A long, long time ago in a timeline far, far, away, but still sort of here. Or maybe a long, long time from now, or maybe right now, however you correlate dates in alternate timeline stuff.
Anyways, whenever and wherever, on what we’d call Earth if we saw it, there were two really, really smart creatures that just kept getting smarter. If we saw them we’d call them whales and squid, and that wouldn’t be inaccurate, but those words don’t mean anything in this timeline, nor do any human words. But because this description of a timeline that humans never existed in is written in English I’ll just call them whales and squid.
Whales on this Earth started out doing pretty much what whales do here. They’re really smart, and they communicate and cooperate, and they live together and learn a lot from one another. But also on this Earth they evolved kind of a trunk type appendage so they can manipulate and grab things. Not sure what evolutionary pressures led to that but I can’t think of a way for whales to do much technology without a manipulator appendate so on this Earth they have that.
While the whale trunk was a strong and capable manipulator, it was tough to do fine work with only one largeish appendage. So for a long while whale technology was limited to fairly large structures of woven kelp, and animal bones, including whales.
Though a seemingly rudimentary framework for technology, whales pushed kelp and bone technology to astonishing limits. Mechanical structures were developed including pulleys, belts, levers, and ratchets. Arbitrary lengths of kelp could be woven into tensile structures providing means to store and preserve live food. Worldwide industry and commerce developed around the whales use of kelp and bones to raise, trade, and consume ocean livestock from kelp to cephalopods. Eventually the abundance of whale resources led to the creation of sophisticated whale culture including art, sports, and entertainment.
Long before the interspecies enlightenment, a common spectator event in whale society were the squid fights. Certain species of cephalopods had been domesticated by whales by breeding for desired characteristics. Though most breeds were selected for food and utility value, some were bred as pets, and some as fighting animals.
Fighting squids were bred to be both ferocious and intelligent. In addition, they were trained extensively to use their own bodies, and a range of provided weapons to injure their opponent in vicious, lethal matches. Though entertainment fighting squids were the most prominent use of aggressive squid breeds, they were also trained as guard and attack animals.
Effective guard and attack squids were essential to maintaining secure whale society. Though whales were powerful and very robust creatures, their ocean still contained many dangers. Sharks and lesser aquatic mammals posed an ever present threat to whales, though a healthy whale could generally protect themselves against reasonable threats of this nature.
Whale society required the use of powerful domesticated squid protectors in their struggle against squid society.
Squids on this Earth started out doing pretty much what squids do here. They’re really smart, extremely wily and clever, but they don’t live very long or have much of a social instinct. But on this Earth a species of cephalopods evolved the capability to kind of care about each other and they started hanging out in cooperative groups that learned to communicate danger and resources. So they got eaten a lot less and evolved a longer lifespan than most cephalopods.
Squid life was never easy, and even as a budding society they faced ever present existential threats. But squids minds are pretty amazing and once they learned to share what worked and didn’t work it wasn’t long before squids learned technological tricks that started blowing even the most proficient whale bone-kelp smith’s minds.
Squids mastered kelp and bone to a much finer degree than even whale masters. They could assemble complex, functional clockwork mechanisms from sculpted fish bones, coral, and shells. But they were curious, observant, and fearless to their individual detriment, but a lot of squids trying a lot of things and sharing the results led to an explosion in their technological capability. They learned to concentrate and mix substances to create a self-hardening, cement like material they could use to construct structures no other creature could penetrate. They utilized gas generating microbes to generate power by harnessing buoyancy as a sort of analog to steam power. They even experimented with long range acoustic communication systems, but that created some problems.
Squid society existed in a microcosm for a long time. The cooperative squid species was native to a small gulf area that was unattractive and largely inaccessible to whale society. They were aware of large aquatic mammals, but had never interacted directly or even been observed by a civilized whale.
Squid acoustic detection systems had revealed a complex ocean full of strange sounds from unknown creatures. They were believed to be aquatic mammals, and some squids suggested the communications indicated an intelligent society, but many dismissed the idea. Even so long range acoustic transmission research was strictly banned until more was known about the wider ocean.
By that time, squid society had developed extremely effective hunting tools and techniques, such that they had no trouble bringing down an aquatic mammal the size of whale, provided it was alone and the squids were prepared.
So eventually the curious squids finally agreed to send an expedition beyond the gulf with an acoustic transmission device. With the intent of using it to re-broadcast some of the recorded acoustic sounds, and see what happens. The assumption was at worst it wouldn’t work at all, and at best they might have figured out a great new way to bait aquatic mammals and they’d all go home with some fresh carcasses to share.
The outcome of the expedition is only known through the dying testament of the only survivor. In which he described a vast army of whales that carried giant kelp nets and bone spears. This single event was the essential catalyst of all future civilization on this Earth.
Predictably the squids freaked out and became psychotically militant for 100 generations or so. The reports of subsequent reconnaissance missions into whale society revealed a nightmare world of squid being bought, sold, eaten alive, worked to death then eaten, experimented on then eaten, killed by another squid and then eaten, or even trained to kill other squids at their whale master’s command, and then still eaten.
They aggressively expanded within and then far beyond their gulf. They developed long range communications undetectable to whales, built incredible weapons and defenses, and even began a program to breed and train aquatic mammals, including whales as war animals.
It was open interspecies warfare for about 1000 years. Both species killed one another with abandon. And occasionally one side or the other would marshal an unimaginably massive force with the intent of finally ending the threat the other species posed. But that always ended with lots of dead squid and whales, but still plenty more live squid and whales with even more apparent reason to hate and fear one another.
It is unclear how the interspecies enlightenment began, but the accepted apocryphal account is that two lost juvenile whales were met by a remote tribe of squid society that had been out of contact for several generations and had lost a cultural memory of the species wars. They tribe accepted the whales as members and taught them squid ways and lived harmoniously for years. The story tells that one day the tribe heard a skirmish between squid and whales and some went to investigate.
The tribesmen, a whale and four squids, were seen and attacked by both sides, each thinking they were an attempt to flank the others.
Then this Earth timeline splits again. In the nice timeline, the skirmishers see the whale and squid tribesmen defending one another and it stops the battle. Then they find out about the whale-squid tribe and everyone is inspired and slowly but surely both societies change and yada yada yada you got your happy whale-squid planet.
In the regular timeline all the tribesmen were killed immediately. The skirmishers understood the whale and squid tribesmen were defending one another but they were disgusted by it and considered them traitors to their species.
The tribe later discovered their dead, and went to find out what the hell, and found a world where whales and squids hated each other.
Well the tribe was a tribe, and they said screw both these idiotic species for messing with our tribe, so the whale-squid tribe set out teach whales and squids you don’t mess with the whale-squid tribe.
It took the whale-squid tribe a while to catch up both in population and technology, but they had some willing converts from both species that helped them get started. And most importantly they had both whales and squids, and whale and squid technology, and new and interesting intersections and synergies with whales and squids and whale and squid technology. The whale-squid tribe deployed increasingly overwhelming force against remaining whale society and squid society. Though the war between whales and squids had raged for a 1000 years, it took less than 100 for the whale-squid tribe to end the interspecies war and annihilate any semblance of the global powers that once struggled for dominance.
After that things went a lot like human civilization. The whale-squid tribe only remained unified as long as their was a whale and squid society to fight against. After they ran out of common enemies they just became whale-squid society and started dividing along all the other stupid lines people find to divide over. They have regional differences, biological distinctions, even identity politics, which is super weird with two entire species. It’s pretty stupid, but they do have but way cooler movies and TV because it’s not all from one species perspective.
The space program was pretty interesting. They never had combustion but they started with high atmospheric balloons and eventually were able to use a combination of buoyant lift and rotational launch mechanisms to deploy small vessels to orbit, which could then use cold gas thrust and slow aerobraking to deorbit. Whales obviously never saddled up but squid could basically pack themselves into a padded bag with a water circulation system and withstand upwards of 30G’s.
Interesting footnote, the aliens in Star Trek IV weren’t aliens, they were timeline-jumpers from the nicer whale-squid timeline where they all got along better. The ship was broadcasting looking for whales or squids, so the crew could have saved a lot of trouble building that giant whale tank by just taking a few squid back instead.