+ MANY YEARS IN THE FUTURE +
+ ACTUALLY, NOT THAT MANY +
The moment an original piece is written, or even partially written - on any device, even if it's not (willingly) shared on the Internet - the words are extracted and replicated multiple times all over the web. That's all the Internet is, now.
Some writers have gone back to using typewriters, or even pen and paper... But the drones got cleverer, and the cameras and microphones got smaller and sneakier. Some would only use pencils. Some would only use pencils that had been snapped in two. Some called that paranoia. Some called that the Writer's Disease.
Writing is not a paid profession anymore, not for anyone. It's an even lonelier vocation, with no way to connect or share without having ideas or entire stories stolen - by a robot if not a person. It's a dismal time to have blue thumbs. But some refuse to give up. Some have banded together to support each other to continue writing. They meet in obscure rooms to discuss and compare ideas. To brainstorm ways to keep their work unadulterated and out of the spidery metal clutches of AI. But most of all: to share stories.
Hushed voices among dusty shelves. Motes dance in the single beam of dying sunlight through the narrow window. Run a finger over the rich, dark shelves. Sniff - smell the sweet vanilla-esque ambrosia of mature paper and glue. The air tastes dry and old.
It's easy to miss the people in this dim light. At least, so they would like you to believe, dressed as they are in black.
One or two faces, glimpsed under their hoods, are marked new by their darting eyes. The way they flick to and fro as if the person using them is caught in the middle of some wrong-doing. Or else by the way they widen in realisation: These must be books from Before.
"Are we all here?" the Chair growls.
That is, not an actual Chair, which would be silly, but rather a Chairman, or a Chairwoman. The Rules are clear - no Sex in the Library. No names, either. As few identifying features as possible.
"Yes, I think so," says the Doorkeeper, in a much more normal voice.
"Shhhh!" rasps the Librarian.
There is a tap at the door.
"Then who is that?"
Though they can't see it, the small group can hear the Chair's raised eyebrow, and all attempt to shrink three to four inches to escape the force of it.
Someone clears their throat.
"That will be one of mine, Chair,"
"Is somebody going to admit our Knocker?" This time the eyebrow arches audibly higher, and the surrounding bodies shrink another inch in their black robes. Doorkeeper scurries to do his - or her - duty. Face blazing, even in the dim light, he - or she - repeats the first half of the exchange. The new initiates - the Owls - are marked again by the way their lips move, tracing the outline of the secret words. The group listen to the muffled response, and then the rustling of paper and the scratching of pencils.
There is a tap-tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap-tap of fingertips on wood. Fingertips which you would be correct in assuming were closely related to the Eyebrow. There is some patting, clinking and a small thunk.
The Doorkeeper rounds the stack with the newcomer in tow.
"Who vouches for the Newcomer?" .
"I do," said Someone.
"And have they been Searched?"
"Yes, Chair," said the Doorkeeper, each word oozing relief to have remembered something important and done it properly.
"No Devices brought into the Library?"
"No, Chair," said Doorkeeper, "Switched off and left in a box outside the door."
"Check again, please, before we begin. So we may all be reassured."
"Sorry," muttered the Doorkeeper in the Newcomer's ear.
"Good." The Chair held out a hand. "The Words, then, please." The Doorkeeper handed over a scrap of paper.
Chair inspects it, which doesn't take long, and then tears it into fourths, drops them into the bowl in the centre of the table, and draws a match.
"You will not," hisses the Librarian. "No fire in here! Are you mad? These books are worth a fortune-"
"Alright, alright," Irritation - not at the incompetence of others, but rather at being caught in a silly mistake - gives the Chair's voice a more human quality. The group breathe easier.
Someone cleared their throat again. "We could write new Words for the next meet. That would make these Words un-useable and worthless. Isn't that what we do? What we are supposed to do, at any rate." Someone sounded bitter.
"Un-useable, maybe. Worthless, probably not." The Chair sounded thoughtful. "To be on the safe side, we still need to dispose of these Words carefully and completely. Librarian? What do you suggest?"
"Give them to me," Librarian says. "I will burn them when I get home. Just don't light a match in here, goodness me."
"Very well, then," the Chair says, scooping up the remnants from the dish and tearing them into tiny pieces.
The Librarian sweeps the paper crumbs into a thin hand, and then to a cardigan pocket.
"Does anyone have any urgent business before we begin?" says the Chair.
"Yes, Chair," Someone replied. "Last week a torch was found with a recording device inside."
All eyes flicked to the window, where the light was dying fast. Rather like their options. We can't share online. Drones as common as rats, and hidden devices everywhere. How much longer can we keep doing this?
"We can't use lights anyway," the Librarian said, peering over the spectacles that are part of the job specification for a Librarian. "Even the public area is closed now. There isn't supposed to be anyone in the building. And certainly not here. I could lose my job, or worse."
The Chair appeared to reach a decision. "Then we need to be swift. I move we press on with the Reading. Does anyone object?"
No one did.
Swapping begins, and then the small group disintegrates. Nothing is heard for several minutes but the passing and turning of loose pages, and the skritchhh of pencils. It is a soft sigh of pleasure in a stressful, metal world. Something timeless - to sit somewhere warm and quiet, and read a story. When at last, there is not enough light for even the most youthful eyes to see, the pages are restored to their owners.
A snap of imperious fingers. "The Uninitiated will leave," the Chair announced softly. "Do not be seen."
Someone murmurs, "Sorry. See you next time, yeah?" and, head down, Newcomer shuffles out of the Library.
"Now," says the Chair. "How many Owls do we have with us tonight?"
Three new faces melt forward.
"How confident do you feel spotting Counterfeit Content?"
When the meet was over, they left one at a time. First, out into the main building - rows upon rows of computers, with not a book in sight - and from there, out on to the street.
Someone paused in the lee of the building and glanced around. It wasn't really safe, but some things couldn't wait 'til you got home. Flipped open the file containing the sheaf of handwritten stories, and flicked to the back to read the comments left there. Someone smiled, and headed home. This is our only payment, now.
The Newcomer did not appear at the following meet. That made them a target of suspicion and fury.
"My work has been stolen," Someone is seething. "I only shared it in one place. Here! How could this have happened? We were careful!"
The Chair keeps the boiling anger at a careful simmer. Useful, but under control. Otherwise it would spread exactly like fire in a library - licking from one shelf to the next and leaving nothing but ash and ruins.
"Where is your friend? Hmmm?" the Treasurer serves the question with ice.
"Sh- They couldn't make it this week. They had nothing to do with this! They didn't see my work, I'm sure of it!"
"Are we confident the breach was visual?" the Chair asks, leaning forward.
"Yes, Chair. Speech is likely as safe as it ever is."
"Then there will be no Reading today."
Disappointment ripples around the group, carried on a wave of suspicion. Some people have to go and spoil everything.
"Can we read aloud?" Someone suggested.
There was objection to this - there could be recording devices hidden in the books. So many books! Who had time to check each one individually? The Librarian hotly contested this idea - such valuable items being pawed over by careless hands.
"If we are worried about recording devices, they could be recording us couldn't they?" says one Owl. Another, cringing with second-hand embarrassment, hisses, "That's why we wear robes, idiot!"
The meet was stilted. There was a window - an unseen drone could have recorded something from there. It seems unlikely, but efforts double to stay out of the shaft of sunlight with its dancing dust motes.
The Treasurer suggests finding a new location. But nobody really wants to move from the Library. Wasn't it the best place for a group of writers to meet?
"We should rewrite everything, but include a code-word at the start of every line," Someone says. "If anyone - anything - tries to copy it, it won't make sense."
"It will do for now," the Chair conceded. "Until we have detected the source of the breach, at least. Further discussion is tabled - if we are being listened to, we only teach them how to make it better."
Someone nods. Silence falls.
The light had barely left the window when the members begin to leave one by one, into the damp, grey evening. Unread, unheard, despondent.
The Librarian pauses and glances around. It's hard to be sure whether any members are out here on the street - all they had to do was shed their black robes and they looked just like anyone else. The Librarian clicked sternly once around the block, keen eyes scanning for loiterers, instincts shrill to any behaviour one hair out of the ordinary.
After a short detour, the Librarian shed her cardigan, shook out her prim bun and removed the caps from her shoes that made the signature click click click sound as she walked. She made one more circuit for good measure. At last, she removed her smart-specs and delivered them through the letterbox of a dilapidated game shop. They think they're so clever. Writers! They're all the same.
+++++ +++++ +++++
Thank you for reading! Please leave a comment so I can reciprocate. I welcome feedback.
If you are interested in the story behind the story - Scott mentioned in one of the Facebook groups: "Almost wrote a article about how to recognize A.I. But that would just help them." This had my brain spiralling into a dystopian future, so I decided to have some fun with it 😁 I entered it into the Word Hunt challenge.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
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