The Limits of Reading
Adjunct Javitz occupies a modest role within Academy's ranks. He is the eyes and hands and, when discipline is called for, the firm booted heel of the Doctors.
Academy was, to the best of their awareness, one of a kind. Their awareness, as it were, was spotty and limited. It reached as far north as Lake Champlain, as far west as Pittsburgh, as far south as the rotting old monuments of Washington DC, and even then it was ragged and inconsistent, snaking out like the root system of some grand old tree. There were vast gaps. Their farthest jaunt had reached Burlington, but in a straight shot that had told them nothing of the surrounding area. Their expedition to New York City had never returned, and Scouts’ lives were too valuable to send repeatedly into known danger; so it remained a vast blind spot on their slowly expanding map, and to the Doctors, the most disappointing of any such uncharted areas. The libraries there could have been harvested for several lifetimes, they were sure, but they were instead left untouched, tragically, each day risking more lost Knowledge, pages upon pages sacrificed to leaky roofs and collapsing buildings.
There were those among the Doctors who felt that, in solving the calculation of value between human life and Knowledge, the Academy had erred too far in favor of the former. But the Scouts had their own opinions on such matters, and they could only be pushed so far.
Academy was large enough now that it could not escape the constraints of internal diplomacy. Twenty-five thousand souls all told, a third on Campus and the remainder populating nearby farms, woodlands, and even a quarry within an eighty mile radius. Beyond that central border lay the domain of the Scouts, watchmen and explorers both, responsible for protecting the people within and for gathering the most valuable of Academy’s resources from without.
Nowhere in all their journeys had they encountered any community that could rival them. There were tribes, errant little shoots of civilization never more than a few thousand people large. They were technologically primitive, subsistence farms and communes, and rightly fearful of outsiders. Some spoke different languages entirely, Spanish or German or Cantonese, or at least mutated versions of them. And though the Doctors had texts that described those languages, mastery was a difficult thing to attain in isolation. Their linguists had been able to parse their neighbors' messages, but only because they were simple and clear, absent cultural context or subtext. Without fail, the message was: "Go away, before you make us sick." Sometimes this message was sent in writing, but other times it was sent with spears and arrows, and the services of the linguists were not required.
Often, the Scouts found only ruins. Whole villages that, otherwise so incurious about mining the past for its wisdom, had nonetheless rediscovered the plague.
What could the Academy do but respect the wishes of their backwards neighbors? However much they had wanted to share their Knowledge, to spread the tools of human flourishing so that mankind could rebuild all along the coast--which was real, as the Scouts had all but proven, having traveled to a body of water so endless that it must have been the ocean--and begin to venture into the vast uncharted mysteries of Middle America. But they could not force Knowledge upon the unwilling. So Academy remained isolated; no envoys, no trade, the largest of the innumerable landlocked islands upon which humanity now made its toil. It was a sad fact, but time could not be wasted in lamentation. There was enough work to be done within the community, and to have been born within the purview of Academy was a unique privilege, one which for all they knew was unique anywhere upon the globe.
This was what Adjunct Javitz frequently told himself: his was a life of great privilege. Many of these privileges, if he was not careful, could be turned into grievances. For one, to be an Adjunct was to occupy a modest role within Academy's ranks. The Doctors, back on campus, were the brains of the institution. Adjuncts like himself were vital but subservient, the eyes and hands and, when discipline was called for, the firm booted heel. The Doctors were cloistered, and yes, they lived in comfort and surprising elegance, as befit a caste who made decisions of such consequence. But Javitz, in his vocation, had seen almost every corner of the Academy, from the most elegant halls of scholarship to the dingiest mine. No one else was permitted such movement, such an encompassing view of society, and it was a kind of honor. Only the Scouts, who hacked and fought their way through the endless wilderness, could lay claim to more fantastic sights, but they in turn had not set foot within the walls of Campus; and so in at least that one critical way, they were still lesser.
Such travel was not glamorous. To travel between Campus and one of the satellite communities might be three days' march, and often, he was tasked with only a couple days' business. But in between were the quarantines, two weeks at every entrance, and this solitary stasis was, by the pendulum's measure, the bulk of Javitz's days. He had, over the years, developed techniques, pulled valuable practices from the records. Solitude was a skill in its own right. He knew exercises that could be completed in no more space than an arm's breadth, stretches and poses that kept the body from falling into stagnation even in confinement. He knew that he must spend most of his time by the window, especially in winter months, when sunlight was as precious and rare as the words he carried in his bag, and provided nourishment that no meal could. He knew to turn away breakfast, since many districts—especially the agricultural ones—brought those in quarantine too much food, which was meant as charity but which would leave him lethargic and slow minded. And he read. Though he may have no more than two or three books with him on any journey, and only the least precious were allowed to leave the safety of the Campus archives, he had time, time more than even the more senior Doctors, and he could likely challenge any of them in his command of esoterica, or in the sophistication of his theories about what the old world looked like and how it functioned.
He could quote as well as anyone the borders of obsolete states, the credos of forgotten movements, and the characteristics of lost technologies waiting to be discovered. Some seemed like magic. There was a type of metal, silver, from which could be crafted a film that captured light. And, paired with a lens--lenses they had been able both to discover and to build, offering some small validation to the Knowledge in the texts--an image could be recorded. Many of these photographs had survived, some on their own, and many more within the pages of recovered books. In times that truly tried Javitz's faith, those photos were a great balm. It was one thing to read of the lost age, of the airplanes and speaking machines and the hospitals that could cure almost anything--almost. But the texts' promises were only ever fulfilled in small ways. The people of the Academy ate better than anyone in the known world. They enjoyed heated homes in the winter, they survived injuries and illnesses that would kill anyone in nature. In times past, they had lost whole districts to the plague, but Academy as a whole had persevered, in no small part because it understood the illness in ways no other group did. In a generation's time there had been but one outbreak, a small one, so well contained that it had hardly registered among the population, though it loomed always large in Javitz’s mind.
But for every measure by which the Knowledge validated itself, it left a thousand unfilled promises. There were no indoor latrines, that carried filth away with the simple push of a button. There were no invisible waves in the air, sending voices across miles with ease like a child tossing a pebble. There were no great ships in the sea, and no one had seen the giant monsters promised to live beneath those vast waters, as large as a building.
There was no magic parchment, that could hold a library's worth of Knowledge on a device the size of a thumb. The Academy had recovered devices said to be just that, but they could never prove it, for if the words were there, they were locked behind countless missing technologies and could not be accessed.
That was the cruelest irony. It was the most recent history about which they knew the least. After the year 2030, it seemed, even the most basic text began to utilize technologies so sophisticated and so fragile that virtually none had survived. A blind spot in Knowledge as vast and malicious as those on their geographical maps. The plague itself was virtually undocumented. The fall of the old world, no doubt a vast cacophony in the moment, had left no echoes. They knew not how long ago it had been; only that generations had passed, and that the numbers of man had grown for a time so small that they had nearly vanished entirely.
There were times that tried Javitz's faith, times he would peruse the old records, read of wars and celebrations, of buildings that stretched to the sky, of whole mountains cut down by ravenous industry, of rivers held back my man's ingenuity and other rivers carved into the earth where it suited humans’ will, and he doubted.
In these times, there was a photograph he kept with him. It was the only artifact he took on all of his travels. It was an especially precious photograph, a unique allowance for a mere Adjunct such as himself, gifted to him by a Doctor who perhaps had perceived that its emotional value to Javitz outweighed its historical value to Academy.
It was a dark photo, black and white, printed with a cheap process that had left the details smudged. A good half of the image was pure black, and in the center of that void hung the moon, except it was not the moon. It had a texture like marble, bright and luminous and filled with life that shone through even with the image's poor fidelity. In the foreground was a pockmarked gray horizon, a stone desert, as though the whole world had ossified.
It was a picture of the Earth, and it was said to be taken from the moon. People had gone there! More than once, though it had been an effort so costly and demanding that they eventually stopped returning. But it had happened nonetheless, and he carried the proof in a dedicated leather bifold in his pocket, ready to remind him in those lonely weeks alone in quarantine that he did not believe in magic, but in fact, in actuality. It had happened, that journey to the moon. And if that was possible, then it all was possible.
Adjunct Javitz had turned to it often the past two weeks. The facilities were a little different in every district, contingent as they were on the culture, skills, and materials of the locals. Campus prescribed the important parameters: one shack per person, with a minimum of 50 square feet. They must be heated for the winters and ventilated for the summers. They must have separate but dedicated outhouses, and, if a visitor falls ill during quarantine, their lodging must still idle for a month before it can be used again. But a great many structures would fit those broad guidelines, and Javitz had waited out his days in a huge variety of accommodations, from simple huts not much more protective than a cage, to log cabins, to stonework cells that could have been mistaken for crypts.
His current quarantine had been within comfortable provisions. Reading was one of the wealthiest of the districts, nearly as old as Academy and larger in every measure but authority. Its name was an irony, for it was in Campus that the Doctors devoted their lives to text. Reading was one of the few districts so developed as to have more than one specialty: it was the Academy's largest agricultural producer, but also its marketplace and cultural capital, the common destination for every merchant and person of means, and likewise of every aspiring artist, musician and prophet. The Theater was here; the guild halls were here, and tellingly, though the political representatives of each district ventured to Campus to appeal to the Doctors, they met more frequently here, to strategize and scheme among themselves. Eight thousand people strong, a perilous concentration of lives that dwarfed all of its neighboring districts and, Javitz knew, troubled the leaders at Campus immensely, for reasons both selfish and humanitarian. Reading was shaping up to become the de facto capital of Academy. And yet, if the plague emerged here, the entire place could vanish in weeks, and with it a disastrous proportion of Academy's productive capacity. The leaders at Campus had done what they could to foster decentralization, to spread out Academy's talents and resources evenly. But they had failed, and the energies of the population had flowed into Reading like water down a drain.
The disparities were clear even in quarantine. Javitz's lodgings more closely resembled a home than a cell. Larger than necessary, well furnished, and most strikingly, stocked even with books of its own: a dozen on a shelf, every page intact. They were not the stores of Knowledge that Javitz so valued; they were cheap entertainments, fictions, referencing the mysteries of the old world so obliquely that it was near impossible to understand them. He devoured them anyway, delighting in recognition when he stumbled upon a word he knew-- he understood what "trains" were, and how they would be ridden, and likewise, he knew of "guns." And he bristled with insatiable curiosity when he stumbled upon the things he did not know. What were "Presbyterians?" A religious sect, it seemed, but what kind? What was a "Seinfeld?" An old magazine referenced it as though it were at once a man and an institution. He thought he understood telephones, but in one of the novels, a character used her phone as though it could do anything at all. One had to be careful with novels, where fantasy crept in alongside fact unannounced, every bit as sly and poisonous as the plague itself.
So many blind spots. So many mysteries still to be unraveled. It overwhelmed him at times.
There was a knock on the door, and it swung open respectfully. A deferential young guard awaited on the other side, dressed in the trademark leathers and armed with a club. He called from across the threshold.
“Your quarantine’s over, sir. You’re free to leave.”
Javitz had been tracking the time, and he was ready, having returned his supplies to his bag. He replaced his book on the shelf and took up his belongings.
“I’ll escort you into town.”
“I know the way.”
“Orders, sir. Procedure.”
“Of course,” Javitz conceded. “Let’s begin then. I’m eager to tend to my business.”
The path to town was nearly a mile. It was lightly trafficked, but carts full of cargo passed by at intervals; some drawn by horses, others by men. When Javitz had been younger, it had been more common for equipment to incorporate relics from the old world: an axle from an old car, or some length of cable. He didn't see that much any more; those rare relics that were preserved well enough to be utilized had nearly all been discovered. What was made now was made from what the current world could offer, from wood and leather and stone, and though it was but a pale shadow of what had been made before, it was also a cause for optimism, a sign of self-sufficiency. Knowledge would have to be rebuilt from the ground up, harvested from the lost past and crafted in the fallen present alike. More and more, the foundation had been laid for that.
Even the dim guard walking beside him at two arms' distance possessed some basic literacy; virtually everyone did. There were new tools; farms were being irrigated. Javitz had heard tell of a researcher in Reading who had found ways to generate electric currents, which even the Doctors in Campus had not yet unlocked; he hoped to visit her before he left. There was an optimism and a vitality in the current age, one Javitz had never really felt before in his fifty-two years, and if he possessed some reservations, it was because he, like all those in Campus who lived half in history, held a keen appreciation for progress's fragility.
The guard eyed him; he wasn't sure if it was driven by suspicion or curiosity. Javitz dressed for the road, pragmatic attire not unlike that of a soldier or Scout; he was protected by tough hide and warmed by thick fur, and he even kept close a long knife for protection, mostly from nature. He did brandish a few flourishes, however; notably, a sash, dyed deep blue and red, with the crest of Academy embroidered upon it. To the guard, it must have seemed extravagant, though it was nothing when compared with the Doctors' robes. Those cloistered scholars dressed for their own role, which consisted not of miles trudging along the countryside, but of hours hunched over decaying paper.
"You're from Campus?" the guard asked, a bit timid.
"One of the Doctors?"
"No. I'm an Adjunct. Do you know the position?"
The guard shook his head. He was young, and probably a native. He may well have never left the bounds of Reading. He took his orders from his immediate superiors, but it seemed the broader hierarchy of Academy was lost to him. He was curious, however, so Javitz took his questions in good humor. Curiosity was to be rewarded.
"My job is to travel between the districts, to carry messages and, when necessary, adjudicate claims on behalf of Academy's central council."
"To judge. To make the decisions they cannot be here to make."
"So you travel a lot?"
"Almost all the time."
"You have to quarantine each time?"
The guard shook his head, intimidated, as though Javitz had told him some terrible war story.
"I'd love to see more places. But that's a lot of sitting around."
"Indeed it is."
"It'd be nice if we didn't need to do it."
Javitz stopped dead in his tracks, then, and turned to face the guard. He stepped closer, as close as he dared.
"We do need to do it, though."
"Right. 'Cause the plague. Only... I ain't ever seen anyone get sick."
"That is because we do what we must."
"Yeah, yeah, I know. 'Germs' and stuff." He said the word laced with doubt, with a furrow of the brow that Javitz knew all to well. He saw it, more often then not, when he dared to open his bifold and show to some skeptical soul his photo from the moon.
"When's the last time someone in Academy actually got sick?"
"Eight years ago. At a farm not seven miles from here. I know because I was there. I personally razed the place to the ground, and burned the bodies of three dozen lost souls. And then I waited outside in the ashes, two weeks, until I knew for sure I did not carry death back with me. What is your name, guard?"
"Gustavo," the guard replied. He stuttered a bit, caught off guard; he had just unknowingly stumbled into danger.
"Gustavo, you are a guard at quarantine. You hold one of the most important jobs in all Academy. If you fail, this place," and he motioned grandly to the squat buildings of Reading, which were visible now in the distance, "will fall, and I will be called here again for a task I never wish to repeat. If you have doubts, then go to your superior now. Quit. Become a baker or a tax collector. Find some job where your faithlessness can do no harm. There is no room for equivocation with a duty as sacred as yours."
"Yes, yes sir. I'm not... I don't have doubts. It was just idle talk."
Javitz carried on. This was troubling. Quarantine Guard had once been a position of prestige, reserved for the sharpest, the most diligent. Now, in Academy's largest district, it was being handed to mewling children. Was it nepotism? Was Gustavo some merchant's nephew, granted a charge he did not deserve? Or was it worse than that? Was it indifference?
Javitz could remember a time when the Reading Council met in a glorified hut; thatched walls and torchlit, seats little more than logs. That was decades ago, when Javitz had been but a young man, and he was greeted as a dignitary would be. Reading in those days was just another farming community, larger than most but still eager for Campus's support and patronage. Such days were a long while passed, and it felt longer still than the calendar suggested.
The new council building was just a few years old, relatively pristine, pieced together by Reading's finest craftsmen; woodworking of a detail and smoothness normally only seen in artifacts. The seats were carefully spaced apart, as per the normal guidance, but the builders had made up for the lost capacity vertically, constructing three deep balconies one atop the other, so extensive that they were nearly separate floors, ingeniously angled so as to maximize visibility (though those seated in the top may have suffered some vertigo for their trouble.)
Javitz's meeting here was a procedural one, the kind of civic administration that did not normally inspire much attention from the public. The Scouts had returned from an expedition southward into the territories that the old world had called Virginia. It was a lengthy expedition, one that had cost the Scouts a life in order to push the boundaries of Knowledge just a little farther, but not one that had secured any great discoveries. They had ventured to Charlottesville and Richmond, hoping for the ever-elusive jackpot: an intact library, a store of Knowledge that remained well preserved and comprehensive, without the vast stretches of missing information that plagued even the stacks at Campus. As was usually the case, they returned with novelties, but no miracles.
And yet the building was nearly at capacity. Javitz could look out over the seats and decipher a political map of Reading. On the ground floor sat merchants, bankers, and other professionals, easily identified in their fineries, dyed clothing and wool. Above were the members of the trade guilds, weathered hands and weathered faces, dressed in accordance with their station out of pure utilitarian necessity, outfits still stained with grease or soot or blood, be it human or animal. The butchers and the physicians were hardest to distinguish from each other.
From the top floor peered down the Scouts. They were disproportionately young, for the Scouts suffered more death than anyone. It was an unusual type of man willing to perish in the cold wilderness. Some sought adventure at any cost. Some sought greater glory for their home. But there were others who did not join to seek, but to flee. Particularly in the outer districts, the smallness of the world could be crushing; there were many reasons even good men might run. To live one's whole live alongside a cruel relation, or an unrequited love, could be a torture. It was the latter that had sent Javitz to Campus, and to his unexpected career as Adjunct, all those years ago. Were he a young man today, perhaps he would come to Reading, eager to make his fortune. But he could not envision a history that led him to the Scouts. He did not have the constitution for such a job, and his interactions with those strange adventurers were always fraught.
Yet he was duty bound to receive them, to take their report, and to relay their discoveries back to Campus. That was what had brought him here, to this unexpectedly packed house, where he now sat like a stage performer.
Some feet away sat Scout Coates. Coates was old for a Scout; nearly Javitz's age. He had the bearing of a younger man; his form was long and lean, his muscles still taught from unceasing use. His head was shaved, masking the wispy deterioration that so plagued Javitz, whose fading crown cemented his appearance as a scholar and indoorsman. Javitz had worked with Coates before. He was strong willed, principled, but arrogant; pleasant qualities in an ally, but less so in an opponent. And the two men were, if not enemies, certainly adversaries, so often pitted against one another as representatives of their respective castes. Javitz respected him much like he respected a bear.
They were of the same generation, but they each played their roles alongside different cohorts. Javitz reported to the old souls of Campus, men and women in their seventies and even eighties, fortified behind shelves of the past. Coates led a battalion of children, unprotected, carving out the future. But the two of them, as individuals, had witnessed the same decades. Both could remember the stunning progress from the primitive days of their childhood to the wonders of their middle age, a half-century of dizzying change that provided them with the closest thing they had to a common bond. Nonetheless, they remained anchored to different eras, that constant influence bending them at cross directions.
The two sat across from each other at a long table, spaced appropriately. Javitz fished a flask from his pocket and splashed his hands with cleaner, its smell wafting up, sharp and caustic. He was not one of those degenerates who drank the stuff for its dulling effects--it was far too precious for that--but the flask was simply too well-suited a means of conveyance. Properly disinfected, he retrieved a bound folio of parchment and a pen, carefully inking it, and noted the date and location at the top of the page. Then he stood to face the audience.
"I, Adjunct Jerome Javitz of Academy, call forth this meeting, the purpose of which is to receive the report of Scout Captain Adam Coates, detailing their latest journey to the territories of Virginia, and the results of their search for Knowledge."
Javitz made an effort to imbue such rote procedure with an air of authority. It taxed his abilities; he was a functionary, not a performer. But the audience watched, rapt, as though he were a jester's act, as though he were juggling knives, a single misstep away from disaster at every moment.
Javitz then sat, put quill to parchment, and looked to Coates.
"Adjunct," Coates began, "I've created a written record of our latest expedition, which I will submit to you after our meeting. You will find it comprehensive. Today we have other matters to discuss. I have been asked to speak to you as a representative of Reading."
"This is highly unusual. I have been sent on specific business. I am not here to discuss other matters."
"I know. So we have been told, time and time again. We have requested an audience with the administrators at Campus, and we have been ignored, repeatedly. I'm afraid that we must force the issue. We have matters to discuss. And, fate has provided that you, Adjunct Javitz, shall be called upon to address them."
"It is not within my authority to speak to other issues."
"It is not within anyone's authority, it seems. A cowardly way to evade the matter, but the way Campus has chosen. If they will not grant anyone the authority, then I will. I am deputizing you, Adjunct. Consider yourself now a representative of the Scouts, charged with ensuring the delivery of our concerns to the good Doctors of Campus."
Javitz sat still a moment, quill resting motionless, an inkblot spreading across the top corner of the page. Javitz could shirk the request, stand up now and walk away, as it seemed other Adjuncts had already done. But there was a problem here, and it was a problem that would not dissipate with his departure. He was obliged to address it.
"If the people of Reading have an appeal to make, might I ask why you have not made it at the assembly in Campus?"
"Because the assembly is a farce, and every district knows this. We arrive, we air our concerns, and the representatives from Campus nod and listen with great understanding. And then they retire to their chambers and decide as they will. The assembly is not a governing body. It is a piece of theater, and an unconvincing one."
Against this point Javitz could offer no honest refutation. The central authority of Academy was Campus, as it should be. Who else could coordinate the districts while keeping them separate; keeping them safe?
"You seek a greater voice in Academy's affairs?" asked Javitz.
"On what grounds?"
"On the grounds that for all intents and purposes, Reading is the proper center of Academy. That the vast bulk of what is made in Academy, is made here. That the vast bulk of what is discovered, is discovered by the Scouts that operate out of here. That the vast bulk of life that is actually lived, is lived here. And we are under no obligation to submit to the whims of a cadre of decrepit old zealots who live among books instead of the real world. We will either be given our due, or we will take it."
Javitz looked again to the expectant crowd around him, watching intently, the Scouts on the top level gazing down upon him as though hanging from some great cliff. This was, he realized, an ambush. He could not wholly fault them for it. They claimed they had been ignored by Campus, and he believed it. The Doctors, the Dean, the leadership; whatever their wisdom, they had not grown well studied in diplomacy. They preferred that their edicts be followed without question, that the districts be wholly subservient. Often they were. Dedicated farms or mills or mines, staffed by a few dozen souls who had been raised in Campus, did not see themselves as autonomous.
Reading had become something different. It had been a long metamorphosis, but one that had slipped by the Doctors' attention. They had thought they could ignore Reading, like the wailing of an insolent child. That was a shame. Adjunct Javitz might have arrived with a team, with guards, with a show of force and a strategy to remind the civic leaders of Reading of their place. But he was alone, armed only with the contents of his bag and his own wits; a more devastating armament than might first be perceived, but one that allowed for a limited set of responses.
"You have not commandeered this meeting," Javitz stated calmly, "just to air such sentiments. You no doubt have tangible demands. I must state upfront that I am a representative, not an agent. There are limits to what I can agree to. But I can promise you, dutifully, I will relay any messages you may have. Campus will hear you."
"Despite their best efforts, I'm sure," quipped Coates.
"What, precisely, is it you seek? Greater representation in the assembly?"
"Quite the opposite. We seek independence."
Javitz wrinkled his brow at the word. It was a dangerous word.
"There are rules that persist throughout Academy," Coates continued, "that have outlived their usefulness. That, rather than protect us, now serve to weaken us. So much so that one can't help but question if that is their purpose."
"Be specific, Scout."
"I speak of Hygiene."
It was as Javitz feared.
"Every moment of our lives is constrained by the practice. We ship goods to other districts, and watch half rot on the cart before they reach hungry mouths. We shut down the town twice a season if there is a shortage of cleaner. Even the faces before you now are a mere fraction of those who wish to sit here, and who deserve to, because we are obliged to fill this hall with more emptiness than audience."
"Certainly," Javitz said, "Hygiene is a burden. I would never claim otherwise. It is a burden, just as carrying water from the well is a burden, or tending a field is a burden. It is the burden that brings with it prosperity. You claim it limits you. But what place, Scout, in all your travels, has ever rivaled Academy?"
"Academy has no rivals, and so there are only false comparisons. We are best measured not against the barbarians of the countryside, but against our unrealized potential."
"And what of the potential that everyone here be wiped from the face of the Earth?"
"Ah, yes. The plague. Let us talk about the plague. The plague no one has ever seen, but which is in your books."
"I have seen it. You have seen it, too."
"I have seen villages that could not survive. I'd wager I've seen more famine than plague. Remind me, how is it the plague works?"
This was a rhetorical trap of some sort. Everyone already knew this. Academy's great success, its true accomplishment, had been in ensuring that every man, woman and child knew these facts. But, almost involuntarily, Javitz began to recite.
"The body of man, just as every animal, is not of a single piece, but is composed of many parts. Organs, veins, ligaments, all of which can be seen if one takes a knife to the deceased. But there are smaller parts still, parts that cannot be seen, individual cells that build up the body as bricks form a solid wall. Unlike a brick, each cell carries within it a set of instructions. Written within it are blueprints that become you, taken and mingled from mother and father.
"The plague, at its heart, is a lie. A set of false instructions, lying in wait in the world around us, dormant probably in the animals of the wild. But once unleashed, it spreads like a fire, stealing the body for its own ends, copying itself, carrying itself through the air like pollen, destroying all around it.
"But just as the rains can wet the earth, and render the ground inhospitable to a fire, we can render our bodies inhospitable to the plague. We kill it outside the body, with soap, with cleaner. We maintain distance between each other, so that it cannot jump between us. We wait between districts, so that it perishes when outside the body, and reveals itself when within."
"Of course," Coates interjected. "That's all as we've learned it. It is a fantastic story. Though it is striking, is it not, how much it depends on that which cannot be seen?"
"The people of the old world built machines to see these things."
"So we are told. Though those machines go unseen, as well."
"I went many years taking that story for granted. I believed it because, as you say, Adjunct, the fruits of our way of life are visible all around us. We have much to be grateful for, and I would not be so thankless as to deny the efforts of those in Campus in improving all of our lives. You and I are both old enough to have witnessed amazing change.
"But I am also a Scout. We Scouts venture outside Academy, collecting knowledge from the old world. We deliver it to Campus, where it is read and evaluated and archived. Presumably, the best of it is incorporated into our practice, and the worst of it; the fictions and rumors and myths, are discarded.
"I read everything I collect, Adjunct. Over the years, that has amounted to quite a lot. The unfiltered words of the past. I understand why Campus would wish to shield the public from them. They are confusing, often contradictory, filled with irrelevancies and as many follies as wisdoms. And yet, I cannot help but notice strange patterns in what has vanished into the archives.
"There is one book I discovered, some years ago, that has stuck with me like none other. I found it in an old home, not a library or school, and as fate would have it there were two nearly identical copies, such that I was able to deliver one to Campus, and keep the other for myself to study.
"It is a short book, relatively simple. It, perhaps, was even meant for children. But the insight of an idea is measured in its character, and not the crudeness with which it may be conveyed. It describes a practice called the Scientific Method. Are you familiar with it?"
"Of course," Javitz scoffed. "The science of the old world is a foremost concern among the Doctors."
"Not science, Adjunct, harvested from books like salt from the earth. I am talking about a method. Are you familiar with it?"
"I have heard the term, but I do not believe I could describe it."
"Allow me to try, in brief. There is much to it, but the core is this: Knowledge is to be tested. Only then can it be known to be true. Whether it is a notion sprung from the mind, or a statement collected from the page, it is only through challenge and test that its truth can be established.
"Let me offer an example: you say the instructions of who we are are written in every cell in our body. They are the same in every cell?"
"But the hair upon my head is different from the surface of my skin, which is in turn different from the whites of my eyes or the muscle of my heart. These are all made of cells?"
"And they all follow the same instructions?"
"So why are they different?"
"That Knowledge, for now, is lost."
"I see. Allow me another question. We practice Hygiene to kill the plague outside the body, before it takes root. But men still fall ill. They still sometimes die, no matter how often they douse their hands in booze, or how diligently they shy away from others; while there are those who flout Hygiene, as you know, and live great long lives."
"There are many kinds of sickness, that work many kinds of ways. We don't understand them all."
"That is one answer. But isn't there another, just as believable: the plague is gone. And we do all this for nothing?"
"Many answers are believable. But only one is true."
"Exactly my point, dear Adjunct. How do we tell which is true? Do we test them? Do we eliminate those which falter? Or do we endlessly defer to the scholars of Campus, who deign to determine for us which information is right?"
"This method you propose, I am happy to suggest it. It sounds, thus far, as though it may have merit. But there are some things one does not put to test. There are some things too important to question."
"No there are not!" Coates nearly shouted. "We must do as you say, or else humanity is doomed? I can invent any number of terrible consequences. Perhaps we must douse all our flames during the day, or the air will so fill with smoke that we can no longer breathe. Perhaps we must stop changing crops year over year, or the soil will grow confused and the food will no longer grow, starving us all. Must we believe any nonsense, if it promises destruction?"
"The Knowledge is not nonsense. We know to rotate crops from the past. We know to brew cleaner from the past. What we know of the mysteries of the natural world, we have learned, overwhelmingly, from inheritance rather than experimentation. There is untold more to learn. But would you squander what we have been gifted?"
"Is there anything you would not believe, Adjunct, if it came from the writings of a dead man?"
A smirk flashed across Coates's face, petulant, like a child about to steal a piece of fresh baked bread.
"You are reputed," he continued, "to keep a photograph with you. A very special one. Do you have it with you now?"
The Adjunct paused. He could see the Scout's intent, but there would be more shame in demurring, surely.
"Yes, I have it," Javitz replied.
"May we see it? If it is not, that is, too private?"
"By all means. Knowledge is meant to be shared."
He fished out his bifold and pulled, carefully, the precious artifact, holding it aloft by its edge. Before he could respond, Coates sprung from his seat, closing the distance between them, transgressing the boundaries of space meant to be maintained between all but the most intimate relations, and snatched the photo from him so carelessly that for a moment, they touched hands.
Coates held it high, displayed it for each of the ascending balconies as though it were evidence in a trial; for indeed, it was.
"For those unable to see it, this tattered image is little more than a white circle against a black background. It is too weathered to claim with certainty that it is anything in particular, or so I would venture. Adjunct Javitz, why is this photograph so precious to you?"
"It is from the old world. From the height of the old world."
"You will have to help my weary eyes. Perhaps I have spent too much time outside, and my vision is too attuned to the distance. Because I cannot for the life of me make out what this image is meant to portray."
"It is a picture of the Earth," Javitz said, as calmly and plainly as a schoolteacher instructing the basics of arithmetic. "Taken from the moon."
The reaction from the crowd was as Javitz expected, as he had already experienced whenever he had been so bold as to share his cherished Knowledge. There were a few gasps. There were more stifled laughs, thick with judgment. Only the Scouts, bearing down on him from above like a chorus of angels, were silent.
"I ask you again," intoned Coates, "is there anything you would not believe?"
"If the evidence is sufficient, then yes, I would believe anything. My credulity does not determine what is."
"Unfortunately for us, it most certainly does, so long as the zealots of Campus dictate Academy's rules."
Javitz still dutifully held his pen before him, though he had been too distracted to make even a single note.
"What, precisely, do you want? Practically speaking?"
"An end to the endless restrictions that constrain our lives in every moment. We want the quarantines reduced to five days. We want the minimum distance reduced to an arm's length."
"Those rules are already set at the minimum possible. You may as well have no quarantine at all."
"We sought compromise, but that would be amenable too."
"Campus will never agree. We cannot allow you to sow the seeds of your own destruction."
"You cannot stop us. Nor can you stop the other districts, who are overwhelmingly with us. If we abandon Hygiene, they will follow."
"And if you are wrong? Then you condemn not just Reading to destruction, but all of Academy. All that we have built."
"I don't believe that."
"You are willing to risk all of humanity on your beliefs?"
"Just as you are, Adjunct."
Javitz sighed. He was a representative of the leadership in Campus. When time allowed, he was obliged to communicate back to the capital and seek their advisement. But when time did not allow, we was empowered to act as their agent, to issue directives and adjudicate based on his best judgment of what the Dean would see fit.
He knew, in this case, what the Dean and the Doctors would decide. Tragically, he knew.
"I sense that I have been called as a messenger rather than a negotiator. But I have a counter offer for you to consider. The offer is this: here in Reading, do as you wish. Relax your quarantine, relax your Hygiene. Conduct your natural experiment, for a period of six months. In that time, the other districts will maintain their rules; in fact, they will buttress them, to insure against the additional risk you are assuming. But, if at the end of that six months, Reading is healthy and thriving without the benefit of Hygiene, we will abandon it across Academy."
Coates cocked an eyebrow. He had not expected this. He had expected rejection, condemnation, damnation; but not acquiescence. He suspected a trick.
"You speak with the authority of Campus? You can assure this will be honored?"
Coates was quiet a moment, like a gambler at the table, thinking through his odds, questioning a bet that looked too good to be true.
"Very well," he finally said. "Reading agrees to those terms."
It was a strangely amicable resolution to the entire confrontation, infusing the crowd not with relief but confusion. Javitz closed his book of parchment, still virtually untouched save for the spreading spiderweb stain in the top corner, and replaced it in his bag. As he did so, he executed with dexterity a carefully practiced maneuver, blindly working his hand into a concealed pocket and retrieving a small metal cylinder.
It was heavy for its size, designed by Campus's finest engineers to be all but unbreachable. It opened with a clever trick, like a puzzle, impossible to discover on one's own, but trivial if one already knew the method. In the darkness of the bag, Javitz removed the cap with deceptive ease and allowed the contents to spill over his fingers. Then he stood, closed the distance between the two of them just as flagrantly as Coates had, and snatched back the photo; careful, as he did so, to brush his hand against his rival's.
Then he plunged his hand back into his bag like a metalsmith quenching a red-hot implement.
"I hope you are right," he said to Coates, and he left without further ceremony.
He wasted no time, heading straight through town, talking to no one, stopping for nothing, until he reached Reading's edge. There, he passed by the quarantine area, where he caught the attention of the young guard who had escorted him into town. The guard called to him, running up like an excitable puppy before stopping short at the prescribed distance.
"Sir. Leaving so soon?"
"My business is concluded."
"I see. Did things go well?"
"As well as could be expected," Javitz said, his hand still hidden away.
"I just wanted to apologize for earlier. I did not mean to offend, and I certainly didn't mean to make like I don't take my job serious. I surely do, sir."
"I understand. Think nothing of it."
"You can rest assured, I'm gonna do my all to keep the city safe."
"I'm glad to hear it. Academy is in great need of men with your dedication. Be well."
Adjunct Javitz strode purposefully away from Reading until he was safely out of sight. He then ducked off the road and into the obscurity of the brush.
Finally alone, he got to work. With his clean hand he delicately fished out a sparkmaker and his flask, setting them aside, careful that they touch none of his other possessions. He then set his bag down, some feet away, and began to strip, always careful to keep his right hand at a distance, until all of this belongings were in a pile before him.
He opened the flask--an awkward operation with just his left hand--and emptied its contents, first over his tainted right hand and then over his pile of stuff, until every last drop had been coaxed from the container. Then the flask, too, went into the pile, and he held the sparkmaker, ready to strike.
He would have to move quickly. The nearest district was only four miles away, but it was too close to Reading, in both distance and sentiment, to be trusted. He could take no risks. The mill at Narvon was the nearest district in which he had confidence, a trek of twenty miles. He would have to march through the night, careful to avoid strangers stripped bare as he was, to stay ahead of cargo. From there he could safely communicate the situation, and runners could be dispatched to Campus and then to every corner of Academy, warning them of the outbreak, ensuring they redoubled there quarantines. The regular efforts would capture normal traffic. It would be some weeks before the people of Reading fully appreciated their fate, and began to flee in significant numbers. Most would not make it to a neighboring district. Those few who did, weakened and delirious, would not make it through the gates.
Then Javitz would enter into the familiar rhythms of his own quarantine, and wait to discover his fate. He had survived exposure before, but it had been brief and careful; not like today, walking through town for a half hour with his hand soaked in death. He thought it most likely that he would perish. But one could never be sure of things.
His photo was still in the bag. It, like all else he carried, was tainted now. As he set his possessions alight, he could imagine it; the rough weathered edges curling up, the darkness of scorched paper advancing to the center of the image, until it overtook the entire Earth.
He stood there, naked, and cried. He cried for the people of Reading, who before they had become mankind's greatest threat had been its greatest hope. Nowhere else had a people forayed into such advanced technology and culture. Nowhere else had life so started to resemble what Javitz knew the old world to be like.
Yet they wanted to move too quickly. All the advancement in the world wouldn't matter if Academy advanced straight off a cliff. People everywhere had forgotten the truth of things; they would not soon forget now.
But he cried also for his photo, for the impossible dream burning in the dark folds of his bag. Perhaps he cried mainly for that. It was never something to be achieved in his lifetime. He would never himself see such wonders, he knew. But someday, he believed, the descendants of Academy would. He yearned for that day; his life was but a continuous effort to bring that day forth. That effort had been set back untold years now, and it broke his heart.
He took solace in the lessons of Knowledge. There was so much they did not know, but some things they knew phenomenally well, and one such thing was the sweep of history in its broadest strokes, as that could be contained in a single volume. For thousands of years, mankind struggled forward, beset by the supremacy of nature. And then, within a couple generations, progress shot upward like the very rocket that carried explorers to the moon, a shift that was sudden and stunning and almost magical. If they could survive long enough, Javitz knew, they would reach that shift again.
He began his naked march through the woods, trudging through the brush off the beaten path, where he would hide until night fell. He was struck by a wave of sympathy for Coates, who in his way, respected Knowledge more than most. Coates's sin was merely poor timing. He was a generation ahead of things. Men like him would be needed, and his end was a shame. But it was not yet the moment for science.
Knowledge had charted out the path of humanity, as clear as the road between districts. But Knowledge was not enough. It was faith that would walk the path, until that distant day when humanity reached the end of the traveled road and truly rediscovered the wilderness. And Javitz, unlike Coates, had faith.