When I start working on a roleplaying game, I will often write some short fiction so know what it’s supposed to feel like when we’re playing — what sort of ethical questions lie at the heart of the setting, what kind of things matter, what the parameters are on the plausible actions of the characters.
I didn’t do that when I started working on Eyes Wide to the Stars and I got stuck, realizing that I didn’t fully understand the way that antagonists work, and therefore how to resource the players who portrayed them. So I started writing this vignette about a fugitive on the run from an unjust government that trades in slaves and the realization that one has been the beneficiary of such a system and is only now considering it an injustice.
Then I wrapped it all in weird aliens, funny robots, psychic powers, vivid descriptions of food, and giant spaceships festooned with livery of such brightness that it would threaten to make one color blind.
The Khuashtunng live far in the north of the world, though they speak the same language as the Furrush who live in many cities along the Great Road. They are known in the Center of the World as the Riders of Akum, whose giant bird steeds eat meat.
Aghuur is the favored steed of Ngatekhuur Pakhu, who raised her from an egg. And today they leave to hunt mountain goats together for a few days. They’re both excited about the trip.
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The Achewed family has been breeding hawoun for generations now, riding them through the thick forests across the Eastern Sea up to the northern passes where their mass and might is proof against bandits and predators. They have never ventured as far as the center of the world, stopping at the Edjumelet Delta caravansarai to trade their glasswork, salt, and rice for oil, wine, raisins, and other goods rare in the cities of their ancestral home.
This hawoun, Bulamm, has not yet fully grown, and is on her first trading expedition with her herd. The Achewed cousins who handle her steer her like a ship with ropes pulling on her head and tail.
The hawoun are sturdy and courageous, protecting all in their herd, but act solely according to simple desires. Hawoun handlers have learned how to show their mounts where they want to walk, and the hawoun follow the instructions without objection or curiosity.
Asemic writing is something I’ve done since I was a kid. As I go, I figure out the visual grammar of the writing, then sometimes some grammar for what characters can go together. It’s entirely intuitive, though I correct as I go for aesthetic reasons, often integrating “corrections” into further use of the character I corrected.
This one contains three different languages — maybe four, but one might just be an alternate script. It’s obviously not a full Rosetta Stone because the number of characters varies so widely.
At a certain point, I started requiring myself to make actual grammar for these languages. Each of the little samples in the back of Human Contact took at least several hours, and there’s an error in one of them that drives me nuts. But I’m trying to remember to creative freely sometimes, to ignore what I’ve learned and stretch my intuition. This is one of those times.
Thanks to my Patreon xenophiliacs who encouraged me to take it easy this month. I really needed it. I’ve been pushing myself to solve several big creative problems with getting Eyes Wide to the Stars to work so I can explore some ideas for Shock:2 and further work on Liberation Technology and pushing harder isn’t making me think clearly.
One of the features of Liberation Technology as I currently envision it is that it has different entry points — different creative scenes that have their own uses for the technologies around microcontrollers and develop their own custom installations for their own purposes. By giving beginning creators relevant starting material (who might bring a lot of existing skill from the associated crafts of that scene), the environment can encourage the creators to fully explore and expand the medium. Eventually, those creators can go on to develop new entry points for other creative scenes that they’re a part of as their interests expand and their existing skills retain applicability.
There’s an offhand mention of Gozoy back in the vignette in the last post. In the universe of Eyes Wide to the Stars, it might be thousands of years in the future, but humanoids are still just stretching out to the fringes of our part of the galaxy. It’s rare that someone encounters an alien in the same way that it’s rare to encounter someone from another country now. But it definitely happens, and this vignette (and most of the game for which this vignette is a design exercise) takes place at the edges of humanoid space, where you’re more likely to run into someone go Gozoy Mboc.
Gribus held her head low, her back to the underside of the bar. Across it just a meter away, patrons spoke loudly in a thousand tongues while a few spoke with completely different organs. The air was as thick with thumping music as it was with the intoxicating smoke of Poobash. Just on the other side of the wood-veneered duraluminum, a swaggering Kantarian pilot bragged and flirted with a Zoda, who chirped the occasional chord of distant encouragement from their syrinces while draining their drink through their proboscis. Try as she might to listen for her pursuers, she could only hear the Kantar telling questionable tales to his partner who, to Gribus’ surprise and relief, invited him to their berth in their freighter with their podmates.
“Chaka sungu,” she muttered to herself, finally able to listen intently past the sounds. But now, her eye caught on the last thing she’d hoped to see: eyes looking back. The bartender, emerging from a hatch in the floor with a crate of supplies, looked at Gribus with a moment of possessive anger that quickly melted to concern when he saw the look on her face — the hair plastered to her forehead with sweat, the torn prisoner’s jumpsuit, the brown skin drained grey with fear and exhaustion. With a subtle nod, he finished climbing the stairs with his crate, stood to smile at a customer, wiped his hands on his apron, and took their order.
She watched as he walked away to the other end of the bar where he picked up a bottle of pressurized Orun gas and an apron, then walked toward Gribus to pick up a bottle of Lizard Tears as a mixer, dropping the apron across her knees as he did so.
When she didn’t pick it up, he nudged it gently with his foot, and, understanding, she wriggled into it. She rummaged in its pockets, finding a piece of string to tie back her hair along with a sonic corkscrew and a data pad holding a drink order. She scuttled under the bartender’s legs toward the hatch, checked her hair one last time, put on a false smile, and stood as though emerging from the storage hatch. The club looked like it had when she’d first ducked behind the bar, only moreso. In the last few minutes, the crowd had thickened. Nearby, she noticed the smuggler Rur Shatan and a colleague dancing with a Confederate Navy officer on shore leave, the two likely sizing up the officer for a mark. A being who looked like nothing so much as a giant, glistening pickle stood, pulsing like a swallowing throat to the beat of the music. And, near the door, she saw through a brief break in the crowd the three Confederate secret police who were to be her executioners just a half hour before dumb luck had given her reason to make a break for it.
But what she felt when she saw their faces was not the fear she expected. Instead, the police’s head seemed to fold out of itself; the face and eyes and ears rolling away into a spot between the skull, and what emerged were the thoughts of the police: a fear of reprimand; anger at Gribus for putting them in such a position; the need to find Gribus before the Confederate Chaser, Enshul Mas, arrived to claim jurisdiction for an escaped Xenopsychometer named Saenz Gribus.
They thought she was a Xenopsych? Who could guided ships through hyperspace? But she was no psychometer. She was a thief, smuggled in aboard a tramp freighter as part of Bolan’s now-failed scheme to grab a shipment of star diamonds. That’s why she’d been caught. She’d been abandoned here two days ago with no way to get back off the station. She…
It slowly dawned on he what she’d just seen. She’d seen into the secret police’s mind.
And that dawning showed her that it had been no dumb luck that had freed her. When she’d been collared and booked by the station patrol, they’d taken her name (fake, of course, with the forged documents to aid) and handed her to a Confederate Marshall — an imposing individual in his sleek, dark uniform bearing only the symbol of the Southern Arm Confederacy. Attendants had put her into a complex, mechanical chair, sensors attached to her head while a bored technician asked her droning, meaningless questions. And then… she had risen from the interrogator machine while her interrogators calmly loosed her bindings, then looked on impassively. She had walked out. The attendants’ eyes had been seeing but incurious, as she walked the direction she knew to walk. Once outside the constabulary, her calm she had been feeling became the sudden impulse to run.
She’d rounded the corner to see a surprised station cop drawing his blaster on her — his uniform was not Confederate, just a local rookie she’d seen once or twice, but she didn’t want to be shot by anyone. Just as her shock had resolved into a desperate need to get the blaster away from him, the cop’s eyes took on the same glazed, incurious look and he handed her his square service blaster. She had taken it with a confidence that only now struck her as peculiar. The guard calmly walked past her into the corridor, and pointed the opposite direction from her. “She went that way, “ he said in a deadened voice to the pursuing Confederate Secret Police. She ran, holding the blaster like the baton of a relay runner.
Around a second corner had come running another pursuer, this one with no uniform at all, but carrying a Confederate blaster, same as the Marshall who had captured Gribus. She had a grizzled and resolute face, a long-ago broken nose, and wore a filthy teal space suit with no helmet or life support.
The two dove under cover and fired, bolts punching thumb-sized holes into the smooth, institutional white walls and harmlessly through the casing of a cube-shaped office robot who immediately tested the listed specifications of its top speed. Gribus had run, ducking behind the robot as it said, “Please do not run in the corridor. Please do not run in the corridor.”
No further shots had come, though Gribus could hear voices shouting from behind.
The corridor ended at a sliding transparent door, and the robot paused, unable or unwilling to exit the police station. On the other side bustled the populace of the station. Merchants and tramp freighter captains making deals to transport goods legal and contraband. Xenopsychs, recognizable by the brand on their foreheads, taking time off from their conscripted labors to spend their meager savings gambling. Asteroid prospectors, carrying their certified commodity tablets to trade in the market. Most were human, but there, standing two meters tall and encased in a space suit, undulated a giant slug using four slender robotic arms to exchange an attaché for a lock box the size of her forearm.
Gribus had seen the weapon sensors array around the door. She’d shoved the blaster into a receptacle on the robot and said, “Off you go!” allowing it past her to continue its duties. Walking through the door and the river of sophonts, she’d ducked into bustling bar across the corridor.
And now, wearing an apron, she found herself taking an order from a bearded, prospector, still wearing much of their space suit, their visor thrown back to reveal their unpleasant features.
The Confederate secret police received a message on their communicators. They briefly conferred with each other, then departed.
The bartender, standing close to pull a Melodic Wheat beer from the tap, asked her quietly, “What was that about?”
There was a point where computer technology (and its associated technologies like sound synthesis) were the Jade Destiny sword — powerful in its own right, but also the object of desire for competing interests. As an object — a tool — it is, itself, amoral; its uses can bend toward justice or toward externalized entropy.