In the Firebreak universe, wormhole gates are the only practical means of interstellar communication and travel within a reasonable (to humans) timeframe. While the exact mechanics of the gate are far beyond this correspondent’s humble scientific knowledge, permit me to provide you with a layperson’s overview.
Wormholes — connections bridging two distinct points in the fabric of space-time — were first observed in ancient times, pre-spaceflight, perhaps fifteen or sixteen centuries ago. They were viewed mostly as a curiosity — popping into existence for a few nanoseconds, then collapsing back into nonexistence. But as humanity exceeded the carrying capacity of the Sol system and descended once again into vicious resource-driven conflicts, desperation drove several groups to explore the harnessing of wormholes to reach other stars in a practical way. The records of their research are lost to the ages, but we can be sure there was a great deal of trial and error before the key was found.
That key was dark energy, that elusive ingredient embedded throughout the local galactic cluster. One research team was able to create an anchor, essentially a giant tap into the pervasive dark energy field. With an anchor in place, if a wormhole formed nearby, the energy accessible by the anchor could be delivered to the wormhole’s structure, stabilizing and enlarging it. If enough energy was provided, it would create a theoretically-permanent structure in spacetime — what we now call a wormhole gate.
Following this breakthrough, it still took many years to perfect the process. It was impossible to predict at what locations a wormhole might appear, so some of the first anchors sat idle for great lengths of time. When wormholes did form, the vast majority of the time they linked to points which were not ideal for human settlement — a system of gas giants, or the burnt out cinders of a brown dwarf. But over time, a few viable candidates did arise, and these became the first permanent wormhole gates.
During the past twelve centuries, success and tragedy have helped us understand a few key principles of wormhole gate mechanics. These include:
Making a quick decision on whether or not to invest in a recently stabilized wormhole. The investment of energy into a wormhole can only be reversed for a short time — on the order of one hundred standard hours. After that time, the wormhole gate is semi-permanent. Thus, during the age of rapid expansion, all wormhole gate stations were equipped with extensive scanning equipment to enable them to make a quick decision on whether the wormhole’s opposite end was an attractive destination for settlement.
Please note my frequent use of the phrase semi-permanent. In the early days, wormholes had an annoying tendency to catastrophically collapse within months or years of their establishment. While establishing a second anchor at the opposite end of the wormhole seems to have eliminated this problem, no one is quite sure why.
So permanance is a relative concept. Unfortunately, not relevative enough, because of the inverse problem alluded to above — once the gate has been fully stabilized, it cannot be released from the anchor without explosive consequences. All attempts to do in a controlled manner, including the infamous test in the Sol system itself, have led to catastrophe. This became a nuisance when the Firebreak was established, as the gates that lead from Confederation Worlds to the so-called “Lost Colonies” outside the Firebreak still exist. Only the vigilance of SpaceGuard and the Confederation Government have kept the Firebreak truly effective.
The wormholes themselves, normally very small, are enlarged when the gate is established. The amount of energy required to accomplish this increases exponentially as the diameter of the passage increases. Thus, transit is limited to one or two ships at a time, plus communication.
For unknown reasons of space-time topology, wormholes are unlikely to form between two points that are very close together, or very far apart. While theoretically a wormhole could open between a system in the Confederation and a point billions of light years away, in practice the vast majority connect points that are a few light years to a few thousand light years across. Thus, even at its peak pre-Tech Plague, humanity has only explored a relatively small area of its own galaxy.
Of course, these days there is no need for such exploration. Indeed, no new wormhole gates have been established since the Tech Plague, leading some malcontents to wonder whether we still possess the requisite skill. I ask you, why ponder such ridiculous things, when the Confederation has achieved so much behind the stability of the Firebreak?