Eleven-year-old Keel watched his thirteen-year-old sister Alina from behind as she trudged down the alleyway. "C'mon. Don't wanna b late," she signaled.
The thin, waif-like boy, walking through January’s half-frozen muddy puddles in dirty, sandaled feet, dressed in over-sized khaki shorts with hems down to his shins, and a ratty green sweater made from an old Army blanket, heard her synthesized voice and simultaneously saw the text on his head’s up.
"Geek off. We've got time," was his caustic reply. He had slowed so he could look at Gemmi’s tagging, he was pretty sure it was her work, freshly painted on the old bricks. He was oblivious to the cold breeze from behind, blowing his matted, tortilla-colored hair with violet tips (all that was left of last November’s dye job) into his eyes.
"This is more important than your hotties for Gemmi." She impatiently grabbed his wrist, causing him to regard his sib for the first time that morning. She covered the holes in her thin, coffee-stained white tank top with a black leather vest, the one she ripped off from the dying multiplex in the burbs last month. There were just as many holes in her black yoga pants (she liked retro), and if he’d listen to her actual voice instead of what came through the interface, he’d have heard the faint, metallic click as numerous piercings colliding in her mouth when she spoke.
"Shut up." He was embarrassed, not because she wasn’t right, but because…well, he didn’t know why. After all Alina had hooked with at least three guys since last summer. Why shouldn’t he want his first hook to be with Gemmi. She was almost 10.
"Let's move." She yanked hard at his wrist and then let go, trusting to him listening because he always had. Of course, it worked.
Her low boots clumped along the ancient asphalt as his sandals made a flap-flap sound in accompaniment. He noticed that she’d shaved again, but it must have been a few days ago, because fine, baby chick down was sprouting out of her skull. He fingered the six brass studs piercing the rim of his left ear. His first piercing, in this tongue, was way back when he was only five. By then, Mom and Dad had died in the sickness from the last war like most of the other adults. Aunt Shavonne, his first crush, her smooth skin the color of Cinnamon with crinkly hair that looked like wheat, tried to take care of them for a while, along with seven or eight other younger onlies who lived on the Fort and Eighth crèche in their hood, but she was only the age Alina is now. She disappeared, the day after Keel’s seventh birthday. Probably got by a pred, one of the adults who lived but went crazy and killed.
The implants were the only thing that saved them, well the fact that they evolved or something. That’s what Alina had said that Daine had said. Just before Keel was born, the educators, school teachers, principles, government, or whatever, made it a law that all the newly kids up to age ten had to have them for learning and stuff. He got his in the hospital two days after Mom born him, and Alina and her pod mates got theirs in the med station at the hood daycare.
He stopped daydreaming when they got to the end of the alley. It was bright out now that the clouds were blowing off, but the optics adjusted faster than his eyes underneath the head’s up ever could. Alina made a sharp left at the building’s corner and skipped down the steep concrete stairs, even though they were still slick from the rainstorm. The door creaked like it always did when she opened it and he trotted into the basement behind her.
They walked down the dark, creepy hall, closed doors left and right, bulletin boards with rotting paper notices saying something about church socials, who was in the hospital needing visiting, and practice times for the Christmas choir. Alina opened the double doors at the end of the hall and they solemnly walked into the gym. It was already full of lots and lots of onlies, maybe all there were left from the downtown hoods. He’d turned down his reception so he could only hear Alina and any danger signals that might indicate pred (though no one had seen a pred in a long time), but now he turned it up. He liked the low murmuring from the others kids. It made him feel like he belonged.
Then Daine’s signal overrode all the others, which is what they’d been waiting for. She was sitting on the edge of a big table that a bunch of onlies dragged in from an office and under the basketball basket. Daine was fifteen-years-old, the oldest of the onlies in all the downtown hoods, but she told them that’s not why the rest of them should listen to her. She said it was because she read and studied, and not just from the databases left online that they could access.
She stood up on top of the desk, the squeaking noises her white high-topped tennis shoes made would have been painful if the audio receptors hadn’t filtered them out. Then he saw she had one in her hand and gaped in awe, even though it made him look like a mouth-breathing geek. It was from the library. Daine said the library was sacred and only she and a few of the other oldest onlies could go in, at least until the rest of them learned more.
“Take your seats.”
In the head’s up, they could see the signs for each of them painted on the floor in paint that could only be viddied in ultraviolet.
“You’ll get your reading and math assignments later, but for right now, I want you all to turn off your interfaces and listen.”
This was the exciting and scary part, and not just for Keel. He clicked off and blinked his eyes in the dusky half-light that was dimly shining through smudged and smeared windows. Then he shyly turned to his left where he knew Gemmi was sitting, and was surprised and embarrassed to see she was looking at him. He was ashamed that his hair was so dirty when it looked like hers was freshly washed and dyed the color she called pink lemonade, which was her favorite. She smiled and silently mouthed “Hi Keel.”
Keel blushed and turned back to look up at Daine. She’d already opened the book, a big one with stiff covers and thick paper pages. She held it in her right hand while using a finger from her left to trace the words on the open page. Daine reminded her of Shavonne, except her skin looked more like copper, her hair was the color of dying embers in a fire, and was long and wavy rather than short and crinkly, and her eyes were bright green instead of chocolate brown.
“Today, we’ll continue with the reading from the book Fahrenheit 451 by Mr. Ray Bradbury. Everyone close your eyes, make sure your interfaces are on standby, and just listen with your ears.”
Keel remembered what Alina had said about how the databases and server farms were all going to go down, probably in just a few years. Then the web would go offline and they’d lose connectivity, not just the internet, but the local muni-WiFi, too. The only way to rebuild, to make a world worth living in for them as they got to be grown ups like Mom and Dad, for the littlest onlies coming up, and those who hadn’t been born yet, was for them to learn the way kids learned way back in the day. They had to learn to read, to do math, algebra, calculus and stuff, without the interface doing it for you. They’d have to learn how to think, to design, to build. Daine was already good at all that stuff without the interface. Everyone else had to study.
As he let himself be carried away on the clouds of Daine’s voice and into the world of Guy Montag, Clarisse McClellan, the firemen, and the books, he felt Gemmi’s hand touch his. Everyone’s eyes were closed (he hoped) and he took her hand in his. Her skin felt warm, and he had a funny feeling in his stomach. Most of all though, sitting on the wooden floor of a long abandoned church gym, listening to the words of wisdom that were already old when Mom and Dad were his age, he had the feeling that he finally had a home.
I wrote this for Thursday photo prompt: Imagination #writephoto hosted at Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo. The idea is to use Sue’s original photo as a prompt for crafting a poem, short story, or other creative work.
I haven’t been very active in Sue’s challenge or the others in which I normally participate. Since my first two short stories have been accepted for publication, I’ve been concentrating on creating more stories in the hopes of continuing to get my tales in front of a larger audience.
However, I didn’t want to abandon writing fiction on my blog entirely.
This morning, I read a an article about the history and future of cyberpunk as a subgenre of science fiction. I can’t really do cyberpunk justice, since I think it takes a much younger mind more in tune to the bleeding edge of developing technology to pull it off, but I figured, “what the heck.”
Fortunately, Sue’s image for this week’s challenge fit right in.