Part 15: Turns 113-117Hydra's sun is doomed.
The Zuul who live beneath the smoke-choked skies of the worlds known locally as One and Two know that very soon every part of their lives, everything with which they have grown familiar, will be reduced to vapour. Their options for escape are slim; there are no civilian transports, as holidays are an unfamiliar concept to the Zuul and even the freighters that exchange wares between stars are mostly kept in vacuum. Even if they were able to get off world, there is nowhere for them to go: the nearest colony world, Thundara, is full to bursting already and in any case lies in the path of the exploding star's radiation burst. They appear doomed.
The Greatfather, on receiving this information, was nonplussed. "Well? So what! Every Zuul knows that they are expendable in the service of the cause, that their lives are innumerable and thus meaningless. They have a brief season in the sun in which they're allowed to play the works of my genius, and then die rapidly. What more could they ask for?"
An underling nervously steps up. "All Zuul of course know this, Greatfather, and hold it tightly in their hearts. However, 1.2 billion Zuul live on Hydra, and while every Zuul accepts their disposability we have never - ahem - disposed of quite so many Zuul at once. It rather changes the odds on any one of us being disposed of."
The Greatfather snapped irritably. "So? We'll tell the rest of the empire that all the Zuul in the Hydra system decided to join a band. That'll hold them off: no-one will question them doing something creative."
"Your Executiveness, you will recall we already tried that approach when we released The Game That Must Not Be Named. It didn't appear to work that time."
"Very well. What are our options?"
"Few and far between, I regret to say. There are no colony fleets near the star, and no colonies we could evacuate survivors to even if there were. There are two systems nearby, Ixion and Trantor, that have worlds that could support Zuul. The most favourable world lies in Ixion, but our long-range sensors have detected Publisher activity in that system. Moving the colonists there would leave them at risk. We can eliminate the Publisher force using the survey fleet that remains at Hydra, but the fleet would have no node tunnel to return by when Hydra explodes. There is the option of boring a new tunnel using the fleet at Thundara. This would allow a colony fleet built at Hydra to rebase to Thundara once it had dropped as many refugees as possible on Ixion. However, we expect the shock of the stellar eruption to destroy all tunnels leaving the star. Any fleet leaving there, would have to leave two turns before the star explodes to avoid being in the tunnel when it collapses."
"You're useless," the Greatfather bellowed. "You just don't get intergalactic strategy. Until you've built an empire of your own, nothing you say matters. This is obvious nonsense. What you'll do is this. You'll send the fleet at Hydra to destroy the Publishers at Ixion. At the same time, you'll send the fleet at Thundara to drill a new tunnel straight there. You'll build colonisers at Hydra and get as many Zuul out of the system as you can, leaving two turns before the star explodes to give our ships enough time to get to Ixion before the tunnel falls apart. It's simple!"
"Isn't that what I just - "
"Silence! Now, is there anything else that needs my wisdom?"
"Yes, Greatfather. The explosion of the star will cause an enormous burst of radiation, which will destroy all life in the systems around Hydra. As we mentioned before, our colony at Thundara lies directly in its path."
The Greatfather sensed an opportunity to be magnificent. He arose.
"Marshall the Inquisitors! This is the greatest intellectual challenge in the history of Zuulkind. All the resources of the empire shall be placed at their disposal. We shall find a way of stopping cruel nature from ravaging our worlds before we've had a chance to ravage them first. We will find a way of blocking this radiation, and save the lives of millions of Zuulkind!"
He calmed down slightly, and addressed his underling once more. "How long will it take to find an answer? Do you yet have any idea, you wretched excuse for an advisor?"
"Your Fathership, we expect to have the solution ready by tomorrow, just in time for tea."
The Greatfather sat down, magnificence dashed. "How does it work, this solution? Tell me quickly, lest I force you to play through Endless Space as the Harmony!"
"Greatfather, the answer came from our most recent human captive. It involves something called a 'holiday'..."
FOUR TURNS REMAIN
With the eyes of the Empire turned away, the Humans seize their chance and send another combat fleet to Dosadi.
The women of the Awful Fleet once again prove their mettle.
With the radiation shielding project complete, the Inquisitors start work on a project designed to help hold the missile blasts of the Human homeworld at bay. The first stage of this project is a reinforced outer armour coating, limiting the extent to which missile strikes penetrate the hull.
All armour technologies can't be refit, so we'll be designing a new generation of ships to take advantage of this development.
Our War Astronomers report a new development around Ixion. A Publisher fleet closes in on what sensors report is a potentially inhabited system. The citizens of Hydra will not secure their new home without a fight. Morale on One and Two picks up for the first time in months.
THREE TURNS REMAIN
Another incursion at Dosadi.
Another flawless victory for the Awful Fleet.
The Publisher presence at Ixion is proven to be a simple outpost. Simple, and very quickly dead.
TWO TURNS REMAIN
Our Survey Fleet encounters the Publisher combat fleet on its approach to Ixion. This battle is likely to be difficult: our fleet is outnumbered and potentially outgunned. The strategy will be to slaughter any command vessel present in order to force the retreat of the now leaderless fleet and clear the way for the Hydran refugees to take possession.
We encounter the enemy in orbit around a gas giant, near the site of their former outpost. It is likely they are investigating its disappearance. Our fleet is happy to oblige.
Mother has foiled our strategy. The fleet in orbit around the gas giant does not contain their command ship. Our fleet is already committed, and will now attempt to do as much damage to their combat vessels as possible to weaken their fleet for future engagements.
First blood goes to us, but many of our ships are already badly damaged. Mother's ships appear to be using a combination of missiles in medium and large mounts and UV lasers in their small mounts. Our old survey vessels are unable to fend off concentrated missile fire with their gauss weapons.
Their missile fire is mainly affecting the middle sections of our ships. Unfortunately, this is where our females are housed, and by the time our ships close with Mother only two pods remain. Mother is normally weak in person, but our women are fought off.
We lose an Armor vessel to Mother's missiles.
And then our command vessel.
Until finally, only our bore ship is left.
Then, in an astonishing move which will be retold to larvae for generations to come, the captain of the bore ship opens a hole into nodespace at the centre of the Publisher fleet.
The force of the opening throws Mother's ships into a pandemonium, causing some - unfortunate - accidents.
In the end, our bore vessel is destroyed. However, its brave captain destroyed three Publisher vessels by himself, bringing our total for the engagement to five and cutting Mother's fleet at Ixion in half.
The Fourth Survey Fleet heads in to finish the job.
On One and Two, the lotteries for places aboard the Ixion colony fleet have finished. Since they are Zuul lotteries, they are conducted by placing all entrants into an enormous cylinder, rotating the cylinder at speed, and selecting whichever Zuul are left alive at the end as the winners. All agree that this is the best way of selecting the hardiest citizens for life on the new world, and spares the losers the ignominy of being consumed by a star. It is Zuul who eat suns, not the other way round.
The colony fleet is placed under the command of Master Kabandha the Wrathful. Originally from One, Kabandha has declared a Blood Feud with all stars, and once the refugees have safely reached Ixion he plans to fly his command vessel towards its sun and shoot it repeatedly until it learns not to explode.
The fleet departs Hydra, the last vessels to ever leave the dying system. They leave behind them worlds empty of Zuul, but full of corpses.
The Empire's Inquisitors move on to the next phase of their project: a way of preventing missiles from striking ships entirely. Their initial gambit is for an energy field that covers the front half of the ship, preventing any solid matter from passing through.
ONE TURN REMAINS
The gambit fails to pay off. The Inquisitors express themselves baffled that anyone ever thought this was a serious contender in the first place. They turn their attention to other fields that involve less ridiculous ideas than energy fields that magically block solid matter. Such techno-wizardry is clearly the stuff of fantasy. A more traditional Zuul approach of just shooting at things is considered.
The refugees approach Ixion, but it appears to be an ill-favoured world. The Publisher fleet has vanished, seemingly back towards to their home worlds. However, a mysterious object resembling an amorphous shifting cube is now headed towards the system. It is believed to be part of the Internet, and its capabilities are unknown. To make matters worse, the 4th Survey Fleet is due to head back to Thundara for resupply and cannot support the new colony until it returns.
The Greatfather approaches the dais and begins to talk. Below him is a crowd of Zuul hundreds of thousands strong, while across the cosmos every Zuul hears his voice within their mind.
"MINIONS! Let it be known that your Greatfather is grateful for the good work that you do in My name. Let it be known that your hours of beta testing My work were not in vain, even if all your suggestions were discarded in favour of My wisdom. Instead, let it be known that you will be rewarded - ye, even now, before death. My loyal Farseers have discovered a secret known only to the filthy Customers, one they use to recuperate and give them strength. There is no secret that Customers posses that is of value, save this one: the Holy Day. I know! You say that very day spent working for the Greatfather is holy, and you are right. But you are my staff, and in your efforts to interpret my great works of genius after I have grown bored of them I have never before permitted you a Holy Day such as this.
"On this Holy Day, every Zuul will go to the edge of the ocean, to the sandy shores known to the Customers as 'beaches'. And there, you will make sport in the sun, or at least where the sun would be if the skies of our worlds were not clouded with the mark of our Labour. But before you make sport, you must undertake the ritual anointing. Every one of you will find in your possession a bottle labelled 'SUN TAN LOTION FACTOR ONE MILLION', and you must slather it over yourselves. Great must the slathering be! While you dost slather, loyal Zuul will spray this sacred ointment from airborne vehicles over every square inch of all our worlds, so that they might be sacred too.
"So go forth! Frolic! Make merry! But in your merry-making, spare a thought for the Zuul of Hydra, whose worlds out of all those in the cosmos have no beaches. To make ready for this Holy Day, those Zuul have transported themselves to a nearby star called Ixion, where the beaches are long and made of the purest white sand. There, they shall set about despoiling it in a proper Zuul manner. So spare them that thought, my minions, while they are forced to bear the burden of a virgin world."
The Greatfather retired from the dais, and moved back to his throne room. Already, reports from across the Empire on the progress of the Holy Day were coming through. His advisors approached the throne.
"Great news, my Lord! Your suggestion that Zuul build structures from sand in order to develop their engineering skills has already borne fruit. We are receiving reports that a female known in the local tongue as the Beast that Testifies has built a structure that surpasses any we have seen before. 'Betsy' is an impressive woman indeed.
"We have marked her down for ship design duty. We expect great things from her. Alongside this, the Wet Power Armour contests have gone well, while the Human Head Volleyball has proven very popular.
"The colonists have landed on Ixion. After the necessary culling from the lotteries, over ten thousand Zuul made it to the new world. We expect great things from this planet."
The Greatfather smiled, or at least as close to a smile as a Zuul's maw can manage. Not even the news that his Inquisitors had again failed to make the most of their latest gimmick could phase him today.
He would point their attention towards the single remaining salvage project. Even the Internet was obeying his mood; the object approaching Ixion appeared to be moving at sublight speeds and would not arrive before defences could be erected.
Nothing could ruin this perfect day. Aside from that exploding star, of course, but that was in the past and people just had to get over that sort of thing.
Long-time players will notice that above is a new icon for an incoming fleet. It's part of the latest beta patch. Yes, it's taken two years for basic icons to be put in place, but at least they're there now.
I want to talk about this particular Grand Menace a bit, because the story I went for in the end is not the one I'd planned when this event came up. SOTS 2 allows you to evacuate colonies with a colony fleet, transferring their population to a different system. It's intended for precisely this sort of situation. However, in order to make it work, you need the following:
- A colony fleet at a neighbouring colony;
- That colony to not be full (i.e. to be quite new);
- Enough turns to transport all the population, which could be hundreds depending on the colony size.
You have five turns to get your people out of there. Five. You'd be lucky to do anything meaningful at all, beyond research the radiation shielding. It's a shame, because evacuation is such a great idea that's been poorly implemented. But that's hardly surprising. This came up on the news ticker in the year that Hydra exploded:
Stay classy, Kerberos.