Eichberger & the Age of Piracy

The invention of FTL Travel

By 340 ab Tellure destructa seven colonies had recovered levels of development equivalent to GURPS TL 10 / ForeSight TL 7.5. These were Tau Ceti, Mayflower, Aeneas, Iter, Seeonee, Simanta, and Todos Santos. Their populations of up to 9 billion did not allow enough specialised workers or wide enough markets for any higher development. Perhaps another thirty colonies had the technical ability to support space industries, but some of those (having low populations an plentiful resources) did not venture beyond orbit.

In 342 PDT Dr. Tomitomo Eichberger (a young physicist from Mayflower) successfully demonstrated the Eichberger Drive, which improved on the warp encapsulator in three ways:

  • It worked from the inside, so that a spacecraft could carry its own drive.
  • It propelled a ship faster than light (about 700 times lightspeed in the early models), rather than ‘just as fast as light’.
  • It was comparatively cheap.

Eichberger’s demonstration involved a trip to Aeneas, which took four days each way. Having cannily ascertained market conditions from the desultory radio chatter between the two colonies, he made a profit on cargoes.

Eichberger managed to keep the technology of his invention secret for nearly thirty years, during which time he extracted colossal profits from the monopoly on interstellar trade, and reinvested them all in expanding his fleet. Eichberger Spaceways held the commerce between each pair of worlds down to the level that would yield maximum profits, and grew very fast. By 370 PDT Eichberger was extremely rich, and rapidly getting richer.

The Age of Piracy

About 370 ATD there were rivals operating ‘pirated’ copies of Eichberger’s device. They claimed to have developed these independently in ‘clean-room’ engineering. Eichberger maintained that they had stolen the technology by corrupting his engineers and technicians, and besides that he held a patent under the law of Mayflower that was universal under the international laws of Old Earth. Eichberger Spaceways harassed its rivals with lawsuits and strategic market behaviour, and came to be quite bitterly resented for unscrupulous business practices. Competition forced down profits on the richest routes, but Eichberger Spaceways maintained a overwhelming market share and excellent profitability.

Pirate Eichberger devices were made in only the most advanced colonies: Tau Ceti, Iter, Seeonnee, Todos Santos, Ladon, Barutanah, New Rome, New Earth, Simanta,n and Stockhausen. At first pirate operators were based there too, but after a few decades they found that any colony with economic development equivalent to a GURPS tech level of 9 (early) or ForeSight TL 6 was adequate for maintenance (provided that parts could be imported). By one means or another FTL ships fell into the hands of operators from several other colonies.

By c. 390 ATD it was amply clear to Eichberger, and by c. 400 it was notorious, that the operators of some ‘pirate’ Eichberger devices were far more unscrupulous than Eichberger himself, who did not deal in arms, narcotics, or anything that was illegal at the point of sale, and who was diligent about quarantine precautions and not transporting known fugitives.

Raids & extortion

The closest that operators of pirate Eichberger devices came to the romantic notion of piracy was to steal satellites out of orbit, and to extract valuables from orbital habitats or ground-based colonies by raiding and extortion. Attacks on colonies with sufficient development for spaceflight did not continue for long. All such colonies built orbital weapons to defend themselves either after the first raid or after being warned by honest travellers.

A few pirates used high-tech weapons to raid treasuries, refineries, stockpiles and so forth on colonies that were too backward to defend themselves. Or, against slightly more advanced colonies they made a demonstration of frightfulness with an orbital kinetic-kill weapon or other weapon of mass destruction, and then demanded valuables such as bullion and industrial metals. Such raids and extortions were certainly spectacular, but seldom very profitable. They weren’t very common either, owing to their clearly criminal natural and the lack of support from home. Those that did occur (and those that were profitable) became famous.

Contraband

Many pirates sought inflated profits by shipping commodities that Eichberger would not deal in: arms, narcotics, and other contraband. Some used force to overbear local customs (in the manner of the British in the Opium Wars), and even then were sometimes interpreted as heroes at home, if the goods in question were not illegal there.

Invaders

Many of the advanced colonies were populated to their limits, and people sought to emigrate. Naturally, they preferred planets that had already been terraformed, and these of course were populated. But where the development level and population density were low, high-tech immigrants could move in and accommodate themselves at much higher population densities (on ‘unused’ and ‘underutilised’ land). If the locals resisted they could be overborne by superior technology: and often by numbers when pirate ships delivered hundreds of thousands or even millions of immigrants per year. Emmaus was a notorious example Where invaders from Mayflower and Tau Ceti overwhelmed 4.4 million Iron-Age agriculturalists.

Conquerors

Assorted admirers of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Cortes, Pizarro, and the like assembled and equipped small high-tech armies and set out to make themselves kings on worlds where their tech advantage was great enough. Also, bands of soldiers set out to make themselves aristocrats together. Very often they found that this was harder than they expected, but they usually did a lot of damage while they were learning.

Navabharata suffered repeated such invasions, and ended up with patchwork of invader states.

Abusive traders

Like European traders in the East Indies, traders in pirate spacecraft often set up depots or trading posts on backward worlds: either to carry out trade over long periods without keeping a ship idle; or to organise local production, setting up factories or plantations. These caused dislocations and strains in the local economy and politics, which led to attacks. Repulsing these attacks or defying demands for extraordinary taxes, the trading posts undermined the authority of local governments, inducing rebellion and revolution, chaos and war.

To protect themselves from the chaos they themselves induced, bad traders turned into conquerors or invaders.

Missionaries

A great many people set out on missions to bring "wisdom" to foreigners. A few were frankly religious. Others spread utopian ideals, or religion in the guise of ethical or therapeutic practice. Or, little appreciating the causes of poverty and backward economies, they set out to uplift the poor by delivering medicine, education, or technological progress, or by carrying out ecological engineering: bringing crops, livestock, even game animals to biologically impoverished colonies.

Many of these people were harmless. Some even did some good. But in other cases missions partook of the character of invasions or conquests, or they fomented revolution, factional conflict, and social discord. Sometimes missionaries were harshly treated, and invaders or conquerors made an excuse of rescuing them or protecting them. Many of the religious and utopist missionaries introduced toxic memes, which caused (for example) religious wars, or their gifts and trade goods caused warfare in the hinterland of their missions.

Attempts by missionaries to enrich impoverished ecologies, though occasionally of considerable benefit, were too often executed with greater enthusiasm than competence. Then they could be catastrophic.

Fugitives

Interstellar travel opened up the possibility of criminals fleeing to where the law could not pursue them. This possibility undermined the deterrent effect of the law, causing problems even on advanced colonies that were otherwise the sources, not the victims, of pirates. Made bold by the possibility of escape, criminals, criminals committed daring robberies and extortions that they could never otherwise have got away with, and fled to other worlds. FTL travel blunted the deterrent effect of law enforcement.

Being criminals, fugitives were disposed to make more trouble on the colonies they fled to, often acting as conquerors in a small way.

Human predators

A certain tiny proportion of the huge population of the advanced colonies consisted of serial killers, serial rapists, psychopathic sadists and so forth. Some of these people travelled, with or without commercial or charitable pretexts, to undeveloped worlds where they thought their technological advantage would enable to kill, torture, rape, and hunt with impunity.

These were the most malevolent of villains, but in gross their depredations did less harm than mere negligence.

Pestilence

As each inhabited planet or moon had been terraformed by a customised program, they all had ecologies that he been designed without reference to the organisms that were present on the others. Therefore plants, animals, and micro-organisms transported from one world to another could and sometimes did become runaway pests, or (in the case of some that had been designed as biological controls on vigorous terraforming species) blights.

Pirates sometimes introduced pest species as articles of commerce. Also, since most worlds had terraforming species on them that were designed to spread far and rapidly, or to act as long-range vectors for other species, there was a lot of trouble with spores and seeds. Some terraforming species had been designed essentially for biological warfare against native life, or to wipe out a pioneering species to make way for crops and so forth. Other species from the same planet were designed to resist these, but out of their environments they could be devastating.

Plague

Advanced medicine on Old Earth meant that few migrants to the older colonies carried pathogens that caused any serious illness. Migrants to the outer colonies typically carried no pathogens at all. But in the centuries of the Age of Isolation certain pathogens on the old colonies evolved for increased virulence, certain symbiotes and commensals (skin, mouth, and gut flora, for instance) evolved into pathogen niches, viruses reappeared rather mysteriously, and there were a certain number of genetic engineering accidents.

None of these new diseases was terribly serious at home. But introduced to a population without either high economic development or acquired resistance, some of them produced either chronic, endemic debility or an epidemic in which everyone was ‘temporarily’ incapacitated at the same time. That left too few people well to nurse the sick, or to provide heat, water, and food. Billions died in epidemics of non-lethal diseases.
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Eichberger, having far the largest trading network at the time, was better informed about these events than anyone else. And he was inclined to feel responsible for them.