Uncle Jimbo's Bug Huntin' Range
By an accident of history, the Orlamus, StarMechs and Orions have come into contact with the Orthopteroids at a time when they are more united than ever before. Though they now deal with humans as a single entity, the Orthopteroids are divided by conflicts easily as old and bitter as those of humanity.
After taming their shattered homeworld of At'oraak, and beginning to understand the devices left behind by their predecessors, the Orthopteroids quickly spread throughout the 142 Reticulus system. By their translation of orik-t'ha documents and investigation of the remains of many driveships, Orthopteroid scientists and leaders knew far better than their human counterparts that FTL travel was both possible and profitable. Overcoming the lingering resentments of centuries of nest-conflict, they formed a Commission to design and build a means of travelling to the stars.
It quickly became obvious that such a feat would involve huge funding commitments from every Orthopteroid alliance. Reluctantly, but expecting huge profits from the fabled orik-t'ha empire, the ground-based nations agreed. Slowly but surely, the Stardrive Commission gained control over the industrial and space assets of the system.
900 years ago (AD 1624 by the human calendar), within the hellish inner-system Flame Belt, the Commission made the first test of the crude device known as the drivesender. The Orthopteroids gained the freedom of the stars once more.
Without any PL 6 technology capable of containing a singularity, the Orthopteroid drive-sender creates one in open space, held at a fixed point by gravitic stressors. Over a few microseconds, this point of distorted space is bathed in multiple gamma-ray beams, exciting it closer and closer to collapse. At a precisely calculated time, a small capsule is fired towards the singularity by a magnetic accelerator just as a bank of tachyon focussers fires a massive surge beam. In a barely controlled collapse, a momentary rift forms, sending the capsule across lightyears of normal space.
This device is hugely inefficient by PL 7 standards, requiring nine times the power factors listed on the Starfall Distance table. During its period of use, the Orthopteroids never achieved a starfall of more than 10 lightyears, or successfully sent an object larger than 10,000 tons. The sending-ship must be more or less spherical, since the forces of the rift would certainly tear apart any long, narrow object, scattering its parts throughout the drivesender's range.
The drivesender is also inherently inaccurate, imposing a +3 penalty on all astrogation checks. Any Critical Failure in navigation is an error of timing, failing to impact the spatial rift before it closes. The sending-ship does not pass through, and suffers 2d4m damage to every compartment from the tearing maelstrom of fractured space.
Even worse, the tachyon-tardyon border transmutation effects of the drivesender create an enormous burst of hard radiation at both ends of the rift, in addition to beam wandering of the gamma and tachyon projectors pointed directly at the launch point. The drivesender crews were less affected, as they were shielded deep within their asteroid bases and constantly rotated. The passengers had no such protection. With PL 6 radiation shielding, every person within an object launched through a drivesender, or a ship straying within 0.1AU at the time of launch, is exposed to an R4 environment. Even PL 7 shielding on ships smaller than dreadnought class can only reduce this to R3. Anyone so foolish as to be exposed to the burst in an e-suit suffers the effects of R5 radiation.
The original Reticulus drive-sender, like all its successors in the present Orthopteroid Core, comprises four large stations in a precisely calibrated synchronous orbit. Three house the gravity throwers, gamma beams, tachyon focussers and supercomputers that activate the drive-sender. The fourth and largest is the linear accelerator that launches the sending-ship. This assembly is located very close to the sun, to take advantage of the natural tachyon focussing of the star's gravity. Even with this aid, a drivesender has only a 1 in 3 chance per day of locating a tachyon flux maximum for a launch window. The flux maximum lasts for a variable time, allowing 1-6 launches within a period of up to an hour.
The Drone Wars
Once the drawbacks of the drive-sender became obvious, the Stardrive Commission encountered a marked lack of enthusiasm in its recruitment campaign. Even among the courageous and radiation-resistant Orthopteroids, few would willingly accept the high likelihood of lingering death after travelling through the terrible device. Many automated probes were sent out, but it became obvious that the new systems could only be exploited, and new drivesenders built to launch their resources back to At'oraak, if living colonists were sent.
In answer to the Commission's appeal, many Orthopteroid nations saw the chance to dispose of rebellious elements. They enacted rulings stripping their unruly citizens of property rights and exiling them into space - with the opportunity for "assistance" in building a sending-ship and "finding a new home more to their liking". With no choice, generations of dissidents, criminals and even a few extremist volunteers were launched off to the nearest systems. While technically a neutral party, the Commission secretly encouraged these efforts. The home government took little interest in the running of the colonies, allowing the dissidents to form whatever leadership they wished, as long as their supply contracts were filled.
In return for food and industrial shipments, many colonists seemed diligent enough in building their own drivesenders and sending back shipments of common ores. The commission was disappointed in the many colonial contingents that failed to report back, fell behind in their quotas, or reported failure in recovering the rare ores and technology that the automated probes had suggested. Drivesender malfunctions, resulting in failed shipments and crippling accidents, seemed to be an endless plague to the colonist-built engines. Over several centuries, the colonies returned vast riches to At'oraak, but the homeworld grew resigned to the fact that the initial estimates had been far too generous.
In AD 1865 by the human calendar, the all-powerful Stardrive Commission received a chance report from a minor employee returned from the colonies, which had highly disturbing implications. A wave of undercover agents were sent out. Many (in fact, a surprising number) succumbed to radiation sickness, others sent back incomplete reports or even reports that appeared to be cleverly faked, and others reported that everything was well. The Commission was thrown into confusion, sending more agents and shipments of security troops, with little better result.
All doubt ended three years later, at the first peak of the long-predicted Third Conjunction tachyon storm. Hundreds of assault vessels burst into the Reticulus system, falling on Commission bases with terrible violence. For almost as long as the colonies had been established, their leaders had planned to strike back against their old enemies and oppressors. The failed mines, disappointing planets and drivesender accidents had been a tissue of lies, covering up unauthorised sub-colonies, military buildup and formation of alliances until the colonists were ready to strike.
Four great alliances of the colonists were revealed. The Northward Cartel had grown strong in technology, sending legions of fearsome killer robots and automated battlecraft that ignored the drivesender's radiation. The Vitak Coalition sent wave assaults of their remarkably violent client species, the vriik, backed up by elite legions of Orthopteroid clones. The Tauran Dominion and Gik-Ot Alliance both declared their independence, but were content to hold their borders against the rare Commission counterstrikes and raids from their neighbours. A few colonies remained loyal, or were bought off by the Commission.
After their initial horrible surprise, the Commission's vast military and industrial resources began to tell, driving the Northward and Vitak forces from 142 Reticulus, and retaking or destroying many nearby colonies. The battle line reeled back and forth, with no side holding a clear advantage, and none vulnerable to a decisive strike against their core worlds.
Opener of the Way
Without warning, an enormous ship appeared at the edge of the Reticulus system, fully 40 lightyears from any of the frontier zones. The five-kilometer long fortress ship utterly eclipsed anything that had been fielded in the war, either through the drivesender or in system defence. It carried with it a swarm of destroyers and assault ships, each twice the size that the warring factions had been able to send between systems, and packed with fresh ratings and marines. At their leisure the crew bombarded and destroyed the home system's defences, easily beating off fleets sent by both the Cartel and Coalition to intervene.
The Tauran Dominion had found, and failed to report, the greatest prize of the colonies, an orik-t'ha fortress ship with an intact stardrive. They had bided their time until their fully prepared forces could make a decisive strike. Although the Vitak/Tauran front raged on for months, ravaging a dozen planets, the war was effectively over.
The victorious Taurans imposed a far-sighted and relatively fair treaty, ending the hostilities and forcing the warring nations to agree to a species-wide ongoing Conference of reconciliation. Despite their objections, the neutral Gik-Ots were forced to accept the Conference's jurisdiction as well, under pointed pressure from all four of the warring sides. Many Gik-Ot citizens resented this deeply, and took the first chance to emigrate to new colonies beyond the effective reach of the Core.
The Opener of the Way is still in commission today with its original orik-t'ha stardrive. While based on the same principles, an original orik-t'ha unit is not as efficient as today's Orthopteroid drives, consuming the same number of power factors as a human stardrive.
The Dark Gate War
After centuries of rapid expansion, amid constant colonial grumbling and abortive rebellions, the Orthopteroid Conference of Unity encountered a new threat. In earlier years, several scout ships sent into the Inner Taurus sector, a filament of stars crossing down towards the ecliptic plane of the galaxy, had not returned. The area acquired a bad reputation, becoming known as the Dark Gate.
Quite suddenly, the nearby colonies suffered a wave of attacks by fleets of unknown automated battlecraft. Many of the smaller colonies fell, and the larger centres struggled to mobilise and build up their defences. In an apparent deliberate strategy, the unknown invaders flanked the outer colonies and fell on the supply lines back to the Core, cutting off the colonists from aid.
Reeling from a string of defeats, the Conference moved to full war production, demanding heavy levies from the whole of Orthopteroid space. Many of the colonies struggled to pay. The outer Gik-Ot colonies confirmed their long-debated status by refusing point blank. The financially strapped Core decided on expeditions to subdue the Gik-Ot Dissension which were thrown back with heavy losses. Taking heart from the Core's obvious weakness, Vriik Destiny cancelled its contribution of troops and funds, and a disorganised swarm of colonies on the outer fringes of the cluster refused to pay further levies. By the end of the war, with the Core unable to spare resources to punish them, these colonies had grandly declared themselves as the stellar nation Outreach.
Under these crippling domestic problems, the Core decided on a defensive strategy, holding the frontier against any further intrusion. For several years, the Dark Gate automated warships held back, making probing attacks to test the strength of the Core defences. It was assumed that the bulk of the fleet was busy in destroying the last vestiges of the outer colonies. Just as suddenly as they had begun attacking the colonies, the Dark Gate fleet moved to a full assault, slowly pushing the Core forces back in a bitter system-by-system campaign of attrition.
In a sudden reversal, the numbers attacking the Core lines rapidly declined. It became clear that the invaders had serious problems of their own, falling back and pulling out numerous ships from the attacking task forces. Finally, at the minor system now called New Hope, the Core fleet stumbled on a running battle between a Dark Gate task force and a mixed fleet of converted freighters, newly built cruisers and captured Dark Gate ships, armed with devastating EMP weapons.
Over years of terrible battle, the encircled colonies had held out against the Dark Gate AI fleets. Through bitter experience they had learned the nature of their enemy and invented specialised weapons and tactics to deal with them. Once the enemy AIs, in some inhuman logic, had divided their forces to assault the Core fleet, the colonial Union of Betelgeuse fleets had made rapid gains.
The colonists were less than happy to meet the Core worlders who had abandoned them, and refused to accept their command. After months of acrimonious meetings and mutual accusations, a shaky and suspicious alliance was hammered out. The combined forces drove the Dark Gate fleets back. Finally, in a stunning reversal, the fortress ship housing the command AI was caught by a sudden movement, its engines crippled and its supporting task group hammered by a full fleet division. The Betelgeuse admiral insisted on a boarding action, sending thousands of marines to reduce the city-sized ship and capture its AI datacore.
The Gardener datacore revealed the true significance of the Dark Gate war, and the source of their mysterious and terrible enemy.
Millions of years ago, in the final genocidal war of the orik-t'ha, the inhabitants of the Dark Gate cluster had been the last nation standing. Having bombed all other orik-t'ha into oblivion or Stone Age degeneracy, the Conquerors turned inward, building great and wise AIs to protect and serve them as they led a life of contemplation of ultimate truths.
From their initial resolve to live in wisdom and contemplation, the Conquerors quickly passed into hedonism, supported by the absolute servitude of the AIs. Over thousands of years, hedonism became feeble-minded madness. The great race slowly sank into a final decline, losing their scientific knowledge, their ability to use technology, and finally their language and reason. The orik-t'ha still survive today, in a certain sense.
Though less affected by time, the AI protectors slowly grew old and senile through millennia of solitary thought and random radiation glitches. They began to fulfil their programs in ways never envisaged. Those which went entirely mad, and turned on their charges, were destroyed by the other AIs, causing further damage and confusion to those that remained. Those that were only slightly deranged, culling the orik-t'ha to an optimal level or destroying other species as competitors, were judged fit to continue. The collective judgement of sanity slowly drifted, as the AIs fell one by one. At last, the fortress ship Gardener interpreted its duty as abandoning the Conqueror worlds altogether to destroy all trace of the intruding Orthopteroids.
Current Orthopteroid Fleets
The Orthopteroid naval doctrine does not support the typical human use of a fortress ship as the flagship of a naval task group. These massive vessels are retained at the next level of command as a theatre command base. This means that a Orthopteroid nation's fleet is likely to contain far more dreadnoughts, and less than half the number of fortress ships than a human nation of the same strength.
The Orthopteroid Core currently has three fortress ships in commission: Opener of the Way, Dominion, and Northern Glory. The Union of Betelgeuse has the Free Star and has just re-launched the refitted Gardener. In total, the Cluster Coalition disposes of more than three hundred dreadnoughts and battlecruisers.
The Vriik Destiny has its original colony ship, Elector, and reportedly has laid down a second fortress-class ship. The Gik-Ot Dissension has no fortress ships but is strong in battlecruisers and full carriers. Outreach has no navy worthy of note, with perhaps ten to fifteen ships above cruiser class.