Enoch wished he could see Lazir's face, and not this plain black globe. When you are talking to another person of the human variety, you can watch their eyes. When their eyes are looking elsewhere, it usually means they are not paying attention, so if you want to maintain contact, you change the subject, or ask them a question they need to spend some time answering. In a business meeting, which was most of what Enoch did with other people (except around Diane), diverted eyes meant the meeting was over. But he had none of that here. Lazir's head could even be turned, and Enoch had no way of knowing it.
He did have one consolation. The Ghibbers came to him, not the other way around. They were here because they wanted to be. Lazir could leave any time he wanted to. Enoch guessed that -- whatever their agenda -- they needed to learn about his language and culture before they could accomplish their goals. And Enoch was determined to learn as much as he could in return.
Lazir broke the silence. "We need to know more about government," he said. "You said there are different levels, Federal, state... Are there more levels than that?"
"Sort of. There's the United Nations over all the countries, but I suspect that's only in an advisory way. Like, our government only follows their rules that we agree to follow. Some of the individual states feel that way about the Federal government too, but if they get too far out of line the Feds send in marshalls to enforce the law. Each state is made up of counties, and then there are cities within the counties. Sometimes there are smaller organizations of people with their own rules. Like the house I had in California was in a gated community with community association rules that we had to obey as a condition of buying property within the development. My neighbor across the way built a gazebo in his yard, and they made him take it down because he did not get it approved. Around here, there is a county building code; when I bought this place, the seller had to disclose that parts of the house were not to code. That means he built without following the county building code. If I ever decide to make changes, I will have to fix his mistakes too. So how many levels is that, five? Six? Four? They are not all the same. The Feds have the most power, then the states, then the cities. I think counties are mostly administrative regions."
"That's not electric power, is it?"
"No, the cities win there," Enoch smiled. He didn't know if Lazir would understand a smile or a laugh. "Political power is measured by the number of people you control and the number and invasiveness of the rules you impose on them. The states have more rules, but the Feds control more people."
"These governments, they are made up of people, right? So you have people controlling people? The way our pilot controls our lander, or I control this voice transducer?"
"Something like that." My God, Enoch thought, he makes it sound like slavery. "Not exactly. Your lander is a machine. It does only what the pilot tells it to do. People have their own minds, and are laregly autonomous, except where they run into the rules, the laws. Even there, they must choose to obey. If they choose to disobey, then the cops -- the police enforce the laws -- come arrest them and make life generally unpleasant for them."
"No, there aren't that many cops. Statistically, the probability of getting caught, multiplied by the penalty imposed if you are caught, should exceed the perceived benefit of violation. Usually it does, sometimes not. Like the speed limits. Out on the highway, these are set by the state. They have chippers -- oh wait, this is New Mexico: the highway patrol, whatever they are called here -- watching for people driving faster than the posted limit. If they catch you, they pull you over and you get a huge ticket, maybe a hundred bucks or more, depending on how fast. At 3am the cops are mostly home asleep or else drinking coffee in some truck stop trying to stay awake; nobody's on the road, so many cars do a hundred and get to their destination 30% faster. Time is money -- maybe not a hundred bucks, but the chance of getting caught is very low. In the daytime, and especially in California, where they have a lot more cops, the probability is higher. But then there are more cars, even at 3am, on the road in California, and not everybody can safely drive a hundred miles per hour and not get killed (and take out other people too), so the risk of loss (even if you don't get caught) is higher too." Enoch wondered where this was going. Maybe he shouldn't be so open about legal issues.
"Give me an example of a Federal rule -- is that what you call 'law'?"
"Yes. Umm, Most of the Federal laws apply to companies and states. Like there are Federally mandated safety features on my car. The manufacturer is required to put in seat belts and air bags and stuff to reduce injuries in case of a crash. If they don't comply, they can't sell their cars. I think technically they can't sell their cars across state lines, which is most of them, so it amounts to a general requirement. Laws applicable to individuals like me are fewer. I can't grow pot -- not that it would grow out here in the desert -- or make crystal meth; that would violate Federal drug laws. I can't print my own money, stuff like that." Enoch pulled out his wallet, and took out a dollar bill. "See, this counts as money. You can print these things for maybe a penny or two, but its stated value is a whole dollar. The perceived benefit (profit) is therefore like fifty or a hundred times cost, much more for the larger bills. That's a very good return from a business perspective. So the Feds are very vigilant about catching counterfeiters and locking them away in prison for a very long time. They keep the net incentive low."
Enoch was starting to feel a little raw in his throat, the way he does when a cold is coming on. It must have been that late-night drive getting his resistance down. "Excuse me a minute," he said, "I'll be right back." He went into the bathroom and pulled a bottle of vitamin C from the cabinet, opening it as he returned.
He held it up for Lazir to see. "Speaking of drugs," he said, "this is what I do when I feel a cold coming on. I buy these. It's vitamin C, 500 milligrams. A massive dose like this is supposed to stave off the cold. It's probably just a folk tale, but it seems to help."
"Cold is a temperature, right? Can you feel when the weather is about to change? Or do you mean 'a respiratory viral infection'? Is that a form of disease? Is vitamin C a cure for the disease?" Lazir had a lot to learn.
"A lot of people think of it as a cure. I don't think so. I think it just boosts the body's self-regulating systems to better cope with the infection. There's an old joke about the guy who went to his doctor for some medication to cure his cold. The doc gave him some pills and said, 'If you take these, you cold will be gone in a week. Otherwise it will last for seven days.' Nobody knows how to cure a cold. Something about how the DNA in a virus interacts with the human respiratory system. Mostly the body can protect itself without any help, but if I let myself get run-down (like last night) and exposed at the same time, I get a cold. It's not nice. The soreness tells me I'll have a cold tomorrow."
Lazir didn't say anything for a few seconds, then "Will you let Rafile look at you? He's our expert in healing."
This could be interesting, Enoch thought, extra-terrestrial medicine. "Sure, why not? Umm, he isn't planning on any invasive procedures, is he?" Enoch hoped for something like Dr.McCoy on StarTrek, where he just waved this instrument over the sick person.
"Nothing you wouldn't willingly agree to," Lazir promised. "We want to study the symptoms and see if we might have a cure."
"A cure for the common cold?" Enoch was incredulous. But these were a higher civilization. On the other hand, they had a very different body chemistry -- or else were afraid of catching something themselves -- otherwise the space-suits would be unnecessary. This was going to be interesting. He hoped not fatal.
"The second landing team has already studied human body chemistry. We understand how DNA controls the cellular computer -- is that the right word? It works the same as your computer and ours, except it is chemical instead of electrical or subatomic -- but viruses are something we don't completely understand yet. We saw something on the internet about computer viruses, is that the same thing?"
Computer viruses were something Enoch understood well enough to explain. Or at least he thought so. "I don't know much about DNA," Enoch started. "I think it's a binary code, like the programs in my computer. But I don't know anything at all about how it works. Maybe you could educate me." What a coup, he thought, if they would do that for him. He could make millions. The human genome was sequenced, but even the experts know almost nothing about what the bits do, besides coding for proteins that we mostly don't understand.
"Anyway, if I remember correctly, a biological virus is a little snippet of DNA wrapped in a protective sheath of protein. It cannot reproduce or even eat, but after it invades a host cell -- I think that protein cover gets it through the cell wall -- it triggers the reproductive mechanism of the host cell to reproduce the virus DNA and thus make copies of it, which are then released to infect other cells. Anyway a computer virus works more or less the same way. It's a small piece of program code that works within the host operating system (or application) code to make and distribute copies of itself. A computer virus also carries what we call a payload, some additional code to steal information or perform operations damaging to the victim or otherwise beneficial to the perpetrator."
Rafile came in. At least Enoch assumed it was Rafile; they looked identical -- same silvery jumpsuit, same smoky black globe of a helmet -- except Rafile was carrying a larger box than Lazir's little voice coder. Lazir's voice coder spoke, "Hello!" and Rafile held out his hand.
This is going to be weird, Enoch thought, taking the proffered handshake. "Hi. Are you both going to be speaking to me through the same voce coder box? How do I know which one I am hearing?"
The next voice out of the box was somewhat higher in pitch, almost feminine. "Is this better? I'm Rafile." The voice went back to Lazir's familiar tone, "And I'm Lazir."
"Much better," Enoch said. It was still weird, hearing them both from Lazir's box, but he'd probably get used to that, as long as they didn't move too far apart.
Rafile lifted his box, and Enoch could see it looked more like a doctor's valise, but smaller. "Is there a surface I can set this on to work?"
"Sure, sit here, use the counter," Enoch said, hopping off his stool.
Rafile lifted the valise up to the counter, then clambered up onto the stool and opened the valise. Enoch stood behind and watched intently, wondering what he could learn. He imagined a modern physician among an isolated Amazon jungle tribe, opening his valise. What would they understand? He felt like that.
Rafile took out what looked like a plastic swab stick and turned to hold it out to Enoch. "Lick -- is that the right word? -- Put your mouth part on the end here and rub it to leave a deposit."
"Yes, lick is the right word." Enoch took the swab -- it feld slightly porous like a wooden swab, but it was pure white like plastic -- and licked it, then gave it back. He hoped it was sterile.
Rafile pushed the wet end into a slot in some device inside the valise. A blue light came on and flickered a little.
"What does that do?" Enoch asked.
"I think your word is 'microscope'," Lazir answered. "He is looking for the virus."
"Where is the eyepiece?"
"It's electronic. We all have viewers inside our helmets."
"So could you send the same image to my TV?" Enoch asked.
"Sure," he replied, then hopped off his stool and went into the living room. Enoch went too. The TV was still on from earlier, but now it was showing a microscope view of some one-celled organisms moving around. Rafile followed, carrying his open valise. He set it on the coffee table and went back to fiddling with the apparatus. The image on the TV shifted a few times, then froze on a cell that had a green wart. The image enlarged to focus on the wart, which suddenly disappeared, like it was sucked into the cell body.
"Was that the virus?" asked Enoch.
"Yes, I think so," Rafile replied from Lazir's voice box. The image enlarged a few more times, now showing a blurry green spot slowly undulating inside the cell. Then it doubled into two spots, which started to move apart. It was creepy, watching a cold virus infect a body cell. As Enoch continued to watch, a hard-edged probe appeared from the top of the screen and approached one of the green spots, which suddenly disappeared inside the probe. The the probe also disappeared off the top of the screen, and the cell started to shrivel. The screen went to a "no signal" blue.
Rafile closed up the valise. "I need to test this in the lab," she said. Was she a female? Enoch was inclined to assume it from the pitch of her voice, but Lazir had referred to him as "he". Enoch decided to go with Lazir's gender selection. Rafile carried the valise out the door and disappeared around the corner toward the lander.
Enoch's soreness was getting worse. He wondered what Rafile would come
up with. Lazir broke the silence again. Enoch was not that great a conversationalist,
even now when he had so much to ask and learn.
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