a short story
I am a Learner. My son has been killed. It was not a gentle,
I should not speak, for I am a Learner. I have written my son's mother
a letter. The letter is like this:
Your son has died. Your daughter is still alive. I have not Learned
where, but I will try to find her.
It is like that, but in a more empathic typeface.
It is printed on a folded piece of paper. I left it in my chair. I
do not know for certain if my son's mother is alive.
When I rose from my seat for the first time in thirty years, none of
the others appeared to notice. But they did, for they are like me. They
are learners. They notice many things.
I exited the library naked. I stood on the street naked. Some children
pointed at me. Their mother grabbed them, her son with one hand, her
daughter with the other, and hurried them on. On the wall they passed
was faded graffiti that once read clearly, 'Free the Coventry Two'.
I waited for a Gap in the traffic and hailed it. I bought underpants,
a T-shirt, a pair of bootcut jeans and a pair of poorly made sandals.
As I was about to pay, the clouds cleared and the Sun shone down onto
the street. I bought a pair of sunglasses.
I walked towards the train station, alternately putting
on my sunglasses and taking off my sunglasses, as the Sun was not hidden
by clouds and was hidden by clouds.
I heard a Worker and a Consumer laughing at me.
At the station I sat on a bench to think. What had I Learned?
People laughed at me. I was no longer naked. Perhaps they thought me
amusing; perhaps they thought me unnerving; perhaps they thought me
I looked at myself in the hazy reflection allowed by the lens of my
sunglasses. I saw for the first time that I had neglected to remove
my cortware. Having it made me different. Did people laugh at me because
I was different?
They were all different, the Workers and the Consumers and the Servers
and the Leaders and the Familiars. Yet they did not laugh at one another.
I put on my sunglasses to cover my eyes, and accessed my cortware.
DOWNLOAD--PREJUDICE/CIVIL RIGHTS/HUMAN RIGHTS/WAR
There was much about the Coventry riots, but I could not learn of anything
concerning the Coventry Two.
The transport access machine was in disrepair. Somebody
had etched into the side of it, 'Coventry Two are Innocent'.
"Where are you going?" a Server asked me.
I considered this for a moment. I removed my sunglasses. "I am going
to Coventry," the vocoder on my cortware announced.
"You'll need to change when you reach the south terminal."
I spent the journey peering from the window onto an England I had not
seen outside of my MindsEye. As I travelled, I used my cortware to flick
through soft-memories of my son, and more importantly now, my daughter.
Some of the older files had been corrupted following the Ash Wednesday
disaster, but those were in the minority.
In most records my daughter was rendered in at least 1200dpi images,
her hair a beautiful Red70, Green10, Blue12; her skin-tone a wonderful
pale blend of RGB permutations.
Some of the Learners I had Learned of who had left their libraries
had described in journals the vibrancy and vitality of the real world
in relation to the soft one, but I could not see it myself. Perhaps
they saw things differently because they had left before the post-Ash
Wednesday Upgrade. Or perhaps I was less canny to such distinctions.
After changing transports at the south terminal and boarding the Coventry
Overhead I decided to Learn more about the city. I Learned about the
riots; I Learned about the murders; I Learned again of my son's demise.
DOWNLOAD--UNITED KINGDOM/CITY GUIDE/COVENTRY
DOWNLOAD--UNITED KINGDOM/TERRORISM/COVENTRY TWO/RELATED
I downloaded a flyer. It was like this:
Remember the Coventry Two
The flyer was like that, but in a more aggressive typeface. Then I
realised I was tired and slept for most of the journey.
When I woke up, I discovered that I had been crying. I could not Learn
why. Was it because my son had so recently died? Was it because the
images of my daughter reminded me of her mother? Was it because I had
left the library?
And then I made another discovery. Someone had taken my cortware. I
had thought I was naked when I stood outside the library for the first
time. I was not. On the Coventry Overhead, almost at the end of my journey,
wearing underpants, a shirt, a pair of bootcut jeans, a pair of poorly
made sandals and a pair of sunglasses, I was naked.
It was not like losing a limb. It was like--with encouragement from
Eve I have learned how to formulate this, my first simile--gaining a
After a moment of private emotion, I noticed another passenger in my
carriage. On his lap was my cortware.
"Tell me," he said, "how does it feel?"
I turned in my seat to look at him properly. There was something familiar
"Does it feel as if something has been taken away from you, or does
it feel as though something has been given to you?"
I took off my sunglasses. It was dusktime. Speaking of my own volition
for the first time in thirty years, I answered, "Both."
The transport had stopped, possibly at a signal, for the doors did
"Do you want it back?" the other passenger asked me.
Then I looked at the sky through the window; then I looked at the stars
through the window, barely visible against the grey of the sky; then
I understood what the other Learners had meant, after they had left
the library, about vibrancy, about vitality.
"I am uncertain," I said, my voice thick as I tested the feel of each
"Until you are certain," he said, "I will keep it safe for you." Then,
"You are looking for your daughter."
He had accessed my cortware.
I realised what was familiar about him then. He looked a little like
me. "You are a Learner?" I asked.
He smiled, and answered, "I was a Learner."
My daughter was thirty-two years old and very tall, taller
than me, taller than the ex-Learner who is the same height as me.
The ex-Learner told me my daughter is the leader of his cell, and that
her name is Eve.
I had imagined her to be an amalgam of my blunt albino form, and her
mother's riotous red curls and feminine curves.
She was not. She had cropped, naturally black hair and copper-coloured
skin. She was smoking a cigarette. And she had rich, blue irises; nothing
like my hypersensitive pink-grey ones, which, even behind the shield
of my sunglasses, were watering constantly.
"Come, father," she said to me. "The Sun is not good for you. Come
We entered a building with boarded-up windows and walls sprayed with
vivid paint. There was no lighting.
"This used to be a shop," Eve explained, "before the riots." She lit
a candle with the tip of her cigarette. "Why are you here, father?"
"I have not yet learned the answer to that question," I admitted.
Then the ex-Learner spoke. "Eve, the others will be here soon. Shall
I take him out the way?"
Eve turned to me, stubbing out her cigarette on the crumbling plaster
of the wall. Even in the dim light her eyes seemed to shine. "Father,
you know this is a United Resistance stronghold?"
"The southeast quarter of the city, yes. I Learned this in a travel
Eve moved closer to me. She looked serious. "Are you still Learning
for them, father?"
I was surprised to find myself sighing. It took me a moment to answer,
and when I did, the words were spoken hoarsely.
Where it came from I do not know. Maybe it was in Eve's eyes; maybe
it was in the grip the ex-Learner had taken on my shoulder, but I experienced
memory. Not recollections of soft-records, but real memories flooded
I remembered Eve's mother, lips on mine, her fingers intertwined with
mine. I recalled the hospital ward where she gave birth to our twins.
Twins run in my family. I remembered, after the hospital was bombed,
them taking my wife, and my brother taking me in, hiding me in his shop.
"Eve, I have Learned enough to last me a lifetime." In time I would
remember my son's first steps; my daughter's first words; the first
retrospective book I published on freedom of speech, but for now the
memory at the forefront of my mind was of the Coventry liberty riots;
of being chased down by the librarians, my brother at my side. And when
I fell, he took hold of me, gripped my shoulder and lifted me to my
feet. The Coventry Two the newspapers, and later the rebels,
called us, after we were put in the library. "Eve, my daughter, it's
time I started remembering."
Eve reached out then, and took my hand. Other than my brother's grip,
still fixed on my shoulder, it was the first time anyone had touched
me in over thirty years.
© Neil Ayres 2005, 2006.
This story was originally published in Jupiter #8.
Neil's other genre stories appear in various publications, including
Electric Velocipede, Fusing Horizons and Whispers
of Wickedness. He has stories forthcoming in A Dick & Jane
Primer for Adults, Poe's Progeny, Trunk Stories
and Midnight Street.
Neil lives in Surrey with his fiancee and their Samoyed.