Your Turn, Round 1-2: In Which Michael Designs Aliens
The role-playing scenario, called “The Farthest Star“, that I set on Chott follows a classic theme: the robinsonade or desert island story. Rachel would call it another iteration of The Conversation That Never Dies, since it is centuries old. Plainly spoken, a group of humans – be they the original Robinson Crusoe, a Swiss family, a bunch of primary school students, or some other ragtag bunch of misfits – are put somewhere isolated and have to survive.
This is a remarkably diverse premise. That’s why the general theme is so popular. Put humans from the present in the past and we have alternate history. Put humans from Earth on another planet and we have science fiction. Setting this on Chott gives a fun scenario for the players to play through, and a chance for me to show off my worldbuilding. But I couldn’t just make the map. I had to populate Chott with interesting things and characters for the players’ characters to encounter and deal with. And now you all get to rip my designs for alien biologies and societies apart.
Sufficiently Advanced Aliens
I needed a way for present-day humans to get lifted from the Earth and dropped onto Chott. To do that, I used a technology that was functionally indistinguishable from magic. Like Greg Benford, I invoked the perhaps-not-entirely-impossible concept of negative mass, where the gravitational and inertial masses are of opposite signs. I defer to someone with more expertise in theoretical physics to tell me if negative mass is possible or if it violates one of the fundamental symmetries of the universe.
I also assumed negative and positive near-point masses under very sophisticated and intelligent control, be they somehow-stabilized specks of neutronium or black holes just big enough to not put off too much Hawking radiation. Putting a negative point mass next to a positive point mass gives an engine: the positive mass is attracted to the negative one by gravity, but the negative mass is repelled. Or the other way around, depending on which of the negative mass’ masses is negative. Either way, the dipole then goes flying, and it can be loaded down with a payload of conventional positive-mass non-degenerate matter. Conservation of energy has to hold, so I decided that the dipole sucks energy out of the local expansion of the universe – effectively, slightly pulling space closed behind it. Momentum would be conserved by gravitational wave radiation. This thing has a strange wake.
While the acceleration of the point masses and their payload can be also arbitrarily high, it can also be compensated so that the abducted humans are not turned into highly-compressed organic goo. All of this was assumed so that characters from present-day Earth could be flown across most of a kiloparsec in a few subjective hours. But who’s flying this strange starship?
I called them the Examiners. They are never seen directly, interacting with the humans only by an AI avatar assigned the job of testing humanity by abducting a sample of several hundred and dropping them on Chott with a certain amount of equipment for a bit over a century, to be observed without any interaction until the end of the test. What a galaxy-cluster-spanning billion-year-old sufficiently-advanced culture would learn by spending five and a half millennia playing with six hundred apes was not specified. Maybe it tells them something useful about properties of human culture that don’t vary over centuries. Maybe the Examiners are just being cruel. Maybe they operate on some inscrutable alien agenda. Maybe the Examiners themselves are a million years dead and the humans are dealing only with the AI.
Either way, the Examiners exist as a way to set up the robinsonade. Their emissary picks up the humans, explains the situation to them, gives them several hundred tons of custom-built equipment, and drops them into a playa on Chott, telling them to survive and thrive for the next 121 years.
The History Of Chott
Chott has been used by the Examiners for testing for the last few million years, for anyone who is able to breathe the air or/and drink water with some mixture of dissolved ions. Humans are simply the most recent ones to arrive. The planet is quite liberally dusted with ruins left behind by the previous testers, concentrated into the areas that the Examiners found most suitable for dropping them in. It’s also dusted with microbes and some larger lifeforms from many different worlds, although those that are not Chott-native have a tendency to get out-competed and eventually die off.
In the last few tens of thousands of years, five tests have taken place in one particular longitude range in Chott’s southern temperate zone. The humans encounter what the previous four groups left behind. The ruins provide various resources for the humans to use, as well as information about the people who lived in them. I had only called them T-1, T-2, T-3, and T-4, going back in time from the most recent to the least recent. The players promptly named them treants, snakes, tetras, and hexes. So I’ll use those names here. Everything will be referenced to the time when the humans arrived at Chott, which is sometime in the 4700s CE on Earth.
The treants were tested about three thousand years ago (which means that the AI in charge of testing the humans didn’t know about the treants’ test before it picked up the humans, but was informed en route). Like humans, they are a low-salt species and could not drink Chott groundwater. They constructed a network of large solar-powered stills on the high ground around two adjacent playas to provide themselves with water, several of which the humans in both runs of The Farthest Star renovated to use themselves. Unlike humans, the treants look like something from a cross between an elephant and an oak tree, with tentacles instead of arms and side-mounted protruding eyes.
The treants had somewhat different technologies than humans. Not necessarily less advanced, but different. Their chemical engineering was good. They managed to power their vehicles using plant-derived hydrocarbons and built the roofs for the stills to last through over five thousand Chott storm seasons. Their medical science was well-developed as well. They were not used to Chott’s gravity; it was too high for them. So infant treants had prosthetic legs to help support them, rather than immediately being able to walk. But the treants did not have large-scale heavier-than-air flight, and so did not explore the entire planet.
The treants fought a brief civil war a few decades after their arrival, over disputed water and food rights. It ended with a low body count, and did not appear prevent them from passing the test. Or so says a book the treants made, printed on metal sheets and left in their library just before the Examiners returned to take them all home.
7000 years ago, the snakes were dropped at the south end of the playa that would later host the humans. They could have handled the salinity, but did something very foolish and set up a single initial camp underneath an unstable slope. The entire group was buried under a landslide. There were no survivors. I confess that such an extreme failure of judgement seems unlikely. I had it have happened to demonstrate to the players that failure was possible, and that I would let their characters die if they did something equally unadvised.
The snakes were only snakelike in their method of locomotion. The rear halves of their bodies were elongated, flexible, and with a series of friction pads on the underside. The front halves of the bodies were held upright, allowing appendages to more easily manipulate objects and for the eyes to give a better view of the surroundings. If you squinted hard enough at the partial reconstruction of one of the bodies by the humans, it looked something like a rearing cobra. Hence the name.
It did not come up much in the run-throughs of The Farthest Star, but some of the snakes’ equipment could have been salvaged and used by humans. It included ceramic-shelled tents, crushed flat but with individual sheets of ceramic composite (based on alumina and corundum) that were still intact. Had the humans started fighting one another, those would have been useful as improvised ballistic armor.
The tetras were a hive mind intelligence, composed of specialized tetrahedral elements that joined to each other by clasps at the vertices that also conveyed the equivalent of nerve impulses. Some were primarily structural members, some muscle, some sensors, some manipulators, some reproductive, some processing, and some data storage. As confusing as it may be to think about, when they were networked, the processors automatically pooled into a distributed shared awareness that could break apart and recombine at will.
We can call the tetra units that the Examiners brought to Chott either “it” or “they”. Either way, the tetras established a central base about 2000 km to the west-north-west of the human, treant, and snake centers. Smaller subsidiary minds were sent out to explore; a plane carrying one of them crashed and was later partially excavated by the treants and then studied by the humans.
The tetras had no concept of reading or writing at the beginning of the test, although they did understand communication between separate minds by pressure waves and radio. They did attempt to communicate with later testers by leaving individual memory elements at various hex ruins. But after seventeen thousand years, their biological solid-state storage was completely decayed. So the humans could not even attempt to understand what exactly tetras thought.
The hexes were six legged and salt-loving. And they were very good biologists as well as thorough explorers. 30,000 years ago, they explored the entire planet and studied the remains from tests as far back as 350,000 years ago. They attempted to ensure that their ruins would be noticed by future testers and that those testers would know who they had been.
The hexes built three monolithic hexagonal-prism towers at a place the humans called Triangle. They could be entered only from airlock doors on the roofs. Solar-powered crystal radio beacons announced their presence to anyone with a receiver within a few hundred kilometers. Inside were thousands of square meters of microprinted cave paintings, developing a common vocabulary and working up to give a description of the hexes’ history on their home planet (about 1800 lightyears from Chott and 4500 from Earth) and of everything they had done during their test. From this, the humans got a crash course in xenobiology – hex and Chott – beyond what they had been able to figure out themselves. Most of the plants and animals that the hexes had engineered had been taken with them or had died out and could only be identified by remains, but some were still alive on the surface of Chott.
One of the things the hexes engineered was a species of wheeled animals to hunt down and eat predatory Chott-native species. The wheeled design was quite efficient on for moving on the playas, and a rocker-bogie arrangement allowed them to ascend fairly steep and rough terrain. The wheels were biological stepper motors, with small muscles controlling samarium-cobalt magnets on the inside of each wheel. Another set of magnets and the rims were separated from the hubs by something that could be called blood.
The hexes made the rollers intelligent enough to hunt in groups and to use the simplest of stone tools, to make them more efficient hunters. Protoculture technique-sharing and vocalizations from deliberately grated wheels completed their initial skills. Reproduction was parthenogenetic. The hexes controlled the roller population in two separate ways. Chemical triggers shut down reproduction in rollers that spent too much time in the presence of too many other rollers. And the samarium to make wheel magnets required a particular protein to be metabolized and formed into magnets, a protein that the rollers themselves could not produce. That protein was synthesized by the hexes and provided only in a large mass in the center of one of the hex’s settlements. The rollers would periodically return to the supply, or they would lose their ability to keep on rolling.
But then the hexes left, leaving the rollers nothing but the large monoliths and pile of the protein at Triangle.
Thirty thousand years passed. The tetras did not notice the rollers, because its planes did not fly far enough east to enter the rollers’ range. The treants did not walk that far either and the snakes had no chance to see anything. The hexes had allowed a relatively high mutation rate and over the five to ten thousand generations between when the hexes left and the humans arrived, the rollers evolved.
Those that were smart enough to hunt effectively on their own – and later, to deliberately spend periods of time by themselves – had more offspring and rapidly dominated the population. Language and technology both developed soon after. By the time the first human aircraft buzzed overhead, the rollers had developed a culture roughly analogous to the human late-neolithic or early-bronze age (I was inspired to this idea by the webcomic Schlock Mercenary). The analogy is limited, since the rollers use salvaged bits of metal from hex ruins for spear-points rather than smelting metal.
Roller culture is distributed, and has expanded to cover a much greater range as the rollers became better at navigation and caching food. Small groups travel well over a thousand kilometers from Triangle in search of prey. Social prestige and more offspring come from being a skilled enough hunter to bring down prey alone, usually using thrown spears, or from killing the largest prey in the smallest possible group. Elders, slowed by age and by injuries up to and including loosing one wheel on each side, are valued for their experience and for the time they can spend caring for and teaching their grandchildren. And every two chott years, all of the rollers – there are tens of thousands of them – convene at Triangle for a festival that has grown up around the necessity to eat mouthfuls of dirt-of-life.
But the rollers have a problem that they are not yet aware of. In the beginning, there was a large mound of the dirt, half-buried in the center of Triangle. Now there is a large pit, with the last few meters of dirt-of-life at the bottom. If nothing is done, in another few thousand years, the rollers would go extinct.
And so we have plot for the human characters to deal with.