Alan tried to listen over the pounding beat of the music and the beers he had been drinking but the truth was that he didn't really care what a middle aged balding man in a cheap suit had to say. He was here to meet models and mingle with some of the richest people in the world. The type of people who wouldn't be caught dead in a hundred dollar suit.
"Sir, if you'd please step outside with me," the man said in a thin squeaking voice.
That was exactly what Alan was trying to avoid. He could get back in easily enough but he always got a few dirty looks when he walked past the long line outside and worse the model he was talking to was the type that got bored quickly. Still, that someone looked like an insurance salesman in a cheap suit had got inside the club at all suggested there was more to him than it first appeared so he followed him towards the back door.
When they reached the door the man opened it to allow Alan to walk through first. Alan stepped out of the door into the alley and was immediately grabbed by two men and was and thrown into the back of a van.
He had been told what to do if kidnapped. These were professionals and this was business. The best thing he could do was make it easy for them. There would be a few days of mild discomfort then his parents would pay the ransom and he would be sent home.
What was a bit worrying was that they should keep his face covered. His rich friends told him that if he saw their faces it was a bad sign. It meant they didn't expect him to be able to tell anyone who they were because they were probably going to kill him so he should try to escape.
But they never gave him a chance to break free so he studied their faces.
They appeared to be eastern European, tall blond men with with identical black suits. Russian mafia, except he was certain they weren't Russian or mafia. He wasn't sure how he knew that. Perhaps it was the look in their eyes or the way they moved but he knew there was something off even before the middle aged man in the cheap suit said, "We are not kidnapping you."
"You're certainly putting on a good show though," Alan said.
"You had to be gone for a few days. This way no one asks too many questions you can't answer. We have already contacted your parents and told them we were picking you up. Still if you'd like to call them and verify I'm telling the truth that is acceptable," the man who had first approached him said.
"First I would like some explanation of what is happening or there won't be anything to verify."
"Your family is important. A few hundred years ago my people made contact with a small group of humans. Your ancestor was picked to negotiate and trade. But he could only trade that which he had access to and could not ask for things he did not understand. So each generation takes over the negotiation from the last."
"So you're not human."
My species was traveling between worlds for millennial before your species existed. We first discovered an intelligent species on this planet fifty thousand years ago, but they were without civilization."
"Fifty thousand years?" Alan said.
"Not all that long ago in the grander scheme of things. Over those millennium we gave you a few nudges to help move things along. We encouraged trade, helped you with domestication and agriculture and eventually a civilization began. Most of the rest we let you figure out on your own."
"Why not help us with everything?" Alan asked.
"Learning to domesticate animals and how to grow crops is basically universal. The only real important choice is what animals and foods are domesticated. There are more dogs and cats living on our worlds than yours. Less so with your food, though you have developed a few useful foods. Honey is popular. But when you create language that is unique and that helps create new ways of thinking. That unique language and way of thinking is why you have something to trade."
"But you said you didn't negotiate with us until a few hundred years ago," Alan said.
"You know what you're doing and that is important to our current plans. But trade can also be used for subtle adjustments. It lets us speed up things from time to time. A merchant arrives and sells fish hooks and improved mining tools in a town and then leaves. The people in that town don't want to go back to the less efficient tools when they break so they look at the tools and learn to make them themselves and others learn from them. The difference now is that you are trusted to make your own decisions. "
"But couldn't you just take what you want?" Alan asked.
"We are not thieves. What you make is yours and no race thinks like any other so there is always something to trade."
"And what do you give us?"
"That's a bit more complicated. We take books, music, art and philosophy and in return give you engineering and science, but the trade is up to you. Say no and we'll take nothing and give nothing. Is there anything that you think is particularly urgent," the man said, as he spoke they pulled into a warehouse.
"Global warming seems problematic," Alan said.
"Your father seemed blissfully unaware of the effects you were having on your environment. I am glad to see you are thinking a bit more broadly," the man said, as he did the two men by the side of the van opened the door and he stepped out.
The warehouse was clearly not used as as a warehouse. The walls were typical. Concrete with metal beams and the colored plastic that replaced windows in many warehouses along with the cheap metal shelves. But everything else was clearly not made by humans. Alan couldn't even be sure what most of the things in the warehouse did.
"This is one of our bases. From here we monitor your people. There are very few humans allowed in in this building and fewer are allowed to leave, but you must understand as much as possible if you are to take over the job of your father," the man said.
As he spoke Alan realized that some of the technology he couldn't identify were the aliens. At least he thought they were. One of them was in front of a TV which made him assume that the bulge facing the TV was some type of sensory organ. Beyond that though he really wasn't able to make out much. It might move using the small wide bulges that touched the floor or it might be sitting down and he saw nothing that he would call arms or hands.
"Is that what you usually look like?" Alan asked.
"More or less. Our people have more physical variation than your people. Personally I've been in a human form for almost two hundred years. If you're going to be on a primitive planet for a long time it's just easier to look like them."
"How many different races are there?"
"Honestly no one has any idea. Our race has records of over three million planets that hold life. We have a record of at least a million different types of intelligent life, but that's a bit tricky because it's not always easy to tell. You'd be surprised how many dead ends there are."
"Things that cause a species to stop advancing. It's more common than not. Imagine a species on your planet that is intelligent but lives in the water. They might develop stone tools but to advance beyond that they would need metal tools and that requires fire. The same problem can happen if a species simply doesn't have the right appendages to use tools. And those are the obvious and easy problems. Of course many of those can be circumvented with help, and for less advanced species the species can simple change, but once a species reaches a certain level of dominance over their environment the forces that cause improvement largely stops."
"Then what happens?"
"Nothing. That is the point. But if they are near us and have intelligence we will give them a nudge in a more useful direction."
"Like you're doing with us now?" Alan asked.
"You are not a dead end species. You have already made it off your planet. Once a species has the knowledge and skills to reach space the only thing left is survival. Your species seems unlikely to destroy itself so it's only a matter of time before you are able to learn what we know. We're just helping to speed up the process a bit. Some of the older races call us impatient, but most of them won't even interact with us, and some of the oldest don't do anything."
"Perhaps they have reached their own dead end but we are not advanced enough to understand or perhaps they are enlightened. What we know is that there are races that have went hundreds of thousands of years without any significant change in technology or culture and very few works of art or culture. They have everything they could ever want and so have no reason to do anything. Their lands are then often taken over by other more vibrant races."
"Like a war?" Alan asked.
"You don't go to war against a race that is a million years old. They have technology can make and unmake stars. You simply move onto their planets and if no one objects you just keep moving in."
"So how would you help us deal with global warming?" Alan asked.
"That's where things become complicated. We have technology that would removed the dangerous gas from the atmosphere but that would encourage the behavior that caused the problem in the first place and you need to find better sources of energy. But when we could give you a new energy source then you'll use both because your people are energy starved but without a way to remove the gas that would be problematic. It would also unbalance your countries and likely create wars. Technology is all connected which is why we can't advance any single technology without ramifications to almost everything else. It is the reason we do not advance anyone’s technology to quickly. "
"Is there any good way to encourage peace?" Alan asked. He had never really thought about world peace much. It was practically a joke when people asked about wishes and dreams, but a race that had existed hundreds of times as long as modern human civilization must know something about avoiding war or at least not wiping itself out completely.
"We're not good at that?" the man said.
"So you still fight with each other?" Alan asked.
The man chuckled lightly and said, "The opposite actually. We never really fought with each other so never had to learn how to avoid it. My best advice is to reduce the shortages and pressures that cause wars."
"Aren't you worried that we'll go to war with other worlds?"
"Who? Even if you could get to another world they'll have technology a thousand years or more ahead of you. My people aren't good at war but if you launched every weapon you've ever created it wouldn't be able to get through the our shields. Still your people are dangerous and will become more dangerous over time."
"Why do you care about us at all?" Alan asked. From everything he had heard the people humans were as far below them as any animal on earth was below humans.
"Once a race learns to travel between stars everything in the universe becomes common expect one thing. Intelligent races are the rarest resource in the galaxy. There is gold, iron even plutonium everywhere, but the only place in the galaxy that humans come from is earth."
"The only place they come from," Alan said.
"We do take humans to other places from time to time," the man said.
"And you've been doing that for quite a while," Alan said.
"About thirty thousand years," the alien said.
"And they've been healthier and had more room to expand than humans on earth for that entire time," Alan said.
"Yes. There are considerably more humans on other worlds than on earth but it's not the same. They are like animals kept in a zoo. They are comfortable and can even be useful but try to return them to the wild and they won't survive. They need someone else to protect and feed them. No offense meant to your species."
"I'm of no illusion about the greatness of humans. I didn't like us all that much before I knew there were species that were a million years old," Alan said.
"Being old isn't all that impressive. It simply means that you didn't die. And once you reach the technology level of your species that becomes less likely. And time means far less because you're not changing over time. You're being changed by technology and that can happen quickly or slowly. It just depends on the technology. It's mostly based on your choices. The only reason that it is dangerous is that the choices are made blind. Often races do not even know they are making decision and when they do they almost never know where those decisions are leading. And we can't make those decisions for you because we cannot understand you. Even wearing your skin for two hundred years I've never been able to understand how you fight or why. My people still use tactics created by Alexander the Great in combat. And they work better than anything we had and the replacements for those tactics have mostly come from you as well."
"And that explains why I shouldn't ask for you to help us stop fighting. You're people are good at peace. Probably better than we are at war. But you need us to fight. For all I know you've been actively making us more warlike. You push us into war after war so we get better at it and you can use what we learn and advance our technology so the techniques we develop are closer to what you need."
"We were in a war. We had far more ships than the enemy and our technology is many years advanced of those and yet we lost almost every battle. We converted entire worlds into factories to keep up with our losses and their ability to fight was growing faster than our ability to defend ourselves. Then we discovered you. You had no written language and were still using stone knives but you understood how to fight better than we did. We took a tribe and moved them to one of our worlds. Trained them to use our technology and within a generation they begin to turn the tide."
"You've been fighting the same war for forty-thousand years?"
The man looked at Alan for a moment then said, "Space is big, but it's not that big. We defeated them in about two hundred years. But they were a dangerous race and so we changed them so they could never make war again."
"Then why do you need us?"
"The universe is a dangerous place and the older races won't get involved to fix things so we must. We have eliminated or altered eight hundred and seventy six dangerous races with your help."
"For a race that's bad at war it sounds like you're quite good at it," Alan said.
"You're the one that taught us that the best defense is a good offense. We're partners and we'd like you to take a bigger part of that partnership," the man said.
"But I'm the one that decides, so what happens if I decide that we're out. That I don't want to have anything to do with you?" Alan asked.
"I like you. I like your people and so I'm going to tell you the truth. We've eliminated over eight hundred races with your help because they were too dangerous. But the reason we were able to do it is because you are as dangerous or more dangerous than any of them. But the good news is that there are plenty of humans not on earth so the race won't be entirely eliminated just your branch of the race and we estimate it would only take about a thousand years to create a new civilization that would be able to begin to create new technology," he said.
"And the others all knew about this?" Alan asked.
"None of them ever asked," the man said, and Alan saw something else. He was trapped, but not by this man. He had to do this job or someone else would do it and they would be less helpful.
"Well then, since you've been so honest and helpful I had one more question. If you were in my position what would you ask for?"
The man smiled. He looked more human when he said that and after a second or two he said, "It's about time someone got around to that particular question. So here's the deal. You don't want energy or even faster than light travel. You want communications technology. With that you'll have a chance to find a way out from under our control."
"Let's discuss that then," Alan said.
This story focuses on a few things that I think a lot of science fiction misses. One of the major ones is that races would never be the same age. If there are aliens they are likely to have been in space a million years as they are to be our age. I find that variation very interesting because when I look at the stars and imagine people different than us.
There is another point in the story. One that's a bit more political. There is a difference between protecting yourself and going out of your way to control someone because they might be dangerous. And I suspect most of us feel very different about the morality of that difference depending on which side of that choice we are on.