by Dave Henrickson
The origin of the book is unknown, or at least as unknown as any other volume in the Great Library. Its original location, too, is unknown—as the first two pages are missing entirely. These would, of course, have supplied the exact coordinates of its original Shelving.
Unknown as well is the book’s discoverer and how the volume came to be found, unclaimed and hard-used, in a second-hand rag shop in the Lower City. What is known about the Voice, for so it has come to be called, is that it has never failed to accurately answer a question asked of it. Since the Voice came into Imperial possession eight hundred years ago, 348 questions have been asked (officially) of the tattered book. No answer has ever proven to be false.
Every generation new theories and claims as to the nature and the secret of the Voice are put forth. Each is carefully weighed for its merit and embraced or discarded accordingly. Occasionally a theory is so promising that an expedition is sent into the immeasurable tracks of the Great Library in the hope of finding the source of the Voice and (though this is never spoken of) its successor. Occasionally, a fraud or a heresy is put forth that is so flagrant that an execution is held.
The Library of the Voice, many times larger than the Imperial Palace, has become a small city in its own right. The history of every question asked of the Voice is completely documented within those walls—who asked the question and why, what answer the Voice gave, and what actions were the result of that answer. Scholars have spent their lives analyzing the phrasing of a single Response, trying to catch a glimpse of the Eternal Mind behind the Great Library—and therefore, by extension, the purpose behind Creation itself.
That such a Reason exists is an article of faith among the godly. While every possible combination of words can be found somewhere in the infinite depths of the Great Library, only divine providence can explain the Voice’s omniscience and how it found its way into the hands of the Imperium.
Or so says the Church.
The Library of the Voice contains entire wings of apocrypha, heresy, and outright fakeries. There are fragments of false lore so persuasive that they have spawned followers of their own among the army of librarians who tend the stacks. Illegal studies and heretical rites are said to take place in long-unused corridors and neglected alcoves. It is whispered that there are whole sections of apocrypha that have been lost, or hidden away until the time is right for their re-emergence.
The Hand Which Burns, the arm of the Church responsible for maintaining the purity of the faith, is always busiest among the faithful.
Each year the College of Guardians gathers to propose and debate new questions. Years can pass before a question is judged ready to be put to the Voice. It is not enough that the answer must be of the utmost importance. The question must be phrased in such a way, and be of such a nature, that the answer will be useful and readily understood. Most of all, the answer elicited must be concise, for with each Response the end of the book, and its wisdom, grows nearer.
There is only one subject which the Voice is silent upon—and that is the Great Library itself. No question concerning the origin of the Voice, the source of its divination, the purpose of the Great Library, or the location of any other such volume has ever received an answer. Surely this is another proof, the Church argues, of the divine nature of the Voice.
Others who might have a different opinion on the subject remain prudently silent.
Three times since the discovery of the Voice great armies have marched upon the Imperium to seize the book or destroy it. (Either because its power is real or because it is not.) Three times the Voice provided the precise information necessary to repel the invaders. The last time, as a warning to others, an additional question was asked—and the Kingdom of Kesh quickly ceased to be. Since then the Voice has been left in peace. The Imperium’s neighbors bide their time—and the remaining, unread pages of the book grow thinner with each generation.
There are those who wish to ask the Voice what will happen when the last page is turned, the last passage read. Some say that the last page should be read now, so that there will be time to prepare for whatever end is in store. Others insist that the last page should never be read for, if the Voice comes to an end, then the Imperium’s end will surely follow.
Still others maintain that the Imperium is doomed if the end is not read, for the location of the next Voice must be specified in the very last passage. If not, then for what purpose was the Voice given to them? To hoard the remaining pages of the book, they further add, is to prove one’s lack of faith and therefore deserving of the destruction all would avoid.
Such issues are debated endlessly on the floor of the College. Expeditions are sent into the infinite reaches of the Great Library to no avail. Prophets and prophecies arise, flourish, and fade into dust. Men and women sit upon the throne, tormented by doubt or buoyed by certainty, while the Imperium totters toward an unknown future.
Except, perhaps, to the Voice. And the Voice will not say.
Dave Henrickson has always wanted to be a writer, or an artist, or maybe a dancer. He currently lives in Virginia and spends his free time writing, reading, and killing monsters with his wife Abbie. He has also written a number of novels, which might even get published one day.
I have always been intrigued by our need to impart meaning to the world in which we live, meaning which often does not exist, in an attempt to both understand and control that world. Such explanations are given form by the societies that create them and in turn further shape those societies. The truth is that our explanations say more about us than the universe we inhabit. The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges was the inspiration for this story. If you haven’t read any of his work, I can’t recommend him highly enough. His collection Labyrinths would be a great place to start.