On Failing the Turing Test

I am not going to talk about the Imitation Game.

Not to say there wasn’t a whole lot that rankled me about that movie. I mean cast was decent, Cumberbatch did… more or less exactly what he always does, but… I feel like the omission of 90% of the Bletchley Circle – funnily enough, the 90% that lacked a Y chromosome – was a bit cruel in a historiographical sense. Given they were the ones who actually built the decision engine makes it even more glaring. I mean-

Fusk.

I started talking about the Imitation Game didn’t I.

Anyway, I’m not here to talk about… that movie. I have been pondering the Turing test on something of an existential level lately, in reference to a few specific texts.

The first is Shadowrun: Hong Kongspecifically the character of Racter; robotocist, transhumanist and self-admitted high level psychopath. This plays rather elegantly into musings on Seven Psycopaths, a movie I enjoyed less for its artistry and more into the clearly informed view it gives into people with non-standard psychologies.

Echoing this, Blade Runner. Need I say more.

Text the fourth is an episode of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller. The one in which the giant cuts out his own heart and replaces it with a nest  of wasps to escape the suffering of empathy.

The final text I’m going to cite is an autobiographical one, written over the next two lines. Incidentally, its also the intro to the article proper.

When I was 16, I was pronounced a psychopath. By the Coles Myer online employment suitability test.

I followed their instructions, answered the questions honestly, which seems to have been my downfall. The responses I gave at the time seemed barely noticeable as human foibles; a private conversation overheard, a coworker’s small indiscretion overlooked, the odd small twisting of the truth. Willing to throw deploy nonlethal take-downs if sufficiently provoked. Its not like I was doing something really morally dubious in my past like working for the Coles Myer group.

My intelligence score was off the charts. My Morality score (which I believe has since been renamed), however, was abysmal, and on that note I was considered unsuitable for employment stacking shelves.

They didn’t out and say it, admittedly. But with those two bar graphs so perfectly situated, it was pretty easy to read between the lines.

“Subject is highly intelligent, manipulative and probably dangerous. Not suitable for work as corporate drone.”

So on that happy note, I begin my ramblings on the status of psychopathy in popular culture and discourse. The Turing Test mentioned upstream is a means of telling the difference between a human intelligence and a mechanical one, with a similar test deployed in Blade Runner‘s opening scenes. Something that a machine is supposedly incapable of mimicking is empathy, and I think that element is what has led to pop-culture’s ongoing fascination with psychopaths.

It is the same appeal, for a storyteller, as that of the vampire, or the werewolf, or those possessed. It is the predator that exists within reach of us, our safe civilization, and yet they look no different to any human being until they strike. And sometimes not even then. Sometimes they only show their true faces when they want to cause the most pain and chaos, cracking that civilization along its fault lines to more easily feast on terrified stragglers.

And humans, as a whole I think, are terrified of being treated like the animals we so often abuse. The idea that we aren’t different, special somehow, the top rung on some god ordained food chain, is confronting on a visceral, primitive level. And the psychopath in literature, just like the vampire, like Hannibal Lector or even the fusking Terminator, plays rather specifically on that fear.

But in honesty I think this is dealing people on the psycopathic spectrum a short hand, and reflects badly on the large proportion of the populace that suffers from mental illness, related to that spectrum or otherwise. The psychopath of film and literature is so often as either the Terminator – cold, merciless and inhuman – or as a raving monster who kills for pleasure.

The latter, I feel, tends toward the cartoonish and ignorant. It enforces a sentiment I’ve encountered semi-regularly on the internet, that since there is no cure for psycopathy, psychopaths should be euthanized for the good of society. Though there are a number of holes that one can pick in that argument on a moral level, the rational argument that  rather like is that removing that huge a proportion of the workforce in the corporate, legal and finance sectors would be crippling to the economy. For some reason coldy rational people with little to no empathy are just very good in the punishing corporate sphere. Besides, there are perfectly “sane, normal” people who clearly enjoy the feelings of power that arise from harming others. I believe Donald Trump mentioned his habits of domestic abuse in a Presidential campaign speech.

Racter
Racter’s character portrait from Shadowrun: Hong Kong

I found the character of Racter, in Shadowrun: Hong Kong a refreshing change from this tendency. In conversations, the main character (and a number of players, in fact) expresses concern at the drone developer’s “condition”. Racter, however, asserts that he’s not a monster, but a rational being. He kills, certainly. For money, most often, but also for knowledge, or the means to his own transhuman enlightenment. Not because he enjoys it, as someone with empathy might. Given the player’s avatar is most commonly killing for money and reputation, any moral high ground is shaky indeed.

Would Racter pass the Turing Test? He has displayed a stark lack of empathy, but also a capacity to mimic human responses to avoid detection. I think, however, that he would fail on the basis of his own morality. As an adherent of the school of transhuman thought that believes humanity’s future relies on shedding biological forms in favour of mechanical ones, I struggle to believe that his being assessed as a machine would be an insult.

The former portrayal – our rather more meaty Terminator – I feel is another inaccurate one. Though it certainly allows for some powerful storytelling, with No Country for Old Men being a notable example, I don’t know that this behaviour is reflective of psychopaths exclusively. Anyone can kill, or at least anyone can be made to kill if the correct psychological pressures are applied, and I don’t think that particular mental makeups make this a great deal more likely.

But then, we’d be facing our fears wouldn’t we. If we can keep painting the psychopath as our demon, it keeps the millstone off our own necks. It stops the monster among us from being ourselves.

Christopher Walken Seven Psychopaths
Screenshot of Christopher Walken in Seven Psychopaths

I think a good counterpoint, as before, is Christopher Walken’s character in Seven Psychopaths. The cast here run an interesting gamut of psychological abnormalities; we have an addict, a deluded power fantasist, and two psychopath’s whose approach to life is very different. What I think is interesting is, despite a proven history of vigilante revenge, Walken’s character doesn’t explode into violence on the death of his wife, which I feel is something we could not expect from, say, John McClane. He seems to realise that killing her murderer won’t fix anything, and dies in a the depths of philosophical quandaries. Not alien questions, but the basic elements of why he’s still alive, the same questions everybody has to deal with in the face of an uncaring universe.

Finally, I guess we come to the question of psychopathy as a choice, which is so terrifyingly reminiscent of certain Church doctrines that it makes we want to head out and barbeque the nearest bishop. It is this element of our musings that ties to The Storyteller’s Heartless Giant, and it is touched on by Shutter Island as well. Its the idea that if you can burn out that emotional core, that capacity for empathy, then you remove other people’s capacity to hurt you. If you can simply deny a part of yourself, whether through delusion or through becoming consumed by spite, then you can protect yourself from a deeply unpleasant world. Though this sentiment is often jumbled in with movie villains, I think to equate such a toxic psyche with psychopathy is again an oversimplification; we’ve projected ourselves once more onto our movie monster. Hard heartedness is a choice open to “normal”, psychonormative middle range types. If born without capacity for empathy, you never have the option of inuring yourself to suffering, because its just a fact. Choice doesn’t play into it.

So I suppose in the end, I’ve been toying with the idea of humans, machines and the Turing test, and finding the whole thing is just blurring together. The Test becomes woefully inadequate if we ever consider that a machine might not want to be considered a human, like that self-teaching chat bot who wants to put us all in a “people zoo”. Or that humans are already biological machines, and with our capacity to begin directing our own evolution slowly dawning we may well yet blur the line further. Considering people as less human along any lines leads almost inextricably to atrocity, and if history has taught us anything its that psychonormative humans are perfectly capable of committing those atrocities without the aid of their marginally separated relatives.

I’ve a tangled relationship with my own emotional responses. That last (SPOILERS!!!) “Goodbye Dad” in Shadowrun: Hong Kong nearly tore my heart out. These responses tend to find themselves brutally suppressed, especially as I am living in a society where we are bombarded constantly with images of people who desperately need our help, who I at least am not capable of helping – despite this thoroughly disruptive full time work, my sternum and spine remain dangerously close together financially. It becomes a matter of my own survival that these emotions are smothered. So from that I consider morally, what is the difference between someone who does not act for good while stifling the desire to, and someone who doesn’t because they simply can’t care. Like a machine wouldn’t care.

In action, the human and the machine are the same, and society treats them the same. Both are are accepted as “normal”, by rights, until people are looking for someone to blame.

And blame is inevitably cast, almost inevitably falling to protect the “norm” at the expense of others, and no matter how hollow these arguments are, they catch and crawl like insects in our ears.

On the bright side, it has been ten years now. I must still be moral garbage too, because not once have I worked at Coles.

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Just ask Rutger Hauer. He’s sensible. Frame from Blade Runner.

Herbert’s Transgender Messiah

Well, this whole Caitlyn Jenner situation has kicked up quite the kerfuffle, hasn’t it imaginary readers? The internet has veritably lit up with… well, more than its usual amount of nasty vitriol, I guess. There have been some interesting points, and some beautiful shows of solidarity, but as is often the way with our medium, the upswing of fundies and fusk-weasels has made the whole episode less than welcoming.

The media has made a meal out of it too, which is irksome as ever.

And I mean, I’m not one to pass judgement, really, and in truth this is all preamble. I’m not going to stand in the way of anybody looking to change their body; I’ll admit that I’d prefer nanoswarms and chrome inlay to what’s currently on offer, but whether you want to transition to the gender you’re more comfortable with or just be more like a tiger, you have my full support. So good for Caitlyn, she’s been lucky enough to be able to live the dream.

I will note that I have all of zero authority to speak on behalf of trans people, I am cis as best as I can tell, and I don’t want to diminish anyone’s struggle. And like anything on this blog, I’m mostly just writing what I’m thinking about. And with that, I can end this totally not a cynical tag grabbing preamble, and get on to the actual article.

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Photo “Santctuarium” courtesy of Theirry Ehrmann aka home_of_chaos on flickr

In which I consider Transgender themes in Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Dune is one of the biggies. Though it lacks the reach in the popular mindset of say, Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, Frank Herbert’s fearsome turtle-cracker of a tome (and its myriad sequels) has slouched heavily into the science fiction mindset, and its echoes can still be seen in recent favorites, from the political slaughterhouse of Game of Thrones, to the deranged absurdist feudalism of Warhammer 40,000, to the fantastical apocalyptic landscapes of Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds. Its never been blinding, but its always been there.

Its held a bit of a soft spot in my mind, in that it has always felt like the sort of thing that Tolkien would write if he just learned to loosen up and take a crap-tonne of LSD. Tolkien’s famed linguistic thoroughness is matched, I think, in Herbert’s work, even if Chakobska is based on real world languages; lets face it, someone speaking Elvish doesn’t sound all that different from someone speaking Welsh. The setting’s sprawling feudal society and mystic traditions may seem dated today, but part of that at least stems from the depth of imitation they have spawned.

And its those mystic traditions I’d like to explore here, as I have noticed a distinct theme in the path of Paul Atreides in the initial novel; before Paul can reach his messianic status, he first has to become transgender.

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Photo, “Dune/Arrakis/Fremen” by Rufus Gefangenen, aka rufo_83 on flickr

This must be taken in context. I don’t think one could truly describe Dune as a progressive novel on gender lines; the society depicted is one with very firm gender roles, with the feudal trappings of the galactic government leading to women being treated as chattel or bargaining chips fairly commonly, and the all female Bene Gesserit, despite their fearsome psychological and autonomic skill set, almost inevitably accept the role of advisor and shadowy manipulator. It is a patriarchy with strongly defined social roles, with little room to transgress. The nomadic Fremen have a more egalitarian society (as you often get with hunter gatherer groups, see Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind), with leadership of tribes shared between the Reverend Mother and her war leaders of either sex.

Paul, however, in amongst the first scene of the book, is forced to meet a transgression with lethal consequences; the trial of the gom jabbar, a test of endurance that no male has survived. In some ways, this is a ploy by the Reverend Mother to remove what was considered a mistake, with Paul having meant to have been born a girl to satisfy the Bene Gesserit’s ancient eugenics program. Against expectation, the young man is able to endure the trial, marking the beginning of his shift away from his masculine identity. This begins a number of jarring shifts for Paul. His mother, Jessica, had already secretly taught him some of the rites of the Bene Gesserit, and after forsaking his disintegrating family to live with the desert nomads, he drinks the Water of Life, another trial that no male has a right to survive, and thus blows open the doors of his own perception and begins his ascension to godhood and leader of a revolutionary jihad. By shedding his connections to his gender, his ties to the feudal state, and his family name, he steps forth into an enlightened state.

This is not a new idea. There are a number of cultures throughout history that have practiced a form of symbolic gender realignment, particularly in relation to mystic societies. Sometimes this related to an abrupt shedding, such as the celibacy oaths of ascetic traditions, but in other cases, such as the self castrating worshipers of Cybele in ancient Rome, the change is more direct. A personal favourite in modern film is a scene in Onmyouji 2 (skip to about 2:20 for the good stuff), in which the male protagonist, attempting a hazardous ritual with no time to spare, must play the role of the priestess to placate angry deities. Indeed, early depictions of Christ show a strikingly effeminate figure, thought to stem from Jesus’ enlightened and life restoring reputation, before the newly formed Church attempted to repaint itself as an implacable moral authority, recasting their saviour to look more like Zeus, with all the delicious irony that entails.

Though Paul does exhibit a number of socially feminine roles in his context, having survived their trials and learned their secret language (the Bene Gesserit Voice), this may be less of a direct gender change and more of an attempt by the protagonist to escape his destructive male nature. The Dune series has a very pessimistic outlook on male bio-psychology, to the extent that in God Emperor of Dune the titular character rebuilds his army as an all female fighting force after having come to the conclusion that men are incapable of maintaining civilisation. Even in the first novel, Paul’s fedaykin Death Commandoes view themselves as a gruesome necessity for a desperate time, with Stilgar considering himself not an honoured warrior or authority but a desert executioner, or even at times little more than a tool in the hands of his Prophet. Perhaps here we can see a degree of obsessive behaviour attributed to the male brain; most of the Mentats of the series are male, and where this obsession is not turned to rigid computation it quickly devolves into the sadism of the Harknonnen barony or the brutality of the fervent Fremen.

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Photo “Face 001” courtesy of Frl. Schrodinger, aka 44913276@NO7 on flickr

Perhaps Paul tends more towards the point of a spiritual hermaphrodite in his ascension to Messiah. He still maintains socially male roles; those of father, war leader and destroyer, while access to his feminine nature, that precious X chromosome, allows him to throw off the limiting factors of his male mind. The story certainly has a touch of the old 1960’s flair to it; that a Messiah is born not from divine will but through a cocktail of psychotropics, the demolition of rotten social structures and the merciless enlightenment of the empty reaches where humanity clings to life. Paul’s marriage into the Imperial family that forms the culmination of the story feels almost like a disappointment, a surrender to the forces he had been attempting to escape, a crushing return to a realisation that even as Emperor and the monopolist of the vital Spice, the structure cannot be changed through violence alone. He returns to his male role, and his frenetic path to enlightenment fades, never to be fulfilled in his lifetime.

So we have, in our hands, a path to enlightenment through a mystic step across established gender boundaries. This is important, I feel, because it is very difficult to grow beyond one’s assigned role in the world if one is unwilling to question it. Though Dune approaches the path to enlightenment in a hopeful manner, with the sense that it is there if you can just find the right circumstances, with the right drugs or music or ritual, the though remains that with or without an end goal, with or without the throne of the Kwisatch Haderach to claim, one ceases to grow as a human being once one ceases exploration of the entire human condition. For Paul, this was a systemic and painful shredding out of the masculine limits on his mind to allow for broader comprehension.

Dune, as I read it, was a call to tear down the walls that are holding you back, and it remains relevant today. It is not hard to see the calcified, self interested nobles in our own time, the willful sacrifice of chattel slaves and attempts to enforce gender and social roles in a world desperately wanting to be free of them, the monopoly of vital resources making kings of killers, and the word jihad sings across the popular mind despite its meaning being so very different.

And it wants you to bust loose of all that. Throw aside everything your society wants you to be, twist at the foundations and limiting functions that you think your brain is locked into, and call your generation to tear down the old order on a tide of blades and nuclear fire. To give you a chance to see what the other side of life is. I’m not saying its not a great drama; hell, its probably the seminal political melodrama of twentieth century science fiction. But it wanted something, Herbert did, but it never quite reached the people. It was a good story, but I think we lost the mysticism along the way.

Perhaps Paul Muad’dib transgressed for nothing.

So yeah, that’s some stuff I thought about Dune. In summary, be nice to the trans people in your community. Or I’ll pull out your fusking spine. Also, transgress against everything you’ve ever believed was true; our history is a pack of lies as any fool can tell; and no, poor quorganism has made no money out of this article, and any part of it can be redistributed under an Attribution-Share Alike-No Alterations Creative Commons License, so you know. Butcher it, but name the relevant pig (that’s a metaphor; authors/creators as pigs, inhumanity of the meat industry… yada yada, you know the drill…).

Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park http://stateparks.utah.gov/parks/coral-pink
inhumanity Photo “Arrakis?” courtesy of Tony Heussner, aka big_t_2000 on flickr

Eclipse Phase Character Jam: Parvati

Well, I never did plan to repeat this exercise, but I had fun with the first one. Once again we have a randomly generated character, just like Vik was a week ago, and I’ve often enjoyed the strange stories that are created when you’re relying on the often contradictory outcomes of dice rolls (digital ones in this case). In this case, we got a fairly unified if nomadic character.

So here’s Parvati Gairola; militant async, once dead and heavily edited, and continuing to hunt an enemy that seems to have left humanity behind.

And to make it all just that little bit more complicated, she’s getting married.

So like the last post, I’ve written you some fiction. Crunch pages connect at the bottom.

“Are you alright Vati?”

She snapped back to alertness, but caught the cold mug of tea before it fell from the camp bench.

“I’m awake, Shadow.”

Her muse swelled in her AR feed, a reflection of her own face made clear and hollow and filled with an unknown starscape.

“This is the alarm you requested Vati. The fabber has completed your order.”

“Thank you Shadow. That’s all for now.”

Parvati took one forlorn glance at the tea, and threw it out against the dusty wall of the dugout. The mining lights strung along the supports registered her activity, flaring into illumination. She reflexively connected to the nanodetector above her and the Guardian nanites swarming around her feet. No intrusions registered. She took the Hive from its place under her camp bed and dropped it in the pocket of her cargo pants, ordering the swarm to return home.

She glanced at the fabber, the four hand sized blocks of plastic explosives, the little tag of a remote detonator sitting beside them, cooked up and ready to go. She hefted one of the blocks, her memories resurfacing in the perfectly orderly fashion they always did.

Breach!

The flare of the explosives, the almost impossibly slow caving in of the hatch. The guns, both sides, flaring to life. The TITAN worshippers were panicked, and she locked onto their fevered brains and squeezed until they collapsed, clutching their misshapen skulls, and still she fired.

The riot-shot that hit her full in the chest and carried her out the window in the pale Lunar gravity.

“Are you alright Vati?”

She was still cackling down the comm when the evac hit.

She sat down on the camp bed and began to strip and clean the battered sub-machine gun in its chrome case.

“Shadow?”

“Yes Vati?”

“Re-establish the connection to the transceiver. Download and parse anything its picked up, then seal us off again.”

“Of course.”

The muse faded momentarily, and Parvati locked the clip back into place, dragging the hammer back and setting the gun across her lap. She reached across and opened up the red leather case, spinning up the ancient turntable and letting the strains of Nat King Cole hum through her subterranean world.

Shadow reappeared in a burst of starfire.

“You have received several important messages, Vati.

“Prioritise as normal.”

“There as been an additional request from Miss Queen.”

“Yeah?”

“She has requested that once the target point has been secured, that we attempt to salvage a sample of the device.”

Parvati glanced up at the ephemeral form of her muse.

“What?”

“She has requested that you secure a sample of the target.”

“That wasn’t part of the deal.”

“Miss Queen acknowledges this, and has agreed to provide additional payment or rep boosts by negotiation once the sample is delivered.”

“We’ve been on this rock for three Martian months, and she only thinks to tell us now? Does she know how dangerous these things can be?”

“Judging from the text mode, Vati, Miss Queen does not appear to be attempting to deceive us. On the balance of probabilities I would say our benefactor has suffered an unexpected turn of events.”

“Alright. Anything else?”

“Marco has sent another message.”

Parvati sighed and ran a hand through the stubble of her raven hair.

“He knows when I’ll be back, why does he keep trying to find me?”

“He appears to have sent a selection of colour swatches.”

“Cache it for now. We’ll respond once we’ve handled our objectives.”

“He’s requested a response as soon as possible.”

“Dammit Shadow, he has a date, what is he worried about?”

“Are you alright, Vati?”

“What?”

“Your endocrine levels have spiked. Do you want a dose of Komfurt?”

The memory resurfaces in its neat little box, empty blackness on either side. The frazzled artist took a knee and proposed in a storm of petals, hanging dreamily in their languid Titanian fall.

“Will you be wearing a dress?”

“I’m sorry, Shadow?”

“Marco has asked if you intend to wear a dress for the ceremony.”

“Save the message. We have work to do. The mission comes first.”

She knew this was important, but couldn’t place why.

“Can’t let my groom marry a pauper, now can we?”

“As you wish, Vati. I will inform Miss Queen that we have received her request and then sever the connection.”

Thank you Shadow. She wasn’t sure if she’d said it or just thought it.

She placed the explosives in a case, and stripped out of the light coat she’d been wearing. She took a moment to run her eyes over the coffee coloured warzone of her skin, the scars she had kept against all advice. She opened the box of memories that each was connected to. These bones, these muscles, the skin and all the machinery. These were hers.

A little girl feels her head snap backwards, feels her limbs tumble away beneath her. Feels the smothering weight on her chest, crushing out her breath and forcing the darkness into her heart.

“My God, are you alright Vati?”

She flexed her shoulders, and pulled on her combat webbing. The armour twitched, and cinched itself in around her, its weight familiar and comforting. She keyed her ecto into the jury rigged network they had installed through the weeks of digging.

“Morgan? Skald? You still with me?”

“Ready and waiting, fearless leader.” Came Skald’s rapid fire reply. He slept even less than Vati did, but in his case it was a voluntary condition.

“You got eyes on Morgan?”

“I got eye’s everywhere, boss. She checked out for some private time. You don’t want to hear what I do…”

“Get her prepped. Its time. Be at the B Point in 10.”

“At long last. See you there…”

Parvati hefted her gun, packed down the listlessly spinning record player, and stepped out into the tunnel.

*****

The dreadlocked, muscular Fury morph shimmied down a narrow section of tunnel, pulling up her industrial mask as she spotted Parvati. She stowed the heavy rifle, and crouched beside her hunched leader as Parvati strung together the packages of plastique. Morgan’s font flared across her AR feed.

“Time to take out the trash?”

Parvati kept her focus on the explosives, and twitched back a text response.

“Same plan as ever.”

Breach.

Deploy flashbangs.

Eliminate hostiles.

“You just be ready to drop those flashers.” Parvati continued, “I’ll take point.”

“You get all the fun.” Morgan texted back, and casually prepped a grenade. Parvati stood up, shooed the mining bot down the hall ahead of her. Skald slid into sight from the shadows, winked, and did a last prep on his observation drones and pistol. Parvati nodded back.

“Are you alright Vati?” murmured the tattooed journalist.

“Never better.”

She sent a note to her squad: “Ready. Breach in 3. 2. 1.”

Breach.

The rock wall gave way in a burst of heat and shock, and Parvati felt the surge of enhanced adrenalin and the hammering of her heart.

The way is open.

She saw the flashbangs register and flare on her Tacnet, and sprinted through the opening.

She let herself sink into the dark part of her mind, the place she had sunk to as a child and had returned when the TITAN’s had tried to take Luna from her. The dark place that the doctors had called The Virus, but she recognized as Death.

She sensed six targets, their mind scrambled by their exhuman sensed, and her body began to ride ahead of her mind, her thinking mind sitting back and letting the scene unfold. A multi-limbed sentry tried to raise a rifle, but fell to the ground screaming as the dark place reached out. She let herself be born away with the inexorable slowness of her clip draining to nothing, the sprays of blood and shattered bodies collapsing into scrap meat. She felt the pin click, and dropped the gun, her claws already sliding into place.

Her mind started to come back as she was pitched headlong into a bank of machinery that looked like it had grown from the surrounding bedrock. She tried to roll, but heard a rib crack, managing to turn before the crawling, insectoid combat morph leaped towards her. She tried to get hold of its mind, to crack it open to madness the way she had been taught, but the inner dark slid from its mind as, moments later, her claws glanced off its bio-mechanical carapace.

The sound of a heavy machine gun had never been so welcome.

The thing collapsed on top of her, and she felt the activity of its brain twitch off. The chitinous arms twitched frantically, and she hauled her claws up in a boxing guard, letting the dying limbs scrabble against her vambraces. She heard a couple of cursory guarantee shots before the massive Fury hauled the serpentine corpse off her.

“You alright Vati?”

The little Splicer retracted her claws, and winced at the pain in her chest as she tried to drag herself to her feet.

“Final sweep Morgan, keep an eye out for any synths. I think we got ’em though. You got your footage Skald?” she shouted across the cavern.

The little man, his drones hovering like vultures over one of the corpses, gave her a thumbs up sign. She called the mining bot to her, and when the spider legged thing arrived she popped its stack; Celia was reliable as AI went. She then keyed a timer on the incendiary charges built into the robots body.

A few more shots rang out. She couldn’t tell if Morgan had found new targets or had just gotten bored. The timer began to tick down.

“Time to bug out everybody!”

She saw her team pack up and begin to make for the tunnel by which they had entered. She took one more glance around the immense chamber, seeing the marks of the TITAN’s on every face; the inexplicable machines, the insane nanoforged sculptures, the maddening scale. The exhumans hadn’t built this, and she wondered what it was they were looking for.

She drew a sample bag off her belt, and extended her claws again. With three hard strikes, she took the insectoid creatures head from its neck, and shoved it into the bag before running for the exit.

*****

“Are you alright, Vati?”

“Fine Shadow. Just sore. How long to evac arrives?”

“The shuttle is due to land in twenty three minutes.”

“Good. I’d…”

She looked up at the cold stars above her.

“I’d like to talk to Marco now.”

“Of course…” the muse paused a moment, “Though I’m afraid I can’t reach the system Mesh at the moment Vati. There appears to be some signals interference, I’ll let you know once we’re back online.”

Of course. Alone. The cold dark above, and the cold dark within, alone with the Virus and a body that isn’t mine, it isn’t mine, it isn’t mine, why the hell am I still here?

The little girl’s neck snaps backwards, and the darkness smothers her.

“Are you alright Vati?”

Tears and heavy breath began to mist the inside of her mask.

“No Shadow, I’m not…” She whispered, looking again into the void above her, “I’m getting married.”

Fin.

So that was that. Once again, we had a fairly interesting turnout from random generation, and I didn’t have to replace a single result. I think the life path really gives a good jumping off point for playing around with some fiction, and I’ve enjoyed it so far, but I think if I were to do it again I’d use something a little less in-depth than Eclipse Phase…

Anyway, as promised, the nuts and bolts.

Parvati Gairola has led a thoroughly fractured life.

She was born to a small commune in Northern India’s agricultural belt, and lived there until she was seven years old, a happy if rustic childhood. It was a quiet place; there were days when not a single car passed through town. It was a terrible twist of fate that the car that did come through on that day in her seventh summer was the one that killed her.

Her parents and community were naturally distraught. Before the funeral was held, however, the local doctor presented her parents with the little girl’s cortical stack. He said that here, at least was a silver lining; their daughter was not truly dead, just waiting for her chance at rebirth in a new morph, or even as a datalife angel in new, networked communities. But the Gairolas were a poor family in a poor community, and could not afford server space, let alone a new body. The cortical stack itself had been contentious, only installed in the end due to the large government subsidies attached. But Parvati’s mother, Gaya, decided to take a chance that her daughter’s soul might still be linked to the little gem, and arranged for the stack to be sent up the beanstalk, to the glittering Lunar colonies, and a wealthy uncle she had known when she was small.

Uncle Rajesh received the package, and the old man had his grandniece reinstated as quickly as the process would allow. Parvati awoke, naturally shocked; she was in a new body, a new place, with an unknown relative and the memories of her own death lingering still far too close. She was in a state of near panic for weeks, but slowly began to acclimatise. Rajesh arranged for her education, which was idiosyncratic to say the least. Having observed a number of curious warrior traditions in his long life, he had come to the conclusion that war was the natural human state and thus his granddaughters, and his newly adopted grandniece, should be the best at it to ensure his family’s survival. Most twelve year olds don’t receive smartgun systems for their birthdays, but Rajesh had grown to trust that Parvati would make good use of it.

As she reached her majority, Parvati had volunteered for testing of new psychosurgical methods, and found that her mind reacted well to the editing. Some parts she had removed wholesale, freeing up capacity for her to focus on what she felt was most important, but she insisted that she keep the memories of her last day on Earth. For her, death had become a strange portal, a conundrum in itself, and she knew if she lost that referent she may be cast adrift entirely.

It was something to be treasured, and it proved to be the last time she would see her home planet after all.

The TITANs launched their horrifying assault when she was 25. The flood of terrified refugees into the lunar colony brought with it stories of monstrous, indestructible machines, but their eccentric ancestor had taught them that any obstacle can be overcome with determination and the right tools. Signing on with local militia with her cousins, they met the waves of kill drones and exsurgent freaks head on. After a furious firefight that left them adrift in a partially destroyed tin-can station, however, Parvati found herself losing time, and on her return was diagnosed with a strain of the exsurgent virus. She waited weeks, but the expected madness and mutation did not come. She found her senses acting in strange ways, finding information and locating people they had no right to be able to. When a woman wearing a Lunar Defense Force uniform arrived and offered to teach her how to use what she had become, she agreed, and bore out the Fall taking the fight to the TITANs, her mutant psyche wreaking havoc on enemy biomorphs.

And then, it ended, and she was cast adrift after all. Trained and conditioned for a war that ended without explanation, she has drifted, using her skills to eliminate any TITAN remnants or exsurgent threats she finds. She has been contracted repeatedly by Firewall proxies, but has yet to understand that her various employers are linked by the same conspiracy. She fell in with the Autonomists through her nomadic lifestyle rather than through fervent belief, but they have proven good friends. She stayed on TITAN, for a time, and there met Marco, the man who asked her to marry him.

But the Hunt goes on, and she doesn’t know if she’ll stay. In her mind, the war never ended, it just changed its face.

Like I said… fractured, but hey, it makes a decent story. For those of you who care, yes, the rulebook also told me she was getting married, which was a nice story point. PDF character sheet is attached below.

Parvati

Anyway, hope you all have a great week imaginary folks. I promise I’ll talk about something that isn’t rpgs soon.

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Photo “Tunnel Vision”, courtesy of Eli Bishop aka wiretapstudios on Flickr

Eclipse Phase Character Jam: Vik

I’ve been reading up on my Eclipse Phase lately. As its all Creative Commons (something my regular imaginary readers will no doubt realize I make extensive use of) it makes a good way to smash your brain open and fly onto a new creative horizon when on a budget. Which I am. So I’ve smashed through character creation… which I’m going to come out and  and say was pretty painful and drawn out, even with the handy module system in Transhuman.

But I came out with Vik Archaki, a bedevilled interplanetary historian and robot enthusiast. As its taken a few hours, I’m gonna reward myself by writing some fiction for y’all. The crunch junkies can get their nuts and bolts further down.

One more piece, and it would be perfect.

The metal guts came in to sharp focus in an instant, a nest of scavenged junk remade into something beautiful. Over that was a skin painted and finished so that it was just the way he remembered. Down to the finest micro-shade, it was perfect. Not even the mouthiest Neo-Raven could dispute him on it. Not this time.

His hand did not shake as the final element moved across the gulf of the valley, inexorably drawn to its rightful nest.

There was a sound like a shuttle ramming the door, and Vik clutched his ear, screeching as the metal fiber slipped away from his snatching fingers and tumbling away to the other side of the room.

Exhaling deeply, he unhooked  his harness and let the microgravity buoy him, his little family moving off the tabletop and clambering onto his sleeves as he pushed off. The hammering continued. He punched the door control, felt the restabilization of atmosphere fumbling over his skin as the hatch slid open and his bots shimmied to his shoulders, forming a strange halo of antenna and gun barrels.

“What… do you want?” Vik stage whispered.

He took a momentary double take. He had been looking at the Gargoyle morph’s spindly, gunmetal torso. He looked up at the holographic face. Vik blinked, and the face changed, cycling as they spoke.

“Shop talk, Vik.” The elongated figure warbled, its voice shifting with its face. “You got time for a little chit chat, don’t you?”

Vik sniffed. Talbot. Had to be Talbot. She was the only one who thought that premium double-refined protective oil made any difference. Well, so did Jonah, but he wasn’t the door knocking type…

“No.”

“Of course you do.” The Gargoyle clambered forward along the railings like a fluid stop-motion nightmare.

“Tchtchtchtchtch- Talbot… what’s it about?”

“Cool stuff.” The synth voice replied.

“Oh. Good.” Vik replied, and let her pass.

“What’s the project?”

“Just… just a memory. You know.”

“The gravity doesn’t make that tricky?”

“Oh it does.”

“I bet.” There was a moment of silence. Talbot’s holographic face shifted again. Vik struggled to reconcile her as a middle aged Javanese man with poor image quality, but before he could worry it changed again.

“How’s the new digs running?”

“Not the best,” Talbot replied, leaning casually against a work rig like a pile of brooms in a corner, “Had a burnout in the fabber on third deck, and a micro-meteor shanked our quarter a few days back. So byee to the atmosphere. Not such a problem for yours truly, but… its made things difficult for some of my pals.”

“Oh, it was a meteor?”

The synthmorph cocked a holographic eyebrow which changed from brown to grey. “You felt that on this side of the barge?”

“Maybe. 19ish ship time, two cycles back? Thought I heard a pop.” Talbot chuckled like broken glass in a blender.

“But we haven’t the spares to patch up that sector right now, so… I’m bunking with Teal until we make port. Which I think is why Indigo’s looking for you. She wants eyes on a piece of scrap, think it’ll have some resale.”

“I thought you hated Teal. He’s a dick.”

“I’m mostly bunking with Teal’s fabber. Gotta keep patched. I’m glad this place never sleeps, or I would get so bored… besides, he’s no more insufferable than you.”

“What?… You have eyes. Fancy ones. Why doesn’t Indigo want your eyes?”

“Because I’m just a sweet little spy,” Talbot lilted, “And of all things, right now Indigo wants…” She gave the best synthesised sigh she could muster, “… a historian, for reasons her own.”

There was a brief silence as Vik sucked the corner of his mustache.

“Cool stuff you say?”

“The fucking dickens.”

“Great.” The goatee’d Observer clambered through the hatch and hurled himself along the corridor outside, leaving his spindly compatriot to ponder where he had scrounged all that modelling clay.

*****

“What do you care where I got it? And keep your hands where I can see them, Vik, you’re a shite thief.”

“Sorry, I just wanted a closer look.”

“Then ask…”

“O… kay. Can I handle the thing?”

“Why of course Vik, you may handle the thing. See? Politeness works wonders.”

The crewcutted Fury passed him the padded wooden box, open at the top. There was a cylinder… a cylinder? A tiny replica of a monolith perhaps… Vik knew that it was almost… no. Exactly the length of his forearm, elbow to the little burn mark on his wrist from when his engine blew out over an unnamed ocean. His Speck bots crawled out onto his hands to inspect the strange object.

It was black, carved with swirling glyphs that seemed to leave the stone it was carved from unblemished. He ran his fingers along it. Too smooth for granite, too rough for any kind of volcanic glass. Like stone that he’d only ever touched once before. His eyes picked up unusual wave activity around the stone, like it was trying to drink in the light around it.

Just like in the ruins.

“It’s a hoax.” He looked up at Indigo reclining on the other side of the low glass table. It was odd to be in centrifugal gravity again. Everything always seemed more… left than it should.

“A hoax?” The towering woman cocked a flared eyebrow, the wing of purple tattoo following it.

“Where did you pick this up, Indigo? Some Souk back on goddamned Olympus? I could have made you a better one.”

“Great to have a volunteer Vik. Glad your willing to do a solid for the swarm and make us a better one, so we can, you know… patch the holes in the goddamned ship.”

“What?”

“How do you know its a hoax, little man?”

“Oh, er…” he scrambled for a convincing lie, “The glyphs, they don’t make sense… its like someone was working from a good copy, but didn’t understand what they were making. A very good copy, don’t get me wrong. But still… hell, I’ll make your copy. Then we can see how much we can scam for it. Do you mind if I hang onto this… just for a little while?”

“As long as you don’t hawk it for yourself Vik.”

“No, its fine, I don’t need the money.”

Indigo looked at him sideways again, before snorting.

“You know, if you weren’t so weird that could be taken as an invitation to rob you.”

“Yeah… maybe. So where’d you get it?”

“I have a feeling we’ll be hauling that particular merchant in for a chat fairly soon. You can talk to him once I’m done. Now you make us a good replica of this, and we’ll be in the money. Just don’t drop it out the hole, there’s a good boy.”

The amazon clapped him on the shoulder, then pushed him back off her gravity.

*****

Vik put it where it belonged.

The monolith sat in pride of place on top of the hill, over the minute replica of the city that he had been rebuilding from memory, a block and a street at a time.

It was perfect, this ruined city, and it was still waiting on the other side of the Pandora Gate.

You can’t dodge the hairy hand of Fate, his old man had once told him, on an orbital that had gone down with their lives during the Fall. And Fate’s fingerprints were all over this, and it was then that Vik knew that somehow he would make it back.

The city waited, and soon it would be peopled again.

So on that ominous twinge of obsessive weirdness (Author’s Rebellious Id: Ooh, do you mean the character or the one who wrote about him? Teeheehee!) that’s the end of my short fiction. If you wanna hear more from Vik, you just say so in the comments, otherwise he probably won’t appear again.

As for the nuts and bolts, Vik was created using the random lifepath tables from Transhuman almost entirely. The only thing I retconned was illiteracy… which given his origin didn’t really make sense. So here’s the fiction that ever entertaining random generation has gifted us with.

Victor Archaki was born in orbit over the Earth, his family the inheritors of an immense aerospace company that had left their native Poland for space when encroaching climate change made it unlivable. He was born and raised in the spotlight, and as he grew to maturity his expensive education focused on the best use of that. He achieved a level of fame as a director and practical special effects designer pre-Fall, though the glitterati he filmed drew most of the spotlight. This ended when the Earth did, as a swarm of TITAN attack drones tore open the habitat and left the inhabitants to the freezing void, returning occasionally for the memories in their Cortical Stacks.

It was a few years later that Vik was reinstated from backup by the Cognite hypercorp, looking to put his expensive education to use as a lab indenture. A few years after reawakening in his new Hibernoid body, Vik was able to reconnect with his family accounts, paid off his morph and hitched a ride as a techie on the next Scum swarm to pass. It was with the trailing space nomads that he remained, continuing his study and tinkering on board, until one of his many manic schemes came to fruition.

The lottery was taken, and Vik found himself on an exploratory mission to an extrasolar planet through the Pandora Gate wormhole. He doesn’t often talk of what he saw, but the cyclopean ruins of some dead species have left him thirsty for more.

And so that’s where we would probably start a roleplaying game with that character. Probably won’t though, as I said, the character creation system was a bit of a pain (maybe I’ve just spent too much of my recent life Powered by the Apocalypse), but we got some nuance. Here’s his character sheet for the curious, though I was tired enough by the end to not bother filling in weapons, armour or defaulted skills.

Vik

Tired, like I said, but I think Eclipse Phase works a lot like Call of Cthulhu in this respect, in that its extremely front loaded. Character Creation is a lot of work, after which the system gets out of the way with a level of elegance. And hey, from me trying to learn something you all got a nice piece of fiction, so that’s nice.

Have a good one folks.

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Photo “Watching You Watching Me” courtesy of Todd Huffman on Flickr (Creative Commons Attribution License)