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.

Technology: Implants

Cybernetics are rarely used for replacement these days, bioprinting enables a limb to be replaced with ease within a day or two, however they have some use for augmentation. In fact, on many high-tech worlds the majority of the population has at least two implants.

The most common are medical microbots, microscopic but not quite nanoscopic robots that can move cells around and stimulate growth to patch up wounds, eliminate pathogens, and halt aging. They can even repair brain damage, though legally a person is considered dead when 60% of their brain is destroyed.

Another common type of implant has been around far longer, a Brain-Computer Interface uses a combination of electrodes and optogenetics to form a direct link between the user’s brain and a variety of electronic devices. There are many different brands and models of BCI, the most common uses a smartphone-like device typically implanted at the base of the cranium that can be used for a variety of purposes, usually communication without audible speech and augmented reality, which most worlds have networks of. Other BCI implants are specialized for things such as teleoperation of robotic “Waldoes”, virtual reality, and memory backup. Memory backup implants record sensory data as the user experiences it, usually to be uploaded to an external device every so often, and can be replayed at will. Unfortunately everyone experiences things a little differently, playing someone else’s memories can be confusing or disorienting, in some cases it can even cause brain damage. General use BCIs are capable of most specialized tasks but are less efficient or have less on-site memory. Unfortunately for telepaths optogenetic modification appears to unsync the QEParts in the altered neurons, weakening their links, many do not use BCIs at all. Many of them wear glasses or contacts that enable them to access augmented reality and are controlled by external neural sensors, with far less precision than implants.

Subvocal pickups are another, even older type of implant, which were popular in the pre-exodus days when BCI implantation was perceived as too risky. They consist of a small microphone placed around the larynx which can detect the smallest movements and vocalizations, enabling the user to speak inaudibly to others wirelessly, and a speaker in one or both cochleae. These days subvocals are only used in the Federation by those paranoid of “brain hacking” and telepaths, but there are many outlier worlds where local medicine isn’t up to the task of brain surgery.

Perhaps the most radical augmentation is shapeshifting, a variation on medical microbots capable of making changes far beyond that necessary for survival. They can move fat, muscle, and bone tissue from one part of the body to another, and dye skin and hair in response to commands issued from the user’s BCI. In a day or two a lithe felid woman can look like a brawny canid male, for example. Shapeshifting microbots are even capable of adding or subtracting limbs. But they are limited by body mass and require significant amounts of energy, shapeshifters tend to double or even triple their food consumption while shifting. The kitsune subculture embrace this technology and mitigate the mass requirements by adding multiple tails to their base forms, the number is generally an indicator of the kitsune’s rank in their skulk.