Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
— Marvell

Starships travel faster than light using the quintessence drive, or "Q drive." Quintessence, or "dark energy," is a natural feature of space and is what drives the accelerating expansion of the universe. The Q drive surrounds the ship in an intense, highly polarized field of quintessence, which then moves off in what amounts to a directed instance of cosmic expansion. This can go faster than light, as it did during the inflationary period of cosmic expansion, because it is really the region of spacetime that moves, not the material object.

The Q field must be very uniform, to avoid ripping the ship apart or, in extreme cases, vaporizing it. Naturally, ships are designed to drop the Q field as quickly and smoothly as possible in case of instability. A rough field is the commonest cause of ships being stranded.

Ship speed is limited by the intensity of the Q field, but also by the ship's shielding. When the ship is near the speed of light or only a few multiples above it, interstellar gas acts as high-intensity radiation. (At very high multiples, the ship does not interact with the gas much at all; it passes through too quickly.) Starships are primarily shielded by sophisticated, plasma-based radiation screens, but almost all ships also have a thick wall of lead in the prow; it is not nearly as effective as a radiation screen, but the screen can fail while lead is always lead, whatever happens. Often, the lead prow is shaped into a distinctive figurehead, such as the battle-masked warships of the Humanate or the gilded bull-prows of the Agrian traders.

The fastest commercial courier ships have a top speed of about 200,000 c. With time out for necessary maintenance, they can cross the galaxy in a year. Normal "fast" freighters and liners have only a fifth that speed, 40,000 c. Experimental probes and military courier drones have cracked the million-c limit, but have a publicly known range limit of about 2000 light-years due to maintenance requirements. (Actual maximum range is undoubtedly higher but secret.)

Ships' Lines

It is easiest to keep the Q field uniform near the axis of the field. It stays uniform whatever the length of the axis. Consequently, ships are almost always long and thin, shaft-like, lead-tipped spears. But, if two ships have different lengths and identical field generators, the longer ship will be slower, because the field density will be lower.

Therefore, to get higher speeds with less effort, as well as for many other reasons including packing economies and more robust designs, people always look for tricks to make ships more compact. In general, military ships and more recent ships will be less needle-like in design.


Two or more ships, flying nose to tail, can combine fields and improve their efficiency. A pair of ships (fore and aft engines) can even carry a cargo between them, in their joint Q field. And the string of cargo vessels (cars) can be greatly extended if each vessel is equipped with field guides, which are Q-field technology but much simpler and cheaper than Q field generators.

A train's Q field is more easily disrupted than that of a single ship of equivalent size, but the engines and cars are very likely to survive undamaged. The train can then be reassembled and the journey resumed. Trains are the favored way of moving large cargoes through secure regions.

Dark Weather

Under normal conditions, dark matter and dark energy are impossible to notice without special instruments. But, at high multiples of c, local variations in dark matter can strongly affect starships. A "dark storm" can roughen a ship's Q field, causing it to drop out of drive, stranded until repaired. In extreme cases, the rupturing field can tear the ship apart or even vaporize it.

Consequently, starfarers track dark weather carefully. Dark weather has different effects at different speeds; sky that is stormy at 100 c may be calm at 10,000 c or vice versa. Consequently, dark weather conditions are given at 10 c, 100 c, 1000 c, 104 c, 105 c, and 3x105 c.

Dark weather has no relation to planetary weather. A planet cut off from interstellar traffic by a raging dark storm may have sunny skies at every spaceport or, if it has no atmosphere, no ordinary weather at all.

Drive Trails

A ship's radiation screen pushes aside interstellar gas, leaving a trail of purer vacuum several hundred meters wide. After many flights along the same course, interstellar traffic can wear a trail through the sky, a tube of cleaner vacuum many kilometers wide. Ships seek out these trails, since the cleaner vacuum makes it possible to travel faster and safer, with less shielding.

The result is a network of frequented trails throughout the civilized galaxy. The longest trails lie along the Corridor and have famous names, including the Sagittarius Highway, the Ascella Route, the North and East and Old Scorpio Routes, the Aquila Trail, and the Triffid Road. Some trails, including the Triffid Road, lead north or south of the galactic plane, to avoid the thicker gas found on the plane.

In the unexplored parts of the galaxy, such as the TranSaj, or in farther places such as the Magellanic Clouds, explorers use drive trails to spot new starfaring civilizations.

Without frequent use, the trails fill in over the course of a few centuries, so the trails of earlier civilizations have long ago faded away.


shine the merlin moonbeam eye
set my dancin' feet to fly
o'er the dark and dervish sky
i go like the raven
– "I Go Like the Raven," Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer

At the psionic tech-level, it becomes possible to travel between stars under one's own psychic power, using devices that incorporate energy strings.


"Voidsail" or "nema-sail" is the name both for a kind of ship and for the devices that drive it. They are sailed for sport or as high-speed couriers or ultra-light shippers.

A voidsail ship is very small and light, often little more than a pole or tube containing batteries, comm equipment, and the sails. Spars stick out from the central mast of the ship as from the mast of an old-time sea schooner. When the sails are activated, they deploy as webs of energy strings, visible as iridescent streaks like spider web. These then belly out as if before a wind, and the ship vanishes in a dim rush of rainbow afterimages – when the crew works the sails. The crew must include telekinetics trained to use the sails.

The speed of the voidsail depends on the mass of the ship and the combined telekinetic power of the crew. A good average speed is 300,000 c. A champion speed is 400,000 c. That would let a voidsail cross the galaxy in half a year, but no crew has had the endurance to do that.

Voidsails are unaffected by the density of the interstellar medium. They are more tolerant of dark weather than voidstaves, and much more tolerant than conventional ships. Rough weather does not even damage them; instead, the rough weather introduces random factors to send the ship veering wildly off course, lurching up and down orders of magnitude in speed.

Voidstaves and Voidhoops

A voidstaff is a one-person voidsail. In fact, voidsails were developed from voidstaves. A voidstaff is a stick-shaped object, requiring no power source other than the operator. A voidstaff for a normal adult human is about four meters long and five to eight centimeters thick. Operators are most often known as voidmasters, but also voidwalkers, vac-walkers, and kenophiles.

The voidstaff carries the operator across space in a series of teleportive jumps. One holds the voidstaff (or rides it, or at least makes telekinetic contact with it) and makes oneself psychically ready to jump; in response, the energy string in the staff "bellies out" like a one-dimensional sail before a wind, and one vanishes and appears in a rippling swirl of prismatic light-distortions. Maximum jump distance for a given staff is proportional to the operator's psychic power, as is maximum cargo capacity, being limited to the maximum mass the operator can move telekinetically. Thus traveling light is the norm and most operators travel with nothing more than a backpack and a light space suit.

Parts of a voidsail or voidstaff:

A voidbow is a curved variation of a voidstaff, with the energy string running taut from one end to the other, as on an archery bow. It is only cosmetically different from a voidstaff.

A voidhoop is a circular variation on a voidstaff. They use three to twelve energy strings and look, when operating, like dream-catcher nets. They are more expensive and trickier to use than voidstaves, but have about three times the cargo capacity. They are thus favored by larger races.

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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2010