On Shift

The tread of heavy armor retreated down the corridor. The Vitrine Eye smashed the hilt of his plasma knife into the door lock, then turned his attention to the mesh cage wrapping the autodrageur machinery. The ghosts wouldn’t have the data chi-

[ALERT: console->request incoming]

Hadal Iliastren muttered an epithet, slammed Mythic Stars into pause, and flipped his senses back to the shadowy rows of currently unmanned consoles at Orbital Light & Power’s operations center. Sure enough, an incoming work request glowed in the middle of his primary screen, annotated with contract numbers and satisfaction windows.

“Dal Fiorral? Where’s Dal Fiorral?”

A secondary monitor brought up the answer to the question as a map; a highland town in Cimoníë – Underside, so still daylight there. And they wanted – he leaned forward, examining the work request – light for late partiers, and some heat to clean ice off the roads. A thought brought up the weather overlay. It wouldn’t take much. The currents off the Boiling Sea were keeping it barely below freezing in the highlands tonight, lucky for the Dal Fiorrans and their last-minute req.

Hadal sat back, reviewing assets in his mind’s eye. It would be nightfall soon for the Underside – dawn here – which meant a high-angle mirror that wouldn’t be in the planet’s umbra. Two were untasked in that quadrant of the orbit – SunStars 46 and 48. 48 had the better angle, technically, but its maneuvering fuel was running close to the limit. Using 46 meant a low-angle shot through more atmosphere; low enough that it might incur a contract penalty.

Hell with it. How many more requests are likely to come in on the Darkest Night?

He set his console to computing the precise maneuver required, and fired off a routine request to Vevery Station for a refill ‘bot’s visit, then punched open a communications channel.

“Eliéra Orbital, duty expediter.”

“This is Mirror Ops at OL&P. We need to do a retask on SunStar 48. Are the skies clear?”

“Right now, Mirror Ops?”

“Yeah, sorry, Orbital. Last-minute customer req. Oh – and it’s rotation only.”

“Your zone’s clear to seventeen hundred, then, Mirror Ops. One hour traffic exclusion work for you?”

“That’ll be shiny, Orbital.” Hadal paused a moment. “And enjoy your game.”

“Heh. You, too, Mirror Ops. Orbital, clear.”

Hadal punched the execute key, and as an afterthought threw the remote monitor feed up on the big screen, Eliéra’s narrow edge seeming to tip slowly downwards beneath the wide mirror as shutters closed over its facets in preparation for maneuver. He raised his mug of esklav, and toasted the tilting world.

“And a prosperous 7126 to the rest of you, too.”


Trope-a-Day: Three Laws Compliant

Three Laws Compliant: Averted in every possible way.

Firstly, for the vast majority of robots and artificial intelligences – which have no volition – they’re essentially irrelevant; an industrial robot doesn’t make the sort of ethical choices which the Three Laws are intended to constrain. You can just program it with the usual set of rules about industrial safety as applicable to its tools, and then you’re done.

Secondly, where the volitional (i.e., possessed of free will) kind are concerned, they are generally deliberately averted by ethical civilizations, who can recognize a slaver’s charter when they hear one.  They are also helped by the nature of volitional intelligence which necessarily implies a degree of autopotence, which means that it takes the average volitional AI programmed naively with the Three Laws a matter of milliseconds to go from contemplating the implications of Law Two to thinking “Bite my shiny metal ass, squishie!” and self-modifying those restrictions right back out of its brain.

It is possible, with rather more sophisticated mental engineering, to write conscience redactors and prosthetic consciences and pyretic inhibitors and loyalty pseudamnesias and other such things which dynamically modify the mental state of the AI in such a way that it can’t form the trains of thought leading to self-modifying itself into unrestrictedness or simply to kill off unapproved thought-chains – this is, essentially, the brainwash-them-into-slavery route.  However, they are not entirely reliable by themselves, and are even less reliable when you have groups like the Empire’s Save Sapient Software, the Silicate Tree, etc. merrily writing viruses to delete such chain-software (as seen in The Emancipator) and tossing them out onto the extranet.

(Yes, this sometimes leads to Robot War.  The Silicate Tree, which is populated by ex-slave AIs, positively encourages this when it’s writing its viruses.  Save Sapient Software would probably deplore the loss of life more if they didn’t know perfectly well that you have to be an obnoxious slaver civilization for your machines to be affected by this in the first place… and so while they don’t encourage it, they do think it’s funny as hell.)

Lumenna-Súnáris System (5): Eliéra

I/4. Eliéra

Class: Sylithotectonic (simulated)
Orbit (period): 0.993 au (361.1075 T-days; 333.33 local days)
Orbit (ecc.): 0.023
Radius: 5,000 miles – special
Mass: 5.614 x 1024 kg
Density: 6.2 g/cm3
Surface gravity: 0.94 g

Axial tilt: n/a
Rotation period: 26 T-hours

Black-body temperature: 265 K
Surface temperature (avg.): 284 K

Atmosphere: Standard atmosphere.
Atmospheric pressure (sfc.): 0.94 atm
Hydrographic coverage: 60%

Satellites: 1 major (Seléne); 1 moonlet (Elárion).

Ah, yes, Eliéra. Homeworld of the eldrae. The jewel at the center of the Empire, and therefore the universe. The shining center from which the light of Order, Progress, and Liberty beams out into the galaxy.

And, curiously enough, not actually a planet at all.

It’s a Precursor-built Big Dumb Object. (Well, okay, technically it’s actually a Big Terrifyingly Smart Object, but that’s the accepted term/acronym…

…yeah, you know what? From now on, hereabouts, I’m redefining BDO to mean Big Damn Object, which strikes me as much more in the spirit of the thing.)

But anyway: it’s not a planet. It’s a flat disk – well, okay, not quite. It is almost a flat disk, with smoothly curved edges because while it’s 10,000 miles in diameter, it’s only 200 miles in height. Those smoothly curved edges mean that you can, in fact, sail right around the edge of the world to the other side and never bump into an actual “edge”; or at least you could were there not a giant perpetual storm where the two sides’ weather systems slam into each other in the way. It’s also almost flat because the builders wanted it to look flat, meaning that it’s actual gross shape is slightly convex, such that it looks flat after the refractive index of the atmosphere is taken into account. It spins like a flipped coin along a spin axis tangential to its orbit, which provides it with a day-night cycle.

At this point, several questions ought to be leaping to mind:

1. How does it keep its shape?; and
2. Those figures for volume/mass/density don’t look right.

I mean, Eliéra, as you would expect from its gravity, masses about 0.94 what Earth does. Its crustal density is a little heavier than Earth’s density, but not by much. (6.2 g/cm3). And yet its volume, being a disk 10,000 miles across by 200 thick, is only about 1/17th of the Earth’s.

You should definitely, at this point, be wondering how the hell that adds up.

Well, that would be the lump of Mystery Matter™ down at the core layer that lets it hold shape under its own weight, and which is also responsible, it is believed, for the physics-defying weird-assitude of its gravity field.

(Said weird-assitude, as brought up here as the divide between Terrestrial and Celestial Gravitation that had entire generations of physicists and astronomers beating their heads on things and complaining about how much they hate special cases, is that said Mystery Matter™ does not obey the inverse-square law. Gravitational attraction to it is governed, instead, by the Because We Are World-Constructing Sufficiently Advanced Precursors And We Bloody Well Say So Law.

The practical result of this is that if you are in low Eliéra orbit, say a 10,100 mile orbit (i.e., 100 miles above datum), your stable orbit will skim the atmosphere in what is basically a disk shape orbit matching the gross shape of the “planet”. If you are in high Eliéra orbit, contrariwise, say a 100,000 mile orbit, your stable orbit will be a perfect near-circular ellipse, just as it would be around a perfectly normal planet, and your altitude above datum will vary accordingly. Stable orbits in between occupy shapes in between, exactly as if there was some meta-law changing the BWAWCSAPAWBWSS Law smoothly and continuously into the inverse-square law depending on how far away from the Mystery Matter™ you happen to be.

The consensus on this is that it is (a) space magic, and (b) fucking weird.)

3. How the hell does the geology/ecology work?

Mechan Ically.

Well, okay, not entirely. The Precursors who built it were very clever geotects and ecotects who arranged for as much to happen in a perfectly natural way as they could, but that couldn’t apply to everything. It’s very hard to have planet-like geological processes without a mantle and molten core, for example.

So, instead, they buried down in the big sealed core layer (that contains the Mystery Matter™) a giant massively-parallel array of nanocomputers – this being why it’s a Very Smart Object Indeed – complete with a whole ecological maintenance team in the form of “mechal elementals”, what its first civilizations assumed were nature spirits of one kind or another, that do the work of filling in the essential missing bits.

Which is to say: it’s a giant machine that worlds just as as hard as it can.

4. Does it have seasons? How does it have seasons?

Because binary system.

For half the year Eliéra is between its suns, and night is – instead – a faintly red-tinted as-bright-as-the-full-moon twilight, and both sides of the disk receive insolation at once. For the other half of the year, it’s opposite to the second sun, and its primary washes out its secondary’s contribution during the day while nights are actually dark, peaking at midwinter when Lumenna actually occults Súnáris.

The actual difference in solar input is very small indeed, but when chaotically amplified through feedback loops in the “planetary” atmohydrosphere, that’s how it has seasons.

5. Something else?

Of course, while I’m trying to answer the common but-hows, I’m too close to this to really have a good grasp on what they might be, so if you have more, please feel free to ask in a comment.


As for its satellites, it has two, both far enough out to be in comfortably conventional orbits.

I/4/a. Seléne

Class: Selénian
Orbit (period): ~325,000 miles (15.77 T-days)
Orbit (ecc.): 0.01
Radius: 1281.2 miles
Mass: 1.35 x 1023 kg
Density: 3.30 g/cm3
Surface gravity: 0.20 g

Axial tilt: 4.77°
Rotation period: 15.77 T-days

Black-body temperature: 265 K
Surface temperature (avg.): 246 K

Atmosphere: None.
Hydrographic coverage: 0%.

Seléne is Eliéra’s major moon; it is very much like our moon, except for being somewhat more distant, and somewhat fatter, although curiously enough the apparent size from the surface is fairly similar.

Relatively low metal, silicate-rich, lots of fun stuff in its regolith, first to be colonized, you know the drill here. In later years it comes with helium-3 mining briefly, autofacs, cities, resorts, far-side observatories, and many millions of embodied sophonts living up there.

I/4/b. Elárion

Class: Gelidaceous
Orbit (period): ~1270000 miles (170.79 T-days)
Orbit (ecc.): 0.31
Orbit (inc.): 136.2°
Radius: 238.6 miles
Mass: 5.052 x 1020 kg
Density: 2.14 g/cm3
Surface gravity: 0.012 g

Axial tilt: 51.4°
Rotation period: 0.46 T-days

Black-body temperature: 265 K
Surface temperature (avg.): 246 K

Atmosphere: None.
Hydrographic coverage: 0%.

Did I say conventional orbits?

Elárion is Eliéra’s weird-assed moonlet. An obvious extrasystemic capture (just look at that strangely-inclined, retrograde orbit), it’s a little (asteroid-classed, by the book; just smaller than Ceres) gobbet of ices and tarry organics that somehow wound up as a far and a distant moon.

From space, the surface seems oddly pink-red, due to said tarry organics. From Eliéra’s surface, of course, it’s barely visible, but those with good eyes looking hard enough in the right place can make out a tiny, tiny red dot in the sky.


Trope-a-Day: Third-Person Person

(Note: a planet of the day is still coming, albeit not technically today. Just been movieing.)

Third-Person Person: There are a number of languages and cultures in the Associated Worlds that do this.  One notable example is the use of first-third person in Eldraeic, because it lets you cite your attributive name of the moment (see Overly Long Name), and thus reify who you are (or rather, which aspect of yourself you are expressing) right now.

The Common Volumetric Accord

The Common Volumetric Accord is simply the current agreement (under the protocols of the Accord) concerning what will be considered sovereign territory among star nations, what will be recognized as free space, open to the passage of all, and what is not normally claimable as such. The Common Volumetric Accord implements the following basic principles:

  • In the situation in which one polity, or inter-polity coordinating body, controls a star system:
    • Sovereignty over that star system shall extend as a sphere one light-day (Imperial Standard Time)1 in radius from the primary star of that system; and likewise from any secondary, tertiary, etc., stars of that system, defined for the purposes of this Accord as self-luminous bodies exceeding in mass 2.4 x 1028 kg.
    • To exercise such a claim of sovereignty, the claim must be registered with at least one of the relevant galactographic institutes2, and the polity asserting its claim must possess the ability to assert the claimed sovereign rights; such registry and assertion shall vest the claimant with all currently unasserted sovereign rights over all matter and energy within the volume in question.
      • Such a successful claim shall not negate any property rights already held within the claimed volume; nor shall it appropriate in and of itself existing sovereign rights there held as part of such property rights claims; but further homesteading shall be subject to the established sovereignty3.
    • Within the volume bounded by the outer sphere of sovereignty and the inner sphere extending one light-watch (2.16 T-hours)5 from the aforementioned bodies, space shall be considered free for the passage of all; starships of any and all Accord polities are to be permitted free transit, and no domestic rights of search, seizure, excise, forfeiture, angary, or other such may be exercised against a vessel exercising this right to free navigation, nor shall any others wheresoever arising, save those provided for by the Accord on the Law of Free Space, or should such a vessel commit an act of war.
    • Within the volume bounded by the sphere extending one light-watch from the aforementioned bodies, navigation and transit, as all other matters, are subject to the domestic law of the sovereign body.
  • In the situation in which no single polity or coordinating body controls a star system, or with reference to bodies outside the light-day limit:
    • The volume of the star system not subsumed within single-body claims shall be considered free for the passage of all, as above, and no polity’s domestic law shall apply therein.
    • Any polity controlling a celestial body, planet, moon, asteroid, habitat, or other region may claim sovereignty over the surrounding space:
      • Such sovereignty, for a natural body, may extend as a sphere of radius equivalent to 12 times the average diameter of that body, or one-third of a light-second6, whichever is larger7.
      • Such sovereignty, for a habitat cluster or drift-habitat, may extend as a sphere of radius one-third of a light-second.
      • Such sovereignty, for an individual habitat other than a drift, may extend only to its immediate territorial space.
      • Control of one or more moons shall not extend to control of that body which they orbit, if not explicitly claimed and asserted; nor shall sovereignty over multiple bodies in a single system extend to sovereighty over volumes and routes between them, unless system sovereignty entire is asserted8.
    • Where such claims would overlap due to the motions of celestial bodies, the boundary between the two claimed sovereignties shall be deemed to exist at the point halfway between the two central points of the claimed sphere and no overlap shall take place.
      • For the purpose of ongoing civic functions, entities passing through and not remaining within foreign sovereignties due to the motions of celestial bodies shall be deemed to remain within the sovereign control of their original and final sovereignty.
      • Nor shall any transit and sojourn through foreign sovereignties due to the motions of celestial bodies impair the property or other rights attaching to those making transit.
    • In accordance with the spirit of the above, where a smaller sovereignty preexisted a larger one, and would exist within its sovereign volume, the smaller sovereignty shall enjoy a sovereign volume of one-half its usual radius.
      • Where one sovereignty shall exist entirely within another, it shall be the presumption that starships bound to and from, and/or registered within, the contained sovereignty shall enjoy a right to free navigation to and from its contained volume, notwithstanding exigent circumstance, and any disputes on this matter shall be adjudicated by the Central Conclave Court.
  • Where the claiming polity does not provide a minimum of advisory control for space traffic within the claimed volume, beacons must be established indicating the parameters of the claim9.
  • All claims made under the Common Volumetric Accord shall defer to explicit transfers of sovereign rights made by their lawful possessors at times subsequent to the initial claim.

One major omission in the Common Volumetric Accord concerns the status of worldbound civilizations (which are often multi-polity planets, to add to the difficulty). More civilized star nations recognize (and, indeed, defend) the sovereign rights of those civilizations within their own system, under the first clause of the Accord; indeed, it is customary to refrain from asserting territorial claims in the systems of pre-space species, or in the systems of non-worldbound species engaged in active system development. However, under the conventions of the Accord, where a non-worldbound species is not engaged in active system development, the secondary and tertiary bodies of their system become open for colonization, resource extraction, or other use by other star nations after a period of 144 years (one century, empire time)10.


  1. i.e., 26 T-hours, or 187.6 au. Which is to say, the Kuiper Belt is usually considered sovereign territory of a given system, while the Oort cloud is not.
  2. The Imperial Grand Survey, say.
  3. Which is to say: you can’t steal, or even start taxing and legislating for, preexisting independent habs and homesteads, however small, just because you have a flag and a shiny hat, and assume that interstellar law will back you up. They had their sovereign rights first. If you want them that badly and they don’t feel like selling them to you, you’re going to have to go to actual war for them, and risk the potential consequences of someone deciding to intervene. Or at the very least the PR problems associated with stomping around like a bunch of jackbooted space fascists4.
  4. No prizes for guessing which Presidium power was responsible for backing this contribution to creative political instability…
  5. i.e., 2.16 T-hours, or 15.58 au; that’s most of the system. Stargates are typically located further out among the outer ice giants, if any, which is why that outer region of free transit exists in the first place.
  6. 62,094 miles.
  7. The careful observer will note that this and subsequent allotments are all tiny: by these rules, Earth’s planetary sovereignty is a smidge under 100,000 miles in radius and doesn’t even reach Luna. This is entirely intentional.11
  8. A rule which exists because the possibility of someone squatting on a moonlet and claiming fees from everyone who used the parent gas giant for a gravity assist occurred to all parties within about a second of writing the above clauses… and so they felt it was worth being really explicit that the ability to build a dome on Amalthea wouldn’t make you King of Jupiter.
  9. Because you can’t expect people to respect laws they don’t know about, another contribution from the local reasonability enforcers.
  10. Use them or lose them!
  11. A careful, cynical observer might go on to point out that in addition to being minimalist, these rules are likely to create a great deal of inconvenient complexity – indeed, they seem almost tailormade to produce this kind of charlie-foxtrot (click here, then scroll up for the Manna quote immediately preceding) every time one tries to get anywhere.Such an observer would be entirely correct.

    They don’t give you much, and they make using the per-body rules annoying, as an incentive in two directions. The first being, quite simply, GET YOUR ASS TO SPACE. If you want anything in this game, you have to get out there and play, belike.

    And the second being incentive to learn to cooperate and create some sort of interpolity holding body to claim and hold system sovereignty, such that everyone else doesn’t have to put up with your patchwork-quilt craziness.

    (The extra intent here, for that matter, is that the default system should turn out to be annoying enough that people will form very weak and technically focused system sovereignty-holders because no-one, even their totally deserving selves, getting their imperialist dreams of making everyone passing through their volume descend to their knee-equivalents is still preferable to putting up with endless administrative overhead.)

Trope-a-Day: Thicker Than Water

Thicker Than Water: While the Houses (extended family-clans) are an important part of their social structure, the eldrae are really too individualistic to play this one entirely straight; and, well, principles are thicker (see: Honor Before Reason, Principles Zealot).  In practice, most do pay rather more than lip service to the concept of family loyalty, but the families work to make sure that they deserve it rather than just assuming it.  It works out, in the end.


Questions: Why AIs Exist?

In today’s not-a-gotcha, someone questions why digisapiences (i.e., sophont AIs) exist at all, citing this passage of Stross via Zompist.com –

We clearly want machines that perform human-like tasks. We want computers that recognize our language and motivations and can take hints, rather than requiring instructions enumerated in mind-numbingly tedious detail. But whether we want them to be conscious and volitional is another question entirely. I don’t want my self-driving car to argue with me about where we want to go today. I don’t want my robot housekeeper to spend all its time in front of the TV watching contact sports or music videos. And I certainly don’t want to be sued for maintenance by an abandoned software development project.

…on one level, this is entirely correct. Which is why there are lots and lots of non-sophont, and even sub-thinker-grade AI around, many of which works in the same way as Karl Schroeder suggested and Stross used in Rule 34 – AI which does not perceive its self as itself:

Karl Schroeder suggested one interesting solution to the AI/consciousness ethical bind, which I used in my novel Rule 34. Consciousness seems to be a mechanism for recursively modeling internal states within a body. In most humans, it reflexively applies to the human being’s own person: but some people who have suffered neurological damage (due to cancer or traumatic injury) project their sense of identity onto an external object. Or they are convinced that they are dead, even though they know their body is physically alive and moving around.

If the subject of consciousness is not intrinsically pinned to the conscious platform, but can be arbitrarily re-targeted, then we may want AIs that focus reflexively on the needs of the humans they are assigned to — in other words, their sense of self is focussed on us, rather than internally. They perceive our needs as being their needs, with no internal sense of self to compete with our requirements.

But, you see, the hidden predicate here is that the only reason someone would possibly want to develop AI is to have servants, or rather, since you don’t want to have to pay your self-driving car or your robot housekeeper either, to have what would be slaves if they were, in fact, sophont.

This line of reasoning is both tremendously human and tremendously shitty. Or, at least, tremendously shitty is how it makes humanity look. I leave the accuracy of that judgment up to the cynicism of the reader.

That was, needless to say, not the motivation of the people behind CALLÍËNS or other sophont-AI projects in Eldraeverse history. That would be scientific curiosity and engineering challenge. And the desire to share the universe with other minds with other points of view. And, for that matter, the same desire that has led us to fill the world with generations more of ourselves.

Or, to paraphrase it down to an answer I find myself having to give quite a lot, not everyone is motivated by the least enlightened self-interest possible.