So, let’s start with a little backstory. I’m writing Episode 10 of City of Heroes, and have been for… like… almost a year… Extenuating circumstances and excuses abound, but there it is. And a lot of it happens in space, and I got to a part where I had to discuss, in some form, space travel times.
The draft I showed to Travis explicitly (or, near-explicitly) put a Kupopolis-universe travel time to the distance between a planet in the “Earth” position (the third orbital) and a nebula beyond the ninth orbital. And this, as far as either Travis or I are concerned or remember, is the nearest we have ever come to actually discussing how fast spaceships can travel when they are not using our faster-than-light space strands.
What I’m going to do here, by way of discussing this, is start talking about this by way of explaining my personal preference for how I think this should work.
First, as a refresher, let’s talk about how all inter-Dimensional travel in the story works.
Defining Terms: "Dimension"
Remember that some of our nomenclature in the story pre-dates the advent of space travel. Back in the old days, we sort of dealt with each of our story worlds as if they were different worlds that connected by way of portals. Why or how this was so wasn’t exactly clear: were these separate universes? Parallel “earths”? Nothing in the currently established cannon clarifies this, as far as what people thought or believed, but nevertheless the term “Dimension” was what we used to talk about these different worlds in relation to each other. (I’m inclined to think that they were originally meant to really be alternate “Dimensions,” becaue there were a number of places [like the Thanatos Dimension] that were similarly named and clearly intended to be otherworldly, supernatural places)
Of course, in order to make space travel between “Dimensions” a thing, we sort of flattened out the universe and brought it closer to being more like conventional Sci Fi. Our worlds were now not “Dimensions,” but solar systems, connected to each other through “strands” of mana in a network that Dustin coined as the "Web of Worlds."
The idea here is that there’s a flow of mana energy that comes from a central point (the “Source” [Aryth]) and disperses across the known universe. This is the main conceit for our space travel: space ships hop onto the “dropoff” point and sort of ride the flow of the strand to their destination. In a way, this is the “Mass Effect” method of practical travel between different worlds in space.
The strands also provide for a way of getting around between the different worlds without a spaceship, at least in the Core. The strands generate the planetside portals used for land, sea and air travel interdimensionally. No real reason has been given to explain the discrepancy between space travel time over the strands (which, in a few story posts, has been described very clearly as non-instantaneous [i.e. there’s downtime while travelling on the strand, ala Star Wars/Star Trek and hyperspace/warp]) and through portals (which has always been described as instantaneous). Personally, I think a wizard did it.
Core vs. Fringe
The distinction between Core and Fringe is generally thus: the Core Dimensions are connected to each other via planetside travel portals. The Fringe, on the other hand, is only accesible via space travel. (but see below)
My understanding of this phenomenon is that it’s basically identical to the idea behind portals, except they’re underground and thus accessible to things that travel subterraneally (is that a real adverb?.. subterrestrially?..). Also worth noting: there are sills that connect the Core to the Fringe, whereas no known land/air/sea portals do so. Again, this is just an observed phenomenon and no real explanation/reason has been given for why this is so; it just is. (and probably a wizard did it)
Disclaimer: I don’t know why it’s called “Reverse” X-Zone, but this is travel by way of a ship moving into the X-Zone and then back into realspace at its destination. In popular sci-fi terms, this is basically folding space and is a near-instantaneous form of travel, but is also potentially dangerous (several members of Marbles Marlowe’s crew are ex-Confederate spacers who were transformed into a new species of undead through an RXZ mishap). Most official space services do not use this technology, but pirates sometimes do.
Space Travel Times
Now, all of that having been said… let’s get into the meat of it. Let’s assume the following assumptions are a given:
- Portals are instantaneous means of travel
- Space strand travel is not instantaneous, but it is effectively a form of faster-than-light travel between solar systems
- Standard off-strand space travel moves at some sub-light speed.
What I think makes the most sense is for Kupop to incorporate some variant of “impulse” speed from Star Trek. Impulse is 1/4 light speed, and puts space travel within a solar system in terms of hours rather than days/weeks/months.
The big question is: how fast do we want this speed to really be?
In my draft for Episode 10, I have the Iceni travelling at just below the speed of light, which allows them to move from Mana III to beyond the ninth orbital in something that, for the sake of argument, we can call 16 hours. Lightspeed ETA from Earth to Pluto is 14 hours, so that is pretty darn close. There are a couple of reasons I opted to do this, the big one being concern for Fara’s college career (“Hi, I know I have a lot of absences, but I need to be out of school again for the next three weeks due to space travel times. Will this affect my grade?..”), but more practically I thought about how we use space travel within the story and it just makes more sense for our miles-long-battleships to be as fast as possible simply for narrative reasons.
It’s also worth considering, as we move forward, what kinds of technological advances have happened since the inception of space travel, and what tech advances will or should happen as Kupop moves into its future. When I wrote an email to Travis earlier this morning, I put it to him like this: we’re at a point in City of Heroes where nearly two decades have gone by since the advent of interdimensional space travel (15 years post-Great War; 14 years after Gate was discovered, and Project Icarus happened that same year). I’m on about impulse/near-light speeds now because it seems reasonable to me that, in that time, we would have seen the conventional speed of off-strand travel steadily increase with improvements in tech.
The Speed of… Plot?
I think it’s also inevitable that lightspeed travel eventually becomes A Thing within the story. “A Not So Far Off Place” touched on this, but it was one of those sci fi stories where you had people having to come to terms with the realities of relativistic travel, both in terms of the extreme distances and in terms of time dilation. In email conversation, Travis said that if you were going to have light speed or faster-than-light-speed travel, you couldn’t just wave your hand at that and make it go away.
Well. … Why not?
I mean, we’re writers, right? Of course we can “wave our hands” and make these problems go away in the name of telling a story that’s fun to write and fun to read. Why on earth couldn’t we?
In Star Wars, they go into hyperspace, which I guess allows for FTL travel without having to worry about everything in realspace aging while you’re in transit. Star Trek’s warp fields accomplish a similar thing, as do Mass Effect’s mass effect fields. (which they make a point of pointing out in ME: Andromeda [aka EA’s grand experiment in murdering single player games forever], where they travel to a new galaxy without benefit of a Mass Effect relay, and because of this time dilation becomes a factor)
There’s no reason we can’t contrive or borrow a method of developing practical FTL travel, and even making it a major point of plot development. I mean, we have time magic in the story. Maybe there’s a spell or effect in the repertoire of time magic that can negate time dilation? Separate from time magic, we have a world where time travel technology is a thing. Maybe there’s an offshot of that tech that can be employed to dampen the effect of dilation on a ship travelling FTL? We have elemental magics of Light and Shadow; maybe instead of a “warp field” or a “mass effect field,” you have a field derived from light or shadow magic that enables more story-friendly FTL travel?
There’s a range of possibility here whose only limitation is whatever creative juices the lot of us have as we plod through our 30s.
BUT, this discussion gets ahead of the more immediate issue of how fast do we want our ships to fly currently?
In the past we’ve skirted this issue purely in order to avoid being too specific, because we want to have cool space ships but don’t want to have to commit to framing how efficient space travel is. Which, honestly, sort of seems odd to me in a story that is now old enough to have a college degree, has a meticulously maintained historical timeline, and at one point had calculations for major city populations and national GDP.
What does everyone think?