Thursday, December 17, 2015

Space Can - Part 3 - CQC In Not-Zero-G

Assault Phase, baby.  No, wait, going through my old Battlefleet Gothic rulebook it looks like we're in the Boarding Action subsection of the End Phase.  Which isn't as exciting to say, I'm afraid.

The crew of the Menace gets spacesuited up, though the author makes sure to show how disciplined and determined everyone is by mentioning how the quartermaster, "strangling and sweating at the helm," refused to let go and put on his suit until someone came to relieve him.  You might think it strange that a quartermaster is controlling the ship instead of a helmsman, but it turns out that the rank of quartermaster has a diverse set of duties that vary from navy to navy, and in the Royal Navy for example they're expected to drive the sea-car.  But not in the US Navy, those quartermasters among other things train the actual helmsman.  So either the information on Wikipedia has evolved since World War II, Hubbard wasn't paying much attention during his naval career, or else the author's affection for British customs and culture extended beyond calling trucks lorries.  The important thing is that the Menace doesn't have an autopilot.

The fires are hot enough to be felt through spacesuits, and the smoke is killing the air quality, but everyone holds out on sealing their helmets and using their own oxygen supply until the very last second.  Although the "helmet phones" theoretically allow everyone to communicate normally, there's still a period of quiet once the headgear is donned.

There was something ominous and horrible in this silence for every man on the ship, for each was affected alike in the connection of the silence to a sudden surge of loneliness.  For perhaps three minutes there was irregularity in the smoothness of the execution of duties, and then the first shock of quiet wore away and men began to talk to each other on the individual battery frequencies, began to swear anew, began to revile and damn this enemy who was destroying the sleek little Menace.

Another idea I like - the brief shock of donning a sound-muffling spacesuit, like diving underwater in the process of bailing out of a sinking ship - expressed in a sub-optimal manner.  Makes you wonder what Hubbard could have amounted to if he had a decent editor and was willing to listen to criticism.  Instead of, you know.  The everything that made Hubbard so Hubbard.

The helmsquartermanmaster sets the Menace on an intercept course with the enemy destroyer, and takes care to add some irregular swerves and jumps to sell the illusion that the space can is even more heavily-damaged than it is.  The Saturnian ship is so overconfident that it doesn't try to move out of the way, and continues to pound the Menace as it closes, chewing off its nose to "within twenty feet of the bridge" and knocking out its engines so it's forced to steer by the recoil of its few functional guns.  So that's why they're cannons instead of recoilless energy weapons or self-propelled missiles.

But despite the damage it's taking, the Menace makes it to grapnel range, and suddenly the Saturnian destroyer finds itself in a bit of a bind.

With a shuddering stab which tightened and held, the invisible claws of the Menace fastened upon the Saturnian and sucked them together with a swiftness which could only end in a numbing crash.

It's not quite explained how the ships are stuck together.  There's talk of grapnels, little anchors you throw to snag other vessels, but no mention of them firing or the chains or cables or whatever tightening to hold the enemy ship in place.  The "invisible" remark suggests a magnetic field is being generated, but that would require power, and you'd think with the damage the Menace is sustaining it would lose some of those magno-grapnels.

However it happens, "adhesion" is achieved, and, well, turns out there are death rays after all, they just don't use them except for these very specific and desperate circumstances.  A boarding party starts using "disintegrators" to gnaw through the enemy destroyer's metal skin "as though that hull consisted of cheese."  Unfortunately by cutting through this cheesy simile, the scene's dramatic atmosphere gets sucked out of resulting breach, and the gravity of the situation flickers and dies.

There's no party like a boarding party, and there's no better accessories for one than your machete and "jet pistol."  I'm going to assume that the latter is some sort of energy weapon and not something squirting water or concentrated streams of air at the enemy, though I guess the later options might be effective if the Saturnians are aliens with weaknesses to oxygen and hydrogen.  Heh, if they're fighting the aliens from Signs the boarding party should be armed with water balloons.

Carter gives the order "Borders away!" and joins the attack, surging through the "ragged hole of emptiness" leading into the other vessel, rushing headlong into the flames spitting back at the boarders from the defenders' "viciously wielded jets."  Still curious why the main guns fire shells when these armed forces have got energy weapons down enough to make them pistol-sized.  Also curious about the gravity situation - there's no moment of disorientation when Carter and his men pass from the artificial gravity of their own ship through the gap between the vessels and then have to adjust to the enemy ship's set-up.  No mention of it appearing that the enemy are shooting back at them from the walls or ceiling, or of Carter's boarders suddenly feeling stronger in a low-G environment or buckling over the high-G's of the Saturnian vessel.  Everything's nice and convenient and just how it would be if these boats were floating in water.  Except for the space suits.

The mess in which he found himself cut at him, shot at him, grabbed at him, and Carter, spinning around and around and firing a space clear

That is, he cleared a space, not that he shot a clear designed for use in outer space.  Can't be too careful in a story with space torpedoes.

yelled defiantly but incoherently at them.

Bear in mind that he's wearing a space suit during all this, so the overall effect has to be similar to when the guy in the car next to you on the interstate is ranting at you for not signalling your turn.

While Carter and his men have suits on, eventually he notices that the mob of Saturnians "had been too contemptuous to don spacesuits," since they make working the guns difficult and besides, who would be stupid enough to try a boarding action when they're outnumbered three-to-one?  Oh, and if you're curious what the Saturnians look like up close, all the author has to say about them is that they have "curiously pointed heads."  So they might be aliens, or, well, you know.  Maybe Saturn was settled by one of the lesser races, one whose cranial structure clearly marks them as inferior to square-jawed white guys.  Seriously, there's a picture in my book of the boarding party, and it looks like a bunch of Clark Kent clones in fishbowl helmets.

The Saturnians fall back in the face of the Earthlings' assault, no doubt to try to draw the invaders into kill zones.  The humans take their time in pursuing, and finish off the survivors and stragglers with cold steel.  None try to surrender, and no quarter is given to the xeno or abhuman scum.  But in the middle of the butchery, a torrent of... something.  Something happens so that the forward rank of the invaders is "swept back" by defensive fire.  It's probably just literally fire, since there's no talk of anyone getting carved into sizzling chunks by searing red lasers, but a brief mention of spacesuits "giving way to the heat" on the previous page.  Flame weapons, in a situation where you really don't want to burn through a lot of oxygen or start an out-of-control fire.  Those stupid Saturnians, amirite?

One of the interchangeable secondary characters is driven "insane for an instant in the belief that his captain had been killed" during the attack, but when Carter pops up he stops screaming and instantly halts, awaiting his commander's directive.  Our heroic lieutenant calmly orders the boarders to take cover, then "Try to filter up into the ship through those hatches.  But don't press them closely and don't risk your men."  Because when you're invading a hostile ship whose crew outnumbers you three-to-one, your first thought is gonna be 'let's split up, gang,' right?

The ensign only salutes and intones aye-aye, and does not wonder at all why Carter then goes through the crowd and back onto the Menace - "he had received his orders and he would carry them out to the last word and with his last breath."  It's kind of strange that Hubbard didn't anticipate any automated participants in space combat, since his characters are for the most part coldly professional and unthinkingly obedient robots themselves.  Unless they get in combat, then they scream like a troop of baboons.  Maybe we should add speakers to our drones and make them shriek like eagles as they descend upon whoever's al-Qaeda's #2 this week, add some psychological weapons to our killing machines.

Carter's underling in turn orders another underling to carve through a section of the gun room they're in so they can bypass the enemy as they, the fewer than fifteen survivors of the Menace, try to capture a ship of at least fifty.  But if you were hoping to see more combat, I'm sorry to say that you're out of luck, there's no more real fighting to be had.  Not that it was terribly exciting to begin with.

At any rate, we'll hopefully finish up this space battle next time.

Back to Part 2

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