Amongst Boundless Stars
Interstellar travel is entirely dependent on the warp. The material universe is just one aspect of reality.
There is a quite separate and co-existing immaterial universe. This is commonly known as the warp, warpspace, the immaterium, the empyrean, or the sea of souls. The study and exploitation of the warp is the preserve of warp technology, the most important achievement of which is warp travel.
Warpspace may be explained in terms of an endlessly broad and infinitely deep sea of raw energy. This energy carries within it the random thoughts, unfettered emotions, memory fragments, and unshakable beliefs of those who live in the material universe.
A spacecraft drops into the warp by activating its warp engines. As a ship leaves the material universe it enters a corresponding point in warpspace. The ship is then carried along by the tides and currents of the warp.
After travelling in this fashion for an appropriate time, the ship uses its warp engines to drop back into real space. Because the material universe and the warp move relative to one another, the ship reappears in a new position several light years from the starting point. This process is called a jump or a hop, and the process of entering or leaving is known as a drop, shift, or translation.
Journeys are undertaken in short jumps of up to four or five light years. Longer jumps are unpredictable and dangerous. The tides of warpspace move in complex and inconsistent patterns, and ships attempting longer hops often end up widely off course.
Were this limitation to apply to all warp travel, then Humanity would not have spread throughout the galaxy as it has. It is possible to make long jumps of many light years by steering a ship in the warp itself — sensing, responding to, and exploiting its currents and thereby directing the craft towards a corresponding point in the material universe. Only the strain of human mutants known as Navigators can pilot a craft through the warp in this way.
Some individuals are sensitive to the movements of warpspace. They can, for example, sometimes tell that a spacecraft is approaching even before it drops back into the material universe. Human sensitivity to the warp is not generally well developed. However, in a minority of people this sensitivity is far more finely tuned. These people are known as psykers, and they are able to consciously control and use the energy of the warp to affect the material universe. Navigators possess gifts of a specialised kind who can use their powers to steer spacecraft in the warp.
The Astronomican and The Warp
The Astronomican is a psychic homing signal centred upon Terra. It is powered by the continuous mental concentration of a thousand psykers. The Astronomican cannot be detected in the real universe — only in the warp. It is by means of this signal that the Navigators can steer their spaceships over long distances.
The Astronomican’s signal is strongest close to Terra and gets increasingly weaker further away. It extends over a spherical area with a diameter of about 50,000 light years. The Astronomican does not extend to the extreme fringes of the galaxy, and because Terra is situated in the galactic west, its signal does not reach a massive swathe of the eastern part of the galaxy at all. Nor is the extent or strength of the signal constant — it can at times be blocked by localised activity within the warp itself. Such activity may be compared to the hurricanes or storms of a terrestrial weather system and is known as a warpstorm. Warpstorms may be so bad, and so long-lasting, that entire star systems are isolated for hundreds of years at a time.
A warpstorm not only obscures the signal of the Astronomican, it is also dangerous for spacecraft traveling nearby. No spacecraft can venture within a warpstorm and expect to survive, although there are tales of miraculous escapes and of ships being thrown tens of thousands of light years off course. Warpstorms are not the only dangers within the warp. There are sentient energies and other immaterial life-forms that inhabit it, creatures formed from, and part of, the shifting stuff of the warp. Few are friendly and many are hostile. They are known to Mankind as daemons.
The time differences between real space and warp space are quite drastic. Not only does time pass at different rates in both kinds of space, but it also passes at very variable rates. Until a ship finishes its jump, it is impossible for a ship’s crew to know exactly how long their journey has taken. Time passing in real space is referred to as real time. Time passing on board a spacecraft is referred to as warp time.
Once a spacecraft activates its warp drives, it is plunged into a dimension very different from the material universe. It is convenient to imagine warp space as consisting of a relatively dense, almost liquid, energy, devoid of stars, light and life as it is commonly known.
Once within warp space a ship may move by means of its main drives, following powerful eddies and currents in the warp, eventually reaching a point in the warp corresponding to a destination in real space. The most difficult aspect of warp travel is that it is impossible to detect the spatial movement of warp space once a ship is in the warp. The ship can only blindly carry on, its crew trusting that it is going in the right direction. The longer a ship remains in warp space, the greater the chances of encountering some unexpected current that can turn it unknowingly off-course.
Navigation of warp space can be achieved in two ways: the calculated jump and the piloted jump.
All warp-drives incorporate navigational mechanisms. When the ship is in real space, these monitor the ever-shifting movements of that part of the warp corresponding to the ship’s current position. It is a ‘window’ into warp space. By means of observing these movements in the warp it is possible to calculate a course, corrective manoeuvres, and approximate journey time to a proposed destination. Calculation relies on the assumption that the warp-currents observed from real space don’t change significantly during flight. This method is known as a ‘calculated jump’. It is not safe to make a calculated jump of more than four light years at one go. The longer the jump, the greater the chances of a significant change in warp current movement.
The second, and more efficient, form of warp-navigation is the piloted jump. This method relies upon two factors: the Navigators and the psychic beacon of the Astronomican. The Astronomican is centred on Earth and is not only controlled by, but is directed by, the psychic power of the Emperor. The Astronomican is a psychic beacon that penetrates into warp space. A Navigator onboard a ship in the warp is able to pick up these signals and can steer a spacecraft through warp space, compensating for current changes as he does so. A piloted jump can cover a far longer distance than a calculated jump. Most piloted jumps are no more than 5,000 light years at a time, but longer jumps have been made.
A typical interstellar voyage might begin with a cargo ship lying in orbit around an Imperial world. Tiny shuttlecraft busily transfer precious minerals, foodstuffs, crew, and manufactured items from the world below. The loading procedure may take days or weeks, as the shuttles return time and time again to the huge ship. Once loading is complete, the colossal craft slowly accelerates out of orbit under the power of its main drives. The ship heads outwards towards the rim of the solar system, carefully increasing speed by tiny increments as it does so. Although the vessel’s engines are capable of terrific acceleration, the risk of collision with inter-planetary debris is high if the ship accelerates too quickly or too much. As the sun shrinks in the ship’s wake, the density of debris lessens and the ship’s speed reaches approximately one percent of light speed.
After several weeks of travel, the ship arrives at its first destination. This is the ‘jump-point’ lying around the star system like the circumference of a circle. This delineates the point at which inter-planetary debris falls below maximum warp density. Once this invisible line has been crossed, it is safe to activate warp engines. A crew careless or foolhardy enough to prematurely activate warp-drives would be lucky to find their ship hurled thousands of light years off course. More likely, the ship would be torn apart and destroyed, never to be heard of again.
With the safe activation of its warp-drives, the ship is plucked out of the real universe and enters the dimension of warp space. Its true interstellar journey has begun. Ships travelling in warp-space do so by means of jumps varying in length up to 5,000 light years. Only a long journey would involve more than a single jump. Even so, almost two weeks pass onboard ship before the craft is ready to end its jump. Meanwhile, because of time shifts in warp space, over a year has passed in the real universe.
The ship re-enters real space just beyond the jump-point of its destination solar system. If it is lucky, the ship will come out close to the jump-point, otherwise it may take many extra weeks to reach the inner planets. It is always wise to allow a safe margin when jumping towards a star. The results of re-entering space within the jump-point would be the same as prematurely activating warp drives on the outward journey, and would almost certainly end in disaster.
The ship is now ready for its final haul, beginning by broadcasting to its destination and establishing a new time coordinate. Time in warp space is so different from time in normal space that the crew has no idea whether their journey has taken a few months or years. Initially, the ship travels at approximately one percent of light speed, decelerating gradually through the denser inner regions. Eventually, the ship reaches its destination, where swarms of tiny shuttles once more make themselves busy loading and unloading cargo and passengers in preparation for the ship’s next journey.
In theory it is possible to travel anywhere through warp space. However, the shifting tides of the warp make it easier to travel from some systems to others, and short warp jumps are always more accurate than longer ones. This is particularly true when moving a large fleet, which may become spread out across several light years of space over an extended journey. Long established and well-charted warp space channels connect star systems and entire regions, providing relatively predictable conduits through which the majority of shipping passes.
A warp gate is a point in real space which is linked to another point in real space by a tunnel through warp space. The tunnel somehow avoids the normal disturbances of warpspace, allowing a journey to be made within a fixed time and in perfect safety. The existence of warp gates represents something of a mystery, and much debate rages over whether they are natural or artificial. If artificial, then none can say who made them or for what purpose. Furthermore, some warp gates have been artificially enhanced, their entrances delineated by mechanical constructions whose exact function can only be guessed at. Other warp gates are mere black holes in space.
Warp gates occur in the depths of space, at the boundaries of solar systems, within solar systems, and even on planets. The largest are easily big enough to permit the passage of spacecraft and are usually situated at the edge of a solar system or amongst its outer planets. Other gates are only large enough to permit the passage of small vehicles, or perhaps human-sized creatures. These occur mostly on planet surfaces and lead directly to other gates on the surfaces of other planets. All gates are rare, the smaller types extremely so. Planetary gates are often disguised, or respond only to electrical, psychic, or other signals, which would seem to indicate a certain amount of intended secrecy on the part of their builders.
All space-going races are prepared to utilise warp gates when they find them, although discovering where they lead can often be hazardous. Many gates appear to be defective, and can dump a ship randomly into warp space. Others can lead to places which may once have been stars or planets, but which are now no more than empty space. The possibility of emerging into a distant, hostile alien star empire also has to be considered. It may be that craft vanishing into warp space have been transported beyond the galaxy itself. Warp gates often become extremely important to whomever controls them, and many are of vital strategic value to the Imperium. Imperial Commanders and other interests vie for control of a warp gate in their sphere of influence, and these relics are often heavily defended against outside attack.
A warp portal is a point in space where the warp and real space interface, forming a stable entrance into, and exit from, warpspace. It is not necessary to activate a warp drive to enter the warp in this manner, although any vessel not equipped with warp shields would be unlikely to survive for long within the empyrean. It does not lead to a tunnel, and a spacecraft entering a portal is cast to the chance currents of warp space. With careful manoeuvring it may be possible to re-enter normal space using the same portal from the other side. Again, the exact nature of the portals is not understood, and no one knows whether they are mere accidents or have some secret purpose. Some aliens use warp portals to travel between warp space and real space, specifically the creatures known as Enslavers, which live within warp space itself. Like warp gates, portals occur in all places and may appear on a planet’s surface. Some have a definite physical constituent, whilst others are invisible or take the form of a hole in the ground or a dark cave mouth.
Warp portals do have their uses, for there are recorded instances of spacecraft with damaged warp drives, trapped within the warp and doomed to destruction, suddenly locating a warp portal enabling them to return to real space.
Strange and dangerous creatures inhabit the empyrean. Some of these horrors are wholly confined to the warp, but they still present a significant threat to humanity. As well as contending with the normal hazards of warp travel, ships moving through warp space can come under attack from malicious beings intent on feeding upon the life force of the ship’s inhabitants.
A vessel’s Tech-Priests erect layers of wards, by way of a device known as a Geller Field generator, to defend against marauding predatory beasts. However, these protective fields are intricate and arcane, and their temperamental nature provides no sure defence against a determined assault. Ships that suffer a Geller Field collapse find themselves in serious trouble as their presence is detected and suddenly a swarm of malignant creatures converges on it. Such assaults can range wildly in ferocity, from incidental damage to the ship itself, to massive systems failure and attacks upon the crew and passengers.
An unprotected human in the warp may be possessed by alien creatures or driven insane by the phantasmal environment. People disappear without trace, while crazed mobs rampage through the decks living out their nightmares, leading to widespread murder and self-destruction. Sometimes a vessel emerges from the warp physically intact but with no trace of its crew. Many such ghost ships drift through the galaxy, and they are considered an ill omen by those who encounter them.
The power of some warp entities extends into the material universe. Some are mindless hunters, seeking the souls of the living in an eternal quest to quench an insatiable thirst for the life essence of mortals. Others possess a greater level of sentience and hunger after the material worlds, desiring the physical but unable to maintain it for any length of time. These creatures invade the minds of humans and turn them to their bidding, enslaving them to create the circumstance that will enable them to cross the bridge between realms and enter the material domain. Whole communities, even worlds, can become slaves to the whims of parasitic beings who thrive on supremacy and control. Imperial authorities must constantly seek out these strange creatures, destroying them when possible, weakening their grip on real space where they can.