Kapteyn B

Planetary type: Icy rocky planet.
Region: Communal Space.
Age
: 11 billion years.
Parent star
: Kapteyn's Star (red dwarf M).
Natural satellites: Two quasi-satellites (rocky asteroids).
Surface gravity: 2.09 Earth masses.
Average temperature
: 8°C, accounting for greenhouse effect.
Ecosystem classification
: Developed, in a state of natural decay.
Settlement Type
: Scattered ground bases, one orbital station.
Settlement age
: 68 years.
Population: 5,000 people.
Allegiance
: USRE-Laniakea condominium.
Distance to Earth: 125 lightyears.

Starports: Monolith Station, Omega Centauri Point. 

1 - Weird backyard

While part of the galactic halo, Kapteyn’s star is merely 12.5 lightyears away from the solar system, which puts its firmly into Communal Space, among the Earth’s stellar backyard. In present day, it could almost be considered as a holiday destination — the system is just one or two translations away for a short-range interstellar vessel. Kapteyn’s Star itself is fairly unremarkable — it is classified as a variable red subdwarf, a small and very cool star belonging to one of the most common stellar classifications in the Milky Way. What makes the Kapteyn system exceptional is the presence of Kapteyn B.

Kapteyn Beta, or simply Kapteyn, has been known to astronomers since the 20th century, but was considered by most as an artefact due to imprecise measurements. As such, the discovery of the planet by an automated probe at the beginning of the interstellar age came as somewhat of a surprise — one that probably triggered a few resounding “I told you so!” in USRE universities. It is a small, cold super-Earth, orbiting its parent star right inside its minuscule habitable zone. Covered in a thick atmosphere maintaining acceptable temperatures on the surface, Kapteyn is eleven billion years old and, as such, the oldest inhabitable planet in the known universe.

2 - Ancient Life

Kapteyn B is so old that it likely comes from another galaxy — as a former member of the Omega Centauri globular cluster, its parent star appeared in one of the numerous dwarf galaxies swallowed by the Milky Way billions of years ago. Born under such divergent auspices, life on Kapteyn B is unlike anything else in Communal Space, to the point many of its lifeforms are hard to qualify as such. It is considered as the clearest example of what xenobiologists classify as natural decay ecosystems, that is to say biospheres that are so ancient they have all but exhausted the resources of their planet and, while the light of their parent star is dwindling, have entered a form of hibernation with very limited natural selection going on. Life on Kapteyn is slow and serene, living at the pace of millennia, undisturbed by the frenetic rummaging of the small humanoids that explore its surface. When they return to their homes, human travellers of Kapteyn recall vivid sights of sentient fog, oceans made of fungi and wide-eyed eels turning into dark-leaved plants as they age.

Interestingly enough, Kapteyn is one of the rare exoplanets that does not require any specific antigenic treatment or vaccines before landfall — local pathogens are so different from Earth-based life that they are simply unable to affect humans in any way.

3 - Monoliths

Kapteyn was the first contact of humankind with non-human ruins — excluding the geometry drive itself. Well, contact might be a bit of a strong concept. Whoever lived on Kapteyn five to six billion years ago did not leave a lot behind. Even their fossils have disappeared, and xenobiologists have not been able to narrow down their physical shape. All that remains are towering structures in Kapteyn’s landscape, smooth and pitch black, as if carved in fragments of the deep sky. The monoliths of Kapteyn are made of a thick carbon-silicon alloy, strengthened with unknown components that are reminiscent of artificial coral. Though most of them have fallen prey to wind, rain and meteorites, the few that remain escape all of our attempts at understanding them. They do not bear any inscription. They do not house any machinery. They just are. Silent and useless, except as a reminder that sometimes, in a distant past, Kapteyn housed a great civilisation.

Though the birthplace of xeno-archaeology, Kapteyn is now mostly empty of scientific endeavours. The frustration of its silent monoliths has worn down everyone, from the exalted nuns of the Omphal to the patient researchers hailing from prestigious USRE universities. The planet only houses a single permanent research center, the Kapteyn University of Extrasocial Sciences (KU-ES), a joint Laniakea-USRE training center for xenohistorians and xenoarchaeologists. It is often said that the only thing the Kapteyn University truly teaches is resilience in front of the frustrating silence of the unknown — though that might be the most precious lesson for an interstellar historian.

The USRE High Fleet maintains a single vessel in polar orbit of Kapteyn at all times, officially to discourage illegal exports of local artefacts — in practice, this assignment is just an officious punishment for sloppy commanders.

We don’t talk about the second ship up there, however.

Illustration: Ph03nix1986, CC4.


Xango

Planetary type: Rogue gas giant.
Region: Near Arm's End (see human space maps).
Age
: 3 billion years (estimated).
Parent star
: Free-floating object.
Natural satellites: 6 icy moons system.
Surface gravity: 2.8 Earth masses.
Average temperature
: Variable. Cloud tops near absolute zero, lightning channels and internal activity create pockets of life-tolerable temperatures in lower zones.
Ecosystem classification
: Lightning-sustained, organic, possibly Forgotten Traveller seeded.
Settlement Type
: Orbital bases and floating needle-stations.
Settlement age
: 19 years.
Population: 70,000 people.
Allegiance
: None, but extensive ties with Eloran qiths.
Distance to Earth: 10,500 lightyears.

Starports: Xango Disco Point, Arm's End Hub. 

1 - Rogue World

Rogue planets are relatively common in the galaxy -- at least 10,000 of them have been identified by Starmoth Initiative surveys, albeit remote identification protocols have probably missed a large number of them, given how little energy they radiate. Xango, formerly known as CFBMOTH-2456-067, was discovered three decades ago by survey vessel Axial Tilt Zero through direct imaging -- one of the most random discoveries made by the Initiative, but also a very lucky one. While rogue planets are almost universally devoid of life, Xango bears the telltale signs of active organic life in its lower atmosphere. Two years later, Axial Tilt Zero came back with a full expedition that unveiled the numerous oddities of a world that would come to be known as Xango, the Yoruba deity of thunder and a revered figure in the Moon Communes.

Xango is characterized by thunder -- though lightning strikes are common in gas giants, the temperature difference between the planet's frozen top clouds and its warmer depths, combined with magnetic activity and dust storms, mean that Xango is constantly covered in lightning storms. From orbit, the equatorial belts and jet-stream lines are permanently highlighted by whitish-blue sprites and pillars, giving the planet an eerie, almost sinister appearance. More importantly, permanent lightning enables the rogue world to support life, under the shape of vast strains of pseudo-lichens drifting in the wind, feeding on the energy created by lightning storms. Various species of bacteria and pseudo-viruses also populate the atmosphere, floating between storms and jet-stream channels. Life on Xango has evolved to develop very specific solutions to its energy conundrum, including a capacity for extremely fast (millisecond-scale) photosynthesis and biological batteries feeding on residual static electricity in dust-rich regions. Some pseudo-lichen species follow a plasma-based life cycle, exposing themselves to lightning at the end of their existence, which vaporizes them and spreads their spores all over the atmosphere. Such vaporizations are called "spore flares" by the locals -- they can lit up entire storms with bright plasma lines for hours on end.

2 - Forgotten World

Deep in the atmosphere, the Starmoth Initiative found ancient ruins, aero-statically suspended in-between the calmest layers of the world. Low-density cubes made of bone and carbon compounds, bearing telltale signs of transbiological enhancements. They were remnants left behind by the Forgotten Travellers -- surprising, that far from the galactic core, but ultimately possible, considering that they once possessed AFAL (As Fast As Light) propulsion. More specifically, this variety of Forgotten Travellers seems to have been part of some kind of isolated settlement, perhaps made of outcasts or deep space dwellers. Though there is no solid evidence to confirm it, it is highly possible that this planet's life has been partially selected, maybe even engineered, by the cube-like transbiological aliens. A recent Algorab report even suggested that the Forgotten Travellers were using lightning to test or engineer the high-efficiency batteries that are one of their technological hallmarks. A few kilometer-long structures, perhaps laboratories, remain buried within the atmosphere but they are not accessible to human vehicles and as such shall keep their secrets for the time being.

3 - Electric Bass

There is not enough photosynthetic life on Xango to produce a breathable atmosphere, and this dark, lightning-haunted gas giant isn't friendly to human life, though it did not discourage a commune from settling the planet. Based on free love, darkness and a touch of unhinged science, the Xango Communal Interest owns several space stations around the planet, as well as floating settlements installed in close proximity to the largest concentrations of pseudo-lichen lifeforms. The commune harvests energy from the lightning storms, through the use of "needle stations" deploying vast strings of superconductive material through Xango's atmosphere. Most of these stations are used for research -- lightning strikes on Xango are unparalleled in intensity, and as such are ideal power sources for stress-testing battery and accumulator technology. It is speculated that the Xango Communal Interest is actively experimenting with Forgotten Traveller technology, or human copies thereof -- several unexplained detonations observed on Xango in the past few years could be thus linked to accidental explosions of Forgotten Traveller batteries. In any case, Xango-made accumulators and electricity-based weaponry are renowned in the Traverse and beyond -- extremely expensive and almost artisanal, they are only bought by high-end military communes such as qith Sahaak.

Another key aspect of Xango is that it vibes. In order to maintain a semblance of psychological balance in this dim, cold gas giant, the local communes have turned towards music -- and preferably the kind that makes noise. Electronic music is not just a practice on Xango, it's an art and a planetary industry that exports singles way beyond the rogue planet. The finest kind of Xango music uses the pace and intensity of lightning strikes as planet-wide bass -- it is called Xango Beat, and is sometimes considered as the likely precursor of interstellar rave culture.

Credits: NASA/Caltech. 

Smyrnia-Silesia

Planetary type: Binary Earth-like worlds.
Region: Smyrnian Bubble.
Age
: 9 billion years.
Parent star
: single M-class star.
Natural satellites: None (binary planet configuration).
Surface gravity: 0.75 g (Silesia) // 0.74 g (Smyrnia).
Atmosphere
: 0.75 bar, breathable (Silesia) // 0.65 bar, breathable (Smyrnia).
Average temperature
: 9.5°C (Silesia) // 8°C (Smyrnia).
Climate range
: High altitude cold desert to low altitude mist valleys.
Ecosystem classification
: Carbon-based, with occurrences of natural nuclear fission.
Solar revolution length : 4 months.
Day length: 22 hours.
Settlement Type
: Pockets of planetary civilisation.
Settlement age
: 48 years.
Population: Estimated around 2 to 3 million (both planets combined).
Allegiance
: Meta-queen // Smyrnian Flux State.
Distance to Earth: 1,000 lightyears

Starports: Silesia Orbital, Smyrnia High, Meta-Queen Citadel. 

Wind blew over the ice shelf, sharp and mean like a rusty blade. A red, pale sun hung in the sky, right above the icy planet that filled half the horizon. Small, miserable-looking pseudo-penguins shivered in the train station's shadow. A radiotelescope gleamed under the eternal twilight, its white dish painted in a mixture of pink and blue, outlining the symbol of the meta-queen. Lazy djinns roamed the open hallways and the few humans in sight wore brightly coloured frost jackets, complete with rebreathers and googles. It was hard to distinguish half-buried derelicts from usable equipment and, to be fair, the locals did not make a clear difference either. A lone train had come to a halt in the station, black-clad locomotive pulling blind wagons and an oversized surface-to-orbit cannon. On one side it bore a delicate hand written inscription: "Welcome to Smyrnia." On the other, it said "THE RIDE NEVER ENDS" in big, red, obnoxious letters.

Smyrnia-Silesia is a binary planet, made of two habitable icy worlds orbiting each other, themselves locked in an elongated orbit around a red dwarf at the heart of the Smyrnian Bubble. While not unheard of, stable binary worlds are exceedingly rare, and only two habitable binary planets have ever been found. Now, to be entirely fair, both Smyrnia and Silesia stretch the definition of habitability quite a bit. Located at the very edge of the puny goldilocks zone of their parent stars, the two worlds share very similar characteristics and are often classified as “Heavy Mars planets”, i.e cold worlds with a thin atmosphere but enough mass and magnetic field to enable the presence of complex life on the surface. In effect, the two planets have never known anything other than freezing cold temperatures and a razor-thin atmosphere. Local life mostly exists under the ice shelf, with the few surface creatures having evolved to generate their own heat, often through photosynthesis though a very peculiar endemic animal, the great Smyrnian sea serpent, practices a form of natural radioactivity to keep its blood from freezing.

Radioactive serpents are probably a good way to introduce the binary planet, in fact.

The colonization of Smyrnia and Silesia owes a lot to the general inhospitality of the Smyrnian Bubble, but make no mistake: even without the cold, the icy twins are a harsh place to live on. While Smyrnia is a true ice ball world, Silesia enjoys a slightly warmer climate with a few open seas in summer, due to heightened geothermal activity; however, Smyrnia has a more coherent tectonic structure and does not suffer from daily earthquakes the way Silesia does. If you intend to settle on either of the twins, you get to pick your poison, but do not worry, they share a lot of the same annoyances. With an Earth-sized planet in the sky, both worlds suffer from massive tides that result in shifting ice shelves, and the albedo from icy surfaces mean that true night doesn’t exist on the barycentre-facing sides. The system’s red dwarf is also a variable star, with all this may entail in terms of sudden magnetic storms, yearly climate variations and raging flares. Did I forget to mention oxygen in the atmosphere only rises to acceptable levels during stellar summers, when vegetation and plankton finally dare come to the surface?

And yet, an entire civilisation was born on Silesia and Smyrnia, on these two deeply intertwined planets that have been facing each other for billions of years. On Silesia lie the railway communes of the Northern Company, based on vast nuclear trains crossing the icy plains at the pace of stellar years. Smyrnia is dotted with self-sustaining “nest cities” built under the ice and inside the great, dark ocean below, the largest of which is Bismarck, home to the Tsiolkovski Institute, specialized in exobiology and exoarcheology studies. And at the barycentre between the two planets is Orchard Station, home and seat of power for the meta-queen, a memetic entity that holds the twins together and the Smyrnian Flux State with it. Her rule is firm, but distant: on Smyrnia and Silesia, political life is strange, colourful, extremely dynamic and relies way too much on nuclear explosions.

The ride, indeed, never ends.

Illustration courtesy of Lilly Harper, who writes most excellent sci-fi prose on the Beacons in the Dark blog.

Azur

Planetary type: Earth-like world (presumed).
Region: Uncertain, probably near the Traverse on a cosmic scale.
Age
: 70 million years (presumed).
Parent star
: single B-class star.
Natural satellites: None.
Surface gravity: Unknown, presumed close to the baseline. 
Atmosphere
: Unknown, presumed slightly higher than baseline.
Average temperature
: Unknown, presumed similar to baseline.
Climate range
: Temperate cold to tropical hot.
Ecosystem classification
: Carbon-based, temporal-assisted panspermia.
Solar revolution length : 1,200 years.
Day length: Unknown.
Settlement Type
: Planetary civilisation.
Settlement age
: 25 years (presumed, without temporal tampering).
Population: Unknown, estimated around 4-5 million.
Allegiance
: Circle of Irenia.
Distance to Earth: Unknown, estimated 700-800 lightyears.

Starports: The Eye of Azur, Old Moon Point. 

1 - The planet that doesn't exist.

Space is vast.

This is a very common trope but it has to be explained every now and then when it comes to simple questions, such as how easy is it to lose a settled planet? 

Turns out it is pretty easy, in fact. Given that it is impossible to track down a geometry drive translation from the exit point and given the astonishing number of stars in the Milky Way the location of a settled planet can remain only known to a select few. This is exactly what happened to the world of Azur. Interstellar charts mention that the planet is located somewhere "east" of the Traverse, presumably between 700 and 800 lightyears away from the Earth and within 200 lightyears of Elora. A quick napkin calculation tells me that as many as one hundred million stars are to be found in what is suspected to be the broad location of Azur. Even filtering non-B class stars still highlights about one million candidates. Azur is essentially impossible to find unless one was to meticulously track down a local ship...and they are very good at covering their tracks.

2 - The Blue Sun

Azur orbits a B-class blue giant which is almost unheard of among habitable planets. Though blue giants have a Goldilocks zone their intense radiations and very short stellar life tend to forbid the existence of life-bearing planets in their vicinity. One way or another Azur has fallen through the cracks and it is almost a certainty that human settlers are directly involved. Azur is under the control of the Circle of Irenia, a splinter of the Irenian Enclaves that was originally specialized in long-range travel. The navigators of the Circle were responsible for displacing Phi Clio station from the solar system to Alcyone and are considered among the most skilled geometry drive specialists in human space. According to Algorab, the Circle leveraged the paracausal properties of unshackled geometry drives to carry out a manoeuvre known as "temporal seeding", sending samples of microbes and algae in Azur's past to create a biosphere without having to wait for centuries. It is all speculation, but the Irenian Circle has publicly declared its intention to further explore the time-travel ability of geometry drives and temporal seeding has been theorized by one of their head scientists, Aramanae Talasea.

There are very few pictures of Azur itself but the planet is assumed to be an ocean world with scattered equatorial islands enjoying a hot, damp climate supporting mangrove and jungle-like vegetation likely to be engineered to survive the aggressive UV exposition. The atmosphere is likely thicker than the baseline, with a very active hydrosphere and atmosphere. No moons have been reported but they might exist.

3 - The Azur Manifesto

Aside from using potentially timeline-destroying temporal seeding techniques, Azur and the Circle of Irenia are mostly known for the Azur Manifesto, a concise pamphlet-size document that outlines the social and technological project behind the colonisation of Azur. The Circle claims that their self-imposed isolation and secrecy stems from the desire to study the full implications of interstellar travel in peace and without risk for the rest of human civilisation. As much a technical document as an artistic declaration the Azur Manifesto asserts the "imperative necessity" to start considering ships and space travel in aesthetic terms, superseding the purely practical considerations of human expansion.

We will do it because we do not have to, says the last line of the manifesto, reasserting and radicalizing the hedonistic Irenian outlook on life, culture and technology. Bringing beauty and invention to the world isn't just a possibility: it is imperative for any interstellar species which is by definition detached from the mere question of survival.

In the first decade after initial settlement, Azur was only known for its art production but in the past few years, the planet has seemingly managed to develop a complex industrial-artisanal network, producing ships built around the gentle, wishbone-like shape of the iconic "Azur Arc" borrowed from the superstructures of Phi Clio station. Many communes, as well as the Starmoth Initiative, consider that the shipbuilding activity of Azur is but a front made to hide the true purpose of the settlement: manufacturing and experimenting with highly dangerous "unshackled drives", that were engineered without their built-in timeline paradox safeties.

After all, what is a better illustration of the Azur Manifesto than timeline-defying works of art?

Ishtar

Planetary type: Earth-like word.
Region: Traverse.
Age
: 7.5 billion years.
Parent star
: single M-class star.
Natural satellites: two quasi-satellites (current).
Surface gravity: 0.6 Earth gravities.
Atmosphere
: 0.8 atmospheres, mostly breathable.
Average temperature
: 265 k.
Climate range
: Warm wet to cold dry, with stark contrasts between sides.
Ecosystem classification
: Carbon-based, fully formed, with pockets of exotic life.
Solar revolution length: One Earth month.
Day length: Tidally locked.
Settlement Type
: Planetary civilisation.
Settlement age
: 46 years.
Population: 8 million.
Allegiance
: Independent.
Distance to Earth: 575 lightyears.

Starports: Athena Citadel, Simanda Trade Hub. 

1 - Fatal exports. 

There are very few planets with names chosen out of spite. Ishtar, baptized after one of the only deities to blend love and warfare, is among them. Tidally locked, it has an entire side plunged in permanent night. Unending rains are pouring over deep oceans and sand-tinted dawns lit up basalt cliffs surging from dark waters. Icy deserts cover the dark side, with tidal forces carving unfathomable canyons that harbour ecosystems that have existed in isolation for billions of years. Powerful flares regularly set the magnetosphere ablaze, frying electronics and unlucky plants alike. At the centre of the light side hemisphere lies an eternal hurricane through which pours the star like the eye of an angry but silent goddess.

None of this is unique to Ishtar. Tidally locked planets tend to be hostile and alien in this way. There is something more to the planet and it is to be found under its surface.

They look like dark diamonds. Organic compounds that seem to absorb light, they come from Ishtar's past life, a relic of an entire era populated by land creatures building incredibly strong shells to protect themselves from solar flares. Foreigners call them Tears of Ishtar: the more pragmatic locals call it meta-coal. It would be another planetary oddity if it did not have a very peculiar characteristic: meta-coal can be consumed by pseudonigella stellaris plants, enabling them to produce a very specific variety of dark red hyperdimensional crystals that are very well-suited for simple, disposable FTL vessels.

Some planets export plants that create lucid dreams. Ishtar exports faster-than-light missiles.

2 - Artisans of war.

Despite being part of the Traverse, Ishtar is an independent world instead of being under the control of the Eloran Ekumen. It is ruled by the Ishtar Convent, a semi-religious organisation that has ties with interstellar pagan cults and is formally organized as a cooperative of workshops that double as temples. In the forty-odd years since the settlement of Ishtar, its inhabitants have fully embraced their role as the only human world fully dedicated to the creation of weapons and ammunition. "If it wasn't for us, it would have been someone else" seems to be the moral motto of the Convent. Ishtar-made FTL missiles are works of art. Every single one of them come with state-of-the-art weapon systems and are covered in unique, hand-made carvings that tell the tale of the planet and its patron goddess at a nanometric scale. The inhabitants of Ishtar have no political allegiances and no loyalties: they have weapon procurement agreements to the USRE, the Eloran Ekumen and Laniakea at once. To many, they are cynical at best, criminal at worst.

There is more to it than that, however.

A few years ago the Starmoth Initiative produced an in-depth analysis of the meta-coal geometry drives mounted on Ishtar-made weapons. They found that the drives all bore a series of subtle modifications that had escaped all analysts beforehand. Intricate locks that would cause self-destruct upon translating into an upper atmosphere. Modified ping parameters that made translation next to a civilian target uncertain. Details that meant the drives had been fine-tuned to prevent wanton use against non-military targets in a way that most navies would overlook until using the weapons in a real war situation.

The Starmoth Initiative report concluded that this was part of a global plan. That the Ishtar Convent was using its dominant position on the communal market of weapons of mass destruction to flood the world with missiles that could not be used for war against civilians. 

And then they trashed the report and never talked about it again. 

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