Jason Runner typed "H.G. Wells" and pressed 'enter'. He sat back and waited, glaring at the screen, defying the wretched machine to come back with nothing like Noah waiting for the raven to return.
"No data found," said the screen superciliously.
Runner fumed, "Not again," he said and jabbed at the keyboard, his fingers falling harder and harder as his frustration grew. This time he typed "Herbert George Wells", and hit 'enter' hard enough to make his fingertip sting.
He fidgeted while he waited, aligned his cup with the edge of the writing tablet, pushed his electronic pen so it was parallel with the keyboard.
"No data found," said the screen like a prim schoolmarm.
"How can that be?" he asked impotently. "You're supposed to know everything…"
Runner tried a number of different combinations and received the same negative reply. Exasperated, he reached over to the rack of buttons that connected him to the rest of the faculty and pressed for his friend. Smith's sweaty face appeared on one of the dozen screens that covered the wall. He taught math, or rather, he set tests that involved counting things. He was spooning something sloppy into his mouth and his words were slurred by his masticating chops. "All right, Runner?"
"No," replied the historian. "I can't find anything on H.G. Wells."
"A nineteenth century writer; the data bank says there's nothing there."
Smith shrugged, "Have you tried contacting the bank directly? There might be a temporary glitch in the system." He stopped eating and waved his spoon like a conductor. "Apparently some idiot made the student files disappear last week and they've had the devil's own job trying to get them back. You could ask if that's affected the main store."
"I can try, I suppose."
"What do you want to know about some dead writer for anyway?"
"I thought it might be an interesting change for my students. My grandparents told me some of his stories when I was young so I thought I might write a program that combined his ideas with their context."
"Nineteenth century? I thought you only went back as far as the twenty-first."
"Some of it might be relevant, you know, patterns, trends, that kind of thing…"
Smith looked unimpressed. "Is Wells on the literature curriculum?"
"I don't think so."
"Shouldn't you check first?"
"I suppose I ought to, but it's not very likely. Wells wrote novels and they only teach poetry."
"I wouldn't worry about it then. If it's not on the curriculum it's not worth teaching. You know what the Board of Education is like; they won't appreciate you going 'off-piste' and missing your targets."
"I can still make the quota. I just wanted to do something different."
Smith's upper lip curled in a sneer, "You and your big ideas. What was it last week? You thought they'd changed the ending of some old book nobody reads any more? For goodness sake, even I know we live in the Promised Land, and I don't know anything about history."
"You really think the forty days in the wilderness took place in Arizona?"
"…Why not, it makes more sense than your version about some godforsaken hole on the other side of the planet."
Runner could feel his blood rising. "I'm sure you're missing a fundamental truth here."
"And what you're missing is a sense of proportion; your job is to teach these students and not fill their heads with nonsense that you can't prove."
"If I could get the proof out of the data bank I might be able to do some proper research."
Smith scoffed, "Whatever for? Just take the money and stop shaking the box. If you keep on like this they'll cut you off."
Runner thought about the implications. To be 'cut off' was worse than it sounded. He lived in an apartment he had never left, in a block where he never saw his neighbours; everything he knew about the world outside came through the screens that filled his workroom or the wall-sized television in the lounge. Nobody ever called except to deliver his meals and even then he never saw the deliverer. The process was probably automated though he would never know for sure unless he unsealed the front door. To be 'cut-off' would probably send him mad. Even so, "I can't just ignore the fact that an author and all his work has 'disappeared'…"
"Well, don't say I didn't warn you." Smith signed off.
Runner stared at the other screens. His students were busy working their way through the Great Depression of 2025, their scores racking up like odometers. He had no idea where any of them lived, no idea even if they had legs; he only ever saw their heads bobbing up and down as they worked their way through history like rabbits nibbling lettuce leaves.
He decided to contact the bank. At least the machine was able to do that much for him.
An old man answered, his fringe of hair sticking out like iron filings around a magnet, wide eyes peering at Runner as though he were staring into the burrow of a deadly spider or conger eel. When he spoke his voice crackled like old paper, "What do you want?"
Runner asked his question. The old man sighed and turned to his own keyboard.
"Nothing there," he said abruptly.
"I know, I've already tried, but I was wondering if there was a glitch in the system."
The old man shrugged, "Could be a moth virus. Are you sure this H.G. Wells was ever in the data bank? What was he, some kind of politician? Most of them were erased years ago."
"I don't think so. He was a writer. What's a 'moth virus'?"
"They get into the data and eat certain files. He was a writer, you say? Sounds like the Libertas Scriptor group; they target writers."
Runner was surprised, "Whatever for?"
"They say writers should be read in books and not on screens; that the data bank is too easily manipulated for political ends and all information should be free and tangible, not electronic and malleable. Haven't you seen their manifesto?"
"No, I filter out the political stuff."
"You filter it or does the Board of Education do it for you?"
Runner changed the subject quickly. "So who are these data terrorists?"
"Most of them used to be librarians, or want to be. It's a curious paradox, don't you think? In order to preserve the memory of writers, they try and wipe them out of the system."
"I would have thought that librarians would want to protect knowledge..."
"They would claim that their -- work -- is doing exactly that. Apparently you can visit their archive."
"Do they deliver?"
The old man looked at Runner as though he were staring at the terminally stupid. "No, you'll have to go to their library."
"You mean leave my apartment?"
"It's in the old part of the city; thousands of real books kept in air-conditioned vaults, or so I'm told."
"Leave my apartment…" A sudden sense of agoraphobia gripped Runner. Go to the city? Walk in the open air? What about his students? How would they feel if he weren't there to watch their scores? What about the Board of Education? They would hardly condone a teacher leaving his post on the flimsy excuse of wanting to read a book...
"I think I'll leave it, thank you," he said to the old man. "I guess H.G. Wells isn't that important after all."
It took him a while to calm down. Surprised by his own reaction, Runner went for a quick walk around the apartment. The very suggestion of him leaving his womb-like existence had caused his heart to race and his palms to become sweaty. But still, real books…
Runner's greatest possession was an illicit copy of a book about a jungle boy growing up among the wild animals of the forest. He kept it hidden, wrapped in a plastic bag, under a loose board in the bedroom. He rarely read it now; its message, if it ever had one, was obscured by time. He didn't even know what a forest looked like, or a bear, or a panther… But it was a tangible reminder of the past; how many 'books' had there been? How did people get hold of them? What function did they serve in their society?
He returned to his 'classroom'; some of his students had finished and signed off for the day. Others were idling or stuck on a problem. The requisite warning notice came up, "Student numbers A7934, J1632 and M8238 have spent 4.2 minutes on this task and not been reprimanded. Please provide an explanation to the Board of Education immediately."
Runner typed in 'toilet break -- emergency' on the correct form and posted it off. Seconds later he had a demand to know why he had not posted a request form first. He repeated the word 'emergency' and left it at that. Even the Board of Education knew when to stop asking questions; a graphic account of bowel movements was the last thing they needed to see and Runner had a reputation for clarity of expression.
He spent a few minutes rounding up his strays and then eventually everyone was finished for that session. He posted his quotas and powered down the computers.
Runner sat back in his chair. His reflection in the blank monitors stared back at him as his mind turned over the facts of the day. The phrase 'Libertas Scriptor' kept coming back over and over. He left the workroom and paced up and down the narrow hall that linked the front and back of the apartment.
On his walls were pictures of places he had ever seen for real, sent to him over the years from sources he had never met face to face. Bits and pieces of family history were scattered around the lounge. An odd silver box with sharp scoops sticking out of each face, a small statue of a man kicking a spherical object, and a piece of glass, a kind of bowl on a stick with a plinth on the bottom, were all that remained of the Twentieth Century in his actual life.
But Runner had a rich imagination. It strained and struggled against the intellectual prison he was forced to endure. He wanted to see things, touch things, explore new ideas and expand his horizons. 'Libertas Scriptor'; freedom for writers... and historians and thinkers and people with ideas…
He found he was staring at his front door (the only door connecting the apartment to the outside world, since a second door at the back was bricked up). It was dusty and small creatures had spun silky cocoons in the cracks. A cabinet he hadn't used for ten years sat propped against its surface next to a neat pile of clothes he no longer wore. There were bolts top and bottom that looked fused into their sockets, the key in the lock dripped dust like a runny nose, and the hinges looked as dry as the joints of a corpse.
What was beyond the door? What was waiting for him on the other side? What was beyond the building? What was out there? How big would it be? How dangerous would he find it? Could there be things he couldn't cope with? What devils lived in the darkness? Had the savage beasts of his book returned? Were they waiting for him? Were the rumours true? Did only madness lie on the outside?
What of the library? Did it really exist or was it a fiction to trap the unwary?
He got as far as reaching out to the key and then drew back his hand. He took a step back and then another and then another. He kept going until he was as far from the door as he could go. Libertas Scriptor… the words were lofty and inspiring in principle, but what kind of freedom was it to live in fear?
© 2005 by Philip Michael Hamm
Bio: Philip Hamm says, "I am a lecturer in English and History at a small college in England. I have been an authority on H.G. Wells; have written articles for the Times Educational Supplement as well as writing stories and novels. I currently have a short story ‘Around the world in 80 minutes’, running at AlienSkin magazine.
E-mail: Philip Michael Hamm
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