The Well-Trodden Path
by Tom Jubert
“Where are they?” asked Blue, transferring into the cockpit. “How worried are we?” “They’re post-nuclear, pre-Universal,” replied Grey, projecting a zoomed-in view of the industrial complexes which studded the blue/beige planet they were orbiting. Blue performed the guttural vibrations which in their culture meant frustration, and complained: “Just once, I’d like to find a people we can talk with who don’t yet have the means and inclination to incinerate everything.”
Blue and Grey’s vessel was literally light-years more advanced than the nuclear-powered rockets of the civilisation they were observing. The aliens below them could hardly reach the edge of their own solar system in the span of one of their lifetimes, let alone visit others. Still, the pulse from a nuclear detonation was quite sufficient to interrupt their zero-point gravity drive, and the only thing worse than crashing into an alien planet was crashing into a freshly-grown radioactive hellscape.
“No need to worry,” replied Grey, “it’s been a while since they shot at anyone.” “At least they have radio,” said Blue, tuning in to the frequencies.
Radio was one of Blue’s particular fascinations. Not every planet employed electromagnetic waves for this purpose, but every society everywhere enjoyed some form of the ancient ritual of radio. It was a further joy for Blue to cross entire galaxies and still find radio which was sensually compatible. Even when it was not - when a species’ communication was primarily chemical for instance - there were sometimes methods of translating the peaks and troughs into forms still pleasing to Blue’s acoustic sensitivity.
This was not one of those times.
“They seem to be navigating some kind of radical percussion phase,” said Blue, dialing down the beats-per-minute. “I’m sure it sounds better in its original atmosphere.” “You know we can’t go down there yet,” said Grey.
“Now hold on. If they’re nuclear then they’re already far along the path. They’ll be Universal before you know it. How about we leave them a few hints, take a quick spin round the galactic nucleus, then come back to see if they made it or not?”
“This species, they’re… volatile.”
“They’re all volatile. We used to be volatile.”
“Yes, but these ones especially so. The usual approaches haven’t worked.”
The tiny envelope of time between a civilisation’s nuclearisation and its arrival at Universal transcendance was known to be uniquely volatile. It was essentially a race: between their exponentially increasing power to shape the world which gave them life; and their capacity to wield it responsibly. Every moment which passed without their realising their Universal nature increased the probability they would destroy themselves first.
So far as Blue was concerned that would be a shame, and not only because they would never find out what came after the radical percussion phase.
“Did we try switching off their nukes?” asked Blue.
“Another diplomatic vessel uncloaked directly over their silos and disabled the launch controls. These aliens blamed each other then covered it up. It almost started a war.” “What about a direct approach? Their leaders may be slow, but there must be individuals we can talk to who can handle the truth.”
“They freak out when we bring them aboard, they freak out double when we use telepathy, and if we meet them in person they just take pictures. They have far too many pictures.”
“So then what are we even doing here?”
This question was ever-present. Their task was to guide pre-Universal civilizations until they could join the Universal Community. The problem was that the more they interfered with the complex systems of alien worlds, the more unpredictable those worlds became.
Blue was sympathetic to those who believed in the more radical approach of announcing their presence. They liked the idea that showing immature lifeforms they were on the same path as countless other civilisations through all space and time might hasten their journey. This had been tried in numerous ways, and had never been any more successful than random chance. There had been broadcasts of complex mathematics, delivery of zero-point technology, even landings in front of crowds. At best these were dismissed as hoaxes, or covered up by vulnerable power-brokers. At worst they had caused mass extinctions.
It was not uncommon, in the post-nuclear age, for the surviving religions to quickly adapt to the cosmic reality they were rapidly approaching - to update their mythologies to include the reality of life beyond their horizons. But where there remained power in ideological disagreement there was an equal and opposite reaction. Proponents of individualism and collectivism, or conservatism and progressivism, or just plain up-ism and down-ism, were usually wedded to the idea that one side or the other was right, and that the future required their side to be it.
For those people, the fact that every civilisation must pass through and beyond simplistic binaries and ideological control was not just disconcerting, it was existentially threatening. The idea that the ‘correct’ answer was not one or the other, but rather both and neither, tended to undermine their entire concept of self, not to mention their popular support. And yet it was that very perspective which precluded the possibility of their arriving at any Universal realisation.
Grey was quite aware of Blue’s frustrations in this regard, but when it came to safety versus risk, their way was not to allow conflict to decide their direction, but rather to find balance between their extremes.
“They do have some terribly clever fish,” said Grey. “Perhaps we should focus our attention there.”
Water creatures were a specialist field of research. Without the appropriate environment to develop fire, they had never been known to develop advanced technologies. And yet this did not preclude them from communicating and ultimately arriving at the Universal realisation. It was just that without the means nor motive to leave their own planet or join the community, they were more interesting to watch than to talk to.
This much was communicated by Blue’s shift in posture.
“Okay, okay. We could… misplace one of our empty fuel cells,” mused Grey, “Down there. Come back in a few generations to see what they make of it.”
It was a risky proposal, and Blue liked it. It was rare for a primitive society to develop zero-point science from salvaged technology - but they were often able to extrapolate some useful insights. It was evidence which could be doubted or denied; but it could also get the right people thinking.
Blue was already initiating the ejection procedure.
“How long has it been?” asked Blue, as Grey maneuvered their craft back into orbit of the planet.
“From their perspective… three generations.”
The blue-beige planet was now more beige than blue, and one of the nearby moons glittered with newly-built solar arrays.
“They didn’t implode themselves,” said Grey, “that’s already statistically significant.”
“I wonder what’s on the radio,” said Blue. A moment of silence was interrupted by a cacophony of screeching, and a small tremor ran through the ship.
“Turn it off, won’t you?!” implored Grey.
“It… it won’t turn off! It’s on all the channels. Hold on, I’m translating it.”
The incomprehensible sounds were replaced by frequencies and patterns the two visitors could understand:
“ALIEN VISITORS. REVEAL YOURSELVES.”
They exchanged physical expressions of concern.
“They can’t know we’re here,” said Blue, not entirely convinced. “They couldn’t have advanced so far in a few generations.”
“We should leave,” said Grey. “Just in case.”
The zero-point engine, which allowed them to travel in ways the aliens below would call magic, did nothing, as it was supposed to do. It was not like an ancient combustion engine - there were no rumbles or plumes of smoke - it simply rearranged things so that the ship was where it wasn’t.
Only it didn’t do that, either.
“What’s wrong?!” asked Blue.
The answer came from the planet below.
“WE HAVE DETONATED A SMALL NUCLEAR DEVICE IN THE UPPER ATMOSPHERE AND DISABLED YOUR VESSEL. WE JUST WANT TO TALK.”
This was precisely the sort of situation the visitors were not supposed to be in. This was dangerous, not so much for them, but for the people who were prepared to nuke their own habitat just to see what would happen. It left them with a considerable moral quandary.
Younger societies had a habit of thinking about moral dilemmas as if there was a right answer in virtue of the structure of the dilemma. They wanted to know what any parent should do in any given situation, and for that to be true of all parents, all the time. The idea that what was right or wrong might be less about what you do, and more about how and why you do it, made it kind of a grey area, and thus literally unthinkable.
But this approach tended to become unpleasantly prescriptive. For any rule you could come up with, the world could throw up an exception. Stealing is always wrong - until one person is hoarding all the food.
The visitors were beyond all that, and solved their moral dilemmas by appealing to compassion. In their world, there was certainly a moral trend for non-interference with primitive cultures, but this was merely a trend, and not a rule. What was right to do was whatever they decided to do, provided it was from a place of compassion.
A brief and intense sort of information exchange now took place between them. They seemed to have two conflicting choices: to do as the aliens were asking, or to not. And being, as they were, advanced beings, both knew well that such dilemmas are always traps.
They knew it wasn’t so much what they did which mattered, but how they did it. So they agreed what mattered to each of them, and broadcast a message to the planet below.
“We are willing to talk to a single representative.”
Once they had created an appropriate environment and teleported it onboard, it was apparent the alien was rather similar in form to the visitors from outer space. While life came in infinite shapes and sizes, the conditions which tended to support intelligent, tool-using societies also rewarded the evolution of pleasant appendages like limbs and fur.
“Why did they send you?” asked Grey, waiting for the translation of the creature’s answer.
“On our world we face more than one existential crisis. Our oceans are evaporating. Our people are sterile. Technology is all that stands between us and starvation. Our weapons are so awesome we cannot risk war, yet the threat of war is all that keeps us safe.”
“I meant why did they send you?”
“Oh,” said the alien, somewhat deflated, “because I’m the leader of the world.”
Blue let out a burst of methane, which in their culture was a sort of ‘Oh, shucks!’, but which in the world leader’s culture was not.
“Is everything okay?” asked the world leader.
“Yes,” said Grey, “It’s just we had different ideas about who they would choose. Blue thought you’d be a soldier of some sort, considering you tried to nuke us.”
“Well, I am commander of the united armed forces.”
“Yes, yes, but you’re certainly not a scientist, or a random citizen, or an artist, or even an expert on minds. This isn’t going to be easy.”
Gathering itself, the world leader continued:
“We believe you have knowledge which could help us greatly. With your technologies you could solve our energy crisis with a single thought. You could replenish our oceans with water from a distant star system. You could save us-”
“From yourselves?” suggested Blue.
“By giving us access to the universal economy. By sharing with us that which you so selfishly keep for yourselves. We only ask for the chance to flourish, as you have evidently done.”
Blue and Grey pondered this, and then they said:
“First of all, don’t panic. Everything you’ve described is quite normal for a society at your stage of the journey, and it’s all quite surmountable.”
“But we’re destroying ourselves!”
“Yes,” said Blue, “but just think how great it could be if you didn’t!”
Grey continued: “But to share our technology you would need to be a member of the Universal Community, and to join that you’d need to get comfortable with some Universal truths.”
“We need your help,” insisted the indiginous lifeform. “Tell us these truths, give us the technology which saved you from the fate we now face.”
“The problem is, it won’t help you.”
“Because there is no technology in the universe fit for the purpose you describe. There is nothing which could solve such complex problems without creating incomprehensible ones. You’re fixated on acquiring more powerful tools, but your problems stem from how you use the tools you already have.”
“What kind of answer is that?!” objected the world leader. “I demand you give me something! We have more nukes!”
Blue, at least, felt sorry for the creature. Not only was it ignorant of how to get what it wanted, it was also confused about what it wanted in the first place. And yet, Blue had faith. Faith that, just as their own people had done, this sad little beast had inside of it the beautiful kernel of all it would ever need.
The Universal realisation was like starting a fire. All the necessary elements are already present in the tinder. What’s needed isn’t material, but movement. A pattern of energy exchange which reverberates through the fuel, and reveals the power which was already there. A spark.
Mutual understanding is as necessary to the formation of societies as competition and conflict are to the formation of life itself. Civilisations which reach the existential fork in the road can, did, and will again realise, en masse and as one, that the singular compassion they feel in themselves for the world which supports them is at least as valuable a tool as the infinity of mathematical doo-dads which make them more competitive.
Societies which flourish into the stars all learn to name and produce compassion for the world with at least the same vigour with which they produce material goods from it. They study it, they talk about it, they export it… they practice ever more intricate performances of it.
This was the great technology which the world leader was now demanding.
Neither Blue nor Grey could be certain the alien before them would ever be able to understand all that; but they both had faith that - just as they themselves had - everyone, everywhere, could.
The world leader returned triumphantly to the oblong office and anxiously revealed the tablet provided by the visitors. On it, they had promised, would appear the answer to all of the planet’s problems. The Universal truths. The great realisation.
On it materialised two words:
From the world leader’s perspective, it was so trite that it simply had to be a joke.