What an observer saw
My name is Linel. I am a Life Observer for the Global Government of Proximus, the largest planet in the Proxima Centauri star system. My job is to observe and record life on the planets in the 125th celestial square. There are 2,578 Life Observers, or Lifobs as we are popularly known, one for every celestial square of 16 square degrees. We’re managed by the Institute of Cosmic Life, headquartered in the planet’s capital, Centaurus.
I study twelve planets with life in my square. There’re probably many more, but these are nearer, large and have penetrable atmospheres, so almost all their life forms can be observed closely by our instrument arrays.
I can tell you many fascinating things about my planets (I am fond of them and think of them as my own) and their life forms, but today, I want to tell you a story about planet CES125–5. It was an exciting planet for me as its initial arc of life was similar to ours.
On Proximus, we communicate electromagnetically, but you’ll be experiencing this story through the Universal Translator that’s rapidly covering the communications of more and more sentient beings.
I remember I was studying the gaseous life forms on Galena the day the luminosity alarm went off for planet CES125–5. Its brightness had reduced significantly. I found out why and ended up having to write this story.
To recall events better, I’ll hover over to the microwave data transfer point and pull the CES125–5 file into my mind from the library. It has a lot more information than I keep in my brain.
We have our lengths of time for a year, day, etc., in which Lifobs record their observations. But when we write stories for life forms on other planets, we use timescales they naturally adopt. Our year is 100 times longer than that of CES125–5. Here’s what happened.
I was 30 Proximal years old when I was appointed as the LifOb for Celestial Square 125 and began studying life on CES125–5 and other planets. It was my youth, considering we live for about 200 Proximal years.
I forensically analysed the data we’d automatically gathered about CES125–5’s natural history and the records of its most intelligent life form. The planet was 5 billion local years old, and life began on it about 4 billion years ago. The planet had a liquid core surrounded by a thick and dense rocky mantle and crust. 70% of the crust was covered by liquid and solid dihydrogen oxide.
Life forms inhabited every part of the planet close to the surface. It had the usual bursts of speciation interspersed with mass extinctions. There had been five die-outs caused by planetary changes and an asteroid impact, with 80 to 90% of species loss in each.
By about a million CES125–5 years ago, stable ecosystems of life forms existed. Many species lived on its crust, and there were a large number in the liquid bodies and several species that moved through its lower atmosphere and used the solid surface. There were well-established food chains, as we see on most planets at this stage of evolution.
Ince I’d analysed its history, I began observing CES125–5 directly, about 10,000 local years ago. The most intelligent species I could see was a bipedal form that inhabited the hard surface but could move in the atmosphere and the liquid bodies in protective vessels. It had evolved about 300,000 local years ago. It was relatively weak physically, with an average body size about a fiftieth of ours. If we’d met, we would have seemed huge to them, vastly different and more intelligent.
Compared to other species, what differentiated it was its significantly greater ability to manipulate and control its surroundings, nutritional sources, and threats. It had adapted to an extensive range of CES125–5’s ecosystems but had a small population of less than a million individuals at the time. The species had no name for itself or its planet I could discern, and I tagged it CES125-MI.
Over the next 9,000 local years, I kept an eye on CES125-MI’s progress. I observed it begin farming food systematically and settling along rivers of liquid dihydrogen oxide. It developed basic science and then industrialised. By 600 years ago, it started looking for life outside the planet, sending feeble rockets to other bodies in its star system and just beyond. It understood fundamental physics and developed nuclear energy.
CES125-MI used a primitive form of communication that was a mix of kinetic energy waves in atmospheric gases they called speech, physical marks on surfaces they called writing, and electromagnetic detection they called reading. Even these had many variations, and in one popular form, CES125-MI called itself Homo sapiens or ‘human’ and its planet Earth. They had managed to detect our star Proxima Centauri and our planet Proximus dimly, so I’ve adopted these names at the beginning and further in my story.
Humans spread steadily across the planet’s surface and grew to a population of about a billion individuals by about 800 Earth years before today when I am writing this story.
Things were going well for Earth and humanity. It seemed to be on the standard curve of maturity and scientific progress. So I set aside studying Earth for a couple of Proximal years (about 200 Earth years) before the alarm brought me back to it.
What I saw startled and dismayed me. The human population had grown to almost 8 billion individuals in that short time. But this was not in itself shocking. The much bigger issue was that humans had eaten or killed off many other species of life, removed much of the vegetation from the surface, drilled the crust full of holes and pits for minerals and fuel, and saturated its atmosphere with gases that trapped its star’s heat. The planet’s weather had changed considerably. The solid dihydrogen oxide that reflected its star’s light had almost completely melted away. That’s what had set off the luminosity alarm.
As I watched, humanity tried desperate measures. Their feeble plans to populate nearby planets didn’t succeed. Neither did their attempts to consume less and find sources of energy that could restore its atmosphere. As life on Earth declined rapidly, I informed the Institute of Cosmic Life, and they briefed the Government of Centaurus. But there was nothing we could do. We were too far away, and human science too far behind.
Over the next 300 Earth years, just 3 Proximal years, most of the species of life on Earth died. First, the larger and less numerous species got snuffed out, followed by the vegetation and then smaller life forms. Finally, just a few hundred species of microbes were left in the liquid bodies of dihydrogen oxide close to the shores of the crust masses. That’s all we see today. Earth lost about 9 million species of life. In a scant 500 years, humans destroyed the rich diversity 65 million years of evolution had restored since the previous mass extinction.
Homo sapiens became a stunningly virulent epidemic, the most rapidly destructive in Earth’s history, and one of the deadliest we know among the planets we’ve studied.
I wish I could tell you that humanity survived, and the species revived. But it lacked two things that could have saved it —a mature intelligence and the cooperation to prevent a global crisis.
From the chatter we picked up about 700 Earth years ago, I could see that many humans had begun to see what was happening to the systems that kept them and all life alive on Earth. But it was dangerously late. And there were too many who didn’t know or care when something was dangerous for them.
Ultimately the divisions within humanity sealed its fate. It did have social bonding and cooperation but not enough to make the large-scale changes to avoid catastrophe. The time and energy it expended on maintaining groups of various sorts and internecine conflicts and violence made species-wide agreement impossible.
I’ve seen life wiped out on two planets in Square 125, one by a meteor strike and one by its star’s flares. It’s sad to see species die out in the course of evolution. And mass extinctions due to cosmic events are heartbreaking. But Earth is the only planet I know where a life form spread like a disease, devastated its ecosystem and eradicated itself and almost all life. We can only hope such outbreaks don’t happen elsewhere.
Life is meaningless, but it’s what we are, and we Proximans follow our instinct to treasure and preserve it. That’s why I’ve published this cautionary account, with the encouragement of the Institute of Cosmic Life and the government of Proximus.
This is your friend Linel from Centaurus, wishing you health and wisdom.