The First Warp Field Generator

Genius physicist, she.

Interstellar travel is one of those persistent, persnickety engineering and logistical problems that give people who think about “deadlines” and “reliability” nightmares.

700 years after Sputnik, and the problem still seemed insoluble. Oh sure, the first interstellar seedships were already centuries underway (and later efforts had already long since beaten them to their destinations). But ships these days were at best moving at 5% of light speed, and still they needed icebergs stapled on their fronts to intercept stray dust particles.

Until one day, some genius solved the unsolvable. Japanese citizen Kasumi Tsukino, living abroad in outer Mongolia, quietly announced a working warp drive she had constructed from farming equipment in her family yurt.

Until one day, some genius solved the unsolvable.

After promptly accepting an invitation from the European Astrophysical Society, an international team of experts arrived to find the Tsukino residence quite empty. Ms. Tsukino and her apparatus had, of course, been abducted the previous evening by United States Marines.

Safely back in the states, Tsukino was given a lab, a nuclear reactor, and 40 billion USD, while the outraged, excluded world collectively stomped their feet at a U.N. special hearing.

One year later, Ms. Tsukino was quietly deported to Japan. Officially, she had entered the country without a proper Visa. For what it’s worth, this much was actually true.

The real reason turned out to be that her warp field generator simply didn’t work. Like, at all. In fact, it seemed that the primary channel by which Tsukino had surmised her device was capable of superliminal transportation was the colorful sparks it emitted and spontaneous rotation it displayed when activated.

And so technology marched onward . . .

The Editation Project

Test your code in production.

NASA JPL’s matter editation project was viewed skeptically by the suits in Congress. Frankly, they averred, the project’s aim and scope were beyond them. Hacking the substructure of the universe to edit material properties? What could that even mean? Could it even be done? But NASA bundled it under the ever-popular planetary science program, and the pitiful funding continued to roll in.

Until one day they succeeded.

The problem with a system of units is that it is arbitrary. There’s no way to get a reference for it unless you have some other reference, and a reference for that, and so on—way back to some original, obscure reference. To define a meter, you need to define the speed of light, which means you need to define a second, which means you need to start counting the hyperfine transitions in a Caesium 133 atom.

So, when the scientists finally uncovered the quantum substrate, they found lots of handy functions. Move these atoms here, convert them to such-and-such a type, do whatever. But no units. So they took a guess.

At 15:33:48 Earth Standard Time, Pavol Kravnikov pushed a button on his laptop, and machinery clicked and sputtered. At 15:33:49, astronomers in Europe were aghast to find that the sky had changed. Half the stars in the Big Dipper were gone. The Milky Way was still there, but the sky twinkled with unfamiliar lights.

For what had been intended to teleport a 10 cm sphere 1 meter had, due to a mixup in units, in actuality teleported an 82 light-year sphere, 820 light years.


Ring Device

You ever see an inquisitive feline?

The first ring device was discovered in its own extremely high orbit around the brown dwarf binary Luhman 16, a mere 6.5 light years from the green hills of Earth. As an artifact, the device was impressive: fully a kilometer in diameter, and half that in transverse thickness, yet with a wall thin enough to squeeze between your fingers. From a distance, it looked, for all the worlds, like a rolled up piece of paper.

The discovering ship, U.F.P Vega, relayed news of the discovery to the recently established outpost on Luhman system’s one habitable planet, then cautiously sent a probe into the device’s aperture.

U.F.P. Vega was never heard from again.

Concerning the Subject of Lifeboats

Are you really so alive anymore?

Women and children are always the least willing to get into the lifeboats, it seems.

In an emergency, this horrific state of affairs costs lives. Death in space frequently strikes with almost no warning whatever, and quick action by all parties is the only even remotely tractable approach to stemming the hemorrhaging of precious human lives into vacuum.

All too often, a woman and a child board a lifeboat, only to have the kid forget her teddy bear in the cabin. So the kid slips away in the chaos, and the mother panics. And of course they can’t launch the boat until they’re reunited. Thirty seconds later, the reactor goes supercritical, and everyone dies horribly when the vessel explosively decompresses.

By the year 2290, such ghastly death tolls became so commonplace that the latest interplanetary liners began rolling out new standards: lifeboats would be deployed, with or without people, precisely 60 seconds after the alarms began sounding.

That got people’s attention.

By 2294, and despite escalating concessions by the United Planets Transportation Authority, international pressure was approaching the breaking point. The basic practice indisputably saved countless lives, but too many were orphans, widows, and grieving parents. The tens of thousands of ships in the fleet—and the dozens lost every year—became breeding grounds for discontent, even as passengers were snatched robotically from the jaws of certain death.

In fact, it was the survivors who argued most assiduously and caustically: better to doom the many than to devastate the few. Such, they argued, was the price of our humanity.

Rhyme of the Future Mariner

With apologies to STC and mollymawks.

I begged to stay, but could not win;
        My job was to obey.
To blast away from house and home,
        And fly to far away.

I packed a bag and kissed goodbye;
        Tears rolled down my cheeks.
I thought I’d never last that long:
        Return in 90 weeks.

I’d tried to read their dossiers;
        To do my rightful share.
I did my duty best I could,
        To pay my rightful fare.

But once above, with world below,
        I lost my mental grip,
On those I loved I’d left behind,
        While on that worldly ship.

I ceased to work; I’d seen the void;
        I’d lost my sanity.
They tried make me go back home
        To save on delta-vee.

But I had no home—not anymore.
        I’d left behind my charge—
Once forth I’d leapt to heaven’s grip,
        And to those endless stars.

Causam Mortis

“What’s retirement?”

In the inchoate years of the space age, the “old age” cause of death was abrogated in favor of more precise terms: “heart failure”, “secondary infection from weakened immune response”, und so weiter.

In subsequent years, a new cause was added: “stupidity”.

Space is hazardous to the point of absurdity. Leaking atmo? Death. Forget your transfer window? Death. Out of EVA fuel? Death. The universe is cold and dispassionate, and with better tools and equipment, the human error of incompetence increasingly—and vastly—was outstripping pure technological failure.

When the report came in of another deceased spacer, the cause of death ended up being “stupidity” more than ¾ of the time. Did it really matter that he suffocated on his own vomited organs? No. It mattered that, due to stupidity, he ventured outside the shadow shield of his atom-ship. Did it really matter that her flesh slowly charred away, trapped by her own skeleton in restraints of melting steel? No. It mattered that she crammed her ship full of personal effects and didn’t have enough fuel to break atmo.

Death in space environments is final and harsh. And when a corpse can be recovered, exact specificity in cause is wasted inquiry, and never comfort to the bereaved.

The Shield

Remember Timmy, with great energy
comes great relativistic confusion.

The pinch-field generator operates on the same principle as a black hole.

Matter makes light bend. The mechanism isn’t really light bending, per-se, so much as space bending around it. So the light travels a straight line in curved space, and it only looks like it bends.

Well, it turns out mass and energy are really the same thing. This gave an engineer an idea. And his son the same idea. And in turn his twin daughters the same idea, and one of their sons the same idea, and his son the same idea, and so on for a dozen or so generations until one of the line of engineers finally succeeded, and vague speculations became ultra-secret, classified military projects. See, with a bit of trickery, energy can be made to distort space too. And by rerouting that energy, you can change the effect, in a manner impossible with ordinary matter.

Why you hitting yourself?

The basic idea is to create, preferably as far from your ship as possible, a grid of superconducting cables, then dump energy into them. Like, a lot of energy. Like, the-total-output-of-the-sun-for-a-year kind of energy. But, with Dyson spheres around a hundred or so stars, the first fully functional ship sporting a pinch-field generator was completed in the 19th year of the Human-Tassad war.

The first encounter is worthy of note. At 7550-12-12 04:07 EST, the Tassad battlecruiser opened fire with starboard laser batteries 45 through 97 at a range of 17 light-seconds and nearly zero relative velocity. The U.F.P. Dauntless, sensors tripping at the sudden heat flux, automatically deployed the pinch-field’s incomprehensible energy from the central core of the ship, out into the far distant material of the shield.

As the night watch in the Dauntless was thrown unceremoniously into null-G, to a distant observer, the Dauntless appeared to disappear in an instant. But look closely, and you could see that the area where the shield had been now appeared a reflection—a cosmic mirror.

In truth, what had happened was the light now bent through 180 degrees, while still traveling in a straight line. But, unlike any physical mirror, no fractional percentage of light was absorbed by any material. No weakness existed. In fact, any material object nearby, save the exquisitely balanced shield cables themselves, would be torn asunder by tidal forces almost instantly. Invulnerable.

The titanic blast from the 53 Tassad laser batteries came to bear on the pinch-field, and were promptly and utterly harmlessly rotated through twisted space, 180 degrees in heading. Thereupon, the fiery lasers of the Tassad battlecruiser demonstrated the meaning of that ageless playground taunt: “Why you hitting yourself?”

The Human-Tassad War ended tidily in the 20th year.

Interstellar Supercruiser

Lives aren’t worth money! Single meaning, I swear!

Your average interstellar supercruiser measures approximately 1 meter wide and 175 long.

Companies demand results, and results demand fast action. And yet fast action over interstellar distances requires years, at minimum, for light to crawl the distance. Anything faster is literally the same as time travel.

So if you’re going to ship an employee in hibernation, you need to get going fast—not only for “results”, but also to avoid, for want of a better term, freezer burn.

So your average interstellar cruiser is hurled to speed by high-energy lasers and decelerated by nuclear pulse. The narrow cross section, droplet shield, and tungsten ablator give the craft a fighting chance of avoiding direct hits from nearly all of the hundred billion or so dust particles it will relativistically encounter.

Nevertheless, mortality rates are still above 70%.

In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream

So don’t try it.

Technically false.

In a space station, everyone else can hear you. If you’re outside, you have your suit radios. If you somehow don’t have a suit, there’s still measurable, tenuous atmosphere at all but the highest orbits—more medium yet, if you still have air in your lungs. Of course, in such a case, you’re unconscious and rapidly dead, and so aren’t screaming much anyway.

Yet, in my case, the sudden and unexpected reason turned out to be that there was no one to begin with at all.