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