War and/​or Peace (2/​8)

(Part 2 of 8 in “Three Wor­lds Col­lide”)

...”So the ques­tion then is—now what?”

The Lord Pilot jumped up, then, his face flushed. “Put up shields. Now. We don’t gain any­thing by leav­ing them down. This is mad­ness!”

“No,” said the Ship’s Con­fes­sor in pro­fes­sional tones, “not mad­ness.”

The Pilot slammed his fists on the table. “We’re all go­ing to die!

“They’re not as tech­nolog­i­cally ad­vanced as us,” Akon said. “Sup­pose the Babyeaters do de­cide that we need to be ex­ter­mi­nated. Sup­pose they open fire. Sup­pose they kill us. Sup­pose they fol­low the star­line we opened and find the Huy­gens sys­tem. Then what?”

The Master nod­ded. “Even with sur­prise on their side… no. They can’t ac­tu­ally wipe out the hu­man species. Not un­less they’re a lot smarter than they seem to be, and it looks to me like, on av­er­age, they’re ac­tu­ally a bit dumber than us.” The Master glanced at the Xenopsy­chol­o­gist, who waved her hand in a maybe-ges­ture.

“But if we leave the ship’s shields down,” Akon said, “we pre­serve what­ever chance we have of a peace­ful re­s­olu­tion to this.”

“Peace,” said the Lady Sen­sory, in a pe­cu­liar flat tone.

Akon looked at her.

“You want peace with the Babyeaters?”

“Of course—” said Akon, then stopped short.

The Lady Sen­sory looked around the table. “And the Babyeater chil­dren? What about them?”

The Master of Fan­dom spoke, his voice un­cer­tain. “You can’t im­pose hu­man stan­dards on—”

With a blur of mo­tion and a sharp crack, the Lady Sen­sory slapped him.

The Ship’s Con­fes­sor grabbed her arm. “No.”

The Lady Sen­sory stared at the Ship’s Con­fes­sor.

“No,” the Con­fes­sor re­peated. “No vi­o­lence. Only ar­gu­ment. Violence doesn’t dis­t­in­guish truth from false­hood, my Lady.”

The Lady Sen­sory slowly low­ered her hand, but not her eyes.

“But...” said the Master. “But, my Lady, if they want to be eaten—”

“They don’t,” said the Xenopsy­chol­o­gist. “Of course they don’t. They run from their par­ents when the ter­rible win­now­ing comes. The Babyeater chil­dren aren’t emo­tion­ally ma­ture—I mean they don’t have their adult emo­tional state yet. Evolu­tion would take care of any­one who wanted to get eaten. And they’re still learn­ing, still mak­ing mis­takes, so they don’t yet have the in­stinct to ex­ter­mi­nate vi­o­la­tors of the group code. It’s a sim­pler time for them. They play, they ex­plore, they try out new ideas. They’re...” and the Xenopsy­chol­o­gist stopped. “Damn,” she said, and turned her head away from the table, cov­er­ing her face with her hands. “Ex­cuse me.” Her voice was un­steady. “They’re a lot like hu­man chil­dren, re­ally.”

“And if they were hu­man chil­dren,” said the Lady Sen­sory into the silence, “do you think that, just be­cause the Babyeater species wanted to eat hu­man chil­dren, that would make it right for them to do it?”

“No,” said the Lord Pilot.

“Then what differ­ence does it make?” said the Lady Sen­sory.

“No differ­ence at all,” said the Lord Pilot.

Akon looked back and forth be­tween the two of them, and saw what was com­ing, and some­how couldn’t speak.

“We have to save them,” said the Lady Sen­sory. “We have to stop this. No mat­ter what it takes. We can’t let this go on.”

Couldn’t say that one word -

The Lord Pilot nod­ded. “De­stroy their ship. Pre­serve our ad­van­tage of sur­prise. Go back, tell the world, cre­ate an over­whelming hu­man army… and pour into the Babyeater star­line net­work. And res­cue the chil­dren.”

“No,” Akon said.


“I know,” said the Lord Pilot. “A lot of Babyeaters will die at first, but they’re kil­ling ten times more chil­dren than their whole adult pop­u­la­tion, ev­ery year—”

“And then what?” said the Master of Fan­dom. “What hap­pens when the chil­dren grow up?”

The Lord Pilot fell silent.

The Master of Fan­dom com­pleted the ques­tion. “Are you go­ing to wipe out their whole race, be­cause their ex­is­tence is too hor­rible to be al­lowed to go on? I read their sto­ries, and I didn’t un­der­stand them, but—” The Master of Fan­dom swal­lowed. “They’re not… evil. Don’t you un­der­stand? They’re not. Are you go­ing to pun­ish me, be­cause I don’t want to pun­ish them?”

“We could...” said the Lord Pilot. “Um. We could mod­ify their genes so that they only gave birth to a sin­gle child at a time.”

“No,” said the Xenopsy­chol­o­gist. “They would grow up loathing them­selves for be­ing un­able to eat ba­bies. Hor­rors in their own eyes. It would be kinder just to kill them.”

“Stop,” said Akon. His voice wasn’t strong, wasn’t loud, but ev­ery­one in the room looked at him. “Stop. We are not go­ing to fire on their ship.”

“Why not?” said the Lord Pilot. “They—”

“They haven’t raised shields,” said Akon.

“Be­cause they know it won’t make a differ­ence!” shouted the Pilot.

They didn’t fire on us!” shouted Akon. Then he stopped, low­ered his voice. “They didn’t fire on us. Even af­ter they knew that we didn’t eat ba­bies. I am not go­ing to fire on them. I re­fuse to do it.”

“You think they’re in­no­cent?” de­manded the Lady Sen­sory. “What if it was hu­man chil­dren that were be­ing eaten?”

Akon stared out a viewscreen, show­ing in sub­dued fires a com­puter-gen­er­ated graphic of the nova de­bris. He just felt ex­hausted, now. “I never un­der­stood the Pri­soner’s Dilemma un­til this day. Do you co­op­er­ate when you re­ally do want the high­est pay­off? When it doesn’t even seem fair for both of you to co­op­er­ate? When it seems right to defect even if the other player doesn’t? That’s the pay­off ma­trix of the true Pri­soner’s Dilemma. But all the rest of the logic—ev­ery­thing about what hap­pens if you both think that way, and both defect—is the same. Do we want to live in a uni­verse of co­op­er­a­tion or defec­tion?”

“But—” said the Lord Pilot.

“They know,” Akon said, “that they can’t wipe us out. And they can guess what we could do to them. Their choice isn’t to fire on us and try to in­vade af­ter­ward! Their choice is to fire on us and run from this star sys­tem, hop­ing that no other ships fol­low. It’s their whole species at stake, against just this one ship. And they still haven’t fired.”

“They won’t fire on us,” said the Xenopsy­chol­o­gist, “un­til they de­cide that we’ve defected from the norm. It would go against their sense of… honor, I could call it, but it’s much stronger than the hu­man ver­sion—”

“No,” Akon said. “Not that much stronger.” He looked around, in the silence. “The Babyeater so­ciety has been at peace for cen­turies. So too with hu­man so­ciety. Do you want to fire the open­ing shot that brings war back into the uni­verse? Send us back to the dark­ness-be­fore-dawn that we only know from read­ing his­tory books, be­cause the holos are too hor­rible to watch? Are you re­ally go­ing to press the but­ton, know­ing that?”

The Lord Pilot took a deep breath. “I will. You will not re­main com­man­der of the Im­pos­si­ble, my lord, if the greater con­fer­ence votes no con­fi­dence against you. And they will, my lord, for the sake of the chil­dren.”

“What,” said the Master, “are you go­ing to do with the chil­dren?”

“We, um, have to do some­thing,” said the Ship’s Eng­ineer, speak­ing up for the first time. “I’ve been, um, look­ing into what Babyeater sci­ence knows about their brain mechanisms. It’s re­ally quite fas­ci­nat­ing, they mix elec­tri­cal and me­chan­i­cal in­ter­ac­tions, not the same way our own brain pumps ions, but—”

“Get to the point,” said Akon. “Im­me­di­ately.

“The chil­dren don’t die right away,” said the Eng­ineer. “The brain is this nugget of hard crys­tal, that’s re­ally re­sis­tant to, um, the di­ges­tive mechanisms, much more so than the rest of the body. So the child’s brain is in, um, prob­a­bly quite a lot of pain, since the whole body has been am­pu­tated, and in a state of sen­sory de­pri­va­tion, and then the pro­cess­ing slowly gets de­graded, and I think the whole pro­cess gets com­pleted about a month af­ter—”

The Lady Sen­sory threw up. A few sec­onds later, so did the Xenopsy­chol­o­gist and the Master.

“If hu­man so­ciety per­mits this to go on,” said the Lord Pilot, his voice very soft, “I will re­sign from hu­man so­ciety, and I will have friends, and we will visit the Babyeater star­line net­work with an army. You’ll have to kill me to stop me.”

“And me,” said the Lady Sen­sory through tears.

Akon rose from his chair, and leaned for­ward; a dom­i­nat­ing move that he had learned in class­rooms, very long ago when he was first study­ing to be an Ad­minis­tra­tor. But most in hu­man­ity’s pro­mo­tion-con­scious so­ciety would not risk di­rect defi­ance of an Ad­minis­tra­tor. In a hun­dred years he’d never had his au­thor­ity re­ally tested, un­til now… “I will not per­mit you to fire on the alien ship. Hu­man­ity will not be first to defect in the Pri­soner’s Dilemma.”

The Lord Pilot stood up, and Akon re­al­ized, with a sud­den jolt, that the Pilot was four inches taller; the thought had never oc­curred to him be­fore. The Pilot didn’t lean for­ward, not know­ing the trick, or not car­ing. The Pilot’s eyes were nar­row, sur­round­ing fa­cial mus­cles tensed and tight.

Get out of my way,” said the Lord Pilot.

Akon opened his mouth, but no words came out.

“It is time,” said the Lord Pilot, “to see this calamity to its end.” Spo­ken in Ar­chaic English: the words ut­tered by Thomas Clark­son in 1785, at the be­gin­ning of the end of slav­ery. “I have set my will against this dis­aster; I will break it, or it will break me.” Ira Howard in 2014. “I will not share my uni­verse with this shadow,” and that was the Lord Pilot, in an anger hot­ter than the nova’s ashes. “Help me if you will, or step aside if you lack de­ci­sive­ness; but do not make your­self my ob­sta­cle, or I will burn you down, and any that stand with you—


Every head in the room jerked to­ward the source of the voice. Akon had been an Ad­minis­tra­tor for a hun­dred years, and a Lord Ad­minis­tra­tor for twenty. He had stud­ied all the clas­sic texts, and watched holos of fa­mous crisis situ­a­tions; nearly all the ac­cu­mu­lated knowl­edge of the Ad­minis­tra­tive Field was at his beck and call; and he’d never dreamed that a word could be spo­ken with such ab­solute force.

The Ship’s Con­fes­sor low­ered his voice. “My Lord Pilot. I will not per­mit you to de­clare your cru­sade, when you have not said what you are cru­sad­ing for. It is not enough to say that you do not like the way things are. You must say how you will change them, and to what. You must think all the way to your end. Will you wipe out the Babyeater race en­tirely? Keep their rem­nants un­der hu­man rule for­ever, in de­spair un­der our law? You have not even faced your hard choices, only con­grat­u­lated your­self on de­mand­ing that some­thing be done. I judge that a vi­o­la­tion of san­ity, my lord.”

The Lord Pilot stood rigid. “What—” his voice broke. “What do you sug­gest we do?”

“Sit down,” said the Ship’s Con­fes­sor, “keep think­ing. My Lord Pilot, my Lady Sen­sory, you are pre­ma­ture. It is too early for hu­man­ity to di­vide over this is­sue, when we have known about it for less than twenty-four hours. Some rules do not change, whether it is money at stake, or the fate of an in­tel­li­gent species. We should only, at this stage, be dis­cussing the is­sue in all its as­pects, as thor­oughly as pos­si­ble; we should not even be plac­ing solu­tions on the table, as yet, to po­larize us into camps. You know that, my lords, my ladies, and it does not change.”

“And af­ter that?” said the Master of Fan­dom sud­denly. “Then it’s okay to split hu­man­ity? You wouldn’t ob­ject?”

The fea­ture­less blur con­cealed within the Con­fes­sor’s Hood turned to face the Master, and spoke; and those pre­sent thought they heard a grim smile, in that voice. “Oh,” said the Con­fes­sor, “that would be in­terfer­ing in poli­tics. I am charged with guard­ing san­ity, not moral­ity. If you want to stay to­gether, do not split. If you want peace, do not start wars. If you want to avoid geno­cide, do not wipe out an alien species. But if these are not your high­est val­ues, then you may well end up sac­ri­fic­ing them. What you are will­ing to trade off, may end up traded awaybe you warned! But if that is ac­cept­able to you, then so be it. The Order of Silent Con­fes­sors ex­ists in the hope that, so long as hu­man­ity is sane, it can make choices in ac­cor­dance with its true de­sires. Thus there is our Order ded­i­cated only to that, and sworn not to in­terfere in poli­tics. So you will spend more time dis­cussing this sce­nario, my lords, my ladies, and only then gen­er­ate solu­tions. And then… you will de­cide.”

“Ex­cuse me,” said the Lady Sen­sory. The Lord Pilot made to speak, and Sen­sory raised her voice. “Ex­cuse me, my lords. The alien ship has just sent us a new trans­mis­sion. Two megabytes of text.”

“Trans­late and pub­lish,” or­dered Akon.

They all glanced down and aside, wait­ing for the file to come up.

It be­gan:


Akon looked away, winc­ing. He hadn’t tried to read much of the alien cor­pus, and hadn’t got­ten the knack of read­ing the “trans­la­tions” by that damned pro­gram.

“Would some­one,” Akon said, “please tell me—tell the con­fer­ence—what this says?

There was a long, stretched mo­ment of silence.

Then the Xenopsy­chol­o­gist made a muffled noise that could have been a bark of in­cre­dulity, or just a sad laugh. “Stars be­yond,” said the Xenopsy­chol­o­gist, “they’re try­ing to per­suade us to eat our own chil­dren.”

“Us­ing,” said the Lord Pro­gram­mer, “what they as­sert to be ar­gu­ments from uni­ver­sal prin­ci­ples, rather than ap­peals to mere in­stincts that might differ from star to star.”

“Such as what, ex­actly?” said the Ship’s Con­fes­sor.

Akon gave the Con­fes­sor an odd look, then quickly glanced away, lest the Con­fes­sor catch him at it. No, the Con­fes­sor couldn’t be care­fully main­tain­ing an open mind about that. It was just cu­ri­os­ity over what par­tic­u­lar failures of rea­son­ing the aliens might ex­hibit.

“Let me search,” said the Lord Pro­gram­mer. He was silent for a time. “Ah, here’s an ex­am­ple. They point out that by pro­duc­ing many offspring, and win­now­ing among them, they ap­ply greater se­lec­tion pres­sures to their chil­dren than we do. So if we started pro­duc­ing hun­dreds of ba­bies per cou­ple and then eat­ing al­most all of them—I do em­pha­size that this is their sug­ges­tion, not mine—evolu­tion would pro­ceed faster for us, and we would sur­vive longer in the uni­verse. Evolu­tion and sur­vival are uni­ver­sals, so the ar­gu­ment should con­vince any­one.” He gave a sad chuckle. “Any­one here feel con­vinced?”

“Out of cu­ri­os­ity,” said the Lord Pilot, “have they ever tried to pro­duce even more ba­bies—say, thou­sands in­stead of hun­dreds—so they could speed up their evolu­tion even more?”

“It ought to be eas­ily within their cur­rent ca­pa­bil­ities of bio­eng­ineer­ing,” said the Xenopsy­chol­o­gist, “and yet they haven’t done it. Still, I don’t think we should make the sug­ges­tion.”″

“Agreed,” said Akon.

“But hu­man­ity uses ga­mete se­lec­tion,” said the Lady Sen­sory. “We aren’t evolv­ing any slower. If any­thing, choos­ing among mil­lions of sperm and hun­dreds of eggs gives us much stronger se­lec­tion pres­sures.”

The Xenopsy­chol­o­gist fur­rowed her brow. “I’m not sure we sent them that in­for­ma­tion in so many words… or they may have just not got­ten that far into what we sent them...”

“Um, it wouldn’t be triv­ial for them to un­der­stand,” said the Ship’s Eng­ineer. “They don’t have sep­a­rate DNA and pro­teins, just crys­tal pat­terns tiling them­selves. The two par­ents in­ter­twine and stay that way for, um, days, nu­cle­at­ing por­tions of su­per­cooled liquid from their own bod­ies to con­struct the ba­bies. The whole, um, baby, is con­structed to­gether by both par­ents. They don’t have sep­a­rate ga­metes they could se­lect on.”

“But,” said the Lady Sen­sory, “couldn’t we maybe con­vince them, to work out some equiv­a­lent of ga­mete se­lec­tion and try that in­stead—”

“My lady,” said the Xenopsy­chol­o­gist. Her voice, now, was some­what ex­as­per­ated. “They aren’t re­ally do­ing this for the sake of evolu­tion. They were eat­ing ba­bies mil­lions of years be­fore they knew what evolu­tion was.

“Huh, this is in­ter­est­ing,” said the Lord Pro­gram­mer. “There’s an­other sec­tion here where they con­struct their ar­gu­ments us­ing ap­peals to his­tor­i­cal hu­man au­thor­i­ties.”

Akon raised his eye­brows. “And who, ex­actly, do they quote in sup­port?”

“Hold on,” said the Lord Pro­gram­mer. “This has been run through the trans­la­tor twice, English to Babyeater to English, so I need to write a pro­gram to re­trieve the origi­nal text...” He was silent a few mo­ments. “I see. The ar­gu­ment starts by point­ing out how eat­ing your chil­dren is proof of sac­ri­fice and loy­alty to the tribe, then they quote hu­man au­thor­i­ties on the virtue of sac­ri­fice and loy­alty. And an­cient en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist ar­gu­ments about pop­u­la­tion con­trol, plus… oh, dear. I don’t think they’ve re­al­ized that Adolf Hitler is a bad guy.”

“They wouldn’t,” said the Xenopsy­chol­o­gist. “Hu­mans put Hitler in charge of a coun­try, so we must have con­sid­ered him a pre­em­i­nent le­gal­ist of his age. And it wouldn’t oc­cur to the Babyeaters that Adolf Hitler might be re­garded by hu­mans as a bad guy just be­cause he turned seg­ments of his so­ciety into lamp­shades—they have a cus­tom against that nowa­days, but they don’t re­ally see it as evil. If Hitler thought that gays had defected against the norm, and tried to ex­ter­mi­nate them, that looks to a Babyeater like an hon­est mis­take—” The Xenopsy­chol­o­gist looked around the table. “All right, I’ll stop there. But the Babyeaters don’t look back on their his­tory and see ob­vi­ous villains in po­si­tions of power—cer­tainly not af­ter the dawn of sci­ence. Any poli­ti­cian who got to the point of be­ing la­beled “bad” would be kil­led and eaten. The Babyeaters don’t seem to have had hu­man­ity’s co­or­di­na­tion prob­lems. Or they’re just more ra­tio­nal vot­ers. Take your pick.”

Akon was rest­ing his head in his hands. “You know,” Akon said, “I thought about com­pos­ing a mes­sage like this to the Babyeaters. It was a stupid thought, but I kept turn­ing it over in my mind. Try­ing to think about how I might per­suade them that eat­ing ba­bies was… not a good thing.”

The Xenopsy­chol­o­gist gri­maced. “The aliens seem to be even more given to ra­tio­nal­iza­tion than we are—which is maybe why their so­ciety isn’t so rigid as to ac­tu­ally fall apart—but I don’t think you could twist them far enough around to be­lieve that eat­ing ba­bies was not a babyeat­ing thing.”

“And by the same to­ken,” Akon said, “I don’t think they’re par­tic­u­larly likely to per­suade us that eat­ing ba­bies is good.” He sighed. “Should we just mark the mes­sage as spam?”

One of us should read it, at least,” said the Ship’s Con­fes­sor. “They com­posed their ar­gu­ment hon­estly and in all good will. Hu­man­ity also has epistemic stan­dards of honor to up­hold.”

“Yes,” said the Master. “I don’t quite un­der­stand the Babyeater stan­dards of liter­a­ture, my lord, but I can tell that this text con­forms to their style of… not ex­actly po­etry, but… they tried to make it aes­thetic as well as per­sua­sive.” The Master’s eyes flick­ered, back and forth. “I think they even made some parts con­stant in the to­tal num­ber of light pulses per ar­gu­men­ta­tive unit, like hu­man prosody, hop­ing that our trans­la­tor would turn it into a hu­man poem. And… as near as I can judge such things, this took a lot of effort. I wouldn’t be sur­prised to find that ev­ery­one on that ship was stay­ing up all night work­ing on it.”

“Babyeaters don’t sleep,” said the Eng­ineer sotto vocce.

“Any­way,” said the Master. “If we don’t fire on the alien ship—I mean, if this work is ever car­ried back to the Babyeater civ­i­liza­tion - I sus­pect the aliens will con­sider this one of their great his­tor­i­cal works of liter­a­ture, like Ham­let or Fate/​stay night—”

The Lady Sen­sory cleared her throat. She was pale, and trem­bling.

With a sud­den black pre­mo­ni­tion of doom like a train­ing ses­sion in Un­re­strained Pes­simism, Akon guessed what she would say.

The Lady Sen­sory said, in an un­steady voice, “My lords, a third ship has jumped into this sys­tem. Not Babyeater, not hu­man.”

To be con­tinued...