The Devil In the Deep

()I’ve been fighting with myself writing about some pretty heavy topics. And I forget that part of my strategy for sustaining a day-to-day post schedule is writing about light stuff when heavy stuff seems too heavy. Light stuff includes (but is not limited to) my ramblings when I gush about games or I gush about mystery novel tropes or when I imagine games I would make with a robust team of developers. Now I’ve added talking about Fleet & Federation* concepts and card ideas.

This one hadn’t yet even been made into a card.

Sometimes a bunch of ideas get mashed together in my head. While researching maritime terms and phrases, I found Between the devil and the deep blue sea. It’s not a maritime term but a common idiom to describe a dilemma of two bad situations, like a rock and a hard place.**

It made sense, thus, to make a mission titled The Devil in the Deep as a homage to the Star Trek TOS episode The Devil In The Dark. Though I already have Misunderstood Monster which covers the trope around which that script was based.

Also, I had always wanted to include a story that featured a black hole. The problem is, while black holes are dangerous, I struggled to find circumstances for which a star wouldn’t serve just as well, if not better. (I didn’t want to feature an incidental black hole). Black holes have the mass of a star, but they are much much smaller.

Observed black holes (that is to say black holes we know about) are significantly less dangerous than the stars they once were. A ship close enough to a black hole to be strained by tidal forces would be getting good and cooked if the original star was in the same place. Because a black hole is so tiny compared to its gravity well, it’s actually difficult to fall into a black hole. Even a small amount of lateral velocity can assure that a vessel, instead, falls into an eccentric orbit. If the Enterprise wandered too close to a black hole, she’d, at worst, have to rig to endure some modest tidal forces as she slingshotted around the black hole’s orbital periastron, and then escape using normal propulsion when nearing the apastron.

Planets don’t have that option. Not usually.

While improbable, rogue black holes that might drift too close to the Solar System (not even inside it) pose a real threat to human existence. A flyby could destabilize the orbits of all the planets. This might cause a planetary collision, but the greater threat would be an altered (more eccentric) orbit of the Earth around the Sun, where we’d burn to ash at the parhelion and freeze at the aphelion. (A rogue flyby of a star would cause the same problem, but we can see stars that are whizzing by us, and none that we know of are that much threat. We can’t see black holes unless something visible interacts with one.)

Fortunately, Space is really big. And things are really far apart. We don’t really expect big objects adrift to wander too close to our Sun very often: Even a near miss would require a bit of luck or keen marksmanship.

But what if we had a marksman?

For the sake of our story, it’s a life-form who lives near the event horizon of our drifting black hole, using the singularity as a defensive shell and a source of food. Matter that falls into the black hole expends a lot of energy as it’s dismantled, bathing our orbital inhabitant in all sorts of nutritious light.

Our black-hole denizen has good cause to guide its host towards other known matter sources, such as nearby stars. Not that it can guide it much. The black hole is really, really heavy, and doesn’t like to change course, but can be influenced subtly, the way humans might veer an asteroid away from the Earth using a satellite, our black-hole monster can nudge its massive companion by tiny, tiny increments towards food sources.

That is, stars, that are visible on account that they emit light.

So of course, by the time our black-shelled beast comes to Federation attention, it’s already headed for a colonized star system. Evacuating a planet of four billion citizens is difficult to do even with ample time. This is going to be one heck of a mess.

Then an cosmological expedition to study the black-hole discovers there’s something in there, and it’s not behaving like a rock. With more studies, it’s decided this thing could very much be intelligent.

The Enterprise is tapped to try to go talk to it.

In this case, it’s more satisfying (and makes a viable hour-long episode) if captain and crew encounter a Carl-Sagan-type alien (i.e. respectful enough of life and intelligence enough to eat vegan when possible) and not an H.-G.-Wells-type alien (e.g. OM NOM NOM NOM NOM!) and all our intrepid crewmembers have to do is make contact, establish communications and tell the nice monster to steer to that white dwarf over there, pretty please.

Another day in the Fleet. Another world saved.

* Fleet & Federation is a card game I’d developed over the last decade or so, starting around 2005. The basic set is in beta (works, needs tweaking). New cards like The Devil In the Deep mission card would go into an expansion titled Strange New Words. And yes, it features a card Metaphoric Xenolexicony). You can see some of the cards and design art here.

F&F started as a parody of Star Trek (and other Wagon Train IN SPACE! franchises), though at this point the elements are deep enough to serve as more than just for humor’s sake. The design of the game allows players to crew the Enterprise and experience procedurally-generated stories involving strange worlds and strange cultures and strange space phenomena which so far no other games do.

I anticipate if ever it made any money Paramount would sue the crap out of me, even though it’s clearly intentionally removed from the Star Trek franchise. And I’ve made some specific concessions to avoid too much similarity.

I also didn’t want to have to meddle around with staying consistent to other Star Trek material.

Edit: For clarity. Talking about space physics stuff is hard.

** The (classical) maritime version is Between Scylla and Charybdis, two (stationary) sea monsters that work together to feed each other. They’re a known hazard in the Strait of Messina.

Now that there’s also a 2013 Defiance episode also called The Devil In the Dark which currently has a domain name identical to the Star Trek TOS episode (differentiated only by In being upper or lower case), my link may end up obsolete once disambiguation wiki-magic takes place. If the link fails, you can probably still find the Wikipedia episode article by doing a simple search.

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