Ask a Foolish QuestionRobert Sheckley / Science Fiction
Produced by Sankar Viswanathan, Greg Weeks, and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net
This etext was produced Science Fiction Stories 1953. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
_It's well established now that the way you put a question often determines not only the answer you'll get, but the type of answer possible. So ... a mechanical answerer, geared to produce the ultimate revelations in reference to anything you want to know, might have unsuspected limitations._
_Ask A Foolish Question_
_by_ ROBERT SHECKLEY
* * * * *
Answerer was built to last as long as was necessary--which was quitelong, as some races judge time, and not long at all, according toothers. But to Answerer, it was just long enough.
As to size, Answerer was large to some and small to others. He couldbe viewed as complex, although some believed that he was really verysimple.
Answerer knew that he was as he should be. Above and beyond all else,he was The Answerer. He Knew.
Of the race that built him, the less said the better. They also Knew,and never said whether they found the knowledge pleasant.
They built Answerer as a service to less-sophisticated races, anddeparted in a unique manner. Where they went only Answerer knows.
Because Answerer knows everything.
Upon his planet, circling his sun, Answerer sat. Duration continued,long, as some judge duration, short as others judge it. But as itshould be, to Answerer.
Within him were the Answers. He knew the nature of things, and whythings are as they are, and what they are, and what it all means.
Answerer could answer anything, provided it was a legitimate question.And he wanted to! He was eager to!
How else should an Answerer be?
What else should an Answerer do?
So he waited for creatures to come and ask.
* * * * *
How do you feel, sir? Morran asked, floating gently over to the oldman.
Better, Lingman said, trying to smile. No-weight was a vast relief.Even though Morran had expended an enormous amount of fuel, gettinginto space under minimum acceleration, Lingman's feeble heart hadn'tliked it. Lingman's heart had balked and sulked, pounded angrilyagainst the brittle rib-case, hesitated and sped up. It seemed for atime as though Lingman's heart was going to stop, out of sheer pique.
But no-weight was a vast relief, and the feeble heart was going again.
Morran had no such problems. His strong body was built for strain andstress. He wouldn't experience them on this trip, not if he expectedold Lingman to live.
I'm going to live, Lingman muttered, in answer to the unspokenquestion. Long enough to find out. Morran touched the controls, andthe ship slipped into sub-space like an eel into oil.
We'll find out, Morran murmured. He helped the old man unstraphimself. We're going to find the Answerer!
Lingman nodded at his young partner. They had been reassuringthemselves for years. Originally it had been Lingman's project. ThenMorran, graduating from Cal Tech, had joined him. Together they hadtraced the rumors across the solar system. The legends of an ancienthumanoid race who had known the answer to all things, and who hadbuilt Answerer and departed.
Think of it, Morran said. The answer to everything! A physicist,Morran had many questions to ask Answerer. The expanding universe; thebinding force of atomic nuclei; novae and supernovae; planetaryformation; red shift, relativity and a thousand others.
Yes, Lingman said. He pulled himself to the vision plate and lookedout on the bleak prairie of the illusory sub-space. He was a biologistand an old man. He had two questions.
What is life?
What is death?
* * * * *
After a particularly-long period of hunting purple, Lek and hisfriends gathered to talk. Purple always ran thin in the neighborhoodof multiple-cluster stars--why, no one knew--so talk was definitely inorder.
Do you know, Lek said, I think I'll hunt up this Answerer. Lekspoke the Ollgrat language now, the language of imminent decision.
Why? Ilm asked him, in the Hvest tongue of light banter. Why do youwant to know things? Isn't the job of gathering purple enough foryou?
No, Lek said, still speaking the language of imminent decision. Itis not. The great job of Lek and his kind was the gathering ofpurple. They found purple imbedded in many parts of the fabric ofspace, minute quantities of it. Slowly, they were building a hugemound of it. What the mound was for, no one knew.
I suppose you'll ask him what purple is? Ilm asked, pushing a starout of his way and lying down.
I will, Lek said. We have continued in ignorance too long. We mustknow the true nature of purple, and its meaning in the scheme ofthings. We must know why it governs our lives. For this speech Lekswitched to Ilgret, the language of incipient-knowledge.
Ilm and the others didn't try to argue, even in the tongue ofarguments. They knew that the knowledge was important. Ever since thedawn of time, Lek, Ilm and the others had gathered purple. Now it wastime to know the ultimate answers to the universe--what purple was,and what the mound was for.
And of course, there was the Answerer to tell them. Everyone had heardof the Answerer, built by a race not unlike themselves, now longdeparted.
Will you ask him anything else? Ilm asked Lek.
I don't know, Lek said. Perhaps I'll ask about the stars. There'sreally nothing else important. Since Lek and his brothers had livedsince the dawn of time, they didn't consider death. And since theirnumbers were always the same, they didn't consider the question oflife.
But purple? And the mound?
I go! Lek shouted, in the vernacular of decision-to-fact.
Good fortune! his brothers shouted back, in the jargon ofgreatest-friendship.
Lek strode off, leaping from star to star.
* * * * *
Alone on his little planet, Answerer sat, waiting for the Questioners.Occasionally he mumbled the answers to himself. This was hisprivilege. He Knew.
But he waited, and the time was neither too long nor too short, forany of the creatures of space to come and ask.
* * * * *
There were eighteen of them, gathered in one place.
I invoke the rule of eighteen, cried one. And another appeared, whohad never before been, born by the rule of eighteen.
We must go to the Answerer, one cried. Our lives are governed bythe rule of eighteen. Where there are eighteen, there will benineteen. Why is this so?
No one could answer.
Where am I? asked the newborn nineteenth. One took him aside forinstruction.
That left seventeen. A stable number.
And we must find out, cried another, Why all places are different,although there is no distance.
That was the problem. One is here. Then one is there. Just like that,no movement, no reason. And yet, without moving, one is in anotherplace.
The stars are cold, one cried.
We must go to the Answerer.
For they had heard the legends, knew the tales. Once there was arace, a good deal like us, and they Knew--and they told Answerer. Thenthey departed to where there is no place, but much distance.
How do we get there? the newborn nineteenth cried, filled now withknowledge.
We go. And eighteen of them vanished. One was left. Moodily hestared at the tremendous spread of an icy star, then he too vanished.
* * * * *
Those old legends are true, Morran gasped. There it is.
They had come out of sub-space at the place the legends told of, andbefore them was a star unlike any other star. Morran invented aclassification for it, but it didn't matter. There was no other likeit.
Swinging around the star was a planet, and this too was unlike anyother planet. Morran invented reasons, but they didn't matter. Thisplanet was the only one.
Strap yourself in, sir, Morran said. I'll land as gently as I can.
* * * * *
Lek came to Answerer, striding swiftly from star to star. He liftedAnswerer in his hand and looked at him.