Warp Rail System 101
The paperwork took me literally hours to complete, although it felt like weeks and no actual paper was involved at all. Then it was the awful beverage they sold me in the cantina, which it should be some sort of coffee but actually tasted like stone soup. The topping of my not-so-sweet morning cake was the little blue guy at the airlock, who smirked at me as soon as I appeared at the end of the access tube. And by smirk I mean a deeper than usual one, because somehow they were always smirking one way or another.
Those little blue bastards. They were equally annoying everywhere.
The deeper-than-usual smirk prompted a sour comment from me, which sort of prompted an even deeper smirk in return. I started to think that the damn blue dwarf was mocking me in a secret, twisted way, but I was in a hurry and let it go.
My little ship -no more than a transfer shuttle for up to six standard sized people, really- was waiting for me on the landing pad. She had an old fashioned, boxy main hull, but the belly and the engine modules were quite voluptuous.
Just like my ex-wife, now that I think about it.
In the minutes it took me to get to the ship I didn't notice, but somehow a tall, bald and skinny fellow in an expensive-looking navy blue suit appeared next to the old lady and was taking a good look at her. Maybe he was on the other side the whole time, I thought. As I approached, he turned around and… well, damn him, he was smirking.
"Ah, good morning!"
The man was just as cheerful as I like them. Bloody lucky day.
"Morning. You are my instructor, I presume?"
"Oh yes! Today I have the distinctive pleasure to guide you as you take your first steps in the local Warp Rail System. I surely hope that you are as excited as I am!"
"Superb! Did you know that our Warp Rail System was one of the few that…"
"Later," I interrupted "we must take off."
"Oh, quite so. Losing our take-off window would cost you…"
"Exactly. Follow me."
Half an hour later we were floating at a safe distance from the potato-shaped station and we had an all-green and thumbs-up from Station Control to approach the WRS. I wanted to flirt a little bit with the lady on the other end of the line but the never-ending chain of stories and anecdotes from the instructor killed all lust for it.
"…and then the third wave of colonist thought that the nodes were some kind of ancient living beings who…"
So I tried to get to the point in the most delicate but effective manner I could think of.
"Yeah? Well, that's quite… whatever. What should I do next?"
"I see! Eager to start. That is a magnificent mindset. Well then. Let us commence…"
Smooth. The man wasn't taken aback easily, I give him that.
"We can now approach the first node at our end of the System. All main Points of Interest in the system have a link with the WRS. All the stations, all the planets and moons, all the main asteroid fields."
"Yeah, I know that. I passed the theory test, you know."
Only the universe actually knows how…
"And now you are here! Oh yes, yes. I always forget that. In my time, the theory test was not compulsory. Did you know that…?"
"Yes. Probably. Passed the test and so on. Approaching the first node."
I instructed the computer to fly in the general direction of the node at a moderate speed. That should do the trick.
"Excellent! As you surely know, the nodes are capable of acquire all ships from all directions without problems. But you also should know, that there are some etiquette rules about it as well."
"Etiquette rules? That sounds pompous…"
"Pompous you say? Well, that is quite an expression, young man!"
"Yeah, well. You were saying that there are some non-written rules?"
"The first rule is this: do not enter a Rail from the opposite side."
"I thought there's no opposite side in this things? With the whole quantum-blabla-babble and all the woozy-doozy magic from the Makers pulling the strings."
At that point the man started to laugh out loud as if he was recalling a very good joke.
"That is quite the colorful description! I never heard something like that before. But yes, the System can actually acquire and allocate every single ship trying to enter the Rails. No matter how impolite the entering vector actually is!"
"Quite! You see, young man, if you enter a Rail perpendicular to, I do not know… a big hauler, for instance. Moreover, in a inevitable collision course, to spice things up. Even then, the System will slow one ship or the other, even both of them, to prevent a collision. If the speed reduction is not enough, the System will alter the approaching vectors. Usually the entering ship will be allocated in a far away Rail, while the other ship will be pulled deeper to the main energy string between nodes."
"That's sort of cool, I suppose."
"Quite, as you say. But the point is this: we do not know how the System really works, but we do know that the energy needed to pull such a magnificent feat is astronomical. Improbably, in fact. For instance, four months ago a full wing of fighters were called into action to the third asteroid field. As they operate from the second Lagrange station around the fifth planet, the travel using the System was quite long and quite fast. They were authorized to use unconventional vectors and entry points in the System. That day, the WRS-Operation Stations observed, measured and logged energy peaks from twenty-five to five-hundred percent higher than normal."
"But we don't know where the System get its energy from, right?"
"Exactly. And that is the actual point. We do not know if we can collapse the System by putting extreme strain on it. It never happened neither here nor in any other known system. Such a collapse would hamper the economy and life as we know it in an extremely fashion."
"Yeah, we don't want to do that… So, First Rule: using polite entering vectors. Are these somehow defined somewhere or is a rule of thumb?"
"Ah! Your rule of thumb would be the one to use. It really is using little more than common sense, if you ask me."
"Man, that sense ain't all that common. Believe me. So, what's what with the Rule?"
"The proper manner of entering the System is from a low-graded vector, slowly decreasing the distance to the main string using lateral impulse. Always bearing a point of the string some five to ten standard units in the desired direction."
"Like a casual approaching?"
"Well, I can do that."
"Excellent! Please proceed, young man."
As the ship approached the first node in the desired polite, casual manner, the dim blue marker on the HUD got bigger. Ten minutes passed and I could see for the first time in my life, the big glowing energy ball that was a Warp Rail System node with my own eyes.
And it was a beautiful thing to behold.
Before entering the field of influence of the node I stopped the ship, made some selfies and wrote some stupid entries en my main social media manager. A couple of seconds later, all my hundred and twenty-three social media accounts were updated with the personal milestone. A couple of minutes later, some two thousand comments which I'll never read spammed all across the board. My SMM filtered a top-ten and flagged them for me.
Surprisingly that stopped the informative mantra of my instructor. Mental note taken for future reference.
As we got near the node, some other ships were doing the same. I slowed our approach to enjoy the fireworks. From the node, awesome fountains of energy arched from the node, enveloping ships of all sizes and shapes in beautiful cocoons of light and sparks. Hundreds of tiny stars playing a chaotic run and catch game with no winners or losers but the sheer magnificence of it.
And a second later, all of the ships were gone.
I tried to make sense of the movement, but my eyes couldn't react fast enough. One instant they were there, the next they weren't. I looked to the instructor, who was smirking. That sort of spoiled the moment. Damn him.
"Fascinating, isn't it?"
"You cannot make out the transition. It happens way too fast for you to notice."
"Oh. So it's not a matter of experience? I thought that, you know, if I tried harder…"
"I fear not. The way the energy catapults the ships in the first seconds of the journey is still a mystery to us."
"But you can make out ships traveling the Rails. If you watch from afar, you can make out the single ships as little dots of energy linked to the main string. Or so they told us in the theory courses."
"That is quite true, young man. You see, once a ship is in transit, the energy cocoons linked to the main energy string are quite visible. Even to the naked eye. But the first few seconds, which in the argot we call the Transition, that is not possible."
"That seems odd…"
"It actually is. You see, the node takes one ship, full of equipment, people, cargo and so on, and launches it at incredible speeds. In an instant."
"Ooooh…" Stupid mind of mine. "Jell-O in the making!"
The man smiled. Not the stupid, annoying smirk. He smiled and it was nice for a change.
"Now you see it, splendid!"
"What can be happening there? Any theories?"
"Only pure speculation I fear. The warping part of the System is the biggest unknown of all things WRS. But this is a good time to introduce you to Rule Number Two!"
"Etiquette Rule Number Two incoming!"
Wait a minute. What the frak am I doing? Enthusiasm can't be contagious, can it?
"That is the right spirit! Number Two is a little fuzzy on the edges. You see, when you enter a Rail behind other ships, the speeds usually vary quite a lot. For instance, we are approaching the node slowly, as it always should be for a beginner, but we are being followed by three other ships. And they are coming quite fast."
"Yep, three bandits at our six closing fast. Is that… uh, impolite?"
"And therefore the fuzziness. In my humble opinion, this is even more impolite than unorthodox entry vectors. You see, being impolite regarding rule Number One doesn't upset pilots, because, well, the System handle it all, but…"
"Pushing other pilots from behind is getting close to harassing them. Because the first seconds of the travel are… uh… quite weird and coming out of that weirdness with one or more ships passing you closely and fast is sort of annoying or terrifying?"
"Quite. I am happy to see a young man such as you getting the fundamentals so easily. I am very pleased!"
Despite of myself I smiled. Oh hell, why not.
"So I should be nice to the System and nice the other pilots. Check!"
"Very nice, indeed. Please proceed now to the first node, steady and minding your fellow travelers!"
And in we went. Nice and steady. I must confess that it was exciting as much as frightening. The energy splash from the node felt like a cold shower. It wasn't actual cold, of course, but the expectations raised the hair on my neck and arms. Then the tiny stars danced before my eyes, just for a second. After a flash of pure light we found ourselves traveling at improbable speeds alongside other ships, and alongside hundreds of thousands of energy dots, following the almost magical path of the main string, beholding the beautiful fountains of energy left from ships leaving the System. It was like daydreaming in a world of stillness and awesomeness.
We traveled in the far lanes of the System, maybe eight or nine lanes further than the closest one to the main string. I took a look outside the System, where the nearest asteroids passed fast and the celestial bodies glowed eerily in the darkness of deep.
I could say that the instructor liked his job quite a lot, because he immediately sensed when I was speechless and in a state of deep awe. Why I know that? Well, because he let me alone as much as I needed. A sort of felt ashamed of my previous behavior to him and tried to be a nice customer for the rest of the ride. Which he graciously accepted as a silent compliment by being… well, quite himself.
"I must say it: the holos and the explanations didn't make justice of the sensation. At all!"
"I must confess that it is a personal pleasure to sit here and watch all my customers react quite the same way the first time."
"It is really an unique experience. So! Is there a Rule Number Three out there waiting for an eager rookie?"
"Ha! We have a learner in our midst! I knew it. I confess that the rough start was a little let-down for me, but now we really are getting on the same wavelength. Exhilarating!"
"Yeah, sorry… it was all my fault. The coffee wasn't coffee. The blue guy at the entrance was smirking at me and I really don't like that…"
"Oh they really like to do that. But do not trouble yourself! We are here to enjoy the magnificence of our Warp Rail System!"
The man was being plain bright at that point. Then I knew: that was a dream-job for him!
"All right, good sir! So is there a Number Three for me?"
"Indeed it is! This section of the System has a length of thirty nodes. Usually you do program your desired exit node from the beginning. Letting the computer do the exit is the standard way but, for learning purposes I want to point out that you should do it yourself now and then, specially if you do it between nodes."
"Why is that? Safety issues?"
"Oh well, the System is safer than everything else in our lives. The actual accident rate related to the System is almost zero. There was one case one time some twenty-odd years ago. But the technicians never reached a conclusion about the causes. The authorities and the insurance companies of the pilots involved fought more than ten years. In the end all shared responsibility because nobody could prove otherwise."
"That must've set some sort of precedence, right?"
"Indeed. Anyway, the point is that the System is almost one hundred percent safe, which means that you will always leave it-and that means the influence zone of the System itself-safely. You cannot exit the Rail and smash an asteroid, or another ship. The System will place you in a safe exiting vector, at a safe speed. What you do at this point…"
"Let me guess: Etiquette Rule Number Three."
"Indeed! Rule Number Three states that the pilots exiting the System should maintain the vector given by the System for half a minute at least. A whole minute would be nice. Two or more being pulling tickets for the nicest pilot of the system!"
"Gotcha. You shouldn't disturb fellow railers while exiting."
"Railers? That is a wonderful, invented word. I like it!"
"Uh… thanks! So, should we take an automated exit at a node or a manual one between nodes?"
"Since you are under supervision of an authorized instructor I will suggest a manual exiting at your discretion. If you actually are up for the challenge, that is!"
"You can bet on it!"
And there I went. All green behind the ears and trying my first manual exit. It was exhilarating. While I prepped the ship I wondered if the sensation would be the same as entering the Rail.
"So, I'm ready. Is there anything else I need to know before I pull out?"
"Since we are already traveling the furthest lane of the System you can slowly pull out. Later we shall try changing lanes. Go ahead!"
I twitched the control stick ever so slowly to the right. The lane had a considerable buffer on the sides. Then I sensed some invisible resistance. I forced the controls a little bit and then we were free. It felt like swimming out of the first storm of bubbles when you jump into water. Only that instead of bubbles there were energy dots splashing away from the view. Then there was only darkness until my eyes adapted to the new situation and the stars started to appear.
"Wonderful! Well done, young man!"
After we observed the Rail from afar some minutes, enjoying the view and making some light conversation about history, we went in again and the instructor guided me in "The Art of Lane Dancing", as he colorfully described it.
That was a lot of fun!
There were no more etiquette rules for me, but the experience was quite an enrichment for me. The lessons went on just over half an hour and from there we flew back to the station to call it a day.
After following procedures, we stood by the ship and said our respective goodbyes. Then the man turned around to leave. While I was watching him leave I realized that I didn't knew his name. The contracted company filled the forms just with some sort of long number.
The man stopped and looked at me with his now not-so-annoying smirk. I closed the gap and reached out my hand.
"I'm Jonas. I just want to thank you again for the wonderful experience."
The man smiled. A bright, sincere smile that radiated warmth.
"Jonas. You know, young man. I believe that this is the first time that someone tells me his, her or its name. I thank you for your kindness!"
"We could, you know, take another trip out there sometime. It was quite entertaining!"
"Would you like to? That would be marvelous. There is so much I could tell you about the System!"
"Shiny! So give me your card, your tag number or something. I'll get to you when I have time. We'll check our schedules and see if we can find the…"
The phrase sort of died in my mouth when I the man started to laugh.
"What? What's the matter?"
"It may sound strange to you, but I do not possess any manner of identification."
"Is that even possible?"
"It seems so... Let us do this the other way around. I will reach out when I find the time, yes?"
He smiled the whole time. Then he put his right hand on my shoulder and I could swear that, for a moment, his pupils flicked with a soft light. In that moment I thought that it must've been some awkward light trick and let it go.
"Fine, fine. I'm pretty much open to suggestions right know. My work schedule is adaptable."
"Excellent! Well, my new friend Jonas. Until then, take care!"
"You too, eh… what was your name?"
"I did not tell you my name, actually. Now I am being the impolite one!"
"It happens to me all the time. Don't you worry!"
"All my acquaintances call me Reilen. It is a short form of my actual name, if I must be completely sincere."
"Maybe you could tell me the long one some other time, then."
"It will be my pleasure. It is a very, very long and old name."
"Intriguing. Very well, be seeing you, Reilen!"
The man turned around again and I did the same to close the outer hatch. The whole process couldn't take more than ten seconds, but when I turned my back to the ship again, Reilen wasn't there anymore.
Which was strange, because the airlock to the access tube was almost five minutes away…