THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 49

THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 49

The Ekhatlore did not greet her when she came on board, only looked away and feigned preoccupation with buckling his harness, despite the fact that Jihan was an Eldest, technically outranking him and due at least minimum courtesies. Everyone knows of my untoward behavior, Jihan thought, gazing at his lowered head, then resolved to put the shameful past behind her. It was not what she had done before — and she had been right that day, however much she had flaunted protocol — it was what she would do from now on that mattered.

She was apparently the last to board. Hadata ran through the preflight checks, and then, without warning, the little ship lifted, the ascent much rougher than any launch Jihan had experienced with the Starsifters. She was thrown against the restraining harness repeatedly until her chest ached and she had to gasp for breath. The noise was overwhelming, louder than a hundred storm winds screaming down from the mountains. She closed her eyes and endured until the engines’ roar eased, then fought nausea until the artificial gravity clicked on. At that point, she was finally able to turn her attention to the data station as the ship assumed orbit.

Via a real-time view, Valeron swam far below, a green and gray ball obscured by clouds. From this vantage, she thought, the colony did not seem so exposed. After all, it occupied just one small location, tucked at the foot of towering mountains. That was the only such spot her kind occupied on the entire world. Might not the Ekhat overlook them?

But their ancient enemies had not missed the Lleix the last time the Ekhat had broached the system, when the most recent battle had taken place. It must be obvious that they had gone to ground here. The devils would search until they located her people. Or, more likely, they would simply render all of Valeron uninhabitable with a massive plasma bombardment. The records were full of such loathsome tactics. Apparently the Ekhat did not value planets capable of sustaining life, precious and rare though they were. The monsters wished only to be rid of the “taint” of lower life-forms so that they could rule alone in their increasingly pure and perfect universe.

Hadata crossed the tiny control deck to alter the settings on one of Jihan’s monitors. “There,” she said, pointing as the new readings came up. “Do you see?”

Five hideous shapes appeared, characteristic of the Ekhat disdain for beauty in form. No one would ever mistake one of their awkward looking ships for anything else.

Lliant abandoned his station and peered over their shoulders. “Blast us all,” he said softly. His black eyes glittered with anger. “It really is them.”

Jihan realized she also had been hoping the Starwarders were wrong, or the Ekhat had already gone, but they were here. Last-of-Days might well be in progress.

She punched in a vector assessment on the closest ship as she had been trained to do when retrieving debris for the Starsifters. The numbers came back, chilling. The Ekhat were on a course heading directly for Valeron. She turned to Hadata who was monitoring a station on the other side. “They are coming.”

Hadata reached over and checked the readings for herself. “Eldest-of-Us-All!” Her eyes widened. “They have held their position steady out there until now. Is it just the one or all of them?”

Jihan ran more numbers. Each time, the results were the same. “All five ships approach,” she said, though her throat had trouble producing the words. Lliant sank back into his seat with a muffled curse. Jihan looked at the four of them, the three Starwarders and the Ekhatlore. “What shall we do?”

“What little we can,” Hadata said, and went to transmit their findings back to the Starwarders’ elian-house.

Jihan watched the readings with a terrible fascination. According to numerous historical accounts, the monsters were obsessed with rhythmic noise, which they called “music.” Were they singing one of their dreadful songs even now as they approached, intent on destroying what was left of the Lleix? No wonder her kind considered patterned noise of any kind an abomination when it inspired such genocidal mania.

She continued to monitor their dreadful progress until, across the cabin, Lliant pushed back from his console. “Another ship!”

Jihan’s blood dried to powder in her veins. As if five of the hulking monsters were not enough to destroy every house and individual on the planet! “I still have readings on only five,” she said, her fingers flying over the uncooperative controls as she widened search parameters. “Where do you see it?”

“Quadrant zero in the photosphere of the sun,” Lliant said. “It is emerging through the system’s point locus.”

Hadata glanced back at them, aureole limp with disbelief. “Another Ekhat vessel?”

“Probably,” Lliant said, his shoulders hunched as if against an expected blow. “It is too soon to tell.”

Who else could it be, though, Jihan asked herself, except the Jao? Who were no better than Ekhat.

The emerging ship shed streamers of fiery plasma and for a moment a roundness was visible, then was obscured again by the fierce bright whiteness. Jihan blinked. “That was not an Ekhat ship,” she said, evaluating the stats as they came back to her. “The shape was wrong and it is positively huge.”

“You are being misled by the enveloping plasma ball,” Lliant said, his eyes intent upon his own screens. “It always distorts initial readings when the Ekhat jump into a system.”

Lliant was an Ekhatlore with years of study completed since being accepted by his highly regarded elian. All reason dictated that an experienced expert must understand the situation better than Jihan, yet she knew what she had seen and it had been nothing like the long spindles, angular gantries, and inverted tetrahedrons of an Ekhat ship.

The white ball of solar fire separated fully from the photosphere and shed additional plasma. The dark shape was momentarily visible against the brilliance of the sun again. It was not angular and deceptively fragile, crisscrossed with girders, but almost round and solid with long protrusions. It is not the Ekhat, she told herself, but refrained from speaking the thought aloud. Ekhatlore held sensho in this situation. She would not shame herself by claiming to know more than Lliant did.

Plasma closed around the vessel again so that it was occluded. Lliant returned to his own data station and studied the figures coming in. His aureole stiffened. “It is very large,” he murmured, “massing far more than any Ekhat ship ever detected according to the Ekhatlore archives.”

But it wasn’t the Jao either, she thought. She knew the sleek lines of their ships too from her research since forming Jaolore, and there were no records of any of this size. “Someone else participated in the last battle,” she said hesitantly. “I thought from the readings it was the Jao, but whoever it was, they fired upon the Ekhat ship, not us.”

Hadata and Lliant, along with the two Starwarder crew members on the other side of the cabin, stared at her. “Perhaps this ship belongs to a species entirely unknown to us,” she said. “The Ekhat must have many enemies. This could be one of them.”

“No,” Lliant said. “The Ekhat will not tolerate any resistance. They destroy everyone they come in contact with. All their enemies are dead.”

Plasma exploded off the newcomer and that incredible shape was visible again. And the ship was already maneuvering, coming about, readying itself for — what? Excitement mingled with dread thrummed through her.

She checked the vectors of the Ekhat ships again. “The Ekhat are turning back,” she said.

“They are going to engage the new vessel,” Hadata said.

“Then they must not be Ekhat,” Jihan said. “They are someone else, highly advanced, by the size of that ship, another intelligent species.”

“They could simply be another Ekhat faction,” cautioned Hadata. “Although I think that unlikely, given the radically different ship design.”

“Even if you are right and they fight the Ekhat,” Lliant said sourly, “that does not mean they will win. And if they do survive, that does not mean they will befriend the Lleix.”

Remember the Jao and what they did, Jihan told herself. Whoever these new creatures were, they might battle the Ekhat simply to have the pleasure of exterminating the Lleix themselves. Just because they were not the Ekhat did not necessarily mean they would be friendly.

The last of the white-hot plasma streamed from the huge ship and Jihan focused her instruments on those strange flat projections all around its hull.

“Bizarre design,” Lliant muttered as his fingers flew over his station’s controls. “Is that part of its propulsion configuration?”

Then a series of energy signatures flared along the protrusions. Jihan ran a hasty diagnostic. “No,” she said. “I think they might be weapons platforms.”

“Surely not,” Hadata said. The Starwarder abandoned her seat again to peer at Jihan’s screens. Her aureole wilted. “There are far too many.”

Brightness blazed. One of the Ekhat ships suddenly changed vectors as it took some kind of hit.

The battle was engaged.

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17 Responses to THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 49

  1. Mike says:

    How can you have too many weapons?

  2. robert says:

    We don’t know anything about the Lleix weapons so what does “too many” mean? I think that humans will be a big surprise to the Lleix in many ways, not just weaponry.

  3. Mr. Masterson says:

    One down four to go.

  4. Daryl says:

    The Lleix and Ekhat appear to both have inefficient societies due to rigid castes and structures. The human principle of “just get the damn job done” regardless may well be a shock to them and eventually the Jao as well.

  5. Ian Darley says:

    Too many weapons? Check out the T-28 and T-35 tanks from the USSR in the 1930’s. Multiple gun calibers, multiple turrets and thin armor resulted in their rapid extermination at the hands of Nazi Germany in 1941.
    But a mistake I doubt the humans and Jao have made… but we shall see.

    Ian

  6. DougL says:

    Or consider two ships launched in the same year by the same navy:
    HMS Agamemnom carried 4 x 12″ guns, 10 x 9.2″ guns, 24 x 12lb guns, 2 x 3lb guns, 5 torpedo tubes, and a ram. (16,500 tons, launched 23 June 1906)
    HMS Dreadnought carried 10 x 12″ main guns, 27 x 12lb secondary guns, and 5 torpedo tubes. (18,420 tons, launched 10 February 1906)

    Dreadnought is a noticably bigger ship, but has fewer heavy guns (10 to 14), fewer total guns (37 to 40), and dropped the ram. It also made Agamemnon severely obsolescent even before she was launched! The difference in guns isn’t huge, and the propulsion change also helped Dreadnought, but the fact is that dropping the 9.4″ guns for a smaller number of heavier guns was good design and that later changes typically dropped even more guns. By the time we built the Iowa class tonnage was up to more than those two combined, and guns were down to 9 heavy and 20 secondary (although the count goes back up if you include AAA).

  7. Mike says:

    You can never be too rich or too thin or have too many weapons on your warship. (Seems like some people are a little humor-deficient today.)

  8. Dean says:

    So, the Lleix find all music offensive. Understandable, I guess, given their history.

  9. PO2 says:

    Or consider the pre-Dreadnought battleships. Too many guns, not enough Big Guns. The typical Science Fiction single-barrel superweapon (Death Star, Lexx, etc.) is usually taking it too far, but insufficient range is the worst mistake you can make. A polearm is better than other knives, but both are useless in a gunfight.

    In space, there’s a distinct lack of cover to hide behind. So what you need to defeat an opponent is:

    1) Higher acceleration, so you can force him to battle. (Other means, like threatening a fixed object he cares about, are possible but inapplicable with the Ekhat.)

    2) Longer rage weapons so you can kill him while remaining unassailable.

    (“Better armor” just achieves a reduction in the effective range if your opponent’s weapons.)

    The NUMBER of weapons is not a particularly important factor.

  10. Grant says:

    @9: “The NUMBER of weapons is not a particularly important factor.”

    Tell that to the guys who have 5 indepedently maneuvering enemy ships to shoot at right now… which they are engaging after emerging from a blind travel chokepoint they will always have to deal with unless they invent some new means of interstellar transport and which makes it impossible to dictate that you get to start engaging the enemy from outside their weapons range when you meet up with them.

    Range and acceleration are really, really great things if they were only traveling through normal space to reach engagements… they’re of severely more limitted utility when you’re doing the space battle equivalent of having to force a mountain pass with no firing lanes or even live of sight on the enemy until you’re through a narrow canyon that said enemy is dug in on the other side of.

    The acceleration angle is still desireable even in a dogfight scenario, but range isn’t doing much good under most of the conditions I see this war taking place in. Almost certainly the vast majority of battles will be defending/assaulting a framepoint. If you’re assaulting you don’t get to dictate engagement range, whoever’s waiting for you to come through does. If you’re defending the current greatest advantage the humans have is that they have weapons that work in a photosphere and the Ekhat don’t until/unless they start outfitting with kinetics… which means you’re lying in wait right on top of the framepoint and ambushing at knife fight range as soon as the Ekhat come through.

  11. Grant says:

    PS: Of course you do need to at least *match* engagement range with the Ekhat, otherwise whenever they’re defending they’ll just stand off and pound you after you come through the framepoint… but that one consideration aside I retain my “give me lots of short range punch” preference for fighting the Ekhat.

  12. Mike says:

    In other words, the idea is to get there first with the most guns.

  13. Mr. Masterson says:

    @10: You make a lot of good points. With that in mind I wonder why the Lleix never created stealth mines design to look like piece of rock floating about. Also for checking the area before arriving. I would use missile scouts to pop out scan and then return. Or/and a missile storm to soak up any and all enemy units. You can either go for a frontal attack or try flanking the objective. With there being really only one avenue of entry to primary goal. Your really limited on options, either you can soak up the attack or let the enemy soak up the attack. Let me paraphrase a great general “your not here to die for your county, your here to make the other guy die for his”. Let the good times roll.

  14. saul says:

    Since they are energy weapons, the limiting factor is probably energy, not gun barrels. More barrels would probably be like adding extra thick monstor cables to make the stereo sound good. A waste of time.

    If 4 guns can handle 100% of the power generation, why have 12?

    Sure, extra barrels might provide redundancy in case of battle damage, but that may well again be a waste. I suspect traditional battle were just beams vs shields….until the shields died and then you died. If thats the case, ships would go from 100% to dead so fast that redundancy in guns would be a waste.

  15. Grant says:

    @13: You have to keep in mind the volume of space you’d be dealing with if you wanted to lay a minefield.

    There’s no way you can put them on top of the framepoint in the photosphere. And you sure as hell can’t put them in the corona. You put them anywhere near the corona and one flare in the wrong place is going to vaporize your entire minefield. And if you put them out of range of flares… well:

    http://umbra.nascom.nasa.gov/eit/images/Sun_and_earth.jpg

    See the problem? You’d have to convert the entire mass of a good sized planet into mines to cover the area involved with any real density.

    And that’s not even taking into account that even placing them there you need to outfit them with pretty powerful station keeping drives if you want them to stay put and not just fall into the sun… which makes making them stealth kind of difficult and if they’re not stealthed they’re useless, they’ll just be bypassed.

    Mining the approaches to the planet would be easier… but still not really practical, especially if you’re the Liexx and the planet you’ve been forced to relocate to has no resources like heavy metals with which to build mines (see Snippet 23, although why they didn’t just mine an asteroid is beyond me… maybe it just never occured to them because they have no “space based resource extraction” elian to tell them to do it). Anyway, the only way to get any real concentration of mines somewhere you have a reasonable chance of having the enemy intercept them is to put them really close in and directly between the planet and the sun since you at least know that’s where the enemy is coming from… but you’re still talking about a *massive* field of mines… and then if the Ekhat are carrying a plasma shell to roast the planet with when they show up, which is their usual M.O. when they’re bent on extermination, it was all pointless anyway. There’s no way a close in minefield prevents them from discharging that into the atmosphere… even assuming it can do any damage at all through the plasma. You need to take them out way earlier than that.

    Same goes for any missile tech I can think of them having as far as the plasma shell or engaging them at the framepoint goes.

  16. robert says:

    @13 Re: mines.
    1. Consider where the Framepoint is. How long would a mine survive?
    2. Again, we do not know the Lleix mindset with respect to weaponry. Are they mired in one kind of weapon? Have they lost the tech to create other weapons? Etc.

    @14 When you are a flotilla of one, and you do not know how many of the enemy you will face, more guns is way better.

  17. robert says:

    One more thing. It is really fun reading the comments here. When the battle starts the number of comments go way, way up. I can’t wait to hear the complaints when the new Safehold snippets start and there is all this plotting, discussion and thinking going on, and no battles.

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