AnathemAuthor: Neal Steaphenson
Imprint: Atlantic Books
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'Do your neighbors burn one another alive?' was how Fraa Orolo began his conversation with Artisan Flec.
Embarrassment befell me. Embarrassment is something I can feel in my flesh, like a handful of sun-warmed mud clapped on my head.
'Do your shamans walk around on stilts?' Fraa Orolo asked, reading from a leaf that, judging by its brownness, was at least five centuries old. Then he looked up and added helpfully, 'You might call them pastors or witch doctors.'
The embarrassment had turned runny. It was horrifying my scalp along a spreading frontier.
'When a child gets sick, do you pray? Sacrifice to a painted stick? Or blame it on an old lady?'
Now it was sheeting warm down my face, clogging my ears and sanding my eyes. I could barely hear Fraa Orolo's questions: 'Do you fancy you will see your dead dogs and cats in some sort of afterlife?'
Orolo had asked me along to serve as amanuensis. It was an impressive word, so I'd said yes.
He had heard that an artisan from extramuros had been allowed into the New Library to fix a rotted rafter that we could not reach with our ladders; it had only just been noticed, and we didn't have time to erect proper scaffolding before Apert. Orolo meant to interview that artisan, and he wanted me to write down what happened.
Through drizzly eyes, I looked at the leaf in front of me. It was as blank as my brain. I was failing.
But it was more important to take notes of what the artisan said. So far, nothing. When the interview had begun, he had been dragging an insufficiently sharp thing over a flat rock. Now he was just staring at Oralo.
'Has anyone you know ever been ritually mutilated because they were seen reading a book?'
Artisan Flec closed his mouth for the first time in quite a while. I could tell that the next time he opened it, he'd have something to say. I scratched at the edge of the leaf just to prove that my quill had not dried up. Fraa Orolo had gone quiet, and was looking at the artisan as if he were a new-found nebula in the eyepiece of a telescope.
Artisan Flec asked, 'Why don't you just speel in?'
'Speel in,' Fraa Oralo repeated to me, a few times, as I was writing it down.
I spoke in bursts because I was trying to write and talk at the same time: 'When I came – that is, before I was Collected – we – I mean, they – had a thing called a speely . . . We didn't say 'speel in'-we said 'cruise the speely.' Out of consideration for the artisan, I chose to speak in Fluccish, and so this staggering drunk of a sentence only sounded half as bad as if I'd said it in Orth. 'It was a sort of-'
'Moving picture,' Oralo guessed. He looked to the artisan, and switched to Fluccish. 'We have guessed that 'to speel in' means to partake of some moving picture praxis – what you would call technology – that prevails out there.'
'Moving picture, that's a funny way to say it,' said the artisan. He stared out a window, as if it were a speely showing a historical documentary. He quivered with a silent laugh.
'It is Praxic Orth and so it sounds quaint to your ears,' Fraa Orolo admitted.
'Why don't you just call it by its real name?'
'Because when Fraa Erasmas, here, came into the math ten years ago, it was called 'cruising the speely' and when I came in almost thirty years ago we called it 'Farspark.' The avout who live on the other side of yonder wall, who celebrate Apert only once every hundred years, would know it by some other name. I would not be able to talk to them.'
Artisan Flee had not taken in a word after Farspark. 'Farspark is completely different!' he said. 'You can't watch Farspark content on a speely, you have to up-convert it and re-parse the format. . . .'
Fraa Orolo was as bored by that as the artisan was by talk of the Hundreders, and so conversation thudded to a stop long enough for me to scratch it down. My embarrassment had gone away without my noticing it, as with hiccups. Artisan Flee, believing that the conversation was finally over, turned to look at the scaffolding that his men had erected beneath the bad rafter.
'To answer your question,' Fraa Orolo began.
'The one you-posed just a minute ago – if I want to know what things are like extramuros, why don't I just speel in?'
'Oh,' said the artisan, a little confounded by the length of Fra Orolo's attention span. I suffer from attention surplus disorder, Fraa Orolo liked to say, as if it were funny.
'First of all,' Fraa Orolo said, 'we don't have a speely-device.'
Waving his hand as if this would dispel clouds of linguistic confusion, Orolo said, 'Whatever artifact you use to speel in.'
'If you have an old Farspark resonator, I could bring you a down-converter that's been sitting in my junk pile-'
'We don't have a Farspark resonator either,' said Fraa Orolo.
'Why don't you just buy one?'
This gave Orolo pause. I could sense a new set of embarrassing questions stacking up in his mind: 'do you believe that we have money? That the reason we are protected by the Sæcular Power is because we are sitting on a treasure hoard? That our Millenarians know how to convert base metals to gold?' But Fraa Orolo mastered the urge. 'Living as we do under the Cartasian Discipline, our only media are chalk, ink, and stone,' he said. 'But there is another reason too.'
'Yeah, what is it?' demanded Artisan Flee, very provoked by Fraa Orolo's freakish habit of announcing what he was about to say instead of just coming out and saying it.
'It's hard to explain, but, for me, just aiming a speely input device, or a Farspark chambre, or whatever you call it . . .'
'. . . at something doesn't collect what is meaningful to me. I need someone to gather it in with all their senses, mix it round in their head, and make it over into words.'
'Words,' the artisan echoed, and then aimed sharp looks all round the library. 'Tomorrow, Quin's coming instead of me,' he announced, then added, a little bit defensively, 'I have to counterstrafe the new clanex recompensators – the fan-out tree's starting to look a bit clumpy, if you ask me.'
'I have no idea what that means,' Orolo marveled.
'Never mind. You ask him all your questions. He's got the gift of gab.' And for the third time in as many minutes, the artisan looked at the screen of his jeejah. We'd insisted he shut down all of its communications functions, but it still served as a pocket-watch. He didn't seem to realize that in plain sight out the window was a clock five hundred feet high.
I put a full stop at the end of the sentence and aimed my face at a bookshelf, because I was afraid that I might look amused. There was something in the way he'd said Quin's coming instead of me that made it seem he'd just decided it on the spot. Fraa Orolo had probably caught it too. If I made the mistake of looking at him, I would laugh, and he wouldn't.
The clock began chiming Provener. 'That's me,' I said. Then I added, for the benefit of the artisan: 'Apologies, I must go wind the clock.'
'I was wondering-' he said. He reached into his toolbox and took out a poly bag, blew off sawdust, undid its seal (which was of a type I had never seen before), and withdrew a silver tube the size of his finger. Then he looked at Fraa Orolo hopefully.
'I don't know what that is and I don't understand what you want,' said Fraa Orolo.
'Ah. You have heard about Provener, and as long as you are here, you'd like to view it and make a moving picture?'
The artisan nodded.
'That will be acceptable, provided you stand where you are told. Don't turn it on!' Fraa Orolo raised his hands, and got ready to avert his gaze. 'The Warden Regulant will hear of it – she'll make me do penance! I'll send you to the Ita. They'll show you where to go.'
And more in this vein, for the Discipline was made up of many rules, and we had already made a muddle of them, in Artisan Flee's mind, by allowing him to venture into the Decenarian math.