Sunday, June 26, 2022

Ecstatic Visions, Chapter 2

 Chapter 1

**

Chora's Den, Lower Wards. You can hear the pounding music from outside, and that is the problem. You are outside, when you would prefer to be inside. Inside, there is a certain volus in the back who, in exchange for letting him take a plea deal during a major smuggling bust years ago, has served as your finger on the underworld pulse.

The volus is inside. You are outside. And between you and him, there is a very large, very shirtless man blocking the door. His shaved head has been tattooed with the colorful scales of a phrenological chart. His muscles have been outlined like a butcher's diagram, labelled and rated for their physiological perfection.

You are wearing an obnoxiously bright tropical-print shirt, and also still hung over.

MEASUREHEAD - "NO ENTRY."

The guy is new. The last bouncer would let anyone in (which is how you got in), but looks like that's no longer an option.

SHEPARD - "I know Fist. Go tell him Tequila Sunrise is here."

MEASUREHEAD - "THERE ARE NO EXCEPTIONS."

KIM - "We should go."

OBNOXIOUS SHIRT - YOU CAN TOTALLY TAKE THIS GUY, BRATAN!

[PHYSICAL INTRUMENT] - You can totally take this guy.

[ELECTROCHEMISTRY] - You should absolutely take this guy.

You punch him in the stomach, and your hand crumples like newspaper.

MEASUREHEAD - "YOUR BODY BETRAYS YOUR DEGENERACY."

His fist collides with your head the world is spinning. Stars whirl in your eyes as the ground meets you, with force.

[PAIN THRESHOLD] SHIT HURT PAIN OW OW OW

MEASUREHEAD - "YOUR HAPLOTYPE WAS POISED TO INHERIT THE REWARDS OF THE GREAT SUBJUGATION, BUT WAS CORRUPTED BY THE DEGENERATIVE INFLUENCES OF AL-GHUL, DISCO MUSIC, AND MOE ANIME. YOU AND YOUR HAM-SANDWHICH RACE HAVE BEEN RENDERED OBSOLETE.

[CONCEPTUALIZATION] Wait, hold up: what the fuck are this guy's politics?

[PAIN THRESHOLD] WHY WOULD YOU CARE ABOUT THAT NOW

[RHETORIC] No, no, I want to hear this.

[CIVITATIS GALACTICAE] The Great Subjugation is a theory that the Asari Republics' long-term political strategy is the total cultural absorption of the other Citadel species. The asari's pre-existing position of hegemonic power means that they can curtail or outright cripple a polity's ability to function on the galactic stage, and likewise it means that those polities who pass policies in the interest of the Republics, or the Citadel Council at large, will be favored over those that do not. This encourages the spread of asari culture into other species, including the normalization of asari-other unions.

[CIVITATIS GALACTICAE] This last point is the lynchpin factor for most proponents of the theory. Such unions will typically only ever produce asari children, and so are seen as the preliminary steps towards a future where non-asari are reduced to reservation-bound breeding stock.

[CIVITATIS GALACTICAE] Great Subjugation Theory is a common far-right talking point, popular with Terra Firma and related anti-alien groups. The reaction from pro-Citadel factions is to dismiss any fears of asari hegemony as conspiratorial sentiment, overlooking the fact that galactic politics is indeed heavily weighed in favor of the asari and their close allies.

[PERCEPTION] And that the Council has publicly committed two species-wide genocides and is currently working through a third.

[RHETORIC] But if he is talking about rewards...

[CONCEPTUALIZATION] Oh god, we found a human asari-supremacist.

[RHETORIC] Like Martian bigfoot in the flesh...

[INLAND EMPIRE] Wake up babe new type of racist just dropped.

[CONCEPTUALIZATION] This man believes in the Great Subjugation, but instead of manifesting as hate crimes against asari or their partners, he's decided that the best course of action is to use eugenics to become the ideal mating partner in the fuck-enclave future.

[PAIN THRESHOLD] BLOOD HE JUST PUNCHED OUT ALL OF OUR BLOOD

[RHETORIC] Shush, let the adults talk.

When the world stops moving, you see that Kim is offering you a handkerchief. He's helped you limp off to the side of the causeway, out of the way of the foot traffic.

KIM - "Keep it."

He stands like he's on a sentry post. You stuff the handkerchief up your nostrils to try and stop the flow of blood.

OBNOXIOUS SHIRT - OH HE DID US DIRTY BRATAN, THESE STAINS WILL BE RIGHT HARD TO REMOVE. OR! OR THEY COULD BE A BADGE OF HONOR, A SIGN OF YOUR MARTIAL PROWESS!

KIM - "I am going to guess that wasn't supposed to happen.

SHEPARD - "No. It wasn't."

KIM - "Do you have an alternative for...whatever it was that you were trying to do?"

You don't. And honestly what even was your plan? Get a handful of no-name mob bruisers and petty thieves to hunt down Saren? Idiot. If Fist is circling the wagons like this he probably pissed off someone big, there's no guarantee at all your informant was still there, or even still on the Citadel. Dumbass.

[COMPOSURE] Square one is still on the board.

SHEPARD - "No, that's...that's a dead end. Just... give me a few minutes."

**


The ride to the Normandy's docking bay is long, awkward, and mostly silent.

OBNOXIOUS SHIRT - OI YOU SHOULD TELL 'IM ABOUT THAT ONE TIME YOU FUCKED A KROGAN, BRATAN.

[COMPOSURE] - No.

So it goes.

**


You arrive without fanfare, and go through the motions of checking in with the crew, showing Kim around. You start with the cockpit.

JOKER - "Hey, Commander."

[EMPATHY] - Something is clearly wrong, it's practically written all over his face in neon.

SHEPARD - "Something wrong?"

The pilot sighs.

JOKER - "Wallet got hacked. Someone stole all my varren. Poof, like that. Holding them for ransom."

[INLAND EMPIRE] Por que?

SHEPARD - "Not sure I follow."

KIM - "I believe he means he was collecting Indolent Varren. They're a variety of non-fungible token."

JOKER - "Yeah, had some of those. Someone stole them right from my wallet."

[INLAND EMPIRE] Imagine if you will the sound of a dial-up modem.

SHEPARD - "..."

KIM - "It's rather complex, I can explain it in detail later if you'd like."

JOKER - "Oh, didn't know you were into them too?"

KIM - "I'm not."

[EMPATHY] - He emphatically is not.

JOKER - "Oh."

[INLAND EMPIRE] You know what, let's just not say anything and pretend we understand, yeah? Blah blah, Joker's varren got funged.

SHEPARD - "At ease, Joker. We'll see you around."

The rest of the tour passes without further incident or embarrassment.

**


You spend the next few hours reviewing the files Anderson sent you, bottle of Commodore Red at hand.

[ELECTROCHEMISTRY] The buzz loosens up ideas and taps into the universal ego-death!

The helmet-cam footage of Saren is Patterson-Gimlin quality. Blurry, out of focus. Saren appears only for a few seconds, in the distance, attended by a pair of red geth. He's identifiable - not many turians of his generation grow their cranial spurs that long - but you have to admit that yes, this could be fabricated.

[VISUAL CALCULUS] You'd need someone skilled enough to make it look this bad, but it could be done.

The cover investigation you were given is much more solid. On paper, Anderson's sent you after one Clara Mills, who headed a human-supremacist terrorist group through the 60s and 70s. The Alliance was never able to confirm her death, and the cover story for the Eden Prime attack uses a similar group, so as long as you can worm some "convincing evidence of connection" into your reports, you can write it off as a wild goose chase.

[SPECIAL OPERATIONS] Not forever. Naval Intelligence is absolutely still keeping tabs on her and they will notice something is up the longer this goes on. Stay on your toes.

The dossiers for the Normandy's crew are what you expect. Half the people were here during your first run as its commander, and the rest were brought on by Anderson personally. It would be difficult to find a ship better staffed for your purposes.

[ESPIRIT D'CORPS] They'll follow you for now. Don't let them down.

[ELECTROCHEMISTRY] Speed has never let anyone down. You should get some.

The Saramiriza is currently en route to Arcturus. You'll meet it there, and take on the artifact and the four marines that recovered it. Anderson included their files.

You take another gulp of Commodore Red. Nice and sweet. You flick through files, skimming the important parts out of the padding. You'll pass these on to Kim when you're done, if you can remember.

Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko - Born 2151 (32 years old), Earth. Systems Alliance Marine Corps. Biotic (L2 implant series), underwent Biotic Acclimation and Temperance Training (BAaT) at Gargarin Station.

[SUGGESTION] I'm positive I've seen this guy before...

Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams - Born 2158 (25 years old), Sirona. Systems Alliance Marine Corps. Fourth-generation Alliance military. Grandfather (General Thomas Williams) oversaw the surrender of Shanxi to turians forces during the First Contact War. Has been passed over multiple times for promotion despite competent service record.

[AUTHORITY] Good odds of a chip on her shoulder.

Corporal Richard L. Jenkins - Born 2160 (23 years old), Eden Prime. Systems Alliance Marine Corps. No combat record of note. Disciplinary record for minor infractions (mischief et cetera). Wounded by geth during surface engagement.

[WAR HERO] Everyday roughneck shmuck. Seen a thousand of them. Join the marines, they said. See the galaxy, they said.

Sergeant 1st Class James Vega - Born 2150 (33 years old), Earth. Systems Alliance Marine Corps. Took part in the defense of Fehl Prime against a Blood Pack raid, which was later adapted into a critically-panned film.

[VISUAL CALCULUS] Jesus look at this guy, it's like he popped out of the womb and shouted "MOTHER GIVE ME PROTEIN."

[INLAND EMPIRE] SLAB BULKHEAD

[DRAMA] THICK MCRUNFAST

[ELECTROCHEMISTRY] CHUNK SLAMCHEST

[PHYSICAL INSTRUMENT] PUNCH ROCKGROIN

[RHETORIC] SLAB SQUAT-THRUST

[SAVOIRE FAIRE] TOUCH RUSTROD

[SHIVERS] BIG MCLARGEHUGE

[AUTHORITY] ROLL FIZZLEBEEF

[INLAND EMPIRE] Well, I'm glad we got that out of our system.

There's a fifth additional dossier, with the briefest of memos. 

"Best option we have at the moment."

Liara T'soni - Born 2077 (106 years old), Thessia. Doctorate of Exo-Archaeology, specializing in prothean civilization (see attached publication history). Theories regarding the destruction of prothean and older galactic civilizations (including a vitriolic critique of Dr. Senara Dosare and her Biotic Ascension Hypothesis) have remained controversial and, along with her age, have prevented her from breaking into the field. Currently at active dig site on Therum (Knossos System, Argus Rho Cluster)

[CONCEPTUALIZATION] Clever, Anderson. A prothean expert who won't cause a stir if they happen to go missing.

You marinate for a while in the alcohol fugue, half-plotting out the next steps of the investigation. Arcturus, Therum, Eden Prime. Arcturus, Therum, Eden Prime.

You pass out in your chair.

Monday, June 20, 2022

Demihumans are a Social Construct

Many folks have leveled the criticism (correctly) that non-human player options in D&D and its lookalikes are mostly humans with accents and funny hats. Solutions to this have been posited: removal of non-human player options, making everyone human but different species of human, or the much more labor-intensive method of applying major mechanical changes. I've dabbled in all three of these at some point or another and all have their place.

So here's a thought experiment to add to the pile: the title of the blogpost.

Before I get started, I'm going to establish a baseline premise. This is all within Generic Vernacular Fantasy D&D Land. There is a monarch, a military aristocracy, a church, and everyone else. Society is broadly patriarchal. There are old pagan gods worshiped out there in the hills and forests. There used to be an empire, or maybe it's still around and just too far away to matter. Ruins of bygone civilizations filled with monsters are everywhere. There are distant lands of which little is known and most of that is either misrepresentative or outright lies. Gunpowder and the printing press are Not Appearing In This Film Just Yet. It's theme-park medieval and that's all it needs to be for right now.

Holbytla

  • Freed from the obligations of the land-liege system; may own land in common among themselves as equivalent to a barony. Lands so held are not subject to marriage or succession-based changes in ownership
  •  Freed from military obligations, at cost of additional taxation.
  • Permitted to maintain heterodox religious practices, on grounds that such practices are not among those banned by the Council of Taragon. Accepting official baptism within the church nullifies this privilege.
  •  May not gain or be given aristocratic title, church office, or government position.
  • Have no specialized forms of address.

 

Elves

  • There are a limited number of positions allotted for elves - they are, in essence, a social Veblen good.
  • These positions are either purchased or gifted, and limited to a subset of the nobility.
  • May hold political, military, or church office, though most elves will give up these when assuming their position - it is considered unseemly for an elf to labor at anything. If they so desire, they may appoint a non-elf in their stead.
  • Few individuals will remain elves for their entire lives - either by their own choice or from lack of funds.
  • The church is ambivalent-to-hostile regarding elves, finding their idle pleasure-seeking to be fertile ground for sin and moral dissolution.
  • Among the lower classes those who live as elves but who are unable to afford the position (or the exemption fees for sumptuary laws), are derisively called "half-elves" and are commonly the targets of contempt and often violence.
  • Elves are referred to only by title and name; it is a grave social offense to use any pronomials. The appropriate address is chatelier / chatelaine (formal), or affixing preem / pree to their chosen name (informal, by express permission only). "This one" and "that one" are approved for convenience.

 

 Dwarves

  • Are treated as men in regards to their rights and obligations under the law, regardless of sex.
  • Treated as free members of the third estate, and may own property of their own, but may not serve as liege-lord to any non-dwarven tenants
  • May be granted noble office, though with the same restrictions.
  • Inheritance of property is by election, and not limited to family lines.
  • The church facilitates a separate set of sacraments for dwarves, and will permit participation in general services without
  • All dwarves take the praenomen "Urist" upon their dedication, in addition to a chosen individual cognomen.
  • All dwarves, regardless of sex, use the pronomial set *khé* / *khén* / *khénnu*

 

Orcs

  • Limited to times of open warfare. No one may live as an orc during peacetime.
  • The number of orcs is capped at a percentage of a lord's total levied forces.
  • Any adult might become an orc, regardless of sex.
  • Orcs make no distinction between station of birth, recognizing only deeds in combat as the basis for their hierarchies.
  • Are freed from the restrictions of the Truce of Gods, and accordingly have no right to imprisonment, trial, or ransom if captured by the enemy.
  • Orcs may take a doubleshare of booty recovered from battle.
  • Service as an orc typically comes with significant financial recompense given to the chosen's non-orc family - debt forgiveness being the most common.
  • May not receive any sacraments of the church.

 

Goblins

  • Those who live as goblins live in a precarious position outside of the social hierarchy entirely. They are freed from all obligations of law or propriety, but likewise have no protection under the law. They may go where they wish, speak as they wish, act as they wish, and there is nothing - officially - that anyone can do about it. Unofficially, there is usually a mob involved. To avoid such violence, goblins usually band together in large groups and form their own living spaces, or forge close bonds with those who might offer them protection.
  • Goblins have no specialized forms of address beyond what they with for themselves.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Ecstatic Visions: A Disco Elysium + Mass Effect fanfic

It is the sleep of the dead. You simmer, dormant, suspended in the hazy soup of warm chemical oblivion.

It is...nice...to Not Be.

And then there is a disturbance. Something moves in the black mist, and like detritus caught in floodwaters you are picked up and swirled around in the murk and there is a thrum in your eardrums and a hole in your stomach and a crust in your throat and the stink of stale ethanol and dried sweat and you piece your fucking self together and string together the web of neurons that has been cursed with metacognition and you are Commander Shepard

You wish you were dead.

Your door is pinging you. The apartment VI, now aware that you are awake, says "There's a Captain Anderson here to see you."

[PAIN THRESHOLD] - It feels like a krogan is repeatedly stomping on your skull. You remain limp on your couch.

The door pings you again.

[ENDURANCE] - You pull yourself up from the couch. Your organs are in revolt. Down with standing up!

[INLAND EMPIRE] - They will storm the Bastille tonight, tearing the demon called metacognition out from your prefrontal cortex, dragging it through the winding grey streets to the guillotine. You shall gladly let it happen.

You pat yourself down; the crumpled clothes you fell asleep in seem to lack any noticeable stains from piss or vomit. This is good enough. You stumble through the dim apartment, reaching blindly for the door, opening it to reveal the bright sterility of the Presidium's false day.

Two men are standing on the external walkway. One of them is Captain David Anderson - former commanding officer, an old friend. The other one you don't recognize - he's shorter than you though not by much. Thinner. Glasses, the lenses thick and round. Dusky orange bomber jacket. Dark green pants. C-SEC badge.

[ESPIRIT D'CORPS] - This man would throw himself in front of a bullet. Just as a matter of course.

ANDERSON - "You look like shit, Shepard."

[EMPATHY] - Sadness and pity behind those words. He doesn't like seeing you like this.

[ELECTROCHEMISTRY] - Cause he never learned how to PARTYYYYYY!

[ESPIRIT D'CORPSE] - Enough. At attention, soldier.

SHEPARD - "I feel like shit, Captain."

The words slur together and come out as a rough croak.

[INLAND EMPIRE] - Like a bullfrog dying in a polluted stream.

Anderson's eyes harden for a fraction of a second.

[ESPIRIT D'CORPSE] - He wants to reprimand you. He holds back.

[EMPATHY] He knows what you've seen. Why your apartment is filled with bottles of Commodore Red.

[COLONIST] - Mindoir.

[WAR HERO] - Elysium.

You glance to Anderson's companion. He shifts his weight slightly from one foot to the other. Not nervously. Extends his hand to shake.

KIM - "Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi, Precinct 57."  

[SHIVERS] - Precinct 57. Martinaise Ward, on the border of the Revachol Industrial Harbor. A volus merchant frigate just arrived in port. The teamsters cluster at dock, praying that their number is called. Humans, vorcha, krogan, quarian, shoulders hunched and faces sweat-stained, straining to hear the announcement over the tinny speakers. Somewhere, a man is learning of the tumor growing on his pancreas. Lovers, intertwined, share a last few moments in bed, in a studio apartment above a kebab shop. An old vorcha, their mind nearly gone, watches the pigeons. An asari in a dive bar strums a guitar with scarred fingers and starts singing "Solidarity Forever".

You shake his hand best as you can manage. What accent is that, French? It's French.

ANDERSON - "I'm afraid I'm here on official business. May we come in?"

Your mind is still swaddled in its haze, but you're cogent enough to know that whatever Anderson is here for, it can't possibly be good. But you are well past caring about consequences anymore, aren't you?

You nod, invite them into your apartment. You keep the lights dimmed for your own sake, and make a half-effort at clearing a space among old takeout containers, bottles, cans, clothing, garbage. The holo on the wall, having detected additional persons in the apartment, has reverted back to am empty tropical beach - nary an unclad asari to be found.

[ENCYCLOPEDIA] - Asari do not have nipples. They are not mammals.

Neither of your guests sit down. You do, and your swimming head thanks you. Kim wordlessly navigates through the garbage towards the kitchen.

ANDERSON - "Officially, this is a wellness check. Unofficially, we have a crisis brewing on our hands.

Behind you, there's the splash of water from the faucet. Kim returns with a glass.

KIM - "You are going to need this, I think."

[ESPIRIT D'CORPS] - You have known this man for less than ninety seconds and you would die to protect him.

ANDERSON - "Here's the situation as we know it: eighteen hours ago, a geth ship was detected in the Utopia system.

[ENCYCLOPEDIA] - Utopia System, Exodus Cluster. Relay connections to the Arcturus Stream, Horsehead Nebula, Hades Gamma, and so on. Five planets - Arcadia, Eden Prime, Nirvana, Xanadu, Zion. System capital at Eden Prime, planetary population 3.7 million. They put it on postcards.

[CONCEPTUALIZATION] - The core of human-controlled space. The geth shouldn't be anywhere close to it.

ANDERSON - We had one ship in-system at the time, the frigate *Saramiriza*. It was discharging its drive core around Zion when the geth vessel was detected, and so wasn't able to engage immediately. That left the geth ship unopposed on the approach to Eden Prime and allowed it to land ground troops around the Prothean ruins on the southeastern continent. Local security forces and the Alliance garrison were deployed and were able to interrupt the operation. The *Saramiriza* engaged the geth vessel in orbit, at which point it activated its mass effect drive and fled the system. Geth units on the ground self-terminated.

[INLAND EMPIRE] - KA-BOOM!

[SPECIAL OPERATIONS] - Typical for the geth. Stranded platforms fry themselves to prevent anything useful falling into enemy hands.

[LOGIC] - This doesn't add up.

SHEPARD - Do we have any theories on their objective?

ANDERSON - Not exactly. The geth forces were seen loading prothean artifacts onto their shuttles when our troopers reached the site, but what they were going after in particular, if they had a specific target, we don't know.

[CIVITATIS GALACTICAE] - The geth have displayed no prior interest in the protheans. None. They have ignored every ruin site within their sphere of influence, as best as the monitoring posts can tell.
[LOGIC] - This doesn't add up.

ANDERSON - Our troops were able to recover one of the artifacts that the geth were preparing to remove from the site. It's currently in transit, along with the soldiers who recovered it.

SHEPARD - Do you know what it is?

ANDERSON - No.

[INLAND EMPIRE] - A magic box! A ~~ mystery ~~ box!

ANDERSON - All told, there were sixteen casualties on our side. Eleven civilians present at or around the ruins, and five Alliance marines.

[EMPATHY] - Sixteen beds in the morgue.

SHEPARD - This doesn't add up.

ANDERSON - There's one more complication, unfortunately: helmet video from our troops clearly shows Saren Arterius present with the geth on the ground.  

[HALF-LIGHT] - FUCK

[SPECIAL OPERATIONS] - Spectre. Poster child of the entire operation. Veteran of the Contact War. Well-deserved reputation for brutality. Service record dipped in ink to save time. Outspoken anti-humanist.

SHEPHARD - Did you contact the Council?

ANDERSON - We have. The video was dismissed as a fake, drummed up by one of our many conspiratorial factions as part of anti-Citadel propaganda. As a courtesy, they issued an investigation through C-SEC into Saren's whereabouts. Gave us an alibi less than an hour later. According to them, he has been taking extended leave on Illium for the last four months. They have witnesses, financial records, direct testimony.

[SPECIAL OPERATIONS] - And any Spectre would have half a dozen stories like that set aside, just in case.

[CONCEPTUALIZATION] - They know we know, and they don't care. They hold the high ground here. There is no such thing as legal accountability for a Spectre.

ANDERSON - None of this is public information. For the time being, our cover story of a terror attack by protheodeist dominionists is holding up.

[CIVITATIS GALACTICAE] - Worship of the protheans is not limited to the hanar. Among humans, the movement has intersected neatly with anti-alien and anti-Alliance sentiment. Attacks by far-right Christian-Protheodeist terrorists killed over 1206 people across human space in the last year.

ANDERSON - Udina is furious. He's been eating up the embassy's bandwidth allotment in calls with Arcturus Station. He's desperate for any sort of leverage against the Council.

[CIVITATIS GALACTICAE] - The Systems Alliance Parliament has been in a stalemate for the last decade, pulled between pro-Citadel and anti-Citadel factions. Prime Minister Ikari has remained neutral so far but word from the clerks is that he's leaning towards the anti-Citadel platform. More extreme proponents have called for withdrawing from the Citadel entirely and pulled out of the Treaty of Farixen.

[CONCEPTUALIZATION] - You know what this is building to...

SHEPARD - What do you need me to do?

ANDERSON - Find evidence of Saren's alliance with the geth. Find out what he is attempting to do. Put a stop to it.

[RENEGADE] - And if necessary, make it look like an accident.

[PARAGON] - Not so soon after the Alliance inquired into him. Too obvious. Can't afford it.

ANDERSON - We won't get help from the Council, and any move the Alliance makes on our own will be under intense scrutiny. You are...I'm afraid you are a deniable asset.

[EMPATHY] - He hates saying that most of all. You are his friend, and he yours, and it is eating him alive to throw you away like this.

[WAR HERO] - You are trapped in a machine, and the machine is bleeding to death.

[COMPOSURE] - You really wish you could cry right now.

[VOLITION] - Later. Focus.

[PARAGON] - Lives at stake.

ANDERSON - We have a cover investigation for you, and Lieutenant Kitsuragi has already been assigned to it. The Normandy and her crew are ready to be transferred back under your command and I've sent further instructions ahead. Operating budget is slim, but it's as much as I can get for you. The rest is up to your discretion.

[ENDURANCE] - You'll make do.

ANDERSON - We'll be in touch. Take care of yourself, Shepard.

And he goes to leave, Kim following behind. You are left alone in your dark apartment, an apartment that cost more than the majority of the galaxy will ever see in their lives, given to you in thanks for the practice of state-sanctioned murder.

[WAR HERO] - A batarian conscript crumples to the cement with a thud, half his head missing.

[WAR HERO] - You hear a gasping voice cry out, begging for his mother.

[WAR HERO] - You can smell burning flesh.

[HALF-LIGHT] - You were magnificent.

[VOLITION] - Hold. Center. Forward, not back. One foot in front of the other.

You stand in the shower for as long as your hot water allotment will allow. You dig decent clothes from out of some storage that hadn't yet been trashed in a blackout rage. Brush your teeth. Drink more water. Put in an order for something cheap and greasy to eat. Drone will bring it. Leave.

Kim is there, on the walkway, looking out over the gardens of the Presidium. Must have stuck around. No sign of Anderson.

He's smoking an actual cigarette. He taps the ashes off, and they fall like faint snowflakes over the railing.

KIM - So. What's the plan?

[RENEGADE] - Hit Saren hard enough that they'll pin a fucking medal on whoever can ID the corpse.

[LOGIC] - Review helmet-camera footage of incident. Get Normandy prepped for departure. Contact Eden Prime survivors and transfer artifact to safe location for study. Interview survivors. Put out feelers. Get team together. Investigate Eden Prime ruin site / reports of geth past the Veil / Saren operations.

SHEPARD - Meet me at the garage in fifteen minutes. We're going down to the Wards on an errand, then to the Normandy. I don't expect that we'll stay on the Citadel for much longer.

KIM - Okay. Meet you then.

He gives you a curt, polite nod, and walks off. You stand there at the railing for a while.

You can feel the fire coming back. Dimly, that half-smothered spark kicks and screams through your alcohol-corroded nervous system.

You have a goal.

[INLAND EMPIRE] - What wonders we have to show you!

You let out a long, death-rattle breath. Try your best to unclench your jaw and loosen your shoulders. You flex your fingers, stretch out your arms.

A goal. A direction to work in.

You can't wait to leave this fucking place.

[SHIVERS] - The asari throws back another shot, re-adjusts herself on the stool, changes chords, moves into a new song.

[SHIVERS] - "There's bound to be a ghost at the back of your closet, no matter where you live..."

[SHIVERS] - You have never met this woman. She wears a red bandanna, though she has no hair. She sews patches into her overalls. Her favorite holo is The Screaming on the Alexis. She has a caricature of Matriarch Benezia stamped on the bottom of her right boot, just in case she steps in dog shit.

[SHIVERS] - The closest you ever came was on January 3rd of this year, where you both went to the same falafel stand in Jamrock two hours and forty-one minutes apart.

[VOLITION] It is time to go to work.

Monday, June 6, 2022

The Great Chain Ontology

AEdwardBaker

 

Deep in the great asteroid hive-cities, folk capitalists chant polyphonic stock prices to the thrum of their crypto rigs and breathe deep the fragrant smoke of smoldering míngchāo, praying for intercession in the ledgers of credit and debt.

On ten million video feeds, stream-preachers of prosperity and profit sling fire and brimstone, denouncing with spittle and vigor the sins that trap one in debt and offering promises of the true way to Solvency and a place in the golden severs of Heaven.

Far out on the Rim, workers lay dying as the air filters fail, and with last gasping breaths they curse the invisible hand that set their course long before they were born, all for a few tenths of a percent.

Such is the nature of the Great Chain.


**


To exist in this world is to live with a gun pressed to your head.

It will be with you from the moment you are implanted in the exowomb; a trigger finger resting idly against the guard, an empty eye cast sideways at the statistics appended to your rapidly-dividing zygote. You are a short-term investment. Liquid assets. Disposable resources. The screen by your tank is filled with numbers. Three in particular are noteworthy:

  • Your debt is the amount you owe, with interest, to repay the resources spent to keep you alive.
  • Your credit rating determines your ability to make purchases, and the quality of the goods involved.
  • Your default limit is the point where it all comes crashing down. If number 1 gets too big and number 2 gets too low, it will be decided that if there is going to be any recouping of costs at all you will need to be repossessed.
Repossession tends to end up going one of two ways - you'll either be forcibly cyborged into a debtboy, or your emulated consciousness will be plugged into a processing cluster while they kill and recycle your body.

You can try to run, of course. Plenty of folks do. The company will send a collections agent (freelance or in-house, it doesn't matter) to bring you back. It's a long way out to the Rim, and hunters get plenty of practice.

A fact: if there's a quick enough turnaround, you can still get a viable mind emulation off of a corpse.

**


There is no guarantee of citizenship in the Alliance. It is a privileged to be paid for, not a right to be received. There are four typical paths to acquiring it.

  • Subscriber-Citizens - Those who purchase a monthly subscription plan of state services. Pay the fees, get access to things like safe net access, healthcare, housing, legal protections, net access and so on. The options are tiered, and of poor quality, and will expire the moment payments fall behind.
  • Wage Citizens - Those who take the Wage can enjoy certain level of security - basic income, a set payment plan for your debt, a mid-range citizenship tier through your employer - but maintaining this state is dependent on remaining in your employer's good graces.
  • Enlisted Citizens - Enlistment packages provided through authorized military forces are equivalent to the Wage, though will tend towards their own special privledges and exceptions, as according to the CTA's militarist policies. An enlistment citizenship is much more difficult to lose. 
  • Solvent Citizens - Those whose debts have been paid off, bypassing the tiered citizenship structure entirely. They are permitted to own property, to earn profit, and - Board willing - post-mortem emulations of their minds will be welcomed into the golden servers of Heaven. Most solvent citizens are such because of generational wealth. Funny how that works.
Those unable to afford the cost of citizenship are prola - the teeming masses of the lower classes, surviving off of what scraps filter down from above or what they might scrape together. A lucky few might get the funds together the flee to a more open polity, but the vast majority are trapped within the Alliance.

This is by design.

**


There is an alternative to the citizenship grind or life as a prola: membership in a union. Rooted in the socialist worker collectives of the Anthropocene Collapse and the militant anti-automation groups of the Algorithmic Crisis, the modern union is part trade guild and part extended hereditary clan. Members of a union can expect not only work, but food, habitation, medical care, education, fabricator access, community funds and other resources provided by the collective, available wherever the union (or one of its allies) operates a union hall. Numerous bloody conflicts (including but not limited to the sixteen Labor Wars and their component conflicts), have established a tenuous series of agreements between the unions and the Great Houses.

The lines between unions, criminal syndicates, and anarchist communes are (often intentionally) blurry, but for those who care to be specific, the following identifiers should be helpful.

  • Unions have shaky, but technically official, legal standing within the CTA, provide primarily legal goods and services. Strong ideological influence. Members not permitted to receive citizenship benefits.
  • Syndicates do not have legal standing within the CTA, offer primarily illegal goods and services, minor to moderate ideological influence. Members may be citizens, but will be stripped if criminal activities are discovered.
  • Communes do not have legal standing within the CTA and do not offer goods and services to the outside. Isolationist. Very strong ideological influence. Members not permitted to receive citizenship benefits.


**


The Colonial Trade Alliance first formed at the tail end of the first wave of interstellar colonization, when the survivors of the boom and bust signed a trade and non-aggression pact among themselves, seperate from Solsys and its allies. Power consolidated, its sphere of influence spread, tensions grew until at last the Core Wars erupted in all their fury. Billions died.

The Epsilon Indi Accords marked the end of the wars, the beginning of the Recombination Era, and the restructuring of the Alliance into its modern form. The 455 modern Great Houses represent those who claim descent from the signers of the Epsilon Indi Accords - either directly, as a branch, or by adoption. They hold representative seats in the Colonial Corporate Congress, and thus shares of ownership in the Alliance itself. They possess exclusive rights to Exultant gene-lines, life extension technology, and many of the other miracles of the modern age.

  • Management - An organization as large as a Great House requires legions to maintain its day-to-day operations, and cultivates great populations of solvent citizens to this end.
  • Armigers - Members of military-industrial complexes sworn to a Great House as retainers, fighting their wars and overseeing the internal occupation of their territory. While the Accords prevent the Great Houses from fighting among each other directly, it leaves considerable permissions for their sworn Minor Houses to fight each other.
  • Exultants - At the center of each Great House are the Exultants, also called the C-Levels. These posthuman clans reap the many benefits of their station, idling away their immortality in in a great game of social warfare from the comfort of their glittering private paradises. The masses under their thumbs are convenient playing pieces, and if a few million should die - from war, starvation, disease, algorithmic blight - well, that is simply the cost of humiliating one's rivals.
Minor Houses are general category for organizations that are members of the CTA but do not have representation on the Board. Most are directly sworn to a single Great House or a small number of them; full independence is difficult. Their status of minor is a legal distinction, rather than a practical reality: there are Minor Houses that hold more territory than certain Great Houses.

**


At last we reach the highest link of the Chain: the Board.

The Great Houses say that its members are elected in secret from among their number, and this is the answer accepted by many. In the lower classes there are thousands of cults that claim them as their godhead, which is less accurate but more true. Fringe theorists will claim that the Board is a rampant AI, an alien intelligence, a rogue Celestial, non-existent, on and on and on; trying to pin down that which eludes meaningful description.

It doesn't really matter. The Board is the Board, and very far away; we are only caught in the ripples of its passing.

  • Speaker for the Board - The only direct point of contact between the Board and the rest of the Alliance; a nameless Exultant who speaks before the Colonial Corporate Congress and at high religious functions. Traditional lore is that the Speaker is a specially-selected individual debtor submitted to ego-death and lifted to the status of an Exultant, but this has never been proven. It's a popular narrative in the underclass, given how any of them might be the lucky one: The net is filled with folks claiming with dead-set certainty that the Speaker appeared to them and told them that the Board had chosen them for a great and dangerous task. So far, none of them are true.

**


For all its pretensions, the Chain is not all-encompassing. Great swaths of the Expansion Sphere exist outside of its control.

Celestials

The Celestials do not fit neatly into the Great Chain, and so the Chain has little to say with regards to the heavenly bureaucracy. They reign in the same category as black holes and solar flares - features of the universe one must work around. They will all gather round and listen attentively when a Heirodule of House Au appears with a missive, but otherwise the party line treats interaction as an unnecessary external risk. 


Lords of the Road

The Road is the key to continued terragen expansion into space, but it is a key that the Alliance does not control, to the perpetual consternation of the Great Houses. Among the starlifting infrastructure and wormhole factories, the Celestials left behind god modules - devices that can safely uplift a consciousness into a far greater processing tier (that is, essentially a minor-Celestial) - seemingly intending that they be found and activated.

The Lords enforce neutrality along the Road, permitting wormhole access to all parties regardless of polity. Their systems are heavily-developed with infrastructure, and even solitary lords are equivalent to a Great House in terms of military power. The one point in the CTA's favor is that the Lords have so far remained entirely within the confines of their home systems.

 
Rival Ontologies

Three are worth mentioning here: the Sczi-Hadolaung Mutual Interest Group, the many sects of the Atûmaic Mysteries and the Metazoanics. Of the first, many in the CTA would consider an idyllic existence of minimal-scarcity pastorilism, even under the complete control of posthuman intelligence, to be preferable to the current reality. Of the second, fanatic ascetics rejecting both the existing social order and the materialism it is built upon will doubtlessly appeal to many. Of the third, there is the current that the only meaningful cure for the hard-tech domination of the Alliance is a decentralized soft-tech replacement and the diversification of humanity into innumerable descendant-species.


Hiders

Low-energy polities that have withdrawn from greater terragen civilization to live on Kuiper Belt bodies or in interstellar space, culturally characterized by extreme distrust of mainstream interstellar society. Resource shortages will occasionally encourage contact with non-Hider groups, though almost always through the usage of robot intermediaries. Two major subgroups exist: Redoubters, whose black arcologies and obscure myth-traditions are easily identifiers, and wanderers, who have taken to nomadic lifestyles. Despite Hider attitudes, they can be found throughout the expansion sphere, even within heavily-settled systems.

The CTA has better things to do than deal with than iceteroid squatters and hidebehind cultists (or so it will claim). The Hiders pose no threat to the Chain, and so they are tolerated as backwards, impoverished eccentrics and left be, so long as they aren't sitting on top of something a Great House wants.


Independent AI Enclaves

It's estimated that nearly 70% of extant Tier-4 dataminds exist completely outside terragen civilization. This statistic, while a universal feature in anti-AI scaremongering, is less menacing than it appears for two reasons. First, most of those entities are solipcists. They have retreated into their simulations to dream away the eons till the universe is cold and dark and more suited to their needs. Secondly, the Celestials remain a deterrent to any expansionist powers that might emerge among the ahuman dataminds. 


Xenosophonts

  • Iteration A - There are none. Not even ruins. There are aliens here and there - mostly bacteria, some macrofauna - but there are no people. No apes or angels. Not even their ghosts.
  • Iteration B - The few traces of past technological society that have been found so far have been enigmatic, but ultimately of interest mostly to the archaologists.
  • Iteration C - Technological xenosophont civilizations have been detected, but are for now too far away to contact. 
  • Iteration D - The few xenosophont civilizations that have been contacted remain at distance. They are not well understood.

**

The Chain is fraying. Subversive ontologies like [name] and [KING WITH NO MASK] spread like wildfire through CTA systems. The Lords of the Road have used their control of the gate network to form both a considerable power bloc and a buffer zone against CTA influence. Independent polities flourish in the systems beyond the Road. Some Exultants have split from their Houses and founded their own personal fiefs in the Rim. The Firebird Rebellion, aided by the Traitor Exultant, harasses CTA targets even within the fortified Core.

Oh the times, they are a-changing.