The Hordes of Chanakra, Snippet Two

The series starts here

 Kaila watched her newfound companion from beneath lowered lids as they walked.  He was an odd one.  His name, Kreg, what kind of name was that for a man, just a single, harsh syllable.  The barbarian hordes of the Anor and Selb had such names, but no one else.  Yet he could not be one of their ilk as they were short of stature and dark of skin.  The tallest of them would be able to walk without stooping, without even bowing his head, beneath Kreg’s outstretched arm.

He had courage enough, certainly.  That he could face three briganti while armed only with a staff ‘gainst their swords, and even toss the staff away to face them unarmed, told her that.  That he could do so in the depths of exhaustion told her that he had more than mere courage, but possessed the strength of will that oft’ marked true heroism and nobility.  Indeed, she could only name three of the Knights of Aerioch who would do so under such conditions for anyone other than the noble born.

As they walked, he seemed to shrink into himself.  Kaila knew what he was feeling.  When the battle-rush fades, it leaves one more tired than before.

A movement drew her attention for a moment, as someone retreated before them into deeper shadow.  A robber, as she supposed, unwilling to try her sword.  In the dimness she caught the hint of a face, the gleam of eyes.  Those eyes gazed, for a moment, on Kreg, then flicked her way just before the robber slipped yet further into the shadow and into invisibility.  Or not a robber.  That gaze directed at Kreg….

Did Kreg have some enemy dissuaded by his coming under her care?  She did not know.  Such thoughts were too deep for her.  Later, when she could speak to Shillond alone, she would ask him.

At her side, Kreg walked on, seeming not to have noticed.  This brought a frown to her face and she stopped. “Kreg.”

He froze.

“If you must be about at night, it would be well if you blundered not about like a blind pig.”

“I don’t understand,” Kreg said.

Kaila pointed at a shadowed doorway. “Not a dozen heartbeats past, someone stood within the shadows yon.  Whether man or woman, I know not, but surely meaning no good at this hour.  The one within skulked away as we approached.”

“I didn’t see,” Kreg said.

“Aye.  You did not see.  This time the skulker in shadows quailed from facing us, but what of the next?  If one were to strike at you, an’ you not be aware to defend yourself, you could be slain before I could come to your aid.”

“I…see.” Kreg’s expression became distant for a few heartbeats.  Kaila surmised that he was pondering his fortune that no one had waylaid him before she had taken him in hand.

“Be cautious,” Kaila said, “and ‘ware of such things.”

Kreg nodded slowly.

“Come,” she said and shook her head.  Stout heart Kreg may have, but he had no more wit than a babe in this town.

The inn where she and her father, Shillond, abode was not far.  This was fortunate, as the skies would soon unleash their pent fury.  And while storms were few, and short, here on the verge of the desert, they were all the more fierce for their shortness, as though all the fury of northern storms squeezed into one or two candles of time.  Kaila led Kreg to the back entrance of the inn, avoiding the crowds in the common room.  As they entered the building the first drops of rain fell.

Kaila climbed the stairs followed by Kreg to a room in the upper floor of the building where she knocked on the door. “Shillond?  It is I, Kaila.  I have returned.”


After Kreg had followed Kaila to the inn and she had knocked on the door to announce their presence, she opened the door.  A fringe of gray hair framed the bald pate of the short and stout man who stood on the other side of the doorway.  The lines of his face told Kreg a story of frequent laughter and his eyes held the hint of a twinkle that Kreg suspected was a permanent fixture.  Those eyes were the green of new-mown grass.  One look at this man’s face made Kreg want to trust him.

“Kaila!  Come in.  Come in.  Who’s your friend?”

“This is Kreg,” she said. “He braved three briganti with that staff of his.  Killed one, the other two fled.  The fight was over ‘ere I could intervene.”

“Which upset you, I’m sure,” Shillond said.

Kaila shrugged. “He has an interesting story, I daresay.  I have heard enough to know it is beyond me.”

“Really?  Shillond shook his head. “Child, whatever am I going to do with you?  You are always taking in strays.” He smiled.

Before Kreg could even begin to feel uncomfortable about the banter over him, Shillond smiled at him and said, “Don’t mind me.  We have this argument quite often.  Last week it was an injured sparrow; the week before, an orphaned fawn; Kaila has difficulty realizing that she cannot save the entire world from hurt and harm.” He cast a sidelong glance at his daughter.

“And if I cannot defend all the weak and helpless of the world,” Kaila said, “Is that not all the more reason to defend and aid those who do come under my hand?”

Weak and helpless, Kreg thought.  That means me.

Shillond grinned and turned his attention back to Kreg. “But we forget our manners.  Sit.  We have neither food nor drink to hand or I would offer….”

“I understand.” Kreg stepped through the door to find himself in a small room of rough-hewn wood, the kind that made him wary of splinters.  Several three-legged wooden stools stood scattered about the room but their rickety construction appeared hardly likely to support his weight.  Gingerly, he lowered himself onto one.  It creaked, but held.  Wind-driven rain sheeted against the wood tiles above them making him glad that he was inside.

“So you have a story?” Shillond sat on another stool with far more confidence.  Kaila sat on the bed, tucking her legs under her.

“Of sorts.” Kreg pursed his lips and thought for a moment.  Not knowing where to start, he decided to start at what he thought was the beginning. “I suppose it begins at home, in my land, I mean.  I was walking home from my–” He realized that the language he had somehow learned had no word for his job. “–call it a shop, I guess.  As I passed an alley I saw a mugging well on its way to becoming rape.” He frowned at the memory and anger rose fresh in his mind.  The man had ripped the woman’s blouse half off and had been fumbling at her bra.  If there was one thing he hated more than a bully it was a rapist, the ultimate bully. “I had to stop it.”

“So you engaged the villain with your staff?” Kaila said. “What man of honor could do less?” The fury on her own face told Kreg all he needed to know of Kaila’s feelings about rape, feelings which apparently mirrored his own.

“Kaila, hush,” Shillond said. “Let the man finish.”

After a nod of acknowledgment to Shillond, Kreg said to Kaila, “Not quite.  You see, we don’t generally carry weapons in my country.” He waved off the shocked look on their faces. “I know you think that absurd but it’s the truth.  I am somewhat skilled in a form of unarmed combat.  We call it…” Kreg hesitated.  The name he knew it by would mean nothing to these people, so he translated. “We call it The Way of Yielding.  It’s a sport mainly, practiced for exercise and entertainment, but useful at times.” He laughed. “What I didn’t realize what that the filth had a friend.  Somebody hit me from behind.”

He shivered at the memory. “This is where it starts to get weird.  As I fell, I felt a…wrenching, as if I were being turned inside out, but strangely not an unpleasant sensation at all.  My head hit something hard and I don’t remember anything else for a while.  When I woke, I lay, naked, in the desert with a lump growing on the back of my head the size of an ostrich egg.  I’d already gotten a bad sunburn.”

“Os-trich?” Shillond asked.

“Shillond, hush,” Kaila said. “Let the man finish.”

A faint smile caressed Kreg’s lips at the by-play. “A tribe of nomads found me.  It seems their customs required them to feed and clothe anyone they found in such need.  I had awakened near a water hole, but I had no protection from the sun.  The sunburn was so bad when they found me that I was sick for days.

“I thought I was going to die.  But they were patient and gentle with me.  They smeared some kind of paste on my skin and lay wet cloths over me to ease the pain of the burns.  They made me drink water with salt and some kind of berry juice in it.  That helped the sickness.  After a few days, I felt like living again.

“Another few days later I was able to do their chief a good turn and gained a little more open welcome among them, although they never did figure out quite what to do with me.  After about two weeks, the shaman told me something about smoke and needing to find my way among the people of iron and stone.  I left the nomads and made my way to Trevanta.  Here I found those three men attacking another and the rest you know.”

And what a terrifying decision leaving the nomads had been.  He could have remained with the nomads, lived with them, perhaps even married one of their women.  That would have been safe, but something he could not explain had told him that the shaman had been right and he had to leave.

“Interesting,” Shillond said. “You speak Shendi well for a mere two weeks in this region, or do you come from some lost colony of the Empire of Shend?”

“That’s part of what makes this so strange,” Kreg said. “This isn’t any language I’ve heard before, yet I could speak it from the moment I first met the nomads.” He shook his head.

“I don’t understand any of this.  Simplest explanation is that I’m lying in that alley with a fractured skull and you are all the hallucinations of a dying man.” He waved a hand, as if to dismiss the thought.

“I have some knowledge of foreign lands,” Shillond said. “Perhaps if you described your land and its neighbors, I may be able to recognize them even if I don’t know the name.”

Kreg shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“Oh?” Shillond asked.

Kreg laughed. “No, and I doubt you’ll believe the reason why not.”

“You can only try.” Shillond said.

“All right.” Kreg shrugged. “Where I come from we’ve explored the whole of the world and there is nothing like Trevanta anywhere.  And where I come from, there’s only one moon.  So I must be on some other world, either that or I am lying in that alley.”

“Travel between worlds?” Shillond stood up and began to pace.  A few seconds later, he stopped. “It is possible, I suppose, but I know of no one who has ever done so.”

“Jandak, Father,” Kaila said, “He crossed the great void before the world was.”

“Yes, Kaila,” Shillond said, “And spoke to the God of another world and brought back the plan by which the world was made.  I know.  But Jandak is one of the three First Gods.  No mortal has ever done so and I know of no wizards of sufficient power to make the attempt.  I do not have such power.”

“Wait a minute.” Kreg stood up. “Gods?  Wizards?” Shillond had sounded so intelligent, so rational, that Kreg had not considered that he could believe in magic.  And yet, did Kreg have any better explanation for how he had come here?

“Of course,” Shillond said, clearly puzzled by Kreg’s question. He turned his right hand, face up, and a ball of light appeared in the palm. “I know a thing or two about magic.”

Kreg’s world spun about him once more.  He had seen magic tricks before but no one had ever done anything like that.  The light was not fire, nor was it a glowing object.  It was simply light, a ball of blue light.

“I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto,” he murmured.

He fought down an urge to babble.  Magic.  There really was magic here.  Either everything he knew about reality was wrong or he was not just on a different world but in a different reality.

Shillond stared into Kreg’s eyes for a moment, his gaze forming a bastion to which Kreg clung while his world reoriented itself.

“It is late,” Shillond said. “Might I suggest that a meal and drinks would be in order?”

“Aye,” Kaila said. “Roast venison would suit me well, if they have it in this place.”

Kreg had almost forgotten that he was hungry but Shillond’s suggestion made his stomach rumble.  He nodded and licked his lips.

“The fare in the common room,” Shillond said, “although not up to the standards of Aerioch, shall suffice I think.  And we will not have to brave the storm.” He opened the door and motioned the two others to precede him. “Shall we go?”

Other stories set in this world: 

The Hordes of Channakra: Snippet One

The sun had sunk below the distant peaks before Kreg reached the walled city, the like of which Kreg had never seen before. Mail-clad armsmen, wielding spears and short swords, stood guard atop the gray stone walls. Walls.  Around a city.  And men armed with swords and spears.  That was something he had only read about, something that only happened in the distant past, not in the present, not in the world Kreg knew.

In the distance, the last rays of the setting sun blooded tendrils of clouds stretching as diaphanous claws from the wall looming in the east. Those bloody claws reaching from the blackening hand gave warning of an approaching storm.

Kreg leaned on his staff and rubbed at his neck. Healing blisters still itched, legacy of the sunburn that had almost killed him after he found himself naked and alone in the desert. The waterskin slung over his shoulder, long since drained, slapped empty against his side.  The rutted track stretched behind him a dozen miles to where he had said his goodbyes to the nomads. His shoulders rose and fell in time with his deep, ragged breaths.

“The smoke does not command,” the shaman had said that morning. “It only gives counsel. And the counsel is that your path lies among others, among those of steel and stone. This is the Gods’ word, as told by the smoke. You will always be welcome in Three Mountain’s Clan, but it is to others you must go and this is the time to leave.”

Two weeks in this strange world and Kreg had to leave the only friends he had come to know.

“Halt and state your business,” said one of the mail-clad men from the top of the wall at Kreg’s approach.  The language was the same as what Kreg had somehow known when he first met the desert nomads although the dialect was different.

“I seek food and lodging.”  Kreg leaned against the staff, like his clothing a gift from the nomads.

“What brings you to Trevanta?”

“I am a traveler.” Kreg suppressed a hysterical laugh as he thought of just how far he had traveled, farther than the guard could possibly imagine. “I . . . was told I needed to be here.”

“A damn nomad.” The voice held more than a hint of disgust. “Off with yo–“ A softer voice interrupted the first speaker. Kreg only understood a few of the words of the second speaker.  Something about coin?  “He might have some coin?”

“As you say,” the first voice said, then louder, “Alone you are no doubt as harmless as you are worthless, nomad.  Enter and be done.”

The portcullis creaked upward.  Kreg shuddered. The spikes reaching downward from the bottom of the gate and the shadows beyond it made the opening look like a giant mouth preparing to swallow him whole. The gray wood doors behind the gate blew a blast of fetid air over him as they creaked open.

He swallowed once and forced the apprehension to the back of his mind as he limped through the gateway.

Rutted dirt streets, led in all directions.  The buildings blocked most of the light of the setting sun and the smaller of the twin moons leaving the city’s depths shrouded in gloom.  Trampled piles of animal dung littered the streets.  Since no street differed from any another that Kreg could see, he set off down the road that led straight ahead, into the city’s interior.

Kreg remembered the first time he had seen that second moon.  He had known then that he had not just appeared in some distant land, but on a whole other world.  Once more he fought down the panic that arose at that thought.  Another world, a world of two moons, dropped among people who wandered with their herds from well to well to well in the desert, then to a city guarded by stone walls and mail-clad men armed with spears and swords.  Had anyone ever been so lost before?

He hobbled through the soot-black shadows, his pace slow as the strap of his right sandal stung where it had rubbed his ankle raw.  He clung to his staff, leaning his weight onto it every time his right foot touched ground.  He had long since given up on trying to adjust that strap for comfort.  At one step something squished underfoot, releasing a noxious odor to assault his nose.

At the next intersection, Kreg peered down all four streets.  The narrow streets and the heavy clouds, which had rolled in with the setting of the sun, conspired to prevent him from seeing more than a few yards.  He gnawed at his lower lip as he considered.  The nomads had given him a few coins but he did not know how long they would have to last.  He doubted he would find anything like the welfare departments and homeless shelters of his own world.  The best he could hope for was a church that gave aid to the poor.  Yet he did not even know what religions exited, let alone which might have a tradition of charity. He did not even know what a church or temple might look like.  None of what he remembered from the stacks of history books he read helped him now, not even the time he had spent with the middle ages reenactment group gave any guidance.

He would have thought this a dream, created from the stories he had read, had it not continued so long.

Stumbling around the city at random seemed a hopeless task yet he did not know what else to do.

“Oh, God,” he whispered as once again despair and panic rose up within him. “What am I going to do?”

A moment later he shook his head and pushed the feeling down, where it lay like a block of ice in his belly.  He began walking once more.

A door opened ahead of him, releasing a pair of short, burly men into the street.  Through the open doorway Kreg saw men sitting around tables, drinking from enormous flagons before the door closed again.

An appetizing smell wafted past Kreg’s nose, driving away even the stink of the street, a smell of meat and broth and of fresh bread baking.  Hunger drove even his despair away.  He had not eaten since that morning.  For a moment Kreg considered entering and parting with some of his sparse funds in exchange for a meal.  He extended his hand toward the door then caught himself.  He could survive a night without food, but he might not survive a night without shelter if the storm clouds rolling in were any indication.  And meals in a tavern would be expensive at a time when he would have to make his few coins last.  He would be wiser to wait until day and find someplace where he could buy cheap food.  With a regretful glance over his shoulder, he walked away from the tavern.

After some time Kreg stopped.  Two lanterns, set on the ground, illuminated the scene before him.  Two men dressed in embroidered waistcoats over short-sleeved tunics and knee-length breeches held an old man wearing tattered robes by his shoulders, pressed against a wall.  A third waistcoated man drew back a fist in preparation for striking the old man.  Blood ran from the old man’s nose and smeared his upper lip.  More blood marked the old man’s lower lip and chin.

Kreg considered turning and leaving.  This was not his affair and he had troubles enough of his own.  But another look, at the blood trickling from the old man’s mouth and nose, quickly quelled any such notion.  Anger rose within him as his hands tightened on the staff and his lips pulled tight and thin.

Kreg rapped the tip of his staff against the boards of the walk.  “Don’t you think that’s enough?” Kreg asked, anger driving all traces of exhaustion from Kreg’s voice.

The men whirled to face him, releasing the old man, who slumped against the wall but remained upright.

“I’ll say when it’s enough,” said the man who had been doing the beating. “And I say it’s just begun.” He drew a long thin sword. “Begone, you.”

Typical bullies, Kreg thought, keeping what passes for brains in their muscles, and bone and muscle where their brains should be.  These were the same kind who had tormented him throughout his childhood until his parents had found a teacher for him and he had soon needed to fear bullies no more.

Kreg straightened his shoulders and looked down to meet the man’s eyes.  Drawn to his full height, he stood a full head taller than any of these men.  He held his staff in his left hand, one end planted on the ground, the shaft tilted forward and to the side.  Kreg’s right hand, under the cover of his cloak, gripped the cloak pin.

He drew a deep breath and blew it out slowly, then rolled his shoulders and curled his back, first to one side then the other.  With luck, the quick stretch would leave the men thinking Kreg were preparing some secret attack.  Whatever the men thought, the exercise served its primary purpose.  When Kreg spoke, his voice held no hint of either fatigue or fear, and most of his anger was under control. “Put that toy away.”

Raising his voice in a shrill shriek the man charged.  His sword snapped outward, the point driving at Kreg’s belly.

Kreg dropped his staff.  His right hand pulled his cloak pin free as his left hand came up to his collar.  He whirled the cloak from around his shoulders and around, tangling, for an instant, the other man’s sword and driving it aside.  In the instant that the other man’s sword was deflected Kreg stepped forward.  He released the hold on his cloak and grasped the other’s right sleeve with his left hand.  He stepped in further, pulling hard on the man’s arm, keeping him off balance while he grabbed the back of the man’s neck with his right hand.  He continued to turn, fitting his hips into the socket where the man’s upper body bent forward.  His right leg swept up, driving hard against the inside of the other’s left thigh.  Kreg swept his right leg up higher and pushed hard with his right hand, driving the man headfirst to the ground.  There was a soft crack then the man convulsed once and lay still.

Kreg stared at the body at his feet.  A stone.  His head must have hit a stone.  Bile rose in his throat and he swallowed furiously, fighting down an urge to vomit.

“All right,” Kreg’s voice sounded a little shaky, even to himself as he turned to face the other two men again. He managed to cover uncertainty with volume. “Who’s next?”

The two remaining men responded by backing away, their swords held at low guard.  In the gleam of the lantern light, Kreg could see their eyes darting from one side to the other.

“If that’s the case,” Kreg stooped to retrieve his staff and lifted it overhead, one end pointing at the nearer of the two men, the other slanting up and back, “get!” Kreg hoped that the pose would make him look larger than he was.

The men turned and ran.  Kreg sighed and let his arms drop loosely, still holding the staff.  His whole body shook.

“Oh, wondrous well done!” The voice came from close behind Kreg.
With a yelp, Kreg pivoted to face the direction from which the voice had come.

The voice belonged to a woman in her early twenties, about Kreg’s own age.  She was tall, nearly matching Kreg’s six feet, and towering over anyone Kreg had yet met on this world.  A tunic of chain mail covered her to mid thigh and down each arm to her wrist.  A massive sword hung down her back.  Leather boots encased her legs, their tops disappearing under the hem of her mail tunic.

“Kaila,” she said. “Knight in the service of King Marek Caelverrem.  And you?”

“I am Kreg,” he said. “I am a stranger in these parts, a traveler.”

“One of the desert nomads?” Kaila asked.

“No,” Kreg said, “Though I stayed with them for a time.”

They regarded each other for a few seconds, Kaila’s eyes, a gray that was almost silver meeting Kreg’s blue eyes.

“But we’re forgetting someone,” Kreg said.  He turned to look for the old man but found that he had already gone.  A moment later, Kreg saw the old man down the street, stooping from time to time to pick up something from the street and put it into a large bag.

“Have you never been to Trevanta before?” Kaila asked as she stooped to examine the dead swordsman, tugging at the body’s legs to pull it to its full length. “No,” she said before Kreg could respond. “I perceive not.  Still, few have I seen in this city given to much honor.  None, it is certain, who would have come to the aid of that one–” She jerked her head in the direction the old man had gone. “–saving perhaps me or my father.  As I saw you before you met those Briganti, you seemed to be wandering without purpose.  Have you no place to go?” She looked up at him.

Kreg sighed. “No, not really.”

“As I thought,” Kaila said. She removed something from the swordsman’s belt and flipped the body onto its back.  She then rubbed her upper lip for a moment and before continuing. “Come.  I will introduce you to my father, Shillond.  From him you will receive wise counsel.”

“Fair enough,” Kreg said.  Although he felt uncertain about following a stranger into the unknown, he could not suppress a surge of relief.  He could use advice from someone, anyone, who knew about this world, and no nonsense about smoke.

Kaila rose smoothly to her feet.  In her right hand she held a small leather pouch which she opened and inspected its contents. “Three norbeni, half a dozen rabeni, and a few ve’ib.  A good catch from such a one.”

She tossed the pouch to Kreg who caught it by reflex. “Law of this city.  A villain, slain in pursuit of villainy.  What was his, is now yours.”

Kreg stood looking at the pouch in his hand. “Brutal law.”
Kaila cocked her head to one side and stared at him for a moment. Her shoulders rose a bare fraction of an inch, and then dropped. “This city is scarce lifted from barbarism, it is true.”

“I see.” Kreg sighed. “Shall we go?”

“‘Twould be the course of wisdom to take yon briganti’s sword as well.” Kaila pointed at the weapon. “You have shown a skill remarkable without arms but such would serve you naught ‘gainst one more skilled than this briganti.”

Kreg laughed. “I’d be more likely to slice off my own head if I tried to use a sword.”

“You are unskilled in the sword?” Kaila looked Kreg up and down. “And yet, you would be so foolish as to be abroad after nightfall in a city unknown.”

If Kreg’s being out after nightfall was foolish than Kaila was as much fool as he.  He decided it would be wiser not to say so. “I . . . didn’t have a choice.”

Kaila regarded him for a moment. “I am a stranger in this city, but I think you are more so.  Whence come you?”

This was a hard question to answer in a way she would understand so he did not try. “I am from Earth,” he said. “Ever hear of it?”

“It must be far indeed,” Kaila said. “I am familiar with all the lands hereabouts and never have I heard the name, nor seen it writ on any map. ‘Tis not of the eight known kingdoms.  Still, whatever the customs of your land you would be wise to take the sword and learn its use.”

With an exasperated sigh, Kreg removed the sword belt from the corpse, struggling for a moment with the body’s weight.  He could at least humor her.  Besides, she could be right.  She knew local conditions far better than he did.  Primitive societies could be, often were, quite violent, with an unarmed man seen as fair game by anyone who wished to practice a little robbery, or a little assault as he had just witnessed.

He had, after all, just wished for advice and it would be foolish to spurn the offered advice.

He sheathed the sword and buckled the belt around his waist.  He then stooped again to retrieve his cloak and fastened the pin under this throat. “Now, Shall we go?”

Other stories set in this world: 

Blast from the past: Science, Science Fiction, and the Possible

There has been some recent discussion online about the future, particularly the claim that Humanity will forever be limited to the Earth, that space colonies, and especially travel to the stars, will forever remain pipe dreams.

I, of course, disagree.  But it led to the thought of just what the limits of the possible might be and, particularly, how certain limits that scientific theory imposes on those limits might be.

This is a topic on which I have written before:


Some folks say that science fiction should be limited to what is possible according to current scientific theory.  Others (and I count myself among them) are a bit more flexible.

Imagine it’s 1890 and you’re a physical scientist.  Someone approaches you with the following:

“I have here two lumps of a material called Uranium 235.  If you slam them together correctly, they will release energy with the explosive force of more than one hundred million sticks of dynamite.”

You’d laugh at him.  The very idea is preposterous.  First off, what’s this “235” business?  Uranium is Uranium.  It doesn’t come in types.  You’re familiar with the atomic theory of matter, right?  Atomic.  From the Greek atomos.  It means “indivisible.  A Uranium atom is a Uranium Atom is a Uranium atom.  And this ridiculous release of energy?  Energy can neither be created or destroyed.  You’ve can convert from one form to another but that’s about it.  If there was so much energy, whether chemical or mechanical, in Uranium to do as you suggest, it would tend to go off at the slightest provocation–Like, say, sneezing anywhere in the same county.  What you suggest is flat out theoretically impossible.

Now, instead, suppose someone approached you with the following instead:

“You know, if you applied a force to something, like say with a rocket, and continued applying it for long enough, there is no ultimate bar to how fast it could go.  Enough force, for enough time, and one could travel between the stars in weeks, if not days.  Of course that much acceleration would crush most things and the engineering challenges are probably prohibitive, but there’s no theoretical bar to it.”

You’d probably have to agree.  After all speed is simply acceleration over time, and acceleration is simply force divided by mass.  Enough force, applying enough acceleration, for enough time and any speed could be achieved without limit, at least theoretically.  The engineering challenges might be prohibitive but there were no theoretical limits.

Now, instead of 1890 imagine it’s 1990.  Now the possibility/impossibility of those two events have reversed.  We’ve discovered the electron, neutron, and proton and learned that, far from being “indivisible” the atom is actually made up of components.  We’ve discovered that there are differences among atoms–isotopes–of the same element.  And we’ve discovered that matter and energy can be interchanged and very small amounts of matter can, in the right circumstances, be converted to very large amounts of energy.  And we’ve demonstrated the very thing in the first example–slapping two pieces of Uranium 235 together to make whopping big explosions. (And using different materials we’ve made even bigger booms.)  As for the other, we’ve found that force applied to an object will produce different accelerations depending on how fast one sees the object of moving and the faster it is moving–the closer it’s speed is to that of light–the less acceleration a given force will produce, with the result that it can never reach, let alone exceed, the speed of light.

Back in 1890 physical theory would declare certain things to be flat out impossible.  Other things were theoretically possible but perhaps practically impossible (such as, say, focusing light so that it can burn through an inch of steel in the blink of an eye).  Other things were readily achievable.

With the revolution in modern physics that came shortly thereafter, those categories got shuffled.  Some things that were utterly impossible under the old theory were found to be possible and even achievable once you knew how.  Other things that had been theoretically possible but difficult (which was why they had not yet been done) were found to be theoretically impossible.

The one constant was that things that had already been done clearly had to remain possible.  Obviously, whatever has been done is possible. (What was done might not necessarily be what you think was done–ask any stage magician–but what was done remains possible.)

So what about 2090?  Or 2190?  or 9990?  Will the things that the physical theory of that future day considers possible and impossible be the same as today?

I suggest that it is only hubris that would lead one to suggest that they will.  Unless one believes that we have actually achieved the final answer to physical theory, that all our current answers to “how does the universe work” are right, then one must conclude that some things we think are possible will very likely turn out to be impossible.  And some things we think are impossible (theoretically impossible) will turn out to be possible after all.

And nobody knows which things.

As a writer of science fiction set in the future (or in a present with alien cultures more advanced than our own), part of the job is to explore these possibilities.  Now, most people don’t expect a science fiction writer to explore the detailed ramifications of “what if conservation of Baryon number can be violated?” or “what if it’s possible to alter the Pauli Exclusion Principle?” or even “What if Planck’s Constant isn’t actually a constant?” but limiting oneself to what we now “know” is probably the last likely future of all.