Nightwind Follow-Up, ch 25-26

Chapter 25 continues my least favorite sub-plot of this version of Nightwind. Wait, no, it continues both of my least favorite sub-plots. Sweet.

There’s very little to say about the overall plot of the “crew gets stuck on a planet being held by hostile, primitive people” bit. It wasn’t anything but a time waster for me. This remains baffling to me, since the original draft of Nightwind clocks in at a bit under one hundred thousand words, has about twelve different plots, and doesn’t really explore any of them. I will be the first to tell you that this is bad writing. Is it the worst ever? I hope not. Am I proud of it? Not particularly.

This is one of those things that can only be learned with time and seeing other people do it well. When I started the rewrite I thought I could basically take the original and tweak it. Add in some details here. Make something less stupid there. But the book itself was fundamentally broken. I had too many plots and none were being properly served. So either I make a bigger, more detailed mess or I pull back and reimagine the whole structure.

So I pulled everything back to the point where only one plot line survived. And then I added a whole new plot line that functioned alongside the main one to bring a different perspective. It was, I will admit, terrifying. I spent a lot of time worrying that the new book wouldn’t be long enough. Then, as I approached the halfway point I started to worry I had too much. So I left a couple of big chunks basically as placeholders for some ideas I had but I wasn’t sure I had the room for. The main difference is that I started asking, “What are we seeing in this place? What are we hearing? What are we smelling?” And then I started asking what the characters thought and felt about it.

In chapter 25 we see a hint of what I wanted to do. I’ve always had a sense that Anderson was in over his head and wasn’t prepared for the job. So this is where he’s starting to fall apart. But I didn’t really do the work here. I just made him suddenly go into full asshole mode when dealing with his own crew.

Furthermore, I never bothered to answer one of the most important questions. Why does Anderson have this job? We already know that Turner and Hunt have their own ships. We already know that Horatio Semmes is the most senior captain in the Earth Command Navy. While we can probably eliminate Semmes from contention because of his age and general weirdness that still leaves Anderson as, at best, the third best option.

The rewrite has an answer for this. It’s not a very good answer, at least in the way someone outside of the universe looking in would imagine. But it has its own internal logic. The universe of the rewrite is familiar but quite different. In that universe David Anderson has a particular quality that makes him uniquely suited to this role in Earth Command’s eyes.

Meanwhile, there’s the silly little mutiny sub-plot that’s just getting dumber. See, long ago I had a throwaway line about civilians being aboard the ship. Basically, I had the civilians aboard the ship to answer the question, “Why is Jackson’s husband suddenly here?”

The best thing about this plot line, though? It’s actually survived into the rewrite. It has survived in a completely different form. I’d say it’s completely unrecognizable, in fact. But it’s there.

So we traipse along to Chapter 26 where everything is awful. Seriously.

What we’re looking at here is textbook WWII convoy action. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. The transports are, well, the transports. Semmes and Morgan are running destroyer escorts. The rogue ships are playing the role of U-Boats or Panzerschiffe. And Semmes starts off by setting up for a freaking broadside. Like he’s in charge of a wooden ship of the line.

I have figured out many things about theoretical space combat since then.

The other big problem here is that everyone seems to have energy shields. The only reason for that is because Star Trek.

The problem here is that it would be trivially easy for Dragon and Wyvern to take out this convoy. Dump a whole lot of missiles at the fat, slow, transports and skedaddle while its escorts try and fail to shoot said missiles down. Or, even better, drop the missiles and then engage the escorts so they can’t actually defend the ships.

Also, this hasn’t really solved the bigger problem that I have no fucking clue why this is happening other than “because plot.”

Ugh. Let us never speak of this again.

Nightwind Wednesdays, ch 25-26

[Author’s Note: It’s back! The reason that Nightwind Wednesdays disappeared for a good long time is because I was busy with the rewrite. The rewrite is done now. I’m letting it simmer and having a few people read it to offer their thoughts before I begin the revision process. In the meantime I’m also working on getting some professional writing credits so I can approach publishers with more than, “I kinda-sorta write a blog. Sometimes.” Tomorrow, as is my custom, I shall go over these chapters and explain exactly why I think they suck. In hindsight.]

Chapter 25

Ah’dag System
June 2nd, 2356, Terran Standard Calendar
2234, Terran Standard Time

David looked up from his display screen as the Command Crew filed into the room.  “Have a seat, folks,” he told them.

Once the group was seated he began the meeting.  “Okay, you all know why we’re here.  Commander Gregory and four of our crew members are being held hostage down on that planet.  The people holding them think we’re pirates and will not give them back.  I need any and all ideas for how to get them back.”

Wing Commander Luchenko spoke up.  “Keptin, are we allowed to use force?”

“Only as a last resort, Mr. Luchenko,” David responded.  “We’re trying to prove to these people that we aren’t here to hurt them and that we aren’t pirates.”

“Well,” Lieutenant Commander Jackson suggested, “We could just sit up in orbit and…not steal anything.”

David’s glare stopped the few chuckles from the officers before they had a chance to truly start laughing.  “I’m serious, people.  Our people are stuck down there and we have basically no leverage.”

“We know that, Captain,” Templeton said.  “At this moment it appears as though the only way we can get them back is by using force or a covert insertion, unless somebody down there starts listening to reason.”

“Is that really all we have?”

“Ensign Thomas has been doing his best to pick up information on what is going on down there,” Jackson interjected.  “We have very little to go on so far, though.”

“Wait,” David inquired, “He has the ability to figure out what’s going on down there?”

“He figured out where their military communication gets routed and broke their encryption codes.”

“Impressive.”

As if summoned by mention of his name, the door of the room opened again and Ensign Thomas stepped in.  “Uh, sorry to bother you, but I just got some bad news,” he said without looking up from his shoes.

“What is it, Ensign?” David asked.

“Uh, apparently Private Nait did not survive the crash.  He’s…he’s dead, Sir.”

The room fell silent.

“When did you find this out?” David asked after the news sank in.

“Just now, Sir.  I picked up a communication between two military commanders.  Apparently they are feeling some doubt as to our occupation as pirates.  Apparently they have seen the people we’re showing close enough to determine who we are.”

“Keep track of that, Ensign.”

“Aye, Captain.”  Thomas spun to leave the room.

“Oh, and Ensign Thomas,” David said just before the junior officer reached the door.

He turned back.  “Sir?”

“Good job.”

“Thank you, Sir,” Thomas responded, a hint of a smile on his face.

“I want you to let me know the moment you learn anything new.”

“Yes, Sir.”

David scanned the faces of his Command Crew as the comm officer left.  “It looks like we’ve got some good news and some bad news here, people.”

“Unfortunately we don’t know how good our good news is,” Templeton pointed out.  “We’re running pretty much blind here.”

“Yeah,” Jackson chimed in, “I think we still need to come up with some way of talking to the people in charge down there.”

“Agreed.” David nodded.

“Should we still come up wi’ a way tae ge’ them oot by force, Sair?” MacDonough asked.

“Of course.  I want you and Luchenko to come up with at least two plans.”

“How are we tae do tha’, Sair?  We dinnae ken where they are.”

“Work with Lieutenant Commander Templeton and Ensign Thomas.  I don’t want to put anyone else at risk, so I hope you don’t mind me telling you that I hope your work will be in vain, but we still may need to do something.”

“Aye, Sair.”

“Yes, Keptin,” Luchenko nodded.  “We understand.”

“Good.”

“Well, we should all get to work,” Jackson said, standing up.

The rest of the Command Crew agreed and stood to leave.  Lieutenant Commander Templeton stayed in his seat as the other three departed.

“Permission to speak freely, Sir?” he asked as the door closed behind Wing Commander Luchenko.

“Well, since I didn’t kill you last time, I suppose so.”

“You’re getting better.”

David raised an eyebrow.

“I mean, the way you gave everyone else jobs and all.”

“That’s what the Command Crew is for,” David responded, “And I don’t believe it’s your job to critique my performance.”

“Yes, Sir.  You’re right.”

“Remember, Lieutenant Commander,” David leaned forward, “Commander Gregory is my Executive Officer, not you.  In fact, Lieutenant Commander Jackson is technically ahead of you in the chain of command.  But she knows it’s not her place to tell me how I’m doing, so she isn’t.”  He paused.  “Just because you were right earlier when I blew up at Ensign Thomas, don’t take that as carte blanche to tell me what you think of my behavior.”

“Uh…yes, Sir,” Templeton replied, slightly stunned.

“Now get to work.”

“Aye.”

Templeton left the room.  As soon as he was alone, David turned to a task that was entirely new to him: notifying Private Nait’s loved ones that he would not be returning home with Nightwind.  For the first time in his Earth Command career he wondered how many people under his command would share in Private Nait’s fate.

*   *   *

After leaving the Command Crew meeting Lieutenant Commander Jackson headed directly to the secondary communications control room in response to a repair call.  Lost in thought, she barely noticed when the lights did not go on as she entered.

“How about some lights?” she asked, knowing the voice activated environmental control system would pick up the command and turn on the lights.

Nothing happened.

“The lights have been temporarily disabled,” a voice spoke from the darkness behind her.

She spun, bringing her hands up and dropping into a well-practiced fighting stance.  “Who is in here?”

“That’s not important right now.  What’s important is that you are here with us.”

She thought she vaguely recognized the obviously male voice as one of the officers from Engineering.  “Lieutenant Dwyer?  Is that you?”

A shadowy form moved in the darkness, but the speaker did not reveal his identity.  “I will reveal myself in due time, Lieutenant Commander.”

“Fine,” she decided to play his game, at least for the moment.  “What do you want.”

“I have a proposition for you.”

“What?”

“I want to give you the chance to help us take the Nightwind back home.”

“What would I need to do?”

“Help us get rid of Captain Anderson.”

*  *  *

Lieutenant Commander Jackson entered her quarters moments after her husband.

“What is it, Sara?” he asked, concern marking his broad, strong features.

“Something big is happening, Carl.  I think I’m going to need your help.”

Carl Jackson had joined the Navy just out of college and quickly risen through the Marine ranks through a combination of physical prowess and intelligence.  After nearly a decade in the service he had met Sara, six years his junior, on her first shipboard assignment as a junior technician.  The pair fell in love and were married the next year.

Carl retired soon after the wedding in order to pursue his love of film making.  After seven years travelling around the Solar System he had joined his wife aboard the Nightwind, promising to “make himself useful as the mission’s unofficial documentary maker.”

He spent most of his time with the shipboard Marines, telling tales, talking shop and lending Lieutenant MacDonough some of his expertise and experience.

“What is it, hon?” he asked.

“I need you to talk to Lieutenant MacDonough for me, completely off the record.  There’s a message I need you to deliver.”

“Sure.”

Chapter 26

Phoenix Convoy
June 3rd, 2356, Terran Standard Calendar
1532 Terran Standard Time

“Is that what I think it is, Lieutenant Commander?” Horatio asked, looking up from the Ops console’s tactical display.

“If you think it’s the Dragon approaching the convoy then yes, it is,” she responded, rubbing her bloodshot eyes.  “It looks like they are on an intercept course this time, though.”

“Then we can probably expect the Wyvern will be joining us shortly, as well.”

The comm system crackled to life and Tina Morgan’s voice boomed across the generally quiet bridge.  “I just got a call from Captain Patterson of the Wyvern, Horatio,” she said.

“And what did the good Captain have to say?”

“Told me if I joined forces with him and the Dragon I’d be, and I quote, ‘well compensated.'”

“I’m not going to have to kill you now, too, am I?” Horatio asked, convinced he knew the answer already.

She laughed.  “You couldn’t kill me if you wanted to, Horatio.  Fortunately for you, it won’t be necessary, anyway.”

“Good,” he smiled at his Executive Officer.  “I just figured I’d check.  What did you tell Patterson?”

“I asked what he was offering.  Turns out our two friends are working for Robert Laird, and if I go over I’ll get to be part of his new empire.”

“I thought he was just a nut who has something against technology.”  Semmes paused to consider the ramifications of Morgan’s new information.  “It seems that there’s more to this guy than we thought.”

“Apparently.  He got where he is by creating an organization with the purpose of getting rid of the Navy and the colonies, but at the same time he gets enough Navy people in his pocket to start his own.”

“From what General Schroeder tells me,” Horatio added, “He also had some of the Army on his side.”

“Makes sense.”  The line went silent for a moment.  “Oh, and Horatio,” she said, “I got one other piece of information.”

“Yes?”

“The location of the Wyvern.”

Semmes looked back down at the tactical display as the Phoenix received a telemetry update from Morgan’s Glory‘s computer.  The second rogue ship was tailing the convoy just outside of the sensor range for either ship, exactly where the Commander thought it would be.

“So it looks like I’m still the only one who doesn’t underestimate you, Tina.”

“Patterson is an idiot,” she confirmed, “He broadcast in the clear, didn’t even try to keep me from tracing his call back to the source.”

“Maybe he was just confident his offer would be accepted,” Bixby offered.  “No offense, Ms. Morgan, but you’re not exactly known for taking stands on principle.”

Morgan’s laugh again rang across the bridge.  “Too true, Lieutenant Commander.”

The alphanumeric string under the Dragon‘s icon changed slightly, indicating a new vector.  It was now perfectly set to hit the exact center of the convoy.

“Hold on for a second, Tina,” Semmes said, weighing his possible responses.  “I’ve got to figure out how to deal with our friends.”

“I’ll be here.”

Phoenix Convoy was spread over roughly five hundred kilometers of empty space in the middle of the Europa passage.  Semmes had the point position in the Phoenix and Tina Morgan was bringing up the rear in the Morgan’s Glory.  Fifteen fat, slow freighters filled the space between.  Of those only three, the Tigris, Orca and Liberty could defend themselves, and not very well at that.  Dragon was headed straight for the center of the formation, or, as Horatio thought of it, his soft underbelly.  Commander Durant of the Dragon undoubtedly hoped to draw Phoenix and Glory toward the center, allowing Wyvern to hit the convoy from behind.

Semmes wouldn’t give them what they wanted, but he thought he could make it look like he was.

“Tina, I’ve got a plan,” he said.

“Go ahead.”

“We’re going to drop back toward the middle of the  convoy and prepare to meet the Dragon.  I want you to swing wide and make like you’re coming forward.  Once the Wyvern makes its move, put the hammer down.”

“Got it.”

“Think you can take a patrol ship all by yourself?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Probably not.”  Horatio wished for what seemed like the thousandth time that Benito Fernandez and the Gold Brick had not been lost in the action over Luna Base.  A third escort for the convoy would be absolutely invaluable in a situation such as the one he was now facing.

But wishes were not any use in a fight.  “Lieutenant Commander Bixby, tell the freighters to close up.  I want the three armed ships to act as a screen against the Dragon.  And put the tac map up on the main screen.”

“Aye.”

“Helm, change course.  I want us up ten kilometers relative to the convoy and out fifty to starboard.”

“Aye, Commander,” the helmsman responded.

“And decelerate.  We’re going to force them to come through us.”

“Aye.”

Semmes fell silent as the bridge crew carried out his orders.  He figured his course change would force the Dragon to pass directly under his bow if the other ship did not change its course again, giving him an opportunity for at least one full broadside while exposing the Phoenix to only minimal fire from the Dragon‘s weaker frontal and ventral weaponry.  Also, for once the slow convoy speed Phoenix was forced to keep would be an asset instead of a handicap, as his ship had a lot less inertia to overcome and would be able to turn quicker to keep the Dragon under its guns.

“Oh, and Lieutenant Commander,” he said, realizing one last thing needed to be done, “Set homing missiles and slave them to the Dragon‘s IFF transponder code.”  The fiasco over Luna Base was still fresh in his mind and now he could not afford another mistake of that magnitude. By slaving the Phoenix‘s missiles to an individual Identification Friend or Foe transponder code he could avoid having his missiles lock onto one of the freighters if Dragon managed to evade them.

“Aye.”

“Oh, and call Morgan and suggest she do the same.”

“Aye.”

Horatio sat in the command chair and watched the distance wind down.  Dragon did not change course and his own ship slowly fell back to the perfect intercept position.  The rest of the convoy, meanwhile, responded reasonably well to his commands, presenting the attackers with a slightly harder target.

Dragon is in range, Sir,” Bixby’s call came at the exact moment Semmes expected.

“Open fire.  Full broadside.”

Earth Command patrol ships did not have the ability to fire off impressive broadsides, as they carried only four laser cannons in either arc and could not fire more than three missiles in any one direction at any time, but Horatio knew that getting in the first hits against his opponent could still make all the difference.  Dragon had taken damage fighting the Gold Brick and Morgan’s Glory over Luna and had probably not been able to stop for repairs yet.

And all he had to do was drive the attackers off.  He didn’t have to destroy them.  Even though he really wanted Dragon to go down.

He watched as the tactical display dutifully recorded the other ship absorbing the fury of his attack with its shields and returning fire with two missiles and the single unmasked laser cannon.  Phoenix didn’t even shudder as it took the hits.

“Again, full broadside,” Horatio ordered.

Dragon continued in, undeterred as more hits struck its shields.  It again returned fire and Horatio soon realized the two combatants could engage for hours with little or no discernable results.

As the other patrol ship swept in beneath Phoenix‘s bow, Semmes ordered the helm to turn and give chase.  They dove under the convoy, poking and jabbing at Dragon‘s rear shielding, damaging but never breaching it.\

Rather than trying to figure out how to get Phoenix off its tail, Dragon opened fire on the transports, getting in several hits before they passed to the other side.

“When they turn,” Horatio told the helmsman, “I want you to get inside their arc.  Keep us between them and the convoy.”

“Aye.”

“I don’t think that’s going to be a problem, Sir,” Bixby said.

“What do you mean?”

Dragon isn’t slowing to turn, it’s picking up speed.  And Wyvern is already breaking off its attack.”

Horatio sighed.  Hit and fade tactics.  It was going to be a long trip.

Thoughts on a First Draft

I didn’t write anything yesterday. Which is weird, because as I’m writing this it’s yesterday compared to the earliest you could possibly read it. So I suppose what I should say is that I didn’t write anything on Wednesday.

There were times in my life when not writing anything on a given day or during a given week or month was standard operating procedure. I would think about something to write. I would sometimes sit down and pull up a word processor. And then nothing would come out. The words refused to make the transition from mind to finger, finger to keyboard, keyboard to screen. Writing was a thing I loved. Writing was a thing I hated. It was an adversary, in turn chasing and running away.

I didn’t write anything on Wednesday. I didn’t write anything on Wednesday because I didn’t have anything to write on Wednesday. I didn’t write anything on Wednesday because on Tuesday I wrote ten thousand words over the course of ten hours. This was the final culmination of a ramp up over the course of the Fourth of July weekend and the preceding days where I would write four or five thousand words. It was the final stretch, the last sprint to the finish line.

I didn’t write anything on Wednesday because I finished the first draft of the Nightwind rewrite on Tuesday. Well, technically I did write on Wednesday, since I finished it at 1:30 in the morning on Wednesday. But then I went to sleep. And the day ends when sleep begins. Perception matters more than the calendar or the clock.

Either way, I learned many, many things from this particular first draft that I never learned in previous first drafts. I need to catalog those lessons. I don’t want to lose them. Over the last two months I leveled up as a writer in ways I didn’t expect when I started this process.

————————-

One of the big problems I already see when discussing this is that final sprint at the end. Those days where I wrote four or five or ten thousand words create a false narrative. They create a world where I could sit down and write a book in a week and a half. Ten ten-hour days and you’re done. Boom goes the dynamite. But you can’t write a good book ten thousand words at a time.

Those days at the end where the word count advanced by leaps and bounds came because I’d laid the groundwork. They came not in spite or mockery of the days where I crawled forward, writing a thousand words or a hundred or a sentence but because of those days. Those early days of slog are the training. Those final days of sprint are what the training allows.

I don’t know anyone else’s process and I can’t pretend to speak for anyone but me. But for me I didn’t really know where the second half of the book was going until I was passing the first half of the book. This is odd, since it’s technically a rewrite, but it’s a rewrite because I tore everything down. I told a new story with most of the same characters in the same universe with the same overarching story. But I was gutting and renovating a house with a plan I started drawing up the day after I tore everything old out.

Some days I wrote basically nothing. On those days I looked up everything I could find on space elevators or how light refracts through the atmosphere or had long conversations about firearms technology. Some days I spent hours listening to Mike Rowe tell me How the Universe Works. It’s a lot easier to get important information like that now than it was back at the turn of the millennium when I first sat down to write Nightwind. That’s for damn sure.

Either way, I decided to do the rewrite in, what, February? In March or April I decided that I would take the rewrite in a completely different direction, since just rewriting the first version but better was creating a confusing hodgepodge. At the end of April I thought I’d have the book done by June. Because those multi-thousand word days danced in my head. I knew I was capable of it. I just forgot the reasons why.

———————-

I read a surprising amount over the last three months. I read the sixth book in Ian Douglas’s Star Carrier series.[1] I read John Scalzi’s The End of All Things. I read a couple of Seanan McGuire’s Incryptid books. I just finished re-reading Leviathan Wakes because I didn’t really remember the book that well and wanted to see what was different between the books and SyFy’s The Expanse.[2]

Let’s set Ian Douglas aside for a moment, since the Star Carrier books are actually kind of a mess and my appreciation for them begins and ends with the extreme attention to detail. Scalzi, McGuire, and James SA Corey are four of my current favorite authors. The rewrite of Nightwind owes much to both Scalzi and Corey.[3] I approached them this time not just as a guy reading books but as a guy reading books while also writing books. I saw something this time around that I’d never really noticed before.

Long sections of the books I was reading were downright pedestrian. These were books written by professional authors and edited by professional editors. And don’t get me wrong. They were good books. Hell, this is my minimum third re-read of Leviathan Wakes. I love that book. I loved it as I was re-reading it. I’ll probably read it again in a couple of years.

What holds those books together isn’t unbroken strings of perfect sentences, stringing one after another to create perfect paragraphs and perfect chapters. They’re held together by the fact that writers who have spent years honing their craft by building stories and spinning out universes and putting real, concrete characters into those universes. They didn’t assemble perfect words into perfect sentences. They assembled interesting characters in interesting places and wrote a hell of a lot of words to describe them. Some of those words were very good. Some of those sentences were great. But great words and great sentences assembled to describe stupid places where characters just lurch from one place to another aren’t nearly as effective as good words to describe great characters in memorable places.

I realized that one night while I was still somewhere in the first half of the Nightwind rewrite. I had found myself, as I so often do, doubting my ability to write. The words were often wrong. The sentences that sparkled in my head were dull and lifeless on the screen. Then, one night, I just stopped worrying about it. Because I read a few sentences in Leviathan Wakes and thought, “Huh. That wasn’t very good.” I suppose it’s arrogance on my part, but I realized that my average sentence was probably pretty close in quality to the average sentence from any book I was going to read, especially when I stopped comparing a first draft to a complete, professionally edited book and got my book to the point where it was complete and professionally edited.[4]

———————-

I knew I was going to love The Expanse almost at the beginning of the first episode. There’s a long tracking shot that passes through various parts of Ceres and ends with Thomas Jane as a world-weary detective in a ridiculous hat standing in the middle of the medina watching an OPA hothead harangue a crowd in the strange Belter language of the book. It wasn’t a scene from the book but it was a scene from Ceres. It established in just a couple of minutes that, yes, the people who made the show had every desire to turn to the source material and visualize the world that up until that moment only existed in my mind.

This was one of my most important lessons. I realized shortly after I decided to completely tear the entire thing down and start the rewrite from the foundations that I had no idea what anything looked like. I had never mapped out Nightwind’s interior. People lived there but they just kind of floated in a vast, enclosed void.

It actually started with Zaqar, which was the new name I gave to the colony ship Winged Messenger. The Winged Messenger was just a big blob moving through space on rockets or something. I never described it. So I wrote a new chapter that started with a description of the ship.

Then Kat Silas arrived. She started as an idea. Because with the tearing down of the original story I realized that I needed a new wrinkle. I needed, in effect, a b-plot. So I spent a couple of days just throwing ideas around in my head. Kat’s character solved a couple of different problems that the change to the story created. She brought with her a whole new problem, though. I had to answer the question of where she was when we first meet her and how she gets to where she needs to be.

It’s not actually that big of a deal, really. It’s the matter of a couple of chapters right at the beginning of the book, but those chapters required me to spend more time thinking about the world all of these characters exist in than I put into the entire worldbuilding of the first draft.

She also becomes the first person to smell Nightwind. This might not seem like a big deal, but before Kat Silas it never occurred to me to describe a smell. That also caused me to realize that I had never said a single word about the colors inside of the ship. They surprised me. They will probably surprise my readers, too.

There was another change that came from my first foray into describing the inside of Nightwind. The ship got a lot smaller. When I first wrote the book I just said that the ship was a kilometer long because that’s a nice, round number and the ship needed to be pretty big because duh. One night I sat down with a calculator and a spreadsheet and tried to figure out just how much space there was. I came up with 3.3 million cubic meters of space.[5] That is a lot of space. I put everything I needed to put into the ship and couldn’t fill half of it. So I made the ship smaller.

—————————-

My final realization came right at the start of the final sprint. I had this idea in my head of what would happen. Then I modified that idea a bit. Then I actually put it into the book. And a thing happened that would require a decision. So one of the characters asked, “Why don’t we [do this other thing] first?” And I realized that I did not have an answer to that question. I realized that the most logical thing to do was the thing that the character asked and also that would completely and totally ruin everything. So I deleted a chapter and a half and made sure that the question didn’t and couldn’t come up.

That change set the rest of the book in motion. All of the sudden everything snapped into place and I knew exactly what was going to happen between that point and the end of the book. So from that point out I didn’t have to think. I had my characters. They all had a series of jobs to do and a collection of motivations and everything was laid out.

But some things were still in flux even from the halfway point of the book. Some things didn’t really make any sense. Some characters did things that kind of came out of nowhere.

And that is when I learned what a first draft is for. See, I once believed that the difference between a first draft and a second was that you went through the first draft and made sure all of the words were spelled correctly. But that sort of editing is a third or fourth or fifth draft thing.

The end of the first draft is where the real work begins. Once you finish the first draft you then have to go back and make sure it all makes sense. A lot of stuff that goes into the first draft doesn’t make any sense until it’s all over and everyone has done all of the stuff they’re supposed to do.

One of the other things I realized was that sometimes, especially during the first draft, you just have to write something. Anything. I wrote some paragraphs and realized that they were just placeholders to get me through that and on to the next thing. Hell, there’s at least one chapter that I’m pretty sure won’t survive the first revision.

—————————

The weirdest thing about this first draft is that it isn’t actually the first first draft of Nightwind. It’s technically the second draft. But it’s so far removed from the original that it might as well be a first draft.

I also know that I absolutely became a better writer over the course of writing the book. One of my tendencies as a writer is to see characters as a collection of scenes. Shortly after Kat Silas introduced herself I saw her in a scene that I knew would happen in the book, but almost at the end. I wrote it anyway, since I didn’t want to lose the scene.

When I finally got to the scene I copy pasted it in and gave it a quick edit just to put it in the right context and make sure that the right people were involved. As I did the edit I realized that the scene was not nearly as crisp as the bits that surrounded it. It was shocking to see this scene I thought was great a few months back and realize, “Wow, I’m going to have to revise the hell out of this one.”

But that’s why the second draft exists.

——————————————–

[1]This is now a series that I hate read more than anything else. It’s a weird hybrid of hard core SF and hard core Mil SF. The first three books were actually quite the education, since he spent a lot of time discussing how combat would work in space and endlessly articulating how things like the speed of light would be a hard limit on tactics. He also put tons of work into making his aliens alien. It made me completely re-think how I, as a kid who grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars and Babylon 5 where most every alien was just a human with weird makeup and a universal translator, thought of human-alien interaction.

That said, his humans are all paper-thin caricatures. And he posits a universe where humanity is alone, pitted against an impossibly huge alien empire and the brave Americans lead the fight while the French keep trying to sell the brave, self-sacrificing Americans out. Also, for some reason, it’s a functionally post-scarcity society where the big political issue of the day is, “Yay capitalism!” and the brave, brilliant, not-at-all-sellout-asshole Americans just randomly go on anti-Socialist rants. As you do. So it’s basically Iraq War propaganda, but where Saddam Hussein is in control of a galaxy-spanning empire.

[2]A lot. The answer is, “A lot.” For the record, I absolutely loved the TV show. There are some things about it that genuinely annoyed me. They set up a wholly unnecessary conflict at the beginning for reasons I don’t understand. I’m still not happy about Chrisjen Avasarala’s appearance in Season 1 even though she was nowhere to be seen in Leviathan Wakes. Don’t get me wrong, Shohreh Aghdashloo was amazing and absolutely blew the airlocks open. But re-reading Leviathan Wakes the most striking thing about it is just how isolated the main characters are. They exist in their little bubbles with no view of the larger picture at the beginning and slowly piece it all together while Mars and Earth are in the background and the biggest war in human history happens off stage. I prefer seeing it that way.

Otherwise, while I was not at all on board with Thomas Jane as Miller when I saw the cast lists he was just about perfect. And Wes Chatham was spot-on as Amos. Chad L Coleman did a good job with the more limited Fred Anderson of the show. Dominique Tipper and Cas Anvar as Naomi Nagata and Alex Kamahl obviously did their homework. I only just realized that Athena Karkanis played Octavia Muss. I thought that was a wholly original character they created for the show. She certainly wasn’t the Octavia Muss of the book. Jay Hernandez played a stock character from central casting that they slapped the name Detective Havelock on.

The biggest problem with the whole endeavor was Steven Strait as Jim Holden. I don’t think it was Strait’s fault, either. Holden’s character in the book is repeatedly described as “righteous.” He sees the world in black and white terms and always strives to be one hundred percent on the right side of the line. That’s a difficult role to play and Strait did it as well as anyone. The problem is that they undermined him within a few minutes of his arrival in the first episode and that kind of broke everything. It’s especially problematic since Thomas Jane wore Miller like a comfortable coat and so much of the book is about what happens when someone like Holden and someone like Miller are forced to work together.

The other interesting one was perennial That Guy Jared Harris as Anderson Dawes. Harris so completely stole the show that when I re-read the book I was shocked at just how much Anderson Dawes wasn’t an important character. He shows up, like, four times in the book and mostly exists to hand over some key information and kick the plot in the ass a couple times.

Speaking of that, the one episode where perennial That Gal Frances Fisher shows up to go toe-to-toe with Shohreh Aghdashoo was amazing. Chrisjen Avasarala is basically an amoral force of nature until that one episode where she becomes, if not quite human, at least sympathetic.

[3]Which is not to say I’m copying them. Because I’m not. I’ll get to that later.

[4]With the exception of Cat Valente. Or, at least, Cat Valente’s Dirge for Prester John books. The average sentence in those books is on par with the best sentence I will ever write. And then, every few pages a sentence that makes everything else look like garbage just lights up the page with supernova intensity. I kind of hate Cat Valente for being so fucking good at putting words together.

[5]It was basically this: the ship was 1 kilometer long. The forward 20% was unusable. The rear third of the rear 80% was (and still is) a blank space called “engineering.” So that left me with a not-quite cylinder 540 meters long with a 100 meter diameter. The area of a circle is figured with pi * r squared. Multiply that by the height and you get something like 4.2 million cubic meters. But the ship isn’t a perfect cylinder, so I cut that down by twenty percent. It was a lot of back-of-the-napkin stuff.

Eventually I tried to visualize that. I basically realized that I had a structure with half again the footprint of the Sears Tower and that was as tall as the measurement from Wacker Drive to the tip top of the antennae. That’s just a huge amount of space. And also the actual length of the ship was another Sears Tower on top of that. Give or take.

Nightwind Future Friday, part 3

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.”

“Artificial gravity?”

“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.”

“Why?”

“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.”

“Funny.”

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.”

“Will do.”

“Oh, and there will be some parties tonight. Call me up and I’ll make sure you get an invite.”

“Thanks.”

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.”

“Sir?”

“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.”

“I understand.”

“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?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“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?

Nightwind Follow-up, ch 23-24

So, um, there’s not much I feel like talking about in chapters 23 and 24. They’re both pretty standard sci-fi space fillers for a plotline that I’ve already said I now find stupid. How much more can I say?

The one thing about chapter 23 is that I was trying to depict Anderson finally realizing he has no fucking clue what he’s doing and falling apart. On one level this is a key component to the process. On another level I don’t think I’ve really done the necessary work to have this make sense. One of the biggest problems, I have learned, is in the creation of internally consistent characters. Anderson and, to a lesser extent, Semmes suffer from this problem.

This is a byproduct of the problem I’ve talked about continually: I was paying way more attention to following a plot than actually developing the world and the characters who occupy said world. I have learned an interesting lesson through running the re-write concurrently with this critique of the original. The shorthand for the problem is this: the plots in the original version grew bloated and out of hand because I kept realizing I still needed to add more to pad the book out to actual novel length. So I rushed from place to place and jumped from character to character and end up with this weird mish-mash of random crap where I throw a mutiny plotline into the middle of the book because, hey, why the fuck not?

I feel this is probably the hardest lesson to learn as a writer, unless you’re Stephen King or someone like that. The characters and the world are central to everything and if you give them space to breathe they will fill out all the pages you need and more. This is, of course, if the characters are good and worthwhile. If the characters suck then you’d better have a really good central conceit to the whole thing and have something else you’re explaining the hell out of to your audience. This is one of those places where the fact that I really didn’t read fiction when I was writing the original draft hurt me and where having a lot of examples of how to do things well helps immensely.

So, um, let’s talk about that for a while. How ‘bout it?

My most important written influences for science fiction at the time I wrote the original draft were Arthur C Clarke, the Star Wars Extended Universe novels, and the BattleTech novels. This is a really weird combination of influences. It’s also not particularly helpful when it gets right down to it.

Arthur C Clarke never really created a memorable character. He left that job to Stanley Kubrick. What Clarke did was create ideas and places that just stay with you forever. Let’s take, for instance, his Rendezvous with Rama series. I remember nothing of the characters in those books. What I do remember is that those characters interacted with an amazing setting and I absolutely wanted Rama to show up and I wanted to go see it and be a part of the adventure. I also remember that as the first time I saw a reference to the Y2K problem, as one of the main characters had lost everything at the turn of the 21st Century because the computers were all fucked up and there was a major financial disaster.

Clarke loved technology above all when writing. His books and short stories were always thought experiments more than character-driven stories. He also had a key advantage that 19 year-old me didn’t: he’d been fascinated with space and technology and the implications of human interaction with both since before they were really a thing. He was ahead of his time and writing about things he thought would be really cool. I simply can’t do hard sci-fi like Arthur C Clarke could because I’m behind the curve and also I don’t really want to. I’m rather fond of the space opera.

The Star Wars Extended Universe and BattleTech novels, meanwhile, are a whole other can of worms. In both cases the universe was something that was already defined and the authors working in that space could shorthand the worldbuilding. If you open up a Star Wars novel you already know what hyperdrive is, you already know what an X-Wing and a Star Destroyer is, and you already have notion of the relative locations of Corsucant, Corellia, and Tatooine. You also don’t need an entire chapter developing the Force because you probably already watched the movies. Similarly, the BattleTech novels already offered a map of the Inner Sphere. They could assume that the reader knew what a JumpShip was and that it had DropShips and that the DropShips carried Battlemasters and Locusts to planets to try to blow up Marauders and Phoenix Hawks.

In both cases there was a built-in audience who was there for something. The Star Wars audience wanted to see badass fighter pilots in X-Wings blow up bizarrely overengineered weapons of mass destruction. The BattleTech audience wanted to see humongous mecha shoot PPCs and missiles at each other. They were TV shows or movies written on paper. The reader didn’t have to ask too many questions because “the remnants of the Empire found a new super weapon and Rogue Squadron has to blow it up” or “the Clans are invading Coventry and threatening to break the peace of Tukayyid” are all the reader needs. After that it was just mil-sf and heroic storytelling porn.

None of this is really meant to knock the books in question. Most of them were fun and the Michael Stackpole novels were genuinely good.[1] They weren’t necessarily the best place to learn how to be a sci-fi author, though, for all of the reasons I’ve listed above.

So what has changed since then? It all starts with John Scalzi.

I don’t really remember why I decided to read John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. I know that I first came across Scalzi as I was leaving Christianity because of his amazing write-up of his visit to the Creation Museum. At the time I had no idea he was a sci-fi author. Hell, I had no idea that he’d written more than one blog post in his entire life.

Old Man’s War is mil-sf through-and-through, as it its sequel, The Ghost Brigades. The cool thing about Scalzi’s worldbuilding in the Old Man’s War books, though, is the way that he moves away from mil-sf and book 3 is pretty much old-school sci-fi and then he just keeps moving on to characters existing in a vast, pre-built universe where everything is changing around them. Scalzi’s influence on me is less important for his books than it is for his blog, though, specifically The Big Idea.

The Big Idea is a series he does where he allows authors to write about their books and what lead them to write said books. I, as someone who loves writing about writing as much as, if not more than, I love writing, can’t help but pay attention to such a series. I’m always draw to authors who can explain why their books are cool. Most of my influences have come from there.

The most important is probably[2] The Expanse. James Holden is interesting. Ish. Detective Miller is definitely interesting. The world in which we met Holden and Miller is amazing. You feel like you can walk on Ceres with Detective Miller and travel the solar system aboard the Rocinante with Holden.[3]

After that we get to Mira Grant/Seanan Maguire. I first met Seanan through her sci-fi writing alter-ego Mira and the Newsflesh trilogy. It’s pretty much the only zombie property I actually enjoy, since it’s totally about how the world has changed since the zombie apocalypse came and went and people got back to their normal lives while having to acknowledge that zombie outbreaks can still happen. After that I started reading Seanan’s InCryptid series, a fairly silly series about a family of cryptid hunters who have to survive in a world that doesn’t and shouldn’t know that fantasy creatures totally exist. In both cases Maguire’s skill shines through in creating interesting characters and really cool worlds and having the characters just kind of live in those worlds.

Cat Valente is easily both an influence and a terrifyingly amazing writer who makes me feel bad about my own abilities. I actually can’t recall if it was Valente’s Habitation of the Blessed or one of “Mira Grant’s” books that convinced me to pay attention to Scalzi’s Big Idea. I do know that when I learned someone was writing books based on the Prester John myth I had to read them. They were not at all what I expected but, seriously, Cat Valente is a once-in-a-lifetime writer. Her use of the English language is masterful and beyond beautiful. Every page had a section that just leapt out and demanded to be re-read and savored.

There are others, too. Wesley Chu’s Lives of Tao is great stuff. Ernest Clyne’s Ready Player One is a fun novel that was being turned into a movie last I heard but I’m afraid that Adam Sandler’s atrocious Pixels might have hurt that one.

All of these books have taught me how to build a world. They’ve taught me that I, as the reader, need to feel like I can live in that world. The Nightwind universe really doesn’t feel that way, at least in the original incarnation. But I have spent nearly two decades living in that world off and on and I know what it feels like to walk in the hallways and talk to the people. I hope that I am finally beginning to be able to communicate that experience to others.

Tomorrow I shall be introducing a brand new character. The alternate version re-write of Nightwind is now a much tighter, more focused book and I needed a character who could walk the corridors of the ship. That was when Corporal Katherine Silas introduced herself to the world.

Tomorrow’s excerpt won’t be the first time we meet Kat, as her decidedly uncreative friends call her. It will be the first time she meets the Nightwind, though. It’s my hope that you see the ship through her eyes.

———————-

[1]Michael Stackpole wrote most of the universe defining books in the BattleTech series. He always did it really well and I looked forward to getting new Stackpole books. He also wrote the X-Wing novels for the Star Wars Extended Universe, which were definitely the most fun books in that world. They focused on Wedge Antilles leading Rogue Squadron to all kinds of heroics after Luke Skywalker went off to be all Jedi-y. I actually consider him one of my favorite sci-fi authors. One of these days I should seriously consider reading his non-other-people’s-universe novels.

[2]Definitely. There’s no probably about it.

[3]One of these days I have to write a post or twelve about The Expanse adaptation on SyFy. I was on record as saying I assumed it was going to suck. It, um, it didn’t. It was amazing. The two best shows on TV right now, without question, are Black Sails and The Expanse. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.

Nightwind Wednesdays, Chapters 23-24

Chapter 23

Ah’Dag System
June 2nd, 2356, Terran Standard Calendar
2034 Terran Standard Time

David slammed his fist against the arm of his chair as the audio feed from the planet below cut out.  Five of his crew members had been missing for nearly two days and he could get no information out of the people who were holding them.  He didn’t even know if they were alive or dead.

“Try it again,” he told Ensign Thomas, who had replaced Ensign Lindros as the primary comm officer.  “Get them again.”

“I’ll try, Sir.”

“Don’t try,” David rose and turned to face the young man, “Just do it.  Do it now or I’ll have you cleaning toilets for the rest of the trip.”

“Y-yes, Sir.”

“Uh, Captain,” Lieutenant Commander Templeton called out from his station.

“What?” David spun, practically shouting.  “What do you need?”

“I just discovered something, but I think we need to discuss it in private.”

“Very well,” David said.  “My office.  Now.”

“Yes, Sir.”

David turned to Lieutenant Commander Jackson, who was glaring at him with barely concealed anger from the engineer station.  “You have the bridge,” he told her.

“Aye, I have the bridge,” she responded, voice icy.

David led his Ops officer back to his office.  “So what have you discovered” he asked as the door closed.

“I’ve discovered that you need to calm down, Captain,” Templeton crossed his arms over his chest.  “That explosion on the bridge was completely and totally uncalled for.”

“Oh, really?”

“Permission to speak freely?”

“You have already assumed it, so I guess you’ll know right about the time I give you kitchen duty.”

“…Right…” Templeton paused.  “Listen, Sir, I was on the Wyvern when Captain Bock blew up.  I served with Commander Gregory.”

“And your point is?”

“This isn’t good.  Ensign Thomas did not deserve the way you yelled at him.”

“He wasn’t doing his job, Lieutenant Commander.”

“That’s wrong, and you know it.  He was doing the best he could do.”

David sighed.  “Look, Mr. Templeton, you don’t understand this, but I’ve got five people stuck on that planet.  They are my responsibility.”

Mark leaned over the Captain’s desk.  “Captain, I do understand.  Commander Gregory is a good friend.  He was my direct superior on the Wyvern and on the Nightwind project.  I don’t like that he’s down on that planet any more than you do.”

“But you aren’t responsible.  I’m the Captain, if they die, I’m responsible.”

“So do what Earth Command trained you to do, Sir.”

“They didn’t.”

“What?”

“They didn’t train me in how to deal with this, Mark, I’m making it up as I go along.”

“And, with all due respect, Sir, it’s showing.”  Templeton straightened up.  “We’re doing something here that no one in the Human race has ever done.  You’re trying to do it all by yourself and you can’t.  Don’t you know that’s why we’re here?”

“Why who is where?”

“Us,” Templeton replied, “Your Command Crew.  Me, Jackson, Lieutenant MacDonough, even Wing Commander Luchenko.  Talk to us, ask for advice.  Don’t ignore us.”

David sighed, deflated.  “Alright, tell the Command Crew I want them to each come up with an idea about how to get our people off that planet.  We’ll meet in…two hours, assuming we haven’t heard anything new from the planet by then.”

“Yes, Sir.”  Templeton turned and left the room, leaving David to his thoughts.

*  *  *

“Are you sure nobody followed you here?” the young Lieutenant asked the Ensign as the other snuck into the small secondary communications room.

“Who would follow me?” the junior officer asked.  “What’s going on?”

“Heard from Ensign Thomas that the Captain blew up on the bridge, that’s what’s going on.”

“So?”

“So?  Don’t you get it?  The Captain’s got us into this mess and now he’s melting down.”
The Ensign scratched his neck and offered his superior an uncomfortable look.  “That’s not good, is it?”

“Nope.”

“So what are we gonna do about it?”

“There’s only one thing to do.  We’ve got to take over the ship, take it home.”

“We can’t do that, Lieutenant…can we?”

“Course we can.  We just need an opportunity and a plan.”

“But we can’t run the ship.  That’s what the Captain’s for.”

The Lieutenant sighed.  “Here’s what we’re going to do,” he said, speaking slowly.  “Commander Gregory is down on that planet, collecting dust and probably getting pretty mad at the Captain for leaving him down there, right?”

“Right.”

“So we go and we kidnap the Captain.  And then you know what we do?”

“We kill him.”

“No.  We call the planet, tell them that we want to do a swap.  We tell them that we need to get the people down there back but we’ll send the Captain in their place, y’know, a gesture of good faith and all.”

“And then we leave?”

“Now you’re getting it.  We turn the ship over to the Commander and we go home.”

The Ensign nodded.  “Wait,” he paused.  “Why do we want to go home?  Don’t we need to explore, to figure out what happened to the Winged Messenger?”

“Did you see any of the reports of the stuff going on at home before we lost contact?”

“I saw the riots.  But the Captain says that our mission is more valuable for helping stop that stuff than anything we could do if we went back.”

“Of course the Captain says that.  He wants to make the decisions and get the glory.  And he can’t do that if he’s back home taking orders from Earth Command.”

“Think he’s been getting orders but keeping them secret, Lieutenant?” the Ensign asked, understanding dawning in his eyes.

“I wouldn’t put it past him.”

“So how do we get to the Captain?”

“We need to get help from someone in the Command Crew.”

“Who?”

“Thomas told me that Lieutenant Commander Jackson did not look happy with the Captain after he blew up.  I think she’ll be the best choice.”

“Okay.  Just tell me what you need me to do.”

Chapter 24

Planet Hemdirh, Ah’Dag System
June 2nd, 2356, Terran Standard Calendar
2147 Terran Standard Time

The door of the holding cell opened and a pair of burly guards threw Commander Gregory onto the small room.  He collapsed into a bleeding mound in the middle of the room, unwilling or unable to do anything.  After their shuttle crash and subsequent capture Ensign Lindros had managed to talk their captors into allowing them to go back and get their translators.  He now found himself wishing she hadn’t, as that apparently meant they felt torture and interrogation would be a much more useful tool.

As soon as the door closed the room’s other occupant scrambled out of the corner to check on him.  Once she determined that he was, in fact, still alive she convinced him to sit up, pushing, shoving and dragging him over to the wall.

Once sitting, the Commander slowly opened his eyes and focused on his companion.  “Hey, Ensign,” he managed to croak out.

“Yes?”

“I have one question for you.”

“Shoot, Commander,” she said, using her sleeve to dab away some of the blood from his face.

“What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?”

She shook her head.  “You’re not funny, Commander.”

“Just trying to make the best of a bad situation.”

“Well it’s not working just now.”

“Too bad.”

“But it was a good try, Commander.”

Gregory struggled into a slightly more comfortable sitting position.  “Do me a favor, Ensign Lindros,” he said, sounding slightly better than the first time.

“Anything, Commander.”

“Call me Walter for now.  I don’t think we need to stand on formality right now.”

“Only if you call me Brooke,” she paused, “Walter.”

“Very well, Brooke.”  He smiled weakly.  “So have you heard anything about our Marine friends?”

“No.”

“Too bad.  I wonder how they’re doing.”

Lindros slumped against the opposite wall.  “I don’t suppose they could be doing any worse than we are right now.”

“Probably not.”

“So what are we doing here?”

“Waiting.”

“For what?”

“For the Captain to get us out of here, I suppose.”

Brooke ran her fingers in a circle on the floor, creating a swirl in the dirt and dust gathered on the cold, hard surface.  “Do you,” she stopped herself.

“Do I what?”

“Do you think he’ll actually get us out of here.”

“He’s the Captain.  It’s his job.”

“But he got us here in the first place.  Is he going to be able to get us out?”

“If he can’t we’re in a lot of trouble.”

“What if he left without us?”

“He wouldn’t do that, Brooke.”

“He left Earth behind.”

“Ah,” Walter shifted again, still unable to find a comfortable position.  “I see what this is all about.”

“What is all about?”

“You don’t trust the Captain.”

“What?”

“I know that you don’t agree with the fact that we didn’t go right home after talking to the Joshans,” Walter told her.  “I know that you don’t think he’s been making the best possible decisions.  And now that we’re down here you think that he’s going to just decide to leave us here to rot because it will get in the way of his mission.”

“Something like that,” she reluctantly agreed.

“Well it’s not going to happen.  The Captain and I decided that Earth can take care of itself without us.  But he knows that we can’t take care of ourselves down here.”

She closed her eyes.  “So am I just being foolish, then?”

“Pretty much.”

“Thanks.”

“Not a problem.”  Walter finally gave up trying to get comfortable and slid down the wall until his body stopped moving.
“You know what would make this go a lot better?”

“What?”

“Tell me a story.  A good story, something fun.”

“I don’t know any stories.”

“Sure you do, Brooke.  Tell me why you’re here.”

“I think you know very well why I’m here.  We were on our way to the planet to see if we could get some information.  Then they shot us down.  Then I believe they tortured you and probably dumped us here to rot.”

Walter sighed heavily.  “You’re not very good at this, are you?”

She shrugged.  “You asked me why I’m here, and I told you.”

“Yes, but I know why we’re in this cell.  I wanted to know why you’re in the Navy, why you’re on the Nightwind, you know, something to keep us talking about something, anything other than the fact that we’re stuck here.”

“Oh.  Sorry.”

“It’s okay.  So.  Why are you here?”

“Well…” she paused, gathering her thoughts.  “I went to the Academy, but didn’t do all that well in most of the disciplines.  But I could run comm systems, so they decided to put me into that field.”

“Where did they assign you?”

“Luna Base.”

“I’m sorry.”  Walter shook his head.  Any assignment that wasn’t aboard ship was considered to be boring duty, despite the fact that only a small percentage of the active Naval personnel were ever assigned to one of the patrol ships at any given time.  Those who graduated at the top of their classes, such as Gregory or David Anderson, tended to get immediate assignments to the ships and would usually get the option to stay aboard ship for as long as they wanted.  For those whose marks were not as high even one shipboard assignment could be considered lucky.

“Eh, it’s not your fault, Sir, I didn’t graduate high enough in the class to warrant anything better.”

“So then how did you get assigned to the Nightwind?”

“I heard that they were looking for a linguistics expert, it was for a secret project, but it was supposed to result in some sort of shipboard duty.”

“So you know a lot about language?”

She rolled her bright green eyes.  “Didn’t you read my dossier, Sir?”

“Sure, but I want to hear your story.  And, again, call me Walter.”

“Okay.”

“So what languages do you know?”

“Well, my family spoke Greek, Italian, Spanish, English and a little bit of Polish when I was growing up.”

“That’s a lot of languages.  My family spoke English and Ukrainian, but that’s all I know.”

“Well I also studied French, Japanese and learned some Ancient Greek and Latin as well.”

“Why?”

“Because I could.  I had an ear for it.”

“So they picked you for the position on Nightwind?”

“I was the most qualified.”

“Huh.”

The door of the cell opened again and they fell silent.  Two guards walked in, followed by a woman carrying a tray with two bowls.

“Eat,” one of the guards commanded.  “You’re lucky to get it…pirate scum.”  He leaned over and very deliberately spit in one of the dishes.

“I don’t suppose that’s a sign of respect here, either,” Walter quipped.

Nightwind Follow-Up, ch 21-22

So…chapters 21 and 22. Most of the reason that Nightwind Wednesday became Nightwind Thursday is because I simply did not believe I would have time to fully parse and discuss these chapters this week. There is just so much that needs to be unpacked.

Chapter 21 sets up your basic “crewmembers in captivity” plot. It adds in the “crewmembers in captivity to a technologically inferior alien race” angle in the process. Because that’s a thing that’s always necessary to add to the mix.

In terms of overall narrative arc the chapter doesn’t really bother me that much. The sudden switchover of the narrative view from Anderson to Gregory at the end is a rookie mistake, but the individual elements are interesting enough and I don’t think it’s badly written. It’s just a stock television sci-fi plot and it has no place in the book.

I did try to use it to show Anderson beginning to fully realize he’s in over his head. I attempted to turn that into a whole thing over the next few chapters of the book. So pay attention, people. There’s a whole sub-plot afoot!

What bothers me about it now is the technology, specifically the shuttlecraft. This whole thing is very Star Trek/Star Wars where the Nightwind is conveniently equipped with ships that can just kind of travel down into gravity wells and return at will. So I guess we need to unpack where these ideas work and where they don’t.

Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that the alien planet has a gravitational pull reasonably close to Earth’s. We already know what it takes to break free of Earth’s gravity using a self-powered craft. It takes a whole shitload of thrust and a lot of fuel in the form of multi-stage rockets. This is the only reliable method we have for leaving Earth and our second-best option is the as-yet-unrealized space elevator, which is simply not an option in this scenario.[1]

This is a specific Earth and planets-similar-to-Earth problem that must be considered. It would make sense that Nightwind would carry shuttles that could travel to and from an asteroid or moon or even Mars. Let us consider, for a moment, the difference between the Apollo Lunar Lander and the Saturn V rocket. The Ascent Stage of the Lander carried some 6,000 pounds of propellant mass and managed 16,000 Newtons of force while thrusting if I’m reading this right.  The first stage of the Saturn V carried almost 4,500,000 pounds of fuel and developed 34,000 kiloNewtons of force. Since this wasn’t actually enough the second stage added another million pounds of propellant and nearly 5,000 kiloNewtons of thrust to get over the final stretch into space. All of those millions of pounds of fuel, by the way, were to get a bit over 300,000 pounds of payload into low Earth orbit. Buzz Aldrin could have practically jumped off of the moon and back to Ohio by comparison.

All of this is to say that it’s impractical, at best, for the Nightwind to use rocket-powered, well, anything as small craft. Although I am now imagining the starship Enterprise traveling the galaxy and exploring strange new worlds with a shitload of Saturn V rockets attached to the saucer section. That’s pretty funny.

The thing about rocketry is that it’s a functionally dead-end technology. We can’t really make rockets better. We can make them bigger. We can sand down the edges and refine the fuels and tweak the ratios and squeeze a little more performance out of them, but the rocket is a rocket. In the end the Saturn V was just a much larger V-2 rocket. This is why Wernher Von Braun got a ticket to the United States instead of the Nuremberg Trials after WWII. He was the best in the world at making rockets. The fact is that there may never be anyone better than Von Braun at making rockets and it won’t actually matter.

So this is where the “fiction” part of “science-fiction” must come into play. We know, for instance, that thanks to their stolen alien tech humans have the ability to create gravity. If they can create gravity it’s possible they can also negate gravity. This is a sticky point, though, since under traditional Newtonian physics it is actually possible to create an anti-gravity force equation. Under General Relativity not so much. Still, if we posit a magical technology that can create gravity on a spaceship we could, theoretically, posit a reverse switch on that machine that would make a ship gravitationally neutral or cut down its effective mass enough that gravity just kind of doesn’t apply.

Alternatively we could posit a propulsion device that works like a super rocket, creating massive thrust in exchange for very little fuel consumption. This creates a physics catch-22. Anything that’s significantly more efficient than a rocket would probably achieve that efficiency at the expense of thrust. Something with significantly more thrust than a rocket would either tear the craft it’s powering apart of do horrific damage to whatever happens to be caught in the backdraft. And this doesn’t even get to all of the math we currently have to go through to get a rocket into space in terms of things like launch windows. Also alien planets probably won’t have convenient rocket gantries just set up and waiting for us.

Given what we know now, then, the trip to an alien planet is probably one-way. Unless you drop your own Saturn V[2] and launch equipment down the gravity well on your way or bring your own space elevator. Both of these options seem sub-optimal in a hostile encounter. Luckily this is one of those places where people who want to read science fiction are probably going to just let it pass if you hand wave the whole thing away. We simply don’t think too hard about an Enterprise shuttle taking a joyride down a gravity well or the fact that the Millennium Falcon can take off from Mos Eisley and then scoot halfway across the galaxy to run into the Death Star.

So we mosey on along to the not-at-all scientifically impossible chapter 22.

I made reference to chapter 22 in last week’s follow-up when I said this:

“Do you remember General Hans Schroeder? I’ve taken to referring to him as General No Longer Appearing in this Picture. He actually got an entire story arc. This arc included a chapter that I genuinely don’t remember if I’ve gotten to yet that caused me to just stop writing the book for a while. I just had no fucking clue why I was writing that particular chapter.”

This, ultimately, might end up being one of the most important chapters I’ve ever written. But, obviously, it’s not going to be important because I like it or because it’s a pivotal chapter in this story. It taught me this: “One of the things I’ve learned about writing is that if something just isn’t working and you’re avoiding actually doing the work that means the thing you’re trying to write about probably doesn’t belong. If I, as the writer, am finding it impossible to force a chapter into a book that means that you, as the reader, will probably wonder why that chapter exists in the first place.”

The thing about chapter 22 isn’t that it’s a bad chapter. It’s actually a perfectly serviceable chapter in another book. It’s far from the best example of its type in the world, but it’s defensible as a description of ground combat. The combat itself is believable and the events are competently blocked out. Even though last week I couldn’t remember if I’d even gotten to the chapter yet when I was re-reading it I could still remember where everything was supposed to be in my head when I originally wrote it. So, hey, that’s a thing. The description of the setting could be punched up a bit, though.

The big problem with his chapter, as I’ve alluded to about a thousand times now, is that it exists in the first place. Why does the United Commonwealth have a standing Army? It seems unnecessary. And yet there it is, fighting itself. Because some of the commanders decided to throw in with Robert Laird. Why did they do that? Because I apparently thought that what this book really needed was a good, old-fashioned Tom Clancy-esque tank battle chapter. It doesn’t. I don’t know what else there really is to say about that, now that I think about it.

Also, there is a really weird mistake that stands out like a beacon. While infodumping about the Striker tank I make reference to it originally being based on the M1A4/Challenger III chassis. This is just a bizarre thing to read based on the fact that the M1 Abrams and the British Challenger don’t currently share a chassis. I believe I was attempting to imply that there would be a future version of the American and British Main Battle Tank where the two countries worked together. Which is fine in concept. In execution, though, the resulting weapons system wouldn’t be called the M1A4/Challenger III because it would be a whole new design and not an upgrade over an existing design. So it would be the Anglo-American Tanky McTankerface or something.

One of the more subtle problems with this chapter, though, is how it brings to light just how bass-akwards my worldbuilding was. The part where I detail the genesis of the Striker MBT seems to imply that a big part of the reason that the world came together was because everyone started using the same tank.

That’s just odd. If sharing weapons systems is all it takes to get countries to join together then the United States, Britain, and Russia would have become a single political entity during Lend-Lease. Unless I’m really mis-remembering my post-WWII history that didn’t happen.

There are only really two points I detailed for the creation of the United Commonwealth that I can think of right now. The first is that there was a war that threatened to blow up the whole world. The second was that everyone started using the same tank. This, then, caused everyone to say, “Hey, let’s all join together, give up our national sovereignty, and sing Kumbaya. Because that’s a thing that would happen.

I’ve mulled over the inherent problems of an origin story like that and you’ll be happy to know, dear reader, that I’ve changed things around quite a bit. What I have now is what I think is a pretty workable bit of worldbuilding. I’ve even managed to keep it almost believable and within the same timeline of the original. Although I’m not at all against tweaking the timeframe at this point.

What I have now is this: it’s the mid-21st Century and the world’s resources have noticeably dwindled. We’re on the verge of oil wars and water wars and resource wars and basic self-annihilation. The solution to this problem is probably in farming asteroids but it really sucks to get up to space to send ships off to the asteroids. The solution to the problem comes in the form of a scientific breakthrough: the discovery of a material that is actually strong enough to build a space elevator.

The task of building and administering the space elevator is handed off to the United Nations because they’re the only body that can guarantee fair access. The UN possesses the moral strength but lacks the strength of arms to enforce control. The US, Russia, and China are soon vying for control of the new space elevator, which is located in Brazil. War looks inevitable until an Anglo-French led coalition of nations steps in and gives Brazil enough support to threaten to expel America, Russia, and China from any access to the elevator. Everyone backs down and gets to work on the important task of mining asteroids.

The space elevator allows technological and scientific research to leap forward. New forms of propulsion ascend the ladder for testing.[3] Scientists also send up a whole bunch of awesome new space telescopes.

Breakthroughs in propulsion technology are announced at the same time the new space telescopes confirm a bunch of hypothesized and discover a bunch of new potentially habitable planets orbiting nearby stars. A new project to create colony ships is launched under the auspices of a brand-new replacement for the United Nations: the United Commonwealth. The Commonwealth has significantly more power than the UN and at this point the world is, for the most part, actually pretty determined to set differences aside and work for the common good.

So there we go. That’s a thing that I’ve actually put some thought into.

[1]This actually presents a huge problem in any narrative in space travel. In order to be realistic about visiting other planets using technology we know is possible a ship would be required to carry shuttles capable of deploying with their own multi-stage rockets to return or carry its own space elevator with it. Arthur C. Clarke posited the latter method in Songs of Distant Earth. It’s an interesting, if impractical, solution for Nightwind.

[2]Well, I suppose you could get away with a Titan II, which was what was used for the Gemini missions. I’ve used Saturn Vs in this bit specifically for the comparison between what it took to get a ship headed for the moon and what it took to get one back. For a sci-fi scenario you might be able to get away with simply achieving low orbit and letting the mothership pick the shuttle up. But, then again, taking a kilometer long battlecruiser into Low Earth Orbit might result in the obliteration of Cleveland by raining debris from a very expensive former warship. You might need a rocket that can carry a payload up into high orbit. Although that seems somewhat unlikely, given that the International Space Station doesn’t look like it could take too many hits from a railgun before it would turn into orbital confetti.

[3]I’ve gone with a super powerful ion engine as my main stab at it for the moment. I also threw antimatter-powered rockets in because that sounds cool.