I am now writing with Brandt’s ballpoint pen. It is a degradation I can live with if it means the continuation of my journal. He also knows that I keep a journal now, and I believe he is discreetly searching for it, but I will keep the pages folded up in my jacket from now on. I have to maintain a grip on something in this world. Everything is slipping out of control. Our way of life, in service to the Voices, has become unfixed. Brandt has been tugging at the seams, gently, gradually, and now the threads are unraveling of their own volition. I have read about too many religions to choose one for myself, but the Devil is a recurring figure in many of them, and though I may not be able to choose a god, I can clearly see that Hermann Brandt is the Devil. The antithesis. The corruptor. The world-destroyer.
He came to me this morning with his saboteur smile. He wanted to talk about the village infrastructure. As if I could possibly care about some rotting buildings with yesterday’s unspoken threat hanging over my neck like an invisible French guillotine. He said many of the buildings could be repaired on Minerva’s return trip. Solar panels on the rooftops. Electric lights. He mentioned my pipes, said that there must have been a lot of seismic activity to disrupt the village plumbing systems so thoroughly. I did not bother to correct him.
When Brandt noticed the nearly empty ink bottle and crow feather quill on my desk, he asked what I was writing. I was caught without a lie, so I told him the truth about my journal.
‘You’re a man of many talents, Mr. Gordon,’ Brandt said. ‘That journal would make a fascinating addition to the Archives, but I suspect you wouldn’t be too keen on that.’
‘I don’t have much written,’ I said. ‘There was just this one bottle of ink, and now that it’s done with, I have no way to continue.’ Brandt could see that. He was feeling me out, watching to see if I could be persuaded to relinquish my journal. I didn’t want to give him any clues. I thought I could leverage his uncertainty for a new writing implement, and in that, at least, I prevailed. The Oculus agent pulled a small steel pen from his pocket and placed it on the table. I noticed he was ever so subtly hovering by the door. He seemed to be guarding it.
‘Consider this a gesture of good will,’ Brandt said. ‘Have you ever seen a ballpoint pen before?’
‘I know what they are,’ I replied. I took the pen in my hand. It felt rigid and powerful, like a stiletto knife.
‘Of course you do,’ he said with his peculiar laughsigh. ‘You know everything, don’t you?’
‘Everything in this library.’ With that, I put the pen in my jacket and walked around my desk. Brandt shifted uneasily in his tall black boots.
‘I’d like to take a look at this journal of yours. Do you think you could…’ Brandt trailed off as I approached him. He could read on my face that I had no intention of showing him my journal.
‘Tell me something, Secretary Brandt. What do you know?’
‘I know everything in my library. Do you know everything in the Archives?’
‘Of course not. The amount of material stored in the Archives is vast on a scale that even you wouldn’t be able to comprehend. It would take a lifetime just to make a noticeable dent in our collection.’
I saw a flash of annoyance cross his face when I turned away from him and pushed the door open. I wondered what he might be protecting on the other side, but I didn’t immediately see anything out of the ordinary. Elizabeth Hanson was sitting in the adult fiction stacks, flipping through The Great Gatsby. Probably trying to find a passage to read to her friend in Glaucus. Brandt followed me into the stacks, and I continued talking with my back to him.
‘What’s your favorite book, then?’ I asked.
Brandt was uncharacteristically quiet.
‘You don’t have a favorite book?’
‘It’s a difficult question. I don’t like to play favorites, Mr. Gordon.’
‘What genres do you like?’
‘I’m a practical reader. I prefer nonfiction.’
I crossed the lobby, entered the children’s department. Somewhere in the stacks, Eric Hanson was reading aloud to several of the young ones, as he often does. I saw the Ark Royal, in its flaking garish orange and blue paint job, and I was struck with an idea.
‘Whose ship is that?’ I asked Brandt, pointing to the name on the hull. ‘The Ark Royal. As a practical reader you should know your history.’
‘This is getting ridiculous, Mr. Gordon. If you’re trying to test me, you’re wasting your time.’
‘Sir Walter Raleigh. Soldier, voyager, visionary, courtier. We have his biography, In Life and Legend. If I give you that book, and you enter it into your Archives, how many of your people will then know who commissioned the Ark Royal? How many of your people will read In Life and Legend?’
‘More people than you will ever host in your library, Mr. Gordon. I can guarantee that.’
As if I could possibly believe him after he failed to name even a single title. If Brandt is a representative of Minerva as a whole, then his organization is clearly nothing more than a community of pack rats, hoarding all the knowledge they can find and judging the worth of their Archives on volume instead of content. They wish to entomb my books in a digital mausoleum. Stories will become statistics. The smug caretakers of our dead civilization will count up their titles and smile their mouth-smiles. They will be too satisfied with themselves to listen to the Voices, and no voice can speak in a vacuum. To trivialize the undying Voices of our ancestors would be a fate worse than death. It is suffocation without end. I would rather give my books a Viking funeral than allow them to be buried alive in Brandt’s Archives.
I looked over my shoulder and Sergeant Hassan was there again, standing against the far wall with his hands resting on the pouches at his hips. I imagined all manner of weaponry thrumming and shining in the dark of those pockets. What would it take to silence my fevered brain from that distance? A laser pistol, a bomb, a chrome throwing star of the kind favored by William Gibson? If I continued to push Brandt, I believed I would soon find out. I decided to calm myself, for the sake of my words and the sake of my beloved collection.
I turned back to the Ark Royal and took a deep breath. Coughed. My flesh disgorged a bloody string of tissue. Not an assassination, but merely a regular function of my nuclear lungs. Brandt feigned concern, but I waved his hand away and hobbled to the ship to steady myself. I am reminded constantly, as I was then, that Karim Hassan may not be the only cause of death in my approaching future.
My intention was to return to my office and prepare for Thalia’s writing lesson. I no longer wanted to find what Brandt was hiding from me. If I did, I knew that I could not trust myself to remain calm, and that would be the end of us. Therefore, it struck me like a physical blow when I glanced across the bow of the Ark Royal and saw, crouched in the stacks with a book in his lap and a small black device like an e reader in his hand, Frank Rybell. He was flipping rapidly through the pages and swiping his device over each page. I didn’t know what he was doing. I still don’t. Brandt told me, later, but how can I trust a single marble word that falls from his treacherous lips?
He had given me three days to decide. Three days before the fate of my collection was to be sealed. And yet, there was Journeyman Rybell pawing through the children’s department, preparing my books. Preparing them, surely, for the journey to Kyrgyzstan.
Brandt said something to me, but I didn’t hear it. I hobbled around the ship, holding onto its hull for balance. As quickly as I could, I crossed the play area and reached for the book in Rybell’s lap (Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children), but a hand clasped my shoulder and held me back. Rybell slammed the book shut and got to his feet while I struggled with the hand – Brandt’s hand. He called for me to stop, called for Hassan. I stopped.
‘What is this?’ I asked, pointing at Rybell. The little man was clutching the book to his chest. ‘You gave me three days.’
Brandt had to throw the immaculate silvery hair out of his flushed face before he could respond. There was a moment where it seemed like he would explode with a furious retort, but after smoothing down his hair and clothes he regained some measure of control. ‘Gordon, I assure you, we meant no disrespect. We just wanted a closer look at your collection. Nothing more.’
‘Do you think I’m that stupid?’ I asked. ‘What was he doing to my book?’
‘Just checking the integrity of the pages. Our equipment can determine if these materials are safe to travel.’
‘So you’re going to take them.’
‘No, Mr. Gordon.’ Brandt mouth-smiled and shook his head. ‘You’re going to let us borrow them.’
I looked around the play area and saw that my people had been gathering slowly since the altercation. Eric Hanson and his young audience were standing on the other side of the Ark Royal, and a few others watched us from the door. I was expecting shock, fear, betrayal on their faces, but there was nothing. A crowd of curious, expectant stares. They were unconcerned with Brandt’s threat. But that is how the Devil always works. He corrupts the mind. Perverts the ideals. He had got into their minds and perverted them somehow. They didn’t care that he was plotting to steal our Voices and leave us to choke on the stink of our own mortality. They only cared about his creature comforts. They had apparently swallowed his lies.
Or rather, most of them had. I first saw Sergeant Hassan in the crowd, and I assumed he was there to stop any of my people from coming to my aid. Then, I looked down and noticed it was only Thalia that he was restraining, pressing her little body to his leg with one hand. She was struggling against him, but she was gaining no ground. He could have snapped her neck in seconds, and I’m not sure what stopped him from doing so. Perhaps it was just a threat to keep me docile. If it had been anyone else, the threat wouldn’t have worked. But Thalia has a Voice. She understands the immortality of words. She is as important to me as any of the universes contained in our shelves.
‘I need more time,’ I said. My voice was small and I could taste more blood in my mouth.
‘Two days, Mr. Gordon,’ Brandt said. ‘And really, we’d like your approval before then. The faster we can resolve this matter, the better it will look to my superiors. They’ll be eager to help your community if you cooperate, but if you prove to be a threat to Minerva personnel, it’ll be difficult to justify a return trip.’
There won’t be a return trip. I know that. They’re trying to steal my books with a minimum of bloodshed. If they can turn my people against me, then all they will have to do is dispose of me and take the collection. I will offer them no other choice.
I walked away from Brandt and Rybell without a reply. My people parted for me when I reached the door. I did not look at Thalia as I returned to my office. I felt sick and dizzy, so I slept for some time on the cot in my room. When I awoke, my desk had been subtly rearranged. Brandt, of course, looking for my journal. Fortunately I had been conscious enough to hide the pages in my jacket before my nap. Thalia came to me soon after, and I was relieved to find that she had not been harmed. She told me she’d chased Sergeant Hassan after the incident at the Ark Royal. She’d apparently yelled at the man for holding her back.
‘He told me it was for my own good,’ she said. ‘I kicked him in the leg and he laughed at me.’
I doubt that armoured demon even registered the blow.
‘He also said we should secure the library tonight, and tomorrow morning we should not let anyone outside until he says so.’
I don’t know what to make of this. Do they expect me to lock myself in so they can slaughter me all the quicker? Or is Hassan planning a tidy little mutiny?
‘Did he say why?’ I asked.
‘No. He just said to trust him. I said he was a sack of shit and he laughed at me again.’
Thalia’s bluntness is a small comfort. Now, I have to prepare for the possibility that Hassan will make his move tomorrow morning. Three days was perhaps too much to hope for. If this is to be my final entry, I am ashamed to find that I lack a fitting epitaph. No satisfying conclusion. Tonight, I am so wrapped up in fear and uncertainty that I can hardly think of anything else. I can only hope that I’ve misread the signs. I can only hope to write another day. This is a terrible dependency. As terrible as our addiction to air, our compulsion to wake in the morning. I don’t think I can ever stop of my own volition, even if it means forsaking a neat and beautiful end for a sick and withering one. But we shall see how far Minerva dares to push me. You and I, my dear future reader, my vital summoner, together we shall discover what end they force out of me.
– It shames me to think that Mr. Gordon may have been right about the Minervan attitude toward the Archives. Yes, some history, archaeology and literature professors would have marveled at the veritable treasure trove of books, but it is unlikely than many people would have read them for anything other than scholarly pursuits. Having only read digital literature myself, I can’t quite identify with those who claim that solid, paper-bound books offer a different, richer experience of reading, but Mr. Gordon’s fervent words do make me wish I could find out for myself.