THE OLPHITE MYSTERY by Carina Rozenfeld
The origins of life on Earth remained uncertain for a long, long time. Throughout history, various scientific theories had sought to explain how that first spark of life could have appeared. Most of them assumed purely terrestrial origins: a series of ideal conditions ended up creating organic molecules (the oldest known specimens are dated at 3.5 billion years, found in fossils in the year 2006).
In 1878, a different theory was put forward, that of exogenesis. Hermann von Helmholtz asserted that life first took form outside the confines of Earth, and then spread throughout the universe and eventually to our planet. He assigned the role of fecundation to certain comets appearing in far-off zones of our solar system, which would have brought organic molecules to Earth, thus initiating life. These phenomena are spoken of as panspermia ('pan' meaning the All, the Ensemble, and sperma referring to germination) and lithospermia ('lethos' meaning rock).
This theory explains, perhaps, why comets have always held such an important place in the history of humanity, whether in mythology, in religion, or later, in scientific research. All the space administrations of developed countries proposed or undertook plans for fairly major projects to intercept a comet and bring back precious specimens of it to Earth. But then on January 10, 2072, at 22:30 GMT, a meteorite seven feet in diameter crashed near Olphitium, a research center at Lunar Base OP-224, and this unique event permitted the recuperation of a quasi-intact comet. As is often the case in the history of science, this chance incident transformed for all time our vision of the universe.
In studying the core of the rock, a researcher specializing in planetary geology at the Base, Professor Hermann, discovered that it was composed of an organic rock totally unknown on Earth (a complex assemblage of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen -- the atoms essential to life). He named it "olphite." Its discovery was crucial to our being able to clearly explain the history of our universe and the mystery of life on Earth.
From that moment on, the history of humanity was forever changed.
Extract from "The Discovery of Olphite" by Theo Ramban, molecular biology researcher at the Olphitium Laboratory, andmember of Professor Hermann's research group.
The lights went out one by one in the rooms of the school. Darkness was complete. Snow began to fall, and the cold intensified. To be closer to the heavens, that much closer to the stars, all Olphite schools are built on the summits of the highest mountains, and this one kept to the rule. It was up near the top of Mont Blanc, the sole building in the midst of rocks, snow and clouds.
Inside the school, Yalo, the head Guardian of Silence, made his last round. As usual, everything was in order, but Yalo followed the Olphite school's strict discipline. He walked up and down the halls, never making a sound, and he checked all the classrooms before going up to bed. In the refectory, he stood at the window for a moment, watching the snowflakes falling and savoring all the more the cocoon-like atmosphere created by the snow outside.
By tomorrow, the drifts will be several feet deep, and the school more isolated than ever. He sighed, silently, thinking about the team who would have to clear the snow from the asphalt road. For two weeks they had worked hard clearing it, so food and supplies could be brought in, and they would be quite discouraged when they went back to it again in the morning. But accepting the laws of the universe was part of a student's difficult apprenticeship.
He smiled to himself as he thought back on the years of training he'd gone through before becoming a Guardian of Silence. It all seemed so long ago. He felt a wave of compassion for his students, still so hotheaded and greedy for knowledge.
He looked around the clean, orderly room one last time, then went up to his own room, as always without making the slightest noise.
Finally, not one light shone out from the school. Only the wavering flame of a green candle indicated the presence of life buried away in this unlikely spot.
It was black night when Maor opened his eyes. Without moving his head, he glanced all around his room, holding his breath so as to not trouble the silence of the night. All was calm; not one movement around him. He decided to get out of bed, where he had been lying fully dressed. He groped around for his heavy fleece coat and his hiking shoes, and then pulled out a backpack from under his bed. He was ready. He stood there in his room, motionless, a few seconds more and then left.
He followed a long corridor plunged in darkness, his soles silent on the large floor tiles. As he crossed in front of the doors to the rooms of his sleeping schoolmates, someone snored, startling him. He froze, his heart racing, then got a grip on himself and cautiously went down the stairs.
He passed by the classrooms, the concentration alcoves and the gym. As he stole past the doorway to the small Olphite temple, he held his breath. A green candle was lit. That meant a Guardian of Silence, undoubtedly some insomniac, was devoting himself to the Vision. He halted. He allowed himself a last few seconds in this place that had been his home since he was eight years old. Despite his determination to leave, Maor felt a tug at his heart at the memories of the ten years he'd spent here: the cold and foggy mornings, the busy hours of class, games with other dorm members, the first time he entered into the Vision...
He chased away these thoughts, squared his shoulders, and started walking again. He advanced slowly, very cautiously, from fear that the least disturbance would give the alert. But the Guardian of Silence, his rigid figure enfolded in his long midnight blue tunic and hood, did not move. Maor started breathing again and accelerated his step. Finally he arrived at the entrance to the school. In a few seconds he would be free.
He had been planning his escape for a month. He had tried to think of everything to avoid the risk of getting caught, and even more important, to survive the trip. There was no question of him adventuring blindly down the slopes of Mont Blanc. A person risked death on that mountain. So he had stocked up on provisions for the trip by pocketing a bit of every meal: cereal bars, packets of cookies, self-heating coffee packs.
He had also volunteered to work on the snow-removal teams, helping to set up phosphorescent poles along the access road. That had been a long and painful task, for nearly six feet of snow had piled up, and it had hardened. The freezing cold slowed down their progress giving him chapped skin and chilblains as well, but to perform the work, the school had furnished him with a fleece coat, mittens, and warm hiking boots, a good solid pair with anti-skid soles. In Maor's opinion, all his hard work had paid off: with the road cleared, he would be able to descend safely to the marked backpackers' trails, where his tracks would be lost in those of other hikers. He had foreseen everything; at least, he hoped he had, and the journey down the mountains seemed within his reach.
Maor carefully opened the massive front door of the school. It was carved of wood, and swung on its hinges without a sound. At once, intense cold engulfed him, reaching under his clothes and into his mouth. The noise of the wind hurtling over rocks seemed deafening compared to the silence that had reigned in the school. He had no time to hesitate; fearing that the commotion would awaken the Guardians of Silence, he quickly shut the door behind him and headed into the night. With hurried steps, guided only by the vague light of the phosphorescent poles, he left the school behind. A heavy snow was falling and the cold pierced him. He hurried to put on his mittens. A thick layer of snow covered once more the road they had labored so hard to clear. He suffered a little pinch of guilt as he thought of his friends, who would have to attack the work of clearing again in the morning.
He looked back from time to time to make sure no one had struck out in his pursuit. He could see nothing on this dark night, but he felt sure that the alert had not yet been given. The Olphite school was unguarded, and the doors were unlocked, for it had never entered anyone's mind to leave. To enter that school was an opportunity, an honor, the realization of every man's dream to be a part of the elite, to possess the Gift. So why escape like a thief in the night? Maor was surely the first to have had that preposterous idea, and he wondered how the priests were going to react once they discovered his disappearance.
In the meantime, he had to imagine, and be prepared for, every eventuality.
The snow began falling heavier and faster, icing his face and sliding into his ears and eyes. He stopped to wipe them with the backs of his wrists, and then re-tightened his hood, plunged his hands into his pockets and started to trot to warm himself.
At last, he arrived at the shelter holding the school's snow-clearing tools, where he would have taken up work the next morning. This meant he was halfway through the first stage of his trip. From this point on, his journey would become riskier and more dangerous.
He slowed his pace. He was covered with sweat, his lungs on fire. He leaned over and put his hands on his knees, with his head hanging down, trying to catch his breath, which left his mouth in little bursts of thick fog. In the snug shelter of the school, he had never imagined the nights could get so cold. And he had heard that the weather had been even colder, far colder, before global heating. For a few seconds, he felt tempted to dive into the Vision. But he knew if he did that, he would lose all notion of time and then get caught in the morning.
During the course of his years at the school, Maor had of course gotten used to the cold climate. He pictured himself as he had arrived in the courtyard of the school ten years ago, a boy who had never known anything but an easy life with his mother. He had suddenly found himself petrified with cold and fear among the other children. Some were crying softly. Others like him were silent, pale. Maor had always known the Olphite school would be his destiny, but that day, alone with his suitcase at the top of the mountain, he had only wished to return to the warmth of his mother's arms. To be an Olphite no longer seemed such a desirable thing...
And then the weeks had passed, then the months and the years, and he had stopped thinking about his former life. His world was reduced to the white mountain peaks, to changes in the sky, to classes, rules, the walls of the school. He was not unhappy. He was even one of the best students. He had friends, a comfortable life, and one single goal: to be named Guardian of Silence and then to become the best Olphite priest ever! A life all planned out in advance, that nothing could perturb.
Maor tripped, and his mind returned to reality. He did not know how long he had been trudging forward. The snow had stopped falling and the clouds, pushed by the violent winds, had disappeared. Stars, miniscule and cold, scintillated above the icy peaks. Maor did not need to look for the moon, because he knew this was a moonless night; knowledge that came from the basic education he had received in his first year. The stars appeared all the more brilliant without the moon's light, and at this altitude, the sky was magnificent. Maor looked up at it from time to time to draw courage.
The school had not been erected on the very highest point of Mont Blanc. To build the school too high and far from everything would have made provisioning impossible. The Olphite priests desired solitude, but even so, a black ribbon had ended up climbing the slopes, scarring the flanks of the mountain like a fat snake coiled among the rocks. This road served the modern hotels that had spread like mushrooms on the slopes, and since it was equipped with auto heating systems, it was drivable even in the heart of the worst winters. But the Olphite priests had refused to let the road to cross over the border of the school's territory. The isolation of the building and of its inhabitants was an important part of the apprenticeship and the discipline of the students. It was also one of the criteria that made it one of the most famous Olphite schools, second only to Olphitium, the school built on the site where the Hermann meteor had crashed, the school at the origins of the Olphites themselves ...
The narrow road zigzagged between boulders and crevices. Maor's calves were aching from going down the slope and the sweat generated from his short run was now chilling his skin. Slushy drops slid down his neck from his wet hair and made him shiver. Suddenly he sneezed and the sound echoed on the snow-mounded banks. He stopped abruptly, shocked by the noise. He sensed his confidence ebbing as his fatigue increased, and it was with a hesitant step that he went back to walking. The silence felt as crushing to him as the enormous blocks of ice with their bluish gleam in the night. After a little while though, he noticed a pink glimmer on the snow toward the west, so he turned around, and saw the light of dawn touching the sky above the eastern crests. He thought of his room, inundated with light on clear mornings. He was impatient now for the sun to rise, ready to abandon the security of nighttime in exchange for a bit of warmth.
A bit farther down, he made out the point where they had stopped clearing the snow the day before, at a bend in the road. He reached it in about twenty minutes. With all the snow that had fallen during the night, Maor figured that the electric vehicle transporting the workers and material from the school would not arrive here for another good two hours.
It took him just over an hour to reach the marked hiking trails. Once he had crossed that invisible frontier marking the school's physical boundary, Maor felt much more relaxed. The sun was up now, dispensing a welcome warmth that brought his moral back up. He accorded himself a short break to mark the occasion, and to get some of his strength back and think about what to do next. He dug in his sack and took out an auto-heating coffee and a cereal bar, a bit wet and smashed. He looked around him while he was eating. All the paths were marked with different colors according to their difficulty. The site had been developed to assure maximum safety while still giving the thrills of the high mountains. From time to time, some nut, avid for sensation, would get the wild idea to leave the marked trails and confront the raw mountainside. Some never returned. Maor was no thrill seeker -- what he had just gone through sufficed already, and he counted on following an easy trail right down to the bottom, with his hands in his pockets.
A group of hikers appeared around a curve of the trail: six figures bundled in roomy hooded jackets, roped one to another and equipped with hiking sticks. They were on the violet trail, which followed the border of Olphite territory toward the pass. Maor studied them, struck with the thought that he would be less noticeable if he were in the middle of a group... Suddenly, he made his decision, and slinging his pack onto his shoulder, he set out after the hikers.
"Hey, wait for me please. Hey there, please!"
The figures stopped and turned their heads toward him. At that, Maor felt a pang of doubt that acting so impulsively had been the right choice, he who had had no contact with people outside the school for ten years! But now they had seen him, it was too late to turn around and go back.
He ran, raising up sprays of white powder, until all of a sudden he fell headlong. Snow filled his mouth and covered his face and eyes, and his breath got knocked out of him. A giant leaned over him and helped him up.
"You all right, kid? Nothing broken?"
"No, no, thank you," Maor said, breathing hard
"What are you doing here, are you lost?"
"I...I...I came up alone on the trail. A stupid bet with some friends... But I got scared during the night, and...I wondered if I could go back down with you."
Maor had spoken hurriedly, inventing the first story that came to his head. The giant scrutinized him suspiciously with his black eyes, but then responded with a shrug.
"Well, if you can keep up with us, it wouldn't be a problem for me. But we're going to make a detour and we won't be in Chamonix until tomorrow evening."
"Good. That'd be just fine for me."
"What's your name, kid?"
"Me, I'm Paul Duroque. I'm the guide. I accompany tourists who've come to see the Olphite school. That's why we're making a detour."
Maor turned white. He could not go back up there. Already he was searching for another lie to explain his way out of his predicament, but nothing came to him. To refuse to follow the group now would seem odd to someone offering him assistance. Paul said nothing more, but helped him rejoin the group of hikers and rope himself to the end of the line. Maor was so exhausted and so worried about being recognized or betraying himself somehow, that the rest of the journey felt like a nightmare. They hiked along the border of the school's land, up to a plaque set up atop a boulder that related the history of the Olphite school from its origins in 2078. Clear skies allowed a perfect view of the building where the students lived. The refectory windows reflected the sun, and tiny figures were doing gymnastics in front of the large doors that Maor had gone through just a few hours earlier. Farther up the slope, they could see the great Olphite temple where the high priests lived, inaccessible and venerated. The hikers brought out a variety of cameras and video recorders with which they bombarded the ensemble with little cries of excitement.
As for Maor, he tried to remain inconspicuous. He dreaded seeing an armada of priests pour out at any minute. He looked everywhere except at the school. However, his eyes kept returning to the figures in black robes who accompanied the students. Suddenly, one of the boys stopped and pointed at the group of hikers. The whole group stopped stretching and turned in their direction. Maor's heart started beating fast enough to explode as he pictured his friends recognizing him. Feeling like he was going to be sick, he leaned back against the plaque, breathing noisily. To his great relief, his companions did not notice his trouble, except maybe for Paul, but with his somber face it was hard to know whether he'd guessed what was going on. Maor kept thinking of just one thing: screaming and running far away. Fortunately, his legs could hardly hold him up, let alone run.
Hurry up, you people, he thought, taking a few shaky steps in the snow. Quickly now. That's enough, you've seen the school. It looks like any other. Let's get out of here. We don't have the right to be here. Now that the students have seen us, it's only a matter of time before the priests react.
Should the evidently normal unfolding of the school day reassure him or make him more worried? Finally, Paul gave the signal to leave. He must know they didn't have the right to stay here too long, and he didn't want to bring on trouble. In any case, the tourists curiosity was satisfied. To Maor's great relief, the group took off for good, but he could not help looking back several times, seeking out the least sign of alert. The students had gone back to their gymnastics and everything seemed normal.
They followed the purple trail another two hours and then turned off to a less difficult orange trail. Maor was exhausted. He had run away the night before, and had had no rest since. He had to force himself just to keep his eyes open, plus he was famished and terribly thirsty. Because he no longer felt his legs, he kept tripping in the snow. He was close to passing out when Paul finally decided to set up camp for the night.
Night was already falling, but the group was well organized, and they quickly lit some gas luma-lamps, set up a large yellow tent, unrolled sleeping bags, and prepared dinner. Maor did not know what language these men and women spoke, but they were friendly and shared their dinner with him. Cradled by the sound of their voices and their strange accents, Maor dozed sitting up, his bowl of soup between his legs. Paul came and sat next to him, placing a huge hand on his knee.
"You seem tired to me, kid."
Maor forced himself to open his eyes and emerge from the black hole he was slipping into.
"Yes, that's true. I didn't sleep much last night. What are these people doing? Why did they take pictures of the school?"
Paul shrugged his shoulders and drank a mouthful of coffee.
"You know, those Olphite priests are revered throughout the whole world. Some people would pay a fortune just to touch one."
"Why? Because they have the Gift?"
"Among other reasons, but mostly because they're going to save the earth. Where have you been? Don't you ever read the papers?"
"Save the earth?" muttered Maor.
He was too tired to ask questions now. Paul had surely misunderstood the role of the Olphite priests. He would see about that later. The last thing he heard was Paul's gruff voice.
"You must really be tired, kid. Your ideas are all muddled. Take my sleeping bag. I can use my survival blankets. I'm used to it, I'm a..."
The bottom of each trail merged with the road, which eventually ended up in front of gigantic hotels whose glass sides reflected the setting sun and the snow. This was New Chamonix, the most modern ski resort in the country. The ski lifts moved with dizzying speed, transporting hundreds of skiers from the interiors of hotels right up to the start of the runs on the snow-covered summits. They rushed down the slopes like multitudes of hard-working ants zigzagging one behind another. It was not late, but already immense luminous signs lit up the night with multicolored flashes and swirling holographic images. Music, shouts, buzzing of all sorts aggressed Maor's eardrums, accustomed to the serenity and silence of the school. But most deafening of all was the crowd. Thousands of people filled the roads, the stores, the restaurants -- so many figures, faces and voices passing by him, brushing him, knocking into him, yelling in his ears. Brilliant or drab countenances, mouths that laughed, chewed, kissed, avid, exhaling white fog.
He was overwhelmed. After ten years of order, discipline, calm and concentration, in the midst of the snow, so close to the heavens you could almost touch them with your finger, he had forgotten real life, noisy and hectic. He wanted to make a U-turn, go back to the peaks and fill himself to the brim with silence and blue sky. He wanted to go and caress the stars with his thoughts.
No, no, no, he would not cave in to that temptation. He had been right to leave. All the same, it was hard to be back in this world.
The hikers had returned to their hotel. Maor followed Paul through the turbulent streets. Exhausted and unsure of himself, he felt incapable of making any kind of decision whatsoever. The guide stopped in front of the tourist agency where he worked.
"Well, this is where we say goodbye, kid. You're sure you're all right?"
"Yes, yes, of course. I'll go home and take a nice hot shower."
"You have somewhere to go at least?"
"Obviously." Maor tried to give himself a confident air. "I'm going to go home. My mother must be getting worried about me."
"Well, I'll take off then. See you later, kid."
"Goodbye, Paul, and thanks again."
The guide pushed open the door to the agency, which jingled as it opened. His tall form disappeared and Maor found himself all alone in the middle of chaos. He remained motionless a few seconds leaving, dragging his steps, to lose himself in the streets.