[A short story for you today. This one will be rather pointed, I fear. It was inspired by an essay I read about an hour ago. That piece, which I’ll link at the end of this one, harmonized so perfectly with my own convictions and the process by which I reached them that I felt a dramatization to be imperative. (Fiction always gets an idea across better than exposition.) Note, however, that persons willing to state those convictions openly are few, marginalized, and frequently silenced. – FWP]


     “Ladies and gentlemen,” Jessica Weatherly intoned, “among the truly bizarre features of our era is that the men responsible for its greatest accomplishments tend to go unknown. I’m not talking about the Nobel Prize winners. Their names get around. Indeed, a couple have become regular participants in what a cynical friend of mine calls the Permanent Rotating Panel Show, as ‘anything authorities.’” She shook her mane of blonde hair, still full and beautiful despite her years, in a go-figure gesture. “You’d think we’d know better than to assume that just because a man has achieved greatly in some specific field, therefore he’ll be knowledgeable and brilliant in many others. But that’s the celebrity machine for you.
     “The great but unknown men are not the prize winners but the builders. The engineers. The men who transform hard-won knowledge into designs and implementations of trailblazing new things. Some of those men must forever labor in obscurity. Others become known only for irrelevancies: sex or drug scandals, or terrible tragedies. But a few, the most daring and productive, do become widely known…even if they’re sometimes not merely famous but notorious as well.
     “Tonight it’s my great privilege to have one of those men as my special guest. Not only is he a superb, creative, and astoundingly productive engineer with innumerable accomplishments to his name, he’s also among the most gracious and generous people I’ve ever known. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to our telecast the founder and former CEO of Arcologics Technologies, Todd E. Iverson!”
     Iverson slid his seat into the view of the camera. He waved, produced a sunny smile, and turned to face his interviewer.
     Now we’ll see if I’ve made the biggest error in judgment of my life.
     Weatherly returned the smile. “Mr. Iverson—”
     “Please call me Todd, Ma’am.”
     “As you prefer. If you’ll call me Jessica.”
     “Of course.”
     “Todd, despite your many achievements, until quite recently your name has been anything but a household word. Has that ever bothered you?”
     “Oh, not at all. Publicity is more often than not an impediment in my work. When people know that you’ve embarked on some innovative venture, they tend to have one of three reactions. One is to shrug and turn the page…wait, we shouldn’t use that cliché any longer, should we?”
     Weatherly chuckled. “Oh, most people would understand it, even today.”
     “I hope so,” Iverson said. “Anyway, that’s one reaction, probably the most common. The second kind of reaction is to want a piece of the action, perhaps as investors, and perhaps as ‘co-developers.’ That can be very annoying.”
     “Why is that, if I may?”
     “Not many inventions of importance have come from committees.”
     “Ah. A good point. And the third kind?”
     “They denounce you and try to stop you.”
     “Well, I hope this bit of exposure isn’t detrimental to anything you’ve got going on at the moment.”
     “We’ll see. Now, you did say you had a bunch of questions for me, didn’t you?”
     “Indeed I did, Todd. The first may be the toughest. Ready?”
     Iverson made an exaggerated show of bracing himself. “Fire away.”
     “What does your middle initial stand for?”
     He winced. “I suppose I should have expected that. It’s information I seldom give out.”
     “Why, Todd?”
     “It’s mildly embarrassing. But I’ll tell you if you insist on knowing.”
     “Oh, I won’t insist,” Weatherly said, “but I am curious.”
     “All right.” Iverson made a great show of steeling himself for the disclosure. “It’s Evelyn.”
     “Hm? How is that spelled?”
     “Eee vee eee ell why enn, just like the female version of the name, but with the long eee up front.” He grinned sheepishly. “It was my father’s idea. He was a fan of this English novelist who was middling famous a few decades ago.”
     “Oh. Well, it’s not…discreditable.”
     “Thank you for that. You do have other questions, I hope?”
     Weatherly was momentarily set back. “Well, yes I do. First, would you please define for our viewers how engineers differ from scientists?”
     Iverson smiled.
     It’s a worthwhile question.
     “You nailed it with your opening remarks. Scientists–the good ones–seek new knowledge about the laws of nature. They produce ideas that give birth to theories about the laws of existence. Then they design experiments to test those theories. The ones that survive all the testing become part of what we know…well, what we think we know. Engineers use that knowledge to solve specific problems. Some of those problems might not have been soluble before a particular bit of knowledge became available..”
     “Could you give our viewers an example?”
     “Certainly. Back in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, scientists investigated the existence of electrical potentials inside formations of various elements. It was an outcropping of early quantum mechanics. Their researches made possible the invention of the transistor. Engineers used the transistor in the development of electronic devices: radios, televisions, music sources, and a whole bunch of other stuff.”
     “But you weren’t involved in that, surely?”
     “Ah, no. I wasn’t even born yet.”
     “Well, could we have an example from one of your own inventions?”
     Damn. I should have expected that.
     “I’m afraid I don’t have an easily explained one on tap, Jessica. Maybe we could come back to that another time?”
     Weatherly looked mildly miffed. “I get the sense that you’re afraid of revealing something that would undercut your ownership of something.”
     Iverson merely smiled. “Another question, please?”
     “All right. Do you ever get the urge to go to work on social problems?”
     Iverson’s heart leaped in his chest. “They’re outside my expertise, Jessica. Besides, societies are composed of people. You can’t solve social problems without solving people problems—the problems that people have inside themselves. I’m not nearly arrogant enough to try that.”
     “But engineers are our problem-solvers.”
     “Not every kind of problem, Jessica. We know our limitations. You’ve met people who call themselves ‘social policy experts,’ haven’t you?”
     “Well, of course! I’ve had a number of them as guests on this show.”
     “What did you think of them—please, no names, just as a category of people?”
     Her visage hardened. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
     “I think you do.” He strove for his gentlest possible tone. “Did they strike you as people you’d be comfortable having in your home? People you’d want for friends?”
     “Well, mostly no, but—”
     “Could you say why?”
     It produced a look of consternation from the interviewer. She appeared to be uncertain whether to speak. Iverson decided to rescue her.
     “The ones I’ve known,” he said, “have all struck me as very…definite. Very certain of their ideas. They don’t allow themselves a lot of doubt. That’s made it difficult for me to talk to them. I kept wanting to ask them about their policy proposals, ‘What if it doesn’t work out the way you expect?’ But after a couple of unpleasant exchanges, I gave it up.”
     After a moment, Weatherly nodded reluctantly. “I’d have to agree.”
     “A good engineer has to be modest about his intentions,” Iverson said. “He has to be ready for his proposed solution to fail and have a backup plan. Anything else would be irresponsible. But social-policy types don’t think that way…at least, not the ones I’ve met.”
     The silence that followed seemed far longer than it was. Presently Weatherly said “Well, would you be willing to discuss a few social problems that you think can be solved?”
     She’s just as determined to get me into that swamp as I am to stay out of it.
     “I mustn’t, sorry,” he said.
     “Why not, Todd?”
     He breathed once deeply.
     “Because the constraints make them insoluble.”


     Iverson’s resistance to any further exploration in Weatherly’s preferred direction caused the interview to terminate shortly thereafter. Once the camera’s red light no longer glowed, he rose, stretched, and offered the interviewer his hand. She did not take it. She had remained seated.
     “That didn’t go—”
     “The way you wanted?” he said. “I thought it went as well as could be expected given the questions you had for me.”
     “You could have helped me out a little more.”
     “How, Jess?”
     Her look was of pure incredulity. “You’ve got to have opinions on social matters. Everybody does! I’ll bet you talk about them with your wife, your top managers, your drinking buddies—”
     “But I don’t,” he said. “There’s no need and a huge downside.”
     “How,” she growled, “can you say there’s no need? The country is awash in violence, poverty, oppression, and despair! People are crying out for a genius like you to…to help!”
     He could not resist a melancholic smile.
     “Help them how, Jess?”
     She fumed and sputtered but said no more. He waited for her to run down, then reached down and took her hand.
     “I need coffee,” he said, “and I’ll bet you do too. Let’s hit the cafeteria.”
     He led her thence, unresisting.

     The cafeteria was lightly populated. Most of the residents were at work. Those that didn’t have absorbing subjects to explore had other responsibilities of equal gravity. Iverson guided Weatherly to a “corner table,” seated her, and held up two fingers to the server on duty. The young man smiled and nodded. Moments later two mugs of coffee sat between them.
     “You haven’t been here long, Jess,” Iverson said. “And I’d bet you haven’t gotten friendly with a lot of people yet. I kinda wish I could bring them all together, give you chance to notice the patterns in them.”
     Weatherly waved it aside. “I know what you’re driving at. All brighter than average, mostly by a lot, and all dedicated to the mission, right?”
     “Irrelevant. Have you met a non-white person since you got here?”
     She frowned. “No.”
     “You won’t.” He plunged onward before she could expostulate. “What about a non-Christian?”
     “I wouldn’t know,” she said. “I don’t usually ask people about their religions.”
     “Let me save you the trouble,” he said. “There are exactly three, and all three are what I call amiable agnostics.”
     She gaped. “Out of fifteen hundred people—”
     “Fifteen hundred and twenty-three.”
     “—you have no blacks, no orientals, and only three non-Christians?”
     He nodded. “As I said.”
     She sat back in her chair, plainly dumbfounded.
     Time to soften the blow.
     “You make fifteen twenty-four, Jess. I didn’t ask you about your religion when you boarded Ad Astra. Should I have?”
     “I don’t really have one.”
     “Well, I hope you’re an amiable agnostic, then. Not the sort who gives other people a hard time about their faiths.”
     She grimaced. “I try not to. But why?”
     “Because,” he said in his lowest register, “I wanted to leave America’s ‘social problems’ behind me. This is a tight space. You can’t easily get away from others once you’re here. Well, I could, but I have Ad Astra and the ability to pilot it, but that’s irrelevant. There’s nowhere to go. This is the one and only self-sustaining orbital habitat in existence. If I felt a need to leave here, I’d have to return to Earth. To America. To a nation where the head of state hates me and where lunacy and savagery are running rampant.
     “America is crumbling because of that lunacy and savagery. But what do you do to fix something like that? The obvious answer is to expel the savages and confine the lunatics in rooms with soft walls. It would work—but it’s a disallowed solution. The constraints on any approach to the country’s ‘social problems’ exclude that and every other effective method of quelling them.
     “Someone once said that ‘diversity plus proximity equals conflict.’ Smart guy, I wish I could remember his name. So when Jeanne and I screened for this place, we excluded all excrescences of ‘diversity.’ Diversity of race, of religion, of beliefs about BS like ‘climate change’ and ‘transgenderism’ and ‘polyamory’ and ‘historical oppression’ and whatnot.”
     “So everyone you admitted to the project had to agree with you about all of that,” she said.
     “Exactly right. I wouldn’t have allowed anything else. This is my property. My home. And I refuse to have the kind of chaos that’s rampant Earthside afflict us here.
     “Jeanne and I produced the most purely sane and agreeable population that’s been assembled since the Enlightenment. And thank God no one can get up here without my say-so, because it’s very noticeable once you’ve stirred around a bit. One custard-headed reporter could ruin the whole deal. Imagine what McIlvaine would do with the information. Which is, by the way, why you’ll be staying here whether you like it or not.”
     “I could give you a hard time, couldn’t I?” she said. “Just one telecast about the white-bread composition of this place would do it.”
     “You could and it would,” he said. “And in that lies the measure of how much trust I had to extend to Christine about her decision to bring you along.”
     She nodded and looked away. He permitted himself a moment’s relaxation.
     Presently she said “Will Jeanne be joining you here?”
     “Eventually, I hope. It’s getting awfully dangerous down there.”
     “Even in your beloved Onteora?”
     “There are no walls around Onteora County,” he said. “Lunatics and savages are already flowing in. Onteora’s state of grace might not last much longer.”
     Her eyes closed. A spasm flitted across her face.
     “So President Sumner gets to have his wife with him,” she said, “while yours has to stay Earthside.”
     He nodded. “For now.”
     “But you’re thinking about it.”
     “From the moment I fled here,” he said, “I’ve never stopped.”


Copyright © 2024 Francis W. Porretto. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.

     [In “Onteora time,” this episode occurs a few days after the events that conclude my novel Statesman. The ‘triggering’ piece I mentioned at the beginning of this screed is this essay / book review by Bernard M. Smith. My thanks to Dio for bringing it to my attention. – FWP.]