[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. Everything is tagged under Nightwind Wednesdays. As is my custom there will be a Thursday post discussing the lessons I have learned.]
Mars Colony, United Commonwealth
May 24th, Terran Standard Calendar
1954 Terran Standard Time
The shuttle floated through the airlock of the Mars Colony’s small Transit Dome. The two men in the passenger compartment eyed the assortment of small craft and shuttles already occupying the bay.
“There,” the younger of the two men said, pointing, “Gold Brick 1.”
“You’re right, Steve,” the other man nodded. “Good eye.” He stood up and smoothed his raven hair. “Ready?”
The shuttle set down on the bay floor with a slight bump. The ramp dropped to the floor on hydraulic pistons and Commander Horatio Semmes stepped out into the muted light of the landing bay. Just over two meters tall and rail thin, Semmes carried himself with a flair otherwise unseen in the Earth Command Navy. A direct descendent of the infamous Confederate blockade runner Raphael Semmes and named after one of the greatest admirals of the age of sail, he did his best to live up to the names he proudly bore. For several years he had worn a long, bushy beard in an attempt to affect the image of a warrior from times long past. Roughly two years before he had shaved the beard and instead taken to the thin goatee which better accented his severe features. He still habitually wore a saber on his left hip, however, although he knew he would be hard pressed to use it to defend himself.
Brash and idealistic, Horatio tended to get on his superior’s nerves. He knew it had stunted his career growth. At forty-two he was the oldest active crew member of an Earth Command ship and a decade and a half above the average age of his fellow ship commanders. When the Phoenix’s former captain, David Anderson, had been reassigned at the beginning of the month and Semmes took over the ship it marked only the second time in his career that he had been in command of the ship, the first having ended when Anderson took over and he was “demoted.” He did not mind switching between the CO and XO spots, however. It wasn’t a stain on his honor by any stretch of the imagination. He knew it was a sign of respect that Earth Command entrusted him to put the finishing touches on the training of younger captains.
Chief Petty Officer Steven Tandy, the Phoenix‘s sandy haired, heavily muscled head Marine trotted down the ramp and wordlessly passed the Commander. He was on hand to cover Semmes during the meeting which was about to take place. Neither man expected any problems, but smugglers were often unpredictable and capricious.
Horatio hated what he was about to do, but knew it was of the utmost importance. Europa Colony had been fighting a plague which threatened to wipe out the entire population. A shipment of medication from Earth had been dispatched just before the panic on Earth broke out. The unescorted supply ship had been intercepted halfway to Jupiter and the medication stolen. The truly disturbing thing was the ship which had pirated away the drugs; ECS Wyvern, one of the four Earth Command patrol ships.
The Zephyr, third ship of the fleet, had mysteriously disappeared on its way back from a run to Europa soon after. Horatio suspected his old ship, the Dragon, had been involved. That ship had gone rogue at roughly the same time as the Wyvern. That left the Phoenix as the only loyal Earth Command ship and Semmes with the responsibility of getting medicine to Europa and food to the far flung Tethys colony, whose stores were dwindling.
The trip to Europa from the point where the small convoy was assembling near Luna would take nearly three weeks, and that was pushing the fat, slow freighters. The Phoenix would be outnumbered two-to-one if the rogue ships decided to attack the convoy. In an attempt to even the odds he had arranged a meeting with the captains of two heavily armed smuggling ships, the Gold Brick and Morgan’s Glory. He had been attempting to stop both for most of his career, so he knew they were good enough for the job. Calling on them for help felt very strange to him, however. He still did not know if it was a good idea. He did know, however, that the alternatives were worse.
Nondescript except for his size, Steven was there to provide cover in case the meeting did not go well. Wearing civilian clothing and a hidden sidearm, he was traveling to the pub where the meeting was to take place by a separate route.
Horatio planned on drawing attention to himself. Resplendent in his dress uniform glittering with medals and symbols of rank, he assumed he would be noticed. Due to the tight passages of the Mars Colony and the possibility he would need to move quickly, he had left the awkward sword behind. He still wore his sidearm, however. It rode low in a quick draw holster on his right hip, slapping reassuringly against his thigh as he walked.
His destination was The Dock, a small, poorly lit watering hole on the edge of one of the smaller domes that catered mostly to the criminals and lowlifes of the shipping lanes. All the experienced officers of the Navy knew where it was and who frequented it. They had rarely had the time or manpower to raid the pub, however. The Dock and its clientele had become an open secret, rarely mentioned within the military and never dealt with.
Mars authorities had never seriously attempted to arrest the smugglers and pirates, either. The colony was, to a large extent, the lawless frontier of the United Commonwealth. Practically independent from Earth, the nearly self-sufficient colony had become a haven for anyone running from authority. Corrupt officials and lackadaisical security forces had allowed the criminals a place to hide. The complete loss of authority back home had only made things worse, especially since the Phoenix was the only loyal ship left.
Reviewing what he knew of the two smugglers he was meeting, Horatio weaved his way through a series of passages. Tina Morgan was the third generation captain of the Morgan’s Glory, a small, fast freighter that had been heavily modified with enough weaponry to stand up to one of the patrol ships. The Glory had come into her possession five years before when her father, Al, “retired,” smuggler lingo for a betrayed commander. She was every bit as good as her old man, who had evaded the Navy for nearly four decades. She was also far more ruthless. Horatio suspected she had been the one to kill her old man. He also knew her only concern was the bottom line, which was how he intended to bring her in on his mission. Benito Fernandez, captain of the Gold Brick, had come into the smuggling game a completely different way. Accused of stealing medical supplies from Luna Base, he had fled on the first transport. Less than a week later the transport stopped a freighter and the crew, including Fernandez, had stripped it bare. Six months later he had led a mutiny and taken the ship. For the past thirty-four years he had captained the Gold Brick with intelligence and even-handedness, gaining a loyalty from his crew never seen among pirates or smugglers.
Horatio came to the entrance of The Dock and walked into its smoky, dim interior. The conversation in the room completely stopped as the patrons turned to look at the officer. Ignoring the stares, Semmes walked to a secluded booth near the back of the room. After a moment the din returned as the people returned to their conversations. He still felt eyes following him as he sat across from a dark-skinned, nondescript man.
“You certainly know how to make an entrance, Commander Semmes,” the man said in a confident, refined tone. “I’m surprised you have not been shot already.”
“I like to disappoint, Benito,” Horatio responded, signaling for the waitress. “What’s good here, anyway?”
The other man lifted his glass full of a dark, heavily fermented substance and took a drink. “Most of it’s the local brew, but they might have some of the good stuff from home left.”
“You know for a fact they have the good stuff?” Horatio asked. “You know I won’t drink that varnish you insist on calling a beverage.” The other man laughed as the waitress approached. “My friend here informs me you have cognac,” Horatio said.
“It’ll cost, Sir.”
“I’ll pay for it,” Fernandez tipped his glass at the waitress. “He’s an old friend.” As the waitress left he smiled at the Commander. “I’m their primary supplier,” he explained.
“So you have access to the expensive booze, but insist on drinking that stuff?” Horatio asked. “You’re nuts.”
“Have to be, out here.”
“Have to be what, Benito?” a woman asked, sliding into the booth.
“Nuts, Tina,” he said to the woman. “Kind of like you.”
She shook her head. “You’re nuts, Benito. Horatio here,” she gestured to the Commander, “Is idiotic, at the very least. I’m just good.” She fixed her left eye on Semmes. The right was covered by a black patch, making her an almost comically stereotypical outlaw. Horatio knew better than to laugh, however. “So why am I here?” she asked. “Are you going to arrest us?”
“Far from it,” Horatio shook his head. “I need your help, Tina. And yours, Benito.”
“What for?” Fernandez asked.
“Europa Colony and Odysseus Basin are desperately short on supplies. I’m organizing a convoy to take food and medicine to them.”
“Why are you talking to us, then?” Morgan asked. “We aren’t pirates.”
“I know that,” Horatio said, pausing to take his drink from the returning waitress. “I need your help escorting the convoy. The Brick and the Glory are two of the most heavily armed ships in the system.”
“And you expect the rogue Earth Command ships will hit the convoy?” Fernandez asked.
Morgan leaned forward. “It’ll cost you, Semmes,” she said.
“I’m prepared to offer five percent of the convoy load in compensation,” Horatio told her.
“Fifteen, our choice,” she countered.
“Ten, you can pick from anything but the essential medical supplies.”
Fernandez held up his hand to stop his fellow smuggler from making any further comment. “I agree to your terms, Commander,” he said. “And I’d suggest you do the same, Tina.”
“You’re signing our death warrants, Benito,” she said.
“Yes, Tina, I might be,” he said. “But if we don’t help him, we’re signing the death warrants of everyone on those colonies.”
“Why you insist upon being so noble, I’ll never understand,” she shook her head at Fernandez. “But you’re right. I’m in.”
“Thank you,” Horatio said, sliding a pair of disks across the table. “The convoy is assembling near Luna, this is the information on the rendezvous. Once I get back to my ship I’m heading straight for the assembly point. I’d appreciate it if you’d both do the same.”
“We’ll be there, Commander,” Fernandez said.
Petty Officer Tandy took the seat next to Semmes on the shuttle as the ramp closed. “Everything go okay, Sir?” he asked.
Semmes was silent until the shuttle lifted off. “Everything went according to plan, Steve,” he finally said. “They’re on board.”
“Excellent,” the Marine said.
The men fell silent for the rest of the trip up the gravity well. As the shuttle broke into orbit and vectored on the Phoenix, Tandy looked back to the planet’s surface. “Sir!” he exclaimed. “Look at that.”
Horatio turned followed his subordinate’s gaze. “What is that?” he asked.
“Looks like weapons fire in Dome 2, Sir,” he said. “And there is either a lot of it or those are some heavy guns.”
“This is not good, Steve.”
“No Sir, not good at all.”
The shuttle approached the blunt, bulbous form of the ECS Phoenix and entered the shuttle bay through the energy field protecting the room from the vacuum of space. The ramp at the rear of the craft dropped and Horatio pulled himself out. He immediately pushed off the back of the craft and over to the comm display on the wall. Grabbing a convenient support bar, he called up a view of the colony. A moment later the main dome of the colony flickered to life on the tiny screen. It was immediately obvious to Semmes that he and Tandy were right about the conditions in the dome.
“So what do we do, Commander?” Tandy asked.
Semmes shut off the viewer. “We have work to do,” he shook his head, “There is a convoy assembling over the Moon that needs escorting. The Martian Constabulary can handle things by itself.”
Tandy nodded. “Aye, Commander.”
“Then let’s get moving.”
Tau Ceti III Orbit
May 25th, 2356 Terran Standard Calendar
0645 Terran Standard Time
David watched the tactical display intently as the two attack formations converged on the stern of the Nightwind. A dozen bomber craft closed from the port side, flying straight and steady in an attempt to gain a target lock. Four larger attack craft moved in from starboard in a loose diamond formation.
“Alright, get ready, people,” David commanded. “Helm, we’ll only get one shot at this, so make it look good.”
The Nightwind hung practically motionless over the great orb of the planet below. Only the slight glow of the engines and minute adjustments of the gun turrets provided any indication the ship was capable of engaging the foes at its stern.
“Ensign Lindros?” David asked, looking up at the comm officer.
“Sir?” the young woman asked, preparing to access any part of the ship’s communication suite.
“Call Wing Commander Luchenko, make sure he’s ready.”
A moment later the rough, heavy voice of the fighter commander broke over the bridge speaker. “Yes, Keptin?” he asked with barely disguised contempt.
“Are you ready to launch?” David ignored the insolent tone. He had already won the battle with his subordinate in the launch bay nearly a week ago. All that remained was for the Wing Commander to admit defeat.
“Yes…sir,” he said, adding the second word as a distant afterthought.
“Can we trust him, Sir?” Commander Gregory asked.
“I don’t see that we have a choice,” David shrugged. “He’s a good pilot, and he knows we’re his only ride home. I think that should count for a lot.”
“Enemy craft have locked on!” Lieutenant Commander Templeton’s excited call ended any further speculation. “Launch in five seconds.”
“Helm…” David waited until the bombers were fully committed to launch. “Now!”
The young lieutenant at the helm reacted instantly. Her long fingers danced over the controls, pushing the battlecruiser through a series of complex maneuvers. All four of the ship’s powerful main engines kicked to full thrust. The ship jerked forward suddenly in a movement too quick for the ship’s gravitational compensators to counteract. The top and starboard engines suddenly switched to full reverse, further destabilizing the ship. Nightwind shuddered in protest, threatening to tear apart during the violent maneuver. She held together, however.
The unorthodox manuever had the desired effect. Within seconds the ship reversed its X and Z axes and ended up facing toward the approaching craft, almost completely “upside down” in relation to its original orientation. The sudden, violent flip took less than the length of the ship to perform. More importantly, however, it completely threw the torpedo locks off, clearing the threat board.
The engines kicked up to full power again, rocketing the ship between the two confused formations in a matter of seconds. The closing speed of the Nightwind and her assailants was far too great to allow even the roughest target lock, but David had not intended to destroy any of the attackers with the manuever. He simply set it up to force the enemy ships to react to him.
As the other ships fell astern, Nightwind again reversed course. This time the change in orientation was achieved with a wide, graceful arc to port rather than a violent flip.
The twelve Griffin-class fighters of Panther squadron exited their launch bay, shielded from view by the great bulk of the battlecruiser. As the ship completed its turn, the fighters swung under her hull, vectoring on the squadron of bombers.
“Sir,” Ensign Lindros called from the comm station. “We’re receiving a call from the lead attack ship.”
“Put it through, Ensign.”
“I think I need to introduce you to my old physics professor, Sir,” Chief Petty Officer Carter told David over the commlink.
“He’d tell you that there’s no way a ship that big can move that fast, Sir.”
“I’ll bet he’d tell me that starships can’t travel faster than the speed of light, either,” David countered.
“Maybe so, Sir. Maybe so.”
David laughed. “Alright, Tiger Squadron, Panther Squadron and shuttles, return to the barn. Get some rest.”
A chorus of “Ayes” flooded the comm channel.
David rubbed his eyes. The six days in orbit over Tau Ceti III had been busy. Deciding that it would be impossible to be over prepared for the trip to 82 Eridani, he had ordered all systems to be checked and re-checked. He had also run a series of mock engagements, using the ship’s two fighter squadrons and shuttlecraft to simulate any and every possible type of engagement. The weak-long stopover in the Tau Ceti system would be over in just under sixteen hours and David could feel the seconds ticking down.
“Call up the second crew,” David ordered. “Command crew, join me in the situation room. We have a few things to discuss. Ensign Lindros, call Wing Commander Luchenko Lieutenant MacDonough and ask them to join us.”
Without waiting for confirmation of the order, David walked off the bridge. He knew that, with the possible exception of the Wing Commander, Earth Command had assembled a superb crew for the ship. So far the problems had been few and far between, which was astounding, considering the nature of the ship and its mission. Counting his blessings, David strode down the short hallway to the conference room.
He entered and took his place at the head of the table. In short order the rest of his bridge officers took their places on either side of the table. “Before Luchenko or MacDonough get here, are there any problems anyone wants to discuss?” he asked.
He was met by silence. “So everything’s okay? Walter? Sara? Mark?” he asked each in return, receiving nods as answers.
Lieutenant MacDonough entered the room and took the empty seat next to Lieutenant Commander Templeton. “Everything alright, Vince?” David asked the Marine. For the past week the security force had been working nonstop, preparing to repel boarders, run their own boarding missions and dealing with all the general shipboard security contingencies.
“Aye, Sair. The lads are ready.”
“Good to hear.”
Wing Commander Luchenko stomped in, still in his flight suit and wearing his characteristic glower. “All fighter craft are aboard and locked down,” he said, not bothering with the formality of offering his commanding officer respect.
“Good,” David said. He began to run a quick briefing, but the conference room comm panel switched on, interrupting him.
“Sir, this is Ensign Lindros. I think you should see this.”
“Put it through Ensign, and take a break,” he ordered.
“Rome, one of Earth’s few major cities that had remained untouched in the fighting on Earth,” the anchor continued, “Was destroyed today – ” a bright flash suddenly lit the center of the city, but the Uplink cut out, leaving the story incomplete.
David mentally shook himself, knowing he needed to have composure to deal with the situation. “Okay, people. You’ve seen it, too. But we have a mission, and we need to get moving.”
Jackson looked up at the Captain. “Should we consider going back home, in light of these new developments?”
“We don’t have jurisdiction,” Gregory stood up. “Earth Command Army and police are responsible for things that happen on planet.”
“But we still have responsibility, Commander,” Jackson shot back.
David held up a hand. “More importantly people, we have our orders. Until we hear from Admiral Belden, this ship does not change its course.”
Jackson nodded. “Aye.” She looked down at the table, then straightened to face Anderson. “But how far do we go, Captain?”
“We go as far as we need to go,” David stood up. “I’m recalling everyone from Tau Ceti III now. For the next eight hours you are all off duty unless something happens. Any questions?”
The assembled officers were silent.
“Good. I’m cutting this meeting short. Any questions or issues can be brought to me privately.”
The warble of the door buzzer awakened David with a start. He looked around his quarters for a moment to regain his bearings. The lights were all on and the book he had been reading, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby sat next to him on the bed. He realized he must have dozed off while reading. The door buzzer sounded again.
“Yes?” David asked, standing up. The door, activated by his voice, opened.
Ensign Brooke Lindros, his comm officer, entered the room carrying a stack of report flimsies. “Sorry to bother you, Sir,” she said, her normally bright green eyes hooded by heavy eyelids. “But I just finished the comm check.”
“Couldn’t you have left that to Ensign Thomas?” David asked.
“I suppose, Sir,” she nodded lethargically. “But I started and decided to finish,” she said, sounding every bit as tired as she looked. She had pulled her dark hair back into a loose pony tail. Her uniform was rumpled from too many hours awake. When awake and ready Ensign Lindros was a recruiters dream. Olive skinned and willowy, she was the model of the young, attractive Naval officer, she had already gained the attention of many of the young men aboard the ship, including, David suspected, his own Executive Officer. He had no way of proving his theory and knew Commander Gregory would know better than to break protocol, but had decided to keep an eye on the situation, anyway.
He took the stack of reports. “Thank you, Ensign. Now go get some sleep. That’s a direct order.”
“Yes, Sir,” she said, turning to leave. At the door she paused, then turned back. “Permission to ask a question, Sir?” she asked, seeming uncertain.
“Of course, Ensign.”
“Well, Captain,” she hesitated.
“Go on,” David had learned right away that there was far more to the young woman than her appearance. She was dedicated, hard working and more than willing to question orders or traditions. Rather than attempting to suppress her independence, David had cultivated it. He found free thought to be a refreshing and rare commodity in the iconoclast Earth Command Navy.
“Well, Sir,” she found her courage. “I was wondering why we’re continuing on to 82 Eridani. Doesn’t Earth need us?”
“Earth needs us to do our jobs, Ensign.”
“With all due respect, Sir,” she said, “You’re wrong. I’ve been studying the transmissions from Earth. There’s far more to this than what we’ve been told.”
“Oh? Like what, Ensign?”
Warming to the subject, she called up a program on his desktop terminal. A map of the Earth appeared on the screen. “The situation doesn’t fit a panic. Several high level government officials and most of the top military brass were killed by assassins or have barely escaped attempts on their lives. Within a week over seventy conflicts have broken out, despite three hundred years of peace.” Pulsing dots now covered the map, red dots, David supposed she was right, and they were at least seventy in number, indicated open fighting. Many more amber dots showed the locations of riots and civil discontent. From the map, David could see almost no location untouched by some sort of problem. “There’s no way that this should have happened,” she continued, “Without some sort of plan. Now I’ve been looking into the Earth Now organization and it’s leader, Robert Laird –”
“But I’m a naval Captain,” he interrupted, nonplussed by the information. “Why is this my responsibility?”
“Because Nightwind is one of two surviving Earth Command Navy ships, Sir,” she said.
“That can’t be,” David responded, incredulous. “Captain Turner of the Dragon and Captain Hunt of the Zephyr are more than capable of handling things, and I left Phoenix in the capable hands of Commander Semmes. Even if Wyvern has gone rogue, as the rumors state, that’s more than enough to handle things.”
“That may be, Sir,” she said, “But Phoenix is the only reliable ship left. Zephyr has been out of contact for three days and the Dragon seems to have gone rogue.” She pulled up contact logs proving the point.
“How did you learn all this?”
“I’m a comm officer, Captain. It’s my job.”
David sighed heavily, wondering for a moment why he had allowed his subordinate so much freedom to speak. “Thank you, Ensign, for bringing this to my attention.” He put his hand on her elbow and ushered her to the door. “I’m sure the trip to 82 Eridani won’t take very long. We’ll be able to get home before things get any worse.”
“But what if we don’t, Sir?” she asked.
“I appreciate your concern,” David said, attempting to be tactful despite his annoyance. “I really do. But we have orders which haven’t changed.”
Her eyes widened. “Of course they haven’t changed, Sir,” she exclaimed. “Everyone at home is dead!”
“I’m sure not everyone is dead,” David said, refusing to humor her.
“Haven’t you seen any of the news reports, Captain? Earth is swamped in riots. Wars over centuries-old issues are breaking out all over the globe.” She stopped as the Captain shot her an annoyed look.
Anderson stared at her in silence. “Are you done now?” he finally asked.
“Then do me a favor and allow me to do my job.”
“I have a job to do, Ensign, and my orders remain unchanged.”
“Fine, Sir,” she said, exasperated. “But remember: I warned you.”
“I certainly will, Ensign Lindros,” David said, closing the door and returning to his book.