Chapter 6: "GOD"
The beautiful, coffee-skinned, blue-eyed Vivian Foski entered the tight confines of the telewindow production booth. There, she was surrounded by a daunting array of primitive electronic instruments. Her office work had taken longer than shed anticipated and she was late. She smiled and waved at the rest of the bare-bones crew through the soundproof glass. One by one, as they saw her, they smiled and waved back.
She blew one of them a kiss, a skinny old white man named Mayhew with a scruffy gray beard, dark brown bloodshot eyes and an off-putting tendency to drool. Vivian loved to see the slow-moving studio handyman blush beneath his smelly old army bush hat and sneak her a special little wave when she greeted him that way. He was a fascinating character and a genuinely nice man. She liked him a lot.
Mayhew adored Vivian. Everybody did. Although Mayhew was remarkably healthy for his age no one would have mistaken him for a sex object. He knew that the gorgeous young writer, editor director and executive producer of God wouldnt have thrown him the kiss if he had been forty years younger. Still, it was a nice thing to do. She could always tell when he needed an ego boost and never failed to give it to him.
The other two women on the staff treated him like a tacky piece of furniture. The kid on the camera only wanted to hear war stories. The other guywell, a guy was a guy, even if he was a great guy like Heck.
Mayhew went back to retouching the gold paint bordering the programs G-O-D logo, written in his own mavenly variation of Old English, on the sets back wall.
It had been Vivians idea to create the gradient, earth-tone colors between the gold trim with a dot matrix of a million human faces. At the start of each show, the camera would pan in to a dot that would become a face. Today, it was going to be the American Civil War general who said, "War is all hell," William Tecumseh Sherman.
Vivian sat down at her five window console, leaning and stretching this way and that to push the buttons and flip the switches that lit up the equipment.
The other members of the crew had already begun prepping themselves, their gear and each other for the show. A young, black cameraman was setting up his equipment. Hector Clay, the middle-aged, black host, was conferring with Gail, the young, attractive, tan-skinned, green-eyed associate producer. A dark-eyed, sepia-colored, 60-year-old woman was fussing over Hectors face. He had missed a patch of stubble under his nose, as he often did, and she was giving him a shave and a scolding.
"Im tired of this foolishness," said the older woman, patting down his dark, wincing, razor-bumped face with an old, expensive after shave. "I know it hurt. Serve you right. Aint gonna hurt nuthin for you to use that stuff on your face that every other man in the civilized world uses to keep from havin ta shave every day like a dog-on caveman."
The short, stocky man laughed in that full, masculine way of his that Vivian loved. "You know I just want to feel your soft, warm hand on my cheeks," he said with an exaggerated wink.
The older woman shook her head. "Dont be givin me nonea that. I know what you call yourself doin, for the principle of the thing," she said sarcastically, "but it dont make no kinda sense. It aint like me Harvey and old Mayhew not getting a prescription from the doctor to buy Iris Die..."
"Sure it is," said Heck. "Iris Die and No-Grow are made by the same people that own and operate Condor Broadcasting Incorporated. Thats the financial arm and the ministry of propaganda for the American Partythe party that gave us New Economic Zones, and a supreme court that says having dark brown eyes like yours is reasonable cause for being denied a job, a home or a meal in a public restaurant."
"You changin the subject," said the woman who proceeded as though he had said nothing. "Men used to shave like you do a long, long time ago cause they couldnt do no better. Nowadays, you put this No-Grow on your face and wash it off. You through with it for the next three or four weeksthe next three or four months if you wanna get the kind that do thatand you should causea the kind of work you do. No muss, no fuss; yo skin dont bump up; you caint burn yoself with it if you tried. The stuff do work. It aint like there was somethin else that work as good. There aint."
Gail, the 26-year-old associate producer tried to break in, but the older woman wouldnt let her. She had more to say, and she was going to say it.
"We aint got time to be foolin with something stupid like this when we all got so many other things to do. Every day its the same thing. And for what? Cause the people that make the good stuff do other stuff you dont like? What kinda sense do that make?"
"Youve presented an excellent case," said Gail, slicing her way back into the conversation and trying not to sound as condescending as she was being. "Youre right. We do have to settle this. But we cant do it now. Because, as you said"
"I think we can," said Hector, the gentleness still in his voice but a hardness settling in his bright, hazel eyes. His brows were knitted in that way of his that told anyone who knew him to let him speak.
"Doesnt it bother you that the people who gave us No-Grow are the same ones who came up with Iris Dye and race change operationsthe same people who make the products and run the hospitals and clinics? Doesnt it bother you that they raise enough money for the Party to keep them in power all by themselves, and every dime we spend on their products is helping to finance the things were fighting against?
"This is still a constitutional republic," said Gail. "Anybody with a T-window and a bank card can vote Democrat, Republican, American or any other party on the ballot. You dont even have to leave homeas long as you have a home. What we have to do is educate people and get out the vote."
"But," said Heck, "If you cast one vote through your T-window against the party on election day and a thousand votes through your buying habits for the Party the rest of the year, who are you actually voting for?"
The silky-shirted host of God lifted his palms to the sky and scanned the air around his eyebrows for his next sentence. "Id love to use No-Grow," he said, "as much as Mayhew would probably love to use Grow."
The old man grinned, doffing his hat proudly to display his barren dome.
Hector smiled his acknowledgment of the gesture and turned his attention back to Gail. "But if I did," he said, "Id be helping in my own small way to support the creation of more NEZs that everybody calls 'disposal zones' for good reason. Id be violating a principle of personal integrity that defines what kind of person I am. The kind of person I am defines what kind of action Ill take the next time Im confronted with the same kind of issue."
No one made a sound.
"All of us here are deists," said Hector, misreading the stony faces before him and trying to establish common ground before moving on. "We dont look for Gods truth on the lips of a contemporary holy man or the pages of an ancient holy book that no one seems to have the courage to verify with a time scan. We learn from everybody, from every source. We look for principles. We do that for the simple reason that one principle or another governs everything in the universe that can possibly happen. A dominating influence is always at work defining our freedoms and constraints. But does one of those dominating influences have to be the American Party?"
Hector made eye contact with everyone on the studio floor. "You and I still have enough freedom to decide whether to fight those bastards, with all the sacrifices and uncertainties that entails, or to dance to whatever tune they want to play. There are no other options. Thats the principle of the thing," he said, looking pointedly at the make-up woman, "that we have to respond to in every way we can. We cant turn it into a painless choice between practical benefits and theoretical evils. In some cases there are no good choices. This happens to be an easy moral choice if it isnt an easy practical one. But even when we cant make the best moral choices imaginable we have a moral obligation to make the best ones available."
Had anyone else turned a disagreement over how to shave into an issue of principle and said what he had about freedom and sacrifice and moral obligation, it would have sounded like a rank political speech. The difference was, he said everything he did off-the-cuff. He had simply spoken the truth.
Vivians whole body oscillated like a tuning fork as she listened. She and Heck understood each other. That was one of the reasons she loved him. But there was more to her electrified reaction than his words or her love for him would explain. Everybody felt it, including the young cameraman and the old combat veteran who hung a hungry ear on his every word. Perhaps it had nothing to do with the words themselves. Perhaps it was all in his deep, resonate voice, his hypnotic cadence, his infectious passion.
He stopped abruptly, afraid that he had said too much. The blank faces of his colleagues suggested to him that he had said it poorly. He looked at Vivian in the control booth who gave him the high-sign and his knotted muscles relaxed. It was hard enough to know what to do when you had all of the necessary information to work with. When you didnt, you didnt have control over your own mind. Vivian gave him that control because he could trust her to tell him the truth.
The truth was...His mind was beginning to wander.
That happened to him more often than anyone who thought they knew him would have guessed. Hector Clay was first and foremost a man who thought an awful lot about women in general and the things that men and women do together behind closed doors. He couldnt help it. At that moment he was preoccupied with one woman; Vivian Foski. She was so beautiful that it scared him but not enough to keep him from thinking; God, Id sure like to get my hands on those titties....
Later that afternoon, Hector and Gail were squeezed into the production booth on either side of Vivian, going over her first rough edit of the show in a cluster of T-windows in front of her. They stood. She sat.
As much as Hector tried to concentrate on business, it was all he could do to keep his eyes out of the cleavage in Vivians dress. The swelling tops of Gails flawless bosom were also distracting but not as much as Vivians, smaller, less perfect orbs. Less perfect, that is, to the trend-setters in Aspen who also decreed that mens casual shirts be dark in color, open to the navel and have long, puffy sleeves.
He doubted that Vivian would show so much of her breasts if the clothiers she could afford to buy from offered anything else that wouldnt give her the look of an Edwardian schoolmarm. Though the preferred clothing styles suited Hectors tastes, he knew that the stark options constituted another petty form of tyranny that had to be fought because it was petty and tyrannical. And because it was controlled by the same shadowy network of scoundrels who controlled so many other pivotal aspects of American life.
Clothing was another of the many small things that put people in small boxes in other peoples minds. Boxes that allowed them little freedom of movement and sometimes made them targets for attack or victims of terminal neglect. He wanted to talk about those boxes on the show, to make them as real to the viewers of God as they were to him.
Vivian had some of that idea going in the top center monitor with an animated sequence of colorful boxes floating in deep black space like six-sided planets. The three co-producers were moving them around behind the monitor window with their floating control buttons trying to turn Vivians sketch of an idea about dominating influences into a finished piece. When they couldnt reach a consensus on how to proceed, their collective attention drifted to the window closest to Gail.
The still shot in front of her featured the studio set with Hector sitting cross-legged in his easy chair. A guest chair was missing, the one normally occupied by an ELF translator to heighten the illusion of real dialog with people from the past who didn't speak English. That left one chair for digital recreations of English-speaking people like Isaac Newton or Clarence Leighton, the first American Party President of the United States.
Gail, who had started scrolling through those names in the "GUEST LIST" menu box running down the side of the window stopped at Steve Allen. She highlighted the name with an impish grin. She placed her cursor on the empty seat and depressed the "Enter" key on the panel. A disclaimer filled the window:
THE FOLLOWING SCENES CONTAIN ONE OR MORE ELECTRONIC FACSIMILES OF HISTORICAL FIGURES WHO MAY OR MAY NOT HAVE ENDORSED THE WORDS AND GESTURES ATTRIBUTED TO THEM WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF THIS PROGRAM. THOUGH EVERY ATTEMPT HAS BEEN MADE TO ENSURE THE MOST ACCURATE REPRESENTATION OF THE SUBJECTS ACTUAL WORDS, GESTURES, ATTITUDES AND OPINIONS, THE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE TECHNOLOGY RESPONSIBLE FOR CONTEXT ANALYSIS, LANGUAGE INTERPRETATIONS AND PROBABLE RESPONSE CAN FUNCTION ONLY WITHIN THE PARAMETERS OF THE SUBJECTS PUBLIC RECORD. THE PRODUCERS ACKNOWLEDGE AN ERROR MARGIN OF 3% OR MORE IN SOME CASES AND RESERVE THE RIGHT TO EDIT AS NECESSARY FOR BREVITY, CONTINUITY AND GOOD TASTE.
More than 3% could have been 100%. Editing for brevity, continuity and someones opinion of good taste could have meant anything. It was a standard legal form employed by every producer in the telewindow industry and ignored by 99% of the viewers. If an ELF was convincing, the people who saw and heard it were convinced. That was the end of it.
The message faded to nothing five seconds after it was superimposed on the set, whereupon the computers artificial intelligence chip went to work on its assigned task. Small, rectangular building blocks rapidly filled the guest seat in the rough shape of a dark-haired man in horn-rimmed glasses, a blue blazer and a red and blue diagonally striped tie. The electronic blocks melted into each other, rounding the unnatural corners, sharpening the details and forming a perfect, three-dimensional facsimile of Steve Allen.
He seemed to come awake after a deep sleep, survey the empty studio with a bemused expression on his face and say, "Kind of a sparse crowd, Heckdid you forget to pack your audience?" He laughed at his own joke as the T-window Hector Clay in the seat across from him remained frozen in time and space.
"How about it folks?" asked the young associate producer, "Wanna do this segment with ol Steve-a-reno?"
It took awhile for Hector and Vivian to recognize the 20th century actor, composer, musician, comedian and writer. When they did, they gave Gail an embarrassed smile, remembering their insistence at God's creation that Vivians idea for the interview had been original when Gail said it wasnt. It was the first time either of them had seen her ask old Mayhew to step in and settle a dispute. They could still hear him chuckle and say, "Shes gotcha." A TV library check confirmed it.
"Well?" said Gail, reading the memory on their faces, "Can we squeeze Steve in or not?" She knew the answer before she asked the question. She also knew exactly what she wanted to do with the boxes. The object of this exercise was to buy her way into a better position of influence to label them.
Vivian and Hector exchanged knowing glances. Then Vivian said, "I think that Hectors chat with General Sherman gave us more than we can use for that part of the show."
"Lets go back to the boxes," said Hector. "We were trying to find a way to talk about freedom of thought and action by illustrating some dominant influence that either permits it or inhibits it. Are we together on that?"
Gail sulked but nodded her agreement along with Vivian as Hector put Vivians scene in his T-window, moved several boxes to the foreground and lined them up according to size. He labeled the biggest one, "context," and all of the others, "content."
"OK," said Vivian, "What do we call the context box if were trying to define what inhibits freedom?"
"Why dont we call it what it is," said Hector, "oppression."
Gail shook her head decisively, "No way. Too weak. Besides, as soon as you say it you get an argument."
"Like that one?" smiled Hector.
The women smiled back.
"Really," said Gail, seriously, "Some words you cant use in certain ways at certain points in history without getting spit on by the people you want on your side. "Ask old Mayhew about principle and freedom. The people he wanted on his side dismissed them immediately as right-wing propaganda."
Gail didnt believe that Mayhew knew what principle was with that stupid bush hat he wore like so many other stereotypical combat veterans of his time. She didnt believe that he knew what war was. But by invoking his name on the side of her convictions, she now had an attentive audience of two who were the eyes and ears of many.
It galled her to hear people like Mayhew talk about his war as though it was some kind of game that nobody was playing anymore. It was a game, all right, a deadly game played with words and images that turned neighborhoods into battlefields and disposal zones. War was the name she wanted to see on the big box. The enemies of freedom were still winning it but they hadnt won yet.
Hector fixed his eyes on Gails. When someone as cold and arrogant as she seemed to be showed the kind of fire that she was showing for downtrodden humanity, it couldnt be ignored.
"Now," she said, "As soon as you say oppressed, somebody is going to remind you that the oppressed have more guns and hand grenades than the National Guard and theyre using them on each other."
"Yeah," said Vivian, "Then you get the stories about lazy toasties whod rather beg, steal and eat out of garbage cans than go to work; the ones who dont want to do anything but sell drugs, get high, make babies and pass venereal diseases around."
"Thats right," said Gail. "Every time you open a telewindow, you see niggers, whiggers and higgers with the name oppressed written in jest all over them."
Vivian sighed. "You have to wonder how a thing like that gets started." The words were out before she could catch them. It was only a rhetorical question, if it could have been called a question at all, but Gail was bound to give a definitive Harvard answer.
"In the first T-window movies and docu-dramas ever shown, the oppressed became the 'so-called' oppressed. By the time telewindows replaced television you could drop the so-called and it sounded like it was still there. Say the name and you see the images. Thats why it works so well today for Condor Industries and the American party."
"What do you mean?" asked Vivian, unexpectedly intrigued by one of Gails ideas.
"People dont see a buzzard when they hear, "Condor," and they think only of the Party when they hear, American. "George Calloway is the only national figure still popular enough to talk about this stuff and hes damn near as old as Mayhew. If he doesnt come to a natural end soon, you can bet your bank card that hell be on the X Channel performing unnatural sex acts with the family pet before the year is out. Were all running out of time and we cant go up against that kind of power with an abstraction."
After a short, reflective pause, Vivian said, "Look at this."
On the monitor in front of her she brought up a sample cut of General Sherman and Hector Clay in casual modern dress. The general was more talkative than most would imagine and his voice had a higher pitch. But even with all of his nervous, bird-like mannerisms and without his uniform, he was unmistakably a man to be reckoned with.
The Sherman ELF was going on about General George Thomas, one of the finest and least known generals of the Civil War, while the Hector in the window tried to steer the conversation toward the broader topic of freedom.
Vivian looked at Hector, "I know you dont like me to do this," she said, "but I have to, to check the validity of our ELF responses... Listen,"
The Hector in the window had managed to turn the conversation in the direction he wanted it to go. He defined his role as a deist and said, "As far as any truth-seeker is concerned, the first principles of truth are having the freedom to pursue it and the will to exercise it, whatever the cost...."
The Hector outside of the window frowned. "I never said that."
Vivian shrugged, "I know. It was an ELF. But it was something you would say and the way you would have said it. Gail, Brenda, Mayhew and Harv all went through that cut of the disk at different times and all of us agreed; thats you."
Hector looked at Gail and she gave him a short, unequivocal nod. "Its like handwriting," she said in that irritating Harvard-Magna-Cum-Laude-tone of hers. "You dont write exactly the same way every time and you wouldnt necessarily say exactly the same thing in exactly the same way. But given a tightly drawn context, the message will be essentially the same and distinctively yours."
"So," said Hector, without surprise, "Free will isnt as free as wed like to think it is."
"Not quite," said Gail.
Vivian didnt say anything. Instead, she made a change in her T-window. She put Sherman in his blue Civil War uniform with the three white stars of a Lieutenant Generaland Hector in his Guido Calvera War greens with his Airborne and Ranger tabs over the three black stripes of an Army buck sergeant.
"I tried out a number of variables to see what effect they would have on Shermans ELF. I made your ELFs skin lighter. I made it darker. I changed its hair texture. I even changed its race. We know the profound negative effect that dialect has on the AI chip, especially, urb English, so I didnt fool around with that. But I did give both of the ELFs different clothes; formal, informal, expensive, modest, 19th century, 21st centuryyou name it. I mixed and matched and got very little difference in the exchange between your ELF and Shermans until I put them in the uniforms you wore in the field. Gail, youll be especially interested in this cut."
She ran the piece and they all heard a riveting analysis of war which went far beyond most peoples concept of what war was. The amazing thing about Sherman was his grasp of movies, radio, television and telewindows as weapons. The amazing thing about Hector was how much he sounded like Mayhew in the weight he gave to the lessons of image warfare learned from the peace movement of the 1960s and '70s by every genocidal regime on Earth.
Gails head rang with the first-time realization that she, Hector and Mayhew shared the same vision of war all along. And the first time understanding that Mayhews passion about the image-makers of his day was not so much because of what happened then, but because of what had happened since. She saw all of that, only because she saw the words coming out of Hectors mouth instead of Mayhews... Gail blushed from head to toe. Hell, it wasnt even Hector; it was an ELF! For a moment she thought that she would literally die of shame.
She owed the old man an apology. She owed Hector an apology. She owed Vivian one, too. She had grossly and unfairly underrated all of them. Like a precocious child who realized she had overstepped her bounds, she withdrew into a shell, and listened to the grown-ups.
Gails epiphany aside, the most significant thing about the Sherman/Clay exchange was Hectors missing line about freedom.
They all caught that essential fact and made the connection to what it had to do with the issue of freedom they wanted to represent in Vivians floating boxes.
"Its not as though you no longer cared about freedom when the two of you were wearing your battle uniforms," said Vivian, "its just that you didnt have time to talk about anything but war. The uniforms put you in a box, so to speak, that you couldnt get out of in time. But something else is going on here that I cant put my finger on. It has to do with uswith what were doing or not doing, with the word oppression and what Gail said about not being able to use it. That itself is a kind of oppression, isnt it? Isnt that whats boxing us all in now; not being able to use the words that say what we want to say?"
Hectors eyes widened. He held his hands to his face for a moment, then brought his palms together as one would in prayer and drew them down slowly until his fingertips touched his chin. "There was another box that wouldnt permit that line about freedom to come out," he said. He dropped his hands to his side and looked at Gail. "And theres nothing abstract about it. Its so pervasive we dont even think about it anymore; we let it do the thinking for us in every computer software application that uses artificial intelligence. Its the Piper AI chip!"
Hector hardly ever raised his voice. When he did the people around him jumped. Vivian and Gail jumped.
Hector continued. "Dean Pipers artificial intelligence chip put the electronic communication universe into orbit around Condor Industries. Even Tanaka uses it. Everybody does. We cant run a valid check on any ELF response to a certain ethnic dialect, right? Why? Because the AI chip treats it like a corruption of English rather than a natural variation spoken by people who are brought up in poor, racially segregated communities."
The two women nodded their agreement.
"They talk that way because thats where they live and thats where they live largely because thats how they talkand because their parents couldnt afford the Iris Dye or prenatal genetic alterations to make them more presentable to prospective employers. But the AI chip that everybody in business, education and government uses to make ELFs doesnt take any of that into account. According to the chip, they talk that way because theyre too stupid and lazy to improve themselves and they live where they do for the same reasons. Its the American Party line built into the chip. It even gives white people, Asians and Hispanics who sound too black a hard time."
"Were at war," said Gail, stating the obvious without the haughtiness that characterized her normal mode of speech and reminded Vivian so much of her sister Mina.
Vivian thought again about that strange telephone conversation shed had late that afternoon with Mina, wondering what it meant. The war was entering a new phase. The events leading to her move on the edge of a nascent DZ could not have been coincidental and she had taken to carrying a gun.
"...Nobody is going to buy what we say about an AI chip without evidence," said Gail. "And as soon as you start, you get the same problem you do with words like oppression. You get an argument. When we float that context box up in front of all those T-windows in the land, we have to start with something powerful and concrete that nobody can argue with."
"Like what?" said Hector, "a dead body?"
"What else?" said Vivian matter-of-factly.
Gails insides churned and her outsides quaked like an untested soldier gearing up for her first combat assault.
"Not a corpse," said Vivian, "a graveyard. A graveyard with more freshly dug holes than anybody can count and grave-diggers working overtime to dig more because theyre filling up fast."
Understanding broke slowly across Hectors face as he peered into Vivians determined blue eyes. "Youre talking about disposal zones, arent you? You want to go after them head on."
Vivian didnt utter a word but her eyes screamed, YES!
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