Nightwind Follow-Up: Chapters 1 and 2

I’ve already started rewriting Nightwind. It’s actually pretty funny, since I haven’t made too many substantive changes[1] to the intro or the first two chapters. This is going to get awkward, as I think I want to start writing about how my re-reading of the current state impacts my understanding of the future state. At its core the book is a really good space adventure. In execution, however, it requires work.

That’s really why I’m doing this. I already knew that I had some readers back in the day who would care and want to talk about writing. I hoped that some would show up again even after my long absence.[2] So I guess that this has turned into a self-directed writers’ workshop. Neat.

Most of the problems with the original version of Nightwind pop up in the first couple of chapters. Many have already been noticed and pointed out. This is one of those things where editors/friends/strangers on the internet are useful as an extra set of eyes. It helps immensely if that extra set of eyes belongs to someone who reads speculative fiction. For that matter, I now count myself as an extra set of eyes, since it had been so long since I read the book and I’ve read so much more in the intervening years.

It’s humbling, really. The biggest problem a lot of artists have is that they get attached to their work and don’t want to hear criticism. Seeing something that I got wrong, then having someone else come in and point that out, then also point out something I hadn’t even thought about has already taught me the importance of listening to others. Especially if they’re subject matter experts in the logistics of space travel.

——————-

Either way, we met two key characters yesterday: David Anderson and Robert Laird. Anderson is our main protagonist and Laird is our main antagonist.[3] Both are characters I was happy to meet again and both are characters who are going to be hurt badly by the biggest mistake I made when I wrote the book.

That mistake is one that was already discussed last week. The Nightwind universe is just too small. It’s both too small spatially and temporally, which is fascinating to me. Moreover, Anderson gets hurt as a character primarily because it’s too temporally small and Laird gets hurt primarily because it’s too spatially small. Meanwhile both characters have fairly simple fixes that are best helped by expanding the axis that doesn’t hurt them as much in the initial story. Did that make sense? No? Good.

We also met two of the most important secondary characters yesterday in Admiral Belden and General Schroeder. Belden really needs to live in a temporally bigger story while Schroeder is one of the few characters who actually gets a suitable backstory that not only needs no changes but that actually allows me to tell the bigger story that Nightwind requires. That, in and of itself, is a little strange, as Schroeder is actually almost unnecessary in the universe I originally built.

Furthermore, we get our first hint of two of the other characters who will factor in to the story: Captains Elizabeth Turner and Robert Hunt. They exist in a space that’s more-or-less correct but that space is hurt by the fact that the universe they inhabit is too small. Everything comes back to that.

This puts me at an impasse, though. I already know what I should have done and am doing to fix the problem. I know where all the stories went and know how the changes will influence them. Telling too much about the mistakes also opens up the possibility of spoiling things I don’t want to spoil just yet.

Whatever shall we do?

Aw, fuck it. Let’s talk about the new Nightwind universe.

——————-

I basically made one change: I moved Dr. Porter’s deciphering of the Deimos language forward by about three decades. Everything cascaded from that one decision. Jason Tanaka finds out he’s going to get to design his dream ship a decade earlier than in the original. The Winged Messenger is destroyed right on schedule. Anderson still gets command of Nightwind three years later.

Sometimes you don’t need to rebuild from scratch. I think that’s what I was afraid of with Nightwind. I was delighted to discover that I had a strong building with a horribly compromised foundation rather than a weak building. While writing a foundation can sometimes be fixed with a single word.

When my universe was too small it invited too many questions. How did the Earth Command Navy build FTL ships in three years? How did the Earth Command Navy keep the program secret while building three ships that all require three times the crew of the rest of the navy combined? Why would there be a strong nativist movement on Earth ready to take advantage of the destruction of the Winged Messenger? Why does Earth Command have an army? All of these things are incompatible with the notion of the United Commonwealth as a big, happy, peaceful family.

That said, I still want the United Commonwealth to be a mostly utopian world.

On a purely authorial intent level nature we’ve got way too much dystopian sci-fi. Everything’s a gritty origin story or a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Every utopia is secretly a dystopic nightmare waiting to be discovered and torn down by a plucky hero. This was not my opinion back when I first wrote Nightwind, as the rest of the plot will bear out. Now, though? I want some hopeful sci-fi.

On a mechanical level I think that I have the chance to ask an important question. What happens if we solve all the problems? What happens if we get fat and happy and complacent but still have to function in a larger universe? I find this particular set of questions fascinating, as I originally conceived of and wrote the book in a pre-9/11 America. In the ‘90s in America it looked like we had solved all the problems. A decade and a half on and the Vandals are at the gates while the creaky top level moves forward purely on inertia and denial.

The United Commonwealth as an institution makes more sense in 2015 than it did in 1999.[4] It’s moving forward on inertia and responding to the cracks that are appearing in the foundation with lies and obfuscation. Laird represents a crack. The Nightwind project is an obfuscation. These statements don’t make any sense in the universe I originally built because that universe was too small. Now the universe is much, much larger.

The United Commonwealth first came about as an extraordinary response to an existential threat to humanity. On the verge of World War III a critical mass of people realized that the path humanity was taking ended only in madness and mutual destruction. They joined together under the banner of a commonwealth and for the next century or so turned their energies outwards. The Solar System was colonized and the dream of colonizing the stars was realized with a tiny foothold in the Tau Ceti system. The mastery of near instantaneous communications devices made it look like faster than light travel was just around the corner. That promise was never realized. The first contact with an alien intelligence ended in an act of senseless destruction.

This is a fascinating universe to step into. I did not realize at the time just how fascinating it could be because I was a kid writing his first book. This is a huge universe with a vast collection of potential characters and I made everything teeny tiny. I was afraid that I couldn’t even handle that teeny tiny universe. Now I see that a universe that’s too small is much worse than a universe that’s just too big to handle.

So let’s take a fleeting glimpse at a larger universe.

———————–

It’s the beginning of the 23rd Century and humanity now occupies Earth, the moon, Mars, and several moons in orbit around Jupiter and Saturn as well as semi-permanent mining facilities on various asteroids and smaller moons. A single extra solar colony has a foothold on the third planet of the Tau Ceti system.

At one point the colonists believed they might actually arrive in the system and find humans were already there because the ever expanding human spirit would crack the secrets of FTL travel and take the universe by storm. No humans greeted the colonists. The people on the Winged Messenger instead found out they were among the last humans to look to the stars and see a home. Their descendants hadn’t unlocked FTL travel and instead decided that they were better off fat, happy, complacent, and stationary.

Then an alien base built into one of the Martian moons changes everything. At first the discovery creates a tech boom. The Earth Command Navy announces that it’s going to expand and renovate the old Venus Shipyards that were supposed to build the vast fleet that would take humanity to the stars. Some records leak that indicate the aliens on Deimos might not have been benevolent. A certain sector of Earth start questioning the validity of even having colonies across the solar system. This combination of nativist movement on Earth and secrecy surrounding the extent of the plans for the Venus Shipyards spooks the colonists and they form the Colonial Alliance. The stated purpose of the Colonial Alliance is as a political counterweight to Earth and nothing more, but they also authorize the refit and arming of a trio of freighters to “supplement” the Earth Command Navy.

News of the destruction of the Winged Messenger at the hands of an unknown alien force rocks Earth Command. Earth’s nativist population ups their program of agitation. The Colonial Alliance starts openly questioning Earth’s ability and desire to protect humanity.

Earth Command decides there’s only one way to calm everyone down and reassert their authority once and for all. They will release to the Solar System the news that they have built not one but three faster than light battlecruisers. Furthermore, one of the ships has already traveled out of the solar system and brought back news of the exact circumstances of the destruction of the Winged Messenger.

In one last attempt at the ultimate public relations coup the powers that be decide that the captain of that first ship cannot be from Earth. They bypass several more senior officers and give the job to a relatively young Martian by the name of David Anderson. As he is an excellent officer with a sterling academy record making a symbolic gesture everyone assumes he’ll be fine and the announcement will mollify all angry parties.

That’s a story I want to read. More than that, it’s a story I want to tell.

————–

[1]It needs more than a little TLC in the basic proofreading area, though. I was reasonably grammatically precise and did all that sort of thing a long time ago, so what I’m talking about is next-level stuff revolving around word choice and the fallout from my tendency at the time to rely on passive voice and the way I was obsessive about avoiding repetition in language, thereby creating some really awkward word usage. That, in turn, makes the passive voice thing overly apparent in places.

[2]By the way, thanks for that. No, really. I was super happy to almost immediately see some familiar handles down in the comments.

[3]Spoilers!

[4]I’ve often read books or watched TV from ten or twenty years ago and thought, “Holy shit, how did they predict the future in such a scary accurate way? The Simpsons and Babylon 5 have a knack for those moments. As someone who just realized that many years ago I was blindly groping towards the profound realization I just made…sometimes it’s a matter of luck. History may not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes, after all.

Nightwind Wednesdays: Chapters 1 and 2

[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.]

Chapter 1

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.

*  *  *

Chapter 2

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?”

“Nope.”

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.”

“Why?”

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.”

“The Nightwind.”

“Yes.”

“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?”

“Nuclear warheads.”

“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.”

“Which means?”

“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.”

“Yes?”

“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.”

The Art of Losing

This was supposed to be the second entry in a new series. Something went wrong with the publishing schedule last Tuesday and nothing posted. I’m actually okay with that, as I really struggled to write that post and, in retrospect, it was pretty unnecessary. I can handle everything that post said in five pages in approximately one paragraph. Focus is key.

Either way, I started playing Magic: the Gathering again about two years ago. I played way back in 1995/96ish, then again from 1999-2003. Since coming back I’ve actually been something of a competitive player (although not a particularly successful one). I consider myself a grinder, basically. I doubt you’ll see me on the Pro Tour at any point in the near future, but, hey, who knows?

Since then I’ve made some interesting observations about how playing games feeds into understanding life. I’ve been thinking of writing a post called, “Everything I Know About Life I Learned from Magic.” I’ve decided, instead, to write a (probably infrequent) series. Because generating content is hard.

——————

Magic is a game that creates losers. (Almost) every game creates a loser. (Almost) every round creates a loser. Every tournament creates a whole bunch of losers. If you’re like me and you play a lot of Magic that means that you have a whole lot of opportunities to lose. I’ve lost a shitload of Magic over the last two years.[1]

When I first got back into Magic I got pretty salty whenever I lost. I lost a lot, which meant that I spent a lot of time feeling salty. Eventually I started winning again and decided that, hey, I never had to be salty again. That just meant that whenever I thought I was going on a run and lost I just felt worse.

My absolute nadir came last March at Grand Prix Cincinnati. I decided I had a deck that broke the format. It didn’t matter that I’d been playing variations of that deck to extremely pedestrian results for the last several months. It absolutely crushed the control decks in the format and had decent results against Mono-Black Devotion and Mono-Blue Devotion, which were the other two pillars of the format. It was absolutely atrocious against RG Monsters and RW Burn, not to mention the new Naya Hexproof deck that was on the rise at that time. I got a steady diet of RG Monsters, RW Burn, and Naya Hexproof that day, leading to an overall record of 2-7, the exact opposite of what I needed for Day 2.

Why did I keep playing all day? I had nothing better to do with my time. I had decided that my deck was so fucking good that I didn’t bring a backup. I didn’t own a Modern deck. I hated Theros/Born of the Gods Limited. So I started the day 2-1 and lost 6 rounds in a row. It became a mental exercise in seeing just how much I could take.

Two weeks later I went to the Starcity Games Open in Milwaukee with a different deck. I went 5-3 and dropped with 2 rounds to go because I was out of the money and it was fucking late and I’d just played Magic for many hours in a row and I still had to drive back to the Chicago suburbs. Also I was out of dog food, so I had to stop and buy a bag on the way home and it was almost 10 o’clock as it was and, dammit, Daisy dog gets one type of food and they don’t sell that shit at Wal-Mart. Daisy is spoiled rotten. Left to her own devices Daisy eats frozen rabbit poop even when I yell at her. So…yeah.

In June I went to GP Chicago and finished 5-4 playing yet another deck. In August I went to the World Magic Cup Qualifier in Indianapolis and went 5-4 playing a variation of that same deck.[2] In between I got in the habit of making Top 8 at smaller events and even got enough prize money at a $1k the week before GP Chicago that I basically played for free that weekend.[3]

So what happened between Cincinnati and Chicago? More accurately, what started at Cincinnati that I carried through to Milwaukee and Chicago and beyond? I learned how to lose.

More accurately, I learned that since losing is part of the game you have to accept it. Sometimes you can minimize the chance of losing right off the bat by choosing a different deck as I should have done at GP Cincinnati and subsequently did at the Milwaukee Open and GP Chicago and whatnot. Even so I still managed to lose games. My attitude shifted by then, though.

Sometime between GP Chicago and the WMCQ I was at an IQ down in the southern suburbs. I was playing Rabble Red for the second time ever[4]. My day started well and I was 2-0 and feeling good going into the third round of a 6 round event. I lost round 3. I righted the ship round 4 but then lost round 5. There was little chance that someone with a 4-2 record could make the Top 8, but I’d been paying attention and knew that I had an outside shot. So I sat down for the sixth round against an opponent who knew I was on Rabble Red and basically said, “Well, I guess I’ve already lost this one.” I obliged him. I then went on to make the Top 8. The trick there, though, was that my round 5 opponent could have drawn into the Top 8 but he elected to play out the last round and won, making him the top qualifier and raising my tiebreakers to the absolute top of the 4-2s.

Some days it’s better to be lucky than good. Of course since I was the last guy into the top 8 and my round 5 opponent was the top qualifier I had to play him again in the quarterfinals and promptly lost. But he was a really nice guy and we had a hell of a lot of fun.

——————-

As someone who generally avoids getting salty after losing these days it’s fascinating for me to see another player totally fly off the rails.

The moment Goblin Rabblemaster was spoiled in M15 I knew that I’d be playing it. I lurves me some red aggro and my love of gobbos is such that I have a print of the Jeff Miracola Raging Goblin on my mantle.[5] I came up with a slightly goofy red/blue Goblin aggro list that was just too cute by half and found a playset of Goblin Rabblemasters the first week that M15 was out. I got them all out of packs and by pre-ordering when they were, like, a buck. It was also the buy-a-box promo, so I sourced a playset at 5 bucks apiece and went to town. The deck was…streaky. But holy crap was Rabblemaster a powerhouse.

One of the rounds that I won with the deck my opponent sat there for a couple minutes telling me how shocked he was that he’d lost to a brew. This was, to him, utterly incomprehensible. Brews are, after all, terrible by definition.[6] I pointed out that all of the decks that were pillars of the format were brews at one point, too. I also quickly gave up on my Goblin deck and went back to RW Burn. A week or so later came Pro Tour M15 and the celebrated deck was Rabble Red, which basically took the philosophy I had with my Goblin Rabblemaster deck and said, “Hey, let’s surround this guy with all the amazing cheap red creatures, add Stoke the Flames, and win all the games.” Over the next few weeks Goblin Rabblemaster’s price went up to $20. I felt vindicated. I also played Rabble Red exactly 3 times.

A couple of weeks back I was at a Pre-TQ. I’d been experimenting with a RB aggro/midrange hybrid that had a lot of totally bizarre and unexpected interactions. The night before I’d taken the deck to FNM and gotten curb stomped by Ascendancy Tokens. On the way home I’d decided that there was one perfect card to deal with that situation and added 4 Doomwake Giants to the sideboard. My round 1 opponent was playing RG Aggro. He won game 1 easily and I knew I was in trouble. I sided in the Doomwakes because I literally had nothing better to do and several dead cards, so a 4/6 body certainly wasn’t bad. I won game 2. Game 3 he mulliganed, then kept a 1 land hand with a bunch of mana dorks and proceeded to not draw more lands. Turn 5 I played Doomwake and cleared his board[7] then went on to win.

He spent the next five minutes telling me that I didn’t deserve to win the game. His deck was just better than mine. I actually agree with that assessment from a numbers perspective, but, Christ, what an asshole. It put me in an awkward position, since I totally agreed that I got lucky but that’s why you play the goddamn game and by the time he got done with his tirade I was pretty sure that I was supposed to feel bad for winning.[8] So I was talking to someone else a couple minutes later and said, “My round 1 opponent is feeling super salty right now.”

His response was, “Oh, you played [guy]? What else did you expect?”

I made Top 8 that day. I actually went 3-0, then lost the next 2 and had to squeak into the Top 8 as the sole 4-2 and play the top qualifier. It was the third time I’ve played that particular guy and my record going into the quarterfinals against him was 0-2. My record against him after the quarterfinals was 0-3. I saw him the next day at a PTQ and asked how he’d done. He hadn’t won the Pre-TQ. At the PTQ I had a disappointing finish but he made Top 8 and I walked over and congratulated him because he’s a damn good player and I wanted him to do well.

——————–

Magic is a community. I know a lot of the local players. Some I know because we hang out at the same stores. Some I know because I’m apparently a grinder now and grinders know their own.

I’d rather be the guy that gets congratulated for winning than be the guy that gets the, “Oh, you played Geds? He’s an asshole,” treatment. The first step in that process is in learning how to lose. I like to think I’m well on my way.

———————-

In life overall I’ve also come to realize that there’s a major lesson. I’ve spent my life minimizing my opportunities to lose. I’ve been terrified of taking the loss.

But if you’re truly in the game that means that sometimes you’re going to lose. There’s no avoiding the possibility if you want to win. Sometimes everything just aligns and the sure loss becomes a crazy, unexpected win.

I’ve decided to start looking for the wins.

———————-

[1]I’m an above average player. My Constructed win percentage hangs out in the 60% range with occasional slumps and streaks. My Limited win percentage is actually better, which continually baffles me, since I mostly hate Limited. 60% isn’t bad when you think that it means I consistently win more than I lose. The guys who win Grands Prix and get invites to Pro Tours tend to have 70-75% win rates. The difference between 40% and 60% is so much closer than the difference between 60% and 70% that I honestly don’t know how they do it.

Let’s put it this way: Say I want to make Day 2 at a Grand Prix. Under the current rules if you want to make Day 2 you need a 7-2 record Day 1. That’s a 77.7777777777777778% win percentage. If you want to make Day 2 with any chance of actually making Top 8 you need an 8-1 or even 9-0 record. My record at GP Chicago was 5-4. With an average win percentage of 60% you’d expect me to finish the day either 5-4 or 6-3. That’s just not good enough. The really good players almost always make Day 2 at Grands Prix.

[2]Chicago and the WMCQ were both disappointing in their own way, though. At Chicago I was actually in the running for Day 2 until round 7 where I lost to Mono-Black playing RW Burn. I’d come to absolutely love that matchup because I knew the exact path to victory. Unfortunately the path basically came down to “win game 1 because that’s basically automatic, then hope that if he gets running Desecration Demons and Gray Merchants it’s game 2 because game 3 is still better than 50% on the play.” My opponent won game 1. So…fuck. At the WMCQ, meanwhile, I started the day 3-0 and then went 2-2 through the middle rounds and had to win my last round to stay above average.

[3]The $1k was at Pastimes, which also organized GP Chicago, so it was fun to say that I was paying Pastimes with their own money.

[4]Technically, but we’ll get to that later.

[5]I also have an autographed can of Frank Thomas’s Big Hurt Beer and the novelization of Beverly Hills Cop II up there. No, I don’t get laid much, why do you ask?

[6]I’m a deckbuilder. My roots in the game still come from a time when netdecking was difficult and netdeckers were looked down on. Looking back my most successful decks were still basically my versions of popular archetypes, as I jammed Suicide Black, Angry Dogs, Sligh, Machinehead, and TurboStasis with the best of ‘em. So…take that for what it’s worth.

[7]Doomwake Giant gives all of your opponent’s creatures -1/-1 whenever you play it or another enchantment. All of his mana generating creatures had 1 toughness, so Doomwake = instant death.

[8]I didn’t. Winning feels pretty damn good.

Nightwind Follow-Up: Prologue

I hadn’t looked at Nightwind in nearly a decade when I decided to post it here. I was honestly expecting to be embarrassed. At the time I wrote the novel I didn’t read that much fiction. My main written touch points were Arthur C. Clarke, the Star Wars extended universe, and, of all things, the BattleTech novels. It’s pretty obvious to me as I look back that the true influences were television, specifically Babylon 5, Space: Above and Beyond[1], and Star Trek.

I’m re-watching Babylon 5 right now, literally as a write this. I’m in the middle of season 2. It’s pretty much one of the best things that ever happened to science fiction. Take that for what you will.

Taking influence from sci-fi television is both positive and negative. In re-reading the book it’s obvious to me that the positive comes in the form of visualization. I knew how to compose a scene in my head and because I knew how to do that I knew how to describe it with a certain level of competence. It’s equally obvious that the negative comes in the form of time. We’ll get to this more later, but one of the things I’ve realized about TV and movies is that the viewer engages in, for a lack of a better notion, an agreement with the creator. We all know that a television show has an hour, minus commercial breaks, to solve the problem and add in a b-plot. So if the hero just so happens to be in the exact right place at the exact right time…well, that’s just expedient. Books have more time, both to develop the plot and to allow the hero to find what he or she needs. The reader also has more time than the television viewer to see such plot expedience and say, “Wait, what?”[2]

So as we take this journey through the Nightwind’s universe it’s best to be aware that, yes, I realize that there are problems with the book and that, first and foremost, the tendency towards, “This happened because plot,” creates problems. It helps to remember that I was 19 when I started writing the book and had a lot to learn.

Given that, let’s talk about what I’m proud of.

———————–

I’ve read a lot of sci-fi, or, more accurately, speculative fiction, since I wrote Nightwind and most of it was pretty damn good. For starters, I’ve read every piece of fiction John Scalzi’s written that I’m aware of, from the Old Man’s War books to his various and sundry short stories. I’ve read Mira Grant’s[3] Newsflesh books two or three times. Add Ernest Clyne’s Ready Player One[4], the Expanse Series by “James S A Corey,” The Forever War, and any number of other sci-fi books to the mix and we’re talking about some of the best sci-fi novels of recent years.

There are sections of Nightwind that stand up to the best of what I’ve read. The book as a whole isn’t particularly great. I flogged some pretty crazy plot points and made some silly mistakes. I made some laughably bad decisions. On balance, though, I enjoyed the hell out of my dive back into the Nightwind universe.

I opened up the file on my laptop and couldn’t stop reading. I’m excited to have the opportunity to discuss the points where I triumphed. I’m even more excited to discuss the points where I failed. Were I to write the book today I would do many things differently. That doesn’t surprise me. What surprises me more, though, is that there are a whole lot of things I would keep more or less the same. This is how I learn and improve as a writer.

———————-

Before we begin we should talk about the book itself. I initially conceived of it as a single story. I don’t specifically remember what that story was, as it’s been a while, but I imagine it was fairly close to the story that I ended up writing. I decided that there was far more to the story and turned it into a duology. Eventually I conceived of a trilogy, called the Earthrise Saga, with each book focusing on one of three ships: the Nightwind, then the Starfire, then the Belden. I actually got a decent way into the writing of Starfire, but never quite got the plot of Belden figured out.

This, of course, changed the nature of Nightwind. It was no longer a self-contained story, but the first part in a saga. I decided to spend more time on the introduction of secondary characters, especially Elizabeth Turner of the Starfire and Robert Hunt of the Belden. I also decided to introduce a larger collection of alien races and spend more time working on galactic history.

The first place where this decision shows up is with the introduction of Jason Tanaka. He initially showed up as a supporting character. After I finished the original draft of Nightwind I wrote a couple short stories, one of which focused on Tanaka’s time in school and his initial conception of the Nightwind.[5] I decided to incorporate that particular short story into the beginning of the actual novel. I did a kind of terrible job of that at first, as when I initially opened the file there were two chapter 1s. I decided to make it part of the prologue because it made all kinds of sense. Or, at least, it was the most workable solution to the problem I had of wanting to include the section but not wanting it to be chapter 1.

So that’s the start. Anything else will have to wait until later.

———————–

[1]I think that I’m one of about twelve people on the planet who remembers Space: Above and Beyond. It lasted for a season in the mid-‘90s at a time when televised sci-fi that wasn’t created by Gene Rodenberry or J Michael Straczynski didn’t make it very far and the JMS sci-fi only did so because, and I cannot stress this enough, Babylon 5 was one of the greatest science fiction things every created. Space: Above and Beyond was top-notch military sci-fi that delved deeply into the questions sci-fi has always asked better than any other media. I recently re-watched it and was blown away by how well it holds up. If you happen to find it anywhere I strongly recommend you take the time to watch.

[2]Also, from time to time, “What, what? In the butt.”

[3]A.K.A. Seanan Maguire, because apparently different sub-genres must be written with pseudonyms.

[4]Take my money. Take all my money.

[5]Speaking of “heavily influenced by Babylon 5,” think of Nightwind as “Babylon 5 with Starfury engines strapped to the back.” That’s not really what it was, but the initial idea of a starship with a rotating torus and quad engines on the back? Yeah. If nothing else, I still think the Starfury is one of the coolest sci-fi space fighters of all time.

This also allows me to point out one of the biggest flaws in Babylon 5: the human gravity generation systems. The eponymous space station is a classic rotating torus that uses centrifugal force to create false gravity. The observation dome, though, somehow has gravity in spite of the fact that it’s in the exact center of the torus. The gravitational force would be much lower to nonexistent in the center of the torus. Similarly, the Omega-class destroyers and Explorer-class ships had a rotating section but seemed to have gravity throughout, which is basically completely impossible according to physics. But, y’know, what are ya gonna do?

Nightwind Wednesdays: Prologue

[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.]

Prologue

82 Eridani System
June 3, 2353 Terran Standard Calendar
2134 Terran Standard Time

Only six hours remained in the greatest mission undertaken by mankind. After two and a half centuries of defying all odds, the last few hours should have been entirely uneventful.

Luck, unfortunately, was about to suddenly and violently desert the mission.

The colony ship Winged Messenger fired its maneuvering thrusters in reaction to programs set by long dead technicians. Its target, the mottled green and brown orb known to the ship’s computer as 82 Eridani III, hung in space, some four million kilometers below. Soon this globe would be home to the five thousand colonists held in suspended animation deep in her holds.

Just over one hundred years ago the mammoth ship had dropped half of its precious human cargo on the third planet of the Tau Ceti system. 82 Eridani III was to be her second and last stop. As the existence of planets orbiting distant stars was difficult to detect from Earth, the Messenger‘s computers had originally been programmed to travel to several worlds in a mission that could easily last a millennia. Luck had been on the programmer’s side, however, and the ship had found habitable planets orbiting its first two stars.

Someone else already knew what the Messenger had just confirmed.

An unexpected event suddenly drew the attention of the big ship’s computer. Active sensors from unknown object in wide orbit over the target lit up the threat board. The scan was close and intense, but there was no indication of intent. Threat assessments changed almost immediately. A much more intense scanner joined in the first sensor and held steady. Something, it seemed, had locked on to the ship.

As a first step to deal with the threat the computer pumped emergency power into the ship’s drives in order to give the Messenger the best possible chance of escaping. Five stasis pods near the ship’s bridge were switched from normal operation into the reanimation cycle as the ship calculated it would need the command crew to deal with this new threat.

The ship’s records were then downloaded into a probe equipped with a faster than light communication system. If Messenger was under attack the probe would be activated and ejected from the ship. The ship’s log would then be transmitted back to Earth until the power died or the probe was destroyed.

The records were downloaded just in time. Less than ten seconds after the probe told the ship it was ready the first missile struck the Winged Messenger. It connected amidships, ripping through the thin hull plating and blasting a hole deep into the main cargo bay. Nearly a thousand colonists died without ever knowing they were in danger.

A second missile struck the ship directly in front of the bridge. The newly awakened command crew died before achieving full consciousness. Even if they had survived, it would not have helped. The third and fourth missiles took out the ship’s drives, crippling the massive vessel beyond any hope of survival.

After the fourth missile hit the onslaught ended. The damage was done. With a dead command crew and blown drives the ship could do nothing. Power soon began to run out. Systems shut down in the cargo bays. One by one the stasis pods died. Within half an hour power was completely out all over the ship. The four thousand colonists who had survived the initial attacks never knew they had been in danger.

With a final gasp of power the ship ejected the probe. It zipped away unnoticed and unmolested, leaving the chaos and destruction of the massive colony ship behind.

* * *

Martian Moon Deimos
June 5, 2353, Terran Standard Calendar
0251 Terran Standard Time

Doctor Herman Porter awoke suddenly. The computer next to his bed beeped softly, informing him the program had run its course. The doctor sat up, rubbed his eyes, scratched his rapidly graying beard and reached for the touch screen. He had now tried forty-three different translation programs, none of which were successful. Everyone on his team had given up between try fifteen and thirty. Dr. Porter was getting frustrated enough to give up too.

The communicator next to the computer screen warbled. The doctor paused, then decided to answer the call.

“We think we’ve found something on Level 14, Dr. Porter. You might want to take a look,” came the voice of Doctor Samantha Perch, the team’s archeological specialist.

“I’ll be there soon, Sam.”

The doctor dressed quickly and left his small living quarters. He walked out into the now familiar false sunlight of what the team called the Deimos Station.

For centuries humanity had looked toward Earth’s neighbor Mars for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Nothing had ever turned up. Exactly one century after the first Martian colonization of 2105, however, the search for extraterrestrial life had ended. Not on Mars as expected, but on her two moons, Deimos and Phobos.

Tens of thousands of years in the past an ancient and powerful race had hollowed out the Martian moons and built two huge bases inside. Abandoned for unknown reasons at the time the first human civilizations the riches of this unknown people had lain in wait to bless the human race with knowledge and technology beyond imagination.

All they had to do was figure out how to get the information.

For nearly a century and a half the greatest minds humanity had to offer had traveled to the vast caverns inside the moons. The former denizens of the bases had been humanoid and breathed oxygen, making it easy for the human scientists to work inside the planetoids. The base was abandoned fairly recently, and in a great hurry. Although the scientists could not maintain the equipment themselves, it was still in good working order.

Despite this great stroke of luck the human scientists had been unable to reach all but a tiny percentage of this information. As of yet no one had been able to translate the alien language. So the wealth of the ages had remained beyond humanity’s reach.

Dr. Porter had begun studying the alien language at age twenty-eight. As a highly skilled computer programmer and one of the top linguistic experts the planet had to offer he had expected to solve humanity’s aching problem within five years. Forty-five had now passed. Despite making some headway and creating ever more sophisticated translation programs he felt like he was farther than ever from being able to translate the ancient language.

Lost in thought, Dr. Porter left the “apartment complex,” as the ancient building the scientists used for their quarters was called. For a long time he had been awestruck any time he had walked out into the vastness of the base. The top level was over sixty-five meters high. All around him buildings rose from floor to ceiling. Below the entry level fifteen levels marched toward the middle of the satellite. Each of these levels was much smaller, standing only five to nine meters high and mostly packed with machinery and storage spaces. To the casual observer the main level was much more impressive than the rest due to its sheer size. The scientists had discovered hundreds of times as much information on the lower levels as they had on the top level. Or at least they thought they had. The team would never know until they could translate the language of the race who had left the information behind.

Mulling over the difficulty of language translation, Dr. Porter nearly walked straight through the Level 14 work area. Not until Dr. Perch stepped in front of him did the scientist realize where he was. Shaking his head to clear his thoughts Dr. Porter focused on his colleague.

Standing a centimeter shorter than his own 1.8-meter height, she possessed a youthfulness that belied her own half-century alive. The tall, trim redheaded archaeologist had been asked many times how she stayed so young. “I make sure my work is much older than I am,” she would invariably respond with a twinkle in her eye.

“I hope I didn’t wake you, Dr. Porter.”

“My latest program had just finished compiling, so I was already awake.”

Her eyes widened slightly, “Any success?” she asked with a hint of excitement. Dr. Perch was the only one of the group that thought of the language translation program with anything other than disappointment.

“Don’t know, Sam,” he said, shaking his head. “Haven’t looked yet.”

“I think you just don’t want to look, Herman…”

“Maybe. It’s just…” the doctor suddenly felt very old, thinking back to all the effort he had put into a seemingly futile project. Suddenly he looked back up at his fellow scientist. “You have something though?”

“Yes. Come over here. I’ll show you.”

Three hours later Dr. Porter returned to his quarters. In his hand he held a disk containing a copy of the disturbing historical record Dr. Perch had found. He had nearly forgotten about his program. When he turned on his touch screen he was surprised when the left side popped on to display a section of alien writing. The right side of the screen surprised him even more. On that side were lines of English text, translated from the alien language.

Blood pounding in his ears, Dr. Porter began reading a letter from one long dead alien to another. It was filled with information and gossip of the day and the situation. More importantly, however, it was completely translated into English. Suppressing an urge to scream aloud and dance, he cycled through other documents, reading technical schematics, textbooks and sections of what seemed to be news reports or editorials of the race.

A few hours later he decided to plug in the disk Dr. Perch had given him. As he watched and listened to the recording the blood drained from his face. He called together his team and prepared a message to send out to Earth Command. By the next day he figured the news of the translation of the alien language would spread across Earth and her colonies on her moon, Mars, Europa, Tethys and Tau Ceti III.

He was deeply surprised the next day when a message appeared on his computer informing him Earth and Mars command planned on keeping the news secret. He was even more surprised to learn that a new team from the Earth Command Navy was coming to “supplement” the research team already on Deimos.

* * *

Earth Command Shipyards, Venus Orbit
November 14, 2353 Terran Standard Calendar
1650 Terran Standard Time

Major Jason Tanaka stared right through the schematics displayed on the giant screen that took up one entire bulkhead in his office. He could close his eyes and draw a perfect image of the ship in his head from any angle. It was his singular obsession, the project that had driven him for his entire life.

Humanity had a history of creating elegant ships of all shapes and sizes. From the long, lithe triremes with which the Greeks had conquered the Mediterranean to the sleek race-built galleons Sir Francis Drake had used to circumvent the globe and terrorize Spanish merchantmen to the menacing, powerful battleships of the 20th Century, mankind had produced thousands of ships designed with graceful maneuvering in mind. That had all changed over the last few hundred years. The reason was quite simple. Elegance and grace were no longer important.

Ocean going ships had to go to great lengths to cut through the resistance of the water on which they moved with minimum energy loss. On warships especially the results were often nothing short of magnificent. Long, narrow ships with flaring prows that sliced through the waves with such efficiency that vessels which displaced over 50,000 tons could still travel at sixty kilometers per hour. Once ships transferred from terrestrial oceans to the vacuum of space, however, such restraints were no longer necessary.

Designers began ignoring form in favor of utility and the art of shipbuilding had, in Major Tanaka’s mind, suffered greatly for the newfound bias. Most ships in the merchant marine and the four patrol vessels that comprised the entirety of the Earth Command Navy were blocky, inelegant designs that reminded him of nothing so much as concrete blocks with engines.

Tanaka, like most Earth Command ship designers, had believed for a long time that this was the most efficient, and therefore best way to do things. It was simple, efficient and maximized the use of space.

He still remembered the day that he had changed his mind. It was his senior year at university and one of his engineering professors had asked the class to consider the thought that form could override function. Jason had stood up and delivered the textbook answer, pointing out that the lack of need for ocean going hull design had freed up interior compartment space and greatly increaces efficiency in spaceships. The box was, after all, an ideal shape for storage and human occupation.

The professor had then called up a video on the classroom’s viewscreen. It showed a lean, graceful spaceship. A long, narrow foresection swept back in to a trio of wing-like sections. In the video the vessel flashed through a series of maneuvers that operated in complete opposition to the laws of physics and fired weapons which were theoretically impossible to create, but it did so with a grace and power foreign to the designs of the Earth Command patrol vessels.

“What, if anything, can you tell me about this ship?” the professor asked the class.

“It was thought up by people who didn’t know a thing about space travel?” one student offered from the back of the class. Noise rippled through the room as several other students chuckled.

“Yes,” the professor nodded, “That’s true. Physics aside, however, what words come to mind when you look at these images?”

“Beautiful,” a woman toward the front said.

“Powerful,” the guy who sat next to Jason chipped in.

“Good,” the professor smiled. “Anything else?”

Jason cleared his throat. “Impractical.”

“Ah, Mr. Tanaka, how so?”

“That ship would require massive amounts of time and materials to build when compared to one of the standard designs we use now. Two hulls could probably be assembled with what was used to build the single hull of that ship. No designer in their right mind would do that.”

“Perhaps,” the professor nodded, “But do you know why this particular ship looks the way it does?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Because it looks impressive. Just like these other ships.” He cycled through a dozen or so images, each depicting various starships obviously conceived as flights of fancy. “These ships were imagined before the human race cut free the shackles of bondage to Earth. They were designed without a full understanding of the limitations placed on actual ships made to spend their entire careers in space. Many of them,” he stopped and chuckled, “Were designed with the assumption that we’d be able to simulate gravity somehow.

“The ships were designed to be sold to people by being impressive looking. I want you to think about that this week.”

“Why?” Jason asked without raising his hand. He assumed the professor would take exception to his attitude, but that didn’t matter. The whole project was a waste of his time.

“Because I want you to come in next week with an innovative ship design. Specifically, I want it to be something impressive, but one that incorporates what we have learned about starship design since the Twentieth Century.”

Jason had basically ignored the assignment. He thought it was pointless and wouldn’t let anyone convince him otherwise. On the next day the class met he had arrived with no blueprints, no sketches, no models. All he had was a picture of the ECS Phoenix. It was an ideal design, as far as he was concerned.

The professor had the class present their ideas, he called it a forum for exchange. One by one they took the podium and offered their own takes on how to create aesthetically pleasing and practical ships. Slowly, surely, he found himself giving in to the professor’s and his fellow students’ ideas. Each attempt seemed to solve some of the inherent problems in combining form and function, but exposed other problems or even created new ones.

A few of the designs were little more than slightly more rounded versions of traditional models. Some required fanciful technologies and were basically no more practical than the ships in the old videos. Several were large, ungainly creations that attempted to solve every problem spacecraft had with existing technology. They used multiple main drives that pointed in different directions and had large sections that spun on an axis, creating the sensation of centrifugal, “out is down” gravity. Some were genuinely creative and had potential. One was a saucer-shaped design that spun to create gravity and had platforms above and below the main section to allow stable attachment points for weaponry and the drive units. Another, similar, ship was also a saucer, but it had drives pointing perpendicularly out either side, allowing it to quickly reverse direction.

Then, all too suddenly, it was his turn.

Jason had walked up to the podium as slowly as possible. He felt lightheaded, nervous, as if he was about to faint. He had nothing and knew it.
Suddenly an idea sprang in to his mind. He had the answer, something no one had thought of. Something better.

Unlike the rest of his classmates, who had loaded files in to the system to show to the class, he called up the drawing program. The podium’s internal screen was touch-sensitive and he could draw an image on it with a stylus. His resulting creation would then be projected up on the main viewscreen for everyone to see.

Jason sketched out a cylinder with rounded ends. “This,” he told his classmates, “is the main section. It’s a cylinder for a very good reason. The inside of this part rotates to create the feeling of gravity. The rotational section doesn’t reach all the way aft, however. At the very end is machinery space, left without gravity because it’s simply more efficient. Back here, too, are the main drives.” He quickly sketched a second, smaller cylinder above the first, connected to it by a stubby structure. “This engine is designed to be bi-directional to afford the maximum possible flexibility in maneuvering. That’s not enough, however.” He added a second cylinder below the main section and then added one to the middle. “There are four drive units, total. This will allow the ship to rotate quickly through all three axes and move to respond to any threat.” He then drew a triangle in front of the main section and connected it to the main cylinder. “This is the forward section. It contains storage space, small craft bays and the forward firing weapons battery.

“This ship, I shouldn’t have to tell you, is designed to be a warship. Weaponry is only as good as the platform it’s attached to, so this ship is specifically imagined as a stable weapons platform. The main section is a rotational section built in to a shell for this reason. It will allow the ship to maintain a constant broadside. It has the side benefit of enabling the builders to spread weapons hardpoints across a large space, reducing the likelihood that a lucky shot will take out several weapons hardpoints that are clustered close together.”

“Bravo, Mr. Tanaka,” the professor said. “I didn’t think you had it in you.”

“Thank you, Sir,” Jason smiled. “Oh, and one more thing. A good ship needs a good name.” He smiled down at the touchscreen as he added the last detail. The ship’s designation.

ECS Nightwind.

Now it was all about to come true. Admiral Belden, commander of the Earth Command Navy had approached him six months ago. She had told him that Earth Command was preparing to built a new class of battlecruisers and she had approached his old professor to see if he had any ideas of what to do. The professor had given her his design and told her that it was the best idea he’d ever seen.

At the time Jason had been heading up the team working on the new Mark III shuttlecraft, designed to replace the aging Mark II. It was boring work, but there was little else to do as a ship designer in Earth Command. He’d jumped at the chance to actually build Nightwind. Then again, he’d admitted to himself at the time, he’d have probably jumped at the chance to be involved in the project on any level, even if it was designing the fighter bays for someone else’s ship.

Then she’d given him the real kicker. Not only was Nightwind the new project for Earth Command, it was going to be beyond any ship ever built by humans. He’d be working with alien technology that would allow him to make the ship far better than he could have dared dream.

Furthermore, Nightwind was supposed to be a proof of concept. If it worked properly, Earth Command intended to turn the ship in to a class and build more. At least two, but probably four.

The whole thing felt like a dream. He sometimes still thought it was too good to be true.

“Major Tanaka,” a voice crackled over the intercom, “Please report to Operations. The first materials shipment is arriving in Slipway One.”

Maybe it wasn’t a dream.

Ready to Go

2014 was just a shitshow of a year. Let’s get that out of the way. I spent most of it with Al Jazeera America on in the background watching just about everything suck ass. Also, the fact that I spent most of it with Al Jazeera America on in the background is a pretty good indication that I spent most of 2014 on the couch with a TV on, which means that 2014 was a shitshow of a year on a personal level.

2015? Who knows? We’re just a few weeks in. Admittedly it hasn’t shaped up too brilliantly so far, but there’s a lot of time left to get headed down a good track. Of course I now live in a state governed by Bruce Rauner, so my hopes are not high on that front.

Let’s talk blogging for a minute, though. I’ve now been blogging in one form or another for over a decade. I started Accidental Historian back in 2006. Throughout that time I’ve had a, shall we say, contentious relationship with the very notion of blogging. I never really knew what I wanted to do with the space and I always felt like it was something of a waste of time. I don’t really have the time or inclination to be a high brow, academic writer but I also feel like nobody (including me) really gives a shit about my self-indulgent inner journey shit. So what was I to do?

I thought I’d hit on a good formula last year. Then, y’know, shitshow.

So we’re starting 2015 off much like we started 2014 off, but with some minor changes. For one, while I actually really liked the plan to take a book I wrote many years ago and critique it I made a massive, silly mistake. I picked the wrong book. Second Chances required me to spend way more time than I had expected wrestling with how that book reflected on my religious beliefs and my changed (and changing) views of Christianity. I thought that would be a good thing at the time but it ended up being both a distraction and a burden. Fortunately there’s a way to do that series but do it better.

So we’re going to spend our Wednesdays looking at Nightwind, the first volume of the (as-yet unfinished, natch) Earthrise Saga. That’s right, it’s my first-ever novel and my attempt at space opera sci-fi. I literally have not looked at the book in years and I’m currently making this promise without being 100% sure I know where the files even are. Fortunately I still have all of my laptops so I should be able to track down a copy for us to gawk at in the manner of a gaggle of slack-jawed yokels. I’ll also probably do supplemental, “So I guess this is what I was thinking,” pieces, either as quick hits on Wednesdays or longer posts on Thursdays based on, y’know, need.

There will be history content, too. For one I really do want to finish a series I started lo these many months and/or years ago on the Marxist critique of British mercantilism and how it applies to the current right wing jones for free market capitalism. I also want to finish Byzantine Logic. If you know what that is, wow, you’ve been reading this blog for a long-ass time.

Also, too, there will be a new, probably somewhat irregular, series that I’ll start tomorrow.

This time last year I promised new content and fun. Then life got decidedly un-fun and I completely and totally failed to deliver. This year? Who knows. Keep checking in, though. Things will happen. Maybe.