Do you remember a time when you believed there were people living on the moon? Or Mars? Or Venus? I do.
I’m a kid – no older than eight – reading Ray Bradbury in a sunny room, thinking about the color of the kids’ raincoats on Venus. A casual browse through my shelves will reveal reams of construction paper upon which has been illustrated a wide variety of spaceships, including the Costello – an interplanetary craft based upon the rough outline of the swing set in my backyard. On the floor, scattered about on their launch pads, a legion of Lego spaceships point through the skylights of my bedroom, waiting for lift-off.
This is me before true scientific understanding had dawned. Before I had my subscription to Odyssey, before I learned everything I could about the Solar System and beyond. This was when I still thought there might be Martians and wondered whether they were friendly or not.
Explorers was released in 1985. I did not see it in the theater – I didn’t know it existed until probably a few years later, when I was browsing through the local video rental store (remember browsing the rental store? Man, I loved that!) and saw it sitting on the shelf. The movie was, along with The Goonies, a representation of all my idealized childhood fantasies. A couple kids manage to build a spaceship out of junk in their backyard and fly off to explore the universe. Never mind how they did it (I don’t really remember – something about a computer program that makes bubbles out of thin air, I guess – this was also back in the days when computers were tantamount to MAGIC). The important point is that three kids, without the need for adults, built a spaceship and went off to explore space.
List off the films that did this in the 1980s – had kids/teens on the forefront of space exploration/science fictional adventure:
- The Last Starfighter
- Space Camp
- Flight of the Navigator
- My Science Project
- Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
- Back to the Future
I’m probably missing some, too. In any case, I grew up thinking fantastic adventure was just around the corner. All I needed to do was meet a crazy inventor or stumble upon a meteorite or get locked in the National Air and Space museum after dark and discover, to my shock and wonder, that the Apollo Capsule still worked!
And when I did manage to travel through time or open a portal to another world or fly off to Mars, there would be people there. Life, in this halcyon age of my imagination, was as common in space as it was here on Earth. Every planet would have a secret ecosystem of aliens creatures waiting to be explored and (possibly) zapped with a ray gun. There would be cultures of intelligent creatures there, both primitive and advanced, and I would make friends and enemies, establish diplomatic relations, and so on. I swore I’d have a flying car by now and that space stations would be places people went for vacation or stopped over on their way to Saturn.
I was wrong, of course. Space isn’t really like that or, at least, it doesn’t appear to be. It is vast and mostly empty and our planet is a little island of blue all alone in a sea of black, not just one member of an archipelago of habitable worlds. Getting off this rock seems harder and harder, even as it also looks to be more and more essential that we manage it. I wonder if this is just part of growing up for everybody or whether my generation was uniquely spoiled – probably the former. I also wonder: do the kids of today have similar dreams? Do they hope to explore the Great Unknown? I worry sometimes. I seem to meet a lot of young people who don’t bother looking past the ends of their noses and whose ideas of the future involve merely a steady job and a 401K (if that).
That’s not enough, though. We need to look further than the necessities of our own survival. We need to be dreamers – crazy dreamers – if we’re going to have a shot. When somebody accuses of you of riding moonbeams, you need to take it as a compliment. It’s gotta be better than just squatting in the dirt, right?
So, a bunch of rich guys have finally gotten around to trying to mine asteroids.
I say ‘finally’ because I sort of felt this was inevitable. Sooner or later I knew that forward thinking, stupidly rich people with nothing else to spend their gobs of money on would try investing in outer space for profit. This seems the most likely first step towards actually colonizing space. That said, I very sincerely think these guys are going to lose their shirts over this venture. They are going to manage to mine the most expensive iron ore in the history of the world in the hopes that they’ll find platinum. You watch.
That, though, isn’t the point. The point is that this is the beginning of an exciting, new phase in our species’ history (I hope). Companies like this one and SpaceX are blazing the way for a new era of colonization, but powered by private interests, not governments. There is precedent for this, remember: The British East India Company colonized India for their own profit, not for the glory of Britain. The settlers at Jamestown were likewise looking to make a quick buck. Chris Columbus crossed the ocean blue looking for spices and gold, not fame, and it was his desire for glory and wealth that made him wheedle the money for the trip out of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain.
All it’s going to take for the colonization of our solar system to take off is for somebody, somehow, someway to find profit out there in the Big Empty. Then everybody will be chomping at the bit to get out there. The technology, if it isn’t developed, will get developed. If that happens then, finally, thankfully, perhaps this planet will make it past this particular stage of exploratory stagnation. That, my friends, will be a really exciting time. Science Fiction made fact. New social dynamics, new cultures born outside the gravity well, and, of course, space pirates.
We all want space pirates. Admit it.
Just ran another mission of an RPG I wrote entitled ‘Frontier: 2280″ (which all my friends call ‘Battlelords”, but that’s a whole different game–one I played, liked, and then decided to completely depart from and make into my own paramilitary sci-fi adventure game). In this one, as in some of the past sessions, space combat has played an important role to the party’s survival. As with the rest of the game, however, I’ve tried to keep things as close to ‘real science’ as I can, and I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about how space combat might work in the future and why. Here’s what I’ve come up with:
It is important that prospective space combat cadets push from their minds the flash and zoom of pulp sci-fi. Fighting in space doesn’t work that way. Indeed, it is actually quite boring for those people not crunching the math on incoming ordnance with white-knuckled urgency. If you’re lying in your accel couch after the maneuver alarm, nothing much is happening so far as you can tell. Watch a movie or something.
1: Space Combat Happens Over Long Distances
In the early years of ship-to-ship combat, the boarding action was generally considered the be-all and end-all of the space combat arena. This was the case because neither side really liked the idea of punching holes in things as expensive as spaceships and, furthermore, it is really, really hard to hit a moving spaceship with any kind of conventional weapon. It is akin to hitting a bullet with another, smaller bullet and, frankly, the difficulties involved made the whole affair impractical.
This, however, is no longer the case. As sensor systems improved and the guidance AIs on missile got better, the prospect of actually crippling or destroying an enemy vessel that was still >5000km away became more of a reality. Furthermore, given the efficacy of close-range laser attacks and the brutal finality of boarding actions, it became preferable to blow up the enemy when they were so far away you needn’t worry about debris from their exploding vessel putting holes in your own vessel or their last laser strafe cutting your fuel lines or some kind of last F-U virus being uploaded into your system and killing your computers dead.
Modern ship-to-ship combat has more in common with the largely mythical submarine duels of the 20th century Cold War than it does with the Milennium Falcon. Enemy vessels are barely and intermittently visible to sensor suites and advanced targeting systems are constantly calculating a likely intercept course for sophisticated missiles to fly out there and hunt down the enemy. All the while, one’s own vessel is hoping no missiles are coming in towards them or, if they are, they are picked up by tactical radars and targeted by point-defence laser systems before they get too close. Close-quarters combat is extremely rare unless the enemy is actively trying to capture and not destroy the enemy vessel in question. Sometimes they are so far away, one can’t ever be certain if they did, in fact, kill the enemy. All they know is that the ship has stopped popping up on their sensors.
2: Let Space Do the Killing For You
Fun Fact: the vacuum of space is the most hazardous environment known to mankind. Accordingly, space-based military technology has oriented itself towards creating circumstances wherein the vacuum of space is the thing doing all the killing–it does so for free and with a minimum of fuss. You really don’t need to blow up an enemy ship. All you need to do is kill their engines and then let the crew drift off into the void and starve–easy, see?
The vast majority of naval weapons are missiles. They run in a couple general types:
-Spikers are fragmentary explosives on a massive scale. Their purpose, quite simply, is to put holes in ships–lots and lots of holes in lots and lots of places and, if possible a really big hole somewhere. This often doesn’t result in explosive decompression (though it can), but more practically makes portions of a vessel unusable, causes them to leak fuel, and can make them much, much easier to spot on sensors.
-Rad-blasts are intense radiation munitions designed to cook the people inside ships until they are dead. These work best after a spiker has put lots of helpful holes in a vessels radiation-shielded hull. Volleys of missiles are often timed to have Spikers detonate immediately before Rads.
-Killers are direct-impact high-explosive munitions. They are designed to blow a ship into smithereens, and they do so quite well. The problem with them, however, is it is very difficult to score a direct hit on an enemy vessel at ranges of thousands of kilometers while both ships are moving at incredible rates of speed and, often, on conflicting courses with limited sensor information. In a practical sense, Killers are saved until it is clear that an enemy ship is crippled and spewing enough radiation to be easily found by the Killer’s pAI guidance system.
-Nukes are effectively useless in space combat. They do spill a good amount of radiation (though Rads kick out more), but their ‘explosive shockwave’ is dependent upon the presence of an atmosphere to be effective (you don’t get a shockwave if there is nothing to push). Nukes are used exclusively as orbital bombardment ordinance or as ship-to-ship weaponry for the desperate.
-EMPs are electromagnetic pulse weapons intended to disrupt or disable the electronic systems aboard a starship. They are very effective at doing this, but at the cost of making the other ship harder to detect for anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours as they get their systems back online. Also, they don’t kill ships or even people aboard them, so long as they still have operational generators. They are often used to precede boarding actions.
There are numerous other forms of ordnance, but those are the major ones.
It is important to remember the sheer number of ways space can kill ships. Only a few of these ways are ‘hot’ (hit by a Killer, Spike-rad combos, atmospheric re-entry, boarding action, short range laser-strafe). Most of them are ‘cold’, including starvation, dehydration, freezing, or asphyxiation. To affect these ‘victories’, the enemy need only disable the enemy vessel’s engines or power systems, for the most part, and let them drift into the Big Empty, never to be heard from again.
3: ‘Fighters’ are for Suicidal Nut-Jobs
The idea of a ‘fighter’ has been roundly abandoned by pretty much everybody by the 23rd century. The idea of a small, manoeuvrable vessel with good acceleration and high weapon payload exists, but those things are called ‘missiles’ and they are ‘manned’ by pAIs, not people. That way, when they don’t come back (and they don’t), you don’t care. You also don’t need to worry about things like inertial stress on the pilot or keeping life support active. It is cheaper, more efficient, and easier to just fire missiles that maintain fighters. Fighters still are very important in atmospheric roles, but not in space.
The notable exception to this is the HBV (Hostile Boarding Vehicle). These are basically assault boats used to board enemy vessels. They are only launched at short range when the odds of interception are very high (miss your intercept on an HBV and welcome to Cold Death) and they are also one-way trips, most of the time. Once attached, an HBV is not easily disengaged from this ship it’s boarding, and their boarding team needs to win the boarding action or wind up the prisoners of the enemy crew (or dead–there’s always that option). Ideally, HBVs are launched at crippled ships with disabled or non-existent point-defence systems, and they are usually launched in groups (why send one when you can send three?). ‘Ideal’ situations, of course, are not always possible. It is for this reason that marines are considered crazy.
4: Fuel = Life
Due to the likelihood of Cold Death in the Big Empty, power is of utmost importance. Everything a ship does takes power and, therefore, fuel to accomplish. Want to change course? Fuel is needed to power the reactors which power the engines. Want to operate your point-defences? Fuel is needed to power the reactors which power the lasers. Want to speed up or slow down? Fuel. This is the primary reason, by the way, that missiles are preferred over other weapons (railguns, lasers, wavecannons, plasma throwers, etc.) because, unlike all those other weapons, missiles require a minimum of power to fire and are every bit as effective.
Without fuel, a ship is as good as dead. It’s life support can’t function, it can’t stop, turn, or speed up, it can’t fight, it can’t even see. Again, this has a huge impact on space warfare. Fighters aren’t used in part since the power needed to retrieve them is power wasted. Ships focus on crippling and letting enemy ships drift since, usually, the power needed to kill them isn’t necessary and needlessly weakens yourself. Battle happens at extreme ranges since the power needed to outmaneuver and intercept a ship isn’t necessary and can be a disastrous waste of resources.
Most vessels operate a main fusion reactor with a number of auxiliary fission reactors in reserve. The fusion reactor eats He3 fuel at a relatively speedy rate, but is able to reliably power all systems at once. The fission reactors are much less powerful, but work through their fuel rods at a much slower rate. Some ships maintain a store of chemical boosters and emergency beacons that run on their own, self-contained power in case of emergency, but those aren’t going to push a ship anywhere quickly nor are they especially likely to save a ship that’s drifted too far out of course. They only really buy you time.
5: Sensors are Limited
Star Trek is a load of nonsense. Unless you’re within a hundred clicks of a ship (give or take a few), you can’t tell whether an enemy vessel is powering weapons or how many lifeforms are aboard or really much of anything, especially not if the other ship doesn’t want you to scan them…or it’s venting radiation or it’s in the middle of a dust cloud or there is unusual solar flare activity or any number of other environmental concerns that render even the most sophisticated sensor arrays pretty useless.
‘Sensors’ refer to a couple distinct systems: RADAR, radio and conventional telescopes, thermal detectors, spectographic scanners, and gravitic recorders. All of these things work at the speed of light (c) or slower, meaning a vessel that rests 7 light-seconds away, when scanned, will be delivered information 7-14 seconds old (7 to get there and in some cases 7 to get back) or even more. If you have a *really* good fix on another ship, you know its velocity, direction, acceleration, and, if you’re very lucky or very good, can make an accurate guess at its mass. Typically, all you get is a read on its drive signature–either ion trails being picked up, telling you more-or-less where the thing is headed, or the gravitic warping effect of a slip drive, telling you basically the same thing. By crunching a lot of math, you can make a fairly accurate guess as to the velocity of the thing and, eventually, take a guess at its *average* acceleration. By crunching even *more* math you can hazard a guess at how much power it has at its disposal, giving you an idea of its size or, at least, the size of its reactor. If in a fight with a ship, the only good way to know if you’ve damaged it is to notice erratic patterns in radiation spillage, drive streams, or maybe even register a large explosion (if you’re lucky). Clever tacticians, of course, learn how to fake these things pretty well, so crews learn to stay on their toes.
The best way to learn about another ship is to talk to it. Again, communications run at the speed of light, so there is usually a slight delay. All non-military vessels and most military vessels that aren’t on active duty broadcast a callsign unless they are up to no good, which tells anyone who’s listening the ship’s name, complement, mass, and intended destination. Thanks to pirates, a ship’s callsign can be assumed to be inaccurate to varying degrees, even though SPIT-NET considers this behaviour illegal. Still, talking with somebody can reveal a lot–if nothing else, you can see if what they say matches up with your sensor data and guess if they’re lying and maybe even postulate why.
The tactical fallout of all this is, essentially, that most ship-to-ship space battles end before one side knows what’s happening. Getting blindsided by a spike-rad combo before you have your point-defence system running at optimum is a regrettably common occurrence (and also a reason to have your point-defences *always* operating), as is finding yourself under attack from a ship you can’t even see. Space combat is a giant game of lethal hide-and-seek, and if you don’t know you’re playing, you are usually going to lose.
So, that’s the gist of it. I’ve been running it this way, and so far it has given way to white-knuckled suspense for the players aboard their little souped-up merchant vessel. They haven’t been hit by a missle yet, but it will happen. Then the fun will really start…
It’s like this: you cack some sphere-jockey in Hubspace, or you sell Bluetab to the chemjunkies on Arcturus, or you bop with some Biggie’s girl and he throws SPIT-NET a bone, and you find yourself lookin’ up the nostrils of a Judge as he looks down. Prison, he says, or worse. But you’re a slammer, still running green on all your lights—young, strong, not a total dumbass—so your law-squawk cuts you a deal. Prison or a CFC. For you jump-chumps sqattin’ on the john and scanning this down, that means Corporate Frontier Contract, affirm? A one-way ticket to the ass-end of nowhere, the Big Empty, hupping for snot-pay through more shit-top ugly duty than’ll reg on a heavy scanner. Rads, rock-watches, pirates, the rest of it. Crazy.
Still, it beats prison.
You keep telling yourself that, anyway. You keep it flashing green on your HUD as the med-techs clamp you down on a table and squirt a tube of nano-goo behind your left eyeball. You keep saying it to yourself as TRACI goes live and starts whispering in your ear, saying shit you never scanned before, ramming her nanotech cables deep down in your thinker, till your hands can run protocols you never clocked hours learning. You field-strip hypersluggers in the dark; you got specs on how to set bombs and where to put them for the biggest boom; you got a chump bitch-chatting you in a bar and there’s TRACI, telling you all the spots you can hit him to make him cry. You don’t even have to make your hands go—just give the lady the go-ahead, and she does all the work. Still, it beats prison. You got your hands wrist deep in that guy’s guts, but still it beats prison. Yeah.
CFC terms in five years, affirm? You run your course, you stay green, then you rate a duffel full of cred and a chip in your thinker that scans SPIT-NET that you’re shit-top fine citizen and top-flight colonial specimen. Regs say they even shut down sweet TRACI, and drop you free, drifting off on your own course. Those are the specs, anyway, but it don’t matter. You don’t make the five years, chump. More ways to wind up going for the Big Float in this duty than anywhere, affirm? Odds are running seven to one you don’t make it your first year. Nine to one says you don’t see year three. Don’t ask me the odds on year five, chief—even TRACI don’t crunch that math, affirm?
Even if you’re cagey, and know all the tricks the Barrys send down the wire, and keep yourself hull down when the flak starts, guess what? You didn’t keep yourself running green by being all smiles and handshakes, did you? You violated regs, and violations rate blackers. One blacker, one more year on the contract. You cack a guy you shouldn’t? Blacker. You bitch-chat a Barry? Blacker. You evac on a mission? Blacker. I’ve been CFC-ed to the Interstellar Mining Consortium for eight years running, and got me two years left. Only one guy been here longer than me, and that’s Vivian. He’s rated sixteen blackers in his time, and run twelve of his twenty-one years. Nobody else has lived that long. Nobody.
Ugly dude, Vivian. Not on the outside, neither—all deep down. Scan it through his eyes, chief—nothing but dead black space and mean stares, running on loop. He run more black ops protocols than you downloaded from vid-flicks, ‘cepting he’s done it in the flesh. His own two hands choking out some putz, thumbs screwed into his windpipe like they was riveted there. Run evictions, hits, smash-n-grabs, duffle-stuffs—all of it. Tell you about it, too. Ain’t one for blinking, is Vivian. Cold as the Big Empty and twice as dark. Cack you as soon as shit on you.
Guess what else, chump—he’s your pappy. The boss. Captain. C-fucking-O. He runs the missions, he marks the protocols, he chats with the Barrys. He tells you your X and your Y and your fucking Z. You don’t do it? Blacker. If you’re lucky. Odds say he just puts a slug up your aft while you’re walking point with the twitch-gun, calls it an accident.
Still, it beats prison.
Author’s Note: I wrote this as the opening pages to a novel I’ve got cooking on the back burner along with a hundred million other ideas. Most recently I’ve adapted it as the introductory fluff text to an RPG I wrote called Frontier: 2280(tentative title–still not wild about it), though it may be that I’ll journey back to this bit yet and extend it. <sigh> So many projects I’d like to work on, so little time…
The bare steel walls of the old battlecruiser seemed to sweat; the air was thick with the acrid scent of coolant mixed with spilt blood. Somewhere in the distance, Maxwell heard a man scream in pain. The sound was drowned out by the sound of a bulkhead cutter barking to life.
A pair of hulking vat-marines flanked him, each with on massive paw wrapped around each of his upper arms. They were dragging him down the dimly lit corridor like an spacesuit, letting his broken legs bounce and wobble over every airlock lip and floor vent. Overhead, the flourescent lights flickered intermittently, bathing the battle-scarred armor of the two vatters in long, bestial shadows. Fighting to stay conscious through the pain, Maxwell could barely make out his apparent destination: a battered steel door bathed in orange light, the words ‘DETENTION 5’ stenciled at its center.
It may as well have read ‘HELL.’
The door opened as the vat-marines approached and they released him. He dropped to the floor, smacking his chin and biting off a piece of his tongue. He was too tired to make more than a soft whimper as the blood filled his mouth. Then a pair of massive, genetically modified hands were grabbing him by the belt and collar and hoisting him up. A heave-ho later, he was left sprawled on the floor of a plain gray room bathed in antiseptic white light. The door closed behind him; he was alone. He let himself lie for a few moments, trying to catch his breath.
“Get up, if you please.” The voice was clear, crisp, with a military accent.
Maxwell gradually lifted his face from the floor. In the center of the room was a table with two chairs. In one of these chairs was a thin man, graying at the temples, with the pinched features of someone used to sneering. He wore a form-fitting black uniform with a pair of silver skulls at his collar. He was unarmed, save for his hard black eyes. “I can call for a vat-marine, if you require assistance.”
Maxwell spat blood on the floor. “Go to hell.”
“I’m afraid you’re making a poor impression, Lieutenant Maxwell. I wouldn’t recommend continuing in that course.”
Maxwell blinked. “How do you know my name?”
“Almighty Glohrr, Lord of Space, makes it a point to download the complete memory banks of every ship his Invincible Fleet boards and sizes. The rest is just simple facial recognition software. Will you sit down, or should I ask the brutes outside the door to come in here and bring you down to the galley?”
“Galley?” Maxwell’s stomach rumbled.
The man smirked. “Oh, my apologies–I was unclear. They’d take you to the galley to eat you, of course, not feed you.”
Maxwell pulled himself into the chair a few seconds later. “Who are you?”
“I’m Commander Eris, Primary Logistics officer to Lord Glohrr aboard the Bloody Carnage. Pleased to make your acquaintance, I presume.” Eris’s eyes drifted to some distant point on the wall for a moment as Maxwell presumed he reviewed some kind of incoming data to his retinal display. “Ah, good–you’ll be delighted to know that the last remnants of your Republican Fleet have been reduced to scrap and atoms. No one is coming to save you.”
“Why would I be delighted about that?” Maxwell slurred, trying absently to straighten his naval uniform. Part of it had melted onto his body, however, and wouldn’t move without taking a good chunk of himself with it. What had done that? He didn’t remember getting hit by a wavebeam…maybe it had been the fire. There had been so much fire…
“I have found that, during these interviews, the prospect of a coming rescue often clouds an applicant’s judgement. The lack of such allows them to think much more clearly.”
“Wha…what are you talking about?”
Eris shrugged. “I’ll come right to it, then–you look quite spent, in any event, so we haven’t that much time. You are aware of who Glohrr, Lord of Space and Ruler of the Black Armada is?”
“Yeah, he’s a giant goddamned vat-marine gone crazy. Flies around the galaxy burning worlds and exacting tribute from whoever he likes. He’s a big freaking bully and a monster and a…”
“A simple ‘yes’ would have sufficed, thank you. Well, as it happens, Lord Glohrr, while quite adept at boarding actions, killing things, and crushing skulls and so on, is less well-versed in the actual ins-and-outs of starship tactics, operations, and engagements. As such, he is always looking for likely candidates to fill out his operational staff here aboard theBloody Carnage. He, by which I mean myself with his approval, have identified you as one such candidate.”
Maxwell blinked. “You…you want me to join you?”
Eris nodded. “Yes, indeed.” He placed a blank data pad on the table. “A thumbprint here and I’ll have the two vatters out there take you down to medbay, where you’ll be treated, given a new uniform, quarters, food…”
Maxwell spit blood on the datapad. “Why would you think I’d do that? I’m not betraying the Republic so that big oaf can keep…”
Eris held up a hand. “I understand, of course–that’s a common reaction. Allow me to explain the benefits: Firstly, if you refuse, the fellows out in the hall will take you down to the galley. Your biomass will be processed into neat little patties which will serve as food for both myself and my staff for the 1900 hour meal. I expect you will be delicious. Secondly, you are a coward, as we both know. Lieutenants in the Republican Navy aren’t supposed to kneel and beg for their lives when hostile forces overrun their posts; they’re supposed to go down fighting. Lucky for your, Lord Glohrr makes no such requirement of his natrual-born crew–he actually prefers us to get the hell out of the way so his vatters can get to the grisly work of ripping the enemy to little bloody pieces. If we surrender, he doesn’t give a damn, either, incidentally. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Lord Glohrr gives a trained naval officer like yourself certain opportunities unavailable while engaged in…well, let’s just call it the public sector, shall we? Easier that way.”
Maxwell gaped at Eris, but the Commander showed no real concern or interest in his reaction. He kept going. “Lord Glohrr, as a creature solely interested in blood, war, and conquest, doesn’t care much for material wealth save as a means to securing more power. As crewmen such as myself and, prospectively, yourself represent a path to that power, he is uncommonly generous. You can expect an increase in your salary of about 250% to start, provided Lord Glohrr keeps finding planets to extort and invade. I, for instance, made about four million standard credits last year–tax free, obviously–and that’s only counting liquid assets. I also own my own ship, have access to some of the finest food, own an estate on Ceres VI, and I maintain a harem of about…”
“H…harem?” Maxwell coughed. “Really?”
Eris locked his black eyes with Maxwell’s swollen ones. “Look, let’s not lie to each other, shall we? You weren’t in the Republican Navy because you believe in the causes of freedom and justice or whatever the hell it is they peddle in schools these days. You were in it because your parents couldn’t afford to send you to a university that didn’t have a service requirement, and you were just killing time before your tour was up and you could go back to whatever backwater rock spawned you, marry some boring sphere-jockey wench, have a few kids, and sell shoes for the rest of your life. Am I right?”
Eris shrugged. “Like it really goddamned matters, anyway. Like I care about your life’s story or your problems or your stupid dreams–they’re over, Maxwell. They ended as soon as Lord Glohrr raked his fusion blisters across the bow of Protector and the sooner you accept that and move on, the sooner we can finish this tedious conversation.”
Maxwell tried to think clearly, but was having trouble. He had been awake for almost forty-eight hours, his face and chest and legs were a symphony of different pains and agonies, and he had trouble wrapping his brain around the deal being offered. “What if…what if I sign up and then betray you later.”
Eris rolled his eyes. “Let’s put it to you this way: if you screw up, Lord Glohrr will crack open your ribcage like a soda can and suck down your heart and lungs like jelly beans. If I catch you screwing up, I’ll kill you myself. You’re about to join a crew full of pirates, turncloaks, and homicidal warbeasts–we aren’t exactly a trusting bunch. That said, if you do your job well, you can retire before you’re fifty.”
Maxwell realized his chin was practically resting on the table. He slowly pulled himself up. “Uhhhh…”
Eris sighed. “Look, Maxwell–yes or no? It makes no real difference to me.”
Maxwell squared his shoulders. “I’m no coward. Go to hell you soulless…”
He didn’t get to finish the curse before the two vat-marines stomped into the room and dragged him away by his hair. As he was swept away, he noted that the expression on Eris’s face had barely changed. It was like someone had taken away an hors’devres tray that he hadn’t really liked anyway. That image stayed with him for the rest of his life.
All twelve minutes of it.
Commander Eris repositioned the chair, sat back down, and rubbed his temples. That had been the fifth one in the past hour, but he’d almost sold that one. “What an idiot.”
He brushed the comms stud on his wrist. The guttural affirmation of a vat marine rumbled in his earbud. “Yes, Tyvosh? Bring in the next one, if you please.”
The Earth is in trouble. We all sort of know this, and everybody has their pet theories, from fears of global pandemic to ‘genetic pollution’ to nuclear war to the coming of the Rapture. The exact why of it all, however, I think can be boiled down to one essential problem: There are too many people.
Population growth on Earth has been exponential for quite some time. Arguably it has been thus for all of recorded history and, like all exponential curves, it just keeps getting faster. Pretty much every problem known to the world today would be more-or-less fixable but for the presence of so many human beings. Environmental destruction? Well, the only reason that’s happening is because there are a lot of people who want more stuff to be more comfortable. As that number of people grows every year (every day, even every moment), the amount of stuff humanity wants goes up, and the more the environment suffers. Worried about a global pandemic? Well, the more people there are on the planet, the easier it becomes for a disease to spread, mutate, etc. and the harder it gets to combat it. Worried about world war three? Well, it’s on it’s way, because eventually the Great Powers of the Earth are going to be fighting over ever diminishing resources, and when that happens you get wars. Big wars.
So, what to do? As I see it, there are only two practical solutions, and both involve reducing the population of the Earth. Environmentalism, green energy, human rights sanctions, international diplomacy, etc. are all just stop-gap measures that are only slowing down the approach of the inevitable. The increase of the human populations is a mathematical certainty, unless you can somehow manage to brainwash the human race into not wanting or liking children. Good luck with that.
Solution #1: The Bad Way
The first solution is immoral, terrible, and wrong. It involves lots and lots and lots of people dying. No matter how it happens, be it disease, war, famine, nautral disaster, or man-made atrocity, the death of many billions of people would, ultimately, solve a lot of the Earth’s problems. It would destroy society as we know it in the process, though, and would be the Worst Thing To Happen Ever. I’m pretty sure nobody wants this, not even the really, really crazy people of the Earth.
Well, let’s cut that back to the vast majority of really, really crazy people don’t want this. Some dudes are pretty freaking nutballs.
Solution #2: The Good Way
This should really be intuitive. How do you solve a population problem without killing huge quantities of people? You find somewhere else for them to go, naturally. Of course, given how we can only currently go different places on the Earth, that isn’t really going to help. So, where do we go next?
Can you guess?
Yes, space, obviously. New planets, new colonies, new self-sustaining space stations, etc., etc.. We have got to find a way off this rock in the next century or two, or we’re screwed, folks. Well, maybe not all of us, but probably most of us. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my grandchildren to go through that, and no amount of recycling or signing petitions or defending our borders or changing our eating habits or distributng contraception is going to stop it from happening.
When people look at the manned spaceflight programs of both the US, Russia, and, to a lesser extent, of Europe and roll their eyes and say ‘what a waste of time’ or ‘why don’t they spend that money at home’, I say ‘I’m glad they’re spending money on something that will one day save the human race.’ I only wish they spent more, honestly, because, at the pace we’re going, I’m not sure we’re going to make it out before this whole place goes straight to hell.
I keep hoping, though. I hope you do, too.
The idea of parallel evolution always irks me. I think it irks scientists, too, but I’m not a scientist, so I don’t know for sure. The supposition that an intelligent alien species would follow the same path as us–physiologically, socially, and scientifically–strikes me as hopelessly arrogant. It makes the obviously incorrect assumption that there is only one way to do things, and that way is to become humanoid, speak a language based on sound, and make your way up the ‘tech-tree’ (to borrow a RTS game term) from fire to the wheel and so on.
Let’s entertain a different idea, however. I’ve been turning this over in my head for the past few weeks, actually, and here’s what I got so far. Again, I stress that I am not a scientist, but know just enough basic science to get myself in trouble. I would be delighted, actually, if I had my science critiqued by folks who know better–it usually makes things more interesting as opposed to less so.
Take a planet sort of like ours–watery, geologically active, a healthy magnetic field, orbiting in the habitable zone of a main sequence star of some kind. This time, however, let’s knock it just a few pegs off the mark, specifically so there is no significant evolutionary advantage to being able to crawl around on land. Say the gravity is a bit too strong, making it very difficult for any large creature to survive and walk around up there. Or suppose, instead, that the planet is subject to baths of radiation from the star that make long-term survival impractical. Hell, perhaps it’s just too hot up there, or too cold–the planet’s oceans are forever coated in a sheet of ice, creating a significant physical barrier to anything crawling out of the deep and becoming an amphibian.
What happens if you wind up with a tool-using, problem-solving intelligent species on such a planet? What is it like? How do they look at the world? Admittedly, the exercise is legitimately impossible–we have a hard enough time sticking ourselves in the shoes of other humans, let alone an alien species on an alien planet trillions of kilometers away. Let’s give it a whirl, anyway, and see what happens.
Going off a combination of what we’ve needed to get where we are and what creatures in our own oceans have the same potential, I’ve decided the following:
1) The aliens need some kind of prehensile appendages with which to manipulate their environment and make tools. Dolphins can be as intelligent as you like, but they’ll never manage to make a toaster without thumbs.
2) The aliens must have evolved in a particular niche where intelligence would have been useful. This is more-or-less restricted to carnivorous or omnivorous species–herbivores really don’t need to be smart, since they don’t need to hunt or plan or anything beyond just eating that kelp over there. Carnivores, furthermore, only need to be intelligent enough to chase down or ambush prey, and the rest of their job is done by substantial physical strength. Omnivorous, scavenging types, however, are neither as strong as predators nor as dumb as herbivores. They are adaptable by necessity, and live by being clever. Watch crows operate sometimes–very clever little birds–not to mention various kinds of monkeys and baboons and such.
3) The species needs to be curious. Curiosity is the only way you become a tool-using, problem-solving intelligent species in the ‘sapient’ sense. If we lacked this, we’d still be hunter-gatherers, no matter how smart we were. It took some real curiostity to harness fire, folks.
Okay, so, given all that stuff, I’ve decided that cephalopods seem the most likely candidates, specifically those akin to octopi and squids. They have large brains, tentacles with which to manipulate things, show curiosity, and, while not omnivorous per se, are scavengers and it is not beyond the bounds of imagination to see a cephalopodic species developing the capacity to ingest vegetable matter in a pinch.
This leaves us with squid-aliens, living in the depths of a planet, developing society and technology and art and commerce, but in a way wholly alien to ourselves.
Our squiddies are social creatures (real-life squids and octopi can actually get lonely, and will hang around with fish if isolated from others of their kind), and so it is reasonable to expect them to develop a kind of society. Indeed, and I probably should have placed this above, the social aspect of a species is probably essential to developing the kind of ‘intelligence’ I’m suggesting here (and, of course, there are many ways to measure intelligence–I’m picking one similar to ours simply because it makes it much, much easier to talk about. It needn’t be the case, though).
What kind of a society would they have? Heirarchical, I suppose–the bigger guy is higher on the food chain than the smaller guy and so on. This is the law of the oceans, and it only makes sense that it would be mirrored by the society spawned out of it (not altogether unlike ours). The family unit, as we understand it, might not be the same. Depending on the species in question, cephalopods lay eggs which are then fertilized by a male and left to their own devices. Alternatively, the males impregnates the eggs, which are then carried around by the female until they hatch. In the second place, we could see extended (and very large) family groups developing. I prefer the first case, though, just to be different. Eggs would be carefully hidden and probably protected, but they wouldn’t be carried around. Indeed, it might even be that the female dies immediately after laying these eggs. Yeah, let’s go with that one: females lay their eggs once in their lives, then die. Males fertilize them and leave them be, then wait for the eggs that make it to arise.
What effect does this have on their society? Well, I would expect a couple things to come of this:
1) Females, and the prospect of mating with one, would be an extremely sacred aspect of society. Most males wouldn’t get the opportunity, I would imagine, and they would be forced to treat females with deference and reverence. Females would have the pick of the litter, so to speak, on whom to mate with. Mating itself would be a very sacred ritual, almost like a mix of wedding and funeral, wherein the male, after perhaps decades of courting, is deigned worthy of producing children by the female. We can reasonably suppose the female’s attitudes towards life and death would be unusual, to say the least. The idea of ‘motherhood’ wouldn’t exist, really. Young would be raised collectively by the group, probably by the males, actually, who would have an idea of fatherhood and attachment to their own young that the females lacked.
2) The best places to plant such eggs would be, likewise, very important and sacred locations. Therefore, while the squids themselves might be nomadic, they would orient their travel around certain sites, and, indeed, eventually develop and interest in defending these places against other groups of their own kinds. These places would, naturally, become places of commerce and probably turn into repositories for wealth and large populations which would, of course, be attractive places to control. Bingo–they have wars.
3) Population growth, while not increasing at the same steady rate as ours (since they have their children all at once, rather than over the course of their lives), would probably be similar, depending on how many eggs they lay and how many fertilize and how many actually succeed in developing. As their technology increased to improve the odds, they would develop ever increasing population problems (imagine if a human woman got 75% of *all* her eggs to become children? She’d have how many thousands/tens of thousands of kids? Wow.). Even though they would live in a three-dimensional world, the sheer number of squids would eventually push them beyond the boundaries of their most comfortable environment, whatever that would be.
This last point, particularly the bit about living in a three-dimensional world, would be also important to understand and consider. Most sea creatures are restricted not only to certain latitudes on the earth, but also certain depths. Fish that live in the shallows can’t survive in the abyss and vice versa. For a very long time (milennia), we could expect the squids to happily (or unhappily) live in their particular strata of the oceans and, besides for the purposes of exploration, stick to those areas. As resources became scarce, they would adapt themselves to different depths and different latitutdes, or perhaps a combination of both. These offshoots of the original squids would create their own little gene pools in their own little corners of the ocean, and now we have ethnic groups, variations in culture/cuisine/art, and the stage for centuries of international warfare, just like us. The main difference would be that there would be exponentially more such cultures, since there are many, many more environments for them to call home. The physiological differences between the groups could be more severe, as well, possibly making their version of racism even more extreme (what–they only got seven tentacles? Gross–what primitives!).
Furthermore, given the fact that physical barriers to travel would be much reduced (rivers, mountains, canyons–all either non-existent or easily traversed underwater), once ways of suriving in deeper or shallower water were developed, it is very possible that the idea of commerce and trade would be even more pervasive. It would be difficult for cultures to be completely isolated from one another, and while they might retain their separation (due to racism, climate, etc.), they would probably remain in some kind of contact with the others. Of course, now that I’m thinking of it, this might serve to homogenize the gene pools somewhat, as well, cutting down on the number of subspecies. In any event, I think we can assume that no culture would develop completely isolated from the rest of the world in the way that we have–there would be no primitive aboriginal tribes hiding from the world, no China with its closed borders, etc. Everybody would have to deal with one another at some point.
This might have interesting effects on art and language, as well. A universal language might be expected; as cephalopods are very visual creatures with the capacity to change the color and pattern of their skin, their language would probably be visual and supported by whatever sounds their beaks/mouths might make, much like we support our verbal language with whatever gestures our hands provide. Those cultures living in the deeper regions of the ocean might have slightly different dialects, given the dim lighting, but one might presume that, before any culture so visually oriented would decide to live in the darkness, they would have developed a reliable method of lighting or chosen areas rife with bioluminescent organisms.
Anyway, this brings us to a discussion of technology.
Evolving underwater would have an enormous effect on the whys and hows of technological development. Technology is, of course, driven by necessity, and what you need when you live in the sea is quite different from what you need while on land. To begin at the beginning, we could easily see that the technologies we commonly associate with being among the simplest–the wheel, the incline plane, fire, the lever–might not be so simple for underwater creatures. Why would they develop the wheel, for instance? Certainly they’d figure it out sooner or later, but certainly not first, since you hardly need it in the ocean. Likewise, fire and combustion in general would be a very difficult concept for them to grasp, since it would be so difficult to achieve in the deep.
What they would almost certainly master first would be the idea of bouancy and jet propulsion. These are things inherent to their own physiology (its how they move around the water, after all) just how levers and incline planes are how we do things on land. The use of baloons and bladders to raise or lower things would probably be mastered quickly and developed beyond our own capacity to imagine. Likewise, the idea of a system by which one could propel oneself through the use of bellows or similar things would also be quick to develop. Pumps, tubes, and hydrodynamics would be second nature and essential for travel. Agriculture and the domestication of their fellow sea creatures would be a given, since no society with a burgeoning population would manage without it.
Presuming they developed electricity (very likely), their power plants would probably be run by wave-action, currents, and geothermal energy (they are right near the cracks in the crust of their planet, after all). Weapons would mostly be poison and camouflage based, again in keeping with their natural inclinations, though the development of torpedoes and explosives would be probable. No swords, obviously–spears, spear guns, and things that could deliver a deadly blow through the thick medium of ocean water would be expected. Armor would be designed to deflect piercing attacks over slashing or blunt-force trauma. The use of fire as a weapon wouldn’t probably occur to them, at least not for a long while.
Eventually, we might expect one of these fine squids, the Sir Edmund Hillary of his people, to crawl out of the water and sit on dry land, some kind of shallow-water guide at his side, and gaze up at the unimagined spectacle of the night sky. When he saw the stars, resting there on a black velvet field, twinkling like gems in the deep, what would he think?
What would he dream?