This is my first attempt at an original work of fiction (i.e. not based on anything else). As such, the quality of it may be…well, crap really. Any comments on the first chapter (style, structure, pace…whatever) would be most appreciated – especially since I want to write a trilogy based on this.
Anyway, read and enjoy.
It was a quiet June day. A cool breeze danced across the water in Seattle Harbour, while the landmark Space Needle gleamed in the sunlight, the effects of its recent restoration more prominent than ever.
Seattle had changed considerably since the start of the new millennium. With the founding of the Earth Coalition in 2207, Seattle had been designated the headquarters of the new regime – as most of the world's larger cities had been ravaged by the Savron War – and as such had received a massive regeneration. Old buildings, crumbling on the waterfront, had given way to gleaming structures of steel and glass, adorned with planters and providing a welcoming site to the increased traffic to the port. A thriving spaceport was set up three miles offshore, allowing desperate travel agencies to set up ferries to and from the mainland for visitors – a small detail with a nonetheless substantial effect. The entire city had undergone a makeover, and – though some details such as the increased presences of soldiers had been decidedly negative – the majority of the populace were approving.
Of course, many old sites remained – the Space Needle being one – to ensure that the city did not forget its past. The Pike Place Market still teemed with activity, encouraged by the EC Economics Foundation, and the numerous green expanses still remained among the skyscrapers dwarfing even the 607-foot tall Needle.
June 18th, 2247. A public holiday – the 40th Anniversary of the EC Constitution Declaration – and many of the EC Military's colossal vessels were grounded to allow the crews shore leave in Seattle and the surrounding Washington District. Many families, taking advantage of both the good weather (contrary to the EC NewsNet, it still rained in Seattle) and the fact that many family-member officers were home for the first time in months, had decided to hold barbecues and parties in their neighbourhoods. John Adams was no different. His son Derek had been forced to remain on duty for the morning, but the family were still going to prepare for the celebrations like they had every other year; were it not for the Earth Coalition, many of them would have died in the Savron War.
The barbecue hissed as burgers and sausages released fat onto the flames, while the kids played "tag" in the garden – causing the family dog no end of grief. Bill, the younger brother of Derek, was busy helping his mother Mary sort out the various dishes and salads she wanted putting out "before the neighbours got there" – which, Bill had pointed out, was not going to be for another few hours. But his mother had a habit of being persistent, and he figured it was best just to do things her way.
John, meanwhile, had just finished setting out a large table and chairs from the garage, and was just settling down with a beer and a magazine to take in some sun before the party began. The kids carried on playing, often falling into the flowerbeds dotted around the garden, while Bill tried to avoid the dog as it bounded around the garden. He smiled slightly. For the first time in months, it seemed as though the family was going to enjoy a beautiful day.
It was amazing just how quickly the beauty vanished.
To the untrained eye, it would have appeared that a thunderstorm was gathering in the sky. John sighed: it looked as though the barbecue was going to have to wait for another day. He was about to turn off the range when crackles of purple energy flashed in the sky, resounding with a demonic thunder. All activity in the garden stopped; the grandchildren looked up in wonder at the sky, while Bill left the broken bowl of potato salad and stared up at the sky, a look of abject terror in his eyes. Breaking out of his trance, he screamed at the family to get inside.
Too late he realised what the storm truly meant. Too late he realised that his cries would prove futile. Too late he realised that every one of them – even the grandchildren – were about to die.
Like a bolt from the heavens, an immense glowing projectile appeared in the sky, rocketed towards the earth, glowing blue with the intense heat generated by its fall. The projectile plummeted downwards, sparks starting to fly from its reinforced casing – and then, as suddenly as it appeared, it became engulfed in a purple hub of energy identical to the lightning it had generated on its fall.
A hundred metres from the ground, it exploded.
The children's screams were muffled by the intense roar of displaced air from the massive release of energy. Trees were uprooted by the sheer brute force – the family dog barked in confusion, rushing into the house in a futile attempt to hide – Bill grabbed his kids and rushed into the house – and his father, face white with the horror of his impending doom, watched as a wave of destructive purple energy tore the Space Needle apart like straw, wrenched houses from their foundations, carried on apathetically towards his very seat, as the screams of children and the cries of men were engulfed in the chilling silence of oblivion…
He woke instantly, his upper body catapulted forward in an instinctive reaction. His tousled hair clung in clumps to his face, and his sweat-drenched sheets pinned his lower body to the mattress while he sat up, panting heavily. His eyes darted around in their sockets, trying in vain to focus on anything, while his face showed all the signs of a man on the verge of collapse.
Every time he had this dream – and he had experience it many times over the last two weeks – he woke up in this state. Doctors could prescribe nothing, counsellors could offer no useful advice…even his own logic convinced him that he was simply breaking down.
Great, he thought quickly. Derek Adams, fearless captain and legendary hero of the Savron War, can't even keep his own god-damn mind in order!
He wiped his brow with his hand, trying to brush the hair out of his eyes. It was foolish to even try and expect to "keep his mind in order" – if everyone could will their problems away, then the world would be a much easier place to deal with. And he wasn't particularly willing to believe that God would intervene and make his mind work properly just because he asked Him to.
After a few minutes, he extracted himself from the bed – still showing the signs of his disturbed sleep – and stumbled over to the small sink in the corner of his quarters. He cupped his hands under the tap, let them fill with cold water, and splashed them onto his face, rubbing vigorously. Wiping his face with a nearby towel, he looked up at his reflection. It was not a good sight: two nights of solid drinking were driving him closer to the grave than any of the front-line fighting on Savron had. A nagging thought in his head made him wonder if he was trying to drink himself to death, but he explored it no further.
He staggered over to the computer terminal, which had been flashing something at him for the last five minutes or so. Rubbing his bloodshot eyes, he tried to decipher the flashing message;
FHTNEPLA GGEFTRY BWQD F/L; SFRGKJO VEHQHFNCFVS LDW3346GHJ GR7HSDKN F61.
My head really IS screwed, he mused. I'm seeing ancient Greek on my computer.
Seriously regretting the quantity of alcohol he'd consumed the night before, Derek blinked a few times and tried again. The Greek letters metamorphosed into something a bit more legible to his mind at that time:
INCOMING MESSAGE FROM S.S. ECLIPSE ENGINEERING DEPARTMENT – PRIORITY ONE.
He raised his hand to the screen, and pressed the illuminated "OPEN CHANNEL" button in the bottom-right corner of the touch-sensitive panel. The message disappeared, and the face of his Chief Engineer, Alistair McKenna, appeared in its place, with the construction site of Main Engineering in the background. Allowing his thoughts to gather together before speaking, Derek looked up at the screen.
"Chief, this had better be important," he began, only partially awake.
"I'm afraid it is, sir," McKenna replied. "We've just received a message from EC Command – the launch schedule has just been accelerated a fair bit."
Derek had not quite taken this in fully when he replied, "How much time have we got now, then?"
"About two weeks, Cap'n."
Derek's brain was suddenly kick-started by this.
"Well, what wi' all that happened in Seattle, sir," McKenna explained, "the Emergency Council in London decided that the best course of action was to get the Eclipse up and running. Helps their investigation, I'm guessing."
"But two weeks? That doesn't even give us enough time to get a full crew roster sorted, never mind a shakedown cruise!"
"I didn't ask for this, Cap'n – you think I really enjoy the prospect of the late nights I'm gonna have to put in to get this ship running?" McKenna replied.
Derek sighed. "I'm sorry, Chief. I'm…well, I'm not in the best frame of mind right now."
"I wasn't blaming ye, Cap'n. We all know how rough it's been for you, trying to cope with…well, just wanted to say we're behind you on this, sir." He sighed. "But the bastards in the Council wouldn't budge an inch."
"I take it this is a secure channel, Chief?" Derek quipped with a slight smirk.
McKenna laughed. "I'm not daft enough to insult my superiors on a public channel, Cap'n. Remember what happened last time I did that?"
"How can I forget?" Derek replied, smiling wryly. "It was me that you insulted."
"No hard feelings?"
"Alistair, it was five years ago."
"Aye, but ye never can tell how much people really forgive and how much they pretend to forgive."
"Trust me, Alistair – if I hadn't forgiven you, would you really be my Chief Engineer?"
"Given EC Command's new timescale, Cap'n," McKenna replied, "I could be forgiven for thinking this were punishment for my crimes."
Derek smiled slightly. "Well, I won't delay you much longer, Chief. Tell Commander Chen I'll be there…sometime soon."
"Always with the specifics, eh sir?"
"Don't mess with me, Chief. It's your whisky that's done this to me."
"I'll tell Dr. Chapel to be ready with the detox then as well," came the innocuous reply.
"Thanks," Derek replied sardonically. "Adams out."
The transmission ended, displaying the usual readouts an Earth Coalition captain was supposed to be concerned about at the start of the day. Even with a slightly cleared head, however, Derek was in no mood to absorb any of that. He turned the display off, and staggered off towards the shower room.
A few moments later, and Captain Adams was standing in the Portland sunlight outside his apartment, possessions hastily packed into a standard-issue flight duffel bag. The rank bars on his epaulets gleamed in the sunlight, in direct contrast with his dark blue uniform - and, at that moment, he felt the uniform reflected his mood quite effectively.
He walked through the busy city centre, past the numerous shops and cafés intermixed with city amenity centres and military checkpoints. He sighed slightly; as much as he could understand the sense of panic gripping the EC Military, he failed to see why this led almost immediately to martial law – as shown by the fact that he now had to carry his DH-6 handgun all the time. This point really angered him – he'd never liked the handgun, having seen the damage it could do all too effectively, and there was no way he would turn such a cold, ruthless device against a citizen of the Earth Coalition. Gazing at the number of heavily-armed security officers around, however, it looked as though many people might.
He reached the rail terminal he needed, and walked down the ramp to the underground station. After being stopped by one over-nervous security officer (whom he gave the coldest stare possible before being quickly allowed to proceed), he waited on the platform for the monorail to arrive. Since it was going to take a few more minutes than he had originally expected, Adams withdrew a datapad from his duffel bag and started reading the needlessly-lengthy report from his tactical officer, Commander Chen, complaining about the lack of weapons turrets planned for the S.S. Eclipse. With EC Command's new schedule, Chen was going to be even more disappointed.
At this point, Adams felt as though his presence was making people uncomfortable. He looked up briefly; many passengers took a quick look at him before moving off twice as fast as they had arrived. A small girl stared at him constantly, as if he were an alien – and when he turned to meet her gaze, she suddenly hid behind her mother, who looked up at Adams before hurrying her child further down the platform. Adams shook his head sadly. Despite the best efforts of the EC NewsNet, military personnel were still regarded as a necessary evil – at best one which should remain in the background as much as possible, at worst one which should not exist whatsoever. Public opinion could be very naïve at times.
The monorail glided into the platform, its metal shell giving everything in the station – lights, passengers, and security officers – a distorted reflection. The doors hissed open, and Adams stepped onto the train with the other passengers, pausing for a moment to let the mother and daughter through the doors. He moved towards the control room of the train, and hoped that it would be – for once – a peaceful journey.
No such luck; along with the many human passengers, a group of Savron revolutionaries had boarded the train. They had spotted the uniform, recognised the face from the numerous propaganda posters back home, and halfway through the journey they moved with intent towards the front of the carriage, where Adams had just taken his seat. They walked menacingly towards the captain, earning looks of terror from many civilians – understandable, given their height and reptilian appearance – and as they reached his seat, one of the revolutionaries withdrew an extremely sharp ceremonial blade from his belt.
Of course, it is rare that a man survives nine years of front-line combat without a degree of heightened senses. Having heard the footsteps approaching his seat, he turned his head, took in the sight of the three large reptilians, and stood up with a look of bemusement on his face. The over-nervous security guard, having caught sight of the blade, immediately stood up and pointed his assault rifle at the creatures, which turned around upon hearing the unmistakable sound of the weapon charging up.
"Put it away, soldier," Adams ordered in a rather tired voice. "I can cope with this one myself."
The solider, though apprehensive, nodded slightly and lowered the gun. The majority of the passengers looked on as the captain faced the three aliens, all of whom had an expression of absolute loathing.
"You are Captain Derek Adams of the EC Military?" the lead alien demanded.
"That's right," Adams replied, unaffected by the tone.
"You are responsible for the deaths of thousands of my kind," the alien continued, turning the blade in his hand. "For that, we shall take our revenge on you."
"Right," Adams responded, with only a hint of irritation.
"Do you have nothing to say before we end your life?"
"Yeah," Adams replied, flexing his fingers. "Bite me."
Before the alien could try to respond, Adams grabbed the creature's arm and locked it between his own arms, his shoulder digging into the reptile's chest. Ensuring he was in the right position, Adams suddenly brought his arms down while his pushing the creature back. The reptile's arm fractured with a sickening crack, and the knife dropped harmlessly to the ground. His associates moved towards their weapons, but Adams quickly withdrew his pistol and pointed it directly at them, letting the disabled leader drop to the ground.
"Don't bother," he growled as they reached for their guns. "You want to do your people a favour? Stop giving them a bad name with your pointless revenge attempts – because sooner or later, I'm gonna start taking revenge on you in return."
He nodded to the security officer, who immediately handcuffed the aliens before making them kneel down in the aisle. Further forward, the lead revolutionary lay on the ground, his arm hanging limply from its socket, staring at Adams with a look of pure hatred. Adams kept an eye on him until their arrival at the next station, where two more security officers boarded the train and removed the three aliens, pushing them onto a waiting detention vehicle. Once they were safely away, he returned to his seat (with every eye upon him), and he tried to relax as the monorail proceeded towards the shuttleport.
At that moment, McKenna would have given anything for a moment's relaxation.
The engine core had started spewing out clouds of smoke just after they had finished testing it, and as such a number of engineers now lay on the ground with second-degree burns and asphyxiation while the remainder of the engineers doused the ruptured power plant with enough fire extinguisher fluid to put out a small forest fire. While that had been going on, two computer terminals on the Command Deck had started firing out jets of sparks at anyone remotely attempting to use them, eventually shorting out the entire power system for A Deck – and as a result, he was now crawling through the maintenance tubes surrounding A Deck trying to find the one power relay which had decided to throw the entire network out of kilter at precisely the wrong moment. His arms and legs had now seized up from an hour's crawling, and his fingers were still covered in grease from trying to prise the maintenance hatch open in the first place. All in all, the first day of trying to get the ship up and running as soon as possible was a complete farce.
Coughing slightly from the lack of oxygen in the tunnel (life support on A Deck was limited as well), he fumbled with the control panel to open the eighteenth and final bank of power relays. Once he had finally punched in the access code in the dark, the control panel slid up to reveal three relays with green diagnostic lights…and one which had basically exploded. Flicking the cut-off switch to make sure the relay was at least bypassed, he then began the slow, tedious process of trying to extract the device piece by piece. It was at that moment that his communicator went off.
Frantically fumbling for the small device on his belt, he eventually pulled it from beneath his spanner and pressed the main button.
"McKenna here, go ahead," he spoke weakly into the communicator.
"Sir, Captain Adams' shuttle has just arrived in Bay 2," the Flight Deck ensign replied.
"Boy, what a sense of timing," McKenna muttered sarcastically.
"Never mind, Ensign. Tell the Captain I'll meet him in a few minutes."
"Aye, sir. Flight Deck out."
Stuffing the communicator hastily into his pocket, McKenna then replaced the relay cover and began the slow crawl back through the tunnel. Bypassing the relay wasn't the best action, but it would hold until he could carry out a proper repair when his extra engineers arrived. Until then – with a skeleton crew and all manner of malfunctions suddenly cropping up – any lengthy repairs would have to wait; unless, of course, the cause of the "lengthy repairs" was something like the power core spewing smoke again…
No matter how many times he saw the vessel, it still took Derek's breath away.
The S.S. Eclipse lay still in the dark vacuum, its slender hull grasped by the web-like construction frame jutting from Columbia Spaceport. Despite being positively dwarfed by most vessels in the Earth Coalition fleet, the 240-metre long vessel – with its gently raked nosecone and its thin engines jutting from the engineering section – possessed a grace and elegance lost on the bulbous kilometre-long transports and the behemoth Dreadnaughts, whose immense 2-kilometre-long hulls provided a menacing opponent to anyone foolish enough to attack Earth Coalition territory.
Of course, the Eclipse did not exactly require an imposing appearance or thousands of gun emplacements (though for its size it was heavily armed). Its main commodity was its sheer speed; it was faster than any vessel the EC Military had ever constructed, and was manoeuvrable enough to literally encircle any attacking vessel. Tests had revealed the Eclipse to be as formidable a foe as any other vessel in the EC Military – and as a result, Derek was very honoured to be its first captain.
The shuttle had taken a long route to the docking bay – Ensign Paley, one of the ship's secondary pilots, had wanted the captain to see as much of the vessel as possible. They had swept past the Command Deck, a tiny module protruding from the smooth curvature of the main hull; past the curved nosecone with its three banks of missile launchers; past the banks of gun turrets and missile launchers dotted across the hull; and finally past the gateway drive, a dome-shaped device obscured from full view by the engine nacelles positioned around it.
This device was possibly the most important advancement the vessel carried. While gateway technology – a method of faster-than-light transport working by fixed subspace "tunnels" through which vessels travelled to reach distant destinations – had existed for over half a century, this was the first time that the technology had been fitted to a vessel directly. This had made a significant effect on the ship's design; the four engines were positioned around a series of rings behind the gateway generator, which sustained the "tunnel" that the vessel created through a field emitter at the front, usually withdrawn from view to prevent damage. While the device had never gone wrong in testing, it was prone to overheating upon disengaging and so was not the best method of transporting vessels over large distances. Nonetheless, it was a milestone as far as the scientific community were concerned.
A series of construction pods were busy attaching sensor appendages and other external systems to the hull as the shuttle arced towards the Flight Deck. The deck was at the lowest point on the vessel, between two banks of thrusters, and consisted of a long, mostly empty hangar with launch frames to hold the shuttles near the ceiling and four rectangular sets of bay doors below them. Vessels were deployed and retrieved by way of crane-like appendages which reached down out of the bay, clasped onto specific points on the shuttle and drew them out of the vacuum and into the specific frame area. Since the clamps themselves needed to be in exactly the right position, it was usually left to the computer to line the shuttle up – although 2nd Lieutenant Johnson, the ship's chief pilot, had a tendency to fly the shuttle directly into the bay and then let the crane catch up. Paley, however, opted to let the computer do the hard work, and the tiny craft was soon swallowed up into the floodlit hangar, in which many engineers in spacesuits were making additions to the deck's systems. The doors sealed the vacuum out moments later, and the hangar was re-pressurised within seconds.
The shuttle airlock slid open promptly – accompanied by the whirring of the motors required to open the heavy door – and Captain Adams finally stepped onto the vessel which for so many years had been just a concept, constantly delayed by the bureaucracy that was the EC Military Joint Chiefs of Staff Council.
Of course, it was that same bureaucracy which had suddenly decided to accelerate the launch schedule – which was why the corridors beyond the Flight Deck currently resembled a bomb site more than anything else. Engineers were frantically trying to install ancillary systems, repair systems which had suddenly shorted out the entire network they were attached to, and in some cases just trying to keep the wall panels of the slightly-curved corridors from falling on people's heads. Derek sighed slightly; if the Joint Chiefs of Staff actually expected anything good to come from this rushed launch, they were going to be very disappointed.
He carefully stepped past an engineer working on an environmental systems relay, walked along the corridor to the lift and pressed the "call" button. Despite his faith in McKenna's engineering skills, he was slightly taken aback when the lift arrived promptly and without any discernable problems. All he hoped was that it would stay that way until he got to the Command Deck; the only other route was the emergency stairwells, and he wasn't in the mood to climb two hundred stairs on his first day on board…