Trope-a-Day: Hopeless War

Hopeless War: Averted, for the most part.  With regard to one kind of hopeless war, well, the Navy and Legions are just that good at the general category of activities listed under “killing people and breaking things”, and so have usually been able to bring things to a successful conclusion (and the kind of ruthlessness that tells them when to back off and bring out the really big guns, as in, say, the Burning of Litash, also helps).  And even the ongoing stalemate that is the containment of the Leviathan Consciousness has settled into a status quo that isn’t chalking up casualties in huge numbers any more.  It’s still theoretically possible, it just hasn’t happened yet, and there are lots of smart people trying to make sure it doesn’t.

Averted in another way (although subverted, I suppose, in an early sense with the Consolidation Wars) because despite the Empire’s earnest desire for ideological propagation (see: Hegemonic Empire), both the Ministry of State and Outlands and the Admiralty are appropriately cynical about the possibility of  wishing civilization into existence when people aren’t willing to cooperate, of persuading the former oppressed that oppression isn’t great fun when they get on top, or for savages to spontaneously start behaving nicely, and other such things, and thus are far too situationally aware to get bogged down in something like an Afghanistan, or an Iraq, or a Somalia, or other types of “nation-building” war where the hopelessness comes from setting yourself a comically improbable termination condition.

(And where one of these more… regressive members of the Interstellar League of Tribal Chiefdoms starts to play host to terrorists, or some other thing that actually makes them a threat, however trivial, to one or more of the real players… well, then, it’s time to bring out the time-honored “Shell Them Back Into The Stone Age With Ortillery” strategy, which can be repeated half-a-dozen times a century for a much smaller budget than a single occupation would require.  In the limiting case, see also Genocide Dilemma.)

Of course, some would argue that the overarching strategy of “Leave Them Mostly Alone, to Grow Up or Die Out” is itself pretty damn hopeless.  Which it is, its proponents agree, but at least it’s the kind of hopeless which doesn’t get a whole pile of people killed, even temporarily, in the course of proving it.

Trope-a-Day: The Dreaded

The Dreaded: Various in history, but most prominent in recent years is Admiral Caliéne Sargas “the Worldburner, for actually pulling the trigger on the Worlds’ single use of a strangelet bomb in the Burning of Litash, and the ensuing multi-megadeaths.  (Somewhat unfairly, since the Stellar Council and the Lords of Admiralty actually made the call to proceed with the destruction of Litash, but…)  She dislikes her reputation with the same minor blind spot that most of the Sargas have, but acknowledges that it’s actually rather useful to have.

(Or, on occasion, rather annoying to have because no-one will bloody stay and fight any more.  Frustrating!)

The Burning of Litash (6)

The rings of Depot, Palaxias system.

One orbital warehouse among many, Armory S7-224 was a simple “tin-can” habitat, dozens of red-striped modules plugged together onto a central interconnection frame. A freight cutter, just undocked, fell backwards away from the docking spine on the way to its next errand.

Within its second upper module, two loader robots backed away along their rails from the red-striped cargo containers they had brought from the freight cutter, now stacked along with the dozens of others the module held.

On the outer side of each was stenciled:

QTY: 16


From Fleet Admiral Caliéne Sargas-ith-Sargas, CS Unyielding Order, Field Fleet Coreward, to Esitariel Cyprium-ith-Avalae, c/o Core Command, Calmiríë, greeting.

Dammit, Cyprium. Can’t you let us keep just one of the new toys?

The Burning of Litash (5)

“These images are taken from the records provided by the command vessel of the fleet that carried out ‘Operation Ruby Gauntlet Sable’, the Unyielding Order…”

The ravaged planet hung in the center of the Conclave amphitheater, surface black and charred save for its fiery disfigurement; a crater over a thousand miles wide, filled with a sea of magma welling up through the world’s cracked crust, belching steam into the wracked air at its edge where it intersected the former coast.  Newborn volcanoes shouldered their way into the sky at its fringes and along radiating cracks, as the world heaved in the orogenic aftershocks of the detonation.

“These are simply the primary effects of the strangelet bomb deployed by the Empire’s task force.  The detonation set the atmosphere of the planet ablaze.  Firestorms driven by the pressure wave swept around the world, incinerating not merely everyone who escaped the initial blast, but the entire planetary ecology.  The direct radiation and particle showers produced by the bomb have rendered much of the planet radioactive.  That alone will render Litash unhabitable for a thousand years.”


“Ah, ni Korat, sit down.  I’m surprised you wanted to be seen meeting at a time like this.”

“We’re already so close to you in the public eye, it’ll hardly matter.  And all of us are nervous right now – everyone’s counting on me to find out what’s going on.”


“Technically, this is not a violation of the Accords as written.  Litash was not a signatory to any of the Accords, nor has there been any specific prohibition on the use of strangelet weapons.  Litash was a world which supported piracy, slavetaking, and other crimes against Accord members; a general threat to all the Worlds.  None of us here would quibble with the right of any Accord member to destroy the Litashian fleet with no quarter given, nor to prosecute general warfare against the Litashian government.  But this!  This is the destruction of an entire world, its entire population, its entire ecology.  This cannot be tolerated by the galactic community, surely.  If a smaller polity of the Accord had done this, it would be subject to the most severe censure, and it must therefore be so even if one of the Powers.”


“They’re really out for blood.  All your old enemies and half the neutrals are salivating over the chance to stick the knife into one of the Presidium powers.”

“I should certainly hope they are.”


“The Qiraf Assembly concurs with the League of Meridian.  While not a technical violation of the Accords, this attack violates their spirit in every way possible.  We condemn the actions of the Empire in destroying Litash-world in the strongest possible terms, and call for them to provide surety that they will never again use weapons of this nature!”


“We’ve always been your allies, and now we’re going to be caught in the backlash of this. All your allies are going to be caught in it.  Dammit, Calis, what are you going to do?

“We have it in hand.  Trust me on this.”


“This was an act of barbarism, of madness!  We cannot permit this to happen again!  The Calyet Guard demands that this assembly condemn this attack in the strongest possible terms, and we urge the other Presidium powers to take action immediately to prevent these madmen from repeating it!”


“But what are you going to –“


“The Presiding Minister for the Empire, Calis Corith-ith-Corith, now has the floor.”

“Gentlesophs of the Conclave, honorable representatives, at this time I would introduce Ambassador Extraordinary Cyprium-ith-Aelies, who speaks on our behalf.”

“Presiding Ministers, Representatives of the Conclave, on behalf of the Empire, I stand before you today to speak on the matter of the destruction, the burning – as the media is calling it – of Litash.  Let me first be clear on one point: we maintain absolutely that the destruction of the Litashian fleet, as active agents in piracy, slavetaking, and other crimes against sophoncy, was within our sovereign rights, as it would have been within those of any Accord member.  Moreover, we further maintain that the destruction of not merely the Litashian government, but also of the Litashian population, was justified as active supporters of these agents.  I remind you that the Litashian economy was principally driven by support for the criminal activities of its so-called fleet.”

“This being said, however, we acknowledge the legitimate concerns of the representatives here gathered where the excessive destructive power – unanticipated even by our own forces, as the bridge transcript records of the Unyielding Order show – of the strangelet bomb is concerned.  We do not desire any further destruction of worlds or ecologies to take place, at our hands, or indeed at any others’.”

“Therefore, the Empire moves that the Ley Accords be amended to include strangelet bombs, star- and planet-targeted respectively, as Tier I and Tier II prohibited instruments under Chapter I; and moves further that the protections and prohibitions of Chapter I be extended to all worlds and systems, not merely those actively claimed by Accord signatories.”

With that, the entire amphitheater erupted in general tumult, all but a few chagrined faces among the crowd – some of the former condemners prominent among them.


“You devious –“

“Would we ever have got those amendments passed if we’d proposed them cold? As it stands, the pirates are eliminated and the ambitions of a few dozen rogue states against their neighbors and Peripheral non-signatories will be neutered for the next century or two, all at the cost of one ecopoesed ecology duplicated elsewhere. All for the good of the Worlds, wouldn’t you say?”

The Burning of Litash (4)

CS Unyielding Order, Litash high orbitals.

“Grid configured.”

“Special package CALYX HOLLOW on the rails, launch when ready.”

“Permissive action set, authentication 0x991AC38575AA0D0E.  Admiral, do you wish to deploy the weapon?”

“Deploy it.  Right in the starport center, Mr. mor-Calarek.”

“Aye-aye, ma’am.  Right in the center.”

90,000 miles above the surface of Litash, battered in places but still mostly untouched, a near-imperceptible thrum was felt aboard the battlecruiser as one of its axial missile tubes opened and spat out the CALYX HOLLOW package, a tiny cylinder of gray-painted metal.  Twin flashes of light, one upon the ship’s hull and one upon the package, marked the invisible beam of a plaser reaching out from the ship and burning off a fragment of the package’s ablative propellant; and at this touch of thrust, it began to accelerate downwards into Litash’s gravity well.

CALYX HOLLOW was a weapon almost trivial in design.  No trigger or detonator was needed, and no guidance system fitted.  Once it had been launched, the weapons package simply tumbled on a ballistic trajectory into Litash’s atmosphere.  A few surviving ground weapons attempted to engage it, without hope of success with the orbital and ground sensor networks both smashed, but even had they been able to target it, it would have made no difference to the outcome, for the best they could achieve would be to fragment the casing early.

But the tough casing remained intact, cloaked in the plasma shock of its uncontrolled reentry, until only a few miles above the planet’s surface the stress of burn-throughs ripped it apart, shattering the delicate containment system within it and exposing its contents to the planet’s air.

Strangelets.  Unstable particles, kept artificially intact within the weapon; generated in nature in tiny quantities, harmless due to the speed of their decay.  But this was no single strangelet generated by a cosmic-ray impact; within CALYX HOLLOW’s containment was a mass of strangelets calculated to cause immediate prompt criticality. As they spilled into the relatively thick baryonic matter of Litash’s air, they merged with nearby nuclei, catalyzing their immediate collapse into more strangelets, and more, and more…

From the Unyielding Order, light flared over the target, blossoming instantly from a blue-white pinprick to an eye-searing flare hundreds of miles across, driving a visible miles-deep ripple of atmosphere before it, only to crash back into the hollow remaining as the flare itself collapsed – and the display blinked out and filled with sensor failure warnings, while the particle detectors screamed and fell silent as the radiation wavefront swept across them.

Caliéne Sargas’s throaty chuckle filled the silent bridge.  “Ha!  Well, Cyprium, now we know the damn thing works.”

“Indeed.  Although I’m considering passing a note along to the design team about their stand-off range estimates – that was a bit closer than I’d’ve liked.”

“Captain, damage reports as soon as possible, and contact the rest of the squadron for theirs.  And have the Surgeon-Lieutenant report to the bridge with his rad-test kits.”

She paused, then added, “And get someone out there in a cutter to find out if the planet’s still there.”

The Burning of Litash (3)

CS Unyielding Order, Litash high orbitals.

The circumambient skies over Litash burned three times over; with the pin-point blazes of wounded ships venting hot gases and of ongoing warhead detonations in the low orbitals, with the long bright streaks of hulks destroyed before they made it to orbit reentering uncontrolled, and with curtains and sheets of brightly-colored auroral fire as the atmosphere reacted to the particles sleeting down from the battle zone.

It would be quite a show for anyone on the ground, Councilman Cyprium reflected sourly, but then, anyone on the ground with half a mind would have fled for deep-crust shelter when we took the high orbitals.

“Close up the englobement over there, Aís!  You’ll have some punchcraft making a break for it on your shortscan in a quarter – don’t let them reach orbit.  Flag actual, clear.”

The plan, of course, had worked perfectly.  Sweeping in with tangle-aided simultaneity from both of the system’s stargates and ignoring the planet itself, task force 3-46 had caught most of the Litashian fleet between hammer and anvil as it climbed out of the gravity well of the system’s gas giant and burned hard to acme to get clear of their convergence; the superior mobility of the Imperial cruiser squadrons had run it down – the fleet was, after all, mostly composed of destroyers, frigates and the disguised “naval auxiliaries” for which Litash had gained infamy – and destroyed it in a single pass.

“Negative, stay in position, Peremptory.  Leave him to the destroyers.  Flag actual, clear.”

Leaving the destroyer screen behind to picket the stargates, the cruisers had then rejoined forces to sweep down on Litash itself, blasting the highports and defense stations, and occupying the high orbitals in a textbook blockade globe – giving them room and line to sight on any ship trying to leave the planet. The steady stream of would-be escapees, over the last two hours, had dwindled to a trickle.  Few had made it past the englobement, and those wouldn’t escape the destroyers.

The Admiral looked over at him.  “Running out of things to kill down here, Cyprium.”

He nodded.  “It’s time.  Let’s make an end of it.”

“All cruisers, this is Admiral Sargas.  Reform the englobement at twelve planetary diameters, best speed, and report when in position.  Stand by for the deployment of CALYX HOLLOW.  Flag actual, clear.”

The Burning of Litash (2)

Morash system, Dark Sea constellation – two gates from Litash.

The starships of Imperial Navy task force 3-46 hung in orbit around Morash’s outer gas giant, skydivers darting around them as they refueled for the final move on Litash.

A Starwing-class courier, oversized triple radiators glowing high orange with the backed-up heat of a fast transit from the Core, eased itself alongside the command battlecruiser, CS Unyielding Order. A boarding tunnel was thrown across, the axe-hafts of the side party thudded against the deck, trumpets blared, and its single passenger disembarked.

His meeting with the Admiral commanding was a study in contrasts: he, dark-haired and pale-eyed, cultivating diplomatic blandness to suit the formal white-and-gold court robes of a Stellar Councilman; she, small, blonde, almost birdlike in aspect beneath the uniform with its nine-pointed admiral’s stars… until attention caught upon her space-black raptor’s eyes.



”Here to exercise some restraint?”

”The operation is all yours, Admiral. But since the Stellar Council ordered this special weapons op, I thought one of us should see the job done.”

”Just that?”

”Well, that, and we are hanging you out at the end of a long line with this one. I thought a visible sign of support might be useful. And it is good,” he added, shifting modes to the personal, ”to see you in action again, Caliéne.”

”Ha! You always were sentimental, Cyprium. Come on, we’ll get some lunch and I’ll walk you through the ops plan. The Litashian fleet’s already cored and drifting, they just don’t know it yet.”