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.

9 thoughts on “Nightwind Wednesdays: Prologue

  1. Not bad, not bad at all. There are a few little oddities in phrasing — Dr. Perch’s “We think we found something” line feels a bit clunky to me — and there’s a little bit of “exactly the right person with the right idea at the right time” confluence that seems… maybe not forced, but a bit of a remarkable coincidence. Even with that, though, it’s eminently readable, and it looks like it’s shaping up to be a lot of fun.

    (One of the things I like about reading your stuff is that you care about spelling and grammar. Makes it sooooo much easier to just leap in and look at the story parts of the story.)

    • One of the things I’ve noticed going back to this is that I had some really weird phrasing choices. At the time I was obsessed with avoiding repetitive phrasing and really wanted to write literature. This is not a good combination.

      Also, I was far more interested in cutting to the chase than developing the story, so…yeah. There’s a particularly cringe-worthy instance of that coming up towards the end, but it’s definitely an underlying theme of things happening because the plot dictates that such things happen. That’s why I’m really looking forward to writing the pieces where I critique my own writing. There are many lessons to learn.

      Still, I wrote this when I was 19 and when I went back and re-read it over the last couple days I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it in spite of my fears. I’ve learned a trick or three since then. but I think this will be good for seeing the difference.

      • “Still, I wrote this when I was 19 and when I went back and re-read it over the last couple days I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it in spite of my fears.”

        Hells yeah!

  2. The choice of stars is a little odd, though I can see a justification for it if as you say the telescopes are so bad that the ship-builders can’t confirm the existence of extra-solar planets before launching. At least the two stars aren’t wildly out of line; thanks for that!

    “millennia” is plural. “A millennium”,

    I agree with Michael that the general quality of spelling/grammar is much higher than a lot of the material I come across on-line. Thanks for that too!

    Five months to integrate a whole host of new technologies into a ship design seems hellishly fast. Five years to the first prototype would be pretty fast.

    If I’m reading it right, your ship design appears to need two spin couplers (one at each end of the main hab cylinder). Four co-linear engines don’t do anything about roll control, which is one of the three axes. What’s the diameter of the cylinder, and have you considered coriolis force? (Rule of thumb: minimum 100 metres radius per g.) Presumably you’re going to de-spin in combat, or you’ll have to worry about precession. Or have two counter-rotating cylinders. Yes, I do think about this stuff quite a lot.

    I like what we’ve met of the characters so far.

    I want to read more.

  3. I chose the stars basically because they’re a combination of close and of a sort that could have planets. I remember spending WEEKS trying to figure out plausible locations. I gave up on it later with the flimsiest possible justification. I was actually deeply interested in trying to be scientifically accurate, though. Given that I’m not a physicist, though, I’m sure I got things wrong.

    As for the time frame…yeah. I briefly considered changing that before posting. That was one of those things that I set because I was way more interested in writing the main story than any of the silly lead-in. Also, I was attempting to set up a terrible joke that’s totally not worth the payoff. Were I to write the book today I think I’d have Porter translate the language a good twenty years ahead, the Nightwind project would still be secret, and I’d try to work the Messenger destruction in differently. However, I’d still need to find a way to keep it secret, as the entire plot depends upon the United Commonwealth being all secretive and shit. Knowing what I know now, though, I’d have spent more time on actual plot development, though.

    As for Nightwind herself, by the time she’s actually built there’s artificial gravity because, look, Radioactive Man, the Sun is exploding again! I would assume that Mr Tanaka improved on his quick sketch after the initial presentation and figured out all the science stuff. Now, how he quickly went from toroidal design to your basic artificial gravity deck design in, like, 6 months is another question entirely.

    I had this obsession with making everyone really young in the book which also caused problems, mostly in the time frame. One of the driving ideas I had was that Earth Command would be filled with people who were young and in totally over their heads. Nothing ever happens, so joining Earth Command is kind of the equivalent taking a year off to backpack around Europe and find yourself. This created other problems, though, because a three year secret project to create 3 FTL warships, each of which requires a crew complement double the rest of the Navy combined? It just doesn’t work.

    If I were writing this now, then, I’d make the United Commonwealth significantly larger, thereby requiring Earth Command to have more resources. That would also make one of the other plot points that comes up later work. As I looked back at that one I thought, “Wait, what?” But I’ll talk about it later.

    Overall I think the problem I had was a failure of confidence and/or experience. I had this huge idea, but I didn’t think I could handle it. So I made everything small and manageable and that influences the time frame, too. This creates its own problems, though. I would spend way more time on world building today. It’s good that I’m thinking through these things now, too, because it will allow me to have more to discuss when we hit the meat of the book and the two main conflicts.

    Also, I now really, really want to re-write this book and do it correctly.

    • Well, speaking as someone who has consulted on spaceflight for books, I think you didn’t do so badly. I’m assuming you were positing some sort of Bussard ram tech so that the colony ship doesn’t have to worry about fuel; it’s not your fault that that’s been overtaken by reality, and lightsail ships really need a a launching laser, which you probably don’t want because it’s also a system defence weapon. I realise that this isn’t what the story is about and will readily admit I’m nitpicking; partly this is because when something’s in the first few paras I’m not yet invested and it can put me off a book, partly it’s because I suspect it can be got right.

      I will say more once we see the Neat Martian Tech, but if you have a constant-thrust drive, well, that’s artificial gravity solved right there. Just build the internals vertically like a tower block, rather than horizontally like a submarine or aeroplane. TV never does this.

      Four ships is barely a navy; it’s more like a local coast guard. With realistic propulsion you’re not even covering cislunar space with that. If you could have a larger starting navy, it would be easier to sneak people out of it covertly for the secret project. (And if it thought of itself as a coast guard, and I don’t mean the heavily-armed American sort but a more conventional one that mostly does rescues and occasional anti-pirate/smuggler operations, that gives you a good change of ethos when they have to go to war, as I assume they’re going to.)

      • Consulted on spaceflight for books, eh? It’s good to have you around, then…

        The patrol ships are basically constant thrust with an internal vertical construction. I’m honestly not entirely sure where I picked up on that notion. It might have been Clarke but the most likely explanation is BattleTech. The DropShips, or, at least, the spheroid and egg-shaped (is there a word for that? Oviod?) DropShips were pretty on-point, since they were basically huge buildings capable of atmospheric entry and spaceflight. They also traveled long distances by pointing towards the target, then flipping over at the midpoint and decelerating at the same rate. It’s goofy to realize, but they got that particular issue dead-on. They also had aerodyne DropShips that basically violated everything the spheroids did right.

        The Expanse Series by James S A Corey goes into great detail on such things and is a fantastic example of combining hard SF with a damn good story. If you haven’t read it I strongly recommend reading all the books.

        The Martian tech is, sadly, something of a missed opportunity. I mostly used it as a handwave, “Oh, hey, we can do anything now!” technology. I’m actually sketching out a total overhaul of the book in my head now and in the new version the Deimos base language is translated decades before the events of the book and new tech starts dribbling out. This would make the central human conflict easier to explain for reasons that will (hopefully) become clear. It potentially screws up one of the other driving plot points, but…now that I think about it…I just had an amazing thought.

        Also, yes, Earth Command operates a glorified Coast Guard. One of the major characters is there to allow me to show out the difficulties of the transition. The other problem that comes up is that they give command of Nightwind to the guy with the best grades, not the guy who’s necessarily best for the job. I attempted to show how that’s a problem, but, well, let’s just say I’m 100% sure I’d do a better job of that now.

      • Heh, yeah, played way too much Battletech back in the (pre-Clans) day. Sadly the fusion rockets there are a bit fast and loose with physics. For useful long-boost ships you really want a total conversion drive, or a reactionless drive (which is magic rather than tech, but you can handwave it a bit).

        If the major power hasn’t fought a space war recently (or ever), it may well not know who’s best for the job of running a warship. That’s fair enough.

  4. Pingback: Nightwind Wednesdays, Chapters 5 and 6 | Accidental Historian

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