John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

“That there are certain questions which one literally and physically is forbidden to ask?” The traveler chuckled. “Why, then, your test has confirmed the fact. I, even I, could not answer the question I suspect you were intending to frame. However, a question that cannot be asked is ipso facto no question at all. You may try again.”

Manuus licked his lips. What had transpired within his head during that instant of involuntary paralysis defied comprehension. He was, though, brave and enterprising, and shortly ventured, “On the other hand I believe I may legitimately ask: what is the purpose of your task?”

“You may.”

“So I do.” Leaning back triumphant in his chair.

“Why! When all things have but one nature, they will be subsumed into the Original All. Time will stop. This conclusion is desirable.”

Manuus looked sourly at the brazier. “Desirable, perhaps-but appallingly dull. Speak again.”

“In what particular respect are the citizens of Ryovora dissatisfied?”

Manuus turned the question over and over in his brilliant mind, seeking a way to milk from it a further opportunity to interrogate his distinguished visitor. He failed.

“They are displeased that they have no gods,” he replied.

Three bolts of lightning sheared the clear blue sky beyond the window; three claps of thunder in succession made the room re-echo and startled the sleepy owl into giving three little hops across the great book on which he squatted. The black-clad traveler ignored these events, taking a further sip from his mug, but on his face a frown was suddenly engraved.

“Ask a third time,” he invited.

“Why, this is not altogether necessary,” said Manuus in high delight. “But so I will!” He darted his gaze from place to place within the room as though in quest of inspiration, and finally lit on the proper line of inquiry.

“What was there, before things became as they are now?”

“I will show you,” said the traveler, and dipped one fingertip into his mug. He drew forth a drop of liquid in which was entrapped a sparkling bubble.

“Regard this bubble,” he instructed Manuus. “And see…”

In those days, the forces were none of them chained. They raged unchecked through every corner and quarter of the cosmos. Here for instance ruled Laprivan of the Yellow Eyes, capricious, whimsical; when he stared things melted in frightful agony. There a bright being shed radiance, but the radiance was all-consuming, and that which was solid and dull was flashed into fire. At another place, creatures in number one million fought desperately for the possession of a single grain of dust; the fury of their contesting laid waste solar systems.

Once-twice-a third time something burgeoned, which had about it a comforting aura of rationality, predictability, stability; about this nucleus, time was generated from eternity. Time entails memory, memory entails conscience, conscience entails thought for the future, which is itself implied by the existence of time. Twice the forces of chaos raged around this focal point, and swallowed it back into oblivion; then the will of Tuprid and Caschalanva, of Quorril and Lry, and of an infinite number of elemental beings, reigned once more. But none, of them was supreme, because in chaos nothing can endure, nothing can be absolute, nothing sure or certain or reliable.

In that age, suns flashed like fires, burning brightly one instant, ashes the next. On planets circling a million suns creatures who could think struggled to reduce the chaos to order, and when they thought they had most nearly achieved it, chance ordained that all their work should go for nothing, absorbed again into the faceless dark.

“But that was before me,” said the traveler, and squashed the bubble so that it burst.

“I have seen,” said Manuus with inexpressible weariness. “But I have not understood.”

“Man does not comprehend chaos. That is why man is man, and not of another nature.” The traveler smiled at him. “I wish now to pose my final question; do you grant that I have well and sufficiently answered yours?”

“You have given me another million questions to ask,” sighed Manuus, shaking his grey head. “But that also, I suppose, stems from the nature of mankind. Ask away.”

“Your supposition is correct. Now my last question: enchanter, what is your opinion of a god?”

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