A New World

A century ago, our auto-survey probes reached the first extrasolar worlds. 

Around the star Wolf 1061, four lightyears from Earth, we found a planet different from ours, but not impossibly so – Wolf 1061ca. Orbiting the system’s largest gas giant, this moon was smaller and warmer than our world, but with an almost breathable, oxygen-rich atmosphere.

After saving Earth from the so-called Climate Emergency using genetically engineered enzymes, humanity’s ambition had grown. In the era of unity and optimism that followed, the United Development Agency (UDA) repurposed that biotechnology for an even greater undertaking – terraforming. 

Our goal: to cool and filter Wolf 1061ca’s atmosphere, before releasing plant and animal life engineered to thrive there. The UDA dispatched terraforming vehicle-factories on a journey that took over a decade.

Millions of settlers were to follow…

Collapsing hope

It was not to be so. Terraforming derailed catastrophically, lacing the oxygen atmosphere with toxins like cyanide, and decimating native life across vast regions of the planet. Some called it genocide. Others asked how this could possibly happen. The time of unity was at an end.

In the demise of our hopes for a new world, the media, and then the public began calling the planet by another name, one that captured its fate as a failed dream: Icarus.

The terraformers were ordered to mothball the orbital facilities and return to Earth. 

Before leaving, however, the team’s biologists completed one final act: genetic adjustments to their plant and animal payloads, genomic improvements that allowed Earth species to filter toxins from the atmosphere. Released onto the surface, these variants took root, then thrived at ground zero of the failed ‘terrazones’.

An impossible discovery

In defiance of the gathering political storm, the hydrologist Di Hemler led a small team on a clandestine drop to the surface. She was seeking an answer to the question: what had derailed the terraforming so disastrously?

During deep microwave surveys, her team discovered an anomaly that swiftly turned into an impossibility: deposits of exotic matter (exotics), thought to exist only within the hearts of collapsing stars, lay beneath the ground. 

These ‘impossible’ materials had corrupted the enzymes and rendered their output toxic. The process which had saved Earth would – here – render it unlivable to humans. The oxygen atmosphere remained, but laced lethally with unbreathable impurities.

Yet exotics themselves were beyond price – as fuel for interstellar travel, and technology beyond the dreams of previous generations. The UDA was quick to find value in the catastrophe.


The Exotics Rush

Scrambling to convene infrastructure, the UDA established the Lagos Unit to manage extraction of the exotic deposits. 

Their first act was to cannibalize the remains of the original terraforming mission. The result: the Orbital Stations. Aging factory ships had failed their original task, these were repurposed as makeshift homes for the first Icarus prospectors, who helped maintain them in return for living space and transport. 

The Lagos Unit, meanwhile, was able to outsource the extraordinary risks of operating on the planet to this small and – ultimately – disposable group: The First Cohort.

As with all resource rushes, the majority of these hopefuls came from nothing. Seeking fortune, they exhausted what little wealth they had simply getting to Icarus, where basic supplies were stratospherically expensive. 

So arose the popular image of the Icarus prospector: landing on the surface empty handed, adopting survival skills from another era, until such fortune arrived.

No picture of the First Cohort is complete without the infamous Envirosuit, a miracle of low-cost survival design pioneered by Sinotai. The airtight suit provided a refillable water bladder, a digestive pouch for food, and even a bio-actuated micro grinder capable of processing small quantities of Oxite.

Falling to Icarus

Crossing and recrossing Icarus’s skies in ever-shifting orbits, the Orbital Stations dropped members of the First Cohort to the surface, then passed back hours, days or weeks later, to rendezvous with returning dropships. 

If a prospector missed their launch window, the Stations’ irregular orbits meant they might never again be able to rendezvous with their dropship. 

The Unit’s official policy was clear: there would be no rescue. Dropships left on time, or they did not leave at all. The dead were left where they fell. That no-one stranded on the surface was likely to survive a megastorm, if one hit, was the unspoken fact.

For the First Cohort, it was the ultimate risk and reward. For humanity, exotics opened a long-awaited pathway to the stars.

A new era had begun.