Meat Machines

CS Drachensvard
holding position 120,000 miles from uncharted drift
Corfeth (Vanlir Edge) System

The sound of retching broke the silence on the bridge. Midshipman Lochran-ith-Lanth, currently manning the tactical/payload position. He’d already clamped his hand over his mouth by the time I glanced over at him, though, and got his reflexes shut down in only a second more. Good man, well trained.

Not that anyone could be blamed for throwing up, seeing this for the first time. Clavíë at Data Ops had penetrated the station’s network without breathing hard, and the images coming back from the internal sensors were enough to turn anyone’s stomach.

Slavery persists in backwater parts of the Periphery, and even the Expansion Regions, much to our embarrassment. But then, we’re the Imperial Navy, not Éjavóné Herself. We can’t vaporize everyone who deserves it all at once.

And everyone knows the reasons: sophont servants, flesh toys, test subjects, cannon fodder, pet victims, and so forth. This, though – this was a very distinct perversion, characteristic of where high technology met low.

After all, it takes a relatively high – and expensive – technology to weave the topological braids of a hard-state neural net processor, or to program an effective software emulation of all of its subtleties. It takes an advanced biotechnology to grow and educate a cortexture that can perform advanced cognitive tasks. But while it takes a firm grasp of sophotechnology to learn how to repurpose an existing neural network…

…it turns out that any transistor-stringing moron can actually do it.

Take a sophont. Preferably an intelligent one, and young and strong enough to survive the process for a long time. “Simplify” them – by which they mean remove any inconvenient limbs, or hair, or anything else not needed in their new role. Dose them up with catacinin, or some other mind-killer drug, and neural plasticizers, then saw off the top of their brain-case, insert the interface electrodes, and seal the hole with sterile plastic. Hook up the life-support system, and box them up. ‘No user serviceable parts inside.’ A week or so of imprinting, and you have a neural-net processor – worth ten-thousand gPt, maybe twenty-five kgAu in one of these backwaters. It’ll last maybe ten years before the flesh gives out, and it’s an order of magnitude cheaper than less ethically defective hardware, unfortunately.

“Communications from the station, Skipper. They – ah, they protest our unprovoked attack, and wish to offer surrender.”

“One response, Máris: ‘Dármódan xalakhassár hál!’ Mr. Lanth, load the primary with AMSM warhead.”

“Captain?”

“You heard me, Mr. Lanth.” At his shocked look, I continued. “There’s nothing that can be done for the ‘cargo’, son. Everyone over there to rescue’s had their brain pithed with a dull knife. The best we can do for them is make sure the ones who did this don’t do it to anyone else. Now: load primary with AMSM.”

“Aye, sir. I mean – aye-aye, sir.”

I tapped the view-mode switch, and watched as the exterior of the slaver station replaced the pitiful sight on the for’ard viewer.

“Primary loaded and standing by, sir,” he reported.

“Fire.”

Trope-a-Day: Happiness in Slavery

Happiness in Slavery: Played with – Imperial law, despite the extreme cultural aversion to slavery, does permit voluntarily contracted indenture as a way to get out from under unrepayable debts without resorting to bankruptcy, and suchlike.  It’s not exactly happy – indeed, by local standards, it is ridiculously humiliating – but it’s probably better than most of the alternatives; and most cultural Imperials would see it as infinitely better than default.

(The kicker: with the exception of not being able to quit until the contract term is up, we would find the ghastly state and working conditions of what the Empire calls “indenture” very familiar indeed.  We call it employment.)

Averted pretty comprehensively with actual slaves in the darker and more hideously backward parts of the Worlds, though.

Technically, That Last Was ‘Might’

Question:

As master of an Empire-registered tramp trader, when may sophonts appear on the cargo manifest of your vessel?

Answer:

Under four circumstances:

1. When you are transporting steerage-class passengers under contract to a passenger line, and such passengers are both onloaded from and offloaded to port-side passenger processing as freight, and will remain in cryostasis or nanostasis during the entirety of their voyage within rated stasis-rack freight containers (4×80-series);

2. When your vessel is a registered Naval auxiliary, and is transporting personnel of the Imperial Military Service in cryostasis or nanostasis under the same conditions as above, when an officer of flag rank has approved such operations;

3. When your vessel is operating as a colonization transport under contract to a colonial corporation or the Ministry of Colonization, and is transporting colonists in cryostasis or nanostasis under the same conditions as above;

4. When you’re fixin’ to die.

– from an examination for shipmaster’s license, second class

A Long Chase (3)

Macrophage Militant; 2,000,000 miles from the Gal-kiderax stargate.

The better part of a day later, the Flight Commander’s glare had hardly lessened at all.  “Anything new?”

“No status change on target.  No halo, no trailers, and still decelerating into gate intercept – definitely not confident in his ability to make crash transit, I’d say, sir.” The sensor operator’s tentacles flew over his keyboard.  “Gate diagnostics show it’s accepted their transit request.  We have a five by six shooting solution, but we’re going to lose guidance lock as soon as they hit the gate.”

“Very well.  Comms, anything from the Galians?”

“Nothing new, sir.”  A tentacle squeezed a control node, and a grating voice spoke.  “Empire vessel, you are denied passage into Galian space.  Clear.”

“Such gentlesophs, the Theomachrats.  Send this for relay: ‘Gal-kiderax SysCon, this is Macrophage Militant: we are a naval vessel in pursuit of an identified slaver.  It is your obligation under the Accords and the articles of interstellar law to permit us transit and capture.  Is it your intent to impede us, sir? Militant, clear.'”

The Exec leaned over to the Flight Commander again.  “Planning on starting a war, skipper?”

“Is it that time again already?  But no, they’ll back down.  They can afford it even less than we can.”

“Are you sure they know that?”

“Well, if they don’t, a year from now I’ll be on the beach, and you’ll have the Militant.  But either way, those chance-bred tumors will still be vapor.”

Freeing the Will

It used to be, by my predecessors’ memoirs, that you could almost feel good about taking a slave ship.  Kill the slavers, free the prisoners from the slave-holds and explosive collars, ferry them back to their homes, and chase down the next one; a good month.

Those were more innocent times.  Few slavers use such simple methods today – not when mind-states can be hacked, consciences redacted, loyalties imposed, and brains washed, and not when semislave minds can be built with no thoughts in their head but to obey their masters.

When we took a slave ship, it meant that the slaves were on the front lines, desperate to save their owners.  We’d count ourselves lucky not to lose a few burning our way into the slaver.  Then, the worst of all possible hostile boarding actions: where those our legionaries were fighting had full-power weapons, but the legionaries had to try to preserve their lives if they could – and where the commanders at their back wouldn’t hesitate to blow out a lock or flood a compartment to kill us.  Their men could never lose their programmed loyalty, and what are the lives of merchandise worth?

The worst part, though, came after the battle’s done, when you could extend no trust to the slaves you took off, because they’d do anything to get back to their owners – if they hadn’t been imprinted with some sort of emergency sabotage or self-destruction programming – and when you had to have a half-dozen legionaries drag them in and hold them down, as they screamed and fought and begged to be allowed to go back, to serve, to stay with the people who they firmly believed were the center of their universe, while the redactors ripped the control compulsions out of their minds.

It’s still good work, restoring volition to those who’ve had it taken away or impaired from their birth.  I know that.  But be damned to me, I’d rather fight a dozen fleet actions or a half-dozen antipiracy patrols than take one more tour of the slave routes.  It’s enough to rip a soph’s heart right out.

– Cdre. Rakhaz Neraxinax, Imperial Navy
interview for IBC drama-documentary, ‘Senior Service’

A Long Chase (2)

One week earlier, somewhere in the Gal-kiderax System, Theomachy of Galia.

“I’d kill a soph in a fair fight.” The black-cloaked figure paced in circles, long stride carrying him from wall to wall.  “Hells, even before I left my dear stuffy cousins behind, I’d kill a soph in an unfair fight, or better yet in no fight, ’cause Taliní Sarathos didn’t raise her favorite grandson to be stupid.  I’ll haggle at blast-point, make free with what’s not mine, and even work with appallingly tasteless people like you.”

The person he addressed, sprawled on the floor in the room’s center, made no reply.

“But I won’t kill one for no reason, I won’t torture, and I won’t deal with slavers.  I may be a renegade, but I do have standards.”  He shook his head, slowly.  “What did you imagine would happen when you picked those degenerates to team me with?  Or are they just growing them stupid on Gal-kiderax these days?”

The sprawled figure appeared to sigh, slumped, and deliquesced into a spreading puddle of goo.

“At last.  Well, farewell, dear Misent.  I trust your accounts will recompense me adequately for the inconvenience of the hunters this little fracas has called down upon me.”  He flourished his hat, and faded into the darkness.

“But first, I have a naval dance to attend.”

A Long Chase (1)

Slavery violates the Universal Accord on Sophont Rights.  It also violates at least half a dozen other solemn articles of interstellar law – the kind which, as matters which offend everyone’s sensibilities tend to do, are applied ecumenically even to non-signatories – and, indeed, the natural order of things.

None of this means that it isn’t also practiced in the galaxy’s darker backwaters.

Nor does any of this mean that there are an abundance of tools to deal with it.

Flight Commander CGGGTTCACTTTATATGGAACAGT glared at the red dot floating far ahead of his own ship’s position in the tactical tank.

“Freighter identifying as IUS People’s Harvest, this is Macrophage Militant, Imperial Navy.  Under the provisions of the Accord on Uniform Security, you are directed to cut your drive immediately and prepare to be boarded, or be fired upon.  Militant, clear.”  He thought for a moment, leaning back in his command pod to let its cilia ease some of the tensions out of his tissues.  “And, Sensory, punctuate that for me, would you?”

The sensor operator’s tentacles caressed the rounded surface of his console for a moment, and a light-map icon-counter joined the time-to-receipt counter next to the target.  “Pulse away, sir.”

The Exec pushed his drinking bulb back into the retaining clip, and leaned over.  “Do you think there’s any chance they’ll do it?”

“Not if their captain’s got the brains of a rock.  We’ve got more accel, but they’ve got the range advantage in a stern chase.  Our weapons can’t bear at all until he’s within half a light-minute of the gate, and he’s got to know that we can’t fire on him until knife-fight range.  He’s betting we won’t violate Galian volume just to catch one ship.”

“So what’s the plan?”

“He’s betting wrong.  Pass the word to rig for crash transit, if you please.”