Excerpt from "Homo Aethereus"

on Tuesday, 20 March 2012
An excerpt from the novel I am writing, a bit of the back story for the main setting of the book - a planet named Gaia in the Tau Ceti system.

There was incredible excitement on Earth when Gaia was discovered, akin to the discovery of the Americas in the 17th century: people thought of the possibilities, the opportunities, the wonder of a new world. They thought of a virgin world, untouched by man, a blank canvas crying out for the touch of a brush. A new sky.

A routine unmanned investigation of the Tau Ceti system, always thought to be devoid of life, had discovered the planet against all odds. The system had been observed before, and it was concluded that due to the level of debris in the system it would be highly unlikely that life on any Earth-like planet could survive the constant bombardments from asteroids. The system had never been studied this closely, however. An unmanned probe was sent to explore the system in 2187, planetary geologists at most hoping to collect some samples of the debris field, certainly not hoping to find planetary bodies. When the probe started sending back images of the system, what they revealed rocked the scientific community, and indeed the world at large. In the debris field that orbited the Sun-like star, there orbited a gas giant planet. The idea of a gas giant planet orbiting Tau Ceti had been postulated before, but now you could see it with your own eyes. The real discovery, however, had come when the probe had carefully navigated its way through the debris field into the “habitable zone” of the star. Suspended in orbit around the glowing yellow dwarf, was a brilliant, unscathed, shining blue globe surrounded by the unmistakable haze of atmosphere. The observatory that first received these images was frozen in stunned awe, quite unable to believe what they were seeing. Of course, Earth-like planets were always deemed possible, and indeed probable, but this planet was within spitting distance on a galactic scale. The search began for answers as to how this planet’s existence was even possible.

The probe originally sent to the system to collect inert rock samples was ordered to remain, orbiting the blue planet, and was nicknamed “Lucky”. It had enough fuel to run for three months before it had to rely on its extended solar panels, at which time it wouldn’t have been able to re-enter the atmosphere upon returning home. It was decided that this discovery was worth the loss of the probe, and after orbiting the planet for three months it would land and send back any data it could gather from the planet’s surface. The planet had been given the name “Gaia”: it was a tad cliché of a name, but no one seemed to mind; it was familiar, homely and gave mankind the impression of ownership over the planet.

Lucky scanned the system first, to try and determine how this planet could have been unscathed in such a debris ridden system, and how it could have formed in the first place. Studies of Tau Ceti in the past had supported the theory that there would be no rocky planets orbiting it, and yet here there was such a planet. Lucky had gathered some samples from the debris field on his way to Gaia, as was its original mission, and was analysing them with its onboard equipment. It discovered high metal content in the debris, which seemed contradictory to the composition of Tau Ceti. It was theorised that Tau Ceti had, in its past, passed nearby another star and gathered up some of its accretion disk, which had then gone on to coagulate and form Gaia and the gas giant, which had been jokingly nicknamed “Big Red”. It also seemed that the formation of the gas giant had in some way protected Gaia from the debris in the system, its high gravitational field maintaining the debris in a stable orbit and keeping it from smacking into Gaia. It seemed an almost impossible set of circumstances, but an outside observer might say the same thing about Earth. In the violent and unpredictable universe, it is a wonder how life can survive anywhere.

During its orbit of Gaia, Lucky sent back a wealth of images, showing the planet’s surface through the foggy atmosphere. The surface appeared to be mostly liquid water, an incredible azure blue that shimmered under Tau Ceti’s brilliant light and barely rippled: there were no tidal waves due to the lack of a natural satellite. Gaia was closer to Tau Ceti than Earth was to Sol, making the year about 237 days. Days lasted about 20 hours, and the relatively straight orbital axis meant that there were no real seasons. It was colder at the poles, with some surface ice caps visible, and the temperatures around the equator were perfectly comfortable for human life. Spectrographic analysis of the atmosphere showed the composition to be roughly 80% nitrogen and 18% oxygen, with various minor quantities of noble gases, and a high relative humidity compared to Earth, giving rise to a fog that covered most of the planet. Lucky found land masses near the equator, one large continent about the size of Eurasia surrounded by several small islands. The first pictures of the land masses had cause a furore: they appeared to be mostly green.

When Lucky landed at the northern most tip of the super continent, the excitement turned out to be well founded. There was life on Gaia, it was teeming with it. Here, on this unlikely planet, there were grasses and ferns, trees and shrubs, and animal life too. Lucky patrolled a small area of boreal forest on its motorised tracks that, at a glance, could just as easily have been northern Europe 200,000 years ago. There were coniferous trees, insects and even a few small mammal-like creatures were spotted, and yet it was all alien. Everything was just different enough; subtle differences from Earth organisms that let you know that this was indeed another world.

It was perfect; Gaia was exactly what man had looked for since the first satellite was launched into Earth’s orbit. A planet that could support life, proof that we may not be alone in the universe and more importantly, a potential new home for mankind to expand into the stars.

At this point in the mission there was media frenzy: everyone on Earth wanted a piece of the new planet. Lumber companies wanted to know what the trees were like, farmers wanted to know how arable the land was, the tourism industry was going into overdrive with people asking about visits, manufacturing industry wanted to know about minerals and so on and so forth. For months while Lucky was beaming back images of Gaia, nothing else mattered beyond the trivial day-to-day activities, it was all anyone discussed.

In 2188 the World Council formed the Colonial Astral Resource Program, which would determine the viability of permanent settlement on Gaia, as well as thorough exploration and surveying of the planet, particularly searching for any resources that might be of use to Earth. A team of scientists was sent to the planet in 2190 to study the flora and fauna in more detail and to carry out geological surveys to determine the best site, if any, for human settlement. The first human to set foot on Gaia eventually became a household name, the erstwhile Dr. Abigail Buhari, and indeed the river they set up their temporary new home and research facility near was named the Buhari River in her honour.

Gaia had a diverse eco-system: there were aquatic creatures in the Buhari River, some were small, mollusc like creatures with strange, wriggling feelers, some were almost like fish but had prehensile limbs where fins ought to be, and there was even a host of microscopic plant organisms similar to plankton on Earth. The most abundant animals seemed to be insects, with thousands of different species of creepy crawlies, not resembling the mundane household insects of Earth, but of vibrant and shimmering colours, all shapes and sizes and many differing numbers of limbs. Some of them were as large as rats, which kept some members of the expedition awake at nights. The mammal-like creatures were a little more elusive; however enough was learned about them to find remarkable resemblances to Earth mammals. There were small fuzzy animals resembling rodents, only they had bird-like beaks, for cracking nuts and insect exoskeletons, and some had evolved wide, flat beaks for catching fish. There were herd creatures too, tall, slender beasts that grazed in clearings in the forest, they too had beaks that seemed specially adapted to rip up roots and pick flowers and seeds. Some members of the expedition claimed they had caught glimpses of arboreal creatures high up in the trees, but with no clear cut sightings they were generally dismissed as having an active imagination.

What surprised everyone was the seemingly total lack of any large predators. Some of the mammals ate insects, and even some of the insects ate one another but they were mostly scavengers, there were no real hunters, nothing at the top of the food chain. They had prepared for this eventually, bringing hunting rifles and enough tranquiliser darts to bring down all the elephants in Africa, but they had not needed them. They did however find animal remains that had clearly been stripped of their flesh. It was assumed that they had died of natural causes and consumed by scavengers, until one day a microbiologist had come crashing through the woods back to camp to make an extraordinary claim.

Humanoids: he had stumbled across humanoid life, while collecting soil samples a few miles from camp, a humanoid male butchering one of the herd animals they had catalogued. His initial claims had been dismissed as highly improbable, until an expedition to the site where he had first glimpsed them revealed that he was correct. They observed from a distance as a group of humanoids went about their business: they were tall, almost 7 feet, walked on hind legs and were clearly evolved from some form of primate. They lived in rudimentary structures, made from plant matter and dung, and appeared to use simple stone tools. It was like stumbling into Stone Age Europe. Their resemblance to humans was uncanny, and one biologist half-jokingly designated them “homo aethereus”, roughly meaning “humans from the heavens”, and the name stuck. Further study was needed to discern whether this was indeed a hominid species that somehow, against all odds, shared a common ancestry with mankind, or whether it was just some cosmic coincidence that a humanoid species managed to evolve out here, but for the time being it was decided to give the aliens a wide berth and not interfere with their primitive culture.

After the initial scientists’ expedition to Gaia had deemed the planet safe and ready for colonisation, they sent word back to Earth. Most of them elected to stay and further study the flora and fauna of Gaia, and help set up what would become the first city on the new world. Orbital cartography satellites had been scouting the main continent for months, sending back images of potential settlement sites to the Colonial Program. Earth was ready and eager to take advantage of this new opportunity, and within 10 years of the discovery of Gaia the first colonists, backed by corporate projects, blasted off to their new home. The satellites had also mapped the territory of the homo aethereus: while mankind was jumping at the chance to reap the bounty of Gaia, it was also mindful of the potential consequences of interfering with their alien cousins. For now, their plans were to live in harmonious co-existence and to leave homo aethereus alone.


Melanie said...

I like! More please!!

Mark said...

I'm with Melanie. I'm also impressed you were able to create a whole new planet with whole new life. Good job :)

Tenment Funster said...

Good one :) Are you a fan of Lem by any chance?

ojay said...

you always throw a good piece of writing

teganwilson said...

Thanks for your kind words. I wasn't aware of Lem but I shall definitely check his work out.

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