Monday, May 23, 2022

Deep Space Bitches: Starships and the Haunted


Space travel is easy, cheap, and essential to modern interstellar civilization. Millennia have passed (give or take, considering relativistic time dilation and various calendrical resets) since the act of boarding a starship to worlds strange became as mundane as waiting in an airport. That said, most don't travel often. While gatespace has ensured that known space can be crossed in months rather than centuries, a few weeks aboard ship from star to star is a luxury vacation comparable to an all-expenses cruise.

Owning a starship merely for the sake of having it is an unthinkable proposition. Docking fees, exotic fusion fuel, regular maintenance, and crew salaries ensure that ships are commercial vessels first and foremost. Typically, a group of "freelance entrepreneurs" shares the risk and goes in on a ship loan together, then contracts to a corporation for gig work until they pay off the loan and can form their own independent company with better terms.

Starships are powered by fusion reactors, or antimatter for the really big ships. Artificial gravity is easy to install, but hard to maintain without dedicated techs, so regular tune-ups are highly recommended if you don't like being subject to microtides. Ship "classes" have crystallized around established sweet spots of reactor mass to thrust ratio, starport docking bay size, and gate aperture diameter. Various constraints, including legacy ship components, interstellar compacts, and of course jealously-guarded corporate patents cause starships to be relatively consistent in design and tech base, though every ship has unique quirks and histories due to its nature as a phenomenally intricate system.

As a general rule, starships have 20 cubic meters of interior space per full-time crew member. For easy reference, 20 cubic meters is the inside of a small moving truck. This includes cargo bays, engineering, and maintenance ducts, but not thrusters, wings, or purely structural components; the actual livable/recreation space in the ship is far smaller than the generous-sounding allotment above. Any cargo that can be is carried on the outside of the vessel in hermetically-sealed shipping containers of standardized size, mounting points, and volume, but many types of cargo require frequent check-ups - and half-assed extravehicular activity is one of the fastest ways to be buried at c.


Transports have 4-12 crew depending on their design. The most common ship class and the most diverse, including everything from postal freighters and smuggling vessels to luxury yachts and patrol ships. Thousands of transports dock and depart every day from major starports, corporate, local government, imperial, and independent alike. If the party has their own ship, this is what they fly.

Frigates have approximately two dozen crew, and are the most economically efficient way to transport bulk cargo. You'll see freight frigates (colloquially just freighters, such is their ubiquity) laden with shipping containers at every starport and idling in every jumpgate queue, and passenger frigates have minimally comfortable pod-bunks for a hundred starry-eyed vacationers. Tight-knit crews are rare aboard frigates; a well-off captain may own the ship and fly with a complement of officers they know well, but the rest of the crew signs on to the ship or the company that owns it on a gig basis. Pirates fly and raid frigates with regularity; it's a small enough ship to refurbish and arm, but not large enough to make a noticeable dent in a corporate balance sheet.

Cruisers are staffed with an average crew of 50, and function as the primary mobile harvesting and refining vessels. A cruiser is the smallest class of vessel that has the power capacity to be self-sufficient, if appropriately equipped with fuel harvesters and printer bays. Luxury cruisers act as mobile casinos for the rich and famous, freight cruisers refine megatonnes of ore en route from mines to factory worlds. Militarized cruisers are battlecruisers, and are the ship-of-the-line of choice for colonial militaries. They can be fitted with fighter launch bays, have reactors large enough to power broadside salvos or spinal mounts, and house a troop complement that can repel boarders or occupy a recalcitrant habitat.

Starliners are the largest ships in production, with a hundred crew and cargo space for entire prefab colonies. Only the most profitable corporations and the most stable governments can afford to maintain a starliner fleet, which are typically put to use in orbital infrastructure construction, fuel harvesting, and power projection. Militarized starliners are known as battleships, and fulfill a variety of powerful roles in the modern combat space ranging from central command to supercarrier to orbital bombardment.

Titans are uniquely vast. Generation ships attempting to escape the strictures of known space, imperial flagships constructed to comemmorate a new emperor's coronation, orbital habitats retrofitted with engines and inertial dampeners to escape inevitable disaster. Too large for any jumpgate, they carry their own collapsible gate to be deployed adjacent to extant jumpgates and piggyback on the seam in reality (the portable gate is then collapsed to the size of a cruiser and moves through the normal gate, docking with the titan to be carried to its exit gate where the process is repeated). A waste of resources by any metric of profit, the construction of a titan is motivated by ideology alone, a testament to an idea's sway in the minds of the powerful. Historians have made their careers studying the circumstances leading to a titan's construction, or delving into the treacherous depths of a titan lost to time.

Shuttles are intraorbital craft the size of a transport or smaller, unsuited for gate travel. Typically have a dedicated pilot and crew contracted by the corporation that owns the shuttle and fly predetermined routes. Shuttle pilot is the least glamorous space pilot job you can have; you're a glorified bus driver and the novelty of seeing the stars has long since worn off. Militarized shuttles (fighters, gunships, troop transports, bombers) are a common carrier payload on cruisers or battleships. Because landing and takeoff in gravity wells is prohibitively fuel-intensive for cruisers and larger vessels, they load a few shuttles and staff pilots for any planetary needs.

In the descriptions above, "crew" is the fewest necessary to carry out normal duties. Ships usually bunk extra and squeeze them in tight for extra work shifts or to train apprentice engineers, pilots, and life support techs. Ships can be flown by skeleton crews of half maximum, or a quarter who are veteran spacers.

Starships aren't automated. AI is more expensive than hiring perfectly good human intelligence, and while AI most certainly exists, the fact that most of it is android labor makes corporations reticent to install minds on machines as powerful as ships. Attempts at subsapient automated starships always go wrong outside of the most limited roles as communications relays, light intrasystem freight, and monitoring satellites - it turns out that when something goes wrong, the only machines that can fix themselves are ones that are smart enough to start wondering whose fault the fuckup was.

Life Support
Water and air recycling has been perfected. Unless something goes horribly wrong, the automatic reprocessors will keep working for decades with a 99.5% annual mass retention rate. If a ship remains hermetically sealed, it can be abandoned for centuries and still retain anywhere from one to three quarters of its original atmosphere.

Supporting a shipboard population is the complex part. People require inputs and produce outputs that can destabilize entire planetary ecosystems, especially when those outputs include the detritus of the conveniences of modern life (like single-use wrappers for syringes or rations). Being a life support tech is more of a garbage disposal job than anyone expects at first, and you can't automate it into a box. It's a complex problem, combining biology, chemistry, engineering, and animal husbandry, and people go to school for years to get accredited, because if it breaks down, everyone aboard is going to die one of a thousand awful deaths.
        
 Modded mealworms digest different kinds of plastics, chemical recombinators distill useful byproducts. Solid waste feeds the air processor's organic components or the fungal rad-shielding. The air processor's organic components are genetically engineered photosynthesites; hook up the fusion batteries and the bio-waste converter and you'll be fine.
 
 Waste recyclers are fine-tuned for shipboard packaging and garbage; consumer-grade products are marked SHIP-SAFE if they're fully recyclable through a ship's systems. Naturally, these labels are marketing bullshit, and cleaning out the bits of fibre and gunk that get stuck in the system is a constant headache.

Aliens
Some aliens are more biocompatible with human-baseline systems, and us with theirs. They tend to be preferred by imperial and corporate power structures. The ones that aren't - that have been deemed too expensive to accommodate - are hung out to dry, paying exorbitant rates to get quarters tuned to their physiology. That said, most life support systems can be hacked to be widely xenocompatible. You'll need to deal with some inconveniences - wear a filter mask, warmer clothes, adjust your sleep cycle, take supplements to deal with lower gravity - but your alien friends will appreciate it.

Food
Big ships, the luxury star-yachts and first-class colony ships, have stasis fields that keep real food fresh for years. You aren't on one. While mass is relatively cheap, power and radiating heat are at a premium - a refrigeration and freezer unit is a small luxury. Most food only keeps for a few weeks anyway, and your average journey is just on the upper end of expiration dates. So it's hardtack, tough cheeses, aged liquor, nutrient supplements, and if you're really unlucky, Corp Standard Meal Replacement "Beverage" No. 3. It'll give you all sorts of cancers that you legally refused to sue them for!

You don't need to have infinitely-stable food. That's long-haul talk, for the fuckers who want to point their ships away from the imperial core and just *go* - or whose paranoia that the galaxy is about to be invaded by hyper-advanced space aliens at any moment, or that psychics are about to hull out the brains of everyone in a system with a jump gate, or that the simulation's parameters are about to be changed to prevent faster than light travel gets the better of them.

Spices and pre-packaged grains are essential to keep spacer diets interesting. Cured meat fills daily protein requirements (usually vatmeat, unless you've been to a ranching world recently), instant noodles remain a quick and dirty fave even centuries hence. Tea and coffee are staples, and independent crews live and die by the power of their microgravity coffee-makers. "Old-school" vaccuum-sealed MREs have fallen out of fashion, but some spacers with a military background swear by them (as they're still preferred for ground operations).

Aboard ships, culinarily-inclined crew members spend their ample spare time brewing engine-room moonshine, grinding wormflour, and bravely coaxing the radshield's fungus into an edible form. The supplies to culture vat-meat aboard ships are more of a curiosity than anything sustainable, but it's a popular hobby (usually for life support techs who want a challenge that's a step up from mealworms). All you need for jerky is airflow and climate control. Still, once you've got a side of vat beef, you can just strap it to a rack and hang it in the coolant vents leading around the galley to get a mean dry-age. Baking bread is also a prevalent custom, as yeast does funny things in microgravity, and spacers making shipboard sourdough traditionally let it breathe in the bacterial flavors of every port they go through.

Old spacers get huge grins on their faces when a ship or station has a vermin infestation. For one, it's a chance to compete among ludicrious home extermination techniques, all of which give spacers more shit to pedantically argue about in the months and years between hamster or roach population spikes. And of course, a meat surplus is always welcome!

Interfaces
Habitats are littered with screenwrap. Imagine a sheet of plastic wrap, the durability of a plastic bag, see-through and running a digital display with a basic touchscreen interface. It's replaced paper. They make plastic bags out of this stuff, ponchos, umbrellas, banners, pamphlets - anything cheap, disposable, and that you can stick some virtual ad-copy on. It wrinkles, tears, glitches, and crumples like nobody's business, and collects in melted wads in gutters once it's been improperly disposed of.

No one knows how to use screenwrap properly. It's the texture of a plastic bag, so you can mostly flatten it out but it's always going to be crumpled. Scrolling and touch input is deeply finicky, it's covered in ad copy by design, and editing it requires a proprietary interface pen and software attached to a different computer altogether - but it's just so goddamn cheap it's impossible to get rid of.

Naturally, spacers hate it. Screenwrap collects in intakes, is just a little too hard to recycle through the waste processor, and if there's a sheet shorting out somewhere in your field of view you're going to want to strangle whoever brought it aboard. Instead, spacers swear by bulky monitors and mechanical controls.  Switches, keys, dials, levers, blinkenlights - all of these are easier to diagnose and manipulate than a screen that might lag at a crucial moment or misinterpret an input through some programming fault. Touchscreens have fallen by the wayside for control schemes, and joysticks are back in a big way because they're more space-efficient than mice.

Smartphones have been replaced with retinal contacts or smartglasses - smaller, more intrusive, and absolutely ubiquitous. Controls are based on contextual interaction with the environment, always-on subvocal commands, hand signs, or a control pad mapped to flat surfaces in your field of view (like your hand). Everyone knows at least one interface sign language, which is broadly mutually intelligible with spacer vac-sign.

Gatespace
Jump gates don't directly connect to each other. Instead, they act as thresholds into the strange sub-dimensional realm of gatespace, where jump gate apertures are far closer together than they are in the vastness of realspace - days or weeks of travel, rather than the years or decades that even near-c drives take to traverse between colonies. Gatespace weaves together interstellar societies, ensuring a modicum of both speed and safety for passengers, freight, and information travelling from star to star.

The pearlescent expanses and ever-shifting clouds of exotic matter that form the native substrate of gatespace are beautiful and deeply complex. All gate matter is simultaneously matter and space, a literal fabric of reality. When gate matter condenses from a dispersed fluid into a crystalline solid, the space around it compresses, allowing ships from realspace to travel an incredibly short distance between gates. However, this physical matter also acts as obstructions - clouds of gate-weather, fields of gatematter planetoids, even lifeforms that evolved in this strange biosphere. Engineering stable jump lanes through gatespace is difficult but of paramount importance. Optimal densities of gatematter for rapid transit create an environment like that of a gas giant's upper atmosphere, marked by beacons mounted on artificial nodes of ultradense gatematter.

by Pradal Aurele

Panpsychism, the belief that all realspace matter is conscious, has been conclusively disproven. Physical matter is an abnormally difficult medium for cognition to arise in. However, consciousness can arise in any sufficiently complex system of matter - whether baryonic (us), dark (long story), and yes, gate matter. Gate matter is incredibly easy for cognition to emerge within, and the current scientific consensus describes gatespace as a "panpsychosphere" - a holistic ecosystem that derives energy from cognitosynthetic processes.

The cognitive processes of gate matter emerge as its state condenses from spatial fluid to matter and expands back to space. Low-density fluid states are higher-energy than high-density solid states; expanding from matter to space requires energy, condensing bleeds it off. Condensation runs thoughts to their endpoints, making large low-density areas small, and creating natural areas of high-density space that's very quick to travel through. Thought termina are navigational landmarks and natural starting points for jump lane construction.

Light is a common byproduct of gatematter condensation, creating gatespace "suns" of stable cognitive networks rhythmically expanding and contracting. However, the light is barely relevant to the psychosphere's food chain - cognitosynthetic producer organisms feed on the energy-dense contractions of gatematter thoughts themselves. Some gatespace organisms can convert entirely into fluid thoughtforms as part of their feeding process or to become more motile; most have partially immaterial components that they can condense or disperse as needed.

Sometimes - often - a jump gate opens into a low-density, spatially vast area of gatespace. Gatespace engineering conglomerates are hired to connect that gate to established networks. Bearings are taken to find the optimal gate to connect it to, and a process begins of creating an artificial thought terminus, a high-density endpoint in the psychosphere. Trained psychics interface with gatematter; construction ships unfold and process vast amounts of gatematter into information and matter-dense states. Military ships enter to protect the nascent lane from megafauna looking to chow down on this tasty nexus of condensation. Gatespace minds, vast and incomprehensible, find a new snarl of dead-thought in their consciousness. Psychics who've communed with the minds surrounding the jump network have reported intense trauma - a sad but necessary byproduct of progress in realspace (xenologies papers questioning the validity of deeming our universe more real than others are ignored at best and actively mocked at worst).

The thoughts of baryonic matter minds (us) function differently. Because they're unlinked from spatial components, our minds have the ability to indirectly communicate with gatespace. Psychics can even learn to consciously manipulate it, given time and training. This is not a one-way relationship - once a mind is inside a dense area of fluid gatespace, the matter will shift to reflect thoughts in uncontrollable ways. More than one ship has tried to chart a new, potentially lucrative jump route and escaped with naught but tales of being hunted by their nightmares. These properties make gatespace incredibly hostile to long-term habitation, though some pirate stations have found relatively stable areas to raid from.

Natural jump points between gatespace and realspace exist, but can only (as of yet) be charted from within gatespace. Certain ultradense formations of gatecrystal can wrap gatespace so thin it punches back into realspace, allowing small ships to transit through. These formations are highly inefficient and incredibly fragile compared to artificial jumpgates (which cannot be altered from within gatespace), but allow for exploration vessels to chart sectors far from inhabited space, hoping to strike gold.

Removing gatematter from gatespace is possible but not, as of yet, useful in any context outside academic study of its properties. Its space-altering properties seem to "roll up" and collapse into extra physical dimensions inaccessible even, seemingly, by other removed quantities of gatematter. Research is ongoing, though chronically underfunded and treated as an academic curiosity.

Interlude: Star-Gods
If you point a microphone at the sun, you hear screaming.  
 
You can read meaning into those screams, like making constellations out of the night sky, or seeing shapes in the clouds. It's the way we've always made meaning, the way we make myths and gods and friends.  
 
Psychic powers are what you get when the meaning takes shape. The medium is the message; the message becomes medium. The ink on the page absorbs heat and bursts into flame, and the flame traces letters, and if you put a microphone close enough to those flames you hear screaming.  But it's only screaming because we know what a scream is.  
 
If we work with a complex system, reading enough meaning into it and then pushing enough meaning into it back, it starts to be able to make meaning too. Not all systems are good for this; they need to be stable, high-entropy but not too high entropy, dynamic. Find someone who is good at reading meaning into things, who scores high on empathy and pareidolia and the standard battery of psychic aptitudes. Make them stare at the sun until they know it's screaming at them. Then have them scream back.  
 
Scream until its screams are dependent on ours, until ours are dependent on its. Make it part of our system and our culture, the same way we do to children and very smart computers. You can start building a common lexicon, it starts to say things that your interlocutor (now fully star-blind, but you have to break some eggs) taught it. It starts to scream louder, and if you ask it nicely, you can get it to scream at someone. A coronal mass ejection, a plasma burst more massive than worlds. We don't know if that hurts it or if it can feel pain; all the screaming makes it hard to tell.  
 
If you point a microphone at the sun, you hear static.  
 
We are the ones who make it scream.

The Haunted

Brevet-Admiral Kel Cheris, advised by General Shuos Jedao

+1 to Subtle and Queer, -1 to Soft and Hard

The Haunted is an information-gathering playbook that can become a powerhouse in a very specific field on demand. Observe the environment carefully, decide what is needed, then act decisively to enact your will upon the world.

Bitches cannot take cross-class moves from the Haunted. However, in the middle of a campaign, circumstances may transpire which cause a character to become Haunted. If they do, they immediately gain the Brain Ghost move and replace their sex move with Impromptu Threesome. Further moves gained must be from the Haunted, or from their Ghost's original playbook.

This isn't about playing a character who has multiple endogenous personalities. The Haunted is inspired by various SF&F lesbians (Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Mahit Dzmare, Kel Cheris, Baru Cormorant) who literally have the ghosts of other people in their heads. The Ghost is someone from outside who's now your roommate in the galaxy's most fucked up timeshare.

d6 ways to become Haunted
1. Have another person's mind forcibly inserted into your head by a nefarious actor.
2. It's a cultural tradition; mind-shares are a way to pass down institutional knowledge.
3. Someone important to you dies and your mind refuses to accept it, insisting they're still there as the world's worst coping mechanism.
4. Someone important to you dies and is stored in your head as a backup until they can be re-instantiated in a new body. New bodies are hard to come by.
5. Brain slugs.
6. A god or other extradimensional entity is sitting side-saddle in your brain.

Who or what haunts you?
1. Your lover.
2. Your ex-lover.
3. Your predecessor.
4. Your rival.
5. A legendary figure from your culture's history or myths.
6. A space god.

Three Questions
Who did you lose?
Why were they important to you?
What was their final request?

Two Relationships
Someone close to your ghost, or that they had unfinished business with.
Someone who cares about you deeply, and is worried about you in the aftermath of your loss.

Start with Brain Ghost, a move of your choice, and your Sex Move.

Brain Ghost
You have a Ghost in your brain. They talk to you, and you talk to them. Choose a basic move, a playbook, one of that playbook's moves, and one of that playbook's stat bonuses.

When you Commune With Strange Powers with your Ghost, you may ask one of the following questions in addition to the listed ones:
- Do you remember anything relevant?
- What would you do in this situation?

If you choose to gain a Bond due to an Overwhelming Success on a Commune With Strange Powers roll, you may gain a Bond on someone your Ghost knew who is relevant to the situation.

During a scene, you may spend 1 XP to let your Ghost take control. Whether this is you imitating them, or them piloting your body like a fucked-up mech suit, is up to you - and may change depending on the circumstances.
- While under your Ghost's control, all of your stats are at -1, except for the chosen stat (which is at +2).
- You may use the move you chose for your Ghost, but may not use any of your own moves.
- Your mannerisms, expressions, and cadence immediately identify you as your Ghost; this is deeply unnerving to anyone who knew them.
- Once you are under your Ghost's control, you cannot back out until the end of the scene.

Let's Put Our Heads Together
Whenever you Reveal Truths, you may also roll with Queer to let your Ghost take a look at the scene. Both results count, though only one Overwhelming Success can provide Experience.

I'm Your Gun
Your Ghost is at your beck and call, and you may use their move without being under their control. If it calls for rolls of their chosen stat, treat the stat as +1.

Strange Minds Think Alike
When you successfully Commune with a Strange Power that isn't your ghost, you can choose to either ask a follow-up clarifying question or get a bond on that power. You can't gain more than one bond per roll this way.

I Will Write Your Name Across History
The first time each session that you successfully use a move to further your Ghost's final request, gain 1 XP. Doesn't count for moves you use while under your Ghost's control.

I Am Undone Without You
In a wail of pure psychic grief, you manifest your Ghost externally. During a scene, you may spend 2 XP to summon your Ghost instead of using Brain Ghost. They appear as a dreamlike vision, appearing to whomever they so choose, but unable to physically interact with the world except by possessing an unoccupied body or item. They can use only their chosen Move (with the relevant stat at +2), but can take other actions as necessary. Obviously, your Ghost is not under your control - they can take suggestions and will use their Move as directed, but their actions are ultimately up to the GM (though never inherently harmful to you or your allies).

Old Codes
Automated systems recognize you as either your ghost or yourself, whichever is most advantageous to you at the time. You have access to all of their accounts and password-protected systems.

Sex Move: Impromptu Threesome
Is it really a threesome if one is riding side-saddle in another's head? I'm not sure, I think we need a larger sample size. When you and your Ghost have sex with someone, each of you gets a bond on another, where no two of you can have bonds on the same person. For example, you get a bond on your partner, your partner gets a bond on your Ghost, and your Ghost gets a bond on you.

2 comments:

  1. Very evocative! The gatespace is delightfully alien.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hey, I'd just like to say, thank you for this blog-it has stretched my mind and perspective on RPGs and worldbuilding, and given me some inspiration.
    I may be making a character inspired by the Haunted/Kel Charis from Ninefox Gambit in Lancer. They will be having an AI shoved inside their head by horrible megacorporations, and will have to learn to coexist (maybe).

    ReplyDelete

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Deep Space Bitches: Starships and the Haunted

Space travel is easy, cheap, and essential to modern interstellar civilization. Millennia have passed (give or take, considering relativisti...