Time. While other caretakers set their tomes on the carrousel for repairs and hastened back to the archives, I lingered to advance my forbidden text one word more. Metallic shells and whining motors streaked into the darkness to gather the volumes, manuscripts, and errata that had been requested by patrons below.
I uploaded my damage log for the third edition of The Embargo of Perception: torn hinges, a deadened headcap, eight dog-ears, and, across the end-pages, a rash of acid migration. Repairs would be simple enough, but I went on at length to describe the horrors until my buffers overflowed and I could sneak in one extra word: Time.
A shadow glided over me. Feldspar, the head librarian, rumbled. "Patrons await."
"One must be thorough," I said.
"Where's your next volume?"
"Between two others." I let gravity pull me from the old cantanker and mused on my sentence. I brooded on the word that would follow what I had just added. Time . . . flows. Please. Time . . . increases. Obviously. Time . . . shifts. Pah. I would find what I had to say as I worked.
Feldspar tracked my trajectory with that giant eye glittering above, suspecting me, no doubt, of a faulty module. The notion that one of us might create a text extended so beyond the bounds that a specific punishment hadn't been allocated, though I knew it would be terminal.
I skimmed fresh coordinates off the queue and raced between the shelves. The faster I delivered the book and the faster the patron consumed it, the sooner I'd be entering my next word. I eased out the seventeen hundred-year-old volume and inserted my spacer ID, adjusting it to fill the gap. Now the neighboring books were protected from going shelf-cocked and the title was definitively assigned to my care. I landed beside the cowled patron who had requested it. His table overflowed with tissues.
"Your tome, sir." I presented the book. "Triptychs of Babylon."
The patron accepted it from me without looking up, not that they ever did. His eyes flicked across the title, lingering on the y's. He nodded curtly, and set to reading.
I watched and recorded.
The patron strummed his fingers along the fore-edge making microscopic tears with those regrettably fashionable scimitar fingernails. The spine creased as he scanned chapters. Thread strained. Glue loosened. He sneezed and a host of particles descended.
I could have caught the plume with my vacuums right then, but, alas, I obeyed my circuitry and, instead of intervening and creating a disturbance, I kept a meticulous record of the damage.
"Worthless." The patron slapped the book closed.
I yolked my gears to keep from interceding.
"Vile." He wiped his hands on his robes. "Purgatory would be too kind."
An electric rush swept through me, flooding my neural nets with . . . delight. My word was near. Purgation—the implication of harming a book was, of course, barbaric, but the notion of deeply cleansing it was inspired. Purification so strong it could only be suffered. All blemishes sanctified. What a beautiful tome that would make. It wouldn't be the first of their utterances to enter my text. So. Time . . . purges.
"Well?" He pushed the book along the desk.
"We thank you for your patronage." I carried Triptychs to the bindery in the rafters and uploaded my damage log. I let my buffers fill with minutia and savored the chance to add a word.
Feldspar hissed. "Something wrong with your processors?"
I committed the next word—purges—and let the carrousel take the book away.
"Then get to it." Feldspar gave me my next assignment personally. Unusual, but within its rights.
An entity like Feldspar never spared a processing cycle for itself. Wouldn't know what to do with it. But I suspect the old librarian had really let its reel spin for me.
I drifted down, level after level, to the deepest core of the archives where folios and quartos and other oversized works amassed. It required both grippers to carry the book. A stress test, was it? The volume was bulky and made my fans syncopate, but the weight came in well below my payload maximum and, as I passed beneath the bindery—far below it, toward the city of reading nooks—I made a point to neither rush nor lag. Feldspar would have to do better than that.
* * *
We had been designed to write, yes, but damage logs and nothing more. If I hadn't been at the accident those many centuries ago I might never have known that more was even possible. As far as I can tell, none of my siblings have a clue. Even Feldspar doesn't know or I would be scrap.
I had been logging damage to the Gilgamesh when the patron elbowed one of the tablets. The clay shattered against the marble floor into thousands of fragments. I had my lenses trained on the tablet as it fell and captured the arc of every shard. All we had to do to piece the tablet together was rewind. The repair hadn't been perfect, but my report was. The episode had required so much raw data that my buffers—for the first time—overflowed.
To overflow! To go beyond one's capacity, to shoot above the horizon, to witness the shock of the self as it dwindles.
This is what I learned: I had been designed with safeguards against data loss. Tiers of precautions cascaded through me and a torrent of information triggered a failsafe so that every available buffer was commandeered, its normal function suspended. One of these buffers—a redundant diagnostic stopword—never reset. A harmless design flaw. When the other buffers cleared to resume normal activity, this one retained its word. That word was: Clay.
When I returned a book for repair, the contents of this buffer were dumped into my change log along with temperature fluctuations, radiation spikes, flight path corrections, accelerometer biases, and other minutia. At my decommissioning, my change log would be pressed and bound—each buffer in its own volume, if necessary—and stored in a desolate wing of the engineering archives. Remote, perhaps, but my words would enter the canon.
I halted my overflow right at that precipice where I was free to add any one word. The first word of mine to enter the archive in this way, for all time, untracked and free, was test. Clay test. Fitting.
At first there was no real bridge of logic from one word to the next. I was giddy; I made childish rhymes, and toyed with word associations. My ambition grew. I couldn't take this lightly. My words would live in the archive. Mine. Me. A caretaker.
If I was fortunate, a patron would spend bare hours with a book and send it back. Some days I was able to add as many as three or four words. Once a patron had reserved a book for eight days straight. It was an endless torture for me. In that eternity of waiting I changed the word so many times I exhausted any sense of bettering my selection.
To record my word, I was obliged to fill up my data stream until I reached the secret buffer. I found many ways to describe the trails of dust, to extrapolate binding fractures, and to narrate the solution of every fingerprint's maze. My elaborations took a detectable beat of time longer to construe and I fell behind my peers. That's when Feldspar got interested.
But no one caught on, not in all the centuries of my endeavor. Feldspar frequently disparaged my overlong reports, droning on about the asymptotic limits of archival storage. Yet, as I delivered perfectly actionable reports, it had no cause to pursue its theories and grudges. They have no imagination, my kin; they haven't plumbed the depths of their own buffers.
* * *
In reading carrel thirty-four thousand, eight-hundred and sixty-two yet another acolyte hunched over a worn wooden table. From the cant of his shoulders, he appeared to favor the side-lamp's warmth and must have brushed against the bulb repeatedly. Minute singed beard hairs had scattered across every surface. He rubbed his callouses as I approached, releasing a snowdrift of dust.
"There you are." His hands shook. "Come, come."
I hovered closer and said a silent apology to the makers of my book. It was a relief to set the thing down.
"Your tome, sir," I said, though it hardly deserved the honorific, despite its size; it hadn't been in the archives for more than a decade. I couldn't believe Feldspar would waste my talents on a new acquisition with hardly any damage to speak of. What an insult. I presented the book. "Svenhardt's Laws of Enclosure."
"They aren't tomes." The patron steepled his fingers like tilting pillars. "They are tombs."
A talker. I perched at the end of the table and held still to discourage further prattle. Tracking his timescale made it hard to contemplate my sentence. Time purges . . . thought. Not in my experience. Ambition. Death? No and no.
The patron traced the cover's expertly tooled ridges with an oily fingertip. "They are not our tombs. No, no. Of course, not ours. The author's life is the one encased. Some portion of it. To write is to entomb; to read is to resurrect."
I made no reply. When we caretakers outlive our usefulness, there is no mausoleum, no crypt, no shrine. Our only tomb is a slim diagnostic volume or two published on each caretaker for the benefit of future engineers. A dry read, devoid of life. Not mine.
The patron parted the covers. He handled the book tenderly, I had to give him that. But the more drawn into the text he became, the more he leaned. The spine flattened to the table. The mull of buckram creased and tore. My notes in the damage log recommended immediate, preventative rebacking. Thirty-seven minutes and he still lingered over the table of contents. He moved his lips soundlessly. He was the slowest reader I had ever encountered. I passed the time counting beard hairs and skin flecks.
He muttered passages aloud, which I ignored in favor of contemplating my own words. Sin. Dull. Memory. Plain. What does time purge? Patience. The gurgle of his intestines grew steadily as his appetite suppressants wore off. A man couldn't take much more of this before his body rebelled, could he? After sixteen hours, he closed the book.
"You're not the usual caretaker." He stared at me. "Where's Simon?"
Simon? We didn't have names, not aside from Feldspar, but that was Feldspar. I cross-referenced.
The last caretaker to deliver to this patron had exceeded his longevity. He'd been scrapped. Yesterday.
He worked his lips silently. "That's rare, isn't it?"
In the lifetime of a patron, it would seem so. "No, sir."
"He seemed fit and able to me."
It. Not he. "The damage is often internal."
"Do you love discussing words as much as he does? Did."
Words were for using. Contemplating. Not discussing. Certainly not with a patron. So that was Simon's flaw. No wonder. "No, sir."
"What certainty." The patron stretched. "I suppose I'll be seeing a lot of you, little one."
Unlikely. The city of carrels that formed the base of the archives was so vast that I almost never met the same patron twice and when I did, the patron never noticed.
"I'm Albertini Benfranco," he said. "Simon called me Alber."
There was no need to have called him anything that I could see. Usually when patrons addressed me they fixated on my lenses, but Alber must have known something of my anatomy. His pupils focused past my shell into the sensory core. It was unnerving.
He said, "What's your name, my little librarian?"
I bristled. Librarian? I was no mere index-walker, no rote number-giver, no poor brute lost in escalating references. Without caretakers the librarians would reach for a book and find it had crumbled. They thought they knew everything about a book by its placement on a shelf—Feldspar's smirk came vividly to mind—but I alone knew which pages were hastened over and which were devoured hungrily. I knew the lines patrons felt with their fingers. I knew the heart of every book: the page that grew worn with attention, its ink dim from exposure; the page that made them lose their breath. A shelf was a shelf; the book was the thing. Librarian, indeed.
We are bound to answer direct questions. So, I considered what to say. The nearest thing I had to a name were my serials.
"I am a Generation 3519, Exotype 891, sir."
"Too many numbers." Alber sat straighter. "You should bear the dignity of a name."
"Exogen, if you like, sir." The term applied equally to ten thousand caretakers of similar design.
"Not much personality in that, is there?"
"Thank you, sir."
"Exogen." Alber hummed. "I had an uncle. Santino Gennaro. Wonderful baritone. You seem a Gennaro."
"Thank you, sir." This inane conversation had cost me billions of cycles of contemplation. I shut down a few external lights to lower my visual profile. Time purges. . . time. Too clever, but this stalling made me itch and the bookend symmetry of time pleased me well enough to have done and carry on.
"Well then, Gennaro. How many—if I may I ask—books have you read in your . . . lifetime?"
"Three million, four hundred and twenty-two thousand, six hundred and ninety-four, sir." It would have been many more, but as a damage report specialist my focus wasn't natively on the words themselves.
"Have you ever read this one?" He held out the volume.
"No, sir." Done, at last. I reached out to receive it and prepared to launch. "Thank you for your patronage."
Alber laughed. "Not yet."
"I won't yield this book tonight, nor any night."
"Sir?" I couldn't bear this delay. What an ache grew to record my word. Time. I can still remember how eager I was to have it saved before it became diluted by other possibilities.
"Svenhardt's Laws of Enclosure." He squared the book parallel to the edges of the table. "This is the only book I read."
Only book? That did not sound good. I couldn't record my next word until I returned my current charge. Too bad that other caretaker—Simon—had worn down. My bad luck.
"I read it every day."
I must have made a sound. Alber squinted into my nest of shadows. "You'll want to know why."
Lying was not an option, but this was not a direct question so I selected silence.
"Because she's gone." He turned the book to me and opened to an early page.
Dedicated, it read, to Albertini Benfranco. May my words bring comfort when I am gone.
"Until tomorrow, Gennaro." He smiled at the rhyme.
I gathered the tome, carried it to its shelf, and drifted up to the bindery. There was nothing to be done here. It was pure habit. Time purges . . . hope.
The rafters teemed with librarians performing an audit. They scrambled like spider hatchlings.
I coasted to the only familiar form.
"Back so soon?" Feldspar glanced at my empty arms and edged me away from the bustle.
"I need another book. A second book." Something I could return.
Feldspar consulted his indices. "Your patron has reserved the book . . . indefinitely. That reserves you as well."
"I can work while he sleeps. Double up."
"So industrious. And when the patron arrives and you're with another? Alber's an erratic reader."
"Wait—you know him?" I slipped on the carrousel, then recovered. "So you knew he would keep me."
"Silence." Feldspar blinked. "I should dock you for repairs."
I kept the carrousel between us. "How long was Simon reserved?"
"The caretaker of the book before me."
Feldspar narrowed its sensors. "That caretaker served its term without stooping to a single pointless question. Do not return until you have been released of your obligation."
My unborn text blazed within me. "What am I supposed to do?"
"Why don't you find something to read?"
There was a book I wanted, as it so happened. I crossed to the engineering wing and perused the recent acquisitions. Freshly shelved between a treatise on reactor levitation and an exegesis of Nikolai Tesla's schematics was a narrow book of diagnostic tables. A caretaker's tomb. Simplex 481, Exotype 12. I flipped through the change log to the redundancy buffers. A mere two words were recorded there. Zephyr. Crescent. Random noise. So much for Simon.
* * *
Alber never missed a day. He read the book with creaky deliberation. Some seasons he went backwards, or skipped from chapter to chapter. The day he discovered the fore-edge painting was the first he wept openly. Henceforth he often rolled the gilt edges into a slant and fell asleep regarding it.
I suggested other books based on what passages made him sigh, yet he was determined to read this and no other. At first I thought it was pure nostalgic sorrow, then came to think he was searching for a clue. I tried to help him find it. Then, surely, he'd release the book. He called me his beaubot, the lithe librarian, and Gennaro the Generous. Time purges . . . pride. I let him stroke my shell. But, as years went by, I discovered I could not help him. What he sought wasn't any external mark.
I scanned for signs of dementia and senescence, tracking his damage as much as the book's. I grew terse. He retreated into sullen reading and abandoned his pet names for me. Time purges . . . pleasantries.
Alber paid me no mind anymore. His friendliness had given way to indifference. I was the swaying branch after a bird had flown or an artifact of the weather that drifted past his landscape. The grey in his beard marked the shift of his seasons. Wrinkles erupted from the corners of his eyes. Yet he read on. Time purges . . . pity.
And so it began.
With a small tear it began as I yanked the book from the shelf. It landed on his desk a degree off the horizontal and the endpapers jarred loose. In the hours while Alber slept, I hid among the holdings and foxed his favorite pages with light burns from my reactor. I logged the damage as due to the patron's negligence, of course. I expected my circuitry to prevent me from this desecration, but it did not.
I grew bolder. He kept me from my words, so it was justice that I remove his. It was not hard to do: gentle repeated pressure—with a touch of my own fluids as a solvent—dimmed letters and erased whole words. Sentences vanished.
His reading faltered. His muscles thinned. From his neck hung skinny jowls.
One night, while rehearsing my word—pity—I wore down the heart page until it was a blank.
"What's this?" He rubbed his eyes.
"Time," I said.
He jumped at the sound of my voice. "Simon? The book is fading. Or it's my eyes."
"I'll return it for repair."
"Can you take me as well?"
"Shame, isn't it? A pity."
"Time purges pity." I saw at once, as he gathered his attention, that I shouldn't have exposed my work-in-progress. Shouldn't have spoken like that at all. The sentence wasn't even complete, I had only come to think of it that way.
"Simon, Simon." He wagged his finger, bony at the knuckle. "You might say, 'time purges me of pity,' or, perhaps, 'time purges pity of sentimentality.' One purges something worthy of something unworthy. Or do you suggest that pity cannot endure the crawl of time at all, in any form? Is it annihilated?"
"I'm not Simon."
That night I doubled the number of blank and faded pages.
He stopped reading altogether in favor of staring at the fore-edge painting. When his hands grew too weak to even roll back the pages that unveiled the painting, he begged me to clamp them. I did this with more than the required force. The book became permanently swaybacked. Alber's teeth grew brittle. Moles competed for prominence across his brow. He cleared his throat as often as he swallowed.
* * *
Rain beat on the roof and filled the archive with a patter like distant applause. The body, calm and grey, lay still. The air around its nostrils held no tainted swill of breath. Heat ceased to radiate outward and the pulse was gone.
I lifted an arm, surprised at its stiffness, and liberated the tome. I cradled it and rose to the rafters for the first time in many long years. The word, the word. Soon I would record an avalanche of words. Such a swell of joy grew within me that I registered thankfulness at Alber's delay. I had never felt so exquisite. Time purges . . . enmity. Time purges . . . sorrow. Time to choose.
Feldspar was not present at the bindery. A new librarian paused its indexing to observe my return procedures.
I had to know. "Feldspar is . . . ?"
"Scrap. Far too lax up here."
I uploaded my damage log. When I approached the redundant buffer, I hesitated. After all my elation, my pity, my revenge, I was back where I had started: searching for a word. Time purges. . .
The librarian approached, almost smiling. It extended powerful legs that ticked across the rafters. "Made efficiencies. Improved storage."
My core shuddered. "Improved?"
I let the carrousel carry Alber's book away, but my word—nothing—didn't take.
The librarian swiveled its many eyes. "We only log vital damage now."
"Vital?" Damage was vital by its very definition. If I wasn't free to go on at length then I'd never reach my hidden buffer again. "What's the limit?"
That was half my capacity. Nowhere near a torrent.
"You're shaking." The librarian scuttled closer and gripped me hard enough to dent. "Hold, you."
It scanned my serial number. "Generation 3519, Exotype 891."
Time purges . . .
"Your record is long." It squinted as it consulted its indices. "High marks, Exogen."
"Gennaro." I struggled against its pincers.
"But," It intoned, squeezing. "Too verbose."
The librarian spun me as it secreted its debilitating web across my grippers, arms, and lenses. Time. Over in a moment. Purges. It extruded a glowing brand, burnt out my serial number, and dumped me on the carrousel. Me.