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Mr. Penumbra s 24 Hour Bookstore 20


  I glance across the assembled mass of the fellowship. Tyndall has a pocket watch connected to his pants with a long chain, and he’s checking the time. I don’t think this is going to be a problem.

  Kat glances down at a printed-out checklist. “Second, don’t blog, tweet, or live-stream anything you see here.”

  Imbert is adjusting an astrolabe. Seriously: not a problem.

  “And third”—she grins—”this isn’t going to take long, so don’t get too comfortable.”

  Now she shifts to address her troops: “We don’t know what kind of code we’re dealing with yet,” she says. “We need to figure that out first. So we’ll be working in parallel. We’ve got two hundred virtual machines ready and waiting in the Big Box, and your code will run in the right place automatically if you just tag it CODEX. Everybody ready?”

  The Googlers all nod. One girl straps on a pair of dark goggles.

  “Hit it.”

  The screens leap to life, a blitzkrieg of data visualization and exploration. The text of MANVTIVS blinks bright and jagged, set in the squared-off letters favored by code and console. This isn’t a book anymore; it’s a data dump. Scatter plots and bar charts unfurl across the screens. At Kat’s command, Google’s machines crunch and recrunch the data nine hundred different ways. Nine thousand. Nothing yet.

  The Googlers are looking for a message—any message—in the text. It might be a whole book, it might be a few sentences, it might be a single word. Nobody, not even the Unbroken Spine, knows what’s waiting there, or how Manutius encrypted it, and that makes this a very hard problem. Luckily, the Googlers love very hard problems.

  Now they get more creative. They make crosses and spirals and galaxies of color dance across the screens. The graphs grow new dimensions—first they become cubes and pyramids and blobs, then they sprout long tentacles. My eyes swim as I try to follow along. A Latin lexicon flashes across one screen—an entire language examined in milliseconds. There are n-gram graphs and Vonnegut diagrams. Maps appear, with letter sequences somehow translated into longitudes and latitudes and plotted across the world, a dusting of dots through Siberia and the South Pacific.

  Nothing.

  The screens flicker and flash as Googlers try every angle. The fellowship is murmuring. Some are still smiling; others are starting to frown. When a giant chessboard appears on one screen with a pile of letters on every square, Fedorov sniffs and mutters, “Ve tried det in 1627.”

  Is that why Corvina believes this project won’t succeed—because the Unbroken Spine has literally tried it all? Or is it simply because this is cheating—because old Manutius never had any bright screens or virtual machines? If you follow them, those two lines of reasoning close together like a trap, and they lead you straight down to the Reading Room, with its chalk and its chains, and nowhere else. I still don’t believe the secret to immortality is going to pop up on one of those screens, but jeez, I want Corvina to be wrong. I want Google to crack this code.

  “Okay,” Kat announces, “we just got another eight hundred machines.” Her voice rises and carries across the lawn: “Go deeper. More iterations. Don’t hold back.” She walks from table to table, consulting and encouraging. She’s a good leader—I can see it in the Googlers’ faces. I think Kat Potente has found her calling.

  I watch Igor bang his head against the text. First he translates each line of letters into a molecule and simulates a chemical reaction; on-screen, the solution dissolves into a gray sludge. Then he makes letters into tiny 3-D people and sets them up in a simulated city. They wander around bumping into buildings and forming crowded clumps in the street until Igor destroys it all with an earthquake. Nothing. No message.

  Kat hikes up the steps, squinting into the sun, shading her eyes with her hand. “This code is tough,” she admits. “Like, crazy tough.”

  Tyndall sprints around the amphitheater’s edge and leaps over Lapin, who squeaks and shields herself. He grabs Kat’s arm. “You must compensate for the phase of the moon at the time of writing! The lunar offset is essential!”

  I reach over and detach his shivering claw from her sleeve. “Mr. Tyndall, don’t worry,” I say. I’ve already watched a line of half-eaten moons parade across the screens. “They know your techniques.” And Google is nothing if not thorough.

  While the screens flash and blur down below, a team of Googlers wanders through the fellowship—young people with clipboards and friendly faces, asking questions like: When were you born? Where do you live? What’s your cholesterol?

  I wonder who they are.

  “They’re from Google Forever,” Kat says, a bit sheepishly. “Interns. I mean, it’s a good opportunity. Some of these people are so old and still so healthy.”

  Lapin is describing her work at Pacific Bell to a Googler holding a skinny video camera. Tyndall is spitting into a plastic vial.

  One of the interns approaches Penumbra, but he waves her away without a word. His gaze is fixed on the screens below. He’s utterly absorbed, his blue eyes wide and shining like the sky above. Unbidden, Corvina’s warning echoes in my head: And this, the last and greatest of his schemes—it will not succeed, either.

  But it’s not just Penumbra’s scheme anymore. This has gotten much bigger than that. Look at all these people—look at Kat. She’s back up at the front of the amphitheater, typing furiously into her phone. She pushes it back into her pocket and squares to face her team.

  “Hold up a second,” she shouts, waving her arms in the air. “Hold it!” The code-breaking roulette slowly spins to a halt. On one screen, the letters of MANVTIVS are twisting in space, all rotating at different speeds. On another, some sort of super-complicated knot is trying to untie itself.

  “The PM is doing us a big favor,” Kat announces. “Whatever you’ve got running, tag it CRITICAL. We’re going to farm that code out to the whole system in about ten seconds.”

  Wait—the whole system? As in, the whole system? The Big Box?

  Kat is grinning. She’s an artillery officer who’s just gotten her hands on a really big gun. Now she looks up at her audience—the fellowship. She cups her hands around her mouth: “That was just the warm-up!”

  There’s a countdown splashed across the screens. Giant rainbow numbers go 5 (red), 4 (green), 3 (blue), 2 (yellow) …

  And then, on a sunny Friday morning, for three seconds, you can’t search for anything. You can’t check your email. You can’t watch any videos. You can’t get directions. For just three seconds, nothing works, because every single one of Google’s computers around the world is dedicated to this task.

  Make that a really, really big gun.

  The screens go blank, pure white. There’s nothing to show because too much is happening now, more than you could ever display on a bank of four screens, or forty, or four thousand. Every transformation that can be applied to this text is being applied. Every possible error is being accounted for, every optical eigenvalue is being inveigled. Every question you can ask a sequence of letters is being asked.

  Three seconds later, the interrogation is complete. The amphitheater is quiet. The fellowship is holding its breath—except for the oldest, the man in the wheelchair, who’s drawing a long, rattling wheeze in through his mouth. Penumbra’s eyes are shining and expectant.

  “Well? What have we got?” Kat says.

  The screens are bright, and they hold the answer.

  “Guys? What have we got?”

  Silence from the Googlers. The screens are blank. The Big Box is empty. After all that: nothing. The amphitheater is silent. Across the lawn, one of the brass band’s snare drums goes rat-a-tat.

  I find Penumbra’s face in the crowd. He looks utterly stricken, still staring down at the screens, waiting for something, anything, to appear. You can see the questions piling up on his face: What does this mean? What did they do wrong? What did I do wrong?

  Down below, the Googlers are wearing sour expressions, whispering to one another. Igor is still bent over his keyboa
rd, still trying things. Sparks of color flash and fizzle on his screen.

  Kat comes slowly up the steps. She looks dejected and disheartened—worse than when she thought she’d been passed over for the PM. “Well, I guess they’re wrong,” she says, waving weakly at the fellowship. “There’s no message here. It’s just noise. We tried everything.”

  “Well, not everything, right—”

  She looks up hotly. “Yes, everything. Clay: we just dialed in the equivalent of, like, a million years’ worth of human effort. It came up empty.” Her face is flushed—angry, or embarrassed, or both. “There’s nothing here.”

  Nothing.

  What are the possibilities here? Either this code is so subtle, so complex, that the most powerful computational force in the history of the world can’t crack it—or there’s nothing here at all, and the fellowship has been wasting its time, all five hundred years of it.

  I try to find Penumbra’s face again. I search the amphitheater, casting my eyes up and down the mass of the fellowship. There’s Tyndall, whispering to himself; Fedorov, sitting in a pensive lump; Rosemary Lapin, smiling faintly. And then I spot him: a tall stick figure wobbling across Google’s green lawns, almost to the stand of trees on the other side, moving fast, not looking back.

  And this, the last and greatest of his schemes—it will not succeed, either.

  I start to jog after him, but I’m out of shape, and how is he so fast, anyway? I huff and puff across the lawn, toward the spot where I saw him last. When I get there, he’s gone. Google’s chaotic campus rises up all around me, rainbow arrows pointing every way at once, and here the walkways curve off in five different directions. He’s gone.

  It is foolishness, and it will fail, and what then?

  Penumbra is gone.

  THE TOWER

  LITTLE BITS OF METAL

  MATROPOLIS HAS TAKEN OVER the living room. Mat and Ashley have hauled the couch away, and to navigate around the room you follow a narrow channel between the card tables: the winding Mittelriver, complete with two bridges. The commercial district has matured, and new towers push past the old airship dock, nearly touching the ceiling. I suspect Mat might build something up there, too. Soon Matropolis will annex the sky.

  It’s past midnight, and I can’t sleep. I still haven’t been able to reclaim my circadian rhythm, even though it’s been a week since our late-night photo shoot. So now I am lying on the floor, drowning deep in the Mittelriver, dubbing The Dragon-Song Chronicles.

  The audiobook edition I bought for Neel was produced in 1987 and the distributor’s catalog did not specify that it still comes on cassette tapes. Cassette tapes! Or maybe it did specify that, and I just missed it in the excitement of the bulk order. In any case, I still want Neel to have the audiobooks, so I bought a black Sony Walkman for seven dollars on eBay and I am now playing the tapes into my laptop, rerecording them, shepherding them one by one into the great digital jukebox in the sky.

  The only way to do this is in real time, so basically I have to sit and listen to the first two volumes in their entirety again. But that’s not so bad, because the audiobooks are read by Clark Moffat himself. I’ve never heard him speak, and it’s spooky, knowing what I know about him now. He has a good voice, gravelly but clear, and I can imagine it echoing in the bookstore. I can imagine the first time Moffat came through the door—the tinkle of the bell, the creak of the floorboards.

  Penumbra would have asked: What do you seek in these shelves?

  Moffat would have looked around, taken the measure of the place—noticed the shadowy reaches of the Waybacklist, certainly—and then he might have said: Well, what would a wizard read?

  Penumbra would have smiled at that.

  Penumbra.

  He has vanished, and his bookstore stands derelict. I have no idea where to find him.

  In a flash of genius, I checked the domain registration for penumbra.com, and sure enough: he owns it. It was purchased in the primordial era of the web by Ajax Penumbra and renewed in 2007 with an optimistic ten-year term … but the registration only lists the store’s address on Broadway. Further googling yielded nothing. Penumbra casts only the faintest digital shadow.

  In another, somewhat dimmer flash of genius, I tracked down silver-haired Muriel and her goat farm, just south of San Francisco in a foggy cluster of fields called Pescadero. She hadn’t heard from him, either. “He’s done this before,” she said. “Gone away. But—he does usually call.” Her smooth face made a little frown and the microwrinkles around her eyes darkened. When I left, she gave me a little palm-sized wheel of fresh goat cheese.

  And so, in a final desperate flash, I opened the scanned pages of PENVMBRA. Google couldn’t crack MANVTIVS, but these latter-day codex vitae were not so cunningly encrypted, and besides (I was fairly sure), there was actually something in this book to be decoded. I sent Kat an inquiring text message, and her response was short and definitive: No. Thirteen seconds later: Absolutely not. Seven more: That project is done.

  Kat had been deeply disappointed when the Great Decoding failed. She had really believed there would be something profound waiting for us in that text; she had wanted there to be something profound. Now she was throwing herself into the PM and mostly ignoring me. Except, of course, to say Absolutely not.

  But that was probably for the best. The two-page spreads on my laptop screen—heavy Gerritszoon glyphs lit harshly by the GrumbleGear camera flashes—still made me feel strange. Penumbra’s expectation was that his codex vitae wouldn’t be read until after he was gone. I decided I wouldn’t crack open a man’s book of life just to find his home address.

  Finally, genius depleted, I checked with Tyndall and Lapin and Fedorov. None of them had heard from Penumbra, either. They were all preparing to move east, to take refuge with the Unbroken Spine in New York and join Corvina’s chain gang there. If you ask me, it’s futile: we took Manutius’s codex vitae and bent it until it broke. At best, the fellowship is founded on a false hope, and at worst, it’s founded on a lie. Tyndall and the rest haven’t faced up to this, but at some point they’ll have to.

  If all of this seems grim: it is. And I feel terrible because, if you trace it back step-by-step, you cannot avoid the fact that all of it is my fault.

  My mind is wandering. It’s taken me many nights to get this far again, but Moffat is finally wrapping up Volume II. I’ve never listened to an audiobook before, and I have to say, it’s a totally different experience. When you read a book, the story definitely happens inside your head. When you listen, it seems to happen in a little cloud all around it, like a fuzzy knit cap pulled down over your eyes:

  “The Golden Horn of Griffo is finely wrought,” Zenodotus said, tracing his finger along the curve of Telemach’s treasure. “And the magic is in its making alone. Do you understand? There is no sorcery here—none that I can detect.”

  Moffat’s Zenodotus voice is not what I expected. Instead of a rich, dramatic wizard’s rumble, it’s clipped and clinical. It’s the voice of a corporate magic consultant.

  Fernwen’s eyes widened at that. Hadn’t they just braved a swamp of horrors to reclaim this enchanted trumpet? And now the First Wizard claimed it carried no real power at all?

  “Magic is not the only power in this world,” the old mage said gently, handing the horn back to its royal owner. “Griffo made an instrument so perfect that even the dead must rise to hear its call. He made it with his hands, without spells or dragon-songs. I wish that I could do the same.”

  With Moffat reading, I can hear the sinister intent in the First Wizard’s voice. It’s so obvious what’s coming:

  “Even Aldrag the Wyrm-Father would envy such a thing.”

  Wait, what?

  So far, every line out of Moffat’s mouth has been pleasant repetition. His voice has been a needle bobbing comfortably through a deep groove in my brain. But that line—I have never read that line.

  That line is new.

  My finger twitches over the Walkman’
s pause button, but I don’t want to mess up Neel’s recording. Instead, I pad quickly to my room and pull Volume II from the shelf. I flip to the end, and yes, I’m right: there’s no mention of Aldrag the Wyrm-Father here. He was the first dragon to sing, and he used the power of his dragon-song to forge the first dwarves out of molten rock, but that’s not the point—the point is, that line is not in the book.

  So what else isn’t in the book? What else is different? Why is Moffat freestyling?

  These audiobooks were produced in 1987, just after Volume III had been published. Therefore, it was also just after Clark Moffat’s entanglement with the Unbroken Spine. My spider-sense is tingling: this is connected.

  But I can think of only three people in the world who might possess clues to Moffat’s intent. The first is the dark lord of the Unbroken Spine, but I have absolutely no desire to communicate with Corvina or any of his henchmen at the Festina Lente Company, above- or belowground. Besides, I’m still afraid my IP address might be listed on one of their pirate rosters.

  The second is my erstwhile employer, and I have a deep desire to communicate with Penumbra, but I don’t know how. Lying here on the floor, listening to the hiss of empty tape, I realize something very sad: this skinny, blue-eyed man bent my life into a crazy curlicue … and all I know about him is what it says on the front of his store.

  There is a third possibility. Edgar Deckle is technically part of Corvina’s crew, but he has a few things going for him:

  1. He’s an established coconspirator.

  2. He guards the door to the Reading Room, so he must be pretty high up in the fellowship, and therefore have access to many secrets.

  3. He knew Moffat. And, most important of all:

  4. He’s in the phone book. Brooklyn.

  It feels appropriately weighty and Unbroken Spine-ish to send him a letter. This is something I haven’t done in more than a decade. The last letter I wrote in ink on paper was a mushy missive to my long-distance pseudo-girlfriend in the gold-tinted week after science camp. I was thirteen. Leslie Murdoch never wrote back.