Construction The Good Witness
ON the plastic name-plate the words were barely legible: 'People's Condominium 537 G Cubicle 7241. Dylan C. Smith Recording Angel'. Dr. Joan Brown paused for a few moments to steady her nerves. Five hundred floors below her, the pedestrian expressway that she had been speeding along only a minute ago was now a thin, silvery arc barely visible through the yellow smog. A buzzer sounded and a hatch-door slid open. Joan climbed through. As her eyes adjusted to the dim light she became aware of a stooped figure enveloped in a wheelchair .

'Welcome to my humble palace!' croaked a voice, fragile as tissue paper. Joan nodded, too scared to speak. It seemed as if the slightest movement of air would tear the tiny figure to shreds. 'Come on, child, time is money!' Joan fumbled in her purse. 'Later, later!' the voice rasped. 'Just tell me your question, and be quick about it!'

'I'm a teacher at the People's University. I've been doing research into religions of the 20th century,' she began slowly as she mustered her thoughts. And then, on impulse, 'You do remember that far back, don't you?'

Dylan struck his forehead angrily with the palm of his hand. 'In there is ten thousand years of total recall. Do you doubt me?'

Joan shook her head. Who would dare to question the word of a recording angel? Yet for a moment something about the aged man's attitude jarred. Then she thought, 'Thousands of individuals have come here before me seeking knowledge of the Dark Ages, each one thinking that their question mattered, that their project was important. Most of them are long since dead, and their research forgotten.' She shivered. 'I must pull myself together. I've got work to do.'

'What I'm interested in are the ritual human sacrifices,' Joan continued in a businesslike tone. 'It's well known that all the major religions demanded regular sacrifices, and that the practice continued unabated until religion was finally stamped out in the twenty-fourth century. I was hoping that you could describe some of them to me. Did the victims give their lives gladly, or did they resist? How did their family and friends feel about it? Did they feel honoured? What was it like to witness a sacrifice?'

The aged man chuckled. I've witnessed many sacrifices,' he said. 'Where I lived, they happened almost every week. Usually, someone was singled out at random and shot. Then people came from all over the area and joined long processions to celebrate. For those who were unable to take part, there were televised news reports. You could say that the very fabric of society depended upon the practice though that's interpretation, which is your province.'

Dylan began to recount his memories in meticulous detail, while Joan stared at her voice recorder, tears welling in her eyes. Then, half-way through one episode, he stopped. 'Your hour's up. Now you can cross my palm with silver!'

As Joan climbed out of the cubicle, another client was waiting outside.

That evening, Dylan relaxed with a glass of milk as he counted the day's takings. He was vaguely aware than another angel was trying to contact him, but for a while he kept his mind tightly closed. The telepathic signals persisted. Finally, he relented. It was his friend Victor.

'All that stuff about cannibalism was a bit strong, don't you think?' came Victor's thoughts.

'That's what the normals like to hear,' replied Dylan. 'Plenty of blood and gore, that's what gets them going. Makes them glad to be living in our glorious People's Paradise.' Aware of Victor's censure, he continued, 'Besides, what I told the young Doctor was in a way more true than a literal description of what happened. Look at Northern Ireland. They lived off the blood of human sacrifices for decades. Look at the Middle East. The endless conflicts there finally brought on the Age of Nuclear Wars. And if that hadn't happened, we freaks wouldn't be here, condemned to everlasting life through genetic mutation!'

For a few seconds, Dylan and Victor joined minds in anguish at their common doom. But Dylan had more to get off his chest. 'You talk as if there are grades of deception, as if its all right to go so far but no further. Why not just admit it: we're a bunch of recalcitrant liars. The fact is, the normals are far more contented listening to our lies than they would be if they heard the unvarnished truth. And what is "truth" anyway? It's not some treasure locked away where no-one can get at it. It's just whatever people believe, or can be made to believe.'

'Ah, you've contradicted yourself!' thought Victor. 'If you persuade another person to believe something you don't believe yourself, then you must think that what you've succeeded in making them believe is false, and that what you believe is the truth. "Making someone believe" in your sense just means representing a falsehood as true.'

'How naive of you! replied Dylan. 'Haven't you ever come across what is commonly called "self-deception"? Inventing our own world, our own reality is something each of us does. We believe what is useful to us for the moment, the expedient, what we want or need to believe. Whatever ''experiences" we may have lived through, whatever "knowledge" we have had instilled in us, the story we make ourselves believe is our truth. "Truth" is nothing more and nothing less than the suppositions we choose to live by.'

Victor remained unconvinced. 'Look my dear friend, whatever we recording angels like to think, or whatever it would be good for the normals to think, something did actually happen long ago in the past. It's back there. You could distort it or lie about it for all eternity and still not change what actually happened.'

'What actually happened, what actually happened!' came the echo of Dylan's jeering voice. 'You sound like a parrot. Just tell me simply, in the words of the ancient poet John Donne, "where all past yeares are"? Look around the world for them. Search every nook and cranny. Suppose you find a precious piece of so-called "evidence". That's something that has still to be interpreted. It is not itself the "past fact" that you take it to be evidence for. Or is the past in our memory? You yourself admit, indeed insist, that memory can be mistaken; even the memory of a recording angel. Remember how we thought I got my name from a Welsh poet who later became a famous folk singer? But even if all the recording angels agreed about what they seemed to remember, that still wouldn't make their agreement the truth, according to your account. In short, the past is nowhere. It doesn't exist. Or. rather, the past is whatever we decide to make it.'

'We'll just have to agree to differ,' thought Victor. 'Fancy a game of chess?'


Victor sighed to himself. He thought of the innumerable times they had played the same chess opening. He thought of the innumerable times they had had the same argument. 'One day I'll find the right move. One day.'

'Construction' © Ruth Klempner 1999

'The Good Witness' © Geoffrey Klempner 1995