Extreme Farming

Extreme Farming

Niscorp 1743 is a small, frozen planet on the inner edge of the frontier. This small planet circles a small, dim orange star at the very edge of its habitable zone, running without a planar inclination in a stable orbit that takes 3.4 standard years to complete and is sufficiently circular that the planet does not have noticeable seasons. The atmosphere is thin and tainted, with the planet’s small size and low density making the gravity only just tolerable for unmodified humans. The planet spins slowly, on an approximately 5 day cycle, and has three small, distant moons. This combination of minimal seasonal change, slow spin and low temperatures give Niscorp 1743 a remarkably stable atmosphere, with limited storm activity, no significant cyclonic behavior, and long periods of unchanging weather. Niscorp 1743 is also located two standard jumps away from The Reach, a pirate planet deeper in frontier space that has consistently resisted Confederacy attempts to subjugate its population. The combination of pirate proximity, inhospitable climate and harsh atmosphere has made Niscorp 1743 a singularly undesirable location, but the stable weather and long day/night cycle makes it an ideal location for terraforming and agricultural research. For this reason Niscorp 1743 has been taken over by its eponymous owner, Niscorp, and is used as a research base. It is primarily used for research into extreme atmosphere farming techniques, but some kinds of weather control and terraforming technology are also tested. The lack of severe weather means that Niscorp 1743 is capable of supporting a high density of bioengineering experiments, since genetic material from one location is unlikely to travel far in the gelid air; the long periods of stable weather make it an ideal location to test weather control technologies. The planet is widely regarded as an unpleasant and lonely place to work, but not dangerous.

Population

Many of the research projects on Niscorp 1743 are automated. Niscorp 1743 is old and has no long history of seismic activity, so its mountains are low and regular, making it an ideal place to trial glacial farming techniques, which are almost entirely automated. Large-scale ice-field algal scrounging technologies are also under development, and these also require little human input – indeed, the less human contact the better. Near the equator, where the ice-crusted seas are still liquid to some depth, human researchers are investigating new crops that use the tainted atmosphere to produce foods with unique textures and flavours, but these projects are few in number and require limited human input. As a result, the official terrestrial population of the planet is currently 57, mostly working in groups of 2-4 and widely scattered across the surface. The largest settlement, Radiance, is a cluster of luxury apartments looking over a small stretch of open water called the Behemoth Tides, occupied by 14 administrative staff and with space for about the same number of guests. There are usually an additional 20-30 travellers planet-side, either resident in the luxury apartments for tourist purposes, or on temporary research visits. The longest residence history is 21 years, being that of the planetary administrator, Jonah Trager, an ex Confederate Navy captain who seems to wish to live permanently on the frozen waste.

There is no record of any birth occurring on Niscorp 1743, and a handful of deaths due to accident have been recorded. There is no history of crime, except a single graffiti incident that has entered into popular local legend and is now largely blamed on “The Iceman,” even though everyone knows it was a frustrated and drunk student intern reacting to news that her favourite sport final on her home planet had been played a month earlier than usual, and the team she was supporting had won while she was working planetside.

No punishment is recorded for this crime. Besides a single semi-cyclonic storm that prevented all above-ground transport for a month, which occurred 31 years ago and is known as “the Mad Snows,” largely now a matter of legend, there is no other historical event of note on Niscorp 1743.

Flora and fauna

There are no flowers, trees or higher plants on Niscorp 1743. In the equatorial areas and in the few areas of noticable seismic activity lichen grows in abundance, and across much of the planet there is a complex range of algae that can sometimes grow in colonies that resemble moss or lichen. This algae is a subject of scientific interest due to its high photosynthetic efficiency. There are also some kinds of floating algae, a kind of living dust, that hang in the air in valleys sheltered from stronger winds, taking advantage of the low gravity. None of these plants and algae have any aesthetic properties at all, but some of the floating algae has mirror-like qualities, which produce beautiful kaleidoscopic patterns when gentle winds blow down the valley (locals call these the “Valley Fairies” and they are one of Niscorp 1743’s few tourist attractions).

Niscorp 1743 has some limited fauna, primarily grazers and a few kinds of venomous ambush hunters. Evolution has been very slow on Niscorp 1743, and almost all identified fauna can approximately be described as insectoid. There are many types of grazers, which are usually loners that wander the frozen wastes grazing on algae. Many of these grazers are also partially photosynthetic, and it is not yet clear whether they obtain energy from grazing or simply use it to replenish photosynthetic materials. Low gravity and long lives mean that these grazers, though insectoid, can be as  large as a human, though much lighter, with many legs and specially-developed tools for digging into and moving through the snow and ice ubiquitous to the planet surface.

Ambush hunters that prey on these beasts take advantage of the photosynthetic energy source to preserve their prey. Although the planet is cold the tainted atmosphere soon destroys any dead material, and there are many forms of scavenging bacteria, so any of the larger grazers would need to be eaten very soon after a full kill. Evolution has solved this problem – and the simultaneous problem of very low densities of prey animals – by gifting the local ambush killers with a highly potent paralytic poison, that enables them to immobilize their victim without killing it. They then take their time eating the still living prey, safe in the knowledge that its partial photosynthetic properties will keep it basically alive while the feast continues. The most common ambush killer is a kind of small spider called the Ice Wrack, which is about one eighth the size of a human being, perfectly camouflaged in snow and ice, and capable of moving rapidly beneath the surface of powdery snow. It has a set of four retractable 12cm long stingers that deliver its poison deep into the cavities of the largest grazer (called simply Grazer Spiders). These stingers are harder than steel and capable of penetrating most body armour if delivered from ambush. The venom is equally effective on humans, and Ice Wracks do not quibble about what they eat – experiments have shown that they can burrow through most grav suits within two hours, at which point they begin consuming their paralyzed prey from within. Fortunately Ice Wrack venom also causes seizures and blood clots, and most humans die within 6-8 hours of being bitten, so they only need to endure 4-6 hours of being eaten alive before their merciful release.

Most humans on Niscorp 1743 wear sturdy boots and carry anti-venom slap-packs at several locations on their grav suits. Ice Wracks are very rare but the presence of these beasts, the risk of occasional cataracts in the icy surface, and the cold are all good reasons that Niscorp residents never travel alone outside of their compounds, and have strict protocols for carrying homing beacons and regularly checking with their compound.

Planetary culture

Niscorp does not itself conduct research on its planet, but makes the surface available to others for independent research. This means that the people living on Niscorp tend to be independent, suspicious and guarded about strangers, with little communication between research groups and little bonhomie outside of occasional meetings for recreation on the starport or at Radiance. It is not unknown for groups to go for days or weeks without checking in with other organizations on the planet, and there is little interaction even virtually between the different research groups – indeed such communication is sometimes forbidden. Researchers can also be jealously protective of their research areas too, and although no violence has ever been committed in the defense of research facilities, Jonah Trager has recognized that risk and does warn newcomers about manners. There is a common culture of loudly hailing strangers, always greeting people upon sight, and never traveling to another compound bearing any weapons. The people are warm, but their first reaction to newcomers is as frozen as the planet itself.

Niscorp starport

Niscorp starport is a low grade facility, capable of basic ship repairs and maintenance only and primarily serving as a waypoint for researchers. Careful agreement with the pirates of The Reach ensures that the starport has no military facilities capable of space defense, though a small squad of marines is usually on hand in case of any incidents on the starport itself or planetside. These are Niscorp marines, not Confederate, and it appears that Niscorp has an agreement with the Confederacy that no military vessels will be based here, probably as part of a secret arrangement with the pirates. Pirate vessels often pass through Niscorp, and the fleeting nature of their stops suggests that their visits, too, are governed by some kind of arrangement with Niscorp. Niscorp, however, is not a military services corporation – it is purely a terraforming and research corporation – so it is unlikely that there is any sinister background to such a deal – it is likely merely one of convenience to both sides.

Niscorp starport is composed of three discs floating in space parallel to one another, spinning to maintain centripetal force and connected by semi-transparent tubes constructed entirely with field effectors. Cargo and heavy goods move through a central field effector spindle linking the three discs, while humans move through smaller tubes that connect the faster-spinning edges of the discs. One disc is primarily for docking, one is for residency, and one is for entertainment and services. The residential disc spins faster than the central services disk, which spins faster than the docking disc, which in turn produces centripetal force that approximately mimics the gravitational pull of the surface of Niscorp 1743. A couple of hundred people live and work on the starport, and usually another 100 or so will be passing through. At any time one can expect a couple of small ships to be docked at the starport, and traffic never exceeds 10. It is a quiet, sleepy backwater of no value to anyone.

Possible adventures on Niscorp

There are no adventures to be had on such a planet, unless one likes to eat frozen spider meat, or really enjoys skiing. Industrial espionage is a possibility, but the harsh nature of the planet and its remoteness – along with the low value of the research projects undertaken here in the frontier, in the shadow of The Reach – mean that industrial espionage will not produce rewards worth the effort. If you ever have the misfortune to stop off at Niscorp, best to spend a night refuelling and sampling the ice spider meat[1] and then head off to more interesting planets as soon as your maintenance schedule allows.

fn1: make sure the vendor is licensed, because improper removal of the venom glands can make this meal foul-tasting and lethal.

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