Faster-Than-Light Travel

What happens when you travel faster than the fastest physical thing in the universe?

As seen in A Few Good Elves
Shimmering bands of colour swirled through the space around them and spiraled slowly around Wylinta in a pool. These were the Stellar Airts. Only Pilots, and possibly the Starseeds themselves, could see them.   They seemed to be related to gravity, but they weren’t dependent on it. Some scholars said that they created gravity. But one thing scholars knew was that they allowed a ship to travel between stars and planets, faster than light itself. They knew this because sometimes, when stars exploded in distant systems, one might still see them glimmering in the night sky.
A Few Good Elves by Diane Morrison
  Starfarers are aware that they routinely travel at speeds that are faster than the speed of light. They are also aware that light is the fastest travelling thing in the physical universe -- at least, as far as anyone has yet discovered. This represents a dilemma; what happens when you travel faster than the fastest physical thing in the universe? And what effect might that have on space and time?  

The Unity of Time and Space

“Tell us about your theory of magic.”   Narissa takes a deep breath. “All things exist as potentialities before they become matter. Magic harnesses the energies of those potentialities to create a desired effect. But each time there is a choice to be made, both of those choices are simultaneously created. The Universe we experience has manifested particular choices, but the state between still remains, and can still be manipulated by mages. And sometimes, holy people and psions as well,” she added, “although they have a different understanding of the methodology.   “We see the evidence of that state of being between in the courses of the Airts, by which a Pilot directs a starfaring engine. It is manifestly impossible to travel at the speeds that spacefarers do. And yet, they do it, because an Airt represents a connection in space, time and gravity; or rather, the potential of space, time and gravity. An Airt is the current of the energies of raw creation, from a time before the Universe we know found a form. In essence, a Pilot who traverses an Airt between bodies in space is in both places at once.”
Homefront: Toy Soldier Saga by Diane Morrison
  A Gnome scholar of renown, Alberdingk Onestone, proposed the idea that space and time are, in fact, the same thing. He conceived of Gravity Wells as floating on the Cosmic Sea of the Airts -- the currents of timespace. When one is in a gravity well, one is not only captured by the movement of the object in the well, one is captured by its movement in time as well. But outside of a gravity well, time and space are relative. He even found a formula for his theories, explaining both timespace and magic: Energy equals the Mass of an object, times the speed of light squared (E=mc2).   This has some profound effects on the starfarer relationship with the universe of Known Space. Assuming Onestone is correct, acceleration and time have effects on one another. Logically, time should continue to pass for a starfarer en route; which should mean that starfarers would arrive perhaps several years later than when they left, even if they perceive of the time passed as having only been a matter of days or weeks. However, that clearly does not happen.   It was postulated that wormholes might represent a slipstream through the Cosmic Sea of timespace -- but in that case, a starfaring vessel should instantly be transported from one part of the universe to another as soon as it enters one. This clearly does not happen either.   However, the more accomplished a Star-Pilot is as a spellcaster, the faster they are able to propel a ship in a wormhole. Put simply, the more powerful the magic at one's disposal, the faster they travel in interstellar space.   Since Magic is the art of transforming energy to matter and matter to energy, as well as the art of manipulating probabilities, Onestone came to the conclusion that it is the expectations of the Pilot, and their ability to harness the power of magic to assert their will, that determines the speed at which time passes while they are traveling through timespace.  

Timespace and the Power of Will

“Then why do Pilots and spacefarers experience a sense of time passing when traversing an Airt?” Lady Oakheart pounces.   “Because our physical minds are limited,” she answers immediately, “and must translate these experiences into understanding. Because we cannot conceive of time not passing, we still experience a passage of time; although greatly reduced, when one considers the vast distances travelled. But as we all know, as a Pilot gains practice and facility with magic, the time needed to travel between two points diminishes. It’s conceivable – though I’ve never heard of it happening in living elven memory – that a Mage-Pilot of sufficient skill could travel instantly from one body to another.”
Homefront: Toy Soldier Saga by Diane Morrison
  Onestone's theories have never been effectively tested, but assuming they are correct:  
  1. Nothing is ever created or destroyed; it just transforms from matter to energy, or back again.
  2. A sufficiently-advanced Star-Pilot should theoretically be able to learn to transport a gravity well (such as that of a Starfaring Engine,) instantly between two points in space; and thus, travel through a wormhole should take no time at all.
  3. A sufficiently-advanced Star-Pilot should theoretically be able to determine the time at which one arrives when one has transcended lightspeed. In other words, they ought to be able to travel through time.
  4. It is possible that this already happens between star systems, but at specific, interconnected points in timespace, which could explain why determining the relative positions of systems in Known Space to one another is so difficult.
  5. Some of the systems of Known Space could therefore exist hundreds or even billions of years out of synch with one another in real timespace. When, exactly, the constituent systems connect with Known Space could depend on the point at which they discovered starfaring.
  As a side note, this might also help to explain why so many of the systems in Known Space seem to have similar lifeforms, especially of the sentient sort.


The Cosmic Sea

Onestone's conception of the Cosmic Sea makes a useful metaphor for understanding space travel. He compared the Airts to different currents within the sea. The deeper currents, which may represent other dimensions, travel faster than the ones closer to the surface. However, it takes skill, and attunement, to find those deeper currents -- like tuning an instrument to the right frequencies.  

Visual Effects

With that, Shaundar finally cleared enough distance between them and the rest of the fleet that he found an interplanetary Airt. Space before the ship warped into a tunnel effect, the stars lengthened into streaks, and the edges of the lens shifted to blue. Wyndsmere fell away behind them.
A Few Good Elves by Diane Morrison
  Light is perceived in strange ways by starfarers travelling at greater than light speeds. At interplanetary speeds, stars seem to lengthen into streaks of light. Objects ahead of the ship shift towards the red/infrared scale of the light spectrum, and objects behind the ship shift towards the indigo/ultraviolet scale of the light spectrum. Stars ahead of the ship are seen as being brighter, and more closely clustered together, than the stars behind; or at least, the Elves and the Orcs see them that way. After a certain point, these streaks are seen as nothing but a blur by anyone onboard the ship.   Furthermore, the position of objects viewed by starfarers travelling at interplanetary speeds is shifted from where they actually are in real space, relative to the starfarers. This factor is important to understand in navigation, and this is why being aware of a ship's velocity is so important.   Spotting a ship travelling at interplanetary speeds at a distance is not possible, since by nature, it travels faster than light does. However, it is possible to detect it by the effects on the universe around it.   First, it creates a sort of distortion in visible light like refraction through a glass or a prism. Sometimes, ships can be spotted when the stars behind them suddenly show signs of distortion.   Second, the very process of accelerating, or decelerating, at such speeds produces its own constant ambient glow. Longer light wavelengths react more intensely, so such a glow usually appears in the blue to purple range -- although, according to elves, much of it takes place in the ultraviolet spectrum, and it can even be blinding to elves at close distances. The cone it emits, like a sonic boom, can be used to identify a starfaring object, and estimate its travel path.   Unfortunately, this light is only visible once the ship has passed by, like a seafaring ship's wake. Anyone directly in the ship's path would also see a temporary dividing of the ship's image; one approaching, shifted into the blue and ultraviolet light spectrum, and the other moving back the way it came, shifted into the red and infrared light spectrum. This is usually only noticed as a brief, intense flash, but some starfarers have been known to track ships using this information.


The Influence of Gravity Wells

“Slowing to minimum accel,” murmured the Pilot. Starfaring ships all travelled at similar rates that depended greatly on the flow of the Airts, but when they came into range of any other gravity well, they slowed to a speed limited by the abilities of the Pilot, which had something to do with their power of the magics that Pilot could command. A Pilot could will the ship not to travel at the extent of its available speed, however, which was essential for docking.
A Few Good Elves by Diane Morrison
  Faster-Than-Light Travel functions differently depending on a starfaring ship's proximity to a Gravity Well.   Gravity wells create ripples in the currents of the Cosmic Sea. Those ripples disrupt the natural flow of the Airt currents. Within range of other gravity wells, it becomes impossible for starfaring ships to find the flow of those disrupted currents. Faster-than-light travel ceases to be possible, until those gravity wells are once again separated.   But larger gravity wells, such as those of stars and stellar objects, throw out ripples that are simply too large to be perceived by a starfarer as such. Those influences are so dominant, and so spread out over broad distances, that they are more like tides or trade winds. These limit travel times within a relatively similar range, and Pilot ability has little effect on this.   It is in wormholes that the true effects of Faster-Than-Light Travel are experienced. The direct interstellar gravitational connections between stars and stellar objects are direct conduits that are perhaps a bit more like slipstreams, allowing even greater feats of acceleration. However, they are enclosed systems, offering only direct passage and little freedom of deviation in one's course. Put another way, the rapids that they represent are simply moving too quickly for a ship to get away from the speed and power of their flow.

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Vortex by Cemguney

The Cosmic Sea of Timespace, which is perceived by starfarers as the currents they call Airts, make Faster-Than-Light Travel possible.


by Ginty

Wormholes allow even more rapid travel between star systems, but are connected to specific, fixed points in timespace.


Vortex Hyperspace Tunnel Thumbnail by korrakot sittivash

Stars that a starfaring ship is travelling towards will shift towards the red wavelengths from the viewpoint of the starfarers on board, and will appear more closely clustered together than they really are.


by Free Stock Photo

The ripples of a gravity well can disrupt Faster-Than-Light Travel, or limit acceleration.
Metaphysical, Arcane

Maximum Acceleration in a Star System

Due to the interfering effects of the ripples thrown off by the proximity of gravity wells in a star system, Star-Pilots are limited to a single gravity's acceleration at a time. However, they are able to accelerate continuously at a rate of 1G... unless they encounter another gravity well.   When the wells of two starfaring ships (or other creatures who travel via the Airts ) begin to entangle and interact with one another, acceleration is halted... but inertia is not. It can take ships some time to slow down to interact with one another in any meaningful way.   The code of the starways usually demands that they at least slow down to investigate, but catching a ship that really does not want to be stopped is much more complicated. It requires the concerted effort of at least two ships working in tandem, who would have to constantly accelerate at the target, then move away and allow their partner to do the same, dragging it with the combined force of their gravity wells.

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Gravity Wells
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Cover image: by Gerd Altmann


Please Login in order to comment!
18 Dec, 2020 21:12

Love the blend of fantasy and sci-fi for FTL!

29 Dec, 2020 22:07

Sci-fantasy is my favourite genre to write in. No limits :D

Author of the Wyrd West Chronicles and the Toy Soldier Saga Eater of pickles, Friend of nerds, First of her name
19 Dec, 2020 02:36

This is absolutely amazing Sable--I love the excerpts and the clearly painstaking work you've put into how things function. Very very cool. <3 Your research and plotting has really paid off! <3

29 Dec, 2020 22:08

Thanks so much, Dani! I do research quite a bit about space science and astrophysics, in part just because I find it so interesting :)

Author of the Wyrd West Chronicles and the Toy Soldier Saga Eater of pickles, Friend of nerds, First of her name
Sage Serukis
Dr Emily Vair-Turnbull
19 Dec, 2020 18:41

I can really see how much research and thought you've put into your FTL travel system. I love how believable this is. Really well done, this is a marvellous article. <3

Emy x   Welcome to Etrea!
2 Jan, 2021 06:25

:D Thanks so much!

Author of the Wyrd West Chronicles and the Toy Soldier Saga Eater of pickles, Friend of nerds, First of her name
3 Jan, 2021 03:21

I love all the thought you put into your world and how it works. Yet another amazing article.

Author of Fillimet, bright fantasy land of possibilities
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