Category Archives: Frontier: 2280
Have you ever had a friend roleplay a character that was terrifying. I mean deeply, sickeningly evil to the point where you had to laugh? I have.
The character’s name was John Wayne Howell, and he was played by my sweet, kindly friend Melissa. He was a horrible monster.
And it was awesome.
The game was Frontier - my own, homemade hard-scifi game wherein the players portray corporate ‘contractors’ sent to the edges of known space to do things too dangerous or illegal for actual corporate employees (for more info, scan down the Frontier:2280 tab, or look here). The basic deal is that the corporation takes society’s undesirables off the hands of prison officials, the judicial system, or poor houses and gives them a shot at citizenship. On the character sheet, just below the legalese of the contract itself, is a space for the character’s name and for their crime (the thing that got them kicked out of Hubspace and all the way out to Who Knows Where). There were a variety of con artists, theives, forgers, violent offenders, sexual deviants, and so on in the party for this particular campain.
Beneath JW Howell’s name was written “Crimes Against Humanity.”
See, Howell had been a brigade commander during World War Four (or Interplanetary War Two, depending on how you count). He fought for the US against China and Russia, and committed terrible, terrible acts of brutality upon civilian populations, prisoners of war, and, of course, enemy combatants. He was an unabashed racist, a fascist fanatic, and cruel beyond words. He was also a pitiless, efficient killer with decades of combat experience. He only evaded the Rio War Crime Trials by hopping a slow-ship to distant worlds and spending most of the last century (!) in various forms of hibernation. Nobody knows how XF Inc acquired his contract, but they did, and here he was sharing chow with two-bit thugs and wide-eyed rookies, telling stories about that time he wore a Chinaman’s head like a hat. Melissa based him off of Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino, but with all elements of humanity and goodness stripped from him.
Howell was a terrifying character in the basic sense – he was a villain, a reprehensible monster. The thing that made him work, though, was that Melissa played him to the hilt. She didn’t shy away from how ugly he was. She left other PCs to die rather than risk the mission. She shot *through* allies to hit the enemy (in this instance through a character played by her husband). She tortured adolescent prisoners. She went back on her word and killed people she had promised to save. It was both horrifying and incredible to watch. We all could scarcely believe such terrible things would ever come out of Melissa’s mouth (believe me, she’s a really sweet, kind person with no kind of evil in her soul at all).
Between Russ Carmady and JW Howell, the tone of the Frontier game was set. We orbited between two poles – Catch 22 absurdity and Platoon-esque horror. When the two of them were playing (and, given that the two players are married, this happened a lot), the game sort of glowed with a kind of unique, gritty pathos. It was really awesome, and it wouldn’t have been possible if Melissa shyed away from playing the monster that she had created.
This past year I ran a homemade RPG set in my ‘Frontier: 2280′ universe that was, on some level, a reboot of a Battlelords campaign I had run a few years before, though different in most essential ways. It was a gritty, darkly humorous, hard science fiction game in which the PCs were essentially indentured servants of a large extra-planetary corporation that used them as scouts, guinea pigs, and black-ops troopers. It was a great campaign full of wonderfully fatal events and lots of explosions and ridiculous happenings. There are a lot of characters worth discussing, but the most interesting in, perhaps, one Major Russ Carmady, played by my friend John.
Unlike the rest of the ne’er do-wells, felons, and criminal miscreants that made up the ranks of the XF CFC corps, Russ Carmady was a company man. He cut his teeth with SPIT-NET, joined the private sector as a junior executive on the frontier, and then screwed up so incredibly badly that the company said they could either hand him over to SPIT-NET for criminal prosecution, or he could descend into the ranks of the CFCs and work off his five years. Carmady, of course, chose the latter option.
Carmady was a character that lacked the capacity for self-reflection. He did not see himself as ‘demoted’ or ‘shamed’ so much as ‘transferred’. He had an eternally sunny disposition, a high opinion of himself despite all outward evidence to the contrary, and was constantly thankful for what he saw as ‘opportunities’ that everyone else saw as ‘deathtraps’. He kept the title ‘major’ even though he was in no way entitled to it. He set himself up an ‘office’, which happened to be in the bathroom of the CFC barracks. He had a desk with a nameplate and everything. He was a font of wisdom, in his eyes, but in reality he was mostly making things up. He was a pathological liar, but a very good one. Everyone else on the team either loathed him or thought he was their best chance for survival.
He was absolutely hilarious.
I could list off the magical, almost superhuman snafus Carmady managed to orchestrate, but I won’t. I will simply relate how he, eventually, died. Carmady, due to his mediocre planning, bad luck, and willful ignorance, found himself in a crashed bounce pod on an alien planet surrounded by deadly radiation in the center of a minefield and discovered he was about to be overrun by unidentified forces and possibly taken captive. There was the distinct likelihood that these forces weren’t even human (a first in that world). I gave Carmady three options:
- Stay here and play dead and maybe they leave you be.
- Surrender to unknown hostiles for unknown consequences.
- Run for it through the radiation soaked minefield.
John, his player, asked me one question: “If I’m captured, do I get a black mark on my record?”
“Yes.” I said.
He ran for it. The mine blew his body in half. The table all nodded solemnly - it was the death Carmady deserved. Courageous, ill-considered, and cartoonishly ridiculous, especially since he had ordered the minefield set up in the first place.
I’ve had a lot of silly characters in campaigns before, but Carmady was something special. John, more than a lot of other players, really understood the tone of the campaign. He knew we were, essentially, doing a Catch-22 in Space type thing, and he was totally on board. He was going to showcase the institutional absurdity of Man on a galactic scale. He made a character to fit the moment and embody the feel of what I was trying to do in that game. He, in a very real sense, made the game what it was. He was the compass by which I judged my success or failure in any given session. That, it must be said, is a great compliment. I would encourage players everywhere to follow John’s example: figure out how this game is going to work, and find a spot where you can fit right in. Where not only can you have fun, but you can make the entire game magnificent along with it.
Ah, Major, what will we ever do without you?
You ain’t been there ’til you’ve clocked a knife-fight in zero-G, affirm?
Sphere-jockeys will cast you that boarding action is a lot of bullets and grenades, like in the vids, but that’s not to spec. Scan’s well in the vids, affirm – all them explosions and pops and bangs and circuits frying – but they’re not reading the regs on a board top down. Sure, you can pump slugs up and down the insides of a can and make slop outta the poor chumps that tagged their sign to belay that action, but you gotta recall this: You make slop outta the can, too.
Priority A number one in the Big Empty is to dock your aft in a working can – air, water, food, heat, gas, propulsion – the whole she-bang. You fuck that up on your board, you haven’t got a working can, you’ve got tow payload. Yeah, you can work that action – done it plenty – but you’d rather not, affirm? So, unless you’re hupping waveguns or sonics (and that last one only works if they haven’t vacced your asses) and you’ve set a course for some Big Empty piracy, you scan the specs on how you stick a chump with a blade while floating.
Ran this action about six tours back: big can, some kinda cargo transport. Skipper was a shit-top dickhead, gave us the bitch-chat something mean on the comms. The course laid out by our skipper said no fucking up the ship, so’s we EMP-ed her and then boarded. This is no smooth action, affirm? If our stick-jockey wasn’t shit-top fine, we’d've choked out something fierce, but as it was we were running green and feeling mean when we cut the bulkheads. Crew’d gone hull-down, ship had no accel, only back-up lights were coming online. There I am, flying solo, as I drift up the spinal corridor, pinging the length of the ship.
Don’t know how the chump got behind me – my sensor rig’s a piece of scow-trash, most like. Big guy, probably security, comes coasting outta some vent and spears me. My head smacks the bulkhead, rattles my HUD and makes me bite my lip. This has me runnin’ red, affirm, since I’m gonna have blood gooping up my visor in a few minutes. I give the chump a good push and pull my knife – a carbonfiber deal fifteen cm long, more pointy than cutty.
The chump is shit-top pissed as he sails away from me. Dumbass sphere-jockey chumps are used to weight; fig if they’re seventy-five kilo, for some damned reason, they’re supposed to be harder to manhandle in micro. This fig is a sorta-kinda; knocked the wind outta me, sure, but I ain’t no micro-mass and can push as well as can be pushed, affirm?
If there’s one thing you don’t want in a zero-G fight, it’s to be flying around. Keep a hand planted on the bulkhead, affirm? Keep your velo under control, don’t spin, keep your peepers targeted. This chump hits the opposite wall about as hard as I hit mine and then bounces, like a real chump. He’s got a knife out, yeah – a mean-looking utility number, used for sawing and slicing and a little stabby, too. Looks meaner than it is, affirm? Blade ain’t triangular, which means he’s just as like to get his sticker wedged in my suit as not. While he’s sweating that action, I can poke him in five places with mine.
Anywho, chump is in a clockwise spin with a twenty-degree tumble to boot. He’s trying to get himself running green, but I can see from how he’s jerking that he’s about fried his chips. I fig I’ll get one pass at him; I don’t lay in a course that has me grappling for long – his arms are longer than mine and he’s probably studied some way to break my bones that might transfer to zero-G action, affirm? I track his course and launch so’s I land on the spot where he’s about to crash but doesn’t know it. A nice easy glide, my blade ready – smooth action. Spots of blood are filling my visor from my busted lip, but I’ve been sucking down as much of the red stuff as I can to keep my view clear. I hit my X and am ready.
Chump sees me, takes a swing at me with the knife. I can’t really duck, so I gotta block it, and this fucks up my course. We go spinning, me and him, floating out into the center of the corridor, a tangle of knees and elbows and foul language. I orbit him, he orbits me, a pair’a ugly-ass moons doing the cosmic do-si-do. Between the two of us, I know my course, affirm. He flails and I let him, but I clip my harness to his, so we can’t fly apart. Yeah, yeah, I know you scan me for crazy, affirm, but I’ve got him tethered and he can’t get away. More he spins, the more tangled he gets. I pick my moment and I stab–abdomen, affirm? Mostly heating elements, plates a bit less dense to give you mobility, not too thick. My knife slides through like a needle. Give it a twist and pull out. The blood comes blooping out in big red bubbles.
Guy pushes me, I fly back and let the tether out. When I hit bulkhead, I catch myself and watch him twist on my tether like a big catch on them fishing vids. He’s losing a lot of blood; area around him starts to look like a rosy raincloud. When he’s blown his tanks a bit and stops flailing, I reel him in. After that, putting him out is smooth action. Like poppin’ a balloon.
So, I’ve been writing a lot of short fiction recently. Well, I am usually writing a lot of short fiction, but I’ve been thinking about it more than usual. Planning my strategy, as it were.
Like a lot of writers, finding inspiration for a story is a key part of the process. I’ve a wide variety of ways I do this, many of them too arcane and fuzzy for me to accurately describe. I do, however, have a pretty tried and true method for producing work, much of it quite good. What I do, in a nutshell, is set a story within a world I’ve already developed/am in the process of developing.
This serves two purposes. First is world building, which is essential in any good fantasy or sci-fi novel. To paraphrase David Eddings, you need that 1000 pages of stuff before your world is likely to seem real, so you need to get cracking, right? Second is that is gives the story a sort of built-in background. It anchors it and allows it to seem more alive, better situated.
So far, my most successful stories to date have been the ones I’ve written this way. Now, I can’t say for certain that this method is the cause of that or, indeed, if this method of mine is holding me back or propelling me forward – I haven’t had enough success yet to tell – but I do think it makes it easier for me to produce material. Besides, I happen to love Alandar… and the Frontier universe, and the Quiet Earth, and the Multiverse of the Rubric. I’m at home in these places, I know them, and you’re supposed to write what you know, right?
Well, anyway, I’ve got some more stories cooking, some set in Alandar, some set in the future, some set in parallel dimensions, but all filling out a kind of grand map of my worlds. Perhaps, if I’m very lucky, some fan of mine will sit down and map them all out on some kind of branching timeline. That would be cool. Especially when I go and compare their timeline to mine.
I had a nightmare last night. Not a real, sit-up-in-bed-and-can’t-sleep-anymore type nightmare–I rarely have those anymore, and if I do they aren’t anything like this. It was, instead, one of those dreams that simulates a horror movie. I was staying in a hospital with two other people–an ex-student and a friend (but I can’t remember whom). It was night; we were alone. There was somebody stalking us.
At first we thought it a prank, but then we were wrong. The person we thought it was, well, they never really existed. This was something different…something wrong. It was coming for us, and it was going to get us, one by one. I found myself walking through a darkened surgical ward, hearing it whisper my name, and then it burst from a cabinet, black and smoky, glowing eyes.
I led with my knuckles. The dream ended with me digging my thumbs into its stupid eyes, swearing a blue streak.
My reaction to fear is, I think, sort of different than most. I feel fear, sure, but my instinct is almost always ‘attack’ rather than ‘run’. That pounding of the heart, the chills in my bones, the tremble in my hands–all of that gets focused into a sort of berzerk sort of rage that I direct at the object of my terror. I can control it, sure, but if you jump out from behind a bush as a joke, there’s a 50/50 chance I’ll slug you as hard as I can. Horror movies frustrate the hell out of me, primarily because all the people do the exact opposite thing that I’d do. They go all limp and start squealing or running or whatever–I gave that up a long time ago. If I see Freddy Kreuger, I’m going to go for his jugular and hope that glove of his doesn’t finish me off first. I’m not going to give him the time to deliver his pithy one-liner.
Fear is a terrific motivator. Not only can it change me–relatively peaceful, easy-going guy–into a norse berzerker, but it reduces otherwise intelligent people to drooling idiots, organized people into flighty bubble heads, and stupid people into superheroes. Panic is enormously powerful.
In Frontier: 2280, I’ve included a weapon called a ‘panic bomb’. I stole the idea from Heinlein’s Starship Troopers: it’s a weapon that looks like a bomb, sounds like a bomb, acts like a bomb, but isn’t actually a bomb. You toss it in a room and it starts hissing and beeping and a little LED counter starts down from 10; it might even announce that it is a bomb in a loud, scary voice. The idea of the weapon is a way to flush people out of cover without actually exposing them to anything harmful or, conversely, cause confusion and panic in the defenders. If you don’t think such a weapon would work, you’ve never been in a crowd of people who were frightened of something before. Us berzerkers start smashing things to stop the danger, the panicky ones start running amok, the squealers start yelling their heads off, causing more panic–things get ugly, and fast. All the rationality and higher thought that we, as a species, are so proud of goes straight out the window, and we become little better than stampeding cattle.
I’ve talked before about how the zombie apocalypse trope underwhelms me. I don’t see zombies as wiping out a huge number of people, all things considered. You know what would, though? The panic associated with the possibility of zombies attacking people and the dead rising from the grave. Can you imagine the looting? The violence? The chaos? All perpetrated, by the way, by humans against other humans. All those anti-zombie fanatics who actually have spent time thinking about ‘what they would do if the zombies come’ are going to be running amok, chainsaws in hand, trying to ‘survive’ when, in the end, they’ll mostly be hurting other people or getting hurt themselves. That’s the power of panic, you see–more potent and faster spreading than any disease you can name, and probably the cause of more deaths.
There’s a reason, after all, that it’s illegal to yell ‘fire’ in a movie theater without cause, and it isn’t just for the hell of it. People have died because of that, trampled beneath the sticky soles of a thousand other panicky movie goers who, for the love of God Almighty, do NOT want to burn alive.
Just ran another mission of an RPG I wrote entitled ‘Frontier: 2280″ (which all my friends call ‘Battlelords”, but that’s a whole different game–one I played, liked, and then decided to completely depart from and make into my own paramilitary sci-fi adventure game). In this one, as in some of the past sessions, space combat has played an important role to the party’s survival. As with the rest of the game, however, I’ve tried to keep things as close to ‘real science’ as I can, and I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about how space combat might work in the future and why. Here’s what I’ve come up with:
It is important that prospective space combat cadets push from their minds the flash and zoom of pulp sci-fi. Fighting in space doesn’t work that way. Indeed, it is actually quite boring for those people not crunching the math on incoming ordnance with white-knuckled urgency. If you’re lying in your accel couch after the maneuver alarm, nothing much is happening so far as you can tell. Watch a movie or something.
1: Space Combat Happens Over Long Distances
In the early years of ship-to-ship combat, the boarding action was generally considered the be-all and end-all of the space combat arena. This was the case because neither side really liked the idea of punching holes in things as expensive as spaceships and, furthermore, it is really, really hard to hit a moving spaceship with any kind of conventional weapon. It is akin to hitting a bullet with another, smaller bullet and, frankly, the difficulties involved made the whole affair impractical.
This, however, is no longer the case. As sensor systems improved and the guidance AIs on missile got better, the prospect of actually crippling or destroying an enemy vessel that was still >5000km away became more of a reality. Furthermore, given the efficacy of close-range laser attacks and the brutal finality of boarding actions, it became preferable to blow up the enemy when they were so far away you needn’t worry about debris from their exploding vessel putting holes in your own vessel or their last laser strafe cutting your fuel lines or some kind of last F-U virus being uploaded into your system and killing your computers dead.
Modern ship-to-ship combat has more in common with the largely mythical submarine duels of the 20th century Cold War than it does with the Milennium Falcon. Enemy vessels are barely and intermittently visible to sensor suites and advanced targeting systems are constantly calculating a likely intercept course for sophisticated missiles to fly out there and hunt down the enemy. All the while, one’s own vessel is hoping no missiles are coming in towards them or, if they are, they are picked up by tactical radars and targeted by point-defence laser systems before they get too close. Close-quarters combat is extremely rare unless the enemy is actively trying to capture and not destroy the enemy vessel in question. Sometimes they are so far away, one can’t ever be certain if they did, in fact, kill the enemy. All they know is that the ship has stopped popping up on their sensors.
2: Let Space Do the Killing For You
Fun Fact: the vacuum of space is the most hazardous environment known to mankind. Accordingly, space-based military technology has oriented itself towards creating circumstances wherein the vacuum of space is the thing doing all the killing–it does so for free and with a minimum of fuss. You really don’t need to blow up an enemy ship. All you need to do is kill their engines and then let the crew drift off into the void and starve–easy, see?
The vast majority of naval weapons are missiles. They run in a couple general types:
-Spikers are fragmentary explosives on a massive scale. Their purpose, quite simply, is to put holes in ships–lots and lots of holes in lots and lots of places and, if possible a really big hole somewhere. This often doesn’t result in explosive decompression (though it can), but more practically makes portions of a vessel unusable, causes them to leak fuel, and can make them much, much easier to spot on sensors.
-Rad-blasts are intense radiation munitions designed to cook the people inside ships until they are dead. These work best after a spiker has put lots of helpful holes in a vessels radiation-shielded hull. Volleys of missiles are often timed to have Spikers detonate immediately before Rads.
-Killers are direct-impact high-explosive munitions. They are designed to blow a ship into smithereens, and they do so quite well. The problem with them, however, is it is very difficult to score a direct hit on an enemy vessel at ranges of thousands of kilometers while both ships are moving at incredible rates of speed and, often, on conflicting courses with limited sensor information. In a practical sense, Killers are saved until it is clear that an enemy ship is crippled and spewing enough radiation to be easily found by the Killer’s pAI guidance system.
-Nukes are effectively useless in space combat. They do spill a good amount of radiation (though Rads kick out more), but their ‘explosive shockwave’ is dependent upon the presence of an atmosphere to be effective (you don’t get a shockwave if there is nothing to push). Nukes are used exclusively as orbital bombardment ordinance or as ship-to-ship weaponry for the desperate.
-EMPs are electromagnetic pulse weapons intended to disrupt or disable the electronic systems aboard a starship. They are very effective at doing this, but at the cost of making the other ship harder to detect for anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours as they get their systems back online. Also, they don’t kill ships or even people aboard them, so long as they still have operational generators. They are often used to precede boarding actions.
There are numerous other forms of ordnance, but those are the major ones.
It is important to remember the sheer number of ways space can kill ships. Only a few of these ways are ‘hot’ (hit by a Killer, Spike-rad combos, atmospheric re-entry, boarding action, short range laser-strafe). Most of them are ‘cold’, including starvation, dehydration, freezing, or asphyxiation. To affect these ‘victories’, the enemy need only disable the enemy vessel’s engines or power systems, for the most part, and let them drift into the Big Empty, never to be heard from again.
3: ‘Fighters’ are for Suicidal Nut-Jobs
The idea of a ‘fighter’ has been roundly abandoned by pretty much everybody by the 23rd century. The idea of a small, manoeuvrable vessel with good acceleration and high weapon payload exists, but those things are called ‘missiles’ and they are ‘manned’ by pAIs, not people. That way, when they don’t come back (and they don’t), you don’t care. You also don’t need to worry about things like inertial stress on the pilot or keeping life support active. It is cheaper, more efficient, and easier to just fire missiles that maintain fighters. Fighters still are very important in atmospheric roles, but not in space.
The notable exception to this is the HBV (Hostile Boarding Vehicle). These are basically assault boats used to board enemy vessels. They are only launched at short range when the odds of interception are very high (miss your intercept on an HBV and welcome to Cold Death) and they are also one-way trips, most of the time. Once attached, an HBV is not easily disengaged from this ship it’s boarding, and their boarding team needs to win the boarding action or wind up the prisoners of the enemy crew (or dead–there’s always that option). Ideally, HBVs are launched at crippled ships with disabled or non-existent point-defence systems, and they are usually launched in groups (why send one when you can send three?). ‘Ideal’ situations, of course, are not always possible. It is for this reason that marines are considered crazy.
4: Fuel = Life
Due to the likelihood of Cold Death in the Big Empty, power is of utmost importance. Everything a ship does takes power and, therefore, fuel to accomplish. Want to change course? Fuel is needed to power the reactors which power the engines. Want to operate your point-defences? Fuel is needed to power the reactors which power the lasers. Want to speed up or slow down? Fuel. This is the primary reason, by the way, that missiles are preferred over other weapons (railguns, lasers, wavecannons, plasma throwers, etc.) because, unlike all those other weapons, missiles require a minimum of power to fire and are every bit as effective.
Without fuel, a ship is as good as dead. It’s life support can’t function, it can’t stop, turn, or speed up, it can’t fight, it can’t even see. Again, this has a huge impact on space warfare. Fighters aren’t used in part since the power needed to retrieve them is power wasted. Ships focus on crippling and letting enemy ships drift since, usually, the power needed to kill them isn’t necessary and needlessly weakens yourself. Battle happens at extreme ranges since the power needed to outmaneuver and intercept a ship isn’t necessary and can be a disastrous waste of resources.
Most vessels operate a main fusion reactor with a number of auxiliary fission reactors in reserve. The fusion reactor eats He3 fuel at a relatively speedy rate, but is able to reliably power all systems at once. The fission reactors are much less powerful, but work through their fuel rods at a much slower rate. Some ships maintain a store of chemical boosters and emergency beacons that run on their own, self-contained power in case of emergency, but those aren’t going to push a ship anywhere quickly nor are they especially likely to save a ship that’s drifted too far out of course. They only really buy you time.
5: Sensors are Limited
Star Trek is a load of nonsense. Unless you’re within a hundred clicks of a ship (give or take a few), you can’t tell whether an enemy vessel is powering weapons or how many lifeforms are aboard or really much of anything, especially not if the other ship doesn’t want you to scan them…or it’s venting radiation or it’s in the middle of a dust cloud or there is unusual solar flare activity or any number of other environmental concerns that render even the most sophisticated sensor arrays pretty useless.
‘Sensors’ refer to a couple distinct systems: RADAR, radio and conventional telescopes, thermal detectors, spectographic scanners, and gravitic recorders. All of these things work at the speed of light (c) or slower, meaning a vessel that rests 7 light-seconds away, when scanned, will be delivered information 7-14 seconds old (7 to get there and in some cases 7 to get back) or even more. If you have a *really* good fix on another ship, you know its velocity, direction, acceleration, and, if you’re very lucky or very good, can make an accurate guess at its mass. Typically, all you get is a read on its drive signature–either ion trails being picked up, telling you more-or-less where the thing is headed, or the gravitic warping effect of a slip drive, telling you basically the same thing. By crunching a lot of math, you can make a fairly accurate guess as to the velocity of the thing and, eventually, take a guess at its *average* acceleration. By crunching even *more* math you can hazard a guess at how much power it has at its disposal, giving you an idea of its size or, at least, the size of its reactor. If in a fight with a ship, the only good way to know if you’ve damaged it is to notice erratic patterns in radiation spillage, drive streams, or maybe even register a large explosion (if you’re lucky). Clever tacticians, of course, learn how to fake these things pretty well, so crews learn to stay on their toes.
The best way to learn about another ship is to talk to it. Again, communications run at the speed of light, so there is usually a slight delay. All non-military vessels and most military vessels that aren’t on active duty broadcast a callsign unless they are up to no good, which tells anyone who’s listening the ship’s name, complement, mass, and intended destination. Thanks to pirates, a ship’s callsign can be assumed to be inaccurate to varying degrees, even though SPIT-NET considers this behaviour illegal. Still, talking with somebody can reveal a lot–if nothing else, you can see if what they say matches up with your sensor data and guess if they’re lying and maybe even postulate why.
The tactical fallout of all this is, essentially, that most ship-to-ship space battles end before one side knows what’s happening. Getting blindsided by a spike-rad combo before you have your point-defence system running at optimum is a regrettably common occurrence (and also a reason to have your point-defences *always* operating), as is finding yourself under attack from a ship you can’t even see. Space combat is a giant game of lethal hide-and-seek, and if you don’t know you’re playing, you are usually going to lose.
So, that’s the gist of it. I’ve been running it this way, and so far it has given way to white-knuckled suspense for the players aboard their little souped-up merchant vessel. They haven’t been hit by a missle yet, but it will happen. Then the fun will really start…
Kiril kacked a guy once with a riot gun. Guy specced-out in full body armor, armed to the teeth, and Kiril kacked him anyway with a gun spits rubber and plastic. Never scanned the protocols on how that was done, affirm? TRACI tells me you can’t do it; I rate her advice priority 1a when it comes to killing. Kiril, though, is different.
Kiril’s Rooskie, or was, anyway–none of us laid our courses much by the Powers that berthed us, affirm? Anyway, he was a lot older than he looked; spent decades on slowships during the last Big War, dreaming of chumps that needed killing. We never ping Kiril on his age. You don’t chat with Kiril, affirm? That’s like making nice with a tiger or something.
Kiril and TRACI have a special bond. Like, a covalent one, affirm? He and the bitch run the same protocols, plot the same courses, spec the same regs. Hard to tell where he stops and TRACI starts, sometimes. Whisper is Kiril’s a Battle-Gen gone loopy; Rooskie Big Shots made him disappear or something after, dunno, he ate a bus full of kid or blew up his mom or some shit.
Anyway, the riot gun. Riot gun is the mass of your thigh, affirm? Metal, ceramics, and plastic construction; pre-loaded, disposable. CAs’ll pass ‘em out to their enforcers if the colonists get uppity. Any grade-zero chump with crossed eyes can shoot ‘em so long as he’s got hands and a working index finger. They fire tight bunches of rubber shot and ceramic slivers at high intervals. Not specced to kill, affirm? Make you wish you were, though.
We’re on an Op–standard smash and grab, low mortality protocols, dusty little bunker complex on some sandbox sphere. It’s a Chinese facility. We EMP their snoopers from orbit as the pod is inbound, drop a flak on their heads to keep them inside, then hit ‘em before they’ve got the perimeter running green. Runs clean. Viper rails the hardpoints to let ‘em know where their smooth course lies. Nobody gets shot. My kinda action, affirm?
Kiril, though, is shit-top pissed. Doesn’t cast anything except to ask “These fucks know kung fu?” He asks it six times. You can see what he’s thinking, like it were on beacon.
Kiril’s on what Viv calls ‘The Ride’. It starts when TRACI makes you her bitch; it ends in a pile of corpses. Seen it happen before, but not from the beginning. Just the end, when a guy named Mugoni ran through an airlock with a grenade and a bulkhead cutter. By the time we caught up, there was nobody left in that can in less than ten pieces. You couldn’t float down a single corridor without inhaling some chump’s blood.
Kiril finds his chump. Officer, probably–flat sniffer, peepers like black rocks. He’s running red, affirm? A buncha convicts and social outcasts have pissed on his country’s honor. He’s ready to throw down and Kiril clears him for action, affirm?
“You know kung-fu?” Kiril asks. His console translates into Choppo for the chump. Chump eases himself into some kinda stance. Looks menacing. Looks like the vids.
Kiril puts up his mitts. They fight, but the chump isn’t reading this action top-down, affirm? He thinks they’re having themselves a duel. He thinks this is the vids. They throw for a second or two, lock, then officer chump is thrown down. He rolls to his feet like the ground is rubber, faces Kiril, and that’s when Kiril stuffs the riot gun in the guy’s face and pulls.
Chump ain’t dead, affirm? Riot gun is kinda like a rubber eraser dragged across his face at mach 1–loses his eyes, nose, lips, most of his skin. He’s got plastic splinters stuck in his skull like darts in a board. He starts to scream, that’s when I turn away. I hear Kiril empty all three of the other barrels into the chump. He belays the screams, downgrading to a kind a bubble-bubble.
Kiril crouches over him and whispers. “All those years for kung-fu. What a waste of your fucking time.” We can hear it, clear as day; the comlinks are still live.
When we left, Viv wrote up the report for Barry and left out Kiril’s part. They registered that action anyway (they always do). Action rated Kiril two black marks–violation of mission parameters, misuse of corporate property. Like I cast you before, riot guns aren’t for killing.
Everybody’s got their drop protocols. They’re pre-set; no deviating from that course, affirm? You need ‘em to run green, keep you from frying your chips. Me, I run silent. I close my eyes and try to put a mute-order on the whole damned world. I did my inner self way, way down, so deep even sweet TRACI can’t talk me up. Some other CFCs have scanned me as dead sometimes. Those dumbasses liked to bitch-chat me over it, calling me chicken.
Those dumbasses are all dead now.
Not much to see on the way to a drop. Your average cut-rate corporate intra-system can don’t rate windows–windows is for sphere-jockeys and jump chumps who think there’s shit to see out the window of a spaceship. Pulled duty on a can like that once, in my life before all this shit started. Chumps’d plant their afts in cushy accel-couches and stare out big-ass windows for hours. You know what they saw? Stars. Coulda run that same action by poking holes in a sheet and stowing it over their cabin lights.
Anyway, there isn’t much to see. You can feel the can sliding down the well towards whatever sphere it is you’re about to hit, though. It’s like falling, but slower, steadier. Your guts set a clock running for you until they cut the bounce pod loose and the real ride starts. That action doesn’t run for hours, though, affirm? You got yourself strapped into a heavy-duty rig, body armor clapped all over you, with nothing to look at but the same chumps you’ve been stuck with the last few drops, plus or minus a few. Time was I’d chat–thought it a good way to make the op run smooth–but I belayed that shit after drop number five. Five was where only two of us came back–me and Viv. Viv ain’t a chatter, neither.
Across from me on this drop, though, is Uppinder. Uppinder talks–that’s his pre-drop protocol. Talking is his buisness–got run up for some high-end grifting back in Hubspace. It was a CFC or a prison in Calcutta; he slotted the optimal and wound up here. Uppinder is great if the op has diplo-protocols, affirm? If it’s a hot drop, he just ducks his head and pumps rounds in random directions. Viv posts him in the rear, mostly; he ain’t the type to pump a slug up your aft.
“At some point,” Uppinder is saying, “human beings became a collective lump of biomass, understand?”
I belay any response. I can’t scan whether he’s hailing me or just running the speech motors to see if they work.
“Individuals, or even groups of individuals, have ceased to matter. We have become a resource at our own collective disposal.”
Uppinder’s got this smooth, silky voice with a funky euro accent. He speaks stanengles, choppo, frenchie, russ, looney, and whatever lingo they cast in Greater India. Big brain. Tiny fucking balls.
“Right now, we are being exploited. Nobody cares, though, since the length, quality, or even facts of our lives have ceased to mean anything. There are some 26 billion human beings in existence at this exact moment; all of us–every single one–is replaceable.”
Uppinder’s high-minded think-chat is leaking into my inner peace. I can hear TRACI whispering to me various ways I might break his jaw or kill him with a couple nasty moves. I’m betting Uppinder’s TRACI is doing the same thing with me. I get the sense, maybe, that this means something. Something smart and deep, like Uppinder’s rambling. Got no way to get the a-ffirm on that action, though. I got no specs on how to operate on high-mind course. I tongue up some tunes in my earpiece. It’s Parsec. A song they released fifteen years ago in Hubspace, but it’s new to me. I wonder whether they’ve broken up or if they’re still touring the HubNet.
“With the absence of percieved worth from the collective species,” Uppinder goes on, his smooth chat bleeding through Parsec’s mean double dissonance, “We are forced to create value within ourselves. We act as individuals in spite of society.”
“Shut up.” I cast him, opening one eye. Uppinder’s not scanning me, though–he’s got his peepers planted on the display above my berth–the exact copy of the one above his that I can see–that lets you scan the telemetry data of the pod. We’re still a barnacle on the can, but not for long.
Uppinder smiles at me. His choppers are so white and small they’re like stars themselves. “See? That’s what makes us better than the others, Sull. We CFCs, we really live. We’re real, actual humans, like from the old days.”
The lights go red–real drop time. I close my eyes, but my brain is running deep scans on that last cast from Uppinder, affirm? Real humans. Really alive. I tell myself it’s all bullshit; living is docking your aft sphereside in a shit-top arcology, draining genned brandy and scarfing steak from an actual dead cow while sex-bots and pleasure customs polish your undies from the inside out. This? This shit is dying, not living. Dying one drop at a time.
It’s like this: you cack some sphere-jockey in Hubspace, or you sell Bluetab to the chemjunkies on Arcturus, or you bop with some Biggie’s girl and he throws SPIT-NET a bone, and you find yourself lookin’ up the nostrils of a Judge as he looks down. Prison, he says, or worse. But you’re a slammer, still running green on all your lights—young, strong, not a total dumbass—so your law-squawk cuts you a deal. Prison or a CFC. For you jump-chumps sqattin’ on the john and scanning this down, that means Corporate Frontier Contract, affirm? A one-way ticket to the ass-end of nowhere, the Big Empty, hupping for snot-pay through more shit-top ugly duty than’ll reg on a heavy scanner. Rads, rock-watches, pirates, the rest of it. Crazy.
Still, it beats prison.
You keep telling yourself that, anyway. You keep it flashing green on your HUD as the med-techs clamp you down on a table and squirt a tube of nano-goo behind your left eyeball. You keep saying it to yourself as TRACI goes live and starts whispering in your ear, saying shit you never scanned before, ramming her nanotech cables deep down in your thinker, till your hands can run protocols you never clocked hours learning. You field-strip hypersluggers in the dark; you got specs on how to set bombs and where to put them for the biggest boom; you got a chump bitch-chatting you in a bar and there’s TRACI, telling you all the spots you can hit him to make him cry. You don’t even have to make your hands go—just give the lady the go-ahead, and she does all the work. Still, it beats prison. You got your hands wrist deep in that guy’s guts, but still it beats prison. Yeah.
CFC terms in five years, affirm? You run your course, you stay green, then you rate a duffel full of cred and a chip in your thinker that scans SPIT-NET that you’re shit-top fine citizen and top-flight colonial specimen. Regs say they even shut down sweet TRACI, and drop you free, drifting off on your own course. Those are the specs, anyway, but it don’t matter. You don’t make the five years, chump. More ways to wind up going for the Big Float in this duty than anywhere, affirm? Odds are running seven to one you don’t make it your first year. Nine to one says you don’t see year three. Don’t ask me the odds on year five, chief—even TRACI don’t crunch that math, affirm?
Even if you’re cagey, and know all the tricks the Barrys send down the wire, and keep yourself hull down when the flak starts, guess what? You didn’t keep yourself running green by being all smiles and handshakes, did you? You violated regs, and violations rate blackers. One blacker, one more year on the contract. You cack a guy you shouldn’t? Blacker. You bitch-chat a Barry? Blacker. You evac on a mission? Blacker. I’ve been CFC-ed to the Interstellar Mining Consortium for eight years running, and got me two years left. Only one guy been here longer than me, and that’s Vivian. He’s rated sixteen blackers in his time, and run twelve of his twenty-one years. Nobody else has lived that long. Nobody.
Ugly dude, Vivian. Not on the outside, neither—all deep down. Scan it through his eyes, chief—nothing but dead black space and mean stares, running on loop. He run more black ops protocols than you downloaded from vid-flicks, ‘cepting he’s done it in the flesh. His own two hands choking out some putz, thumbs screwed into his windpipe like they was riveted there. Run evictions, hits, smash-n-grabs, duffle-stuffs—all of it. Tell you about it, too. Ain’t one for blinking, is Vivian. Cold as the Big Empty and twice as dark. Cack you as soon as shit on you.
Guess what else, chump—he’s your pappy. The boss. Captain. C-fucking-O. He runs the missions, he marks the protocols, he chats with the Barrys. He tells you your X and your Y and your fucking Z. You don’t do it? Blacker. If you’re lucky. Odds say he just puts a slug up your aft while you’re walking point with the twitch-gun, calls it an accident.
Still, it beats prison.
Author’s Note: I wrote this as the opening pages to a novel I’ve got cooking on the back burner along with a hundred million other ideas. Most recently I’ve adapted it as the introductory fluff text to an RPG I wrote called Frontier: 2280(tentative title–still not wild about it), though it may be that I’ll journey back to this bit yet and extend it. <sigh> So many projects I’d like to work on, so little time…