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a short story
by Neil Ayres

I am a Learner. My son has been killed. It was not a gentle, expected death.

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 threatening.


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.


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.



I downloaded a flyer. It was like this:

United Resistance

Who UR?
What UR?

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 sense.

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 about him.

"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 not open.

"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 word.

"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 inside."

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 guide."

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 my mind.

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.

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