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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The World of Many Faces

A great many worlds in the galaxy are habitable. In the millennia that came and went many of them were inhabited by man and his descendants. Unutulmush was typical of them. It was a small and dry world in a tide locked orbit around a dim red feisty star.

It had known humans once or near enough. We landed outside ancient granite ruins that reached to the stars like broken fingers in the temperate belt stretching pole to pole. The cold thin air was like a refreshing libation after months of living on our packet. We had heard of an abandoned orbital station and came seeking salvage.

But we found its orbit had long since decayed. So we grounded and spent a night out under the stars looking at one horizon frozen just before the dawn and the other caught up in endless twilight. We built a fire with fuel pellets. We were too experienced to burn native foliage. Not after making camp on Zehir and loosing half our crew.

Sitting by our safe, synthetic fire roasting tube meat and puff tots we got to talking about the Homeworld. All humans had some myths about it and at these times we liked to share out old stories. This was mainly because we could never agree on what the World was like.

Elisapie called from the perimeter of light the fire threw. She liked the cold thin wind. It reminded her of home. "The World was cold with frozen seas for most of the year. It had long nights and long days at different times. Mountains were high and locked in glaciers and ice. Great beasts roamed the land and seas." She nodded her head sharply once.

Qalid inspected a tube meat on a fork and returned it to the fire. His dark eyes blazed as he spoke and he shook his head annoyedly. "The World was desert. Much like this one, it was sandy and rocky and life sprung from small water holes. Days were hot. Nights were cold. Maybe not cold enough for you Eli. But cold. People traveled on beasts that thrived in the sand and drank seldom at all."

Shug looked up from his puff tot and shrugged. "The world was ... city as long as people could remember. Streets full of lights blotted out the starlight and only those on the tallest building could see the horizons and they were full of more buildings. People lived stacked on top of people until the Exodus and many seeing stars went mad with delight or fear."

"No," I said firmly. "The World was nearly dead when men came into it. It nearly expired before we reached beyond it to bring ice from frozen moons to revive the air and feed the dry ocean beds. Worse than your desert Qalid or your frozen lands Elispie."

"The World was named Ocean and humans knew little of dry lands till they went to the Planets and the Near Stars. My people knew nothing of it of course. We cultivated fish for foods and harvested metal nodes for industry until the waters turned black and we had to leave ..."

"It was a cavern inside an asteroid ..."


"It was a fiction ..."

"This is an amalgam of legends of several early colonies among the stars. Humans reached them or were taken there by others. Never mind how. No planet had that many biomes, that variety of climes and weather, that many peoples. There wasn't enough room for all those tales on a dozen worlds, let alone one." That last pronouncement came from Thoth, the ship's AI. Its motile floated daring us to challenge his data.

"This is a nice planet. I wonder where the people went ... why they left?" I asked looking at Thoth. The motile wobbled a little. Thoth hated being asked a question and coming up ignorant. I threw another fuel pellet on the fire and looked at the ruins. Finally I shrugged. There were no easy answers in this Universe just more and more questions. I was suddenly very homesick for the small dead planet and the particular dome I called home. I wanted to breathe the air my people had breathed for centuries and walk the decks their feet had worn smooth.

After all, there's no place like home.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Gravity Wars

Tesla and Edison had the War of the Currents. There was the struggle over gaslights vs. electric bulbs. Then there was VHS vs. Betamax (for those of you old enough to remember videotaping). Mac and Microsoft still aren't talking. Wherever there's a way to build an invention there's likely to be several. But then at Low Stellar and Late Solar levels of technology you get the Gravity Wars!

Gravity control in most settings makes space so much easier (meaning you can get to it and get killed quicker and cheaper.) Instead of using a honking huge rocket to reach orbit you can use a consumer friendly launch with a reasonable payload to fuel ratio. You just throw a switch and some of the Earth's (or other planet's) gravity is negated. Doing a space time sidestep you find yourself in orbit.

This is going to piss off many powerful and wealthy people.

Think about it. You're running a surface to orbit transport company and have invested in a laser launch system or space tower or even just a reusable rocket and launch pad. That's $$$$! Then along comes Pop Jenkins who builds an anti-grav car in his garage for GHU's sake! the cost of getting to orbit becomes the price of some current (pennies unless you're buying it in New York City). What would your reaction be? What would the headlines read?

Local Inventor Dies in Garage Fire! Plucky Nephew and Brainy Neighbor Girl Feared Dead as Well! Page 2

Maybe I'm being a little cynical. Maybe Pop Jenkins announces his discovery from orbit in his Solar Winnebago. The secret is out. What the hell do you do with your infrastructure? All those rockets and launch platforms are junk and all your revenue will dry up.

Even worse, anti-gravity negates many reasons for going into space. A popular form form of MacGuffinite is microgravity manufacture. Now you can have microgravity or true zero gravity anywhere. So why even go to space?

Wait! Your company has some long term contracts? Smart. Even if transport to orbit costs go from $10,000 a kilo to $0.25 you have contracts! Tough shit! Build an anti-grav transport with a loan or your savings. Use the increased profit from using it to retire your rocket fleet and build more anti-grav transports. Meanwhile delay the anti-grav revolution as much as you can!

Legislation- You need to carefully monitor and license this new tech. Why you could drive a shuttle up to light speed and have it smack into a planet!

Economics- If you need Element X to produce anti-grav then Element X becomes very expensive. Or in a rift on legislature processing and acquiring Element X requires special licenses.

Health Concerns- the long term effects of artificial gravity on the human body are unknown! This needs further study!

National Security- This new technology can threaten the nation and must be restricted to the military. This might even be a fair cop. Those planet smashing gigs are pretty scary.

Slander! Anti-gravity is weakening the Earth's gravitational field/causing global warming/immorality and pulling meteors at your ship. Besides a little coriolis force never hurt anyone and keeps the coaster manufacturers in business. Those people have kids!

More than likely the new tech will have drawbacks and limits. If it's very short ranged it might only be used to provide gravity on space stations and low gravity worlds to keep settlers from becoming anorexic beanpoles. Those beautiful rotating space stations and passenger sections are all suddenly out of fashion though.

Perhaps anti-gravity is a  repulsive force instead of a shield or nullification. In that case it works when you have a planet or other massive body. The chemical rocket guys are out of business. The ion rocket cartel is still going strong for deep space missions. Just to further ruin Doc Jenkins' day, getting to orbit and being in an orbit are two different things. If anti-gravity lifts you a couple hundred klicks you are just hovering. Shut off the anti-grav and you fall. Worse, there are things moving in orbit that can hit you like little bits of dynamite. So an anti-grav might reduce the fuel and thrust needed to get to orbit but not negate it but Big Rocket stays in business.

It does feel a little immoral though. Like you build a fusion reactor that uses hydrocarbons as fuel so Big Oil (boo!) stays in business or a super rocket fueled by tobacco.

Friday, August 26, 2016

A. I. ... Artificial Identity

One of the biggest sore spots of any players of  (classic) Traveller are starship computers. Even after explaining that jump plans don't compute themselves and maneuver drives need careful minding while they break the laws of physics they seem to be too big for what they do. I'd like to weigh in on the subject.

Starships are modular, even the streamlined ones, to a great degree. That is you can switch out drives and generators and even take apart staterooms to rebuild your quarters deck the way you want. Married couple with high passage? Push those two staterooms together! Set them up as a pod hotel if you like.Similarly ships can keep swapping out drives and such as they wear out to extend their useful life. there are never enough ships after all.

Winchell Chung, Raymond McVay and many many others have brought up a legal query: if you have a ship you an replace everything on is it still the same ship? This is better known as The Ship of Theseus. Legal types like to worry about this stuff and so do banks that mortgage the darned ships. If you have a bunch of ferrous hulled far ranging FTL Frankensteins flitting far and wide, how do you identify them for legal purposes. What happens if a captain skips with his ship and puts his mortgage money into pimping his ride? When the ship calls at a port the authorities try to seize it but wait ... the ship they were looking for could pull 1 gee and this beast can do3 gees easy. The swiped ship similarly had different cargo and fuel capacities. Does the bank president yell,  "Curses foiled again!" and slouch away twirling his or her mustache (I'm equal opportunity, either or any gender can be a villainous prick)?

Enter the big-assed Classic Traveller computers from a game conceived when the only mobile communications device you'd carry would be a beeper that fit in a backpack. For this reimagining consider it more of a group of core systems tied almost inextricably into the keel (or whatever you call it on a spaceship). That my friends identifies the ship for legal purposes. Try to rip her out and unless you have a Class A shipyard you'll be likely to be left with a junked ship. And first rate shipyards have many nosy inspectors monitoring such upgrades. Buying a new computer requires a change of registry, notification of financial institutions and probably DNA samples ("You aren't sticking that chainsaw with scalpels in my mouth!" "It doesn't go in your mouth. Lrt me just twirl my mustache a bit first.)

This might justify the original High Guard system of restricting maximum hull size by computer model. It's not so much the computer as the control core around it. It needs to be a certain size to regulate the systems on bigger ships.

One more little catch I haven't been able to iron out. Electronics have a finite lifespan. So undoubtedly the computers have modular elements in them as well. Removing and replacing a whole core every forty years or so (right after you make your last payment!) is just cruel. How much of the computer d you replace before it's no longer the same computer?

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Other Fleet

My series of posts have tried to wake up merchants and other spacers to the colorful travellers and phenomena of the space lanes. Mind the colorful people are usually pirates and barbarians and the phenomena you could usually do without. Sorry, those are the thought that come to me out of the ether. I just get custody of them, as George Carlin once said (I'd love to say I wrote this during a lightning storm with a bottle of Scotch in my hand but alas it's a sunny day and I'm sipping iced tea.)

Anyway besides your basic pirates there's another group out there to worry about. They are every bit as relentless (maybe more), they have better technology, they have excellent crews. The Polity Navy takes a dim view of them many times. I refer to the Patrol (with a nod to Lady Andre Norton of course).

There is no branch called the Patrol in most Polities but it's there. Politics indicates a Polity will field fleets to prevent invasion, and rebellion. These fleets will have the most powerful ships and weapons available as well as the highest technology level.

These fleets will be idle and trying to look busy 99% of the time. It's that other 1% that you keep them around for: war, blockades, rebellions, invasions, and spitting on the GHU-Emperor's statue. For fighting pirates these fleets are almost 100% useless. In building big ships to serve as deterrents you are concentrating your forces. Fighting a group of pirates or a smuggling fleet with a fleet like this is much like taking a sledgehammer to a swarm of gnats. The pirates go where the big ship[s aren't. Big ships require a scheduled route for political and defense considerations. This may be the same thing. Fleet Day may come early if your Planetary Baron is feeling uppity. Pray they leave early too.

Add to this that a remote central government probably doesn't give a chinchilla's ass about your local concerns or the distress call of that lousy 200 ton free trader ... Roland, Siegfried? I forget the name.

After paying their share of taxes for the Polity fleet member worlds with any sort of leaderships will tighten their belts and pay another tax for their local fleet, usually referred to as the Patrol. Yes it is part of the Navy, much as some regard the Marines as part of the US Navy. You try telling A Marine that and I'll take pictures. Apart from a temporary alliance the Patrol and the Fleet do not work that closely. While the Fleet exists to protect the Polity, the Patrol takes care of things on a local level.

The frontier navy does not have the budget of the Fleet. Small ships are used with local technology that do not require special bases or technicians to maintain. Crew are small. There's no Marine equivalent, ship troops handle boarding actions. Ship's boats are used extensively to augment firepower in a sort of mini-battlerider strategy. These ships are crucial in raiding pirate bases that traditionally have landing fields that are a nightmare for large ships.

The Patrol has relatively small ships (800 tons and under and darned few 800 ton ships). They do try to be everywhere. They use technology locally available and are built for lengthy patrols. Finally the Patrol skipper has a high degree of autonomy. Beyond a few scheduled stopovers for various concerns a Patrol skipper has a group of star system they patrol in whatever fashion they choose, barring orders from above.

The autonomy part gives pirates the fits. The Fleet makes a show of arriving and leaving and goes for shock and awe. It's like a marching band. The Patrol shows up where and when you least expect it, much like the guy who steps on a subway train, starts p[laying a flute and passes the hat around.

There's a difference in culture as well. Navy officers (and crew where possible) will often be stationed in ships and fleets far from their homeworlds. Their first loyalties and interests are to the Polity, not some locals (barring shore leave.) The crew of the Patrol are the locals. The Fleet regards anti-piracy missions as search and destroy missions (usually against a base or a lone ship with phenomenally bad luck/judgement). The Patrol uses local contacts and local rumor mills to ferret out the informants ad fences so necessary for successful pirate enterprises. There are even instances of one pirate ring informing on another group invading their territory to the Patrol. After all locals look out for each other.

The Parol is also relentless in mounting sting operations often using upgunned merchant ships or captured pirate vessels. These stings extend to Patrol crew operating undercover in starports to report suspicious goings on. Besides their own contacts and agents the Patrol cultivates good relations with the Scouts and the Free Traders. Both are valuable sources of information on local shipping. In the case of the traders some helpful tips might lead to the Patrol looking the other way when you have some duty free cargo in your hold.

The system is not perfect. For one thing in some areas the Patrol amounts to a private navy beholding only to its homeworld and little else. In Polities that are confederations local navies may be dominant. These look to their own world leaders and admiralty for orders first then the Polity.  The central government usually takes a dime view of this and restricts ship size and armament when it can.

Even so Patrols are often scenes of power struggles as local commanders do not always cooperate with others in a cluster funded navy. It gets worse if one or more worlds rebels against the Polity. In the case of a rebellion the Patrol is usually the first to get the ax. The Polity Fleet will regard them as possibly disloyal and move to disarm them and intern their ships. Similarly some local planets may regard them as tainted by offworld contacts and interests and move to eliminate their officers at the very least.

In a final  sign that the Universe's most fundamental force is irony many Patrol ships faced with their homeworld turning rebel turn pirate.

Monday, August 22, 2016

War and Honor

Ulla-Korsa: Klendath ... Klendath?

Klendath: Here my lord.

Ulla-Korsa: Report.

Klendath: Nothing is working and we are all that survive of the bridge crew. The escape shuttle is powering up.

Ulla-Korsa: The Hell with that. Hand me my blaster. I'll take down whomever is foolish enough to board us while I live! The blaster! Now.

Klendath: Yes ... the blaster ... here!


Ulla-Korsa: ... you miserable ...

Klendath: Actually I'm feeling pretty good right now. I want you to know something oh benevolent master ... your kingdoms are a joke. We ... my people run the show. We give you the technology we decide to give you. You are a bunch of damned barbarians. You may have beaten us at war but you lost at peace. We have worked our way into all levels of your culture until we are indispensable ... till we run the show! A shutdown here a failed rive there and you lose the war against the humans.  Yet you call us slaves and servants. Idiots ... we only needed you to keep the slugs and the Videni off our necks and free ourselves for true research. What do you say to that?

Ulla-Korsa: ... ...

Klendath: Well ... CRAP! Dying before I could rant. Lousy warrior scum! What ...?

<Clunk ... clunkclunk clang!>

Klendath: I don't want to know what that is. To the Klendath-pod!


Ulla-Korsa: Someone should tell the brilliant mastermind the difference between a kill and a stun setting. I will survive this if only to pay the little son of a bitch back!

Barbarians in space are my second favorite space opera trope (pirates rule, sorry). In many many tories they are put in a position to gain enough technology to invade and topple far older and more advanced cultures.

Let me explain what I mean by barbarians in space. They are people who came into the galactic community late using technology they borrowed, begged or stole from interstellar capable beings. They are new to the scene and not cosmopolitan at all, meaning they do not have much experience contacting other beings or with multispecies conventions (like signals meaning surrender or the standard airlock design). they don't have to be warlike or violent but most people think it's more fun that way.

Larry Niven's Slavers are an example of barbarians in space. They used psionic powers to take over other races and steal their technology and (even more creepy) their minds and wills. Personally they were kind of dumb, closeminded (no pun intended) and arrogant.

In a world where the Roswell incident was a real UFO crash and we were in fact back engineering the wreck's systems we would be on the verge of being barbarians in space. The best case of humans being the barbarians for my money is 'The Road Not Taken' by Harry Turtledove. It's available online and good reading so I won't spoil it here but it sums up a major point of being a successful barbarian: technology.

To be a credible threat the barbarians need an edge. The Slavers had psionics. Other races might have highly advanced technology but lack developed space transportation systems (maybe they just like things at home.) I'm thinking about the Golden Age version of the Kryptonians here. Highly advanced and superhuman specimens who had no interest in space travel because they had it so good. If another race made contact and the planet didn't explode the galaxy would be under a Kryptonian flag.

In some cases warrior spirit or raw courage gives the barbarians their edge. I'm not so sure these will out against laser rifles and battle armor when you have swords and chainmail. Poul Anderson managed to pull it off in The High Crusade, then again he was Poul Anderson! Mnay others have claimed humans are a unique mixture of technology and primitive urges and a force to be reckoned with. That depends on the rest of the galaxy. Any race that ascended to the top of the food chain must be pretty dangerous though and in a race full of dangerous aliens I doubt anyone would become so evolved they would forget their bloody bloody past. Some cultures might outlaw war. This may not be a stable state of affairs. Take out enough of their ships and conquesr enough of their worlds and you might see what high tech really means.

Sometimes the edge is not a strength the barabarians have but a weakness the 'civilized' galaxy has. GDW's Imperium had just grown too big to pay attention to those upstart Terrans until it was far too late (we also bred like rats.) Being preoccupied cost Great Britain the War of 1812 (or at least let the Americans survive it.)

Finally technology might not be everything. Perhaps energy weapons seem superior to slug throwers but just are not worth the extra cost, training time, and maintenance. So the troops with slug throwers will win the war even if they loses some initial battles.

The most dangerous thing that any so-called barbarians can do is not attack or flank his enemy or torture the prisoners of a hundred worlds though. The most dangerous thing they can do is learn. That might be all the advantage they need.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Moriarty With a Nuclear Submarine

I loved Trek and Lost in Space when I was a boy. In many episodes of both shows they would encounter fantastic alien technology and figure it out before the last commercial break. I'm older and more jaded now and call bullshit.

Say, you took a brilliant Victorian type, Professor Moriarty, and gave him a Navy surplus nuclear submarine. Boom! He has nukes, he's master of the world. except he hasn't a clue how it works (manuals were lost in the temporal exchange, no refund, no exchange read your waiver!) Could he figure it out without killing himself or scuttling the ship? Would he cause a meltdown trying to find the coal bunker (I say, let's extricate these metal rods Colonel Moran and see why they were deemed to so precious as to be ensconced in this metallic vessel.) Okay maybe not that. He's certainly smart enough to read a warning label. Alien tech wouldn't even have labels we could read (What's this that looks like the Olympic symbol only in plaid pictographs? Meh, pull that gewgaw out of that thingawhatsit.)

Note malfunctioning alien tech is usually worth a whole movie or novel. Alien tech either works perfect or ushers in an apocalypse, or at least prematurely emails your letter of resignation to your boss telling what a tool they are. Alien tech never just loses your mp3 playlists or forgets a password.

But what could we learn from technology hundred ort thousands or even decades ahead of us? Take an example.

It emitted radio signals intermittently from 1899 to 1928 and was detected by Nicola Tesla and others. It was an anomaly and quickly lost in the shuffle of the First World War and only occasionally noted after.

In the forties the Third Reich knew something was there. There was discussion of sending a man atop a modified V-2 to investigate but defeat and partitioning got in the way. The men at Peenemunde knew the real reason rocket technology was so important to the Reich and took their stories to West ... and the East.

The Space Race was begun for national pride publicly. Few knew of the darker reason, a few hundred miles above there was technology that could change or end the world. Titov did a flyby in Vostok 2 followed by Glenn in Mercury 6. Both confirmed the theories and fears. It was there, it was big and there were what looked like running light s powered on. No response to light or radio signals. Later mission assed closer and provided tantalizing photos. Engines? Sensors? An airlock.

But the Gemini missions would be the first to put a man onboard the Black Knight.

The premise is simple but flexible. In the 60's-70's mankind discovers the first of several alien derelicts in his neighborhood. How advanced the tech is, and what can be understood can be nearly anything. In thirty years we might still be puzzling over how to open the airlock or we may have unlocked SECRETS. It could be relatively minor matters like material tech or a storehouse of fusion catalysts. You could have accelerated development with recognizable tech (Orion drive ships heading to explore Jupiter) or technology that's mostly handwavium but looks familiar (Lost in Space, Space 1999).  Maybe mercury capsules become the first scoutships for the solar system with mini-warp drives fitted to the stern and when the ftl drive is figured out things get really crazy.

(The Gemini model is from the Sketch Up 3D Warehouse: Blue Gemini by Alistair D. Alien/Black Knight/enigma by yours truly.)

Friday, August 19, 2016

Eating Out

Personal Journal Gynoid Artificial Intelligence Assembly #24601
Captain: You have your orders. Correct?

GAIA: Aye aye Captain. I am to accompany the journalist about, render assistance, answer questions regarding procedures onboard and fill any reasonable requests.

Captain: Annnnnd?

GAIA: ... make sure personnel keep their fucking mouths shut! I thought I wasn't supposed to say that out loud.

Captain: You can say it to me, the Exec or the Chief. Stop imitating my voice.

GAIA: Aye sir.

Captain: I wish I had a crew of you at times.

GAIA: Shall I let the factory know?

Captain: Negative. Ah here come the four horsemen.

GAIA: ... excuse me?

Mukh: Hey it's GAIA! I love GAIA! Hey Captain!

GAIA: Hello Professor ... what in the name of Edna happened to Schaeffer?

Tivk: We are escorting the Lieutenant to the medical section. He has a badly lacerated thumb.

Lieutenant: I never got a scratch before I became Tech. I don't understand it. Ow!!

Nok: Got to keep pressure on it till we get to Doc.

Lt: Well let's go.

Captain: What the hell happened now?

Mukh: My lunch got uppity and the young fellow here got between it and me.

Lt.: Who orders a live lobster? Who gives it a steak knife?

Nok: I armed it to even the odds.

Tivk: Who told you to disarm the arthropod?

Lt.: You could have helped more. You dove under the table like you owed money to the Life Support Guild.

Tivk: Arthropods are venomous! The knife could have been rusty or envenomed! Besides, I was seeking a weapon.

Mukh: Human restaurants keep weapons under the tables?

Tivk: I would improvise something.

Nok: Next time hide behind a little girl whose mother doesn't mind.

Lt.: Save yer breath Mr. Nok ... Tivk is convinced squirrels are venomous.

Captain: Oh for ... yeah get to sick bay. If that journalist sees this sort of thing and it gets out the Zangid will probably jump to attack us.

Tivk: Yes sick bay. I may require medical attention for this buffet on the scalp.

Lt.: The mother smacked him with her purse.

Tivk: Dreadfully unpleasant woman.

Mukh: Would you like to pet my lobster Captain?

Captain: Get that thing the hell away from me! Get to sick bay all four of you! GAIA, go and keep them out of trouble.

GAIA: Aye sir, going and keeping them out of trouble.

Lt.: Aye Captain. Going to sick bay. Hey, professor?

Mukh: Yes?

Lt.: Aren't you going to eat that thing?

Mukh: I can't now. He won, didn't he?

Social media is an aspect of our future that was unheard of when games like Traveller and Starships and Spacemen came out. On some planets it may be outlawed, on others it may fulfill the role of media and news service. This can have an impact  on player characters.

What happens when a merchant arrives to find his name has already been smeared by rivals in TraderNet.web forums as a deadbeat and payment skipper? What about citizens recording and posting video of player characters ... being player characters? A totalitarian regime with a high enough tech level may make every citizen a mandated reporter with a camera phone.

I was going to write more about the misuses of social media but given the state of the webs these days, if you're reading a blog you must know what can go wrong and frankly it's a little depressing. I'd much rather write about murderous space pirates and criminals in the far future.

In other news Marco Polo is coming home tomorrow in time for his 6th birthday! I saw him today and he's was fine if a little standoffish (how could I let THESE people have him?)