The Habitable Epoch of the Early Universe
A Story of the First Lifeforms
This short story was inspired by Dr. Abraham Loeb’s 2013 paper titled “The Habitable Epoch of the Early Universe”. It hypothesizes that just 15 million years after the Big Bang, the cosmic background radiation of the universe had enough energy that the entire Universe was a comfortable 300 degrees Kelvin for 3 million years — enough to sustain liquid water everywhere. In this cosmologically brief period of time, there was a chance that life could exist anywhere in the universe, not necessarily needing to orbit a star for energy. The only other pre-requisite ingredients were heavier elements like carbon, formed by early stars.
17 Million Years after the Big Bang
Tmiati-84 open his single eye wide. The blurry light scattered across his retina as he peered across the shallow sea at his clone, Tmiati-79. They were simple gelatinous blobs of water and carbon, but quite intelligent.
“What do you see from the telescope T79?” yelled Tmiati-84. “Do you see the new star they were talking about?”
Tmiati-79 banged his single eye in frustration. “I don’t see a damn thing, too much humidity! We either need to go higher or wait another week.”
Getting higher was near impossible without dying. The Tmiati’s lived on a flat watery moon called TEMO, but it did not have a single mountain or hill. The only way anything could get higher was to ride one of the massive tidal waves that regularly circulated TEMO. Their home orbited a larger rocky planet with a dense iron core — something extremely rare in the early days of the Universe. Hardly any stars had even formed, let alone denser elements like Iron and Carbon.
The Tmiatis were extremely fortunate to have the unique combination of a weak moon gravity with a replenishing atmosphere from their host planet, TOE. On a predictable trajectory, their moon TEMO would absorb water from the host planet and radiate it away into space as their elliptical orbit pushed them further away from the protection of TOE’s magnetic fields. TEMO would return just in time to gather more water, thus preserving the simple algae-like life on its liquid surface. Occasionally, massive thunderstorms would kill hundreds of Tmiatis in a single night, but thankfully the coral reefs offered sufficient protection.
Tmiati-84 thought back to his clone, Tmiati-82, that had tried to surf a tidal wave weeks ago. He had succeeded in getting as high as 800m before losing control and being launched into space where the near-vacuum ripped his body apart. How many countless Tmiatis had died, and would continue to die, in pursuit of their race’s curiosity?
“Let’s just wait a week T79!” yelled Tmiati-84. “It will be a lot safer when the humidity clears up.”
Tmiati’s were really only interested in one thing — the stars. Their moon home TEMO was very boring, with only a few types of life existing: algae, jellyfish, and Tmiatis. All of the lifeforms reproduced by duplication, with changes in their DNA occurring via space radiation rather than random mutation. Over the eons, Tmiatis would learn to strategically reproduce based on the positioning of TEMO relative to TOE. The further away TEMO was from TOE’s magnetic fields, the more cosmic radiation would cause mutations in Tmiati genetics. Of course not all mutations were good, and most times newly duplicated Tmiatis would simply die from corrupted DNA or cancers. Thus in times of hardship, Tmiatis would only duplicate under the protection of TOE’s atmosphere. With no need for sex and nothing interesting at home, they looked to the heavens.
“I swear by my ancestors T84, I will see a star!” yelled Tmiati-79. “Even if the rumours about the new star are not true, I will find ANOTHER star!”
One of the biggest mysteries to Tmiatis was their origin. They realized long ago that there was a huge genetic gap between Tmiatis and the next most complex life on TEMO — jellyfish. So, where was the missing link? Where did Tmiatis originate from, and how did they get to TEMO?
“Let’s head back to the reefs T79.” Said Tmiati-84. “I’m getting hungry”
TEMO and TOE did not orbit any star. Instead, the two lonely spheres drifted across the Universe through endless clouds of dense dust and nothingness. Every once in a while, the humidity of TEMO would be low enough that Tmiati civilization could make out the light of a distant star somewhere far away in the universe. When that happened, it was a very big deal and hundreds of thousands of Tmiatis would gather to observe. Naturally, that became their greatest obsession.
Weeks passed, and slowly the humidity cleared. What the Tmiatis saw in the sky shocked and scared them. At first it looked like a star, but after careful observation they noticed it did not shine consistently, instead reflecting light from some unknown source. Never before in recorded history had Tmiatis seen anything like it. Scientists and scholars debated on what it could possibly be.
“My kin, it is a planet! And not just any planet, it is a planet with volcanic activity producing light!” said Tmiati-24.
“You bring shame to the T24 name!” said another Tmiati-24, “Do you believe any infrared light you see? It must be a small star with a large orbiting moon!”
“Blasphemy!” screamed a Tmiati-36. “If it were a star we would have known by now. I agree that it is a volcanic planet, but judging by its size it can’t be all explosions! Perhaps it has life radiating heat?”
This theory both scared and excited the Tmiatis. For eons they hoped that life existed elsewhere in the lonely Universe, but never saw any evidence to support those hopes. But now… what if T36 was right?
All they could do was wait as TEMO and TOE veered closer to the mystery object in the sky. In the meantime, the Tmiatis worked hard to grow reef glass, a transparent material produced by certain algae that could be molded into shapes — the same material used in Tmiati telescopes. Every few months an ambitious Tmiati would ride a Reef Glass vessel onto a tidal wave and attempt to survive the vacuum of space. In theory it could buy the passenger a few minutes of survival in space, but in reality no one could ever confirm if it worked because in the end they would all die. Now the race was on to create better vessels faster and in greater quantities. Everyone wanted to know what the mystery object was.
Years passed and the celestial object got bigger and bigger in the sky. Eventually it got so big that even on the most humid days it was still visible. Across TEMO many ambitious Tmiati were determined to be the first to see what the object was. As their civilization’s greatest obsession, it did not matter whether they lived to experience the after-effects — they wanted to be the first.
“Timing is very important, you know?” said Tmiati-84 to Tmiati-79. “I still think it’s too early. If you go now, you probably won’t see anything and all your work will be wasted. Besides…” continued Tmiati-84. “I’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too T84, but I can’t wait any longer. I need to find out for myself.” Replied Tmiati-79, as he inspected his reef glass vessel. “When are YOU planning on going?”
Tmiati-84 did not speak until after a long silence. “I don’t think I will go T79. I want to live to see what happens after we get close enough.”
Tmiati-79 was shocked but did not stop inspecting his vessel. “Really now? But aren’t you curious??”
“Aren’t YOU curious T79?” said Tmiati-84. “Sure you can be one of the first to know, but then you will never know what comes after.”
“You’re right,” replied Tmiati-79. “But I don’t really care. The stars are calling.”
Later that week Tmiati-84 and their friends journeyed with Tmiati-79 to a known tidal wave location. Tmiati-79’s reef glass vessel looked magnificent. It was stronger than most vessels and certainly bigger. The mood was energetic. Everyone was excited for Tmiati-79’s journey into space — the glory of being one of the first to find out what the mysterious object in the sky was.
“The universe must be very old,” said Tmiati-79. “Otherwise there would be many more stars and planets. That’s my hypothesis.”
Tmiati-79 stepped inside his vessel with his prized reef glass telescope.
“I don’t know how long I will last out there,” he continued. “I just hope I can get close enough to see it clearly.”
Tmiati-79 looked at his friends one last time and blinked in approval.
“Farewell my kin.”
The other Tmiatis blinked him goodbye. Some were envious that he could afford a reef glass vessel while others looked forward to the upcoming weeks where they too would launch into space. When they finished their goodbyes, the Tmiatis left for the safety of the reefs. Soon, Tmiati-79 was left alone with his thoughts.
“The day has finally come.”
After hours of waiting, he finally heard the sounds of the tides. Bracing for impact, Tmiati-79 distributed his gelatinous mass across the vessel and took a deep breath.
The powerful tidal wave swept Tmiati-79’s vessel up into the sky. He swung his body to the sides of the crude spacecraft, guiding it along the motion of the waves, careful to calculate his escape velocity. Within a few minutes of acceleration, he had broken out of TEMO’s gravity and into the warm emptiness of space.
“Heavens…” Tmiati-79 choked. “Is this what the universe looks like?”
In the distance were faint stars and cosmic dust, barely visible but so numerous that it stole his breath. As the vessel cruised along space, Tmiati-79 began to feel the pull of the vacuum. The vessel would not protect him for much longer, and without any controls, there was nothing Tmiati-79 could do to determine his fate. Amazed by the twinkling stars, he almost forgot about his main mission to identify the mystery object.
In a panic, Tmiati-79 moved his single massive eye around the vessel until he spotted the object. He peered into his telescope and saw in the distance the ripped remnants of earlier Tmiati explorers. Further still he could see the details of the mystery planet. Except it didn’t look like a planet. Raw energy radiated from it at seemingly random spots. In a race against time, Tmiati-79 desperately tried to focus his vision before he lost his breath, or the vacuum of space tore him apart, whichever would come first.
There were flashes of extreme light and periodic dimming. Finally, Tmiati-79 managed to get a clear look at the massive object. It had orbiting sheets of such pure darkness that he could not make any logical sense of what it was. Slowly he began to lose vision, and more of his view darkened. The stars lost their light and his eye closed, warmed by flashing intervals of white light piercing through his eyelid.
Had his civilization been blessed with greater natural resources, or more time to develop, he could have made sense of what he saw. In the dark and warm vastness of the early Universe, Tmiatis were not the first or only intelligent life to develop.
What Tmiati-79 saw that day was a Dyson Sphere.
Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception. — Carl Sagan