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 -







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...