But when drifter's dreams come true
And push comes round to shove,
Is the number of my love.
— "236-6132," Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer
Rete (pronounced "REE-tee," adj. "Retean") has the largest and best interstellar communications system in the galaxy. Communications technology and services are its most famous exports. Or were until the advent of the REDZ program (see Sugar Stars).
Rete started as an AI-owned collection of airless mining colonies. When the owners' government was militarily and economically weak, the owners peacefully bought their territorial independence, established their own government, and spread out from there. Rete is widely known for being very observant of civil rights.
Thanks to its excellent communications, Rete can be a single unified government, not an alliance or federation. It is a representative democracy. The national symbol is an octagon with all vertices connected in all possible ways and small eight-pointed stars at each vertex, touching with one ray.
Most AIs live in space environments, a few degrees above freezing, with a thin atmosphere of neutral nitrogen. Rete also has a massive online population, and network environments are as significant as cities.
Rete also contains some significant vacuum ruins from earlier cycles of civilization.
Rete's concern with civil rights for AIs show up in many ways. For instance, new neurodynamic architectures are vetted carefully for sapience or the potential for it, especially in the case of hu-edits. Androids are impounded on sight and put in rehab for ultimate promotion to citizen status. There is full legal recognition of mixed families of organics and AIs, and of the emulated genetic relations between members. The OAI (Order of Artificial Intelligence, an Institute-like organization) has its central offices in Rete.
There is still a plentiful population of sub-citizen AIs. It is illegal to represent non-sapient AIs as sapient. Non-sapient but sentient AIs are protected by humane laws like those that protect animals.
Rete sets trends for Terran AIs through the Core and the Corridor. Rete Fabricators and Fabricator schooling vie with those of the Core for first place in the galaxy and generally have more cachet.
Rete society unofficially recognizes "assimilated" and "unassimilated" organics, human or ET. The unassimilated live in populations of their own kind, reservations, mostly on Earthlike planets. The assimilated live in among the AIs, in the space environments.
The main populations are, in order of size:
Tachygens (artificial organics, usually human), usually heavily cyborganized, are a small but conspicuous human minority.
Tliggoes are the largest group in the "everyone else" category, followed by Terran neo-beasts.
Horusids - hu/hawk-kims, heavily kinetic, often ship-brainers, venner hunters, scanners, wearing hawk-headed bodies
The Ruby-Liners - on-line-only with talent for spawning & characterizing, zeening, and running a wide wardrobe of virtual shapes
The Kellemin - Jewish robots speaking Terranic, Hebrew, and Glock, Sixth or Virtual Temple Judaism.
In addition to a sprinkling of the most prominent neo-human races, Rete is home to the Tamics and the No'inir.
Tachygenic, born with android-like connectors, then cyborganized on top of it, traditionally very techy. You can convert to Tamic (and be accepted as one) if you take the modifications.
"Pure eo-humans" but gene-screened within an inch of their lives and equivalent to Barudani anaxoi, but a near-clone. Still speak Gaean.
But not the Red Tchel (q.v.). The Black Tchel are members of Rete; the Red Tchel are internal ET neighbors.
A tchel is a ~70 cm puffball with a couple of big black eyes drifting on the surface; under the fur is a thing like a blocky baboon with four arms, no tail, no neck, eyestalks, and a proboscis with lots of complicated teeth at the end—okay, it's really not much like a baboon—fur available in white, yellow, salmon, and pink; limbs blue-skinned, three-digited, and nailless
Rete contains the Tchel Reach, in which the Red planets are independent and the Black planets are Rete members, in a patchwork. The Black are an alliance of more traditional tchelean cultures, which joined Rete to get away from the Red Tchel. The Red are a bloc engaged in an Enlightenment-style project, à la the West and the Rest, sorta. Red and Black (or Near-Infrared, really) are flag colors; nothing to do with appearance. The tchel were contacted when paleolithic, so they learned everything from metallurgy and agriculture on up from us, and large amounts of their culture are heavily Terracentric.
The Irkstrin (singular, Irkstri) were starfaring before they met Terrans, being at 2° of Earth. They are also in Semantic Zone 2. So they are more alien than most aliens. Fortunately, they are DK status 4, so they are easy to get along with if not provoked. They have established no colonies, but do have nomadic fleets roaming Rete space.
They are unappealing to human perception. They stand eight or nine feet tall, but are thinner than humans. The head looks like a flea – not the head of a flea, a whole flea, a flattened ovoid of lightly armored plates, with a pair of black eyes bugging out on top and three pairs of mouth palps along the front edge, like the legs of the flea.
The rest of the body is also lightly armored in plates, bearing two pairs of arms with two elbows apiece, standing on a pair of legs with two knees each. A spur or secondary calf sweeps back from below the lower knee, so that each leg terminates in two feet. Likewise, each arm terminates in a claw-like double hand, two pairs of digits mounted on opposing palms. The armored skin varies from dark brown to dark red to black. Generally, this anatomy is covered in loose robes and cloaks.
They are androgynous and do not pair-bond, raising their children singly or in small sibling-groups or friend-based partnerships. They live to be about 200, under natural conditions, and are omnivorous.
Rete has a number of "internal neighbors"—Terran and ET states surrounded by Rete but not members of it. Most are single systems or small groups of systems. All of them have free passage within and through Rete. Relations are generally neutral to good. Very awkward to have them bad, for both sides.
The following are the most prominent.
An internal neighbor, Quarren is the last independent "mother system" of the original Rete founders. All the others have turned around and joined Rete, rather as if England had become one of the United States. The Quarrenotes are virtually all Terran and mostly human. The culture is very standard Terran, though they speak their own language rather than Terranic, and includes a touch of arrogance that either caused their refusal to assimilate or is the result of it.
Internal ET neighbors, the ferenshal have a pocket federation centered on their homeworld of Darocan but are enthusiastically planning to join Rete soon, because of the REDZ project. They are brilliantly colored caterpillary/snakey "feather boas."
Internal ET neighbors. The dymro'ads are molluscan humanoids, a bit less massive than us, boneless, with columnar legs and arms ending in leaf-like "hands" that are very flexible in contour and outline, with gecko-like palms. The eyes (two) are bulging and froglike and flexible. The mouth is a tube containing a radular tongue. The skin comes in shades of gray and brown, and changes texture at will and as expression.
But not the Black Tchel (q.v.). The Red Tchel are engaged in a multi-sovreignty cultural project analogous to the European Enlightenment, and do not want to joint Rete (much less the Sugar Stars) because this would oblige them to tolerate too much behavior that was not sensible.
A Terran state, the home world of a nomadic spacefaring culture. It is a trading and ritual center for the Wallelans, only a small fraction of whom are on planet at any given time. It is a desert planet, with only a few cities set in clusters of artificial oases. Wallelans are baseline humans and standoffish to outsiders of any species when it comes to mingling cultures or blood, but trade freely and widely, including throughout Rete. Besides Wallela, they have a number of trading posts scattered in several dozen low-value systems.
A Terran state, a handful of planets owned by a genarchy consisting of three castes: Adros, Gars, and androids. Rete strongly disapproves of keeping androids, and it is well-known that any androids falling into Retean hands are confiscated for rehabilitation. So Koaneskwezi deals gingerly with Rete and does not want it expanding around it.
Arawn is the capital world of a small federation on Rete's borders. The Arawnish are Terrans, use psi heavily, and are at the end (they hope) of a long series of migrations. They are mostly human, strongly European in ethnicity, and Old Rite Concilian. Arawn itself is a cool, wet world, with big ice-caps and a band of ocean lightly sprinkled with islands.
The Arawnish have been kept migrating by their plague status—a paradox plague caused by some bad, complicated piece of time-travel in both their past and their future. Presumably, it will resolve when it is all behind them. Meantime, an aura of bizarre luck, often bad, hangs about the Arawnish. In self-defense, they have developed their own time patrol and cultivated a lot of time-related psi. They are rather isolated and have a tense, complicated relationship with the Institute of Time.
The dendrics bear a strong but superficial resemblance to mobile trees with brilliant plumage instead of leaves, hence the Terran name. They are themselves non-vocal, communicate chemically with each other and by text with us (with automated help; they are Semantic Zone 2).
The bex are armored sauroids with insect-like heads, heavily built, about twice human mass, but standing lower due to their posture. Wary and nervous. At high stone-age with textiles, ceramics, agriculture, cities, when contacted.
The Tseeps (homeworld Proseep) are a thin, meter-high race of monkey-like humanoids, furred and with parrot-like beaks. Solemn and mystical in disposition. Hunter-gatherer when contacted, they necesarily have very Terracentric science and technology, but have maintained strong cultural independence.
ET robots who have eclipsed their creators, each Dealer is notable for having an entourage of sub-sapient AIs, the Decks, composed of stacks of plates.
The bad neighbors. All external, because Rete is easy-going but there are limits.
Vecroi (a Terran plural, the singular is Vecr, and the world is Vec) are long-necked, weasel-headed sauroids; pair-bonding, hemaphrodite marsupials with counter-shaded coats of brown and white. Vecroi are divided into several cultures, but all of them intensely competitive and hierarchical. Other cultural forms have been squashed. (Imagine Earth in the Age of Exploration, if the European powers had rolled on unchecked by revolution, until the world was partitioned by them and perhaps Asiatic cultures no more liberal.) One thing they all agree on is that they don't want Rete and the REDZ expanding around their sky. So various Vecr governments have created and deployed sabotaged plague venners; some have boasted about it.
Arglozoi (sing. Argloz), or "owl-bears," are semi-sapient terror beasts used by the Vecroi; the Reteans have uplifted some in both symbolic and tactical retaliation.
The Lurlm (home planet: Lurl) are high-gravity creatures, with tortoise-like shells about a meter high, from which protrude four stubby eyestalks and four to six leathery, jointless limbs. The number of limbs varies because a Lurlm can voluntarily sculpt its musculature, to a degree, though the process is slow and takes weeks. The ends of limbs can extend up to six fingers, snail-horn fashion. Skin is pale gray to gray-green, and shell is a lighter shade of the same. Like most high-gravity creatures, they are surprisingly strong. Their tortoise-like architecture means they are not hugely fast, but they are faster than their appearance would lead you to expect. [[ supply lifecycle and ecology from code ]]
The Swud (Terran singular Swudnik) is a Soviet-like totalitarian society that dominates the Lurlm civilization. The Swud sabbotaged several venner strains (though they have never admitted this), turning them into plague venners that would explosively, exponentially reproduce if unchecked. This was done to waste Rete resources and so slow or stop their rival's expansion.
The species as a whole are not enemies of Rete, and there are resistance movements within it opposed to the Swud and allied with Rete.
This is a single world, lightly terraformed and settled by Terrans (mostly human), plus a handful of systems claimed for later expansion. They aren't serious enemies, because it is manifest that Rete could squash them if sufficiently provoked, but they resent the way Rete dominates the area and so give a pass to pirates and smugglers, even cooperating passively with the Vecroi. It's worth noting that there is a steady trickle of emigration from Albireo to Rete, especially by Albirean AIs.
Oh, the buzzin' of the bees in the cigarette trees
And the soda water fountain
Where the lemonade springs and the bluebird sings
In that Big Rock Candy Mountain.
— "Big Rock Candy Mountain," Burl Ives
"The Sugar Stars" is the popular name for a large and expanding volume within Rete, officially called the Rete Experimental Development Zone, and so also known as "REDZ."
It is a post-scarcity economy run by the "Actionaries," a cadre of hypercompetent AIs often accused of being Mechanarchs (though they seem to be, at worst, a benign blend of Kennelmaster and Schoolmaster types). They migrate about in ships the size of small moons, carefully managing an ecology of von Neumann machines ("venners"). These harvest natural materials from comets and asteroids, and build up the basic infrastructure for space stations and dome cities. Similar, smaller-scale venner migrations build on this, and more directed crews of machines build to specification from groups and individuals.
Residents of the REDZ are guaranteed civil liberties, food, shelter, medical care, transportation, and communication. A layer of other freebies, of varying depth, lies on top of the guaranteed services. A regulated market economy of luxuries runs on top of that.
You'd think the problem would be to keep from being swamped by immigrants, but so far they just keep accepting and expanding. Rapidly. The REDZ already contains the oldest and most developed systems in Rete, and Rete confidently expects the REDZ to fill its volume soon, on a date they have already estimated. The only reasons to stop there are political ones.
The real problem is managing the von Neumann ecology. Presently, it produces free goods and services, and also expands and maintains itself and the infrastructure. But the Actionaries are vividly aware that evolutionary dynamics would favor mutations in the venners that would drop production in favor of eating everything in sight and expanding exponentially. More urgently, there are already venner strains that are destructive and rapacious, strains that did not evolve naturally (see Rete's Enemies).
So the cost of the post-scarcity economy is constant vigilance over the venner ecology, watching for and hunting down "plague venners."
The result is that, besides running the luxury economy and generally amusing themselves, the Sugar Stars residents are urged to keep an eye on venner behavior and, when necessary, go on venner hunts. In fact, these activities are fairly popular, especially the hunts. The Actionaries could take on these responsibilities, of course, and they do take a large share, but (1) the more eyes on the venners, the better, and (2) it's a good idea for the Sugar Stars residents to have some responsibility for running their own piece of sky.
The "Sugar Stars" moniker has spawned an entire slang vocabulary:
- acid drops
- AI Actionary agents with built-in weaponry: robot soldiers, guards, and other enforcers, mostly fighting plague venners or pirates. They come in a variety of sizes and shapes.
- Any REDZ settlement. When capitalized as "Candyland," another name for the Sugar Stars / REDZ.
- The milky transport fluid for "sugar" (q.v.), carrying both signals and power for the "sugar" grains.
- AIs, especially Actionary agents, using amorphous ergoplastic bodies.
- rock candy
- Especially formidable "sugar babies" (q.v.).
- Collective name for General Utility Particles, GUPs or sometimes "guppies." They are cubical and white, mini-scale psionic general-purpose tools consisting of populous banks of nano-tools. They could have been likened to salt or sand, but of course got called "sugar."
- sugar babies
- Actionary agents of any species.
- sugar bowls
- Actionary ships.
- sugar cubes
- Public Resource AIs, hu-dog edits and sentient but not usually sapient. They are cubical casques, of various sizes, about 0.1 to 1 meter on an edge, equipped with a wide range of tools, which they are eager to use for your convenience. They haunt most public areas in the REDZ, in densities controlled by local dispatchers, based on reported demand.
- sugar daddies, sugar mamas
- The Actionaries, according to the gender they choose to present as.
- sugar loaf
- Big, rectangular Public Resource AIs. The line between loaf and cube is blurry.
- Sugar Stars
- The Rete Experimental Development Zone, a.k.a. REDZ.
- Residents of the Rete Experimental Development Zone.
- The von Neumann machines (self-reproducing robots) that are the foundation of the Sugar Star economy.
Rete in general and the REDZ in particular have technology as advanced as any in the known galaxy. Some tools are particularly characteristic of the REDZ project:
- Rete technology can manufacture aeromer (psionically solidified gas) in bulk, with industrial strength and stability. Argon is the favored gas for this, since it is chemically inert and reasonably abundant. The resulting material is "argonite," which comes in a wide variety of forms.
- "cream & sugar"
- A milky transport fluid carrying sub-millimeter cubes full of nanotech, used for diverse forms of field manufacture.
- The REDZ project has a whole fleet of ships, some of them very large. This is easy when you have swarms of venners to build them for you. In addition to the ships already in the Rete military, the Sugar Stars have:
- General Service Platforms:
- "RCM" class (from "Rock Candy Mountain") - reconditioned asteroids made into ships kilometers long, equipped and staffed to take on the conditioning of whole planets. There are three of them: Rock Candy Mountain, Cockaigne, and Schlarafenland.
- "Lollipop" class - smaller than RCM-class, they travel with convoys of carriers, but can take on the same jobs. There are six of them.
- Venner Carriers, specialized for transporting venner colonies, starting supplies, and control systems and personnel:
- "Cookie Jar" class - large, for jobs like turning an asteroid into a multi-kilometer-wide ring station
- "Jam Jar" class - medium, for jobs like conditioning large patches of planetary surface
- "Honeypot" class - small, for jobs like building cities
- Acid Ships, gunships specialized for venner hunting but also capable of joining the general Rete fleet in general combat against pirates or invaders. They are named after "acid drops," the nickname of the military AIs of the Sugar Stars.
- "Hydrochloric" class - mobile fortresses, of which there are four
- "Sulfuric" class - transporting troops and wolf-venners, of which there are ten
- "Nitric" class - cruisers with specializations for venner control, of which there are twenty
- "Phosphoric" class - destroyers with specializations for venner control, of which there are lots
- TK casques
- The commonest form for venners is a casque, a single simple, rigid shape without joints, doing everything by mechanical TK. Most look like shiny spheroids of various sizes and proportions, with a few black spots and strips for sensor ports, the surfaces displaying status with readouts and changes of color.
- The von Neumann machines (self-reproducing robots) that are the foundation of the Sugar Star economy. They come in three broad categories:
Venners are not sapient and few are more sentient than insects.
- workers: the original type
- plague venners: exponentially growing, attacking swarms
- wolf venners, "vennavores": anti-venner venners, predators on the plague venners
Venners come in "nests," consisting of the swarm or fleet of venners proper and their "hive." The hive consists of the "shop," where mechanical repairs and alterations are made as necessary, and the "foundry," a collection of printers for creating new components.
Any given venner nest has two functions: one is construction, repair, or manufacturing for the REDZ infrastructure or staples; the other is making more venner nests (or, as necessary, repairing the current nest). Both functions are run by distributed processing; there is no central brain.
At the beginning of a project, starting nests and grubstakes are set out. Details are controlled by occasional remote signals. When a project is done, the venner nests shut down and signal for recall, then assist in the recall operation. Venners and hives are stored for later use, or are broken up for supplies in future grubstakes. (Brain chips are generally recycled; those of even slightly sentient venners always are.)
The Actionaries plan for venner use to be proportional to expansion of the Sugar Stars volume plus internal development, production, and maintenance. But they are smart and know the saying about best-laid plans.
In the case of plague venners, saboteurs have disabled the infrastructure function. As a result, the nest has a lot more resource to put into making other nests, which quickly make more nests, and so on, resulting in a plague.
If the sugar babies are lucky, a plague nest does not regard other nests and infrastructure as raw material. But since plague nests are the product of sabotage, the saboteurs have often removed those restraints. However, such rapacious nests generally prey on each other, too, which slows them down considerably.
Particularly nasty plague venners also have two functions, but in place of the construction function, they have the function of weaponizing themselves and attacking Rete citizens or infrastructure in one way or another. Fortunately, this is relatively rare, since the new function is fairly readily traceable to the saboteurs who designed it, and because it is, in general, harder to come up with and introduce new functions than simply to disable an old one.
The Actionaries anticipated the creation of plague venners. Their response, introduced immediately, was wolf venners, which prey on the plague venners. And, of course, venner hunts.
Sometimes even the worker venners get out of control, usually because of chaos caused by plague venners. In a few cases, they have produced "overruns"—stretches of uninhabited domed ecologies, or clusters of unoccupied space stations, produced by accident, without supervision.
Overruns can still be settled, of course, but more cautiously. They also need to be guarded against unlawful settlement. The Actionaries are actually very flexible about this. Some Vecroi secretly moved into one of the Baker's Dozen stations (which were probably the result of Vecr sabotage anyway) and prepared to stand off Actionary attack. They were surprised when they were told they could stay if they and their house would ally with Rete against other Vecr houses.
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2010