The Baby-Eating Aliens (1/​8)

(Part 1 of 8 in “Three Wor­lds Col­lide”)

This is a story of an im­pos­si­ble out­come, where AI never worked, molec­u­lar nan­otech­nol­ogy never worked, biotech­nol­ogy only sort-of worked; and yet some­how hu­man­ity not only sur­vived, but dis­cov­ered a way to travel Faster-Than-Light: The past’s Fu­ture.

Ships travel through the Alder­son star­lines, worm­holes that ap­pear near stars. The star­line net­work is dense and un­pre­dictable: more than a billion star­lines lead away from Sol, but ev­ery world ex­plored is so far away as to be out­side the range of Earth’s telescopes. Most colony wor­lds are lo­cated only a sin­gle jump away from Earth, which re­mains the cen­ter of the hu­man uni­verse.

From the colony sys­tem Huy­gens, the crew of the Gi­ant Science Ves­sel Im­pos­si­ble Pos­si­ble World have set out to in­ves­ti­gate a star­line that flared up with an un­prece­dented flux of Alder­son force be­fore sub­sid­ing. Ar­riv­ing, the Im­pos­si­ble dis­cov­ers the sparkling de­bris of a re­cent nova—and -

“ALIENS!”

Every head swung to­ward the Sen­sory con­sole. But af­ter that one cryp­tic out­burst, the Lady Sen­sory didn’t even look up from her con­sole: her fingers were fran­ti­cally twitch­ing com­mands.

There was a strange mo­ment of silence in the Com­mand Con­fer­ence while ev­ery listener thought the same two thoughts in rapid suc­ces­sion:

Is she nuts? You can’t just say “Aliens!”, leave it at that, and ex­pect ev­ery­one to be­lieve you. Ex­traor­di­nary claims re­quire ex­traor­di­nary ev­i­dence -

And then,

They came to look at the nova too!

In a situ­a­tion like this, it be­falls the Con­fer­ence Chair to speak first.

“What? SHIT!” shouted Akon, who didn’t re­al­ize un­til later that his words would be in­scribed for all time in the an­nals of his­tory. Akon swung around and looked fran­ti­cally at the main dis­play of the Com­mand Con­fer­ence. “Where are they?”

The Lady Sen­sory looked up from her con­sole, fingers still twitch­ing. “I—I don’t know, I just picked up an in­com­ing high-fre­quency sig­nal—they’re send­ing us enor­mous amounts of data, petabytes, I had to clear long-term mem­ory and set up an au­to­matic pipe or risk los­ing the whole—”

Found them!” shouted the Lord Pro­gram­mer. “I searched through our Greater Archive and turned up a pro­gram to look for anoma­lous en­ergy sources near lo­cal star­lines. It’s from way back from the first days of ex­plo­ra­tion, but I man­aged to find an em­u­la­tion pro­gram for—”

Just show it!” Akon took a deep breath, try­ing to calm him­self.

The main dis­play swiftly scanned across fiery space and set­tled on… a set of win­dows into fire, the fire of space shat­tered by the nova, but then shat­tered again into tri­an­gu­lar shards.

It took Akon a mo­ment to re­al­ize that he was look­ing at an icosa­he­dron of perfect mir­rors.

Huh, thought Akon, they’re lower-tech than us. Their own ship, the Im­pos­si­ble, was ab­sorb­ing the vast quan­tities of lo­cal ra­di­a­tion and dump­ing it into their Alder­son re­ac­tor; the mir­ror-shield­ing seemed a dis­tinctly in­fe­rior solu­tion. Un­less that’s what they want us to think...

Deflec­tors!” shouted the Lord Pilot sud­denly. “Should I put up deflec­tors?”

“Deflec­tors?” said Akon, star­tled.

The Pilot spoke very rapidly. “Sir, we use a self-sus­tain­ing Alder­son re­ac­tion to power our star­line jumps and our ab­sorb­ing shields. That same re­ac­tion could be used to emit a di­rected beam that would snuff a similar re­ac­tion—the aliens are putting out their own Alder­son emis­sions, they could snuff our ab­sorbers at any time, and the nova ashes would roast us in­stantly—un­less I con­figure a deflec­tor—”

The Ship’s Con­fes­sor spoke, then. “Have the aliens put up deflec­tors of their own?”

Akon’s mind seemed to be mov­ing very slowly, and yet the es­sen­tial thoughts felt, some­how, ob­vi­ous. “Pilot, set up the deflec­tor pro­gram but don’t ac­ti­vate it un­til I give the word. Sen­sory, drop ev­ery­thing else and tell me whether the aliens have put up their own deflec­tors.”

Sen­sory looked up. Her fingers twitched only briefly through a few short com­mands. Then, “No,” she said.

“Then I think,” Akon said, though his spine felt frozen solid, “that we should not be the first to put this in­ter­ac­tion on a… com­bat­ive foot­ing. The aliens have made a ges­ture of good­will by leav­ing them­selves vuln­er­a­ble. We must re­cip­ro­cate.” Surely, no species would ad­vance far enough to colonize space with­out un­der­stand­ing the logic of the Pri­soner’s Dilemma...

“You as­sume too much,” said the Ship’s Con­fes­sor. “They are aliens.”

“Not much good­will,” said the Pilot. His fingers were twitch­ing, not com­mands, but al­most-com­mands, sub­vo­cal thoughts. “The aliens’ Alder­son re­ac­tion is weaker than ours by an or­der of mag­ni­tude. We could break any shield they could put up. Un­less they struck first. If they leave their deflec­tors down, they lose noth­ing, but they in­vite us to leave our own down—”

“If they were go­ing to strike first,” Akon said, “they could have struck be­fore we even knew they were here. But in­stead they spoke.” Surely, oh surely, they un­der­stand the Pri­soner’s Dilemma.

“Maybe they hope to gain in­for­ma­tion and then kill us,” said the Pilot. “We have tech­nol­ogy they want. That enor­mous mes­sage—the only way we could send them an equiv­a­lent amount of data would be by dump­ing our en­tire Lo­cal Archive. They may be hop­ing that we feel the emo­tional need to, as you put it, re­cip­ro­cate—

“Hold on,” said the Lord Pro­gram­mer sud­denly. “I may have man­aged to trans­late their lan­guage.”

You could have heard a pin drop­ping from ten lightyears away.

The Lord Pro­gram­mer smiled, ever so slightly. “You see, that enor­mous dump of data they sent us—I think that was their Lo­cal Archive, or equiv­a­lent. A siz­able part of their Net, any­way. Their text, image, and holo for­mats are ut­terly straight­for­ward—ei­ther they don’t bother com­press­ing any­thing, or they de­com­pressed it all for us be­fore they sent it. And here’s the thing: back in the Dawn era, when there were mul­ti­ple hu­man lan­guages, there was this no­tion that peo­ple had of statis­ti­cal lan­guage trans­la­tion. Now, the clas­sic method used a known cor­pus of hu­man-trans­lated text. But there were suc­ces­sor meth­ods that tried to ex­tend the trans­la­tion fur­ther, by gen­er­at­ing se­man­tic skele­tons and try­ing to map the skele­tons them­selves onto one an­other. And there are also ways of au­to­mat­i­cally look­ing for similar­ity be­tween images or holos. Believe it or not, there was a pro­gram already in the Archive for try­ing to find points of link­age be­tween an alien cor­pus and a hu­man cor­pus, and then work­ing out from there to map se­man­tic skele­tons… and it runs quickly, since it’s de­signed to work on older com­puter sys­tems. So I ran the pro­gram, it finished, and it’s claiming that it can trans­late the alien lan­guage with 70% con­fi­dence. Could be a to­tal bug, of course. But the aliens sent a sec­ond mes­sage that fol­lowed their main data dump—short, looks like text-only. Should I run the trans­la­tor on that, and put the re­sults on the main dis­play?”

Akon stared at the Lord Pro­gram­mer, ab­sorb­ing this, and fi­nally said, “Yes.”

“All right,” said the Lord Pro­gram­mer, “here goes ma­chine learn­ing,” and his fingers twitched once.

Over the icosa­he­dron of frac­tured fire, translu­cent let­ters ap­peared:

THIS VESSEL IS THE OPTIMISM OF THE CENTER OF THE VESSEL PERSON

YOU HAVE NOT KICKED US

THEREFORE YOU EAT BABIES

WHAT IS OURS IS YOURS, WHAT IS YOURS IS OURS

“Stop that laugh­ing,” Akon said ab­sent­mind­edly, “it’s dis­tract­ing.” The Con­fer­ence Chair pinched the bridge of his nose. “All right. That doesn’t seem com­pletely ran­dom. The first line… is them iden­ti­fy­ing their ship, maybe. Then the sec­ond line says that we haven’t opened fire on them, or that they won’t open fire on us—some­thing like that. The third line, I have ab­solutely no idea. The fourth… is offer­ing some kind of re­cip­ro­cal trade—” Akon stopped then. So did the laugh­ter.

“Would you like to send a re­turn mes­sage?” said the Lord Pro­gram­mer.

Every­one looked at him. Then ev­ery­one looked at Akon.

Akon thought about that very care­fully. To­tal silence for a lengthy pe­riod of time might not be con­strued as friendly by a race that had just talked at them for petabytes.

“All right,” Akon said. He cleared his throat. “We are still try­ing to un­der­stand your lan­guage. We do not un­der­stand well. We are try­ing to trans­late. We may not trans­late cor­rectly. Th­ese words may not say what we want them to say. Please do not be offended. This is the re­search ves­sel named quote Im­pos­si­ble Pos­si­ble World un­quote. We are pleased to meet you. We will as­sem­ble data for trans­mis­sion to you, but do not have it ready.” Akon paused. “Send them that. If you can make your pro­gram trans­late it three differ­ent plau­si­ble ways, do that too—it may make it clearer that we’re work­ing from an au­to­matic pro­gram.”

The Lord Pro­gram­mer twitched a few more times, then spoke to the Lady Sen­sory. “Ready.”

“Are you re­ally sure this is a good idea?” said Sen­sory doubt­fully.

Akon sighed. “No. Send the mes­sage.”

For twenty sec­onds af­ter, there was silence. Then new words ap­peared on the dis­play:

WE ARE GLAD TO SEE YOU CANNOT BE DONE

YOU SPEAK LIKE BABY CRUNCH CRUNCH

WITH BIG ANGELIC POWERS

WE WISH TO SUBSCRIBE TO YOUR NEWSLETTER

“All right,” Akon said, af­ter a while. It seemed, on the whole, a pos­i­tive re­sponse. “I ex­pect a lot of peo­ple are ea­ger to look at the alien cor­pus. But I also need vol­un­teers to hunt for texts and holo files in our own Archive. Which don’t be­tray the en­g­ineer­ing prin­ci­ples be­hind any tech­nol­ogy we’ve had for less than, say,” Akon thought about the mir­ror shield­ing and what it im­plied, “a hun­dred years. Just show­ing that it can be done… we won’t try to avoid that, but don’t give away the sci­ence...”


A day later, the at­mo­sphere at the Com­mand Con­fer­ence was con­sid­er­ably more tense.

Bewil­der­ment. Hor­ror. Fear. Numb­ness. Re­fusal. And in the dis­tant back­ground, slowly sim­mer­ing, a dan­ger­ous edge of ris­ing righ­teous fury.

“First of all,” Akon said. “First of all. Does any­one have any plau­si­ble hy­poth­e­sis, any rea­son­able in­ter­pre­ta­tion of what we know, un­der which the aliens do not eat their own chil­dren?”

“There is always the pos­si­bil­ity of mi­s­un­der­stand­ing,” said the former Lady Psy­chol­o­gist, who was now, sud­denly and abruptly, the lead Xenopsy­chol­o­gist of the ship, and there­fore of hu­mankind. “But un­less the en­tire cor­pus they sent us is a fic­tion… no.”

The alien holos showed tall crys­tal­line in­sec­tile crea­tures, all flat planes and in­ter­sect­ing an­gles and pris­matic re­frac­tions, pro­pel­ling them­selves over a field of sharp rocks: the aliens moved like hop­ping on pogo sticks, bounc­ing off the ground us­ing pro­ject­ing limbs that sank into their bod­ies and then re­bounded. There was a cold beauty to the aliens’ crys­tal bod­ies and their twist­ing ro­tat­ing mo­tions, like screen­savers tak­ing on sen­tient form.

And the aliens bounded over the sharp rocks to­ward tiny flee­ing figures like del­i­cate spher­i­cal snowflakes, and grabbed them with pincers, and put them in their mouths. It was a cen­tral theme in holo af­ter holo.

The alien brain was much smaller and denser than a hu­man’s. The alien chil­dren, though their bod­ies were tiny, had full-sized brains. They could talk. They protested as they were eaten, in the flick­er­ing in­ter­nal lights that the aliens used to com­mu­ni­cate. They screamed as they van­ished into the adult aliens’ maws.

Ba­bies, then, had been a mis­trans­la­tion: Pre­teens would have been more ac­cu­rate.

Still, ev­ery­one was call­ing the aliens Babyeaters.

The chil­dren were sen­tient at the age they were con­sumed. The text por­tions of the cor­pus were very clear about that. It was part of the great, the no­ble, the most holy sac­ri­fice. And the chil­dren were loved: this was part of the cen­tral truth of life, that par­ents could over­come their love and en­gage in the ter­rible win­now­ing. A par­ent might spawn a hun­dred chil­dren, and only one in a hun­dred could sur­vive—for oth­er­wise they would die later, of star­va­tion...

When the Babyeaters had come into their power as a tech­nolog­i­cal species, they could have cho­sen to mod­ify them­selves—to pre­vent all births but one.

But this they did not choose to do.

For that ter­rible win­now­ing was the cen­tral truth of life, af­ter all.

The one now called Xenopsy­chol­o­gist had ar­rived to the Huy­gens sys­tem with the first coloniza­tion ves­sel. Since then she had spent over one hun­dred years prac­tic­ing the pro­fes­sion of psy­chol­ogy, earn­ing the rare ti­tle of Lady. (Most peo­ple got fed up and switched ca­reers af­ter no more than fifty, what­ever their first in­ten­tions.) Now, af­ter all that time, she was sim­ply the Xenopsy­chol­o­gist, no longer a Lady of her pro­fes­sion. Be­ing the first and only Xenopsy­chol­o­gist made no differ­ence; the hun­dred-year rule for true ex­per­tise was not a rule that any­one could sus­pend. If she was the fore­most Xenopsy­chol­o­gist of hu­mankind, then also she was the least, the most fool­ish and the most ig­no­rant. She was only an ap­pren­tice Xenopsy­chol­o­gist, no mat­ter that there were no mas­ters any­where. In the­ory, her so­cial sta­tus should have been too low to be seated at the Con­fer­ence Table. In the­ory.

The Xenopsy­chol­o­gist was two hun­dred and fifty years old. She looked much older, now, as as she spoke. “In terms of evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy… I think I un­der­stand what hap­pened. The an­ces­tors of the Babyeaters were a species that gave birth to hun­dreds of offspring in a spawn­ing sea­son, like Ter­res­trial fish; what we call r-strat­egy re­pro­duc­tion. But the an­ces­tral Babyeaters dis­cov­ered… crys­tal-tend­ing, a kind of agri­cul­ture… long be­fore hu­mans did. They were around as smart as chim­panzees, when they started farm­ing. The adults fed­er­ated into tribes so they could guard ter­ri­to­ries and tend crys­tal. They adapted to pen up their offspring, to keep them around in herds so they could feed them. But they couldn’t pro­duce enough crys­tal for all the chil­dren.

“It’s a tru­ism in evolu­tion­ary biol­ogy that group se­lec­tion can’t work among non-rel­a­tives. The ex­cep­tion is if there are en­force­ment mechanisms, pun­ish­ment for defec­tors—then there’s no in­di­vi­d­ual ad­van­tage to cheat­ing, be­cause you get slapped down. That’s what hap­pened with the Babyeaters. They didn’t re­strain their in­di­vi­d­ual re­pro­duc­tion be­cause the more chil­dren they put in the tribal pen, the more chil­dren of theirs were likely to sur­vive. But the to­tal pro­duc­tion of offspring from the tribal pen was greater, if the chil­dren were win­nowed down, and the sur­vivors got more in­di­vi­d­ual re­sources and at­ten­tion af­ter­ward. That was how their species be­gan to shift to­ward a k-strat­egy, an in­di­vi­d­ual sur­vival strat­egy. That was the be­gin­ning of their cul­ture.

“And any­one who tried to cheat, to hide away a child, or even go eas­ier on their own chil­dren dur­ing the win­now­ing—well, the Babyeaters treated the mer­ciful par­ents the same way that hu­man tribes treat their traitors.

“They de­vel­oped psy­cholog­i­cal adap­ta­tions for en­forc­ing that, their first great group norm. And those psy­cholog­i­cal adap­ta­tions, those emo­tions, were reused over the course of their evolu­tion, as the Babyeaters be­gan to adapt to their more com­plex so­cieties. Honor, friend­ship, the good of our tribe—the Babyeaters ac­quired many of the same moral adap­ta­tions as hu­mans, but their brains reused the emo­tional cir­cuitry of in­fan­ti­cide to do it.

“The Babyeater word for good means, liter­ally, to eat chil­dren.”

The Xenopsy­chol­o­gist paused there, tak­ing a sip of wa­ter. Pale faces looked back at her from around the table.

The Lady Sen­sory spoke up. “I don’t sup­pose… we could con­vince them they were wrong about that?”

The Ship’s Con­fes­sor was robed and hooded in silver, in­di­cat­ing that he was there for­mally as a guardian of san­ity. His voice was gen­tle, though, as he spoke: “I don’t be­lieve that’s how it works.”

“Even if you could per­suade them, it might not be a good idea,” said the Xenopsy­chol­o­gist. “If you con­vinced the Babyeaters to see it our way—that they had com­mit­ted a wrong of that mag­ni­tude—there isn’t any­thing in the uni­verse that could stop them from hunt­ing down and ex­ter­mi­nat­ing them­selves. They don’t have a con­cept of for­give­ness; their only no­tion of why some­one might go easy on a trans­gres­sor, is to spare an ally, or use them as a pup­pet, or be­ing too lazy or cow­ardly to carry out the vengeance. The word for wrong is the same sym­bol as mercy, you see.” The Xenopsy­chol­o­gist shook her head. “Pu­n­ish­ment of non-pun­ish­ers is very much a way of life, with them. A Man­ichaean, du­al­is­tic view of re­al­ity. They may have liter­ally be­lieved that we ate ba­bies, at first, just be­cause we didn’t open fire on them.”

Akon frowned. “Do you re­ally think so? Wouldn’t that make them… well, a bit uni­mag­i­na­tive?”

The Ship’s Master of Fan­dom was there; he spoke up. “I’ve been try­ing to read Babyeater liter­a­ture,” he said. “It’s not easy, what with all the trans­la­tion difficul­ties,” and he sent a frown at the Lord Pro­gram­mer, who re­turned it. “In one sense, we’re lucky enough that the Babyeaters have a con­cept of fic­tion, let alone sci­ence fic­tion—”

“Lucky?” said the Lord Pilot. “You’ve got to have an imag­i­na­tion to make it to the stars. The sort of species that wouldn’t in­vent sci­ence fic­tion, prob­a­bly wouldn’t even in­vent the wheel—”

But,” in­ter­rupted the Master, “just as most of their sci­ence fic­tion deals with crys­tal­line en­tities—the clos­est they come to pos­tu­lat­ing hu­man anatomy, in any of the sto­ries I’ve read, was a sort of gi­ant sen­tient floppy sponge—so too, nearly all of the aliens their ex­plor­ers meet, eat their own chil­dren. I doubt the au­thors spent much time ques­tion­ing the as­sump­tion; they didn’t want any­thing so alien that their read­ers couldn’t em­pathize. The pur­pose of sto­ry­tel­ling is to stim­u­late the moral in­stincts, which is why all sto­ries are fun­da­men­tally about per­sonal sac­ri­fice and loss—that’s their the­ory of liter­a­ture. Though you can find sto­ries where the wise, benev­olent el­der aliens ex­plain how the need to con­trol tribal pop­u­la­tion is the great se­lec­tive tran­si­tion, and how no species can pos­si­bly evolve sen­tience and co­op­er­a­tion with­out eat­ing ba­bies, and even if they did, they would war among them­selves and de­stroy them­selves.”

“Hm,” said the Xenopsy­chol­o­gist. “The Babyeaters might not be too far wrong—stop star­ing at me like that, I don’t mean it that way. I’m just say­ing, the Babyeater civ­i­liza­tion didn’t have all that many wars. In fact, they didn’t have any wars at all af­ter they finished adopt­ing the sci­en­tific method. It was the great wa­ter­shed mo­ment in their his­tory—the no­tion of a rea­son­able mis­take, that you didn’t have to kill all the ad­her­ents of a mis­taken hy­poth­e­sis. Not be­cause you were for­giv­ing them, but be­cause they’d made the mis­take by rea­son­ing on in­suffi­cient data, rather than any in­her­ent flaw. Up un­til then, all wars were wars of to­tal ex­ter­mi­na­tion—but af­ter­ward, the the­ory was that if a large group of peo­ple could all do some­thing wrong, it was prob­a­bly a rea­son­able mis­take. Their con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of prob­a­bil­ity the­ory—of a for­mally cor­rect way of ma­nipu­lat­ing un­cer­tainty—was fol­lowed by the dawn of their world peace.”

“But then—” said the Lady Sen­sory.

“Of course,” added the Xenopsy­chol­o­gist, “any­one who de­parts from the group norm due to an ac­tual in­her­ent flaw still has to be de­stroyed. And not ev­ery­one agreed at first that the sci­en­tific method was moral—it does seem to have been highly coun­ter­in­tu­itive to them—so their last war was the one where the sci­ence-users kil­led off all the non­scien­tists. After that, it was world peace.”

“Oh,” said the Lady Sen­sory softly.

“Yes,” the Xenopsy­chol­o­gist said, “af­ter that, all the Babyeaters banded to­gether as a sin­gle su­per-group that only needed to ex­e­cute in­di­vi­d­ual heretics. They now have a strong cul­tural taboo against wars be­tween tribes.

“Un­for­tu­nately,” said the Master of Fan­dom, “that taboo doesn’t let us off the hook. You can also find sci­ence fic­tion sto­ries—though they’re much rarer—where the Babyeaters and the aliens don’t im­me­di­ately join to­gether into a greater so­ciety. Sto­ries of hor­rible mon­sters who don’t eat their chil­dren. Mon­sters who mul­ti­ply like bac­te­ria, war among them­selves like rats, hate all art and beauty, and de­stroy ev­ery­thing in their path­way. Mon­sters who have to be ex­ter­mi­nated down to the last strand of their DNA—er, last nu­cle­at­ing crys­tal.”

Akon spoke, then. “I ac­cept full re­spon­si­bil­ity,” said the Con­fer­ence Chair, “for the de­ci­sion to send the Babyeaters the texts and holos we did. But the fact re­mains that they have more than enough in­for­ma­tion about us to in­fer that we don’t eat our chil­dren. They may be able to guess how we would see them. And they haven’t sent any­thing to us, since we be­gan trans­mit­ting to them.”

“So the ques­tion then is—now what?”

To be con­tinued...