by Simon Kewin
A scream rang then like a bell through the great halls, bouncing down gilded corridors and off stained-glass windows and ornately painted panels like a maddened fly trying to escape the place.
It was typical of Canto, of who he was and what he was, that he merely flinched at the sound. A single eyebrow was raised, a grey caterpillar amidst the larger, grey explosion of hair, but otherwise he might have been deaf to it. He continued with the meticulous analysis of the piece. In a great, blue, leather-bound ledger he wrote in tiny, neat letters, the ink black like the bodies of ants lying there in a variety of deaths. Early clock. Gold, brass and steel. Quasi-astronomical symbols on the face. Simple escapement mechanism…
Only when the entry was properly completed did he set down his pen, push back his chair with a sharp grating sound, and, all wiry haste, run from the Hall of Clocks.
He was old now. The seventy-seventh and current Curator had been writing his neat ant-letters for nearly five decades. Still he moved quickly. Years of work with pieces large and small had kept him strong. He ran into the central hall. Giant skeletons filled the enormous space — long ladder-necks stretching up, up into hazy, golden light that streamed through the ring of small, high windows at the very top of the space. The bone-heads lost in the beautiful, airless glow. Once, a young boy, he had sat and stared up at these huge creatures, wondering about how they could have survived in life when the great hall was the only place big enough to hold them. Now, his mind was all cataloguing and categorization.
Another scream. The Mammal Wing. Canto ran across the great hall, weaving between the legs of the vast skeletons and into the oak-panelled splendour of the twenty-mile corridor. As a young boy he had ventured far, far down there too. Had explored perhaps halfway along, glimpsing new rooms, new wonders all the way, before his nerve had given way in the echoing dark.
This time he only went a short way down. A group of children were in the seventh Primate Room. Some he recognized; others were strangers to him, their clothes unfamiliar, from one of the northern or western tribes. They stood now in a silent circle around the stuffed body of one of the great apes that stood erect upon a low, dusty platform. Pan Troglodytes, catalogued long ago by the fourth or perhaps even the third curator. The head of the animal shifted a little, seemed to move and writhe as if the ape was trying to free a stiff neck after so many years holding the same pose, or as if trying to understand big, new ideas forming in its sawdust brain.
Canto looked closer, stepping through the ring of children. Insects were devouring the head, writhing in a seething ball that spilled out of the eye-sockets and nose and mouth. They burrowed ferociously, as if each was desperate to get to the center of the mass.
They were familiar. For a moment, he couldn’t place them. He looked around the ring of faces, their expressions horrified, fascinated, shocked. At the back a young girl that he knew a little stood apart. She alone looked pensive. Her hair was long and rather tangled.
“Anya. The Great Beetle Colony. On the lower Coleoptery floor. They must be from there. Have you been that way recently?”
“No, Curator.” She thought for a moment, her face very serious. “But that is only one floor down.” She turned then and walked quickly away, clearly intent on going to see.
He smiled. He was getting old. Perhaps, he thought, as he followed the young girl, it was even time to decide who would become the seventy-eighth Curator.
They stood around the large, exquisite model palace that had housed the Great Beetle Colony for so many centuries. How many generations of the insects had lived and died inside the labyrinthine structure of gold and crystal?
The two of them walked around slowly, looking for holes. Then Anya spotted it — atop the highest dome, a small cupola with a ring of slits to let in the air. They watched as one of the shiny metallic beetles wriggled its way through.
“Fascinating. After so many years they suddenly find out they can escape. Why now, I wonder? Why now?”
“I don’t know, Curator.”
“Why did they suddenly discover they were living in a golden prison?” Canto spoke mainly to himself. “I must go and check in the archives. See if it has happened before. See if they are dangerous.”
He hurried towards the door, then turned back.
“Thank you, Anya,” he said.
The girl simply smiled.
The archive was a sacred, secret room that only the Curators entered. It housed the index, the records that made sense of everything else in the museum, that which gave all the objects their meanings.
The high walls were lined with bookshelves — leather cliff-faces, red for the journals of the Curators on one side, blue for the index itself on the other.
Anya sighed and put down the volume she’d been holding. The chair beneath her creaked in the still, dusty air. She was tired, feeling the aches of her age, her eyes prickling. She remembered that day more vividly than a great many that had come and gone since. It wasn’t merely the first mention of herself. It was also the first mention of the escape of the Great Beetles. Strange that it should be the same day. Now, these decades later, it seemed as if the Beetles had always been everywhere, scurrying away wherever she went, turning up in every corner and niche — crawling, devouring, destroying. Almost, it seemed, exploring.
Anya had catalogued the Diaspora carefully, plotting their movements, trying to record what was being lost, trying to stay ahead of them. Now they filled all of the known halls and had probably spread out into some of the uncharted regions. Twenty years ago she had discovered the solar tower, its great, spiral staircase a single piece of polished brass. Doorways led to a whole series of unfamiliar rooms full of intricate, strange machinery. At the very top was a small chamber with a circular glass ceiling, reached after a full day of climbing and exploration. She had pushed open the green copper door and seen the Beetles scurrying away.
“Curator?” The voice at the door was quiet, respectful. But it must be something important for one of them to come and disturb her.
She sighed. More and more she liked to be here, amongst the reassuring rustle of the indexes, the smell of ages, and the calm. She was getting old. Everything seemed to make sense here. Out there so much was being destroyed. As fast as she could catalogue and re-catalogue, the objects were disappearing. The Beetles seemed to have worked their way into her consciousness too. She found it hard to concentrate. Whenever she sat down to work on a piece, there would be movement somewhere in the shadows of her vision. A scurrying that almost seemed to be a deliberate distraction.
And what had she found up there at the top of that staircase on that great day? It was, perhaps, the defining moment of her career, the event she would be remembered for. Now she found that she couldn’t recall any of it. Her knowledge of those finds — glorious … dazzling — was fragmented, slipping away from her even as she tried to bring them to mind.
She arose and walked to the door. Her hand was on the familiar, rattling handle when she saw movement, tiny but unmistakable, on one of the shelves to her left, little more than a candle-shadow flicker.
“Curator? Are you there?”
It couldn’t be true. They couldn’t be here too. She moved slowly to the shelf, carefully lifted down one of the volumes. Ten years’ work of the forty-seventh curator.
The pages were a filigree, just a lacework of tattered scraps. Where the Beetles had been, the words, the meaning, were gone.
In the end, after nearly a day of working themselves up to it, they had to break down the door to get to her. She lay on a carpet of shredded paper, pages from all the books she had hauled from the shelves.
They tried for a time to piece the scraps back together, but it was useless. So they made a pyre of the paper and, none of them speaking, set fire to their dead Curator’s body.
The fires burned brightly in the central hall. The bones of the giants made huge, shifting patterns on the tall, shadowed walls around them. The Curator looked down, back into the fire, moving in a little closer to absorb as much as possible of the delicious warmth. The books burned well, but too quickly. He watched as red leather turn brighter and began to smolder, then reached behind him for another, ready to throw it on before the flames died.
The hunters had returned, again with little to show. Hungry, anxious eyes had glanced across at him as the people saw what had been brought back. Some small, pallid fish from the Turquoise Aquarium, a few dried-out fruit. It was not enough, never enough. They looked to him for answers, of course. But what answers could he give? Food was scarce; they had to forage further and further afield. And everywhere they went, the Beetles were there before them, devouring.
He was sure they were larger than they used to be. Sure that in the past, they hadn’t fought back. When he was young, they hadn’t used weapons … had they?
Gun left the group of hunters and came and sat down next to him. They were silent for a while. She would be tired from the long hunt. She would speak when she found the words. Theirs was an awkward relationship. At some point, he couldn’t say when, this fierce woman, her small eyes like knife-pricks, had replaced him as their leader. In such times, it seemed, they needed strength, not ancient wisdom.
“Curator, tell me,” Gun said at last. “The books we burn for fuel. Are there many left? When I was young, I went into the archive, and it seemed that they were endless.”
“There are not many left now, Gun, my friend.”
The woman, her furs ragged and tattered, nodded her head as if she had expected as much. She was no fool either. Intelligent in her pragmatic way.
“But are there any answers there for us? All that knowledge….” She trailed off; her weariness seemed to have come upon her.
The Curator looked into the flames. “The knowledge, the meaning of it all … it crumbles away. There is little left now. I am sorry.”
“Very well.” She sighed, seeming to muster herself. “Then I have something to suggest to you.”
The Curator said nothing; his authority was weak now; they no longer needed his assent to speak. He watched as a loose page from one of the books caught fire and burned. A thin line of angry red marched relentlessly across it, leaving behind a curled, crisp wafer of black. The ancient writing on it was destroyed — curious, angular letters, very small and precise. He watched as the words Simple escapement mechanism were consumed. He wondered about who had written them. About which ancient, forgotten Curator had laid them down with so much care and thought.
“Yesterday I climbed halfway up the neck of the tallest of these giants,” said Gun.
They both knew this was forbidden. “Tell me why,” he replied quietly.
“Curator, I sat here and watched as the day came; saw the light coming through those high windows. And I wondered where it was the light came from. I wondered what was … outside.”
“And you thought that you, that we—” he paused, trying to understand these terrible new ideas— “that we could go there? That there is a place outside of those windows, outside of here, that we could actually go to?”
“Perhaps, Curator, yes. There is nothing here for us. We cling to life. It is forbidden by all our law, I know, but perhaps it is time to try. Who knows what is out there?”
“Who knows if there is an ‘out there’?”
“I am willing to climb all the way up and see.”
She was asking for his blessing, his assent at least, although she didn’t really need it. They sat and stared together into the flames for long moments, watched as the books turned to smoldering cinders, shapes and faces appearing and disappearing in the shifting glow.
He imagined himself ascending that swaying column of bones, a precarious staircase leading up to the roof of their world. He looked up into the darkness and found himself wondering what might be up there. What might be out there.
“I don’t know if I can.”
“Out there we will need you again, Curator. There will be much that is new and dazzling.”
“But is it possible? That outside….” He spoke more to himself than to her.
“Curator, we used to have such knowledge, our lives were discovery and wonder. Perhaps we could be that again.”
He didn’t reply, but looked up into Gun’s eyes, the fire bright in them. He looked around at the others, then back at Gun.
Far above his head, unseen, a fly crawled across one of the high windows. It came across a crack in the glass and crept through.
Outside, it paused for a moment before opening its wings.
Simon Kewin writes fiction, poetry and computer software. He lives in the UK with Alison, their two young daughters Eleanor and Rose, as well as one and a half black cats. His fiction has appeared in Nemonymous, Redsine, Quantum Muse, Beyond The Rose, Albedo 1 and Kimota amongst others.
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