Electromagnetic firepower — now we’re talking. Swift, elegant, deadly. Or lasers. Everyone is afraid of lasers, right? They ought to be. Pierce through the void with the intensity of a small sun, that’s something. More firepower for the individual soldier than a late industrial age tank. Then why, why does that gun still exist?
I get this, I think I get this. Lorentz force, electromagnetic currents rushing down a conductive structure, equations drawn in chalk on a board, that then translate into pure kinetic force, yes, I know some people who aren’t afraid of it. I know some people who revel in it. The appeal of the kinetic age. The lure of clean, immediate destruction. But you want none of this, right? You want the gun. You want that gun.
It has a form of certainty contained within its frame — the certainty of failure. It’s reassuring. Railguns and coilguns rely on a steady supply of energy and complex spare parts. Lasers require hefty batteries, heat sinks and fragile lenses. They have very few moving parts and they don’t break often, but when they do...what are you going to do when they fall to entropy? Get a hold of that knife, private. We’re going to fight the Sequence with a sharp stick. But the gun, but that gun...oh, it will break. It will jam. That is a fact of life. But you’ll repair it. Be it on Earth, in the toxic mud of a reclamation zone, or in the depths of a dark forest at the edge of the Milky Way, you will get that gun working again.
Fire. That’s what it all boils down to, right? Fuel, reaction mass, energy — and a flame. That feeling when you pull the trigger. The weapon that shakes, the recoil, the flash, the smell of powder. Every time you fire a gun, there’s a line that extends behind you and goes all the way up in time, all the way up to your distant ancestors in the plains of Africa, waving flaming branches to keep the beasts at bay — that’s the same thing, that’s the same lineage, the flame that vanquishes the monster. It’s definitive. It’s simple. It’s frank. Bang — on your side of the iron sights, everything that matters. On the other side, everything that doesn’t. Or that won’t, once this bullet hits. Or the next. Or the one after. You’ve got thirty bullets to feed that gun. Plenty of fire. Plenty of steel. Plenty of humankind’s greatest achievements for you to yield and bend. An illusion, of course, a projection of power, of this hubris that led the industrial world to the abyss. Does it matter, when you pull that trigger? Do you think about it? Or do you simply revel in this brutal influx of warmth and light?
That gun. There are many like it but this one is mine, they used to say. Irrelevant. Senseless propaganda drilled in the malleable minds of young men. You know better, don’t you? The gun, that gun, isn’t yours. Its strength doesn’t reside in a meaningless feeling of ownership. It is not a sword, complex, personal, refined. It’s a spear. Simple to make, simple to use, simple to kill with. The strength of industry, the strength of mass production, that’s the real deal. Fire. Reload. Repeat. Once, the Sequence understood that, too, but now they’re gone, now they’re dead and yes, maybe a bullet won’t get that shambler. Maybe thirty won’t either. A thousand, though? Yes, a thousand will do. In the mud, in the dust, in the void of space, a thousand will do. You’re a child of the sun, you’re a child of the Earth, you are a human for the stars’ sake and that’s what humans do. They grind the world under the gears of industry, under the flames of their fires, under their arrogance, under their guns.
And all of this, that’s the great idea, that’s the gun, but it failed, you know that, right? Of course you know that, because you live on Earth, because you belong to a sorry species that walks among the ruins left by its own kind and wonders why it survived when by all accounts it should have choked itself to death. The gun failed — and by that I mean industry failed, I mean the great gears of our civilisation devoured themselves, I mean fire died and steel gave up, I mean we killed the great market and the monstrous machine that minced the very earth under our cities and we learned to do better, to aim higher, and, yes, the gun failed.
That’s the thing. That’s the crucible. The gun failed. The gun withered away and died.
But a gun did remain.
The USRE calls it “Earth-Pattern Rifle, model 47.” It’s been there for seven hundred years. More than a billion of them have been manufactured throughout history. It has endured the Low Age and it will endure the interstellar era. It is used by soldiers, pioneers, criminals and flower warriors alike. Every single war-dedicated commune makes it.
I call it that gun. Because that’s it, that’s the one we’re stuck with. It has ceased to represent anything. To be anything, really. It’s just there.
We can’t get rid of it.
Algorab report 67-T-SZ: warfare in the extant civilisation of Station Zero.
The human civilization in Station Zero (182 million inhabitants as of today), while relatively well-organized, has yet to see any kind of orbital-wide peace. It has been marked by countless conflicts, both ancient and recent, which tend to gravitate around two key elements which are often deeply intertwined in situ:
— Control of local non-natural resources left over by the Sequence, the most prominent of which are Sequence-made technology and sambre, an exotic alloy with a very good strength to weight ratio that is extracted (the correct word would be scraped, really) from the core structure of the orbital, itself only accessible in places where said structure has started degrading significantly (the locals call such places faults, even though they are not the result of actual tectonic activity. They do not possess the means to extract sambre directly without the use of weapons of mass destruction that would further compromise the stability of the orbital).
— Cultural and religious disagreements on the nature of humankind, and more critically its relationship to the Sequence. The existence of the Sequence as an interstellar empire (and possibly intergalactic) is well-known to Station Zero humans, and a significant number of powers, both small and great, have embraced or still embrace imperialistic policies based on the idea that humankind is the inheritor of the long-dead Sequence.
The Station Zero orbital represents several dozen times the Earth in terms of usable surface and even in present day remains mostly unsettled and barely explored. Human settlements are rather scattered as a direct side-effect of the initial (and accidental) colonisation process carried out by the survivors of Zero Fleet. The original purpose of the orbital is unknown to us, but it is likely that it was meant to harbor vastly different species, as it shows radical differences in geology, climate and biomes meaning entire sections of the orbital are unfit for permanent human settlement. Furthermore, Station Zero isn’t complete and its structure is full geological placeholders: many kilometer-deep wells and ocean-sized chasms dot the orbital’s surface, making land and sea-based communications arduous if not impossible in some places.
The direct corollary to this state of things is that the Station Zero civilisation is extensively based on air travel. It achieved human flight at the beginning of the modern era, first through the use of local flying beasts (see entry: Helium Jellyfish, Cloud Whale, Sequence Bird), then dirigibles and, finally, planes. In the absence of fossil fuels on the orbital, heavier than air vehicles are powered by organic fuel harvested from a local species of palm trees, possibly derived from Earthbound GMOs. Flying vehicles are used for freight, travel and military operations to the point all significant powers on the orbital are ouranocracies, that is to say polities whose power derives from the control of the atmosphere.
On Station Zero, flying vehicles are the be all and end all of warfare. Wars are waged to control small points of interest scattered across the vast landscapes of the orbital, resulting in highly dynamic conflicts where concentration of forces and reconnaissance are paramount. Both ground and sea forces find themselves serving as auxiliaries to air forces rather than the contrary — they simply do not have the flexibility and speed required to truly take part in modern point-to-point warfare. I must stress that this goes way beyond a simple supremacy of air power. Warfare on Station Zero exists in ways that have no real equivalent in history. The local civilisation entered the jet age some 30 years ago. Though its planes would remind a keen observer of late Cold War vehicles from the industrial era, Station Zero also sees “airships'' being used — not dirigibles, but massive flying wings capable of remaining in the air for days, presumably assembled from an alloy of aluminium and Sequence-made transbiological compounds. Records of local conflicts suggest that defense has an edge over offense on Station Zero, with jamming technology in particular having rendered long-range BVR combat much less prominent than in the late industrial era. Pictures and films taken during the latest conflicts show large battles involving vast airship fleets, with jet fighters acting as pickets in what can be considered as slow-burning, days-long dogfights over the inhospitable landscapes of Station Zero. Many militaries have built up an “ace culture”, where the stereotype of the heroic warrior is best pictured by a fighter pilot. In fact, it appears that a few constitutional monarchies have even directly translated the ideal of the ancient knight to the technological context of fighter jets.
Though Station Zero was rather peaceful in the past decade, conflicts seem to be flaring up again and apparently involve three distinct powers: imperialistic “Sequence imitators”, a religious conclave and what could be best defined as a communal confederacy. The latter seem to hold a relative, hard-won advantage but the situation remains fleeting. Particularly concerning to us is the ever-increasing frequency of superweapon uses in this conflict. We define “superweapon” not as a weapon of mass destruction (the locals do not have nuclear weapons, for instance) but as weapons with technical characteristics far beyond what the local civilisation can achieve, which often corresponds to reawakened Sequence or Algorab technology. Atmospheric controllers have been weaponized as “storm-makers” at least twice in the war, and the communal defense system nicknamed “Circle of Stone” is heavily suspected to be a trans-orbital railgun array, possibly salvaged from the remnants of Zero Fleet. Finally, the use of experimental suborbital vehicles might allow belligerents to bypass enemy defenses, striking at their cities directly — albeit the delta-v requirements of such endeavours are far higher than those on a regular planet, which might discourage their use.
In any case, I suggest we keep watching Station Zero with great interest and stand ready to intervene if our distant cousins stumble upon something that would be too dangerous for them — like, say, a Sequence antimatter generator.
The weapon of choice for faster-than-light engagements are geometry-drive equipped missiles. These powered projectiles are fired from hardpoints on military vessels and are teleported towards their targets via a geometry translation. They form the backbone of modern space-to-space weaponry and are rare, sophisticated weapons that fall under very strict criteria for trade and ownership. FTL missiles are extremely expensive ammunition, mostly because they require to sacrifice a geometry drive. Their nature as weapons of mass planetary destruction grants them a very specific, quasi-religious aura. It is not rare to find FTL missiles adorned with intricate carvings, bas-reliefs, mystical seals or precious jewels. For the average person, the sight of such a weapon is rare and awe-inspiring. Very few worlds manufacture these missiles, with planets specialized in FTL ammunition, such as Ishtar, being surrounded by fear and mystery.
Geometry missiles come in various shapes and sizes depending on their roles and payload. The smallest ones are similar in dimensions to industrial-era surface-to-air projectiles while the largest missiles are the size of surface-to-orbit rockets. FTL missiles most often carried by dedicated space platform such as combat spaceships, drones or stations. Outside of combat missiles are stored inside the ships and their geometry drives are turned off to prevent translation interference. In combat situations, missiles are deployed from the internal bays, with agile ships sometimes entering a spin to provide additional evasive capabilities. Though FTL missiles can be teleported anywhere except within the translation envelope of another drive or solid matter, they have to compete with the fact that spaceships can also perform tactical translations over several light seconds.
FTL missiles come in various classes, though all of them are based around the same structure: a geometry drive, a payload and a fusion drive capable of performing accelerations up to 50 gees. The translation accuracy of a missile at usual combat ranges is under five kilometres. Finally, most missiles do not have the luxury to deploy radiator strings and will often melt themselves to death in long engagements.
[Extract from historical archives on OpenElora]
[Historical context : the Mars Skirmish was one of the only three recorded occurences of ship-to-ship engagement since the discovery of the geometry drive. It involved unidentified Q-ship "Horizon Signal" and USRE warship "Damask Rose." The following records have been extracted from Damask Rose's black box.]
::Warning : translation detected.
::Sensors : resolving contact.
::Sensors : contact identified as : merchant.
::Comms : sending hail.
::Comms: no response.
::Sensors : WARNING
::Sensors : discrepancy between self-reported class and thermal signature.
::Sensors : contact reclassified as : XXX.
::Sensors : WARNING
::Sensors : TARGETING LASER DETECTED
::Nav : initiating evasive translation.
::Comms : interception permission : denied.
::Sensors : WARNING
::Sensors : MISSILE LAUNCH DETECTED
::MASTER WARNING : BATTLESTATIONS
::Comms : interception permission : denied
::Sensors : MISSILE TRANSLATION DETECTED
::Nav : evasive translation data sent (random translation pattern)
::Nav : translation
::Sensors : reacquiring target
::Sensors : tracking 3 projectiles
::Sensors : projectile translation detected
::Comms : interception permission : granted
::Sensors : establishing targeting solution
::Nav : evasive translation data sent (random translation pattern)
::Sensors : reacquiring target
::Sensors : tracking 2 projectiles
::Sensors : warning : missile parameters prevent fire without target solution.
::Sensors : override acknowledged.
::Weapons : missile drop : tubes 1 to 6. (blind).
::Nav : evasive translation data sent (random translation pattern)
::Sensors : reacquiring target.
::Sensors : tracking 1 projectile.
::Sensors : tracking 2 projectiles (PROJECTILE REACQUIRED TARGET)
::Nav : WARNING : TRANSLATION ERROR, COMPUTING PARAMETERS EXCEEDED
::Nav : rebooting mainframe
::Sensors : PROXIMITY ALERT
::Mainframe : emergency shutdown
::Mainframe : ejecting blackbox
::Missile 1 : contact with ship lost.
::Missile 1 : activating auto-tracking mode (last known target)
::Missile 1 : activating swarm mode (5 projectiles)
::Missile 1 : target reacquired
::Missile 1 : warhead armed
::Missile 1 : target resolved
::Missile 1 : target locked
::Missile 2 : target hit
::Missile 2 : target breaking
::Missile 2 : good kill good kill
Total elapsed time : 8.7 seconds.
Both ships were reported destroyeds. No survivors.
Warning - technically, this is semi-classified material. However, it was lying somewhere in the Elora Hub, which means millions of people have already seen it. Have fun suing that many citizens. Ah!
TACTICAL PRIMER FOR SHIP COMMANDERS - EXTRACTS
Welcome to your first command, captain! This is a great achievement. Of course, the chances of you and your ship having to be engaged in actual combat are close to zero and most of your work will involve diplomatic and strategic ventures as explicited in section 1 of the present handbook. However, should the need arise, this short tactical primer is meant as a reminder of the options and behaviours you may adopt in the extremely unlikely case of an actual engagement.
FIRST PRINCIPLE: KNOW WHEN TO ENGAGE
If you're at a stage where you are seriously considering offensive action it's often too late to back down. You may, however, choose to delay an engagement or "degrade" it, that is to say turn what should have been a full-on battle into a series of light skirmishes. Always measure your decision in the light of tactical and strategic considerations. The case you must avoid is that of a drawn-out battle lasting for more than a dozen minutes: the longer a battle lingers, the more casualties there will be. Casualties that can be planets when relativistic projectiles start being hurled through the void. In general, we would recommend to stall or avoid an engagement altogether if you do not have at least a three to one numeric advantage in ships. This advantage can be lowered to two to one if you find yourself at a geographic advantage - such as under the cover of a moon.
SECOND PRINCIPLE: PLAN FOR CASUALTIES
Always remember one thing: you will take casualties. An engagement with relativistic and FTL weaponry is incredibly deadly. Hits will very often result in the complete operational loss of a ship and its human or AI crew. Always plan ahead by taking casualties into account. This might appear as a cynical point of view, but it is just grimly realistic. Before an engagement, consider the ships under your command. Which one of them can be sacrificed? Which one of them has to remain in line? Then plan accordingly. Never expect a tactical situation to resolve without casualties.
THIRD PRINCIPLE: KNOW THE ROLES
You may in general think of your ships as functions or roles. Those may not necessarily correspond to ship classes and can indeed change depending on the tactical situation.
- Firebases are your artillery ships that will be used in a disrupting role, laying down fire not to kill, but to force enemy ships to translate around and break formation in the process. Favour heavily armed ships in that role.
- Interceptors will be your spearheads. Their role is to perform fast translations in order to induce uncertainty on the battlefield. They are to match enemy moves and keep them under the threat of fire. This is a risky role: favour drone ships in this function.
- Controllers are here to hold space and act as tactical anchor points. They're the main pillars of your formation and are expected to balance out defensive and offensive options. Favour ships with staying power that can lay down solid laser grids.
- Escorts are your defensive options. They're protecting your valuable ships, especially the interceptors. Consider those as fully expendable. They're here to take hits and act as shields.
FOURTH PRINCIPLE: DISRUPTION IS KEY
In the vast majority of engagements, your goal will not be to destroy your opponents but to deny them their freedom of movement. Given that there is no way to interdict a geometry drive, denying freedom of movement means turning unconstrained movement into constrained movement. You cannot stop the enemy from moving but you can force them to move in a predictable manner. This means pushing them with the threat of weapons. The key to this is fire pressure. You want to be able to match your enemy's every move, which means having better mobility and numbers. The worst enemy is a coherent fleet with overlapping laser grids and firing bubbles. In that light, sacrificing some of your ships - like interceptors - in order to break enemy cohesion can be a valid tactic if you have the numbers on your side.
FIFTH PRINCIPLE: KNOW YOUR WEAPONS
Remember that your ships' weapons are not here to destroy ships, because only a small number of them are going to hit. Their first role is to disrupt. A missile is disruptive because it kills, of course, but it is even more destructive because it carries the threat of death and forces your enemy to adapt to something that isn't under their control.
- Beam weapons are your bread and butter weapons, with defensive capabilities. Remember that beam weapon exchanges favour powerful ships, which means big ships. Beam weapons are the only weapons against which there are true passive defences such as helium-cooled hulls, meaning that beam weapon combat can drag on. And remember: dragging on is never a good sign for a ship to ship engagement.
- Faster than light missiles are your best friends when it comes to disruption. As soon as a missile fire is detected enemy ships will start immediate defensive translations even if they aren't the most obvious targets, breaking formation and performing emergency burns. The mere act of firing a missile is extremely disruptive, much more than beams because missiles can be evaded.
- Kinetics are often considered second-rate weapons by commanders and for good reason - they are very slow. Do not underestimate their potential as very close-range weapons carried by suicide ships. They are a cheap asymmetric warfare tool.
SIXTH PRINCIPLE: KNOW YOUR DEFENSES
Never count on ship defences to salvage an already bad situation. The best way to avoid being hit is to avoid being targeted. That being said, always remember your other defensive options.
- Laser grids are very good at intercepting missiles and kinetics, however, they have limits. Though all modern ships have all-aspect coverage, laser grids draw power from the engines and power is your main resource in combat. In other words: a ship defending against a saturation attack cannot use its beam weapons at the same time.
- Helium-cooled hulls act like shields would act if they existed. They absorb beam weapon heat by cooling your ships until they finally give up. They're a delaying option against beams: most serious Firebases will be able to break a helium-cooled defence over time.
- Defensive translations are your most effective option. Because not being fired at is always better than blocking incoming fire. However, they are the most effective for your ships, not necessarily for your formation as a whole. Sometimes, shrugging off enemy fire can be valuable if your translations would result in breaking a coherent formation.
SEVENTH PRINCIPLE: SPACE IS NOT THAT EMPTY
As a tactical officer you have to consider the fact that while space is vast, tactical translations can enable ships to cover huge distances over minutes, meaning that planets and moon systems can represent tactical elements. Moons can be used to shield ships or lead the enemy to lose their track. A star's corona is a good electromagnetic and thermal jammer. Be flexible. Take your surroundings into account.
EIGHTH PRINCIPLE: THERE IS NO SHAME IN RUNNING AWAY
And there never will be.
Illustration creative commons, by Brian Burnell.