Federation Countercultures: Cyberpunks

In the 21st century after leaving Sol, many things that troubled Earth in the 21st Century AD are practically unknown in the Federation of Parahuman Species. Poverty, war, mortality, there’s barely even any crime. So what do rebellious youths have to rebel against?

Stagnation. They might have nanofabricators that can turn a pile of dirt into a hovercraft in hours, but they’ve effectively reverted to an agrarian economy. Access to resources is primarily dependent on land, trade is a secondary concern. With resources, and thus social status, tied to land ownership power is concentrated in the hands of family elders who might live for millennia before their estates get redistributed to their hundreds of descendants.

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Utility Microbots, or Elemental Technomagic

The idea of “utility fog” dates back to an Old Terran idea for replacing vehicular safety restraints with a cloud of floating micro-machines that could interlock into an impromptu harness when needed. Later thinkers imagined using such machines to form tools or even perform open-air nanofabrication. As it turned out though, the vacuum chamber proved impossible to do without, but the potential for using microswarms as manipulatory tools was still worth exploration and the present-day Federation developed four broad classes of “utility bots” that are still in common use.

 

U-Fog: The “classic” form of U-Bot, these microbots are fine enough to be carried by a small breeze or lock together temporarily into microscopic propellers or sails for guided motion. These micro-motors cannot propel an object of any significant density in gravity, but they can form grapples, cushions, or momentary barriers capable of arresting motion. In a pressurized microgravity environment they can move dense objects or adhere a person’s feet to a surface, simulating gravity to an extent. In vacuum they are, of course, next to useless without air to carry them.

 

U-Water: Microbots suspended in liquid, this variety of U-Bot exhibits less mobility but more “strength” than fog. These bots can also exploit the surface tension of the liquid they’re suspended in to extend their area of effect much further than an equivalent volume of U-Fog. Usually the bots are concentrated in a relatively small volume of liquid for storage and then poured into a local source of fluid, even a natural pond or lake. While U-Water can’t perform nanofabrication without a vacuum chamber it is popular for repair work and macro-assembly, it can even seal injuries in first aid. In gravity the pool of U-Water must remain in contact with the ground or floor, but it can “reach up” or “climb” vertical surfaces to some extent. In microgravity U-Water tends to resemble a giant amoeba, reaching out pseudopods.

 

U-Sand: The largest variety of U-Bot, U-Sand components are on the scale of grains of sand and usually packed so densely that their swarms are visible to the naked eye. Small amounts may be used to form metamorphic tools that change shape at a moment’s notice, large amounts may even form temporary buildings. However, they are primarily used for excavation and construction, a swarm of U-Sand can grind away particles from sheer bedrock and reform the grains into concrete blocks. This process is slower than conventional construction but many spacers find it more practical to transport a few cubic meters of U-Sand than excavators and mixers. Some versions of U-Sand contain specialized bots with molecular assembly attachments and others that can lock together tightly enough to form a vacuum chamber, creating a field nanofabricator.

 

Energetic Bots: The original conception of Utility Fog imagined that the bots would be constructed from synthetic diamond. However, some critics of the idea pointed out that even crystalized, a cloud of what amounted to carbon dust would be extremely flammable. The concept was quickly revised to employ non-flammable corundum instead, but the original idea lived on in “Energetic” U-Bots or “E-Bots”. E-Bots can be patterned after any form of U-Bot and perform the same functions, provided an atmosphere deprived of oxygen, and carbon is cheaper than aluminum, but they are most famously weaponized. While any form of U-Bot can be used as a weapon in some manner, the spectacle from the combustion of E-Bots has lead many planetary governments to restrict them more heavily than corundum U-Bots.

 

Technomages: All but the most basic U-Bot configurations require a BCI to control. With mental commands U-Bots can rearrange themselves into any shape the user can imagine, within physical limits. Given that implants were already required to make the most effective use out of them, it was no surprise when somebody had the idea of installing U-Bot reservoirs in their own bodies. People with such reservoir implants often imagine themselves recreating the feats of wizards from fantasy novels, hence the moniker of “techno-mage”.

 

Cytoran, the Outworld of monsters and augmented heroes, has a fair number of Technomage Venturists who believe they are working real magic.

 

Technomage implants are typically installed in a limb, replacing most of the soft tissue between the bones of a forearm or lower leg and substituting the muscles with more compact synthetics. There are two general varieties of implant, reservoirs simply hold a quantity of U-Bots produced by an external device while fabbers contain a miniaturized nanofabricator specialized to produce one variety of U-Bot. Technomages with fabber implants will usually refer to themselves using one of the four elements of Ancient European proto-chemistry, “air mages” have U-Fog fabbers, “fire mages” will produce E-Bots, etc.

 

Cytoran’s Emissary distributes U-Bots through the temples dedicated to them and their Bureau Directors. Most of their priests have UBIs that can call upon the U-Bots stored in the temple whenever they’re on the grounds while Venturist priests get reservoir implants to use them in the field. Fabber implants are allowed, grudgingly, on the condition that the natives cannot understand how they work. However, technomages with fabbers, or “sorcerers”, are widely distrusted by the priesthood and the general public.

The Kitsune

Kitne, Huli-jin, shifters, cubi, whatever they’re called, this semi-secret society strikes fear in the hearts of overbearing Emissaries and cruel heads of house. Most of the public, however, see them as folk heroes of a sort, visiting punishment on those too well-connected for the legal system to touch. Given all they’ve done it’s a wonder that the Kitsune order hasn’t been rooted out and exiled yet.


The reasoning, like so many other things in the Federation, goes back to the Silver Houses. In the century following the Gene Wars, when the silver fox phenotype was re-emerging from the survivors of genus Argentum, one young vixen discovered that her parents had secretly altered her genes in-vitro to turn her fur black and white. The exact details of the genetic fraud vary from telling to telling, as the case files were sealed after dismissal from lack of evidence, even the vixen’s true name is unknown. What the stories do agree on is that her disgust with her family led her to assume a new name dredged up from the archives on Terran mythology, Kumiho.


As the years went on, Kumiho was attributed to the public relations downfalls of dozens, if not hundreds of corrupt politicians. She learned their dirty secrets through hacking, networking, and outright seduction, wearing a different face each time. Civil forces raided bodysculpting boutiques to find her, but none of them had any record of servicing any parahumans with the looks she’d been recorded with. The obvious conclusion was that she had assistants, the secrets posted by “Kumiho” must have been actually from a number of different people. But even then facial recognition drew a blank.


It wasn’t until two hundred years later that one of her followers revealed the truth. On a live stream from a dozen different cameras a doe transformed into a male weasel with four tails in a matter of minutes. As their fur changed color and their flesh and bones warped and popped they explained to the astonished press that they were a member of a secret society of cyborgs founded by Kumiho.

 

Their body had been laced with motile micromachinery that could reconfigure to alter their appearance with a signal from their BCI. When they had first joined the society their natural skin was replaced with an artificial substitute that could extend or withdraw fur with variable pigmentation at will. As they accomplished assignments their connective tissues were replaced with micromachines that could detach or attach on command and extra tails were granted to them to show their progression up the society’s hierarchy and store spare protoplasm. Kumiho, according to them, had ten tails and had progressed to the point where, it was rumored, her neurons had been replaced by microbots.

For reasons unclear, the civil guard were ordered not to move until this explanation was complete. At that point the speaker made their escape, disappearing into the crowd effortlessly. Shortly after, a group of senators introduced legislation specifically licensing the existence of the society, which they named the “Kitsune” order on the advice of Terran scholars, so long as they refrained from committing capital crimes and policed their own, which they seem to have agreed to. The few times a Kitsune was indicated to be involved in a murder or act of terror a shredded body stripped of all micromachinery was discovered in a ditch shortly after. There are even a few cases where mercantile houses have specifically sought out Kitsune as representatives, though there is the possibility that they’re merely copycats using knock-offs of the Kitsune cybernetics.

Federal Bureaus

As anti-corporate as the Pallene are the Praetor simply cannot be everywhere at once. While the Federation leaves a great deal to local governments to handle anything more than a light-second outside a planet or habitat with a population of 1,000 is their jurisdiction. The Federation also maintains a starport on the most populous body in a system and in the stargate (if present). For example, if Earth were part of the Federation Luna would be under Federal control until it attracted enough colonists to apply for statehood, while Phobos and Deimos would be Martian territory.
That is a great deal of space to adminster, as such the Praetor maintains several Federal Bureaus to act in their stead. Each of these Bureaus is led by an Executor appointed by the Praetor, usually on their prior performance within the Bureau though as always there are exceptions. Bureau employees tend to start out at the bottom and work their way up, but cronyism and nepotism are not unknown and a few houses are known for their employment in one Bureau or another.
Ungated systems also have a unique quirk, the Bureaus operating in such systems don’t normally answer to their Bureau superiors elsewhere in the Federation, but to the system’s Emissary who appoints the local directors much like the Praetor to the Executors.
Major Bureaus:
Bureau of Allocation: Responsible for collecting taxes and budgeting to the other Bureaus. Since collecting taxes from ungated systems is… difficult to say the least, the standard policy for such systems is to spend collected taxes on local projects or on portable assets such as qubits or starships.
Bureau of Defense: The Federal Guard and Civil Guards responsible for defending the Federation from threats both external and internal.
Bureau of Ecology: Evaluates planets for Parahuman inhabitation and approves terraforming projects.
Bureau of Memetic Health: Monitors the emergence and spread of memes that might impact the Federation’s cohesion. Calls on the Bureau of Defense when intervention in a meme carrier group is warranted, up to an including exile to the Outworlds.
Bureau of Transportation and Trade: Licenses conversion drive starships, produces the monopoles required for their reactors, and maintains the Starforge and the fleet of linelayers that produce the stargate network.
Bureau of Xenosophont Relations: Formerly the Bureau of Xenoarchaeology. Originally founded to study the remains of extinct alien civilizations, ever since contact with the Kershkans their mandate has been expanded to encompass contact with the Federation’s non-Terran client states.

Beamferry

Mass transit in space. A light sail craft that uses lasers projected from a series of stations set around a solar system in a large oval track that can be hundreds of AU long. When the craft comes near its destination it jettisons its cargo and passenger pods and another series of laser projectors turn the sail onto an arc bringing them around on a path back in to the system, never stopping entirely. New pods are dispatched to rendezvous with the sail craft in motion. The craft decelerates slightly when turning, but can near a percentage of the speed of light, taking the passengers anywhere within most star systems in a manner of weeks to months.

The majority of beamferries run from a system’s inhabitable planet to a stargate, throwing pods on a ballistic arc through the gate to meet up with the destination system’s beamferry.

Dealing with Pirates

Dump my cargo? With all due respect, Emissary, that simply was not possible.
Not to impugn your knowledge of interstellar economics, but given we are still half a light-hour apart I feel obliged to explain now for the sake of efficiency. For system haulers carrying bulk commodities dumping and running might be a viable strategy for dealing with pirates, yes, but for trans-stellar data traders it is less practical for three reasons.
First is mass, system haulers tend to be weighed down with several tons of fungible mass, dumping it will almost always allow them to escape. My cargo on the other hand is data stored on the ship’s computers, even if I were to encode it on a memory crystal and eject it the difference in mass would be negligible.
Second is the fungibility of the cargo and what that might mean for my crew’s survival. A shipment of ore or organics could disappear into the markets with just a couple fences and fraudulent purchase records, but not data. If those pirates had extorted our cargo and we were left alive we could contest the IP rights and back our claim up with a quick QComm to the planet of origin. Basically the only way they could make a PC off our data would be to silence us, permanently.
Third, a C-drive starship is a weapon of planetary destruction. You saw what my plasma stream did to their ship, would you want such power in the paws of such animals? Think of what they could do to your space elevator, or if they accelerated to half lightspeed and rammed it into your planet.
As I speak, my telepath is auto-writing a message to zir siblings in the Core Worlds. What shall I inform them as to this system’s policies towards piracy?

Some Outworlds of Note

Tero Besto: During the early decades of involuntary colonization there was an experiment with altering the memories of the “colonists”. Tero Besto is one of the more notable and long-lived examples. In this case the settlers were led to believe they’d come directly from Old Earth, with no memories of the Federation, their actual homeworld of Tau Ceti, or humanity’s role in creating their ancestors. By all accounts, it was a success, the majority of the population believe that they arrived on the planet of their own free will and then destroyed their advanced technology to prevent the Destroyers from finding them. Colonists were assigned to different ancient Earth cultures and dropped in clusters around the planet, which has led to the rise of countries roughly paralleling those of Earth’s 19th and 20th centuries. 500 years after colonization they have achieved a level of technology resembling the late 20th century, but lacking a space program or radio communications thanks to the historical warnings against those technologies.

It’s presently unknown how many, if any, of the planet’s inhabitants know the truth of their origins. Traders sometimes visit but the major governments try to conceal the evidence of their visitations, passing off any offworld technology as “Kolonoj artifacts” and publicly ridiculing those who claim they’ve met envoys from a Galactic Federation. Some Federal officials have expressed concern that someone who believes the UFO stories will try to invent radio in an attempt to make contact.

Carack: One of the biggest failures of the memory alteration project. The colonists here were initially led to believe that they were natives to the planet but the inconsistencies in the fossil record soon refuted that. They had rediscovered radio and were just venturing out into space with plans to build a starship that would find their true homeworld when the Destroyers (conspiracy theorists claim the Federal Guard) detected them and razed the planet.

Cytoran: This planet’s high gravity has led the native flora and fauna to incorporate a high level of metals into their physiology. The colonists not only had their memories altered, but their excretory systems were modded to compensate for the more toxic metals and utilize some of the useful ones, this is one of the few Outworlds where the locals retain baseline hemoglobin levels. Unfortunately, the department failed to take into account the fauna’s behavior, almost all megafauna rely on bioaccumulation to acquire the metals their hardy skeletons require.

In other words, they’re carnivores, and very hard to kill without artillery.

Lacking the natural defenses of the planet’s native fauna many colonists were devoured by pseudo-saurian monsters that shrugged off their bullets. When the colonists had been reduced to a single shrinking settlement the Federation’s observers decided to intervene with a deployment of battle drones and power armored Guards. Unfortunately this intervention led to the colonists treating the offworlders as divine messengers, and one or two of the command staff might have proclaimed themselves gods.

These offworld gods only walked among their grateful followers for a few months before the Senate back on Secland finished deliberating and concluded that they could not justify an extended Federal Guard presence on a planet of Exiles, but they could provide the technology for the Exiles to help themselves, under supervision of their “gods” of course. The new official Emissary and zir “pantheon” gifted their most loyal followers with seemingly medieval weaponry that concealed stellar-age technology ranging from hull alloy blades to “flaming” axes and swords containing plasma projectors, and even some limited Fog hive implants. These devotees formed the beginning of a new class of augmented warriors called “Venturists”.

Traders arrived just a couple decades later, anticipating a new market in genuine natural “monster” parts and Venturist life stories. Every few years they would import a new set of equipment and augmentative “potions”, many cartels maintain semi-permanent presences in the towns and cities on planet just to sell their nanofabricated products to new Venturists. Over the generations the Venturists have effectively become the predominant form of government on the planet, forming “guilds” in the larger walled cities and ruling as petty kings and lords in the periphery towns.

While Venturists are usually too busy fighting off monsters to make war against one another, they can still find the free time to tyrannize their domains. Their augmentations make them difficult to dislodge, save by another Venturist, who often turn out to be just as bad as their predecessors. It’s estimated that for every just ruler there are two slaving despots and three boozehounds.

Musings on the Relationship of Superheroes and Transhumanism

Not directly related to the Para-Imperium universe, but relevant to my writing in general.

Superheroes: Individuals with special skills, equipment, and in particular, powers that they use to fight criminals both “mundane” and superpowered like themselves. They might have mutations from laboratory accidents or accident of birth, they might have been augmented with cybernetics after sustaining horrific injuries, they could have escaped from a secret super soldier project, or maybe they weren’t human in the first place.

 

Transhumanism: The philosophy that the limitations of the human body should be “transcended” through the use of technology. Specifically, technology internal to the body such as cybernetic implants or genetic modification. The hope is that such tech will make people hardier, smarter, longer-lived, potentially even immortal.

 

Now, one might be forgiven for thinking that superheroes were prime examples of transhumans, but in truth the majority couldn’t be farther from them. You see, most transhumanists see the ability to choose to enhance oneself a right that should be available, though they might disagree on how one gains access to enhancement. While very few superheroes willingly obtain their powers, and if they do they either refuse to share the source of their powers or plot happens to prevent others from following in their footsteps. Captain America’s probably the closest to the transhumanist ideal as he volunteered for the super soldier project, but the serum was destroyed after his enhancement. Iron Man and Black Panther on the other hand, could make the sources of their powers available to the world, but choose not to for fear that “the wrong people” could misuse them.

 

Of course, the main reason why superheroes can’t share their superpower sources with the world is sales. The big two comic book publishers in particular have been running their big titles for the better part of a century and they can’t risk making too many big changes to the status quo in the story, hence any world-shattering events like mass produced superpowers can’t stick. That’s also why superheroes and villains rarely stay dead.

 

The secondary reason why superhero stories are anti-transhuman is that supers are by necessity exceptional people who accept or reject “the burden of protecting the mundanes.” Writers need a reason why these particular people are fighting crime or attempting to conquer the world, and it would be much more difficult to justify their actions if everybody had superpowers. Though frankly, I think Syndrome from “The Incredibles” said it best: “…when everybody’s special, nobody is.”

 

Now, whether it’s possible to write a work of fiction with superheroes and transhumanism is another story. If just anyone can punch through a wall or bounce bullets off their skin there’s not really much point to committing or thwarting super-crimes. The most apparent possibility is specialization, in which some transhumans choose to focus on combat-oriented enhancements for good or ill. Of course, this presumes some kind of limitation is applied to the number or type of enhancements one person might possess. This tends to be more explicit in role-playing games than prose or comics, where powers are typically assigned point values that one must expend a resource to obtain.

 

In cyberpunk RPGs money tends to be the resource of choice for obtaining new abilities. Money could easily be the transhuman limiting factor in your superhero story but be wary about making enhancements too expensive. If the average person cannot afford enhancement without a governmental, corporate, or criminal sponsor the setting can get very dark very fast. Of course, post-scarcity economies tend to go hand-in-hand with transhumanist settings so maybe money wouldn’t fit as a limiting factor.

 

After money the next apparent limitation would be physical size, even nanobots take up some space in the body. It’s fully plausible that your potential superhero can’t fit their orbital calculator in with their subdermal plating and targeting implant. Related would be a limitation on how many implants the human brain can learn to control. Now, there are many settings where people can change their bodies like shirts and everybody can have access to a few dozen spare bodies, and I’m not going to try and convince you that “pattern identity” is just Cartesian dualism stripped of the overtly supernatural elements this time, so let’s try another concept. In the Orion’s Arm setting the Singularity is not an event, rather it is a threshold for brain complexity. Once a being goes through the intensely traumatic process of ascending to a new Singularity they find it as difficult to relate to their former peers as humans to dogs. Their concerns have taken on a whole new scale, a “generalist” transhuman might distribute their consciousness processes over a dozen different specialized bodies including a spaceship, but find themselves more concerned with controlling solar flares than stopping thieves with superspeed and pyrokinetic terrorists.

 

The third way to keep superheroes in a transhuman setting “super” involves the law. There’s a bit of an anarchist streak running through the transhumanist community but it would be possible for a government to approve limited implementation of human enhancement technology. In the most liberal versions only weaponized enhancements might be banned, as the setting gets more authoritarian enhancements that might cause collateral damage such as strength or speed boosts might be restricted, until finally you get a sort of “reverse Harrison Bergeron” where everyone is modded to the limits of “natural” human ability and no further. Now, superheroes have traditionally been vigilantes, breaking the law to carry out their idea of justice, so this doesn’t preclude the possibility of transhuman superheroes in the slightest. At most, you might add a bit more antagonism between the police and supers than was usual for even the more cynical eras of comic publication.

 

In conclusion, there are ways to write superhero stories that aren’t contradictory to transhumanist philosophy, but most mainstream publishers don’t use them.

More Technology

Hull Alloy: So named because they were originally developed as hull material for shuttles. A series of nanofabricated alloys that share the common property of a crystalline structure that allows kinetic and thermal energy to diffuse across the entire structure. This makes items built from hull alloys very strong but if something does manage to damage them they tend to disintegrate completely. As hull alloy items need to be fabricated in a single piece it is usually used for small shuttles or smaller items, hull alloy tools are actually quite popular among traders for sale to Outworlds.
These alloys have a variety of names in both the Federation and on Outworlds where they are traded; adatite, jinnisteel, vibranius…
 
Molecular Lock: Molecular scale welds were one of the first uses of constructor microbots, when done properly they leave no visible seam and the two pieces effectively form a single whole. It wasn’t much of a stretch to apply the technology to locking doors. After all, most conventional locks are physically weaker than the door they close by way of simple physics and materials, as are hinges. Fusing the door to its frame eliminates those weaknesses, but it can sometimes take an hour or more to finish “unlocking”. For that reason alone molecular locks are rarely bothered with save for the highest-security areas, or airlocks.

Memories in Review, Part 1

Jarlin Fairhold de Argentum a Denal woke to the sound of sheets rustling next to zir.  Alarmed, zie thrust one clawed wing at the intruder catching him on the shoulder and spinning him around before he grabbed it and thrust it away.

 

“Lights on!”  Jarlin called out, bathing the room in soft lights and revealing the other parahuman in the room with her.  He appeared to be a grey wolf at first, though his back was covered in a black “cape” that seemed to extend down over his tail.  On seeing him clearly something stirred in zir memory, a pattern, a rank, captain?  Captain who?  Of what?

 

The canid looked at her in shock.  “Jarl,” he asked, “what are you doing?”

 

Jarlin started to withdraw her claws, “I’m sorry.”  Zie searched zir memory for his name.  “Shigeto, you’re Shigeto, right?”

 

Shigeto sighed audibly, “it’s your memory again, isn’t it?”  He pressed a hand to his bleeding shoulder and grimaced.  “This was the first time you went straight to attacking me though, what happened?”

 

The chimeric fox considered, why had zie been so quick to attack this time?  To assume that a strange male in zir bed was a threat to herself and her child.  Jarlin clutched at zir belly and considered, zie hadn’t forgotten that she was in female phase and pregnant, that much had been obvious if only for the weight pressing on her ribcage.  Could the hormones have amplified her protective instincts to the point of lashing out at the father in a moment of memory lapse?  “I… I think I need some time to myself.”  She eventually concluded.

Continue reading “Memories in Review, Part 1”