Life on the Frontier

An Explorer ship can expect to be out of touch for more than two years at a stretch with only the most infrequent contact with other Explorers or with urgent messages delivered by fast-transfer Wormhole-capable ships. Due to the distances involved, direct EM transmission is simply not practical. Longer periods of time with no contact are known but are advised against as it is deleterious to morale though some Explorer Commanders believe that reminding the crew of their home is bad enough for morale.

Life within Explorer ships could be said to be comfortable but functional. Every inch of space is used to good effect and considering their mission brief it isn’t any wonder that the designers had Environmental Engineers working around the clock to make sure there was nothing wrong with the decor. Previous longhaul missions in space had some unfortunate incidents with some individuals who became fixated on small aspects of life aboard a spacecraft. Needless to say all crew are carefully screened for any hints of psychosis and those individuals who would be seen as a liability are removed from the program.

Each crew member has a separate room and is allowed to decorate it at will. They are given a cargo allowance and depending on rank may keep items in their room or in storage. They are also kitted out with a number of uniforms and a laundry/repair allowance which they use for repair or replacement of uniforms and personal equipment – constant abuse of resources is an offence itself. A crew member’s equipment and belongings are their own responsibility.

Standard Uniform is a coloured two-piece garment consisting of cargo pants and tunic, colour depending on what detachment in the military and a utility belt which carries most job-specific equipment. Some, like engineers have an additional shoulder holster and some, like scientists and other civilians wear their own clothes covered by laboratory coats for protection. The overall is functional and comfortable consisting of a waterproof durable weave padded for ease of movement and warmth. It attaches with tough Velcro-type straps providing an almost sealed system when attached correctly. It can be used for brief periods as an emergency space suit providing the helmet and life-support attachment is used.

Contrary to most thoughts on the subject, personnel aboard a starcraft do not carry personal sidearms as a matter of course. Each sidearm is carefully coded and restricted by the Internal Security Department. Other weapons such as knives and clubs are catalogued though usually their owner is permitted to retain them unless the Security Officer believes they pose a threat to craft systems or personnel.

Most people do tend to wear their work clothes when not working mainly because being so far away from the centre of things means that notions such as keeping up with fashion become more and more unlikely. The uniforms are designed for utility and comfort so there is no hardship. Rather traditional wear has become the norm and some members of the crew bring along memorabilia of their homes which leads to certain stereotypes of Scotsmen wearing kilts and the like.

All work and no play makes Jack or Jill an unhappy crew person. To this end the Environmental Architects have provided the modern Explorer ships with a certain amount of recreational space and materials which allow most crew members to partake in constructive hobbies and the library resources permit further study and education on subjects both career enhancing and purely leisurely. They even went so far as to have Leisure Counsellors who are present to help you use your time constructively. Although a certain amount of time for personal needs is permitted, Counsellors are trained to watch for crew members who seem to be spending too much time on one subject or by themselves. Though by this they may seem to be a sort of Thought Police it must be understood (and seldom is) that their job is to make sure that everyone stays quite content as accounts of individuals going ‘Space Crazy’ are not as fictional as one would hope.

As often as possible the Leisure Counsellors obtain the latest releases in media culture and entertainment for carefully controlled showings during the next period of time without contact. At this time they also collect and deliver messages which keep the contact between crew and families running even out on the Frontier. Along with mission and situation reports, Explorer craft trade entertainment media and other distractions when they meet.

Standard craft systems are augmented by virtual overlays where the computer places a holographic equivalent of the terminal in realspace. A sensornet detects disruptions in the hologram and relays these disturbances to the terminal. It is important to note that this is only used for the very basic and simple instruction sets as certain duties such as those involved with piloting and navigation have specialised equipment that is not usually configurable (for security more than anything else) from any other workstation.

Each ship would usually have about four galleys, each with differing menus for the day permitting a huge permutation of foods though they have yet to eliminate the problem of the foods tasting like they have been in storage for several months. They say it is possible to spend the entire mission on an Explorer ship and never eat the same food twice but that is a little bit of an exaggeration. The cooks do well but they can only do as well as anyone else and on especially long missions without resupply the crew can be seen tucking into reconstituted powdered rations. Yum yum. Explorers do not have the room for Hydroponics or live gardens.

Life aboard an Explorer craft is not unpleasant though it is demanding. The people on board are highly motivated, enthused by their role and the missions and generally well-disposed to other members of the crew. Personality defects on longhaul missions could be fatal and a rigorous examination of an individual’s character and past performance is performed by Experts before they are even considered for a mission. The craft is equipped with chemical means of controlling aberrant behaviour though long term use is a repugnant concept to Human Unity physicians.

The Captain of an Explorer vessel is always an Expert. It will have the support and backup of an executive team consisting of Experts and natural humans who implement the decisions made. In the event of irreparable damage to the Captain, another Expert can assume the role with full access to the data banks. The other Experts will have different duties depending on their specialisations and they work alongside their natural human colleagues.

An Explorer craft is best described as a small community. With seldom more than 200 natural humans and perhaps ten Experts, it is important that everyone get along and the crew, including the Experts, have likely been co-habiting for nearly a year before they leave Earth. This acclimatisation, added to the professionalism of the crews, is thought to be enough to detect any social issues. Individuals are encouraged to socialise outside of their work areas so a crew member might find his schedule updated with events he can attend or simply subscribe remotely which would take him far from his traditional comfort zone. His responses to these invites are monitored but rarely acted upon. A planetologist may find he has very little in common with the External Threat Teams and there is no assumption that any individuals and groups will become friends, but making them more than statistics is important to the smooth running of an Explorer.

Crews are made up of elite personnel, culled from the millions of applicants to the Exploratory Division. They must be capable of independent thought and action, able to make decisions which will properly represent the principles of Human Unity. This delegation of responsibility decreases as the ranks are traversed but then the individual crewmember has a lot of decision-making power about his specialist area. The Executive team along with the Captain Expert is responsible for making Human Unity policy on the spot which may be difficult if there is a Disruptive Element (also known as an Outside Context Problem). This may be something that shatters the previously held world views – an example would be the ability of an alien species to interbreed with humanity or the power to create personal wormholes with man-portable technology. These would cause immense changes in society and raise alarming questions. An Explorer executive team is therefore required to be imaginative yet consistent. The level of competence required and the trust place in Explorer crews is much greater than any precedents.

Wormholes

Unknown to most, Wormholes are naturally occurring tunnels through space. They allow, through the use of sophisticated detection and navigation equipment, travel from one end of the wormhole to the other and may conceivably be of any length. The problem that they must be discovered not created lends a peculiar topology to the universe.

Mapped wormholes are known to be fixed in length but do not necessarily take the shortest route available. If a craft takes seven hours to travel Rozkosny’s Deep (The Sol-Altair Wormhole) then it will always take seven hours to make that journey – a journey of over 16 light years. On the other hand, the trip from Sol – Rist is further than our current technology can detect but the wormhole would take that same craft 17 hours to navigate.

The first anyone knew of wormholes was two years after the first contact with the Traders. Human Unity had already begun negotiations for the theoretical design specifications of the FTL wormholes but hadn’t yet witnessed the formation of a wormhole. When a wormhole opens it is accompanied by a burst of visible light which is wormhole energies translating into a transferable medium. When a ship emerges from a wormhole, it appears after the pinpoint of light dulls. Likewise when entering a wormhole the ship is enveloped in the light and is gone by the time it dulls.

Multiple ships can use the same wormhole at the same time and sometimes, on busy trade routes, this can lead to some rather spectacular pyrotechnics which is and has always been a popular tourist attraction.

The interior of wormholes is described as ever-darkening shades of blackness. Its contours are mapped using Trader technology which seems to measure a form of energy density gradient. This technology remains ‘black box’ within human space.

Wormhole Theory
Within a wormhole is a pocket universe of unknown dimensions filled with energies of unknown properties. Within this pocket universe this energy forms currents which seem to lead from one wormhole to another. What are perceived as the edges of the wormhole tunnel are, in reality, areas where the energy flow is either less or more energetic or perhaps is ‘flowing’ in a different direction. Contact with this ‘energy wall’ is similar to the effect of bumping into a stream of fast moving water while swimming. At best the craft can expect to be bounced about, at worst vessels have been lost. Sometimes we even get the debris at the other end. It is known that the strength of these energy currents determines the relative speed of travel within the wormhole.

Wormhole Travel History
Originally travel in wormholes was ‘blind’ consisting of calculations provided by the extremely complex formulae which operated on information fed to them via the Trader-supplied navigation equipment. Travel was hazardous and slow as the bends and twists of the wormhole had to be mapped and then anticipated as plotted vectors. A mistake meant that the craft would plow into a wall with likely fatal results.

With the advent of further trade and the technological developments of Human Unity scientists the basic navigation equipment and formulae have been incorporated into a very powerful graphical imaging computer which can plot the information received into a visual display thus providing a method of travel which is no longer ‘blind’. This system is not however infallible and every starcraft licensed under the laws of Human Unity must be equipped with secondary Blind navigation. All navigation is handled by Experts though there are trained natural human astrogators on board every craft.

Wormhole Nexuses
There are two known wormhole nexuses. One is located along the Rigel wormhole and the other is yet being investigated (sic). Nexuses are when a wormhole intersects another for some reason. Possible reasons for this might be the dynamics of the energy flows within the wormhole, the tunnel taking the easiest route. Another reason might be that most wormholes possess nexuses but most of these connections are too small to be detected by standard navigation equipment. It is known that there are Explorer craft investigating this phenomenon with static wormhole investigations (using engines to maintain a slow pace through the wormhole, resisting the natural flow of energy, thus permitting more accurate detection of the interior of the wormhole walls.)

Many systems have more than one wormhole within a reasonably traversable distance though the possibility of finding wormhole nexuses is very enticing. The reason being that in-system transit between wormhole interfaces can take weeks or months which is a considerable detour. A nexus within a wormhole would reduce this considerably.

Wormhole Traffic
Wormholes are generally large enough to allow the easy access of several craft without danger of collision but collisions have taken place. As craft represent a solid medium rather than the fluid dynamics of the interiors they can be detected easily and thus avoided.

The FTL-STOP
Although it not known how exactly this device operates, theorists maintain that it must prevent the opening of a wormhole exit point. What is known is that if travel to a closed system is attempted then the entry wormhole forms but soon after entry the energy flows become unstable and the craft is released from the wormhole close to the entry point.

Questions:

The Traders:
The Traders provides the theory to access Wormholes and to navigate through them. We provided the derivations from that theory. It is thought the Traders also possess the secrets to tunnelling wormholes. We believe their craft are capable of building wormholes where they want them and also collapsing them if they wish to keep something secret. A group of Human Unity scientists is working on a theory that basically exposes this concept. Proof is, of course, lacking.

Relativity:
The wormholes also may progress through time as well as space. Wormhole theory allows for this. Arguably traveling 17 light years in 7 hours is time traveling as the light from Sol will not have reached you for another 17 years. The light from Sol you can see will therefore be 17 years old. There are few abuses of this phenomenon.

Travel Time:
Trader ships are theorised as being capable of almost instantaneous travel as they dig their own wormholes. What is the optimum travel time? Why did they leave some stars without wormholes? Why did they dig holes to others? Are Wormholes naturally created as well? Why do they dig “long travel time” wormholes? Perhaps as an early warning device?

A Visit to Kumbu

There are various periods in Humanity’s history that can be legitimately called “The Dark Ages”. Any period where there is a lack of records represents the unknown. The period of Earth’s history two millennia ago was perhaps our darkest hour as records show that our advancement of knowledge not only slowed but crawled backwards and even basic skills of the time, such as writing or pottery, began to be lost. But Humanity prospered still and would later come to lament the losses of knowledge which set us back decades if not centuries. We recognise the follies of past rulers who sought to burn the great libraries for their short sightedness. As we still crawl out of our gravity wells and seek to find what was lost, we have to wonder where would humanity have reached without these setbacks. If the pre-Christian libraries had not been burned? If fear and doubt had not prevented research into life saving technologies in the 21st Century. If we had not lost so many cities during the Conquest Wars centuries ago. Would we have met the Traders earlier? I would hope not. I would hope it was our society developing, our social conscience and culture which attracted them and not just our ability to escape this sphere.

With this in mind, I have made my pilgrimage to Kumbu.

Kumbu is, in truth, a thing and not a place. It is a purpose-built data repository where the sum total of everything is stored and replicated. Every morsel of information discovered is reviewed, tested, reviewed again several more times and then placed in the repository for later generations. There are more than a dozen such repositories worldwide but this one, the Kumbu repository in East Africa is the only one open to the public. Others are protected in order to prevent another dark age.

Entering Kumbu is almost a religious experience. This is the most significant human achievement in existence. We took all of human knowledge that we could recover, added to it the vast data stores received from the Traders and began correlating it using human-Trader constructed algorithms. The entrance atrium is an airy marvel and apart from the browsing booths and the Assistance Expert, there is nothing to see. Anyone can come in and browse. Only if your query goes beyond the initial buffers which are maintained containing the most frequently asked billion or so questions, will the Assistance Expert intervene and direct you further. Most Explorer research teams skip the browsing hall entirely and go straight to the back of the hall for admittance to the Query Rooms. All Query rooms are occupied by an Assistance Expert whose purpose is to help you refine your query and find you the information as quickly as possible. Retrieval of information is almost instant, understanding an obscure query can take some time. To skip the browsing hall is difficult enough and the Assistance Experts can be very firm.

With Kumbu, we can functionally translate almost any language, given time. It has, at times, been key in dealing with alien species from a cultural, diplomatic and exobiological approach. The only problem being that when you need it most is when you’ve just discovered a new alien race who looks hostile and they’re bigger than you. Kumbu is Earth-bound. The quickest way to get an answer is to traverse the wormhole network and start the research (arguably you just need to return in-system as the months of travel back to Earth would be wasted when you could send an EM transmission and have the answer sent back within minutes). Needless to say, the Research team aboard an Explorer spends months at Kumbu before they even set foot aboard an Explorer. They plot out the journey, taking note of what encounters are likely and attempt to make plans for the outcome. This part of the expedition planning is undoubtedly the most complex and takes some of the smartest brains. The Query room are the only place to get detailed information on wormhole routes, a map that comprises a thousand layered maps, giving the wormhole network a fourth dimensional aspect.

Behind the Query Rooms are the Editing Halls. These have the austere atmosphere of monastic cloisters and if they are beautiful, it is by accident. There are few places in this Universe which would be described as a privilege to visit or work, but this trumps them all. Everyone there is either Editor, Archivist or Visitor. There is a flat, peer-reviewed organisation to the Halls and they employ Human Unity’s own resourcing teams to find them the best, the brightest, the most dedicated and, most of all, most scrupulously honest candidates. Few Visitors, even among Explorer researchers, ever manage to visit this far.

Within the Halls we can see that the repository contains data in almost every form. Writing in a million languages, recorded audio and video, chemical formulae, cascading light patterns of coherent light and EM scan readings. The Archivists work hard, attempting to make sense of the information which arrives daily as well as the Trader-sourced information, of which they estimate that they have accessed about 6% of the content. Undoubtedly some will never be retrievable but the main job of the Archivist is to determine the origin and categorise the content. Understanding is left to the Editors who must further breakdown the information and decide if an image sequence just viewed is educational, political, religious or economic in nature. Later still, they will attempt to determine if it is authentic or true. The most important task of the Editor is also his greatest burden. Some entries have been found to be more than just misleading but also hostile, especially when attached to a computer system. Others would foment seeds of rebellion in the impressionable and are therefore restricted. Censorship of this sort is distasteful but necessary.

There are entries in the Trader-sourced archives about Earth and it’s inhabitants. A survey vessel belonging to a race known only as The People encountered a dormant Trader vessel at the end of our wormhole circa CE 1901. When they approached the outer rims of the Solar System, the Trader vessel powered up and offered to Trade, claiming this system was under their control. Attempts to engage the Traders in conversation about this has been fruitless to date. It is unknown how long the Traders had been observing us.

Ajinabi

We were startled by our uniqueness. The first Explorer craft took the time to catalog everything they encountered, well aware that it would be scratching the surface of the biosphere’s they encountered. Their samples, akin to descending on Luxembourg and taking that small nation as the representative sample of Earth, were recorded, preserved, ferried to and fro and studied by hundreds of pairs of eyes.

The end result was as startling as it was true. We were alone in the Universe.

Yes, the Universe teemed with life, some of it intelligent, some of it far in advance of what Human Unity was capable of, but none of it was humanoid. In fact the only humanoids we encountered were those who had come from Earth. Rare were the encounters with other Explorers, even rarer still the remnants of lost colonies which had made their passage via slow boat to nearby stars.

Exobiologists are very excited when another garden world is discovered. They marvel for years about the coincidences of concurrent evolution, whether there is really a best shape or an ideal mould for sentient life. Gone from the discussion are the religious fanatics who insisted that God made Man in his own image. As we became to redefine “life” and what was meant by “man”, so we came to redefine “god”.

The Ajinabi are therefore our worst nightmare. Human Unity finds itself faced with an interstellar society more alien than anything we have encountered. The name Ajinabi was coined by Researcher Adrah Nia.

A creature which has been born on a different planet, which has never seen the light of Sol and did not come from it’s third satellite is truly alien. We have witnessed the hive-like overminds of Rist, the dire warnings from the Tombworlds, the Able, the inscrutable machine intelligences of the Ant Hill and the vast, cool intellects of the Traders. None gave us pause. We understood them as best we could and our expectations were therefore prepared for culture shocks that, in hindsight, never came. We expected aliens and we were not disappointed. Our encounter with the Ajinabi was as profoundly upsetting to our culture as Cortez first visit to the Aztecs.

The Ajinabi are a humanoid race, unlike humans, but chillingly similar. They have two arms, two legs, they are bilaterally symmetrical, possess two eyes, a horizontal mouth, have two distinct genders, reproduce sexually and for the most part could be mistaken for an Earth human without autopsy. We have not yet managed to contact the Ajinabi with any meaningful success. It seems they are a xenophobic aggressive race, bent on conquest and possessing armaments and craft far in advance of anything Human Unity has offered. Two Explorer craft are listed as missing due to Ajinabi encounters and any information we have is based entirely on reports, conjecture and consulting the Kumbu repository.

Any contact with Ajinabi is assumed to be hostile and Explorer craft are advised to retreat immediately.

Trade Talk: Tales of Sol

There is a world, twelve pipes from here, where the people are soft and covered in a very fine fur, from top to bottom. At first glance, they all look very alike except for pigmentation but some grow their fur longer or shorter in accordance with their religion. They are descended from animals who walked on the plains of their world, who in turn descended from more primitive creatures who lived in the trees. They bear some shame in their heritage as they cut their fur and attempt to keep it covered even when the environment is not hostile.

They do not live long, but they scurry around and fill their short lives with meaning. They do not hibernate, but some choose to enter storage and wait out the years. They do have a hibernative state which they enter frequently in order to process and meditate on the events of the past and plan for the future. During this time they are insensate and extremely vulnerable and will secure themselves away from others (other than their mates or immediate family) while in this state. They cannot regrow a limb without the use of technology and, more amazingly, seem intelligent despite having only one brain. They breathe a mixture of gases which would be poisonous to us and their outer surface is dry and sloughs off a constant stream of matter. They balance on two thin limbs, a holdover from their plains-dwelling ancestors, which afforded them height so they could keep an eye out for predators. They only have two upper limbs which have one manipulator each which means they are very limited in their ability to multi-task and enhance this through the use of technology. By all accounts they are a very reactive and intuitive species and enjoy solving puzzles, responding well to rewards.

Internally they are much like us – organs and glands and blood. Through an unfortunate accident of evolution, their reproductory organs are situated in the same flesh coverings as their excretory organs which must lead to terrible problems. And some of them have died because they share the same pipe to eat and drink as they do to breathe. Much of their capacity for sensual enjoyment is linked to both these regions and is linked to their reproduction, which they control chemically. They don’t have any capacity for ####### (translation missing). Their bodies are a balance of symbionts and they are highly susceptible to parasites. Their mastery of chemicals is quite astounding and they use them for medical and recreational purposes. This again led to conflict as a significant proportion of their society used to believe that pleasure for the sake of pleasure was the downfall of a species and many were persecuted or killed for having fun.

Their history is not unlike our own. They had a brief, though more recent spate of petty wars about resources but at the same time maintained a very rapid rate of technological and social development though their primitive roots were never truly released as even when they reached out to touch other worlds, they still believed in gods in the sky and performed regular apostheosis rituals on some members of their upper castes. We cannot judge as this was important in our own development. Their socio-political unification is very important to them and is central to their development of their present culture. They are a social species, developing complex relationships and with a marked preference for beauty and aesthetics. They express themselves in everything they do which has led to conflict in the past due to differences in belief systems. Their expression is often the only way they leave their mark on the universe and what they create is often revered by others after they are long dead.

Contact with the Traders took more than eight of our years, equivalent to four of their lifespans as they reacted at first with fear and violence. By the time they had matured enough to respond with reason, they had rid themselves of most of their primitive trappings. The Traders did their usual work – taking some of their culture to share with the universe, in return for a map of the universe.

I have not yet seen a Human but I wish to.

– Journal of Seren, 30th son of Seren.

Seren is a member of the Able, a term for their species on their planet. The Able at first glance resemble Earth molluscs and crustaceans. They are semi-aquatic, returning to pools for a hibernative stage in their development which they refer to as their childhood. They can have several childhoods in a single lifetime. Their world orbits their sun very slowly in comparison to Earth and an Able is fully grown at one of their years. Most never live beyond six years of age but there are some who reach ten years.

The Ant Hill

Swarm Intelligences were prevalent on Earth in the form of social insect colonies long before we encountered the Ant Hill. We knew that a set of relatively primitive individual behaviors enhanced with communication will produce a large set of complex swarm behaviors. This observation was instrumental in producing NIPS (NanoIntelligent Protection Systems) and our understanding of swarm intelligence as a subject would prepare us well for our first encounters, making the alien seem altogether less alien.

The origins of the swarm-intelligences are unknown and communication with the mind has been all but impossible due to the differences in our frames of reference. The swarm-intelligence does not see Human Unity as an entity, nor does it consider humans as anything but ‘resources’, much to our chagrin. Even with our understanding, Experts have been surprised (and perhaps dismayed) to discover how simple individual elements of the swarm actually are. Details about the swarm and how to deal with them were some of the most important and perhaps prescient articles which were Traded.

Our first contact with the Ant Hill, our closest swarm-intelligence, was terrifyingly within our own Solar System. The swarm was surveying Sol for resources and signs of intelligence and as soon as a fleet could be mustered, their exploratory advances were quickly and resolutely beaten off. As predicted, they have not returned. It is evident that the swarm-intelligence is non aggressive under normal circumstances. When met with a sufficient show of force, they will uniformly retreat. This swarm-intelligence is known to be currently located at Barnard’s Star, an uncomfortable 5.9 light years from Sol.

Records exist, however, of massive swarm bodies invading systems and overcoming the defenses of inhabitants and devouring the worlds within. They usually start with the asteroids and gas giants, consuming their mass and converting it to raw materials. In this way the swarm grows at an incredible rate and does not discriminate between rock and flesh in terms of resources.

Swarms reproduce asexually – creating hundreds of similar drones from a limited pattern set. They can, however, reproduce in a sexual manner through the exchange of pattern blueprints and experiences which may result in a change to the established pattern and therefore a heterogeneous population of swarm drones. Much like organic populations, swarm reproduction factories are susceptible to mutation and this theory is used to explain the nightmare scenarios related about the swarms. A mutant swarm might be hyper-aggressive or hyper-expansionist, producing huge numbers of hunter/killer drones in accordance with their programming.

Swarm-intelligences do not travel at relativistic speeds nor do they have access to the Wormholes. The perception of time in terms of days, years or millennia is immaterial. They know only “now” and “soon” and react accordingly. As they do not consider time as we do, it can be very difficult to communicate with them as they are conditioned to the vast, cold depths of space and when they send messages between, they do not expect replies for years. Swarms are seldom encountered because they spend the bulk of their existence in the spaces between the stars, far from wormhole entrances.

A “Soon” swarm is of no danger. They have sufficient resource for whatever values of “soon” they may consider which may be hundreds of Earth years or more. Human Unity has instructed Explorer craft to observe swarms which appear to be in this state and attempt communication.

A “Now” swarm is a serious danger to all in the immediate area. The swarm has decided it has insufficient resources for survival and has begun to take steps to survive. Conversion of around 40% of their workforce into “hunters” is complete within a matter of weeks and the remainder become “cysts”, hardened defense platforms. It is not known what triggers the change from “soon” to “now” but Explorer craft should be prepared for it.

Swarm intelligences do communicate with each other (though the mechanism is unknown) and since the conflict at Sol with the Ant Hill, swarms have shown deference to similarly equipped Explorer craft. Human Unity has equipped all Explorers with emergency transponders which will mimic the signature of the victorious fleet at Sol if an Explorer craft is found to be under assault. Avoidance is considered to be the best path.

Description:
An individual swarm machine depends on it’s function. For the most part a swarm individual will have antennae, lasers (for cutting and communications), grabbers, a propulsion system and power generation. The heart of a swarm intelligence is the fabric – the closest parallel to a brain. The swarm individuals making up the fabric may have sacrificed certain components required for individual survival and replaced them with other components conducive to intra-swarm communications. Under normal conditions, swarm individuals have been seen to attach and detach from this fabric at seemingly random intervals. Individuals are therefore able to multi-task – sometimes performing the role of nervous system, at other times messenger, then perhaps hunter or cyst. This malleability of purpose is one of their most impressive strengths.

The Ant Hill swarm is the most studied swarm intelligence due to our contact and it’s immediate proximity. Robot probe, Expert and even manned expeditions have been dispatched to observe their working. The Ant Hill fabric is based around a lattice of individual connected cysts, holding asteroid chunks like glittering dew on a spiders web and other raw materials in place for supply to the nucleus. Within the nucleus is a factory, based in a massive hollowed-out asteroid, which continually churns out more swarm individuals. Surveys report the Ant Hill is currently amassing resources, harvesting gas clouds, asteroid fields and even capturing comets for the nucleus.

The American Dream

It’s called the American Dream,
because you have to be asleep to believe it.

– George Carlin

The American Dream has run out of gas. The car has stopped. It no longer supplies the world with its images, its dreams, its fantasies. No more. It’s over. It supplies the world with its nightmares now.

-J. G. Ballard

“There are times, however, and this is one of them, when even being right feels wrong. What do you say, for instance, about a generation that has been taught that rain is poison and sex is death? If making love might be fatal and if a cool spring breeze on any summer afternoon can turn a crystal blue lake into a puddle of black poison right in front of your eyes, there is not much left except TV and relentless masturbation. It’s a strange world. Some people get rich and others eat shit and die.”

– Hunter S. Thompson

the children the world almost breaks become the adults who save it

– Frank, Postsecret

“We are turning into a nation of whimpering slaves to Fear—fear of war, fear of poverty, fear of random terrorism, fear of getting down-sized or fired because of the plunging economy, fear of getting evicted for bad debts or suddenly getting locked up in a military detention camp on vague charges of being a Terrorist sympathizer.”

– Hunter S. Thompson

I challenge anyone not to read these quotes and think of a plat/storyline/game.

Setting #1:
Generate characters for a 1950s-era game. Encourage the players to find pictures of their characters or archetypes. Give them appropriate skills. If they want to be involved in the themes of the day, that’s fine. They also don’t have to know each other. We’re placing them into a Matrix/Truman-Show style setting where they will quickly start to peel away the flaking paint of a failed social experiment. To a degree, this will be like “Blast from the Past” as the players should be mired in 1950s America before being exposed to the truth. And what is the truth?

Setting #2
Society has broken down and the GM should grab as much 1950s style memorabilia as possible. Maybe it’s the 1st Jan 1960, mere months after the bombs hit. Maybe the Red Scare was really really real and the war happened. Players here will be a lot better prepared but should be encouraged to hold onto telltales of their previous lives.

Setting #3
What would you suggest?

Aliens: The Snakes of Rist

Rist is an Earth-like planet orbiting a yellow star. Astrogation has not yet pinpointed the location of the system. Explorer craft are free to enter the system but are not permitted to contact or send exploratory missions to Rist or the other planets without expressed permission from the Rist governments. This permission has never been previously forthcoming.

System: Rist is the second of six planets in the system, located sunward in the habitable zone. The remainder of planets consist of two gas giants, two rocky plants and one methane ice ball. Rist has two moons, both captured asteroids, which are used by the local population for telling the time. Neither are large enough to cause significant tidal effects. Rist orbits it’s star every 209 Earth days and rotates once every 214 days. The ‘Northern’ pole is almost always daylight though due to cloud cover this varies from baking heat to a bright greyish sky.

Atmosphere: Rist has a warm temperate atmosphere rich in Carbon dioxide (20%), Nitrogen (60%) and Argon (8%). Low levels of Oxygen (5%) and high levels of Water vapour (4%) mean the atmosphere is not conducive to human respiration. Atmospheric pressures on Rist are estimated at 4 times that of Earth but natural humans will only require respirators or rebreathing apparatus. The atmosphere in the equatorial region is very wet and has a musty taste.

Climate: due to extreme axial tilt, Rist has one polar ice cap, on the side facing away from its sun. The opposite pole is water, with temperatures reaching 350 Kelvins during its ‘summer’ and reducing small islands in the region to baked deserts. The tropics and equatorial regions, dominated by a single mountainous land mass have a fertile belt, irrigated by the heavy precipitation, which has led to prodigious vegetation growth over land and sea.

Population: It is estimated that Rist is home to 2 billion native sentients and an unknown population of animals and plants. The sentient inhabitants call themselves by several names, the audible component of their common name being ‘rist’, from where their system gains its name.

Physiology: The major life forms on Rist are biologically similar to Earth creatures as evidence of convergent evolution. Their respiration, blood and skeletal systems harbour significant differences but they have a form of nucleic acid encoding of genes and are known to use proteins and amino acids as the building blocks of their cells. Their foods are therefore digestible by humans and vice versa. Their skin is similar to that of Earth amphibians and their musculature has been identified as being similar to Annelid banded structures. Skeletally, they grow a flexible protective structure analogous to cartilage. Externally, they look like Earth snakes or earthworms. Their epidermis is often blistered, these are known to be part of their reproductive structures – blistered Rist are thought to be males. It is believed that the males keep their sperm sacs on their bodies and then bathe in egg pools secreted by their females. Each blister has one opening which is approached by the egg and then sealed after entry. The egg is therefore fertilised within the blister and it assumes the function of amniotic sac and placenta. When the young Rist are mature enough, they break out of the blisters.

They breathe through multiple trachea-like structures in their epidermis that lead to multiple redundant book lungs. Their mouths, symmetrical and lateral, are more related to stomachs – they have no teeth but digest their food directly in their mouths with a corrosive saliva and ‘drink’ the juices thus provided. This gives the impression that the snakes have “bad breath” but they seem unconcerned. Their saliva is not corrosive enough to be used as a weapon. Communication with other snakes is through touch and sound, caused by blowing air through their trachea tubes. Rist find our atmosphere to be devoid of the gases they require for respiration and also unbearably dry. Rist diplomacy has thus far been unable to find any Rist volunteers to visit Unityspace for any decent period of time.

The Rist which have been in direct contact with humans have ranged from 2 metres to 8 metres long. They hunt and gather their food using a servitor species which may be a junior developmental stage of Rist sentients but the fully grown Rist is very strong and may use it’s bulk as a clubbing or crushing weapon.

The servitor subspecies mentioned above is most likely a junior stage of development and possesses a Rist thorax and abdomen but also six jointed legs covered with a rigid exoskeleton. These legs are later discarded and the fleshy internal structures recess into the body of the Rist, though they can be extended in a tentacular fashion for tool use.

Government: There are 72 identified sovereign states, three quarters of which form a coalition which dominates the others economically and in terms of military strength. As a result of this coalition, there have not been any military conflicts on Rist for the last 200 Earth years.

Religion and Mythology: There is no information on this subject. These are considered restricted subjects for outsiders. Trader envoys will be contacted to see if the information can be traded for.

History: The sentients on Rist achieved interplanetary space flight around CE 400. By CE 1200 they had established several off-planet colonies in their solar system. Their first contact was with another unidentified race around CE 1400 which approached via slower than light drives. This ended in a short conflict which destroyed the visitors. They are described only as predatory invaders.

It is unknown whether Rist developed Key drives themselves or whether they were traded for. Human Unity has not yet had sufficient access to Rist archives to be able to determine this.

Technology: Interplanetary and wormhole craft have been directly observed. Their designs are similar to Human Unity designs due to restrictions of streamlining and engineering. Internally, humans find the walkways to be cramped and narrow, seldom exceeding 1 metre in diameter. Most vessel functions are carried out by the limbed junior stage in conjunction with the mature Rist overseers. The craft have full atmospheric controls and are designed to provide an optimal atmosphere for the Rist to work. Humans have found conditions to be unbearable even with rebreathers and in response, Rist environmental engineering has been able to replicate an environment which humans have been able to tolerate. Currently one Unity Astrobiology team has been placed aboard a Rist vessel in order to facilitate understanding.

Though in theory more advanced than Human Unity, Rist science moves at a much slower pace. Rist technology is much more durable and reliable than the equivalent Human Unity item on average. In terms of military strength, Human Unity is estimated to be at twice the strength of the Rist in terms of armament and craft. Human Unity has no intentions to test this theory.

Relations: Human Unity considers the Rist to be friendly. The Rist have also shown willingness to vouch for Human Unity with other races.

Proximity: Rist can be reached by the Alcub wormhole nexus, 1.8 AUs from Alcub and 1.05 AUs from the Solar wormhole exit point. The Alcub exit point is 4 AUs from Rist. There is a second wormhole in the Rist system, out beyond the sixth planet. Preliminary investigations indicate it leads to another inhabited system.

The Conquest Society

The planetary solar system around HO Librae (also known as Gliese 581) was discovered in CE 2007, several hundred years ago. At the time we knew very little about planet formation because we were limited to what we could observe within our own solar systems

In 2214, during the wane of the Conquest era, a Seedship was dispatched to HO Librae on a colonisation mission. Since it had been discovered, the planetary system had received six probes which had transmitted copious amounts of detail about the system, it’s planets and other resources. It took forty years for an unmanned probe to reach HO Librae at 0.1G and twenty years for the messages to return by tight-beam transmission. Only one of the major corporations at the time had the presence in space and the will to strike out in a bold manner.

The journey to HO Librae would have taken over a hundred years at 0.01G acceleration using the most advanced antimatter drives of the time. And the Seedships carried a robotic crew using the most advanced artificial intelligences of the era. Aboard the vessel they carried a hundred thousand zygotes of their best, brightest and most powerful. And they carried all of the technological and social knowledge of their day. By our standards, the Seedship was more like a warship, with a huge amount of armour and firepower for the time, especially considering that there was no evidence of alien life anywhere in the Galaxy. They went prepared for war and it would be hundreds of years before they found it.

HO Librae c was not an Earthlike paradise, this much they knew. Rocky cored, much like Earth, it had lands and oceans. It had plants and some animals, the atmosphere did bear oxygen but at much lower percentages. The poles were a frozen hell and the equators were reminiscent of tundra, with constant permafrost. The gravity was heavier and the air was thick with cloud. And there, without the bounds of law, the Conquest Society thrived.

By the time the Earth had healed from the excesses of wars over resources and land, Human Unity had no knowledge of the Conquest Society. They built their Explorer craft and followed the guidance of the Traders in traveling the Wormhole networks. Hostilities were not expected and even so, all defences were centered on the wormholes. It would therefore be completely surprised when the first attacks came truly from the stars.

They attacked hard and swift but in the end their lines were too extended and they were forced to retreat. Human Unity lost a lot of people and craft in the short conflict including two Experts and one Explorer craft. From later experiences it was learned that the craft and Experts were captured and not destroyed. The Conquest Society now had a Key and it would not be long before we would hear of them again.

[Reference: Project Rho and Relativistic Star Ship Calculator]

[Reference: Gliese 876d]

Other Intelligences

Throughout the Universe, Human Unity has encountered many forms of intelligences, from the surviving cetaceans (Dolphins) and cephalopods (octopuses) of Earth to the snake-like overminds encountered near Rist. Our society weathered our first contact with the Traders, those unfathomable aliens who gave us our first stepladder to the stars and thus was amply prepared for the onslaught of other non-human intelligences.

Our limited exposure to true alien intelligences has left us with more questions than answers.

Humanity since the first beginnings as a species, creates new intelligent minds every minute of every day. The attitude of Human Unity to the first Experts was therefore predictable. Experts, no more machine than we were, are mass-produced individuals – at birth, every Expert is identical and it takes the majority of a year to educate and inform the Expert. They are intelligent in all senses of the word and, just like us, become formidable when assisted by technology.

Large-scale Experts will be defined by their appearance and interactions – either these will be remote-controlled machine Agents or they will be audio-visual Avatars. Whether these intelligences are represented by robot or video link – they have similar rights and responsibilities to other inhabitants of Unityspace – and all may be considered “human” even if not Homo sapiens (also known as Natural Human)

Are the Experts smarter than us?

Yes. There is no denying that Experts can outpace humans in their capacity for learning and comprehension. They accept in days what it takes a natural human years to assimilate. Experts are therefore ‘born’ and grown to intellectual maturity in around 200 days.

Experts are, however, not human-sized. Their memories and support systems remain the size of rooms though their internals are densely packed and administered by millions of tiny machines – some electronic, some quasi-organic. The main body of an Expert may never be seen by human eye as they are constructed by other Experts using a single autonomous factory and specialised Agents. Experts are currently birthed at a rate of one per year at the only factory in Unityspace (located in Orbit around Mars). Human Unity has no plans to increase this rate of production though it is theorised that the single factory could birth up to a hundred Experts per year if pushed to capacity and could bring another factory online in two months in the event of an emergency. Their remote Agents may be of any size, from tiny insectoid machines to large earthmover-style robots but the brain and support body of an Expert remains large and for the most part, immobile. Their remotes must be controlled and have very limited ‘Roach’ brains to enable them to act and react when control is terminated. Upon termination of a remote signal, an Agent will immediately attempt to return home or find a safe haven. It is limited in it’s abilities and understanding and the difference in cognitive facilities is startling. This reaction also occurs if the Agent falls beneath a pre-defined level of available power. Experts are most commonly encountered within buildings or space habitats where they will most often use their Avatars for communication.

The most common forms for Agents are:

  • Pod – the Agent form is that of a smallish device, often egg shaped or a cube. It has no offensive or defensive abilities though it may have a manipulator/taster/sensor arm.
  • Vehicle – very seldom would an Expert be placed into a normal land, sea or air vehicle. The Agent form most likely to actually house the Expert itself is the Explorer craft.
  • Centaur- used in the loosest possible terms, the Centaur Agent has some humanoid characteristics (head, face, arms, torso) but will almost never be bipedal and is much more likely to have tracks, treads or another form of locomotion. The main body of the unit will contain tools and equipment depending on the specialisation of the Expert or Agent.
  • Module – similar to the centaur but without any common shape. The shape of modular Agents will change depending on their utility. They most often resemble tracked/treaded spiders with multiple functional and dangerous looking limbs.

Natural humans have their advantages in terms of compactness and ability to act independently. We are larger than Pods but smaller and on the whole more versatile than any other of the Agent forms. Experts tend to have much quicker reactions as a result of their machine nature but are no quicker in decision-making, and often quite the opposite.

The Traders, our most frequent alien intelligence study, utilises Expert-like systems in all of their dealings with humanity and it is apparent that their ‘Agents’ can act with much more independence than the limited remotes Human Unity has been able to field. They do not seem susceptible to the same signal disruption problems that Unity Agents have and demonstrate a much greater degree of independent volition and cognitive process.

Strange New Worlds

I’ve been reading a lot more recently and kinda enjoying the low-tech aspect of it. It doesn’t require batteries, works in almost any light and gives more of a sense of achievement than scouring digg and reddit for interesting links.

Last week, Aidan and I were discussing unresolved physics problems as well as discussing our beliefs that there MUST be other life out there in the Universe. It got me thinking about a lot of writing I did back in 1996 for a game that was codenamed ‘Frontier’. The premise was that there were a lot of things we liked about playing in the Star Trek world but there were also a lot of things we didn’t like. Colin was the lead developer at the time and he put in some solid work I’m told (by Eamon, because Colin didn’t show us much of his work).

Doing my own space exploration game has been attractive to me for a number of years especially as I played my way through games like ‘Homeworld’ and read Iain M Banks ‘Culture’ books.

So I figure I’ll write a little about it and see what I think when I see it all down on “screen”. This will take multiple installments!

The premise of the game is that after expending a lot of time and resource sending out slow boats to local stars, we were eventually visited by a starfaring race who agreed to trade us a FTL drive. We built a few Explorer craft and sent a few hundred of our best and brightest out into the void.

The FTL “Key” drive can detect engineered stable wormholes in space. Each wormhole is unique and most are discrete, leading to and from one destination. We have discovered that these locations are not local by any means, their end points tending to be thousands of light years away. This has made identification of the “crow flies” direction from Earth to be nigh impossible (and in most cases it remains to be seen if we’re in the same galaxy). Trying to detect the Sun and Earth as they were one thousand years ago from an unknown reference point has been challenging.

The first locations we were led to were uninhabited but it wasn’t long until we encountered another alien race.

Lasers
Over large distances and high speeds, laser weapons become of less use. The amount of time it takes for a sensor reading to be received and processed, a craft will have moved a considerable distance; it takes light 8 minutes to travel one AU (93 million miles). So the sensor reading you’ve just received is 8 minutes old and it’s going to take another 8 minutes for your laser (coherent light) to travel to that location. If you know their thrust vector then you at least have a chance of hitting them but 16 minutes is a lot of latency. At 0.1G of acceleration (entirely reasonable), you could be up to 23 km in ANY direction from your last observed point. Filling that space with laser fire is going to be tough. For this reason, lasers are really only useful against stationary targets. And if you have a stationary target you’re probably going to get a better kill coefficient by hurling a large rock at them. Where they do shine is when the need to hit smaller, close-range targets – such as incoming rocks, missiles and kinetic slugs.

Sensors and Detection
It’s impossible to hide in space unless you turn everything off. The only saving grace is that the electromagnetic radiation your engines are spewing out will only travel at light speed and even at only 1 AU, that information will be 8 minutes old.

Artificial Intelligence
Every Explorer craft will have one or more Expert Systems. These are not all-seeing and all-knowing machine intelligences but tend to be specialised in a few areas – notably what the AI is actually interested in. Like humans, AIs have opinions, interests, emotions and most important: the power of choice.

Aliens
The planet Earth in it’s short life has produced innumerable differing examples of life: a cornucopia of diversity. While only one species became top predator in this ecosystem on account of their cognitive and memory faculties, it behooved us to think hard when it came to the truly alien; that is things not borne of Earth or even this Solar System. The universe is not populated with English-speaking humanoids with cute little wrinkles on their noses and even if it was there is no chance we’d be physically compatible never mind able to interbreed. This doesn’t mean that sapients from vastly different species can’t be friends or fall in love. We’ve nothing to test this theory on, however, our species having executed every last member of a potentially sentient second species on this planet (which explains why we get so excited when we find that Dolphins and Octopi are pretty smart.)

The sciences of Exobiology and Exosemantics have come to the fore. The first is the physical/physiological study of alien ecosystems and life. The latter, the search for meaning related to alien intelligences whether encountered first hand or from relics or manufactured goods. The fourth world discovered by the first Explorer ship was best described as a Tombworld. Sobering images and video were brought back to Earth by the Explorer depicting a society which had, at their height, extinguished their entire world. Though the physical forms of the beings had long rotted away enough remained of the buildings and civilisation that we could see that, although not human or humanoid, they were not totally unlike us.

Fashion
It seems possible that in the future all common sense with regards to clothing and fashion will vanish and everyone will either wear form fitting quasi-military uniforms or piecemeal rags (basing this on Star Trek admittedly). Possible but unlikely. How do we work out what people will wear in the future? We look to the past.

Ships
This site shows what I’d consider as reasonable shapes for Explorer ships.