The central island of city of Nexus, dominated by the sky port
Image by odomi2. Please do not use without permission
In its glory days, during the time of the first Earth Empire and the Galactic Federation, the planet Brennender Himmel was one of the galaxy's most exclusive (and expensive) tourist destinations. It wasn't anything very special in most respects - a frigid desert world with a thin atmosphere, most of its surface water locked up in huge polar ice caps, and the majority of its lifeforms concentrated around the swampy forests that ringed its shallow equatorial oceans. But it did have one extraordinary feature that commended it to the rich and indolent; a gaseous layer in its upper atmosphere which made its sky appear to be on fire; blue at night, blood-red at dawn and dusk, and dazzling orange in daylight.
The colonization of Brennender Himmel was spearheaded by a consortium of luxury resort and entertainment companies, who did everything they could to turn it into a playground for the wealthiest of the galaxy's elite. They peppered the planet with casinos, spas, ultra-secure conference facilities that offered everything an interstellar diplomat could wish for (negotiations can be so much more agreeable when you can bill the accommodation to the taxpayer), and of course, the last word in luxury hotels. But those things could be had on any civilized world. They needed a "hook", some striking attraction that would take advantage of the world's unique selling point, its fiery sky, and really draw in the tourists.
What they eventually came up with was a new variation of an extremely old idea - boat races. But these races were something very special. Instead of sailing on water, the ships would race through the air, soaring through the burning skies that made the world famous and gave it its name. Custom-designed antigravs were used to lift the vessels several thousand meters into the air, but their propulsion was achieved the old-fashioned way, by wind in their sails. Over time, Brennender Himmel developed a niche industry manufacturing rich beings' toys, lovingly crafted replicas of sailing ships drawn from many eras and many worlds. Spectacular tournaments pitted Nelson's HMS Victory against the ancient Martian flagship Ssraekyr, or Silurian vessels that had plied the seas of primordial Earth before the rise of man. The galaxy-wide broadcasting rights alone paid for the ever-more-extravagant spectacles a hundred times over.
All things end. Over thousands of years, interstellar economies and entire galactic empires collapsed, and Brennender Himmel became first an unaffordable luxury, and then a forgotten backwater. As a tourist hub, it was largely dependent on imports from other worlds to supply its needs, and it found the transition to self-sufficiency a difficult one at first. Advanced technology became concentrated in areas of greatest need - or sometimes, simply in the hands of those with the greatest wealth and power - while elsewhere, the culture regressed to a Victorian or even Renaissance level. A new society slowly evolved, shaped partly by the practical demands of survival and partly by the traditions inherited from the planet's allegedly glorious past.
The year is now 72,416 AD. The rest of the galaxy has almost forgotten Brennender Himmel, and Brennender Himmel, in its turn, has almost forgotten the rest of the galaxy. A complex, multi-species society thrives on the planet, but tensions bubble just below the surface.
The majority of the population lives on the outskirts of the polar ice caps, using them as sources of water, and as fuel for the cold fusion reactors that power most of the planet's surviving technology. The barren desert wastes that cover most of the world's surface are largely uninhabited, the resorts and casinos that dot them abandoned save by pirates, criminals and the desperate. Outside of the ice caps, the only significant population dwells on the shores of the equatorial seas. There are countless small townships, minor cities and rural communities to be found on Brennender Himmel, but in practical terms almost all of them have some kind of allegiance to one of the Three Great Cities.
That's its full and formal name, anyway. Whoever wrote the long-forgotten tourist brochure which first called it that would probably be pleased and astonished in equal measure to find a hastily-written marketing jingle so immortalized, although in casual conversation, it's usually referred to simply as "Shansh".
Most of the readily accessible metal deposits on Brennender Himmel are concentrated near the planet's north pole. In the early days of the colony, the ruling consortium built a small industrial complex at the edge of the polar ice cap to exploit them. It was bitterly cold there, and the atmosphere relatively thin, so they brought in a largely Martian work-force who felt comfortable in such an environment, rather than spend extra on terraforming a frozen wasteland.
Over time, the companies found that it was less expensive to import processed metals than to extract and refine their own. Left without enough work, the Martians began to make up the shortfall in their income by marketing the glories of ancient Martian culture to the rich and gullible. Ironically, being engineers and technicians rather than anthropologists and historians, they had to bring in human specialists to get them up to speed on what the glories of ancient Martian culture actually were. But as one of those specialists, the famous xeno-archaeologist Professor Bernice Summerfield, pointed out in an in vino veritas moment, authenticity is in the eye of the beholder. Ishanshyr slowly transformed from a bleakly functional collections of mines, refineries and factories to an idealized, tourist-trap version of an ancient Martian city, dominated by Osiran-inspired pyramids and organically curved ziggurats.
Although Ishanshyr reclaimed its original role as a manufacturing center when Brennender Himmel was forced to become self-sufficient, a mixture of civic pride and simple cultural inertia allowed its distinctively Martian character to survive. The Martians built their new factories and refineries underground, out of sight. There's little in the city's outward splendor to suggest that it's the predominant source of the planet's high technology. It remains Martian dominated, although minorities from all the planet's other races live and work there. Its government is theoretically an elected autocracy; a Council of nine Magistrates presides over its affairs. Each Magistrate continues to serve until death or retirement, whereupon the entire populace votes for his successor. In practice, the Magistrates just keep public order; the real power lies with the Science Council, a six-person body whose nominal responsibility is simply to control the training of new engineers and technicians, and maintain the professional skills of the existing ones. But as the economic backbone of the city, its engineers and technicians are the ones who effectively dictate its policy.
Another tourist-brochure name legitimized by the passage of time, the city of a thousand gardens is actually a group of interlocking townships stretching across several hundred kilometres, outwards from the edge of Brennender Himmel's south pole into the surrounding desert. A massive network of canals carry meltwater from the pole to a vast acreage of farmland that extends in a broad strip along the desert's edge. Less visible, but even more impressive in their way, are the underground hydroponic gardens near the pole itself, kilometre-wide caverns perpetually bathed in artificial sunlight. The Thousand Gardens are the breadbasket of Brennender Himmel, supplying almost eighty percent of the planet's food. Their mostly Silurian population specializes in bioengineering and genetic manipulation, principally for crop production, but also for medical applications such as the development of vaccines. Their communities tend to be park-like spaces, with homes made from natural materials (carved and polished wood predominates), protected from the harsh conditions outside by geodesic domes.
The Silurians govern their affairs using a federal structure, with each major community governed by an elected Triad, with a central Triad elected by the entire population taking the major policy decisions. Each Triad position is notionally subject to re-election every three years, in a rolling cycle, but in fact, the Silurians are a peaceful society with little need for, or interest in, governance; Triad positions are seldom contested, and it isn't unusual for a Triad member to hold his or her position for decades.
Nexus was originally the planetary headquarters of the entertainment conglomerate that first colonized Brennender Himmel. Built on an island in the midst of tropical swamps that are surrounded by the planet's shallow equatorial oceans, it was a favored luxury resort for tourists who had a taste for unspoiled natural beauty. Some parts of the unspoiled natural beauty turned out to have an equal taste for the tourists, along with very sharp teeth and hearty appetites. But every problem is also an opportunity. Following some unfortunate early incidents, the conglomerate killed two birds (not to mention a large population of amphibious predators) with one stone, by selling hunting licenses. The predators, a sort of mammalian crocodile rather like an ambulocetus, were driven to near-extinction in the dying days of Earth's Empire, but their numbers have long-since recovered, and they remain a significant threat to ill-prepared travelers near the city.
Nexus today is an immense walled city covering the entire original island, with multiple broad causeway bridges radiating from it like spokes from a wheel, connecting it to dozens of satellite conurbations rising from the tropical swamps surrounding it. The causeways are dozens of meters wide and positioned about a hundred meters above the swamps, with lanes for both motorized and pedestrian traffic. It's an impressive place, but not a particularly attractive one. Most of it is built from a local synthetic stone created by melting down the sands of the deserts far to the north. The stone is black and slightly translucent, resembling both marble and glass. The poorer districts are made of a cheaper synthetic stone of a dull red color. The architecture tends to conform to two shapes - curved, gherkin-shaped skyscrapers and sharp-sided ziggurats of a vaguely Mesopotamian style, very different from their softly and elegantly curved counterparts in Ishanshyr. The largest ziggurat - which also houses the city government offices at its summit - is the Nexus sky-port, a combination docking station and repair facility for the airborne cargo ships that constantly fly between Ishanshyr and the Thousand Gardens.
Nexus is a port city. It's largely self-sufficient in foodstuffs thanks to the bounty of the swamps surrounding it, but it only just harvests enough to feed its own population, and certainly not enough to export it as the Thousand Gardens does. It has some of the finest shipwrights and anti-grav technicians on the entire planet, but it doesn't have any mining or heavy industry to speak of. What it does have is a strategic location half-way between Ishanshyr and the Thousand Gardens, and a hardy, entrepreneurial population willing to risk pirates, sandstorms, and general discomfort to ply the trade routes between the two. Humans make up about two-thirds of its population, but all the planet's other races are well-represented.
Theoretically, Nexus is governed by an elected city council. In reality, a small group of powerful merchant families control most of the levers of power, co-opting or bribing those councilors who don't actually come from their own ranks. The population are well aware of this, and turnout in most elections is dismal, rarely exceeding thirty percent. Despite this, there's relatively little popular discontent; the city's rulers are well aware of the maxim that no society is more than three missed meals away from revolution, and quite openly boast that "a Nexian should never have to miss a second meal". Wild disparities of wealth exist within the city, but no-one starves, and free clinics provide a basic level of health care to everyone.
Silurians, generally known as "Earth Reptiles", come from all three subspecies, but the human-like, New Series variant is the most common. They migrated to Brennender Himmel during the later days of Earth's Empire, to escape the racism and second-class citizen status that they suffered in Imperial society. The entertainment companies were hardly less racist than the rest of the Empire, but far more concerned with the almighty bottom line. The Silurians' expertise in bioengineering promised to almost double the efficiency and productivity of the colony's food production, and besides, aspects of the equatorial ecology closely resembled those of primordial Earth - who better to manage it? During the Imperial era, the Silurians were kept out of sight, an unacknowledged element of the planet's support infrastructure, but they became increasingly visible - and influential - as Brennender Himmel moved towards independence. They are now the most politically powerful species on the planet, for they dominate the two fields of endeavor that no-one can afford to do without - food and medicine.
Martians are mostly descended from the engineers and technicians recruited by the colony founders, and as a result, they have less of a martial ethos than their counterparts elsewhere in the galaxy. They've developed a sleeker, more practical style of exo-shell, more akin to an Ice Lord than an Ice Warrior, but with all kinds of useful bio-mechanical gadgetry built in. A Himmel Martian is more likely to have a sonic screwdriver built into his armor than a sonic disruptor. Their culture retains its strict emphasis on honesty and honorable dealing, but its focus has shifted from warfare to trade and diplomacy. Although technology isn't quite as essential to the planet's survival as food, it's still pretty important to maintaining a civilized lifestyle, making the Martians a close second to the Silurians in terms of political power.
Ogrons on Brennender Himmel are a slightly altered subspecies. Their ancestors were brought in by the founding conglomerate to serve as laborers and expendable muscle for the colony's security forces. Centuries ago, the Silurians became concerned that "other races" - by which they meant "humans" - were unfairly exploiting the Ogrons, and covertly introduced subtle changes into their genome which increased their intelligence and creativity. While still not, by and large, the sharpest knives in the drawer, Himmel Ogrons are far closer to human levels of intellect than their cousins elsewhere in the galaxy. Many of them still work in grunt security jobs or heavy labor, but a significant minority hold positions of political authority or even work as scientists or engineers.
Humans are unpopular, frequently seen as parasites by the planet's other species. "The Earth Reptiles keep us fed. The Martians keep the lights on. The Ogrons keep us safe. And the humans keep 15% plus expenses". That's the polite version. There are lots of other suggestions concerning what the humans do, most of them exceedingly vulgar. Even after thousands of years, the Silurians and Martians still have distant folk memories of the arrogance and racism that humans showed towards them in the Imperial era when the colony was founded. It doesn't help that the humans' principal field of endeavor - trade - involves taking the fruits of others' labors and selling them on at a profit. But the Silurians need technology, the Martians need food, and their communities are at opposite ends of the planet, so they grudgingly accept that the human species has its uses. Only in Nexus, however, do humans hold any real power.
If using the Dr. Who Role-Playing Game rules from Cubicle 7, Brennender Himmel has a maximum Tech Level of 7, but you'll only find that degree of advancement in Ishanshyr (for machine technology) and the Thousand Gardens (for medicine and bioengineering). The majority of the planet uses TL4 or TL5 devices for everyday living, simply because resources are limited, although most of the population is educated to TL6 or above.
Brennender Himmel has transmat technology, but it's expensive and small-scale. It has a few spacecraft that it uses mostly to put weather and communication satellites into orbit, but it's largely abandoned interstellar travel and withdrawn into isolation - although it has the means to build perfectly decent starships if it wished. It has some high-speed aircraft, mainly used by political leaders and the ultra-rich. But thanks to a combination of practicality, the economics of limited resources, and historical inertia, most travel on the planet is done by sky-ship.
The sky-ships come in almost infinite varieties, from small passenger yachts to the giant cargo vessels that handle almost all of the planet's trade. Brennender Himmel is a relatively metal-poor world, so the sky-ships are built mostly of wood, simply because it's far less expensive. They float several hundred meters above the desert sands on anti-gravs that also supply limited propulsion, but between considerations of weight, energy efficiency, and the need to avoid placing too much stress on a wooden hull, quite a lot of the work of driving the ships is done by their sails.
Although descended from ocean-going vessels, the sky-ships - unless they're the playthings of the ultra-rich - tend to be flat-bottomed craft, capable of landing on sand as well as water - the former is, after all, far more common on Brennender Himmel than the latter. Instead of anchors, they're designed to extend sets of stabilizing "braces" from their sides, which sink into the sand on either side of the ship and hold it steady. The three great cities all have great water-filled docking pools to allow the sky-ships to land, but poorer and more remote settlements use giant sand pits instead.
Although they're inspired by the racing craft of the colony's early days, the sky-ships are for the most part a purely pragmatic solution to the problem of managing mass transport across an entire world, using limited technology and resources. Every ten years, however, Nexus hosts the great Festival of Sail, a celebration of the world's glorious past, where flying ships in defined classes from single-person swift boats to multi-ton cargo barges race each other around the planet. For the six weeks of the festival, Nexus throws open its gates to the people of its two rival cities, so that it can fleece them for all the overpriced food and accommodation it can... er, sorry, so that it can encourage peace, harmony and goodwill among all the planet's communities and races. As the opening ceremonies are traditionally attended by the political leaders of the Three Great Cities, the Festival of Sail is also a hotbed of politicking, commercial and economic sculduggery, and espionage. The city's criminal gangs, meanwhile, find themselves rushed off their feet, what with finding enough card sharps to work the gambling dens, blackmailing the wealthier patrons of the brothels, and having to pay overtime to the pickpockets targeting all the drunks.
In short, the Festival of Sail is the ideal destination for a group of player characters looking for a nice, relaxing holiday...