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Christmas Visit

Floyd L. Wallace ((1915-2004) was a mechanical engineer who took a hiatus during the 1950s to write science fiction. He did quite well, and his short stories appeared regularly in Galaxy Magazine, one of the top sci-fi publications.

In 1961, Wallace published one final novelette and then, for his own reasons, returned to engineering.

Second Landing” is about two aliens who visit earth during the Christmas season and make an effort to convince mankind not to self-destruct.

Probably more fantasy than science fiction.

———

Second Landing

By Floyd Wallace
Published in Amazing Science Fiction Stories, January 1960

Earth was so far away that it wasn’t visible. Even the sun was only a twinkle. But this vast distance did not mean that isolation could endure forever. Instruments within the ship intercepted radio broadcasts and, within the hour, early TV signals.

Machines compiled dictionaries and grammars and began translating the major languages. The history of the planet was tabulated as facts became available.

The course of the ship changed slightly; it was not much out of the way to swing nearer Earth. For days the two within the ship listened and watched with little comment. They had to decide soon.

“We’ve got to make or break,” said the first alien.

“You know what I’m in favor of,” said the second.

“I can guess,” said Ethaniel, who had spoken first. “The place is a complete mess. They’ve never done anything except fight each other — and invent better weapons.”

“It’s not what they’ve done,” said Bal, the second alien. “It’s what they’re going to do, with that big bomb.”

“The more reason for stopping,” said Ethaniel. “The big bomb can destroy them. Without our help they may do just that.”

“I may remind you that in two months twenty-nine days we’re due in Willafours,” said Bal. “Without looking at the charts I can tell you we still have more than a hundred light-years to go.”

“A week,” said Ethaniel. “We can spare a week and still get there on time.”

“A week?” said Bal. “To settle their problems? They’ve had two world wars in one generation and that the third and final one is coming up you can’t help feeling in everything they do.”

“It won’t take much,” said Ethaniel. “The wrong diplomatic move, or a trigger-happy soldier could set it off. And it wouldn’t have to be deliberate. A meteor shower could pass over and their clumsy instruments could interpret it as an all-out enemy attack.”

“Too bad,” said Bal. “We’ll just have to forget there ever was such a planet as Earth.”

“Could you? Forget so many people?”

“I’m doing it,” said Bal. “Just give them a little time and they won’t be here to remind me that I have a conscience.”

“My memory isn’t convenient,” said Ethaniel. “I ask you to look at them.”

Bal rustled, flicking the screen intently. “Very much like ourselves,” he said at last. “A bit shorter perhaps, and most certainly incomplete. Except for the one thing they lack, and that’s quite odd, they seem exactly like us. Is that what you wanted me to say?”

“It is. The fact that they are an incomplete version of ourselves touches me. They actually seem defenseless, though I suppose they’re not.”

“Tough,” said Bal. “Nothing we can do about it.”

“There is. We can give them a week.”

“In a week we can’t negate their entire history. We can’t begin to undo the effect of the big bomb.”

“You can’t tell,” said Ethaniel. “We can look things over.”

“And then what? How much authority do we have?”

“Very little,” conceded Ethaniel. “Two minor officials on the way to Willafours — and we run directly into a problem no one knew existed.”

“And when we get to Willafours we’ll be busy. It will be a long time before anyone comes this way again.”

“A very long time. There’s nothing in this region of space our people want,” said Ethaniel. “And how long can Earth last? Ten years? Even ten months? The tension is building by the hour.”

“What can I say?” said Bal. “I suppose we can stop and look them over. We’re not committing ourselves by looking.”

They went much closer to Earth, not intending to commit themselves. For a day they circled the planet, avoiding radar detection, which for them was not difficult, testing, and sampling.

Finally Ethaniel looked up from the monitor screen. “Any conclusions?”

“What’s there to think? It’s worse than I imagined.”

“In what way?”

“Well, we knew they had the big bomb. Atmospheric analysis showed that as far away as we were.”

“I know.”

“We also knew they could deliver the big bomb, presumably by some sort of aircraft.”

“That was almost a certainty. They’d have no use for the big bomb without aircraft.”

“What’s worse is that I now find they also have missiles, range one thousand miles and upward. They either have or are near a primitive form of space travel.”

“Bad,” said Ethaniel. “Sitting there, wondering when it’s going to hit them. Nervousness could set it off.”

“It could, and the missiles make it worse,” said Bal. “What did you find out at your end?”

“Nothing worthwhile. I was looking at the people while you were investigating their weapons.”

“You must think something.”

“I wish I knew what to think. There’s so little time,” Ethaniel said. “Language isn’t the difficulty. Our machines translate their languages easily and I’ve taken a cram course in two or three of them. But that’s not enough, looking at a few plays, listening to advertisements, music, and news bulletins. I should go down and live among them, read books, talk to scholars, work with them, play.”

“You could do that and you’d really get to know them. But that takes time — and we don’t have it.”

“I realize that.”

“A flat yes or no,” said Bal.

“No. We can’t help them,” said Ethaniel. “There is nothing we can do for them — but we have to try.”

“Sure, I knew it before we started,” said Bal. “It’s happened before. We take the trouble to find out what a people are like and when we can’t help them we feel bad. It’s going to be that way again.” He rose and stretched. “Well, give me an hour to think of some way of going at it.”

It was longer than that before they met again. In the meantime the ship moved much closer to Earth. They no longer needed instruments to see it. The planet revolved outside the visionports. The southern plains were green, coursed with rivers; the oceans were blue; and much of the northern hemisphere was glistening white. Ragged clouds covered the pole, and a dirty pall spread over the mid-regions of the north.

“I haven’t thought of anything brilliant,” said Ethaniel.

“Nor I,” said Bal. “We’re going to have to go down there cold. And it will be cold.”

“Yes. It’s their winter.”

“I did have an idea,” said Bal. “What about going down as supernatural beings?”

“Hardly,” said Ethaniel. “A hundred years ago it might have worked. Today they have satellites. They are not primitives.”

“I suppose you’re right,” said Bal. “I did think we ought to take advantage of our physical differences.”

“If we could I’d be all for it. But these people are rough and desperate. They wouldn’t be fooled by anything that crude.”

“Well, you’re calling it,” said Bal.

“All right,” said Ethaniel. “You take one side and I the other. We’ll tell them bluntly what they’ll have to do if they’re going to survive, how they can keep their planet in one piece so they can live on it.”

“That’ll go over big. Advice is always popular.”

“Can’t help it. That’s all we have time for.”

“Special instructions?”

“None. We leave the ship here and go down in separate landing craft. You can talk with me any time you want to through our communications, but don’t unless you have to.”

“They can’t intercept the beams we use.”

“They can’t, and even if they did they wouldn’t know what to do with our language. I want them to think that we don’t need to talk things over.”

“I get it. Makes us seem better than we are. They think we know exactly what we’re doing even though we don’t.”

“If we’re lucky they’ll think that.”

Bal looked out of the port at the planet below. “It’s going to be cold where I’m going. You too. Sure we don’t want to change our plans and land in the southern hemisphere? It’s summer there.”

“I’m afraid not. The great powers are in the north. They are the ones we have to reach to do the job.”

“Yeah, but I was thinking of that holiday you mentioned. We’ll be running straight into it. That won’t help us any.”

“I know, they don’t like their holidays interrupted. It can’t be helped. We can’t wait until it’s over.”

“I’m aware of that,” said Bal. “Fill me in on that holiday, anything I ought to know. Probably religious in origin. That so?”

“It was religious a long time ago,” said Ethaniel. “I didn’t learn anything exact from radio and TV. Now it seems to be chiefly a time for eating, office parties, and selling merchandise.”

“I see. It has become a business holiday.”

“That’s a good description. I didn’t get as much of it as I ought to have. I was busy studying the people, and they’re hard to pin down.”

“I see. I was thinking there might be some way we could tie ourselves in with this holiday. Make it work for us.”

“If there is I haven’t thought of it.”

“You ought to know. You’re running this one.” Bal looked down at the planet. Clouds were beginning to form at the twilight edge. “I hate to go down and leave the ship up here with no one in it.”

“They can’t touch it. No matter how they develop in the next hundred years they still won’t be able to get in or damage it in any way.”

“It’s myself I’m thinking about. Down there, alone.”

“I’ll be with you. On the other side of the Earth.”

“That’s not very close. I’d like it better if there were someone in the ship to bring it down in a hurry if things get rough. They don’t think much of each other. I don’t imagine they’ll like aliens any better.”

“They may be unfriendly,” Ethaniel acknowledged. Now he switched a monitor screen until he looked at the slope of a mountain. It was snowing and men were cutting small green trees in the snow. “I’ve thought of a trick.”

“If it saves my neck I’m for it.”

“I don’t guarantee anything,” said Ethaniel. “This is what I was thinking of: instead of hiding the ship against the sun where there’s little chance it will be seen, we’ll make sure that they do see it. Let’s take it around to the night side of the planet and light it up.”

“Say, pretty good,” said Bal.

“They can’t imagine that we’d light up an unmanned ship,” said Ethaniel. “Even if the thought should occur to them they’ll have no way of checking it. Also, they won’t be eager to harm us with our ship shining down on them.”

“That’s thinking,” said Bal, moving to the controls. “I’ll move the ship over where they can see it best and then I’ll light it up. I’ll really light it up.”

“Don’t spare power.”

“Don’t worry about that. They’ll see it. Everybody on Earth will see it.” Later, with the ship in position, glowing against the darkness of space, pulsating with light, Bal said: “You know, I feel better about this. We may pull it off. Lighting the ship may be just the help we need.”

“It’s not we who need help, but the people of Earth,” said Ethaniel. “See you in five days.” With that he entered a small landing craft, which left a faintly luminescent trail as it plunged toward Earth. As soon as it was safe to do so, Bal left in another craft, heading for the other side of the planet.

And the spaceship circled Earth, unmanned, blazing and pulsing with light. No star in the winter skies of the planet below could equal it in brilliancy. Once a man-made satellite came near but it was dim and was lost sight of by the people below.

During the day the ship was visible as a bright spot of light. At evening it seemed to burn through the sunset colors.

And the ship circled on, bright, shining, seeming to be a little piece clipped from the center of a star and brought near Earth to illuminate it. Never, or seldom, had Earth seen anything like it.

In five days the two small landing craft that had left it arched up from Earth and joined the orbit of the large ship. The two small craft slid inside the large one and doors closed behind them. In a short time the aliens met again.

“We did it,” said Bal exultantly as he came in. “I don’t know how we did it and I thought we were going to fail but at the last minute they came through.”

Ethaniel smiled. “I’m tired,” he said, rustling.

“Me too, but mostly I’m cold,” said Bal, shivering. “Snow. Nothing but snow wherever I went. Miserable climate. And yet you had me go out walking after that first day.”

“From my own experience it seemed to be a good idea,” said Ethaniel. “If I went out walking one day I noticed that the next day the officials were much more cooperative. If it worked for me I thought it might help you.”

“It did. I don’t know why, but it did,” said Bal. “Anyway, this agreement they made isn’t the best but I think it will keep them from destroying themselves.”

“It’s as much as we can expect,” said Ethaniel. “They may have small wars after this, but never the big one. In fifty or a hundred years we can come back and see how much they’ve learned.”

“I’m not sure I want to,” said Bal. “Say, what’s an angel?”

“Why?”

“When I went out walking people stopped to look. Some knelt in the snow and called me an angel.”

“Something like that happened to me,” said Ethaniel.

“I didn’t get it but I didn’t let it upset me,” said Bal. “I smiled at them and went about my business.” He shivered again. “It was always cold. I walked out, but sometimes I flew back. I hope that was all right.”

In the cabin Bal spread his great wings. Renaissance painters had never seen his like but knew exactly how he looked. In their paintings they had pictured him innumerable times.

“I don’t think it hurt us that you flew,” said Ethaniel. “I did so myself occasionally.”

“But you don’t know what an angel is?”

“No. I didn’t have time to find out. Some creature of their folklore I suppose. You know, except for our wings they’re very much like ourselves. Their legends are bound to resemble ours.”

“Sure,” said Bal. “Anyway, peace on Earth.”

Clear and Concise

Venn diagrams are wonderful things that get straight to the point. God bless Venn diagrams.

Pix o’ the Day

More random photos I’ve taken over the years that still make me smile.

The Questions…

1. Based on studies of collagen in bones, what two present-day bird species are most closely related to Tyrannosaurus rex?

2. More greeting cards are sold at Christmas than at any other holiday. What holiday is in second place?

3. The first six Star Wars films all were released in the same month. Which month?

4. The explorer Ponce de Leon gave Florida its name in 1513. The word comes from the Spanish florido, which means what?

5. The human population of Australia is 24 million. What is the kangaroo population?

The Answers…

1. Chickens and ostriches.

2. Valentine’s Day.

3. The six films of the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy were released in May. The films of the sequel trilogy, under Disney, were released in December.

4. Flowery.

5. About 44 million. The number has doubled in the last six years. The government wants people to eat more kangaroo meat, but most Aussies are turned off by that. They favor programs to sterilize and relocate the animals.

Thoughts du Jour

Unpalatable

To understand why the episode was so unsettling, you have to know that I prefer dry red wine. To me, the concept of sweet wine is simply wrong. In fact, I’m not a sweets person. I rarely eat or drink anything sweet.

Years ago, to lose weight, I switched from beer to wine. I began with Cabernet Sauvignon, then decided Merlot was more to my liking, then found Pinot Noir to be more subtle. Pinot Noir became my beverage of choice.

One evening a few weeks ago, I retrieved a bottle of Pinot Noir from the wine cellar (okay, the garage), popped the cork, poured a glass, and retired to my recliner to reflect upon the events of the day, with thoughts of bonding with Jake over some Combos or peanuts.

I raised the glass of Pinot Noir, took a sip — and recoiled in distress. It wasn’t Pinot Noir at all! It was sweet — alarmingly and cloyingly sweet!

I returned to the kitchen and checked the label on the bottle. Zinfandel. I had purchased a bottle of Zinfandel by mistake. Except for uttering an obscenity, I was speechless.

I took several more sips, but, ultimately, I emptied the rest into the sink. Still stinging, I returned to the wine cellar and retrieved a bottle of actual Pinot Noir.

Verify your purchases, people.

Zinfandel: full-bodied and fruity.

Pioneers

The first living things to go into space were fruit flies. In Feb. 1947, several of the little guys rode a V-2 rocket launched from White Sands Missile Range, the purpose being to study the effects of radiation at high altitudes. The fruit flies were recovered alive and well.

In June 1949, a rhesus monkey named Albert II was sent into space aboard a V-2, shortly after Albert I died when the rocket self-destructed on takeoff. Albert II reached space, but the V-2’s parachute failed, and Albert II died on re-entry.

In July 1951, the Soviet Union sent two dogs, Gypsy and Dezik, into space and returned them safely to earth.

In November 1957, the Soviets put a dog named Laika into orbit aboard Sputnik 2. Unfortunately for Laika, a mutt picked up from the streets of Moscow, it was a one-way trip; at the time, the technology didn’t exist to return a spacecraft from orbit. Laika died of hypothermia.

In October 1963, France sent a cat named Félicette on a suborbital flight aboard a Veronique rocket. Félicette was recovered safely after a 15-minute flight and a descent by parachute.

Thank you for your service.

Grooms and Valets

Friends, I am a relatively intelligent guy, and I consider myself attentive and curious. I am, in fact, an information junkie. I’m a major fan of the daily parade of facts and trivia you find online and in the media.

And I regularly pick up information that I’m genuinely surprised is new to me. How, I wonder, did I miss that?

I recently learned, for example, that for several centuries, every European monarch had a personal attendant in charge of overseeing the royal diet, attire, and toilet. Some of the courtiers in question also arranged for ladies to visit the king’s chambers.

Mainly, however, the attendant monitored the king’s meals, saw to his clothing and laundry, and, when the king went to the royal toilet, was available to make conversation and assist with hygiene as needed. In that regard, the degree of assistance provided is said to have varied from country to country and from king to king.

In France, the attendant was called the Valet de Chambre. In England, he was the Groom of the Stool. The positions were in existence from the early 1500s to about 1900.

Naturally, only noblemen and royal insiders were eligible for the job — which, despite certain unpleasant aspects, was highly coveted. Being in intimate contact with the monarchs, the attendants often gained the royal confidence, and many became highly influential at court.

How in the world did I miss that?

Sir William Compton (1482-1528), Groom of the Stool to Henry VIII.

Quotes o’ the Day

In America, anybody can be president. That’s one of the risks you take.

Adlai Stevenson

###

What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

###

Life is too short to learn German.

Oscar Wilde

###

All generalizations are false, including this one.

Mark Twain

Stevenson
Twain

All the Answers

I ran across a number of online comments about the Robert Sheckley short story below, and the opinions differed starkly. Some people called it ironic, masterful, and funny. Others said it was irritating, redundant, and vague.

I have to admit, “Ask a Foolish Question” is not as buttoned-up and satisfying as most Sheckley stories. His “Beside Still Waters” and “Protection” are much better. Sheckley was so good, he set a high bar, even for his own work.

My opinion: the story is interesting, thoughtful, and worth your time.

———

Ask A Foolish Question

By Robert Sheckley
Published in Science Fiction Stories, Issue #1, 1953.

Answerer was built to last as long as was necessary — which was quite long, as some races judge time, and not long at all, according to others. But to Answerer, it was just long enough.

As to size, Answerer was large to some and small to others. He could be viewed as complex, although some believed that he was really very simple.

Answerer knew that he was as he should be. Above and beyond all else, he was The Answerer. He Knew.

Of the race that built him, the less said the better. They also Knew, and never said whether they found the knowledge pleasant.

They built Answerer as a service to less-sophisticated races, and departed in a unique manner. Where they went only Answerer knows.

Because Answerer knows everything.

Upon his planet, circling his sun, Answerer sat. Duration continued, long, as some judge duration, short as others judge it. But as it should be, to Answerer.

Within him were the Answers. He knew the nature of things, and why things are as they are, and what they are, and what it all means.

Answerer could answer anything, provided it was a legitimate question. And he wanted to! He was eager to!

How else should an Answerer be?

What else should an Answerer do?

So he waited for creatures to come and ask.

———

“How do you feel, sir?” Morran asked, floating gently over to the old man.

“Better,” Lingman said, trying to smile. No-weight was a vast relief. Even though Morran had expended an enormous amount of fuel, getting into space under minimum acceleration, Lingman’s feeble heart hadn’t liked it. Lingman’s heart had balked and sulked, pounded angrily against the brittle rib-case, hesitated and sped up. It seemed for a time as though Lingman’s heart was going to stop, out of sheer pique.

But no-weight was a vast relief, and the feeble heart was going again.

Morran had no such problems. His strong body was built for strain and stress. He wouldn’t experience them on this trip, not if he expected old Lingman to live.

“I’m going to live,” Lingman muttered, in answer to the unspoken question. “Long enough to find out.” Morran touched the controls, and the ship slipped into sub-space like an eel into oil.

“We’ll find out,” Morran murmured. He helped the old man unstrap himself. “We’re going to find the Answerer!”

Lingman nodded at his young partner. They had been reassuring themselves for years. Originally it had been Lingman’s project. Then Morran, graduating from Cal Tech, had joined him. Together they had traced the rumors across the solar system. The legends of an ancient humanoid race who had known the answer to all things, and who had built Answerer and departed.

“Think of it,” Morran said. “The answer to everything!” A physicist, Morran had many questions to ask Answerer. The expanding universe; the binding force of atomic nuclei; novae and supernovae; planetary formation; red shift, relativity and a thousand others.

“Yes,” Lingman said. He pulled himself to the vision plate and looked out on the bleak prairie of the illusory sub-space. He was a biologist and an old man. He had two questions.

What is life?

What is death?

———

After a particularly-long period of hunting purple, Lek and his friends gathered to talk. Purple always ran thin in the neighborhood of multiple-cluster stars — why, no one knew — so talk was definitely in order.

“Do you know,” Lek said, “I think I’ll hunt up this Answerer.” Lek spoke the Ollgrat language now, the language of imminent decision.

“Why?” Ilm asked him, in the Hvest tongue of light banter. “Why do you want to know things? Isn’t the job of gathering purple enough for you?”

“No,” Lek said, still speaking the language of imminent decision. “It is not.” The great job of Lek and his kind was the gathering of purple. They found purple embedded in many parts of the fabric of space, minute quantities of it. Slowly, they were building a huge mound of it. What the mound was for, no one knew.

“I suppose you’ll ask him what purple is?” Ilm asked, pushing a star out of his way and lying down.

“I will,” Lek said. “We have continued in ignorance too long. We must know the true nature of purple, and its meaning in the scheme of things. We must know why it governs our lives.” For this speech Lek switched to Ilgret, the language of incipient-knowledge.

Ilm and the others didn’t try to argue, even in the tongue of arguments. They knew that the knowledge was important. Ever since the dawn of time, Lek, Ilm and the others had gathered purple. Now it was time to know the ultimate answers to the universe — what purple was, and what the mound was for.

And of course, there was the Answerer to tell them. Everyone had heard of the Answerer, built by a race not unlike themselves, now long departed.

“Will you ask him anything else?” Ilm asked Lek.

“I don’t know,” Lek said. “Perhaps I’ll ask about the stars. There’s really nothing else important.” Since Lek and his brothers had lived since the dawn of time, they didn’t consider death. And since their numbers were always the same, they didn’t consider the question of life.

But purple? And the mound?

“I go!” Lek shouted, in the vernacular of decision-to-fact.

“Good fortune!” his brothers shouted back, in the jargon of greatest-friendship.

Lek strode off, leaping from star to star.

———

Alone on his little planet, Answerer sat, waiting for the Questioners. Occasionally he mumbled the answers to himself. This was his privilege. He Knew.

But he waited, and the time was neither too long nor too short, for any of the creatures of space to come and ask.

———

There were eighteen of them, gathered in one place.

“I invoke the rule of eighteen,” cried one. And another appeared, who had never before been, born by the rule of eighteen.

“We must go to the Answerer,” one cried. “Our lives are governed by the rule of eighteen. Where there are eighteen, there will be nineteen. Why is this so?”

No one could answer.

“Where am I?” asked the newborn nineteenth. One took him aside for instruction.

That left seventeen. A stable number.

“And we must find out,” cried another, “Why all places are different, although there is no distance.”

That was the problem. One is here. Then one is there. Just like that, no movement, no reason. And yet, without moving, one is in another place.

“The stars are cold,” one cried.

“Why?”

“We must go to the Answerer.”

For they had heard the legends, knew the tales. “Once there was a race, a good deal like us, and they Knew — and they told Answerer. Then they departed to where there is no place, but much distance.”

“How do we get there?” the newborn nineteenth cried, filled now with knowledge.

“We go.” And eighteen of them vanished. One was left. Moodily he stared at the tremendous spread of an icy star, then he too vanished.

———

“Those old legends are true,” Morran gasped. “There it is.”

They had come out of sub-space at the place the legends told of, and before them was a star unlike any other star. Morran invented a classification for it, but it didn’t matter. There was no other like it.

Swinging around the star was a planet, and this too was unlike any other planet. Morran invented reasons, but they didn’t matter. This planet was the only one.

“Strap yourself in, sir,” Morran said. “I’ll land as gently as I can.”

———

Lek came to Answerer, striding swiftly from star to star. He lifted Answerer in his hand and looked at him.

“So you are Answerer,” he said.

“Yes,” Answerer said.

“Then tell me,” Lek said, settling himself comfortably in a gap between the stars, “Tell me what I am.”

“A partiality,” Answerer said. “An indication.”

“Come now,” Lek muttered, his pride hurt. “You can do better than that. Now then. The purpose of my kind is to gather purple, and to build a mound of it. Can you tell me the real meaning of this?”

“Your question is without meaning,” Answerer said. He knew what purple actually was, and what the mound was for. But the explanation was concealed in a greater explanation. Without this, Lek’s question was inexplicable, and Lek had failed to ask the real question.

Lek asked other questions, and Answerer was unable to answer them. Lek viewed things through his specialized eyes, extracted a part of the truth and refused to see more. How to tell a blind man the sensation of green?

Answerer didn’t try. He wasn’t supposed to.

Finally, Lek emitted a scornful laugh. One of his little stepping-stones flared at the sound, then faded back to its usual intensity.

Lek departed, striding swiftly across the stars.

———

Answerer knew. But he had to be asked the proper questions first. He pondered this limitation, gazing at the stars which were neither large nor small, but exactly the right size.

The proper questions. The race which built Answerer should have taken that into account, Answerer thought. They should have made some allowance for semantic nonsense, allowed him to attempt an unraveling.

Answerer contented himself with muttering the answers to himself.

———

Eighteen creatures came to Answerer, neither walking nor flying, but simply appearing. Shivering in the cold glare of the stars, they gazed up at the massiveness of Answerer.

“If there is no distance,” one asked, “Then how can things be in other places?”

Answerer knew what distance was, and what places were. But he couldn’t answer the question. There was distance, but not as these creatures saw it. And there were places, but in a different fashion from that which the creatures expected.

“Rephrase the question,” Answerer said hopefully.

“Why are we short here,” one asked, “And long over there? Why are we fat over there, and short here? Why are the stars cold?”

Answerer knew all things. He knew why stars were cold, but he couldn’t explain it in terms of stars or coldness.

“Why,” another asked, “Is there a rule of eighteen? Why, when eighteen gather, is another produced?”

But of course the answer was part of another, greater question, which hadn’t been asked.

Another was produced by the rule of eighteen, and the nineteen creatures vanished.

Answerer mumbled the right questions to himself, and answered them.

———

“We made it,” Morran said. “Well, well.” He patted Lingman on the shoulder — lightly, because Lingman might fall apart.

The old biologist was tired. His face was sunken, yellow, lined. Already the mark of the skull was showing in his prominent yellow teeth, his small, flat nose, his exposed cheekbones. The matrix was showing through.

“Let’s get on,” Lingman said. He didn’t want to waste any time. He didn’t have any time to waste.

Helmeted, they walked along the little path.

“Not so fast,” Lingman murmured.

“Right,” Morran said. They walked together, along the dark path of the planet that was different from all other planets, soaring alone around a sun different from all other suns.

“Up here,” Morran said. The legends were explicit. A path, leading to stone steps. Stone steps to a courtyard. And then — the Answerer!

To them, Answerer looked like a white screen set in a wall. To their eyes, Answerer was very simple.

Lingman clasped his shaking hands together. This was the culmination of a lifetime’s work, financing, arguing, ferreting bits of legend, ending here, now.

“Remember,” he said to Morran, “We will be shocked. The truth will be like nothing we have imagined.”

“I’m ready,” Morran said, his eyes rapturous.

“Very well. Answerer,” Lingman said, in his thin little voice, “What is life?”

A voice spoke in their heads. “The question has no meaning. By ‘life,’ the Questioner is referring to a partial phenomenon, inexplicable except in terms of its whole.”

“Of what is life a part?” Lingman asked.

“This question, in its present form, admits of no answer. Questioner is still considering ‘life,’ from his personal, limited bias.”

“Answer it in your own terms, then,” Morran said.

“The Answerer can only answer questions.” Answerer thought again of the sad limitation imposed by his builders.

Silence.

“Is the universe expanding?” Morran asked confidently.

“‘Expansion’ is a term inapplicable to the situation. Universe, as the Questioner views it, is an illusory concept.”

“Can you tell us anything?” Morran asked.

“I can answer any valid question concerning the nature of things.”

The two men looked at each other.

“I think I know what he means,” Lingman said sadly. “Our basic assumptions are wrong. All of them.”

“They can’t be,” Morran said. “Physics, biology — “

“Partial truths,” Lingman said, with a great weariness in his voice. “At least we’ve determined that much. We’ve found out that our inferences concerning observed phenomena are wrong.”

“But the rule of the simplest hypothesis — “

“It’s only a theory,” Lingman said.

“But life — he certainly could answer what life is?”

“Look at it this way,” Lingman said. “Suppose you were to ask, ‘Why was I born under the constellation Scorpio, in conjunction with Saturn?’ I would be unable to answer your question in terms of the zodiac, because the zodiac has nothing to do with it.”

“I see,” Morran said slowly. “He can’t answer questions in terms of our assumptions.”

“That seems to be the case. And he can’t alter our assumptions. He is limited to valid questions — which imply, it would seem, a knowledge we just don’t have.”

“We can’t even ask a valid question?” Morran asked. “I don’t believe that. We must know some basics.” He turned to Answerer. “What is death?”

“I cannot explain an anthropomorphism.”

“Death an anthropomorphism!” Morran said, and Lingman turned quickly. “Now we’re getting somewhere!”

“Are anthropomorphisms unreal?” he asked.

“Anthropomorphisms may be classified, tentatively, as, A, false truths, or B, partial truths in terms of a partial situation.”

“Which is applicable here?”

“Both.”

That was the closest they got. Morran was unable to draw any more from Answerer. For hours the two men tried, but truth was slipping farther and farther away.

“It’s maddening,” Morran said, after a while. “This thing has the answer to the whole universe, and he can’t tell us unless we ask the right question. But how are we supposed to know the right question?”

Lingman sat down on the ground, leaning against a stone wall. He closed his eyes.

“Savages, that’s what we are,” Morran said, pacing up and down in front of Answerer. “Imagine a bushman walking up to a physicist and asking him why he can’t shoot his arrow into the sun. The scientist can explain it only in his own terms. What would happen?”

“The scientist wouldn’t even attempt it,” Lingman said, in a dim voice; “he would know the limitations of the questioner.”

“It’s fine,” Morran said angrily. “How do you explain the earth’s rotation to a bushman? Or better, how do you explain relativity to him — maintaining scientific rigor in your explanation at all times, of course.”

Lingman, eyes closed, didn’t answer.

“We’re bushmen. But the gap is much greater here. Worm and super-man, perhaps. The worm desires to know the nature of dirt, and why there’s so much of it. Oh, well.”

“Shall we go, sir?” Morran asked. Lingman’s eyes remained closed. His taloned fingers were clenched, his cheeks sunk further in. The skull was emerging.

“Sir! Sir!”

And Answerer knew that that was not the answer.

———

Alone on his planet, which is neither large nor small, but exactly the right size, Answerer waits. He cannot help the people who come to him, for even Answerer has restrictions.

He can answer only valid questions.

Universe? Life? Death? Purple? Eighteen?

Partial truths, half-truths, little bits of the great question.

But Answerer, alone, mumbles the questions to himself, the true questions, which no one can understand.

How could they understand the true answers?

The questions will never be asked, and Answerer remembers something his builders knew and forgot.

In order to ask a question you must already know most of the answer.

Original illustration from Science Fiction Stories by Alex Schomburg.

Just one day after 100 CEOs threatened to withhold financial support from the two Republican senators facing runoffs in Georgia, the Trump Administration relented and okayed Biden’s formal transition as President-Elect.

Technically, the head of the GSA finally did her job and signed off on Biden’s victory. Word is, Trump allowed it after aides assured him he wouldn’t be required to concede.

I remain astounded by the guy’s utter lack of class, integrity, and decency. What a putz.

We had to endure four years of President Grab-Em because an appalling number of people convinced themselves that a vote for Trump was better than siding with those awful bleeding-heart socialist lib-tards.

The Trump faithful justified their votes by embracing as truth the obvious lies and propaganda fed to them by their right-wing thought leaders. What a bunch of putzes.

A few decades ago, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) observed, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

That truism is especially relevant today, in this era of (1) Trump, (2) a particularly vile crop of Republican politicians, and (3) the MAGA crowd, our new national embarrassment. That’s quite a villainous trifecta, and all three are happy to dream up facts of their own liking.

A while back, Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) illustrated Moynihan’s point by falsely attributing the quote to — who else? — Ronald Reagan. That’s called irony, people.

Moynihan was a centrist Democrat and much more of an intellectual than most politicians. He noted one key difference between the political left and right:

“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

A valid point, but unfortunately for us, the conservatives figured out ways to militarize culture and thus have weakened and perverted politics to the breaking point.

One wretched example: we continue to set records daily for COVID infections and deaths, even though we could take simple steps to protect ourselves. The conservatives sabotaged any hope of that by politicizing the wearing of face masks. Facts be damned.

Or consider that, with exceptions you can count on both hands, America’s Republican politicians, elected and appointed, remain silent while Trump pouts, refuses to admit he lost the election, delayed Biden’s transition, and schemes to stay in office by any means he can gin up. Facts be damned.

Or consider that three-quarters of Republican voters say they think Biden won because of voter fraud, a claim that is not only false, but delusional.

It’s a fact that Trump voters have been conditioned to think in ways that defy logic and ignore reality. Their thought processes, however, are easy enough to follow.

In their minds, “minorities” dominate population centers such as Detroit and Atlanta, and “minorities” are known to be, well, less honest than, you know, real Americans.

To the MAGA faithful, it’s as simple as that. The big-city “minorities” are unscrupulous people who could, would, and did engage in voter fraud on a massive scale.

Any evidence of that? None at all. Zero.

Facts be damned.

It boggles the mind that one-third of the American population is aboard the right-wing crazy train. They have chug-a-lugged the Republican Kool-Aid and liberated themselves from any obligation to acknowledge reality.

I wouldn’t know how that feels because I’m a rational adult. I use my brain. And my brain has questions.

My brain wants to know why Donald Trump and a long list of cowardly, craven Republican officials, elected and appointed, are not already facing criminal charges for malfeasance in office, dereliction of duty, and betraying their country.

My brain wants to know why Biden and the Democrats haven’t already taken that whole contemptible bunch to court.

Democrats, it’s fair to say, are not as skilled as Republicans at playing political hardball. It’s just a simple fact that liberals are not as mean, sneaky, and underhanded as conservatives.

Well, the Dems need to toughen up, because the lunatic right wing seems perfectly willing to bring down the house. That’s a sobering thought.

For now, however, Biden and Harris won, demonstrating that decency and integrity are not dead.

But God knows what’s ahead of us.

One last point: when you think about the damage caused over the course of the Trump years, don’t forget the example his actions and behavior have set — and, for now, continue to set.

Tune o’ the Day

According to members of the Canadian rock band The Guess Who, their 1970 hit “American Woman” is not, as many think, an anti-war song or an attack on U.S. politics (the lines about war machines and ghetto scenes notwithstanding). Rather, it’s a declaration that the guys in the band prefer Canadian girls because they’re nicer.

Lead singer Burton Cummings, who composed the lyrics, described American girls as “well, dangerous,” and after a long tour, “it was a real treat to go home and see the girls we had grown up with.”

Cummings said both the music and the lyrics to “American Woman” were improvised. During a concert, the band paused while guitarist Randy Bachman replaced a broken string. When tuning the guitar, Bachman spontaneously played a riff the band liked.

Before resuming the concert, they paused for a brief jam session based on the riff. Cummings improvised the first of the lyrics on the spot, and the tune was finalized later.

That story seems plausible, considering that neither the melody nor the lyrics are what you’d call deep or sophisticated.

American Woman

By The Guess Who, 1970
Written by Randy Bachman, Burton Cummings, Jim Kale, and Garry Peterson

American woman gonna mess your mind.
American woman, she gonna mess your mind.
Mmm, American woman gonna mess your mind.
Mmm, American woman gonna mess your mind.

Say A
Say M
Say E
Say R
Say I
C
Say A
N, mmm

American woman gonna mess your mind.
Mmm, American woman gonna mess your mind.
Uh — American woman gonna mess your mind.

Uh!

American woman, stay away from me.
American woman, mama, let me be.
Don’t come a-hangin’ around my door.
I don’t wanna see your face no more.
I got more important things to do
Than spend my time growin’ old with you.

Now woman, I said stay away.
American woman, listen what I say.

American woman, get away from me.
American woman, mama, let me be.
Don’t come a-knockin’ around my door.
Don’t wanna see your shadow no more.
Colored lights can hypnotize.
Sparkle someone else’s eyes.
Now woman, I said get away.
American woman, listen what I say, hey.

American woman, I said get away.
American woman, listen what I say.
Don’t come a-hangin’ around my door.
Don’t wanna see your face no more.
I don’t need your war machines.
I don’t need your ghetto scenes.
Colored lights can hypnotize.
Sparkle someone else’s eyes.
Now woman, get away from me.
American woman, mama, let me be.

Go, gotta get away, gotta get away.
Now go, go, go.
I’m gonna leave you, woman.
Gonna leave you, woman.
Bye-bye.
Bye-bye.
Bye-bye.
Bye-bye.

You’re no good for me.
I’m no good for you.
Gonna look you right in the eye.
Tell you what I’m gonna do.
You know I’m gonna leave.
You know I’m gonna go.
You know I’m gonna leave.
You know I’m gonna go, woman.
I’m gonna leave you, woman.
Goodbye, American woman.

https://rockysmith.files.wordpress.com/2020/10/american-woman.mp3