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The Planet

Altair is my planet of focus for Vast Worlds, with most of the lead characters at least hailing from the world even if the scene is not actually set on the surface. In a way it is rather idealised, becoming the old classic of the characters home town being the one where the author wishes to live, but I have tried to rise above the stereotype and give the place a realistic background with its own darker side. Still, things tend to be a bit more idyllic than they have any right to be any.

Anyway, Altair is a bright sun roughly seventeen light-years from Earth, and the system is actually fairly sparsely populated, with only two rocky dwarfs and a single gas giant in the outer system[1]. Due to the mix of elements, the planets are quite light, with Altair II (the colony) possessing only about four fifths of the gravity of Earth, even though it has roughly the same radius. This also gives them a deficit in heavy metals, though as it a solar system, this only increases costs of exotic elements and doesn’t prevent them from being found at all[2].

Altair II is a snowy world, with the global temperature at just bellow freezing, and this actually leads to an odd situation where the temperature is rarely low enough to form permanent ice sheets, but never high enough for liquid water. During the day, the top layer of snow vaporises, and practically doubles the density of the thin atmosphere. Then, at night as the temperature drops back off, the water re-solidifies to form a dusting of snow across the whole planet[3]. Because this occurs roughly two hours after sunset there is actually a permanent snow storm travelling around the planet and it is easily visible from space as a band of cloud reaching from pole to pole.

Terraforming is actually rather rapid, and mostly based around biological control mechanisms[4]. Extremely thermophobic bacteria from Earth’s deep ocean trenches (heavily modified) are spread around the planet, and are actively photosynthesising the trace carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This produces oxygen but more importantly heat, which has already increased global temperatures by two degrees and a thin line of permanent melt water now rings the equator of the planet. The exposed surface is now home highly basic plants, extracting carbon from the curst of the planet and replenishing the rapidly dwindling supplies in the atmosphere.

Because of the shape of the continents, Altair is being terraformed to be cooler than Earth, mostly to maximise the amount of temperate land on planet for farming[5]. This will create lower seas, large ice caps, and the thinnest band of ‘tropical’ terrain around the equator which many see as a shame as the planet will not possess the sheer variety of life that Earth does. Others respond that that is true, but we’ll never be short of penguins.

The History

Altair was founded in 2079 as part of the Commonwealth’s land grab initiative and was almost certainly premature, but at the time the government was very worried about an American colony springing up next to Arcturus and denying them Altair was the logical choice. Funding soon dried up, along with the flow of immigrants, as the Commonwealth found itself overreaching and the local government was left with a massive infrastructure surplus, with no way of maintaining it, and near zero population influx.

Their solution was both simple and controversial, in 2084 Altair legalised all forms of genetic engineering and removed all regulations to be reassessed at an unknown date. This caused pandemonium across the settled systems, with an almost unilateral movement to cut off the Altairians. But the planet was out of the jurisdiction of anyone but the Commonwealth[6], and by the Commonwealth’s own rules they could only advise, not dictate laws[7].

The economic sanctions brought against Altair were of minimal effect, and half hearted at best as they only affected goods for sale and did not increase the price of vital supplies moving into the colony. Within a year or so, the migrant flood had begun again, but this time it was not the poor or dissatisfied, but educated workers from every major biotech company in human space[8]. The economy trebled in less than six months, and suddenly Altair became a self sufficient colony and the exporter of biotech goods.

Its position as a major power was basically assured at this point[9], but colony growth pretty much stalled two years later, as everyone who was going to migrate to Altair was either already their or unable to reach the planet. This left Altair is a bit a quandary. It briefly held a position equivalent to Arcturus in sheer economic might, but its meteoric expansion plateaued very rapidly and they were left with a fairly standard growth rate of four percent. With no real options Altair elected to introduce regulations on the biotech sector to try and reduce the sanctions against them[10].

The regulations were left deliberately vague, and skirted around many key issues. Human modification didn’t even get a mention, instead falling under the banner of modification of mammals, which was totally legal. There were multiple safeguards put in place to help the victims of rampant genetic modification, and these could be easily applied to altered humans or victims of an escaped virus[11]. Also included were details on the minimum safety requirements of an active lab and the licences you would need to perform experiments of various risks[12].

This did reduce the crippling tariffs somewhat, but Altair was still avoided, partly out of fear and partly because it’s actually a little off the beaten track. It also did little to stimulate the economy, and Altair’s growth will remain relatively slow for the next two hundred years or so, with most of the major investments[13] being government funded.

The Culture

Altairians are weird.

This is due to demographics than something in the water, and stems from the disproportionate number of scientists on the planet. By this, I do not mean that everyone on world has a higher degree[14], but everyone is a scientist, and by outlook and not education. Altairians will take more risks, for example, come up with more innovative solutions, do things because they are interesting or unusual and be generally more curious and easily distracted.[15]

Anyway, this creates some odd attitudes on Altair and is commonly thought to be paramount to insanity by the other worlds. Decisions will be taken based on the coolness of the solution, or complexity of the device, or simply how interesting something is to use. This leads to some rather odd technologies cropping up around Altair. Windows briefly went out of style for example, and many just replaced their glass with mini-screens and displayed whatever view they felt like for a while. The train network uses a highly advanced magnetic cushion technique which provides incredibly smooth motion without the need for grav’ panels, but will wipe any hard drive placed too close to the carriage floor. Likewise, latter in the setting they build grav’ assisted roads right down the sides of the tower, only to realise that every time someone tries to enter one from regular gravity they go flying as the car can’t cope with the sudden change of direction[16].

As you can probably tell, the application of technology is rather hit and miss on Altair but every so often they will come across something amazing[17]. This leads to a slightly odd development pattern, where the colony will freewheel for a few years, throwing out a few random ideas which generally could have been implemented in a much simpler and cheaper way, but then come up with something groundbreaking and race forward until stagnating again.

Altair also possesses a phenomenal healthcare and education system, mostly due to the extremely high levels of education already present in the population. This creates a situation almost unique to Altair where the educated public sector jobs are actually in short supply, and so only the best workers actually get the jobs. In addition to quality Altair also possess a quantity of positions[18], with, for example, each hospital possessing a specialist in any disease you would care to contract. This will probably decrease over time, as economic pressures cause the career imbalance to correct itself, but for a while at least Altair can enjoy some of the best public services in the galaxy. They even offer free genetic augmentation.

As a culture, the Altairians are fairly unique, running off their own set of values that are heavily inspired by western life, but a lot of the religious undertones are actually from the subcontinent. This has resulted from the mix of demographics when the Altairians deregulated, the initial population was largely Indian, relatively uneducated and devoutly Hindu. The later influx of scientists were generally Westerners or Westernised and had a much larger say in the setting of policies, but were relatively relaxed on the subject of religion. So, this gives a melting pot where the surface is Western but the people are far more familiar with Hinduism than Christianity[19]. In more subjective terms this means that there is a strong emphasis on personal liberty and personal responsibility, with a good side helping of personal accountability in the legal system. This does have a tendency to conflict with the state which has a few ‘nanny’ tendencies, but opinion is slowly shifting it to one that prizes individual liberty.

The Genes

Biotechnology on Altair is all pervasive and free of most of the cultural taboos possessed by other cultures[20]. You want to be blue, they’ll make you blue. Want a tail? They can grow one and sew it in for less than a family car. Need a flesh eating virus to drop on your enemies? …Well, that’ll cost you extra[21], but you could get it if you wanted.

Modification of your own genome[22] is fairly standard and the Altairians pioneered the use of genetic Scrubs[23] which can confer a number of health, or cosmetic, benefits. Odd hair colours periodically sweep the teenage population, with the very rich sporting other more complicated modifications such as adding reflective layers to the eyes, or even slitting pupils with the cutting edge stuff.

More subtle and less cosmetic modifications are also prevalent. It has been standard practice on Altair to modify embryos to remove some of the nastier genetic diseases. Cystic Fibrosis, for example, has been nearly eradicated on Altair, and as this has taken place on a genetic level the only way for it to be reintroduced will be a suffer entering the gene pool and not electing to take the free Scrubs provided by the state. Even the more radical, like Down’s syndrome can be mitigated, and there have been ongoing debates about the ethics of removing some of the ‘problem genes[24]‘.

A little less controversial are the introduction of beneficial genes, these generally have a positive effect, reducing the susceptibility to various bacteria, priming the immune system against some superbugs, increasing cancer resistance, and couple add additional metabolic pathways so that the body can process odd chemicals like purines[25] or produce Vitamin C. Generally because of this Altairians will live longer on average, and require less medical care[26] and, as this is encoded into their genome, the benefits of their technology will persist for millennia, even if they forget a lot of their advanced technology[27].

Not all their technology is based around human modification. Altair also produces a vast range of genetically engineered organisms and these can be seen across the galaxy.  Most of the terraforming projects ongoing use Altairian developed organisms, though generally these are of the single cellular variety and can’t actually survive in standard atmosphere, but a few of the more extreme colonies plan on incorporating modified genes as the standard for the world[28]. The wealth and experience generated by this practice is the main reason that Altair is one of the more terraformed planets.

Trade on with Altair is mostly based around the biotech, and this creates a rather odd situation where the volume of cargo exported is actually rather minimal[29] by volume, but massive by value. This is very helpful as the majority of traders avoid Altair due to its dicey reputation, but what do arrive can transport a massive amount. Most trade is actually imports[30] with it being about six times the volume of arriving cargo.

Altairians do tend to overemphasise the risks involved in its technology to defend their monopoly, which works against them fairly spectacularly on several occasions.

The Places

The Hirth peninsular (The Blizzard peninsular) (also see map): Named not just for itself but for all Altair it sums up the planes of snow that cap the planet and the frequent blizzards that beset it. Ironically the peninsular itself is rather sheltered from the prevailing easterly winds so lacks the regular storms[31] but certainly not the snow with only sporadic thaws where human influence dumps a lot of heat into the atmosphere. From any point on the peninsular you can easily see the many towers of Altair but without those even the thousand square miles of bio domes would be almost invisible against the snow.

The Findrum[32] Range (White/Holy Ridge): The Findrum range stretches the length of the Hirth peninsular and is accredited with some of the most spectacular views on the planet. However, with an average summer temperature of about minus ten it is not recommended for tourism and is frequented by blizzards that can burry entire valleys.

Central Tower: The first settlement on Altair and has since been expanded to be about a mile high with several ancillary towers. It possesses the majority of the government infrastructure, large businesses and an extensive network of bio domes. Recent developments have lowered the amount of housing in the main shaft[33] as well as increasing the number of nearby gardens as the major corporations and universities have moved in. Commuting is fairly common to the tower, even though it has a population of about 4 million, as the five further towers are within close proximity[34][35].

Fonvespa Tower (On the Vespa): Built on the very end of Vespa’s canyon[36] it is one of the major population centres and tends to cater to the higher classes with stunning views over the nearby mountains and is one of the tallest single towers on the planet with a spire height of 1.2 miles and a population of 4 million in some of the lowest densities on the planet. Having a twenty tier or above Fonvespa address means you have well and truly made it.

Combe City (Valley): One of the few cities on Altair of the traditional sense with large expanses of city surrounding the squat central tower which is the shortest of the five major arcologies. The main sprawl is within a crater[37] that is roughly the size of London and has been almost totally covered with extensive gardens and farms, to the point where the council is considering just building a single dome over the whole crater. A large proportion of the planets food is grown within Combe and it is the main trading hub for ‘real’ goods, the population is roughly six million.

Stoke on Sea (Small settlement on Sea): Definitely the least well named of the arcologies as it is neither a small settlement or on sea[38]. With a total population of ten million it contains the majority of the planet’s industry, a good percentage of food production and some of the worst living conditions on the planet[39]. With the lowest income per head of any of the arcologies it is not surprisingly considered a slum, forty percent of petty crime occurs within its walls and those with money rarely travel there unless they can help it.

Westen (West Town): Westen is located on the southern tip of the Hirth peninsular, near the end of the Findrum mountain range. It is not huge by the standards of Stoke on Sea and hosts a comfortable four million and is generally home to the more academic residents of Altair with a good majority commuting to Central tower to work. In addition, most of Altair’s famous artists have been resident in Westen, it hosts the majority of the planet’s creative works and it is the dream of many budding artists to be featured in the Bayside gallery which covers a good third of the penultimate floor.

Lyness (Headland into water): Literally meaning water nose Lyness is too built around the future coastline though is far more structured that Stoke on Sea with seven small towers lined along the coast. It had a good spread of social types, industry and business, which makes it the most self sustaining city on planet but it still has about half a million commuters leave or arrive each day. The internal style is rather suburban on the whole and is a rather nice place to live if you want a less hectic lifestyle; some say it is hard in some places to tell you have even left the south east of England at some points.

Hythe Magna (Great Warf): The major start port of Altair, home to about one thousand, most of which are involved in its operation to a greater or lesser extent.

The Morrigan (a Celtic goddess of war): The main satellite for Altair, most interstellar shipping passes though its bays and the main fighter contingent is based there. It is built in the orbit of its predecessor Creid which was badly damaged in a pirate raid and had to be decommissioned.

[1] The giant, Kale, is near inexplicably pink. This is actually due to the mix of gasses and the amount of UV radiation the sun puts out, but still the Altairians actually feel a little embarrassed about how effeminate their planet is.

[2] Actually, the majority come from Altair I, which could be easily compared to Sol’s Mercury.

[3] The thin atmosphere spreads the snow fairly evenly across the planet as it diffuses very quickly. Due to the axial tilt, this means that one hemisphere always has huge drifts of snow, while the other a mere dusting. This change is seasonal.

[4] But what else would you expect from the capital of genetics?

[5] Though the residents have not realised they’ll never need that much farmland.

[6] Annoying the Commonwealth at this point was a bad idea, not because of their military, but the fact that they contributed to about twenty percent of your economy.

[7] Advice in this context can be ‘do as we say or we’ll shoot you’ but thankfully it never progressed to this point.

[8] The companies themselves sponsored the movement, reasoning that they would need their educated workforce where they would not be restricted by regulations.

[9] The knee jerk reaction felt across the systems when Altair started releasing its first major goods practically crippled genetic research on any other planet than Altair. No one stopped to think how powerful this would make Altair.

[10] A ninety percent import tariff has never encouraged anyone to buy your products.

[11] No such escape has ever occurred, mostly because if a modified virus did get out, even if it caused no more than a bad head cold, the company could be sued for billions.

[12] This ranges from air purifiers at the lowest level, to being able to flood the entire lab with napalm at a moments notice for the highest. I’m not actually sure if anyone has ever required such a licence, as it would probably require you to be bringing back the dead. (Zombie moves aren’t made on Altair as they actually have procedures for dealing with such a thing.)

[13] The ongoing terraforming project for example.

[14] Though at one point about sixty percent of the population had a degree in biology, and even in 2100 this figure is still much higher than any other planet, including Earth. (Never ask if there is a doctor in the house on Altair. There will be one, but it is unlikely they’ll have studied the disease you have.)

[15] I think this xkcd basically sums them up.

[16] Curiously, they just invented another solution to this problem, magnetic traction control. Everyone else just made the curve less sharp.

[17] Take running roads down the sides of the arcologies for example. A brilliant way of saving space but driving in an artificial gravity well held ninety degrees to the normal field is pretty much the definition of insanity and only the Altairians would invent such a thing. However, once they had proven it was safe most of the arcology worlds took it up.

[18] Mostly because, with the economic bloom the Altairian government has more money than it really knows what to do with.

[19] This is not to say that there aren’t other religions present, but Hinduism is the major one. Actually, this isn’t such an achievement as Altair is the only planet in which Jediism is followed by seventy percent of the population. Most statisticians assume this is a backlash from them not including a ‘mind your own business’ option.

[20] Except for modification of the brain, which is really just common sense as even the Altairians struggle to wrap their heads around how it works.

[21] Actually, the Altairians are the only people ever to include an exponential cost per mortality into their contracts. With tariffs and the expense of actually having a lab certified to create deadly viruses there are only about three companies in a position to produce such a thing, and even then it would be cheaper just to drop rocks on your enemies instead.

[22] These are officially referred to as Genetic (or Genome) Modifications, though generally get abbreviated to G-Mods. The youth culture tends to describe these jokingly as G-ods and so, most Altairians accused of playing god will agree and share a private snigger.

[23] Scrubs were invented in 2090, and use a virus to modify the genome. This is actually possible now, but quite dangerous as they virus could easily mutate and escape or cause cell cancer. The Scrubs employ a double layer protection system, where firstly, the virus is sterile and can only be assembled by specially modified bacteria which are carefully monitored, and secondly, the virus structure is entirely artificial and would require thousands of mutations to actually be able to replicate itself, or even encode anything other than the desired genes. This pretty much eliminates any risk of cancer or viral escape, if making Scrubs incredibly expensive (which suits the people that make them down to a tee), and by 2400 they can be used to cause a complete rebuild of a body from the ground up. Even after the End Time Wars Altair maintains its monopoly and famously uses Scrubs to modify its entire population to be telekinetic.

[24] Those that may have a detrimental effect, but only as a probability, not a certainty.

[25] This reduces the incidence of kidney stones and gout FYI.

[26] Turns out it’s cheaper to make people resistant to diseases, rather than having to treat them if they do get it. Who knew?

[27] This serves them well during the End Time Wars, and even with a twenty-first century technology level the average Altairian lifespan is thirty years longer than the current equivalent.

[28] Luna and Arcturus are good examples. The low gravity on Luna means that the standard pallet of terran life need to be modified if it isn’t going to jump and reach escape velocity, and Arcturus has an odd enough light spectrum that unmodified plants would be very slow growing.

[29] Why export cows when you can just sell two hundred embryos and an artificial womb?

[30] Altair imports comparatively little compared to other colonies of its size. This is due to the tariff mostly, and the wealth of the population fuelling internal development. Altair is one of the more self sufficient colonies in human space.

[31] This being one of the primary reasons that the area was picked for colonisation.

[32] Pronounced fin-drum.

[33] The tower has failed in its last few major attempts to expand so that property prices are artificially inflated. Large business and rich families are the only ones who can really get a look in on the top floors.

[34] Fewer than thirty minutes by monorail.

[35] Net population roughly 35 million.

[36] And probably a little too close to an active fault line for its own good.

[37] Sited mostly as it was a lee from the blizzards that swept Altair.

[38] At least not until the terraforming kicks in and actually gives Altair liquid water. When that happens Stoke on Sea will be right on the waterfront, though that doesn’t stop people building where the water will be in fifty years.

[39] Overall the city is crowded, noisy, breathless and in some areas rather akin to twenty first century Beijing. The towers are low and honeycombed and the city is famous for being only location on Altair to actually possess satellite towns, though these only serve to exacerbate the connections problems.

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