Fiction from Web del Sol

From Combaria

Ted Pelton
From Endorsed by Jack Chapeau, Starcherone Books, Starcherone Books, 2000

Agency Recruitment Procedures

            Recruitment for the intelligence agency in Combaria takes place as follows:

            An ad is placed in a newspaper read by a large number of people educated in the sciences; these people, for the most part, know little about politics.  The ad asks for intelligent, honest, industrious young people who wish to embark on an exciting, exotic career.  It invites these people to hear a lecture given by an agent and to sign up for interviews afterward.  The agency makes clear that, while it will teach recruits to lie and cheat as agents of the government, it does not seek applicants who already do so.  Thus, a large number of those who have always wanted to deceive but have never had legal means to do so become interested.  The agency offers opportunities to deceive large segments of the population at once.

            Wanting to see more of how this  organization worked, I heard the lecture and put my name on the long list of people to be interviewed.  In the lobby where I and the many other applicants waited, I overheard a conversation between two who seemed to have seen the recruiter already.  I asked them how long they had waited in the lobby, because I had been waiting for an interview for almost an hour.  I told them I was honest and thought myself a good candidate.  The two looked at each other, then one spoke:

            “I am with the agency.  And, yes, we do want honest men.  But we also want men capable of telling a lie, and those capable of this know a lie when they see one.  The agency is not interviewing here today like they said they would be.  You believed us.  Therefore, we are not interested in you.”

            Then the other spoke:

            “Those who did not come here are those the agency wants.  They didn’t believe the ad, and probably don’t even believe the agency exists.  And the reason they will end up working for us is that they are right: it does not exist.”

            “But how can you say that the agency does not exist,” I said.  “You yourselves are agents.”

            “Yes,” said the first again.  “That is what we told you.”



Militaristic Government

            We’ve come to expect the rationales given by governments in defense of their various projects to be lies.  This is especially true of militaristic governments, who do not wish to overtly disclose their policies.  A militaristic state leader, questioned about his government’s policies of war and aggression, commonly answers using the words “enemy,” “danger,” “security,” and “need.”  The answers are accepted by the citizenry of the militaristic country, who assume that the state leader has some privileged information for the lack of which he would not make such astounding proposals.  The popularity of the state leader then, commonly, increases:  the people wish to show solidarity with their leader against the supposed threat.  The leader, then, with a stronger base of national confidence, can withhold all specifics of a situation and introduce new information which, in fact, he has invented.  The less he tells the citizenry, the more popular he becomes.  Facts destroy the characterization “enemy” on which the leader so strongly relies.

            Such is the situation in Combaria.  A dissenter here is rarely listened to, for the stakes have escalated from country versus country to homeland versus enemy to good versus evil.

            Talking to one in agreement with the message of the state, I again expressed my displeasure with my government.

            “Oh,” he said, surprised.  “There is much you don't know.”

            I questioned him.  “What don’t I know?”

            He was evasive at first, but gradually I was able to make him speak.  “You don’t know that there are things you do not know, he said.  There is much that we don’t know, things too terrible to even think about, things that make me fear to even think what they might be.”

            “But what,” I asked, “Can we fear more than that which we do not know?  Wouldn’t discovering these things be much less fearful.  At least, then, we would know what to fear.”

            The government supporter smiled.  He was my friend, even though we did not agree.  “Oh, friend,” he said.  “I'm glad I do not seek to know all that you do, for then I would be fearful all the time.”



A New Use for Literature

            Recent events in Combaria  suggest that no one even knows who is in charge here, who is responsible for civic policy.  One man can say, “Last week I ran the country.”  Can any of his fellow citizens in good faith dispute him?  But what does it take, in fact, to govern?  Certainly there is no special talent required.  In fact, only one thing is necessary to a leader: the ability to keep everyone else busy at once.  For this reason, the most efficient leader would be someone who could convince the entire populace to read a very large book, all at once.  It would not need to be a well-written book, only one that would keep the interest of a reader and be bereft of political content.  Perhaps a television show might suffice: the long, extended saga of family triumph and woe, set in a distant land, in a time long ago.  But a book would keep the populace busy for a longer time.

            After finishing the book, people would start to grow angry.  “Why did we read this?” they might say.  “Who has been running the country while we’ve been reading?”  The leader, having the talent of keeping people busy, would immediately turn the tables.  “Don’t you see how this book is important?” he would reply.  Half of the nation would then turn to writing books themselves about the importance of the book they had all read.  The other half could easily be persuaded to research the subject further, or even to reread the book, on the supposition that they would get the point if they read it again.  The leader, still unnamed, would see his term continue.



After the Law

            One day enforcers of the law began to arrest each other.  Why they began doing this no one knows for sure, although there were two prevalent theories.  One theory ran that enforcers had come to the point of seeing their own authority as the most lawless act in the land.  Another idea went around that the enforcers were engaged in an elaborate pretense and that they actually wanted to convince criminals that no law now existed, that criminals could get away with anything now.  “Soon,” proponents of this idea warned, “They will cast off their mock chains and have their biggest roundup ever.”

            The problems were enormous.  What could one do?  If the first theory were correct, law was now illegal and no one was safe, and the best way to live was be to become an outlaw.  But if the latter were true, becoming an outlaw would be a sure path to torment.

            Neither theory has yet been verified.  Thus, they've both become true.  We live in peril here in this land where the law is at once absolute and absent.



The Public Eye

            One day a man with very good ideas decided that the problems of the world should be handled correctly and committed himself to public service.  After years of struggle, addresses to small groups and countless nights of little sleep, he began to have a measure of success.  He decided to seek a major office.  On the day his first publicity photo was to be shot, he sported a fresh haircut and new clothes.  It was an excellent portrait, and soon was seen on buttons, posters, t.v. ads, t-shirts, billboards and magazine covers.  He was a handsome man and the picture itself earned him countless endorsements and, eventually, votes.  He was elected.  His smile became the symbol of the hope of the populace.

            But around the time his popularity peaked, another picture began to circulate: a picture of an innocent child lost somewhere in the world.  Soon the child’s picture was seen everywhere the candidate’s had been.  Even more places: on milk cartons, donut boxes, public transit tickets, cans of shaving cream, packs of cigarettes.  Soon two images were familiar to everyone: the office holder’s and that of the child lost.  Had the child been kidnapped?  Murdered?  No one knew.  Of two things everyone was certain, however: the child was absolutely blameless and the child was gone.

            The newly elected man had been popular, but now was the flipside of a coin, the other side of which had the permanent luster of a new minting.  One could not see this new side without also being aware of the dark obverse, where the man’s face still beamed.  Remaining affixed, the smile that once stood for hope now laughed at another’s despair and pain.  On the street, people spat at the man.  Even after leaving the public sphere, they never let him forget, for the child had met a terrible death, was broken and dissolved by violence to the smallest possible units, passed into the water supply and was consumed daily as coffee, juice, iced tea, cocktails.  People drank and delicate fists reconstituted in their stomachs.



A Message From the President

            The President sent a message to a woman who was successful in the field of trade.  She was to come immediately to see him and tell absolutely no one -- not her closest relative -- of her charge.  The message took the woman completely by surprise.  At first she stalled for time to think, going about her business in a normal fashion, letting no one even close to her secret.  She was proud of having been recognized and summoned, but why the secrecy?  How would she be able to simply follow the instruction without attracting attention?  What would she tell her husband, her family?  A person cannot just leave work and home without explanation.  But it was her President who called.  She finally fabricated a set of lies to tell the people she saw each day, the people she was closest to.  Thus, it began.

            Arriving at the iron gate surrounding the presidential mansion, she realized she had no idea how one was supposed to see the President.  In the excitement and confusion, she had never asked for instructions.  Nor had any been offered.  The presidential mansion was heavily guarded, and her phone calls reached secretaries who thought her a crank.  “It must be more clandestine than I first imagined,” she reasoned, so she took a room in the capital city and waited to be approached.  She never was.  It was two weeks since she had left her job and her family.

            Then, when she had almost given up hope of ever fulfilling her call, contact was reestablished.  Brought through the forbidding gate to the stately mansion, she was escorted through a series of chambers and briefed by top officials, including undermembers of the President’s advisory staff.  No precaution was overlooked as she was asked repeatedly about the minutest details of her former life.  Soon, a season had gone by.  The woman had not yet met the President, but as time went by she was more and more eager to do so.  She realized that, in the end, she would have no one else left.



On the Danger of Not Knowing

            How do we know what goes on outside Combaria ?  Or even within?

            One night, late, an old movie on television is interrupted by a special report.  There has been a coup.  Details are sketchy, but what is definitely known is that there has been an attempted takeover.  A factory worker rubs the sleepiness from his eyes as the report quickly ends and the screen returns to black and white.

            The next day, he asks others at the factory if they have heard anything.  None have.  He tells his fellow workers all he knows, which is very little, but as his words meet each astonished face he wonders if he was dreaming.  But no, the graveness of the newsman’s tone had alerted him; he had listened closely to the sparse available details; he had rubbed his eyes to make sure he had not been half asleep.

            But no more details come.  The next regular news broadcast is aired with no mention of the special report, and no mention is ever made again.  The man seeks out every bit of information in newspapers and on radio, knowing them to be more reliable than television.  But what is reliability now?  He cannot even trust what he saw with his own eyes reported as truth.  His own reports are treated skeptically.  Nothing, judging by all evidence following the initial alert, seems to have changed, and no one seems to notice what a lonely factory worker knows to be true: that the entire basis of cognizance is now different.  He can no longer do his job after a time, needing to devote more energy to uncovering information.  Others work and when they come home in the evening turn on the television to see what is new in the world.  The former factory worker has theories they would all call crazy.  No one seems to know what he does -- except, perhaps, his enemies, who would believe everything he told them even while denying it to the last.



On the Danger of Knowing

            I heard a story about a scientist.  It seems to ring true.  She was commissioned by the government to investigate the problem of alleged pollution disseminated by government supported and regulated industries.  She spent years in northern wildernesses, taking soil samples, filling small vials with lakewater, picking dead fish off the water’s surface, noting observations, returning to the lab, charting, returning to the field to confirm her findings.  Her charge had been to determine the truth, to glean causes from certain previously noted effects and to report on these effects, the extent of which, she found, was yet to be recognized.  Her report was received  by the government with thanks.

            Soon the scientist began to notice that spokespersons for the government were quoting her data with glaring omissions.  The omissions changed the interpretations a layperson would make from her findings while the scientist’s own interpretations remained unmentioned.  Instead of the problem being represented with the severity of a situation needing regulation, facts were presented which argued for a lessening of existing government control.  Her own words and figures, not misquoted but edited, made her one of the leading supporters of the policies she had discovered to be so in need of change.

            The scientist was enraged.  She wrote a statement intended to reveal the liberties taken with her research.  She called a press conference, so that she could make public the true facts as she saw  them, facts which would make clear the hazard she had spent so much time thoroughly documenting.

            “From the facts that I’ve detailed,”she concluded, “Only one determination is possible: that the situation is more extreme -- horrendous might be an even better word to use -- than has been made public.  And this leads me to one final comment.”  She paused to collect herself before making the strong direct accusation, then spoke: “My government’s primary function, as I have seen it, from top to bottom, is as an apparatus for circulating untruths and suppressing dissent.”

            She had expected a reaction of shock from her audience, especially in response to this last statement, but when she looked up from her prepared text  she perceived no response.  She asked if they had heard and understood what she had said, and if there were any questions.  There were none, and the room was soon cleared as the people made their way to other engagements.  The scientist was left to wonder: is there a language strong enough to convey what I know, or has that too been sabotaged?



The Tomb of the Unknown

            In Combaria City lies the tomb of the unknown soldier, or rather the many, almost countless tombs of the unknown soldiers.  There is one unknown soldier’s grave for each war the country has fought, with the exception of the country’s great Civil War, when, to the great dismay of the now-defunct Ministry of Symbolism, all the dead were identified.  A tour is in order.  Here is the grave of the unknown soldier of the Revolution.  Next to it is the grave of the unknown soldier of the counter-revolution of a few years later, of which little is known.  Next follow, to the right and left, the unknown soldiers who died in the various battles fought to protect the country’s longstanding early policy of isolationism.  After a time the policy was reconsidered, and those countries which had previously attempted friendly relations but were now unfriendly toward the country were, in turn, attacked.  The graves of the unknown soldiers of these conflicts lie just over the far ridge.

            Atop the ridge is one of the most famous monuments, the grave of the unknown soldier who died for some reason now forgotten.  The circumstances of his death, the particular war or conflict, were once chiseled into the stone marker at the grave, but weather has worn the stone and it is now unreadable.  He (if it is a he, for this too is unknown) is the unknown soldier (if this person was a soldier -- no one is absolutely sure of the person’s occupation) from the unknown war (if, in fact, it was a war that was responsible for this person’s demise -- it is also possible that the person’s death had nothing to do with a war).  It is possible too that there is no body there, which would make the grave not a grave at all, but something unknown.  All that is sure is the enormous marker beside the faded stone, erected much later, one would guess, on which the word “unknown” is carved, in granite, so that it, at least, will remain forever.  Let us move on, there is much more to see: the unknown soldiers of the world wars, of the economic fights of the early part of the century, of the latter-day territorial battles.  One can spend all day trying to discern reasons for the unknown and still not get anywhere.   

            But as we move on, listen.  I have a theory.  Keep walking, pretend you have already forgotten the enigmatic monument.  I believe it contains a surveillance camera, with which much is found out about those who pause long, internally debating what might be inside.  There are those, after all, who have a certain investment in the unknown.



The Power of Accident (If That's What it is)

            A glitch is our greatest fear.  It could cost us all our money, which we no longer hide in tangible places like mattresses or chest in attics.  It could cost us our reputations, which are no longer held in the hearts of our fellows or in the memory of our kind deeds.  Glitches erase memory.  And perhaps worse (though what could be worse than having your selfless contributions forgotten?), glitches kill: not metaphorically, but emphatically and without redress or even explanation.  Twenty-eight people were killed yesterday by a glitch.  You may have known or heard about them.  And this number only counts one incident on one day, for glitches absorb most self-evidence, making accurate estimations impossible.

            Don’t even think about this.  I am sorry to have even brought it up, for unlike some other problems, there is no solution to or prevention of glitches.  The forces that rule us do so, for the most part, benevolently, and are necessary.  We can only believe this.  Put them out of your mind, continue on with your life.  Don’t let all the random possibilities of your own physical and emotional ruin surface as your lie in bed tonight.  Don’t think of who controls you, who could ruin you.  You’ll need your sleep and energy tomorrow.  You have problems enough already.