It wasn’t Raven who came back, but Xorbus, the goblin. I had gotten my Library Magic up to level 8 while I was waiting, but stopped as soon as I saw someone’s torchlight joining my own.
“Getting anywhere?” asked Xorbus with a toothy smile.
“Some,” I said. “I was expecting Raven.”
“Bah,” said Xorbus with a wave of her hand. “She’s dealing with dread politics, sent me to fetch you. Ready to go back?”
“I probably could have found my way,” I replied. “I was paying attention, and we’re not too far from the entrance.”
“Ah, but if you get lost, then you get more lost, then we’ve got to send search parties out, and you can understand how that would get troublesome for us,” she said. “This place can be deadly.”
“I’m sure,” I said. “Lead the way.”
“All the books are back in their place?” she asked, peering over the shelves around me.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Good, good,” she said with a sniff as she inspected to make sure I was telling the truth. “Unlikely that it would matter, but you never know, do you?”
“I … don’t know enough to know,” I said. “I’d think that with a billion books or however many are in here, plus all the copies, you would almost never run into the situation where, if you knew the position of the book you wanted, you would find it gone.” I shrugged. “I’m not going to buck tradition for no reason though. You’ve been doing this for hundreds of years.”
“We haven’t, actually,” said Xorbus with another toothy smile. “Almost all the librarians here date to after the Second Empire. Not so long, really, especially for some of the elders.”
“So … there was a purge?” I asked. “Following the Second Empire?”
Xorbus nodded. “Come, let us talk while we walk, as the saying goes.” She turned to go, and I picked up my torch from the ground to follow.
“Two purges, actually,” said Xorbus. “Uther was the one to find the Library, you know?”
“I didn’t know,” I said. “I mean, I knew that he found it, but I assumed that there were librarians here before him.”
“Oh, there were,” said Xorbus. “They weren’t from Aerb though, unless it was in the distant past. No, these were indigenous creatures, infovores, as it happened, lanky things that crawled their way through the stacks. They didn’t even know that Aerb was a real place until Uther showed up, for you see, they had some inkling of Library Magic, but not much. It was also the first time the place had reset, so far as we know.”
“So what happened to them?” I asked.
“Well, maybe you would call it three purges, I suppose,” said Xorbus. “The Lost King didn’t kill the existing librarians by intent, but he threw their world into disorder, and there was a civil war of sorts that he got caught in the middle of, those who cared for Aerb and those who didn’t. It’s a long story, one that only Raven knows all the details of, but it ended with not enough of them to continue their species.” She sighed. “Endlings,” she said, by way of explanation. “A tragedy, really, but they were subsisting on the books, not actually using them for any real purpose.”
“Huh,” I said. That had not been in my original design.
“Well, Uther set up his own librarians,” continued Xorbus, “‘Keepers of the Future’, he called them, but after he went missing and the First Empire collapsed, they were working with relatively little support and only a loose mandate from anyone on the outside. The Library was a secret, but not a closely guarded one, so when the Second Empire came to power, they came storming in and took things over. When the Second Empire fell, Raven showed up with a flaming sword to cleanse this place and take over.”
“Wait,” I said. “Raven?”
“She’s more dangerous than she looks,” said Xorbus. She reached out and trailed her fingers along the spines of the books as we walked. “She’d pretty much have to be, but you know what I mean. She’s more dangerous than you’d give her credit for, is what I mean, even if you’d known her for a while.”
“In terms of martial prowess?” I asked.
“All sorts of things,” said Xorbus. She glanced back at me. “Not that I’m bad-mouthing the boss, you understand? Just saying.”
“Just giving me a warning?” I asked.
“You’re armored up and wearing a sword at your hip,” said Xorbus. “That’s not the norm around here, in case you hadn’t noticed. You’re a big strong man, certainly, soaked in magic, and definitely her type, but I hope you’re not underestimating the boss, that’s all.”
“I see,” I replied. Definitely her type? “No, I try my best not to underestimate anyone.”
“So how did she find you?” asked Xorbus. She took a turn I was pretty sure was the wrong way.
I stopped dead in my tracks.
“Isn’t it this way?” I asked, gesturing through the archway.
Xorbus stopped and looked back at me with a raised eyebrow. “Ah,” she said. “Well, I just wanted to talk a little bit longer,” she said. “Find out more about you. I thought we could take the scenic route.”
“You could have just said that,” I replied. I stood stock still and took inventory, making sure I knew where my sword was, and that my dagger could be pulled from whatever place it was plausibly hidden in. The unicorn bones in my bandolier were my trump card. “And you know that I know there were only four turns, so I would have figured it out anyway.”
“Call it a test of how perceptive you are,” said Xorbus. She didn’t look hostile. “Raven is still mum on what you’re doing here.” She snorted. “‘Infohazard protocols’, that’s a fancy way of saying that she doesn’t want to have to tell anyone. Which is exactly what makes people stop taking infohazard protocols seriously, if you ask me.”
“So, are we going back?” I asked, pointing through the archway again.
“Sure,” she said, shifting her weight between her feet for a moment. “You’re not going to tell me anything about yourself?”
“I’m placing some trust in Raven,” I said with a shrug. I let my hand fall so that I’d have to expend less effort in drawing my blade. The shelves were going to be a problem, constraining my moves, and perhaps the dagger was a better bet. “If she doesn’t want to say, then I won’t spill the beans.”
“Spill the beans?” asked Xorbus. She let out a little laugh. “I’ve never heard that one. It’s clear enough, though.”
We were still standing in the intersection. She was supposed to be my guide, but she wasn’t moving yet.
“You know,” I said. “Where I come from, if someone leads you down the wrong path, it’s to an ambush, where they’re going to mug you, kill you, or worse. Those are the vibes I’m getting right now.”
Xorbus’ eyes widened at that. “By the grace of Skaduwee, where are you from ?” She hurried past me, through the archway. “You should know that’s not really how it is in the Library.”
“Sorry,” I said, following after her and still on edge. “I guess we’ll wait to see how much Raven wants to fill you all in, but I’ve had a few attempts on my life in the past couple of months.”
“People don’t fight in the Library,” said Xorbus. She seemed offended. “People don’t even raise their voice unless they can’t help it.”
“Sorry,” I said again. “It’s … I’ve had a lot go wrong for me, and you trying to lead me down the wrong path just activated a lot of those thoughts. I’ve been ambushed before. A few times, actually. Some of them I didn’t come out in one piece.” Fenn, the thought thrummed in my head.
Xorbus turned around, and I almost ran into her. “I should be the one apologizing,” she said with a quick bow. “I don’t know what you’ve been told, but the situation at the Library is very difficult right now.” She looked me up and down. “Politically difficult, not violent. How much do you know? She was here training you, that much is clear, but why she expects that to pay dividends, I have no idea.”
“I’m a fast learner,” I said.
“It’ll take you years just to feel the schema,” said Xorbus. She turned back and began leading the way again. “Perhaps you have some background in mathematics or a similar field? Unlikely, if you’re a bone mage, but you never know.”
“No,” I said. “No background in mathematics.” No specialization in Mathematics either. Who would have guessed that skill might be useful? Not that it actually was, if I could skip ahead so effectively.
“Well, mystery man, we’ll see what you can do,” said Xorbus.
We eventually got to our final turn, which brought bright light from the vestibule. Most of the people who had been there for the reset had cleared out, either into the spherical houses toward the back or into the library, but there was a small core of people standing around a large desk that must have been pulled from somewhere, looking over a handful of papers.
“Rakon!” Raven called to me, and it took me a moment to realize that was the fake name that she’d given me. A fake name seemed like a bit of paranoia, but I’d almost shanked one of her lieutenants for being nosy, so who was I to judge? I also realized that my ‘floating’ points were still in MEN, not SOC, since I hadn’t had an opportunity to change them. Per my soul, Library Magic was KNO and INS, so I had been trying to maximize gains while I leveled it up.
“Rakon,” said Raven as I came over. “You’ve met Entwell and Majom, this is Centh, Archist, and Paul.” She gestured quickly at three people whose names I was already forgetting. “We’re going over the initial surveys and trying to establish the basics of the schema.”
“I don’t know what you hope to accomplish bringing him in,” said Majom, the tall man who had some unspecified role in running this place. I noticed that the swirls of color on his arms had changed position. “I can’t possibly know, because you haven’t given us the first clue as to who he is.”
“Save it for later,” said Raven. “Rakon, do you have any insights into the schema?”
“Um,” I said, looking at the gathered people. “Probably nothing your people haven’t already found,” I said. Everyone was watching me. “The lowest level of division first appeared to be the number of periods in the text, or possibly full stops, since one of the books I looked at had a different sort of symbol -- sorry, I don’t know the parlance, you probably have names for everything. But I eventually found two books that had a lower division, since they were equal on periods or full stops, and there the division seemed to be by number of letters in the author’s first listed name.” I shrugged. “I guess I should say first author’s first listed name, but I wasn’t able to find examples to confirm or deny what happens when there’s more than one author or no author at all, or a pseudonym or something like that.” They had been watching me: now they were staring. “I believe the level up from that is probably distance of cover from edge of page, width-wise, but I could only find one boundary area for that, which made it a little more difficult to feel.”
I looked around at the silent faces. Based on the smug look on Raven’s face, apparently I had vindicated her.
“You coached him,” said Majom, frowning at me.
“No,” said Raven, shaking her head. “This is the reason that he’s here.”
“You’re talking about a few years worth of training distilled down into a half hour, maybe less,” said Majom. “That’s impossible.”
“It wasn’t for Uther,” said Entwell. She was staring at me with wide eyes.
“Who is this man?” asked Majom, turning to Raven. “Where did you find him?”
“The Isle of Poran,” said Raven. “I won’t say more. I think it should be clear that he’s an asset to us, and I want him working with us on the current iteration, both in helping to develop our understanding of the schema, and in directing our search for useful books.”
There was an uncomfortable silence around the table.
“Understood?” asked Raven.
“Yes, Head Librarix,” said Majom. Nods of assent followed that. Consent of the governed, eh? No one seemed particularly happy about me being there or being given a position of power, not on such short notice and with the veil of secrecy that Raven had put up. They were obeying her command though, in spite of that unhappiness.
“Then let’s keep going,” said Raven, looking down at the papers in front of them. “Rakon, we’re building up the schema right now from the sampling reports and initial surveys. We want to establish the highest levels of organization first, then continue down until we find at least some semblance of useful structure, something that will allow us to find the most relevant books. Obviously what we care most about is the publication date, but as of fifty years ago, we haven’t seen it show up in the schema without adulteration with other variables, making it less useful.” She looked to the others. “Do we have an upper bound on date?”
“598 FE,” said one of the people who had been introduced, and whose name I had promptly forgotten. He was tall for a halfling, but still stood on a small stool to make his height roughly equivalent to Raven’s. “That’s liable to change though, once the second wave crews come back.”
“That’s a significant increase,” said Raven, frowning slightly. She glanced at me.
“You’re the one that changed things,” said Majom. “I suppose we’re not going to hear a report?” I was watching him closely, and saw the coloration on his arms shift slightly. I wondered whether that was done automatically, or whether he controlled it.
“I believe I’ve dealt with the situation on the Isle of Poran,” said Raven. “I’ve also gotten some information on the cause of the infernal threat, which I believe should be neutralized, though we’ll see whether the books bear that out.”
“Neutralized?” asked Majom. “How? And what was the cause?”
“Need to know,” said Raven.
“I’d argue that we do have need to know,” said Majom. “If something were to happen to you, that information would die with you, and if you’re going to be making more trips into the Library, then it’s all the more important that we know what you know.”
“I understand,” said Raven with a nod. “But given that this is an existential threat to the infernals, I’m exercising caution in controlling who knows what. We’re talking about no less than the complete eradication of infernals from the hells.”
“You’re worried about leaks?” asked Majom. “If there are leaks, then they already know they’re at risk, and you know that they have their own interests in keeping Aerb a safe and stable place for the mortal populations.” He glanced at me. “How much does this one know?”
“I’ll have to talk with him later,” said Raven, looking at me with a frown. “He’s only been partially read in, but he knew quite a bit before I found him. He also knew a handful of things I was ignorant of.”
“And was he connected with whatever is killing the infernals en masse?” asked Majom. “Whatever has been causing problems there?”
“Need to know,” repeated Raven. “I won’t say it again. Infohazard protocols are in effect.”
Majom had a sour look on his face, but didn’t gainsay her.
“We’ll start looking for the bigger principles,” said Raven. “When we have a better schema, report to me, or when we have more firmly identifying metrics that we can begin a search on. From the look I had in the stacks, and initial reports, we’re probably looking at one or two levels of the schema being interleaved, and given the state the Library is, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some schema divergence. For the time being, I need to speak with Rakon, in private, then prepare some remarks for Timothy’s memorial.”
“And the staples?” asked Xorbus. “Should we start looking for them?”
Raven hesitated. “Yes,” she said. “I suppose so. Obviously they should be grabbed if anyone happens to spot them. Divert one of the second wave teams when they return.” She made a ‘come hither’ gesture to me, then turned and walked away without waiting for my response. I gave the others an apologetic look, then followed after.
“You did well,” she said in a low voice once we were out of earshot.
“Thanks,” I said. “Sorry if my being here is causing you problems.”
“There are always problems, in never-ending supply,” said Raven. “At least the current problem isn’t the imminent end of the world. 598 FE is far more breathing room than I had hoped to buy us when I left, but I hadn’t known how many of our problems would end up being connected to each other.”
“Are these political problems something I should worry about?” I asked.
“No,” said Raven. “I’ll explain more, in due time, but the fact that you’re who you are is still settling in my head, and I don’t want to say anything before it has. I’m not sure that telling the full truth about you would be the smart thing to do.”
We were heading to the spherical adobe houses. Raven’s legs were shorter than mine by a fair bit, but she was putting on enough speed that I had to hurry to keep pace with her. Her voice was level, but she seemed pissed off.
“Does it take much longer for things to settle in your head, given what race you are?” I asked.
“Race?” asked Raven, turning back to look at me with a raised eyebrow.
“Sorry,” I said. “Species.”
“Oh,” replied Raven. “In the normal case, yes, but I was one of Uther’s Knights, and that provided me with some level of compensation, especially as the years went on, until eventually I was able to understand and adapt faster than any human could. That’s less true now.”
“Alright,” I said. “I just didn’t want to make any kind of faux pas because I haven’t read up enough on your species.”
All the spherical houses were clustered together, with their shells overlapping so they shared walls. Based on the fact that some of the shells didn’t have entryways, it seemed likely that some of these ‘houses’ had more than one shell to them. Raven went to one of them and opened the wooden door, which was small enough that I had to duck to avoid hitting my head when I followed her.
“This is my home,” said Raven, gesturing around the place. I saw a surprising amount of plants around us, set in various pots and sitting on shelves next to the porthole windows. Most of the furnishings in Raven’s home were rustic, with clear marks on the frames and shelves where the wood had been cut with a handaxe, and obvious stitches on the blankets that covered her bed. There was a small kitchen in a separate shell to the side, with a beaten copper kettle sitting on a stove, though the kitchen area was so small I imagined that she ate most of her meals in a different part of the vestibule. The main space held her bed and a chair with a glowing orb above it, which provided most of the light. Off to one side, another, larger shell held a table with a number of chairs.
“It’s cozy,” I said.
“Yes,” replied Raven. “Made by entad, naturally, since if we had to haul materials in here you can be assured we’d have done something else.”
“It’s nice,” I said.
“I’ve seen the conditions you live in,” replied Raven. “You don’t need to flatter me.”
“It’s not flattery,” I said. “To be honest, I find Bethel’s style to be a little bit on the ostentatious side.”
“Either way,” said Raven. She moved to what I might have called the dining room, save for the fact that I didn’t think she did much dining there. “I didn’t bring you here to talk about amenities, I brought you here to talk about your needs.” She sat down in a chair, and gestured for me to do the same.
“My needs?” I asked as I took the chair. “In no particular order, I’d like to find a solution that would allow us to release the locus from the entad it’s trapped within, I’d like to find whatever book or books Amaryllis has written me, and I want to know as much as there is to know about either finding Uther or dealing with Fel Seed. Before any of that, I want to learn the lost art of Spirit, which will help prevent me from going crazy and killing everyone.”
“Tall orders,” said Raven.
“Having seen some of the scope of the problem, I’m inclined to agree,” I said. “Half of what you were saying about the Library I didn’t even understand. If necessary, I can stay for more time, after the shift change.”
“Removing you from time apparently greatly increased the odds of Aerb’s survival,” said Raven. “Beyond that, I’m planning to leave with you, so long as I’m still wanted. It might take longer than a week and a half to get my affairs in order. Having you stay here longer is, so far as I’m concerned, probably a good thing.”
“Most of the times the world ended weren’t my fault,” I said with a faint smile. “I mean, you can’t pin them on me.”
“Certainly,” said Raven, rubbing her face. She didn’t seem to find the humor in it. “Sorry,” she said, on seeing my face fall. “We’ve been working long hours, and the time I spent within Kuum Doona was stressful.”
“I can imagine,” I said. I shifted around in my seat. “So where do we start?”
“We can start with the historical books,” Raven sighed. “Those are always easier, since their parameters are more known. As I’ve said, I have someone preparing information on Fel Seed already. We likely won’t have the books on hand, but we’ll have them indexed as completely as is feasible.”
“Meaning that you wrote down a bunch of metrics to find them better?” I asked.
“Yes,” nodded Raven.
“Any chance that you’d have indexed the Second Empire’s research efforts on the loci?” I asked.
“Possibly, but unlikely,” said Raven. “No one has had any cause to go looking for them, given they’ve been assumed eradicated for centuries. I should warn you that late into the Second Empire, it was standard practice to lace classified documents with cognitohazards.”
“What, really?” I asked. “Memetic kill agents on the front cover?”
“It was one of the ways they handled security clearances,” said Raven with a nod. “There were methods of inoculation for them, some of which have been lost to time, making those books especially dangerous. Usually they would be tucked into a designated corner on every page, rather than the cover.”
“Well, shit,” I said. I slumped slightly. “Meaning that even if I did find a dossier with everything that they learned about the loci, it might drive me insane to look at.”
“No, most likely it would kill you outright,” said Raven. “Some would induce a headache that takes a few hours to recover from and prevents reading, but for the truly secret things, they would use memes that were instantly lethal if you weren’t inoculated, or if not instantly lethal, then powerful enough to make you catatonic, with death from starvation or dehydration following days or weeks later.”
“Sure,” I said with a nod. All stuff that was part of SCP and therefore Long Stairs. Looks like more made it in from that campaign than I thought. “But you can help me?”
“How much longer do you need for your Knack to fully take effect?” asked Raven.
“Two days or so,” I said. “I should be at the equivalent of eight years experience by the end of today, and the equivalent of twelve years by the end of tomorrow. That’s a rough estimate, anyway, it’s different every time.”
“Okay,” sighed Raven. “You can handle yourself in the stacks?”
“I should be able to,” I said. I paused. “I should say, when Xorbus was taking me back, she -- she?”
“She,” nodded Raven.
“She tried to divert me away from the most direct path, as though I wouldn’t notice. I didn’t outright accuse her of taking me to an ambush site, but that’s what it felt like to me,” I said.
“That’s because you’ve lived a life like Uther’s,” said Raven. “He was like that too, in the beginning. When people try to kill you on a weekly basis, you start treating everyone like a potential assassin. It took him some time to unlearn the habit. It can sour relationships in a hurry.”
“Okay,” I said. “I just thought that you should know.”
“Appreciated,” said Raven. “Come back here once you’re done in the stacks.”
“I could use company,” I said. “It goes faster with a teacher, someone to point me in the right direction, at least once I’m over the initial hump.”
“I have too much going on here,” said Raven. “I’ll get someone to help you though. Perhaps Entwell. She’s been better about this than the other senior staff.” I assumed ‘this’ meant my sudden appearance.
“Okay,” I said. “And when I’m done for the day, maybe we’ll have a chance to talk about less serious things.”
“Perhaps,” said Raven. When I left, she was still sitting at the table, drumming her fingers and lost in thought.
“Let’s get the jargon out of the way first,” said Entwell as we walked the stacks together. We each held one of the torches, which gave us poor light. My eye kept being drawn to the bulge beneath her blouse, which was definitely not from a pregnancy, but too pronounced to make me think of anything else. “‘Symbol’ is what we say when we’re talking about an individual representational glyph. ‘Symbol sequencing’, or just ‘sequencing’ is the order that the Library has chosen for those symbols, which these days is different each time.”
“And what does that look like?” I asked.
“Right now?” asked Entwell. “No idea, it’s part of figuring out the schema. Back when the Library was first discovered, symbol sequencing was always the same, with the order roughly mapping to what Uther called the UPA, Universal Phonetic Alphabet, with non-phonetic languages having their own, separate order to them. Languages that don’t map to phonetics are rare, but they do exist, and those languages have been used to write books, which means they’re here. During the time of the Second Empire, the Library’s symbol sequencing mutated -- mutations, that’s what we call changes to the breadth and depth of schema parameters, as distinct from a mere reset of the schema into a different configuration -- and the sequence was mathematically reordered from UPA standard, guessable if you had half of the order in place. Nowadays though, it’s essentially random.”
“So you’re saying that instead of being alphabetical, order is just totally random, but the order is consistent across the Library?” I asked. “Instead of ABCDE, it might be ADCEB?”
“Yes and no,” said Entwell. “We also have to deal with what we call ‘schema divergence’, or just ‘divergence’. Let’s say that the first-order division split the Library into books before or during 0 FE and books after 0 FE, just as an example. Well, if the schema is divergent, then it’s possible that sequencing is different for the two halves of the library.”
I groaned. “Ugh. That’s just … so unnecessarily convoluted.”
Entwell laughed. “It is. It’s the price you pay for trying to mess with the Library,” she said. “If the job were easy, or the Library were resilient, then perhaps we would be doing more out there in the real world. There’s a reason that we have a policy of non-intervention unless the world is at risk.”
A policy that both Uther and the Second Empire didn’t appear to have. “None of that jargon seems to be so bad,” I said.
“I don’t think it is,” said Entwell. “But we wouldn’t want you getting lost. And I should say that the intervention side of things has its own systems, most of which you won’t need to know about. Will you?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m not here for good though. I assume when I leave, that’s going to count as intervention?”
“Depends on what you do on the outside,” said Entwell. “Majom is in charge of the Library side of intervention.” I assumed someone else was in charge of the Aerb side, enacting plans that Majom and his people whipped up.
“And what’s your specialty?” I asked.
“My title is Head Schematrix,” said Entwell with a little laugh. “We all tend to do a bit of everything though, and we have our teams to do whatever is needed at the particular moment. Strictly speaking, I’m of a high enough rank that I shouldn’t be teaching a rank amateur, but you’re obviously not a rank amateur. Beyond that, I imagine that Raven’s hoping that I’ll land on her ‘side’ if I spend some time with you.”
“Assuming that I do well,” I said. I reached out and touched the spine of a book. “Should we begin?”
“Certainly,” said Entwell. “Grab whichever book catches your fancy, then let’s go to a different section of the library. If you want to feel the differences in the schema, sometimes that’s the easiest way to do it. You can get a feel for why a book doesn’t belong in a foreign place, which gets you to higher parts of the schema. Come, this way.”
I plucked a book from the shelf, Tales of Moderation, then followed her, trying to feel the place of the book as well as I could.
“So you’re like Uther?” she asked. “Clearly the connection to Raven is suggestive.”
“I don’t think Raven really wants me to talk about it,” I said.
“But do you want to talk about it?” asked Entwell.
“Not really,” I said. “I mean, I don’t see as much need to keep silent, but Raven is in charge here, and it would be disrespectful to ignore her wishes, I think.”
“Fine, fine,” said Entwell. “We don’t get much in the way of visitors, as you might understand, and librarians are curious sorts, as a general rule. Besides that, of course, all the problems that come from being an insular community.” She stopped, looked at the books around us. “Here,” she said. “Tell me why the book doesn’t belong here.”
I looked around us, opened the book I was carrying, and turned the pages a bit. Books had a ‘feel’ to them, an extrasensory something that gave the sense of information being just a turn of the page away. I was quite familiar with extra senses by this point, but Library Magic was a bit weird, because it felt like the information was being subtly nudged into my head. The others were more along the lines of tacked-on awareness, things that had been grafted onto my sensorium (to use Bethel’s word).
Tales of Moderation -- no, this copy of Tales of Moderation -- didn’t belong in this aisle. It was off somehow, but when I tried to probe that feeling of wrongness, what I got back was only a number, too abstract to make sense of.
“The number is, uh, too small?” I asked.
“And what does the number represent?” asked Entwell, folding her hands behind her like a prim schoolmarm. It made the bulge at her front more prominent. It briefly occurred to me that she might be a member of the species where the females absorbed the subsentient males.
“I’ve never been good with numbers,” I replied with a self-deprecating laugh.
“Try to feel it,” said Entwell. “If you’re progressing as quickly as Raven thinks you are, perhaps you’ll be able to work it out.”
I tried to feel the number. It wasn’t just a number, obviously, it held meaning, but it wasn’t like feeling the widths of the pages, or the number of periods in a book, it was more mathematical than that. I teased at it, trying to get deeper into the meaning, and something clicked in my head as the number split in two.
Skill increased: Library Magic lvl 9!
“Oh,” I said. “It’s two numbers multiplied with each other.”
“Is it multiplication?” asked Entwell, watching me. “Or something else?”
I felt at the number again, splitting it down. “Uh, no, subtraction,” I replied.
Skill increased: Library Magic lvl 10!
New Virtue: Open Book!
I immediately closed my eyes and waited the three seconds in order to get to the Virtues tab. I was surprised by how quickly the skill up had come, but I wasn’t about to complain. Skills (arguably) improved faster when I was being actively trained, but it was hard to quantify how much that active training helped.
Open Book: You gain an intuitive sense of all schema-relevant metrics in any book you handle.
I opened my eyes and looked at Entwell. “Huh,” I said. “I, uh, think that I might be able to help you with the schema.”
“But where are these insights coming from?” asked Majom.
We were back at the big table, and I was touching the book with my right hand and writing with my left. I had been right-handed, back on Earth, but the Ambidexterity virtue had made it so that I used left and right without it really mattering. I still preferred my right hand, but it was on an intellectual level, not a motor/coordination level.
“I’m special,” I said. “That’s one of the reasons that Raven brought me here. I don’t know what level of the schema these metrics are important at, and I don’t know whether some of them might only be important in divergent cases, but according to what I feel, these metrics are the ones that are relevant to the current schema. It should hopefully help you narrow things down.”
“That’s not how Library Magic works,” said Majom.
“Yes,” I said. “I know. But I have this information, and I think that it might be able to help narrow things down.”
“If we can trust it,” said Majom, crossing his arms.
“Sure,” I said. “I’m not asking you to take it on faith.” I finished writing down the last of the accessible metrics and looked over the list. There were forty-seven in total. I tried to think about that in terms of information theory and bits of specificity. Breaking down the books by sequence ordering meant that you were already separating them into hundreds if not thousands of buckets. Dividing them by print number would narrow it down even more. Even if there were, as a conservative upper bound, a hundred billion books, you would only need something like thirty binary splits to uniquely identify each of them, and these weren’t binary splits, they were at a much higher order than that.
But as I thought about it some more, I realized that wasn’t quite right, because it wasn’t like random generation, which very, very rarely generated hash collisions, because the metrics had almost nothing to do with random chance. The distributions were the way that they were because of printing and binding technologies, the standard power laws that governed letter distribution, languages, and author’s names, and all sorts of other things like that. Maybe you really did need that many divisions.
“It looks good,” said Entwell, peering over my shoulder. “No idea if it’s accurate, but it doesn’t seem like it’s necessarily inaccurate, and I’m sure you’ll agree that Rakon has written down things that match the information collected thus far. Otherwise you would have said something.” That last bit was directed to Majom.
“I suppose,” said Majom.
“It probably doesn’t save you much time, no,” I said. “Since you still need to know which levels the metrics are on and where the divergences are.”
“It’ll save a few hundred man-hours if it’s correct,” said Majom. He was staring at me, and the colored skin on his arms was swirling.
“Hopefully it is,” I said. “I don’t really have a way to verify it, it just … came to me. I was going to go back in with Entwell now. It was my hope that maybe I could learn a bit more before the day is done.” The hole in the dome was letting in considerably less light.
I couldn’t decide whether Open Book was a better or worse lvl 10 virtue than the ones I’d had before. On the one hand, saving a hundred man-hours was great. On the other hand, it was a skill that was only really useful in this specific place, and only when the library had just reset, and all it really did was help save on labor.
I had often wondered how balanced the skills were. The short answer was ‘they’re not’, but the longer answer was that even the bad ones had something to them, especially as the levels increased. At the back of my mind was this feeling that if Library Magic was only useful in this one place, and I was only going to be here for a week, then it had better be really, really good to justify its place as one of my forty skills. I wasn’t sure whether that was going to bear out though.
“I think it’s time we talked about interleaving,” said Entwell as we made our way back. “Though at the rate you’re going, I almost suspect that you could tell me all about it.”
“I do have a guess,” I said slowly.
“Oh?” asked Entwell. She smiled at me. “Do tell.”
“Well, to interleave is to alternate between two things, right?” I asked.
“No,” said Entwell. “I mean, yes, in the sense that we use it, but I don’t know where you would possibly have heard it before. An interleaf is an extra page in a book, usually blank, often a consequence of the printing process.”
“Oh,” I said. I had no idea whether that etymology was from Aerb or Earth. Either way, I felt like I had just given myself away. “Well, uh, I’m not sure where I picked it up.”
“You’re right though,” said Entwell. “The schema defines the order of the books, but sometimes parts of the schema are interleaved, alternated one after the other, or in more complex arrangements.”
“Okay,” I said, frowning a bit. “So, say that you had a shelf of three hundred books, and it was triple interleaved, the books might be, in order, 1, 101, 201, 2, 102, 202, 3, and so on?”
“If I didn’t know better, I would agree that Raven had coached you,” said Entwell with a smile.
“I have some familiarity with the concepts used,” I said with a shrug. “And I’m …” I was going to say special. “I have certain talents.”
“Apparently so,” she replied with a smile.