Thursday, 18 August 2011

Anatomy of an alien battle scene

Have you ever been watching a movie where aliens and humans fight, and in the end it comes down to them shooting at each other, and usually alien hand (or claw) and eye coordination is lousy? Or a space battle, where many ships converge on a (relatively-speaking) tiny piece of space and slug it out with lasers and quantum torpedoes? Did you ever think, would it really be like that? Is ‘Cowboys vs. Aliens’ as good as it gets.?

The first time I was impressed with a scifi battle scene was when I was reading Asimov’s Foundation series, and one group ambushed another by ‘jumping’ at light speed to the enemy’s coordinates, so the enemy were immediately surrounded. Such a battle scene might not look much on a big screen, but it was at least smart. Iain Banks’ Excession frankly blew me away with its battle scenes between advanced AI-controlled ships, occurring in the blink of an eye.

So, when I was crafting battle scenes for my novel The Eden Paradox, I wanted to avoid clich├ęs. Since the aliens (the Q’Roth) are vastly superior physically, no point (thank goodness) having hand-to-hand combat, since any humans indulging in such tactics would end up shredded beef. But the book occurs not too far in the future (about fifty years), so I needed to make it credible, and so I focused on drone technology, which is already advancing to ‘scifi’ levels (see related blogs on this site).

In the excerpt below, Vince is on another planet (Eden) and is trying to stop the enemy (Q’Roth) attacking large transport ships stocked with human cargo, killing all humans on board, and then heading to Earth. Here’s the scene:

Vince piloted the lead Sarth missile at a distance, using a virtual immersion "head-can" as the mil called it, bulleting across the desert. While he remained physically back at base, the neural interface allowed him to steer the C6-laden dart just above the dune-tops, caressing Eden’s skin, zeroing in on the latest Earth-origin ship arrival. A black scab formed on the horizon. He clicked on zoom.

The swollen image resembled an animal carcass engulfed by ants. "Shit, too late – again," he muttered, knowing Vasquez and the controllers back at base could hear every word. Not that it was necessary – they saw everything via the slave screens. He ground his teeth – each time a ship landed full of human cargo, the Q’Roth began harvesting within minutes. He zoomed in closer. People flooded out of the ship, dazed and bewildered, then fought to get back inside, eyes and mouths wide in panic, scrambling over each other upon seeing the Q’Roth warriors swarming towards them. He zoomed out, suppressing a well of anger.

He rapped a control to relay coordinates to two tandem missiles, and the pair of piloted F-39s trailing behind with their nuclear payload. He signaled the attack pattern to the base controller with a single word: "Delta". The "D" stood for destroy – he judged it was too late to save the people; instead he had to make sure the ship didn’t take this particular Q’Roth hive back to Earth. A letter flashed in his left field of vision, "‘S", meaning Save. This was the third time Vasquez had disagreed with him. Okay, we’ll try it your way. He ramped up the acceleration for all three missiles, scratching across Eden’s flesh.

His recon system auto-zoomed onto four small Q’Roth ships buzzing like flies around the feed – he’d seen similar ones around the last ship too. A blue band slashed in front of him, missing him by less than a meter. He sent a command to stutter his engine thrust, making it harder for the Q’Roth to get a fix on him. His vision auto-compensated – but that was because he was there virtually – the F-39 pilots couldn’t use this trick, so he had to take out the smaller ships. But there were four of them, and he only had three missiles. As if on cue, they lifted off, accelerating towards him in a square defense pattern. He picked the nearest one and went to maximum speed, transmitting the command "frag-mode", as he spiraled through blue beams latticing the sky. He pummelled into his target too fast to make out any expression on the Q’Roth pilot’s face.

His vision leapt to the second missile, scorching in from the East. He dipped low to avoid a web of azure fire. He saw that his first missile had found its target – a plume of flame billowed mid-air, the wreckage of the Q’Roth vessel fire-balling to the ground. Better still, some of the explosive fragments had scraped another one, not destroying it, but sending it to the ground like a swatted fly. He swerved his missile to the right, attracting another ship away from the transport, breaking their defense formation.

His vision snapped to the third missile – the second missile must have been hit. He shrugged it off; he’d distracted the ships, allowing the two fighters to roar in from the West ten meters above ground. He watched their high-energy pulse lasers strafe the rear edge of Q’Roth warriors, slicing a hundred out of existence like a razor clearing stubble.

The remaining two Q’Roth ships disengaged from Vince’s missile and pursued the fighters. Vince was about to take one of them out when he spotted the source of the Q’Roth horde. A steady stream of warriors hemorrhaged from their underground nest into Eden’s noon sky faster than blood from a slashed artery. He didn’t give it a moment’s thought: he broke off his pursuit and swung the missile full throttle into the cave’s mouth.

He saw white. He tore off the head-can – no more missiles.

"Christ, Vince," Vasquez shouted, "you just sentenced those pilots to death!"

Vince muscled past Vasquez to the screens relaying video from the two fighters. Most people on the transport were already dead, thousands of Q’Roth warriors scurrying over the mound of corpses to get inside the ship, to head toward Earth. A screen relaying live video from the first pilot blanked. Vince snatched the microphone from the military controller handling the second fighter.

"Nuke the transport – do it now, you’re dead anyway!"

Vasquez pushed next to him, seizing the microphone, but offered no counter-command. They watched the screen in silence as the fighter banked hard enough to make the controller flinch. The transport grew large in front of them as the jet aimed straight for the main hatch, a red light indicating the nuke was about to detonate. The screen flashed white.

"Yeah, I know," Vince pre-empted Vasquez, "another hero. You should be proud. Medals all around later. How many Eagles left from the second wing?"

Vasquez’s lips squeezed to a white line. "Four."

Vince eyed him, recognizing the look. '‘Want me to fly one? I can, you know. I’m a bit rusty, but –'’

Vasquez grimaced. "What are your orders?"

Well, there it is. One of the main aspects of all such scenes in this book and its sequel, Eden’s Trial, is the speed, ferocity, and coordination of alien attacks (see also the short story Galactic Barrier, actually an excerpt from Eden’s Trial). In this story, a vast fleet of thousands of ships and drones is defeated without a single shot being fired; intelligence trumps firepower.

If aliens find us first, they're likely to be more intelligent, not just thinking deeper and broader, but quicker. That means that if we are ever to defend against such an enemy, the command and control structure of our defences has to be equally fast and flexible. As one of the characters says in the second book, "in this galaxy, shit doesn’t just happen, it happens fast."

The Eden Paradox is on  and, and will be released in paperback October 15th
Eden's Trial will be released before Xmas.
Galactic Barrier can be read for free under Stories

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