Cast of Wonders 524: Forbidden Voices (Staff Picks 2022)
by E.J. Delaney
The package isn’t for me.
Perfectly wrapped, it sits there in its velvet carry box–like a war medal or engagement ring–even its protective layers cushioned against damage. Inside, there lies the holy grail: gold leaf copyright.
And it’s for someone else.
Klent and I are parked in the Primăverii quarter, humble servants to the Haves of this world. Have-Not Couriers, they should call us. Minions to the Upper Crust. None of this Prompt and Personal business.
The rest of Bucharest seems a world away.
Sighing, I watch through the windshield as skittish drones dart above the city. We’ve been here an hour and already I’ve seen two explosions. Decoys, probably, or minders, but who knows? A third flash sends shrapnel raining down over Sector 6, fodder for the scavengers.
Klent glances up.
“Are we safe out here?” His fingers don’t stop but for a moment his eyes narrow, focussed on external input. “I don’t want to die in some corporate vendetta.”
“Relax, K. We’re high-end neutral. All the big names use us. Bookface. Microzon. Who’d risk it?”
Klent grunts and turns inward again. I check my uniform, and the time, and the package that isn’t for me (not even though it’s my birthday). Hard copy, by the looks, although people like–I glance at the label–Mrs Diaconu will sometimes buy one-off neural patches kernelled offline inside bubble-wrapped follies.
Either way, it’s a book: words shaped into stories I could never afford. It’s almost obscene.
“Two twenty-five,” Klent notes. He knows when I’m getting twitchy. “Time is money, right? Must be nice to be rich.”
I tuck my thumb under, checking my mind drive for the umpteenth time. No glitches. We’re showing up as on site.
I put myself in Mrs Diaconu’s place: mansion of the gods; inheritance blonde with no-fly-zone courtyard for topless sunbathing. Whatever. I’d be out the door in a heartbeat, buck naked if it came to that.
Instead, I’m in purgatory. Freci menta, as Bunică would say. Wasting time. Rubbing the mint.
“Steady,” Klent warns me. He’s checking his feed but he senses my hand near the package. “We’re on the clock, Iolanda. Fantasists beware, right?”
“Says Mr Catheter.”
But he’s right. Sighing, I settle back in my seat.
In the old days, Bunică says (when she goes off on one of her stories); in the old days it wasn’t just the wealthy who owned books. Everyone had them: in their homes; on their mind drives. Before the Copyright Wars, reading was commonplace.
I stare at the package. It’s that close, it brings me to tears.
I’m as far away as ever.
Summer now, summer then.
I’ve just turned nine and morning glistens on the approaching waves. We’re up early, Tassa and I. The Black Sea stretches before us like nothing I’ve ever seen. I can’t believe she has her back to it.
“The water is beautiful,” she agrees, “but always the same, Iolanda. Its whispers never change. Now this–”
My cousin is fourteen years old. She’s scratching with a stick in the hard sand, a serious expression on her face.
“You won’t find this anywhere else.”
She’s written something there between low and high tides. Three short lines in crab-ball cursive.
“What is it?” I ask.
“It’s a haiku. That’s a type of poem, you know.” She steps back. “It’s good, don’t you think?”
I shake my head, eyes a little wide.
“But– Are you allowed?”
“It’s only sand. It washes away.” She looks at me and smiles, her teeth suddenly brilliant. “They call me the beach poet, you know. People come up from Vama Veche just to see.”
I turn to where she’s pointing. There are specks in the distance, moving our way.
“Come on,” she says. “Let’s go.”
“About time,” Klent grumbles.
I blink myself awake and find the spiked outer gate sliding ponderously to one side. Usually I have to drag Klent out of his feelies and feeds; today it’s him nudging me.
I key the ignition. We edge forward into the kill zone; wait some more while security cycles us through. Then we drive on up to the house itself.
“Actual palace,” Klent snorts, comparing the ornate stone facade to wherever it is he lives in his head.
Routine takes me out of the van and over to the view shield. I cherish the package in my arms: a kitten, a child.
“Bucharest Best Couriers. Delivery for Mrs Diaconu.”
More scanning, then a gap appears in the shield. A holographic major-domo invites me to deposit the goods and return to my vehicle.
“Bucharest Best Couriers,” I repeat. “Prompt and Personal. Our terms require a handshake.”
And with that I wait. Minutes later, the view shield pulses and someone steps through.
It’s not Mrs Diaconu (if it had been, I’d probably have wet myself), just a nobody like me, dressed as a footman. Like me, he wears gloves. We shake hands and the melding of ID-fabrics turns our grip green. He takes the package and withdraws.
Job done, I think; then with empty heart I trudge back to the van.
“Right, then,” Klent declares. “Enough with the 404, Io. Book gone. Moving on.” He sends a pulsing rainbow to the edges of my feed. “I’ve got you a present.”
At first I’m sceptical.
The room Klent takes me to is out back of one of the new laundromats in the Drumul Taberei quarter. Okay, so he’s not offering to wash my sheets. But what else? VR bōjutsu? Sun and moon tattoos?
Turns out, it’s a secret society.
“Hey, everyone. This is Iolanda. Io, this is Lavi, Costel, Marcu and Varvara.” He points in turn to a girl about my age, two schoolteacher types and a wrinkly apple-cheeked bunică. “Happy birthday!”
There’s a pregnant pause while I stare at them, and they at me, then the old woman snorts.
“He hasn’t told you.”
Across from us, the girl rolls her eyes.
“Lavi,” she says, reintroducing herself. “Hi. We’re here to talk books. You know, like they did back in Varvara’s day? Not,” she adds, “that it’s not still your day, Buni. Love you. But anyways, Klickbait here, he’s more or less illiterate, right? But he’s been coming along and telling us about this friend of his. Real smart, wannabe ‘worm, yada yada.” She pauses, then prompts: “That’d be you.”
I gape at her.
Okay, so I’m tanking the first impression; but my mind’s like stirred-up bilge water.
One of the men slides a chair towards me.
“Here. Have a seat.”
“Don’t worry,” the other smiles. “We’re not monsters.”
True, that, Klent messages. Especially Lavi. And FYI, the old girl makes julfă.
I sit down.
The DTBBC, they call themselves. That’s DownTown Bucharest Book Club; lovers of classic literature. They meet here every week to discuss Pădurea spânzuraţilor or Moromeţii, those precious few books the government kept hold of when the Copyright Wars broke out.
Romania’s finest, right?
I don’t know if Klent means the books or the group; but yeah, he knows what I like. Winking, he dives back into his feeds. I send a blowfish emoji.
Costel and Marcu are a couple, I think, so they parse everything as a love story. Lavi is mile-a-minute and determinedly radical; Varvara, sharp as a pin. We spend hours debating loyalty and doubt; dowries and betrayal. I feel more alive than I have in months.
Then we get to the secret bit.
“So, ah, yeah,” Lavi begins. “We don’t want to make you uncomfortable or whatever, but…”
She trails off. Costel raises his hand.
“I’m going to do something illegal.”
“Leave now,” Varvara offers. “But this is why your friend brought you here.”
I glance at Klent. He’s plugged in but he moves his puffed cheeks from side to side, blowing out candles.
I stay where I am.
“A poem.” Costel is standing now. He speaks softly, seriously. “By William Wordsworth. I wandered lonely as a cloud…”
And just like that, he’s off. My head spins. I’ve read about this. It’s–
“…when all at once I saw a crowd…”
It’s owned. Wordsworth is gold leaf copyright, property of Björnböcker. Okay, they’re foreign. But they’re allied with Vocea României and the treaties are enforced. You need a licence to recite Wordsworth. You need money.
Yet, here we are.
I look around, my knee suddenly jittery. Varvara sits back with her eyes shut. She’s nodding to herself, every bit a bunică lost in memory. Marcu has his hand wrapped gently around Costel’s. Lavi is smiling. They’re all so calm!
I imagine the door behind us shattering and a squad of Björnböcker heavies bursting in from the laundromat, trampling our flowers underfoot.
It’s thrilling. Terrifying. The idyll of Wordsworth infuses with something darker.
Sadness? No. Something else. It’s–
“…and then my heart with pleasure fills, and dances with the daffodils.”
Costel’s eyes are misty, his voice a loving murmur as he closes off the recital. In the silence that follows, the thought comes to me.
The poem, everything; it’s an exquisite conflict.
And then I remember.
Three years have passed and I’m back at the house in Costineşti. I sit by myself in the room with the old green dresser and the tasselled faţă de masă, warmed by the morning sun. Outside, the Black Sea laps gently at the shore.
But the beach is empty The nudists are gone, the sands undisturbed.
“For you,” my uncle says. “From your cousin.”
He hands me a card. Inside, there’s a poem; eleven lonely syllables to bind Tassa and I together. Years later, I’ll learn that he paid a day’s wages in copyright clearance.
the sea cries
salty tears of love
The words make me happy but sad.
I miss her.
Tassa is a poet now–indentured to Vocea României, my uncle says, whatever that means–and she had to go away. She lives in a safe house. (Is Uncle Mihai’s house not safe?) I don’t even know where. No-one does.
“When Tassa wrote her poems, it was on private property. The publishing house–Vocea României–it owns the beach, of all things. So now they own her. Mişeilor,” she spits. “Ticăloşilor.”
“But she’s happy,” my uncle insists. “It’s what she always wanted.”
He turns away but I hear it in his voice: his heart, endlessly breaking.
The poetry of loss.
“Costel, can I ask you something?”
He’s just given us the poem Annabel Lee, and the tears leave slug-trails down my cheeks. In her sepulchre there by the sea; in her tomb by the side of the sea.
Costel nods. Two months I’ve been spellbound, my head buzzing. I think he sees it coming.
“Where do you get them?”
I’m talking about the poetry. Costel and Marcu aren’t rich. None of us are. So how does he have access to literature?
Lavi takes another sarma and says with her mouth full:
“Costi’s a bad, bad man. He’s got connections.”
“Connections,” Marcu agrees, “and a head full of dreams.”
He runs splayed fingers through Costel’s hair. None of this is helping.
“It’s true,” Costel says. He tucks his thumb under and types, accessing his mind drive. “I’ve got them on a ghost partition.”
Okay, well that makes sense. Digital only. But–
I’m both impressed and horrified. I’ve seen talk in the feeds: corporate A-P viruses. Some incident in Odessa? Whatever. Minor infringement, hardcore reprisals. There were entire hospital wards packed with human husks.
I shake my head. “If they ever catch you…”
I’m thinking: no more poems; no more anything.
They’ll turn his brain to confetti.
But Costel just smiles. He puts one hand over Marcu’s and waves the other at me, Lavi, and Varvara; this little room out back of the laundromat; the DTBBC.
“It’s worth it,” he says.
And okay, it’s all I can do not to jump out of my seat and go, Uh-uh, no way. Totally not worth it.
But this is books we’re talking about. Water in the desert. This is why we have brains!
Plus, he hasn’t answered my question.
“Sure. Right. You’ve got swag upstairs. But where do you get it, Costel? Where’s it come from?”
Surprisingly, it’s Varvara who answers. She’s been quiet, but as bunicăs do she draws attention to herself just by shifting in her seat. The pride and strength of yesteryear flow through her wrinkles.
“Where do you think, dear? From the Librarian.”
“The Librarian,” Klent repeats. I’ve had him do some digging and now we’re parked in a back alley in Sector 5, waiting for my better judgement to kick in. “Officially, there’s no such person; but from what I can tell, he–”
“…he or she is top of the black ops hit list: Microzon; Björnböcker; Golden Page. One entire imprint of Zolotyye Golosa is just a front for tracking him down.” Klent flicks his middle finger. “You sure about this, Io? I mean, reading’s great and everything, but this Librarian şmecheraş is bad news: publisher enemy number one!”
Klent’s got his feet up on the dash. He grins, but I can tell he’s worried.
The problem is, Costel wouldn’t tell us anything. (‘Las-o baltă. Forget it.’) Whatever he did to get books in his head, he took an oath of secrecy.
And so here we are.
The package is only mid-range–paid for by Klent’s mum, well below Bucharest Best standards–but it’s an after-hours delivery and I’ve wiped our Bucharest Best Ad-Pat; so long as I give my supervisor a cut, we’re good to go.
“Look sharp,” Klent tells me.
I straighten in my seat. A figure has appeared in the rear-view mirror, grey on grey through the autumn rain. The van’s cosiness seems to leach away. I shiver.
Klent and I are no angels. Our company rap sheet fishtails between total apathy and off-the-wall crazy. Moonlighting in the Ferentari quarter? No biggie. But tonight, it’s just camouflage. The real plan (borderline insane though it is) is to score a book.
A knock-off. Sans copyright.
We’re out to borrow.
I check the mirror again. The figure is closer now, clomping towards us past the mismatch of cracked concrete walls and the sentry line of unburnished metal poles holding up the waterpipes.
“Is this good?” I ask Klent.
“Right place, right time. Either we’re in or we’re dead.”
I tuck my thumb under, rechecking our status. We’re showing up all right. The only question is, whose instructions are we following?
What is a trap?
I look up. Suddenly the figure is running. It’s pounding down the alley, puddles slapping beneath heavy boots. Something goes bang! and the passenger’s side mirror blows apart.
Klent’s voice soars into the high register. Gunfire? I feel oddly calm. Honeyed adrenaline brings back a memory from when we were kids; that day I pushed him too high on the swings. I smile. Klent’s ducking in his seat, a ball of panic.
“Drive,” he yelps. “Drive!”
Uh-uh. Not this girl. Not in a built-for-comfort transit van. (Bibi is plush but she lumbers like an overfed bear.)
I swipe at the locks and drop down next to him.
More gunshots. I see the figure blur past, a grey-brown ripple across dead clematis vines and mocking graffiti. Footfalls recede but then surge. The muddled doppler makes my head spin.
Two more figures sluice by the window.
Uniforms? They’re sickly but unmistakable: the rancid yellow of wolfs’ teeth. There’s another report, then a flash that has me clenching my eyelids.
Corporate enforcers. Golden Page.
This time the thud of boots tails off. Klent is still whimpering. I tell him:
“Copyright Police. Come on, they’re gone now.”
Cautiously, I sit up. The alleyway is clear.
“Who was it?” Klent asks. “Are we cooked?”
I key the ignition and shift into reverse. We roll slowly back down the lane, lights off.
“They were after the other guy, I think. Our contact.”
I wave the question away. With one mirror gone, it’s all I can do to keep the van straight.
“Bibi’s hit,” Klent mutters. Our tyres cut gently through the puddles and we slosh out backwards onto the main street. “This was a bad idea, Io.”
I flick the headlights on and shift into first. It’s only as we slink out of Ferentari that my thoughts settle down and I notice the ping on my mind drive:
CLICK TO ACCESS
There’s a book in my head.
Autumn now, autumn then.
My first corporate infraction comes when I’m fifteen years old. I’m scanned during a school excursion to the Palace of Justice. Alarms go off.
“You have unlicensed copyrighted material on your mind drive,” the enforcer tells me. She tucks her thumb under. “The poem Iolanda’s Bunny by Tassa Ionescu.”
I stare at her.
“Tassa’s my cousin. I’m Iolanda.”
“Unfortunately, familial ties do not constitute–”
“She wrote that for me. When I was six!”
“I understand.” The officer wears a blue-yellow-red Vocea României patch. She leads me to a data containment cell. “You’re not in trouble. It’s a retro-breach, no charges. But you will have to delete the file.”
“Or buy a copy. Cost of… yeah, more than I’ve got. You rich, kid?”
I shake my head.
“Purging it is, then.”
Not unkindly, she fires up the containment cell. Forensics hum as the algorithms comb my mind drive, searching for stray verse.
iepure, iepure, dă-mi urechile
câmpul șoptește în visele mele
Iolanda’s Bunny. My childhood keepsake from Tassa.
They hunt it down and tear it to shreds.
For the first few days, I can barely function. There’s a ghost partition on my mind drive; and on that partition, a book.
Do I open it? What if it’s a snare? (I see the Odessa pictures again: bodies cored by antipiracy viruses. One tuck and it’s first-degree copyright infringement.)
But still my thumb itches. What if it’s genuine?
I have to know.
The file is labelled Storm Boy, which Klent–after some surreptitious delving–tells me is a novel by Colin Thiele.
“Property of Paige Australasian. Microzon affiliates. Recommended retail price: an arm and a leg.”
“Or for one lucky Romanian girl, free.”
“Yeah, I don’t know. Nothing’s free, Io. Especially not books.”
But it’s there. It’s in my head.
And it’s about pelicans.
In the end, it’s those pelicans that tip the scales. Pinocchio’s geese, Tassa used to call them. Mysterious and free, unknowable behind their ridiculous beaks. She wrote it there in the sand one morning:
go with secrets in their beaks
to a game of I spy
behind pelican smiles
The tide came and washed those couplets away, but I wonder now if they lie in some rich person’s collection.
From Tassa, my thoughts slide to Paige Australasian and the other corporations, their oppugnant monopolies. I see the file on my mind drive, bright as a painted egg.
That night, I tuck my thumb under.
“This is an unabridged recording of–”
The voice cuts through me, so unexpected that I roll in panic from my bunk and onto the floor. In my mind, ‘unabridged’ becomes ‘unauthorised’. I scrabble at the bedclothes. Sirens flare and I pull my chin up to the window. Only–
There are no sirens. There’s no pounding of jackboots or the distorted baying of megaphones. The neighbourhood is peaceful, off-radar still to the Microzon enforcers.
As quickly as I conjured them, my fears fade away. The room is empty. The only presence is the man in my head.
The one who’s reading me Storm Boy.
The voices grow quickly familiar. Stephen Fry. Anna Massey. Gareth David-Lloyd. Their accents are strange but their tones soothing. And the stories they tell!
“What’s it today?” Klent asks. “Germinal? Snail on the Slope?”
My latest loan request came this morning, slipped onto my mind drive by an unseen passer-by as we drove through Drumul Taberei. Now we’re back in the Primăverii quarter. We’re parked towards the sun and we both have our eyes closed, basking like lizards.
“Finn Family Moomintroll.”
It turns out I have a weakness for children’s stories. I mean, I love all the books–classics; mysteries; Soviet-Era sci-fi–but there’s something about fiction for young readers, some pure essence of storytelling. Adventures jump out at me from the list of available titles. Fantasies. Coming of age stories. Innocent voices cry, ‘Borrow me! Be with me!’
And so I do. I am. As heart-wrenching as it is to return books, I blink my farewells and tuck each one away, purging the secret partition and replacing one loan with the next, minimising the risk of discovery.
“Moomintroll.” Klent is concentrating on his feelies. “That’s the one with the shipwreck, right?”
“Uh-uh. You’re thinking Swiss Family Robinson. Moomintroll’s Swedish. Wrong family, K.”
“Right. Like, who’d have thought there was more than one?”
I nod. For so many years, I had only Moromeţii and Pădurea spânzuraţilor in my life; only Apostol Bologa and poor old Ilie to cling to.
“True, that,” I say.
And as we wait for the latest Mrs Diaconu to take delivery, I sit back and sift through my newly shelved memories.
The dream doesn’t last.
Or rather, it does, but darkness finds its way in. Days pass and the sweetness in my head turns sour.
We’re headed for the Palace of Justice.
“Sorry, Io,” Klent says. “They want it, like, ten minutes ago, you know? And there’s no-one else. I mean, I could try to squeeze into the gloves…”
“Nmm. I have to go back sometime. Might as well be now, K.”
But the timing is cruel.
Iepure, iepure, dă-mi urechile. Câmpul şopteşte în visele mele.
The words haven’t changed, but where once I read them, now I’m reciting from memory. The connection has been made tenuous. Tassa’s poem is but the ghost of a gift.
And the older I get, the more it will fade.
We make our way along Holy Apostles, past graffitied unit blocks and Courthouse Park with its drone craters and chestnut trees. Klent pulls up outside the church, nosing into a spot too small for us. Bibi’s left with her fundament hanging out. Klent stays with her while I trot across the street.
The Palace of Justice is grim, a washed-up calcified leviathan growing ever more humourless with age. Even the side entrance looks down on me, three storeys of stern disapproval. Package under my arm, I force myself up the steps.
Once inside, I falter.
We have history, this building and I. Like Iolanda’s Bunny, my existence here is brought into question. The essence of the corporations weighs dense and heavy.
More prosaically, a warning pops up on my mind drive:
HIGH GRADE COPYRIGHT SCANNER
DELETE ALL LIBRARY MATERIAL
To my horror, the process is automatic. The purge wrenches at me; for my own protection, yes, euthanising that which would otherwise be ferreted out. But it’s still history repeating. Only four and a half lives in, my copy of Captain Bluebear blinks and disappears.
On today of all days.
I don’t remember much of what happens next; just that I shuffle through security, my chest aching and my thoughts numb. There are no alarms; no tears, even. Just me.
Living Dead Couriers.
Somehow I complete the delivery. I make the handshake and drift back onto the street. Klent is waiting. He’s bought flowers from somewhere. Hydrangeas.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
I collapse back into my seat and he nods, expecting it.
“Come on. Let’s go visit Tassa.”
Sombre, we pull up outside the cemetery gates. Klent offers to come with me but it’s two days’ wages; I shake my head and he hands me the flowers.
I pay the fee.
As the heavy iron bars roll sideways, the usual sadness washes through me. Today, though, it’s mixed with something else; a harder, sharper emotion.
I walk past the gravesites. It’s a sunny morning but Înmormântarea Vocilor lies under the stygian pall of high-tensile drone netting. The air is a mosaic of shadows. Still wet, the grass shifts underfoot.
Tassa’s grave is like all the others: a simple headstone with name, two dates and a pay-per-view plaque. I know the inscription but I pay this fee, too, and watch letters ghost to life upon the brass. Here, at the rotten heart of Vocea României; contractually obliged, it’s the first thing she wrote for them:
the wind blows kisses
her soft lips rough
from freedom’s purse
And I cry; not just because she’s gone, but because they still have her. A botched contract raid, my uncle said. Ambush. Double agents. Even in death, they keep her locked up and earning. Tassa Ionescu, beach poet.
Tassa, my cousin. A body bag; a cocoon of life taken.
Too soon, the corporate tide comes in. It smooths the brass and wipes her epitaph clean. Time’s up, the company says. Go away. Come back. Pay again. Keep grieving.
As I lay the hydrangeas down, I see Tassa in memory: her sandy skin and brilliant teeth; her wild dark curls. I whisper her name and it’s an open mind-doc, a title without content.
Winter then, winter now. We are butterflies, Tassa and I. In the sunshine of childhood we are wedges of copper and azure, weaving our intricate whimsies. From the sea to the city, from the Basin to the Plain, today is forever.
Here in Tassa’s cemetery prison, in this cage of graves, I make my vow:
What the Copyright Wars stole, I will steal back.
I have it all planned.
Spring will arrive, and with it my great act of rebellion. I’ll queue up a borrow request for the Librarian. I’ll copy Tassa’s poems, print them out.
From Rahova to Pantelimon, from Berceni to Otopeni, I’ll leave poetry all over Bucharest. In doorways, on park benches. I’ll share Tassa’s view of the world, just like she wanted.
Tassa for the masses!
We’re driving now, Klent and I, along the Basarab Overpass. All around I see the city rising up. There’s been an eruption of apartment blocks: hundreds of them with scores more still under construction; cranes like mantises perch atop headless bodies, picking over the scraps of suburbia.
I’ll take Tassa’s words and have Klent hack them into people’s feeds. The enforcers will come–they’ll drag me away–but they’ll be too late.
In Tassa’s name, for the beach poet, I’ll make my stand.
Of course, that’s not how it happens.
My plan calls for patience; preparation. I must strike like a b¬ōjutsu master. From inner peace: power; precision.
The publishers don’t work that way.
We pull up outside the laundromat. I’m late, so Klent drops me off and starts on a three-point turn.
“You got the present?” he calls.
Varvara has just turned eighty and I’ve made her a video cube of DTBBC readings: excerpts from Moromeţii. We’ve one side of the cube each: Costel and Marcu; Lavi and Varvara; me and–reluctantly–Klent. I tuck the package under my arm as I step across the street.
I’m only a few paces away when the laundromat blows up.
That’s what it feels like anyway. The windows don’t shatter; the building doesn’t collapse; but there’s a bang! and then a shuddering whoomp! and smoke comes roiling through the open door.
Everything slows; dulls. My foot hovers above the pavement.
What happens next seems unreal.
I’m aware but still. I sense the enforcers pulling up: armoured vans, heavy boots. Vocea României. Björnböcker. Black helmets and coloured arm patches, deadly through the smoke.
I hear their voices–calm, filtered–and the rasping blind panic of those still inside the laundromat.
A man blunders out, a washing basket clutched to his stomach. His eyes are squeezed shut and he crashes into one then two of the enforcers, ricocheting off them like a demented blowfly. A woman I’ve seen washing pinafores and kids’ clothes stumbles out after him.
“Everybody on the ground!” The enforcer’s voice is harsh, amplified. “On your stomachs, hands behind your backs!”
“This is a routine copyright inquiry,” a different voice assures. “Comply and your detainment will be without prejudice.”
A third voice in my ear mutters:
Suddenly there’s an arm around my throat. I still haven’t moved but now I’m dragged backwards. Something cold and metallic presses hard against my cheek.
“There he is,” an enforcer shouts. “You there; stop!”
Gunshots ring out. The voice in my ear grunts but takes no notice. It shifts its grip and pulls me though the smoke, over to– Bibi? I blink. For a second I see Klent’s face in the side mirror, all shock and fear and panic. Then I’m round back of the van, pushed up against the bumper.
“Pretend you don’t know me,” the voice urges; then it calls out: “Stay where you are; any closer and the delivery girl gets it!”
More gunshots. They ping off Bibi and one of the tail lights explodes.
The voice is back in my ear, raw like those first burnt nudists from Vama Veche:
“I’m sorry, Iolanda. I thought we’d have more time.”
I gasp. Suddenly I recognise him. Pitched normally, the voice is one I hear this time every week.
Stunned, I open my mouth. I try to say– (what?). But the gun’s still digging into my cheek. Gentle sweet Marcu? It doesn’t make sense!
“Don’t speak,” he warns me. “Keep your thumb up. It’s me they’re after.”
A message flashes in my feed. It’s from Klent:
Io! Are you–? Futu-ţi! Hang on. They’re ordering me to–
Then another, this time from one of the enforcers. It comes in under a Vocea României logo:
Keep calm, citizen. When the van moves, duck.
My head buzzes. What’s going on? Did they learn about the books?
Marcu’s voice is a ragged whisper behind me:
“It’s all there, Iolanda: server locations; access codes; the whole library if you want it. A host of daffodils.”
It plays out so fast. Somewhere over near the laundromat, Lavi swears. Her words sound gloopy; dull echoes of reality. There’s a buzzing in my head. I hear Costel calling for Marcu.
Then, beneath my shoulder, Bibi trembles. The van’s about to move!
My mind drive pings:
CLICK TO ACCESS
“There,” Marcu sighs. His shoulders sag, his grip relaxing. “Done. Tell Costel I–”
The world lurches.
I stumble and Marcu pulls away from me. From the corner of my eye, I see him straighten. He raises his hands, gun dangling from the same splayed fingers I’ve watched running through Costel’s hair.
Marcu, my friend, lover of poetry. Marcu the– Librarian?
They shoot him in the head.
through summers shaved bloody
through autumn’s grey pall
through cold cudgelled winters, hope;
spring comes to call
The package isn’t for me.
Klent and I are back where we started, in Primăverii, at the beck and bored call of Mrs Diaconu. Klent has his seat reclined. I gaze along the boulevard.
Elsewhere, the city is grey stone sprawl (run-down, perhaps, and pockmarked with fallout, but grand nonetheless). Here, the homogenous few hide behind their trees. They buy books for their collections. Out there, three million busy, bustling lives entwine.
I think about the new Librarian; how he–or she–can stay hidden; how she must thread her way through the city, stepping in close to transfer files, mind drive to mind drive, lending, vanishing. Try though they might, the Copyright Police will never catch her. She’s a passing fancy; a will-‘o’-the-wisp.
The Librarian goes unseen.
“Three thirty-four.” Klent stirs. “If we stay here much longer, Bibi will grow moss.”
I glance at the box beside me, then up at the mansion. Out beyond the no-fly zone, two drones and their minders dart and spit at each other. Even as I watch, one lights up and drops from the sky. The Copyright Wars go on.
Let Mrs Diaconu have her objets d’art. Let her lord it over us. We’ll have Shahnameh and Biggles instead; Eoin Colfer and Miguel de Cervantes. The Collected Poems of Tassa Ionescu.
For Tassa, I murmur. For Marcu.
For a moment the sadness takes me. Then I tuck my thumb under and the ghost partition slides open on my mind drive: shelf upon shelf of contraband literature, piggybacked to Bucharest Best and driven prompt and personal about the city.
“You ready?” Klent asks.
The gate is opening now, and I ease the van forward. I see the blue-yellow-red of Vocea României. I see a golden eagle rise from the sunset.
No, the package in my head isn’t for me.
It’s for all of us.
This story is so rich and deeply layered — it’s a perfect example of what I think is best about science fiction: taking situations that are a reality in our world and showing us what could happen if those situations continue to their logical extreme.
The details of the world that EJ Delaney has created in this story are completely believable to me.
Just a couple of examples:
In the world of the story, literal wars are being fought between huge corporations. And they aren’t fighting primarily over turf; they’re fighting over control of people’s thoughts and the way those thoughts are expressed. Ideas aren’t free to share, and writers don’t just sell their work — in a very real sense, they sell their souls, like Tassa was forced to do in the story. That’s a situation not too far from what we see in our world today: corporations exploit creators by coercing them to sell the rights to their own creations for pennies. That’s what happened to the creators of comic book characters like Superman. Plus, AI companies literally steal artists’ work without permission and put it in their databases to create new work that competes with what the artists are doing. The balance of power in our world is completely in favor of the corporations.
Also in the world of the story, books are obscenely expensive — beyond the reach of ordinary people to afford. You need a costly license to recite a poem, even if it was written for you. There’s a real chasm between the haves and the have-nots, the rich and the poor. That’s also true in the world of today, at least in the US where I live, especially where education is concerned. If children here go to public school, the quality of their education will depend on how rich their neighborhood is, because schools and libraries are funded by local property taxes, and the money from the wealthier neighborhoods stays in those neighborhoods instead of being shared with the poorer parts of town.
But the hopeful parts of the story also ring true. Iolanda and the other characters don’t just read books in isolation and keep their reactions to themselves; they share the books with one another, they talk about the stories and the ideas expressed in those stories. Those ideas are alive only when they travel from one person to the next, and the next, and the next.
Stories open up our worlds. They take us to places we’ve never been, introduce us to people we’ve never met before. This story is a great example. Before this story, I wasn’t familiar with the Romanian language, or with Romanian culture. The story sent me to the internet to look up the words and phrases I didn’t understand — I learned that a Bunică is a grandmother, or an older woman in general, and that julfă is a dish made from hemp hearts. The neighborhoods mentioned in the story really exist in today’s Bucharest, and so does the Palace of Justice. Plus each of the books and authors mentioned in the story is real. I wasn’t familiar with any of them, but the story introduced them to me, and made me want to learn more about them and read some of them myself.
That’s exactly what the very best writing is supposed to do: to open up those new worlds to us. And I’m so glad to have the chance to bring the story back to you one more time, so we have another chance to explore that new world together.
About the Author
E J Delaney
E J Delaney lives in Brisbane, Australia, and spends many an hour staring out the window. E J’s story ‘The Sixes, the Wisdom, and the Wasp’ (Escape Pod #612) was shortlisted for Best Science Fiction Short Story at the 2018 Aurealis Awards, while ‘So-Called Bin Chicken’ (Curiouser Magazine #2) won the 2021 Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Short Story.
About the Narrator
Raised by swordfighters and eastern European freedom fighters, Ibba Armancas is a writer-director currently based in Los Angeles. Her darkly comedic genre sensibilities are showcased in two webseries and a feature film forthcoming later this year. One day she will find time to make a website, but in the mean time you can follow her projects and adventures on Twitter or Instagram.