A Spacers Life (For Me)

Spacers are, in a way, a nation unto themselves. Even with a Bulgarin Drive, journeys between stars take months at best. Away from the rare corridors where local gravity fields align just right they take years.

All this time the spacers are traveling at the speed of light, or faster, within their Bulgarin bubbles. Time passes differently for them, thanks to relativity they age much slower than their planet-bound fellows, and the worlds they return to are often very different from the worlds they left.

These differences have led to spacers developing cultures of their own. Few ever really return home, most sign-on expecting their journey to be a one-way trip, a way of paying their passage to a new world. Others make the conscious decision to leave the society they have known and live the rest of their now extended lives on ships travelling between the stars.

Faced with these long stretches of time, many choose the comfort of a stasis pod when possible, but not every ship has enough space, and at least a few crew members need to be awake at any given time. With all these long periods spent alone, away from companionship and any likelihood of rescue, spacers have learned how to take care of themselves and keep themselves entertained in the vastness of space.

Reading Material

The average ship has thousands of micro floppies loaded with everything from textbooks to the latest smut. Even private ships regularly take on new media at every time they stop. Bulgarin transmitters can only send some much information in a single burst. Spacers get to read the latest from each world they visit, long before the locals at their next destination have ever heard it.

But paper books are expensive. Most media is transmitted of micro floppys or other digital storage media. Spacers (and most locals) choose to use digital books instead, which project the words onto a sheet of transparent plastic.

These devices are surprisingly sophisticated, with buttons that allow the reader to move forward and backward in the book, and to set a limited number of bookmarks.

Spacers are known for their voracious information appetite. Most ships make it a priority to procure more material for their library at every port of call. In this way even privately owned ships serve to keep the disparate segments of humanity connected culturally.

Technical Tools

Space is huge and filled with tech, tech that tends to break from time to time. Portable interface terminals like this one are a spacer’s best friend.

Terminals are small and handheld, able to be clipped onto a belt or other piece of clothing. Each terminal is able to connect to a wide array of machines including satelites, life support systems, reactors, and more through a standard connector. Once plugged in the terminal displays a set of standard metrics like CPU usage, temperature, and error codes. The menu, which can be navigated by the arrow buttons in the bottom left, allow the user to to do a variety of things internally.

These hand terminals even give the user the ability to type custom commands or lines of code, although this is not the most user friendly option. Larger portal terminals with dedicated keyboards and graphic user interfaces are generally preferred for those more complex tasks.

Explorer’s Kit

All ships, no matter what their purpose, carry basic scientific equipment on board including Ultraviolet/Visual Light spectroscopes, mass spectrometers, and nuclear magnetic resonance instruments. Even if it it not their purpose, any ship might encounter unknown environments that they need to evaluate to determine their safety.

A basic spacer’s sample collection kit.

For things that cannot be easily carried back into orbit, spacers often bring handheld units able records local conditions. These units come equipped with a myriad of basic sensors and can be connected to various attachments such as voltage probes. Data collected with these hand-held sensors can be stored and timestamped on microfloppies

A basic handheld sensor package.

For Safety’s Sake

Radiation from distant stars, nuclear weapons, and leaky reactors are a constant danger. Most ships require their crew to wear radiation badges at all times. The badges are painted with specialized chemicals that cycle through colors as the amount of radiation increases. These colors provide a handy guide for spacers trying to quickly assess the safety of their surroundings using a handy guide.

Green = Good

Yellow=Be Careful

Red = Get Out

Black = You’re probably dead already.

The presence of breathable air is also of importance to all spacers. In response to this danger most spacers also carry small atmospheric field tests. The rods inside are chemically treated to change color in the presence of various gases.

NATO Forces in the Independence System

Awhile back I posted about a system named Independence, a part of my retro-scifi setting Red Suns. Independence is important because one of it’s planets, Franklin, is capable of supporting human life.

Because planets like this are so rare, the system is coveted by many factions, several of which maintain outposts in the system and two; NATO and the Neo-SOVIET have agreed to share Franklin. The relations between these two factions are often tense and both sides have dedicated considerable resources to securing their interests in the system.

This is the first of several posts where I provide an overview of the ships, people, and places of the Independence System. Beginning with an overview of NATO military assets in the system.

Ship Weapons

Rotating rings are great for providing consistent gravity but are incredibly vulnerable in combat. For this reason most frontline combat ships are built without rings. “Gravity” is provide by constant acceleration and crew have to deal with frequent shifts in acceleration and orientation.

NATO ship design hides most weapons emplacements inside armored bulbs. Everything from anti-missile counter measures to missile chutes are enclosed in armored bulbs that only open during combat.

These autocannons, suitable only for close-range combat or intercepting missiles, are a vital part of every ship’s defenses. Most combat however, is done with missiles at extreme ranges.

These missiles can carry a variety of payloads good for everything from orbital bombardment to anti-ship slog fests. The one pictured here is a generic load, but NATO armorers are more than capable of switching warheads out at a moment’s notice.

Missiles

Siegfried Class Battleship

The newest, most advanced ship in the NATO fleet, and only a handful are currently available. It takes over a decade to finalize the design of a new battleship, and years more before new ships are fully distributed in all the systems where NATO has interests. The Independence system has an unusually high concentration of these new battleships. Equipped with new, rapid launch missile silos and state-of-the-art target tracking. A Siegfried can make short work of most ships.

Siegfrieds carry close to 2000 personnel, including enough dropships and marines to take over a small surface settlement or large space station. Each ship is a self-contained city. NATO spacers compete fiercely for a posting on a Siegfried because they know that they will spend years, or even decades on that ship and a Siegfried is one of the safest, most comfortable ships to be on in any fleet.

Challenger Class Battleship

There are a bit smaller than the Siegfrieds. Let’s say a crew of about 1000.

Somewhat older than the Siegfrieds but by no means out dated. The armament on modern retrofitted Challengers is similar in almost all ways to a new Siegfried. The main differences in armament come from a less sophisticated guidance computer and a set of four drive cannons mounted at the top of the ship.

These drive cannons fire huge projectiles at enemy ships and moons in medium-range confrontations. These cannons require a dedicated reactor and are placed away from the main hull to increase their field of fire. At the time of the ship’s design it was thought that these cannons would be a part of the ship’s primary armament. Technology had other plans. As guidance computers and targeting systems advanced it became more and more practical to engage enemies at extreme range. Despite this, the Challengers remain competent warships.

Recently, several of the Challengers in the Independence system have been given further refits that have improved their guidance computers. Engineers expect to see a far greater degree of accuracy from the drive cannons as a result. This has not yet been tested in combat conditions.

Marshal Class Destroyer

This is the smallest warship that NATO is likely to assign to long-term missions. Marshal Class Destroyers are often seen far away from NATO systems.

In locales such as the Independence System the Marshal Clase Destroyers are commonplace due to the buildup of forces. They are frequently seen escorting larger ships or leading customs patrols.

Marshal Class Destroyers carry enough firepower to hold their own in a fight and carry multiple Pioneer Class Dropships. Enough to perform small boarding actions and land marines on a surface.

Multi-Vector Attack Unit (MVAU)

Outside of atmosphere fighters are uncommon. The smallest combat craft operated by NATO is the MVAU, a broad class of small vessels crewed by between two and five crew.

MVAUs are an important part of the larger fleet, but their pilots must be carefully selected, as their positions require them to spend many weeks or even months alone.

MVAUs are mainly valued for their ability to go relatively unnoticed. Their small profile makes them difficult to distinguish from the vastness of space and they often go for long periods in a “dormant” state.

In combat MVAUs are limited. Their main armament consists of projectile weapons, useful for intercepting missiles or attacking unsuspecting targets. An MVAU may carry one or two missiles but for the most part are considered the outermost part of a fleet’s defensive screen.

Pioneer Class Dropship

Large shuttles that glide to a safe landing are preferred for ground operations. But not all planets have suitable atmospheres or are safe for shuttles with such drawn out atmospheric trajectories.

Dropships can carry many tons of supplies, or about forty marines, on a meteoric trajectory towards a planets surface. It’s fall is only arrested at the last moment by a set of powerful maneuvering thrusters.

Ground Forces

Forces stationed on Franklin’s surface have the luxury of not needing to carry bulky life support systems and armored exoskeletons. But they do have to content with the possibility of protracted surface combat.

Because Franklin is capable of naturally supporting human life the surface is worth preserving to both sides. This means that large scale bombardments are unlikely and the soldiers stationed there will have to endure a protracted ground campaign if war breaks out.

NATO soldiers on Franklin are equipped with a stripped down version of more standard armor kits painted in shades of white and grey to blend in with the chalky off-white gravel and stone that covers the planet. For the harsh, dry winters a mask with breathing filters also suitable for protection against chemical warfare agents is supplied to each soldier and worn as needed. These masks offer protection from the massive storms that sweep across the surface each winter and pummel victims with showers of dust, gravel, and ice. Also useful in the winter is a bundle of heating circuits incorporated into the uniform that when activated can help to keep a soldier’s core temperatures up.

Most soldiers carry the same service rifle used on other planets and in vacuum. These rifles are deadly, but are mostly small caliber weapons designed to allow soldiers to carry enough ammunition as possible.

For support, ground troops have access to a selection of armored vehicles, all built in local factories. Most of these vehicles are hover craft or have extremely wide treads into order to navigate the mud slurries that cover much of the surface during the wet season.

Red Suns: A System Named Independence

First explored by Lester Arkwright, who claimed the system for the NATO Bloc and established an initial settlement on Franklin, the Independence System was quick to attract the interest of multiple parties in the area, primarily the Neo-Soviets and the already established NATO colonists. It didn’t take long before conflict was already brewing over the system, primarily because one of the planets, Franklin, was suitable for human life. Eventually an agreement was reached in which NATO and the Neo-Soviets would share Franklin and establish settlements in zones designated to each. Meanwhile NATO would take control of the moon of Burr while the moon of Hamilton would fall under Neo-Soviet control. The rest of the system was then declared to be neutral ground with the exception of a handful of independent settlements that were later established orbiting the gas giant Washington.

Franklin

The planet of Franklin is at one time habitable and bizarre. Like Earth, Franklin orbits within it’s star’s habitable zone and experiences similar seasonal changes, although in most regions it is more likely to rain than snow in the winter. The planet’s surface is white and chalky in most places ranging from fine sand to solid rock and during heavy rains the sand turns into a thick paste.

Surprisingly, both NATO and Neo-Soviet scientists have been able to to engineer crops able to be grow in the planet’s alien soil, although these crops require special attention. To date most crops grown on Franklin are engineered variants of potatoes, beats, and various root vegetables. More traditional crops are grown in special green houses.

Flora and Fauna

Walkers

These imposing creatures are mainly scavengers, eating whatever their tentacles can pick up off the ground. Pedestrians should beware however, the tentacles are tipped with deadly stingers. When sleeping they lower themselves to the ground in order to blend in with the landscape.

Those who have hunted these massive creatures hoping for a feast have often been disappointed. The majority of the creature’s body is its shell, which is continually extruded and grows thicker as it grows older.

Droppers

These gelatinous multi-cellular organisms resemble a giant cell. They move slowly, and attack their pray from above. This is a very painful experience, the poison they excrete slowly breaks their victims down, allowing them to be absorbed by the dropper.

Alone a single dropper is not a huge threat, but droppers reproduce via budding and are often found living in “packs.”

Coral

Instead of trees Franklin is home to “forests” of organisms resembling coral. These colonies are mostly dead except for those parts of the colonies close to the ground where they can easily absorb nutrients.

Dead coral is very brittle. It shatters easily and broken coral shards can be quite sharp. Some settlers have begun polishing coral fragments to make jewelry.

Creep

The bane of every technician and soldier stationed on Franklin. Creep is most similar to algae on Earth. It links to grow in thick mats on objects with lots of crevices. Just a small amount left remaining on a surface is enough to restart the colony, providing endless work to those who have displeased their superiors.

Washington

Washington is a gas giant slightly larger than Jupiter. Though it may not be habitable like Franklin it does possess many moons with varied environments. Many independent settlements have been established on these moons that have chosen to put themselves under the umbrella of the Rogue Star Collective. Their concerns are mostly represented by the RSC Administrators who oversee Washington Station.

Officially Washington Station is an important trade hub for the Independence System. It’s the one place were merchants of any nation know that they can trade freely. It is also a place were spies and informants often meet and secrets are sold.

Officially the Rogue Star Collective is a neutral entity within the system. However, many suspect that the value of the system has caused the local administrators to assemble a larger concentration of force than is typical for the RSC. Whether this concentration of force is significant is unknown but represents an significant unknown in the plans of many other actors.

Washington Locales

Washington Station

Washington Station was built after several independent settlements on Washington’s moons petitioned for membership in the RSC. Washington Station was then built to house the RSC administrators and representatives and to direct trade around the gas giant.

Many independent merchants have made their home on this station. The ring is full of taverns, warehouses, and casinos that do not wish to be under the thumb of other powers in the system.

Berzog Point

A small asteroid that was captured in Washington’s orbit. Berzog Point is a mostly lawless settlement administered by the Berzog Family. They don’t much care what goes on in their asteroid so long as everyone pays their docking fees.

This sounds exciting, but for the most part the people here just want to avoid more expensive docking fees or experiment with drugs that have been outlawed elsewhere in the system.

Sherman

Cold, icy, and full of interesting chemistry. Tartan is the manufacturing center of the Washing Sub-System. It’s surface is home to a number of large plantations home to self-replicating molecular systems. These self-replicating molecules harvest light from the star Independence and use that light to grow a variety of useful polymers that are sold elsewhere in the system.

Cheng Ho Shipyards

Lately I’ve been having fun designing ships for my Red Suns setting in Affinity Designer. I admit this artwork isn’t going to win any awards, but I really love how easily vector art allows me to communicate the images I have in my head.

Lately I’ve been focusing on more mundane designs produced by the designers and engineers working at the Cheng Ho Shipyards. In a universe where humanity still largely orients itself along the old NATO vs. Soviet Lines, Cheng Ho operates its shipyards exclusively within neutral systems and will license their designs to just about anyone.

Their design philosophy is simple: affordable, robust, reliable. Cheng Ho ships are solidly built with an emphasis on minimizing both expense and crew requirements. This philosophy has led to them becoming one of the largest design firms in the settled worlds.

The six ships here are their most popular designs and can be found operating in every major star system.

Red Suns: Swiss Army Space Ship

I just realized that I forgot to the connect the ring to the center of the ship…oh well, I’m keeping it.

I’m always tempted to design every single ship and vehicle that I plan to have appear or even not appear in a setting. What this really means is that I just end up not designing any of them. So instead this time I’m trying to focus on making a few representative ships instead.

This one in particular is what I’m going to call the Swiss Army Space Ship for now, as ships like it were vital to the settling of other planets in the early days of Red Suns.

The design is modular and generic in appearance by design. It does most things well enough to get by, but will always be outperformed by a purpose built ship. These ships are suitable for exploration, carrying cargo and passengers, mining operations, and even some light patrol duties if absolutely necessary. This image in particular shows a ship with enough habitat space in the ring for about a hundred people and a compliment of orange shipping pods held to the hull by latches. When “stationary” the ring spins to simulate gravity. However, under high acceleration the sections of ring can rotate so that the sensation of gravity is provide by the motion of the ship instead.

In place of these pods, other ships might have small hanger bays, manufacturing equipment, enhanced sensor suites, added weapons, or even another ring. The ships also come standard with a compliment of eight auxillary pods suitable for moving people and cargo to other ships as well as a pair of shuttles for landing on a planet surface. In practice though it would be more practical to dock with a local space elevator.

An important this to note is that these ships are not at all dedicated warships. Their light armament is enough to intercept missiles and may scare of pirates, but the ring in my mind is far to vulnrable to attack for the ship to safely fulfill any sort of combat role. That said, the ship’s owner would find it easy to modify the cargo pods with a few nasty surprised for any would-be attacks.

The cost of the ship is the hardest part to figure out. I haven’t given currency in this setting much thought and honestly I am trying no to. The trouble with mentioning specific numbers is that you’re just setting yourself up to forget them later. I do however want a ship like this to be affordable enough that they can be owned by private citizens. Maybe not a new one though, there are enough of these ships in circulation that finding and buying a used one shouldn’t be too hard.

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.