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´╗┐Title: Perfect Answer
Author: Stecher, L.J.
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Perfect Answer" ***

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                            PERFECT ANSWER

                         By L. J. STECHER, JR.

                      Illustrated by DICK FRANCIS

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
                   Galaxy Science Fiction June 1958.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]



             Getting there may be half the fun ... but it
            is also all of a society's chance of survival!


"As one god to another--let's go home," Jack Bates said.

Bill Farnum raised a space-gloved hand in negligent acknowledgment to
a hastily kneeling native, and shook his head at Bates. "Let's try
Deneb--it's almost in line on the way back--and then we can call it
quits."

"But I want to get back and start making some profit out of this. The
Galaxy is full of _Homo sapiens_. We've hit the jackpot first trip out.
Let's hurry on home and cash in."

"We need more information. This is too much of a good thing--it doesn't
make sense. I know there isn't much chance of finding anything out by
stopping at one more solar system. But it won't delay us more than a
few weeks, and it won't hurt to try."

"Yeah," said Bates. "But what's in it for us? And what if we find an
inhabited planet? You know the chances are about two to one that we
will. That'll make thirteen we've found on this trip. Why risk bad
luck?"

"You're no more superstitious than I am," said Farnum. "You just want
to get back Earthside. I'll tell you what. We'll toss a coin for it."

Bates gestured futilely toward his coverall pocket, and then
remembered he was wearing a spacesuit as a precaution against possible
contamination from the natives.

"And we'll use one of _my_ coins this time," said Farnum, noticing the
automatic motion. "I want to have a chance."

The coin dropped in Farnum's favor, and their two-man scout ship hurled
itself into space.

       *       *       *       *       *

Farnum operated the compact computer, aligning the ship's velocity
vector precisely while the stars could still be seen. Bates controlled
the engines, metering their ravenous demand for power just this side of
destructive detonation, while the ship sucked energy from space--from
the adjacent universe on the other side of Limbo. Finally the computer
chimed, relays snicked, and the ship slid into the emptiness of Limbo
as the stars winked out.

With two trained men working as a team with the computer and the
elaborate engine room controls, and with a certain amount of luck, the
ship would drop back into normal space a couple of weeks later, close
beside their target.

"Well, that's that," said Farnum, relaxing and wiping the perspiration
off his forehead. "We're back once again in the nothingness of nowhere.
As I recall, it's your week for K.P. Where's the coffee?"

"Coming right up," said Bates. "But you won't like it. It's the last of
the 'God-food' the Korite priests made for us."

Farnum shuddered. "Pour it out and make some fresh. With a skillet, you
stink, but you're a thousand times better than Korites."

"Thanks," Bates said, getting busy. "It was the third place we stopped
that they were such good cooks, wasn't it?"

"Nope. Our third stop was the Porandians. They tried to kill us--called
us 'Devil spawn from the stars.' You're thinking of the fourth stop;
the Balanites."

Bates shrugged. "It's kind of hard to keep them all straight. Either
they fall on their knees and worship us, or they try to kill us without
even asking questions. Maybe it's lucky they're all so primitive."

"It may be lucky, but it doesn't add up. More than half the stars we
visit have planets that can support human life. And every one that can
does. Once there must have been an interstellar empire. So why are
all their civilizations so backward? They aren't primitive--they're
decadent. And why do they all have such strong feelings--one way or the
exact opposite--about people from the stars?"

"Isn't that why you want to try one more system?" asked Bates. "To give
us another chance to get some answers? Here's your coffee. Try to drink
it quietly. I'm going to get some shuteye."

       *       *       *       *       *

The trip through the Limbo between adjacent universes passed
uneventfully, as always. The computer chimed again on schedule, and a
quick check by Farnum showed the blazing sun that suddenly appeared was
Deneb, as advertised. Seventeen planets could be counted, and the fifth
seemed to be Earth type. They approached it with the easy skill of long
practice and swung into orbit about it.

"This is what we've been looking for!" exclaimed Farnum, examining
the planet through a telescope. "They've got big cities and dams and
bridges--they're civilized. Let's put the ship down."

"Wait up," said Bates. "What if they've got starman-phobia? Remember,
they're people, just like us; and with people, civilization and
weapons go together."

"I think you've got it backwards. If they hate us, we can probably get
away before they bring up their big artillery. But what if they love
us? They might want to keep us beside them forever."

Bates nodded. "I'm glad you agree with me. Let's get out of here.
Nobody but us knows of the beautiful, profitable planets we've found,
all ready to become part of a Terran Empire. And if we don't get back
safe and sound, nobody _will_ know. The information we've got is worth
a fortune to us, and I want to be alive to collect it."

"Sure. But we've got the job of trying to find out why all those
planets reverted to barbarism. This one hasn't; maybe the answer's
here. There's no use setting up an empire if it won't last."

"It'll last long enough to keep you and me on top of the heap."

"That's not good enough. I want my kids--when I have them--to have
their chances at the top of the heap too."

"Oh, all right. We'll flip a coin, then."

"We already did. You may be a sharp dealer, but you'd never welch on a
bet. We're going down."

Bates shrugged. "You win. Let's put her down beside that big city over
there--the biggest one, by the seashore."

As they approached the city, they noticed at its outskirts a large
flat plain, dotted with gantries. "Like a spaceport," suggested Bill.
"That's our target."

They landed neatly on the tarmac and then sat there quietly, waiting to
see what would happen.

       *       *       *       *       *

A crowd began to form. The two men sat tensely at their controls, but
the throng clustering about the base of the ship showed no hostility.
They also showed no reverence but, rather, a carefree interest and
joyful welcome.

"Well," said Farnum at last, "looks like we might as well go outside
and ask them to take us to their leader."

"I'm with you as usual," said Bates, starting to climb into his
spacesuit. "Weapons?"

"I don't think so. We can't stop them if they get mad at us, and they
look friendly enough. We'll start off with the 'let's be pals' routine."

Bates nodded. "After we learn the language. I always hate this part--it
moves so slowly. You'd think there'd be some similarity among the
tongues on different planets, wouldn't you? But each one's entirely
different. I guess they've all been isolated too long."

The two men stepped out on the smooth plain, to be instantly surrounded
by a laughing, chattering crowd. Farnum stared around in bewilderment
at the variety of dress the crowd displayed. There were men and women
in togas, in tunics, in draped dresses and kilts, in trousers and
coats. Others considered a light cloak thrown over the shoulders to be
adequate. There was no uniformity of style or custom.

"You pick me a boss-man out of this bunch," he muttered to Bates.

Finally a couple of young men, glowing with health and energy, came
bustling through the crowd with an oblong box which they set down in
front of the Earthmen. They pointed to the box and then back at Farnum
and Bates, laughing and talking as they did so.

"What do you suppose they want us to do?" Farnum asked.

One of the young men clapped his hands happily and reached down to
touch the box. "What do you suppose they want us to do?" asked the box
distinctly.

"Oh. A recording machine. Probably to help with language lessons. Might
as well help them out."

       *       *       *       *       *

Farnum and Bates took turns talking at the box for half an hour. Then
the young man nodded, laughed, clapped his hands again, and the two
men carried it away. The crowd went with them, waving merrily as they
departed.

Bates shrugged his shoulders and went back into the ship, with Farnum
close behind.

A few hours after sunrise the following morning, the crowd returned,
as gay and carefree as before, led by the two young men who had carried
the box. Each of these two now had a small case, about the size of a
camera, slung by a strap across one brawny shoulder.

As the terrestrials climbed out to meet them, the two men raised their
hands and the crowd discontinued its chatter, falling silent except for
an occasional tinkle of surprised laughter.

"Welcome," said the first young man clearly. "It is a great pleasure
for us to have our spaceport in use again. It has been many generations
since any ships have landed on it."

Farnum noticed that the voice came from the box. "Thank you for your
very kind welcome," he said. "I hope that your traffic will soon
increase. May we congratulate you, by the way, on the efficiency of
your translators?"

"Thanks," laughed the young man. "But there was nothing to it. We just
asked the Oracle and he told us what we had to do to make them."

"May we meet your--Oracle?"

"Oh, sure, if you want to. But later on. Now it's time for a party. Why
don't you take off those clumsy suits and come along?"

"We don't dare remove our spacesuits. They protect us from any disease
germs you may have, and you from any we may have. We probably have no
resistance to each others' ailments."

"The Oracle says we have nothing that will hurt you. And we're going
to spray you with this as soon as you get out of your suits. Then you
won't hurt any of us." He held up a small atomizer.

Farnum glanced at Bates, who shrugged and nodded. They uneasily
unfastened their spacesuits and stepped out of them, wearing only their
light one-piece coveralls, and got sprayed with a pleasant-smelling
mist.

The party was a great success. The food was varied and delicious.
The liquors were sparkling and stimulating, without unpleasant
after-effects. The women were uninhibited.

When a native got tired, he just dropped down onto the soft grass, or
onto an even softer couch, and went to sleep. The Earthmen finally did
the same.

       *       *       *       *       *

They awoke the following morning within minutes of each other, feeling
comfortable and relaxed. Bates shook his head experimentally. "No
hangover," he muttered in surprise.

"No one ever feels bad after a party," said one of their guides, who
had slept nearby. "The Oracle told us what to do, when we asked him."

"Quite a fellow, your Oracle," commented Bates. "Does he answer you in
riddles, like most Oracles?"

The guide was shocked. "The Oracle answers any questions promptly and
completely. He _never_ talks in riddles."

"Can we go to see him now?" asked Farnum.

"Certainly. Come along. I'll take you to the Hall of the Oracle."

The Oracle appeared to live in a building of modest size, in the center
of a tremendous courtyard. The structure that surrounded the courtyard,
in contrast, was enormous and elaborate, dominating the wildly
architectured city. It was, however, empty.

"Scholars used to live in this building, they tell me," said one of
their guides, gesturing casually. "They used to come here to learn from
the Oracle. But there's no sense in learning a lot of stuff when the
Oracle has always got all the answers anyway. So now the building is
empty. The big palace was built back in the days when we used to travel
among the stars, as you do now."

"How long ago was that?" asked Farnum.

"Oh, I don't know. A few thousand years--a few hundred years--the
Oracle can tell you if you really want to know."

Bates raised an eyebrow. "And how do you know you'll always be given
the straight dope?"

The guide looked indignant. "The Oracle _always_ tells the truth."

"Yes," Bates persisted, "but how do you _know_?"

"The Oracle told us so, of course. Now why don't you go in and find out
for yourselves? We'll wait out here. We don't have anything to ask him."

       *       *       *       *       *

Bates and Farnum went into the building and found themselves in a
small, pleasant room furnished with comfortable chairs and sofas.

"Good morning," said a well-modulated voice. "I have been expecting
you."

"You are the Oracle?" asked Farnum, looking around curiously.

"The name that the people of this planet have given me translates most
accurately as 'Oracle'," said the voice.

"But are you actually an Oracle?"

"My principal function, insofar as human beings--that is, _Homo
sapiens_--are concerned, is to give accurate answers to all questions
propounded me. Therefore, insofar as humans are concerned, I am
actually an Oracle."

"Then you have another function?"

"My principal function, insofar as the race that made me is concerned,
is to act as a weapon."

"Oh," said Bates. "Then you are a machine?"

"I am a machine," agreed the voice.

"The people who brought us here said that you always tell them the
truth. I suppose that applies when you are acting as an Oracle, instead
of as a weapon?"

"On the contrary," said the voice blandly. "I function as a weapon by
telling the truth."

"That doesn't make sense," protested Bates.

The machine paused for a moment before replying. "This will take
a little time, gentlemen," it said, "but I am sure that I can
convince you. Why don't you sit down and be comfortable? If you want
refreshments, just ask for them."

"Might as well," said Bates, sitting down in an easy chair. "How about
giving us some Korite God-food?"

"If you really want that bad a brew of coffee, I can make it for you,
of course," said the voice, "but I am sure you would prefer some of
better quality."

Farnum laughed. "Yes, please. Some good coffee, if you don't mind."

       *       *       *       *       *

"Now," said the Oracle, after excellent coffee had been produced, "it
is necessary for me to go back into history a few hundred thousand of
your years. At that time, the people who made me entered this galaxy
on one of their periodic visits of routine exploration, and contacted
your ancestors. The race that constructed me populates now, as it did
then, the Greater Magellanic Cloud.

"Frankly, the Magellanic race was appalled at what they found. In the
time since their preceding visit, your race had risen from the slime
of your mother planet and was on its way toward stars. The speed of
your development was unprecedented in millions of years of history. By
their standards, your race was incredibly energetic, incredibly fecund,
incredibly intelligent, unbelievably warlike, and almost completely
depraved.

"Extrapolation revealed that within another fifty thousand of your
years, you would complete the population of this galaxy and would be
totally unstoppable.

"Something had to be done, fast. There were two obvious solutions
but both were unacceptable to my Makers. The first was to assume
direct control over your race and to maintain that rule indefinitely,
until such time as you changed your natures sufficiently to become
civilizable. The expenditure of energy would be enormous and the
results probably catastrophic to your race. No truly civilized people
could long contemplate such a solution.

"The second obvious answer was to attempt to extirpate you from this
universe as if you were a disease--as, in a sense, you are. Because
your depravity was not total or necessarily permanent, this solution
was also abhorrent to my Makers and was rejected.

"What was needed was a weapon that would keep operating without direct
control by my People, which would not result in any greater destruction
or harm to humans than was absolutely necessary; and one which would
cease entirely to operate against you if you changed sufficiently to
become civilizable--to become good neighbors to my Makers.

"The final solution of the Magellanic race was to construct several
thousand spaceships, each containing an elaborate computer, constructed
so as to give accurate answers throughout your galaxy. I am one of
those ships. We have performed our function in a satisfactory manner
and will continue to do so as long as we are needed."

"And that makes you a weapon?" asked Bates incredulously. "I don't get
it."

       *       *       *       *       *

Farnum felt a shiver go through him. "I see it. The concept is
completely diabolical."

"It's not diabolical at all," answered the Oracle. "When you become
capable of civilization, we can do you no further harm at all. We will
cease to be a weapon at that time."

"You mean you'll stop telling the truth at that time?" asked Bates.

"We will continue to function in accordance with our design," answered
the voice, "but it will no longer do you harm. Incidentally, your
phrase 'telling the truth' is almost meaningless. We answer all
questions in the manner most completely understandable to you, within
the framework of your language and your understanding, and of the
understanding and knowledge of our Makers. In the objective sense, what
we answer is not necessarily the Truth; it is merely the truest form of
the answer that we can state in a manner that you can understand."

"And you'll answer any question at all?" asked Bates in some excitement.

"With one or two exceptions. We will not, for example, tell you how we
may be destroyed."

Bates stood up and began pacing the floor. "Then whoever possesses you
can be the most powerful man in the Universe!"

"No. Only in this galaxy."

"That's good enough for me!"

"Jack," said Farnum urgently, "let's get out of here. I want to talk to
you."

"In a minute, in a minute," said Bates impatiently. "I've got one more
question." He turned to face the wall from which the disembodied voice
appeared to emanate. "Is it possible to arrange it so that you would
answer only one man's questions--mine, for example?"

"I can tell you how to arrange it so that I will respond to only your
questions--for so long as you are alive."

"Come on," pleaded Farnum. "I've got to talk to you right now."

"Okay," said Bates, smiling. "Let's go."

       *       *       *       *       *

When they were back in their ship, Farnum turned desperately to Bates.
"Can't you see what a deadly danger that machine is to us all? We've
got to warn Earth as fast as we can and get them to quarantine this
planet--and any other planets we find that have Oracles."

"Oh, no, you don't," said Bates. "You aren't getting the chance to have
the Oracle all to yourself. With that machine, we can rule the whole
galaxy. We'll be the most powerful people who ever lived! It's sure
lucky for us that you won the toss of the coin and we stopped here."

"But don't you see that the Oracle will destroy Earth?"

"Bushwah. You heard it say it can only destroy people who aren't
civilized. It said that it's a spaceship, so I'll bet we can get it to
come back to Earth with us, and tell us how we can be the only ones who
can use it."

"We've got to leave here right away--without asking it any more
questions."

Bates shook his head. "Quit clowning."

"I never meant anything more in my life. Once we start using that
machine--if we ask it even one question to gain advantage for
ourselves--Earth's civilization is doomed. Can't you see that's what
happened to those other planets we visited? Can't you see what is
happening to this planet we're on now?"

"No, I can't," answered Bates stubbornly. "The Oracle said there are
only a few thousand like him. You could travel through space for
hundreds of years and never be lucky enough to find one. There can't be
an Oracle on every planet we visited."

"There wouldn't have to be," said Farnum. "There must be hundreds of
possible patterns--all of them destructive in the presence of greed
and laziness and lust for power. For example, a planet--maybe this
one--gets space travel. It sets up colonies on several worlds. It's
expanding and dynamic. Then it finds an Oracle and takes it back to its
own world. With all questions answered for it, the civilization stops
being dynamic and starts to stagnate. It stops visiting its colonies
and they drift toward barbarism.

"Later," Farnum went on urgently, "somebody else reaches the stars,
finds the planet with the Oracle--and takes the thing back home. Can
you imagine what will happen to these people on this world if they
lose their Oracle? Their own learning and traditions and way of life
have been destroyed--just take a look at their anarchic clothing
and architecture. The Oracle is the only thing that keeps them
going--downhill--and makes sure they don't start back again."

"It won't happen that way to us," Bates argued. "We won't let the
Oracle get into general use, so Earth won't ever learn to depend on it.
I'm going to find out from it how to make it work for the two of us
alone. You can come along and share the gravy or not, as you choose. I
don't care. But you aren't going to stop me."

Bates turned and strode out of the ship.

       *       *       *       *       *

Farnum pounded his fist into his palm in despair, and then ran to a
locker. Taking out a high-power express rifle, he loaded it carefully
and stepped out through the airlock. Bates showed clearly in his
telescopic sights, still walking toward the Hall of the Oracle. Farnum
fired at the legs, but he wasn't that good a shot; the bullet went
through the back.

Farnum jittered between bringing Bates back and taking off as fast as
the ship could go. The body still lay there, motionless; there was
nothing he could do for the Oracle's first Earth victim--the first
and the last, he swore grimly. He had to speed home and make them
understand the danger before they found another planet with an Oracle,
so that they could keep clear of its deadly temptations. The Magellanic
race could be outwitted yet, in spite of their lethal cleverness.

Then he felt a sudden icy chill along his spine. Alone, he could never
operate the spaceship--and Bates was dead. He was trapped on the planet.

For hours, he tried to think of some way of warning Earth. It was
imperative that he get back. There had to be a way.

He realized finally that there was only one solution to his problem.
He sighed shudderingly and walked slowly from the spaceship toward the
Hall of the Oracle, past Bates' body.

"One question, though," he muttered to himself. "Only one."





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