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By Ben Bova
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1987 Ben Bova
All rights reserved.
"Where do you get your crazy ideas?"
Every science fiction writer has heard that question, over and over again. Sometimes the questioner is kind enough to leave out the word "crazy." But the question still is asked whenever I give a lecture to any audience that includes people who do not regularly read science fiction.
Some science fiction writers, bored by that same old question (and sometimes miffed at the implications behind that word "crazy"), have taken to answering: "Schenectady!" There's even a mythology about it that claims that members of the Science Fiction Writers of America subscribe to the Crazy Idea Service of Schenectady, New York, and receive in the mail one crazy idea each month — wrapped in plain brown paper, of course.
Yet the question deserves an answer. People are obviously fascinated with the process of creativity. Nearly everybody has a deep curiosity about how a writer comes up with the ideas that generate fresh stories.
For most of the stories and novels I have written over the years, the ideation period is so long and complex that I could not begin to explain — even to myself — where the ideas originally came from.
With "Battle Station," happily, I can trace the evolution of the story from original idea to final draft.
"Battle Station" has its roots in actual scientific research and technological development. In the mid-1960s I was employed at the research laboratory where the first high-power laser was invented. I helped to arrange the first briefing in the Pentagon to inform the Department of Defense that lasers of virtually any power desired could now be developed. That was the first step on the road to what is now called the Strategic Defense Initiative.
My 1976 novel Millennium examined, as only science fiction can, the human and social consequences of using lasers in satellites to defend against nuclear missiles. By 1983 the real world had caught up to the idea and President Reagan initiated the "Star Wars" program. In 1984 I published a nonfiction book on the subject, Assured Survival. In 1986 a second edition of that book, retitled Star Peace and published by Tor Books, brought the swiftly developing story up to date.
Meanwhile, from the mid-1960s to this present day, thinkers such as Maxwell W. Hunter II have been studying the problems and possibilities of an orbital defense system. While most academic critics (and consequently, most of the media) have simply declared such a defense system impossible, undesirable, and too expensive, Max Hunter has spent his time examining how such a system might work, and what it might mean for the world political situation.
I am indebted to Max Hunter for sharing his ideas with me; particularly for the concept of "active armor." I have done violence to his ideas, I know, shaping them to the needs of the story. Such is the way of fiction.
Another concept that is important to this story came from the often-stormy letters column of Analog magazine more than twenty years ago. Before the first astronauts and cosmonauts went into space, the readers of Analog debated, vigorously, who would make the best candidates for duty aboard orbiting space stations. One of the ideas they kicked around was that submariners — men accustomed to cramped quarters, high tensions, and long periods away from home base — would be ideal for crewing a military space station.
So I "built" a space battle station that controls laser-armed satellites, and placed at its helm Commander J. W. Hazard, U.S. Navy (ret.), a former submarine skipper.
I gave him an international crew, in keeping with the conclusions I arrived at in Star Peace: Assured Survival, that the new technology of strategic defense satellites will lead to an International Peacekeeping Force (IPF) — a a global police power dedicated to preventing war.
Once these ideas were in place, the natural thing was to test them. Suppose someone tried to subvert the IPF and seize the satellite system for his own nefarious purposes? Okay, make that not merely a political problem, but a personal problem for the story's protagonist: Hazard's son is part of a cabal to overthrow the IPF and set up a world dictatorship.
Now I had a story. All I had to do was start writing and allow the characters to "do their thing."
The ideas were the easiest part of the task. As you can see, the ideas were all around me, for more than twenty years. There are millions of good ideas floating through the air all the time. Every day of your life brings a fresh supply of ideas. Every person you know is a walking novel. Every news event contains a dozen ideas for stories.
The really difficult part is turning those ideas into good stories. To bring together the ideas and the characters and let them weave a story — that is the real work of the writer. Very few people ask about that, yet that is the actual process of creativity. It's not tough to find straw. Spinning straw into gold — that's the great magical trick!
We should avoid a dependence on satellites for wartime purposes that is out of proportion to our ability to protect them. If we make ourselves dependent upon vulnerable spacecraft for military support, we will have built an Achilles heel into our forces.
— Dr. Ashton Carter, MIT
The key issue then becomes, is our defense capable of defending itself ...?
— Maxwell W. Hunter II
Lockheed Missiles and Space Co., Inc.
February 26, 1979
The first laser beam caught them unaware, slicing through the station's thin aluminum skin exactly where the main power trunk and air lines fed into the bridge.
A sputtering fizz of sparks, a moment of heart-wrenching darkness, and then the emergency dims came on. The electronics consoles switched to their internal batteries with barely a microsecond's hesitation, but the air fans sighed to a stop and fell silent. The four men and two women on duty in the bridge had about a second to realize they were under attack. Enough time for the breath to catch in your throat, for the sudden terror to hollow out your guts.
The second laser hit was a high-energy pulse deliberately aimed at the bridge's observation port. It cracked the impact-resistant plastic as easily as a hammer smashes an egg; the air pressure inside the bridge blew the port open. The six men and women became six exploding bodies spewing blood. There was not even time enough to scream.
The station was named Hunter, although only a handful of its crew knew why. It was not one of the missile-killing satellites, nor one of the sensor-laden observation birds. It was a command-and-control station, manned by a crew of twenty, orbiting some one thousand kilometers high, below the densest radiation zone of the inner Van Allen belt. It circled the Earth in about 105 minutes. By design, the station was not hardened against laser attack. The attackers knew this perfectly well.
Commander Hazard was almost asleep when the bridge was destroyed. He had just finished his daily inspection of the battle station. Satisfied that the youngsters of his crew were reasonably sharp, he had returned to his coffin-sized personal cabin and wormed out of his sweaty fatigues. He was angry with himself.
Two months aboard the station and he still felt the nausea and unease of space adaptation syndrome. It was like the captain of an ocean vessel having seasickness all the time. Hazard fumed inwardly as he stuck another timed-release medication plaster on his neck, slightly behind his left ear. The old one had fallen off. Not that they did much good. His neck was faintly spotted with the rings left by the medication patches. Still his stomach felt fluttery, his palms slippery with perspiration.
Clinging grimly to a handgrip, he pushed his weightless body from the mirrored sink to the mesh sleep cocoon fastened against the opposite wall of his cubicle. He zipped himself into the bag and slipped the terry-cloth restraint across his forehead. Hazard was a bulky, dour man with iron-gray hair still cropped Academy close, a weather-beaten squarish face built around a thrusting spadelike nose, a thin slash of a mouth that seldom smiled, and eyes the color of a stormy sea. Those eyes seemed suspicious of everyone and everything, probing, inquisitory. A closer look showed that they were weary, disappointed with the world and the people in it. Disappointed most of all with himself.
He was just dozing off when the emergency klaxon started hooting. For a disoriented moment he thought he was back in a submarine and something had gone wrong with a dive. He felt his arms pinned by the mesh sleeping bag, as if he had been bound by unknown enemies. He almost panicked as he heard hatches slamming automatically and the terrifying wailing of the alarms. The communications unit on the wall added its urgent shrill to the clamor.
The comm unit's piercing whistle snapped him to full awareness. He stopped struggling against the mesh and unzippered it with a single swift motion, slipping out of the head restraint at the same time.
Hazard slapped at the wall comm's switch. "Commander here," he snapped. "Report."
"Varshni, sir. CIC. The bridge is out. Apparently destroyed."
"All life-support functions down. Air pressure zero. No communications," replied the Indian in a rush. His slightly singsong Oxford accent was trembling with fear. "It exploded, sir. They are all dead in there."
Hazard felt the old terror clutching at his heart, the physical weakness, the giddiness of sudden fear. Forcing his voice to remain steady, he commanded, "Full alert status. Ask Mr. Feeney and Miss Yang to meet me at the CIC at once. I'll be down there in sixty seconds or less."
The Hunter was one of nine orbiting battle stations that made up the command-and-control function of the newly created International Peacekeeping Force's strategic defense network. In lower orbits, 135 unmanned ABM satellites armed with multimegawatt lasers and hypervelocity missiles crisscrossed the Earth's surface. In theory, these satellites could destroy thousands of ballistic missiles within five minutes of their launch, no matter where on Earth they rose from.
In theory, each battle station controlled fifteen of the ABM satellites, but never the same fifteen for very long. The battle station's higher orbits were deliberately picked so that the unmanned satellites passed through their field of view as they hurried by in their lower orbits. At the insistence of the fearful politicians of a hundred nations, no ABM satellites were under the permanent control of any one particular battle station.
In theory, each battle station patrolled one ninth of the Earth's surface as it circled the globe. The sworn duty of its carefully chosen international crew was to make certain that any missiles launched from that part of the Earth would be swiftly and efficiently destroyed.
The IPF was new, untried except for computerized simulations and war games. It had been created in the wake of the Middle East Holocaust, when the superpowers finally realized that there were people willing to use nuclear weapons. It had taken the destruction of four ancient cities and more than 3 million lives before the superpowers stepped in and forced peace on the belligerents. To make certain that nuclear devastation would never threaten humankind again, the International Peacekeeping Force was created. The Peacekeepers had the power and the authority to prevent a nuclear strike from reaching its targets. Their authority extended completely across the Earth, even to the superpowers themselves.
Pulling aside the privacy curtain of his cubicle, Hazard launched himself down the narrow passageway with a push of his meaty hands against the cool metal of the bulkheads. His stomach lurched at the sudden motion and he squeezed his eyes shut for a moment.
The Combat Information Center was buried deep in the middle of the station, protected by four levels of living and working areas plus the station's storage magazines for water, food, air, fuel for the maneuvering thrusters, power generators, and other equipment.
Hazard fought down the queasy fluttering of his stomach as he glided along the passageway toward the CIC. At least he did not suffer the claustrophobia that affected some of the station's younger crew members. To a man who had spent most of his career aboard nuclear submarines, the station was roomy, almost luxurious.
He had to yank open four airtight hatches along the short way. Each clanged shut automatically behind him.
At last Hazard floated into the dimly lit combat center. It was a tiny, womblike circular chamber, its walls studded with display screens that glowed a sickly green in the otherwise darkened compartment. No desks or chairs in zero gravity; the CIC's work surfaces were chest-high consoles, most of them covered with keyboards.
Varshni and the Norwegian woman, Stromsen, were on duty. The little Indian, slim and dark, was wide-eyed with anxiety. His face shone with perspiration and his fatigues were dark at the armpits and between his shoulders. In the greenish glow from the display screens he looked positively ill. Stromsen looked tense, her strong jaw clenched, her ice-blue eyes fastened on Hazard, waiting for him to tell her what to do.
"What happened?" Hazard demanded.
"It simply blew out," said Varshni. "I had just spoken with Michaels and D'Argencour when ... when ..." His voice choked off.
"The screens went blank." Stromsen pointed to the status displays. "Everything suddenly zeroed out."
She was controlling herself carefully, Hazard saw, every nerve taut to the point of snapping.
"The rest of the station?" Hazard asked.
She gestured again toward the displays. "No other damage."
"Everybody on full alert?"
Lieutenant Feeney ducked through the hatch, his eyes immediately drawn to the row of burning red malfunction lights where the bridge displays should have been.
"Mother of Mercy, what's happened?"
Before anyone could reply, Susan Yang, the chief communications officer, pushed through the hatch and almost bumped into Feeney. She saw the displays and immediately concluded, "We're under attack!"
"That is impossible!" Varshni blurted.
Hazard studied their faces for a swift moment. They all knew what had happened; only Yang had the guts to say it aloud. She seemed cool and in control of herself. Oriental inscrutability? Hazard wondered. He knew she was third-generation Californian. Feeney's pinched, narrow-eyed face failed to hide the fear that they all felt, but the Irishman held himself well and returned Hazard's gaze without a tremor.
The only sound in the CIC was the hum of the electrical equipment and the soft sighing of the air fans. Hazard felt uncomfortably warm with the five of them crowding the cramped little chamber. Perspiration trickled down his ribs. They were all staring at him, waiting for him to tell them what must be done, to bring order out of the numbing fear and uncertainty that swirled around them. Four youngsters from four different nations, wearing the blue-gray fatigues of the IPF, with colored patches denoting their technical specialties on their left shoulders and the flag of their national origin on their right shoulders.
Hazard said, "We'll have to control the station from here. Mr. Feeney, you are now my Number One; Michaels was on duty in the bridge. Mr. Varshni, get a damage-control party to the bridge. Full suits."
"No one's left alive in there," Varshni whispered.
"Yes, but their bodies must be recovered. We owe them that. And their families." He glanced toward Yang. "And we've got to determine what caused the blowout."
Varshni's face twisted unhappily at the thought of the mangled bodies.
"I want a status report from each section of the station," Hazard went on, knowing that activity was the key to maintaining discipline. "Start with ..."
A beeping sound made all five of them turn toward the communications console. Its orange demand light blinked for attention in time with the angry beeps. Hazard reached for a handgrip to steady himself as he swung toward the comm console. He noted how easily the youngsters handled themselves in zero gee. For him it still took a conscious, gut-wrenching effort.
Stromsen touched the keyboard with a slender finger. A man's unsmiling face appeared on the screen: light brown hair clipped as close as Hazard's gray, lips pressed together in an uncompromising line. He wore the blue-gray of the IPF with a commander's silver star on his collar.
"This is Buckbee, commander of station Graham. I want to speak to Commander Hazard."
Sliding in front of the screen, Hazard grasped the console's edge with both white-knuckled hands. He knew Buckbee only by reputation, a former U.S. Air Force colonel, from the Space Command until it had been disbanded, but before that he had put in a dozen years with SAC.
"This is Hazard."
Buckbee's lips moved slightly in what might have been a smile, but his eyes remained cold. "Hazard, you've just lost your bridge."
"And six lives."
Unmoved, Buckbee continued as if reading from a prepared script, "We offer you a chance to save the lives of the rest of your crew. Surrender the Hunter to us."
Excerpted from Battle Station by Ben Bova. Copyright © 1987 Ben Bova. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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