The Snow Crystal Morphographer

The twenty seventh Snow Crystal Morphographer, Abbotess Tharsis, lived in the private monastery of Nakaya, 3 miles up on the North Western flank of Olympus Mons. To my mind the volcanic mountain resembles a breast with an inverted nipple, but the gentle and seemingly endless slopes of the mountain are commonly compared to a circus tent, albeit an asymmetrical one of unimaginably vast proportions. The Abbotess Tharsis, so the legend goes, was fond of reminding the monks of this likeness, telling them that the monastery was a kind of circus, and that they were no more then altitude-drunk clowns. For this is the largest and highest known mountain in our entire Solar System, a long dormant, 14 mile high Martian volcano, upon the slopes of which the turreted monastery clung.

The monastery of Nakaya was home to one thousand monks and over 50,000 volumes of scripture, most of which were concerned with the morphography of snow crystals. The monastery itself was almost 1500 years old. It was built from rammed Martian dust, huge granite blocks and fragrant cedar wood beams shipped from Earth during the early decades of the Martian greening. The 21 storey building had massively thick walls, ornate gates and dusty red turrets in which the patient monks worked on the near interminable task that had become known as the ‘matching’.

It was the Abbotess Tharsis who oversaw this gargantuan and intricate process, which famously involved trying to find perfectly identical snow crystals. Whenever it snowed many hundreds of thousands of individual snow crystals were carefully collected on thin wooden boards and stored in a series of vast refrigerated cellars. Throughout the year the monastery artists meticulously documented the snow crystal morphographies in volume after volume of hand-crafted ledgers. Pattern matching monks continuously searched these ledgers for identical snow crystal forms.

The reasons for pursuing this task were written in the ancient scriptures of the Dendritic cosmology which the monks practiced. It was based on the belief that snow crystals are encoded with a symbolic spiritual representation in which geometric uniqueness predominates. If alike snow crystals were found then it was time for ‘the Great Sublimation’. No one was exactly sure what that would entail, but the instructions for it were written in sealed monastic scriptures.

For my wife’s 50th birthday I had bought us tickets for a ten day guided tour of the monastery, as it had been one of her life-long ambitions to visit the place. We spent most of the first day sleeping in our rooms and recovering from the four day trek we had endured to get there. In the early evening we were told by a young novice monk that the Abbotess wanted to take tea with us in her rooms. The novice escorted us down a labyrinthine series of mural lined corridors to a large, low ceilinged room panelled with dark wood and ancient wall hangings patterned with hexagonal lattices.

“Welcome to you, welcome to you all”

The tiny Abbotess Tharsis shook each of our hands in turn and beckoned us to sit  with her on a circular wooden bench that surrounded a crackling fire place. The burgundy cloaked Abbotess was a sprightly octogenarian with a crew cut of silver hair. She reputedly still got up at dawn to pray every morning and still scaled the many intricate staircases and sloping  passageways of the Nakaya Monastery with a spring in her step. She had lived in the monastery for 55 years and started each working day with relish and optimism, despite the overwhelming odds that she would never complete her life’s work. She was known for being exceedingly courteous to the rare visitors who made it as far as this isolated mountain location,  and our small group of 10 dusty tourists was no exception.

After personally serving us with tea and Moon cake the Abbotess Tharsis explained that, despite its isolation, 19th century astronomers with unsophisticated telescopes had long observed the high contrast area, or ‘albedo feature’ – the light and dark juxtapositions which represent the dark summit of Olympus Mons and the light dust of the remaining Martian planet surface.

“In the 19th century” the Abbotess explained “this area of contrast was called ‘Nix Olympica’ which is Latin for “Olympic Snow”. We like to think we honour this name with our work here. The name is doubly apposite as Olympus was the mountain where the ancient Greeks believed their gods resided, and snow crystals, in our scriptures, are evidence of spiritual perfection”.

The Abbotess told us what we had all read in our guide books about the low probabilities of ‘the matching’.

“Even if there were say, as few as a million snow crystals and you could compare every possible pair taking only a second for each comparison, then it would take you approximately one hundred thousand years to compare all the possible combinations. But here there are almost incalculably vast numbers of snowflakes, the number would take me all day to write down for you”. Her smile was infectious, we found ourselves bathed by her serene presence and warmth. Five of the tourists in our group were of the Dendritic faith. They seemed deeply moved to be in the presence of the 27th Snow Crystal Morphographer.

“But what would be the implication of no match existing?”, one of our group asked the Abbotess, “wont the futility of the effort eventually erode the Dendritic faith?”

“Our aims here are so misunderstood, as to be laughable” the Abbotess replied, “it is comparable to the misuse of the term ‘quantum leap’.  People use it to mean bridging a huge gap, but a quantum leap is no more than the diameter of the nucleus of an atom. What you have asked signifies another type of major misunderstanding – our mathematician monks have proven beyond doubt that there are many, many identical snow crystals. This is not the point. The point is to find a match – and to examine what that mathematically improbable discovery might signify”.

There was no aggression or egotism in what she stated, her selfless compassion was well known, even to the point of inviting a tourist who was caught stealing books from the monastery to stay with the monks for their annual snow festival. Every year the festival heralded the first sighting of a stellar dendrite, the iconic star and tree-like snow crystals beloved of Christmas cards and Nordic knitwear. The tourist thief, so the story goes, was so impressed by the experience of monastic life that he became a monk and worked in the monastery laboratory, where he took immaculate care of the order’s many electron microscopes.

“And if you find a match?” I asked the Abbotess, “what will become of the monastery – will it be abandoned, will you retire happily, return to the Earth, to Ireland, where you were born?”

“Ah, then we will start the process of the Great Sublimation. The hermeneutic monks will open the sacred unread scriptures embedded with instructions and interpret them for the rest of us. They will know what to do and we will follow them’.

“Does anyone else live here, on the mountain, apart from monks?” My wife asked.

“There are a few independent pattern matchers, also Dendrites, maybe five or six of them, a 10 strong team of volcanologists nearer the summit, and a group of Ethnomethodologists studying the scientists, who live two thousand feet above the monastery. We think there are maybe a dozen of them. Apart from that there is no one else within an area larger than the British Isles. That’s 1025 people within 114,000 square miles”. The scale of the mountain gave us all solemn pause for thought, until the silence was eventually broken by our tour guide, Jonas. He asked the Abbotess why the monastery didn’t use computers to do the matching.

“It’s a good question and we have considered it, we’ve even had programmer monks work on algorithms, with rather poor results. Some tasks remain HIT – human intelligence tasks. Apparently we humans still have our uses, but no, we wouldn’t be averse to using Computer Vision if it worked. And so, I am afraid if there are no other questions, this old Abbotess needs to say her bed-time prayers. I wish you all an enlightening sojourn with us. I will pray for your well-being.”

As the light faded we thanked the Abbotess for her hospitality and retired to our rooms to spend our first night on Mons Olympus. I don’t think there was anyone amongst our group, believer or non-believer, who did not feel the glow of grand-maternal warmth that had been generated from our contact with the sprightly Abbotess. We all slept well until the dramatic events of early next morning awoke us.

I was woken at dusk by the improbable sound of a very low pitched elephant wailing. The sound seemed to echo across the mountain sides and all through the monastery corridors. As my mind cleared from sleep I realised that these almost infrasound frequencies were of course, not the wails of an elephant, but one, or more likely two of those famous 10 foot long telescope shaped trumpets beloved of the Dendritic orders. As my wife stirred beside me I became aware of excited voices in the monastery corridors and the sound of monks running down the staircase beside our room.

“What is it?” my wife mumbled, “did something happen?”.

“Must have done, maybe they found the match – do you think that could be it?”

“I guess it must be. what else could it be?”

I  quickly got dressed and followed the crowd of monks down the creaking staircase out into the sloping Monastery courtyard.

“Do you know what’s going on?” I asked a monk standing beside me.

He pointed to the sky above the monastery and I noticed for the first time  a light sprinkling of snow was falling. Perhaps the copper trumpets were heralding an unusually premature start to the snow festival? By then the trumpet sounds were interlaced with the clashing of cymbals and the slow rhythmic beats of hand drums struck by monks with sticks shaped like question-marks.  More and more monks filled the courtyard, forming a sea of billowing burgundy and orange robes.

“Is it the snow festival?” I asked another monk, catching a few snow flakes in my hand.

“No snow festival” He smiled, shaking his forefinger “is match, match snow” and he too pointed to the falling snow, his face lit up with rapturous excitement.

As the morning progressed the celebratory sounds only grew louder and louder. Rumour spread that not one but three matches had been found, this only intensified the playing, which had a frenzied edge to it. Later it was officially announced that a forth and fifth match had fallen from the sky. I am loathe to use the word ‘cacophony’ to describe the sound that ensued, as I recognise this is a cultural construction, and one man’s noise is another man’s music, but it reached the point where my wife and I could stand it no longer. The volume was overwhelming and further exacerbated by the deafening reverberation from the mountain sides.

We decided to leave the monastery for the day and explore some of the walking trails. We had trained for the altitude, the lower gravity on Mars fortunately means that it has less impact on the atmosphere then it does on Earth. We were confident that we could make it at least as far as the reputedly magnificent Dendritic shrine 3 miles above the monastery. The incline would still be relatively mild and at this time of year it would still be a long way below the snow-line. The snow that fell was very sparse so we had no fear of a deluge.

We had more than enough picnic supplies to last the whole day. Our intention was to return to the monastery well before dusk to witness what the Great Sublimation would entail. We had been told by Jonas that the instrument playing would last until two hours before sunset, at which point there would be a period of total silence before the Abbotess would make a significant announcement.

As we walked away from the mysterious droning of the monastic orchestra my wife and I were able to think more clearly. Neither of us have ever liked loud music, so it was a relief to get some distance from the hullabaloo. We joked about how incongruous this hubbub was with our preconception of Dendrites as peaceful, quiet people. A few hundred feet away we paused to look back down at the monastery. With the sound turned down it really did look like Shangri-La, a sacred and beautiful place of refuge from the chaos of life on Earth. I felt a wave of delicious serenity wash over me. I sensed that my wife was also enjoying a profound peace of mind. We held hands and continued our ascent of the rocky path. After about an hour and a half of easy walking we saw a long wooden hut ahead of us. At first we thought it was abandoned, but then my wife noticed several figures moving around outside it. We guessed these must be the Ethnomethodologists the Abbotess had told us about.

“They look very busy” My wife observed, “I wonder if they are too busy to make us a cup of tea?”

“I should think they’ll be delighted to see a couple of fresh faces”. I  squeezed her hand as an unconscious signal to up the pace. The prospect of imminent refreshment always made me want to walk more rapidly.

“They look like they’re mangling wet clothes, look at all the suds coming out of the washing machine”. By now we could see a young man bent over a handle which he was cranking energetically. A mechanical ratcheting sound reached us across the narrowing gap. At first I also thought that soap bubbles were somehow emanating from the device, but as we grew closer I realised that they were not bubbles, their shape and movement was heavier.

“This is rather odd” I told my wife, slowing down as I began to mentally process what I was seeing,

“those chaps aren’t washing their clothes”

“What are they doing then?” My wife asked, straining to see.

“How strange, they look to me like they’re manufacturing and spreading snow”.

“Why would they want do that?”

“I’ve no idea, perhaps we’d better stroll over and ask them”.

“I’m Doctor Frin, very pleased to meet you”.

A near emaciated middle-aged man with a stereotypically academic appearance walked over to greet us, shaking our hands vigorously. I was about to introduce us when he added “Jennifer and Camran isn’t it?”

“Word has spread I see?” I noted how incongruous he seemed in this remote setting, he looked far too fragile and cerebral to cope with such a rugged landscape.

“It’s a very small world here, as you can imagine. You will stop for tea wont you? We’re all dying to find out what’s going on down there”.

In the hut we were met by several more academics of varying ages and genders. They seemed highly animated, as if the excitement at the monastery had infected them. The quarters were reminiscent of Captain Scott’s hut at Cape Evans, which my wife and I had once visited. It was slightly ramshackle but also both homely and scientific, with much evidence of cameras and sound equipment in active use. A young man wearing large headphones sat at a cramped desk at the end of the hut, rapidly taking notes. Other scientists were examining a video feed. My wife must have noticed this at the same time, because she asked Doctor Frin, “isn’t that the monastery?”

“Yes, it’s the courtyard, we’re getting a rough idea of events but it’s even better to get an account of them from first hand witnesses, how fortunate you’ve come along!”

“We don’t really understand what you’re doing” I said, “did I see you manufacturing artificial snow just now?”

“Oh yes – perfect snow crystals, every single one identical to the other – thousands of them. We’ve been releasing them over the monastery since before dawn”. Doctor Frin seemed very pleased with their efforts.

“Why on Earth would you do that?” My wife demanded, clearly quite irritated by this explanation.

“Why on Mars more like!” the Doctor joked. Realising his joke had misfired he changed his tone and said more seriously “it’s a breaching experiment”.

Jennifer and I must have looked dumbfounded for the Doctor added “it’s a way of understanding residual rules by breaching expected norms. A classic ethnomethodological strategy. We’ve thrown the cat amongst the pigeons as it were, by providing the monks with their equivalent of a Second Coming. We want to see how they’ll react and what impact it will have on their implicit understandings of reality, hence the snow crystal growth chamber you saw Max cranking up.” He poured us both tea, first adding the milk as if we were in a Senior Common Room at Oxford University.

‘Aren’t you meant to be studying the volcanologists?” I asked, also feeling a mounting irritation with the so called ‘experiment’.

“That’s a cover story, although we might get funding to study the volc folk next year”.

“What about the poor monks?” my wife remonstrated, “what rights do they have in this situation?’ She suddenly slapped a hand to her mouth, “Oh  my God, what if they all decide to kill themselves – who knows what ‘the Great Sublimation’ will consist of?” She turned her back to the doctor and said to me “Camran, we have to go back down to the monastery and tell the Abbotess this is a hoax, before something terrible happens”.

I agreed, even if it was just to save the order inconvenience and humiliation. We could not allow the monks to be toyed with in this way. It seemed both cruel and unethical.

“I can’t let you do that” Doctor Frin said firmly, actually blocking the open hut door with his puny frame. By now the other scientists had stopped what they were doing and were all looking at us.

“Don’t be ridiculous” I said, pushing Doctor Frin out of the way as my wife and I exited in a hurry.

We all but ran down the mountain track and away from the Ethnomethodologists. A paranoid part of me thought they might actually follow us and forcibly prevent my wife and I from reaching the monks. “Let’s take a different route back” I said to Jennifer as we trotted down the path. “We’ll branch off to the left, go along the track for a way before going down, that way we’ll come out by the monastery gates”.

As we traversed the dusty track we discussed what we had just encountered, almost breathless with outrage.

“To think you actually had to push that man out the way!” my wife exclaimed. “Ridiculous, and the lack of respect. Who does that man think he is?”

“Don’t worry’ I said to her, almost panting with an excess of adrenalin, “We’ll sort this all out before it gets majorly out of hand, we have a good few hours before the Abbotess relays the instructions”. By now my wife had gone into verbal overdrive. She had a very strong sense of justice, and although she would never classify herself as a practicing Dendrite, she had a great deal of respect for the faith, which she admired because it was gentle, intelligent and non-oppressive, with no interest in proselytising or converting others. The Dendrites were also pacifists, and had calmly but actively opposed the tragic Lunar wars, which in hindsight was the only sane position to take.

“I can’t bare this type of bullying – that’s what it is Camran, imperious, deceitful, academics riding roughshod over irreproachable monks. Innocent, harmless monks! It makes my blood boil”.

I didn’t feel quite as strongly as my wife did. Part of me could see how fascinating the experiment was, but I knew it was ethically and morally indefensible and entirely agreed that we should tell the monks they were being tricked.

We had covered a good 2 miles sideways along the mountain path when my wife stopped.

“What was that?” she almost whispered.

“What was what?” My hearing isn’t quite as sharp as hers and I could hear nothing at all apart from the Martian wind.

“Rumble, something like an explosion”

“Can’t be fireworks this time of day?”

“No, no it’s…” She struggled to pin-point exactly what it was but then suddenly screamed “Run Camran!” She grabbed my hand and dragged me towards an enormous outcrop of boulders, as we crouched beside them an immense rumble like a hundred space ships taking off engulfed the air around us. We put our hands over our ears and leant into each other as an avalanche swept past us a few feet away, a giant rumbling landslide of frozen water and rock.

Later we would discover that this was a cornice fracture. Whether it was caused by the noise in the monastery or not will never be known. Apparently noise is not such a significant factor in avalanches, though my wife thinks she may have heard an explosion shortly before the avalanche started. In which case perhaps the monks had let off very loud fireworks that contributed to the disaster.  When the avalanche had passed us we ran down the mountainside back towards the monastery, dislodging stones and small rocks as we scrambled down. We turned a corner that should have put the monastery in sight but all we could see was an immense powdery cloud of snow and debris. We both ran into the cloud, shouting to any survivors that help was here. There was no reply, the whole area was unnaturally silent. We dug at the deep snow with our bare hands, ignoring the cold that made us increasingly ineffective, but it was futile.      Gradually the other tourists from our group returned and joined in the digging. They had all left the monastery for the day to get away from the noise. All ten of us and Jonas were unharmed. Two of the tourists told us that the Ethnomethodologists had been buried alive inside the hut. None of them had survived. The volcanologists were all safe and had been at the edge of the Calderas miles above the avalanche site.

Of the monastery nothing remained. No bodies were ever found and all evidence of the building was gone. It was as if the place had never existed. My wife and I returned to Earth with a sense of overwhelming unreality. It took us many months to process the events of that summer and to come to terms with the rapidity of what happened. One minute it was there – a 1500 year old monastery of staggering beauty and historical significance, in which 1000 energetic monks lived and worked. We grieved for the poor monks and for Abbotess Tharsis as if she had been our own grandmother. At her memorial in Dublin, which we attended, a passage from her published journal was read out loud. It seemed momentarily to bring her back to us, sprightly, compassionate and straightforward, with more than a sprinkling of Martian dust in her silver hair:

“Our search for the indistinguishable stellar dendrite is not a search for an end as most people assume, perhaps because the word ‘perfection’ is steeped in so much linear fantasy. Perfection, at least in Greek, has a semantic root in ‘teleos’, completeness, but our purpose here is process not teleos. A snow crystal has neither a complete past nor a complete future and neither do we. Do not be fooled by this ancient building and this even more ancient planet. All that is verifiable about our existence here is continuous change. We are always in a process of changing, always becoming, always dying, always disappearing, these are the undeniable truths of all our lives”.

Published by Rejected Short Stories

"Now I have restored some of my words that I want to tell people what it feels like to go through such an experience- the contents right flushed out of your brain. What it's like a whole load of other people's stuff pumped into it. Most of what they put in my mind was bank account numbers and bioinformatics data flows rearrange forever. A swirl of unstable figures, flows through me in all directions, such as rats and fleas self-replicating and voracious attacks of my brain, only animals was not, it was language."

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