The trick to coming up with good sci-fi is the same as the trick to selling real estate. Location, location, location. Last week’s Future Friday hinted at a new, key location in the Nightwind universe. It’s time to take a tour.
Commander Horatio Semmes stretched his long legs and looked up from the morning reports. The view took his attention completely away from his work just like always. There was nowhere in all of the human experience quite like Ishtar Station. Semmes’ ship, the ECS Phoenix, had been docked at the station for over a month, since Captain Anderson was mysteriously reassigned and he, as XO, had been put back in the hot seat.
The change in command had come with orders to remain at Ishtar Station and show the flag, as it were, until Earth Command could deploy reinforcements out to Jupiter orbit. Intelligence reports indicated that the Colonial Authority was preparing to make a play for the station. Earth Command had no intention of allowing that to happen.
Such orders would have normally made Semmes angry. He was back in charge of one of the patrol ships, after all. The proper place for a commander was out there, with the void beneath his feet. Orders to stay at Ishtar Station were different. Ishtar Station was special.
He stepped to the railing and looked out from the little blister built into the side of the station he’d commandeered as his office. Ishtar Station lay before and above him, its impossible horizon spreading to the sides and curving up in a great cylinder and meeting far above his head.
Nineveh lay directly in front of him. It was one of the two cities on the station, a relatively small collection of apartments and businesses clinging to the inside of the great cylinder. A nearly exact duplicate city named Erbil clung to the inside of Cylinder 2, two kilometers away and separated from view by the vast structure of the station itself.
The rest of Ishtar Station was covered in a bright, impossible green. Humans had dragged the second-largest piece of engineering they as a race had ever built out to Jupiter’s orbit, placed it near the gas giant’s trailing LaGrange Point, and grown a farm. And now entire generations of humans grew up believing the sky above was actually the family farm. It was mad and beautiful and so very human all at once.
Ishtar Station itself had started its life out as the colony ship Papsukkal. In the early days of the United Commonwealth the architects of human peace had realized that humanity needed something to strive against. Earth’s resources were almost exhausted but the only viable colony humanity had was a small collection of domes on Earth’s moon. They had figured out how to harness comets and were sending vast ships out to the asteroid belt to begin dismantling the great, silent mountains out past Mars.
Someone had hit upon the idea of sending humanity to the stars. Construction began almost immediately on three great colony ships: the Isimud, the Zaqar, and the Papsukkal, named for ancient Mesopotamian messenger gods. Isimud and Zaqar were launched at the close of the 21st Century, but Papsukkal had lagged behind. For nearly half a century the great ship floated outside of the Venus Shipyards and witnessed the building of the ships humanity would use to colonize Mars and travel out to Jupiter, Saturn, and to the edges of the solar system itself. No one knew what to do with the third and final colony ship. The colonizing forces moving across the solar system wanted to cannibalize the ship for parts. Earth Command wanted to turn it into the next expansion of the Venus Shipyards.
The solution was finally reached during the planning stages for Project Callisto, the plan to colonize Jupiter’s second-largest moon. A base on Callisto would put humanity firmly and permanently into the larger solar system and Earth Command knew that a space station would be an important piece of the puzzle. Humans needed food and air and turning the Papsukkal into a giant farm seemed like the simplest way to solve that problem.
It also offered a solution to a second problem. Humans, being natives of a gravity well, could not properly conceive in extremely low or null gravity. Babies could not properly gestate in that environment, either. The few babies conceived by that first generation of colonizers were grotesque, malformed mockeries of the human form possessing brittle bones and destined to live short, painful lives. The only way to increase the population of the farthest reaches of the solar system was to continually send immigrants from Earth or pull any women looking to get pregnant back to Mars or Earth itself. Scientists worried that Callisto might not solve that problem, either, as the moon received a great deal of background radiation from the gas giant itself.
The new station was to be the jewel of humanity’s expansion into the solar system and the crowning triumph of humanity’s ingenuity.
Over the course of a decade the colony ship Papsukkal was transformed into the space station Ishtar. The ship’s structure was actually extended and the six rotating rings were enclosed, enlarged, and turned into two huge cylinders. The station was then towed out to Jupiter’s Trojan LaGrange Point and the cylinders were spun up in opposite directions, allowing the station’s rotational force to cancel itself out and hang in place.
For over a century Ishtar Station had done exactly what it was supposed to do. It was possible it had done it too well. Everyone who paid attention to life out beyond Mars orbit knew that Ishtar Station was the key to everything humanity was attempting to do. It was also one of only three bases outside of Earth orbit – the others being the alien base inside Deimos and the tiny, barely habitable Tethys Research Station – that Earth Command retained direct control over.
It increasingly appeared that the Colonial Authority intended to take ownership of Ishtar Station. The worst part about it was that Earth Command probably wouldn’t be able to stop them. The station was a massive construct that spoke to the great heights humanity had ascended in its journey out into the Solar System. It was a fragile thing, though. Semmes thought of it as a glass house from that old Earth saying, “Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”
The greatest irony of humanity’s expansion into space was that for all the technological know-how it took to reach space and all the engineering genius it took to live there almost everything could be destroyed by something as simple as a well-thrown rock. Ishtar Station sat precariously in a field full of rocks known as the Trojan Group. Tiny vessels called Rockhoppers that were originally designed to help with asteroid mining regularly cleared out Trojan objects close enough to the station to potentially do damage. The Solar System was filled with rocks, though, and anyone who wanted to threaten Ishtar Station could simply accelerate enough to offer a reasonable chance to pierce the station’s thin hull and it would be all over.
There were other options, too. Phoenix possessed a pair of railguns as part of her armament. Railguns used electromagnets to accelerate tungsten carbide slugs to impressive speeds. The slugs were highly sophisticated rocks thrown by highly sophisticated arms, but they were still basically just rocks. They were undoubtedly in the Colonial Authority armory, too, as the railgun was based on technology that dated to before humanity permanently left Earth.
Semmes did not believe he had long to wait to find out if the Colonial Authority planned to start threatening to throw rocks at his favorite glass house. Earth Command was tracking one of the freighters intel suspected was converted into a warship on Mars. She was on final approach to Ishtar Station. Earth Command had vectored the corvette ECS Raven in to assist Semmes a week before. The Colonial Authority customs frigate Spirit, which had been spending a bit too much time near Jupiter anyway, had immediately moved to shadow.
Semmes closed his eyes and took a deep breath. It had to be time.
His communicator chirped as if responding to his thoughts. The voice of Lieutenant Commander Bixby, his second in command, sounded in his ear. “Commander Semmes, please report to the Phoenix.”
He took one last look at the impossibly green world in front of him. “I will keep you safe,” he promised. Then he turned away and headed for the lift that would take him directly up to the docking ring.
The trip to the docking level only took a few minutes but by the time he reached the end of his journey he was completely weightless. He waited for the lift to stop before finally activating his magnetic boots and orienting himself to a floor. It was a little practice he always tried to keep when transitioning from gravity to null grav. His brain always wanted to find a fixed point to define as down and another to define as up, but he knew that space did not care about such firm definitions. The worst captains were the ones who couldn’t figure out how to define up and down according to their needs, but defined it according to some fixed point of reference.
He stepped out of the lift and strode down the passageway to Phoenix’s docking berth with the confidence born of decades in space. Aboard ship he preferred to turn the mag boots off and float freely, but he was not aboard ship. A ship’s commander should stride purposefully and confidently forward if others were around to observe.
Phoenix’s airlock was open when he arrived at the ship. As soon as he stepped through the outer door closed behind him and Bixby’s face appeared on the display on the opposite bulkhead.
“Everyone is strapped in and waiting for you, Commander,” she said.
“On my way.”
Semmes grabbed a handrail in front of him. He disengaged his mag boots and pushed off from the rail with a single smooth, practiced motion. His feet barely cleared the inner door of the airlock when the doors began to close. He made a mental note to compliment Bixby on her timing when he got the chance.
He reached the ladder to the command deck and redirected himself up without losing momentum. As his waist cleared the lip of the hatch he brought his knees up and activated his mag boots. A moment later he was standing firmly on the edge of the hatch to the command deck. Two quick steps and he was in his command chair.
“Begin disengagement procedure,” he ordered as he pulled his seat restraints down.
“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Fernandez replied from the pilot station. “Disengaging from Ishtar Station.”
Phoenix shuddered. Even though Semmes knew nothing had actually changed aboard the ship he could feel a difference. One moment they’d been a parasite clinging to the side of a space station. Now they were free. The void was, once again, beneath his feet.
“Activate tactical display,” he ordered. “Show me our friend.”
“Aye, sir,” Bixby replied.
The main display flickered to life a moment later. Phoenix appeared at the center as a small green box. The ship was dwarfed by the huge blue rectangle that represented Ishtar Station and took up most of the upper left quadrant. Three other green boxes floated nearby, representing civilian transports that were not docked with the station at the moment. Several orange circles represented nearby Trojan objects that were large enough to be considered navigational hazards.
Semmes focused all of his attention on the red triangle at the very bottom left corner of the display. The words SS Trevor May floated next to it. A string of alphanumerics indicated the ship was pulling a g-profile and operating on a power curve that belonged on a warship and not a heavy transport.
“Do we have a visual yet?” Semmes asked.
“Just pulling it now,” Bixby replied.
The screen flickered and a moment later the tactical view was replaced by a low resolution image of a massive freighter. Semmes leaned forward in his seat, examining the ship.
“What are those?” he asked, pointing to a series of lumps that formed four lines down the dorsal hull.
“Nothing I can identify yet, Sir,” Bixby replied. “Trying to get a higher resolution image.”
“Sir, we’re getting a message,” Ensign Carr, his comm officer, called out. “Wide band. I think they want this to go out to the whole Solar System.”
“Put it on,” Semmes ordered.
The bridge speakers came to life. “This is the Colonial Authority Warship Pathfinder operating under the full prerogative of the Colonial Authority. We are here to release Ishtar Station from the bondage of Earth Command. For too long we have allowed the United Commonwealth to dictate where the resources of this most important station are deployed and been forced to see the citizens of the colonies live under the thumb of the United Commonwealth’s Earth Command lackeys in exchange for exercising the simple right we all share to access air, food, and a place where our children can be born.
“We, the people of the colonies, have a right to our own self-determination. Ishtar Station is our birthright and the Colonial Authority claims it in the name of all free peoples of the Solar System. We do not wish to start a war but are prepared to defend ourselves if that is necessary.
“Earth Command forces currently residing on Ishtar Station will be given free passage off of the station and be allowed to return to Earth as long as they do not resist. The Earth Command vessel Phoenix, currently docked at Ishtar Station, will also be allowed to withdraw as long as its commander does not interfere. Earth Command and the United Commonwealth have two days to respond with a timetable for their withdrawal from the station.”
The bridge speakers went silent.
This is a long piece, and actually a chunk of a longer chapter, but I can’t really slice and dice it in a meaningful way. This, right here, is the crux of the new Nightwind universe. Horatio Semmes stands as the man stuck with the impossible choice yet again and the Phoenix must face off against an unexpected enemy.
We also get to meet the Colonial Authority for the first time. They are the United Commonwealth’s main foil. Unlike Earth Now they actually have an agenda and a justification that’s not just, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if I had a mustache-twirling super villain?