|Conan awoke with a headache. The air was chill and dank, thick with
dust and the musty smell of old leather bindings. He could hear the creaking
and groaning of heavily loaded book trucks--and the occasional crack of
Slowly, he opened his eyes and raised up on one elbow. He was lying
on a hard bench next to a heavy, wooden desk. On an open shelf at the back
of the desk sat two candles in iron candle holders. The left one burned
with a feeble, yellow glow. In front of him on the desk was a card drawer
and a tin cup full of pencils. As he sat up he felt the rattle of heavy
chain and a pull on his ankle. The center of his stomach was cold as iron
as his eye followed the chain from his ankle to the point where it attached
to the floor beneath the bench.
"So you're awake, then?"
Looking up, Conan saw that another desk sat back to back with his. In
fact, the room was filled with similar desks as far as he could see.
"I'll light your candle for you, shall I? Can't work without proper
light, you know."
The owner of the voice leaned over the desk and used the one candle
to light the other. He was a slightly built man of uncertain age with uncombed
blonde hair and a thin, crooked nose. He looked over his shoulder quickly,
then smiled pleasantly.
"I suppose you'll be wondering where you are, what's going on, all that
sort of thing? Well, it's a shock, isn't it? I mean you sign on for a sabbatical
trip to study the mysteries of automation and look where you wind up? Item-coding
shelflist records in some barcoding subcontractor's basement, that's where!
And they don't even serve a proper cup of tea!"
"Who are you?" Conan interrupted. His new companion's chatter was starting
to make his head ache again.
"Oh, so sorry. We haven't been properly introduced, have we? I am known
as Colin the Careful--from the Bodelian Temple. And I dare say I came here
much the same way you did." He squinted at Conan. "You must be an information
professional yourself, eh? If you weren't they'd not have put you to work
here coding shelflist cards, would they? They put the paraprofessionals
at the data entry. The rest are barcode labelers or push the big book-trucks."
"How long have you been here?" Conan cut him off again.
"Well, one loses track of the seasons down here, I'm afraid. I count
the time by shelflist drawers. And I'm afraid I've lost count of those.
Here," Colin pushed a worn parchment across the desk, "this will explain
how to assign the codes. The first code is for the type of item and the
second is its circulating status."
Conan looked at the lists of codes in dull amazement.
"Yes, I know it looks a bit of a muddle. If you aren't sure, you're
supposed to put one of these black tab things on the card." He pushed a
container of the tabs across the desk. "The overseers check each drawer.
They'll set you right." He gave a nervous laugh. "Best not to get one wrong,
though." He started violently at the sharp crack of a whip nearby where
a undernourished-looking serf was having trouble turning an overloaded
Conan had heard enough.
© 1993, by Hadley V. Baxendale