A Pistol With One Shot

black cell (n.): An originally-improvised form of prison or brig cell used by various independent drifts and starships designed for long-duration flight, a black cell is adapted from an airlock, in which the outer door is not equipped with a docking collar, and the inner door is only controllable from the outside. The prisoner is often (although by no means always) held in as much comfort as a standard cell would provide, supplied with air, water, and food, but always retains the option of opening the outer airlock door and choosing a quick death by spacing.

Opinion is mixed where the use of black cells, improvised or designed, is concerned: whether they are a means of providing their prisoners with an honorable alternative (or, in many spacers’ eyes, a way to spare their comrades the life-support burden), versus offering only a sadistic choice between a quick death and a slow, as they clearly do in those cases in which water and food are not provided. As in the case of so many technologies, it’s the application that determines the ethicality.

– A Star Traveler’s Dictionary


Sold For Educational Purposes Only

“Be advised that the operation of transmitters or other equipment designed to jam, block, corrupt, or otherwise interfere with communicative signaling in the bands allocated to multipurpose mesh networking (see Electromagnetic Spectrum Global and Regional Allocations, latest edition) is a violation of the Free Communications (Trusteeship) Act (1462), as amended. This Act prohibits, enjoins, and binds by law any sophont from willfully interfering with mesh network communications of any type, proprietorship, format, protocol, or purpose carried out over the aforementioned frequency bands.

“Sophonts and/or coadunations in violation of this act shall and must be subject to the penalties provided for under the Act, including but not limited to fines beginning at one sur-doceciad esteyn and scaling geometrically with volume affected, full compensation of costs for all affected parties, and memetic rehabilitation and reconditioning.

“Be further advised that, inasmuch as multipurpose mesh networking protocols are used to fulfil a variety of essential infrastructural and personal safety functions including but not limited to smart grid coordination, health monitoring, emergency response, road-grid and vehicular coordination, et al., the Actions Willfully Prejudicial to Public Safety Act (710) empowers the Imperial Emergency Management Authority to order the immediate destruction of the aforementioned equipment by whatever means it shall deem necessary in order to maintain these functions. Since the act of operating such equipment is classified as a violation of property rights in spectrum with intent, no compensation is due or will be paid for collateral damage to other properties of the equipment operator.”

– a rather important warning label

Not For Kitchen Use

At its simplest, a point-defense laser grid is a system of hundreds of meshed, phased-array, variable-frequency, plasma laser elements (on its parent starship, these are the glossy black domes speckling the hull), capable of outputting an arbitrary number of variable-power beams, limited only by the capacity of the controlling computer, along an equally arbitrary number of bearings.

In its most benign civilian application, the laser grid protects the hull against incoming mass, by vaporizing small particles entirely, and by causing outgassing of the surface elements of larger ones in such a way as to produce thrust sufficient to redirect their course – acting, in effect, as a portable laser broom. A standard military laser grid fulfils this function on a larger scale, vaporizing and redirecting incoming kinetic slugs using the same essential principle, while penetrating and disabling AKVs. Such a grid is typically able, in full-autonomic mode, to keep the volume of space within a dodeciad miles of the parent starship clear of all material objects not explicitly tagged by IFF as friendly.

A military-grade grid, of course, has certain other applications. One, for example, is serving to propel various otherwise-unguided packages by use of the grid to heat inert ablative propellant attached to them, functioning as the power element of a laser thermal drive. Another, less advertised, is that of dealing with enemy starships that have been disabled, but which decline to surrender and which do not possess any unusual value to be recovered by an opposed boarding action: specifically, a disabled starship within effective range of a laser point-defense grid can be conveniently sliced and diced into effectively-inert fist-sized cubes.


Hariven-class Free Trader

So, I got a request from a reader for a few specs on the Hariven-class free trader. Well, why not?

(Sadly, they were imagining something like Vaughan Ling’s Planetes-inspired debris collector with comparable dimensions, capacity, etc. Sorry to say it, but that ship? Had some style. The Hariven? Really doesn’t.)


Operated by: Desperate free traders, just starting-out bands on tour, your sketchy brother, refugees, space hobos, and anyone else who can’t afford a better ship.
Basic freighter.
Under open-source license; produced by multiple manufacturers, most of whom would prefer not to admit it, along with various backyard fab shops.

(And when I say “desperate free trader”, I don’t mean, say, the people who fly around in a Firefly-class in Firefly. Those people, in this verse, own something like a Kalantha-class. This is down from there at the true ass end of space travel.)

Length: 46m, of which 30m is the hold.
8m (not including radiators)

Gravity-well capable: No.

Personnel: 3, as follows:

Flight Commander
Flight Director
Flight Engineer

(This assumes you’re following the typical regulations which require – since the Hariven has no AI, and only dumb automation – that at least one qualified person be on watch at all times, hence a minimum of three. In practice, a Hariven can be flown by one and very often is, if they don’t mind violating the rules of navigation of every halfway sane polity in space.)

Drive (typical; may vary from build to build): Nucleodyne Thrust Applications “Putt-Putt” fusion pulse drive.
 Deuterium pellets.
Cruising (sustainable) thrust:
 0.6 standard gravities (0.56 g)
Peak (unsustainable) thrust:
 1.2 standard gravities (1.12 g)
Delta-v reserve:
 (Not yet calculated, but limited; if you’re flying a Hariven, you ain’t going brachy unless you devote a lot of your hold space to extra tanks. Be prepared to spend much of your voyage time on the float.)
Maximum velocity:
 0.02 c (based on particle shielding)


Not supplied as standard, but buy some. You’re gonna need ’em.


Orbital Positioning System sensors
Inertial tracking platform
Passive EM array
Short-range collision-avoidance and docking radar



Other systems:

Omnidirectional radio transceiver
Communications laser
Whipple shield (habitable area only)
Mechanical regenerative life support (atmosphere/water only)
Algiprote vat
2 x information furnace data systems
Sodium droplet radiators

Small craft:

Not supplied as standard, but a common as-supplied variant adds a partition to convert part of the forward hold into a bay with docking clamps suitable for many surface-to-orbit vehicles.


It’s a classic tail-lander layout of the crudest form: a 30m steel box welded on top of an 8m steel cylinder welded on top of a cheap fusion pulse drive, the latter two surrounded by pellet containers. It couldn’t look more brutalist/functional if it tried. At least most Hariven owners try to give it a bright paint job.

The hold is up front, a big steel box roughly the size of eight standard shipping containers. (Indeed, sometimes it’s made from eight standard shipping containers.) Putting it right for’ard has the advantage of simplifying construction greatly – all the machinery is at one end – and giving Hariven captains the assurance that if they ram their junker into anything accidentally, at least there’s 30m of other stuff between them and whatever they hit.

The hold opens up along its entire length on the port side to permit access. Responsible captains who convert their Hariven for passenger transport (the aforementioned touring bands, refugees, and space hobos, for example) by attaching deck partitions inside the hold and adding canned air have these welded shut. Less responsible captains simply pray for a lack of wiring faults.

The habitable section (the cylinder at the back) is wrapped in auxiliary engineering machinery and fuel storage, to the point that it’s only 4m in internal diameter. (If you need to fiddle with most of the engineering systems, you’re going to need a drone, or to take a walk outside.) It’s divided into four decks, from the bow down:

The bridge, which shares space with most of the avionics;

A small living area, which contains the food vat, a tiny galley, the inner door of the airlock, and any luxuries you see fit to squeeze in there. Like chairs;

The crew quarters, which means four vertically-mounted sleep pods, and maybe room for another luxury or two if they’re small;

And a tiny workshop, for any repairs that need doing.

That all sits right on top of the shadow shield and the business end of the drive. If you need to adjust anything below that – well, hope you brought a drone.

But enough of this. You buy this ship, treat her proper, she’ll be with you the rest of your life.

Ain’t sayin’ how long that’ll be, mind.



…And Your Enemies Closer

“Among the torang, when crisis strikes, it is safer to be among your enemies than among your friends. A friendly torangta may expect you to sacrifice yourself in the name of the friend-group; an enemy will keep you alive as an assertion of superiority.”

– To See The Outer Worlds And Live!, Peregrine Press, 7930


“That?” Cathál glanced at the slate-blue pipe in question, then down at her slate. “Water coolant source for distillation unit 02-367, tap off main section 11-9120, return through 02-3683, automatic flow valve controlled by sector utility server #2, manual cutoff accessible via service panel 02-38.”

“Distillation unit? This isn’t a machinery section.”

“Not that kind of distillation unit. It’s a… personal still.” Seeing her apprentice’s still-confused expression, she continued. “A starshine still.”

“You have those on the plans?”

She looked at him appraisingly. “You’re new-up, aren’t you?”

“First spaceside rotation, yeah. What’s that –”

“Look around you. The hab’s maybe two-thirds, or a little more, plumbing by mass. All kinds. Potable, non-potable, gray, black, steam, rad-hot, loaded, non-aqueous – hell, we’ve got reactor lines in section one circulating liquid sodium. People around here get all kinds of upset when they find a pipe that’s not on the plans, especially if they don’t know what it’s for or what’s in it. So we have an Agreement. We agree to put all the, um, unofficial plumbing on the master plans and hook it into the control systems, and the adminisphere agrees not to bug us about it unless it causes a genuine issue.”

“And it’s still unofficial?”

“Surely. But it’s officially unofficial.”


Cultivating Mighty Oaks

Cimór gazed out over the lectern as her audience finished connecting. The virtual space was crowded with avatars – the glowing spheres with emoticon faces that nym-avatars defaulted to, naturally, hiding identity, culture, and species – haloed with the expected glows marking slow connections and packet loss. Even those telerepresenting from less backward worlds found their connections impaired by the exigencies of encapsulation and multibounce routing.

The avatars themselves were arranged in groups of six: each representing the bundled communications of a single supercell’s membership, six cell leaders from different polities – carefully selected to be safely independent and yet of potential aid to each other, as well as synergistic personality matches – who would be given cross-communications at the end of the introduction. Each group, so far as it could perceive, was the only group in the auditorium.

The last avatar flickered into being, its “face” set to apology-but-necessity. Glancing down at the lectern, Cimór watched the extranet security panel flicker through its final checks, then spill out blue confirmation that the layered overweaves were properly secured, and the termination points were, at least, as secure as dumb agents were able to determine.

A flick of a finger brought the opening of her presentation up in the well, the COG’s tree logo, and the embracing text: Freedom’s Seed. Access to Tools and Ideas.

“Gentlesophs,” she began. “Thank you for attending. At this introductory talk, we’ll be discussing how to find and recruit new members for your seedling, while maintaining the proper security, deniability, and above all, cell structure. I’ll be presenting general strategies along with specific notes on adapting them to different types of polities and cultures, as well as both memetic and software tools to assist in assessing possible candidates for suitability and reliability, as well as eliminating potential spies, saboteurs, and agents provocateur.

“But first, let’s talk about the sort of candidates you should consider – a subject which will also answer a question many of you doubtless have, namely, why we recruited you.

“The first division to be made is that of the loud and the quiet. The loud, whichever kind they are, should be immediately dismissed as possible candidates, although the reasons differ between the loud and violent, and the loud and… shall we say less violent, in their use of violence is generally casual, rather than targeted.

“We do not support the former because even on the rare occasion that they espouse that they’re emulating the Drowning of the People, the Saryala Disarming, or the Spontaneous Disarchy of Dorentil Major, in practice the overwhelming majority of people whose plan is violent revolution not only cause a lot of collateral death and destruction along the way, but tend to be the sort of kveth-sakkar whose primary interest is being free to oppress someone else. We have, obviously, no interest at all in supporting that – and from your perspective, the reasons why such make bad partners should be obvious, even apart from the high-profile attention such activities tend to draw.

“We do not support the latter, meanwhile, for a variety of reasons – not least that many of these ‘activists’, too, are all too happy to support a heavy cratic hand just as long as it is perceived as working for them. Frankly, gentlesophs, we support groups with libertist values out of enlightened self-interest, and those who merely improve a few of the proximate results without addressing the ultimate causes do not provide a useful return on our investment.

“To you, on the other hand, they are dangerous. The sort of activities they participate in, especially the ones that are themselves coercive, are hell on operational security, break up the cell structure, and attract a lot of attention – the kind that makes more constructive activities harder to carry through under scrutiny, and can be easily spun to turn the general population against them – or, depending on the ruthlessness of the security state, to justify mass arrests or massacres. In either case, they’re just meat for the machine – and so if a seedling goes down this path, we drop it from the network.

“The recruits you want are the quiet ones. The tools and ideas we can supply are attuned to supporting those with an eye on the long term, and with a desire to live free, well, and under the radar in the meantime – and to build. That’s who you need to grow all the institutions of a civilized society in the shadow of the uncivilized, until one day your would-be masters wake up to find themselves redundant, ignored, and impotent.

“That’s why we selected you, and who your best candidates for recruitment, in turn, are likely to be.

“Now, any questions before we move on to practical matters?”

– Freedom’s Seed COG, introductory talks to proto-seedlings