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Thursday, 27 October 2011

Creating SciFi Battle Scenes

For Book 3 of my trilogy, I needed to start with a space battle scene, so I asked a lot of readers about cool scifi weapons, good battle scenes, and studied specialist SF writers etc. (e.g. Excession, by Iain Banks; The Lost Fleet by Jack Campbell).

I applied the following 'rules' for creating a science fiction battle scene:

1. The reader needs to be able to 'see' it.
2. Space is limitless, not the size of a TV or cinema screen, so ships don't have to attack from close up or in formation, but if they are very far apart, then lightspeed effects have to be taken into consideration
3. The hero has to be someone we care about (preferably not relishing battle)
4. He or she has to be at personal risk
5. There has to be a lot at stake.
6. There should be some new weapons...

Here's a sample of what I came up with:

Sides
If Q’Tor had still been human he’d have shaken himself. The Q’Roth had been his sworn enemy; he’d fought against them and killed thousands of them in the last days of the battle for Earth. But he’d been captured, and offered a stark choice – join forces or die. He’d spat at his captors, told them where to go, and they'd obliged him by venting him into space. But they'd downloaded his memories beforehand, and taken enough DNA to produce a hybrid clone. He learned the hard way that the Q’Roth leaders usually got what they wanted – in this case his intuitive battle strategies. Initially they’d tested the clone without his memories, but its performance had been rudimentary. So they’d uploaded his personality, and he’d woken, surprised to be alive, and then disgusted at what they’d turned him into – a six-legged, three metre tall Q’Roth warrior.
            For eight years he’d refused to cooperate. But they kept taking him on missions. He witnessed the inexorable slaughter as the invader Qorall slashed and burned his way across the galaxy, and he knew where the remnants of humanity were – right in Qorall’s path. They wouldn’t last a second. Four ships full of human cargo had fled the Q’Roth’s culling of Earth fifteen years earlier, and without doubt still saw the Q'Roth as their prime enemy. But Q’Tor had seen many species far worse, and knew just how brutal the galaxy could be. And Qorall put even those alien races to shame.
So, here he was, fighting alongside the species who’d nearly erased humanity. He even had command of a battleship, and if he’d wanted to, he could cause it to self-destruct, or fire on the other Q’Roth ships and take out as many as possible. He had enough command overrides on the Bridge, and was alone – his lieutenants worked a deck below in Tactical. But futile bravado had never been his style.
He knew the other commanders never fully trusted him, despite his strong performance in the last dozen battles – he’d gotten this fleet out of a sticky mess in the Ossyrian sector less than a week ago, seconds after Qorall fired an anti-matter bomb into its sun, triggering a supernova, engulfing four defending fleets and two of Q’Tor’s destroyer squadrons unable to jump fast enough. Still, to his colleagues, Q’Tor was an aberration. One of them had even fired on his flagship a month earlier during a fire fight when Qorall had surprised them by launching planets through a wormhole at the third largest Q’Roth shipyard, after destabilising their cores to turn them into planet-sized grenades. None of them, even the oldest Q’Roth warriors from the Anlechratian Campaign five centuries earlier, had ever seen anything like this level of carnage or firepower. The errant commander had confessed his misdemeanour and taken the honourable way out, piloting a Hunter vessel stacked with atomics deep into Qorall space, taking out one of Qorall’s supply convoys.
But Q’Tor understood the Q’Roth’s sense of frustration – they were warriors, foot-soldiers of the highest calibre, space dog fighters extraordinaire, but such skills were completely irrelevant against Inferno Class weaponry. Moreover, Qorall’s strategy eluded the galaxy’s indigenous species – he did not seem interested in the spoils of war, whether worlds, technologies, or resources, except for swelling the ranks of his armies and navies. Instead, he spread inexorably across the galaxy like a cancer. What perplexed Q’Tor in particular, was that the arrowhead of Qorall’s general sweep had from the start charted a course towards the new home world of humanity. It didn’t make sense: mankind – what was left of it – was as much a threat to Qorall as an ant was to a Q’Roth warrior. And yet through fifteen years, despite brief deviations, his forces held this course. Perhaps that was one reason the Q’Roth High Guard wanted to keep Q’Tor alive.
Q’Tor’s ex-humanity gave him a poor standing amongst the commanders’ ranks. He lived with it. As with all front-line commanders, his nights were numbered. Yet the Q’Roth High Guard were increasingly desperate – they had lost thirty-three battles in a row, and more than eight hundred ships; they couldn’t keep taking those kinds of losses. And so this mission was different. Q’Tor had outlined a new strategy, enlisting the aid of the mysterious Tla Beth, bringing one of them out from their hyper-dimensional safe havens where they strategized, moving ships and inter-stellar counter-measures on trans-dimensional maps that no species below Level 15 understood. The Q’Roth all but worshipped the Tla Beth, and so if anything happened to one of them… But that was why they’d recruited him into their ranks in the first place: to think outside the cube. He prayed his gambit would work.
His upper claw hovered above the ‘fire’ button during the extended jump into Qorall-controlled space. His fleet re-materialised as planned, the enemy’s flotilla dead ahead, and he and fifty other commanders unleashed the planet-breakers. Waves of energy whipped like fluorescent barbed wire at the bubble-shaped shield protecting the ships. Secondary artillery fired automatically, spewing volleys of pulses and anti-matter torpedoes, which crashed into the energy barrier like silent psychedelic hail on glass. He hated using anti-matter weapons, as they tended to rip the space-time fabric, leaving jagged potholes for any traffic transiting through the affected sector, but as they were in permanent retreat that hardly mattered. In any case, as had happened the last three times he’d encountered this enemy formation, their shield remained intact. Their strategy was simple – they would wait until the Q’Roth forces had expended considerable firepower, then lower the shield and attack faster than exploding shrapnel. Q’Tor would have bitten his lip if he’d had one.
            As planned, five Hunter Class ships broke formation and hurtled toward the sphere. Ten other Q’Roth ships vectored particle weapons around the tightly-packed quintet toward a single point on the barrier, inflicting the heat of a hundred suns. In fifteen years of warfare, no one had successfully breached one of these shields, and Qorall’s army had remained unstoppable, conquering more than half the known galaxy, laying waste to any sector refusing to surrender.
Q’Tor’s claw squeezed hard as the glare of the beams blotted out all the stars. Now would be good… On cue, a small Tla Beth single-occupant ship, iridescent and shaped like a gyroscope, popped into existence behind the five Q’Roth Hunters, sucked along in their wake. Steady… He’d not been able to ‘talk’ with these creatures directly, having instead to explain his strategy through several layers of intermediaries. He accepted this state of affairs – after all, he was a mere Q’Roth, Level Six intelligence standard, and the Tla Beth were Level Seventeen. He’d never even seen one up close. He hoped the upward briefings had been effective.
            Q’Tor scanned the intel on the holo dashboard: nothing but bad news, the barrier was holding. Their attack was looking increasingly like a suicide run. If any more Q’Roth ships joined in with their weapons, the radiation backlash would fry their compatriots.
            He signalled “Break off” to the Q’Roth admiral, but already knew the answer, which remained unspoken. His suggestion was broadcast to all commanders simultaneously, using a mind-plexing system the Tla Beth had taught them, enabling them to communicate and react as one. Humans could never use such augments, it would sound like a deafening cacophony and paralyse them; one of the advantages of being Level Six.
Still, he imagined his own standing amongst his commanders had dropped a notch for even suggesting to abort the suicide run.
Space appeared to ignite as the ships pummelled into the shield. It would have burned out his retinas if he’d had any, but instead the six slits on his trapezoidal head oozed a little more vermillion than usual, rending the scene blood red. He missed his human vision, but then his Q’Roth senses allowed him to see what no human eye could have. Amidst the searing flash, the small Tla Beth craft launched a black hole torpedo at the glowing area of the barrier wall, which turned electric blue and shattered as the toy-like Tla Beth ship rammed it. Fire and ice – smart bastards.
Q’Tor wasted no time. His flagship and four other battleships supported by ten destroyers jumped according to a pre-ordered pattern, and punched their way through the fissure.
            As soon as he was inside, he knew something was wrong. His battleship stuttered, its engines faltered, and they lost speed. Black ships shaped like sea urchins approached, but the beam weapons he fired dispersed like a lamp in fog; letting loose the planet-breaker would simply backfire on his own ships. It took him a second to recognise what was happening: they weren’t in open space anymore – it looked like space but it had density.
He ignored the storm of comms from other commanders; instinctively he knew what it was – he’d been a Perisher, a submarine commander back on Earth a lifetime ago. They were in a transparent liquid. Some of the Grid Alliance scientists had conjectured this possibility, how some form of unknown ‘liquid space’, presumably from Qorall’s galaxy, could make the shield more resilient, offering internal pressure, and dampening any energy-based attack on it.
“Torpedoes!” he barked in Largyl 6, the formal command language. His own battleship drenched the nearest ship, and he saw hundreds of other missiles to port and starboard snake their way through the invisible medium, homing onto their targets. He recognised the enemy ships’ design: Mannekhi. So, they’d joined ranks with Qorall. Not surprising, they’d been treated like dirt by Grid Society for centuries. But such defections bled away effort that should have been targeted at the real foe.
            The Mannekhi ships returned fire, purple pulses spitting from their spines, unaffected by the fluid. He ignored the battering as the energy bursts slammed into his battleship, keeping one sensory slit focused on the damage indicator, which was dropping slowly from ninety-three per cent. At fifteen per cent, his ship would implode. He leaned forward, two of his six slits trying to see the dark shape behind the walls of Mannekhi vessels.
            The enemy sea urchin in front of him ignited, a third of its spines flaring before melting. Something nagged at him, but he and the other commanders drove on. This was the first time they were actually winning; for fifteen years it had been a cycle of defeat, retreat, re-group, attack, defeat. He checked that the other ships outside the sphere had installed a stent to ensure the hole didn’t close; he didn’t want to be trapped inside a galactic pitcher plant.
            His battleship forged through three layers of Mannekhi ships, decimating dozens. Fifty-three per cent integrity left. That meant casualties. Connection broke with three destroyers whose hulls were less protected. They were winning, but the attrition rate was punishing. He sent a coded message up the chain to the Tla Beth: . He knew how many Q’Roth were perishing in this battle, but that would pale into insignificance against a single Tla Beth.
            Out of the blue, amidst the fire and flare of battle – his lieutenants and the automatic systems handling the Mannekhi ships – his age old rage surfaced. He recalled watching as the Q’Roth purged a dying Earth of its atmosphere and all its water, all its life. When he’d first emerged as a Q’Roth clone, he’d promised himself one day that he would exact revenge, seizing an opportunity to eradicate a large number of Q’Roth. And here it was. If he turned and opened fire on the other battleships, the Mannekhi would not stop to question, and together they would annihilate the Seventh Fleet. He’d promised himself that he’d never empathize with his blood enemy, the Q’Roth, no matter what. Billions of people wiped out, he reminded himself.
But he didn’t know anymore; didn’t know himself anymore. What he did know was that against all odds thousands of other humans had survived, safely quarantined on Ourshiwann, the so-called spider planet. The quarantine would come down soon, and he wanted to ensure that he held off Qorall as long as possible. If they had any sense, as soon as quarantine ended, mankind’s refugees would run like hell to the far end of the galaxy. And if he somehow met them one day, he wouldn’t expect anyone to understand. He’d be quite happy if they dealt out rough justice, court-martialled him for treason and executed him. That would be more than okay. The one thing he wished he could remember, though, but couldn’t, was his original human name. They'd carved it out of his memory for some reason.
            The Tla Beth ship, buzzing about like a mosquito, occasionally visible, then moving too fast for even Q’Roth vision to keep up, brought his attention back to the battle. What was it doing? Why hadn’t it left? But he knew why: curiosity. Like him, it was trying to determine what was lurking in the background. The Mannekhi ships had given up firing at the Tla Beth ship, after even a coordinated beam-lattice sweeping up and down failed to touch it.
            Q’Tor’s ship nudged through the wrecked sea urchins, and dispatched Hunter Class vessels from his bays to clean up the mess – just as well, since his ship had run out of torpedoes. He ignored the charred corpses drifting around cracked hulls – the Mannekhi were humanoid in shape, the only species he’d seen that resembled humanity. He’d more than once wondered if they were distant cousins. Too bad, they’d chosen the wrong side.
The last row of sea-urchin ships was white, burning bright, masking whatever lay behind. Seven Q’Roth ships remained active inside the shield-bubble, five others including two battleships were now debris; three destroyers limped back to the stent – they would have preferred to fight to the death, but the Q’Roth ship-yards were finding it hard to keep up with daily losses, so any ship not obliterated was towed back for re-conditioning.
The tiny Tla Beth ship spun into view ahead of Q’Tor, and fired a metastaser – a weapon he’d only heard vague rumours about until now. An orange light bathed one of the sea urchins and then it leapt across to adjacent ships, spreading outwards to the entire array, latching onto any material with a Mannekhi signature, ignoring Q’Roth ships. The sea urchins shimmered then exploded one by one, opening up a gap in the last defence perimeter.
That was when he saw it. He resisted the urge to take a step backwards.
It was darker than anything around it, like a slug-shaped hole in space. Except it moved. One of the fabled dark worms. As he tried to take it in, to see any features, a priority message plexed into his mind: the stent was collapsing. His gun turrets trained on the worm, fifty times the size of his four hundred crew battleship, but he didn’t fire – he’d read the reports. One of the other commanders lit it up with focused particle beams, but as Q’Tor had heard before, no sooner had the beams touched the worm’s ‘flesh’, than black tendrils traced their way back to the firing ship – as if they could latch onto light – and yanked the ship towards the worm with alarming speed – enveloping it inside its obsidian folds.
He now knew why the Mannekhi and the liquid space had been present: to exhaust their supply of torpedoes, though he wasn’t sure they could really have inflicted much damage on these mythical creatures that existed in the null-space between galaxies, surviving on dark energy seepage and any vessel foolish enough to attempt such a voyage. Qorall had used them in the first battle to defeat the galactic barrier, but they’d not been since, and most in the Alliance had hoped they had returned ‘home’. Q’Tor sent a priority message back to those outside the stent, to dispatch one ship back immediately back to the High Guard with news of this new development.
The worm writhed towards the Tla Beth ship. Why wasn’t the Tla Beth running? The other commanders were eerily silent. He broke protocol and tried contacting it directly on the emergency channel, but there was not even a transponder response.
He skimmed through sensor readings and then his mind snagged on one: the worm had emitted a dark energy spike that had been off the scale, directed at the Tla Beth ship. No one knew much about Tla Beth tech or physiology, but Qorall must have known somehow what one of their weak spots was.
Qorall’s tactic was suddenly clear to him: all of this, all this slaughter had been a ploy with a single objective, to destroy – or more likely capture – a Tla Beth, the highest level of intelligence in the galaxy. Qorall wanted one, presumably alive, to study. The Tla Beth were the only species of any real threat to him, and Qorall didn’t know enough about them, coming as he did from the Silverback galaxy. Q’Tor understood the importance of military intelligence. If Qorall captured a Tla Beth…
He used the mindplex to tell the other commanders. He didn’t bother to say he was sorry to have involved the Tla Beth in the first place; that was in the past now, and regret wasn’t in the Q’Roth psychological lexicon.
Immediately two battleships lurched forward to place themselves between the worm and the Tla Beth ship. He received a message . The other commanders appended a codicil which translated as “Sir”. It was the first time in all his years serving with them that they’d used it. They were respecting his overall command of this mission. He understood why – for the first time they’d penetrated the sphere and had gained valuable intelligence, even if they now risked losing one of their masters. He had an instinct to salute them and their imminent sacrifice, but his Q’Roth anatomy wouldn’t do it justice. Nor did he return with a “Good luck” or any such aphorism – Q’Roth culture stated that such things should be understood.
Instead he spun his ship into action, plotting a loop-and-catch manoeuvre that would push more ‘G’s than a human would have been able to handle. Using a gravity field he snatched the inert craft into the main hold. As he raced back toward the collapsing stent, the liquid space increased its density, slowing his ship down. That made him realise something else too, about the sphere – it had intelligence. He wondered if it was alive in some rudimentary way; so much of Qorall’s arsenal was organic, compared to this galaxy’s focus on techware. Instinct could react faster than intelligence. He wanted to think this through but he had other priorities: his ship’s integrity was at twenty-one per cent and falling. Two destroyers paved a way before him, attracting space mines which hadn’t been there on their way in. The two battleships behind him went silent. He gunned all engines and thrusters, ordering his faster Hunter craft to fend for themselves. Instead, they turned and made suicide runs on the worm, trying to buy him some time.
But he knew he wasn’t going to make it. The stent was already too small. One of the outside commanders informed him the whole sphere was shimmering, and believed it was about to jump, probably away from the front, back deep inside Qorall space. The destroyer to port exploded, and two seconds later the one to starboard peeled off, its drives heavily damaged, and made a run at the worm. 
Q'Tor and his surviving crew were alone now.
His sensors told him the worm was chasing him, increasing its speed as it swam through the same medium which was like treacle to his ship. He had twenty seconds before it would leach the energy from his battleship, including all Q’Roth life, and capture its prize.
Q’Tor considered his options, and decided that there were only two. He set the self-destruct timer for ten seconds and then broadcast a message to the commanders outside. “They won’t get the Tla Beth. Take the intel back to Ch’Hrach so you can prepare better next time.” He didn’t add what he thought: that it had been an honour serving with them, that they were the most impressive, fearless soldiers he’d ever seen.



to be continued...


The Eden Trilogy:
The Eden Paradox - available on Amazon in paperback and ebook (also Barnes & Noble)
Eden's Trial - available December 2011 as ebook, March 2012 in paperback
Eden's Revenge - coming September 2012

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