Gemma Bristow, writer

The Catalogue

Being librarian to the Lady was no easy job. But Sophie had never contemplated doing anything else. Having been born right between History and Fiction, she'd inherited the job from her father, who'd inherited it from his mother, and on and on down a line that reached back to the first scratchings on stone. The complex of bookcases, stretching high into the still air, was all the world she knew.

The Lady was occupied in guiding the realm. When she needed knowledge to make a wise decision, she sent a message through a copper tube. "Send largest atlas," it might say. Or, "Silva on Finance". Or simply a shelf number, like "R 08 07," because the Lady knew the library's contents almost as well as Sophie. After fetching the books, Sophie put them in an elevator that delivered them to the Lady's chambers. They would return, in immaculate order, some time later.

Sometimes a grand person would appear at the library door, looking uncertain. "I'm a new councillor," they might say. Or, "I'm the new king. I'm told I can find everything I need to know by consulting the Catalogue."

And Sophie, sliding down from her desk, would say, "What is it you need to know?"

In the winter that Sophie turned twenty, something happened. Messages stopped coming down the copper tube. In the library, all was still as ever, with even the dust motes poised between the shelves. But outside she heard cries, running feet and the clash of weapons.

Then Sophie knew the Lady, who had guided the realm so long, was dead.

Outside the library, days of chaos followed. The noise ebbed and flooded, but never stopped. Sophie walked the shelves. She sat on her desk. She waited.

One night, as guns boomed loudly even through the layers of the library, a man appeared at the door. He was young, exhausted, his face streaked with sweat and dirt.

"I'm sorry," he said. "Everywhere is shattered - this was the only light."

"Who are you?" asked Sophie.

"I'm in charge of the government, now - I think. If anything is left to govern."

"What do you need to know?" said Sophie, as she had asked so many ministers before.

He spread his hands. "Everything. What can I find here?"

Sophie slid down from her desk. "Everything."

She showed him.

Sophie led the new head of government through Politics and Law, Religion and Philosophy. She showed him History, so he could learn from the experiences of the past and plot patterns into the future. She showed him Literature, so he could hear the voice of his people. She did not neglect Science, Geography, Agriculture or Ecology.

Sophie loaded the head of government with more books than anyone could read in a lifetime. She told him to read the most important ones himself, and give the rest to his advisers.

Leaving, he paused in the doorway. "You must be the Catalogue," he said. "I've heard of you. If I need more knowledge — sometime down the line — will you be here again?"

"I don't know," said Sophie. "We don't live forever, and I have no successor. But the library will always be here."

The head of government gestured to the books he held. "How could I have found these without you? The library's so vast."

"Some you could have found yourself. As for the rest — "

Sophie had the beginning of an idea. It was not how the Lady would have done things, but times were changed. She looked at the basket on her desk that held the Lady's messages, a stack of square-cut paper twenty tomes high.

"I can write a Catalogue. With the name of each book, and what it is, and where it can be found. When it's done — for now, at least, since it will never be complete as long as books are made — it will guide you when I'm gone. And it will guide the ministers and the people and all who need knowledge. She added, "I've learned that too much should not depend on one being."

"Will you have enough time?" the head of government said. He looked left and right, up and down, at the myriad shelves of the library.

"I don't know." Sophie smiled. "But once it's written, it escapes from Time. That's what the library is for."