Operation Search and Expunge (2/5): Breach

Illicit Drift, Narijic System, Freeport Loop – Mission Elapsed Time +0:00:01

In the base of the crater in which the pod had impacted – aided by the requirement for stealth of the illicit drift, which couldn’t afford to reveal its position by installing local defense systems, never mind by actually using said systems – a brief mist hung in the void as the heat-charged thermal goo abruptly vented.

A moment of stillness to allow it to disperse, and the forward body of the pod cracked down its mid-line and opened, a humanoid figure pulling itself upright from its cradle of impact foam.  Me, Operative Morria.

Well, in mind, anyway.  My internal self-image doesn’t all resemble the Jímar-class single-op ‘shell they assign us for these missions, thank Ithával – hairless, sexless, regolith-gray skin the texture of old leather directly wedded to ceramet armor-plating.  And, more relevant to the immediate situation, without any particular need to breathe…

Enough fresh-reinstantiate woolgathering, Morria, I reminded myself.  “A slow incarnation is a dead incarnation,” as they say, and don’t let that distract you either.  There would already be local security cycling the locks to check out the impact site.  I yanked the equipment packages out of the pod, and stashed them around me, the pinch over one shoulder, grenades and the breacher charge over the other, weapon in hand, then fired up local wireless and ordered a self-diagnostic.  Straight-line blue.  A moment to order the pod into self-destruct and check the composite had started to deliquesce, and I was off in a high, bounding run.

*             *             *             *             *

The same consideration, of course, was why I couldn’t enter through the locks, either.  Well, shouldn’t.  Beating up on the local security might be fun, but very much outside mission parameters.  Which is why three minutes later I was not approaching the locks marked on my plan, but rather a flat spot in the asteroid wall where the habitat excavations had brushed a bit too close to the surface and been reinforced with a fused-wall.  I brushed the regolith aside, slapped the breacher to the surface, and leapt for cover while it drilled itself in —

The ground pulsed, and with a silent roar air fountained from the wound torn in the habitat, bringing with it a litter of smart-paper and aerogel mugs and other light stuff caught in the outflow before the spacetight doors slammed down.  A couple of bodies came with it, too, who must have been standing right next to the wall when it breached.  One was a kalatri in Voniensan uniform, I noted absently, adding his now perpetually-surprised features to the log-vlog; that wasn’t in the mission plan.

Speed is life.  I flicked a red-banded grenade, HE and needles to flush out the non-oxyeaters, into the hole and dived in after it, pirouetting to scan the room.  Nothing but corpse-char and wrecked office equipment; excellent, but half the drift would have felt the twin detonations.  Service duct.  There.  All was going as planned, now to keep moving, taking out the air and the automation as I went…

Trope-a-Day: Awesome Personnel Carrier

Awesome Personnel Carrier: The V40 Ralihú – as used by the Exploratory Service and the Imperial Legions – with its full-environment sealing (operate on any planet, including underliquid; also, climate control), all-directions sphere-drive, vector-control facility for better ground-holding and brief off-ground hops, plus ability to drop from orbit and hover for recovery, kinetic barriers, solid armor, excellent suspension, and modular enhancement system including a full squad carrier, medical facilities and moderately heavy weapons for IFV use… probably qualifies.

Leap Day

In honor of (I can honor the weirdest things) it being February 29, our calendar’s leap day, a half-dozen facts about the leap day for those using Imperial Standard Time:

  1. First, it does have one, as IST is based on the rotation and orbital periods of Eliera, the eldrae homeworld.  The year is a little longer than hours, because while it’s only 333.3 local days long, the local day itself is roughly 26 of our hours long.  Given these periods, the leap day is added every third year and omitted every thirtieth, to suit.
  2. It’s named “Calibration Day”, because that’s what it does to the calendar.
  3. It’s added to the calendar at the summer solstice, immediately after the intercalary day set aside for that every year.
  4. As it’s an anomaly in the smooth progression of days, nights, cycles and years anyway, it’s also the traditional day that leap seconds and other minor adjustments are added on to.
  5. It’s not officially a holiday, but since everyone’s still recovering from the Midyear’s Day festival, it’s not like much work gets done on it.
  6. Many Imperials really hate the thought of having to eventually split Elieran planetary time and IST up as the planet slows in deep time, even if that is what every other planet has to do routinely. Plans for giant planet-girdling superconducting rings to electromagnetically spin the planetary rotation back up are already being tossed around by the Excruciatingly Long-Range Planning chaps.  At least it keeps them busy.

Counterpoint: Tourism

My colleagues have spent most of this issue telling you all the conventional reasons why you ought to visit the Empire: the outstanding natural beauty, the many places of historical significance, the music, the food and wine culture, the chance to experience their literary, gaming, and entertainment culture up close, or even just to witness all the eccentricity on display.

I’m here to tell you why you shouldn’t.

Firstly, it’s all so wretchedly anodyne. For a land notorious for its decadence – and it is decadent – it has all the bohemian credibility and counterculture of a consciously-designed theme park. Something about Imperial libertism has converted every imaginable vice from drug parlors to autophagy restaurants into friendly, commercial experiences that simultaneously defang the shock one might rightly feel at some, and robs the others of even the slightest frisson of transgressive pleasure.

Second, one of my colleagues mentioned, when discussing how safe the Empire is to visit thanks to its ubiquitous law enforcement, the to-be-avoided experience of collecting a half-dozen on-the-spot fines for littering on your first day there. Well, while the Imperial legal system is notoriously rigid, that’s not the true visiting-the-Empire experience. That would be discovering that due to the equally uncompromising use of reputation networks and the near-complete lack of any public-privacy or antidiscrimination laws, you’ve been deemed Officially Not Polite Enough to customer service staff and are paying 120% over market for everything.

Then there are the weapons. Yes, we know it’s just the local political climate – and incidentally, unless your idea of a pleasant holiday is a knock-down drag-out argument, don’t use that word or any of its derivatives; it’s almost reflexive – but everybody, everybody is carting a gun and probably a sword around, too! That they make a point of how low their rate of violent crime is compared to the Worlds’ average does not make this look any better; given that, why would well-adjusted people need to carry all that hardware around?

But most of all, it is the subtext of the entire experience. In small doses, it’s not so bad, but on any extended visit, the sheer flawlessness of the place starts to hurt the eye.

We all want to make our worlds better, our lives better, our selves better. But there’s a point beyond which further improvement is counterproductive.

And this point comes well before I start looking around desperately for any scrap of litter, any accumulated dirt, any stain, crack, or hole, any building – not acclaimed as historical – with some signs of wear on it, any traffic that’s not moving with exacting regularity, or just one single solitary person who is not one of the eldritch-beautiful people.

There’s no fuzziness to the Empire at all. No soft edges, no comforting blur, nothing that’s been permitted to be less than its idealization, and the result is a place that is profoundly disquieting for those of us from locales with more realistic expectations.

And if disliking that makes me an “entropist”, well, that’s why I won’t be going back.

– from the Empire-centric special edition of Worlds Traveler magazine

Future Clothedness

From a friend’s post on Google+ about his universe:

One thing that strikes me is that the most advanced worlds have only symbolic clothing, if any. With Sufficiently Advanced Technology they can regulate the microclimate continuously or greatly increase the body’s temperature tolerance. I assume obesity is also eliminated (unless it is considered cute in some cultures) so people don’t hide their bulk in loose clothing. Clothing is then used for modesty, decoration and to signal status or allegiances. At this point, a loincloth / pubic flag suffices, along with jewelry. If status is signaled through aura or skin markings, only modesty remains, and having an object that particularly draws attention to the genital area does not necessarily qualify for that.

Thus, to my great surprise, my universe ended up having a lot of naked and almost naked people. I wonder if this really is going to happen in the real world as well if we survive long enough. I suspect we’d end up with a lot of body paint in that case though. Look at what people do to the parts of their bodies that are visible today. Perhaps clothes are less work after all…

Well, I’ve seen this proposed before as a model for the future, and depending on how your culture evolves, I don’t even think it’s necessarily that unreasonable.  But here, just for counterpoint, are the reasons why the Eldraeverse – despite having all the same advantages by way of controllable microclimates, increased temperature tolerance, obesity elimination, yadda yadda, didn’t go down this road.

Initially, before we get started, let me take a moment to point out that none of them is modesty, in the taboo/body-shame per-se/cranky deities sense of the word.  After all, if that was the case, one imagines that the mixed-sex (all six!), mixed-race, mixed-species public baths with all the ensuing nakedness would be something of a problem for the modesty-and-decency brigade, which they very much aren’t.

And yet clothing is traditionally worn, and Anharmonic Indecency – which covers among other things some of the territory of our Indecent Exposure exists in the law code (for the administration of public areas;  you can never get it for anything you do inside your own property line, including the hull of your vehicle) – although it takes effort to get that one through simple underdressedness unless you’re actually waving your genitals around.  Why?

Well, first, there’s distraction.  Note, and this is an important note, that this is not some gender-wacky “women must not tempt men” notion, such as idiots on Earth keep bringing up.  (If you tried bringing that up in the Empire, you’d be laughed at, and if you were persistent or unlucky, shot.  If you tried bringing it up as a defense in a rape trial, which in Imperial legal parlance encompasses the entire territory of sexual assault, you’d be shot more.)

Rather, it’s just the general recognition that most species, irrespective of gender, have hard-coding in their sensory cortex that says “PAY ATTENTION TO NEKKED PEOPLE, ESPECIALLY ATTRACTIVE ONES”, and this tends to produce the same sort of problems, attention-economics-wise, as using cellphones while driving and suchlike, except that it’s an unexpected stimulus you weren’t planning on reacting to.  As such, there is a certain degree of public safety utility in not having attractive naked people wandering around where people are driving and operating heavy machinery, never mind the net effect on efficiency of all the distraction prompts in your brain.

In short, it’s like doing any of those other attention-grabbing things when people are trying to work/play/otherwise attend to their own business.  It’s rude.

(This is obviously not applicable in those places where nudity is acceptable, like the public baths – where efficiency is not a concern in a leisure activity, and where the possibilities for serious accidents with Doc Kajen’s Superbly Awesome Old-Time Bath Nanosalts and massage oil are mostly, well, not.)

Second, there’s negative aesthetics.  Recognizing that almost everyone’s attractive to someone, almost no-one’s attractive to everyone.  Accepting the quoted point regarding how much is needed for decoration – although I’m going to dispute it again below – this eliminates the way that clothing also covers up a multitude of sins.  Literally in, say, my case, in which it covers up the effects of my raddled and dissipated lifestyle including a taste for steak, booze, sherry trifle, and soft living; more figuratively, it also conceals the effects of a lot more of life’s events on the body that we may not necessarily want to advertise to everybody.  Or just those parts of the body that evolved very much for utility, not appearance.

It’s not a reflection of cultural body-shame to point out that my naked beer gut is never going to be an attractive feature.  (Or even the personal kind, for that matter.  I’m not ashamed of that particular trade-off; I will gladly admit to a strong preference for NOM NOM NOM over six-pack abs, even while aesthetically preferring to conceal the consequences of said preference.)  It might be, I suppose, and I admit I have limited experience with the mindset of the female of the species, to speculate that the last-chicken-in-the-shop look of the male genitalia isn’t exactly what most ladies look for in a chap, nor will it be winning any art’n’design awards any time soon.

This is a lot less applicable in the modern Empire, of course, given the way people are genetically engineered and nanotechnically enhanced to be born gorgeous and stay that way in perpetuity, with self-maintaining fitness and perfect healing, as it would be in the setting above, but cultural inertia is also a factor.  As is no-one is attractive to everyone, and some people don’t want to be.

Thirdly, there’s positive aesthetics, or what is covered above under decoration and status markers, and so forth.  To which I will just say that this is culturally dependent, but bear in mind that how much minimalism you can have depends very much on how much you need to display.  It may work for a high-context culture where you can make assumptions reliably about t’other chap.  The Empire, which encompasses a large number of member cultures and subcultures, and crosses a lot of species lines, functions best as a consciously designed very low-context culture – and as such, can use all the parallel communication channels it can get.  They need plenty of space to fit all the relevant signifiers, even with v-tags and so forth.  And the more you wear, the more messages your clothing can send.

On the decoration side of things, I’d also point out the aesthetic diversity issue.  If you’re sticking with a loincloth and some jewelry, there’s a lot less potential for it than in more complex multigarment arrangements – and today, even when you take only clothing-sets displaying approximately equal status and clade markers, there’s a heck of a lot of different variations in ways to dress which exist principally for the purpose of being different from each other.  This is going to be important to any high-individualism culture, and even if they started out with a minimal clothing-set, I’d expect it to get more and more complicated for this reason alone; letting people differentiate themselves from their neighbors.

Fourthly, pleasure.  Although this may escape most of us today, inasmuch as the vast majority of clothing on the planet is made from cheap fibers or blends, factory-assembled and sold made-to-measure, for which read inevitably ill-fitting, a really, really good suit or other article of clothing from a good tailor, dressmaker, or hand-crafter can be an active sensual pleasure to wear.  In the glorious rich, nigh-post-scarcity futures which include both widely available bespoke garment production and quite possibly enhanced tactile senses and ability to enjoy them, this will only be enhanced.

And to end on a practical note, fifth and lastly, protection, in both ways.  Firstly, protection of us, because one finds it useful to protect against getting one’s dangly bits caught in the machinery, and so forth.  Okay, yes, a loincloth will deal with that, but even day to day, and even assuming that microclimate control also keeps out undesired radiation, the world offers a multitude of sharp, spinny, spiky, abrasive, sticky, hot or other things, and sticky, hot, acidic, caustic, or cold spills, which one would prefer to stay at least one layer of textiles away from one’s flesh.  If only for ease of cleanup.

Second, protection of the environment.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but people are messy.  Even we clothing-wearers shed ungodly amounts of hair and skin-flakes into the environment every day that we have to brush up and throw away.  Now multiply that by the amount that currently ends up on the inside of our clothing that we launder away.  Then contemplate that, not to put too fine a point on it, humans (and other biosapients) leak.  The owners of the local environment, I submit, do not need everything from sweat through overflowing breast milk to skid-marks and that stuff that collects in one’s ass-crack on hot days added to the stuff they need to clean off the furniture, or worse, find has soaked into the furniture, inasmuch as you can’t conveniently stick a whole couch into the washing machine on a regular basis.

It’s not cultural body-shame to find the notion of sharing in (most of, and outside special circumstances) your fellow man’s body fluids kind of gross, either.  (Also, public health.)

Domestic Technology

Another interesting article here (hat tip: Eclipse Phase blog), concerning the gender distribution of the future, and in particular its technologies, complete with real-world examples of the differential between the (assumed-male) public sphere and (assumed-female) domestic sphere.  And here’s a relevant paragraph for you:

One of the things that has frustrated me about science fiction is that technology pertaining to the smaller aspects of our lives is often neglected in favor of big giant rockets and exotic weaponry. Birth control seems non-existent and childbirth is still rocking the stirrups. And the home is at best not mentioned much. One of the things that “the future,” when we use that word as a metonymy for an idealized world in which machines solve all our problems, is supposed to do for us is give us time. Relieve us from work that is repetitive or unpleasant and allow us the sheer, simple hours in the day to do more. And yet, by far the biggest time sink going is the need to clean our habitats, prepare food and clothing, and maintain our environments. For those who have always had the, dare I say, privilege of ignoring that work, you simply cannot imagine how much time it takes to do all that and then turn around and do it again, often multiple times a day if there are offspring at play. Despite the fact that we here in the first world are supposed to have leveled up our gender equality stat, women still perform the majority of this labor, often in addition to a full shift outside the home. Fully automating this activity would free humanity on a scale that even the most awesome BFG can’t even begin to contemplate.

Now, the civilized polities of the Associated Worlds are not inclined to the strange kinks of humanity in this regard.  (Yes, the darëssef term for those who look after domestic matters – as well as infrastructure maintenance, repair, and medicine, but details – in the Empire is “hearthmistress”.  That’s a devil’s bargain with Translation Convention, inasmuch as it is unreasonably hard, although it’s still easier than in most European languages, to use English without dropping gender implications all over the place, there is no adequate gender-neutral term that fits, and “hearthmaster” carries all the wrong connotations for an English-speaker because English-speaking cultures come preloaded with wacky gender ideas. Sigh.  Nonetheless, the gender split there, as in most of the darëssef, is pretty close to even.)

End digression.  My point, mostly, is that I have a lot of notes in my worldbuilding wiki addressing this point, and concerning the plentiful domestic technology that exists, in re self-cleaning clothing, and self-aware homes, and preemptively helpful appliances and domestic robots, and any number of other things whose existence is very much intended to address this problem in the in-world sense, and yet, despite having done the worldbuilding on the various things intended to make the pointlessness of domestic labor a quaint historic footnote for actual sophont people, it hasn’t exactly shown up on screen.  (Nor, for that matter, to address another mentioned area, has the equivalent of the Bujoldian uterine replicator, but then, given the demographics, it would have less occasion to.)

I really should do something about that.  Maybe something from the point of view of the house