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History & Fiction
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Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
Mr. Penumbra s 24 Hour Bookstore 19
It goes on. The notes are concise but the message is clear: Clark Moffat was a savant of the Unbroken Spine. Is it possible … was he the dark moss constellation in the visualization? Was he the one who raced around the Founder’s whole face in the time it took other novices to trace out an eyelash or an earlobe? There’s probably some way to link specific notes to the visualization and—
The bell tinkles and I jerk my head up out of the endless scrolling text. It’s late, and I expect to see a member of the fellowship, but instead it’s Mat Mittelbrand, hauling a black plastic case. It’s huge, bigger than he is, and it’s stuck in the doorway.
“What are you doing here?” I ask, helping to pry it loose. The case’s surface is tough and knobby and it has heavy metal buckles.
“I’m here on a mission,” Mat says, breathing hard. “This is your last night, right?”
I’ve been complaining to him about Penumbra’s neglect. “Maybe,” I say. “Probably. What’s all this?”
He tips his case over on the floor, flips the buckles (they make a serious-sounding snap snap), and opens it wide. Inside, cushioned in a bed of gray foam, there’s photography gear: crystalline lights with sturdy wire shields, thick collapsible aluminum stalks, and wide coils of bright orange cable.
“We’re going to document this place,” Mat says. He sets his hands on his hips and peers appreciatively around. “It must be recorded.”
“So, what, like—a photo shoot?”
Mat shakes his head. “No, that would be selective recording. I hate selective recording. We’re going to take a picture of every surface, from every angle, under bright, even light.” He pauses. “So we can re-create it.”
My mouth hangs open.
He continues, “I’ve done photo recon on castles and mansions. This store is tiny. It’ll only take three or four thousand shots.”
Mat’s intention is completely over-the-top, obsessive, and maybe impossible. In other words: it’s perfect for this place.
“So, where’s the camera?” I ask.
On cue, the bell over the front door tinkles again, and Neel Shah comes barreling through with a monstrous Nikon hanging from his neck and a bottle of bright green kale juice in either hand. “Got some refreshments,” he says, holding them aloft.
“You two are going to be my assistants,” Mat says. He taps the black plastic case with his toe. “Start setting up.”
The bookstore is bursting with heat and light. Mat’s lamps are daisy-chained together, all plugged into the one power outlet behind the front desk. I’m pretty sure it’s going to blow a fuse, or maybe a whole street-level transformer. Booty’s neon sign might be at risk tonight.
Mat is up on one of Penumbra’s ladders. He’s using it as a makeshift dolly, with Neel pushing him slowly across the span of the store. Mat holds the Nikon steady in front of his face and fires off a shot for each of Neel’s long, even strides. The camera triggers the lights, which are set up in all the corners and behind the front desk, and they all go pop pop with every shot.
“You know,” Neel says, “we could use these shots to make a 3-D model.” He looks over at me. “I mean, another one. Yours was good.”
“No, I get it,” I say. I’m at the front desk, making a checklist of all the details we need to capture: the tall letters on the windows and their rough, crenelated edges, worn away by time. The bell and its clapper and the curling iron bracket that holds it in place. “Mine looked like Galaga.”
“We can make it interactive,” Neel says. “First-person view, totally photorealistic and explorable. You could choose the time of day. We can make the shelves cast shadows.”
“No,” Mat groans from the ladder. “Those 3-D models suck. I want to make a miniature store with miniature books.”
“And a miniature Clay?” Neel asks.
“Sure, maybe a little LEGO dude,” Mat says. He hauls himself up higher on the ladder and Neel starts pushing him back across the store. The lights go pop pop, leaving red spots in my eyes. Neel is ticking off the advantages of 3-D models as he pushes the ladder: they’re more detailed, more immersive, you can make infinite copies. Mat is groaning. Pop pop.
In all the bright noise, I almost miss the ring.
It’s just a tickle in my ear, but yes: somewhere in the bookstore, a phone is ringing. I cut through the shelves parallel to the photo shoot, with the lights still going pop pop, and emerge into the tiny break room. The sound is coming from Penumbra’s study. I push through the door marked PRIVATE and hop up the steps.
The pop pop of the lights is softer up here, and the ring ring from the phone (next to the old modem) is loud and insistent, produced by some powerful old-fashioned mechanical noisemaker. It keeps ringing, and it occurs to me that my usual strategy for strange phone calls—wait them out—might not work here.
These days, the phone only carries bad news. It’s all “your student loan is past due” and “your uncle Chris is in the hospital.” If it’s anything fun or exciting, like an invitation to a party or a secret project in the works, it will come through the internet.
Okay, well, maybe it’s an inquisitive neighbor calling to ask what the commotion is all about—all the flashing lights. Maybe it’s North Face over at Booty’s checking to make sure everything’s okay. That’s sweet. I pick up the phone and announce, with relish: “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.”
“You must stop him,” a voice says, without introduction or preamble.
“Um, I think you have the wrong number.” It’s not North Face.
“I definitely do not have the wrong number. I know you. You’re the boy—you’re the clerk.”
I recognize the voice now. The quiet power. The crisp syllables. It’s Corvina.
“What’s your name?” he says.
“I’m Clay.” But then: “You probably want to talk to Penumbra directly. You should call back in the morning …”
“No,” Corvina says matter-of-factly. “Penumbra’s not the one who stole our most precious treasure.” He knows. Of course he knows. How? Another one of his crows, I suppose. Word must have gotten out here in San Francisco.
“Well, it’s really not technically stealing, I don’t think,” I say, looking down at my shoes as if he’s here in the room with me, “because, I mean, it’s probably in the public domain …” I trail off. This is not going to get me anywhere.
“Clay,” Corvina says, smooth and dark, “you must stop him.”
“I’m sorry, but I just don’t believe in your … religion,” I say. I would probably not be able to say this to his face. I’m clutching the black curve of the phone tight to my cheek. “So I don’t think it matters if we scan an old book. Or if we don’t. I don’t think it’s, like, of any cosmic importance whatsoever. I’m just helping my boss—my friend.”
“You’re doing exactly the opposite,” Corvina says quietly.
I don’t have any response to that.
“I know you don’t believe what we believe,” he says. “Of course you don’t. But you don’t need faith to realize that Ajax Penumbra is on the razor’s edge.” He pauses to let that sink in. “I’ve known him longer than you have, Clay—far longer. So let me tell you about him. He’s always been a dreamer, a great optimist. I understand why you’re drawn to him. All of you in California—I used to live there. I know what it’s like.”
Right. The young man in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. He’s smiling at me across the room, giving me a big thumbs-up.
“You probably think I’m just the cold New York CEO. You probably think I’m too severe. But, Clay—sometimes discipline is the truest form of kindness.”
He’s using my first name a lot. Mostly it’s salesmen who do that.
“My friend Ajax Penumbra has tried many things in his life—many schemes—and they have always been so elaborate. He has always been just on the cusp of a breakthrough—in his own mind, at least. I’ve known him for fifty years, Clay—fift
y years! And in that time, do you know how many of his schemes have succeeded?”
I don’t like where—
“None. Zero. He has maintained that store where you’re standing—barely—and accomplished absolutely nothing else of note. And this, the last and greatest of his schemes—it will not succeed, either. You just said so yourself. It is foolishness, and it will fail, and what then? I worry about him, Clay, truly—as his oldest friend.”
I know he’s using a Jedi mind trick on me right now. But it’s a really good Jedi mind trick.
“Okay,” I say, “I get it. I know Penumbra’s a little weird. Obviously. What am I supposed to do?”
“You must do what I can’t. I would delete the copy you stole. I would delete every copy. But I’m too far away, so you must help me, and you must help our friend.”
Now it sounds like he’s standing right beside me:
“You must stop Penumbra, or this final failure will destroy him.”
The phone is back in its cradle, even though I am not totally conscious of having hung up. The store is quiet; there’s no more pop pop from the front. I cast my eyes slowly around Penumbra’s study, at the wreckage of decades of digital dreams, and Corvina’s warning starts to make sense. I think of the look on Penumbra’s face as he was explaining his scheme to us in New York, and it makes even more sense. I look across at the photo again. Suddenly it’s not Corvina who’s the wayward friend—it’s Penumbra.
Neel appears at the top of the stairs.
“Mat needs your help,” he says. “You have to hold a light or something.”
“Okay, sure.” I take a sharp breath, push Corvina’s voice out of my head, and follow Neel back down into the store. We’ve raised a lot of dust, and now the lamps are making bright shapes in the air, punching through spaces in the shelves, catching feathery motes—microscopic scraps of paper, bits of Penumbra’s skin, of mine—and making them shine.
“Mat’s pretty good at this, huh?” I say, peering around at the otherworldly effect.
Neel nods. “He’s amazing.”
Mat hands me a giant sheet of glossy white poster board and tells me to hold it steady. He’s capturing the front desk up close, getting deep into the grain. The poster board is reflecting so subtly that I cannot detect its effect on the wood, but I assume it is making a crucial contribution to the brightness and evenness of the light.
Mat starts shooting again, and the big lights are just calmly beaming now, so I can hear the camera go click click. Neel is standing behind Mat, holding a light with one hand, slurping his second kale juice with the other.
As I stand holding the poster board, I think:
Corvina doesn’t really care about Penumbra. This is about control, and he’s trying to turn me into his instrument. I’m grateful for the geographical distance between us; I’d hate to experience that voice in person. Or maybe he wouldn’t bother with persuasion in person. Maybe he’d show up with a gang of black-robes. But he can’t, because we’re in California; the continent is our shield. Corvina caught on too late, so his voice is all he’s got.
Mat pushes in even closer, apparently going for molecular detail on the front desk, the place where I’ve spent so much of my life recently. I’m presented, for a moment, with a nicely framed portrait: compact curled-up Mat, sweating, holding his camera up to his eye, and big broad Neel, smiling, holding the light steady, slurping his kale juice. My friends, making something together. This requires faith, too. I can’t tell what this poster board is doing, but I trust Mat. I know it’s going to be beautiful.
Corvina’s got it wrong. Penumbra’s schemes didn’t fail because he’s a hopeless crackpot. If Corvina’s right, it means nobody should ever try anything new and risky. Maybe Penumbra’s schemes failed because he didn’t have enough help. Maybe he didn’t have a Mat or a Neel, an Ashley or a Kat—until now.
Corvina said: You must stop Penumbra.
No, just the opposite. We’re going to help him.
Dawn comes, and when it does, I know not to expect Penumbra. He is headed not to the store that bears his name, but to Google. In just about two hours, the project that Penumbra and his brothers and sisters have toiled over for decades, for centuries, is coming to fruition. He’s probably eating a celebratory bagel somewhere.
Here in the store, Mat packs the lights back into their gray foam sarcophagus. Neel takes the bent-up white poster board out to the trash can. I coil up the orange cables and straighten the front desk. Everything looks the same; nothing has moved. And yet, something is different. We took photos of every surface: the shelves, the desk, the door, the floor. We took photos of the books, all of them, the ones in the front and the Waybacklist, too. We didn’t capture the pages inside, of course—that would be a project of a different scale. If you’re ever playing Super Bookstore Brothers, navigating a 3-D simulacrum of Penumbra’s bookstore with pink-yellow light coming in the front windows and a foggy particle effect rising in the back, and you decide you want to actually read one of the beautifully textured books: too bad. Neel’s model might match the store’s volume but never its density.
“Breakfast?” Neel asks.
“Breakfast!” Mat agrees.
So we leave. That’s it. I turn off the lights and pull the door tight behind me. The bell makes its bright tinkle. I never did get a key.
“Let me see the photos,” Neel says, grabbing at Mat’s camera.
“Not yet, not yet,” Mat says, tucking it under his arm. “I need to grade them. This is just raw material.”
“Grade them? Like A-B-C?”
“Color grading—color correction. Translation: I need to make them look awesome.” He raises an eyebrow. “I thought you worked with movie studios, Shah.”
“He told you?” Neel spins to look at me with wide eyes: “You told him? There are documents!”
“You should stop by ILM next week,” Mat says calmly. “I’ll show you some stuff.”
They’re both far up the sidewalk now, halfway to Neel’s car, but I’m still standing at the wide front windows with their big gold type: MR. PENUMBRA’S in beautiful Gerritszoon. It’s dark inside. I press my hand onto the fellowship’s symbol—two hands, open like a book—and when I take it away, there’s an oily, five-fingered print left behind.
A REALLY BIG GUN
IT’S FINALLY TIME to break a code that has waited five hundred years.
Kat has requisitioned Google’s data visualization amphitheater with its massive screens. She’s moved tables from the lunch tent into position down in front; it looks like mission control, picnic-style.
The day is beautiful; a sharp blue sky is dotted with wispy white clouds, all commas and curlicues. Hummingbirds hover down to investigate the screens, then zip back out across the bright open lawns. There’s music in the distance; the Google brass band is practicing an algorithmically generated waltz.
Down below, Kat’s handpicked code-breaking squad is setting up. Laptops are coming out, each one encrusted with a different collection of colorful stickers and holograms, and the Googlers are plugging into power and fiber optics, flexing their fingers.
Igor is among them. His brilliance at the bookstore earned him a special invitation: today, he’s allowed to play in the Big Box. He’s leaning in to his laptop, his skinny hands a bluish blur, and two Googlers are watching wide-eyed over his shoulder.
Kat is making the rounds, conferring with Googlers one by one. She smiles and nods and pats them on the back. Today, she’s a general, and these are her troops.
Tyndall, Lapin, Imbert, and Fedorov are all here, along with the rest of the local novices. They’re sitting up on the lip of the amphitheater, all in a row along the highest stone step. More are arriving. Silver-haired Muriel is here, and so is Greg the ponytailed Googler. He’s standing with the fellowship today.
Most of the fellowship’s members are in late middle age. Some, like Lapin, look pretty old, and a few are older still. There’s an ancient man in a wheelchair, eyes lost i
n shadowed sockets, his cheeks pale and wrinkled like tissue paper, pushed by a young attendant in a neat suit. The man croaks a faint greeting to Fedorov, who clasps him by the hand.
Finally, there’s Penumbra. He’s holding court at the amphitheater’s edge, explaining what’s about to happen. He’s smiling and waving his arms, pointing down at the Googlers at their tables, pointing over to Kat, over to me.
I haven’t told him about the call from Corvina, and I don’t plan to. The First Reader doesn’t matter anymore. What matters are the people here in this amphitheater and the puzzle up on those screens.
“Come over here, my boy, come over here,” he says. “Meet Muriel properly.” I smile and shake her hand. She’s beautiful. Her hair is silver, almost white, but her skin is smooth, with just the lightest lace of microwrinkles around her eyes.
“Muriel runs a goat farm,” Penumbra says. “You should take your, ah, friend, you know”—he tilts his head down toward Kat—”you should take her down. The tour is wonderful.”
Muriel smiles lightly. “The spring is the best time,” she says. “That’s when we have baby goats.” To Penumbra she says, mock-scoldingly, “You’re a good ambassador, Ajax, but I wish I could get you down there more often.” She winks at him.
“Oh, the store has kept me busy,” he says, “but now, after this?” He waves his hands and opens his face wide with a little who-knows-what-could-happen frown. “After this, anything is possible.”
Wait a second—is there something going on there? There couldn’t be anything going on there.
There might be something going on there.
“Okay, quiet down, everybody. Quiet down!” Kat shouts from the front of the amphitheater. She looks up to address the crowd of scholars gathered on the stone steps: “So, I’m Kat Potente, the PM for this project. I’m glad you’re all here, but there are a few things you should know. First, you can use the Wi-Fi, but the fiber optics are for Google employees only.”