One of the strangest things to me when reading the original manuscript is that I spent absolutely no time actually describing the ship itself. It was just this giant void labeled “generic starship interior.” This is because I was being pretty damn lazy and also impatient to go do cool stuff and write about things blowing up.
This time around I’m doing things a bit differently. My decision to make the book entirely about Nightwind‘s journey forced me to come up with a, let’s call it b-plot. So I needed a new character who could be involved in that plot but who was in a different enough space from Captain Anderson to live their own life. So Corporal Katherine “Kat” Silas showed up. This is not actually the first time she appears in the book but her storyline up until this point has mostly been a travelogue/infodump about life on Earth in 2356 as she travels from Chicago (natch) to Brazil and up the Macapa space elevator into orbit. Because the original version of the book didn’t offer any of that sort of information, either. Worldbuilding. What the fuck is that?
You’re about to meet Kat. Kat is about to meet the ECS Nightwind. I hope you enjoy this little slice of my universe.
Once the shuttle was a sufficient distance from the station he brought the front end around. Nightwind appeared at the upper edges of the shuttle’s canopy. It rapidly swept across their line of vision and filled the entire view.
“How big is that thing?” Kat asked.
“Just over a kilometer long,” Carter replied. “The main section is about two-thirds of the ship and that arrowhead up front is the rest. The fore section is primarily storage and a big water shield to help with radiation shielding. There’s no gravity and, from what I heard, there was a pretty heated debate over whether or not to even put life support in.”
Carter fired a quick pulse from the main drive and headed for the prow of the massive battlecruiser. Kat stared up in silence as they swept past the ship’s prow and towards the main hull. As they passed beyond the arrowhead and approached the lozenge-shaped main section she saw a neat double row of entryways lining the middle of the main section.
“Is that where we’re going?” she asked.
“Yes,” Carter replied. “There are two shuttle bays forward, then the fighter bays, then another four shuttle bays.”
“So everything is along one side?”
“They’re on the bottom, actually,” Carter said. “Nightwind has artificial gravity thanks to the aliens we reverse-engineered the tech from.”
“Yup. Funny story about that, too. The original plans for the ship called for the small craft bays to be on the sides. So we rigged up a grav generator on the Venus Shipyards and tried to land shuttles. It did not end well.”
“It’s really had to compensate for going from null-g to 1g in one of these babies,” Carter patted his console. “I, personally, crashed two shuttles trying to figure it out.”
“So how do you do it now?”
“Vertically,” Carter replied.
One of the small craft bay doors opened as if to illustrate his point. A grappling arm descended from the interior of the ship. Carter fired the reverse thrusters, and drifted in towards the arm. The grappler connected with the shuttle with a dull thump and pulled it up into the belly of the battlecruiser.
“Careful getting out,” Carter said. “We’re now at half a g and falling out of the command chair will really hurt.”
“I’m well aware,” Kat replied, looking back.
A dull thunk sounded from outside the shuttle and the little ship vibrated. “We’re docked,” Carter said. “I’ll go first so I can catch you if you fall.”
She watched Carter intently as he leveraged himself up and out of his seat, paying attention to what he held on to and where he stepped. Once he was down the ladder and out of the way she mirrored his movements. She soon joined him on the deck of the shuttle. He’d already opened the locker and was holding her bag out for her. She grabbed it and swung it up over her shoulder.
“They say we’re going to get new shuttles specifically for these ships,” Carter said, almost apologetically, “They’re trying to figure out how to make the gravity system compact enough so we can orient everything in the same direction.”
“That would be helpful.”
“Yes, yes it would.” Carter gestured towards the door. “I’ll walk you out to the main corridor. Then you’re on your own. I have duties to attend to.”
“Lead the way.”
Carter opened the shuttle’s hatch. A collapsible airlock was attached to the outside of the shuttle. “We can pressurize the shuttle bays,” Carter said, “But in normal operations we don’t. It’s a lot quicker to go through an airlock.”
“Makes sense, I guess.”
The pair walked down the short airlock. Carter cycled an airtight door at the other end and they stepped out into a small, empty room with doors on opposite walls.
“That door,” Carter pointed to the left, “Leads to the pilots’ ready rooms and lockers. We’re going to take the other one and go up the lift to the next deck.”
He reached out and hit a sensor plate next to the door and a moment later it opened, revealing a standard personnel lift. They stepped in and Carter commanded it to go up a level. The lift quickly ascended and the doors opened again, revealing a narrow hallway. The passageway was painted in a cheery robin’s egg blue. The floor was carpeted with a thin, tan, industrial carpet.
Carter stepped off of the lift. “Take a deep breath,” he said.
Kat breathed in and smelled the ship. There was a deep tang of industrial solvents and a sharp odor of coolant and the unmistakable smell of fresh paint. What mostly struck her was that everything smelled vaguely, indefinably, new. It took her a moment to realize why. Nightwind lacked the odor of sweat, piss, and blood that permeated the rest of the Earth Command Navy ships. They were old and worn and lived in.
“It’s so, so fresh,” she said.
“And it’s not particularly Navy-like in its decoration style,” Carter gestured at the walls. “Each level of the crew decks has its own color scheme. They wanted this ship to feel like a home, since we might spend months or even years on this ship, far away from Earth.”
The idea of being that far away from home for so long made her stomach hurt. “Is it too late to request a new assignment?”
Carter laughed. “This first hop is going to be pretty short. I’m sure they have plans for volunteer crews once we get the kinks worked out.”
“I sure hope so.”
“Well,” Carter checked the time on his comm unit, “I’m sorry to leave you here, but I have work to do and not a lot of time until I have to go pick the captain up,” he said. “Your comm unit can take you where you need to go.”
“Thank you, Chief Carter,” Kat said.
He smiled. “My friends call me Wince.”
“My friends call me Kat.”
“Nice to meet you, Kat. Let me know if you need anything else.”
“Oh, and there will be some parties tonight. Call me up and I’ll make sure you get an invite.”
Carter headed off down the corridor. Kat pulled out her comm unit and found it was already trying to direct her to her quarters. She pressed the button and a map of the ship appeared on the screen with a yellow route marker drawn on it. A yellow light lit up on the wall to her right. A moment later another light about thirty centimeters away lit up. Then another a bit farther down the wall. She realized that it was the ship itself telling her where to go.
She followed the flashing lights. About ten meters down the corridor she emerged into what the map indicated was one of Nightwind’s main corridors. It was wide and brightly lit, unlike any corridor she’d ever seen on a ship. She stopped and took it all in for a long moment.
The biggest problem with life as an Earth Command Marine, as far as Kat was concerned, was the enforced inactivity. Earth Command ships were tiny, cramped spaces. In her first tour aboard the Peacemaker she’d nearly lost her mind. There was often nothing to do but stare at the walls. The ship was often at low or null gravity so while it was possible to work out using the spring loaded weights and the exercycle she’d actually felt her muscles deteriorating day by day. After that tour she’d been assigned to Ishtar Station. If it hadn’t been for that small miracle she would probably have been a civilian at the end of her first tour. Every day she’d run at least two laps around the inside of that vertigo-inducing, inside-out artificial world.
On her map of the ship the corridor she stood in circled most of the ship. It followed the lines of the main hull from the curved fore section down along both sides and then flattened out and crossed over along the bulkhead that separated the engineering section from the rest of the ship. It wasn’t a corridor to Kat so much as it was a long, looped running track. She already knew the first question she was going to ask Lieutenant MacDonough when they met.
The yellow lights kept blinking so she followed them down the corridor. After about a hundred meters she boarded a lift and took that up two decks. The main corridor on that deck was a light beige. She followed the lights down the beige corridor until she reached her assigned quarters. It was only then that she realized she hadn’t seen a single person since parting company with Chief Winston. On any other Earth Command vessel she would have already met half the crew and probably seen at least one naked.
Her quarters were small by civilian standards but blatantly luxurious by Earth Command standard. The room was about four meters by four meters. There was a bed along one wall and a desk mounted against the wall opposite the bed. The wall at the foot of the bed was a giant vid display.
Kat dropped her bag on the bed and stood in the center of the room. She spun around. Then she lifted her arms and saw how far the tips of her fingers were from the bulkheads that defined the room. The sense of space was almost overwhelming. She was a fairly small woman, standing almost exactly 1.65 meters and maxing out at about 73 kilograms when she was able to get enough exercise to maintain her preferred muscle tone.
When Marines were a purely earthbound phenomenon her size would undoubtedly have kept her out of the program. It was much less of an issue in space. In combat situations she had access to the latest in Earth Command power armor, complete with an exoskeletal structure that allowed her to amplify her strength by ten times. She was also an Earth native and grew up in 1g, making her stronger than her compatriots who grew up in Martian gravity or out in the wider Solar System. In noncombat situations she simply took up less space. This was a desirable quality for the Earth Command Navy’s personnel officers.
She dropped her arms to her side and stopped marveling at the space that belonged to her long enough to activate her vid screen and inform Nightwind’s computer that she had taken official possession of her quarters. As soon as she did a message popped up on her screen. The ship’s XO, Lieutenant Commander Gregory, had requested a personal audience as soon as she checked in.
Kat’s heart fell as soon as she saw that message. There was only one meaning for that meeting request. XOs didn’t just demand immediate meetings with Marine corporals.
Her comm unit was already showing the route to the XO’s office. She left her quarters and followed the yellow lights. Two minutes later she stood outside of the XO’s office. She took a deep breath and hit the panel that signaled there was someone waiting outside.
The door opened mere seconds later. Kat stepped through into a cramped office. The XO was sitting behind her desk, studying something on a tablet. The vid wall showed a giant schematic of the Nightwind. One section was blown up and appeared to include notations for work orders. Gregory didn’t look up at first.
Kat snapped to attention anyway. “Corporal Katherine Silas, reporting as ordered, Sir,” she said.
Gregory looked up. “At ease, Corporal,” she said. Kat shifted from the rigid attention stance but did not relax. “You have an interesting record, corporal,” Gregory pressed a few buttons on her tablet, “But I don’t know you. And that’s a problem.”
“You must understand that I have been in on this project almost from the very beginning. Everyone on this ship is someone I have known for at least five years and worked with in close quarters. Everyone, that is, except for Captain Anderson, who was assigned to this ship at the last minute because that’s what Admiral Belden thought was best for the program, and you, a Marine corporal.” Gregory paused, staring at her.
“Permission to speak, sir?”
“Of course, corporal.”
“I have only known about these orders for three days myself. I had my leave cut short for reasons I did not understand at the time. I did not know about the Nightwind until I saw it. I have no authority over where I am ordered to report.”
“I am well aware of that, corporal. But I know something about your history that’s not in your official records. I am, after all, the XO of a top secret ship and was one of the main project managers and lead designers. I know people who can get me any information I desire.”
Kat’s heart skipped a beat. She forced herself to hold the same stance and not allow even a twitch in her facial features.
“According to my people you went through training for the Special Services Division. Got some of the highest marks in your group, too.” She paused, studying Kat’s face. “Apparently you excelled at counter-intel and something amusingly called ‘unofficial covert policing tactics.’ I’m sure I don’t want to know what that means.
“What I do want to know, corporal, is whether or not I should kick you off of my ship right here and now. I do not like the idea of having the sneaks covertly put one of their people on my ship. I do not like thinking I’m going to have to look over my shoulder all the time. I most certainly do not want anyone covertly policing my people.”
Gregory stopped speaking and stared at Kat. She felt the XO’s eyes boring through her own, drilling into the back of her skull. She forced herself to stay calm and took a deep breath.
“Permission to speak freely, Sir?” she asked.
“Yes,” Gregory replied, “By all means.”
“I mean, can I have your word that absolutely nothing I say leaves this room?”
“I have not told anyone what I know about you yet, corporal. I wanted to meet you before I turned you down or tainted you in the eyes of the rest of the crew.”
“I did go through the Program,” Kat said. “Special Services recruited me right after boot camp. I scored extremely highly on the secret parameters they use to measure agent aptitude on the Core Skills test. So I joined. It seemed like it would be fun and I could do a lot more as a member of the SSD to help Earth Command than I could as a mere grunt.”
Kat paused. “We got a lot of near real-time intel work. The SSD is pretty small and Mars has been making a lot of noise and they were playing catch-up at the time. I enjoyed the analysis aspect of it and was very good at the fieldwork exercises. They didn’t want me sitting behind a desk because they thought it was a waste of my talents, so they pushed me toward the counter-intel and unofficial tactics programs.
“My final exam, as they call it, was to infiltrate a base on Mars. They actually had me do it. They sent me to Mars and my job was to simulate getting into position to assassinate a Martian opposition leader who was engaging in terrorist activity against Earth Command targets. They told me it was a hypothetical scenario.
“Three months later the President of the Colonial Authority died unexpectedly in his sleep. I am convinced that they used my final exam as a dry run to see where the problems were in a real op they already had planned. Then Robert Laird stepped in to the power vacuum and I couldn’t see how that made things better for Earth Command.”
She paused and took a deep breath. “I realized that being an agent in the SSD wasn’t actually helping. Even if I was just being paranoid and it was all a strange coincidence I still couldn’t stomach the idea of actively preparing to infiltrate our own colonial bases and kill people just because they disagreed with United Commonwealth or Earth Command goals. That’s not what I stand for and it’s not what I think the United Commonwealth should stand for. So I quit. I figured that while I might not be able to help much as a regular grunt I certainly wouldn’t be able to do as much damage.”
She fell silent, waiting for Gregory’s judgment.
Gregory’s eyes had softened as she told her tale. “Thank you, corporal,” she said after a moment. “I believe that you’re being honest with me. My source also informed me that there’s no evidence you have been in communications with the Special Services Division since you returned to the Marines.”
Kat shook her head. “I have not, no.”
“In that case,” Gregory stood. “Welcome aboard, corporal. I am actually happy to have someone with your particular skillset on this mission.”
“If I may ask, Sir, why?”
“We are doing something brand new in the history of humanity, corporal. Your official record indicates you have a strong sense of duty. Your unofficial record indicates you have a keen analytical mind and the ability to get into places others can’t. Your story tells me that you have a moral compass that overrides everything else. You have also been out interacting with the rest of humanity while the rest of us have been cloistered away at the Venus Shipyards. I may need to call upon you at some point.”
“Until and unless that happens, however, you are a Marine Corporal serving under Lieutenant MacDonough. You get no special privileges. You do not get to skip the chain of command for any reason. Am I understood?”
“Good, then. Dismissed.”
Kat drew to attention and saluted her XO. Gregory returned the salute and immediately went back to her work. Kat turned and left the office, light headed.
You might notice some familiar names. Chief Petty Officer Winston Carter is still a shuttle pilot in this world. Robert Laird is still involved in some way, shape, or form. Nightwind Executive Officer Commander Gregory is still here, too. But while in the original the character was Commander Walter Gregory the character is now Commander Vanessa Gregory. Why? Because reasons. In broad strokes I like Commander Gregory and this version should be very similar to the original. But Walter Gregory was also represented in my head by a very specific person and, well, things change over the course of a decade and a half. Let’s just leave it at that, shall we?