It was early afternoon when Enoch pulled onto the interstate. The tank was nearly full, so he might make it into Oklahoma before stopping for gas and maybe a quick bite. He had a lot to think about.
He thought about calling his parents to tell them he's coming, then reconsidered. They didn't see eye to eye, and Enoch didn't really want the extra stress of dealing with them right now. It was enough that Lazir was laying all this religious stuff on him, without getting it from his dad too. No, this would be a quick stealth visit: get in, see Grandpa, then get back home. 24 hours round trip, maybe a little more if he stopped to sleep.
Sleep. He was wide awake right now, but he would be getting into Arkansas around two in the morning, close to the time he'd be getting tired, and Grandpa would be asleep for another four or five hours until they woke him up for his morning meds. Enoch could find a motel after he got into town. That way he could arrive fresh and alert.
He wondered about this "Living Tree" medication, what it would do to the old man. What if it killed him? Well, maybe that wasn't such a bad outcome after all, it would put the old geezer out of his misery. Yes, definitely better not to notify his parents. Mom would be really upset. It was her dad. She wouldn't even condone his experiment. Best to do this under the radar.
The southwestern prairie is pretty dry, not much to look at. The farther east you go, the more rain it gets, so you get more vegitation, grass for the cattle to eat, less scrub and tumbleweed. But it's still pretty boring. Some trees here and there at rivers and homesteads where they'd dug wells. Once you get into Texas it starts getting pretty flat. Boring. Why would anybody want to live here? Enoch longed for the California hills. Even the greenery of Arkansas would be more interesting than this.
He thought about his computer, this might be a good time to charge up its battery. He zipped open the bag with his free hand, dug out the car dongle, plugged it into the accessory socket, then plugged the other end into the computer power jack. He had to do this mostly by feel, because it's easy to get focussed on stuff like this for longer than it takes to run the car off the road. The traffic wasn't heavy, but there were a lot of trucks on the road. Always are. No wonder the country had an energy deficit. Not my problem, Enoch thought.
He passed another truck as he crossed into Texas. Texas had a slower posted speed limit but nobody slowed down. Somebody who lives there told him they consider the speed limit signs to be "advisory". He guessed it was like the reduced speed limit posted for trucks in California. The trucks there went as fast as everybody else. Why have speed limits if you're not going to enforce them? Maybe it was a liability thing, if there was an accident, they could pin the liability on the truck that was "speeding". Whatever.
If they wanted to do transportation right, they would beef up the rail system, make it all electric, like in Europe and Japan. Texas was getting some huge wind farms; California already had them.
Farms. Except in podunk places like Arkansas, factory farms were replacing the individualistic and inefficient small farmers. Huge factory farms produced the food of the whole nation. Railroads were the factory transportation systems, but the country was moving the wrong direction. Probably the railroad barons from a hundred years ago got lethargic, and the nimble truckers came in and ate their lunch. Small farmers couldn't be nimble. Most of them in his dad's church couldn't even make a living on their farms, they had to hold a day job in town too. It was crazy. But they loved it -- farming, that is.
Not me, thought Enoch. He couldn't wait to get out of it. Then he was dumb enough to buy that worthless barren ranch in New Mexico. Not to become a farmer, he sure didn't want that. He bought it without the cattle; the previous owner was responsible for selling that off separately. It actually improved his proceeds. Enoch could have accepted the cattle and sold them himself, but he didn't want to be bothered. It worked out so everybody was happy. The things you think about on a cross-country drive.
Amarillo is the biggest city between Albuquerque and Oklahoma City, several miles of built-up urban area on both sides of the highway, mostly businesses catering to the drive-bys like Enoch -- and probably the local ranchers too, but less obviously so. Maybe that strip was all there was to the town, but he couldn't tell. Enoch never even got off the freeway most of the time he drove through. Back when he drove this route from California to visit his parents on the holidays, he sometimes spent the night in one of the Amarillo motels. Back when he cared about such things, fresh out of college, the east Amarillo motels were some of the cheapest on the whole trip. From the prices he could see from the freeway, they probably still were. Of course back then he mostly just slept in the car. Now he preferred the cleaner dives on the west side. They cost more, but that was small change.
More flat, boring prairie. This is the Bible Belt, he thought. You wouldn't see a huge cross like that in California out in the middle of nowhere. They are more enlightened out west. Probably were on the east coast too, at least in the north-east. I'm more enlightened, he thought, what am I doing here? These guys are nuts.
Enoch thought about the energy converter sitting on the seat next to him. He wondered if it could make gold. It was remote controlled, they told him. Could he reverse-engineer it? That would be a trip. When he was in college he would reverse-engineer the copy protection out of the commercial software. It was a wonderful puzzle. Of course in that case he knew the computer it ran on. He could recognize the function of the program by what it was doing, but what about a computer where he didn't know the instruction set? That would be tough.
On TV Spock could walk up to an alien computer and type a few things into the keyboard, and it would self-destruct, smoke and sparks and all, but the real world doesn't work that way. You can't even make a human-designed computer self-destruct -- unless they planned it that way. Maybe the control on a bomb or missile, where you don't want the intended victim getting into it, but ordinary computers controlling normal daily functions, nobody wants them to catch fire and burn, so they don't build that ability into them. PC monitor protocols were designed by hackers who didn't know what they were doing, and some older CRTs could be damaged by the wrong settings, but those days are long gone.
Did the Ghibbers worry about reverse-engineering? Did they try to protect their trade secrets from prying eyes? That's an interesting question. The tightest protection controls on commercial software was always on the mediocre software. Enoch often wondered about that. It was like the expert programmers didn't need to hide their work, they could always make more; it was the incompetents, who barely got their product working at all, they needed the protection because this was all they had. Enoch liked to think of himself as one of the experts, but most of his work was in large team efforts, where he only did a small part of the whole package. There were sharp guys like himself on the teams, and there were duds. The process was over-engineered and the profit margins high enough, so the duds didn't adversely affect the success of the project. Of course that was before the dot-bomb. There were a lot of programmers out of work now, mostly those duds. Everybody knew who they were.
OK so the Ghibbers were competent, and probably didn't need to put protection in. Oh wait, they seemed expert compared to human technology, but maybe they had their own relative duds and experts too. There was no way Enoch was going to find out, at least not in the next couple days. He didn't want to damage the prospect of curing Grandpa, and there was too much he didn't know. Lazir had said something about giving him a computer, maybe that would give him an entry. But there was the religious thing again. There was no escaping it.
What is it about religion, anyway? Why can't people just grow up and get a life? And the Ghibbers, what's up with that? Of all people, you'd expect an advanced civilization to have outgrown religion. It was so Dark Ages. Enoch was confused. He decided to think about what exactly religion is and does.
First of all, religion tells us where we came from. "In the beginning God created..." Enoch remembered that line from when he was a kid in Sunday School. Come to think of it, non-religion tells us where we came from too: evolution, "red in tooth and claw." Survival of the fittest, the primordial soup growing into life, then evolving into fish, then reptiles, birds and mammals, and finally humans. Lazir said it didn't happen that way, but that was his word against the scientists. What did he know?
Two, religion tells us where we are going. "When we all get to Heaven," the old gospel hymn said. People want something to hope for, some crutch to get them through their miserable existence. Wasn't it Thoreau who bemoaned the "quiet desperation" people live through? Enoch didn't have that problem. He didn't need a crutch. Non-religion also tells us where we are going: nowhere. "Dust to dust." Oh wait, that's a religion line.
One, where we came from. Two, where we are going.
Three, religion tells us what to do. Boy does it ever. "Thou shallt... thou shallt not..." That was why Enoch got out. Freedom is the American Way. Do your own thing. Of course there are limits. Like right now. Enoch's car had a top speed something like a 180. He once had it up to 150, but the traffic here was too heavy. Not like California traffic, but nobody was doing over 85, so he couldn't go very far before he had to slow down and wait for the car in front of him to get past some truck doing only 80. Maybe the speed limits were advisory, but going twice the posted speed was a good way to "Go directly to jail, do not pass Go." Religion has it all over non-religion in the Do's and Dont's category, but everybody has rules to follow.
Come to think of it, Enoch realized, the atheistic countries tend to be more repressive than some of the religious ones. He wondered why that is. Maybe a religious person is already following his religion's rules, so he doesn't need statist rules that say the same thing: "Do not murder, do not steal," stuff like that. They have them anyway, but enforcement tends to be more lax around law-abiding citizens. That's a curious phenomenon, he thought. There's more crime in New York and California, than here in the Bible Belt. Why are religious people more law-abiding?
Enoch was still thinking about it when he crossed over into Oklahoma. He glanced down at the gas gauge. He still had plenty.
Not all religions are the same. Enoch's own parents were peacible enough, but the religious nuts in Ireland -- both sides -- were pretty violent. Muslim extremists put everybody (even the atheists) to shame, and the Hindu nationalists in India were not far behind. Maybe every religion had its own bell curve, extreme violence at one end, gentle peacefulness at the other, most people somewhere in the middle. You only hear about the violent ones.
How did I get into this, Enoch wondered. Oh yes, what religion does for people. One, where we came from. Two, where we are going. Three, how to behave. The analysis doesn't seem to be doing such a great job. Strictly speaking, atheism is a religion too, it just doesn't have a deity. Enoch wasn't sure, but he seemed to recall Zen didn't have any deities either. Maybe the deities are merely an incidental.
What's the point of all this? All the religions -- including non-religion -- answer the same great questions in life: Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? What should I do? Maybe it came down to What is true?
Science is true. Enoch liked the answers from science -- non-religion
-- best. What should I do? Answer: anything I want to (within reason).
Where did I come from? Where am I going? Answer: who cares? This life is
all there is. But Enoch had it good. He had money, opportunity... Well,
that wasn't working out so great at the moment, but with his marketable
skills, the downturn shouldn't last long. Correction: Enoch was on the
cusp of the greatest opportunity ever to befall humanity in a million years,
the first encounter with an alien race. Who needs religion? Let the "poor,
uneducated, easily led" believe in their crutch gods which don't exist
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