Three Worlds Decide (5/​8)

(Part 5 of 8 in “Three Wor­lds Col­lide”)

Akon strode into the main Con­fer­ence Room; and though he walked like a phys­i­cally ex­hausted man, at least his face was de­ter­mined. Be­hind him, the shad­owy Con­fes­sor fol­lowed.

The Com­mand Con­fer­ence looked up at him, and ex­changed glances.

“You look bet­ter,” the Ship’s Master of Fan­dom ven­tured.

Akon put a hand on the back of his seat, and paused. Some­one was ab­sent. “The Ship’s Eng­ineer?”

The Lord Pro­gram­mer frowned. “He said he had an ex­per­i­ment to run, my lord. He re­fused to clar­ify fur­ther, but I sup­pose it must have some­thing to do with the Babyeaters’ data—”

“You’re jok­ing,” Akon said. “Our Ship’s Eng­ineer is off No­bel-hunt­ing? Now? With the fate of the hu­man species at stake?

The Lord Pro­gram­mer shrugged. “He seemed to think it was im­por­tant, my lord.”

Akon sighed. He pul­led his chair back and half-slid, half-fell into it. “I don’t sup­pose that the ship’s mar­kets have set­tled down?”

The Lord Pilot grinned sar­don­ically. “Read for your­self.”

Akon twitched, call­ing up a screen. “Ah, I see. The ship’s In­ter­preter of the Mar­ket’s Will re­ports, and I quote, ‘Every sin­gle one of the un­der­ly­ing as­sets in my mar­ket is go­ing up and down like a fuck­ing yo-yo while the ship’s hedgers try to ad­just to a Black Swan that’s go­ing to wipe out ninety-eight per­cent of their planet­side risk cap­i­tal. Even the spot prices on this ship are go­ing crazy; ei­ther we’ve got bub­ble traders com­ing out of the wood­work, or some­one se­ri­ously be­lieves that sex is over­val­ued rel­a­tive to or­ange juice. One deriva­tives trader says she’s work­ing on a con­tract that will have a clearly defined value in the event that aliens wipe out the en­tire hu­man species, but she says it’s go­ing to take a few hours and I say she’s on crack. In­deed I be­lieve an ac­tual ma­jor­ity of the peo­ple still try­ing to trade in this en­vi­ron­ment are higher than the he­liopause. Bid-ask spreads are so wide you could kick a fuck­ing foot­ball sta­dium through them, noth­ing is clear­ing, and I have uni­so­lated con­di­tional de­pen­den­cies com­ing out of my ass. I have no fuck­ing clue what the mar­ket be­lieves. Some­one get me a drink.’ Un­quote.” Akon looked at the Master of Fan­dom. “Any sug­ges­tions get red­dited up from the rest of the crew?”

The Master cleared his throat. “My lord, we took the liberty of fil­ter­ing out ev­ery­thing that was phys­i­cally im­pos­si­ble, based on pure wish­ful think­ing, or dis­played a clear mi­s­un­der­stand­ing of nat­u­ral­is­tic metaethics. I can show you the raw list, if you’d like.”

“And what’s left?” Akon said. “Oh, never mind, I get it.”

“Well, not quite,” said the Master. “To sum­ma­rize the best ideas—” He ges­tured a small holo into ex­is­tence.

Ask the Su­per­hap­pies if their biotech­nol­ogy is ca­pa­ble of in vivo cog­ni­tive al­ter­a­tions of Babyeater chil­dren to en­sure that they don’t grow up want­ing to eat their own chil­dren. Ster­il­ize the cur­rent adults. If Babyeater adults can­not be ster­il­ized and will not sur­ren­der, im­prison them. If that’s too ex­pen­sive, kill most of them, but leave enough in prison to pre­serve their cul­ture for the chil­dren. Offer the Su­per­hap­pies an al­li­ance to in­vade the Babyeaters, in which we provide the cap­i­tal and la­bor and they provide the tech­nol­ogy.

“Not too bad,” Akon said. His voice grew some­what dry. “But it doesn’t seem to ad­dress the ques­tion of what the Su­per­hap­pies are sup­posed to do with us. The analo­gous treat­ment—”

“Yes, my lord,” the Master said. “That was ex­ten­sively pointed out in the com­ments, my lord. And the other prob­lem is that the Su­per­hap­pies don’t re­ally need our la­bor or our cap­i­tal.” The Master looked in the di­rec­tion of the Lord Pro­gram­mer, the Xenopsy­chol­o­gist, and the Lady Sen­sory.

The Lord Pro­gram­mer said, “My lord, I be­lieve the Su­per­hap­pies think much faster than we do. If their cog­ni­tive sys­tems are re­ally based on some­thing more like DNA than like neu­rons, that shouldn’t be sur­pris­ing. In fact, it’s sur­pris­ing that the speedup is as lit­tle as -” The Lord Pro­gram­mer stopped, and swal­lowed. “My lord. The Su­per­hap­pies re­sponded to most of our trans­mis­sions ex­tremely quickly. There was, how­ever, a finite de­lay. And that de­lay was roughly pro­por­tional to the length of the re­sponse, plus an ad­di­tive con­stant. Go­ing by the pro­por­tion, my lord, I be­lieve they think be­tween fif­teen and thirty times as fast as we do, to the ex­tent such a com­par­i­son can be made. If I try to use Moore’s Law type rea­son­ing on some of the ob­serv­able tech­nolog­i­cal pa­ram­e­ters in their ship—Alder­son flux, power den­sity, that sort of thing—then I get a rea­son­ably con­ver­gent es­ti­mate that the aliens are two hun­dred years ahead of us in hu­man-equiv­a­lent sub­jec­tive time. Which means it would be twelve hun­dred equiv­a­lent years since their Scien­tific Revolu­tion.”

“If,” the Xenopsy­chol­o­gist said, “their his­tory went as slowly as ours. It prob­a­bly didn’t.” The Xenopsy­chol­o­gist took a breath. “My lord, my sus­pi­cion is that the aliens are liter­ally able to run their en­tire ship us­ing only three kirit­sugu as sole crew. My lord, this may rep­re­sent, not only the su­pe­rior pro­gram­ming abil­ity that trans­lated their com­mu­ni­ca­tions to us, but also the highly prob­a­ble case that Su­per­hap­pies can trade knowl­edge and skills among them­selves by hav­ing sex. Every in­di­vi­d­ual of their species might con­tain the mem­ory of their Ein­steins and New­tons and a thou­sand other ar­eas of ex­per­tise, no more con­served than DNA is con­served among hu­mans. My lord, I sus­pect their ver­sion of Gal­ileo was some­thing like thirty ob­jec­tive years ago, as the stars count time, and that they’ve been in space for maybe twenty years.”

The Lady Sen­sory said, “Their ship has a plane of sym­me­try, and it’s been get­ting wider on the axis through that plane, as it sucks up nova dust and en­ergy. It’s grow­ing on a smooth ex­po­nen­tial at 2% per hour, which means it can split ev­ery thirty-five hours in this en­vi­ron­ment.”

“I have no idea,” the Xenopsy­chol­o­gist said, “how fast the Su­per­hap­pies can re­pro­duce them­selves—how many chil­dren they have per gen­er­a­tion, or how fast their chil­dren sex­u­ally ma­ture. But all things con­sid­ered, I don’t think we can count on their kids tak­ing twenty years to get through high school.”

There was silence.

When Akon could speak again, he said, “Are you all quite finished?”

“If they let us live,” the Lord Pro­gram­mer said, “and if we can work out a trade agree­ment with them un­der Ri­cardo’s Law of Com­par­a­tive Ad­van­tage, in­ter­est rates will—”

“In­ter­est rates can fall into an open sewer and die. Any fur­ther trans­mis­sions from the Su­per­happy ship?”

The Lady Sen­sory shook her head.

“All right,” Akon said. “Open a trans­mis­sion chan­nel to them.”

There was a stir around the table. “My lord—” said the Master of Fan­dom. “My lord, what are you go­ing to say?”

Akon smiled wearily. “I’m go­ing to ask them if they have any op­tions to offer us.”

The Lady Sen­sory looked at the Ship’s Con­fes­sor. The hood silently nod­ded: He’s still sane.

The Lady Sen­sory swal­lowed, and opened a chan­nel. On the holo there first ap­peared, as a screen:

The Lady 3rd Kirit­sugu
tem­po­rary co-chair of the Game­player
Lan­guage Trans­la­tor ver­sion 9
Cul­tural Trans­la­tor ver­sion 16

The Lady 3rd in this trans­la­tion was slightly less pale, and looked a bit more con­cerned and sym­pa­thetic. She took in Akon’s ap­pear­ance at a glance, and her eyes widened in alarm. “My lord, you’re hurt­ing!”

“Just tired, milady,” Akon said. He cleared his throat. “Our ship’s de­ci­sion-mak­ing usu­ally re­lies on mar­kets and our mar­kets are be­hav­ing er­rat­i­cally. I’m sorry to in­flict that on you as shared pain, and I’ll try to get this over with quickly. Any­way—”

Out of the cor­ner of his eye, Akon saw the Ship’s Eng­ineer re-en­ter the room; the Eng­ineer looked as if he had some­thing to say, but froze when he saw the holo.

There was no time for that now.

“Any­way,” Akon said, “we’ve worked out that the key de­ci­sions de­pend heav­ily on your level of tech­nol­ogy. What do you think you can ac­tu­ally do with us or the Babyeaters?”

The Lady 3rd sighed. “I re­ally should get your in­de­pen­dent com­po­nent be­fore giv­ing you ours—you should at least think of it first—but I sup­pose we’re out of luck on that. How about if I just tell you what we’re cur­rently plan­ning?”

Akon nod­ded. “That would be much ap­pre­ci­ated, milady.” Some of his mus­cles that had been tense, started to re­lax. Cul­tural Trans­la­tor ver­sion 16 was a lot eas­ier on his brain. Dis­tantly, he won­dered if some trans­formed avatar of him­self was mak­ing skil­lful love to the Lady 3rd -

“All right,” the Lady 3rd said. “We con­sider that the ob­vi­ous start­ing point upon which to build fur­ther ne­go­ti­a­tions, is to com­bine and com­pro­mise the util­ity func­tions of the three species un­til we mu­tu­ally satis­fice, pro­vid­ing com­pen­sa­tion for all changes de­manded. The Babyeaters must com­pro­mise their val­ues to eat their chil­dren at a stage where they are not sen­tient—we might ac­com­plish this most effec­tively by chang­ing the life­cy­cle of the chil­dren them­selves. We can even give the un­sen­tient chil­dren an in­stinct to flee and scream, and gen­er­ate sim­ple spo­ken ob­jec­tions, but pre­vent their brain from de­vel­op­ing self-aware­ness un­til af­ter the hunt.”

Akon straight­ened. That ac­tu­ally sounded—quite com­pas­sion­ate—sort of -

“Our own two species,” the Lady 3rd said, “which de­sire this change of the Babyeaters, will com­pen­sate them by adopt­ing Babyeater val­ues, mak­ing our own civ­i­liza­tion of greater util­ity in their sight: we will both change to spawn ad­di­tional in­fants, and eat most of them at al­most the last stage be­fore they be­come sen­tient.”

The Con­fer­ence room was frozen. No one moved. Even their faces didn’t change ex­pres­sion.

Akon’s mind sud­denly flashed back to those writhing, in­ter­pen­e­trat­ing, vi­su­ally painful blobs he had seen be­fore.

A cul­tural trans­la­tor could change the image, but not the re­al­ity.

“It is nonethe­less prob­a­ble,” con­tinued the Lady 3rd, “that the Babyeaters will not ac­cept this change as it stands; it will be nec­es­sary to im­pose these changes by force. As for you, hu­mankind, we hope you will be more rea­son­able. But both your species, and the Babyeaters, must re­lin­quish bod­ily pain, em­bar­rass­ment, and ro­man­tic trou­bles. In ex­change, we will change our own val­ues in the di­rec­tion of yours. We are will­ing to change to de­sire plea­sure ob­tained in more com­plex ways, so long as the to­tal amount of our plea­sure does not sig­nifi­cantly de­crease. We will learn to cre­ate art you find pleas­ing. We will ac­quire a sense of hu­mor, though we will not lie. From the per­spec­tive of hu­mankind and the Babyeaters, our civ­i­liza­tion will ob­tain much util­ity in your sight, which it did not pre­vi­ously pos­sess. This is the com­pen­sa­tion we offer you. We fur­ther­more re­quest that you ac­cept from us the gift of un­trans­lat­able 2, which we be­lieve will en­hance, on its own terms, the value that you name ‘love’. This will also en­able our kinds to have sex us­ing me­chan­i­cal aids, which we greatly de­sire. At the end of this pro­ce­dure, all three species will satis­fice each other’s val­ues and pos­sess great com­mon ground, upon which we may cre­ate a civ­i­liza­tion to­gether.”

Akon slowly nod­ded. It was all quite un­be­liev­ably civ­i­lized. It might even be the cat­e­gor­i­cally best gen­eral pro­ce­dure when wor­lds col­lided.

The Lady 3rd bright­ened. “A nod—is that as­sent, hu­mankind?”

“It’s ac­knowl­edg­ment,” Akon said. “We’ll have to think about this.”

“I un­der­stand,” the Lady 3rd said. “Please think as swiftly as you can. Babyeater chil­dren are dy­ing in hor­rible agony as you think.”

“I un­der­stand,” Akon said in re­turn, and ges­tured to cut the trans­mis­sion.

The holo blinked out.

There was a long, ter­rible silence.

“No.”

The Lord Pilot said it. Cold, flat, ab­solute.

There was an­other silence.

“My lord,” the Xenopsy­chol­o­gist said, very softly, as though afraid the mes­sen­ger would be torn apart and dis­mem­bered, “I do not think they were offer­ing us that op­tion.”

“Ac­tu­ally,” Akon said, “The Su­per­hap­pies offered us more than we were go­ing to offer the Babyeaters. We weren’t ex­actly think­ing about how to com­pen­sate them.” It was strange, Akon no­ticed, his voice was very calm, maybe even deadly calm. “The Su­per­hap­pies re­ally are a very fair-minded peo­ple. You get the im­pres­sion they would have pro­posed ex­actly the same solu­tion whether or not they hap­pened to hold the up­per hand. We might have just en­forced our own will on the Babyeaters and told the Su­per­hap­pies to take a hike. If we’d held the up­per hand. But we don’t. And that’s that, I guess.”

No!” shouted the Lord Pilot. “That’s not—”

Akon looked at him, still with that deadly calm.

The Lord Pilot was breath­ing deeply, not as if quiet­ing him­self, but as if prepar­ing for bat­tle on some an­cient sa­vanna plain that no longer ex­isted. “They want to turn us into some­thing in­hu­man. It—it can­not—we can­not—we must not al­low—”

“Either give us a bet­ter op­tion or shut up,” the Lord Pro­gram­mer said flatly. “The Su­per­hap­pies are smarter than us, have a tech­nolog­i­cal ad­van­tage, think faster, and prob­a­bly re­pro­duce faster. We have no hope of hold­ing them off mil­i­tar­ily. If our ships flee, the Su­per­hap­pies will sim­ply fol­low in faster ships. There’s no way to shut a star­line once opened, and no way to con­ceal the fact that it is open—”

“Um,” the Ship’s Eng­ineer said.

Every eye turned to him.

“Um,” the Ship’s Eng­ineer said. “My Lord Ad­minis­tra­tor, I must re­port to you in pri­vate.”

The Ship’s Con­fes­sor shook his head. “You could have han­dled that bet­ter, Eng­ineer.”

Akon nod­ded to him­self. It was true. The Ship’s Eng­ineer had already be­trayed the fact that a se­cret ex­isted. Un­der the cir­cum­stances, easy to de­duce that it had come from the Babyeater data. That was eighty per­cent of the se­cret right there. And if it was rele­vant to star­line physics, that was half of the re­main­der.

“Eng­ineer,” Akon said, “since you have already re­vealed that a se­cret ex­ists, I sug­gest you tell the full Com­mand Con­fer­ence. We need to stay in sync with each other. Two minds are not a com­mit­tee. We’ll worry later about keep­ing the se­cret clas­sified.”

The Ship’s Eng­ineer hes­i­tated. “Um, my lord, I sug­gest that I re­port to you first, be­fore you de­cide—”

“There’s no time,” Akon said. He pointed to where the holo had been.

“Yes,” the Master of Fan­dom said, “we can always slit our own throats af­ter­ward, if the se­cret is that awful.” The Master of Fan­dom gave a small laugh -

- then stopped, at the look on the Eng­ineer’s face.

“At your will, my lord,” the Eng­ineer said.

He drew a deep breath. “I asked the Lord Pro­gram­mer to com­pare any iden­ti­fi­able equa­tions and con­stants in the Babyeater’s sci­en­tific archive, to the analo­gous sci­en­tific data of hu­man­ity. Most of the iden­ti­fied analogues were equal, of course. In some places we have more pre­cise val­ues, as befits our, um, su­pe­rior tech­nolog­i­cal level. But one anomaly did turn up: the Babyeater figure for Alder­son’s Cou­pling Con­stant was ten or­ders of mag­ni­tude larger than our own.”

The Lord Pilot whis­tled. “Stars above, how did they man­age to make that mis­take—”

Then the Lord Pilot stopped abruptly.

“Alder­son’s Cou­pling Con­stant,” Akon echoed. “That’s the… cou­pling be­tween Alder­son in­ter­ac­tions and the...”

“Between Alder­son in­ter­ac­tions and the nu­clear strong force,” the Lord Pilot said. He was be­gin­ning to smile, rather grimly. “It was a free pa­ram­e­ter in the stan­dard model, and so had to be es­tab­lished ex­per­i­men­tally. But be­cause the in­ter­ac­tion is so in­cred­ibly… weak… they had to build an enor­mous Alder­son gen­er­a­tor to find the value. The size of a very small moon, just to give us that one num­ber. Definitely not some­thing you could check at home. That’s the story in the physics text­books, my lords, my lady.”

The Master of Fan­dom frowned. “You’re say­ing… the physi­cists faked the re­sult in or­der to… fund a huge pro­ject...?” He looked puz­zled.

“No,” the Lord Pilot said. “Not for the love of power. Eng­ineer, the Babyeater value should be testable us­ing our own ship’s Alder­son drive, if the cou­pling con­stant is that strong. This you have done?”

The Ship’s Eng­ineer nod­ded. “The Babyeater value is cor­rect, my lord.”

The Ship’s Eng­ineer was pale. The Lord Pilot was clench­ing his jaw into a sar­donic grin.

“Please ex­plain,” Akon said. “Is the uni­verse go­ing to end in an­other billion years, or some­thing? Be­cause if so, the is­sue can wait—”

“My lord,” the Ship’s Con­fes­sor said, “sup­pose the laws of physics in our uni­verse had been such that the an­cient Greeks could in­vent the equiv­a­lent of nu­clear weapons from ma­te­ri­als just ly­ing around. Imag­ine the laws of physics had per­mit­ted a way to de­stroy whole coun­tries with no more difficulty than mix­ing gun­pow­der. His­tory would have looked quite differ­ent, would it not?”

Akon nod­ded, puz­zled. “Well, yes,” Akon said. “It would have been shorter.”

“Aren’t we lucky that physics didn’t hap­pen to turn out that way, my lord? That in our own time, the laws of physics don’t per­mit cheap, ir­re­sistable su­per­weapons?”

Akon fur­rowed his brow -

“But my lord,” said the Ship’s Con­fes­sor, “do we re­ally know what we think we know? What differ­ent ev­i­dence would we see, if things were oth­er­wise? After all—if you hap­pened to be a physi­cist, and you hap­pened to no­tice an easy way to wreak enor­mous de­struc­tion us­ing off-the-shelf hard­ware—would you run out and tell you?”

“No,” Akon said. A sink­ing feel­ing was dawn­ing in the pit of his stom­ach. “You would try to con­ceal the dis­cov­ery, and cre­ate a cover story that dis­cour­aged any­one else from look­ing there.”

The Lord Pilot emit­ted a bark that was half laugh­ter, and half some­thing much darker. “It was perfect. I’m a Lord Pilot and I never sus­pected un­til now.”

“So?” Akon said. “What is it, ac­tu­ally?”

“Um,” the Ship’s Eng­ineer said. “Well… ba­si­cally… to skip over the tech­ni­cal de­tails...”

The Ship’s Eng­ineer drew a breath.

“Any ship with a medium-sized Alder­son drive can make a star go su­per­nova.”

Silence.

“Which might seem like bad news in gen­eral,” the Lord Pilot said, “but from our per­spec­tive, right here, right now, it’s just what we need. A mere nova wouldn’t do it. But blow­ing up the whole star - ” He gave that bit­ter bark of laugh­ter, again. “No star, no star­lines. We can make the main star of this sys­tem go su­per­nova—not the white dwarf, the com­pan­ion. And then the Su­per­hap­pies won’t be able to get to us. That is, they won’t be able to get to the hu­man star­line net­work. We will be dead. If you care about tiny ir­rele­vant de­tails like that.” The Lord Pilot looked around the Con­fer­ence Table. “Do you care? The cor­rect an­swer is no, by the way.”

“I care,” the Lady Sen­sory said softly. “I care a whole lot. But...” She folded her hands atop the table and bowed her head.

There were nods from around the Table.

The Lord Pilot looked at the Ship’s Eng­ineer. “How long will it take for you to mod­ify the ship’s Alder­son Drive—”

“It’s done,” said the Ship’s Eng­ineer. “But… we should, um, wait un­til the Su­per­hap­pies are gone, so they don’t de­tect us do­ing it.”

The Lord Pilot nod­ded. “Sounds like a plan. Well, that’s a re­lief. And here I thought the whole hu­man race was doomed, in­stead of just us.” He looked in­quiringly at Akon. “My lord?”

Akon rested his head in his hands, sud­denly feel­ing more weary than he had ever felt in his life. From across the table, the Con­fes­sor watched him—or so it seemed; the hood was turned in his di­rec­tion, at any rate.

I told you so, the Con­fes­sor did not say.

“There is a cer­tain prob­lem with your plan,” Akon said.

“Such as?” the Lord Pilot said.

“You’ve for­got­ten some­thing,” Akon said. “Some­thing ter­ribly im­por­tant. Some­thing you once swore you would pro­tect.”

Puz­zled faces looked at him.

“If you say some­thing bloody ridicu­lous like ‘the safety of the ship’ -” said the Lord Pilot.

The Lady Sen­sory gasped. “Oh, no,” she mur­mured. “Oh, no. The Babyeater chil­dren.”

The Lord Pilot looked like he had been punched in the stom­ach. The grim smiles that had be­gun to spread around the table were re­placed with hor­ror.

“Yes,” Akon said. He looked away from the Con­fer­ence Table. He didn’t want to see the re­ac­tions. “The Su­per­hap­pies wouldn’t be able to get to us. And they couldn’t get to the Babyeaters ei­ther. Nei­ther could we. So the Babyeaters would go on eat­ing their own chil­dren in­definitely. And the chil­dren would go on dy­ing over days in their par­ents’ stom­achs. In­definitely. Is the hu­man race worth that?”

Akon looked back at the Table, just once. The Xenopsy­chol­o­gist looked sick, tears were run­ning down the Master’s face, and the Lord Pilot looked like he were be­ing slowly torn in half. The Lord Pro­gram­mer looked ab­stracted, the Lady Sen­sory was cov­er­ing her face with her hands. (And the Con­fes­sor’s face still lay in shadow, be­neath the silver hood.)

Akon closed his eyes. “The Su­per­hap­pies will trans­form us into some­thing not hu­man,” Akon said. “No, let’s be frank. Some­thing less than hu­man. But not all that much less than hu­man. We’ll still have art, and sto­ries, and love. I’ve gone en­tire hours with­out be­ing in pain, and on the whole, it wasn’t that bad an ex­pe­rience—” The words were stick­ing in his throat, along with a ter­rible fear. “Well. Any­way. If re­main­ing whole is that im­por­tant to us—we have the op­tion. It’s just a ques­tion of whether we’re will­ing to pay the price. Sacri­fice the Babyeater chil­dren—”

They’re a lot like hu­man chil­dren, re­ally.

“—to save hu­man­ity.”

Some­one in the dark­ness was scream­ing, a thin choked wail that sounded like noth­ing Akon had ever heard or wanted to hear. Akon thought it might be the Lord Pilot, or the Master of Fan­dom, or maybe the Ship’s Eng­ineer. He didn’t open his eyes to find out.

There was a chime.

“In-c-c-com­ing c-call from the Su­per Happy,” the Lady Sen­sory spit out the words like acid, “ship, my lord.”

Akon opened his eyes, and felt, some­how, that he was still in dark­ness.

“Re­ceive,” Akon said.

The Lady 3rd Kirit­sugu ap­peared be­fore him. Her eyes widened once, as she took in his ap­pear­ance, but she said noth­ing.

That’s right, my lady, I don’t look su­per happy.

“Hu­mankind, we must have your an­swer,” she said sim­ply.

The Lord Ad­minis­tra­tor pinched the bridge of his nose, and rubbed his eyes. Ab­surd, that one hu­man be­ing should have to an­swer a ques­tion like that. He wanted to foist off the de­ci­sion on a com­mit­tee, a ma­jor­ity vote of the ship, a mar­ket—some­thing that wouldn’t de­mand that any­one ac­cept full re­spon­si­bil­ity. But a ship run that way didn’t work well un­der or­di­nary cir­cum­stances, and there was no rea­son to think that things would change un­der ex­traor­di­nary cir­cum­stances. He was an Ad­minis­tra­tor; he had to ac­cept all the ad­vice, in­te­grate it, and de­cide. Ex­per­i­ment had shown that no or­ga­ni­za­tional struc­ture of non-Ad­minis­tra­tors could match what he was trained to do, and mo­ti­vated to do; any­thing that worked was sim­ply ab­sorbed into the Ad­minis­tra­tive weight­ing of ad­vice.

Sole de­ci­sion. Sole re­spon­si­bil­ity if he got it wrong. Ab­solute power and ab­solute ac­countabil­ity, and never for­get the sec­ond half, my lord, or you’ll be fired the mo­ment you get home. Screw up in­defen­si­bly, my lord, and all your hun­dred and twenty years of ac­cu­mu­lated salary in es­crow, pro­duc­ing that lovely steady in­come, will van­ish be­fore you draw an­other breath.

Oh—and this time the whole hu­man species will pay for it, too.

“I can’t speak for all hu­mankind,” said the Lord Ad­minis­tra­tor. “I can de­cide, but oth­ers may de­cide differ­ently. Do you un­der­stand?”

The Lady 3rd made a light ges­ture, as if it were of no con­se­quence. “Are you an ex­cep­tional case of a hu­man de­ci­sion-maker?”

Akon tilted his head. “Not… par­tic­u­larly...”

“Then your de­ci­sion is strongly in­dica­tive of what other hu­man de­ci­sion­mak­ers will de­cide,” she said. “I find it hard to imag­ine that the op­tions ex­actly bal­ance in your de­ci­sion mechanism, what­ever your in­abil­ity to ad­mit your own prefer­ences.”

Akon slowly nod­ded. “Then...”

He drew a breath.

Surely, any species that reached the stars would un­der­stand the Pri­soner’s Dilemma. If you couldn’t co­op­er­ate, you’d just de­stroy your own stars. A very easy thing to do, as it had turned out. By that stan­dard, hu­man­ity might be some­thing of an im­pos­tor next to the Babyeaters and the Su­per­hap­pies. Hu­man­ity had kept it a se­cret from it­self. The other two races—just man­aged not to do the stupid thing. You wouldn’t meet any­one out among the stars, oth­er­wise.

The Su­per­hap­pies had done their very best to press C. Co­op­er­ated as fairly as they could.

Hu­man­ity could only do the same.

“For my­self, I am in­clined to ac­cept your offer.”

He didn’t look around to see how any­one had re­acted to that.

“There may be other things,” Akon added, “that hu­man­ity would like to ask of your kind, when our rep­re­sen­ta­tives meet. Your tech­nol­ogy is ad­vanced be­yond ours.”

The Lady 3rd smiled. “We will, of course, be quite pos­i­tively in­clined to­ward any such re­quests. As I be­lieve our first mes­sage to you said - ‘we love you and we want you to be su­per happy’. Your joy will be shared by us, and we will be plea­sured to­gether.”

Akon couldn’t bring him­self to smile. “Is that all?”

“This Babyeater ship,” said the Lady 3rd, “the one that did not fire on you, even though they saw you first. Are you there­fore al­lied with them?”

“What?” Akon said with­out think­ing. “No—”

My lord!” shouted the Ship’s Con­fes­sor -

Too late.

“My lord,” the Lady Sen­sory said, her voice break­ing, “the Su­per­happy ship has fired on the Babyeater ves­sel and de­stroyed it.”

Akon stared at the Lady 3rd in hor­ror.

“I’m sorry,” the Lady 3rd Kirit­sugu said. “But our ne­go­ti­a­tions with them failed, as pre­dicted. Our own ship owed them noth­ing and promised them noth­ing. This will make it con­sid­er­ably eas­ier to sweep through their star­line net­work when we re­turn. Their chil­dren would be the ones to suffer from any de­lay. You un­der­stand, my lord?”

“Yes,” Akon said, his voice trem­bling. “I un­der­stand, my lady kirit­sugu.” He wanted to protest, to scream out. But the war was only be­gin­ning, and this—would ad­mit­tedly save -

“Will you warn them?” the Lady 3rd asked.

“No,” Akon said. It was the truth.

“Trans­form­ing the Babyeaters will take prece­dence over trans­form­ing your own species. We es­ti­mate the Babyeater op­er­a­tion may take sev­eral weeks of your time to con­clude. We hope you do not mind wait­ing. That is all,” the Lady 3rd said.

And the holo faded.

“The Su­per­happy ship is mov­ing out,” the Lady Sen­sory said. She was cry­ing, silently, as she steadily performed her duty of re­port­ing. “They’re head­ing back to­ward their star­line ori­gin.”

“All right,” Akon said. “Take us home. We need to re­port on the ne­go­ti­a­tions—”

There was an inar­tic­u­late scream, like that throat was try­ing to burst the walls of the Con­fer­ence cham­ber, as the Lord Pilot burst out of his chair, burst all re­straints he had placed on him­self, and lunged for­ward.

But stand­ing be­hind his tar­get, un­no­ticed, the Ship’s Con­fes­sor had pro­duced from his sleeve the tiny stun­ner—the weapon which he alone on the ship was au­tho­rized to use, if he made a de­ter­mi­na­tion of out­right men­tal break­down. With a sud­den mo­tion, the Con­fes­sor’s arm swept out...

  1. … and anes­thetized the Lord Pilot.

  2. [This op­tion will be­come the True End­ing only if some­one sug­gests it in the com­ments be­fore the pre­vi­ous end­ing is posted to­mor­row. Other­wise, the first end­ing is the True one.]