Congreve's Wish


Scott Langley


Pax Congregatio

123y 20w 8d UST

A biped, he stood with his legs wide and hands locked behind his back. His epidermis was blue-grey with a rough texture like fine grains of sand. His head was washed clean by depilatory foam, a pair of short antennae projecting from the back of the skull. Head tilted downward, he stared with piercing green eyes through the transparent floor.

Through the floor, against the background of space, he could see his ship, the USV Congreve. In the distance, it was a bright green oval, the brightest of the many star vessels surrounding her. The star Alpha Herculis' radiation reflected from the atmospheric molecules trapped in his ship’s recycling gravity field. The radiation itself was bent around the ship by powerful superconducting magnets, an approximation of the geo-magnetosphere. A small quantity of the molecules were the run-off from the Congreve’s own environmental systems, but mainly, they were the oxygen nitrogen atmosphere of the last planet in which the Congreve had been in orbit and her gravity field was thick with them.

He tapped his foot against the transparency and whistled perfunctorily as the Congreve slid down the window. The biped, an Idorian, wore a simple void black duty uniform. Three eight-pointed stars formed a triangle on each shoulder strap. On his left hip was strapped an ijabra'shah, a bladed flute that was the proud symbol of his status and class among his own people. On his left breast were brass flight engineer's wings, a navigator's sextant, and a small, simple rectangular pin denoting the Citation, the highest award given to Fleet enlisted personnel.

Only the highest of awards were worn on the duty uniform and the Idorian usually did not even bother with those. But, now he wore it as a reminder that he came from the ranks, he was no 'bloody Gagarin Institute ring-knocker' – as his old mentor, Nigel Smythe, would have said. As an added touch of defiance, he wore the silver dragon emblem of the long defunct Dracos Expeditionary Force on his left shoulder above the regulation Herculis Fleet division patch.

He turned and looked up at his companion as the station rotated, taking the Congreve from their view, filling the sky with the other ships of Molders' Herculis Fleet. These other ships, having spent less time in a planetary atmosphere, were nowhere as brilliant as his own. Many, being so distant and with gravity fields clean of reflective gases, were completely invisible to him.

His companion was a human female. Blue-black hair peppered lightly with grey framed delicate Asiatic features. Her jacket was similar to his in design, but was made of a light, brown material. In addition, she wore a brown, green, and yellow plaid kilt and shoulder sash, the regimental colors of the 1st American Buchanan Hunting Regiment. The sash was held in place by her right shoulder strap. Her shoulder straps, similar to the Idorian's bore three small dark brown 'planetoids' forming a triangle. A white tufted sporran hung from her belt.

On her finger was a tarnished and smooth West Point ring. She took as much pride in it as the Idorian took in never having attended the Fleet's equivalent. And, she paid an inordinate amount of pride to the 1st American Hunting Regiment, her home and family since graduation from that venerable institution.

Sung Kallealea Bridgitte was a rejected clone. Grown in Scotland, her records sealed, she was raised by foster parents in Hawaii, having no idea who her donor was. For beings like her, beings without family, the 1st American was more than a career, the regiment's six hundred year tradition was a substitute for her missing genetic heritage.

And, unlike the Idorian, she paced with mounting aggravation. They had been waiting on the Marshal for more than an hour as stewards, valets, and crewmen under the direction of an arrogant gold-braided aide-de-camp, emptied the office. As Alpha Herculis flared, the increasing levels of radiation that lit the Congreve so brilliantly would soon make the outer layers of Hercules Station uninhabitable.

It was this chamber that Marshal Cutlass Molders selected as his command center after his fleet retook Hercules station from the Association of Outer Colonies Consolidated Militia.

At one time an elaborate hall used to entertain society's upper echelon as it passed between Earth and the Outer Colonies, the chamber was now a clutter of free standing star charts, holo-projectors, computers, tables, desks, and chairs. They took the station and commandeered the chamber during Alpha Herculis' low period. Now, for the few days before the station's highly elliptical orbit took it safely from Alpha Herculis' increased radiation output, all of the outer levels were evacuated.

The main door slid open with a hiss. Sung Kallealea ceased her pacing and gave her attention to the being that walked through. In fact, the small, slender human with the pronounced widow's peak commanded the entire chamber's attention. Even the Idorian suffered to tear his eyes from the panoramic view beneath his feet.

"Marshal on the deck!" The Marshal's Aide, a handsome young Lieutenant bellowed. The chamber went rigid as all occupants snapped to attention.

"Captain Claviak, . . ." Ignoring everyone else, Fleet Marshal Cutlass Molders nodded toward the Idorian and then the Marine. " . . . Colonel Sung Kallealea, sorry to keep you waiting." He said without the slightest hint of sincerity. Years of teleromere therapy and melatonin treatments belied his more than seventy Earther years by giving him the appearance of a human naturally aged to his mid-forties.

The Marshal wore a void black uniform like the Idorian’s, but it was adorned with almost nothing, cutting a dark swath as he strode through the chamber. On each shoulder strap was a row of three starbursts, slightly larger versions of the Idorian’s stars. Other than that, he wore a Herculis fleet patch on his left shoulder. Most assumed he refused to wear his many medals and citations out of modesty. Those few who really knew Cutlass Molders knew he refused to wear them out of vanity. He did not present what he had earned because of what he had not, namely the wings and sextant worn by the Idorian. The wings represented a qualification to pilot both star vessels and orbital craft while the sextant recognized a proficiency in flux calculations and astronomy. Having catapulted through the ranks during the Nine Years’ War after an unanticipated and undeserved act of valor, the Marshal never again had time for the years of study and experience necessary to earn either wings or sextant.

"Marshal, I beg your forgiveness, but before you begin, I have to ask again for a transfer from the Congreve. When the 1st American was assigned to the Herculis Fleet, I made the Congreve my Regimental headquarters. Now that the Congreve is detached from her squadron, I'm left with a single company. I have to catch up with my Regiment."

"Colonel Alain is taking good care of the 1st American." Sung Kallealea's stomach knotted. When last she saw Alain, he was a Lieutenant Colonel Alain and the 1st American’s overly ambitious executive officer. "Don't worry Colonel." Molders noted the anxiety in her eyes. "Alain's rank is brevet and he is 'Acting' regimental commander. Besides, it's because the Congreve is detached from her squadron that I can send her on this mission."

"Marshal, Beta Company is light infantry. That's all that is assigned to the Congreve. Lieutenant Tamislov is more than capable of commanding whatever mission you . . ."

"Colonel, . . . I don't have time for this." Molders was barely able to contain the frustrations and pressure of this highly public command under the best of circumstances. He had much more to worry over than the petty concerns of a marine colonel and he let her know it. "You will remain on the Congreve, understood?"

"Aye, sir." Sung Kallealea acknowledged grudgingly.

"Everyone out." Molders barked suddenly, unable to bridle the anger Sung Kallealea released. At the stunned hesitation, he shouted "OUT!"

The stewards and crewmen quickly ceased all tasks and hurried from the chamber. With a malicious grin and a nod, the Idorian turned to join them. "Not you, Captain." Molders muttered in exasperation. "But you, . . . out." He shouted at the Aide who lingered as the last of the workers filtered away.

The Aide was obviously unhappy with his dismissal. He was accustomed to being around the Marshal, the center of activity. He skulked away with the rest.

As the door slid shut, leaving the Marshal, the Captain, and the Colonel, alone, Molders shook his head somberly. "Are you familiar with Rho Coronae Borealis?"

The Idorian twitched his antennae and shrugged. "Only as a dot on a star chart."

"Then you haven't been keeping up on the intelligence bulletins." The Marshal criticized sharply. "Coronae Twelve is a marginally habitable terrestrial, somewhere between a PI and a PIII. A few decades ago a terra-forming group considered it for colonization. As the Captain well knows, they settled on Camus Delta II and the Fleet took over Coronae Twelve.

"Up until about a decade ago, when the AOC's Consolidated Militia became an organized threat, we used Coronae Twelve to store anti-matter fuel rods." Molders spoke hesitantly, almost as if he took responsibility for an act that had nothing to do with him. But, Fleet Command was like a brotherhood that spoke with a single mind. And, it never made mistakes as long as they could be covered.

"Storing fuel rods on even a marginally habitable terrestrial is illegal." Sung Kallealea exclaimed.

"And dangerous." The Idorian added.

"That's why this mission is classified." Said the Marshal candidly. "And, . . . I'm sure they knew what they were doing." He used the old fleeter saying, applied to every incongruous order resulting in higher costs that gains. "Just as you are sure I know what I am doing.

"Anyway, the practice was discontinued when the AOC's Consolidated Militia became a serious threat and there became a real possibility of the facility falling into their hands. A precaution that has proven justified.

"About four years ago, the Patriarch’s Wish, carrying the last shipment of fuel rods, disappeared."

"And that is why I am here." Claviak announced.

"It is." The Marshal conceded.

"Why?" Sung Kallealea asked.

"The Patriarch’s Wish is a Raim Interstellar Shipping transport. I am of the Raim. My clan is Raim Interstellar Shipping. My father is Patriarch; he is listed as Chief Executive Officer in the company's Union Exchange registration. And, the Marshal is aware of the duty I owe the clan. The Marshal also believes if my father engaged an illegal commission, my obligation is to cover it quietly."

Of course it was the truth, but Cutlass Molders had played this game long enough to know that it wasn't the truth unless he admitted it or there was insurmountable evidence that could not be explained otherwise. "The Marshal believes that you will carry out your orders, . . . this time."

The Idorian felt the barb sharply. Molders referred to the mission from which they had just returned, to recapture the Union star vessel United States after its retreat from Alpha Herculis.

The Idorian wasn't going to make excuses. The Congreve was badly out-gunned, the small Huo Jian class frigate was no match for the larger more powerful St. Petersburg class. And, the Congreve had more than taken her 'pound of flesh.' Both ships came away from the engagement badly damaged. They drove her underground; she would have to find a safe place to make repairs. While she did, she was no threat. In that regard, Claviak and the Congreve had acquitted themselves admirably, but ultimately, he had failed.

"We assumed . . ." The Marshal continued, again applying 'we' to the brotherhood of Fleet Command. " . . . or hoped, the Patriarch’s Wish was lost on the curve." The curve was the bending of space and time used to travel between the stars. In theory, the curve could approach infinity. In theory, anyone on the curve as it approached infinity, could not be aware of the passage of time and could not know they were forever trapped outside of normal Einsteinian space/time. ‘In theory,’ because no star vessel lost on the curve returned to tell the tale. It was a risk every spacer accepted upon boarding a star vessel.

"And now you've found her?" Sung Kallealea asked.

"Not exactly." Molders elaborated. "A deep space explorer dropped out of flux just under four light years from the Coronae system. It picked up the Patriarch’s Wish's distress beacon, transmitting from Coronae Twelve.

"We know she lifted off planet. Maybe she had a malfunction before entering flux. Whatever the case, she must have returned, either to orbit or she managed to land." Molders postulated. "The crux of it is: if the Patriarch’s Wish is still in the Coronae system, the Association of Outer Colonies has access to one hundred and fifty-six fuel rods. That's one hundred and fifty-six flux jumps I don't need them making. I've arranged for the Congreve to be fitted with a magnetic containment hold."

"I wondered what the quartermaster was on about." The Idorian grinned sardonically.

Molders ignored him. "With Beta Company's help, the Congreve should be able to transfer those rods to her holds and bring them back here, or dump them in the Void, or shoot them into Rho Coronae, I don't care, just keep them away from the AOC."

"Here." Molders took his comp-pad from a trouser leg pocket and transferred the files to the Idorian's directory. As his own comp-pad beeped, Claviak took it out and pressed his thumb against the small rectangular indentation, confirming his receipt and understanding of the orders.

"Before you go, . . ." Molders continued. " . . . this isn't in the orders, . . . I don't want this to turn into a killing war. That means the blockades have to be effective. Earth has kept control by restricting what it will pay for the colonies' natural resources. We've kept them from developing the infrastructure they need to fully exploit their own resources. We have to stop them from getting the materials they need and the time they need to develop an infrastructure."

"Sir, they started this." Sung Kallealea argued. "If we're going to finish it quickly and with a minimum of casualties, it has to be a killing war: quick, bloody, and decisive."

"Colonel, this isn't like the Nine Years War or the Earth-Vasilic conflicts. Humankind has not turned on itself in one hundred and twenty-three standard years. They've started calling it 'Pax Congregatio' and they say this marks its end. It's not ending on my watch. This is a political disagreement that has gotten out of hand and we are going to get it back under control."

"And if the AOC does not agree?" Claviak asked.

"You have your orders." Molders voice cracked, strained with exhaustion. Right now, he felt every minute of his seventy-one earth years.

As Sung Kallealea and Claviak left him alone in the quiet, cavernous command center, he looked up toward the door, almost startled by the revelation - Claviak was not human. What if the Idorian Julum'Pa did not join them on this? What if the Union Assembly decided this was an internal Earther matter? He dismissed the worry, but the concern gnawed at him. He could trust Claviak to follow orders. As for the rest, it was simply out of his hands. He told himself 'I'm sure they know what they're doing.'


Rho Coronae Borealis

123y 23w 6d 24:00:57 UST

Using two massive points of gravity, space was compressed toward the destination and expanded from the source point. Fixing on too large a mass, or no mass at all, a vessel could achieve infinity and disappear forever.

For tens of hundreds, maybe thousands of times the Idorian had sat on the bridge, watching helplessly as the flux time counted down to zero. He felt no less relief this time as the flux engine shut down and Einsteinian space reclaimed them. Blank monitors flared to life as the ship was awash in electromagnetic radiation. Soft, electronic screeches of background radio waves crackled over the communications system. And, Connie, the ship's computer, blared in panicked distress.

"Target acquisition, target acquisition." Connie warned in a smooth, calming voice that belied the stress and excitement running through the bridge's sentients.

Claviak, surrounded on three sides by monitors and interface panels, immediately glanced down at the tactical display. As he watched, images formed, raw data acquired by the Congreve's sensors and was being interpreted by Connie’s programs. Rho Coronae Borealis and the planet Coronae Twelve appeared in relative positions, nowhere close to scale. The Congreve appeared as a green circle. Next to the green circle was a flashing red dot. That red dot had bounced a radar signal off of the Congreve, sending Connie into distress.

Alongside the red dot appeared a block of text, flashing physical properties, size, mass, velocity, orbital trajectory, etc. Claviak tapped one blue finger over the red dot, hoping to call up more information. None appeared. "What is it? What is it?" He asked Connie and then the bridge crew, no one in particular, but directed toward both science and tactical stations.

"Never mind." He muttered as the red dot suddenly accelerated toward them. "Main thrusters, full burn, five seconds." Congreve's main thrusters fired, burning ton of reactant mass and pushing the ship away from the red dot's new trajectory. Whatever it was, from its mass, Claviak knew it could not possibly carry enough fuel to accelerate as quickly as Congreve.

As Congreve shot noiselessly past the red dot, a new set of data appeared on the tactical display. Red dot had a transponder code: it was ordnance assigned to the USV Vincennes.

The Vincennes, an Indiana Class cutter, had been decommissioned from Fleet service and sold to the Association of Outer Colonies some years ago. And, she had just taken part in the raid on Hercules Station. The tidbit of datum popped into the Idorian's head only because he knew the Vincennes from its days as a mail cutter, small fast ships that carried communications through flux from one star to the next. ‘Didn't keep up with intelligence, indeed,’ he thought, scoffing at Molders' suggestion.

Red dot continued on its new orbit, crossing into the Congreve's ion wash and detonating with enough force to send ripples through the light frigate. Congreve's crew could not even notice the ripples, the ship's decks and consoles were still vibrating and rattling from the main thrusters' plasma ejection.

"Main thrusters, full burn, ten seconds." The Captain said to the flight engineer. "Quickly now, while the explosion can shield us."


Coronae Twelve

123y 23w 6d 24:01:14 UST

Adam Bischoff sat alone on the bridge of the AOCV Vincennes. Feet propped on the control console, he rubbed his chin thoughtfully, fingers running through the bristles of his neat trimmed beard. His eyes were a clear, bright blue, his hair so blonde as to almost be white. He wore a white flight suit that was now a dingy grey, and carried a pungent, salty odor that only a chemical wash could remove. When first issued his uniforms, identical to the Union Fleet, except for the white that was to be an antithesis to the Fleet's void black, he knew they would be impossible to keep clean. So, to the dismay of his shipmates, he practically lived in the flight suit, saving the duty uniforms for special occasions.

On each shoulder strap, Bischoff proudly wore the row of three stars, rank of commander. Bischoff had been part of the Association of Outer Colonies’ aggressive recruiting campaign. Frustrated and stifled by Fleet Command, the young lieutenant followed many other promising young fleeters and leapt at the opportunity for a jump of two rank grades and his own command, even if it was an obsolete Fleet cutter. And the Fleet, as unresponsive to its own needs as it was to those of its beings, soon found itself with a desperate shortage of personnel.

Not that it was so easy for Bischoff. During the months of boredom and frustration, almost as stupefying as Fleet life, he had often questioned his decision. Until they gave him the Vincennes.

Her technology was obsolete before he entered the Institute. Her crew were ill trained and undisciplined. But, she was all his. So, while the AOC's leadership argued, its Consolidated Militia trained.

Fytch, the dwarf, started it. He took it from the hands of the politicians who talked and voted to vote and argued amongst themselves, and he gave it to the Consolidated Militia.

Cornelius Fytch captured the USV United States, put her into the service of the Consolidated Militia, and used her to take Hercules Station. And, Bischoff was thrilled. This was his chance; it was his time, perhaps his only time.

With practiced reflexes, the Fleet retaliated. Molders' Herculis Fleet efficiently and effectively ran off the small band of rebels, scattering them to the Four Corners. But, because of Fytch, neither Union nor AOC could ignore the Consolidated Militia.

Lights flashed, the computer chirped and beeped in alarm, the crews' voices chattered, oblivious, in the background. Directly in front of him, half a dozen monitors were configured to display the life signs, equipment status, and video images of each of the Vincennes' EV team. None of them gave any indication of the computer's distress.

"What is it, Vincent?" Bischoff asked.

"Missile bearing RA one six two four, DEC thirty-three fifty-one has acquired target and detonated."

"Target status?"


"Target identification?"


"Is she one of ours?"


Bischoff leaned forward and thrummed his fingers on the control console, tapping out a set of calculations. Just less than twenty seconds for the signal from the Vincennes' mine to reach them. Depending on the type of ship that set it off, they had between four and five standard days to make the last transfer. Five days they could manage. With four . . . Bischoff shook his head doubtfully, it was not enough time for another trip and to prepare the ship for launch.

Maybe they should leave now. Twelve fuel rods was a good prize. Cut off by Union blockade and desperately short on all but humanitarian aid, the AOC would pay top dollar for the anti-matter. The crew should be very happy with their share. Still, fourteen rods would be better and almost guarantee a captaincy, especially since it looked as if the AOC had lost the rods to the Union years earlier.

Mak, as usual, was right. At Alpha Herculis, Mak had been right. If Bischoff had listened, the Vincennes would not have been cut off from her squadron and left to the mercy of two Union destroyers.

The obsolete little cutter, heavily outgunned, made an emergency flux jump to Rho Coronae, where it picked up the distress signal. As a Junior Lieutenant, Bischoff had worked the Coronae Twelve armory. He remembered the Patriarch’s Wish and he immediately knew what the signal meant.

Mak thought they should jump to an AOC colony, report it so that a proper cargo transport could be sent in to claim the prize. Bischoff wanted it himself. Besides, they needed to go down there and at the least turn off that beacon before it brought the Fleet down on their ears.

Bischoff watched the monitors. They displayed the video fed from the cameras mounted in each of his crew’s helmets. Watching the Vincennes from their perspective, the fore landing strut came into sight through the pea soup thick yellow fog. A dark shadow, Bischoff recognized the rear strut, came into view as they moved beneath Vincennes' underbelly. The ship's cargo lifts were lowered, waiting for the two anti-matter fuel rods carried by the six spacers. Once the two fuel rods were loaded into the lifts, the crew retreated to the airlock.

Bischoff was there waiting, watching them through a small window. The spacers exchanged glances, purposely looking away from the scrutiny of their Captain. Senior Chief Petty Officer Edward Maksymzak was the only one to look directly at Bischoff, acknowledging his presence with a bare nod.

As the environmental indicators moved to green, the spacers lifted away their helmets. The airlock door slid open with a pressurizing hiss and the spacers filed out, squeezing past Bischoff in the narrow confines. Wet, orange clay, covered the e-suits and small, black, oblong leaves stuck to their legs. As they squeezed through the Vincennes’ corridors, the clay smeared on Bischoff’s flight suit and the leaves stuck to the walls.

"Mak, we have company." Bischoff pushed firmly against Maksymzak, keeping him from following the others.

"Union or Militia?"

"I don't know, so we're going to assume Union. They set off one of the mines."

Mak nodded wearily. "I will begin pre-launch sequence."

Bischoff shook his head. "No. We need one more run."

"Back to derelict? There is no time." Maksymzak knew exactly how long they had, and it was not enough.

"We can make one more, if we hurry. I'm sorry, but you need to go back out. Take half an hour to rest and eat, then get four fresh crewmen."

"Just four?"

"I'm going with you."

Half an hour later, the Vincennes' airlock lowered six figures to the ground. They stepped outside and were enveloped in the thick, yellow fog. Except for Maksymzak, the e-suits were fresh and clean. Orange clay quickly splashed up around their ankles and calves.

The same clay was splattered over the landing struts and underbelly of the Vincennes. As they walked away, Bischoff paused at the fore strut. He leaned forward for a better look at the small brown discoloration, just a few centimeters across. He rubbed his hand over it. Brown dust flaked away and came off over his hand. "Void damn it." Bischoff muttered with disappointment, glad this was their last trip. This chlorine in the atmosphere was rusting his poor Vincennes apart.



USV Congreve

123y 23w 7d UST

"We know . . ." The Idorian began. " . . . the Vincennes, a mark V Indiana Class cutter was here. And, we know, if she is still here, she knows we are here." A holographic blue print of an old Indiana Class rotated lazily, hovering ten centimeters above the table, projected from the flat screen monitor set into the table's surface. Alongside the wire frame depiction, lines of text, known design specifications, scrolled. "We cannot be sure of her exact capabilities, we do not know what upgrades and modifications the AOC has made.

"We do not know, if either Vincennes or the Patriarch’s Wish is still in-system. Whatever signal was detected in deep space is no longer broadcasting. But, it was four years old, so . . ." Claviak’s antennae twitched as he explained to the Congreve's senior officers, Colonel Sung Kallealea, and Beta Company's commander, all seated around the briefing room table. "My guess is that if the AOC are in-system, there are not many of them, possibly just the Vincennes. If they had a sufficient force, there would have been a ship waiting for us instead of an automated missile."

"Or they're not here at all and just left the booby-trap." Congreve's executive officer suggested.

"Lieutenant Munro, . . . " Claviak called through the open arch separating briefing room from main bridge. " . . . could you join us please?"

A young woman with dirty blonde hair, finished her sightings impatiently, hesitantly shaking one finger toward the Captain while the other glided over the interface panel. "Just one second."

Claviak shrugged and arched his brows, a human gesture that had become natural to him over the years. "Lieutenant Munro has worked very hard extrapolating the last known position of the Patriarch’s Wish from the deep space data. "Connie, . . ." He said to the ship's computer. " . . . Coronae Twelve schematic overlaid with Lieutenant Munro's calculations please."

The rotating wire frame of the Vincennes was replaced by a blue-green sphere with just a hint of enveloping yellow and splashed in wisps of white. Red dots cut a line across the sphere, leading into a red curve that spiraled down to the planet's surface.

Munro stomped into the briefing room, slightly winded from even the few steps onto the main bridge. "The dots are the transmission source." She explained. "Extrapolated from the frequency and strength of the transmissions. The red line represents the Patriarch’s Wish's descent trajectory if she were to continue on course from the transmission source. See how the curve widens as it moves away from the dots?" One thick finger swept across the holo-pic, following the red curve. "As we move away from the source, the possible trajectories increase, but not so wide to prohibit our search pattern. Once we make orbit, we only have a narrow search band. Depending upon the orbit, it shouldn't take more than three revolutions."

"Thank you, Lieutenant." Munro nodded and moved back toward the bridge. "No, please take a seat, we are not through yet." The Idorian gestured toward the empty chair reserved for his Senior Science Officer. Munro, more anxious to get on with her planetary survey, shuffled anxiously before reluctantly sitting.

"In forty-seven hours, we fire retro-thrusters and begin aerobraking maneuvers. I want the ship fully secure. We are going to decelerate quickly, perhaps more quickly than the gravity generators can compensate.

"As you know, we accelerated to avoid the missile coming out of flux and again soon after. I have tried to wind the strings." Claviak said, using an Idorian metaphor. "If the Vincennes is in-system, they know we are too. The AOC has recruited heavily from the Fleet, taking some of our finest. It is likely such a being serves the Vincennes.

"Our acceleration will bring us to Coronae Twelve sooner than had we followed standard procedure. It is my hope that we may regain some of the surprise lost in our flux entry."



USV Congreve

123y 23w 8d UST

Between Munro's calculations, Claviak's experience, and Idorian psychology, Patriarch’s Wish was located precisely where predicted. Congreve accelerated to a higher orbit, taking up station keeping in an optimal position to keep watch over the derelict.

From high in orbit, with Rho Coronae's radiation output much less than Alpha Herculis', the borealis effect on the Congreve was much reduced. Congreve's gravity field was still laden with atmospheric molecules, including the oxygen, nitrogen, and chlorine of Coronae Twelve. An occasional wash of green and yellow flashed over the spherical magnetic field, like a rainbow over a soap bubble.

Sung Kallealea stomped through the Congreve's narrow confines, eyes firmly affixed to the comp-pad in hand. Crewman and marine alike went flat against the bulkheads, making way for the determined Colonel.

The Colonel was planning and preparing to transport her marines to the planet's surface. Beta Company took up three drop shuttles. All three shuttles were being prepared. Only one would drop initially, a reconnaissance party whose objective was to find and secure the Patriarch’s Wish.

That done, the other shuttles would join them. The 1st American's Beta Company, one hundred marines strong, would quickly load the cargo of anti-matter fuel rods for transport to the Congreve's external cargo module.

While the marines readied their shuttles, the fleeters detached the cargo module, giving it a parallel orbit to the Congreve. It was a routine precaution. If the magnetic containment failed, the ship would have a chance to escape destruction.

The Colonel found the Captain in the gymnasium, stepping out of the Congreve's small pool. It was sealed behind a transparent partition, separated by a revolving door. The pool was small, barely long enough for three strong strokes across. Steam and condensed droplets obscured the Colonel's view of the unashamedly naked Idorian.

Sung Kallealea watched unwavering, just as unashamedly as the Idorian passed through the revolving door, wiping himself dry with a towel. To the Idorian, bathing and nakedness was a natural part of his culture. Bathing was used as a means of controlling his species’ partially ectothermic metabolism. It was easy to forget other cultures, namely the predominant Earther Western cultures, did not share his views.

Claviak nodded greeting to the Colonel and reached into his locker. With Claviak's eyes and antennae facing the locker, Sung Kallealea let her eyes wander his body in fascination. Water dripped from exoskeleton and ran in thin streams along the joints where it melded with the flesh. The exoskeleton was a cord of flexible cartilage that wound round the arms, legs, and upper torso. Along the chest, it was like a set of ribs fitted to the outside of the body.

Beneath the exoskeleton, was a lean musculature. Although appreciatively humanoid, the muscles were perceptibly alien in their lines and groupings – just alien enough to be unnerving in their familiarity.

Finally, her eyes lingered on the oddly shaped genitalia, then snapped back to meet the Captain's stare as he turned to face her. "Uhm, uh, . . . I understand Lieutenant Munro wants to accompany Beta Company?" The Colonel stammered, covering badly, but recovered quickly.

"She does." The Idorian replied as he pulled the black, skin tight thermo-regulating suit over his naked body. The suit covered him from neck to ankle and wrist. The gel between its inner and outer layers served as insulation, retaining the Idorian's body heat and protecting it from the ambient environment.

"And you don't want her to?" The Colonel asked directly.Claviak's antennae twitched and he shrugged as he put the void black duty uniform on over the thermo-regulating suit. "I cannot recommend it."

"Why not? Afraid the marines will show up your fleeters once we're planet-side?"

"It is what you are trained for." Claviak said with a wry grin. "However, Lieutenant Munro does not keep up with her phys apps."

"No, she doesn't look it." Sung Kallealea commented, picturing the science officer's midriff, bulging from around the belt of her duty uniform. "What sort of condition is she in?"

"Physically? Marginal, she would not be here if she could not keep up with the minimum requirements."

"What's her problem?"

"She works." Claviak snorted. "When she is not using the ship's telescopes, she is combing her database."

"She's a real scientist?" Sung Kallealea asked.

The Idorian laughed softly. "She is, one of the few. You do not think the Science Council would waste one of their politicos on the Congreve?" It was the way of life on the fleet, lawyers and politicians were assigned as Senior Science Officers on deep space exploration vessels, scientists to frigates and destroyers.

"What do you think?"

"I think she really does need to keep up with the phys apps, but they are too rigid." Finished dressing, Colonel and Captain stepped into the corridor, scattering a small cluster of passing crewmen, sending them rigid against the wall. "And, she understands more about Coronae Twelve than anyone else aboard the ship. She would be an asset. But, even so, she does not have field experience.

"This is your mission Colonel. The Fleet will not interfere, unless you request it. If you do not want her, I will deny her request based on the phys apps."

Sung Kallealea considered. Beta Company was hard driven infantry, trained to spend weeks at a time living and fighting in bulky, uncomfortable, armored e-suits. Any fleeter would slow them down, much less a science officer in marginal physical condition for even the sedentary shipboard life. "I will think about it Captain. And, if you are willing to release her into my command, I would prefer to talk to her myself."

The Idorian nodded brusquely and squeezed past her.

"Captain, one more thing." Claviak paused and looked back. "As you said, this is a marine mission. Marshal Molders does not want a killing war. I don't believe there’s any other kind. A bloodless war is a politician’s fantasy. The only way to end this war quickly and with a minimum of casualties is to turn it into a 'killing war.' If there are AOC down there, I won't let them run off to fight another day."

Claviak opened his mouth to say something, then paused. "As you wish Colonel. It is your mission, but you heard the Marshal’s orders."



Coronae Twelve

Quartz Mountain Valley

123y 24w 1d 08:44:32 UST

Delicately edging its way over the spongy moss-like base, the shiny black insect carefully nibbled the plant's overhanging leafy edges. In the never ending war for biological supremacy, these two species, alone on this desolate crystalline island, reached a compromise of sorts. The insect ate only at the excess leafy appendages, the plant did not kill the insect. With its mouth set high on its head, between dark, beady compound eyes and its body low to the ground, it was perfectly designed not to disturb the plant's upper surface, designed to keep its part of the compromise.

Long, feathery antennae flailed frantically, the ground shook. Six legs scrambled away from the shaking that released billows of plant gas into the air. A great 'pillar', absolutely beyond the comprehension or experience of the insect, dropped from the sky, shaking the ground and cutting off its escape.

With the pillar in front, the plant gas behind, the insect jumped. Every instinct told it to stay away from the plant's upper surface, so with two sticky feet, it hung on the leafy edge that was heavily serrated by irregular crescent moon bites of its own gnawing.

The pillar rose and landed elsewhere, only to be followed by another and another. Its antenna lobes told it to run from the plant gas, its optic lobes told it to run from the pillars. Conflicting signals sent it into distress. In defiance of the evolutionary compromise, its desire not to be squashed overcame its fear of the plant gas, sending it scrambling over the edge onto the leaf's upper surface.

Caught on the sticky surface, the insect was helpless as the plant's blossom slit open, a gaping, horizontal maw of sickly yellow death. With a meek, unhealthy cough, the blossom released a noxious, yellow cloud of chlorine, asphyxiating the hapless insect and burning its respiratory spiracles.

"Hold on a second." Munro called out between gasps for air. Her voice was broadcast to the comm-unit of each marine's e-suit and to the Congreve. With a single, silent groan they knew better than to express, Beta Company slowed its pace - again.

Munro found the marines vigorous march unbelievable, bogged down as they were with bulky armored e-suits, equipment, and weapons. Even with an e-suit unencumbered by plastic armored plating and having no equipment or weapons to carry, she could not keep up.

But, that wasn't the reason she called for a halt this time. "It looks like periplaneta americana, a cockroach." It was pure chance that she looked down to see the trapped three-centimeter long insect flailing in the tiny puff of yellow.

An ankle deep trail of yellow gas followed Beta Company on their march through the field of shining black plants whose oblong leaves clung to the boots and calves of their e-suits.

The field was a relatively flat pocket of clay near the top of a mountain of quartz. The mountain was a projection of crystalline quartz formations filled in with wet clay. The clay covered their e-suits, but was not perceptible against the quartz/clay camouflage.

Sung Kallealea, overly patient with the science officer, it was entirely her decision to bring her, paused. Clapping shoulder to keep the company moving, she walked back toward Munro, pushing Beta Company on past her.

Munro carefully pinched the squirming insect between forefinger and thumb and dropped it into a sample bag. "I'm no biologist, but this is definitely derived from periplaneta americana."

"Probably got here the same way we did, in the belly of a Fleet ship. Fleeters carry all sorts of infestations." Sung Kallealea said, referring to the Coronae Twelve armory. Only a small facility, it still had traffic enough to carry a few roaches.

"Look at the chitin." Munro held the bag up to Sung Kallealea's faceplate so that the helmet's light fell onto it. "It's made out of the same natural polymer as the plants." The plants and this alien cockroach were covered in a skin of natural plastic. Black to the human eye, they gave the field an unreal, artificial look, like the set of an alien landscape created for a low budget science fiction 2D television show of the mid twentieth century. "This fella' is the result of evolution. It's a lot older than the armory."

"So's the planet. Molders said it was P1 to P3. That means they've found ruins somewhere." P1 to P3 referred to some of the earliest known civilizations of the Preserver epoch, a group of ancient cultures and species whose purpose seemed to be the cultivation of life seeded throughout this corner of the galaxy by even older and more ancient species.

Molders knew nothing of history outside of the long and glorious heritage of the 1st American. So, she easily believed the prevailing theories that put Coronae Twelve into the category of a slew of other worlds that were climatized and changed by the ancients to suit their needs. Over thousands of millennia since, with the decline of those ancients and the loss of their technology, worlds like Coronae Twelve, unsuited to sustaining a terrestrial environment, were on a slow steady change to something that may or may not resemble their natural state.

"Point to Colonel." Lei Fueng Tamislov's voice crackled through the helmet speakers.

"Go ahead Lieutenant." Sung Kallealea said to Beta Company's commander who had taken six marines for forward reconnaissance.

"We have a visual."


Coronae Twelve

Patriarch’s Wish

123y 24w 1d 10:36:59 UST

In the deep valley between ridges of quartz, lay the Patriarch’s Wish. A thick, yellow mist of chlorine blanketed the valley. Through it, they could make out only dark shapes and shadows with their eyes. Using infrared, radar, and ultra-violet sensors, the image became clear.

The ship lay broken and helpless, its bearing at an odd angle where it’s a landing strut had given way or never deployed properly. A small stream flowed in a tortuously winding trail from the mountains through the valley. It became bloated and misshapen where it met the ship's hull and thin and weak where it ran off on the other side.

Sung Kallealea lead ten of her marines and Munro down into the valley. As they descended, yellow mist swooped up around their legs with each step, whirling around them, engulfing and obscuring. In less than an hour, the haze and mist became a thick fog, limiting their vision to a few yards. Relying upon their sensor equipment, they stepped between jagged cracks in the quartz and navigated around clay flats saturated by hydrochloric acid run-off.

High in the mountains, rising far above the chlorine mist, snowcaps fed the valley stream. A waterfall tumbled over a quartz ledge, feeding the bubbling stream. High in the mountains, where the liquid water mixed with the chlorine gas, life was scoured clean along the stream’s embankments. The plants and insects, carbon dioxide and oxygen breathers, respectively, had built a strong tolerance to the chlorine abundant in their atmosphere. But even they could not tolerate the hydrochloric acid wash that formed when mist met water, a wash that ran directly through the Patriarch’s Wish.

The 1st Americans and Munro, splashed through the shallow stream. At its deepest, it rose to Munro's waist. And, at its deepest, was where it had pooled, the Patriarch’s Wish acting as a dam.

Leaves, washed from the marines in the crossing, floated serenely in the stream and gently sizzled, breaking down into their component molecules. Where the stream pooled, the Patriarch’s Wish's hull was discolored and thinned, forming a sort of concave path with small specks where the acid had eaten through the metallic polymer composites. Metal seams and braces were brown and flaking, bubbled and poked.

Sung Kallealea put her hand against the bleached white section of hull and pressed firmly. It was soft and forgiving, it felt as if it would give way and burst through, but it was stronger stuff than that. It was probably even still space worthy. "Get out of the water, quick." Sung Kallealea gave the precautionary order sharply.

The rear guard, still crossing the stream, doubled their pace, thrashing through and out of the stream. "It's okay Colonel." Munro said. "Patriarch’s Wish has been soaking for more than four standard years. And, she was only designed for short layovers in planetary atmospheres. Her hull was built for the vacuum of space."

Sung Kallealea turned on her with and angry glare. "Up out of the water." She repeated even though the last of her troop was just stepping onto dry land. Her anger eased as she remembered Munro's blatant disregard of the Idorian's orders. That was what first drew the girl to the Colonel's attention.

"The hull is cracked." Munro commented, noting the high levels of chlorine in the atmosphere, visible as wisps of yellow caught in the helmet mounted light that lanced through the darkness. A quick scan using the sensor set on the forearm of her e-suit confirmed it.

Beta Company and Munro had entered Patriarch’s Wish through a lower airlock. The ship had crash-landed without lowering her landing struts, using VTOL jets to lower herself into the Quartz Mountain valley. Had her struts lowered properly, Beta Company could never have found egress through this particular hatch.

As standard equipment, each marine carried a portable powercell, strapped to the right thigh. One of these was plugged into the hatch. Greedily sucking at the energy, it cycled through and opened for them.

Inside, it was as dark as pitch and wholly unnatural, or rather, more completely natural. Idorians built with a sense for nature, with rounded corners, cylindrical corridors, no sharp edges. It was as if the plastic and metallic polymer building materials had been shaped by eons of flowing water. Through the corridors conceived by an alien mind, the only light was their own, they made their way forward.

"Find the fuel rods." The Colonel sent Lei Fueng Tamislov’s team to the cargo containers.

"Oh my God." Munro's voice was feeble and followed by an unmistakable gagging.

"Lean her forward." Sung Kallealea ordered quickly.

Two marines, one on either arm, tipped Munro so the vomit would drop forward in the helmet and not back into her mouth or nose. A vacuum pump in the e-suit went to work, draining liquids, solids, and gases indiscriminately, momentarily taking Munro's breath away. Atmosphere was quickly pumped into the suit, the computer compensating for the pressure change and adjusting the mix, decreasing the oxygen level.

. Throwing up in an e-suit was not to be taken lightly. One could not remove the suit to clean it and becoming dizzy, disoriented, or light-headed, choking could easily follow.

Sung Kallealea moved her head so the light fell on Munro’s face. Grasping the girl’s helmet with two hands, she looked on the pale face. It was pale, but it wasn’t turning blue and the girl seemed to be breathing properly. "You’ll live." The Colonel banged the top of the girl’s helmet and turned her light upon what had caused Munro's distress. Lying face up on the floor that rounded up into the wall, was an e-suit of Idorian manufacture.

Chest plating mimicked the hzraat-hide breastplates, which were considered a fashionable legacy of their violent past, while the suit was raised and corded to resemble the exoskeletal structure. The helmet was tall and the faceplate extended over its top curvature, giving 'visibility' to the antennae.

Casting her light through the faceplate, Sung Kallealea could see the horror beneath. The faceplate was cracked, the head and face had turned to dripping black jelly, corroded by the chlorine seeping through the hairline crack. This low in the valley, the chlorine was too thick for even the planet's indigenous life. There were no biotics, no bacteria to eat at the flesh, leaving it a melting pool, corroded by the atmosphere.

Sung Kallealea pounded Munro's shoulder. "They had a crew of fifty. It's going to get worse." And it did, as Beta Company entered sickbay.

More corpses, these without the cover of e-suits, lay upon the tables and beds, flesh liquefying, clothes, soaked in the viscera, were falling apart in swathes, the edges of which were blacked and frayed as if burnt. Partial exoskeletal fragments, pocked and chipped hung over the bodies, soft and distorted.

Munro retched in dry heaves as the marines searched the bodies for identification chips, patches, badges, and the like. Anything they found, from tiny microchip implants, to intact pieces of uniform, they brought to Sung Kallealea who scanned it all into her comp-pad and transmitted to the Congreve.

"They must have lingered for days, throats raw and burning with the chlorine seeping into their atmosphere. Towards the end, at least that one in the corridor made it into an e-suit." They listened to Congreve's flight surgeon as he reviewed the data transmission. "Probably suffocated, fell over, cracked his head." The flight surgeon's imagination tended to get in the way of his facts.

"Anyone you know?" Sung Kallealea asked as her camera swept over the bodies and the viscous flesh, bleached white bones and exoskeletons.

"I knew them all, Colonel." The Idorian's voice was mournful over the helmet speakers. "The older ones at least. For my people, nepotism is the normal way of business. My father is Mur'Raim, the Patriarch for whom Patriarch’s Wish is named. Her Captain was my First Cousin. When I talk of the clan as family, I am not speaking figuratively."

"Colonel, . . ." Lei Fueng Tamislov said over their secured communication's channel. " . . . we have a problem."

"What is it?" The Colonel growled.

"I think you need to come see for yourself." Tamislov would not make such a statement lightly. If he could deal with it himself, it would be dealt with.

Looking over the spacers with their orange stained e-suits, the Colonel picked out one with a rough, grizzled visage, made more foreboding by the irregular shadows cast through his faceplate each time one of the marines look him over. The patch on his forearm, a semi-circle open downward over one eight-pointed star over three upward facing semi-circles, marked him as the senior officer.

"Are you from the Vincennes?" The Colonel asked. There was no reply. But, it may be because they were not on the same frequencies. Although by the manner in which the senior warrant officer tried to hide an expression of surprise, the Colonel thought he understood.

The ladder into the main cargo module was heavily corroded, the metallic parts covered in brown dust, the synthetic materials soft and uncomfortably yielding. When Sung Kallealea first climbed the ladder down into the module, the mist immediately engulfed her with a thickness she had seen only outside the ship. Normally, her first concern would have been the four spacers, each wearing fleet issue e-suits, pointing Kutsuru / RTT laser rifles at Tamislov and his men. Under the circumstances, her first concern was for the over one hundred and forty anti-matter fuel rods, each with a casing in varying stages of decay.

Who knew how long this mist had filled the cargo bay, could they have been corroding for nearly four years? If so, the magnetic fields could break down at any time. They may not have four minutes. And they did not have time for . . .

"Looks like a 'Mexican stand-off' to me." The deliberately pronounced Earther slang forced through the thick Idorian accent would have been humorous were the Colonel not staring directly at the Kutsuru’s hot point. "Connie, scan all standard frequencies."

"Captain, . . ." Sung Kallealea protested. " . . . I have this situation under control. This is what we are trained for. I will burn these bastards. Even if they get us first, there is nowhere for them to go. Congreve will vaporize their ship before she can make orbit."

"Maksymzak, Edward J.; Senior Chief Warrant Officer; personal identification code M-A-K-S-Y-1-6-8-4-5. Who are you?" Mak let the Kutsuru rifle hang by his side and ordered his men to do the same. Maksymzak may be a believer, but he was also a pragmatist. It was not that he took the Colonel's threats seriously. What he saw in her eyes was a determined fixation on the fuel rods.

The Kutsuru’s were dual fire weapons with both laser emitters and magnetic repulser chambers for RTT slugs. A concentrated beam of light would burn through the casings as easily as it would flesh or plastic. Even the low velocity RTT slugs could bang into an already damaged casing and shut down a magnetic field.

"Colonel Sung Kallealea, 1st American Hunting Regiment." And added "Beta Company." as she looked back to Tamislov and his troops. "Are you alone?"

Maksymzak's first impulse was to answer the officer, just as he had done his entire career. But, reminding himself this was no longer his Fleet, instead began "Maksymzak, Edward J.; Senior Chief Warrant Officer; personal . . ."

Sung Kallealea raised her hand for silence. "I heard." The Colonel stepped past the rebels, to the fuel rods they had taken down from their storage racks. She looked over the empty racks, slots for fourteen in all, including the two rods these four had been taking.

"You took fuel rods with casings rotting through?" Sung Kallealea ask accusatorily, although it was not really a question. "Where are they?"

"Two in the back are flashing red. They were yellow on our last trip, that was about forty-five hours ago." He hated giving out the information, knowing it considerably narrowed the fleeter's search for the Vincennes. But, they may not have time to get back to the Vincennes.

"Show me." Sung Kallealea ordered after having a pair of marines disarm the spacers. Maksymzak stoically handed over his weapon and led the Colonel to the back.

Each fuel rod, a meter long, a quarter that in diameter, had a status indicator. Most were yellow, noting low power supplies or corrupted casings. A few were green. On the top rack, at the rear of the storage container, two were flashing red. The magnetic containment field could fail at any time. If it did, the anti-matter would collide with the matter of the casing and the gases and cancel each other out in a burst of energy, causing every single other fuel rod in the ship to do the same.

"Congreve, have you been listening?"

"Yes Colonel, . . . good work." Said the Idorian.

"And did you see this?" The Colonel let her camera roam over the fuel rods, lingering on the flashing red.

"Yes, I did. Can we move them?"

Sung Kallealea sighed and clumsily put hands on hips. Her eyes glanced absently downward at the status displays. "Our prime objective is to keep them from the AOC. We've done that. I say we get out of here and blow the anti-matter from orbit." It would be a spectacular explosion. They would be able to see it just by looking out one of the Congreve's windows, more than eighteen thousand kilometers overhead.

"Captain, we can't do that." Munro stood at the cargo hold entry, not sure enough of herself to try climbing down the ladder in full e-suit. "The planetary survey makes no mention of fauna adapted to the chlorine environment. Indigenous life is regaining a foot hold on this world. We don't know if it exists beyond this mountain range. If we detonate the anti-matter, we may be sterilizing the planet."

"The plants and bugs are all well and good, but these rods could go any time. I don't want to be here when they do." The Colonel said.

"We're expendable, you said so yourself." Munro argued. "The human race is spread throughout tens of star systems. This may be the only place in the galaxy where this life exists."

"Colonel, we have a problem." Sung Kallealea rolled her eyes. The voice in her helmet belonged to one of the snipers, enlisted men overlooking the Patriarch’s Wish, hidden in pockets of quartz and clay. "Go ahead."

The soldier's camera view appeared in the Colonel's heads-up-display. A tiny figure frantically climbed the facing slope. Higher magnification identified the fleet issue e-suit, similar to those of Maksymzak and his spacers.

Adam Bischoff climbed the Quartz Mountain, forsaking the relatively level path taken by the crew of the Vincennes earlier. For speed's sake, he climbed the sheerer incline, finding narrow purchase in the cracks and crevices of the crystal. Shards of crystal peeled off, crumbling in his grip, pushed away by his feet. Crewman Dowdry followed, watching for Bischoff's hand and footholds.

Voices rang through his head, voices of the marines, voices from the Congreve, voices of his crew. His computer scanned the frequencies, playing any communications signals it found. While in the freighter's inner hull, climbing over the duraplast structural frame, he had first heard the marines, they were approaching the Patriarch’s Wish. They had time, he sent his crew forward.

Maksymzak and his crew went in to pick out a pair of fuel rods, a pair still in green status. Maksymzak exchanged some terse words with a Planetary Marine. Bischoff's ambitions disintegrated as surely as a matter / anti-matter collision. The marine called for a Colonel. A Colonel! Had the Union sent an entire regiment after his little Vincennes, a ship the Fleet used to call 'Little V'?

And then he heard the ship, the Congreve. He knew the Congreve, a Huo Jian class light frigate - only one company of marines. Of course that company, possibly one hundred strong, far outnumbered the six of them and the dozen left on the Little V.

Twelve fuel rods was better than losing his ship and his personality. If captured, they would send him to a recidivist colony, use drugs and psychotherapy to teach him the error of his ways, to take away what he like about himself.

Bischoff left quickly, Dowdry close behind, jumping from the crack in the freighter's hull on the opposite side of the ship from where the marines found their airlock. Instead of climbing along the ship's hull, they jumped into the hydrochloric acid stream some meters below. Bischoff slipped and ended up completely submerged in the acid. His suit apparently undamaged, Commander and Crewman made their was up the face of the small crystalline mountain.

Warnings blared in Bischoff's ears. He stopped moving, waiting for the inevitable beam of light that would fry him before he knew he had been hit. A beam of concentrated light had hit him, undoubtedly rebounding to whomever had fired it, giving his exact distance and position.

Seconds passed - nothing. Then the marine's voice filled his helmet, telling his Colonel where both he and Dowdry were. A few more seconds passed, Bischoff kept climbing.

Colonel Sung Kallealea thought hard. She couldn't just let the rebels go. Despite Molders' 'bloodless war', they would just return to fight again. "Fry them, soldier."

"Hold one second please, Colonel. And you too, soldier." The Idorian cut her off before she said anything else that could be used at her court martial. He reached over his shoulder. Feeling nothing, he turned his head and shoulders. The head set normally fixed in the side of his command chair was absent. He cursed softly in his native tongue.

During his last duty shift, he had probably walked off the bridge with the damn thing still on his head. in fact, he could remember pulling it off and tossing it onto his bunk. Still, his steward should have checked and replaced it before he came on duty.

"Jimmy, . . ." He called to the warrant officer at the communications console. " . . . give me your comm-set." Jimmy tossed it over to the Captain. It was damned awkward, using a human designed comm-set over his tympanic membrane and nothing for his antennae. Since he was the only Idorian on the bridge, he would have to make do. "Jimmy, open a secured private channel between the Colonel and myself."

"Aye sir." Jimmy confirmed the order and opened the channel.

"Colonel, belay that order."

Sung Kallealea, seeing the secured channel in her status display, spoke freely. "I think you're forgetting where you are, nice and snug above the world so high. This is my mission Captain - 'Planetary' Marines.

"I understand that Colonel. And as much as I hate to stop you from disobeying the orders of a twenty-four point Marshal, I have something else in mind. They can only be returning to the Vincennes. Now that we have a fix on their position, we can track them straight to her."

"Fry them, soldier." Rang in his ears. Bischoff expected them to be the last words he’d ever hear. "Hold one second please, Colonel. And you too, soldier." Words that rang exuberantly through his ears. Words he imagined he would hear clearly for the rest of his life. And then static when the transmission was encrypted.



Quartz Mountain

123y 24w 1d 13:32:02 UST

Tired and hungry, having nothing to eat but nutrient paste in twenty hours, frightened and uncertain, Quon Boford slipped. One foot shot out from beneath, twisting the other so that he lost his balance and tumbled over the edge. He did not fall far, it was a gentle, clay-covered slope. While still falling downward, his helmet blew, a tiny explosion cracked the faceplate and broke the seal between helmet and neck joint.

He didn't die instantly. Coronae Twelve's atmospheric pressure and even its atmosphere were comparable to Earth's, terrestrial life had once flourished on this planet. But, the chlorine, especially concentrated as it was in the valley, quickly raced into his lungs, burning throat, nasal passages, and eyes. He screamed and coughed blood.

Maksymzak's first impulse was to race after him. But, the 'skull cap', the small explosive charge with the proximity detonator, stopped him. The explosive was attached to his helmet, standard procedure to keep prisoners from running away. In this case, Lieutenant Tamislov, who had the unfortunate task of escorting the rebels to the shuttle, carried the detonator.

Tamislov sent a marine down to Quon Boford. "He's dead, sir."

"We'll have to come back for the body later." Tamislov told Maksymzak, almost asking the elder spacer's permission.

"Can you take these off now?" Maksymzak pointed to the skull cap attached to the neck joint of his own helmet. "I give you my word we will not try to escape until aboard your shuttle."

Magnifying the image, Tamislov looked at the horror chlorine made of the rebel's face and nodded uncertainly. He ordered the computer to deactivate the skullcaps. Sung Kallealea would space him for it, but he was not going to be responsible for another unnecessary death.


USV Congreve

Briefing Room

123y 24w 1d 24:44:23 UST

"Would you like something to drink? I'm having brellme myself." It was an Idorian drink, dried leaves boiled in sulfurous water, sweetened by balls of hardened sap. "Would you like coffee or a soda?"

Maksymzak laughed at the cordiality. He did not know what he expected, but it was not a cup of coffee. "A cold soda, something with caffeine."

Claviak nodded to the steward who then went to get the drink. It was the same steward who insisted the Idorian's head set was not in the Captain's cabin. It would be found, some time later, at the bottom of the pool.

After the shuttle ride to the Congreve, the rebel had been left in the briefing room by himself. His crew was confined to quarters and had access to the computer's entertainment systems. As soon as the Captain stepped off of the bridge, the rebel recognized him.

He knew the Idorian, or rather knew of him. But, last he heard the Idorian had left the Fleet for the Captaincy of a merchant marine vessel. The rumor must be wrong, the Fleet would never give command to someone who had left then returned.

And, the Idorian knew of Maksymzak. But, he could not remember whether or not they had met and had to ask.

Stripped of his e-suit, Maksymzak was brought in wearing a dingy one-piece AOC flight suit. On the left forearm was the rank insignia. The Idorian glanced at the single semi-circle facing downward over one eight-pointed star over three upward facing semi-circles. It was the same rank the rebel bore when he served the Fleet. Unlike so many others, Maksymzak had not left the Fleet for rank. "A very senior enlisted rank to be serving on an old cutter."

Maksymzak laughed. "Especially serving as first officer, and me no officer. Very senior ranks are all you will find in the Consolidated Militia. It makes an excellent recruiting incentive for young bulls stifled by the old beings clogging the Fleet - and those who can't afford to bribe them."

"True enough." Claviak also laughed, thinking of the nearly three decades it took to reach the Captaincy. And, after three decades, it was this civil war that finally brought him to the Captaincy. He was not about to give it up, making him one of Maksymzak's stifling old beings, he supposed.

"What is happening at Alpha Herculis?"

"You have been out of touch for awhile?" Claviak said.

"Ja." Maksymzak conceded. "We left the battle early. Soon after the Fleet arrived, we became disorganized. We were cut off from Militia's main force. We left before the battle was over."

"The Union has Hercules Station."

Maksymzak nodded gravely. "I did not think we had the force to hold it. But, it was a good try. What was the butcher's bill?"

"I do not know exactly." Claviak's antenna twitched. "Congreve was sent after the United States before the battle's end. As soon as we returned, we were sent for you. So, I do not know myself, but I understand they were surprisingly light. I do not think either side has the stomach for this."

"I believe - if the Union is not willing to meet our demands, it will happen whether we have stomach for it or not, eh?" The Idorian stared impassively. But, Maksymzak thought he detected a trace of sadness in the clear, piercing green eyes. "I know you - from the Imzaar Wars. I am from Oblik III. When the Imzaar came, I volunteer for the Dracos Expeditionary Force. The Fleet, in its wisdom, thought I could better serve where I was.

"I want to thank you for what you did. Fighting the Imzaar, I mean." Claviak's antennae twitched. "This won't be another one like that. Or the Nine Years War. I am never sure with Idorians, you are too young to fight in the Nine Years War, yes?"

Claviak smiled and shook his head. "No, not too young, but I did not fight. I was a Crewman Recruit, but only at the end. Yes, I am from the ranks, I worked for a living. For a very short, miserable time, I was assigned to a merchant marine vessel, the Califor. We did not see so much as an asteroid, much less the Vasilic." Claviak paused over a sip of brellme. "Chief, I need to know where the Vincennes is."

Maksymzak considered. How did they know the Vincennes? He thought back to his discussions with the fleeters. He had not given the name of his ship. How did they know . . .? Of course, the missile, they had never changed its registration.

"Maksymzak, Edward J.; Senior Chief Warrant Officer; personal identif . . ."

"Yes Chief, I know. If the 1st American can take the ship, it can be done without loss of life. If the Congreve has to do it . . ." He did not bother finishing the sentence. He knew full well that Maksymzak understood the implications. The only way Congreve could stop that cutter, if the Idorian chose to stop her, was to blow her out of the sky.

"Sir, . . ." Claviak’s first officer leaned into the briefing room, hanging onto one arch. " . . . we've found the Vincennes."

The Idorian excused himself from the warrant officer and stepped onto the bridge. After a few seconds, he called out "Chief." and motioned for Maksymzak to join them.

Sullenly, almost hesitantly, Maksymzak pushed himself away from the table and went onto the bridge. He was uneasy, surrounded by officers, Fleet officers, the enemy. This was the place where officers 'worked', where they made their decisions. It was not his place.

Through the main view port that filled the bridge's far wall, Coronae Twelve, or most of one hemisphere, hung almost Earth-like toward the top of the window. The Idorian stood next to his command console. One monitor gave a tactical display of the planet below. Patriarch’s Wish was clearly marked between the ranges of the Quartz valley. On one side of the range was the Congreve's shuttle, the one sent to carry flashing red fuel rods. The one carrying a single pilot who knew it would be his last flight if a single magnetic containment field failed.

On the opposite range sat the Vincennes, camouflaged, but still visible to the Congreve's telescopes. "Open a comm-channel, standard hailing frequencies. By authority of the Union Assembly's Declaration of Pax Congregatio Sempiterna, I order you to stand down and surrender your vessel." The Idorian jabbed his finger on a touchpad to close the channel. "Play that over and over until they get the idea." He ordered the communications officer.

"Aye, sir."

"Sir,. . ." The First Officer said. " . . . the Vincennes is powering up."

"Helm, bring weapons to bear on the Vincennes." The flight engineer fired the maneuvering thrusters, twisting the ship so that main missile and laser batteries were aimed directly at the Vincennes. In the bridge's window, the planet turned only slightly.

"Does she know we have her targeted?" Claviak asked the weapons' officer.

"She has to, sir. We're using active sensors." Came the reply.

"Sir, the Vincennes is lifting off." The First Officer said.

"Jimmy, open the comm-channel. Vincennes, this is your last warning. Shut down your engines and land."

No reply.

"What's his name?" It took Maksymzak a fraction of a second to realize the Captain was addressing him. "The Vincennes captain, what is his name?" The rebel hesitated. "Just tell me his name - please."

"Bischoff, Commander Adam Bischoff."

The Idorian searched his long memory, trying to fit the name into it. He could, but as with most things, could not remember exactly where. "Commander Bischoff, this is Captain Claviak of the Congreve. You know as well as I that I cannot give you the opportunity to achieve orbit, it would be tactical suicide."

No reply.

"Can you hear me?" Claviak waited, counting the seconds. He could see Vincennes' acceleration. In a matter of minutes, she would be in orbit. As Vincennes started across the planet, the Congreve kept moving to keep full weapons on her. They would lose weapons lock before the ship made orbit. He could not let that happen.

Surely Bischoff knew that. Surely the rebel captain knew that he could only achieve orbit if Congreve let him.

The Idorian opened his mouth, ready to give the order to open fire, ready to kill a dozen fellow beings.

"She's exploded." The First Officer reported.

The Vincennes trajectory leveled and her acceleration decreased until it reached a negative inertia and Coronae Twelve's gravity pulled it planet-side. One of the anti-matter fuel rods had failed, taking the ship with it.


Hercules Station

123y 27w 10d UST

"Three prisoners, one corpse, and a derelict freighter with nothing in its cargo holds. Not a very good showing." Molders commented drly, gazing over the Idorian’s report as it scrolled over the display of his comp-pad.

"We accomplished our mission objective." The Idorian regretted saying it before it left his mouth. He knew mission objectives were not a measure of success, not in the eyes of Fleet Command.

"I suppose you did, but I would have liked those fuel rods. And, we have to pay a considerable amount out of our budget to your pilots, both for the extra pay you promised and to keep them in their contracts."

The Idorian didn’t give a dec-point for Molders’ budget. The fuel rods were transferred from the Patriarch’s Wish to the Congreve’s special cargo module. His preference would have been to lob a nuke into the Idorian derelict from orbit, but Munro was right. Whatever the origin of Coronae Twelve’s life, whether Earther stowaways, Preserver transplants, or some unlikely parallel evolution, they had no right to cause such a mass extinction.

There was no shortage of volunteers to transport the volatile material to orbit. Under Fleet regs, the pilots were entitled to hazard pay above and beyond what they received merely by being aboard the Congreve in a potential combat situation. The Idorian’s regret was that for some of his best and most experienced pilots, the extra pay meant they could afford to buy out their contracts and retire from the service. But, it looked as if this little skirmish was going to get messy. So, it was likely Fleet Command would cancel all release clauses anyway.

It was painful enough having to send pilots and crew down to clear out Patriarch’s Wish, but he found it almost impossible to make the final decision. He sat at his command console, just watching the damned thing, wishing it would blow up and put him out of his misery. Fully loaded without incident, the cargo module, in its parallel orbit, sped across the sky, taunting him, teasing and challenging.

With the rods loaded, the only thing left to do was retrieve the container, maneuver Congreve into a hard-dock and then take it back to Hercules Station. It should be safe, he knew it should be safe. The container had its own magnetic containment unit, but it was no guarantee, not with the individual rod casings in such a state. One could go and cause a chain reaction, the container’s shield would be no use.

And then, taking all the worry and concern from his shoulders, the container exploded. A sphere of white energy spread from within. There was absolutely no violence or distress, the sphere simply moved outward from the container, through the walls and finally completely engulfed the thing.

"What happened? Was anyone on board?" He knew the answer to both questions before he even asked, but they came out on their own. All personnel had already safely transferred to the Congreve hours earlier, when the final loading of the cargo module was complete. "Let’s go home."

‘Home’ was Hercules Station until Molders decided to take this skirmish to the colonies. The Marshal set the comp-pad on the desk and looked at the Idorian. He said nothing for several seconds and then cleared his throat. "Captain Claviak, I’m going to give you an opportunity to redeem yourself; the sort of opportunity the Fleet has not given since the Nine Years War."

The Idorian was unimpressed. He was well beyond any concern over redemption and he knew how much trouble the Union found itself. In the decades since the Nine Years War, when there was no shortage of personnel, Fleet Command could afford to break the ablest commander for the slightest ‘bad showing.’ Until they knew how this skirmish would end, those days were gone.

"We’ve found the dwarf." The Marshal leaned forward. "I want the United States, I want it back, intact and fully operable with a minimum of casualties. I want prisoners for recidivism. The Science Council wants to prove that this can be resolved with nothing more than a personality readjustment. Cornelius Fytch has made himself a symbol in turning this dispute bloody. Bringing him back into the fold will be my symbol for ending it peacefully."

Reality Check

I would like to thank Dr. Stephen L. Gillett, who in his book World-Building: A Writer’s Guide to Constructing Star Systems and Life-Supporting Planets, gave a concise, imaginative, and intriguing description of a Chlorox world that I have lifted for this story. Dr. Gillet states that the model for an Earth type world with high concentrations of chlorine in the atmosphere 'has received no attention in SF, so far as I know.' So, I thought I’d give it a try.

I would also like to make mention of star colors. In his book, Dr. Gillett explains that the colors used to categorize stars have little to do with what the eye actually perceives. I have labored for many years under this misconception and, under the auspices of dramatic license and to add a bit of color, I intend to continue doing so – sorry.


Copyright 1999 by Scott Langley

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