Manuscript Tradition

Dr. Feyrouz Hanafusa is a curator at Yale in the 23rd century. Space exploration is still ongoing, and signs of life have been discovered on a planet near TRAPPIST-1. Signs, Dr. Hanafusa realizes, that suspiciously resemble drawings in the Voynich manuscript, which no one has been able to decipher for over eight hundred years.

 

 

Dr. Feyrouz Hanafusa glanced at the wall clock above the exit. In big red numerals, it told her the time was 7.08. In smaller numerals below, the clock admitted it was also 1700. Conversion to decimal units had been under way for more than fifty years: since Feyrouz was a girl. It remained incomplete. The curator of the Beinecke expected it would still be incomplete in 2269—fifty years from now. For the really old-fashioned, still smaller characters called it 5:00 PM.

While she watched, it went from 5:00 to 5:01 and from 1700 to 1701. Less than half a thousandth later, 7.08 became 7.09. However you marked it, however you looked at it, it was quitting time.

As if to underscore that, the soft rumble of plastic wheels on industrial-strength carpeting announced that Tony Loquasto was making the last cleanup swing of his shift. The janitor took a hand off his rolling trash barrel and touched it to the edge of his tricorn. “G’night, Professor,” he said, as he did more evenings than not. He tried to time that last swing so he came to the door at the same time as the curator.

“Good night, Tony. See you in the morning.” Dr. Hanafusa smiled fondly at him. The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library had preserved such things at Yale since the middle of the twentieth century. Loquastos had been sweeping up there from at least the 2070s on. Tony claimed they’d been doing the job even longer, but the Great Data Smash of 2071 made that hard to prove.

She remembered seeing a Yale print yearbook from the 2080s. Vic Loquasto’d been the Beinecke’s head custodian then. He’d worn a bushy mustache and had a lot of curly hair sticking out from under his dumb-looking baseball cap. Such details aside, he looked a lot like his several-times-great-grandson.

Out into the muggy warmth of a July early evening she went. She smiled again. How fitting that even the Beinecke’s janitors had so much history behind them.

Thinking of history made her looked back at the building where she lived her professional life. It was built in the spare style that had been called modern architecture all those years ago. Five stories tall, it was shaped like a shoebox and resembled nothing so much as a gray-and-white waffle.

By now, several stylistic movements had come and gone since the Beinecke was modern. The swooping lines and translucent finish of the Tereshkova Xenobiology Hall across the quad were only half as passé as the Beinecke’s resolute rectangularity.

Except for the microbes of Mars and the odd oceanic creatures under Europa’s icy crust, xenobiology had been theoretical when the Tereshkova Hall went up. The swarm of people coming out of the building now showed how much it had grown in the past century and a quarter. Probes had found life on a planet of Tau Ceti and on another one revolving around Epsilon Eridani. Analyzing, comparing, and exploiting different biochemistries was as hot a field as computer graphics had been a couple of hundred years earlier.

And, odds were, it would be heating up still more. Nothing had gone wrong with the robot ship launched toward TRAPPIST-1 as the twenty-first century drew towards a close. Now it was sending data back to Earth. Or rather, now the data it had sent back to Earth forty years ago were starting to arrive.

TRAPPIST-1 was a piss-poor excuse for a star. An M8 dwarf, it was only a little bigger than Jupiter, though more than eighty times as massive. But even in the early twenty-first century they’d learned it had seven planets with at least the potential for life. That made it a most intriguing target for starships.
It was an old star, billions of years older than the Sun. The life its planets bore—if indeed they bore any—would be older than Earth’s, too. As far back as the late twentieth century, David Gerrold had realized extra gigayears of evolution could mean corresponding extra sophistication.

A headline ten meters tall appeared in the air in front of Tereshkova Hall: CRAWLER LANDING ON FARADAY. Back in the day, TRAPPIST-1’s planets had borne letters from a to g. Now they were named, alphabetically still, after famous old scientists: Avicenna, Bohr, Curie, Dawes, Eratosthenes, Faraday, and Goodall. Their orbits, all close to their star, were full of complex resonances. The inner five always turned the same face toward TRAPPIST-1; Faraday and Goodall rotated three times for every two revolutions. A crawler had already come down in the libration ribbon between Dawes’s light and dark sides.

Feyrouz knew vaguely that getting the landers to good areas on those unimaginably distant worlds hadn’t been easy. Modern savants kept worrying that the primitive, slow, stupid computers on the starship weren’t up to the job. They seemed to have been wrong, though. The curator didn’t worry about the details, any more than a Victorian businessman in Salt Lake City worried about how the telegraph sent his message to Indianapolis.

Feyrouz walked to the edge of campus and waited for the bus to take her to her apartment building. Its electric motor as quiet as the inside of a library was supposed to be, the bus rolled up to the stop a few minutes later. Like so many industrial products these days, it was manufactured in the Brazilian Empire. The Naviopedra batteries that powered it were a Brazilian specialty; they held more power in less space and weight than any competitors.

Ten minutes later, she got off. The bus glided away. She went up one block and over two to reach her building. Her head was on a swivel while she did it. New Haven had always had its share of crime and maybe a little more. Cameras everywhere made robbers more likely to get caught. That didn’t stop a lot of them. And, if one of them clouted you in the pot so you wouldn’t hold on to your goodies, you might be too damaged afterwards to care.

No one bothered her on the way to the her apartment. The DNA sniffer at the security gate confirmed that she was entitled to go inside. The door sighed open. She went in. The door slid shut behind her.

Another DNA sniffer (a newer, better model, one she’d paid for herself) on her door agreed that she really did live in Unit 27. She walked inside. The door closed. The lights and the air-conditioning came on.

The cat walked out of the bedroom. His complaint-filled meows said she’d stayed away from him much too long, even if today was no different from any other day. “It’s all right, Wilfrid,” Feyrouz said. Wilfrid was unconvinced, as he was almost every evening. She scratched his chin, then sat down on the carpet beside him and petted him and rubbed his tummy while he did flop-and-rolls and purred like a boat with an internal-combustion engine.

She fed the tropical fish. It was a peaceable tank: cardinals and neons and danios and little rasboras and the like. A Corydoras catfish went along a side wall, nibbling on algae and keeping the view clear. Wilfrid batted at the fish he couldn’t reach. They were as much fun for him as a good immersive was for her.

Once the critters were taken care of, Feyrouz could tend to her own dinner. She took a tilapia-and-rice pack out of the freezer and stuck it into the microwave. The oven’s sensor registered the ration points when she touched the HEAT panel. She sighed. The authorities insisted things were getting better, but she remained convinced food packs had been more substantial when she was a kid.

As she waited for the microwave to finish, she glanced at the photo of her son on the little table. Sam was living his own life, homesteading and doing urban archaeology in the ruins of Sandusky, Ohio. Feyrouz wished he would call or vid more often, but what mother didn’t?

She ate, rinsed the pack and chucked it into the recycle bin, and washed her hashi before sticking them in the dish drainer. Then she said, “News.” Words and pictures appeared before her, on a smaller scale than in front of the Tereshkova Xenobiology Hall but with the same principle.

The Red Sox were going through their pregame warm-ups against Havana. Feyrouz gestured impatiently. No matter how the algorithm felt about it, she didn’t think that was news. The West Coast and New Texico had tightened their infoblockade against the United States. She gnawed on the inside of her lower lip. Colleagues in both countries had warned her that was likely. It didn’t make living in a data-driven world any easier, though.

Spokesfolk for the shah of Iran were denying that the outbreak of antibiotic-resistant plague in Kurdistan had anything to do with his government. Spokesfolk for the Kurdish prime minister said genetic work in their labs proved the shah was a lying Shiite dog. Feyrouz wondered whether the Middle East would ever know peace. It struck her as unlikely.

She waved away reports on the bribery scandal in Brussels, the data-access scandal in Washington, and the anti-Mormon riots in Sacramento (grainy video almost scrambled by the blockade). They were a fine basket of deplorables, but she couldn’t do anything about any of them. “Space news,” she told the AI.

A report that the planetary probe had gotten down safely on Faraday made her smile and nod. An atmosphere with 22 percent oxygen had already shown that Faraday held life. The crawler was starting to analyze it. Genetic material there seemed to use nineteen amino acids, seventeen of them among the twenty that terrestrial DNA employed. “The crawler appears to have landed in a forest, not far from the edge,” the voice-over said. “First pictures are expected in ten to twelve hours.”

Feyrouz sighed. The little pea brain inside the starship—the best they could do back in the twenty-first century, she reminded herself—would be crunching numbers as hard as it could, crunching them and putting them together to make images and beaming back across the light-years. Or rather, it would have been doing that almost forty years ago. Those images would have left TRAPPIST-1’s system when she was a college sophomore.

“Enough news,” she said when the starship report finished. It was a little past seven. If she wanted to, she could watch the Red Sox and the Cigarmakers bang heads. But she didn’t feel like it. New Haven lay almost on the border between Red Sox Nation and the dark kingdom of the Yankees farther west. She wasn’t tempted into rooting for the false gods in pinstripes, but her faith in Holy Fenway had weakened in recent years. A string of sorry Bosox finishes didn’t help, either.

She put on a pair of headphones, letting one rest a few centimeters above each eye. Then she asked for the immersives menu. She chose an adaptation of a classic, Mary Renault’s The Mask of Apollo. She’d been inside that one before; she knew it was good. Something familiar would help her wind down and get ready for bed.

Closing her eyes, she said, “Begin!”

By anything her brain could prove, she wasn’t a middle-aged woman in modern New Haven any more, but a child on a stage in Athens 2,600 years earlier. Everything Nikeratos, the main character, experienced or thought or felt, so did she. Part of her dimly realized she and the people around her were speaking English, not ancient Greek, but it didn’t matter.

When they came in a hundred years before, immersives had changed acting forever. You didn’t just have to sound and look convincing; you had to make the people who would be there with you—well, with the recording of you—believe that you were going through everything that happened in the story. There’d been a great shakeout of performers at the time, the way there had been when talkies conquered silents a couple of centuries earlier.

The only thing wrong with The Mask of Apollo she could see was that its ending was almost too painful to stand. But she found herself smiling anyway when she took off the headphones. Whenever she dipped into this immersive, she better understood—at least for a little while—what her son felt for his husband.

 

She was still smiling when she went to bed, and again when she got up the next morning. She fed Wilfrid and cuddled him and gave him fresh water, then ran him around with a laser pointer till his sides heaved. He wouldn’t have much excitement till she got home unless a fish jumped out of the tank. In that case, he’d have a snack, too.

After a quick shower, Feyrouz fixed her own breakfast: coffee, along with natto and green onions and mustard on top of leftover rice. The slimy fermented beans were better for her than bacon and eggs, and much easier on the ration book. She splurged every once in a while, but only every once in a while. A curator wasn’t made of money.

“News,” she said as she cleaned up and made herself a second cup of coffee so she’d be sure her heart would keep beating all morning. A moment later, she added, “Space news.”

“Here are some early images the Faraday crawler transmitted to the starship in the TRAPPIST-1 system,” the AI said. “You will see them two ways: first in the very red light the star actually emits, and then with processing to make the light peak appear yellow, as it would under our sunlight.”

The first photo that appeared in the air in front of Feyrouz was as murky as the newsbriefer had warned her it would be. The sky looked purplish; the dust was a deeper red than Mars, and the plants seemed a brownish-black mass, with few details visible no matter how she squinted.

The photoshopped version seemed magically better. The sky turned blue—not quite Earthly blue, but something closer to turquoise. The few clouds changed from the color of wet, bloody cement to grayish white. And the dirt looked like dirt, and the plants looked like plants.

Not quite like terrestrial plants, though. Despite image processing, their green wasn’t that of the green hills of Earth. The leaves didn’t look like any Feyrouz would see growing on campus—or in an arboretum, either.

In spite of their alienness, some of the plants in the image from the probe seemed oddly familiar to Feyrouz. Those blue flowery things with the golden oval central structures and the small leaves that looked like starfish with too many legs, the other blue growth that rose on a peppermint-striped stalk from something that resembled a pitcher plant . . .

“Where have I seen those before?” Feyrouz asked aloud. Like a lot of people living alone, she’d gotten used to talking to herself. Over the past century and a half or so, having an AI at one’s beck and call had given even more folks the habit.

This time, the AI didn’t respond. It couldn’t work out the association. For a little while, neither could she. She rubbed her chin, thinking hard. Was it in the small semitropical piece of Iran just south of the Caspian Sea, where she and her first husband went on their honeymoon? She frowned, shaking her head. She didn’t think so. If she’d seen those funny plants at all, if she wasn’t just imagining things, she’d come across them more recently and closer to home than that.

Closer to home? Her jaw dropped. Yes, one hell of a lot closer! She could have gotten the answer from the AI now that she had a clue, but she didn’t. She could do it at work. Oh, could she ever!

When she got to campus, the headline in the air in front of the Xenobiology Hall was INTELLIGENT LIFE ON FARADAY! The enormous image below it showed the ruins of a gray stone spa or swimming pool or fountain or something of that sort. It wasn’t full of water now, the way it was meant to be. Only a few scummy puddles lay on the bottom, with something like a bunny-eared rat lapping from one of them.

Feyrouz gave the photo no more than a passing glance. It came as no great surprise to her, no matter how gobsmacked the rest of the world might be right now. The rest of the world plainly hadn’t made the connection she had, though someone else in it was bound to before long.

She hurried into the Beinecke. Bland, cool, dry, air-conditioned air replaced the hot, sticky stuff outside. Tony Loquasto paused in sweeping the front hall to touch the edge of his hat and give her a polite nod.

“Mornin’, Professor Hanafusa,” he said. He had a faint New England accent and, under it, what might have been an even fainter Italian one. Or maybe Feyrouz was imagining that.

“Good morning, Tony.” She grudged even that brief reply. She had to get up into the stacks as fast as she could.

But the janitor, blast him, felt like chatting. “Wonderful day, ain’t it?” he said. “Now we know we got company out there. That’s really somethin’, know what I mean?”

“It sure is.” Feyrouz made herself stop, made herself smile, made herself nod. You had to behave like a human being with the people who worked for you unless you wanted them to talk about you behind your back. The world wouldn’t end—she didn’t suppose it would, anyhow—if she checked things in a couple of thousandths, not right now.

Though she did her best not to be rude, some of her urgency must have got through to him. “Don’t want to keep you or nothin’,” he said, and went off with his broom and his rolling trash can. He didn’t move very fast; Feyrouz couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a janitor in a hurry. As long as he was chinning with her, he didn’t have to do any actual work.

At the elevators, she poked the UP panel with an impatient forefinger. She didn’t have to wait any more—a door slid open. She went inside. The door closed behind her. This was the fourth generation of elevators in the building. They were far safer than the originals, and used less than half as much energy. Similar improvements had gone into the AC and the lighting and the fire-suppression systems.

On the top floor was a room with special air-conditioning, fire suppression, and surveillance even by current standards. The Beinecke as a whole housed and protected rare books and manuscripts, as its name said it did. That room housed and protected the rarest of the rare. The DNA sniffer above the latch put the one on Feyrouz’s apartment door to shame.

She knew just where in the room the manuscript she wanted lived. If she hadn’t, she wouldn’t have been likely to name her cat Wilfrid. The Voynich Manuscript wasn’t very big: no more than twenty-five centimeters by seventeen. Scholars had been certain for centuries that its parchment cover wasn’t the one it had originally worn.

They’d also been certain its 234 surviving pages (some—no one knew how many—were missing) dated from the early fifteenth century. Studies of bookbinding techniques and radioactive dating of vellum and ink led to the same conclusion.

And there certainty ended, sloppy dead on the floor. Many of the manuscript’s pages pictured plants—plants portrayed nowhere else, plants resembling nothing people had ever seen anywhere else. The writing that presumably explained the illustrations was in an unknown tongue; the script itself also had no known duplicate.

The Voynich Manuscript—named for Wilfrid Michael Voynich, a twentieth-century owner and researcher—came to the Beinecke in 1969 as a donation from the man who’d bought it from the man who’d inherited it from Voynich’s widow. It had been a curiosity, a mystery, for hundreds of years before that. It still was. Plenty of people claimed to have solved the mystery of its script. Nobody’d done so in a way that satisfied scholars.

Feyrouz carried a pair of thin white cotton gloves in her belt pouch so she could handle delicate manuscripts without harming them. She put on the gloves before taking the Voynich Manuscript from the shelf and carrying it to a carrel. Eight hundred years separated her from the unknown author and artist, who’d almost certainly created the manuscript in northern Italy. She turned the pages gently and carefully.

Her breath caught. There were the blue flowery things with the golden oval centers. A couple of paragraphs’ worth of incomprehensible text dodged past and among their stems. When she went a page farther, she came to the maybe-pitcher plant, again with something in that unknown script written alongside it. Above and to the right of the flower (?) with the candy-cane stalk was the number 35, in ordinary Arabic numerals. Most of the pages were numbered. Those numbers, with a few Latin-alphabet words probably not by the original creator, were the only decipherable bits in the manuscript.

All of which meant . . . what? What could it mean but that whoever’d made the Voynich Manuscript had somehow known what plants on Faraday, forty light-years from Earth, were like? How was that possible? With the manuscript around eight centuries old, was it possible at all?

“The idea’s insane,” Feyrouz said—again, where no one could hear her, though surveillance cameras in this secure room might pick up the words.

It might have been insane, but all other possibilities struck her as crazier yet. The photos sent back from Faraday didn’t just kind of look like the illustrations in the manuscript. The illustrations were what a good artist—not a great one, but good, plenty good—would have turned out if he or she had been painting from those photos.

And the pool or spa or whatever it was looked like the pictures of such things the artist had also included in the manuscript. There were several pages with such illustrations. In them, though, the pools had been full of water and were populated by rather chunky naked women. Or maybe they weren’t women, or not exactly women. Maybe they were the friends or family the artist had left behind.

“Maybe my brain needs reprogramming,” Feyrouz muttered. But she didn’t think so. She also didn’t think she’d be the only person asking those questions for long. Someone else familiar with the Voynich Manuscript would make the same associations she had—would very likely not just make them but spread them all over the infosphere.

Someone might well have started doing that already. Feyrouz didn’t fret about it. The wild urge to be first wasn’t a social disease she’d ever caught. Page by page, she went through the manuscript. The astrological diagrams, if that was what they were, had never made any Earthly sense. Would they in the context of Faraday’s sky and the other planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system? Again, she had no idea, but the question seemed worth asking.

 

The door to the special room clicked open. The small rumble of plastic wheels on carpet told Feyrouz it was a janitor making rounds. Probably Tony Loquasto; no one else from the custodial staff would be authorized to come in here. She hadn’t known he was, but it made sense. Even with no academic rank, he was as trusted, as reliable, an employee as the Beinecke boasted. And, while air filters ensured that the special room didn’t get dusty in a hurry, it did get dusty.

Thanks to the noise from those wheels, Feyrouz kept an ear on where Tony was going. Somehow, she wasn’t completely astonished when he turned down the aisle that led to the shelf where the Voynich Manuscript usually perched. She also wasn’t astonished when the noise stopped right about there. She hadn’t expected the janitor to know about the manuscript, but one never knew, did one?

She closed the volume, stood, and carried it back to its beige-painted metal case. Sure enough, there stood Tony, doing a not quite good enough job of pretending to dust.

“Hello,” she said. “Were you looking for this?” She held up the Voynich Manuscript.

He did a not quite good enough job of pretending he had no idea what she was talking about. Then he must have realized it wasn’t quite good enough, because he chuckled and shrugged and nodded. “As a matter of fact, Professor Hanafusa, I was.”

“Have you looked at it before?” Feyrouz asked, her voice a bit tight. If he’d pored over images from it on the infosphere, that was one thing. If he’d got not just eyeprints but perhaps greasy fingerprints on the actual, irreplaceable physical book, that was something else again.

He hesitated. Then he nodded. “The pictures, you know, they’re pictures of plants and stuff from, ah, Faraday.”

“You saw that, too?” she said.

`”Yeah, I did.” Tony Loquasto nodded again. “Which ones made you spot it, you don’t mind my asking?”

She still had the gloves on. She opened the Voynich Manuscript and pointed out the plants. “This one . . . and this one. I saw them on a news projection this morning, and naturally I recognized them.”

“Thank you,” Loquasto said, which baffled her. Then he nodded one more time. “The hadadband and the potta, hey? Yeah, them are a couple what stand out from the crowd, like.”

“The which and the what?” Feyrouz was baffled again. “Do you mean the plants? Why do you call them that?”

He sighed. By the look on his face, he wished he’d kept his mouth shut. Since he hadn’t, though, he needed to answer. “Why? On account of those’re their names.”

“They are? In what language?” Feyrouz didn’t call him a nut right out loud. But no one had ever deciphered the Voynich Manuscript. Plenty of people had claimed they’d done it, but none of the claims held water.

She might not have called him a nut, but he knew what she meant. “I don’t think I better talk about it no more,” he said. “You’ll send for the boys in the white coats with the straitjacket and the butterfly nets.”

Not many people would have had the slightest notion of what he was talking about. Feyrouz had never heard anybody use the idiom he came out with, but she’d run across it in print once or twice—she enjoyed old books. “No, I won’t,” she promised, raising her hand as if taking an oath. “You’re the best janitor the Beinecke could have, and you don’t have to be sane to do the job. Maybe being crazy even helps.”

He grunted laughter. “Boy, you got that right, Professor!” he said. But he kept quiet after that for some little while. “You really mean it? ’Cause what I got to say, I know it’ll sound screwy to you.”

“There’s nothing about the Voynich Manuscript that doesn’t sound screwy,” Feyrouz said. “So go ahead. What’s your take on it?”

“I don’t got no take on it,” the janitor said. “I wrote the damn thing, that’s all.”

Feyrouz giggled. She knew she shouldn’t have; a second later she pulled her face straight. But it was too late. She could tell right away. And when she said, “Did you?”, she knew she sounded like someone humoring a real nutjob. That careful neutrality in her voice meant the same thing the giggle did.

“See? I told ya ya wouldn’t believe me,” Tony Loquasto said without heat. “But I did, yeah.”

“Um, how is that possible?” Feyrouz asked. “It was eight hundred years ago, after all.”

“We don’t die as quick as you. Rocked me back pretty hard when I seen how quick you people peg out,” Loquasto said. “We sent a starship here. Something musta gone wrong. Don’t ask me what. I was in cold sleep—the travel time wasn’t to sneeze at, even for us. When I woke up, the emergency pod’d already kicked free. All I could do was ride it down, so I did. I landed in Italy, like you’d guess. Learned the language, wrote the book when I could afford to. Best I could do to remember what the old place was like, y’know?”

“Why haven’t there been more starships from Faraday, then?” Feyrouz did her resolute best to stay reasonable.

“Probably on account of we had ourselves a big old no-holds-barred war,” Loquasto answered, his voice bleak. “Almost happened here a time or three. You guys’ve been lucky. I bet we weren’t.”

“It could be.” Again, Feyrouz kept her voice neutral. He was one of those rational-sounding lunatics. She almost wanted to believe him. But that would mean believing he’d been on Earth since around 1400 and on Faraday for who could guess how long before that. Occam’s Razor said—shouted—he was a fruitcake.
She tried another question: “When did you come to America?”

“In—lemme think—1893, that’s when,” the janitor said. “I hoped it’d be better, and I guess it was. And after the Beinecke got the manuscript, I figured I oughta keep an eye on it. I been here since . . . I guess it was 1980-something when they hired me. I been sweepin’ up ever since, even if I had to change my handle and my style every so often to keep folks from gettin’ snoopy, like.”

He still sounded rational. She was tempted once more to believe him. Vic Loquasto, from almost a century and a half earlier, had looked just like Tony now except for the haircut and the mustache and the funny old-time clothes. But if you started believing in a nearly immortal refugee from another planet, wouldn’t the boys with the butterfly nets and the straitjacket come for you next? And wouldn’t you need coming for?

She held out the Voynich Manuscript to Tony. “Do you still want this?” she asked.

“Nah, that’s okay, Professor Hanafusa. I’ll just go back to making my rounds. Gotta keep things neat, right?” The janitor turned his wheeled trash barrel around and headed for the door. He opened it and went through. It clicked shut behind him.

Feyrouz didn’t realize she’d been holding her breath till she let it out in a long sigh. She put the Voynich Manuscript back on the shelf. So small, so nondescript—and so very, very strange on the inside. Shaking her head, she started back to her office.

 

Her administrative assistant jumped out of his chair—he almost jumped out of his skin—when she walked in. “Great God in the circuit diagram!” he exclaimed. “Where have you been?”

“What’s the matter, Paulo?” she asked, blinking. He was usually the calmest thing on two legs. That was part of what made him good at his job.

Not now. He gaped at her, goggle-eyed. “Check your messages. Check the news first, though. What have you been doing this past hour?”

“Research,” she said, which even had the added virtue of being true. She walked into her sanctum and closed the door after her, something she hardly ever did. Only then did she address the air: “News, please!” On a hunch, she added, “Space news.”

A headline appeared in the air in front of her: FARADAY CRAWLER DESTROYED! SEE SHOCKING IMAGES! Her nod, shaky though it was, meant she wanted to see the images, whether they were shocking or not.

The infosphere obliged. The first photo didn’t seem particularly shocking, not to begin with. It was a shot of what might have been the base of a statue. If there’d ever been a statue on top of it, though, that was long gone. As bases sometimes will, this one had an inscription carved into it, commemorating what it didn’t hold any more.

Feyrouz couldn’t read the inscription, of course. She wouldn’t have expected to be able to, not in a million years. But she could recognize its script. She hadn’t expected that, either, though later she supposed she should have. It was a cleaned-up, formal-looking version of the writing that filled the parchment leaves of the Voynich Manuscript.

The next picture, which was also the last, showed a naked blonde woman carrying a big rock. No—a second look told Feyrouz it wasn’t a rock: it was a chunk of concrete, with rusty rebar stubs sticking out of it here and there.

The woman was dirty and muscular, and slightly on the chunky side—like the women in the pools in the manuscript and, now that Feyrouz thought about it, quite a bit like Tony Loquasto himself. She didn’t think about it long. The way the woman was staring in the direction of the crawler didn’t exactly require one to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out why it stopped transmitting right after that.

Probably on account of we had ourselves a big old no-holds-barred war. The janitor’s words echoed in Feyrouz’s head. So did other, older ones from Thomas Hobbbes, about the life of man in a state of nature: . . . solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. If that blonde woman didn’t epitomize them, Feyrouz couldn’t imagine what would.

But she didn’t have time to deal with any of that now. As Paulo’d warned her, a huge tsunami of messages had swamped her in-box. Some were from obvious nuts, some from Voynich Manuscript enthusiasts who might not be nuts, some from scientists who might be nuts, some from government officials and clergyfolk who were surely going nuts. She had to sort through them all to figure out which ones she needed to answer as soon as she could, which could wait, and which could be erased without answering.

Lunch? She never got the chance. A video crew interviewed her for two thousandths—the most time she could spare—for the infosphere. Fame and notoriety were the last things she wanted. She never would have gone into library science had she wanted them. Want them or not, she had them now.

It slid toward 7.08. Quitting time? She wouldn’t get the chance for that, either. Maybe Paulo or somebody could bring her food and coffee, lots more coffee. She feared she’d end up sleeping in the office tonight, leaning back in the chair with her feet on the desk.

Thinking of quitting time did make her remember Tony Loquasto. She called his phone code. He didn’t answer, which surprised her. Bonkers or not, Tony was nothing if not reliable. She left a message, asking him to call her back. When he didn’t, she called the general custodial code.

She got the number two custodian, who said, “He left this morning, Professor Hanafusa. Didn’t you know? Said he had a family emergency. I bet he did, too—he looked big-time green around the gills, if you know what I mean.”

“Thanks, Olga.” Feyrouz disconnected and went back through her messages to see if she’d overlooked one from Loquasto. She didn’t find one, and she didn’t think she would have scrubbed one from him. In the madness today, though, she couldn’t be sure.

Just then, she got a call from the governor of Connecticut. She had to deal with that, and it made her forget about the errant custodian for a while. And the urgent calls and messages kept pouring in. By the time 9.58—2300 in the old system—rolled around, she was fielding queries from early risers in Europe. She gave it another couple of hundredths, then said the hell with everything, shut down her messaging, and headed for home. Wilfrid deserved that much, didn’t he?

It was dark and quiet, except for fire engines screaming like lost souls off in the distance. She had to wait at the stop longer than usual; buses didn’t run so often once it got late. And she wished she had a stunner in her pouch as she walked to her building down poorly lit streets. She got there without trouble, and breathed a small sigh of relief after the security door let her in.

Wilfrid wanted to know where the hell she’d been and why he was out of cat food. She fed him and petted him and took care of the fish, all more or less on automatic pilot. Then she said, “News.”

“Big fire in West Haven,” the infosphere announced; the AI must have known she would have heard the klaxons on her way back.

“Show me. Tell me,” Feyrouz instructed. Sure enough, it was a big fire: a house that, to judge by the ones nearby, would have stood there since the twentieth century. It wasn’t standing any more. By the enthusiasm with which it burned, whoever lived there might have used it to store acetone or mineral oil.

No sooner had that thought crossed her mind than the voice-over said, “Public Information Officer Horowitz says the flames’ fierceness makes arson not just possible but probable. The residence, which has belonged to the Loquasto family since at least the 1980s, is of course a total loss. Heat and smoke have prevented firefighters from gaining entry. At this point in time, we simply have no way of knowing whether anyone was trapped in the house when fire engulfed it. Emergency calls were placed by neighbors.”

“Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad!” Feyrouz exclaimed. She tried Tony Loquasto’s phone code again. This time, she didn’t get invited to leave a message. An antique artificial voice—you could tell it was computerized, a dead giveaway that it was antique—informed her that that code was not currently in service.

She did some more swearing. What was it trying to tell her? Did the phone system already know Tony was dead, even if the rest of the infosphere didn’t? Or had he canceled the code himself? The police would be able to find out about that, but she couldn’t.

Had he torched his own house? Why would anyone do such an insane thing? His family’d lived there forever. The voice-over’d said so. You wouldn’t all of a sudden turn two and a half centuries of life to smoke and ash, would you?

Not unless you were covering your tracks, she thought with wintry clarity. But where would he run? His name and all the data the infosphere had soaked up about him would warn if he tried to get a plane ticket or rent a car or probably even take a bus, though you could still feed some buses cash. Surveillance cameras scanned almost every square centimeter.

People still talked about living off the grid. They talked about it, but very few did it. The grid had grown tighter and tighter year by year, decade by decade. These days, hardly anything slipped through it.

Feyrouz was getting ready for bed when she stopped short, her mouth still all foamy with toothpaste. Suppose Tony Loquasto wasn’t nuts. Suppose he’d come to Earth from Faraday eight hundred years ago, maybe longer. Suppose years, decades, even centuries weren’t that big a deal to him. Wouldn’t he have something up his sleeve, something this oh-so-up-to-date twenty-third century might not know anything about?

She laughed at herself, finished brushing, and went to sleep. She’d be tired and grouchy in the morning as things were. The way she was getting silly now said she really needed to grab what rest she could.

A West Haven police lieutenant waited for her outside the Beinecke when she got there. Mandela Jeter wanted to hear everything she could tell him about Tony Loquasto. She didn’t hide anything. It wouldn’t have done any good anyway, as she knew. She called up the video from the secure room and let Jeter listen to the custodian claiming to be an alien.

“Wow!” the police officer said, shaking his head in bemusement. “He had a glitch in his firmware, didn’t he?”

“Plainly, there’s a connection between Faraday and the Voynich Manuscript,” Feyrouz said. “If you want me to think that connection includes our janitor . . .” She shook her head, too.

“I hear you.” Jeter spiraled a finger by his ear. “Well, we’ll run him down pretty soon, I bet. There’s nobody in what’s left of the old house—we know that now.”

“Oh-huh.” Feyrouz had learned as much over breakfast. “When you do find him, would I be able to talk with him?”

“I can’t promise, but I don’t see why not.” The lieutenant whistled between his teeth. “I don’t know what I figured you’d tell me, but aliens from another planet wasn’t it. Can’t wait to see the captain’s face when I drop this on her.” Away he went, leaving Feyrouz to get on with the rest of the craziness of her day.

But they didn’t run Tony Loquasto down, not pretty soon and not later, either. Feyrouz wondered about him till she retired at eighty-eight, and, in fact, till she died at 107—a good age, if not a great one. Every so often, she’d put on white gloves and flip through the Voynich Manuscript. It never told her anything she didn’t already know. Her best guess was that it never would.

 

“Manuscript Tradition” copyright © 2020 by Harry Turtledove
Art copyright © 2020 by Scott Bakal

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