Congreve vs. the United States
     Scott Langley
          The sun cleared the horizon, rising over the brown, green-splotched planet for the
     second time in as many hours.  The star's orange light reflected harshly from the hull of the
     Union Star Vessel Congreve, a small frigate secure in a mid-range orbit with a seventy-
     three minute period.  On the Congreve's bridge stood the Idorian, leaning over the back of
     his command chair, staring intently at the center screen of the command console.  Depicted
     on the screen was a three-dimensional image of the planet below.  Connie, the Congreve s
     main computer, augmented the blacked out zone of the dark side with data collected forty-
     one and a half minutes ago.
          That data included the position of the United States, now on the planet's dark side.
     According to Connie's estimates, that ship, if on her original trajectory, and the Captain
     hoped she had no reason to change, was only a few minutes away.
          The Idorian straightened, feeling the creak in his back.  Weapons and defensive
     systems were ready.  Automated counter measures were active.  His attack was
     programmed into Connie.  There was nothing to do but wait.  He wanted very badly to ask
     the dozen or so bridge crew for yet another set of status reports.  But, the last three, taken
     over the last seven minutes told him nothing he did not already know.  So, he took his seat
     and waited, watching the Congreve s path converge with the projection of the United
          Next to the Idorian stood Colonel Sung Kallealea, arms crossed, scowling.  The
     Colonel, wearing the dung brown uniform jacket and the traditional brown, green, and yellow
     striped plaid kilt and sash of the First American Buchanan Hunting Regiment, stared down
     at the Idorian and the central command console.  While the Captain made every effort to
     appear calm and controlled, the Colonel, completely out of her realm on the star vessel's
     bridge, made no attempt to disguise her tense worry.
          And there she was, precisely on time.  "Fire alpha spread, please."  Ordered the
     Idorian.  The all-important first volley set the tone and course of any battle.  It was the
     Idorian's intention to make it his own.  Congreve's main laser and a battery of missiles fired
     all at once.
          At the same moment, attempting to gain the same tactical advantage, the United
     States attacked.  Her laser struck before the Congreve could even detect the weapon s
     tracer gas discharge.  The Congreve s diffusive counter measures, an array of lasers that
     split the United States' beam, diffracted the concentrated light.  The laser was broken
     before it could actually strike the Congreve.  Instead, it super-heated the thin atmosphere
     caught in the ship's gravity field, igniting an explosive discharge, pushing the ship onto
     another trajectory.  They hung on tightly as the ship s delta vee was violently altered before
     the gravity generators could compensate.
          Ironically, it was this attack, carried out at the speed of light, that saved the Congreve
     from the United States' second volley and shut her down.  Connie fired the automated
     counter measures, sending lances of concentrated light at the missiles launched from the
     United States.  The missiles, fired at the Congreve's old trajectory, were a clean miss.
     Connie's counter measures struck them cleanly, detonating the half a dozen in huge clouds
     of atomic fire.  The combined electromagnetic pulse at such close range, overwhelmed the
     Congreve's magnetic field and plunged her into darkness.
          It all happened too quickly for the Idorian or his crew to assimilate the implications.
     "Gates, did we get them all?"  Claviak, the Idorian Captain, called to the science officer as
     his monitors flickered violently, casting frantic shadows over the darkened bridge.  They
     could not know that the violent jarring had pushed them clear of the missiles' flight path.
          "Unknown!"  Was all Gates could yell as she desperately tried to operate any of the
     ship s sensor systems for some evidence of the United States or her missiles.
          "We should be clearing the pulse."  Without benefit of the computer, the Flight Engineer
     counted the seconds, the time it took them to pass the maximum nuclear blast radius, the
     just over six minutes it would take them to pass from the orbital combat window.
          "What about the United States?  Is she still out there?"  An Association of Outer
     Colonies Vessel United States was a St. Petersburg Class frigate, the late USV United
     States, captured . . . no, hi-jacked, by the Outer Colonies' Consolidated Militia.
          "No way of knowing, sir."  Gates reported back.
          The crew waited, no one dared speak as the seconds became minutes.  Completely
     blind, the Congreve shot over the curve of the world, waiting for the United States  next
     attack.  The attack never came.  Without accurate sensors or even computer data, all they
     could do was count the time until the two ships, moving in their respective orbits, were
     separated by the bulk of the planet, shielded and hidden one from the other.  "We re clear,
     sir."  Assuming the United States had not altered her course.
          "What is our status?"
          "We re getting systems back on-line."  The Senior Systems Engineer reported just as
     Connie came back to life.  "A few more minutes, sir."
          "I have weapons targeting."  The weapons officer reported excitedly as her computer
     generated image of the planet popped back on screen.  Something was not right.  The main
     laser battery's targeting cross hairs floated across the display.  "Do you have it Captain?"
          Claviak switched one of his many displays over to the targeting system, taking control
     of it from the weapons officer, or rather trying to take control.  The Captain could supersede
     control, so that the cross hairs moved away from the weapons officer, but that was not the
     case now.  Claviak could no more target the lasers than the weapons officer.  "No."
          "Sir, the missile doors are not responding."
          "What do you mean?"
          "There is no diagnostic signal."
          The Idorian glanced over at the Senior Systems Engineer, one arched brow ridge.  The
     Senior Systems Engineer shrugged.  "We took a lot of heat, they could be fused shut."
           Damn that Dwarf to the Void.   The Idorian muttered softly in his native tongue so that
     no one on the bridge could hear or understand.  That Dwarf was Captain Cornelius Fytch,
     mastermind of the taking of the United States, the most embarrassing affront to the Union
     Fleet in thirty years, and the spark that had ignited a civil war.  Congreve had tracked the
     United States from what would become in the history books, the Battle of Alpha Herculis,
     the Union s first victory against the insurgent Association of Outer Colonies.
          "Could you send someone outside for a closer look?"  An EVA was not his preference,
     but he had to know if they had forward missiles.  If not, he would have to expend propellant
     to align the ship for as clear and straight a line-of-sight as possible, and he would have to
     do it very soon.  Time was the enemy.  Fytch had succeeded in the first precept of the
     nos'ijabra: Move your enemy from harmony to cacophony.  Next came the kill.
          Sensors came back on line. The Idorian watched Connie s projection of their new orbit,
     nudged one point seven degrees southerly, velocity slowed, but still fast enough for a
     steady orbit.  It helped.  They were further away from the United States, hopefully her orbit
     was unchanged.  If the pulse blinded her as well as the Congreve . . ..
          "I can t get targeting systems back on-line.  They re tied right into the opticals, they fried
     right along with them."  The Senior Systems Engineer reported in frustration.
          "So we have no weapons systems?"  The Colonel asked excitedly.  Only now was the
     full desperation of their position dawning on her.
          "We can fire . . ."  The Senior Systems Engineer began.
          "We just cannot hit anything."  The Idorian finished.  And we have just less than an
     hour before their paths cross again.  The options were limited.  With adequate stores of
     propellant, they could shift orbit.  That may buy them time to get the targeting scopes
     replaced.  They could run, blast out of orbit at full burn, jump into flux and the next star
          "Al-Farrah, . . . " The Captain said to the Navigator.  "Please plot a return course to
     Alpha Herculis."
          "From here, sir?"
          "From everywhere, Lieutenant.  We are not leaving just yet."
          "Aye, sir."  Al-Farrah groaned.
          "At five degree intervals, Lieutenant."  The Captain elaborated.  At five degree intervals,
     they would always be less than a minute from flux, it should give them plenty of time.
          "So we have seventy-three minutes before their next attack?"  The bridge crew looked
     over to the Colonel sympathetically.  The ground pounder still did not understand.
          "We have less than fifty-four minutes to ready our own attack, and that is not enough
     time to open fused hatches and replace the optical targeting scopes."  The Captain
     explained with a patience he did not feel.
          "Fifty-four minutes?  I thought we were in a seventy-three minute orbital period?"
          "We are.  The United States is in a lower orbit with a fifty-four minute period.  We now
     have less than fifty-four minutes before we enter the 6.75 minute window of weapons
          "The United States may move to a superior orbital position, that would give us more
     time."  The Flight Engineer suggested.
          "I am going to assume we have less time."
          "What do you mean 'ready our attack'?  We have no weapons, we have to retreat."
     The Colonel insisted.
          In a gesture adopted by decades of working with Earthers, the Idorian shook his head.
     "For now, all we have to do is survive the next pass.  To do that, we have a company of
     marines and fifty thousand kilograms of duraplast."
          Colonel Sung Kallealea, her oriental features colored a pale green from the ship's
     recent jarring, nodded her assent.  "Do what you want Captain, you re going to anyway."
          It was another volley in the bitter disagreement between fleeter and ground pounder,
     and now was not the time. The Colonel, with her commission date prior to the Captain's,
     believed she should have command of both regiment and the frigates transporting them.
     The Captain knew better.  "Colonel, we have no weapons capability and less than an hour
     before intercept.  I have an idea, but I need your help.  Mostly, I need your duraplast."
          Colonel Sung Kallealea floated 'up' the elevator shaft, guiding herself to the bridge with
     the hand holds set into the walls.  The Idorian had ordered the gravity generators shut
     down for the work that needed to be done.  The Colonel traded her uniform and regimental
     kilt for a more practical one piece flight suit that was now speckled with duraplast.  She
     absently picked at the tiny, hardened plastic beads and flicked them away.
          "Could you please not do that, Colonel?"  The Captain asked.  "I would rather not have
     drops of duraplast floating around the instrumentation."
          "Humph? Oh, sorry Captain."  Came her sheepish reply.
          The Idorian and his command crew, the ship's senior officers, were still busy on the
     bridge, directing repairs and planning operations.  Strapped into their chairs to keep from
     drifting off in freefall, the Idorian and his crew still wore their void black duty uniforms and
     had probably not left the bridge since the Colonel's departure.
          "Sir, . . ."  The Senior Systems Engineer turned to the Captain.  " . . . Forest has a
     report from outside."
          "How do we look, Mr. Forest?"  The Captain could not remember the pretty blonde
     human s first name or rank, only the delicate face and pointed chin.  It had been a long time
     since he copulated with a human.
          --The hatches are fused shut, sir.  We can cut them off, but  . . . --  Forest's voice was
     tinny and distant over the intercom.  Travelling at thirty-one thousand kilometers per hour,
     their new slower speed and lower orbit courtesy of the United States, Forest and her EVA
     partner were motionless relative to the Congreve.  They floated directly off her forward bow.
          "But we do not have the time, understood.  What about the hull?"
          --The damage appears mostly superficial.--
          "The rad tanks?"
          --We're not seeing any leaks.--
          "Thank you, Crewman.  Get back inside right now."
          --Aye, sir.--
          "Colonel, are we ready?" 
          "Absolutely, Captain.  I am not sure for what, but we are ready."
          "There she is."  The United States passed out of the black out zone.  "She hasn t
     changed course."
          Colonel Sung Kallealea, hanging mid-deck, hand on the back of the Idorian's command
     chair, could feel the steady, heavy pulse of her own heart beat.   Subconsciously aware of
     the passage of twenty or so heart beats, she suddenly blurted "Why haven't they
          "They apparently were, or still are, blinded by the e-m pulse."  The Captain opined.
     "They did not realize their laser blasted us onto a new lower orbit.  She has to re-align her
     weapons systems.
          "Let's close the gap."  The Idorian said to the Flight Engineer.  "A ten second burn on
     main thrusters, please."
          "What are you doing?"  Asked the Colonel.
          "They need time to react.  I will not give them that time.  Our acceleration will reduce
     the combat window."  And, again to the Flight Engineer.  "Fire forward port and rear
     starboard maneuvering thrusters, please."
          "Aye, sir."  The Flight Engineer confirmed the orders with nowhere near the confidence
     or calm demeanor of the Idorian Captain.  As the main thrusters pushed the Congreve
     forward in her orbit, the maneuvering thrusters changed her bearing so that she shot
     around, her nose pointed toward United States.
          The United States fired her own maneuvering thrusters, attempting to align her main
     laser and missile batteries with the Congreve's new orbit and rapidly changing bearing.  But,
     it was too late.  Still seconds before the ships crossed relative to each other, the
     Congreve's nose crossed the United States' trajectory.
          As it did, "Connie, blow the shuttle bay doors."  Explosive charges around the shuttle
     door s frame detonated, letting the near vacuum of the upper atmosphere suck out the
     bay s contents, atmosphere and all, directly into the United States  flight path.  The
     decompression, along with a nudge of the maneuvering thrusters, again changed the
     Congreve's orbit, further frustrating the United States.
          Billions of tiny, ceramic shards, crystallized duraplast used by the marines to form
     bunkers and embankments, each one traveling more than thirty-one thousand kilometers
     per hour, tore into the United States  hull, peeling away numbers of ceramic armor plates,
     perforating antennas and sensor arrays, bursting the outer radiation tanks, sending
     thousands of gallons of radiation absorbing chloride compound out into the atmosphere.  If
     the United States wasn't blind before, she was now.
          The combat window closed, both ships shot away from each other, with no sign of
     reprise from the rebel frigate.  The Colonel's sigh was audible across the bridge.  The
     spacers, less given to such displays, felt no less relief.
          The Idorian turned his head to the Colonel.  "Thank you, and thank your marines for
          Once the gravity field had been shut down, Colonel Sung Kallealea's marines worked
     frantically, spraying their duraplast building materials into the main shuttle bay.  Sealed from
     the rest of the ship, the shuttle bay's temperature was lowered to the outside ambient
     temperature.  Without gravity and in such cold, the spray of duraplast, more than one ton of
     it, solidified into sharp crystals.  "Is it over?"
          The Idorian's antennae twitched.  "If it is not over, at least the strings are wound to give
     a 'fresh start'."  He emphasized the phrase 'fresh start' as alien and not of common usage,
     while naturally rolling over 'strings are wound' as a common idiom of his species.  "Since
     your marines prepared the duraplast, the crew will have had time to replace the targeting
     scope.  On our next pass, we will realign the ship so that our dorsal missile battery crosses
     what I hope will be the United States' orbit.  If I have guessed correctly, then it will be over."
          "Sir, . . ."  The communications officer interrupted.  " . . . we have a signal from a
     communications buoy.  It's the United States, sir."  The rebel frigate launched a
     communications buoy spiralling straight up, relative to the planet, extending her
     communications range by thousands of kilometers and revealing her position.  It would not
     last long, but long enough.  "Congreve, . . ."  The strong, high-pitched voice came over the
     bridge s speakers.  ". . . do I have the privilege of addressing Captain Claviak?"
          "You do."  Replied the Idorian, one corner of his mouth upturned wryly.  "And is this, I
     presume, Captain Fytch."  Cornelius Fytch resigned his Fleet commission as a Senior
     Lieutenant.  Whether this was an official hi-jacking or act of war, the Idorian felt Fytch
     should be accorded the privileges of Captaincy.  There was no reason to let war become
          "Marshal Fytch actually.  There's plenty of room for promotion in the Consolidated
     Militia.  Well played, Captain.  My congratulations on your victory."
          "You are surrendering?"  The Idorian knew Fytch and could not believe the diminutive
     human would give up so easily.
          Fytch gave a little laugh.  "No, far from it.  The United States is too valuable a prize to
     risk, . . . for now.  United States out."  The communications buoy detonated and the United
     States was soon carried into the black out zone.
          Congreve changed orbits, moving up to a position and inclination that the United States
     could not have mined.  The Idorian did not want to be caught in the same trap laid for the
     United States.
          Calculated intercepts came and went, but still the Idorian would not relax, not until the
     Congreve finally rounded the planet yet again and detected the trail of plasma that pushed
     the United States into deep space.  Even then, Claviak would not lower the ship's defenses
     until the Congreve finally detected the massive energy discharge that was the tell-tale sign
     of the other ship s jump into flux.
          "Now, it has just begun"
     Copyright 1998 by Scott Langley

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