I’m in the library, inches from my target, when I get shot in the back. A real library, for chrissake. Who knows why it’s even here? The last one bold enough to be public, after others were reduced to shattered husks during the Decency Riots. The only way to get those high-quality confiscated books now is through pirated copies of electronic archives, a portion of which are about to be recovered — by me.
The target calls himself the Librarian. He’s never seen, but he’s everywhere, his name scribbled in graffiti on the walls of the lower levels. He’s on the Debt-Net, his guerrilla messages and copycats spreading the word of subversion alongside ads for medications people need but can’t afford and e-vouchers for food distribution. Only his mouth can be seen in the vids, moving slightly out of phase with the audio. A missing front tooth figures prominently, a black rectangle peeking from behind brown lips as he delivers his message in a modulated voice.
“Keep reading, keep thinking,” he says, during his most recent blast. “They can’t stop you from thinking yet.”
This obvious misdirection is all I have to go on, apart from the signature of an unregistered implant. It took some time to isolate, but I pinned it to a sector in the lowest of the lower levels.
Hollister, my handler, says, “Tig, you got zeal for the hunt.” But he knows as well as I do that he grooms me and another hunter, Joanie, for the rush. I’d sell out my own brother for the kind of money the corps lays down for this, but the rush is everything.
In the lobby of the tattered building, I wait and watch. I’m not an especially patient person. A few people come in, mostly limited-access types looking at the “dirty dailies,” celebrity gossip, so-called news, and other half-literate trash. Opiate of the masses. Patrons even swipe old-fashioned cards at the desk to borrow materials. A scanner at the door blinks every time someone enters, and a soothing, computerized voice welcomes patrons by name as their implants are read.
That’s funny, I think to myself. They’re read so they can get books to read.
A few patrons slip in, unread and unremarked, past the ramshackle shelving that hosts a collection of yellowing paperbacks. Nothing worth confiscating there. I choose one at random, The Adventures of Hercules, adapted from an old movie.
I park myself in the lobby where I can see the entrance, the elevator, and the door marked “stairs” in faded red lettering. The institutional granite floor is dusted with a layer of paint specks fallen from the crumbling ceiling.
Out of habit, I run an onboard security check. The corporation pays me to search and recover, but they don’t know which files I duplicate as trophies. If anyone happens to peek around in there while I’m connected, all they’ll see are a few bland files, like “birthday photos” and “vintage television ads.” They’ll never see that I carry encrypted copies of almost a tenth of the corporation’s confiscated literature archives in my head, folded neatly between layers of videos and images of cake and balloons. Word is, when I catch the Librarian, I can add Regency novels and American classics to the corporation’s archive and my own.
I linger over each file like it’s a butterfly pinned to a board, remembering the sting of adrenal stim I enjoyed every time I snatched a file. Hunt the targets close up, jack straight in, and SNAP. A juicy rush of data.
I pretend to read Hercules, but I’m really keeping an eye on the signal stream running in the background of my vision. A message from Hollister flashes, Call me now, Tig! I ignore it for something juicier: the monitor tells me the unregistered signal I’ve been chasing is accessing short-range wireless somewhere in this building. The Librarian has logged here fifteen times in the last week, and he’s back. I bide my time, watch the signal strength wax and wane. Which one of these milling fools is my target?
A slow-moving little man, hunched over and older than dirt, passes me several times, pushing boxes on a creaky cart. They’re full of musty romance and Golden Age science fiction paperbacks, never categorized as protected or indecent. Into the elevator he goes with a box, the door closing with a pinging tone, up to the third floor, then back down with the empty cart. I yawn behind the mouldering paperback. Then the old man gives me a gap-toothed grin on his fourth pass, and I’m wide awake, my skin prickling all over.
So much for obvious misdirection.
Why didn’t the locator tell me he’s so close? The wood-paneled elevator door closes behind him again with a ping.
I’ve already checked the specs of the building, and the ground floor offers the only apparent exit. Heart thumping, I decide to wait him out, encouraged by the fact that he’s old. If he tries to fight or run — and I kinda hope he does — I’m certain I could take him. My hands tremble at the thought of the catalog I’m about to jack into.
I watch the elevator. After another minute or two, it descends. The floor indicator ticks like a launch countdown. I drop Hercules and ready myself to nab him. Patrons mill past, oblivious.
And here’s my moment.
The elevator slides open, and I surge forward. The little man glances up, face placid. Mild. As I grasp his old, skinny arm, his brown eyes meet mine. The monitor on my signal stream finally registers, pulsing wildly like my heartbeat. Is he scrambling to shut down his connection?
“Gotcha, old timer,” I say.
“You don’t say,” he says, and smiles that gap-toothed smile again. He doesn’t struggle. He takes a tiny step backward into the elevator, but there’s nowhere to run. I’m blocking the door. His eyes are deep pools, the space between his teeth like a window to somewhere dark, where books are hidden.
Come on through, Jane Austen. Steinbeck, a bit of Whitman, Du Bois, maybe some Mary Shelley. My display is still blinking with that message from Hollister, but I ignore it. I’m actually salivating.
A flick of the wrist, and the jack wire slides out of my arm and into my palm. I push aside the collar of his shirt, reach for the port on the side of his wrinkled neck. But it’s not there. No port. An honest-to-jeebus Luddite.
“What the shit?” I say, and he looks me straight in the eye.
That’s when I’m shot from behind. I feel the sting of the dart as it pierces the skin between my shoulder blades, and I have only a second of mobility to turn and glimpse my attacker. I slide to the lobby floor in the arms of a young man, dark-tanned and heavy-set with a little teeny goatee and a ring in his nose like a bull. He props up my head on his denim-clad knees, gently.
“Interesting stories I read here, in the library,” the old man says, bending over me.
“Glorious,” the younger man replies. “More stories than a person could read in a lifetime.” Through his parted lips, I catch sight of a missing front tooth, just like the old man’s.
The old man follows my eyes and chuckles. “No matter how many birthdays you live to see.”
Misdirection. I gotta hand it to them, really. Here I thought I was the hunter, but I’m a rat in a trap. They set the bait, and I came running. SNAP.
“What is this, the bad dental hygiene guerillas?” I quip, thickly, through the effects of the tranq. My tongue is a fat, tasteless worm in my mouth. I can’t move my arms or legs. I’m rethinking my whole miserable existence when a second notification from Hollister pushes to the surface of my vision.
Get out if you can, they killed Joanie G.
The cracked granite floor beneath me is a cold companion to a wave of nausea. Maybe they’ve poisoned me. My gorge rises, and I hope I don’t puke on myself.
A middle-aged woman in a long green dress and worn sneakers squats next to us as we three huddle on the floor. She glances at me, where I’m slumped over the young man’s knee.
“Help me,” I try to say, but no sound comes out.
She gestures to the old man with a paperback. “Can I check this out?” For just one second, I think I spot a missing tooth in the front of her mouth, too, but maybe I just imagine it.
“Be right there,” says the old gentleman. He rises with effort and shuffles off with the woman to the circulation desk.
My vision is darkening as the young guy jacks in and takes my tenth of the archive, the loss of each file another step down into the black.