Post Hoc, Ergo Ante Hoc
A short science fiction novel-in-progress exploring oddities and implications of future technologies.
Writing is mediocre, as I'm not editing at all as I go. Usually updates Saturdays on alternate weeks.
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Professor Julius Malcolm Henthrow stood gazing pensively at the overcast skies outside the station. He had debated not coming, but his innate curiosity that initially led him to science got the better of him. He couldn't just let it go. So, this morning he had called in to the university, only to find out that evidently the military had already done that for him. Paid sabbatical. He should have been happy, but the presumptuous nature of it just irritated him more. Now here he was staring morosely at the barely perceptible cable stretching into the clouds.
For a long time, people had debated the plausibility of space elevators. The appeal was undeniable, considering the tremendous cost of sending mass up in a rocket. The fuel cost was even low compared the the trans-orbital aircraft ideas that were also tossed about at the time. Every new development, from carbon nanotubes to magnetic phase chains were bandied about as a possible solution. In the end, of course, no single state or static state of matter would work, regrettably, the filament would require energy to maintain. Of course, that energy could be harvested from the friction in descending cargo. The system worked, but not nearly as neatly or as nicely as most people in those ages had ever imagined it would. And, of course, pseudo-scientists on the forefront of popular culture still claimed that there must be a static state of matter that could make the filament. People never change, it seems.
Even with the space elevators, space travel was hardly routine. Besides the expense, there were travel considerations to even get to an elevator. Humanity, in its early years of space exploration, had filled Earth's orbit with so much debris that clearing a location for an elevator was expensive and a continuing endeavor. That, and because the outer nexus of the cable had to be in geostationary orbit, only the equator was a viable locale for an elevator. This one was about ten degrees north of the equator, and the air outside to station was so humid as to be palpable. Yet rain would not come. Julius sighed, and glanced back down at his book. He'd been here for several hours already, but he knew he'd be here for many more. Travel is, and always has been, an absolute pain in the ass.
It was just as he had gotten absorbed into his reading that a hand tapped him on the shoulder.
“Professor Henthrow?” A stern voice queried.
“Yes, that's me.” He grumbled, without looking up.
“We're here to escort you to the shuttle.”
Julius started at that, and looked up. There was a company of about twelve men and women, all dressed casually, but their stance screamed “military” louder than any uniform could.
“Jesus. Is this that important?”
Julius received no reply, and instead one of the women grabbed his travel bag, and half the company began to move. Julius glanced around helplessly for a fraction of a moment, before standing up and following them. The other half-dozen fanned out around him, trying and failing to look inconspicuous.
The shuttle was windowless, mainly to provide better structural integrity. Julius had often wished he could gaze out a window as the elevator accelerated upward, especially considering the transit time to space. When the elevators were first constructed, people fell under this delusion, mostly propagated from cheap science fiction, that a space elevator would get you to space faster. This was, of course, patently false. In fact, it took you longer to get to space, because you weren't be accelerated at the same rib-crushing rates that a typical rocket would bring you up at. And space was far away. People often forgot that geostationary orbit was nearly thirty-seven thousand kilometers up. About twenty-two thousand miles, since a few countries still refused to adopt metric. Seven times the width of the United States, he thought, recalling how, even now, it took hours to traverse that distance. The system pulling him slowly into orbit was not unlike that of a classical elevator, simply using motors to lift its human cargo.
Loads that weren't fragile as human bodies were went up on a system over the Atlantic, which launched a shuttle up a guiding filament at exceedingly high velocities by means of a rail gun. Of course, the G-forces from that acceleration would kill a man, and crush many other types of cargo. Primarily, it was used for shipping raw materials from Earth to orbiting construction sites, the cost being about equal to that of asteroid mining, and not nearly as costly in terms of life insurance, as the task of mining in space had yet to be fully automated.
So much for the shiny, automatic future people envisioned.
His military escort sad rigidly in their seats, seemingly immune to the tedium of the journey. Julius sighed inwardly and returned to his book, losing time in a way that technology still had yet to improve. After some time, he could feel the elevator slowing. Weightlessness due to orbital free-fall began to set in as the upward acceleration no longer simulated a gravitational pull. He pushed back a slight feeling of nausea, and closed his book, glancing around at the featureless interior. The expressions on the faces of his escort seemed to have not changed the entire journey up. The military still valued discipline above most all else.
Finally, a dull thud echoed through the shuttle, and a moment later the door slid open, revealing the off-white hallway lit by a stream of lights. Like a hospital. One of the men reached over to unfasten Julius's seat-belt, but he swatted him away. Taking deliberate time, he undid the seat-belt and packed his things. After collecting his bearings, he pushed lightly off the seat, drifting toward the door. Half the company, having again waited for him, followed suit. A short jaunt later Julius found himself lazily floating in front of another docking port, as the man who seemed to have the highest rank entered his credentials. A scan and a pause later, the door hissed open.
This shuttle also had no windows, and was computer-guided. Julius smiled to himself, recalling how mankind's first extraterrestrial flights into orbit had almost no computing power. Now, most ships had fully autonomous piloting systems, a computer making the necessary calculations at rates that could far exceed the human brain. Computers now, of course, weren't the leaps and bounds better that those at the turn of the millennium had predicted. Transistors had molecular limits, where the potential barriers were so thin that the quantum mechanical phenomenon known as tunneling would occur, wreaking no end of havoc upon switches that should be in “off” or “on” states. Quantum computing made for better complex mathematical processing, but it was more expensive and didn't make enough of a difference to a consumer for it to catch on anywhere but the professional sectors, for aspects like security, and, fittingly to the current situation, heuristic algorithms that many piloting programs used.
True artificial intelligence never came about, “the singularity” so lauded by futurists never came to pass. There were many still working on the problem, but a breakthrough seemed unlikely. In fact, there was—Thunk.
That's odd. Julius mused. He hadn't felt any acceleration, and didn't realize the shuttle had even left port yet, let along arrived already.
The noise again. Julius could now distinguish it from the full-bodied impact of arriving at a port, and realized it was local. Coming right from the center of the door. A knock.
Strange. Julius glanced around, and noticed that a few in his escort looked a worrying combination of startled and concerned.
The last impact put a visible inward dent in the the door from the impact. Julius heard a curse from one of the men behind him. A woman was tapping furiously at a small display, while the man who appeared to be in charge was whispering furiously into his hand.
The dent was definitely more apparent now. Julius backed up a bit. Who would be trying to ram their way into a shuttle? Julius was suddenly glad of the military escort. What faction or country could be behind it? What was so damn important that these men weren't telling him? He felt like he was in something well over his head at this point.
There it was, the sound of the shuttle detaching from the station. He felt the tug of inertia pulling him toward the door, and did nothing to stop his listless drift in that direction. Not for the first time today, he wished that spacecraft contained windows. Now that his trepidation had passed, curiosity got the better of him, and he was itching to know who or what was attempting to break into the shuttle. Now that the militia around him had relaxed, he tried to engage them in conversation.
“So, what do you think that was?”
A glance from one of them and a grunt from another was his only response. Yeah, me too.
A short time later, Julius heard and felt the dull thud of the shuttle again docking. After another agonizing moment, the door slid open. It was only at that moment that Julius felt the tug of acceleration toward the floor. This ship has artificial gravity. Now There's an expense. He walked lightly out of the shuttle, followed only by two people from his escort, the man who seemed to be in charge, and the woman who had been tapping at the display back during the crisis in the shuttle. The door slid shut behind them, and, during his brief pause in noticing his surroundings, the man had managed to worm his way in front of Julius, and now led the way.
Like all ships with artificial gravity, this one was roughly spherical, giving the slightly disconcerting effect that all paths lead downhill, without the physical sensation of going downhill. This was only the second ship Julius had been on that had artificial gravity, and he was decidedly not used to the effect. After a few slightly disorienting moments of travel, he emerged into a large room in the ship, large enough that the curvature made the middle appear to bulge. At a table in the center, a short brunette glanced up, and he eyes widened.
“Professor Henthrow!” She was across the room in a few jubilant bounds and had seized Julius in a tight embrace before he had fully realized what was going on, and so he stood, rather awkwardly, with his arms raised for a few seconds. Noticing this, the girl detached herself and, recomposing herself, offered a hand. Julius shook it.
“Sarah Prentis,” he said, having recognized her instantly, “what are you doing here?”
“You know, this and that.” Her attempt at a relaxed demeanor collapsed, and excitement came bubbling forth. “I've made a big discovery, professor. Monumental. But it needs to be investigated. At least, according to them.” She waved a hand toward the man and woman in uniform still standing by the door. “I got to put together a team of people to help out. I'm the one who brought you on.” She lowered her voice. “I don't think most people here really respect you, considering your reputation preceded you, but I remember you as a student. You were brilliant. And you and I both know I wouldn't have made it to where I was without your help. So I'm returning the favor.” Her voice rose again, overflowing with jubilant energy. “You just wait to see what this is. You'll even appreciate it as an historian. If that's what you are now. Of course—”
“Sarah, you're talking a mile a minute.” Julius interrupted, a smile playing about his lips. “I haven't seen you this exited since you got your first research job. What have you discovered.”
“I can't tell you yet!” She exclaimed, with a rather pained look on her face. Not everyone has arrived, and we have a full debriefing scheduled for tomorrow. Have you ever seen a ship like this, though? Artificial gravity! Firs time I've ever been on one with it. And it even has a window!”
A window. Now, that was a big deal. Most ships, like the shuttle the climbed the filament of the space elevator, or the shuttle that took them to the spacecraft they were in now, were windowless, and with good reason. When you add a window, you add a point of structural weakness, This isn't as much of a problem in terrestrial craft, where a broken window, even in an airplane, would be an inconvenience which could be overcome. In space, if a window breaks, or the seal around it does, it is disastrous. Not to mention that relative vacuum of space made having a continuous outer surface on spacecraft nearly necessary, as the pressure of air inside the craft would constantly be pushing out, and any discontinuous point is a point of weakness and added stress. This was the same reason people never put viewing windows in submarines—little practical use (navigation is mainly done with computers), and a point of structural instability.
Even beyond structural concerns, glass and other transparent materials tend to let through much more radiation than their metallic counterparts. Though every decent spaceship used a magnetic field to deflect the majority of radiation into belts around it, much like the Earth's own protective magnetic field that kept its surface from being bombarded with harmful rays, some cosmic radiation would still make it though, and the metal of the ships construction did a much better job of stopping it.
However, if you had the money and resources to build in redundancies and other structural safety features, a window could be added to a spaceship with relative safety. And humans have never tired of simply looking at space, not since they first turned their gazes to the cold and distant stars without understanding what they were. Seeing the Earth from orbit was a rare and powerful treat.
Sarah continued talking, recounting episodes from when she was a student in Julius's classes, bringing back old memories. Finally, another man appeared in the doorway, tall lanky, and well dressed, with a dusting of black hair.
“James!” Sarah exclaimed, rushing across the room to smother him in her tiny embrace. This newcomer had the sense to return the hug.
“Sarah, what's this all about?” He queried of the ball of brown hair against his chest. She pulled back.
“Oh, it's incredible, James! You just wait. A monumental scientific discovery.” The same enthusiasm was drenching every word.
“Oh! James, this is Professor Henthrow. He's a physicist. Well, an historian now.”
“Julius is fine,” Professor Henthrow spoke, extending his hand.
“And Professor, this is James Linat. He's a doctor. Probably the best doctor.”
“I'm afraid that isn't quite true, but I do try my best.” James replied, taking Julius's hand. “Nice to meet you, Julius. Sarah speaks most highly of you.”
“Thank you, but I'm sure you have your own opinion of me. It's fine, I've gotten over it.”
“Actually, I'm not familiar with your field, and haven't looked you up at all. All I know is what Sarah has told me.”
That was interesting.
“If you aren't involved in the field, why are you here?”
“Don't you guys get it?” Sarah cried in a mixture of exasperation and ebullience. “This impacts everyone.”
“But you won't tell us what it is.”
“I can't!” Sarah squirmed. “They won't let me.” She gestured at the two people still standing stiffly by the door. “Carl, can I please tell them?”
The man, presumably Carl, looked at her stonily.
“Oh, fine. I suppose you both are tired anyway.”
“No really. The attack on my shuttle got my adrenalin pumping.” Julius tossed it off as casually as he could, stealing a glance at Carl. Carl didn't react, to Julius's disappointment.
“Attack on your shuttle?” Sarah exclaimed. “What happened? Who attacked it?”
“Someone tried to break down the door back at the station. I don't know who.”
Carl finally spoke up. “It's nothing to be worried about. It's been dealt with.”
Sarah wheeled on him. “Who dealt with it? Why did it happen?”
Carl returned her gaze, his expression stern. “Both those questions are classified. You will be told on a need-to-know basis. This ship is secure, and you all have nothing to worry about.”
Nothing to worry about.
That phrase ran through Julius's head until he finally fell asleep that night.
“It began when the nations finally admitted to themselves that superluminal travel was impossible. We had found a planet believed to be habitable for outside the reaches of our solar system, beyond even the reaches of our fastest ships within a single lifetime. Rather than take the sensible route many a scientist suggested and send a robot (or a collection of them) out in a reaction-drive ship to this planet, the politicians opted to fund a program for a single generation ship. Funding also went into hopeful methods of cryogenic sleep, but all research turned up dead ends and suggested the impossibility of restoring any reasonable semblance of human consciousness after the brain had essentially shut down.
“So the flagship generation ship was launched in the late twenty-second century, and, a midst the weekly light-delayed communications from the ship's crew, we resigned ourselves to a painfully slow exploration of the universe.
“Imagine everyone's surprise when that same ship appeared a year later in orbit around Earth.
“After days of communication attempts and political bicker, a team was finally sent to board the now-accepted-to-be-derelict vessel. Inside, the fried remains of both humans and machinery were all they found.
“However, some new data was salvaged from the wreckage, mostly from the apparently new machinery that had been installed. That data revolutionized space travel forever.
“See, it is indeed possible, as we now know, to travel faster than the speed of light. However, some very special circumstances must come into play, and there are even more dangers involved. While Einstein's equations still hold true, they make no provisions for what some simply call “tricky math,” that is, tweaking the numbers to what would seem more or less impossible to make superluminal speeds possible. The physicists generations down in that lone generation ship had figured out how to make one of these mathematical tricks a reality. But, as always, there were unforeseen consequences.
“It is completely impossible to reasonably steer an FTL ship when engaged in superluminal speeds. This is both because it requires tremendous levels of energy, because space itself is trying its best to keep you in a straight path (relative to its own geodesic curvatures), and because the ship is moving so fast it would be nigh-impossible for even a weak AI to steer it, let alone a human being.
“The other, more significant problem has to do with radiation.
“The most appropriate analogy would have to do with when humans first broke the sound barrier. As one approaches the speed of sound in a medium such as air, sound waves begin to build up in front of the craft like a wall (hence the term “barrier”). When this wall is surpassed (and mach speeds are attained), it is broken up in a kind of sound explosion. This is commonly referred to as a sonic boom. FTL travel has a similar problem, but due to the nature of the mechanism, instead of this built up high-energy radiation exploding outward (which would be disastrous for anyone and anything nearby), it explodes inward from the craft shell (thus the essential Faraday cage-like structure of the spacecraft does nothing to protect the inhabitants or electronics). This is what killed the crew and destroyed all the working electronics on-board.
“Within a decade, this drive had been reproduced. The problems still remain, of course, and while it is impossible to protect the navigation-essential and other structural electronic aspects of the ship, the implementation of the so-called “drive room,” a Faraday cage to house and protect some backup systems and the crew, allowed for relatively safe superluminal travel. The age of practical, manned exploration of the cosmos had finally arrived.”
“Wait, wait, back up for a minute,” a student exclaimed, “how did the space ship get back to Earth after only a month?”
“Ahh, a good question.” The speaker replied, pausing for a moment as if to gather his thoughts for what he was about to explain, “You see, the craft had indeed made it to its destination, and had been there for some time while modifications were made to it. The reason it arrived back so early has to do, again, with Einstein. Do you understand how time works?”
The students nodded.
“Time is a construct of your reference frame, where you currently are and how you're currently moving in space. If one of you raises your hand, it takes a immeasurably small amount of time for the light to travel the distance from your hand to my eyes, and, in that, carry the information of the event. I may respond with any sort of action, but I could not respond to it until I saw it happen. Now, if you were light-minutes away from me and raised your hand, then I would not see the change for minutes. To me, I would react instantly to the change, but in the time it took the light from my reaction to get back to you, more time would elapse.”
He paused. Some students seemed slightly puzzled at this, and the speaker responded to the questioning looks by continuing.
“What if I were to know that you had raised your hand instantly as you raised it? I would be able to react before the light from the event reached me. To any observer, it would seem the effect pre-dated the cause.”
The speaker paused again, surveying the students for reactions. He realized that he had already lost a few of them, but elected to push forward with his point regardless.
“When you send something faster than light, this is the exact sort of effect. In physics we have a term known as the light-cone. This cone describes the places light from an event has reached as time elapses. This is technically a sphere that expands outward with time, but we use only two-dimensional space with one time dimension to represent it visually, and...”
The speaker trailed off, realizing he had lost all the students at this point. He had to work on that. Backtracking, he tried to move back toward his original point.
“The point is, when you travel faster than light, you seemingly arrive at your new destination before you've ever left from their perspective. This seems to violate an old physics principle of causality. This means that an effect can happen before a cause, or in this case, a starship can arrive before it has ever departed.”
A few of the students were struggling to get a firm grasp on this idea, the rest had resigned themselves to lack of understanding. One student spoke up:
“But that doesn't make sense. If we worked out the technology within a decade, wouldn't we have sent one of these ships to that habitable planet?”
The speaker nodded, in both affirmation and as a gesture for the student to continue his thought.
“And, if we did, wouldn't the new—old—the generation settlers have simply learned from that?”
The speaker nodded again.
“So where did the idea actually come from? It doesn't make any sense!”
The speaker smiled. “Ah, you've hit upon the crux of physicists and philosophers during that early period. The answer is as simple as it is completely non-intuitive and difficult to grasp: causality isn't a law of the universe. We observe things as proceeding from cause to effect, but that's due to our primitive brains trying desperately to comprehend the space we live in. The universe doesn't care why things happen, only that they happen. Causes can vanish, effects can change, effects can even become their own cause. Paradoxes don't seem to actually exist, they're more or a philosophical exercise. If you go back in time and shoot your own grandfather (more or less impossible), you'll find that your grandfather will be dead, and you'll never have existed. Who, then, shot your grandfather. Well, you did. Don't be ashamed if you don't get it. I don't even get it. But that just seems to be how the universe works. We just need to accept it.”
The students didn't seem too happy about this answer. The same student as before raised his hand.
“So is this going to be a physics or a history course?”
The speaker sighed. He knew someone would ask this question; it didn't stop him from hoping they wouldn't. He rubbed his temples for a second, and then replied.
“While the course will be heavy of physics ideas, it is primarily a history course. You will not be required to understand the physics ideas, only knowledge of the historical events will be necessary.”
The students seemed satisfied at that answer. Of course, he told himself, what else would they have expected, taking a History of Space Travel? Don't try to force physics on these students just because you've been shunted from teaching any real physics. That's your problem, not theirs.
Aloud, he spoke to the class, “I know we haven't filled up the whole time slot for today, but this is all I wanted to cover. Class dismissed, see you next time.”
The speaker strode out of the room, and his posture visibly relaxed. This change was only momentary, as he tensed up again after nearly running into two men standing at strict military attention just outside his office.
“Professor Julius Henthrow?” One of them inquired, never once relaxing his continence.
“Ye-Yes, that's me.” Julius replied, both startled and slightly embarrassed.
“ID?” The other inquired, equally stone-faced.
“Oh!” He fumbled about in one of his inner pockets before producing a glossy card with a metallic backing.
“No, personal ID. Not the antiquated system this institution insists on using.” The man glared at him stonily. With a slightly abashed look, the professor held out his hand and rolled up his sleeve. The guard swept a scanner over it, which let out a soft bing as it detected the chip in his arm.
Julius pressed his thumb onto the open side of the scanner.
“Thank you. You may enter.”
It was only at that point that Julius recalled that the guards were standing outside his own office. What exactly is going on here?
This question, of course, was answered the moment he stepped in, as the man facing the window turned around. He had similar military garb to the two outside the office, but Julius would have been able to tell even without that based on his posture alone. While n versed in military rank or garb, Julius could tell by his adornments that he was a higher-ranking officer than those he just encountered.
“Professor Henthrow. I've been instructed to inform you that your presence has been requested on a... Scientific expedition.” The way the man paused seemed to indicate there was something more to be said. However, before Julius could interrupt, he continued. “The FTL ship Endeavor is parked in orbit and will be departing in three days. You should find an itinerary on your interface. We expect to see you there.” Then man strode past Julius and toward the exit to the office. As he reached the door, the professor managed to find his voice.
“Wait, what's going on? Why me? I'm just a phys... a history professor.”
“Professor Henthrow, your particular presence has been requested by those in charge of this... Expedition. Any more questions you have will be answered aboard the Endeavor. Good evening.”
While the professor was still struggling to articulate a response, the man disappeared from his office, leaving more questions than Julius could ponder.