“No, you can’t,” said the librarian.
“I- Sorry, what?” said Mal.
She hadn’t even looked up; she sat there reading on her screen, and sipped a glass of some kind of juice – you know the kind that’s made of seventeen different coloured fruits, and looks like a greeny-brown sort of slurry? She sipped at the juice and continued reading.
“You can’t borrow that,” she said. “It doesn’t fit your profile. Go and find something that does. Or the door.”
Mal tilted his head, and checked the book. It was a Dorothy Dunnett, historical fiction.
“But it’s category M,” he said. He checked the book again. The barcode seemed to be intact. “Is there something wrong with your scanner?”
That had her attention. She looked down at Mal over her glasses.
“There is nothing,” she said, deliberating over the words, “wrong with this equipment.” She slapped her hand down on the scanner bench. Mal jumped. “You are not authorised to read this novel,” she said.
“But look, it’s category M,” Mal said again. He showed her the spine. She didn’t reply, just looked down at her screen again, ignoring him. Everyone – well almost everyone – was authorised to take out category Ms.
He stood there for a moment, wondering whether he should say something more, but there was a queue waiting. Something must be wrong, he thought. He went back to the shelves, shaking his head. He put the Dunnett down on a reshelving trolley, without really paying attention. He selected three other category M’s, a category K, and a category D – the highest classification the system would authorise him to read; the upper limit of knowledge safety according to his profile. It was Keynes. He’d read it before. He’d borrowed this very copy before, more than likely. He turned to go back to the checkout, and on a whim pulled out the nearest category B. The spine said Spinoza, which he thought was amusing. Mal knew ordinarily he wouldn’t get away with it, but if something was wrong with the system, maybe trying to take out a B book would show it up.
Mal ran his hand through his hair, and set the books down on the counter. The recognition system flashed at him, and he blinked, but his details came up on the screen anyway. Mal Moselund; thirty-first of July, 2019. There was his address. He put one of the category M’s on the scanner, then frowned at it when he saw he was trying to check out a Georgette Romano novel. Ugh. Thirties fiction; not his style. There was a beep; he was not authorised. He tried another M; no better result. He tried the category K – an old Attwood, just a little subversive. Another beep, another rejection.
He looked up, over the counters, to the mezzanine. The librarian was looking down at him. He shrugged at her, frowning. He saw her wave to the security guards, and frowned more, turning pale. His hand shook as he tried the category B. Spinoza was not to be his, and this time the rejection raised a louder beep; one that persisted, turning into an alarm. He felt a hand on his arm, and one of the security guards took a grip on his jacket.
“Come on, sir,” said the jacket-gripper.
“I think it’s time you had a nice walk,” said his companion.
Mal didn’t exactly resist, but he didn’t move as fast as they seemed to want him to. His head was spinning.
“But it’s Romano, for God’s sake; category M?” he said. “What the hell? Something must be wrong.”
The security men got agitated. They busted him through the swinging doors, and out onto the street. He protested weakly, but they were firm in their assurances that whatever it was, it wasn’t their problem. They turned and went inside, watching him from behind the glass.
Mal headed for the tube station, walking quickly. He was starting to worry seriously. What if there were other problems with the system? He wondered if his records had been wiped, but no, his name and address had come up OK. He’d try an ATM at the station, and see what happened there.
Pretty standard Big Brother dystopia sort of stuff. It’s ongoing; we’ll see where it goes on to.