I wrote this piece for Space 1889 role-playing game in 1996, during a period when my game group was very active “on Mars”. However, the game is timeless so the content is equally relevant today.
My next blog post will outline a Hyperborean campaign setting, inspired by some legends of the Old West.
When you say Mars to a human, he will immediately think of vast steppes or deserts intersected by canals and with pastel cities scattered here and there, or of dry hills haunted by savage High Martians. But Martian geography is varied. The polar regions are very different from the rest of Mars with distinct climate, topography, flora, fauna, and other factors that affect human or Martian visitors.
This text deals with Hyperborea, Mars’s northern polar region. The southern polar region, called Noteremia by terrestrial mapmakers, has a similar climate, but its flora and fauna are completely different. After all, evolution in the two polar areas has run separate courses for eons with no opportunities for creatures to migrate between them. Look at the dissimilar animals of Earth’s Arctic and Antarctica to see the magnitude of the differences.
POLAR GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
Mars’s current polar caps are recent in a geological perspective. During the Brifanoon era, the average temperature on Mars increased and all the snow and ice of the poles melted and formed the seas of Mars. When Mars entered the naBrifanoon era, the polar caps re-formed and gradually grew until they contained almost all free water. Something similar also happened on Earth during the Pleistocene Ice Age, though our oceans did not dry out; their level “merely” sank hundreds of feet.
Both Hyperborea and Noteremia can be subdivided into two distinct areas: a central glacier zone encircled by an outer border zone.
The glacier zone is covered by a permanent ice layer. The temperature never rises above +30°F and during cold spells it may fall to -60°F (i.e. comparable to the conditions on central Greenland). The ice layer is of unknown thickness, at least 1000 feet, since no human scientist has yet drilled down to the underlying soil. There is little precipitation here, since the winds coming from the south loose their humidity as snow above the border zone and the glacier edge.
The Hyperborean border zone extends 150-200 miles south from the glacier edge. It is covered with snow and ice during parts of the year. There are only two seasons there: the snowing, when the snowcap grows, and the melting, when it shrinks. During the climax of the snowing, the snowcap will extend past the northernmost cities, e.g. Saardaar, Panthes and Propontis. During the melting season, the temperature is usually +30°F to +50°F, and during the snowing season -20°F to +30°F.
Mars’s axis of rotation has an inclination of 24°, which places the Hyperborean Polar Circle at the 66th parallel. Above it, the sun will never set during parts of the melting and never rise above the horizon during parts of the snowing.
In Hyperborea’s center lies the huge Kong Christian range, consisting of high and steep mountains of volcanic origin. Some of its snow-covered peaks penetrate the ice and reach 15,000-20,000 feet above the main glacier surface.
HYPERBOREA’S FLORA AND FAUNA
There is almost no life in the glacier zone, since there there is very little sunlight, extreme cold, and no fertile soil. Instead, Hyperborean plants and animals are mainly found in the border zone. Here, the conditions for life differ considerably from the deserts farther south. For instance, water is abundant, at least for Mars. When the melting begins, the upper layers of the soil are soaked with water, sparking the growth of seeds and eggs that have hibernated underground during the snowing.
During the first half of the melting season, the snow-free land turns into shallow swamps, teeming with plants and animals. However, the permafrost is always present deeper down in the soil, which prevents plants from growing deep root systems and burrowers from get more than a few feet below the surface. The swamps gradually get drier during the second half of the melting and when the snow starts to fall, the soil is once again compact and solid. During this drying phase, animals and plants prepare for the coming winter. Many small creatures hibernate in burrows in the soil, whereas larger species migrate south ahead of the advancing snow.
When venturing into the Hyperborean border zone, travellers may encounter some of the following notable animals and plants.
Boreopard: This rare, slim carnivore has four long legs with wide, clawless paws that provide support on snow or in swamps. It is about five feet long, excluding two feet of tail, four feet high, and weighs 100-150 lbs. Its fur is reddish grey during the melting and purely grey during the snowing. The name alludes to its feline look. It hunts in pairs, stalking grazers. It usually tries to sneak up on the prey and attack it with a short, vicious burst of speed (reaching 50-60 mph during 30-40 seconds), much like the steppe tiger. The boreopard can be domesticated and they are not uncommon as hunting beasts among the border zone nomads.
Brunk: The big brunk is a hulking, furry, six-legged beast, with a ursine shape. Its weight may reach 1500 lbs. Its most interesting feature is the head, which is has a huge, sharp beak, not unlike an eagle’s, but far bigger and far stronger. The brunk is omnivorous and its main diet is dendronix branches, but it also feeds on carrion and can readily crush bones. There are no reports that it hunts actively. However, a brunk will defend itself viciously when feeling threatened.
Dendronix: The vegetation of the borderzone consists mainly of hardy, grass-like plants, but there is also the family of the dendronix bushes, containing several similar species. The dendronix is a compact coniferous plant, about four feet high with rust-colored needles, which do not fall off during the snowing season. It grows in extensive, dense copses with interconnected root systems. These copses may cover several square miles and become the homes of many small animals that occupy ecological niches equivalent to Terrestrial rodents, shrews, small felines, and sparrows. The plant is sturdy and it is quite a task to hack a path through a copse.
Northern gashant: This herd animal is a close relative to the common steppe gashant. It has adapted well to the northern cold and has thicker fat layers under the skin.
THE HYPERBOREAN NOMADS
Hyperborea’s border zone is populated by several nomadic gashant-herding Hill Martian tribes. They adjust their wanderings to the advancing and receding snowcap. During the height of the snowing, many tribes take winter quarters in partially abandoned northern cities, where they trade pelts, beautiful fur clothes, rare herbs, and gashants with the city dwellers for such tools and weapons they cannot make themselves.
The Hyperborean Hill Martians are shorter and stouter than their southern brethren, having a more favorable ratio between body mass and skin area, giving less radiation of body heat. The tribes are distinguished by language (dialects of Tempes or Ruugoraant), customs, and clothing. The attitude to strangers range from suspicious to friendly, though humans, being unknown to most Hyperboreans, are usually greeted peacefully and with curiosity. However, following the Russian expedition in 1886 the attitudes towards humans became noticeably more cautious, which might imply that the Russians came into conflict with some tribes. The details still remain unclear, though, since the Russians’ exact route is unknown.
LEGENDS OF THE COLD NORTH
The Canal Martians of the north tell many stories of the hostile lands around them. Human visitors will not find it easy to sift facts from fantasies.
The Lost Cities of Hyperborea: During the Brifanoon era, the climate of Hyperborea was hospitable and many Canal Martians settled here and built cities. When the snow and ice returned, they migrated south to survive, abandoning their homes. The cities gradually became covered with snow and ice and their locations and names faded into oblivion. However, among today’s Canal Martians there are still legends of lost cities nested in ice caves in Hyperborea, thousands of feet below the surface. They are said to be untouched by time and hiding fantastic machines and long lost secrets of the advanced Brifanoon culture. Some of the legends speak of evil savants, who caused the coming of the ice by vile science, and whose buried knowledge should better remain forgotten. Other stories claim that the ancient Hyperboreans were cursed by the gods for their blasphemous pride and insolence.
The Ice Burrowers: The Hyperborean nomads have many legends of monstrous creatures that burrow though the ice layer of the eternal snow zone. These monsters have been spawned by the evil gods of the cold wastes and they actively search for warmblooded beings to devour their body heat. Some burrowers are described as white serpents with grotesque heads, while others are said to look vaguely crablike with innumerable sharp pincers. The Hill Martians rarely venture into the glacier zone out of fear of the ice burrowers, but the existence of such creatures has not yet been confirmed by any humans.
The Dancing Snow Demons: Other nomad legends talk about the snow demons. These creatures are said to look like small whirlwinds of snow crystals that dance erratically over the eternal snow of the glacier zone. The Hill Martians claim that the demons are a race of malignant spirits that were invoked a long time ago by wizards then living in the Hyperborean mountains. The wizards tried to enslave the snow demons as servants, but the spirits managed to break the bonds, slay the wizards and escape into the wilderness, now hating all Martians alike. Human scientists guess that this legend originates from observations of small tornadoes on the snow cap.
HUMANS IN THE NORTH
The human exploration of the polar regions has so far been limited. Mars is such a vast place to explore and there are other more alluring places that men want to investigate first. The polar regions also have a hostile climate which poses extra dangers to humans.
The Canal Martians have paid little attention to the poles for thousands of years, so there is little reliable knowledge to be extracted from canal city libraries. Often it is impossible to separate facts from fancies and therefore going into the snowfields means going into an unknown land.
Earthmen’s investigations of Hyperborea began in 1882, when experienced Danish explorers, using the skills they had acquired on expeditions to Greenland and the Arctic Icecap, ventured into the snowy wastelands. Both the Germans and the Russians became interested when they read the Danes’ reports and they soon sent their own teams into Hyperborea. During the 1880s, there has been five major expeditions.
1882 The First Danish Expedition: This expedition, sponsored by Copenhagen University and led by the famous Arctic explorer Dr Poul Hartwigsen, consisted of ten scientists and ten Eskimo frontiersmen from the Danish territory of Greenland. The Danes arrived in Syrtis Major, travelled by canal to the small city of Polodaar and established their base there. The purpose was to conduct an aerial survey of Hyperborea and make large-scale topographic maps. Since Denmark did not have any steam flyers on Mars, the expedition chartered an armed Polodaari merchant kite. For ground work, the Danes brought dog-sleighs, driven by the Eskimos and pulled by huskie dogs, a combination that proved to be a success on the Hyperborean snow cap. Among the discoveries were the Kong Christian mountains, named in honor of the reigning Danish monarch. The Danes also established good relations with Prince Nodoon XXIX of Polodaar and the scientists were granted the status of “court scholars” as a favour for educating the Prince’s children about Earth.
1883 The Second Danish Expedition: Only three of the Danish scientists returned to Earth when the first expedition was finished. The others, including the Eskimos, stayed in Polodaar and prepared the second Hyperborean expedition. Its purpose was to survey the flora and fauna of the region. The team was augmented by four zoologists and botanists arriving from Earth in early 1883. The major animals and common plants became properly classified. When this expedition was finished, the Danes returned to Earth, carrying gifts from Prince Nodoon to King Christian IX of Denmark and preserved species of the flora and fauna. Dr Hartwigsen was awarded the Order of the Dannebrog in recognition of the scientific success of the team. The findings of the two expeditions were published as a series of books in German by Copenhagen University in 1884-87, immediately gaining the attention of scholars worldwide, even though the coverage of Hyperborea was far from complete.
1886 The Russian Expedition: It is said that the Russian expedition surveyed the mineral resources of of the Kong Christian range, but very little has been made public about its composition or mission. Transport was by a zeppelin from the Russian navy and, as far as can be judged from independent reports, the military escort was remarkably big. The findings were never published.
1887 The German Expedition: The German expedition was led by Dr Eberhard Franke from Heidelberg University and had its base in the German-dominated city of Dioscuria. It consisted of twelve scientists and 20 Bavarian mountaineer soldiers. Unlike the Danish, who had relied on traditional Eskimo ways to survive in Hyperborea, the Germans had a technological approach to the polar environment. The expedition was equipped with new-fangled devices, whose capabilities would be tested in the exacting climate, such as petroleum-powered electrical generators, a steam-driven snow-crawling vehicle (also using a petroleum derivative as a combustible), and various glaciological tools to investigate the thickness and composition of the Hyperborean glaciers. Air travel was by a Dioscurian armed merchant kite. The expedition was an total disaster and returned to its base after only a few weeks in the wilderness. Somewhere in Hyperborea the Germans encountered a hitherto unknown foe, which slew at least 13 humans and eight Martians under circumstances that have not yet been made public. The German governor in Dioscuria has done his best to put a lid on the matter. However, a rumor talking of a terrible “Boreal Hound” haunting the icy wastes of the glacier zone has spread among humans. Whether the Germans plan to go back north is not known at the present.
1888 The Third Danish Expedition: Dr Hartwigsen and his Eskimo frontiersmen returned to Polodaar with a group of anthropologists to study the nomadic Hill Martian tribes roaming the outskirts of Hyperborea. The Danes were gladly received by Prince Nodoon. After extensive preparations, they went into the wilderness in mid-1888 and returned to Polodaar in early 1889. There the scientists are compiling their data and planning for their next journey in early 1890. The Danes have recently published some articles in the English newspapers of Syrtis Lapis, mentioning, among other things, Hill Martian rumours of human, probably Russian, atrocities against Hyperborean nomads. The Russian charge-d’affaires in Syrtis Major calls these reports “baseless slander originating from ignorant savages and propagated by sensationalist, irresponsible journalists”.
ADVICE FOR THE POLAR EXPLORER
Hyperborean weather is unpredictable. On a clear and sunny day, you may suddenly be hit by very bad weather. An explorer must therefore prepare for the worst possible circumstances.
There is rarely snowfall in the glacier zone. Instead, hard winds may whip up surface snow, creating a “fog” known as a white-out: the air is filled with miniscule snow particles and vision is limited to a few yards. During a white-out you can get lost even though you are within 50 feet of your camp. For that reason, explorers travelling on foot prefer to have everyone connected by rope, so that no one unintentionally strays away during a sudden white-out.
Proper clothing is essential, because when the temperature falls below freezing, an unprotected human or Martian will perish quickly. An experienced polar traveller dresses like an Eskimo: boots, pants, mittens, and a long cloak with hood, all made from the furs of Arctic or Hyperborean animals, e.g. polar bear, wolverine, or brunk. Under this, he wears several layers of wool clothes to minimize heat loss through radiation or convection.
Native guides are equally essential, since they are the only people that know Hyperborea well. The local Hill Martian hunters are skilled and reasonably honest.
SUGGESTED READING FOR THE GAME MASTER
The experiences of the 19th-century explorers of Earth’s polar regions, e.g. Nordenskiöld, Amundsen, Perry, Scott, Nansen, and Shackleton, have been well documented. There are many books, both by the explorers themselves and by scholars, about their travels and research in the Arctic and Antarctica. Such books will be excellent sources for the moods and hardships of Hyperborea.
Copyright © 1996 Anders Blixt
Space: 1889 is Frank Chadwick’s registered trademark for his game of Victorian Era space-faring