Downbelow (fictional planet)
Downbelow (also known as Pell's World) is a fictional planet in American science fiction and fantasy author C. J. Cherryh's Alliance-Union universe. It was the first planet discovered by humans with an advanced ecosystem and, more significantly, intelligent alien life in the form of the Hisa. Pell Station, a space station prominent in this universe, orbits the planet.
During the Earth Company's drive to colonise the stars, a planet orbiting Tau Ceti was discovered by a probe in 2093. The probe captain named the planet "Pell's World" and its star "Pell's Star" after himself. Pell Station was built in orbit around the planet, and the stationers soon began referring to the planet as Downbelow, while the station itself became known as Downbelow Station.
Pell's World is similar to Earth, except for a perpetual blanket of cloud that covers the entire world, resulting from a predominance of greenhouse gases. Humans quickly established a foothold on the planet, requiring only gas masks and air tanks to breathe in an atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide and airborne biologicals. They built research and agricultural stations in sealed domes that required no gas masks, and, with the help of the local Hisa, cultivated crops on the open plains. A shuttleport for ferrying personnel and light cargo to and from Upabove (as the space station was called on the planet) was established, and a launch pad for unmanned rockets constructed for lifting agricultural produce to the station. Heavy equipment and other large cargo was "dropped" to the planet from the station in capsules equipped with parachutes.
That Downbelow is a living planet caused a stir, but it was the discovery of sentient life that sent shock waves back to Earth, sparking off moral, religious, philosophical and policy debates. Then, to aggravate an already delicate situation, Pell Station became a source of agricultural goods and other luxuries, hitherto only available from Earth. This economic advantage disrupted the whole balance of power in the Alliance-Union universe, and became one of the main contributing factors to the outbreak of the Company Wars in 2300.
The Hisa are Downbelow's native inhabitants. Also called Downers by humans, they are gentle and friendly primate-like bipeds covered in brown fur with large eyes. They have only primitive technology, wear no clothes except for strings of ornaments, live in burrows and do not build housing. They sustain themselves by planting and harvesting crops, principally grain. They also have their own language and learnt to speak rudimentary English from the humans.
Care-free and playful at every opportunity, the Hisa only work when they have to. In spring, when the monsoon rains start, mating rituals commence and they go "walk-about", abandoning what work they are doing and walking great distances, to the frustration of humans trying to supervise them. This migration is generally initiated by the females with interested males following, which leads to mating and new life. (Cheetahs on Earth mate in a similar manner, with a series of cheetah males, often brothers, chasing a female until only one remains in pursuit.) A hisa female does not conceive until her infant has grown and left the nest. Thus Melody, in Finity's End, did not conceive children until Fletcher, her human "child", was gone.
The Hisa revere and worship Great Sun (Pell's Star/Tau Ceti) which is rarely visible behind the planet's blanket of cloud. It is the dream of every Hisa to witness such a spectacle. Thus watching the sky is a part of Hisa life, and to assist them, they erected Watchers, giant stone statues with huge eyes that gaze perpetually skyward for a glimpse of Great Sun; the Hisa have given many such statues to the humans to erect on the station, since there, the Watchers can see Sun without clouds intervening. Smaller art objects include the famous spirit–sticks, similar to Hopi prayer sticks on Earth.
After contact was established with the Hisa, the humans took full advantage of the favourable situation that the planet and its inhabitants offered them. They began cultivating crops, principally grain, from seeds acquired from the Hisa. No seeds from Earth were planted for fear of contaminating Downbelow's biosphere. Then they began recruiting Hisa to work the fields. By 2106, trade agreements were brokered with the Hisa to supply the humans with grain and other foodstuffs in exchange for medical help and limited technology.
When the Company Wars began in 2300, Pell Station found itself short of maintenance personnel and began employing Hisa to do small repetitive mechanical jobs on the station. The Hisa learnt quickly and were more than happy to go Upabove because it gave them an unobstructured view of Great Sun. Travelling to the station became regarded by them as a pilgrimage, in spite of having to wear gas masks in the oxygen-rich air. The maintenance tunnels, however, were pumped full of carbon dioxide, enabling the Hisa to work without gas masks (and necessitating them for humans). The Hisa worked in four-year tours of duty on the station.
The exploitation of the Hisa and the pillaging of the planet, however, came to an end when, during the War, a Hisa named Satin led an "uprising" against the humans. They began resisting human demands and schedules, and stopped giving anything to human researchers and administrators on the planet. Originally the plan had been to give the Hisa a technology boost and help them into space, but it became apparent that human greed had pushed them too far and demanded too much from them.
By the time the war ended, Downbelow in general and the Hisa in particular became out of bounds for all, but a select few highly qualified humans. Agriculture and research on the planet continued but were restricted to certain enclaves. The rotation of Hisa workers to and from the station was also drastically reduced. The importance of preserving Hisa culture and Downbelow's environment precluded providing medicines and technology to the Hisa, and while humans were often tempted to help them, the new hands-off approach remained strictly in force.
- Cherryh, C. J. Downbelow Station, Daw Books, 1981.
- Cherryh, C. J. Finity's End, Warner Aspect, 1997.
- C. J. Cherryh's home page. Alliance/Union Chronology.