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trying to find a story, likely from the 1940's about two astronauts from Earth who land on a planet where an alien machine will answer any question that doesn't have to do with its own destruction.

The alien machine is housed in a facility that used to house scholars as well. As the machine could answer almost any question, the locals eventually stopped being scholars and stopped all learning as well as research.

In this manner, whatever aliens created the machine destroyed every civilization the machine came in contact with.

We learn that this planet is not the first one that the machine was brought to - that there were any number of them and different civilizations would steal the machine to bring to their own world, thus destroying their own civilizations.

And this is what one of the astronauts wanted to do. Bring the machine back to Earth and get rich. The machine assured that astronaut that it would only answer questions posed by them - but only for their lifetimes.

The second astronaut realizes the danger and kills the first one. When he gets back to his ship however he realizes that he can't fly the ship by himself. He starts back to the machine to ask how to fly the ship by himself muttering "Just one question..."

Other details. I remember the astronauts asking for a particularly bitter drink - which the machine can make, but it offers them a much better cup of coffee. The locals also hose them down and the astronauts are told that the machine told them to do that in order to kill any harmful organisms. This is not "Ask A Foolish Question" nor "The Last Question."

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This is "Perfect Answer" (1958) by L.J. Stecher Jr. (Joseph Wesley).

The Oracle tells the inhabitants how to spray the astronauts to protect themselves from imported diseases:

"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 Oracle will not reveal how it may be destroyed:

"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."

It will reveal how it can be controlled by a single person for as long as that person lives:

"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."

In the end the survivor must ask it a question:

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."

The story was first published in Galaxy Science Fiction, June 1958 and reprinted in a few collections of Galaxy stories. You can read it at the Internet Archive.

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  • 15
    This feels like how use chatGPT...
    – Jontia
    Aug 3, 2023 at 21:35
  • Thank you so much for telling me this! Your response was literally the Perfect Answer!
    – Aireli
    Aug 4, 2023 at 13:04
  • @Jontia which is hopefully not prophetic Aug 4, 2023 at 18:19

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