Commander Jason Tanaka stared right through the schematics displayed on the giant screen that took up one entire bulkhead in his office. He could close his eyes and draw a perfect image of the ship in his head from any angle. It was his singular obsession, the project that had driven him for nearly a decade.
Humanity had a history of creating elegant ships of all shapes and sizes. From the long, lithe triremes with which the Greeks had conquered the Mediterranean to the sleek race-built galleons Sir Francis Drake had used to circumvent the globe and terrorize Spanish merchantmen to the menacing, powerful battleships of the 20th Century, mankind had produced thousands of ships designed with graceful maneuvering in mind. That had all changed over the last few hundred years. The reason was quite simple. Elegance and grace were no longer important.
Ocean going ships had to go to great lengths to cut through the resistance of the water on which they moved with minimum energy loss. On warships especially the results were often nothing short of magnificent. Long, narrow ships with flaring prows that sliced through the waves with such efficiency that vessels which displaced over 50,000 tons could still travel at sixty kilometers per hour. Once ships transferred from terrestrial oceans to the vacuum of space, however, such restraints were no longer necessary.
Designers began ignoring form in favor of utility and the art of shipbuilding had, in Tanaka’s mind, suffered greatly for the newfound bias. Most ships in the merchant marine and the warships that comprised the Earth Command Navy were blocky, inelegant designs that reminded him of nothing so much as concrete blocks with engines. The first generation of Earth Command Patrol ships were once derided as “The Cinder Block-class.”
Jason had once believed that this was the most efficient, and therefore best, way to do things. It was simple, efficient and maximized the use of space. Most of Earth’s ship designers believed that simple and efficient was ideal.
He still remembered the day that he had changed his mind. It was his senior year at university and one of his engineering professors had asked the class to consider the thought that form could override function. Jason had stood up and delivered the textbook answer, pointing out that the lack of need for ocean going hull design had freed up interior compartment space and greatly increases efficiency in spaceships. The box was, after all, an ideal shape for storage and human occupation.
The professor had then called up a video on the classroom’s viewscreen. It showed a lean, graceful spaceship. A long, narrow foresection swept back into a trio of wing-like sections. In the video the vessel flashed through a series of maneuvers that operated in complete opposition to the laws of physics and fired weapons which were theoretically possible to create, but it did so with a grace and power foreign to the designs of the Earth Command patrol vessels.
“What, if anything, can you tell me about this ship?” the professor asked the class.
“It was thought up by people who didn’t know a thing about space travel?” one student offered from the back of the class. Noise rippled through the room as several other students chuckled.
“Yes,” the professor nodded, “That’s true. Physics aside, however, what words come to mind when you look at these images?”
“Beautiful,” a woman toward the front said.
“Powerful,” the guy who sat next to Jason chipped in.
“Good,” the professor smiled. “Anything else?”
Jason cleared his throat. “Impractical.”
“Ah, Mr. Tanaka, how so?”
“That ship would require massive amounts of time and materials to build when compared to one of the standard designs we use now. Two hulls could probably be assembled with what was used to build the single hull of that ship. No designer in their right mind would do that.”
“Perhaps,” the professor nodded, “But do you know why this particular ship looks the way it does?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Because it looks impressive. Just like these other ships.” He cycled through a dozen or so images, each depicting various starships obviously conceived as flights of fancy. “These ships were imagined before the human race cut free the shackles of bondage to Earth. They were designed without a full understanding of the limitations placed on actual ships made to spend their entire careers in space. Many of them,” he stopped and chuckled, “Were designed with the assumption that we’d be able to simulate gravity somehow.
“The ships were designed to be sold to people by being impressive looking. I want you to think about that this week.”
“Why?” Jason asked without raising his hand. He assumed the professor would take exception to his attitude, but that didn’t matter. The whole project was a waste of his time.
“Because I want you to come in next week with an innovative ship design. Specifically, I want it to be something impressive, but one that incorporates what we have learned about starship design since the Twentieth Century.”
Jason had basically ignored the assignment. He thought it was pointless and wouldn’t let anyone convince him otherwise. On the next day the class met he had arrived with no blueprints, no sketches, no models. All he had was a picture of the ECS Phoenix. It was an ideal design, as far as he was concerned.
The professor had the class present their ideas, he called it a forum for exchange. One by one they took the podium and offered their own takes on how to create aesthetically pleasing and practical ships. Slowly, surely, he found himself giving in to the professor’s and his fellow students’ ideas. Each attempt seemed to solve some of the inherent problems in combining form and function, but exposed other problems or even created new ones.
A few of the designs were little more than slightly more rounded versions of traditional models. Some required fanciful technologies and were basically no more practical than the ships in the old videos. Several were large, ungainly creations that attempted to solve every problem spacecraft had with existing technology. They used multiple main drives that pointed in different directions and had large sections that spun on an axis, creating the sensation of centrifugal, “out is down” gravity. Some were genuinely creative and had potential. One was a saucer-shaped design that spun to create gravity and had platforms above and below the main section to allow stable attachment points for weaponry and the drive units. Another, similar, ship was also a saucer, but it had drives pointing perpendicularly out either side, allowing it to quickly reverse direction.
Then, all too suddenly, it was his turn.
Jason had walked up to the podium as slowly as possible. He felt lightheaded, nervous, as if he was about to faint. He had nothing and knew it.
Suddenly an idea sprang in to his mind. He had the answer, something no one had thought of. Something better.
Unlike the rest of his classmates, who had loaded files in to the system to show to the class, he called up the drawing program. The podium’s internal screen was touch-sensitive and he could draw an image on it with a stylus. His resulting creation would then be projected up on the main viewscreen for everyone to see.
Jason sketched out a cylinder with rounded ends. “This,” he told his classmates, “is the main section. It’s a cylinder for a very good reason. The inside of this part rotates to create the feeling of gravity. The rotational section doesn’t reach all the way aft, however. At the very end is machinery space, left without gravity because it’s simply more efficient. Back here, too, are the main drives.” He quickly sketched a second, smaller cylinder above the first, connected to it by a stubby structure. “This engine is designed to be bi-directional to afford the maximum possible flexibility in maneuvering. That’s not enough, however.” He added a second cylinder below the main section and then added one to the middle. “There are four drive units, total. This will allow the ship to rotate quickly through all three axes and move to respond to any threat.” He then drew a triangle in front of the main section and connected it to the main cylinder. “This is the forward section. It contains storage space, small craft bays and the forward firing weapons battery.
“This ship, I shouldn’t have to tell you, is designed to be a warship. Weaponry is only as good as the platform it’s attached to, so this ship is specifically imagined as a stable weapons platform. The main section is a rotational section built in to a shell for this reason. It will allow the ship to maintain a constant broadside. It has the side benefit of enabling the builders to spread weapons hardpoints across a large space, reducing the likelihood that a lucky shot will take out several weapons hardpoints that are clustered close together.”
“Bravo, Mr. Tanaka,” the professor said. “I didn’t think you had it in you.”
“Thank you, Sir,” Jason smiled. “Oh, and one more thing. A good ship needs a good name.” He smiled down at the touchscreen as he added the last detail. The ship’s designation.
Now it was all about to come true. Admiral Belden, commander of the Earth Command Navy’s Department of Requisition, had approached him six months ago. She had told him that Earth Command was preparing to build a new class of battlecruisers and she had approached his old professor to see if he had any ideas. The professor had given her his design and told her that it was the best idea he’d ever seen.
At the time Jason had been heading up the team working on the new Mark III shuttlecraft, designed to replace the aging Mark II. It was boring work, but there was little else to do as a ship designer in Earth Command. He’d jumped at the chance to actually build Nightwind. Then again, he’d admitted to himself at the time, he’d have probably jumped at the chance to be involved in the project on any level, even if it was designing the fighter bays for someone else’s ship.
Then she’d given him the real kicker. Not only was Nightwind the new project for Earth Command, it was going to be beyond any ship ever built by humans. He’d be working with alien technology that would allow him to make the ship far better than he could have dared dream.
Furthermore, Nightwind was supposed to be a proof of concept. If it worked properly, Earth Command intended to turn the ship in to a class and build more. At least two, but probably four.
The whole thing felt like a dream. He sometimes still thought it was too good to be true.
“Commander Tanaka,” a voice crackled over the intercom, “Please report to Operations. The first materials shipment is arriving in Slipway One.”
Maybe it wasn’t a dream.
* * *
SS Dunning floated out of the gaping maw of Slipway One at the Venus Shipyards. Attitude thrusters fired for half a second as the cargo ship oriented on the distant Earth, at that point almost exactly in line with the Shipyards, and the main drive began to spool up. Five minutes later the computer indicated that the ship had made minimum safe distance to begin a full burn. SS Dunning’s first delivery was complete, at least as far as the computer was concerned. It was time to head home and start the process all over again.
The Dunning had one more delivery to make, one that wasn’t on its original payload list. As the main drive fired up a mass roughly the size of a dinner plate and as dark as the emptiest space dropped off of underside of the cargo ship’s hull and fired a brief burst from an on-board compressed air canister. After a precisely calculated interval a series of puffs of air brought the mass to a stop and then oriented it in a specific direction.
After that the device sat mostly inert. Every twenty-four hours it took a high resolution image of the Venus Shipyards. Every time a ship approached the station it cataloged the name of the ship. Once a month it compressed all of the data it had recorded into a high density package and sent a single pulse of information out towards distant Mars.