A visible tremor rippled the length of Zircon’s foot when the sensory tentacle found his skirt. Immediately, though with a hint of reluctance, he retracted an optical tentacle from the quartz porthole above his head and flashed the customary “Who are you?” — a pattern of deep red electrochemical pyrotechnics around the rim of his eye, now focused intently upon his visitor.
“I am your sister, Beryl,” she responded, moving her own tentacle to within a few centimeters of Zircon’s — a comfortable closeness in which they could converse — ending the reply with a graphic display of her name, her signature in emerald and aquamarine.
“You are early,” Zircon retorted with a glimmer of irritation, returning his eye to the crystalline porthole above.
She nudged his skirt again. “No, I am Beryl,” she blinked and sparkled. They giggled in a rainbow of delight, illuminating the Uranian Sea around them as well as the amethyst platform observatory from which Zircon could watch the stars.
“And as your big sister and immediate Authority, I hereby declare that it is time for you to pull your eyes away from the heavens above and follow me to our separate Meetings.”
“I will follow you always,” Zircon replied in mock deference. He turned to face her, both eyes now locked upon hers.
“What have the stars told you since my last visit?” she asked in tones of tangerine.
“Universe is still expanding,” he responded, clearly bored with his report. “Most celestial objects are still shifted toward the red, as expected.”
“I am serious,” she flashed. “Have you been watching the stars at all?”
“I keep an eye out on the stars, sister, but my focus is always on Planet III. Today I watched a movie.” He showed her a scene, using the diodes around his eyes as picture elements to create a visual display.
“That is utter nonsense,” Beryl responded after a moment. “I see no meaning whatsoever; it is nothing but flickering colors.”
“There is no meaning but in metaphor, sister. You are looking at it too literally, trying to read it. Try instead to see the colors as an image of life on P3.”
“Zircon, you are an Astronomer, not a so‑called Anthropologist. Now let us be off; we have Meetings to attend.”
She started down one of the amethyst columns that supported her brother’s observatory. He started to extend one eye into the crystalline porthole again, hesitated, turned and followed her down into the deepening azure of the Sea. Before they had descended fifty meters they passed a Miner, a giant among slugs, easily twice the mass of Beryl and Zircon combined, going up the column to Zircon’s platform. The Miner momentarily ceased beaming the bright yellow “Where? There!” pattern used to illuminate one’s path, and flashed an incomprehensibly large number to identify itself to the Authority and the Astronomer as it passed by each in turn.
“There goes my supper,” Zircon glared to nobody in particular. “I hope the food at the Meeting is better than it was last time.”
* * *
Beryl and Zircon went their separate ways when they reached Astronomer Hall, nearly a thousand meters beneath the surface of the Sea. Beryl continued her descent, flashing a twinkling farewell as Zircon turned to cross the diamond threshold of the Hall.
Once inside the Hall, with its glittering crystal dome high over head intended to represent the celestial heavens, Zircon waited behind one of the dozens of spokes radiating from the center of the Hall floor. Each spoke glistened with particles of emeralds, amethyst, rubies, and, here and there, diamonds, deposited earlier by Miners that transported the materials up from the Uranian Core, digesting them on the way, and excreting them in the spoke pattern of an Astronomer Meeting, each spoke about two meters in length and five centimeters wide.
“Looks like a long meeting,” glowered the Astronomer to Zircon’s right.
“Good,” he replied. “I’m starving. I just missed supper on the platform.”
“Then I take it you were on duty today. Did you see anything of interest?”
“Not to an Astronomer.”
“Point taken. Point taken.”
“Gentlemen Astronomers, hello!” This was beamed throughout the Hall by an obviously aged Elder Astronomer struggling to stand on the back of his foot in order to be seen by all in attendance. “I hereby call the monthly Meeting to order!”
Each Astronomer lined up behind one of the radiating spokes. There was no head to this roundtable. There were no seating assignments either, but habitual motion and sheer sluggishness (this is, after all, Universe-type mollusca gastropoda) dictated a certain regularity to their arrangement. As the Meeting began, each Astronomer started eating his respective spoke, a process that would continue until all had run out of food at the center of the circle, their skirts then barely touching the Astronomers on either side, their eyes in close proximity to those of either neighbor. Agenda points were initiated by the Elder and passed in a counterclockwise direction, each Astronomer receiving the message through his left eye and transmitting it to the next Astronomer through his right. Comments could be inserted by each Astronomer if he wished, to continue unchanged around the ring until they returned to the originating Astronomer, who would then delete his comment from the data stream, possibly modify it, and almost certainly comment on the comments of his fellow Astronomers. Though data flowed around this ring of Astronomers at the speed of light, some Meetings could be very long. Indeed, this was to be one of those.
“As you know,” the Elder glared, “much valuable stargazing time this year has been spent monitoring the electromagnetic radiation emanating from Planet III during some 65 orbits of that tiny blue sphere. In that time, some of our best Astronomers have discovered evidence of apparently intelligent life in the radiation, to the extent that we have deciphered numerous languages and learned to derive visual images from the radiation. By the way, Zircon, please convey our best regards to your sire, Garnet, who could not be with us today as he ages and prepares to pass.”
“I will, Elder. Thank you.”
“Some, in fact,” the Elder continued, “have suggested we form a new class, a class of ‘Anthropologists’ dedicated to monitoring and reporting on developments on P3, even looking for such evidence of life on other planets.”
“I see no reason to form a new class,” glowered one Astronomer from across the Hall. “We should simply allow each Astronomer the time to monitor P3 if he so wishes.”
“But what about training?” blazed another. “This field of study requires a unique skillset, one that is quite different from that of Stargazer.”
“Then we should all receive the training!” flashed yet another.
“It is not merely a different skillset,” Zircon interjected. “It’s an entirely different mindset.”
“Just like his sire,” several Astronomers flickered faintly around the ring, careful to ensure the message did not reach Zircon’s eyes.
“Would the Anthropologists still attend our Meetings? Or would they have their own Meeting? Who would account for their findings, even their time on the platforms? Would they still report to the Authorities?” These questions and many others, most of which went unanswered, flashed around the ring.
“Halt!” flashed the Elder Astronomer. Every eye went dark, waiting for the Elder’s next statement.
“Watch the stars,” he continued. “That is what Number One commanded us to do. He never said anything about the planets.”
“That is because the planets offered nothing of interest until only this past year,” countered one of the younger Astronomers.
“I think not,” glared the aged Astronomer immediately to the right of the Elder. “I believe He knew radiation from other planets would cause instability on our own.”
The Hall went dark. No other Astronomer dared to comment. He continued, “Immediately upon deciphering radiation from Planet III we agreed to keep the Secret. We, a class that has never kept anything from the Authorities, are now saddled with keeping from them the knowledge that so-called intelligent beings can lie, commit falsities, a notion that had never before crossed our minds. How could it? Everyone would have seen it in our eyes as soon as we thought it. I, for one, am not sure if there is any difference between a secret and a lie to begin with.”
“And I,” flickered another, “am not sure how much longer I can keep it from my Authority at home. I find myself staying up on the platform rather than having to conceal my thoughts from her all of the time.”
The Astronomers ate in darkness. When he had at last finished eating, the Elder Astronomer adjourned the Meeting, it being unanimously decided to table any further discussion until next month.
“I am worried about Garnet,” the Elder glimmered in an aside to his right. “When I last visited him he mentioned a surprise at his passing. I am afraid he is going to reveal the Secret.”
“So am I, Elder,” blinked the Elder’s confidant, lowering his tentacles in deference. “So am I.”
* * *
Meanwhile, in a diamond Hall located another thousand meters below, the Authorities prepared to commence their own monthly Meeting. Unlike their stargazing brethren, the Authorities did not eat during the Meeting, preferring instead to dine informally afterward, a time when as much consequential discussion occurred as during the Meeting itself. For this reason, Authority Meetings tended to be short and to the point.
“Let us begin,” shined the Grand Dam, nobly poised atop her ruby podium. “We have only two items on the agenda, but much to discuss.” All eyes were at attention, alert and dark while the Grand Dam’s two eyes separately canvassed the Hall, making contact with each Authority in a manner that appeared as easy as it was commanding.
“Item One. The passing of Rhodolite, Authority of Garnet, dam of Beryl and Zircon, friend to all. Though she has not been herself much of this past year, she is counted among the greatest of all living Authorities, and we will miss her beaming presence at our Meetings. I am sure you will all enjoy Rhodo’s Life Review when she goes. And Beryl, I am sure you will be most impressed with the life of your dam.
“Item Two. The Problem of the Missing Miner. I was left with the distinct impression at our last Meeting that all Miners would be accounted for and I would not have to deal with this Problem any longer.”
Darkness fell upon the Hall. After an agonizingly long time, an older Authority flickered a response. “But, if I may be so bold, Madam, we have counted and recounted, audited and cajoled every Miner on Uranus; the Missing Miner has simply disappeared without a trace. It probably ate too much and fell from an Astronomer’s platform, then sank to the Bottom of the Sea.”
“The Bottom is crawling with Miners — and Authorities. How did this one carcass escape our notice?”
“I cannot imagine, Madam. Maybe it happened to fall into a steam vent or an abandoned mine.” The Grand Dam did not respond, merely glared at her subordinate.
“What difference does it make anyway?” This in a faint orange tone from a young Authority at the back of the Hall. Then in deep purple: “Why do we even care if we can’t account for some autogenetic Miner? I, for one, am tired of the Problem.”
“May I remind you of your heritage, Miss? All Authority rose from the Miner at the end of the Common Era.”
“And may I respectfully remind you, Madam, that I do not need a history lesson? What I need is some reason,” the young Authority flashed, “to get all worked up over this quasi-Problem of yours when it seems to me . . .”
“That is enough!” the Grand Dam glared, both eyes focused solely on the insubordinate before her. “Accountability is the product of accounting. Lacking accountability we lose all Authority. If we cannot account for everything that takes place in this society, we might as well just spend our days gazing at the stars, hoping someone comes along to feed us from time to time.
“Now then, all of this discussion has made me hungry. Find that Missing Miner, or face the fury of my wrath focused on each and every one of you — this Meeting is adjourned!” And with that the Grand Dam slid gracefully off the podium and settled herself onto the banquet of sparkling jewels at its base.
The other Authorities soon joined her in eating their gloomy meal, though a couple of older Authorities did faintly remark on the oddity of an Astronomer and his Authority passing so close to one another. It must surely be the result of his tremendous obesity, they conjectured; still, who would look after the next generation? But these scarlet tones were kept well concealed from Beryl as she ate, alone in total darkness.
* * *
It was only a few days later when Beryl again nudged Zircon’s foot on his platform. Again he retracted an optical tentacle from the quartz porthole above his head and flashed the customary “Who are you?”
“I am your sister, Beryl,” she responded, moving her tentacle to within a few centimeters of his, ending the reply with her signature in emerald and aquamarine. “It is time, Zircon; our dam is near passing.” Zircon turned to face his sister, but made no move to leave the platform.
“What have you been watching today?” she asked.
“Nothing in particular; that is, no one movie. Instead I’ve been monitoring the entire spectrum for evidence of deceit.”
“Deceit,” Beryl repeated. “What is that?”
“Deceit occurs when one commits or broadcasts a falsity, a lie. Actually, I should not tell this to you at all, since we Astronomers have elected to keep the notion a Secret until the Authorities can be properly prepared for it. I hope I can trust you with our Secret, Beryl.”
“I am sure that you can. In fact, we Authorities have a Problem that . . .”
“You have to consciously think of something else,” Zircon continued without paying attention to his sister, “whenever you are in the presence of one from whom the Secret must be kept. It requires a great deal of mental effort, effort that is extremely tiresome. I am only telling it to you now because the Secret may be revealed within the very near future anyway.”
“How is deceit committed on P3?” she asked.
“In many varied ways, sister. That is what makes the study of P3 so fascinating. They seem to revel in deceit, thrive on it. One of their great leaders recently said, ‘A lie travels around the world while the truth is still pulling on its boots.’”
“What are boots?” she asked. “Is the truth actually alive on their planet?”
“Boots are hard to understand. These beings cover the entire body with vestments, of which boots are just one that covers their lower appendages. In fact, one of their belief systems holds that the original truth was that they were naked and needed to be covered. Silly, really. But — no — the truth is anything but alive on their world. In fact, they cannot even define it and can only describe it in relative terms, usually through metaphor and incessant anthropomorphizing.”
“Do their eyes not autonomically reveal their thoughts?”
“Apparently not, at least not as fully as do ours.”
“Interesting. So, what do they do with their deceit? Can they use it to some advantage?”
“Yes, or at least they try to, but the deceit is nearly always discovered in the end. It is truly amazing that they would even try, but they are forever thinking they will get away with it this time. It very often involves taking on the identity of another, richer, more powerful personage than oneself. Just today, in scanning the spectrum, I saw two movies and twenty-eight simultaneously running television shows that involved stolen identity.”
“Stolen identity!” Beryl flashed. “What a preposterous idea. It must require even more effort to conceal than a Secret!”
“I would think so. Now, what is this Problem you mentioned?”
“Oh, nothing,” Beryl answered with downcast eyes. “We really must be going to the Life Review.” And with that she turned and began the long, long descent to their dam’s abode near the Bottom of the Sea. Zircon hesitated momentarily, watching her from atop his platform, then turned and followed her home.
* * *
Upon arrival at their dam’s abode, Beryl and Zircon were greeted by all those Authorities and Astronomers whose genetic make-up differed by only seven degrees of separation from their own, cousins one and all, for, as it happened, their aunts and uncles had already passed and their granddams and grandsires had long since gone before them. The crystal walls reflected fellowship and good will toward the Authority and her children, but whispers flickered faintly in opaque corners where some held conversations of concern for the children who would so shortly be orphaned, a rarity in this society. The Miner at the Door, large even for a Miner, sat darkly at the threshold, waiting to remove the body. Soon, the Grand Dam beamed greetings from beside the aged form of Rhodolite, who faced her children from atop a pinkish stone deathbed specially constructed at no small expense to Beryl and Zircon. The Grand Dam slid off the podium and took her place beside the siblings, all three faintly flickering consolation to one another while awaiting Rhodo’s Life Review.
They were not to wait long; Rhodo’s dark eyes soon blazed with the energy of her death throes, and all watched in hypnotic anticipation of her story.
“In the beginning was the world, and the world was without life until I awoke.” This was the story of Number One, whose story began all Life Reviews, for Number One was the common ancestor of all Uranians. How Number One came to awaken on Uranus was still a mystery. The Authorities held that Number One had existed from eternity and ‘awoke’ simultaneously with the decision to populate the planet. The Astronomers, on the other hand, had recently hypothesized that Number One may have been transported from some other planet, was somehow planted on Uranus in order that it may become civilized. As to why some extra-Uranian intelligence may have done this had been the subject of intense speculation at several recent Meetings, and some Astronomers had even begun to doubt the veracity of both theories. At any rate, Rhodo’s Life Review continued, telling the story of Number One’s two children, Hydro and Helio, by autogenesis and the great thrill they discovered in communicating with one another through their eyes, seeing and showing simultaneously. Finally, near the end of Number One’s own life, came that Magnificent Mandate — Watch the stars — at which the Astronomers in the room all twinkled with delight, an emotion that was not shared by their Authorities.
Number One’s passing was followed by those of Hydro and Helio, after which Rhodo’s eyes began to tell the story of the Common Era, the millions of generations that passed simply scrounging for food at the Bottom of the Sea. Some looked away at this point, obviously bored, and numerous conversations blinked around the room until Rhodo beamed the autogenetic births of Uranium and Fluor, their brilliant love for one another and the subsequent births of Jade, the first Authority, and her brother, Aster. All eyes were now fixed on Rhodolite, each anticipating his or her own mention in Rhodo’s story.
Rhodo told of her many exploits as a young Authority, which were met with sparkled approval throughout the room, finally revealing the day she met Garnet, a young Astronomer about whom she had seen many superior reports and whose genetic display immediately appealed to her so. They courted and merged, and were delighted with the birth of Beryl, whose eyes were so very like their own that they felt they could almost see themselves in hers. But then a strange shadow paused briefly over Rhodo’s story, and some reflected a reluctance to proceed, as though that were possible. Beryl and Zircon failed to see the shadow, however, engrossed as they were in the story of their own births. Both slugs kept one eye on the other, as well as one on their dam.
More time than was typical passed between Rhodo’s birthings, but not so much as to be a matter of concern. She was extremely busy, having recently been elected Grand Dam, and Garnet, her mate, had also been very busy of late, occasionally shimmering something about Planet III and the intelligent radiations that seemed to emanate from there. What brought every tentacle to attention, though, was the sudden enormous growth they saw in Garnet, who, over the course of one astronomical observation, became nearly as large as many a Miner. “How could one Astronomer possibly eat that much in one sitting?” was the question everyone blazed around the room, careful not to catch the eyes of Beryl and Zircon, who remained blissfully ignorant in their anticipation of Zircon’s birth, which was not long in coming. And Zircon did arrive, but the joy in his dam’s eyes was noticeably faint. In fact, the rest of Rhodo’s life became darker and darker until she reached the point of beginning her own Life Review and her eyes went opaque. She had passed.
All glided dimly out of the room, leaving Beryl and Zircon alone to grieve privately for a moment before they too left Rhodolite’s lifeless form, passing the Miner at the Door on their way out.
“Beryl,” Zircon flickered as the siblings were about to go their separate ways. “What will happen to our dam now?”
“Nobody knows, Zircon — it is one of life’s great mysteries.”
“No, I mean what will happen with her body. Surely you Authorities know that much.”
“The Miner at the Door will dispose of her body properly for us. It is the Miners’ most important function: to give us a final dignity in death. I will see you soon, Zircon, when I summons you to our sire’s own imminent passing.”
A flash startled them out of their farewells and they looked up to see the Elder Astronomer followed by a glowing retinue of Authorities and Astronomers gliding toward them.
“Children, children,” the Elder beamed. “I am so sorry, but I must report that your sire is even now preparing to pass. Quickly — come with me!” But the Elder was no match for Beryl and Zircon, who glided to their sire’s abode as fast as they could, arriving to find yet another Miner at the Door poised beside the threshold, and Garnet perched precariously on a deathbed of plain calcium that had obviously been hastily brought in due to the lack of time to prepare a podium worthy of so great and immense an Astronomer. Garnet’s colossal bulk spilled over the sides of the stone podium until his skirt very nearly touched the crystal floor.
“In the beginning was the world, and the world was without life until I awoke.”
“He is starting his Life Review without us!” Beryl flashed to her brother.
“Be dim,” Zircon glowered back, his own tentacles lowered in shame.
Garnet’s Life Review continued even as the many Authorities and Astronomers were still gliding into his abode, news of his sudden passing having traveled like wildfire between them. But, as it turned out, they had plenty of time to find a place from which to watch his Life Review. And soon many began to flicker their discontent. “Why is he spending so much time in the Common Era?” they asked. It seemed interminable — “Will he never flash the births of Uranium and Fluor?” they glared, again careful not to catch the eyes of Garnet’s children positioned at the foot of his chalky deathbed.
Suddenly all eyes went black with amazement. Garnet showed them Garnet perched on his own astronomical observatory, peering through the crystalline porthole above. “Who are you?” Garnet asked, and glimmers of shock blinked around the room. Garnet then flashed his own signature, rosy-pink, and some were seen to flicker, “Who flashes their own signature in a Life Review?” and they were not even careful not to catch the eyes of Beryl and Zircon, who were, in fact, flashing the same question to one another.
Garnet then began to show a younger, smaller Garnet telling the most amazing story, much to the chagrin of the Astronomers present, and the surprise of their Authorities. It seems there was evidence of intelligent life on Planet III, but the strange part was that this life form had found a way to deceive one another. Garnet showed a scene from recent radiation in which a tiny uniformed creature flanked by banners and golden statues communicated with thousands of his kind that they were better than the rest, and they began marching as one, killing and conquering, imprisoning and torturing as suited their need for racial superiority. Of course, only a few of the Astronomers could actually see this; most of the Astronomers and all of their Authorities glared angrily that this was utter nonsense: Garnet somehow showing himself in some sort of psychedelic trance.
Then all again went dark in amazement. Garnet’s eyes flashed fear as none in the room had ever seen it before. “What are you doing?” he glared. “Stop! I command you to stop” he flashed. “Why are you eating me? Stop! I’m begging you — please, stop. Garnet! … Garnet! … Garnet … Garnet … In the beginning was the world, and the world was without life until I awoke.”
At this the room lit up in shock. Garnet was showing a Life Review within his own Life Review, which was wholly without precedent. He flashed through Hydro and Helio and the Magnificent Mandate — Watch the stars — and briefly flashed the Common Era. He showed them Uranium and Fluor, and the day he met the beautiful Rhodolite, whom he courted and merged and who bore him an Authority. He showed them the first emanation from Planet III, how he had learned to decipher the radiation, discovering within it the Big Lie. He showed them his favorite Miner delivering food. When he flashed the Miner’s incomprehensibly large identification number, every Authority in the room instantly radiated recognition: “The Missing Miner!” Then the Miner began eating him, starting with the tail of his foot, continually asking “Who are you?” in deep reds, and Garnet answering over and over with his signature in frantic rosy-pink, until finally the Miner was able to flash Garnet’s own signature back to him, though Rhodo was still uneasy when he mounted her, and the pride he felt when she bore him Zircon. He had done it — he had escaped the indignity of a Miner’s life and lived to sire an Astronomer. His eyes went dark.
All glided dimly from the room, all except Zircon, who stayed behind asking, “Why? Why? Why?” in the darkest of indigo thoughts until a sensation of deepening hunger registered in his eyes and he began asking an even darker question: