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 Dark Mystery

The fast and furious.

The first hypervelocity meteor tore through the sky on December 14th, 2069. Briefly, it illuminated the entire hemisphere before detonating over central Michigan and flattening everything from Grand Rapids to Saginaw.

No one had seen it coming.

The astronomers could be forgiven. The object itself had been the size of a basketball, and had apparently been going a fraction of the speed of light so significant that the physicists’ doubt and scorn was all but caustic when speculation on the matter gridlocked Monday’s emergency IAU meeting.

The next week, the moon was hit by a much larger projectile. The word “hit” is perhaps an understatement. It was a clear evening when Central European residents saw a tremendous luminescence emerge from the near side of the moon, and the ejecta of that impaled body traveled, hour by hour, to culminate in a shower of debris, falling mostly over the Atlantic. The remnants encircled the globe, and for a full, glorious month, the Earth had a ring.

The first telescope to see any projectile coming was that of an amateur astronomer, Charlie Bent. Bent’s telescope was not powerful in the slightest. In fact, the great Keck 4 telescope had scanned that area of sky not ten hours earlier. The object simply had, during that time, approached close enough to be visible.

Scarcely an atom remained intact . . .

In the next five seconds the object was visible to the naked eye, and then five seconds later it slammed into the atmosphere and obliterated Polk County, Florida, and Bent with it.

The most prominent theory to explain this pattern of bombardment was the destruction of some distant extrasolar planet or planetoid, although none could suggest a mechanism by which the fragments could be accelerated to such terrific velocity. In fact, the most basic calculations showed that the planet would have to be impossibly large to generate enough fragments to bombard the solar system so thoroughly (for the outposts on Mars had been hit hard too, and impacts had been observed as distant as Uranus—to say nothing of the untold billions of objects that must surely be hurtling past, unseen).

Eventually, someone suggested the obvious: the whole planet must have been moving toward us in the first place. How any intelligence could have accelerated such a mass so prodigiously, no one could tell—and what had gone wrong was, of course, even more mysterious. Certainly, investigation of the fragments themselves was impossible. Scarcely an atom remained intact beyond the initial collision with atmosphere.

As it happened, both mysteries were presently, and neatly, resolved. Tracing back the trajectories, as they had done fruitlessly so many times before, astronomers finally noticed a slight distortion in the nearby pinprick image of a remote and rather uninteresting spiral galaxy—a distortion that grew, month by month into a crescent, then a ring.

The IAU conclusion was incontrovertible: supermassive black hole. Long ago, when humans still hunted mammoths with sharpened stones, a burning star fell into the clutches of a dead one, dragging its planets into the murderous gravity. But, as the star fell to its doom, one of its planets must have been at just the right spot—dragged behind, then whipped forward in orbit around the black hole, flung with the potential energy liberated by the dying sun’s final plummet. Through the Roche limit, the planet was hurled, splintering into a trillion pieces of rock, and ejected into the interstellar void, to fly for centuries to promulgate its death.


We’ll get right on that, then.

From: Lt. Samuel Biggs
To: Sgt. Anton Maieux
Timestamp: 2154-07-07 06:07:11 EST
Subject: Re: (no subject)

Hey Anton,

We considered your request, but unfortunately, it must be denied. While Andromeda is in high berth, we’ll need every man onboard for inspections and extra duties. Additionally, Mars STC cannot handle any more traffic since Phobos is being developed. Advise next opportunity at Jupiter rendezvous.

-Lt. Biggs

> Lieutenant,
> Some of the boys and i were thinking of heading
> planetside for some r&r. We’ve been in spce for several
> months, and it’d improve morale
> -A
> This e-mail is confidential and may be legally privileged.
> If you are not the intended recipient or have otherwise
> received it in error, you must delete it and any and all
> copies from your comconsole and notify the sender
> immediately by reply e-mail. Any unauthorized reading,
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Nonvariable Intelligence

Improving lives doesn’t.

Among the baker’s dozen of known galactic species that crawled their way to sapience, sociopsychologists were astonished to find that every one of them had the same intelligence. The bipeds from Earth, the avian dinosaurs from that one outer rim world, the furry bear-creatures that ate methane, put any together and they score within 10 points of each other on an IQ test. This wasn’t true for any other attribute. (Im)mortality? widely varying. Genders? Different systems. Biochemistry? Carbon through Arsenic. Size, shape? Hell no.

But intelligence? Why that?

For some species, this is an extension from a lifespan of decades to millennia. This is bad.

It turns out that entry-level sapience evolves as a survival trait. Hunt/find your food, develop technologies to make that easier, maybe do some farming, and so on. After basic establishment of civilization, mortality drops by factors in the hundreds or thousands. Population booms, and you start getting plagues from the species concentrating in cities.

This is where it gets interesting. See, once you have plagues, you need doctors. And once you have doctors, you start thinking about all of the other ways to cheat death. So the plagues are beaten back by vaccinations or antibiotics, and then your civ starts concentrating on welfare and quality-of-life.

Pretty soon, your species is living at the maximum, or nearly, of their theoretical longevity. For some species, this is an extension from a lifespan of decades to millennia.

This is bad.

At best, evolution stagnates. Your weak and stupid have the same chance of reproduction as anyone else—and they’re certainly not going to die before influencing their environments. Diseases that should have killed are mere annoyances, chomping futilely against a barrier of solid medical science. Predators that once ravaged tribes now are confined in zoos or hunted to extinction.

So no one gets any smarter.

The long and short of it is, after a certain point, intelligence is no longer a tremendous advantage to survival and, subsequently, traditional selection factors are abrogated completely. That is point at which medical science develops, which itself happens only when sapients begin the process of introspection and develop sympathy—that is, shortly after the development of sapience itself.

Haven’s Scavengers

The best nuclear engineers are bachelorettes.

Beth nudges her tiny spaceship on RCS power the last 100 km to Haven, the orbiting metropolis dangling perilously by space elevator from Pasiphae, one of the outer retrograde moons of Jupiter.

Haven approach, U.F.P. Willow cleared for docking, junction 900 E. Advise no open-cycle nuclear propulsion within 100 klicks.”

“Duh,” Beth thinks. “Why do you think I changed orbits with docking thrusters? That’s the only other burner this thing has.”

“It’s not much,” she reflects as the dull clack, felt through the berthed ship, signals the dry dock closing behind her. She’s carrying a brown paper bag filled with treasure: Tellurium superconducting wire, spare plasmabrick for reactor lining, even a canister of propulsion-grade Xenon.

It’s a high-quality, if small, collection. It will fetch a good price, but it’s getting harder. There’s simply not much left unsalvaged. And sometimes you spend delta-V and months of transit time to intercept with a derelict that’s already been picked over. 4000s is pretty good ISP for a NTR, but after months chasing wrecks in interplanetary space, that’s still an awful lot of Hydrogen and Uranium-Hex to buy at a gas giant—to say nothing of food.

Ed. note: we first saw Beth here.

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 . . .

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.

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.