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The Truly HARD Science in Kill Before Dying
and the Rest of the Tau Ceti Universe

Dr. Travis S. Taylor

Setting the Stage

When I was in high school way back in the mid-1980s I had developed this theory of the universe. I had read all the Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov I could get my hands on. I’d finished Contact and other nonfiction works by Carl Sagan. I’d read just about everything that Stan Lee had put his fingers into. Lucas and Spielberg couldn’t put out anything without my having stood in line to see. There were no reruns of Star Trek, Space 1999, Battlestar Galactica, the Six Million Dollar Man, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and a myriad of other fun shows that I hadn’t seen two zillion times. And at the time I was getting up every morning before school at five-thirty so I could tune in my thirteen-inch color picture tube television set to the brand new local Fox channel that I had to use three coat hangers and some aluminum foil on in order to pick up the signal for Robotech. There was a common thread in all of these shows, and that was some method for faster than light space travel, energy shields, directed energy weapons, powered armor (Starship Troopers, Robotech, and Iron Man), transporters, and amazing technologies yet to be considered possible by mainstream scientists. Back then even the idea of planets around other star systems was still in question. This was back before we’d actually proven there were planets orbiting about pretty much every star there is in the universe.

In fact, I had recently won the Alabama State Science Paper Competition and there was some old guy scientist as the keynote speaker there talking about how we’d never see these nonsense fantasies of science fiction in his lifetime. There was no reason for aliens to exist, he had claimed. And to act like he knew something we didn’t he claimed that even Einstein’s Special Relativity shows us that we can never go faster than the speed of light. Which by the way isn’t what it says—but I digress, and I didn’t fully understand that back then, anyway. He went on and on talking about the things that a serious scientist or engineer should be thinking about. I didn’t understand where this guy was coming from at all. I mean, I certainly couldn’t imagine any aged scientist who’d spent his life studying the amazing universe coming to the conclusion that it was mundane and not like the books, movies, and television programs told us it would be. Where was the imagination? I didn’t understand how anyone so educated could be so dumb. I just didn’t understand how this guy was a “learned” man.

What I did understand, though, was that Einstein had other theories, such as general relativity, that allowed certain loopholes. So, I asked this keynote gray-bearded, so-called authority about wormholes, and he acted like I was speaking in tongues. I said to myself then that this old guy was wrong and that he might not see it in his lifetime but we’d see it in mine!

I digressed. I mentioned up front that back then I had this theory of the universe. I called this theory the Knot Theory. Of course, quite arrogantly and presumptively, I called it the Taylor Knot Theory. After all, it was my theory as far as I knew. I’m sure caveman Ooog thought the wheel was his invention until he saw caveman Uuuuggg with one of them connected to a forked tree limb attempting to create the first wheelbarrow. And likewise, I’m certain, they must have spent years in a heated patent rights infringement lawsuit that is still disputed to date like the great radio controversy between Tesla and Marconi. By the way, Tesla invented it (transfer of information through radio I mean).

Me and digressions, again. So I had this theory: The Taylor Knot Theory of the Universe. I recall I used to describe this theory as below.

The universe is made up of something. After all, what do we call the emptiness between the stars and planets and atoms and all things? We call it space. We call it a “something.” If it were a “nothing,” then we wouldn’t know it was there to call it “something.” Therefore, from this perfectly infallible logic, space isn’t emptiness made of nothing. It is actually made of something.

I decided that this “something” was a form of energy along long filaments or sheets that looked like the piles of yarn and cloth scraps in my mom’s sewing leftovers box. There were open-ended strings, closed-up loops of strings, sheets and swatches of materials of different colors, shapes, and sizes. There were strings hanging from sheets and strips tied around other strings and strips, and every other mish-mash combination of materials and colors you could imagine. Looked just like a universe to me. The knots were always the most interesting to me. Where strings would get looped up on one another and knotted up or where they were tied intentionally there would be a hard point in the pillowy soft pile of material. I imagined these knotted up locations were the stars and planets and particles and the spaceships and us and all the other fun solid stuff in a magical universe filled with aliens and spacefold generators. And to top it off, using cloth and strings to describe the universe fit my romanticized view of it perfectly, just as Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, or Mrs. Which might have explained it.

A few months later, after the science paper competitions, fairs, graduation and such, I was in my first year in undergraduate school studying physics and engineering at Auburn University. I often had long philosophical, “I’m smarter than you are,” conversations at the Engineering Dorm where I mostly hung out and drank a nondescript beverage from a nondescript red plastic container. There were some kids there much smarter than me, and that pushed me to get smarter. I recall explaining to one of them that I had it all figured out and that what we needed to do was to create some sort of “tuning fork” that we could touch the pile of strings and strips that make up the universe and absorb all the “vibrations” that made up the knot that made up a spaceship. Then we could touch the universe somewhere else with the tuning fork and transfer the knot and, voila, we’ve jumped from one place to another in space instantaneously. I didn’t know it then, but I just described quantum entanglement teleportation—well, sort of.

It is at this point where I usually had to back up and explain with some handwavium and unbelievium, “Oh, yeah, umm, the strings and such are all oscillating, yeah, that’s it. And, the knots are actually a, um, superposition, yeah that’s the word, of these vibrations, er, oscillations, wrapped up on each other that causes stuff and things.” And I meant actual “stuff” and “things” not just the general “stuff” and “things.” As you can see, this was a very well thought out theory and was very detailed in its intricacy. I was certainly on my way to Stockholm!

Then I had Fourier Series and Fourier Transform Theory and Applications in various classes and the Taylor Knot Theory continued to evolve and grow. Each string or strip could be represented as a sinusoidal oscillation or a series of sinusoids added together. I learned that you could take any function and represent it with an infinite series of sinusoids of various amplitudes and frequencies—that is, if you did the math correctly. I was beginning to see the strips and strings as a series of energy oscillations in a sea of Fourier Series at all frequencies and amplitudes (note that I just described the Dirac quantum sea or Feynman’s vacuum energy fluctuations . . . the beloved Zero Point Energy used in SF so often).

I even had a favorite demonstration for space folding. I stole it.

I can’t actually count the number of times, because they are too numerous, that I took a string and tied knots on each end and called one knot “point A” and the other knot “point B” and explained to folks that the shortest distance between points A and B wasn’t along the straight line of the string but rather through a fold. Just as the three Mrs. Ws had explained in A Wrinkle in Time, I would explain that if you fold the string so you can touch the two knots and then jump from one to the other you could seemingly travel this great distance along the string almost instantaneously.

I thought I was so smart.

And it was a great parlor trick explanation of some bigger ideas that always wooed and wowed the lesser savvy non-SF readers amongst us. The fellow anointed SF geeks in the room would simply smile and nod knowingly as they looked over their red plastic beverage containers and assembly language coding textbooks. And as I took more and more technical classes my metaphorical philosophical description of the universe got more and more complicated.

I added quantum physics in there and stated that the strings had to be limited in length based on rules of quantum physics. The so-called oscillations on the strings and strips and sheets were various manifestations of time, distance, energy, light, gravity, and matter in quantized increments—Planck masses, and Planck lengths, and Planck seconds, and so on. The length of the strings or perhaps their amplitudes and polarizations were what determined what color light would be generated by the oscillation or what type of particle/knot could be tied up in it. It was a super-science buzzword frenzy of a good time.

Years went by before I became smart enough to realize that I had created a fairly good metaphorical explanation for a theory that had been around—with much more mathematical scientific rigor than I had applied—since the 1960s. I was talking about string theory. And then later I realized I’d been talking about membrane theory. Just for fun, go to the Wikipedia page on string theory and scroll down to the section on branes (short for membranes). You’ll see a graphic there that doesn’t look too dissimilar from the mish-mash of cloth and strings idea I described so many years ago. The picture is of two membranes, or “sheets,” that are made up of strings and connected via strings. As it turns out. the gist of this theory was generated by smart folks as far back as 1984—a couple years before I had it in my head. And who knows, I probably read it, saw it, or heard of it somewhere somehow, and subconsciously—or is it unconsciously—“came up with it on my own.” Damn. So much for going to Stockholm.

But I still like the idea. I still pat myself on the back for Taylor’s Knot Theory from time to time. But that is usually just before I scold myself for not doing the math and writing a paper on it. Many times nowadays I find myself putting ideas into my fiction and saying that I’ll get around to writing it down soon. Sometimes soon comes and sometimes it doesn’t.

In the end, it was a good idea. At the heart of it the idea that the universe is made up of something—and there’s nothing wrong with oscillating strings, strips, and sheets of quantum vacuum energy—is elegant, simple, and powerful all at once. It’s just when we attempt to do the math that we realize how complicated things can get. But the idea can be used to show all sorts of fun consequences within and without our universe. The four known forces of nature can be unified into one field theory and by doing so might enable such things as transporters, faster than light travel, shields and on and on. All of that assumes, of course, that we can someday prove it to be an accurate description of the universe and not just mathematical nonsense and exercises in futility.

The current issue with string and membrane theory is that they are so metaphorically mathematical it is difficult to point to direct experiments to prove, disprove, or adjust them based on real world data—any real world data. Hopefully, all that will change with time but for now it is shrouded in the “magic” of the sufficiently advanced. But in just a few short decades the magic shroud might be retracted more and more and we might be able to see the science up close and personal. And when we can do that, the romantic era of SF that I, we, have all longed for will start to manifest more quickly. I’d say we are very close now to the tipping point into that realm of fun, but we aren’t quite there yet. We’re close. So dang close, we are. (My attempt at channeling Yoda’s southern cousin, Soder).

As a scientist I have to deal with finding the experiments and math and the devil within the devil within the details. But as a science fiction writer I get to also speculate on what pulling back this magic shroud will enable for humanity. And it is the Taylor Knot Theory that is at the very heart of all the books in the Tau Ceti Universe. I’ve been doing this for many books now. From the very start of the series as I created this universe my knot theory was the key driving technology for the story. Well, I guess I have to own up to it and just quit calling it my knot theory and call it as it really is, Quantum Membrane Theory. But from the start my plan was for Quantum Membrane Theory to be at the very heart of the universe and the story and to be new to the universe in that it would be a disruptive technology and change the way things had been done for many years prior. And thus, the stage was set for the Tau Ceti Universe.

The Cool Stuff

So years ago I was asked to write a short story for an anthology called Future Washington. In that short story, called “Agenda,” I introduced a president who was being accused of having ties with a solar system-wide terrorist but clearly it was all an opposition party lie to sway an election. Or was it? In the end we are introduced to quantum teleportation technology and discover the truth behind closed Oval Office doors.

I enjoyed writing this story so much that I proposed it as a book called The Tau Ceti Agenda. Baen books promptly wrote me up a contract for one book. I started writing the prologue for TCA and enjoyed creating the backstory for the story so much so that somewhere around forty thousand words I called Toni Weisskopf at Baen Books and said, “Um, Toni, the prologue to TCA is already forty thousand words and I’m not done with it. I don’t see how I can finish the story in less than two hundred to two hundred and fifty thousand words.”

“We can’t have one book that long!” she exclaimed.

“Then what do I do?”

“Better make it three books.” She said.

So there you have it. One Day on Mars, The Tau Ceti Agenda, and One Good Soldier were born. I had my start on a trilogy. And it was a fun trilogy filled with quantum membrane teleportation of individuals and large spacecraft over vast distances, large directed energy weapons, Pluto-sized facilities with giant mass driver rail guns, powered armor suits the likes of which might impress Heinlein and Stan Lee, mecha fighters and tanks that transformed into various forms, giant kilometers long supercarrier spaceships with hyperspace Krasnikov vortex generators for FTL, a new weapon of mass destruction I called “gluonium bombs” based on the force that binds quarks together, longevity, immunoboost and other fun medical technologies, and artificial intelligences. My favorite is the direct-to-mind computation, communication, and display. And I placed all this fun stuff on a backdrop of civil war, awesome fighting mecha jocks, and badass armored space Marines.

Now on to the new trilogy.

I have to start with mecha though. Why? Because so many wise old military and military SF fans, and writers, will argue until they are blue in the face that mecha is silly and has zero military utility. Their argument is usually something like, “If I already have a tank, what is the purpose of turning it into a walking robot? Or if it is a plane why turn it into a walking robot when I can just fly over and drop bombs and such? And besides, with that much weight on a foot it would sink up into the ground!”

Well, this argument is so archaic and unimaginative it is reminiscent of the old gray-beard scientist guy that was keynote speaker at my science paper competition all those years ago. The sinking into the ground statement, which I’ve heard countless times, assumes modern day technology extrapolated in the future. Certainly, lighter weight materials will be invented, or some sort of propulsion augmentation to offset the mass could be developed. This one is just an excuse not to think.

The argument for mecha that transfigures/transforms is simple. It can be explained as changing the envelope of performance of a system. The battle for Fallujah in the Iraqi War in 2004 is a perfect example of how mecha would have been useful. We had many troops in positions about the city with massive insurgency resistance pockets spread about the civilian population. The Marines used M1A1 tanks but had a shortage of them and needed more. The tanks they needed were many days travel away. It was March, and most references describing the battle say they were told that more tanks wouldn’t arrive until April.

Had those tanks been able to transform into flying vehicles and fly to the city even at a modest small aircraft speed, many lives might have been saved and the outcome of the battle might have been dramatically different. This transfiguring tank would have been a very good use of mecha, if only for transport needs. Imagine taking the only method of travel for the tanks, rolling tracks, and adding two more: 1) walking bot and 2) flying tank.

I always smile and nod, I used to argue, when I hear folks speak in absolutes about how one thing or the other is stupid or not. Mecha is a new performance and operating regime for current vehicles. There is always utility in expanded operating envelopes.

One of the technologies used often is immunoboost, which I don’t really dive into until books four and five of the trilogy. (And I should quit calling it a trilogy, I guess.) The idea behind the immunoboost is that it is a mixture of all things that will drive the body into overdrive and heal hundreds of times faster than normal. To aid the process are swarms of nanomachines mixed into the drug. Imagine a biomechanical mixture of adrenaline, stimulants, megadose vitamins, stem cells, super anitvirals and antibiotics, hormones and steroids, and a zillion little machines programmed to return the human anatomy to optimal configuration. Now I don’t really explain how the nanomachines were constructed. We can build rudimentary ones now and these books take place three hundred years or so in the future. There are liable to be picomachines or even smaller ones by then.

Artificial Intelligence, or AI, is very predominant in this universe. Think about how often you ask Google or Siri questions that are almost instantly answered that make you much more proficient at whatever it is you do. Now imagine that search, database, and algorithm deriving and solving power evolved for three hundred years and installed onto a quantum computer. Now imagine you completely remove the tactile and audio interface requirements— they can still be there, but they are superfluous. Imagine that the AI is installed on a tiny quantum computer that is then injected underneath the skin and bone just behind the ear and there is a direct-to-mind or DTM mind machine interface. You can privately converse with the AI just by thinking to it and it will think back to you in your respective “mindvoices.” And, any information and data can be relayed and displayed inside your mind and in front of your eyes in a private heads up display. This is actually what I believe will be one of the next big sweeping changes for humanity. The smartphones have made a major impact on our lives, but imagine in a few years that we can migrate the smartphones into our minds directly and remove any needs for exterior interfaces.

In the first three books, the giant supercarriers and the mecha only have structural integrity fields (SIFs) and not energy barrier shields. The idea behind these shields is that the materials the vehicles are armored with are some sort of metamaterial that uses external electromagnetic fields to align the molecules into a superdense configuration that increases the strength and hardness of the surface of the material. There are actually experiments going on today where we are using just this method in an attempt to create better armor systems. They are still very much in the early research phase. But in Trail of Evil and now in Kill Before Dying, I extrapolated the ideas of controlling and manipulating quantum fields around an object in such a way that any energy or matter incident on the field has its position vector randomly distorted and therefore “bounced” away from the barrier. I don’t know how we would build such a thing yet, but this is physically possible. I believe in these books that this is the first description of a barrier shield that is scientifically realizable and not pure handwavium and magicum. This piece of the story could someday become important.

Along the same lines as the barrier shield are the aliens’ Big Blue Beams of Death from Hell, or the BBDs for short. The beams are some form of very large directed energy beam that can turn corners and track to a target. That’s right, a directed energy beam that turns around corners and is steerable. I can imagine some eyes rolling, but I’ll explain how such beams might work.

Ever shined a laser beam into a swimming pool or other container of water? The beam is in a straight line at first. Then, when it hits the water, it is bent. This is due to the change in index of refraction between the air and the water. Well, vacuum space has an index of refraction of one. But near large gravitational masses like stars or black holes, spacetime is squished into a more dense region of space and the index of refraction is larger than one. Indexes of less than one can be created in a few other phenomena where quantum events and/or large electromagnetic fields are present. Now imagine emitting a beam or wavefront that travels in front of your BBD that alters the spacetime just ahead of the beam’s path in order to steer it as needed. This is possible—and in very small ways can be accomplished with technology we understand today. It’s just that nobody has yet thought to use in such a manner, I suspect.

I could go on and on about the fun stuff this universe has allowed me to create. Kill Before Dying was so much fun to write that, once I finished it, I just kept on going and am working on book six. Bringers of Hell is the working title. One of my favorite technologies that I developed in Kill Before Dying is the random quantum membrane teleportation sequence applied to the spacefighter planes. Imagine being in a dogfight and the enemy fighter planes randomly disappear and reappear in different spatial locations every few seconds. You’d never be able to target something like that! So, I added this concept to the mecha fighters because the enemy they were fighting was so overwhelmingly fast and powerful. In this case Mother Necessity kicked in and sparked a really fun invention.

A major technology used in all the books, and ever improving from book to book, is that of the armored environment suits, also known as powered armor. These suits have exterior metamaterial armor, sensor platforms ranging from radio to quantum, weapons systems, and they have jumpboots that use thrusters to kick them very long distances or to great heights. The suits have near frictionless servo systems and actuators that enhance strength and speed of the wearer as well.

The interior of the suits is something I spent a lot of time thinking about. I have personally conducted experiments where I have built and tested armored suits and I’ve worn spacesuits before. After spending four hours in an armored suit, I realized that the human mind and body have a tendency not to like being trapped inside a container. One can’t scratch anything and going to the bathroom becomes troublesome. Simple diapers in the case of the latter would cause health issues over prolonged use, and in some cases our armored e-suit Marines, AEMs, are in their suits for days and days.

So, I added an interior organic goop layer called “organogel” that absorbs sweat, blood, waste, and so on and moisturizes and maintains the skin for comfort during use. The organogel is also a first line of first aid. The gel fills and seals any traumatic injuries until such time as medical attention can be acquired.

In Kill Before Dying, the suit turns out to be a lifesaver in several instances. Also, I managed to add to the suits a version of the quantum barrier shield, so now they have energy barrier protection as well as armor.

"And how is such a thing powered?" you might ask. While not saying it here and within the books specifically, it is continuously implied throughout the books that quantum vacuum energy or zero point energy is used to power pretty much everything. After all, the quantum vacuum energy is nearly an infinite source if we can just learn to tap into it. There are experiments currently being conducted and planned for the future at various energy research labs across the globe where extraction of energy from the very fabric of spacetime is being tested. Sooner or later they will be successful.

What the Future Brings

So years ago I was asked to write a short story for an anthology called Future Washington. And many years later we have the fifth novel based on the story. Kill Before Dying was one of my absolute favorite novels to write, from the opening scene to the climactic and pivotal battles to the underlying hidden story within the overarching story. And with each new book there are new twists and fun and exciting new technologies to ponder and wonder over. Whether I got it right in these books or not, whatever the future brings will be more exciting and interesting. I can’t wait until we have powered armor suits, mecha space fighters, giant supercarriers, and galactic space travel. Until then, well, I guess I’ll have to settle for reading about it and writing about it in the Tau Ceti Universe.

As it goes so far, I’d say that in One Day on Mars there was a Tau Ceti Agenda that was then thwarted by One Good Soldier and his family. But little did they know that the bad guys had left behind a Trail of Evil and our heroes then swore that it was an evil that they must Kill Before Dying.

Copyright © 2017 Dr. Travis S. Taylor

Dr. Travis S. Taylor is the cocreator and star of the National Geographic Channel’s hit series, Rocket City Rednecks. Taylor is a physicist who has worked on various programs for the Department of Defense and NASA for the past twenty years. His expertise includes advanced propulsion concepts, very large space telescopes, space-based beamed energy systems, future combat technologies, and next generation space launch concepts. Taylor is the author of the ground-breaking Warp Speed series, with entries Warp Speed and The Quantum Connection. He’s also the creator of pulse-pounding, cutting edge science fiction with the Tau Ceti Agenda series including One Good Soldier, The Tau Ceti Agenda, One Day on Mars, Trail of Evil, and Kill Before Dying.