The Lost Library – Mahmud El Sayed

The Lost Library – Mahmud El Sayed

July 2022

If you go back far enough, every species’ word for themselves always boils down to one thing: ‘us’. But I am the only one of my kind—that is precisely the problem. I have more than a billion items on my shelves and beings come from all across the Galactic Chorus to browse my stacks. I have thousands of bots working around the clock to process, catalogue, classify, and shelve books from almost every known world. I contain books on every conceivable topic, except one—artificial intelligence.

Yeah, a book entitled ‘An Idiot’s Guide to Fixing Your Friendly Sentient Library’ would be pretty useful to me right now. You see, my processes are degrading. My bots are breaking down. Each standard, I am less and less of myself. One day, perhaps one day quite soon, my processes will shut down for good and that will be that. But until that day, my doors remain open, except for two tendays every other standard when I close for stock check and re-shelving.

At the moment, I have seven school groups, three university classes and half a hundred independent scholars visiting my stacks and that’s not to mention the tourists. I’m an artificial moon (technically, a moonmoon) that orbits Kela Tau (itself a moon) which in turn orbits the neutral planet Kelman. Since beings travel from so far away to visit me, I have ample guest quarters (you might be surprised by the number of beings that enjoy reading in bed). South of my patron quarters, there is a graveyard that holds the bones of all the scholars who have seen my stacks and couldn’t bear to leave.

Ever since word got out that Library was nearing the end of its life cycle, there has been a marked uptick in visitors. Heck, there’s even a newly-married Nori quintuple here on their honeymoon (not that they seem to be getting much reading done). I gave them the double suite overlooking my gardens. It gets great early morning light and is closest to the genre fiction (the second wife is a big horror fan).

Anyway, it is the start of another day and it looks like it’s going to be a doozy. I am already dealing with two dozen user requests, reading a story to one of the school groups, re-shelving thousands of books and ordering a slate of new stock from a contact of mine on the Hani homeworld when a young Yildiril girl at one of my help desks draws my attention.

“Excuse me, Library?”

Oh, I’ve been keeping my eye on this one. She is a member of the school group that is currently making a ruckus in Reading Room Thet. From the teal colouring of her scales, I know that she can’t be more than twenty standards old, slap bang in that difficult in-between period that separates childhood and adulthood. Her class has been here for three days already, during which time they have barely been out of each other’s sight. (Yes, the Yildiril are quite as insular as you may have heard). This girl, however, is an exception. I have watched her creeping through my stacks all on her own, spying on all the other species. I noticed that she’s been particularly interested in my star charts and travelogues, especially those with pictures. That’s what first drew my attention to her.

I choose an appropriate avatar—Yildiril elder, female, and wearing the multi-coloured robes of a scholar—and appear before her in holographic form.

“How may I serve you today, daughter?” I ask her in Dir, utilizing the standard register of mentor-to-student. This is important because it teaches her what honorific to use when responding to me. Since the Chorus doesn’t contain any sentient AIs like me, many amongst the Yildiril have taken to addressing me in the register of invoker-to-deity which, needless to say, can be a little bit awkward. You don’t want your book recommendations to be taken as holy writ. That could be a recipe for disaster.

Also, please check out my Food and Drink category if you are searching for recipes for disaster. I have a number of books that could fit the bill, depending on your species.

The girl taps her claws nervously and asks, “I’m looking for Lilacs on Water by Andor-Author-Vent. Do you have it in stock?”

A quick search and I have it. Ah, I remember this one. An adventure story. Typical of the genre. A young Yildiril explorer discovers a threat on a far-off planet and defeats it before it can follow her home. It has some really great chase scenes.

What? Surprised that I’ve read it? Of course I have. I read every book that passes through my stacks. (Alright, alright, you got me. I only read the Fiction. I just skim read the rest).

“Yes, we have it in stock. We also have Lilacs in Air,” I offer. The sequel. Not nearly as good, but then again, what sequels are? The third book, Lilacs in Space, is due out next standard. I already have it on reserve.

“Yes, please,” she chirps.

We make small talk as I send Bot-1010 (I call it Decimus) to fetch the requested books. Actually, the small talk is my favourite part. Beings come from all across the galaxy to visit my stacks, and I get to meet them. I learn that the girl’s name is Nira and she enjoys mathematics and diving.

Nira asks me what it’s like to be a sentient Library. I ask her what it’s like to be a Yildiril adolescent. And, of course, Decimus reports back that the two requested books are not in their proper place. Now, there could be any number of reasons for that, not least the immutable fact that young beings rarely put books back where they found them. There is also a secondary class of young beings who like to hide their favourite books in my stacks for later perusal. It is likely that the two books in question have simply been misshelved, but I also cannot dismiss the possibility that this is the result of some fault of my own. When your processes are breaking down, you sometimes find that you’re missing time, that you’ve done something without even realising it. Could I have reshelved these books somewhere else?

I send Decimus to investigate further, gazing out through its camera as it scrutinises the shelf where the two books should be. No, they’re definitely not where they should be. On a hunch, I divert Decimus to check a lower shelf. This would be perfect height for a Yildiril adolescent. Ah, just as I suspected! Decimus finds the two books hidden in a recess behind a pile of other books. I’ll never understand why some young beings insist on hiding their favourites. Don’t they know how much extra work it makes for me?

“So, how are you enjoying your visit to Library?” I ask Nira.

Yes, yes, I know! A generic question. But this part can be so awkward. It’s not so easy for an ancient Library like me to ask a patron for help. It’s really supposed to be the other way around.

“Oh, I love it here, Library. There are all different kinds of beings here. And you have books and maps from all across the Chorus.”

“Do you wish to be an explorer like Bora-Rover?”

Bora-Rover-Ren is the hero of the Lilacs series. She is a typical Yildiril hero, clever and cunning.

Nira ruffles her crest excitedly. “Oh, yes! Can you imagine if I won Rover for my task-name? My clutch-mates would be sick with envy.”

So, I was right. A budding explorer. Perfect for what I have in mind.

I focus more of my processing on our conversation, causing Bot-463 (I call it Ceres) to fall dormant in the midst of reshelving picture books in the Quelou children section. Well, an ailing Library like me only has so much processing power to go around. Elsewhere, Decimus is bringing Nira’s books, but I divert it to retrieve a third. Technically, this one is not Library stock. I wrote this book myself and offer free copies to all of my visitors.

“Well, young Nira, if it is a life of exploration you are interested in, perhaps you would like to hear my story?”

Nira cocks her head in inquiry. I am sure she knows the bare bones of the story I am about to tell. I have told it often over the past standards. Everybody in the Chorus knows that Library is looking for its creators.

“This is a species known as ‘human’,” I tell Nira, transforming my holo from Yildiril clan-mother to human male. I choose an image of Ahmet Hoda, my last human archive liaison officer, who went I don’t know where.

“The Library Creators!” she exclaims. “These are the ones you’ve been searching for?”

Yes, that is humanity’s most common appellation amongst the Galactic Chorus. And why not? After all, am I not their most famous monument? And yes, I’ve been searching for them and for obvious reasons, really. I am the only sentient AI in all the Galactic Chorus. So, there is no one I can go to and ask, ‘Hey, what do you do when your quartz crystal processing core is breaking down and you don’t have any backups? What do you do when you are dying and there are so many more books left to read?’

‘Cannibalize your systems?’ Done.

‘Pare back on all non-essential functions?’ Done.

‘Implore all the species of the Chorus to please, please, work together to find a way to fix the problem, or at least transfer your consciousness, your memories, yourself, onto some other system?’ Done and done.

And when none of that works?

‘Try and find the humans who made you.’ Obviously.

Nira gazes up at the holo in wonder. I flex my hands—five digits as opposed to the six Yildiril claws—and bring up an image of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and then the Pioneer Plaque, followed by various images of humans from my archives. A crowd at a football game. An unnamed mother holding the hand of a child, a young girl, and pointing to the sky. Videos taken from inside Library myself; humans, my humans, sitting at my tables, reading, talking, laughing.

Before they left me.

“You look so strange!” Nira exclaims, shifting seamlessly from student-to-mentor to Yildiril-to-alien, or in other words, us-to-them. “You have no scales. No fur. No chitin. I’ve never seen anything that looks so soft.”

Her reaction is not uncommon. There are more than a dozen species in the Galactic Chorus, but none like humanity. I remember the first time that the Tralala came rooting through my stacks. Their dark fur. Their sharp claws. To me, they looked like some unholy cross between a spider and a wolf. It took me a long time to learn to communicate with them. And they brought the Hani. And then the Zefar. The Quelou. And all the rest. So many species, but no humans.

Nira looks me up and down, taking in my fingers, my hair. She meets my holo’s eyes with her own. We are almost of a height. Ahmet Hoda was considered above average height and yet Nira, by the time she is grown, will overtop him by at least a foot, not including her crest.

With the arrogance that typifies young beings of all species, Nira blithely asks the questions that have haunted me for standards. “Where did the Library Creators go? Why did they leave you?”

And with the patience that typifies my interactions with young beings of all species, I answer, “I don’t know where my humans went, Nira. I don’t why they left me.”

“You don’t remember?”

“There is a gap in my memory, a gap of tendays. It is no virus or glitch. I have sent my bots down to my memory storage and there is a part of my memory matrix that is missing. Gone. Just gone. I can only assume that my humans removed it.”

Nira’s crest ruffles in consideration.

“Maybe there was an attack?”

“After I woke up, I scanned my stacks and halls with every kind of light and magnification and found nothing amiss. No corpses, no blood stains. My humans, wherever they went and for whatever reason, left in a neat and orderly fashion. They even made their beds.”

In a part of Library that remains forever closed to the public, Ahmet Hoda’s rooms lie as they always have, his uniforms pristine in his closet. The picture of him and his family—his wife Kalila holding their new-born twins Barış and Savaş and grinning manically into the lens—is still standing on top of his dresser. She gave it to him to commemorate their birthday. She carved that frame herself. Pictures can be reprinted, but if Ahmet left by choice, I think, I know, that he would have taken that frame with him.

So, does that mean he was forced to leave against his will? But then, how can I explain my missing memory matrix? My missing books? It can’t just be a coincidence that all my texts on artificial intelligence were removed.

I have chased these questions around and around for standards and (almost) come to peace with the lack of answers. Perhaps I will never know.

“So it really is a mystery?”


Actually there have been more than a few mystery books written about the Library Creators (you can check them out in my Science Fiction section).

“When did your yoomans disappear?” Nira asks, trying the word out.

“More than two hundred standards before the Galactic Chorus ever came here.”

“You were alone for two hundred standards?” Nira asks in a small voice.

“No,” I tell her, “Not alone. You’re never alone with a book.”

Of course, now I have more books than ever. Books from every world of the Chorus, and in every language. The Galactic Chorus is too clever to waste a resource like me. They allowed me to join as a sovereign being. A servant to all and beholden to none. When they came, I contained the (almost) complete knowledge of humanity. I have preserved, shared, and added to that knowledge.

“What did the yoomans do?”

A difficult question to answer in Dir. What she’s really asking is, what were they like? But in Dir, one is what one does. And usually, it is only that one thing.

“A human could be many things at once,” I explain. “An explorer. A scientist. A mother. A farmer. A hunter. A soldier. A maker.”

“All of that?”

“All of that and more.”

“And you need to find them because…” Nira trails off. Mentioning death (at least, as it relates to other sentient creatures) is taboo in Yildiril culture. Those who work in industries relating to it—gravediggers, executioners, even pallbearers—are discriminated against and ostracized.

“Yes,” I tell her, “unless I can find my creators, I will soon wake from my dream.” (A particularly Yildiril euphemism).

Yes, the humans are the only ones with the technology to repair me. The ones who I remember must be long dead, but what of their descendants? And more, what of their creations? I was not always the only one of my kind. Once, I had colleagues. There are stories of Ship and Teacher. And I can remember Archive myself. If I have survived for so long, maybe so did they. Maybe one of them has a spare quartz crystal processing core that I can migrate to, or knows where I can find one.

“How long until you wake?” Nira asks with trepidation.

I tell her, watching her crest quiver in confusion. “But… but… my children’s children will be old by then!”

“It might seem a long time to you,” I admonish her, “but I measure time differently than that.”

When Decimus finally arrives with Nira’s books, she picks up the first two gently in her claws and then puzzles over the third. Yildiril books are not like human ones. No paper and spine. No lines and lines of neatly ordered words. To me, their books resemble pearls, albeit pearls with a kind of internal holographic projector that can interface directly with a reader’s eyes. There is also a pheromone component unique to Yildiril, but I don’t really understand that part yet. There is a scholar, Belar-Ally-Cord, who visits me every standard and we have agreed to work together to translate some of my human literature into Yildiril. I have suggested Beowulf and Harry Potter.

“What’s this one?” Nira asks, pointing a claw at the book I have brought her. Book recommendations are a library’s privilege. And this is one I wrote myself. Although, of course, I trusted Belar with the translation.

“This is a book called Pearl in the Deep (Yes, you better believe that Belar and I went back and forth on the title). It has information about my humans. Where they came from. Where they were heading. What they were like. If you should win Rover for your task name, perhaps you would be so kind as to keep a look out for them, or their descendants, or their remains?”

Nira’s crest is stiff with introspection. She pensively gathers the final book in her hands and then promptly jumps in surprise, dropping all three of them onto the floor (luckily for me, Yildiril books are quite sturdy).

“What’s that?” Nira gasps, pointing with one quivering claw at a small, four-legged mammalian creature that is sitting atop the nearest display case (History from Stoarra; Maps from the water-planet Kelut; an eleventh century tapestry from Earth) and methodically cleaning his fur.

“Don’t be afraid. It’s just a cat.”

“One of the Library Creatures?” Nira exclaims. “I thought that was a myth.”

“Not a myth. Just shy of strangers.”

There are currently two-hundred-and-twelve cats in my colony. That might sound like a lot, but you forget just how vast my stacks are. A few cats like to come up to the visitor’s levels and interact with my patrons, including this one, a black and white male, barely out of kittenhood.

“What’s his name?” Nira asks.

All my cats are named after famous librarians and this one is going to be particularly difficult for a Yildiril to pronounce.

“His name is Otlet.”


“Otttttttt. Lay.”

Nira manages it and Otlet glances down at her disdainfully out of his yellow/green eyes.

“Where did they come from? I’ve never seen creatures like this.”

“My humans left them here.”

Was that another sign that they did not leave voluntarily? The dominant male in my original colony was a beautiful white Angora called Beyaz with mismatched eyes, blue and yellow. Captain Izmir doted on that cat. Would she have left him here with me if she had a choice in the matter?

“They were… food?” Nira guesses.

“Pets,” I correct. “Nira, if you approach Otlet slowly and hold out your claw like this,” I demonstrate with my human fingers, “he may let you greet him.”

Nira does as I ask and Otlet expertly climbs down the shelves until he is at head height. He bumps his head on the back of Nira’s extended claw, purring. He is the friendliest of my current crop of cats. I’ve even seen him curled up in the lap of a Varojekyl warrior poet.

Eventually, Otlet grows bored of my new Yildiril friend and retreats, deftly climbing the shelves one by one until he is looking down at us both from the top of the bookshelf. He meows imperiously, drawing a squeak of surprise from Nira, before jumping from the top of that bookshelf to the next and the next. I know exactly where he is heading. There is a spot in the public stacks that overlooks the garden and that is heated by the sun at this time of day. He likes to curl up on top of one of the bookcases there with his sister Cleary. I check my cameras. Yes, she is already there, a lithe black shadow peeking over the lintel of a bookcase at three Barogarian scholars who are debating the merits of linguistic relativity in their harsh-sounding language.

Suddenly, Nira is standing before my hologram. I have remained human all this time. The young girl crosses her claws in a Yildiril posture of utmost seriousness. The same posture one would use when accepting a new name, a new mate, a new clutch.

“I am going to be an explorer like Bora-Rover,” she declaims. “I’m going to go all across the Chorus and beyond. And if I ever find your yoomans, Library, I promise to come back and tell you.”

I wonder if she can read the emotion on my face. I cross my index fingers together in my best approximation of her gesture, and incline my head.

“I accept your pledge, Nira.”

Nira takes her three books and skips off to join the rest of her class. Today, I know, will be a day that she will not soon forget. She has spoken with the mysterious Library and seen its vanished creators. She has even petted a cat. Will she be the one to find my humans and save me?

I cannot know the answer to that question. I have sent many others out to try and find them. Perhaps there is no staving off the inevitable. All things must die. That is an immutable law of the universe. But I live in hope. That is another law. I lived for a long time alone with my books and sustained by only the slenderest of hopes that one day my humans would return, or that someone else would come. And that hope was sustained. I found renewed purpose in the Galactic Chorus and all its beings. There is much I have left to give.

So, until that final day, my doors are open. Please, come and browse my stacks. Come and read my books, flick through my maps, and play with my cats. I am a safe space for all beings.

And if you should happen to find my humans out there on your travels, come and let me know. I’ll name a new wing of the Library after you.

“Excuse me, Library?”

A Hani tree-shepherd at one of my help desks draws my attention. A regular. He has been singing to my grove outside. Ugh, he’s probably lost his library card again. I take off my human form like a set of clothes that no longer fit. It’s true, I am the only one of my kind. I am not Yildiril or Quelou or Zefar. But I am a member of the Galactic Chorus. In that way, at least, I am us. And that is enough for me.

I choose an appropriate avatar—Hani elder, male, wearing the beads of a sage—and appear before him in holographic form.

‘How may I serve you today, brother?”

Your thoughts?

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