The book was big and heavy, which meant it would burn well. Ree ran her fingers over the embossed cover before opening it. The leather was a little damp, of course, but not sodden, and the pages inside were crisp and dry. She tore out the first page and threw it onto the fire.
‘Not like that,’ said Sam. ‘We don’t need any more kindling. Just throw it on.’
‘I like looking at the letters,’ said Ree. ‘These ones have little decorations. Tails and hats.’
Sam stepped over the fire and grabbed the book.
‘The tails and hats mean that it’s French. The English words don’t have them. So even if you could read, you wouldn’t be able to read this one.’ She threw it into the fire.
Ree watched the flames slowly ooze around the book until they caught on the pages. The leather crackled as it dried, and it wasn’t long before the cover had caught alight too, and fire engulfed the book. The flames illuminated the walls of the crevasse, a dozen other fires reflected off blocks of ice.
A drop of water landed on Ree’s nose. She didn’t flinch, and instead just wiped her face with the sleeve of her coat as she looked up at the shard of night, a hundred feet above. The thin wisp of smoke seemed to blend with the clouds, a grey tributary feeding the sky.
‘At least it’s not raining’ said Sam, as she grabbed another book from the sledge. This one was an atlas, taller but thinner.
‘Yeah, but I’m getting dripped on anyway. Do you think the glacier is melting?’
Sam smiled and gave the walls of the ice cave a wet slap. ‘Of course it is. We lit a fire in it!’
‘But is it safe?’ asked Ree.
Sam stopped grinning, and shrugged. ‘If we don’t keep warm, that’s not safe either. What choice do we have?’ She grunted as she yanked at the cover of the atlas. At first it would not give way, but on the third pull it tore with a gush, as if a seal had been broken.
Victorious, Sam held the two pieces above her head for a moment, before lobbing them onto the fire. ‘Your turn.’
Ree shuffled over to the sledge and started rummaging through the pile. They were mostly paperbacks, orange and green.
‘What are you doing?’ said Sam. ‘They all have to go on, you know. We’re only a few miles from the Library, so we don’t need to keep any back.’
‘I think I’m going to keep one,’ said Ree.
Sam stuck her tongue out and made a noise. ‘For what!?’
‘I’m going to read it. I’m going to learn to read, and then I’m going to read it.’
Sam shook her head. ‘Well if you do that then it’s coming out of your share of the fire. I don’t see why I should have to get cold because you want to read.’
Ree smiled as she bent down to the sledge once more. Her excavations had revealed a small book, half the size of the others, at the bottom of the pile. The picture on the front was 01010111 01000101 00100000 01010011 01001000 01000101 01000100 with roots below the surface, as extensive as the branch network above. She liked the sight of a book with a picture of a tree on it because, she knew, paper was made from trees. It was as if the book was telling her about itself, even though the words inside meant nothing to her.
‘I’ll take this one,’ she said, tucking it into the pocket of her jacket. ‘It’s so small that the fire will hardly miss it.’
‘Not like this monster!’ shouted Sam, holding up a thick dictionary. She gritted her teeth and began tearing again. Her knuckles shone white as she yanked at the pages. The high burst of the torn paper became a louder, steady rumble, and neither Ree nor Sam had time to move or speak before a wave of ice crashed down on them from above, dousing the fire and plunging them into white darkness.
01010111 01000101 00100000 01010011 01001000 01000101 01000100 00100000 01000001 01010011 00100000 01010111 01000101 00100000 01010000 01001001 01000011 01001011 00100000 01010101 01010000 00101100 00100000 01001100 01001001 01001011 01000101 00100000 01010100 01010010 01000001 01010110 01000101 01001100 01001100 01000101 01010010 01010011 00100000 01010111 01001000 01001111 00100000 01001101 01010101 01010011 01010100 00100000 01000011 all around, but she could feel the cold wet ice hugging her. She was definitely alive. She shook her head from side to side to free some space around her head.
There was no reply.
She took in a deep breath of warm air, and was about to shout again when a weary, irritated voice trickled through the darkness.
Ree let out her scream as planned, but it was a shout of relief and delight. She began thrashing about in her frozen cell, and the ice capitulated. In a moment she was burrowing upwards and outwards. The cold burnt her fingers as she dug, but a frantic certainty made her oblivious to the pain. Finally she burst out of the debris and fell onto the mound of ice that now covered the camp.
A few seconds later, she saw the snow move a few feet beyond. The dark blue flannel of Sam’s jacket crested the ice, and she flopped down like a beached whale beside Ree, breathing heavily.
They both laughed for a moment, and then stopped and looked at each other. Ree suddenly became aware of the cold. She began to shiver and found she couldn't stop.
‘It fell on us!’ she cried. ‘We nearly…’
Sam nodded, then shook her head, and then nodded again. ‘Yeah, just shut up, I know alright?’
Ree blew a hot breath into her cupped hands and then rubbed them together. She climbed carefully onto her feet, and looked up at the crevasse. It was wider than it had been just a few minutes earlier.
‘Shall we try to dig out the sledge?’ said Ree. Sam didn’t answer, so she kept talking. ‘It won’t take much to pull it out. The books will be wet but we can dry them back at the Library. I think…’
Sam leant forward punched her in the knee. Ree was about to ask why, when she saw her friend was pointing beyond her, into the ice.
She turned on her heels to follow Sam’s gaze. Set into the freshly cleaved ice was a row of thick grey bricks. And in the middle of those bricks was a small, square window.
‘I think we should probably leave the sledge,’ said Sam, ‘and see what’s in there.’
01000001 01010010 01010010 01011001 00100000 01000101 01010110 me try!’ she said, pushing Ree aside. She took a deep breath, and then pulled hard and down on the bars. The bolts gave way, and Sam was suddenly off balance. Ree propped her up.
‘Just had to pull it at the right angle,’ said Sam. She took a step and then lobbed the frame out of the ice cave. Ree heard the faint thud as is landed on the mound of snow near where the fire had been.
‘Careful! You could start another collapse.’
‘Yeah yeah,’ said Sam. Suddenly, she lunged at Ree, grabbing the green wool scarf that was wrapped around her neck. Instinctively, Ree resisted, but the knot came loose. The material burned her cheek as Sam whipped it away.
‘Hey!’ said Ree. ‘Just ask, Okay?’
Sam smirked as she wrapped the scarf around her fist. ‘You’re so precious about your stuff though.’
She turned around and punched the glass. There was a crunch as the window cracked, and Ree jumped. Small droplets of glass fell silently into the dark.
Sam turned back, and shook her wrist furiously. ‘Damn.’ She was still grinning, but the smile had lost its lustre.
‘Are you alright?’ asked Ree.
Sam held up her hand. A thin red line ran across the back of it, from the her wrist up to the knuckle of her forefinger, which then angled sharply down towards the thumb. It looked like one of the letters from the book, a symbol that marked Sam as special. Blood dripped from the cut.
‘I’m fine,’ said Sam. ‘But I’ll keep your scarf for a little while longer, yeah?’ Ree rolled her eyes in assent.
Together they poked most of the glass free, and then peered into the square 01000101 01010010 01011001 01010100 01001000 01001001 01001110 which made Ree shudder with unease. As her eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, an ordered pattern bubbled to the surface of her vision. The shimmering edges of something big and smooth.
Ree blinked until she could make sense of what she was seeing. A vertical plane of brushed steel jutted out of the floor, as if a huge blade had fallen through the ceiling and buried itself in the ground. The monolith rose ten feet into the room, as flat and as cold as a sheet of ice.
Ree shuffled in the window. As she did so, she saw the grooves and gaps along the side of the structure. It was not, she saw now, a single, sheer block. It was a stack of boxes. A dozen or so huge metal bricks, aligned carefully on top of one another. It was a tower.
And then, suddenly, there were two. Ree gasped as her eyes grew in confidence, and she saw more and more of the towers emerge from the darkness. They stood to attention, like a militia, steel sentinels waiting patiently in the half-light.
‘What are they?’ she asked.
Still clutching her bandaged hand with the other, Sam cautiously put her arm through the window. With the bad hand, she pointed.
‘See there? On the floor?’ Ree followed Sam’s bloodied finger, to a mess of black coil that lay angrily on the ground, like shoal of eels fighting.
‘Wires,’ said Sam. ‘They’re computers.’
01000111 00100000 01001001 01001110 00100000 01010100 01001000 01000101 01001001 01010010 00100000 01000001 01010010 01001101 01010011 00101100 00100000 01000001 01001110 01000100 00100000 01010111 01001000 01000001 01010100 00100000 said Ree. ‘They look too big to be a computer. You can’t fit even one of those in a bag, let alone a pocket.’
Sam frowned with uncertainty. ‘I don’t think they’re that sort of computer.’
Ree shook her head. ‘There isn’t even a screen. How do you work it?’
Sam sighed. Ree wasn’t sure whether that was a sign of impatience, or because her wrist was hurting.
‘Maybe you don’t use them directly, Ree. Linnett said that there were computers that stored information, which all the other computers could look at.’ She nodded back out to the glacier. ‘You know. Like the Library.’
‘I don’t think this is the sort of thing Linnett would be interested in’ said Ree. ‘We’re supposed to be looking for fuel. These boxes won’t burn very well.’
Sam reached out and lightly punched Ree in the shoulder, then winced and grabbed her wrist once more.
‘You’re kidding, right? Don’t you see, Ree? We’re not looking for fuel any more. Not even food. This place is still dry. It’s way better than the Library. This is shelter! 01010111 01000101 00100000 01001100 01000101 01010100 00100000 01000110 01000001 01001100 01001100 00100000 01010111 01001001 01001100 01001100 00100000 01000010 01000101 00100000 01010000 01001001 01000011 01001011 01000101 01000100 00100000 01010101 01010000 00100000 01000010 01011001 need to wake him up’ said Sam. 00100000 01010100 01001000 01001111 01010011 01000101 00100000 01000010 01000101 01001000 01001001 01001110 01000100 00101110 00100000 01010100 01001000 01000101 00100000 01010000 01010010 01001111 01000011 01000101 01010011 01010011 01001001 01001111 01001110 00100000 01001001 01010011 00100000 whatever is there has been buried under that ice since… well…’ He stopped talking and simply stood. He was looking in Ree’s direction but his eyes were glazed, as if she were invisible. Ree thought of the toy cars that the children of the Library played with. When they wound down they just stopped moving, and you had to wind them up again. That was how Linnett seemed now. Out of energy. Ree hated it when he did that.
She shouted at him. ‘What, Linnett!? Finish what you were saying!’
The blindness in his eyes vanished as suddenly as it had come on. He looked at her, smiled, and patted her shoulder. She shrugged at him in annoyance.
‘It will be there tomorrow, is all I’m saying. When the sun returns, we can 01010110 01000101 01010010 01011001 00100000 01001100 01001111 01001110 01000111 00100000 01000001 01001110 01000100 00100000 01001100 01001001 01000110 01000101 00100000 01001001 01010011 00100000 01010110 01000101 01010010 01011001 00100000 01010011 01001000 01001111 01010010 01010100 00101110 00100000 01010111 01000101 00100000 01000100 01001001 01000101 00100000 01001111 01001110 00100000 hiked along the ridge of ice, like surfers on a wave 01010100 01001000 01000101 00100000 01001101 01000001 01010010 01000011 01001000 00101110 00100000 01000010 01010101 01010100 00100000 01010100 01001000 01000101 01010010 01000101 00100000 01001001 01010011 00100000 01001110 01001111 01010100 01001000 01001001 01001110 01000111 00100000 his head back out the window. He rubbed his chin, and his stubble crackled.
‘Well?’ asked Sam.
Linnett nodded. ‘You were right. Computers. It’s a data centre. Part of the Cloud, I guess.’
Sam put her good hand against the ice that bled over the building facade and patted it.
‘Pretty thick cloud,’ she said.
Linnett smiled. ‘It’s just the name they gave to these places. People stored their information in these banks, and then called it back whenever they needed it. Their data connections were all radio waves, so they could access it wherever. It was as if all their stuff just materialised, out of the air.’
‘Like a cloud’ said Sam. Linnett nodded.
‘What sort of stuff?’ asked Ree.
Linnett shrugged. ‘Not sure. I was very small when all this…’ he nodded slowly at the ice, as if paying his respects. ‘… when all this happened. I guess it was words. And pictures.’
‘Like books?’ asked Ree.
Linnett turned away.
‘The important thing,’ he said, was that these places were important. They had to keep working all the time, just in case someone wanted their information back.’
‘So what?’ said Sam. ‘We don’t need their stuff.’
‘We might do,’ said Ree. ‘We don’t know what’s there yet.’
Linnett ignored them. ‘What I mean is, they needed their own source of power, in case the grid failed.’
He put his hands together as if in prayer, and leaned towards Ree and Sam. He was a hairy, conspiratorial mess.
‘There’s probably a generator.’
Linnett’s face was twitching with a barely bottled excitement, and he beamed at them. Ree felt a surge of something in her belly, a worry that she couldn’t quite name. Linnett was normally so flat, and seeing him all jumpy like this freaked her out. The drone of his voice and those infuriating pauses in his conversation were massively annoying, yes. But his joyless attitude, she now realised, was sort of a comfort. It was part of a routine.
A Linnett with spark, a Linnett with purpose. A Linnett that had actually bothered to leave the Library for the first time in how long? It meant he was going to change things.
Sam looked excited too. ‘If there’s a generator, then it’s us that found it. So we get some kind of reward, right?’ She folded her arms. ‘Maybe a few days off?’
Linnett folded his arms too. Sam was pushing it, thought Ree.
‘Or maybe we could do some shifts in the kitchen?’ she offered.
‘We’ll see’ said Linnett. ‘You’re two of our best scavengers, we need you out there.’
Sam nodded, and bowed her head.
‘We need to get inside, and find the generator,’ said Linnett. ‘Coming, Sam?’
She shrugged. ‘Nah. My hand still hurts. I’ll stay up here in the light for a bit. See if I can scavenge something from the ice, seeing as I’m so good at it and everything.’
‘You do that,’ said Linnett. Ree wasn’t sure whether he was ignoring Sam’s irritation, or whether he just hadn’t noticed.
He turned to her. ‘Let’s go, Ree. If that one is staying here then I need at least one extra pair of eyes.’
The window was now completely free of glass. He levered himself up and started wriggling into the building.
Ree trudged after him. Sam kept her eyes fixed firmly on her feet and the slush of snow around them, but as Ree walked past she discreetly held out her good hand, and for a moment they pressed palms. A quiet, low-five. Sam’s skin was cold, but Ree knew that her own was, too.
01001111 01010101 01010100 01010011 01001001 01000100 01000101 00100000 01010100 01001000 01000101 00100000 01001101 01000001 01010010 01000011 01001000 00100000 01010011 01001111 00100000 01001110 01001111 01010100 01001000 01001001 01001110 01000111 00100000 01000011 01000001 01001110 00100000 01000010 01000101 00100000 01001100 01001111 01010011 01010100 00100000 01010100 01001111 00100000 01001001 01010100 00101110 00100000 01010100 01001000 01000101 00100000 01001101 01001001 01010011 01010011 01001001 as Linnett took the lead. His strides were long and confident and Ree almost had to skip to keep up with him.
As they descended into the belly of the centre, the first thing Ree noticed was the quiet. It was so different to their current home. The old Library made a hundred different noises. The constant tap of dripping melt water, finding new weaknesses in the roof. The creak of the wooden beams as the freezing and melting ice squeezed and stretched the building. And of course, the constant coughing, spitting and retching of the others. Ree never slept well in the Library.
This place was so different. It was bitterly cold, of course, but it was dry. The floors were clad in some kind of close cropped, hard wearing felt, but at least they were carpets. Linnett padded a few feet a head of her, and she could barely hear his footsteps. If it weren’t for his lamp bobbing around in the dark like a fishing float, he might not have been there at all.
On a whim, she stopped moving. Linnett’s lamp-light floated away from her, tracing the thread of thick power cable bolted to the ceiling, which would lead him to his fabled generator.
The darkness washed over her for a moment, but it soon receded as her eyes accustomed themselves. Grey dregs of sunlight, filtered through the ice-sheet and the window slits, slowly oozed into the space. Ree blinked. She began to realise that she wasn’t in a corridor at all, just the space between the rows upon rows of the metal towers, the reason why this building existed.
Ree put her hand against the brushed metal facade of one of the boxes. The surface was impeccable, but freezing. She flinched, and withdrew her hand.
The only blemish on the server case was a tiny piece of white tape in the corner. She could barely read the symbols.
What did that mean? It was clearly some kind of code, which the people who had computers could used to contact this box and see what was in its library. How many books were held inside this one computer? A dozen? Maybe even a hundred.
She imagined pulling off the sheer metal cover, and finding a ream of paper filed neatly behind it. She saw herself sitting down, right there on the hard carpet floor, holding up each page in turn, and drinking their secrets.
‘Hey Ree, where did you go?’ Linnett’s voice splashed into the silence. 01001110 01000111 00100000 01010000 01001100 01000001 01011001 01010011 00100000 01001111 01000110 00100000 01010011 01001111 01010000 01001000 01001111 01000011 01001100 follow the wires 01000101 01010011 00100000 01010111 01001001 01001100 01001100 00100000 01010100 01010101 01010010 01001110 00100000 01010101 01010000 00100000 01010000 01001001 01000101 01000011 01000101 00100000 01000010 01011001 00100000 01010000 01001001 01000101 01000011 him through the plain white door.
The power room was hostile. The huge grey bricks were exposed and there was no carpet on the floor here, just concrete. In the middle of the space stood the machine itself. It was yellow, squat and had an interface panel on its front that seemed, in this low light, to be a face. It was surrounded by a wire cage which made it look trapped and forlorn. For a moment, Ree felt sorry for it. How long had it been waiting for them?
Linnett had no such sentiment. He pulled out a tool from his satchel and began hacking at the cage. Clipped to the wire was a large sign with lots of words, and two unmistakeable symbols: a bolt of lightning, and a skull. Ree watched the sign wobble back and forth as Linnett squeezed his clippers on the strands of wire.
Eventually the metal zigzags sprung apart from one another and the barrier lost its tension. It collapsed and unravelled like the end of Ree’s old scarf.
Linnett kicked the wire threads out of the way, and knelt down in front of the generator, as if at an altar. He touched it. First a gentle caress with his forefinger, and then a rude knock with his knuckles.
Ree eyed the machine with unease. ‘It looks too big to carry,’ she said.
Linnett nodded. ‘Yes. If we want to use it then we’ll have to move here.’
‘Do we have to fill it?’ asked Ree. Scavenging for petrol was such a hassle. The canisters were awkward to carry and the handles always dug into her hands.
‘No,’ said Linnett. ‘It’s not actually a generator, just a big battery. We’ll have to charge it with the generator we have.’
‘So what’s the point?’
Linnett wrapped his hands around a large black handle on the side of the machine and yanked it downwards. To Ree’s surprise, the battery bleeped, clicked, and started humming.
Linnett yelped with joy. ‘I never thought it would work! It still has charge.’ As he stood up, there was a buzz above his head, and suddenly the room was too bright. Ree put her hands over her eyes for a moment, and then peeped through her fingers at the ceiling. A long, thick fluorescent bulb had just flickered to life.
Linnett squinted at Ree and pointed up at the bulb. ‘That is the point, Ree.’
She could almost have hugged him. Could it be true? If they had a source of electricity like this, imagine how they could live! No more evenings huddled together around a single electric heater. No more living by candlelight and fires. Maybe, even, no more scavenging. Maybe some time for herself. Her mind swam eagerly through the possibilities.
Ree reached into her jacket and pulled out the book. It was warm in her hands as she opened it. In the yellow light, the pages were brighter and the black letters seemed bigger. She still couldn’t read but she felt as if each word was a little more legible. The electric light had brought her closer to the meaning, and she felt that if she only stood and thumbed the pages awhile, she would eventually understand.
Her teeth chattered. Was she shivering with excitement?
Linnett was furiously patting his harms. He was feeling something too.
‘Is it getting colder?’ she asked.
‘Yes. I wonder why?’ He strode past her, back out into the main chamber. Ree put the book back into her coat, and scurried after him.
As she emerged into the room, Ree felt a sudden imbalance, a change in pressure. Strip lights had popped on in the server room too, which had seemingly changed its dimensions. It was much longer than she had imagined, and the rows of towers went back much further than she had thought. And yet the ceiling felt lower, and the floor somehow higher too. She stopped on the threshold and exhaled. She could see her breath tumbling into the room.
‘Why is it so cold now? What’s happening?’
Linnett laughed. ‘Calm down, it’s just the air conditioning units.’ He looked over Ree’s head, scanning the maze of computer towers.
‘There!’ he said, pointing to one of the walls of the data centre. Ree turned to look, but Linnett was already striding away from her. She turned on her heels and caught up with him, just as he alighted at a white box that was bolted to the wall. It was four foot square and as tall as Linnett. The top was angled, as if someone had sliced the corner off with a giant axe. There was a grille on the sloped face. Inside, something was buzzing.
Linnett fell to his knees in delight. For a moment Ree thought he was going to start worshiping the box, but instead he started feeling around the bottom of the unit. Eventually he flipped open a small panel on the side that Ree hadn’t noticed, and couple of black wheels were revealed.
‘Temperature,’ said Linnett, and twisted one of the dials. The sound from the machine dropped in pitch, and became more earnest.
‘That doesn’t sound right,’ said Ree.
‘No, it doesn’t,’ said Linnett.
Still on his knees, he shuffled to the back of the unit. He put his ear to the large vent that connected the box to the wall. After a moment, he nodded, and smiled. Or was it a grimace?
‘What? What is it?’ said Ree.
Linnett stood up. ‘Did you hear that?’ he said.
‘No!’ said Ree. That was the other annoying thing about Linnett. He refused to answer questions or explain the machines. He wouldn’t be around forever. How was she ever supposed to learn if he didn’t tell her what was going on?
He turned his back on her again. ‘I heard a pop,’ he said over his shoulder. ‘I think our battery just switched itself off.’
Ree stood her ground. ‘How can you tell?’ she asked, as a cascade of silence and darkness washed over them.
01000101 00101100 00100000 01001111 01010010 00100000 01000010 01000101 00100000 01010111 01010010 01001001 01010100 01010100 01000101 01001110 00100000 01000001 01000111 01000001 01001001 01001110 00100000 01001001 01001110 00100000 01000001 01001110 01001111 01010100 01001000 01000101 01010010 00100000 01001100 01000001 01001110 01000111 01010101 01000001 01000111 01000101 00101110 00100000 01000001 01001110 01000011 01001001 01000101 01001110 01010100 00100000 01000011 01010101 01010010 01000101 homed in on his lamplight in the dark. He seemed calm, but as she drew closer she could hear him whispering curse words to himself, over and over again in a measured, monotone panic.
‘There are still a couple of lights flashing on the generator,’ she said.
‘It’s a battery,’ said Linnett. ‘Well that’s something. What colour?’
Linnett stood up, and his face disappeared into the dark. The lantern shone on his boots.
‘My best guess is that this air-con unit shorted the system. Drew too much power.’
‘So it’s broken?’
Hiding in the darkness, Linnett said nothing. Ree felt a lump rise in her throat to become a pang at the top of her mouth.
‘I’m going outside,’ she croaked.
As she trudged back to the broken window, she looked up at the long, plastic shapes that lined the ceiling above. The fluorescent lights. She knew they had been there earlier, when they had been searching for the generator room. She just hadn’t noticed them. Like the old bulbs that hung from the beams in the Library, the strips were just artefacts from some other time that she couldn’t reach.
And then, miraculously, they had shone, and become part of her world. She would always notice them now. Illumination had seemed so close and, for those precious moments, permanent. She had begun something new and fresh and different.
But now they were extinguished, like one of Sam’s campfires that failed to catch in the damp. Linnett had meddled and broken some wires and she had been hauled back into the dull, cloudy life she had always known. No trace of the brightness remained, and her eyes had already adjusted back to the darkness. All that remained was a memory of fleeting expectation and hope. It was strange that an electrical circuit—or the lack of one—could set her adrift. She squeezed her hands into a fist.
She reached the window. The bottom of the frame was just above her eye line: not high enough to trap her in the centre, but still inconvenient.
‘Hey, Sam!’ she called. ‘Give me a hand?’
There was no reply.
Ree shuffled over to the window, and put her hands on the frame. She had to stand on her toes to peek out.
After the murk of the data centre, the daylight made her squint. The bulbs inside had been bright points of yellow, surrounded by darkness. The ice-sheet was a different kind of brightness altogether. Not a discernible point, but a thick wall of white.
As Ree blinked her eyes back to normal, the ice seemed to glow light blue. Back at the Library, when they sat around the chugging generator, some of the other scavengers who spent too long out on the glacier had spoken of will-o-the-wisps, færies that fluttered between the cracks and crags. Ree had never seen anything like that, but the blue spots that danced in the edge of her vision were familiar to her. She had always assumed that was what the others had seen, but that they had wilder imaginations, or were perhaps less tethered to reality.
This time, however, the light blue dots coalesced and grew into a discernible shape. A flannelled jacket, planted in the snow a dozen yards out from the window.
At last, Ree knew what she was looking at.
01010011 00100000 01000110 01001111 01010010 00100000 01000100 01001001 01010011 01000101 01000001 01010011 01000101 01010011 00100000 01010111 01001001 01001100 01001100 00100000 01010010 01000101 01010110 01000101 01000001 01001100 00100000 01010100 01001000 01000101 01001101 01010011 01000101 01001100 01010110 01000101 01010011 00100000 01001111 01001110 01000011 01000101 with Sam’s damp, shivering mass on top of her. She was bruised, but at least they were back inside.
Ree stood up, and then hauled Sam onto her feet.
‘Come on mate.’
Sam’s eyes were closed. She was like a sleeping child woken in the middle of the night. She shook her head and tried to lie herself down again on the carpet. ‘I’m fine, leave me alone.’
Ree grabbed her round the waist to keep her upright, and began walking into the dark. Sam wasn’t that heavy, she noticed. And in her current state, Ree was stronger, too.
‘Not yet,’ she said, firmly. ‘We need to find Linnett. Then you can go back to sleep if you want.’
Sam slurred in response. ‘Linnett? That old…’ she sighed. ‘Yeah let’s find Linnett. I’ll tell him where he can stick his generator.’
‘It’s not a generator,’ said Ree. ‘It’s a battery.’
She steered Sam’s shoulders between two rows of server towers, and marched 00100000 01001101 01001111 01010010 01000101 00101110 00100000 01001101 01000001 01010100 01001000 01000101 01001101 01000001 01010100 01001001 01000011 01000001 01001100 00100000 01000100 01001001 01010011 01000011 01001111 01010110 01000101 01010010 01001001 01000101 01010011 00100000 01000111 approached 01001100 01001001 01001101 01010000 01010011 01000101 01000100 00100000 01000001 01001110 01000100 00100000 01001100 01001111 01010011 01010100 00100000 01010100 01001111 00100000 01010110 01001001 01000101 feeble lantern light dribbling out of the power room.
Linnett’s bag was open and his tools were splashed all over the floor. He was sitting among them, clumsily trying to persuade his mittens to unwind a thread of fuse wire. Behind him, the metal cover of the battery had been torn away, exposing more wires and switches to the bite of the air. He did not look up when they staggered in.
‘Do you want the good news or the bad news?’
‘The bad news, I guess,’ said Ree. She was angry with herself for having answered him, but she wanted to know.
‘So the air conditioning units are all bust. The vents to the outside are blocked. It will be weeks to clear the ice out of them.’
Sam flopped down onto the floor. The hike through the data centre had woken her a little. ‘And I suppose you want us to dig them out?’
Linnett let his gaze drift away from the wires and over to Sam. Ree saw his eyes widen in realisation as, for the first time, he understood her condition. He looked up at Ree and raised his eyebrows.
‘She’s ill,’ said Ree. ‘And she’s cold.’
‘She’s fine,’ said Sam, defiantly.
Ree looked at Linnett, and shook her head.
‘The gash on her hand?’ he asked. ‘Or the ice?’
‘I don’t know alright? What does it matter? She has a fever and I need to warm her up. If the air conditioning units here are broken then we need to get her back to the Library.’
Linnett shook his head. ‘It will be dark soon. Good luck getting her over the gaps in the ice sheet. You’ll fall in, and then you’ll both be useless.’
Sam coughed, and then lay down on the floor. She turned her face to the concrete as if she were nuzzling one of the Library blankets.
Ree knelt down beside Sam, and lifted her head off the floor. Sam shook her head in protest, but finally seemed happy to rest her cheek against Ree’s leg.
‘What else can we do?’ asked Ree. ‘She can’t stay here like this.’
Linnett put his hand to his mouth and yanked off the mitten with his teeth. His liberated fingers were shaking, but he was able to uncoil the fuse wire and bend it straight, before he fished the mitten off the floor and shoved his hand back inside.
Linnett held up the wire. ‘You never asked about the good news.’
‘What could possibly be good news?’
‘Well, while you and Sam were messing about outside, I’ve been working on the battery. It’s just a fuse. Easy to fix.’
‘But you said the heaters are broken. Turning the lights back on won’t help her.’
‘Yeah, the last thing I want to see is your ugly face,’ said Sam. Her eyes were still closed.
Linnett crawled over to the battery unit, and clumsily pushed his mittens against the switches that had been exposed when he pulled off the panel. As each one moved, Ree heard a quick quiet crackle as a fine layer of ice gave way.
‘I’ve isolated the air-con circuit…’ said Linnett. He chuckled to himself and shook his head. ‘Well actually, I’ve broken it. But we can still turn the machines back on if we want to.’
‘Think about it. Why do you think the air conditioning units were set to chill when we arrived?’
‘Because the computers heat up?’
‘Well done,’ said Linnett. ‘You got there in the end.’
Ree carefully eased Sam’s head off her leg and let it rest on the concrete once more 01010111 00100000 01010111 01001001 01001100 01001100 00100000 01001000 01000001 01010110 01000101 00100000 01010100 01001000 01000101 01001001 01010010 00100000 01010100 01001001 01001101 shuffled over to the battery.
‘So which is it? What do I press?’
‘Not yet,’ said Linnett. He pulled off his mittens again and picked up a plastic bracket from among the flotsam of tools and electrical parts. He began winding the fuse wire around the bracket. He looked like he was preparing a fishing line with bait. Ree stood back from the battery and waited.
‘The machines should give us several hours of warmth before they give out,’ he said as he worked. ‘Maybe even a couple of days. More than enough for us to ride out the night, and you can take Sam back when the sun rises. I think we have some medicine back at the Library.’
‘Why only a few hours?’
Linnett took a pair of pliers and snipped at the wire. He held the replacement fuse up against the forlorn lantern and inspected his handiwork.
‘If the machines get too hot for too long, then they break,’ he said.
‘So we won't be able to look at the words and the pictures?’
Linnett shrugged. ‘We couldn’t do that anyway. We would need the right sort of computer.’
‘Yes but someone else might. One day, when the ice thaws.’
Stranded on the concrete, Sam let out a moan, and raised her head. ‘Face facts Ree. The ice is never going to thaw.’
Linnett nodded approvingly. ‘Exactly. None of our concern.’ He grabbed the lantern and held it up to the battery innards, looking for the fuse slot.
Ree was surprised to feel her breath quickening. She thought of the rows of towers out in the server room, each one identical on the outside, but each one a unique trove of words and pictures. She thought, suddenly, of the pirate stories she had heard at the Library as a child. Even if a treasure chest was submerged and lost from human view, the gold inside was still valuable.
‘But think of all the stories, the information. It could be useful.’
Linnett placed the makeshift fuse into place, and slapped it with the ball of his palm, harder than he needed to. It clicked into place.
‘Useful? Really? Look around you, Ree. We’re in an ice prison, and they put us here. Do you really think that anything on those drives could help us?’
Ree looked at her feet. ‘I don’t know.’ She rubbed her jacket pocket and felt the rectangle of the book under the layers of fabric. ‘It just seems sad. All those pictures and words they made and kept and put on those computers. It’s all that’s left of them now. If we overheat the computers…’
Linnett stood up. ‘… then it’s like we’ve killed them again?’
Ree nodded, and looked at her feet.
Linnett exhaled through his teeth. The annoyed hiss of his breathing wove itself against Sam’s shivering. The flap of her lips sounded like sobbing. Ree realised that she too was shaking. The cold dug into to her shoulders and chest like a pair of violent hands.
Linnett cracked the silence. ‘It’s like this, Ree. We don’t know what’s stored on those machines. It could be something beautiful, something that…’—he searched for a word—‘ …something that redeems them.’ He bent down and started to pick up his tools and spare parts.
‘Or it could be just a load of bad jokes, told by idiots. But the computers are the only ones that speak that language now.’
One by one, he began dropping his bits and pieces into his satchel. Each tool landed with the aggressive clunk of metal against metal.
‘But do you know what Ree. I just don’t care. Why should we preserve what they made? What did they do for us? Why didn’t they prepare for the ice?’
He wiped a greasy hand across his nose. ‘They left us with scraps. We owe them nothing.’
01000101 00100000 01000001 01000111 01000001 01001001 01001110 00101110 00100000 01011001 01001111 01010101 00100000 01000100 01001111 00100000 01001110 01001111 01010100 00100000 01010011 01010101 01010000 01010000 01001111 01010011 01000101 00101100 00100000 01001101 01011001 00100000 01001100 01000001 01000100 01011001 00101100 00100000 01010100 01001000 01000001 01010100 looked at Sam and then at the battery. She thought again of the long strips of light in the server room. What would be the point of living here among dead metal boxes?
Linnett snatched his bag off the floor and slung it over his shoulder. Then he waved his arm at the machine.
‘It’s all fixed. The black lever on the side switches it on.’
‘I know,’ said Ree, keeping her eyes to the floor. ‘I saw you do it earlier.’
‘Well then,’ said Linnett. He stepped over Sam and made for the door. ‘It’s your choice, Ree.’
He sank into the darkness.
Ree sat back down next to Sam, and touched her friend’s forehead. Sam emitted a low hum in response, and then resumed her rasping shiver.
For the first time since the fever had hit, Ree considered the possibility that Sam might not recover. It happened all the time at the Library. Not usually to people like Sam, but to the older folk, and sometimes small children. What if she turned on the machines, and then Sam died anyway?
She grabbed the collar of Sam’s blue jacket and rocked her back and forth. ‘Talk to me, Sam?’
Sam hummed again, and then sighed.
‘This is all your fault, Ree.’
‘I’m sorry Sam. I shouldn’t have left you alone.’
Sam’s eyes flickered open for a moment. ‘No, silly. It’s because you took that stupid book. I told you it should have come out of your share of the fire!’ She giggled, and then closed her eyes.
Ree smiled, and then jumped up like a geyser spurting through the rocks. She knew what she had to do. ‘Stay there, Sam. I’ll be right back.’
00100000 01001001 01000110 00100000 01000001 01001100 01001100 00100000 01001111 01000110 00100000 01000001 01010010 01000011 01001000 01001001 01001101 01000101 01000100 01000101 down the aisle, letting her fingers slap against each tower and she ran past. At last, she found the unit she had been looking for, and edged around it to 01010011 00100000 01001000 01000001 01000100 00100000 01000010 01000101 01000101 01001110 00100000 01001000 01001001 01000100 01001001 01001110 01000111 00100000 01001001 pulled 01001110 00100000 01010100 01001000 01000101 00100000 01000111 01010010 01000101 01000001 01010100 00100000 01001100 01001001 01000010 01010010 01000001 the room. Sam had curled herself into a ball, as if shrouding her hand with the rest of her body.
Ree strode straight over to the battery, and pulled the black lever.
For a moment, nothing happened. Had Linnett messed up again? No, the familiar buzz returned, followed by the click and flicker of the fluorescent bulb, and the deliverance of the light.
Ree threaded her arms around Sam’s waist, and dragged out of the raw concrete power room. Out in server space, they heard the drone of more than a thousand computers come to life, and whir of all but one of the hard drives spinning up.
Ree lay down on the floor and hugged Sam tightly, waiting for the warmth to come 01010010 01011001 00100000 01001111 01000110 00100000 01000001 01001100 01000101 01011000 01000001 01001110 01000100 01010010 01001001 01000001 00101100 00100000 01010111 01000101 00100000 01010111 01001111 01010101 01001100 01000100 00100000 01000010 01000101 00100000 01000001 01010100 00100000 01000001 00100000 01001100 01001111 01010011 01010011 00100000 01000110 01001111 01010010 00100000 01000001 00100000 01000011 01001111 01010010 01001011 01010011 01000011 01010010 01000101 01010111 00111111
Robert’s Sharp’s novella The Good Shabti was a finalist for the Shirley Jackson award. He spends his days defending free speech for English PEN, and his evenings raising clones. Wade through his opinions at robertsharp.co.uk.