The premise was that the earth was about to be destroyed, and some alien race could only save one species. Much to the chagrin of the humans, they saved the most intelligent species which turned out to be dolphins. It's not The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which is everybody's first suggestion. It's not Rescue Party by Arthur Clarke, either.
Could it be one of John Varley's Eight Worlds stories? Aliens almost destroy humanity because they recognize dolphins and whales as intelligent but humans as vermin.
Described at length in The Ophiuchi Hotline, the Invaders are inhabitants of gas-giant planets like Jupiter. They transcend the limits of four-dimensional spacetime and can manipulate time and space at will. They classify living beings in one of three categories: those such as themselves, who arise in gas giant planets everywhere, cetaceans such as dolphins and whales, and vermin, the last category including all sentient beings other than Invaders and cetaceans.
The Invasion of Earth was carried out to protect cetaceans from the effects of human civilization. Although no humans were directly killed, billions died as the Invaders dismantled all the infrastructure needed to support human civilization on Earth. The human population remaining on Earth after the Invasion is about the same as in prehistory, living in tribes without access to technology. This is a scenario that has been played out for millions of years across the galaxy. Inevitably the human species will be forced out of the Solar System altogether, to live between the stars where other displaced intelligences are already in residence.
They were coming.
I woke up knowing that, just as I knew they wouldn't take me. There are many things in my life I am ashamed of. They might take Laura, though. She's the one truly good person I know. I nudged her awake.
"I had the strangest dream," she said, sleepily brushing the hair from her face.
"I know," I said. "I had it too."
She looked at me with that half-awake way that she has. I could tell she understood.
"They won't take me either," she said. There was sadness in her voice.
"They might. You've never hurt anyone in your life. You're a kind and good person."
She shook her head. "I'm not good enough," she said. "Not for them."
It was true, and we both knew it in our hearts. They wanted perfection, nothing less.
Laura shivered, and I held her close. The bedroom was dark, and we shared a secret the whole world knew. I listened to the clock tick. There wasn't much to say. We stayed that way all morning, and I didn't go to work.
Everything stopped that day. No wars, no work, no play: it wasn't a day for that. Men and women around the world looked to the stars and into their hearts. They saw the darkness, the short- comings. Each in his or her own way grieved for what man had become. It had come to this — all the promise, all the hopes. There was nothing to do but wait. They were coming.
The dream had a billion voices, and it touched us all. The powerful and the poor got the same message. When night had passed we all under- stood. Earth would have everything, or Earth would have oblivion. We would share the universe in peace and love with a thousand alien races, or we would be destroyed in an instant like an insect or some dread disease. It was their decision to make, and, before they chose, they wanted to examine a sample from our population.
They wanted the best.
It was fair, no one could dispute that. They weren't interested in the ones who held power, or the wisest, or the richest people in the world. They wanted the best that Earth had to offer. Nothing less would do. In the night that they touched our minds, they had also made their decision. There was nothing to do but wait for them to come and to see whom they had chosen.
It wouldn't be the smoothest talker who would speak for Earth. The wisest men wouldn't plead our case before the collective minds of a thousand planets. They weren't interested in words or great deeds. What they wanted was kindness, compassion. I wondered where they'd find it.
They were giving us the best chance that Earth could have. There would be no deceit, no lies, no misunderstandings. They would take two — they had chosen two — and these two would speak for Earth. There would be no others; there would be no second chance. We waited and wondered.
Everything stood still. Even the pulpits were quiet. What we had seen that night had made us look deep into our souls, and we all fell short. We looked at what we could have been and measured it against what we had become. It was a dark pain, and we all felt it.
Then they came.
They came in a silver ship and said nothing; there was nothing to say; they had said it all that night. Silently they went to those they had chosen, and then they left.
They took to the stars two dolphins, a mated pair.
We are waiting for their decision.