2946-07-06 - Special Announcement: Interview With Delegate Nisi-Bonn

Tomorrow's vidcast episode features a special interview with Delegate Sylja Nisi-Bonn of Mars, chairing the New Rheims Investigation in Confederated Congress. Topics covered during this interview will include the investigation, but will also cover the delegate's effort to secure one of the newly opened frontier worlds as an Atro'me enclave, to increase the percentage of Navy budget earmarked for frontier exploration and security, and to continue the trade embargo of the Rahl Hegemony.

The interview is expected to fill the entire time of the episode. Ashton has prearranged the sorts of topics to be covered, but not the specific questions to be asked, with Delegate Nisi-Bonn's staff.

As there are no special episodes planned for tomorrow, this will have no effect on the show schedule over the next few days.

2946-06-27- Sponsor Message: Announcement from Kosseler Shipbuilding

Thanks again to Kosseler Shipbuilding for being a sponsor both of the vidcast program and of the new text feed content. I hope that, if you are in the market for a new ship, you'll consider what Kosseler products have to offer.

We're hoping to introduce a second sponsor to the text feed soon - a sponsor who has not worked with the vidcast program. I can't say any more until the deal is final.

We here at Kosseler Shipbuilding would like to announce a new product and a special offer on this product for the Cosmic Background audience.

One of the main concerns potential customers raise to Kosseler representatives is that most Kosseler products contain non-owner-serviceable components. While we stand behind the value added by these extremely sophisticated components to the high standards of performance, comfort, and durability that have been our goal for almost six decades, we also know that for explorers and other frontier-bound interstellar professionals, the ability to service one's own spacecraft in even the tiniest detail is a hard requirement for any major purchase.

Here at Kosseler Shipbuilding, we've been working on a way to solve this problem for the better part of a decade, but with the pace of the Coreward Frontier's expansion we've seen in recent years, this effort has been given added urgency. After all, this isn't just a problem for potential new owners - spacers who've owned Kosseler ships in the Core Worlds for years are increasingly finding themselves drawn out to the frontier, where Kosseler repair facilities are difficult to find.

Today, we're announcing the release of the first stage of the solution to this problem. In addition to constructing a full Kosseler service yard at Maribel, which will be opening for limited business sometime in October, Kosseler ship-owners can now purchase Kosseler Repair Units, which contains a small swarm of the same nanomachines used in our repair centers and the equipment to control and direct it. These relatively inexpensive, disposable nanoswarms are designed to be small, light, and reliable, requiring only limited management by the ship-owner or a designated technician. A KRU will be able to diagnose, repair, and rebuild almost any of the non-user-serviceable parts on a top of the line Kosseler spacecraft, given the availability of raw materials. Because this new product is based on the same technology used in our repair yards, proper use of a KRU will be indistinguishable from having your vessel serviced in one of our facilities.

As many of you know, Kosseler has resisted public access to its nanotech-based repair technology for many years. There are of course safety concerns when any smart nanoswarm is deployed. A KRU's nanomachines become inert one full shift after they're activated, to limit risks; like the unit itself, the swarm is single-use and disposable.

Cosmic Background audience members who own a Kosseler spacecraft are entitled to one free KRU. This is currently the only reliable way to acquire a KRU in the Core Worlds - most of these items will be sent to distribution centers on the largest Frontier outposts, where they will be available for a reasonable fee to the ship-owners who are most likely to need them.

Once production has stabilized, we expect that KRUs will be available for purchase at all Kosseler facilities.

 2946-06-26 - Tales from the Inbox: A Breath of Fresh Air

Besnik took a deep breath and released the seal catches on his helmet. The oxygen reserve of his suit was exhausted, and it was time to risk the planet's fetid, steaming atmosphere. The instruments told him it was breathable, but he had no idea if any of the local microorganisms would be compatible enough with his biology to cause problem. That was a risk he would have to take, as long as he wanted to avoid suffocating. His landing craft, partner, and temporary shelter were still several hours' walk away.

With his first breath, Besnik coughed, and suppressed the urge to vomit. The atmosphere had a bad smell, but a worse taste – it was utterly beyond anything in his experience, but it was reminiscent of both rotting meat and an open sewer. As the clinging mists around him indicated, the air was warm, wet, and thick. The alien flora looming out of the steaming haze were misshapen, cancerous things, most of them translucent and vaguely amoebic. 

As the initial wave of nausea faded, Besnik tried to remind himself that the world he was stranded on wasn't quite the primeval cesspit that it resembled. Having studied its biosphere for more than a week, he knew that the organisms he could see were lumpen and inelegant to the eye, but highly complex biological specimens from which - he hoped - the science of biology had much to learn. Almost all of them were not individual organisms, but complex colonies in which multiple species lived in a complex network of symbiotic and parasitic relationships. Each was a teeming hive of multicellular creatures, acting for the greater whole as the cells and organs in a human body might – ferrying nutrients, disposing of waste materials, repairing injury, or fighting off invaders.

As Besnik fought to gulp the local air without emptying his stomach, The helium-filled envelope of a gas tree ahead of him suddenly tore open with a flatulent sound, and the whole organism crumpled wetly to the spongy soil. Suddenly alert, the human explorer put his back to one of the bulging sac-bushes and watched in that direction carefully. He'd been on-planet for almost a week and still hadn't seen any large predators, but the mist reduced visibility so much that he could have passed a Centauran Ferroceros at ten meters without noticing it or being noticed.

After several seconds, during which nothing else in that direction moved, Besnik took another reluctant breath. The expedition still didn't know much about the gas-trees - not even how they obtained their nutrients. Their beige-brown color certaintly didn't match with the coloration of the planet's other photosynthetic organisms. Perhaps spontaneous bursting was part of their usual life-cycle.

"Vipin, it's Besnik. Can you hear me?" 

Once again, only the silence of a dead digital radio channel answered his call. Either his suit radio had been damaged by the crash, or the atmosphere, with all its poorly-evaporated water, was affecting the signal. He'd tried without success to radio Vipin every hour since he had flown too close to the canopy and clipped clipped a gas-tree with one of the wings of his aerofoil.

Grumbling, the explorer collapsed his helmet, clipped it to his belt, and set off once again, following the bearing indicated by his wrist unit. The terrain was hilly, but fortunately, there were no major obstacles between his crash site and the base camp. If he'd thought to bring two more oxygen tanks, just in case, he would have been able to make the walk without even taking off his helmet. 

At the top of a particularly large hill, Besnik was forced to stop to take a breath. The gravity of the world was less than Earth standard, but somewhat more than shipboard standard, and apparently his exercise regimen on the outward journey had not completely kept up with the difference. It didn't help that the air didn't get any less foul-tasting as he breathed more and more of it, and he was trying not to breathe any more than absolutely necessary. At least, half an hour after shedding his helmet, he didn't feel any ill effects other than the sporadic nausea.

Reaching the top of a particularly aggravating hill, Besnik leaned on the flexible trunk of a gas tree and surveyed what little of the terrain ahead he could see. The land sloped down into a valley, and he thought he heard flowing water in the mist. A minor brook or stream would pose no problem – his suit might even be able to refill its water reservoir from the stream, properly filtered.

As Besnik started down, the gas tree he'd just been leaning on burst with a very balloon-like pop. He turned just in time to leap out of the way of its wet, membranous envelope as it fell to the ground. "Ugh." He grumbled, kicking the tree's ropy branches. He hadn't seen a gas tree burst on its own before he took his helmet off – not since he started walking, not since he'd landed on the ball of putrid meat which could be charitably called a planet. It was a mystery he'd have to mention to Vipin, when he made it back. Perhaps it happened all the time, but he had merely paid it no mind before.

At the bottom of the slope, Besnik found a small brook, its waters almost clear. He stuck his wrist probe into the water, allowing his suit to test the liquid and, if it was safe, to refill the suit's reserves. Evidently, the suit liked what it sensed; he felt the tiny pump below his elbow spin up, drawing water up a tube in his arm to the reservoir behind his back. When the water tank was full, he took a sip from the water tube protruding near his neck and waded across. The stream, despite moving quickly, had a thick, muddy bottom – Besnik's boots clung with every step, and gray mud covered them up to the ankles when he emerged on the other side.

"Vipin, it's Besnik. Please tell me you're not napping on the job." Besnik sent again, trying unsuccessfully to kick the sticky mud off.

"Besnik? Where the hell have you been?" The reply was punctuated with static as the channel struggled to connect. Besnik tried to breathe a sigh of relief, but instead he caught a whiff of the mud he had walked through and gagged violently. It smelled like someone had blended a bucket of rotting fish heads in sulfuric acid.

"I'm..." Besnik struggled for breath. "Almost back. Wrecked the aerofoil. Any chance you can come pick me up in the rover?"

"Got your locator. I'll get moving right away." Vipin was a terrible driver, but Besnik didn't mind if the all-terrain research rover picked up a few dents if it meant getting clean sooner. "See you in a few minutes."

"Thanks." Besnik barely managed to reply with his eyes watering; the mud's reek seemed to grow stronger as it dried. He kicked his boots against the rubbery side of a sac-bush to try to knock some of it off, but managed only to smear the side of the xeno-flora with a thin film of the stuff. Almost immediately, the bush trembled in a disquieting fashion, as if repulsed by the mud as much as himself. In the end, Besnik gave up and began walking again, glad for a light breeze in his face which wafted the worst of the acidic stench away. As he did, another gas tree nearby failed; its ropy, twisted trunk fell limply against an adjacent specimen.

"Why the hell does that happen?" He asked nobody in particular. Idly, he wondered if the planet's miasmatic atmosphere was beginning to affect him. Realizing that his progress wouldn't make any difference since Vipin was probably only a minute away, Besnik approached the fallen tree. With its gas sacs burst, it looked something like a dead, emaciated webbed arm. Its trunk's entwined vine-like elements twitched like severed lizards' tails. There was nothing redeeming about the horrid things, Besnik decided.

Shortly after he started examining the flaccid tree closely, the random twitching turned into a cooperative tug, and the entire tree retracted into the ground with an elastic, slithering motion. "Hey!" Besnik trotted after the limp canopy, which was out of sight by the time he reached the place the tree had once rooted.

The sound of the rover's electric motors and a crash as Vipin plowed through a stand of sac-bushes, caromed off a large gas-tree, and skidded to a halt right in front of Besnik. The vehicle's nose was coated in several varieties of biological slime, each with its own consistency and putrescent shade of brown. "Hell, Besnik. You've been breathing this mess? Why didn't you call sooner?"

"Hell, Vipin, I tried." He replied, watching the tree Vipin had plowed over begin to slither into the ground below the rover. Something about that motion seemed wrong, but with his head swimming from the stench of the mud, he couldn't figure out exactly what it was. "Hey, did we know gas trees live in burrows?"

"Besnik, that doesn't even make a little bit of sense. Let's get you to medical." Inside the bubble canopy, Besnik saw Vipin strap on his own helmet and head for the belly hatch.

Besnik had a foggy sort of idea, but it was a very unpleasant one. "Wait, Vipin, don't-"

It was too late to warn him. The other explorer leapt the last few rungs of the boarding ladder, and just as his boots touched the spongy soil, a lightning-fast vortex of beige tendrils erupted from the vanished tree's "burrow" to ensnare him. Besnik saw a flash of comically surprised expression behind Vipin's faceplate, then his partner disappeared into the ground.

"Hells." Besnik took a step backward. He realized what had been bothering him. The gas-trees all around him had trembled and spasmed when Vipin had struck one with the rover. They weren't trees at all - they were the limb-like tendrils of some colonial organism living underground. The scent of unfamiliar human flesh had convinced some of these creatures to free up tendrils to snare him if he wandered too close - and Vipin had jumped right into its grasp.

With a chorus of tearing and popping noises, the other trees nearby began to deflate and fall to the ground as well. He was, he could see, thoroughly surrounded, and even if he was not light-headed from the stink of the substance on his boots, he doubted he could keep track of where each set of tendrils vanished in order to chart a safe path out of the trap.

"Besnik!" Vipin's voice contained a mix of fear and rage. "Get me out of here! I'm-"

Besnik didn't hear whatever Vipin said next. He took another step backward, stumbled on a rock hidden in the undergrowth, staggered, and fell onto his back - right into the eager embrace of the vine-like beige tendrils.

Besnik M. sent us today's story. Besnik is a field xenobiologist who has spent a lot of time on life-bearing worlds, examining their ecosystems. What he sent us here is, by his own words, a snapshot of what it's like to work on one of the most densely thriving planets he's ever set foot on. He sent this account as a high-fidelity suit-camera recording, but Sovanna took one look at it and decided not to subject her audience to the footage. It will be clear fairly quickly from reading his account why she chose not to put it on Feedback Loop, and why this particular life-bearing planet was skipped over for colonization, even though its stellar primary is close to a major artery of the Spacelanes. 

Besnik's account here has been left on a cliffhanger because that's where the footage ended. According to his supplementary notes, what follows was a bit of an anticlimax featuring Besnik and his partner Vipin shouting unkind things at each other through the wet, peat-like soil, then burrowing back out to their vehicle. Whatever dragged them down (Besnik is confident that it was some sort of meta-colony of carnivorous gas trees) presumably found humans quite unappetizing. It didn't hurt either xenobiologist, and they didn't have any further run-ins with it in their remaining time on the surface.

Besnik does observe that not everything on the planet was so harmless. He claims that he spent four days laid up in sickbay after trying to scrape the dried mud off his boots and discovering that it contained toxin-secreting microorganisms.

2946-06-05 - Tales from the Inbox: Cupid's Scattergun

Today's Tales from the Inbox is brought to us by Ali W., who thankfully waited until the situation had resolved itself before sending us anything. Evidently, this took place a little more than a year ago, and he is now working with a new partner, in large part due to the events described here.

Ali's submission went out of its way to avoid explaining what happened to Mahir and Konnila. if either one ingests this text feed, they might provide the rest of the story.

As a note, the musings on mythology summarized here are original to the submission. Ali wrote a fair bit more on the topic than I retained for the text feed.

Ali didn’t know much about the mythologies of ancient peoples, but he did remember that some ancient cultures on Earth, before the Space Ages, believed in a magical creature which was responsible for people falling in love. He’d always considered the idea to be grotesque, even by the standards of ancient peoples; after all, they pictured the agent of love as a winged child, often little more than a toddler, which wore a blindfold and lurked in bushes and behind rocks places with a bow and arrow, with which it shot random passerby. Ali had always wondered how they thought it hit anything while blindfolded, and how its chubby little child’s arms could draw back a bow with enough strength to fire even the smallest arrow.

Ali also knew that at some point, the ancients figured out this wasn’t actually the cause of romantic feelings and came up with a better explanation. They kept the creepy bush-sitting child sniper image around, but only as a metaphor. He’d always wondered how the consistent lack of arrow wounds among the love-struck had not undone the whole idea before it could even get started.

Though he used to laugh at such superstitious nonsense, Ali has lately found plenty of reasons to sympathize with the people who came up with such wild theories. Ali and his partner operate a small-freight hauler on the Coreward Frontier, and after a recent run, their two-man crew gained a third member. Ali sends us the story of how it happened. “The whole Cupid legend isn’t as idiotic as I used to think.” He said, in the introduction he sent in. “But I’m pretty sure the little punk has traded in his bow. He snuck onto our ship armed with a scattergun.”

Elena Finn is not a very large ship. There are only six cabins, and the crew use two of them. Most of the hull volume is taken up by a pressurized cargo hold, intended for sensitive cargoes which need regular inspection. Conditions onboard aren’t exactly what anyone would call luxury travel accommodations, but Ali and his partner Mahir still find passengers from time to time. Most of their runs are hauling freight rather than people; small ships like theirs tend to move fragile cargoes and too small to fill the holds of the big hauler ships, but too important to wait for the hauler to fill the rest of its hold with other goods. For Ali and Mahir, medical equipment and supplies are the core of the business. Most of the new colony worlds hit some sort of medical emergency or sudden shortage every so often, and the nearest available stockpiles of what they need are at Maribel, or even all the way back at Jansing. Lugging crates of surgical machinery to and from the new colonies isn’t glamorous or exciting, but it is steady work which pays their bills.

Ali and Mahir had just unloaded just such a cargo on one of the colonies and were prepared to return with an empty hold when Mahir went out to buy a few last-minute supplies and found a well-dressed Atro’me wandering around the planet’s drab orbital spaceport, hoping to find a ship with enough free berths to take his family back to Maribel. Mahir, knowing that the addition of six passengers on a leg Elena Finn was already going to travel would be a profitable arrangement, negotiated a very reasonable fare, then hurried off to find a software patch to allow the ship’s food processors to cater to Atro’me diets. 

Ali was still installing the patch when the Atro’me family arrived at the boarding hatch. Hearing Mahir’s description, he’d expected two adults and four children, but all six of this family looked to be adults, or nearly so. The parents walked ahead of their brood, their more upright bearing, darker red skin, and visibly faded follicle crests marking them as older and of higher standing, and the other four, though bedecked with the wild, vibrant crest colors and brighter, almost orange-hued skin of their kind’s youth, kept their heads bowed, indicating their lower station.

It’s not always easy to tell at a glance with Atro’me, but Ali came to realize that three of the four youths were females; the fourth, the oldest child, was a male. They all spoke Terran Anglo fluently, of course – it’s rare to find an Atro’me who doesn’t – and as Elena Finn got underway, the youths decided to wander through the ship, curious as to what it contained. After the youngest, a quiet female named Konnila, set off alarms by finding her way into one of the maintenance crawlspaces, Ali organized the passengers into the lounge and laid down the law about what was off-limits during the five-day journey to Maribel. Evidently, he laid it down too well; the Atro’me stayed in the habitation compartments after that, but only the family patriarch spoke to him for the rest of the trip.

To smooth things over, Mahir did most of the interacting with the passengers. Ali could see that his partner didn’t mind this arrangement; Mahir was the more outgoing of the two anyway. Whenever he was not needed to run the ship, the man started spending much of his time in the lounge, swapping stories with whichever subset of the passengers happened to be there at the time.

It was clear to Ali that the passengers all seemed to like Mahir, but it became increasingly obvious that the three girls seemed to hang on his every story, often remaining in the lounge with him long after their brother and parents had retired for a sleep cycle. At first, Ali didn’t think anything of it; Mahir was the sort who loved having an audience – any audience – for his embellished tales. He probably didn’t think too hard about why he had the audience he had. Ali had his suspicions about the way his partner smiled at the oldest sister, but didn’t think that there would be much of a problem. The way he looked at it, the person responsible for reining in any potential problems was the girls’ father, not Ali himself. If the family patriarch didn’t see any problems with the situation, and Mahir didn‘t see any problems with it either, Ali decided he would let it run its course.

Ali soon came to regret his decision. When Elena Finn reached Maribel, each of the three girls independently arranged to return to the ship after their family disembarked. The older two had returned with luggage, indicating that they meant to stay aboard, if they were allowed to do so, while the youngest had brought nothing. None of them anticipated running into her sisters in the corridor in front of Mahir’s cabin.

The security system aboard Elena Finn doesn’t capture sound, but what happened next was not witnessed by either member of the crew until Ali found the recordings several days later. They indicate that this unexpected meeting turned into a chaotic, three-way argument before the two older girls fell upon each other. Atro’me are distinctive for their wide mouths filled with jagged shark-like teeth, and I shudder to think of the sorts of injuries those two girls inflicted, biting, clawing, punching, and generally tearing at each other with wild abandon.

The third Atro’me girl, Konnila, stood aghast at this struggle for several seconds, ignored by her older siblings. This was, of course, the very same curious explorer who’d set off alarms on the first day of the voyage by getting into the maintenance crawlspaces. She was the quietest of the passengers, especially after Ali’s lecture about off-limits areas, but in the struggle of her two sisters, she saw an opportunity.

Moving quickly, she took up the heavy polymer travel-case the oldest girl had brought. Swinging it overhand like an inefficient club, she battered her sisters over the head with it as they struggled on the floor until both had stopped moving. Ali doubted, upon seeing this, that Konnila was strong enough to kill them with the semi-rigid piece of luggage, but he couldn’t be sure, from the recordings alone. Before either had regained consciousness, their younger sister dragged them one at a time to the airlock and down the boarding umbilical into the station, and that was the last Ali saw of either of them. If they did come to, either they gave up and retreated to tend to their wounds, or they never managed to find a way back onto the ship in time. She kept their bags, including the newly-dented one she’d used to batter them into submission.

Composing herself, this formerly shy young woman returned to looking for Mahir, now standing a little prouder than she had since boarding the ship. Mahir bumped into her when he finished his inspection rounds twenty minutes later. She made quite the impression on him, as I understand it; despite first appearing shy, Konnila turned out to be quite enthusiastic and unwilling to take no for an answer. When Ali returned to the ship after arranging a new cargo, Mahir convinced him to let the Atro’me girl, probably no older than twenty T-years, stay aboard.

Of course, Ali didn’t see the security recordings until long after he’d agreed, and Elena Finn was a day and a half out from Maribel loaded with yet another cargo. When he finally did find them, it was just as he was beginning to grow used to the addition to his crew; after all, Konnila rarely ventured out of Mahir’s cabin, and when she did, she knew where not to go and what not to touch. Mahir had even managed to teach her to read a maintenance probe’s cryptic display, allowing her to help with the constant maintenance of Elena Finn.

Of course, now Ali had the recordings, and he needed to figure out what to do about it. Mahir, he knew, would stumble on them eventually, and even deleting them would only prolong the inevitable. Mahir kept backups, and those couldn’t be deleted. The longer Ali kept the secret, the more tainted by inevitable fallout he’d be.

Sighing heavily and reaching under the pilot’s console for the flask which he kept there for special occasions, Ali called his partner to the helm.