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Their orbital mapping completed, Vossoff and Nimmitz found their first impression correct: with the possible exception of Earth itself, which ever since the overzealous redecorating binge of 2754 had been the planetary equivalent of a dentist’s waiting room, Fylis VII had to be the single dullest inhabited place in the known universe.

There were no surface features whatsoever. There were no jungles filled with ravenous beasts locked in savage struggles for survival, no architecturally improbable mile-high spires left by vanished alien civilizations, and no optical-illusion canals to interest the crackpot population of the next inhabited planet over. There were no valleys or mountains, no oceans or ice caps or deserts, no volcanoes or fjords, no swamps or geysers or cliffs, no prairies or tundra, and not even any gently sloping hills, and let’s face it, even the dullest solid planet has gently sloping hills, even if they’re only a few inches high and therefore no good for tobogganing. But not Fyliss VII, the cueball planet, a smoothly-polished sphere with a white sky and a white landscape and a white horizon — a planet that all in all just didn’t seem to have a point to it.

The ship’s brain said that the planet was home to an ancient civilization of Beings Far More Advanced Than Man. That was all the ship’s brain said; the rest of the entry was randomized gibberish. This was par for the course, as Nimmitz had stolen the memory systems from a street vendor.

Nimmitz scratched his head, which was smooth and hairless and therefore resembled Fyliss VII a lot more than he would have liked to admit. “Where’s the ancient civilization of beings far more advanced than Man?”

“Well,” replied Vossoff, instructing the computer to put the necessary graphic on-screen, “assigning this latitude here as the equator, and this here as the meridian, it’s 34 degrees north, 53 degrees west. Where the x is.”

“That’s an advanced civilization? There’s nothing there. Just a couple of sentients sitting around talking.”

Vossoff regarded the magnified picture on the orbital cameras: an aerial shot of two hairless sexless bipeds busily chatting with each other. One of the bipeds was light grey, the other dark grey. The light one was on his hands and knees, forming a makeshift bench upon which the dark one sat. “Nobody said it was an exciting advanced civilization.”

“I hope not. Sitting on each other like that.”

“If they’re as advanced as the Brain says, maybe we’re not meant to understand it.”

“Maybe they’re the local village idiots and the truly advanced population is underground laughing at them. Sitting on each other like that.”

“No. I’ve run a thorough density scan of the entire planet. There are no caves, no artifacts, no geological layering, not even a molten core. Sliced in half, this globe would be as homogenous as a baked potato. No, my friend. I’m afraid those two sentients, boring and undistinguished as they appear to be, are the entire fabled advanced civilization of Fyliss VII.”

Nimmitz couldn’t take his eyes off the little red x on the screen. “I don’t think there’s anything worth stealing here, Ernst. They don’t even have chairs.”

“They might have secrets,” said Vossoff. “And they, my friend, are always worth looting.”

They landed the starship just over the horizon from the fabled advanced civilization. It was a rough landing, as the starship was one of those inverted pyramid things that used to be all the rage among starfarers a few decades back, and while it looked nicely retro, it was also incredibly top-heavy. Vossoff and Nimmitz had a few tense moments when the ship started to tip, but managed to compensate by hastily shifting some crates of highly illegal stimulants in the cargo hold.

“Gotta get the stabilizers fixed,” gasped Nimmitz.

“Make enough money on this trip,” said Vossoff, “we won’t have to.” He jabbed his blaster into its holster. “Come on.”

They descended the gangplank and began their crosscountry trek toward the fabled advanced civilization of Fyliss IV The walk was, as anybody could have predicted, a dull one. Anybody painting landscapes here could have produced them at the rate of ten a minute. The emptiness was so total that only men as coarse as Vossoff and Nimmitz could have failed to be terrified by it. But then, they were men who lived for the deal, the scam, the sting, the easy way to riches, the satisfaction of knowing they’d just screwed somebody out of something. They were men willing to rob and kill for a percentage point, but were really only good at getting screwed first.

They walked two kilometers, before their detail-starved eyes picked up a miniscule gray dot on the horizon ahead. As they approached, the gray dot resolved itself into the two hairless bipeds, who had shifted position since the Vossoff and Nimmitz spotted them from orbit: now the dark one provided the bench on which the lighter one sat. Both seemed utterly comfortable with this arrangement, which had evidently been going on for generations, as the bipeds had both evolved padded hands and knees.

Vossoff and Nimmitz approached to within several meters of the aliens, waiting in vain for the other shoe to drop. It didn’t. If it was going to drop at all, it was one hell of a big shoe.

It was Nimmitz who broke the silence. “Fine way to be spending their days. Sitting on each other like that.”

Vossoff fingered his walrus moustache contemplatively. “You should open your mind, my friend. Ever been to Phlaaaarg IX, home of the N’loghthi? They punctuate all their spoken sentences by hitting each other in the face with creamy pastries. Their planetary legislature looks like a road-show pie fight. Next to that, this is relatively normal.”

“But why do they sit on each other like that?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s a mating ritual. Or maybe it’s their religion. Or maybe —”

For the first time, the lighter alien took notice of them. “Or maybe,” it said, in perfectly-accented Interlac, “we’re just extremely civilized, that’s all.”

Nimmitz fell back a step and said, “Gaaaaaa.” Vossoff, who usually took surprises well, didn’t sound much better. “You … understand us?”

“Oh,” the lighter alien said, “we understand every known language. We don’t get visitors often, but when we do, the planet itself translates for us. One of the many trans-dimensional mechanisms we’ve set up to support our lives here.”

Nimmitz broke in: “Why do you take turns sitting on each other like that?”

“Isn’t it obvious? We live on a planet with no chairs, and no resources to build chairs. Since we consider sitting on the ground barbaric, one of us must be a chair at all times. If we were not as civilized as we are, one of us would force the other to be the chair permanently, but we are an ancient and advanced race, and therefore we politely take turns.”

“Without anything so crude as a monetary system,” the darker alien amplified, “this is also as close as we come to having an economy.”

“Yes,” the lighter alien said. “Supply and demand.”

Nimmitz was boggled. “And is that all you do all day? Sit on each other like that?”

“There is nothing else to do. So we spend our days sitting on each other and discussing philosophy. For instance, just as you showed up I was advancing the notion that causality is itself the root cause of most events —”

“— whereas I,” the darker alien said, “take the opposing viewpoint, that there can’t possibly be any such thing as causality, since nothing of any real importance ever really happens.”

“Define importance,” the lighter alien countered.

“Define define!” the darker alien said.

The lighter alien addressed Vossoff and Nimmitz. “See? The nihilistic viewpoint belongs to whoever’s the chair at the moment. We switch opinions when we switch positions. That way we both get to experience all possible points of view.”

“Except phenomenology,” said the darker alien. “I hate that.”

“No,” the lighter alien said, “you only imagine you hate that.”

Nimmitz grabbed Vossoff plaintively. “Get me away from this planet, Ernst. I don’t like this place.”

“In a minute,” Vossoff sympathized. He turned his attention back to the two aliens. “I need to know this: How do you handle the basic necessities of life here?”

The lighter alien looked offended. “Philosophy is a basic necessity of life.”

“I mean, how can you survive when there’s no food here?”

“Ahhhh, that’s the highest achievement of our advanced civilization. As we grew increasingly advanced, we also grew increasingly aware that the true mark of advancement was an uncluttered lifestyle. So one day we left our previous highly advanced civilization, used our all-powerful technology to create this planet, and imbued it with all manner of trans-dimensional mechanisms for supporting our existence here, including the translation program you’ve already encountered, a field that nourishes life without benefit of food, and — most importantly, given our rigorous aesthetic principles — an accommodation for preserving the physical status quo, which includes among other things regularly purging the landscape of all the annoying superfluous detail that accrues over time.”

“Like chairs,” the darker alien said. “Or starships.”

“Or visitors,” said the lighter alien.

“Yes,” the darker alien said. “That, too, would be an excellent example.”

There was a moment of uncannily uncomfortable silence.

Then the two humans yelped and began to run.

“I thought they’d never leave,” said the lighter alien.

“Define never,” said his companion the chair.

Vossoff and Nimmitz got back to their ship before the planet purged it from the landscape, but they didn’t stop hyperventilating until they were safely back in orbit.

“That was close,” gasped Nimmitz.

“Yes, it certainly was.”

“Are we gonna leave this system now?”

Vossoff chuckled. “Absolutely not, my friend. This planet is a major business opportunity.”

Nimmitz stared at him. “I don’t get it.”

“Weren’t you listening at all? A field that nourishes life without recourse to food? Do you know what that would be worth on the open market? Hell, the food service industries alone would pay us several fortunes just to forget what we know!”

“But — that thing which gets rid of starships!”

“The most lucrative weapons system ever devised? What of it? Besides, we’re safe. If the mechanism in question is still functional — the safest possible thing to assume, as I freely admit — then that must be because it monitors the planet only intermittently. We were lucky enough to land and take off during its dormant cycle, and we’ll continue to be lucky as long we just take the time to determine the length of that cycle.”

“I don’t know,” Nimmitz said. “I don’t want to hang around any planet where people sit on each other like that. “

But Vossoff was the one who won all their arguments, and so they dropped five probes into the desert, spaced 100 clicks apart. The probes were jet-black and perfectly spherical and they sat on the endless white plain like aloof things that refused to mix. The near-nothingness was almost worse than the absolute nothingness that had been there before; it made both Vossoff and Nimmitz yearn for something epic and brilliant to connect the dots. But there wasn’t. Just a planet-sized blank piece of paper, as if God Himself had woken up with writer’s block.

And, as Nimmitz considerately kept pointing out, a couple of aliens, taking turns being the chair.

The probes sat on the white desert for thirty-two hours.

And then they disappeared.

No slow fading away, no dramatic lightshow, no eerie whining noise as the alien cleaning mechanism warmed up — just the five black probes, first there, then not.

Not satisfied at all, Vossoff dropped another five probes into the desert. They each sat in place for sixty-five hours, then disappeared, between one second and the next. He dropped one more. It disappeared in sixty-five hours. Another one. It disappeared in sixty-five hours. One more. Sixty-five hours.

“I think that’s clear enough,” Vossoff said.

“Yeah,” Nimmitz said. “But I still can’t believe they sit on each other like that.”

“Is that a weapon?”

From any other advanced sentient it would have been an incredibly stupid question. The blaster was the length of Vossoff’s arm and ended in a wicked-looking emission lens that had already partially melted from the backlash of the last six occasions Vossoff had been forced to use it. Neither Vossoff or Nimmitz really believed they needed the heavy artillery to capture one of the sentients, but they both knew the value of good public relations.

“Yes,” Vossoff said. “It is a weapon.”

“How fascinating,” said the lighter alien. “It has been a long time since either one of us saw a weapon, the entire concept of weaponry being so inherently uncivilized and all.”

“You’re right about that,” Vossoff said, in the gravelly tone of a dangerous man who clearly wanted to be recognized as dangerous. “We are extremely uncivilized. We are morally and ethically in the same league as the barbarians who sacked Rome, and the cads who burned the Great Library of Alexandria, and the Centaurii raiders who installed stereo speakers on the Silent Colossus of Parnajan. We have no respect for your ancient advanced civilization, entertain nothing but contempt for your grand and glorious traditions, and wouldn’t suffer any guilt about expunging your entire — admittedly, only two person — population. Therefore, we strongly urge you, as you value your lives, to come with us.”

“Why should we do that? You sound like perfectly horrid people.”

“Because,” Vossoff explained, with perhaps a little more patience than the situation warranted, “being perfectly horrid people, if you don’t come with us, we will cruelly and barbarically reduce the two of you to ash.”

“The question,” pointed out the darker alien, “is how we can intelligently regard ash as a lesser state of being when we who have personally not experienced that transformation have no intelligent basis for comparison. After all, for all we know, ash might be a step up. We need hard data.”

“I was ash once,” said the lighter alien. “I didn’t like it much, but everybody has the right to enjoy their own chosen lifestyle.”

Fed up, Vossoff blasted the darker alien out of existence. The lighter alien seemed to hover in the air a split second before falling to the ground. He did not look particularly upset, or even surprised, as he ran his fingers over the smooth featureless ground.

“Ernst!” Nimmitz shouted. “You shot the guy!”

“Grow up,” snarled Vossoff. He turned his attention back to the one surviving alien. “Any questions?” The alien was still running his fingers over the ground. “Yes,” he said. “Where’s the ash?”

“There’s no ash. The disintegration is too thorough. The ash was just a convenient hyperbole I used to help you visualize your own destruction.”

“Ahhh. We used to have hyperboles, too, but we eventually rejected them as uncivilized. — Unfortunately, it still leaves me without a chair. Which of you two gentlemen is going to volunteer?”

Nimmitz stepped back. “I ain’t going to be a chair for nobody!”

Vossoff addressed the alien with the exaggerated care of any man speaking to a highly civilized idiot. “You miss the point. I am taking you prisoner. You are coming to my starship and you are going to tell me all the secrets of your advanced technology, because if you don’t, I’m going to shoot you next.”

“Then nobody will have a chair.”

“Which will be wonderfully convenient, since there won’t be anybody left on the planet to need a chair.”

“Well, there is that,” the alien conceded.

“You’re getting on my nerves. I’m going to count to ten and then give you the same treatment I gave your friend. One. Two. Three …”

“There are chairs back on the ship!” Nimmitz cried.

It was the first time Nimmitz had opened his mouth during the negotiations, and the first time the alien seemed at all impressed by anything. “Soft chairs?”

“Sure!” Nimmitz said.

“The kind which lean back, so I can put my feet up?” “Absolutely.”

“And vibrating cushions, to gently ease away all my stress and tension like an entirely new adventure in comfort and bliss?”

“Hey,” Nimmitz said expansively, “would I lie to you?” “Well, then, why didn’t you say so in the first place? It shall be a honor and privilege being taken prisoner by you.” And with that, the alien stood up and sided with Nimmitz.

Vossoff put his hand over his eyes.

Nimmitz gave him a pitying look. “That’s your problem, Ernst. You just got to know how to talk to people.”

They’d been interrogating the alien aboard their ship for almost three days. He didn’t mind, since he just loved lounging in Nimmitz’s favorite recliner, basking in the heat of a ultra-violet lamp while sipping a tall glass of Vossoff’s favorite scotch through a straw. “This is what I call a chair. Have I said that yet? Well, never mind. The eternal verities bear repeating. This is what I call a chair. It’s highly decadent, and it hugs the back in a downright uncivilized way, but definitely, this … is … what I call a chair.”

He’d made that speech, or some reasonably close variant, an average of once an hour since coming on board.

“I’m going to kill him,” muttered Nimmitz.

“Just give me another hour. I promise you I’ll make some progress.” Vossoff turned his attention toward the alien. “You hear what’s going on? My partner wants to shoot you. I’m the only thing holding him back. If you’re smart, you’ll cooperate.”

“I know this routine,” the alien said. “Good Sentient, Bad Sentient, right? Excellent for interrogation. My people used the technique, too, before we got civilized.”

“Try to pay attention to me, please. Last night, we established that your extra-dimensional nourishment thingie operates on another plane of existence?”

“Yes. The mechanism — excuse me while I fluff these cushions — is run by the same highly advanced management protocol that keeps the amount of surface detail on the planetary surface an absolute constant. This is highly convenient, though it is of course hard on material things like chairs.”

“And living organisms?”

“Oh, certainly. Were there any more than two creatures on the planet during any one of its periodic sweeps, the mechanism would eliminate them as superfluous detail.”

Vossoff and Nimmitz looked at each other. The secrets of life and death, all wrapped up in a flaky little biped who liked to sip scotch through a straw. “Can we access this mechanism?” Vossoff asked.

“Why would you want to do a silly thing like that?”

“Because I have the weapon,” Vossoff said.

The alien paused to consider that. “Very well. — I have lost track of time. How long before the next cycle?”

Vossoff checked his chronometer. “Ten of our hours.”

“Then,” said the alien, “I will help you access the mechanism in ten hours.”

It was two minutes before the purification cycle, and Nimmitz was growing increasingly nervous.

“Listen, Ernst. I say we drop him off on the planet, take off, and get the hell out of this system as fast as we can.”

Vossoff emitted laughter. “You’ve never been a smart man, but I never thought you were a coward. The profit —”

“Profit, shmofit. This whole deal stinks of Things Man Was Not Meant to Know.”

“You’re that scared of a little risk?”

“This isn’t a little risk. Little risks are golden idols. Illicit drugs. Old comic books. Not highly advanced technology from an Ancient Civilization Far More Advanced Than Man. We could end up getting blasted to ash.”

“Well,” Vossoff said, merrily enough, “never having been ash, we don’t have a basis for comparison. It might be a step up.”

“Ernst —”

“I don’t want to hear it!” Vossoff snapped, in the same dangerous tone he’d used when threatening the two lazy-butt aliens. “You want to be a small-timer forever, that’s your business! But I’ve waited all my life for a score like this, and I’m not letting you blow it!”

“Excuse me,” the alien said.

They both whirled at the sound of his voice. He’d been napping in the command chair, which he’d already said was even more comfortable than Nimmitz’s lounger; by far, he said, the most spectacular decadent seating arrangement he’d encountered in his many millennia of existence. For a being from an Ancient and Highly Advanced Civilization that had evolved past the need for chairs, he really did seem to have a one-track-mind on the subject. It had been a relief to take a break from his interrogation, so they didn’t have to listen to him.

Vossoff said, “Yes?”

“The cleaning cycle starts in forty of your seconds,” said the alien. “The interface has informed me it’s available for reprogramming.”

Vossoff all but leaped to the alien’s side. “All right! — Tell it you want command controls!”

“Very well,” said the alien. “How do you want it reprogrammed?”

“We want direct access to the nutritional mechanism. And the life-support mechanism. And the planetary purification device.”

The alien did a double take. “Oh, is that all?”

“What do you mean, is that all?”

“I thought you were going to ask me something hard.”

“We are. We want to profit from the secrets of your ancient and highly advanced civilization.”

“But you don’t need me for that,” the alien said. “You’re going to start benefiting from them in twenty seconds.”

“What do you mean?”

The surface of the planet started pulsating in waves.

“It’s searching for us,” said the alien.


“My companion and I. Remember, it’s supposed to keep the degree of surface detail constant. That means replacing anything that gets removed. Without us, it’s going to have to come up with the nearest equivalent substitute.”

“Sub —”

“Two sentients,” The alien said. “Same species.”

Vossoff and Nimmitz looked at each other.

“I really do envy you,” said the alien sadly. “Enjoying the benefits of such an ancient and advanced civilization. Me, I’m just going to have to make do, opening a furniture store somewhere …”

When the light faded, they were standing on the planet’s surface, facing each other from five yards apart. Nimmitz spoke first: “I ain’t gonna be the chair.”

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