Saturday, 4 March 2017

A Lemon Planet

Earth-like planets are just not that common in Known Space. There’s some that are about the same size and some of those are about the right temperature and some of those have a decent atmosphere and some water. But there are a hell of a lot more crappy lumps of rock and ice and great boluses of noxious gas, but if life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Humans are an inventive lot, and any system has some clod of matter they can make use of.


Aquila 160 D 220 220 B Desert, Low Population, Poor

An ice cave in the Torre Glacier on Earth - Tsaitsyn's are mostly pitch black
(By Andrew Waddington)

Tsaritsyn/Yokoana is a tiny iceball of a world, dry and cold, orbiting a gas giant which in turn distantly orbits a class K9 star.

It has an atmosphere though, and it has oxygen, making it a far better prospect for an outpost than any of the similar bits of icy detritus in the system. The thick dirty ice covering of Tsaritsyn is porous, almost a sponge or foam in places, with tendrils and spicules of ice covering almost all of its surface, intermixed with loose lumps of ice and snow. 

There is a mountain range of sorts, a place where water has erupted from somewhere below and frozen into a solid but extensively cracked glacier. Landing a starship anywhere but on this glacier is a risky proposition, you have to search long and hard with ground penetrating radar to find any area of ice with sufficient strength to support its weight, even with the low gravity, and even then tidal forces may shift and crack the ice under your vessel as the moon slowly rotates.

The ice layer is around 30km deep, riddled with pockets of gas and extensive complex cave systems, millions of miles of them. As you go deeper the ice has a greater proportion of hydrocarbons and even pools and rivers of semi-liquid oily sludge can be found due to natural anti-freeze, and it harbours ever great amounts of silicate dust until it becomes solid rock. Somewhere deep inside the planet is a heat source, presumably a molten nickel-iron core, though it seems too small to have such a thing.

There is an ecosystem down here. The organisms are not cellular, they are almost crystalline nodes of informational molecules directing the general smear of hydrocarbon, silanes and boranes around them into a metabolism reliant on chemo and thermo synthesis for energy. It is a sluggish and half hearted affair, visible as brownish coloured ice and rainbow films of oil, barely living at all, but it does produce a tiny bit of oxygen and methane to create an actual atmosphere.

The beasties in question?
(From a paper by MB Uloth et al in PloS One on an earthly bacterium that uses crystals)

The two colonies are both corporate; the Rosneft Interstellar Mining corporation and a firm from Aquila's Japanese-speaking Onika Prefecture, Hokada Nanochemical. Both colonies are tiny, 87 in the Rosnef base, 73 in the Hokada. They lie a hundred kilometers apart at either end of the Broken Hills glacier.

The Rosneft base - Tsaritsyn - is dedicated to finding a usable reservoir of exotic petrochemcials. Surveying teams trek across the surface and through the caves, a risky business aided by specially made tunnelling machines and drones, but deposits are mostly too small to justify the expense of pumping them out. Hokada use their facility as a manufacturing base far from the restrictive environmental regulations back home and import most of their feedstock or skim it from the local gas giants. The chemical waste they pour into their caverns is having an effect on the local slime, mainly killing it outright, but some varieties seem to be adapting.

The two settlements are in a low level war, with frequent legal arguments over exploitation rights to the planet. There is sabotage of Hokada plant and the Rosneft crew accuse Hokada of deliberately killing off their exploration crews by triggering cave ins. The two settlements have separate landing fields and refuse to have anything to do with each other. The Hokada even have a different name for the world - Yokoana - though since the Russians were there first and there are more of them their name is more frequently on the star charts. Hokada are trying to persuade the various state authorities on Aquila to start an embargo against Rosneft, but though the Russians are light years away no one wants to rile them.

For most travellers Tsaritsyn/Yokoana is a ‘flyover’ planet, you might go into a parking orbit over the Hokada base and have their shuttle bring you up some overpriced unrefined fuel (130Cr/ton), but there is no reason to stop, not even a hotel.

Any, all or none of the following may be true...

  • The Hokada staff have been infiltrated by environmentalists from Aquila. The planet’s ecosystem may be gunge with a slight pretense at organisation but in the opinion of the Fronte Naturelle it has a right to live with minimal disturbance from humankind. Hokada could have sited their plant on any ball of rock, there’s plenty in the Aquila system itself, there is no reason be poisoning these bugs, they should go, and those Rosneft wallies as well.
  • This planet is just plain weird, it shouldn’t have these caves. Planetologist David Mkumba reckons it looks like the place was boiled and then quickly refrozen. The gas giant below is a big one, nearly a brown dwarf, and there is an outside chance that it, or the primary star, once spawned a coronal mass ejection that caused the mass meltdown. When will the next be?
  • What this place needs is some terraforming. The Rosneft crew have a plan. The Broken Hills Glacier lies over what looks like the only actual geological fault in the rocky core below, they reckon that it was a volcanic eruption down there long, long ago that created the glacier. They are bringing in a really big drill and are going down to the planet’s mantle to trigger another one, melt a whole shedload more of the ice, bring some of the atmosphere down below out to the surface, maybe keep it going permanently for geothermal power and to create a liquid water sea. Cracking open a planet? What could go wrong?
  • You know these life forms are really clever, they manage to extract and concentrate the oil and minerals from solid dirty ice really well. And they are crystalline, or almost so, using various phases of solid water ice to create tiny architectures and self-replicating patterns, kind of like recent experiments in nano-technology. You could export these to other such moons - they are a very common type - and leave them for a million years of so and just come back and slurp up the hydrocarbon. Rosneft are working on a way to speed up the process, using nanotech methods to speed up the existing bugs, and/or the secret of the Hokada base is that they have concluded they are in fact nano-tech left by an alien race, have projected what kind of monstrosity the wee fuckers are trying to turn this ice ball into and are trying to kill them off.
  • Life evolves slowly on a planet this cold and with this little solar input, it’s been 7 billion years and the best they it has come up with is a half assed replicator based on fancy ice and clay crystals - not even bloody membranes and the place is full of oil! The human bases are injecting a lot of heat, complex organics and DNA (well the shithouse has got to have a pipe that comes out somewhere) and a whole bunch of other crud including radionulceides and it is making up for lost time. Slimes are quietly dissolving the great concrete and steel slabs the bases are built on, the bodies of those poor swine buried in cave ins are being digested and their biomolecules repurposed; it’s going to bloody eat us!
  • It’s all one cell, one organism, and it is intelligent. It’s thought processes are slow - the speed of diffusing chemicals - but those nodes communicate amongst themselves and there are billions of them. It doesn’t know what to think about the peculiar changes to its environment yet, but it has recognised that there are other organisms than itself and may yet try and communicate. How? Structures in ice? Words strung from chains of carbon, boron and silicon with heterocyclic rings as letters? Will the squabbling humans recognise what they are sitting on before killing it entirely?