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An Update On the Prime Directive

William C. Armstrong is the author of several plays and puzzle books (williamarmstrong.com). J. W. Armstrong works at a large laboratory in Southern California.

Everyone's heard of the Drake equation. It predicts the number of communicative extraterrestrials starting with the number of stars in the galaxy multiplied by increasingly restrictive factors (stars with planets, planets with life, life with intelligence, and so on). Plugging in plausible factors, there should be at least one--probably many more than one--ETs for humanity to communicate with.
And so it turned out to be.
First Contact, however, was not as expected. No flying saucers or anthropomorphic robots. No ambulatory carnivorous vegetables or giant war machines. No booming radio signals with information-rich modulation.
The reality was less dramatic: ET sent a text message.
The message was simultaneously transmitted to every mobile phone on Earth. It was a software licensing agreement--and an extortion note.
We pieced together events quickly. Aliens had detected Earth's leakage radio radiation from a range of tens of light years. They assessed our technology and transmitted back a shower of autonomous cyberworms in the hope that one would be received. One was--inadvertently plucked from the aether during a routine radio astronomical observation. The worm commandeered the telescope, made copies of itself, and infected the internet. After establishing itself, the worm sent that First Contact text.
The communication was from beings calling themselves the Karg. The message asserted that reception of their signal granted a license for the cyberworm to run on Earth's computer systems. Humans further agreed the worm could use Earth's computing power to mine a specified quantity of zot, the galactic crypto-specie used as payment in interstellar trade in ideas and technologies. The computed results--the zot--were to be promptly transmitted to the Karg (radio link parameters specified in Appendix A of the license agreement).
The message noted the worm had been throttled to use only a fraction of Earth's computing power--just enough for the stipulated zot production rate. This would continue if humanity complied. In the unfortunate case that humans did not comply, the worm would erase all of Earth's digital information, certainly resulting in the demise of the world economy and probably human civilization.
There were varied reactions.
Cynics dismissed the worm as a hoax. Mountebanks, self-certifying as experts on alien psychology, overwhelmed TV chat-shows with sophistry. Ecologists lamented zot mining's environmental cost. Moralists scolded that this alien exploitation was no different from what we do to each other.
Realists mused that interstellar war was economically practical after all.
Having little choice, humanity complied. The "Appendix A" communications capability was built, zot mining commenced and results were transmitted. The worm was satisfied that the "agreement" was being honored.
Secretly, of course, humankind worked on countermeasures. Computer scientists reverse-engineered the worm's code and confirmed that it was not truly intelligent: it was dangerous, but only capable of supervising zot mining and, potentially, "compliance enforcement." Engineers devised strategies for its safe eradication. Physicists reprogrammed massively-parallel DNA computers--which for various (mostly military) reasons had been kept secret, isolated from any network and unknown to the worm--for zot mining. Using them humanity quickly ran a zot surplus and trickle-fed the right amount to the unsuspecting worm to preserve Earth's conventional network capability.
Also, since the meek had not yet inherited the Earth, plans were developed to counterattack the Karg with our own malicious code, to be innocently attached to the zot-transmissions.
Concurrently humanity gathered information. Cautiously, using telescopes air-gapped from any network, we searched for and found signals from many other ETs. Some communications involved ideas, trade, and technology. Most, though, were Karg-style cyberworm attacks--or advertisements for cyberworm extermination services. None of the communications questioned the ethics.
It became clear the interstellar economy is principally based on extortion--and it's every civilization for itself.
Interspersed in this galactic Darwinism, however, some alien messages contained news and gossip. One item was immediately relevant: an obituary for the Karg. Karg civilization had gone dark decades ago (lightspeed being what it is, the event was only recently noted). The speculated cause was greed: ecological collapse due to excessive zot mining. There were no mourners.
Humanity thus found itself in the awkward situation of being extorted by a scrap of computer code, acting on behalf of aliens we were planning to attack, but who now no longer existed.
In any event--and after a lengthy discussion about whether this was akin to playing Russian roulette--computer engineers proceeded with the Karg worm extermination plan. It was a touch-and-go 24 hours, but the worm and its copies were successfully eradicated with minimal loss to data and network function. We then used zot to purchase the solution to several math, physics, and engineering problems that other ETs had advertised for sale (recognizing that speed-of-light limitations meant the answers would not come for decades). Simultaneously humankind transmitted to all ETs the story of our conflict with the Karg (without mentioning our counterattack code)--along with selected elements of human cultural and scientific knowledge. This was not completely altruistic. We'd been burned, but we wanted to appear to be taking the high road. The goal was to project that humans were Mr. Nice Guy--friendly and trustworthy new members of the galactic community.
In parallel with this charm offensive we also sequestered, in the most secure vault imaginable, the code we had developed to counterattack the Karg. It is really very clever, very effective, very malicious code. It might be the most formidable weapon ever devised, capable of turning any technological civilization receiving it into gray goo. Best kept secret, best locked away, and best never used.
Unless, of course, the Mr. Nice Guy thing doesn't work out.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, November 30th, 2021

Author Comments

The original version of this story involved aliens offended by Earth's leakage radio radiation--in their view, sort of like shouting in church. They sent robot emissaries to Earth for heavy-handed enforcement of "galactic norms." Difficulties (cost and speed of interstellar travel and inconsistencies with aliens ultimately using radio--objectionable, for them--to communicate with humans) caused us to rethink First Contact, however. Recent human events (cyberwarfare, corporate ransoms, cryptocurrency to pay ransoms, the ecological costs of crypto-mining) also influenced the story structure. At one point we realized that interstellar war, based on remotely commandeering a target planet's own resources to finance the war and pay the tribute (with no material object having to travel between stars), might actually be economic; the story evolved from there.

- William C. Armstrong and J. W. Armstrong
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