Pirates of Space

Ed note: I wrote this post to provide some back story/rationale for my forthcoming (maybe) starship simulator app based on the Lensman series of Edward E. “Doc” Smith. I wanted to provide some exposition updating Smith’s pioneering use of the concept of “inertialess drive” in light of current physics. This opening parallels the opening of the original 1934 version of Triplanetary, though Smith of course gets the action going much quicker and more adroitly than I do. My title is also the same as the first chapter of Smith’s work — a work which he later retrofitted into the Lensman Universe as a prequel.  To those unfamiliar with the Lensman series, it is a classic that defined the genre of space opera, introduced concepts such as defensive screens and tractor beams that are familiar through their use in Star Trek and elsewhere, and was runner-up for the Hugo award for Best All-Time Science Fiction Series (Asimov’s Foundation took the prize).   This post is just a pastiche.  It is not allegorical and has nothing to do with medicine.  Tellus is a Latin name for Earth and is the terminology used in the Lensman Universe.  And, finally,  MICRO-AGGRESSION ALERT: 1930s sexism is present, but is integral to the storyline.


The Tethys II bored though interstellar space (modified from Charles Schneeman, Astounding, Jan, 1940).
The luxury liner Tethys II bored though interstellar space… (modified from Charles Schneeman, Astounding, Jan, 1940)


Chapter I

Pirates of Space

The luxury liner Tethys II bored through interstellar space at supraluminal speed, halfway between its Tellurian embarkation point and its first port of call — Centralia, the star system closest to the Galactic Core. Despite the several days required to reach it from Tellus, Centralia with its extraordinarily brilliant night sky was a popular cruise destination. The brilliance of its sky was due not only to the density of stars at the galaxy’s core but also to the presence of the Sagittarius A black hole.  This supermassive black hole emitted tremendous radiation in all visible and non-visible electromagnetic spectra as doomed star systems near the event horizon were accelerated and compressed to unimaginable degrees — generating a spectacle unique in the galaxy!

On the ship’s bridge, junior officers tensely scanned status screens, watching for any disturbance in the subether that might indicate the presence of unwanted visitors approaching. Second Officer Mullen, the officer of the watch, strode between the various command stations and peered at the glowing screens searching for any anomalies. Everything appeared nominal, but he was nervous nevertheless. He stopped before the security officer’s station.

“Picking up anything, Jenkins?” he asked.

“Everything clean, inside and out, sir,” the security man responded.

“Fine. But don’t let up on the spy ray sweeps. Right now we’re about as far from any Galactic Patrol outpost as we will be on this transit.” Mullen examined the read-outs carefully. “But you’re right, nothing suspicious that I can see.”

The security officer chuckled nervously. “Maybe we’ll get lucky.”

Mullen hoped so. Space piracy and lawlessness had been increasing. Ships, both freight and passenger, had disappeared without a trace. No one knew if this was the result of external attacks or internal sabotage or both. But there had been too many ships lost recently and both crew and passengers were nervous. Tonight (it was night by ship’s time, though the concepts of day and night had little bearing other than on the comfort of the ship’s occupants) was the Captain’s Dinner, and the ship’s senior officers were engaged with the passengers, helping them (with the aid of liberal amounts of free mixed drinks) allay their anxiety.

In the first class luxury lounge, First Officer John Crittenden escorted one of the V.I.P.s of the voyage, Tellurian Senator Jacob Mendez’s daughter, Julia. They had just finished the final course of Baked Alaska, coffee and aperitifs. Captain Vandersteen had assigned Crittenden the task of entertaining Miss Mendez for the evening, and, despite his initial reluctance (related to his dislike of her father’s politics), he grudgingly had to admit that the daughter seemed to have none of her father’s political interests and was certainly more of a pleasure to escort than her father would have been.

They left the lounge and entered the Promenade Deck which circled the midsection of the ellipsoidal ship. Along the outside of the deck the visi-panels displayed stark visions of the interstellar void. As they walked side by side, Crittenden found himself momentarily distracted by the young woman’s charms, so much so that he had to ask her to repeat the question she had evidently just asked.

Used to her facility for distraction and the frequent awkwardness of men around her, she cheerfully repeated her question. “The stars we are seeing out the observation panels — certainly we are not seeing actual visual light at the speed we are going?”

Crittenden noted the stunning starfields that appeared in the viewports.  He launched into an explanation.

“Although they look like windows, these panels are video screens that function differently depending on our speed. At sub-light velocities they show actual light, though filtered as necessary to prevent retinal overload. Cruising as we are at about 90 parsecs per hour, there is no possibility of recording any vibrations in the ether. We are outrunning light by an order of magnitude of …” he paused, did some quick and rough calculations. It wasn’t often that he thought in terms of velocities as slow as light. “Well, we are travelling almost 3 million times as fast as light. So what we are seeing isn’t light. The detectors on the outer shell of the ship are tuned to record radiation in the subether. It is a simple matter to translate these images to visible light, which makes for pretty images.”

She studied the star patterns for a moment, which visibly shifted as she watched, reflecting the tremendous velocity of the star-liner. She seemed lost in thought.

“Commander Crittenden…,” she began.

“Please, just John,” he interrupted.

“Okay,” she continued, but then avoided either mode of address. “I have to admit that I have not studied the subject much, but I am interested in space travel and its apparent paradoxes, especially in light of some of the early theories of physics, such as those originated by Einstein in the 21st century.”

He resisted the temptation to correct her history.

“I’m not a theoretical physicist,” he admitted. “It’s true I have some practical knowledge of how this ship works, but…” He hesitated, unsure how to finish his thought without repeating himself.

She swooped into the breach in the conversation, not allowing the pause to become awkward.

“Oh, my,” she exclaimed. “Perhaps you are overdue to be back at your watch. You hardly have time to waste with me, giving me an astrophysics lesson.”

“Not at all. I am happy to answer your questions.” He wasn’t lying. Talking to Miss Julia Mendez beat manning his watch any day.

A worried look creased her brow. “I know how important it is to have competent officers helming the ship. Especially given the risk of space piracy. I always worry that if there is ever a good time for the pirates to attack, it is during the Captain’s Dinner, when the captain and so many of the officers are away from the bridge.”

“There hasn’t been a ship lost to piracy since,” he paused, thinking back. “Since the Oberon, a good 15 months ago.”

“But that’s not that long ago, and the ship and its passengers were never found.” She shuddered, and with her arm linked with his, pulled herself closer to him, so that their hips touched.

With the pleasant contact Crittenden, who was single and as susceptible as any male space officer to female charms, rather hoped that this young woman had lots of questions about space travel. In addition he felt he should try to distract her mind from the remote, but non-zero, probability of the Tethys II suffering the same fate as the Oberon.

“I think we should just get back to your questions about how space travel works,” he transitioned awkwardly. “What do you want to know?”

“As I said, I have read some popular articles about space flight, but I don’t really understand it. How can we travel without inertia? If I am inertialess right now, why doesn’t my blood move so fast it would kill me? Or maybe it shouldn’t move at all. Either way I would be dead. And why does removing or neutralizing inertia allow us to go so fast? I thought the speed of light was the fastest possible speed for anything.”

“Well…,” he began.

She wasn’t done. “And why do we still use terms like the ‘ether?’ I read somewhere that way back in the 19th century they proved there was no such thing as an all-pervasive ether in space. And…”

“Whoa!” he laughed. “I’ll give you answers, but I don’t want to have so many questions that I lose track of them. Let me tackle that bunch, and you can ask some more after that.”

“Sorry, but I’m just curious,” she said.

“Right. Well, maybe I’ll start with the last question because it is related to the others. You are referring to the Michelson-Morley experiments, which set out to show that the speed of light varied depending on the motion of the observer relative to the supposedly fixed ether. The experiments ended up showing no variations at all in the speed of light, despite the motion of the earth. As Einstein proved, I believe in the beginning of the 20th century, not the 21st, the speed of light is constant regardless of the motion of the observer. The implication was that there is no fixed frame of reference in space and time; rather everything is relative to the observer.”

She looked puzzled. “I’m kind of lost as to what that has to do with the ether existing or not.”


“That’s not clearing up my confusion.”

He smiled. “No, I meant you are right to be confused. Michelson and Morley thought if there was an all-pervasive medium in space then light would act a certain way, and it didn’t. This was because light doesn’t behave the way they thought it did. But it didn’t mean that was no such thing as an all-pervasive medium underlying space and time.”

“No?” she asked.

“Negative. Skip forward about a 100 years. Scientists began to realize that mass — and as it turns out inertia — was not an intrinsic property of matter, but instead was due to an extrinsic field, the so-called Higgs field. Atoms, protons, neutrons, electrons and so forth floated in a sea of particles that imparted the properties of mass and inertia to matter. Much like a person entering the ocean suddenly meets with resistance and drag and what-not.”

“You said some kind of energy field, and then said a sea of particles. Which is it?”

“What does it matter?”

“Huh?  Oh, are you making a pun?”

He thought for a second, then responded. “If I were joking I’d come up with something better than that.”

They had made the circuit around the Promenade Deck and had come to a dimly lit bar and lounge, where other passengers seated in plush chairs were having drinks and conversing.

“Could I buy you a drink?” he asked.

“I don’t suppose you really have to buy it, as a ship’s officer, do you?”

“Of course not,” he said, not entirely truthfully. Actually it did come out of his expense account, but in age-old male fashion, he decided not to let his companion, who could probably have bought the whole ship, know this.

“Only if you join me,” she said.

He ordered a non-alcoholic beer for himself. Miss Mendez ordered a complicated cocktail with which he wasn’t familiar.

Settling in with their drinks, she urged him to continue.

“Ok. I think you know particles, fields, vibrations, and waves are all ways to describe something we can’t really understand properly without using terms that we are used to in the macro-world. The truth is the micro-world doesn’t really act like the world we see. Why would it? If atoms were just like little solar systems then we wouldn’t have learned very much about what makes up solar systems, would we?”

She looked confused, and he realized this wasn’t his best expository effort. He envied the great science popularizers who could explain complex science principles to lay persons without any trouble.

She made an attempt to paraphrase him. “So I guess you’re saying that this pervasive field made out of whatever that gives particles mass and inertia is what we in modern times call the ‘ether.'”

He sighed. “I wish I could have summarized it that succinctly.”

She waved a hand. “Being a senator’s daughter, I have an ability to cut through the malarkey and get to the actual message. Not that you are telling me malarkey!” She seemed concerned that she had inadvertently insulted him.

Malarkey was not the term he would have used, he thought. He reflected on the difference between the daughter of a politician and a rough and tumble space jockey. In many ways, this was a contact between alien worlds.

She laughed. “Oh please go on. I’m sorry.”

“I’ll try to be clearer. The inertialess drive, as originally developed by Rodebush and Cleveland, and then enhanced by Dr. Bergenholm, is a field generator, much like the generators for our defensive screens, except the Bergenholm generates an anti-Higgs field. Matter within such a field loses its inertial properties, so that velocities are constrained only by the power of the driving projectors and the density of mass through which the ship moves. Removal of a driving force results in instantaneous cessation of movement. Moreover when an inertialess, or as we say ‘free,’ vessel reverts to its inert state, there is conservation of momentum in that the relative motion of the vehicle prior to its going free is preserved. It’s counter-intuitive, but so is most of quantum mechanics. In a sense we are seeing the bizarreness of the quantum world on a macro-level, and our intuitions about the behavior of matter under these circumstances are just wrong.”

“I think I got all that, though I’m a bit unsure about the conservation of momentum property you mentioned. But never mind that. I don’t understand the paradoxes I have read about. How can we exceed light-speed, inertialess or not? Why doesn’t time slow down or stop or reverse? Why does there seem to be inertia inside the ship?”

“All good questions,” he began. He had neglected his beer, so he took a few sips. He beckoned for the waiter. It seemed they had given him an alcoholic drink by mistake. He went on talking.

“The free state of matter is an unprecedented state of matter. It doesn’t exist naturally in the Universe. It is only through the enormous generation of energy that occurs with total mass-energy conversion, a technology that was unthinkable in the 21st century, that inertia can be neutralized. As an analogy, think of how surprising and unexpected it would be to discover the properties of liquids and gases if the only experience you had with matter was in a solid state.”

She gazed at him closely. “I think you are dodging the question. I grew up in a political family. That’s something I can recognize.”

The waiter had taken away his drink to get another. He had been apologetic and couldn’t understand how the mixup had occurred. Crittenden felt a little fuzzy brained, perhaps from the alcohol, perhaps from the perfume of the lovely woman sitting across from him.

“You’re right. It’s tempting to oversimplify this stuff. I think Einstein himself said to make explanations as simple as possible, but no simpler. Photons and accelerated inert matter cannot exceed the speed of light. Free matter can. It was probably as surprising to Rodebush and Cleveland when they took that first trip on the Boise as it still is to you and me.” He sensed the need to wrap things up and get back on the bridge. He felt uneasy for some reason.  And woozier than he would have expected from a few sips of a beer.  Perhaps he was falling too much under the spell of this young beauty who, honestly, would never show anything more than polite interest to an overworked and underpaid space officer. John, you are gullible, he thought. Always have been. Always will be.

He continued. “As far as time dilation, uh, time slowing goes, it happens maximally at plus or minus 10 percent of the speed of light. At speeds that are thousands of times faster than the speed of light, like our present velocity, or at slow speeds, like normal inert velocities, time effects are negligible. So the passage of time shipboard and outside the ship is similar.”

“Ok. And the problem with the ship being inertialess but us inside not?”

“Well, thanks to the pseudo-inertial and pseudo-gravity generators, the ship has it’s own localized gravitational and Higg’s fields, otherwise we would be in serious trouble.”

His words were cut off by the loud ringing of the claxon. Warning lights flashed.  He snapped on his communicator.

“Bridge, Crittenden here. What’s going on?” he demanded.

The voice of Second Officer Mullen from the bridge was stressed. “We’re under attack. Defensive screens have been tripped. Something, someone has snagged us with a tractor beam and we’re screen-to-screen. We need you and the captain up here pronto.”

There was panic in his voice, and Crittenden knew he needed to get up to the bridge as soon as possible. Suddenly there was a jolt. A jolt! Given that they were still inertialess and under the influence of the pseudo-inertial and pseudo-gravitation fields, that could only be a structural hit. Shields penetrated! Counter-attack was crucial or the ship would be lost!

He jumped up, stumbling a bit.  What was in that drink? he wondered.  He turned to make brief apologies to his companion, and found himself staring into the barrel of a blaster that was leveled steadily at him.

“You’re far too trusting, John. Too bad for you.”

He stood motionless, too shocked for words.

“Oh don’t worry.” The senator’s daughter smiled as she kept the blaster trained on him. “The ship will be taken but it won’t be destroyed. After all, I’m on board, and I am too valuable a prize to be wasted.”

Chapter II, Space Hostage, will be available on newsstands next month.  Don’t miss it!