Red Suns: Faster than Light

I’ve often said that scale is an important thing to think about, especially in science fiction settings. It should be no surprise then that I spent a lot of time thinking about how I wanted faster than light travel to work in Red Suns.

For this setting I was aiming for a similar feel to the Forever War, where ships might be dozens or hundreds of light years from home and far from support. At the same time, I wanted star systems to be interconnected enough for interstellar trade and diplomacy to be practical.

Settlements end up clustered around major trade routes, even if the planets aren’t ideal.

Eventually I decided that ships in this universe will move between stars with something called the Bulgarin Drive. These drives work by warping space around a ship in such a way that the ship can move faster than light. Travel still takes time however, and in order to save myself from making any embarasing mistakes about distance I’ve decided that distances will be thought of mainly in the time it takes for a ship to reach its destination and that these travel times are partially determined by the skill of the ship’s navigator.

The effectiveness of Bulgarin Drives are strong affected by nearby gravity wells. Massive objects disrupt the bubble of warped space around a ship and so this determines what routes are possible. Before departure a ship may have to maneuver at sublight speeds for a signifigant amout of time before it reaches an adequate departure point, then it activated it’s Bulgarin Drive. Then months or even years later it arrives as close to it’s destination as local gravity conditions will allow.

This gravity-dependent behavior leads to three points that I am eager to exploit in worldbuilding and in story telling.

  • The limited number of acceptable arrival points in a star system creates opportunities to ambush ships as they drop out of FTL.
  • Smugglers and infiltrators can choose to take a longer route into a system if it means avoiding more well traveled areas of space.
  • In certain regions of space local gravity conditions align in just the right way to allow even faster FTL travel.

This third point is especially important for what I have planned in this setting and I’ve made a quick map of one of these Gravity Hyperlanes below.

Under normal conditions travelling from one end of this lane to the other might take a year for example, but because local conditions are just right the voyage can be accomplished in just six months.

My intention is for patterns of human settlement to be based around these hyperlanes. Easy travel will mean that colonies cluster around these lanes even if the systems are not ideal settlement sites, while the rare handful of Earth-like planets will be able to develop into self-sufficient units even if separated from these lanes.

After reading all that you might wonder how messages are transmitted. If a ship may take years to reach its destination then what about an email? Large amounts of data will still need to be carried by special courier ships, but short messages can be transmitted without needing to wait.

Bulgarin Transmitters, which work according to similar principles as the aformentioned FTL drive, are able to transmit short text-based messages nearly instantaneously with just two main limitations.

  • Messages have to be short. The transmitters require a lot of energy to work, so ships will have only have their transmitters active for short times. Receives can be kept on continuously however.
  • Messages need to be encoded. These transmitters suffer from a large amount interference so in order to receive messages intact they are transmitted in short bursts resembling old telegraph signals.

There are likely some flaws with this FTL concept that I’m not seeing, and it wouldn’t work for all settings, but I think it fits my rather well. It gives characters a way to communicate with some limitations, allows them ships to travel with reasonable speed. And most interesting to me, it will make spacers into a separate subculture of their own. Being gone from home for years and aging at different rates due to relativistic effects will quickly set them apart from their friends and family back home and I’m excited to explore this as I continue to build the setting.

Red Suns: Early Ship Design

In my last post I shared the design for my Lunar Cold War bunker built just before the beginning of world war three. This time, I thought I’d share my vision for some of the space craft that would have existed around the same time period.

The image above is meant to be applicable to both NATO and Soviet spacecraft designs. The specifics might be different but the general idea is the same.

My thinking with this design is that the vessel would carry five crew members; one pilot, three gunners, and one radio operator. The craft has two rotary cannons that make up its primary armament and also has a pair of missile pods that could be used for attacking space stations and other relatively immobile targets.

Also, you’ll notice that this vessel doesn’t seem to be designed with landing in mind. For the most part, this should would have operated from space stations or been reached by small cargo modules launched from Earth bring fresh crew and supplies.

For the most part this ship would operate in Earth’s orbit. The insides are cramped and the engines slightly under-powered, by that’s alright for a ship that will rarely go past the moon. Ships of this type might find themselves going on patrol, escorting larger ships, repairing satellites, disabling enemy satellites, and attacking orbital launch platforms.

I think it’s really interesting to envision the types of craft that would exist if we imagine the space race continuing beyond the moon landings. I have a few more ideas for these early ship designs, and I’ll be posting the setting’s FTL mechanics soon. So stay tuned for more updates!

What do you think about these worldbuilding ideas? What would you do differently? Let me know on twitter @expyblog.

Red Suns: A Retroscifi Adventure

Lately I’ve been working on a little side project titled Red Suns. It’s a retroscifi setting where the Cold War turns hot following a malfunction in one side’s early warning systems. By the time anyone realizes what happened it’s too late. Earth has been devastated by nuclear war and the conflict continues in orbit and on the moon’s surface.

Before the war began both the Americans and Soviets had been building an extensive infrastructure in space and on the moons surface. This included defensive lines on both sides of an agreed upon Lunar Demilitarized Zone. On the American side a large number and variety of defensive installations were built before the war started, the Soviets on the other hand were still in the process of building their fortifications when the war broke out.

After the war Earth ceased to be a viable home for the human race and efforts to explore space were quickly accelerated. As humanity spread throughout and beyond the solar system it continued to be divided along the old NATO/Pact line, with a handful of neutral and independent parties caught in between.

Some details still need to be worked out and I want to eventually insert it into some kind of lunar landscape. But you get the idea.

This particular bunker was designed with anti-vehicle operations in mind. A 20 mm auto-cannon and a trio of surface-to-orbit missiles make up its main armament. It had a crew of just four, who were rotated out regularly using the train seen in the bottom left.

Power was supplied by a small nuclear reactor that runs off of easy to handle uranium cartridges that can be switched out as needed by the crew. This reactor was capable of powering both this bunker and it’s neighbors in the even that the larger grid is disrupted. The bunker was also home to fairly powerful computer that provide’s guidance to the bunker’s missiles.

There were a few but not many options for crew comfort, you will notice a small kitchenette in the habitat section, and if you zoom in far enough you’ll see some personal items in some of the bunks.

This design did come with several issues however. While most supplied could be brought to the bunker by train, the missiles could only be reloaded by crews working on the surface. Similarly, while the turret could be operated and reloaded internally, most maintenance could only be conducted from the outside. In this timeline, these bunkers did their job until they eventually fell victim to orbital bombardment.

I’m still ironing out some of the basic ideas of this setting and I am interested in hearing you ideas. For example, the specifics of FTL have yet to be worked out, but I am currently mulling over slow(ish) modes of travel with a handful of faster “express” lanes. If you have comments or suggestions feel free to get in touch on twitter @expyblog.

Lotto Winners

This story was also posted on Wattpad.

“Begin final boarding. Take off in twenty minutes.”

Marshal and Alice leapt up from their molded plastic seats and into the scragly excuse for a line that was forming quickly in front of the gate. The city’s disheveled dreggs, the last to board the evacuation flights, who had been waiting over a week to find out if they would even get a spot on one of the last flights out, now seemed ready to fight each for a spot in line. It didn’t matter that all their spots had been guaranteed by their ticket purchase. Everyone in that line, Marshal included, still feared the prospect of being left behind or being told than an excess of tickets had been issued.

He wondered what he would do in that case. He of course liked to think that if it came down to it he would make sure his wife got aboard even if he did not. Marshal imagined such a thing happening and pictured himself muscling his way past the attendant only to be gunned down by the two marines who stood guarding the gate. Fortunately, suicide by marine did not seem to be in store for him, he managed to insert Alice and himself in about the middle of the line, well within what he thought must be the ship’s margin of error.

There were still other concerns of course. The military could find a sudden need to commandeer the ship and leave them all stranded. It had happened to a few others already. Or their ship could suffer some crippling malfunction and leave them stranded. It was after all, not actually built for its new task. Only necessity had made them resort to converting battered freighters and loadings docks into passenger liners and lobbies. If the colony was not staring at certain ruin the same room where Marshal, Alice, and all the other passengers were currently jostling for a place in line would instead be full of crates of generic drugs and ingots eagerly awaiting to be loaded onto a ship for some out-of-system buyer.

The whole thing was tragic, and a little ridiculous. Marshal couldn’t help but be sad about it. New Bismark was hardly the pinnacle of civilization, but generations of his family and everyone else’s had worked hard to build it. Now they all had to flee because of war that didn’t really matter to anyone living in the colony and because, as many would argue, it shouldn’t have been built to begin with.

Marshal’s great, great grandfather had been one of the original colonists. Back when telemetry data was still unreliable and warp engines even more so. When the original settlers had reached their new home, they had found it to in fact be in an irregular orbit around its gas giant. This coupled with the moon being so small that its own gravity just barely held itself together meant that the colonists had not been able to count on anything even approaching geological stability. But the settlers hadn’t had enough fuel to go anywhere else, so they resolved to make do with what they had. An impressive system of dampeners and glorified springs had been built to keep the colony in one piece, and New Bismark had fared surprisingly well since. Over the decades it had grown to become a modest but respectable trading center on the edge of the NATO sphere. Until the bombardment.

No one living in New Bismark had ever really expected the Neo-Soviets to come knocking, but knocking they came. The initial attack had been repulsed at great cost and after a bit of callous accounting work had been done the admiral commanding the 23rd Battle Group had decided that New Bismark simply wasn’t worth what it would cost to defend. That the bombardment had destabilized the moon’s already unstable tectonics did not help the colony’s case. And so, after a few days of deliberation the decision had been made to evacuate everyone who could be evacuated. That there were not enough ships to carry everyone was seen as unfortunate, but unavoidable.

Marshal had spent the next month watching his home fall apart. Anyone rich enough to own their own ship or important enough to warrant a seat on an outgoing fleet ship left first. Then private companies began offering seats on luxury liners, those were snapped up quick, leaving still thousands without an out. Finally, a lottery was announced. Evacuees would be chosen at random with appropriate weighting given to skills, age, and family size, and those that won would be able to purchase tickets on converted freighters like the one that Marshal and Alice were currently in line for. Marshal hadn’t been concerned. He had pulled out his savings early, before the rush on the banks. He had figured that with his two years in the service and six years as an engine repair technician, and Alice’s master’s degree in ecological design that they two of them would be shoo-ins for one of the early departure groups.

Weeks had passed. He had watched scores of people that weren’t him be selected by lottery, and even more get rejected. Finally, he had woken up in the middle of the night to message on in terminal that he and Alice had won a spot on the last ship out. With just minutes to spare on their purchase window he had reserved for them one of the last private cabins on the Majesty, a battered old container ship that had been converted for the evacuation and would be their home for at least a year. Looking at it through the terminal’s windows Marshal could wondered if it would even get off the ground. He had worked on several of the other ships and knew that some had been destined for the scrap heap before the attack.

Alice squeezed his hand as they approached the gate and he felt his own pulse quicken. All the anxieties that he had kept down since the attack surged forward. It was ridiculous what was happening to them. Here the two of them were, in the middle of the city that their families had helped build, leaving it with only each other and what they could carry on their backs. It was a scene reminiscent of the nineteenth or twentieth centuries, not the twenty sixth. It shouldn’t have been happening, but it was.

The attendant smiles and scanned both their boarding passes, checked that they matched their biometrics, and waved them through. Marshal felt the hard gaze of the marines boring into him as he walked past. Up close he realized they were just as tense as he was. Did they expect another riot? Or even a bombing? There had been several attempts by fringe groups to disable the evacuation ships so that all of New Bismark would have to face them same fate together. Some of those attempts had been successful and their would-be passengers had been left trying to figure out what they would do next.

Marshal’s agoraphobia kicked in as they walked through the vestibule. It was a common enough condition in the colonies that he had thought his time in the service had trained out of him. But the combined anxieties were too much to bear. He caught himself staring through the windows into the abyss of the blast chute. Only Alice’s tight, steady hand allowed him to keep his composure long enough to make it across.

Once inside, he saw that the Majesty’s cavernous hold has been cut up and subdivided by sheet metal bulk heads and rough plastic panels. It was a sloppier job than he had seen on the ships he had helped to retrofit. The air was filled with smell of setting epoxy and new air recyclers. Exposed conduits and pipes told him how their plumbing and electrical systems would work.

Following the directions on their boarding pass brought them to Cabin 241. The number had been painted hastily on a plastic sliding door set in the metal bulkhead. It shuddered as Alice pulled the latch and slide the door open. Marshal didn’t say anything, but he knew both of them were thinking about all the atmosphere that the door would fail to seal in if the ship suffered a hull breach.                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Inside was a ‘common room’ that they would be sharing with another couple. The room was barely the size of a standard elevator, with just enough for a set of folding chairs, a collapsible table, and a shower unit that unfurled from the wall. Their private room was 241A, to their left behind another shoddy sliding door.

Their private quarters had two parts. The first was a narrow, arched section just inside the door. One side of this arch housed a sink-toilette combination with a small curtain for privacy. A kitchenette stocked with frozen and freeze-dried foodstuffs too up the rest of the arch. Marshal opened the cabinet and saw that the liquor he had ordered had already been stored there. That small luxury had been painfully expensive, but there was no guarantee his money would be worth anything once they reached their destination, and he saw no reason to be sober during their forced exodus. The second part of their little cabin had two narrow seats that faced each other and would fold together to form an approximately twin sized bed with room for their bags to be stored underneath.

As an afterthought he noticed a space on the wall where a collapsible crib folded out. For the first time in their marriage Marshal was thankful for Alice’s insistence that they wait for her to be established in her career before they had children. Caring for a child in such a small space would have been a nightmare.

The single luxury in their cabin was a small display hanging on the wall from a swivel mount. After they had stowed their belongings Alice fiddled with the controls on the side and feeds from the ship’s hull cameras flickered into view. Turning a knob at the base cycled through several cameras and a few channels playing preset movies on a loop. Eventually she settled on the feed from a camera pointed directly down the blast chute before finally taking her seat.  

“I hope my parents will be okay,” she said, and produced a microfilament library from her bag. Her neutral expression did little to hide the concern in her voice.

“They’ll be alright,” he said trying to sound reassuring. “They’ve always been resourceful, and in good health.” That part wasn’t wrong. Alice’s father was a retired marine and her mother an engineer. Only their age had disqualified them from the lottery. “They’ll be fine. We’ll see them after the war, once it’s safe to send ships here again. The admiral promised, the fleet will be back.” Even as he said them the words felt like a lie. There was no guarantee that there would be a New Bismarck to come back to, or that the war would end for that matter.

“Uh huh,” Alice said into a book.

Marshal stopped talking. Burying herself in her work was her way of avoiding unpleasant truths and this truth was not one that Marshal intending on making her face for the moment. In a way he was lucky, both his parents had passed. That didn’t make up for the void that had existed at their wedding or a dozen other life events, but it was a small comfort that Marshal chose to hold on to as he kept watching the feed from the blast chute.

A count down appeared in the upper right corner starting at sixty seconds. He held his breathe and waited while he envisioned all the unfortunate possibilities of the next few minutes. A timed explosive could disable the engines, or the launch could shake their improvised cabins to pieces, or the turbulence of launch could tear open the old hull and kill all of them. There was a horrible moment when the counter reached zero and thought one of those might have happened. Then a massive explosion of light erupted across the display and he felt the unmistakable rumble of take off.

Marshal squeezed his hands around the armrests until his knuckles turned white while Alice continued with her pretense of being absorbed in her book. Once they took off the blinding light on the display receded and Marshal could see New Bismark shrinking until it was nothing more than a smudge of silver on the surface of a pock-marked moon.

Soon the moon itself would be nothing more than a smudge, then the planet and star with it. And then what? Marshal had been on in a ship under warp before but had never looked outside of one before. Would there be anything to see? More likely, he thought, their options for entertainment would just decreased further as most of the cameras would be rendered useless. He thought about his own collection of books that he had brought and realized after some thought that it wouldn’t be long until they were forced to socialize with their cabin mates.

He sighed and waited.

Gravity returned once the Majesty reached far orbit and the ship’s acceleration stabilized. He stood up from his seat and picked a bottle of whiskey from the cabinet. They were going to be on the ship for awhile, he might as well make friends with the neighbors.