Recap of part I: The force put out by the book, the evil force, was stronger. It was involuntary: I sat down in the chair at my table (a chair that I’d never sat on before) and I reached for the book…
I realized the pages were laminated and the binding had been reinforced. The book was fully readable. I read a few pages. My heart thumped, and my head pounded in its rhythm. My hands shook. I didn’t understand any of the text. I noted that the book was from the mid twentieth century—1964. This evil book was a hundred fifty years old.
I stood, and was then facing the dining table. The backs of my thighs trembled. It took all of my will to step away from this atrocity and go sit down on the soft chair. I had proper guilt over sitting in the soft chair. I closed my eyes, and my eyelids fluttered.
I was tempted to phone for a medical emergency. But, it would probably mean that I’d be put to death for possession of intellectual reading material. I was stuck. If I tried to dispose of this thing, someone would find it. If I tried to destroy it by means such as setting it on fire, it would set off the smoke alarm, and that would turn on the surveillance system. Anyway, I had no assurance that the surveillance system wasn’t already activated.
I wanted to eat. However, I wasn’t supposed to eat yet—it wasn’t nine o’clock. In the refrigerator were cooked beans and rice noodles, and an egg that I could make. Or, in my cupboard, there was nutrition I could have from a can. Should I depart from the regimen? Maybe no one would know. I feared that Mr. Humulin would notice the guilt on my face the next day.
I sat for a while. I was supposed to play video games. Video games are correct.
It seemed odd that reading was a worse temptation than the lure of being with a woman. I’d been with a woman before. I was eighteen years old. A retired child-bearer had spotted me at a refueling station and had lured me to “try something new and interesting.” I’d known full well that no contact with child-bearers was permitted unless on the order of the local AI Authority.
Afterward, I was severely punished. An ultra-pain device was attached to me for more than three days. It was a turning point in my life, wherein I’d killed the recklessness within me— and I was forgiven. But, reading a “book”? What was wrong with me?
In despair, I grabbed the video game unit from its hanger. I put the unit over my head. Soon, I should be doing what was expected.
I waited…the video game should have switched on by this time.
“Remove this unit. We detect a malfunction,” the video game unit said to me. Malfunction? How could it malfunction?
“Remove this unit immediately.”
I obeyed the command. I took the unit off the top of my head and I put it back. Sweat drenched me from head to foot. A green light came on above the entranceway to my dwelling. It was the surveillance system. They would spot the book. The AI Authority would probably put me to death.
It was over. I felt massive relief. Soon, I would be done with this uselessness called life. In resignation and curiosity, I went and sat in front of the book, and I began to read.
I awoke. I was on my sofa, a place where I shouldn’t have been. The video game was on the floor in front of me and it had a blinking red light on it. I did not know what that meant. The green light above my front doorway had gone out.
I realized that it was quarter till six, and that it was almost time for work.
There was a butterfly in my gut, but it was not a pleasant butterfly. Why hadn’t I been put to death?
I quickly showered and shaved. I got my mouthpieces from their container and put them in. I combed my hair, which continued to be of the proper length and neatness. I put on my monochrome outfit after retrieving it from the auto-clean unit. I grabbed my mini-screen, my identification, and my numb-pills. I exited, and a car hovered in front of me. I had kept it waiting for five minutes. It demanded an apology, which I gave abundantly. I got inside.
My thinking was different. The book had expanded my mind. The car ascended and accelerated, and it got onto the flight path. I looked at the illuminated signs, and at the total orderliness. People below looked like ants, all walking in formation. The buildings—you could not distinguish one from another.
I began to think about the book I’d read. It was primitive. The conditions implied by the text indicated that people once lived almost without any technology. They’d had ground cars made of sheet metal, of plastic, and with propulsion that turned rubber wheels on a smooth surface on the ground. But, had just the one book said all of this? No, it did not. Somehow, more knowledge of the past had gotten into my mind. I must have read books in the past and forgotten that I’d read them. How could this happen?
I was fifteen minutes into my commute, I looked at the city, and I
began to cry. The primitives were better than we were. They could think.
Modern civilization had abdicated this. We were no better than the machines that supervised us. I cried some more. What had we done to ourselves?
It occurred to me that the car had passed the nondescript office building where I worked. There was no traffic issue. The vehicle headed beyond the giant maze of skyscrapers.
“Where are we going?” I asked the vehicle.
“I am taking you to the proper destination.”
“No. We have passed by my office building.”
“The destination has been assigned. I must do as instructed. Do not attempt to override and do not attempt to exit the vehicle.”
As if to punctuate what it had said, the car abruptly accelerated and passed a cluster of vehicles that were flying at a normal speed.
“Where are you taking me?”
Jack Bragen is author of “Revising Behaviors that Don’t Work,” “Instructions for Dealing with Schizophrenia,” and “Jack Bragen’s 2021 Fiction Collection,” and lives in Martinez.