One day a young angel, only three and a half billion years old, very naive, with limited experience of the wide universe and eager for more, was called over by one of her elder brothers. “I have a special mission for you,” he said. “It is said that Life has appeared somewhere in the universe, in accordance with the purpose and timing of the Almighty. It is your task to seek out this Life, and when you find it, tell us so that we may visit the planet to nurture and guide it.”
The young angel, whose name was Lyra, was overjoyed with this assignment, and she set out immediately.
A little while later she returned and told her big brother what she’d found. “I came upon a great cloud of dust and light,” she said, breathlessly. “I bent in very close to look at the particles interacting—the atoms and electrons and things—and they danced and interweaved so prettily, with such ever-shifting complexity, that I thought it surely must be Life.”
“Oh no, no,” replied the older angel. “That wasn’t Life. It was only a nebula—just some of the machinery of the universe.” Undaunted, Lyre resumed her search.
Some time later she returned. “I think I’ve found Life,” she said. “I came upon a planet, hard and strong, with mountains and plateaus and bright air. I saw a sunrise sending shafts of red light deep into gray valleys, and it took my breath away, it was so beautiful.”
The older angel—his name was Rigel—smirked and shook his head. “No. It’s only a planet, a lovely one no doubt, but still just some of the machinery. Keep looking.”
She looked, and not long afterward returned. “I found another planet, black and watery and shimmering with storms. I thought it was dead, dead as could be, but when I looked closely into the water, I found long chains of molecules—amino acids—billions of them! That’s Life, isn’t it?”
“No,” replied Rigel. “It’s more complicated machinery, but it’s not Life.” With a smile he said, “Look again!”
A few days later she returned. “This time I’ve found it! There was another planet, not far from the last one and much the same, but here there are prokaryotes and bacteria. You must come and see!”
“Not so fast, little one,” he replied. “Bacteria are elaborate machines, to be sure, but they are alive only in the most trivial sense—almost in the same way that the patterns of the prime number series are alive. No, for Life you must seek out something beyond machinery.”
“But how will I know?” asked Lyra, beginning to be exasperated.”
“You’ll know,” he replied.
In the days that followed she came back with news of places with worms, with fish, with lizards and flying things. All of them exhibited more and more complex machinery, from nerves to brains and eyes and senses. But none of them were Life.
On one planet she came upon a pack of something like wolves, hunting together cleverly and grooming each other in their den. “Surely they are Life!” she said, palms upturned.
“No,” Rigel replied. “They hunt together with highly developed stimulus-prediction-coordination skills to optimize their collective chance for a meal. They lick each other to remove parasites and to release endorphins and oxytocin into their brains, which reinforces mutually benefical behavior that increases collective gene-passing ability within their tribe. You’ll see a great deal of this sort of thing on planets with highly developed molecular structures—organisms, we call them. But it’s still machinery, not true Life.”
Lyra was beginning to feel dejected, but continued the search.
Then she came upon something most extraordinary. On one planet—one that was mostly purple and orange—there were green-colored creatures that walked on two legs and did very intelligent things. They hammered with hammers. They built with bricks. They burnt with fire. They set and followed plans. And most extraordinary of all, they talked to each other. They talked of where they would hunt. (She understood what they said because, of course, the language of angels is simply all languages.) They would brag to each other about which was stronger. They traded stories of whom they had and hadn’t mated with, would and wouldn’t mate with. It was all a bit, to the angel, boring, but evidently engrossing to the green creatures themselves. In any case with all these tools and talking, they were surely, surely Life.
“No,” replied Rigel after she’d told him all about it. She very nearly rolled her eyes; but this isn’t done in heaven. He continued, “You’ve found a very elaborate sort of machinery, very rare. This is what molecular systems become as they explore the natural laws as the Creator has established them, evolving into ever more competitive systems. They chirp together like birds at first, or dance like honeybees, and their speech conveys information—and misinformation—that is helpful to their survival: skills, opportunities, displays of strength, attempts at attraction, appeals for help and mercy, and the like. But it’s all machinery. Pure economy and tactics, no Life.”
Now the young angel actually experienced discouragement, or as much discouragement as one can feel in heaven, which is to say, a tiny sliver, a millionth, of the discouragement you or I are capable of, but still unpleasant to one unused to it. Nevertheless she faced it down and said, “If the mere machinery of the universe can be this complex and beautiful, how am I ever to recognize Life?”
Rigel smiled. “You’ll find it. You’re close. You must look again.”
She almost sighed, and almost would have slumped her shoulders, except that in the light of heaven she felt too cheerful and brave and hopeful to actually go through with it. A demon who was passing by, however—another one of her brothers, though from the rotten side of the family—caught a glimpse of this temptation, and for a moment felt a millionth part of elation at the thought of an angel perhaps succumbing to discouragement; but then remembered how hopeless it was that such a thing could ever happen in his lifetime, and slumped his shoulders and sauntered off the opposite way.
It was a great deal of time before she returned, as much as an entire day, or possibly a hundred thousand years, but in any case she bore not a shred of weariness. She ran up as if breathless to the older angel, and her mouth worked with such eagerness and excitement that her words and her cherubic lips fell out of step with each other, and it took several repeated sentences before Rigel could make heads or tails of what she was saying.
“I’ve found it! I’ve found it! I’ve found Life!” she said. “I’m certain of it! I’ve found it!” She considered pressing the palms of her hands to the tops of her knees for a few seconds in order to give herself time to catch her breath; but, being an angel, she wasn’t out of breath.
Rigel smiled and raised an eyebrow. “What is it you found?”
“I’ll tell you,” she said, panting for effect. “It was the most amazing thing, the most beautiful thing, like a piece of this very heaven” —she looked around, indicating their surroundings— “in the… well in the last place you’d expect to find it.”
“Hmm, now this sounds promising,” said the other, and folding his arms he pressed the white pencil he’d been writing with against his lower lip (this was no officious gesture, but a patient one: he’d been writing poetry) and took a seat in mid-air.
“I found a planet with two-legged creatures, like that other one. I found many such planets, and always they were like that one, with chirping people rather than…well, Living people. But on this planet the people were brown and pink. They lived in houses of brick and wood and stone, just like the others. But I came upon a group of people, which I took at first to be a family. But then I realized they were no family, because they were every shape and color and size. And they were huddled, when I found them, in a sort of basement or cellar. And up above, other people were flying in ships, like giant birds, and dropping things onto their village, or city—I can never tell the difference. The things they dropped were made of metal and fire and pain, and they dropped them to kill the others.”
“They were bombs,” he put in.
“Oh yes, I know, and I’d seen them before. The chirping people as well made them to kill each other. It wasn’t the bombs that made me think they were Life. It was the singing.”
“Singing?” he asked, and raised an eyebrow, but there was a twinkle in his eye.
“In the cellar, yes, singing. The dust was falling down upon them. And every once in a while there would be a terrible slam, and some of them would cry out, and the children were crying. But then some of them started to sing. And after a while the others joined in.”
“Of what did they sing? Of food, I suppose? Or safety? Or conquest? Or mating?”
“Oh no no no,” she said, closing her eyes and shaking her head quickly. “No. They sang of beauty. They sang of hope. Of despair. Of grace.”
The faintest of smiles began to spread on Rigel’s face.
“It was dark in that room,” she continued, eyes still closed. “But they sang of light, light they couldn’t see. Light, I think they knew, they would never see. And you should have heard the voices, the voices. Low and high, shifting, climbing, falling, soft, loud. Waves of sound, weaving notes, that spoke the heart’s meaning with words no words could speak. Ah, it makes me ache to think of it. A trillion parsecs I’ve walked across this universe, and I never once ached—until I heard that sound. It was like heaven, I tell you. A small piece of it, a faint echo of it. But made of the same stuff.”
Rigel was nodding now. “It sounds as if you have indeed found Life: people formed of the stuff of the universe, made of machinery, but imbued with spirits.”
“I felt sure of it!” Lyra exclaimed, clapping rapidly. “I saw in their faces and heard in their voices that they were aware, and experienced the world much as we do. They weren’t just executing genetic and chemical codes: they reasoned and knew the good and bad of things. They felt the beauty they sang of, and felt the beauty of their own singing, and sensed the horror of that beauty blooming in that ugly cellar, under those ugly bombs.”
Rigel gave a small sigh of his own. “It seems a pretty sure thing,” he said. “Let’s gather some of the Elder angels and make our way there. Well done, Lyra! You have—probably—completed your mission. Of course, there’s always the chance that we’re mistaken, that these are not Life after all.”
“Oh, but I’m very sure,” she replied, and they turned to walk side-by-side. “Because, you see, there was one more thing that none of the other creatures were doing.”
“Oh?” Rigel asked, perplexed. “What would that be?”
Lyra debated blushing, but then found it both unnecessary and, being herself bloodless, impossible. So she simply answered: “They were wearing clothes.”