Faster than Light Travel
Ships use antimatter drives to create artificial event horizons to open wormholes between systems. Because of a quirk of sci-fi physics, these wormhole gates must be opened far from the gravity well of a star (3AU – Exit Distance) and their destinations are always very close to a star (0.5AU – Destination Distance). This allows for our premise.
Faster than light communication does not exist. The end-points for wormhole travel are unpredictable, within the target system. Typically communication between stars is carried aboard FTL ships that are already traveling to the target system. Very important messages can be sent by courier, but that requires expensive antimatter be consumed just for the “packet sloop” to deliver a letter.
Asking whether a computer can think like a human is like asking whether a submarine can swim like a fish. Humanity never invented human-like AI, but they use AI for all kinds of tasks, including hands-free natural language computer interface.
Because of the long distances and time lag for most communication, remote access technology (such as real-time hacking or virtual reality) hasn’t advanced, and largely isn’t used.
Nobody wants to lose their mind when going through an event gate, so cybernetics are limited to macro-level systems such as hands, legs and eyes. Brain-computers are just a bad idea when you’re on an FTL ship.
Stealth ships are just ships that have shut off their fusion drives and radar, and aren’t carrying any antimatter. They can still be seen by telescopes, but space is so large, the ship they’re sneaking up on doesn’t have a chance to spot them until it’s too late. There isn’t any “cloaking technology.”
What you need to know: how to capture prizes
You disable the enemy at engagement range (10km) and board it at point blank range (1km); or do so much damage that the enemy (at any range) that its captain surrenders.
A ship that is heavily damaged isn’t as good a prize as one that’s merely disabled, so much of prize hunting is tricking or sneaking up on enemy ships to get close enough to shoot their engines, weapons, and communications out. It’s a big deal to decide which to target first! Do we want to make sure they don’t get away? Make sure we don’t get hurt? Or make sure they don’t call for help?
Once a prize is captured, it is usually crewed by your own ship’s men, with one of your lieutenants in command. When you get to a home port, the ship is usually sold. Warships are sold to the Navy (for refitting or for scrap). Cargo ships are sold to private interests. Cargo itself is auctioned off. The capturing captain and officers share ¼ the profit. The rest of their crew shares out ¼ of the profit. And the admial over the ship’s captain gets another ¼. The Navy takes the last ¼.
For a narrative game like this, we have only a few relevant ranges, and within those, because of science fiction tech that I can’t describe, certain weapons and tactics are preferred.
Bombardment Range: Greater than 1,000km
- Visibility: Infrared telescopes can track a moving ship; but finding it in the first place is impossible unless it is emitting a strong electromagnetic signal, such as long range radar, broadband communications, or an antimatter containment field. Identification of vessels that don’t identify themselves is basically impossible. The best you can ascertain is their size.
- Weapons: Beyond 1,000km, missiles are only useful against targets that can’t move, such as planets and space stations.
Long Range: 100-1,000km
- Visibility: Telescopes can track a moving ship; but finding it in the first place is impossible unless it is emitting an electromagnetic signature, such as a fusion thruster or a constant close-range radar signal for point-defense weapons (see below). Ship silhouettes can be resolved fairly well, even if they’re moving fast.
- Weapons: Missiles are the most effective weapon at long range. They can strike their target within a couple of minutes. A ship that is aware it might be attacked may turn its point defense system on, making it hard for missiles to hit at this range.
Radar Range: 100km
- Visibility: Long range radar can find and outline most vessels at 100km, but it emits a good deal of energy that’s easy to detect. Ships in combat usually turn on their long range radar. At this range, telescopes can make out markings on the side of your vessel, and friend/foe recognition is easier. If you’re going to pretend to be a merchant ship or enemy cruiser, don’t get to radar range.
- Weapons: Missiles are much more effective within 100km, since it takes them only a matter of seconds to reach their target. Very powerful beam weapons are useful at 100km as well, but it’s very hard to hit with them.
Engagement Range: 10km and less
- Visibility: Telescopes can resolve your enemy pilot giving you the finger. Short-range radar can detect and resolve even very small objects at this range, so it’s hard to hide from a vessel using its short range radar.
- Weapons: Slug weapons and beam weapons are the most efficient weapons at engagement range. They’re cheaper and fire faster than missiles, do almost as much damage, and can’t be shot down by point defense cannons (PDCs). PDCs — flak guns with AI guidance connected to short range radar — are effective at shooting down missiles at this range. At this range, cannons and beam weapons have another advantage: They can be used to disable enemy ships with high precision.
Boarding Range: Under 1km
- Visibility: The naked eye can resolve details about enemy ships at this range.
- Weapons: Point-defense cannons (PDCs) are effective ship-to-ship weapons within 1km. Even merchant vessels have PDCs. Slugs and beam weapons are devastating in a point-blank broadside. The only reason to close to boarding range is if your ship has the enemy ship heavily outmassed and outgunned and you want to destroy or board it. Boarding is possible at this range, because boarding pods are somewhat protected against PDCs.
There are several classes of ships, according to the Earth Republic Navy.
- Boarding Pods: These are heavily armored pods used for boarding enemy ships. They have maneuvering thrusters, and are accelerated out of their host ship at high speeds. Boarding pods can get through PDC defenses 90% of the time. Boarding pods carrying protagonists always seem to get hit with flak, but the plucky protagonists manage to patch the holes and make it to the enemy ship alive every time.
- Shuttles: Craft capable of landing in atmosphere. Some can land in water or on sand or other smooth non-runway surfaces. They are capable of accelerating to escape velocity on their own, using fusion thrusters at high altitude.
- Fighters and Bombers: Carriers are huge, new ships designed just this last year for the First Interstellar War. The first ones are just being deployed by Libra Corporation and the Earth Republic. They carry fighters for harassing enemy ships at Engagement Range and bombers for destroying targets on space stations and planets. It is uncertain how useful fighters will be, given how effective PDCs are at targeting small craft.
- Sloops and Cutters: Fully-armed sub-FTL craft. These are the smallest warships, and have crews under 20. They tend to be used as patrol ships or planetary or space station defense ships.
- Corvettes: Fully-Armed FTL craft. These are the smallest FTL ships, and have crews around 50, including marines. They tend to be used as courier ships (“packet sloops”) or patrol ships.
- Destroyers: Heavily armed non-FTL escort ships, designed to guard FTL merchant tugs on their way to freighters at Exit Range. They have crews around 50, including marines to repel boarders.
- Cruisers and Frigates: Medium-sized FTL warships - larger than Corvettes but smaller than Battleships. They carry 50-100 crew and about as many marines. A corvette could ambush a cruiser, or take on a badly damaged cruiser and have a fair chance of winning.
- Battleships and Man-o-Wars: Full-sized FTL battleships. They carry 100-200 crew and up 200-500 marines. A corvette could ambush a badly damaged battleship and have a slim chance of winning.
- Attack Carriers: New massive ships with crews over 500.
- Freight Carriers: Freighters are massive FTL ships with large empty holds. Though they’re the size of attack carriers, they have smaller crews. They enter the target system, deploy tugs, and race for Exit Distance, where they wait for the tugs to deliver goods to them. Freighters are usually as well armed as Frigates, but with merchant marines, not dedicated soldiers.
- Barge: A barge is a large container full of cargo that is launched into orbit for a merchantman or tug to collect.
- Tugs: These are small, non-FTL ships with crews of 5 or fewer that “tug” cargo barges from their origin point to a freighter waiting at Exit Distance. Tugs are usually escorted by Destroyers. They can tug up to 6 barges.
- Merchantmen: Merchantmen are cruiser-sized FTL ships that carry cargo and bear weapons equivalent to a corvette, but with far less battle-hardened crews. Merchantmen often form convoys for mutual protection. One could pretend to be a merchant ship to slip into a convoy...
- 350 years ago, humanity visited Mars for the first time. That’s around now.
- 300 years ago, humanity discovered a drug with a high chance of curing the most common forms of cancer. The wealthy could extend their lives to 120 years before they died of heart or liver failure.
- 250 years ago, the Earth created an ur-republic that its member nations agreed to cede some of their sovereign power to.
- 200 years ago, humanity colonized Mars. By that time, the republic had expanded to encompass the entire planet, and Mars was given continent status. Scientists also built a research outpost on Jupiter’s moon, Europa.
- 150 years ago, scientists on Europa developed a way to create an artificial event horizon.
- 130 years ago, the first FTL drive was developed, using artificial event horizons, outside the interference of a gravity well, to create a stable wormhole into another star’s gravity well.
- 100 years ago, a private enterprise called Libra Corporation colonized two planets around Gliese 581, known as Libra Colony.
- Over the next 90 years, three additional colonies formed. The first two were Scorpius C3 and Tau Ceti 5, each settled by private endeavors, and each rapidly becoming sovereign and independent of the Earth Republic. The most recent is colony Picdor, settled by the Earth Republic itself ten years ago. Also over this time, Scorpius revolted and became independent (TC5 was formed to be independent).
- Over the last decade, Earth continuously tried to regulate Libra Corporation. Last year, Earth attempted to nationalize Libra Corporation assets in the Dorado system, and Libra refused at gunpoint. The resulting conflict began the first interstellar war, as Libra Corporation’s refusal to obey the government of nominal authority over it was tantamount to declaring sovereignty.
Because of the cost of producing antimatter to fuel FTL ships, and the danger of the stuff, commerce in antimatter takes place off-world, at space stations. But commerce in everything else happens on planets, moons and asteroids. FTL ships are risky, expensive ventures — much like merchantmen of the Age of Sail.
This is a war story, so we need a war. The Libra Corporation and Earth Republic are currently at war for control of the Dorado system, which, up until this Earth-year, was unclaimed and mined by companies from various nations. The largest two players in the contest were the Earth Alliance and Libra Corporation. Both nations, despite controlling multiple star systems, lack easy sources of rare earth elements, and Dorado is relatively rich in them. Neither of the sides in this war is strong enough to start a direct war (invading the other’s home or colony systems), so most skirmishes have been on and around Dorado. There is currently a standoff of warships around Dorado 3 itself, with ships cruising the asteroid belt between Dorado 3 and the exit distance looking for warships or enemy merchant ships to pick off.
Your Countrymen in the Earth Republic
Sol 3: Earth
The sol system is the home for our intrepid crew. They come from Earth or Mars. It’s the one and only Earth. Humanity has only been in the stars for a hundred years. Your 100 year old grandfather remembers when he was a kid, and it was just Earth and Mars, and then we invented artificial event horizons and suddenly our main limit was how much antimatter we could produce and store.
- Nation: Earth Republic, parliamentary democracy
- Imports: Rare earth elements, gold
- Exports: Luxuries, entertainment, weapons technology
Sol 4: Mars
Mars was Earth’s first colony. The thin atmosphere requires colonists to live in terraformed farming domes.
- Nation: Earth Republic (voting “continent”), parliamentary democracy
- Imports: Rare earth elements, water
- Exports: Gold, uranium, fusion drive technology
Pictor 7. HD 40307 g
Pictor 7 is a huge, ice planet with a very thin atmosphere. It has native moss-like plants in its equatorial band. Because of the intense, high winds on the surface, colonists live below the surface and maintain only one spaceport. Valuable rare earth minerals are buried deep under the surface, so the colonists have spread out and dug eight (and counting) immense deep core mines.
- Nation: Earth Republic, non-voting colony (corporate governance)
- Imports: Food, medicine
- Exports: Rare earth elements
The Enemy, Libra Corporation
The Libra Corporation is pseudo-technocratic fascist plutocracy. What that means is that it’s a multinational corporation that claimed two planets, and refused to allow Earth to nationalize its resources, effectively declaring sovereignty.
Libra 4: Gliese 581d
Libra’s capital planet is an ocean world with breathable air. The Libra colony resides on sealed floating platforms. It has native sea life, but no advanced life forms displaying intelligence, communication of any kind (even schooling like fish), or tool use. Gliese 581 is a red dwarf, so though it is close to the star, it gets dim red light.
- Nation: Libra Corporation
- Imports: Rare earth elements, metals
- Exports: Food, water
Zarmina: Gliese 581g
Zarmina is a tidally locked planet with a dense atmosphere of breathable air similar to Earth’s. The dark side is a cold, Siberian forest of megafungi,with warmer winds constantly gusting from the light side, carrying dust. The light side is a warm, volatile ocean with constant roiling storms, and several rocky islands. The colonists live on the dark side and near the poles on the light side.
- Nation: Libra Corporation
- Imports: Rare earth elements
- Exports: Gold, Uranium, metals
Tau Ceti 5
Tau Ceti e, or TC5m, is a large, hot planet with an average temperature around 70 degrees Celsius (close to 160 Fahrenheit). The colonists live in subterranean cities at the two poles. The surface hosts sparse thermophilic alien slime mold. The subterranean lakes of water the colonists tap have more diverse micro-organisms. The air is non-toxic, but too rich in oxygen, so that colonists need to wear filter-masks. TC5 imports a good deal of minerals from Dorado system, so their ships are common neutrals in the war.
- Nation: Tau Ceti Pact, computer-mediated limited direct democracy with socialist cultural ideals
- Reason for Independence: Unhappy with Earth’s limited freedom and democracy; seeking a better system.
- Revolution: None; TC5 was established by “pilgrims” much like the 13 colonies of America were, centuries ago.
- Imports: Rare earth elements, medicine
- Exports: Exotic matter (for antimatter containment)
This tropical planet is part of a three-star system (it has 3 suns!). It has diverse and highly lethal native bacterial life, and some alien plants with cell wall structures very unlike terrestrial plants. Colonists live in domes, and travel between settlements in underground causeways for fear of bringing in contaminants. The air here is breathable, but infested with deadly alien bacteria, so it is heavily filtered. Ships from Scorpius C3 are quarantined at every spaceport, and Scorpions are required to wear masks and gloves when visiting other systems because alien plagues run through their population. The galaxy’s best medical research and development facilities are on Scorpius. Because they, too, need the rare earth elements produced by Dorado, Scorpion traders are common in the war zone.
- Nation: Republic of Scorpius, representative democracy with strong plutocratic/oligarchic tendencies and massive inequality
- Reason for Independence: Scorpius is isolated, and believed it was being badly treated by Republic regulations.
- Revolution: Quiet, then messy; the domes rose up together and cast off their governor; but quickly fractured into independent principalities ruled by the most wealthy families.
- Imports: Rare earth elements, metals, gold
- Exports: Medicine, medical technology
Dorado 3: Gliese 163c
Dorado 3 is a massive, oven world like Tau Ceti 5. It is tidally locked. The air is breathable, and there is no known native life. Because Dorado 3 is rich in rare earth elements, it has a large number of small, ill-equipped subterranean mining settlements. Surface lava on the sun-facing side makes habitation rare there, so most of the work is done on the dark side of Dorado 3, where temperatures are low enough (death valley temperatures, instead of bread oven temperatures) that colonists can walk on the surface there for a short time. The surface of the dark side of Dorado 3 is growing infested with Earth bacteria and mold, thanks to careless colonists. The Dorado system also hosts a massive, dense asteroid belt full of large planeoids of various useful metals and minerals. Dorado 3 is a battleground in the first interstellar war. Note that Dorado 3 itself is within destination distance of its red dwarf star. FTL ships cannot predict where they will appear within the destination radius, so sometimes they arrive close to the planet and combatants (see Politics, below), but most of the time, not.
- Nation: Contested (the Libra Corporation and Earth Republic are currently warring for control of the Dorado system)
- Imports: Food, water, medicine
- Exports: Metals, gold, rare earth elements
Asteroids, Gas Giants and Moons
The above planets are the only inhabited colonies. Asteroids, moons, and uninhabitable gas giants in each system host smaller settlements, space stations, mining operations, pirate dens, antimatter production facilities, and so forth.