StarQuest Starships and Energy

Technological assumptions about starships, other craft, and energy sources.

Starships use an etheric drive. While most of the phenomena in the universe can be adequately described by classical mechanics and quantum electrodynamics, another level of description can be appended. This alternate (or overlying if you like) layer of reality is called the ether. We think of the universe as largely empty; the ether is anything but. Powerful flows of etheric material churn and surge, obeying a more generous physics than we usually experience. Some areas are purely chaotic, some are largely patterned and predictable. Visual evocations (representations are not possible) of the ether are often multicolored swirls crowded with bulging masses indicating the etheric projections of conventional matter. Starships enter the flows to travel faster than light, extending an apparatus called, depending on its design, a hook, sail, vane, dragline, bell, float, or claw to grasp the etheric substance and be swept along. In order to do so at trans-light speeds, they skip in and out of the space-time continuum we recognize. Starships traveling “through the ether” do not disappear entirely, but they can exhibit bizarre distortion effects, often growing literally to planet size or elongating into a smear, or leaving their own colossal wake in the ether that can alter the flows around them. The passengers rarely perceive this level of distortion, though when they do, the mental effects can be devastating. The ether is dangerous and unpredictable. Travellers must carefully weigh their safety against their speed. Any number of phenomena can obliterate a starship, or sweep it to entirely unexpected places. Many, many starships have disappeared. It is possible that some were sent back in time.
As potentially dangerous as etheric travel is, there are reliable routes and sophisticated ships. Trade and travel is common under these safer conditions.
Starships, naturally, are designed around their one necessary component: the stardrive. The many designs of drive (this is a common misnomer for the apparatus that harnesses the ether) use wildly different approaches. Some appear as a mass of circuitry, some seem centered on colossal, seemingly solid metallic masses riddled with nano-labyrinths, some are huge rippling membranes. Some starships use the ether for movement at all speeds; when they lift from a planet’s surface, they are catching an etheric outflow running opposite to gravity. Therefore, these starships do not need fuel any more than sailing ships on the sea do. However, they do carry charged batteries or some other energy source to run life support and operate other necessary machinery. Many other ships also carry reaction drives that work in place of or in conjunction with the stardrive when operating at more conventional speeds, and aid in normal space maneuvers that affect etheric orientation. This sort of drive could require expensive fuel, or a merely need some simple reaction mass that can be raised to appropriate temperatures and expelled by the power of the stardrive. If the reaction drive of these ships is disabled or out of fuel, movement solely via ether is possible, but will be far less efficient and reliable.
Navigating the ether is more of an art than a science. Autopilots can rarely perform as well as living minds. One tool for gauging the ether: a tank of just-molten metal, often copper, is composed of a churning sea of electrons indeterminately associated with nuclei, and inn this phase is extremely sensitive to etheric currents. Pilots monitor the conditions in the tank as an index of the surrounding flows. Flatlanders see holographic representations of temperature, conductivity, gravitic distortion, and a horde of other measures; pilots see the ether.
Starships need a life support area, though manipulation of the standing etheric wake around a starship often provides most of the hard radiation shielding and cushions the ship against the strawberry jam effects of extreme acceleration. And a starship needs other tools to make its journey survivable and useful, but these do not need to be especially sophisticated.
Since the drive is the biggest expense by far, and a drive can be manufactured dozens of ways, starships are not as expensive as you might think. A humble trading starship built for perhaps a half-dozen total crew, carrying modest deterrent weaponry and shielding, with a decent stardrive capable of travel into unknown areas and battery recharging, a substantial cargo hold, and other incidental equipment sufficient to set up as a going concern might run about $1 million in 21st century terms. This is beyond the reach of most people throughout their lives, but is certainly accessible enough through luck, inheritance, hard or lucrative work, or, most often in the case of this sort of trading starship through a heavy mortage, to be near ubiquitous. Remember though that crew must be paid, maintenance performed, life support stocked, and if engaging in speculative trade, cargo must be purchased. Warships, immense freighters, passenger liners, and so forth, would cost many times as much.

Small Craft

Light ships intended as gigs, shuttles, or for other in-system use that require only a rudimentary stardrive, perhaps not even capable of more than 2 G acceleration, with limited life support, would be much less. These “trucks” might cost as much as substantial 18-wheelers today. Small mounted weapons and shielding do not add greatly to the expense, and with a reliable reaction drive to add some juice to the etheric lifter’s limited acceleration, this sort of vehicle is the backbone of most planetary armed forces, since they are far more mobile and flexible than landbound vehicles, but do not have any significant effectiveness at the high speeds attainable by the most humble true starship outside of a planet’s atmosphere and gravity well.

Energy Sources

Advanced understanding of etheric principles allows the harvesting of virtually unlimited energy by using etheric flows to accelerate objects, then capturing that energy for conventional use. One simple power plant design looks like a tower. A mass is fixed to a track running up the tower. The mass is hooked to an etheric wind flowing in the same direction as the track (up). The mass is raised by the ether against gravity, acquiring potential energy, then unhooked and allowed to move down the track in a fall controlled by an attached cable. The cable turns a wheel, and so forth. This is the same idea as a waterwheel or windmill. Far more elegant and sophisticated designs are possible. However, there seem to be minimum scale constraints on harnessing etheric flows, and the hooking process is sophisticated and fragile. Therefore, the great majority of machines do not carry their own etheric generators, instead drawing electrical current from a central power plant. Most starships of any significant operating range can draw power from the ether, though they cannot usually make progress along their course while doing so, since drawing the power depends on resisting the current.

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