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It's less than a month, now, since the Andromedans arrived. Chrononet - the network of satellites intended to take the Earth back in time to prevent a pair of otherwise irreversible disasters from ever happening - is scheduled to be activated in just a few minutes, at midnight. I'm on a terrace with a dozen other party-goers waiting for the big moment.

The mechanics of the jump are going to be more complicated than first imagined; it was pointed out very quickly that the original plan of placing the Earth at the other Earth's trailing Lagrange point would in fact cause both to rapidly spiral into the Sun. An alternate solution has been chosen. Drop the Earth back in time ten years, and move it a short distance behind the existing Earth on its orbital track. Use the Mantissa's momentum cannon to alter their velocities, making them orbit each other, a binary pair. Let the Moon orbit the two Earths, and all three orbit the Sun. If it all works out correctly, there should be no changes to either planet's calendar.

I try and fail to locate Epsilon Eridani in the sky. Somewhere out there, invisible because it's expanding as fast as its own light, is the energy virus wavefront that surrounds it. In a little over four years, it'll reach the point where I'm standing right now. One day it will consume this entire universe. But Earth and Humanity won't be there.

On the horizon, a gigantic, rising semicircle of blue-white reflected light flicks silently into being. We'll be here, I think, looking at a more interesting sky altogether. I can't help joining in most of the rest of the Western Hemisphere in cheering our new twin Earth. We did it, or rather, Ed MacPherson and the aliens did it for us. The energy virus hasn't been triggered, Andromeda hasn't been destroyed... yet. Once again, the world is safe.

By the time Earth-minus-ten has risen, communication lines - mostly government dishes, emplaced years ago in preparation for precisely this moment - are open and data is beginning to pass in both directions. I can hardly imagine the implications of such an event for those people. The fact that they'll be able to skip ten years of technological development isn't the half of it. Different children are going to be born to identical parents. People who are due to die in the next ten years will find out, and in many cases avoid, their fates. Ed MacPherson, who on our planet is possibly the single most influential man of the last ten years, will have already had a visit from his future self by now, and will be about to embark on a totally different, First-Law-enabled life. Prescience will govern everything. National governments will be told about major events coming up and move pre-emptively to prevent them, only to find, perhaps, that that terrorist attack was moved to another day or another city, by people with access to precisely the same information. And those are just the predictable consequences.

The date according to the rest of this new universe is 1st August 1998. Earth-minus-ten of 1999, it is predicted, will be unrecognisable.

The party continues through the night and into the morning. By sunrise I'm the only one still awake, so it falls to me to answer the quiet knock at the door. It's Ed. I'd be surprised to see him if I didn't know he owned a spaceship capable of taking him anywhere in the world in seconds. He steps softly around the sleeping people and joins me on the balcony to watch the other Earth move across the sky.

"So how many times have you saved the world, now?"

"Um. Let me think. Not counting times when I saved the world from myself, there was... the first Eridanian incursion, thanks to the DEMP weapon. While working for the SDC I prevented major cities from being blown up four... no, three times. Since then... well, there's been nothing really world-threatening, to be honest. There was the asteroid, but that doesn't count because it wasn't us who stopped it. So that makes five, counting today."

"Orbital mechanics are all sorted out, then?"

"Leap seconds might become a bit more common, but yeah, the Andromedans did their job to as many decimal places as I could verify, pretty much. They've gone home, you know."

"What, already? Why?"

"Oh, come on. What would you do in their position? There's a lot of resentment being directed at them..."

This is true. Initially, there were the usual responses that you've seen in movies - terrorist bombings, people hailing them as messengers from God or heralds of the coming Apocalypse, ritual cult suicides. But now the knee-jerk reactions have diminished, the residual emotions are fear, anger, resentment and hate. It's not just bog-standard xenophobia, and ignorami who can't tell one set of aliens from another: it's because for all the Andromedans' marvellous technology they haven't magically fixed the world.

It would be nice to think that everything suddenly became a whole lot better when the Andromedans arrived. They are, after all, representatives of a super-advanced meta-civilisation so stunningly diverse it can hardly be fairly represented by a single demonym, consisting of more different races than anybody can count and nearly a hundred thousand years old. They are seemingly omnipotent. Science - physics, at least - is something they solved to their own satisfaction lifetimes ago. And they are benevolent - or rather, they aren't hostile, which is a refreshing change, at least. But despite all this, they haven't solved all our problems. Oh sure, they cooperated with us in building Chrononet - time travel is well-understood but illegal in Andromeda, so they needed our know-how - but apart from that...

Krah said the solution to the energy crisis was the fuel cell and we'd been staring right at it for decades, and asked why we hadn't started using them yet. She solved world hunger and cured every disease we could think of so quickly it was embarrassing, but because of stupid, Human politics there is still illness and there is still hunger and people in Africa are still dying. She's given us new technology, sure, but she's holding infinitely more back, saying we aren't ready, or more often saying nothing at all. Ed is one of only three people who had access to the schematics of the mind-paralysingly powerful energy sources which feed the Mantissa, and they've had the information scrubbed from their brains. Combine that with Krah's famous first words, which were misinterpreted as a slight against our inferiority by a horrifyingly large number of people, and it's not hard to understand why global feelings about the Andromedans are so negative.

"And it's not just that," continues Ed. "You must have noticed that they don't like us much either, and despite what you might be thinking, it's not because of me. Their grudge against me is weakening. I don't think they'll ever forgive me - nobody can erase the past, and reintegrating all these duplicates into their society is going to be difficult for them - but they are beginning to loosen up. I've spent time with them, learning who they are, finding out what I destroyed, and I've worked hard to undo the damage as best I can. That seems to count for something. It's the rest of Humanity that's the problem. Take a look at our society, Sam, take a big step out of the picture you live in and look at it like they look at it, with objective eyes. What do you see?

"I'll tell you what they see: horror. Hell. Chaos. War. Famine. People who are in power because they want power, not because they want to wield it for the better of others. Democratically voted leaders who can't conceive of a time beyond the end of their current term or a country other than their own. Bureaucratic, political insanity. Financial imbalance on an unimaginable, ungodly scale. It goes on. We read all these stories and watch all these television shows about the ideal future; peace-loving Federations where nobody goes hungry, societies where... where resources are so plentiful there's no such thing as money and everybody's happy, and they seem so far off! The fact is that the future is now: we have the technology. We have medicine and solar power and... and books, and millimetre-thick television screens, and vaccines and contraception and education and technology that would boggle minds thirty years ago. We could have built that utopia decades ago, and Krah and all the rest see this as plain as day... and it's the fact that we haven't done it which sickens them.

"I'll tell you something. In Andromeda, the vast majority of sentient species are telepathic, or at least reasonably empathic. Internally, within their own species, I mean. It's a survival characteristic. If whatever happens to another member of your species is also felt by you, then you look after each other instead of fighting, thus preserving the species as a whole. Telepathy radically affects how a species develops. The notion of helping the collective rather than oneself is wired into the mind from birth. Utopia isn't something a telepathic species has to strive for, or even acknowledge the existence of, because in most cases it just happens naturally. And the galaxy the Andromedans come from is full of them!

"If Humanity was telepathic, this would have been a perfect world by 1800 at the latest. Space launches by 1850. Claiming asteroids by 1900. Operational space elevator by 2000. These dates are guesses, but do you see what I'm saying? Krah was right when she said we weren't special on the cosmic scale, but we're not even special as far as intelligent life is concerned! We're significantly below average, and we have a lot of catching up to do, and the Andromedans aren't going to hang around to coddle us until we're up to scratch. That's not their idea of a good time: most of them have places to go and people to see. To be honest, I can't blame them."

There's a lengthy pause.

"I just feel cheated by the whole thing," I say. "I mean... if the feelings are bad, perhaps it's for the best for both of us that they leave before the inevitable conflict starts. But I can't help feeling like the victim of a cruel insult. To be shown a glimpse of the infinite glories of the universe, but denied participation because we're not ready. Is that fair?"

"But we aren't ready," says Ed. "First contact alone was an unavoidable mistake."

"We managed with the Eridanians."

"We never met the Eridanians! All they did was fight us by proxy, and war is as natural to Humans as breathing. No, we aren't ready to join the intergalactic stage, and what we've seen over the last month is indicative of what we could expect if we tried. Moreover giving us the power of a galactic civilisation would be catastrophic. There isn't a government in the world who wouldn't misuse that power. What we need to do is earn our place at the table. And right now we haven't even earned the planet we walk on. At a bare minimum, we need to be able to present a united front, a united government, which means world peace. Then, we need to clean up our environment and get everyone to an acceptable standard of living. That's for starters. Until we do that, no other sentient species is even going to give us the time of day."

"When you put it like that, it sounds like it'd take a thousand years."

"You could do it in a generation. If everybody in the world was prepared to sacrifice everything they had for the greater good, you could do it in thirty years. In reality... yeah, more like a thousand. If at all."

There's another lengthy pause.

"I was trying to find Epsilon Eridani," I remark.

Ed looks around a bit, then points wordlessly. Then: "Well, I think I'm gonna go make it six. You coming?"

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