First Twenty-Five Years
Delphi was the first global intelligence firm to start work on the alien question. The issue had been broached worldwide in board meetings, political debates, talk shows, and schoolrooms in the early twenty-first century, and even before. Humanity's finest minds had considered this question for years before we got the call. But my team was the one that sat down and planned it all out in-depth, worked all the angles. It wasn't hard. Humans are a predictable bunch. And here's the kicker: it happened just like we said it would. Most of it, anyway.
You might figure that the name "Delphi" is a just a pretty allusion to Greek mythology, but it's apropos. We're oracles. We prophesy. Corporations, executives, militaries, and governments ask us about the future and we answer. That's it. We don't do miracles or anything fancy. We don't have crystal balls. We haven't got any technological whiz-bang to help us. We just use our heads. We look at the past, we assess the present, and we hazard a guess at the future. Private intelligence and geopolitical forecasting, that's our line. It's easy once you understand a few basic rules and know the major players. When China fractured in the 2020s, nobody at Delphi was shocked—and neither were the corporate shareholders. When a new world war broke out between America, Poland, Turkey, and Japan in 2052, Delphi didn't break a sweat. We'd seen it coming.
It was 2063 when someone asked us the sixty-four-dollar question. I don't even remember whom they represented. Maybe it was a political action committee, or maybe a trade union or something. One day my phone rang and a gruff voice with an accent I couldn't place mumbled eight words in my ear.
"What'll happen to Earth when the aliens come?"
I thought it was a prank call at first. I was about to hang up. Then I remembered what I'd read in the newspaper a week before. First contact. A whisper near Tau Ceti. It wasn't much, but it was decipherable—a serious attempt at communication, not just static. Eggheads all over the world nearly wet themselves. Pundits, columnists and evangelists got in on the act. Everyone was speculating and grandstanding and bloviating.
I'm surprised nobody called us sooner.
I pulled some files and went down the hall to Bill Dutton's office.
"Bill? You'll never believe the call I just got."
"Who was it?"
I told him. His eyes bugged out of his head, but I could see he was interested. Like me, he'd never considered the question before. He swiveled around in his chair and sucked his teeth—he always does that when he's thinking.
"We'll have to consider it from multiple angles," he said. "Hostile or non-hostile? Colonization and subjugation or peaceful coexistence? Would this be a commercial interaction or a purely cultural exchange?"
"Save it," I said. "Get Maggie, Cheryl, and Tom and meet me in Conference Room B. Bring some gear and pull all the files you can. Every continent except Antarctica. The aliens won't give a crap about Antarctica."
So we went to work on it, me and a hand-picked team, five men and two women in a conference room with some laptops, tablets and smart phones. We put our heads together and barfed up some ideas.
The outlook wasn't pretty. First, we constructed a historical framework. We took a look at European colonialism and its effect on indigenous cultures. In almost every case, things went badly for the natives. They were either enslaved, or starved, or exterminated by disease. Their local government never stayed intact for long; it was subsumed by the colonists or done away with altogether.
"That leaves some pretty grim options for the human race," said Cheryl Connant. Conflict was Cheryl's specialty. She'd studied the geopolitics of the twentieth century: hot wars and cold ones, capitalism versus communism, police actions, terrorism, and all that mad gab. There's an ebb and flow to it all, she'd always say, undercurrents of power, economics and strategy that made armed conflict a very predictable thing.
"One nation," Cheryl went on, "or perhaps a coalition of them, will get real friendly with the alien forces and schmooze their way to self-preservation while the rest of the world descends into anarchy."
We talked that over for a bit. It wasn't impossible. We figured that both the U.S. and Russia—and possibly the European Union—would vie for the aliens' favor.
It just so happens that in the months following the First Arrival of the Tau in 2076, the three world powers sidled up to them and did everything they could to get in their good graces. America came out on top.
After four hours, Tom Watts, our technology forecaster, held up a hand.
"What we've said makes sense so far," he said, scratching his gingery sideburns, "but our initial forecast was predicated on the notion that the aliens would want to colonize and develop Planet Earth. What if they just want to talk?"
So we pulled the files on Delphi's tech predictions for the twenty-second century and put together some ideas for cultural and technological exchange. Tom, who held the reins at several alternative energy start-ups, was curious about what effect the introduction of cheap, space-based energy might have on global geopolitics. We came up with two different scenarios.
"Number one," Tom said, standing up and drawing on the board, a blue marker in his slender hand, "the overview effect. A lot of astronauts have reported that they had a change of perspective during spaceflights. Seems like looking down at our tiny fragile Starship Earth from orbit makes one's nationality disappear, or at least diminish. Teams aboard the international space station reported fuller and more genuine camaraderie on board and more efficient cooperation on scientific projects. Worldly problems just disappear up there. Perhaps when the people of Earth take a ride on a spaceship—and have cheap power and clean water and lighter workloads—they'll calm down and get all peaceable."
He stepped away from the board. He'd drawn a picture of our little Earth, with two giant stick figures standing astride of it. Over their heads was a flying saucer, and in between the two little stick figures was a crudely-drawn heart. Aliens as celestial matchmakers. Tom could be fanciful sometimes, but we needed qualitative assessment as well as hard, crunchy numbers. I was glad I'd included him on the team.
Tom figured that once the aliens landed, things like genocide, racism and nationalism would go out the window. A lot of people—intelligent people, anyway—would quit squabbling over their tiny patch of sod and realize the size of the universe they were living in. Within the first twenty-five years of the aliens' landing, he predicted, humanity would enter a golden age of scientific, technological and cultural exchange, and everybody—except for a few fringe freaks who'd object to working with extraterrestrials—would live happily ever after.
And that's exactly what happened. The Tau came in 2076, and by 2078 the Arab League was stronger than ever. Egypt launched a three-year plan that revitalized its infrastructure and ended nearly 70 years of poverty. The whole Aztlán crisis just evaporated: Mexico and the U.S. quit rattling their sabers at each other and signed a peace accord. All around the world, the number of strikes and riots fell off by 60 percent. Humanity had just taken a stiff shot of perspective, and now it was holding its breath and waiting to see what happened next.
Maggie Dade stood up and grabbed the marker, her curly brown hair flying around her face.
"An intriguing idea, Tom," she said, popping the cap off the marker and beginning to draw, so fast that the lines of ink were thin and hard to see. "But have you considered the alternative?"
Maggie had a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Wellesley. You could rattle off any two names—say, the Basques and the Ainu—and Maggie could tell you (with at least five different concrete examples) whether the two cultures, if they'd interacted, would have gotten along or gone to war.
"My thinking is more sinister," Maggie said, with an evil chuckle. "Yes, while many people's worldview would be broadened by an alien encounter, there are some millennia-old prejudices on this planet that would be hard to give up. For example, let's take a look at Palestine and Israel..."
Maggie knew that blood was thicker than water, and she knew that human beings could be hateful, xenophobic, grudge-carrying bastards, even in 2063. When she stepped back from the board, we saw that she'd drawn another picture of planet Earth quite a bit bigger than Tom's. She'd taken a red marker and slashed an X through a number of countries, and even whole regions.
"What are we looking at, Maggie?" I asked. I was reclining in a swivel chair with my third cup of coffee. I looked at the clock and couldn't believe it was three in the morning. I glanced over my team. Everybody looked like hell, but none of them seemed like they wanted to quit. This assignment would be completed in record time.
"A revised geopolitical map of the world, boss," Maggie replied. "These red X's you see? None of these countries or areas will exist after 2090."
Maggie's synopsis was brutal, and as it happened, accurate. What the Israelis and the Palestinians did to each other in early 2079 didn't come as a surprise. The Indians and the Pakistanis had a go at each other, too. So did North and South Korea. (Japan and China barely survived that one.) And the Balkan Peninsula vaporized itself. Warring factions got their hands on some fancy alien technology and wiped each other off the map. Humanity mourned, the Tau didn't bat an eyelid (they didn't have any to begin with), and gradually the world picked up and moved on. When I saw all this on the news more than 16 years after that long night in Conference Room B, I remembered Maggie and her map full of red X's.
Maggie also predicted that certain radical Muslim elements would declare holy war on the Tau. They did, in 2084. It didn't amount to much. The Tau glassed the Middle East, North Africa, Indonesia, the Philippines, and a hefty chunk of Central Asia. The resurgent Arab League simply ceased to exist. Ordinarily, we humans would have been screaming for alien blood...but the attack had been so swift, so complete and so incomprehensibly terrifying that the rest of humanity was just glad it hadn't happened to them.
"There will be another factor, too," Maggie explained, sitting down and tapping her index finger on the conference table, looking at us over the top of her glasses. "Comfort. If, as we predict, there is a technological exchange with alien visitors, then all of our pesky problems will start disappearing. Things like overpopulation, disease, poverty, hunger...they'll all go bye-bye. People will start to forget what life was like before the aliens came, and if they remember, it'll seem like a bad dream. So even if the aliens do torch a continent or two, the rest of the world will just look the other way."
Arrivals took place every two years. By 2084, there had been four Arrivals. Massive ships had landed in Washington, Moscow, London and Tokyo, and each time they'd brought a flood of new migrants and new technology and taken a horde of eager humans back to their home for cultural exchange. True to Maggie's prediction, our overpopulation problem was solved—a third of the human race signed up (or were signed up) to head out into space with our benefactors. Tau technology purified our air and water, gave us limitless amounts of clean energy, automated much of our society, eradicated disease, and lengthened our lifespans. Poverty and homelessness ceased to exist. For once in our long history, everybody was happy. The politicians had nothing to do: there was nothing to fight about anymore, no social ills to cure, no wars to declare. The scientists had more ‘ologies to study than they could have possibly done in six lifetimes. Even the poorest bum in the streets had a healthy immune system, his blood scrubbed clean of germs and infections, cheap food and tax-free cigarettes waiting down at the corner market. He could find a job as easy as pie now that three billion people were off-planet.
So yeah, nobody really raised much of a stink when the aliens turned the Middle East into obsidian and the Persian Gulf into ashy sludge. Everybody had clean air to breathe and plenty to eat. Better them than us.
"Okay, people," I said, putting down my empty coffee cup and rubbing my eyes. "Type up your reports. Just put down everything you brought up in the meeting tonight. I want them on my desk in 48 hours. Client's waiting."
Everybody said good night and filed out of the room. I stayed a moment longer, looking at the whiteboard. Two versions of the future: one full of stick figures with hearts in their eyes, holding hands beneath a flying saucer; and the other with a bunch of red X's to mark the smoking wastelands where proud nations once stood. My own personal prediction was that the real future would be somewhere in between the two. And it was.
Now it's 2101. Twenty-five years have passed since the First Arrival. There've been eleven more Arrivals since then. Canada and Mexico are no more—both are now part of the North American Federation. The European Union went bust a long time ago, and China hasn't existed for 80 years. For a few decades it was a loose conglomerate of nation-states ruled by kingpins and warlords (they say history repeats, don't they?), but it joined the Eurasian Alliance three years ago. Most of China is now an agricultural collective. The Tau's superb mastery of climate manipulation and soil enrichment has transformed Asia into the world's bread basket.
Both North and South America are mostly wilderness again. Their populations are clustered in metropolitan swathes near the coasts—Toronto-New York, San Angeles, Yucatán, Ciudad Uruguay (formerly Montevideo and Buenos Aires). The rest of it's been given back to the animals. Humans and Tau launched a joint re-wilding effort in 2088, and every trace of human habitation between the Great Lakes and the Sierra Nevada is gone. Bison, genetically resurrected, roam the Great Plains again. The Amazon rainforest is green and lush and whole, and not a single human foot has trod Patagonia in over a decade.
There's talk of irrigating and planting the charred remains of Southwest Asia and turning the region into a gigantic seaside resort. Enterprising minds from fifty Allied nations are mulling the project over.
Since nobody was using Antarctica, the Tau dusted the place off and built their R&D center there. (Turns out I was wrong about Antarctica all along, and Bill Dutton had a good laugh at me for it.) All kinds of exciting projects are emerging from those vast subterranean laboratories: devices which enable telepathic communication, rudimentary teleportation systems, even a space elevator to get people on- and off-planet more quickly.
My team at Delphi saw most of this coming. The flowchart we sent to that gravelly-voiced caller was breathtakingly accurate. The first twenty-five years fell out precisely as we had predicted, unfolding like a piece of delicate origami.
I am now 72 years old. What with the Tau's medical expertise, I expect to live at least another fifty years. Before I die, I shall see Antarctica morph into a thriving industrial center; Africa become a vibrant hub of trade and technological innovation; free-floating oceanic cities and sustainable large-scale space stations launched; and, perhaps, the Tau and the human race link elbows and walk forward into the light of a progressive age.
But in geopolitics, they say, the unintended consequences are the important ones.
The only thing my team didn't predict was a lasting peace.