The Promise

The one thing that every sentient being in the universe wants is not to be loved, that is too soft an ambition. Some would say it is to be needed.  But it is more than that, it is to be recognised, but recognised by whom? A disembodied consciousness, an embodied but unconscious source of infinite wisdom, or a brother? Well, that is the question.

A star exploded in an arm of a spiral galaxy. The supernova shell spread in perfect symmetry and triggered the formation of many new stars, some of which were just the right size and composition to become yellow suns surrounded by planets.  By the time the universe was half as old again; they had spread out so that, still close in relative terms, none was prominent in the skies of the others.

When a water-covered rocky planet acquires a massive satellite at the time of its formation, the distortion of the crust can start a chain of events which ensures that dry land will not be eroded, but continuously regenerate itself above the oceans. Life may form on any watery planet, but only the presence of land enables the near-miraculous emergence of sentient beings.

 On one such planet of the suns formed by this supernova burst, events had proceeded much further. Here the dominant life form had taken the physical sciences to the point where they had almost complete control over themselves and their environment. But they also knew that some questions were outside the bounds of logic, at least the logic accessible to them, and could never be answered. Above all there was one, ‘What is the meaning of our self-awareness?’  Does it, in any sense, come from outside ourselves? For a civilisation long face-to-face with endlessness it may be that hope depended on this question remaining unanswered.  That at least is what the wisest of them feared. The possibility that it might be resolved by meeting other self-aware beings filled them with a certain dreadful anticipation. Meanwhile, by introducing into each of their robots a restless illogical element, some hoped that the problem might reformulate itself in answerable form.

All questions of morality and what had once been called religion resolved themselves to this: what uses are you making of the gifts that have been given you? Mind-reading, long-anticipated, but never achieved, had become irrelevant. Each being could assess, from the briefest of observations, the richness of another’s inner life.  This quality, which they called the intensity-of-existence, was perceived in an almost visual way, as space, conscious space. Something that could be called bigness-of-spirit became almost tangible to them, and with this perception of the qualities of their fellows, the emotion of envy ceased to exist. Hand-in-hand with the departure of envy, another emotion also disappeared; the crippling weight of guilt and its twin sister, regret, were unknown.

They did not avoid risk, although they did not encourage it. But situations inevitably arose when the life of one person or group must needs be balanced against that of another. It was here that decisions were made by comparing the sum of the intensity of existence of each group. None could willingly kill another. Should it become avoidable, the imperative was that the outcome be the positive choice of the unfortunate party. Should the intensity of existence of a person or group fall to such a low level that their lives seemed to them to be purposeless, it was accepted such individuals would not wish to continue their existence

It was in fact due to such experiences, that life was not prolonged by genetic manipulation, a decision based on the sound experience of the results of doing just that. Instead their society aimed to develop the most complete interaction with what they called the ‘what-is’ in order to reach out to ‘what-could-be’, and this had given then an enormously varied culture. But with one strange and, in retrospect, amazing omission.

The step that lead to the discovery of this omission, and the development of the new art-form, was made by the individual who has since been recognized as the greatest scientist the planet, or as they contend ‘The Universe’, has ever known. Her field was in mathematical neuroscience, and her favoured project, the study of the evolution of the innate calculating powers of the brain, given the absence of most forms of precise input to it. But more than that, she was obsessed by the mystery of subjective responses. She learned how to manipulate brain function by external stimuli  to bring about new subjective colour sensations and new responses to perfumes, with the ability to change these at will. Yet this was not the immortal contribution. That awaited the time when she turned her attention to hearing.

It has always been known as ‘The Unrepeatable Experiment’. Her studies of repeated low-frequency stimulation of the part of the brain devoted to calculation and its link to the innate reward system that all brains must have, drew her to certain amazing conclusions.  She proposed to illustrate these in a highly publicized demonstration. What the public saw was this: not the great intricacies of a laboratory, but one woman, holding a short silver tube with some rather obscure levers and pads that seemed to be able to cover or uncover holes. After holding this object in front of the cameras and turning it slowly so that every part could be seen, she raised it to her lips and began to blow across a single open hole.

The instrument emitted a noise that was later described as rather wooden and dull. Then, moving her fingers, she blew again, and this time the sound was different and more compelling. By the fifth stage, the sound quality was electrifying. And then, two more notes (as they were later called) she moved smoothly to the eighth and last. Then she slowly repeated the sequence in reverse order. She did not need to say anything. Everyone had seen the now obvious; but what to call it, and what they chose became, in every language, known as C-major. She had discovered the art of music and delivered it to the Universe.

The scientific tools available to this civilisation had long reached their ultimate level of sensitivity. In particular, they had developed methods for beaming radiation at chosen targets and analysing the reflected responses. In this way  they knew which of the suns, formed in the primordial supernova cloud, possessed  planets similar to their own, although resolution was too low to detect the presence of life. Now they had a new and powerful means in their hands.

If the subjective experience of music could only be triggered by exposure to a compelling musical sequence on an advanced planet, it was virtually certain that truly primitive societies could not possess it. It was also clear that music was a powerful means of communication, though what it communicated remained deeply mysterious. Now they were able to tune their beam-transmitters to examine modulated reflections for musical imprints. Although each experiment lasted the life-spans of several generations, everyone involved in this study understood that the results were not for them, but were a legacy to the future. Data from each planet was analysed, and when none was found to possess an advanced civilisation, the second phase was initiated. Now the probe beam carried musical information tuned to interact with brains based on the only genome known to be possible. As soon as the returning information revealed success, nothing could prevent the inevitable.

The target planet, as it was now called, was almost a twin of their own, with almost the same orbital period around its parent sun and the essential single large satellite. A mission would be mounted to this planet to study all aspects of its inhabitants and its culture and, the greatest consummation, to meet them face-to-face.

For this most exciting possibility it was necessary to study the conditions of its biosphere in every detail. Theory indicated that the responses of the brain to musical prompts revealed the construction of that brain and, at the same time, gave significant information about the biochemical and chemical environment of the planet. A series of modulated beams were transmitted, and the receivers tuned to wait for the long-delayed responses. When the first returns showed the remarkable chemical similarity of the planet to their own world, the construction of the transit vehicle was started.  

 It could have been an unmanned vehicle, but it was not. Wherever space travel has been invented, invariably on water-worlds, nautical terminology accompanies it. The vessel is called a space-ship, and following the development of ships, the control centre is  the bridge and the captain its pilot.

Because the cruising speed to be achieved could not be much more than a quarter that of light, it was fortunate that the target planet was one of the nearest. Nevertheless the crew would be subjected to interrupted suspended animation, and the journey would at most consume one tenth of their biological life-span  But the interruptions: what were these for? What could the crew achieve that the pilot could not? Probably the answer to this was ‘nothing’, but that was not the point. The point was how it would sound when the details of the journey were recalled on return. The triumphs and  surprises. For these immediacies of before and after, only a living crew would suffice, and because of this the analyses of data were made in parallel, the pilot doing his work and the crew doing theirs.

Now the time came when enough was known about the inhabitants of the planet for signals to be transmitted to raise their level of technical development to the point where they  would generate electromagnetic signals, and in doing so, return more concentrated information and halve the time delay in comparison with the existing method.  

Before this took full effect, musical responses started to return. They came slowly at first, showing naivety, gaiety, sadness, then music and religious feeling merged,the major mode slipped into the minor, and the tragic outcome revealed itself. Music and technical progress roped together like two climbers negotiating an icefield. Both would progress, but eventually one must fall, dragging the other down and in a punctuated progression, no matter that either found a temporary handhold, the momentum of the partner wrenched it away. Analysis showed just one course. Before the travellers reached the target, music would be everywhere, but what music! Themes, tunes infecting each mind and reducing its conscious space as surely as a prison cell. Ahead lay a planet populated by a race whose psyche had been fatally undermined, its great potential turned in upon itself.  The longed-for meeting must never take place because? Because what? Because their message was one that could not be with-held or concealed.

Too late they understood what music communicates. It communicates promise.  And the nature of promise is that although it seems to pass from higher to lower, from giver to taker, it passes both ways.  The beings on the target planet would sense it as purpose, their purpose, but now this purpose could never be fulfilled.

The pilot’s instructions were quite clear on one point: contact between the races must be avoided if either might be damaged by it. The compromises required to find a course enabling either landing or fly-past and return had always been very stringent, but that was before the scientific developments that had taken place there. Now the anticipated electromagnetic turbulence around the target planet would reduce the accuracy of data needed to negotiate the fly-past to the level where failure was certain. There was no choice left. The ship must land and take off again after a necessary delay of several years.

 Everything now depended on the crucial analysis, would the new civilisation survive its contact with the old? What it came down to was this. When the two civilisations met, however good their intentions and however skilful their handling of the situation, would it be possible to conceal from them the most destructive message that anyone could bring?

All that you are and all that you think you have done has, in fact, been done by us’. This great civilisation that you are so proud of, Bach, Goethe, Einstein, Titian, Shakespeare. These, and all the others, are nothing more than our creations. Do you think you can cope with that? And together with this, all that you might have been, we have taken away.


As the analysis proceeded, firmed up by data that was being received at an overwhelming rate, it became clear that the answer was No! Not only would the consequences be devastating to the inhabitants of the planet, it was unlikely that the in-comers would survive the encounter. The end might be long-drawn-out, and there would be abundant declarations of good will on both sides, but the outcome was not in doubt; and as this advanced from conjecture to certainty, the question gathered urgency. What should they do? The calculations had been done. The intensity of existence of the small group outweighed that of a whole planet to such an overwhelming degree that the possibility that such a comparison between two civilisations might be invalid was not even considered.

But promise was still promise; something had to be done. Something must be sent, and explanation, consolation, an apology. The task was first given to the most senior among them. He needed to find a voice to communicate, but a single voice was not enough, neither were two or three sufficient, but although it seems most probable that four would bring success,  attempts were also made with five working together, C-minor, G-minor and then, against all expectation, C-major. The work was finished. Their attempts would arrive, find a receiver, fortunate or unfortunate,  an interpreter to decode and pass them on.  

On a planet, known to its inhabitants as ‘Earth’, in what was  called there as the late 20th century, a device called the ‘mobile phone’ appeared. At first this was just a curiosity, but it spread with amazing speed to every so-called corner of the globe. For a few years some resistant pockets remained, but as the device became smaller and more attractive it also became apparently indispensable. Even the hardiest men, who prided themselves on their independence, found that it was the one thing they could not do without.

Then one day every mobile phone belonging to every person on the planet began to ring, but not as they ever had rung before. Instead of the usual insistent call, each phone emitted notes of such sweetness that by the time only the third had sounded, all were transfixed. Sleepers awakened around the world. Mothers took their babies in their arms and gathered children, too young to have phones of their own, around them. Everyone knew, with utter certainty, that they had spent their whole life waiting for this call. And the message itself; silence, but silence of a special kind, an infinite hollow, and within that hollow lay this understanding:

The visitor you have been waiting for is unable to meet you.

No explanation, no excuse, no “he has somewhere better to go”,  just silence.  

Then the waiting: the knowledge that nothing important would ever happen again, and a voice conveying the unspoken thought: “If you do not wish to continue, press ‘next’. and there, in the centre of the key pad, was a button of a strange colour that no one had ever seen before.