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 -


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:





“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:





“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...