He climbed the stairs, two at a time and hovered within the lobby. From here he could see the backs of people on the endless steps. Others stood with hand above head, blocking out the artificial sunlight.
The Great Library claimed to house the biggest collection of databases in the Orion Arm. Marley had stumbled on this manuscript, loosely bound and precariously resting between two volumes of Dr Boson’s Cosmogony. Boson’s work was impressive; he had compiled one of the largest ever encyclopaedias.
Marley had spent his whole life on Crete. But the manuscript he was looking for – he had never seen anything like it. No buttons or scrollbars, no touch-sensitive screen. It wasn’t a Book, as the larger V-readers were known as. Some texts (such as Boson’s Cosmogony) were so immense and contained so much text and interactive graphics that they needed a V-reader, sometimes several readers and a server room. Not all of Boson’s Cosmogony was on the multiweb. Boson had used machine learning to compile many of the entries, and many thought it impossible to upload the encyclopaedia in its entirety.
Marley knew he was looking for something very old. Gaston Dimble had mentioned manuscripts before and had shown him a variety of non-digital materials. He should have paid more attention. Dimble had ignored him ever since.
If he could show Dimble this manuscript, maybe he’d forgive him. It was between two of Boson’s volumes, but which two? There were thousands of them. He did some studying to clear his mind.
He flicked absent-mindedly through a reference book on Interspecies Liaison (many studies were conducted on how to overcome the boundaries of fear and, if possible, befriend). The V-reader was decades old and out of date. It was well known that you should never refer to a jellyfish from Enceladus as a Jovian Jellyfish. However, the reference neglected to mention that ‘Jovial Jellyfish’ was fine, and was a good way to break the ice with particularly high-minded specimens. This V-reader badly tried to simulate the turning of a page and had a screen covered in smudges of oily fingerprints. He slapped it on the desk. It emitted a hiss of static and began to scroll rapidly and continuously upwards. He shook it. The screen froze and the system went into reboot. He got up and went after the manuscript.
Twenty aisles stretched from right to left. He walked down the first aisle, absently stroking each book in passing, trying to sense if any had been removed or recently re-shelved. He removed eight black book modules that looked familiar.
Maybe he should return tomorrow. Maybe he shouldn’t return at all but weasel as much information out of Gaston Dimble as possible. Better yet, maybe he should give up and forget about the psychiatric readout. The final words probably meant exactly what they said. Mere spiritual sayings designed to motivate, to stop his life crumbling. For the tiniest split second his thoughts leapt as he recalled the crumbling book. Could the crumbs of paper be on the floor?
He peered under the shelves. With a view of the entire floor he discerned two very nice ankles. He lay down and closed one eye, squinting. Over in the corner appeared three scraps of paper. Aisle 12! He slammed his fist down with enthusiasm.
A Sirian accent addressed him as he got to his feet. “Excuse me, there is to be no sleeping on the floor of the library. In fact there is no sleeping in the library at all.”
“I’m not dozing. I dropped something.”
“Oh, is that it? By the way, I was joking about no sleeping in the library. In fact we specialise in providing patrons with books guaranteed for sleep. What about Effects of Solar Flares on Sub-polar Industry, or perhaps Harvard Akbar’s Tails of an Eccentric Comet?”
Marley pretended to like the Sirian’s effort at humour. He slapped him on the back. “Next time I’m here, bring me Harvard Akbar and a cushion.” The librarian found this particularly funny. He hooted and slapped his thigh.
Marley made his way to Aisle 12.
The librarian did a little jig. “I’ll also bring you The Running Woman.”
Marley quite liked the sound of that, as long as the running woman was running towards him. He resisted the urge to turn.
He bent over to retrieve the scraps, breathless. They were wrappers for Chester’s Chewy Space Bars. He’d spent hours searching for the one thing that would interest Dimble, and it certainly wasn’t going to be wrappings of Chester’s Chewy Space Bars.
He head-butted the shelves. He kicked the bottom shelf. In the next aisle he heard something flutter to the floor.
He rushed to Aisle 13. His kick had been firm enough to dislodge two pages. He was about to grab the rest of the manuscript when he remembered how fragile it was. He slowly gripped the bound leather binding, placing his hand underneath the book to stop further pages slipping.
Slowly, he opened it. The inside cover was mouldy. It had been here for centuries, perhaps eons. He didn’t know how to hold it. In his native stupidity he tipped it upside down and several pages flew out.
He gathered the pieces together and reassembled them on a nearby shelf. Someone had spilt tea on it, long ago. Strange squiggly lines ran in a semi-even fashion. Above these lines were pictures, meticulous diagrams that looked like machines at the dawn of the technology age, or sketches from a cyberpunk v-comic. He recognised writing at the top. He traced the strange flowing ink with the tip of his finger. There was no scanning code; he could smuggle the pages out of the library.
Before putting the manuscript in his bag he had one last look. Maybe he could advertise it on the dark market. He pondered the scribbles. One looked like a drawing of a human eyeball, another was an elaborate plan for a building with pulleys and wheels. There was a puppet on strings, a big sheet above its head.
What really attracted his attention was a long tube of toothpaste that someone had squeezed tightly in the middle. It reminded him of a spaceship , one of those crazy corvettes made during the exomoon mining boom.
Marley purchased a coffee on his way out. When he reached the bottom of the worn stone stairs he turned around.
The flags of the sentient races reminded him of how many known and unknown wonders he still had to see.