Down and Out in Low Orbit
This article originally appeared in Cepheus Journal #011, and was reprinted in the March/April 2023 Freelance Traveller with permission.
“Are there sights to see?”
“Not much. Most of the orbitals are new cheap prefabs; leaky and dodgy.”
Many of our scifi adventures take place in rougher areas. Places that would be deemed “the wrong side of the railroad tracks”. Evocative though that phrase is, it doesn’t sit right in a typical space based setting.
Anyone who has lived through college is probably fairly familiar with cheap accommodation, and all the shortcomings and calamities it can entail. But how do you portray this if it is, for example, on a space station? I give here a few suggestions that can be used in a space station to convey the same “mildewed peeling wallpaper” feel, but with a space edge to it.
The transport had left them on a fairly rundown looking level. The air was warm, humid, and badly filtered. A number of lights were out and more flickered.
A space station is an artificial environment. It has to be carefully maintained to be livable. But livable is a broad definition. Certainly, the higher rent districts will be perfect, but when budgets are tight, corners can be cut. If only the disenfranchised are disadvantaged, it may not come to official notice. Especially if those officials are bribed by people skimming off the maintenance budget.
Air quality is going to be the first to suffer. A tin can in space has to be actively cooled to keep it from overheating. People constantly exhale water vapor and carbon dioxide, which has to be scrubbed from the air. Poorly maintained systems will be hot, humid, and short of oxygen. Locals may be used to it, like high altitude villages on Earth. But visitors without supplemental oxygen respirators may find themselves quickly out of breath.
“Something is shot in the gravity generators” said the Chief. “Feels like a 5% oscillation. That can happen when they start to go.”
Low tech space stations may have centrifugal gravity. But the strength of the gravity depends on the radius of rotation. Cheaper accommodation may drift from standard gravity.
Higher tech stations may have artificial gravity. But that takes energy and maintenance. Areas overdue on their rent may have their gravity cut off, reduced, or rationed. Badly maintained equipment may have varying gravity fields. It may be stronger when close to a node, and weaker away from it. Or it may vary over time, either slowly or rapidly.
Hybrid orbitals may supplement rotational gravity with artificial gravity. They may have been sold an upgrade that mostly works, but with weird or exaggerated coriolis effects in certain areas.
You should move beyond the normal, mice, pantry moths, or crickets, when describing infections in low class areas of space stations. Say that there’s a local hybrid of broccoli and slime molds, engineered to grow quickly in food vats. However, some has escaped, grown feral, and now flourishes with the high humidity and carbon dioxide levels of the slums. Out of any cracks, crannies, or anywhere that doesn’t get regularly cleaned grows lovely green bunches of broccoli. In an adaptive dash to reproduce as fast as possible, and shrug off the disinfectant and herbicide the local municipality occasionally puts down, it has lost a lot of its nutritional content. It’s edible, but not that nutritious, and the locals are very very very tired of eating it.
Space is a harsh environment. Most planets do not have natural magnetospheres. So artificial ones, or shields, need to be there to protect against harmful stellar radiation. Cheap areas may not have as much, it may be degraded, or someone may have stripped it for illicit resale.
The locals in this area may be unexpectedly tan, as the melanin in their skin reacts to the higher ambient radiation levels. They may have a higher incidence of skin cancer, and general health problems.
Apartments near any water reservoirs may be highly desirable, as it provides shielding from some directions. Lacking adequate shielding for the areas they live in, they may wrap themselves (or their oldest and youngest) in whatever they have that can (or they think will) shield them from the cumulative effects.
Although the environments are designed to control the air of a space station, certain areas or factors may not have been considered. Large areas can have air currents of their own. And where you have rising humid air you can get convection, and with that condensation or even precipitation. Some walls may just always have water running down on them, or other areas may be constantly dripping.
As the space station revolves on its axis, and rotates around what it is orbiting, it may come in and out of the shadow.
Certain surfaces may heat up or cool down and local systems may not be able to deal with it, or may be too stressed to deal with it. Moisture in the air may directly freeze shaded areas and form ice slicks, or blocks. When heat returns they may suddenly become loose and produce further hazards.
In noir films the low rent districts are always near noisy train lines. There are any variety of transport systems, of people, solids, liquids or air, that may be similarly noisy and drive rent prices down.
But, as with weather, moving in and out of bright sunlight and shadow can cause heat effects. Not just to the air, but to the metal of the hull itself. Expanding or contracting metal will pings and click, sometimes loudly, based on the size and heat difference. Depending on the frequency of passing through shadow, regular sleep could be difficult.
Or it may just be that there are certain resonant frequencies a station is susceptible to. Ships docking and undocking may cause shudders and booms. These may get amplified and focused in certain areas. It may not threaten the structure, but it may make life unpleasant for those who live there.
Being airtight is one of the primary functions of a space habitat. But within a station, there may still be pressure differentials. Artificial gravity (and varying heat) may have an affect on air density in different locations.
Most stations will have section seals, to protect against unexpected breaches. When closed, the above ambient effects may lead to different pressure in different sections. When opened, pressure will normalize. On a broad scale, this isn’t likely to have a great effect. But the shape of the internals of the station may make this more pronounced in some areas rather than others.
If our current obsession with “how many bars” our cellphones have is projected into the future, being constantly connected to a computer network will be an important part of our functioning future life.
Deprived areas of stations may be less serviced the better areas. Rates may be different, or lower cost providers used that aren’t supported by your player’s connectivity plan.
Alternatively, there may be criminal activity that consumes a lot of the bandwidth in deprived areas, that the authorities can’t, or can’t be bothered to track down. Locals might have a much harder time accessing high tech services in such areas.
And There You Have It
You are all set now with several ideas to give your orbital slums some color. Surprise and challenge your players with unexpected limitations to their activities. Or give an empathetic background to factors or patrons asking them for favors.