Guest contributor: Cmdr Marx
I gaze out at the world I’m orbiting. Its features are familiar: light gray clouds stretch across the surface, covering seas and continents. Yet the sight is still alien – the seas are not blue, but a reddish brown, and the lands are a far cry from the green vegetation of habitable worlds. As my ship’s computer tells me, such planets are called ammonia worlds. These are much colder than the planets most people are used to, and instead of liquid water, it’s liquid ammonia that flows on the surface. The resulting landscape is both quite familiar and remarkably alien.
The planet I’m orbiting is designated as ‘Eol Prou YD-W b17-1 4’. According to my information, it was first settled by a certain Balakor Corporation, who started the construction of an outpost they named ‘Balakor’s Research Post’. They also wished to name the planet ‘Balakor’, but neither Universal Cartographics nor the colonists approved of the idea.
The ventures troubles didn’t end here though: the second convoy that was dispatched from the old worlds met a fate that’s all too familiar to people living on the frontier. It went out into the black, but never arrived at its destination, and was never heard from again.
The corporation said they could not afford to send another convoy, and the outpost would have been left unfinished, if not for the ‘Colonia Research Department’. In exchange for contracting to finish the construction with whatever materials the colonists could source, they received a very good price on the rights to the station.
Nowadays, ‘Balakor’s Research Post’ belongs to the Balakor Corporation in name only. The name stayed because the colonists simply didn’t want to submit a station ID change request to ‘Universal Cartographics’, as the bureaucracy involving can be a nightmare. (Which is also why Jaques Station was called 80 DD-something long after it was fully repaired.) Today, the ‘Colonia Research Department’ runs the outpost, which is usually a rather quiet place. It was just my luck that I arrived at a bad time though: when I requested docking permission, I was rebuked by a rather irritated-sounding man at traffic control, saying that all of the pads will be very busy for the next hour. Hence, here I am in my ship, parked in orbit, and watching the world below.
Somehow, it never gets old.
After the hour was over, I flew back to the outpost, and was granted docking permission this time. Stepping from my ship, I’m greeted by the station’s second-in-command – Jake Hardy. He apologises that Adherent Bertram Wimmer couldn’t be here for an interview, but I came at the worst possible time and he hints that I really should have tried to set up an appointment in advance, but what’s done is done.
When I ask him about what the occasion was, he tells me that the weekly expedition to the planet surface had just launched. “That’s why we were so busy”, he says and gestures towards the workers in the dock – they appeared to be winding down and their fatigue was evident. I ask Mr. Hardy about the expedition, and why it’s such a special occasion. “We take our duties, and our adherence to scientific protocol quite seriously. Unlike our… colleagues at the place you recently visited, we take great care to limit the possibilities of contamination to a minimum. We don’t just set down on the surface and traipse around carelessly: our landing crafts are thoroughly sterilised, and the experiments are planned well in advance. All so that we spend the least amount of time there that’s feasible. We take our samples, we take measurements, and we leave as much undisturbed as we can.”
That sounds like quite a difference from the settlers of Tranquility indeed. I almost ask him if there are any down on the planet, but I quickly change my mind: of course there aren’t. Why would anyone even want to settle down there? But that does lead to a good question: why is the ‘Colonia Research Department’ here? I ask him this.
“Well, this world is never going to be habitable, but it may hold the key in making other worlds habitable. Our primary focus of research are the various bacteria down there: with some minor adaptations, they could be used in terraforming worlds. You see, the planet’s atmosphere is mostly made up of carbon dioxide, with trace amounts of nitrogen and oxygen. As a result, various microscopic forms of life have evolved down there that feed on carbon dioxide and it is our hope that these can be adapted to work on other worlds that are suitable candidates for terraforming.”
I ask him why they don’t just use existing methods, as surely that would be cheaper than spending money on research here. He almost looks offended. “Well yes, we could buy some other patented engineered bacteria back from the old worlds, but we would have to pay a premium. Corporations prefer not to sell terraforming lifeforms, but to licence the use of various strains. And with us being way out here? Few even wish to consider doing business with us. So when it comes to biological terraformation out here in Colonia, we are mostly on our own.”
I wonder whether there are any other interesting forms of life down on the planet. The images of alien seas and rivers are still quite in my mind, after all. I ask my guide this, and he shakes his head. “I’m sorry if you were expecting fantastical beasts or alien insects, but there is nothing down there that’s large enough to be seen by the naked eye.” He suddenly appears to change the subject: “The world does look beautiful from up here, does it not?” I nod in agreement. “But down on the ground, it’s much more desolate. There are ammonia flows – rivers, lakes, seas and so on – and there are rocks. Not much else.”
Is that why he’s up here now, and not down there? “Well, yes. The landing shuttles can carry only so much people, and the scientists fight over every spot. Me? I’m quite content to watch the world from above, thank you. It looks serene, doesn’t it?”
I agree with him, and then a thought crosses my mind. Is life here also serene, or are there any troubles? I inquire about this. “Well, we do have a pirate presence in the system, but other than that, not much. They call themselves the ‘Crimson Blade’, but they are hardly a threat – just a nuisance. We don’t know where exactly they are hiding, but it’s not like we have many shipments leaving the station. Nothing much to raid. So no, you needn’t be concerned about anything.”
After this, he offers to show me pictures from the planet’s surface, and I accept his offer. We go to his office, where he shows me the photographs. His description of the planet seems to have been quite accurate: it’s even hard to believe that life does survive down there. But it does, and according to Mr. Hardy, unlocking its secrets is worth coming all the way here, to the frontier. “Well, we do struggle to get by, as we don’t have much to export yet. But we are literally pioneers in our field out here, and I would not trade that for even the best-equipped laboratories in the old worlds.”
We talk more after this, but eventually he says that he needs to get back to his work. After taking my leave, I explore the outpost: besides the laboratories, there is precious little to be seen, and next to no activity. The outpost’s facilities are basic, mostly dedicated to servicing ships. Recalling Hardy’s earlier words about exports, I visit the station’s commodity market. As it turns out, he was exactly right: being a service economy, Balakor’s Research Post mostly exports data, not cargo.
I speak with one of the market managers, who says that they don’t see much traffic, and even what they do have is mostly inbound. He says he’ll talk further only on conditions of anonymity, and some credits, but he does eventually tell me that their budgets are at times very tight. During such periods, he says that they often don’t verify where exactly a particular canister came from, if it’s sold for a cheap price. There are some aboard the station who are even less picky about goods: he says that if you have illegal goods, you will probably find some black market buyers for them. “The work must go on, and for that, we must get by, one way or another. Besides, the Adherent says things will be much better soon.”
I wonder about that as I leave the station. I can’t help but feel that there might be more to this place… perhaps more to the world below? Even now, it looks familiar yet alien to me. It’s as if I blinked my eyes, the colours would return to normal, and I would see blue seas and green lands down there. But reality is different, of course. As I take one last look at the world before I turn my ship towards my next destination, I find myself thinking of the pictures of rocks and ammonia streams. What else will the colonists find here?
And, as my ship’s frameshift drive starts its countdown, more questions intrude on me: why did a convoy vanish without a trace, and why were its owners so eager to abandon their enterprise afterwards? For that matter, how can a criminal gang operate in a barren system and nobody else know where they are coming from?
Perhaps the big question is not just what the colonists will find here, but also what we all brought with ourselves.
Photographs by Cmdr Marx, used with permission.