The Force Awakens: Barely Better than the Prequels

Yesterday’s post was going to contain my final thoughts on Star Wars the Force Awakens, but it’s been such an inescapable pop culture suck for the last few months that I can’t not think about it. It’s odd, when you think about it. I think we can all agree that JJ Abrams was handed a project with a bar so low he couldn’t help but clear it. That project then ended up being attached to a hype train I don’t think we’ve ever seen before. Disney could have spent exactly zero dollars advertising the new movie and still gotten wall-to-wall coverage, since every other commercial has been Star Wars related even, hell, especially if it’s something that’s not-at-all Star Wars-y.[1]

The part at the end inevitably left me with two questions: first, where does the Force Awakens rank in the Star Wars universe overall and, second, is Star Wars the Force Awakens actually good? Given the nature of this post I would say it’s time to assume there will be spoilers. Such things are unavoidable, so if you don’t want to see any spoilers just, y’know, stop reading.

In order to answer those questions it’s necessary to establish a baseline. Let’s talk about three recent sci-fi movies and my reactions to them: Pacific Rim, Jurassic World, and Avengers: Age of Ultron.

First, there’s Pacific Rim. I am an unabashed fan of that movie. The first time I ever heard of it there was exactly one thing I wanted in the world: for Pacific Rim to be in my brain. In the weeks leading up to the actual release of the film it occurred to me finally that Pacific Rim might actually suck. I saw it on opening night in a regular theater. Over the course of the next 2 weeks I saw it three more times in IMAX 3D. I own it on Blu-Ray and have watched it several times. Hell, I was thinking of watching it today.

Second, there’s Age of Ultron. I was moderately excited for that one, given that I’ve enjoyed the MCU so far and I thought The Avengers was awesome, to the point where it’s now on FX’s regular rotation and I will watch the final fight scene in New York City pretty much every time it comes on. I saw Age of Ultron in IMAX 3D and then thought about going back to see it again and I just couldn’t bring myself to summon the energy.

Third, there’s Jurassic World. When I first saw they were making the movie my reaction was, “Who is asking for this, seriously?” I went and saw it in IMAX 3D not because I really wanted to, but because I figured it would be a spectacular failure and I wanted to see said spectacular failure in the most spectacular way possible. Then they took the train through the doors to the park and did that helicopter swoosh down the park’s main thoroughfare to the Jurassic Park music and the little hairs on the back of my neck stood up and, long story short, I’ve seen that movie three times in IMAX 3D.

In the weeks following the releases of Pacific Rim and Jurassic World I saw plenty of articles ripping those movies apart. They were called dumb. Little details and reasonable size plot holes were picked apart. I was basically called an idiot for enjoying such stupid movies. The thing about it is that those articles didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t already figured out on my own. I saw both movies three times in the biggest possible format.

There is no such thing as the perfect movie. We as a society have pretty much hit upon a formula where we can identify and more-or-less agree with each other about which movies are good and which ones are bad and then we can usually get to an agreement to the level of “so bad it’s good” and “fell just short of good and became awful.”

The place where problems and arguments start is that we have a hard time really coming up with a common understanding of how to deal with things like plot holes and general ridiculousness. Like, with Pacific Rim there was the question of, “Why didn’t they mention the damn sword earlier? Isn’t that convenient?” and, “No, really, giant robots punching giant monsters in the face? What the fuck, man?” I saw those things and kind of shrugged them away while others saw them and were all, “Well this is just goddamn stupid.” Which is something I knew already, since I went in expecting to see a movie about giant robots punching giant monsters in their giant faces. This might have been the Citizen Kane of Humongous Mecha movies, but it was still a Humongous Mecha movie, which means it was never going to actually be Citizen Kane.

So from there we have to fall back to the question, “What is this movie about?” In the case of Pacific Rim it was Guillermo del Toro penning a love letter to a whole genre of movies with a little bit of environmentalism thrown in. It could have been awful but they picked a great cast who got into the ridiculousness wholeheartedly and made the question, “Would this look really fucking cool in IMAX 3D?” their guiding principle. In the case of Jurassic World it was actually more complicated. I realized early on that first time I saw it that the movie was actually a meta-movie about how summer blockbusters had changed, both for the better and worse, since Jurassic Park first came out.

The interesting thing about both Pacific Rim and Jurassic World is that both movies were full of references, callbacks, and Easter eggs. I can’t really speak to Pacific Rim, since I’m not really familiar with the genre as a whole, so I’ll just talk Jurassic World. Many of the setup shots in that movie were meant to directly mimic shots in Jurassic Park. There was, of course, the scene where the technician guy got called out for wearing a Jurassic Park t-shirt, which seemed a bit heavy-handed but it also served as a piece of the meta-plot about the making of movies itself. It was there for a reason that did actually go beyond, “Hey, wouldn’t it be hilarious if we had a guy wearing a shirt from the 1993 movie?”

This is why while I admit that Avengers: Age of Ultron is a good movie I also didn’t care about it all that much and certainly not as much as I cared about The Avengers. Age of Ultron wasn’t about anything more than moving the Marvel Cinematic Universe forward. Yeah, it had the metaplot about the modern surveillance state and making ourselves into monsters because we obsess over fighting monsters, but on a deep, fundamental level the movie just existed to fill out a spot on Marvel’s schedule of taking over the world. It felt perfunctory and, if I’m completely honest, I’ve cared less about the MCU since I saw it than I did before, since it showed that the MCU exists to keep the MCU existing and keep all that money rolling in so that it can keep going.

So with this in mind we must go to Star Wars.

George Lucas started telling the stories in Star Wars because he wanted to tell the story of the Hero’s Journey. In the original movie he nailed the format and we could have just left it at that. But we didn’t and Lucas almost immediately started compromising his vision. What was the underlying message of Return of the Jedi, after all? It was, “Go to the store and buy toys!” That’s why the Ewoks were in the picture. To sell toys to children. Even so, Return of the Jedi couldn’t help but be a good movie, since the franchise had so much momentum coming out of The Empire Strikes Back and we still had to finish up the stories of Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine and Luke and Leia and Han. In all honesty the world of Star Wars should have just stopped right there. But people being people the fanboys couldn’t leave well enough alone.

So what did George Lucas do? He created a two-hour toy commercial. Jar Jar Binks was the new Ewoks. Darth Maul’s ridiculous double-bladed lightsaber was there to look cool on the shelves at the Toys R Us. Lucas’s vision was compromised from the start since he didn’t actually care about making a Star Wars movie. Even if Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith had ended up being really good movies the prequels might have been sunk by that first movie. Which sucks, because there was an interesting story in there somewhere.

So this forces us to ask the question, “What is the underlying message of Star Wars the Force Awakens?”

That message is as simple as it is misguided. It’s, “Hey, look everybody, I, JJ Abrams, can totally make a Star Wars movie! Isn’t that neat?” That’s it. That’s the great message of the new Star Wars movie. JJ Abrams proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he’s capable of chopping up the plot points of the two objectively great Star Wars movies and reassembling them in a slightly different order. And even at that he hasn’t proved that he can do it well.

First of all, there’s the minor problem that Abrams seems to have mistaken making references to things that already happened for good moviemaking. Every single thing that happens in The Force Awakens is a call-out to something that happened in either Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back. Most of the scenes are designed to be direct compositional callouts. Most of the sets are designed to look like other places we’ve already been. He’s got a whole galaxy to play with and all he can think to do is make a desert planet, an ice planet, and a shady bar filled with crazy looking aliens. He could have pulled his villain from anywhere but all he could think to do there was make a new Darth Vader right down to the same exact origin story.

That part could have been an interesting meta-commentary on how good and evil are cyclical, but he even fucked that one up pretty badly. Kylo Renn is a bad character in general and a worse big bad. Interestingly enough he’s bad for the exact same reasons Anakin Skywalker was a bad…whatever we want to call him from the prequels. We already know him too well. This is actually where we get to the truth that an origin story for a villain is really, really, incredibly hard to do well, especially if everyone knows that the origin story in question is for a villain.

The great thing about Darth Vader was that we knew basically nothing about him.[2] He’s only actually on screen for maybe 15 minutes of the run time of the original movie. What does he do in that time? He captures Leia, he Force chokes his own Admiral, he blows up a goddamn planet just to make a point, and then he kills Obi-Wan. That is a terrifying dude.

I’ve already talked about this, but we already know Kylo Renn too well. Abrams couldn’t wait to spoil his parentage. He then had a temper tantrum and destroyed a room. Then he took off his mask and pitched a fit and let Rey know that he was scared of her. What the fuck kind of villain does that? It makes him look weak and pathetic and the exact opposite of scary. He had the hero at his mercy and ended up being all, “Ehrmagerd, you’re more powerful than me. I’ma go run to my giant orc hologram buddy for help.” And in the next scene he was standing there without his damn mask whining away to his boss. No. Just…no. I could not take him seriously as a bad guy at that point.[3]

Oh, also, Supreme Leader Snoke is a terrible character. It apparently never occurred to JJ Abrams that it might be hard to take a bad guy who looks like Voldemort and Gollum had a love child who nearly died in a house fire. And making him a hundred-foot tall hologram just makes him, well, let’s just say I’m guessing he drives a big ol’ SUV with truck nutz hanging off the back. At this point the only thing that can possibly redeem Supreme Leader Snoke is if we have a Wizard of Oz moment and it turns out that he’s actually an old man behind a curtain. Or Jar Jar Binks. Or Admiral Ackbar, who started the First Order[4] as an elaborate false flag to get more military funding from the Republic.[5]

And here we get to the part that’s sure to make me plenty of enemies on the internet and will also make me friends with people I don’t want to be friends with. Rey is not a good character. She’s a full-on Mary Sue fanfic insert who was impossible to take seriously as a character.

This is absolutely not because Rey is a woman. Let me make that clear right now. I actually think it’s fantastic that the two leads of the movie are a woman and a black dude. I think it’s awesome that we have a female Jedi. I think it’s fantastic that Rey figured out how to take care of herself. I just wish they’d managed to do all of that in a way that wasn’t just totally, mind-numbingly stupid.

Rey starts the movie as a presumably uneducated orphan living in the leg of a dead AT-AT walker on a planet that makes Tatooine look positively civilized. By the end of the movie she’s figured out how to fly and repair the Millennium Falcon, how to use her Jedi mind tricks to get a Stormtrooper to release her from custody, use the Force to telekinetically grab a lightsaber that another Jedi who is trained and also physically closer to it is also reaching for, and how to beat a bigger, stronger, actually trained Jedi in lightsaber combat. Yet she doesn’t receive a moment of training for any of that and there’s nothing in her backstory that indicates she has any sort of training in anything but stripping parts from busted Star Destroyers.

She actually completely destroyed my ability to suspend my disbelief almost immediately.[6] The First Order tracks BB-8 down and she and Finn have to beat a hasty retreat. So they end up stealing the Millennium Falcon and trying to outrun a couple TIE fighters. This leads to that most tired sci-fi cliché: the attempt to shake the bad guys by flying through an impossibly tight space at high speeds, in this case the hulk of a crashed Star Destroyer. This is the Millennium Falcon. It’s a really wide ship with the cockpit all the way over on the far right. Taking it into tight spaces at high speed within moments of taking off for the first time is a recipe for disaster. But it all works out great because double plot armor, I guess.

Then in the middle of the movie she finds out she’s a Jedi. By the end of the movie she’s a pretty kick-ass Jedi even though she’s never even met another Jedi. Why? I’m guessing it’s because JJ Abrams couldn’t figure out a way to actually make a believable movie.

Let’s go back to the original Star Wars. Luke finds out he’s a Jedi. Yet throughout the first movie he’s still pretty much helpless. The only moment he actually uses the Force is at the very end. Meanwhile, he can fly an X-Wing because he already knows how to fly and we can only assume there was an off-screen moment where Jek Porkins and Wedge Antilles showed him how to find the on switch and the trigger mechanism. The first time we see Luke use the telekinetic Force grab trick is in The Empire Strikes Back when he’s trying to escape from the Wampa and that takes him quite a bit of effort.

What this all illustrates is that JJ Abrams doesn’t actually understand what drove George Lucas to create Star Wars in the first place. Lucas had a vision. Yes, he compromised that vision as soon as he realized he could make enough money to make Scrooge McDuck jealous, but at the beginning he had a vision and he created an enduring movie because he followed through on that vision and understood what it was all about.

JJ Abrams doesn’t have a vision. JJ Abrams knows that Star Wars is cool and that he wanted to make a Star Wars. So he went out and made a Star Wars. That’s good for him, I guess. But I would argue that JJ Abrams’ lack of vision caused The Force Awakens to fail almost as badly as George Lucas’s compromised vision caused the prequels to fail. The only thing that’s saved him so far is that the bar was literally set at, “I’ll love it if it doesn’t have Jar Jar Binks.” But Lucas managed to clear that bar in Revenge of the Sith. I don’t recall anyone saying nice things about that movie.

The one saving grace for the Star Wars franchise is that we probably won’t get a Star Wars Into Darkness, though. We already know that Rian Johnson is directing Episode VIII. He did Looper and Brick, so we can only hope that this means we’ll find out that Joseph Gordon-Leavitt is actually pulling the holographic strings for Supreme Leader Snoke. I would be totally okay with that.

Seriously, though. How do you complain about Jar Jar Binks and give Snoke a pass? He’s easily as dumb even if he isn’t as annoying.

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[1]”Go buy some jewelry in your new Fiat 500 Abarth and then see Star Wars the Force Awakens, in theaters December 17th!” Huh? What?

[2]This, incidentally, is the mark of any good movies’ treatment of the bad guy. We should not know the bad guy beyond their powers and their presumed intentions. We should spend all of our time watching the good guys scramble around to try to figure out what’s going on and how to stop it. Think about it in terms of movies I’ve already discussed. In Jurassic Park and Jurassic World the dinosaurs that are terrorizing everyone are barely on screen. They break out of their pens. They have big set-pieces to set up the whole, “Yeah, that’s why we should be terrified,” and then they kinda just…disappear for a bit and let us worry that they’re around every corner. In Pacific Rim we never actually really even see the real bad guys. The Kaiju are just their foot soldiers and we only see their dimension for a moment at the end, leaving everyone to wonder who the fuck these guys are and how they’ve decided that bio-engineering thousand-ton killing machines and sending them through a hole in the ocean floor is actually a good plan. In The Avengers we do see Loki quite a bit, but he follows the same pattern and we see way more of the Avengers trying to get their shit together.

[3]This, weirdly, reminds me of nothing so much as Superman Returns, or whatever that movie was called. There was a scene in that movie where Lois Lane snuck aboard Lex Luthor’s yacht and all of the sudden runs into him…while he’s brushing his teeth. That was actually a great scene in an otherwise terrible movie and not just because Kevin Spacey is awesome. See, Lex Luthor is a regular human who’s trying to come up with a plot that has to get around the fact that at some point god hisownself will notice and step in to stop him. So when we see Lex Luthor brushing his teeth it drives home the point that he’s just a human. Which makes it all the more impressive that he’s going through with his plan to try to kill god.

[4]Also, I’ve realized that I spent almost all of yesterday’s post calling the First Order the New Order. I cannot be arsed to change that, since I actually don’t care. The names are both just so generically boring.

[5]It’s a trap!

[6]This scene also has a patented “JJ Abrams doesn’t have a fucking clue how anything works” series. First, the Millennium Falcon, which has been sitting under a tarp in the desert, just starts right up. Second, Rey manages to crash it into literally everything while trying to lift off. She hits the ground a couple of times and plows through an archway. There’s no way that would end well for a spaceship.

JJ Abrams is a Terrible Director and His Star Wars Movie is Not Good

I spent all of last week annoying my friends on Facebook with my hate-boner for JJ Abrams. So let’s get this out of the way right now: I do not like JJ Abrams. I think he’s overrated as fuck, I think it’s bizarre that people keep backing dump trucks full of money up to his house, and I think he’s really bad at making movies and televisions shows and probably his morning bowl of cereal.[1]

Mocking JJ Abrams might seem like an odd thing to do in the week leading up to the release of Star Wars The Force Awakens. It might seem to the uninitiated that I was doing it because I wanted to be that guy. This is not actually the case. I was planning on seeing the new Star Wars opening weekend, if for no other reason than to immunize myself from the unavoidable spoilers. In truth I wasn’t planning on it at all, except for the first thing I saw on Monday morning.

That is the worst thing that’s ever happened to Star Trek, hands down. It also somehow damages the Beastie Boys and insults two different film franchises with the line “From the Director of Fast & Furious.” I didn’t think it was possible to insult the movies Vin Diesel keeps making to keep his dreams of a Riddickverse alive, but here we are.

My big beef with JJ Abrams all week was basically how he’s an asshole who doesn’t understand Star Trek and gives no shits about the fans of Star Trek. The fact is, though, that I could (and, probably, have) said the same thing about Rick Berman and Brannon Braga and yet I haven’t spent weeks at a time mocking those douchebags on Facebook.[2]

I have now seen Star Wars The Force Awakens. I have also hate-watched Star Trek Into Darkness because it was on FX and I was out of random episodes of America Unearthed to laugh at.[3] I have many, many thoughts about JJ Abrams now. Also, I’ve been referring to him as Jar Jar Abrams since Friday. I shamelessly stole that from someone else.

Let’s start at the beginning (for me): Lost. Lost was, for a couple seasons, one of the best things going on TV. It was an intoxicating mystery that, in many ways, helped launch the current golden age of television. It came up right as hanging out on the internet and discussing pop culture was going completely mainstream. This was the early days of Facebook and the rise of blogs and the point where hanging out on message boards trading fan theories was stepping out of the realm of nerds on Usenet into the realm of everyone’s mother and crazy uncle. I think this is why JJ Abrams got the reputation he did. Lost was that one pup culture artifact that happened to be in the exact right place at the exact right time with the exact right formula to capture the cultural zeitgeist. Had Lost happened a few years earlier it would have been a blip. Had it happened a few years later it would have been lost in discussions of Game of Thrones, Doctor Who, and Breaking Bad.

Lost is now a footnote because in the end it sucked. JJ Abrams knew how to start a mystery but had no idea how to finish it. He also didn’t give a shit about that, because by that time other people had taken over and he’d gone off to do Fringe, which was basically marketed as “The guy who did Lost is doing The X-Files.” Also, it sucked. Then he did Undercovers. Oh, you don’t remember that? Neither does anyone else.

Somewhere around there Paramount backed a dump truck full of money up to his house and asked him to do Star Trek. It made sense at the time, I suppose. Star Trek was basically a dead franchise and Abrams was the hot hand on the sci-fi scene. The fact of the matter is that the first Star Trek movie in the JJverse wasn’t really that bad. It wasn’t particularly Trek, but it wasn’t particularly bad.

It did begin to expose the truth about JJ Abrams that I’d come to realize somewhere in the middle of Lost. In short, JJ Abrams knows absolutely nothing about science. Part of the reason that Lost fell apart and Fringe never got off the ground is because JJ Abrams could never come up with a believable scientific explanation for anything that happened. It was kind of okay in the TV shows because the entire point was that the things that happened defied scientific explanation, but whenever he tried to use real science to explain what was being broken on the shows it was laughably bad. Star Trek is a different beast because while Star Trek often falls back on technobabble it still tries to honor hard sci-fi concepts.

JJ Trek didn’t even try to understand that. First of all, the central plot is impossible to take seriously. Basically, a star somewhere went supernova and then, somehow, destroyed the central star of the Romulus system. This is scientifically impossible. Period. End of story. A star going supernova is immediately catastrophic to its own solar system. It might then push out enough radiation to eventually be really bad for nearby star systems, but that’s something that would happen years or decades later, depending on distance. The Star Trek reboot had Spock racing against time to save Romulus from a catastrophic event no one saw coming. Then there was the matter of Scotty’s miracle transporter that allowed him to transport from a planet onto the Enterprise which was moving at warp speed. No. Just…no. Transporters in Star Trek had a range of a few tens or hundreds of kilometers between relatively fixed points except in the most extreme circumstances. Scotty’s transporter could transport matter a few light years onto a target moving many times faster than the speed of light.

It was some time after the Star Trek reboot came out that news broke JJ Abrams was getting the helm of Star Wars. I still remember my initial reaction and it was fairly positive. All of the things that made JJ Abrams a lousy choice for Star Trek actually made him a decent choice for Star Wars. Star Wars is not and never has been science fiction in the way Star Trek is. Star Wars is mythology with lasers. JJ Abrams tells mythological tales that use sci-fi elements.

It’s here that my major problems with JJ Abrams begin, though. Sometime after the news of JJ Abrams’ new role in Star Wars broke I saw Super 8 and Star Trek Into Darkness. This is where I began to realize that JJ Abrams is actually a really bad director.

Let’s start with Super 8. It basically sets out to answer the question, “What if we re-made ET, but ET was a big scary monster instead of a cuddly little dude?” That’s really all it is. Super 8 just re-makes ET but doesn’t do it as well. If it were anybody other than JJ Abrams who made that movie the headlines would have been “Director makes bad ET ripoff.” Somehow JJ Abrams got away with it, though.

Star Trek Into Darkness, meanwhile, pissed me off literally from the first 30 seconds I knew about it. I still remember seeing the first trailer released online with the big, central mystery of who Benedict Cumberbatch’s Big Bad was and realizing before the trailer was over that Cumberbatch was Khan Noonien Singh. Abrams could have gone anywhere and done anything but all he did was remake Wrath of Khan. But then he remade it so, so much worse. There’s a dumb plot of going to war with the Klingons and the Enterprise takes on the Reliant’s role of the smaller, weaker ship that has to outsmart the big, powerful warship. There’s also some bog-standard JJ Abrams awful science, this time in the form of a transporter that allows Noonedict CumberKhan to transport from San Francisco to the Klingon homeworld of Qo’nos in the matter of seconds. This is universe-breaking stuff that Abrams just basically ignores because he’s too fucking lazy to come up with something believable, like, say, Khan transporting to a goddamn ship that then hauls ass for Qo’nos. It also contains a lot of JJ Abrams’ signature references to things fans will get as a stand-in for actually creating something fans will like. For instance, when Kirk, Spock, and Uhura try to sneak into Klingon space it’s in a ship that the Enterprise apparently confiscated from Harvey Mudd and a Tribble makes for an important plot point. Also Carol Marcus is in the movie and gratuitously prances about in her underwear for some reason.

The Star Trek Beyond trailer, meanwhile, looks like it’s just The Search for Spock to Star Trek Into Darkness’s Wrath of Khan. But it looks more like it belongs in the Marvel Cinematic Universe than anything. Because Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers are hot shit right now and Paramount doesn’t care about anything but dollar signs.[4]

My whole point here, though, is that Abrams has two gears: original ideas that are all promise with no payoff or blatant rip-offs of something someone else already did better. The latter category is fine and can give us some great stories. For instance, there was a little film in the late ‘70s called Star Wars that was created by a man named George Lucas who was just ripping off Akira Kurosawa and some other directors. Quentin Tarantino has made an entire career of making films that just say, “Hey, remember when so-and-so made that one movie? Wasn’t that awesome?”

JJ Abrams is just following in that grand tradition. The problem is that JJ Abrams is really, incredibly fucking bad at it. However, to explain why I need to talk about Star Wars The Force Awakens. So, please, don’t scroll below the footnotes if you don’t want to see spoilers. If you’ve seen it or don’t care feel free to scroll down.

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[1]He puts the milk in first and then claims it’s because that’s how Spielberg does it. But he pours it right up to the rim. Then he pours a bag of Reese’s Pieces in.

[2]To the uninitiated: the first season or so of Star Trek: The Next Generation was pretty much awful. Gene Roddenberry was dying and definitely going through a Howard Hughes phase at the end. Berman stepped in and basically saved the show from season 2 or 3 on and made it great. Then he and Braga started Deep Space 9, which was pretty much awful for the first couple seasons. Then they decided they’d rather do Voyager and handed the show over to Ira Steven Behr, if I recall. After that it got really good. Voyager, meanwhile, occupies the same space in my mind as the Star Wars prequels. Berman and Braga then did Enterprise, which had a lot of potential and a lot of stupidity, an absolutely inexcusable third season, and finally had a good season in its fourth and final season when they handed the show over to Manny Coto. But that’s just inside baseball, since no one knows or cares who Rick Berman and Brannon Braga are, anyway.

[3]I can no longer take Ancient Aliens, so America Unearthed is my current stupid Bullshit Channel conspiracy show of choice. It follows the adventures of forensic geologist Scott Wolter as he tries to prove that the Knights Templar made it to America and get The History Channel to fund his vacations to Europe and China.

All in all, I’ve realized I fucked up by not being a crazy conspiracy theorist. Apparently you can get TV networks to pay you to travel to really cool parts of the world and all you have to do is look like an idiot on TV for an hour a week. That seems like a great trade-off.

There’s one episode where Scott Wolter tries to prove the Gavin Menzies theory that China discovered America. It doesn’t directly reference Gavin Menzies, but I nearly had an aneurysm anyway.

[4]I can’t entirely hold this one against Abrams, as he’s just Executive Producer. Paramount brought in the guy from Fast & Furious to direct and nearly gave poor Simon Pegg an aneurysm by forcing him to do re-writes because his original scripts were “too Trek-y.” I feel bad for Simon Pegg.

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Star Wars the Force Awakens Spoilers begin below.

Spoilers incoming.

Stop scrolling if you don’t want to see spoilers.

Spoiler warning.

Warning.

Spoilers be here!

STOP NOW BEFORE THE SPOILERS!

Spoilers in 5

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Okay, I feel I’ve done my due diligence. So we’re going to talk about JJ Abrams’ incursion into Star Wars.

First of all, I know that the House of Mouse threw out the Extended Universe when it bought Star Wars from Lucasfilm. That’s fine. I am familiar with the Extended Universe and think it would have been awesome to see Timothy Zahn’s trilogy as the base story for JJ Abram’s incursion into Star Wars but also understood it was extremely unlikely we’d see it. I’m okay with that. What I’m not okay with is what we actually got.

All Abrams did was mash together Episodes IV and V and call it a day. I cannot stress this enough. That is the entirety of what happened with Star Wars Episode VII.

For one thing, in the opening crawl we’re informed that there are now three factions: the Empire-esque First Order, the new Republic, and the Leia Organa Solo-led Resistance. Why is there a Resistance? We don’t really know. It’s just there and it’s General Leia and a couple dozen X-Wings on a secret base. We’re also informed that there’s a Resistance agent trying to find the location of Luke Skywalker.

So we go to the planet Jakku. Where we meet a hotshot pilot who has just gotten a bit of secret information. Stormtroopers show up. Our pilot friend puts the information in BB-8, which is this movie’s R2-D2, and sends BB-8 off across a desert planet on its own. Anyone who doesn’t immediately have flashbacks to Leia putting the Death Star plans into R2-D2 and ejecting R2-D2 and C-3PO to Tatooine has never seen the original Star Wars movie. It’s the same goddamn scene. Jakku, just in case you miss the parallels, also has moisture farms like Tatooine and its own Jawa analogs. It’s also eventually where Rey, Finn, and BB-8 just so happen to steal the Millennium Falcon to escape from the New Order.

In the interim we meet Kylo Renn, the Big Bad, who’s introduced exactly like Darth Vader in the first movie. It quickly becomes obvious that he’s Han Solo’s son because JJ Abrams has never met a mystery he can’t telegraph from a mile away. This is a huge problem, by the way. In the first big fight scene one of the characters tells Kylo Renn he knows what his real identity is and it seems like this big, fascinating mystery…right up until the next time we see Kylo where we’re told who his father is. At that point I guess there could be a mystery as to the mother, but, really, who could it possibly be? I’ll give you three guesses and the first two don’t count.

Also, Kylo Renn is a shitty big bad. I hate to say this, but he’s way more prequel Anakin Skywalker than Darth Vader. He whines, he obviously has an inferiority complex compared to the movie’s Grand Moff Tarkin equivalent, and we see him throw multiple temper tantrums on screen. He’s a terrible character and by the time we get to the last big fight I found myself wishing they’d Darth Maul him away at the end. Seriously, though, Star Wars can only go as far as the villains and if the villain is a whiny little shit there’s nothing to talk about. Kylo Renn is a whiny little shit.

So they try to escape from the Empire, erm, New Order, but the hyperdrive fails. Which is exactly like the asteroid field sequence in The Empire Strikes Back, right down to the Millennium Falcon getting swallowed by something much bigger, but in this case it’s a giant freighter crewed by Han Solo and Chewbacca, who just so happen to show up to set up a long action sequence while they’re all literally in the same system as a goddamn Star Destroyer that has a vested interest in tracking our heroes because, again, JJ Abrams knows fuck-all about how space works.

They then take the Millennium Falcon to a bar run by Moz Kantana, because it would be totally weird if they went to the Mos Eisley Cantina. There’s another giant set piece battle. During said battle the New Order fires off its current superweapon, which is a giant laser built into the Death Planet. The Death Planet is the Death Star, but basically dug into a planet and, therefore, on a much larger scale. Because that’s how Star Wars works. The Death Planet fires a big-ass laser that somehow can be seen instantaneously from multiple planets across the galaxy, including the one that our plucky heroes are on, and then somehow splits into 5 beams that destroy 5 different planets/moons in a single system. I will admit that this immediately took me out of the movie because, seriously, how the goddamn fuck does that work? The answer is that it only works in a universe controlled by JJ Abrams.

Scientifically speaking, however, even if that were possible it sure as shit wouldn’t be visible from another planet in another system at the same time. For me what it actually did was make the universe too small. It basically forced me to imagine that the superweapon, the planets and moons that made up the Republic, and the random planet where our heroes were fighting for their lives were all in the same star system. This wasn’t a galaxy-wide conflict. It was a fight for control of a single star.

And so but anyway, after the scientifically impossible superweapon (which draws its power by pulling 100% of the energy from a star, by the way. This does not, apparently, exhaust the star, as the weapon doesn’t seem to have any sort of drive capability and they charge the weapon enough for 2 shots during the movie)  destroys the Republic by blowing up a half dozen planets/moons in a single star system and zero warships our heroes realize they need to go to the Resistance’s secret base. They end up on not-Yavin 4 where Leia is leading the Resistance and its totally-not-Rogue-Squadron. This, again, is a JJ Abrams-level fail. He cannot conceptualize a universe where the Galactic Republic is fighting on more-or-less equal footing against the remnants of the post-Return of the Jedi Empire, so he makes this New Order the new Empire, destroys the Republic with a line of dialog, and now it’s the Resistance against the New Order, which is the Rebellion against the Empire and we don’t have to actually think about it.

This is actually a place where Star Wars the Force Awakens fails miserably to match up to Lucas’s prequel trilogy. As bad as that trilogy was Lucas at least had the ability to imagine what it would look like to see a galaxy at war against itself. We saw the Trade Federation and Old Republic build navies and throw them at each other. That’s what the new Star Wars movies should look like. The New Republic has built a navy and is trying to drive the remnants of the Empire from their strongholds. Instead we have the New Order with a single Star Destroyer, some TIE fighters, and a superweapon against the Millennium Falcon and a dozen X-Wings. That’s the same damn movie George Lucas made in 1977 with a budget of ten bucks and no CGI. There’s even a gratuitous Trench Run sequence because JJ Abrams has never met a reference to a better movie he can’t flog for all it’s worth.

So here we come to it. JJ Abrams made a Star Wars movie in the tradition of the JJ Abrams Star Trek movies. Which is to say he made an okay movie that used up all of his good ideas and still had major problems. The Force Awakens isn’t terrible, but it’s definitely the canary in the coal mine for whatever comes next much like the Star Trek reboot presaged Into Darkness. It’s not that JJ Abrams can’t recognize good movies, it’s just that he thinks making references and stealing the plot from good movies means that his movies are good. They’re not. They’re derivative and referential.

So I’m going to call it now. While we’re not all getting our hate on for JJ Abrams destroying Star Wars like we did back when Lucas shat out The Phantom Menace that won’t last long. The Star Trek reboot didn’t shit all over the Star Trek legacy, after all. But Into Darkness did and holy shit does Beyond look terrible so far. Just remember that I told you this would happen right around the time we all first see the trailer for Star Wars Episode VIII and it’s about how Boba Fett is building an even bigger Death Planet and Rey, Finn, and Chewbacca have to join forces with the Smurf people of Rodne to stop it.

Considering the Atomic Bomb

I find myself thinking about atomic bombs.

When the subject of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki come up it’s almost always in isolation. People who are against it only talk in terms of their belief that the attacks were barbaric and unnecessary. People who are for it only talk in terms of their belief that the attack was necessary to stop the much, much greater destruction that would be caused by an American invasion of the Japanese islands. I admit that I have often fallen under this trap myself. It cannot and should not be thought of in those terms, however.

The dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the final action in three decades of insanity that gripped the entire globe. That number is almost exact, since it was an event that occurred in early 1915 that precipitated the entire event. It was there that the idea of attacking civilians became normal, expected even.

Throughout most of recorded history there was a notion that warfare was, somehow, civilized. Well, maybe not civilized, so much, but certainly subject to rules. Those rules, in turn, were as much a product of available technology as any sort of desire on the part of men to be kind to other men. The basic explanation is two-fold. First, until the last century or so it was really hard for people to kill each other. Second, throughout most of human history killing civilians was a giant waste. They were much more useful as workers or slaves.

The instances of indiscriminate attacks on civilians are fairly rare throughout recorded history. That doesn’t mean they’re nonexistent. The Viking raids on the British Isles come to mind, for one. Even so, the Viking attacks were borne of practicality. They hit monasteries because monks make terrible warriors and usually had gold. They were also generally isolated, making for easy pickings. Genghis Khan occasionally wiped towns off the map. Even that was usually pragmatic. It was a way of making sure that everyone else knew not to fuck with the Golden Horde.

Attacks against civilians, overall, were rare though. The reason is fairly simple. It was exceptionally hard to kill people throughout most of history. If you need to run someone through with a spear or hack their head off at the neck with an axe you have to be there. You have to think about it. You have to see the fear in their eyes. You can’t accidentally kill someone the next town over or destroy that town because you missed a swing with your sword. You have to, in short, want to kill people.

The Civil War in the United States was arguably the first modern war. Armies started using repeating rifles and Gatling guns. The Union engaged in aerial reconnaissance throughout much of the war. News was transmitted instantaneously using telegraph. Steam powered metal ships fought all along the coasts and up the Mississippi River. By 1864 the ground around Richmond, VA was almost indistinguishable from the Western Front in 1918.

The Civil War also contained two instances of direct attempts to take a country out of the war by taking the civilians out of the war. In the fall of 1864 Philip Sheridan decided to deny the Confederates use of the Shenandoah Valley by burning the fields and destroying livestock. Two months later William Tecumseh Sherman made his famous March to the Sea and turned himself into one of the greatest villains of the war from the Southern perspective. Even that wasn’t truly unconditional warfare. Sheridan and Sherman went after the livelihood of the Southern civilians but did not intentionally attempt to go after anyone’s lives.

It was left to the Great War for the next step. The most tragic thing about WWI was that it was a completely and totally unnecessary war. Europe had developed a policy of avoiding direct war on the continent through a combination of diplomacy and proxy conflicts over colonial holdings. When the war broke out it was because everyone overreacted to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the careful system of avoidance completely broke down. Rather than recognizing that the war was stupid and back down the various powers went entirely beyond all civility.

Germany, for reasons I don’t fully understand, was the nation that introduced the three worst innovations of WWI. Two of those things were a combination of technology and necessity. Before the war Germany had gone all-in on airships and submarines. The Zeppelins were magnificent pieces of technology for their day, capable of carrying heavy payloads long distances. This was at a time when airplanes weren’t guaranteed to be more than curiosities. The U-Boat fleet was basically ignored by the rest of the world, as submarines had so far proven to be fragile and unreliable at best. German war planners were forward thinking enough to realize that they had a major disadvantage in any war against Britain and that was the British navy. The High Seas Fleet simply could not stand up to the Royal Navy in a head-to-head fight. Britain itself was a fortress defended by a wide, well-patrolled moat. The only answer, then was to avoid Britain’s strength and strike it where it was weak. Go below or above, not through.

It’s also important to realize that in 1914 there was no radar, there was no sonar. The notion of aerial combat was basically nonexistent. We may look back on those primitive U-Boats and scoff. We may shake our heads at the idea of floating into combat in a big, flammable balloon. It wasn’t that outlandish to think of those as weapons of war when you realize that at the outset of World War I there were literally no countermeasures to U-Boats or Zeppelins.

In early 1915 the Germans made their first Zeppelin raid over England. The attack itself was a massive failure. The Zeppelins didn’t hit their targets. Instead the bombs missed and struck civilian buildings. They tried again with similar results. Kaiser Wilhelm was not a fan, as that sort of thing simply wasn’t civilized. His war planners saw something different, however. They saw a way to take the British population out of the war and force Britain to sue for peace.

At roughly the same time the Germans were realizing that their original plans for the U-Boats were lacking. Sinking a ship without showing yourself was simply ungentlemanly, so in the early days of the war the U-Boats would surface and warn their targets. This maneuver basically ruins every advantage the submarine has over a surface ship so it was quickly abandoned. By May of 1915 the Germans had already settled on a policy of indiscriminate warfare. Even that still had some trappings of the gentlemanly style of old in that the Germans took out newspaper ads warning the world that they intended to take out any ships headed for Britain. Woodrow Wilson considered banning Americans from traveling to Britain but decided against it. That’s Germans ended up taking American lives in the sinking of the Lusitania, an action that would eventually bring the United States into the war.

The third German innovation of the war was, by far, the scariest. In the early days of that war both sides engaged in low-grade chemical warfare. The French were the first, using tear gas during an early battle to try to break the stalemate on the Western Front. The Germans soon started doing the same, using non-lethal gases on both the Western and Eastern Fronts. Then in April of 1915 they stepped up the use of gas, releasing deadly chlorine gas in advance of attacks on British positions near Ypres. Both sides were soon lobbing tons of chemicals at each other, each more deadly than the last.

By the end of World War I the Zeppelins had been replaced by the long range Gotha bombers and the idea attacking specifically to destroy civilian areas was normal. By the end of World War I the notion that all shipping, military or civilian, was fair game for submarines was normal. By the end of World War I gas masks were a common sight. The thin veneer of civility that had always allowed man to war with man was wiped away.

In the inter-war years there were attempts to pull back from the extreme barbarity of World War I. They didn’t take. As soon as France fell the German Luftwaffe began their night raids over London. As soon as the British had the Lancaster bomber they began bombing civilian targets all across Germany. America joined in, sending B-17s by the hundreds to drop bombs on Berlin.

The Pacific theater had its own acts of extreme barbarism. The Japanese perpetrated the infamous Rape of Nanking directed at Chinese civilians. In the first days of their war against the United States they marched surrendered American soldiers to work camps in an action that would become known as the Bataan Death March. For its part when the United States gained the ability to reach the Japanese Home Islands they filled the bellies of their B-29 Superfortresses with incendiary bombs and set the wooden Japanese cities on fire.

It was against this backdrop that Harry Truman gave the okay to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. There was no question of civility. I don’t know that there was even a question of expediency. I think that the world had just spent thirty years losing its collective mind, stacking one atrocity atop another. I find it amazing, in retrospect, that we as a human race survived the 1940s.

I think, however, that in the moments following the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki we finally realized that we had gone too far. It didn’t happen all at once. Douglas MacArthur, for one, wanted to use atomic weapons against North Korea and the Chinese. The US and USSR engaged in a protracted nuclear arms race that could have destroyed the whole world at the drop of a hat. I believe that in the worst moments of the Cold War those images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki haunted the dreams of the decision makers.

We cannot, I do not think, judge those horrible days in August of 1945 without context. We cannot debate the merits of dropping the bomb without realizing that for the first half of the 20th Century human life was cheap. A few thousand here, a million there. It was all just numbers. If more of them died than us we won. The atomic bomb was just a bigger, better, more efficient way to do it.

I also think that the act of dropping the bomb was the moment we all woke up. We realized that our ability to kill had, in the course of just a few years, far outstripped our ability to comprehend death. We had become death, destroyer of worlds. For the first time we realized that the world we were destroying was ours.

I still can’t explain it. I can’t really wrap my mind around any of it. It’s an awful thing to have to try to comprehend.

Nightwind Follow-Up, Chapters 9-11

So in chapter 9 we meet the Joshans for the first time. I had a clear idea of the Joshans as an ancient alien race who were kind of the exact opposite of what we think of in sci-fi when it comes time to meet an ancient alien race. There’s this idea that ancient = majestic and powerful. I like the idea of ancient meaning, well, old and feeble. The problem here is the same as many of the problems so far in the book. I was too lazy to really think through the implications of that plan and in too much of a hurry to get going with the “real” story. So the Joshans just provided the next plot point as opposed to really feeling like they were a part of the narrative.

There’s so much more space for storytelling here. The Joshans are an ancient alien empire that’s basically next door to Earth. They know about Earth and humanity but have had no impact on humanity’s development. The big question here is “why?” Shouldn’t they at least have left a footprint on the Tau Ceti system, even if they had left Earth alone? What’s going on here?

I was completely uninterested in answering these questions when I originally wrote the book. It hadn’t even occurred to me to ask why they didn’t have a presence on Tau Ceti. That’s actually kind of a huge hole in the whole thing, now that I think about it, since I just assumed humans and Joshans could share a similar atmosphere. Even a declining empire would surely be interested in keeping a presence on a star system that’s just a few light years away.

Also, if nothing else we’re talking about first contact here. This is the first time humans have met the Joshans. Even if the latter civilization doesn’t care about us we would certainly care about it. But all I did here was handwave the whole thing away. That’s just bad writing right there.

After that I did try to go for some good, old-fashioned character building. We have Lindros being a nag and Anderson being really, really uneven. At this point I’d started to realize that Gregory was an interesting character and it’s beginning to come out. His story is somewhat messed up by the fact that I basically modeled him after Commander Riker from TNG with a little bit of Garibaldi from Babylon 5 and never really managed to give him his own character arc. But more on that later.

Chapter 10 is just plain stupid. It’s a later insert into the book that exists because of chapter 6. Chapter 11 used to be chapter 10, but when I decided I needed to put Turner and Hunt into the book earlier I decided they needed more airtime. I guess I also decided that I needed to break up the two chapters of people talking aboard Nightwind in a row or something. So I tossed chapter 10 in.

The Turner/Hunt/Tanaka insert basically breaks everything with no payoff. They become a sort of Greek chorus, telling us about how everything is falling apart and announcing what the characters who are actually doing things will have to do to make things work. It’s telling and not showing. It’s also stupid, since the original manuscript just showed. Even if the thing it showed was stupid it got the job done.

Chapter 11 is all about character development. I like the interplay between Anderson and Gregory at the beginning. Sadly, it sets up a really stupid subplot. So let that be a lesson. Not all subplots are good and not all foreshadowing pays off.

Gregory also knows just a little too much here. Why does the XO know everything about why Earth Command made Anderson captain? I needed a Mr. Exposition and Gregory seemed like the best option. There’s a way to allow Anderson to have doubts. There’s a way to allow Gregory to try to encourage him. The way I chose to do it is a bit heavy handed.

The Luchenko bit is a bit of good development overshadowed by the terrible way I introduced the character. I also can’t read it too closely because of that terrible accent.

The conversation with Lindros is basically the same thing.

There’s also one big problem that starts to come out in this section. It’s more of a knowledge problem than a skill problem. I simply didn’t know much about the locations of other nearby stars. I remember it took me a long time to simply nail down Tau Ceti and 82 Eridani.  So I kinda handwaved the entire thing away by having them just use the Joshan star names. There just wasn’t much out there to find.

It’s actually still somewhat hard to find that information. Google “star map.” You know what you’ll get mostly? Maps of the locations of stars and constellations in the night sky. But Google has allowed us to search smarter and Wikipedia now exists, meaning it’s much easier to figure out where to start now than it was back in 2000 or so.

That said, there’s still something about the idea of using the Joshan star maps that makes sense. I…I don’t know, really. This is usually the place where I’d wander off into a long conversation with myself about the validity of either approach. The fact of the matter is, though, that as I piece the re-write together the problem I was trying to solve with Joshan star charts is no longer a problem. The entire basis for the Human/Joshan contact and immediate relations has radically changed and the meat of the book as I originally wrote it just isn’t a thing anymore.

Nightwind Wednesdays, Chapters 9-11

[Author’s Note: Yes, after a prolonged hiatus Nightwind Wednesdays are back! 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.]

Chapter 9

Tau Ceti III Colony, United Commonwealth
May 25th, Terran Standard Calendar
1500 Terran Standard Time

“Thank you again for your hospitality, Governor,” David said. “We look forward to seeing you again soon.”

“As do we, Captain Anderson,” the older man said. “Good luck and Godspeed.”

At David’s signal, Ensign Lindros cut the signal to the planet below. “Anything from Earth?” he asked, guessing what the response would be.

“No, Sir. Still down,” she told him, as he had expected. For the past eight hours the crew of the Nightwind had attempted to get a message through to Earth with absolutely no luck. When the TBC Uplink went down they had expected to get communications back within the next hour. Blackouts were a fairly common experience, even within the Solar System. The communication techs on Tau Ceti III assured him they were even more common outside of the home system. None ever lasted more than an hour or two, however. The network had now been silent for almost a day.

“Let me know the moment they get back up,” David ordered redundantly. He turned to the engineering station. “Ready, Commander?” he asked the Head Engineer.

“Yes, Sir,” Commander Jackson responded, “Conduit Drive checks out and is ready to go.”

“Ops?” David asked, turning to Lieutenant Commander Templeton.

“Tactical works perfectly, Sir. All sensors are up and ready.”

“Helm?”

“Course laid in for 82 Eridani IV, Sir,” the Lieutenant at the navigation post said.

“Let’s go, then,” David sat in the command chair.

*  *  *

The door to the chamber opened quietly and the servant slipped in hesitantly. It was the middle of the night at the palace and the Emperor hated to be awakened unless it was absolutely necessary. The watch commander had decided the unexpected arrival of a massive, heretofore unknown, battlecruiser counted.

The servant glided noiselessly to the bed. He paused, unsure of how to proceed. “Uh, Your Majesty,” he said quietly. Receiving no answer, he tapped the Emperor’s shoulder with a trembling finger. “Your Majesty,” he said again, louder, “You are needed.”

“What is it?” the Emperor asked in his gravelly voice. “And why can’t it wait until morning?”

“Well, Emperor, it’s a ship.”

“Oh, a ship,” he said, sitting up. “I was awakened to be told of a ship. What’s next? Will you awaken me when the wind next blows?”

“It’s the ship, Emperor,” the servant said, genuinely afraid for his life, “Never before have we seen a ship such as this. And the captain of the ship thinks we destroyed another ship from his world.”

“The watch commander can handle this, can he not?”

“Apparently not, Emperor. This captain is quite insistent.”

“Very well,” the Emperor said. “Help me prepare.”

*  *  *

“I told you before, Captain Anderson,” the officer on the screen told David. “No such ship has been destroyed over Joshanna.”

“And I’ve already told you that I don’t believe you,” David responded. “Now find me someone who can tell me what happened.” He gave Ensign Lindros the “cut” signal.

“Smooth, Sir. Really smooth,” Commander Gregory said after the screen went dark. “Now we’re sure to find out if this ship can survive a fire fight.”

“Hey, I’m a captain, not a diplomat,” David said.

“But this is the human race’s first contact with an alien culture,” Walter said, “And we can’t exactly afford a war at this point.”

Upon reaching the 82 Eridani System, Nightwind had been hailed from the fourth planet. 82 Eridani IV, they learned, was known as Joshanna to the locals. It appeared to be the administrative capitol of the Joshan Empire. David had immediately informed their space control officer of his mission and requested assistance in the matter.

For the next half hour a parade of officers and minor officials had come to the screen. Each had, in turn, informed him they knew nothing about such an incident. At first he had been polite, but now David was simply annoyed.

It hadn’t helped much that he could have mistaken the aliens for any number of annoying bureaucrats back home. Other than the large eyes and slight greenish tint of their skin, the Joshans could have passed for human.

“I know we can’t afford a war, Commander,” David paced across the bridge. “And I know this is a first contact. But it’s like making first contact with the Department of Requisition.”

Walter laughed. The Dep Rec, or Wreck, as most officers called it, was infamous for its asinine bureaucracy and slow response time. It was also the only place where officers could go to get supplies for their ships. “I know what you mean, Sir,” he said, “But remember, Wreck is on our side. These guys probably aren’t.”

“I know, Walter.”

“Sir,” Ensign Lindros called, “We’re receiving a call from the planet.”

“Put it up,” David ordered, turning back to the screen. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the color completely drain from Walter’s face as the image came to life in front of him. David knew this was no low level bureaucrat.

“I,” the opulently dressed man growled out from his seat on a massive throne, “Am Emperor Ah’nwoe. Why have you disturbed my people?” He reached into the folds of his flowing red robe and hefted a sword, which David assumed was a symbol of office. Whatever its purpose, he realized he might have gone too far.

Maintaining his composure, David pressed on. “One of our ships was shot down over your planet. We want to know why.”

“Yes,” the Emperor said in a strangely cadenced English. Whether this was a byproduct of the translator or simply the way he spoke, David did not know. “I have been told this by my people. But you have been told we did not do it.”

“I’m sure you understand, Emperor,” David stood his ground, “I can’t return home with just that. If your people didn’t do it, can you tell me who did?”

“I will have the records checked, Captain,” the Emperor said. “You will wait. And you will not disturb my people.”

“Thank you,” David said. The screen went blank.

*  *  *

The Keeper entered the throne room through a small door. Walking silently, only betrayed by the slight swish of his yellow robes on the polished stone floor, he approached the dais and bowed low. “You called for me, Emperor?” he asked.

“Indeed. Tell me what we know of this race, these…humans.”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, ignoring the lack of warmth in the Emperor’s voice. He produced a small holographic device. Since the early days of the Joshan civilization the Keepers had been responsible for collecting and maintaining historical data. In the beginning the Keepers had been exalted, replacing the priests and mystics as the holders of knowledge and supplanting them and their archaic gods in the hearts of the people. The Keepers, an all male organization, as it was in the rest of the Joshan government, had become a faceless, homogenous group, rarely spoken to and often ignored. They had followed all the advancements and defeats of the society, no matter the size. Those involved in the events had always allowed the Keepers, knowing the value they added to the society. Now, in the waning days of what had once been the greatest Empire in the galaxy, the Keepers were regarded little. The Emperors were petty, neglecting history in exchange for their own desires. The people had slowly turned back to the old gods and superstitions.

As a result, the collective knowledge of the Keepers had steadily diminished. Ancient records had been lost, their irreplaceable data lost forever.

The information requested by the Emperor at the late hour had not been ancient, however. Much to his surprise, the Keeper had been able to find great deals of information on the humans and their home planet, Earth.

The Keeper turned on the device. A small, perfectly recorded image of the planet Earth sprang to life in the air above its flat top. “This, my Lord,” the Keeper said, “Is the planet Earth, third planet of the Gildag system, known as L-105 to us. Our last visit occurred roughly three hundred cycles ago, at a time in which the inhabitants were experimenting with rocketry.”

“Three hundred cycles, Keeper? To Pathway Drive technology from rocketry in three hundred cycles? How is that possible?”

“It is not, Emperor,” the Keeper said quietly.

“So I deceive you, then? Am I a liar, Keeper?”

“No, Emperor. Allow me to explain.” An image of a different ship, ponderous and slow, replaced the planet. “This is a human ark-ship, referred to as the Winged Messenger, seen through the gun camera of a patrol fighter nearly three cycles ago.”

“I am aware of this ship. It is why the humans came here.”

“Yes, Lord,” the Keeper said, pausing as the fighter’s missiles destroyed the fragile craft. “It appeared insystem at almost exactly the time our scientists reported the race should have the ability to travel this far from their home.”

“So you are saying what, Keeper?”

“This Winged Messenger was concurrent with their level of technology. They should have progressed very little beyond. Pathway Drive should be at least four hundred cycles in the future.”

“But they have a Drive, Keeper,” the Emperor said, annoyed with the Keeper’s thickheadedness. “How can that be?”

“It would appear, Emperor,” the Keeper said, swallowing nervously, “As though the humans had help.”

“Is that just a guess?”

“Yes, Majesty, but with a high probability of likelihood.”

The Emperor rubbed his chin speculatively. “Well, then,” he said, “We must find out who helped them.” He turned to the servant waiting at the edge of the dais. “Call up this Captain Anderson,” he ordered. “I wish to speak with him.”

*  *  *

“Thank you for your timely response, Emperor Ah’nwoe,” David said to the image on the screen. “We would appreciate any information you can give us.”

“Of course, Captain,” the Emperor responded smoothly. He gestured to the yellow robed figure at his side. “I had my Keeper look into the situation, and what he found has deeply saddened me.”

“What happened?” David asked.

“While I can assure you the Joshan Empire was not directly responsible,” the Emperor began, “I do feel as though we must take some of the responsibility.”

David crossed his arms, barely avoiding an angry response, “How so?” he managed through clenched teeth.

“We have been at war for the last several cycles, Captain,” the Emperor said. “While the bulk of our fleet was away a small pirate fleet entered the system. Apparently your Winged Messenger arrived at the wrong time and was destroyed. My apologies, Captain.”

“Do you have any records of this, Emperor?” David asked, not quite believing the story.

“Not of your ship, no,” the Emperor responded, “We did not discover the debris for several days. We do have this, however.” The Keeper activated a holographic device. A pair of vicious looking attack ships hovered in the air above the device. “These ships are two of the pirate ships involved in the attack. I have ordered my military to assist you in tracking them down, if you so desire.”

“Track them down? You mean you didn’t destroy them?”

“As I said, Captain, the bulk of our fleet was away at the time,” the Emperor shook his head sadly, “We were barely able to fight them off ourselves.”

“Very well,” David said, “I appreciate and accept your offer for help.”

“I will have my people send you star charts and what we know of the pirate fleet’s movements,” the Emperor said.

The screen at the front of the bridge went dark.

For long moments the bridge was silent. Commander Jackson finally broke the mood. “Permission to speak freely, Captain?” she asked.

“Shoot, Commander.”

“Does this mean we aren’t going home yet?”

“Yes it does, Commander.”

“But Sir!” Ensign Lindros exploded from her station at the back of the bridge. “We know what happened. We need to go home.”

“No, Ensign,” David said levelly, “We don’t know what happened. The mission is not complete.”

“You’re wrong, Captain,” she told him, then stopped short, her eyes widening.

“Ensign. My office. Now.” David said coldly. He spun on his heel and walked into his office at the back of the bridge.

She followed him into the cramped room, eyes locked firmly on her shoes. “That was out of line, Sir,” she said. “I…I’m sorry.”

“You’re absolutely right, Ensign. You have no right to contradict me on my bridge,” he crossed his arms and leaned on his desk, angry with her insubordination.

“I know, Sir.”

His expression softened. “You’re a good comm officer, Ensign,” he told her. “You have a lot of potential. But speaking out like that is not a good career move.”

“Yes Sir,” she looked up, “I know Sir.”

“Feel free to bring your concerns to me, just not like that.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

“Now get back to your station. And tell Commander Gregory I want to see him.”

“Yes, Sir,” she turned and left the room.

David walked around his desk and sat down in his chair. Far from the large, padded chairs that were standard issue in the ships of the Navy, David preferred an ancient wooden desk chair. It had been a family heirloom, passed down through his family for four hundred years. He had used the chair on all his assignments, often eliciting comments from fellow crew members. He had never particularly cared. He liked the old, creaky chair.

Commander Gregory entered the room, chuckling. “Funny, I don’t see any teeth marks on the Ensign,” he said, sitting on the room’s small couch.

“Eh,” David shrugged, “She’s a good kid. Just needs a little more experience.”

“Good kid, Sir? She’s twenty-two.”

“Yeah,” he grinned, “that’s a good four years younger than us, Walter.”

The Executive Officer laughed. “Ever wonder what we’re doing out here, Sir?”

“We’re looking for the people who destroyed the Messenger,” David feigned not understanding the question.

“I mean why are we in command? We’re twenty-six and in charge of a warship and it’s crew,” Walter scratched his head. “Did you ever think you weren’t old enough for this?”

David leaned back in his chair. “The whole Navy is young, Walter. I think Horatio Semmes, my old XO, is probably the only person over forty I met in the Navy.”

“I suppose, Sir. It just seems odd.”

“I try not to think about it too much,” the Captain said. “What do you think?” He sat up in his chair, changing the subject abruptly. “Should we go back home?”

The other man thought for a moment. “Way I see it,” he finally said, pausing for another moment, “Earth is big enough and old enough to take care of itself. I don’t think there’s anything we can do to change the situation.”

“What if we took charge?” David asked. “Hypothetically. I mean, we have the most powerful warship around.”

“That probably won’t mean anything back home right now, Sir,” Walter responded. “Nightwind will probably become a pawn in the power struggle.”

“You’re probably right,” David nodded. The two men fell silent, lost in their own thoughts.

The door chime ended the reverie. “Come in,” David told the person on the other side.

Lieutenant Commander Templeton poked his head in. “The data dump from the Joshans just finished,” he told the officers.

“Great,” David stood up. “But shouldn’t Ensign Lindros be giving me that information?”

“She seemed a little scared, Sir,” the Ops officer smiled. “I told her I’d let you know.”

Walter laughed. “Good job, Sir,” he slapped the Captain on the back as David stepped out from behind the desk.

“Hey, that’s what a good CO does, right?”

“Something like that,” Templeton said, dark eyes flashing.

David stepped back onto the bridge. “Put it up, Mark,” he commanded the Ops officer.

Templeton returned to his station and entered a command into his board. A moment later a map of the sector popped onto the main viewscreen. “This is what we’ve got, Sir,” he said, “As far as I can tell, the red marks indicate systems the pirates have hit. The dates are also marked, but we don’t know the Joshan calendar, so it might not mean anything to us. The blue dots seem to indicate possible bases. We also have schematics on the ships the pirates are probably using. Looks like the Nightwind would overpower any of them easily in a one-on-one fight.”

“Very well,” David sat in his command chair. “Anything else?”

“The system names are the ones the Joshans use, Captain,” Templeton said. “I can change them to our terms if you’d like.”

“That’s alright,” David said, shaking his head. “The Joshans have probably actually been to the systems before. I think we can probably use their names safely.”

“Yes, Sir.”

David studied the map for nearly a minute. “This looks like it might take some time,” he finally concluded. “Let’s get to work.”

Chapter 10

Earth Command Shipyard, Venus Orbit
May 27th, 2356, Terran Standard Calendar
0956 Terran Standard Time

“I have terrible news, Captains,” Major Tanaka said, taking a seat across from Hunt and Turner. The trio sat in the main conference room on the outer edge of the shipyard’s habitation ring. “Things back home are very, very bad.”

“What happened?” Turner asked.

“Admiral Belden is dead.”

“What?” Turner’s eyes widened. “How did that happen?”

“She was in a shuttle travelling from United Commonwealth Headquarters in Geneva to Pearl Harbor. The shuttle exploded, killing everyone aboard.”

“I think this has gone far beyond coincidence,” Hunt said, standing and walking toward the room’s window. “We have to assume that there is intelligent design behind the events on Earth and start fighting it.”

“How?” Tanaka asked. “We’re stuck here and Semmes commands the only loyal ship.”

“We can’t recall Semmes,” Turner said, “What he’s doing is far too important.”

Nightwind,” Hunt turned from the window. “We need to recall Nightwind.”

Tanaka shook his head. “That might be difficult.”

“Why?” Hunt asked.

“We lost contact with Mars a few days ago.  Last report we had was from Commander Semmes, who said there was some sort of fighting in the colony.”

The significance immediately hit both Captains. Earth Command’s central faster than light communication system needed several massive computer banks in order to properly track the locations of the other terminals in the system. Planets never remained stationary, especially in relation to each other. As such, the faster than light communication system required several complicated algorithms to calculate exactly where to place a wormhole mouth to allow actual communication. After that there were only a few seconds of actual contact. The essential data was compressed into tiny packets, known as nanopacks, and sent through the opening.

With starships, such as the colony ships or Nightwind, things were infinitely more complicated. The ship would simply track the main transceiver and send its message. Already queued nanopacks from Mars were sent back to the ship as soon as the mouth opened. It was far from a perfect system, but it allowed communication between the stars.

Mars the central hub, with a regional site on Tau Ceti and planned sites on 82 Eridani, and whichever planets Jove reached. Without access to the Mars base, they would be unable to send a message to Nightwind.

“Maybe they got the news from the TBC Uplink and are coming back now,” Turner suggested.

Tanaka shook his head. “Doubtful. If we can’t get in contact with anyone from Mars, TBC probably can’t, either.”

“Let’s call them,” Hunt suggested, “See if they know anything we don’t.”

“Good idea,” Tanaka agreed, “I’ll give them a call as soon as I can.”

Turner changed the subject. “Have we heard anything from Dragon, Wyvern or Zephyr?”

“I haven’t heard anything. Wyvern is most definitely a rogue, but we can only assume the other two will not be able to help us.”

“Assuming they aren’t against us as well,” Hunt quipped.

Turner put on hand on his shoulder. “We don’t need any more defeatist thought right now. Calm down.”

“Well,” Tanaka shrugged, “We have to consider the possibility. I know Commander Semmes is right now.”

Turner walked over to the window. “You’re right. Let’s just hope nothing else bad happens before we get some help.”

Hunt sighed. “I think we’re going to have to do this on our own, Liz.”

“Anderson will be back.”

“Maybe,” Hunt shook his head, “But it might still be too late.”

Chapter 11

Jordag System
May 28th, Terran Standard Calendar
2218 Terran Standard Time

Commander Gregory walked into the Captain’s quarters and dropped a brown bottle into his lap. “What’s this, Walter?” David asked, looking up from the Joshan star chart.

“Contraband, Sir. Brought it from home.” Walter sat in a different chair and opened his own bottle. “It’s called beer. You may have heard of it.”

David put the bottle on the floor. “No, thanks, Walter,” he said. “I’m busy.”

“You’re always busy, Captain,” the Executive Officer said. “You’re reading charts or doing paperwork or planning exercises. Do you ever sleep, Sir?”

“Call me David. I prefer informality in private, at least with senior officers.”

“Alright, David,” Walter took a long drink. “So do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Sleep.”

“Sure I do, Walter,” David put the chart down. “Six hours a night, give or take.”

“So what do you do when you aren’t sleeping?”

“My job, Walter,” David said, a little annoyed. “I’m the captain, and there’s a lot of responsibility in that.”

“I know that,” the XO put his drink down, stood up and walked to one of the shelves on the side of the room. “But what do you do to relax?”

“Don’t have time.”

Walter pulled a book down from the shelf and studied it. “You have a lot of real books here, I see.”

“Yes. I collect them.”

“Ever read any?”

“Occasionally, when I have time.”

“Are you aware of the fact that you’re going to have a heart attack?” Walter put the book back in its place.

“Oh, so you’re my doctor now?”

Walter sat back down. “No, David, I’m not your doctor. But I am your Executive Officer. And I know that a CO who never stops working is a disaster waiting to happen.”

“What makes you say that?”

“I was Chief Tactical Officer on the Wyvern before being assigned to the Nightwind project,” Walter picked his bottle back up. “Captain Bock didn’t take a break for almost a month. One day he put a bullet in the Executive Officer’s gut over a simple disagreement.”

David looked down at the bottle, then back at his XO. “I heard about that,” he said, picking the beer up. “They reassigned everyone involved and arrested Bock, right?”

“Yeah. That’s how I ended up in the program.”

For a long moment David was silent, digesting the story and its implied moral. “You could be right, Walter,” he agreed, opening the bottle. “Maybe I do need to take a break.”

“That’s the spirit, Sir.”

“Y’know,” David said after a moment, staring down at the drink in his hand, “I heard a nasty rumor that Bock escaped custody and that’s why his court martial hasn’t happened yet.”

“I’ve heard that, too.”

“What do you think?”

“I think,” the XO spoke slowly, choosing his words, “That Bock had better hope Earth Command finds him before I do.”

“So you really don’t like him?”

Gregory’s eyes narrowed. “He deserves something far worse than a court martial. A dishonorable discharge and a lifetime incarceration don’t even begin to pay for what he did.”

“You’d want him dead. And the Commonwealth doesn’t work that way.”

“Exactly. If I ever run into him I’ll make sure he gets what he deserves.”

“What if he’s had cosmetic surgery?”

“I’ll know.”

“How?”

“It’s the eyes, Captain,” Gregory said, pointing to his own, “I was looking him right in the eyes when it all happened. They’re burned into my memory. If I ever see those eyes again I’ll know.”

They fell silent. David felt a change of subject was necessary. “So, other than that, what’s your story?” he asked, taking a drink.

“Not much to tell, really. Career military.”

“There has to be more than that. Where are you from?”

“I was born in the Ukraine, but moved to Luna Base when I was two. My father was a contractor,” he explained, “Spent a couple months on Mars, too. He designed Dome 5.”

“Dome 5, eh?” David asked. “That was huge news when I was growing up.”

“You a Mars baby then?”

“Born and raised,” David nodded.

Walter nodded, “Never met a real Mars baby before. Is it really like they say it is?”

“Is what like they say it is?”

“You know,” Walter raised an eyebrow. “Lawless and all.”

Suppressing a chuckle, David shook his head. “I saw Al Morgan once, but that was about it,” he said. “Mars is just like any other place. People just live their lives as best they can.”

“Too bad,” Walter said. “Takes some of the fun away.”

“Not if you don’t like being thought of as a scoundrel and an outlaw,” David responded. “So did you go to the Academy?” he asked, changing the subject.

“Earth Fleet Academy,” Walter responded, “graduated third in a class of fifty. You?”

“Mars Academy,” David said, “First of twenty-nine.” He shrugged, “Found out just how little that means about a week into my first assignment.”

“I know what you mean,” Walter nodded. “My first captain didn’t like me at all. He didn’t care what my class rank or grades were. I just wasn’t good enough.” He was silent for a moment, remembering imagined inadequacies.

Sensing it would be a good idea to get his XO off the painful subject, David decided to get his mind on other things. “The Wyvern incident was right about the time the Nightwind project started, right?”

“Yes.”

“So you really have been in on it from the beginning?” he chuckled. “I thought you were just trying to save my butt back on the colony when you told that to the Governor.”

“They brought me in to design the weapons system,” Walter nodded, cracking a smile. “They’re my babies. Big, shiny babies that go boom.”

“From what I’ve seen, ” David raised his bottle in salute, “You did a fine job. Good guns and overlapping fields of fire.”

“Thanks.”

“So why didn’t you get command?” David stood up. “Seems to me third at the Fleet Academy has to carry as much weight as first on Mars. And I haven’t seen anything to fault your performance.”

“Eh,” Walter looked at the floor. “It was that first Captain. He marked me as ‘incapable of command’ on my record. Stuck with me ever since.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Wasn’t your fault.” Walter looked up, “Don’t know that I want the responsibility, anyway. Sure, one of the patrol ships would be nice, but this is a whole different story.”

David walked over to the bookshelf and pulled a worn copy of The Art of War down. The ancient Chinese book of tactics and strategy had been a gift from his first CO. “I suppose so, Walter,” he said, thumbing through the book. “My first Captain used to tell me that I could rise to whatever level I needed to. I believed him then.”

“And now?” Walter inquired.

“I don’t know.” David put the book back. “I haven’t been handling this as well as I would like. You seem to know that, though.”

“Well, at least you can admit it,” Walter said. “Captain Bock sure couldn’t.”

“I highly doubt I’d do that,” David moved back to the center of the room. “I’m not unstable enough. Bock’s…ideas…were legendary.”

“That’s true,” Walter nodded. “Let’s just hope the other Captains manage.”

David stopped in his tracks. “Other Captains, Walter?”

“Yeah. Captain Turner and Captain Hunt,” he said. “They’ll be out here soon enough.”

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t know?” the Executive Officer asked. “The Nightwind is just the first of five ships. Starfire should be launching in the middle of June and a third ship is due about a week later.”

Elizabeth Turner and Robert Hunt were legendary ship commanders, but some of their well-deserved fame was based on their life-long rivalry. Born on the same day and in the same hospital, they had grown up on the same street and been friends for their entire lives. They had graduated first and second from the Fleet Academy, with Turner on top by just half a point. Since receiving their commissions, they had pushed their ships and crews to excel. The Dragon and Zephyr, their ships, had been the best run in the fleet, each performing at levels far exceeding their usual capacities. Confused by this new development, David suddenly began wondering why he had been given the Nightwind. “Why didn’t one of them get this ship, Walter?” he asked. “Turner and Hunt are better, more experienced captains.”

“More experienced, yes,” Walter told him. “Better, no. Not by a long shot.”

“What?”

“Admiral Belden personally picked you when the program started, Sir,” Walter said. “You exceeded Turner and Hunt in every category at the Academy. You had a sterling record as a junior officer on the Dragon and XO of the Zephyr. And then you turned the Phoenix from the worst ship in the fleet to the best in a matter of months.”

“So if I was picked from the beginning, why didn’t they tell me?” David sat down heavily.

“They wanted you to gain seasoning. That’s why they kept Semmes on Phoenix at the same time but busted him down a rank.”

“Huh,” David scratched his chin. “I thought they didn’t like him.”

“Far from it. He’s one of the most respected officers in the Navy.”

“Well, yes, but everyone knew he wasn’t keeping Phoenix up to standard. That’s why I was brought in.”

“Yes and no. I heard from Admiral Belden herself that Semmes was starting to get bored with the whole thing. He was ready to retire, but she talked him in to staying around long enough to make sure Earth Command survives through this.” He shrugged, “It’s been pretty touch and go back home.”

“How do you know all this, Walter?”

“I just do,” the Executive Officer smiled enigmatically. “Being involved in the Nightwind project from the beginning got me access to some interesting information. But now I think it’s time for me to hit the rack.” He stood and drained the rest of his bottle. “See you in the morning.”

“Alright,” David said as the other man left the room. Head spinning, he finished his own drink and prepared to go to bed.

*  *  *

At 0600 hours the next morning David walked into the forward mess hall. He tended to take breakfast at that hour of the morning because the mess would usually be deserted. Third shift was still on duty, with the first not scheduled to come on for two more hours. That morning, however, David was not alone in the room.

As he picked up a plate of runny eggs and soggy bacon and poured a cup of thick, sludgy coffee, David realized Wing Commander Luchenko was observing him intently from a table near the large observation screen. Nightwind had no external viewports, as large hull openings would severely compromise structural integrity and the anti-radiation coating. Each stateroom, conference room and common area had a large screen, however. These were tied into the cameras in the ship’s sensor system, allowing the impression of an outside view.

David preferred to spend his breakfast near the large screen, studying the unfamiliar star patterns. He decided to sit in his normal chair and ignore the pilot.

He would not get the chance. Luchenko flagged him down. “Keptin,” he called, “Please, have seat.” He gestured at the empty seat across the table. “I make room.”

David sat down in the offered seat as the larger man gathered and stacked the reports scattered haphazardly over the surface of the table. “What is all this, Wing Commander?” David asked, studying a number column on a schematic.

“Computer bugs in Longbow bomber, Sir,” Luchenko told him, indicating a diagram on a different sheet. “Torpedo/targeting system interface is not working correctly.”

“Is it a targeting problem or a communication problem?”

“Targeting,” Luchenko told him.

“Check the torpedo CPUs,” David suggested. “We were having problems with the Nightwind‘s missiles during an exercise. Jackson, Templeton and I spent five hours checking the target lock system before realizing they weren’t accepting the commands properly.”

Luchenko nodded in agreement. “I have been working on this for ten hours and found nothing. You might be right, Keptin. I will look.”

“Other than that,” David asked, “How are the fighters?”

The other man passed him a report. “Ships are operating as expected.”

“Excellent,” David said, “Anything from the scout missions?”

“Three Flight of Panther Squadron returned at 0300,” Luchenko said. “Found an abandoned base on fourth planet.”

David leaned forward. “Pirates?”

“Don’t know yet. We’ll find out in about an hour.”

“Is there anything else?” David asked, taking a bite of a piece of bacon.

“Yes, Keptin, one more thing,” Luchenko said, dropping a paper back onto a stack. “Is about my behavior.”

“Yes?”

The other man sighed heavily. “I have been unfair to you, Keptin Anderson,” he said with some difficulty. “I am sorry.”

Taken aback, David sat up in his chair. “You’ll forgive me, Wing Commander,” he said, “If I seem surprised. This is…unexpected.”

“I understand, Sir.” The pilot leaned back in his chair. “Commander Gregory told me you would be surprised.”

“You spoke to the XO?”

“Yes, Sir,” Luchenko said. “Commander Gregory and I were talking last night when he mentioned your record as keptin of Phoenix. I told him I might have been too hard on you.”

“And he told you I’d have a hard time believing you?” David asked, picking up his coffee cup.

“Yes.”

David smiled. “Don’t worry, Mr. Luchenko,” he said. “I accept your apology.”

“Thank you, Keptin.”

“I have been studying your record, Wing Commander,” David said. “And, other than the problems you seem to have with authority, you seem to be a superb pilot and flight leader. I hope I will get a chance to see you in action.”

“I have studied the information we have on these pirates, Sir,” Luchenko said. “I believe you will get your wish.” He stretched and yawned loudly.

Looking closely at his fighter commander, David realized the man had not slept in quite some time. “You don’t look so good,” he said after a moment. “Go get some sleep.”

“No time,” Luchenko told him. “Have to fix the torpedoes.”

“I’ll have Templeton and Jackson look into the problem,” David responded. “I want you to get some rest. I’ll need you in top shape if we get into a scrape.”

“I should work on the problem, Keptin.”

“Don’t make me turn it into an order, Wing Commander,” David said. “Because if that happens you won’t be allowed near your fighters for at least twelve hours.”

The big man laughed. “Very well, Sir,” he said. “I will report back at twelve hundred hours.” He gathered his reports and stood to leave.

“I won’t report you if you’re later than that,” David said, also standing to leave.

“I will report in at twelve hundred,” Luchenko repeated over his shoulder as he left the mess hall.

Chuckling, David finished his coffee. He picked up his nearly untouched breakfast and put the plate on the wash tray. He left the mess hall and headed down the deserted corridors to the bridge.

The third crew had become accustomed to seeing the Captain at the early hour of the morning. For the first few days his arrival had resulted in a flurry of activity and pointless reports. Now he was barely acknowledged by the crew as he entered the bridge. Only the young lieutenant in charge of the shift made reports to in the morning anymore.

“What’s the story, Lieutenant Chang?” he asked the small, quiet young man.

“Not much, Sir,” he responded. “We got recon data on a possible pirate base in system at oh-three-hundred. We’ll know in about half an hour.”

“That it?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Good,” David said. “Send the report to my office when it’s done.”

“Will do, Sir.”

Following the informal briefing, David entered his office and studied the desk. A stack of reports and status updates sat on the corner of his desk. The small viewscreen on his desktop terminal flashed with an indication he had received twenty new messages overnight. He sighed heavily and squeezed around the oversized desk.

The Nightwind was now located in what the Joshan star charts indicated as the Jordag system. It was their second stop since the 82 Eridani system, and the second place where they had found the remains of a base. He had not expected to find even that much evidence this early on. He tipped his hat to the thoroughness of the alien’s research in to the topic.
Still, something about the situation disturbed him. He had been wondering why the supposed “Empire” had been unable to destroy a band of pirates they knew so much about. He had discussed his thoughts with his Executive Officer, Ops Commander Templeton and Lieutenant MacDonough. Neither had been able to offer a satisfactory theory that didn’t involve some sort of treachery on the part of the alien race.

He had decided to press on, in spite of his misgivings. Ensign Lindros had grown more and more frustrated with his insistence upon staying so far from home. Commander Jackson had become a very outspoken supporter of the idea of turning back. Several other members of the crew had also seemed uncomfortable with the idea. But the Nightwind was his ship, not theirs. It was his job to make the decision to stay out. They didn’t see the big picture. And they didn’t know what Gregory had told him the night before about Turner and Hunt and the other two ships soon to enter service. David had felt better leaving the situation back home alone, knowing Turner, Hunt and Semmes were there. He doubted the situation would deteriorate too much before the next ship, ECS Starfire, was launched.

He reached over and flipped the terminal from Standby to On. After a moment he decided to ignore his new messages and instead called up the preliminary findings on the abandoned base. The polished report would be in his hands in a short while, but David had always liked checking the raw data. He studied the recon footage of the based and read the notes for several minutes. He then called up the Joshan star charts. He decided the Nightwind‘s next stop should be the system the Joshans called Hr’dag. It appeared to be the location of a recent pirate raid.

The buzzer on the door sounded. “Yes?” David asked, signaling the crew member to enter the small office.

The door slid aside and Ensign Lindros came in carrying a data disk. “Morning, Sir,” she said. “I have the report.”

“Thank you, Ensign,” David said, accepting the disk. “But are you aware that you aren’t on duty for over an hour?”

“Yes, Sir,” she replied, “But I was down in the Combat Information Center when they finished the analysis, so I thought I’d bring it up.”

“What were you doing in CIC?”

She shrugged, “Lieutenant Commander Starkes,” she said, referring to the head of Nightwind‘s data analysis group, “Asked me for some help with a transmission one of the fighters picked up from the base.”

“Oh?” David asked, sitting up in his chair. “What was it?”

“It appears to be a transponder beacon,” she said, “Probably left on accidentally when they left. I doubt it means anything.”

“Is it in the report?”

“Yes, Sir,” she nodded, “Along with my conclusion.”

“And are you sure of that conclusion, Ensign?”

Lindros hesitated before answering. “Well, yes, Sir,” she finally replied, “At least as sure as I can be about something I have no prior experience with.”

“That’s not what I mean, Ensign,” David said.

“Then I’m not entirely sure what you’re talking about, Sir.”

“I think you do, Ensign,” David told her. “You have made no secret of the fact that you disagree with being out here and want to return home and save Earth.”

She gave him a confused look. “I…don’t follow, Sir.”

“What I am asking you, Ensign,” David explained, “Is if there is any possibility there is something in the transmission that can be used to our advantage that you aren’t telling me.”

“No, Sir,” she said, adamant. “I would think that any such information would allow us to shorten this mission and return home more quickly, judging by your insistence upon following this lead.”

“Good, Ensign,” David told her. “That’s what I like to hear.”

She turned toward the door. “With your leave, Sir,” she said.

David nodded. “By all means, Ensign. I’ll see you on the bridge at oh-eight-hundred.”

She left the room. Popping the disk into the terminal, David leaned back and began studying the report. He had been trying to figure out what to do with Ensign Lindros for the past couple of days and still had no clue. She had been growing increasingly difficult to work with, always seeming to contradict him. There had been several points when he considered confining her to quarters, but knew she was too valuable of an officer.

He flipped from the report to his messages. The first message on the list was from Ensign Lindros. Figuring it had something to do with the transmission she had mentioned, David opened the file. He was surprised to see a short piece of footage the Nightwind had apparently received shortly before losing contact with Earth.

“We must return to the cradle,” a man was saying into the camera. “Only when we destroy the starships and leave the colonies will the aliens leave us alone.” David paused the playback and studied the man’s face. Something about him seemed familiar, but he couldn’t place it. He appeared to be about fifty years old, with salt and pepper hair and a worn face. Piercing green eyes seemed to bore into him, even through the monitor. Still unable to figure out why he looked so familiar, David hit the play button. “This is our only hope, people of Earth!” he finished. The screen went blank.

A message from Ensign Lindros popped onto the screen along with a dossier on the man he had just seen. His name was Robert Laird, and he was the leader of a group named Earth Now. It seemed to be against humanity’s presence anywhere off the planet Earth and destruction of all space travel capability. According to the dossier, he had quite literally appeared out of nowhere roughly a year and a half ago and began gathering a group of idealistic neo-Luddites. The newly formed Earth Now movement had been completely ignored by the general population until the so called “Messenger Riots.” The report finished with the comment that the intelligence community believed it was possible the organization had prepared the original series of riots, but no further information was available due to the communications blackout.

David shut the terminal off and stood up. The idea that one man could possibly cause the downfall of the entire planet Earth was practically unthinkable. Rather than being concerned by this new information, he felt relieved. If he had the information, then Captains Turner, Hunt and Semmes must know as well.

Earth could take care of itself, David decided. He would continue on his mission.