Officially, the Blog Carnival for September finished on Monday, and the October Blog Carnival has already started at first-time host of Dice and Dragons on the Halloween-inspired subject of “Spooky Spots” (best of luck with it, Scot!) – but I had one more article that I wanted to sneak under the wire. My last two posts have listed “Wonders of the Known World” for fantasy RPGs; this time around, I’m offering a pool of ideas for “Wonders of the Known Universe” for an SF campaign.
Although the byline above doesn’t reflect it, these ideas represent a team effort. I got the players in my superhero campaign to spend a few minutes adding to the idea pool last Saturday before we started play because it was looking a little shallow. So official thanks for their contributions to this article go to Blair Ramage, Saxon Brenton, and Nick Deane.
I’ve added my two cent’s worth to some of the ideas, tweaked and polished them a little, but they are still not going to be as fully developed as the ideas I’ve been offering for fantasy campaigns. There won’t be as much depth or as much in the way of plots that are built around these Wonders. Some of them lend themselves to that sort of thing, others… not so much. They have varying levels of gosh-wow, and run the gamut from cosmic phenomena to planetary curiosities. Few of them are rigorously explained; it’s enough that they are somewhere within spitting distance of suspension of disbelief. Most would need a lot more development for use in a Hard SF setting. But hopefully they will contain enough imagination to make up for that.
Hint: Hubble photos are great for conveying a “you are there” sense of space to players. Just flash one on your laptop or iPad for that jaw-dropping “out there” sensation.
Cosmic Phenomena are big. Really big. Bigger-than-a-star-system big. You might thing that anything at this scale is noteworthy, and you would be right – but there are a couple of items that are even more noteworthy than most.
1. The Orouberus Molecule
The Orouberus Molecule manifests as streamers of trans-temporal polymer consisting of a single molecular chain linking to its future self form a nebular “reef” in space which has become home to a number of unique lifeforms which occupy it and use it as a scaffolding in the same manner as the inhabitants of coral reefs on Earth. Some of these lifeforms are believed to facilitate the extension through time of the Orouberus Molecule. Assuming that time is circular, eventually it is believed that the Molecule will link back to its earliest form, creating a closed circle through time – the source of the name of the phenomenon.
2. The Cascade Nebula
A swarm of microscopic black holes passing through a nebula produce ripples and currents within that nebula, and violently varying gravitational surges that affect both the gas and any object that attempts to traverse the nebula. The sensation is analogous to a three-dimensional form of “white water” rafting that has proven attractive to a certain breed of daredevil and extreme sportsmen and women. Energy gains from gravitational shifts make the nebula glow blue-white, the black holes are the equivalent of rocks that must be avoided, and matter from the nebula is sufficient to prevent the collapse of the holes through pair production. The only mystery is where the swarm of mutually-orbiting black holes came from, a puzzle to which science does not have the answer.
If it’s bigger than a planet, it belongs in the category of Interstellar Curiosities. Only a small percentage of solar systems are peculiar, but there are so many to draw from that even “peculiar” isn’t enough to make this list, which is reserved for a few that are exceptionally strange even by the standards of ‘weird’ that improbability can throw up with a sufficiently large sample.
3. “Birth And Death” By Garl
Artistic movements come and go as they always have, but when Mankind first ventured out into the galaxy and began observing the natural beauty of many interstellar objects – nebulae and gas clouds – at close range, many art and design movements found themselves dwarfed and intimidated by the natural wonders of the universe. The responses – Neominimalism, Neoretroism, and Neobauhaus – came to dominate the art field for almost twenty years. But there was one small movement who refused to be intimidated and felt compelled to expand their works to the scale of those wonders; although it would take centuries for the technology to mature sufficiently to enable the visions of the members of the Cosmologic Movement. Most of the early practitioners designed artistic concepts with no real idea of how they could be achieved, leaving it to future generations to find ways of implementing their artistic visions. Only a few of those visions have ever manifested in actual artistic works, and of those, by far the biggest, most grandiose, and most famous is “Birth and Death” by Garl Eiflesson.
Inspired by such natural phenomena as Old Earth’s “Old Faithful”, “Birth and Death” features a planet which periodically and regularly blows itself apart and then reforms, ready to do it all again a decade later. A wormhole artificially placed at the centre of an unwanted planetoid in orbit of a Dwarf Star is used to pump energy into an elemental transmuter that creates high-order unstable radio-isotopes, whose decay creates vast internal heat within the planetoid. When the energy levels reach a critical threshold, the planet explodes; but the threshold of reaction is set sufficiently low and the size of the planetoid sufficiently high that the debris does not escape local orbit and falls back to their collective mutual centre of attraction, forming a new planet. This process is accelerated by gravity generators which are also powered by the wormhole. Minor variations in the position of the ‘generator station’ relative to the centre of the planet mean that each detonation is unique. Of course, the heat generated means that the planetary surface is still white-hot and molten at the time of the next explosion, and hence more visible due to radiative heat in the visible temperature range.
Artistic interpretation of the resulting piece of “dynamic art” have varied widely. Some consider it a commentary on man’s destructive tendencies, others consider it a reflection of man’s habit of reengineering his environment to his own specifications, while others consider it an expression of the cycle of creation itself. Others discuss the symbology as representative of the birth and death of human lives. Most just enjoy the spectacle.
4. The Dyson Superplant Of Epsilon Centauri
A small dyson sphere of 100,000 small solar collectors placed close to Epsilon Centauri (approximating the relative equivalent orbit of Mercury in terms of solar proximity) which convert sunlight into radio waves and tight-broadcast it to one of three points in space. Presumably collection satellites would have been constructed at those points in heliostationary orbit to relay constant power to an inhabited world within the solar system, but no planet in the Epsilon Centaurus system has sustained life for at least 60,000 years. Who built it? Did they destroy their home world, or fall victim to some galactic disaster – or simply run out of power before this ambitious project could be completed? Were they destroyed when the star became a Giant? Or did the power project accelerate the process? Or were they from some other solar system and simply planning to tap the power generation of this very bright star? Does this engineering project have anything to do with the variability of the star? These questions remain unanswered, though there are constant archeological searches underway for remains on each of the planets within the Epsilon Centauri system.
5. The Spiderweb Of Rukh-C
Rukh-C, more formally known as Delta Cygni C, is home to a set of planetoids that are held together in a fixed close arrangement by means of visible tractor- and presser- beams in orbit around the first full-sized artificial black hole ever created (for research into faster/alternative FTL approaches) and then abandoned when that technology didn’t pan out. These visible beams bend and twist through the distorted space to look like a spiderweb catching the light. (NB: This is a very space-opera-ish proposal).
6. The Torus of Andraphones
The Torus was once a giant star like a great many others, but about 20,000 years ago, it was impacted by a relatively small and very fast-moving black hole moving so quickly that it “sucked” a hole through the centre, but was gone before the entire star was consumed, and imparted so much spin on the remaining stellar matter that the star remains a stable torus to this day, the only star in existence with no centre. It was named for the Astronomer who first showed mathematically how the phenomenon could have originated and stabilized.
7. The Confusion of Hydra
The system with the largest number of planets ever discovered, Hydra has no less than 37 worlds in stable, independent orbits. Two of these are in the inhabitable or “Goldilocks” Zone. It is believed that the system was formed with several gas giants in eccentric orbits that destabilized each other in repeated collisions or near-collisions, sending them too close to the star, which tore them apart with tidal forces, swallowing some of the dismembered planets and expelling other parts which then coalesced to form the extraordinarily large number of worlds now found there. The System (whose technical name is HD82943 or 164 G. Hydrae) is named for the constellation in which it is located, and reflects the theoretical origins of the planetary bodies (“cut off a head and two will take its place”). Initially it was thought that these additional Gas Giants had been swallowed by the parent star, due to the high concentration of Lithium-6 in it’s spectral emissions, but actual inspection revealed that the planets had broken up prior to this and only partially consumed.
Sometimes it’s not the solar system, but a particular planetary body or associated lunar collection that makes a place noteworthy. Once again, slim chances come up often enough when there are so many planets to consider that it takes something fairly exceptional to make the list.
8. The Waltz Of Minos IV
The “Mount Rushmore” of space, famous/notorious sculptor Hammaz Ebvischuck spent a fortune and a lifetime preparing and planning this display of planetary engineering located at Iota Horologii: Thirty-two moons arranged in Klemperer rosettes orbiting each other at the trojan points, each of virtually identical size and mass, and sculpted by remotely-controlled terraforming technology to display the face of a famous historical figure, their orbits arranged so that the moons orbits resemble the dance-steps of the traditional Waltz. The original sculptures were done using sandpaper and models and each stroke of ‘erosion’ recorded by computer to be translated into instructional blueprints for the full-scale work, which took some 600 years to complete. Discarded material was removed by means of giant vacuum pumps after a thin and very temporary (on the celestial scale of events) atmosphere was added for the purpose consisting of neutral gasses, then formed into a concrete ‘sealant’ that is used by the automated machinery to make repairs.
9. The Diaphanous Assembly of Omicron Boötis
The discovery that matter did not experience the force of gravity when in certain unusual quantum states which could be maintained by pion currents running through the matter in question led to a number of architectural and sculptural applications getting underway before the physics consequences were fully understood. Everyone, it seems in retrospect, wanted to be the first to exploit “artificial gravity translucency” in an otherwise-impossible supercolossal structure. Most of these projects floundered when it was discovered that matter so arranged was too radioactively-active for occupation or even a prolonged tour. While the principle of Gravitic Transparency would later emerge as a vital step in energizing fuels for efficient interstellar travel at FTL speeds, occupational health and safety regulations written with respect to practices within nuclear power stations two centuries earlier made the completion of the majority of the projects impractical, while in several cases where “art” trumped “personal danger”, artists were killed by radioactive exposure before their works could be completed. In fact, only one structure was completed in time, the handiwork of architect Treselov Borislavich, and sponsored by Transuranic Miners & Prospectors LLC, who were particularly well-suited by experience to handle the dangers posed by radioactives. In later years, it would be alleged that the corporation manipulated their role as a technical advisor to the Health And Safety boards who interpreted those requirements to ensure that no-one else could complete a project, but this has been the subject of vehement denials by the board of the corporation.
Be that as it may, the fact remains that the only standalone Gravitationally Translucent construct ever completed is the planned corporate headquarters building of TMP at Omicron Boötis – a building of impossible height, extending from ground level into orbit. The gravitational translucency is the only reason it does not collapse under its own weight or get torn apart by tidal forces. Of course, it could never be used for its planned purpose, so it remains pristine and unique, though it is still the registered official headquarters of the corporation which still operates through “off-site” management.
10. The Billboard Of Greeting
The gas giant named Theroz Marcellus II (technically HD 48265 B) is home to an entire ecosystem that floats endlessly in its nutrient-rich clouds, like many gas giants. Like every known example, these creatures have extremely limited intelligence as individuals. Uniquely, the inhabitants collectively have a hive-mind that is effectively fully-sentient; so much so that many researchers find it convenient to consider the entire ecosystem to consist of a single sentient being, which (of course) course can never leave its supersized homeworld. It communicates with the outside world by rearranging itself to form patterns of color and hue on the daylight-side visible ‘surface’ of the world. In personality, it is bright, bubbly, and known for its practical jokes, and intensely curious about the outside world; some researchers suggest that it is not entirely incorrect to treat it like an exceptionally bright teenaged girl. For intellectual stimulation, it demands regular visits by the most creative and inventive minds in the galaxy for performances and guest-lectures – if it cannot go to the stars, it will pay to have the the stars brought to it! It pays for these by reshaping the “visible” surface of the world for brief periods of time into advertising for its sponsors – in between telling jokes and sending birthday greetings to its human friends in orbit around it – and by licensing the rebroadcast rights to the performances and lectures. If only it didn’t have a fondness for boy bands…
11. The Halo Rock
Technically, at 0.1 AU across, this is the largest artificial gemstone every created, though it is actually a crystalline coating over a balloon inflated by the solar wind of Oculus Borealis, officially referred to as Epsilon Tauri. Once the artificial crystal had formed on the surface, it was carefully faceted and then micro-grooved to refract light of a different color from each facet. As the Halo Rock tumbles through space in it’s orbit (relative to the star), the light shining through it is refracted to form an eternally-changing halo of rainbows.
To wrap up the list, there a few structures that are peculiar enough to make their planets noteworthy, and a few planets with biological phenomena that are peculiar enough to make them famous.
12. The Necrotis Plague ‘Planet’
The medical research facility established at HD85512b-III was made famous for its ground-breaking research for years before one of its treatments escaped from the labs and forced the abandonment of the facility. Technically, it’s a moon of the superplanet, but – like Ganymede and Titan in Earth’s solar system – it is large enough to qualify as a planet in its own right. The treatment which forced abandonment of the facility involved nanobots programmed to consume necrotic (dead) tissues, preventing them from poisoning the rest of the organism. This was considered a refinement of the enzymatic removal of necrotic tissues for two reasons: firstly, it would have fewer side effects and hence promote recovery; and secondly, it could be applied to any necrotic tissue anywhere in the body without need for surgery. Unfortunately, it was discovered that the treatment caused massive internal disruption as the nanotech “virus” also attacked cells undergoing apoptosis, the process by which the body naturally recycles cellular material. This is a natural part of the cellular lifecycle and is essential for normal health; excessive apoptosis causes atrophy, while inadequate apoptosis causes cancer through excessive cell reproduction. Fifty-to-Seventy cells die and are replaced each day in the typical adult human by way of this process. In effect, the treatment destroyed the infectious tissues – but at the price of causing the rest of the body to waste away and experience cachexia-like symptoms; and because apoptosis is a normal biological function, this disease also affected everyone else in the facility. Although an emergency evacuation of the facility took place, all exposed at the vicinity succumbed within a year to what became known as the Necrotis Plague.
All animal life on HD85512b-III was eradicated by the plague.
But in more recent years, the still-viable Necrotis Plague has once again become a valued treatment for acute and severe necrosis. Patients are remote-piloted to the surface and exposed to the Necrotis plague, which eradicates the necrotic tissue, then inoculated with a specific variety of Hunter-Killer nanobots designed to destroy the nanotechnology which, having consumed the necrotic tissue, is now targeting Apoptotic tissues and robbing the cells of vital materials needed for the construction of new cells. With the plague disrupted, the patients are again remote-piloted from the surface to the satellite space hospital which now orbits the original facility, and suffer minimal harm (the equivalent of an hour’s starvation).
In recent years, it has become fashionable to will one’s body for ‘burial’ on HD85512b-III; the organic remains are consumed by the plague and help sustain its viability for the benefit of others. Special permission is required before any such burial.
Note: Travelers are warned that a substantial military/law-enforcement presence is maintained in the planetary system to prevent any attempted harvesting/weaponizing of the plague.
13. The “Cosmic String” of 18 Delphini
The Space Elevator at 18 Delphini was originally constructed to shift cargo and passengers to the orbital station at the top of the beanstalk, but in modern times is better known as the largest musical instrument in the universe, the “Cosmic String” (not to be confused with the hypothetical cosmological phenomenon of the same name (refer cosmic string). The structure resonates audibly with winds at different altitudes, naturally harmonizing with the string interval defined by the altitude of the mass ascending or descending the elevator in the same way as a violin string changes pitch when the string is depressed at a particular fret, with secondary resonances at the interval defined by the separation between the cargo and any of several maintenance robots that ascend and descend the monofilament structure testing for and repairing defects. In effect, the one space elevator is several strings of the resulting musical instrument at the same time. The changes in tone are considered reminiscent of a slide guitar of impossible size and deep timbre. No other space elevator has resonances in the audible frequencies, which result from the peculiarities of the wind patterns of 18 Delphini b. On the planetary surface, the tones are audible from several kilometers away.
Rumors that famous avant-garde composer Nith Behrgren and his support band, Ninth Wave, are composing an electronica symphony in which the “Cosmic String” is to be a featured instrument are unconfirmed.
14. The Arena Of Canopia
When man emerged into space as a permanent place of residence, he brought a lot of his games and artistic expressions with him. The Arena of Canopia is designed to invent and popularize micro-gravity variations of popular sports and entertainments – everything from adaptions of Shakespeare’s plays to Micro-Gravity ballet to Hypersquash and Low-G Rugby. The largest enclosed microgravity environment in existence, the Arena (initially made famous by its Zero-G Wrestling Championship) now comprises 132 separate playing ‘fields’ which can be configured as necessary to host different events for broadcast throughout human space.
15. The Fireworx Swarm
Bioluminescent nocturnal insects are nothing new. But the Fireworx is larger than most (the size of terrestrial dragonflies) and so are the swarms of 100,000 plus that continually chase the night hours of the planet Dirathima, which is otherwise a not-especially-noteworthy swamp world orbiting 55 Cancri, itself a somewhat unusual star. The name derives from the initial brightness of the display, though it quickly stabilizes to a lower level. Each insect can only maintain its luminescence for a few minutes before it fades, but after a few minutes’ rest it is ready to flare into illuminated life once again. Whichever insect is the brightest-glowing at any given instant is the “swarm leader” and all the others flock toward it. Because the insects rest during the day, but are continually being joined be new members, swarms give the appearance of maintaining pace with the twilight line.
The glow indicates that the insect is ready to mate, and the relative brightness of the initial burst makes one individual insect a preferential mate. Fireworx live for approximately a week as adults, in which time a female can produce almost a thousand larvae (birth occurs during the daylight hours, leaving the female ready to produce fresh larvae the next night). Fireworx are phototropic and thermotropic. There are suggestions that they are a genetically-engineered species or were introduced to the planet because they appear to have no genes in common with other life on Dirathima. Current speculation is that the species proved more successful than desired and now constitute a plague population on the planet, but this is unproven. No human agency has been identified as responsible for their introduction; they were present when the planet was initially surveyed for colonization. If proven, this would make them the only verified case of bioengineering by non-humans.
One final tip: The rebooted Dr Who has more than it’s fair share of great ideas to snaffle for this sort of campaign.
Okay, that’s a wrap! The “Location, Location, Location” blog carnival has been a great success. Next week I’ll compile the articles submitted into the traditional link-fest :)