Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Butterfly Effect

In each corp-issued spacer pack, and many of the ripoffs hawked to young vaqueres, there is a small yellow pocket tucked inside a flap. It contains a universal message:

Disclaimer: Do not use unless alone with no hope of rescue.
Instructions: Insert pill in mouth. Swallow with liquid. Relax.

The pack material may be thin, prone to tearing, contaminated, or looted, but the yellow pocket is taken seriously.

Space is the domain of entropy. Pure, unchained physics, tumbling and bouncing with all the lifeless joy of reality, gravity and light weaving tapestries of chaos into the infinite black.

This concert is rudely broken by the imposition of forged hunks of metal, steaming stations hurtling through the stars with intent and purpose. Entropy resents any state of order, especially that imposed by fragile creatures unsatisfied with their place in the universe.

It intervenes in small ways, where it can. Tools go missing. Circuits refuse to fire. Particulate clogs filters. Any action that unbalances the order imposed by spacers. Murphy will not be denied. Experienced vaqueros apply four simple rules to ward off the pressure of entropy:

1. A perfectly functioning station is a ticking bomb.
2. If you detect an outbreak of butterfly effect, act impulsively.
3. The simplest solution is the best one.
4. Three crewmembers are the absolute minimum for survival.

The longest lasting stations are often filthy and constantly threatening to tear at the seams, but their crews are Occam sharp and might live to collect one more check.

The second rule seems contrary to the cold logic necessary to engineer machines and mindsets hardened to survive space, but the black has its own rules, and the reed which bends will outlast the tree which breaks. When entropy gains a foothold and begins tipping the universal scales back towards balance, it's better to do what feels right than what is right. Split second decisions are always detrimental in the long run, but in that moment of panicked action, Murphy may lose interest and go ruin someone else's life.

The fourth rule derives from simple experience. It is categorically unsupported by any scientific study but almost always holds true in practice. Out of all the nonsense science, ritual, and bullshit practiced by spacers, this understanding has slowly coagulated into the general consciousness.

For whatever reason, the number of people needed to break even with Murphy is two. Three is enough to tip the scales in favor of survival. One lone spacer, stranded with a dead crew, is called a rubber band.

"See, it goes like this. You scan this band, ya? How it stretches and....snaps?

"Why does it snap? Can you tell me? No? Well, it snaps out of habit, kennit. It doesn't snap cause the material is stretched too thin, no. It doesn't snap cause its old and brittle. It can snap whenever it wants because anything is possible. Now, you scan, it snaps this particular way in this particular moment because the odds are so against it retaining cohesion down to the particruel. But when you spend a lifetime straining against the odds, the rubber band gets a little more give. Each time we cheat death, lil nebula, the list of possibilities stretches...and eventually, Murphy comes for you. How can it not? You brought the black upon you by cheating it so long, and the Sandman comes to collect.

"And in that moment, you need to stretch, nebula. Cause if you hold, if you don't give, your luck will snap. You'll be fine, but as you reason, as you deny Murphy, you'll give it what it needs to sever your  normal.

"And then, nebula? Can you guess what comes next? Hm? Not death, oh no, not for you. Everyone around you dies, and you remain, alive, cheatin the odds. Because you had to poke the bear, to understand why things go wrong outta nowhere. After that? You want to know, hah, what comes after that?

"Well, nebula, the butterfly effect never ends. And if you're really unlucky, you'll find out how deep the rabbit hole goes. Now fuck off. This is my forgetting time."

Sergio Diaz
There are always a certain kind of people sitting in taquerias. Not alone, not together, but distant. They all like coffee anytime. They all have little tchotchkes on necklaces or bracelets. They all drink like drowning fish and wear goggles even in near darkness. They always have guns and they play idly with knives. When they talk, it's maniac, short bursts of conversation interspersed with black silence. Everyone knows what they do, which is why nobody ever offers them a job. 

"What, you again. Don't you have a crew to pull together? Be damned to black if you think yer getting me on a station.

"You what to know why they call us monarch hunters? Shit, nebula, weren't you listening? Ain't you Googled something by this point? 

" know, and you want to be one?

"AHAAHAHAHAAAA......alright, kid. Sit down and I'll buy you the only drink you're ever getting off me. Savor this. It's your best friend after your first butterfly. Shit, don't puke on me or I'll break your legs.

"Anywhere, you want to be a monarch hunter? Well, kid, that's the easy job. Not what you thought, hotrod? No, the real dangerous job is a cocoon popper. Yes, I know what the forums say. You should know they speak bullshit from birth, wise up. 

"See, once the butterfly effect finishes and the monarch emerges, the station's a lost cause. Nuke it from a good distance and enjoy the fireworks, scan the flotsam, and pick it over for confirmation of death. 

"But when the cocoon's still intact? That's when the station's still good for salvage if you cut the rot out. So you gotta go in, you and your mates, and creep through the blood and metal. Yes, there's always blood. What, you think people die neat in space? Anyway, here's the difference between a bug cocoon and a space cocoon: the last one moves and thinks and kills. Ya didn't picture a big old sleeping bag strung up near a reactor, did ya? Kid, Birth in Black is some steaming slag. How much of that old flix did you believe?

"So, you're creeping through the station, looking for the cocoon. No lights unless you want to be food. If - if you're really lucky, and docked and boarded quiet and dark, it won't be hunting. If you made just one noise outta the ordinary, it'll know and it waits for you. No, I'm not kidding one noise. Cocoons have been holed up in the same shithole for months and they know it like their bones. You're stalking the lion in its den, and you can't damage the den too much because the zoo wants to rent it out to the next stupid occupant. Crawling and listening, crawling and listening. Never take your helmet off no matter what the scans say. That air is cursed and the cocoon usually fucks it up anyway. 

"What do they look like? Well, cocoons usually look like humans. Two of most everything. Eyes, ears, arms, legs, whatever. But the way they move....kid, they're dead. Well, not literally dead, that's probably not the case. But they move careless, they don't care what they break. Those eyes....there's nothing like them. No, I won't describe them. You gotta understand, they aren't human anymore. They belong to the black.

"As bad as it is playing pop-goes-the-weasel with a cocoon, the real terror comes when you figure out you're up against a monarch. Those things make your toolkit do the hokey pokey, and they know how to stalk, how to play dead, all the tricks predators know dragged outta the corners of our skull. And the worst part is, they're beautiful. Each one is its own hell, but after years spent in the black where all your color comes from flix and games, real colors....real colors, kid,shades you didn't know existed that make your eyes water and teeth hurt. 

"Of course, you pay a price for seeing them. Usually fellow spacers, but there's other prices. The good hunters, the ones that get the job done, the lucky ones, the ones with solid intel, they get to keep their eyes. All the rest of us saps...well, once we see a monarch...I've got a catheter on my damn head for a reason.

"Heh. You want to hunt these things? Yeah, you might get lucky and go viral, assuming you have any looks left after your first time being hunted. 

"There was a time I'd take you along because I used to think kids have a right to adventure yadda yadda yadda. I don't want to clean your blood off my suit, I've done it enough, and I certainly don't need to hear any more screams. Enjoy the drink, go find a better job, and seriously piss off this time. If I see you here one more time, I'm going to kick your guts out. Now, if you're terminally stupid, listen:

"My ship's the Charybdis. If you show up at 0400 with good gear, I'll take you on the last trip of your life. No, I'm not telling you where it is, and don't bother checking the logs. I've pissed off corpo too much to use my real name. Hell, I could be a drunk-ass miner luring you into a mugging. Now let me get back to forgetting."

Harley Wilson

In the inky cradle of entropy, someone who beat the odds too many times can beat them in a new way, and become something greater than the sum of their parts. 

The first step is isolation. It's surprisingly easy to maintain a station with only one spacer, once Murphy has its tendrils in you. First comes the relief of survival, then the loneliness, then the power failure. Always the power failure. It only takes the light. After that, desperation, screaming madness, and catatonia. The human in the grey matter shrivels and dies. And, against all odds, in complete darkness, something wakes up.

It's a new life, and it explores its home, relearning movement without eyes, intuiting adjustments to allow access to all parts of the station. And the cocoon drags what's left of the human it was to a small, warm, comfortable place. Maybe it produces fabric to shroud its nest. Maybe it fuses layer upon layer of steel to a shipping container to create a crumpled, tunnel-ridden ball. Maybe it wreathes its den in layers of lethal radiation from a cracked reactor vent. Maybe it vents part of the station and makes its bed in complete vacuum. 

Not that it sleeps, of course. Only consciousness needs sleep, and a cocoon has nothing we would call a mind. No, the bed is for when it wants to be reborn in a cracking, glistening process, like shedding a person-shaped egg. 

And the monarch is beautiful and terrible, bending the entire station to its will, singing in electromagnetic spectrums that scramble radios and induce dementia. 

The monarch's song has another power, too: it increases entropy. Stations nearby will experience more and more butterfly effects, and if the monarch is allowed to sing, or, stars forbid, migrate, all close stations will succumb in a chain of fantastic coincidences. 

Out of all the first series of station launches, only a handful of humans survived, and only a few monarchs were killed. Some nests began to move again after most function ceased, the butterflies migrating to parts unknown.

And judging from intermittent, increasing periods of comms static, some have begun to return. 


I wrote this with Mothership in mind, but it could easily adapt to any space game you care to run. 

How Is This Station Going To Screw You? (d8)
  1. All the doors have been fused shut. How is the cocoon getting around?
  2. Leaking reactor. Better hurry....and your radios are futzed from the radiation.
  3. Repurposed drones seek to repair station, repair your gear, repair you, or kill you. Mostly kill you.
  4. Parts of the station are gone, and all areas larger than a bedroom are filled with chunks of debris.
  5. AI driven insane by isolation and lack of maintenance, completely ignorant of the current state of cocoon, treats cocoon as commanding officer.
  6. Malfunctioning cryounit traps past crew in stasis to preserve them, releases them when it detects more humans.
  7. Rogue mining drone in hibernation. Wakes up and seeks to recover valuable component to fix itself upon spacecraft arrival.
  8. Debris storm after arrival. Need to assess spaceship damage and scavenge parts.
What Powers Does This Cocoon Have? (d20)
  1. Bend your perception of time. 
  2. Wipe itself from your eyesight.
  3. Alter temperature levels from below zero to above boiling.
  4. Remove your ability to feel pain.
  5. Make you hear voices. 
  6. Imitate noises perfectly.
  7. Interfere with electronics or nucleics.
  8. Ignite with a touch.
  9. Bend metal like clay.
  10. Produce sensory organs that resemble wiring exactly.
  11. Host a technological device.
  12. Kill your immune system with a look. 
  13. Lethally radioactive when in the same room.
  14. Vibrate at a frequency to shatter glass and hard plastics.
  15. Emits pure hydrogen and is immune to fire and explosions.
  16. Secretes sticky, inflammable, corrosive goo.
  17. Increase air pressure.
  18. Produce and absorb electrical current.
  19. Symbiotic fungus colonizes all surfaces, is inevitably fatal to all organic life.
  20. My Stars These Glorious Scintillations Are Enrapturing
All monarchs, regardless of their looks, possess certain abilities. They are incredibly strong, do not need any atmosphere, and are immune to all forms of radiation. The butterfly effect is massively amplified around them, and any gear too close will begin to suffer catastrophic failures. 

They are always singing and talking, streams of radiation pouring from them and illuminating the impossible colors of their bodies. This song can be altered to prevent any transmissions or massively boost them. It also interferes with communication between neurons, leading to quick dementia, hallucinations, and eventually catatonia. Looking at them indirectly, with a spacesuit, causes cataracts to form. Looking at them directly sears their image into your eyes forever.

They want to travel the stars and show us the orchestra of the universe. Unfortunately, they're not quite sure how, and most of their methods involve ripping pesky chunks out and replacing them. Most spacers vivisected this way die a quick death, but there's always the chance of someone beating the odds...

What Is The Monarch Capable Of? (d8)
  1. Gravitational anomalies. Serious ones.
  2. Manipulation of computer systems by thinking. AI can resist.
  3. Creating clones after getting DNA sample. They fall apart after several days.
  4. Combustion ceases to work. 
  5. Consumes all electromagnetic radiation.
  6. Flight. Shit.
  7. Manipulates magnetism.
  8. Come My Child, Let Me Show You The Glory Of The Stars

What Does This Monarch Look Like (d6, roll four times)

It's dreadful colors are...

  1. Amber with shimmering cyan and lurking red
  2. Bright magenta with opaque black and yellow fringes
  3. Staticky chartreuse with dripping white and opalescent red
  4. Oil-slick pink with dark purple streaks and sparking black
  5. Matte orange with fluid grey and veins of white
  6. Glossy lime with chocolate ridges and crimson beads
Its appendages are....
  1. Keratinous and multitudinous
  2. Glasslike and constantly flowing
  3. Shrouded in clouds of seeds like dandelions
  4. Mucous dripping off hard edges
  5. Flaps of hair oscillating, concealing holes
  6. Acne-studded, wet musculature
Its body is....
  1. Radially symmetric, with evenly spaced appendages
  2. Lopsided, with pulsing, downy bags of organs on the larger side
  3. Trunklike, with irregular crustacean plates and antennae
  4. Perfectly anorexic, with each tendon and bone outlined
  5. Organs connected by floating silky strands
  6. Kelpy fronds quivering like plucked strings
And its head, oh stars its head is...
  1. Chitinous petals arranged in the shape of a rose that unfold to reveal dark milky orbs
  2. Flesh bulging through a skull, pulsing veins and shuddering eyes encased in dry bone
  3. Luminous radiance emitted by floating polyps
  4. It...doesn't have one? Wait. What's that in the corner of my eye?
  5. A void of perception. Your head is drawn towards it.
  6. A cat's cradle of relaxed muscle that tenses when it perceives a threat. 
Milan Nikolic

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