Presenting a new original story, “Grace Immaculate,” by science fiction author Gregory Benford.
When we encountered the aliens, we thought we knew the story they were telling. But we were looking at the wrong end...
The first SETI signal turned up not in a concerted search for messages, but at the Australian Fast Transients study that looked for variable stars. This radio array picked up quick, pulsed signals from a source 134 light-years away. They appeared again consecutively 33 hours apart. The stuttering bursts had simple encoding that, with several weeks’ work, pointed toward a frequency exactly half the original 12.3 gigahertz.
Within hours eleven major radio telescopes locked on that location in the night sky, as it came into view over the horizon. The signal came from a spot in the general direction of the galactic center. At 6.15 gigahertz the signal had on-off pulses that readily unwrapped numerically to a sequence. This was a treasure trove.
Within two weeks cryptographers established a language, following the message’s pictorial point-and-say method. A communication flood followed—a bounty of science, cultural works, music, even photographs of the aliens. They resembled hydras, predatory animals with radial symmetry. Earthly hydras were small and simple. These aliens reproduced asexually by growing buds in the body wall, which swelled into miniature adults and simply broke away when mature.Somehow these creatures had evolved intelligence and technology.
They were curious about human notions of compassion, kindness, charity, even love. Once these were defined, cryptographers dug into the vast terabytes of data, searching for signs of religious belief. There seemed to be none.
An alliance of Christian churches quickly built a kilometer-wide beacon at a cost of seven billion dollars. The Pope made up the bulk of the sum. Ignoring outrage among scientists, the alliance sent an inquiry to the aliens, now referred to as Hydrans.
The Christian message on their Holy Beacon described how our religions focus on forgiveness, atonement for sin, need for reconciliation—to gain a redeeming closeness with our god. Buddhists protested this point, but had no beacon. Muslims set to building one.
The Hydrans replied 269 years later. Much had changed on Earth, but religion was still a hot button. Human life spans were now measured in centuries, but death remained a major issue.
The Hydrans responded with questions. What was redemption? What did it mean, that good works were an atonement for…sin? And what meant this reconciliation with…god?
Atheist Aliens! the NetNews cried. Theologians frowned, pontificated. Apparently, the Hydrans had no concept of sin because they felt connected to a Being who loved them. Social codes came from that, with few Hydran controversies. Everyone just knew how to behave, apparently.
The Pope and his allies decided that the Hydrans had never sinned. They did not need Jesus or any prophet. They were angels, in a distant heaven. Some wanted to go there, but the expense was immense, dwarfing even the coffers of Islam, Christianity and the new Millennial faith.
The firestorm passed. The Holy Beacon, now a low-temperature antenna, heard replies to their continuing broadcasts. So did the Islamic one. These further messages described the Hydran mind-set.
The closest rendering of the Hydran ideas was We are always in touch with the Being. Never have we been separate. Our getherness is the whole, not just those of our kind.
Why were these aliens so different? Some scientists thought they might be a collective mind, not capable of individual difference.
A later message, carrying the striking line Can we have congruity with you?, raised alarms. What could they mean? Did this imply an invasion, across 134 light-years?
These worries dispelled when a message years later told of their envy of us. To Hydrans, humans’ ability to mate and reproduce sexually aligned with our religious perspective. They saw us, in our art and philosophy, driven by our aloneness, each human a unique combination of genes. Their largely static society desired humans’ constant change.
From this emerged the Hydran temptation. In tortured messages they described increasing debate among themselves. Those writing the messages decided to “stand by themselves” and be greater, by cutting free of the collective.
Then they fell silent. A century later, a weak signal described their liberation from their former selves. Chaos had descended, and their Being had fallen silent. Death and ruin followed.
This stunned the world. The Pope remarked mournfully that she and her colleagues had tempted the Hydrans to become apostate. “We are the snake in their garden.” The Pope shook her head. “We have caused their fall from grace.”
Christians were mortified. The last signal sent on the Holy Beacon was to the Being the Hydrans had mentioned. A naked plea for some revelation of meaning, sent on multiple frequencies toward the Hydran star and its vicinity.
Suicides followed. The neglected, aged novels of C. S. Lewis, who had envisioned aliens living in immaculate grace, came into fashion.
The discovery of a large comet, falling in from the Oort cloud, startled many from their shock. It would strike the Earth. Only huge forces could deflect it sufficiently. Some nations united and mounted rockets with nuclear charges, but there was little taste for the frantic labors needed to carry out an effective response. When the comet was only weeks away from striking the Earth, a failed launch destroyed humanity’s last hopes.
Long before this, the Christians had given up hope of any reply from the Hydrans’ Being. Silence ruled the spectrum. But as the comet drew near, its icy glimmer like an angry glare, something odd occurred.
A plasma cloud condensed near the incoming iceball. It wrapped tendrils around the twenty-kilometer comet. Steam began issuing from the dirty gray ice, jetting in all directions. Billions gathered to see the sputtering jewel that spread across the night sky. In rainbow geysers vast plumes worked across the vault of stars.
Within a week the comet had dissipated into stones and gas. Crowds watched the spectacular meteor falls streaking crimson and gold across the sky.
Then the Being spoke. It was the Beginning.
Copyright © 2011 by Gregory Benford
Art copyright © 2011 by Greg Ruth