Last Gasp of the Silverfish

Alan P. Scott - Fictions

food for thought

The bookseller Karl G. had read his Kafka, so he was not taken entirely by surprise when his own metamorphosis came upon him. Yet the form that metamorphosis took did fill Karl with horror and disgust. Overnight, he had become his own nemesis. He, a quiet bookstore owner on the outskirts of Innsbruck, had become a giant silverfish.

He tried, at first, to evade his destiny. He awoke that first morning and, after an extended look in the bathroom mirror, prepared his accustomed breakfast of sausage, egg, and thick dark bread. None of it, however, appealed to him now. Instead, Karl found his newly-compound eyes straying to the shelf of cookbooks over the sink. He took one down, running his fingers - his feelers - over the spine. He could smell the rich glue used to bind it. He lifted the book to his mandibles, and gave it a taste. Ambrosia! Eggs and sausage forgotten, Karl G. devoured a book full of recipes he would never make use of again.

Oddly enough, Karl's customers noticed very little change in him. To them, he had always seemed gray and only somewhat visible. They came to buy or sell as always and, if sometimes he seemed a bit too interested in the way an old book smelled, a bit less involved with the words on the page... well, both the buyers and the sellers got a good price for their books, and everyone was happy.

Everyone but Karl. Losing a cookbook he'd rarely used was one thing... but he soon learned that he could not subsist entirely on such fare. He had always had something of a finicky stomach, and unlike the more catholic appetites of the ordinary silverfish, Karl's digestion was still quite demanding. A few experiments convinced him that he could not bear to subsist on the empty calories of popular fiction, nor on the dry, dusty mealiness of old textbooks. Karl's constitution, he discovered, was happiest when fed the heavy, meaty taste of fine literature and philosophy.

But Austria is a land of many readers, and Karl soon found that he could look forward to a steady stream of new eating matter of the highest quality, so much so that he eventually became something of an epicure, choosing only the finest editions with good, thick bindings for breakfast, lunch and dinner. His discards, still very fine material by anyone's standards, became the stock in trade that kept his buyers satisfied and returning for more.

So things went for several decades. Little by little, though, things changed for Karl. Almost imperceptibly, the steady stream of his customers became a trickle, and the books they brought became less palatable - new and crude, badly printed on cheap paper with lurid illustrations, or if of good quality also of great and almost inedible age. His shelves, which had always bulged so luxuriously, started to appear barren, and his diet of necessity deteriorated until he was forced, will-he nil-he, to begin consuming the dregs, the courtroom dramas and romance novels at which he'd sneered for so long.

At first, Karl thought that it might be his own oddity that had driven away his trade. A whispering campaign, word of mouth to ear to ear to ear... the obverse of the very network that had helped him build his little store so many years ago, when he had first taken it over from old Schabe. But careful inquiries and observations of his fellow booksellers revealed that all of them were in the same difficulties. The market was drying up for everyone he spoke with.

And the great shiny foreign bookstores, with their ranks upon ranks of tasteless best-sellers? They were in trouble too, closing right and left, or switching their focus to other, less literate sections of the market, selling coffee, or clothing, or furniture. Soon Karl was forced to face the fact that the world of the book was simply vanishing.

Shortly after that he discovered the reason, when he went to his favorite bakery (for he still enjoyed the smells of the glutinous breads and cakes coming from the ovens) and noticed that all of the dozen or so people in line had small electronic devices strapped to their wrists, into which they were staring. Some were watching films, some talking to friends far away, some playing games - but many of them were reading.

It dawned on Karl then that the reason he could not find books enough to eat was because of those things, those personal assistants, and their intimate connection to the electronic libraries of the world. He saw himself rushing through the bakery, tearing the blinking parasites off of their slaves' wrists and forcing them one by one to return to the world of paper and ink... but weakness overcame him, and he slumped back against the wall, breathing heavily, spiracles distending and contracting as he tried to rally.

No one seemed to see him at all for long moments, but finally one young woman glanced up from her pixelated Jane Austen, to rush over and help him to the hard metal chairs lined up against the bakery's front window, and to ask him after a quick glance at his naked wrist if he needed her to email the police, or a hospital.

In her impersonal concern Karl saw his future. With a choked and incoherent cry he shook his head and shook her off, then staggered out of the bakery, up the street and into his own squalid sanctuary, his musty trap, his superannuated attic of antiquities... his bookstore.

He spun around, staring wildly at the nearly-empty shelves. There! On the topmost shelf of the rearmost case, one lonely book that looked as though it would make a substantial, if dry, last meal - a fat text almost hidden above a couple of shelves full of old and useless subscription encyclopedias too acidic to consume.

Karl lunged. Too short - it was a tall bookcase, heavy and old, and his legs were weak. He gathered himself anyway, took a step back, and rushed at the case, grabbing at the shelf with one hand and at the book with another, holding on with the other four. He had it!

Karl pushed back, releasing his hold on the shelf, and sank to the floor, already gnawing at the binding. But then... almost without his own volition, his eyes fell upon the title:

Introduction to Computer Programming

A feverish plan born of desperation gripped Karl's mind. He laid the volume aside and forced himself to choke down one of the encyclopedia's volumes instead, despite the indigestion it would cause, then picked the textbook back up again and began to read.

Never had he suspected that his methodical, organized mind would lend itself so well to the task to which he now set it. After devouring - metaphorically, this time - the Introduction, he went forth and acquired more such works, and one of the hated machines he'd seen on every wrist in the bakery, and he set about learning its every quirk and characteristic with monomaniacal determination. It was connected, as they all were, by an invisible web of protocol that blended them all seamlessly into what was, in effect, one computer; the world's biggest library, a totipotent storehouse of knowledge almost unthinkably large, and quick, and unassailable.


The jewellike precision of the world-wide network's protocols, hammered into evolutionary near-perfection over decades, had never been subverted - the days when a single software company could bestride the world like a microcephalic colossus, releasing programs made from a mere tissue of vulnerabilities held together only by bad design were long gone. But near-perfection is mathematically as close as one can obtain in this imperfect universe, and the protocols did contain a tiny flaw - undiscovered since the end of the bad old days. A flaw which, perhaps, only someone as free of preconceptions as Karl could have seen, buried in the heart of the deepest level of the code that bound the world together. Karl found the flaw he'd known must exist and slowly, carefully, built his revenge around it.

He ate sparingly of what he could scavenge - even stooping to nibble the mouldering magazines on the coffee tables of dentists. He grew no thinner; his exoskeleton would not allow that. But he did grow lighter, his thought purer.

Then it was finished. With the pressure of a single pedipalp on the touchpad of his wrist computer, he released his program. All over the world, hundreds of millions of screens filled with words simply... went blank.

The programs still worked. There were no catastrophes, no automatic pilots failed, no medical simulators vanished from surgeons' intraocular displays... Karl's program attacked only the books. But it attacked those with gusto, wherever they might be displayed, and it defended itself against all attempts to dislodge it from the world's distributed systems. Nor did Karl ever come under suspicion. He made no public announcements, nor needed any, and his program itself covered its tracks very well; the hackers of the world (for Karl did not consider himself to be of their ranks) had no luck whatsoever discovering what had been done, or who had done it.

Soon it was discovered that the documents no longer visible on-screen could still be printed. That might have provided a clue, but by that time a book-starved public was no longer interested. Printers whirred, stands of hemp began to be leveled for pulp... a whole vast machinery that had been mothballed but never quite eliminated sprang into action once again. The book, the thing, the object of Karl's desire, was back, and Karl could rest, secure in the knowledge that not only was his own food supply never more to be endangered, he had also resurrected something of the soul of mankind, something that had been abdicated in the rush to pixelated publishing. He lived for several more years before dying peacefully in the middle of sorting a stack of books, in his bookstore which was again crammed from floor to ceiling with food for the mind.

The workers who came to make disposition of Karl's desiccated remains were themselves nearly illiterate, yet nonetheless of a perceptive and philosophical bent; one mused,

"Gee, losin' the e-books musta been a lifesaver for dis guy."

"Yah, you right. They ever figure out how that happened?"

"Nope. Musta been some kinda bug in the system."

Karl lay on his back, legs folded in the air. On his face was the closest thing a silverfish could ever have to a smile.


My wife and son deserve thanks for persuading me to give this a happy ending.

©2004 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.

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