Dante in 2333

A Sci-Fi Short Story by Nathan Batchelor

Dante in 2333

by Nathan Batchelor

Nathan lives in and writes fiction from Columbus, Ohio. He has sold more than a dozen stories to magazines across the world. He is currently in a creative writing MFA program at Ashland University. You can find him on twitter @NateBatchelor.

All goes onward and outward, collapses nothing,

And to die is different than what anyone supposed, and luckier.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

For nine years (from my reference frame) no ships had docked at the Library at Alexandria. Though, with the complete blackout of the Library’s onboard systems, nine years was only a guess. I had little use of conventions of time by that point. I kept time by pages added to my manuscript, an addendum to the great Dante Alighieri’s Inferno. At the speed I estimated the Library to be traveling, perhaps ten-thousand years had passed for the universe outside my reference frame. All I saw from the viewports were long shreds of white light that seemed to hover eternally in place or the abyssal blackness of the space between galaxies.

Then one morning, as I lay on my cot, writing what I called a “bed draft,” the gathering of thoughts before a day of work, there was a sound like cracking glass.

First, let me address the elephant in the room. You may have noticed the words reversed in the quotation of my good friend Whitman’s poem, the “collapses,” and the “nothing.” You may have thought the reversal an error of an old woman’s brain. What old woman calls herself after the great poet Dante, or fancies her hair after Rossetti’s model Jane Morris, with no one other than her chubby tortoiseshell cat to appreciate her? Indulge an old woman, and believe these things aren’t errors, but deliberate choices selected by the author.

The sound a vessel makes as it docks to a Library sounds like cracking glass, but it’s nothing to be alarmed about, just accumulated ice clouds and dust pelting the ships’ surface as a link between the docker and dockee is established. This was not the sound that snapped me from my work. Rather the noise’s source was Florence, the aforementioned tortoiseshell, who had parkoured up a stack of books to get my attention and knocked over a vase I hadn’t much liked anyway, a Grecian urn that I’m sure Keats would have fawned over, Dolos, squatting, rolling dice under the watch of Mnemosyne. Imagine the poem the old boy would have written about that.

I called Florence to me and she came prancing, rubbing against my old legs unshaven. She is the only living creature I have seen in nine years, genetically engineered for a hundred-year lifespan, her heart linked to mine by some electric magic. When I pass, she passes.

Yes, yes, I know. Three hours is far too long for you to go without food,” I said.

Another noise sounded unexpected. This time there was no mistaking the crash for a mischievous cat. I hadn’t even known that the Library had slowed, so lost in my composition, but my suspicions were confirmed when I saw the shafts of light outside the viewport of my room shrinking like caterpillars coiling for movement. It had been so long since I’d heard the silence that focusing on it nearly overwhelmed me. That disturbing silence was broken by footsteps in the airlock from the zeroth arc of the Library just down the hall.

There, now,” I said to Lily.

Her tail flickered like wildfire as she careened toward the sound. She’d ignored the gruel I’d put out for her. And I couldn’t blame her, I was just as anxious to see what waited for us beyond the airlock.

I had no view of the docking ship. The windows of the Library at Alexandria were designed for inspiring patrons as they poured over tomes of poetry, not for a librarian to monitor the working parts of the docking apparatus. I would have watched the ship dock by the cameras in the control room, had they not been disabled when I had tried and failed to hijack the ship. Out of the pure inability to fathom a visitor, I lifted and inspected a sheet of my manuscript, as if the scribble there would foretell the outcome of this plot.

There was a grinding, then a hiss as the visiting ship door blinked open. I wanted so desperately to see the ship, to view it as the cover of some old pulp magazine, to imagine whatever or whoever lay inside. I wasn’t granted as much, just the raw vision of a woman dressed in librarian robes, staring at me through the glass of the airlock door. I forgot all about my manuscript when my gaze met hers.

#

Human contact will keep you alive,” my instructor at the Order had told me, passing me the satin robes worn throughout the universe by librarians. “Find a chat room, connect with patrons. Form bonds through text and words.”

But not with other librarians or at Preservation speed. I know the rules,” I said.

He shot me a smile.

I was beautiful then, like a girl in a painting. Lucy, my girlfriend at the time, used to call me her “Waterhouse girl,” though which painting she referred to she never said. Not even when she, teary-eyed, was throwing my own books at me, while I told her I had accepted a post in space. It was only after I had taken up residence at the Library, that I studied Waterhouse’s works, some of his originals hanging in these very halls. I like to think she saw in me the sublimity of the girl in The Lady of the Shalott, but it’s more likely that she saw the smugness of someone who had been an overachiever her whole life, something like the girl with the raised chin in Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May, which ironically or not, hangs close to my quarters in the Library.

When you’re young, beautiful, and exceptionally talented at academics, making friends is easy. All you must do is smile, keep your hair in the style of the times, and at cocktail parties, laugh at jokes, especially those you don’t find funny. But when you’re alone and no longer young, light years away from everybody and everything, when there’s nothing but thin electrical signals between you and the rest of the universe, such things matter little.

In my thirteen years aboard the Library, the patrons who visited had rarely given me more than a passing look or a distracted nod, far too concerned with their studies, hunkered over their books like Dark-Age monks. What is more monkish than traveling across the galaxy to hold an original copy of some text one can find the whole hologram of online anyway?

#

After meeting the gaze of the woman, I caught myself glancing at my reflection in the gleaming armor of long-dead knights that punctuated the rows of Renaissance poetry manuscripts. How my eyelids sagged, how I looked like my mother after giving birth to and surviving seven wild Southern children, but I was only forty-three, with no sun to destroy my collagen, no children to age me prematurely. What had I done to age so? It struck me there and then that I hadn’t looked at myself in nine years, at least not a real look, a sizing-yourself-up-before-going-out look.

I had tried to destroy the Library after my failed attempt at escaping to Earth, where my lady waited. But I had failed. The Order had safeties set up to keep the torus-shaped ship functioning.

I was glad they had foiled my attempt, at least momentarily, in the presence of another. The urge to bond with a creature who walks on two legs was so great, I believed I would cry at the sight of her blinking, drawing breath, or wiping her nose.

I glanced up again. I knew this woman. It was like recognizing someone from your past, but not recalling their name, some familiarity in the hunch of the shoulders, the gait as they sway in place. She appeared as V, the woman I’d loved, the woman I’d chatted with over a white screen while patrons browsed tomes or slaved over treatises, the woman who had kept me going for nine years, preventing me from hanging myself from my sash in the sections of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard.

Victoria Rilke, librarian of the 32nd Cycle, Graduate of the British Order of Tomes.” She saluted and bowed. “But you always called me V.”

Daniela Keynes, librarian of the 32nd Cycle, Graduate of the Alabama Librarians’ Guild.” I copied her movements. The feeling was odd. “Call me Dante. Welcome to the Library at Alexandria. You may not board. Not now or ever.”

#

Long before I first encounter V, my mother kept me company while people browsed the corridors of the Library. She had taken up chess after all the children had left the house. Me being the youngest, the one who is never completely weened, I was incorporated into her daily practice routine, at least when the Library was not traveling at preservation speed. She was a creature of habit, playing the Ruy Lopez every game. I, being part of the Order, had spent many nights passing pawns up and the down the board with my classmates, as part of our “hosting training,” which included developing our taste palettes with whiskies and wines, an extensive sampling and knowledge of music and paintings, the rules to the most common games, variations of poker, pinochle, Pitch, and chess of course, being the chief game of them all.

I defeated my mother handily the first ten or so matches, then just as she was getting a feel for the mid game, the last patron left the Library, which meant it was time for another period of Preservation speed.

Preservation was the one of the chief reasons for putting libraries in space. The other being that the Earth’s smartest and most talented were, perhaps ironically, those who worked in space. Engineers, biologists and physicists, planners, philosophers, with sociologists and psychologists to study all the former, made up many floating space colonies and far-world outposts. The principle behind Preservation speed was simple, the faster the books went, the slower they aged compared to a scholar smoking a pipe back on earth, or a grease monkey fixing a leak on an interstellar ship. So when libraries weren’t in use, they accelerated to near-light speeds, until a reservation by a scholar was made. Then the antithrust engines would kick in, the ship would slow to allow the patron to board, and the Library would remain relatively stationary until all the patrons had left. Repeat ad nauseum.

My first bout of Preservation speed was magical. All Order students look forward to their first ride on the time merry-go-round. I watched the light stretch, knowing that I was one of the few, perhaps a thousand or so, who had the honor to be entrusted as a caretaker of human knowledge.

As one of the poorer students in my class, I had been assigned to a division of poetics, the least popular division of all the books. Most Order initiates were attracted to the shelves of science articles, to the tables of old mathematical texts. That was simply the type of student that could endure the rigorous studies at the Order, those left-brained analysts.

An initiate didn’t just have to be trained in Library science, they had to be able to repair damaged books or, in some cases, crumbling tablets, keep tabs on the precise conditions some books had to be stored in, and operate the floating shell of a ship all by themselves. I did not mind being assigned to the lowly poetics. I had taken the Order position because of the prestige and money it would bring my family.

My first bout of Preservation speed lasted two months (my reference frame), the maximum amount allowed by the Order, before the Library slowed again to drifting speed. Communication was forbidden at Preservation speed. Rather it was impossible, as supra-lightspeed communication didn’t gel well with two objects moving at vastly different speeds. Messages became a garble of nonsense, if they arrived at all. Based on tests conducted by the Order, they found it better for the librarian’s mental health to deny them communication with the outside world, spending that time instead doing research, interspersed with exercises designed to keep librarians from going insane.

The obvious solution to prevent mental health problems, assigning two librarians to a Library in order to keep company with one another had not been successful when the first libraries were launched, rather it had led to violence in every case. The cheapest solution was solitude.

So, in solitude I studied, wrote, uploaded commentaries to the Hive, the information database maintained by the Order. I read Dante, found a fascination in Beatrice, who she was, what little was known of Dante’s two meetings with the woman. I wondered, had they shared letters? What did Dante know of her? How had he revised the story of his “wondrous lady of my mind?” But there was so little about her, and nothing new coming out of the Hive. We knew more of her fictional self than her real self, an almost philosophical problem, I thought. I saw how easy it would be, if your loved were to die, or just be absent for a long period of time, to mold them into something different than what they were.

When patrons once again boarded and rummaged the Library, I couldn’t help but be cold to them, see through their warm handshakes and thoughtful words of support for my service. I was waiting with a fervor for my mother to call.

She was much better at chess than before. Whereas I’d had two months of scattered practice, she’d had five years of intense study. She had moved well beyond the Ruy Lopez, though she placated me and followed the opening she’d already mastered, laughing in emoji’s at how her smart girl wasn’t so smart as mama. She forced my pieces into traps, time after time, often taking all my pieces until I was forced to resign.

We’d had a great time, some of my best in all my service time in the Order. But when the last patron left on a shuttle, I had to once again accelerate into Preservation speed. It was only then that I realized what was occurring, what the true cost of my job was.

She was sixty-five the last time I read any of her messages. The next time I came out of Preservation speed, she was nothing but dust in the Earth.

#

The woman looked hurt, brows high on her forehead, and she tried the airlock handle once, shooting me a look of incredulousness or something else. I wish I remembered. Then her brow furrowed, “Fuck you,” she said.

The Order’s lie was exposed. She was a clone, android, or whatever technology had brought humanity. I raced for the button that would disengage the airlock, sending her spiraling out in to space. Before I reached the button, her device sounded behind me, a kind of gun, a bang loud enough to send a hum through the marble sculptures and echo through every arc of the Library.

I heard her cry out. Blood was splashed over her suit. She had fired a gun at the door, in an attempt to board the ship. A crack spidered across the glass. I was torn between self-preservation and the human urge to help a struggling creature.

Perhaps the Order had built this woman out of the messages we had shared and the profile they no doubt kept on me. No, V and I had agreed that those messages were impossible to track in the grand arena of space. Impossible when I last was in standard time, but what was possible now, ten-thousand years later?

She lay pale and sweating on the floor. Her forehead was wide and long. She was not beautiful in any sort of classical way, almost boyish in some sense. She was not as young as I first thought either, crow’s feet showing through her foundation. She looked my age. Of course she looked my age. The Order had sent this creature here, facsimile of my V.

Dante, goddamn it, Dante,” she said. She struggled to her feet and fell again. “It’s true what they said. You lost your goddamn mind.”

Blood slipped through the cracks of the airlock’s rubber tread. She would die here were I not to act. But I thought whatever she was, however she’d copied the appearance of V, she was a living thing, and some part of me still survived that would not allow a creature to die on my watch.

I said then what I should have said when she first appeared. “Tenderly I will use you grass, curling.”

She answered in our code. Two words reversed in our Whitman quotations. “It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men. It may be you are from old people, or from taken offspring.”

I found a cart upon which I’d carried books. I couldn’t run fast enough. By some miracle of time and space, it was her. It was V, and I couldn’t let her die.

#

Left arm, 59.7 cm. A mole four inches down from the wrist, that has always reminded me of a blot of permanent marker. Oh, and the veins on the back of my hand look like a four from my perspective,” V had typed. “Now your turn…wait, the four is the kind that looks like the upside-down chair, not a slanted-picnic-table. That’s important, right? Okay, now it’s your turn.”

It started with a message, most likely an emote, a meme, something insignificant. I have forgotten. The messages were erased or destroyed. But it doesn’t matter. I would not want to see the events as they happened, because it would be missing the magic of the moment, the storm of two lonely people falling in love despite the space between them. If I could let you experience the feeling in my gut when the little bubble popped up on the screen to say, “V is typing,” I would. Such a feeling has a depth that I classify among the most powerful in life, like waving goodbye to my tearful sisters as I boarded the Library eons ago, or the first time a patron shook my hand and patted me on the shoulder. Even a life spent in solitude is marked most by those moments with others.

I don’t like this,” I typed. “I want to see you, the real you, back on Earth. I want us to go dancing in some downtown bar. I want us to walk those red soil hills that I did as I little girl.”

I didn’t write her words down, because I thought were I to do that I would be giving in to the fact that we would never meet.

Here you are,” she said, “The poet who doesn’t want to dwell on the subject’s features, the only one in history.”

I reminded her that I wasn’t a poet, at least I wasn’t then anyway. I told her I wasn’t giving up on us meeting.

And what will we do if we meet?” She typed.

I had typed nothing and gone to bed in a rage, nails dug deep into my palms. Even though I wanted to see her with the whole of my being, I could not see a way for us ever to meet.

Her retirement was coming soon, the perk of doing well in her studies and obtaining a sought-after post in the sciences. And it didn’t hurt having a father as an MP in Britain. She would spend the rest of her time on Earth, after a service of only ten years in her reference frame, most of it spent outside of Preservation speed, as her Library had no shortage of patrons.

She tended technical botanical manuals, cared for species of lavender that could only thrive in a synthetic environment. Her ship was not a spinning torus like mine, but sphere-shaped, a hub where exobiologists chatted over tea about things at the edge of human understanding and discovery. She was rarely ever alone, and I was always alone, and yet we had found each other, somehow.

We bonded over poets who loved nature. She loved Keats and Woodsworth, had learned them as a child in a fancy girl’s school in Britain. I read the Americans to her, Frost and Whitman, until we knew “Song of Leaves” like the oaths we’d taken at the Order.

We will never meet,” I typed, the next time we chatted. “We are parsecs away from each other.”

But what if we did?” she said.

She’d promised she’d contact me every time I came out of Preservation speed. But I knew the way of things. As soon as she was back on Earth, she would be able to touch someone, to catch the subtle way someone angles their body at you, to let you know that, yes, they wouldn’t mind your arm at the small of their back, your lips on their neck.

We’d need a code, something the Order can’t break, something to let us separate their fiction from our reality,” I said.

The Order sees everything, knows everything out here.”

You know as well as I that there’s too much noise for them to go through everything. Data is a needle in a haystack out here. The order would have to dig for eons to find it. They haven’t stopped us from talking, have they?”

Well, no,” she said.

We’d found each other in a tech-support chatroom for mechanical engineers working at the far reaches of the galaxy. It was against our oath for one librarian to chat with another, and it was perhaps our rebellion that cemented us to one another.

I know I am right in this,” I said. “It’s one thing For the Order to intercept and keep tabs on somebody on a single planet but widen the sphere of noise by a million orders of magnitude and intercepting supra-lightspeed communication becomes impossible.”

We settled on poems for our code, edited in only the slightest way, easy for us both to remember. It was our own story, we told each other. I thought little of our code until she was gone, until there was nothing but the blinking caret on a white screen. It wasn’t until that moment, seeing the woman who lay bloody in the airlock, that I thought of it again.

#

My back popped and every muscle in my body groaned as I lifted V from the cart to the medical table. The room carried the smell of oil and antiseptic, thanks to the robotic slugs that programmatically cleaned the walls. V coughed, a deep, wet sound that I knew couldn’t be good.

Christ,” I said, digging through the shelves. Splints, bottles and tubes of paste and anti-septic fell from the shelves as I searched for a pair of scissors, as my composure crumbled. My medical training was rudimentary. The protocol was stabilize and contact the Order, which I couldn’t do the latter of with every screen on the ship down. I would have to figure something else out.

She whispered something, her clammy hand grasping for my robe, bloody fingers touching mine. I was ashamed that I felt something at her touch like puppy love, despite the situation. Her face had gone paler than it should be, and blood dripped from the metal slab. Her robes were soaked at the torso where the bullet had gone in.

This was not how things were supposed to be in our story, not how I had written them, or imagined us writing them together. She was to save me, as Beatrice saved Dante. I found scissors, cut through her suit, and found a fingerhole-size pucker of a wound in her abdomen. I dressed it as best I could, her mumbling the whole time. When I was done, she grabbed again at my robe, struggled with the word. Then I heard it.

Pain.”

Tears came flowing from my eyes, as I realized in my haste I had forgotten to give her painkillers.

It took only minutes before the drugs began to work, and I saw life come back into her eyes as she tried again to sit up, before I pushed her back down.

I thought you were unreal,” she said. “I thought they were testing me, sending me out here.”

Save your strength,” I told her. “We’ve got to get you out of here.”

I don’t want to leave. If I’m going to die, I don’t want to do it alone.”

There was no time for explanations. Suddenly, after so many years of too much time, there wasn’t enough.

You’re not going to die,” I said.

Here, I thought I’d fuck over the order.” She laughed or coughed, I couldn’t tell. “But they weren’t lying when they said you had failed.”

Failed?” I said only half listening, lifting her and then lowering her back down on the book cart.

I was thinking about the work I’d slaved over for nine years, that had turned my hair grey. She would never see it. It was a selfish thought, I realize now, but it stung my heart.

She spoke again, and this time her words staggered me.

#

It was after my last patron left, a tubby man with a starfish tattoo over his left eye who searched in vain for the chapbooks of an obscure 18th-century French poetess, that I crossed the point of no return. I had been planning my rebellion for months. V was already back in London. I decided to hijack the Library, dock it at an engineering base, and stow away on a cruise ship back to Earth.

There were whispers in the chat rooms that it could be done, that it had been done, and only took the right amount of money. I didn’t have money, but I did have books, enough value to buy my way to Earth, along with a new identity. I’d get a lip implant, a nose job, and my fingerprints recast. The Order would never find me.

Though I had studied the Hive’s manuals for the repair and maintenance of a light-speed drive and a navigation system, I was blind as I snipped wires, and sat staring at a command prompt of a hacked warp engine. I nearly backed away from my plan then, but what was left for me with V gone? Perhaps I would find another, but I would compare her to V until the day I died. That’s the thing about not touching someone, about not having the circuit ever complete, though you both want it. It stays, ferments, turns into the most succulent thing you can lay lips to.

I entered the command to the black screen, waited a moment, then hit the parse button.

0 C.

.99C.

.9999C.

.99999C.

The speed was climbing. Too fast. Not at all what I’d intended. At this speed, a minute of my time was a year to the outside world. At this speed, I would barrel along until the atoms of Earth were split by the aging, growing sun.

The error was, like many programming errors, a typo of syntax. Two binary digits reversed. The similarity of the mistake to our code was not lost on me. Instead of giving me control of the ship, I had triggered some sort of safe mode, I ventured. The lights blinked, and every screen in my Library shut down.

I spent close to a year of my time studying the manuals, crossing wires, even snipping some. Nothing worked. The stars remained long beams of light. I stared at them till my eyes burned. All manner of tracker, triangulation, and directional control was gone. Where I was or how much time had passed to the outside universe, no one could say. I prayed I’d collide with a star. It would be quick, faster than the enviable madness that awaited me.

One morning, after perhaps a month of nothing but laying in bed, wondering what had happened to the world I loved, I decided I’d had enough, dragged myself down to the sixtieth arc, browsed the medicine cabinet for some way to end it. But the vials and compound names seemed more difficult to read than John Ashbery’s poetry, and by that time, I was depressed enough that researching the compounds was out of the question. It was on my way back from that cabinet, thinking that I’d reached the bottom of my pit of despair, that I caught the glance of the Rossetti reprint, Dante’s Dream, that man bending to steal a kiss from his dead Beatrice, that something clicked for me.

I wrote with the grand idea of launching V into immortality. When some far-future space scavenger found my and Florence’s cobwebbed skeletons, they would learn of my love for her, and my works would be enshrined in a Library such as the one I traveled on. In short, I was a fool.

My works were nothing but a shadow of those greats. It took Dante decades to write his Commedia. Milton studied intently in solitude and a had a lifetime of poetry and professional writing under his belt before he began Paradise Lost at age fifty. I had never lifted I pen to do anything other than research.

But what was time to me? That was on my side. I wrote, rewrote, discarded, cried, slammed my fist hard enough through one of the monitor screens that it cracked. But I would not be denied my immortality. I could finish my chores on the ship in an hour, do an hour of cardio on the treadmill to keep my body strong as I needed it. Two ten-minute meals a day, during which I shined a laser up and down the spacious halls for Florence with one hand, holding a book at arm’s length with the other, reading not for pleasure, but to water the soil where my own ideas were to sprout.

My hair went gray. I buzzed it off, stopped wearing makeup, some days not even dressing. I wondered sometimes if V’s hair had gone gray, if she’d died holding hands with a husband or wife, a child. Whatever. Her atoms had already infused the flowers of the earth, I believed, a fate I took comfort in knowing she would have appreciated. Still she lived on in my mind, just as Beatrice had for Dante. My own “wondrous lady of my mind.”

As time around me zoomed, it felt more and more as if it crawled. Reality began to tease me. I saw people in the shadows cast by the robotic slugs that cleaned the ship. The squeaks and squelches of the Library sounded as footsteps. I heard voices in the cricket noises of the sound machine I slept to. Still, I worked, slaved, ran pens out of ink, printed enough paper on the fabricator that I had to use the patron quarters to store all writings.

I couldn’t tell you when V came, except that it was close to nine years, as counted by the summer coats shed by Florence, the scratches I made on the wall when I remembered.

#

The controls of V’s ship were familiar to me. I thanked the deity of my mother for that as I plotted her vessel to the nearest engineering hub, where there would be medical staff. But would she survive until then? She moaned from the seat behind me, held up only by the straps, sweating a worrying amount, already bleeding through her bandage again. I cursed that there wasn’t enough room for me to travel with her in the tiny vessel.

Her navigation systems confirmed what she’d told me. The Library of Alexandria hadn’t moved in nine years, beyond the expected drift.

You’ve been stuck in place this whole time,” she’d said as the painkillers surged through her, giving her a moment of lucidity. “You triggered a failsafe. You never went into Preservation speed. The ship, the Order…they tricked you.”

She collapsed soon after telling me that. Her hand in mine went limp.

I’m sending you to the nearest station, Mandrake 15-24,” I said.

I lay a kiss on her head. I wondered should I leave my work with her, that she may remember me by it. But in that moment, I realized the work was never for her. It gave me some purpose in this aimless drift among the stars. Without it, all alone out here, I would perish. I buckled her in.

Nine hours. That’s how long she need to survive. I couldn’t even watch her ship depart.

Soon after she was gone, the Library engines began up again, and the stars stretched or seemed to at least. Perhaps it was an illusion as V had said. I passed over those dark blank screens, only dormant. Part of me believed that in time, V would activate them somehow. She had pull back on Earth. She would no doubt climb the ranks of the Order, were she to make it back to Earth. But it’s been weeks or years now, so long that I’ve started to lose my sense of time again.

It hurts knowing that I’ll never help V pick out the right shade of lipstick, never zip the back of her dress up after she zips mine. These things remain dreams that keep me alive, keep me writing and hoping, but for what I’m not sure. Perhaps a sign that she’s alive. Perhaps just a sign that what happened was real, and not part of some fiction I created.

Sometimes, I pass by the airlock that I was sure was cracked by her bullet, but the glass bears no hint of damage, and when I run my hand over it, I find a smooth surface, absent of the characteristic granularity of the snails’ repairing saliva. And where the blood once spotted the floor bears no stain on the closest inspection.

If our meeting were a fiction, perhaps my ship has become some Dantean circle of hell, tormenting me with illusions, spinning along in the eternal night with only two passengers. How fitting that the Library at Alexandria should burn again, though this time in madness. Sometimes I wonder what I or Florence has done to deserve such a fate. Perhaps Florence is some angel sent to comfort me, or my Virgil, who will show me a way out of this hell.

I refuse to believe this the end of my story or of a fiction I’ve created. One doesn’t end up in such a place, nor does one write themselves there. At least I must tell myself that, if I will survive to finish this work for V, for myself, to tell our story to the rest of the universe whole.

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