The Unsearchable Library
M. J. Pettit
Bertrand first conceived of the library when he chanced upon an article about a swarm of interstellar debris whose tail was passing between Jupiter and Saturn. The article dwelled on the strange time distortion experienced inside the asteroids. A nearby probe redirected to investigate their finely-wrought tunnels managed to record a year’s worth of footage during a ten-minute sweep. The next story recommended to Bertrand explained how the algae lining the tunnels seemed to convert radiation into heat and oxygen. And the asteroids’ odd spin resulted in an eerily earthly gravity. Such reports suggested a living thing, a creature of finite duration, could meander up and down those passageways as the asteroid continued on its galactic journey. With a little luck, one might even live to see their return to the solar system. Though the intelligence behind the tunnels remained shrouded in mystery, the possibilities they presented intrigued him. A lifeline launched across the cold expanse. The vision came in that instance.
No, that was a lie. The idea for the library had come decades earlier, when Bertrand’s fleshy iteration sat stooped before his desktop, copying out a passage from Google Books when he knew very well a copy of the same text, with the needed quotation underlined, sat untouched on the shelf behind him.
Approaching his thirteenth decade, Bertrand found himself syncing more and more with his biological substantiation. Syncing with it despite—or maybe because of—the limitations such a body possessed. He reveled in its bouts of forgetfulness. The pain in its lower back as it crouched to work the soil in the weedy garden behind his ancestral home. The pair of them frequented the dilapidated archives where he spent a career pulling together fragments and breathing life into the past.
These derelictions troubled Mathilde. “Why linger in the finite when the afterlife offers so much?” his wife asked.
Bertrand sat across the table from her in a facsimile of their old dining room. Tablets in hand, they sorted through the documents needed to complete their latest projects. She was putting the finishing touches on the final volume of her economic history of the Greek city-states as he began a revisionist account of the green children of Woolpit. The writing came easy (or as easy as it ever could) with the abbey’s algorithms intuiting the next required datum.
Mathilde took a long sip of lapsang souchong from her favorite Wedgwood teacup. The one she remembered accidentally dropping in some long ago washup. It had smashed beyond repair. The web of hairline cracks refused to fade, even after she returned the cup to its saucer.
“You’d enjoy the occasional visit with your old self,” Bertrand said.
“I don’t see the appeal,” Mathilde said. “What can’t you access from here?”
“Not much,” he admitted, “but everything tastes so parsed and dissected. Out there I can still chance upon something new.”
A tired complaint.
“Getting nostalgic, are we? You know better than that.”
Bertrand’s shoulders tensed. His lower lip made that dismissive curl. He seemed ready to argue; then his body slackened, the crinkle of a smile returned to the corners of his eyes.
“Suppose you’re right,” he said, “but aren’t you a tiny bit curious what she’s up to?”
Why this sudden obsession with their discarded lives? The abbey’s complex of servers, cooled by a steady Antarctic wind, contained the most complete record of their personal histories and enriched them with constant streams of information. Their frail originals lived as pale shadows in comparison. Mathilde suspected a corruption of her husband’s source file. Hadn’t he been the one always pushing them to join the afterlife? A rare instance of early adoption. But repeated diagnostics returned having detected no fault. She placed another request.
Maybe they were destined to follow the pattern set by their substantiations. Neither of them understood why their counterparts had drifted apart. Both substantiations had been reticent to lay blame when that version of Mathilde moved across the country—and yet live apart they did. Maybe some iron law governed every variation on their lives. No, that was impossible. She knew better. History taught nothing was inevitable.
But Betrand was immovable. He kept ranting about skimming through the flagship journals upon their arrival in the mail, of scanning newspaper headlines by the page.
Acquisitions proved easy. The deaccessioned littered the earth. A dozen offsite facilities answered the call, delighted someone wanted to liberate them of their unwanted troves. Bertrand accepted every offer.
A bot alerted by this recent activity queried whether he desired certain ancient relics (a saint’s elbow, maybe the motor for a Model T). The unhelpful suggestions sat ignored. Only the printed word interested Bertrand.
Securing the rights to the interstellar debris and retrofitting it for habitation required only a modest fortune. The fad for buying outbound asteroids had passed with the enthusiasm for the first wave of interstellar voyagers. For once it paid for the old scholar to be slow on the uptake. Inexpensive, but it still required liquidating certain assets.
In the end, the sum was exactly what Bertrand received for selling his storage plot at the abbey.
Bertrand distributed invitations, sending them to friends, colleagues, and former students. The library welcomed all if they agreed to the rules.
The library was for browsing. Readers were permitted to map their routes using pencil and paper, but catalogue search was strictly forbidden, indeed impossible. A virus had stripped the meta-data from the books upon arrival. Automata unpacked the crates and reshelved the contents. The process largely preserved the old order, but Bertrand programmed his assistants to displace volumes at random. He encouraged all explorers to squirrel away their favorite tomes in their provided carrels or create small hordes wherever an empty span of shelf permitted. Also cats, plenty of cats, would roam the stacks.
By his calculations, the invited would have near infinite time to amble through the tunnels. Given the library’s fixed scope, every user could conceivably pull down each volume. But choices must be made. Each discovery, every connection came at the cost of making another. They would encounter the same volumes again but always in a different context, read in a different light. In this sense, every browse presented a new library.
“You’re so thoughtless.” Mathilde deleted her invitation. “To throw away the eternity we had together to go adventuring in space.”
He tried to explain, but he failed to retrieve the right words.
Bertrand synced with his substantiation one last time, relinquishing his plot.
As launch day approached, one friend after another demurred, citing prior commitments preventing their participation. Bertrand accepted the news with his usual stoicism, but quietly wondered whether his plan was a mistake. Had he become an old fool chasing the never-was?
His dissolved when Mathilde’s substantiation met him at the launchpad. They waited for others to join them. At sunset, they departed alone.
Rumors circulated about the servers. People called Bertrand a nihilist, a misanthrope, a sadist.
The truth was simpler (though it took Bertrand a number of passes through the library to realize it). He wanted to recapture the moment when he and Mathilde chanced upon each other and their eyes met after reaching for the same book so many lives ago.
Librarians Cannot Save It All
Cool the library air, suck out moisture that mildews
paper. Rig up sprinklers, connect them to sensors.
Force us through metal detectors. None of this
can save all the truth this world needs.
Those who control the flow of knowledge
will always have matches, bonfires, witch hunts.
Files corrupt. Formats lose rhyme and reason.
Dead and moldering monks with their inks and illustrations
ran out of paper and wrote over the old.
Think Alexandria, Beirut, Nazi Germany, Bucharest, Sarajevo,
Baghdad, Mosul, Moscow. Tripoli, Timbuktu. The Khmer
Rouge in Phnom Penh and many more.
Warriors with flamethrowers hate paper.
Dewey Class 900 teaches impermanence.
Duplication in far-flung locations
may render flames and floods
here less threatening than there,
but tectonic plates shake.
Ink fades. Paper degrades.
The axis of the earth will shift. A comet
will come. A plague. The most secure
place in the world will crack.
Clutch the wisdom of your heart.