Recently I wrote a post criticizing an article at the National Bureau of Economic Research that found a legal ivory sale in 2008 led to an increase in elephant poaching. This paper used a measure of illegal poaching called commonly the PIKE, which is measured through counting carcasses discovered in searches of designated areas. This PIKE measures the proportion of deaths that are due to illegal poaching. I argued that the paper was wrong because the PIKE has a lot of zero or potentially missing values, and is bounded between 0 to 1 but the authors used ordinary least squares (OLS) regression to model this bounded number, which creates huge problems. As a result, I wasn’t convinced by their findings.

Since then I have read a few reports related to the problem. I downloaded the data and decided to have a look at an alternative, simple way of estimating the PIKE in which the estimate of the PIKE emerges naturally from a standard Poisson regression model of mortality. This analysis better handles the large number of zeros in the data, and also the non-linear nature of death counts. I estimated a very simple model, but I think a stronger model can be developed using all the standard properties of a well-designed Poisson regression model, rather than trying to massage a model misspecification with the wrong distributional assumptions to try and get the correct answer. This is an outline of my methods and results from the most basic model.


I obtained the data of legal and illegal elephant carcasses from the Monitoring Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) website. This data indicates the region, country code, site number, and number of natural deaths and illegally killed elephants at each site in each year from 2002 – 2015. I used the full data set, although for comparing with the NBER paper I also used the 2003-2013 data only. I didn’t exclude any very large death numbers as the NBER authors did.

The data set contains a column for total deaths and a column for illegal deaths. I transformed the data into a data set with two records for each site-year, so that one row was illegal killings and one was total deaths. I then defined a covariate, we will call it X, that was 0 for illegal killings and 1 for total killings. We can then define a Poisson model as follows, where Y is the count of deaths in each row of the data set (each observation):

Y~Poisson(lambda)                               (1)

ln(lambda)=alpha+beta*X                   (2)

Here I have dropped various subscripts because I’m really bad at writing maths in wordpress, but there should be an i for each observation, obviously.

This simple model can appear confounding to people who’ve been raised on only OLS regression. It has two lines and no residuals, and it also introduces the quantity lambda and the natural logarithm, which in this case we call a link function. The twiddle in the first line indicates that Y is Poisson distributed. If you check the Poisson distribution entry in Wikipedia you will see that the parameter lambda gives the average of the distribution. In this case it measures the average number of deaths in the i-th row. When we solve the model, we use a method called maximum likelihood estimation to obtain the relationship between that average number of deaths and the parameters in the second line – but taking the natural log of that average first. The Poisson distribution is able to handle values of Y (observed deaths) that are 0, even though this average parameter lambda is not 0 – and the average parameter cannot be 0 for a Poisson distribution, which means the linear equation in the second line is always defined. If you look at the example probability distributions for the Poisson distribution at Wikipedia, you will note that for small values of lambda values of 0 and 1 are very common. The Poisson distribution is designed to handle data that gives large numbers of zeros, and carefully recalibrates the estimates of lambda to suit those zeros.

It’s not how Obama would do it, but it’s the correct method.

The value X has only two values in the basic model shown above: 0 for illegal deaths, and 1 for total deaths. When X=0 equation (2) becomes

ln(lambda)=alpha              (3)

and when X=1 it becomes

ln(lambda)=alpha+beta    (4)

But when X=0 the deaths are illegal; let’s denote these by lambda_ill. When X=1 we are looking at total deaths, which we denote lambda_tot. Then for X=1 we have



ln(lambda_tot)-ln(lambda_ill)=beta     (5)

because from equation (3) we have alpha=ln(lambda_ill). Note that the average PIKE can be defined as


Then, rearranging equation (5) slightly we have




So once we have used maximum likelihood estimation to solve for the value of beta, we can obtain


as our estimate of the average PIKE, with confidence intervals.

Note that this estimate of PIKE wasn’t obtained directly by modeling it as data – it emerged organically through estimation of the average mortality counts. This method of estimating average mortality rates is absolutely 100% statistically robust, and so too is our estimate of PIKE, as it is simply an interpretation of a mathematical expression derived from a statistically robust estimation method.

We can expand this model to enable various additional estimations. We can add a time term to equation (2), but most importantly we can add a term for the ivory sale and its interaction with poaching type, which enables us to get an estimate of the effect of the sale on the average number of illegal deaths and an estimate of the effect of the sale on the average value of the PIKE. This is the model I fitted, including a time term. To estimate the basic values of the PIKE in each year I fitted a model with dummy variables for each year, the illegal/legal killing term (X) and no other terms. All models were fitted in Stata/MP 14.


Figure 1 shows the average PIKE estimated from the mortality data with a simple model using dummy variables for each year and illegal/total killing term only.

Figure 1: Estimated Annual PIKE values

Figure 1: Estimated Annual PIKE values

The average PIKE before the sale was 0.43 with 95% Confidence Interval (CI) 0.40 to 0.44. Average PIKE after increased by 26%, to 0.54 (95% CI: 0.52 to 056). This isn’t a very large increase, and it should be noted that the general theory is that poaching is unsustainable when the PIKE value exceeds 0.5. The nature of this small increase can be seen in Figure 2, which plots average total and illegal carcasses over time.

Figure 2: Trend in illegal killings and total deaths

Figure 2: Trend in illegal killings and total deaths

Although numbers of illegal carcasses increased over time, so did the number of legal carcasses. After adjusting for the time trend, illegal killings appear to have increased by a factor of 2.05 (95% CI 1.95 – 2.16) after the sale, and total kills by 1.58 (95% CI 1.53 – 1.64). Note that there appears to have been a big temporary spike in 2011-2012, but my results don’t change much if the data is analyzed from only 2003-2013.


Using a properly-specified model to estimate the PIKE as a side-effect of a basic model of average carcass counts, I found only a 25% increase in the PIKE despite very large increases in the number of illegal carcasses observed. This increase doesn’t appear to be just the effect of time, since after adjusting for time the post-2008 step is still significant, but there are a couple of possible explanations for it, including the drought effect mentioned by the authors of the NBER paper; some kind of relationship between illegal killing and overall mortality (for example because the oldest elephants are killed and this affects survival of the whole tribe); or an increase in monitoring activity. The baseline CITES report identified a relationship between the number of person-hours devoted to searching and the number of carcasses found, and the PIKE is significantly higher in areas with easy monitoring access. It’s also possible that it is related to elephant density.

I didn’t use exactly the same data as the NBER team for this model, so it may not be directly comparable – I built this model as an example of how to properly estimate the PIKE, not to get precise estimates of the PIKE. This model still has many flaws, and a better model would use the same structure but with the following adjustments:

  • Random effects for site
  • A random effect for country
  • Incorporation of elephant populations, so that we are comparing rates rather than average carcasses. Population numbers are available in the baseline CITES report but I’m not sure if they’re still available
  • Adjustment for age. Apparently baby elephant carcasses are hard to find but poachers only kill adults. Analyzing within age groups or adjusting for age might help to identify where the highest kill rates are and their possible effect on population models
  • Adjustment for search effort and some other site-specific data (accessibility and size, perhaps)
  • Addition of rhino data to enable a difference-in-difference analysis comparing with a population that wasn’t subject to the sale

These adjustments to the model would allow adjustment for the degree of searching and intervention involved in each country, which probably affect the ability to identify carcasses. It would also enable adjustment for possible contemporaneous changes in for example search effort. I don’t know how much of this data is available, but someone should use this model to estimate PIKE and changes in mortality rates using whatever is available.

Without the correct models, estimates of the PIKE and the associated implications are impossible. OLS models may be good enough for Obama, but they aren’t going to help any elephants. Through a properly constructed and adjusted Poisson regression model, we can get statistically robust estimates of the PIKE and trends in the PIKE, and we can better understand the real effect of interventions to control poaching.

It's just how I roll...

It’s just how I roll…

My gaming group has begun a short Vampire:The Masquerade mini campaign, which I haven’t yet joined, but I happen to think that the World of Darkness system is quite terrible. At the same time we’ve all been yearning for some classic fantasy, and the manifold shortcomings of Traveler’s system have become obvious, even though I think it could be quite good with some tweaks and have suggested it as an alternative structure for Warhammer 2. This has led to some debate about which dice systems and basic mechanics are best – not which systems, because systems load a whole bunch of other non-dicey stuff on top of what they do, but just which basic mechanics. Most of my group are very fond of the World of Darkness (WoD) basic mechanic, but in my opinion it is terribly flawed to start with, and handled very badly by the designers. During this debate some alternatives such as the Warhammer 2 system or d20 system were discussed and generally dismissed as terrible. At the same time I downloaded a cute Steampunk game called Mechanika which uses FUDGE dice, the core mechanic of the Fate system. Some of my group have previously shown an interest in the Fate system, and one of them recommended Mindjammer as a basis for the Spiral Confederacy campaign, so I thought they might be interested in that system as an alternative for use in a classic fantasy setting. However, when I googled FUDGE dice I was taken to the Wikipedia page, which includes the probability distribution for the dice. This distribution has its most likely value at 0 and ranges from -4 to 4, which means that if you add 6 to all the numbers, the FUDGE dice are almost exactly the same probability distribution as 2d5 (check yourself if you don’t believe me!)

This debate made me realize that there are essentially only three key canonical dice structures that almost all RPGs follow, and aside from some extra weird systems, they basically only follow these three possible structures. I will describe each of these here and outline why I think most systems can be reduced to them.

Uniform distributions

These are the classics of d20/Pathfinder, Cyberpunk and Rolemaster. The primary difference between the mechanics of individual systems is how they assign difficulty – by a simple flat mechanic like d20, with a variety of arbitrary subsystems like Cyberpunk, or with some godawful sprawling complex of tables like Rolemaster. With these systems the main determinant of how much fun they are is the relative magnitude of the range of random values to the modifiers, and all the other things attached to the system. So for example d20 has a very wide random range that allows for a lot of nuance of ability differences between characters, and lots of nuance in defensive and attacking differences too; while Cyberpunk has only half as much random range, and the modifiers are generally much larger, so that success or failure become baked into your character design rather than having much to do with the dice. These systems are old classics and for good reason: they’re easy to understand and very simple to use.

Some of these systems, like Talislanta and Cyberpunk, allow the defender of a skill check to set the difficulty randomly. For example in Cyberpunk melee combat the difficulty to hit someone is d10 plus their escape/dodge. This means that the difficulty target can be random in some cases, but on average it still means that the difficulty will be 5+escape/dodge (in this case) on average. If you did this in d20, for example, the difficulty of hitting someone on average would be 10+AC, even if they rolled a d20 +AC every time. This process of rolling for difficulty like this is not a waste of time, however – it actually causes the random distribution of the sample to become approximately equivalent to rolling the sum of the two dice being used. To see this, consider the example of a Pathfinder attack in its most basic form, where we allow the defender to roll d20 to set the difficulty of the attack. Then denote the attacker’s dice roll result by A, and the defenders by D. We have A+attack bonus vs. D+AC, where the attacker wins if A+attack>=D+AC. This is equivalent to A-D+attack-AC>=0. But the distribution of the difference of two uniform distributions is a triangular distribution across their range, centred at the middle of all the possible values of the difference (see this pdf for the case of a uniform distribution on the interval [0,1]). In the case of A-D described here, the peak would be at 0 with values from -19 to 19, and it would look very much like a normal distribution. So in fact, if you allow both attacker and defender to roll their attack and the target difficulty, your system will converge in those cases to the second kind of canonical dice system, the additive dice pool.

Additive dice pools

The classic additive dice pool system is Traveler, which uses 2d6 +skill+attribute vs. a target difficulty of 8. The alternative Cyberpunk system uses 3d6, so is effectively the same. I think there are a few other systems like Numenera that also use summed dice, and I ran a whole campaign using 2d10 instead of 1d20 for dice mechanics on a d20 system base, so that campaign would have been in this class too. As discussed above, the FUDGE dice effectively produce the same distribution as 2d5. These distributions all have the property of being approximately symmetric, with the peak probability in the middle of the distribution (typically at the median) and very low probabilities in the tales. From the Central Limit Theorem, the more dice in the pool the more normally distributed it looks, but even with 2d6 or 3d6 you are looking very close to normal. This makes it very easy for the GM to understand probabilities, though not as easy as the uniform distribution because specific values vary, and you know that half the probability lies to the right of a fixed number, and half to the left. In the case of 2d6 there are only 11 unique values so it is easy to memorize a few key numbers: 8+ has a 42% probability, 12 and 2 have 3%, and so on, so working with these dice is easy. This was the basis of my recommendation of 2d6 for Warhammer 2. The only thing that makes these pools less useful than uniform distributions is that you need to add up the dice, which takes a moment longer.

Additive dice pools are also internally consistent if you choose to use opposed dice tests where your opponent rolls the dice pool plus skill/attribute to set difficulty. By the same logic as for uniform distributions, this is equivalent to generating a difference of the two dice pools. If we approximate the dice pools as normally distributed, then we can say that the resulting distribution is the difference of two normal distributions (approximately) – and this is also normally distributed. So in this case the result of the roll becomes effectively another additive dice pool, centred at 0 but wider and more normally distributed than the original.

There is another type of challenged skill check which both uniform and additive dice pools can use. In this case both people roll, and the attack only works if it succeeds against some target number and the defender fails against some target number. I think this sometimes happens in Traveler (though I don’t remember specific cases). If you use this mechanism, you no longer produce an additive dice pool mechanism. Instead, you have produced a special case of the third class of dice structure: counting dice pools.

Counting dice pools

Astute readers will have noticed that I haven’t included Warhammer 2 in the Uniform distribution category of systems, even though it uses percentile dice against a target threshold, and percentile dice are uniform. This is because rolling a percentile dice against a threshold probability is effectively equivalent to rolling a d10 and trying to get a number smaller than the threshold divided by 10 and rounded up. In that case, Warhammer 2 is effectively a game where everyone has a dice pool of one, and their die has a hundred sides, and the difficulty changes according to the attribute used. i.e., it’s effectively a variant of WoD with a single die in the pool. This is also the case if you use the success-conditional challenged skill check for either uniform or additive dice distributions – you’re really just constructing a really complex opposed dice pool. The Warhammer 2 system does this – you need to succeed against your attribute, and then your opponent has to fail their defensive check, in order for your action to work. In this case this is basically equivalent to a 1D vs. 1D WoD dice pool. This is particularly true at first level where most people’s attributes are between 25 and 35, so effectively what you’re doing is, to close approximation, rolling a d10 and trying to get over an 8. It’s WoD! Where everyone has one point in every attribute and no skills for most of the campaign, but once they’ve leveled up a few times maybe they can reduce the target to 7. WoD allows modification of difficulty targets for dice, so basically in essence Warhammer 2 is a game of WoD where every PC is completely useless at everything.

Who wants to play that?

Other dice pool systems are mostly variants on WoD, which is maybe not the original (I think Shadowrun might have been a bit before WoD but can’t be bothered googling). They all effectively use a variant of either dice pool vs. a fixed required number of successes, or dice pool vs. dice pool. I have shown here before that dice pool vs. dice pool opposed checks massively penalize the person who initiates the action vs. the person who defends against it, and I have also described how it is extremely difficult to design a consistent rule for defining target numbers and constructing dice pools based on attributes and skills. The only way appears to be to use (attribute + skill) to set dice pools and then divide (attribute + skill) by some number to set targets, but I have shown that this produces horrendous results in practice. I think the only solution that doesn’t produce these horrendous results is to have a table that relates the attribute+skill to a specific difficulty, and to have very large dice pools.  But… very large dice pools effectively converge to a normal distribution (based on the normal approximation for the binomial distribution), so in effect if you use very large dice pools you’re producing an asymmetric version of an additive dice pool. So Exalted, for example, with its very large dice pools, really is just producing an asymmetric and needlessly complex version of an additive dice pool.

Dice pools will retain their flavour primarily if they are at around 3-12 dice, which is perhaps normal for Shadowrun but probably mostly below the numbers you might expect in WoD. Dice pools of this size are fun to fool around with – they feel hefty but aren’t insanely hard to calculate, and they produce some successes most times. The big disadvantage of dice pools though is that their probability distribution is fiddly and changes with every dice pool, and as a result judging and setting difficulties is extremely hard. WoD provides many examples of this. For example, I recently read a Vampiric mesmerize type power that uses a dice pool equal to some attribute plus some skill, which one might expect to be around 9 in a good campaign for a relatively tough vampire with attribute of 5 and skill of 4. Its difficulty is the target’s willpower, and the magnitude of the effect is determined by the number of successes. So against a person with willpower 3 you will need 4 successes to achieve anything – but getting 4 successes from a dice pool of 9 is difficult. So someone with quite an epic attribute and skill combination will fail to produce an effect against someone with just a slightly above average willpower on most occasions, and will almost never achieve a strong outcome. This means that the dice pool and the difficulty have been poorly fixed. But how would you fix the difficulty in this case? It’s not clear that there is a functioning method for doing so.


I have missed talking about a few systems, such as Warhammer 3 with its insane mixture of dice, Seventh Sea with its complex rules for balancing breadth and width of dice pools (I don’t remember details now) or Double Cross with its insane maximum value and exploding dice system. These don’t fit the standard categories, which makes them fun but also impossible to get used to for most gamers. But for most non-insane systems, they will either be directly or mathematically equivalent to one of the three canonical structures described above. For play I really like to construct and roll large dice pools, but I think I have made it clear by now in this and other posts that dice pool mechanisms are fundamentally broken. I think the only viable, operative and relatively easy system to use is an additive dice pool with two fairly simple dice – so 2d6, 2d8 or 2d10. They’re boring, but they consistently work. The challenge then is to produce a game that properly adjudicates difficulties, has interesting character creation and makes all the other aspects of the game work well. Traveler almost gets the dice mechanic working (almost!) but as my players have repeatedly told me, the rest of the system is boring due to lack of abilities and special crunch. Perhaps the only game that does all these things right, then, is Iron Kingdoms.

And the three games that do everything wrong are Shadowrun, WoD, and Warhammer 2. The classics, my friends, are irreparably broken!

Nothing can go wrong with this expedition

Nothing can go wrong with this expedition

The Guardian has a series on lost cities, and today’s entry is a description of the lost city of Thonis-Heracleion, an Egyptian trading outpost at the mouth of the river Nile that sank under the sea in the year 200BC. It suffered a grisly though probably slow end, sinking into the sea in a liquefaction event as the weight of its temples finally became too much for the waterlogged sands on which it was built, which makes it a perfect analogy for the Egyptian empire at the end of its days, as the Greek and Roman empires began to eclipse it. Near its end Thonis-Heracleion was also eclipsed economically by Alexandria to the west, but in its heyday it appears to have been a bustling trade metropolis standing at the intersection of many great cultures. The Guardian’s description of the archaeological dig suggests a city that achieved almost-Talislantic levels of multi-culturalism:

The interplay between Pharaonic and Greek societies in Thonis-Heracleion is a constant feature of the city’s remnants: Hellenic helmets were nestled in the seabed alongside their Egyptian counterparts, as were Cypriot statuettes and incense burners, Athenian perfume bottles, and ancient anchors from Greek ships

and its description of the kinds of people who mingled in the ports and alleys of the city also suggests the kind of city that we love from Sword and Sorcery novels:

if you were a European merchant in the fifth century BC – an importer of grain, perfume or papyrus perhaps, or an exporter of silver, copper, wine or oil – then Thonis-Heracleion loomed large on your horizon. The same was true if you were a Carian mercenary, an educated Greek, a professional sailor, or a member of the Pharaonic court

This is a city that mingled Pharaonic nobility with vulgar traders from across the known world, soldiers and adventurers from Europe, Africa and Asia, and scholars from every major city in the mediterranean. Throw in some magic and you have a city brimming with intrigue and adventure, and bustling with gods from a thousand known religions. And the city itself has all the qualities of the kind of city you want to adventure in – Athens crossed with New Crobuzon and London before the Romans took it. It is a city of alleyways and bridges, canals and temples, where river boats from the Nile dock on one side to transfer their wares to Phoenician and Greek triremes on the other. It is easy to imagine its marketplaces and restaurants bustling with the people of a thousand nations: inscrutable dark-skinned warriors who drifted down the Nile from Ethiopia or Sudan, voluble traders from Greece, taciturn phoenician slavers surrounded by Turkish mercenaries, Bedouin camel merchants gathering for the trek across the great deserts to Timbuktu, and Roman explorers looking to map out new territories for the Republic. Over all this would loom the temples of a hundred clashing religions, calling their followers to prayer and supplication and, of course, plotting a thousand plots.

Thonis on sea

Adventures in the lost world of Thonis

The world of Thonis-Heracleion is a mixture of ancient societies competing for trade and power in the cauldron of the Mediterranean. The Greek and Roman Republics, Phoenicians, Egyptians and Persians were all in various stages of conflict or rebellion when Thonis-Heracleion was at its height, but they would also have been mingling with kingdoms from the African interior – the Nok from Nigeria, the Ethiopian successor states, the Kushites of what is now Sudan, and the many fragmentary and transient kingdoms of central Africa. In amongst these would have been permanent minorities, such as Jews fleeing from the Babylonians, and exotic people from as far afield as Carthaginian Morocco and Roman Gaul. With these people would come trade from every corner of Africa and Europe and near Asia, and also every political and religious intrigue they could muster. With the spies and agents of the scheming powers of Europe and Asia would also come their wizards, their priests and their assassins. The city would be ideal for either a sandbox campaign, based in Thonis but venturing down the Nile to Kush and Ethiopia, or along the coast to Palestine and Morocco; or it could be the centre of a story campaign focused around the conflicting ambitions of the imperial powers of the time, and also the increasingly desperate attempts of the last Pharaonic dynasties to remain independent and powerful in the face of growing Roman and Persian power. What kind of adventures could we expect to see in such a world?

  • Tomb robbing: For the death cults of Egypt, tombs contain hidden magical treasures – and very real dangers. The last dynasties of the Pharaohs are still supported by their death cults, and in their desperation to regain their old powers they begin to loot the tombs of their own ancestors, sending in foolhardy adventurers to find the powerful relics buried therein. Of course they hire foreigners for the job – they know about the curse that befalls anyone who defiles those tombs, so why not send in one of the new Roman or Greek interlopers to take all the risk? Of course, they don’t tell their mercenaries, and when they find out they are doomed desperate measures are implemented …
  • Blood for the old gods: People are going missing in the marketplaces of the city, and questions are being asked about who is responsible. In fact it is a Pharaonic death cult, preparing a dark ritual to bring back one of their ancient gods and purge the city of the enemies of Egypt. But who are those enemies, and is the death cult’s goal one of simple racial purity, or do they have more sinister political designs in mind?
  • The old man’s fleece: Down in one of the poorer quarters by the river docks is an old Greek wanderer, long bereft of his mind, who sits in the blazing sun by the river and mutters to himself of golden sheep and women with snake hair whose gaze turns men to stone. The locals, poor fishermen and porters all, laugh at him but they treat him kindly – give him sweet pastries in the morning, and move him into the shade at midday, and because he is a gentle old man full of stories they leave their children with him when they go to the well. But then one day the prodigal son of a local porter returns to cries of joy – he was long thought lost in a storm on the Phoenician merchant ship he rowed for a paltry day’s wage. At the party he tells of how he was the sole survivor of his ship, whose crew were entranced by the songs of long-haired beauties in the water, who devoured them as they dived into the azure sea seeking love. He shows them the wax he stuffed in his ears to protect himself “because he heard the old man’s story down by the river when he was little.” Suddenly they realize that old man has been amongst them for too long, and could his stories be true? But the old man is gone, taken by two stern-looking Canari mercenaries. Why is everyone suddenly looking for him? The folk of that poor quarter club together their money and hire a likely looking band of adventurers – they want their old man back, because he was gentle with the children – and they want the treasure his stories speak of. From this builds a campaign with intrigue and a chase for riches – and a retracing of the steps of the Odyssey, as the characters attempt to recover all the wealth and power that the old man spoke of in those days down by the river.
  • The golem in the old quarter: Since the Babylonians went mad Jews have been flocking to the city, which is the first stop on the way to safety in Egypt but for many also the last – why go further into unknown lands when Thonis-Heracleion holds the promise of a melting pot to rival the Persian capital? Just stay here and toil amongst the unnamed and uncaring hordes, because no one will ever do to a stranger here what was done in Babylon. But one old scholar nurses a grudge, and in the long, sultry evenings of the summer he stands on the roof of his house looking over at the Babylonian trader’s house, and thinks of devious ways of bringing about the end of that hated foe. Eventually he finds it, in the forbidden texts of his father’s. One night the golem breaks lose, kills the old man, and begins its rampage. Can the characters stop it before the authorities come with their sinister army of the dead, and lay waste to the whole quarter?
  • The African expedition: A Roman scholar has heard rumours of riches beyond measure in the interior, a graveyard of elephants where there is so much ivory that one could build a castle from it. But between Thonis and that ancient grave lies a thousand kms of trouble and mad kings, and anyway he’s not sure exactly where it is. Will the characters go with him, and share in his wealth? Or are they soft, lazy fruit eaters like the rest of this town …?

A city beset by foes and surrounded by opportunities, ruled over by a crumbling dynasty propped up by death magic, and subverted from below by the teeming poor and the scheming new religions of the European empires. To its south lies the rich green and gold tapestry of Nile country, to its north the dazzling azure of the mediterranean. In the day it is blasted by the heat of the Egyptian sun, that gives way to long, warm evenings of song and wine and intrigue, nights of hashish dreams and ghosts. Thonis-Heracleion – explore it all before it sinks below the shifting sands of the Nile delta, and drowns the gods of four civilizations in the startling blue waters that held brought all its promise.

Some technology endures ...

Some technology endures …

Our heroes have learnt many things about the forces they have fallen afoul of, and are beginning to understand that they have fallen in amongst a web of intrigues that is wide and ancient. The supine priest has awoken, and they found themselves lost against the Shoal of Dreams, an ancient object from his religious history that could not have been built by a primitive race. They visited their Oracle and learnt more about the ancient and sinister history of the AI and the death priest, and thanks to their work at the Tombspine they know that the ancient AI they are carrying, the Starred One, was driven mad attempting to penetrate anti-AI defenses to steal the ansible, which they now have in their possession.

They know now that the ansible is a means of faster-than-light communication, which is why it was buried in a tomb protected from intrusion by AI. Once AI have possession of an ansible they can communicate faster than light. Were an AI to reverse-engineer this technology and build it into a computer system, that AI would be able to spread across the universe, maintaining constant contact with all of its fragments, and forming a single, mighty AI that would be immune to any form of interference or destruction. In the hands of an AI, the ansible offers new dimensions of power. If the AI could find a biological system into which to implant themselves, in combination with this ansible technology, they would be close to being able to achieve transsubstantiation, and entirely escape their dependence on computer systems or physical structures to maintain their consciousness.

This is why several AI factions were pursuing both the ansible and the crystals it requires to power it. The characters had their suspicions about the reasons the AI were also looking for the bodies of Red Cloud of the Coming Storm and the witch he had been hunting; these suspicions were confirmed during the jump from the Shoal of Dreams to Reek.

Silicon life

During this jump, the Left Hand of Darkness alerted Captain Ahmose to a new problem: Red Cloud was sick. He was complaining of weakness and diarrhea, and was having increasing difficulty finding any strength to stand or even pray. ‘Darkness wanted to subject him to a full medical examination, combining all the limited data obtained from his cryopod with full tests. Given he was from a remnant planet it was highly likely he was susceptible to diseases that the rest of the crew were carrying but immune to, and this carried huge risks for him. Red Cloud had been spending a lot of time with ‘Darkness, as she was running language education programs to teach him Galactic Standard, but he still had huge difficulty accepting that the “Spirit in the wall” was not an evil entity, and she needed the human crew to assist her in the tests.

Ahmose agreed, and over several hours they coaxed Red Cloud into having the tests. He had begun to accept the crew now, and could speak to Alva and Lam and Simon Simon without referring to them as “pale worms”, though he still angered easily and in his fury would threaten them with torture and being rendered into magical ingredients. He grudgingly accepted the medical intervention, which required him to be poked and prodded and scanned and have his blood taken and be subjected to various indignities for three hours. At the end of it, exhausted and humiliated, he yelled weakly at everyone and struggled back to bed.

A few hours later they gathered in the Captain’s ready room near the bridge, to discuss the findings.

The Left Hand of Darkness was adamant about the results of the tests. Red Cloud was an alien life form, based on silicon rather than carbon. As a result he was immune to all human diseases, but also could not eat carbon-based food. He needed silicon-based substances to function. This was also why he drank so little water, and why his people were able to live on a planet with almost no water – they just needed much less of it. Red Cloud’s different biology was not a big problem for ‘Darkness: She could easily use the fabricators on board to produce silicon-based food, though they would need to take on extra silicon at the next port. With Ahmose’s permission, the ship began experimenting with silicon-based foods.

The characters were struck by the bigger implications of this finding though. If Red Cloud was a silicon-based life form, and transubstantiation requires a biological basis for the sentience that transsubstantiates, then AI would be very eager to get hold of his living body. This would also explain why the Confederacy had hidden a Lake class ship in orbit around the planet to strengthen the blockade – they wanted nothing to leave or enter that planet that could reveal the truth about its alien nature. To the best of the characters’ knowledge there was no confirmed sentient alien species in the Confederacy’s borders, all having been exterminated during the collapse, or having mysteriously disappeared aeons ago. No doubt the Confederacy wanted to keep the existence of this species secret until they knew what to do about it.

And yet here they had one on their ship, adapting poorly, getting sick, and being chased by powerful factions that wanted to experiment on him for their own sinister purposes.

Dreams and nightmares on Reek

By the time they arrived at Reek ‘Darkness had developed a palatable form of silicon-based food and Red Cloud was largely recovered from his troubles, returning with ease to his normal annoying, imperious and arrogant self. Reek is a small, temperate planet with a thin, tainted atmosphere and a tiny population of just 270 people, living in a few small communities at very low tech level. These people are a mixture of settlers, pilgrims and hunters, with a few researchers in official Confederate-sanctioned research centres. Reek has a single continent that stretches around the planet in a complex ribbon, with many small seas in the curves of the ribbon, all toxic to humanity and relatively empty of life. The planet is of research interest because what life does thrive in these small seas has evolved separately over a very long period of geological stability, and offers insights into the evolutionary process. The planet is also of interest to the Confederate navy because its apex predator, the Giger, is a semi-sentient psionic ambush predator of ferocious powers. This creature can grow to the size of a small bus, and uses its psionic powers to camouflage itself and stun its prey, which includes any humans foolish enough to walk the planet unprotected. The creature’s only known predator is itself – sexless, it breeds by mentally attacking another member of its own species, destroying its mind and embedding an embryo in the still-living victim. This embryo is believed to grow by feeding off both the living body and the psionic residues of the creature’s mind as it recovers from the attack, slowly reducing the sentience of the host until it goes mad with pain and anger. This rage causes the embryo to burst forth from its host and activate its own psionic powers, fleeing from the scene before the adult can recover sufficiently to kill it. The majority of births kill the host, but some do survive and recover, and it appears that those who do survive often have a residual psionic healing power. All these predators appear to be approximately clones of their parent, though there appears to be some form of mutation or change in the implantation process, as clones are not perfect copies – possibly due to the high intensity of cosmic rays penetrating the thin atmosphere. While the predators themselves are largely clones of near generations, psionic typing studies suggest that children develop a psionic and sentient signature that varies from their parent and is likely influenced by the mental anguish of the host. Research on the implications of this birth process for psionic powers is ongoing, and challenging.

Hunting these creatures for sport is sanctioned by the Confederacy, and licenses are available for those who can make a good application and are willing to wait the time required to preserve the population. The PCs’ intention was not to hunt, but to find a safe place on a physical world to activate the ansible, but they wanted to make sure they were ready to jump out of the system as soon as the ansible was activated, so they had a week to wait. They spent some of this time on the planet, exploring areas declared free of Gigers. They also visited a park with a single captive Giger, where they were able to witness its reflexive use of psionic powers for camouflage – standing on opposite sides of the beast, they each saw it in different colours and patterns to match the different backgrounds it stood against relative to each of them. The beast crept around its enclosure, patterns shifting subtly to match the viewpoint of everyone in the group, until it settled into the shade of a tree and dozed off, its predatory dreams leaving them all mildly unsettled. The thing reeked of threat and fear, and they argued with each other and took spiteful and petty digs at each other for hours after the visit.

Still, it did not destroy their minds, and seven days after they arrived in Reek they were ready to activate the ansible. They found a secluded park that was guaranteed free of monsters and put the crystal into the slot. It took just a moment for the ansible to activate, and they found themselves staring at a grey screen with a few dots on it, and a big box with some text in the middle. On the bottom right was an icon of some kind, and on the bottom left another icon; they couldn’t touch anything until they chose one of the three options in the central box. Everything was written in a script they could not read, mysterious and impenetrable. They tried hitting a few random buttons but they couldn’t get anything meaningful to happen. They were about to remove the chip and give up when a box appeared in the middle of the screen, displaying characters in Galactic Standard. It said,


Lam touched the message and a dialogue box appeared; when she touched that, a keyboard of some kind appeared, covered in unfamiliar characters. She tapped a bunch until eventually she found the execute button, and the message disappeared. About a minute later, another legible message appeared on the screen. It said,


It was soon followed by a third message:


They panicked and pulled out the crystal.

It was then that Ahmose remembered that Michael, the Ocean priest on board the Left Hand of Darkness, could translate any language with his strange powers. They sent a message to ‘Darkness, and asked her to bring him to the surface. A few hours later, they could read the screen and operate the ansible. The dots on the screen were stars, and the message had come from the specific star with the red circle around it – another ansible. They knew where it was, and it knew where they were.

It was then that Ahmose found the ansible’s message history. It had preserved the last few years of messages it had sent or received, messages from some ancient civilization 47,000 years ago. The early messages showed that the ansible was not a pocket technology – there were no personal messages or trivial exchanges, only short messages sending information of key importance to major organizations. For example:




The messages were infrequent, perhaps once a month, and blunt. Scrolling through these messages, it was clear that the ansible was a tool for maintaining basic galactic cohesion, not for a detailed means of keeping the interstellar community connected on a daily basis. It was like a faster-than-light telegram system. Perhaps it could have been developed to something all-encompassing, but subsequent messages – closer to the final shutdown date of the ansible – gave some hint of the reasons why it would not reach this stage of development. Perhaps 10 years before the final message, the messages began to shift their focus from trade and politics to war and genocide. For example:


After perhaps two years of reports of growing and spreading threats came the first reports of AI activity


and then


After this reports became more frequent and more desperate, as planets fell to various forces and reports of more strenuous and desperate attempts at resistance filtered through. The final message said:


After Ahmose read this final message in a somber voice, everyone turned to look at Simon Simon.

Then they pulled the crystal out, and fled the system.

Fire in the hold!

Fire in the hold!

An unexpected reunion

From Reek they headed to Ariak Safari, another hunting planet 7 light years from Reek. During their interview with the Oracle she had given them word about an illegal arms shipment they could capture, which they would use to arm their ship. This shipment was due to be collected at the Seven Sisters system, and flown to Horvan’s Nest. From there it would be smuggled into Severn, a planet that was being blockaded by the Confederacy. The Confederate Navy did not know about this illegal shipment, which was made possible because the organizers had corrupt connections on Severn. But somehow the Oracle had pieced it together, and had identified that the organizers would be recruiting mercenaries at Ariak Safari. The job of these mercenaries was to protect the smuggling ship against other criminals who might attempt to board it during its journey from Ariak Safari to Horvan’s Rest, and to stay on board at Horvan’s Rest until the ship was ready to jump to Severn. The ship, Losing My Religion, was at Ariak Safari for about a month as it recruited mercenaries, and so it was to Ariak Safari that the group headed. There plan was to be recruited as mercenaries, and then to capture the ship during jump to Horvan’s Rest, meet the Left Hand of Darkness at Horvan’s Rest, transfer the weapons, and then disappear. Easy!

Ariak Safari was very similar to Reek, a frozen planet with a thin, tainted atmosphere and a variety of large fauna to hunt. It also had only a rudimentary starport and no naval presence, which made it an ideal location for recruiting shady people. Ahmose successfully navigated contract negotiations with the mercenary leader, Zilschik Tad Malcontent, and they found themselves aboard the Losing My Religion. This ship was a classic freighter – a 1km long spindle with engines and accomodation at one end, a bridge at the other, and most of the spindle used to hold detachable cargo pods. Most of these pods were filled with agricultural equipment, but the plan was to distribute weapons amongst this gear. The blockade of Severn allowed agricultural and medical equipment planetside, but nothing else, but because this gang had a sympathiser in Confederate ranks they should be able to slip through the blockade if they disguised their weapons. The PCs were to take rooms at the rear of the freighter with a ten-man combat team called the Avalon Fire. They would have three weeks to plan their attack – one week in jump, one week in Seven Sisters, and most of the week in jump to Horvan’s Rest.

The two weeks on board ship gave them a simple plan: Simon Simon would seize control of the ship’s rather backward peripheral systems and shut down the doors to the Avalon Fire’s rooms, preventing them from leaving, during the sleep cycle. They would then walk up to the bridge and take it, with Simon Simon attempting to shut Zilschik Tad Malcontent and his elite crew into their rooms as well. Once they had the ship they would negotiate with everyone, and if necessary keep them locked in until they could steal the stuff. If possible they would kill noone.

The first hitch in this plan occurred on the first day of jump out of Seven Sisters, when Ahmose bumped into a big man in the hallway, and immediately recognized him as Kong the Younger. They stared at each other in surprise, but then she realized that he didn’t recognize her at all. She scuttled away, and remembering the rumours that Kong is a revenant, realized that this Kong was not the Kong she had met – but if they took him alive, they would have a chance to find out where the real Kong was.

Unfortunately things didn’t work out quite that way. The first part of their plan – locking the Avalon Fire in their rooms – worked perfectly, but the second part went wrong very quickly, because the Bridge was on a separate command system to the rear of the ship and by the time Simon Simon discovered this they were in battle with Zilschik’s elite crew. The bridge was guarded by four elite guards and their two sergeants, Aurora and Flickknife, as well as Zilschik and, presumably, Kong the Younger. The PCs were trapped in the hallway near the bridge in an intense gun battle with the four crew and their sergeants when Kong the Younger teleported into their room and dropped a grenade on them. He took cover behind control panels in the bridge and suddenly they were beset on all sides. While Simon Simon and Ahmose were trying to kill him Lam and Alva were in intense gun combat with the remaining crew. They had four of their own crew with them for support, and it was beginning to look like they would prevail, until Zilschik appeared in the doorway behind his colleagues. He was carrying a PGMP – a man-portable plasma gun – which he unleashed at full power on Alva. The gun tore through Alva’s cover in the blink of an eye, and reduced the entire area to ashes. Fortunately Alva was able to push all his will into a reflexive teleport, and emerged unscathed behind Zilschik, crouched against the benches that the rest of Zilschik’s crew were taking cover behind. Lam’s laser shots were firing past him on all sides, and the room was full of smoke – everywhere Alva had been hiding was a boiling mess of plastic and metal. Alva opened fire with his whole magazine on Zilschik, but it wasn’t enough, and suddenly everyone was trying to shoot, stab or crush Alva.

Fortunately Lam was able to kill Zilschik with a single headshot, and Simon Simon managed to access the main computer system and shut down power to all the crew’s laser weapons. Kong teleported out again, leaving a grenade behind, but the battle had turned. They managed to kill the crew and the sergeants, and were just finishing the battle when Kong the Younger reappeared in the doorway, carrying a second PGMP.

He didn’t know that power had been shut down to all the energy weapons his team possessed. He screamed at them in rage and then opened fire – and nothing happened. A small woman’s voice said, “Please check power engagement settings,” and then Alva opened fire with the first PGMP. Kong the Younger’s entire lower body dissolved into a mass of scorched flesh.

They had the ship.


They were able to negotiate with the Avalon Fire, who agreed to spend the rest of the jump confined to their rooms. While they were negotiating Alva noticed something strange about Kong the Younger’s body, and by the time negotiations were finished everyone was watching it. His face had begun to change – first beginning to develop a strange discoloration, and then very slowly beginning to change shape. Ahmose, beginning to suspect something, had Alva set up his drone with a time lapse camera, and ordered everyone to leave the body untouched for a few hours. By the time they had the ship secure and had checked the armoury and cleared up the other bodies, Ahmose was sure – Kong the Younger was a changeling.

Changelings are a small group of people from a single planet, called Valentine, who have the ability to change their body shape and structure to mimic other humanoids. There is much debate about whether they are a strange human mutation or an alien species, but there is little debate about their general qualities amongst the Confederate navy – they are shiftless, untrustworthy and dangerous outcasts. They are also excellent agents. Most people who have worked for or know the Confederate navy knows that it uses changelings for its most sinister tasks, and their ability to change shape makes them highly suspect to most naval crew. They are also known to have a high propensity for psionics, which they use to support their shape shifting, and the general rumour is that they are exempt from the usual restrictions on the use of psionics. No one trusts a changeling, and this distrust is confirmed by their behavior outside the navy – those encountered outside of their home planet who are not naval agents are almost always criminals.

This explained the rumours that Kong the Younger was a revenant. Either he had hired a couple of changelings to impersonate him, or a group of changelings had killed the original Kong and taken over his criminal empire. They had probably also killed the captain of this vessel, and would be able to pretend to be him for the crucial task of getting through the naval blockade at Severn.

Lam and Ahmose both spat on the corpse, and then spaced it. No good could come of having a changeling on their ship. They also searched through his computer records and communications, and they were able to confirm some details about Kong the Younger’s activities on Dune. A changeling agent on Dune had smuggled the two bodies out of Dune and onto the space station, and the plan had been for these bodies to be collected after the space station was destroyed. He did not know that the Reckless was monitoring the station and identified the presence of the alien bodies when they arrived. He had left ahead of the destruction of the space station with the crystal that Ahmose and Alva had obtained for him, and never suspected that the bodies had been picked up by Ahmose on behalf of the navy. He still didn’t know that the Reckless had been hiding on the edge of the atmosphere the whole time, though he did know from his scavengers that someone else had beaten them to the bodies. It also appeared that his motives for smuggling out the bodies and the crystal were not merely selfish – the contact that Kong the Younger was dealing with promised to cause trouble for the Confederacy, and Kong and his changeling coterie saw this as an opportunity to advance the cause of freedom for the Changeling planet. It appeared that the Changelings wanted to escape the Confederate yoke, and an organization amongst them had a long plan to achieve this.

All this information they copied and prepared to transfer to the ‘Darkness when they arrived at Horvan’s Rest. They searched through the cargo pods to identify what they needed to take, and prepared a program to offload it quickly from the cargo pods. Everything was ready.

They arrived in Horvan’s Rest to a standard scene of tranquil space operations. The first burst of comms informed them that the Left Hand of Darkness was in system waiting for them, and aside from a few small freight craft nothing unusual was happening. Lam set a path out of the jump zone to rendezvous with the Left Hand of Darkness, and then set the automated unloading program running.

It was then that they received the incoming call.

Registered Freighter Losing My Religion, this is the Confederate Naval vessel The Reckless. Please prepare for a customs inspection.

Silence on the bridge was so stifling they could almost hear the rage rising in Ahmose’s breast. They watched the screens in horror as the vast bulk of the Reckless slowly materialized just off their bow, first blocking out the stars and then slowly forming from a black crystalline mass to the glittering swathe of deadly metal they had last seen during their catastrophic dive into dune. Of course no one on the Reckless was aware of the fate soon to befall the PCs – they were holding a yacht race in the atmosphere around the ship, thousands of people gathered on small floating platforms and party ships to watch as a colourful assortment of windships drifted across the face of the giant spaceship, cheering and letting off occasional fireworks.

Inside the bridge of the Losing My Religion the only fireworks were coming from Ahmose and Alva, who were further outraged by the second message they received.

Registered Freighter Losing My Religion, this is boarding officer Captain Noulgrim. Please indicate your readiness for boarding, and proceed to the docking area. Do not come wearing any armour, or bearing any weapons. We will be docking in several minutes.

There was nothing they could do, in the face of an 8km long naval ship just a couple of hundred kilometres off their bow. They could already see the boarding flier heading towards them. “Understood,” Ahmose replied curtly, and they proceeded – unarmed and unarmoured – to the docking bay.

Minutes later the docking bay doors opened and they saw the familiar face of Captain Noulgrim, striding purposefully into the bay with his best, most shit-eating grin beaming from his smug face. He was accompanied by an equally upright and perfect-looking Colonel, by two very serious looking soldiers in battle dress – and by Sue the Unbroken, head of their crew on the Left Hand of Darkness in their absence. She was handcuffed, and looking extremely unhappy.

“Captain Ahmose!” Noulgrim announced cheerfully, “I can’t say this is a surprise, but it’s so good to see you again. And you’ve come up in the world now – your own ship, your own crew. Such success! Such a shame I will have to confiscate the ship!” He held out one hand and strode forward as if to shake hands with Ahmose, who recoiled in horror, spluttering and angry.

“Confiscate the ship!? What?! After all we’ve done!”

“Well yes indeed! You have committed a wide range of crimes!” Noulgrim stepped back, pulling a tablet from his uniform, and his supercilious grin widened as he read them.

“Murder – 30 years for each victim. Illegal arms smuggling – 10 years. Attempting to breach a confederate blockade – 30 years. Possession of unlicensed weapons – 10 years. Impersonating a licensed pilot – 5 years. Electronic intrusion of a registered freighter – 15 years. Implanting illegal software in a registered vessel – 30 years. Human trafficking – 50 years and confiscation of profits, to with the Left Hand of Darkness. Unauthorized uplift of a remnant entity – 100 years.

“Of course, we will resleeve you across your sentence and you will be required to work for an extra period in repayment for your resleeve, so you should expect to achieve your liberty as an old woman in your third or fourth resleeve cycle. Crime, Ahmose. It really doesn’t pay!”

Everyone stared at him in stunned silence, until Ahmose finally blurted out, “We never intended to breach that blockade!”

As Noulgrim shook his head in a performance of disappointment, the Colonel spoke for the first time. Raising his hand, he gestured for Noulgrim to put the tablet down, though Noulgrim showed no apparent displeasure at being interrupted. “Now then, now then, I’m sure this is all a misunderstanding. Captain Noulgrim can be very obstinate in his adherence to Confederate law – ” at this Alva snorted and grunted in obvious anger ” – and sometimes he needs to be reminded of the importance of official discretion. I’m sure, for example, that we have no evidence of any intent to break the blockade, and no doubt you committed many of these crimes in order to break this arms smuggling ring, and to hand over the weapons to us – am I right? Of course, in certain special circumstances licenses can be offered retrospectively, and it’s not a crime to uplift an entity if one is rescuing it. Am I not correct on these nuances, Noulgrim?”

Noulgrim nodded, still beaming with pleasure at the situation.

“The truth is, Ahmose, we need your help,” The captain continued. “We discovered your trick with the mad AI on those ships at the Dune system. After the AI infected one ship it killed all the crew, and then destroyed the other ship, but before it did it released all that ship’s data in a sudden burst of information that the Reckless picked up. We captured the ship and were able to identify that the crew had been working for an AI called the Cognate, that is ancient and powerful. It was looking for you and the cargo you were carrying. The AI we captured kept uttering only one phrase – ‘kill the Cognate’ – and that AI is very old and powerful too. We decided to come and talk to you. You’ve obviously been up to a lot of mischief since we left you, and we need to have a long talk about what you’ve been doing and where this is leading.

“In exchange for your help, we’ll help you to arm your ship and give you licenses for all your weapons. We’ve got a shared problem here, Captain Ahmose, and we want your help and everything you know.

“Last time we made you work for us to pay off a stupid crime. This time, we’re asking for your help because we need it. And trust me, the Confederacy rewards its agents very well. What do you say?”

“Wait!” Simon Simon spoke. “What about Dune? You just left it there to find us, unprotected? What about the AI searching for Red Cl – for the bodies? They could just get more if you’re not there!”

“Oh, no problem there,” the Colonel waved his concern away. “We were replaced a few weeks ago by the Forest Class ship Once a Believer. She’s only 10% of our size, but she’s 1000% more dangerous. We’re not really fitted out for war, but once we sent a report back on the possibility of AI involvement they sent us a ship who is. So now here we are, ready to go wherever we need to go and do whatever needs to be done.”

Alva snorted at the idea that the Reckless was not fitted out for war, remembering the over-the-horizon beam weapon that created a nuclear blast, and the stealth cloaking. But there was nothing he could say, really – this seemed like an offer they couldn’t refuse.

After a moment, Ahmose had taken stock of the mettle of her team. “Okay,” she conceded with a sigh. “We’ll talk to you about everything that’s happened. Come to the crew room, and we’ll give you a briefing. But it will take a while.”

“Oh no, that’s okay!” the Colonel replied breezily. “We’ve prepared a viewing platform for the races. It will be much more comfortable than this clunky old thing. Why don’t you come watch the windraces? And don’t worry about loading weapons onto your ship – we’ll kit you out with much better shortly.

“It’s a pleasure to be able to work with you, Captain Ahmose!”

And with that, he gestured for them to leave the ship they had captured at such personal risk, and head into the belly of the Confederate beast …




There is no universal interpretation of this

There is no universal interpretation of this

Coming off of a mildly catastrophic discussion of Trump and racism at Crooked Timber, I thought I’d use some of my holiday time to make a first pass at organizing some opinions I have been forming about sexism, misogyny and the pernicious influence of Christianity on western discrimination. I’ll try not to make it too long but I have today off and a long, complex write-up of the weekend’s adventure to procrastinate about, so we’ll see …

First I should say this post is aimed at left wing philosophy. If you’re a right-wing philosopher you might find it entertaining but I doubt there is much to benefit you here, so you might want to save yourself an hour of bad prose and move along …

There is a common debate in western leftism between people who think that various forms of discrimination (most especially sexism and racism) arise out of economic relations, and those who think that economic relations arise out of the inherent structures of some underlying fundamental inequality. For example, some feminists might argue that human development goes through a universal stage of domination of women, and from this arises the various heirarchical structures that give us racism, classism etc. Others might argue that the economic relations always come first, and that for example the economic forces unleashed by the development of agriculture favor the development of specific social forces (e.g forcing women to have more children in order to support population growth made possible by agriculture, or slavery to enable use of more land). Obviously most people see these things as interlinked or happening contemporaneously, and no one is ever silly enough to think that this stuff was all purposive (a group of farming men getting together and deciding to lock up their women, or whatever).

These origin stories don’t have much importance in day-to-day struggle, but they do and have been influential in major political movements in the past. For example, most of the streams of communist or anarchist radicalism believe that the economic forces of capitalism necessitate class and gender divisions and we can’t eliminate gender discrimination without destroying capitalism; but in contrast radical feminists often believe that you can’t reformulate the social organization of any system without first tackling the underlying gender discrimination that sustains all heirarchies. Obviously on a day-to-day basis we fight battles on the basis of the nature of the battles, so if an issue of equal pay is best won by union activism we organize that way, while if it requires a fundamental rethink of the way women and men interact at work we may fight it through education and awareness raising. But sometimes something big comes up in the ordinary day-to-day political hurdy-gurdy, and in order to deal with it we have to think about the underlying structures of society and what really drives our mainstream political ideas. Brexit and Trump are examples of this, and in many ways I think the radical left has failed to understand them by casting them as simple economic responses rather than manifestations of a deep underlying racism in these societies. In the case of Brexit there is a yearning for lost empire underlying the dreams of the little Englanders, and in the case of Trump I think we are seeing the final fight against the civil rights movement and, assuming the left wins, the burial of slavery apologia and confederate dead-ender ideology.

I used to think about the social order primarily in terms of the economic forces argument: that is, I used to think that when racist and sexist undercurrents reared their head in mainstream politics or pushed a surge of hatred through society, that they reflected some kneejerk, incoherent response to underlying economic forces. In this worldview we don’t have to tackle the deeper undercurrents of society’s problems, we just look for the economic pressures and fix them. Fixing economic pressures is easy, whereas tackling things like the social undercurrents of the alt-right’s hideous misogyny is hard. But then I came to Japan, and discovered that actually a functioning capitalist society with all the same economic pressures can have radically different approaches to the interaction between the sexes, and I started to understand that actually in many cases culture trumps economics, and understanding the cultural forces driving our social development is really important to being able to finally end many of the problems we face. I don’t know how a right-wing interpretation of these things would work, but the classical hard left really needs to adapt its analytical strategies to consider the deep undercurrents of social life. Similarly, when I came to Japan I realized that origin stories or analytical frameworks that posit universal underlying structures based on universally observable basic facts are useless, because actually there are huge differences in the way societies practice the same forms of discrimination, and these differences are relevant. In particular, radical feminist ideas about the origins of sexism and how sexism functions and is maintained fail dismally in the face of cultural differences that I think radical feminism, with its primarily American and British origins, doesn’t understand.

In this post I aim to discuss how I changed my mind about this in the light of Japanese gender relations, and how I came to realize the overwhelming importance of christianity’s sexual morals in generating western gender relations. As a result of coming to Japan I realized that if we want to change gender relations for the better in the west we need to – absolutely have to – crush the influence of Christianity on our culture. So first I want to explain the difference between the west and Japan on this issue, and then explain why I think it’s important.

Before I go onto the next section I want to stress that it is not my task here to present Japan as an ideal society or to say it is not sexist or women don’t have a hard time or there is no rape or anything like that. I just want to show how things are different.

How are Japanese gender relations different?

I think the very first thing that foreigners realize when they come to Japan is that it is safe. It’s safe for men, and every day I am so happy about the fact that physical confrontations don’t happen here, but the absolutely overriding difference in safety is noticed by women. There is no street harrassment and no public fear of rape. I live in an area surrounded by parks that are dark at night and it is absolutely normal to see women walking alone through those parks at midnight, with earphones in, alone, with no concern in the world. I know in the country that there are places where women don’t travel alone at night because of flashers and gropers, but in the city at least this absence of the threat of sexual violence is noteworthy. It’s not just a statistical anomaly brought about by underreporting or something, and everyone who lives here seems to feel it very quickly. And when come from a western country with a lot of interpersonal aggression and a lot of violence against women (like Australia) you really – I cannot stress this enough – you really don’t understand what a difference this makes until you experience it. Once you have experienced a world without this kind of behavior you just lose all tolerance for western approaches to it. When I look at the lockout laws being introduced in Australia to stop violence between drunk men in pubs I am just astounded that we ever as a society tolerated this kind of thing, or that we have to use such a ridiculously heavy-handed approach to stopping it – and I notice exactly the kind of problem I alluded to above. The lockout laws are an attempt to use economic and legal tools to stop an underlying socio-cultural problem. Tackling adult male violence is hard, but stopping them from getting drunk in public is easy. But these solutions don’t stop the problem, they just stop it manifesting.

Some other easily-grasped ways in which gender relations are different in Japan include:

  • There isn’t really any Japanese word for “cunt” that you can use as an insult, and in fact there are no insults based on sexual activity or sexuality. In Japan you don’t tell someone to fuck off, you don’t say they’re a fag, you don’t say that was a dick move – sex is just not a degrading or insulting thing here, and you can’t use it as such, and if you tried people just literally wouldn’t understand what you were saying (though they would think you were being very coarse)
  • As a result of this difference, two chapters of Dworkin’s famous book Intercourse – Dirt and Death – don’t really seem to apply in Japan. A whole section of the radical feminist understanding of the universality of women’s oppression is built on an explicitly christian framework that 120 million people don’t get
  • Japanese women seem to have a much greater ability to negotiate safer sex than western women. Obviously I don’t know what every Japanese woman is saying or doing in the bedroom but the statistics make it clear: the vast majority of Japanese women are not using the pill, but rates of teenage pregnancy are very very low, as are rates of pregnancy generally. The only way this is possible if Japanese women – even teenage girls – are able to negotiate the parameters of sexual activity more effectively than western women
  • Japanese attitudes towards casual sex are completely different to the west. The love hotel is a ubiquitous part of Japanese life and while westerners usually think this concept is disgusting and weird Japanese people in general have no real problem with it at all.
  • Japanese women often work in industries where western women can never be seen. In particular farming, transport, and even construction seem to have a higher prevalence of women workers. It’s not common, but not especially rare, to see female truck drivers, and female farmers are normal.
  • Japanese women’s sporting participation seems to be much higher than western women’s and much more widely respected, across a wider range of fields. In particular Japanese women’s participation in fighting sports – and non-participant women’s deep appreciation of fighting sports – is completely normal, while it remains a very modern phenomenon in the west
  • Attitudes towards sex work and all forms of the sex industry here are much more practical and non-judgmental
  • Small businesses almost universally don’t have men’s toilets. They have a women’s toilet and a shared toilet
  • Opposition to homosexuality appears to be minimal and based primarily on concerns about responsibility to family and society, not on fear and disgust

I think these differences in attitude are strong and they derive from an obvious source: Japan is a pagan society. It has no long-standing or deep-seated religious just-so stories about how everything is women’s fault and women are dirty and bad, and sex is a punishment from God. Attitudes towards sex in Japan are constructed around privacy and shame, whereas in the west they’re structured around guilt and sin. Indeed, if you dig into some of the attitudes towards sex that are similar between Japan and the west – the lack of mixed bathing, for example, or the weird video censorship – you will often find they’re a result of Japan reacting to western values either post-Meiji or after world war 2.

Another result of this difference in attitudes that I have noticed but which I can’t formulate easily into words is the difference in attitudes towards femininity. In the west femininity seems to be seen as this kind of act that women put on in their early 20s, and it is seen as a deceptive and manipulative cloak. To be taken seriously at work or as an adult a woman needs to divest herself of this feminine cloak (or, as it is generally described, these “wiles”) and behave seriously – it is seen as a kind of childlike deceit. In Japan it seems to be viewed as just a natural aspect of being a woman, not a deceptive trick, and women remaining feminine into their 50s and 60s is completely normal. I think this also means that women are not taken less seriously because they dress and act feminine, although this femininity may disadvantage them by drawing attention to their gender (which, as everyone knows, is discriminated against at work and home in Japan as everywhere). I think this difference in attitudes towards femininity explains why Japanese women have maintained a high level of style and attention to personal appearance separate to men even as women in the west have begun to favour jeans and t-shirts – Japanese women don’t need to hide or be ashamed of their femininity, because they don’t have to dress in men’s uniform to be taken seriously. This is also evident in sport, where Japanese athletes who are taken really seriously by the public (the Nadeshiko football team, for example, or the wrestling team) still dress and act feminine because they don’t have to hide this stuff in order to be taken seriously. It’s hard to draw these links because it’s all nebulous cultural stuff, not hard science, but I think the simple reason for this difference is the Genesis story. In Genesis a woman tricked a man into a sin, and as a result women can’t be trusted. Christianity tells us that performative femininity is a deception that leads men into trouble and danger – it’s literally wily. After 2000 years of that story (and all the stupid badly-done renaissance paintings of a wily girl tricking a dude) we get young men who know nothing about Christianity or feminism or indeed women saying that they can’t trust a girl who wears make up, they don’t like make up because it’s deceptive, etc. There’s a 2000 year long history of distrusting women’s wiles and tricks at work there, and I think it has a profound effect on the way women in the west present themselves at work and in politics.

I suspect also that in reaction to this notion of femininity as performative and deceptive, and out of deep-seated fears of homsexuality that are also grounded in biblical hatred, men overperform their masculinity. The result is street violence. I think in fact Japanese men are much more comfortable about their masculinity and feel no special need to display it, not because women have been held back and men thus don’t feel threatened, but because they haven’t been raised in a society where men have to constantly prove themselves as not feminine and not gay.

What does this mean for western views on sexism and racism?

Obviously I’m no cultural theorist and I’m definitely not an expert on Japanese culture and history; this is just my impression of the differences between the west and Japan from 10 years of living here. Obviously also these lines between ancient books and modern practice are mediated by thousands of years of cultural baggage, and there are other cultures at play in western countries that may still have a lingering influence on how sexism and racism develop. But I think the connections are there, and that even though we in the west like to fancy ourselves as enlightened and developed, we’re actually still wallowing in a swamp of barely-understood cultural norms that derive from what is, in essence, a very very bad place. When you step outside the christian world and spend some time looking in, you start to notice that actually a lot of our bad points are not universal, and I think they probably stem from our religious origins. Here I have given the example of gender relations but I think the same thing applies to race relations and probably the way we approach class, economic inequality and other -isms. But I think that the differences in gender relations are clearest because they are most noticable in day-to-day life, and perhaps also reflective of the most poisonous aspect of Christianity.

I have said before on this blog that I think western radical feminism is itself misogynist and conservative. This is because it’s really hard to escape the origins of your own culture, and the reality is that our culture has its origins in a deeply misogynist, poisonous text that is hateful and judgmental – the old testament of the bible. And while modern Christians try to pretend that they built their ideology on the new testament’s story of love, this new testament story is an evil story of child murder, with a side of nasty misogyny from some of the apostles, and it doesn’t do anything to leaven the nasty hatred of the old testament. Furthermore, while our modern Christian movement tries to pretend that it is all about love and light (and murdering your own son so you can be famous, then fetishizing his dead body), the actual origins of our cultural approach to sex and sexuality are all in the old testament, in the disgusting, judgmental and hateful texts of Genesis and Leviticus. Our fundamental origin story is designed around hating women, and making sex sinful and dirty. Much as we like to pretend that we’re free of religion, we’re not free of its cultural influences, but we need to be if we truly want to liberate women and men from the shackles it has imposed on our relations. But my experience in Japan shows that these ideas are not universal, they’re not fundamental parts of who we are as human beings or who we will become if we try – we can shake off these ancient rusty chains, and become better people. But in order to do that we need to confront the causes of some of our deepest, most secret problems, and for the left that means not assuming we can fix all our problems by fixing economic relations – we need to keep taking the fight to the bible, and to the deep-seated insecurities and social tics it has created in us.

And sometimes that means we need to recognize where our society is failing itself, and fight cultural battles on purely cultural grounds, because when we assume there is some economic force that created Trump or the modern Republican hate machine, we are guaranteed to fail. Sometimes hate is just hate, and sometimes we need to fight it on its own grounds.

About the picture: This is a picture a friend of mine took at a recent festival. It’s Seiko Omori, about whom I know nothing, and I think it’s a good example of the kind of Japanese cultural imagery that is a) really hard for westerners to understand at all and b) almost certain to be misunderstood and misinterpreted if we try to analyze all the imagery in terms of western notions of sex, sexism, women’s roles, pornography, or power.


Did I build a ship to wreck?

Did I build a ship to wreck?

After they left the Reach, the characters sold one of their two mysterious human cargo to an adherent in exchange for a spaceship called The Left Hand of Darkness. Fresh from the Confederacy shipyards, ‘Darkness is a sleek and beautiful thing, designed for luxury travel at high speeds but carefully built to be reconfigured as a combat vessel for those slightly more adventurous lordlings who feel like slumming it in the Frontier.

A room of one's own ...

A room of one’s own …

The Left Hand of Darkness has the following basic structure:

  • Bridge with room for pilot, navigator, captain, engineer, two gunners. The bridge is spacious and high tech, with a large window-like area at the front which is actually a screen (not a window)
  • Captain’s ready room (off the bridge) with desk, couch, pot plant, and display screens for planning
  • Conference room (off the bridge) with room for 8 people around a good quality table
  • Armoury (off the bridge) with weapons racks sufficient for 8 people
  • The entire bridge section can be detached in emergencies and has a separate small power supply that can keep the bridge functioning for about a week
  • Ship’s boat, reached either directly from the bridge or from the main deck, with space for 24 people (basic seating) or 8 people (comfortable accommodation including sleeping arrangements)
  • The ships’s boat has two turret locations
  • The main ship has four turret locations, giving all-round fire arcs, but it has no weapons on them and no fire control system installed
  • A single level 2 computer with advanced AI defences
  • A luxury cabin suite for the captain, with office and separate bathroom
  • Standard cabins for 8 crew, with their own toilets and a shared bathroom area
  • Bunk cabins for sub-crew, with room for 8 more in two bunk rooms of 4 each, typically used for soldiers or passengers, having shared bathroom and toilets
  • Two recreation rooms, one between the crew accommodation and the bridge, with a kitchen and open space; one behind the bunk rooms, smaller, with a kitchen and eating area
  • A small gym/training area near the cargo hold
  • A large cargo hold capable of holding perhaps 8 containers of cargo
  • A separate utility hold with two small flyers, each with space for two people. These flyers can be armed but again are currently not. This hold also has spare space that can be converted to cargo or used for e.g. other flyers, mining equipment, etc.
  • A separate armoury with space for heavy weaponry up to tripod machine gun or mortar size (obviously in the Confederacy a weapon of this size may be capable of nuclear-scale destruction); armour is also stored here
  • Two air locks, with separate spaces for vac suits and additional small armouries
  • A medical bay with room for two injured, two morgue slots, and some laboratory space. There is space for a server for backed up memories but this is absent (such a thing would be RP4 and illegal for the PCs to own)
  • A welcome room near one air lock for entertaining business people and guests coming in from space stations; this room also opens into the main physical entry that opens below the ship to allow external entrance planet-side
  • A series of emergency escape pods scattered around the ship, sufficient for a crew of 24 to be able to eject from the ship.
  • An observation deck near the rear of the ship that allows a bit of star gazing and has a small garden (very small) with a bench, sadly not big enough for a picnic
  • Basic field effector shields that will protect the vessel from sub-light collisions with small objects, and a couple of blasts from a heavy ship-borne laser, but no more
  • ‘Darkness is lightly armoured, sufficient to survive one or two heavy laser blasts but no more
  • A small general purpose space in the centre of the ship, currently empty
  • Some of the walls linking things like recreation rooms and the general purpose space can be reconfigured to make more space available in certain situations

The Left Hand of Darkness of course has the standard set of sub-space and hyper-space drives, power plants, etc. Her Slug is sufficient for three months’ life for 24 people. ‘Darkness is capable of Jump 3 and M-drive 3. All fittings and equipment are TL14.

Ship Layout design is by Eddie, one of our players. His portfolio can be viewed here.



Did I dream you dreamed about me?
Were you hare when I was fox?
Now my foolish boat is leaning
Broken lovelorn on your rocks,
For you sing, “Touch me not, touch me not, come back tomorrow:
O my heart, O my heart shies from the sorrow”

(Song of the Path of Tears)

[GM Note: This is a report of a part of session 8 of the Spiral Confederacy campaign. Session 8 covered a lot of different events, which are too much to describe in one post, so I’m breaking the write-up over three or four separate posts to keep them manageable]

Having asked all they could of the Oracle, and not to happy with their answers, the characters left Niscorp 1743 quickly. They had a plan to raid a weapons-smuggling ship and steal its cargo, but first they wanted to track down at least the first steps of Kong the Younger, the man who had originally employed Ahmose and Alva to recover a chip from an asteroid of Dune, which they thought might power the ansible. He had left Dune a few days before the space station was destroyed, so they guessed that the quickest way to track him would be to go to Dune, find out which system he had jumped out to, and follow him. The greatest likelihood was that he had headed to Reek, in which case they could head in his direction while they also moved in the direction of the arms shipment they were going to raid.

They jumped to Dune. While they were in jump space Ahmose asked Red Cloud about the chip that powered the ansible. They had seen diagrams of this chip on the space station over Perez, when they stole the ansible from the mad AI the Starred One, and as soon as they saw it they recognized it as the same chip they had been asked to recover by Kong the Younger. Ahmose thought maybe that these chips could be found on the planet of Dune itself, so she asked Red Cloud about it.

“Oh that!” Red Cloud stuttered in surprise when he saw the picture of the chip. “That is a relic of ours, it is a great crime to depict that relic ever, such depictions are a sin. That is why we hunt the Path of Tears.” He waved a hand agitatedly, indicating in his imperious rough-hewn manner that he wanted the image hidden. Ahmose duly hid it – it was not wise, in any case, to expose Red Cloud to screen technology for too long, as he became angry at it and started ranting about evil demons and magic.

“The Path of Tears? Is that another dumb religious thing?” Lam asked helpfully.

This elicited one of Red Cloud’s signature hand slap-growl-grunt combinations, intended to show his displeasure at an inferior addressing him directly. “Pale worm! How dare you speak so insolently! Captain, why do you not boil this thing down for magical parts? What other use has it!?”

Lam sniffed scornfully at the ignorant lout as, once again, Ahmose ordered him to address her by her name and reminded him that no one would be rendered down for magical parts.

“The Path of Tears,” he explained wearily once he had been calmed, “Is a heresy, a group of witches and warlocks who believe heretical things about our universe and about the Dream. It is because of their heresy that we hunt them. It was such a witch – of the Path of Tears – that I was about to kill, as it is my duty to do -” hearty masculine chest thump! “- when someone captured me and sealed me in that coffin.”

“The Dream?” Alva asked, but Ahmose waved him silent before Red Cloud could begin ranting about pale worms blaspheming by saying the word, or something equally silly.

“So this witch you were hunting – she believes in the power of this crystal, rather than your god?”

“No no no! Of course she believes in the power of the sun god! Who could not, given that he rises daily to remind us of his harsh fury? No, she holds other strange ideas. And heresies! For example, followers of the Path of Tears believe it is not a sin to make depictions of the crystal, and so they all wear a necklace with a perfect replica of the crystal. Heresy!” He spat angrily on the deck.

For once no one reacted to his filthy manners. They were all staring at each other in shock. “WHAT?!” Ahmose roared. Suddenly they all remembered – when they examined the dead woman’s body just after they found it, she had indeed been wearing a necklace with a tiny crystal on it. They had completely forgotten that she had been wearing it, and then they had sold the body to DK in exchange for the ship, The Left Hand of Darkness.

Ahmose surged to her feet, hammering one hand down on the table in rage. “We had it HERE! Was it on the witch the whole time?!”

“Wait wait no!” Alva leapt up to. “I remember I took it off her body, I kept it in my room. I should still have it! It was on our things in the Come As You Are!”

“Find it!” Ahmose snarled. “Everyone help him look. Maybe we -” She was going to say “sold the witch” but then she remembered Red Cloud was in the room. “Maybe we can find it now. Thank you Red Cloud for this information.” They all ran out of the room to search, forgetting to ask Red Cloud about the Dream.

They searched their things thoroughly, Ahmose growing into a towering rage as they realized the crystal necklace was nowhere to be found. She was beginning to lose her temper at Alva for his foolishness and sloppiness when a thought suddenly struck her.

“Larry and Barry!” She struck the wall next to her. “They stole it! As soon as we got this ship they went their own way! They were originally hired to find the same crystal as us! They took it!” She began cursing all the gods of the underworld and hitting the doorframe with one gloved fist. “They stole it!”

Gathered in the open area in front of their shared rooms, the common room scattered with all of Alva’s personal belongings, they all realized she must be right. When Ahmose and Alva had emerged from the asteroid with the chip they had been ambushed by Larry and Barry, but had won the fight and in exchange for sparing their lives, Larry and Barry had agreed to let them use their spaceship the Come As You Are until they could get a ship of their own. But of course as soon as they realized that Alva had the crystal they would have stolen it – something all too easy to do on the Come As You Are, where crew were sharing rooms and everyone was packed into the same small common room area during long jump trips.


“Well then,” Ahmose growled after a moment. “We had better find Kong the Younger. I don’t care if he’s a revenant – I’ll kill him as many times as I have to to get that damn crystal.”

Interdiction at Dune

They arrived in Dune to find the system unchanged since they left it several months ago. The two navy ships were drifting around on the far side of Dune, and a few spaceships were working at salvaging the remains of the space station. A few other ships drifted around in-system, perhaps setting up independent mining operations or just passing through. Within a few minutes of arrival they had received an update on all ship movements in the sectors to leeward, and sifting through it soon found the information they needed on Kong the Younger – after leaving Dune he had jumped to Reek, a jump-1 trip for them and a well-surveyed system, though the spaceport was small. They set the Left Hand of Darkness to move in-system and braced themselves for a week drifting through the system, waiting for their computer to reset after jump.

Unfortunately they did not have any time to relax. Just a few minutes after she had set the course, Ahmose was interrupted by the Left Hand of Darkness. “Captain, we seem to be under attack. I have received several energy weapon hits on my shields.” At the same time they saw on their screens that two of the ships that had been moving calmly in the distance were now on a fast-closing attack trajectory. Moments later a communications alert sounded. They engaged the comms link.

“Captain Ahmose, this is the Mono:Overload. Discharge the cargo or be destroyed.”

The two ships speeding towards them had identified themselves on general systems comms, and they had already identified them as the Mono:Overload and the Transfer:Complete, but there had been no warning that they were dangerous in any way. Of course everyone knew immediately what they were after.

“I’m afraid we don’t know what cargo you’re talking about,” Ahmose replied tersely. She looked at the others and shrugged. “Darkness, can we withstand these weapons?”

“Captain Ahmose, I’m afraid that they will soon break through our shields if they fire again. After that they will quickly destroy the hull. You may have to comply with their request.”

Ahmose muttered something about taking orders from a stupid machine and looked around at the others. “Vacc suits people!”

They rushed to comply. No further attacks hit them, and they listened nervously for the next communication as they rushed into their vacc suits. The ships were still minutes away, and it would take minutes for every stage of the negotiation to proceed. As she struggled into her combat dress Ahmose was frantically checking all the sensor channels for any evidence that the Reckless had noticed the attack, but she could find none.

Minutes later the reply came. “Captain Ahmose, don’t lie to us. You have two cryotubes containing cargo that is ours. Discharge it immediately and we will allow you to live. If you do not discharge it we will cut your ship into pieces and take the cargo from your silent hold. You have 10 minutes to comply.”

Ahmose’s immediate thought was to discharge the empty cryotubes, but of course the ship was only carrying one. And of course, even if they discharged the cargo they would still be dead – it would be a matter of a few minutes’ work to carve up the ship and kill its occupants, guaranteeing no vengeful crews chasing these two ships.  They needed another way out.

What to do? They looked at each other. No one had an idea. Their ship was unarmed, and although they could try dodging the attacks, they would need to maintain their evasiveness for hours in order to stay alive until one of the Navy ships came within defensive reach. They could refuse to negotiate and hope to repel borders, but it was far more likely that the ships would simply cut their vessel into pieces, and then kill them where they hid in the shadows of the wreck as it pried out the empty cryotubes.

“We have to jump, Captain.” It was Lam who said it. “We can do it. We have an extra astrogator, the computer will be jump-sick but we can do it. Better to jump out and save the ship.”

Ahmose looked around at the rest of her crew. With no guns and no nearby naval ships, she couldn’t see any alternative. “Okay, let’s jump. Set a course for Reek. We’ll take our chances with the void.”

“Captain my Captain…” Simon Simon piped up quietly from the corner. “I have a weapon we could try …”

“Yes, Simon Simon …?”

“We still have the remnants of the mad AI on the server in the hold. I could try and send an attack message to one of those ships, that implants the mad AI in the ship. It will completely take control of them. It won’t happen quickly, but if we come back here in two weeks the ship will probably be completely mad, and everyone will be trapped on board. We could board it and find out what they wanted and who we are. They’d probably beg us to take them off …”

Ahmose thought over the implications. There was no risk that the mad AI could escape from the system, since jump travel would kill it, and it could not thrive in the system because there was no longer a fully functional computer system. If it caused any serious trouble the Reckless would no doubt destroy it in a moment. The plan probably wouldn’t work but if it did it would ensure that the crew of at least one of those two ships was imprisoned on board and desperate to be rescued. Probably the mad AI would cast them into space, or empty all the air from the ship, or kill them in some other cruel and uncaring machine way.

“Do it. You have eight minutes, then we jump. Lam, plot that course.”

They jumped, leaving a mad AI behind them…

Where are we...?

Where are we…?


Jumping a few minutes after a past jump is an incredibly reckless move. No one knows what will happen. Unless your astrogator and your ship’s computer are very very good, the jump will go wrong. The possibilities are daunting: perhaps the ship will never leave jump space, and you will be trapped in that grey nowhere between the stars until you starve or, worse, go mad and kill each other; perhaps you will materialize on the far side of a distant galaxy, lost and alone; perhaps you will arrive at your destination, but too close to its sun, and be torn apart by the conflicting forces of hyperspace and subspace; perhaps your journey will complete in the normal way of things, but you will arrive insane with visions of monsters in deep space. There is nothing you can do after such a jump, except wait and see what the capricious forces of hyperspace have planned for you.

Ahmose wasn’t waiting. She understood how the uncertainty of a rushed jump could affect people even if the jump itself was safe, so she set them to work. For the first week of the journey every moment of time was filled with activity – cleaning, cataloguing, cleaning again, defensive drills, language lessons for Red Cloud, strategy meetings, anything to keep the crew busy and focused. For a week it worked, and attention was diverted. People knew they were on a potentially fatal path, but they didn’t really think about it. But on the eighth day things started to fray. Ships always come out of jump by seven days, usually around five or six – an eighth day in jump is a sign of an error. Tempers started to fray, people started to lose their perspective. The ship was spotless, everyone had their defensive tactics polished, Red Cloud was sick of verb declensions and sullen at the lack of sunshine, and everyone was starting to wonder. A ninth day passed, tense and fraught with small arguments. On the tenth day Ahmose had everyone drilling again, running up and down the hallways in mock battles, but nobody’s heart was in it. The fear was in them. Were they trapped forever in this limnal nowhere? At lunch, sour looks were cast at the crew member who had programmed the jump, or at Lam because she didn’t or at Ahmose because she ordered it, or at Simon Simon because he didn’t stop it, or at Alva because couldn’t he teleport them out of here? Two people got in an argument over a cup. Ahmose relented, and decided not to pursue an afternoon of fitness training; she dismissed everyone to their rooms. “Don’t worry people, we’ll arrive soon, you’ll see!”

She was right. On the evening of the 10th day the jump alarms sounded. Everyone rushed to the bridge. Ahmose ordered vacc suits, just in case, and they all scrambled into them in the ready room or the hallway, eager to see where they had arrived. If it was the centre of the sun, at least they would know …

The alarms sounded. The view screens flickered to life, grey chaotic swirls faded, a rush of static ran across the window and there they were, floating in space, real space, not the grey nowhere of hyper space. Ahmose rushed to the comms unit to look for signs of nearby ships, while everyone else stared at the dark, empty screen, scattered with stars. “Where are we Lam?!” Ahmose demanded, voice tense.

Lam was fiddling with navigation tools. It was Red Cloud who spoke first.

“Captain, why do you insist on taunting me with heresies. This is an insult to me, a deep and personal one, and after all I told you. Please do not display these pictures on your wall just to insult me, and in front of the pale worms too!”

Ahmose turned to snap a curt response at the infuriating priest, but as she straightened she saw them, standing in slowly revealed rows in the empty space before the ship: a long line of huge, golden structures floating in space. Each was the perfect shape of the crystal she had given to Kong, then found, then lost, and now sought again. They were the same colour, and they floated there in space in a long line, like vast golden dominoes, though each too far from the other to touch. It was impossible to tell their size as they floated there in the inky black, with nothing for perspective. Everyone stared silently at them.

“That’s not a picture, Red Cloud. It’s a window. I didn’t make this to tease you – you can see it out of our window. It stands before you.”

The entire crew watched in amazement as Red Cloud, proud warrior priest of an ignorant and backward society, sank crying to his knees. Tears streaked down his golden face, and he dashed them away without even the traditional Dune admonition of tears as wasted water, so distracted was he; placing his palms on the deck, he banged his head on the floor and sobbed.

Everyone stared. First at Red Cloud, then at the strange floating crystals. What bizarre coincidence was this? Lam muttered something about them having the most devilish luck, and Alva said something snarky about religion and fools. “Captain, they’re very very big …” Lam added in a small voice.

Everyone else was still watching Red Cloud. He looked up at Ahmose, eyes reddened and puffy. “Captain Ahmose, I am sorry I ever doubted you. Truly you are a sending from the sun itself -” Ahmose puffed up just a little “- to bless me with this fortune.”

He regained his pride and surged to his feet, striding towards the window and adopting his more normal sermonizing tone. “This is the pillar and arch of our society, the greatest thing we ever built and our saddest loss. For longer than memory we have sought it, and everyone thought it lost. To depict it in statue or art or even in dreams is a sin, a heresy, to recreate this beauty in physical form is to die.” He slapped his chest. “At my hand! I have devoted my life and soul to crushing those who would besmirch the beauty of our lost world. And here, you bring me to it. You bring me to it…” His voice slid away into whispers, golden muscly arm pointed out at the screen.

“Ah, Red Cloud,” Simon Simon interrupted his reverie. “Um. What is it?”

For once Red Cloud forgot that he was being addressed by a pale worm, who should be rendered down into magical parts. “Simon Simon, strange little creature, feast your eyes upon it. This is the Shoal of Dreams.”

“Well then!” Snapped Alva. “That settles that then! What actually is it, Red Cloud?!”

Red Cloud strode to the head of the control section, where he could stand on a slightly raised dais, and give his sermon.

“Many seasons ago, before memory, our people were numerous and our lands vaster than imagination. But no matter where we lived in those lands, we had the dream. The dream was a shared dream, and we were all part of it always – no one was left out or alone, and within the dream anything was possible. And at the heart of the dream was the Shoal of Dreams, onto which all dreams must wash gently, and from which all dreams radiate out. We all loved the dream, and lived in it, and loved each other through it. But then one day, our people decided to leave behind their physical bodies and enter the dream, to become only the dream. For what is the world of dust and sand and heat and light, against a dream where anything is possible, always? But some of us said no, they wanted to see one more sun rise. They wanted to see the lightning strike the plains as the red clouds of a summer storm roll in through the mountains; they wanted to know the salty taste of a woman’s tears one more time, or they were not ready to leave behind the smell of a sand cat when it comes in from a windy, sunlit day. For them there was too much beauty yet in the sand and the storm. So they remained behind, a tiny portion of our people, who chose never to enter the dream. And for longer than memory they guarded the remnants of our society, roamed the golden wastes, caught the dragons as they soared on the winds of the evening, dreamed their own dreams separate from each other, lost and longing but still loving the harsh beauty of rock and sky. But then one day that dream redounded upon us, washed over us as nightmare, we were caught in the nightmare, and when it was done our society was lost and we were cast down from beauty and peace into a harsh, hot, brutal world of nasty struggle. No one remembers the nightmare or what it was, but it washed over us and destroyed us, laid us low; and when we woke from the nightmare we had lost the Shoal of Dreams, we couldn’t find it, and so we were forever cut off from joining our ancestors in their dream. And so in our rage we declared it a sin to invoke the image of the Shoal of Dreams, until such time as one of us could find it and return our tribe to it.

“And you found it, Ahmose. You will be our savior!”

Simon Simon snorted, but remembered to make it a cough just in time to avoid angering their mercurial priest. Alva shook his head sadly and walked up to the sensor array. “Captain, it appears to be exactly the same structure as the original crystal, and it’s huge. Maybe hundreds of kilometres on every side. It’s exactly the same shape too. And there are thousands. I think …” His voice trailed off.

“What, Alva? What?”

“It’s …” He shook his head and flicked some dials, muttering to himself. “It’s … captain, it’s several light-minutes in length.”

Under Alva’s command the screen zoomed back, showed a schematic of the area. There was the Left Hand of Darkness floating in space, and there in front of it, strung out like gigantic beads, was a perfectly straight line of crystals, each crystal hundreds of kilometres across, the line several light minutes long. He zoomed further out, and they could see Dune perhaps a light year behind them. They had been in jump for 10 days and traveled one light year to this strange and monstrous structure.

“Lam, get the flyer. We’re investigating.”

They flew out to the nearest crystal. It hung above them, silent and ominous, dwarfing their flyer or even the Left Hand of Darkness, a huge block of gold hovering in space. Flying close along its side they saw it had been cut perfectly into the exact same shape as the crystal that fit into the ansible. Occasionally they passed a pock mark, where a meteor or some other object might have hit one, but mostly the surface of the crystals was flawless. It was a mystery.

“Captain, I have an idea …” Alva began, as they returned to the ship. “If we find a piece of crystal that has been knocked loose from one of those things, we could draw it on board, and then Darkness could cut it into the exact shape we need to activate the ansible …”

Everyone looked at him like he was mad. Then they all nodded their heads. Lam flicked on the sensors, and they went hunting.

An hour later they had a couple of kilograms of dislodged crystal floating in the cargo hold. It took the Left Hand of Darkness just a few minutes in the medical bay to cut a piece the exact shape and size they required. They stood around the ansible, Alva holding the crystal, and looked at each other. No one was brave enough to do it.

Finally Ahmose spoke. “Let’s do it planetside. If we’re going to mess this up, I want to be in a breathable atmosphere.”

Everyone agreed. They set a course for Reek, to activate the ansible.


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