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Xenobiology 101: Part 5 - Case Study: The Viji

Zeta 2 : Vilis/Spinward Marches 0919 UWP X6B0000-0

Zeta 2 is a harsh, if not hellish, world by human standards. The average surface temperature is 40 degrees Celsius. The atmosphere is a thick yellow-orange soup of nitrogen, sulphur and fluorine compounds, with surface atmospheric pressure a crushing eight times that of Terra or Vland.

The Zeta system is very unusual in that the abundance of fluorine and sulphur are far above the average for Charted Space. The relative excess of fluorine over oxygen is so marked on Zeta 2 that hydrogen fluoride plays the role that water does on more "human friendly" worlds. Sixty percent of the world's surface is covered with [relatively shallow] oceans of HF.

The crust and mantle of the planet is predominantly made up of silicon fluoride, hydroxyapatites, flurosilicates, thiosilicates and metal sulphates. Volcanism and plate tectonics are present, but to a lesser extent than most rocky-metallic worlds due to a lack of iron in the planet's mantle.

Due to this and the accelerated rate of erosion driven by the corrosive properties of the atmosphere and abundant liquid HF, Zeta 2's land surface is largely flat, scored by gullies and ancient riverbeds, and punctuated with the odd chain of rolling hills or the very infrequent tectonically or volcano-driven mountain chain.

These aspects of Zeta 2's peculiar geology and 'hydrology' seized the interest of the research division of the Railen Institute, a think tank set up by some of the "second-tier" mining companies of the Spinward Marches.

Much to the surprise of the research teams that have surveyed the planet, life exists in these harsh conditions. Even more surprising is that intelligence has independently arisen on Zeta 2.

Lifeforms here are biochemically based on silicone polymers dissolved in hydrogen fluoride. Metabolic processes depend on the transformation of sulphur compounds for energy and play an important part in the cycling of sulphur between atmosphere, biosphere, ocean and rock.

Zetan ecology is based on on two broad groups of producers. The first exploit the temperature gradient between the atmosphere and the deeper layers of soil. The larger 'temperate' varieties with their irregular conical forms bear a passing resemblance to the nests of certain Earthly species of ants and termites.

The second type relies on an analog of photosynthesis, with a blue-green magnesium based pigment capturing wavelengths in the near infrared, and resemble horsetails.

Zeta 2's high surface atmospheric pressure has led to the development of 'superhumid' biomes, where HF partial pressures can reach a standard atmosphere in certain 'tropical' areas.

These locales of superhumidity have been variously termed 'steam jungles', 'steam sponges', 'steam reefs' and 'steam caves' by the Railen Institute researchers.

Steam jungles look much like a tropical rain forest, with large numbers of producers and consumers forming multiple layered habitats. Here, the 'conoid' producers sport radiator vanes and panels to limit their heat absorption, covered with a fine network of circulatory vessels to enhance heat transfer. These vanes also serve a respiratory and feeding function in some species (gas exchange and trapping aerial plankton - or unwary larger animals).

Steam sponges are based in nutrient rich areas. Producer density is very high, with loss of the floor-mid-levels-canopy differentiation of the steam forest. (a banyan tree with a higher density of trunks?).

Steam reefs are similar to coral reefs, dominated by short area producers and a diverse range of 'aerial plankton'.

Steam caves are an oddity. Based in low valleys, sink holes and cavern systems, the humidity levels are so high that the walls are covered with vibrant communities of producers and consumers, the latter often building slime towers or webs into the central space.

The closest terrestrial equivalent might be a sewer pipe or an animal gut.

Very large animals are found only in the oceans. On land, no consumers bigger than a kilogram have been found; insect-like forms dominate.

The Viji are the intelligent natives of Zeta 2. Their ancestors were creatures similar to the bees or wasps of Earth. 'Each' Viji is actually a hive made up of millions of tiny (0.1g) winged insect-like creatures that communicate to each other with a combination of pheromones and weak electric currents.

Each creature retains some small part of the knowledge and memories of the whole. Viji live either in underground burrows, steam caves, or in the surface parts of the larger conoids.

Reproduction is hormonally regulated by a caste of 'controllers' which ensures that the hive has enough members to maintain sentience. New Viji are formed either by parthenogenesis or 'sexually' by coalescence of swarms.

The entire 'hive' takes flight every few days, gathering plant and animal matter on which to feed.

It has been estimated that only a few thousand Viji exist, their technological advancement limited to the hunter-gatherer stage. (There is no evidence of large communities or agricultural activity on Zeta 2).

Considerable interest in the Viji has been expressed by the financiers of the Railen Institute, given their suitability to certain hostile environment surveying applications and mesoscale device fabrication.

The system is currently [as of 1116] being reviewed by the IISS with a view to Red Zoning it to protect these peculiar sophonts.