Friday, November 15, 2013

The Slaver's Tale: Development Notes

It's always a treat when Luke Bellmason blogs about how he creates his stories. Here he is:

Having just completed a story about a miner, the next Tale in the series follows on with the miner’s sort of evil counterpart; the Slaver. For a long time I wasn’t sure what the “evil miner” would be. As I explained in the intro to the Canterbury Tales Vol. 1, I originally came up with six main character types and a ‘good’ and ‘evil’ version of each one. For example the good Trader was the Merchant, and the bad one was the Smuggler. There’s a Bounty Hunter (good) and an Assassin (bad).
Slaves were a commodity in the original Elite and the players manual describes a little about how some spacers who ejected from their doomed vessels could sometimes be blown up in their pods, or collected with a fuel scoop, when they would become slaves!
In my story, the lead character uses slaves to mine out huge asteroids because minerals just aren’t worth very much and slaves are free labour. If she had to pay everyone for their work, there wouldn’t be any profit in mining! Of course, this is a very current topic with half the world working in horrendous conditions to mine precious minerals and do menial assembly tasks so the other half can have their smart phones and cheap clothes. Of course many of these consumers are themselves slaves, wage slaves or trying to earning thier way out of accumulated debt each day. Then there’s the troubled history of my own country with the slave trade and the extensive benefits the British Empire and its contemporaries gained through effectively having thousands of unpaid workers. In fact it seems like any global superpower has got where it has through the exploitation of people.
I’m not sure how much my story is going to be able to address these issues, probably not much since it’s only a short story and I intend to focus more on the plight of the characters and their actions rather than moralising about history, but it’s in my mind nonetheless.
I’m also thinking about the robots and how the word actually comes from the Czech word for forced labour, by way of K. Capek’s story ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’. Ironically, the Slaver doesn’t use the robots to do the actual mining because it turns out they’re not very good at it, at least not as good as slaves. This is largely because robots can’t be ‘motivated’ to work harder like sentient beings can. When I say ‘motivated’ I of course mean the stick rather than the carrot, but thereby hangs the central point of the Slaver’s Tale and I don’t want to give you too many spoilers before the story itself comes out.
I know roughly what kind of ending I want, but have been stuck on the details. I realised some way into the planning stage of the story that to really work out the ending I needed to know precisely how the mining operation worked. I’ve also been watching a lot of Mission: Impossible and playing GTA:V which relies heavily on really well thought out and planned heists, so my brain is sort of in a certain place with this Tale.
All this has led me to the biggest bit of development I’ve had to do for any of the Tales so far, and that is to work out exactly how the Slaver’s operation functions. I used to love this kind of thing when I ran Role Playing Games. I would spend weeks constucting huge space stations or ships (kind of a similar activity to drawing up maps for Fantasy games) on the basis that you never really knew where the players were going to go.
So without knowing how my story is going to end, I’m building everything without knowing which bits are going to make it into the story. Probably most of this stuff will never make it into the story, but it’s fun working on the background anyway. It also reminds me of a video game setting as well, which is appropriate given the general theme of the Canterbury Tales.
It’s interesting to plan stuff like this though because you never know what’s going to come out of it. I could discover a gap in a wall where one of the characters keeps a set of cutlery, because it reminds her of home, and this could become a crucial plot-point, there’s just no telling! I could even turn the whole thing into a text adventure level or something.
I can’t guarantee that the following doesn’t contain spoilers because I haven’t written the story yet, but I will forgive you if you find it all too boring to read. Anyway, if you do like knowing things like exactly how many spare rolls of toilet paper are keep in the lavatories on level 109, then this is the blog entry for you!
(note. names for alien races, planets and characters I haven’t come up with yet are usually marked with four letters ‘yyyy’, etc. If you want why not suggest your own names.)

The operation is a mineral mining facility spread over a large area within an asteroid field. It is one of several dozen similar facilities run by the Dosians.
Since raw mineral ore is relatively bulky to transport, it is not profitable to ship it back to the homeworld. Therefore the ore is processed on-site. Multiple minerals are processed and even a few precious gems are found among the ore.
Even in its processed state the minerals themselves are very low profit, so large quantities are required to make the operation viable. Unpaid, slave labour is used to mine the ore from the asteroids and in the processing plant. Robots are also utilised in the mines, but are not considered efficient enough to be used as miners. The robots are instead used mainly to control the slaves remotely (security) and to perform various other specialised and routine maintenance tasks.
The facility comprises a Main Hub where the central administration and accomodation is housed, along with the processing plant and loading dock, a Storage Warehouse, where containers of processed minerals are stored for collection by bulk freighters and multiple Asteroid Mines where ore is collected.
This large asteroid lies at the centre of the facility. It was originally mined out as part of the facilities construction and the mined ore was used to construct much of the infrastructure.
The topmost part of the Hub comprises of two separate exterior structures; the ‘Palace’ and the Shuttle Dock.
++ The Palace is the living accommodation of the Facility Director (FD) and houses all of her living quarters, food stores, life support, power plant, communications and other ancilleries. In the event of an emergency it can be jettisoned and survive for up to three months in space.
The Palace is connected to the Shuttle Dock by two subsurface tunnels, sealed at each end and in two mid-points. All supplies are moved through here each month when the re-supply shuttle arrives with the Bulk Freighter.
++ The Shuttle Bay provides storage and maintenance for three personal shuttlecraft. These are medium sized, short range interplanetary shuttles which are generally used by the FD and her staff to travel around the facility.
++ The Security Station is manned by robots and monitors all of the facility, thousands of cameras trained on all the slaves wherever they are. Should trouble arise in any location, Security sends in guards to deal with it using whatever methods seem appropriate. Though given the low value of an individual slave there is rarely much regard given to their safety. Any slave which shows even the slightest sign of stepping out of line is normally met with lethal force and riots are dealt with similarly.
++ Robot Maintenance & Control (RMC) is where all robots are repaired, maintained and programmed. All robots working out in the asteroid field and in the processor are autonomous. Their programming is set and updated at regular intervals during their routine maintenance cycle. The robots themselves are much more expensive than the slaves, but they last longer in the harsh environments of the mines and processing plant. Damaged or malfunctioning robots can be brought here from the mines and replacements sent out as necessary.
The basic unit is the Rossum-4260K, which is a multi-purpose unit ideally suited to heavy industrial environments. This unit can be then fitted with a variety of modifications to serve as guards, miners, loaders, maintenance, engineers or almost any other task. Their programming is basic and usually specialised to a particular task. Their human interaction protocols are limited unless fitted with specialist upgrades.
Robot Types;
FL-49: These are sophisticated command units with high-level AI used in the Security Station and in the Hub Admin section. They are capable of near-human level speech and can interpret instructions given to them into programming commands which are then downloaded to the lower level robots.
(All RM-4260 units are interchangeable and can be reassigned and reprogrammed at the RMC.)
RM-4260K-D: Guards
Used for processing slaves and keeping order in the mines. Fitted with stunner-prods, gas tanks and guns should things get out of hand. Interpersonal interaction units are fitted to allow limited communication with the slaves. These units also have security monitoring systems which relay back to the main Security Station on the Hub.
RM-4260K-S: Miners
Though they don’t do any real mining as such, they are configured to set up the tunnels, lay down the extraction equipment and generally assist with operations.
RM-4260-E: Engineer
These are configured for construction and more specialist mining procedures, such as the installation of lift shafts, habitable modules and other such structures. They do not work on other robots, but can recover them to be sent to the RMC on the Hub.
RM-4260-R: Loaders
Used in the various loading and unloading docks around the facility these robots operate a wide range of bulk lifters, haulers and plant machinery. Anywhere there’s ore, product or other supplies to be moved, loaders are used.
RM-4260-T: Maintenance
These are the robots which repair and maintain the other robots. Most work in the RMC on the Hub, but each asteroid has its own maintenance unit which can take care of minor faults and repairs.
[The slaves have nick-named the different types of robot based on their designation letter; R=Robbie, E=Eddie, S=Sammy, D=Davy, T=Tommy. So instead of calling them guards, a slave might say "Look out, Davy's coming." Nobody knows who the slave who came up with this was, but it seems universal that sentient beings in harsh environments will do anything they can to lighten up their dreary lives or to 'humanise' machinery.]
++ The Power Plant consists of four starship class power cores. The Processor consumes 98% of the total power output of the plant, but at any one time only two of the cores is required to be operating at full power. Normally though the load is spread over three cores working at 33% capacity each. This allows for peak requirements to be met more easily and reduces overall wear and tear on the reactors.
There is a secondary backup system in place should the main cores fail for any reason, but this system would not be able to power the Processor.
++ The Processor takes up almost the whole of the inside of the asteroid. Some of the upper sections have admin offices, control rooms and ancillery accommodations, but the operation of the processor is largely automated so only rarely does anyone need to come down here. There is a lift from the Palace into the admin section of the processor, and from there most of the interior can be accessed if necessary, but this is rarely required.
The main processor takes ore from the sleds, analyses it and subjects it to various chemical and mechanical processes. Slave labour is used throughout many of these procedures, but due to the nature of the environment slaves don’t last more than a few weeks on the job. For this reason, being assigned to the processing plant is considered a death sentence and is used as punishment for low productivity. After one week slaves will be sent back to their asteroid having learned their lesson, but most don’t recover from the experience and soon find themselves back as their failing health leads their productivity to drop even further.
++ The Loading Dock is where the containers are loaded with processed minerals ready for transport back to the homeworld. The containers are lifted out by automated tugs which take them to the storage facility.
Containers of processed minerals are brought here from the Hub for storage. Once a month a bulk freighter from the Homeworld collects the full containers and leaves empty ones. The warehouse itself is carved out of a spent asteroid, the second one to be mined after the main hub asteroid. Everything here is automated, from the tugs to the unloading and storage to the loading of the freighters. There is no life support or habitable areas so any maintenance must be carried out by robots.
Each asteroid has its own designation based on its position/bearing relative to the Hub and its distance. In this way an infinate number of designations may be generated as new asteroids are added to the operation. At a certain point the distance of mines from the Hub becomes economically unviable, at which point the operation is shut down and the vital components (processor, power-plant, vehicles, robots) are removed to a new site.
A mine consists of several common features, with precise configuration being dependent on mineral content and asteroid size/shape.
++ The Docking Point is a universal access port fixed to the outside of the asteroid. It is similar to the the Shuttle Bay on the Hub, but is on three levels. All personnel are shipped through here including Slaves and Robots. Other equipment can be shipped through here also, but large machinery is moved through the Loading Bay.
++ The Airlock is a system of interconnecting passageways and chambers connecting the Docking Point to the interior of the mine, which is kept at standard pressure. Robots may use the Docking Point as an open area, but other personnel need to lock their vessels to the airlock doors inside the bay.
++ The Security Area is immediately behind the Airlock and is designed to handle Slaves in and out of the mine onto and off the Slave Transports. The section is run by Type-D robots. As slaves pass through the section they are routinely searched and scanned for any prohibited materials. They are also logged in and out with thier ‘tags’ and any slave with a malfunctioning or missing tag is sent for re-tagging.
++ The Robot Control Area is a section immediately behind the Security Area and inaccessible to any slave. Here all routine maintenance is carried out and robots are cleaned and serviced. Anything more major requires the robot to be shipped back to the Hub.
++ The Loading Bay is where the raw ore is loaded onto Ore Sleds to be shipped to the Hub. The ore is fed up through the mines along a complex series of grav-feeds and belts. When a slave loads a cart it’s mass is recorded and logged to that slave’s tag. That ore is then fed through the system to the Loading Bay.
++ Living Accomodations for the Slaves are basic in the extreme. In one small area there is a food unit which dispenses food pellets and water at pre-programmed intervals and sleeping racks. There’s little room to move around and three or four slaves might have to share one sleeping rack. There’s no communal area for socializing, but this rarely becomes a problem since outside of the four hour sleep cycle slaves are expected to be hard at work trying desperately not to be at the bottom of the week’s productivity list.
All vehicles around the facility are automated and controlled by a central computer on the Hub. This avoids traffic conflicts and manages the flow of materials, slaves and robots throughout the whole operation. Shuttles may also be controlled by this system or flown directly by a pilot.
++ Ore Sled – These are large vessels designed to carry ore from the mines to the Hub. They are basically a huge cargo hold with an engine and guidance system attached. At the hub end they dump out the loose ore into the processor.
++ Container Barge -
slave transport
personal shuttle
++ Bulk Carrier – This is the ship which turns up each month to collect the loaded containers and ship them back to the homeworld. It is manned.
Diosian Alphabet
alef – aleph
bet – beth
daleth – dalet
zain – zayin
cheth – het
teth – tet
kaph – kaf
peh – pe
tzaddi – tsadi
qoph – qof
tau – tav

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