The Trouble With Truth
by Julian F Grow
Nobody knows where it will end. I only know where it began—in Rutlan—twenty-four hours ago!
"The WPA stinks," Sara said. Now, I've known Sara for years. We've been engaged three times and married once—only marriage, not matrimony—so I pretty much know what to expect from her. I didn't speak.
She rummaged in her belt pouch and waved something from it under my nose. It was a plastic tube, pointed and dark at one end. "Do you know what this is?" She said it loud enough to make people at other tables look away from the program on the Rutlan Community Room cubeo.
As it happened, I did know what it was. "Sure," I said. "It's a pencil."
"A pencil!" she hissed back. "A pencil such as they've been making for, I don't know, maybe three hundred years. Plastic and a black core, that's all. An atavistic, human writing instrument. But there is more real, solid news in this one pencil than in all the gadgets and wires and whirling wheels of the whole stinking WPA, your World Press Association! And in one edition of my poor little Argus, that funny little country monthly...."
Fortunately, at this point, the familiar Thomas Edison Pageant broadcast ended and the announcer on the cubeo rang his Town Crier bell. Copies of the Northeast Region edition of the Sun began pouring out of the Fotofax slot. As a matter of habit I rose and got a Sun for each of us, Sara taking hers with a snort, and sat down again as the announcer gave the World Press Association opening format:
"An informed people is a free people," he droned. "Read your Sun and know the truth. Stand by now for an official synopsis of the day's happenings prepared by the World Press Association."
We both got up to go, leaving our Suns behind as most in the room later would too. "Oh, I almost forgot," Sara said, the way she does when she's been thinking about something all day. "That reminds me. I'm pregnant."
"Ah?" I said. "Okay. Good." Not just marriage this time: matrimony it was. We walked out, and she held my hand, a thing she doesn't normally do.
On the belt-way to Milbry and Sara's house, some 48 kiloms north of Rutlan, we talked about getting wed. I lay back in the seat of my car and through the roof watched the December snow fall—making plans with only half a mind for moving from my Nork apartment, deciding whether to keep both cars, arguing whether the commute to Nork took 40 or 45 minutes, choosing a sex for the baby. Mostly I was thinking about what Sara had said about the Sun. I'm a Reporter, after all.
When the car locked onto the exit tramway and started deceleration, I suggested that we go to the Argus office first. Her apartment was just upstairs anyway. "We had better," I said, "have a little talk."
The demand sensor of the radiant heater in front of the Argus building was, as usual, out of order, so we didn't linger. Sara pressed her ID bracelet against the night lock and the door swung open with a squawk that lifted my hair.
Once when I asked her why she didn't get it fixed, she said it saved the price of a cowbell on a spring. I told her then that Vermont had no business in the 21st century, and she said the 21st century had no business in Vermont, the 19th had been more fun. Fun! She said if I didn't like Vermont I could go back to Nork, and she gave it the old fashioned pronunciation, Newark, I suppose just to irritate me. As I recall, I did go back to Nork, that time, but that was a long time ago.
This time, anyway, I pushed her gently down into her chair, the worn old oak swivel chair in front of the disreputable old rolltop desk, with that battered old electric typewriter of her father's and her grandfather's. For all I know, her five-great-grandfather Elias Witherill started the Argus with it in 1847, two centuries ago.
"You say the WPA is bad," I said. I tapped the typewriter. "There's your real villain. And there—" pointing at the ancient offset press she printed the Argus on and waving at the framed, yellowed copy of Vol. 1, No. 1 of the Argus, hanging on the wall—and "there!"
It began with the typewriter, I informed her. The printing press came first, but typewriters really did the job.
Maybe the actual beginning was the manuscript of the ancient monks: impersonal and uniform. But handwriting was hardly wide-spread in the Dark Ages, so let's take it from the typewriter.
Handwriting was an individual thing. Transcribed speech; and speech is an individual's articulated thought. Printing is based on handwriting, but it's stylized and made uniform for mass production.
That leaves a big gap between script and print—the difference between personal mental process and a merely mechanical process of duplication.
Look at it this way. In the days when handwriting was general, a man believed a personal message if it came from someone he trusted. And he'd know it came from that person because he recognized the handwriting, just as he'd recognize the person's voice, or his face. The writing was, in effect, an extension of the reader's own senses or experience, into a distant situation.
Then with better communications came more handwritings, and more distant situations. Then the typewriter, and then the dictatyper. Everybody's writing was just like everybody else's, and there was a lot of it.
Everything was in type, even the identifying name at the end of a personal letter, the autograph ("Signature," Sara snigged) ... signature, then. For a long time businessmen's letters had been signed by their stenographers anyway. ("Secretaries, blockhead," Sara muttered, and she sighed.)
The point is, I continued, that except for a few cases of eccentricity—I glanced at her belt pouch, with the pencil in it—handwriting had disappeared. The written word—the reader's distant experience—was in type: dictatype, teletype, phototype, printer's type ... newspapers, books, advertising, business letters, memoranda, personal letters, everything.
Before, people had tended to believe most of what was handwritten, and almost nothing that was in type. With everything in type, they got tired of deciding which to believe and began to believe either every word, or none. It wasn't good.
It led to the Edict, and of course to the World Press Association and its relentless search for truth.
"Gah," said Sara. "Truth is an overrated commodity. Let's go upstairs and get ourselves something to eat."
Her voice was muffled coming from the jon. But I knew she was reading from a document she kept framed there, and I knew well what it said.
Be it enacted by the unanimous voice of these United Nations of America, Europe, Africa and Free Asia, in congress this 14th day of April, 1997 that, henceforth:
No person, group of persons, organization, or governing body of any town, city, state or nation existing under the articles of this federation, shall print, or cause to be printed, or knowingly permit to be printed, or disseminate or knowingly permit to be disseminated any word, phrase or work, excepting only certain scientific treaties of explicit speculative nature as hereinafter defined by statute, that is not both wholly and in part demonstrably true.
"Great Judah," I heard Sara say. "What a disaster!"
"Stop muttering and come out here," I shouted. "You said food."
"I'll be with you in a minute. I'm almost finished undressing." Since we weren't expecting company I had already hung up my coverall—a new though serviceable one of diaphragm-weave thermoplast, bought especially for Vermont and warranted for 30 degrees below.
With or without the chiton and hose she favored over coveralls, Sara was a handsome woman. Strong, straight and, I knew, a fit mother for our children. But right at the moment, she was angry at me all over again.
She strode to the foodbar. "You!" she said, chucking a handful of steakpaks into the infra, twisting the dial. "You and your Edict!" she said, hurling potatopaks into a pan of hot water and yelping when the water splashed on her thigh. "You and your stupid, buzzing, clicking, inhuman WPA!" she said, filling milkpaks with water, cramming them into holders and slapping them sloshing down on the table.
"You talk about type and belief and truth. Truth! You have the gall to keep on parroting those same old defenses about that electronic scrap heap you have the effrontery to call a—a Greeley! Elias Witherill thought Horace Greeley was a rotten newspaperman, but rotten or not, he was still too good to have that whining junkpile named after him.
"What does a tangle of wires know about newspapering. What does WPA know about writing a story? What do you know about news?"
"Now, Sara," I said.
"Don't now-sara me, dammit. You still fail utterly to realize that news is more than just what happened, when, where, to whom, how and why. It's what might still happen, even what might have happened otherwise or never did happen, if that's part of the story.
"The Edict forbids every bit of it!
"But most important, news is expressed—and this you simply cannot see—expressed in basic human terms, designed to arouse the basic human curiosity or sympathy that makes an abstract description palatable to people. If you like, it tricks people into informing themselves. The Sun, your wonderful Sun, sticks to facts and statistics, and make a hurricane dull. It doesn't tell about people, it lists numbers!
"Real news has, by God, Heart! Without it, a newspaper is just a list, a long, long list that ... nobody ... will ... READ!"
"Okay," I said. "Okay! This is better?" I tramped over to a framed Argus front page down the wall from Vol. 1, No. 1, that was dated April 17, 1904. She started to protest, but I overrode her. "Listen to this," I said. And read from a story given prominent play on the page:
NEAR-DEATH ... AND TRAGEDY
HER FIRST QUESTION
Death's clammy hand brushed a golden-haired moppet Tuesday afternoon.
Gentlewomen swooned in the crowd that quickly gathered at the corner of South Main and Elm Streets, so near had tragedy come to that little girl, Irma Littlefield, aged four, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Adoniram Littlefield of 324 Elm Street, that afternoon. Men wept unashamedly when little Irma, lying crumpled in the dust, stirred her tiny limbs and opened eyes of deepest blue, even as her shrieking mother flew to the side of her baby.
Death had passed by Irma, yes. Yet the uncaring runaway freight wagon that had so nearly snuffed out her brief existence had dealt the child a blow even as cruel, more savage; perhaps as grievous a hurt as would have been the sweet baby's death to her stricken parent, sobbing now with the child's golden head in her lap.
For from Irma's ashen lips, cold still with the awful nearness of the Grim Reaper, the first faltering words were,
"Where's Tinkle, my little doggie?"
Tinkle, a curly-haired mongrel to the unseeing world, nothing to the insensible, crushing wheels of the now-distant freight wagon. Tinkle, more than a dog, more than a pet, more than it is given us in our wisdom to know, to that little child. A friend, confidante, companion in all her infant games and journey of the imagination.
"Where's Tinkle?" Alas, Irma....
"That's plenty of that," I told Sara. "Is that what you mean by Heart? Is that what you mean by 'news'?
"It wouldn't even rate two lines in your own Argus today.
"But don't try to tell me that the major newspapers changed from that mawkish, overblown sentimentality about unimportant or nonexistent things. They just printed the same sort of drivel using governments and countries instead of people. They cluttered themselves up with portentous speculation and conflicting interpretation until the actual relation of real events was crowded off the page—because plain facts weren't exciting enough to sell newspapers!
"Granted, country people are curious about their neighbors, and have activities too small and numerous to make the Sun. That's why semi-controlled monthlies like the Argus exist. But for the important stuff, only the exact truth will do."
I thought a minute before going on. Why can't a civilization that will some day land on the moon, calm an angry woman? I started by pulling Sara, struggling, onto my lap.
"You think—hold still!—a Reporter doesn't have to know much," I told her. She nodded violent assent. "You think all he has to do, all day long, is sit by the Scoop and keep Flacks and psychos away. You think I just sit there while news goes in the Scoop and comes out the Fotofax slot.
"To some extent, you're right. WPA doesn't encourage heavy thought on the job—just that I be big enough and quick enough to keep some fool from hollering fake advertising plugs or obscenities or nonsense into the mouthpiece, or maybe smashing the Scoop the way some try to do.
"But I think. I take pleasure in thinking, in figuring things out. Sure, I keep it quiet, permanent Civil Service status or not. If I didn't keep my mouth shut I'd never have been promoted from Inaplis to WPA Center Nork.
"Sara, I am in charge of the No. One Scoop in the Northeast Region for the Greeley—all right, the Groves-Rudermann Eidetic Integrator. Top spot in the Guild, Sara! Because I keep my eyes open and my mouth shut, and I tend my Scoop."
"But all the while you're faithfully guarding that hole-in-the-wall, you're thinking big fat thoughts," she snarled. But she had nestled into a comfortable position in my lap.
"Faith and fat, your favorite shock words," I said. "Yes, I do think. I think the Edict was a good thing. I think the WPA is a good and necessary organization. And I think that Cybernetic Democracy is the best form of government that men have figured out yet."
"Speak for yourself," Sara muttered. "I don't like being told how to live by a pinball machine."
Don't hurl antiquities at me, I told her. Cybernetic Democracy and WPA are root and branch of the same tree. The Edict set up WPA, and WPA worked, and Congris came as a logical development, and it works. The voice came before the brain (Sara mumbled something about a Cheshire Cat, whatever that is) but the point is, now we have both.
Look, it surely wasn't good the way government was before. Stands to reason as long as men are making the laws, a lot of those laws are bound to be stupid, or unfair, or just plain corrupt—like the men that made them.
But electrons don't lie, and they can't be bought, and they don't make mistakes.
So in every community room throughout the UN, there are Senators. Microphones linked direct by microwave to Congris, the biggest cybernetic machine in the world, buried deep in rock somewhere in the Midwest. All you or any other citizen has to do is clear your ID with the Page, there protecting his Senator just like I do my Scoop, and speak your mind.
That complaint, or suggestion or whatever it is, goes straight to Congris, and Congris tallies it. If enough people have said the same thing, maybe that call of yours is the one that tips the balance: a new general law may be made, an old one changed.
Why, don't you realize that if enough people asked Congris to abolish itself and bring back representative human government, it would? That directive was the first one programmed, even before the civil codes of a hundred thousand big and little governments were fed in, compiled and codified. But it'll never happen.
And if Congris sees it's got just a local matter, it passes your call down to the district level, and the same computer that settles everything from tax bills to traffic violations to murder may publish an ordinance—and that's that.
It's incorruptible, not like man-made law. It's impartial, it's just and impersonal. It's the greatest good for the greatest number, and as sure as 51 beats 49, there never was democracy purer than we've got now.
Sara! Wake up!
She sat up yawning, and stretched. "I, and my father before me, have been writing editorials against Congris for forty-two years. Since 2005," Sara informed me drowsily. "Why don't you tell me all about it?"
Then she sat up, eyes wide with interest. "You are blushing with anger clear down to your navel," she exclaimed. "I never knew you did that!"
"And you are flat clear down to yours," I snapped. The words I regretted immediately. They were atavistic, impulsive, and even untrue; a violation of ethics and my Reporter's code.
"I am not," she said with composure. "But I won't be petty again, so go on, I guess."
"Well," I mumbled, "all I was going to say is that if it works for government it works for news too."
She sat up very straight in my lap and sing-songed like a schoolgirl: "Where the objective of Cybernetic Democracy is justice impartially rendered, the objective of cybernetic journalism and of the World Press Association is truth impartially told. 'For you will be told the truth, and the truth will keep you secure.' Foof."
"Well, it's—it's true, dammit," I said. "You aren't, you of all people aren't, going to tell me that news isn't just as important as government!
"Without that Fotofax printer in every home and public cubeo set, how are people going to know what's going on, and what laws have been passed? And how well those laws are obeyed? Why, without the Sun we wouldn't have an informed public. We wouldn't have democracy at all!"
"You," she said crisply, "are confusing news with the Sun. News is a description of events, presented with human intelligence in a manner to interest and stimulate other human intelligence. The Sun is whatever that monstrous washing-machine decides is proper to have happened, presented in a manner to interest no one except other washing-machines."
"Very glib," I replied. "But at least you will admit that news is important. Then doesn't it seem sensible to give it the same protection that government has? Protection from error and stupidity and corruption?"
"Protection?" she wailed. "It's so protected nobody sees it—nobody sees it—nobody cares!
"That hairy old item you read off the wall. You're right, I wouldn't use it today any more than the Sun would. But suppose Little Irma there had been killed by the runaway. We'd both print it.... I'd tell the story, a story that might make just one more parent careful that day and save one more child. The Sun would put it in a list, something like:
MILBRY—Littlefield Irma: 4 dau/ M&M Adoniram L-, 324 Elm, struck by wagon Elm at S. Main.
"... and that would be that for a little blonde-haired, blue-eyed, four-year-old statistic! Why, suppose...."
"Supposition!" I interrupted. "You can't waste time with supposition! People are entitled to facts. They get facts in the Sun. They know that every item in that sheet is written, checked and checked again by the special media circuits of Congris we call WPA. Those same cybernetic banks that make the laws, trace the lawbreakers, do the thousands of things that make our civilization possible, they filter, sift and sort the news as it comes in from the Scoops.
"A Fireman reports on a fire, a Policeman reports on a crime, a Doctor a death or a citizen any important event. Every bit goes to the Greeley and if it's important enough, comes out in the next regional, national or world Sun. All the Fireman or citizen or whatever has to do, is press his ID tag to the sensor, for identity, veracity and authority audit, and have a Second there for corroboration.
"It's the news, straight news, all the news that's important enough to print, and written so it can be understood...."
"By a washing-machine," Sara broke in. "Sterilized, deodorized, dehumanized news—and still it stinks."
"Dehumanized! Certainly it's dehumanized! There's none," I said emphatically, "of that so-called 'human element' about it! Why, the whole point is to eliminate human error, human prejudice, human partiality, human ignorance!"
Sara sat up suddenly, driving her rump right into the pit of my stomach. "Oh," she said, "I almost completely forgot. What do you want for Christmas?"
Torn between pain and exasperation, I believe I kept myself in check admirably. From clenched teeth I informed her I was intelligent enough not to exchange unwanted gifts of equal value, moral enough to abhor Crimmus. All I could ever want, I said, was not to be bludgeoned in the belly with a butt.
I asked her to please get up, and she did, cheerfully.
Driving down to Nork the next morning, I dropped off the feeder tramway onto the fast belt south. Hanging from the feeder hook, waiting for an open space in the line of cars, it occurred to me a lot of people were on the road, both Nork-bound and northbound to Montral.
"Crimmus shopping," I said aloud, remembering, and swore mildly at the slip. While the day—tomorrow, it was—still meant something to some, it's not the kind of rational deformity you generally talk about.
Sara would, of course.
But I long ago faced the fact that Sara's a romantic. As neuroses go, that's a mild one, and didn't even call automatically for correction. All that it meant was that she was restricted to the C Population Zones that she wouldn't leave anyway, and a little outside special tutoring in the Realities for our children.
It wouldn't even affect my job or Civil Service rating. Still, if Vermont were ever zoned Population B, there might be trouble. She wouldn't leave Milbry.
Oho, I thought to myself, locking onto the Nork belt and double-checking the destination coordinates, I am lapsing into speculation—risky ground, for a Reporter. The code expressly forbids speculation, and with reason.
Speculation uses an inadequate number of arbitrarily chosen half-truths to shape conflicting possibilities, all but one of which time must prove to be false. Truth is only what has already happened. Conjecture is a laboratory matter for trained scientists to dabble in, under laboratory controls. Judging from the scarcity of scientific news these days, conjecture wasn't working there either.
Having neatly boxed myself into an uninformed generality, I grimaced, took a dozer and slept all the way to Nork.
Back in my stag cubicle at the dorm, I fingered my chin in what must have been pure atavism; it wasn't even close to time for a depilatory booster. Sara—Sara, Sara, Sara—once urged me to skip the pill some month and grow a beard, a mustache or something, like her Four-Great-Grandfather Isaac, Elias Witherill's son. The one that was a war major, in 1861.
I told her it was an aberration for her to have our sort of relationship with a grandfather image, and besides a beard did mean body hair in general and that itched. She said, well, I could instead get a false beard, like Santa Claus, and then we had a really big argument about what sorts of vulgarity were amusing, and which were not.
That broke off our second engagement, I think it was. Yes, the second. Now she was pregnant, on purpose, we were going to get wed, and I had just seven minutes to get to work.
My Scoop is in the usual sound-proofed, glass-walled isol-booth you'll see anywhere in Nork. The fact that it is in a plaza at the 75th level and thus under the open sky, a thing that bothers a lot of Nork people, is to me more than mitigated by the view from the vestibule. You can see, beyond the Liberty Statue International Memorial floating in New York Bay over the former site of Times Square, to the Long Island shore at Mineola and up into Conicut.
Today there wasn't time to look around. I formally relieved Vern, the late-nightside Reporter, and had barely punched my ID against the time clock when the District Reporter's face came on the viewer for visual check.
"Reporter One-C Ben Marli. US-6044-230 988 368GN 0800/24 Deck 2047," I said. The face nodded, faded.
Vern was still there when the viewer went blank. Most of us punch in exactly on time and punch out exactly four hours later, to the minute. Vern always comes on early and leaves late because, I think, his father was convicted of advertising under the Edict, and Vern is still trying to clear the family number.
"Quiet night, Ben. Just one accident," he said. I was leafing through the little pile of dupes—simultypes of the stories that had gone into the Scoop, with the ibems of the Source and his or her Second—and was seeing this for myself, so I just grunted.
Then one, the accident he'd spoken of, brought me up sharp.
On the face it was a straight item: the Source, Retailer Mark Neman, US2109-590-412 663CC, a visitor to Nork, had told of an accident involving one Housewife Ela Brand in a store on the 24th level, unnamed, of course. She fell on an antique glass bowl, which broke and cut her neck severely. The store's security guard substantiated the story, adding that the woman had nearly bled to death from a severed carotid artery before arrival of the store doctor. He had been delayed by the nearly unheard-of circumstance of the birth of twins in the store's infirmary.
First aid by an unidentified passerby saved the accident victim's life, according to both Source and Second.
The doctor was unable to perform as Second because, while the victim was physically able to go on her way after normal treatment, she had had to be clinicked for "irrational grief reaction" over loss of the bowl she had fallen on. Even so, the novel injury, rare these days, would have made it a play story in Sun editions across the nation, at a quiet time like the end of the year.
"Vern, Vern," I said. "Don't you know a Plant when you hear one? Surely you should recognize a Flack's work, if anybody could," I told him. Maybe it was unkind to talk about Flacks, when his father had been one; but any time the truth hurts, it's the pain of healing.
"It's a pretty elaborate plant, but phony as faith," I said more gently. "That bowl fairly screams 'Gift.' Are you forgetting tomorrow's Crimmus, and that all over the country Flacks are pulling tricks like this?"
Vern, pale, said defensively, "Ben, look. The Source's ID checked without a hitch. He's a retailer in Dals, Tex. The guard's cleared too. The doctor verified by phone, from the clinic. You going to tell me that a doctor would lie or be mistaken about an accident like that, or that it could be faked in a crowded store, or that any woman'd risk bleeding to death for Flack money?
"I know the Flacks are out in droves. But this has got to be a legitimate story."
"It's a phony," I said. "The gift is just too integral. Don't be slow to punch the button on a deal like this."
It was a phony of course. Despite Vern's failure to signal for a double-check, the WPA had delayed publication and run the circuits. Similar but not identical stories had gone into Scoops in 14 major cities, all at the same time today; each involved a near death or disaster, with a reference to a recognizable gift that couldn't be edited out. In each case the Source was a retailer visiting that city—and yet the stores and 14 retailers matched up perfectly.
In our particular "accident," the woman turned out to be a clandestine actress—they had all virtually disappeared after the Edict, needless to say—hired for her ability to fall and fake injury convincingly. She hadn't cut herself on the glass, only burst a hidden capsule of her own blood drawn off weeks before. The actual gash in her throat was made with a shard of glass by the "unidentified passerby"—really the Flack himself—when he saw the store doctor coming. The artificially-stimulated birth of twins that had delayed the doctor, had also been part of the Plant.
The doctor was found innocent. The guard, only true victim of the plot, was cited as unobservant but not held for correction. The Flack, the actress, the mother of the twins and the visiting retailer were, before my shift was half over, sentenced for conspiracy to deceive and falsely advertise in violation of the Edict, as were the culprits in the 13 other Plants. Their conviction was the play story, all editions in the 10:00 hours Sun.
All that, to remind people about gifts, and Crimmus. The WPA had exposed the plot, and printed the truth about it as no human news-reporting agency could have.
Even so, I wondered, if, despite the Edict and WPA, the Flacks hadn't gotten their Crimmus reminder before the public, after all. I stared in at the Scoop.
Physically, the Scoop is just a short, thick tube projecting from a blank wall; it ends in a round orifice covered by a grille, and is adjustable to the height of the speaker. Below it is an ID sensor plate, and above it, the viewer and the preamble to the Edict.
The Scoop isn't large. But it gives man a voice no man ever had before: it could bring his words almost instantly to men throughout the world. It is the ultimate in the communication that mankind has sought down from the dawning of intelligence. Only one condition must be met, and only one thing those words must, according to the Edict, be:
"... Wholly and in part demonstrably true."
Think about it a minute. In the earliest days, communication was between two men only. If the first lied, only two people, the liar and the victim, were affected. Later, as civilization developed through improved communication—more abstract lingual concepts, systems of writing, methods of transportation—a word could travel faster and farther, and affect more and more people. The numbers hearing a man's speech and being touched by his words grew at the same time larger and closer to him, as his methods of addressing them went farther and farther out.
Great truths were produced by closer collaboration, as communications improved. But with imperfect regulation, great lies went out too, magnified by the same communications. One man's lies could poison an entire nation, and afflict the entire world.
It had to stop and, after the Third War, the Edict stopped it.
Just as cybernetic democracy brought true justice to government, the incorruptible and infallible machines brought just truth to communication, through control of mass media.
Of course it meant the end of written and portrayed fiction; for who could tell when a fiction, faultily understood would be believed, and a lie derived?
Of course it meant the end of competitive advertising and, to a large extent, competing products. One depilatory is not truly, demonstrably better than another. No car is superior to another in appreciable degree. And no institution requiring false images of such superiority can contribute to a civilization facing reality. If a product can't be sold on the basis of true fact, it has no place in the market.
Of course it meant other necessary changes in the economy; for without predictions of mythical profits or hypothetical success, banned by the Edict, who would invest? What human could surely forecast profits or success? Congris now decides such matters, and the result has been a stable economy.
Of course it meant alteration of personal relationships. All too often the so-called "love" of one another was founded on deliberate deception, or self-delusion fostered by fiction. "Love" letters, and with them the extravagant posturings of romance, ceased almost to exist, through postal censorship under the Edict. All but known truth was eliminated from schoolbooks, to the detriment only of the romanticized, and thus probably false, past. Surrounded by fact, human relationships have become factual. Hypocrisy, deceit, exaggeration are against the law.
Granted, the per capita ratio of marriages, and weddings once a desired child is to be born, have decreased. But so have the divorces, both overt and covert, that once resulted from disillusion.
In the same way, parents and children assess their true feelings toward each other and, sometimes, rearrange themselves—or on application are rearranged. It makes for a far more practical allotment, often, than the hit-or-miss distribution of children previously.
Life, freed from the phantoms and fairies inspired by spurious children's tales, by adult daydreams, deception and delusion, is less complex, more direct than it was 50 years ago. It permits a far greater attention to the details of present existence; for once you realize how little good it does to dwell on an unknowable future, the immediate and provable present becomes important indeed.
If sometimes this present seems to lack a luster that older people say they remember, at least no flaws have been concealed by that luster. At last mankind can see exactly what he is, and where he stands.
Myth, prediction, speculation, promise, aspiration, hope: these fog the mind with illusion and paralyze the hand with doubt. The present suffices for itself.
All the wrong things were in the face of the man I saw approaching now, through the tube from the elevator. You know how you can spot the dreamers? I could see it on this one 50 yards away, and I swore, because it was almost time for my shift to end.
He came on, hurrying with that expression in his eyes, a little girl trotting after him. They were father and daughter. Both had the look, though he seemed a little old to have a young child.
He passed the outer gate well enough, fumbling his ID against the lockplate and fidgeting during the seconds it took for preliminary verification to come. The lock clicked and he burst in, pulling the girl after him.
"We wish to report ..." he began. I waved at him to shut up. "Name, number and duty," I said. "That's the routine." Of course the information had typed out from the banks before he got in.
"Oh. I'm sorry." I think he really was. "My name is Karl Onlon, professor of elementary biology, downstairs." That meant he tended a teaching machine at the center mid-town branch of the university. "Number ... my number is—" and he peered at his ID "—ah, US1006-929 113 274CE."
The point of asking for name, number and duty is to let the Source cool down a bit. He had, a little, so I said, "Okay, what's your story?"
"We wish to report signs of the presence of a herd of small ruminant animals in Central Park Memorial Plaza," he said. He waved toward the patch of white-mottled brown about a kilometer away, where dirt and rocks and a whole lake had been raised to rooftop level for an open-air park. Naturally, that was done when pointless things were still being done.
"What you tell me doesn't matter as far as appearing in the Sun is concerned," I told him. "But I have to know details before I can pass you in to the Scoop. The World Press Association decides on the stories." He nodded. "You are the Source?"
"Ah ... actually, no," Onlon said. "I'm the Second. My daughter Gini—" he'd been standing with his arm around the little girl, and squeezed her shoulder "—is the, uh, Source. But she is a very sensible person, and I will vouch for—Second—anything she tells you."
Truly, I was already getting a little uncomfortable with this pair. The girl hadn't said anything, but she stood looking grave and important, and something else too, up at her father. Open pride, it looked like. Yet sometimes she almost smiled. He was earnest enough, except when he looked down at her.
I was weighing all this while I listened with half an ear to the story. This wasn't a Flack, or a Flack's trick. That I was certain of. You can tell. Deviates don't come in father-daughter pairs, so it wasn't an obscenity kick. And this wasn't a Scoop-smash.
I didn't think it was a news story, either. But Onlon seemed quite convinced that this pack of animals that left the tracks was rare, not only in Nork but anywhere. The tracks were distinctive, he said. And the girl, whose voice matched her face, grave yet with a kind of ... happiness in it, did seem sensible. So I passed them in, to the Scoop.
Odd, I thought of Sara as I did it.
"I don't think this will make the paper," I warned them. "Children don't make good Sources. And your being her father weakens the Second. This herd, or whatever it was, could have been a dog or rat pack ... there still are some in Central Park. But the Greeley'll decide. Go on in."
As the glass door swung shut behind them, he held it and said, "They're early, you see." And I swear the little girl giggled.
I watched her reach up to the sensor plate with her ID.
They weren't in the Scoop cubicle long, for Ron Obrin, my relief, reached the top of the elevator just as the girl started to talk into the Scoop, and he was opening the vestibule door when the pair came out. Ron was, of course, on the dot of noon.
The father was talking to the girl as Ron checked in at the time clock. "There, Gini, I promised you, and we tried," I heard him say. She thanked me, still grave and almost smiling, and he thanked me, and they left. I was glad to see them go.
"Quiet morning, Ron," I said. That reminded me of Vern, and Vern's blunder, and suddenly that made me edgy. I went in to the Scoop and tore off the dupe of the Onlon report.
The first warning I had was the slug, "CHURCH," stamped at the end of their transmission on signal from the Greeley. It meant the Greeley had evaluated the transmission and referred it to the editorial level.
And that was wrong, way wrong.
Every trade has its vulgar and, some would say, irreverent catchwords. Actual churches had become pretty rare as Congris took over more and more direction of public life. You can depend on advice you get from a cybernetic system that doesn't stop eating if you stop asking. So as religion dwindled, in the WPA we came to call the Greeley's editorials "sermons," and the ratiocinating levels of the Greeley, "Church." It's rather juvenile, I suppose.
Still the Onlon transmission was slugged "CHURCH." I looked at the father's Second report, and saw why.
"THE STORY I TOLD TO GAIN ENTRANCE HERE WAS A JOKE," he had said. "THERE WERE NO TRACKS OF TINY REINDEER IN CENTRAL PARK MEMORIAL PLAZA ... AT LEAST NONE WHOSE TRACKS I SAW....
"PLEASE ... WHOMEVER THIS MAY CONCERN ... DO NOT BLAME THE REPORTER WHO LET US IN ... HE IS TRAINED ONLY TO RECOGNIZE COLD TRUTH AND COLD LIES ... AND HAS NO EXPERIENCE WITH JOKES ... WHICH ARE NEITHER ... I FULLY UNDERSTAND THAT ... IN OUR SOCIETY ... A JOKE IS A LIE AND A CRIME ... I THINK THAT IS A TRUE CRIME ... THANK YOU....
"AND IME SORRY...."
Bad, bad, bad for me. Beyond a possible editorial about these "jokes," the Church would ignore the matter. But the fact I had passed a lie would show on my performance audit, and it wouldn't look good; even so, the treatment I got from Civil Service would be a lot gentler than the things I was thinking about myself. I doubted that Onlon would even get more than a reprimand—he apparently meant no harm. He would be separated from the child, of course.
As for the girl's transmission, it was shocking and stupid. I jammed the dupe in my belt-pouch, and went out without a word to Ron, to start the trip to Sara and Vermont.
I was poor company when I got there. Sara tried every trick she knew to find out what the trouble was, for naturally I told her there was trouble. But I couldn't yet make myself tell her how I'd been duped, by a professor and a child.
Finally she dragged me off to the Milbry Community Room to, as she said, "dissolve my unwept tears in humanity's soothing sea." Knowing full well it was Crimmuseve didn't help me a bit.
As I feared, the gaiety of Crimmus was rank in the room: a lot of excited talk, snatches of humming. And even, when the Fotofax bell sounded, somebody said, "Ring out, wild bells," and a few people laughed out loud. Though most looked around guiltily.
I got up automatically to get our copies of the Sun as the cubeo announcer went into the WPA opening format:
"An informed people is a free people. Read your Sun and know the truth. Stand by now for an official synopsis of the day's happenings prepared by the World Press Association." That was the standard formula. But then he departed from standard, and it rattled him. I sat next to Sara and watched, interested.
"I have been directed," he said, "to call your full attention to the editorial on the front page of your Sun." Good grief, I thought: Church! Surely not the Onlon thing! The announcer looked around him rather wildly, then blurted: "I now turn you over to the Orator, for a direct-voice proclamation of this editorial."
The vocal unit of Church, highest level of the WPA and the actual voice of Congris! The last time it spoke, 2 years ago, it was the Pan-asian War—this couldn't be the Onlon thing. The announcer's image faded from the cubeo prism and was replaced by a soft light, and an organ note as the local station engineers patched to the nationwide WPA circuit. Everyone in the room stared into the light, even Sara, waiting for the voice.
When it came, deep and resonant, I could feel it in my own chest. I could feel too the tension go out of Sara, and feel the sigh she and everyone else sighed, at the end of waiting.
The voice said:
"I speak to you about the question asked by a little girl. I answer her, but my answer is for all children, and women and men, and for all time...."
I almost shouted aloud, in sheer disbelief. It wasn't war, it wasn't even Onlon's joke—it was that silly thing from Onlon's daughter!
I grabbed the dupe up out of my belt-pouch, and read along with that deep, throbbing voice:
"I am eight years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, if you see it in the Sun, it's so. Please tell me the truth: is there a Santa Claus?"
And the voice read off the name the way the girl, with her grave little voice, would have formally given it: Virginia O'Hanlon. But what could the Church in all dignity say, to nonsense like that?
"Virginia," said the voice, "your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see...."
I was stunned. The broadcast is a hoax, I thought; a Flack's trick, or an incredible act of sabotage on an entire social system. Barely conscious of Sara sitting raptly beside me, I tried to make sense out of that deep organ note sounding through the roaring in my ears.
"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," it was saying. "He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist.... How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! There would be no child-like faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished...."
I turned to Sara, tried to speak. She turned to me, eyes shining, and raised her fingertips to my mouth, then went back to the light, and the voice. Over the buzz I heard:
"... there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance can push aside the curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond.
"Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
"No Santa Claus? Thank God, he lives! and lives forever! A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood."
The echoes of the voice seemed to ring even after the light had faded and left a roomful of people staring at the place where it had been; then looking up, with widening eyes, into the faces of others.
"I'll be damned," Sara whispered. "I will be damned! or just maybe ... maybe not, after all...."
As I said, I don't know where it will end. Nobody does.
End of The Trouble With Truth by Julian F Grow