Eye of the Solar Needle, The

The Eye of the Solar Needle
Image from Steve Bowers

Mercury's surface is, in general, a frozen reminder of its torturous youth. The planet roasts under the glare of Sol, and as it cooled from its formation, billions of years ago, it shrunk in on itself, leaving many regions of the planet wrinkled or cut with great scarps. Impact craters give the planet a superficial resemblance to Earth's Moon, and ancient lava flows cover much of the surface. The planet today is a hot and barren rock. Four billion years ago, it was seething with activity.

Some signs of that youth, however, are more subtle. Many cannot be seen unless one is almost on top of them.

It was during the early Interplanetary Era when mankind and his artificial partners first arrived on the innermost planet, searching for scientific knowledge and exploitable resources. By and large, the planet was seen as a barren lump of rock by the public. To those who made their living searching for materials to drive the ever expanding Human civilization, the planet was a ball of metals and a platform for the creation of energy. But to exploit any of this, the thrill of exploration would have to first be completed.

Among the first manned expeditions to Mercury, there was the crew of the Phaistos. While not the first manned mission to the planet, it was the only one solely devoted to pure scientific exploration. The crew of six was composed of two geologists, one solar astronomer, one hydrologist, one planetary scientist, and one biologist (a dubious job on this particular mission). For six weeks the ship and crew jumped to varying locations on Mercury, scouting out ancient volcanic basins, ice deposits at the poles that were lost within permanent shadows, and soaring out into distant orbits to study the local planetary neighborhood. A few ancient lava tubes were also explored, one to a depth of 133 meters and a length of nearly a kilometer, in the hopes of finding evidence for present or ancient extremophile life. This last exploration was, predictably, a failure, although the two geologists recovered a wealth of information about the planet's interior.

Towards the end of the mission, the Phaistos was flying low over Tir Planitia, moving across the terminator from night into day. As the sun began to breach the sharp and close horizon, solar astronomer Juanita Ibarra began to make some observations, being interested in a large cluster of sunspots that had formed over the past several hours. Her observations were not official, and so most of the crew was resting in their cabins when she called out over the ship's com system, "The Sun has a ring!"

In fact, it was not truly a ring around the Sun, but rather a ring on the Sun. Specialist Ibarra had spotted a rock formation on the Mercurian horizon, silhouetted against the blazing solar disk. It was an almost perfect ring, held aloft from the planet's surface by a thin spire of rock. For several intense minutes, the theories were flying fast and furious. Had they discovered evidence of an alien intelligence in the form of a mysterious monument in this improbable place? Perhaps it was the ruins of some previous expedition (even though none had ever reported being lost). As the ship grew closer, however, it became obvious that what they were seeing was natural, if remarkably unlikely.

Standing at the rim of an unnamed crater some 457 meters in diameter, a spire of basaltic rock rose nearly 67 meters from the rubble of the rim. Its mean diameter was 12 meters, although the thickness towards the base of the formation expanded to nearly 100 meters. At its pinnacle, the rock flared out into a ring, its center hollowed, the edges rough and cracked. Closer inspection showed the donut-shape to be less than perfect, however, and that the interior of the ring had once been filled with a softer rock, probably highly fractured olivine. It was hypothesized that the impact of the body that created the associated crater had thrown up a variety of material, including veins of basalt that had flowed molten eons ago, surrounding the fractured olivine. Other masses of basalt were found within and beyond the crater. Only, this particular mass had managed to be thrown into an upright position by the impact, and in that moment the brittle olivine had likely been completely shattered, leaving behind the ring -- or the Eye of the Needle as it was soon and inevitably called.

It was this feature which captured the public attention, and soon the modified name, Eye of the Solar Needle, was drifting about the inhabited Solar System. People were fascinated by this "wonder of Mercury". There were even a few fringe groups who did insist that it was a monument left behind by aliens, a sign post to Humanity. Why it might have been left in this improbable location, to be discovered only by pure chance and incredible luck, rather than being placed somewhere on Earth where Humanity was actually located, was never addressed.

As the years passed and the exploitation of Mercury began to occur, the public finally began to gain access to the Needle. Slowly, but with a gradual rise in numbers as the population of the planet began to expand, people began to visit the Needle. A base was eventually established within the crater, and this began to expand beneath the surface, until a small community was established with nearly 1500 permanent residents, and a transient population that numbered nearly 1,000 more at any given time.

All around, even within view of the Needle, massive mining operations were in place. Great pits were being excavated, deep tunnels were carved, and at a site only 122 kilometers away a massive energy beam excavation project carved away the rock to reveal deep mineral concentrations. But all through this, the Needle survived, and became a symbol for much of the mining population. One local corporation, in fact, used a stylized image of the Needle for their logo. It was a natural monument that was respected by people off-planet, and revered by people on-planet. It became an unofficial Mercurian holiday to view the sunrise through the Eye of the Needle.

When the Nanoswarms wracked the Solar System and all the Mercurian populations were destroyed, the Needle became a legend. With the advent of the First Federation and the return of Humanity to Mercury, the Needle was rediscovered and restored to reality. It became a monument to the pioneering ideology of Humanity, and once more was the center of in-world and off-world visitation. Even when the mega-complexes became largely abandoned and Mercury fell to the status of a sparsely populated world, the Needle remained locally famous.

In time, the Sun Miners began to take over the wardenship of the Needle, and it eventually became a local cultural icon for them. To this day, the Sun Miners consider it the center of their history in the Sol System, even though they saw their beginnings elsewhere.

But the tale of the Eye of the Solar Needle was not done.

In 10503, as it had billions of times before, the Sun began to rise and shine through the Eye of the Needle. As a small group of tourists watched, however, they were aghast to see that instead of a ring, seemingly perfect against the blinding glare of the Sun, there was a crescent. At some point in the previous days-long night of Mercury, the Needle had been shattered. Intense investigations proved that it had been an artificial hand, not the grasp of Time, that had broken the ancient monument. Signs of space-suited feet were found in the surrounding Mercurian regolith, but how the Eye had been broken, or why, was never discovered. To many, it was obvious that a mindless act of vandalism had occurred, with no other purpose than to ease the boredom of some malcontents. The local Sun Miner population went into an uproar, and the entire region was closed off. For nearly three weeks no one was allowed to leave. At one point suspicion fell on a baseline Human named Symon, but corroboration with his AI companion, Al, proved him to be innocent.

In the end, the region was permanently closed to visitors. Indeed, nearly the entire planet had been locked away from off-worlders. If anything, though, the Eye of the Solar Needle has become an even more revered site. Like the planet itself, the Needle has endured billions of years of mindless nature, only to suffer at the hands of intelligence. It still endures, however diminished, and remains to many the true heart of the Mercurian culture.

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Development Notes
Text by John M. Dollan

Initially published on 02 May 2006.