SNUFF THE EARTH

A story by

Robert Bennet Ciaffone

 

            I am Vartan, a high-level Galactic Government official of long experience. I was born and raised on Arcturus Planet Four, where the Galactic Administration Headquarters is located. Even so, today's crowd lining the main access route to the Administration Building was one of the largest I have ever seen. As my vehicle carried me to this highly publicized special meeting of the Emerging Civilizations Commission which I chair, some of the people shouted slogans at me like, "Snuff The Earth" and "Destroy Earth." There was even a big banner held up saying, "Goodbye Earth." I was thankful to reach the protective barrier of the building and enter the grounds without suffering anything worse than hearing angry voices.

            The crowd's ire was enflamed by the secret report about Earth, issued by the Galactic Science Panel, that somehow had been leaked to the media. According to the data downloaded from our observation instruments, they have actually reached Probe Stage now, launching satellites traveling beyond their own star system. Less than one lifespan ago Earth's inhabitants were in the Primitive Stage, and incapable of flight even in their own planet's atmosphere. The speed of their progress is absolutely frightening. My own planet took twenty lifespans to go from Primitive to Probe, and nobody in the entire Galaxy has ever done it in less than ten lifespans. I can understand why people are scared, because these technical geniuses are said to be a long way from being sufficiently socialized to become a peaceful member of the Galaxy.

            Today our meeting is among the three permanent members of the commission, lacking the quorum necessary for decisions of first-magnitude importance, as the four members holding revolving seats are still en route from their home star systems. Nevertheless, we have the responsibility of discussing the situation and issuing some kind of statement to the media, as the public is hungry for action to be taken on this matter.

            I greeted my other two commission members, Selona of Centuri and Zurd of Sirius, "I am glad you both arrived here without harm."

            Zurd said, "Yes, the people are really aroused by that report about Earth."

            "Have you any idea who leaked it to the media?" Selona inquired.

I replied, "I have my suspicions, but there is no real information as to where it came from. That leak has really put a lot of pressure on us." The others nodded agreement.

I said, "Let me begin the meeting by reviewing our Galactic Rules on planetary evolution. Once a planet has reached the point where it is capable of manned interstellar flight, it attains Civilized Status, and is entitled to exist. Thereafter, unless it actually makes war on a neighbor, it may not be disturbed in any way. But before the planet has reached Civilized Status, it is to be evaluated in terms of how great a potential threat it is to the interstellar community. If it is an aggressive warlike race, it can and should be snuffed out while that is still possible."

Selona inquired, "How much time do we have before these people advance sufficiently to acquire immunity?"

Before I could answer, Zurd said, "With people who have this kind of technical aptitude, we can't take any chances. Unbelievable as it seems, they acquired a nuclear capability before they even reached their moon. As soon as they use atomic engines to power their spaceships, they can go to another star system."

"That's true," I admitted. "Their rate of progress is unprecedented, so nobody can say how quickly they can complete the final step to interstellar travel."

Zurd went on, "Since a Galactic Assembly is held only a couple of times in a lifespan, because of the extreme distances involved, a decision must be made by us and presented to this current Assembly for approval. To do otherwise would be inexcusable, a dereliction of duty."

Selona said, "We have only the information provided by our observer probe. There have been but two planetary snuffs ordered in the entire history of the Galaxy. Both times, many studies were done by field observers over a long period of time, several generations. We could see clearly what we had to do."

Zurd said, "We have never had a planet like Earth. You cannot dither about this situation." He waved a finger at me in a threatening manner. "If that planet acquires immunity, they can only be snuffed if they actually start a war."

I could see the battle line was already drawn for this important debate. This was upsetting. Public opinion had been so aroused—and the news had been communicated immediately to the other civilizations in the Galaxy—that it was desirable for my commission to reach a unanimous decision, to present a united front in its recommendation. The divergence in opinion among us was obvious before we even did a thorough study of the available information.

I asked, "What evidence shows conclusively that the people of Earth are warlike?" Unfortunately, I did not have time yet to read the entire lengthy report, having been busy making arrangements for the arrival of my other commission members.

Zurd replied, "There have been many detonations of nuclear weapons already. Some have actually been used to obliterate entire cities. Anybody willing to use atomic weapons to kill their own race will have no compunctions about using these weapons against an alien race."

Selona said, "Nearly all of these weapon explosions were tests. Only when the weapons were first made were they used against others. We can assume seeing the horrific results dissuaded the further use of these weapons."

Zurd became agitated. "You can assume no such thing. Why do you think these explosions continue? We only use atomic detonations for destroying asteroids that threaten to crash into a populated planet. These people want to make sure their weapons can cause the maximum amount of destruction to their own kind, in case they go to war."

"You don't know that for sure without a study by field observers," Selona replied.

Zurd said, "We have seen mass killings of civilians by soldiers, and that was very recently. These people are vicious toward their own. Aggression is in their character."

I will do what I have to do, but Zurd's rush to a judgment was not right. I was personally involved in the snuff we had to do a while ago on the Polarans. It was very nasty. Our death weapons did not quite destroy their whole race, but they had to go back to the stone age and start over again. A snuff is serious business, and should never be done unless thorough information shows there is no other choice.

I said to my colleagues, "I would like you to consider the magnitude of doing a snuff."

Zurd shot back, "I would like you to consider the magnitude of not doing a snuff. If these Earth people are allowed to acquire Civilized Status, they can work on their weapon systems with immunity until they are ready to use them. The rest of us are all bound by our agreement to do no research in that direction. If Earth makes a technological breakthrough, it could be the end of our whole Galactic civilization."

This was the concern that had created the huge crowd outside the Administration Building. The media had put forth the specter of future Galactic domination by Earth. This fear could not be called totally irrational, but I felt it to be substantially overblown. Our common Galactic Agreements were made because they were appropriate for the universe as we now know it. If there were a major change in the premises under which they were made, it should be possible to change them. Earth was a scary planet, but it was hard for me to believe that even so talented a race could completely disrupt the entire Galaxy.

Selona said, "There is some promise of social improvement by the Earth people. They have a planetary government."

Zurd said, "A real government has power. It can establish order, enforce commands. All they have now is an organization. Earth still has mass killings, even wars." And then Zurd looked directly at Selona, and said, "You are very defensive about these Earth people. Don't let the fact that they look a lot like your own race of Centurians affect your judgment."

From the pictures I had seen, there was an uncanny resemblance between the two peoples, possibly as a result of some common ancestry, as the Centauri star system is the closest populated one to Earth. For example, they even have the Centurion anomaly of five fingers, instead of the standard six. It would be easy to send in Centaurian field observers to blend in with the Earth people and report what individual behavior was like. I am also from a fairly small planet, and have a similar build to them. But even though I have the same basic senses, my facial features are noticeably different from theirs. Zurd is from the other end of the physical spectrum, having the squat body and heavy muscular structure that results from originating on a large planet that possesses a strong gravitational field.

Selona retorted, "You are willing to exterminate a whole planet without even finding out exactly who you are killing. These people have such extraordinary technical skills they might eventually turn out to be a big help to the rest of the Galaxy—if you give them a chance."

Zurd said, "Their amazing scientific advances likely came from a lust to perfect military weapons. Imagine how fast they will hurry to develop interstellar travel when they discover our existence. They might even know already."

Selona said, "I guess they would rush if they found out hotheads like you wanted to exterminate them."

I did not want the meeting to become a clash of personalities. It was time for me to assert my authority as Commission Chair. I said, "We have done all we can do without the other commission members present. This is only a preliminary meeting, to analyze the information and explore how we feel about the situation. We have done that." Then I said, "I want to tell the media that we have discussed the situation, but that no decision will be made without the other members."

Zurd looked at me piercingly. He said, "Vartan, you saw the concern of the people. They are not going to be content with such a noncommittal statement. You need to tell them that a snuff is being considered. That is the only thing you can say to appease them."

I glared at him. "I am not going to say anything that will promote a snuff. I don't want my hands tied. And I want both of you to say nothing about what went on at our commission meeting today."

Zurd got to his feet and said, "I intend to state what my own views are when I'm asked. You can't stop me from doing that." Then he walked out the door.

Selona looked at me and said gravely, "Earth is in trouble."

"Big trouble," I replied. "Real big trouble."

 

            Much as I wanted to sneak away from the Administration Building unnoticed, I was compelled to call a briefing session where the media could ask me about the results of the meeting, even though I had no intention of saying anything committal. When I went into the teleconference room, I was immediately besieged with questions.

            The first thing thrown at me was, "The Sirian says he is in favor of doing a snuff of Earth. What is your opinion?

            So the son-of-a-blob had gone straight to the media after our meeting and put his own spin on it before the Commission Chairman had a chance to make any statement. I could guess what he had said to them. I replied, "I have not taken a position on the matter."

            "We heard there is a strong disagreement on the Commission on what action to take. Is this true?"

            "I'm sorry, but it would be improper for me to discuss positions taken by members in a preliminary hearing."

            "Do you know how the absent commission members feel about the situation?

            "They have all received a copy of the Science Panel's report on Earth, but we have not discussed the material yet."

            "Are these people as warlike as we've been told?"

            "I'm not sure what you've been told, but the report was classified information, so I can't talk about what is in there, even though some of the information has been leaked."

            These media people will continue to ask questions as long as you are there to answer, so I usually leave as soon as someone asks me a dumb one. I've never had to wait very long for this to happen. Some more inquiries were made, and then one which annoyed me a little, as if physical appearance should be a factor in a snuff decision.

            "What do Earth people look like?"

            I answered, "They have two legs, two arms, two eyes, and two ears, just like most Galactics. But their mouths are not as large as the one on the person who leaked that classified information to you." Then I ended the conference and left the room. No doubt I was going to have to keep out of public view until the full committee was able to get together.

 

            The leaked Science Panel report had been quickly transmitted to the entire Galaxy through the wormhole communication routes. In the stretch of time before the Emerging Civilizations Commission met, there were numerous articles and programs about the proposed snuff of Earth. A few of these presentations urged caution and restraint, but the overwhelming majority of them described Earth as a freak of nature, a group of mad geniuses that would try to dominate the Galaxy. The long peace that had become the norm would be over, a new arms race would be forced upon us, and sundry other evils would ensue if Earth were permitted to acquire immunity status. This media barrage had the expected effect. To use an expression that had been coined eons ago, a lynch mob mentality seized the public. In the prior situations where a snuff was being considered, most ordinary citizens had not gotten too worked up one way or the other, and we officials were able to make an objective decision. But Earth was a different story.

 

            When the day for my committee to meet finally arrived, Earth had already undergone a trial by the general public––and been sentenced to death. Naturally, I resolved to be as objective as possible myself, but I knew what kind of pressure the others were facing. Each commission member had home planet opinion to take under consideration, even though they were appointed officials.

            We started out by watching a condensed film clip provided by the Science Panel that showed significant highlights recorded by our observation probe. First came some of Earth's technological achievements; several manned flights to their moon, a research vehicle sent to another planet, a probe that went such a great distance it cleared their star's gravity field. There was no question about the rapid rate of scientific progress.

Then came the scenes demonstrating their aggressive character. A couple of times there was a city incinerated by a nuclear explosion, with our detailed camera work catching individuals with burns so severe their skin had been melted. We saw several scenes with soldiers herding large groups of people into open fields, then opening fire on them and killing everyone. One time women and children were included, with the mothers trying to use their own bodies to shield their terrified little ones from the hail of bullets. When the soldiers finally ceased firing, they carefully inspected every tiny body to make sure all the children were killed. Viewing this horrific behavior in graphic detail had far more emotional impact than simply reading the report, even though we knew the general contents of the film beforehand. Rarely had I seen such a display of barbarism. It was a good thing this inflammatory film had not gotten out to the public.

            After the film, we were emotionally drained, and sat in silence collecting ourselves. Zurd spoke first. "How can any of you see such atrocities and not vote to exterminate these vicious maniacs?"

Selona tried to undo some of the damage done to her cause. She said, "We have seen only the worst of the Earth people in this carefully selected film clip. We should think of Earth as a growing child whose personality has not yet crystallized. The child has an undeniable capacity for evil, but also a great potential for good. To kill this youth so soon, before we know what sort of person it will grow up to be, is surely a cruel and stupid thing to do. A snuff causes many times the pain we have just witnessed."

            Zurd said, "Earth must be destroyed." He was a very direct speaker. "These people are a menace to the rest of the Galaxy. Their technical skill has already put them on the verge of interstellar travel. If we take enough time to observe them to satisfy the procedures we have used in the past, it will be too late. Earth will have immunity, and can pursue weapon-making with impunity until the rest of us are at a disadvantage. It is either us or them, so we must strike while we still have the ability to do so."

            One of the other members inquired, "What makes you think they are on the verge of manned interstellar travel, when they have not yet physically been to other planets in their own star system?"

            Zurd answered, "They have all the elements needed: atomic energy, rocket guidance systems, communication capability, and the know-how to physically handle long periods of weightlessness. There is only one thing to hold them back at this point; incentive. Once they find out there are other habitable worlds and intelligent life, they will harness their enormous energy to reach other stars. In fact, we are not completely sure they are unaware of us right now."

            Much as I dislike Zurd, I have to admit he can sound very persuasive at times. I hoped he would not make too many converts here.

            Our meeting went on and on. Everyone had gotten the chance to fully voice an opinion. I refrained until the end, as befitted the Chair. Finally, it was time for me to speak. I said, "There is a right way and a wrong way to do things. Over many generations we have set up specific standards for doing a snuff. It is such a serious act that it should be done only after thorough field observations of the planet being considered. Not every civilized planet has shown mature behavior from the start. Do not forget a snuff would kill six billion people. I know we have an unusual situation with Earth, but they are not a menace at this point. If they ever do become a menace in the future, later generations can deal with the situation in a suitable way. I hope the impact of public opinion will not stop the members of this committee from acting in a thoughtful and responsible manner. It is simply too early too snuff that planet."

            I hoped my words would have an influence on the commission; it was time to put the question to a vote. Of course, I knew where Zurd and Selona stood, but I was not positive about the other four members. Would the media pressure them into making a bad decision? We voted in order, our positions being openly recorded on a large electronic screen.

            The two known votes of Zurd and Selona came first. The next  two votes were for a snuff, making the tally three to one for death. Only one more vote would doom an entire planet of people! I knew there was no way the Assembly would overrule our commission if we approved a snuff. I held my breath. Then came a vote for life, and another. I let out a sigh of great relief.

My turn came last, so the decisive ballot was in my hands. I know the criteria for carrying out a snuff very well, and Earth did not fully match that profile. I voted for life.

With the voting over, I said to the commission members, "Now it is up to the Galactic Assembly to decide what to do. That body has always supported the decision of the Emerging Civilizations Commission in the past, but this time they are under enormous pressure not to do so. I am sorry to say that the closeness of our vote will aid those who wish to overrule today's majority decision. We will reconvene here when the Assembly is ready to announce what action it has taken on our recommendation." Then I adjourned the meeting.

 

The time had finally come for the decision of the General Assembly to be announced. Our full commission gathered together in the Conference Room to hear the speech—transmitted to the entire Galaxy––about the fate of Earth. I feared the worst. Assembly members were typical politicians. Their number one concern was to be reelected, and public opinion throughout the Galaxy ran strongly in favor of a snuff.

Assembly Chair Betela was the person who was designated to give the presentation on important issues. She was an Arcturan who was very capable. My main hope was that she had been able to work out something reasonable with the Assembly members.

Betela began, "My fellow Galactics. The Assembly has considered the question with great thoroughness of whether a snuff will be conducted of Earth. It is our duty to preserve the peaceful relationship that has existed among all the civilized peoples of the Galaxy for many generations. Sometimes this duty requires us to remove a potential threat to peace, even though a whole planet is forced to suffer."

The tone set by Betela's words confirmed my worst fears. It was evident that she was laying a foundation for the announcement of a decision in favor of death.

She said, " It is our primary responsibility to insure the safety and welfare of the citizens of the Galaxy. The greater good must prevail." Then she uttered the fatal pronouncement, "The Galactic Assembly has authorized a snuff of Earth."

Selona put her head down into her arms, eyes starting to moist with tears. Zurd smacked his large fists several times in a rapid tattoo on the table-top in triumph. Then he initiated a high-six hand smack with each of the other two commission members who had voted for the snuff.

Betela went on with her speech. "It has been necessary for our present Assembly to authorize a snuff in order to be able to deal with any emergency that might arise between Assembly sessions. The rapid pace of technological advances by Earth requires this. We do not have any assurance that Earth will be unable to acquire immunity before the next Assembly session takes place."

I was sad that the process of debating a snuff had become so corrupted, subject to the passions of the moment instead of employing the needed rationality. Where was the sense of fairness? We were going to practically exterminate a whole race because the media had taken the position that would most strongly pander to passion, and the public had bought it. I took in a breath, sighed deeply in disgust, and shook my head.

Then Betela said, "It will not be necessary to carry out the snuff at this time." I perked up at these words. There would be a delay. What was going on here?

She continued, "We are going to send field observers to Earth and monitor their situation closely. A snuff will be carried out whenever a majority of the Emerging Civilizations Commission authorizes it. By giving power to the commission in this manner, but not actually directing them to do a snuff, we will fulfill the need for a flexible response, and still take proper consideration prior to carrying out any drastic action."

Betela had carefully crafted her presentation to make it sound like the Assembly had responded in perfect accordance to public opinion. But in reality, my commission would have the power to control the fate of the Earth! This was an excellent result, surely the best that could have been hoped for under the circumstances. I had to admire Betela's political skill to be able to pull off such an arrangement. Selona reached over and grabbed my arm in relief, and I patted her hand. Zurd became uncharacteristically quiet.

Her speech concluded, "There are four criteria by which Earth will be judged on its social progress. They are first, explosion of nuclear weapons. Second, the waging of wars. Third, the mass execution of people. Fourth, the establishment of an effective planetary government. The Assembly feels we have properly represented the interests of the Galaxy with this decision."

Despite the inflammatory message promoted in the media, The Galactic system of government had worked reasonably well after all. My lack of confidence in it had proved unjustified.

But what of the future? The membership make-up of the Emerging Civilizations Commission is volatile. I am not getting any younger, and the time for my retirement from government service is not far off. The person with the most seniority for taking my place as Commission Chair is Zurd, though fortunately a majority of the commission members must approve him before he can assume that position. For a long period of time it will only take one voting session of the commission in favor of a snuff for it to be carried out, so Earth has a lot of fast shaping up to do if they are to survive. At least we can console ourselves that their fate is to some degree in their own hands.