Once, For a Bet

There is, technically, a less expensive way to reach orbit than an elevator ride, and it has the additional advantage of being the fastest way to reach orbit. However, I cannot recommend it to you for one simple reason: I’ve “ridden freight“, and it’s an experience best saved for when you have no alternative.

It’s inexpensive, in a nutshell, because you’re being squeezed into a gap in the freight schedule. And as you’re riding freight, the accommodations are very much suited for freight: you get a comfortable acceleration seat, certainly, but one fixed inside what remains unmistakably an intermodal freight container fitted with an aeroshell.

Most providers do, as a courtesy to keep their passengers entertained, equip the nose of such capsules with a sapphireglass window. This is less helpful than it might be.

After boarding, it provides you with a fine bullet’s-eye view – for the seconds of your loading slot – of what it’s like to be shoved into the breech of the Worlds’ largest gun. Then the gravomagnetics catch you up and hurl you forward. The featureless sides of the tube rush by, but you won’t be paying attention to them: being on the freight schedule means fitting in the fewest freight slots possible. Eyeballs in, folks, feel the elephant on your chest and watch your vision blue-shade out – it’s six standard gravities from here all the way up the gunspire.

(Unless you’re riding freight on Paltraeth. Then they fire you at the full twelve local gravities and take bets on whether you’ll be conscious at the top. There’s a barrel of the local booze in it for anyone who can climb out of the capsule on their own, starport legend says, just in case the trip upwell didn’t impair you enough.)

Then comes the fun part. In the old days, the brief glimpse you’d get out of the window would have been of the exceptionally solid iris holding out the attenuated atmosphere at the gunspire’s tip, opening for you with such fine calibration that it’s impossible to see. Now, there’s just a brief flash of blue as you pass the kinetic barrier, the sickening lurch – and eyeballs snapping back out – as you pass beyond the magnetics, and the end of the world coming to call.

You see, everything up until this point has been quiet as a moth’s whisper. A mass driver in an evacuated tube makes no noise – the switchgear and the pumps might, but they’re on the outside.

Once you hit the end, though – the air might be attenuated, but there’s still enough of it to hit like a granite cliff. One moment, silence. The next moment, the storm gods of every pantheon you’ve heard of and a few more besides have come to call, with a real urgent need to come in there.

And they brought some friends, it looks like, ’cause that convenient window is making it very clear that everything outside is on fire.

This, you might think, would be a good time to panic.

Well, you’ve got something under of a second before they start hitting you with the lasers, and it’s back to elephants, blue-outs, and now an angry giant whaling on the back of the capsule with a to-scale warhammer to add to the rest of the noise – with your eyeballs vibrating in time.

That’s the worst of it. It only gets quieter from there to orbit, and after the hammering you’ve taken on the way up, the eyeballs-out dangling-in-your-straps deceleration to match velocity with the highport comes as something of a relief.

But I trust you understand, gentle reader, why it is that I cannot recommend this mode of transport.

– Around the Worlds on ¤1,000 per Sol


Improvisation Kills

It is a truism of celestial warfare that among the most valuable targets to seize in the course of a major planetary assault operation is the primary planetary starport or local starports close to the  intended target(s) of the operation. Starports, for all the obvious reasons, make perfect orbitheads, offering existing facilities eminently suitable for the landing and disembarkation of troops and materiel in quantity. (Orbital elevators, by contrast, are usually considered too fragile and susceptible to sabotage for this purpose, if the enemy are willing to absorb the ensuing damage to their own planet, until the orbitals and the continental area surrounding the elevator have been entirely secured.)

Why, then, are combat drops rarely, if ever, targeted at the vicinity of starports?

Again, it is important to remember that which is unseen. The popular image of starports is heavily biased towards the facilities for ground-landing starships – understandably, since the giant launch/landing pads built to handle nucleonic-thermal ships, with their blast-deflecting berms, “hot” shafts, and motile structures are some of the most impressive structures ever built – and towards the shuttleport terminals used by commuters and starship passengers alike. Nonetheless, the majority of cargo in the developed Worlds is carried by dedicated spacecraft incapable of atmospheric landing, to and from which cargo is transp0rted in high volumes using suitably cheap methods: either laser-launch/deceleration facilities, mass drivers, or both, in which case the former handles light or delicate cargo and the latter hardbulk.

What this means in military terms is that, any other defense grid aside, the majority of starports in the developed Worlds have at their disposal a multi-gigawatt-range phased-array laser system, and/or a pair of mass drivers capable of accelerating a solid slug the size of a shipping container (or, equally effective, a shipping container packed with rubble or cheap heavy-metal ingots) to orbital velocities – both, admittedly, equipped with safety systems designed to prevent them from being used in exactly the manner which is desirable for military purposes, but that is something usually corrected readily enough by a software change – along with all the high-resolution traffic-control sensor equipment needed to target them effectively.

It is also a truism of warfare in general that one shouldn’t stab a heavily-armed man in the front. That is doubly relevant when the things they’re using as weapons are also the value that you want to capture.

– Elementary Principles of Orbit-to-Ground Maneuver Plans, pub. INI Press

Technically, That Last Was ‘Might’


As master of an Empire-registered tramp trader, when may sophonts appear on the cargo manifest of your vessel?


Under four circumstances:

1. When you are transporting steerage-class passengers under contract to a passenger line, and such passengers are both onloaded from and offloaded to port-side passenger processing as freight, and will remain in cryostasis or nanostasis during the entirety of their voyage within rated stasis-rack freight containers (4×80-series);

2. When your vessel is a registered Naval auxiliary, and is transporting personnel of the Imperial Military Service in cryostasis or nanostasis under the same conditions as above, when an officer of flag rank has approved such operations;

3. When your vessel is operating as a colonization transport under contract to a colonial corporation or the Ministry of Colonization, and is transporting colonists in cryostasis or nanostasis under the same conditions as above;

4. When you’re fixin’ to die.

– from an examination for shipmaster’s license, second class