Back 1998, I got this idea for a science fiction story about fighter pilots. In fact, the original idea occurred to me back in either 1974 or ’75. One summer night, I went walking along a ditch just to the east of the family farm. The sun had gone down hours before and an electrical storm waged war with the foot hills about 20 miles to the west. I could hear the thunder from it and I could see these brilliant flashes of light within the clouds.
Watching it, I wondered what if those flashes were caused by fighter pilots fighting with aliens for the control of a colonial planet? That’s as far as that little idea went back then. The very first Star Wars film, now known as A New Hope, wouldn’t come out for two years, with X-wing fighters slugging it out with colonial fighters. Yet, when I saw that movie, a day after it opened, I thought back to that evening with the lightning and my musings about fighter pilots. (I loved Star Wars instantly, even though there were less than fifty people in the theater, and hoped it would be a hit. I’m glad it was. )
So, more than twenty years later, I thought about it again. I had planned for the secondary story to be about pilots fighting pirates, but with the primary story being a murder mystery and with my hero, a not-so-young second lieutenant, searching for whoever had murdered one of his squadron mates. It would have been his jealous best friend that was the killer, eliminating all the competition for glory and promotion. I struggled with that storyline for three years. Then 9-11 happened and I dumped all that for a darker story about my hero getting caught up in a war with a ruthless alien race driven insane by the very presence of humanity in the universe.
In Sky Knights, Hector Crossman, a second lieutenant with a frontier squadron, has been with the same squadron for seven years. He is your typical hero, disobeying orders to do the impossible and save the lives of the survivors of a wrecked star liner whose lifeboat has crashed onto the icy surface of a Saturn-sized gas giant.
Many real fighter pilots would fit this image. They like to think of themselves as hot stuff and daredevils. (Think of the film Top Gun.) And many of them are. They would take chances to protect their fellow pilots, even to the extent of losing their own lives for others. They’re as brave and daring and interested in saving innocent lives as all those firemen and police officers were who died in the two towers of the World Trade Center when they collapsed. (By the way, since 9-11, I thank every military person I meet, even those from previous wars, and I also give friendly and grateful waves to police officers and firemen.)
So after Hector finds the lost lifeboat, at great danger to himself, he returns to his ship where he’s welcomed as a hero. He’s given an award and kicked out of his squadron by his jealous and resentful squadron commanders. He’s ordered off his ship and told to return on board a supply ship to a regional naval facility. He’s pissed off at his seniors and at first wants revenge, seeking to punish them for taking his only family away from him. But then his thoughts turn to find the female Search and Rescue pilot he’s been in love with for several years, though he’s never told of his feelings, being respectful of her relationship with another pilot. When he catches up with her, he finds out she’s resigned her commission because she’s homesick and anyway, the military’s not for her. Before he can tell her of his feelings, she thanks him for being such a good friend and that she loves him like a brother. Oh, snap!
Author John Grisham once wrote that to be successful, you have to keep the reader’s interest, and to keep the reader’s interest, you have to have conflict on every page. And that’s what I did with Sky Knights. There’s Hector’s internal conflict. There’s conflict with the universe and the aliens. There’s conflict with his superiors. There’s conflict with his friends. There’s conflict with fellow pilots. There’s conflict, conflict, conflict!
In two chapters, Hector goes from being king of the universe to pariah of the universe. The rest of the story is about Hector’s fall from grace and his new squadron, where he finds love at last and jealousy and resentment. Along the way, he witnesses alien brutalities and falls into the darkness of fear and hatred, from which he has to climb out before it destroys him.
There was a lot of darkness to deal with there, both for Hector and myself. After writing Sky Knights, I wanted to write something less dark. Yet war is a dark reality and it’s hard to write about it without some darkness creeping in. I had a naval story in mind, with characters on a starship fighting the Gorgons, the aliens in Sky Knights.
However, my muse (being a believer, I think of God) had different ideas. So I started writing a new novel, set on the same world as Sky Knights, about armored Marines fighting the Gorgons.
Most military science fiction adventures are set around the Napoleonic Wars or the Vietnam War, or nowadays, video games, such as HALO. I think a lot of authors are also interested in apocalyptic stories.
However, I read a lot of military history and after reading a book entitled Alamo in the Ardennes, about the front line American units that fought off the Germans for days while re-inforcements in the form of parts of two armored divisions and the two airborne divisions, the 82nd and the 101st moved into Bastogne and Malmedy (maybe) and stopped the German Army. These troops fought for their lives to hold the enemy back, while the paratroopers dug in. Most of these units were destroyed.
So I wanted to write a story about that. However, as I started to work out the plot and the characters for this new story, Chaos Company, I realized I had to set it a bit before the Ardennes Alamo story. And as I worked on it, I never got to the point where I could do a similar story to the Ardennes story. Stories and characters tend to take on a life of their own.
My new lead character is Lion Biyela, of Zulu descent, from a harsh colonial world. I’ll post more about him and Chaos Company sometime soon.