The Universe of Knight’s Move

3 Sep

Story background.  Comments welcome.

Humanity’s exploration of the universe was greatly accelerated when renowned scientists White and Hamilton successfully opened the first gateway into hyperspace, an alternate universe that allowed faster-than-light travel, in 2145. Although hyperspace was exceedingly dangerous, at least at first, human scoutships started charting the links between hyperspace and normal space, locating a number of Earth-compatible worlds within easy distance of Earth. It was the dawn of the great expansion as human nations, corporations, religious groups and suchlike stroke to lay claim to a world or worlds of their own. By 2200, over a hundred worlds had been settled and humanity was continuing to expand. Even first contact – in 2245 – failed to halt the expansion.

Politically, this led to a dangerously unstable situation. Claim-jumping, quiet ‘accidents’ that wiped out small colonies and even piracy became common, followed by small wars. Eventually, after First Contact, Earth’s most powerful governments founded the Terran Federation, believing that humanity would need one force to keep order and one voice to speak to other alien races.

This did not go down well with everyone. The Federation was the creation of the most powerful governments and, unsurprisingly, they rigged the system in their favour. If the Federation hadn’t encountered the Dragons (as humans came to call them) it is likely that there would eventually have been a major civil war within human space. Not only was the system rigged, the Federation put the interests of the core worlds (and national power blocks) ahead of the interests of humanity as a whole. This was asking for trouble.

***

The Dragons (as humans came to call them; their real name being completely unpronounceable) evolved on a hot dry world from reptilian ancestors. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that their basic creed can be summed up as ‘to the victor the spoils’ or, more bluntly, ‘might makes right.’ Early wars on Prime Sphere were fought over access to water, farming land and other valuable resources. The senior clans granted access to lesser clans in exchange for submission and obedience. However, as any appearance of weakness was seen as an invitation to attack, the clans were ruled by despots, who were replaced when they grew old. Draconic Kingship in those early days was a thoroughly Darwinian process. All it took to establish legitimacy was to defeat the previous King.

When they finally reached space and started to explore, they were already primed to build an empire. The network of clans, ruled over by the Emperor, had only two ways to cope with the existence of alien life. Aliens who submitted to the Dragons were treated as slaves, but allowed to live. Aliens who refused to submit were ruthlessly destroyed. By their lights, accepting aliens as slaves was a gesture of mercy from ruler to ruled; indeed, the tradition had its origins in how the early clans assimilated the survivors of other clans. However, for obvious biological reasons, the alien slaves were never actually able to become part of the power structure. The best they could hope for was to be considered an advisor to a senior nobleman.

The official first contact between the expanding Terran Federation and the Draconic Empire took place in 2534, when a human scoutship – the Santa Marie – stumbled across an alien starship of unknown design. It’s attempts to transmit the first contact protocols were ignored; instead, the alien ship closed into engagement range and opened fire. The scoutship was destroyed, but the CO had time to transmit a distress signal and ensure that his ship would not fall into hostile hands.

Post-war investigations revealed that the Dragons had, in fact, captured a number of human colonies that had been established by rogue settlers at the very edge of human space. The encounter with the Santa Marie had been a deliberate attempt to test humanity’s mettle, as was the series of brief and violent encounters between the Terran Federation Navy’s Frontier Fleet and the Draconic Navy. However, once they had learned enough, the Draconic Emperor opened communications with the Federation and explained that the whole affair had been a ghastly misunderstanding. The Santa Marie had, by raising its shields, committed an act of aggression by their lights. This was, of course, abject nonsense, but it was accepted by the Federation. As the brief encounters between the TFN and the Dragons had largely shown the superiority of the TFN’s systems, the Federation decided that it had little to worry about from the Dragons. They could not have been more wrong.

The negotiations eventually settled on a border, which the Dragons barely bothered to pay lip service to, let alone take seriously. ‘Raiders’ hit human worlds on their side of the border, while contacts were made with smugglers, pirates and others who might be willing to assist the Dragons. Ten years of largely undeclared war followed, which was generally ignored on Earth. Indeed, there were plenty of politicians who believed that the colonies were actually provoking the attacks, or using them as an excuse to build up their own military power. The net result was that nothing substantial was done about the growing threat.

Meanwhile, the Draconic Empire realised that their opponent was more formidable than it seemed. Although the TFN was actually weaker in hulls than the Draconic Navy – and its technological advantages didn’t last, once the Dragons started researching them – the Federation itself was huge, far larger than the Draconic Empire. Worse, it possessed a formidable industrial base that could be converted to military production very quickly. Accordingly, the Draconic Empire planned for a quick campaign. The core of the TFN would be smashed, followed by a drive on Earth. Humanity would not have time to switch to a war footing.

The formal war began in 2545 when Draconic raiders attacked a Federation colony at the edge of the border. Unknown to the Dragons, the attack accidentally killed the daughter of one of the Federation’s most prominent Senators (along with nearly four million other humans.) Outraged at the media coverage, the Federation Government declared war and sent nearly half of the TFN to Jackson’s World, the closest military base to the border. Once organised, the task force was ordered to proceed into Draconic Space and push them back, hard. As military campaigns go, it was poorly planned and rested on a series of unfounded assumptions about enemy culture, technology and planning. The results were disastrous.

Unknown to the Federation, the estimates of the Draconic Navy’s fighting forces were way off the mark. When the task force entered the Starlight System (home to a race that had been discovered and enslaved before they had even mastered fire) they were jumped by a vastly superior enemy fleet. The ensuring battle saw almost all of the fleet destroyed, with only a handful of survivors. Worse, far too many humans were taken prisoner and brutally interrogated by the Dragons.

Once they had satisfied themselves that they had destroyed the fleet, the Dragons drove over the border and invaded over ninety inhabited human worlds, paying special attention to Jackson’s World, where the defenders were still reeling from the loss of the fleet. Indeed, the Dragons themselves were surprised by their easy series of victories. It seemed like humanity’s final hour was at hand.

However, a number of ships had survived the destruction of the fleet and launched desperate attacks on enemy supply columns. These attacks eventually tapered off, but they caused the Dragons to delay long enough for TFN reinforcements to be rushed to the war front and start slowing the enemy down. The direct drive on Earth was stopped in the Maximilian System which, although it had been a costly victory, provided a major boost to Federation morale.

Of post-war importance was the capture of Bottleneck, a star system that happened to sit on the only safe hyper-route into the Fairfax Cluster. The colonists there were cut off from the Federation, the Dragons expecting that they would fall into their hands like ripened fruit. It was an understandable assumption, but an incorrect one. By the time the lesser clans started probing the edge of the cluster, the colonists had set up a defence force and managed to stymie their advance.

The war settled down as both sides started to dig in for the long haul. In occupied space, the Dragons rounded up anyone who had served in ‘useful’ professions and enslaved them, dragging them back into their territory to work in the factories. Others, deemed useless, were simply exterminated, often through the use of poison gas or biological weapons. Their worlds were settled by the lesser clans, who used the remaining humans as slaves.

Ten years after the war had begun, the Dragons launched their second major drive on Earth. Intended to crush human resistance before the humans could push their advantage, it turned into a major disaster as the advancing fleet ran into a far stronger human force in the Wolf 359 system and was eventually destroyed. (Few Dragons ever surrendered in the war, nor did humans once they found out what fate might await them if captured.) The destruction of the fleet allowed the TFN to start raiding behind occupied lines – and, eventually, to start raiding into enemy territory itself.

This – intentionally – kept the Dragons off-balance as the human race completed its switch to war production and started pumping out thousands of new starships, starfighters and other weapons. Worse, for the Dragons at least, humanity’s Special Operations Executive had started making contact with the billions of slaves within the Empire. A campaign of work sabotage and suchlike was rapidly underway, while human infiltrators armed and trained resistance movements in the massive camps the aliens used to house their slaves. The whole problem was made worse by heavy-handed purges that not only aroused hatred and fear among the slaves, but also wiped out vast numbers of technically-skilled slaves the empire needed to keep producing war material.

The climactic battle of the war came in 2576, thirty years after the war began. Having located a sizable shipping yard, the TFN slipped a major task force behind enemy lines and attacked the star system, then lingered in the targeted system. The Dragons had no choice, but to send a large fleet to intercept … at which point the second TFN task force appeared in the system and attacked the enemy fleet from behind. Once the work of destruction was completed, the fleet withdrew, taking advantage of its position to attack a number of enemy-held worlds as it retreated. This staggering success was followed up by several more deep-strike raids, targeted on the enemy’s infrastructure. Slowly, but surely, the Draconic Empire was losing the ability to fight.

From then on, only the Dragons themselves were in any doubt about the outcome of the war. Humanity’s war production had skyrocketed, with thousands of fleet carriers, superdreadnaughts and naval transports – and a literally uncountable number of starfighters – being manned by the vast resources of manpower the Federation had built up over the years. Indeed, if there hadn’t been a desire to liberate the occupied worlds, it is quite likely that the war could have been ended much sooner. Instead, the occupied worlds were liberated by the end of 2571, followed by a headlong invasion of Draconic Space. The final battle, over Prime Sphere, illustrates what truly won the war. For each starship and orbital defence station that defended the world, there were literally a thousand human capital ships.

When the high orbitals were lost and the Terran Marines prepared to storm the planet, the Emperor, his heirs and most of the planetary population committed suicide, taking with them the last threads holding the empire together. Most of the smaller clans promptly claimed to recognise humanity as superior and tried to make deals with the TFN, although such terms were harsh. The discovery of death camps and worse on the occupied worlds fuelled a demand for indiscriminate revenge. In hindsight, the Dragons were luckier than they deserved.

The Treaty of Prime Sphere, which officially ended the war, was effectively forced on the Dragons (which sociologists swore would be more meaningful to them) at gunpoint. Put simply, all war-capable starships were to be handed over to the TFN, all slaves and POWs were to be liberated, all occupied alien homeworlds were to be freed and the Dragons were not to attempt to rebuild their empire. Unsurprisingly, while the large majority of the remaining Dragons accepted the treaty, quite a few refused to honour it and went renegade. There was also a growing feeling on Earth and the Core Worlds (most of whom had been untouched by the fighting) that the teams of the treaty were too harsh.

By 2575, the situation in the former Occupied Zone and Draconic Empire can reasonably be described as chaotic. Dragons who were landed on the occupied colonies are supposed to be being repatriated to their empire, but many of them don’t have a place to go. Raiders and pirates, often rogue Dragons, are raiding the colonies at will, despite the best efforts of Frontier Fleet. Meanwhile, many of the liberated alien worlds are demanding protection, Federation membership (a worrying request, as the Federation was purely human) and/or revenge on the Dragons, many of whom are chafing under the treaty’s terms.

Many of the colonies are restive in the aftermath of the war, even outside the Fairfax Cluster. Quite a few of them feel that the Federation betrayed them in the lead-up to the war, or abandoned them after a ‘too clever by half’ Admiral lost the Battle of Starlight. In the Fairfax Cluster, there is also a growing awareness of their own independence – and their reluctance to accept the Federation’s authority.

Although the undisputed victory of the war, the Federation is struggling to cope with the aftermath too. Hundreds of millions of servicemen are being demobilised and thrown onto an employment market that is trying to switch back to civilian production. War contacts are being cancelled, causing economic shockwaves that are threatening to plunge the Federation into chaos, while the rise of war profiteers is causing unrest in the Federation Senate. The last thing the Federation needs is more conflict.

***

Officially, the Federation is a direct democracy, ruled by the people. Unofficially, those who pay the bills call the shots – and the national blocks surrounding Earth (worlds settled by nations on Earth) – pay most of the Federation’s operating costs. Corporate worlds pay much of the remainder, giving them a considerable advantage in manipulating the Federation to pass laws in their favour – and, as they consider a considerable percentage of the economy, they have influence out of proportion to their size.

The Federation is headed, officially, by the President, who is directly elected by the people. It is, however, a largely powerless post. Real power rests in the hands of Congress and the Senate. While all independent worlds are guaranteed a seat in Congress, additional seats are assigned by population sizes, giving the older worlds and multi-star blocs a decisive advantage. (The United Stars of America, having seventy worlds under its control, has over a hundred votes in Congress.) The Senate, again, is divided up by population size. Smaller worlds, even working in unison, do not get a vote.

Below the Federation, there are a multitude of competing interests and power structures. For example, there are multi-star power groupings that wish for greater independence now that the war is over. Others want the Federation to be more flexible (at least in their interests) or merely a greater say in what happens. Still more want the Federation to enforce their positions; national power blocs, for example, do not wish to see their member worlds secede as it would dilute their voting power in the Federation Government. Most of the outer worlds want some degree of independence from the Federation.

On the face of it, the Federation’s current challenge is rebuilding the former Occupation Zone and repatriating most of the alien refugees stranded on human worlds. However, the stresses and strains that were papered over during the war (particularly the exact legal status of the Fairfax Cluster) are threatening to unleash a second round of war.

***

The Fairfax Cluster is difficult to define. It sits on the other side of the Bottleneck (hence the name; Bottleneck Republic) but Bottleneck itself is not actually part of the Republic. It consists of around seventy worlds and ninety additional star systems on the other side of a semi-permanent hyperspace storm. This inaccessibility allowed non-corporate interests to stake the choicest claims, with the net result that the planets are thoroughly eccentric by the Federation’s standards. These include Fairfax (a representative democracy), Jehovah (a theocracy), New Texas (a semi-democracy), Galt’s Gulch (semi-anarchist) and Buckingham (an aristocracy.)

Each member world contributes roughly 10% of its GNP to the Republic, which uses it to build up the Colonial Militia and native industries. The Republic had to work desperately to produce war material when the Dragons cut them off from the Federation, resulting in a number of interesting and innovative designs that proved an unpleasant shock when the Dragons finally attacked.

Apart from a handful of basic agreements, the Republic has no power to control the internal affairs of its states. For example, there are no laws on weapons transfer and/or registration that are binding on the entire Republic. It is fairly easy for commercial interests to purchase an ex-military light cruiser, if they try. Slavery, too, is common on some worlds. Unsurprisingly, there is a considerable amount of friction between the different states that make up the Republic.

The Federation’s official position is that the Bottleneck Republic is part of the Federation and, as such, is bound by the Federation’s laws. However, these laws have not been enforced since the foundation of the Republic and most citizens consider themselves independent.

Apart from this defiance of the Federation’s laws, there is also the question of alien refugees. The Bottleneck Republic is considerably more xenophobic than Earth and the other Core Worlds (this is true of most outer worlds, who bore the brunt of the war) and does not want to deal with the problem. There are few worlds in the Fairfax Cluster that would willingly take the refugees, even for a short period – and none that would consider extending citizenship to them.

***

Starships open gateways into hyperspace to travel faster-than-light. As hyperspace is a dangerously high-energy dimension, most crews prefer to avoid actual fighting within hyperspace. Navigation is aided by a series of navigational beacons that can be detected within hyperspace, allowing starships to triangulate their position.

Hyperspace is marred by storms caused by gravity wells and random energy fluctuations. The Great Wall (preventing a direct passage from Earth to Fairfax) appears to be permanent, others come and go as the fancy takes them. The Federation Survey Service monitors the progress of storms within Federation space and beams warnings out to spaces. Most ships prefer to avoid storms entirely; brave crews can shave hours off their journey time by skimming the edge of storms.

The Federation Communications Network beams messages through hyperspace, using a network of communications beacons (linked to the navigational beacons). It can still take days to get a message from one end of the Federation to the other, despite the most advanced AIs in service constantly massaging the network. Among other things, a message cannot be sent through a storm.

***

In normal space, starships fight with phase cannons, quantum disrupters, pulsars and antimatter missiles. Starfighters are armed with tactical phase torpedoes, which can penetrate a starship’s shields if fired from sufficiently close range.

Planets are defended by Orbital Battle Stations and Planetary Defence Centres, which are protected by powerful force fields. In order to capture a planet, the orbital defences have to be reduced and ground forces landed to take the PDCs on the ground. Battering them down from orbit is possible, but it does untold damage to the planet’s ecosystem (which didn’t stop it happening during the war).

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