Young Minds

Brings a whole new level to “spiderman”!

Truly marvelous is the mind of a child.

Witness the legion of Aegis 241 combat robots: a deluge of metal legs biting into surprised pavement, the kzat kzat of a pulse disintegrator, the screams of the dying, the receding ruin, the silence.

Inside, into the alleyway, shatter the window, leap into the basement, slam the door, bolt the locks, cringe into the darkness. The robots squeeze tightly, rolling through the drainage pipes, bursting through the fasteners inside. Listen to despair as realization dawns, muffled slumps of bodies bleeding out, mindless skittering on the wet cement as the robots search,
search . . .

But the robots are not mindless.
Nor are they even true robots.

Witness the funeral procession: a river, a government building, a body floating out from under the barbed-wire fence of the perimeter. An infant, headless. A corpse drifting along just below the surface, bedecked in gauze, carried onward by the river to a sea of terrible change. A mother salutes, a tear of pride and sorrow trembling on her cheek.

True robots do not feel. They do not think.
They cannot solve problems. They cannot learn.

Witness the final fortress, colorless in daylight, lurid in backscattered radar. Infrared, ultraviolet, even X-ray: a collage of inhuman frequencies, laser tightbeams criss-crossing a spider’s web: a spider born to this challenge.

A beam cleaves the perimeter. A shadow leaps the walls. On the ceiling, the spider evades the mines below. The turrets find no purchase. The guards are mere delay. The door is armored, but the transom is glass. Into the sanctum tumbles the robot. Antiquated railguns chatter, and the demon responds in radiance and in fire and in weapons more subtle.

Imagine if we could harness the ingenuity of children.
Imagine . . .

Witness the self-destruct of the building, the explosion, the robot cast into rubble, shattered and broken and victorious.

Witness its tortured neurons, splattered on the ancient mosaic, pulling apart in places like the fibers of a mushroom. The delicate gold electrodes infiltrating the brainstem, flesh melding into metal, veins flowing outward into steel legs and automatic weaponry, the river meeting the ocean of terrible change.

The shaken men approach. They point and stare and stand and whisper:
“What is this?”
“What is this?”

Yes, truly marvelous is the mind of a child.

Titanic Trouble

This problem is elementary.

[Ceres Evening News textual bulletin, 2218-07-22]

The Titan Protectorate (TTP) yesterday beamed a brief public statement to UFP members just months following its earlier bid for independence, in which it renounces the same:

The Titan Protectorate (previously also known as Titan Propellants) hereby formally renounces its claim to independence from the UFP, and is requesting three Zirconium billets for reactor repairs.

The short announcement follows three weeks of private communications between UFP Command and the contentious moon, the contents of which have been the subject of much speculation.

For more than a decade, Orbital Materials TTP, a para-nationalized UFP-protected industrial outpost, has supplied the outer system with methylox and Hydrogen propellants. Methane is abundant on Titan, and LOX and Hydrogen can be obtained by catalyzing the water-ice surface. This process requires energy, which cannot be offset[1] by burning more methane into Carbon oxides.

Since solar energy is anemic in the Cronian system, (and is largely blocked by Titan’s dense atmosphere), TTP’s primary import has been fission piles to provide crucial heat and power. TTP has expressed dissatisfaction with the arrangement, maintaining that the trade is unfair.

Related: Inside Tamra Jameson’s audacious plan to move Titan to warmer orbit
Spokesperson says: “The whole moon is practically made out of rocket fuel.”

TTP recently completed a fusion reactor, as fusible isotopes are found abundantly in Saturn’s atmosphere, which would allow TTP to forgo fission imports and function independently.

Last January, TTP declared independence, restyling itself Titan Propellants. The motion was broadly condemned by UFP members.

Since January, methylox markets sharply peaked before settling around +83%. Outer system propellant needs are serviced primarily by Orbital Materials, with several mining operations in Cronian space and depots at TTP as well as Pheobe Station, a moon in retrograde orbit. The Bureau of Concerned Astroengineers has called for renewed development in alternate methylox sources on Mars and in Jovian space.

Related: Six ways to turn your methylox junker into a hydrorocket!

AP reporters on Titan confirm that the new fusion reactor is offline following an apparent malfunction, but that few specifics were released to the public or press. The outpost has been subsisting on fission backups, which are insufficient to resume production.

Titan’s idle laborer population has been cited in several recent disruptions on the moon, including one in which a regional bureaucrat was attacked.

CEN’s Blake Juylio reporting.

[1] See e.g.

Scattered Defenses

“Water you doing?”

After the first barrage, I saw the turrets swivel under newly activated AI control, and a torrent of violet plasma flow over the hull and harden against the crushing force of two opposing magnetic fields into a seething conflagration that crackled and sputtered pink fire.

Of the latter, the so-called “plasma window” had previously found use in electron-beam welding applications. Alone, it would stop nothing. But it would (mostly) hold an atmosphere. Great canisters along the ship’s broadside had slid open, exposing their contents to hard vacuum. The precious water within, ordinarily used for remass, was furiously boiling.

The next volley struck then, and even from the emergency redoubt, nestled deep within the ship’s interior, I felt the lurch as the cargo bay was gutted by a spinal-mount ray, even as I saw it burn cruelly in a visiplate.

But the steam and ice had by now fully formed, resublimating and desublimating into each other as crystals danced in the flames, and upon the third volley, their pencil-thin near-IR laser chewed into the mixture, and was absorbed and scattered by it. The hull amidships smoldered worrisomely in a wide circle, but it held.

To sustain one atmosphere in a plasma window requires a bit shy of 20 megawatts per square meter. But you can get away with a thousandth that if you settle for holding less pressure. Even so, banks of hydrogen batteries were rapidly discharging in an internal struggle the ship’s twin reactors would quickly lose. The ad-hoc shields could stay up for less than a minute, perhaps, before waste heat and power requirements forced them to drop.

Excerpt from “Farside Encounter”; collected in the anthology Tall Tales of Trade, 49.95

The Battle of Outer Jovia

“Yer a long way from Kansas, ain’tcha?”

[From Deep Space Entanglements: A Tactical History of the Battles of the Interregnum]

The first battle of the newly-seceded Jovian moons—now formally christened the Jovian Trade Alliance, and informally, the land of Jovia—against the remnants of the United Federation of Planets (UFP), demonstrates aptly the cultural and conceptual schism that had at that time formed between those two polities.

Maintaining warships is astronomically expensive when they’re literal boats floating on an ocean. In space—well, the sum is something more than astronomical. The first “battleships” of the UFP were actually hastily repurposed merchant vessels, built for slow inter-asteroid trafficking, affixed with mining apparatus (anything that chews up an asteroid will chew up another ship).

Even compared against this sad fleet, that of the nascent Alliance was sadder still. The major infrastructure of the Belt remained under UFP governance and control, leaving the Alliance with no real mining industry. And so the ships of the Alliance were armed with sidearms—literal hand rifles—welded to their sides. Their only advantage was delta-V capability—a capacity, as we shall see, shrewdly wielded.

The battle was pitched about one light-minute from Jupiter. The five Alliance ships, comprising almost entirely captured interplanetary freighters, were well-suited to long-distance operations between the Belt and Jupiter itself. With such knowledge of their enemy, the twelve short-range UFP vessels hung back defensively in order to first discover their opponent’s strategy.

Maintaining warships is astronomically expensive when they’re literal boats floating on an ocean. In space . . . well.

However, the Alliance fleet did not appear to press its delta-V advantage, as had been predicted, instead holding off in a wide formation. And so a passive stalemate ensued at a range of about 1 light-millisecond.

Finally, the UFP ships, outnumbering and outgunning their Alliance counterparts, mustered and drove headlong toward its center vessel: an unstoppable charge.

The Alliance made no move to stop it.

In fact, the targeted vessel frankly turned and ran. The outer vessels of the Alliance formation swooped sideways, to bear on the flanks of the in-falling UFP fleet.

. . . and passed it by.

The Alliance vessels were racing past the UFP fleet, through it, to converge on its logistical support ship, the UFP Corella. The Corella being the only long-distance freighter then repurposed by the UFP, stored the combined life support, ordnance, fuel, and other such vital materiel to the UFP war effort. It was also completely unarmed, and unguarded.

By the time the UFP fleet commander realized his error, his fleet was two light-milliseconds away, and increasing at 10 km/s. The Corella was destroyed before its fleet could even turn around.

In the end, the Alliance fleet returned safely home, having operated adroitly within range of Pasiphae Station, the de-facto rebellion capital. Meanwhile, without fuel or food, the UFP vessels were destroyed without having fired a shot.

Though the UFP was to ultimately win the broader conflict through sheer attrition, in early battles such as these, the UFP‘s infamous stubbornness and aggression endured heavy casualties against the Jovian pioneering innovation.


Can missiles wear lead aprons?

Modern battles are fought at close range—a light-second or so—since lasers are big, heavy, slow, and radiate more than half their power into their parent ships as low-quality waste heat. That’s why every conflict since the 2110s has been fought with missiles and k-slugs.

The danger with missiles is that they’re fast and independently targeted. Try shooting them down with a gun of some type and you have a problem: the missile has traveled literally miles before your bullet gets halfway down the barrel.

Particle beam weaponry was once largely considered to be useless. About the best it can do is barf up some bremsstrahlung secondary radiation. Deliciously lethal, sure, but only in a localized area, and certainly not structurally damaging. The engineer-physicists eventually realized, however, that the particle beam is well-suited to defense. And so, the fan was invented.

The fan makes use of an otherwise annoying property of particle beams. When you deflect a stream of charged particles, you’re accelerating it, but the stream still goes basically the same speed afterward (just in a different direction). That extra energy gets dumped in the form of synchrotron radiation, streaming out tangentially in a flood of hard x-rays. So you get a searing fan of radiation, spreading knifelike in a plane.

Nowadays, when the call goes out for point defense, the ship fires up its spinal-mount linear accelerator. Huge flickering electromagnets in the bow deflect the beam semi-randomly, and a decollaminated blast of bit-flipping, electronics-frying radiation cooks the missiles as they reach the terminal guidance phase.

Small wonder the Jovian Trade Union’s radiation hardening expertise is widely-sought.

Annihilator Station

No, we are not compensating for something.

During the apex of the second proto-galactic empire, spanning from approx CE 14200 to CE 14500 (before it was subsumed into the current galactic empire), great monuments of engineering were fabricated in a stupendous display of that same society’s decadence.

Annihilator Station—a name chosen, amusingly, by a third grader from the Alnilim system in a contest—provides an illustrative example.

A.S. was envisioned as a defense system for an entire solar system—specifically, the Centauri system containing the Empire’s capital. (No one was quite sure who the enemy was, but this small matter demonstrates the cavalier and bold attitude which characterized the proto-empire at peak.)

In all dimensions, A.S. was enormous. The main structure itself was built around a composite laser, whose primary bore was fully 2,000 km in diameter. The focusing system alone massed as much as Ireland. Since rotating the structure (and so the main beam itself) into an arbitrary alignment could require as long as a month, the main bore could be tapped to power secondary laser batteries—more mobile, practical laser turrets whose diameters ranged from 10 m (at the extreme lower end), up to 100 km (of which there were 10) or 50 km (of which there were 471).

It was literally the case that the combined fleets (at that time) of all interstellar nations, if put side-by-side, top-to-bottom, arranged broadside, could not cover even a tenth of that enormous aperture. The device was therefore capable of obliterating, in a single shot, the sum total of all militaries that at that time existed. For that matter, it could irradiate all of a large moon’s surface simultaneously, or cause a gas giant to combust.

The power requirement was, literally, astronomical. Just to keep the lights and life support on, A.S. burnt a (combined) mass of Plutonium the size of Gibraltar every year. The thing leaked enough air out from between atoms of its 500 m-thick hull that it had to be replenished by regular shipment. Of course, it had non-negligible gravity at its surface, too, and so keeping the lenses free of any stray, diffracting atmosphere provided employment to over 10,000,000.

In the end, the threat A.S. had been built to counter never materialized, and the station was ultimately done in by an equal mixture of logistics and intrigue.

One unfortunate fact of military operation is the necessity of hierarchy—particularly, a chain of command. Therefore, for any operation of any scope, there’s always someone in charge—maybe with advisers, but ultimately still one guy.

In this case, that guy was Grand Admiral Juiykla Hvvghinchych.

The Admiral was fond of booze and women, and, being the direct administrator of the largest military operation in history, found that he could rather simply arrange them, polity be damned. One of his consorts was a woman named Symotrishia Kavan. Ms. Kavan was connected, obliquely, to a curator of the Museum of Gambling, located on the sixth planet of the Centauris. This curator was in direct correspondence with the criminal underground, which of course was sympathetic to piracy.

Piracy, post-21st century, invariably (and necessarily) involved hit-and-run tactics. Commodity pricing on local stargates and reservations booked in advance made effective pursuit by law-enforcement all but impossible—clientele personal information, of course, being thoroughly encrypted.

The looming spectre of A.S. was a threat to piracy. Just aim one of the kilometer-wide auxiliary beams across the stargate. Ain’t nothing getting around, past, or otherwise through, that.

And so it was that the curator was smuggled four antimatter weapons, each in the 80 MT yield range, and Ms. Kavan, ah . . . convinced the good Admiral to allow the personal gift of fine whiskey to pass through customs unexamined.

The devices were detonated in the structural members near the power-generation compartments. Plenty of secondary damage was caused, including a firestorm of venting atmosphere that swept a full eightieth of the station. For her part, Ms. Kavan is believed to have perished in the blast. The Admiral himself committed suicide less than an hour after the incident. The curator was to be held for conspiracy, but died while attempting to escape—his hastily departing yacht disintegrating shortly before max-Q.

Ultimately, the structural damage to A.S. was minor—after all, a few nukes going off inside a structure the size of a small continent could almost be ignored, and the power areas, which suffered a secondary nuclear conflagration, could still be rebuilt rather simply.

Unfortunately for A.S., the bombs were the sociological straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. The workers’ union struck, and—coupled with the already extant logistical nightmare of keeping a billion people in low-G supplied with food, water, entertainment, living quarters, and pay—caused a complete and almost instant collapse of order. The workers refused, in fact, go out to meet the cargo ships that would have brought them food. By the time the prospect of famine was upon them, it was far too late. Even moving a million people per ship was not fast enough. And so, hundreds of millions perished in the steel hallways of the greatest weapon in the galaxy. The government public-relations catastrophe alone caused, indirectly, several genocides, four planetary-scale secessions, and a new religion.

Under the circumstances, A.S. was abandoned to ruin in its own orbit.

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.

Brave New World

The thermometer says you’re hiding.

The newest Andromeda-class battlecruisers come equipped with a startling capability: stealth.

See, there’s a problem in space. Space is big and, well, quite empty. You can’t hide anywhere, except behind something like a planet—which puts a limitation of practicality, since 99% of the time, ships aren’t anywhere near the vicinity of planets.

So you’re tasked with the problem of hiding an enormous hunk of metal in wide-open spaces where anybody with an IR telescope can see you coming probably a billion kilometers away, since your 290-Kelvin hab bubble stands out like a searchlight against cold vacuum.

Well, some engineer took a look at that, and decided to just put a refrigerator on the ship pointed outwards. The trouble with that is that the heat you pull from the hull has to go somewhere, and since it can’t leave from the hull, it needs to go back inside the ship. So you’re invisible, but you’re cooking your crew.

There the matter stood, until somebody realized this is actually fine—if you have the right tactics.

You’re invisible, but you’re cooking your crew.

When the U.F.P. Relentless left her construction site in orbit above Mars on her maiden voyage, the first thing she did was turn the coolers on max. Over the long months of the Hohmann transfer to Earth, they dumped her waste heat through radiators into internal compartments of chilled Lithium (chosen for its stability, mass, and specific heat).

The situation could not be maintained indefinitely, of course, but after she had slipped into (retrograde) orbit around Earth, still all but invisible, the external radiators folded out, and the gigajoule or so of waste heat accumulated on the voyage was radiated away against the camouflaging background of an industrialized planet.

For their part, the Jovian Trade Union, comprising the confederacy of city-state greater moons of Jupiter, had dutifully tracked the thermal signature of the decoy ship which remained at Mars, flaming like a candle. And when their troublemaking frigates burned for Earth, they arrived in LEO to a surprise.


“This isn’t really safe, is it.”

“That’s good on paper. What about practice?”

“Of course, we won’t know anything until we try.” John shot her a quizzical look, then went on: “It’s not like the academy is fully cognizant of the potential significance of this work.”

“They’re barely cognizant of their own financial security, which, by the way, is still rather tenuous. Research cuts, you know.”

“Don’t I know it.”

“Well let’s try it, then. We’ve been ready for a while. Months, really.”

John nodded. And, without further ceremony, a small red button was pushed. Somewhere, machinery hummed, and two enormous drums of titanium alloy began spinning in a perfect vacuum.

Faster and faster the enormous drums spun, until sheer strength was insufficient to hold them together, and the radial artificial gravity fields began crushing them inward.

Their outer surfaces were racing past each other now at thousands of kilometers per second, separated by a tiny vertical strip just millionths of a meter wide. To the naked eye, the two atomically perfect, titanic disks touched in a single, unbroken line.

But of course no human would risk his life from being so near to such contained energy. And of course, the Earth couldn’t be risked either, so that was far away too.

“We should see something by now,” Casey observed, searching without success for that something.

“Well, frame dragging is within predicted measures.” said John.

“The cylinders are warping spacetime past 0.5 c. Something’s going to have to give, and it’d better be space. There’s already more than a quadrillion joules of kinetic energy in those wheels.”


“It’s a wash, then.”

“3 trillion , wasted.”

“Wasted?” Casey smiled furtively. “No; we’ve only just begun.”


I.T. isn’t better in the future.

“Apparently, they use some kind of subspace.”

“That doesn’t make sense.”

“Ugh. No. Wrong word. More like, spacetime is some . . . thing, kindof? Since it has all these associated properties. Think of it like a ribbon. The thing they use is sortof like the ‘hangers’ that the ribbon is hanging on. See?”

“Vaguely. What’s the effect, anyway?”

“The effect is they can project radio-band white noise, from any point, to any point, using a ‘sublight’ wave traveling about one light-year per second.”

“‘Point!’—Ha!—Try: ‘a planet!‘ . . . Why white noise, though?”

“Yeah. Apparently that’s about the only thing. Anything structured gets scrambled immediately. Not especially useful, although you could probably rig some kind of ansible.”

“Doesn’t that violate something?”

“Sortof, but nothing is going faster than light; it’s just there’s less distance it has to cover in ‘subspace’.”

“Regardless, this interstellar denial-of-service attack is pretty awful, I’ll say. Can’t we send some spaceship back the other way? Make them stop?”

“It’s hard because subspace is seething with activity. That’s what corrupts any heterodyned signal. However, we tried sending a one kilogram test mass through.”

“. . . and?”

“Sir, I know you have family in Pittsburgh . . .”