Pirates…In Space!

Who doesn’t love a good brigand? Whether they are a robinhoodesque crusader or someone who is only looking out for number one, we seem to love pirates. So what about pirates in space? A lot of science fiction seems to treat space like an ocean. There are plenty of reasons to love these tropes, but they do present a challenge for worldbuilding. There is no reason why your science fiction can’t have hordes of swashbuckling brigands, but you should still attempt design your world in such a way that allows their escapades to make sense.

Treasure Planet had a wonderful age of sail aesthetic. Unfortunately, it does require a lot of worldbuilding to make believable. Source

For piracy to exist there needs to be something that is worth moving before star systems. Travel between planets, or even star systems, would be horrendously expensive, dangerous, and may take years depending on what kind of FTL your universe has. With so many risks inherent in moving goods from one place to another there has to be some reward.

In order for piracy to work there need to be reasons for a ship to stop. False distress calls are one way to do this, but might quickly reach its limit. The other way is to create a universe where FLT is accessible but still has logical choke points. There are a few ways to make this work. Portals are the easiest.

Portals provide natural choke point. Areas where ships have to pass through in order to get from on planet to then other. In the case of The Protectorate or Star Gate this is somewhat artificial. But in a setting like the one we see in The Interdependency naturally occurring portals can be found. Here Scalzi presents a universe where ships are able to travel between stars thanks to what amounts to a series of interstellar tunnels that still require large chunks of travel time between portal and planet. While traveling between portal and planet, a ship may fall victim to pirates or to mutiny, but one would hope that designated exit points would allow the navy to keep a close eye on affairs.

Another option for navigation to be difficult enough that everyone uses the same well mapped trade routes. Star Wars works this way. In Star Wars, or at least in Legends, trade is focused on a series of major hyperspace lanes. This means that finding new hyperspace lanes or knowing of secret ones has incredible value, and that a blockade of a given lane or the ability to intercept ships in transit can wreak havoc with the local or even galactic economy. While pirates are not likely to have the ability to stop ships in transit, common and well traveled routes makes travel predictable and gives pirates the opportunity to intercept ships as they drop out of FTL.

Star Wars features well mapped trade routes and interdictor ships capable of pulling vessels out of hyperspace. It makes finding new or secret routes an important plot point, even if travel times seem a little too brief. Source

Now that we’ve covered how goods might be moved between planets, let’s talk about the why. What could be worth flying between stars?

Information can be transmitted between stars, and even if data needs to be moved on some physical media there is not really a reason to send a person instead of a drone. A story about software pirates would be hard to pull off, so we need a universe where moving physical goods between stars is worth the immense costs and risks that come with it.

Ideally, every new colony will be founded with the goal of one day being self-sufficient. Over time the settle core of systems should become major producers of food, finished goods, and raw materials, and this settled core should then be connected to the newer colonies by a network of trade routes designed to prop these new colonies up until they can support themselves. This begs the question of why the core planets care about founding and propping up these new colonies. For this reason I think for most pirate settings it helps to assume that trade occurs between a mix of developed worlds and struggling colonies, that colonies are set up with the goal of producing a specific resource, and that monopolies prevent many colonies from becoming fully self-sufficient.

Now let’s go through some good space piracy tactics. Assuming that colonies are dependent on their home worlds for support.

  • Distress Calls – space is huge, and dangerous. If a ship malfunctions in transit there might be little chance of rescue or of witnesses. A distress cal would not be out of place, and might even be seen by less than scrupulous captains as an opportunity for some illicit sabotage. All our pirates need for the ruse to be convincing is a an appropriately derelict ship. Once within range the pirates will be free to disable the approaching ship, or wait until a salvage team boards and can be taken hostage.
  • Sabotage – the easiest and safest way for pirates to operate would be to have contacts back on the home world. A few port workers on the payroll could ensure that incoming freighters come loaded with all manner of malfunction. Then when a freighter’s engines fail and its left drifting in space our favorites brigands will approach ready to “help.”
  • Mutiny – a mutiny could happen for a variety of reasons. The crew could be under paid and overworked, or could have cut a deal to steal their ship’s munitions cargo and sell them to local rebels, or might be trying to steal the ship’s load of vital pharmaceuticals to help their families instead of the local oligarchs. Mixing motives here offers opportunities to put a mix of corrupt and sympathetic characters in the ranks of the mutineers and play their conflicting personalties against each other.
  • Ambush – many flavors of FTL result in natural choke points. This is especially true if portals are involved. Incoming ships would have little idea of what is actually waiting for them just beyond the portal’s exit, and would have to trust in local security. In developed systems the jumping off point will likely be well policed, but worlds that exist on the periphery are much more likely to experience gaps in protection. FTL systems that require cool down times will result in similar, but likely more dispersed choke points. This gives pirates an opportunity to ply their craft with less threat of detection. Although locating targets would be more difficult in this situation.
  • Privateers – people love to make money and governments love to save costs if they can. Disrupting an enemy’s supply lines can be hugely advantageous, but in the vast expanse of space no force will be able to be everywhere at once. Privateers offer a low cost option to hinder the enemy’s activities without putting a faction’s own ships at risk. There are other advantages as well. In a setting where spaces are vast and travel times long, armed conflicts could go on for decades. Employing privateers allows governments to put distance between themselves and the actions they take against rival factions.

There are almost certainly other strategies for our space pirates that I have over looked. Technological advancements would surely create new opportunities for our brigands. If you have any ideas for how pirates could work in the far future I would love to hear about them on twitter @expyblog.

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“Dark Green, Wet Fur, and an Echo” – Part 2

The creature roared and lunged at David. He dove to the side at the last moment and felt one of the monster’s teeth drag across his rib cage. Reflexively his hands went to the wound, causing him to slam his rock into his chest.

While he doubled over from his mistake, the creature’s momentum carried it out of the chamber and into the stream. It splashed violently in the water as it reoriented itself, giving David time to regain his composure.

Another roar was let out by the monster as it charged at him again. This time David intended to face it head on.

He ran straight for the creature’s maw as it opened. Its snout knocked the wind out of him and propelled him into the air. Just as he had hoped for.

His trajectory sent him flying towards the creature’s eye. With all the strength that he could muster, David slammed his rock into the beast’s eye, before he himself slammed into the top of the creature’s skull.

The thing let out a blood-curdling howl and attempted to shake him off. David was thrown against the cave wall and for the second time in the course of their fight had the wind knocked out of him.

While the creature continued howling in the cave, David seized on his opportunity to escape and ran back out to the stream. This time he followed it downstream, reasoning that if he followed it he would reach the shore eventually.

Paying little heed to the slippery and uneven path before him. David ran, eager to escape the sound of the creature’s howls that still thundered behind him. He still hadn’t figured what sort of beast it might be, but nothing he had even seen looked quite like what he had just fought.

Only when the howling faded did he risk slowing down to catch his breath. David was unsure of how long he had been running for, but already the cave seemed as if it had no end.

As the combat high faded David also became aware of the beating his body had taken. His head wound was still seeping blood, and the gash on chest had already soaked his shirt. All this was further compounded by the many sore spots he had just acquired that were sure to bruise later.

“And my wrists are still tied,” he said sadly, before pushing those thoughts from his mind. Right now his priority was getting out of the cave.

New sounds began to filter into the cave as he went on. He heard mostly the calls of tropical birds, and tantalizingly, the faint murmur of human voices.

Suddenly, he heard voices above him.

“Reckon he’s been eaten yet?”

“Aye. That bastard is all bones by now.”

David pulled himself closer to the wall. Was it the pirates? Somewhere above him he could hear their voices. He waited, expecting that at any moment one of them might look down into the cave and spot him.

“Sure was quite a ruckus. Think the old girl is having her fun?”

“Ha! Yeah. Almost as much fun as we had with his crew!”

David felt the anger well up inside him. He tamped it down. He was in no position to exact vengeance. Still, he took the voices as a sign that he was nearing the exit.

The cave finally ended. At its mouth the shallow stream that he had been following fell off a short cliff before snaking between the trees of the island’s jungle.

Again he could hear the voices from before. David ducked back into the cave just as a pair of men appeared before the entrance.

Both were unassuming and, David observed, drunk. Despite carrying weapons it was clear that neither of them were expecting trouble. They probably counted on the monster to take care of prisoners without issue.

With his hands still tied, David’s options were limited. His only real chance of success would be to tackle one of them, and hope they broke his fall off the cliff. He sized both of them up. The one on his left was a giant of a man, but carried only a knife, while the one on his right was equipped with both knife and pistol. Right it was.

Once he decided on a course of action he charged. Thinking about it anymore wouldn’t do him much good.

Both men yelled in surprised as he made contact with his target. Followed by the screams of his victim as he and David tumbled over the ledge. David closed his eyes and prayed. He’d find out soon whether he had timed his attack right or not.

The impact came quickly and was accompanied by a sickening crack as the man’s next snapped. Above him on the ledge, the man’s companion had already drawn his knife and was making his over to a narrow footpath that would bring him to David.

David lunged for the dead man’s pistol.He clumsily pulled it from its holster and managed to cock it.

With careful aim he fired as the second man rounded the corner onto the footpath. A bloody hole appeared in the man’s chest and he tumbled down the hill.

From the cave, David heard a muted roar. He beast had followed him.

Working quickly, he drew the knife from the first man’s belt and used it to cut the ropes binding his wrists together. He felt immediate relief from the chafed skin and stressed joints, but he had little time to enjoy it. The creature was sure to be closing in on him.

He tucked the knife into his own belt and took off running down the hill. Running down the incline he had little control over his trajectory, he cared little so long as it was away from that monster.

Soon he noticed the scent of salt water on the air. Finally he was getting close to shore.

He came too, or rather ran into, a low wooden fence that surrounded a small village on the beach. In appearance it was little different from any of the other countless illicit settlements built by pirates and smugglers.

If he squinted he could make out the silhouettes of four ships anchored offshore. David’s heart lept into his throat when he caught sight of his ship, the Sovereign, anchored safely beside the others. If he could reach it he would be saved. Although he had never put them to use, he knew that the ship had old enchantments that would allow a single man to sail her for a short time. His only obstacles were the village before him, and the monster behind him.

Inspiration struck when he looked down at his own blood-stained shirt. He had blinded the creature hadn’t he? The only way it could be tracking him was by scent, and he had left plenty of his own blood back in the cave.

Another roar came from behind him and he saw several heads in the village turn to look in his direction. He had to act fast. One last burst of action and he would be free.

David vaulted over the fence and ran up to the first building he saw. In his predicament he couldn’t afford to be picked. A glance over his shoulder told him that the beast was near, and currently crashing through the foliage outside the fence.

Hurriedly, David drew his knife and made a deep cut across his palm.He smeared the resulting blood along the wall and took off running towards the beach just in time to hear the monster crash into the house he had just marked.

He ran, paying little heed to the people around him or who he shoved out of his way. The crowds for their part were too distracted by the monster to pay attention to an escaped prisoner. Screams filled the air. Men ran to get their rifles, or just ran. Whatever semblance of order that had existed before descended into chaos, as the blind and angry beast tore into everything within its reach.

All along the shore people were scrambling for their boats. David could hardly believe his luck when he actually spotted an abandoned rowboat. He dove into it, allowing his momentum to carry the boat for the first few feet. Then he grabbed the oars and began paddling, ignoring the protests of his battered body.

Now he was treated to an uninterrupted view of the hell he had unleashed upon the village. Already several buildings had caught fire, and the flames were spreading. The futile crack of gunshots reached out to him across the water. David knew that massed volleys would be needed to take the monder down, and he doubted that the pirates had sufficient discipline to pull it off.

Where he should have felt guilt of the terror he had drawn to them, he only felt satisfaction. He had brought about his vengeance, even if it been inadvertent. David allowed himself this one emotion after a day of suppressing all others that came to him.

As he came up alongside the Sovereign he felt a strange sense of peace even as he watched the continued destruction. He’d being returning to an empty ship, as far as he knew the rest of the crew had been killed. He alone had lived.

He started laughing.

“Dark Green, Wet Fur, and an Echo”

My girlfriend has been babysitting a couple of kids all day. So I’ve been killing time by writing. This one I wrote in response to another reddit post, this time on r/SimplePrompts. The original post can be found here: https://www.reddit.com/r/SimplePrompts/comments/94ua65/dark_green_wet_fur_and_an_echo/?utm_source=reddit-android

David woke to the sound of echoing water droplets. It was a slow, ordered sound, and it only made him realize how thirsty his was.

His tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. Each breath he took seemed to catch in his parched throat. As he emerged from the depths of unconsciousness he became aware of a throbbing pain and sticky wetness on the left side of his head.

He tried to open his eyes and found them to be sealed them shut.

He cursed himself as the memories came back to him. They had been within sight of home when the pirates had boarded their ship. The pirates’ wizard had conjured a thick mist, allowing them to come within range without being spotted.

David cursed himself for his carelessness. Proximity to home had made him overconfident, and that had gotten his men killed. The crew had been unready to face the boarding parties that had materialized out of the mist. They had made David watch as most of his crew was slaughtered. While he himself had been bound, and a cloth bag had been placed over his head.

They had come ashore somewhere. Where exactly he could not say. But the clean smell of the air told him that it was no port that he knew. They had led him along for some time, across rough terrain where he had struggled to keep his footing. Eventually they had stopped, someone had hit him on the side of his head, and he had been left there.

He needed to open his eyes, he decided. His hands were found in front of him. But he was able to bring them up to his face. Through the thick cloth he rubbed his eyes, trying to scrape away whatever was holding them shut.

Blood. It was blood, he realized.

The dried blood tore at his eyelashes as it was removed, but slowly he was able to open them.

Small pinpricks of light shined through the dark green fabric that covered his face.

“Ok,” he said to himself, “Where am I?” At first he had suspected a cave, plenty of pirates maintained hideouts that they hid throughout the islands. It made storing loot and prisoners a far easier task. The rocks beneath him, the dripping water; and the damp, musty smell of the air had all screamed cave. But the lighting was natural, there was sky above him.

David decided it was time to take the bag off. It wasn’t secured tightly. But he could feel now that the blood had dried and stuck the cloth to his scalp.

He grabbed ahold of the bag, braced himself, and pulled.

Fresh blood flowed as the scabs tore away with the cloth. He resisted the urge to cry out. Hair followed, he didn’t look to see how much he had lost.

Sunlight blinded him. While his eyes adjusted he occupied himself by climbing to his feet.

Slowly his eyes adjusted to the light. David was soon surprised to learn that he was in a cave afterall. It’s rounded walls rose up around a grouping of shallow streams. Sunlight poured in through holes in the ceiling that gave it a honeycomb-like appearance.

He bent down to the water and tasted it. Those few drops of water felt like honey on his tongue, and he drank until he felt as if he might burst.

David rose back up to his feet, and looked along the steam in both directions. The water was flowing from his left, and headed towards his right. Save for that once difference, both directions seemed to be roughly equal. Both were lit by ample quantities of natural light, and in both directions there was a roughly cut path along the edge of the stream.

“Strange hideout,” he said quietly. He decided that his next order of business would be to cut the ropes.

To his left he spotted an assortment of bones lying in the water. Their time in the sunlight had bleached them white, and the water had worn smooth their broken edges. Still he thought he might find a broken one with a sharp enough edge to cut the rope.

He began walking upstream, searching the water for the implement that would free up. As he did, the musky scent that he had detected earlier grew stronger, and as he turned a bend he was greeted by a much larger cave, in which sat a huge mass of glistening, wet, fur.

David recoiled from the sight and nearly ran. Every instinct he had told him to run. But he gathered up his courage and approached it slowly. If he was going to escape those caves, he thought, it would do him well to know what else was trapped with him.

Upon closer inspection he realized that the creature resembled a six-legged wolf that also happened to be the size of a house. It’s entire body, save for its snout, was covered in the same wet fur. A single closed eyelid dominated it’s face. Jagged yellow teeth stuck out of its bald snout at odd angles.

He considered the fact that if he was careful, he might be able to cut his bonds on the creature’s teeth. Carefully, he moved even closer.

An outcropping of rock caught his foot and he tripped. He steadied himself, but not before he had kicked a small assortment of pebbles across the chamber. In the otherwise silent cave, each pebble sounded like a gong as they skipped along the floor.

He heard the creature stirring. Felt its hot breath on his face as it shifted to face him.

Reluctantly, David raised his head to face the creature. He quickly went over his options, he could see only two. He could run, if he did the creature was sure to chase him and snatch him up in its powerful jaws. Or he could fight, and probably die.

He snatched up a loose stone from the ground and held it tight between his hands.

He would fight.