Nightwind Future Friday, part 2

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.

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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.

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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?

Nightwind Follow-Up, Chapters 14-15

Chapter 14 of Nightwind is an interesting chapter. It’s interesting in that it beautifully illustrates a whole shitload of things to not do while writing. The core incompetency here is in the old saw of “show, don’t tell.”

So I have four important captains in this world: David Anderson, Elizabeth Turner, Robert Hunt, and Horatio Semmes. Two of those captains are off doing stuff that moves the plot forward while Turner and Hunt are playing the role of Greek Chorus. So what do I have the Greek Chorus do? Why they sit around and debate the relative skill levels of the two captains who are out doing shit.

I have come to realize exactly why one of the biggest problems plaguing poorly written books is the “tell, don’t show” problem. It’s because Anderson and Semmes are just doing what the plot requires them to do. I need you, as a reader, to understand why Anderson makes the decision to not return to Earth after finding out the entire planet appears to be descending into chaos. I need you, as a reader, to believe that Semmes is actually an extremely competent commander even though he just accidentally blew up the moon. As a bonus I also need to explain to you how the current captain of the Dragon just up and decided to go all Benedict Arnold.

A proper appreciation of plot and characterization would have done work here. I could paint Anderson as an explorer who can’t contain himself. I could paint him as a tyrant who wants to blaze his own trail. I could paint him as an obsessive who just won’t let a mystery go away and is totally going to Columbo the hell out of the Joshans. Or I could have two other characters describe him as aloof. Because obviously an aloof person would see that Rome has been nuked and just keep going on to do whatever. At this point there’s absolutely no excuse for Anderson and the Nightwind to be anywhere but Earth. At the very least there’s absolutely no excuse for him to have not sent back a message reading, “Hey, the Joshans say it was some pirates, please advise.” Then when he gets no response to a direct query he’d have to decide what to do.

Semmes is a different case. He’s a deeply principled, flamboyant eccentric living in a world that has no room for eccentrics and no notion of the flamboyant. He’s also the character who ends up carrying a disproportionate amount of the plot. So imagine this in the context of, say, Star Trek the Next Generation introducing Captain Jack Harkness as a series regular in charge of a Federation starship that regularly crosses paths with the Enterprise. While the Star Trek universe is big enough and varied enough to have room for a flamboyant, extravagant character like Captain Jack we’ve seen absolutely no proof that Starfleet has room for him. He might have been okay as a contemporary of James T Kirk but by the time TNG rolls around Starfleet has pretty much replaced the brash adventurers with dour, logical professionals.

So why does Earth Command keep Horatio Semmes around? Because he’s really good at, y’know, stuff. And how do we know that? Because Turner and Hunt just told us. But didn’t he just blow up the moon? Yes. But it was totally an accident.

Also, why is it that we care about Turner and Hunt’s opinions? I’ll, um, I’ll get back to you on that one.

Chapter 15 is a different sort of piece. It’s just one of those, “Let’s have everyone talk to develop the characters,” thing. Overall it’s fine. I’m okay with the interplay between Anderson and Gregory.

There is one interesting verbal tic that I had at the time that annoys me in this chapter now. I was obsessed with avoiding repetitive writing at the time. So in one line I’d refer to Anderson as “Anderson,” in another as “David,” and in the next as, “The captain.” I’m surprised I didn’t get around to calling him, “The tall, brown-haired man in the captain’s uniform.”

There’s some attempt at worldbuilding here. I still kinda like the idea of discussing how the Joshans named their stars. It’s an interesting point of conversation about what to make of cultures that still use their old legends to name things. I didn’t realize the extent to which it could create an interesting conversation, though, and just kind of left it hanging.

One of the big problems here was that I hadn’t really bothered to figure out what the Joshans were really like. I needed a device to allow me to send Nightwind off on its pointless and improperly justified task without having to account for the fact that I had no idea where any star systems were outside of the few I’d already mentioned by name. There’s also the fact that the Conduit Drive obviously requires careful navigation. How, exactly, is Nightwind supposed to get anywhere without help? I would imagine it’s possible to figure out a lot of that sort of thing based on what we know now. But it seems like something that would take a ton of math and time.

This is an interesting dilemma, too. The Joshans have a vast library of star locations and probably know where most of the best navigation points are. This seems like a major strategic advantage. Why would they just give it away?

Overall a decent chapter with a major mechanical flaw and a serious lack of realization of scope.

Also, we’re now at a really interesting point of departure for this project. There is nothing I can think of in the original book that matches up with where the rewrite is going. The overall plot is still similar, but the lessons I’ve taken from looking at the first 15 chapters have thoroughly convinced me that I was doing a lot of things wrong. Moreover, the things I realized I was doing wrong gave me clues about what to do right. From here on out the lessons aren’t nearly as 1:1 as they’ve been. I don’t know what, if anything, that means. It’s just interesting.

Nighwind Wednesdays, Chapters 14-15

[Author’s Note: This is a novel I wrote about fifteen years ago. It was my first attempt at writing anything longer than a history paper or short story. I’ll be putting it on here on Wednesdays and probably posting my thoughts about it on Thursdays. Everything is tagged under Nightwind Wednesdays. As is my custom there will be a Thursday post discussing the lessons I have learned.]

Chapter 14

Earth Command Shipyards, Venus Orbit
May 30th, 2356 Terran Standard Calendar
1148 Terran Standard Time

Captain Elizabeth Turner stepped into the huge observation dome for what seemed like the thousandth time over the last eleven days.  Beyond the window lay the vast expanse of the two production lines that gave purpose to the top secret Venus Shipyards.  She let her eyes wander over the smooth expanse of the nearly completed ship occupying the closer line, ECS Starfire, soon to be hers to command.  She feared it would not be soon enough.

Nothing in her training or experience could even begin to prepare her for the task at hand.  Thirty-one years old and a nine year veteran of Earth Command, Elizabeth was intelligent, capable and one of the best captains in the history of the Navy.  There was no higher honor she could think of than being given command of the Starfire, but the timing could have been far better.  Her old ship, ECS Dragon, had been left in the hands of her former Executive Officer, a greedy, shallow commander who, in her opinion, should not have been allowed to graduate from the Academy, let alone been given a ship.

Now the Dragon was a rogue.  One ship would not be too much of a problem, but the Wyvern had pulled out and Zephyr was, well, no one knew where Zephyr was.  That left Horatio Semmes and the Phoenix as the only reliable Earth Command force in system.  Although she had the utmost respect for Semmes, the odds were stacked heavily against him.  Even his new alliance with the smugglers did not even things out, as the idea of trusting them seemed foolhardy.

If only Captain Anderson and the Nightwind would return.  The situation would improve drastically when that happened.  If it happened.  She knew it was entirely possible he would not return.  No one knew what was out there.

“I figured I’d find you here,” a familiar voice boomed out behind her.

She continued looking out the window.  “It’s where I come to think, Robert,” she said.  “And there’s an awful lot to think about recently.”

“Mind if I join you?” he asked.

Elizabeth ran her hand through her long brown hair and turned to face her oldest friend.  “There’s always room for you, Robert,” she said, green eyes flashing.

Captain Robert hunt stepped up to the railing and looked out at the two nearly identical starships.  “How long now?”

“Nine days, Robert,” she responded.  “Nine more days sitting on the sidelines.”

He turned and looked at her.  “Well, at least you’ve only got nine.  I’m stuck her for another week after that.”

“You always were second best,” she said, flashing him a broad smile.

Robert chuckled.  “Word is I’m actually third best these days.  Anderson wouldn’t have the Nightwind if they didn’t think he’s better than us.”

“Eh,” Elizabeth shrugged, “He’s good, but so are we.  And so is Semmes for that matter.”  She looked back at the shipyard.

“I just don’t know if any of us will be good enough for this.”

“Anderson will be able to handle it.” Robert assured her.

“Are you sure?  How well do you know him?”

Hunt thought about her question.  “Come to think of it, not too well,” he finally said.

“Isn’t that a little strange?” Elizabeth asked.

Robert rubbed his chin and tried to remember the few times he had spoken to the other captain.  The Earth Command officer corps was a fairly tight-knit clique, even with the fairly rapid turnover rate.  The small number of ships, combined with the tendency to constantly rotate assignments meant officers and crews had usually served with a large percentage of the rest of the navy.  Anderson had served on the Zephyr as executive officer before being fast-tracked into command of the Phoenix.  “I served with David for over four months,” Robert told her, “And I can’t think of more than five actual conversations I had with the man.  He was always aloof.”

Elizabeth paused, digesting the new information.  “Now that you mention it, he was on the Dragon when I was XO, and I don’t think he ever spoke to me unless he had to.  Couldn’t even make eye contact.  And he’s what?  Twenty-six?  That just seems so young.”

Robert sighed.  “While we were back on Earth getting reassigned I stopped at home and talked to my dad,” he said.  “I mentioned that I’m now at the age he was when he retired from the Navy to take up teaching.  That got us on to the subject of the age of the people in the Navy.”

“What?” she asked.  “You figured out why there’s no one in the Navy older than forty-two?”

“Yep.”

“Why?”

“It’s simple,” Robert said.  “Serving in the Earth Command Navy is extremely boring.”

Elizabeth stared at him, incredulous.  “You have got to be kidding.”

“Nope,” Robert shook his head.  “Think about it.  For three centuries there has been no war, no rebellion, nothing.  Nobody has fired the guns of an Earth Command ship in anger.  So after a few years the whole thing turns into mind-numbing routine and you retire and move on to something else.”

“That,” Elizabeth nodded, “Actually makes sense.  And it also explains why Command likes to shake things up so much.”

“Exactly.”

Major Jason Tanaka, the commander of the shipyard facility, walked into the observation room looking sick.  “Captain Turner, Captain Hunt,” he said quietly, “I’m sorry to bother you…but there’s something you need to see.”

“What is it, Major?” Robert asked, concerned.

“Commander Semmes just called from Luna base,” he said, “Please come with me.”

Tanaka led them out of the room and through the corridors of the shipyard to the main communications trunk.  He dismissed the comm tech as they entered the room and called up a message.  “Prepare yourselves,” he said.  “This is…”

Without finishing the thought, Tanaka hit the playback button.  A view of the dome of Luna base flashed on to the screen.  Both captains involuntarily gasped when they saw the complete and utter ruin of what had once been the home of nearly one thousand people.

“What happened?” Robert asked.

“The Phoenix and the Dragon were engaged in battle near the dome when stray fire hit the dome,” Tanaka told him.

“Which ship?”

“The Phoenix,” Tanaka shook his head.  “Apparently they lost a target lock on the Dragon and reacquired on the dome.

There was nothing anyone could do.”

“Poor Horatio,” Elizabeth said, turning from the tragic scene.  “How is he taking it?”

“Not well,” Tanaka responded.  “He was sending a search party down when I talked to him, but didn’t seem very hopeful.”

“First Earth Command, then Mars, now this,” Captain Hunt clenched his jaw, determined to keep from crying at the sight of the dome.  He knew he had to be strong, for Elizabeth, for himself.  “If Horatio can’t get those supplies out to Europa and Tethys we might not have any reason to use our new ships.”

“Did he say what he was going to do next, Jason?” Elizabeth asked.

“No, Captain,” he replied.  “I just hope he can put this aside and do what he needs to do.  It may seem callous, but Semmes is our only chance right now.”

Chapter 15

Hr’dag System
May 30th, 2356 Terran Standard Calendar
1205 Terran Standard Time

Commander Gregory stepped into David’s small office.  David sat in his old wooden desk chair, reading a star chart.

“Everything ready, Walter?” he asked, not looking up.

“Yes, Sir,” the Executive Officer responded, “Course is set for the Ah’dag system.  Awaiting your orders.”

“Good, good,” David said, “We’re probably going to have to prepare a team to head down to the planet on this one.”

“Sir?” Gregory asked.

David turned the monitor so his XO could see it.  “The Joshan star charts indicate that we’ll be seeing a fairly low-tech planet.  They’ve apparently just developed advanced enough rocketry to allow space flight in the last decade.”

“How do you know that?”

David brought up a small schematic.  “See here?” he pointed to a list of developments.  “It says a probe detected a rocket launch seven cycles ago.  Assuming the cycle is equivalent to our year, that puts it about eight years ago, based on the orbital pattern of the planet.”

“We assumed the cycle is the same as the year?” Walter asked, “Is that wise?”

The Captain shrugged.  “It makes as much sense as anything else the data analysis team could come up with.  And we need to come up with some sort of touchpoint.”

“I suppose,” the XO agreed despite his skepticism.  “So why would we be going down to this planet?”

“They’ve been hit by the pirates four times in the past year, assuming our translation of the Joshan calendar is correct,” David said.  “If we go down and talk to them, we might be able to get some valuable information.”

“Is that such a good idea?” Walter asked.  “I mean, going down to the planet?”

“Why?  You think we shouldn’t?”

Walter shrugged, “I’m just trying to figure out what I would do if someone dropped in on me from outer space and started asking me questions.”

David nodded.  “I see your point, Commander,” he allowed, “But they’ve already experienced contact with aliens, albeit in a very negative way.  I think the fact that they’ve seen people from space means we’ll be able to get away with visiting.”

“Okay,” Gregory agreed for the sake of argument.  “Ensign Lindros reports that the Ah’dag system will be outside of the range of communications with Tau Ceti III, by the way.”

“Well, we haven’t talked to them in five days, anyway,” David responded.  “We should leave one of those signal repeaters behind, either way.”

“Yes, Sir,” the other man said.  “Jackson tells me that we haven’t been able to test them yet, so we shouldn’t be surprised if we still can’t talk to anyone.”

“Have a seat, Walter,” David signaled to the room’s small couch.  “Are you leaving anyone behind?” he asked as the Commander complied.

“Well, my parents and my sisters,” he replied, “But that’s about it.”

“Just family?” David asked, “No one else?”

“Well, there was someone once,” Walter said, “Her name was Emily.  But now…” He trailed off.  “Well, it’s over now.  You?”

David shook his head.  “Never took the time.  Career military, always busy.  You know the story.”

“Yeah,” Gregory nodded.  “I kind of figure I’ll be single until I retire at this rate.”

Anderson laughed.  “I know the feeling,” he said.

“Hey,” the XO said, abruptly changing the subject, “I just had a strange thought.”

“Tell me.”

“What do you think the odds are,” he leaned in, “That we’ll run into the Jove out here?”

David laughed.  “So astronomically tiny that it’s not even worth thinking about.”

“But it could happen.”

“I suppose, if we wait another hundred years or so, that it could get this far out, assuming it’s still capable of movement.”

Two colony ships were built as part of the Interstellar Colonization Plan, Jove and Winged Messenger.  The Messenger was originally launched out toward Tau Ceti, where it performed its mission perfectly.  Jove was supposed to travel to Wolf 359 and then Lalande 21185, where astronomers had detected planets as early as the late Twentieth Century.  The chances of the existence of habitable worlds was somewhat smaller than at Tau Ceti, but in the end it did not matter.

Less than thirty years into its mission, Jove had simply stopped communicating.  Whether it was a simple glitch or the ships was destroyed no one knew.  Earth Command wrote it up as a mystery to be solved when technology and time allowed and left it at that.

David fell silent for a moment.  “Oh, by the way,” he changed the subject again, “While we’re on the subject of history, the Joshan star charts included a historical supplement.  Some of this stuff is fascinating.”

Walter leaned forward.  “Oh really,” he asked, “Like what?”

“Well,” David answered, “I was wondering why all the systems seemed to end in ‘dag,'” he said, “When I discovered the supplement.”

“So what does ‘dag’ mean?”

“Apparently, it simply means ‘star.'”

“Creative.”

“Indeed.”  David chuckled.  “Apparently they named their stars in much the same way we did, using old legends, myths and heroes.”

“So who was this star named after?”

“Hr Dul, one of the ancient gods of the race,” David said.  “Apparently he was the god of the dead, much like Hades for the Greeks.”

Walter nodded.  “And the star we’re going to?”

“That was apparently named for the legendary first Emperor,” David told him.  “He was said to be a half-god, stronger and more powerful than the men around him.  He united the tribes and nations of Joshanna.”

“Half god?” Gregory asked.  “Like Hercules?”

“More like Alexander the Great, I’d say,” the Captain responded.  “He was an actual historical figure with great legends and stories built around him.  The record indicates that he was probably pure Joshan, but sometimes the story is more important than the truth.”

“That is very true, Captain,” Walter said.  “But do you think they still believe those old stories?”

“Does it matter?”

“Well, dealing with a superstitious alien race could be a problem.”

“Jupiter is named after a Roman god, Walter,” David said, “As are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, Neptune and Pluto, not to mention their moons.  Does that mean the human race is made up of backwards, superstitious people?”

“No,” the Executive Officer said, “But we can’t make assumptions that they gave up their superstitions when they left their planet.”

“We can’t make assumptions they didn’t, either, Walter.”

Gregory paused.  “I think this is the part,” he said after a moment, “Where we both admit we have no clue what’s going on, agree that we’re in over our heads and decide to stop speculating on such things.”

“That,” David smiled, “Is the best idea I’ve heard in a while.  I believe you said we were prepared to leave?”

“Yes, Sir,” Walter nodded, “We’re ready to really leave Earth behind.”

“Well, we haven’t spoken to them for a while,” David said.  “I think they can handle things on their own for a little bit.”

Donald Trump and the Rise of American Fascism

Fascism is a difficult subject to discuss. Mostly it’s because fascism itself was never truly and properly defined but was always one of those, “I’ll know it when I see it,” sorts of things. Unfortunately ever since the end of WWII the, “I’ll know it when I see it,” aspect of defining fascism basically boiled down to, “Fascism is when my political opponents do something I don’t like.” The internet has made it even worse, with everything immediately going to name-calling of the “Hitler” and “Nazi” variety.

The most interesting thing about attempting to define fascism is that looking for comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis isn’t really a useful place to start. German fascism was very different from Italian fascism and different again from Spanish fascism. They started from different places but ended up in a similar space that we’ve labeled “fascism” ever since.

So we must start by talking about where fascism came from. We can actually get a pretty big clue from the origins of the word itself. The term originated with “fasces,” a Latin word for an ax bundled inside of elm or birch rods. It was a symbol of authority in the Roman Republic. In the late 19th Century the image was appropriated by workers’ parties in Italy, the most famous of which, eventually, was the one run by Benito Mussolini.

In the aftermath of WWI Mussolini and his compatriots were angry with the Italian government for not taking advantage of the end of WWI and expanding Italy’s borders. They believed Italy was the true heir to the Roman Empire and that the key to survival as a nation was to take that heritage in philosophy and action. This is why Mussolini claimed that his ultimate goal was to turn the Mediterranean into a “Roman lake” yet again. In Italy, then, the root of fascism was imperialism. The fascists appealed to a mythological interpretation of Italian history as descending directly from and deserving of the laurels of the Roman Empire.

Spanish fascism, as lead by General Franco and the Nationalists, was a different story. It was rooted in civil war and fear of both communism and anarchism. Franco and the Nationalists declared themselves defenders of Christian civilization against the slavering hordes of communists and anarchists who were trying to destroy Spain.

German fascism grew out of anger. The reparations foisted upon the Germans after Versailles were punitive and impossible. It was, at its core, anti-communist and racist, appealing to a German national identity that we all recognize now as the Aryan supremacy. The attempted extermination of all Jews receives the most attention, but the Nazis were indiscriminate, attempting to exterminate homosexuals, gypsies, and all other undesirable elements in order to create a purified Germany. One of the interesting things about the early years of the Nazi party was that although it was deeply rooted in anti-communist rhetoric and action it also did not support the notions of a wealthy class or unrestrained corporate power.

This was, in fact, one of the key aspects of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s. They believed in a merging of the government and industry and complete mobilization of the citizenry to achieve the national goals of prosperity and strength. This is not all that different from the communist ideal of the workers taking over the means of production and, I believe, one of the many reasons that current discussion of fascism confuses and obliterates the distinction between communism and fascism. The communist ideal, however, was for the workers to rise up and throw off the shackles of their bourgeois oppressors. The fascist ideal was to put the government in charge of the means of production in order to dictate the actions of the state.

This aspect of a fascist revolution is difficult, if not impossible, to conceive of in America today. It is deeply embedded in the rhetoric of the right, however. We hear it every single time a conservative talks about how regulations, any regulations, strangle business. We hear it when right wing pundits spout off about how the Affordable Care Act was Barack Obama taking over the entire medical industry. Government regulations are a necessary part of making the world work to the satisfaction of as many people as possible. At no point did Obama nationalize the health care system and anyone who knows anything about how much money the Affordable Care Act put into the pockets of the insurance companies knows that the ACA was anything but an attempt to break the back of Blue Cross Blue Shield.

In order to understand American fascism, then, we must look at other aspects of the great fascist movements of the 20th Century. Many historians with much better credentials than I possess have tried and failed to come to a universal understanding of fascism so I won’t even try. I only wish to draw in broad strokes.

First of all, the fascists were all deeply nationalistic. Moreover, within that nationalism they were tribal, appealing to a notion of the proper Italian, German, or Spaniard. This notion of the proper person was different and based on the ideal of that particular nation. Having identified a true and proper person they then defined their enemies. Communists were always on the top of that list.[1] Jews were on the list in Germany because of good, old-fashioned anti-Semitism and the ancient notion that the people were poor because the rich Jewish bankers had stolen all of their money.

Second, they were based on a mythology of power. The Italian fascists pointed back to the Roman Empire as their true birthright. The Nazis were heavily into the occult as a source of mythic power from ancient German and Christian symbolism.

Third, they required a narrative of stolen glory. The Italian fascists believed the government had sold the Italian people short in the wake of WWI. The Nazis believed they were being victimized by the reparations in the wake of WWI.[2] In each case, though, the nation was once great and had been destroyed. There was then a group or collection of groups that were responsible for that downfall. The failures were emphatically never the responsibility of the state or the right kinds of citizens.

Fourth, fascism itself is, at its core, a cult of personality. Mussolini and Franco were leaders of their parties and drew their followers to themselves as much as, if not more than, the parties they represented. The Nazis chose Hitler as their leader because they saw him as a galvanizing and controlling force over the people. We would not have had the Fascist Party without Mussolini and the word itself would still just be a description of a Roman ceremonial device languishing in the minds and books of professors of antiquity. The Nazis would be a footnote in the history books without Hitler.

One of the most interesting things to note here is that it can easily be said that the United States had its own form of proto-fascism long before Mussolini popularized the term. The South in the years after the end of the Civil War built up the Lost Cause myth, gave rise to the Ku Klux Klan, and blamed all of their problems on freed slaves, Northern carpetbaggers, and Southern scalawags. What the South was missing in the years immediately following the Civil War was the cult of personality. Nathan Bedford Forrest is the only figure I can really consider having the necessary clout but he did not extend his influence beyond the Klan itself. The most obvious person to take on the mantle of would-be proto-fascist strongman was Robert E. Lee, but he was far too much of a gentleman to involve himself in such things. The South would get their strongmen during the Civil Rights Movement in the form of George Wallace and his ilk. By then the game had changed, however. Still, it should come as no surprise that as I discuss the notion of American fascism the people who most resemble that notion are the heirs of the old South and oftentimes still fly the Confederate flag.

When I say that the game changed I’m talking about Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Presidential election, and the Southern Strategy. This is the part of American history that apparently never happened according to everyone’s racist uncle on Facebook. According to the racist uncle the Democrats are the real racists and the Republicans are the real defenders of freedom because Abraham Lincoln was a Republican and the Democrats were the party that seceded in 1861. What this ignores is the events of 1964 and 1965 when Lyndon B Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act into law, effectively reversed the Democratic Party’s stance from the century before, and essentially completed Lincoln’s legacy.

The main opponents to the Civil Rights Act in 1964 were Southern Democrats, known as the Dixiecrats. The primary Senate opposition came from Richard Russell, Robert Byrd, and Strom Thurmond, all Democrats from Georgia, West Virginia,[3] and South Carolina, respectively. Two months later Strom Thurmond would switch party affiliation to the Republican Party. In 1968 he was a key figure in gaining the South for Richard Nixon. In this he was assisted by George Wallace, who split the Democratic ticket with Hubert Humphrey that year.[4]

This was the realization of the Southern Strategy. It began in 1964 when Barry Goldwater won the Deep South as a Republican on his way to losing the election to Lyndon B. Johnson. The Republicans simply did not win in the South up until that point but the Democratic Party’s increasing support of civil rights was angering Southern white conservatives. In 1968 the Republicans specifically targeted the South and, aided by George Wallace’s third-party run and the switchover of prominent Dixiecrats, won the South. The Republicans have held onto the South ever since, save for the 1976 election when Jimmy Carter, a Georgian, managed to wrestle it away, and 1992 when the Clinton/Gore ticket, consisting of an Arkansan and a Tennesseean, managed to nab a couple of the Southern States.[5]

The Southern Strategy has long depended on the Confederate sympathies of the South and that proto-fascist streak that has lived in the hearts of the unrepentant secessionists who still make up a vocal minority of the population below the Mason-Dixon Line. Much as the South simply lacked the capability of winning the Civil War the retrograde elements of the Southern electorate aren’t enough to carry the entire country in an election. The lessons learned in 1964 and 1968 taught the Republicans that there are enough people out there who can be swayed by a Southern Strategy style campaign to win elections. This is what gave us the rise of the Tea Party and right wing rhetoric against immigrants and Muslims and homosexuals. Immigrants and Muslims and homosexuals all represent a form of other that’s scary to some segment of the American population.[6]

This is the electoral ring into which Donald Trump threw his Make America Great Again cap last year. I honestly believe he thought he was just going to have a laugh and sell a few books. I don’t think he set out to become an American Mussolini but he managed to do exactly that. His rhetoric actually hits on all of the main points of fascist propaganda starting with that Make America Great Again ball cap. It says that America was once the pinnacle but has been dethroned and someone needs to step up and fix it. Who is it that ruined American greatness, according to Trump’s rhetoric? Illegal immigrants, liberals, the media, and non-white people in general. He then presented himself as the strong man with all of the answers to all of the problems and his followers created the cult of personality that’s the final key to the fascist movement. It’s terrifying to watch in real time and, worse, it’s escalating as time goes on.

One of the new themes in Trump’s rallies is the kicking out of protestors. I have now read many accounts of Trump rallies where protesters are regularly surrounded, security is summoned, and the protesters are removed from the building. All the while Trump stands on stage and eggs on the spectacle. In most of the accounts I have read some of the protesters are actually making noise, but most seem to be people who are there and minding their own business. One account I read was of a pair of black teenage girls who were wearing anti-Trump shirts but interacting pleasantly with the people around them until suddenly the crowd turned against them.

Historians have often asked how Germany went insane in the 1930s. This is the answer to that question. It starts small. It starts with people turning against their neighbors in small ways. It starts with the leadership applauding the actions of those who turn on their neighbors. Germany did not wake up one morning and say, “Hey, let’s put Hitler in charge and kill all of the Jews.” The Nazis took over a small percentage of the Reichstag and eventually rose to just under 40% control. From there they stopped the government from doing anything while forcing von Hindenberg into declaring Hitler Chancellor. Even that was met with protests.

All of this leads us, for the moment, to Chicago on Friday. The Illinois primary is on Tuesday[7] and this is the first time in a long time when Illinois actually mattered in the primary election.[8] Trump scheduled a rally in Chicago on Friday night and ended up cancelling it. Violence ensued.

The initial reports were that anti-Trump protesters in Chicago got violent and Trump called the rally because of that. I initially reacted by saying that it was a disgrace that Chicago had descended to Trump’s level. Then on Saturday morning new information came to light. Eyewitness reports indicated that the anti-Trump crowd was generally peaceful and it was also far too large to be bullied like the scattering of anti-Trump people at his usual rallies. So Trump cancelled the rally. That was when everything went to hell.

Trump has since claimed that the Chicago protesters violated his First Amendment rights to free speech. That’s beyond stupid, but par for the course for most of America these days. The First Amendment guarantees that the government won’t suppress free speech but says nothing about whether or not protesters are allowed to try to stop or drown out someone else. That’s also beside the point.

The big lesson here: you don’t fuck with Chicago. We don’t put up with Trump’s shit. I expect that as we continue our death march to the Republican Convention Trump will be met with larger and better organized protests. The country is starting to take him seriously. The fight started in Chicago but won’t end here.

Trump’s Presidential run is scary. His supporters are scarier. It’s hard not to see the undertones of fascism in Trumps rallies. I fully expect that if Trump wins the nomination the rallies will get more dangerous, the protests will get louder, and that there will be at least one headline about someone getting killed at a Trump rally.

This is how fascism comes to America. There is nothing inevitable about President Trump. What we need to do is recognize the roots of American fascism and remain vigilant. We must realize that “it can’t happen here” is incorrect. It is happening here. We can stop it. We can’t stop it with Twitter hashtags or passing around memes making fun of Trump’s hair. We have to stand up and say, “No, we won’t allow you to be the loudest voice in the room.” We have to recognize that anger at the other is the first step to oblivion.

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[1]This opposition to communism was more or less opportunistic. The communists were simply the bogeyman and a visible force to rally against. Communist philosophy was a natural foil to fascism, though, as the ultimate goal of communism is the obliteration of the machinery of the state in favor of the workers while the ultimate goal of fascism was the transcendence of the state itself.

[2]This, for the record, is a valid complaint. The terms of the Treaty of Versailles were ruinous to Germany. Which is one of the great tragedies of WWI. As far as wars go it was basically morally neutral. There was no great good v. evil frame for WWI. It started by accident and snowballed because of an interlaced web of treaties and protection agreements. In the aftermath of the war, though, Germany was treated as if it had singlehandedly undertaken to destroy the world while the Kaiser cackled maniacally and clapped with glee. It’s entirely likely that this reaction was based on the overall horror of the war itself but had the unintended consequence of forcing the German people to turn to monsters to protect themselves.

[3]The West Virginia part there is interesting, as West Virginia effectively seceded from Virginia when Virginia went with the Confederacy. West Virginia’s legacy since then has not been one rich in liberalism, however.

[4]Byrd, it should be noted, remained a Democrat and would later renounce his opposition to the Civil Rights Act. He remained a conservative voice in the Democratic Party but he did see the light on the issue of civil rights.

[5]There’s a cautionary tale built into the electoral maps for Hillary Clinton. Her biggest primary wins were in Southern states where she holds a major lead in the black vote. Barack Obama, who got something like 97% of the black vote if my memory serves, didn’t win a single one of those states in 2008 or 2012. This is an electoral mine field for the Democratic Party, as Bernie Sanders has been winning in the states that will probably go blue in the general. It’s possible that we’re headed for a perfect storm of Democratic Party malaise that will open up a path for Donald Trump to actually win in November.

[6]There is, of course, nothing new under the Sun here. America has a long and troubled history of immigrants closing the doors on the next group trying to get in. Eastern Europeans and Southern Europeans were once thought of in the same way that a lot of Americans think of Mexicans today. The election of John F Kennedy was a major coup, as Americans had long thought of Catholics as a dangerous religious group beholden to the Pope over the President.

[7]I’ve already taken advantage of early voting, as is my wont. Feel the Bern!

[8]There were two times in my life when I had the chance to vote for Barack Obama and didn’t. The first was the 2004 general. I was out at school at the time and never quite got around to figuring out how to vote outside of my home precinct. That election would have marked my switch from conservative to liberal, as I voted for Bush in 2000 but intended to vote for Kerry in 2004. That was also Obama’s Senate election, where he was initially running against Jack Ryan, former husband of Jeri Ryan, who played Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager. Ryan dropped out of the race in disgrace when it the proceedings from his divorce came to light and the public learned that he had a thing for sex clubs and public sex in general and the whole thing was super weird (but, in Jack Ryan’s defense, if I was married to Jeri Ryan in the ‘90s I would totally want to have sex with her in public because, holy shit, people, look at me having sex with Jeri Ryan!). The Illinois Republican Party then seriously attempted to recruit Mike Ditka as their candidate. Da Coach was not interested. They eventually recruited professional runner-up and general disaster Alan Keyes to run against Obama. Obama won that race by so much that he actually sent his money and volunteers to work for other Democratic campaigns. It was this that paved the way for Obama’s keynote at the 2004 Democratic Convention and caused everyone to declare him the future of the Democratic Party.

I voted for Dennis Kucinich in the 2008 Democratic Primary. By that point Obama had the nomination locked up and I had an irrational love of Dennis Kucinich. He was kind of a proto-Bernie but he also believed in aliens and shit and was just generally amusing. I remain convinced that he’s actually some kind of magical elf.

This American Dream I am Disbelieving

So I had big plans for the blog this week. None of them happened, so we’re going to have to push things back a week. Instead I offer an attempt at sharing some thoughts I’ve been trying to figure out how to put into words for quite some time.

Didn’t you know that this world
Is not meant to be dreamt in
But what hurts me most
Is all the time that we’ve wasted
I’ve wasted all the dreams in my head
I’ll have to move out of this country instead
–Idlewild, “You and I are Both Away”

It seems to me that it’s easier to make something of yourself if you start with nothing than it is to make something of yourself if you start with something. Like, I’m not talking rich when I say “something,” I’m talking your basic American middle class existence. If you grow up middle class your life is planned out for you pretty much from the start. You go to school for 13 years. The final two years are spent applying for college. You then go to college and emerge with a slightly pickled liver, a degree that may or may not be useful, and crushing loads of debt. Then you’re supposed to get a job as an accountant, get married, buy a house, have 2.4 children and a dog, and eventually you die.

The reason I say it’s easier to make something of yourself if you start with nothing isn’t a Republican-Presidential-Candidate-esque rant about how the poor have it too easy in America. It’s a psychological statement. If you have nothing you don’t have anything to lose. If your dreams are big enough, your skills are honed enough, and luck is on your side you can go anywhere from nothing because no one is expecting anything of you.

If you start with something most of the messages you get as you’re growing up are about how to not lose what you have. You can’t be in a band because guys in bands don’t make any money. You can’t be an artist because artists don’t make any money. You have to be an accountant[1] or an engineer or a middle manager or something.

Last summer in a fit of pique I wrote three posts about how corporate America is destroying America. I still believe every word I wrote.

The message we get growing up in the vast and shrinking middle classes of America is, “Make the safe choice.” We kill ourselves every day with the safe choice. Our dreams become secondary things that we might get to turn into hobbies when we’re 50 if everything goes according to plan.

What if the plan is terrible? Does that matter?

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I also think that this directly impacts the politics of America. I’m not really talking about Trump rallies or Bernie and Hillary here. I have many things to say on the subject of Trump rallies, though. Hopefully there will be a long-ass post about that next week.

What I’m talking about is something more primal. We’re increasingly divided and increasingly hateful of each other. There’s the obvious shit, like the way that you can apparently get one third of the country to support you if you spout off any racist shit that you can think of.

I think it’s because most of us are mad. Most of us are scared. That convenient path to a long, healthy life is increasingly closing off. Wages are stagnant while college costs and housing costs are climbing ever higher. But this is the American Dream. This is what we’re supposed to do. What do we do when it’s not working anymore?

This is where Donald Trump gets scary. He might be a buffoon or a con man or pulling the greatest piece of performance art since Andy Kaufman disappeared, but he’s tapped into something primal and dangerous in America. It’s something that’s always existed at the fringes of the American psyche and sometimes gone mainstream, but it’s always something that goes away and we pretend can’t happen anymore. America has always had a nativist streak, always had an isolationist streak, always had a hateful streak. The waves crested with the Know Nothings and the Ku Klux Clan but they’ve always been around and will probably always be around.

So when the bully stands up and says “Make America Great Again,” people know what that means. They look around at the ruins of their own lives and look at the American Dream and they know that something has stopped them from achieving the American Dream. It can’t possibly be that they failed. It can’t possibly be that America as a whole failed. It has to be because someone, somewhere, is trying to actively destroy America.

It can’t be my fault it’s all falling apart. It has to be yours.

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I am increasingly convinced that politicians cannot fix this. Obama couldn’t do it. Bernie Sanders won’t be able do it even if he does get past Hillary. The President is just one person at the head of a vast, sluggish political machine. Each of the cogs of that machine are more interested in keeping their jobs than doing their jobs and the crazy thing about politicians is that doing your job is not a pre-requisite for keeping it. That machine is propped up on an 18th Century document not designed to cope with the sheer size and complexity of modern America.

Politicians let Flint, Michigan drink lead water for over a year. Politicians stand up and tell us how awful all the gun violence is and never actually lift a finger to fix it. Politicians don’t fix it because it doesn’t actually matter to them anymore. They’re going to get their votes, anyway.

Americans don’t follow politics anymore. This might seem like a weird statement to make since we’ve had wall-to-wall coverage of the 2016 race for over a year now and people discuss politics in America in the same way the residents of Constantinople once discussed the finer points of Arianism. But what we’re doing isn’t about the actual politics anymore. We follow politics like we follow team sports. It’s no longer an exercise in deciding who can best steer the ship of state but an exercise in handicapping and picking the right team and winning.

The Democrats don’t have to talk to the Republicans anymore, since a huge number of Republicans wouldn’t vote for Hillary or Bernie if Mecha-Hitler won the primaries and chose a methed-out velociraptor as his running mate. The Republicans don’t have to talk to the Democrats anymore since Trump is a guy with bad hair pretending to be Mecha-Hitler and Ted Cruz is a methed-out velociraptor who may or may not be the Zodiac Killer.

So in the absence of anything better to do the Democrats are currently eviscerating each other as Bernie continues to insist on not going away. It’s positively vitriolic between the Bernie and Hillary camps right now. If you don’t support Hillary you’re a sexist douchebag. If you do support Hillary you’re just begging for four more years of a President toadying up to Wall Street. If you support Bernie you’re an idiot who doesn’t know how reality works. If you don’t support Bernie you’re a fucking moron who wants Wall Street to keep running our lives.

The Republicans, meanwhile, are, um…actually, I’m not sure how the followers of the various camps are doing over on that side. It’s all just unintelligible screeching and men in suits that cost more than a house in Flint, Michigan smearing shit all over each other.

Meanwhile real Americans drink water filled with lead. Real Americans can’t find work. Real Americans lose their houses. The shitheads that are supposed to help them and represent them point at the other shitheads wearing the opposite team’s colors and say, “It’s their fault.”

And those real Americans believe the shitheads. Because it doesn’t matter whether the shithead is wearing a blue or a red jersey. It’s all about the team.

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I’ve come to realize that the politicians cannot save us. The politicians don’t want to save us. The politicians just want to keep their jobs and if we’ve learned anything in the last few years it’s that the only way to keep your job as a politician is to avoid doing your job.

You know who’s going to save us? The artists, the thinkers, the philosophers. It’s going to take people rejecting the simple path and taking the difficult one. We do need a revolution, but it needs to be a revolution in how we treat each other and think about the people we put in charge.

That’s a scary thought. But the alternative is even scarier. The American Dream is a lie and every 4 years we make that lie a little bit bigger.

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[1]I am currently taking a corporate accounting course. Oh. My. God. Accounting is the fucking worst. So I’m a bit down on accounting right now.

Finding My Voice

Writing is easy.

Reading is hard.

Whenever I sit down to write I have this vision in my head of what I’m trying to say and I see and hear the words fall into place. Somehow between the vision in my head and the words on the screen something disappears. The ethereal vanishes, replaced by the mundane, the pedestrian. I find that I am not the writer I wish to be.

As a storyteller I have influences. As a writer I have those I look up to. I believe I have chosen my models well over the years. My ur-model was Arthur C. Clarke, writer of some of the most influential works of science fiction in all of the human experience. There was a stretch where I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby at least once a year. For long years I read very little fiction. During that stretch I found Lawrence Weschler, quite possibly the finest essayist working in the English language today. In recent years I’ve found John Scalzi, the two gentlemen who collectively call themselves “James SA Corey,” Seanan McGuire, NK Jemison, and Cat Valente.

Oh, Cat Valente. Every time I want to feel wholly inadequate as a writer I just have to go back to The Habitation of the Blessed and The Folded World. Those two books are brilliant, sublime, and about twenty miles down the road from the scariest thing I have ever conceived of attempting to write. Every time I hear someone say that women are somehow inferior writers my only response is, “Cat Valente.”

The problem is that for a long time I sat down to write and expected to see in my words something of the words of my heroes. I expected to hear in my voice something of theirs. I so rarely did. Those words that seemed so melodious and alive in my head seemed so lifeless on the page. I saw myself as merely a worker, smashing the English language to the page with a blunt instrument instead of an artisan, carving the finest words the ethereal spaces.

This is the gradual process by which writing becomes a chore. This is the way writing becomes hard.

This is why having had a blog for all these years might be the best thing for me. I fought it. I hated it. At times I quit for months at a time because writing seemed like such a waste.

Now I look at so many things I’ve written in the past and notice something I couldn’t possibly bring myself to admit at the time. I can hear the voice I ignored for so long. I can hear my voice. I can now, finally, appreciate my voice.

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So let me tell you about the absolute most important writer in my life.

When I met Tawni Waters she wasn’t a best-selling, award winning author. She was like me: someone in transition and looking for something bigger. That quest put both of us in Madison, Wisconsin at the Wormy Dog Saloon on the verge of winter and the verge of one of the biggest changes I would ever experience in my life. At the time, though, it was just a Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers show.

I was on a mission that night. I wanted signed posters from the band as a gift for a friend who was also at the show. So I told my friend that I was going to go over and talk to the hot girl to shake him for a while. In retrospect he should have assumed I was up to something, since I am not the guy who goes and talks to attractive women at the end of rock shows. But he was also drunk, so there’s that.[1]

I did end up talking to her. I ended up finding out she knew all the guys in the band. She ended up dragging me out of the Wormy Dog Saloon to make sure that I completed my mission.

That was how I ended up sitting next to future bestselling, award-winning author Tawni Waters on a metal staircase behind the Wormy Dog Saloon in Madison, Wisconsin. We talked about god and religion, which was a preoccupation of mine at the time and an important topic to her, seeing as how she was a PK who had had her own crises of faith by that point in her life. I mostly remember that she didn’t have shoes and it was really cold.

I think I fell in love with Tawni that night. I’ve always assumed it was because she was inaccessible and I’ve always preferred to love women who won’t or can’t love me back. I was just some blip on her radar as she chased around the country, following her dreams and running from her demons. Looking back on it now, though, I think that I also saw her as what Amy could have been to me and in those days I was still mentally locked in on Amy and all of the hopes and damage of that brief moment in my life. Tawni was, at least to me, all of the things that Amy could never allow herself to be.

None of that matters anymore. What matters is that in the years since I’ve proven to be something slightly more than a mere blip on her radar and she wrote a book called Beauty of the Broken that has received crazy amounts of acclaim from the sort of people who can change an author’s life forever.

The last time I saw Tawni was at Schuba’s where we were both going to a Sons of Bill show. I’d just finished reading Beauty of the Broken and I told her that. She told me that she only wanted to hear my opinion of the book if it was good.

I asked her, “Do you remember the night we met? We sat out in the cold and talked about god and the universe and stuff that really mattered. Your book took me back to that moment. Reading it was like talking about god with you.”

Apparently that was a pretty good answer.

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The last time I heard from Tawni was in December. My life these last two years has been hard, harder than anything I’ve ever wanted to face. I was increasingly coming to realize that my only way out of the miasma of my existence was by fighting and the only way I know how to fight is through writing and storytelling but taking that path is scary and all the other paths I saw before me were also scary and there was exactly one person I knew who could tell me exactly what I needed to hear.

It was the wee hours of the morning and I had drunk way too much Anti-Hero before not being able to sleep and was just staring at my ceiling. So I grabbed my phone and sent Tawni an email in which I attempted to ask her a simple question. That question was, “How did you figure out how to be brave?”

I sent the email and immediately regretted it. Who asks a question like that? Who sees that sort of question and thinks, “Yeah, I need to respond to that idiot?” Because, you see, I’ve always seen myself as someone who has no better purpose than as the background in the lives of others. I was, after all, a blip on someone else’s radar. And the someone in question in this case was someone who has become significantly more important since I met her. So why should Tawni bother to respond to me?

About six hours later I got a response from Tawni. It was longer than my original email. It was personal, it was emotional, it was beautiful.

I’m almost afraid to share any of her response. A lot of it was very personal and, in my opinion, off limits. But there are a couple parts that I think matter deeply.

You have a beautiful heart and soul and mind, and you are a brilliant, witty writer.  Let you out.  That’s all you have to do.  Be brave.  People will hate you.  I promise.  I could say who gives a fuck, but you will give a fuck.  This is the road less traveled because it fucking hurts. Most people want to do it.  About 2% are brave enough to try.  It’s easier to stay safe and invisible.  Of course, you die without having lived.  That’s the price you pay for the safe life.  So live brave, kid.  That’s all I got.

That, right there, is quite possibly the best and most important thing anyone has ever said to me.

————————-

I can’t say it’s specifically because of that night, but I’ve noticed something. In the last few months as I’ve decided it’s time for me to truly pursue my dreams of making it in the world as a writer I’ve looked back at some of the things I’ve written and I’ve realized that some of it, a lot of it, is actually quite good. As I’ve pursued the rewrite of Nightwind I’ve realized that the original wasn’t a failure of imagination or plot but a failure of scope and patience. The 19 year-old that set out to write the next great sci-fi franchise wasn’t as far off as the 20-something who read it later thought.

I’ve also finally decided what winning looks like. It looks like Nightwind as a movie or an anchor franchise on SyFy once they’re done turning The Expanse into a brilliant television show. That was my dream all those years ago before I spent more than a decade telling myself I was not, I could not, be good enough.

Because there’s one great truth I’ve realized as I’ve set out to re-write Nightwind. I’m writing it in much the same style – I’m hearing much the same voice – as I had all those years ago. I’m just writing it so, so much better. Fifteen years ago I already knew who I was and what story I wanted to tell and how. In the time since then I’ve honed my craft and learned how to be patient and build a world rather than just go running off to tell the story. I’ve learned that if the world isn’t there the story doesn’t matter.

I guess, then, that it’s been less about finding my own voice than learning to pick out my own voice. I’m not just some voice in the harmony. I’m more than capable of standing out front and telling a story that demands to be heard.

———————-

[1]Also, I kind of am that guy, I guess. In the following two years there would be a brief pursuit of an attractive woman at a Peacemakers show in Fort Worth and meeting a really attractive woman at a Flogging Molly show in Dallas on the eve of my decision to move back to Chicago.

Nightwind Future Friday, part 1

A larger universe requires more people, more places, and more things. You’ve seen how I handled Anderson’s approach to Nightwind for the first time in the original book. Now…well, let’s just see.

———————-

Venus Shipyards was a tiny, bright dumbbell hanging against the darkness of space. David could have increased the magnification and filled the viewscreen with the image of the station but he refrained. If he could see the shipyards he would certainly be able to see the ships. The ship. His ship.

“You know you can change the magnification,” his companion said, seemingly reading his thoughts.

“I do.”

“Okay, then.” Commander Jenkins fell silent again.

The pair sat alone on the cramped command deck of the Earth Command frigate Coyote. He’d been a passenger aboard the tiny ship for almost a month, from when he departed his old command at Ishtar Station, through the long passage to Earth, and now the short hop to Venus. The ship had an odd reputation in the fleet, as its crew rarely ever turned over and were legendarily tight-lipped among the rest of the gossip-loving Earth Command Navy. David finally understood why.

“You know, Commander, I feel I owe you an apology,” Anderson said.

“Oh?” Commander Jenkins turned towards him and raised an eyebrow. “Whatever for?”

“I…” he paused, searching for the least offensive words he could muster, “I guess I had always assumed that you were a failure of an officer in charge of a ship full of misfits.”

Jenkins laughed. “Then I’ve done my job, captain.”

“I finally realized that just now.”

Commander Tonya Jenkins was in her mid-forties and had been in command of the Coyote for twelve years. Such a long tenure in a relatively low post was almost unheard of in the Earth Command Navy. The little frigates were seen as testing grounds and the first steps on the way to the bigger patrol ships. David himself had spent all of six months serving aboard the Peacemaker before transferring to the Wyvern.

“I wanted the Coyote when she first launched,” Jenkins said. “Rumor had it she and the Raven were test beds for new alien technology. I was actually offered the Wyvern, but turned it down. The rumors,” She paused to pat one of the consoles, “Turned out to be wrong. Nothing on this ship other than good, old-fashioned Earth tech.”

“That must have been a disappointment.”

“Not at all. She was still a brand-new ship. We don’t get too many of those in Earth Command.”

“True enough. But she’s not new anymore.”

“No,” Jenkins shook her head. “But that’s not why I’m still here. About six months after I took command Admiral Belden called me to a secret meeting on Luna base. She told me about the Venus Shipyard expansion and said that she would need to read a few select commanders in on some of the secret projects she was running. She flat told me that if I accepted the position it would probably hurt my career. I’d probably be a Commander in charge of a tiny ship for a very long time and if I told anyone what I had learned I’d probably spend a very long time deep down in an extremely dark hole somewhere.”

“And you decided that was the best move?”

Jenkins sighed. “I wanted to be Admiral Belden when I was coming up through the ranks. I studied her career. I read and re-read all of her reports. The more I read the more I realized that there’s one thing Belden has that I quite simply do not.”

“What’s that?”

“I don’t know,” she shook her head, “I just don’t know. And that’s why she has it but I don’t. Some of us are born to greatness. Some of us find greatness within ourselves. Some of us look upon greatness from the outside. I would have given anything to be Admiral Belden. Now I’m happy to just say that I’ve given everything to support Admiral Belden.” She fell silent.

David stared at the viewscreen as the Shipyards slowly grew. They were close enough now that he could just barely begin to make out a second structure, just below the shipyards themselves. From a distance it just looked like a slightly bulging line. He knew it was the Nightwind, launched from the Shipyards and waiting for its final component.
Its captain.

Him.

“What do you know about the project itself?” David asked.

“Only what they tell me.”

“Do you mind if I ask you a question?”

“Sure. You’ll know more than me soon enough, I suppose.”

“Do you think I can do this?”

“I doubt you’d have the job if you couldn’t.”

“Admiral Belden told me,” David paused for a moment, “She told me that I was being assigned to the Nightwind because I’m the most prominent Martian officer in Earth Command. So while I’m excited to be here I feel that I just have the job because of politics.”

“I’m sure there’s more to it than that. No one would be foolish enough to assign someone to such an important post based entirely on how it will look in the news vids. Especially not Admiral Belden.”

“I haven’t been able to help thinking of George McClellan ever since I left Earth.”

“Who’s that? A failed ship captain?”

“No,” David shook his head. “George B. McClellan was a general in the American Civil War. It was fought almost exactly five hundred years ago by men armed with muskets and riding on horseback. The ships were mostly wooden and powered by wind, but the first ever battle between armored, self-propelled warships happened.”

“And George B. McClellan was in charge of one of those?”

“He was in charge of the Army of the Potomac, the main Union army in the war. He was a brilliant organizer and commanded the loyalty of his men like few others could. But in the field he was a terrible general who nearly lost his army to inferior forces led by better men time and time again. So he was fired.”

“As it should be.”

“Shortly thereafter the army suffered a major defeat and McClellan was brought back. No one in charge wanted him. But they recognized that they had a choice between a poor general who could keep the army together and poor generals who couldn’t even do that much.”

Jenkins stared at the slowly expanding Venus Shipyards for a long moment. “I’m sure that Admiral Belden would not have given you the position you’re in if it were solely political. The situation with Mars is delicate, but I believe that a poor showing by the captain of the Nightwind would make things much, much worse while your personal background won’t help all that much.”

“I suppose.”

“Besides,” Jenkins smiled, “You don’t really have to do too much. The Nightwind’s sister ships are launching soon. All you have to do is tour the colonies and wave the flag. How hard could all of that be?”

“Fair enough.”

David fell silent again. They were close enough that the thin line below the Shipyards was beginning to resolve into the form of the ECS Nightwind. He could make out the arrowhead-shaped fore section and see the tiniest bit of space between it and the long, ovoid main hull. The spars holding the main drives seemed delicate, impossibly fragile.

“Prepare for maneuvers, Captain,” Jenkins said.

Coyote had accelerated out from Earth at nearly 1 g mere hours after David’s meeting with Belden three days before. Halfway through the trip the little frigate had flipped end for end and began decelerating, also at 1 g. By now her speed had bled off relative to the shipyards and she was free to maneuver normally.

“I never allow my crew on the command deck during the final approach,” Jenkins said. “I cut off all external feeds to the crew area. You never can be too careful.”

“Thank you for trusting me,” David said.

She laughed. “It’s my pleasure.” She pressed a few buttons on her command interface. “All hands, prepare for maneuvers,” she said into the bridge microphone.

The viewscreen cut off. A moment later the rumbling of the main drive ceased and gravity cut out. Lateral thrusters kicked in and the ship spun around on its axis. After a moment the main drive fired off again in a brief pulse and then went silent.

The viewscreen lit up again. Nightwind filled the view. It felt like they would crash into the forward section in moments.

“Dramatic, Commander,” David said. “But you can turn the magnification down again.”

“Same magnification, sir. We’re here.”

The edge of the arrowhead fell away and for a brief moment he could see space through the thick columns connecting the hull sections together. Then they were sweeping along the main hull. It was smooth, but slightly mottled. He knew that each of those imperfections marked the location of a sensor hub, repair hatch, or weapon cover. They were simply moving too fast to make out any specific details.

The spar holding the ventral engine loomed up ahead of the frigate. As they approached he finally realized the sheer scale of the ship. They had looked so fragile from a distance but up close they were huge. The spar was thicker than the Coyote and swept back into wing-like shapes that ran most of the length of the huge main engines.

They cleared the main engines and Jenkins flipped Coyote again. She fired off two quick pulses from the main drive and began a much slower and more stately approach to Nightwind’s starboard docking bay. As Coyote came to a stop and began to extend the docking umbilical Jenkins made one more maneuver, rotating the frigate so it was oriented vertically relative to the battlecruiser.

Coyote docked with a dull thud that reverberated through the ship. David released his restraints and activated his magnetic boots before standing up from his chair. He turned to Jenkins.

“It’s been a pleasure flying with you, Commander,” he said.

She grinned at him, “I’m sure you’re about to find something much more to your liking, sir.”

“I’m sure I am.”

“And if I may speak frankly?”

“Of course.”

“I’m sure you’ll make an excellent captain for the Nightwind, sir. It’s the ones who don’t have doubts I worry about.”

“Thank you, Commander.”

———————-

So the interesting thing here is that I put Commander Jenkins and the ECS Coyote in as, let’s call it, filler. But then she started talking and she got a backstory and a character arc. This is what’s so great about writing. Sometimes things just fall together.

Also, this might offer up some clues as to how I’ve changed the overall plot. There are definitely clues…