[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.]
May 31st, 2356 Terran Standard Calendar
2102 Terran Standard Time
Emperor Ah’nwoe paced across the main dais of his throne room. The latest, and possibly last, he was forced to admit, of nearly two thousand to bear the name and title of Emperor Ah, the first to point the Joshan people toward the stars, he lorded over a diminished realm and a weakened people.
Some twenty thousand cycles before, in a time shrouded by the mists of legend and myth, the first Emperor, Ah the Greater as he was known, had united the warring nations of the Joshan people under one banner and set them to a single task – to bridge the stars.
In his own lifetime Emperor Ah presided over the launch of the first of the great Joshan colony ships. Great, ponderous vessels, the colony ships bore the first of the Joshan people out to neighboring star systems, spreading the seed of the race.
The first colonies of the Joshan Empire were not unlike those that the humans had intended to create on Joshanna itself. He laughed bitterly at the irony. When the ship entered the system he had ordered it to be destroyed, hoping that this new race would become fearful and avoid venturing out of its own system. At the time he had been counseled by the wisest of his scientists and Keepers of Knowledge that there was no way these humans would be able to take any vengeance upon the Joshan Empire, even if they learned of the reason for the destruction of their ship.
For had not the great scientists and engineers of Joshanna required some seven hundred cycles to progress from their own colony ships to the first Pathway ship, capable of traversing the stars in a matter of moments? It would undoubtedly take these humans just as long, they reasoned, the words now burning his memory like poison, if not longer to achieve the same end.
But now this Nightwind with its insolent Captain and arrogant crew had put the lie to the great minds of his worlds. At the height of the Joshan Empire he would have been able to laugh off the threat of this Captain Anderson and destroy his accursed ship with a word. For at its height the Empire had boasted five hundred star systems and over one thousand inhabited worlds within its borders.
They had even, he knew, kept an outpost in the Gildag system, the home of the human race. At the dawn of their time Joshan eyes had watched the peoples of the tiny planet from far off, studying and evaluating their progress.
The past, however, was past. Five thousand cycles ago the Empire had reached its peak and began its long, slow decline. Now reduced to three planets and a fleet of no more than a few dozen ships, his realm was beset with pirates and assailed by former friends and allies.
Only the sector in which the Gildag system was located had been empty of threat to his people. Undeveloped worlds, dead planets and infant races were all that populated the area, allowing his overextended navy to concentrate on other worlds nearer at hand.
Several of his ships returning from a successful campaign to subdue a neighboring world had discovered the ship the humans called Winged Messenger. Although they were surprised to see such a ship above Joshanna, it had not seemed a threat at the time. They could not allow outsiders to see the weakened state of the Empire, however. The ship had been destroyed.
What a folly that now seemed. They were set on a path that would not end well for the Joshan Empire.
The door to the chamber opened softly and the Emperor’s Keeper of Knowledge entered quietly. “My Lord,” he said, “We have finished compiling the data on this ship Nightwind.”
“And what have you to say?”
The Keeper hesitated. “It is…it is a powerful ship,” he finally said. “It could probably stay on even ground against four of our ships.”
“This news does not please me, Keeper,” the Emperor said coldly. “Tell me, have our scouts any better tidings?”
“They have discovered a human colony, Emperor.”
“Indeed? Only one?”
“That is all they have detected so far,” the Keeper responded carefully, knowing that a misspoken word could mean his death. Or worse. “It is on the third planet of the Dev’dag system. It appears to have been there for quite some time.”
“Do we have any knowledge of the strength of this colony?”
“There appear to be roughly ten thousand humans on the planet,” the Keeper paused. “But there is one oddity.”
“And that is?”
“Our scout studied the planet for two days and detected no communications with the Gildag system. And there were no human ships sighted.”
The faintest of smiles played at the edges of the Emperor’s mouth as he allowed the Keeper’s observation to sink in.
“This could be very good news,” he said after a moment. “Very good news indeed.”
“I thought so as well, Lord.”
“Tell me, was our scout ship detected?”
“The crew did not believe so,” the Keeper held his hand out, palm up, the sign of not having all the necessary information, “There was no sign of response from the planet, but they did not believe the colony had the ability to do anything about the ship, anyway.”
“Leave me now, Keeper,” the Emperor commanded, turning away, “I have much to think on.”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, bowing. Soundlessly he turned and left the room.
“This Captain Anderson might have a powerful ship,” the Emperor told the empty room, “But if he is the only human with such technology, then he is indeed a fool.”
Quick to grasp the meaning of the Keeper’s observation about the condition of the human colony in the Dev’dag system, the Emperor had already begun to formulate a plan to deal with this new, upstart race.
The unexpected arrival of the Nightwind brought to his mind terrible images of fleets of powerful battleships rising from the darkness to engulf his world and what remained of the Empire he commanded. He had told the Captain of the ship the story of the pirates in a moment of panic, wishing to be rid of the man and deflect the blame for the destruction of the colony ship.
Now he did not need to fear the wrath of the humans. It appeared as though they had brashly sent off their sole ship that could travel between the stars to find out about the destruction of a single ship. Meanwhile they had left a colony alone and defenseless. And they had drawn the attention of the Joshan Empire. Diminished it may be, but that did not mean it was without the necessary resources for the task he had in mind.
The plan continued to take shape in his mind.
Six ships would be enough for the task, he concluded. A single weak colony, possibly another, then the human home world. If it turned out the humans had outside help or another of the powerful ships six of his own would probably be enough to handle anything they would find. It would take roughly seven days to gather a force that size and still be able to properly defend his worlds in case the Nightwind or some other threat appeared while half the fleet was gone.
He doubted the human ship would return. The task it had set off on was far too much for a single vessel, no matter how determined a captain and crew it had. It was possible someone else would find and neutralize the threat for him, as well, but the odds of that were slim.
Still, the big ship was out of the picture for the moment. By the time it returned it would be outnumbered and the Joshan Fleet could destroy it. Or, possibly, the ship could be captured or the Captain persuaded to enter into the Empire’s services of his own free will, once he discovered the shape of things on his home world.
Nine days, the Emperor decided. Nine rotations to gather his fleet and two days to prepare. In nine days the human race would learn firsthand the fate of their colony ship.
Luna Area, United Commonwealth
May 31st, 2356 Terran Standard Calendar
2200 Terran Standard Time
“June 18th,” Commander Horatio Semmes said quietly, shaking his head at the fact that physics now seemed to have cast its hand against him. Even though he had known the transit to Europa would not be a short one, the reality of the distance had finally hit him. “It will take us nearly three weeks to get to Europa.”
“And that’s cutting the passage around the Sun a lot closer than I’d like,” Lieutenant Commander Bixby said. “I’m not sure some of those old transports can handle the gravitational shear.”
“They’ll have to,” Horatio said quietly, “We can’t afford to take this amount of time to get there, let alone taking a longer passage.”
“Could we leave the slower ships behind?” Tina Morgan asked, looking for any chance to change the equation. “We could redistribute the critical cargo onto some of the other transports, save a few days of transit.”
Horatio considered the possibility for a moment. “No,” he finally said, “We’d have to do a zero gravity cargo transfer in vacuum suits without heavy equipment. It would take far longer than the time we would save.”
“Then we could just leave the slower ships behind,” the smuggler suggested.
“We can’t afford to lose any of the cargo,” Horatio rejected the thought immediately. “Besides, we’d have to leave the Tigris behind, and nearly half of the necessary medical supplies are on that ship.”
“Then I guess we have to hope they can hold out until the eighteenth,” Lieutenant Commander Bixby said with a resigned sigh.
“That’s about it,” Horatio agreed.
The trio sat in the conference room aboard the Phoenix planning the transit to Europa. Time had been against him from the beginning, but Horatio now felt even the slim chance he had to save the colony disappear.
Jupiter’s orbit had put the colony on Europa on the other side of the Sun from Earth. To the Phoenix or Morgan’s Glory that fact would not have been too much of an imposition, as the fast ships could have made the trip in a few days. The transports, unfortunately, were far slower than their escorts. And they had already lost a day repairing the damaged transports.
On the way from Mars to the moon he had briefly considered taking the faster transports ahead with one escort and leaving the slower ships with another escort to come at what speed they could make, but the previous day’s attack and the loss of the Gold Brick had ruined any such possibility. They would have to stay together for protection and make whatever speed they could.
“Well, sitting here and complaining about the timing of this whole thing won’t get us to Europa any faster,” Horatio said.
“Tina, get back to the Glory. We can’t afford to wait any longer.”
“I’m going,” she said, “I told them to keep the engines warm. We’ll be able to ship out when I get aboard.”
“Good,” he activated his magnetic boots and stood up. “The convoy is repaired and time is of the essence.”
Tina pushed herself out of her chair and propelled herself out of the room without another word.
After the smuggler left Lieutenant Commander Bixby turned to the Commander. “May I speak freely, Commander Semmes?” she asked.
“I have no idea how you are managing to hold together, Sir,” she said, “But I know that if I were in your position I would not be doing nearly as well.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Horatio responded, attempting a reassuring smile. “You are a fine officer and would undoubtedly figure out how to get through.”
“But I don’t think I could make the life and death decisions you have been making.”
“Want to know a secret?” he asked, leaning forward conspiratorially.
“I’m not entirely sure I know what I’m doing either.”
“But you’ve made them so effortlessly,” she said, confused by his admission.
Horatio sighed heavily. “I’ve been making these decisions because I have to, Ms. Bixby. In my twenty years in the navy I have not had to make any choices that are as hard as the ones I’ve made over the last few days. My father was in the Earth Command Navy, as was his father and most of the Semmes line since the Navy was founded and none of them ever had to make the decisions I have made. I was no more prepared for this than you would be if you were in my position. But I’m sure you would find yourself capable of choosing the proper course of action if you were.”
“Well,” she considered his words, “At least I’d make better choices than the captain of the Dragon.”
“I would hope that you would put the interests of others above yourself, Lieutenant Commander,” Horatio responded, turning toward the window. “But do not judge the captain of the Dragon too harshly. We do not understand his motivation or what led to his decision to attack the convoy.”
“Does it matter?”
“Not in this case,” Horatio shook his head, “I suppose there is no excuse for his action. But others may make decisions for reasons we don’t understand, but with reasons that are no less valid than the ones we use to justify our actions.”
“What are you talking about?”
Horatio turned from the window and faced his executive officer. “I’m just thinking out loud,” he said. “But my thoughts should always be on the task at hand. Go prepare the convoy for departure.”
“Yes, Sir,” she said, standing up and leaving the conference room.
Horatio turned back to the window, searching for Tau Ceti and 82 Eridani, which he knew David Anderson and the Nightwind had seen up close, if they were not at one of those as that very moment. “It’s a pity you were the last to learn of your mission, David,” he said to the stars, “I do not know how you could have prepared yourself for the decisions you have to make now.”