“You can’t fly through a warp point on beta drive,” Elaine noted. “And where is the power source?”
“Old-style fusactors work just fine in zero-gee,” Chelan asnwered. “They’re ten-fold bigger than Republic fusactors, but a fusactor is a small part of a ship. In-system, beta drives are simply less efficient than alpha drives. They spew gravitons rather than accelerating a ship. But if you don’t mind the inefficiency, they work just fine.”
“Why do I think this should not be a new idea?” she challenged.
“It isn’t. It’s an old idea,” Chelan answered. “It was worked out a century ago. But back then, maintaining steam engines was an engineering challenge, rural electrification was a hot topic, and Union supplies of old computers from before the disorders were dwindling. The fellow who published the proposal soon died under mysterious circumstances, Republic investors bought up the tec h journal in which he published it, actually made it much better, but his article vanished from electronic files.”
“Except you’d found it,” she said.
“And noticed the disappearance.” He picked up his pace. “Curiously, soon thereafter, the Seldon Legion lobbied vigorously and successfully to bar foreign investment in the Union, but that didn’t fix the journal. It did block Bulger being purchased by Republic investors. I emphatically did not tell anyone I’d noticed the missing analysis, and since I do not want this place going up in nuclear plasma, I’d rather you not tell anyone, either. The Space Guard has lots of Republican infiltrators and sympathizers who would leak the result.”
“To make this work, you need people who know how to design spaceships,” Bell observed. “That may be a skill inside the Republic, or was when they got into their war with the Empire and to general surprise won, but I’m not aware of anyone inside the Union who has done a ship design. During the war, their designers were out in the asteroid belt or even further out.”
“There will be a learning process,” Chelan said. “It’s an engineering challenge, not a scientific challenge. We start with something heavily overbuilt that nonetheless flies. Then we make improvements. For example, the first ship is heavily instrumented, looking to see which sections have larger strains than others. The best beta drive I know of barely gets up to 3c, but there’s no known natural law limit on beta drive speed. It’s just they’ve been engineered for efficiency and size rather than superlight speed.”
“That’s very impressive. It doesn’t get you through a warp point, though,” she observed.
“Alpha drive designs have been static for a very long time,” Chelan remarked, “since no more recently than the prior empire, the one that the defeated empire replaced. That outcome arises because the two previous empires vigorously discouraged scientific research – it has thepotential to upset the way things are. For a while, the current Republic supported science research, but almost all of that transferred over to engineering development: ‘we have no time for pure natural law; we need clever devices that let us smite mightily all our foes.’ Until recently, we were too struggling and broke to have much in the way of real science. There is a little research, old fogies like me from before the Interregnum, but for most people it is work done in their spare time, not highly productive work. Of course, our Elizavetsian neighbors trod firmly on efforts to revive scholarly communities within their borders.”