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Just to prove I’m a biology geek as well as a physics geek

Big S.I.S. or Secondary Immune System is considered to be one of the great medical discoveries alongside germ theory and penicillin and often lauded as a concrete step towards a panacea. However, I’m going to use it to illustrate the biological/technological divide.

For anyone that doesn’t know how the human immune system works, invading pathogens have surface antigens (specific protein chains) that the anti-bodies in your immune system attach to and so flag the pathogen for destruction by the white blood cells. Now this functions fine in almost all cases, considering you will come into contact with billions of bacteria on a daily basis and only get sick every few months, but there is always room for improvement. Especially against pathogens that could outfox the normal immune system like HIV and malaria.

At the end of the 22nd century both Altair and Earth were experimenting with an artificial antibody producer. These would have a much lower threshold than the human response, and due to a more specialised nature, they would be able to produce antibodies faster. Both research teams worked in more or less isolation and reached quite different solutions.

The Earth team created a template for a micro-robot that took up residence in the liver. This would, on a prompt from an external source, pump out large amounts of antibodies and was controlled by a larger implant beneath the hypothalamus[1]. The treatment was very effective, could be reprogrammed to keep up with mutating pathogens and was mother of all expensive to produce. In fact the system was so expensive[2] and required constant upkeep to function that it took fifty years for half the population of Earth to posses the device and even then most health systems only covered it for an additional surcharge.

Altair took a very different tack. They stripped down the human antibody producing cells (plasma B cells) and got them to self replicate, then they allowed for a certain man made viral strain to be taken up by the cells and introduced a vicious evolutionary system. Each cell would produce a huge amount of antibody, but it would also use the concentration of that antibody as a trigger for autolysis (cell suicide). This meant that there was a constant variation in the antibodies and those that were binding to pathogens wouldn’t increase in concentration enough to kill the producing cell, thus promoting the evolution of a more effective SIS based on the pathogens the host was regularly exposed.

While technically more complicated to set up the SIS in this instance had almost zero maintenance and was self replicating, not to mention that in many cases its evolution was faster than that of the pathogens. Its biological basis meant that production was very cheep and in the same time frame Altair had total saturation and was already working on coding the production of the SIS into the populations’ genes[3].

Now, this is quite a biased example. Biological technologies suck for building spaceships, for example. But I thought it would be interesting too show two very different ways of solving the same problem.


[1] Large being a relative term, it could still be injected.

[2] There are many laws in Vast Worlds against self replicating machines too small to be hit by a hammer, this kept the price of construction of anything below milli scale high for a very long time.

[3] Interestingly, this is a microcosm of why the Altairians did the best out of the End Time Wars. Technology needs constant maintenance, skilled labour and a solid understand of its workings. Altair’s biological techs, while very clever, are installed on the genetic level to the entire population and so, while centuries of knowledge were lost in both instances, on Altair those technologies kept working generations after the machines have crumbled into dust.

I hate writing aliens.

Okay, that’s not true. Aliens are fine as long as there are people to make comparisons but they are really hard to write in isolation.

The Ewts, who are currently giving me the most trouble, are a species that I have put a lot of thought into and I’m currently churning my way through writing a language for them. Their problem is Empathy. No not caring part, let me explain.

When crafting an alien race there are a few simple steps: 1) pick an animal to base their morphology on 2) Pick a trait that makes them different from humans 3) Repeat step 2 4) Extrapolate.

For the ewts this is: Newts, Undetermined Gender and Empathy. Here follows the extrapolation.

So for a start the ewt philosophy is very centred around water, to the point of river worship, not to mention a deep seated view that events are implacable unless countered with a good front crawl. Their surroundings are dangerous, but they bread quickly leading to a safety in numbers attitude and a deep seated idea that they have to fight for what they have, but against their environment as much as themselves.

The undetermined gender (ie, the same ewt may fulfil different gender roles at different times) wipes out a lot of the immediate prejudices and because of this ewts have a precedence to treat people as if they can achieve anything they wish too. Racial prejudice is just as popular as in humanity but ewts have never formed a caste system, or a monarchy as the idea that a man can be predestined by their birth has never sat well.

Finally, the most complicated concept is Empathy. Ewts, along with quite a few of the dominant hunters on their planet, can pick up on the minds of other creatures at a distance. In the Vast Worlds canon this is due to the same quantum resonance effect the Altairians use for telekinesis but the ewts use it purely to gather information with no actual effect on their target.

Like human language this ability expanded in use and complexity as the ewts formed the first tribes and they can pick out another ewts emotions’ at a hundred yards. It has never been a force for peace; it did originally evolve as a hunting sense so the ewts aren’t particularly distraught at feeling (paetan, in ewtan) someone suffering, though there is a tendency for ewts to want to solve that problem if the sufferer is resident, as there is some emotional spill over.

Now, this empathic sense and shared sub-conscious is very difficult to qualify. If I were being clever I’d find some way to integrate someone into it, or have a human stooge to explain it too, but I’m not, I have to write a short story where an alien encounters these ewts and goes about dealing with them more or less scientific way. Worse, for the bits where the story focuses on the ewts I have to drop six months of work on history and cultural motivation into a couple hundred words.

I’m beginning to see why Star Trek just had pointy ears.

The Rise and Fall of Altair

Altair was never more than a regional power. A mostly educated populous and the low grade discrimination over the planet’s biotech specialism led to quite an introverted culture, and by the End Time Wars both the ruling body and the people wanted little to do with the wider galactic community. Even in the war itself Altair had little to do with the end result, though was the site of one of the final battles.

The AI virus wiped out nearly every machine humanity had, along with the ability to make more and in some cases the ability to even fix them. Large scale failure of cybernetic implants rendered brain-dead the rich and powerful, and more importantly the skilled. Only those off the network at the time, or those without significant electronic outsourcing, survived as anything more than a shadow of their former selves but their story is for another time.

Altair had one of the lowest numbers of cybernetic implants due in most part to trade regulations and their own small electronics sector limiting access, not to mention they had their own biological substitute, the ex-brain[1]. When computers fell, Altair almost didn’t notice and a few weeks of disruption, while the electronic systems were shunted over to the biological or simplified, was the worst they had. Even their food production was unaffected, most of their farming being done by trained biological systems that continued functioning.

It is one of the huge advantages of a biological focus that its products are extremely hard to break. Okay, so they also tend to be hard to manufacture, and take years rather than ours to reach a useful stage, but when you break an axle on a mechanical tractor you have to call in a mechanic, on Altair you gave it two weeks bed rest and a special calcium feed for the rest of the month. Not only that, but even if the secrets of biotech’s design is lost, they have a tendency to be self propagating[2].

Because of this, while even Earth lost a couple hundred years of its development Altair was more or less unfazed, but that left it standing head and shoulders above the other planets who were struggling even to hold a government together, let alone feed the survivors of the war.

Within months Altair had become the biggest export of technology in all history and fleets of trading ships filled the skies between her and the core worlds. Refugees streamed onto the planet, so many that at the height of the troubles Altair closed its doors to prevent its own people starving.

As you can imagine during this time Altair became very rich, but also powerful. Therein lay the seeds of their downfall as Altair had never had power before. They always survived under the protection of another and had no martial history to speak off beyond a small, near ceremonial militia[3]. Thus, when power was handed to them they used it badly, investing in a secretive defence program Project Q.

This was to be their ace in the hole, the telekinetic population granted by this project would be supremely powerful as both a trained army and a militia, but they failed to see the flipside. As their power waned the rising Empire of Earth had to remove Altair as a threat[4] but the people of Altair could not be cowed. While Altair’s official military and fleet was paltry in comparison to the forces the Empire could muster, one on ten of their population could take on a fully trained man in close combat, one in a thousand could take on tanks and there were a few individuals that could destroy armies if they put their minds to it.

There was no attempt to occupy Altair. The nukes began to fall before the space battle had even finished, and it was only the efforts of over eleven thousand merchant vessels that any Altairians escaped at all and even then barely a tenth of the population escaped with their lives.


[1] Short for Exterior Brain (again, Altairians aren’t good with names) the ex-brain had been designed some fifty years prior and was extremely popular for those trying to get an IQ boost beyond passive genetic mods. Essentially a lump of unconnected neural matter the ex-brain would learn along side the original brain and allow for greater parallel processing and so quicker and more accurate thinking. Many foreigners disregard the ex-brain as inferior to computerised processing as it is not capable of the same speed or aclarty in its function but many, even outside of Altair, applaud its ability to mirror human thinking patterns as it does not introduce the overdependence of wholly logical processing required to use an electronic mind. The fact it can act as a back up form in case your cranium is blown out is just a plus.

Reproduction of the ex-brains were lost with the destruction of Altair though a few still exist and still have personality.

[2] Never plow during the mating season, you get some interesting fields out of it that’s all I’ll say.

[3] The Hawks just for reference.

[4] The Empire exists by promising protection for tribute. However, with only the Empire as a major power the only protection they can offer is protection from the Empire and so only their overwhelming firepower and technological superiority prevent a wide scale uprising. Altair as a nation powerful enough to resist them is not therefore compatible as a single power world can protect the worlds around it from the thinly spread forces of the Empire and so form its own power block and fight back. To ensure galactic peace therefore, Altair had to die.

Hell collapsed onto the deck, trembling with terror for a good few moments before realising two things. First, he wasn’t dead, which was odd because he was fairly sure he could remember the bullet hitting him. But more importantly there was metal panelling under his palms, cold metal, and he couldn’t actually think of a place in Yann hi Shanapi where you could find such a thing. Well, not in one piece anyway.

After some long deliberation he decided it was probably safe to open his eyes.

The whole world lay before him, a small blue green penny beyond a pane of glass. From up here Hell couldn’t see the scars of fifty years of war, the destruction, the death, the pain, or his own township being ravaged. For an instant he froze, awestruck.

“Where the heck am I?” Hell asked, breaking the void.

“You are onboard the fast as light star ship Curiosity,” a voice chimed suddenly and Hell whipped round, searching for the speaker. “We are currently orbiting around RD3 B, known in your language as Aesaka, at an average distance of two hundred and thirty nine thousand miles.”

“We’re in space?” Hell exclaimed. “How… No, first, who, where, and if neither is applicable, what are you?”

“I am the ship’s computer,” the voice responded. “Designated Friday.”

Friday,” Hell echoed, getting used to the unfamiliar word. The disembodied voice was beginning to freak him out and he kept twitching his head to try and get an empathic reading, at best though he was getting a vague sense of electricity in the walls, and that was about as effective as trying to read the emotional state of a light bulb.

“Okay Friday,” Hell began. “How did I get here?”

“An error occurred in a subroutine that resulted in your accidental retrieval from Aesaka,” the computer replied.

“And put simply…”

“That was put simply. Do you wish me to give the full explanation? It is rather lengthy.”

“I’m in no hurry to go back,” Hell said, flicking his tail in annoyance.

“Very well, Sir. You may or not be aware that fifty years ago the entity known as Daraen made contact with your species shortly after it was revealed that he had been affecting history for some ten thousand years.”

“Yeah, that’s that myth the Word keep spouting,” Hell interjected. “Why’s it important?”

“It is important because it is not a myth,” Friday said testily. “Daraen is a real person, and you are currently aboard his ship.”

Hell froze.

Daraen is real,” he intoned. “The Word is worshiping an actual person?”

“Affirmative.”

“Which means he’s responsible for all of this,” Hell continued, voice rising in anger. “The Word’s world domination, the Last War, why our planet is a sanjva nuclear wasteland?”

“While the revelation of his existence was a major upset it was never his intention…”

“Well what was his sanjva intention?” Hell swore.

“He only wished to help,” Friday murmured.

“Help!” Hell exclaimed. “Help would have been shooting down the bombs. Help would have been shooting those Word sanjvani before they slaughtered my friends.”

Daraen’s plan to rectify the situation has been in motion for the last twenty rotations.”

“Twenty years,” Hell snarled. “He’s been sitting on his tail for the last twenty years? Where is this moron? I want to speak to him personally.”

Daraen is on the observation deck,” the computer said simply.

“Right,” Hell snapped, preparing to storm off. “And where am I?”

“On the observation deck.”

Hell jumped, and looked hastily around. The room he was in was large, but well lit by an entire wall of floor to ceiling windows looking out on the void of space, set back from the windows were a few comically oversized chairs, but there was nowhere to hide.

“I can’t see him,” Hell protested, only now realising it was probably a bad idea to insult someone when you’re a hundred thousand miles from the next place to breathe.

“Then find a mirror,” Friday sighed. “You are Daraen.”

“Sorry,” Hell said after a long moment. “Are you honestly telling me I’m God?”

“You’re not a god,” the computer snipped.

“Some alien super being from the planet Yaell then,” Hell continued, waving Friday off. “That’s ridiculous. I’m as Ewtan as the next guy.”

“Which is exactly the point,” Friday interrupted. “Twenty years ago, as the situation spun rapidly out of control, Daraen judged himself too detached from the Ewt point of view to make valid decisions on behalf of your society and, as penance, he incarnated himself as one of your people for a lifetime.”

“Meaning me?”

“Indeed.”

That, Hell felt, explained a lot. A total absence of parents, his unique colouring, the fact that he’d never really gotten close to anyone. Heck, maybe it even explained why he’d frozen against the Word; he’d been expecting something beyond himself to save the day.

“Shouldn’t you have gotten your Daraen back when I got my brains blown out then?” Hell asked, wrinkling his muzzle.

“Technically yes,” Friday explained, somehow managing to sound sheepish. “But Daraen was not in the most coherent frame of mind while creating you and more than a few loopholes were left in the code. For example, the automatic recovery routines still functioned when you received your mortal wound. Fortunately that is no longer an issue now you are already aboard the Curiosity.”

“I don’t like the sound of that.”

“Nor should you,” continued Friday. “As to bring back Daraen you must die.”

Hell felt that there really should have been some emotion behind those words; however the far more rational part of his brain had him running.

“Open!” he snapped as he sped towards a door and raced along a darkened corridor.

Hell, this is pointless,” Friday chided. “I am the ship; you can’t run away from me.”

“I can get away from any death traps though,” he shot back.

“I didn’t say I was going to kill you, I can’t anyway.”

Hell skidded to a stop. “More loopholes?”

“Yes. Look step into the control room.”

The wall next to Hell evaporated revealing a vast, featureless room with a single light illuminating a huge throne in the centre. Hell approached it cautiously, glancing nervously over his shoulder every so often, and when he was close enough touched a tentative hand to the metal.

Some memory stirred in him. Hell couldn’t say if it was good or bad, more than anything it just felt cold and sterile, but he knew that Daraen had spent a long time in this room. Lifetimes in fact. And that he was possibly the only other person ever to see it.

“You are remembering?” the computer queried.

“Yes… Maybe.”

“We must hurry then,” it continued. A slim black shape rose, like liquid, out of the chair. “Take this it’s…”

“A gun?” Hell completed, sighing. “You seriously expect me to kill myself.”

“It’s is the only way to bring back Daraen,” Friday pressed. “And he can save your world.”

“Kind of ironic seeing he’s the one who doomed it.”

“Please. Do this for your planet.”

Hell sighed deeply, and went to sling himself up onto the throne when the computer screamed.

“No! Do not sit on the chair!”

“Alright,” Hell snapped, rolling his eyes and instead sliding to the floor. “Go easy on the guy about to sacrifice himself for the planet.”

“You’ll do it then?” Friday asked eagerly.

Hell weighed the little gun in his hands. It didn’t really look powerful enough to kill. On the other hand as it was from Daraen’s ship he reckoned it could probably take out continents if you let it.

“Can I really do this?” he muttered, slumping against the side of the throne. “Kill myself and save the world? Kill myself. Save the world. It shouldn’t really be a hard choice.”

“There is little time,” the computer hurried.

“The world’s been dying for years, a few minutes won’t kill anyone.”

“Incorrect, but I understand the euphemism.”

Another long silence stretched across the room. It was probably some metaphor Hell realised. A single point of light in an otherwise totally black room. And his brain trying desperately to think of anything but his impending demise was probably significant too.

“Come on Hell, be a hero,” he murmured. “You let them all down once today. Don’t doom them all twice.”

With a deep breath, he raised the gun to the side of his head.

“Bring back Daraen and save the world. You can do it. You can…”

Something clicked.

Not the gun.

“Wait!” Hell snapped, hurling the gun away from him. “You never said Daraen would help.”

“Sir, you must do this!” Friday insisted, as another weapon dropped into Hell’s lap.

“No,” he protested, getting to his feet and discarding the new weapon as well. “Will Daraen save the world?”

“There is no time…”

“Will he, or wont he?” Hell roared.

The silence stretched.

“Well?”

“Evidence suggests,” the computer admitted at great length. “That even with your experiences, Daraen’s policy of inaction will continue under the assumption that he is not fit to make decisions on your behalf. At best he will attempt to mitigate the oncoming ecological catastrophe.”

“Well sanj that!” Hell screamed, taking a few aggressive steps into the blackness. “You were going to have me kill myself for mitigation! Well I’m going to do something.”

“No, you must…” the computer protested.

“Shut up!” Hell snarled, turning to sit on the throne.

A blinding wall of energy slammed into the ground in front of him, but Hell didn’t falter, stepping straight through as it were nothing more than a summer shower.

“In your own words,” Hell boomed, directly beneath the column of fire. “You can’t hurt me.”

“Please,” Friday begged, as the inferno vanished. “Don’t do this.”

“I’ll do whatever I like,” Hell snapped, and took his place on the throne.

It was uncomfortable for maybe half a second, before the whole seat remodelled itself for Hell’s physique, and he sat back, letting a wave of information wash over him. The ship was incredible. It had the power of a sun. No, two suns. It could do anything he wanted. Life, death, all could be his with less effort than twitching his tail.

A slow grin slid across Hell’s face, only for it to be whipped off a moment later as the sun exploded.

It wasn’t his sun, he realised a moment later, as a tidal wave of stellar dust ripped through the thousands of orbital habitats clustered around it in total silence. Billions were dying he knew, though he wasn’t quite sure how he knew, and tears clouded his mind’s eye as the planets buckled beneath the unstoppable tide of death. There would be no survivors. Only a half dozen ships could outrun the firestorm, and he was on one of them.

Within a few scant hours he could be the last of his species.

Hell smacked himself around the head to try and clear the memory only to have another try and take its place.

He’d spent eons searching, scanning the sky for another whiff of atmosphere, and at last he’d found it a scant thousand light-years away. At long last he wouldn’t…

“Get out of my head!” Hell screamed.

Angels or animals they’d said; well they’d been all too right. But there was one that showed promise, a small newt like pack hunter that seemed on the path to sentience. Maybe with a little guidance he’d one day have someone to…

“Argh! Computer, stop!”

A suddenly as they’d come the memories were gone.

“Maybe now you understand,” Friday sighed.

“He had his chance,” Hell panted. “And with it, he destroyed my world, for a conversation.” Hell reached into the ships systems with little more than whim and began to charge the main cannon, turning the dozens of satellites onto the surface of his world.

“What are you doing?” the computer demanded.

“Fixing the world,” Hell growled. “Starting with the Word of Daraen.”

The temple of the Word appeared on a floating view screen, seen from above and resplendent in the new dawn light. Around it sprawled a huge river delta and a bustling city. From the lofty height of the camera you could only just see that there were people down there.

“You’re using too much power!” Friday exclaimed. “You’ll kill them all.”

“That’s kind of the point,” Hell whispered.

“Please Hell,” begged Friday. “Daraen will never recover if you do this.”

“Good,” he replied, with a wry smile. “Computer,” he ordered in English. “Unleash hell.”