"You were going to tell me how you made this, this Living Tree medicine," Enoch said as he sat down. Lazir sat down too -- actually, it was more like a kid climbing up onto a chair far too big for him -- but Rafile kept going, out the door. Enoch could only tell them apart by what they were carrying. The medicine bag went out the door, and the little voice box sat down. He still wished he could see their faces through those dark globes.
Lazir hesitated. "Complex molecular structures must be constructed from smaller components..."
Enoch wished he hadn't passed up chemistry in college.
"...and these need to be fabricated from -- I think your word is particles -- accelerated to specific velocities with particular energy flux. I don't know exactly how it works, that's the specialty of experts back home, who build these things." Lazir paused. "We just put some heavy metal into the energy converter, and the computer controls the sequence of operations."
"Any heavy metal, or do you use some particular starting element?" The medieval alchemists always wanted to start with lead. Maybe they were onto something.
"The reaction is different for every element. We use a metal that does not easily compound, so its purity is not compromised. I think your name for it is gold."
Damnation. They start with gold, and make base elements from it. That's backwards. "Do you carry gold in your lander?" Not that he wanted to rob it, but gold is heavy; you'd think they would try to keep the weight down.
"Yes, it makes the best fuel for our energy converters. The heavier elements decompose too quickly and become impure."
"We have energy converters too," Enoch volunteered. "Except we use the energy from nuclear decay of very heavy elements like uranium and plutonium."
"Yes, you can do that, but it's very inefficient, and leaves toxic waste products. Our process -- like I said, I don't understand how it works -- breaks gold down to much smaller particles with a lot more energy released. So we don't need very much gold to drive the engine. It takes more gold to build up compounds like your medicine, than to power the lander for the whole trip."
"Suppose you run out. Could you make more gold from raw materials, like the silicon out there in the rocks?"
"We can reprogram the converter to use other elements. Usually, when we must do that, we start with the simplest and most common, I think your word is water... no, hydrogen."
That's better, thought Enoch. Gold from water. He could live with that. "How much matter can you synthesize in the converter you have here on your lander? Starting from wat-- I mean hydrogen?"
"Why do you ask?"
Oops, I need to be more careful. "Just wondering."
"Is it because gold is very valuable among your people? Are you hoping to manufacture gold?"
This guy is too smart for me, Enoch thought. Saw right through me.
Lazir went on. "Isn't the value of gold based on its scarcity? If you made and gave away vast quantities of gold, would its value not plummet to the value of the material you made it from?"
Enoch hadn't thought of that. "Suppose we made only small quantities, enough to achieve economic success, but not enough to greatly impact the world market for it?"
"Economic success for whom? Yourself alone? Is that Good?" Lazir somehow inflected that last word, so it came out like a moral absolute. Enoch hated it when people did that.
"What's wrong with getting rich?" he demanded. Enoch imagined Lazir looking at him sternly. Maybe not seeing his face was a good thing after all.
"Is that your goal, to become rich? How much wealth does it take to be rich? Do you not own your house and the land around it? My team tells me that you control a sizable credit in your economic system, I think you call it a bank, that your account exceeds that of all but 283 of their patrons. Isn't that rich enough for you?"
"How do you know that? Have you hacked into the bank's computer? From here? You could get me arrested!" Enoch started to sweat.
"Is receiving information a crime? We do not know how to access the bank computer. Our, um, information specialist made a request from the Ancient One, and it was granted. You have accounts in three banks; the bank that holds your largest account has 52,794 other accounts, all but 283 of them smaller than yours. We were not told about the other two accounts, except that the least of them exceeds half of the other accounts in that bank. We were not even told the exact amount in your accounts. This information cannot be traced to you. The Ancient One knows all things, and sometimes satisfies requests for information. This was one of those occasions. There are many more things we are not told."
This Ancient One, whoever he was, was becoming a big problem. Was there really some kind of religious nut out there who could hack into the banks' computers? What were these guys here for, anyway? Lazir had deflected his question when he asked earlier. Maybe he should just take a more passive stance until he understood better what they were up to.
"I see," he lied. He didn't see anything, but it was a good non-reply. "You're right, I am rich." That was true. He did have a lot of cash left over after he bought the ranch. Probably more than anybody in the county, except maybe one or two merchants in town. 283 accounts, was it? Probably business accounts. But this was a poor part of the country. He wasn't rich like the other guys in the startup he'd left, and definitely not like the top computer software execs. He couldn't afford a private jet like they could. Well, maybe, but not with a lot left over. He had a nice car, but it wasn't a Ferarri.
Right now this was a dead end. He needed to move the dialog onto something productive. Lazir couldn't tell him much about the technology of their energy converter -- and Enoch probably wouldn't understand it if he could. Besides, that's how he got himself backed into this corner.
"You were telling me about your metabolism." Enoch decided that was a safe subject, and probably fascinating. "How is is different from us here?"
"Like the Damic people, your metabolism is carbon-based. The complex silicon-based organic molecules in our bodies are less stable than carbon, so we need to protect ourselves more carefully than you do. The oxygen in your atmosphere tends to corrode our bodies and make, um, sand. Very slowly, of course, but it is uncomfortable. Anyway, the metabolic processes that power our bodies directly convert electromagnetic energy, mostly in our visible spectrum. I think that is ultra-violet to you. We can store this energy chemically for several of your days, but we can also supplement it with preconverted chemical energy -- I guess you would call it 'food' -- which we can fabricate in our energy converter. Anyway, so we don't actually breathe as you do."
"Does your home planet -- and I assume, the interior of your lander -- have some atmosphere other than oxygen?"
"Yes, mostly helium and some water. I don't think you could last long breathing it." There was almost a smile in Lazir's voice from the box. He was getting very good at inflection.
"Have you figured out how life evolved on your planet?" That seemed like a safe question.
"Evolved? What's -- oh, that's some kind of local religion here, isn't it? Yes, um, well, um..." Lazir was damned good with his inflection.
Enoch was confused. "Evolution is not religion, it's science, the opposite of religion. You don't recognize that all life evolved?" How could they have star travel and matter-energy conversion and computer technology so good they went from no communication at all to perfect English inflection in less than one day, all that and not know about evolution? And all that mumbo-jumbo about the Ancient One. Something was wrong here.
"What did it evolve from here?" Lazir asked kindly.
"From simpler organisms, one-celled bacteria, stuff like that." Enoch hadn't studied much biology in college, either. He was going to be in deep doo-doo if this went very much farther.
"And what did these bacteria evolve from?"
"Some kind of primordial soup of organic chemicals." This is not getting better.
"Where did the organic chemicals come from? Have you seen life evolve from non-living chemicals?"
"No, but some of our researchers have done experiments to reproduce the process." He hoped he remembered correctly.
Lazir hesitated a few interminable seconds. "Miller, Stanley Miller, is that his name? We found reports that he was able to produce some simple organic compounds by electrical discharge through water and ammonia. Is that what you were referring to?"
"That must be it. I'm not a biologist."
"You understand he did not produce any living organisms, right?"
"No, I didn't know that. Like I said, I'm not a biologist."
"You are a computer programmer, right? You work with bits to instruct computers like yours and ours, so they do specialized tasks defined for them, is that correct?"
Enoch wasn't sure where this was going, but at least this was something where he was an expert. "Yes, but I don't get it. Is this still about evolution?"
"Does your software evolve?"
"Yes, of course it does."
"On its own, or is that merely how you describe your incremental development?"
"Oh, I see. No, I write a simple version of the program I want, then I modify it by adding complexity. I guess you're going to tell me that's not the same?"
"Who puts the complexity into your program, random chance, or your careful design?"
"Sometimes I happen across a fortuitous accident..."
"Maybe once or twice in my life."
"Did the accident result in a fully-functional program out of nothing?"
"No, of course not. It was already working; the accident just made it better, like evolution."
"How many accidents made it worse? In those one or two programs where you had a lucky accident, how many accidents in the same programs made them worse?"
"I -- I don't know, I don't count my mistakes."
"More than eight? More 256? Which is more likely?"
"Hundreds, easily. I think I once noticed that I average about 5 bugs for every hundred lines of new code. A 10-thousand-line program would normally have some 500 bugs, mistakes I need to correct."
"Who decides whether the mistake, the accident is good (so you keep it) or a bug that needs correcting? Does the program itself decide, or you, the designer?"
"Me, of course. I do. Sometimes the bug isn't discovered until the software is out in beta, so the user notices that it's not behaving correctly, but ultimately I decide."
"Do you ever create software by randomly changing bits until the program works better?"
"Oh I see, you mean like genetic programs? Yes, I wrote one of those in college for an assignment. It was a sort program. It evolved to a theoretical optimum sort in something like three thousand iterations, random mutations with survival of the fittest -- meaning best sort."
"There was this decision tree, which pair of elements to compare and switch next. An optimal sort is order N-log-N compares, if you do them in the right order. Like QuickSort."
"Did you also randomize the code that actually did the comparison and the element switching?"
"No, of course not. The program would crash instantly."
"So you just randomized the tiny part of the program that decided which pair to compare next, but not the code that did the compares, not the code that did the element switching, not the code that reported the results, or determined when the sort was better or worse, or initialized the test, just the decision of which elements to compare? Is that correct?"
"Um, well, um, yes, I see what you mean. No, we never randomize the code itself, that would crash the computer, and we'd get nothing at all out."
"Now, you recall that cold virus we cured in you? You told me about the DNA in it. You said the DNA is a binary code, like a computer program. We studied DNA in our second lander research station. You are correct. It is a computer program, a very complex program that specifies how to live and eat and reproduce. It even specifies how the computer that runs this program is to function. A living cell is, among other things, a self-reproducing computer. Have you ever made a self-reproducing computer? It's great fun, they tell me. I'm not a programmer nor a computer architect, so I wouldn't know. It takes millions of bits. Have you ever made a working computer program -- even a small one -- just by throwing bits together randomly?"
"No, it doesn't happen that way. You have to design them. Like you said, even my genetic program, all the code was very carefully designed. I suppose you are going to tell me that a working DNA program cannot happen by accident?"
"You tell me."
"I guess you're right. But then how did evolution happen?"
"Did it? How do you know evolution happened?"
He got me, thought Enoch. How do I know? "The biologists say life evolved. I'm not a biologist."
"So you believe them. How did they say it happened?"
"Random mutations to the DNA."
"But you know for a fact that random mutations on your computer program crashes the computer. It doesn't improve anything. With one or two exceptions, out of how many thousands of unlucky bugs? Do you really have reason to believe that biological software -- the DNA -- works differently than the software you are expert in? Are the biologists computer programmers? Do they know something you don't, I mean something about how computer programs respond to bugs, transcription errors? Or are you more expert in that than they are?"
"I -- I don't know what to say," Enoch confessed. Lazir had him. This was not going well. Enoch the computer expert was being told that his own expertise proved that the biologists are wrong. And Lazir was right, damn it. The next thing you know, he'd have Enoch believing in the Ancient One.
These guys, the star travellers, are supposed to be smarter than us, and Lazir was smarter, but where that took him didn't make any sense. Science is supposed to progress, to make us better, more knowledgeable, but here the most advanced science was going backwards in the foundational facts of biology. It wasn't right.
"Let me think about this some more," he finally said. And he would think.
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