Grace Immaculate

Grace Immaculate

illustration by greg ruth

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

18 comments
Paul Weimer
1. PrinceJvstin
Not what I expected from a Gregory Benford story at all.
tcheph
2. tcheph
is this a nod to the flying spaghetti monster?
tcheph
3. gregthings
No, but it should be. Dawkins' Flying SPaghetti Monster rules.
tcheph
4. Treep
Definitly interesting. Would love to read more. And it does seem to based off the FSM
tcheph
5. R. H. Culp
Loved this story. Definitely was thinking C. S. Lewis' Ransom Trilogy right before you mentioned it.
Jonathan Chen
6. jonc
Hmm. I found it depressing that nearly 300 years in the future, humans have yet to have decent space-flight capability.
tcheph
7. BillDrew
How do I get the full novel?
tcheph
8. njpoetess
Love this short fiction. Is this being developed for novel length?
tcheph
9. LouS
Maybe I'm dense, but I don't get the last sentence. Anyone care to explain?
tcheph
10. antares
Not bad. Interesting twist at the end.
Jeff Stover
11. BlueThroneJeff
A great set of themes and questions. If you liked this or found it provocative, you really should read "A Case for Conscience" by James Blush. It engages many of this issues and many more.
tcheph
12. Viviannn
I'm tired of aliens that envy humans. What about us is so enviable? Our wars? Political corruption? Fouling of our own nest? Where's the appeal?
tcheph
13. Aratouial
@12-- I think this is grappling with an idea that first began to be truly articulated during the Romntic literature-- many of the philosophers and writers wrestled with the idea of "identity" in the context of "individuality." I can't speak for other cultures, but Americans tend to *highly* prize individualism over consensus or community. While this leads to a downfall in a variety of social concerns, it also produces what the Romantics called "genius"-- which is usally a solitary idea.

While it would be incredible if a society truly worked together to accomplish amazing feats-- in America the truly great accomplishments (like the Space Race, for example) have come about because of combined individualism. Each person contributing to a whole-- but with their own vision.

A society that is completely in consensus would, probably, not very frequently be inspired to change or discover. However, Western culture usually identifies traits as "good" when they contribute to a utilitarian sense of the whole-- which seems incongruous with our need to "be ourselves."

I think that's what this is discussing.
Yvonne Eliot
14. Yvonne
@Aratouial -- I like your analysis. Discontent and separation from a communal whole can create dissonance and strife, yet it may be necessary for certain types of extreme creative growth.
tcheph
15. liam101
If you don't like the trope of aliens envying humans try Iain Banks "The State of the Art". It's a short story collection but the longest story gives the book its title, and it describes an encounter of the Culture (Bankk's utopian vision of a society) and 1970's Earth.
tcheph
16. Viviannn
Aratouial, that's interesting and we could certainly have lots of debate about balancing community and individuality, I'm sure. It sounds to me, though, as if introducing individuality to the Hydrans didn't do them much good. Or is the point that breaking apart and coming back together made them an even better Being? But we don't know that, given that we don't know what the Being said. I'm in the same position as LouS. I don't get it.

liam101, thanks for the recommendation.
tcheph
17. robynical
ditto BillDrew - wish I could read more!
tcheph
18. Banner
Thought provoking. I enjoy stories that deal with alien philosophy. I hope he develops this into a longer work.

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