The following planet profile was written by novelist and artist Daniel Bensen, author of The Kingdoms of Evil, and the forthcoming New Frontiers alien murder mystery novel.
“At first glance, Zarmina looked like it was already inhabited, with crystal glittering on the light side and illuminated highways on the dark. Huge flat shapes swung through the planet’s atmosphere like cargo planes. The fields marched with coordinated waves of activity. The planet was as noisy as rush hour in Shanghai with the clatter of clapperweed. Except of course that there was no native intelligent life on Zarmina. Instead of the rectangles and lines of cities and highways, the lights of Zarmina were fractal skeins of re-distributed sunlight, bright at the terminator and fading almost to invisibility at the planet’s Night Pole.”
Zarmina orbits Gliese 581 at only 14% of Earth’s distance from Sol. This proximity puts the planet inside the habitable zone of its cool, red dwarf sun, but gravitational tugging from this star has slowed Zarmina’s rotation until the planet has become tidally locked, with one face pointing toward its sun. Fortunately, Zarmina is large enough to hold an atmosphere of water vapor and carbon dioxide, which efficiently transport heat from the day to night side.
The constant day-to-night wind has had a profound effect on Zarminian life. Kite-like structures, both auto- and heterotrophic, are common, and several lineages of terrestrial life have independently evolved the classic Zarminian “spider-bush” body-plan, allowing the organism to walk, sail, fly, or roll. The wind also prompted the evolution of the first of Zarmina’s two metabolic regimes, kinetosynthesis. Kinetosynthetic “clapperweeds” use motion, either wave action or wind or a combination of both, to build up charge in piezoelectric crystals deposited in a hinge or bearing between the clapper’s vanes and its holdfast. This energy is used to ionize hydrogen to form a proton gradient and synthesize chemical energy-storage, similar to ATP synthesis in Terran organisms.
However it is not kinetosynthesis, but familiar photosynthesis that is responsible for Zarmina’s most famous life form, spangletrees. Like other photosynthetic autotrophs on Zarmina, spangletrees are sponge-like colonies of microbes inhabiting a silicate skeleton. Unlike such wind-supported clades as ladyhair, landkelp, and megakites, however, the skeleton of spangletrees is external, and the glassy spicules that make it up are shaped to absorb and redirect sunlight. In the largest spangletree species, the light-gathering structure takes the form of a crystal tower hundreds of meters in height, its rods and lenses reflecting sunlight to photosynthetic mats of microbes at its base.
This adaptation originally evolved to gain competitive access to a single unmoving source of light and energy. Spangletree skeletons can be grown to shade competitors or, focus sunlight and burn them, and since their light-gathering structures are dead tissue, they require no air or water, and can grow (or rather be extruded) to heights far exceeding the tallest trees. These stratospheric canopies are home to unique ecosystems of commensal, parasitic, and symbiotic organisms that have evolved to live in near airlessness and intense radiation, as close as life can be to living in vacuum.
But all this activity in the air is only secondary to an immense feat of planetary engineering taking place on the ground.
In its ancient past, Zarmina probably resembled an eyeball, with a pool of liquid water at the substellar point (or “Day Pole”), in the middle of a ball of ice. Life in this sea was unstable, as plate tectonics brought continental landmasses across the Day Pole, increasing reflection of sunlight into space and reducing global temperature in a series of harsh ice-ages. The evolution of light-redirecting plants, however, both increased absorption of energy and spread that energy evenly across Zarmina’s surface. A single colonial mat can feed sunlight to its colonies across the day/night terminator in exchange for nutrients. Even at the antestellar point (or “Night Pole”) of the planet, sunlight imported from the day side provides enough energy to drive photosynthesis and change the very face of Zarmina.
There is yet much research to be done on spangletree ecology. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the focusing of sunlight to melt rock and “mine” for minerals or to regulate weather-patterns, for example. Likewise the mechanism of flashes, rapid re-direction of light transport chains, and other so-called “network activity” remains unknown. The increase of such activity with proximity to human presence is probably of great significance.
Article by Daniel M. Bensen
Artwork by Daniel M. Bensen
Visit Daniel’s website for information about his current and forthcoming works of fiction (www.thekingdomsofevil.com).