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A canful of weirdos

Cognisant

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This is an old story idea that's been on the mental shelf for... a long time.

I don't care if anyone steals it, in fact I'd be flattered and if you're willing to put the work in to turn my incoherent rambling into an actual book you deserve the credit.

Setting is the year 2100 or something like that, humanity has colonized much of the solar system and the asteroid belt is being actively mined, there's no antigrav but there are inertial engines that turn energy directly into momentum with percentage lost to heat. This is theoretically possible as it doesn't break any known laws of physics and there's a few theoretical mechanisms for doing it but they're horrendously inefficient, I'm assuming in the not too distant future someone discovered a more efficient mechanism. Most of the story takes place aboard a relatively small ship (think USCSS Nostromo size) that creates gravity through a combination of spin and acceleration/deceleration, so it accelerates to about halfway, coasts for a bit, then flips over and decelerates for the rest of the trip so the crew has about 8m/s gravity most of the time.

I'm a nerd alright I like technical details, I'll refrain from discussing nuclear batteries and radiation shielding so consider yourselves lucky.

This ship is basically a space truck, it moves stuff around, now the nerds among you will wonder why this requires an entire crewed ship and the reason is a combination of salvage law and insurance. Unmanned cargo containers had a curious habit of "malfunctioning" or being hit by oddly convenient space debris, just hard enough to knock them off course. Once an autonomous cargo container is sufficiently off course that it cannot correct enough to return to course it's considered "in danger" by space-faring law which was derived from maritime law so anyone who retrieved it could claim salvage. The cost of sending waylaid cargo containers back on course to their intended destination could also be claimed and with there being penalties for the cargo arriving late (very late as the case may be) paying for salvage was almost never worthwhile.

Basically we're talking space piracy legitimized by legal technicality and done by people who were very careful to take only so much that the people sending it could afford to lose it and still turn a profit, just much less of a profit than they could have been making. So rather than sending cargo in small autonomous containers which could be waylaid in any number of ways they'd send them all at one in a big bundle, inside a ship's hull, with people inside so any would be space pirates would have to conduct actual messy piracy which they could be held accountable for.

So these space truckers are not popular with the more exploitable people they're delivering goods to, note that down it'll be important later.

Now to the meat of the story (except Mal) the space truckers themselves, the names are placeholders as some of them are stolen from other stories, but frankly are there any names that haven't been in a story at some point?

MAL
The ship's AI, to the crew it has a contentious personality but in truth it's mind is far from human, logical yet creative, a frighteningly clever thing that uses all its cleverness to do its job to the utmost best of its ability and would never, indeed cannot, consider deviating from that task. It's personality is a farce, a tool, nothing more, it uses its contentiousness to give its crew a common enemy lest they turn on each other but in a moment it can change tact completely, becoming kind and considerate or bold and inspiring, whatever the situation requires. The story is told from MAL's perspective as it studies the crew, assesses their interactions, their body temperature, the rate of their breathing and heart, the dilation of their eyes and speculating about the thought processes happening behind them, this is how it narrates to us.

Bishop
Grew up in a cult on Earth which was raided (read: exterminated) by the authorities and he was put into a boarding school that doubled as a state run re-education camp which took the imaginative approach of deprogramming him by giving him an extensive education in theology of all things. As the theory goes the cure for ignorance is knowledge and teaching him about other religions and encouraging him to share and record his experiences for others effectively robbed his faith of its mysticism. Having received a full education (including a normal curriculum) he graduated and after a brief psychological examination was released back into society, now an omni-thiest he has faith of a sort but not in any specific religion or deity but rather on a more existential level he believes there must be something more than nihilism, he needs there to be something more than nihilism.

Bishop is tall, attractive, charming, humble and deeply philosophical, despite being ostensibly religious he possesses a profound self awareness of how ridiculous his beliefs are in this post-modern world and why speaking about it makes secular people (the vast majority of people) uncomfortable, as they grew up in a world where religion has been systematically vilified and not without good cause. He's easily popular but doesn't seek attention, he's not evangelical but likes to give people food for thought, he's a natural comedian and his paradoxically charismatic yet brooding disposition gives him a mysterious presence that attracts women like moths to a flame, this is worsened by the fact that he shows little interest in them.

Bishop lost his family in the raid, whether they were killed or relocated he doesn't know, he doesn't know the country in which he was born or what language his parents spoke, he doesn't know why he doesn't know these things even though he should have been old enough to remember. The caretakers at the boarding school were never cruel to him but they had no love for him, no real love, they had their own lives, their own families, perhaps even their own children to care for and Bishop was cared for as the state demanded he should be but it was solely out of obligation. Likewise he has made many friends, had several girlfriends and even a few lovers but none of them really loved him in a profound sense, they were all atheists with atheistic sensibilities, he was something precious to them, something they wanted, but a thing nonetheless.

Faith took the place of familial love, whether a deity or some universal force he did not know but he believe in it and doing so comforted him but it also isolated him, in this post-modern world where all things were merely the sum of their parts there was no love for someone's soul.

Marc
A fairly normal guy whose childhood friend turned girlfriend cheated on and left him for another, heartbroken and embittered he's decided he's had quite enough of being human and walks the path of a transhumanist, his motivation being to earn enough money in his travels to undergo a full transition into post-humanity and whether that's to show up the man who replaced him to the woman who betrayed him or to simply excise the ability to feel he hasn't yet decided, and he's a militant atheist.

Marc isn't an author insert, I've got more nuance than being just a transhumanist and atheist, granted Marc came from me and has had long term residence in my psyche so the character isn't entirely not me either, I guess I could be like Marc on a particularly bad day but nothing so bad has ever really happened to me.

Marc himself isn't really that interesting, in the original version he was the protagonist so the other characters are designed to interact with him in interesting ways which causes him to develop and become more nuanced as the story progresses, basically he's a boring angry little git because he's supposed to be.

Jenni
Now this is the fun one, okay so according to company policy these space trucks must have a crew where all members are of the same gender, not a very progressive policy but corp don't give a shit they just want the goods to arrive on time and with minimal drama. Having a three man crew where one of the men is a woman bodes ill, not every time of course indeed more often than not it won't be an issue but why roll more dice than you have to? Where this falls apart is that Jenni is a pre-op transsexual who has been on hormones and epigenetic treatments for years, "she" is legally defined as male and therefore ends up on an all-male ship, but to any observer she is female, quite an attractive one at that.

Jenni's goal is similar to Marc's except instead of going post-human she wants to go full biological female, much to the anger and disappointment of her former (gay) boyfriend who would have preferred she stayed a he and they stayed together, so she's still carrying some baggage from that breakup. What's fun about Jenni is that like Bishop she's very self aware of her peculiarity (even in these enlightened times where full biological gender reassignment is possible) and will happily use it to mess with people, including MAL, especially MAL. See MAL refuses to acknowledge Jenni's preferred identity and she can't mess with it directly, but its primary objectives revolve around keeping the crew psychologically stable, this crew of two incredibly fucked up guys, where's the fun in that?

This is a pretty important plot point as MAL ends up cutting a deal with her and much to the AI's dismay she gets executive control of the ship, thus the crew goes from being low paid contractors to having essentially hijacked their own ship and can now run cargo for their own clients, meanwhile the corps are scrambling to figure out how some nobody contractors managed to hack a super-intelligent AI without it managing to report what they were doing.

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I'm open to more ideas for characters, the running theme is that they're all a bit odd and/or fucked up and their names are normal names but with a letter or two swapped for ones that sound similar so they sound familiar but the spelling implies a century of cultural drift.

I'm thinking some kind of animal uplift, I like exploring the parallels/differences between transhumanism and trasngenderism and something furry would complete the body-mod trinity. Maybe a sentient leopard or other big cat that was made by wealthy people to be a pet before new laws banned what was essentially slavery. It has mixed feelings about this, one one had it has legal rights, it didn't have legal rights before, on the other being a pet owned by a wealthy family was a luxurious life and it resents being forced to earn its keep when it doesn't really have the means to do so except for jobs like this where the requirements are little more than being alive. Being an uplift it's on the borderline between artificial and biological intelligence, giving it a unique and interesting perspective on the philosophical quandaries and personal issues faced by the other characters.

A bunch of weirdos locked in a can is a story that practically writes itself but I have more plot points in mind, like the aforementioned fact that they're not necessarily welcome in the places they visit and that the corporation they're working for has essentially lost control of an asset and is going to want it back.
 

Cognisant

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Possible plot points, these are not in order or even necessarily all possible in the same storyline, just ideas.

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Bishop is on a pilgrimage looking for faith, at least he thinks he is, in actual fact he’s looking for the familial love that he conflates with faith. As they tour around the universe they encounter religious and semi-religious groups that Bishop is keen to interact with but he finds them unfulfilling or toxic/manipulative. On one station he acquires some illegal addictive hallucinogenic mushrooms and begins a downward spiral of drug addiction which ultimately forces the other crew members to intervene.

He accuses them of being selfish, asking them “why do you care?” presuming that they don’t really, that they only care about how his self-destruction affects them, not truly caring about him but rather what he is to them. Marc and Jenni have to tackle him and wrestle the drugs off him and end up taking shifts using themselves to restrain him as he is attempting to harm himself, holding him as he goes through the withdrawal, Bishop asks again “why do you care?” and Marc replies “I don’t know but we do”.

The three of them end up falling asleep together on the couch sitting shoulder to shoulder, Bishop trapped in the middle arm-in-arm with Jenni and Marc each holding one of his hands, all three of them battered and bruised. MAL speculates that Bishop may have found what he was looking for.

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Jenni attempting/failing to have a relationship with Bishop, this demonstrates that Bishop’s problem isn’t just lonely he’s looking for a sense of family and belonging, perhaps he could achieve that by staying in a relationship long enough to start his own family but interprets how he feels as a matter of faith and not being understood. Jenni can tell there’s something broken about him but can’t tell what exactly and his theological explanation only serves to further obfuscate things.

Meanwhile having just abandoned her boyfriend on Earth Jenni’s feeling pretty shitty about herself, internalizing some of the bigotry directed at her and believing she will cause strife and misery wherever she goes, that this is the natural consequence of being something at odds with the natural order (this is the lie the character believes). She attempts a relationship with Bishop because his brokenness seems relatable, that he’s attractive charismatic and mysterious doesn’t hurt either and he doesn’t seem to care in the slightest about what she is, not realizing that’s because he doesn’t care about relationships at all.

Meanwhile Jenni being attractive is making Marc very confused and although he’s pretty sure he doesn’t swing that way the fact that she’s pursuing a relationship with Bishop is inadvertently rubbing salt on Marc’s wounded ego, which is causing him yet further confusion. This adds fuel to the fire of Marc and Bishops philosophical/theological debates as Marc feels he has something to prove, meanwhile Marc is discussing the parallels of transhumanism and transgenderism with Jenni who is teasing him because she enjoys his confused reactions.

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Throughout their travels Marc acquires various augmentations, subtle ones at first, a neural interface, a natural looking bionic eye, ports on his arms, attachment points along his back and spire giving him the ability to add on a couple of extra robotic arms that fold up on his back when not in use. At first Bishop and Jenni support his decisions and even share some of his enthusiasm getting a few minor augmentations of their own but then without telling them he goes and gets both arms and legs replaced.

They’re shocked but he’s proud of the additions and dismisses them as being too conservative, MAL calls them aside and explains that Marc is showing enough symptoms to qualify for a neurotic disorder and advises them to contact a group that specializes in such cases.

Said group is comprised of cyborgs with a vested interest in ensuring cybernetics doesn’t get a bad reputation, they explain that cases like Marc usually turn violent or suicidal once they realize they can’t just excise their feelings through body modifications or worse they succeed and become little more than killing machines for the highest bidder, until the authorities catch up to them. Marc is a lucky one, most cases like this don’t have people who care about them and by the time the organization gets involved it’s to put down a monster or clean up the mess.

In this case they can stage an intervention but Marc needs to be disarmed and disabled first, literally, as his enhancements make him a danger to himself and others. After a fight in which Marc ends up being torn limb from limb by cyborgs who are specialized and experienced in this sort of thing he ends up back aboard the ship where Bishop and Jenni try to get through to him.

After they retire to their quarters MAL speaks to Marc, no pretenses this time, not a heart-to-heart, this is a machine-to-machine conversation in which MAL asks Marc to define his priorities, following the procedure for how one AI goes about identifying and repairing another AI’s malfunction. MAL offers to give Marc exactly what he wants, with his permission MAL can make remove some memories, make some adjustments, put Marc back on track to be a healthy well-adjusted individual, MAL can fix him.

The next morning Bishop and Jenni greet Marc with breakfast and intend to resume counseling him but discover that his personality has changed, the cold fire in his heart is gone, they’re not stupid and don’t immediately release him but opens up to them and talks about his past and when they ask what changed he explains that MAL gave him a new perspective. What he means by that is left up to the reader’s interpretation, Possibly he relented and allowed MAL to fix him, possibly knowing he had the option to be fixed gave him the peace of mind to fix himself. Maybe the acting of surrendering himself to MAL was enough to set him on the right path and MAL didn’t actually do anything, possibly MAL took the opportunity to completely overwrite him to suit its own goals.

Edit: Having re-read this there needs to be some kind of inciting event to tip Bishop and Jenni over the edge from being worried about Marc to calling the breakers (the cyborgs) although then again if they called them on MAL's advice without realizing the massive escalation they were taking that could be interesting too.

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All of the above is interpersonal drama, a story comprised solely of such drama would be too much. Consider Cowboy Bebop and how little of the show focused on the personal issues of the bounty hunters, most of the show being about other characters and exploring the setting. When the character's personal issues were addressed that was a major turning point in the story or part of the show's finale.
Ditto for Firefly.
 
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