Once upon a time the People of the United States of America Amended their Constitution. The Amendment simply stated, “Personhood shall be recognized as beginning at conception.” About a week later, the Invasion of the Nice Ones began, but no-one realized the connection until years afterward.
It started with a radio message in plain English:
“Hello to the people of the United States of America. About four thousand Earth-years ago our ancestors began a multi-generation journey to this star system. Due to the general rarity of intelligent life, it is our custom to assume that each such species has an automatic claim on the star system where it evolved. We call ourselves a name that translates as “Nice Ones”, and we did not know this star system was occupied until we arrived, five hundred years ago.
“This left us with a dilemma. We could not ethically just take some of your system’s resources to refit our vessel for another long journey. But also we could not ask permission to take resources, because your species was not culturally sophisticated enough for a peaceful association with us. The only nice thing we could do was wait, and subsist on supplies obtained from the stellar wind, which normally flows out to distant space, wastefully.
“In recent decades it occurred to us that we might be able to refit in a nonstandard way. Even though your world is still politically divided into many competing nations, some of them control significant Earthly resources. We could perhaps trade with one of them for the resources we need, without impinging upon your species’ overall ownership of this star system, or expecting multiple nations to endlessly debate trading terms.
“Of the larger Earthly nations, Brazil is too prejudiced in its dealings with members of its own population; China is too prejudiced in its dealings with outsiders–and we are significantly non-human. Russia is too full of political corruption for fair trading. Canada and Australia are not independent enough from England. This leaves the United States.
“We applaud the United States for its Constitution, which does not require persons to be human. Some of us are studying your immigration policies….”
The alien multigeneration ship was a hollowed-out asteroid, roughly two miles in diameter, orbiting along an inclined path between Venus and Earth. It had been observed years earlier by astronomers seeking potential planet-colliders, and had been identified as not-a-threat. In that aspect of “threat” they were certainly correct. In other terms, though … the military definition started with the fact that the aliens had been surreptitiously observing Earthlings for five hundred years, closely enough to learn perfect English. How had they done that? On the other hand, if they had managed to do it without leaving any significant trace, and certainly could have stomped the technologically defenseless Earthlings when they first arrived, perhaps they really were Nice Ones.
The materials desired by the aliens consisted mostly of water and ammonia. While their life-support system was fully “closed”, it wasn’t perfectly sealed, and oxygen and nitrogen gases tended to leak, slowly, but to an amount that added up significantly across thousands of years. The best long-term form of storage, to replace the leakage, was not as compressed gas, but as stable chemical compounds, like ordinary water. Or, since hydrogen in the form of “deuterium” was an excellent nuclear fuel, the oxygen and nitrogen could be stored as frozen “heavy water” and “heavy ammonia”. Deuterium was readily extracted from the solar wind, but oxygen and nitrogen were much rarer. In five centuries they had barely replenished five percent of their storage tanks; the critical gases were being gathered only slightly faster than they leaked.
Exactly one thing was offered in trade. “Too much of what we might offer could be too easily abused. We are well aware of how your species has turned almost every invention into a weapon. We expect you to abuse these Precision Fusion Reactors, also, but by the time you Americans manage it, you won’t be far-enough ahead of other nations for it to make a difference. Also, we must decline any other significant degree of interaction between our species, to prevent trifles of knowledge from getting loose, that you would then mis-use. We must apologize for taking this stand, but we believe our own physical security depends on it as much as yours.”
It is possible that those statements prevented certain jealous nations from starting World War III.
A largish space ship left the alien asteroid, and made a one-way trip to Cape Canaveral, splashing down as a burned-up hulk, useless for reverse-engineering. Its cargo was well-protected, however. The deal required the Americans to use all of the just-shipped reactors to make rocket fuel, for sending supplies to the Nice Ones. Afterward the reactors could be used for any other purpose, and instructions for making more would be delivered, by radio, so the whole world would have it equally.
One of those fusion reactors fit on a table-top and produced about seventy kilowatts of power, and no dangerous radiation. The average house in America needed twenty to forty kilowatts of power. In some nations, seventy kilowatts could power an entire village. Each reactor was spherical in shape, and inside was a “plus-sign” structure, of four short particle accelerators.
With extreme precision and accuracy, four deuterons were simultaneously collided at just the right speed to form a nucleus of beryllium-8, which would promptly split into two “alpha particles” with a lot of kinetic energy–and no dangerous gamma rays, exactly as advertised. The collision was just unbalanced enough to influence the destinations of the resulting alpha particles, and allowed, ten quadrillion times per second, four more deuterons to be collided at the exact same location, then four more, … yielding a fairly continuous energy output of fast alpha particles. Other parts of the spherical device gathered that energy and made it available as electricity. Note that a mere two grams of mass of deuterium was sufficient fuel to run one Precision Fusion Reactor for six months….
The key to their precision was the fact that the particle accelerators were nanotechnology constructs; the “tubes” through with the deuterons were accelerated were extremely small, and the “mouths” of those tubes were very close to the collision site, which was directly influenced by the aiming fields. The four deuterons basically had zero chance of failing to fuse.
Nuclear fusion enabled the very cheap manufacture of ordinary rocket fuel. What does it matter if, formerly, 90% of the cost of a rocket was its fuel, when now a ton of fuel cost a couple bucks to make? The Americans built an assembly line and launched ten thousand rocket-loads of water and ammonia, to resupply the alien asteroid. Well, all the rockets really needed to do was push their payloads into Low Earth Orbit and return to be launched again; the Nice Ones had some fusion-powered tugs for collecting the shipments.
The Precision Fusion Reactors, along with complete plans for making more, were Paid For, In Full. The world found it quite interesting how rapidly the Americans stopped launching rockets–a potential military threat!–when they decided they would rather be using the already-existing reactors for other things.
Ponderously, but with gradually increasing speed, the alien asteroid adjusted its orbit. It initially relied on interactions with the Sun’s magnetosphere, but it also maneuvered more deeply into its gravity well, and applied fusion thrust at the most effective times. After making five passes across a decade, it finally acquired enough speed to leave the Solar System.
But that’s not the end of the story. Remember the possibility of immigrants? The Americans welcomed the idea with open arms, hoping to learn much from those immigrants, and were disappointed in a most unusual way. The Nice Ones stated that they wanted to be sure their emigres were psychologically prepared for the event, and that they would be socially compatible with American customs. None would be leaving their vessel until it was on the final trajectory toward the stars.
Well, what actually left the alien asteroid was rather small. It looked like it might hold two humans if they liked each other a lot. When it screamed its way through the Earth’s atmosphere, much of it ablated away. Then a large parachute popped out, and it finally splashed down into the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
It was a sterile package containing fertilized and frozen translucent eggs, ten thousand of them for a robust gene pool, with instructions, and a jar of special ointment. The instructions were very informative about the compatibility of Earthly life and unEarthly life. Centuries earlier the Nice Ones had sent probes to study Earth’s biology. Plus, they had occasional communication with other multi-generation ships that had gone to other star systems. DNA-based life was common; the panspermia hypothesis was fact.
The key data item: It was generally possible for an organism from one Earth-like world to survive on another. Nevertheless, xenobiologists immediately howled with dismay. Thanks to the Personhood Amendment, none of the eggs could be dissected. All were legal persons!
Almost as immediately, there was debate over how many of the eggs to process. There were, after all, enough science fiction horror stories about just one alien being on the loose, to make humans cautious about hatching ten thousand of them at once. But, weren’t these supposed to grow to accept American customs? In that respect, raising people from eggs made a lot of sense–if only there wasn’t some unknown thing, coded in their DNA, that might be triggered and revealed the hard way.
Ten eggs were chosen. The instructions stated that they should hatch underwater, and specified various factors to control, like acidity, salinity, toxicity, etc. Interestingly, ordinary Earthly seawater was just fine.
Being translucent, the eggs were watched closely. Cells divided, and gradually an organism took form. Then each one ate its way out of its shell and began swimming about, looking very much like a tadpole or polliwog, with two eyes, a mouth, and gills. They ate various bacteria in the water, and grew. Then they ate various small multicellular organisms, and grew some more.
The instructions indicated the immigrants needed access to an incline leading to dry land, and, sure enough, the tadpoles began morphing into something resembling frogs, with no tails, and four digits at each extremity, and a single nostril opened up in each face. However, they crawled out of the water, instead of hopped. Their skins dried and hardened somewhat, more toad-like than frog-like, and they didn’t have external ear parts. The instructions indicated that there were two sexes, but the difference wasn’t obvious. Perhaps by chance all the first-chosen eggs were the same sex?
They kept getting bigger. After about a year they were the size of adult cats, and still growing. Omnivorous, their eyes were somewhat widely spaced, not so far as to preclude the good binocular vision needed by predators, but enough to offer most of the wide field of view that is an adaptation of many prey species. They were distinctly diurnal, not nocturnal. They were warm-blooded, helped by a somewhat thick subcutaneous layer of fat, and they were fast enough to catch a live mouse, at least when they were hungry. They willingly but irregularly returned to the water, but were not especially good swimmers. However, they were able to catch an occasional small fish by the “sudden strike” method used by bears on salmon runs. This was interesting because for bears, the technique is learned, while for the immigrants it appeared to be instinctive.
On a number of occasions their internal structures had been scanned via Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, the most harmless way known to humanity. Also, about this time the xenobiologists were finally allowed to take some samples, on the theory that the most-critical cell-differentiation processes had finished, such that removing some cells in places like the arm muscles wouldn’t be detrimental to the future physical development of the organisms. At least one thing was quickly determined: Both sexes were indeed represented in this initial group; six males and four females, basing that on the genetic data in the instructions. Physically, the difference was still far from obvious.
Not long after came the time when the jar of ointment was supposed to be used. The instructions stated that it was basically a sort of pheromone–only a small amount was needed!–that attracted youngsters toward adults, and encouraged learning. On schedule, these youngsters began exhibiting some smarts, and were amenable to training. Their rear legs grew stronger, and they started trying to stand and walk.
By three years after hatching, they were beginning to talk. There was no evidence to support the notion that they might contain hereditary knowledge that was coded in DNA and consciously accessible. They were as ignorant as human toddlers, in other words.
Curiosity they had, but not quite to the same degree as human toddlers. There is a stage in human development known as “the terrible twos”, which didn’t seem to apply to the immigrants (and who were beginning to be called “Nicees”, informal for “Nice Ones”, of course). Nicees were always well-behaved.
These preliminary findings encouraged fifty more of the immigrant eggs to be unfrozen.
A crucial experiment was done when the young Nicees were introduced to some human toddlers. They got along just fine, if you discounted the fact that the toddlers had no previous experience with nonhumans other than cats and dogs, and the Nicees had human adults around for their entire lives. So, when the toddlers poked and prodded the unusual and tough skin texture of the Nicees, it was ignored.
More years passed, and the Nicees continued to learn, and behave nicely. Their level of curiosity appeared to increase, but it was tempered by their nice-ness. For example, a human child would typically open a box and strew its contents all over the floor, while studying them, and then leave. A Nicee with a similar box would examine things carefully, and always neatly return the contents to the box.
It must be noted that these studies of young Nicees were not done in any degree of secrecy. There were whole TV channels devoted to watching their every move. And quite a few human parents began insisting that their children watch those channels, hoping that Nicee behavior might be copied by human offspring. Especially after certain famous corporate leaders began saying how much they looked forward to hiring Nicee employees…..
Meanwhile, evolutionary biologists began tearing their hair out, to explain how such behavior could have evolved. Previously, they had only been tearing their hair out over the problem of what ecological environment could have encouraged the physical development so far observed, for the Nicee species. On Earth, after all, competition resulted in there being a premium for reaching adulthood quickly. Polliwogs became frogs, and frogs were adults. But, according to the data provided, Nicees wouldn’t reach sexual maturity until age ten or so. And that’s where the instructions ended….
Well, ten years passed; the male Nicees still looked indistinguishable from the females. There were a couple of internal organs that differed slightly between the sexes, each with a duct leading to the outside. While both sexes were willing to wear clothing, nudity didn’t influence their behavior. Both sexes began producing the pheromone that had been in the ointment jar, but this also affected their behavior not at all. (It also went unnoticed by human senses, if not human instruments.) Logically, at least that natural pheromone production meant any more Nicees that hatched could be ensured of eventually finding the adult population, no ointment needed.
All during those years the Nicees occasionally went swimming, as previously mentioned. One day one of the females experienced a kind of spasm in shallow water, and suddenly a jellylike mass was floating on the surface, different from normal body waste. But it had an odor that caught the attention of two nearby males. Immediately they moved toward it, raised one leg, and began spraying the mass with another substance, also different from body waste.
When the human researchers arrived at the scene, the Nicees had wandered off, and the humans found that the jellylike mass consisted of over a thousand eggs, all of which had just been freshly fertilized. Some immediately understood what it meant. Some understood it after it was discovered that any given female could produce a batch of eggs every couple of months. Others had to have the problem explained to them….
“Their reproductive biology is based on something known as ‘R strategy’, while we humans use the ‘K strategy’. This means we have few offspring, and give them a lot of early care, while they have many offspring, and provide essentially no early care. In their natural world most of their offspring will die in the wild. But our Personhood Amendment requires us to give all their offspring, produced a thousand at a time, K-strategy care! We are doomed to be overrun with Nicees!”
“Well, we could maybe Amend the Amendment, the way they ended the Prohibition Era.”
“Yeah, with what wording? You can’t insist that early-stage Nicees be declared to be mere animals, while equally- early-stage humans are still declared to be persons. Such prejudice would be reviled the world over, and ignores the scientific facts, also. Quite a few people thought we were idiots to pass that Personhood Amendment in the first place, remember.”
“You know, it occurs to me that the Nicees are nice maybe because they had no compunction against practicing eugenics on themselves, by choosing which offspring to raise.”
“Pay no attention to him. The question of personhood is far more important! What are we going to do???”