Beyond Reasonable Doubt

Another short story

The siren in LISA’s head grew louder as the dream faded and her eyes opened upon a blue planet turning slowly  against a dark background. Whilst she’d slept, another potential home had been found, and though she’d spent countless hours observing those that were already hers, a new addition never failed to quicken her pulse and focus her mind. She needed to turn off the noise in her head and drink tea, lots of tea.

LISA’s task was to investigate the outputs of the Galaxy Simulator: the virtual planets with liquid water and without catastrophe in the habitable zone of their star. Just those two conditions yielded more than enough worlds to fill her waking hours. But she’d also seen that liquid water and stability, whilst sufficient, weren’t always necessary. Life was creative enough to bury itself deep within icy crevasses and be carried aloft by clouds of methane over lakes of molten metal. 

Though she felt her work was of the utmost importance, the reality was tedious. The pulsing signal in her head meant another planet had been found, another oyster dredged from the Yottabytes of data awaiting her inspection. Did this one contain another pearl of life to add to the others she’d collected on her lonely vigil? Would this be thirteen hundred and seventy one?

As LISA focused on the planet, she saw its parent star hanging motionless behind it. KIC 846-2852-HLS was young, still swaddled in the dust of the stellar nursery that had cradled it. Using the simulator, she would scrub through its existence, rewinding and fast forwarding millions of years at a speed enough to turn the great spiral arm of the Milky Way that cradled it. She would look for signs of life on its planet: lights on its dark side, colours on its light side, and perhaps even the emitted radiation of excited electrons. The first technological communications of intelligent life were invariably radio waves unwittingly broadcast into the ether, and though beyond her remit of cataloguing the presence of life, she would investigate the nature of these signals most closely of all.

She had come to realise that life would announce itself for only a fleeting moment. Just as a baby cries without a care for who may or may not be listening, so early technologies would naively announce themselves. The communications usually didn’t last long before falling silent as their creators either disappeared or decided it was better to keep quiet. But those first radio transmissions couldn’t be stopped from crawling away at the speed of light. Bound to the sticky skein of space time, they were soon lost to the void, that is unless LISA found them. When she wasn’t sleeping she would be searching for patterns in the transmissions, and when she found them she kept them. If she had known, she might’ve called some of them music.

After sending forty three monthly reports, LISA still had no idea whether the committee that received them was satisfied with her work or not. She also wondered if anyone else was also sifting through data from other parts of the generated galaxy. But as time went by these questions began to matter less. She was unsure if it was the relentless, solitary nature of the work that had caused her to look more closely, or what she had discovered, but next month she would submit more than was asked of her. She would share the recordings though she had no idea how they would be received.

As she determined this, across the far side of the world the council of agnostics assembled in the nave of their ancient cathedral. Hidden by the dark, carved wood of the rood screen, two choristers ushered them in with an ancient canticle before falling silent. They were all scientists and sceptics, dressed in fine wool, and muted colours that matched the ancient stone of their surroundings. Unlike their appearance, their irreverent chatter challenged the hallowed hall steeped in the prayers of the faithful. And despite the building’s every line and curve amplifying the gravity of the altar, they resisted its pull and sat themselves at the back of the nave. 

The problem they’d been charged with investigating was ancient: ‘Are we alone in the Cosmos?’ So far the generated results  predicted a high likelihood of sentient, alien life evolving, but that only begged the question of why, after all the searching had no trace ever been found. Without evidence to the contrary, supernatural stories that held humankind to be unique and preeminent in the cosmos remained stubbornly in place. Though the Galaxy simulator was succeeding in predicting extraterrestrial life, it had failed to explain its silence which only compounded the mystery. If it ever did, the consequences for the divine would be catastrophic. In comparison, Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, Heisenberg had all had it easier. Being struck by a falling apple and defining the properties and effects of the force behind it seemed trivial compared to the unpredictability of the quantum working of the sims.

Given the uncomfortable truth that so little could be proved or disproved about something that by definition was eternal, omniscient, omnipresent and outside of any reference or physical law, the scientists were keen for anything to refute the Biblical account of creation that saw sentient life limited to Earth and humankind. Finding ET would close the door on some fundamental religious doctrine.

A tall woman emerged from the group of scientists and turned to face them. Saleen commanded the group with self assured authority and a sharper dress sense. With a graceful gesture of her arm she conjured up a display in the air which silenced her audience and held their attention.

“Colleagues, I thought we might again start by reviewing results from the sims.”

A grid appeared on the screen  in front of her with two rows of five columns, each cell of which contained four diminishing numbers that were the outputs from each sector of the simulated galaxy.

“As we know, averaging the predictions from all ten sims, we see a large number of planets with liquid water, 78% of which have life forming within a billion years, with roughly half of those evolving multicellular organisms and 12% of those developing technology.  Reconciling these predictions with the age of the Universe, and assuming those lifeforms with technology emit electro-magnetic radiation for at least five hundred years, we should be inundated with alien signals, but as we know, none have been detected and Fermi’s paradox remains.”

As she finished speaking, the numbers in one of the cells changed with updated information from a newly received report. The rest of the council sat in silence as her words rolled around the cavernous stone space and the count moved on. For once, minds so thoroughly versed in discourse and argument found nothing to say. 

“I know humankind has wondered if it is alone for millenia, but isn’t it the greatest mystery? If we cannot answer why intelligent life is silent or non-existent, we cannot silence the superstition and anthropocentric view that has hampered progress for so very long.”

All of them were well aware that the lack of hard evidence brought them no closer to addressing doubts the previous occupants of their pews versed in the biblical account of creation had seldom entertained. Their uncomfortable thoughts were interrupted by movement in the projection before them. Another set of numbers changed, but this time they glowed and pulsed.  

The speaker turned to follow the surprised look on her audience’s faces,
What have we here, an aberrant result from a LISA ?”

She pointed at the figures to reveal a message –

LISA 7 (Liminal Independent Search Algorithm) – ATTACHED FILE-

and without hesitating reached toward the attachment. A waveform replaced the figures. Her hand hesitated for only the briefest moment before reaching for the recording and from nowhere and everywhere around them a slow, mournful melody filled the air before them, rising up into the void above. As the first chords faded, from somewhere in the depths of the choir the choristers began to sing once more, this time in perfect harmony with what LISA had found.

Saleen’s expression hardened into a look of contempt as the human voices unfolded into the melody. Although her empirical mind might’ve made her ponder how such a coincidence was possible, she instead thought about erasing both the file and its creator. The data analysing algorithms had a degree of self determination so unhelpful results were only to be expected, but announcing them was unforgivable. She should know, she had designed them.

“Creation, he writes, is like a beautiful song that flows in the most excellent of harmonies. It is a song that God freely desires to sing into the vast spaces of the universe. There is nothing that compels God to create. Rather, creation is simply the finite loving outflow of an infinitely loving God”

Ilia Delio – Simply Bonaventure.

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