Stella woke up on the evening of her twelfth birthday yelling back at the sound of her father’s footsteps. “Dad, quiet! I’m tired!”
Connor knew the noise would wake her, but still stomped as loud as he could when he came home from work. He liked to hear her voice, the young squeak of a child’s mind vocalized always gave him a chuckle. He laughed as she rubbed sleep from her eyes, and still chuckled at her pouting her way through breakfast. He watched with love as she dozed, dropping her spoon into the cereal bowl.
But his laughing stopped when the door burst open and the Readers stormed in.
Stella gave a shout of fright, and leaped into her father’s arms. The Reader Lieutenant stared at Connor during their raid. Briefly, he glanced to Stella who hid her face in her father’s chest. “Books? He waited for Connor to answer. Is you have books?”
Connor shook himself, answered, “No, no books here. Not in ages. Not anymore.” Connor sneered when he said the last couple of words. He loved books, used to write them when he was younger. Before Stella, before his wife, before the Readers came to be. A lifetime ago.
Then just out of University, Connor wrote for a magazine called “Ways of Means,” a pamphlet published and distributed by subscription to Infrastructure Staff along the eastern seaboard. This was around the time of the suspension of periodicals, just before the WEB crashed.
For two years “Ways of Means” thrived, and there was even a network of government operatives who admitted, openly, to reading it. Connor met one of these so-called ops, the Governor of Maine-State, at a pub on the shores of Cape Cod.
The weather was stormy, but the local crowd had come to drink away the cold winds with brute alcohol. Connor was about to pay for his when the bartender waved him away, pointing to Governor Schmidt over in the corner booth. It was odd to see the Governor by himself. Usually the WEB channels showed him convening with advisers, or talking to Image Control Press. But there he was, sitting by himself and waving at Connor.
Connor carefully stepped to the Governor’s booth and sat, waiting. But the Governor drank in silence, speaking only after their second round of drinks. “Your paper amuses me.”
“It’s hardly a paper, more like a, well a pamphlet, one might say.”
“Nonsense. I was a child once, remember. I know what a paper looks and reads like. Not enough of those anymore, I’m afraid. Be a shame not to get your a wider publication, out to the masses, help the world find out what’s really going on in the country.”
Connor waited, and when he realized he’d stopped breathing he took a long drink, ice clinking in a now-empty glass. “That’s… isn’t it dangerous?”
“Tell me, Mr. Harrison, what is it we rely on too much? What is the most misunderstood resource of recent times?”
“The WEB, that’s right. It’s all too much, and too much of one thing is never a good thing, don’t you agree?”
Connor nodded, accepting his third drink from the waiter without hesitation. “And my paper–”
“Your paper is a new thing. An old, new thing, to be sure, but new enough to the younger generation to make quite an impression indeed. I’m getting old, Mr. Harrison. Too old for politics, and too old to change the world. But damn it all if I won’t at least give her a good kick in a new direction.” The Governor stood, rocking back on his heels and snatching Connor’s arm to steady himself.
“When I walk out that door, things will change. I’ll need you to tell the world about it.”
He started to leave, and Connor then felt the small notebook the Governor had slyly tucked into his elbow. “What’s this, what will change?”
“I hope to read about it in the papers.” The Governor made it to the door, and as soon as he exited Connor was shocked to see half the patrons follow the burly man outside. He ran to the windows, looking out on the parking lot, and watched as red-and-blues skidded to a halt, surrounding the Governor. The large man held up a device, and waved his hand about. The device seemed to BLINK, bright, and suddenly gunshots rang out, taking the Governor to the ground.
The lights inside the bar flickered, off and on, and left Connor in total darkness, lost, confused. When he’d gotten home, Connor turned on his Tube and saw it: the WEB had crashed. When the WEB crash happened, Connor was thankful, at first. He despised the construct. The constant updates and communications and spread of information, no matter how vital, was overwhelming.
Then he discovered that without the WEB, publications were shuttering their doors, and lies would spread even faster, through the streets, over the phone lines, via word-of-mouth. If you trusted your neighbor, you believed the story.
Distrust led to arguing and violence. The murder rate shot up, people left the cities and lived in fields, on farms, claiming land that no one could fight over because all of the records were lost. It was rumored that some had tried to bring the WEB back online, but every day Connor checked his Tube, there was no evidence of that having been achieved. It was like living in a new dark age.
The Readers sprung up in towns everywhere, and within ten years there were very few approved books available, let alone newspapers. Information, what could be confirmed, was limited to The Ones In Charge, presumably the remaining government construct that had led the country for generations. For a while, Connor helped support them, in what capacities he could, trying to apply law and order. But there was hardly any desire to follow rules and restrictions.
Then the Readers took over patrols, adding curfews, using what resources they could to find and recover any remaining books, limiting access to knowledge and learning. Time went on, as it does, and Connor married and had a child and divorced, as most people did.
All the while, he held the notebook close, always on his person, finding whatever methods he could to enlarge and print the information within, interpreting it all as a method to rejigger the WEB to be good, to be impartial and plentiful. Now, here they were, Connor and his daughter, watching as the Readers sifted through their home for books.
But they would find no books, as Connor already knew, because anything printed or written was forbidden in this house, lost forever. That, or already printed and written miles away underneath the farm of his late wife. But that was a place lost to the records from the WEB, and Connor had already set fire to the home after sending out the last drones. Years of waiting, and writing his story, the truth about the Governor and the remaining constructs of the WEB, ready to light up at the next switch of a button.
When the Readers left, Connor and Stella followed them outside, and Connor stared at the sky. Minutes passed, Stella growing restless to return inside. Then, suddenly, and to Connor’s excitement, the leaflets fell from the sky.
Connor snatched one out of the air.
Somewhere far away, there would be another person, or people, who would hear his call, who would read about the Governor’s knowledge, who was able to sift through the rubble and machinery of decades past and come to the conclusion that words, no matter how old, no matter when spoken or written, were still important.
Connor could ask for no better gift to his daughter. He held her hand as they walked inside, in time for, hopefully their last, curfew. Tomorrow would be the beginning of a new day.
Tomorrow, he would teach Stella to read.