The Super Happy People (3/​8)

(Part 3 of 8 in “Three Wor­lds Col­lide”)

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

The holo showed a tri­an­gle marked with three glow­ing dots, the hu­man ship and the Babyeater ship and the new­com­ers. Then the holo zoomed in, to show -

- the most grotesque space­ship that Akon had ever seen, like a blob fes­tooned with ten­ta­cles fes­tooned with acne fes­tooned with small hairs. Slowly, the ten­ta­cles of the ship waved, as if in a gen­tle breeze; and the acne on the ten­ta­cles pul­sated, as if prepar­ing to burst. It was a frac­tal of ugli­ness, dis­gust­ing at ev­ery level of self-similar­ity.

“Do the aliens have deflec­tors up?” said Akon.

“My lord,” said Lady Sen­sory, “they don’t have any shields raised. The nova ashes’ ra­di­a­tion doesn’t seem to bother them. What­ever ma­te­rial their ship is made from, it’s just tak­ing the beat­ing.”

A silence fell around the table.

“All right,” said the Lord Pro­gram­mer, “that’s im­pres­sive.”

The Lady Sen­sory jerked, like some­one had just slapped her. “We—we just got a sig­nal from them in hu­man-stan­dard for­mat, con­tent en­cod­ing marked as Modern English text, fol­lowed by a holo—”

What?” said Akon. “We haven’t trans­mit­ted any­thing to them, how could they pos­si­bly—”

“Um,” said the Ship’s Eng­ineer. “What if these aliens re­ally do have, um, ‘big an­gelic pow­ers’?”

“No,” said the Ship’s Con­fes­sor. His hood tilted slightly, as if in wry hu­mor. “It is only his­tory re­peat­ing it­self.”

“His­tory re­peat­ing it­self?” said the Master of Fan­dom. “You mean that the ship is from an al­ter­nate Everett branch of Earth, or that they some­how in­de­pen­dently de­vel­oped ship-to-ship com­mu­ni­ca­tion pro­to­cols ex­actly similar to our—”

“No, you dolt,” said the Lord Pro­gram­mer, “he means that the Babyeaters sent the new aliens a mas­sive data dump, just like they sent us. Only this time, the Babyeater data dump in­cluded all the data that we sent the Babyeaters. Then the new aliens ran an au­to­matic trans­la­tion pro­gram, like the one we used.”

“You gave it away,” said the Con­fes­sor. There was a slight laugh in his voice. “You should have let them figure it out on their own. One so rarely en­coun­ters the ap­par­ently su­per­nat­u­ral, these days.”

Akon shook his head, “Con­fes­sor, we don’t have time for—never mind. Sen­sory, show the text mes­sage.”

The Lady Sen­sory twitched a finger and -

HOORAY!

WE ARE SO GLAD TO MEET YOU!

THIS IS THE SHIP “PLAY GAMES FOR LOTS OF FUN”

(OPERATED BY CHARGED PARTICLE FINANCIAL FIRMS)

WE LOVE YOU AND WE WANT YOU TO BE SUPER HAPPY.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO HAVE SEX?

Slowly, elab­o­rately, Akon’s head dropped to the table with a dull thud. “Why couldn’t we have been alone in the uni­verse?”

“No, wait,” said the Xenopsy­chol­o­gist, “this makes sense.”

The Master of Fan­dom nod­ded. “Seems quite straight­for­ward.”

“Do en­lighten,” came a muffled tone from where Akon’s head rested on the table.

The Xenopsy­chol­o­gist shrugged. “Evolu­tion­ar­ily speak­ing, re­pro­duc­tion is prob­a­bly the sin­gle best guess for an ac­tivity that an evolved in­tel­li­gence would find plea­surable. When you look at it from that per­spec­tive, my lords, my lady, their mes­sage makes perfect sense—it’s a uni­ver­sal friendly greet­ing, like the Pioneer en­grav­ing.”

Akon didn’t raise his head. “I won­der what these aliens do,” he said through his shield­ing arms, “mo­lest kit­tens?”

“My lord...” said the Ship’s Con­fes­sor. Gen­tle the tone, but the mean­ing was very clear.

Akon sighed and straight­ened up. “You said their mes­sage in­cluded a holo, right? Let’s see it.”

The main screen turned on.

There was a mo­ment of silence, and then a strange liquid sound as, in uni­son, ev­ery­one around the table gasped in shock, even the Ship’s Con­fes­sor.

For a time af­ter that, no one spoke. They were just… watch­ing.

“Wow,” said the Lady Sen­sory fi­nally. “That’s ac­tu­ally… kind of… hot.”

Akon tore his eyes away from the writhing hu­man fe­male form, the writhing hu­man male form, and the writhing alien ten­ta­cles. “But...” Akon said. “But why is she preg­nant?”

“A bet­ter ques­tion,” said the Lord Pro­gram­mer, “would be, why are the two of them recit­ing mul­ti­pli­ca­tion ta­bles?” He glanced around. “What, none of you can read lips?”

“Um...” said the Xenopsy­chol­o­gist. “Okay, I’ve got to ad­mit, I can’t even be­gin to imag­ine why—”

Then there was a uniform “Ewww...” from around the room.

“Oh, dear,” said the Xenopsy­chol­o­gist. “Oh, dear, I don’t think they un­der­stood that part at all.”

Akon made a cut­ting ges­ture, and the holo switched off.

“Some­one should view the rest of it,” said the Ship’s Con­fes­sor. “It might con­tain im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion.”

Akon flipped a hand. “I don’t think we’ll run short of vol­un­teers to watch dis­gust­ing alien pornog­ra­phy. Just post it to the ship’s 4chan, and check af­ter a few hours to see if any­thing was mod­ded up to +5 In­sight­ful.”

“Th­ese aliens,” said the Master of Fan­dom slowly, “com­posed that pornog­ra­phy within… sec­onds, it must have been. We couldn’t have done that au­to­mat­i­cally, could we?”

The Lord Pro­gram­mer frowned. “No. I don’t, um, think so. From a cor­pus of alien pornog­ra­phy, au­to­mat­i­cally gen­er­ate a holo they would find in­ter­est­ing? Um. It’s not a prob­lem that I think any­one’s tried to solve yet, and they sure didn’t get it perfect the first time, but… no.”

“How large an an­gelic power does that im­ply?”

The Lord Pro­gram­mer traded glances with the Master. “Big,” the Lord Pro­gram­mer said fi­nally. “Maybe even epic.”

“Or they think on a much faster timescale,” said the Con­fes­sor softly. “There is no law of the uni­verse that their neu­rons must run at 100Hz.”

“My lords,” said the Lady Sen­sory, “we’re get­ting an­other mes­sage; holo with sound, this time. It’s marked as a real-time com­mu­ni­ca­tion, my lords.”

Akon swal­lowed, and his fingers au­to­mat­i­cally straight­ened the hood of his for­mal sweater. Would the aliens be able to tell if his clothes were sloppy? He was sud­denly very aware that he hadn’t checked his lip­stick in three hours. But it wouldn’t do to keep the vis­i­tors wait­ing… “All right. Open a chan­nel to them, trans­mit­ting only my­self.”

The holo that ap­peared did noth­ing to as­suage his in­se­cu­ri­ties. The man that ap­peared was perfectly dressed, ut­terly perfectly dressed, in busi­ness ca­sual more in­timi­dat­ing than any for­mal­ity: crush­ing su­pe­ri­or­ity with­out the ap­pear­ance of effort. The face was the same way, over­whelm­ingly hand­some with­out the ex­cuse of makeup; the fash­ion­able slit vest ex­posed pec­toral mus­cles that seemed op­ti­mally sculpted with­out the bulk that comes of ex­er­cise -

Su­per­stim­u­lus!” ex­claimed the Ship’s Con­fes­sor, a sharp warn­ing.

Akon blinked, shrug­ging off the fog. Of course the aliens couldn’t pos­si­bly re­ally look like that. A holo, only an overop­ti­mized holo. That was a les­son ev­ery­one (ev­ery hu­man?) learned be­fore pu­berty, not to let re­al­ity seem diminished by fic­tion. As the proverb went, It’s bad enough com­par­ing your­self to Isaac New­ton with­out com­par­ing your­self to Kim­ball Kin­ni­son.

“Greet­ings in the name of hu­man­ity,” said Akon. “I am Lord Ana­maferus Akon, Con­fer­ence Chair of the Gi­ant Science Ves­sel Im­pos­si­ble Pos­si­ble World. We—” come in peace didn’t seem ap­pro­pri­ate with a Babyeater war un­der dis­cus­sion, and many other po­lite pleas­antries, like pleased to meet you, sud­denly seemed too much like promises and lies, “—didn’t quite un­der­stand your last mes­sage.”

“Our apolo­gies,” said the perfect figure on screen. “You may call me Big Fuck­ing Ed­ward; as for our species...” The figure tilted a head in thought. “This trans­la­tion pro­gram is not fully sta­ble; even if I said our proper species-name, who knows how it would come out. I would not wish my kind to for­ever bear an un­aes­thetic nick­name on ac­count of a trans­la­tion er­ror.”

Akon nod­ded. “I un­der­stand, Big Fuck­ing Ed­ward.”

“Your true lan­guage is a for­mat in­con­ceiv­able to us,” said the perfect holo. “But we do apol­o­gize for any un­trans­lat­able 1 you may have ex­pe­rienced on ac­count of our wel­come trans­mis­sion; it was au­to­mat­i­cally gen­er­ated, be­fore any of us had a chance to ap­pre­hend your sex­u­al­ity. We do apol­o­gize, I say; but who would ever have thought that a species would evolve to find re­pro­duc­tion a painful ex­pe­rience? For us, child­birth is the great­est plea­sure we know; to be pro­longed, not hur­ried.”

“Oh,” said the Lady Sen­sory in a tone of sud­den en­light­en­ment, “that’s why the ten­ta­cles were push­ing the baby back into—”

Out of sight of the vi­sual frame, Akon ges­tured with his hand for Sen­sory to shut up. Akon leaned for­ward. “The vi­sual you’re cur­rently send­ing us is, of course, not real. What do you ac­tu­ally look like? - if the re­quest does not offend.”

The perfect false man fur­rowed a brow, puz­zled. “I don’t un­der­stand. You would not be able to ap­pre­hend any com­mu­nica­tive cues.”

“I would still like to see,” Akon said. “I am not sure how to ex­plain it, ex­cept that—truth mat­ters to us.”

The too-beau­tiful man van­ished, and in his place -

Mad brilli­ant col­ors, in­sane hues that for a mo­ment defeated his vi­sion. Then his mind saw shapes, but not mean­ing. In ut­ter silence, huge blobs writhed around sup­port­ing bars. Ex­tru­sions pro­truded fluidly and in­ter­pen­e­trated -

Writhing, twist­ing, shud­der­ing, pul­sat­ing -

And then the false man reap­peared.

Akon fought to keep his face from show­ing dis­tress, but a prick­ling of sweat ap­peared on his fore­head. There’d been some­thing jar­ring about the blobs, even the sta­ble back­ground be­hind them. Like look­ing at an op­ti­cal illu­sion de­signed by sadists.

And—those were the aliens, or so they claimed -

“I have a ques­tion,” said the false man. “I apol­o­gize if it causes any dis­tress, but I must know if what our sci­en­tists say is cor­rect. Has your kind re­ally evolved sep­a­rate in­for­ma­tion-pro­cess­ing mechanisms for de­oxyri­bose nu­cleic acid ver­sus elec­tro­chem­i­cal trans­mis­sion of synap­tic spikes?”

Akon blinked. Out of the cor­ner of his eye, he saw figures trad­ing cau­tious glances around the table. Akon wasn’t sure where this ques­tion was lead­ing, but, given that the aliens had already un­der­stood enough to ask, it prob­a­bly wasn’t safe to lie...

“I don’t re­ally un­der­stand the ques­tion’s pur­pose,” Akon said. “Our genes are made of de­oxyri­bose nu­cleic acid. Our brains are made of neu­rons that trans­mit im­pulses through elec­tri­cal and chem­i­cal—”

The fake man’s head col­lapsed to his hands, and he be­gan to bawl like a baby.

Akon’s hand signed Help! out of the frame. But the Xenopsy­chol­o­gist shrugged clue­lessly.

This was not go­ing well.

The fake man sud­denly un­folded his head from his hands. His cheeks were de­picted as streaked with tears, but the face it­self had stopped cry­ing. “To wait so long,” the voice said in a tone of ab­solute tragedy. “To wait so long, and come so far, only to dis­cover that nowhere among the stars is any trace of love.”

“Love?” Akon re­peated. “Car­ing for some­one else? Want­ing to pro­tect them, to be with them? If that trans­lated cor­rectly, then ‘love’ is a very im­por­tant thing to us.”

“But!” cried the figure in agony, at a vol­ume that made Akon jump. “But when you have sex, you do not un­trans­lat­able 2! A fake, a fake, these are only imi­ta­tion words—”

“What is ‘un­trans­lat­able 2’?” Akon said; and then, as the figure once again col­lapsed in in­con­solable weep­ing, wished he hadn’t.

“They asked if our neu­rons and DNA were sep­a­rate,” said the Ship’s Eng­ineer. “So maybe they have only one sys­tem. Um… in ret­ro­spect, that ac­tu­ally seems like the ob­vi­ous way for evolu­tion to do it. If you’re go­ing to have one kind of in­for­ma­tion stor­age for genes, why have an en­tirely differ­ent sys­tem for brains? So—”

“They share each other’s thoughts when they have sex,” the Master of Fan­dom com­pleted. “Now there’s an old dream. And they would de­velop emo­tions around that, whole pat­terns of feel­ing we don’t have our­selves… Huh. I guess we do lack their analogue of love.”

“Prob­a­bly,” said the Xenopsy­chol­o­gist quietly, “sex was their only way of speak­ing to each other from the be­gin­ning. From be­fore the dawn of their in­tel­li­gence. It re­ally does make a lot of sense, evolu­tion­ar­ily. If you’re in­ject­ing pack­ets of in­for­ma­tion any­way—”

“Wait a minute,” said the Lady Sen­sory, “then how are they talk­ing to us?

“Of course,” said the Lord Pro­gram­mer in a tone of sud­den en­light­en­ment. “Hu­man­ity has always used new com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nolo­gies for pornog­ra­phy. ‘The In­ter­net is for porn’ - but with them, it must have been the other way around.”

Akon blinked. His mind sud­denly pic­tured the blobs, and the ten­ta­cles con­nect­ing them to each other -

Some­where on that ship is a blob mak­ing love to an avatar that’s sup­posed to rep­re­sent me. Maybe a whole Com­mand Orgy.

I’ve just been cy­ber-raped. No, I’m be­ing cy­ber-raped right now.

And the aliens had crossed who knew how much space, search­ing for who knew how long, yearn­ing to speak /​ make love to other minds—only to find -

The fake man sud­denly jerked up­right and screamed at a vol­ume that whited-out the speak­ers in the Com­mand Con­fer­ence. Every­one jumped; the Master of Fan­dom let out a small shriek.

What did I do what did I do what did I do -

And then the holo van­ished.

Akon gasped for breath and slumped over in his chair. Adrenal­ine was still run­ning riot through his sys­tem, but he felt ut­terly ex­hausted. He wanted to re­lease his shape and melt into a pud­dle, a blob like the wrong shapes he’d seen on screen—no, not like that.

“My lord,” the Ship’s Con­fes­sor said softly. He was now stand­ing alongside, a gen­tle hand on Akon’s shoulder. “My lord, are you all right?”

“Not re­ally,” Akon said. His voice, he was proud to note, was only slighly wob­bly. “It’s too hard, speak­ing to aliens. They don’t think like you do, and you don’t know what you’re do­ing wrong.”

“I won­der,” the Master of Fan­dom said with ar­tifi­cial light­ness, “if they’ll call it ‘xeno­fa­tigue’ and for­bid any­one to talk to an alien for longer than five min­utes.”

Akon just nod­ded.

“We’re get­ting an­other sig­nal,” the Lady Sen­sory said hes­i­tantly. “Holo with sound, an­other real-time com­mu­ni­ca­tion.”

“Akon, you don’t have to—” said the Master of Fan­dom.

Akon jerked him­self up­right, straight­ened his clothes. “I do have to,” he said. “They’re aliens, there’s no know­ing what a de­lay might… Just put it through.”

The first thing the holo showed, in el­e­gant Modern English script, was the mes­sage:

The Lady 3rd Kirit­sugu
tem­po­rary co-chair of the Game­player
Lan­guage Trans­la­tor ver­sion 3
Cul­tural Trans­la­tor ver­sion 2

The screen hov­ered just long enough to be read, then dis­si­pated -

Re­veal­ing a pale white lady.

The trans­la­tor’s de­pic­tion of the Lady 3rd Kirit­sugu was all white and black and grey; not the col­or­less­ness of a greyscale image, but a col­ored image of a world with lit­tle color in it. Skin the color of the palest hu­man skin that could still be called at­trac­tive; not snow white, but pale. White hair; blouse and bracelets and long dress all in co­or­di­nated shades of grey. That woman could have been called pretty, but there was none of the over­stim­u­lat­ing beauty of the fake man who had been shown be­fore.

Her face was styled in the emo­tion that hu­mans named “serene”.

“I and my sisters have now taken com­mand of this ves­sel,” said the pale Lady.

Akon blinked. A mutiny aboard their ship?

And it was back to the alien in­com­pre­hen­si­bil­ity, the knife-edged de­ci­sions and un­pre­dictable re­ac­tions and the deadly fear of screw­ing up.

“I am sorry if my words offend,” Akon said care­fully, “but there is some­thing I wish to know.”

The Lady 3rd made a slic­ing ges­ture with one hand. “You can­not offend me.” Her face showed mild in­sult at the sug­ges­tion.

“What has hap­pened aboard your ship, just now?”

The Lady 3rd replied, “The crew are dis­abled by emo­tional dis­tress. They have ex­ceeded the bounds of their obli­ga­tions, and are re­turn­ing to the ship’s Plea­sur­ing Cen­ter for re­ward. In such a situ­a­tion I and my two sisters, the kirit­sugu of this ves­sel, as­sume com­mand.”

Did I do that? “I did not in­tend for my words to cause you psy­cholog­i­cal harm.”

“You are not re­spon­si­ble,” the Lady 3rd said. “It was the other ones.”

“The Babyeaters?” Akon said with­out think­ing.

“Babyeaters,” the Lady 3rd re­peated. “If that is the name you have given to the third alien species pre­sent at this star sys­tem, then yes. The crew, ap­pre­hend­ing the na­ture of the Babyeaters’ ex­is­tence, was in­ca­pac­i­tated by their share of the chil­dren’s suffer­ing.”

“I see,” Akon said. He felt an odd twitch of shame for hu­man­ity, that his own kind could learn of the Babyeaters, and con­tinue func­tion­ing with only tears.

The Lady 3rd’s gaze grew sharp. “What are your in­ten­tions re­gard­ing the Babyeaters?”

“We haven’t de­cided,” Akon said. “We were just dis­cussing it when you ar­rived, ac­tu­ally.”

“What is your cur­rent most preferred al­ter­na­tive?” the Lady 3rd in­stantly fired back.

Akon hel­plessly shrugged, palms out. “We were just start­ing the dis­cus­sion. All the al­ter­na­tives sug­gested seemed un­ac­cept­able.”

“Which seemed least un­ac­cept­able? What is your cur­rent best can­di­date?”

Akon shook his head. “We haven’t des­ig­nated any.”

The Lady 3rd’s face grew stern, with a hint of puz­zle­ment. “You are with­hold­ing the in­for­ma­tion. Why? Do you think it will cast you in an un­fa­vor­able light? Then I must take that ex­pec­ta­tion into ac­count. Fur­ther, you must ex­pect me to take that ex­pec­ta­tion into ac­count, and so you im­ply that you ex­pect me to un­der­es­ti­mate its sever­ity, even af­ter tak­ing this line of rea­son­ing into ac­count.”

“Ex­cuse me,” the Ship’s Con­fes­sor said. His tone was mild, but with a hint of ur­gency. “I be­lieve I should en­ter this con­ver­sa­tion right now.

Akon’s hand signed agree­ment to the Lady Sen­sory.

At once the Lady 3rd’s eyes shifted to where the Con­fes­sor stood beside Akon.

“Hu­man be­ings,” said the Ship’s Con­fes­sor, “can­not des­ig­nate a ‘cur­rent best can­di­date’ with­out psy­cholog­i­cal con­se­quences. Hu­man ra­tio­nal­ists learn to dis­cuss an is­sue as thor­oughly as pos­si­ble be­fore sug­gest­ing any solu­tions. For hu­mans, solu­tions are sticky in a way that would re­quire de­tailed cog­ni­tive sci­ence to ex­plain. We would not be able to search freely through the solu­tion space, but would be hel­plessly at­tracted to­ward the ‘cur­rent best’ point, once we named it. Also, any en­dorse­ment what­ever of a solu­tion that has nega­tive moral fea­tures, will cause a hu­man to feel shame—and ‘best can­di­date’ would feel like an en­dorse­ment. To avoid feel­ing that shame, hu­mans must avoid say­ing which of two bad al­ter­na­tives is bet­ter than the other.”

Ouch, thought Akon, I never re­al­ized how em­bar­rass­ing that sounds un­til I heard it ex­plained to an alien.

Ap­par­ently the alien was hav­ing similar thoughts. “So you can­not even tell me which of sev­eral al­ter­na­tives cur­rently seems best, with­out your minds break­ing down? That sounds quite im­plau­si­ble,” the Lady 3rd said doubt­fully, “for a species ca­pa­ble of build­ing a space­ship.”

There was a hint of laugh­ter in the Con­fes­sor’s voice. “We try to over­come our bi­ases.”

The Lady 3rd’s gaze grew more in­tense. “Are you the true de­ci­sion­maker of this ves­sel?”

“I am not,” the Con­fes­sor said flatly. “I am a Con­fes­sor—a hu­man mas­ter ra­tio­nal­ist; we are sworn to re­frain from lead­er­ship.”

“This meet­ing will de­ter­mine the fu­ture of all three species,” said the Lady 3rd. “If you have su­pe­rior com­pe­tence, you should as­sume con­trol.”

Akon’s brows fur­rowed slightly. Some­how he’d never thought about it in those terms.

The Con­fes­sor shook his head. “There are rea­sons be­yond my pro­fes­sion why I must not lead. I am too old.”

Too old?

Akon put the thought on hold, and looked back at the Lady 3rd. She had said that all the crew were in­ca­pac­i­tated, ex­cept her and her two sisters who took charge. And she had asked the Con­fes­sor if he held true com­mand.

“Are you,” Akon asked, “the equiv­a­lent of a Con­fes­sor for your own kind?”

“Al­most cer­tainly not,” replied the Lady 3rd, and -

“Al­most cer­tainly not,” the Con­fes­sor said, al­most in the same breath.

There was an eerie kind of uni­son about it.

“I am kirit­sugu,” said the Lady 3rd. “In the early days of my species there were those who re­frained from hap­piness in or­der to achieve perfect skill in helping oth­ers, us­ing un­trans­lat­able 3 to sup­press their emo­tions and act­ing only on their ab­stract knowl­edge of goals. Th­ese were forcibly re­turned to nor­mal­ity by mas­sive un­trans­lat­able 4. But I de­scend from their thought-lineage and in emer­gency in­voke the shadow of their un­trans­lat­able 5.”

“I am a Con­fes­sor,” said the Ship’s Con­fes­sor, “the de­scen­dant of those in hu­man­ity’s past who most highly val­ued truth, who sought sys­tem­atic meth­ods for find­ing truth. But Bayes’s The­o­rem will not be differ­ent from one place to an­other; the laws in their purely math­e­mat­i­cal form will be the same, just as any suffi­ciently ad­vanced species will dis­cover the same pe­ri­odic table of el­e­ments.”

“And be­ing uni­ver­sals,” said the Lady 3rd, “they bear no dis­t­in­guish­ing ev­i­dence of their ori­gin. So you should un­der­stand, Lord Akon, that a kirit­sugu’s pur­pose is not like that of a Con­fes­sor, even if we ex­ploit the same laws.”

“But we are similar enough to each other,” the Con­fes­sor con­cluded, “to see each other as dis­torted mir­ror images. Heretics, you might say. She is the ul­ti­mate sin for­bid­den to a Con­fes­sor—the ex­er­cise of com­mand.”

“As you are flawed on my own terms,” the Lady 3rd con­cluded, “one who re­fuses to help.”

Every­one else at the Con­fer­ence table was star­ing at the alien holo, and at the Con­fes­sor, in some­thing ap­proach­ing out­right hor­ror.

The Lady 3rd shifted her gaze back to Akon. Though it was only a move­ment of the eyes, there was some­thing of a definite force about the mo­tion, as if the trans­la­tor was in­di­cat­ing that it stood for some­thing much stronger. Her voice was given a de­mand­ing, com­pel­ling qual­ity: “What al­ter­na­tives did your kind gen­er­ate for deal­ing with the Babyeaters? Enu­mer­ate them to me.”

Wipe out their species, keep them in prison for­ever on suicide watch, ig­nore them and let the chil­dren suffer.

Akon hes­i­tated. An odd pre­mo­ni­tion of warn­ing prick­led at him. Why does she need this in­for­ma­tion?

“If you do not give me the in­for­ma­tion,” the Lady 3rd said, “I will take into ac­count the fact that you do not wish me to know it.”

The proverb went through his mind, The most im­por­tant part of any se­cret is the fact that the se­cret ex­ists.

“All right,” Akon said. “We found un­ac­cept­able the al­ter­na­tive of leav­ing the Babyeaters be. We found un­ac­cept­able the al­ter­na­tive of ex­ter­mi­nat­ing them. We wish to re­spect their choices and their na­ture as a species, but their chil­dren, who do not share that choice, are un­will­ing vic­tims; this is un­ac­cept­able to us. We de­sire to keep the chil­dren al­ive but we do not know what to do with them once they be­come adult and start want­ing to eat their own ba­bies. Those were all the al­ter­na­tives we had got­ten as far as gen­er­at­ing, at the very mo­ment your ship ar­rived.”

“That is all?” de­manded the Lady 3rd. “That is the sum of all your thought? Is this one of the cir­cum­stances un­der which your species sends sig­nals that differ against in­ter­nal be­lief, such as ‘jok­ing’ or ‘po­lite­ness’?”

“No,” said Akon. “I mean, yes. Yes, that’s as far as we got. No, we’re not jok­ing.”

“You should un­der­stand,” the Con­fes­sor said, “that this crew, also, ex­pe­rienced a cer­tain dis­tress, in­terfer­ing with our nor­mal func­tion, on com­pre­hend­ing the Babyeaters. We are still ex­pe­rienc­ing it.”

And you acted to re­store or­der, thought Akon, though not the same way as a kirit­sugu...

“I see,” the Lady 3rd said.

She fell silent. There were long sec­onds dur­ing which she sat mo­tion­less.

Then, “Why have you not yet dis­abled the Babyeater ship? Your craft pos­sesses the ca­pa­bil­ity of do­ing so, and you must re­al­ize that your pur­pose now op­poses theirs.”

“Be­cause,” Akon said, “they did not dis­able our ship.”

The Lady 3rd nod­ded. “You are sym­metrists, then.”

Again the silence.

Then the holo blurred, and in that blur ap­peared the words:

Cul­tural Trans­la­tor ver­sion 3.

The blur re­solved it­self back into that pale woman; al­most the same as be­fore, ex­cept that the seren­ity of her came through with more force.

The Lady 3rd drew her­self erect, and took on a look of rit­ual, as though she were about to re­cite a com­posed poem.

“I now speak,” the Lady 3rd, “on be­half of my species, to yours.”

A chill ran down Akon’s spine. This is too much, this is all too large for me -

“Hu­mankind!” the Lady 3rd said, as though ad­dress­ing some­one by name. “Hu­mankind, you pre­fer the ab­sence of pain to its pres­ence. When my own kind at­tained to tech­nol­ogy, we elimi­nated the causes of suffer­ing among our­selves. Bodily pain, em­bar­rass­ment, and ro­man­tic con­flicts are no longer per­mit­ted to ex­ist. Hu­mankind, you pre­fer the pres­ence of plea­sure to its ab­sence. We have de­voted our­selves to the in­ten­sity of plea­sure, of sex and child­birth and un­trans­lat­able 2. Hu­mankind, you pre­fer truth to lies. By our na­ture we do not com­mu­ni­cate state­ments dis­be­lieved, as you do with hu­mor, mod­esty, and fic­tion; we have even learned to re­frain from with­hold­ing in­for­ma­tion, though we pos­sess that ca­pa­bil­ity. Hu­mankind, you pre­fer peace to vi­o­lence. Our so­ciety is with­out crime and with­out war. Through sym­met­ric shar­ing and un­trans­lat­able 4, we share our joys and are plea­sured to­gether. Our name for our­selves is not ex­press­ible in your lan­guage. But to you, hu­mankind, we now name our­selves af­ter the high­est val­ues we share: we are the Max­i­mum Fun-Fun Ul­tra Su­per Happy Peo­ple.”

There were muffled chok­ing sounds from the hu­man Con­fer­ence table.

“Um,” Akon said in­tel­li­gently. “Um… good for you?”

“Hu­mankind! Hu­mankind, you did not like­wise re­pair your­selves when you at­tained to tech­nol­ogy. We are still un­sure if it is some­how a mis­take, if you did not think it through, or if your will is truly so differ­ent from ours. For what­ever rea­son, you cur­rently per­mit the ex­is­tence of suffer­ing which our species has elimi­nated. Bodily pain, em­bar­rass­ment, and ro­man­tic trou­bles are still known among you. Your ex­is­tence, there­fore, is shared by us as pain. Will you, hu­mankind, by your sym­me­try, rem­edy this?”

An elec­tric cur­rent of shock and alarm ran through the Con­fer­ence. The Lord Pilot glanced sig­nifi­cantly at the Ship’s Eng­ineer, and the Eng­ineer just as sig­nifi­cantly shook his head. There was noth­ing they could do against the alien ves­sel; and their own shields would scarcely help, if they were at­tacked.

Akon drew in a ragged breath. He was sud­denly dis­tracted, al­most to the point of his brain melt­ing, by a sense of fu­tures twist­ing around these mo­ments: the fate of star sys­tems, the des­tiny of all hu­man­ity be­ing warped and twisted and shaped.

So to you, then, it is hu­man­ity that mo­lests kit­tens.

He should have fore­seen this pos­si­bil­ity, af­ter the ex­pe­rience of the Babyeaters. If the Babyeaters’ ex­is­tence was morally un­ac­cept­able to hu­man­ity, then the next alien species might be in­tol­er­able as well—or they might find hu­man­ity’s ex­is­tence a hor­ror of un­speak­able cru­elty. That was the other side of the coin, even if a hu­man might find it harder to think of it.

Funny. It doesn’t seem that bad from in here...

“But—” Akon said, and only then be­came aware that he was speak­ing.

“‘But’?” said the Lady 3rd. “Is that your whole re­ply, hu­mankind?” There was a look on her face of some­thing like frus­tra­tion, even sheer as­ton­ish­ment.

He hadn’t planned out this re­ply in any de­tail, but -

“You say that you feel our ex­is­tence as pain,” Akon said, “shar­ing sym­pa­thy with our own suffer­ing. So you, also, be­lieve that un­der some cir­cum­stances pain is prefer­able to plea­sure. If you did not hurt when oth­ers hurt—would you not feel that you were… less the sort of per­son you wanted to be? It is the same with us—”

But the Lady 3rd was shak­ing her head. “You con­fuse a high con­di­tional like­li­hood from your hy­poth­e­sis to the ev­i­dence with a high pos­te­rior prob­a­bil­ity of the hy­poth­e­sis given the ev­i­dence,” she said, as if that were all one short phrase in her own lan­guage. “Hu­mankind, we pos­sess a gen­er­al­ized fac­ulty to feel what oth­ers feel. That is the sim­ple, com­pact re­la­tion. We did not think to com­pli­cate that fac­ulty to ex­clude pain. We did not then as­sign dense prob­a­bil­ity that other sen­tient species would tra­verse the stars, and be en­coun­tered by us, and yet fail to have re­paired them­selves. Should we en­counter some fu­ture species in cir­cum­stances that do not per­mit its re­pair, we will mod­ify our em­pathic fac­ulty to ex­clude sym­pa­thy with pain, and sub­sti­tute an urge to me­lio­rate pain.”

“But—” Akon said.

Dam­mit, I’m talk­ing again.

“But we chose this; this is what we want.”

“That mat­ters less to our val­ues than to yours,” replied the Lady 3rd. “But even you, hu­mankind, should see that it is moot. We are still try­ing to un­tan­gle the twist­ing refer­ences of emo­tion by which hu­mans might pre­fer plea­sure to pain, and yet en­dorse com­plex the­o­ries that up­hold pain over plea­sure. But we have already de­ter­mined that your chil­dren, hu­mankind, do not share the ground­ing of these philoso­phies. When they in­cur pain they do not con­tem­plate its mean­ing, they only call for it to stop. In their sim­plic­ity—”

They’re a lot like our own chil­dren, re­ally.

“—they some­what re­sem­ble the ear­lier life stages of our own kind.”

There was a elec­tric qual­ity now about that pale woman, a ter­rible in­ten­sity. “And you should un­der­stand, hu­mankind, that when a child any­where suffers pain and calls for it to stop, then we will an­swer that call if it re­quires sixty-five thou­sand five hun­dred and thirty-six ships.”

“We be­lieve, hu­mankind, that you can un­der­stand our view­point. Have you op­tions to offer us?”

To be con­tinued...