Commonwealth, XXII: Last Stand of the Librarians

Commonwealth, XXII: Last Stand of the Librarians February 14, 2020

Commonwealth: A Novel of Utopia, part 1, chapter 6

Author’s Note: This is an excerpt from my novel Commonwealth. The rest of today’s installment is free, but only on my Patreon site. If you want to read the next part today, it’s already up on Patreon as well. You can sign up for as little as $1/month, or $2 for exclusive author’s notes and behind-the-scenes material. There’s also a table of contents for all published chapters.

There was a time when Rae would have quailed at going out by herself after nightfall, but not anymore. Her quest blazed in her mind like a torch in a dark room, making everything else unimportant. She knew the answers she had been seeking were waiting for her, and nothing would stand in her way.

Rather than take the subway, she walked the forty-plus blocks to midtown. Despite the humid summer night, she wore a black hoodie, sunglasses, a filter mask and gloves. By the time she got to her destination, she was dripping with sweat, but she felt energized, her limbs hot and loose, as if she had warmed up for a workout.

The golden towers of Billionaires’ Row were like a fireworks display to the northwest, but she had come to another section of Manhattan that had fallen into disrepair. This part of midtown had been a business district, but the economic decay that had been confined to the city’s outskirts was creeping inward like blood poisoning.

Many of the towers were dark, their windows broken or boarded up, their walls scribbled with graffiti. Even one of the omnipresent billboards, on a skyscraper with an unusual facade that curved downward towards the ground, showed a blank screen that flickered sporadically like heat lightning.

Just for an instant, the billboard glitched and displayed an image: an abstract shape that looked like two curvy, curlicue-tipped lines set against each other, the crude image of a tree. Beneath, in shimmering green, there were words: “SEEK THE GARDEN.” It flickered to blankness when Rae glanced in its direction.

Rae walked along Fifth Avenue. She steered clear of Bryant Park, which had become a squatters’ camp – a densely packed warren of crude shacks of sheet metal, scrap wood and plastic. Fires burned in metal trash cans, and shadowy figures moved behind the light. She had no desire to meet anyone from that lawless place; she had heard it was under the thumb of gangs.

Her destination was nearby. In the midst of the city, there was a void where no towers rose. Along that block ran a construction fence, a barricade of plywood boards and plastic netting, plastered with “PRIVATE PROPERTY – NO TRESPASSING – ENTRY STRICTLY FORBIDDEN” signs. Coils of barbed wire were strung along the top.

But the fence was old and weatherbeaten. In some places, the boards slanted drunkenly, leaving gaps a person could fit through.

Rae was studying one of those gaps when she heard the rumble of an approaching engine. She recognized one of the black-and-white cars of the Metropolitan Police Corporation, and ducked behind a stray sheet of plywood just as a pair of headlights speared the wall where she had been standing.

The car slowed down as it passed. Rae crouched in her hiding place, not daring to breathe, wondering if she had been spotted.

After an agonizingly long moment, the police car sped up and drove off.

Rae looked up and down the block, making sure no one else was watching. When she saw no observers, she squeezed through the gap in the fence.

Her plan had been to get inside as quickly as possible, to minimize the chance of being spotted. But as soon as she was past the fence, she forgot about that. She stood motionless, frozen with awe, as she looked up at the magnificent desolation of the New York Public Library.

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