Thursday 9 March 2017

Beau Geste's Planet?

Another world from the Aquila Sector, and another place liable to blow up in visiting PCs faces…


034 Aquila B 984648 9 Agricultural, Garden, Rich

Alzarha is a large, hot world, baking under a class F3 star. The equatorial region is stupidly hot and an uninhabitable desert, but the northern and southern sub arctic zones have liquid water seas and pleasant climates comparable to the tropics towards the equator, up to a mediterranean climate nearer the poles. The atmosphere is rich in oxygen and in some areas near these ocean basins saturated with water, while most of the planet is drier than the Atacama Desert. The only problem is the high gravity, 1.25Gs, which reduces the lifespan of colonists due to strain on the cardiovascular system.

They're huge!

The ecosystem is well developed with major phyla of large exoskeletoned and segmented worms, long homeothermic furred peripatus-like creatures with efficient lungs and a plethora of diurnal fliers from the size of hummingbirds up to an albatross, and a minor phylum of quasi molluscs with complex internal calcareous shells with joints and sometimes limbs and an outer covering of leathery skin studded with scutes. The fundamental biochemistry is however incompatible with Earths and there have been extensive introductions from earth from camels, cattle and sheeps to basic crops and supporting soil microbiota through to fish. This has been very successful in the northern half of the northern maritime region, while the southern basin remains almost entirely indigenous.

The population is 7.2 million split between four colonies - The largest is the Neo-Tuareg Popular Republic, with 4 million, the Free Confederation of Archaeo-Tuareg with 1.6 million, an Indian colony, New Jaipur with 1.2 million and a European corporate colony, Krona Agritech, with 0.4 million.

The Tuareg originally arrived as part of a joint West African Union colonising effort along with Nigerians, Malinese, Ghanains, Ivorians etc. which fell apart as the WAU fell apart in the 22nd century due to dissatisfaction of the smaller states with Nigerian dominance. The colony looked doomed to fail and most of the population were evacuated, but the small Tuareg element had little to look forward to back home but continuing to be a scattered and declining minority with no nation state to call their own, so they stubbornly stayed on, attempting to establish a viable form of their traditional nomadic lifestyle. They were helped by a Malinese millionaire who had got rich by building solar power farms in the deep Sahara who managed to convince UN environmental agencies to transplant endangered species from the Sahel to Alzarha to preserve them.

The Tuareg adopted him as a constitutional monarch over a parliamentary democracy, and mostly settled down to arable farming, but unfortunately this state didn’t last. It was undermined by populist and militarist demagogues stoking up fears about the New Jaipur colony. India is a rich country with a vast population and the prospect of them setting up down the coast and ‘pouring out of the skies’ was easy to paint them as a potential threat. This resulted in a civil war and the defeated royalists/democrats joined the ‘Archaeo-Tuareg’, the group of ultra-romantic nomadic nutters who had stayed out in desert fringes.

While the Neo-Tuareg Popular Republic goes through the usual trials of a one party police state, the Archaeo-Tuareg have for the last fifty years tried to make desert nomadism viable, with water condenser stations out in the desert creating swathes of semi-permanent grassland for sheep herding, camels and huge native peritapods used alongside solar powered mobile homes, desert fortresses as bunkers and internet server farms buried under the sands. Their once huge fields of solar panels have long since been bombed to smithereens, but they found an alternative power source - uranium. This is a damned useful export since the modern world has little use for milk and sheep’s wool, their only other major commodities. Getting hold of it does involve expeditions into the most hellish tracts of desert though, which is not for the faint hearted and under equipped.

The Archaeo-Tuareg internet is a bustle of political argument paradoxically mostly conducted in Welsh to confuse the Neo’s military who are still trying to wipe out their opposition. For their part the Archaeo’s take whatever secret military aid New Jaipur can give them and raid the edges of the Neo colony for food and manufactured goods.

Meanwhile New Jaipur expands its fish farms as far across the Nagara Sea as it dares, while dealing with dissent of it’s own. The colony is dominated by a few large corporations who have brought in a lot of indentured labour from back home and tensions between the corporate elite and their workers is mounting. The Archaeos live a tough life to be sure, but the sight of their freewheeling convoys coming to the starport to trade reminds them what freedom can look like.

For their part the most radical factions of the Archaeos are all for biting the hand that feeds them and are supporting the nascent New Jaipur trade unions hoping that a future socialist or social democrat state will definitively oust the military buffoons in control of the NTPR rather than just use them as proxies in a low level campaign of containment as has happened so far. 

But the most traditionalist are all for buying indentured labour contracts and reviving the ancient Tuareg tradition of slave ownership. Archaeo-Tuaregs of this stripe are drifting into Indian corporate employment as police and ‘security forces’, and, it is rumoured, are using Neo captives and New Jaipur convicts in uranium mining operations.

Krona Agritech have chosen a spot in the southern hemisphere and are glad to be well away from all this potential chaos. The southern basin has not had the same kind of extensive seeding with Earthly species though and the native beasties are just that bit bigger and more vicious down here, and the jungles more impenetrable. They have had tensions with the NTPR - Krona has put up an extensive network of geosats that could theoretically enable the NTPR army to monitor the Archaeos and bomb them to bits but Krona refuse to get involved. The NTPR are now accusing Krona of allowing the network to be used by the Archaeos to supplement their ground-station based internet, while Krona insists that if it happened it must be hackers - and are investigating what their new IT hires from the anarcho-syndicalist colony of Neuland on Epsilon have actually been up to.

An EU star navy base is being set up and their currently class D starport extended; the NTPR does have some old but still potent Nigerian frigates, and of course the NTPR has a small uranium mine of its own and possibly a secret processing plant. The Indian Navy are already here showing off one of their new ‘Force Projection Carriers’, a combined air superiority and dropship assault vessel, which has in turn made the Chinese base at Shingdu a couple of parsecs away start practising rapid deployment drills and send a military advisor to the NTPR, which supplies a good part of their food.

Radioactives at New Jaipur have a Purchase DM of +2, while weapons of any kind have a Sale DM of +2 anywhere on the planet except the Krona Agritech base.

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

  • The current titular Queen of the Tuareg lives in exile on Aquila. Her parents fled Alzarha after the Neo revolution with just a few thousand credits and she and her half-English family live relatively modestly in a suburb of New Dorchester. Even so President-General Amestida Takoba wants them definitively removed from the picture and may finance an assassination. On the other hand Prince Francis ag-Norman, currently an engineering student at the University of Fargen, might be persuaded to come and take up the crown, though many of his supposed subjects are a bit lukewarm about a restoration and know next to nothing about him other than his love of football. A faction of Archaeos are dispatching a delegation and looking for a PR and social media team to build him up into a revolutionary figurehead, or at least get him holographed riding a camel and wearing a blue headscarf.
  • What this place needs is more guns! Ok, there’s embargos and regulations galore to be circumvented and/or ignored, but if there wasn’t a risk there wouldn’t be a profit would there? There’s plenty of reconditioned TL9-10 gear to be picked up on Orpheus after their nasty little war against the Asgardian Nazis (just file off the swastikas), or maybe some latest model US Gauss Rifles might fall off the back of a shuttle at Fort Clinton in the United Aquilan States. Whatever, the NTPR frigates are allegedly slow as space-sloths with mega-corns and the INSS Sindhurashtra is supposedly all about ground and atmospheric attack not orbital interdiction; as long as you stay ahead of their nuclear torpedoes and depleted uranium mass drivers you’ll be alright…
  • The Tuareg love their music and despite the difficulties the Archaeos still hold rock festivals in the midst of their hard-pan uranium tainted desert whenever they can get away with it. And AlphaGeekOmicron 1234, biggest rock star in the sector, is going to play! As it turns out he sends a computerised ‘Beta Geek’ - he’s into the revolutionary chic and all that but he ain’t daft - much to the disappointment of the heavily armed fans and the detachment of NTPR air cavalry sent out to break it up with maximum prejudice and blow the decadent Scottish cyborg to kingdom come as an example to whoever gives a shit about that sort of thing.
  • The French are coming! Some historical ignoramus back in Brussels on Earth has decided to send the French Légion Étrangère as part of the EU military build up to protect the Krona colony from any upcoming hostilities, forgetting a few of the hoary units notable campaigns in the Sahara in the late 19th century… the 24th century descendants of those they clobbered and colonised most certainly haven’t and Neo- and Archaeo-Tuareg alike are wondering if the Euro-dweebs at the south pole haven’t got something more ambitious in mind than mere self-defence.
  • The NTPR have finally got themselves a Welsh propagandist. Translating the pseudo Celtic gibberish spouted by the Archaeo rebel radio stations wasn’t that hard with modern linguistic computers, but they have had a hard time finding a sufficiently fluent speaker to spread disinformation back into their system. Edward Williams (Jones the Fib to his associates) lately of Swansea and MI5 on Earth, is of sufficient moral flexibility to work with a military junta, and he needs code-monkeys to hack into some Archaeo base stations and maybe the Krona satellite network. Might need some physical ground and space work, the Archaeos certainly have had help from the tech-mad anarchist Neulanders and digital security is as tight as it gets.
  • The cunning bastards at Mahaji Biomass have had their labs in New Jaipur working on something big - they have been messing with the local wildlife for years trying to GM Alzahra/Earth hybrid beasties for the farms, but have abandoned that in favour of making really, really big local millipede-oids fifty plus meters long to tunnel into the NTPR and cause mayhem ahead of a land invasion by joint Indian and Archaeo forces. For their part the NTPR have had agents seeding the New Jaipur fish farms with Chinese made viruses that implant special hormone-triggered genes that will turn all those shrimp and mullet into rabid killers with the addition of a little cat pee. Not to mention the nuclear cyber sharks (shh, DON’T mention that!).
  • The Krona Agritech colony has a hell of a lot of New Man residents and has a pretty impressive population for a place that was only set up thirty years ago. The answer is simple - they have been secretly cloning them, the New Men being designed for that kind of rough treatment. The Krona team have even been modifying their ‘News’, darkening their complexions and trying to adapt them from a low-g to a high-g subspecies, contravening just about every convention on human genetic modification going. The Krona geosat system is actually there to monitor the progress of some experimental New-New-Man test colonies they have set up out in the desert, people truly adapted to Alzarha’s harsh environment and eating it’s indigestible beasties, better than these silly Archaeo-Tuareg wannabes poncing about on imported camels then retiring to air conditioned camper vans when it gets a bit warm. Of course when the EU military team gets up to strength there is every chance they will find out what has been going on and the Krona management are bricking it. They might even stage a fake military confrontation with the NTPR or Archaeos to encourage the Légion Étrangère fuckwits out into the northern deserts well away from anything sensitive. Well they are coming 30+ light years from home, be a shame not have an actual war for them when they get here.

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?