Mr. North felt sadly conflicted as he ducked out of the cold Minneapolis wind and into the last bookstore in the Global Village. Inside, vintage WWIV American propaganda covered the walls. Twenty-foot shelves and opened boxes of books made the aisles narrow and almost impassable. Price tags hung from book corners like the beginnings of complex spider webs. A tabby cat, curled up in a leather chair, peeked out from under a paw. Mr. North sighed, breathing in the musty tang of aged paper and cloth. Not a tall man, but he could reach the top shelves without the aid of a ladder. He brushed his finger across one of the shelves, picking up enough dust to make his Mark Twain-styled moustache twitch before sneezing.
Waste, Mr. North thought, all waste. All of this paper was locked up inside of the bookstore by the decree of a misguided governor whose great-grandfather had held his first book signing in the basement. Notable Narratives had been designated as a historic site, a national treasure of sorts, which meant it could exist, but not operate. Mr. North tried to understand, but when he looked around the store, all he could see was the misuse of a valuable resource. Before the implementation of Paperless Doctrine No. 2152, which outlawed the sale of printed material, he had offered to buy the store from its owner, like his special interest group had done with hundreds of other bookstores. However, the old man in the Star Tribune visor, circa 2030, had refused.
Mr. North moved toward the back aisles, through History and Social Sciences. He turned at Photography and took the claustrophobic stairs leading down to the basement. The stairs groaned with each step. The ceiling was much lower in the basement. Mr. North had to watch for the eye-level lights as he passed Children’s Picture Books and Young Adult Novels. He unfolded his hands from his coat sleeves, and he pushed his hood back. Settling into a wooden chair surrounded by boxes upon boxes of faded paperbacks, he picked up one of the books and opened it to the copyright page, 2010.
Mr. North remembered not wanting this assignment. He remembered waiting outside a large oak door to talk it over with his boss, Danielle Serif. James, the owner of the bookstore, was a friend, an acquaintance, really. Nevertheless, Mr. North’s number had come up. The next assignment, like it or not, was his. He had argued with Ms. Serif, a direct descendent of Gilbert Serif, the famous architect who had designed their paperless society...
“What’s the harm?” he had said.
“It’s the last one.”
Mr. North took the black briefcase off the table that divided them and placed it gently on the floor. “It will die in time.”
Ms. Serif shook her head and removed her watch from her wrist. She looked at it before setting it down on the table. “Time. All things come back into fashion. Watches,” she snorted, “and smoking tobacco, for example, banned in the early 21st century, only to return like a plague 100 years later.” She frowned. “Do I need to find someone else?”
“No.” He pulled up his hood, preparing to go out into the cold.
“Good. Remember, with this victory we will have finally fulfilled Gilbert’s dream.” She smiled. “Do I need to remind you that every book downloaded earns ad revenue? And that we have a 96% market share in those suggestive ads?”
Mr. North watched from inside his hood as she picked up a reader from her desk. She tapped it a few times before turning it around. It displayed a simple red line that started at the bottom left corner and arced toward the upper right hand corner. “We cannot afford to let even one opportunity slip though our fingers.” Ms. Serif stood up. “Now, do your job.”
Gingerly, North wrapped his fingers around the handle of his briefcase before easing the door to her office closed.
Mr. North looked around the bookstore. It was empty of people. So much worry over such a useless and outdated medium. Why would anyone want to read this way? It was so slow. Plus, there were the new laws that fell under the umbrella of PD 2152, better known as The Paperless Doctrine of 2152 that criminalized the production and usage of paper, making reading from bound paper books a thing of the past.
Quietly, James walked out from the Mystery section carrying a stack of crime novels under his left arm. He inquired, “May I help you?” He pushed a pair of round glasses up his nose. “Oh, Mr. North, it’s you. So sorry to interrupt.” He started to back away, “I know how you like your privacy.”
Mr. North smiled. “I have a lot of paperwork to get through tonight.” He ran his hands through his short gray hair, feeling his implants vibrate behind his ears.
“Could you bring me something to eat?”
“Sure thing, Mr. North.” James set his books down and headed for the stairs.
“I need a clean table and seclusion.” Mr. North held up the briefcase, as if to set it down on a table that wasn’t there.
“Sure, Mr. North.”
“I may be a while. Do you mind closing? I’d like the store to myself again today. I’m on a deadline.”
James paused in the doorway, hiding his hands in his apron. “Researching another story? How long do you need?”
Viciously Mr. North thought, He’s a nice fellow, but the crystals have made him daffy. Who researches anything off-line anymore?
He could see that James’ hands were shaking under the dirty fabric. “I don’t know.” He let his own hands drop to his sides. “The rest of the day? A few hours?”
James cleared off a nearby table and set it in front of Mr. North, who opened his briefcase and then quickly closed it. James was hovering, and Mr. North didn’t want him to see what was inside.
“What is it, James?”
“I don’t normally ask this of you, Mr. North. Can you pay up front?”
Without looking up, Mr. North replied, “I’m good for it.”
“I know, sir. It’s…I’m a little…business is…you know, the PD.” James repositioned his visor over his bald spot.
“I’m good for it.”
“Just a little down, Mr. North. I don’t need it all, just a little to get free.”
“Here.” He held out a vial of light pink crystals. “It’s all I’ve got. The rest will have to come later.”
“Thanks, Mr. North.” James took the vial and opened it. The pink crystals sparkled. “I’ll be back in a second with something to keep starvation off.”
“James,” Mr. North called as the old man hurried out of the room. “Don’t take all of those at once this time. Only one at a time.”
The last of the stairs creaked like an old chair. Mr. North stood in front of the table. Places like this should be a thing of the past, he consoled himself. They do no one any good. He pulled out his halo headset and connected it to the thumbnail-sized implants located just behind his ears. Once attached, the electronically charged gas in his halo ignited. It flickered like a disco ball reflecting a rainbow before settling on neon-blue as it connected to the Global Village data bank. The light from Mr. North’s halo made his skin look jaundiced and the whites of his eyes appear an eerie pale blue, as if he’d stepped out of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune.
Mr. North picked up the book he had been looking at, Moby Dick. He thought about the title, sending signals out into the Global Village network via his flickering halo. As the book opened in his mind, he instantly knew every word by heart, along with every piece of commentary written about the book over the past five hundred years. Some of the essays were good, others weren’t, but Mr. North now possessed the accumulated human knowledge on the subject. He was amazed that he liked the book and reasoned that he felt both compassion and anger for Captain Ahab. Mr. North understood blind obsession. To think humans used to hunt whales as a means for economic gain; it was no wonder they were extinct.
He also had a strong craving for a fish sandwich from McDonald’s. He knew that 5 oz. canned tuna was on sale for $23.75 at the local market around the corner, and that he could take a North Pacific cruise aboard a vessel called the Pequod, all thanks to the profitable ads that accompanied the book. North thought about Ms. Serif as he discarded the ads, but his stomach grumbled and he still longed for the fish sandwich.
The hinges on Mr. North’s briefcase were stuck, forcing him to pry it open carefully. A few wires and a brick of gray clay fell out on the table. He placed the clay back into his briefcase gently and untangled the wires. There were easier, more efficient ways to demolish a building, but they were also easier to trace. Some things, if done well, simply require an antiquarian touch.
“Looks like something technical.” James held a tray in one hand. A simple peanut butter and blueberry jelly sandwich, cut in half, rested on a chipped, yellow plate next to a red apple, a glass of water, and a cup of black coffee. “Can I help?”
“Not this time.”
“Sure.” James looked slightly rejected. He pinched his eyebrows, and a deep furrow snaked across his forehead. “I closed up like you asked. Not that it really matters. You’re the first person through the door in weeks.” James set the tray down on the table where Mr. North was working and turned back to the stairs. “Anything else?”
Mr. North shielded the contents of the briefcase from James. “If you had to make a choice, could you live without the store, or would you go down with the ship?”
“I think that silly halo-thing of yours is transmitting a little too quickly.” James smiled, as he pulled out the vial of pink crystals and shook them. “I’ll be upstairs if you need me.”
Mr. North walked out from around the table. “Seriously, could you live without the store?”
James paused at the base of the stairs. A poster of Marcus Pfister’s Rainbow Fish Counting hung on the wall above a dusty green beanbag chair. James rubbed his face with his left hand. “I guess I’m more like Ahab than I’d like to admit.” Without waiting for a reply, he made his way up the steps.
Mr. North shook his head and went back around the table. He reopened the briefcase and pulled out the tiny red wires. His halo flickered as he accessed a restricted information port on the demolition of small buildings.
Upstairs in his private apartment, James sat behind a large, purple counter, grinning stupidly from ear to ear. Too high from taking Mr. North’s vial of pink crystals to sit up straight, he leaned his head on one hand and his elbow on the smooth surface. No one ever came in any more, except for Mr. North. With the creation of the Paperless Doctrine of 2152, owning paper had become a misdemeanor, as uncouth as driving a car with a combustion engine had been in the late 21st century. He was grateful that his books hadn’t been recycled into compost to fertilize the fields of the Global Village like the rest of the printed material had been years ago. But deep down, he was angry. If someone wanted to buy a book or a poster, even though it was illegal, he’d sell it. The risk of being caught was minimal; however, collectors of paper products were seen as dirty miscreants caring only for themselves.
James, through his hazy thoughts, reminisced about the day he had seen the announcement about the PD for the first time, which had been printed in the final issue of the New York Times. The yellowed, fifty-year-old article was framed and hanging on the far wall with his collection of propaganda posters, including one of his favorites that read, “Viva El Mundo de Latinos!” from the Latin Labor Uprising of 2092.
Interest in print books—printed anything for that matter—died immediately after the creation of the PD. The Governor’s decision to declare the bookstore a state treasure had transformed his business into a museum. James had no overhead, but he barely made a living. Most people would not pay to browse or handle books, old newspapers, and political posters. If not for the regulars, like Mr. North, who would buy or barter for two or three books—and leave a little extra on every visit—he would have starved. It was obvious to James that Mr. North still loved to read books and hold them in his hands. There was nothing like feeling the weight of Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, as he read the words on the printed pages. After the introduction of implants, reading had become like everything else in their society, fast and weightless.
James had taken the crystals, so that he, too, could feel fast and weightless. He was soaring, and he was happy watching the hours pass. He should have locked the store hours ago, like he had promised. But James had forgotten, and now, he didn’t care. He was amid purples and deep blues and stark whites. And oh, the smells—hot gingerbread and cocoa. James didn’t have implants like the rest of them. He didn’t care for wires or worry about connection speeds. All James cared about was flying and books. When he couldn’t fly, he read the old-fashioned way: book in hand.
At first, there were a few people looking to make a quick credit by illegally selling their books and collectable posters to James, but he soon ran out of money. He depleted his saving for one last acquisition, a first edition set of Mark Twain’s novels and memoirs. After purchasing the first editions, he had to turn people away.
It was hard, but James had come to understand his place in the world. He was dead to the current age. He chose to ignore it. He wanted a revolution like the one that Russia had experienced in the days of Lenin and Stalin, except James didn’t care about the people or social justice. James wanted to witness the end of something that no one thought would end and the birth of something new and unexpected. He longed for something tangible to replace the Paperless Doctrine. He craved something more, something terrible and violent.
Mr. North wished that the inevitable could have gone some other way. He pulled something out of his coat pocket. “Thank you, James, for everything,” he said, fingering the old paper. He thought back to the first time he had met the man with the quaint visor. James had been waving a flag that read, “Remember Fahrenheit 451” outside a PD recycling center. The corners of Mr. North’s mouth raised and his eyes softened.
There was a flash of green light. Then, the two-story building that contained the last printed books for sale on Earth fell into rubble. Turning away, Mr. North walked slowly down the street, avoiding the smoldering pages that rained from the sky. Then, he shook his head before tucking the yellowed copy of Moby Dick back into his pocket.