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Copyright © 2009 Ben Lacy All rights reserved
I had been spacesick for four days of floating around in zero gravity after we dropped out of warp space. That didn't leave me in the best of shape for Delphi, which has a gravity 1.7 times that of Earth's. I walked down the gangway, feeling my now three hundred pound body strain at the joints as I tried to force it into motion. I was certainly relieved when I saw that a robotic porter was loading our luggage onto a bus. I almost fell though as I walked into Mrs. Roberts, who had stopped and was trying to catch her breath. I looked at my fellow pilgrims and realized that I was going to have an easier time than most of them. Mrs. Roberts for one must be pulling nearly four hundred pounds, and she had to be in her sixties. "Here, let me help you Diane." I took one side of her while her husband supported the other. Both nodded at me gratefully. "We'll be at the hotel in a few minutes, honey," Congressman Roberts told her, "they'll have floatation tubs waiting."
AAQ/BPL This would be my only trip off Earth. I had to do some sightseeing while I had the chance. Right now though, getting in a tub sounded pretty good. Maybe one of the other pilgrims would loan me a bodyservo later. I could never afford to rent one. The five pilgrims who did have the servos moved jerkily but quickly to the bus. The suits did all their movement for them, except breathing. The machine supported the body’s weight at the butt and haunches. Anyone wearing one moved with their knees always bent thirty degrees in an awkward scuttle. I still wish I could have afforded one. The city was only four miles away, but due to Delphi's small radius, it couldn't be seen on the horizon. Around us was a large but not very busy landing port. When Delphi was first discovered, it was believed that millions would flock here every year for its miracle. As it turned out, only the desperate or the bored would make a journey to an iron rock more than two months from the nearest habitable world. They had to be rich too, plenty rich. The bus had a transparent roof, so that I could lean back in my recliner and see the sky. Delphi had no atmosphere of its own, and the permeable force dome that held in the air around the city was no obstruction to the best view of the universe one could ever have. We were only a thousand light years from the galaxy's center, and here the nearest stars were less than half a light year away. Some of the closest were giants giving nearly enough light to read by. It was the best thing about this trip so far. I looked around at the other eight pilgrims. None of them were looking. They must be too jaded. For a moment, I felt superior because I could appreciate the beauty above us while they ignored it. Then it occurred to me that they'd probably had views like this all their lives. We drove into Delphi's sunrise just as its only city came into view. The city of Adonis was almost as interesting as the sky. Unfinished skyscrapers were scattered around the outskirts. They were to have been hotels and condos for the flocks of tourists. When the tourism business went bust years ago, the churches took over. Every major and minor religion had a post here. The smaller sects occupied the unfinished buildings. The first one we passed was mostly a skeleton of steel girders. On each side of the building, the girders had been cut to form ten story high steel crosses. These soared above dozens of smaller
AAQ/BPL crosses formed from girders on each side of the main crosses. Beneath it all, the only finished part of the building housed the church itself. Further into the city, buildings that should have been Hiltons, Hyatts, and Marriotts now housed the Catholics, the Reformed Jews, and the Baptists. We were to be guests of the Baptists, who still kept a portion of the Marriott running. The church's representative to the Oracle met us as we checked in. "You've been scheduled to go into the mountain at eight tomorrow morning. I know, I know. We tried to schedule you earlier, but somebody from the government has to be there, as well as two other non-pilgrims in accordance with the law. We will provide the witnesses, but a government official won't be available until tomorrow." The others were uniformly unhappy, hoping to be out of this gravity well as soon as possible. I had mixed feelings myself. I was sacrificing so much for this trip, but now, slumped on my own baggage, I was beginning to want to leave myself. "The group dinner will be held at six this evening. It is something of a tradition for pilgrims to tell why they have come. I believe this came about from a desire to have an explanation for their questions on the public record should it come up in court. You may partake of this tradition if you desire. None of you should feel any pressure to do so." That said, the minister left us to go to our rooms. I would have preferred to have asked my question in private, as I am sure would my fellow pilgrims. However, there are questions that people can't be allowed to ask, like winning lottery numbers or military secrets. So all pilgrims had to ask their question in front of witnesses, including each other, and all questions and answers were taped. This did not mean that I had to explain myself however, and I certainly had no intention of doing so. I went to my room and took a nap in a floatation tub for about four hours. The rising sun of a new day awoke me. I could see it over the mountain that anchored the city and contained the Oracle. I lay in the tub for another ten minutes wondering how anyone could stand these five hour long days. Due to the shortness of the day, everyone here went by Greenwich Mean Time, so I still had three hours until dinner.
AAQ/BPL The nap had revived me somewhat, and I found that I had already begun to adapt to the gravity. At least I no longer had to think about every breath I drew. I decided that I was up for a little sightseeing. There are several things worth seeing on Delphi apart from the Oracle. All of them existed because of the Oracle, but some were not what you might expect. The most obvious were the churches. I spent my time before dinner exploring some of these. The auto cab ride down the city's main boulevard reminded me of a religious Las Vegas. All the churches were meant to be hotels, so they had neon lights. Now though, crosses had been added and the names on the signs changed. There were fewer churches on the outskirts, but some of these were the most interesting. Like the church of steel crosses at the very edge of the city, they had to come up with ways to overcome the deficiencies of their buildings. The Pueblo Indians for instance had built a giant pueblo, a colorful but primitive adobe building, around the base of the main building. I toured a couple of the churches and picked up a few souvenirs before heading back. I returned to the Baptist ministry just in time for dinner, which was excellent. The spread was the best we'd had in months. I didn't enjoy it as much as I should have though. The discussion that was to follow had reminded me of my job here. I knew there must be more worthwhile questions to ask the Oracle. Now that I was here, the thought of giving away my question was beginning to rip out my guts. I wasn't allowed to stew too long though before the minister who had met us upon our arrival rose to speak. These dinners were probably their best form of entertainment. Who knew what tragedy or glory a pilgrim might have come to Delphi to pursue. "About ten years ago a pilgrim became nervous before the Oracle,” the minister began. “He couldn't remember his question, so he said, `What was my question?' The Oracle told him. And that was all the Oracle told him. I'm telling you this to give you an idea of how careful you must be around the Oracle. The Oracle will only answer one question per person for your entire life. No part a, b, c questions either. What is more, the Oracle can be, and often is, quite cryptic in its responses.”
AAQ/BPL "Now if you wish to tell us your story, we will endeavor to help you phrase your question so that you have the best chance of getting the kind of response you wish. Regardless, I have to urge you to think long and hard about what you will ask. Once you've decided, write it down. That will prevent a needless waste of this once in a lifetime opportunity. Mr. Roberts, do you wish to begin?" Paul was the highest up the table on the left, which meant I would be last. "Sure, you'll all find out tomorrow anyway. I've just finished my fifth term as a congressman for New Berlin. I want to run for the Senate, but I have a scandal hanging over my head. I’ve been accused of having an affair with an underage girl. It’s untrue of course,” he looked over to his wife, who took his hand. “The only way to prove it though is to have the oracle declare my innocence.” The minister nodded at Paul and all eyes turned to his wife, the portly Diane. "I'm a question donor," she replied without prompting. Question donors usually helped medical researchers. They came with highly technical questions, the answers to which would provide a piece of a medical puzzle. This kind of effort had been invaluable in stopping heart disease, cancer, multiple sclerosis, and other sicknesses. "That's very noble of you," the minister said. It was also politically astute, I thought somewhat cynically. I had grown to like Diane, but she was still a good political wife. "For whom?" the minister asked her. "The Diabetes Foundation, I'm the honorary chairman for New Berlin. The foundation's directors have already written the question up for me." She blushed, "After what you said, I'm a little nervous about being able to pronounce some of the medical terms correctly." "I can arrange for you to talk with some of the doctors here, if you like?" Diane accepted the offer and it was Stacy Rosencrantz's turn. Stacy was in her late thirties, handsome, and well dressed. She also seemed quite shy so I didn't know much about her. Other than that she was very rich, of course. "My son, Peter, disappeared from a playground close to a year ago. He was only seven. At first we thought he was just lost. Then we assumed there would be a ransom. My husband runs a media conglomerate; we offered huge rewards on TV, but my son hasn't turned up. This
AAQ/BPL was the only thing left I could think of. Every day that goes by, I have less and less hope, and it’s taken almost three months to get here." She looked down at her coffee cup for a long second. "I'm going to ask what happened to my son. God, I wish I'd come here sooner." For a long moment nobody said anything, then the minister looked to Thomas Catton. Catton was in his mid-forties, immaculately dressed, and very handsome in a distinguished sort of way. He looked at his hands for a long moment, then he looked up and said, "I have nothing to discuss, thank you." The minister showed no response to the refusal. Some of my fellow pilgrims looked visibly annoyed. I was glad though that I would not be the only one who declined to speak. "Ms. Philips, do you wish to speak." She smiled broadly and shrugged. Angela was in her early thirties and very pretty. She was heiress to a construction magnate. She was extremely friendly, maybe a bit of a tease, but she was also sharp and determined. "I'm thirty-three years old. I've been divorced three times. I must have had two hundred affairs. I want to find a man I can spend the rest of my life with, if such a creature exists." "I would be surprised if you got a specific answer to that kind of question," the minister told her. "What if it depends on your behavior?" Diane asked. "You have to give a lot to make any relationship work." "The Oracle should be able to take those factors into account," David Kazinsky pointed out. "What if Mr. Perfect's already taken?" I couldn't resist joining the fun. Angela smiled at me. "I'll be sure to work the word `unmarried’ in my question. As for the likelihood of getting the kind of answer I want, I've got nothing to lose for trying." "Very well. Mr. Kazinsky would you like to speak?" "Sure, nothing much to it though. My company makes Eidetic Crystals for the brains of artificial intelligence units. We specialize in the units which run hyperlight spacecraft. I have three principle competitors. In the last three years I've lost nearly eighty percent of my market
AAQ/BPL share. My competitors have been underbidding me. I'm convinced they're using inside information on the bidding and bidding below cost. I'm simply going to ask the Oracle if it's true. The Oracle's taped statement should win an antitrust suit for me and put my company back on its feet." The Minister nodded at Kazinsky and turned to Mike Hart. I was pretty sure I knew Mike's question. "As some of you know, I'm a running back for the Raiders. I sat out most of last season when a helmet, followed by three hundred pounds of tackle, drove me into the turf and broke my neck." Angela Philips shuddered out loud. She should. I'd seen the hit on the net. It was brutal. "Steel rods in my back and neck allow me to walk pretty well, but the damage is so bad I'll never be able to play again. Unless I have an operation to rebuild my spine and neck out of ceramics. The catch is that it's even money that I could wind up worse then I am now, even paralyzed. I was going to ask if the operation would turn out well enough to let me keep playing." Mike leaned his huge frame carefully back into his seat and took a drink to indicate he was done. Alex Thompson spoke next. Alex was the youngest of us all. He was part of a family that owned a large chemical conglomerate. I suspected he was just a dilettante and that he was probably here on a lark. "I want to extend my life as much as possible," he declared. Everyone responded to this with a "huh". "I'm going to ask the Oracle the date of my death. I figure once I know when I'm going to die, I can pretty much do whatever I want until then. What's more, since I will do nothing on the day of my death but wait to die, I will definitely die of natural causes. So I'll live as long as possible." The room went nuts. "Do you expect divine intervention if you dive headfirst out a building a year before you're supposed to die?" Paul Roberts asked. "I guess I'll find out." "Trying to outsmart the Oracle doesn't usually work," the minister said. "Yeah, you’ll probably get a vague answer and just waste your question," Tom Catton added. The debate went on for a while, with the general opinion being that Thompson was going to outsmart himself somehow.
AAQ/BPL Now it was my turn. I stood up, smiled at them and said, "I'm sorry, I don't wish to talk about it. Goodnight." I didn't wait to see their looks of annoyance. I left. It wasn't that my question was unique or special, quite the opposite. I was embarrassed by it. I spent only a couple of hours sleeping that night. The rest of the time I spent seeing Delphi's other tourist attractions. Fortunately, they were open at all hours of the night, since Delphi had no real night. First on the list was the observatory on top of the mountain that contained the Oracle. The mountain was four miles above the town. Its top three and a half miles pierced the bubble that held in the atmosphere. I rode to the top in an auto cab, alone. The car went slowly, which was good. I had yet another great view of the sky and the city. It was an excellent way to meditate. I wondered again whether I should just call off the deal and ask another question. I arrived at the top of the mountain. It had its own force dome a half-mile in diameter. I took a ride around the mountain at the edge of the dome. Along the side opposite the city, I felt an incredible sense of isolation. The sun wouldn't come up again for another half-hour, and the city lights were shielded by the mountain. I sat there to see another sunrise, this time over the desolate, corrugated red surface of Delphi. Finally, I went into the observatory complex itself. The observatory was a massive facility for studying both the center of the galaxy and the Oracle itself. As the closest manned point to the galaxy's center and one of the only planets upon which evidence of alien intelligence had been found, scientists by the score came to Delphi to learn. Several of them were quite happy to show me around. The main thing I came away with was that in spite of years of study, as well as access to the Oracle, every time one mystery was solved, others appeared. I left the mountaintop at four in the morning. I figured this would give me just enough time to observe the third major subculture of Delphi. Scientists and priests were the two groups one would most likely expect to find on a world like this. The third group wasn't as obvious, but it made just as much sense. Delphi was home to hundreds of bodybuilders. As the inhabited world with the highest gravity among the colonies of Earth, it was Mecca for those who wanted the ultimate workout.
AAQ/BPL I went to the city's massive gym complex. I was in time to watch a preliminary lifting contest. I saw one man, who was almost as wide as tall, lift a barbell that weighed more than a thousand pounds on this world. I only watched for a little while because the gym had a huge whirlpool that beckoned me. There I found Mike Hart. After having watched the powerlifters, Mike looked as if he had shrunk. "Hi Jim. My neck is killing me. It's like I have a bowling ball for a head. Watch it, the waters hot." I carefully lowered myself in. For several long minutes we both just sat there. Then I turned to him. "Why do the bodybuilders come here? Thanks to the Oracle, most of them must know that they aren't going to become Mr. Olympia or a movie star." He looked at me for a long moment before answering. "Just because they can't be the best doesn't mean they don't want to be the best they can be. I mean, there's a sense of satisfaction being able to survive on a place where most people can't last more than a week. Besides, they make a good living here. The priests and eggheads need a lot of help and these folks are it." The two of us rode back to the Baptist Church together with a little more than an hour to spare. I went to my room where I ate by myself and watched the morning news. After having been so relaxed through the previous night, I now felt like I was standing on a live wire. It got worse as we rode to the Oracle. In the stories of Greek mythology, the Oracle was a temple to Apollo. The high priestess would sit in a pit breathing the fumes which came up from below. The fumes gave the priestess visions of the future. In most of the stories, such as Oedipus Rex, the visions were self-fulfilling prophecies of tragedy. Our Oracle was a two hundred foot diameter hollow sphere in the center of the mountain. Apparently, the sphere had been blown out of molten rock, in the same fashion a glass blower might make a bottle. The only break in the sphere was the hole where the "blow tube" had been. This was the entrance. The mountain had formed from the cooling lava that had bubbled up around the sphere.
AAQ/BPL The sphere had originally been empty - just glass smooth stone curving around on all sides. Humans had added a wooden platform at the entrance with stairs down to the bottom of the sphere where the pilgrims would go one at a time to ask their question. In addition to the platform, the sphere had been wired for video and sound to record both question and answer. In the language of the questioner, the answer would be spoken from all points of the room. There was no echo. With the witnesses standing nearby, we each descended in turn.
Paul Roberts was innocent. An honest politician seemed like a rarity to me. It was too bad I didn’t live on New Berlin so I could vote for him. Diane Roberts received an answer to her diabetes question that none of us could understand. Hopefully, the researchers could decipher it. Stacy Rosencrantz found out that her son had been kidnapped, murdered, and buried less than a mile from the playground where he'd last been seen. I don't know how much comfort it was for Mrs. Rosencrantz, but the Oracle generously named the murderer. A warrant was issued immediately. Thomas Catton turned out to be an agent of the FBI's division on racketeering. He asked if a well-known mobster had ordered the murder of a witness against him at his trial. The mobster had indeed, and another warrant was issued. Later, Catton had us all testify on video as to what we'd witnessed. Just before Angela Philips asked the name of her perfect man, I had a brief fantasy where the Oracle responded with my name. Surprisingly, it did give her a name, though not mine. I guess it wouldn't have worked out anyway. Sal Kazinsky got the evidence he wanted to build a lawsuit against his competitors. Mike Hart found out that he was never going to play pro football again. In spite of my envy of all he still had going, I felt sorry for him.
AAQ/BPL To everyone’s surprise, the oracle gave Alex Thompson a date for his own death, only ten years from today. Alex almost passed out when he heard. I wondered if I could keep in touch with him to find out whether his fate was so immutable. Then it was my turn. I walked to the bottom and asked my question. "Who has Crystal Johnson had sex with in the last two years?" In addition to her husband, Crystal had slept with two other men, and one woman. As I walked back up the platform, I could here Paul Roberts whisper "Question seller" to his wife. He was right. David Johnson was a very rich, very old man with a very young, beautiful wife. When he offered me a hundred thousand dollars and a free trip to the stars to use my one and only question to help him get his marriage annulled, I thought I'd made the deal of a lifetime. And now that it was over, I realized that I had. The others avoided me. Those who had money considered question selling a useful but distasteful activity. It didn't matter what they thought though, I wasn't a part of their world or they of mine. So what if I'd blown my one question for a sad old man. How would I have used it anyway? Instead I'd gotten to see another world, and make a hundred grand. It wasn’t enough to run for office or find the perfect woman, but it might be enough to finish my education and buy a house. I had wavered on the deal for a moment but then I realized the truth. I didn't have anything better to ask. I had already found my answers.