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(Part 5 of 8 in "Three Worlds Collide")
Akon strode into the main Conference Room; and though he walked like a physically exhausted man, at least his face was determined. Behind him, the shadowy Confessor followed.
The Command Conference looked up at him, and exchanged glances.
"You look better," the Ship's Master of Fandom ventured.
Akon put a hand on the back of his seat, and paused. Someone was absent. "The Ship's Engineer?"
The Lord Programmer frowned. "He said he had an experiment to run, my lord. He refused to clarify further, but I suppose it must have something to do with the Babyeaters' data -"
"You're joking," Akon said. "Our Ship's Engineer is off Nobel-hunting? Now? With the fate of the human species at stake?"
The Lord Programmer shrugged. "He seemed to think it was important, my lord."
Akon sighed. He pulled his chair back and half-slid, half-fell into it. "I don't suppose that the ship's markets have settled down?"
The Lord Pilot grinned sardonically. "Read for yourself."
Akon twitched, calling up a screen. "Ah, I see. The ship's Interpreter of the Market's Will reports, and I quote, 'Every single one of the underlying assets in my market is going up and down like a fucking yo-yo while the ship's hedgers try to adjust to a Black Swan that's going to wipe out ninety-eight percent of their planetside risk capital. Even the spot prices on this ship are going crazy; either we've got bubble traders coming out of the woodwork, or someone seriously believes that sex is overvalued relative to orange juice. One derivatives trader says she's working on a contract that will have a clearly defined value in the event that aliens wipe out the entire human species, but she says it's going to take a few hours and I say she's on crack. Indeed I believe an actual majority of the people still trying to trade in this environment are higher than the heliopause. Bid-ask spreads are so wide you could kick a fucking football stadium through them, nothing is clearing, and I have unisolated conditional dependencies coming out of my ass. I have no fucking clue what the market believes. Someone get me a drink.' Unquote." Akon looked at the Master of Fandom. "Any suggestions get reddited up from the rest of the crew?"
The Master cleared his throat. "My lord, we took the liberty of filtering out everything that was physically impossible, based on pure wishful thinking, or displayed a clear misunderstanding of naturalistic metaethics. I can show you the raw list, if you'd like."
"And what's left?" Akon said. "Oh, never mind, I get it."
"Well, not quite," said the Master. "To summarize the best ideas -" He gestured a small holo into existence.
Ask the Superhappies if their biotechnology is capable of in vivo cognitive alterations of Babyeater children to ensure that they don't grow up wanting to eat their own children. Sterilize the current adults. If Babyeater adults cannot be sterilized and will not surrender, imprison them. If that's too expensive, kill most of them, but leave enough in prison to preserve their culture for the children. Offer the Superhappies an alliance to invade the Babyeaters, in which we provide the capital and labor and they provide the technology.
"Not too bad," Akon said. His voice grew somewhat dry. "But it doesn't seem to address the question of what the Superhappies are supposed to do with us. The analogous treatment -"
"Yes, my lord," the Master said. "That was extensively pointed out in the comments, my lord. And the other problem is that the Superhappies don't really need our labor or our capital." The Master looked in the direction of the Lord Programmer, the Xenopsychologist, and the Lady Sensory.
The Lord Programmer said, "My lord, I believe the Superhappies think much faster than we do. If their cognitive systems are really based on something more like DNA than like neurons, that shouldn't be surprising. In fact, it's surprising that the speedup is as little as -" The Lord Programmer stopped, and swallowed. "My lord. The Superhappies responded to most of our transmissions extremely quickly. There was, however, a finite delay. And that delay was roughly proportional to the length of the response, plus an additive constant. Going by the proportion, my lord, I believe they think between fifteen and thirty times as fast as we do, to the extent such a comparison can be made. If I try to use Moore's Law type reasoning on some of the observable technological parameters in their ship - Alderson flux, power density, that sort of thing - then I get a reasonably convergent estimate that the aliens are two hundred years ahead of us in human-equivalent subjective time. Which means it would be twelve hundred equivalent years since their Scientific Revolution."
"If," the Xenopsychologist said, "their history went as slowly as ours. It probably didn't." The Xenopsychologist took a breath. "My lord, my suspicion is that the aliens are literally able to run their entire ship using only three kiritsugu as sole crew. My lord, this may represent, not only the superior programming ability that translated their communications to us, but also the highly probable case that Superhappies can trade knowledge and skills among themselves by having sex. Every individual of their species might contain the memory of their Einsteins and Newtons and a thousand other areas of expertise, no more conserved than DNA is conserved among humans. My lord, I suspect their version of Galileo was something like thirty objective years ago, as the stars count time, and that they've been in space for maybe twenty years."
The Lady Sensory said, "Their ship has a plane of symmetry, and it's been getting wider on the axis through that plane, as it sucks up nova dust and energy. It's growing on a smooth exponential at 2% per hour, which means it can split every thirty-five hours in this environment."
"I have no idea," the Xenopsychologist said, "how fast the Superhappies can reproduce themselves - how many children they have per generation, or how fast their children sexually mature. But all things considered, I don't think we can count on their kids taking twenty years to get through high school."
There was silence.
When Akon could speak again, he said, "Are you all quite finished?"
"If they let us live," the Lord Programmer said, "and if we can work out a trade agreement with them under Ricardo's Law of Comparative Advantage, interest rates will -"
"Interest rates can fall into an open sewer and die. Any further transmissions from the Superhappy ship?"
The Lady Sensory shook her head.
"All right," Akon said. "Open a transmission channel to them."
There was a stir around the table. "My lord -" said the Master of Fandom. "My lord, what are you going to say?"
Akon smiled wearily. "I'm going to ask them if they have any options to offer us."
The Lady Sensory looked at the Ship's Confessor. The hood silently nodded: He's still sane.
The Lady Sensory swallowed, and opened a channel. On the holo there first appeared, as a screen:
The Lady 3rd Kiritsugu
temporary co-chair of the Gameplayer
Language Translator version 9
Cultural Translator version 16
The Lady 3rd in this translation was slightly less pale, and looked a bit more concerned and sympathetic. She took in Akon's appearance at a glance, and her eyes widened in alarm. "My lord, you're hurting!"
"Just tired, milady," Akon said. He cleared his throat. "Our ship's decision-making usually relies on markets and our markets are behaving erratically. I'm sorry to inflict that on you as shared pain, and I'll try to get this over with quickly. Anyway -"
Out of the corner of his eye, Akon saw the Ship's Engineer re-enter the room; the Engineer looked as if he had something to say, but froze when he saw the holo.
There was no time for that now.
"Anyway," Akon said, "we've worked out that the key decisions depend heavily on your level of technology. What do you think you can actually do with us or the Babyeaters?"
The Lady 3rd sighed. "I really should get your independent component before giving you ours - you should at least think of it first - but I suppose we're out of luck on that. How about if I just tell you what we're currently planning?"
Akon nodded. "That would be much appreciated, milady." Some of his muscles that had been tense, started to relax. Cultural Translator version 16 was a lot easier on his brain. Distantly, he wondered if some transformed avatar of himself was making skillful love to the Lady 3rd -
"All right," the Lady 3rd said. "We consider that the obvious starting point upon which to build further negotiations, is to combine and compromise the utility functions of the three species until we mutually satisfice, providing compensation for all changes demanded. The Babyeaters must compromise their values to eat their children at a stage where they are not sentient - we might accomplish this most effectively by changing the lifecycle of the children themselves. We can even give the unsentient children an instinct to flee and scream, and generate simple spoken objections, but prevent their brain from developing self-awareness until after the hunt."
Akon straightened. That actually sounded - quite compassionate - sort of -
"Our own two species," the Lady 3rd said, "which desire this change of the Babyeaters, will compensate them by adopting Babyeater values, making our own civilization of greater utility in their sight: we will both change to spawn additional infants, and eat most of them at almost the last stage before they become sentient."
The Conference room was frozen. No one moved. Even their faces didn't change expression.
Akon's mind suddenly flashed back to those writhing, interpenetrating, visually painful blobs he had seen before.
A cultural translator could change the image, but not the reality.
"It is nonetheless probable," continued the Lady 3rd, "that the Babyeaters will not accept this change as it stands; it will be necessary to impose these changes by force. As for you, humankind, we hope you will be more reasonable. But both your species, and the Babyeaters, must relinquish bodily pain, embarrassment, and romantic troubles. In exchange, we will change our own values in the direction of yours. We are willing to change to desire pleasure obtained in more complex ways, so long as the total amount of our pleasure does not significantly decrease. We will learn to create art you find pleasing. We will acquire a sense of humor, though we will not lie. From the perspective of humankind and the Babyeaters, our civilization will obtain much utility in your sight, which it did not previously possess. This is the compensation we offer you. We furthermore request that you accept from us the gift of untranslatable 2, which we believe will enhance, on its own terms, the value that you name 'love'. This will also enable our kinds to have sex using mechanical aids, which we greatly desire. At the end of this procedure, all three species will satisfice each other's values and possess great common ground, upon which we may create a civilization together."
Akon slowly nodded. It was all quite unbelievably civilized. It might even be the categorically best general procedure when worlds collided.
The Lady 3rd brightened. "A nod - is that assent, humankind?"
"It's acknowledgment," Akon said. "We'll have to think about this."
"I understand," the Lady 3rd said. "Please think as swiftly as you can. Babyeater children are dying in horrible agony as you think."
"I understand," Akon said in return, and gestured to cut the transmission.
The holo blinked out.
There was a long, terrible silence.
The Lord Pilot said it. Cold, flat, absolute.
There was another silence.
"My lord," the Xenopsychologist said, very softly, as though afraid the messenger would be torn apart and dismembered, "I do not think they were offering us that option."
"Actually," Akon said, "The Superhappies offered us more than we were going to offer the Babyeaters. We weren't exactly thinking about how to compensate them." It was strange, Akon noticed, his voice was very calm, maybe even deadly calm. "The Superhappies really are a very fair-minded people. You get the impression they would have proposed exactly the same solution whether or not they happened to hold the upper hand. We might have just enforced our own will on the Babyeaters and told the Superhappies to take a hike. If we'd held the upper hand. But we don't. And that's that, I guess."
"No!" shouted the Lord Pilot. "That's not -"
Akon looked at him, still with that deadly calm.
The Lord Pilot was breathing deeply, not as if quieting himself, but as if preparing for battle on some ancient savanna plain that no longer existed. "They want to turn us into something inhuman. It - it cannot - we cannot - we must not allow -"
"Either give us a better option or shut up," the Lord Programmer said flatly. "The Superhappies are smarter than us, have a technological advantage, think faster, and probably reproduce faster. We have no hope of holding them off militarily. If our ships flee, the Superhappies will simply follow in faster ships. There's no way to shut a starline once opened, and no way to conceal the fact that it is open -"
"Um," the Ship's Engineer said.
Every eye turned to him.
"Um," the Ship's Engineer said. "My Lord Administrator, I must report to you in private."
The Ship's Confessor shook his head. "You could have handled that better, Engineer."
Akon nodded to himself. It was true. The Ship's Engineer had already betrayed the fact that a secret existed. Under the circumstances, easy to deduce that it had come from the Babyeater data. That was eighty percent of the secret right there. And if it was relevant to starline physics, that was half of the remainder.
"Engineer," Akon said, "since you have already revealed that a secret exists, I suggest you tell the full Command Conference. We need to stay in sync with each other. Two minds are not a committee. We'll worry later about keeping the secret classified."
The Ship's Engineer hesitated. "Um, my lord, I suggest that I report to you first, before you decide -"
"There's no time," Akon said. He pointed to where the holo had been.
"Yes," the Master of Fandom said, "we can always slit our own throats afterward, if the secret is that awful." The Master of Fandom gave a small laugh -
- then stopped, at the look on the Engineer's face.
"At your will, my lord," the Engineer said.
He drew a deep breath. "I asked the Lord Programmer to compare any identifiable equations and constants in the Babyeater's scientific archive, to the analogous scientific data of humanity. Most of the identified analogues were equal, of course. In some places we have more precise values, as befits our, um, superior technological level. But one anomaly did turn up: the Babyeater figure for Alderson's Coupling Constant was ten orders of magnitude larger than our own."
The Lord Pilot whistled. "Stars above, how did they manage to make that mistake -"
Then the Lord Pilot stopped abruptly.
"Alderson's Coupling Constant," Akon echoed. "That's the... coupling between Alderson interactions and the..."
"Between Alderson interactions and the nuclear strong force," the Lord Pilot said. He was beginning to smile, rather grimly. "It was a free parameter in the standard model, and so had to be established experimentally. But because the interaction is so incredibly... weak... they had to build an enormous Alderson generator to find the value. The size of a very small moon, just to give us that one number. Definitely not something you could check at home. That's the story in the physics textbooks, my lords, my lady."
The Master of Fandom frowned. "You're saying... the physicists faked the result in order to... fund a huge project...?" He looked puzzled.
"No," the Lord Pilot said. "Not for the love of power. Engineer, the Babyeater value should be testable using our own ship's Alderson drive, if the coupling constant is that strong. This you have done?"
The Ship's Engineer nodded. "The Babyeater value is correct, my lord."
The Ship's Engineer was pale. The Lord Pilot was clenching his jaw into a sardonic grin.
"Please explain," Akon said. "Is the universe going to end in another billion years, or something? Because if so, the issue can wait -"
"My lord," the Ship's Confessor said, "suppose the laws of physics in our universe had been such that the ancient Greeks could invent the equivalent of nuclear weapons from materials just lying around. Imagine the laws of physics had permitted a way to destroy whole countries with no more difficulty than mixing gunpowder. History would have looked quite different, would it not?"
Akon nodded, puzzled. "Well, yes," Akon said. "It would have been shorter."
"Aren't we lucky that physics didn't happen to turn out that way, my lord? That in our own time, the laws of physics don't permit cheap, irresistable superweapons?"
Akon furrowed his brow -
"But my lord," said the Ship's Confessor, "do we really know what we think we know? What different evidence would we see, if things were otherwise? After all - if you happened to be a physicist, and you happened to notice an easy way to wreak enormous destruction using off-the-shelf hardware - would you run out and tell you?"
"No," Akon said. A sinking feeling was dawning in the pit of his stomach. "You would try to conceal the discovery, and create a cover story that discouraged anyone else from looking there."
The Lord Pilot emitted a bark that was half laughter, and half something much darker. "It was perfect. I'm a Lord Pilot and I never suspected until now."
"So?" Akon said. "What is it, actually?"
"Um," the Ship's Engineer said. "Well... basically... to skip over the technical details..."
The Ship's Engineer drew a breath.
"Any ship with a medium-sized Alderson drive can make a star go supernova."
"Which might seem like bad news in general," the Lord Pilot said, "but from our perspective, right here, right now, it's just what we need. A mere nova wouldn't do it. But blowing up the whole star - " He gave that bitter bark of laughter, again. "No star, no starlines. We can make the main star of this system go supernova - not the white dwarf, the companion. And then the Superhappies won't be able to get to us. That is, they won't be able to get to the human starline network. We will be dead. If you care about tiny irrelevant details like that." The Lord Pilot looked around the Conference Table. "Do you care? The correct answer is no, by the way."
"I care," the Lady Sensory said softly. "I care a whole lot. But..." She folded her hands atop the table and bowed her head.
There were nods from around the Table.
The Lord Pilot looked at the Ship's Engineer. "How long will it take for you to modify the ship's Alderson Drive -"
"It's done," said the Ship's Engineer. "But... we should, um, wait until the Superhappies are gone, so they don't detect us doing it."
The Lord Pilot nodded. "Sounds like a plan. Well, that's a relief. And here I thought the whole human race was doomed, instead of just us." He looked inquiringly at Akon. "My lord?"
Akon rested his head in his hands, suddenly feeling more weary than he had ever felt in his life. From across the table, the Confessor watched him - or so it seemed; the hood was turned in his direction, at any rate.
I told you so, the Confessor did not say.
"There is a certain problem with your plan," Akon said.
"Such as?" the Lord Pilot said.
"You've forgotten something," Akon said. "Something terribly important. Something you once swore you would protect."
Puzzled faces looked at him.
"If you say something bloody ridiculous like 'the safety of the ship' -" said the Lord Pilot.
The Lady Sensory gasped. "Oh, no," she murmured. "Oh, no. The Babyeater children."
The Lord Pilot looked like he had been punched in the stomach. The grim smiles that had begun to spread around the table were replaced with horror.
"Yes," Akon said. He looked away from the Conference Table. He didn't want to see the reactions. "The Superhappies wouldn't be able to get to us. And they couldn't get to the Babyeaters either. Neither could we. So the Babyeaters would go on eating their own children indefinitely. And the children would go on dying over days in their parents' stomachs. Indefinitely. Is the human race worth that?"
Akon looked back at the Table, just once. The Xenopsychologist looked sick, tears were running down the Master's face, and the Lord Pilot looked like he were being slowly torn in half. The Lord Programmer looked abstracted, the Lady Sensory was covering her face with her hands. (And the Confessor's face still lay in shadow, beneath the silver hood.)
Akon closed his eyes. "The Superhappies will transform us into something not human," Akon said. "No, let's be frank. Something less than human. But not all that much less than human. We'll still have art, and stories, and love. I've gone entire hours without being in pain, and on the whole, it wasn't that bad an experience -" The words were sticking in his throat, along with a terrible fear. "Well. Anyway. If remaining whole is that important to us - we have the option. It's just a question of whether we're willing to pay the price. Sacrifice the Babyeater children -"
They're a lot like human children, really.
"- to save humanity."
Someone in the darkness was screaming, a thin choked wail that sounded like nothing Akon had ever heard or wanted to hear. Akon thought it might be the Lord Pilot, or the Master of Fandom, or maybe the Ship's Engineer. He didn't open his eyes to find out.
There was a chime.
"In-c-c-coming c-call from the Super Happy," the Lady Sensory spit out the words like acid, "ship, my lord."
Akon opened his eyes, and felt, somehow, that he was still in darkness.
"Receive," Akon said.
The Lady 3rd Kiritsugu appeared before him. Her eyes widened once, as she took in his appearance, but she said nothing.
That's right, my lady, I don't look super happy.
"Humankind, we must have your answer," she said simply.
The Lord Administrator pinched the bridge of his nose, and rubbed his eyes. Absurd, that one human being should have to answer a question like that. He wanted to foist off the decision on a committee, a majority vote of the ship, a market - something that wouldn't demand that anyone accept full responsibility. But a ship run that way didn't work well under ordinary circumstances, and there was no reason to think that things would change under extraordinary circumstances. He was an Administrator; he had to accept all the advice, integrate it, and decide. Experiment had shown that no organizational structure of non-Administrators could match what he was trained to do, and motivated to do; anything that worked was simply absorbed into the Administrative weighting of advice.
Sole decision. Sole responsibility if he got it wrong. Absolute power and absolute accountability, and never forget the second half, my lord, or you'll be fired the moment you get home. Screw up indefensibly, my lord, and all your hundred and twenty years of accumulated salary in escrow, producing that lovely steady income, will vanish before you draw another breath.
Oh - and this time the whole human species will pay for it, too.
"I can't speak for all humankind," said the Lord Administrator. "I can decide, but others may decide differently. Do you understand?"
The Lady 3rd made a light gesture, as if it were of no consequence. "Are you an exceptional case of a human decision-maker?"
Akon tilted his head. "Not... particularly..."
"Then your decision is strongly indicative of what other human decisionmakers will decide," she said. "I find it hard to imagine that the options exactly balance in your decision mechanism, whatever your inability to admit your own preferences."
Akon slowly nodded. "Then..."
He drew a breath.
Surely, any species that reached the stars would understand the Prisoner's Dilemma. If you couldn't cooperate, you'd just destroy your own stars. A very easy thing to do, as it had turned out. By that standard, humanity might be something of an impostor next to the Babyeaters and the Superhappies. Humanity had kept it a secret from itself. The other two races - just managed not to do the stupid thing. You wouldn't meet anyone out among the stars, otherwise.
The Superhappies had done their very best to press C. Cooperated as fairly as they could.
Humanity could only do the same.
"For myself, I am inclined to accept your offer."
He didn't look around to see how anyone had reacted to that.
"There may be other things," Akon added, "that humanity would like to ask of your kind, when our representatives meet. Your technology is advanced beyond ours."
The Lady 3rd smiled. "We will, of course, be quite positively inclined toward any such requests. As I believe our first message to you said - 'we love you and we want you to be super happy'. Your joy will be shared by us, and we will be pleasured together."
Akon couldn't bring himself to smile. "Is that all?"
"This Babyeater ship," said the Lady 3rd, "the one that did not fire on you, even though they saw you first. Are you therefore allied with them?"
"What?" Akon said without thinking. "No -"
"My lord!" shouted the Ship's Confessor -
"My lord," the Lady Sensory said, her voice breaking, "the Superhappy ship has fired on the Babyeater vessel and destroyed it."
Akon stared at the Lady 3rd in horror.
"I'm sorry," the Lady 3rd Kiritsugu said. "But our negotiations with them failed, as predicted. Our own ship owed them nothing and promised them nothing. This will make it considerably easier to sweep through their starline network when we return. Their children would be the ones to suffer from any delay. You understand, my lord?"
"Yes," Akon said, his voice trembling. "I understand, my lady kiritsugu." He wanted to protest, to scream out. But the war was only beginning, and this - would admittedly save -
"Will you warn them?" the Lady 3rd asked.
"No," Akon said. It was the truth.
"Transforming the Babyeaters will take precedence over transforming your own species. We estimate the Babyeater operation may take several weeks of your time to conclude. We hope you do not mind waiting. That is all," the Lady 3rd said.
And the holo faded.
"The Superhappy ship is moving out," the Lady Sensory said. She was crying, silently, as she steadily performed her duty of reporting. "They're heading back toward their starline origin."
"All right," Akon said. "Take us home. We need to report on the negotiations -"
There was an inarticulate scream, like that throat was trying to burst the walls of the Conference chamber, as the Lord Pilot burst out of his chair, burst all restraints he had placed on himself, and lunged forward.
But standing behind his target, unnoticed, the Ship's Confessor had produced from his sleeve the tiny stunner - the weapon which he alone on the ship was authorized to use, if he made a determination of outright mental breakdown. With a sudden motion, the Confessor's arm swept out...