Oceanus Ultimata

Oceanus Ultimata
Image from Steve Bowers
The ocean of water droplets around this star forms a ring in the habitable zone

Discovered by accident in the Carina Arm, Oceanus Ultimata was off the main exploration pathway axis along the alien wormhole. Long range survey observation in 9462 had shown evidence of a ring system around the star. Not unusual in itself except that spectroscopic analysis showed the ring to consist almost entirely of water. This was unusual enough that 80Star Wormhole Authority, a local Rush exploration clade-corp; on hyperturing advice, took a gamble and sent out an expensive explorer probe carrying a wormhole with it. Some seven centuries later the probe arrived. What it discovered was unprecedented.

The entire ring system is an artificial structure consisting almost entirely of liquid water. Not a single mass of water, but individual drops and blobs and globes of water, each encased in a technic membrane and all orbiting the star at about the same density as Saturn's rings. The inner part of the ring orbits at about 80 million kilometers from the star while the outer region ends at about 200 million kilometers. The ring averages 32 kilometers thick. It appears to be approximately half a billion years old.

Individual components of the ring range in size from water droplet size up to about a kilometer across. Each is encased in a smart matter membrane that protects the contents from the vacuum of space. The membrane varies its reflectivity and insulative properties to regulate the temperature of the water. It also generates a magnetic field that protects against solar and cosmic radiation. Further, it provides a limited propulsive system by a combination of light pressure, magnetic/plasma sailing and the peristaltic expulsion of limited amounts of water. When this last method is used, the resulting 'exhaust' is virtually always directed at other components of the ring which absorb it through their membranes. All this serves to cause the ring components to 'churn' and collide with each other. The membranes regulate this and can cause individual components to either merge together, split apart or ricochet off each other. The membrane has self-morphing capability; the nanites are specialized according to type, with "queen" nanites producing membrane nanites and new queens in the interior. The membrane nanites are essentially a 2D utility fog that surrounds the water, acting as solar collectors to protect the water and fuel their active water transport inwards, propulsion and other duties. main "brain" is distributed in nano in the water itself - also when nano in the membrane wears out (as a result of radiation damage, malfunction etc) it is reabsorbed and replaced with new nano for inside the droplet. Individual membranes seem to communicate with each other using modulated light and radio to coordinate this activity with each component and the ring as a whole. In combination with a complex array of 'shepherd moons' this system permits the ring to maintain its structure. Despite the huge amount of processing power this implies, there is no evidence of any level of self-aware ai intellect involved. The whole system seems to run on automatic and genetic algorithms. If there is a higher level of intelligence here, it is not communicating the fact.

Every component of the ring contains life. Each mass of water is home to an ecosystem. Lifeforms range in size from the microscopic to the enormous and are evolved to survive in the ever changing conditions. As different portions of the ring orbit the sun and interact, different ecosystems that have been separated by millions of kilometers and tens of millions of years may suddenly come in contact. Over time a warm tropical region may migrate out to the frigid edge of the system. Evolution is driven hard here. So far no sophont or pre-sophont beings have been found. No evidence of the builders has been found, beyond the ring itself. But the ring is huge and exploration has barely begun. It is the ultimate ocean, 'Oceanus Ultimata' and everywhere there be dragons. Already Oceanus system has become a pretty wild place. Scientists and the ecologically minded wanting to preserve and study the system, others wanting to exploit the potential bio/nano tech gold mine of new life forms.

The system is currently claimed by 80Star Wormhole Authority. It has thus become reachable through the local wormhole nexus which means it is relatively easily accessible, at least for the beings of the Rush, but still rather too far out for the central Wormhole Nexus. This means that entrance to the system can be controlled fairly easily, but even so the 80Star Wormhole Authority does not have much control over the actual goings on in the system even if they try. So far they have been trying to keep the system for themselves as an unique treasure and to drive up prices and demand. But already cheap copies are emerging across the MPA. And hanging over everything, the possibility that some Caretaker God might step in and appropriate the system. Whilst Caretaker Gods are notoriously erratic in their views of what is natural and should be protected, Oceanus Ultimata would seem to be an excellent target for a Caretaker God to take, which suggests that several groups are already trying to encourage some power or minor archailect to claim the system as quickly as possibly - preferably theirs.

There has been for some decades a multi-party conflict between the 80Star Wormhole Authority which wants to control access to the system and claims ownership, other competing Rush interests that want a piece of the cake and support local opposition, preservationists trying to preserve the system, corps (from interstellar megacorps to mom-and-clone firms) and researchers wanting to study the system, some colonist clades thinking this is going to be an easy system to settle (lots of prefabricated habitats, especially if you are aquatic - the enhanced dolphins have made their interest known already!) and various factions trying to smuggle their gods in-system. It is thought the NoCoZo and Cthonids are about to burst onto the scene any year now...
 
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Development Notes
Text by Todd Drashner, with some comments by M. Alan Kazlev and Anders Sandberg

Initially published on 05 December 2001.