I have never seen a guillotine, but I have always been dreadfully fascinated by them, thanks in part to a title by Daniel Gerould on the subject. It describes the machine and its history in exquisite detail. I have read it twice. This makes it quite easy to put my state of mind into an accurate metaphor. My head is stocked. The lunette is tight around my neck, blood-warped and prickling splinters against my skin. I am alone and waiting for the blade. I can see my executioner waiting beside me. It is not Sergeant Karim Hassan. I see myself. My own hands, stained with ink, gripping the release. I have made so many mistakes, and ignoring Thalia’s message last night was my most egregious error yet. It very nearly cost Angus Grant his life, and it has certainly cost me mine.
I neglected to mention Hassan’s warning to the others (for that is how I think of them now, not as ‘my people’ but as ‘the others’), and I left the rear entrances unbarred in order to provide an escape route for Thalia should the Starship Troopers come for us. She slept on my cot, and I filled her pack with as many books as I could fit. I made certain that Something Wicked would go with her, in spite of the physical pain I felt at relinquishing my parallel world. I could not let what remains of the book share my intended fate.
I remained awake throughout the night, walking the stacks and feeling the weight of the pages pressing on my brain. I expected it to be the last time. Near dawn, I looked out the front window into the purple gray haze. To my astonishment, both the silver tents and the armoured transport were nowhere to be seen. I had not heard any activity outside the library at any point during the night, but I may have been too wrapped up in my farewell tour to notice. I circled the library and checked all the windows, but there was no sign of the Minervan team anywhere in the park or the town.
On my way to the lobby, I passed Angus Grant, who was stepping out the back to relieve himself in the ditch behind the library. We ignored each other, as the mutual strangers that we had become. I opted to sit on the ruined front desk and stare out at the road through the half-unboarded window next to the door. I couldn’t fathom the game that Brandt and Hassan seemed to be playing, and I expected to see my end unfold at any moment from any possible direction.
When humanoid silhouettes began to rise up from the hill leading into Byrnwood, I assumed the worst. However, I could quickly see that the figures did not move in a clean formation as the Aegis soldiers had done. They were smaller, and the angles of their armour were senseless and uneven. I’ve seen many figures like these in my tortured lifetime. I’ve seen the men who break and go wild. They do not believe in abstracts like immortality. They only care to thrive in this wasted life, and they will do so by any means. They put their faith in the predator’s instinct. They are nature, red in tooth and claw.
I believed this was part of Brandt’s plan. He knew the wild ones were coming. I expected him to allow nature’s bloody thralls to remove us from the equation. Then, with his hands clean, he could take my collection as he pleased.
‘Gordon!’ I heard my name as a distended howl in the street. I recognized the howl as that of Jack the Crow, one of the more disciplined cannibal leaders on the island. I had dealt with him on several occasions, but we were spared from bloodshed by our superior firepower and Jack’s relatively timid nature. I could see the man through the front half-window. Between his ropy black mane and the beard that spilled down his chest to tickle the corrugated metal plate strapped to his belly, I could see no facial features. No glinting eyes, no hooked nose. Just an antimatter tangle animating a patchwork body. The rest of his gang had fanned out to encircle the library, and he stood alone in front of our doorstep with a broken wooden post in his hand. He looked altogether less timid than usual.
‘Heard you was trading shooters down at Aley Green,’ he said, speaking conversationally toward the front door as if we were speaking face to face. I had forgotten entirely about the trading expedition, even though the Grant brothers left only five days ago. ‘Seems you must be in real need to go tossing your pretty bows away. Well, my people are in real need too, Gordon. What say we make a deal?’
Jack the Crow had been trying to negotiate a deal with me for some time. He would offer to protect the library from other wild men in exchange for a tribute of flesh. I would counter that we could protect the library ourselves, and occasionally we had to prove that point. But who can protect us from Minerva? From ourselves?
‘I know you’re listening, Gordon. You don’t have to say nothing,’ Jack said, sidling up closer to the front door. I could no longer see him through the dirty half-window, but I heard his post tapping on the door. I saw our plywood barricade bend in gentle bubbles as he pressed against it. At that moment, Thalia entered the room and grabbed my hand.
‘This is what he meant,’ she whispered.
‘We don’t know what he meant,’ I replied.
‘I said you don’t have to say nothing!’ Jack suddenly wailed, pounding on the door with his post. ‘Just listen. I want four of your full-growns. Ladies and gents. Different families. Make sure all the little ones still have someone to look after them.’
‘Where did he go?’ Thalia asked. I knew she was referring to Hassan.
‘He’s gone. They’re all gone,’ I said. ‘I don’t think they’ll be back until we’re all dead.’
‘Hey!’ Jack screamed. ‘I can hear you. Maybe if you need to sweeten the pot, here’s something we found round the back.’
I approached the window, and as I did, Angus Grant was thrown against it from the other side, cracking the glass with his forehead and smearing fresh blood on the dirty surface. His eyes were squeezed shut and his cheek was flat against the glass.
‘That’s one!’ Jack said. ‘You didn’t even have to choose. Leaky bastard chose himself. Now let’s give us the rest. Can’t make all your decisions for you.’
Miles Grant and Tom Carpenter entered the lobby, both carrying crossbows. To my surprise, Thalia waved them back. Tom obeyed, but Miles knew his brother was missing, and he seemed to know where he had gone. He rushed to the window, but Jack the Crow pulled Angus away and threw him into the dirt. Miles reached for the bolts securing the front door.
‘Wait!’ Thalia hissed. Then, she suddenly smiled. ‘Get away from the door.’
‘Why the hell should I?’ Miles asked, but Thalia cut him off.
‘That’s what they’ve been waiting for,’ she said. ‘We’re in the way.’
I still didn’t trust Hassan, but this seemed to satisfy Miles Grant. He had been fawning over the Aegis soldiers for the past two days, so I could understand where his beliefs were rooted. What I couldn’t understand was Thalia’s confidence in the Starship Troopers. Until today, she had been just as skeptical of their intentions as I. Something in her had changed since her encounter with Sergeant Hassan. Like the rest of them, she was beginning to turn away from me.
Thalia pulled me aside, and we waited in the doorway leading to the adult stacks. Miles retreated to the children’s entrance where Tom Carpenter was positioned with his crossbow at the ready.
‘We’ll eat them slow, Gordon,’ Jack said, still standing at the door. ‘We’ll make them last. Give us four of your twenty-odd strong, and you won’t be seeing us again for a – ‘
Jack the Crow never finished his sentence. All around us, almost in unison, muffled cracks echoed out over the park. In the same instant, a hole was blown through the front door in a cloud of dust and blood and chips of wood. Jack’s antimatter body thumped against the door and slid wetly to the ground. Screams filled the library, and Thalia squeezed my hand.
‘Killed him with a smile,’ she said. This phrase wounded me. It was a reference to her favorite passage in Something Wicked, wherein Charles Halloway pursues the boys, who have been hypnotized by the Dust Witch and taken to Mr. Dark’s supernatural carnival. Once there, he finds the witch about to perform a bullet catch, and he volunteers to fire the rifle. Though the bullet in his rifle is fake, he carves a smile into it and fires it at the witch, who chokes on the real bullet (also marked with a smile) and dies. I was wounded because, in the past, I have always been Charles Halloway. Night-wanderer, philosopher, library caretaker. But I did not fire the bullet that killed our Dust Witch. I have been usurped in her mind, as I have been in everyone else’s.
There was an impact at the back of the library, as of a door being thrown open. This was followed by an explosion that tore shockwaves through my ribcage. Slowly, we made our way through the adult stacks until we found a wild man collapsed against the wall. He had been eviscerated, and the guts that hadn’t been plastered on the wall in a violent leaf-like fresco were spilling out onto a carpetless patch of concrete. His face, frozen in death, was a rictus of mortal terror. He had seen, in his last moments, just a glimpse of the invincible Minervan war machine. Less than ten seconds had elapsed from the first shots to the last, but that had been enough to show him his own pitiful insignificance in the presence of the unstoppable, the incomprehensible. I felt a sickening connection with the man then, saw my future in his death mask of animal fear. Next to him, a Starship Trooper in full armour was casually examining his weapon, a blunt rifle with two vertical barrels.
‘Didn’t I tell you to secure the doors?’ the soldier said, and I recognized Sergeant Hassan’s voice through the hollow distortion of the helmet.
‘How did you know they were coming?’ Thalia asked. I could think of nothing to say. I was still transfixed by the dead animal on the floor.
‘A little dragonfly told me,’ Hassan replied.
‘Okay,’ she said. She remembered the device that the Grants had described to us. The mechanical scout. ‘I was wrong. You’re not a sack of shit.’
Hassan laughed, a deep and generous sound that should have put me at ease. Instead, it made my stomach churn. Thalia left my side and began asking him questions about his weapon, about the Aegis soldiers’ apparent ability to see through walls, and more. I did not care to listen. They may have saved the people inside the library, but they have damned the library itself. They simultaneously demonstrated the benefits of Minerva’s protection and the consequences of resistance in less than ten seconds. What’s more, my distrust has certainly destroyed whatever loyalty the others may have still harbored for me. I was warned, and by ignoring the warning, I put Angus Grant’s life in danger and let a member of the Crow’s gang into our sanctuary. I have lost them, all of them. Even Thalia, my good right hand.
Brandt did this to me. He has planned every detail, like the demon that he is. I would not be surprised if he somehow lured the Crow’s gang to our library for his own hellish purposes. He reappeared soon after the bodies of the gang were collected and piled for cremation. The armoured transport carrying Brandt and the Glaucus researchers rolled quietly up the road from the opposite end of the village, and the Oculus agent found me in my office.
‘How about that show?’ he said, in a disgustingly jovial mood. ‘Now do you understand what a healthy relationship with Minerva can do for your people?’
‘They’re not my people anymore,’ I replied.
‘No, but then again, they were never your people, were they?’ Brandt asked. ‘Oh, they’re a lot of things to you. They’re workers for your fields. They’re protection against the raiders. They’re an audience for your precious books. But they’re not your people. The books are your people.’
Panic ran through me as I considered the possibility that Brandt had read my journal. I had given him no opportunity to do so. The only other possibility was no more comforting – that Brandt had been studying me, measuring every action and response, until he could read my thoughts with the ease of a telepath.
‘You’ve built an empire for your books,’ Brandt continued. My mouth had become parched. ‘Which reminds me, I know you’re interested in name meanings. You have four different books about them. Would you like to know what your name means to me?’
‘No,’ I managed to say.
‘I don’t know about you, but when I hear “Julius,” I think “Caesar.” I skipped most of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar when I had to read it at the junior academy, but we read his death scene as a class, and I still remember it to this day. He was a brilliant man, Caesar, and a great ruler in his prime. But as time passed and his power grew out of all control, it became clear that he loved his empire more than he loved the citizens of his empire. He considered himself unique. Superior. He could no longer relate to the common man, and in the name of the common men, his closest advisors cut him down. A valuable lesson in politics for an impressionable young Oculus agent.’
I swallowed, trying to produce enough saliva to speak. Nothing. Perhaps my body had lost the will to speak. But my mind, my immortal word matrix, would not be denied one last request.
‘Kill me,’ I said.
‘An ugly solution, don’t you think?’ Brandt replied. ‘It wouldn’t look right in my report, and besides, it’s hardly necessary. Your people may not be concealing daggers in their togas, but I can assure you, they will end your dictatorship. One way or another, we will be packing the books and leaving tomorrow. I’d still prefer to have your consent, of course. My offer stands, in spite of all the heartache you’ve caused me. But if you refuse, your people will take the decision out of your hands. I can guarantee it.’
He waited several moments for a reply, but I gave him none. I will never consent to bury my Voices alive in that digital mausoleum. We are not so far removed from the vessels that contain our words. Like us, they need to breathe. They need to be oiled with the grease of our palms. They need the dirt and the wear of everyday life. They are reflections of their authors, who were themselves dirty and weary and imperfect things. If I did allow Brandt to take my books, and if he did come back to Byrnwood within my lifetime, and if he did grant us access to the Archives, would I recognize the cold holographic faces staring at me from my e reader? Or would the Voices become impersonal, indistinct? Would they lose their individuality and, therefore, their immortality?
I will never find out. I will not live to see if Brandt keeps his word or not. All that sustains me are the books. They animate my disintegrating corpse from day to failing day. Not even this journal will be able to compel me onward. What will I have to write about once Minerva has emptied us?
So here I stand, watching myself locked in the guillotine. My ink-stained hands are on the release. I can pull the release and end my journal, my life, everything. It is the only freedom I have left. Brandt has outmanoeuvred me at every step. I am completely alone now. Thalia only stopped in at suppertime to ask bashfully, like the traitor that she is, if I would join them by the fire. I refused. As usual, everyone is asleep and I am still uselessly penning my words. I wonder if they will mourn me, or if they will be glad that I chose to end my apparent dictatorship with something akin to grace. I wonder how Thalia will
There are voices coming from the pipes
– I hate to interrupt the narrative flow, but before I conclude my reading and analysis of the journal I wanted to point out that the technological capabilities displayed by the Aegis soldiers in this entry are not anachronistic. While the weapons and gadgets apparently used were not standard issue for all Aegis personal at the time, it is recorded fact that Sergeant Hassan was often issued prototypical models in order to field test them. In fact, the inclusion of these details is additional evidence for the veracity of this entry, and not the opposite.