Enoch mulled that one over a few seconds, doing the math. They had to have multiple billions on each planet. "What do you do about overcrowding?"

"What's overcrowding?" Lazir seemed genuinely perplexed.

"You know, too many people for the ecosystem to sustain."

"No way. Rez-Ghibber has the highest population, about 60 billion, but it could easily double without any problems. Do you have a population problem here?"

"Do we ever. Some of our experts think a sustainable population is about a half billion."

"You have more than that now, don't you? What do you propose to do about it?"

"For one thing, cut the birth rate. Especially we need to make reproductive services available to third-world countries where the birth rate is far too high."

"'Reproductive services' sounds like you are enabling reproduction. How does that reduce the birth rate?"

"That's a euphemism for abortion."

"Isn't that where you kill the baby?"

"Well, yes, sort of. Actually, the pregnancy is terminated before it is a baby."

"What is it, if it's not a person?"

"Just a blob -- well, it's not a person yet." Enoch started to feel defensive. The one time when Diane forgot -- if "forgot" was the right word -- to take her pills, they had to get her an abortion. That was in California, where they do not require the woman to see an ultrasound. She probably would have refused if she'd seen the heart-bea-- Jimminy, I gotta stop thinking about it, he reminded himself. It's just a blob. A blob with a heart-beat. But not a human.

"What qualifies the baby to become a person?"

"Um," Enoch was stuck. Damn this Lazir. "I don't know. I guess that's for the ethicists to decide."

Lazir took the hint -- sort of. "Preventing (or aborting) new births only slows growth, right? How do you plan to reduce the population?"

Enoch would have preferred a more radical subject change, but he had brought up the issue of overpopulation, so he only had himself to blame. "Wars. Famine. Disease. Eventually, old age."

"Yes, I guess you do have a limited life-span here. Does that bother you?"

"It's a long way off. I try not to think about it." Maybe 75 years isn't such a long time to a guy who's already almost ten times that old. His grandparents were getting up there -- his grandad on his mom's side was already gone...

"What would you think if we offered you the opportunity to not die?"

"You're joking." Oh wait, the Ghibbers never die, but they had a different metabolism, silicon-based, Lazir had said.

"This is the only planet in the whole universe where people die," Lazir said. "We could bring the Damic Living Tree here, which would eliminate disease. You experienced some of its healing benefits." Lazir paused, one of those breath things. Nevermind that voice-boxes don't breathe, and for all Enoch knew, Ghibbers didn't either. "There's more than enough arable land in the world to feed the whole existing population several times over. I don't know about war -- that's where people kill each other on a mass scale, isn't it?"

"That's what it is," Enoch conceded.


"Territory. Religion. Just plain cussedness. I suspect it's the human condition. Except..." Enoch thought about it. Maybe there are no exceptions. He like to think civilized people don't wage war, but the biggest wars in recent history involved the most "civilized" nations. Well, Hitler wasn't. Osama bin Laden, that was religion. Muslims aren't civilized, they are always killing somebody. The Christians were too: Ireland, the Crusades, some of those wars in the Middle Ages, weren't they all religion? But Iraq? That was our fault. Viet Nam, ditto. What a mess. He couldn't even blame the Republicans. They got us into Iraq, but it was Johnson who escalated Viet Nam. Nixon, bless his dirty little heart, got us out. What a mess. "Yeah, I think it must be the human condition."

"You could change. You can't change other people, but you don't have to be like them," Lazir said. "Would you like to live forever?"

Enoch wasn't so sure. His grandfather was in a rest home with Alzheimers. "Just what I need, living a million years as a human vegetable."

"I don't understand. How would you be a vegetable?"

"My grandfather has Alzheimers disease. Most of the time he doesn't recognize anybody or anything. Most old people get senile these days. What kind of existence is that?"

"I think the Living Tree cures that. We could try, anyway. Where is he?"

Cure Alzheimers? Enoch didn't know whether he should be hopeful or just put the ridiculous idea out of him mind. What was this Living Tree snake oil, anyway? "He's in Arkansas, near my folks, some 800 miles from here. Could you really do that?" Anything to rescue him from that living hell. Maybe he had no perception, but it was hard on Grandma.

"There would be some logistic issues to solve," Lazir mused. "I think you understand, we can't just hop in the lander and fly over there. We are trying to keep a low profile."

That made sense. Little green men in silver space suits can't just land on the front lawn and walk into a nursing home. They'd call out the National Guard. "Do you need to examine the patient?" Enoch asked. "Maybe I could just take him some remedy?"

"I'd have to consult with Rafile. Maybe we can work something out. Can you go, if we gave you something?"

"Yeah, sure. I could leave today. Whenever."

Lazir got up to leave. Maybe got down is a better word. He scooted forward and slid off the chair the way a child does. "I'll be back shortly," he said, and headed out the door.

Enoch decided if he was going off on another trip today, he needed to fold and pack his clothes, and headed off to the laundry room. There was a lot to think about.

How would he know that the snake oil was not toxic? Lazir did not seem hostile, but rather genuinely helpful. But what if the old geezer up and died?

How could he administer the medication under the nurses' watchful eyes? Maybe he could mix it in with a milkshake or something. Grandpa dearly loved a chocolate malt, maybe the nurses would let him bring one in from the local drive-in.

Could he take Rafile and/or Lazir in his car? Would they come?

What about communications with the lander? They had this repeater on the hillock, but it seemed to be a line-of-sight thing. The signal made it through the open door into the house, but not through the rocky hillock.

He picked up his stack of newly folded clothes and went into the bedroom to repack his bag. He'd just gotten the bag on his bed and open when he heard Lazir call from the living room, "Enoch?"

"Be right there," he called back, and dumped the pile of clothes into the bag. It was not quite as far as California, but maybe he didn't need to stay so long. Besides, he could crash at his parents, and Mom had a washing machine. "Just getting ready to go," he told Lazir as he came back into the living room.

"Can you get email on your computer from a distance?" he asked. "We might be able to work something out that uses your computer's email network system to communicate."

"Yes, I think there is a WiFi hotspot in the nursing home." Enoch wasn't sure of that. "If not, I can go to Micky Dee's or someplace to get online. Are you or Rafile coming with me?"

"No, that would not be a good idea, but our technicians are working up a small energy converter which we could operate by remote control. We can email messages to you, and have the converter pick them up from your computer. Can it do two channels at once? Our radio technician isn't sure about being able to clone your access in a remote location if it's different from the protocols you use here."

"I can set it up to do that," Enoch said. I'm a programmer. It's a simple matter of programming. "Do you want to try the local channel here now?" He went over to his desk and opened up the laptop. He powered it up, then set up his network control panel to host a second net connection, unencrypted. "There, can your guys see that? Wait, I'll get the desk machine to log on, so you can see how." It didn't take long before he had two users logged in. He set up his email to forward messages to the second user. He added a filter to limit that to messages with "Lazir" in the subject line.

"OK, try this." On the desk computer, he sent himself an email with the subject "Lazir forwarded". He turned to Lazir and asked, did your guy get that?"

"Yes, he did. We can do this." There was a slight pause.

Enoch saw another email come through the internet connection with the same subject, and get immediately forwarded to the second user out on the lander.

"It works that direction. Can we go the other way?" Lazir asked.

"Yes. Just send an email from the client without your name in the subject." Enoch watched it go by a few seconds later. They obviously had the protocol.

"OK, we can do this," Lazir announced. It will be another hour getting the hardware assembled and connected up. I'll be back." He left again.

Enoch decided this was a good time for lunch. He could grill that buffalo steak. He went out back and fired up the propane grill, then came in for the steak. The nice thing about propane is that it gets hot quickly. He cut the steak in half, then wrapped the other half tightly and put it in the freezer. He didn't want to be eating too much before a long trip, and he didn't want it spoiling in his fridge while he was gone. The fruits and veggies would probably be OK.

It was a good steak, a little dry and not quite as tender as marbled beef, but much better than anything he could get out of a can. He was cleaning up when Lazir came back, carrying one end of a box the size of a microwave oven. He guessed it was Lazir, but they all look alike. There was another Ghibber carrying the other end, maybe Meekya, but Enoch couldn't tell.

They set the box on the floor. "We can't lift this up to your desk," Lazir apologized. His voice sounded muffled and a little scratchy.

Enoch went to help, and found the unit astoundingly heavy, maybe 120 pounds. It had handles on the sides, like a steamer trunk, but smaller. Enoch dragged the coffee table over closer, then hefted the unit up and onto the table near the end. He was afraid that setting it in the middle would break the table. Suddenly he realized Lazir wasn't carrying his voice box.

Lazir opened a small door in the side of the unit. "This is where the material is fabricated," Lazir's voice came out of the top of the unit. "It's working right now through your laptop computer, using the network protocol we set up."

"I can talk to you through the internet using this?" Enoch was impressed.

There was a slight -- maybe half-second -- delay. "Yes. there are some transit and coding delays, but it's workable."

"What about power?" Enoch didn't see any power cord or place to plug anything in.

"It's an energy converter. It's self-contained."

"We have a problem," Enoch said. "This is too heavy for me to carry around, like into the nursing home. I might have to leave it in the car. The WiFi from the laptop inside won't reach that far out to the parking lot."

"Would it help if I had them mount wheels on it?"

"Yes, that might work. And a handle out the top, about so high. Wait, I think I have a luggage carrier that might work." Enoch ran into the bedroom and fished around in his closet for the luggage carrier he used on his trip to New York. It had to be here someplace. Oh wait, that was before he moved here. It's probably still in a box in the garage. "Hang on," he hollered on his way through, "I think it's out here."

He came back a couple minutes later triumphantly. "Like this." He stood the luggage carrier up on the floor near the converter, hefted the converter unit back down, onto the lip of the carrier, then extended the handle. The unit was too heavy for the carrier. It just tipped off.

"I see," Lazir said. "Wait." The two of them picked it up and carried it out the door.

Lazir returned alone in about ten minutes, dragging the now wheeled unit behind him. The wheels and handle were integrated, so Enoch could not see any seam. He had his voice box with him this time. "Push this button," he said. "The handle folds down this way." It folded like a precision machine, with a solid click. "Push it again, to extend the handle."

Enoch grasped the handle. It was solid, and he could tip the unit easily. How much stress will the handle take?" he asked. "Can I use it to push or pull the converter into my car?"

"I think so," Lazir replied. He grasped the handle and tipped the whole unit endwise. "Yes, it should give you enough leverage."

He tipped it back upright and reached down to open the little door. "To make medicine, put a cup of water in here. This is programmed to convert some of the mass of water into syrup in solution. Rafile will talk you through the steps from the speaker here. Your laptop computer just needs to be turned on and connected to the internet, like now. If something goes wrong and we lose communication, send yourself an email back here, and we'll work things out."

"Let me review what we plan on doing. I'm going to take this unit to my Grandpa's nursing home, into his room, then turn on my computer, and Rafile will speak to me through the speaker here, and then somehow control this converter to produce some medicine, right?"

"Right. We may need some interaction, or a blood sample. Can you get something on a piece of soft paper, like that one over there?" Lazir pointed to the box of SoftWipes.

"That shouldn't be too hard."

"Then put it into the conversion chamber here," Lazir opened the little door.

Enoch wasn't quite sure how he did it, because there wasn't an obvious handle on the outside. "How did you do that?" He swung the door back and forth. When it got close to closed, it snapped shut. Enoch started to feel around for some kind of handle, and it popped open in his hand. "Oh!" It was something like the CD drive on his computer, where if you start to push it, it closes by itself, and if you hit the button -- actually just touch the door firmly -- it pops open.

"Do you think you can lift it into your car?" Lazir asked.

"We can try. Let's see, I've got everything ready. Let me grab my bag..." He stepped into the master bathroom to retrieve his shaver and deodorant, then dropped them into the open valise on his bed, closed it up, then carried it out to the living room. With his other hand he grasped the extended handle on the converter and pulled it along.

The grip was a little small for his hand, but sturdy. He lowered it gently down the front step and pulled it out to the car. He popped the trunk and dropped his bag in, then went around to the passenger side and opened the door. It was a heavy lift, but he got the converter up on the passenger seat, and buckled the seat belt over it. That way, he could use it in the car if he happened to be near an open hotspot.

Enoch went back in the house for his laptop. He powered it down and dropped it into the carry bag, verifying that the two power dongles -- one for the wall plug and a second one for the car, just in case -- were there. He picked it up and gave the room a quick visual sweep, more out of habit than anything else, then headed out the door, closing it on his way out. "Well, here goes nothing. I'll try to contact you when I stop for gas, maybe four hours or so, and then when I arrive."

"We'll be watching for you," Lazir responded, then turned and trotted off toward his lander.

Yes, I guess you will, thought Enoch. Those guys are watching everything.
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