Enoch had programmed the alarm on his cell phone with one of the built-in ringtones. He liked the classical Beethoven tune, and it gently woke him up with streams of sunlight flooding his bedroom. He jumped out of bed and went into the bathroom for a quick shave and shower.
He picked up his dirty clothes on the way to the laundry room, and dropped them into the hamper there. Then he dug around in the dryer for some jeans and a T-shirt with a more congenial logo on it. This one had an environmental message; he'd bought it for Earth Day and it wasn't overly faded. The rest of the clothes he could fold and put away later.
Back to the kitchen to grab some "coffee, cold and bubbly" -- a can of caffeinated soda pop -- for breakfast. He bought his favorite flavor, some kind of vaguely citrus brew, by the caseload at the local discounter. Enoch figured it was meant to be the clone of a national brand with a reputation for high caffeine content, but he had no idea whether the clone had the same bite or if it was just the sugar and placebo effect that got him going. Diane always nagged him to eat something more substantial, but she wasn't here now. This always gave him the boost he needed in the morning. Heavier food tended to drag him down.
He carried his drink out to the living room and was setting it on a coaster when he looked up at the clock on the wall; it was ten. He remembered that the front door was closed, and went to open it. Lazir was standing there waiting, holding Enoch's dictionary. How could he know about doorbells or knocking? Enoch hoped he'd not been there long. "Come in," he said and stood aside. "Are you done with the dictionary?"
"Yes, it was very helpful," Lazir held it up to Enoch, who took it.
"I'm curious," Enoch went on as Lazir entered. "Last night I looked, and your night lights, which were blue the first night, last night it seemed like you blocked all the visible light, but I could see they were still on, because the ultra-violet made my shirt glow. Did you add filters to block the visible blue?" Enoch couldn't see Lazir's face, of course, but he imagined some kind of startlement. He set the dictionary down on the desk as he went by.
Lazir hesitated, then said, "Yes, we thought it better not to unduly attract attention to ourselves before we are ready. After you showed us the color spectrum of your visible range, we had some basis for knowing about the overlap, and corrected for it. There are aircraft that fly over this area from time to time, so we adjusted visibility. Isn't that like your word camouflage?"
"Did you camouflage your daytime presence also?" Enoch asked. That would be much harder in this desert terrain.
"We think so. You should come look, and tell us if we succeeded."
That sounded like a challenge, so Enoch got up and started for the door. "Now?"
"Sure." Lazir followed.
They had been busy. Enoch got to the rise, and he couldn't see the lander anywhere. The radio repeater was still on its tripod on the high point of the rise, but other than a pile of dirt and rocks and some trees where the lander had been, there was nothing else to see. "Where did it go?"
"It's still there, under the tarpaulin."
"That's a tarp I'm seeing?" Enoch was incredulous. "That's amazing! What about radar?"
"The reflective qualities of the fabric have been closely matched to the surrounding terrain throughout most of the electromagnetic spectrum."
"But your communication frequencies," Enoch pointed to the repeater, "they still get through?"
"There is a directional antenna pointing to the repeater through a small hole in the cover. Normally I could hear my team members through the lander windows, but now everything comes through the repeater and is reconverted here," he lifted the voice box, "just as when I'm in your house."
"How does this tarp work?" Enoch wondered.
"I don't really know. It's fabricated back home. We have a computer to program it, but nobody in our team understands the programmable reflectivity physics."
Figures, Enoch thought to himself glumly. Like when our military uses some technology out on the battlefield, the soldiers deploying it don't necessarily know how it works, they're just trained in how to control it. "So is there any of your fabulous technology that you can tell me about? How can I learn something useful?"
"You are a computer programmer, right? Maybe we can find a spare computer to give you. We'd have to fit it with some kind of transducers, so you can give it input and see its output, and we'd have to translate the reference manual. Give us a couple days to work out the details."
Awesome, thought Enoch. An alien computer. For me! I think I just died and went to heaven. Enoch wondered what he could learn from it. Then he started to think about how to keep it hidden, so the military or the government or just plain thieves wouldn't try to take it away. That would be a problem.
Lazir broke into his reverie. "My ethics specialist tells me there would be conditions on this gift. I'm not sure how to explain these conditions just yet. But we have time to work on it, while the technicians solve the mechanics."
His ethics specialist is putting conditions on it. That sounds ominous, like that religious stuff again. No telling where this is leading. Enoch wanted to change the subject, but even more he wanted to know more about this computer offer. What does ethics have to do with it anyway?
"Can we go back inside and sit down?" Obviously they couldn't invite him into their lander without some kind of protective suit like Lazir was wearing, but Enoch did not particularly enjoy standing for long periods of time. He pointed toward the house and headed back down the hillock. Lazir followed.
Maybe he should just bite the bullet. "What do you need from me before you can communicate your conditions?" he asked.
"We have so much to learn about your laws, why you say nobody obeys them. That's ethics, right? The reasons for doing things, described as Right and Wrong? Do I understand the concept correctly? Ethics."
"I think so." Enoch hesitated. His gut feeling was right on target, this was going to Hell in the proverbial handbasket. Maybe a little deflection... "Ethics is about the difference between right and wrong. Or maybe about doing what is right. I'm not sure. That's the domain of philosophers. I'm not a philosopher. We have ethical codes in my professional society, mostly about using technology for good and not for evil."
"Do you know the difference between good and evil?" Lazir almost sounded hopeful.
"Everybo--" Enoch stopped. Wait, what about the lesser of two evils? Is that good or evil? Maybe everybody does not know. "I -- I don't know. I mean, some things are just plain good, except when they are not."
"How can something be good sometimes and not good other times? That does not make sense to me."
"Well, like it's good to save a life, but if saving that life costs many other lives, that's not so good."
"I still don't understand. Can you give me a specific example?"
They were back in the house. Enoch sat on his favorite chair, and Lazir climbed up on the matching chair, which with the sofa made a kind of circle. It was like watching a kid get up on an adult chair.
"Suppose you're driving down the highway," Enoch offered, "and you see a child wander out into the traffic lane. So you stop and rescue the child. Meanwhile the next three cars pile into your car and a bunch of people die in the collision. One life is saved, three or four lost."
"Why did you stop in the traffic lane? Couldn't you pull over off the highway before saving the child?"
"Yes, I suppose..."
"Besides, the highway near here has two traffic lanes each direction. Why didn't the cars behind change lanes and go around? Is the driver who stopped at fault for their negligence?" Slight pause, then "We just found a law, apparently some state motor vehicle code, which makes it unlawful to follow so close as to collide if the vehicle slows or stops suddenly. That makes the additional deaths the fault of the their respective drivers."
Enoch was beginning to have second thoughts about giving them free access to the internet. "OK, that was a bad example. Let me think of another..." Enoch does not think fast. Ethical questions are especially difficult. What kind of moral ambiguity could he come up with, to prove his point?
Damnation, here he'd got himself in the middle of religion again. You'd think Lazir didn't understand ethics at all. There's no such thing as absolute Right and Wrong, everybody knows that. Well, everybody except his parents. They still thought so. They were so Dark Ages. And yet here is Lazir, a representative of the most advanced civilization ever to set foot on earth, and he seems to believe the same crock as his parents. What's wrong with this picture?
Focus, Enoch, he told himself. It shouldn't be hard to come up with a suitable ethical dilemma to prove such an obvious universal... "Umm..."
"How about this? Twenty people are in a lifeboat designed to hold ten. The ship went down, taking all but one of the lifeboats, so the survivors all crowded into the single remaining boat. It's starting to sink, but if they throw out one or two passengers, the rest will be saved."
"Does that kind of thing really happen?" Lazir's voice box sounded incredulous. He was getting amazingly good at subtle inflections of tone.
"All the time," Enoch lied. He wondered if the Ghibber team was surfing the net for voice samples as well as the other data.
"Let me see," Lazir drawled, "the lifeboat is a floatation device, it won't sink unless actively weighted or pulled under, right? And humans have approximately the same buoyancy as water? So even if the boat is completely swamped, nobody will sink. There is no need to throw anybody out."
"You got me," Enoch conceded. "I can't think of any examples... But they exist! There's no such thing as moral absolutes!" Enoch was getting riled again. Not a good thing.
"Is that absolutely true?" Lazir asked softly.
Enoch clammed up. If he said yes, that it is absolutely true, then he has given a counter-example, a disproof of his previous assertion in the form of a moral absolute that does exist. If Enoch denied that "there are no absolutes" is absolute, that would imply that there are exceptions, that some things can be absolute. Lazir was too sharp for him.
Superior intellect, superior technology, rotten lousy backwards religion. What a combination.
"Oh wait, I thought of one. There's this policeman, it's his job to protect innocent citizens, right? So here's this bad guy, he's shooting at innocent children in a schoolyard, killing them. The school officials dialed 911, called for the police, and this cop arrives. What's he going to do? He shoots the sniper, kills him, and stops the killing of children."
"Is the only way to stop the killing by killing?" Lazir was obviously going to blow this one away, too. "Tell me, what part of a person do you need to hit with your police gun in order to kill the sniper?"
"Well, I'm not sure... I guess the heart or brain. Otherwise he's just wounded."
"And if he's only wounded, then you have not killed him, right? But he stopped killing children, right?"
"He could keep shooting."
"What if the policeman shot the sniper's trigger hand, or just shot the gun out of his hand?"
"That's a pretty small target, probably hard to hit."
"Smaller and harder to hit than his heart or brain?"
"I give up. There are moral absolutes. What's the point? Why does this matter?" Get back on the offensive, Enoch thought. The best defense is a good offense.
"Do you obey the moral absolutes? Or do you consider them like the government laws, to obey or not, just so you don't get caught?"
So much for the offensive.
Lazir didn't stop. "Or was your denial of such a thing as moral absolutes a strategem to justify not obeying them?"
That hurt. "I don't do evil," he insisted. "I don't kill people, I don't steal, I overtipped the server in the bar last night..."
"Except you admitted that you steal from the government by cheating on your taxes. You admitted to statistically killing other people on the highway by speeding. Low probability, but your number just has not come up yet."
"OK, I admit I'm not perfect. Nobody is perfect. So what? What's the point?" Was Lazir dodging the issue?
"You can be perfect," Lazir said quietly, a marked contrast to the belligerent tone of Enoch's voice. "But you must choose it. We cannot force you."
"I can be morally perfect?" Enoch was incredulous. This was bizarre. Even his parents admitted that everybody "sinned". For them "sin" was mostly about sex and fun, but it also included real evil like lying and stealing and murder. His dad sometimes did fun things -- like wasting a whole afternoon in the park -- and then felt bad about it. Oh yeah, he sometimes got angry at Enoch and his brother for goofing off instead of going to bed when they were kids. Mom chided him for that, and then he came and apologized, like it was a Big Deal. The other kids' dads got drunk and beat them, or cheated on their wives, really Bad Things, so Enoch mostly figured he was lucky.
"Yes, you can," Lazir was saying. "That's what we are here for, to tell you how to be perfect."
"You're just a bunch of damned missionaries!" Enoch blurted out.
|<< prev||next >>|