Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Merchants Strike Back!

The life of a free trader in general can suck. I'm not referring to making your monthly payments (though those suck too). A combination of running cargo, carrying passengers and wise speculation more often than not will let you turn a profit. No hard work, does pay off in Traveller despite what the LBBs advise. I refer to all the people trying to separate you from your hard earned credits.

The first obstacle to financial independence is often considered to be piracy. True to a point. Sometimes you can avoid them (the rumor mill is good for tips (buy a round in the local watering holes.) But as previous posts have stressed piracy is not limited to sociopaths in black painted cruisers randomly shooting at ships. Pirates will use their own rumor mills and spies to find out when you are carrying a juicy cargo. Take precautions.

The fact is if the skull and crossbones set has a an inside man at the port there is little you can do about it. they've spent years probably weaseling their way into a good position to pass intell to their peg-legged patrons. there are some signs that an informant is in place. If a number of ships from your departure point are attacked then there's probably a mole involved. The mole will request the pirates NOT jump ships in their home star system instead passing on the target's flight plan and following them for a jump or two. Remember the Frontier usually does not have an intelligence service set up to coordinate reports from a number of worlds. You however are fairly mobile and could do what government doesn't care to.

Sticking a spy or saboteur on your ship is good way of incapacitating a target. Be wary of people seeking working passage. Run background checks on everyone, including passengers. make sure they are who they say. Be wary of stowaways as well. There's a reasons they often pay for with their lives. Some surveillance equipment and software may pay for itself and save your life.

Your own crew can be a source of information for pirates. Believe it or not the way I hear it, some spacers occasionally partake of a taste of the grape and loosen their tongues. If you have a particularly juicy cargo do not tell anyone who doesn't need to know. Better still tell them it's something else. A cargo of video games becomes seed corn. A shipment of guns becomes construction materials. No pirate is going to go after a cargo of cinderblocks and plumbing fittings (unless they have a buyer in the construction business).

Having a functioning weapons system is often enough to discourage a pirate. A new pirate. The more established ones are going to have ships bigger than yours and bristling with lasers and missiles. This is often enough to discourage a merchant and make them surrender. They can salvage systems from ships they wreck or trap and they are probably a damn sight better shots than your guys since they put their skills to use more weapons and missiles. Nevertheless they do not want to fight when they don't have to. They have payrolls to meet, supplies and munitions to buy, and operating costs to cover.

So merchants convoy. Six or seven lasers will make even the most hardened pirate move on and seek softer targets. Law abiding ships can form up and convoy whenever and wherever they wish of course. Pirates do not have this luxury. A number of heavily armed vessels with registration anomalies will usually lead to the Navy taking a keen interest.

Note pirates will form their equivalent of a convoy. They call it a raid or blitz and it is formed to sack a large and well defended target like a colony or high port. This is a perfect storm of indisputable intelligence on a mind bogglingly valuable score that is delivered in time for the local pirate king to gather a number of ships to raid a well defended installation. But that is for another post.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Code of the Stars

In keeping with any far flung group of people living on the fringes of mainstream society, spacers have evolved a code of conduct to regulate their behavior. It is not nearly as absolute or unbreakable as a spacer will profess but it is a good start for what to do and not do when you rub elbows with the star travelers. Yes I swiped the Code of the West for some of this.

 Take the measure of a crew mate for what they are today and how they do their job.

 Never steal another’s ship. A hijacker or pirate pays with their life.

 Defend yourself whenever necessary.

 Look out for your own, first ship, then crew mates.

 Never use recreational substances on duty.

 Don’t make a threat without expecting dire consequences.

 Never open fire unless you intend to destroy a vehicle or installation.

 Never pass another ship without a friendly hail.

 Never shut down your transponder.

 Never perform an active scan on another ship unless you're ready for a fight or performing close maneuvers. A radar scan and a target lock look much the same.

 Never open fire on another ship, vehicle or installation without warning. This does not apply if you are fired on first.

 Any acts of sabotage are punished by spacing. A saboteur may kill many more than the desired target.

 Reserve swearing for emergencies so people will know you're serious.

 Complain about the cooking and you become the cook.

 Do not practice ingratitude.

 A spacer is pleasant even when out of sorts. Complaining is what quitters do

 Always be courageous. Cowards aren’t tolerated on any ship worth its salt.

 A spacer always helps someone in need, even a stranger or an enemy.

 Never try on another person's helmet.

 Any arguments you may have are settled on the ground, not on deck.

 Never wake another by shaking or touching them, as they might wake suddenly and attack you or hit the wrong button.

 Be there for a friend when they need you.

 Drunkeness while underway is grounds for instant dismissal and blacklisting.

 Respect the chain of command. If you must disobey an order expect consequences.

 Consideration for others is central to pleasant travel. Smoke only in designated areas, pick  up after yourself, play music on your earphones unless invited to share.

 Honesty is absolute – your word is your bond, a handshake is more binding than a contract. Spacers do not usually have a court to avail themselves if wronged. Honesty is essential.

 Live by the Golden Rule.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Abandon Ship!

Abandon ship? Yes sometimes.

Most times it is simply uneconomical to carry lifeboats. A lifeboat is designed as a long endurance craft with propulsion that can get you to safety. In the case of spacecraft that means something almost as costly and complex as your mother ship. Merchants can't afford that and usually neither can most militaries. I'd like to tip Traveller traders/smugglers and explorers to an easy way to minimize risk: convoys. Travel with a group of ships. One trader's dinky weapons will not trouble your average pirate or raider. Twelve traders' rinky dink weapons will. For that matter a collection of traders might have enough money to hire a mercenary ship to fly along and be further deterrent. If something does go wrong it's way quicker to transfer ships than reach a safe haven.

I have yet to see a merchant convoy in any SF game I ever ran despite my bias towards space piracy.

Suppose though there is a reason to abandon ship? A slow radiation leak, decaying orbit or crazy computer? Some sort of cheap one shot capsule to deliver one or two people from orbit to the ground of an Earth-like planet would probably do a lot for passengers' peace of mind. Many settings allow men in space suits to survive drops from orbit with foamed shields, parachutes and good intentions. A capsule would allow an unskilled person to that. A space savvy culture should be able to do that and keep it cheap so people can afford it. A capsule costing cr. 100,000 will pay for itself if it attracts 10-12 passengers (about 25 passengers with financing) over 40 years it's paid for itself. Not to mention crew can use it in a pinch.

The capsule would use thrusters and systems similar to missiles (in Special Supplement 3: Missiles). A standard missile is .02 cubic meters and masses 50 kilograms. A life capsule taking up one displacement ton would mass 2500 kg. If we stick a rocket thruster on it capable of 1g discretionary burns on the back that's 25 times the size of a missile's engine massing 25 * 11 = 275 kg. If we allow it ten 1g burns the fuel masses .4 * 25 = 10 kg * 10 = 100 kg. At 375 kg for an engine system I don't think I'm out of line allowing two couches, controls and say 100 kilos of gear. It costs about 50-60 Kcr.

Life Capsule: 1 displacement ton. Crew: 1 (acceleration couch). Move 1g10.  Cost: 150,000 cr. Crew/passengers are advised to wear vacc suits. Pilot is not needed. A hardwired autopilot system will automatically land the pod on the nearest world. The life pod can hold 100 kgs of survival gear.

Command Life Capsule: 2 displacement tons. Crew: 1 (acceleration couch). Move 1g7.  Cost: 150,000 cr. Crew/passengers are advised to wear vacc suits. A control station is included in addition to the standard autopilot. The pod has extensive transmitting and receiving systems. It is designed to take command of a group of surviving pods and can override other pod autopilots to stage a landing in the same general area or keep formation. The life pod can hold 200 kgs of survival gear.

Deluxe Life Capsule: 2 displacement tons. Crew 1 (low berth). Move 1g7 Cost 200,000 cr. Crew/passengers are advised to wear vacc suits. The evacuee has the option of engaging the low berth function at any time before or after landing if pickup is unlikely in the near future. Pilot is not needed. A hardwired autopilot system will automatically land the pod on the nearest world. The life pod can hold 100 kgs of survival gear.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw ... Move Over!

Thanks to That's Gameable Community for the link and the inspiration.

In many SF games the local animal life is a distinct threat to adventurers. Whether it's a water moccasin in your moccasin or a grizzly leaving you grisly you're well advised to pack some firepower on those long trips referees seem to love to railroad you into. After all some of those animals living in the Traveller encounter table weigh as much as a T-rex and lack its charm.
"Feed me or your next survival roll will be a b!tch!"

I'm not talking about them today. I'm talking about another kind of enemy that bullets are useless against: plants. Even on Earth a plant can mess you up. Plants have evolved defense mechanisms over millions of years. If they hadn't the animals would have eaten them all by now.

Thorns on a plant are a no brainer. If the plant has resources animals require or just like it will have some sort of objectionable cover: thorns, nettles, brambles etc. Having a plant that can shoot their thorns is regarded as cheating by some players. However, some Earth plants, like cucumbers, use gas to fire their seeds at new spawning fields. Why not a rose analogue that shoots thorns to annoy pesky animals? Some seed distributers could be more energetic than Earth cukes. Imagine walking through some innocent plants only to have them erupt and pepper you with seeds or thorns. The garden variety (hah!) rose produces thorns that are exceptionally sharp and painful as I have found out over the years.

Instead of a tomb or plunder site being guarded by robots (that need maintenance and power) a savvy culture might seed such plants around the entrance.

The part you were waiting for. Amiright? Plants emit any number of deadly substances: allergens, poisons and worse (much worse) . The results could range from a stuffed nose to horrendous rashes to anaphylactic shock or burns. This may vary by species so it is possible some hard pressed locals might pay a group of (relatively) immune offworlders to clear a deadly species from vital areas. Just bring plenty of skin lotion. Okay itchy skin is kind of weak when it comes to driving a story forward but it's perfect to teach a player character some humility (or at least why you should get some Survival skill).

Many decorative plants are also poisonous or have poisonous oils or sap. Some are quite pretty (rhododendrons, oleander, wisteria) so be careful crawling through that garden.

Adventurers should be wary what they use for their campfires. Oleander for one is so toxic even the smoke from burning it will cause poisoning. Other alien plants may cause any number of hallucinations or worse. See M. Night Shyalmalan's The Happening for more on this.

Plants move. They usually do it slowly. Bamboo, though, can grow nearly a meter a day.  Bamboo analogues could result in a path that was easily traversed a day ago to becoming nearly impassable or hide the entrance to the latest loot site. Or imagine the looks on your players' faces when they emerge from their latest foraging underground to find their ATV lofted two meters in the air by what looked like grass a few days ago.

Some plants move faster and can actually catch animals or have trap mechanisms. So far as modern science knows there are no plants capable of trapping a human (sadly the Man Eating Tree of Madagascar is only a legend). That does not have to hold true on other planets. Even so a thorn lined mouth closing on a foot will convince characters not to wear open toed shoes. Having a group of characters wake up with their sleeping bags held down by vines is also fun,

Some plants are vital for some animal species for food or shelter. Intelligent enough animals (or one manipulated by pheromones released from flora) may rush to attack people damaging the plants. Imagine a killer bee hive primed to attack you because you picked a flower (mind the thorns!) Suddenly people are not so blasé about cutting through a jungle, are they?

Bizarre Plant Life
Let your imagination soar. Within reason (or not). Psionic plants? Sentient plants? Why not?! Solar energy may limit their movements (especially at night or in the cold seasons). They may have to spend some time rooted in order to 'eat' and get water ( a hibiscus bending over for a drink at a creek is a great way to tell people they are on an alien world.)

A Word to the Players
I may seem to pull for the referees and that is because I was a referee and often felt outnumbered (though my players years later claimed the same.) Here are a couple of tips to deal with carnivorous vegetation and other local color.

1) Always, always, always read up on the worlds you visit. If possible speak to a traveler who visited or is from there. Buy them a drink and you won't be able to shut a referee mouthpiece up.

2) Find means other than combat to achieve your goal (though combat is a good secondary option in many cases). Perhaps in the examples above dangerous plant life can be rendered dormant with pheromones, darkness or other means. The flora may be inactive and safe at different times of day and seasons. Learn about the locals. Some filter masks and disposable hazmat suits are easy enough to pack and transport.

3) Equip yourselves. Again talking to locals is the way to go hear. Not necessarily the ones selling you gear though. Various travel societies and hiring halls may be able to get you a licensed guide or accredited academic. Not so much Crazy Ivan of Crazy Ivan's Trigger Happy Firearm Palooza (LLC). Scout Surplus (tm) is where you want to go (yeah I just made these businesses up.)

4) Reconnoitre. If you're a Scout or a Free Trader playing Final Frontier there will not be any library data to look at or guides. Look before you leap is good. Look before you land is even better. Even in modern day Earth many nations will kill for orbital reconaissance.

5) When all else fails shotguns are pretty effective all around. Laser cannons do a fine job combining cutting and burning.

Happy landscaping!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Ghosts of the Mind

Sorry for the spotty updates lately. Work is awful in a word. I'm barely making my re-enlist roll and trying to stay long enough to make a few rolls on the mustering out table.  But enough of my botching. You want more Ghost Drive? You got more Ghost Drive!

First a recap: Nonbiological Entities (NBEs) are what more primitive cultures refer to as ghosts or spirits. We lard evidence for them being the souls of the departed though some cultures maintain they are that and more. We do know they are life forms composed of psionic energy and several types of exotic matter existing in our three space as well as FTL space. Most people contain and use them to make their starships go. they usually have telepathy and telekinesis. Some do not but we don't bother with them in general unless you can 1)give them orders and 2) get them to give your ship a push. there are rare cases of them possessing precognition, clairvoyance, healing abilities and other fun parlor tricks. Outside a drive system they rapidly run out of energy and must subsist on heat and electrical power.

That in itself can let them raise Holy Hell. But the worst is yet to come: possession. NBEs can already make mental contact with humans though few do in a friendly manner. those that manage to psionically assault and knock out a human mind they can move for a while.

The Ghoul Cultists regard possession as a state of grace and usually allow the possessed to stay possessed. Attendants make sure the person and his rider are not interfered with (even if they're piloting your ship into the sun) except in extreme cases (like it's the High Cleric's yacht they want to pilot into the sun). Those killed by their riders are given full honors and their dependents allowed a decent stipend to live on. It beats the low passage lottery unless you're the one with a ghoul on your back (or onboard the ship they've stolen).

In centuries past many have tried to explain criminal or stupid actions by claiming possession. Even in pre-spaceflight cultures this is not an ironclad defense as you will see.

There are three types of possession that correspond roughly to the three types of NBEs and their power levels. Haunts are relatively weak things and do not usually drain the mental energies of the possessed. If they do try to possess in a desire to grow in power or experience the results are pretty obvious. The possessed is uncoordinated, erratic and inarticulate. They may be moved immediately to violence or suicidal acts as the Haunt panics but can't disengage itself. The possessed often has hysterical strength and stamina and is resistant to pain though not tun weapons. This is a First Stage Possession and the easiest to deal with.

 Second Stage possessions are usually engaged by Overt NBEs despite their name. The possession ratings came out after the names had stuck. The Overt NBE is usually smart enough to sit back and enjoy its new home for a bit and get a feel for things. The victim might experience accidents: dropping things, hitting the wrong button or tripping as well as experience fleeting visions. With an experienced NBE there will be a couple of incidents over the course of a week to ten days.

If the NBE is discovered or figures out what it wants ("He ate ten kilos of spray Cheez?") it will throw caution to the wind and go for it. this is just too bad if it decides that it wants something inside that nearby asteroid, your ship will make a dandy single use drill, and it happens to have possessed someone with access to the bridge controls. Possession is hard to mistake at this point. Possessed victims have cut or bitten off limbs (sometimes their own) to escape captivity and their desires will fall under the bat-shit-crazy category.

Third Stage possessions are the most insidious, long lasting and dangerous. A upper end Overt or worse Poltergiest will be smart enough and experienced enough to keep the clumsy accidents to a minimum. First stage symptoms will usually small tics and stammers that are easy to mistake for jokes or affectations or exhaustion. The possessed person will experience restless sleeps as the NBE moves about and test drives the new vehicle.  The more clumsy NBEs will cause bouts of sleep walking and be found out quickly.

As the NBE's hold over the person deepens they will grow tired and listless as their mental energies also go to 'feed' their new driver in whatever way they do. Some Third Stage victims have become comatose without warning or died quickly after experiencing a 'wasting disease'.

In the final phase of a Third Stage possession the NBE has conditioned the host to do as ordered and worse has access to the host's memories and skills. This stage is almost impossible to detect. It's one reason survivors of an NBE rampage who are rescued days or weeks later must endure a long quarantine. The NBE is pretty much in control but a back seat driver at this point. The host feels like they can break free whenever they want but are just waiting for the 'right moment'. Poltergeists have maintained this level of possession for years or until the host's death.

There are three steps to dealing with possession: detection, expulsion and containment. It is vital that a crew be ready to enact any and all steps immediately.

Detection can be by mechanical means psionic scans or a sharp ear and ear. The initial stages of possession do cause minor tics, unusual stress patterns in a victim's voice, and changes to eye movement. These are usually too fleeting and infrequent for all but a master in face and body reading to detect. Ant hijacking safeguards requiring voice identification, retina scan or high end facial recognition programs will sometimes pick them up. A savvy Steward will also pay for himself at this point as he's usually serving meals, taking requests and constantly exposed to everyone. Passengers are relative strangers and have less of a data base than crew however and possessed passengers may be able to pass themselves as clean for a while. Androids or robots can also perform quick scans as they go about their duties.

Several medical tests exist that can point out a possession victim. A specialized brain scanner designed to detect psionic energy can be used. If a formerly mundane subject is suddenly reading like an active psionic there's your trout in the buttermilk. The good part about this form of detection is the scan chamber can also be a containment system. The drawbacks include the size and cost of the machine and the difficulty of getting a possessed person into one. Note some ships have made use of a fake scan chamber for passengers. If you ask a guest to hop in for a read and he freaks the chase is on! Note that it is difficult to distinguish some claustrophobes from demon haunted madmen at this point. Lawsuits have resulted.

Several blood tests can detect the hormonal spikes in a person's blood if the medic has baseline readings and can take several tests over several hours or days. The results will also take a day or longer to process. The upshot is the possessed person may be running around loose at this point or a innocent person may be confined and fuming and threatening litigation. A major hospital or sick bay on a capital ship could rush the test results and most military ships have baseline endocrine readings for their personnel with random testing.

Psionic scans are the easiest way to detect a possessing NBE. There are cultural drawbacks to this. Except for the clumsiest of NBEs you're talking a deep scan meaning a persons darkest secrets are laid before the psionic. Some psionics have less flattering terms for the flood of memories and both parties may regard the procedure with the same joy as being forced into a sex tape with those extra kilos you put on during long trips. Likewise people have rights in such cases and a scan performed without sufficient reason will result in something ship captains fear as much as death or NBEs; lawyers.

Expelling the NBE is fairly straightforward. The ship psionic (usually boosted with whatever performance enhancing substances the doctor can muster) will psionically assault the victim and the NBE. There's really no way to separate the two. The NBE is at a disadvantage here because physical attacks like electric shock, tranquilizers and a good beating will disorient the host and the NBE leaving it vulnerable.

The simplest way to force an expulsion is by shoving the victim into a low berth. Frozen sleep will at the least immobilize the victim and prevent further harm. It will also drain the warmth the NBE uses to survive and force it to flee. Many ships have a special mow berth that also has a small containment unit. By this point most NBEs will comply and return to the main containment chamber. Stubborn ones will face a disposal team at the next port of call who are less than gentle. Again forcing a person into cold sleep without reasonable cause will have repercussions.

Some drugs and therapies will also force an NBE to flee (some people categorize the therapies as torture.) This is necessary when the psionic is possessed or incapacitated or the sleep tubes offline. Both are prime targets of NBEs. Sudden trauma like being shocked or thrown into an ice bath can break a possession. Some drugs will also disorient an NBE or empower a victim to break free. None of these are sure things but better than nothing when a loved one or vital crewman is under possession.

Many alien species regard possession with even greater fear and loathing than ours. As one diplomat put it possession puts everyone the vicnity in danger of one of the most dangerous life forms known ... and an NBE as well.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Technical Difficulties

To celebrate my 50,000 page view (a little late) an overlong piece of the Tesla story. Thank you viewers!

GCS Tesla
“Ma’am,” the Ensign says. It’s a habit he picked up from GAIA. The Skipper hasn’t called him on it yet but he hasn’t called her that on the bridge until now. But the Skipper is all business and she gives a shrug of those perfect shoulders. She lets it go for now and is all ears. Ears and perfect shoulders.

“Liberty Base’s signal. We’re losing it. I doubt we can get a signal through to them at this point,” the Ensign adds.

“Disrupt communications. First step of a Videni attack,” the Skipper says. A slight frown crosses her brow. “How long till break out?”

“Break out in twenty minutes if all goes well,” the Ensign says with certainty. The communications disruption was unexpected and he had not encountered it in his short career. He liked being sure of things. A little of his customary confidence returns.

“How are the fuel reserves?” the Skipper asks. She knows the answer of course. It’s a stall to think of options.

“Ten percent. Shall I increase speed?” Helm answers.

“... No. We need to get there with our reactor intact I think. Anyway, The Concordia has arrived by now. There’s enough firepower between the base and the constellation to hold off a whole fleet. We’re already arriving at the party late. We don’t want to arrive broke too.”

GCS Concordance
“We’ve lost Tesla's signal Captain Maddock,” Lawrence the Technical Officer looks worried.

“That’s bad,” the Captain mutters. “Begin a close patrol of the starbase. Order the destroyers to maximum dispersal. Inform the Commodore.”

“Aye sir,” Technical looks a little puzzled at the instructions for a moment then there’s a flash of understanding in his eyes as he complies.

Starbase Liberty
Tivk observes the scenes on the monitor. His expression is not unreadable. It’s just blank. Not a trace of feeling. No effort made to conceal emoting because there is no emoting to conceal. His left ear though gives a twitch. His thoughts are his own though another psionic could read him like a monitor.

“All the recent abductees were moved to a secured lounge area.Containment fields are being set up. If they bear explosive devices as Mr. Velazques did they will block any signal to detonate them,” he says with sureness.

The Commodore is looking at another monitor showing an immobile Saltornus, every bit as enigmatic as Tivk. She scowls at the traitor. No not traitor, saboteur. Spy. Would be assassin. His partner in crime is in another holding area at the far end of the station.

“Did Tesla tell us anything more about the abductees?” she asks.

“Tesla’s signal cut out after the Commander warned of a danger arising from them. They may be hypnotically conditioned or clones or Videni altered to resemble humans using a device similar to Tesla’s AXA. Professor Mukh is trying to piece together the last message,” Tivk says.

“Get the hell down to the brig and make that sonuvabitch talk. Use whatever means you must. Am I making myself clear, Mr. Tivk?” she says softly.

“I will do my best Commodore,” Tivk says with a short salute. He doesn’t tell her his best can be very bad indeed. Most humans equate ruthlessness with brutality and rage. Tivk’s people learned a long time ago to truly be ruthless you had to put all your emotions aside. They were very good at that when it became necessary. He leaves without a further word.

IZS Vehemence
“Ulle-admiral. Ulle-admiral!” Klendath exclaims entering the elder Korsa’s quarters. The small tripedal assistant hesitates seeing a line of dropped articles of clothing going towards the sleeping area.

“... sir? My … lord?,” Klendath stammers.

Ulle-Korsa exits the bath swathed in a robe and redolent in scented oils and bath salts. He shakes a fist at the little assistant. “You … have abominable timing! You … would sell your shares in a sunglass company the day before a supernova!” the old warrior growls.

“ … a nova would doubtless wipe out the planets close enough to need sunglasses my lord. If you recall you nearly took a bath on that but then I pointed out the light would take a few years to reach …”

“Shaddup! What do you have for me, bug?” Korsa bellows. Klendath quails in the proper manner.

“Liberty Base has stopped her signaling. Tesla seems to be trying to send a message to Liberty but it is doubtful it be received given the strength of the jamming,” Klendath says holding a sheaf or hard sheets for perusal. Korsa is a leader, not a reader. He waves it off and strides to a communications panel.

“Communications! Run on stealth mode. Is that clear? Good. Klendath! Anything from the Dreadnought or destroyers?”

“No sir.”

“Crazz! All right Klendath, you did well. Call me when we reach the outer rim of the Liberty system.”

“Aye aye sir!” Klendath watches his lord and master go into the sleeping chamber and retreats heaving a heavy sigh of relief. He’d get to live and serve another day.

There were time Klendath hated himself.

Starbase LIberty

“Saltornus. We need some answers. You will give them to me with or without interrogation. The choice is yours,” Tivk says. Behind him one of the security guards readies an autoinjector. For their race psionic invasion is as bad as things get. Physical pain can be shut off by the disciplined mind but when you invade that mind directly what can the victim do? Tivk waits a moment in the awkward silence. Then nods to the guards who step forward.

“You know … the surest way to make a Terran keep you alive, keep you around is by convincing them you desire death,” Saltornus says. Tivk halts the guards with a sharp gesture.

“Go on Saltornus,” Tivk says unblinking.

“Where’s your friend the phrog?” asks the saboteur.

“What do you want with him?” Tivk asks.

“No reason. Idle curiosity.”

“You are stalling …”

Won Ton Courtesan

“Coming out of hyperdrive … now!” Nok says.

“Engage cloak,” Korsa says happy to see his ship working correctly again. He doesn’t let it show. Well maybe a little. Talnerassa complies and affirms the cloak is on.

“Still interference from Liberty.” Talnerassa says.

“Crazz. How am I supposed to make a deal with them with no comm signal?” Korsa mutters. He looks over the schematic of the system and sketches a course on the touchscreen in his armrest. “The sub dwarf planet near Liberty, take us in. Maintain cloak. Minimal thrusters. We need to know what is going on here before we announce ourselves.” The vole brings the ship into a new slightly different heading. “Let me know immediately if Tesla’s signal fails and track the destroyer constellation and monitor signals.”

“Aye salle-Captain,” Tal says. She gets to work on the tasks he set before her.

“Could be a major battle ahead,” Nok the vole says. Reading scroll reflected in his dark eye filters.

“Yes. We will try not to interfere until it is clear what side is winning,” Korsa says.

“Then join it?” Tal asks glancing up from her screen.

“Where is the fun in that?” Korsa says baring his teeth.

Starbase Liberty

The Trrran Security Chief fidgets a little watching the lunge through a monitor.It’s the main waiting area for new and shady arrivals to Liberty. It’s a sort of cross between a chain restaurant, pub and decontamination station.  Muhk is in a world of his own listening to squawks and the screech of static, a few human words thrown in.

“We should be in there getting answers from those … whatever,” the human grumbles watching the people recently liberated or snatched out from under slavers.

“Shush. I think I can almost make out what the Tesla tried to signal us about. You don’t want to start slapping a possible spy around and then discover they got a suicide capsule surgically implanted. Let’s find out where to go with this first,” Mukh says looping the recording to play again.

“Something is happening. The suspects …, “ the Chief says. On the monitor the detained people are getting up and filing to one corner of the large room. Mukh’s face is unreadable. Let it be said he has to work on making it readable to humans. His species usually emotes using pheromones and color changes, though you need vision in the near ultraviolet to see those.

“I’m calling in a team with stunners. We’re pacifying them right now and putting them in stasis …”

“Riiiiiiiiii! Too slow! Gas the room! Gas the room!” Mukh hollers. If you saw in ultraviolet he’d be deathly pale right now.

“What? Why?”

“Explosive devices … implanted … probably wired to their nervous systems!” Mukh is reaching for the control to do just that because the damned human is moving too slow processing this.

GCS Concordance
“Captain Maddock, we have some troubling news …” Technical says looking at a sensor display the Captain is calling up.

“Does is look anything like this?” the marge man rumbles. His sausage fingers swipe the screen with a grace of long practice. Tech sees Liberty Base, the dreadnought, the attending Destroyers and their courses as well as a huge red cloud. The zone of interference is now mapped by the ship’s movements and the quality of signals they are receiving.

It’s a very large zone. It’s very close to Liberty Base.

Tech goes a little pale.

“Order the destroyers back into close formation,” Maddock says.

Starbase Liberty
Saltornus makes no move as the guard prepares to administer the shot that will turn his brain into limp noodles. That worries Tivk. Obviously what Tivk is doing makes no difference and the beanpole doesn’t like that notion. Few of his race do.

//You will give up your secrets now, Saltornus. Perhaps we can even learn ...//


//What did you d … //

The distant explosion will be muffled by many bulkheads and decks. The force of it still knocks Tivk and the security a good part of a meter into the air. The sound reaches them a fraction of a second after that force traveling much faster through metal and plastic and continuing to play out in a symphony of destruction and chaos. Structural member bend and break. The secondary force fields set up around the lounge are useless against a psionic trigger word sent out to receptive minds. They buckle and send feedback through the station’s power grid. Lighting and gravity go out in sections. The great sphere of the base shudders and begins venting atmosphere as first responder, many of them injured themselves try to restore some function.

GCS Tesla
“Breakout in three, two, one,” Helm counts off. She holds her breath as space and every molecule in the Tesla shudders and twitches and moves a bit to the right of the three conventional axes. Helm's shiny blue skin takes on a slightly gray cast though she shakes it off.

“I did it better,” The Lieutenant thinks. He’s grown a bit and wisely keep it to himself. The transition makes him wince a little. “Coming up on Lib …” He starts to say. His vision blurs a moment and clears. He looks at the main screen and shuts his eyes a second and looks again.

There’s a shimmer that hurts the eyes as the Videni fleet uncloaks and once again reacts to photons in the accustomed way as the cloaking devices shut down. The Videni fleet lies between them and the Starbase.

“Sound battle stations! Evasive action. Arm torpedoes!” the exec says a little too calmly. She’s going to die. They all are. The question is how many invaders will precede them.

Down in the medical section Doc hands Riasi a helmet and breathing mask. Before he slips his own on he gives her a quick hug. “Love ya Kitten,” he says awkwardly.

Riasi shakes her head and mutters, “Took you long enough. Love you too.” She nips his neck.

The Tesla barrels at the enemy fleet at maximum acceleration.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

You Say 'Sargasso', I Say ...

Jonny Quest, Doc Savage and Captain Nemo had adventures there. Hammer Studios set a film there. Lady Andre Norton got the idea for one of my favorite books from it. Columbus traveled through it.

I wrote about and defended space pirates. I wrote about cutlasses in boarding actions. I wrote about ghost ships of space and yet I forgot one of the most improbable yet enticing nautical legends that is just waiting to be transferred to outer space. I refer to the Sargasso Sea.

The Reality

The Sargasso Sea is the only sea on earth without a coastline, bounded instead by ocean currents and wind patterns in a relatively calm area of the North Atlantic off the east Coast of America. The currents and wind cause an accumulation of Sargassum seaweed which give the sea its name. It is also the site of The Great Atlantic Garbage Patch which must make the World's largest ball of yarn look like a real tourist attraction.
(Sorry no photos on Wiki of the Garbage Patch)

The Fiction
Fiction in a variety of media portray the sea as a region where ships became entangled and trapped in the seaweed becoming a 'floating land of death and decay,' to quote Ms. Norton. She brilliantly took hold of the idea and transferred it to her seminal novel Sargasso of Space a whole planet of wrecked starships!

This is a good thing mind you as it got Jonny and Team Quest to fight evil frogmen with a deadly super weapon. Sending them to investigate the Great North Atlantic Garbage Patch is just lame and I'm sure Dr. Benton Quest has better things to do.

(Saved by Hammer Films! Take that ball of yarn!!)

Everything is better in space so Sargassos, vast fleets of derelict starships are often invoked. Star Trek: the Next Generation invoked this idea at least twice that I recall. In a roleplaying game it most certainly rocks because as my oft time partner in crime Raymond McVay notes a starship is just a mega dungeon. What better than to have several dozen or hundreds of dungeons just floating along that you could practically reach with a rocket pack or a good push off a hull?

(Raymond McVay: making RPGs safe for hard science for a while now!)

I hasten to point out if one ghost ship is awesome a dozen or more should have your players twitching in rapture (that is a sign of joy right?) Picture this in your next game:

(Less captions and more holes and cobwebby stuff. Yes I'm making space spiders a thing now. Otherwise the Mynocks(TM) space bats will breed unchecked! by DirkLoechel at deviantart.)

Okay now hold up a minute. Put down the cutlass. There are a few things to consider in creating a Sargasso. 

How Did It Get There?
What destroyed or depopulated all those ships? Was it an alien trap? Plague? Local conditions? All these reasons are good but there are problems with each. If it was a trap how did it get so many ships. You'd think after SAR and salvage ship hulks started piling up someone would investigate. 

If it was a fast acting plague how did it get to so many ships and incubate undetected to burst forth at once? A bioweapon is a possibility. Kill the crew, do a decon, and take over the fleet unless the fleet officers decide to retreat to a remote location and await a rescue that never comes. 

Rogue AIs are another possibility. The AIs take a fleet over and jump far away from other fleets where they sit and infect other ships that come too close. This or plague might both be examples of super weapons and would be great ways to trap some you would be salvage mavens. You need to find the AI backdoor or the antidote or shut off the tractor beam!

The derelicts might be dragged to one place by government types for safety and because the government never throws anything away (including incumbents it seems). But in that case most likely everything of value has been stripped. People do make mistakes though. Guards are also a possibility and you lose a lot of the charm of a mysterious wreck ... cause of destruction unknown. 

Space Is Not an Ocean!
Space is not a f#$%ing ocean. Why then is your group of derelicts just floating there? It's more likely they are orbiting something. A dead planet makes for a nice backdrop. Optionally they could sitting things out at an L-5 point. Otherwise they will either drift apart or eventually attract each other and clump together or violently collide. There's a finite limit to the time these hulks will be close together.

Speaking of which ever hear of Kessler Syndrome? There's no vaccination for that. Over time impacts with derelicts will create debris which creates more debris in a rapidly spirally cycle that will make approaching the fleet fell like going through a sandblaster. Of course the referee might like that.

Optionally your fleet could be grounded on a planet, a junkyard if you will. then you don't even need a ship to get to different hulls. You could walk (spacesuit optional.)

Where Is It Located?
It should be remote. Remoteness is very useful to establish a feeling of horror. If it is remote the trap origin runs into difficulty. Why is it so far off the beaten paths yet able to have trapped so many ships? Either it has a powerful lure or has operated for centuries. Even so after a few ships go missing the Navy will probably come around and blast whatever they can't understand. Also in many settings ships file these things called flight plans with their destination and estimated arrival times listed. A bunch of missing ships will eventually send a signal in some office somewhere. Again a trap working intermittently over years or decades might escape detection. All this becomes much easier with a 'remote central government'. They won't notice anything less than a sector fleet missing.

If you aren't too hung up on the science the local conditions could impede travel. An exotic nebula could drain power or some such. Jerry Pournelle did a great hard SF look at a fleet of trapped ships in He Fell Into a Dark Hole (1973).

Who Is There?
Zombies? Survivors? Hermits? Is there anyone calling the bunch of wrecks home? They might need rescue. They might be competition. They might want intruders dead and be batshit crazy. Maybe a bunch of space pirates call the fleet home and does not welcome you meddling kids (and your talking dog!) Perhaps other fortune seekers are there already and laying claim to the fleet.

Note that in modern maritime law a ship that is abandoned becomes the property of the first person to put boots on deck. If the claimers leave the ship then it becomes fair game for the next person to put boots on the deck. A salvage crew might claim the entire fleet but they'd only have claim to the hulks they actually occupy. In maritime law even leaving a mascot onboard means the ship is crewed and anyone else boarding without permission does not have a claim. That might not be the case in future space law. The salvagers might also decide a colony of giant space spiders makes a fine group of mascots and simply let them breed there until they blow the airlocks when they are ready to salvage the ship.

Modern space law says that no you may not take over an unoccupied vehicle you enter. Developed nations also frown on scooping up satellites from orbit. 

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Splodey Fighters

I mentioned the Catalyst before: the unobtainium that makes fusion possible at very low temperatures. I posited that mankind would expand out into the universe to seek more catalyst (unless the solar power lobby won).

The assumption was that ships would use and reclaim Catalyst as they generated power. It is somewhat expensive. Besides the storage and recycling systems take up a lot of volume and mass.

With any valuable resource you will have conflict over it. Maybe not eternally but it's a good long term bet. One of the coolest ideas in space conflict is the star fighter. But those little ships can't afford the space for recycling and storing Catalyst. Therefore they have all their fuel catalyzed before launch. It's economical given the size of the ships and their short duration missions.

One of the other cool things about space battles is explosions. In the past I've said a ship probably won't explode when its reactor or drives take damage (unless you are deranged enough to use antimatter for example). This rectifies that. Now you have a big tank of fuel ready to fuse. What is its ignition method? Lasers! Missiles can catch ships without huge drives!

<<Pew! Pew! Pew!>>


(Of course I know there's no sound in a vacuum. The SFX are added to archival footage.)

Needless to say shuttles and civilian vessels have their Catalyst supply limited by safety regulations and they all use the recyclers which makes them slower than the military ships piloted by suicidally brave pilots. You don't even have to say all the enhanced fuel will go up. Make it as big a bang as you deem artistic.

Whatever, I got my big explosions.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Oddball Planets Pt. 4: Single Habitat Irrespective of Terrain Planets

Single Habitat Irrespective of Terrain Planets are a tried and true trope of SF and especially some roleplaying adventures. The most famous examples are the Desert Planets (C) Tatooine and Dune. Other examples are Dagobah and Coruscant.

In our own solar system Mercury, Venus and Mars are a single type of habitat or environment. They'll kill you without a spacesuit. But people seem to enjoy pplanets that are entirely modeled after a relatively small area of Earth. this has some justification.

It's a good shorthand way of writing up a planet for a referee under the gun. Referees are always short of time and energy and any established shortcuts like this are usually overlooked. If you're a writer and try it you're called a hack. Or worse.

In fairness and entire campaign might take place in a relatively small area of a single planet. If a group of characters had a series of adventures on an Earth like planet but in a region resembling the Sahara in size and conditions they might walk away thinking it was all desert; and for their purposes it was!

Sadly we do not have a lot of so called garden planets in the Solar System. Just the one (and we may be voiding the warranty on this one soon). Could a planet be a single biome? There are a couple of factors that work against this.

Planets are big! This might seem obvious but most of the other reasons planets may vary hinge on this one fact.

1) Most planets are going to have seasons due to orbit and axial tilt.resulting in different temperature ranges for different latitudes. This will affect life in the different areas.

2) Water and other vital resources may not be evenly distributed. Okay on the bright side oxygen and air pressure are pretty constant across the globe though they vary by height. Wether patterns (that depend on sunlight in a large part) and location will deny water to some locations and dump too much in others.

3) Land forms and water ways may isolate animals and plants creating different eco-systems in different areas.

All of this can be hand-waved somewhat, especially if you're talking a small world and a really big star. For example in a few billion years when Sol expands into a bloated red giant the Goldilocks zone will be around Jupiter and Saturn's orbit. The moons of those planets may achieve Earthlike temperatures and environments. Add to this a relatively long year and you won't have a lot of variation in sunlight. Ganymede, Europa and Callisto might be single climate worlds with different types of climates depending on terrain and available water.

Tidal locked worlds won't have much variation in sunlight either. They're split into three different zones; to damn hot, too damn col, and just right. In the habitable belt you might see a single ecology develop.

Some planets might have a more even distribution of water as well. Law of averages and all that.

Getting back to the desert planets though, you could say a world has less water than Earth and a much drier and hotter climate. But those are averages. There are a lot of different types of deserts. The poles could have huge glaciers or ice caps like Lowell's Mars. Regions might vary between rocky or sandy. There could be bone dry mountains reaching for the stars. The planet doesn't have to be covered in unending sand.

Monday, June 6, 2016

The Aliens of the Trope Cluster

Asimov said there were three kinds of SF story. The action adventure is where the gadget is a means to adventure: a time machine, starship, giant robot etc. In terms of aliens we are definitely talking forehead aliens. Humans would serve just as well but we want to make sure people remember it's SF. These aliens are sometimes given a special power or ability to make them harder to fight but it isn't necessary.

The invention story is all about getting the parts and materials you need for the gadget and building it. This sort of alien can communicate with humans and might even appear very human but they have their differences. Part of the story involves working through these differences or passing some hurdles then benefitting from the aliens' special abilities. The Vulcans from Star Trek fall into this category. Their unemotional exterior, copper based physiology and mating patterns all provide problems that need to be worked around but they have telepathy and extremely powerful intellects.

Finally we have the gadget that causes social change. Aliens that cause huge social change make lousy PCs. Folks tend to worship them as gods.

A good campaign can use all three and indeed many series and works have al three kinds. You need some forehead aliens to carry stuff or fight. You need some of the ones a little off by humans standards to create an exotic atmosphere and complicate life and sometimes your adventure just calls for meeting with a Big Glowing Head (the smug bastards).

The second type of alien is my favorite. Even if there are only a rare percentage of beings humans could relate to we'd probably try to hang out (if we aren't trying to kill each other). They encourage roleplay (hopefully) and have more of a SF feel than say a Fiji islander painted purple with horns. Seriously if you need background characters have a human diaspora. Aliens should be special.

One of the things I've tried to avoid in my own writing is humanizing my aliens over time. Mukh for example is a gender swapping amphibian whose race has no concept of gender roles, courtship or romance. In fact it is rare for both parents to be present when an egg mass is fertilized. No one is going to convince him that his species is missing out. They're happy to spend that extra energy on other pursuits. At the same time they certainly understand love and affection as they are social creatures. Young are brought in from the wild when they achieve some sentience and their lungs develop and are raised by various clans. It works as well as human families or tribes.

Tivk is from a more humanlike race. His people prize rationality. In my take, their emotions are not repressed so much as nearly absent. When they do show emotion it is by subtle clues like body signs, ear twitches, small ticks that most beings miss. The entire species is psionic to some degree so they can broadcast what they feel to others of their kind. There's no reason for smiling or laughing or screaming.

They are long lived and as people change over time they realize relationships change. They have no concept of marriage for life. When two people grow apart they leave because it is the rational thing to do. If a relationship doesn't work out they will often terminate it or 'return' to an earlier point. Yes they can be lovers and go back to being friends, something few humans do.

Nok's people are just creepy by most human standards. They are given to long silences, and periods of quiet reflection followed by bursts of activity or violence. They are descended from predators that attack by ambush. While a human will attack a problem or obstacle until winning or exhausted Nok's people prefer to observe, find a weak spot and exploit it swiftly. Powers of observation are very
 important to them perhaps more so than intelligence. It's good to see something coming after all and if you see something coming that you can't understand you can always bring your problem to smart person.

So sometimes they will just act in ways that if understandable are weird. Mukh likes eating small furry animals alive. He just does. Nok likes to pick a dark place for a nap like under a bunk or desk. Tivk can be clueless about human reactions or invite anger by not responding to them. they aren't going to 'get better' or apologize for what they do.

My human characters are quite as annoying to the aliens as vice versa. But they are only human.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

WTF Does That Mean?

As I seem to be going through the 'invent new words' phase of SF writing I decided to include a small glossary for what I have so far used in the Tesla story.
(N.C.) non-canon species, (Te.) Tenebrian, (Vo.) Vole, (Z.) Zangid

-va go-agro: (Te,) Telling a person you are about to deal violence to them. Ex. Terrence go-aggro.

AXA: Anomalous Xeno-Artifact. An artifact left behind by an extinct (or just missing) species. the code refers to any advanced and working technology the Fleet doesn’t understand. The AXA onboard the Tesla can change a subject’s species temporarily.

GAIA: Gynoid Artificial Intelligence Assembly. The combination of source code and hardware that is uniquely GAIA.

gynoid: Terran AI in with ambiguous female attributes

Lurran: (N.C.) Riasi’s species. Humanoid species with some feline and vulpine characteristics. An ally of the humans

paddlet: A small tablet like device, usually with a flatscreen as a back up for a holographic display. The Fleet equivalent of a notepad.

Rockapongalie: (N.C.) An extinct (?), highly advanced race of sexual predators responsible for much of the evolution of the n=known races and their ability to often interbreed. The Rockapongalie used various devices to make young races more compatible biologically (and sexually) so they had someone to party with. 

salle-: (Z.) Honorific meaning ‘eldest son’. Usually placed before name or title. Ex. Salle-Captain or salle-Korsa. Leaving it off marks one as ill mannered unless you know the person very well.

Sarlos: (N.C.) Bizgit’s race. Think a sasquatch with fangs and talons. They are over two meters tall about 200 kilos and usually quite peaceable. They require a very humid and oxygenated breathing mix. Standard air mix (for humans or Zangid) causes them to develop a phlegmy cough after a few hours.

Skipper: term for a person lower in rank than Captain commanding a ship or shuttle. thus the Ensign is addressed as ‘Skipper’ when he is commanding Shuttle 1. The Exec is also called ‘Skipper’ when she is commanding the Tesla as she is a commander, not a captain.

toaster: derogatory term for AI and considered very bad manners

Turing rating: Terran test designed to measure AI initiative and ability to infer and adapt. Humans are by default assigned a ’10’. Fleet AI such as GAIA require a minimum of ‘7’.

ulla-: (Z.) Honorific meaning ‘patriarch. Usually placed before name or title. Ex. Ulna-admiral or ulla-Korsa. Leaving it off marks one as ill mannered unless you are an equal or superior.

Venga’nali: (Te.) Instructing a person to do something obscene disgusting and probably illegal in most locales. Don’t use it on a Tenebrian unless you are an ambidextrous black belt. 

xeche: (Vo.) enter/you may approach/hello

xechut: (Vo.) do not come near me/stay there/piss off

Characters (Yes, my characters have real names. They just address each other by rank or title. It’s an old Fleet superstition.)

Fleet Personnel
Captain (Military): Daniel Maddock Military Branch

Executive Officer (Science): Philomena Lovecraft Science Branch

Cadet (Later Midshipman): Shaeffer (Shavetail) Dell Nagivation Technology Branch

Tech Officer: Titus Ortega Technology Branch (Deceased)

GAIA (Gi): Service Line Android Science/Technology Branch Compatible.

Chief Medical Officer: Rudolph ('Dolphin') Osborne Medical Science Branch

Marine Sergeant Major: Eustace Sherlock (The Chief) Rademacher

Marine Lance Corporal: Jennifer Darling

Specialist: N’Sa Nok Navigation Branch Helmsman

Specialist: Tivk Technology Precision Fabrication Engineer Technology Branch

Specialist: Professor Tiglath Pileser Mukh Contact Science Branch

Observer: Riasi Querunuroow Professional Cat Girl

Captain Xamilcar salle-Korsa Weapons Officer/Military Branch 

Helmsman: ‘Domo’ Military Branch

Science: Talnerassa Science Branch

Engineer: Kzvita Technology Branch

Doctor/Life Support/Cook: Bizgit Biology/Sciences Branch