Overdue: a short story
“Lost?” Chief Librarian Zark closed his eyes in pained resignation and turned his erudite and, for the moment, exasperated face to the distant domed ceiling of the Cosmos Central Library. He opened his slash of a mouth to speak and then closed it again, resignedly.
In front of the desk third assistant librarian (second class) Snark quailed, anticipating the barrage of abuse that was almost bound to follow. When it eventually came it was all the more unsettling by virtue of the control that the Chief Librarian was so obviously exercising: bright spots burned high on his cheek bones and his tautened neck muscles stretched the already thin mouth into a slit that could have opened envelopes. His gimlet eyes transfixed his hapless assistant to the spot. “Did no-one ever tell you, third assistant Snark, that it is a Librarian’s job to ensure that books are where they belong?" he snarled. “On shelves!” He steepled crawfish fingers and rested his emaciated face on them in a manner that Snark knew only presaged trouble. “We do not expect, Snark, that books should be allowed to float around the Cosmos where anybody can get to see them.”
Snark had always had difficulty with Zark’s view of a library’s function. “But your Librarianship, sir, this is a libr ...” he began.
“It is a repository of knowledge! A Founding Institution.” thundered Zark, levering his angular body from his seat, his voice bouncing from the arrayed racks of books like Armageddon’s overture. “A Repository, Snark. A place where things are put! Not a place where things are not put. I want it found, Snark. I want it found now and I want a report on my desk by tomorrow!” He pushed his dessicated face to within an inch of Snark’s perspiring one. “Do I make myself clear?”
Snark gulped. “Yes sir. Very clear sir. Crystal clear, sir.”
“Good!” Zark sat down again, picked up his quill and pulled his current tome towards him with annoyance. It was obvious that Snark’s audience was over so he backed off quietly and crept back to his own desk.
Later, over a mug of elixir and a plate of manna sandwiches in the gallery, he sat pondering his problem with 4th assistant Quark.
“You know your trouble don’t you?” Quark volunteered, “You’re too involved. Reading things up never did anyone any good. Just keep things up to date and don’t worry about how it all comes to pass. Time enough to do that when you’re in his position.” He nodded down towards the Chief Librarian scribbling away at his book, deep in Creative Composition. The word was he was going for the really big one.
“That’s all very well for you to say, Quark,” said Snark, playing morosely with his sandwich. “You’ve got no interest in the job. It’s different when you care.”
“Not when you haven’t got a job to care about it isn’t,” Quark pointed out, quite reasonably. “Take the money and run, that’s my motto. Keep your nose clean and nobody has to wipe it for you. What went missing, anyway? Who had it?”
“I had it,” Snark confessed, miserably. “And don’t you go letting on either.”
Quark whistled. “So it’s not actually booked out to anyone then?”
“Yes, that’s the point. It’s booked out to me, on the Library’s account. But that’s not all.”
“Only a bit. It disappeared”
“What d’you mean, disappeared?”
“Just that. It was there on my desk one minute. I went off to look something up and when I got back it had gone.”
Quark whistled again. “Oh, bad luck. Tell me it wasn’t something important.”
Snark laughed mirthlessly and toyed with his plate. “Hah! Not very. Earth!”
Quark’s face dropped in consternation. “Oh, hell. Not the unstable one? Oh, shit. Oh, deep, deep shit!”
For those who care about these things trash is a very interesting topic of conversation. It kept Head Janitor Anvark enthralled for hours (and bored his listeners for roughly the same amount of millennia). Anvark had been janitor at Cosmos for more years than anyone dared to think about. ‘The secret of keeping a place clean’, he always used to drum into his assistants, ‘is not to let it get dirty in the first place.’ It was an aphorism that the unfortunate Clerks in the library had grown to know very well indeed over the aeons. Every crumpled page thrown onto the floor was pounced on with avidity and a reproachful shake of the head, ‘Tcch, tcch, tcch, sir. What do we think waste paper baskets are for sir? We don’t just use them as part of the decor, do we sir?’ There is a particular strain of janitorial mind that is the same the Universe over, and Anvark had invented it.
But it was effective. The Cosmos Central Library was the cleanest central administration building anywhere in Existence, and Existence was the cleanest place anywhere because there was an awful lot of time to get the dusting done. The trouble was the same strain of mind was also monolithic - it accounted for no variation in routine. What didn’t belong, didn’t belong. And what clearly didn’t belong on floors, behind third assistant (second class) librarians’ desks, when third assistant librarians (second class) had been told time and time again not to be untidy, was scruffy old dog-eared scribbles that should evidently have been firmly placed in Anvark’s immaculately scrubbed waste paper bins. ‘Trash is as trash does’ and what trash does is get thrown away. Anvark had thrown it away.
It was a pity that Maintenance weren’t quite so meticulous in their application to duty. But hardware is heavy on the budget, and theirs had holes in it. So did the waste chute.
Capitano Enrico Philippo stared dismally at the mountain of papers on his desk and then regretfully at the bright sunshine outside. There was as little likelihood of his getting into it before the sun actually set as there was of his boss ‘El Generalissimo’ in the adjoining office getting returned to power on a democratically elected vote. Enrico had no qualms about thinking such seditious thoughts. As for voicing them, that was a different kettle of piranha. Much, much, later he closed the final file, pushed the lot into his out-tray, and made his way wearily to the local Cantina before it shut. The cicadas kept him company all the way there. After that he found his own company, name of Conchita Consuela Mirandez, and went home in the early hours an exhausted man. The fact of the earth having moved several times during the evening conveniently disguised the quite literal event that had occurred shortly, if briefly, during the course of the liaison, disgorging a scruffy manuscript and a pile of old candy wrappers onto the top of Philippo’s out-tray.
“What?” Snark could hardly believe his ears.
“If I’ve told you gentlemen once”, Anvark said, patiently, “I’ve told you time and time again, bins is for rubbish, not floors.” He was incensed that his judgement should have been called into question. “Bins is for rubbish. Desks is for books. Floors is for keepin’ clean. How’m I s’posed to know what’s what? I’m only a cleaner. It just looked like a pile of old rubbish to me”
Snark ran his spidery fingers down his face in despair. He remembered now that he’d placed the book on the floor, just for a moment, while he opened the desk before going off to do his research. “You’re a menace, Anvark, you know that?” he yelled, and ran off for the rubbish chute. Quark, who had been helpfully standing by, followed. It didn’t take long to realise what had happened. One of the maintenance crew was just finishing off nailing a large piece of wood across a hole in the rubbish chute. He tossed his head as Snark and Quark stared disbelievingly. “I dunno,” he said scathingly, “lost the bleedin’ lot two days running. Administration? I’ve shot ’em. All we managed to save was this.” He held out a threadbare board cover. Snark took it eagerly.
"Earth: And How to Do It” he read. “That’s it!” he exclaimed. “Where’s the rest?”
The maintenance man stared at the patched hole and then at Snark pityingly. Snark went white.
“You don’t mean ...?”
The maintenance man shrugged. “Vectors, innit? Like to like. I 'spect there’s some place out there awash with Choco-manna biscuit wrappers by now. I’m just glad I shall be nowhere near when the tea slops reach. If there’s something you want to get back, I’m afraid it’s downstairs for you pal. I just mend holes is all.”
Jaime Hernandez Piquero, ‘El Generalissimo’ ran piggy eyes again over the manuscript that his Secretary had just brought in from his aide-de-camp’s desk. Ordinarily he would have had the man shot for turning in such a scruffy and dog-eared report but the contents were dynamite. There was a lot that the General did not understand. In fact there was an awful lot that the General did not understand. But the fact is, one section of the report seemed to be a blue-print for world domination in six simple lessons, with easy-to-follow diagrams. He rang the bell.
Capitano Philippo stumbled blear-eyed into the inner sanctum. Half of a confused hour later he stumbled back out again, richer by an immediate field promotion, a work load that made the size of Mexico’s National Debt look paltry, feeling more convinced than ever that El Generalissimo was as mad as three March Hares, and handling a scruffy, dog-eared manuscript as if it were a time-bomb about to go off in his hands. It was at times like these that he wished he’d taken up a more stable profession such as destruct testing of bungee rope.
Snark and Quark collapsed, perspiring, against the bole of a palm tree. Complaining, as only Maintenance men can, he had nevertheless been persuaded to lever the piece of wood from the hole and allow the two librarians to drop through, to a muttered invocation and a hasty consultation of 'Vectors for the Beginner'. What they dropped into was something like vegetable soup might be if it were allowed to take root: the air was so thick with humidity that they imagined they could almost lean on it. Cicadas chirruped in the undergrowth and lizards flitted and darted everywhere like animated leaves.
Quark wiped a finger around the neck of his robe. Against his better judgement he had been persuaded to join his friend on the quest. “Are you sure this is where it indicated?” he complained. “Surely nobody could create somewhere like this. I’ve known colder days in Hell.”
Snark wrung out the hem of his robe. “That’s what the maintenance man said. Vectors. He even drew the line for us. Very helpful man, I thought.”
So did the maintenance man. It’s a universal trait. Just as janitors are fastidiously unhelpful, maintenance men are enthusiastically and emphatically the opposite, if it doesn’t mean any extra work for them and there’s a bit of bung in it. So much so that they tend to forget little things like time which, when you’ve got a blue collar job with a guaranteed Union ticket for eternity, is perhaps understandable ... if sometimes inconvenient.
When Snark and Quark eventually got to the clearing where ‘Earth: And How to Do It’ had finally come to rest, all they found was an ancient and ruined shack, an ominous-looking flag and a proud plaque proclaiming the birth-place of the World Domination League and its first President ‘El Generallisimo’ Jaime Piquero. That is until a hail of laser pellets shredded the jungle to a pile of salad around them and a platoon of swarthy-featured combat suits took them into custody.
Quark looked balefully through the cell window at the flag fluttering limply from the flag pole. Martial music blared up from a loudspeaker van hovering just around the corner and a squad of goose-stepping soldiers marched solemnly by, leaving a trail of tardy lizards squashed into the pavement. “Don’t tell me. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, huh?”
Snark looked up from the bench on which he was sprawled and scowled. " ‘Chapter 23, Alternative 56(b): One State, Section C: Force - the use of.’ Should never have been written. This is all down to me you know. I wrote it. It’s all right Zark wanting contingencies made for every eventuality but when things do come to pass it’s a very different matter.”
“Especially when people get passed the plans to start with” observed Quark, mildly, turning away from the window. “Not” he said, spreading his hands wide “that I’m apportioning any blame.”
Snark subsided on the bench again. “El Generallisimo should never have made it, you know, this means a whole new set of chapters now. I blame it all on Zark, he’s too picky for anybody’s good. Where did they say this place was again?”
Quark joined him and sat down. “Supreme Headquarters. Nothing but the best for the Cosmos’ best librarians” he said heavily. “Anything in that manuscript of yours about how we’re going to get out of this, only I’ve got a book half-written back up there and there’s some poor sod running around on a god-forsaken planet somewhere looking for something to mate with. I’d sort of like to get it finished and catalogued away before he invents perversion and goes blind ... or develops hairy hands.”
“Any good with vectors? ” Snark asked sarcastically. “I wonder if they’ve got any maintenance men anywhere?”
Just then the cell door crashed open and three gaily caparisoned soldatos marched in. “On your feet” the larger one barked “El Grande di Mondo wants to see you now!” The two grabbed Snark and Quark by the necks of their robes and dragged them from the room.
“No please? No thank you?” Quark said, over his shoulder as he was dragged from the room. “A nice world you’ve created here, Snark. You should sell the rights.”
Snark could say nothing. His guard’s beefy fingers had closed around his windpipe. He was still spluttering when El Grande strode grandly into the Reception Chamber into which they had been dragged. He bore a passing resemblance to the ancient and flaking oil painting on the wall behind the desk. ‘El Generalissimo’ the legend said ‘The 1st World President’.
El Grande took up position in front of the painting and stared haughtily down his nose at the two Librarians. “We shoot vandals who desecrate historic shrines. Slowly”, he said ominously. “Can you tell me why I should not have you shot now?”
Quark could think of a million reasons and was about to test one or two when Snark suddenly dug him in the ribs excitedly. “Look!” he hissed. “Under the picture.”
Quark looked. There was a low table, and a glass box. And in the glass box was a scruffy looking mess of dog-eared documents that looked as though they had seen better days when better days had been only a distant dream.
“That’s it!” Snark hissed. “That’s ‘Earth: And How to Do It’, or what’s left of it.”
“SILENCIO!” El Grande glared at them through red-rimmed eyes, and loosened the flap of his holster. “How dare you talk in the presence of El Grande, El Presidente di Mondo!”
Anvark always looked forward to Milliennial Stocktaking. It cleared out a lot of rubbish. Some people’s lives are small enough to be able to contemplate that with anticipation. There’d been a big overprint on angelic texts for centuries and Zark had said he wanted more shelf-room. It was a pity, in one way, that the overprint budget hadn’t been spent on maintenance. It all fell through the chute again.
In another way it was a godsend (in a manner of speaking) that it hadn’t, for it all fell on El Grande. There was a sudden clap of thunder, a wavering hole in the ceiling, and El Grande disappeared from sight under a mound of paperwork. He’d been predicting to his secretary for years that this was going to happen, and now it had. It took Snark and Quark almost as much by surprise as it did El Grande ... almost, but not quite.
As the paperwork swallowed up El Grande and his guards Snark jumped forward and snatched up the glass case containing ‘Earth: And How to Do It’, dragged Quark forward by the scruff of the neck and clambered up the rising mound of paper until they were in jumping distance of the wavering hole. Paper was still pouring out of the vector, diminishing distance making it seem like swirling confetti. At last there seemed to be an end to it.
“Right” he called urgently to Quark. “When I say jump, jump!” JUMP!”
As the last piece of paper fluttered onto the top of the mound Snark and Quark scrambled through the lip of the hole which, with a sound like the smack of gigantic lips, immediately closed over and spat them back unceremoniously into the bowels of the Cosmos Central Library. They clattered onto the floor of the sub-basement.
The maintenance man was there with another plank of wood. “Oh, hello,” he said. “Another second later and I’d have mended that. Find what you were looking for? His nibs has been asking for you.”
Snark picked himself up, clutching the precious tome to his chest and started to hurry off. Then he paused, thoughtfully, and turned back, thrusting the book at Quark. “Here”, he said. “You check it in. There’s something I want to do.” Quark shrugged and took the book from him, handling the creased and scruffy pages gingerly between thumb and forefinger.
Turning to the maintenance man Snark asked urgently, “Can you do me a vector again?”
“Werl, I don’t rightly know” intoned the maintenance man in the ritual cant of the terminally idle.
“And hold it open?”
“That’s askin’ a bit much, that!”
“And get it to the right time zone, this time?”
“Wotcher fink I am, a bleedin’ miracle worker? I mend boilers and fings, me.”
“I’ll make it worth your while.”
“Right, stand there!”
Snark stood where he was told while the man made some laborious calculations and measurements with a stub of pencil on a scrap of parchment.
“Where you want to go to then?”
“Where I should have gone in the first place” Snark said, and told him.
“Ah!” said the man. “Yes. Right then.” He made a pass with his hands. “Oh, by the way,” he said “I should have said, his nibs says you’re late ...” But the vector had already kicked in. Snark was gone.
What Snark had in mind he wasn’t entirely clear about himself, other than some wild scheme to try to put right what he had unwittingly been the cause of going wrong in the first place. That the book had been lost he couldn’t now help. It had already been found and booked back in by now, so it couldn’t really be found again before it had been lost, so to speak. On the other hand, the world that had evolved from its loss shouldn’t really have happened. But it had, and if he took the book away before that world had had the chance to develop, then that would set up anomalies that could have serious repercussions throughout the fabric of the known Universe and a few others that were only an irritation in someone’s imagination yet. It was clear that the book would have to stay. However ...
Capitano Enrico Philippo, blear-eyed after his late night working and his even later night of exertion, picked up the tray of papers and took them into El Generalissimo.
“Mother of a pig, Philippo!” the General snarled, sweeping away the mound of Choco-manna bisuit wrappers. “What you theenk you give me here? I, Jaime Hernandez Picquero, El Generalissimo, don’ want no steenkin’ paperwork. What you theenk I pay you for, eh? Take it away. An’ I don’ want you come in here no more with face like a pig’s backside. You been with that Conchita Mirandez again, eh? Madre de Dios! I ’ave ‘er for breakfast, dinner and supper an’ still I got room for more. That Conchita, she make a whore look like an angel. You maybe wan’ be Sergeant again, eh, Capitano Philippo? Get your steenkin’ backside out of ’ere!”
The next part Snark preferred to gloss over. Suffice it to say that it involved a large gun, a demoralised and enraged Captain, and a thoroughly deserved hole in someone’s head that suited him better than anything ever had or ever would again ... and a pile of papers that subsequently got shut in a cupboard in the ensuing coup and gradually decayed away in the jungle heat. He made the vector with seconds to spare.
The maintenance man was brazing the rubbish chute when he got back. “Someone’s seen some sense at last” he said, with satisfaction, pushing his welding helmet back. “I should get upstairs if I were you. His nibs is spitting book bindings.”
Snark hurried off, satisfied with the outcome of events down below but struggling for a reasonable excuse to put forward. He was still struggling when he reached the central check-out desk. Zark was there, with Quark hovering in the background.
“Ah, Mr. Snark. Good of you to drop by,” Zark said, icily. “We were beginning to wonder if you were rewriting the history of the Universe. Questions are being asked.” He pulled out the soiled copy of ‘Earth: And How to Do It’ distastefully. “Yours, I believe.”
“All it needs is a new cover,” Snark said, hastily. “The old one was threadbare anyway. I can do that tomorrow.”
Zark smiled nastily. “The same as you were going to give me a report tomorrow? Which, incidentally would now have been today, in different circumstances.”
“Yes, well, I can stay up and do that. There’s not much to tell,” he lied.
“Mmmm,” Zark mused, pushing the book across the desk. “And what can you tell me about this?”
Snark looked, bemused. In the background Quark squirmed and bobbed in embarrassment, then Snark followed the Librarian’s eyes and understood what he was referring to. The book was open at the borrowing template. He looked. And gaped. The borrowing stamp was clear enough, he remembered doing it himself, but the return stamp was unbelievable. Horrified he looked at the calendar above the desk for confirmation. Behind Zark Quark was mouthing something. Snark looked at him with narrowed eyes “Vectors”, he seemed to be saying. And suddenly he understood. They had rescued the book from the future, earth-time, where the vector had mistakenly taken them, but the return trip must also have taken them into the future, Cosmos-time When you’re eternal, it doesn’t really matter... except when you stamp a library book out in one time frame and stamp it back in another one ... a much, much, later one. Snark made a mental note never again to trust vectors to people who ‘mend bleedin’ boilers and fings’.
Zark saw the dawning understanding in Snark’s eyes. “Yes, Mr. Snark. Overdue.” He flipped his fingers at Quark, who handed over a calculator. “Would you like to do the honours, Mr. Snark?”
Snark gulped, looked at the schedule of charges next to the calendar and keyed the figures in. Long before the rows of noughts had finished cascading down the screen, the machine burned out.
“We did the calculations earlier, didn’t we, Mr. Quark?” Zark grated, and passed a slip of paper over the desk. There were two columns of figures. The size of the fine was one. The current state of Earth’s resources was the other one ... the smaller one ... the very, very, very, much smaller one.
Zark picked the book up gingerly and delicately dropped it into the shredder.
“Can’t afford it, Mr. Snark. Not on the library’s ticket. Can’t countenance it at all. Things have got to pay their way.” Then he pressed a button. The shredder coughed and did its job and somewhere in the fabric of the universe there was a slight hiccup, a belch, and a ripple as nothingness occupied a space where something had been just a moment before.
Zark pushed a pile of paper and a quill over the desk towards Snark. “I think we have some work to do, Mr. Snark, don’t we?”
Snark took the pen and paper miserably and returned to his desk. He sat down, pulled the paper towards him and began writing. He wrote ... “IN THE BEGINNING ...”
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