Light From Everywhere
“So why,” said the gray alien, “should I not jus' push this button and blow the 'ole planet to nothing?”
Jim's stance did not change, his focus did not drift. Even after the last two weeks, after every brain-twisting thing he had seen in the last two weeks, that the gray alien had chosen to speak with an accent like British street thugs in the movies was still deeply disturbing. Jim stared straight into the large, dark, cow-like eyes set in the middle of the smooth gray pear shaped head.
“Because I will pull this trigger.” Jim's gun was centered right between the two large, dark, eyes and only a few feet from the smooth gray head.
“You know ther's no proof your gun will 'urt me. Might not even leave a scratch.”
Jim let his thumb slowly pull the hammer back until it clicked into hair trigger. “You have no kinetic shield here.”
Slowly, the gray alien drummed his fingers on the console. “Still, we 'ave redundant brains and kinetically sensitive cellular co'esion. Ayedrostatic shock is un-likely to affect me the way it does you. In all likely'ood the bullet will simply push right through me without doing much damage.”
“It would,” the alien turned away from the console and walked a few steps, “probably 'urt.”
Jim followed his movement. “Probably.”
“So the question,” the alien cocked his head slightly, “is whether it would 'urt more than the answer is worth.”
Jim was astounded.
Gray aliens had visited Earth for years. Occasionally one was spotted or even crashed, but for the most part they studied Earth's inhabitants without detection. Earth had first been identified as worthy of study some fifteen million years before, and the aliens had visited periodically ever since. Their own home was much closer to the galactic core, but they had gradually worked their way out to the colder, darker parts of the galaxy. Along the way they colonized, they built, and on the rare occasions when they found life they observed. It was their way to watch other life without interference, until it evolved to the point where they could interact, or they had to destroy it for their own safety, or it simply died out on it's own. They were not conquerors, or emperors, or in any way interested in ruling others. All the elements the aliens would ever need were forged in the hearts of great stars and there was no need for plunder or pillage of planets. If other races were willing to live peaceably the aliens were happy to interact with with them peacefully. Every once in a while a race would get greedy and try to seize places that were not their own, and the aliens would have to put them down.
“'ave you ever killed someone?” The alien appeared to be intensely curious.
“No.” Jim replied without wavering.
“So you do not even know if you can try to kill me.” The large, cow-like eyes blinked once.
“I'm pretty sure about it.”
“Without 'aving done it, 'ow do you know?”
Jim focused on the large eyes. “Kill you, let you blow up my world, it's not that hard a decision.”
“In principle, yes,” the alien turned and took a few more steps away from the console with the Earth-destroying button, and continued in the disturbing British street thug accent “but you do not know what it would take to kill me. We already know the only thing keeping me from vaporising your planet is that getting shot might 'urt. And that I might not learn much from it.”
“Keep walking away from the button and maybe we don't have to find out.”
The alien turned toward him quickly. “'ow does that help? 'ow do you know I won't push the button tomorrow? Or the next day? Or a year from now?”
Jim pulled the trigger.
He was startled by how loud his gun was. He was surprised by what happened.
The alien flew back, and a panel behind him exploded in a shower of sparks. For a moment the slender gray form was outlined in shimmering cascades of electricity arcing all around him, then he fell to the deck.
Jim stepped forward, keeping the gun trained on the alien even as more sparks lit the deck around the small gray form. For a moment there was no movement, until the alien lifted a hand to his face.
“That” said the alien “'urt.”
“I'll do it again.”
“Thank you, no.” The alien lifted himself onto his skinny elbows. He shook his head in a manner reminiscent of a dog just out of the bath, then slowly got to his feet. ”It will take several 'ours for the ship to repair itself. It does not have kinetically sensitive cellular cohesion.” He examined the panel that had taken the bullet. “You have temporarily disabled monitoring and control of the botanical bay from this station. We will 'ave to go down there to check an experiment I was monitoring.”
“We?” Jim glanced toward the button that would destroy the planet below. “I'll hang here. Bring me back an apple.”
“Really? I'da thought you would want to come wit' me.” Shaking his head once more the alien started toward the opening leading from the control center to the rest of the ship. “There are consoles all over the ship that can be used to fire the weapon.”
Jim decided to follow.
“This is a fascinating ship.” The alien said. As they moved through the opening it shimmered slightly, and the smell of the air changed just noticeably, loosing the smell of gunpowder and burned console. “'ow old are you 'uman?”
“Thirty-three.” Jim answered without thinking.
“Years? Orbits of your sun?”
“You are older than I am. In linear time.”
Jim had not taken the time to look at the ship as he had run through it before. The last two weeks had been very strange. They were walking through a vast dome with hundreds of passages coming and going. Light came from everywhere, but it did not seem to be bright. There was more than enough light in the huge atrium-like space to see all the details and the delicate forms of writing around the many passages, but there was no source of light Jim could see. Were he not so focused on keeping his world from being blown up Jim would have spent hours in this place just to absorb the beauty it radiated.
“This is your ship, then?” Jim asked.
“For now. It has had many before me and many will come after. It's a new ship by our standards.”
“What does that mean?” They approached one of the arched openings, but this one seemed to have a solid wall behind it.
“This ship is,” there was a pause, “in your scale about ten million years old. Most of our ships are much older. This one can carry many people, but the last...”
Without hesitating the gray alien walked directly into the wall behind the arched opening and disappeared. Jim panicked for a moment, then stepped into the wall himself. Two weeks of really, really weird things can change one's perception of what is solid.
“...the Ryn event.” Several paces ahead the alien had not even slowed down for the teleporter. “That was very sad, I have several poignant memories downloaded from those who were there. There was no choice, of course, the Ryn had already killed billions of the Cilzen without cause and destroyed some colonies of other races as well. Extermination was the only choice left. Since then this ship 'as mostly been used for missions to the outer bands.”
Jim realized that they were in a very different part of the ship than the central atrium. There was light from everywhere here as well, but it had a different tone, a different feel, as though it were somehow a living light. They were in more of a wide corridor than a dome now as well.
“My experiment is just ahead. Do not be alarmed.” The alien stepped through an arch with a translucent barrier.
Jim followed him through and almost dropped the gun. Rows of unearthly plants filled the floor of the space, but it was the dome that startled him. Completely clear and without any visible structure the dome showed the infinite depth of space, and the Earth hanging right above them. As South America slid above them Jim realized they were in a polar orbit currently approaching Antarctica. How all the technology on Earth did not see this ship Jim did not understand, but that was not what shattered him.
Looking toward what was apparently the core of the ship Jim saw a part of the energy lens.
Even after these past two weeks Jim was not prepared to comprehend an energy lens. It was as though mathematics had caught fire along parts of the skin of the ship and fractals battled and self organization skittered across the patterns of the flames. Without comprehending even the most superficial principles of what he saw Jim realized that he now knew more than the total of what he had ever known. Simple harmonies of solar systems filled his mind, and the turbulence of the hearts of stars roared in his ears. Simultaneously, he understood the intricate motions of the galaxy and the dance of atoms.
He knew that somewhere deep in the ship a small sun burned, and that this ship harnessed more power than the entire energy that had fallen on the Earth for as long as humans had used tools. He knew that the energy lens was the life of the ship, the heart and the soul, the drive, the light, and the weapon.
He knew that once before the lens had been focused on a single species.
As almost ten billion humans spun silently above him Jim realized that this ship, this machine, could easily vaporise the Earth without even a shudder. The humans on the surface would know nothing of it, one moment they would be there, the next they would not. For a split second there would be light from everywhere and then there would be darkness.
“Back to the question.” The large, dark cow eyes stared at Jim from the smooth pear shaped gray face. “Of whether to destroy your planet.”
Jim raised the gun.
“We have been through this.” The alien blinked again.
Jim slowly let the muzzle drop until the gun fell from his hand.
“So why should I not destroy your planet?”
“We...we are no threat to you.”
Jim looked up at the Earth and the energy lens. “I suppose not.”
“The question is not whether you are a threat to us, it's whether you are a threat to others that share the galaxy.”
Jim was transfixed by the lens again. “The question is whether destroying ten billion now will save a hundred billion later.”
“Something like that.”
“And even with all the technology you have,” Jim turned to look directly at the gray alien, “you cannot tell.”
“Not with 'umans. Some species we can, some we can't. There are not all that many species in the galaxy overall.”
“And they sent a..how old are you?”
“In your years, twenty-seven.”
“A twenty-seven year old to decide if all humanity lives or dies.”
“I'm linked with several thousand others, and have the knowledge of several hundred million years downloaded into my brain, but yes, it's up to me.”
“It was my question. Or questions. First, whether 'appiness was critical to stable development of primitive species into advanced species. We do not, after all this time, 'ave a good answer to that one.” One of his gray hands rubbed the alien forehead between the large dark eyes. “I 'ave already 'ealed from your weapon, so the pain is definitely worth suffering for that answer, if you were curious.”
“Not much pain.”
“It 'urt a lot at first. I've never been injured before.”
“No cuts, no scratches, no skinned knees as a kid?”
“None. We are not primitive.”
Jim was once again disturbed by the accent. “No cold, no flu, no sickness?”
“But no happiness.”
“W'at makes you say that?” The alien cocked his smooth gray head in a remarkably human manner.
“You are studying happiness in primitive species, probably because you have lost the ability in yourselves.”
“That is a strange thing to say.” There was a pause. “And very ignorant.” For several minutes the two stared at each other in silence. “We have no unmet needs, no prolonged suffering of any sort. Those who need 'elp get 'elp, those who have strength share it.”
“Then why are you planning to destroy my world?”
“You shun 'appiness, and 'ave developed space travel.”
Jim looked up at the energy lens, the rules of nature streaming flame up and down the ship. “Like the Ryn.”
“Per'aps. They too shunned 'appiness.”
“So your question is whether happiness is necessary to becoming an advanced society.”
“My first question.”
“And how will vaporising Earth prove this?”
“There is another species not far from you that does not shun 'appiness. Left to your own ways I think you would destroy them. Eliminate you, and if they become an advanced race there is correlation. Not proof, but correlation. If they die out regardless of your destruction then we need to redo the test with different controls.” The large dark eyes looked directly at Jim.
Jim looked around the alien vegetation, up at Antarctica sliding past overhead, over at the energy lens that could eliminate ten billion humans in a single burst. “What makes you think we are not happy?”
“All the advanced species in the galaxy, ourselves included, 'ad one or two ancient teachers that established a philosophy of peace and cooperation that led to universal 'appiness. Your species 'as 'ad 'undreds of such teachers, your Jesus, or Mo'ammed, or Budda', and yet you persist in violent ways, even twisting their teachings themselves to justify your actions. You know what it takes to be 'appy, but turn away from it. There is light from everywhere and you choose darkness.”
In the flickering of the energy lens Jim knew it was true, could feel the ancient races of the galaxy speaking to him. He could taste the history of species, those that lived and those that perished. Billions upon billions of lives swirling through the depths of time, some a peaceful sweetness, others a deep bitterness. The imminent destruction of Earth seemed a reasonable and sensible thing, a just end for a species that was dying of thirst just to spite the ambivalent water. There seemed good purpose in this end, a small but useful answer to an ancient question.
Jim, for just a moment, became the energy lens, became the power of life, and the instrument of death. Then he realized what he had been missing. “What is your second question?”
“Whether knowing the first question makes a difference.”
Suddenly the gray alien made a gesture and a split second later Jim found himself standing on the street where, two weeks ago, some very strange things had started happening to him. Jim looked up and down the street, which had changed little in two weeks but enough for him to know he had truly been away. He smiled, and looked up to where he knew the energy lens was starting to move away from Earth under control of the strange gray alien. Jim started off down the street, whistling to himself.
He had two questions to answer.