Life Probe — An Excerpt
The Makers had never heard of Homo sapiens Terra, nor would they have been particularly impressed if they had. By their standards, mankind had little to brag about. The Makers' cities were old when Australopithecus first ventured out onto the plains of Africa. By the time Homo Erectus was lord of the Earth, they had touched each of the twelve planets that circled their KO sun.
Individually, Makers were long lived, industrious, and generally content. Their population was stabilized at an easily supported fifty billion and war was an ancient nightmare not discussed in polite company. So when the Makers came to the limits of their stellar system, it was with a sense of adventure that they prepared to venture out into the great blackness beyond.
The first ships to leave the Maker sun were 'slowboats', huge vessels that took a lifetime to visit the nearer stars. After three dozen such ventures, the Makers found they had made two important discoveries.
The first was that life is pervasive throughout the universe. Nearly every stellar system studied had a planet in the temperate zone where water is liquid. Such worlds were found to be teeming with life. More exciting to the Maker scientists, on twelve percent of the worlds visited, evolutionary pressures had led to the development of intelligence. Two were the homes of civilizations nearly as advanced as the Makers' own.
The second great intellectual discovery was the realization that the Galaxy is a very large place, much too large to explored by slowboat. So, in a spirit of curiosity more than anything else, the Makers set out to circumvent the one thing that retarded their progress. They began searching for a means to exceed the speed of light A million years of scientific endeavor had taught them that the first step in any new project is to develop a rational theory of the phenomenon to be studied. And the Makers, being who they were, didn't stop when they had one theory of how faster-than-light might be achieved.
They developed two.
Each was supported by an impressive body of experimental evidence and astronomical observation. Each should have resulted in the development of an FTL drive. Yet every effort for a hundred thousand years ended in failure.
There is a limit to the quantity of resources any civilization can divert to satisfy an itch of its curiosity bump. The FTL program had long since passed the point of economic viability. Yet the effort continued apace. For while the Makers were mounting their assault on the light barrier, they found a more compelling reason than mere curiosity to break free of their prison
Their stellar system was beginning to run low on the raw materials Maker civilization needed to sustain itself.
The first signs were barely noticeable, even to the economists who kept careful watch over such things. But eventually curves could be projected far enough into the future to foretell a time when civilization must inevitably collapse of resource starvation. To avert catastrophe the Makers would have to obtain an infusion of new resources, either by importing raw materials from nearby stars or else transplanting their civilization to virgin territory.
Unfortunately, both options required a working faster-than-light drive. The frustrated scientists redoubled their efforts. It wasn't until another hundred millennia had passed that a Maker philosopher began to wonder if they were asking the right questions. The Great Thinker had dedicated his life to the study of the years immediately following the slowboats' return from the stars. He noted that Maker science had taken great intuitive leaps in those years. The old records told of many cases where the combined knowledge of two races had led to discoveries unsuspected by either.
His questions were as fundamental as they were simple: "Could it be that our concepts of how FTL may be achieved are wrong? Is the failure to break the light barrier simply a matter of having missed the obvious? If so, might not some other civilization have avoided our error and found the true path to FTL?"
Once the questions were asked, they could not be ignored. A program was immediately begun to provide an answer. At first it was a minor adjunct to the FTL research project. But as answers kept coming up negative, as each promising avenue of approach turned out to be a. dead end, the program to probe the knowledge of alien civilizations grew.
By the time humanity discovered agriculture, it was all the program there was...