If my translations were to be believed, at the start of the Scientific Revolution (Copernicus in the 1540s, etc.), magic was a ubiquitous and powerful force in human affairs, and witches were both revered and feared members of most societies every bit as much as military leaders or priest-mystics (although they were rarely written about, their work being so often the equivalent of “classified”). However, once the Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment, magic became less omnipresent and less powerful, especially in institutions of learning and government. Judging by the hundreds of references in the texts, it paled increasingly through the Industrial Revolution—remaining most potent in artistic circles and least potent in philosophical ones (these two populations diverging after many generations of entwining), more potent in societies not blessed with booming industrialization, and slightly more potent too in Islamic cultures—and then it vanished altogether in the nineteenth century. The latest text was dated from July 1851. DODO had not been able to find any references to magic after that, except as something that “once was but is no more.”

I translated the box of photocopied documents in less time than Tristan had anticipated, but there was no letup. I began to dream in dead languages as ancient books, scrolls, and tablets kept coming, delivered to the drab office building almost every morning by unidentified couriers in unmarked vehicles. Department of—Dusty Objects? There were plenty of documents in English or modern Western languages—mostly these were transcripts of early anthropologists interviewing the elders of indigenous peoples. I translated the ones that Tristan couldn’t read for himself, and he built a database. Reader, if you don’t know what a database is, rest assured that an explanation of the concept would in no way increase your enjoyment in reading this account. If you do know, you will thank me for sparing you the details. A dreary enough task even with modern user interfaces, it was a mind-numbing death march when implemented on Shiny Hat. Tristan had to write little computer programs to automate some of the data entry tasks.

One of the things we kept track of was the provenance of each document: Had it come from the Library of Congress? Was it simply downloaded from the Internet? Or was it a rare, perhaps unique original? Did it bear any stamps or markings from library collections? In that vein, a disproportionate number had that mysterious stamp on the title page, an image I’d come to know well: the coat of arms of some aristocratic family, with extra bits of decorative gingerbread all around it. Lacking any other information, I just entered this into the database with the code WIMF. Quite a few of the WIMF documents bore older stamps from no less than the Vatican Library, raising the question of whether the WIMF had stolen them? Or borrowed them and never brought them back? Tristan wasn’t talking.

Almost as fast as they could be translated, more books showed up. We would empty out a new crate and then fill it right up again with books that had already been translated, and the bland couriers would haul them away. To where? Many of the boxes were stenciled with a logo I did not recognize at the time, but which I now know to be a modernized, streamlined version of the brand used since time immemorial by the banking family known as the Fuggers.

This phase ate up most of my six-month contract, as a fierce New England winter yielded muddily to spring. Other tenants in the building—scruffy start-up companies, mostly—failed or got funded and moved out. Whenever they did, Tristan made a couple of phone calls and ended up with a key to the space they’d just vacated. In this way, DODO’s footprint in the building expanded. We inherited cheap plastic chairs, duffed-up coffeemakers, and crumpled filing cabinets from the former neighbors. Clean-cut technicians showed up in unmarked cars and put card readers on all the doors, expanding and sealing what Tristan called “the perimeter.” The database grew like a dust bunny under the bed. Tristan thought of ways to query it, to search for patterns. We printed things out, stuck them to the walls, tore them down and did it again, stretched colored yarn between pushpins. We went down blind alleys, then backed out of them; we constructed huge Jenga towers of speculation and then, almost gleefully, knocked them over.

But there was never any doubt as to the gist: some manner of cause-and-effect relationship existed between the rise of scientific knowledge and the decline of magic. The two could not comfortably coexist. To the extent that the database could be cajoled into spitting out actual numbers, it was clear that magic had declined gradually but steadily starting in the middle of the 1600s. It was still holding its own in the opening decades of the 1800s, but plunged into a nosedive during the 1830s. From then through the 1840s, magic declined precipitously. As our store of documents—many written by witches themselves—grew to fill a phalanx of used filing cabinets and gun safes that Tristan scored on Craigslist, we were able to track the decline from year to year, and then from month to month. These poor women expressed shock at the dwindling of their powers, in some cases mentioning specific spells that had worked a few weeks ago but no longer had effect.

As it turns out, in 1851—the year in which I find myself as I scribble these words—all of the world’s technologies were brought together for the Great Exhibition at the newly constructed, magnificent Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London. Tristan’s hypothesis therefore held that this coming together, this conscious concentration of technological advancement all in one point of space-time, had dampened magic to the point where it fizzled out for good. Like a doused fire, it had no power to re-kindle itself once extinguished.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.