by Max Barry

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Limitations of Using Astral Vapors for Travel Among the Honorians

During discussions with regional government representatives while attempting to gain approval for our proposal to use Astral Vapors as a faster-than-light travel method, it quickly became clear to me that the regional government and myself have very different ideas of what constitutes a ‘limitation.’ While I perfectly understand the regional government’s intention to maintain balance among players—and, importantly, while Vahhopayya and I have come to a preliminary agreement with the regional government representatives present at the discussion that will hopefully appease the rest of the regional government as well—I continue to dispute the representatives’ assertion that Astral Vapors as they had previously been described were not sufficiently limited. This document is an attempt to exhaustively list the numerous difficulties in utilizing the Astral Vapors travel method from the point of view of an Honorian ship crew, in order to demonstrate that, for the short and medium term at least, this method of faster-than-light travel is nothing less than overwhelmingly problematic for its users, even when it is used completely successfully.

Review: Existing Honorian FTL Technology

Prior to the (approval-pending) implementation of Astral Vapors, Honorias has access to two methods of faster-than-light travel: Particle Beam Drives and the so-called “Laegian” Drive (basic warp). Both methods are prohibitively expensive for any but the wealthiest individuals and businesses to access, with most interstellar travel in Honorias taking place under the direct authority of Honorian Command, and a very few private freight companies and passenger lines hold near monopolies on private shipping that still barely compensate them for the expenses incurred in constructing or buying FTL-capable vessels. In fact, the Laegian Drive is completely out of reach for any private entity: This foreign technology was obtained by the military, and only the military has the plans to reproduce it to the best ability of Honorian science. These drives are few in number, and are being installed mainly on Honorian capital ships as backups for PB Drives, which outperform any model of Laegian Drive built by Honorian shipwrights (as a result of Honorias’s substandard scientific advancement). Private shipping must make do with the PB Drive, the expense of which is also largely due to its connection to the Honorian military and government: The Suranese engineers required to operate the PB Drive must be assigned to their vessels, even private ones, by Command, given that the Suranese belief in Sadrithian divine authority means that they have no concept of applying for jobs among the Sadrithians as opposed to simply taking Boeth’s divine commands from them, while on the Sadrithian side Command has to ration the limited number of Suranese capable of using the Sun’s Gift among thousands of ships at a time. That number is ‘limited’ because Suranese born in Honorian territory, or anywhere outside of the rival authority of the Temple of Asra on Suran itself, are incapable of using the Sun’s Gift, the magical power that provides the PB Drive with enough energy to achieve faster-than-light travel. Every Suranese engineer in Honorias defected from their native government and denied the validity of the religion of their birth in order to come to Honorian service; as one might expect, that is not an especially-common occurrence.

tl;dr: Private entities, who have no access to basic warp drives, need Suranese engineers to operate Honorian FTL drives, and those are very expensive to rent from the government while also being in very short supply. Private use of FTL technology is very limited as a result.

Review: Development of Astral Vapors in Vahhopayya

Congress is disgusted by Vahhopayya. Most of Honorias knows nothing about Vahhopayya at all, but national officials are of course made aware of all of Honorias’s neighbors and partners, and relevant parties outside of the government are also informed at need (or as soon as it becomes politically expedient for a politician seeking election to leak it). Vahhopayya is a disgusting neighbor, but it is also an autonomous part of Zeikeutsyr, a potentially-important business partner, which makes maintaining good relations with the Vahhopayyans a necessity. Vahhopayya is also demonstrably well-advanced in genetic research and engineering, and, regardless of Congress’s opinions on the Vahhopayyans’ methods, Sadrithians have been trying to discover the secret of unlocking the Sun’s Gift in their Suranese followers since the first landings on Suran generations before. Scientists from Desele, on Suran, therefore flock to Vahhopayya in the hopes of learning their new neighbors’ genetic techniques and technologies, with the stated intention of applying this knowledge back home in Honorias to isolate and reproduce the Sun’s Gift.

Inevitably, the eager Honorian scientists, encouraged by their Vahhopayyan teachers, decide to start the research immediately. Against Congress’s and Command’s express instructions, the scientists persuade or force the crews of those ships that brought them to Vahhopayya to give up their Suranese engineers for study at the University of the Sciences of Animals. Brutal Vahhopayyan genetic experimentation produces results that gentler, less-advanced Honorian investigations have long failed to accomplish: The genes responsible for producing the Sun’s Gift are properly isolated at last, and, while the Vahhopayyans are unsuccessful in forcing the Gift to work in their cloned Suranese subjects, this accomplishment on its own paves the way for new experimentation on a wild and frightening scale.

One thing should be noted about the Honorian scientists taking part in these genetic experiments: Every one of them is technically a priest of Boeth. The Boethian Cult was invented as the means to persuade Suranese radicals and doubters from the Temple of Asra to defect to Honorias. Whereas the Temple of Asra has always extolled the virtues of self-restraint and self-denial, especially in regards to the Sun’s Gift, Sadrithian propagandists claim that Boeth commands her followers to break their self-imposed chains and do as they will with the powers that they have, which is a powerful temptation for many disaffected Suranese. Logically, this message is nonsense, as defecting Suranese are soon trained to obey the Sadrithians no less than they had been taught to obey the Temple beforehand, but the Suranese are also allowed—in fact, encouraged—to make greater use of the Sun’s Gift in Honorias than their brethren are in Asran Suran. Every Sadrithian that works closely with Suranese converts, and every government official that might one day give orders to a Suranese, becomes a priest of Boeth by default. Sadrithian scientists from Desele in particular work very closely with Suranese subjects, and are constantly exposed to, and responsible for, Boethian propaganda. Occasionally, some Sadrithians in the priesthood begin to take themselves seriously. Now, encouraged by the locals’ indifference to the horror and suffering around them, the Sadrithian scientists on Vahhopayya take their own refuge in the tenets of their false religion ‘to do what is necessary and what is desirable,’ regardless of morality or empathy. As stated elsewhere, experimentation soon departs from the scientific method in favor of superstition, wild guesswork, and random chance; these are the conditions under which the Astral Vapors are discovered.

These experiments are kept secret from Congress and from Command for as long as possible. When and if Congress discovers them, it is too late to repair the damage, especially as the scientists responsible are now students of the University and more or less permanent Vahhopayyan residents. Command is far more likely to learn about the matter, given the increasing naval presence in the Western March to protect the few business interests with wealth and bravery enough to risk setting up bases in distant space. Naval commanders are unlikely to want anything to do with the new travel method, but they are equally sure that they must keep an eye on how matters progress at the University in regards to the ongoing experimentation on the Suranese.

The real chance to apply the Astral Vapors can come only from private shipping… and, as rare as FTL-capable freighters are in Honorias, they are even rarer in the Western March, a consequence of the great expense and risk inherent in setting up a distant base for any company that has already spent great sums on its existing ships in Honorias proper.

tl;dr: A very select few even know about the Astral Vapors, most of whom are religious fanatics trapped by their own actions on Vahhopayya. Given that the religion in question was invented from almost nothing by Sadrithians trying to control weak-minded neighbors, any Sadrithian taking it seriously can only be considered a very unreliable fool.

Scenario 1: Journey from the Western March to Honorias Proper

Having looked at the background, we turn our attention to the process and consequences of using the Astral Vapors in practice. Keep in mind: These scenarios assume that the ritual and the journey are completely successful. As stated elsewhere, any element of error on the part of the Sadrithians carrying the ritual out can cause serious problems of their own, up to and including the destruction of the ship. I bring this up to remind readers that there is an element of risk in choosing to undertake the ritual, but I fully understand that this is a matter of ‘human’ error and not a flaw in the system itself, which is the true focus of this discussion.

We will consider two scenarios: one in which a freighter journeys from the Western March to Honorias proper, and one in which a freighter journeys from the Western March to a foreign port. The Western March is the only reasonable origin point for any such journey, as only ship crews working in this region of space are likely to have been informed of the Astral Vapor, even through rumor, and only Sadrithian priest-engineers with training from nearby Vahhopayya will know the process. In both scenarios, the freighter in question must have taken on these specially-trained priest-engineers somehow.

Both scenarios also assume that the Acadian Empire has become hostile to Honorias. The Acadian gate system is Honorias’s primary method of traversing large distances of space in very little time, with the Western March situated just outside of Machias and Honorias proper now extending to Laconia. If the Acadian Empire refuses to allow Honorian ships through its gates, traffic between Honorias and the March, as well as between Honorias and most of its distant trading partners, will grind to a halt. This is why Congress has made appeasing the Acadian Empire its single most important priority since Honorias’s first encounter with Laconian leaders.

In the first scenario, a freighter in the Western March must arrive in Honorias as soon as possible. This freighter possesses a PB Drive, but the distance between the Western March and Honorias is extremely vast and, it should be noted, not easily navigable when using the hyperlane system alone: A Particle Beam journey from the March to Honorias would require the freighter to cross Vahhopayyan and Zephyri space almost immediately, followed by either journeying through Britannia and Ukarist, braving Sossaeth-held Isauria (and potentially trespassing in Ukarist also), or taking a longer detour through Austria (and then trespassing in either Ukarist, Silberfluss, or Acadia, the latter of which will be most unhappy in this scenario). All of these journeys potentially represent long delays for paperwork, or else the risk of being caught trespassing during the freighter’s reversion at each map node; the latter risk is heightened if Honorias is hostile with other nations on the route in addition to Acadia. Even in the case of friendly relations with all of these nations, the freighter’s roundabout journey will cause unacceptable delays, in the context of this scenario. And unfortunately, as an Honorian-built civilian vessel, this ship is not equipped with a Laegian Drive with basic warp capabilities.

If the Vahhopayyan-trained priest-engineer expects the captain to listen to him when he mentions the Astral Vapors, now is the time. The first problem is simple: The captain would not want to trust a religious fanatic with the lives of his crew. As stated above, the Cult of Boeth is an invented religion intended from the first to manipulate less-advanced people. Interstellar ship captains, who are also priests by default as a result of their command over Suranese engineers, would not agree to an experimental faster-than-light journey on the word of a Sadrithian religious fanatic unless given absolutely no choice by circumstances.

The second problem is also immediate: The religious fanatic is asking the captain to murder a member of his crew. In general, Sadrithians tend to view Suranese as lesser beings, but they are still living beings, and are afforded certain rights by Congress as a result of previous elections in which sympathetic voters hoped to enlighten their poor, ignorant neighbors through legislation. Problem 2.A: Murder of Suranese, as with Sadrithians, is illegal in Honorias. The ship captain must be willing to stand by as his priest-engineer breaks the law, and must also be willing to accept the consequences of being accessory to murder. Problem 2.B: He must also find a way to explain the necessity of this death to the other two Suranese engineers aboard his ship, who, if kept ignorant of the ritual, are likely going to wonder where their metaphorical brother went; alternatively, he must kill them too. Given that these Suranese are fully capable of turning the ship around them into atoms, either by using the PB Drive without authorization or by simply overheating the ship with the Sun’s Gift until it turns to plasma, the captain could be forgiven under the circumstances for believing that the only way to be completely sure that he will not face magically-enhanced mutiny is to kill the other Suranese engineers as well. Problem 2.C: Upon arrival in Honorias, the captain will have to explain to Command, to law enforcement, and to his employers not only that he killed fellow Honorian citizens, but that he wasted between one and three valuable logistical assets that will cause (hopefully-)short-term knock-on effects for long-term Honorian strategy. As mentioned before, Suranese engineers must be individually tempted to defect from the Temple of Asra, because Honorian-born (and, it turns out, Vahhopayyan-cloned) Suranese are incapable of utilizing the Sun’s Gift, meaning that they are absolutely useless from a logistical point of view. Suranese engineers are therefore extremely rare and extremely valuable, and any company that requires Suranese engineers for interstellar travel must first hire them directly from Command under a stringent contract that requires all Suranese engineers to be returned to Command at the end of the contract’s term. Killing any of the engineers aboard the ship, let alone all of them, will cost the company a humongous number of credits and will possibly result in criminal penalties being assessed to the company and to any high-level employees that Command and the government deem to be responsible. And if rumors of ‘disappearances’ ever get out, Command will find it much more difficult to persuade Honorian Suranese to serve aboard ships that will not work without them, while the Cult of Boeth will find it that much more difficult to recruit more Suranese to leave the Temple of Asra for Honorian service in the first place.

Only if the captain decides that serving much of the rest of his life in prison, to say nothing of angering his very wealthy employers, is worth the accomplishment of arriving in Honorias in a hurry, will he permit the ritual murders to go ahead.

Scenario 2: Journey from the Western March to a Foreign Port

This second scenario begins much like the first: A freighter of the March must arrive at a distant port without delay, and the Acadian Empire is not cooperative. By design, the Western March is almost totally surrounded by foreign states, which assists in attracting foreign business and attention to the March and to Honorias, but makes it especially difficult for an Honorian ship to leave using the PB Drive alone. Without permission to travel through Vahhopayya to the east, Teronia to the west, or Acadia to the south, no ship in the Western March can leave using only the hyperlanes. Such restrictions are, of course, the out-of-character reason that the Astral Vapors method of FTL travel was developed. However, just as using this method to escape the March for an Honorian port is a method of very last resort, the situation must be even more dire for a freighter captain to risk using the Astral Vapors to find shelter in another nation entirely—unless that captain holds a vague hope of defecting upon his safe arrival in foreign territory.

In this second scenario, every single problem already stated in the first scenario remains true: The captain must trust a religious fanatic with the lives of most of his crew; the captain must allow the religious fanatic to kill anywhere between one and three members of his crew; the captain must accept the consequences for murdering his crewmembers; and the captain (and his company) must accept the consequences for damaging government efforts to ration Suranese engineers and to maintain the trust of the Suranese population. On top of these problems, however, the captain, the captain’s employers, and potentially Honorias as a whole are confronted with additional troublesome (and possibly disastrous) issues.

Firstly, the priest conducting the ritual must have been to the destination, or else must have access to enough data to imagine himself being there—perfectly. This point was more or less dismissed in our discussion with the moderation team, but it bears repeating. If the priest does not have sufficient information about the location, he cannot instruct the Vapors how he wishes them to alter reality for him and his ship. Given that most of the priest-navigators capable of performing this ritual have spent most if not all of their lives in two locations, Desele on Suran and lately the University of the Sciences of Animals on Vahhopayya, their ability to bring a freighter to a foreign port in an emergency is already horribly compromised—and their ability to gain the relevant information, either through first-hand travels or second-hand inspection of survey data, is negligible as a result of their original assignment on Vahhopayya, their potential wanted status depending on Congress’s awareness of their research on Vahhopayya, or their current occupation on a freighter that is more or less restricted to the March, Vahhopayya, and (while Acadia remains friendly) Honorias proper. Such a priest is not likely to travel, nor is he likely to have access to information that is gathered by military officers and sent straight to Congress and Command aboard the Lawgiver.

Nonetheless, this scenario supposes that the priest conducting this ritual manages to acquire this data, or else has traveled as a priest-engineer of an ambassadorial or exploration mission prior to his assignment to Vahhopayya, so that the ritual can indeed take place. Once the captain weighs the already-stated certain disasters that will befall him against the necessity of getting his ship to the foreign port, he agrees to the priest’s proposal and subsequently arrives in foreign territory. Assuming success, the first post-ritual problem is the most obvious and of least concern: The ship is now stranded in a foreign port. Obviously the ritual’s success requires the Sadrithian priest-engineer to clean the ritual space in a laborious process taking a day or more—in fact, there’s no reason not to make it an even week for the sake of argument—but the cleanest ritual space is useless without a Suranese victim to burn in it. More importantly, the most advanced PB Drive is also useless without a Suranese engineer to power it more “conventionally,” and, as stated before, no Honorian-built civilian freighter will have access to the Laegian Drive or any other foreign-designed faster-than-light system. Upon arrival, the freighter will be stuck in foreign space, taking up dock space and racking up docking charges for as long as it takes the captain’s employers to send a new crew (or at least new Suranese engineers) out to rescue it… and that will certainly take a nastily long time, given that (once again) the reason the captain chose to use Astral Vapors was because the PB Drive was incapable of getting him to his destination; his employers will certainly have to purchase or hire a foreign ship, complete with foreign warp technology, to send the engineers on their way, costing the company even more money. Then, of course, the ship has to return to Honorias—and will either spend absolute ages making the trip around the periphery of the known Orion Spur, or else will kill off another three Suranese engineers to replicate its initial disastrous interstellar journey, with both the company and Honorian law enforcement being ready on the other side to punish those responsible.

The above situation demonstrates the second problem: The company’s expenses have just gone through the roof. The expenses incurred in paying off dock fees, hiring a foreign ship, and acquiring more Suranese engineers from Command are only added to the contractual fees and potential criminal charges that will soon be laid at the company’s feet as a result of the loss of their original Suranese crew. And because of that, the captain will be lucky to simply lose his job upon his return to Honorian space, even assuming that he can pass off the disappearance of his Suranese engineers as defections instead of murders. …And on that subject:

The third problem is one for Congress and Honorias as a whole: At least one foreign nation is now certainly aware of the Suranese. The entire Suranese population is something akin to a state secret in Honorias, because Congress fears the international community’s reaction to both the Sun’s Gift (likely greed) and the Honorian policy of manipulating the Suranese into servitude (likely horror, possibly coupled with a sense of opportunity to steal the Suranese away). Indeed, Congress may not even be aware at this point that Vahhopayya knows about the Suranese (and if that is the case, Congress will have no patience with anyone admitting to have told the University faculty and students about them). Perhaps the freighter captain can pass off the disappearance of his engineers as defection; perhaps not. Either way, Congress will be certain that at least one foreign nation, and possibly more (depending on the amount of international traffic at the port in question), will now be aware of the Suranese people, if for no other reason than because of the company’s dispatch of Suranese on a specially-chartered vessel to replace the Suranese engineers who disappeared. The host nation and any number of international observers are bound to be curious about the arrival of a foreign ship without faster-than-light capability, especially if it suddenly regains that capability simply because new crew members come aboard. Whether or not those observers come to the correct conclusion, Congress and Command will both fear the results of additional questions and potential foreign inspections of Honorian ships, depending on how curious and how invasive the foreign government might be. Heaven only knows what the consequences would be if those same foreign eyes discovered that they were tipped off to the existence of these Suranese semi-slaves because three of them were murdered for fuel.

I do not know how Congress would deal with this situation. I can say, however, that it would react very strongly indeed toward any of its own citizens responsible for placing it in that situation, yet again incentivizing the captain to avoid using the Astral Vapors if at all possible.

Conclusion

I hope it is clear from this document that the work Vahhopayya and I have done to develop the Astral Vapors as a viable faster-than-light travel method is not, and was never, intended to avoid the necessary negative consequences of faster-than-light travel in a balanced setting. Once again, I point out that the above scenarios purposely ignore the possibility of complete and utter disaster that comes with a lack of dedicated preparation, with consequences ranging from semi-humorous to utterly horrifying (all of which are accomplished, I remind you, with murder). Perhaps it was not obvious from the tone of our discussion with representatives of the moderation team, but the possibility of completely stranding our vessels beyond all hope of rescue, and with no way to activate the one alternative FTL drive in their possession because the Suranese responsible for doing so were just murdered, is not something that we intend to take lightly: Vahhopayya and I have already discussed between ourselves the possibility of interesting RPs as a result of lost crews, and there is a good chance that some such accidents will lead to future expansion requests, but by and large any such event is almost certainly a death sentence for the crew and a write-off for the relevant company in regards to their (very expensive) ship.

Ignoring the accidents of ‘human’ error, I hope it is now clear that the limitations we placed on this method from the beginning—starting with the fact that the method itself requires murder—are serious in nature, and virtually ensure that any use of this method of travel by Honorian vessels will bring no small amount of chaos to the nation as a whole. It is true that many of these limitations can be avoided or adjusted as time goes on, and I don’t deny that I intend to do so; I also think that it’s obvious that I will have to do so, or else the method will never be viable in the first place. As it stands, as long as Honorias is a democratic nation that husbands its Suranese population as a finite and absolutely indispensable resource, utilizing the Astral Vapors for faster-than-light travel is a disaster in every sense, for those who do it and for those who have to clean up the resulting mess. For the people of my nation, it cannot be anything but a measure of last resort, practiced by such a small number of priest-engineers in such a limited fashion as to make it unusable to most of the people who are even aware of its existence, which is itself a terribly small number at the moment. Honorias itself will have to transform before Astral Vapors can be anything more than a pseudo-scientific horror given a very limited application.

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