I did not know how to react. My head swam with confusion and disbelief; indeed, I was gob-smacked, to use that modern term the youngsters prefer. I could see that the Mayor appeared entirely serious. Perhaps this was some kind of a test?
"What do you mean, a lie?" I finally blurted, "To what purpose? And why do you have to tell me this now?"
The old woman looked at me astutely with those piercing blue eyes, perhaps even with a modicum of approval. "The last question," Gillian said carefully, "Is a very good one indeed. So, I will answer your questions, and it is probably best done in the order you asked them."
She settled back into her chair with the air of one about to embark on a long tale to while away a dark and stormy evening. "Firstly, then, our planet - New Earth - is not a settled world at all. In reality, it is the original world for Homo sapiens and, once upon a time, it was named simply Earth."
"The legends of the First Arrival of the Settlers and of the terraforming of the planet are just that," the Mayor continued, "Legends with no basis in fact. And there has never been any interstellar space travel - at least, not by humans. It has never been possible to engineer for sustained space flight. Even inter-planetary travel proved to be far too expensive, the economic benefits too intangible."
She shifted in her chair to look even more directly at me.
"Truly, we rest on the home of humanity, the only planet in the Universe that people have ever lived upon."
"But what about Faraway Tower?" I exclaimed.
"The Tower, yes. The last remnant of the technology of the Ancients. It still works - at least, we think so. Although there has been no report of activity of in my lifetime, or that of my predecessor, or hers."
Gillian sighed sadly.
"The messages from people on other worlds are a fraud; indeed, the technology for this to happen does not even exist. Oh, there were a few long-term deep-space probes, robot spacecraft who would take hundreds of years to reach their destination. The Tower was built to receive their reports, their intelligence. It was the pinnacle of the technologies, multiple redundant systems, intended to last for generations."
"The probes, the explorers, were all failures. Nothing remotely resembling a habitable planet has ever been found anywhere within reasonable reach of their technologies."
"Perhaps there will never be any more reports, nothing more to discover. Perhaps all of the probes and robot spacecraft our ancestors send into the void have made their analyses, transmitted the results. Or perhaps the technologies of the Ancients have failed, finally, the machines fading, deteriorating to the point of uselessness. We just can't tell."
"But surely there are thousands, even millions or world out there?" I insisted.
The Mayor sighed.
"True, But even the Ancients' technologies to live on other worlds without a natural biosphere, even on the Moon, proved to be too expensive and, more importantly, too fragile to be relied upon for a long-term existence. And this knowledge, together with undeniable evidence of climate change fuelled by the consumption of irreplaceable natural resources of all kinds, and the consequential catastrophic failure of our industries and societies, led to an Agreement for Stability, and a Grand Plan to achieve it."
"But why the lie, the histories?" I asked breathlessly, "And what is this Agreement?"
"We live in a carefully-constructed society," Gillian replied steadily, "With a small and stable population. We are the ultimate endpoint of an 'ecological sustainability' agenda" - I was only just aware of the significance of the words - "Perhaps the only part of our history which is actually true - is that we are here to survive, to ensure that humanity survives, forever. That's what the Agreement was intended to achieve."
"The wind- and watermills, and the canals, are the upper bound of the technology that we still permit ourselves. The mills remove some of the heaviest labour, essentials for our everyday food and water, the cutting of wood and stone for shelter for our families. They are an indefinitely renewable resource - as long as the sun shines, the rains fall and the wind blows, we can live we way we do now."
She paused, again piercing me with those blue eyes.
"The canals have an altogether more subtle purpose," the old woman said, "I wonder if you can guess what it is?"
"Transport? Communication to help hold our society together?" I volunteered.
Gillian shook her head slowly.
"The basis of the canal system was dug by machinery of the Ancients, generations ago, but it was designed to be capable of being maintained forever by human - and domesticated animal - labour. Of course it is true that transportation of goods relies heavily on the narrowboats, the canals are not quite as important as you might think. We could survive with just horse-drawn wagons, or oxen for the heaviest items, or perhaps pack mules and donkeys for the more inaccessible places." "Most importantly, the maintenance and extension of the canal network is vital to absorb any available effort - surplus wealth, in other words - generated by the population."
"What do you mean?" I asked, confused.
The Mayor sat quietly for a moment, evidently deep in thought.
"The history of Earth has included many examples of deliberate attempts to invoke social stability, stasis," she said finally, "The stories of space travel, and a galaxy-wide human empire are just stories, myths and fables intended to make the humble, even boring lifestyle that we impose upon ourselves feel somehow noble."
She hesitated, almost seeming nervous for a second before continuing.
"And all this without resort to religion, which was felt to be too risky to the society."
"Religion?" I asked. I had heard the term before, I think, mentioned briefly in one of my more tedious history lessons.
"A belief in God, or Gods, and an eternal afterlife that only the virtuous or well-behaved shall enjoy," she explained, "With all others doomed to pain and torture in perpetuity."
I was bewildered and horrified.
"What's the point of all that?" I gasped.
Gillian raised an eyebrow.
"Maintaining the status quo," she said calmly, "Most of the attempts at an engineered social stasis that were made before, most notably by the various religious organisations in that period of history known as the Middle Ages, relied on religion to stifle change. And it was certainly successful in suppressing the advance of technology and engineering, and even radical thought for years, but it was always ultimately undermined by the social gap between the rich and powerful, and the serfs and peons, the haves and have-nots."
The Mayor sighed again.
"Religious excess and bigotry engendered to wars and battles between powerful men - and they were almost always men - leading to the unpleasant experience of generations of warfare just because of religious disagreement. So, religion is a luxury we cannot afford."