Felipe cast furtive glances all around him. There were few people out on the streets, as he had hoped. It was dark, there was a cold wind and rain came pouring down at regular intervals: an ideal day for what he had in mind. The chances of being seen and recognised were slim. He felt confident this would turn out all right.
He pulled his hat a bit deeper down over his eyes, and briskly walked into the arcade. There were a few people in here, mostly young guys, but they were totally immersed in their video and computer games and did not pay any attention to him. He halted dead in his tracks, allowing himself a few moments to adapt to this bizarre environment, all whirling and flickering darkly-coloured lights, nerve-wracking sounds — an artificial universe where chaos and high-tech wizardry were locked into continuous battle, and where humans were but insignificant elements, pitiful blobs of flesh and blood, attached to glimmering hardware, as if desperately trying to coalesce with the metal and plastic, establish a new kind of symbiosis and renounce their organic heritage.
He forced his legs back into action. The “special” booths were at the back, his friend Jacques had told him. There would be no problems. Nobody asked questions here, as long as you paid good money. At the back there was indeed a man behind a counter. Felipe walked up to him, cleared his throat and said in a muffled voice, “I’d like a ‘special’. The B-one.” As Jacques had said, the man’s face showed no emotion. He didn’t even look into his eyes.
“That’ll be forty-five,” a croaking voice said. The guy’s lips had hardly moved, as if the words had been recorded and the man had merely pushed the play button. Felipe shelled out his money and waited.
“Over there,” the man said, pointing at his left. “Just a second. You go in, pick cubicle seven, close the door behind you. You’ll have five minutes, then you leave through the back door. Make a mess and you pay twenty-five more.” Felipe nodded. He wouldn’t make a mess; he didn’t quite feel like paying seventy. He moved over to where the man had pointed. A few seconds later a door appeared where he would have sworn there had been a computer game. Holographic stuff? Probably. It was perfect for camouflage purposes. He went in, found himself in a dimly lit, narrow corridor. There, cubicle seven. He quickly squeezed inside, shut the door behind him and took a seat on the chair, the only piece of furniture in the booth. It was dark and claustrophobically confined. He stared in front of him, but as it was still pitch-dark at the other side of the one-way glass there was only total blackness.
As the light was switched on at the other side, his pulse rate shifted into higher gear and his hands were suddenly damp. His heart began to throb as if it wanted to leave his thorax. Felipe licked his lips. At the other side of the one-way glass wall (thank God for that!) there was just a desk with a chair. He caught his breath as a man entered the tiny space, clutching a briefcase. He took a seat, opened his briefcase and rummaged in it. Felipe couldn’t yet see what was inside the damn thing.
There! Totally flabbergasted, and with hands clamped tightly together and his buttocks at the very edge of his seat so he might drop to the floor any second, he saw how the man took the book (swear to God, a real book, all paper pages with words printed on it, pages flipped over by hand, lines of text scanned by your eyes, covers gripped with clammy fingers), leaned back, and started to read the damn thing, yes, actually read, and when he had finished a page, a flick of his wrist expertly unveiled another page and he just kept reading. Books. Holy shit, man. Could that really be an actual book? How come it was still around? Everybody knew these guys from the Ministry of Information were thorough. It was hard to imagine. Could it be then that those rumours were true, about these underground subversive movements, where real books from the old bygone days were secretly guarded and read and circulated? And what could be in those books? What were these people reading, what dazzling ideas went straight into their head? The very idea made him shudder.
Maybe, he thought, it was all a holographic trick, but no, you wouldn’t get some state-of-the-art show like that for a measly forty-five. This had to be real. Goddamn fucking real. Felipe swallowed. Jesus Christ, he thought. Jacques was right. This is incredible. Books. There’s still some around. Or at least one. But doesn’t that mean…
The man at the other side of the glass wall closed his book, put it away in his briefcase and left the tiny room. The light went out. Hey, Felipe thought. That can’t have been five minutes! But then of course there was no one he could complain to. Not without admitting what he had done. But at least he had seen a man read a book. He still couldn’t believe it. It would take some time to let it all sink in.
He got up from his chair, left the cubicle and hurried back outside, hoping no one would see him on his way back home. He would tell his wife it had been a great VR game. He had a complete story all prepared, had even rehearsed it with Jacques. No one would ever find out he had been to an illegal peep show.
Jesus, he thought as he was back out on the dark street, feeling the rain come down on him. Jesus Christ, what a night. I’ll never forget this.
Frank Roger was born in 1957 in Ghent, Belgium. His first story appeared in 1975. Since then his stories have appeared in an increasing number of languages in all sorts of magazines, anthologies and other venues, and since 2000, story collections have been published, also in various languages. Apart from fiction, he also produces collages and graphic work in a surrealist and satirical tradition. By now he has more than 700 short story publications (including a few short novels) to his credit in more than 30 languages.