Wednesday, 16 October 2019

A History of Homeworld Part 3: The Anomaly in the Desert

In this series celebrating the franchise's twentieth anniversary (and the recent announcement of Homeworld 3), I look at the background lore of the critically-acclaimed Homeworld series of video games. This instalment covers the events of the prequel game Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, and contains spoilers for that title.

A map of the territory covered by Operation Khadiim, 1110 KDS.

In the year 1073 of the Kharakian Dating System, the Daiamid, the ruling council of the Northern Coalition, was given news most stark. The planet was dying. The oceans were drying up much faster than previously suspected, the desert was advancing on every front and the natural aquifers needed to grow crops were failing. In less than three centuries, Kharak would become inhospitable to Kushan life.

The Daiamid kept this news to themselves (to the point of quashing independent scientific reports hinting at the same), even as they began debating what action to take. For decades, the kiithid had been struggling with another scientific revelation, one made by geneticists from Kiith S’jet. DNA scans had revealed that the Kushan people had absolutely nothing in common with the native species of Kharak, with the very genetic makeup of the planet being unable to give rise to advanced, intelligent life. The evidence suggested instead that the Kushan people had come to Kharak from elsewhere, another world altogether. 

The Xenogenesis Theory proved controversial, especially as it seemed to back up the religious fundamentalist view that the kiithid had been banished to Kharak for committing a sin among the heavens. But it also now hinted at an escape route: if the Kushan had come to Kharak from another world, then, if that world still existed, they could return the same way. The Daiamid turned their attention to the metallic debris rings circling Kharak, believing that they might be remnants of whatever spacecraft were used to bring their ancient ancestors to the planet. If they could learn more, they might find a way of escaping the planet before the end.

Kiith S’jet, always the most scientifically vigorous of the kiith, turned its full attention to the task. Pieces of the orbital debris had been studied for decades, leading to massive breakthroughs in fabrication techniques and technological development. The kiith constructed an advanced orbital satellite network, Project Viin Cal (named for the ancient Kushan god of hunters), which was to scour Kharak’s orbital space outwards for millions of kilometres for the slightest hint of the technology that brought the Kushan to Kharak. The system went online in the year 1100 KDS.

For six years the satellites scoured near-Kharak space and found very little: some more debris, but nothing that would lead to a major breakthrough. The scientists grew more frustrated even as they felt time running out for their world.

In 1106 KDS, one of the Viin Cal satellites malfunctioned and spun off its axis, its scanning field turning to encompass Kharak. A technician named Leykab Jaraci was tasked with bringing the satellite under control. After struggling with the recalcitrant satellite for hours, Jaraci regretfully gave the order for the satellite to self-destruct. He then ran the last scan from the satellite.

The results briefly overwhelmed the data processing systems in mission control. Not just single pieces of metallic debris, but huge signals had been detected, larger than entire Kushan sandcrawlers or desert carriers. These signals did not come from space, but from the Great Banded Desert, from Kharak itself. And, at the end of the scattering of signals, deep in the heat of the desert, was one huge signal which was generating energy readings on a par with Kharak’s sun. Leykab Jaraci became, in Kharak’s scientific community at least, a superstar and his name was given to his discovery: the Jaraci Object. But as the scale of the signals became clear, it gained another: the Primary Anomaly.

The wreck of the carrier Ifriit Naabal upon its discovery at Hell's Gate.

Operation Skaal Brii
The Daiamid met in emergency session. The Primary Anomaly and the associated signals gave them a hope beyond anything they’d felt before, not just for breadcrumbs of ancient technology that might allow them to reach the stars, but possibly semi-intact technological items and maybe even well-preserved examples of the ships that brought their ancestors to Kharak in the first place!

Reaching the Primary Anomaly was going to be difficult. The location of the object was deep in the Great Banded Desert, thousands of kilometres from the nearest suitable landing site. Long-range aircraft might reach the site but would not be able to touch down. Even worse, the location was within the range of territory occupied by the desert raiders of Kiith Gaalsien. Any attempt to buzz the area with aircraft might lead them straight to the Anomaly.

The Gaalsien had retreated from the north at the height of the Heresy Wars, but they had not died out. Instead they had set up new bases of operations in the highlands of the Great Banded Desert, particularly the Beladin Formation, Sarathi Basin and Garaaki Highlands. Somehow, despite the unrelenting heat and hostility of the lands, they had prospered. Their technology had improved dramatically and they had mastered hover technology, allowing their vehicles to float above the particulate matter and sandstorms that confounded Coalition military forces.

The Gaalsien now presented a formidable military threat to the Coalition. In 1075, Kiith Naabal and Kiith Soban lured the Gaalsien into attacking the Stormbreaker Wall and then outflanked and ambushed the attacking force in the Night of Fiery Daggers (Siifar Kor’shesh). Ten thousand Gaalsien troops died in the battle, with no quarter given. The threat of the Gaalsien had been reduced for a generation, but it had also awoken a fierce hatred in the Gaalsien for the Coalition, and a yearning for vengeance.

After much discussion, the Daiamid agreed to launch an expedition to find the Primary Anomaly. The Ifrit-class heavy carrier Ifriit Naabal was adapted for a long-range, deep-desert mission using silent running to reach the Anomaly undetected. The Northern Coalition Military Council (NCMC) offered severe objections to the mission, noting that the Ifrit-class was old and outdated, and the few remaining carriers were being retired in favour of a new design, the in-development Sakala-class deep desert carrier. In particular, the Ifriit-class was not designed for long-distance missions far away from resupply for months at a time. They argued for patience and the adaptation of the new Sakala-class design for the mission.

They were overruled and the Ifriit Naabal was launched mere months after the discovery of the Primary Anomaly. With a complement of 1,256 and commanded by the capable Captain Deckhard Naabal and first officer Lt. Jacob S’jet, the Ifriit Naabal set out with high hopes for success.

All contact with the Ifriit Naabal was lost less than a month after launch. Attempts to locate the carrier from the air failed, and it was unclear if the carrier had been lost to accident or Gaalsien action. The NCMC after-action report was scathing, reiterating the point that the Ifrit Naabal was not suitable for the mission it had been given and blaming the loss of 1,256 personnel on impatience and lack of strategic planning.

A second mission was put into the planning stages, but this time it was going to be done with greater care, detail and planning.

The Gaalsien did not accommodate these plans. 

The carrier Kapisi departing Epsilon Base.

Operation Khadiim
The Sakala-class deep desert carrier was a formidable machine. Bigger and much more heavily armoured than the Ifriit-class, with a complement of 1,850 souls, the Sakala-class was designed to operate continuously without resupply and away from home port for months at a time. The original design had been for a spearhead force capable of punching through to the Gaalsien heartlands located several thousand kilometres to the south of the northern highlands, close to Kharak’s functionally uninhabitable equatorial band, but as it turned out this was just what was needed to reach the Primary Anomaly.

The taskforce would comprise five carriers: Kiith Siidim’s Sakala; Kiith S’jet’s Kapisi, Kiith Naabal’s Fiiskire (to replace the lost Ifrit Naabal), Kiith Hraal’s Akalon and Kiith Soban’s Amida. With each carrier capable of building its own attack tanks, aircraft and resource gatherers in the field, this was a colossal military force capable of handling anything the Gaalsien could throw against it.

Unfortunately, the plan required the carriers to be built and actually launched. The Gaalsien forestalled this plan by launching a steadily escalating series of offensives starting in 1107 KDS and continuing into 1110. Coalition Intelligence concluded that the Gaalsien had somehow intercepted plans regarding Operation Khadiim – or perhaps from the earlier Ifriit Naabal expedition – and were aware that a new operation would be launched to find the Primary Anomaly. One saving grace was that the Gaalsien had not located the Anomaly themselves, with satellite coverage continuing to show the area was free of Gaalsien occupation.

NCM Command ordered that the mission launch date was to be brought forwards by three months, but the contributing kiithid had already gone into overdrive to finish the carriers early. The Sakala was launched first and had already proven itself in several combat operations before the Kapisi rolled off the production line. The Fiiskire, Akalon and Amida were still not complete when the Gaalsien launched their main offensive in 1110 KDS, striking hard against the Stormbreaker Wall and the fortified main defensive wall surrounding the three primary NCM field bases: Charlie, Epsilon and Juno. Kapisi had to prove itself under fire as it fled the destruction of Epsilon Base and had to undergo its final desert refit at the Boneyard military base even as the installation came under attack.

Fortunately, the Gaalsien offensive had limited resources and, when part of the attacking force breached the Stormbreaker Wall and opened an attack vector to Tiir itself, they chose to focus on exploiting that advantage. In the chaos, both the Kapisi and Sakala were able to slip past their lines and begin the long journey into the Great Banded Desert. 

Tiir, capital city of the Northern Coalition, under attack by Gaalsien forces.

The two carriers rendezvoused at a point east of Cape Wrath, known as Hell’s Gate. Here they beheld a sobering sight: the wreck of the Ifriit Naabal. The carrier had been overcome by the desert sands during a superstorm that had wracked the planet for thirteen days. If had foundered barely a hundred kilometres from the edge of Coalition territory.

The two carriers planned to head east, holding a course north of the Beladin Formation and Garaaki Highlands before swinging quickly south to the Primary Anomaly. This would allow them to avoid most of the worst desert heat and the heart of Gaalsien territory. However, this plan was interrupted by intelligence gleaned from the Ifriit Naabal which identified a key point of interest at the “Kalash Site,” located due south in the Sarathi Basin. The Kapisi diverted to the site and discovered it to be a vast, wrecked spacecraft of unknown origin. Analysis of the wreck revealed many technological innovations to the Kapisi crew, who began retrofitting their carrier with the new technology. It also became clear to the crew that these wrecks were scattered all through the desert, and were the source of the Gaalsien’s technological advancement.

The Kapisi and Sakala turned east and punched through the Gaalsien lines, whilst news from the home front became direr: the Gaalsien main army had reached Tiir and launched a massive assault on the capital. The carriers then made a surprising discovery: a group of starships that had apparently materialised partially inside solid rock. Salvaging Gaalsien intelligence files, the Kapisi crew discovered evidence of “quantum waveforms,” a theoretical method of faster-than-life travel through a medium known as “hyperspace.” The alien ships had been traversing through hyperspace in the vicinity of Kharak when they had been forcibly dragged out of hyperspace near the planet, or in this specific case, inside it. The Kapisi crew realised that the Primary Anomaly might be the source of the hyperspace interference.

Unfortunately, during its offensive the Gaalsien managed to recover intelligence from Epsilon Base pinpointing the coordinates of the Primary Anomaly. The K’Had Sajuuk, the supreme religious leader of the Gaalsien, took a large fleet and made for the Anomaly, and would arrive weeks before the Coalition forces could reach the site.

The Coalition carriers passed through the Whispering Gallery, a long canyon in the Garaaki Highlands and an effective shortcut to the open desert beyond. Hounded by Gaalsien forces all the way, they eventually reached the flat Khashar Plateau, an effective natural runway which allowed resupply aircraft to land from Tiir. During this operation, Kiith Siidim betrayed its Coalition partners by ordering the Sakala to shoot down the resupply craft bound for the Kapisi, to try to starve it of resources. The Siidim, whose religious extremism from the Heresy Wars was not as moderated as first thought, believed that it was their destiny to find the Primary Anomaly and use to ascend to the stars…alone.

Fortunately, the Kapisi was able to recover enough material from the crashed craft to press on. The upgrades the carrier had installed from the alien wrecks also made it superior in battle to the Sakala. The Kapisi trapped the Sakala and destroyed it at Torin Crater.

It was also discovered that Lt. Jacob S’jet from the Ifriit Naabal had been imprisoned by the Gaalsien instead of being killed four years earlier. He had escaped and made his way to a wrecked ship in Torin Crater. Here he discovered that the ship had launched an orbital weapons platform before it had been pulled down to the planet’s surface by the Primary Anomaly’s quantum and gravimetric forces. Using the barely-functioning control systems on the ship, he was able to active the orbital platform, which now fired on any ground vehicle near the Anomaly, forcing the Gaalsien forces to retreat. This allowed the Coalition forces to regroup and reach the Anomaly.

At the same time, word came from Tiir of a great victory. The Gaalsien forces had erred in engaging in street-to-street fighting in the capital, as they had gotten bogged down in a war of attrition they could not win against the numerically superior Coalition forces, which had regrouped and counter-attacked. Tiir had been liberated and the Gaalsien forces thrown back in disarray.

Rachel S'jet becomes the first Kushan to lay eyes on Khar-Toba for almost twenty-nine centuries.

The Kapisi reached the Anomaly and discovered it to be a wrecked spacecraft far larger than any other they had discovered. Rachel S’jet, the expedition’s chief science officer, scanned the wreck and discovered the ruins of a vast city sprawling around the craft. Khar-Toba, the First City of Kharak. The legends were real.

In order to reach the Anomaly, the Kapisi had to deactivate the weapons platform (lest it fire on them). Once the Gaalsien realised this, they attacked in force. A final battle at Khar-Toba took place, but Rachel was able to fine-tune the platform to emit much narrower-beam blasts. In concert with the Kapisi’s augmented weapons, they were able to destroy the K’Had Sajuuk and end the threat from the Gaalsien.

The war had been costly, with tens of thousands of lives lost and the walls of Tiir breached. But the Coalition – battered by war and internal dissent with the Siidim (who now, weakly, proclaimed that the Sakala had been acting without their authority) – had won, and now beheld its prize. Khar-Toba was vast, sprawling for hundreds of square kilometres around the wrecked ship. It would take years to survey and explore the site. With the Gaalsien neutralised, resupply posts were established and soon scientific and archaeological teams were swarming over the site. The technology they recovered resulted in a near-overnight generational jump forward in Kharak’s knowledge and ability.

But far greater discoveries were to come.

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