The Spiral Confederacy is a huge, galaxy-spanning civilization of thousands of systems, linked by a tenuous faster-than-light technology that strongly proscribes the way that these systems interact. Space travel and its associated technologies has liberated the people of the Spiral Confederacy from scarcity or poverty, so that everyone has everything they will ever need; the associated technologies have led to marvels of engineering such as space elevators, orbitals, and spaceships of vast scale and almost infinite power. Unchallenged by any rival (and strangely devoid of alien competitors …), the Spiral Confederacy enjoys incredible achievements in space technology, and its citizens are free to travel across a dizzying array of systems. The physics of space travel, however, includes some strict limitations that put strange conditions on the freedoms that Confederate citizens enjoy, and as much as this physics has liberated society from its old limits, it has also shaped the way that the citizens of the Confederacy interact with each other.
Space travel in the Confederacy is powered by two kinds of physics: the physics of sub-space and the metaphysics of jump space. This post describes these physics and their consequences, and also the basic structure of all Confederate ships. It also describes the relationship between the physics of the Confederacy and its strangest components: psions, priests, and AI.
Sub-space: The finite power of fields and drives
Sub-space physics is the physics of a kind of substrate to the structure of space and time, which can be manipulated to induce temporary changes in the geometry of the space-time continuum. This can make places far apart suddenly become very close, or it can change the structure of physical space. This is the basis of field technology, which enables the creation of invisible fields in real space that are harder than glass, or the manipulation of objects at a distance with a new force that resembles gravity but is completely under the control of its creator. This is the technology that enables the Confederacy to project electrical energy over vast distances without crossing the intervening space, so that in Confederate star systems electricity is accessed remotely, as if fields of electricity were a kind of Wi-Fi. This technology is also the source of power for the Reach, but it operates at a higher level that no one in the Confederacy understands, drawing power directly from the sun and siphoning it to the different pearls.
Sub-space technology cannot exert its influence faster than the speed of light, so it cannot be used to transmit information faster than the speed of light, and does not break certain basic principles of relativity theory. It is also affected by gravity and affects gravity, and in general operating sub-space technologies in a gravity well is more difficult than in the clean expanse of space, so for example field technology on planets tends to require more energy and be less effective than it is in space. Nonetheless, sub-space technology suffuses all of everyday life in the Confederacy, enabling the transfer of power without cables or cords, miniaturization of fusion power, anti-gravity and levitation for flyers and personal transport, and of course sub-light space travel without reaction mass.
Jump space: The strange metaphysics of the Other
While sub-space physics manipulates the topology of the real world, jump space physics removes objects from the real world into an alternate space where the rules of physics simply do not apply. In jump space one can travel at many thousands of times the speed of light, because light does not exist. The physics of jump space is not well understood, and it is in many ways an extremely limited technology. Transition into jump space usually requires approximately a week of time – one cannot leave early, and one cannot leave later – and it seems to operate in defined quanta of speed: in that one week one can travel up to one parsec, or two parsecs, and so on, with the faster movement requiring more sophisticated technology and greater energy. Although the means to create this step into different levels of jump space has been developed, the underlying physics is not really understood, and jump space technology is not used for anything else.
Jump technology has several strange quirks that cause many people to consider it as a form of metaphysics rather than a serious physical concept. Firstly, entering jump space requires an incredibly complex series of calculations that can only be done in real time by a powerful computer; but it also requires human willpower, and no object can enter jump space unless it is connected to a human will. Furthermore, non-human sentience – or at least, machine sentience – does not seem to be able to survive jump space. AI sent into jump space always either die or go insane, and this simple fact has prevented AI from effectively colonizing the solar systems of the Confederacy – they need to travel between systems only as memory in the possession of a human adherent, and cannot spread without human help. Finally, jump space has a strange effect on humans and computers that use it, which no one can fully understand, so that it is dangerous to reenter jump space immediately after emergence. This effect, called the jump wake, causes computers to malfunction and humans to lose the power to astrogate, leading to mis-jumps and sometimes complete loss of the ship, which is assumed to disappear permanently in the jump space. Typically one must wait about a week after jumping before one can jump again if one is using the same navigator and computer. More skilled navigators can recover in less time, and better computers can also recover sooner, but usually one has to spend a week letting the jump wake pass before one can attempt to jump again in the same ship.
Jump space can be used to send information faster than the speed of light, but this information transfer occurs in two week steps due to the time spent in jump space and the jump wake. In a society as physically widespread as the Confederacy this means that information and news travel only slowly between planets, and systems off of major trade routes will often be years behind on key political movements in the core. Indeed, it has been calculated that if a major alien force were to attack one edge of the Confederacy it would be approximately a minimum of 8 years before every system in the Confederacy knew of the attack, assuming optimal information transfer strategies. Normal news, of course, travels far more slowly than this, so that planets on one side of the Confederacy can be experiencing an art movement long after it has been discredited in the planet where it started. Such are the fundamental limits to cultural exchange imposed by the jump drive.
Physics, psions and priests
Psionics enables humans to cross vast distances in the blink of an eye and to interact with the physical world using just their minds. It is widely believed that psionic power simply enables humans to directly manipulate sub-space using their mind. This means that psions are not believed to be able to do things that could not be done using sub-space technology, and it also means that psions cannot propagate effects faster than the speed of light. One implication of this theory is that it is theoretically possible to design a machine that could use sub-space technology to, for example, read minds; it is possible that AIs could develop such a machine given enough time and psions willing to assist them.
In contrast, priests are able through their faith to perform acts of magic that would be impossible for either psions or any known technology, including transmitting information faster than the speed of light. This means that, for example, a priest with the correct invocation can communicate with another priest on the other side of the galaxy, instantly. This power is necessary for artifacts and magic items designed by priests to operate when the priest is not present, since these items must be tied to the priest’s will but will operate even when the priest is not present. Scientists generally accept that through their faith priests are somehow empowered to access some aspect of jump space in performing their invocations, and thus are able to break basic laws of relativity. This implies that no machine will ever be able to reproduce priest magic, at least until the Confederacy develops the technology to send unoccupied ships and drones into jump space.
There are many research projects underway in the Confederacy to understand the relationship between psionics and priest magic, so that psions can gain the powers used by priests, and also so that sub-space and jump space physics can be better understood, to improve space ship design.
How spaceships work
Spaceships have four key components:
- Miniaturized fusion reactor: Spaceships draw power from fusion reactors, which themselves use sub-space technology to miniaturize the power source, containing the entire plasma system in as small a volume as possible. A reactor a couple of cubic metres in size will provide power for a 50m long scout ship or basic utility vessel, and the power available scales exponentially with size. Larger ships will use multiple smaller reactors for redundancy, and larger reactors for military vessels with shields and weapons. Since both sub-light drives and jump drives consume huge amounts of power the size of the reactor depends heavily on the speed and jump distance the ship is capable of.
- Sub-space drive: The sub-space drive uses sub-space technology to power the ship through normal material space. The drive functions by bending space-time around the ship so that it can move large distances without ejecting reaction mass, thus liberating the ship from the need to carry large amounts of fuel to eject from normal reaction drives. Because the sub-space drive breaks some aspects of Newtonian physics, it enables the ship to perform in strange ways. For example, sub-space drives do not accelerate smoothly, but simply place the ship in a higher state of movement automatically. This effect works primarily upon the plane on which the engine lies, and so smaller ships use smaller drives on movable planes to control steering; larger ships simply make right-angled turns, or have sub-space drives pointing in many directions. Engines are aligned on a plane because the act of suddenly changing speed in this way generates large amounts of exotic sub-atomic particles, which decay into physical space to produce light and heat, and ships need to be designed to ensure that this decay product is generated outside the ship. Some larger ships capture the decay product in field manifolds and use it for other purposes, but smaller and utility ships typically are designed simply to vent this nuisance heat and light. The result of this for most smaller ships is that mobility is best on a single axis, and manoeuvrability depends heavily on the smaller coaxial engines. Engine power and manoeuvrability is affected by gravity, and most ships used in the Core are assumed to always be able to travel between spaceports, so are not designed to enter significant gravity wells or atmosphere. A sub-space drive capable of operating in such circumstances usually has a different design, and such ships will also have shielding and aerodynamics to aid in steering, since the smaller coaxial engines will tend to be highly inefficient in atmosphere.
- Jump space drive: The jump drive is usually small in comparison to the sub-space drive, and is located in the centre of the ship near the main computer. Some larger ships will have more than one to ensure redundancy, but the components and technology of a jump drive are rare and advanced even by Confederate standards, so most ships usually have a single jump drive at the lowest necessary rating. Jump drives are rated 1 to 6, with the number indicating the maximum number of parsecs the drive can travel in one week (one parsec is 3.26 light years). Most Confederate ships are jump 1-3; military ships can sometimes handle jump 4. Jump 5-6 is an exotic technology, valuable even by post-scarcity standards and rare in the Confederacy. The Confederacy maintains a series of communications lines called strategic leys that run centrally through the key axes of Confederate space, linking key rim systems at opposite ends of the Confederacy through the Core. These strategic leys are stocked with several jump 6 ships, with extra ships at regular intervals, so that key information can be transmitted across the Confederacy at maximum speed. Even so, moving one message more than 20 light years in two weeks requires the presence of two jump 6 ships, incredibly value vehicles even by Confederate standards. It is rumoured that the Confederacy maintains a small corps of priests scattered across its reaches, capable of instant communication, as a backup for emergencies, but this rumour is generally derided as fantastical – typically the Confederacy transmits information through very fast, efficient ships run by the communications corp.
- Field effector: Every ship is capable of broadcasting energy outside the ship, to provide energy to ship’s boats, laser rifles, welders and other small peripherals. Some ships maintain an atmosphere around the hull, held against the hull by an external field, and many ships also maintain external shields to prevent impact from small objects or weapons. All ships maintain a minimal field to deflect debris. These fields are maintained by the field effector, another form of sub-space technology usually located near the power plant. Some ships have multiple specialized field effectors (e.g. shield effectors, basic field effectors, and in-atmosphere anti-gravity effectors). The field effector also ensures regular gravity on the ship even when it is undergoing intense in-atmosphere manoeuvres. To function as a properly self-contained vehicle all ships must have a field effector, and no Confederate ship is built without one.
Because Confederate ships use miniaturized fusion reactors and have no need for reaction mass, they need little fuel and only refuel rarely. They can usually refuel through splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, or by scooping from a gas giant, but usually they refuel in a couple of minutes at each space port they enter. For basic life support and for their food fabricators, most ships also carry a form of fuel called a slug, a large block of material containing all the key elements necessary to fabricate food and water for the crew for a couple of months; the chemical fabricators in the ship then convert this slug into basic food and pharmaceuticals. Most ships stock real food and other goods, but fall back on the slug in survival situations or when a crew member requires a product not in the cargo manifest. Human and food waste is recycled into the slug. This ensures that stranded ships are able to last for months to years before the crew begin to starve.
Typically, the only limit on the use of a Confederate ship is the jump wake, and the crew’s willingness to live in close quarters for long periods of time.
Example Ship: The Blindhammer
The Blindhammer is a Lake-class battleship that has never been defeated in its 100 years of active service. Lake-class ships are the perfect size for maximum maneouvrability, being large enough for a significant power and engine structure, but too small for their mass to interfere with the operation of the engines, and the Blindhammer is a perfect example of lethal agility. Five kilometres long, 2 kilometres wide and 1 kilometre deep, it is a little small for a Lake-class battleship, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in brutal power. With a crew of 24, the Blindhammer‘s structure is devoted almost entirely to powerplants, engines and weaponry. The crew live in an expansive series of mansions atop the ship, covered by a blister of atmosphere, but the rest of the ship is unblemished by human design concerns. Its huge engines are capable of accelerating the ship from a standing start to 0.1c (10% of the speed of light) in a couple of minutes, and it is capable of jump 4. Traditionally the Blindhammer has the best astrogaters and computers available in the Rim, and so is usually capable of a second jump within 1-3 days of exiting jump, making it capable of traveling 25 light years in just over two weeks – equivalent to a jump 6 ship with a lesser navigator. Unlike larger Ocean- or Peninsula-class ships the Blindhammer does not have munitions fabricators, so cannot change weapons during transit to the battlefield, so instead the Blindhammer is equipped with a versatile array of weapons. Devoted to interstellar combat, the Blindhammer does not have any weapons for orbital bombardment. It also does not sacrifice mobility or jump distance in order to maintain a force of marines for boarding, as does for example the Reckless (another Lake-class battleship). The Blindhammer has one role, which it performs very well: fleet destruction.
The Blindhammer‘s typical strategy is a simple and highly effective application of advanced Confederate technology to destroy opposing fleets. It jumps into a system, identifies the position of the fleet, and immediately fires off a pattern of attacks from its huge array of laser weapons. Simultaneously it spins up to a near-Einsteinian speed, typically a large percentage of the speed of light, laying down more patterns of fire as its targeting computers gather more information on the movement of the local fleet and the likely evasive action they will take after first contact. Once at high speed it initiates a series of evasive manoeuvres, executing 90 or 180 degree turns at random using its coaxial engines. Usually the enemy fleet learns of its existence at about the same time as most of the fleet is turned to ash; any survivors will lay down fire patterns on assumed trajectories that the Blindhammer is not following, although such details hardly matter – no fleet has ever penetrated its shields and armour, on the rare occasion that their weapons hit it before they are destroyed. The Blindhammer then enters the immediate battle space at some percentage of the speed of light, destroying remaining ships while setting a trajectory for a new jump point, and jumps out before the planetary authorities have received a report of the destruction of their fleet. Usually, most of the thousands of crew in the opposing fleet will die before they know they are under attack, and the remaining crews will have at most a few minutes of panic before they, too, burn. Fragmented communications from the dying ships will likely reach the planetary command station at about the same time as the Blindhammer jumps out of the system.
A week later, while the investigation into the destruction of the system’s entire battle fleet is still under way, the main body of the invasion fleet arrives. Negotiation commences …