For us, the dream of Tau Station has always been about creating a universe. A place we can escape to. A real universe that has depth, that we can immerse ourselves in and explore. We’re building a universe with words, and we’re excited to show it to you through this series of blog posts.
In many ways, we’ve been pretty traditional in our approach to building this universe. We started with the theme and the physical characteristics of the setting. We considered the history and events that took place, and speculated about how they would shape the people and social organizations within it. We thought about the politics, the economy, and the customs and daily rituals. And then we added one more thing to the mix: the science of it all.
We wanted the science to be real because, to us, there is nothing that breaks the suspension of disbelief more than a science fiction story that that just blatantly ignores the basics. Rings don’t rotate opposite a planet’s direction. Creatures don’t start small and grow to a giant size in just a few seconds. There is no faster than light propulsion. We’re not afraid to push the boundaries and speculate, but everything in the game is grounded in science and based on what is known.
Which brings us to Tau Station’s setting, which we’re going to explore in this post.
The Physical Universe
The Universe of Tau Station is much smaller today than it was before the Catastrophe. From a civilization that spanned thousands of stations and planets across the galaxy, humanity is now restricted to a sphere 40 light years across, with a mere 500 stations and 117 stars.
A sphere 40 light years across is still huge, especially considering that faster than light travel isn’t possible. So we looked to our science foundation for a resolution, and our first speculative technology based on current knowledge came into play: jump gates. These “Einstein-Rosen bridges” or “wormhole gates” were the pinnacle of human technology Before and allowed us to colonize the galaxy. Most jump gates were destroyed in the Catastrophe, convincing some isolated populations that they were the only survivors. Much of the knowledge of how the jump gates worked has been lost, but as governments reformed and stations banded together in mutual support, they began repairing the gates through trial and error. The remaining collection of functional gates is meager in comparison to what was in place Before, but they are vital to commerce and communication.
Beyond travel time, the distance between the stations and star systems has another consequence: information lag. Just as stations within a solar system experience time lag in communicating with one another—because information can’t travel faster than the speed of light—communications between different star systems have an even greater delay. If you send an email from Sol system to someone in Alpha Centauri, our closest neighboring star system, it will probably be at least ten minutes before you can expect to receive a reply. This lag means that real-time chat is only available for communication with people in the same system, and email is the preferred method of communicating over longer distances.
You have two transportation options for getting around the galaxy: public shuttles, and private spaceships.
Public shuttles are the transport of choice for those unable or unwilling to pay the considerable cost of purchasing and maintaining a space ship. They’re built for casual trips, and accelerate at a serene 3.6gs. At that speed, a typical trip of around 10,000 km between two space stations will take about 18 minutes. The shuttles run on a schedule and seats are limited, so you’ll want to plan ahead and purchase a ticket in advance.
Private spaceships are available to those who like more speed and freedom in their travel, and who can save up the credits to buy one. We’ve modeled the speeds of our ships on what the human frame can reasonably withstand. One of the fastest available ships, the corvette, accelerates at almost 12gs. This is punishing but not outside the realm of safety, especially with the ship designed to protect its crew from the worst effects of acceleration.
We’ve assumed all travel is acceleration to the halfway point and then deceleration until the destination is reached. Let’s take a look at that fast corvette again. If we assume acceleration at 12gs, then flipping and decelerating at 12gs, that 10,000 km flight between stations is cut down to about 10 minutes. If you wanted to travel to Earth from the cluster of stations orbiting Mars it would take you less than a day, but we don’t recommend it – the few sailors who try it and manage to return tell stories of satellite weapons that fire at any ship passing within range.
While some older space stations were spinning toroidal tubes, the majority were built with a more efficient design: start with an asteroid several kilometers across and hollow out the interior (it’s unknown whether this was done by construction crews or robots). Then seal it, spin it to create gravity, and fill it with buildings and people. The resulting station is like a small planet turned inside out, with a fusion tube running through the axis to provide power and light.
Of course, each station is unique and has its own history and culture. During your explorations, you’ll encounter everything from bustling commerce stations to strife-ridden stations on the verge of civil war. Your experiences will vary from station to station, as they each have their own attitudes towards punishment and surveillance, different environments, and different physical resources. One may have low O2 levels, while another has higher gravity, for example. Where fighting over rations is tolerated on one station, you’ll be quickly tossed in the brig for it somewhere else.
While the backstory for each station is different, a common thread that connects them is the Catastrophe and the death and destruction that it brought. Every station has its own story, and the survivors on one station managed to turn the disaster into a new industry to fuel their recovery:
During the Catastrophe Moissan Stronghold’s air was vented into space, suffocating millions and turning the station into a death trap. Only a few survived to witness the corpse-filled streets left in the disaster’s wake. In time, however, the survivors found a way to make use of the station’s grim surplus. Repurposing the station’s recycling district, they began harvesting carbon from the bodies of the deceased and processing them into industrial grade diamonds. This new industry became the center of the station’s economy and has transformed the dead into symbols of pragmatic opportunity.
Something common to nearly every station are the ruins left by the Catastrophe, which is where you’ll start your journey. Originally built to house millions, most stations now have populations in the mere thousands, which leaves vast tracts of uninhabited, dilapidated buildings. In some cases, the ruins are full of structures that were destroyed in the violence of the attack and fires that raged afterwards. Others experienced no damage, but have steadily fallen into decay in the years since the event. The poorest station inhabitants, derogatorily referred to as “ruins-rats,” live in these areas and scavenge for anything they can sell in the market. Many dream of finding a steady job or even a career, something that earns them enough to buy filtered water and real food rather than the rations distributed by the governments. Most ruins-rats learn to trade in the black market. Some even make a business out of stealing water to start bootleg hydroponics labs, which have the potential turn a nice profit but can more easily earn them a long stay in the brig. Others spend their time near the docks, offering to throw freight for the ships that are constantly coming and going to deliver precious water from ice mining operations or supplies from other stations. Convinced that fortune and adventure awaits them elsewhere, most dream of the opportunity to leave the station and take to the stars.
While the ruins-rats are at the very bottom of the economic strata, the rest of the population is only slightly better off. The sealed environment ensures a stable temperature suitable for survival, and shelter isn’t an issue thanks to all the empty buildings in the ruins. However, many people are malnourished or on the edge of starvation due to persistent food shortages. The government rations provide only subsistence level nutrition, and the possibility of being mugged and having your rations stolen is a constant threat. Water shortages affect most aspects of daily life; food is expensive and in short supply because it requires water, and water is precious because humans need so much of it and mining asteroids for ice is a dangerous business. Only the very rich can afford private gardens, surplus water, and the occasional dinner of real meat. Illegal water tapping, generally done by those desperate enough to try to grow their own food rather than starve, is a constant thorn in the side of station administrations.
Descended from the settlers that left Earth to populate the galaxy, the people in Tau Station’s universe represent a broad spectrum of humanity. While the origins of many of our traditions and cultures have been lost to time and to the databank purges that occurred during the Catastrophe, they remain a part of everyday life.
As humanity spread through space, we encountered more and more environments that were hostile to human form and function. We were often able to alter those environments to suit our needs, but with the advent of genetic modification technologies it became easier to alter ourselves to suit the environment instead. People began to undergo genetic modifications to create new genotypes, which were then passed on through the generations that followed. When you join the Tau Station universe, you’ll have the chance to select your genotype. And, thanks to that same gene mod technology, you can change it again later if you decide to.
The majority of the surviving population are what are known as “Baseline” humans, with no genetic modifications at all.
“Belters” come from low-G environments. They tend to be tall and thin, with great agility and stamina. They often need to resort to bionic supports when they’re in normal G environments.
“Colonists” settled many high-G, rocky worlds and were modified to handle the extreme environments. They tend to be short, stocky, and not very outgoing.
“Harsenes” are extremely intelligent and require less sleep than any other genotype. The origin of their name is unknown.
“Patricians” have large eyes and youthful features. As a group they are often mistrusted, but they get on well almost everyone and put people at ease in one-on-one environments.
While many claim that equality was the norm before the Catastrophe, tensions between the different genotype populations now run high on many stations. It’s plain to see that the majority – baseline humans – distrust and outright discriminate against the other genotypes in competition for the scant food, water, and jobs that are available.
As you move through the universe, you’ll encounter non-player characters (NPCs) from a variety of genotypes and cultures. These NPCs will tell you more about the universe, act as guides to the different stations, and hire you to take on missions and jobs. As you move from station to station, take the time to look around and meet the different NPCs. You never know who you might run into or what you’ll learn.
As we imagined the aftermath of the Catastrophe, we realized that factions would form quickly as groups of survivors could gather. Even just moments after the attack, groups began to fight each other over resources. Over time those groups merged and grew until they controlled entire stations, and soon after that the two main multi-station affiliations began to form. The Consortium is the largest, and many would argue the most powerful, of the two. Its stations have a high degree of autonomy, so long as they pay their taxes and toe the government’s party line. The Gaule Protectorate is smaller, but its stations are kept firmly under the control of governors appointed by a military government that is striving to provide for its people. Both governments face the same challenge: safeguarding the future of humanity. There’s knowledge to be rediscovered, jump gates to bring back online, and a civilization to rebuild. Ships need to be kept running, fusion cores need to be fueled, ice needs to be harvested, peace needs to be kept, people need to be educated, and so on. There’s too much to do and not enough people, money or knowledge to do it. Recognizing that a war would call for resources that nobody has to spare, the Consortium and the Gaule Protectorate have reached an uneasy truce that is rife with double dealings and political intrigue.
Many stations chose to remain unaffiliated. The Independents are groups who wanted nothing to do with a large government and stood up to those who would take their resources from them. Each Independent station has its own government. Some are willing to interact and trade with the Consortium and the Gaule Protectorate, but many others maintain a strict isolationist stance.
Freebooters are a motley collection of predators who claim that everyone else is deluding themselves with their governments and affiliations – they believe that life is all about the survival of the fittest. They make their own way through the galaxy, raiding and stealing what they need to survive.
You’ll start as a citizen of the Consortium, although you’ll quickly find yourself mixed up in dealings with members of every affiliation. Eventually you may be called upon to pick a side, and in the Tau Station Universe, even declaring yourself independent is a highly political act.
The origins of the Catastrophe are still unknown and the perpetrators have never been caught. Fear that the attackers will someday return to finish what they started hangs like a shadow over the lives of people who are struggling every day to find a way forward and rebuild civilization. Some strike out on their own to find the answers, and others cross the divides of political affiliations in common cause to solve the mystery and forestall a future attack.
Be sure to return for the next posts in this series, where we’ll look at how our setting translates into gameplay, the technical aspects of building this kind of universe from scratch, how we’re making Tau Station accessible, and the art and user interface that ties it all together.