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Drift Lanes

Understanding Drift Lanes

Source Ports of Call pg. 12
Any given point in the galaxy corresponds to a point in the Drift, just not in the same configuration; two spots in the Drift a mile apart could correspond to two points 1,000 light-years apart on the Material Plane. Were the Drift a static plane, reaching the desired point might require light-years of travel—little better than just using conventional thrusters in the galaxy. Fortunately, the Drift isn’t static. It constantly folds in on itself.
As an analogy, imagine that the Drift is a towel in a clothes dryer, each loop of thread corresponds to a Material Plane destination, and a starship traveling through the Drift is a speck of lint. As the towel tumbles and churns, different loops briefly brush against each other, and the lint might get passed from one loop to the other. By random chance, the lint eventually lands on the desired loop. Fortunately, a starship isn’t so helpless. In addition to transferring a starship into and out of the Drift, a Drift engine lets a pilot predict when figurative loops will align, allowing them to plot a course and reach their destination by making a few strategic hops. The more Drift beacons a destination has, the more its corresponding loop tends to brush past others, making it easier to track and access. Of course, planar gyrations are virtually undetectable to mortal senses, and even as a starship leaps halfway across the Drift, it usually looks like it’s just coasting through the plane’s placid clouds.
When the Drift Crisis struck, it tore the figurative towel in a million places. Jumping from one loop to the next might accidentally send the starship through the towel, only to land on an unrelated loop or even get hurled into the cosmic machine’s lint trap. For a time, the towel seemed to be unraveling, but—through miraculous developments scientists haven’t fully identified yet—something stitched the tears closed. The Drift Crisis ended, and the Drift was repaired—mostly. Most notably, the towel now has a lot of loose threads, and after a few revolutions in the dryer, the threads snagged on various loops. Now, while a Drift pilot can still chart a course the traditional way to one of these snagged locations, they have a new option: just follow that loose thread from A to B, with no chance of getting lost.
Those loose threads represent the Drift lanes. Some connect just two points and attach to nothing else. Others chain together, leapfrogging across the Drift, whereas others still snagged multiple threads, turning those points into invaluable junctions. Using a Drift lane is almost always faster and safer than charting one’s own path to a Near Space location, and even zigzagging along a few Drift lanes can outpace a conventional trip to the Vast. However, since a Drift lane isn’t a highway, a starship can’t take an exit ramp and reach a point somewhere between the two ends. Exiting a Drift lane prematurely means entering a random point in the Drift.
Physical Description: A Drift lane functions like a massive, flexible tunnel; its internal diameter measures several miles across, with certain sections widening or narrowing depending on surrounding conditions within the Drift. The walls are typically semi-translucent and thick, resembling a shimmering heat mirage or gelatinous sheath. This boundary softly repels attempts to move through it, keeping most starships from accidentally veering off-course but not preventing a determined vessel from pushing through the side and exiting into the rest of the Drift (after which the breach seals shut).
From the outside, a Drift lane is functionally indistinguishable from the rest of the Drift. Given a lane shifts and flexes along with the rest of the plane, its exact position changes frequently. Due to these qualities, identifying and interacting with a Drift lane from outside is impractical, if not impossible. No matter how much its exterior form appears to shift, anyone inside a Drift lane experiences limited movement, with the path curving gently and only rarely turning or twisting dangerously.
Opportunities and Perils: Particularly for worlds in the Vast, Drift lanes provide unprecedented accessibility, and unrelated planets that now share a lane often develop exciting partnerships. Transporting cargo, passengers, and ideas between key locations is faster than ever, fueling economic and intellectual booms.
However, conventional Drift travel has one big advantage: it’s almost untraceable. Pirates once had to lurk near planets or raid settlements because catching a starship mid-Drift was almost impossible. However, Drift lanes enable blockades and ambushes along valuable routes, allowing brigands to patrol narrow routes carrying valuable cargo and heralding a new golden age of piracy.
New Lanes: The concept of Drift lanes is new to science. Within a few months, explorers identified many of the major Drift lanes known today, yet new lanes emerge periodically, and indeed, the exact workings of these lanes have yet to be fully understood. Did newly discovered lanes appear more recently than others? If so, what makes new Drift lanes? Is their number finite, or are there countless Drift lanes yet to be found, hiding across the galaxy’s expanse? Are Drift lanes permanent, or might they fade or migrate with time? A few conduits, colloquially called Drift threads, don’t seem to connect to planets, instead linking two unremarkable voids. Are these areas where future worlds might one day exist? Are the threads floating through the Drift until they snag and permanently connect two existing worlds? Or, are they just leftovers from the Crisis, like abandoned genes hiding amid useful DNA? Are they even Drift lanes or some related phenomenon?
Testing these hypotheses could take the efforts of a generation. Fortunately, whether it’s universities or organizations like the Starfinder Society promoting science, governments and militaries shoring up defenses, or companies uncovering efficient new ways to extract wealth and deliver goods, there’s no shortage of potential patrons eager to hire explorers and adventurers to locate and chart unknown Drift lanes.