The sun was starting to set behind him when Enoch looked at his gas gauge again. This was a larger town, a good place to buy gas and see if this energy converter communicates remotely. There were three exits; he took the middle one. He passed up the first station, and went for a slightly larger place with several fast-food restaurants clustered nearby. After filling his tank, he drove over to one with a national reputation for offering a WiFi hotspot, and parked as close to the dining area as he could. He'd try to run his laptop and the converter here in the car.
Enoch locked the car and went in to buy a hamburger. Places like this only give password tokens to paying customers. Besides, he was getting hungry. He paid for it, then took his burger out to the car. He wasn't that hungry, and this was more important.
He opened up the laptop computer and powered it up. He noted with some satisfaction that he was close enough, and he was able to connect to the internet. Within a few seconds Lazir's raspy voice came from the converter. "Hello, Enoch. Where are you?"
"I'm at a hamburger joint somewhere in western Oklahoma. I guess your connection works, right?"
Slight hesitation from the transit delays. "It seems to work fine, thank you. How much longer do you need to travel?"
"I probably won't arrive until midnight or so. I plan on staying in a motel after I arrive, then drive to the nursing home in the morning. I'll be checking my email in the motel room, probably after midnight. We can talk more then, if you're awake."
"No problem. We'll watch for you."
Enoch ate his burger in silence, thinking about the religion thing. Planning to finish his drink on the road, he got out and dumped the rest of the trash in the receptacle, then closed the laptop and drove back to the highway.
Science is true. Religion is not. There was something wrong with that syllogism. Enoch's parents thought their religion was true. They were just wrong. Did Lazir think his religion is true? He certainly seemed to think so. Those Muslim extremists, surely they wouldn't volunteer for suicide bombing missions unless they thought their religion was true.
Maybe it's more like everybody thinks their own religion is true, and therefore assumes everybody else is wrong. He certainly thought that of his parents, and they said as much of Enoch. So how do you know? Science. Science is about what you can prove.
Or is it? What about that trilobite? Enoch wondered if Lazir could actually find a living fossil. Maybe he would just fake it, fabricate something in his energy converter. Could the converter fabricate a living organism? That would be awesome. Was the Ghibber technology up to it? That was something to ask Lazir, preferably after he got back.
Suppose they found a trilobite, what would that prove? A living coelacanth off the coast of Madagascar or wherever it was, that didn't disprove evolution. Sharks are older than that in the evolutionary tree. They just happen to have better survival fitness than trilobites. Maybe.
Unfortunately, Enoch realized, this line of reasoning hits a brick wall. He lacked access to sufficient information to evaluate whether it is Lazir or the biologists telling the truth about evolution. When someone makes fantastical claims about computer operations, he thought, I know the field, I can check it out. Biology, paleontology, cosmology, these are things outside my expertise. If nothing else, Enoch was -- or rather soon would be, within the next 24 hours -- in a position to evaluate the quality of Ghibber science. Alzheimers is irreversible by modern human science; let's see what Ghibber science does with it.
Enoch turned his thoughts to other topics. Everything hit the same brick wall. What would he do with the rest of his life? That depends on where this Ghibber relationship goes. He just had to wait and see how that played out. Would he become an insider in a new embassy? Maybe the political professionals would force him out. Or would the Ghibbers just go away, leaving little or no evidence of their visit? Dead end. If they went away, could Enoch learn enough from their technology before they left to be able to build some kind of commercial venture on it? Like this energy converter, suppose he just didn't give it back: would a team of scientists be able to reverse-engineer it? Suppose it was booby-trapped, and blew up if they tried? Too many unanswered questions.
It suddenly struck him that Lazir or Rafile or somebody was remote-controlling the energy converter by means of emails coming though Enoch's laptop. If he recorded all the email traffic coming and going, he might be able to reverse-engineer the controls without breaking the box open at all. It might be encrypted, or the encoding so foreign that he couldn't make heads or tails of it, but it was worth a try. He'd start logging the emails at his next stop. It was a simple step, requiring little or no further effort now.
He turned on the radio. Country music, country music, gospel, more country. That's all anybody listened to around here. Here was a talk show. He stopped and listened for a while. It was some kind of interview. He'd happened on it in the middle, some woman getting involved in her local school. Enoch didn't much care about schools, he did his stint long ago and, with no kids of his own, didn't have any need for them in the foreseeable future. This woman was involved in some curriculum that was supposed to break up peer pressure. They were showing much better success rates at getting their students into college. Then they started talking about religion. Another one of those damned religious programs. He couldn't get away from it, ignorance and superstition everywhere, even in the public schools. That should be unConstitutional. He turned the radio off.
They should ban religion, he thought. What about the separation of church and state, wasn't that in the Constitution? Enoch resolved, at his next opportunity -- obviously not now, while driving across Oklahoma -- to look at the Constitution and see what it said about forbidding religion in public. Nothing to be done now.
He tried another tack, relationships. The current situation with the Ghibbers pretty much precluded working on a social life. Maybe he could bring that up with Lazir after he got back. Would they be interested in that aspect of human interaction? He had no idea. No chick would want to -- the very idea was bizarre. Enoch had enough trouble making connections with girls, trying to do it with aliens in the background was a non-starter. Another brick wall.
That's the problem with cross-country drives, you have all this think time. When he's working on some software design, he can use the time productively to think about design issues, but those times he doesn't have time to drive anywhere at all. Catch-22. He turned the radio back on and looked for another station.
Driving through Oklahoma City required a little more attention, which eased the boredom. Not like LA freeways -- in California everybody referred to Los Angeles by its initials -- but at least not as drab as the open plains. A few miles after leaving the city, Enoch started looking for a truck stop. He called it "changing out the body fluids," because he wanted to get a big caffeinated soda pop, as well as make room for it. Most of the larger filling stations had self-serve dispensers, so he could mix flavors. The combination never tasted very good, but at least it was a little less boring. Enoch felt better after taking care of things. He got back on the highway and drove on in the dark. It was going to be a long night.
Shortly after the Arkansas border he pulled off again for gas and another pit stop. He decided against another drink, it was too close to his destination, and he didn't want to be overly wired. He bought a bag of munchies instead. The chemicals in that stuff were probably worse for him than the sugar and caffeine in the drinks, but right now he didn't care, he just wanted to get there.
It wasn't much longer when he passed the town where his parents lived. It was not far from the larger town -- you could hardly call it a "city" -- where the nursing home was. They had picked a place near a large local medical facility. The town was big enough to serve a variety of local industry, so there was a good selection of motels. Enoch found a vacancy in an upscale chain, which he knew would have internet access in the rooms, and checked in.
He left the energy converter in the car and carried his laptop and bag in first. He wanted to set up email recording before the converter came online. Then he went back out for the converter. At this hour all the ground-floor rooms were taken, but at least they had an elevator. The cheaper places make you walk up outside stairs. It's very hard to drag the small wheels of a luggage carrier over the edge of steps with no risers. The dollies that movers use have a sliding belt to ride on, but no such luck here. Enoch was happy for the elevator. It was slow, but it worked.
Enoch was still dragging the converter to the far corner of the room when Lazir's raspy voice greeted him.
"You're quick," Enoch replied. "Don't you guys sleep?"
"Sleep? That's some kind of non-functional state you go into for some 7 or 8 hours out of every 24, right? No, we don't sleep like that. We rest on a longer schedule, I think you call it a 'week', but it's two days off."
Enoch went over to his laptop and looked at the logged emails. There were several long ones each way. He posted a note to himself with the gist of the conversation, then realized he could record the conversation from the laptop's built-in microphone. He set that up with a voice-activated switch, so it would only record while somebody in the room was talking, and then scheduled it to save off the file and start a new one whenever it went silent for more than a couple minutes. That turned out to be trickier, so it took him a few minutes. But at least when he got around to analyzing the emails, he could look for (and ignore) the conversations while trying to pick out the converter controls. He deleted a couple movies he had already watched, to make room for the logs.
"Hello, Enoch?" Lazir had noticed the silence.
"Yeah, just doing some email stuff here." It wasn't exactly a lie. "Can we talk a little about the logistics for tomorrow? I think the nursing staff take a dim view of outsiders administering unauthorized medications, so I was planning to put your stuff into a chocolate malt. Grandpa loves malts, and they don't give him any in the home, but they usually let me bring one in for him when I visit. I was hoping I could stir your medication into the malt before giving it to him. Do you think that would work?"
"I don't know, let me ask Rafile." Small hesitation, then "What's in a chocolate malt?"
"Milk, water, sugar, some flavorings. It's ice-cold, about -- maybe a little below -- the temperature of water freezing. Hey, I bet we can find the ingredients online..."
"Yes, we found that. Unfortunately, we are not familiar with most of these names, so it will take a while to track them all down. I have an idea, why don't you put some of it into the converter, and we can run our own analysis."
"OK, but I can't do it now. Nothing is open at this hour. I'll go get some in the morning before checking out." This was looking good. They could do analysis too, and everything going both ways was being recorded. "Look, I have to get some sleep, you know, go non-functional for a few hours. I'll talk to you in the morning, OK?"
Enoch decided he wanted a little privacy, so he put the computer to
sleep before undressing for bed. Just to be safe, he set the alarm for
nine. That would give him an hour or so to play with the converter before
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