by Fred Saberhagen

The jester—the accused jester, but he was as good as convicted—was on the
carpet. He stood facing a row of stiff necks and granite faces, behind a long table. On
either side of him was a tridi camera. His offenses had been so unusually offensive that
the Committee of Duly Constituted Authority themselves, the very rulers of Planet A,
were sitting to pass judgment on his case.

Perhaps the Committee members had another reason for this session: planet-wide
elections were due in a month. No member wanted to miss the chance for a nonpolitical
tridi appearance that would not have to be offset by a grant of equal time for the new
Liberal party opposition.

“I have this further item of evidence to present,” the Minister of Communication
was saying, from his seat on the Committee side of the long table. He held up what
appeared at first to be an official pedestrian-control sign, having steady black letters on a
blank white background. But the sign read: UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.

“When a sign is put up,” said the MiniCom, “the first day, a lot of people read it.”
He paused, listening to himself. “That is, a new sign on a busy pedestrian ramp is
naturally given great attention. Now in this sign, the semantic content of the first word is
confusing in its context.”

The President of the Committee—and of the planet—cleared his throat warningly.
The MiniCom’s fondness for stating truisms made him sound more stupid than he
actually was. It seemed unlikely that the Liberals were going to present any serious
challenge at the polls, but there was no point in giving them encouragement.

The lady member of the Committee, the Minister of Education, waved her
lorgnette in chubby fingers, seeking attention. She inquired: “Has anyone computed the
cost to us all in work-hours of this confusing sign?”

“We’re working on it,” growled the Minister of Labor, hitching up an overall
strap. He glared at the accused. “You do admit causing this sign to be posted?”

“I do.” The accused was remembering how so many of the pedestrians on the
crowded ramp had smiled, and how some had laughed aloud, not caring if they were
heard. What did a few work-hours matter? No one on Planet A was starving any longer.