Pirates in SPAAACE !!!
There is no escaping them, no matter how high your cruise acceleration or how much reserve delta v you have in the tanks. They lurk the literary spaceways, ready to pounce on the next gilded starliner or even the next wandering tramp freighter.
Are they possible? Or - a more relevant and demanding test - are they plausible?
First, let's assume a setting with no FTL or other out and out magitech, confined for practical purposes to the Solar System. Orbital mechanics makes the paths followed by commercial ships highly predictable, so that hijacking one would have much in common with train robbery, except with no doubt that the train will be on time. The problem is that the entire line is in plain view of the main depot - even from hundreds of millions of kilometers away - so no matter where you pull the job, the dispatchers can see it and notify Pinkerton's.
Along the spacelanes, at least in normal space (e.g., no FTL), every robbery is therefore a brazen robbery. Which leads to two further observations:
1. The above applies only to robbery, not to, say, embezzlement or fraud. These remain practical ways to transfer funds to your account, as it were, but this hardly fits our image of space piracy.
2. Sticking to stickups, since the act will be brazen anywhere there is no reason to travel off into deep space somewhere to commit it. You may as well strike right after the ship undocks from a space station, so long as you're outside the immediate reach of the authorities. (And if they're on the inside of the station airlock, they can't get at you till they order up a patrol craft.)
This has a couple of advantages. You don't need to set out in your pirate ship weeks or months in advance (which everyone in the Solar System would see you doing anyway). Your ship won't be needed till just before - or just after - the heist. Even then the ship doesn't need carronades on the quarterdeck, or the equivalent; its function is more analogous to a getaway car. If you shoot it out with the authorities you're going to lose - if you could shoot it out with them and win, why didn't you just seize the station itself outright?
Which leads to a further complication. For the sake of Romance we don't want just a single act of space piracy, however brazen - we want endemic piracy, Brethren of the Coast. The sort of heist I outlined above, however, is pretty much an inherent one-off. In fact, since it won't be hard to figure out who pulled it off (who made a sudden and unscheduled departure right after the crime?), your ID will be all over the police net, and you'll have a hard time fencing your haul, or even enjoying it in peace and quiet.
Assuming, however, that the local police all see eye to eye about the severity of the offense. Here politics raises its ugly head - not ugly at all, really, in this context. For where there are Brethren of the Coast, Lords of the Isles cannot be far behind, and when the pirate wears a badge, all those messy legal complications go conveniently away. They are replaced by diplomatic and sometimes military complications.
The dirty secret of piracy has always been that - like terrorism today - it is in the eye of the beholder, as Bess told Felipe. Endemic space piracy, of the sort we would like to write about, almost always has a strong whiff of guerilla war. Whether it pits the Nasty Empire against the Noble (if scruffy) Rebels, or the Good Shepherds against the Sea Wolves, is strictly up to the author's tastes.
Monday, June 4, 2007
Pirates in SPAAACE !!!