Peking Space Opera Blues: Setting

The History of Humanity

The Past

The Colonial Era

The discovery of hyperdrive may have been an accident, but it didn't stop humanity from making full use of it. The relatively flat local hyperspace granted quick and easy access to thousands of solar systems, and every nation, company, and church rushed to grab their share. Most other fields of human endeavor flagged as the energy and dreams of the entire species turned outward to the stars.

For the first time in thousands of years, warfare declined in popularity: it was easier in almost every case to go find a new world that had what one wanted or was free of what one was trying to escape than to fight someone over it.

First contact with aliens was made almost immediately, but any effects it may have had on the human psyche were diluted by second, third, twentieth, and hundredth contact following in short order. None of the other sapient species humanity discovered had anywhere near the same level of technology; apparently the scientific method was not as obvious as one might assume. Despite the disparity in power, instances of genocide were not as common as humanity's history had lead people to fear (possibly because biochemical incompatibility prevented the accidental genocides that had happened so often among humans). This is not to say that aliens were treated well; as always, humans took what they wanted, and pushed aside anyone who might have been living on it. Some human institutions accepted aliens as members, and took them to the stars; others herded them into reservations and ignored them. Either way, their native cultures were effectively destroyed.

The Warring Systems Era

Eventually, the easily accessible systems started running short, as humanity reached the limits of the easily-travelled region it had been fortunate enough to start within, and exploration and colonization became difficult enough that warfare was once again seen as a practical solution to many problems.

Initially, the conflict was among the institutions that held the colonies, but soon the colonials tired of being used as pawns, or resented being deprived of support from home, and declared independence.

The primary conflict of the intermediate part of the Warring Systems period was of the newly independent colonies against their former masters, a military stalemate overall, but a struggle the independents inevitably dominated as all but the most closly held colonies were one by one mismanaged into revolution.

The final stage of the Warring Systems era is what gave the period its name: a many-way brawl continuing every conflict from the earlier wars. Few of the systems had the industrial base to carry on a full-fledged war, but skirmishes, privateering, and espionage sufficed to keep everyone ready for the occasional outbreak of full-scale hostilities.

The Republic

The Warring Systems period could have continued indefinitely, slowly grinding down civilization until it collapsed altogether. Fortunately, things never reached that depth. Six worlds formed a mutual defense alliance called the Hexagram and, unlike previous such local peaces, stayed together long enough to defeat their neighboring enemies in detail. Suddenly free from the continual weight of war, their economies were able to rebuild to levels unseen since the start of wars. It was only a brief respite, but enough that when new enemies came, following the scent of prosperity, the Hexagram was able to fend off forces that would have crushed any of the single worlds, or any other of the minor alliances. Hexagram membership became something worth setting aside long-cherished grudges for, at least for some worlds, and though growth was slow at first, every new member made the Hexagram that much stronger and that much more desirable.

When the Hexagram reached forty systems, it gave up on the name and became the Republic, but it didn't stop growing there. The Republic never forced membership on anyone, but as it grew the growing contrast between its peaceful prosperity and the starving mayhem of the independent systems pulled new members in in droves. Within a human lifetime, almost the entirety of human space was belonged to the Republic, and the few systems that retained their independence had given up their wars.

Expansion was still difficult, human space being surrounded on all sides by dirty regions in hyperspace, but that very difficulty gave the Republic attention to spare for research and development. Improved hyperdrives and hyperspace mapping technology allowed some expansion into new regions, but for the most part the citizens of the Republic had to improve conditions where they were, rather than leaving them behind.

Progress progressed, although with ever decreasing speed as the Republic's science and technology approached the limits of what the human mind could understand in a human lifetime. Despite the prediction of past futurologists, neither augmentation of human intelligence nor creation of human-level or better artificial intelligence seemed possible.

The Collapse

Then a survey team on the Coreward fringe found the Viroi, the first alien species ever discovered with more advanced technology than humanity. The Viroi had never had the stroke of serendipity that would have given them hyperdrive, but they had knowledge that humans had thought would remain fiction forever.

Humanity was even more eager to gain the technology of the Viroi than the Viroi were to get hyperdrive. Fortunes could be made or lost on a single Viroi datafile, and it wasn't long until those desperate to get Viroi technology for themselves, or to prevent it from being used against them, were willing to spend lives. Then hundreds of lives. Then millions of lives.

In a society with plentiful spaceflight and fusion power, destruction is easy. Defense is difficult, and the Republic was long out of practice at war. Major worlds, with most of their citizens conveniently gathered in cities and the rest unprepared for the collapse of their technological infrastructure, were nearly depopulated. The fringe worlds were less vulnerable, but less prepared to defend themselves, and fared little better. In just a few years, the entire Republic disintigrated into chaos that made the Warring Systems period look stable and prosperous.

As the destruction was reaching its peak, a research team on Caliburn figured out how to use a scrap of Viroi technology to become more than human. From there, they could see how to rise even further, each step leading inevitably to the next in the positive feedback loop of Transcendence. The human population of Caliburn vanished.

The war ended immediately: fusion plants went out like blown candles, falling rocks turned to dust, and military automation converted to Buddhism. Then the Transcendent Powers vanished, leaving behind only a promise to return when the rest of humanity deserved to share what they had. Presumably they took the Viroi with them, since no one has seen a living Viroi since.

The Celestial Empire

One of the survivors took the Transcendent Powers' promise seriously, and set about rebuilding the wreckage of human civilization into something deserving. Though she had the best navy remaining in human space, it still took a will as hard as diamond and a great many lives to establish something that could grow as the Republic had, and even then it was almost too late.

The Empire grew more slowly than the Republic had, as the Empress made sure it absorbed each planet completely before moving to the next, making it part of a cohesive whole without the fracture lines that had doomed the Republic. Grow it did, however, under the watchful eye and flawless planning of the Empress.

The Present

The Celestial Empire

In the 829th year of Imperial Grace, the Celestial Empire comprises some 4000 inhabited systems, distributed throughout the clear areas of 250 lightyears of space. An additional 14 000 systems are claimed by the Empire but not inhabited; most of them were surveyed once to determine their uselessness and have never been visited again. Huge as it is, the Empire still claims only a little over half the space the Republic did.

The Empress rules from her throneworld Phoenix, humanity's home resurrected from the ashes of the Collapse and renamed in honor of its rebirth, surrounded by the lunar palaces of her Cabinet Ministers and the invincible warships of her Navy. Throughout the seventy-nine provinces of the Empire, the One Hundred Governors and their district administrators transmit her will to the planetary nobles and thence to the citizenry. At every level, armies of ministers and officials execute the commands of their masters and file reports verifying the execution. Not everyone loves the Empire, but no one can deny that it is thoroughly governed.

At the upper levels, the progression of power from the Empress to the Cabinet to the Governors is quite orderly. Below that, it begins to devolve into the tangled morass that Imperial politics is notorious for. Beneath the Governors of the provinces are the district administrators, but their role varies from place to place. In the Middle Provinces, each of which only has twenty or thirty plants, each planet is a district, governed by an administrator, and the pattern of Imperial bureaucracy continues downward unhindered. In the Marches, a province can be eighty or a hundred planets distributed across a considerable distance, so each province is divided into (depending on the physical and political astrography of the sector) two to ten districts. Furthermore, the planets of the Marches, for the most part, remained independent of the Empire for long enough to develop their own varied and peculiar political and legal systems, which have been grafted more or less intact onto the branches of Imperial governance. Regardless of how much of their local customs each world has kept, however, whatever person or group rules them must be approved by, and then swear fealty to, the district administrator.

Against the Empire

The New Republic

Outside the Empire

The Future

Life in the Empire and Elsewhere

Although every citizen of the Empire has their well-documented place in society, there is little regularity to the assignment of such places. The progression of power from the Empress to her Cabinet to the Provincial Governors is relatively smooth, but at the district level and below, government is much less standardized. Many planets still have part or all of their pre-Imperial local government, whatever that might have been; in addition, every planet joined the Empire under slightly different terms, and some of them joined in groups as multi-system governments were absorbed whole, with their internal connections more or less intact. The resulting maze of conflicting jurisdictions, ambiguous treaties, and exponentially increasing red tape is the Empire's greatest tool of oppression and also its greatest weakness, and provides completely secure employment for the civil servants who number (by some estimates) more than a fifth of the population.

Not everyone living in the Imperium is a citizen: the Empire is a government by humans, for humans. Non-humans are always Resident Non-Citizens, even if their ancestors evolved on a planet that the Empire has only held for decades. RNCs cannot join the civil service or the Navy, or officially serve the Empire in most respects, but they receive full protection under any laws anyone cares to enforce with respect to them. In many places, that's not much, and even the most enlightened Imperial worlds treat non-humans as distinctly second-class citizens.

Rating below even RNCs are slaves and criminals, which are often one and the same: most jurisdictions prefer to make convicted criminals earn their keep rather than paying for them to idle about in prison. A sentance of slavery generally lasts until the tax on the declared production of the convict pays off his debt to society; this can be a very elastic measure depending on who holds the contract.

Technology and Other Neat Stuff

Among the many technologies available to the Empire, there are three that are unquestionably crucial: hyperdrive, fusion, and pseudogravity.

Hyperdrive

Hyperdrive is the most important of these, being the only way to travel between stars in less than centuries. The principle of hyperdrive is simple: it translates a starship into another universe which maps point-to-point to normal space but in which the speed of light is not a limit, allowing the ship to arrive at another location in normal space faster than a photon could have traversed the same distance.

In practice, even getting out of a solar system using hyperdrive is complicated. Although hyperspace is accessible to within about three light-hours of a G star, every star is surrounded by a shell of turbulent hyperspace called the hyperpause, where the hyperspace pinned to the star runs up against free hyperspace. For a G class star, the hyperpause is about twenty light-hours out. Depending on the star and its environs, trying to cross the hyperpause is somewhere between risky and suicidal, and certainly never something to be tried except in an emergency. (Dropping out and crossing the hyperpause in normal space doesn't work; a functional hyperdrive has an extension into hyperspace that would catch on the turbulence and burn out the drive.)

Fortunately, there are two places near every star where these dangers can be avoided. Over the rotational poles of the star, the hyperpause pulls inward in funnel shapes, the points of which blur out into slightly bumpy hyperspace as they near the star. In these regions, a ship can get into hyperspace between half a light hour and a full light hour out from the star, depending on drive tuning, and needs only pass light turbulence to get out of the system. As a consequence, all traffic into and out of a system passes through the two on-ramps, which makes both blockades and piracy possible.

Hyperspace travel between systems is not necessarily easier. Large volumes of hyperspace are turbulent to varying degrees, or have gradients that inhibit travel in certain directions, requiring ships to follow narrow safe corridors or take the long way around. Surveying hyperspace is dangerous and expensive, so almost all ships stick to the well-mapped routes that are known to be safe even if they aren't optimal. Some individuals know shortcuts that let them shave days or weeks off the normal times for certain flights; needless to say, these people can charge premium prices.

Straight-line hyperspace travel covers about one to three light-years per day, depending drive power, but in practice it can take anywhere up to three or four times that long to follow the known routes.

There are many other details to hyperspace, most of which are not interesting enough to mention for gaming purposes, but there are two caveats which are likely to come up during play. One is that entering hyperspace with any velocity relative to the local star (referred to as a 'sliding transition') makes the turbulence of the on-ramp and of the off-ramp at the other end much worse; all sensible captains decelerate to rest before entering hyperspace. The other is that a ship's drive field extends only to the outer surface of its hull: anything outside that, even if it's touching the ship, will be left behind when the ship makes transition, and anything that leaves the drive field while the ship is in hyperspace is gone forever. Physicists have come to blows over exactly what happens to it, but it's not coming back. You have been warned.

Fusion

Although most never think of it, the convenient and plentiful power provided by fusion is what gives the Empire its prosperity. Every device that requires any power input runs off a compact fusion cell that keeps it running for years on a negligible amount of deuterium-tritium mix. Insufficient power and exhausted energy supplies are things most Imperial citizens never have to worry about.

Pseudogravity

Pseudogravity is the third component of the cheap spaceflight that makes the Empire what it is. Despite the popular name of 'artifical gravity', pseudogravity really manipulates an entirely different force, which has peculiar effects in certain circumstances. There are three major uses of pseudogravity: lift motors, thrusters, and acceleration fields.

Lift motors do just what the name suggests: lift things in the direction opposite whatever the local gravity is. The force a lift motor can apply is proportional to the local gravity, making them unsuited to deep space flight, but ideal for aircars and ground-to-orbit shuttles. Lift motors are rather energy-hungry, but are neat, clean and safe to bystanders. Since lift motors provide only lift and not thrust, aircars and other vehicles that use them need a propulsion system such as a pseudogravity thruster or a simple electrostatic jet.

Thrusters are not directly dependent on local gravity; they can push in any direction. However, they produce moderately-large quantities of coherent light and neutrinos as waste products (thus the glowing 'exhaust ports' of aircraft and spacecraft), which can be a significant safety hazard at high output. Of course, this is not a problem in deep space, and spacecraft routinely attain accelerations that the crews could not survive without acceleration fields.

There is one more somewhat inconvenient aspect to thrusters: above a critical velocity which depends on the thruster, a thruster loses contact with the mass of the local star and can provide no more thrust, thus limiting the ship to a maximum velocity as well as a maximum acceleration. Fortunately, the critical velocity for modern thrusters is in the tens of thousands of kilometers per second (light-hours per day) which is more than adequate to reach hyperspace on-ramps in a reasonable time.

Acceleration fields simply produce an acceleration of a certain direction and magnitude throughout a given volume. The best-known use of this is to compensate for the high accelerations produced by spacecraft thrusters, while leaving a comfortable one standard gravity to keep the passengers and their drinks in place. Other uses are the 'gravity reducers' used on high-gravity planets, free-fall arenas for circuses and spaceball tournaments, and the null-gee beds favored by decadent aristocrats. It is important to remember that any force applied by the acceleration field generates an equal and opposite force on the field generator; the weight apparently negated by a null-gee field is just transferred to the generator, which needs to be mounted appropriately.

Weaponry

Despite the Empire's relative peace and prosperity, there's as much perceived call for being able to kill people as ever, and Imperial technology has risen to the demand. Blasters and lasers are the favored weapons most everywhere, blasters for their sheer destructive power and lasers for their relative subtlety and usefulness in crowd supression. On particularly backwards planets, gauss weapons and even firearms are still in use, although in most places such antiques are used only by sportsment and recreationists.

Medicine

Fortunately, the medicine of the Empire is nearly able to keep up with the effects of its weapons. First-rate Imperial medicine can literally raise the dead (provided the brain hasn't been destroyed or left to spoil). Even more ordinary facilities can repair anything short of death, and what they can't cure they can stabilize for shipment to better treatment. Disease of all kinds is a thing of the past.

Genetic engineering of humans is no longer practiced, but the Republic did enough to weed out every genetic defect, hereditary disease, and inherited susceptibility it could identify. Bodies still wear out, but the average citizen can expect a hundred and fifty years of nearly perfect health. The very rich can almost double that.

The Republic's expertise in augmenting humans was lost in the Collapse, and has been only sketchily reclaimed, there are myriads of projects intended to produce improved humans (which is generally taken to be synonymous with better soldiers). Their results are never spectacular, and sometimes dismal, but sometimes they come up with something worthwhile.

Automation

Psionics

Although psionic powers are not themselves technology, they are generally considered to be the product of Transcendent technology, insofar as they were completely unknown before the Collapse but have since then appeared with possibly increasing frequency among humans and aliens.


The Equipment List gives game statistics for these and other nifty items.

Peking Space Opera Blues is copyright 1997 by Trevor Placker. All rights reserved.


This file was last modified at 1635 on 22Jun99 by trip@idiom.com.