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Science Fiction Speculative

Losing the capacity to read crushed me. True, I no longer had to conceal my literacy, but that was hardly any consolation. Still, I didn't regret what I did. I would gladly do it again.


I hobbled using my cane across the village square to the beverage stand I frequented. Only a few days ago, my eyes recognized writing everywhere. Now the images of the words fell on the retina of my eyes, but the mind no longer registered their form. I couldn’t even picture the alphabet anymore. The Arkeoni had “corrected” me, no doubt making doubly sure the suppression chip wasn’t defective this time.


Pointing to a menu of pictures, I placed my order without a word. The man behind the counter understood and poured me a cup of hot ginger.


“Here you go, Ma’am. It’s piping hot,” he said. “Watch your step, too. I wouldn’t want you slipping and falling.” The monsoon showers had let up at dawn and the smooth cobblestones glistened red in the morning light.


I acknowledged his kindness with a nod and leaned on my walking stick. Sipping the spicy brew, I glanced around. The village market bustled as merchants groaned and unloaded their carts.


Above the booths on the grey walls lining the square, the commerce system electronically displayed—though invisible to us Unlettered—each merchant’s name, license number, and any debt they owed the Treasury. The names of each household member illuminated above the doorframe of each home. Only the Arkeoni overseers could perceive and read this information, as the law decreed.


Bereft of my secret literacy, I was back to being a genuine Unlettered again—like when I was a little girl. Back then the world appeared so simple. Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would write stories under an Arkeoni pen name and become a recognized author.


Clandestinely publishing stories while pretending I couldn’t read and write taxed my nerves to be sure. Still I gladly accepted this drawback; being able to write my stories kept me content.


But in time I grew tired of hiding. The urge to reveal myself as an Unlettered who penned some of the most celebrated works in the State Canon gnawed at me until I finally became ready to take the risk.


My plan was simple. I released my latest—and last—novel under my true Unlettered name, together with a statement exposing myself as the writer behind the pen name I had always used.


But dropping this bomb alone was not enough. My transgression demanded inescapable and harsh punishment. I reckoned I had several hours at most before the Arkeoni arrested me and expunged my work and name from all databases. I had to act quickly. I gathered the best oral storytellers of my clan and imparted to them the story of what I did and why. I wanted to ensure they passed down the story of what truly happened to later generations.


***


My story began on the day I discovered I could read.


My father needed to go to the village market to purchase groceries for supper. As always, he took the young children of the clan with him. Going to the market was a treat; we loved running around the square and hiding behind crates and booths, pilfering fruits and baked sweets when we could. The kinder merchants turned a blind eye. Scarcity and hunger was the default mode of existence for the Unlettered—we all helped each other out. The rest of our clan headed out on greybeast carts long before dawn to toil in the factories or geothermal plants. A few hiked to the nearest domed city to work as menial servants. While father haggled at the vegetable stand, we shrieked and pranced around.


In the middle of the square stood a yellow sign post. An imprint of the village crest took up the top half of the rectangular sign. A jumble of stylized pictures of various fruits and vegetables crammed the space underneath. For the Unlettered this signified “village market,” though we all thought it was silly. Wasn’t it obvious we stood in a market?


But on this particular day, I also noticed black markings running along the bottom of the sign. I had never noticed them before. I pointed to the markings and asked my cousin what they were, but she shrugged her shoulders and said she didn’t see anything other than the pictures.


“You must be crazy,” I said. “How can you not see them?”


She told me to stop pulling her leg and stomped away. She joined another group of kids but I ignored her. My eyes remained riveted on the markings. I stepped closer, tipping my head back to examine the sign. Vagueness turned into clarity. I realized the markings stood for words. They said, “Unlettered Village 23Bi, village square.”


Those were the first words I ever read in my life.


It was as though someone had turned on a switch in me. Everywhere I laid my eyes, words I had never perceived before jumped out at me—“Distance to Founder’s City, 15 kilometers,” “Emergency Water Tank, 500 liters,” or “Emergency Stores, 300 rations.”


I vaguely recalled several clan members talking about a form of Arkeoni magic. Was this what they meant? My instincts told me it was dangerous if I told anyone about my new-found ability. This was a power no Unlettered should possess. I had to keep it a secret, even from my parents.


Later on, after I began working in the domed city, I figured out how to access histories in the databanks and found out this ability was no magic or superpower but rather a skill referred to as reading. My excitement only grew when I discovered people also recreated—or wrote—these words on computers or by hand. But most of all, my understanding of the world shattered when I learned literacy was a skill common to all humans, not only the Arkeoni, and that a long time ago, everybody on Arkeon 2 could read and write.


On Earth—the old world—people believed literacy was a fundamental human right and critical for a society to thrive. The first colonists from Earth upheld this ideal when they arrived on Arkeon 2. One of the first structures they built in the their settlement was a makeshift school for their children. Lacking the supplies for a freestanding structure, they improvised by carving out classrooms and a library in a natural cave. They stripped out a redundant bulkhead from the ship and walled the cave entrance with it to keep out the elements. Passing on knowledge to the younger generations was essential for the colony to thrive.


Six hundred odd earth-years later, a second group of colonists arrived from Earth, bringing with them a completely different attitude towards education and literacy. In the centuries after the first colonists departed, ever-worsening climate issues, overpopulation, and the scarcity of resources threatened the fabric of human civilization on Earth. Politicians demanding austerity and stringency to ensure survival grew louder and gained support. But the press and concerned citizens criticized their policies and resisted the curtailing of civil liberties, particularly the freedom of speech.


The protest movement grew in momentum, becoming a thorn in the side of the radical rulers. Slice by slice, the hardliners curbed the rights of citizens and the media until eventually they banned all written expression not authorized and approved in advance by the State. Citizens could only read works in the Canon, a collection of state-authorized literature, essays, histories, and other academic works.


These draconian laws, however, stoked further discontent among the populace. Opposition groups formed a resistance and the struggle escalated into civil war. After bitter fighting, the resistance prevailed and reversed all the anti-writing laws. But this had an unforeseen consequence. The defeated hardliners and their ardent followers gathered their resources and departed Earth for Arkeon 2 where they sought to establish a new society founded on their ideals.


Having no knowledge of these events, the original colonists of Arkeon 2 welcomed the new colonists. They believed the influx of new people and technology benefited their society. The new colonists bided their time and gradually gained influence in the government. They openly shared and utilized the advanced technology they brought with them. Promises of improved agriculture and medicine steadily won them votes. Within a decade, they gained full control of the legislature and high council.


In rapid succession, they enacted laws forbidding the writing and publishing of any material not expressly permitted, and also established the Canon they had brought with them from Earth. To prevent illegal written expression in private spheres—be it graffiti or scribbled notes at home—the State developed new technologies to repress literacy completely. They inserted chips into the brains of all those who disobeyed the literacy laws, making it impossible for them to read or write and limiting them to speech.


After several decades of this policy, the State divided all citizens into two groups. The ruling literate class, the Arkeoni, and the Unlettered class, consisting of chipped laborers and servants. Like all infants, I received my chip on the day I was born when my clan brought me to the local Arkeoni overseer for registration and processing.


A glitch in the chip I received that day was what accidently granted me literacy several years later.


My clan traced our roots to the first colonists. Unlettered families maintained a vast corpus of oral histories, passed down over generations. To ensure a high degree of accuracy in transmission, people devised intricate memorizing techniques. Some clans used rhyming; others visualized infinitely large memory palaces in which they stored their histories.


In time, people also began composing stories ranging from epic sagas of queens flying on mythical beasts to tragic tales of lovers. A few of the old world classics survived as well, albeit in abridged and altered form. As the collection of genres grew, certain clans began to specialize in novels, others on histories. As a child I looked forward to community festivals, where oral historians gathered from all over Arkeon 2 and entertained crowds with tales of adventure and romance.


***


My thirst for written information grew exponentially. Bored with the signs in and around the village, I craved new words to read. My eyes were set on the nearby domed city, the only real source of substantial reading material in the sector.


When I turned fourteen and became eligible to work, I managed to land a job as a domestic servant to an Archeoni family in the domed city. I jumped and hollered at the news. The perplexed expression on my parents' faces made me laugh.


The city mesmerized me. The flood of signs and directions sprawled on display panels everywhere overwhelmed me. Resisting the temptation to stop and read everything proved painfully difficult, but I had to. I was an Unlettered, after all.


My job was to keep the house orderly and clean. I operated the fleet of cleaning and cooking drones. When drones couldn’t effectively clean a nook or cranny—and there were several such spots in the massive residence—I did so by hand. My masters were fastidious and it took a while before my cleaning skills met with their approval. I commanded the drones using a control interface designed for Unlettered servants. Simple drawings signified the commands. To the amazement of my masters, I caught on quickly and learned the controls on the day I started. I naturally didn’t tell them I simply read the writing underneath the pictures, which made everything laughably simple.


During breaks, I used my control pad to access as much information as I could. I read voraciously—fairy tales, histories, novels, and essays. Anything I could get my hands on. Some works resembled stories I had heard from oral historians, but had different characters or endings. But the majority of what I read was completely new to me.


I learned about the chip planted in the brain of every Unlettered. Intriguingly, records described instances in the past when the chip malfunctioned, accidentally granting the host literacy. I read no mention of what happened to those Unlettered, but I surmised it was nothing good. Most likely they got their chips replaced, if not quietly killed off.


After a year, I had read the entire Canon. This both disappointed and baffled me—I expected the collection to be larger. Over the centuries, the Arkeoni incorporated only a couple new works into the Canon every other year, a reflection of their skepticism towards words. Knowledge being dangerous, the rulers restricted it even among themselves.


The urge to read more prompted me to write stories of my own. Imitating the oral historians, I spoke out stories and scenes as I walked to and from the city. I also spent the evenings brainstorming stories to myself. My cousins often sat by me and listened. I drew inspiration from the fantastical stories passed down in my clan.


At work, I wrote down these stories onto my control pad, hiding the file under layers of data in an obscure corner of the system.


A year later, the State called out for new works to be added to the Canon. The high council usually selected histories and essays extolling the virtues of Arkeoni civilization. On occasion, they deemed no work worthy of addition to the Canon. Most astonishingly, however, the council had not chosen a work of fiction in over a century.


Using an Arkeoni pen name and a coded account to obscure the source, I submitted my novel of women warriors astride giant wolves defending their lands from evil vandals and their army of galactic spiders. I had submitted it for a lark, not expecting them to accept it.


It was no small surprise when one day, while skimming my control pad, I found the title of my story in the Canon. No fanfare or ceremony celebrated the occasion. The Arkeoni had little regard for authors. Too much focus on the creator had the potential of developing into a personality cult, a danger the rulers avoided. This active disinterest in the author actually benefited me by adding a layer of obscurity under which I hid.


One day I overheard my master talking to guests in the drawing room about the new fantastical novel she read. “You should read it,” she said. “It’s a riveting story.” The joy those words gave me branded themselves in my heart.


The repressed society latched onto my book. The rulers must have thought this benefited their regime in a way I didn’t comprehend. For they selected another novel of mine for addition to the Canon two years later—a romance-adventure involving two elven princes.


And I continued publishing my stories in the same manner for decades. Those were perhaps the most satisfying years of my life.


But as I aged and grew aware of my imminent mortality, I developed an urge to leave my mark. The Arkeoni needed to understand an Unlettered had written all those stories. My literary contribution was proof an Unlettered could enrich their society. The Unlettered were not a threat.


I doubted my action would have any immediate impact. But I hoped the scandal would at least give somebody pause for thought—pause enough to consider whether chipping the Unlettered was actually necessary.


I submitted a novel under my true name, immediately recognizable to all Arkeoni as that of an Unlettered. I imagined the perplexed faces of the high council as they saw my name on the submission along with the list of all the stories I had written under my pen name.


***


The next day the Arkeoni overseers took me away and incarcerated me for several days. After interrogations and examinations the high council tried and found me guilty for reading and writing despite being an Unlettered.


Had I immediately reported my literacy to the authorities when I became aware of it as a child, they would have simply re-chipped me. But the crime of deceiving the State and publishing under a false identity deserved heavier punishment. My new chip took away my ability to speak as well. On no account could they risk me orally passing on the story of how I duped the State. They were too late, though. I had already told the clan's oral historians my tale.


After my release, I spent my time going around the different clans listening to stories people told. Or I sat by the fountain at the village square, sipping my hot ginger as I recalled and sometimes improved in my mind all those stories I published. The Arkeoni expunged them from the Canon, but the stories still existed in my head.


The tale of the Unlettered woman who could read and write also lived on. Oral historians recounted my story to other communities, spreading hope that perhaps one day all Unlettered would become literate and share with the Arkeoni their unread lives and stories.

July 09, 2021 13:03

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4 comments

Tom D
18:03 Jul 10, 2021

Wow, this was a great story! Such an imaginative concept - I particularly liked the idea of the Canon, it almost reminded me of a sinister version of the US National Film Registry! And the background to the Arkeoni society was very well thought out, particularly the way it was intertwined with the history of earth. I really enjoyed following the protagonist’s journey - their joyous excitement at finding they could read, devouring writings in the domed city, and becoming a successful author. The dark twist of the protagonist being stripped no...

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Jon R. Miller
01:32 Jul 11, 2021

Thank you very much! It was fun thinking about. It got me really interested in a society of people who are forced to rely on memory and oral histories, which is something I'd like to explore as well. :> No idea how the world could change, even with her story being passed on orally, but maybe the oral historians themselves turn into beings like the mentats in Dune, and bring about unique technological advances of their own to ultimately face down the Arkeoni.

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Jason Ivey
23:02 Jul 10, 2021

I loved the Orwell meets sci-fi theme of this one! A really imaginative story that once again immersed me in a new world :)

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Jon R. Miller
01:37 Jul 11, 2021

Thank you! It was really fun thinking of this one. I wanted to first write something about the future of humanity rebelling against the state in an Orwellian world, but then I thought it would be neat if I set it on a colony where the defeated leaders of the state fled to.

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