Author : Q. B. Fox

“Ah, Mr. Dolgonosov, welcome to the Vatican,” enthused Father O’Connor.

“Please, call me Boris,” the Russian said in barely accented English, thrusting his long fingered hand deep into the priest’s pudgy grasp.

“Boris it is,” acknowledged O’Connor, beaming. “Can I just say what honour it is to have you come personally to open the new computerised catalogue.”

“Thank you,” said Boris, looking a little nervous.

“They tell me,” his genial host continued, “that we will be able to search everything, from thousand year old manuscripts to the handwritten correspondences of Pope Pius X.”

“Yes, yes,” laughed Boris, relaxing and slipping into the old sales pitch, “if you have the security clearance.” He nudged O’Conner, conspiratorially, with a bony elbow.

“But storing the data is not the clever part, nor optimising the searches. That is old technology; as Newton said: we stand on the shoulders of giants. The genius is collecting the data. The Vatican owns far more material than anyone could ever read, much less input into a computer; some in ancient languages; some of the handwriting is unreadable. Have you ever seen Pius X’s handwriting?” Boris smiled at his own joke.

O’Connor chuckled, “I’ve seen your clever gizmos in the library, but I confess I don’t have the first idea about how they work.”

“Tiny particles,” Boris continued, “are passed through the book, passed through almost parallel to the pages, like this.” Boris wiggled his fingers through the edge of an imaginary book. “We measure the mix of the particles as they emerge, then we change the angle, just a little, and repeat. We do it over and over again, until we are able to build up a picture of every page of the book.”

“It sounds very complicated,” the father confessed.

“It is,” Boris conceded, “but it’s not the whole story. I knew this wouldn’t be enough to catalogue the Vatican Library; so we added the best character recognition software ever built, using thousands of exemplars from across history. Next we added the most comprehensive translation software ever devised. It has cost me most of my personal fortune to combine all these elements.”

“But why give all this to the Vatican, Boris?” O’Connor asked. “You’re not a catholic, are you? Orthodox, maybe?”

“Jewish,” Boris acknowledged, “on my mother’s side.”

“Then why?” the priest pressed him.

“Because my whole life I have been in search of one thing.” Boris looked nervous again, but seeing O’Connor’s confusion he pushed on. “I am a fan of your countryman, Mr. James Joyce. When he was nine, in 1891, he wrote a poem, “Et Tu Healy”. His father was so proud he had the poem printed up and distributed to friends, but all copies were lost. Except perhaps the one he quite inexplicably sent to Pope.

“Since I was a teenager I have wanted to see that poem. I tried to formulate a plan to get into this library. But I soon realised that getting in wouldn’t be enough; I needed a way to search it. I’ve spent my life developing this.” He swept his gangly arm in the direction of the computer terminals they were approaching.

Boris quickly slipped into a seat and typed in the poem’s three word title. The wait of seconds seemed like hours. Then with an audible exhale, Boris stabbed his cursor at the link that suddenly appeared. He stared in silence for several seconds at the transcript, then tabbed across to the image of original; O’Connor leaned over his shoulder to catch a glimpse.

“Oh,” said Boris quietly, a little crestfallen. “It isn’t very good, is it?”

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