"Now where were we? Oh yes, you were telling me about where you came from. Was it very far? How long did the trip take?"
Lazir hesitated, then answered very slowly, "I don't know how... to answer... your questions. It's complicated. We have a base station set up on your moon, but coming from my home... planet was in several different stages. I don't know how to explain it."
Enoch was not overly surprised. Interstellar travel would probably be beyound the comprehension of human technology if it wasn't going to take hundreds of years. Maybe they had some kind of warp drive or worm hole. If Lazir hadn't seen a lot of our sci-fi fiction, he wouldn't know what terminology to use. Or maybe he was just dodging the question. He decided not to push the matter. Maybe (if they stayed around) he would get another chance to ask.
Enoch decided to try another tack. After all this was historic. He wanted to learn all he could about these Ghibbers or whatever they were.
"Tell me," he said, "why did you come here? To Earth."
Lazir paused again. "This is not a good time to discuss that. There are other..." That pause again: the computer must be struggling to find appropriate words -- "...ideas that we need to understand first."
That sounded ominous to Enoch. What were they hiding? Or maybe their purpose was too abstract to explain easily in their still early grasp of English. After all, Lazir had been talking -- if you can call it that -- less than a half day.
Enoch was still hungry. He grabbed some more chips, but he really needed to fix some honest food. His mom had drilled into him that it's not polite to eat in front of other people unless they are eating too. He didn't know what to do with Lazir. He decided to ask.
"What would you like to do next? Anybody you want to meet?" Probably not, Enoch thought on further reflection. After all, they picked his place out here in the desert for a reason.
"We need to talk," Lazir said. "We have all these words in the dictionary, but it's hard to understand the proper way to use them. Like 'curie -- a unit of radiation.' Your word 'radiation' has different meanings; are they all measured by curies?"
Now it was Enoch's turn not to know how to answer. He didn't know much about radiation. "Curie, did you find that in the dictionary?" he asked. He probably heard of curies in college, but he didn't pay much attention. "Madame Curie, she was some kind of French nuclear scientist, I think she discovered radium. That's a radioactive element, that slowly disintegrates into -- um -- probably lead. I guess a curie is a way to measure the amount of disintegration going on, like on a geiger counter. I don't know much about nuclear physics." This was going to be tough. There must be a hundred thousand words in English, some with dozens of senses.
"Maybe if I knew what kinds of things you want to talk about," he said, "we could focus on those words. If we spent only one minute talking about each word in the dictionary, it would take us..."
Enoch tried to do the math in his head, and after a few seconds Lazir cut in. "Two months?"
That seemed low. "Right. You guys have a computer to do this. I would have thought a year or more."
"74 thousand dictionary entries, divided by 60 minutes, divided by 24 hours, gives a little over 51 days," Lazir helpfully added.
"Ah, but maybe you guys don't need to eat or sleep. Right now I'm starving. Do you mind? Come in the kitchen while I fix myself a decent lunch." Enoch picked up the bowl of chips and headed into the kitchen. It wouldn't hurt for them to learn some domestic concepts among their new vocabulary. Lazir followed.
"Have a seat." Enoch patted the top of a bar stool by the counter. Lazir didn't react immediately. "Sit," Enoch repeated, then demonstrated on the second stool. It was a little tall for Lazir, but he climbed up by the rungs, and sat down. It got him closer to eye level, even if there were no eyes to see. It was a little disconcerting to talk to this featureless globe. Especially when it talked back from the voice box in his hands.
Enoch set the bowl on the counter and took another couple chips to munch while going over to peer into the pantry. Chili? That could cause some flatulance, hardly an auspicious interplanetary behavior. Of course they were wearing protective space suits, but all the same. Enoch chose instead a can of minestrone soup. "Soup," he announced and held the can up for Lazir to see. "Minestrone. Vegetables and pasta in a beefy broth." At least he hoped he remembered it correctly. He opened the can and poured it into a glass bowl and put it into the microwave. A couple minutes at medium usually works.
"There's radiation," he said, pointing to the microwave. "Not radioactive disintegration, but a high concentration of microwave radio waves, which heat up the soup. It tastes better hot."
"Is the box supposed to contain the radiation inside?" Lazir asked. Our detector shows very little unmodulated gigaherz propagation when the buzz sounds, none at all the rest of the time."
"You can detect that?" Enoch asked, "Out at your ship?"
"From the repeater on the hill," Lazir said. "Not much."
"Wow. Federal regulations require the manufacturer to limit the radiation that leaks out of the device to be below a certain level for safety, but that's measured from one foot, not outside the house and across the yard a hundred feet away."
"Wait," Lazir said, "The 'manufacturer' is the person or company that made the device, right? But what are Federal regulations?"
"Federal is the government. We also have state and local jursidictions, most of the important laws apply to the whole country equally; that's Federal. Regulations, um, well there are different levels of law-making, um, seniority. No that's not right." Enoch felt foolish. This was civics. He barely passed civics with a C. "Congress makes laws, and then Federal agencies add regulations to that. All of it is law. Then there's the Constitution on top." He guessed Lazir didn't have a clue what he was saying.
The timer dinged, and Enoch took out the soup. It wasn't very hot yet. He put it back in for another minute.
"Explain this 'government' idea," Lazir said. "Is that like your question earlier about who is in charge? Is the government in charge?"
That's odd, Enoch thought. He does not understand government. Do they have a hive society? Even hives have a queen bee.
"Yes, the government makes the rules. Only in the United States, we are the government. Well, not really. It's hard to explain. We vote for people to run the government, and then they make the laws and we have to obey. S'posed to anyway, but nobody does. Except my mom and dad, they try to." Enoch felt foolish again. What good are laws if nobody obeys them? He didn't know what he would say if Lazir asked.
"What is 'vote'?" Lazir asked. "Your dictionary calls it 'a formal expression of opinion.' Is that like you telling me what government is?"
"No, the formality takes a lot of the freedom out," Enoch started. No that can't be right. Well, actually it is. "They give you a list of choices, and you pick one. Usually there's one you sort of like, but not always. Like the last Presidential election, both candidates were saying more or less the same foolish things. So the people mostly voted for the one who said them more beautifully -- um -- elegantly. Whatever. Maybe he was just the bigger liar. Anyway, in an election, everybody who wants to votes for one each of the candidates running in their district, and the one who gets the most votes wins and gets to run the government. His share of the government. Every four years we vote for one President, and every two years we vote for one Congressman. There are 435 of them, and they vote for what becomes law, and then the President can veto it -- that's like a negative vote that overrides what Congress voted for, unless they have a two-thirds majority to override his veto. It's all very complicated. Then there are the states, similar, but different in various ways. I don't know about New Mexico, I just got here myself. California is like the Federal government, but the Governor is elected in the off-years, offset by two years from the President. The big elections are in November of even years. The bottom line is that individual votes don't count much. What counts is being able to say something and have people listen."
The timer rang again, and Enoch took his soup out. "I'd offer you some, but..." He tapped an imaginary helmet around his head.
"No problem," Lazir replied. "Eat." After a slight pause, he changed the subject. "A little while ago you used a word we can't find in your dictionary, 'um'. What does it mean?"
"Umm, it doesn't mean anything. Well, yes, it does. It means, 'I have more to say, but I need some time to think about how to say it.' I had a speech professor who called it a 'vocalized pause.' It's considered poor form in formal speeches, because it suggests that you don't know what you are talking about. Which I guess is true. Mostly we think on the fly, as we are speaking."
"On the fly?"
"An idiom, it means 'in real time, while things are happening.' Do me a favor, will you? So this soup doesn't get too cold. Tell me about yourself. About yourselves, where you came from, what you hope to accomplish, what you need from me, something I can listen to while I eat. I really want to know, but I can't listen while I'm talking, and I can't talk while I'm eating."
Lazir paused for a couple of seconds, then deliberately said, "Um..."
"Excellent!" Enoch exclaimed between bites. "Go on."
"Our team, out there," he pointed in the general direction of the plane. Or maybe it was precisely, but Enoch couldn't tell. "We are one of five landing teams associated with -- um -- a larger mission that has been detailed to earth. We are actually the third to land. The first was in a remote part of the polar ice region, where we could do our research unobserved. The second team landed in a -- I think the word is -- forest area, away from industrial influence. Over that way." Lazir pointed again toward his plane, but more to the left and slightly down. Enoch guessed that was south, maybe south-east, perhaps (through the curve of the earth) the Amazon jungle.
"There are people there," Lazir, went on, "but no technology beyond the cutting and arrangement of -- um -- flora... Is that the word? Things that grow in the ground, but no sentinence."
"Wood carving," offered Enoch. "They use knives to cut wood?"
"Yes, that's it. That team is still there, but those people have no contact with the rest of your planet, so it's a dead end for formal relations. They are also very fearful and hostile. We had to modify our strategy somewhat." Lazir paused again. Enoch guessed there was substantial discussion back on his plane about how much to say.
"So you picked me, because I have a high-tech house, but not a lot of contact with my neighbors?"
"Yes. We watched you leave, and tracked your trip to California (is that the right name?) but we didn't expect you back so soon. Most people don't travel at night. We were planning to have the lander hidden by the time you got back. But you also surprised us by not being as hostile as the first encounter by the second lander. Inshallah."
"What?" Enoch did not recognize that word. "Is that a word in your language?"
"Um, no, not really. We found it on the internet. It seems to mean about the same as our phrase, 'The Ancient One has made it Good.' I'm sorry, I did not realize you did not know the word. Oh right, our philologist tells me it's Arabic, not English, but often gets used in English and other language contexts."
Enoch carried his empty bowl and spoon to the sink and rinsed them. Then he also rinsed the can (a habit he picked up living in a downtown flat when he was in college, where careful habits keep the bugs down, but there aren't many bugs out here in the desert, at least not roaches) and dropped the can in the trash. When he was younger, he used to save the soup can labels for some kind of educational promo, but that was long ago. He still felt a twinge when he watched the label go in the trash. Habits die hard.
He was still thinking about that Arabic word when he sat back down on the stool. Why would an advanced civilization like Ghibber be giving credit to a mythical "Ancient One"? It didn't make sense. Or did they have an elderly captain manipulating things... No, that didn't make sense either.
"Tell me about this 'Ancient One'," Enoch said, taking the bull by the horns.
"That will come," Lazir replied. "First we need better understanding."
It was a little too pat, Enoch thought. But he also reminded himself
that the Ghibbers, with their superior technology and intelligence, were
going to be controlling the interaction. All Enoch could do would be to
go with the program, or else screw it up. He did not want to be responsible
for ruining this historic opportunity. So if they were going to tell him
about their "Ancient One", it had to be on their schedule.
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