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Mr. Penumbra s 24 Hour Bookstore 11


  “Neel, I just need to fly to New York. Tomorrow.” I give him the knowing eye of friendship. “And Neel … I need a warrior.”

  He scrunches up his face. “I don’t think so … I have a lot of work to do here.”

  “But this is a Rockets & Warlocks scenario. You called it. How many times did we invent something like this? Now it’s real.”

  “I know, but we have a big release coming up, and—”

  I make my voice low: “Do not wuss out now, Nilric Quarter-Blood.”

  That’s a stab in the belly with a rogue’s poison dagger and we both know it.

  “Neel … reek?” Igor repeats wonderingly. Neel glowers at me.

  “The plane has Wi-Fi,” I say. “These guys won’t miss you.” I turn to Igor: “Will they?”

  The Babbage of Belarus grins and shakes his head.

  When I was a kid reading fantasy novels, I daydreamed about hot girl wizards. I never thought I’d actually meet one, but that’s only because I didn’t realize wizards were going to walk among us and we’d just call them Googlers. Now I’m in a hot girl wizard’s bedroom and we’re sitting on her bed, trying to solve an impossible problem.

  Kat has convinced me that we’ll never be able to catch Penumbra at Penn Station. There’s too much surface area, she says—too many ways Penumbra can get off the train and up to the street. She has math to prove this. There’s an 11 percent chance we’ll spot him, and if we fail, he’ll be lost for good. What we need instead is a bottleneck.

  The best bottleneck, of course, would be the library itself. But where does the Unbroken Spine make its home? Tyndall doesn’t know. Lapin doesn’t know. Nobody knows.

  Intensive googling reveals no website and no address for the Festina Lente Company. There are no mentions in newspapers, magazines, or classified ads going back a century. These guys don’t just fly under the radar; they’re subterranean.

  But it has to be a real place, right?—a place with a front door. Is it marked? I’m thinking about the bookstore. On the front windows, there’s Penumbra’s name, and there’s that symbol, the same one that’s on the logbook and ledger. Two hands, open like a book. I have a picture of it on my phone.

  “Good idea,” Kat says. “If a building has that symbol anywhere—on a window, carved into stone—we can find it.”

  “What, by conducting a complete sidewalk survey of Manhattan? That would take, like, five years.”

  “Twenty-three, actually,” Kat says. “If we did it the old-fashioned way.”

  She pulls her laptop across the sheets and shakes it to life. “But guess what we have in Google Street View? Pictures of every building in Manhattan.”

  “So subtract the walking time, and now it’ll only take us—thirteen years?”

  “You’ve got to start thinking differently,” Kat clucks, shaking her head. “This is one of the things you learn at Google. Stuff that used to be hard … just isn’t hard anymore.”

  I still don’t understand how computers can help us with this particular species of problem.

  “Well, what about hu-mans-and-com-pu-ters,” Kat says, her voice pitched like a cartoon robot, “work-ing-to-ge-ther?” Her fingers fly across the keyboard and there are commands I recognize: King Hadoop’s army is on the march again. She switches her voice back to normal: “We can use Hadoop to read pages in a book, right? So we can use it to read signs on buildings, too.”

  Of course.

  “But it will make mistakes,” she says. “Hadoop will probably get us from a hundred thousand buildings down to, like, five thousand.”

  “So we’re down to five days instead of five years.”

  “Wrong!” Kat says. “Because guess what—we have ten thousand friends. It’s called”—she clicks a tab triumphantly and fat yellow letters appear on the screen—”Mechanical Turk. Instead of sending jobs to computers, like Hadoop, it sends jobs to real people. Lots of them. Mostly Estonians.”

  She commands King Hadoop and ten thousand Estonian footmen. She is unstoppable.

  “What do I keep telling you?” Kat says. “We have these new capabilities now—nobody gets it.” She shakes her head and says it again: “Nobody gets it.”

  Now I make my voice into a cartoon robot, too: “The-Sin-gu-la-ri-ty-is-near!”

  Kat laughs and moves symbols around on her screen. A big red number in the corner tells us that 30,347 workers are waiting to do our bidding.

  “Hu-man-girl-very-beau-ti-ful!” I tickle Kat’s ribs and make her click the wrong box; she shoves me with her elbow and keeps working. While I watch, she queues up thousands of photos of Manhattan addresses. There are brownstones, skyscrapers, parking structures, public schools, storefronts—all captured by the Google Street View trucks, all flagged by a computer as maybe, possibly, containing a book made from two hands, although in most cases (actually, in all but one) it’s just something that the computer has mistaken for the Unbroken Spine’s symbol: two hands in prayer, an ornate Gothic letter, a cartoon drawing of a twisty brown pretzel.

  Then she sends the images off to Mechanical Turk—a whole army of eager souls lined up at laptops around the world—along with my reference photo and a simple question: Do these match? Yes or no?

  On her screen, a little yellow timer says the task will take twenty-three minutes.

  I can see what Kat is talking about: this really is intoxicating. I mean, King Hadoop’s computer army was one thing, but this is real people. Lots of them. Mostly Estonians.

  “Oh, hey, guess what?” Kat says suddenly, a jolt of excitement animating her face. “They’re going to announce the new Product Management soon.”

  “Wow. Good luck?”

  “Well, you know, it’s not completely random. I mean, it’s partially random. But there’s also, like—it’s an algorithm. And I asked Raj to put in a good word for me. With the algorithm.”

  Of course. So this means two things: (1) Pepper the chef will, in fact, never be chosen to lead the company; and (2) if Google doesn’t put this girl in charge, I’m going to switch to some other search engine.

  We stretch out side by side on Kat’s squishy spaceship bed, our legs interlaced, commanding more people now than there are in the town where I was born. She is Queen Kat Potente with her instant empire and I am her loyal consort. We won’t command them all for long, but hey: nothing lasts long. We all come to life and gather allies and build empires and die, all in a single moment—maybe a single pulse of some giant processor somewhere.

  The laptop makes a low chime, and Kat rolls over to tap at the keyboard. Still breathing hard, she grins and lifts the laptop onto her belly to show me the result of this great human-computer concord, this collaboration between a thousand machines, ten times as many humans, and one very smart girl:

  It is a washed-out picture of a low stone building, not really more than a big house. Blurry figures are caught crossing the sidewalk in front of it; one of them has a pink fanny pack. The house has iron bars over small windows and a dark shadowed entryway under a black awning. And etched into the stone, gray against gray, there it is: two hands, open like a book.

  It’s tiny—they aren’t any bigger than real hands. You’d probably miss it, just walking by on the sidewalk. The building is on Fifth Avenue, facing Central Park, just down the street from the Guggenheim.

  The Unbroken Spine is hiding in plain sight.

  THE LIBRARY

  THE STRANGEST CLERK IN FIVE HUNDRED YEARS

  I AM LOOKING through a pair of white Stormtrooper binoculars. I am looking at that same tiny gray symbol, two hands spread open like a book, etched into darker gray stone. I’m perched on a bench on Fifth Avenue, my back to Central Park, flanked by a newspaper dispenser and a falafel cart. We’re in New York City. I borrowed the binoculars from Mat before we left. He warned me not to lose them.

  “What do you see?” Kat asks.

  “Nothing yet.” There are small windows set high up on the walls, all guarded by heavy bars. It’s a boring little fortr
ess.

  The Unbroken Spine. It sounds like a band of assassins, not a bunch of book lovers. What’s going on in that building? Are there sexual fetishes that involve books? There must be. I try not to imagine how they might work. Do you have to pay money to be a member of the Unbroken Spine? You probably have to pay a lot of money. There are probably expensive cruises. I’m worried about Penumbra. He’s in so deep that he can’t even see how strange it all is.

  It’s early in the morning. We came straight from the airport. Neel visits Manhattan all the time for business and I used to take the train down from Providence, but Kat is a New York neophyte. She gawked at the city’s predawn glitter as our plane curled down into JFK, her fingertips on the window’s clear plastic, and she breathed, “I didn’t realize it was so skinny.”

  Now we are sitting quietly on a bench in the skinny city. The sky is getting light, but we’re cloaked in shadows, breakfasting on perfectly imperfect bagels and black coffee, trying to look normal. The air smells wet, like it’s going to rain, and there’s a cold wind whipping up the street. Neel is sketching on a little notepad, drawing curvy babes with curvy swords. Kat bought a New York Times but couldn’t figure out how to operate it, so now she’s fiddling with her phone.

  “It’s official,” she says, not looking up. “They’re announcing the new Product Management today.” She keeps refreshing and refreshing and refreshing; I think her battery is going to die before noon.

  I alternate pages of The Guide to Central Park Birds (purchased at the JFK bookstore) with furtive glances through Mat’s binoculars.

  Here’s what I see:

  As the pitch of the city rises and traffic starts to pick up on Fifth Avenue, a lone figure comes trotting up the opposite sidewalk. It’s a man, middle-aged, with a fuzz of brown hair that’s blowing in the wind. I fiddle with the focus on the binoculars. He has a round nose and fleshy cheeks that are glowing pink in the cold. He’s wearing dark pants and a tweedy jacket that fit him perfectly; they’ve been tailored to the swell of his belly and the slope of his shoulders. He bounces a little as he walks.

  My spider-sense is operational, because sure enough, Round Nose stops at the Unbroken Spine’s front door, wiggles a key in the lock, and steps gingerly inside. Twin lamps in small sconces on either side of the door come to life.

  I tap Kat’s shoulder and point to the glowing lamps. Neel narrows his eyes. Penumbra’s train will pull into Penn Station at 12:01 p.m. and until then, we watch and we wait.

  Following Round Nose, a thin but steady trickle of incredibly normal-looking New Yorkers passes through the dark doorway. There’s a girl in a white blouse and a black pencil skirt; a middle-aged man in a drab green sweater; a guy with a shaved head who looks like he would fit in at Anatomix. Can these all be members of the Unbroken Spine? It doesn’t feel right.

  Neel whispers, “Maybe they target a different demographic here. Younger. Sneakier.”

  There are many more New Yorkers who don’t pass through the dark doorway, of course. The sidewalks on both sides of Fifth Avenue are full of them, a flux of humanity, tall and short, young and old, cool and uncool. Clots of pedestrians drift past us and block my view. Kat is agog.

  “It’s so small but there are so many people,” she says, watching the human flow. “They’re … it’s like fish. Or birds or ants, I don’t know. Some superorganism.”

  Neel cuts in: “Where did you grow up?”

  “Palo Alto,” she says. From there to Stanford to Google: for a girl obsessed with the outer limits of human potential, Kat has stayed pretty close to home.

  Neel nods knowingly. “The suburban mind cannot comprehend the emergent complexity of a New York sidewalk.”

  “I don’t know about that,” Kat says, narrowing her eyes. “I’m pretty good with complexity.”

  “See, I know what you’re thinking,” Neel says, shaking his head. “You’re thinking it’s just an agent-based simulation, and everybody out here follows a pretty simple set of rules”—Kat is nodding—”and if you can figure out those rules, you can model it. You can simulate the street, then the neighborhood, then the whole city. Right?”

  “Exactly. I mean, sure, I don’t know what the rules are yet, but I could experiment and figure them out, and then it would be trivial—”

  “Wrong,” Neel says, honking like a game-show buzzer. “You can’t do it. Even if you know the rules—and by the way, there are no rules—but even if there were, you can’t model it. You know why?”

  My best friend and my girlfriend are sparring over simulations. I can only sit back and listen.

  Kat frowns. “Why?”

  “You don’t have enough memory.”

  “Oh, come on—”

  “Nope. You could never hold it all in memory. No computer’s big enough. Not even your what’s-it-called—”

  “The Big Box.”

  “That’s the one. It’s not big enough. This box”—Neel stretches out his hands, encompasses the sidewalk, the park, the streets beyond—”is bigger.”

  The snaking crowd surges forward.

  Neel gets bored and walks down the street to the Met, where he intends to snap reference photos of marble breasts from antiquity. Kat composes short urgent messages to Googlers with her thumbs, chasing down rumors of the new PM.

  At 11:03 a.m., a stooped figure in a long coat totters up the street. My spider-sense tingles again; I believe I can now detect a certain strain of weirdness with lab-grade precision. The stooped totterer has a face like an old barn owl, with a furry black Cossack’s hat pulled down over wiry eyebrows that stick out into space. Sure enough: he ducks into the dark doorway.

  At 12:17 p.m., it’s finally beginning to rain. We’re shielded beneath tall trees, but Fifth Avenue is quickly darkening.

  At 12:29 p.m., a taxi stops in front of the Unbroken Spine, and out steps a tall man in a peacoat, pulling it close around his neck as he leans down to pay the driver. It’s Penumbra, and it’s surreal to see him here, framed by dark trees and pale stone. I’ve never even imagined him anywhere other than the inside of his bookstore. They’re a package deal; you can’t have one without the other. But here he is, standing in the middle of the street in Manhattan, fiddling with his wallet.

  I hop up and sprint across Fifth Avenue, dodging slow-moving cars. The taxi pulls away like a yellow curtain, and, ta-da! There I am. First Penumbra’s face is blank, then his eyes narrow, then he smiles, and then he tips his head back and barks a loud laugh. He keeps laughing, so then I start laughing, too. We stand there for a moment, just laughing at each other. I’m also panting a bit.

  “My boy!” Penumbra says. “You might just be the strangest clerk this fellowship has seen in five hundred years. Come, come.” He ushers me up onto the sidewalk, still laughing. “What are you doing here?”

  “I came to stop you,” I say. It sounds strangely serious. “You don’t have to—” I’m huffing and puffing. “You don’t have to go in there. You don’t have to get your book burned. Or whatever.”

  “Who told you about burning?” Penumbra says quietly, raising an eyebrow.

  “Well,” I say, “Tyndall heard it from Imbert.” Pause. “Who heard it from, uh, Monsef.”

  “They are wrong,” Penumbra says sharply. “I have not come here to talk of punishment.” He spits it out: punishment, as if it’s something far beneath him. “No. I have come to make my case.”

  “Your case?”

  “Computers, my boy,” he says. “They hold the key for us. I have suspected it for some time, but never had proof that they could be a boon to our work. You have provided it! If computers can help you solve the Founder’s Puzzle, they can do much more for this fellowship.” He makes a thin fist and shakes it: “I have come prepared to tell the First Reader that we must make use of them. We must!”

  Penumbra’s voice has the timbre of an entrepreneur pitching his startup.

  “You mean Corvina,” I say. “The First Reader is Corvina.”

  Penumbra
nods. “You cannot follow me here”—he waves his hand back toward the dark doorway—”but I would speak to you after I am finished. We will have to consider what equipment to purchase … which companies to work with. I will need your help, my boy.” He lifts his gaze to look over my shoulder. “And you are not alone, are you?”

  I look back across Fifth Avenue, where Kat and Neel are standing, watching us and waiting. Kat waves.

  “She works at Google,” I say. “She helped.”

  “Good,” Penumbra says, nodding. “That is very good. But tell me: How did you find this place?”

  I grin when I tell him: “Computers.”

  He shakes his head. Then he tucks a hand into his peacoat and pulls out a skinny black Kindle, still activated, showing sharp words against a pale background.

  “You got one,” I say, smiling.

  “Oh, more than one, my boy,” Penumbra says, and produces another e-reader—it’s a Nook. Then another one, a Sony. Another one, marked KOBO. Really? Who has a Kobo? And did Penumbra just cross the country carrying four e-readers?

  “I had a bit of catching up to do,” he explains, balancing them in a stack. “But you know, this one”—he produces a final device, this one super-slim and clad in blue—”was my favorite of the bunch.”

  There’s no logo. “What is that?”

  “This?” He flips the mystery e-reader around in his fingers. “My student Greg—you do not know him, not yet. He lent it to me for the journey.” His voice grows conspiratorial. “He said it was a prototype.”

  The anonymous e-reader is amazing: thin and light, with a skin that’s not plastic but cloth, like a hardcover book. How did Penumbra get his hands on a prototype? Who does my boss know in Silicon Valley?

  “It is a remarkable device,” he says, balancing it with the rest and patting the stack. “This is all quite remarkable.” He pauses, then looks up at me. “Thank you, my boy. It is because of you that I am here.”