Ethane Horizons

This one’s intended as a bit of a standalone story, between the larger arcs of Horizon Book 1 and 2.

Jerald shivered as he climbed into the cabin of his rig. He regretted, once again, that he’d chosen lynx biomods instead of snow leopard with its heavier fur when the Company had offered them upon his emigrating to Surtur. He’d had the impression that hydrocarbon mining would somehow be warmer, but no, the executives weren’t wasting any of the valuable gases on heating up their workers, while they stayed in their well-insulated bunker offices. He let out a misty sigh and slammed the door behind him before slotting the starter chip into the dashboard.

The mining rig began the laborious process of starting up, giving Jerald time to wonder who had driven this rig before. The colossal walkers largely ran themselves, but he hadn’t used this particular rig before, to his trained eye it was subtly different from the others. Usually the Company put a driver on a single rig until either the driver or the rig was taken out of service, however that might happen. His normal rig had gone in for maintenance the day before, and this one had been available. He wondered to himself if its last driver was still with the Company, or if they’d found some way out of the Company’s leonine contracts?

Almost automatically he reached for the throttle and set the rig in motion. Six legs lifted and set themselves back down in alternating pairs as Jerald steered slowly out of the refinery yard. The radio crackled. “Rig 23 be advised, there’s been reports of raider activity in your sector recently.”

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Horizon: Salvaged Heroes, Chapter 10

The Resolution retreated to Tiere’s Hills cloud while MechRat digested the data that he’d been granted access to by their reluctant commander. They entered orbit around a kilometer-long asteroid that had long ago been deemed too far from the star to bother mining, though it held a fair amount of rare elements that MechRat claimed would be useful for them to build his new weapon. Horizon and Lift went down to the asteroid on the Dustbin, putting the old ship’s mining equipment to its original use, supplemented with some of the latest FedTech from the Resolution’s printers.

A week of drilling into asteroid and refining trace metals later, the raccoon and ox flew back up to the mother ship. After soaring through space in a starship that responded to her very thoughts, piloting a rocket-based craft with hand controls felt clunky and inelegant to Horizon, she wondered if MechRat might upgrade the old ship with neural controls once he had the time. On docking with the Resolution she took a pallet of lanthanides once Lift had loaded it and went off towards MechRat’s workshop.

The opossum was deep in a simulation trance when Horizon entered, she shot him a message on the ship’s network.

Horizon: I’m here with the first load of your rare metals.

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Project Paladin

After the nova of the 25th century the Federation’s grasp over the outlying systems was severely weakened. With interstellar travel immensely more difficult without the majority of the stargate network, local governments frequently found themselves fending for themselves. Planets and stars isolated, vulnerable to predation by pirate clans, renegade posthumans, and even other federally recognized governments, desperate for resources.

The ambitious system executor Ronkall Argentum revived the long-discarded idea of a small corps of posthuman enforcers of the peace, with an additional variation. Project Paladin would package a set of augmentations suitable for empowering paragons of Federal virtue into easily portable modular kits that would fit onto a small starship, along with VR suites specially designed for the memetic priming of these champions. Rather than attempting to transport a peacekeeping force or nakedly extort tribute with ortillery, they could convert locals into ambassadors of a greater power with the means to win over hearts and minds through shock and awe.

In several systems it proved quite successful, however, in the Tiere planetary system things went somewhat awry…

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Superheroes Revisited

A while back I wrote about how the concept of superheroes might not fly in a transhumanist setting where anyone with sufficient resources might rebuild themselves into a superman.

But after writing about the different legal systems in the Para-Imperium I had a couple ideas for implementing them. One “above-board” and one “below.”

Sanctioned heroes: The “memetic badass” approach, where the security forces attempt to reduce expenditures by focusing not on big police departments, but on a small group of celebrity supermen with customized augmentations, movie-star good looks, and extensively marketed adventures. Not dissimilar to the purpose of Knights in Shining Armor in Middle Ages Europe. In this case, their purpose is less to fight crime as to dissuade people from committing crime in the first place, so only those with the resources to field their own super-villains, or attention-seekers like the guy Rorschach dropped down an elevator shaft, will dare to commit crimes. Either one tends to suit the entrenched oligarchy just fine, the fights make for good publicity.

A sanctioned superhero’s jurisdiction rarely extends beyond their home planet or habitat, and they’re typically part of a planet- or star system-spanning organization of other heroes. Attempts to form a Federation-wide group like the Green Lantern Corps or their Lensmen predecessors have thus far been stalled in committee.

This approach is vulnerable to the death of a superhero, as crime tends to skyrocket until a new hero manages to build an equal reputation to their predecessor. As such superhero leagues tend to have the best medical care available, including, it is rumored, illegal brain cloning.

Vigilantes: The “shadowrun” approach. These tend to arise most often in polycentric legal systems like the Pallene or Cetan law systems, in which feuds can simmer between factions for decades, centuries with life extension. The romanticized version is a tragic figure like Batman or Zorro who has a legitimate grievance that the conventional authorities failed to address. That type of vigilante does exist, but tend to be short-lived as they right the wrong that led them to take up the cape and then retire, or die trying. The more common variety are mercenaries more akin to Deadpool, supersoldiers for hire willing to act as deniable assets for any House or company with sufficient credit.

Anima Field

A somewhat new fashion, this device consists of a U-bot hive and sufficient U-bots to suffuse the area desired, be it a house, a field, a ship, or a temple. When called upon the U-bots may move objects, clean or repair, or project images. After installation the Anima requires only power and periodic supplements of elements (mostly aluminum) it can’t scavenge from the environment. The Field is usually operated by an AI, sometimes multiple AIs for larger Fields, and some Houses have been known to load their founder’s sim-personas into the Anima Field. It is also possible for a BCI to operate an Anima Field directly, though the subconscious access option is not recommended for troubled minds.

Transparahumanism

Aside from pantropic modification, negligible senescence, and brain implants there are some parahumans who desire to become even more:
  • Distributed Consciousness: Sharing of memories and thoughts is possible via intensive implants and broad-spectrum signals with AI mediation, but only between bioprinted clones, the brain patterning between individuals is too different. This path is held in particular suspicion after one movement was declared nihilus following an internal war, their descendant forming the Outworlder polity of the Emilia Collective.
  • A variant is the telepathic collective, in which the original undergoes radical hemispherectomy and grows a clone around the removed half of their brain. As with identical twins the original and clone usually share enough natural QEParts to form a telepathic link. By replacing the removed hemisphere with a bioprinted clone organ this process can be repeated, but bandwidth diminishes with subsequent iterations.
  • Cybernetic Expansion: First, the potential posthuman has a digital simulacrum of their brain made, these are not considered sentient by Federation law but are typically used as a sort of “interactive memorial” for the dead. Then they load the simulacrum into a quantum supercomputer capable of running multiple instances of the program, and wire the machine directly into their brain implants. The simulacrums vastly increase the user’s multitasking capability while plugged in but they tend to retreat from the external world as time passes. Their meat bodies lying in hibernation while they mentally explore countless simulations and calculations.
  • Pseudobiological Growth: In it’s simplest form one removes the genetic limiting factors on their growth, allowing their body and brain to continue growing until their mass requires cybernetic reinforcement or a microgravity environment to support itself. However, many end up embracing radical bodysculpting into a body shape more capable of supporting its’ bulk, with many drawing inspiration from mythology. Dragons are frequently popular.
  • Soul Merger: While conventional techniques of recording and saving brain-states don’t allow different individuals to “share memories”, there are translation programs that can attempt to extract a holo-audio sequence that another brain can view through conventional senses. Some people have tried to convert that translation into direct memory information they can use, and either voluntarily or coercively take the brain states of others and add them to their own.
  • Ghul Liege: The “Ghul liege”, unlike most of their kin, is not satisfied with one hard-to-kill body, they have to have several. Along these lines they modify their VN microbots to not only maintain their bodies indefinitely, but to convert other bodies into clones of the original host. At first, the VN bots install a remote puppeting system so the liege can prevent their minions from wandering off, but over the course of several months the minion’s brain is reformatted into a copy of their liege’s brain, connected by microwave network. If the liege is killed or otherwise disconnected their minion may become an ordinary ghul if the process is less than half complete, they may even have the VN bots removed from their system in Fed-space, but if the mind-cloning is near finished they become a new vector for the ghul liege to spread.

Pantropic Modification

In certain environments the Parahuman Baseline actually proves disadvantageous. Technological tools can mitigate most of the discomfort but for long-term inhabitation, or an embargo on certain technologies, bodysculpting and gene therapy to adapt to the environment can be worthwhile. Several “templates” are in fairly common use.
Spacer: The original baseline, retained by the Centauri population but vanishing from the Cetan and Eridani gene pool between Exodus and Contact. Those born without this mod can choose to take it through nanosurgery, as well as plating their bones with titanium to prevent degeneration in zero-g.
Aquaform: The oxygen concentration of Terran water is insufficient to sustain an endothermic metabolism, but it can supplement it. This mod adds gill slits to the sides of the neck and between the ribs, while closing off the alveoli of the lungs with sphincters while submerged, along with extending the webbing between digits. With this mod alone most can go fifteen minutes or more between breaths of air, combined with Spacer mods this time can be extended to two hours.
Arid: Amplified renal system combined with subdermal water sacs to prevent water loss. On hot worlds enlarged ears with veins for heat radiation are popular as well.
Heavyworlder: Gravities between 1 and 1.5 gs can be handled with some simple bone reinforcement and hard body training. If you want to live on a planet with 2 gravities or more you need far more drastic modifications. Over the course of several months in a healing vat at steadily increasing gravity (usually in a specially designed Bernal sphere) synthetic muscles and bone are layered on until the subject looks somewhere between a gorilla and an elcor from Mass Effect. All heavyworlders are quadrupedal, relying on waldos or occasionally lifting a hand-foot to grab something.
Low-Oxy Atmo: A lighter version of the oxygen retention modifications included in the parahuman baseline intended for thin planetary atmospheres or high altitudes. So modded parahumans have their ribcage expanded to accommodate larger lungs along with slightly elevated hemoglobin and myoglobin levels. Spacer mods function just as well in thin atmospheres as any, but they require a much heartier diet and many Cetan or Eridani colonies, as well as Outworlds, favor this mod.
Polar: Adapted to icy planets with very low surface temperatures. Usually patterned after polar bears or arctic foxes with small ears, expanded nostrils, thick fur, blubber and frequently black skin with transparent fur.
Cytoran suite: Designed specifically for the heavy metal rich environment of Cytoran, the entire population of this savage Outworld can tolerate downright toxic levels of lead, aluminum, and osmium in their diets, and they need to. During growth their system deposits these metals in their bones in the form of metallic glasses, making their skeletons extremely hardy but on the off hand that they do break the ingestion of a decent amount of native meat can accelerate the knitting process. Once this bone mass is grown their digestive tract simply stops absorbing the metals and excretes them harmlessly.

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.

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.