On the fringe:
In the fifth of our monthly Mindscape Updates, David Donachie delves into the strange world of Mindscape fictions.
Mehune’s Grave is a doomed world, trapped in a decaying orbit between a pair of binary stars in the throes of stellar destruction. In an infinitesimal time (by stellar standards) of less than a million years, the planet will be gone, and life on it may well be impossible much sooner.
In fact, life should probably never have been a possibility on Mehune’s Grave in the first place. Tortured as it is by brutal tidal forces, asteroid bombardments, and the practically random radiations of its two suns, it seems reasonable that the Grave should be as desolate a world as it names suggest. But it is not so.
Commonality researchers are unsure if Mehune’s Grave had native lifeforms in its distant past before the binary stars began to converge. If so, no trace now remains. The life on Mehune’s Grave is human — or more precisely Chembu.
150 years ago the planet was known simply as Beta Leornis III. It shared the Cana Leornis binary system with seven other nondescript and uninhabited planetoids until the Chembu Bioship known as The Mehune (or simple Mehune — Chembu itself has always insisted on referring to the ship as if it were an individual) arrived.
It remains unclear why The Mehune was passing through the Cana Leornis system, or why it chose to exit 2-space so far in-system. What is clear is that The Mehune made a catastrophic crash landing on Beta Leornis III within a very short period after emergence. The Mehune and Beta Leornis III were no more, Mehune’s Grave had come into being.
The effect of the crashed bioship on the previously waste-world can best be described as Chembu-forming. The destruction of the ship spread organic matter over a significant portion of the planet’s northern hemisphere (the exact impact site lies at 13 degrees from the pole — approximately 245km). Although it is clear that the ship had decelerated before impact (the central mass of the ship, comprising around 2/7ths of the total, lies in the rough centre of a 21km wide crater, considerably smaller than a full speed collision would create) it was nevertheless sufficiently violent to destroy the consciousness, and the crew, of the Mehune.
However, a large percentage of a Chembu Bioship is composed of discrete semi-sentient organisms — the equivalent of mechanical components in non-biological ship designs — of scales ranging from huge (+2) right down to the cellular (-1). Without the guiding collective intelligence of the bioship these units became independent and began to cannibalise each other, and the ship remains.
Within an extremely short period of time, the Chembu lifeforms began to mutate and spread, creating and filling ecological roles. 150 years later the life zone is an expanding circle of around 52 million km2, a little over one third of the total surface area of Mehune’s Grave, while at the crash site the remaining core of the ship has itself expanded into an irregular mound roughly 40km across, generally referred to as the Birth Mound. The mass gain of the Birth Mound must be partly due to consumption of the crust under it but may also involve one or more still-functioning makepoints.
The atmosphere over the life zone is human-breathable for around 60% of its total radius, though methane concentrations are high. Breathability declines rapidly towards the outer edge and is not consistent. Most of the Chembu derived life on the planet is highly tolerant of low oxygen conditions.
Lifeforms of Mehune’s Grave
The primary life form on Mehune’s Grave is a protoplasmic goo resembling a multi-cellular alga with adjunct organelles specialised in the fixation of heavy metals. These algae’s are photosynthetic, but produce methane, instead of oxygen. This goo — Blue Algae — appears to be a modification of some component of the Mehune’s drive mechanism. The alga forms complex rafts and stack structures, bifurcating into coral-like tufts. Despite the name, Blue Algae colonies run a gamut of colours from maroon to electric blue.
Blue Algae rafts are grazed by a variety of slow-moving organisms that may derive from air processing sub-systems. These consume both algae and methane and emit highly oxygenated steam. Air grazers can be spotted from a great distance by the long plumes of condensing clouds that trail behind their herds.
These herds support a vast array of smaller organisms. Scavengers feeding on algae residue, fast-moving spiderlike predators that prey on the scavengers, and parasites of the grazers themselves. Many of these creatures betray traces of their Chembu biology — such as large aquatic eyes, soft bodies, or chitinous shells — or aspects of their original bioship roles. For example, many of the small grazer parasites are luminescent, having been part of the bioship’s interior lighting system.
The expansion zones of the algae beds form enormous ridges, radiating out from the Birth Mound. These ridges range from 40 to 100km across and extend up to three and a half thousand km in length (they are Continental +5, in scale). From orbit, they resemble the arms of a sunstar.
These ridges are not merely algae mounds but are rich in macroscopic nerve fibres, and an internal honeycomb structure. Hollow tunnels, resembling the internal transport corridors of a Chembu bioship, run through the deep interior of the ridges in a complex, and ill-understood, system. Autonomous door organisms, resembling clamshells, block many of these conduit structures, which are filled with ammonia-rich fluids.
Monitors are ambush predators found primarily within the central bio-zone, although individual monitors have been known to roam beyond the blue algae limit, significantly increasing the already major danger of moving about on the surface. They may be derived from the bioship crew, or from internal defence forms.
Monitors resemble tall elongated humanoids, with spindly insect-like limbs, and splayed feet and hands out of proportion to their limbs. Their arms are as long as their legs, giving them a tree-like appearance when they stand upright, and a rapid shambling gait. Monitors range in height from 2 to 4m.
Monitors have inky black reflective skins and carapaces of carbon fibre. Their eyes are white, without apparent pupils. They are often surrounded by a bio-electric aura similar to the bioship weapons systems and display camouflage abilities similar to those of terrestrial cuttlefish.
Individual Monitors display significant variation from this general pattern, with new forms appearing at a constant rate. For example, some are capable of projecting their electric fields into bolts, others have significantly enhanced chameleonic abilities, and some appear to be able to manifest bio-psi abilities that enable them to manipulate the Chembu-derived matter of the planet surface.
The sentience of Monitors is unclear. They stalk and ambush their prey in a sophisticated manner, but do not communicate.
Mehune Station is a Commonality Solaster class orbital installation, (Solaster class space stations are disk-shaped, with a central bulge on the dorsal surface balanced by a long gravity spine on the ventral. It has space for a few hundred crew) placed in geosynchronous orbit above the north pole of Mehune’s Grave. Its ostensible purpose is to study the runaway lifeforms of the planet below.
We say ostensible because Mehune Station is home to a significant population of Chembu genurgists whose purpose is unclear. Although they partake in the study process, often visiting the surface, they also offer experimental genurgic processes to any who care to visit the station. This mercantile trade, while typical of the Chembu, is somewhat at odds with the supposedly investigative mission of the other scientists on the station, not to mention Chembu’s insistence that the planet be respected as a grave site.
Mehune Station is under the control of the Commonality Ministry of Evolutionary Planning, but the personnel roster is approximately 50% Chembu. Station commander Lal Hausmann has to constantly deal with challenges to her authority from the Chembu genurgists, and parts of the station have had to been removed from active monitoring by the station sentience, Orissa, as a result.
Mysteries of Mehune’s Grave
Why did the Mehune crash?
Indeed, why was the Mehune in the Cana Leornis system in the first place? Why did it approach a zone of dangerous gravity tides? What could have caused the bioship’s systems to fail so catastrophically that it could crash and, if they did, why was the crash then so relatively gentle?
Lal Hausmann is not alone in believing that the crash was not an accident, but the exact reasons escape her. If Chembu merely wished to conduct a large-scale experiment on an uninhabited world, there would be no need for the fiction. Lal has made a number of trips to the surface herself, against the advice of Orissa, and is always willing to entertain those with interesting theories.
Does the Mehune still live?
The official account is that the Mehune, as a distinct consciousness, is no more, having died in the crash. The life-forms now on the planet bear no more relation to it than a runaway cancer would to its host organism.
However, the radiating conduit structures look suspiciously like the trunk transport and nerve routes of the ship and appear to be well supplied with connective tissues. In addition, the monitors appear to guard the conduits with particular vigour. Are they merely a convenient hunting environment, or something more?
People who believe that the crash was not an accident have suggested (quietly) that the Mehune may still be actively monitoring the evolutionary experiment — in which case the bioship’s crew and passengers were almost certainly sacrificed by the ship!
What are the monitors?
Or, were they? A particularly unpleasant suggestion for the origin of the monitors is that they are what remains of the Mehune’s crew and passengers, transformed into monsters. Fifty-one years ago a commonality citizen by the name of Hori Del’Balla, whose partner Arro had been aboard the Mehune, came to Lal insisting that this was the case and begging for the chance to go down to the surface and recover him. Lal allowed the mission, from which no one was to return; the decision haunts Lal to this day and has made her considerably more cautious about surface exploration.
A less controversial explanation is that the monitors are a development of the Mehune’s internal security forms. Their use of bio-electric attacks and bio-psi can be seen as evidence for this hypothesis. Even this idea has unsettling associations, however. If the monitors are security lifeforms, what exactly are they protecting in the depths of the conduits?