The Council of Supreme Leaders was gathered on the Plateau of Equivalence. This flat featureless rock was uniquely positioned in longitude, latitude and depth so that each of the three leaders found it equally uncomfortable. The Supreme Empiricist, though he refused to call himself that, had requested the confluence. The Supreme Leaders eyed each other warily. Five hundred orbits before, such a meeting would have been impossible, since at that time, the competing sides fought to the death for dominance of the three oceans, which is to say, the world.
Long ago, the Age of Empiricism had begun with great optimism. Local, violent squabbles could be addressed with reason and fairness. Great truths could be uncovered through diligent scrutiny and disinterested review, and the new knowledge, so painfully gained, would be shared with all. A laminar age would follow the timeless history of turbulence which had so ruined the planet, and for a thousand stellar orbits this rosy view proved prescient, with an abundance of food, pleasure and security for all. But slowly the population grew, until the three species, each of which dominated their own ocean, eyed their neighbors' open spaces enviously, researching in secret to first gain advantage in trade, and ultimately to develop weapons of war.
The battles were terrible and filled with carnage, but Nemesis was a tidally locked planet, for which the day and year were one, and this rendered each ocean uniquely different in temperature and chemistry. Despite years of mutual damage and despair, no species proved capable of fully conquering another, and exhaustion set in among all three of the dwindling populations. It was then that a forgotten clan of empiricists, long withdrawn from the world to live in an obscure estuary, had discovered a new psychological principle called quantum supremacy, in which it was possible for each leader to be supreme simultaneously, with no loss of status among their own populations. An uneasy peace had been established, during which the ancient prosperity had shown signs of being restored.
The Supreme Empiricist sank down from above, as was the custom, to avoid any of the leaders being approached from behind, a possible prelude to assassination.
“Great Council I have called you here to make a revelation. I wished to let each of you know it at the same time, so that the equivalence among you can be maintained."
Each leader swam in a circle around the empiricist, partly to inspect him and also to show that all locations were equally advantageous.
“As you know,” continued the empiricist, “back in the time of our first great peace, we empiricists dared to build devices of exploration. The outcroppings of land had long acted as barriers between our seas, but they had gone largely unexplored.”
The supreme leaders rolled their eyes. Many times during their childhood their teachers had told them of the expeditions of the empiricists, in which great tubes of liquid had been filled with lines of Nemesians. By trial and error, and vigorous training, the creatures had managed to slither their flexible vessels up onto land, and through the transparent tubular membrane had observed wonders. There were no signs of life, but there was a magnificent upwelling of minerals along with cascades of liquid that had shaped precious crystals never before seen in the oceans. But such treasures were nothing compared to the sights that awaited the so-called terranauts when they looked up – there was Nemesis Orb – a great glowing globe, both terrifying and tragic, the remnants of a star that had once blazed brightly. Paired with this, and outshining even Nemesis itself, was Ultra, a smaller but unbearably hot disk of fire. Had it been any nearer it would have rendered all life on Nemesis impossible. On the dark side of the planet, when Ultra was not in view, constellations sprinkled the sky, and for many years great speculation had raged about whether they were giant bubbles floating in the atmosphere, bodies of glowing minerals in orbit like Nemesis itself, or other brighter balls of gas like Ultra, but impossibly far away.
The empiricists worked hard, trying every possible technology to build a path to enlightenment. Finally, one invented a liquid resin that, when suspended in still fluid, formed a perfect sphere. When a tiny drop of catalyst was added, the resin solidified. Slicing through such a sphere and then dragging the resulting chordal fragment onto the surface it became possible to greatly magnify patterns of light to examine the far away orbs.
By then the terranauts had created advanced machines that could move more freely on the land, as well as assemble large structures. Such devices were ruinously expensive, as the Supreme Leaders had often grumbled, but each harbored the secret hope that it might afford some advantage in the future. Such follies kept the empiricists happy, and you never knew when you might need them for the next war, quantum supremacy notwithstanding.
The Supreme Empiricist noticed that the Leaders were becoming bored with its narrative and decided to get to the point.
“Members of the Supreme Council, it is my grave duty to inform you that the planet Nemesis is under attack.”
The Supreme Leaders twitched violently and then swam in closer so as not to miss a single nuance of the oscillating electric field with which they communicated.
“Impossible, we have had had no such reports.”
“I am giving you such a report now.”
The three spoke as one. “That is for our generals to decide. Our borders are well defended and if any incursion is made into our space, the retaliation will be swift and devastating.” It was the standard mantra that they had each learned for when there was any hint of discord.
“The attack comes not from the sea but from the sky.”
“Our telescopes, developed in peace and for our mutual understanding, observed a rippling of the stars. At first we thought this might be thermals in the atmosphere, but the observations, taken from different outcroppings around Nemesis, show that the distortions are outside of the layers of gas that envelope us. But they are nearby and approaching quickly. Indeed one such ripple appeared to descend to our planet and to land, for I may use that word, on the outcrop known as Leviathan.”
“Do they approach in some form of enclosure?”
‘That is what is most troubling. The creatures themselves, and the great enclosure in which they came, seem to be invisible, even to our sensing devices.”
“Not impossible, great leaders, for a material devoid of absorption and matching the refractive index of its surroundings may vanish before our eyes. In fluid, it is but a child's trick, but such devices on land are beyond our knowledge, which renders us unable to repel this new threat to our existence.”
The Supreme Leaders were thrust into a form of hysteria, shuddering violently while at the same time extending their combat fins each exquisitely sharp and poisoned for war.”
“We must attack immediately,” they declared with one voice, for once comfortable in their hard-won camaraderie.
“That is not wise. We are unable to locate them, and with such a disadvantage, we would be easily destroyed.”
“What then?” they demanded.
“We must wait and observe. I propose that in one orbit we gather again to renew our discussions and to share our insights about the invaders.”
Each leader left the plateau, determined to levee more wealth from its population to be ready for the confrontation to come.
The empiricists used their time well, sending several expeditions back onto land, observing minute changes in the temperature and rock formations, sniffing the atmosphere, and desperately looking for tracks that might provide clues to the location of the invisible monsters that threatened to bring about their doom.
With Nemesis perfectly located in a line between Nemesis Orb and Ultra, the time for the Supreme Leaders to meet had come again. They were impatient to hear the news.
“We have explored much and discovered little.”
“You know nothing?” blurted out the Dark Ocean Supreme Leader.
“We know little more about the creatures or the machines that have come to attack us, but we have theories as to why and how they mean to do it?”
“We are empiricists. Without proof we are uncomfortable to claim more.”
“Well?” The Northern Bright Side Supreme Leader had limited patience for such modesty. The Supreme Empiricist would not even make a suggestion unless it was almost completely certain of its validity.
“We believe that the attack will be indirect. We are many and they are few. We are swimmers and they prefer land. In our great seas there are many places for us to hide.”
“So what can they do?” The Southern Bright Side Supreme Leader had always shown slightly more curiosity and foresight than the others.
“They will boil the oceans.”
“Nonsense!” The Northern Bright Side Leader was aghast. Was such a thing even possible, and if so, why had his weapon designers not suggested it before?
“To glide between the stars must take great supplies of energy. From the distortions of space and time that alerted us to the attack, we were able to estimate the capacity of one of their devices.”
“It amounts to one half of the energy supply of all three of our ocean civilizations combined.”
“But to boil the oceans…”
The Supreme Empiricist tilted his body downwards in a gesture of despair.
“They only need to raise the temperature by twenty units. We ourselves, through certain expedient choices in our industrial processes, have achieved a quarter of that rise in the last thousand orbits. In a way, it is our carelessness that has made us vulnerable to such an attack. They may combine minerals to make gases that trap the heat of Nemesis Orb, and trigger evaporation. Our own ocean, so hospitable to life, once in gaseous form will accelerate the process, and soon we will perish. Not long after, land will grow to cover most of the globe and the stars will be blotted out. Only then will these creatures emerge from their invisible enclosures, having turned our planet into a closer approximation of their own world.
“You say we cannot attack them because they are invisible.”
“Not directly, no.”
The Southern Bright Side leader detected a suggestion of hope.
The Supreme Empiricist lifted its body.
“Rather than a hot war of poison and piercing beams of light, I suggest a cold war.”
“A cold war?”
“Yes. We must fight fire with ice. We will abandon our existing wasteful ways of making and growing, and develop new chemistries that sequester those gases that would heat our planet, we must dig mines to free great quantities of our frozen core, so that they might cool our oceans, and rise up to reflect back the light of Nemesis Orb that would destroy us.”
The Supreme Leader of the Dark Side was unconvinced.
“Our ocean is naturally shielded from the rays of which you speak. This is a problem for Brightsiders. We are still recovering from the last great conflict and cannot afford such follies.”
The Supreme Empiricist had anticipated such a reaction. “Such changes would threaten us all. The oceans are connected. If one side boils, pretty soon, all would be gone.”
“But the cost…”
“The plan will require great sacrifices, but these changes will create new industries and new knowledge. Once the enemy is defeated we will emerge richer and stronger than before.”
The Dark Side Supreme leader could not tolerate the Brightsiders gaining such an advantage. If the Dark Side did not contribute it would be left behind, and his greatest fear, an alliance of North and South Brightsiders would come into existence and they would attack him.
“Are we agreed?”
The Supreme Leaders spoke as one.
The Supreme Empiricist rose up, tail first, as was customary, and the great transformation was begun.
The population was aghast to hear the news of the invaders who did not descend into the depths to fight them, but cowards as they were, they attacked with fear and heat. Even skeptics were won over as the oceans warmed and the atmosphere, once transparent as ice, began to fog with new outpourings of volcanic gas.
But the Supreme Leaders were as good as their word. Great ice mines belched forth bergs that either melted into the ocean, cooling it visibly, or rose to the surface as a blanket of reflecting white. Within a few years the heating had slowed, and the efforts redoubled. A form of uneasy equilibrium was established, in which it was hoped that the invaders would realize the futility of their quest and leave.
For the empiricists it was a golden time, with the best and brightest students joining their ranks rather than hungering to be Supreme Leaders.
One such student, long identified as the most intelligent in a generation, had shown such depths of memory and insight that he had won the title of Ultimate Student. This student after a long period of seclusion had requested an audience with the Supreme Empiricist. Such a thing was usually forbidden until all teaching was ended, but an exception was made.
“Yes, Ultimate Student”
“I have made a great discovery.”
“A disturbing discovery.”
“If my calculations are correct, then the world has been subject to a great deception?”
“Calculations can reveal such things?”
“Indeed they can.”
The Supreme Empiricist was neither alarmed nor disbelieving. The Ultimate Student was nervous. Perhaps there was a flaw in his argument and he would forever blot his reputation, but it had to be said.
“I have analyzed the liquids of our oceans, the solids of our sea beds, and the gases of the space beyond.”
“So I have heard – and most thoroughly.”
“And I have concluded that there are no aliens.”
“And how is that?”
“All the warming we observe can be explained by our own processes – the things we eat, the way we mine, the paths we have taken to produce energy.”
“I don’t quite follow.”
“So the aliens do not exist – or if they do, it makes no difference. We have been chasing echoes at great cost to us all.”
“But the warming is slowing.”
“Yes, the warming is slowing.”
“And the ocean will not boil.”
“No, it will not boil.”
“Then I do not see the difficulty.”
The student was shocked.
“But it is a lie. There are no aliens; our populace toils under an illusion, our leaders chase invisible phantoms.”
The Supreme Empiricist swam closer to the Ultimate Student and diminished his electric field. “What would you have me do?”
“Tell our world the truth. They will continue to do the right thing, and we will be freed of the burden of this great deception.”
The Supreme Empiricist started to swim off. “Come with me.”
The student and the great teacher approached the cliff of revelation, through which passed the great optical strands that carried all Empiricist knowledge from ocean to ocean. In this and a few other places, the beams of light were amplified to continue their journey, and glowing devices revealed splintered beams of information for the curious to observe.
“Before I answer your point, I wish to ask you a question about astronomy.”
The student was disappointed. He was no longer being treated as an equal, but as a student to be examined.
“How many planets have we discovered?”
“Around other stars?”
“Ninety seven thousand, eight hundred and two. I can recite the statistics of each of them if you request it.”
The Empiricist was inwardly amused. “That will not be necessary, but your phenomenal memory is what has helped to make you one of our finest pupils. Now tell me, what do you know of the planets around Ultra?”
“That is what I asked.”
“The planets around Ultra are easily the most detectable, with it being our nearest stellar neighbor. The inner two planets are rocky, one tidally locked but impossibly warm, the second blanketed in an acidic cloud that is also unbearably hot. The third planet is an arid desert world, the fourth and fifth gas giants have many moons, the sixth and seventh are also gas giants but less impressive.”
“And what life is there?”
“Ultra is a star incapable of supporting life. Because of its extremely high temperature it gives off radiation that would disrupt any plausible biochemistry, and its intensity of illumination renders the tidally locked planets uninhabitable. It is also well known that non-tidally locked planets suffer from chaotic atmospheres that render them inhospitable to life.”
The Supreme Leader was disappointed. “You have studied them well.”
“Am I in error?”
“No, based on the knowledge available to you, your conclusions are reasonable.”
The student was shocked.
“Is there any knowledge not available to me?”
“Now you are asking the right question.”
The Supreme Empiricist used his electric field to manipulate the display in a way that the student had never before observed. The famous view of Ultra, discovered by the first terranauts zoomed in and in, until the screen glowed with a dazzling intensity, but as it zoomed still further the star shifted to the right and then was outside of the region of view, leaving at first nothing, and then a single blue dot. As the student watched, the blue dot grew and divided into colored regions that included green and yellow and large patches of white.
“I do not recognize this place.”
The Empiricist ignored him. “When the first terranauts set up our observation devices on land, we discovered a number of worlds around Ultra. Most were typical enough but one was seen to be so extraordinary, that we chose to keep its existence secret. As you can see it is as chaotic as you would expect, but careful examination of the blue regions indicated that they consist of fluid not rock.”
“Certain minerals as you know may take on fluid form at high temperatures, water for instance.”
“But only over a very narrow range of temperatures. The coincidence of a whole planet, at just the right temperature for liquid water – it is absurdly unlikely.”
“An what mineral makes up the green region? I am not familiar with that spectrum.”
“It is not a mineral.”
“A form of organic life.”
“Why do you say that?”
“On dry land, at such elevated temperatures, under such radiation!”
“Life is tenacious.”
“But why is this not the most famous planet of all. The others are barren. This is a jewel, a priceless…”
“Exactly. It was decided that if its existence was known to the supreme leaders, one or more would have claimed it as his own. Enormous craft would have been built, great battles fought to control it. It was hoped that by keeping it secret…”
“It could be preserved.”
“Yes. Then of course, the great chaos came. Astronomy was eclipsed by war, and only every few thousand orbits was a stretch of peace established long enough to observe it once again. This was our next image.”
The blue sphere on the display changed. The yellow bands at the equator had widened, as the stripes of green retreated towards the North and South. The great poles of white shrank, and the atmosphere changed color, taking on a hint of yellow.
“They had empiricists too, who thought as you do.”
“Intelligent life too,” the student uttered in amazement.
As the Nemesians watched, the green bands faded to a greenish-brown and then exploded into lines of red that left desolate patches of grey and black behind them. The poles expanded briefly and then disappeared, as whatever debris from the fires that was in the atmosphere settled down into the oceans. The oceans themselves first rose then fell as more of the fluid was driven into the atmosphere. Great spirals of white vapor gave way to undulating bands of brown and yellow that swirled around the planet, as it grew to resemble its twin sister, with both planets shrouded in an acid veil of scorching heat.
Bubbles rose from the eyes of the student.
“Now do you understand why you must never tell?”
The Ultimate Student twitched its tail in agreement.
Finally, in a spasm of exhaustion, the Ultimate Student asked the Supreme Empiricist a final question. “Did it have a name?”
The Supreme Empiricist turned off the display and beamed a soothing field to comfort the student’s grief.
“Before the transmissions stopped, the planet called itself Earth.”
© 2012 Gavin Miller. All Rights Reserved.