[Author’s Note: This is a novel I wrote about fifteen years ago. It was my first attempt at writing anything longer than a history paper or short story. I’ll be putting it on here on Wednesdays and probably posting my thoughts about it on Thursdays. This week is more of a “definitely Thursdays.” There’s MUCH to discuss here. If last week is any indication there’s a lot more to discuss than I’ve even thought about. Which is good.]
Geneva, Terra, United Commonwealth
April 29, 2356, Terran Standard Calendar
2256 Terran Standard Time
Nothing in life is so wonderful as an opportunity that just falls into your lap, Robert Laird decided as he rounded the corner onto the main boulevard. Ahead of him a small knot of people huddled silently around the entrance to the capitol building, carrying signs and lit candles. The peaceful vigil was now in its fortieth hour with no sign of stopping and no indication of a response from the United Commonwealth government.
They would have no choice but to respond now.
Over six hundred members of his organization, Earth Now, marched behind him, nearly twice as many as were already gathered. Chanting and shouting slogans, they easily drew the attention of the crowd.
News of the destruction of the colony ship Winged Messenger and the subsequent cover up had broken three days earlier, marking the first major problem the United Commonwealth had faced in two hundred and fifty years. He understood the need for secrecy. Unexplained tragedies carried with them the potential for panic.
He may have the ability to empathize, but it didn’t mean he was going to let a golden opportunity such as this pass. Earth Now was his creation, a motley collection of neo-Luddites, impressionable, easily swayed students and some who were simply bored with life in the Commonwealth and looking for a cause. Laird looked out of place, his salt and pepper hair and well-lined face giving him the appearance of a distinguished elder statesman, well complimented by his fashionable, well-pressed suit, a sharp contrast to the vast majority of the members of the organization. Most appeared young enough to be his grandchildren and many had adopted out of date clothing styles in an attempt to show their belief in what he called “the old ways.”
Still, he moved with the vigor of a man half his age and his suit could not conceal the muscles on his trim, well maintained frame. His eyes tended to give anyone who met him pause. They burned with a passion and zeal, simultaneously inviting and terrifying, as if they were exploring the very soul of whomever they beheld while steadfastly refusing to reveal anything but what he wanted the observer to see. It was that vigor and the fire in his eyes that had allowed Laird to build Earth Now from nothing into an organization that numbered in the tens of thousands in less than a decade.
It still wasn’t completely ready for the task at hand. He had some influence in the political arena and several friends in the right places in the military hierarchy, but not enough. A golden opportunity like the Messenger‘s destruction was impossible to pass up, however.
His organization had one external purpose: returning Earth to the center of the human universe. Space travel and extraterrestrial colonies were dead ends. They were a needless drain on resources. It was something that had been far from an issue for centuries, so he would have faced a very difficult uphill battle in getting more than a very small percentage of the population to listen. Now they would. All he had to do was make a big enough fuss.
Marches were taking place all over the globe at that exact moment. None would be as large as the main march in Geneva, however. Five other groups, numbering roughly five hundred apiece, were converging on the main boulevard. They would fill in the street behind Laird’s group, creating a wall of people and noise the government would be forced to acknowledge.
A surge in the volume behind him told Robert that his plan was being executed right on time. He smiled a strange, feral smile.
General Hans Schroeder, top Earth Command military liaison to the United Commonwealth, stepped out on to the broad steps that led into the capitol building, accompanied by Colonel Short, his second in command, and a pair of security troopers, both carrying nothing more than their side arms, which they had strict orders not to remove from their holsters. He didn’t want to provoke anything, and a platoon of infantry carrying their deadly looking MK assault rifles would elicit just such a response.
“Please, citizens,” he said into a bullhorn, turning the volume all the way up just to be heard over the commotion. “Please, calm down and return to your homes.”
“What, so you can lie to us some more?” a voice shouted from the crowd. “Keep us in the dark about the impending disaster?”
“There is no impending disaster,” Schroeder responded. “And if you are going to make baseless accusations please allow me the courtesy of seeing who you are.”
A well-dressed, distinguished looking gentleman stepped out of the crowd. “I am Robert Laird,” he yelled. “I’m the leader of the Earth Now organization.”
Schroeder walked down the stairs and stood in front of the older man. “These your people?”
“Many of them, yes.”
“Take them out of here.”
“That’s not going to happen, General.”
“This is a disruption of the peace, Mr. Laird,” the General crossed his arms over his chest. “I’d be well within my jurisdiction to arrest you and your entire organization.”
“But you won’t.”
“Why not, Mr. Laird?”
“Because you can’t,” Robert responded, his expression entirely neutral.
“Are you threatening me?”
“No, General, simply stating the fact that I have a lot more people here than you do.”
“What is your point?”
“Witnesses, General. These people are tired of listening to the United Commonwealth’s lies and they’re here to make sure there are no more lies, no more cover ups.”
“What are you talking about?”
“A government cannot be built and maintained on lies. The United Commonwealth attempted to hide the Winged Messenger from us. There is no telling what else they are keeping secret.”
“That’s none of your business, Mr. Laird,” Schroeder stepped to within millimeters of the older man, using his height advantage and military bearing to its full extent. “I believe you are under arrest.”
Laird didn’t even flinch. “Then I’d be a political prisoner, General,” he smiled. “And you don’t want that.”
Schroeder drew his sidearm and pointed it at Laird’s head. “I could simply shoot you.”
Laird blinked once, slowly. “I suppose you could,” he agreed. “You already have blood on your hands, Colonel…I mean General Schroeder.”
Schroeder’s eyes widened just slightly and Laird knew that he had hit a nerve. “That’s right, General, I know all about Brisbane.”
Schroeder put his gun back in its holster. “You’re treading in dangerous territory. I suggest you explain why you’re here.”
“I have a demand.”
“And what do is your demand, Mr. Laird?”
“It’s simple, General. All I want is for the United Commonwealth to do one thing for the benefit of the people.”
“And what is that?”
“Disband and surrender its authority to those who deserve it.”
The audible gasps from the crowd members near enough to hear the exchange told Laird all he needed to know. It had begun.
* * *
Pearl Harbor, Oahu, United Commonwealth
May 11, 2356, Terran Standard Calendar
0915, Local Time
Taking the “Aerial Tour,” as it was known, of Earth’s largest museum, the Sea King helicopter swung low over the famed Battleship Row, once the symbol of the old United States’ naval power. A floating memorial to the folly of making war on the only home world humanity had, The Row, as it was now called, was still an impressive sight. The helicopter passed the Arizona Memorial, still a pristine white, well kept even after four centuries. Beyond the Memorial two nearly identical ships lay at anchor. Seated in the passenger compartment, the tall, blonde officer stared in awe at the lithe, powerful forms of the U.S.S. Missouri and U.S.S. New Jersey, two of the three surviving battleships from the age of steel warships. Just beyond the American ships a third floated. The Imperial Japanese Navy’s battleship Nagato, recovered from the waters around Bikini Atoll where it had foundered and sunk following the nuclear tests of the late 1940s looked ready to take to the seas once again. Fully restored to working condition by a team of historical preservationists she floated silently near her two antagonists from the Second World War, a witness to the peace and prosperity brought to the world by the United Commonwealth, a peace that could not have been bought by blood and conquest, but one which was created by all the world’s powers coming together and settling their differences.
David noticed there was a considerable amount of activity on the deck of the New Jersey. He leaned forward, taking full advantage his long, lanky frame to tap the pilot on the shoulder and point it out. “What’s going on down there?”
“I believe a group of historical reenactors is taking the ship out for a cruise,” the pilot explained.
David shot him a confused look. “You’re joking, right?”
“No, Sir,” the pilot shook his head, “The three battleships are all in working condition. Reenactment groups occasionally take groups out to experience life on an old steel ship. They cruise around for a few days, fire off a few salvos at an empty island. It’s very impressive.”
“Been on one?” Anderson asked.
“Aye, Sir. I take a few people up in the chopper to show them how it looks to be a spotter. Those sixteen inch guns kick up a lot of dirt and water when they land.”
“I’ll bet,” David agreed.
“You’ve never even heard of the cruises, Sir?”
“No,” David shook his head, “Never had the occasion to see one.”
“Don’t have battleships up on Mars, then?”
They fell silent as the chopper swung low over the deck of the U.S.S. John C. Stennis, last of the great nuclear powered carriers. Lying at anchor next to her, the French cruiser Cherbourg was dwarfed by the vast floating airfield. The smaller ship held the distinction of being the only warship used in the last war on Earth, the short-lived conflict of 2043-2044 that had led to the United Commonwealth and eventually Earth Command.
Captain David Anderson knew better than most in the Earth Command Navy the great debt owed to the ships he passed. His blue eyes drank in every detail of the leviathans below, recalling past wars that had seemed like little more than static history until that moment.
Since the creation of the United Commonwealth only four warships had been built. All four were spaceships, designed to patrol the solar system’s space lanes, just in case. In the two centuries since the commissioning of ECS Dragon, the first of the class, none had ever fired her guns in anger, including the ECS Phoenix, Captain Anderson’s own ship.
Leaving Battleship Row behind, the helicopter passed Roosevelt Field, final resting place of the remaining Soyuz capsule and the shuttles Enterprise and Discovery. At the edge of the airfield sat UCS Zenith, the first manned ship to reach Saturn in 2081.
Beyond Roosevelt Field Earth Command Headquarters rose high above the buildings surrounding it. The bluish structure sparkled in the bright Hawaiian sun, a visual reminder of the condition into which the United Commonwealth had led humanity. If The Row and Roosevelt Field were reminders of the past, Earth Command Headquarters was a beacon to the future. All of Earth’s great endeavors in space were being planned in that very building. David stared in awe at the structure. Born and raised on Mars, the captain had never been to the home world. Earth Command Headquarters and the ships of The Row had only been legend and myth before. Now he was here. He just wished he knew why.
The Sea King set down on the roof landing pad atop the ninetieth story of the massive building. Captain Anderson stood and stretched out, careful to avoid hitting anything in the small compartment. His lanky, Martian frame was unsuited for many of the machines used on Earth. Born and raised in the low gravity Martian colony, he possessed a long, thin frame unlike the more compact bodies of Earth born individuals. He moved easily in spite of the fact that Earth’s gravity was three times that of Mars; a product of the Earth Command Navy’s rigorous training methods. After straightening his uniform, Anderson stepped out of the craft and saluted the waiting ensign.
“Follow me, Sir,” the young man yelled over the sound of the chopper’s blades. He turned and walked toward a doorway at the edge of the helipad.
David stepped out onto the helipad and instinctively ducked to avoid the rotor, even though it was nearly a meter over his head. He did his best to keep his sandy blonde hair, slightly longer than military trim, from getting too disturbed by the downwash as he approached the doorway.
The ensign was held the door open and closed it as David stepped through. Inside the door an elevator waited. The ensign led David aboard and commanded it to take them to level 72. On that level, David knew, the heads of the Earth Command military had their offices.
In spite of himself, David found the idea of Earth Command needing such a large building somewhat humorous. Earth’s navy was four warships strong, and those required crews of only eighty. The ground forces amounted to about ten thousand troops, who for the most part operated as a police force or disaster relief, but never as soldiers. Other than that Earth Command was also nominally in charge of the twenty-odd ships of the merchant marine and the colony ships.
The elevator reached level 72 and the ensign led David down the hall toward a door. On the other side of the door was a waiting room, then another door. Without pausing the ensign walked across the room and opened the second door for David. “Through here, Sir. The Admiral is waiting.”
David walked through the door and immediately came to attention. In front of him was a window looking out across Roosevelt Field to Battleship Row in the distance. Facing away from him stood Admiral Erin Belden, commander of the Earth Command Navy.
Only 39 years old, the Admiral was the youngest overall Naval commander in history. She would have been considered scandalously young by the captains of the ships on The Row, but David and the others in the modern Navy barely noticed. She had worked her way to the top with intelligence and skill; nothing else mattered in the Earth Command Navy.
Not that anyone in the Earth Command Navy thought too much about age, anyway. Space travel in general and the Navy were places for the young, the brash. Young men and women signed on for their chance to escape the humdrum, everyday life young men and women have been trying to flee for all of history. After a while their desire to see the Solar System waned. The seedy dives of Dome 3 on Mars, the light of Saturn playing off the ice floes of Tethys and the constant visual drama of Jupiter from the front row on Io grew old after a while, infected with sameness and tinged with boredom.
Even after four years in the Navy David didn’t think it would ever get old. A rising star and a ship’s captain at only twenty-six, he was nearly six years younger than any other captain in Earth Command history. His record high marks at the Mars Academy had contributed to his success at such a young age, but David knew that the high turnover rate in the Navy had helped considerably. Even at that he should, by all rights, have remained at a lower level in the Naval structure, but it seemed as though people were leaving the active roles at an increased pace recently. Now he stood in the office of the commander of the entire Navy, with no explanation or briefing.
The Admiral turned from the window, breaking his line of thought. As she did the sunlight caught her long, blonde hair, causing it to sparkle and shimmer. For a moment David was taken by surprise, caught up in the way the light played across her locks. “Is there somewhere else you would rather be right now, Captain Anderson?” she asked, offering him a slightly bemused look.
“Uh, no, Admiral. Sorry,” David responded, realizing he had not been paying close attention. “Captain David Anderson, reporting as ordered.”
“At ease, Captain,” she responded. “Sunlight on Earth is always amazing to us spacers,” she said, using the term for people born and raised away from Earth. She was the first child born on Tethys base and had not even visited the cradle until taking the Admiralty two years before. “It still amazes me, and I’ve been here for a while.”
“Yes, Admiral. It’s nothing like I had expected,” David responded, “And pictures don’t do it justice.”
“No, no they don’t,” Admiral Belden looked from David down to her desk. She picked up a remote from the cluttered space. “Unfortunately, we do not have time to admire the view. I am about to offer you the most important assignment in the history of the Commonwealth Navy, Captain Anderson,” she said, her demeanor suddenly changing from friendly banter to the commanding tone of an admiral with serious information. She pointed the remote at the room’s vidscreen and turned it on. An empty star field appeared in the viewing area.
“As you know, the Colony Ship Winged Messenger was destroyed about three years ago. I’m sure you’re aware of the problems we’ve had down here on Earth since that news broke,” she paused as the now famous event unfolded. Two bright lights appeared in the lower left corner of the screen, followed shortly by a third and fourth. They slowly grew into the shape of missiles, headed directly toward the camera. In a blur of motion the missiles streaked past the camera’s focal point and the screen went blank.
“So have you learned something new about the Messenger, Admiral?” David asked after a short pause.
She shook her head. “Nothing’s changed. It’s gone. It was destroyed by some sort of alien force.”
“If I may ask, what does this have to do with me?”
“Simple, Captain. I want you to find out who is out there and what happened to the Messenger.”
“How could I do that?” He raised an eyebrow as he considered the logistics of what the Admiral was asking of him. “The Phoenix isn’t exactly designed for interstellar travel.”
“You won’t be taking the Phoenix,” she said, smiling at his confusion. “You’ll be taking the Nightwind.”
“Nightwind, Sir?” His confusion deepened. “I’ve never heard of the Nightwind.”
“You’re not the only one,” she smiled, “I’m glad to hear that.”
She shrugged. “I like it when secret programs remain secret, Captain.”
“Very well, Admiral. What is the Nightwind?”
“Are you familiar with the Deimos Station, Captain?” the Admiral asked.
“Of course,” David responded. “We couldn’t make it a week without rumors of crazy new discoveries of alien monsters coming out of Deimos when I was growing up.”
“Well,” she smiled, “The rumors came true about three years ago at almost exactly the same time the Messenger was destroyed. We translated the alien language and immediately began incorporating the alien technology in to a brand new battlecruiser.”
“And you’re putting me in command?” David asked, surprised that he was being offered the newest and most advanced piece of equipment the human race had to offer.
“You are as quick as I thought, Captain. Yes. We are giving you command of the Earth Command battlecruiser Nightwind. I know it’s on short notice, but we’ve accelerated the program’s timetable in light of recent intelligence we’ve received about the demonstrations and riots.”
“What kind of intelligence?”
“We believe that the events are not as random as previously suspected. There’s too much of a pattern to the events to be a coincidence.”
“Who is behind them?”
“We don’t know yet. But that’s not your responsibility anyway, Captain,” the Admiral informed him, pressing a button on the remote. The blank screen was replaced with a set of weapon schematics, evidence that Belden was taking whatever force destroyed the Messenger very seriously. “The Nightwind is armed with two dozen high powered dual laser turrets, sixteen rapid fire quad laser turrets, eight torpedo launchers, six static ion cannon and…” her voice trailed off.
“What else, Sir?”
“But there have been no weapons of mass destruction since 2044.”
“We know, but it was decided such things might be necessary so we opened the old stockpiles and reactivated some.”
“Okay, so it’s powerful,” David nodded. “And illegal.” But that still doesn’t get me to 82 Eridani, or deal with those missiles.”
“That is where the technologies from Deimos come into play. To help against the missiles we developed energy shields far more powerful than any we had before. Since there are people behind the missiles somewhere we used their technology to create a device which instantly translates any language. And then there is the drive system.”
David looked from the schematics to the Admiral. “The drive system?”
“We call it the Conduit Drive. As far as I’ve been able to understand it moves the ship in the same way our communication system moves data.”
“Our communications system opens a hole in normal space to hurl information across light years nearly instantaneously. The new technologies work something like that. The Nightwind will be able to go anywhere its computer can locate.”
“Anywhere?” David asked, raising a quizzical eyebrow.
“Well,” the Admiral shrugged, “Almost anywhere. You wouldn’t want to end up inside a planetary atmosphere or lodged in an asteroid. And we believe there is a range limitation.”
“Which would be?”
“The system generates huge amounts of power, but the larger movements require exponentially larger amounts of power. Calculations for incredibly long distances are also going to be quite difficult and the larger the movement the smaller the margin of error. The designers don’t think it should be used for movements much greater than about fifteen light years. Try to keep it smaller, though.”
“And this — Conduit Drive — works, right?”
The Admiral nodded. “It is an exact copy of the schematics we found. We built Nightwind around the drive specifications, so we believe it should be 100% functional.”
“But you’re saying you don’t know? You believe it will work but you don’t actually know.” David stated, allowing a slight touch of fear into his voice.
“You’ll be the first to find out.”
David felt his concern for his new command begin to grow and decided to find out all he could. “Any other surprises I should know about, Admiral?”
“The Nightwind will be carrying two squadrons of fighter craft,” she called up a new set of schematics. “The designs are completely untested, but based on proven technology, so they shouldn’t cause any problems.” She locked eyes with David. “Understand this, Captain Anderson. Five thousand colonists were killed when the Messenger was shot down. We want to know why.” She reached over and shut the screen down. “It wasn’t until now that we had the ability to do so. You were selected to lead this mission because I thought you were the best for the job. If you don’t want to do it, though,” she shrugged, “I’ll find someone else. Captain Turner is more than qualified, as is your old CO, Captain Hunt. Any questions?”
David looked out the window, momentarily focusing on the distant U.S.S. Missouri, then back at the Admiral. “So when do I get my ship?”
“As soon as you get to Venus, Captain.”
“Well, then, Admiral, with your permission, I’ll be on my way.”
“Of course,” she nodded. “Oh, and one more thing.”
“You must find out what happened. You are hereby ordered to stop at nothing to complete your task.”
David nodded tersely. “Consider it done, Admiral.”