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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

THE FACTCHECKER ONLY RINGS ONCE

"The Red Planet is really butterscotch. After an exhaustive review of 17,050 images from 1997's Mars Pathfinder mission, astronomers are no longer seeing red in the planet next door. 'The red planet is not red but indeed yellowish brown,' scientists concluded in a report yesterday...."
---Seth Borenstein, syndicated news article.

When the doorbell chimed I saved my pitifully brief story to disk and stood wearily up. Six straight hours in front of the computer, and I had managed to write only a measly thousand words. I, who had once been nearly as prolific as Lester Dent, reduced to a crummy four manuscript pages per day. But that's just how things went for the average science-fiction writer in this new era under COSTIVE, and I tried once again to reconcile myself to the changed situation.

Still, I couldn't resist glaring hatefully at the stacks of creativity-inhibiting reference books around my work station before I turned to answer the insistent ringing.

The fellow at the door was your typical attache-toting bureaucrat: as physically unimpressive as an unweaned kitten, yet radiating a glow of self-satisfied power.

"Nelson Nibbler. I'm here on behalf of COSTIVE."

Nibbler flashed his ID, and I flinched involuntarily at the logo I had come to detest: an optical microscope focused on the open pages of a book, above the legend CONSORTIUM OF STORY TELLERS INSISTING ON VERISIMILAR EXACTITUDE.

"I suppose I have to invite you in."

Nibbler smirked. "According to the latest bylaws of SFWA, to which organization you currently belong--yes, you do."

"Come in then. But I can't spare you much time. I'm trying to finish a short story for a new Marty Greenberg anthology, Thrilling Tales of Quantum Chromodynamics."

Nibbler stepped boldly inside, and I conducted him to the most uncomfortable chair in the house. "I won't take much of your time. I just need to go over some revisions for one of your stories."

"Which one?"

"It's the one Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois selected for their new reprint volume, Patents! I believe you titled it 'Vandals of the Hyperspace Barrens.'"

"Yes, that's one of mine. But I wrote that story ten years ago, before COSTIVE ever existed. I understood that old stories were exempt from COSTIVE regulations."

"You haven't been keeping up with the decisions of your own writer's union, I'm afraid. Reprints are no longer grandfathered. They need to be brought retroactively up to COSTIVE standards."

I tried to quell my temper. "You're telling me that not only do I have to inhibit the style, themes and speculations in all my new fiction, but that I have to go back and revise any older work of mine that's up for reprinting?"

"Precisely."

"Does this apply to everyone?"

"Of course. Haven't you seen the new edition of Stan Robinson's Butterscotch Mars?"

I hung my head in defeat. Nibbler tried to console me. "It's just what the readers demand nowadays. They've grown used to scientific accuracy in their stories since COSTIVE was formed. And think of the students! How could your stories be used in classrooms if they weren't completely accurate? Aren't you happy about all those increased royalties from textbook sales?"

I exploded. "It's not worth the emotional and creative pain! These regulations of yours have given even Hal Clement a nervous breakdown! They made Robert Forward move to Russia! Greg Bear now has a heroin habit, and Stephen Baxter is writing for Coronation Street! Greg Benford lives like a hermit inside the Nuclear Waste Repository! But the worst of it is what you guys did to Bruce Sterling!"

Nibbler grew defensive. "We were not responsible for Mr. Sterling running amok. Simply scheduling him for a mandatory six-week re-education camp on the technicalities of piloting ultralight aircraft was no justification for him climbing that Texas clock tower with his rifle."

"You folks practically murdered poor Bruce!"

"Come, come now, we're not that bad. We only have the best interests of the field at heart. Let's step through the revisions of your own story one by one, and you'll see how easy it is." Nibbler took a xerox of my old story out of his briefcase and smoothed it out on his lap. "Let's consider the title first. We propose changing it to 'Some Tentative Speculations Regarding Sub-Planckian Travel Involving Metric Strains.' "

I stared incredulously at my tormentor. "Now that has real zing."

Nibbler red-pencilled a checkmark next to the title. "I'm glad you like it. That's my salient contribution. The other committee members gave me a round of applause for that one."

"Mister Nibbler, tell me, please: exactly what is your own academic background?"

"I have six advanced degrees in subjects ranging from cosmology to paleontology. But I'm just a junior member of COSTIVE. May I continue?"

"Sure."

"In the first paragraph, you describe your heroine as possessing 'a waterfall of hair black as the Coalsack Nebula.' Now, you should know perfectly well that the nebula in question actually radiates at a large number of wavelengths including the visible. The simile is scientifically inexact. We propose this correction: 'no less than 28 centimeters of hair possessing the reflective qualities of refined graphite plus or minus an order of magnitude.' What do you think?"

"It's charming. Any woman would fall into your arms with sweet talk like that. Go for it."

Completely oblivious to my irony, Nibbler smiled and continued. "On page three, you first describe hyperspace as 'an uncanny otherworld, a violent conglomeration of sense-twisting hallucinatory whorls and streamers, a maelstrom of nauseating otherness.' Can you cite any studies from peer-reviewed scientific journals supporting this description?"

"Of course not! I made it all up for the sake of the story! The drama, man, the drama of it!"

"As we thought. In that case, we're going to have to amend that passage to 'a hypothetical landscape whose qualitative essentials have yet to be determined.' "

I slumped in my chair. "Vivid, very vivid. I can almost see the film version now."

"Ah, if only Hollywood still existed! What a role we could have played in straightening out their mistakes! Now, let's take a look at these equations we'd like you to insert---"

My temper had reached its limits. "Equations! I'll show you equations! Do you know 'eff equals em ay'?"

"Of course---"

I hauled Nibbler up by his shirt. "Well, here's the force of my foot on the mass of your ass, sending you accelerating out of here!"

After slamming the door on Nibbler, I went back to my computer and erased the current story. Then I started a new one with the title "Sweet, Wonderful Surrender," involving a woman named Britanny, the beautiful young heiress of a cosmetics empire, and the complications of her romantic life.

And I gave her a waterfall of hair as red as good old Mars.

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