by Eric M. Witchey
"Please lock down your face plate, Dr. Miller." The gate guard at the primary source preserve spoke with bored authority.
I snapped my suit helmet closed. I didn't want to make any mistakes. No matter how bored the guards were, no matter how many times they had done the entry drill, they could still deny me access.
"Thank you, sir." The blue uniform and brass buttons of the gate guard were archaic, symbolic of public servants long gone. The augmented muscles underneath his uniform fabric and the gun on his hip were not symbolic.
"May I see your permit, sir?"
I opened the Velcro vest pocket of my environment suit and pulled out a red, plastic datachit, my access permit and a complete record of my life and my research.
I stared at the guard's blue-steel weapon while he slipped my permit in a reader and examined the contents. When he focused an official make-em-nervous stare on me, I did my best to meet his gaze.
Satisfied that I made eye contact without showing defiance, he returned my permit.
While I sealed it back in its pocket, he ran through the standard litany of questions: Have you spoken to anyone since your suit was sealed? Did you leave your research pad unattended at any time? Are you currently suffering from any pathogens that might have survived the scrub? Do you have your tweezers?
The list went on and on. I answered yes or no until I thought my air supply might be used up just getting through the damn gates.
Finally, the guard stepped aside, put his palm on the reader lock on the wall, and said, "Enjoy your visit, Dr. Miller."
Seals hissed. The door opened. My heart raced. Finally, after three years of applications and security checks, after endless training, after the absurd ritual of the guard's questions, I was going in. I had access to primary source information. Pure. Ancient.
I stepped through the doors. They sealed behind me. My suit expanded as the air in the lock was pumped away. The inner doors opened. Low spectrum, UV-free light poured into the airlock.
It was nothing like the simulations. There was no drone of trainers in my headset, no sense of being watched. The room itself was stark, a black-walled, vacuum vault two meters by two meters. In the center stood a black-onyx podium topped by a silver dome.
I stepped in. The interior doors closed behind me.
Alone. Silent. I'd never known such complete silence. Not just the absence of commerce, of movement, but the complete absence of medium through which sound can travel. No vibrations of any kind were allowed in the vault. No damaging light. No ambient air.
I stepped up to the curved dome of the podium. My presence triggered a hidden sensor. A spot bathed the podium in safe-spectrum, high-contrast light. The podium's cover dome split and folded away. It was my oyster shell opening. The meat within would be sweet, pure, wonderful.
A book! A real dictionary. Leather bound. Paper. Resins. Ink.
I pulled my tweezers from my tool belt, held them up in front of my faceplate and tested them once. The flat, circular tips touched together silently and released smoothly.
My heart raced. I was afraid I might damage the artifact with the tweezers, afraid I might forget my training, afraid I wouldn't have time to find what I came for.
I took a deep breath. I let it out. My faceplate fogged, then cleared.
I reached forward and lifted the blue cover with my tweezers. The title page appeared. "Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary." My God! I was touching it! I was reading it!
My hand shook. The page rippled. I had to get a grip on myself. Tweezers damage was a jailing offence. I needed to do my research, to get my word before my time was up.
Reciting the ancient alphabet, I searched the book. I found my word. "Bibliophile." I scribbled the definition into my data pad. I didn't need to. I'd remember it forever, but I was well-trained. I would need to reference that definition many times in the next few years.
I finished. I checked my heads-up display. I still had two minutes. My training and practice had given me two extra, luxurious minutes with the ancient book. Other researchers were waiting, hidden away in the ready rooms of the preserve. There was always a backlog. I should have left. I'd fulfilled my permit. There were strict rules governing primary source access.
I turned the pages. I couldn't help it. Once. Twice. Three times before my time was up and the doors behind me opened.
I turned and entered the airlock. My heart slowed. I swallowed, trying to force saliva to flow again. I swear my pores hurt from the excitement, from trying to sweat in the EV suit.
I had touched a dictionary! Actually touched one. Used one. Looked up a word in primary source material. The definition was pure, not corrupted by the endless mutation of the consensual data of the nets. There would be articles about the experience. I'd be famous in my academic circles. So few had the patience to do what I had done.
The outer doors opened. The guard's gun was out of his holster and aimed at my chest. Two other guards stood beside him. "Dr. Miller," the first guard said, "You have stolen information."
"No," I stammered.
"Bibliophile, carcinogen, epiphany, and yawl," the guard said.
"I have a permit," I said.
"For one word."
"I'm a researcher. I couldn't help it. I had to turn the pages."
"Please come with us."
"I can forget them," I said. I knew it was a lie.
One of the guards took me firmly by the elbow. He pinched in a way that sent white fire shooting to my fingertips. I dropped my tweezers. Through my helmet, I heard them clatter as if they were hitting the floor in a room at the other end of a long hallway. They led me away.
"Yawl," I whispered to myself. I savored the word. It felt so good on my tongue. "Epiphany." "Bibliophile." Prison was worth it.
© Eric M. Witchey, 2005
All Rights Reserved
BIO: Eric M. Witchey's fiction has appeared nationally and internationally
in magazines and anthologies. His novel, Fighting Mother's Echo, will soon appear in Poland. He has published short fiction in multiple genres under several names and has won recognition from Writers of the Future, New Century Writers, ralan.com, and Writers Digest. His how-to articles have sold to Writer's Digest Magazine, Writer's Northwest Magazine, and Northwest Ink Magazine. His currently available and upcoming list includes:
Poem: "Collaboration," Upcoming Surreal Magazine "Stealing Faith," www.ralan.com Spectravaganza. Oct. 2004.
Novel: Fighting Mother's Echo -- Upcoming, Fantastyka Wydanie
Specjalne, Poland "Life and Death and Stealing Toads," Upcoming Nowa Fantastyka, Poland "Batbaby and Bigfoot vs. the Blood Trucking Vampire," www.forteanbureau.com Issue # 25, Sept., 2004 "The Fix in Mr. Giovelli's Bandit," Upcoming Anthology, TripleTree Press "The Tao of Flynn," Upcoming Nowa Fantastyka, Poland "Call ED ACE for Emotion-driven Fiction," Upcoming Writer's Digest Magazine "Mud Fork Cottonmouth Expedition," Polyphony 4, 2004 "The Tao of Flynn," Realms of Fantasy, April, 2004. "Diver's Moon," writing as E.M. Arthur; The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica 3. 2004. "Confessions for a Heart of Stone," www.forteanbureau.com Issue #15, Oct. 2003 "Life and Death and Stealing Toads," www.ralan.com Spectravaganza. Oct. 2003. "Voyeur," Low Port sci-fi anthology. Pub., Meisha Merlin. August, 2003.