Bioprobes

Galactic Survey Service Communications Transcript, Beta Takashi Survey Mission, GSS Sam Houston, 28 June 2336

Survey Launch Ceres: Hey, Captain, we got an anomaly on the infrared.
GSS Sam Houston: Say again, Lieutenant?
Ceres: Captain, we've got a hot spot on the dark side of this rock. Scope says the damn' thing is almost a hundred degrees C.
Houston: We copy, Lieutenant. You are authorized to investigate.
Ceres: Roger that, Captain. Firing maneuvering thrusters and turning on the headlights. ETA 20 seconds.
Houston: Acknowledged.
Ceres: What the [expletive deleted]? Look at that!
Ceres: Captain? You're not going to believe this. There's something eating the asteroid.
Houston: Say again?
Ceres: There's something on the asteroid, and it's alive . . .

The first of their kind appeared on the hubward edge of settled space no more than 70 standard years ago. Since then, their numbers have grown in periodic bursts.

With rare exceptions, they do not communicate with anything other than their own kind. Face-to-face diplomatic efforts are ignored, or worse, "harvested." Attempts at telepathic contact invariably fail, running into a blank, black wall of psionic vacuum. And while it's clear that they are intelligent, after a fashion, it's not at all certain that they think in any way recognizable to us.

They arrive singly and depart en masse, consuming voluminous resources in the process -- resources that start with asteroids and sometimes extend to unlucky spaceships, orbital colonies and their occupants, as well as the occasional remote settler -- resources that some have chosen to defend, to their detriment. The mere arrival of one in a system is justification for a military deployment on a scale sufficient to repel an interplanetary invasion. They are hated, feared, dissected, studied.

They have no name of their own that galactic civilization is aware of. Spacers call them "asteroid termites," "star moles," and "those damned things." Colonists have called them "wolf- locusts." Certain governments call them "the plague." Biologists call them living machines, bioengineered lifeforms designed to live their lives in vacuum and microgravity, traveling from star to star. The general public knows them as "bioprobes."

They are an unknown civilization's answer to the problem of exploring the galaxy -- a civilization that either didn't know or didn't care that there may be others already making use of the resources their probe-creatures would covet. They consume the flotsam of solar systems and reproduce themselves, swarming in all directions with the apparent intent to fill the observable universe. And woe to anyone who tries to stop them . . .

If their remote ancestors ever had a single specific homeworld, its characteristics cannot be determined from their biology. Between the adaptations that suit them for life in deep space and the wild changes individuals can undertake at a moment's notice, it is not likely any of their original genotype survives in quantities sufficient to plot their world of origin.

Advantages and Disadvantages

There are three distinct varieties of bioprobe, corresponding to the stages in their life cycle and utilizing the optional "once only" shifting rules found in the box on p. 36 of GURPS Shapeshifters:

Larval Form (423 points)

Attributes: Enhanced ST 40 [180]; HT +2 [20]; Extra Hit Points +10 [50].

Advantages: Claws [40]; Clinging (Requires 0 G, - 50%) [13]; Collected [5]; Damage Resistance +5 [15]; Disease-Resistant [5]; Doesn't Sleep [20]; Flight (Space Acceleration 1G, +25%; inertialess) [50]; Mindshare (Hive mind, intelligent drones, system-wide, 100-999 drones) [95]; Once-Only Shapeshift plus "placeholder" [33]; Predefined Once-Only Shapeshift to Factory/Mother form (Only usable in Rover form, -5%) plus "placeholder" [10]; Predefined Once-Only Shapeshift to Rover form plus "placeholder" [10]; Single-Minded [5]; Six Legs [10]; Tunnel [40]; Unaging [15]; Vacuum Support [40].

Disadvantages: Acceleration Weakness [-5]; Bad Grip [-10]; Callous [-6]; Centauroid [0]; Clueless [-10]; G-Intolerance [-20]; Hidebound [-5]; Illiteracy [-10]; Increased Life Support x4 (vacuum-and-microgravity organism with exotic silicon biochemistry) [-40]; Mute [-25]; No Sense of Humor [-10]; Odious Racial Habit: Treats Other Sentients as Animals and Raw Materials -3 [-15]; Reclusive [-10]; Reputation -4 (Dangerous, unpredictable monsters, known throughout galactic civilization, all the time) [-20]; Staid [- 1]; Sterile [-3]; Stubbornness [-5]; Weakness: Cold, 1d/30 minutes [-10]; Weakness: Free Oxygen, 1d/minute [-40].

Skills: Survival (deep space) at IQ+1 [4]; Engineer/TL1 (Mining) at IQ+2 [8].

"Pre-adapted" larvae (see below) use the absolute minimum number of points necessary to adjust to their birth environment. Any points left over are retained as a smaller Once-Only Shapeshift of proportionally lower utility.

Rover Form (9 points)

As larva, but with following changes:

Attributes: Apply -40% "No Fine Manipulators" limitation to ST [-72].

Advantages: Remove Placeholder for change to Rover form [-1, doesn't count against Rover total]; Six Legs [-10]; Tunnel [-40]. Add Damage Resistance +5 [15]; Doesn't Eat or Drink [10]; Hyperflight [50]; Passive Defense +2 [50]; Super Flight x2 [40]; 3D Spatial Sense [10].

Disadvantages: Remove Bad Grip [+10] and Centauroid [0]. Add No Manipulators [-50] and Short Arms [-10].

Skills: Add Astrogation (Hyperflight) at IQ+2 [6].

Like larvae, rovers may be "pre-adapted."

Factory/Mother Form (8 points)

As rover, but with the following changes:

Attributes: Although DX becomes meaningless, points spent on it do not change and are not reallocated. Extra Hit Points +20 (Sessile, -75%) [25].

Advantages: Remove Doesn't Eat or Drink [-10]; Claws [-40]; Flight [-40]; Hyperflight [-50]; Placeholder for change to Factory form [-1, doesn't count against Factory total]; Super Flight [-40]; 3D Spatial Sense [-10]. Add Damage Resistance +15 [45]; Extra Arms (4, +2 hex length, plus +2 hex length on default arms) [160]; Fangs [10]; Passive Defense +1 [25].

Disadvantages: Remove No Manipulators [+50]; Short Arms [+10]; Sterile [+3]. Add No Fine Manipulators [-30]; Sessile [- 50]; Terminally Ill [-50].

If the GM allows player character bioprobes, they are always rogues -- see below.

Rogue Larva (285 points)

As larva, but with following differences:

Advantages: Remove Mindshare [-95] and the Predefined Once-Only Shapeshift to Factory/Mother form plus its "placeholder" [-10]. Add Psionic Resistance +10 [20].

Disadvantages: Add Enemy: Other Bioprobes, 6 or less [-20] and Total Amnesia [-25].

Skills: Remove Engineer/TL1 (Mining) [-8].

Rogue Rover (284 points)

As rover, but with following differences:

Advantages: Remove Mindshare [-95]; Predefined Once- Only Shapeshift to Factory/Mother form plus "placeholder" [-10]. Add Psionic Resistance +10 [20].

Disadvantages: Add Enemy: Other Bioprobes, 6 or less [-20]; Total Amnesia [-25].

Skills: Remove Engineer/TL1 (Mining) [-8].

There have been as yet no known cases of rogue factory/mothers; rogues appear to lose the ability to metamorphose into the final stage of the bioprobe life cycle. Some experts believe that this is because they have been cut off from a theoretical "meta-hive mind" that presumably approves and triggers colony formation.

Rogues' Psionic Resistance represents the last vestiges of the lost hive mind's impenetrability to telepathy. The Enemy is because ordinary bioprobes treat rogues as cancerous "cells" to be ruthlessly exterminated.

Ecology

While almost nothing is known about their psychology, the biology of the bioprobes is at least partially understood. They are a silicon-based lifeform with a body temperature close to 100 Celsius. Unlike most silicon species, though, their bodies are not constructed around the stonelike oxides of silicon, but rather from many varieties of silicone polymers. They do possess a rocky outer skin, but it is analogous to the armor of an armadillo rather than indicative of their internal structure. The combination gives them extraordinary flexibility and speed for a species not based on carbon, as well as remarkable durability; they are disturbingly hard to kill.

Their physical structure, as one noted researcher has commented, is "mostly coiled potential." Although analogies are at best fraught with inaccuracies, the best comparison to be made suggests that many, maybe even most, of a bioprobe's cell-like organelles ride constantly on a point equivalent to the threshold of cell specialization in a fetus. Any given organelle, at the proper electrochemical signal, can immediately specialize, becoming connective tissue, bone, new organs -- literally anything that the organism needs. Even more importantly, the creature's physical organization on that level is such that drastic changes can be implemented in seconds without apparent harm. Several universities and biotech firms are studying bioprobes in the hopes of discovering a way to reproduce this startling ability in carbon-based creatures.

Secondly, as noted elsewhere, the bioprobes are clearly an engineered race, as evidenced by the self-destruct mechanism in the factory/mothers and a concise, efficient genetic structure that lacks introns -- the accumulated DNA "garbage code" that naturally evolved species possess in abundance. They were designed to spend their entire (rather substantial) lives in vacuum and microgravity. In their default forms, bioprobes die when exposed to anything approaching Earthlike conditions. Their internal organs collapse under their own weight in a gravitational field greater than .1G (their native flight abilities are inertialess and thus do not stress their bodies); they burst into flames when exposed to free atmospheric oxygen (a consequence of their silicon biochemistry); and they tend to "freeze" to death in any environment that allows them to radiate their excess body heat faster than they do in the insulation of vacuum.

However, because of the race's remarkable adaptability, individuals and groups have been encountered who have overcome one or more of these restrictions. Occasionally a rover manages to reach a planetary surface by adapting to oxygen and gravity even as it undergoes re-entry. Obviously, on many worlds they may not even have to deal with oxygen, making survival that much easier. And settlers on May's World have reported encountering a colony of bioprobes that had taken up residence in a tropical ocean basin.

Bioprobes in the Campaign

As written, bioprobes can function as a combination villain/natural hazard. The exact proportion between the two is dependent, of course, on the needs of the campaign, but the GM can easily tune a colony's personality anywhere between mindless ants and malicious monsters.

Although intended for GURPS Space, with tweaking the bioprobes can be used in other settings. Both Atomic Horror and X-Files-style settings can exploit probes that have adapted themselves to planetary surfaces. It's recommended that larval Flight abilities be removed to provide a more traditional "ground war against the monsters" type of campaign; however, retaining their ability to fly and even leave the atmosphere makes for a greater challenge. Cyberpunk and other SF settings that do not normally deal with creatures from outer space would also be good targets for a probe infestation; "business as usual" it most certainly will not be.

On a completely different front, little needs to be changed to turn them into magical creatures suitable for anything from a standard Fantasy game through the Madlands into Cthulhupunk. The GM may wish to alter their nature and origin -- be it to a previously unknown Umbral denizen or some variety of Elder Spawn -- or decline to explain them at all, leaving them shrouded in mystery and paranoia.

In any case, GMs planning on using bioprobes as invaders or monsters may want to consult GURPS War Against the Chtorr for useful advice and inspiration.

Innocent Creatures

It is also possible to play wildly against type (and expectations) with the bioprobes. By removing the option for player character rogues, the GM can also remove any signs that bioprobes are actually intelligent. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, they may appear even to the most astute observer to be no more intelligent than a hive of bees. If they are perceived as (or actually are) mere animals, then in addition to those who wish to exterminate them for the danger they pose there will also be those who will seek to protect them and their "native environment." The two will inevitably clash, often in the center of a bioprobe-laden system. In such as setting bioprobes may be regarded more as an annoyance than a menace, and may be subject to organized hunts intended to thin their population when their numbers grow too large.

Life Cycle

Bioprobes normally spend their entire life cycle in hard vacuum and microgravity. Their usual "habitat," to use the term loosely, is an asteroid or protocomet belt (Oort cloud). They show a general preference for rocky asteroids, but make frequent use of metallic asteroids as well, which frequently earns them the enmity of belters and miners.

Their primary foodstuffs are raw silicates and metallic ores. However, they appear to require a wide variety of trace compounds, based on the many unusual "harvests" that have been reported. Witnesses have seen larvae target and acquire starship and habitat parts, depleted radioisotopes, dead power cells, discarded plastics, water contaminated with pesticides, fertile topsoil, and any number of organic compounds, including meat, blood and even entire animals.

There are three basic stages to the life of a bioprobe:

Larvae. Bioprobes start their lives as larvae spawned by a factory/mother. Larvae are insectoid creatures, vaguely centaur-like in structure, approximately 8 feet long and three high when on all sixes. Their front two legs are adapted for cutting and crushing, with bioceramic blades hard and sharp enough to slice through light body armor, but they also have rudimentary hands with which they can grasp and lift. Additionally, they have a vacuum-tight "pouch" capable of holding volumes up to one cubic yard; gases held in the pouch can reach a maximum pressure of 60 PSI. Materials harvested are stored in the pouch until they can be returned to the factory/mother, where they are consumed.

The larval bioprobe is a combination warrior/worker, capable of both defending the colony and gathering its supplies with equal ease. Lightly armored and as strong as five men, it can survive both a mine cave-in and small arms fire, and cut its way out of both dangers. It also possesses a low-powered pseudo- organic inertialess drive, allowing it to travel across an entire solar system in search of the raw materials the colony needs. Sometimes these raw materials include samples from gas giants; larvae have been witnessed making long, skimming flights through the upper reaches of such planets' atmospheres.

In addition to defense and "harvesting," some larvae appear to be information gatherers. Dispatched throughout the host solar system, their behavior suggests that they are exploring and investigating. Some larvae have been known to orbit planets for weeks at a time, and to tag along with intrasystem space traffic. These have been apparently entirely passive save for their motive systems, and unlike other larvae prefer to flee rather than fight.

Rovers. Eventually, the factory/mother reaches what is thought to be a saturation point. What triggers this is unknown, but when it happens, the factory ceases to create new larvae, and recalls its spawn. All larvae abandon their current tasks and return to the mother one last time; exactly why this is done is unknown, as there is no contact or exchange between the two. There each one undergoes a transformation into the form commonly called a "rover." Rovers are roughly cigar-shaped, and measure about nine feet long by three across. They are completely enclosed by a thick, rocky shell. Their six legs remain in a vestigial form, with just enough strength to anchor a rover to a surface in zero-g. They retain any adaptations they may have undergone while in larval form. The primary feature of the rover, however, is its stardrive -- the bioprobe rover is one of the few living creatures known to be capable of FTL speeds under its own power. As far as can be determined, their top speed is twice that of light.

Upon their transformation, the rovers all launch into deep space. One rover always returns back along the factory/mother's original arrival trajectory. (It is believed that this is a report to the probes' unknown creators, but tracing the full route back to them has never been attempted.)

The rovers have a tropism for starlight, and each targets a random star in its field of view when engaging its interstellar drive. Months or years later, it arrives at its destination. If no suitable raw materials are found, or if an existing factory/mother is detected, it surveys the system briefly. Then a new star is selected from the field of view and the rover continues onward. A rover which was "pre-adapted" by its factory/mother will tend to favor its birth environment, but will not reject a standard habitat outright.

This ability to adapt is the common feature of the larva and rover that makes them both so dangerous and so successful at their mission. In addition to the form changes they undergo as part of their life cycle, immature bioprobes are able to make drastic and dramatic changes to their biochemistry and physical structure in order to respond to danger or a hostile environment. They can only do this once before exhausting the potential of their ductile forms, but the changes are virtually instantaneous and always appropriate to the conditions.

Rogues

Occasionally, the bioprobes' adaptability works against them. Some very small fraction (biologists estimate approximately 1 in 100,000) of the creatures mutate into independent sentient beings. These rogues are normally killed and "recycled" by their compatriots, but occasionally one escapes. Those which have survived their initial contact with galactic civilization (they tend to be targets of opportunity in many locales) have unfortunately been unable to shed any further light on the workings of the hive mind. They are always tabulae rasae, devoid of pre-independence memories and lacking the ability to tap into the group mind network.

Player character bioprobes will always be rogues.

Bioprobe Player Characters

As noted elsewhere, all PC bioprobes must be rogues. This is mainly because there is no such thing as an individual bioprobe when it is connected to the system mass-mind, and that mind is going to be far too alien to interact meaningfully with other characters.

The biggest challenge facing a bioprobe character is communication. Being both mute and resistant to psionic contact makes it hard to interact meaningfully with other species. Gesture or Sign Language is an option for larvae, and both larvae and rovers can easily use minicomps for text transmissions. Lacking these, some rovers have had to resort to slates and chalk. The latter two options, of course, require the PC to buy off the species' Illiteracy.

A second challenge is the automatic enmity from normal bioprobes that every rogue faces. Any time a rogue ventures into territory known to be the home of a bioprobe colony, it risks a mass attack.

Assuming a typical Space campaign, rogue bioprobe PCs would probably be best suited as part of the staff of an orbital outpost. Given their relatively slow FTL speed, they would not make good additions to a campaign based on any but the slowest starship, unless it were feasible to provide the life support mechanisms needed to carry them aboard the ship. (This of course assumes that they do not use their adaptive change to reduce their life support requirements.) As part of a survey ship, they'd be invaluable for their ability to travel quickly through a system under their own power while carrying a relatively large load of instrumentation.

In a campaign with relativistic star travel or very slow FTL, a rogue bioprobe could become a scout, searching out new systems for the colony ship with which it was affiliated. In an interstellar war, they can be spies, scouts and forward observers. And how better to approach an invasion plot than with a turncoat on your side?

Even in a setting without starflight like Terradyne or Transhuman Space, a bioprobe PC is possible. The most likely scenario would make the rogue a solitary visitor to an inhabited system unfamiliar with the race. For a GM intrigued by the possibilities of an invasion plot, however, the probe PC could be an escapee from an in-system infestation like that found in the opening vignette.

Factory/Mother. If a suitable source of raw materials is found, be it in an asteroid or protocomet belt around the star, or in another environment (such as a planetary surface) to which the rover is already adapted, and no bioprobe has settled the system yet, the cycle begins anew. The rover affixes itself firmly to the chosen object, and metamorphoses into a factory/mother. This is the final stage in the bioprobe life cycle, a pseudo-organic manufacturing plant capable of churning out larvae as fast as it can be fed the raw materials needed to spawn them. It is also the hub of the system-wide bioprobe hive mind.

A factory/mother resembles nothing more than a dome of rock some thirty to forty feet across, permanently anchored into the substance of an asteroid or protocomet. At one end is a circular maw approximately five feet in diameter, lined with sharp teeth on jaws that can spiral shut like the iris of a camera. The six legs of the original larva reappear as tentacle-like limbs three yards long, spaced equidistantly around the mouth. Its stony shell provides armor that is proof against both attackers and the inevitable micrometeorites. It also retains any "wild card" adaptations it made in larval or rover state, which can conceivably allow it to base itself in otherwise hostile terrains.

Approximately 35 hours after transforming, the factory/mother spawns its first larva, spending a significant fraction of its own internal mass to do so. Once the larva starts feeding it, the factory consumes voraciously and produces continuously -- one larva every 35 hours for anywhere from one to two and a half standard years. (Larvae spawned by a factory/mother adapted to and living in an otherwise hostile environment -- such as the aquatic probes on May's World -- are "pre-adapted" for that environment by the factory/mother. If the factory/mother is operating in a standard vacuum/microgravity environment, its larvae receive no pre-adaptation.)

At the end of its productive period, the factory/mother issues a recall to its spawn as noted above, and begins a shutdown process. When all the larvae have changed to rovers and have launched, the factory/mother dies, usually within 2-4 weeks. At the moment of death, acid sacs strategically positioned within its body burst, destroying its internal structure.

Larvae and rovers are technically neuter; factory/mothers are effectively female.

Names

The bioprobes are a race of hive minds. Individual larvae and rovers have no need of personal names, unless they are rogues. Each colony may well have a unique personal designation, but as they do not communicate with other species, this is unknown. Galactic civilization refers to individual colonies by the name of the system they have infested. What, if any, racial name the entire species of bioprobes calls itself is unknown.

Rogues tend to be eclectic and somewhat random in their choices once they understand the need for names. "Fred," "Licorice Mauve," "Watering Can," and "Puppy 39" are examples of self-selected rogue names.

Psychology

If normal bioprobes have any kind of sophisticated psychology, it isn't apparent to any of the trained observers who have attempted to deduce it. That they are indeed some variety of hive mind has been determined through a long series of field experiments. Direct observation has revealed behaviors that seem indicative of human-level intelligence, but experience warns that one sentient's "intelligence" is frequently another sentient's "instinct."

One thing they certainly possess is a well-defined sense of property and ownership. Unlike animals such as the jackdaw and the packrat, which gather collections of shiny items, bioprobes are apparently able to enumerate and distinguish between individual objects. Evidence suggests they "inventory" the materials they acquire for the mother/factory's use, especially if those materials are stockpiled instead of fed directly into its consuming maw. They understand theft (at least theft from themselves), and will unflaggingly pursue thieves to the best of their ability (which can be substantial, since the hive mind allows all bioprobes of a colony to identify the stolen items and those who took them). There are accounts of larvae bioprobes attacking starships whose owners had managed to recover "scavenged" equipment and remount it.

Unfortunately for many asteroid miners and the inhabitants of several O'Neill colonies, sentient beings of all kinds -- and their dwellings -- are occasionally considered "raw materials."

Sample Character: "Worthington Blue Vanilla"
400 points

Age 12; 8'10" long; 700 lbs.; Rogue Bioprobe Rover, a bluish- black rocky ellipsoid with metallic highlights.

ST 44 [2]; DX 12 [20]; IQ 13 [30]; HT 12/22 [0]

Speed 6.00; Move 6.

Dodge 6.

Damage: Punch: 4d; Kick: n/a; Thrust 4d+2; Swing 7d

Advantages: Extra points in Once-Only Shapeshift plus "placeholder" [22]; Literate [10]; Patron (Galactic Survey Service), 6 or less [20]; Rank 4 [20]; Reputation +1 (Service members, all the time) [2]; Rogue Bioprobe Rover [284]; Status 1 [free from Rank].

Disadvantages: Curious [-10]; Duty to Survey Service, 15 or less [-15]; Gullibility [-10]; Sense of Duty to crewmates [-5].

Quirks: Enjoys human literature, particularly late 19th- to early 20th-century British; Affects 19th-century British "vocal" mannerisms; Aware of his Gullibility and is trying hard to learn enough to offset it; Wants to be a writer of great, universal literature; Endlessly debates using his Once-Only Shapeshift to adapt to normal atmosphere and gravity. [-5]

Skills: Area Knowledge (Known Space)-15 [4]; Astrogation (Hyperflight)-15 [0]; Brawling-12 [1]; Chess-17 [4, hobby skill]; Computer Operation/TL-15 [4]; Electronics Operation (Communications)/TL-15 [6]; Electronics Operation (Sensors)/TL-15 [6]; English-13 [2]; Literature-13 [4]; Planetology-14 [4]; Savoir-Faire (Survey Service)-13 [1]; Writing- 13 [2].

Languages: Galactic Standard-13 [2].

"Worthy," as his crewmates call "him," is the only rogue bioprobe in the Galactic Survey Service. As such he enjoys a certain amount of notoriety among his fellow Service members, not to mention a certain degree of latitude from his commanders. The Service as a whole clearly appreciates his value, as it has repeatedly fitted the ships on which he has served with quarters and accessways designed for his exclusive use -- that is to say, in vacuum with no artificial gravity. Of necessity, he is physically isolated from his crewmates, but thanks to a keyboard- equipped com unit permanently affixed to his rocky shell he can keep up a steady stream of "conversation" from almost anywhere in the ship.

Worthington certainly earns his way in the Service. Being able to flit about a system under his own power and without the need for expensive life support means a substantial savings in the budget for any ship on which he serves. Able to carry hundreds of pounds of equipment, he frequently wears a custom-built scanner unit that feeds directly to the ship's main computer, letting him function as the equivalent to a one-man scout ship at a tiny fraction of its cost.

Personality-wise, Worthington is still coming to terms with both his own independence and the existence of other sentients. He is especially fascinated by humans and their literature; Kipling and his contemporaries have caught his imagination to the point that his "speech" has picked up many stereotypical British mannerisms from the period between the Raj and the First World War. This is not because of any desire to be humorous -- Worthington, like virtually all bioprobes, does not understand humor -- but because of an inexplicable feeling of kinship with and admiration for the British explorers, conquerors and settlers of that period.

His greatest weakness, in Worthington's own opinion, is his lack of experience and knowledge about the peoples and cultures of the Galaxy. Combined with his general trusting nature, this manifests as a Gullibility that he despises, and which he is working to eliminate with a thorough education.


This page was created on December 9, 2003.
Last modified March 12, 2011.