A Shepherd (cubical) guiding a conversion drive ship towards a wormhole.
System of space-time catapults used to rapidly transport spacecraft and other hardware across the Wormhole Nexus and the Godweb.
The High Road consists of large swarms of Sixth Singularity-level void motes arranged around each wormhole in the Nexus. Spacecraft approaching the wormhole mouth are contacted by the catapult control AI and directed to provide their desired destination. Upon doing so, they are gravitationally accelerated into and through the initial wormhole mouth, routed from the exit mouth through a series of intermediate wormholes to the gateway at their destination, and deposited at the edge of the destination system in flat space just outside the mouth of the local gateway.
Although use of the High Road is not required for transit across the Wormhole Nexus, the speed, reaction mass savings, and convenience it offers have made it an integral part of the Godweb since its addition in the mid-7200s AT.
The most visible manifestations of the High Road are the Waystations. Each Waystation is a spherical structure one kilometer in diameter. The exact number of Waystations orbiting a wormhole varies with the amount of traffic passing through the gateway. The least used wormholes are orbited by a single ring of 25,000 units, while the busiest gates may employ hundreds of thousands of Waystations orbiting in multiple orthogonal bands. The distance between individual Waystations in each band varies depending on the amount of traffic, but generally averages about 41 light-seconds.
Of course, the major infrastructure of the High Road consists of the vast numbers of void motes which are used to move craft through the Nexus. However, these are rarely visible to the unaugmented human eye, except in the rare instances when sufficient numbers congregate together closely enough to distort the starlight passing near or between them.
When one or more vessels approach within one light-second of a Waystation, it establishes contact and determines the desired destination of the travelers. Next, the Waystation extrudes and releases a portion of itself, known as a Shepherd, which takes control of a subset of the local void swarm and approaches to within a few kilometers of the traveler.
The exact size and shape of individual Shepherds can vary considerably and has been observed to run the gamut from simple geometric forms (spheres, cubes, tetrahedra, etc.) less than a meter across to complex and constantly changing three-dimensional fractal abstractions as much as 100 meters in diameter. Some Shepherds manifest as single devices, while others appear as swarms of smaller units all orbiting a common center. Some glow to varying degrees and in different colors, others are utterly dark. Whether the details of a Shepherd's form have a functional basis, or simply represent some sort of aesthetic whim on the part of the Shepherd, the Waystation, the wormhole controller, or the local empire is generally unclear to modosophont entities. Different high transapient and archailect level entities or spokes-beings have provided different, and sometimes contradictory, answers to this question when asked. It is known that Shepherds operating in Negentropic space always and only manifest as matte grey spheres, while those in the NoCoZo have been observed to project corporate logos and advertising across their surfaces. Shepherds transiting from one major empire to another have also been observed to reconfigure themselves to fit the preferred aesthetic of the local culture as they do so.
Once the destination is provided, the Shepherd uses its void swarm to gravitationally accelerate the ship(s) and itself toward the wormhole mouth (to an outside observer the Shepherd and spacecraft both appear to simply start moving away at high speed with no apparent mechanism being employed). Shepherded vessels are accelerated for the first half of the journey through the wormhole mouth to the Throat, decelerated for the second half, and pass through the Throat at low velocities rarely exceeding a few tens of kilometers per hour. Once the ship(s) have cleared the wormhole throat, the Shepherd transports them back to flatspace. If a ship is only making a single wormhole transit, it will be decelerated from the halfway point of its outward journey and released at the edge of the destination wormhole where it can make use of onboard or local transport systems to complete its journey, while its guiding Shepherd travels to the nearest local Waystation and is integrated into it, while its void motes are absorbed into the larger local swarm.
If a ship is making a longer voyage, involving multiple wormhole transits, the Shepherd will remain with it for the entire journey, transporting it between and through each wormhole mouth until the final destination is reached. If multiple vessels from multiple locations are all traveling to the same system, their individual Shepherds may consolidate the vessels together into a single fleet, with each Shepherd either networking with the others to form a combined control system or physically merging to form a larger, and presumably more capable, Shepherd unit.
As any object within the mouth of a wormhole experiences both tidal and shear stresses proportional to its linear or angular velocity, travel time is, in principle, constrained by the G tolerance of the traveler. In practice, a Shepherd controlling a large enough void swam can configure a portion of it to compensate for at least some of the tidal stresses and allow for higher accelerations and velocities than what would otherwise be possible, although such larger swarms are the exception, rather than the rule. This means that transit time is often based on the priority assigned to the passengers or cargo being transported.
In most cases, Shepherd mediated acceleration varies, from .1 standard gravities (usually non-perishable cargo or bulk mass) to as high as 100 gravities (usually transapient or archailect avatars, agents, or created artifacts). Most modosophont crewed vessels are accelerated at 10G, with the travelers making the journey in protective biostasis.
At a sustained acceleration/deceleration of 10G a complete wormhole transit takes about 32 days. Transit times between intermediate wormhole mouths can vary, depending on the distance between them, but rarely exceed 65.15 days (external frame of reference, 58.33 days ship-time) for the longest journey across a Relay system (~ 1 light-month), and are usually much less than this (median transit time = ~46 days).
While the High Road is widely known for its extreme consistency and reliability, exceptions are not unheard of. The High Road and the Godweb it supports are both created by and for the Archai after all, and while the amount of traffic devoted to modosophont travel is only a tiny fraction of the whole, there are times when even that tiny fraction must be diverted to higher purposes.
This is usually due either to a particular vessel or group of vessels being assigned a higher level of importance (during the war against the Amalgamation, PADO craft were routinely accelerated at hundreds of gravities or more) or to High Road resources being diverted for a particularly large or important vessel or other (sometimes mysterious) project. In the latter cases, travelers may need to make do with lower accelerations and longer transit times, at least for their transit of the initial gate, be willing to wait for High Road performance to return to normal, or even (in the rare and extreme cases when High Road performance has been degraded or even removed for a long period of time) making use of onboard propulsion or emergency mass-beam networks set up around the wormhole to fill the gap.
There have also been documented instances of the High Road being used either offensively or defensively during times of apparent great crisis. Both the war against the Amalgamation and the Oracle War include accounts of the High Road either tearing attacking vessels apart or diverting incoming missiles or relativistic impactors in defense of fleeing civilians. High Road diversion or interdiction of incoming traffic has also apparently replaced the much slower method of shrinking and sealing wormholes when a particular portion of the Godweb is closed off for some reason.
Myths, Rumors, and Legends
While the High Road is so ubiquitous and effective as to generally be taken almost completely for granted, there are a number of myths, rumors, and legends that have grown up around it over the millennia of its operation, generally among fringe elements already characterized by their distrust of the Archai or Sephirotic civilization in general. While a complete list of all the stories and their many variations cannot be provided here, a few of the more well-known examples include:
The High Road infrastructure is actually the body and brain of a single 'super-Archailect' that either rules all of the other Archai or is using them as front ends to pretend to be many different high singularity beings, when in reality there is only one.
The High Road can refuse to release travelers using it, trapping them forever in an unending journey through the Nexus until they finally succumb to death or madness. This may happen as a result of technical malfunction or as punishment for offending or interfering with the plans of one Archailect or another.
The High Road can be reconfigured to operate like the halo of a Black Angel, or contains some vast number of Black Angels and other godtech weapons within innumerable void pockets. This apocalyptic arsenal needs only a command from the Archai to unleash utter destruction upon Terragen civilization, eliminating every Nexus linked system within a matter of hours or days, and the rest of the Civilized Galaxy (or the rest of the galaxy entire) shortly afterward.
While considered to be interesting examples of the psychological and social fantasies that some sophonts are prone to either create or share, very few actually take such stories seriously. Even among those who do allow that some or all of the various tales might have an element of truth to them, the vast majority take the view that it wouldn't really matter. Because, if the Archai were to ever decide to abuse their toposophic inferiors, or eliminate them from existence, there would be little or nothing that could be done about it anyway.