. "Well, we really ought to have better sensors, but we get by. We'd found a rock with some titanium, and some water. Never too much of either. Jilly, here-" he gestured to his daughter, third in age, with brown hair and blue eyes like her siblings- "was on sensor watch."
The girl, something under thirty Monticellan years, turned on her 'puter and displayed the recordings. "There was a Transition half a light-second from us," she said. "Out that far, in a system supposed to be empty, it was... cause for concern." Sourdough II was armed only with drilling lasers. The government of the Harmon System was not overly friendly to armed ships in other than government hands, and required licenses and fees a Jeffersonian would take up arms against. "I sounded the alarm. After we'd brought in everyone, in case we had to leave, Pa decided to hail them."
"All I did was say hello," Sylvester said. "Then all the threat warnings lit up. I had Ben, there-" the eldest son, and helmsman- "duck us around the other side of our claim. Then we boosted far enough to Transition ourselves. I'm afraid that's all we have for you."
Jenny Blain had copied Jinny's sensor log to her own 'puter and was studying it intensely. The raw data had not been sent, only a summary; here was far more detail than Beth Lascomb had received. "This pulse, and these frequencies- that's a damaged Drive." Jenny would know, better than anyone, what could go wrong with a Marsten Drive. "This spike here," she pointed out to her Captain, "shows at least one of the Devices burning out from gravitational shear." She examined a map of the area where the mystery ship appeared. "Yes, it came out too close to this planetoid. It's not much of a gravity well, but it's enough to cause this effect." She turned to Aurora's Navigator, Sarah Heusner.
"The planetoid has a low albedo, so it would be hard to spot visually," the Eyani said, working her own 'puter. "It doesn't show up in the original RAS charts, they didn't plot the orbits of every last rock." Sarah spoke carefully, not revealing what they were really after. Danner had told the Carenas Family they were tracking a suspected pirate, in their capacity as a Jeffersonian Reserve Privateer. "Two-one-seven-two was surveyed in 492JR, seventy-eight Republic years ago." Long before Samuel Pepys disappeared, or was even built. The ship would have had the charts in its computer. "It's a risk for any Navigator, an uncharted rock in your path. That's why pioneers often Transition outside of the ecliptic, in a system that hasn't been thoroughly mapped, then approach through realspace, scanning on the way. Pirates and such will often take the risk, because space is so big, but sometimes the odds catch up with them."
Sylvester nodded at this. "That's just what we did, when we started working the system." RAS2172 had not been officially claimed by any state, but there was enough of it go around that the automated claim beacons were generally respected. The Carenases weren't the only Family or company mining the system, but they were usually separated by light-hours, unaware and unconcerned of each other's presence. "Took us months to map just this section, enough so we could fly safe. Lots of carbon on these rocks, they don't show up well in optics, and that far out-" light-hours from the system's star- "there's not much light to reflect anyway. We had to make wide active sweeps with our own Detector, and regular radar."
"So," Danner mused, "they might be crippled and stranded. If they're alone, and if they don't have good fabbers aboard." Which, he knew, the Newton-class had not been originally equipped with, not being intended to operate away from support.
"Meaning," Prrg contributed, "they might still be there, and we might catch them." Every modern ship had fabbers, but the Newtons carried only Class Ones, for small parts and tools. With design data and the right materials, a Class One could bootstrap and make components for larger fabbers, but that would take time. Unspoken between Captain and First Officer was the knowledge that Samuel Pepys had been missing long enough for a Class One to build a Class Six.
"Meaning we should leave now," Danner said, rising from his seat and extending his hand. "Captain Carenas, I thank you for meeting with us to give us your first-hand account." The Captains shook hands. Danner went on, "Time is money for a businessman, and I'd like you to accept this gift, for your time." He gestured, and two of Aurora's robots stepped forward with packages. "New telescopes for your ship," he said with a grin, "a couple spectrometers, and a spare Class Three fabber we had laying around."
Carenas accepted with real gratitude; Sourdough II had only a single Class Two fabber, which could have made those things, but it would have taken time, and saleable materials they needed for income. He then commented, "Not the first time we've run into odd ships out there. Nor the first time I wished I had more than a drill to fight with." A Class Three fabber could, eventually, build a 6MW pulse laser, or a Class Four Marsten Gun.
"Is it so difficult to arm your ship in the Harmon system?" Danner asked.
Sylvester grunted and nodded. "Seems the license fees go up every year, and we're on a thin margin already. Those greedy- people, in Harmony...." That was the capitol city for the system, on Harmon III. "All I want is to be left alone, make my own way," he went on, with rising heat. "Shouldn't have to beg permission to do it, from a pack of bureaucrats who never got their hands dirty in their lives-" His wife Nan, a worried expression on her face, touched his arm and he fell silent.
Danner took note. "I hadn't known it was that bad here. We're accustomed to more freedom than you seem to enjoy. You have your ship; you could emigrate." Sylvester's and Nan's eyes widened. The Republic's borders were effectively open; the Republic's people were expected to defend themselves against criminals or invaders or predators, and there were no tax-funded government handouts or birthright citizenship to attract parasites. Immigrants worked for a living and assimilated to Jeffersonian culture. Those who didn't were unapologetically driven out, at swordpoint under the Code Duello if necessary.
"You are as close to Republic space as you are to your claims," Aurora's gynoid pointed out. "People who make their own way with honest work are welcome in the Republic, and you will find no restrictions on self-defense. Or speech."
"There is always work for independent tankers," Daisuke observed, "and always markets for prospectors. You would also find those markets less restricted than I suspect they are here. I expect our taxes and licensing requirements are also much lower, when they apply at all."
Holly Cates added, "One Monticellan year's residency under the Star and Bars earns Jeffersonian Subjectry." The retired Sergeant Major wasn't greatly pleased with the way the Harmon system's government reportedly ran things, and joined the sudden effort to seduce people away from it. "Arm your ship, meet some standards, become a Reserve Privateer like us, earn Citizenship and the Vote."
Nan turned to her husband, questions in her eyes. Their children showed excitement. Meeting his wife's gaze, Sylvester said to Danner's Family, "You've sure given us something to think about."

10 Secondmonth 570JR
11 October 2365CE
Republic Astronomical Survey 2172

With no one watching, Danner had authorized use of the Blain Drive. Aurora's speed in the second level of hyperspace was equivalent to 507 times lightspeed in Einstein's universe. The trip from Harmon to RAS2172 took less than a hundred hours, including boosting out of Harmon III's gravity well to reach the Limit for safe Transition.
There were Transition Effects. Jenny Blain was the greatest living expert in hyperspace technology, perhaps surpassing Rachel Marsten herself, and Aurora was perhaps the most perfectly-tuned ship in the known galaxy. The Effects were minor, no hallucinations; a crawling sensation on the skin, sneezes, a momentary loss of bodily function control, unique to each organic being. Jenny made extensive notes after the second level Transition, poking at a holographic display while exchanging few syllables and more numbers in conversation with Aurora. The next time would be better.
The time spent in Blainspace seemed no different from that spent in Marstenspace, though the shifting pastels of hyperspace, or what organic eyes and minds could interpret through armorglas, were subdued, less bright, moving more slowly, in the second level. Ralph Vatelius and his wife Delilah Howell took a lot of readings and measurements. It was known to Aurora's Family that the Republic Navy was experimenting with the Blain Drive, and had probably already made much longer Transits in the second level, but every piece of data was valuable in this new realm. Long-term health effects could only be found over the long term.

RAS2172 - "Bagab", perhaps, if common usage ever became necessary - was an M-class "red dwarf", the most common stellar type in the Milky Way galaxy. Like most stars, it had a system of planets, but these were all lifeless, either airless rocks or gas giants or with atmospheres poisonous or corrosive to all known forms of life. Like many red dwarf stars, this one was variable, often flaring dramatically, sending bursts of deadly radiation raking across those planets. Its habitable zone was so close that the only bodies within it - two planets each smaller than Terra - were tidally locked. Both had any atmospheres blasted away ages ago.
Further out was a world not unlike Saturn, though the rings in Sol System were still considered more beautiful. RAS2172-VIII hosted thirteen moons according to the charts; there were mining operations on four of them. An asteroid belt was further yet, with dozens of independent rockhounds from many nations digging wealth out of them. The Carenas family had gone further still, to a Trojan cluster leading an icy black "super-Earth" at the edge of the system. The planet itself was frozen through, and its surface gravity was nearly twenty meters. Nothing had landed there since a probe dropped during the initial survey half a Terran century before.
Aurora approached cautiously, Transitioning five light-seconds south of the ecliptic from the position of the sighting and proceeding in realspace. If the mystery ship was Samuel Pepys, and if it was awakened, it would have had time to bootstrap its Class One fabber into anything it had designs for - even Marsten Guns and nuclear weapons. Aurora's Marsten Field was at full strength as she boosted closer, and her crew were at battle stations.
Sourdough II had mapped this Trojan field to a distance of ten light-seconds from their central claim, and had shared that data with Aurora. The Carenases' map was far more thorough than the Republic Astronomical Survey's; in the center of the Trojan group was a planetoid somewhat larger than Ceres, which did not appear on the RAS charts. This planetoid had presumably caused the gravitational shear which presumably crippled Pepys' Drive, when the ship presumably Transitioned using the older charts. Among all these presumptions was another, that Pepys came here to refuel and gather materials for repair and maintenance without being observed or interfered with.

The thing that might have been Samuel Pepys had been sighted half a light-second from the central planetoid, and another half a light-second from the rock Sourdough had been mining at the time. In such a shallow gravity well, Aurora could have Transitioned safely at that distance, if the planetoid's presence was known and compensated for. An unprepared ship, with a Drive not adjusted by Jenny Blain, was at risk of damage or destruction.
Aurora's passive sensors and optical telescopes were used. Whatever Sourdough had seen had displayed hostility, and an active sweep with conventional radar or a Detector might trigger an unfortunate response. The given coordinates were empty, but infrared detected a heat flare on a nearby asteroid. More of Aurora's eyes and ears were turned that way, to find what could only be an Isaac Newton-class research ship nosed into the flying mountain. Still at four light-seconds' distance, even with Aurora's superior optics, fine details could not be seen, but it seemed obvious the ship was mining the asteroid.
Aurora cut her acceleration, lest the flare of her fusion torches give away her position. The Newtons did carry excellent sensors, to extend the reach of whatever Explorer served as their mothership. Coasting now, Danner's Family watched as infrared and visible lights flared on the asteroid's surface. They could imagine miners - perhaps the original organic crew, now held as slaves? Perhaps robotic extensions of whatever Samuel Pepys had become, like Aurora used? - seeking and gathering the rare elements necessary to fabricate a Marsten Device, transporting them back to the ship. It was noted that the grav-wheels were not spinning; they were joined to the slim central hull by three spokes each, and those could be made out by Aurora's eyes even at this distance.
As Aurora coasted ever closer, her crew saw the lights begin to wink out. A few minutes after their Transition, they saw the ship pushing away from the asteroid, turning, boosting.
Running.
Continued in the next excerpt....
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