Questions Without Answers

Gary brought Scotty back. He had to prepay another month to Mary, who complained over “tea” about incidental costs, and time spent interacting, and stress, and emotional investment, but whose pain threshold was met, thank you, by a month’s rent. The cats all seemed agitated as the power was turned off and the green beam receded back into a patterned shape in the belly of the antenna. Scotty was not consulted before the move.

Gary’s beater made its way along the freeway, slightly askew from a twisted subframe, requiring a heavy hand on the wheel and giving it — from just the right angle — something of a crabwalk look. A satellite observer could ID it solely with dimensions and that minute misalignment, should such be called for. Indeed, the questions I have posed before have never been more pertinent: this could be the last chance to cleanly end this matter with an interception or even a surgical missile strike, later explained away as an explosive car fire. The object was certainly explosive enough to require an observer to ask him or herself about their tolerance, their willingness, to see this info virus leak into the general population. Good reason existed to stop it without prejudice or compromising deniability. But this day, as many others, there was no one listening on this channel, searching this artery for virus carriers, plying the preemptive trade. The preemptors were using their other, more tried means of identifying and painting targets.

The beater stopped in front of a newspapered storefront. Gary had successfully rented it for a month with the pretense of running a short-term telemarketing operation out of it. Strictly legitimate, he had said to a incredulous real estate agent, a gentleman used to the social glue of propriety, who was a little shocked that legitimacy was, by implication, something he was expected to consider. I’m sure, he had finally said with the equanimous smirk and levity common at commercial transactions: I’m sure you are strictly legit — and your greenbacks better be, too.

The storefront had a garage-sale desk and chair, and an active cable connection with Internet access. Gary had rigged up a Mylar blanket to cover the antenna and its bowl when he switched the battery back on, but the transition from green stain to green beam and sensory structure in the bowl was non-stochastic. The fluid structure itself had transformed itself during these months. There was a simple projection of a speaker — human form, or at least the source’s idea of what it was to be human — that could communicate directly with you. The representation of speaker was very simple, if more or less true, in its outlines and detail, indicating either a deficiency in perception across these immense space-time distances or an inability to completely master matter on this end, the remote end of the connection. The speaker proved to be an annoyance to Gary when it began to communicate in staccato metallic tones, and Gary made clear that he preferred text.

So they sat together in that oasis with its mosaics of yellowing newspaper stories and ads, with a dirty and blackening hardwood floor and a few bald lights, and they got to know each other. Gary started by asking a few simple questions about the development of its English skills, and the response would type its way across the screen. “Can you email me all of this when we’re done?” Gary asked, and that was affirmed, although he felt oddly unable to believe the nonchalant promise from his evasive conversant.

Gary found himself elaborating on the same story I’ve told here, in a level of detail that he would not have given to any human counterpart, except perhaps at the very end of an intensive drunk, but Scotty’s impassivity lulled him. Sometimes Gary thought Scotty’s questions were a way to cover a lack of understanding, but at the same time he knew that his conversant was preserving this conversation and could do anything it wanted with it — perhaps even come back at Gary with a more informed strategy how to mold his behavior. If so, if this conversation was a strategic plumbing, it was a great success. Gary knew it, but this knowledge did not disturb him much in the context within which it was won. This battle, if battle it were, would be forgotten in the context of the wider war that had begun with the burnt monitor, that had paused many months, and would likely resume soon enough.

The big questions went unanswered. “Why do this? Where are you? Who are you? What do you want from us? What is your assignment? Who tells you what to do and not? How widespread is intelligent life? Are we all like monkeys? Did you have epochs like our epoch of the dinosaur? Are these chance transitions just that? Do you speak like we do? Are you encased in electronics, or does that differentiation even make sense in your world? How hard is it to learn to understand us? Are we a backward civilization? Are we in danger? Do you know our future? Are you from an ancient civilization? A future one? Does the universe end? Is there God? Do you pray?”

Scotty’s screen impassively blinked his place with a cursor. No words.

“Why can’t you answer me? I’ve basically risked everything I have to keep you around, and you can’t even answer me one lousy question?”

Blinked: One lousy question.

Great, Gary thought, now he’s the literalist. There was not much sense thinking over all the questions available to him — a bald-faced lie to a brilliant question wasn’t worth a thing. “Why can’t you answer our questions?”

The answer blinked across slowly, perhaps a mere artifact, perhaps symbolic: We cannot couch the answer in such a way that it would not confuse you in a negative way.

“Isn’t it up to us to decide what we can understand and what we can’t? We’re not children, after all.”

More slow blinking: No, we would be affected, too.

“How? What could we do to you? Or do you mean you’d lose your perfect laboratory?”

No, but you see already that one answer demands another. And our refusal to answer some questions would seem to be evasive, no matter what reasons we may have.

“So — our fight-or-flight wetware makes us inadequate discussion partners, eh?”

No.

“Are you from our future? Are you afraid that what you tell us will have consequences for humanity?”

No.

“No, not from the future, or not afraid of the consequences?”

No, you will not find your answers that way.