Alive in the Land of Statues

21 08 2011

[A parable]

Sybil glanced up nervously at the dark silhouette above her, eclipsing the sun, a great beam supporting the many thick plexiglass panes that separated her from the great and deadly vacancy above her.  The glare of the sun was like a bare bulb hanging from the celestial ceiling, a bright point that cast a harsh light on everything.  Without any atmosphere beyond that transparent barrier, the sky was still pitch black, even in broad unobstructed daylight.  Beneath that ceiling, a vast garden grew.  Sickly carrots lived their puny lives in a line along a long planter box.  One planter box over, a mulch of dead leaves marked an attempt at kale.  The next row contained a relatively successful box of legumes, sprouting from their minimal supply of dirt.  It was a bumper crop this year.  It would be enough to supply a single person with enough food to live, provided she survived long enough to eat it.

Around the perimeter of the solarium, and staggered throughout the farm, were various statues of mythic gods and demigods, carved from native stone,  here an image of Perseus, holding aloft the head of the hated Medusa, there a carving of Neptune, sitting on his throne with his trident in hand.  Sybil’s deceased fellow colonists had carved the images of a former world.  Over the course of a mere two years, she had forgotten her comrades and abandoned her sanity.  The statues were her only companions, now, and her madness forbade her to accept the stark truth of her isolation.  There was no one left in her world, now.  There never would be.  Jupiter was her father, and Mars was her lover.  Venus was the pretty girl in the room, whom she hated with a venomous jealousy.

The plan had been simple enough.  A dome had been erected on the surface of Mars (the planet), and enough room was afforded to grow enough plants to eat, and the plants, due to the natural carbon cycle, always provided enough oxygen to account for their own consumption and catabolism.  The dome was two layers thick, with a sensor in between to detect the leakage of life-giving air, so that a repair could be attempted before a complete breach occurred.  Twelve people were given the order to live upon this lifeless planet, all while exploring its surface for any sign of life.  The plan had been ingenious.  Every pot had a system for collecting excess water, preventing it from dripping to the ground and being absorbed by the planet.  Any new water needed could be scavenged from the painfully scarce crystals of ice that sometimes accumulated about a foot below the surface.  The dome provided a natural greenhouse effect, giving warmth and reflecting excess ultra violet radiation.  Human waste was to be harvested and used as fertilizer.  Cultures of useful bacteria were grown to maintain a seed stock for environmental stability.   Everything had been accounted for, almost.  The walls were perfect.  The roof was perfect.  The floor was nonexistent.  The great law of Murphy came down upon their heads like a sledge-hammer, as the necessary gasses of the dome slowly diffused through the dirt, into the planet upon which they lived.  There was nothing wrong with martian dirt, in itself, but the engineers had been so focused upon remediating the bad air, that they forgot about the bad dirt and the fact that air does, slowly, move through it.  It was a great dome.  It was a splendidly flawless dome, but it was helpless to contain the life force within it.  When its communications equipment failed, the remaining life was, indeed, in a hopeless bind.

Sybil stood from her labors and accosted the statue of Venus that stood gloating over her, surrounded by vines of squash.  Baring her breasts shamelessly, she smirked at Sybil, seeming to know that the live woman would never live up to her eternal beauty.  “What are you looking at?!” the woman of flesh screamed, “For crying out loud, at least get some clothes on!”  The statue, naturally, was unmoved by this outburst.  Sybil approached her slowly, like a cat stalking its rival, aiming for a fight.  She looked closer at this arrogant whore.  Something wasn’t right.  The whore stared back, but something was missing.

Many years previous, the Mariner 2, following up on its embarrassingly unsuccessful predecessor, made an orbit around the second planet from the sun.  The surface of this planet was extremely hot, despite having cool cloud tops.  The scientists back on Earth were sorely disappointed at this fact.  There could be no life on Venus.  Ah, but that was just one planet.  If Earth could have life, then there had  to be other living planets out there, somewhere.  Even so, they inspected every inch of the planet, just to be sure, mapping the entire planet with a later satellite.  No, the planet was still quite lifeless.

Startled by her opponent’s inertia, Sybil scrutinized the statue from head to foot, and back again.  “By Jove,” she whispered, “the wench got herself turned to stone!”  She glanced over at Perseus, holding the Medusa’s head vaguely in this general direction, with a little imagination.  She reached out a finger and tapped the stone object just to be sure.  No, it was quite lifeless.  Finding this greatly distressing, she ran to tell her father, whom she found surveying the aquifer at the other end of the solarium.  “Father!  Father, come quick!  Something’s happened to….”  She stopped mid-sentence, when she realized that her father was not responding.  He stood there with a lightning bolt in hand, as though attempting to catch one of the dead fish that rotted below the surface of the water.  She clawed slowly at her face in sudden realization.  She circled him, slowly, touching his cold hard surface.

Years before, several probes and satellites made their interception if the planet, Jupiter, taking various photos and measurements.  Clearly, there was no life on this planet.  The core was exceedingly hot, and the atmospheric pressure was too intense.  Ah, but Europa was thought to have life, or, at least, the potential for life.  Alas, none of them has any life, though some still maintain the possibility that life may have inhabited, or could eventually inhabit, one of them.

Sybil turned from her cold lifeless father, and faced the nearby statue of Europa, seated precariously on a rampaging bull.  This particular statue portrayed vividly quite a bit of life and movement.  She wasn’t as quick to disregard the possibility that this statue had some life in it.  Well, okay, maybe it wasn’t alive anymore, but it might have been alive once.  One could never be sure.  At least, there was always the possibility that it might come to life at some future date, and Europa would ride the back of the wild bull once again.  Given enough time, anything seemed possible.  It was certainly a very lifelike statue, to be sure.

Everywhere she looked, every possible life form turned out to be nothing but a cold lifeless lump of rock, just like her predecessors, who found nothing but lifeless rock, balls of gas and chunks of ice wherever they turned.  Neither she, nor they, wanted to admit that they were alone in the universe.  There had to be someone out there, somewhere.

Even her dear lover, Mars, turned out to be nothing human.  She cried herself to sleep at his feet.  He stood over her, with a shield in one hand and a spear in the other, as though to protect her.  In the morning, she awoke to find him equally lifeless, but was he non-living, or was her lover dead?  At his feet, she found a strand of her own hair.  “Mars, my sweetheart!” she exclaimed,” You have shed a hair!”  She was ecstatic.  Mars clearly had been alive, once.

Years before, explorers in Antarctica discovered a brown rock (yes, a brown rock).  Somehow, they found a bubble within that rock that they were certain must have been a fossil of a single-celled organism.  Not only that, but they were certain that this rock had been knocked from the very turf of Mars and sent through many long, vast, miles of space to land safely on Earth, only to be stumbled upon by the rare individual who seemed to have enough education to realize that this was no ordinary Earth rock.  That’s one rock, over vast distances, to one tiny planet, somewhere in the vast expanse of an uninhabited continent, discovered by one solitary expert.  That’s one massive coincidence, that and the fact that a single-celled organism managed to leave a microscopic little fossil, despite all odds, and, greater still, that someone managed to find that fossil.  That would have been one lucky rock.

Sybil was, of course, overjoyed to learn that she was not crazy.  All of these statues might have been living at one time.  Somehow, they had been turned to stone.  At least, this one statue was alive at one time.  Perhaps, it could be made alive again?  Perhaps, she could marry it and have children by it?

Five years earlier, the Genesis IV module safely landed upon the martian surface.  Twelve brave scientists set out to prove, once and for all, that life on Mars was possible, and that life on Mars had once existed.  Their mission was a perilous one, fraught with hardship, but through human ingenuity, and a great supply of the necessary elements of life, they managed their first year on another planet.  Half of their time was invested in their own survival, and half of their time was invested in exploring their immediate area for any possible sign of prior life.  However, their fate, ultimately, was a slow attrition.  They were like too many fish in a small fish bowl, and the water was slowly evaporating.  They continued to die until there were few enough people to be sustained by their artificial environment.  Then, when that environment diminished a little more, they died a little more, until there was only one person left, not counting her statues.

Brave Sybil consoled herself, initially, with the pretense that the statues might have had life.  Then, when reality glared back at her, she consoled herself with the possibility that the statues might have had life once, before being turned to stone.  Then, she tried, vainly to have children by one.  Finally, she surrendered to the futility of it and consoled herself that there might be some previously overlooked person somewhere in the compound who had not yet been turned to stone.  She even hoped against hope, that one of these inert things might eventually spring to life on its own.  Lastly, but not by any means least, she convinced herself that she had been a stone statue, once, before spontaneously coming to life.  She was surrounded by human figures, and she was a human figure.  They had no life, and they didn’t even have former life (death), but she did.  In her insane mind, she reasoned that she must have been one of them, once, before happenstance turned her into a living human.

Back on the equally insane planet Earth, people looked out over the vast universe, finding only one non-living planet after another.  They weren’t even dead.  The Earth was quite alone as a living planet.  Against all reason, the people of Earth suggested that some of them might have been alive, once.  No bit of evidence was too meager to stretch.  They even made a futile attempt to bring life to one of these wastelands, as was her own failed colony.  They would have had more luck trying to impregnate a statue.  Having found that too difficult and too expensive, they consoled themselves with the possibility that there might be some other undiscovered rock out there with life on it.  The prevailing thought on Earth was that their planet was just another rock like all of these others, and that it had been a lifeless lump of dirt, once, as were these.  Somehow, by strange chance, this dirt clod sprang to life and became the happy little planet that it now is.  Never mind that the other planets were no more living than statues, and Earth, being one of them, had as little chance of coming to life as a statue might have of turning into a human.  Literally, the comparison is astonishingly quite valid.  The difference between a living planet and a non-living planet is like the difference between a human and a statue.

Of course, Sybil was shocked out of her wits when, while crying at Mars’ feet, Venus turned around and yelled at her, “Oh, will you shut up, already?”  Of course she was shocked.  Statues don’t turn into humans.  They don’t turn into humans after five years, five million years or five quadrillion years.  By that time, they’ve turned to dust, and people stop thinking of how much they resemble a living thing.

Life on Earth is impossible.  Despite the fact that it exists, its coming into existence was impossible by mere physical means.  That’s why we call it a miracle.

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