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Extrasolar Environments 1e

Posted by: Dr. Stev Unruh, Physicist <Info Msg Rep>

Sidebar: Missing Courier

One never knows what to expect at the remote end of a gate wormhole. Though the majority of Pandora gates lead to exoplanets of various types, or similar bodies such as moons, there are many exceptions. As a result, gatecrashers need to be prepared for dealing with an array of environments, most of which are simply unsuited for transhuman life. The simple truth is that the environmental range that unprotected and unmodified transhumans thrive in is severely small, and thus quite rare. Thankfully various synthetic shells and bio-modifications expand the environmental ranges that transhumans can exist and even thrive in, though such conditions often have a major impact on the lifestyle of transhumans that do so. There are literally hundreds of billions of exoplanets in the galaxy. Despite advances in exoplanetary research via long-range astronomy, and the direct experience with thousands of extrasolar systems via the Pandora gates, transhumanity still has much to learn regarding the origins, evolution, and environments of exoplanets. This is in fact, a major component of gatecrashing programs, collecting and cataloging data on new systems. Some lessons can be drawn from the existing data, however, providing gatecrashers with a small measure of what to expect—with the caveat that nothing is certain. For all that we know, the Pandora gates may be placed around systems that are unusual or exist outside of standard norms.

Exoplanet Classifications

Most exoplanets that gatecrashers come across orbit main sequence stars, similar to our own sun. This is because other star types tend to have had conditions that were detrimental to planetary formation or underwent changes (such as a supernova) that destroyed any planetary bodies in the vicinity. The most common stars (~75%) are M-class red dwarfs, with the rest usually being yellow-white F stars, yellow G stars (like Sol), and dim, orange K stars. There are occasional exceptions, such as the cryoplanets around brown dwarf stars, rogue planets, and non-main sequence stars and other stellar bodies. Many of the known exoplanets can be grouped into typical categories, described below. It should be noted that these are just some of the larger and most notable groups—they are many exceptions on record.

Gas Giants

These massive planets, often easily ten times or more the mass of Earth, are known for their dense atmospheres and turbulent cloud layers. They are uninhabitable by transhuman standards, with unbreathable atmospheres and severe radiation, and even their core surfaces have crushing atmospheric pressures and high gravity. Though several remote gates are believed to open into a gas giant’s hellish depths, they remain unexplored. Gas giants commonly have a large number of moons, however, some of them reasonably habitable. Numerous gates are situated on gas giant moons. Transhumanity's primary interest in these gates is resource extraction from the gas giant atmospheres (notably helium-3), mining of heavy metals on the moons, and colonization. Gas giants can be broken down into four categories: Cold Jupiters: Much like Jupiter and Saturn, these massive gas giants have cold outer system orbits. They feature thick, heavy atmospheres of helium and hydrogen swirling above dense rocky or metallic cores. Their planetary system typically features numerous moons and sometimes rings. The moons are often more habitable, though the region is plagued by radiation. Ice Giants: Sometimes called cold Neptunes, these are large planets, much more massive than Earth, with far orbits that make them quite cold. Their thick atmospheres tend to be heavy in hydrogen and helium, and sometimes nitrogen and hydrocarbons, with numerous cloud layers. Upper clouds tend to be methane, giving them a blue color. Their rocky surfaces feature solid water, ammonia, and methane ices. They commonly have ring systems, a magnetosphere, and multiple moons. Eccentric orbits around their parent star are not uncommon. Hot Jupiters and Hot Neptunes: Hot Jupiters are simply cold Jupiters and ice giants whose orbits have migrated closer to their parent star. They tend to have a much higher surface temperature as a result, in additional to bleeding their atmosphere away (eventually becoming chthonian planets).

Sidebar: First-Link Report: Gas Giant Moon

[Planetary Science Panel Review Transcript] White: This gate seems to be situated on a minor moon orbiting a gas giant. At first look, it appears to be close to its companion star and probably rapidly losing its atmosphere. There’s a chance it could be well on the way to becoming solid, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Moira: Sweetie, you’re an infomorph. White: Figure of speech. The telescope is already picking up signs of other moons. There’s probably dozens of them. Cadbury: Initial scans tell me there’s plenty of hydrogen and even some water in the gas giant’s atmosphere. However, I’m detecting a not-insignificant amount of radon. That means there’s a lot of radium on the planet itself. Actually, I’m getting signs of radium 226, which means uranium 238, which means over a millennia of radioactivity. I, for one, wouldn’t even bother with this place. I’m not saying we couldn’t do it, it’s just too much work when we have better options available. Moira: Agreed. It’s a bunk planet, I don’t expect to find much here. White: You can’t win them all. Maybe the first-in team will find some pretty artifacts. Choose the synthmorph-heavy team. Tell them to pack lead aprons.

Terrestrial Planets

Terrestrial planets tend to have orbits closer to their parent star and are composed of either silicates or carbon rocks. Much like the planets of the inner solar system (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars), they feature a solid metallic core (usually iron), a rocky surface mantle, and a thin atmosphere (compared to the gas giants, at least). The larger the planet, the more likelihood there is of volcanism and tectonic activity due to the planet’s internal heat. Most terrestrials lose their primary atmospheres (the hydrogen and helium accumulated from the accretion disk in their star system’s formation) over time. The larger terrestrials will develop their own secondary atmospheres thanks to volcanism and comet impacts, as icy materials in the surface sublimate. These atmospheres vary greatly in composition, but are usually dominated by nitrogen or carbon dioxide, depending on various factors, though methane and ammonia atmospheres are also possible. Terrestrial planets that lie within a solar system’s habitable zone are the best candidates for finding extraterrestrial life. Even if the conditions are not Earth-equivalent, terrestrial planets are much more habitable than others, and so are ideal for colonization and resource exploitation. Super-Earths: Several examples of “super-Earths” have been found via the gates. This rare type of terrestrial planet is significantly larger and more massive than Earth. They are rocked by more vigorous geological activity (volcanoes and earthquakes) and have higher surface gravity (typically between 2 and 3 g). Chthonian Planets: When a hot Jupiter or hot Neptune is drawn closer to its star, its hydrogen and helium atmosphere is slowly stripped away over time. The remaining core planet is similar to terrestrial planets, though more like Mercury than Earth. The chthonian planets discovered so far have been ideal sources for heavy metal mining.

Sidebar: First-Link Report: Quaternary System

[Planetary Science Panel Review Transcript] White: This is interesting. We seem to have a quadruple star system here. That looks like a ring around the two stars too—probably the inner two. Moira: It’s terrestrial, at first glance, and of a reasonable temperature. It’s cold, but I wouldn’t say it’s any colder than Mars before the terraforming efforts. Lyden: Hrm, if those dust rings have ice, they’ll provide a renewable source of water. Cadbury: That means easier terraforming. But how would the multiple suns affect it? White: The atmosphere looks thin, so we should expect cool temperatures and higher levels of solar radiation. It’s an interesting shade of pink. Cadbury: It’s extremely alkaline. I could see modified desert plants here. Lyden: The pressure is low, though. That might be a chief concern for any terraforming efforts. White: That’s not a massive endeavor. It’s not unlike what’s going on with Mars right now. Moira: Look over there, on this sensor feed. I think that’s a lake. Its composition is questionable, but my readings tell me we’re right above 0 Celsius. Lyden: I’m guessing the planet has an almost perpetual daytime situation because of the four stars, with only a minute fraction of the year under true darkness. Cadbury: That could lead to interesting situations for the plant life. I don’t even know how we’d approach something like that. Lyden: It’s a hotbed for experimentation. White: Moira, has the probe run a test on the water yet? Cadbury, look into the radiation trends. Moira: The water is water. It’s full of minerals, but probably nothing harmful that couldn’t be filtered out. Cadbury: Radiation is present. It’s not in force. Minor alpha and beta decay. I wouldn’t camp on the soil, but it shouldn’t be anything a morph can’t handle for a short period in a rad suit. White: Take samples. That’s an important distinction. If it’s safe, we’re in luck. If it’s not, we can write the planet off for a worthwhile expenditure of resources. Cadbury: Preliminary work looks good, but I’ll tell the first-in team to be comprehensive.

Sidebar: First-Link Report: Terrestrial World

[Planetary Science Panel Review Transcript] White: Holy shit! Are you seeing this? Moira: I know I am. That’s a damned heavy atmosphere. Those colors, it’s unmistakably nitrogen and hydrogen, probably some oxygen. I can’t place what else it might be. White: And you know what that means? Lyden: Might be habitable without drastic intervention. White: How do you manage to make everything sound less exciting, kid? Lyden: Sorry, I’m just not thinking straight. This could be a revolutionary find. White: And most importantly, it’s a revolutionary find we’re going to be sending a team through to in just a few minutes. Let’s pick a team heavy in biomorphs. Standard vacsuits should do them fine. Moira: Surface air is registering at 8 C! White: We’ve stumbled on a god-damned gold mine. These crashers better not be fuck-ups. Lyden: Scanners are showing trace signs of life. Nothing more than a cell. White: Trace signs are trace signs. Tell the sensor team to prioritize the samples. We want air and soil composition reports, and we want them to identify and categorize these life patterns. I want to know if the planet supports greater life. Moira: The sample reports are coming in now. There’s a heavy level of carbon dioxide in the air, and more sulfur than I’d subject a flat to. There’s a lot of nitrogen, oxygen, with trace hydrogen. I think the heavy gases are why the planet’s as warm as it is. If we were going to openly terraform, we’d have to supplement the atmosphere because trees would eat right through this. If we could introduce a heavy contingent of O3 to the atmosphere, and maybe some water vapor and methane, we could emulate a pre-Fall Earth atmosphere I think. Due to the planet’s location, it’d need to be dramatically thicker though, so it’d be a sensitive job if we wanted to take it that far. Lyden: That soil is nitrogen-rich, likely due to single-celled organisms. Without further analysis, I’d say this particular land is a glacial till, which means the planet’s not on its earliest stages of having atmosphere or water. There’s iron, manganese, and silicon, with a lot of sulfur on the top layers. It’s a strong combination. I’m surprised we don’t see plant life. I see no reason this soil couldn’t support traditional plants. Cadbury: I’ve got an answer for that: life isn’t there yet. These organisms are basic; I would be surprised if we found anything even approaching advanced. Give it a few million years; we’ll probably see plant life. It’s good, though. It’s a nice, clean slate to work on. It also means we won’t be stepping on toes.

Dwarf Planets

Dwarf planets occupy the gray area between asteroids and planets. By definition they are massive enough to be rounded by their own gravity (usually meaning they are at least 400 kilometers in diameter) but have not cleared their orbits of asteroids and other debris. Dwarf planets are rocky, lack atmosphere, and are notable only for their potential metals or silicates. Ice Dwarfs: This sub-category of dwarf planet is built around an ice core and lies in an orbit far from its star. They are colder and even less interesting than dwarf planets, but there seems to be far, far more of them.

Ocean Planets

Though rare, the Pandora gates have confirmed the existence of several ocean planets. Unlike terrestrial planets, ocean planets began as icy proto-planets far from their parent star that lacked the mass to grow into ice giant status and migrated to an inner orbit. As the ice melted, they were transformed into water worlds with vast, exceptionally deep oceans—as much as hundreds of kilometers. Below their crushing liquid depths is a small rocky core with a mantle of ice VII (an exotic form of ice that forms under intense pressure). Above the oceans is a thick helium and hydrogen atmosphere, hot with greenhouse effect. Like terrestrial planets, ocean planets are good candidates for finding alien life, given the availability of surface water.

Sidebar: First-Link Report: Ocean Planet

[Planetary Science Panel Review Transcript] White: Next on our agenda is an ocean planet. The bugger’s smaller than we’re used to seeing in Jovian planets, and the surface density says it’s definitely water, with a hydrogen atmosphere. Moira: It appears cooler than most water worlds. Interesting, since it’s so close to its parent star. Cadbury: But the star is small. It probably couldn’t support a big enough system for any real variance or extreme heat. Moira: You’re probably right, Cadbury. Lyden: It’s like a Lil’ Neptune. I recommend novacrab morphs for the first-in team. Moira: The view on the visual sensor feeds is beautiful. The sunlight cascading through the water, it’s like the water itself is orange. I’ve never seen anything like it! White: I don’t think the conditions are suitable for terragenesis. Lyden: You’re probably right. Underwater habitats might take advantage of the water pressure and its extreme heat as a backup energy source. If you put highly pressurized and hot water through an opening, it’ll turn to steam and can move almost anything. With only simple machinery, the habitats would have a backup if their main power plants fail. Moira: But the planet’s atmospheric loss rate is alarming. I probably wouldn’t advise adding habitats, because the conditions will change rapidly enough that settlers would need to adapt their habitats in relatively short order. Cadbury: I’m also curious if there’s any use for all this ice VII. There’s also some amorphous ice. While this planet consists almost entirely of water, it has a fascinating spectrum of ice phases, thanks to the shifting pressure and the unique convections caused by its composition. I’d consider floating habitats, but the atmosphere is just not conducive to a lasting environment. Moira: But there’s a lot of potential, here. It’s not ideal, but I would say it might even be more forgiving than the Uranus system’s moons. Getting the resources in place to establish a habitat might be difficult, but I think it’d be a great expansion. White: I don’t see a lot of difference. It’s too hot and the pressure is too intense for carbon-based life. We’re fooling ourselves if we think this planet is any more valuable than others. We should prioritize others.


The Rarity of Earth-like Conditions

One thing that gatecrashing has so far indicated is the rarity of exoplanets with Earth-like conditions—that is, an atmosphere, temperature, and gravity that would allow an unequipped and mostly unmodified transhuman to survive. Though they are not entirely absent, such Earth-like worlds are the gems in the extrasolar collection. Statistically, this is not unexpected. When you look at the long history of the Earth and its capricious surface conditions, it has only existed in a state habitable to humans for about 1% of its lifetime. On top of this, there are many other factors that affect a planet’s habitability. First is simply being in a habitable zone of the galaxy; in other words, not in a part of the galaxy that is lethally irradiated like the core, in a heavy-metal poor area like most of the galactic rim, or in the path of a supernova, black hole, or other cosmic threat. Second is being in the habitable zone in that star system, the orbital region where a planet’s temperature is conducive to maintaining surface water, like on Earth (whereas Venus was too hot and Mars too cold, so the water boiled or froze respectively). Water is a solvent for carbon-based life, and thus a critical component in its evolution. Finding an exoplanet that exists within this range, at the proper time period of its planetary evolution, is thus an uncommon occurrence. Nevertheless, the placement of Pandora gates does seem to be skewed in favor of habitable planets, such that a higher percentage of them have been found via the gates in relation to their expected distribution throughout the galaxy. Still, most gatecrashers are unlikely to find Earth-like exoplanets on their expeditions; those that do are lucky.

Unusual Remote Gate Environs

Not all gates open onto exoplanets as described above. Some gates are situated on rocky asteroids, comets, or stranger places. Some are free-floating in space, perhaps orbiting nearby stars or planets, though just as likely buried deep within nebula of interstellar gas and debris. A few of these unusual locations deserve mention.

Pulsar Planets

When a star goes supernova, the blast of its detonation is likely to be lethal to nearby planets. If the massive shockwave produced by the dying star does not destroy a planet outright, the planet is likely to be scorched and transformed into a lifeless rock. Nevertheless, several exoplanets have been found via the gates in orbit around pulsars, the spinning neutron stars that were left behind in the wake of the supernova. It is possible that some of these planets may have accreted from the debris left behind in the supernova’s explosion. The ionizing radiation emitted by the pulsar ensures that no life will ever develop, and is dangerous to gatecrashers who venture here. Why at least two gates were built in such a hostile environment remains a mystery.

Rogue Planets

At least one remote gate has been found on a rogue planet—a proto-planet that was long ago ejected from a forming star system and flung into space. This particular planet survives in deep space, far from a companion star to give it warmth. It is suspected that the lack of a star helped it to keep its thick hydrogen and helium atmosphere. Internal heating from its own geothermal energy and tidal forces from a large moon were sufficient to melt water ice on the surface, enabling water oceans. Though this particular example was lifeless, it was tectonically active, and the presence of volcanoes could mean that similar rogue planets might harbor the pre-requisites for life.

Brown Dwarf Cryoplanets

Brown dwarfs are stars that are not massive enough to maintain fusion in their core, and so are dim and cold. The frozen planets circling stars tend to be unlikely places to find life, but a few have been found with oceans beneath their crust that are kept warm by tidal forces, much like Europa.

Xenolife

Posted by: Reggie Higginbotham, Astrobiologist <Info Msg Rep> One issue that needs to be addressed that a lot of crasher teams overlook is what to do about xenobiologicals, and by that I mean native xenoflora and xenofauna—alien plants, microbes, and animals. A lot of early first-in missions would kit up, wait for the mappers and robots to do their thing, and then pop on through, good as you like. If the immediate area around the gate is a high-density biome, this can be a problem. Endowi’s advice of “look before you touch” is a good rule of thumb, but for the sake of clarity I feel it’s worth outlining some of the more detailed aspects of xenobiology.

Microbial Xenolife

The most immediate concern when you step through the gate and encounter your very first alien species is the preeminent danger of bacterial or viral contamination. The overwhelming majority of xenolife is microbial in nature, which means that disinfecting yourself and your gear, either with chemicals or nanotech, is a high priority. Microbial xenolife is a major threat to transhumanity simply because transhuman immune systems have never been exposed to these new life forms and thus have never had the opportunity to develop resistances. On the technological side of things, because we have not had the time to accurately identify the staggering variety of different alien microbial species, we have not been able to create selective technological responses. In other words, when you crash into a new environment, you can either wear a suit that is hermetically sealed or you can risk exposure to xenomicrobial contamination. Because bacteria commonly engage in horizontal gene transfer with other bacterial species, we need to be aware that there may be plasmid exchange between species of xenobacteria and the Earth-origin bacteria that lives in and on crashers’ bodies. While most organizations that control the Pandora gates have a good system of decontamination in place, one cannot be too careful about what you may inadvertently bring back from another world. The often-mocked threat of a system-wide countermeasure-resistant pandemic becomes terrifyingly real once you realize that many crashers by accident or by design carry xenobacterial plasmids within their own native bacteria. We simply do not know how alien genetic material will interact with ours on that scale. Every crasher that returns from another world without undertaking absolute decontamination increases the risk of a cataclysmic system-wide pandemic. I recommend dropping a bio-defense unit at your feet before you head home and comprehensively decontaminating on the other side, just to be sure. (I’m extremely paranoid about bringing back some kind of superdisease, so I have my stack pulled in a sterile environment and my morph torched every time I come back through a gate.) It doesn’t destroy the plasmids that are already transferred, but it gets pretty much everything else. Don’t take any risks.

Xenoflora

Xenoflora is usually the first thing that crashers notice, but not always. For most destinations that have breathable air, decent water presence, and a comfortable climate, there’s bound to be some evidence of xenoflora. When you step through to a destination like Bluewood, the xenoflora is everywhere. Even in harsh xeno-environments with incredibly low temperatures, xenoflora can hide and thrive in warmer places like submarine geothermal vents or inside colonists’ structures. Xenoflora usually poses no major threat to crashers. It might grow and get into everything but there’s no real danger unless it is ingested in large amounts or exudes toxic compounds. This is not an excuse to let your guard down, however. While we are familiar with the threats posed by Earth-native flora, the kind of exotic botany that we’re discovering on a daily basis is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what’s actually out there, and that means we need to be prepared for every eventuality. With the exception of a particular species of Sunrise carniflora, we’ve yet to encounter maximally motile xenoflora, so the main threats I want to note are those that have direct harmful properties. Certain xenoflora tend to be anti-herbivorous, which is a fancy way of saying they’re generally sharp, pointy, poisonous, or otherwise unfriendly to those who would want to disturb their normally peaceful existence. Thorns, spikes, and other passive defenses are easily avoided by the prepared and the perceptive, but it should be noted here that in many cases the defenses are simply a delivery system for toxins. Many biotoxins borne by such xenoflora are easily countered by our current medichines and toxin scrubbers, but there have been instances where these toxins have slipped past some of the low-end scrubbers used by novice crashers, causing serious medical emergencies, and in a few cases, body death. An interesting side note is that if you encounter such anti-herbivorous plant life, it’s a sure-fire indicator of complex herbivorous xenofauna, with the size of the xenofauna roughly proportional to the size of the physical defense employed by the xenoflora. Small thorns or spikes tend to indicate smaller herbivores, while larger defenses indicate the presence of larger xenofauna species. Be aware of this, as these herbivores themselves may pose a threat; you are, after all, interfering with their food source. Pollen and histaminics are easy to overlook as a threat. Our biologies, no matter how tailored they may be, just aren’t accustomed to receiving foreign pollen and other histamine triggers. In other words, allergies can be a big problem. It takes some time for us to document and catalog each individual histaminic trigger, which means it will be some time before we can deliver a broad-spectrum technological solution to alleviate the allergy issue. Until that time, I recommend that crashers be aware of airborne pollen and microseeds and not disturb flowering plants unless taking scientific samples. One recent first-in mission through the Pandora Gate resulted in a team succumbing to toxic pollen that triggered a hallucinogenic response. While this toxic pollen has since been synthesized and is now making its rounds on Venus as a high-end party drug, this reinforces the very simple idea that you should always err on the side of caution. Since first-in missions are going in blind, if you must disturb any kind of xenofloral entity, don’t assume your biomods and medichines will protect you. Some xenoflora are carnivorous and actively consume suitable fauna that would trigger their sensing apparatus. Contrary to what a lot of old fiction will tell you, carnivorous plants aren’t a big threat to transhumans. That said, be aware that not all carnivorous plants are alike; just because we don’t know of a carnifloral threat at present does not mean they don’t exist. While we have an extensive library of data to draw upon from Earth, the kinds of carnivorous plants that we are encountering on Sunrise and other xenoflora-abundant worlds are extremely diverse, even from an Earth standpoint. Many older models of carnifloral behavior need to be rewritten. The color of plant growth is dependent on the type of sun and the exoplanet atmosphere, each affecting the wavelengths of sunlight that are available and most promising for photosynthesis. Anyone familiar with gatecrashing X-casts knows that the common colors for xenoflora are yellows, greens, and oranges, with reds, purples, and blacks being less common, the latter typically indicating flora that feeds on a wide spectrum or even infrared wavelengths.

Solarchive Search: Sunrise Whiplash

The whiplash is a highly motile planimal species native to the exoplanet Sunrise. Similar to a terrestrial sundew, this species grows in and migrates through tree boughs. When fully mature, it extends a sap-covered vine towards the arboreal floor. Once a creature is caught in the sap, the vine rolls up and draws the creature into a digestive sac, which slowly excretes complex acids that dissolve the creature over a matter of days. The whiplash is the largest carnifloral species discovered so far and the first that actively preys on non-arthropods. Its diet consists mainly of small birds and lesser ground-feeding mammals that are attracted to the sweet-tasting sap. It is estimated that the whiplash could grow to a size that could feasibly dissolve and digest a large dog. A group of enterprising genehackers has experimented with implanting whiplashes with a cyberbrain. While non-intelligent, planimal species like the whiplash are minimally aware of their surroundings, they have taken extremely well to cyberbrain technology. With enough engineering, this particular species of carniflora will be suitable for pod development in the near future.

Sidebar: Unusual Life

Much of the xenolife so far discovered on remote exoplanets has been carbon-based, with water as a solvent in their biochemistry. Though rarer, life forms with biochemistries based in other elements has also been discovered. This includes life built upon silicon, a nitrogen and phosphorous combination, or even arsenic rather than carbon. Solvents such as ammonia, hydrogen fluoride, or various hydrocarbons are also used as a substitute for water. Most of this life has existed only in the simple microbial range, though there are several examples of the evolution of more complex flora and fauna. Many of these survive not on oxygen but on elements such as sulfur, chlorine, ammonia, or nitrogen dioxide.

Xenofauna

Perhaps of more interest to the layperson is xenofauna. Simply by virtue of accessing other life-bearing worlds, we have expanded our biological knowledge by magnitudes. Many existing theories of primordial life needed to be rewritten, with new discoveries coming thick and fast. With every new world explored through the use of the Pandora gates, we expand our genetic database. This has both good and bad repercussions. It shouldn’t need repeating, but you really, really shouldn’t interact with xenofauna if you can help it. There are a whole host of issues that come into play if you interfere with xenofauna in its natural habitat; cross-contamination of microbiologicals and disease, ecological disruption, and direct physical harm (to either party) are just a few of the problems that can pop up. Xenofauna is much more likely to cause body death in crashers than xenoflora, so everything you have been taught about avoiding unnecessary contact with xenoflora goes doubly so for xenofauna. Complex xenofauna are both easier and more difficult to deal with. Many species of xenofauna are somewhat similar to Earth-native fauna, so we tend to deal with them in the same way. In the first few crashes to life-abundant worlds, sampling life forms was a priority, which meant that those early crashers did what any pioneering, foolhardy explorer has done for the past ten thousand years: they ate a lot of strange critters. Given my earlier statements about xenobacteria, you can understand how terrified this made me. Still, I admire their tenacity, if not their temerity. Complex xenofauna runs the gamut from microscopic arthropods to aquatic and terrestrial creatures larger than anything ever seen on Earth. Documenting the xenofauna of different worlds is a massive undertaking, with the complete ecology of even a single world providing a transhuman lifetime of research data. On worlds such as Bluewood and Echo IV, where the terrestrial ecology is primarily arboreal, small mammals and avian creatures are dominant, with reptiles and amphibians filling in the ecological gaps. On worlds where the terrestrial ecology varies more substantially, the dominant species tend to vary between biomes. The hidden gem of these alien ecologies is the aquatic life, with a simply staggering array of life hidden beneath the waves, from air-breathing aquatics to cyanobacteria dwelling on ocean floors. Worlds with large, Earth-like oceans are popular with octomorph crashers, for obvious reasons. They are eminently suited to investigating and documenting the biomass beneath the waves, and it is expected that as more octomorph gatecrashers make good use of their unique physiologies, our understanding of aquatic xenospecies will accordingly blossom.

Bioexploitation

With any exploration of a new ecological region, there comes the risk (some might say opportunity) of biological exploitation. For each new world’s xenofloral and xenofaunal range opened up, sampled, and cataloged, there are hypercorporations looking to make money on the discoveries. Many xenofaunal (and one xenofloral) species have already been developed for use as pods. Countless new pharmaceuticals have been developed, for both medicine and for pleasure. New metamaterials based on biological compounds are being developed with exciting potential uses in the future. A major concern for preservationists is that many crashers may be covertly operating for hypercorps or other organizations with an interest in acquiring the genetic biodiversity of other worlds. There has been a bigger push in recent months to accurately document and delineate hypercorp interests with regard to the biological resources of other worlds. Some of these interests are totally overt, such as through Gatekeeper or Pathfinder. Others are a little more gray-market. The Go-nin Group, for example, relies on ultimate mercenaries to hold the Discord Gate, and as we all know mercenaries by their very nature sell to the highest bidder. This has resulted in a gray market of xenobiological material flowing from the Discord Gate to various interested parties, with the Go-nin Group seemingly unaware of the transactions taking place (at least according to the ultimates who are selling the material). However, it is my estimation that the Go-nin Group are cherry-picking the material to make sure that they have the best samples before allowing it to be sold on to other hypercorps. Individual marketeering of genetic samples is endemic among teams that do not have strict policies in place. It doesn’t take much to pocket a few seeds here or a blade of grass there. If gate facilities and the organizations running them are not absolute in their decontamination policies, samples will slip through the gaps (and Ecologene wonders why their proprietary xenobiological sample data was all over the mesh in the early days). Often, these samples are small and not of particularly high quality, but can still fetch a good price in the inner system for those looking to offload them quickly. Thankfully, the hypercorps are really clamping down on loose xenobiologicals these days, but for a while after people started crashing, it was pretty much the Wild West, at least as far as ethically-challenged xenobiologists can be considered cowboys.

Sidebar: Missing Courier

<Mem, remember that gate trip to Nova York, the one with the specially-bonded PrivaCor courier? >The one who disappeared? <Yeah, the one with the customized morph. Had that swept-back face with those thin purple ripples sculpted on his forehead and jaw, the extra eyes, and the long ears. >How could I forget? That was trippy. I remember you stepping through, him stepping through, and then me right after. Then on the other side you and I are just looking at each other with that confused “where’d he go?” expression. That was freaky. It still weirds me out every time I pass through a gate. I wonder if they ever found that guy. I suppose they just booted him from backup. <It gets weirder. Check this footage out. [Link] >Merde, is that him? <It certainly looks like him. And that morph was a custom-job, sculpted by a famous high-end biosculptor on Venus. It’s a one-of-a-kind design. >Where was this taken? Who’s he with? <That’s the weird thing. This was taken a week ago on Takshaka 9, a backwater colony. A group of gatehoppers showed up, stayed for a few weeks, and then departed again for destinations unknown. That courier seems to have been with the gatehoppers. >But, wait, he didn’t check in, tell anyone he’d been lost, or anything like that? <No, for all intents and purposes, he seems to be integrated with the gatehopping group. >I wonder if he ever delivered his payload?

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