Literature: The Pentagon War
The Pentagon War
is a hard Science Fiction
novel, still in progress, that had its start over three decades ago.
In 1980, at the tender age of 15, this troper
thought, "Why do wars always have two
sides fighting each other? Why not a war with, say, five
sides?". So saying, I hauled out my dad's mechanical typewriter and banged out a 40-page story
in which I tried to describe a "realistic" space war between five star systems. Since hyperspace corridors connected each of the five systems to its two closest neighbors, forming a crude pentagon shape in space, I called this story The Pentagon War
Important safety tip: Don't try to write realistic space SF
before you've studied high school physics.
Nevertheless, the story became one of my favorites, and wouldn't leave my mind. I fleshed out the alien species, trying to make them really alien
. I made a hex-map-based war game
out of it, using a lot of ideas I gleaned from Star Fleet Battles
. I built an entire astronomy website
to answer the question "how far is it from star X to star Y?". I toyed off and on with turning it into a full blown novel to be proud
of. I hammered on the plot elements to make 'em pass the reality check
, both from a "is that physically possible?" standpoint and from a "what kind of moron would do such a thing?" standpoint. And, when my eyes first gazed upon the earlier version of the Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness
page from this very website — in September of 2009, nearly 30 years after writing that first draft — I finally decided to get serious about writing the novel.
For the most part, it's the hardest piece of SF I've ever written. There's no Artificial Gravity
(other than via rotation or engine thrust), no tractor beams
(mostly), no warp drive
, no inertialess drive, no Inertial Dampening
, no Reactionless Drive
, and certainly
. With the exception of the technology behind the fusion reactors, there's not a single item used in the space battles that couldn't be realistically designed with known science today. (Well, okay, there's the focused magnetic beams, but we don't talk about them in polite company.) Space is not an ocean
. The spacecraft all have accurate delta-v budgets given the nature and quantity of their fusion fuel. It takes time
to go from a standing start to 1% of the speed of light.*
Engagements are fought at ranges of thousands, and even millions, of kilometers. Even the Bussard ramscoop technology on the true starships takes the realistic density of the interstellar medium into account, and pays at least token homage to the drag problem.
Here's a link to the first chapter
, which contains links to all 17 subsequent chapters. As of the time of this writing, only the first nine chapters
are complete, but I intend to remedy that in the coming months.
No relation to The Pentagon Wars
This novel provides examples of:
- Alien Arts Are Appreciated: The name Mercurand was coined by combining Mercury, the fleet-footed messenger from Classical Mythology, with Gellimand, the Centaurian personification of light.
- A similar etymology lies behind Marsidor.
- Alien Sky: The sky of UV Ceti IV is orange, with an unmoving red dwarf flare-star hovering overhead that appears 7 times bigger across than the Sun in Earth's sky. The air is a hydrocarbon haze, like on Titan, yet unlike Titan it's thin enough that you can see the brighter stars during the daytime. (And since the planet is locked in synchronous rotation with the star, it'll always be daytime.)
- Aliens Speaking English: When speaking to humans, Centaurians generally use the humans' language, since the human vocal mechanism can't produce the sounds of spoken Centaurian.
- All Nations Are Superpowers: There are only 5 nations in all of populated space, and each of them occupies an entire star system.
- All of Them: Humanity's desperate fight against the Centaurians at Second Contact, 147 years before the story opens.
"We had an enormous arsenal — it was much easier to refurbish left-over Cold War ICBMs than to build new missiles — and the moment the Centaurians fired at the first silo, we launched them all."
- All There in the Manual: The author's notes are online here. I hope you like math.
- Alternative Number System: It's mentioned in passing that, since Centaurians have 4 hands with 4 tentacle-fingers each, they naturally count in base 16.
- Antimatter: Mercurand is powered by this. The Phased Antimatter Bomb requires hundreds of kilograms of positrons just to work.
- Arc Words: If you like Human-Centauri so much, why don't you just go live there?
- Also, the Henderson Doctrine.
- Artificial Gravity: The asteroids in the Human-Centauri Habitat Ring are too small to have significant surface gravity. Instead, they build giant centrifuges deep underground to live in, which rotate at either 0.8g for Centaurian comfort or 1.0g for human comfort. (To be fair, 1.0g for humans is mostly a matter of preventing muscle degradation. Most humans would enjoy living at 0.8g.)
- Artificial Intelligence: Fighters can pull over a hundred G's, and as such are unmanned. They are piloted by an onboard "Semi-Intelligent Controller", or S.I.. These are expert systems capable of tactical decisionmaking, but are not truly sentient.
- Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: Arnold Hasselberg, some decades after he falls through the rogue hyper hole.
- Asteroid Miners: The entire population of Human-Centauri lives on — or rather in — asteroids. The miners are there, supplying all the cheap iron, nickel, gold, etc.; we just never see them.
- Asteroid Thicket: When UV Ceti IV is destroyed in chapter 2, it flies apart into a close-knit planet-sized mass of small rocks. Unlike the Asteroid Belt in the Sol system, these pieces of flying debris were close enough together to present a serious navigation hazard.
- Attack Drone: Fighters are huge and unmanned, with their own onboard Artificial Intelligence. There are also smaller, single-weapon-carrying spacecraft called "Drones" that are remotely controlled by a person (or a Fighter), but these appear rarely if at all.
- Babies Ever After: The early colonists on Sirius A IV and CN Leonis II had to breed like rabbits just to reach a stable population size.
- The Battlestar: Fighter carriers/deployers qualify as this, although they only carry 3-6 "fighters" which are pretty much battleships in their own right. (At least one nation even refers to fighter deployers as "mobile bases" for this reason.)
- Big Damn Heroes: The Sirians have smashed their way past Human-Centauri's Gate Guard and Second Guard, Human-Centauri's mobile forces are overwhelmed, the Sirians may very well have a planet-destroying hyper bomb with them, all looks bleak ... and then Mercurand shoots back into the star system unannounced, sporting new and invincible technology, and thoroughly trounces the invaders.
- Binary Suns: UV Ceti, Alpha Centauri, and Sirius are all multiple star systems.
Jerry turned his attention back to the front window, and something caught his eye. He pointed to a pinkish spot of light in the window, as bright as the full Moon seen from Earth. "What is that?"
"You mean Luyten 726-8 A?" Arnold half-chided his companion. "We are in a binary star system, you know."
- Bizarre Alien Reproduction: All Centaurians have both male and female genitalia. Either or both can get pregnant from a sexual encounter, unless they use contraception.
- Brainwashed: The CN Leonis system is populated primarily by Centaurians. Humans living in the CN Leonis system are taught by their Centaurian masters, from an early age, that their purpose in life is to serve and protect CN Leonis. The most Knight Templar-ish of these brainwashing victims form the backbone of the Leonian "Fanatic Brigade," which is sent on the suicide missions that Centaurians would be psychologically incapable of performing themselves.
- The Bridge: The command centers on Station Jove, Zelta, and Marsidor are this. (There are only 3 individuals aboard Mercurand, so it's kind of a misnomer to call its control center a "bridge.")
- Call a Smeerp a "Rabbit": In chapter 14, Torra Zorra describes the baaai(t)i native to its species' homeworld as "Centaurian lichen."
- Casual Interplanetary Travel: A trip to Jupiter on a liner with a QC&C engine takes about as long as a trip to Hawaii on a cruise ship, and costs about as much.
- Casual Interstellar Travel: Averted, at least until the advent of linked hyper holes — at which point interstellar travel is as cheap and quick as interplanetary travel.
- Colony Drop: The original Centaurian plan at Second Contact was to shift the orbits of some Earth-crossing asteroids 'til they intersected the Earth. (They had to eliminate Earth's ability to deflect asteroids first, though, which proved more difficult than they expected.)
- Con Lang: Averted. A few Centaurian words appear in the text, but only the details of its pronunciation (never its grammar) are described.
- Cool, but Inefficient: Bussard scramjets exist, and are much more economical for interstellar voyages than starships powered by antimatter — but they won't fit through a hyper hole. So, Mercurand is a prototype antimatter-powered starship.
- Cool Gate: The hyper holes.
At last, as the invisible ringed edge of the hyper hole passed over his limo from nose to engine, the shifting view crept past Carter's eyes. He couldn't feel it, of course; there was nothing to notice. As far as every atom, every photon, every subatomic virtual particle inside the spacecraft was concerned, the distance between the two linked hyper holes simply didn't exist. But he still appreciated the grandeur. Beneath him lay the human-ruled yet Sol-wary empire of Sirius; above him, the far stranger quasi-religious democracy of Human-Centauri; and somewhere in the middle were four-and-a-half light-years of parallel space that neither man nor instrument could detect.
- Cool Starship: Mercurand is packed with half its weight in antimatter. And when it gets the Zero Drive, it can literally stop on a dime and becomes the first true FTL starship.
- Cult Colony: Human-Centauri, and to a lesser extent CN Leonis.
- Dawn Of An Era: The test detonation of the first Phased Antimatter Bomb, in chapter 2, accidentally creates a hyper hole — the discovery of which allows permanent light-years-long instant-travel corridors to be built between star systems.
- Similarly, in chapter 14, Ken Tractor and Torra Zorra discover that the late Mad Scientist's Zero Drive allows them to travel at controllable FTL speeds when they pass through a hyper hole. They can thus steer to any other hyper hole in existence, linked or not, and pop back out into Real Space there. The implications for interstellar expansion are staggering.
- Deflector Shields: Mostly averted, although Zelta Dee's Directional Screen (which is really just an insanely powerful magnet) is capable of pushing an incoming missile aside.
- The standard magnetic protection field that most combat spacecraft (and Station Jove) use kinda-sorta qualifies, but it can only affect charged particles and small pieces of ferromagnetic shrapnel. It won't affect lasers, projectiles that don't have any iron in them, or the gamma rays from a nuclear blast, and it isn't powerful enough to push big projectiles aside even if they are made out of iron.
- Earth-Shattering Kaboom: A hyper bomb can produce one of these, by igniting nuclear fusion inside a planet.
- Eternal English: English is the de facto human language, although folks from North Mars still sometimes learn Mandarin Chinese for reasons of tradition.
- Exotic Equipment: Centaurian penises and vaginas are remarkably similar in size and shape to the human equivalents. Non-reproductive sex between humans and Centaurians is theoretically possible — although the Centaurian will probably be unsatisfied since it needs both genitalia stimulated simultaneously.
- Explosive Decompression: In the sense of rapid pressure loss, not bodies unrealistically blowing up.
- Face Heel Turn: Jennifer Doe
- Fantastic Arousal: A Centaurian can get aroused very rapidly to the sound of another Centaurian's mating call, especially when in heat. The sound is a simple, gutteral "groooonk!", surprisingly easy to imitate. Only mating calls that sound identical to a Centaurian's own will fail to have an effect on it (this is a defense mechanism to prevent two Centaurians that share a close genetic relationship, e.g. siblings, from mating with each other).
- Fantastic Measurement System: Just a tiny bit. A speed of one permil is 1/1000 of the speed of light (300 kilometers per second). Other than that, The Metric System Is Here To Stay.
- Fantastic Slurs: Humans who dislike Centaurians refer to them as "xorns," after the monster in AD&D that they vaguely resemble.
- Faster-than-Light Travel: Of the portal network variety. Hyper holes can be linked together in pairs. Entering a linked hyper hole instantly transports you out of the one it's linked to, even if the two hyper-holes are in different star systems.
- The Federation: The Solar Federal Government controls every planet in the Solar system, and used to control the colony at Sirius before Sirius declared independence. Maybe it's more like The Republic. Sometimes acts more like The Empire.
- First Contact: Occurs over a century-and-a-half before the story begins, and involves humans getting jumpy and blowing up a peaceful Centaurian exploration starship. The Centaurians didn't take this very well.
- Food Pills / Future Food Is Artificial: Arnold and Jerry have nothing to eat but "meal bars" for their months-long surveillance mission.
- Four-Fingered Hands: The Centaurians. And they have 4 of these 4-fingered hands each. Their "fingers" are actually short tentacles, like an octopus's tentacles except without the suckers, and they're arranged radially about the "palm" at a 90-degree spacing. (Then again, their arms are likewise arranged radially at 90-degree spacing around their cylindrical torsos.)
- Frickin' Laser Beams: On high-speed starships, ultraviolet lasers are used to ionize the material directly in front of the spacecraft, allowing the craft's magnetic/electrostatic fields to either draw the material into the Bussard scoop or deflect it out of the way, thereby preventing the material from slamming into the hull. High-energy UV lasers are used to send messages across interstellar distances, and sometimes across mere interplanetary distances as well. Finally, actual high-intensity lasers are occasionally used for point defense or as anti-spacecraft weapons, though their inherent inefficiency means they overheat quickly.
- Gadgeteer Genius: The Mad Scientist, at least with regard to the zero drive.
- Generation Ships: The few decades of human interstellar expansion before the advent of hibernation technolgy.
Arnold Hasselberg: "I had to live aboard that spacecraft. Even with the time dilation, that was five years out and five years back. I got married and divorced twice on that trip, and produced a daughter and twin sons in the process."
- Get On With It Already: Nearly the first half of chapter 7 is one long Info Dump, covering the entire history of Human-Centauri, Centaurian social structure, the first year of the War, the potential time-paradox implications of linked hyper holes, and (for all I know) the virtues of flossing your teeth*.
- Heavyworlder: Earth is the most massive solid planet in all 5 populated star systems. Compared to Centaurians, whose homeworld only has 0.8g surface gravity, humans are heavyworlders. (Centaurians still have surprising grip strength with their 4 four-tentacled hands, though.)
- Hit So Hard The Calendar Felt It: The author's notes reckon history by years "A.C.", where the 1 A.C. is the year of first contact with the Alpha-Centaurians.
- Homemade Inventions: The Mad Scientist built the Zero Drive in a CAVE! With a BOX of SCRAPS! ... er, with the spare parts shipped to him for his Phased Antimatter Bomb project.
- Human Popsicle: Centaurians naturally hibernate when their body temperature falls below 5°C. Humans have "submetabolic sleep" technology to avoid the boredom of multi-year interstellar voyages — which becomes largely unnecessary once the hyper hole links are built.
- Humans Are Bastards: The Henderson Doctrine.
- I Didn't Mean to Kill Him: Or her, in this case.
- Info Dump: And how.
- Insufficiently Advanced Alien: When Centaurians first encountered us primitive, backwards humans, they had already harnessed the power of controlled proton fusion in the QC&C reactor, and built interstellar Ramscoops that conquered the drag problem. Yet, they'd never even thought of computers or nuclear weapons.
- Interplanetary Voyage: Linked Hyper Holes have turned interstellar voyages into little more than interplanetary trips, and nuclear fusion engines have turned interplanetary voyages into jaunts lasting only a few days.
- Interspecies Romance: Sort of. Centaurians in heat can be quite ... passionate ... when they hear their species' mating call. Unlike the Centaurian language, the mating call is simple and gutteral enough that humans can imitate it. Ken Tractor discovered the consequences of making this sound casually....
- In Working Order: At their second "meeting", 14 years after First Contact, the people defending Earth damaged one Centaurian spacecraft badly enough that the crew had to abandon it in orbit. Human engineers nevertheless managed to salvage their nuclear fusion engine and reverse-engineer the secrets of the Quantum Confinement & Constriction (QC&C) field from it.
- "It" Is Dehumanizing: Then again, the simultaneously-male-and-female Centaurians aren't human, and most of them wouldn't want to be human.
- Jetpack: Sort of. In chapter 2, Arnold Hasselberg wears a space suit equipped with maneuvering thrusters. With very badly positioned controls.
- Johann Sebastian Bach: While waiting in line for the Sirius/Human-Centauri hyper hole, James Carter plays "Wir Eilen Mit Schwachen" from Cantata #78 to pass the time.
- Kinetic Weapons Are Just Better: Spacecraft-killing missiles destroy their target by running into them really fast. The Centaurian secret weapon is a kind of guided slug (inspired, in part, by the Observatory's secret weapon in Arthur C. Clarke's Earthlight). The inevitable Centaurian counterattack after First Contact started with high-velocity slugs launched at Earth's ICBM silos, with the intent of taking away humans' ability to deflect asteroids — they were going to nudge some near-Earth asteroids onto collision courses afterward, which would have qualified as even bigger kinetic weapons.
- An earlier option, which the Centaurians couldn't find volunteers for, was to put plain old starships on collision courses with Earth. At 94.3% of the speed of light, an impacting spacecraft will do as much damage as its own weight in antimatter.
- Knight Templar: Jennifer Doe, when she tries to murder Ken Tractor.
- Latex Space Suit: Compression suits made of spandex-like materials are preferred over the man-inside-a-balloon pressure suits used by NASA today.
- Lensman Arms Race: In the very first Sol-Alpha Centauri battle of the War, three new top-secret experimental weapons were rolled out.
- Mad Scientist: One of the characters is actually named "the Mad Scientist". Don't worry, he dies in chapter 2.
- Magnetic Weapons: Slug launchers, such as the common E-43 mass driver, are basically reusable railguns or coilguns.
- Military Science Fiction: Although the title has "War" in it, the emphasis is on a side mission by a few individuals, not the battles. (Although chapter 6 is devoted entirely to the latter.)
- Minovsky Physics: The Quantum Confinement & Constriction ("QC&C") field forms the basis of most technological innovations, including proton fusion, Active Radar Absorption, the ability to run a synchrotron without losing energy to synchrotron radiation, etc..
- Mirror Chemistry: Centaurians metabolize levulose (levulorotary glucose), not terrestrial dextrose.
- Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness: It would be firmly in the "One Big Lie" category, were it not for that pesky zero drive.
- The Mothership: NK438CH5 was called this a couple of times, although the only thing it was "mother" to was a tiny Ascender not much bigger than the Apollo Command Module. A fighter's Deployer/Carrier is also a mothership to its fighters, even though the fighters are docked to its outside.
- Named After Somebody Famous: The Solar system diplomat is named James (i.e. Jimmy) Carter. He's in negotiations with Ayatollah Brezhnev over a treaty named SALTY VI.
- Named After Their Planet: Centaurians evolved on the 3rd planet orbiting Alpha Centauri A, and had not yet colonized another star system by the time they encountered humans.
- Naming Your Colony World: Two of the largest asteroids in the Human-Centauri Habitat Ring are named New France and New Mars. Sirius A IV is named America. The planets of the UV Ceti system (all lifeless) are named after whales, because Cetus is the whale constellation.
- Nano Machines: "Nanoassemblers" are used to create complex organic compounds (such as plastic) in star systems devoid of biomolecular materials. The lifeless asteroids of Human-Centauri are one such place.
- No Biochemical Barriers: In the first social exchange program between humans and Centaurians, both species caught a deadly bacterial disease from the other. If it had happened on Earth, instead of just an isolated community on Mars, it could have decimated the human population.
- For the most part, this trope is averted, though. Neither species' food has any nutritional value for the other, Centaurians need to drink salt water rather than fresh water, and although Centaurians have DNA, they don't use the same genetic code humans do.
- No Name Given: Jimmy Carter's limo pilot, thoughout chapters 4 and 5, is simply called "the pilot," despite the prodigious amount of dialog he engages in. (Jimmy Carter's aide also has no name, but he has only one line.)
- Similarly, the C.O. of Station Jove is just "The Brigadier General."
- No Poverty: While poverty has not been totally eliminated, the existence of super-cheap energy from nuclear fusion means that most planets enjoy a post-scarcity economy.
- No Seat Belts: The crew stations on Station Jove have straps, but they lack seats. The station was supposed to spend most of its time in zero gee, and even when under thrust, its thrusters could only produce a tenth of a gee tops.
- No Transhumanism Allowed
Arnold Hasselberg: "We can put a man on Sirius A IV, but we can't make him live longer."
- Numbered Homeworld: The capital worlds of the Sirius and Alpha Centauri systems are named Sirius A IV and Alpha Centauri A III. Their inhabitants, though, call them America and Go'orla. Similarly, the five major populated asteroids in the Human-Centauri Habitat Ring are called Human-Centauri I through Human-Centauri V.
- One Gender Race: All Centaurians are both male and female. You don't refer to a Centaurian as "he" or "she", but as "it" (borrowing the convention Barry Longyear used in Enemy Mine).
- One World Order: After the disastrous First Contact incident, the World Federal Government formed so that the various nations of the Earth could pool their resources into defending humanity from the inevitable Centaurian counterattack. It never un-formed afterward, and eventually evolved into the Solar Federal Government.
- Only Electric Sheep Are Cheap: In a star system without life-bearing planets, you can bet real sheep would be expensive.
The knick-knacks on display inside it were fascinating enough to behold, but then Torra noticed what made it truly precious. The stand itself wasn't made of metal or stone or plastic or glass, but wood. Real wood. From a real tree.
- In the early days of Human-Centauri, plastic was likewise an expensive and hard-to-get material, since the (lifeless) asteroids of the system had no petroleum. Hydrocarbons, such as plastic, had to be synthesized the hard way.
- The Only One: Torra Zorra is the only one whom Arnold's "ghost" can use to communicate. This, of course, kind of interferes with Torra's plans to finish its tour of duty and make a baby or two.
- Our Wormholes Are Different: Hyper holes are flat, permanent 200-meter circular holes in space that lead, through an infinitely thin layer of hyperspace, to a parallel space in which time and matter have no meaning. They are created by the detonation of a hyper bomb. If two hyper bombs are pointed directly at one another and set off at the same time, the two holes they create are "linked" — anything entering one hole travels through parallel space infinitely fast and immediately exits the other. Light, electromagnetic interactions, etc., travel through a "hyper link" just like matter does, so if you look at one linked hyper hole you're basically seeing the view from the other. You could stand in the middle of a hyper hole link, straddling it, and not even be aware that you're in 2 places at once.
- Just be careful not to stick anything across the outer circular boundary of one of these hyper holes. Any material that crosses the plane inside the boundary instantly comes out of the other hyper hole; any material that crosses the plane outside the boundary doesn't. If your arm were sticking out past the boundary when you entered the hole, you'd be in the new star system but your arm would be back in the old star system. Not a pretty sight.
- Operator Incompatibility / Unusual User Interface: Workstations designed for Centaurian use will have 360-degree video displays, surround keyboards, and pedals that accept input from the biological wheels in the user's feet — but will never, ever have a 3-D display.
- Perfect Pacifist People: Human-Centaurians think of themselves as this, but in reality they're more like religious zealots.
- Photoprotoneutron Torpedo: Proton cannons (which actually fire an electrically neutral hydrogen plasma), the radiation gun, the phased antimatter bomb.
- Planar Shockwave: A hyper bomb's explosive lens causes all its electrons and positrons to meet in an 8-meter-diameter circular plane. This annihilation instantly spreads out, radially, until the plane of annihilation is a 200-meter-diameter disk. (The gamma rays that come shooting out from this plane of annihilation travel perpendicular to the plane, though.)
- Portal Network: Each of the five major star systems is connected to each of its two neighbors by a pair of linked hyper holes, which they put into place via a costly and lengthy cooperative engineering effort.
- Prequel: The Author's Notes list four possible prequels: Second Contact, dealing with the first attempt to communicate between Alpha Centaurians and humans (after they try to exterminate one another); North Mars, dealing with the brief war between two neighboring Martian colonies established shortly after the advent of QC&C-powered space travel; Xenoepidemic, dealing with the outbreak of a Centaurian bacterial disease among the human colonists of Mars (and the outbreak of a human bacterial disease among the Centaurians there); and American Independence, dealing with the colonization of Sirius.
- The first three chapters of The Pentagon War itself take place years or decades before the novel's main action, and deal with the discovery of hyper holes and the invention of linked hyper holes.
- Pronoun Trouble: Centaurians, being both male and female at once, are referred to as "it." This can lead to hard-to-follow sentences like "Torra Zorra walked through the swinging door; it hit it on the way out."
- Psycho Ex-Girlfriend: Also Jennifer Doe.
- Psycho Serum: The Mad Scientist took hormones to deliberately keep himself mad.
- Ragnarok Proofing: The prototype Zero Drive was on a planet that was completely destroyed, only a few kilometers from ground zero. Not only did it survive the blast, it was completely operational when recovered 78 years later.
- Ramscoop: Pretty much all interstellar travel prior to the advent of linked hyper holes used these. They have a special "scramjet" reactor that can fuse normal (non-heavy) hydrogen without slowing it down, getting around both the "you'd need deuterium for nuclear fusion" problem and the "slowing down the gathered fuel would produce so much drag you could never go faster than your own exhaust velocity" problem.
- Really 700 Years Old: Time Dilation, coupled with Human Popsicle technology, mean that Arnold Hasselberg has been on active duty for more than 120 years by the time the story opens.
- Red Alert: Station Jove went to condition red when Zelta's entire fighter complement failed to stop Gellimand 3, which by that time was only half an hour away from it.
- The Red Planet: Mars is home to two Solar states, named Mars and North Mars. In the early history of The Verse, the two territories grew to each others' borders and had a war, until Earth intervened and subjugated both of them.
- Reentry Scare: A small meteor strike damages the "heat bolide" covering of Jerry Redlands' Ascender, making it impossible for the space capsule to enter atmosphere at high speed without incinerating its contents. Fortunately, each major planet in the five inhabited star systems has at least one space station he can dock with, with its own arsenal of landing craft.
- Resigned to The Call: Torra Zorra.
Torra Zorra: "I wish someone else could go in my place. I really, really wish someone else could go. [ ... ] But Arnold requested me, explicitly. Maybe I'm the only one he can use as a typewriter. I don't know."
- Ring World Planet: Averted. The author originally wanted Human-Centauri to consist of 5 enormous "planetary plates" that would one day be joined together and extended to form a ringworld. He abandoned the idea, though, when he finally admitted that no real-world materials could be strong enough to build such structures. Instead, the heavy brown dwarf that was ignited to become Human-Centauri's sun was surrounded by a debris ring, and the five largest asteroids in this belt became their homes. It's still called the Habitat Ring, though.
- Run the Gauntlet / Death Course: Four times:
- Jimmy Carter's limo making its way back to Sol through now-hostile Sirian space.
- The Alpha Centaurian fighter Gellimand 3 getting past Sol's Gate Guard and four Sol fighters until it was within long weapons range of Station Jove.
- Mercurand making its way to Sol space across Sirian space, so that its trip to UV Ceti would be shorter. (The chapter where this happens is even named "Gauntlet".)
- The Leonian Fanatic Brigade, attacking Alpha Centauri A III.
- Sapient Ship: Any spacecraft with a built-in S.I. becomes one of these — kind of. S.I. only stands for "Semi Intelligent", after all.
- Science-Related Memetic Disorder: The Mad Scientist
He wore his nome de guerre as a badge of honor, for "Mad Scientist" was more than a mere hearkening back to some old movie archetype. He really was mad. His sanity teetered on the brink of outright schizophrenia. It was what gave him his edge.
- Sci-Fi Name Buzzwords: "Quantum Confinement & Constriction." (Even though this is an accurate description of what that technology does, it's still got "quantum" in its name.) Also, "hyper bomb", "hyper hole", and "proton cannon".
- Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale: Averted.
The Heliopause, the farthest reaches of the solar wind, three times more distant from the sun than Neptune — take that whole enormity, surrounding the solar system on all sides like a distant, distant shell, and shrink it to the size of a grapefruit. At this scale, the sun is a microscopic dust mote at the center with the Earth orbiting half a millimeter away from it; yet the Alpha Centauri star system would be another grapefruit sitting 130 meters away — the span of a city block. And Alpha Centauri was only Sol's nearest neighbor in space; this unfathomable gap grew ever-larger for the more distant stars.
- Secret Weapon: The liquid metal gun mounted in the nose of Gellimand 3 in the first Alpha-Centaurian attack on Sol.
- Zelta-Dee's directional screen, and Zelta-Cee's radiation gun, also count — although their effects are somewhat less impressive than Gellimand 3's secret weapon.
- Sirius's acid gum gun, which made a brief appearance in chapter 7, also counts.
- Sensor Suspense: When James Carter's limo tries to Run the Gauntlet across now-hostile Sirian space, his pilot can only detect threatening fighters and missiles as blips on the limo's radar or passive-thermal detectors. What these blips mean is more than enough to make Carter sweat.
- Shattered World
- Shiny Looking Spaceships: Justified, in that putting a reflective outer layer on a combat vessel means lasers won't burn holes in its armor.
- Shout Out: The name Ken Tractor is a shout-out to Ken Tracton, author of several books on TRS 80 BASIC.
- Silly Reason for War: The war was started by a bunch of diplomats sitting around a table yelling "I declare war on you!"
- The Singularity: Encountering the Alpha-Centaurians (and having to fight off their attempt to bomb humanity into the Stone Age) was enough of a watershed event by itself, but the discovery of their Quantum Confinement & Constriction technology was a full-blown soft singularity that ushered in the Age of Cheap Energy.
- The Smurfette Principle: Lt. Colonel Jennifer Doe is the only female who isn't a throwaway character. And she only existed in the 1980 original because the author wanted to introduce a "J. Doe" and then "shock" the reader by revealing that the J didn't stand for John.
- Space Battle: Chapters 5, 6, 9, 15, and 16.
- Space Brasilia: The Human-Centauri Habitat Ring is sort of this, of necessity — every city has to be built deep underground inside one of the asteroids.
- Space Cold War: In the years leading up to the War, Hyper Bombs played the same role in interstellar diplomacy that nuclear weapons did during the mid-to-late 20th Century (since a single Hyper Bomb could destroy a planet). There was also a string of failed Arms Limitation treaties named "SALTY", and diplomatic leaders named "Brezhnev" and "Jimmy Carter", in case you missed the analogy the first time.
- Space Cossacks: The first colonists at Human-Centauri were sort of like this, although they formed a real nation rather than just a Rag Tag Band Of Misfits.
- Space Elevator: The asteroids making up the Human-Centauri Habitat Ring have low enough gravity that these can be built without worrying about the cables snapping under their own weight.
- Spaceship Girl: The S.I. (semi-intelligent) controller aboard Arnold's starship is named Doris.
- Space Station: The massive Gate Guards that hover menacingly near each side of a hyper hole link. Also, Station Jove.
- Stalker with a Crush: Jennifer Doe
- Standard Time Units: Unless otherwise specified, a "day" is 24 hours and a "year" is 365.242 days.
- Starfish Aliens: The Centaurians vaguely resemble the Xorns from AD&D, but are even more alien, with an eye turret on top, four mouths spaced evenly below their four shoulders, and a wheel in each of their four feet.
- Starfish Language: The Centaurian language. Centaurians do use their mouths to speak, like humans do, but they have four mouths and use them all at once. Some syllables involve the use of chords.
- Stealth In Space: Averted. Active Radar Absorption technology exists, but it won't keep an enemy from seeing your prodigious thermal emissions. The one time a spacecraft avoided detection, it was coming out of the local sun and had radar-absorption turned on.
- Storyboarding the Apocalypse: Arnold Hasselberg's ghost, controlling two of Torra Zorra's hands, types out a description of what'll happen when Sagittarius A* reaches the upper mass limit.
- Stun Gun: The stundart pistol is standard military issue. It fires a tiny self-contained Taser, whose voltage can be set for human or Centaurian physiology. Unfortunately, it isn't always harmless.
- Subspace Or Hyperspace: A single Hyper Hole, linked or not, is an infinitely-thin hyperspatial corridor into a Parallel Space. Parallel Space is 3-dimensional just like Real Space is, but time and matter have no meaning there. It's even questionable whether distance has any meaning there. However, it's possible for an object to be "anchored" to Real Space while in Parallel Space, through use of the Zero Drive. Such an object is in a "limbo" between the two spaces, and operates on the other side of the energy curve — in other words, it's made out of tachyons.
- Technobabble: The head of the SBI's recorded description of how a Phased Antimatter Bomb works.
- Technology Porn: Particularly when things smash into each other.
- Temporal Paradox: Only because FTL travel is involved. The author takes the same approach as Gregory Benford's Timescape, and assumes that paradoxes create indeterminate states where the triggering events both do, and don't, occur. Since most of these paradoxes last for less than a trillionth of a second, they have no impact on macroscopic events.
- Terraforming: This is ongoing on places like Mars and Sirius A IV, but it will be centuries before a human (or a Centaurian) can walk around outdoors on these planets without protection. The Human-Centauri asteroids, on the other hand, are too lightweight to hold an atmosphere, so their habitats will exist entirely underground (or in domed-off farms on the surfaces) for the forseeable future.
- Theme Naming: In the original 1980 40-page short story, the attack on Human-Centauri by the Santa Maria happened at the same time as two other spacecraft attacked the same system. The names of the other two attacking spacecraft? Nina and Pinta.
- In chapter 6, all the Solar fighter carriers have names ending in "a."
- This Is Not a Drill: Sergeant Li says this over Station Jove's P.A. system, when an enemy is sighted a day away and the Station goes to Yellow Alert.
- Time Dilation: Trips from Sol to UV Ceti take about 10 years from Earth's reference frame (at 2g of starship acceleration), but far less time from the standpoint of the starship crews.
- Token Nonhuman: Jennifer Doe's deployer crew only contains two Centaurians, whom she only makes minimal accomodations for.
- Too Dumb to Live: Sol and Alpha Centauri are planning to detonate hyper bombs simultaneously, which will (in theory) create a permanent link between the two star systems. An intrepid filmographer in his own spacecraft wants to get the best possible shot of the detonation, from right behind Sol's hyper bomb. You can guess the rest.
- Tractor Beam: The seldom-used Magnetic Snares, and the guidance system of the Liquid Metal Gun's bolts, are sort of like tractor beams — but with very very limited functionality. Not only must the target be ferromagnetic, it only produces a radial force.
- United Space of America: The Solar Federal Government is this, since it evolved from the World Federal Government (which, in turn, evolved from the U.S.). It even has an intelligence branch called the Solar Bureau of Investigation.
- Universe Chronology: Also in the author's notes.
- The Unpronounceable: Centaurians have four mouths, and they use all four of them when they speak. You'd need a barbershop quartet to pronounce their language correctly.
- Conversely, Centaurians' lack of a sense of smell means they also lack sinuses and nasal cavities. When they try to speak human languages, it souds like a hubad with his dose stuffed up.* It also gives them an accent reminiscent of Bullwinkle Moose or Pee Wee Herman. This means their native words don't have M's or N's in them — with two notable exceptions: "Gellimand" (the Centaurian personification of light), and "Krammer" (the head honcho of CN Leonis). These two Centaurian words appeared in the original 40-page short story, which was written before the author had designed the Centaurian species; they are retained for historical reasons only.
- Utopia Justifies the Means: If a Citizen of Human-Centauri is diagnosed as having the "emotional plague", he/she/it will either have to endure a long and rather painful therapy to bring him/her/it back into the fold, or be exiled from the Human-Centauri Citizen Areas.
- The War of Earthly Aggression: Over a century before the novel starts, a civil war breaks out on Mars. Earth eventually intervenes and subjugates both sides. Later, Sirius declares independence, and Sol sends a small force to try and bring the rebels back under Solar control; Sol loses.
- Weaponized Exhaust: Mercurand, running the gauntlet across Sirian space.
- We Wait: Space is big. Things can take a looooooong time to happen in space, even if you know they're coming.
- The Worf Effect: Gate Guards are enormous and bristling with weaponry. Nearly every incursion into an enemy star system results in all the invading spacecraft getting destroyed the moment they poke their noses into the hyper hole. Hardly any attacking spacecraft ever make it past a Gate Guard. So, of course, it's those few battles in which a Gate Guard fails to do its job that get all attention.
- The World Is Not Ready: In the original 1980 40-page draft, Torra Zorra destroys the zero drive after using it to prevent the universe from colliding with another universe, because of the havoc it would unleash upon society. In the actual novel, though, it's retained ... with all its commensurate repercussions hinted at.
- Worthless Yellow Rocks: QC&C fusion means that any element can be synthesized from lighter elements. Common elements like iron and copper are still cheaper to mine, but rarer elements like gold are more often made in a fusion lab, making them considerably less rare.
- Xenofiction: Torra Zorra's saying goodbye to its clan in Chapter 8. It's a Centaurian meeting up with other Centaurians it knows, doing Centaurian things with them, and (at one point) briefly wondering how something as alien as a human could possibly belong to a Centaurian clan.