Edition 30: Your Questions Answered by Blaize M. Kaye
The stand was near the back of the flea-market, wedged between a crumbling brick wall and another stand where a young woman was selling tie-dyed pants. The sign above it read “Edna Lewis’ Yes/No box. Your questions answered”.
Below that, someone had taped a piece of cardboard with the words “Closing down: All answers half price. Today only!” handwritten in red marker.
I was intrigued, so I stepped up to the stand. An old bald man with a thick, almost white beard looked up from his book.
“Can I help you?” he asked, with a slight Dutch accent.
“What’s this about?” I asked, pointing at his box, the sign.
He reached below the desk and pulled out a box, jet black, about the size of a biscuit tin.
“You give me 50c,” he said, “then you ask your question here.” He pointed to a small protrusion on the side of the box. A microphone, I guessed.
“Then,” he continued, “if the question has a yes or no answer, one of these two lights will blink.” He pointed at a green and red light in turn. “Green for yes, red for no.”
“And it’ll give me the right answer?”
“Yes. Yes,” he said, sharply.
He shrugged and looked back down at his book.
“Alright, let’s see then.” I said. Fishing out my wallet, I handed him a few coins.
He counted them. “Four questions. Also, this can’t tell the future, only what is or has been. Not what will be.”
I leaned down to the microphone and asked, “Does five times five equal twenty-four?”
The machine shuddered to life spluttering like an old outboard motor and, after three or four violent chugs, settled into a warm hum. After about half a minute it gave one last shake, and the red light began to blink.
“Okay, that was an easy one,” I said. “How about…is my mother’s name Lindsay?”
The machine shuddered, hummed, and blinked green. Right again.
I slid a few banknotes across the table. The old man simply smiled, counted, and then pocketed the cash.
I spent the next fifteen minutes testing the box with questions only I could know the answer to. It got every one of them right. I was dumbfounded.
“This is unbelievable.” I stammered, “Why isn’t this…why aren’t you…”
“My wife, Edna, was a remarkable woman,” said the old man, leaning back into his chair.
“She was a logician and an engineer. I would say philosopher too, but she didn’t like that.” He chuckled.
“She finished the box just a few months before she died. Liver cancer, very aggressive.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Thank you. This box was her greatest achievement; don’t ask me how it works, I never understood.”
“When she finished the box, she presented it to her peers in the mathematics department. They were very excited, and for the first few days they consulted the machine about everything that came to mind. But after a while, they were using it less and less.”
“Was it broken?” I asked.
“Not at all, the machine was in perfect working order, but when she asked around the mathematicians reminded her that that knowing that something was true is all good and well, but it was only a very, very small part of their work. They needed proof, to show why something was true, and the machine was no help with that.”
“That makes sense, I suppose,” I said.
“Then she took her machine downstairs to the physicists. They were also excited, at first. When she returned a few days later, she found the machine gathering dust.
“None of the physicists wanted to use it. They complained that knowing the answers upfront takes all the joy out of the discovery!” He said.
“After she died, I didn’t really know what to do with it. I didn’t have any friends in the university; I never really got on with them, to tell you the truth. Edna also made me promise not to sell it to anyone in business or government. She didn’t trust them to use it for good.”
“So I set up my stand here at the flea market. I thought that at least here the machine might be able to do some real good.”
“And has it?” I asked.
“I’m shutting it down, so what do you think?”
“Well, some of the people would ask questions for which they already knew the answers. They asked ‘Should I eat better’, or ‘Should I give to charity’. And the machine would answer, and they would nod and say ‘Yes, exercise’, ‘Yes, charity’, but they never changed their lives. Wasted their money.”
He closed his book, picked up a canvas satchel off the floor and started packing away his things.
“Then there were the people who asked the questions they didn’t really didn’t want to know the answers to, like ‘Does my spouse love me?’ or ‘Is my son still alive?’. The machine would answer, but they would refuse to believe it. Demanded refunds.” He sighed.
“So to answer your question, why aren’t I rich and famous? I suppose that it’s because people don’t seem to have very much use for the truth. At least, not truth without context, qualification, or desire to act. Tomorrow I’m giving the box to a detective friend of mine. Maybe the police can do some good with it?”
“Wait, wait. Surely someone got some use out of this machine?” I asked.
The old man cocked his head and frowned.
“There is one that I can think of. Although my wife didn’t care for him, and I don’t usually bring it up. I don’t like talking politics or religion, as a rule.”
“A philosopher of religion had heard about the machine while the physicists had it. He snuck in asked his question while no one was watching.”
“What did he ask?”
“The only question philosophers of religion ever really want to know the answer to. Once he got what he wanted, he handed in his resignation. Felt his job was done.” The old man gave a sly smile.
“Of course! And…do you know what the answer was?” I asked.
“Feel free to ask it yourself. On the house,” he said.
I leaned in close to the microphone and, voice trembling, asked the question.
“Does God exist?”
The machine sputtered, shook, and came to life.
Blaize M. Kaye is a writer and programmer from Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming in, Nature, Fantastic stories, and the anthology Migrations: new fiction from Africa.
Find him on his website: bomoko.net and twitter at @bomoko.