Thera and the Majans
From a mountain ridge, a figure regarded the glaciers across the valley. Extending tongues of luminous white, blue and grey flowed imperceptibly downward, grating the mountains which bore them. The creeping ice scoured away rock fragments, reshaping the terrain. Powdered remnants of millions of years of rock crystallisation leaked into rivulets, cascades and torrents, which merged into ever-growing rivers. The seas were eventually fed with sediment that would one day be sucked back into the bowels of the planet. The figure was known as Mosse within his society: a cultural group that called their species Majans and their planet Thera.
There were many cultural groups among the Majans. Their cultures were separated by the languages they spoke, the geographical areas they inhabited, and the social, moral and political frameworks within which their societies functioned. However, all shared a common biology and species identity. A common original region in which their species had evolved before migrating around their planet. Over the course of thousands of generations, their populations had grown, spread, clashed, mixed, fought, interbred and competed. Their differences had diverged while their biology remained virtually unchanged. When different cultures met, they competed for land, food and the planet’s resources. This often resulted in wars, carnage, and either disappearance, suppression or assimilation of the defeated group.
Mosse lived during a time when there was little room left for the expansion of his species. A time of famine, food shortage and social tension. A time when the environment and the habitats of other species were in a state of steady deterioration and impending destruction. Many Majan societies possessed weapons so powerful that to use them would assure annihilation – not just of their enemies but also of the planetary resources upon which they themselves depended. Only the necessary but usually reluctant cooperation with other cultures allowed the major political groups to coexist in an uneasy truce, which could not be called harmony.
Individual Majans were quite varied in appearance. Some very distinctive differences exaggerated the divergence between cultural groups, which had been geographically separated for many generations. However, they shared a common anatomy, physiology and biochemistry. Their bodies were constructed from many cell types. In each cell, oxidation of carbohydrates provided the energy required by biochemical processes. Their development from single fertilised eggs into adults was coded by the base sequence of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) molecules. The DNA base sequence was arranged into genes. The genes coded for unique proteins and how they interacted in the biochemical pathways inside each cell type.
Adults ranged from below 1.5 metres to more than 2 metres in height. Their body structure was based on a central trunk, carried above two locomotory appendages. Two additional appendages on the upper trunk were used for the manipulation of external devices. At the top of the trunk was a control and coordination centre. The control centre processed electronic signals from many sensory devices. These were triggered by external changes in light, sound, pressure, temperature and environmental chemistry. The signals were interpreted into complex maps of the environment, which triggered subconscious control instructions. Carried to organs and muscles by nerves, the instructions managed movements and changes in body chemistry. In the control centre, the instructions governed the analytic and decision-making processes, which the Majans believed defined their distinctive intelligence as a species.
The Majans regarded themselves as the most advanced of the many species that shared their planet. In reality, it was only in mental and physical manipulation and communication that they were particularly gifted. They couldn’t fly. They couldn’t breathe underwater. They couldn’t photosynthesise or perform various other tasks at which numerous species excelled. Yet their arrogance led them to believe that they were a superior species. The criterion for justifying their superiority was their complex reasoning ability. Unfortunately, this wasn’t always put to optimal use.
At 1.75 metres, Mosse was a male of average height, lightly built and moderately athletic. He might be regarded as moderately handsome by a female of his species. He was 40 years old, approximately half the lifespan of a healthy Majan. He had piercing grey-blue eyes and dirty-blond hair. His skin had a reddish-gold tan from spending much of his time outdoors. In his leisure time, he trekked on the mountains, whose grandeur inspired a love of the nature which surrounded him.
He had once lived in a crowded city, where he had worked as an engineer in IT communications support. Working in an office, he had become disillusioned by the selfish, competitive and predatory behaviour of many peers. While IT support had provided an income, it had always been a means to an end. His real love had always been natural science and life. He had moved recently to what was previously a holiday house in the mountains. Here, he could enjoy an outdoor life and pursue the study of natural history. The physical formation of his planet. The history and interactions of the living entities that covered it, including his own species.
Mosse observed the creatures who shared his adopted homeland. Green plants and shrubs adorned sloping meadows, which climbed out of dark green forests. Grey crags and glaciers spilled from the sky. In summer, a multitude of yellow, white and blue flowers transformed the hillsides into a colourful carpet. On the meadows, insects danced while domesticated and wild grazing animals feasted on the seasonal growth. Silhouetted against the deep blue sky, feathered hunters glided on rising thermals. Their sharp eyes focussed below to catch the slightest plant movement that would betray the final location of a small grazer.
The dramatic landscape presented a varied and beautiful but delicate tapestry containing a wealth of habitats. Variations in altitude, aspect, exposure, geology and microclimate all housed their own particular group of specialist populations. Each diverse locality supported a specific niche. The populations within each interacted as components of a dynamic machine. Fuelled by radiant energy, the machine rolled forward over seasons and years, adapting to long-term environmental changes.
Over recent years, Mosse had witnessed the glaciers recede upwards, leaving tell-tale grey-black plumes of moraine debris. Ridges of broken rock dropped at the sides and ends of the ice tongues too recently to support more than a few annual plant species.
For billions of years, the surface of the planet Thera had functioned as an integrated, complex system rolling slowly forward through time. Now, the machine was shuddering. Weather patterns had always varied, usually over long periods of time. However, all over the planet was evidence that the atmosphere was now warming rapidly. The receding glaciers were just one of many consequences.
Most of his contemporaries saw their environment as a static picture. Their current visual images had permanence in their perceptions. They struggled to imagine the future. They failed to notice the continuous re-sculpting of the landscape by nature’s elemental forces.
They considered their kind to be at the top of an evolutionary ladder. At a pinnacle below which all other species showed increasing inferiority as their degree of relationship to the Majans diminished. They failed to recognise that their species, like every other on the planet, was just an eddy in the grand flow of life. A swirl that had rippled out of the main flow and would roll and twist with it for a short distance. It interacted with all surrounding ripples, but would soon dissipate as a definable entity. The Majans were no more highly evolved than any other creature. From the tiniest cell to the most complex animal, all were about three billion years downstream from their earliest common ancestor.
Mosse’s studies had taught him that the planet was a dynamic system in a perpetual state of motion. A machine with solid, aquatic, atmospheric and living components resonating in harmony as the entirety rolled along. Mountains grew in response to movements and pressures from deep within. They eventually eroded as ice and water ate their way through the surface layers. Landmasses and seas were continually reshaped by natural forces over many years. The ocean currents set the wind and rain in motion. Air and water distributed the heat absorbed from the radiation of Sol – the star around which Thera orbited.
He could see that the activities of his species were causing changes in climate that accelerated parts of the machine. Now, the glaciers across the valley were melting faster than any frozen precipitation could be accumulated into new glacial ice. Eventually, they would disappear – maybe even within his lifetime. The spectacular beauty he witnessed today would be lost to future generations.
It frustrated him that his species were divided into many groups by cultural boundaries. They were obsessed with their own differences and power struggles. They failed to heed warnings or take actions that might save the environment which had produced them. The mechanism upon which they were dependent for their existence was now being disrupted and fragmented. The continued presence of life on Thera was threatened.
From his rocky vantage point, he thought about how this dynamic world had flowed smoothly along a natural progression. The flow now disturbed since the arrival of modern Majan society. How could his species be made aware of the reality of their flickering existence in the enormity of time? An existence that might be quickly snuffed out by their own destructive actions.
Some distance along the ridge, Mosse could see a figure. Dressed in red and black, they were easily visible against the pale yellow-green of a flower-covered meadow. Another individual was sharing the beauty of the mountain vista. Possibly a female Majan? The distance between them made it impossible to tell.
Female Majans were generally a little smaller than males. They were usually physically less powerful, yet they often compensated with their powers of intelligent manipulation and persuasion. Skills by which they could frequently encourage the males to bend to their will.
Heelia was a tourist from a neighbouring country, taking a short break in the mountains. She liked exploring the trails where mountain flowers bloom in the early summer. An attractive, fairly young adult in her early 30s, Heelia stood at 1.60 tall. She had almost black hair, olive-brown skin, and deep brown, engaging eyes. Her dark complexion contrasted with a bright red tee-shirt, complemented by black shorts. The combination tightly hugged a curvaceous but athletic torso, emphasising a healthy, elegant figure.
Originating from a different nation and culture, Heelia spoke a different first language. She had a different perspective of life on the planet Thera from Mosse. Their worldviews contrasted; however, the pair shared a love of the outdoors, the natural environment and the dramatic scenery of the mountains.
Mosse’s fascination with nature and the mountain environment stimulated his innate curiosity. How had the landscape come into existence over the aeons of time?
Thera was a world born from a nebular cloud of spinning gases and debris. This had been produced by the supernova explosion of a star five billion years earlier.
The process of planet formation followed the natural rules of chemistry and physics. There were laws of nature which drove the inevitable march of chemical evolution along thermodynamically predefined pathways. A continual flow of cosmic energy cooked elements into ever more complex chemical compounds. Natural processes were driven by the need to absorb and dissipate free energy in search of a state of equilibrium.
The Majan astronomers and mathematicians had determined that the known Universe began 14 billion years earlier. The Universe is energy, and energy is the Universe. It started with a big bang, releasing all that energy in the biggest explosion ever. The Universe is an inconceivably large pulse of immense heat and radiation rushing out from the smallest point unimaginable. It wants to spread, to cool down, to fill any void. To reach equilibrium where all instability will have been reduced to stable particles of equal temperature.
Some of the Majans believe the Universe was created and set in motion by an intelligent super-being. That would suffice to explain how it all began. While this may satisfy their curiosity, it leaves the origin of the super-being unexplained. Unless he, too, was created by a super-being, who was created by a super-being, who was … ad infinitum.
Mosse did not accept theories of super-beings creating the Universe. Everything he had learned about science convinced him that the Universe is outwardly spreading energy. Heat flows forward through time, cooling down as it goes.
Heelia preferred to appreciate and admire, without feeling any need to find explanations. Mysteries in life could be attributed to divine creation.
As it spreads and cools, energy condenses into particulate matter, detectable as elemental atoms. It becomes hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, and all those many substances that unite to make the stars, the planets and everything on and between them. Stars are chemical factories that combine elements into more complex ones. But when they do, one plus one in elemental mass is less than two. The mass that is lost during this fusion of elements is released as more pulses of energy. The Majans knew this to be true. A very clever scientist had predicted that these mass differences would be replaced by bursts of radiant energy. This was the energy they could sense from Sol, or convert to electricity in a nuclear reactor. The energy which they could release from an atomic explosion above a population centre of an adversary culture.
As the Universal energy races outwards, coalescing particles attract one another due to electrostatic and gravitational forces. As growing masses of matter are formed, all of the weight of an accumulating mass presses inwards towards its centre. When one of these masses reaches a certain size, its internal temperature and pressure climb above a threshold. The processes that combine elements and release more energy are triggered. This is known as the burning of nuclear fuel. It causes stars to shine brightly.
Once a star has used all of its nuclear fuel, much of its matter will cool rapidly and contract. As it collapses inwards under its own gravity, the collapse ends with an explosion called a supernova. A supernova explosion is another part of the cycle of element production. It results in the formation of metals and heavy elements, many of which are unstable and release energy as radioactivity.
Nearly five billion years before the Majan species emerged on Thera, a star exploded into a supernova. It scattered a massive swirling cloud of all the elements it had produced during its existence. For perhaps half a billion years, the cloud contents condensed into larger and larger bodies. These merged and continued to swirl around the centre. Most of the material accumulated in a central mass. When it reached the threshold which ignited its nuclear fuel, a new star, Sol, was born. The remaining material in the cloud formed smaller bodies. These orbited Sol in the form of planets and their satellite moons. Each planet was different in character, size and surface temperature.
On one planet, the surface conditions were perfectly tuned to support the evolution of complex chemicals into living organisms. The organisms would gradually subdivide into separate, individual species. Eventually, one species with specialised manipulative and communicative abilities would name the planet Thera and themselves Majans. The Majans strove to understand the planet which they inhabited. However, their misuse and misunderstanding of the universal energy from which they were derived threatened to destroy themselves and all other life forms.
Heelia admired the mountain panoramas. The walk to the ridge had been tough but worth the effort. All around her, aesthetically pleasing images, dramatic peaks, colourful flowers and the distant glaciers excited her sense of wonder. The high forests must be havens of strange, mythical creatures, dangerous animals, reclusive wizards and witches – never to be entered after sunset. But in the daytime, the fairies could fly, and children pick flowers. Resting trekkers like herself could amuse themselves by conjuring up childhood story scenes. It seemed that the mountains had been there forever, or at least since the creation of the planet Thera.
Thera was roughly 6.5 thousand kilometres from centre to surface. It had a tilted axis around which it rotated as it orbited Sol. The spinning and orbiting were quite fast, to begin with, slowing gradually. By the emergence of the Majans, a day was about 20-something Earth hours. A year was about 300 and something Theran days. The tilt of its axis meant that it had an exposure to radiation from Sol that was fairly constant around its equatorial belt. However, it had increasing seasonal extremes towards each pole. This resulted in a northern hemisphere summer during southern hemisphere winter, and vice-versa.
Thera’s single moon, Luna, produced a gravitational pull which interacted with that of Sol. This caused tidal flows of the large water masses, which would later develop on its surface. Gradual changes in the tilt and the shape of Thera’s orbit meant that seasonal differences were not constant. They followed cyclical variations in extremes, lasting for tens of thousands of years.
The material of Thera was a mixture of around 90 elements; oxygen and silicon were the most abundant. There were various metals, including aluminium, iron, sodium, calcium, magnesium and potassium. Other non-metallic elements such as sulphur, nitrogen and carbon would be important for the evolution of life. These elements usually reacted to form the molecules that were often found in silicate minerals, metal oxides and complex gases. The young planet had much water vapour, nitrogen and gaseous compounds mixed into a hot, acidic atmosphere.
The mountain landscape that Heelia was admiring had not been created in a moment. In the early years, most of Thera was molten, pitted, rutted and bubbling. Magma flowed over a surface bombarded by asteroids, meteorites and comets. Planetary gravity sucked in the remaining masses of material from space. The surface and atmosphere gradually cooled sufficiently for water vapour to form clouds. These released torrential acidic rain onto the hot surface. All recesses were slowly filled until embryonic oceans spread on a thin but solid crust. The interior of the planet was primarily a hot, extremely viscous fluid. Heavier minerals sank towards the centre, displacing lighter ones. These were carried slowly up towards the surface by convection currents. This carried immense heat from the central core towards the surface, melting and fracturing the crust.
Have you ever slowly boiled a pan of soup or maybe custard? Heat does not spread evenly through the pan. It is carried upwards in globules or cells of warm substance. The heat is dispersed as it rises to the surface. It releases a bubble of vapour when it gets there. Now imagine the pan is 6500 km deep and spherical, with its main heat source right at the centre. The blobs rise, slowly, slowly, eventually approaching a cool surface on which a thin skin has formed. Blobs first make contact with the lowest-lying part of the skin, warming it from below and causing it to stretch and rupture.
Some of the hotter, liquid custard may emerge at the surface, pushing the broken skin sideways. Since the skin rests on liquid custard, it doesn’t crumple but is displaced. It flows as a flat unit across the surface. In a saucepan, it would crumple against the edges of the pan, as it has nowhere else to go. In a spherical mass of convecting custard, globules would rise at different places. Each would break the surface and produce some displacement of the skin.
For each area of displacement by new, rising custard, an equal area will be lost. It must either crumple or sink back into the underlying liquid.
And thus, it was on Thera. As the planet’s surface began to form its first crust, rising cells of magma caused breaches in this. These were usually in the deepest part of the oceans, where the crust was thinnest and closest to the planet’s core. At its surface, the crust eventually developed into a patchwork of plates. These slid very, very slowly over a hotter and more fluid mantle layer. In some places, displaced plates pressed together, causing crumpling of the surface. This pushed up mountains over tens of millions of years. In other places, a plate would slide under an adjacent one, causing earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. This plate collision caused lifting of the overlying plate to a higher altitude, thereby producing volcanic mountains.
The crustal skin on the planet Thera was formed by rising magma breaching the crust along ocean floor ridges. Ocean crust spread away in a continuous plate of basalt rock formed from the cooling magma. As the basalt moved away from a ridge, it slowly cooled and became denser. Oceans would gradually widen as the crust extended from the ridge.
Where plates collided, as they spread away from ridges, the volcanic minerals that were ejected were lighter. These formed rocks which floated on the basalt like whipped cream on top of the custard. The heavier basalt plate would sink downwards, back towards the mantle from which it had originated. The lighter minerals accumulated to form continental landmasses, separated by ocean basins.
From when plates had first been set in motion, the lighter, floating masses slowly began to accumulate into continents. These were carried around the planet like ocean islands held up by the heavier, underlying crustal mass. In the course of time, the continental mountains would be eroded by atmospheric conditions and weather. They would be washed back to the sea in river sediments. The sediments would ultimately be carried under colliding plates and then regurgitated in the volcanic output at colliding plate boundaries in another cycle of mountain building. The planet Thera was a complex, interacting system. The motion of oceans and continents fuelled by the immense heat of its core was a continual process.
The ridge where Heelia stood and the scenery she was admiring had not been there since the creation of the planet. The oceans, continents and mountain ranges had been in perpetual motion for the past four billion years. The vista before her had been lifted, tilted and constantly re-sculpted during the last few million years of this period. It continued to change imperceptibly slowly.
Sol was a cog in the expansion of the Universe, formed by the coalescence of elements since the Big Bang. Thera was a smaller cog, carrying energy from a hot, radioactive interior to a surface and atmosphere. From there it could be lost to space.
In the few billion years after its initial formation, the surface of Thera had provided a canvas. A canvas upon which the radiance of Sol rearranged the simplest elements to paint a colourful picture of harmonious nature. A picture the Majans would eventually scorch, dissolve and trample upon.
Mosse’s world was that scorched, dissolved, trampled planet. To begin to reverse the damage, the Majans must comprehend how their planet functioned as a system. They needed to recognise the limits of their relevance within the Universe.
Majan societies were governed by rules that divided them according to religions, nationalities, and political and linguistic barriers. These divisions created rivalries and power struggles: conflicts which had only detrimental effects on the planet. Their cultural rules and the barriers they created were the fundamental cause of the planet’s problems.
The problems affecting life on the planet Thera would not be easily resolved. Mosse believed that all nations and cultures needed to endorse a common set of principles. A doctrine which would unite them as one species sharing a planet that they must protect for their own self-preservation. However, it seemed more likely that the depth of divisions between Majan societies would likely lead to global conflict.
Already, leaders of nations with almost irreconcilably opposed views had their fingers close to buttons which could set loose a nuclear holocaust. Would any of them attempt a pre-emptive strike?
The grandeur of the mountains had initiated Mosse’s curiosity about their origin and the processes that had shaped and governed his planet. They harboured a great diversity of life. They included many delicately balanced niches and habitats. Once, they had presented a wilderness. Now Majan habitation and activities pushed ever deeper and higher, displacing the wild.
Mosse liked to climb on footpaths to a high point on a favourite ridge. From here, he could survey a panoramic landscape for many miles around. He could imagine how it had come to take its current form over millions of years. At 2,500 metres above sea level, he found fossils of creatures that had swum in deep oceans more than 100 million years earlier. Their skeletal or shelly remains had been preserved in ocean sediments. These were subsequently compressed into rock strata.
The rocks would eventually be lifted and tilted by the dynamics of moving crustal plates. They would finally be exposed by erosion of the scree slope on a mountain ridge. The rocks themselves told a story of hundreds of millions of years of history of the planet’s surface.
The Majans might destroy many habitats in the coming years, but one day, their own history would be compressed into a thin layer of rock on a mountain somewhere.