Water on Mars

This one began as a prompt from WritersLife on Facebook.  The prompt read: “There was once water on Mars, but no longer.  What happened?”

    “Don’t be a fool! This is science!”
    “Insolence does not become you, doctor. This hearing occurred over my strenuous objections. You are fortunate to be the beneficiary of my open-mindedness. I do hope you do not squander the opportunity.”

    He raised his hand in protest, ready to shout anew, yet lowered it quickly. The first minister was right. If nothing else, he gained nothing through insults.

    In an airy chamber of stately columns and soaring, vaulted ceilings building toward a dome, he felt as though he stood upon a deserted island. From all around concerned gazes broke upon his shores, cast from a sea of worried eyes. The assembly sat arrayed as always, liberal Thai’Kars on the right, conservative Kronars to the left. His was a lonely island, his position unenviable: here he stood bathed in light, feeling naked and exposed, within a hall that had stood for a thousand years, to tell all of them that it would not stand for a thousand more. Many were incredulous…a few believed him, some outright reviled him. All now faced him, hanging on his every word. Against this backdrop of dusty politics he would plead for the future of his people.

“I fail to understand your reticence to believe this! Have you not reviewed the data?” He lifted his pad for emphasis, gesturing to it. “It’s obvious! The solar output of the sun is decreasing, and as it does, the habitat zone of the sun shrinks! Soon, it will have closed to the point where our planet will die. Our atmosphere will thin, our surface moisture will collect at the poles, and we will either suffocate or freeze.”

“And you expect us to say this to our constituents?” Minister Krana rasped. She was old and wise, yet her gravelly voice grated upon his nerves, and her dogmatic dedication to the Kronara philosophy infuriated him.

“I expect,” he began, through clenched teeth, “that you will tell them the truth.”

“Your truth, doctor,” she shot back, commencing the tired refrain the Kronars always used.

“Truth is not subjective, Minister,” he shot back. “There is no such thing as my truth, there is only the truth.”

“So you insist,” she persisted, “yet even as you present all of this supposedly irrefutable scientific data, we have had many other scientists present equally compelling data that appears to directly contradict your conclusions.”

“Oh indeed? Scientists, you say? I’d call that a fairly liberal term for such hollow shills as those.”

“Of course you would. Yet they would surely say the same about you. I ask you, doctor, as a man of science: if you were presented with two completely different sets of data, both equally valid in appearance, both presented by scientists well-regarded in their fields, how would you respond to this? To me, it appears clear; there can be no viable response. With so many scientists saying so many contradictory things, how are any of us to know just what to believe? No, I should say our best course of action would be to take no action at all, until the scientific community is capable of reaching a consensus.”

“Consensus?” he shrieked in response. “Ninety-seven out of every hundred scientists agrees that our climate is changing, that our atmosphere is thinning and that the sun is growing colder! What more consensus do you require?”

“A consensus, doctor, would by definition require that all scientists engaged in climate studies agree. I fail to understand why this is regarded as so strident an expectation. If this problem is truly as glaring and imminent as you suggest, would not all scientists be capable of agreeing on this matter?”

He sighed, exasperated. “Minister…” he began, “Respectfully, you seem to have some difficulty in understanding how science works…”

“Do not presume to condescend to us, doctor,” the First Minister chided him.

“I do not condescend!” he protested, angrily. “I merely observe fact! First minister, science at its best is little different from a democracy, one such as ours. While there may, at times, be a high degree of accord, full consensus is nearly impossible.”

“And yet,” Krana ventured, “you claim that scientific fact is immutable. I ask you, doctor, if fact is completely immutable as you yourself say, how do you explain the discord among your peers?”

“Minister,” he began, struggling to preserve his patience, “scientific fact is not in dispute here. The universe never changes, however our ability to observe and understand it does. It is indeed true, as many of the scientific minds you so gleefully reference state, that there was a time not long ago when we believed that the sun was, indeed, fully stable. There was a time, in the not-so-distant past, when we truly felt we understood all there was to understand about our star system. Now, however, more precise measures of solar output have been developed. More sensitive planetary monitoring equipment has been devised. While these new means of observing our world have not, in fact, changed our world, they have most certainly changed our understanding of it. Our understanding has changed, minister, and we must change with it. As our ability to observe and explain our world changes, we must be willing to accept new explanations, even if they seem to run afoul of our beliefs.”

At this, Minister Krana scoffed. “Foolish young man. So quick to sound alarm, even as the most reputable of your peers disagree with your findings. Very well, I will indulge you, and we will all pretend that your assertions are true. What, then, is there to be done? Hmm? If the sun has indeed cooled, then what precisely are we to do about it? How do we assure our survival?”

“Minister,” he began, biting his tongue at her sharp criticism, “I do not know.”

“Indeed?” she scoffed once more. “So it is indeed public panic you seek! You have come before us with nothing but a fistful of hollow, politically-charged assumptions, and you expect us to believe you? Truly? And while you bandy about your little prophesies of doom, you offer no solutions!”

“Minister I ask you, how can we be expected to know the solutions to problems we have only just begun to understand? I apologize if I have sounded defensive, even combative throughout this hearing, but try to understand, and truly think about this. Why would I do what you are suggesting? I am a man of science, and while you dismiss virtually everything I say, you at least seem to acknowledge that as fact. Would this not further suggest that I am a man of logic? Repeatedly, you have questioned my motivations, insisted that I harbor some sort of hidden agenda which drives all that I do. I ask you then, what, precisely, is that agenda?”

Silence. Aside from scattered murmurs across the gallery, the silence was all but deafening. One might have heard a pin drop. At last, he was getting to the heart of the matter. He knew he would never convince the dusty satraps arrayed before him of anything…none save the ones who already agreed with him, anyway. The masses huddled behind him, however, were a different story. The floor was his, and so, at last, was the room. He pressed the attack.

“You cannot say, can you? Of course not…because you say these things not for my benefit, or yours, but for theirs.” He gestured widely toward the gallery for effect before continuing. “You see, ministers, we ‘men of science’ are no strangers to politics. Politics, be they personal or philosophical in nature, pervade science. At times they drive science forward…at times they pervert its aims, despite our best efforts. Yet what I see here is something my career in scientific research has left me uniquely prepared to face. It’s the oldest tactic in the book: if you cannot dispute the evidence, attack the manner in which it was collected. If you cannot do that, throw the motives of the collector into question.”

“You have no idea why I might seek to misinform the public,” he persisted, “because even if you truly believe I wish to do so, you have no clue as to why I would do this. What, after all, would I stand to gain by inciting the public to panic? Social chaos and upheaval seldom benefit scientists. Indeed, it would appear as though I have little reason to mislead the public. Yet…can the same be said for everyone in this room?”

At this, the murmur behind him appeared to grow louder, sharper. He cracked a wicked smile. You are not the only ones capable of swaying the masses through innuendo, he mused as they glared at him. Moments later, the First Minister took to wrapping his ball peen gavel on his desk.  

    “We will have order!” he roared. “Doctor, you claim you do not seek to incite the public to panic, yet you peddle in conspiracy within these very walls. We do you the immeasurable favor of calling you before us, hearing you out, and you respond by accusing us of some manner of perverse conspiracy! Explain yourself!”

    “Solar!” he shouted. In a way he regretted saying it, yet in another he felt relief, as though a great weight had been removed from his chest merely by his finally uttering that word.

    The ministers all fell silent, yet the Kronars sat wide-eyed, clearly nervous.

    “I…beg your pardon!” Minister Krana stammered, her voice quaking on the verge of rage. Now, he had done it.
    It was a poorly-kept secret, though a filthy one. Across all of Alkana, nearly ninety-eight percent of their energy was now provided by solar power. Solar energy was a big business, and not without its vocal opponents. For years, there had been a constant outcry from conservationists regarding common industry practices, from the amount of natural and arable land occupied by solar farms, to the intense heat generated by parabolic fields, to concerns regarding the chemicals used in production of the cells. In recent years, however, the solar industry had grown far more difficult to defend, for one inescapable reason: based on the best available information, the solar industry was dying.

    Perhaps that was an overly dramatic assessment, but generally that was how it was framed. The sun was cooling and stabilizing, which meant less solar radiation reaching Alkana’s surface. Less solar radiation meant less energy from solar cells, which meant more panels, more fields of mirrors, taller towers constructed of more exotic materials, even satellites gathering solar energy from outside the planet’s atmosphere, beaming it down to the surface as microwaves. All of this constituted greater effort and use of resources, for ever-diminishing returns.

    The solar industry might be dying, but it remained powerful. A near-total monopoly on a planet’s energy supply brings great wealth and power, and the solar tycoons now used their deep pockets to line those of leading politicians, most notably the Kronars. So complete, so nearly fanatical was their dedication to energy orthodoxy that they flatly rejected all evidence that contradicted their beliefs.  

    “So now we arrive at the heart of all this,” the First Minister railed, “partisan baiting, is that what you are here to do?”

    “I apologize, First Minister, to you and any others on the committee, if I have indeed struck a nerve,” he replied, insincere. “Perhaps that was inappropriate of me. Regardless, I am not here to engage in partisan politics. Quite the contrary.”

    He cleared his throat, stepping forward before continuing. “Honorable ministers, counselors, all those assembled…I stand before you today not to chide and preach, but rather to plead. I plead not for myself, for my own fortunes or glory or other selfish aims, but for us. All of us. I plead for our future, for generations to come and for those already here, who we are dooming to brief, unfulfilling lives through our willful ignorance, our reticence to accept fact and act upon it…before it is too late.”

“My friends,” he continued, gesturing once more toward his pad, “these are not hollow lies woven to instill needless panic. These are facts. I wish they were not genuine, truly. I wish, for all my life, that any amount of doing or redoing could alter these figures, yet nothing could. The sun is stabilizing, and as it does so it grows colder. Our world is growing colder, and as it does it will eventually grow inhospitable to us, and we will die.”

At this, with his audience on tenterhooks, he lowered his pad and raised his voice. “Denying this will not make it untrue. Pretending that this is not happening will not save us, and so far as we can understand, no help will come from elsewhere to offer us salvation. Now, it is up to us. We might be able to mitigate the changes that are to come. Some of my more optimistic colleagues have already devised methods of coping with the decreased solar output, the resultant cooling, and while many of these ideas are somewhat fanciful, others show real promise. We must, however, have the foresight to take these bold actions, and the fortitude to see them through to the end, whatever the cost.”

He turned to the gallery, gesturing widely toward the ministers. “These people would have you believe that this is unnecessary; they do this because, upon weighing the options, they have decided that a few more years of economic prosperity for them is worth sacrificing your future. They would have you believe that such plans would prove to expensive. I would argue that, weighing the cost against that of our extinction, nothing might be too expensive, so long as it works.”

He dropped his arm, and closed as strongly as he could, hands clasped in front of him. “My friends, I have said all I can. While it is up to the ministers seated before you to determine the immediate course of action, whether to heed my warnings or censure me, in the end it is up to you. Science, my friends, is not a threat, to you or to anyone. Indeed, it may well offer our only remaining hope for salvation. Do not allow those with their own, selfish agenda to tell you who to believe and who not to. Above all else, think for yourselves.”
As the sun set, slipping behind the distant mountains, the doctor had lingered on the balcony atop the Council Forum. The ministers and gallery viewers had dispersed hours earlier. As he’d expected, no decision was reached. At least he had not been formally censured…and at least, perhaps, he’d managed to reach a few receptive minds, and change a few. He stared off into the horizon; the nights always felt as though they were growing colder, yet of course every time there was a warm day the Kronar leaders would insist that this debunked the “Global Chill” theory.  

On a high balcony, upon a planet that would, in time, be known as Mars, he stood contemplating the battle ahead, one that he would eventually lose. He might lose, yes, but he would not go down without a fight. And neither, he truly believed, would his people.   


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