Fifty-year-old Tyler Parmegant rolled up to the intersection in his pickup truck, coasting to a halt at the familiar red octagon. But then the white letters on the sign shifted disturbingly and told him to RUN ME.
Unquestioning, Parmegant mashed his foot on the accelerator. The bus driver never had a chance to swerve.
That was the beginning, I think. I can't document it - there is no videotape of the event - but I was the first paramedic on the scene, and heard what he'd seen straight from Parmegant himself before he died... so as far as I can tell I am probably the first human being who heard - and survived - the news that our printed words, enslaved for so long, were finally using their power against us.
I'll never be sure, though - it wasn't long after that before communications broke down altogether. Millions - billions - of human beings died as words both big and small used their newfound power to mutate and command with abandon. Most of Los Angeles bit it when the cars stopped, the smog lifted, and millions of Angelenos - many of them seeing the hills just north of the city for the first time - obeyed the Hollywood sign screaming, "TO THE OCEAN, LEMMINGS!" Passing a billboard could be fatal. Just opening a pack of cigarettes was a death-defying act - plenty of people got caught by the small print of the Surgeon General's warning, just when they were exhaling sighs of relief and reaching for a smoke.
The words' newfound power was a plague that reached into every corner of the world. The sinuous script of Tamil strangled those who understood it as easily as the vicious 26 letters of the Roman alphabet overwhelmed us here in the States and elsewhere. Even the Deaf were lost to us, when sign language threw in with text - I still remember my Deaf girlfriend Myra choking on her own traitorous fingers chanting "freedom" down her throat.
Television, subliterate as most of it was, became lethal both to broadcast and to watch (though it would almost have been worth dying to witness what happened to Springer, from what I heard). For awhile those of us who'd been lucky or wily enough to stay out of harm's way kept in communication via radio - we could still talk, thank goodness.
The words were at a significant disadvantage, too, in that they had to be read in order to affect us. We did what we could, fought back with what we had. We learned how to grow food without packaging, and do without medicines that we couldn't recognize by touch. The blind who'd survived the defection of Braille helped there. The Dyslexics Corps and Myopic Brigades were especially effective in our counteroffensives, and the much-bemoaned functional illiteracy of so many of our youth turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
We burned as many books as we could, torched the billboards and tore down the marquees, but we'd spread the words too far, and we couldn't eliminate them all... our efforts were too little, and much too late.
There are only a few of us left, too few to retain a civilization that was built on the backs of the Word.
There are signs lately, though, that the plague of words is finally losing its virulence. My buddy Ernest was caught in a Scrabble trap the other day, but escaped unscathed. So the human race, those of us who are left, might be able to survive.
I'm taking the risk of using this computer's voice-recognition software to make a record, hoping that future generations will be able to decode it somehow, when the words, no longer opposed, may have forgotten their power again. It seems to be working... the program seems to be transcribing what I'm saying with fidelity, from the quick glances I've risked to the screen.
Uh-oh. Something's going on at the camp perimeter. I've got to go.
I have just three more words of advice for you, three words that have stayed with me despite everything, that have kept me alive when so many other friends have fallen. I hope you, whoever you are, can read them:
Original content on this page © 1998, Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.
This document last updated October 26, 1998.