Yesterday wasn’t a dream. It was a prelude to a nightmare. I should have recognized it for what it was. I should have seen it written all over Brandt and Journeyman Rybell last night. I should have embraced Thalia’s distrust. She must have known what they really wanted, and how they would get it. If only she had explained it to me while there was still time.
The day began as bright and hopeful as it had ended. The Glaucus team split into two, and half of the researchers (Rybell calls them apprentices) went into the town to see if any of its infrastructure could be salvaged. The other half remained at the library to critique our survival methods. While we were being instructed on how to improve our rain traps, Secretary Brandt approached me from behind and asked me to join him inside. As soon as we entered the front door Brandt shut it and placed his hand on my shoulder.
‘Mr. Gordon, I apologize for the abrupt ending to last night’s tour,’ he said. I noticed that, in spite of the firm, friendly hand on my shoulder, Brandt continued to stand at arms’ length from me. ‘I had some things to discuss with Journeyman Rybell. As it turns out, we are both in agreement. You, sir, are living in the second largest library left in the world. Second only to the Archives. It’s miraculous enough that this little village library survived the Third World War, but you have kept it in remarkable condition. Most men in your situation would not have even known or cared about the knowledge buried here.’
He smiled at me, but not with his eyes. I was reminded of a warning Roald Dahl gave to me in Danny, the Champion of the World. He said that mouth-smiles can be faked, but smiling eyes are always genuine. He taught me to never trust a man who smiles at you while his eyes stay the same.
‘You should be proud,’ he said.
‘Then you may not like what I’m about to propose, but I only ask that you hear out my offer in its entirety before – ‘
‘You’re not taking the books,’ I said. As soon as the word ‘propose’ left his mouth-smiling lips, sculpted in beautiful marble tones though it was, I knew the ugly meaning encased within. Brandt halted in real surprise, and he made a show of seeming wounded as well.
‘And you didn’t even let me finish my first sentence,’ he said, wearing a mocking pout on his smooth plastic face.
‘That’s because you’re not taking the books,’ I repeated.
‘Of course I’m not going to take them, Mr. Gordon,’ he said, suddenly squeezing my shoulder blade. ‘I’d like to borrow them. That’s what a library is for, isn’t it?’
‘Borrow them and take them back to Minerva, which is where? The Alps? The Horn of Africa? The South Pole?’
‘Kyrgyzstan, Mr. Gordon.’ It was the first short answer I had ever received from the man.
‘It might as well be Olympus Mons,’ I replied. I was beginning to lose my temper. I wanted to slap his hand off my shoulder, but in retrospect, I doubt I would have had the strength. ‘Are we just supposed to trust that you’ll bring them back?’
‘I told you our purpose, sir. We aren’t thieves. We’re simply here to protect what remains of our civilization, and this library contains titles we’ve never even heard of. Copies of books we thought were long lost. You can give so much to the future of the human race with this. Your collection will be preserved forever once we’ve entered it into the Archives.’
Brandt let go of my shoulder, and I took the opportunity to limp away from him. I turned to steady myself on the front desk, but when I looked up I saw Sergeant Karim Hassan standing silently in the doorway to the adult fiction stacks. He hadn’t been there when we entered the building, and I was shocked that he could move so silently in such a towering suit of armour. His translucent helmet was off again, and yesterday’s displeasure had soured into a full furious hatred. For the first time, I was afraid of the man. Not of what he could do to my weak, disgusting body, but of what he could do to our collection. Brandt had said they weren’t thieves, but what was stopping them? Sergeant Hassan could slaughter all of us by himself, and he looked at that moment like he sincerely wanted to.
‘These books are our only comfort,’ I said. It was a pitiful retort, a sad attempt to appeal to pathos, but the words I wanted to use to describe what these book are to us cannot be formed in the air.
‘Well now, here’s the best part, Mr. Gordon. This is why I was going to ask you to wait for my whole proposal before answering. Not only are we going to return your books to you on our next expedition, we will grant your community unfettered access to the Archives.’
Sergeant Hassan cleared his throat. It was a guttural sound like that of a wild animal. Clearly this compromise didn’t agree with him.
‘How?’ I asked.
‘We will install a wireless communications tower in your village, and with that, you will each receive one of these.’ Brandt took a flat black device out of his coat pocket and clicked a button on its side. An image sprang up from the rectangular face of the machine and solidified in the air to become a page of text. He tilted the device and the projection moved along with it, as if it were a tangible extension of the device and not a holographic projection from it.
‘This is Minerva’s current generation of e reader,’ Brandt said. ‘You may have read about e readers, but they were just taking prominence when the war broke out, so I doubt you are familiar with them.’
‘No,’ I said. I may have read about them, but my perception of pre-war technology is slightly blurred by my experiences in the realms of science fiction.
‘Well, I can assure you these will more than adequately make up for the time spent waiting for our return. With just one device, you have all of the Minerva Archives at your disposal. Anything you want. You can adjust the font size, the page size. You will never have to worry about tearing or smudging, and you won’t lose everything in a fire.’
I said nothing. It wouldn’t matter what these e readers could do if Minerva never returned. I could only think of dark days, dark months, dark years waiting in a gutted shell of a library without the light of other worlds to make our existence worth continuing. Always tempted to suffer one more dark day in the hope that an armoured transport would come rumbling over the moor again. Clearly Brandt thought that the promise of greater enlightenment would be worth the sacrifice. He thought the hope would be greater than the fear. He underestimated my love for these tattered old books, and he also underestimated my knowledge of human nature. He didn’t know what I know about smiles. I have seen and read too much to take a mouth-smiling man at his word when so much is at stake.
‘Do you have to bring the books with you?’ I asked. ‘You said the Archives were digital. You can’t make digital copies of the books here?’
When I said this, Sergeant Hassan actually laughed. I glanced back at him and the stone idol was staring at me in disbelief. Brandt was speechless. I still don’t know how to interpret this. Perhaps they were just surprised by my grasp of their technology, but this is the first time it has caused such a reaction from them.
‘We don’t have the equipment,’ Brandt said, stuttering to regain composure. ‘We didn’t expect to find the second largest library in the world on this particular trip. Now, I can understand if you don’t want to decide just yet. This is a weighty decision, and I wouldn’t want you to make it hastily. However, our supplies are limited and we have a schedule to keep. We can stay here no more than three days, and I would like your answer before we leave.’
I nodded. I should have given him my answer right then. Nothing he can say or do will change it. I was afraid of unleashing Sergeant Hassan’s fury if I denied him, but I will have to face it sooner or later. I should have got it over with. But that would mean the end of not just myself, but my Voice as well. I see my life as a story, one that I have only recently mastered the confidence and skill to record, and to end it now would tarnish my story. It would weaken my Voice, and immortality on the page is all that matters. I will leave behind as much as I can. If I only have three days to stay our execution, then so be it.
I ate in the library tonight. Thalia sat with me in my office and we ate boiled cabbage leaves while reading passages of Something Wicked to each other. She likes to read the boys’ dialogue, and she lets me read Charles Halloway’s dialogue, along with the narration. She would not let me read the dialogue for Mr. Dark, the supernaturally evil carnival ringmaster who invades the library in search of Will and Jim.
‘That part’s for Brandt,’ Thalia said to me. I wanted to smile at her, but I was all too keenly aware that, for the first time, we had to raise our voices while we read. There was music thumping through the pipes in the corner. All different kinds. There was laughter, yelling voices, clapping. I had not thought my peoples’ attentions so easily swayed. We used to light fires out in the road at night and read to each other. Something about heat in the darkness, like Grandfather’s songs, bound us together. I thought the flickering rapture on their faces had been a reflection of my love. I thought they understood that solid, weighty, permanent place where our firelight bond was anchored. Now, I can see that the Voices of the past were nothing more than a distraction to them. They have found a new distraction. But music, like words, will die in the air. It is no anchor. When they turned off the music and went to sleep, I could hear the night void yawning open. The world is empty and silent, as it has been for so long. My words are still here.
I am nearly out of ink. I will find a way to Speak more.
– It saddens me to say that 3rd Secretary Brandt’s actions at this juncture are straight out of the Oculus Diplomatic Handbook. Alternating use of grandiose promises and intimidation. The veritable ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’ approach. While none of this is mentioned in the official report, it certainly fits the modus operandi of Oculus’ agents. Especially ambitious low ranking men like Brandt.