Questionable Truths

Submitted for Contest #30 in response to: Write a story in which someone finds a secret passageway.... view prompt

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The clacking of the type drowned out the feeble sobs. In the corner of the cavernous basement, behind the vast machines, the sound existed in a bubble of its own existence, pushing rebelliously at the pressure of the noise. She was alone, but solitude is subjective.

Above . . .

Laughter filled the small room, making brighter the dim light of the chandelier. Outside, the night was deep. Here, the windows are either squares of black or blocked by splendid drapes which are the color of foreign suns. Glasses jangle against bottles and trays. There was conversation, of a sort that is intellectual but not in the slightest bit interesting. Along the walls and bordering halls, the inverse was true. It was very seldom that one found the best of both worlds, but nowhere was it easier to find than in the cheerful, booming voice of Jackie Legoun.

". . . massive brutes," he was saying. "But, of course, no trouble for a man who'd been through three tours in America. He pulled his pistol like so, flipped it over his hand, and gave the ruffians a stern reminder, of the taste of cold steel."

"You know," said the voice of Counselor Smorn, treading through the mass of appreciative murmuring that followed this intermission in the story, "I actually think I've heard of this one. Didn't you write an article in the Gazette?"

"You'll have to be more specific; I've written for several." Laughter and cheers followed the comment.

"The one in Sussex, wasn't it?" said Smorn, scrunching his brow in a massive effort that was perhaps to blame for his ensuing ignorance of the sudden silence in the room.

"What did you say?"

"The Sussex Gazette," said Smorn cheerfully. "I'm sure that's it. Why, there was"--

Someone grabbed the pudgy man by the shoulders, and began to drag him from the room. What was curious, was that he wore no sort of obstruction over his head, and yet not a man present could later remember his face. What they did remember, was the way Smorn screamed, loud and persisting, as he realized just what was happening to him.

"Didn't quite catch that," said Legoun pleasantly, and turned back to his audience with a smile. Somewhere, a door slammed. The conversation resumed.

"So tell us more about this scully maid," said a woman by Legoun's arm. She was holding a fan in a decidedly coquettish way, and her dress was the sort that is partial to frills. "Was she really that lord's daughter? And what of the pigs? I should think you brought them to the harbor by the river, the one with the marble statues of President"--

"Never mind that," scowled another voice. This one belonged to a quite senior Lord Editor, who then said, "I'm quite curious to hear, Legoun, what press you're directing now. Slipped my mind earlier, but it occurs to me that a man of your talents always has some avenue of work, though"-- and here he paused suggestively, with a pointed look at the shabby fringes of the other man's suit -- "it may not always satisfy his ambitions."

Legoun blinked. "Well, I suppose I -- we've managed to do quite well for ourselves, actually. After that business in Paris, we caught a train to the west, holed up near the craters in Madrid. They have a small press there, reporting on the radiation."

"And that satisfies you?"

"It does not disappoint, certainly."

The Lord Editor, whose proper name was Hamorgan, placed his arms at perpendicular angles to one another and began to twirl his mustache. "We lost Wrigley last month, you know."

"Was that the one with the rash?"

Hamorgan nodded. "Eel poisoning," he said thoughtfully. "Tragedy, of course."

"Of course."

"It also means there's an open position for a new Master of the Type."

Now there were murmurs. About several things, actually.

"What was a Master doing, running fieldwork?" trickled out from a group of bespectacled youths who stood to Legoun's back. They wore Academy robes and haughty expressions which displayed not so much concern or confusion, as they did a precocious contempt. Across from them, a pair of ladies muttered, "But just think! Of the Lebanon Times, too . . . they say the presses there run faster than the Truth." And they chuckled, thoroughly missing the interjection of a curious man with a hunched back and arched shoulders, who scratched at his collar and muttered something about it being a fission reactor, mark A43X9, very impressive, he was sure, but not so much as the ones they used to use, in the Other days . . . at which point he stopped himself, with a wary eye on the door.

Hamorgan watched all of them with narrowed eyes which never wavered from Legoun's frame. "Why not serve a higher Truth?" he said. "Radiation, my word. . . . and you, the man that braved the Aztecs to bring us the whispered prayers of savages! A dozen wars you've been through, and circumstance sidelines you to its worst possible precinct." Taking a cheerier tone, he added, "how about it, then? The offices are not far, we can meet in my study tomorrow."

Legoun did not consider the matter lightly. He stood, thinking, a curious expression brushing across the face which had never known fear . . . and was saved a few more seconds by the voice of the fanning woman, who said, "and here I thought the presses ran themselves? They do, don't they," she insisted, looking around at the blank faces with an absurd expectation of affirmation. There came none. What she did see was a contrary expression of doubt. For what she said was not correct, and thus could not be seen as an Infraction. But, then again, should anyone supply for her the missing information, the risk of the situation would increase tenfold. So no one in the group spoke, until Legoun said:

"More or less," in a distracted sort of way. He then turned to Hamorgan, saying, "Your offer is taken with much humility, my friend. But I should think you would want a younger breed to scamper round the front. There's a reason I've chosen the craters, and I assure you it's not from a lack of ambition."

Hamorgan nodded. "No need to prove anything to me," he said, and added, "but if ever you should change your mind . . . well. You know where to find me." And with that he moved away, plucking a fresh glass from the waiting tray of a servant as he moved stolidly into the crowd.

Legoun faced his audience. "But my," he said, with a grin that could plausibly have shredded his gums, "the Press, ladies and gentlemen!" More cheers, more applause, and a toast spooled out through a minute crack in the glass of the window, to whisper into the night.

Below, the sobs of the girl were no longer heard. They had subsided into the sleeve of her evening gown. Now she kneeled before the vast Press, one of three in the basement of the Imorgenise Weekly, staring dully at the translucent barrier of plastic between her and the massive contraptions within. Contraptions which connected to an array of antennae and radios which were kept on the roof, from which all the information and reports of the world filtered in through real-time . . .

Reporters were of great value to the State. They found those things which did not want to be found, and dragged them, kicking and screaming, into the light. And yet, the limitations of the machine!

Above . . .

Legoun sat in an easy chair in one of the many parlors of the Weekly, sipping at a glass of punch. He was particularly fond of punch, ever since he'd realized the irony of the appellation. So immersed was he in the swirling viscosity of the cherries and the liquid that he nearly did not notice when someone took the seat beside him.

"Well," said the voice of Buiponte Lars, who was by his own choice a reporter of little repute, "if it isn't Exhibit A."

Legoun looked at him with a languid eye. "I'm sure you're being very witty -- let us blame the champagne for sending your words far over my head."

Buiponte leaned in closer, his eyes furtive as he whispered, "I saw what you did with Hamorgan. You know, don't you?"

Legoun shrugged, and turned his attention very fixedly on a table of salmon pastries on the far end of the parlor. "I know a lot of things. I should think everyone here does, whether they like it or not."

There was a pause full of an effort to remember. Finally, Buiponte said, "you ever hear the one? About the distinguished badger?"

"I hear he owned quite the tie."

"Oh, no. No, it was the watch, see. Everyone loved the watch"--

"Until it stopped ticking."

"Awfully difficult, winding a watch when you're a badger."

Legoun nodded slowly. "So I'd assume." He still did not look at Buiponte, so missed the light sheen of perspiration on the other man's brow, and the palpable relief in his face. "Odd enough, our predicament," he muttered, "without all this fluff." Then he said, "I hear the deathwatch beetles never stop ticking."

"Then they must be truly marvelous as a timepiece."

"That remains to be seen. Have you heard anything more from this badger of ours?"

"I do not often converse with such lofty denizens of the wood."

"Then perhaps we ought to try," said Legoun, and with gave Buiponte a look. He left in a flurry of heavy fabric and heavier cologne, and Legoun went back to his punch.

Below, the clacking is very loud, for on the other side of the world a bright noon is full of new events, happenings, updates which are essential for any refined citizen to know. And still the girl kneels. Her hat was one of great finery. It is a wonder that its absence has not been noted, for it now lies to one side of the furthest Press from the door, the silk ribbons hanging limply from one of the protruding steel teeth. Inside that Press, which is the slowest of the three, is a bright fire of self-replenishing gas, turning and burning so as to fuel the churning of paper which floats out in a bin. In the morning, the secretaries will come to take what has resulted, and redact the necessary segments. Edits may prove necessary, but that remains to be seen.

Above . . .

There is a curious man with a severely hunched back in the corner of the main sitting room, his back to the wall and his revoltingly eager face turned upward towards a woman who looks desperately for an avenue of escape. "D'you know," he sniveled, ignorant of the sudden wrinkle between her eyes, "the Presses, they get faster all the time. All the time." He leered. "They made me an engineer, they did. Told me I had, er, what it took. They were using coal, can you believe . . . I told's 'em, though. I said . . ."

"Yes, quite interesting," hurried the woman, who had just spotted, across the room, the vague memory of a face she had last seen seven years ago at a social function on the other side of the continent. "And yet I see a very good friend -- you understand -- standing just over there. We are the dearest of companions, I must go and"-- and she did, without so much as finishing the statement. The man blinked through eyes that had the beginning suggestions of cataracts, slightly befuddled and wondering why his heart was suddenly hurting.

Below, the second Press moves at considerably faster pace than the gas fires of the first. The core here cannot be seen, for it is encased very securely in a ball of solid lead, into which the connecting wires cross and the tubes extrude into the type. The blue heat of fission gives the lines a blue glow at the edges, and the papers shunt out into a tray considerably larger than its counterpart. There is a handprint on the wall here, but it is already fading.

And on the third . . .

Legoun himself once asked the question, though he did not know that he had. It came in the form of a joke, many years before.

"To think!" he had cried, "that the journalist, alone of all his peers, loses meaning in the grasp of age. Any expert, in any other field, he will teach those who follow, and they will be happy to listen, for he is wise. But we, who gather the Truth . . . what more is there to the craft, than our mission? No, a journalist in old age has no use. He simply disappears . . ."


The girl stared. Through the walls, which are crusted with what might be fog, or the crackling interplay of electric signals, there is the faintest suggestion of a mass of crossing wires, all connecting on a central node from which lights flickered weakly against the surface of the metal Press. From the right angle, they might've been spectacles.


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