Sabre-Rattling

“Sir, we have a ripple in warp space. Just a small one but definitely present.” Reported the young woman manning the astro station. She tucked a stray strand of auburn hair out of her face and tapped a few buttons on the touch-display in front of her.

“A ship?” Replied the duty commander. He stifled a yawn – the nightshift was the short straw.

“Possibly… wait, sir, the ripple is expanding! It’s…”

She never finished the sentence. A rift opened like someone was ripping apart a cardboard box, and from it spilled first the twisted red and orange hues of warp space, tendrils of energy that defied normal physics, and then came the scourge.

Hundreds of dark green vessels came streaming from the rift, bearing down on the world below. Their hulls – with a great many grooves that sloped toward the forward section – were liberally peppered with turrets and missile launchers. A tightly compact rear section kept the engines shielded, protected by thick armour. A small raised section to the rear of the crafts held the sophisticated sensors and military grade jamming systems that, across every ship, suddenly burned holes in the Commonwealth vessel’s own sensors.

Scanners on the planet’s surface had also picked up the intrusion. Fixed cannons powered up, protective shields surrounded the major cities and orbital defences armed themselves. Pilots rushed to their fighters, their blood pumping and adrenaline flowing at the prospect of combat.

The Commonwealth ship raised her own shields but the battle cruiser, whilst easily more powerful than any individual enemy destroyer, was impossibly outnumbered. Over four hundred destroyers fired up their ion pulse cannons, bracketing the cruiser with lethal energies. The bulk of that firepower poured into the starboard shields, which buckled swiftly. Commonwealth armour was good, but not invincible, and within seconds it was broken, with fiery holes left in the ship’s hull. The weapons chewed through power conduits, deck plating, computer relays and energy regulators, and as that maelstrom passed, the vacuum of space sucked at the ship. Emergency bulkheads slammed shut, leaving behind fires that raged where the cannons had set the very air ablaze.

The keening Commonwealth vessel tried to divert power to her shields but half her generators had already been destroyed in the opening assault, and there were simply too many enemy craft. Her angular blue hull was now charred and pocked, with several of her weapon ports blasted to oblivion. Nor had the carnage stopped. Within moments of the ion cannon blasts came the missiles, that sent megatons of nuclear energy into the already-damaged starboard section. Their destruction power went deep, ploughing huge chunks of burning debris from the stricken cruiser. Within seconds of emerging from warp, every man and woman aboard the Commonwealth ship was dead, with the ship herself torn open and with explosions bursting out of her port, ventral and dorsal hulls; the result of overloaded relays finally giving up.

Next were the orbital defences. The cylindrical weapons platforms were already active, and they launched missiles of their own that carried enough punch to turn any individual destroyer to dust. Sophisticated tracking systems in the missiles and the defensive stations locked onto targets and raced away at incredible speeds. Planet-based systems did likewise, spitting missiles at the encroaching enemy fleet.

Missiles came out to meet them. Two swarms hurtled toward each other at hundreds of kilometres per second, but the humans on both the orbital stations and on the ground were confident in their systems, despite the enemy swarm being more than twice the size. That faith evaporated as distortion fields, electro-magnetic counter measures and decoys confused the targeting on most of the Commonwealth missiles. The tightly-clustered enemy ships were emitting the fields, but fully a quarter of their own missiles were decoys or jammers, sucking away the immediate threat. Anti-missile rockets raced out to meet the warheads, taking care of most of the ones that stubbornly tracked targets.

A few did get through. The bows of several enemy vessels were turned into molten wrecks, and those ships fell out of formation. Even as they drifted away, the remaining vessels turned their pulse cannons on the orbital defences, combining that stream of firepower with their missiles. The system had been widely considered an unlikely target for attack, sitting too far within Commonwealth space, so there simply hadn’t been a budget for the advanced defences other worlds had. The stations cracked apart, one by one, and below them on the surface, the shields that protected the cities from bombardment weakened.

It wasn’t a completely one-sided affair. Four of the attacking ships broke formation, abandoning the protective screen that came with discipline. Their crews cared not for tactics of any refinement. They wanted blood and they wanted to press the attack. Before they succumbed to the sheer weight of the enemy weapons, surviving orbital stations fired up their beam cannons, that were more than a match for the destroyers. One such beam stabbed right through a destroyer’s port hull and out the other side, and the gunner dragged the beam along, ripping open the ship like a tin can. Another ship caught a glancing blow that nonetheless tore spindles from her superstructure and burned away several of her weapon ports. Another beam knocked away her dorsal fin. The remaining two ships were in the process of scrambling to get back into formation, but two beams apiece broke both vessels in half, moments before the stations were themselves destroyed.

Another rift opened, and this time two much larger ships emerged. Their forward hulls resembled the face and teeth of piranhas – A fattened midsection bristled with weapons and also hanger bays. By now the elegant Hawk-class fighters were streaming into space in droves – hundreds of sleek silver craft, with twin cannons on either fore-swept wingtip and quad engines providing incredible agility. Mingled with them were the bombers – bigger, more blocky, with pods on either side manned by gunners to drive off enemy fighters, and the pilot in the cockpit, standing read to deploy the powerful bombs that rested in their release holders, just above the bomb doors. They were almost in range, and were their world’s last shot at preventing all-out destruction. Their determination did not waver, even as the new arrivals unleashed fighters of their own.

The enemy fighters were more primitive, representing planes that had once fought in an old earth conflict called World War II. What the enemy had were numbers – the two carriers were gargantuan, capable of holding hundreds of fighters each, and they were spilling into space. The ECM from the destroyers was another factor, but the Commonwealth fighters were quick and could fire based on sight – they just had to get close enough. The fight was joined as the two sets of attack craft merged, and thousands of energy pulses were fired.

The human fighters were superior in just about every aspect, and several dozen enemy fighters became free-floating wrecks within seconds. They kept coming, and several Commonwealth fighters were also destroyed, but a path was being quickly burrowed toward the capital ships. The bombers needed only the one opportunity to hopefully give the enemy pause… but that chance would never come. The destroyers held a secret, and they unveiled it just as the bombers moved into position. Anti-aircraft fire – flak bursts – tore wings from fuselage and sent enemy and ally alike spiralling from the bracketing energy. A few bombs did get through, and a handful of destroyers were left as nothing more than broken husks, but not nearly enough of them were knocked out of action. The Commonwealth fighters tried to withdraw but they were sandwiched between enemy fighters and the flak coming from the nearest destroyers. They fought valiantly, but in the end, they were all either destroyed or disabled. Nothing stood between the enemy fleet and the planet.

Another two carriers joined the fleet, along with one other, much larger ship. It’s bulbous form was similar in some respects to the carriers – the same, aggressive frontage that was adorned with a great many weapon ports, and the bulging midsection that sloped back toward powerful engines – but it was three times the size of the carriers, and more than capable of rendering great acts of devastation. As the carriers (plus several dozen destroyers) began to angle toward the planet, preparing to land troops to complete the invasion, the commander of the force watched silently from the command deck.

****

The last time Great War Chief Tarmel had stood on the command deck of his flagship and watched his fleet, it had been to watch it burn. Thousands of Ork war ships had been sliced, punctured, shelled or otherwise ruined by the Commonwealth Navy, after the Commonwealth’s trap had easily suckered in his forces. They had known – as they had always known – that Orks were easy prey for traps and plots. His people had eschewed the nuances of strategy and tactical warfare, preferring to meet their enemies head on, and on that day, seventeen years ago, it had sealed their fate. On the face of it, a direct battle had loomed and bloodlust had sent him and his forces into a dizzying state of expectation. The Ork fleet was huge, its ferocity unmatched, and the Commonwealth couldn’t possibly hope to beat it.

Instead, his fleet had charged first into a deep and dense minefield, that had all but wiped out his escorts. Anti-fighter platforms had been planted just behind the field, and they had ripped his fighters to shreds. Even as his fleet regrouped and destroyed the platforms, Commonwealth ships, mysteriously absent, had dropped from warp and attacked his fleet from the rear, smashing through line after line of destroyers and light cruisers as they sought out the bigger prizes. In retrospect, there had never been any chance of the Commonwealth letting Orks into the Sol system with a direct fight in mind – and he had fallen for it. The lure of glorious battle had overwhelmed his senses and driven him mad with the desire for victory. As the human ships began to knock out his battle cruisers and carriers, Tarmel had seen the truth – as large as his fleet had been, he was outsmarted tactically and the humans had better technology. Prior to the disastrous Battle of Sol, the Orks had struck in huge swarms with varying margins of victory, but they had underestimated the depth of human cunning and their enemy’s willingness to make sacrifices for the greater good. He had given the order – the most hated order in Ork history – to retreat, but it had come too late to prevent most of his fleet from being crushed.

Afterward he had come to realise that Orks were the laughing stock of the galaxy. Violent and dangerous yes, but easily manipulated. Ultimately easily defeated, unless they were prepared to change. That had been an interesting discussion…

****

“We will rebuild and we will win!” Second War Chief Creech had bellowed within the hallowed Chamber of Blood, aptly named for the numerous green blood stains upon the sharp stone walls and petrified wooden ring table. Seats had been chiselled out of the stone, rough but enough – Orks cared little for comfort. Creech thumped his battle armour – dark grey plating taken from a defeated Commonwealth cruiser – and a great many Orks also gathered in the chamber repeated the gesture. Several spilled their drinks from their crude clay mugs – the pale amber liquid pooled at their green feet.

Creech turned his one good eye upon Tarmel. “We will never again retreat.” He snarled through his teeth. One fang – the lower left – had been chipped, but the rest remained as sharp as ever. It was with his words that he did the biting this time.

More shouting. More approval for the Ork who wanted to replace Tarmel. Creech gave him an ugly, evil smile.

“You led us away from battle. You are weak.”

“And you are stupid. You were there Creech. We would be dead if we had stayed. Our entire fleet would be gone. Then where would we be?” Tarmel had remained seated, clinging to his new thread of thinking. He watched the angry mob that was supposed to be in charge of his people, and he saw only extinction.

“We would have our honour!” Replied Creech. “We should never have obeyed your order!”

Tarmel waited until the latest round of shrieks and screams had ebbed. “What honour comes from letting our enemies outwit us, time and time again? The humans baited us and we took the bait. They have smarter commanders, better ships and more cunning than us. All we have is our blind love of war. It isn’t enough.”

Several eyes had turned to him. His words were dangerous, and he knew it. He was challenging one of the most sacred aspects of Ork existence.

“If we carry on as we are, the Ork race will die. The humans are physically weak but they have something we don’t. They can think. They can reason. They have been letting us think we were winning this war, but all the while they’ve watched us and learned about us. They will run rings around us, have run rings around us, and if not for their greatest weakness – mercy – they would already be here, bombarding the life out of every Ork world. We need to start thinking like them, beat them at their own game.”

Creech took a step forward. “You want us to act like them? Strength and power is who we are Tarmel. It is what makes Orks Orks. What you suggest is the way of a coward.”

The room fell deathly quiet. To accuse another Ork of cowardice was the worst possible offence, an act that demanded a response. Tarmel stood slowly. Creech was a good head higher than he, broader too. Inwardly Tarmel smiled. Creech was the perfect example.

“What you propose is suicide through stupidity. You are too much of a moron to understand this Creech.”

“You are a coward. A true Ork would have gone for his dagger already. All you do is talk. Or is that because you know you can’t beat me?”

Tarmel snarled. He let the heat – the love of battle – flow into his blood, but remembered what he had learned from study.

“If you were as confident as you claim, you would have attacked already.”

With a roar Creech charged, arm raised to slam a meaty green fist into Tarmel’s face. Tarmel sidestepped, grabbing Creech’s outstretched arm and using his attacker’s momentum to swing him face first into the jagged stone wall. Blood burst from Creech’s broken nose and from gashes in his forehead, and before he could get his bearings back Tarmel had hooked his leg and swept it out from under him, sending him crashing onto his back. Tarmel leapt upon Creech and pressed the tip of his curved dagger to the bigger Ork’s throat.

“I could kill you so easily and I would enjoy watching the life slowly drain from your body. That would bring me the most pleasure. Would it serve to make my point?” He looked up at the other Orks. “Would it change anything?” His voice raised, carrying through the chamber. He pressed a knee upon Creech’s throat. “We are killed so easily by our enemies and we even kill each other! Yet the most powerful do not always win by brute strength! I have been studying humans and their ways. They use their opponent’s strength against him. They use their ingenuity. They fight smart, and so must we.”

Tarmel stared down at Creech’s defiant, blood-spattered face. “We have a long way to go. Will you fight against our extinction, or for it?”

Chapter 2

Fiction

 

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